The Wonderful Everyday

I have always been fascinated by the story of the village sisters Mary and Martha – how Jesus came to their house one day, and whilst Mary settled herself at his feet to listen Martha slaved away resentfully in the kitchen unaided. I even renamed two of my rescue cats Martha and Mary – well, they were Fluffy and Tiny. Actually, Fluffy and Tiny describes them just as well, though Tiny has put on a pound or two since then and Fluffy, for reasons best known to herself, has licked away most of her back fur, so she now resembles the Last of the Mohicans, or Baldy at the Back, Fluffy at the Front.

I used to see myself as a Definite Mary – the spiritual one. Not the drab, cross one fretting about a mountain of washing up in another room. But things have happened to me recently which have made me reassess my attitude to everyday life and value two items – the company of my multitude of cats, and the endless tiny repetitions of simple tasks – the drudgery, if you like, of everyday life. Indeed these two threads are intertwined since ninety percent of the drudgery is generated by the many cats!

Twice a day I pick up twenty empty, or half-empty, cat-food bowls and scrape them into a green waste bin. (It should be nineteen, since Rufus left us for those sunny meadows in the sky on Christmas Day – but I can’t be bothered to divide tins of Whiskas into precise fractions-of-a-tin first thing in the morning. When we get back to even numbers again, I’ll do the math. Probably.)

Twice a day I put out twenty more bowls and change four bigger bowls of water.

Twice a day I wash up those twenty bowls, plus a lot of other stuff that seems to have accumulated by the sink. In between, I clean out dirt-boxes, dispense medicines, mop up piles of sick, separate those who would murder one another and unhook various hapless creatures from items of soft furniture to which they have managed to hook themselves irretrievably. Twice a day day, just when I collapse on the sofa with a cup of tea and a biscuit, under the impression that I have finished my ‘duties’ for the time being at least, more muddle materialises.

And then there is that Zen tale, of the monk who was repeatedly told, after eating his rice: Wash Your Bowl”, upon hearing which he was Enlightened. The idea is, I would guess, that you should avail yourself of any passing opportunity to be existing ‘in the moment’. After eating your rice, wash your bowl. Do not decide to wash your bowl, or wonder why you are washing your bowl, or resent having to wash your bowl. After eating, wash your bowl: it is a form of meditation.

So maybe the tale of Mary and Martha isn’t so black and white after all. Maybe Martha wasn’t the villain – or wouldn’t necessarily have been if she hadn’t got all self-righteous and started whingeing. Maybe both sisters were heroes, and the contrast between them shows that there are many different ways of focussing on what’s important; more than one way of Being in the world.

A little early in the morning for Thomas Tallis

It seems a little early in the morning for Thomas Tallis…

(We are rifling through my CD collection. My inner Monkey seems far more ‘precious’ and intellectual than me. I’m not at all sure I like him.)

I’ve been reading The Untethered Soul by Michael A Singer – a New York Times Best Seller in 2007.

You always get them late…

I am thinking this is going to be…

Finally!

…a really useful book, mostly because it’s in such brutally plain English it’s almost scary. I read a lot of stuff about Zen back in… oh, who knows? Particularly the splendidly named Christmas Humphreys, though he wasn’t much help. I recall a lot of stuff about monkey-mind, fingers pointing at the moon; bullocks, or maybe oxen, pulling carts; monks carrying beautiful ladies across raging rivers but scarcely noticing; people who went around saying “Mu” a lot; people who somehow ‘saw’ flowers in a way that lonely housewives from Kent could not ‘see’ flowers, and the Sound of One Hand Clapping. Now what’s that all about? That One Hand thing, it’s bothered me ever since.

But then of course, since it’s a Koan, it’s meant to bother you. It’s meant to explode your mind into some higher consciousness…

Why hasn’t it, then?

Maybe some Jackson Browne? Blast from the past? That rather lovely picture of him emerging from the river – or possibly just the local swimming pool.  Kate used to like him, didn’t she? She had that polaroid photo of the two of them together blu-tacked up on her notice board at work. Taken at some concert in London. Treasuring it into her old age. She looked so young then, with that sixties hairdo and all the kohl eye-liner…

Shut up!

Who exactly are you telling to shut up? I am not you, remember? I am a figment, a chimera, an ostrobogulation… and yet I am you – whatever you might actually be – attempting to control the outside world, manufacturing an illusion that it’s not as real and random as it truly is…

An ostro-what?

Good one for WordsWithFriends. Daisy’ll never have heard of that one.

That’s because it doesn’t exist, you…Monkey!

Look it up.

It doesn’t… Good God, there is such a word as ostrobogulation.

Slightly risqué, indecent, bizarre, interesting, unusual..

Why would there even need to be such a word?

I don’t think I ever ‘got religion’ though Ex informed everyone I had. That was around the time I left him, and shortly after the time of reading Christmas Humphreys.

You can see how he conflated the two concepts. And it would have made sense of it for him – exchanging his Godlike self for another.

If only I could have got religion, life would have been so much simpler. How very much I would have liked to be sure that Jesus would save me if only I was good…

…as in Norman Greenbaum: Prepare yourself you know it’s a must / Gotta have a friend in Jesus / So you know that when you die / He’s gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky…

You’re even heckling me with forward-slashes now?

… but I could never narrow myself down to that.

I remember being temporarily impressed by something a visiting Methodist preacher said, about all the leaves, and all the tiny veins on the leaves, and… because where else did all this come from, if there wasn’t a Great Designer?

Ah, the old Argument From Design; but leaves-and-such – an intellectual argument, and not satisfying. And you didn’t know about evolution then. Not that it negates evolution. Actually, if I was God I’d use evolution because after all I’d have invented evolution. So elegant, so subtle, so classy…

Actually, how am going to think if I can’t talk to myself? It is possible to reason at all without words?

Is that the same Monkey, or another Monkey?

Many Monkeys. Mind full of Monkeys…

Even as a child, leaves, planets, the vast unfathomable reaches of space… none of that was enough. What was enough was the harum-scarum flight It took me on one stormy afternoon, over fields and walls and fences, to a field with one great tree in it. Enough was when It told me that It loved me and wanted me back. Nothing else, but that stormy day, the pink light, the thunder and the lightning flashes, the falling of raindrops on laurel leaves…

Nothing else but that solitary, magical, childhood flight has been enough.

flight

You’re the colour of the sky

Reflected in each store-front window pane

You’re the whispering and the sighing

Of my tires in the rain

You’re the hidden cost and the thing that’s lost

In everything I do… *

 

*Sky Blue and Black: Jackson Browne

Surreal

Playing piano in the dark

Years ago I read that the Zen way to learn piano would be to sit in the dark and start to play. I sort-of understand this. I suppose the idea is that, in the correct frame of mind, you can tap into the part of you that already knows full well how to play – your portion of the universal mind, maybe. I’ve never tried it, but then I’ve never had a piano.

And today I read an article in the New Scientist about a woman with deteriorating memory, now aged a hundred and one.

‘She rarely knows where she is, and doesn’t recognise people she has met in the last few decades.’

And yet apparently she can play nearly four hundred songs by ear. She plays ragtime, show tunes, gospel and many other genres, and can also learn new songs just by listening to them.

She says she does not know how to read music; she just finds the starting note and her fingers do the rest. Although she cannot now remember having learned to read music, researchers think she would have done, at some point. Born in Tennessee in 1914, she learned to play piano and violin as a child, earned two degrees in music education and played the violin in a women’s orchestra, though she did not play much after 1946.

What it is about music that ‘sticks’ when so much else, even everyday common-sense things do not? How can a person, for example, not know that they are hungry or thirsty, whether it is day or night, and yet play the piano with almost as much skill, and as much energy as when they were younger?

As yet no one seems to know whereabouts in the brain music lives. One suggestion is that musical ability may be diffusely located – so presumably damage in one area is less likely to have a dramatic effect on it, as it might with something more localised, like speech.

I do hope this aged lady gets as much pleasure from playing the piano at one hundred and one as she did in her youth, and isn’t just doing it because it’s the only thing she can remember how to do. Supposing it wasn’t just music; supposing we were all allowed to keep a single gift to the age one hundred and one and beyond – or even a single memory, a single name and face – what would those be?

To paint the perfect dragon

(First published as ‘Landscape’ in Buddhism Now, June 1991)

What is a landscape? – an innocent sounding question but one which started me off on a train of thought which was to waste most of a perfectly good Sunday afternoon. That’s the trouble with being a philosophoholic, one thought is never enough…

My dictionary defines a landscape as ‘picture representing, art reproducing or actual piece of inland scenery’. If only it were that simple I might have hoovered the bathroom carpet, got the washing out before it rained and peeled a sprout or two.

The trouble is you see there is no such thing as a landscape. For a start, the scene you are looking at changes from microsecond to microsecond, or rather from so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant to so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant. Now you see a blue sky and bright sunshine; blink, and there is a wisp of cloud or one of those long-rolling shadows that blight the British summer. Who knows, a rabbit may have popped its head out of a hole while you blinked, a leaf may have fluttered to the ground, and of course the grass is growing.

For another thing, you have selected the landscape. If you are an artist you will no doubt have borne in mind the harmonious pattern, the beautiful balance it would make on the canvas, and even if you are without the artist’s eye you will be looking at that part of the scene which particularly interests and attracts you. An inch to the left here, two inches to the right, and it would be a different landscape. Unlike a painting a landscape has no edges.

Furthermore, the landscape you see depends on the way you see. If like me you are short-sighted what you see will be blurred and Turneresque – only experience and glasses tell you that it is not actually that way. If, on the other hand, your vision is 20-20 you will see every vein in every leaf, every nuance of the light. If you were an animal you would see in a different way again. If you were a frog you might see the Lake District as a series of moving coloured squares, rather like looking through a frosted glass window; if you were a sparrow you would see a range of colours undetectable to man. Who is to say which is the real landscape – a myopic blur or the bird’s kaleidoscope of subtle greens?

And it isn’t just our eyes – we see with our minds. If we didn’t, the landscape would mean nothing: a tree would not be a tree, sunshine would not be sunshine, or even yellow. It would just be. So we reinvent each landscape we see from a compound of personal associations, memories, attitudes and the way we happen to be feeling at the time.

For example, looking out of the window onto my garden at this moment I see a small black tree, leafless but decorated with strings of raindrops. Beneath that, somehow, is a memory-picture of the wire fence running alongside the allotments I used to pass every day on the way to school. After heavy rain the raindrops would be strung out along the wire in just that way and if you tapped it, it vibrated, showering raindrops anew. Now, you wouldn’t see that.

Similarly, if I am in the depths of depression I will see the most picturesque scene as boring, picture-postcard stuff. But if I am in love I may well float through some ruined dockyard marvelling at the glisten and swirl of oil in the puddles, the geometric patterns of cranes against the sky, the fiery colours of rust. We have all experienced such miracles.

A landscape is not a neutral thing – it reacts with the personality of the watcher. I worked once at Dungeness on the Kent coast and loved the bleak landscape out there, the shingle and the sea plants and the lurid skies. But a lady visitor from London hated the place. ‘It’s hideous,’ she said, ‘so empty. It gives me the creeps.’ You may be drawn to a landscape because you sense that it expresses an aspect of your personality, one which you couldn’t put into words. Equally, a landscape can be a threat, a contradiction, even a negation of your personality. It’s like women with perfume, or people with each other.

The Zen way of ‘seeing’ a landscape is different. Instead of there being an ‘I’ to view and an ‘it’ (the landscape) to be viewed, the viewer melts into the landscape. He becomes it, and it he. This is very difficult to understand and in fact cannot be understood, only done… sometimes… maybe. I am remembering here the Zen story about the man who wanted to paint the perfect dragon, and was sent away for years, until he could see dragons, hear them, even smell them. But that wasn’t enough. Before he could paint the perfect dragon he had to become the dragon. But the dragon doesn’t exist… ah, but does the landscape?

And if a landscape is something which cannot be defined because there is no universal standard by which to define it, doesn’t the principle equally apply to reality itself? A madman’s reality may be quite different from mine. Another example: some years ago I was told of a woman who insisted that there was an extra, invisible storey on her house and up there a gang of wicked men were forging money using her electricity – that was why her electricity bill was so high. Well, maybe she was right. How can I be sure?

How can I be sure that time is as it seems? I see a black bird apparently flapping across my chosen landscape, but how do I know that bird has not always been flying and will not always be flying, just so? Supposing all time is really happening in an instant, simultaneously. At one and the same time the bird is on the upstroke, the downstroke, not here yet, long gone.

Time is surely a function of perception. If I were a butterfly with only a two-day lifespan I would surely feel that my two days lasted as long as threescore years and ten. Human beings would move so slowly that they would not appear as living creatures to me at all, but static pieces of scenery, like rocks. So maybe rocks are living creatures too. If we could time-lapse film them over millions of years, would we see them heave, groan, yawn, lumber around a bit?

Perhaps I should just forget about the washing, get into the car and drive to some shady hillside. Yes, I shall reach for the thermos, break into the chocolate biscuits, wind down the window and remark to the nearest rabbit, ‘Nice here, innit?’

Don’t, and you cringe alone

One of the side-effects of moving house is that you come across all sorts of… stuff. In my case, all sorts of old writing stuff. I’ve found boxes of what used to be known as Little Magazines. There were a lot of them before the internet really took hold – before publishing software, even. They were short-lived publications, usually A5, on cheap paper and were put together by dedicated people – or one solitary dedicated person – in back bedrooms or student common-rooms using nothing more sophisticated than a typewriter, glue, a bit of arty cut-and-paste, a photocopier and a long-arm stapler.

My parents did something similar for years. They weren’t arty or literary in any way, but they were the joint Secretary of a cycling club. In the suburban bungalow they had built themselves (my Mum eight months pregnant with my sister, clambering up ladders with hods full of roofing tiles, apparently – no wonder my sister turned out so strapping) what had once been my bedroom  became home to a ghastly second-hand photocopier, which my mother spent more time trying to repair than actually using – and a very small desk with her manual typewriter on it. The Silverette it was called. It was a bright, eggy yellow so maybe it would have been better named The Goldette. Or even The Buttercup. I have the small desk now – it’s right here beside me. Unfortunately Buttercup has gone to the big scrapheap in the sky.

silverette

In the cupboard under the welsh-dresser were reams and reams of cheap photocopier paper – precisely stacked – my mother wasn’t one for ragged edges. My deliberately-engineered Hobbit-ish toppling towers of dusty paperbacks were anathema to her.

There were industrial-sized boxes of staples. There were bottles of Gloy paper glue – the gloopy, white sort. The thinner, brown sort of Gloy was, for some reason, reserved for postage – sticking on stamps that had lost their sticky, attaching little Snowmen and Father Christmases to brown paper parcels, that kind of thing. For most of the week, it seemed, at one point, Mum was immured in her “office” with this… commotion going on as the photocopier attempted to shake itself to bits. (Even that wasn’t as bad as one of her previous obsessions – the knitting machine which used to destroy everyone’s television watching concentration as she slammed the handle-thing back and forth over the rows of hooks.)

It was a good magazine, if you were a cyclist. When Mum and Dad finally got forced off the cycling club committee by the Evil one known as Fat Pat – who was later to accidentally drive her car into a pond, much to my mother’s delight – and her lily-livered but equally Evil husband Eric – Fat Pat lost no time in commandeering the club magazine. It shrank to about a quarter of its size and everyone stopped subscribing to it – no doubt because Dad had been writing a good eighty percent of the content (“yarns” he called them) under one fanciful pseudonym or another, and editing the remaining twenty percent of rambling and incoherent submissions from other club members into readable shape. He must have discovered something I later rediscovered through audio typing legal dictation: people with no ‘ear’ for words rarely if ever notice that you have subtly amended their stuff. They simply assume they were cleverer than they thought.

So, amongst a cardboard boxful of such Little Magazines in which I Got Something Published – in the early days when I naïvely imagined them to be the route to literary fame and fortune – I discovered one called Buddhism Now, June 1991. In it is an article I had called  ‘Landscape’. Not terribly imaginative. This was when I was going through my Reincarnation and Zen phase. My soon-to-be-ex-husband described this phase as When She Got Religion. I’ve scanned the first few paragraphs and yes – it’s making me cringe already.

However, no doubt I will type it out and post it in due course. As Ella Wheeler Wilcox would have written, had she been perusing Buddhism Now:

Post and the world cringes with you;

Don’t, and you cringe alone.

In The Zone

People will call the one thing by all sorts of different names. It took me a long time to realise that In The Zone was more or less the same thing as the One-Pointedness of Zen. Thing is, I was once into Zen, whereas sport… instant inattention. I hated sport at school because I could see absolutely no point in it. If I wanted exercise I could walk… hell, I could even run about a bit. Why did I need to put on a lot of complicated padding and stand shivering on in a hockey goal waiting for a great horde of hoydens to come bearing down on me, screaming? What was the point of jumping over that pole? Why jump into that sandpit? Sand is just sand. Why does it have to have rituals attached to it?

I suppose it didn’t help being tall. I come from a tall family. Dad was a six foot four electrician/racing cyclist and one of my sisters is six foot. Both of my sisters are taller than me. The slightly-less-than-six-foot one once asked a prospective blind date over the phone if his mother had thought to mention that she was a Giantess. (His mother set up the date.) It dogs us all, this bigness. Luckily it didn’t put him off, and they’ve been together for years. I read somewhere that elephants are the only animals on the planet that can’t jump. My two friends Daisy, Rose and I spent some time on Wednesday trying to think of animals, apart from elephants, that couldn’t jump. None, apart from the females of my family. Possibly earthworms.

So it never really occurred to me that I could enter this Zone thing. I could never understand how they did it, these high-jump people. Preparing to jump three times their own height, defying gravity in the process, they rock backwards and forwards and make funny faces; they do these funny snorty breaths and frown a lot and I think – you are surrounded by an arena full of other people. Other people, the most distracting and irritating items on earth, all staring at you, all staring at you, all waiting for you to run up to that jump, catapult off your wobbly pole and crash back to terra firma, preferably breaking a few small bones in the process. That’s why people watch sport – to see injury, death, defeat, tears, tantrums, flaming car crashes. They don’t want you to win.

I wasn’t having much luck with One-Pointedness either. I spent hours on the living room floor, trying to get my legs to cross like they were supposed to, trying not to be in severe and unnatural discomfort whilst trying to empty my mind, empty my mind… and then my nose would start to itch or a cat would come along and demand to be made a fuss of. The more I tried to focus the more up-tight I became. I am not designed to focus – in everyday life, anyway. I am designed to be distracted. That’s how I write the poems – distraction, distraction, distraction.

storks

But then enlightenment struck. I realised that when I writing, and only when writing, I was in the Zone; I was Going with the Flow, man; I was One-Pointed. How else could four hours go by without my noticing? The sun had gone down and at some point stars had come out. And a full moon. How had that happened? I had forgotten to close the curtains and outside the garden was pitch black. Curtains?

I don’t know, said my husband, stomping up from his Workshop in one of his Moods, how it is that the one household task you are entrusted with, the closing of the curtains every evening, you still manage to fail to do!

Had I had my wits about me I would have snapped back, sharp as a button: What about when you’re down in the Workshop making those fragile, fantastical models of steam engines and don’t reappear till midnight? Is it a case of man-in-the-zone – only to be expected; woman-in-the-zone – whoever heard of that? But of course, I never did have my wits about me.

That’s how the light gets in

Mirrors – I always think of one particular mirror which used to hang on the wall above the fireplace in my parents’ house. Long gone now. I suppose it may still exist, in a junk shop somewhere, or maybe it has been repurposed to suit some chic 1950s retro apartment. It was a lovely thing, the corners cut in a fluty, art-deco style; the pattern repeated in cream around the edges of the glass. Suspended by a chain from a hook on the wall, it made everyone who looked in it beautiful. That was the glass. It was tinted a delicate pinkish-gold. It was not a very good mirror, by modern standards. One’s reflection was spotted and broken where the silvering on the back had worn away. Mum used to turn it round for me sometimes, to show me. And what do I see reflected in that mirror, apart from my mother and myself? I see cushion-covers and antimacassars embroidered with crinoline ladies. Bonnets and lazy-daisies.

40 mirror

One much quoted verse from the Bible has always stuck in my mind:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now stays faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

(1 Corinthians 13: 12-13)

When I hear this, I always think of my mother’s mirror over the fireplace. But why ‘darkly’? Surely when we look in a mirror we see ourselves with perfect clarity, if magically reversed? The reason is, that when those Bible verses were being written, mirrors were dim. The concept of mirror is translated ‘glass’, presumably because in the early 17th Century when the Authorised Version was in preparation, a mirror would have been made of glass. But in Biblical times mirrors were made of polished copper or brass. These would have been ‘dimmer’ than glass, and would have become dimmer still, over time, as the metal tarnished, and then they would need to be polished up again.

bronze mirrors

At the start of James Joyce’s Ulysses (and who among us has got beyond the start?) Stephen points to Buck’s mirror and says, “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of the servant.” There is always argument as to what exactly he meant by that. I just see a servant alone in some attic room with cheap, shoddy furniture. Quite likely that the servant would be assigned the dressing-table with the cracked mirror. In the early morning he peers at his fractured reflection and sees, not so much a distorted version of himself as a mysterious vision – something prophetic, shadowy, fluid and still-in-the-process: something that could become almost anything, in time; like the downtrodden Irish people.

It is said that a Japanese Emperor sent away a favourite pot to be mended. It came back stapled – the standard method in those days – but he thought it was ugly so he sent it to another craftsman, who transformed it into something new by piecing it together with gold, and it was so much more beautiful than it had ever been. This is how the art of kintsugi was born. Originally, repairs would have been in gold, silver or pewter; but nowadays a lacquer is made out of powdered gold, silver, platinum, copper or bronze. Damage is not disguised but celebrated.

The philosophy behind kintsugi – golden joinery, beautiful mend – has gone on to influence many other forms of art:

kintsugi man

My Canadian sister used to tell me that it was ‘zen’ to include at least one mistake in any piece of knitting. I think the idea is that you can’t appreciate perfection except in contrast to some tiny imperfection – and also that perfection means cessation of movement, an end to flow. (I don’t need to introduce mistakes into my knitting; by the time I have finished there are always several to choose from.)

The same principle applies to the idea of the crack, that is in everything. Leonard Cohen immortalised it in Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.

So next time you’re looking in a mirror and find yourself agonising over imperfections, either the mirror’s or your own, remember about the light that wants to come in. Remember that once something is perfect it can make no further progress. The cracks are to let the daylight in: they mean you’re still growing. In the end, you may be broken and worn  but you will have gone past the dead end of the beautiful; you will have arrived somewhere unimaginably different from the place where you began.

Image result for kintsugi