Sunday, December 31, 2006

DIARY No 19 - LOST IN TRANSITION

Periods of transition are frequently difficult to manage. One thing is in the process of passing, whilst another begins to emerge. Letting go, when it’s not yet clear what form the future will take, is not easy. 2006 appears to have been a year of transition. Stepping out from the supportive conditions of a Buddhist Right Livelihood Business and finding work in the harsher, less forgiving light of the secular world. Regular readers of this blog, and most of all my friends in the Dharma, have heard, read or seen what this process has been like for me. Often I experienced an inner conflict, as aspiration and desire for creative freedom, vied with financial anxiety and a need for security. I think, in the end, the latter has won the day, for now at least. My writing and painting have become concentrated evening and weekend activities.

So, as we are on the cusp of 2007, I am tentatively looking forward to whatever may be in store. I’ve been working Full Time at the Crematorium a little over a month. The increased money is very welcome. My work is taking on a consistency and engagement not present when I worked Part Time. I’m learning new things, like how to master the new computer based music system in the Chapels, and how to burn dead bodies effectively. It seems odd when I return home and David asks me what I did today. If I replied literally,’ I burned six pensioners in their sixties, seventies and eighties, two middle aged people, one male, one female, plus a non viable foetus, and cleaned and hovered the chapels, I think that might be unwelcome. Yet, this is what I do most days. If you had asked me this time last year what I’d be doing by 2007, this is not what I would have envisaged at all.

When aspirations hit the fan of reality, one has to be prepared to revise expectations and learn to live each day as it comes. Obviously, there is a personal practice in what I now do for a living. Largely it is in the realm of doing what seems appropriate, sometimes guarding the gates of the senses, at other times making sure I stay in touch with my feelings. My body, as always, remains the best indicator. Back pain and sleep patterns become unpredictable, when I’m not conscious enough of my responses. Occasionally, I do detect horrified anxiety, in amongst my usual day-to-day worry and flurry. This is particularly so if I’ve had a few days working in the Cremation Room. Observing the state of a burning cadaver moving from decaying flesh and bone towards ash, raking out what’s left and placing in a plastic urn or wooden casket, is not an insignificant event and does have an effect. It can alienate you from your feelings, or when you find your forehead frowned in deep furrows, the nature of your responses is all too apparent, it’s in your face. Levels of black, or mordant humour have to be monitored, they’re good indicators of suppressed feelings. Most of the time my feelings appear just neutral, or at least a trifled numbed. Anyway, I digress.

Next year I have a few things to consider. How quickly it will be possible to sort out my bank loan etc. Watch what effect having a decent income has, and not raising my expenditure to match it. Focus on writing and painting as much as I can. David and I need to seriously think about getting a bit bigger flat, if not now, when? Though I meditate now, it’s still erratic, and far from frequent. I need to be more aware, the nature of my resistances, what are they about? I find myself writing quite passionately about practice when I explore a Dogen discourse, but the bum still doesn’t hit the meditation stool with confident assertion. Whilst physical circumstances have had an effect, I know they are just the excuse, not the reason. What I really need is a meditation retreat for burned out meditators, where you try to identify what exactly is up. I’m still experiencing my recurrent back, hip and ankle pain on the left side of my body. I haven’t been able to afford to go see an osteopath this year, but I sense I do need to take a different approach, not just alleviating but resolving, but how? I know these are primarily emotionally based symptoms, but I am no nearer finding what needs to change or be transformed. It appears to be less to do with changing circumstances, (I’ve tried that) and more to do with changing how my body responds to stress. What is that stress anxious about in the first place? Perhaps I should try meditating! That’s enough! enough for one year at least.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

FILM REVIEW - Lost Highway

Life in a David Lynch movie is one strange occurrence after another. Lost Highway is no exception. There is the Jazz musician who seems to be having a little problem with his jealousy. His wife, has a very complex time concealing her extra curricular activities from the aforesaid muso. On top of this, there’s the young man ,who wakes up one morning in a prison cell previously occupied by the muso for murdering the wife. Was that a dream or an identity crisis? He ends up falling for a blond version of the muso’s wife, and then killing her old lover by colliding his cranium with the edge of a plate glass table. There is also a psychopathic gangster, and a ghost faced man, who seems to know what is going on but never tells anyone. In the end the young man turns back into the muso after being rejected by the blonde. The last we see of him, he’s revisiting his own house and being chased down a darkening highway, his head screaming like a Pope in a Francis Bacon painting. Crazy, or what?

Did I like it? I sure as hell did. It appears to be David Lynch's take on the whole noir genre. Part a homage, and part a surreal and imaginative extension of its dominant moods and characters. It has tension and atmosphere by the bucket load. A peculiar narrative thrust that keeps you engaged even when the story starts to defy logic. Its images are potent and disturbing, without being gratuitous. Lynch produces films with great flair and in the most distinctive style imaginable. He also has the gall ( and the money ! ) to realise these perverse little tales in tinsel town America.

The DVD extras were of neither use nor ornament. Not one, but two interviews with Lynch, which tell you zilch and are mostly just obtuse deflections. Plus, the usual actors fawning and licking the cream off Lynch’s genius, and a ‘Making of’ that looks like its composed of random out takes filmed by a gnome. Just watch the movie OK, leave it at that.

QUOTATION MARKS No 8


To think that you will be happy by becoming something else is delusion.
Becoming something else just exchanges one form of suffering for another form of suffering.
But when you are content with who you are now....
then you are free from suffering"

AJHAN BRAHM

DIARY No 18 - A VISIT FROM INSOMNIA


I’ve just completed my second week of Full Time work at the Crematorium. The first week was pretty much as I expected it to be, mostly working as a Chapel Attendant. I've been tired by the end of each day, though I have felt more consistently engaged. There was something about working Part Time, which left my energy broken off just when it reached a purposeful flow. This week I began my training as a Cremator Technician. This means I have to do one hundred cremations, pass an examination, and have one complete cremation closely monitored.

The days went OK, but I found my sleep quickly became almost non-existent. Over three nights I only had six hours sleep. With each new morning, I awoke more bleary eyed and mentally zonked. David was, unfortunately, also having a period of restlessness and fidgety sleep. So we weren’t a great deal of help to each other, compounding rather than easing each others problem. Each night I awoke after a few hours sleep, heart pounding away as if I’m in a panic, unable to relax or slow it’s pummelling action. Obviously, I could say this was all due to the change in my work. Watching the cremation process in much closer detail, days, rather than hours, of raking out the remaining crumble of bones, must leave a mark on ones psyche. I can’t see how it would not. I am, however, reluctant to just park it there and let it solidify into fact. It doesn’t feel quite that simple.

To start with there is the whole practical circumstances under which I’m sleeping to consider. If both of you, sharing a bed, turn over frequently and heavily, that’s not going to help either of you settle. Sometimes, being over stimulated just before bedtime doesn’t help. Both Monday and Tuesday nights I was engaged in deep and engaging conversation prior to going to bed. I reduced my coffee consumption, plus, looked at any thing which might disturb my sleep; like needing to pee in the middle of the night; or eating too much dinner. For many years, since living in a flat above extremely noisy and unpredictable Scottish Shift Working Lorry Drivers, I’ve slept using earplugs. Our bedroom window is blacked out, because we live opposite Cambridge United's Football Ground, which has floodlights, and two well lit advertising hoardings. Such strong artificial light tends to wake me up believing its morning. Having reviewed these, then I can consider how other circumstances might come into play.

Starting work Full Time at a Crematorium is, after all, quite a big step. Especially after all the soul searching, which concluded that I wanted to work Part Time to provide space to write and paint in. Once more, my desires appear to have been subsumed by practical necessity. There is a cloak of sadness wrapped around this, one that I haven’t wanted to look under too carefully. By Wednesday afternoon, I was beginning to sense an emotional upset and tearful feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not only am I working around death all the time, I’m also experiencing the death, for now at least, of a deeply held desire.

Listening to The Archers on Thursday night brought some of the emotion more cogently to the fore. Two of the Gay characters, Ian and Adam, were having a Civil Partnership Ceremony. It’s all been handled in a typically Radio 4 way, well meaning, slightly clich├ęd and above all lavished with liberal worthiness. At the end of the episode, the Mother of one of the characters said how proud she felt. I felt those tears welling up as she spoke. The day before, I got a Christmas card from my parents, and a separate card for David. I was a little put out that there wasn’t a card addressed to both of us. When David opened his, it was signed quite formally as’ from Mr & Mrs Lumb’. David, quite understandable, felt not fully welcomed into the bosom of my family. David’s Mum has been very open and generous. She has bought presents for my birthday and at Christmas, in every way she has behaved as if I’m part of her family. So the contrast is quite marked. My parents are really quite conservative, and from an entirely different generation. That they sent a card, was their way of acknowledging our relationship. I also recollect that my Brother in Law was still calling my parents Mr & Mrs Lumb years after he married my Sister. So, its not about discrimination or rejection, its more related to a level of formality they think is appropriate to someone they’ve only met once. That David is my partner would not change that. They may also be uncomfortable, not quite knowing how to couch or refer to something, which in their generation would never have been talked about publicly anyway. Social formalities have relaxed generally, but not for my parents. Though having said that, it doesn’t stop me feeling what I am is not fully accepted by them. This is what was touched on, and made me tearful. I was upset about things not being how I would like in terms of my work, my desires and how my parents relate to my partner, and myself, as gay men. Simple unsatisfactoriness, delicately interwoven like a thread of pain through the rough and ready cloth of everyday life. Owch !!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

QUOTATION MARKS No 7


I know of no more encouraging fact
than the unquestionable ability of man
to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

BOOK REVIEW

Walden, or life in the woods – Henry David Thoreau
Published unabridged by Dover Thrift Editions 1995.


It was over twenty years ago, on good old BBC Radio 4, that I first came across Thoreau. ‘Walden’, was their Book of the Week. It was a lively, clear and succinct reading of his ideas and experience, whilst he lived his back to earth lifestyle. He may not have been the first urban dweller to do so, but he was certainly the first to effectively write about the changes then overcoming civilised humanity. These days ‘dropping out of society’ is a common place occurrence. However, it often is only a partial one. Some semblance of support by the host society remains, if only in the form of ‘the dole’. Thoreau was unique, in that he was looking to be independent and self-supporting, in a way we would struggle to achieve these days. The talons of civilisation dig deep into self-determination, to hold us within its bounds.

Anyway, when I first heard it being read, I was captivated. I went out immediately and bought a small pocket sized edition produced by Shambhala Publications. In that period, I was fond of underlining in blue pen any apposite statement I found in books. Looking back through these blue lined sections, tells me something about my concerns at that time. Extensive sections of ‘Walden’ are selected, such as :~

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”

Concerns about what it was like to live an essential life, were then dominant in my psyche. How to live simply and contentedly was paramount. Thoreau, though quite a pragmatic man in how he approached his solitary life, was motivated essentially by a romantic impulse; to return to a state of grace that had been lost. This underlying romanticism was what struck me most at that time. These days, I handle this sort of ideal with a more sceptical touch. Even Thoreau saw his ‘simple life’ as an experiment only, living like this for only a couple of years, before then returning to his former lifestyle. Without the donation of Emerson’s land at Walden Pond, the whole experiment would have been impossible anyway. Besides, the town of Concord and civilisation was never too far away if it all went ‘pear shaped’.

This Dover Edition is unabridged, my original pocket edition was heavily cut, as ,no doubt, were those radio readings. Not without good reason I am currently discovering. I’m finding the unabridged edition quite heavy going. Pages and pages of ponderous, pontificating prose to wade through. Some of his observations on the nature of a civilising society are spot on, whilst others appear cranky, quaint or just over simplistic. I suppose this is why, these days, he is routinely severely edited. His writing style is very Victorian. Overloaded, for modern readers, with small asides and references, tucked within unfeasible long sentence structures. To make him palatable for contemporary audiences, his verbose writing style needs to be curtailed by the hand of a skilled surgeon. Then his undoubted ability to express the universal zetgeist of this, and any other industrialised era, emerges, strong and potent.

I do wonder whether we do Thoreau a disservice by treating him in this way. We make him a mythic figure, an archetype of the outsider, living beyond civilised norms, not a man of his time. Thoreau was certainly not some proto-hippy, new age Victorian, getting off his head on opium. He was just one of many 19th Century social analysts, who looked at the emerging industrialised nations and started to question, with an air of looking backwards like Rousseau, asking quite where we were going with this headlong rush for progress. As the first to really articulate this, Thoreau is justifiable revered. For in it he expressed the basic form for an Ideal of an Alternative Society, this found its audience in the disillusioned drop outs of the late sixties. The rendering into our complex civilisation, of this beautiful dream of the simple life, of a form of society not hell bent on creating a living nightmare, is why this book is still significant. When you actually read it unabridged, you realise it's style is what has not worn well. The myth that Thoreau represents for us now, has overtaken the reality of his experience then, and its mode of expression. He is being revised and remodelled to fit our contemporary dreams of escape.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

DIARY 17 - IT COMES BUT ONCE A YEAR

As I’ve said before I’m in the middle of writing this piece on a Dogen discourse called ‘The difficulty of such a thing’ It is certainly occupying inordinate amounts of time and effort, though it is an enjoyable process. So my attention to this blog has been a bit neglectful, sorry.

Good news has come forth, in the form of a date to start full time work at the Crematorium. So this coming Monday 4th December is the day. When my manager told me, I said I’d been about to give up hope. She replied, that three months was actually quick to get a result. Well, save me from encountering the prolonged version, I don’t think I could handle the waiting. As it happens I am as mightily pleased as my modest sized form can contain. I’ve been given a new job designation as Chapel Attendant / Cremator Technician,( I’m going to be trained up to do the latter )and my pay grade has been raised too. So I’ll be on a full time salary and be paid more on top of that. Eight months down the line the end of my financial constraints seems finally to be in sight. Once I get the measure of my new salary, I’ll take a hard look at my finances and see what adjustments need to be made. How I get on with full time work at the Crematorium will be revealed only by the taste of it.

Christmas looms like an over jovial relative you don’t really like. David and I went up to Nottingham on Wednesday, for a days Christmas shopping, in what, so far as I can see, is the best shopping centre in the UK. I’ve got most of it sorted now. In comparison, Cambridge city centre on Saturday was horrendous, I can honestly say I will not be venturing there for long in the next few weekends. Whoever said shopping was the new religion might be onto something, it tests the patience of a saint, you never feel satisfied, as if you’ve been duped, and your encouraged to believe in the power of money to raise the dead and cure the sick.

We now have a small Christmas tree, pert and decorated like a flapper, fairy lights, the lot. This year the festive season seems to have crept slowly upon us. I guess the prolonged Indian Summer caught us all off guard. So, suddenly the countdown has started, and the heads down rush to the shopping finishing post has begun its mad frenetic whirl. Here’s hoping I can keep my head.