Sunday, January 28, 2007


Addendum to Diary entry No22. I can see how the combined emphasis of 'there's somthing I should be doing, but I'm not doing it yet' and 'I have wasted my life', have fed into restlessness and anxiety. These have always my major hindrances in meditation and life. This is why 'Just Sitting' became such a beneficial meditation practice, because all that working in mindfulness and metta just led me to strive too hard. Striving too hard in life has brought me to where I am now. It's proved more effective to stay in the moment and cultivate a sense of my present experience, and not submit to being motivated by a desire to be somewhere else, or be something different.


No man ever understands quite
his own artful dodges
to escape from the grim shadow
of self knowledge



Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Inarritu’s International breakthrough movie Amores Perres, was a startling and often uncomfortable look into the lives of modern day Mexicans. Broad in scope and daring in its themes, its multi-layered storyline came together near the end of the movie in a simple tragic accident. In it he clearly illustrated how interrelated our lives are beneath our individualistic focus of self-determination, relative wealth and cultural status. His next film, 21 Grams, successfully transferred this structure and themes to the USA. The poor and rich Mexicans being replaced with poor Latino’s and rich white Americans.

With Babel, Inarritu moves these same structures and themes to an even larger canvas, the community of the world. It has storylines set in the USA, Mexico, Morroco and bizarrely Japan. It has not travelled well. The grand perspective of international misunderstanding, and cultural miscommunication, paradoxically, make the interconnected aspects considerably weaker, to the point of being feeble. The visual flare is still present in the portrayal of all the stories, this film is very beautiful, and is at times astoundingly conceived. However, the extremely tenuous links between the stories, and the fact that the tragic event that links them, happens in the first half hour of the movie, makes it difficult to know exactly what is his point here. There is profound subject matter in abundance, but none of it hangs together much. The film roles on inexorable, creating a tense expectation that there will be some explanation or resolution to its glittering incoherence. This doesn’t happen.

Perhaps I have missed the point, maybe this is some Post Modern dissection of film narrative, or an ironic demonstration of the babbling of world cinema. I think not. Having done two movies with more or less the same film and narrative structure, doing a third version might indeed be stretching the point. Innarritu lessens the violence, diminishes the links between stories, and whips up a big canvas to paint on, in the hope you don’t notice he’s run out of things to say. If he dares to do this again, there will be an almighty critical backlash. You can only take your viewers for a ride once.

I can see why this movie is up for Oscars. It places Inarritu, and Mexican film generally, onto the International stage, big time. After last year’s success with the film Crash, films with worthy themes are in. The fact that blockbuster stars of the calibre of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett want a piece of the Inarritu action, shows the kudos involved. The movie is, however, like a large white elephant desperately flapping its pink fairy wings in the hope that it might fly. It sits undecided about whether to be an elegiac reflection on human nature, a stunning mood piece, or to take you on a roller coaster ride of great daring and bravado, its indecision unfortunately takes forever. This film was self indulgent with time if nothing else. It left me feeling sad and disheartened, but for all the wrong reasons.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


It is funny how the mood of a week can change in a day. The start of this week was all right, but after last weeks stress the horizon was a bit uneventful and subdued. Then on Wednesday afternoon we had a Team Meeting of all Crematorium staff. Now, this is only the second such meeting I’ve attended. My impressions are that they really aren’t that useful. People seem to use them to make helpful suggestions that are quickly dispensed with, by the management, as unworkable. They air grievances or make barely polite requests for others to stop doing things they find annoying or frustrating, or berate them for taking diabolical liberties. One of my fellow Chapel Attendants decided to make an number of statements about folk ‘getting off their arses and doing the work their supposed to do, rather than reading newspapers’ I was gob smacked by his audacity and sheer hypocrisy, as this perfectly describes of his own work style. Annoyed? I was livid.

On top of this, I am tired with the Crematoriums management style. It is so heavy handed, and forgive this please - ‘tight arsed’. If it moves, there must be a procedure written out which everyone must adhere to, to the letter. If funeral directors don’t do as they’re supposed to, which they inevitable won’t do at least some of the time, a letter will be dispatched with a new dictatorial instruction. A sign will be printed, aggressive in tone, telling everyone what they are ‘not to do’ It is accompanied by a strong tendency to come down heavily on simple errors people make in the course of doing there work. Rather than focusing on the efforts people are making, and encouraging people to take responsibility, they get blamed instead. As a consequence some staff spend half their time finding someone else to take the can, as a means of deflecting blame from them selves. The Team Meeting was full of this sort of tone. I left feeling pissed off and irritated.

By the time I’d got home I was despondent and angry. By the next day I was grumpy and depressed. Why am I doing this job? How can I get out of it as quick as possible, please? The job, simple as it is, is stressful. I’m dealing with recently bereaved families and burning their deceased bodies daily. This is not a neutral working environment. By Thursday night I was pretty low and deeply unhappy, with work, with me, and seemingly almost everything else. David and I were cleaning the flat in preparation for friends visiting us at the weekend. In the middle of all this I begin to feel tearful and upset. The emotion was a bit dark and melodramatic. It is best summed up as feeling as if I’ve wasted my life. Now, I think it could be said I’ve not always made the most of my talents, and often career strategies haven’t gone according to plan, but wasted? - Not really. Though it might not be true historically, it does hold truth emotionally. I’ve had a persistent feeling for most of my adult life that there was something I should be doing with my life that I wasn’t currently doing. Combined with this ‘wasted life’ response, I’m beginning to see that these have been the dominant emotional impulses behind my recent ‘mid life’ review.

The ramifications of this are not fully formed yet, but I can see they might be far reaching. After settling for a period of peace and quiet whilst my finances recover, up comes this. My first response is - I don’t think it’s advisable to make a long-term commitment to the Crematorium. This is followed by – what else could I do? To which I feel – Oh not that old chestnut again. Questions are arising, as are conflicting impulses, the re-treading of old rationales, going back over how things have reached this impasse and hitting my head against emotional dead ends. So generally I guess its best not to further commit things to blog just yet. Though I will keep you posted.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


I’m not normally one for getting heavily stressed out at work. This week, however, I reached the limit of what I can currently cope with. January is my second month working full time at the Crematorium. Getting accustomed to that is enough for now. At the beginning of January, rather hurriedly and ill prepared, we Chapel Attendants have begun operating the music during services. On the surface this doesn’t sound a big deal, but it has been a steep learning curve for us all. At the same time I’m also learning the ropes of being a Cremator Technician. So the curve for me has been doubly steep.

In only my second full week in the Cremation Room I’m thrust into running it single- handed, without supervision. It turned out to be our heaviest week of cremations, post Christmas, with up to sixteen services a day. After the first day I was so strung out, I got no sleep that evening. This was pretty much how the week progressed, large amounts of stress, followed by small amounts of sleep. Cremating sixteen folk in a day, in eight hours, is not easy at the best of times.

On Thursday I had fifteen cremations, a third of which were obese. Fat bodies take two to two and a half hours to burn, a normal body takes an hour and a quarter. Cremating a body is dependant on body fat to get it going. Bodies that have no body fat, such as those wasted away from old age, or cancer sufferers, use more energy to get the body burning effectively. The situation with an obese body is the opposite, there is too much fat. The cremation oven easily becomes overwhelmed by the amount of heat and noxious gases being given off. Controlling this is my job. The first three bodies on Thursday morning were of this type. The first looked slightly large, judging by the coffin size. Once the coffin burned off, the body inside appeared to swell in size, soon resembling a huge Christmas pudding with limbs and a head poking out from beneath it. Dramatic rolls of smoke and flame enveloped it, for the first hour, this was all I could see. Two and a half hours later nothing was left but a few calcified bones.

So the day went on, services finished, coffins waited on racks until cremators were free. My shift was due to finish at six pm, the last coffin went in at ten past six, so I put the cremator on automatic and left it to complete its cycle. I drove back to Cambridge, met David at Tesco to do the weekly shop and came home feeling stiff, tense and emotionally strained. My sleep that night was erratic and shallow, so I awoke still bodily tense and apprehensive about the forthcoming day at work. I arrived at work not feeling too good. When my line manager politely asked me how I was, I told her. I knew I wasn’t quite my usual self. So before I knew it, the Crematorium Manager comes to see me and organises someone to help me out for the rest of the day. Inwardly I felt my tension ease and begin to relax.

I think the stress was cumulative, with quite a few weeks previous getting to grips with new working practices. The work itself, cremating bodies, is not exactly light. I think there is still some unconscious horror with what I do for a living, going on beneath my seemingly calm exterior. There is also the issue of leaving a trainee in sole charge in a busy period. There is supposed be one person every week who is the ‘floater’ who fills in and helps where needed. Recently with the new music system, he or she, has had their hands full helping Chapel Attendants gain confidence in the system. Hence why I was left holding the fort.

On a brighter note, this week was the second anniversary of David and I starting our relationship. We went out Wednesday night to Pizza Express and had a delicious pizza together. Popped into Tesco, bought a Tarte au Lemon and some double cream, and came home and indulged. Happy times before and after.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


The growing good of the world is partly dependant on unhistoric acts;
and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been,
is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life,
and rest in unvisited tombs



This week, at work, we have been using for the first time a new music system in the chapels. The Council having decided, in their wisdom, to no longer employ folk on a casual basis, we’ve thus lost one organist and gained a Music Director. So on top of doing my usual things as a Chapel Attendant, I’ve now added Music Operative. Apart from one deeply humiliating incident on my very first service, it has gone OK. I’ve become gradually less anxious and apprehensive as the week has progressed. There are downsides to the system, mainly caused by ministers or funeral director’s turning up at the last minute with CD’s and service details. Whilst the new system is flexible and fast, there are often a hundred and one things that need doing in the short space of time between services, organising the music just pushes the pressure too far towards the unacceptable end of the scale. I guess I will become more fluent and speedy with the new computer based system eventually. I will not, however, have any expectations that some Funeral Directors will suddenly become better organised, or more considerate.

I now sit in on most services, when I’m on ‘music duty’. This means I hear the eulogies and brief life stories. I’m finding these touching and thought provoking. Sometimes, it’s simply the tragic nature of a death, such as a young girl of eight, who died from cancer. Seeing the Mother’s grief was quite gut wrenching. Other times, it was the simple level at which the deceased was appreciated, by which I guess I mean unaffected. It is rarely a catalogue of great world shattering deeds. It’s more about how they were as people, than what they did. One chap, who died of a brain tumour at 57 years old, was a fireman most of his working life. His qualities and strengths of solid dependability, thoroughness, care and concern for others, were highlighted repeatedly. His workmates admired, respected him, and came out in full to pay their respect. Another woman had been a bright and appreciative presence, paying a lot of attention to people’s needs, when she worked as a warden in a sheltered housing scheme. Even though she’d retired from that job fifteen years ago, residents turned out in full for her funeral.

I think I’ve found these examples quite humbling. Sometimes I get over preoccupied emotionally with needing to make my mark in some extraordinary way, and underestimate what I do instinctively, because of its seeming ordinariness. Yet these qualities are what other people most likely will remember me by. I’ve been reflecting that my own restlessness and anxiety arise out of a discontent and inability to sit with my present life. I cannot be content with things as they are, some idea, prospect or potential pulls my attention out into the future where happiness lies. Out there in the future is happiness and deeper fulfilment, whilst now, is just not there yet.

Over Christmas I watched an excellent movie called ‘Happiness’ by the Director. Todd Solendze. It is a black comedy, that is really about what makes us unhappy. All the characters are in pursuit of an ideal; that if they have this, then they will be happy. Unfortunately what they want - usually a perfect sexual partner - is unobtainable, unrealistic, or in one case completely forbidden and abhorrent. The desperate and tragic circumstances they create as a result, often destroys their lives and potential to be happy. Their dreams turn into hellish nightmares. Ironically it’s the pursuit of happiness that is making them unhappy.

Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know…but I’m addicted to anxiety aren’t I. Can’t kick the habit, into rehab with me.