Saturday, March 15, 2008

DIARY 56 - Catastrophies & Cathedrals

Another mixed week for Customer Services - of progress and clarification on the way forward, on the one hand, whilst on the other, emotional turbulence for individuals breaking the fragile cohesiveness of the team, once again. When I joined this team, it seemed it was both over worked and over whelmed. I began by approaching this on a practical level, working on planning better, starting to set boundaries, take away work that didn't fall within our remit. Though this has been to an extent useful, this week it dawned on me that the difficulties the team experiences are mainly ones of emotional, not practical inefficiency. The former primarily rules the latter, and not vice-versa. You can try to focus on just getting the task done, but it's quite often sabotaged by individual reactivity or a psyche caught in a storm. We are not currently a team renowned for our robust good health either. Most of my time, as Manager, I'm helping people who appear to be mentally floundering under the weight of their work. I feel like a professional life guard, forever saving people from drowning, but rarely able to coach people into swimming more effectively. I also expend a great deal of energy keeping my own head above the water line, for everyone's sake. Every week, its this, more than anything else, that wears me out. By this Thursday, however, I was in angry bunny mode, not to be crossed without taking out health insurance. It feels, at this particular moment, like I've stepped over a significant watershed - no longer prepared to tolerate the intolerable. Perhaps the time for this approach has now come.

I hurriedly tore myself away at 5 o'clock on Thursday evening, in a sort of blind panic, as if I must escape the clutches of some imprisoning monster. Once released, I could engage with my planned long weekend. I had the impulse to get away from Cambridge, breath some different air, catch up with myself, and, hopefully, acquire a new perspective. What to do? Go to the coast? No, David & I are going to Sheringham in less than a month, for a weeks holiday. How about visiting some favourite cathedral cities - Norwich - Peterborough - Ely? I needed to get out of an urban, traffic congested environment, so, much as I like Norwich, this imperative ruled it out ( Peterborough even more so) When Friday turned out to be a bright, early Spring day, I set off for Ely. Often, I attack my leisure time as if it were another assault course I have to succeed and have a productive time in. Above all I must not waste it. On this day, there was no need for hurry, my walk could be as measured and mindful as I liked, my attention broad and curious. Arriving at Cambridge rail station, I hopped on a train, and twenty minutes later I was there.

Like many East Anglian rail stations, Ely's is on the outer edge of town. Industrial estates and supermarkets huddle around it, like a corrugated shanty town that's been tidied up. One's first impression would be unfavourable if judged only by the view from the train. Ely's eternal saving grace is that its cathedral ascends from out of the black marshland, and is visible for miles before you get there. It rises serenely above these tawdry temples of commerce, built for the servicing of unbridled mammon. Without it Ely would hardly be worth a visit, except perhaps to empty ones bladder in Tescos. I headed straight for the cathedral, for a spiritual space, whose contemplative atmosphere I seemed to be craving. I pottered around happily for hours, looking in as many unexplored nooks and niches as I could find. I found myself sitting reflectively in the Lady Chapel as a dutch choir rehearsed, their beautiful voices combined into a seamless unity by the acoustic. I stayed on to watch them perform a lunch time concert under the lofty grandeur of Ely Cathedrals famous lantern, which unfortunately produced a less satisfying choral sound. They sang Mendelssohn's 'O for the wings of a dove', a tune I instantly recognised, even though the words were in dutch. I used to perform it solo, when I was a boy soprano chorister. I found myself tingling with nostalgic emotion, as I reconnected with a sense of myself as a child who once so enjoyed singing.

Like many of our ancient cathedrals, Ely has transcended, if not traduced, its simple monastic origins. Dedicated to the broader needs of the many, spiritual or otherwise, rather than the fortunate few of its founders. These days it has to pay for its upkeep, and justify its presence. Entrance comes, not as a result of piety, but via an admission fee, to shop and eat, to be guided or shown a video presentation about its historical relevance. A cathedral exists today more for the cultural consumption of its architectural glories, than its spiritual vitality or legacy. I tried to imagine the place stripped of these contemporary aberrations, and the many elaborate mausoleums of noblemen and bishops, which clutter the aisles. I wanted to envisage it as a place constructed for monastic brethren, which at its height housed probably upwards of two hundred men, both choir and lay monks. Building such a vast space dedicated solely to quiet prayer and devotion, could seem, to modern eyes, a ludicrous, if not vainglorious act of folly. When you think how poorly the medieval population of Ely would be housed - building a vast cathedral of this magnitude must have been a huge drain on local resources, if not an extravagance. Though, Joseph Campbell once said that you know what a civilisation places most value on by the nature of its highest buildings. In the 12th century it was to provide a spiritual house for the worship of divinity. These days, the god of materialism has triumphed. The multi-national conglomerates and banks build the towers we stand in awe of, and worship. These are vain buildings, obsessed with there own appearance and celebrity. They never make more than a half-hearted attempt at pointing heavenward, because that would distract our attention from them.

In the late afternoon, as I wandered along the river bank, with half a mind to head for home, I heard my name 'Vidyavajra' being called. It was Will Sullivan, sat outside The Peacock Tea Rooms with Sinadevi. I used to work with Will in the Ipswich Evolution shop five years ago. He will soon be leaving for Guyhaloka and his four month ordination course. I enjoyed spending a brief time catching up with him, before he permanently vanishes into the Spanish mountains -to come back as someone else entirely. That was me eight years ago. I can sometimes feel as if I've been trying to find my feet again, ever since. I believe that by visiting ancient Cathedrals, by connecting with the apparent simplicity of our western monastic traditions, I'm trying to envisage some sort of imaginative framework or sanctuary for my own Going for Refuge. That's very vague I know, but I'm probably too deluded to notice if it was right in front of me. When I reflect on my current situation, I comfort myself with the words of George Grosz - ' even as he flounders, he is forging ahead', because I know that can be me all over - feeling like I'm floundering, even as I'm forging ahead. I must not take this weeks particular moment of emotional floundering too much to heart. Would I ever do such a thing?

No comments: