The Consolations of Fate

Arabia, Christianity, civilisation, ethics, europe, fate, free will, future, greek philosophy, Hinduism, human mind, Islam, Life, Lifestyle, Meaning, meditations, Middle East, Musings, Muslim, Natural Law, natural philosophy

Maktoob: that which is written. Ask any one of 1.6 billion people of the world who belong within the Umma (the global community of Muslims, whatever their sect), and most will confess that their entire life boils down to a narrative, a script already written by a divine hand long before each infant has entered the maternity wards of this physical world. That only two endings are conceivable, paradise or hell, is by the wayside. It is the story of life that counts.

Now anyone who has ever lived among the faithful will know that by and large they are a contented bunch. Muslims the world over smile ineffably. When they are not busy with their struggles or else bogged down in civil strife, Arabs and their muslim brethren everywhere from Indonesia to West Africa seem to spend considerably more time that we in the West in a state of laughter and outward expressions of happiness. There’s a lightness to being among them; a sense that, unlike the self-made man of the West, enormous burdens have been somehow lifted from each and every shoulder. Speak to them about how they imagine their lives are going to pan out and in return you will receive a beatific smile and a shrug. It is not for me to say, he will counter. To which, I will respond baffled and he will reply, why worry about the future. It is not ours to decide.

Oh, fate? I will reply. Well, yes and no, he will say. You see, fate is that collision of two moving bodies sprinting down adjacent streets until both reach the corner simultaneously and boom! two bodies collide. Fate, to the Western mind has the air of being something sudden and unplanned. Yet fate – maktoob, is really rather different. What maktoob implies is that those who ran down that road did so before they even knew it. They collided on the corner not because fate ‘intervened’, as we in the Greco-Roman tradition are want to say. Fate to the ancient Greeks, and by extension the latter-day Western World, rested with fickle Gods. They refereed you through every minor move you made, blowing the whistle on transgressions, on foul play. With fate, occidental-style, you could be up one minute; down the next. But maktoob wrote the book of life before you were even conceived. You keep to a life script without ever consciously reading it. The key thing is that to the believer in the Qur’an, each mere mortal was never tasked with writing their own life story. That onerous task was never laid down before them. Blank pages in the annals of God’s creation were just too precious to be delegated to a human fuck-up. The weight of responsibility too great an undertaking for the pages ever to be left blank.

So here we are, twixt a world of the divine and the secular where the growing legions of secularists are sold the belief that life is what we make of it. Fortune favours the bold. Who dares wins. You get out no more and no less than you put in. The proverbs supporting free will are woven into the very fabric of Western languages. Their fellow mortals, in stark contrast, who maintain a more monotheistic tone (and even spiritual when you consider predestination as a central tenet of most Hindus, Jains, Parsees, Buddhists, Baha’i, animists, et al) do not fundamentally accord with this notion that each one of us is a little God carving out the cosmos in his or her own image. These adherents to Islamic (and Judaeo-Christian to a lesser degree) doctrine (the hadiths of the Prophet and the surahs of the Book) are happy of course to be given a patina of choice in life: what car they choose to drive, what profession they choose to follow, what football team they choose to support, even where they’d like to spend their honeymoon. But to most who adhere to a divine book – that we shall call a operator’s manual for living – all notion that each of us is alone to decide everything short of dying at the age of forty of terminal cancer (and even cancer in the West is often attributed in terms of blame to a person’s unhygienic choices, such as smoking) is risible. Of course, when we visit these holy lands with our fanatical secular faith tripping off the tongue like the good little imperialists we profess not to be but are all the same, our religiously-minded hosts humour us and indulge us our fantasies of taking control of our destinies. We lecture them on planning and freedom to choose and freedom to be and even freedom to fuck up. They listen and nod serenely before heading off to the mosque for the fifth time that day, the thirty-fifth time that week, to radiate in the knowledge that the road for them is already laid. Life is a book whose pages were filled in not by the protagonist, but by the author, a long time in the past, so long ago that time is irrelevant.

In a sense this is logical that the book of life be not composed by the main character, for it is the author – a figure who never appears in the book – as creator. Which brings us back to the happiness factor. For all the student suicides in secular Seoul, Shanghai or Tokyo, how many self-confessed failures in life do we count from among the lands of the strictly faithful? For all my mediocre students in Arabia, did I once ever see one who was so overburdened by feelings of impending academic failure, so ridden with self-blame for poor performance that they sought the easy way out? Not once. Many underperformed in class only to walk out in high spirits. And what of my Asiatic students? Did they push themselves to the outer limits of academic achievement because of a culturally ingrained belief that the buck stops with them? Yes, frequently. Their academic performance is linked directly to the underlying secular notion that we build our house with our own hands.

I try to reconcile the two opposing philosophies of free-will and predestination and I cannot other than to bewail the amount of responsibility heaped on young individuals in Western Secular and East Asiatic Confucian societies to take the quill of creation and write their life story like each one needs to be on the Booker shortlist. The pressures are immense; the philosophical premise of free-will still unproven. Life is lonely on a planet of authors. Life, in contrast, is one big jovial gathering on a planet where one anonymous author wrote everything for everyone for all time. Maktoob. Who wants to be a driver on a mad road when you can be passenger on a country lane? Isn’t it enough to be the train driver? Or must we lay each rail as well while we go along?

This is by no means a rallying cry for mass religious conversion. The strictures of an observant life of answering the azan thirty-five times a week (and much more during the month of Ramadan) are prohibitive and constrictive to the postmodern mind made up of Post-Christians and Post-Confucianists. Whether a philosophical brainchild of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment we call free will is no more than a pleasant self-deception, or at worst, a mirage, most feel no abiding need to abdicate control of their lives, or the appearance of self-control. But with pressures mounting on an ecological world in peril, the millions of inchoate dreams existing in aspirational societies that are grounded in the cult of individualism (this is the very guiding light of the West) are becoming ever more unattainable. Blame heaped on oneself, as well as feelings of failure, will balloon in future. Individuals marooned on a desert island of their own making. And sadly, it will be the West – that vanguard of progressive ideas – that will need the anti-depressants while the Arabs will continue to find amusement in the smallest things, such as death.

To Live With a Loss That Has No Purpose.

animals, Buddhism, death, dogs, ethics, fate, free will, human mind, kindness, Life, Meaning, meditations, Menaing, Musings, Natural Law, natural philosophy, Reflections, Religion, stoicism, thoughts

So, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke.

We often use the verb ‘to stumble’ when employing metaphor in describing mishaps on the road to personal progress. For instance, ‘I was doing so well to make this dream happen until i stumbled into trouble.’ Thing is, we don’t often apply the term literally when describing the very moment that things took a definitive turn for the worse. Take this example: ‘He stumbled on the escarpment and fell to his death‘. Exceptions prevail, of course. Sometimes people stumble literally and the ensuing fall is even more consequential (and somewhat more inexplicable) than if the stumble had been figurative in a metaphorical sense. What happened the other night was not exactly a stumbling block on the road to Middle East Peace; being real and not abstract it was arguably more compelling than that.

Soon enough we’ll come back to this nice bloke for whom it happened to. It must be foretold that I’ve got this far in life without throwing the towel in by consoling myself that we inhabit an orderly, law-abiding universe. A chaotic, lawless universe is too hard to countenance. In this universe of mine watchful, seemingly benign forces act upon our individual conduct to pave our way with either help or hindrance. You might call this ‘the blind watchmaker’ syndrome. A classic call to monotheism’s central tenet that God is everywhere and judging. He maketh even that which He cannot possibly maketh. My take is more Tao of Physics, more Oriental holistic, more interconnected subatomic networks with inbuilt natural laws of justice than your run-of-the-mill divine, omnipotent Father-figure there to restore the cosmic balance of justice in favour of the kind and compassionate over the cruel and selfish among us. Intelligent design? Only in so far as subatomic matter is mystically connected to each other despite time and vast distance. Protons telekinetically agreeing that so-and-so is worthy, through honourable conduct, of synchronicity with benevolent time. On time’s elevator, the good don’t even need to punch in their desired floor. The lift knows where to take them. Whereas, the black of heart, for all their frantic prodding of buttons on the console, the elevator nevertheless spits them out precisely on a floor where only woe can find them. These we call the natural laws. You get what you give, no more, no less. Except my story betrays this as fanciful thinking dreamed up by those who need to know that behind every senseless action lurks a just reason. My story tells of how our foundations can be shaken by events that have no purpose other than to reaffirm the popular, secular belief that shit just happens. If everything happens for no other reason than to provide no other reason, then please stop the whirring cosmos for i want to get off.

My neighbour, for want of a better word, was coming home two nights ago. Now his home is rather unconventional. To get there he has to park his car by a canal bridge in a hushed little village full of fairytale thatched cottages, then walk a considerable distance through the quarter-lit gloaming along the black waters of the canal towpath. The towpath is narrow and the banks steep. On one side foliage arches over like a line of tall, bowing hunchbacks. On the other is the water, sullied and still like a river of weak tea with a dash of milk. This garden path of his is neither for the frail nor the faint of heart. Seeing that he answers to neither of these calls, he was walking home with his six month-old pup, Patsy, off the lead with shopping bags in each hand. The Irish terrier, still in that delicate stage of training, would ordinarily have been on the lead but for the fact that the shopping won’t carry itself. Learning to walk independently and by his side, she was beginning to make great strides toward obedience.

Emerging from under a small brick bridge, he put one foot in front of the other, feeling his way through the rapid darkening. As if from nowhere his toe stumbled hard against an exposed tree branch and the forward momentum of his body coupled with the weight of the bags sent him headlong into the canal. Head first he fell, scattering his shopping everywhere, disappearing under the stagnant water. When he emerged from the shallow water he panned his vision around but she was gone. The dog had hightailed it in fear. Now this ‘flight-mode’ is not unheard of in young dogs once spooked by something. Their calm demeanour snaps, leaving their primitive instinct in the driving seat.

All night he paraded up and down the towpath, calling her name, coaxing her to come back. The following morning I got wind of her disappearance and so, without hesitation, joined the hunt. We combed the coppiced fringes of the canal, straying into neighbouring fields, all the while calling her name gently. By now a proper search party had been raised. People being people, dog people being even more divided by canine opinion than non-dog people, theories starting flying thick and fast. She’s gone to ground, some said. The fear has triggered her amygdala into making her cower timorously in the undergrowth until such time as hunger snaps her out of this fugue state. Other theories centred on her terrier nature. She must have found a drain pipe. Others still wondered if she had run and run and run until, young and utterly bewildered, she could no longer find her way home to her master and their boat. I asked the owner what his instincts were telling him. She’s gone to ground, he averred. Agreed, we vowed to resume the search the following morning, though I knew his search would go on undaunted throughout the night.

The following day came and, well, nothing. So again we theorised as to where a panicked puppy might go. We covered a radius of maybe five kilometres in all directions. Meanwhile, other kindly souls had mounted a search and rescue effort. Word was out. Even a local drone pilot wanted in on the action. By the end of the second day I could see his facade of bravery start to crumble. It’s all in the downward sloping of the eyebrows, exposing these two vertical furrows leading up from the bridge of the nose. Again I asked him, what do your instincts tell you? She’s in warm room somewhere beside an old lady who’s picked her up. There and then, a crack appeared in his sixty-eight years of tough stolidness: English passion, I call it. I don’t want to entertain that thought, he said. I have to stay positive. Granted, in such a rural area, where could she have got to? No main road for miles. Only a mainline from Bristol to London, but she wouldn’t, she couldn’t, clamber through the thorny brambles, scramble up the track ballast and onto the lines. Too gnarly, too steep, too pointless for even a pup with no sense of anything other than love for every living soul.

He kept a vigil, returning precisely to the spot where the stumbling had taken place two nights previous. The owner even left a scent trail of his socks, his t-shirts, her basket, blanket, every last little clue he could muster to coax her back from her ‘safe’ place in the undergrowth to their safe place on the boat. I watched as his initial optimism turned in on itself. Two days cowering in a damp bush without food? This theory was beginning by now to sound wishful. By the end of the second day, my thoughts turned to the likelihood that a six month-old Irish terrier, a rare and desirable pedigree, had been snaffled by a lucky passerby. She had to have been sequestered by someone, being such a ditsy and trustful little thing. Question was: what manner of character would this passerby possess? Would they be honest and self-effacing enough to know that this was someone’s prized possession? Or would they be a finders-keepers-losers-weepers type who justifies their deceit on the grounds that property is nine-tenths of the law, whatever that means?

This morning i awoke late. Powering up my phone i received a ping. It was him. He wrote to thank me for my help, but that it wouldn’t be any longer needed. She was found late last night dead by the rail tracks right next to his boat on the other side of a thicket of oak trees. She must have found her way back to the boat but took a wrong turn and ended up trotting along the tracks alone in the dark, afraid. She could hear him calling her but was stricken and helpless to go to him. So light and frail, she was struck by either the London train or a freight train. Her – and his – only solace was that her death would have been instant.

I told my mum, who has loved and lost dogs. She answered, life can be cruel sometimes, son.

Why do terrible things happen to good people? Why must the most vulnerable have to live in fear? Why is love taken away from us only when we’ve found it? Where is the natural justice in all this? I refuse to believe we exist in a dimension where senselessness and meaninglessness is a defining feature. That said, today my eyes are welling up wondering if my grip on an orderly reality is slipping and that, in the end, it’s shit that happens and no one knows the f&ck why.

The Buddha implored us not to get too attached as it would only cause suffering when weaning occurred. He must have known, however, that as humans our attachment to objects – both animate and inanimate – can be both profound and wholly natural. Within this paradox we must make our last stand. This is our eternal condition.

(Nothing but) Flowers

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Does art imitate life, or life art?

In days of Covid-19, when the sight of Piccadilly Circus derelict at 3pm could easily be mistaken for 3am midsummer in Murmansk with the sun already up (or more’s the point, having never actually gone down, situated as it is above the Arctic Circle), you know the face of the planet is a strange and beautiful – if deeply troubled – place in need of accounting for. To do that, what better way than to trove through the annals of music to find lyrics that somehow chime with our topsy-turvy vision of Twenty-Twenty.  

How pop music anticipated the short upside of the long lockdown.

Two classic numbers spring to mind as expressions of a world both blighted by the giant bovver boot of human success, and lifted from the dark shadow of its crushing conquest. To know them, we first need to know their context (both allude strongly to making/unmaking the world in our own human image) plus the order in which they arrived on the scene. 

The first song imagines paradise lost to human development and is really an ironic take on how when somewhere magical is discovered by the few it is soon descended upon by the many until that magic melts away before the axe, the pick, the shovel and the steamroller. Let’s face up, before the current pandemic, paradise was being lost at a rate of knots. Virgin lands were being deflowered faster than their chastity could stand. But this trend had a precedent. This was all laid out with depressing familiarity in the imagery conjured up in Joni Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece, Big Yellow Taxi. She saw the tide changing even back then. Joni must’ve read Rachel Carson’s 1962 groundbreaker, Silent Spring. She, among the enlightened few, flocked to Laurel Canyon, in the hills outside L.A., when it was relatively untouched. By 1970 her lyrics were prescient enough to foreshadow an era when the faraway magic tree was starting to get laden with nest builders. In short, when the visionary few woke up to us killing the goose that laid the golden egg. 

She sings,

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.

This was 1970. By then California’s redwoods had taken about as much pummelling as they could without going extinct in their native habitat. Federal protection would soon ensue to safeguard the remaining 5% of coastal redwoods left in the wild. Things were by no means great, ecologically-speaking. But the world contained far fewer people than today, and far more biodiversity in still unchecked corners of the globe. Joni saw the writing on the wall. For her, it was going to be ugly, but not without the delicious tang of irony.

They took all the trees
Put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em.

The rapid human (& by extension commercial) development of Southern California, and in particular Laurel Canyon, was cause for concern, even then. It was in every sense yet another paradise in the process of being lost. You didn’t have to go back to Milton in the 1600’s to realise this. Nor even to the loss of Eden in the Old Testament. In fact, it was happening all around her and her hippie acolytes. So much so that she saw fit to pen the words to one of the great songs of popular music.

Hey, farmer, farmer
Put away the DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees.

The birds needed their trees, but the trees were being shipped to the museum. And the bees needed the flowers to pollinate, but the flowers were sprayed with deadly insecticide. And so, the modern narrative was written. The context was nature’s loss for human gain, albeit temporary. The story of us was bittersweet. Our rampaging success came at a cost to everything that was hitherto worth living for. The garden of Eden was once again imperilled, and didn’t Joni express it every bit as well as a biblical prophet.

The second classic number from 1988, Talking Heads’ (Nothing but) Flowers, also laments loss – yes, those buckled blades of grass under the giant bovver boot of human progress that Joni decries – but this time in a different way. Human development for Joni amounted to stealing the pristine from under her nose as Laurel Canyon fills up with infrastructure that follows in the wake of other dream-seekers like herself. Where she accuses her fellow pioneers of stripping away at the fabric of pure nature in their onrush to exist in a state untouched by civilisation (in other words, by radical actions involving having to degrade nature so they could live it, which defeats the whole point of conservation), (Nothing But) Flowers laments the loss of what we brought to the world by changing it from natural to synthetic. The lyrics deliver a shot from the bows that, contrary to the selfish act of taking from nature to become more natural, mother nature (triggered by events untold in the Talking Heads song) has now reclaimed all things natural from her wayward child. His message is clear: we didn’t gain anything in losing our hold on the world. Roads without cars might well feel like a pleasant dream when cars on roads are all that is. But when all the cars are gone and the road is uprooted? Is that not just as lamentable as a world sans les animaux? Beware what you wish for is a sentiment that rattles through each verse.  

From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Whereas Joni’s brand new parking lot paved paradise, Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne sings,

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis.

His parking lot has become overgrown in the absence of cars by the creeping dominion of natural regrowth. We have, in essence, gone full circle. However, this oasis is not all it is cracked up to be. Byrne soon tires of this state of nature, dreaming instead of,

 …cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies.  

One would be forgiven for thinking that where

…There was a factory
Now there are mountains and rivers…

can only be good. But no. Byrne proves to be no such primitivist. He wants his Dairy Queen, Honky Tonk and 7-Eleven back. Joni saw real estate supplanting the wild fields and trees, a town sprung up where once there were flowers. Byrne envisions the opposite.

This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees
Where, where is the town?
Now, it’s nothing but flowers.

Disabusing us of this idyllic state of post-civilisation, catching rattlesnakes for dinner is not a tempting prospect once civilisation has collapsed. In a nod to the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, David Byrne sees savagery as the state of nature. Thus, sovereignty has to be restored lest we descend into the the very thing we’ve tried to get way from throughout our painful history. For Joni Mitchell, the romanticism is straight out of a Gaugin painting of Tahitian women. Noble savagery, all swished with colour. For David Byrne, this post-apocalyptic bloom might as well be algal. For Joni, the optimal state of existence is what you might term prelapsarian, that is to say, straight from the Garden of Eden before the flood. Humans are the harbingers of apocalypse for her. Everything they do to commodify their world ends up being worse than the purity of what it replaced.

As Byrne sings toward the end verses:

We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries.

Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

Both these splendid tunes are musical museum pieces for good reason. You or I couldn’t sit down and write them in an afternoon. But in spite of their substantive differences, both numbers are really just two sides of the same coin. Both deal with before and after. Both lament loss. Both pivot around this idea of the aftermath of a profound transition felt by everyone. In this regard, one can thread them to the current state of lockdown being experienced around the world. As has become all too apparent that everyone is feeling a different vibe to the recent halting of practically all human activity in the face of a deadly virus, we may well ask: is it time for a prequel to these songs? This time, in lieu of loss, the unnamed songwriter can wax lyrical about how we unpaved paradise, took down a parking lot. Of how we took all the museums, put them in a massive tree. Or, this was going to be real estate, but it was decided the best buildings are trees. Or, please leave me stranded here, I could get used to this lockdown. 

Leave something for the birds and the bees. Leave something for us and those of us to come.

 

 

 

 

 

Hey Bulldog!

Beatles, Buddhism, death, fate, free will, future, Life, meditations, Musings, natural world, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predator, Reflections, Solipsism, thoughts

These are the days of our lives. Whether we like it or not, the clock is ticking. The long hour upon the stage will, of a fashion, one day be heard no more. So, let the tale told, ideally, not be by an idiot espousing sound and fury. Let it be told well, full of twists and turns, laughs and loves, random acts of kindness, adventures and heart-fluttering moments that lend themselves to the proud declaration: I was there.

I was recently watching colour footage of the Beatles in the studio, circa 1968, recording Hey Bulldog!. A song destined for obscurity, for me it was a much underrated number. According to Lennon, Hey Bulldog! was a nice tune that meant nothing. However, it wasn’t the melodies that stood out, nor McCartney’s catchy bass line. Rather, it was how the four lads from Liverpool – how the Beatles as a living organism – had undergone a profound physical and mental transformation in such a short space of time since they burst onto the scene in ’63. In the annals of rock music, who else aged and evolved so rapidly in relatively few years? To watch the Beatles do their seven years together was to observe a lifespan in time-lapse photography. Not only did the hair grow and the faces harden, the voices deepened and the subject matter took on ever more gravity. Theirs was an accelerated existence full of very little wasted time, a sort of Haiku poetry in motion.

Some creatures, like giant tortoises, slow down their metabolism to reach the age of Methuselah. He crawls, unchanged, through the centuries. Others, like dormice, speed up their heartbeats to live a James Dean life: short and intense. Mayflies explode onto the scene only to drop dead in the Danube before their first Earth day is out. In the human realm, things are similar. Picasso painted for over seventy years, ten times longer than the Beatles jammed. No slouch, over decades he painted thousands of canvases, admittedly. Some brush work he performed with a swish of urgency, but overall Picasso’s life mirrored the tortoise. He went for longevity, enjoying his life’s true calling all along the way. Physically, Picasso didn’t really alter appearance over time. He started small, tanned, dark-haired and Spanish-eyed, and he ended small, even more tanned, no-haired and Spanish-eyed. The Beatles, contrastingly, seemed to physically and creatively morph so fast, you could almost watch them grow up and apart. Lennon was the epitome of this. From young scallywag to long-haired gnostic, Lennon’s ageing was catalysed by a public domain obsessed with him. Like Mr Benn (for those of you old enough to remember the children’s TV show of the early 1970s) he changed his appearance in no time. As Lennon set about to change the world, the world changed him. And everyone could see him carrying carrying the weight of the world, plain as day (citation: boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, from Abbey Road.)

I employed the Beatles as an analogy to underscore the importance of using the time each of us have to reinvent ourselves: to morph; to never sit on our laurels. Your average human life is more four score and seven years than the squeeze of seven years the Beatles had to shake the world. That said, because we have no idea how long we have to live, these numbers melt away. The Beatles had seven years, but what they did in that time was the musical equivalent of the seventy years afforded Picasso. From I Want to Hold Your Hand to Eleanor Rigby in a mere three years? The difference in maturity might as well amount to forty.

I speak to so many people convinced that because life is long they can afford to sit out the game for long spells. In absentia, years vanish and little substantive gets done. A fearfulness sets in, front doors slam shut, possessions mount up, families fuse together before they sometimes shatter, leaving our clever model of market economics to dig its hooks in until ‘financial commitments’ make it all but impossible to break the chains that bind you to an immovable object that remains out of sight. Folks get stuck in a rut they can’t physically see, and their only consolation is that, ‘oh well, at least I’ve got years ahead of me to change things’.

If only we knew that the game was up much earlier than we originally thought might we take affirmative action to be the change we saw in ourselves. Maybe the Beatles knew deep down they didn’t have long (compared with their musical contemporaries) and that was the catalyst for them to live like no tomorrow (for Tomorrow Never Knows) : to pupate, to reinvent, to transmogrify, to create then recreate, and then some more. You don’t have to have penned Strawberry Fields Forever to view life as a series of peaks and troughs: of pinnacles that only the ingenious few can reach and rifts that the rest of us wallow in. If I had the power to tell another they had one more year instead of forty to thrive, what then? If others had the divine prophecy to forewarn me that my innings was a lot shorter than I otherwise thought, what then would I do to affect change? How would i fill the empty pages in this blank book of life?

(Footnote: I was moved to write this as I pondered the meaning of why the female mallard I’ve been feeding from the boat for the past three months was inexplicably taken from us (and from her drake boyfriend, in a meaningful sense) by an ambush predator, a giant pike probably. She was seen being dragged under not three weeks before she would have presented hatchlings to the Spring. What is this that the life of an animal can end so abruptly, her genetic destiny to reproduce be so cruelly thwarted, by a big nasty bottom-feeding fish, off all things? How arbitrary! How absurd! How sad! Her boyfriend was quacking like a mad thing in distress. And five days on, I still give her a thought.)

Life Signs Vital

#adventure, Australia, Britain, British Isles, Buddhism, fate, free will, Hinduism, human mind, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, Musings, nature, Oddities, philosophy, predestination, Queensland, Reflections, roadtrip, serendipity, Solipsism, Spirituality, thoughts, Travel

From the wandering star followed to Bethlehem by the Magi, to Constantine and his Latin cross in the night skies over Rome’s Milvian Bridge, for as long as any historic text can remember, humans have acted not (as they might like to imagine) independently in matters of life choice, but as a response to phenomena out there in the world. Whether these phenomena involve snapped branches pointing in a particular direction out of the tangled forest, serendipitous meetings with mysterious strangers, or even constellations that speak directly to the individual in us by spelling out our mission in dot writing, natural events have proved unshakeably reliable as SIGNS ripe for following. Other animals follow their hunger and their paternal instinct toward the rains, or the seasons, or the ocean currents. But not us. Oh no, not humanity. We follow abstract signage in the most unlikely of quarters because something in the form and motion of a sign tells us that nature exists to furnish us with little messages put there FYI only.

But in an age of scientific materialism, should we listen to superstitious signs, or let mediums self-appointed with the power to interpret that symbolic value for us. The Gypsy lady? She who lets the tea leaves/coffee granules to settle into a discernible form spelling out (in her own inexplicable way) what’s in store for each of us? She with the singular ability to divine the past, present and future, and thus able to cut a path through our impenetrable present? Hooped earrings and colourful headscarves aside, should we even listen to ourselves when something out of the blue tells us which corner to turn in life? What is it in the nature of choice, the one true act of free will we convince ourselves is ours and ours to fuck up? Are we slaves to signs, subconsciously letting them lead us on into what we think will end either in good life choices or, horror of horrors, outcomes less than desirable? Do other members of our rapidly-proliferating species see signs with quite the obsessive sensing that I seem to? Questions, questions, questions, and only vague signs there to answer them.

I wrote a woefully-neglected book back in 2007 called Signs of Capricorn. Essentially, it was a free-thinking, free-spirited, faintly philosophical travelogue based on a long-awaited return to Australia. I had left the land Down Under in 2003, instantly regretting a choice which i deemed purely my own, without any other agency. At the time, I must have figured if i return to Britain things will be different. I’ll finally, after thirty years of trying and failing, fall in love with the island of my birth, and especially those two peculiarly British contributions to the world: a stubborn class system and a maritime climate that makes the headlines most days for all the wrong reasons. Yes, my family were instrumental in my going back. Unlike the weather, they weren’t changeable and horrid. But, like the English class system, they could be stubborn.

So, in the wake on my grand homecoming in 2003, I realised I had made a major life error, and instantly vowed to overturn this disastrous decision by going back to Sydney the following year. However, as the venerable Lennon said, life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t until 2006 that my pledge was finally realised. I departed a rainy Manchester, arriving after a brief stopover in Dubai, in to a hot Sydney. The city had changed in the intervening three years. That much i could detect within moments. It didn’t feel the same. Well, of course. Why would it? And here is where the book comes into play. I threw my hat up into the air and let the winds of fate carry it aloft. And so it was that I chose to spend a month driving as far and wide as I could in search of signs.

A critical factor in all this unfolding story is that I was misinformed that my Australian Permanent Residency visa would be duly reauthorised merely by going back there on holiday. Cruelly, this was not how how the immigration system worked. Nor was this how things were meant to be. On hearing that I had not amassed sufficient residential time in Australia within a 5-year period (i was a month short), I was faced with a binary choice: by all means, stay indefinitely (thus leaving my rental home, family and beloved dog back in Yorkshire where my family call home) in the Commonwealth of Australia; or fly out of Kingsford-Smith Airport and back to Heathrow, but do so knowing the consequences. That being an annulment of my right to remain in Australia. Visa cancelled. The term Burn Bridges springs to mind (another historical instance of how signs influences the course of a lifespan, in this case of Caesar’s Roman Empire). Mainly because of my dog, I knew I was going back, like it or not. With a month’s adventure ahead, I drove north through Queensland’s Sandstone Belt and out to the Barrier Reef. Along the way, I followed roadsigns down highways where life signs clung on like the spinifex grasses that give the Outback its patchy head of hair.

On returning to Britain, I nursed a quiet devastation. My first encounter – the first of many troubling signs, you might conclude – was with my neighbour, an awful human specimen who spent his disempowered life fulminating in one garden-wall dispute after another. In Old England, where most people are packed like sardines in a tin can because the entitled few own and jealously guard huge swathes of the land, such disputes and tensions are not uncommon. Knowing that I had made not one but two cardinal misjudgements in leaving Australia (an island-continent I had reimagined as being above such petty squabbles between neighbours) not once but twice. I knew the recurrence of this poor choice must signify something. It must be life’s ineluctable way of telling me I had, in fact, made the right choice leaving Sydney. Struggling to understand why, I wrote the book as a therapy, as a means of retracing my steps in order to discover the origins of these signs, and what they could possibly mean for my life, one that seemed to be in disarray.

You can generate the data to fit the theory, but that is not true science. Or you can map the data (as it appeared along the road to the Barrier Reef on that epic trip of self-discovery), building a picture through which a workable theory emerges. First data, then theory, then test of theory. Burning rubber on blacktop, I probed the island-continent to probe the answer to why life had turned out this way. For such a dry landmass, the results were improbably fertile. Hadn’t one of the great Greeks said something to the tune of….’life is played out on an ocean of timespace, whose currents carry us of their choosing unless we find it within ourselves to take the tiller and steer a course, even though the current will still take us, ultimately, where it chooses. In short, we can infer signs in life and so effect small but significant changes in our lives, even if the grander designs, such as fate, love, accident and death are not within our remit to shape as we would see fit to?

(n.b. of course, most of us would choose to be rich, healthy and loved, and never to die).

At journey’s end, I flew back. The immigration officer at Sydney’s airport peered at the visa page of my passport and asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. You realise that if you leave you cannot come back? Helpless, unsure if I had even found a green light on those outback roads, I timidly acknowledged the gravity of what she was saying. Somewhat bemused, she stamped the exit visa and that was that. Another chapter closed. Except it wasn’t. Once back in England, I threw myself into the writing. Stapling together every little back-dated detail on what had been a diverse but disconnected life of travelling, of living in disparate regions of the world following love over career, the unpredictable over the predictable, I tried but could not discern signs that would lead me out of this mess of my own making.

I looked around. I looked inside. I could not make sense of life’s highway code. At the end of the book, life appeared to recover. Things were looking up. England didn’t seem quite so dismal, nor quite so synonymous with personal failure and utter alienation. And then the possibility dawned on me that therapising the experience of making life-changing choices had had the inadvertent upshot of detoxifying – for want of a better word – Australia from my bloodstream of consciousness. The book flopped but thanks to reclusive and intensely introspective nature of remaking memories in narrative form (a year locked away in a room), I steered a course through cold turkey. What emerged was acceptance that i had taken a wrong turn. Moreover, that ages hence I might actually find that leaving Australia when i did was not a misreading of signs at all. Rather, it was a correct reading of the sign to leave when I did and to return three years later to make peace with the war that was raging inside for all that time. It was not unlike the signs of Outback roads themselves – the ones that appear only once, at the beginning of the backroad, and where no signposts will appear again for many, many kilometres. Following a sign laid down years before gave to no signs whatsoever until the next one appeared. The next one would appear near the end of that stretch of bitumen. It stood as proof positive that the next junction led somewhere good, somewhere new.

Signs are everywhere to be followed, and yet nowhere to be seen. We convince ourselves we take decisions independent of influence, particularly from abstractions such as physical objects (stars), chance encounters (accidents that change our lives irrevocably), epiphanies birthed from freak occurrences (a spiritual awakening on the road to Kathmandu), and the likes. But our rational minds are steeped in the mythology of the inexplicable. Knowing that every weighty little decision rests solely on our steepled shoulders, or that each one is not interrelated, represents an unbearable burden on our lives. Decisions are ours to make? Oh yeah? That I followed invisible signs to where I am now (which is no bad place) suggests some things are meant to be. That all things might, just maybe, be more bound together than our Western social constructs would have us believe.

A Mountain to Climb

#adventure, Life, Lifestyle, meditations, Musings, philosophy, Travel

Everyone has their own mountain to climb, though it doesn’t have to mean the thing we usually ascribe to it. A mountain to climb, in the ordinary sense of the term, denotes something onerous, a task dreaded. I have a mountain to climb if I’m to get that doctorate. Britain will have a mountain to climb if Brexit goes through. You’ll have a mountain to climb if you don’t pull your finger out. So no question, meant in this regard a mountain to climb ain’t necessarily a good thing. A pejorative term, you might call it.

I was pretty convinced that I had had it with climbing mountains. Now, don’t get me wrong, those of the real variety, now one doesn’t too readily tire at the thought of yet another. One doesn’t have to be an Alpinist to love roaming the mountains, these mountains of rock and ice. They are, I hope you’ll agree, high above the realm of the unwelcome. They inspire again and again and again, and seen from all angles they are fractal, smaller triangles into smaller triangles and everything adding up to the magic number. But those mountains ain’t the problem; it’s the ones only we homo sapiens sapiens conceive of in our minds as more than the folded heaps of landmass that they really are, they are the problem. They warp and gorge, play on our fears. They grow more than a fingernail’s length per annum, which is faster than the Himalaya. Some grow so fast they block out all of life’s sunbeams in the cold light of morning. You might say therefore only the foolhardy and the masochistic among us savour their place at the bottom of any one of life’s metaphorical mountains of the mind, looking up at the soaring reality facing them. This i assumed to be eternal in our reckoning. Then i awoke.

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What I woke up to this morning was a minor epiphany. I realised, a little later while walking the dog, that what was preoccupying me was that me out there enveloped in that unquestionably beautiful location, taking it all in with the wonderment of a seven year-old staring at a non-linear equation, I realised i was bored silly and instead of scaling the walls what i truly needed was another mountain to climb.

Is it wiser that sharp intake of breath, or the lung-deflating exhalation that doubles as a weary sigh? Humans are at their best when they have something to go for. We, they, whichever pronoun you opt for, endure as predators of the lower Palaeolithic, sights locked on to an object worth risking life and limb for. When humans are honed for action they take small and sharp, but nevertheless significant, intakes of breath; just enough to power the muscles and the brain into coordinating, and carried by that motive force of energy their attentions are fixed on something other than themselves. Man the hunter does not give a weary sigh unless that evermore-daring object of his attentions slips from his grasp. When primed, focussed and ultimately content he lies in wait listening for regularity, for stillness, in his breathing. He sees his quarry grazing but alert, its ear cocked for the slightest disturbance. But a slow, rhythmic respiring he earns only by having a purpose in that very moment. Minus that purpose, either he sighs or else his heart beats liked a fucked clock on account of the modern ill of anxiety. 

Three Lonesome Peaks

 

I‘vgot this unique opportunity right now to do sweet Fanny Adams – any damn thing i choose within reason, come to think of it – and all the serotonin and dopamine i can squeeze from my hypothalamus (is that where neuro-magic dust is made?) comes from a deep desire to do something new and worthwhile. Project done, time to be a new seeker. There are people out there who would bite my hand off for three months of languishing in heavily comfortable surrounds reading novel after novel, sipping hot infusions and watching swans glide by. The drudgery of forced employment being superfluous to requirements in this case. But not everyone is a tortured soul it would seem. The soul must be inherently tortured to be forever malcontent. This is my lot. 2019’s project deadline has about matured. 2019, the year that was, is still just about, nearing the big sleep. Yours truly needled by restlessness. Another event scored off on the roster of a fleeting life in the cosmic scheme of things. Boxes ticked, in the sense that any life really worth living consists of one small but hugely meaningful milestone after another. There’s an afterglow in this here valley of attainment but mine is not to bask in that afterglow. There’s a little hump on the horizon, way out there forty days and forty nights walk from here. It’ll be hard reaching even the foothills, but, man, isn’t that a prerequisite of anything worth doing? 

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We all need mountains to climb; at least once in a while or in my case constantly. Only from their summits can the flag of achievement be planted and the next mountain espied, and the one beyond that and beyond that, ad absurdum. We have absolutely no choice but to press on. What is there otherwise? The time for reflection is later when the armchair becomes the means in itself. Keep striving, for when you stop you might as well stop for good.

The Urge for Going

Britain, British Isles, Landscapes, Musings, nature, philosophy, Reflections, thoughts, Travel, weather, Wildlife

Now is the autumn of our discontent. We haven’t even got to winter yet and I’m slumping badly. What’s next? The summer of our discontent? Is it just a matter of time until discontent will no longer be subject to seasonality?

Bang goes the singularity of Shakespeare’s immortal line. Now is the four seasons of our discontent. How bleak is that assessment?

I was prepared to ignore the subliminal messages coming at me with respect to the season’s eagerness to come at us all, and my reluctance for either it or myself to flee in the other direction. That is, until I switched on the radio and what did i hear? Joni Mitchell’s ‘Urge for Going’. If you know the song, you’ll know the lyrics allude to this very thing. Take these lines for instance:

When the sun turns traitor cold
And all trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go

A man can find reasons to quell his urge for going, but ignoring the urge to respond to stimuli of the kind that bombards the senses is rather harder to do.

Temperatures have plummeted. Light has diminished markedly. The sky has drafted in its shock troops to launch wave after grey wave of attack on the very walls that keep us sheltered from the tropospheric war which plays out between summer’s end and winter’s onset.

We are besieged.

We are trying to adjust to the changing of the season, but a hard task it remains. The nights are longer, the sleep is deeper, and much time there is to let the mind migrate to warmer latitudes.

By no real stretch of the imagination can we appreciate that our type were once East African. We were baked into bread in an oven of pure sunlight. One hundred thousand years on, we have ventured far outside of our comfort zone. How did it come to this? How did we end up walking this far from our place in the sun? Not only did we lose our healthy colour, we lost a lot more than that: we lost our bearings, our true north. Our body strives for homeostasis – that is to say, all its internal systems operating beautifully in sync. But winters in the high latitudes make heavy going for homeostasis to fall into place.

Things fall apart‘. I keep hearing that figure of speech framed in reference to the coming civilisational collapse. But it’s what going on inside that really counts. The centre cannot hold’. The centre can hold if only we turn our attentions inward; if only we go to it and prop it up.
How do we stop things from falling apart when we are not even in the midst of winter yet? Head for the centre. The answers to our S.A.D.ness are not out beyond the reach of rainclouds; they lie inside where weather cannot touch us. Ignore them at your peril.

I’m trying to see the best in things here. I’m trying to tie together the clues that nature in all her edginess brings with the responses that the nightly dream-state brings. Days and weeks of rain, seemingly incessant rain, waters the autumnal subconscious. While it draws a veil of grey gloom, bringing low the sky, the deluge has a habit of lifting the mind. Call it a high front of dreams.

These wisps of cirrus cloud you see from the porthole of your window seat once the aircraft has punched through that Venusian blanket of cloud, that’s the type that drift across the mind’s eye during the long dream stage of an even longer night.

Last night I dreamed I was on the apron, turning in a great Boeing circle to face the runway. There wasn’t many of us aboard; just me and a shadowy figure (the me i was leaving behind amid the gloom of the coming winter? The me who is unsure of what to do and where to go in what remains of a life that has involved much going and doing). There might have been a four-legged friend, I cannot recall thus. I know this for sure: this flight was long-haul. We were going (back) to Australia. Somewhere in that great wilderness of my past, I lived there. Time it was, and what a time it was, it was….it was jetting off from London on twilit days of early February into the polarized light of the southern hemisphere. It was those ocular adjustments when first you strain because the half light of winter in England renders it hard to make out darkened objects, followed by the landing in a Southern Hemisphere summer and the ocular strain because the light dazzles: a million million lumens irradiating before your very eyes, like the death chamber we all long to enter.

I’ve been having these visions of late. This is my first November in England since 2010, a fact that i believe belies the intensity of these visions. I’m wearing the thought of winter like a greatcoat, the type the troops used to wear as they trudged home alone on country roads from yet another pointless battle.

The swallows have gone, but were they ever here to begin with? Didn’t the southern Europeans shoot them en masse just for the sake of it as they were migrating across the Med after facing down the Sahara? Did we imagine them dancing on the air to the tune of summer? The swans remain. I saw one last night, but it wasn’t in a dream. A volley of shots, a cacophonous, Edinburgh Tattoo of cannons – or was it fireworks on amphetamine? – was ringing out in the valley below. The air blasts seemed to get closer, not unlike winter itself, and as i opened the bow doors of the boat to look over the prow on this cold and still night, i saw the dark outline of a swan, terrified by the boom, come in to land on the canal right next to me. He quickly pulled in his great wings and settled down such that he didn’t even tell the water of his arrival. I looked at him and i saw a survivor in the making. No matter what ills winter will infect our bodies and minds with, this guy evolved immunity to discontent a long time in the deep past.

Was the swan the plane i was flying in later that night? Was he trying to tell me something about the person I am and my place in this unfathomable world we call home?

The leaves are mounting in the rain channels along the length of the boat. I sweep them up and into a putrid heap they go. The trees have seen what is coming, yet they shun their coat in seeing so. Soon they shall be naked, ready to give up a little more of the blue in the sky just when we need that window on the world most. The mind’s eye keeps a careful watch on the quickening days.