Monday, 9 October 2017

Hull down

The title is not a snide shot at the current European City of Culture...

There was a time when English was full of metaphors and sayings from sailing the sea. "Three sheets in the wind," or " "half seas over," for "drunk." "The devil to pay," (lengthy one to explain, do look it up if you're interested) "not enough room to swing a cat," (ditto) and so on.

During the late eighteenth century, the Royal Navy was the largest single industrial enterprise in the world, and a huge proportion of the male population were or had been sailors. Not so nowadays, despite every available creek on the South Coast being jammed with boats (many of which are little-used.) So I guess we can expect the sailing references to gradually fall out of use - to be replaced perhaps by the delights of internet terminology...

One that may be dropping out of awareness and use is "hull down." If you look at the horizon in this (poor quality, sorry!) photo, about a third of the way across from the left, you'll see a white dot. That's the superstructure of a ship "hull down." In other words, the curvature of the earth is hiding the hull from us and only the superstructure is poking above the horizon.

With sailing ships the masts of which could be 140 feet high, this would have been a more easily-visible phenomenon.

In the ancient world, it was generally assumed that the earth was flat, because it appeared so. Pythagoras, then Aristotle, worked out that it wasn't, but news would have spread slowly. By medival times in Europe, it seems that people generally grasped the idea that the planet was not flat. Some historians think that despite the sophistications and splendours of Chinese civilization, it was the 16th or 17 centuries before they wised up.

Sailors and coast watchers could have told them about the curvarture of the earth as soon as boats were large enough to sail over the horizon on a clear day. Logically, if the atmosphere is clear enough to see the masts and sails, why can't I see the hull? Because the earth is curved. If it's curved, why doesn't all the water pour off it? Aha. It must be curved all the way round, i.e. a sphere.

Which is a long-winded way of wondering when it is wise to entirely trust our senses, i.e. an empirical attitude, and when we need more abstract thought, i.e. a burst of reasoning.

Or, as in the example of hull-down sailing ships, both.

 This huge freighter, heading off across the Indian Ocean on a long voyage, isn't hull down, but it soon will be. And at least I got the horizon more or less level in this photo.

Perhaps when I was taking the first shot I was slightly unnerved by a sign painted on the path under my feet:

Indeed they do. A local woman, 75 years of age, was walking this path a couple of years ago and was unfortunate enough to be bitten by a dugite. ("Doogite," for fellow poms.) Her big mistake was to think that since she didn't feel too bad, she'd get home and phone from there. The official advice is immobility and summoning help quickly, since the dugite is "potentially" lethal. When she got home, she said "I think I've made a big mistake." Horrifyingly, one of the symptoms of dugite venom is said to be a feeling of impending doom. In her case, tragically, the feeling was an accurate portent. The medics couldn't save her.

Not all Australian snakes are lethal, of course, but if I see one, I'm pretty soon hull down, from the snake's point of view.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

distant events, immediate screens, a middle way

Geographical distance can create a sense of increased objectivity, give rise to new or at least different perspectives. 

Electronic distance doesn't exist, unless we create it.

In the wonderful clarity of a West Australian sunlit morning, the trees and shrubs are differently beautiful from the ones at home, the birds energetically and raucously so.

And yet elsewhere two nation's leader seem to want to destroy each other's nation (we have to hope it is only"seem") and within one of those nations, a deranged individual recently slaughtered many young people of whom he knew nothing, with whom, as individuals, he had no identifiable grievance.

What am I to make of this? What is the Middle Way between unproductive distress and callous disregard? Why do I keep turning on the screens to find out more about both horrors? I am thousands of miles from both situations.

I find help in an article in a major Australian newspaper, written by DBC Pierre. Most apparently motiveless attackes, like many or most terrorists attacks on civilians, end in the suicide of the perpetrator. He quotes research* that finds that following suicides car crash fatalities increase, specifically in areas where the suicide was well-publicised. Murder-suicides were followed by rises in multi-person crashes. So under the cliché "copy-cat killing" lies something more significant; we seem to be wired to find others like ourselves, and do what they do. Brain chemistry may have a bearing here.

Pierre writes "I have a sneaking sense that by consuming all the outrage, letting the buzz of fear, wallpaper our lives, we're becoming complicit. A sense that our voracious focus on far-flung outrage is now unwittingly part of the cause."   

He goes on "the screen craze has become 24/7, in our hands, on our desks, our walls, and if the stated aim of much of it is to put us at the scene, take us live, I simply ask: do we need to go? All the time? I'm living right here where I stand. This is my sphere of physical influence and I should lose myself instead into some place where I'm fearful and powerless?"

Pierre reminds us that we contain powerful chemicals such as dopamine and cortisol. His proposition is that the feelings aroused by heavy screen involvement in terrible events we are powerless to influence may create some of the same states of mind that result in such horrors to begin with. In other words, and not necessarily in any rational or willed sense, we may, if we are prone to depression, alienation, fear and the helpless anger that comes from frustration, be nudged towards similar acts. That seems to me a bold assertion that it is worth considering seriously.

"I wonder if, by being swept through screens into constant turmoil, we are priming ourselves with the chemistry of those who cause it, as well as promoting the market for worse."

Some of the stuff that comes through screens we can do something about- at elections, for example, or when something awful happens in our locality, by direct action as happened following the Grenfell Tower fire. But much of it is geographically beyond us, beyond any likelihood of positive action. The result is surely bad for us as individuals. Nothing that is of much use comes from such psychic disturbance.

Pierre's final point is about the paradox that whilst we are drawn into distance events we are powerless to effect through screens, we are at the same time distanced from the events- hence the frustration, hence the fatigue, the possibility of callous disegard. 

Screens - just look at the virulent hatred to be found on Twitter - help us to create the Other that must be hated and destroyed. It's easier to create the despised Other when you don't have to look them in the eye, speak with them.

So a leading politician receives foul abuse daily; so a leading TV political correspondent has to have professional protection.

I don't think there's any point in being anti-screen; after all, what am I doing at present but trying to reach out to a few readers via a screen? The idea that the world is getting steadily worse is surely as useless a proposition as the idea is is that it is getting steadily better, since so much depends on what you are measuring and where you're measuring it. It seems unlikely to me that heavy screen use about current events makes many of us feel the world is getting better...

I hope I'm not just being squeamish when I say I don't want relentless updates on mass murder. I may want to know the simple fact of it. But if as a result of closely following this horror, I really feel that the world is getting more and more horrible, then I'm doing two things.

Firstly, I am ignoring history and much information about the contemporary world, so that I am out of balance. My view is inaccurate, yet I am relying on it. I am a victim of confirmation bias, the tendency to "search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions."

Secondly, I've lost the middle way. That is, the way that asks useful questions such as:
  • How much do I need to know about this? 
  • What if anything can I do about it? 
  • How significant is it in the local, national, world view of human life and its possibilities? 
  • In what ways should I care, in what ways should my compassion be engaged rather than my fear and hatred?

It is easy to be continuously outraged, enraged, depressed about the world we live in. It is harder to be grounded enough in the realities of this moment in this world to bring about positive change.

I'm going to turn off all screens for a bit now and get a little gentle morning sunlight into my soul.

*Influence: the psychology of persuasion, byRobert B Cialdini

Friday, 22 September 2017

waiting with the pain, finding the insights

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
                             Danna Faulds 
I know that sometimes things are so bad that no matter what practices we do or what medications we take, we can't seem to generate even that small amount of faith we need for inspiration to keep going. Then, if we can stand inside our pain awhile and wait, over time we may come to also see it as a way into the deepest parts of ourselves and then back out into the world, a vehicle for new insight into who we are and how much we need to care for ourselves and one another. If there is nothing we can do right now but wait then, as TS Eliot wrote, "the faith is in the waiting." If we can but wait, we may yet emerge from despair with the same understanding that Zen master Suzuki Roshi expressed: "Sometimes, just to be alive is enough."
                                                          Sharon Salzburg, "Faith."
Well I don't think the first passage is great poetry, and the second might not strike one as elegant prose - but enough already with the lit crit. I hope you agree that these are tough and valuable insights. Distracting ourselves from painful feelings short-circuits any authentic acceptance of who we are and where we are. Accepting the reality of painful feelings, and the limitations of what we can really do about them, isn't the same thing as giving up, giving in to things we should resist.
And we can also take the pain-killers if we need to.

Happy feet, sunlight and shadows

A post-meditation discussion on the dancing patterns made by sunlight, wind and birch leaves - the wondrous complexity of all the natural forces and transactions that made these transient patterns. But then we are in and of transient patterns - it's just good to recognise that in something serendipitously beautiful. And it seems to have made someone's feet happy, too!


Monday, 4 September 2017

What does the water say, then?

Nothing, of course - says rational thought. Water has no speech organs, no human agency, and therefore since speech is a human phenomenon, then...(yawn...excuse me while I switch him off.)

But Mr Logical Bore is actually, in his own terms, correct.

To pretend the water says anything to me (or anyone) is, I guess, one of those rhetorical tricks we use to try to express the inexpressible - a state of mind, a state of being.

When I refer to what the water says, I'm trying to note down the effect water, in a few of its multudinous states, has on me and I'm sure on millions of us. I'm not seeking to project onto the water something of me. The traffic is the other way. Whether it's the churning wake of a cross-channel ferry:

the power of a breaking wave:

 or the unexpected peace of an inland waterway amid the noise, the crowds and excitement of a large music festival:

 water will always work, if I can let it.

Much of us is water. It runs through us. Many (most?) people like to sit and gaze out over the sea, or a lake, or just a river or a pond.  There's surely something going on at a profound level. After all, we may love the view out across green fields, but it doesn't have the same pull, does it? Herman Melville writes that if it was sand pouring over Niagra Falls, we wouldn't flock there. (A disturbingly strange thought!)

Here's a bit from the start of "Moby Dick."
"Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries- stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. . . Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever."

Everyone may know it, but I hadn't consciously realised it, until it grew on me, slowly and fruitfully. I now know that provided I don't try too hard - or preferably, not at all - and let my awareness rest with the water, its movement, its stillness, whatever changing form it takes in front of me, I am rewarded by some moments of being in the present. A sense of unity and universal presence. 

That is what the water says.

Archhippy/folkies The Incredible String Band had a Water Song:

Water water see the water flow
Glancing dancing see the water flow
Oh wizard of changes water water water
Dark or silvery mother of life
Water water holy mystery heavens daughter
God made a song when the world was new
Waters laughter sings it is true
Oh, wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing
     (secularists may prefer to take God and holy as metaphors, if it helps.)

We change, all the time, as everything does. Nothing is constant. It's change that enables us to be. Perhaps the water holds me because from it I absorb the lesson of flowing, the lesson of being here and now changing in the non-existent present moment.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Journeys, Ithaka - Inside the Wave part 2

(follows on from my posting 10th June of Helen Dunmore's wonderful poem "Inside the Wave.")                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 So Odysseus' wanderings over ten years, on the way home from the Trojan War, take him into enchantment, imprisonment, danger, and suffering, through all of which he keeps his destination firmly in mind: his wife and son Penelope and Telemachus, and his own realm, the island of Ithaca.

In discussion recently, a close friend said I seemed to be much interested in journeys. That got me thinking.

Odysseus gets home to find his wife besieged by suitors who have told her that the old boy must be dead by now; they want to marry his wife and take over his lands. They have been eating greedily and boozing and behaving really very badly, exploiting the code of hospitality, which is at the roots of civilization. Penelope has remained true to Odysseus. Just. She's had to be crafty about it. But Homer was a realist, and there are suggestions she enjoys the flattery just a bit. Well, who wouldn't? And maybe the old boy is dead?

Well he isn't. He draws his mighty bow - no-one else can - and he and Telemachus slaughter the lot. (This was an age of warrior-heroes, not gentle the moral code of the time, they had it coming.) 

But travelling changes us, journeys move us along, not just physically.

"At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
"Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore."

                                                 "The Dry Salvages," TS Eliot

There is only the journey. Everything changes, always - and maybe accepting that, living in that state of being, helps us live better, eases some of life's pains. Stasis can only be relative. (I'm almost tempted to refer to a recent political slogan about stability..) We're always travelling, it only looks as though we've "settled down." The great children's author Arthur Ransome wrote that a house is just a boat that's been moored rather too long.

As for Ithaka - Cavafy tells us it's the journey that matters more than the destination, so we should value it. Embrace the change fully.

 "As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean."

                                                                                  "Ithaka," CP Cavafy

"These Ithakas." We need them, but they are not ultimate realityThat's only to be found 

Dunmore's Penelope won't touch her hero; Odysseus is left gazing into,  meditating on,  the inside of the wave:

"And so he lay down
To watch it at eye-level,
About to topple
About to be whole."


Helen Dunmore - such a loss, such gifts she leaves with us.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Cavafy''s barbarians.

A poem by the great Alexandrian Greek poet CP Cavafy.

Wise old bird

 When we have an election, we divide and argue about The Best Things To Do Next, then we vote about it, and then, hopefully, we come together again and be with our friends and family even if they did vote for The Other Lot.

We define ourselves against The Other, weak or strong, the generalised Not Us But Them..Perhaps we need them not to be us so we know who we are.

"The Barbarians Are Coming"

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

            The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.