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Given my reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses in the next post, it seemed a good idea to post this poem now.

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My solitude shall be my company, and my poverty my wealth.

(Bashō 1693 – quoted in the Penguin Classics Edition – page 45)

This is becoming rather weird.

Until the 9th April I hadn’t watched the BBC4 programme about Dufu, an early Chinese poet (712 – 770). It’s rather bizarre that I had already had the vivid experience of blossom, which I recorded in the poem I’ve just published, with its Chinese and Japanese associations, on the 7th, and then rediscovered Wang Wei (699–759) more recently on the 10th, which led me onto another rediscovery, Japanese this time, which I’ll come to later.

Wang Wei is another solitario, someone who had lost his wife far too early, after the pattern of Machado.

Looking back over his poems in a book bought in the early 70s triggered me to remember the poem Poet in the Country,which I wrote with my tongue in my cheek many years ago, when I was living in Hendon, overlooking a park and its brook. I tracked it in my notebook of draft poems: it was 1983 — just before my 40th birthday and soon after I became a Bahá’í.

Poet in the Country

River mist – no tinge of dawn –
Brackish tang – bird silence –
A specialist in Chinese loneliness –
Exiled – no Emperor to blame.

Even though I had found my Faith, in my diary I was still writing such entries as ‘my life is drained of all meaning by my yearnings for something lost (if it ever existed) in childhood. That’s how my life has been – making me the Chinese specialist in loneliness of my poem.’ Just over a year later I married, which certainly helped change things for the better, but it was only when I went on Pilgrimage to the Bahá’í Shrines in 1987 that I understood more deeply what at least some of those feelings of exile were about. Pilgrimage felt like coming home after a lifetime in exile.

I’ve a number of pared-back poems in that notebook, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry – this one from April 1981.

Parting

The cold Plough shines and shines.
The stream’s flow glints.
I walk out, my eyes cloudy.

This refers to that same Hendon brook at a difficult time of my life, when divided affections were causing a great deal of pain.

There is a haiku I’ve always remembered, from the same year, written in my time at the Manor Hospital in Epsom when I was in training to qualify as a clinical psychologist. I can even remember the gravel path I was standing on as I stared towards a faraway copse of trees after a shower of rain.

Walking in Spring

Green mist gleams in distant trees.
I splash through puddles
reflecting cherry blossom.

Cherry blossom again – no surprise there then. Even more importantly, I didn’t know at that point how important the concept of reflection was going to become for me.

I was influenced not just by Wang Wei at this point in my life.

The Japanese Buddhist poet Bashō (1644–1694) was a favourite of mine as well. I don’t think I was consciously trying to pattern the poem on the model described by Noboyuki Yuasa in his introduction to Bashō’s writing when he says of a poem about a frog jumping into a pond that ‘the action thus described is not merely an external one, that it also exists internally, that the pond is, indeed, a mirror held up to reflect the author’s mind.’[1] I think there was a subliminal influence at work though nonetheless.

At the front of my notebook of draft poems I wrote these words of his:[2]

In this mortal frame of mine . . . there is something . . . called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business.

Elsewhere he refers to the ‘everlasting self which is poetry.’[3]

This led to a more complex poem in February 1982:

Candle in the Night

Flickering Spirit!

Poised like a frightened snake
to wound the dark —

or is it the dog dark
worrying the spirit?

more like a cat

trapping the soul
but taunting it
with illusions of release

before extinction bites.

Interestingly, in my diary  I was quoting from Yeats’ Byzantium as well, shortly before the writing of this poem:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

I saw poetry at that time as something that ‘endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.’ The best poetry, possibly, but not all of it.

It was not just their poetry that drew me to them. The power of solitarios, dwellers in solitude, such as Bashō and Wang Wei haunts me even to this day, as my sequence on Los Solitarios testifies.

Poems like Huatzu Hill by Wang Wei, whose Buddhism was a strong attraction for me at the time, were like looking in a mirror:[4]

Flying birds away into endless spaces
Ranged hills all autumn colours again.
I go up Huatzu Hill and come down –
Will my sadness never come to its end?

I must revisit him again, and I must also read more of Dufu as well. I have only a handful of his poems in my Late Tang collection (referred to as Tufu in my Penguin Edition): I don’t remember reading him at the time.

He resonates also:[4]

My ambition, to be pictured in Unicorn Hall:
But my years decline where ducks and herons troop.

The Unicorn Hall refers to his brief experience of thwarted ambition at the Emperor’s Court.

At this time of enforced isolation, for anyone who missed it, Dufu: China’s Greatest Poet, with Michael Wood’s enthralling commentary and Ian McKellen’s quietly powerful renderings of the poems, is well worth catching up with on BBC iPlayer.

Footnotes

[1] Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 33).
[2]. Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 71).
[3]. Ibid: – page 30.
[4]. Wang Wei (Penguin Classics Edition – page 27).
[5]. Poems of the Late Tang (Penguin Classics Edition – page 42).

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At the end of the previous post Fred Mires and Chris Humfreeze had disappeared, and I was faced with a complete stranger, 

‘Where have they gone?’ I ask in a panic. I can’t face the trio of activists all by myself.

‘I’m still here,’ the grey-haired bearded stranger said with a faint Italian accent.

‘What d’you mean still here? I’ve never seen you before.’

‘It’s true you have not seen this body before, but my thoughts and values are almost the same as theirs. I explore consciousness, believe in a higher self and value forms of meditation. So, what’s missing?’

‘You look so different. There’s only one of you for a start.’

There’s an uncomfortable silence.

‘Who are you anyway?’ I ask grumpily. I’m still feeling unsettled, disappointed and under threat.

‘Roberto Ammergioli, at your service.’

The bells that name rang were audibly unmistakable. Was I really sitting opposite to someone close in thought and practice to one of my favourite therapies? If he was, then I had a powerful ally against the dogmatic activists.

‘Am I right then that you combine all that’s best in Humfreeze and Mires? How did the merger happen? I never saw it coming.’

‘Basically, I think, they felt as though they will be a stronger combination blended than they would have been as individuals. They couldn’t make up their minds about which of them should carry their image forward, so they created me instead.’

As he speaks I see him gazing intently over my shoulder in the direction of the door. Instinctively, I turn my head as I listen to him speak, and spot Indie walking towards us holding hands with Peat. Immediately I wonder whether Emmie and Indie have blended, only to hear Emmie shouting from the counter asking whether Peat wants a nibble as well as a drink. He says not.

‘Who are you?’ Indie asks abruptly of Roberto.

I don’t wait for him to answer.

‘He’s a blend of Fred and Chris?’

‘And where’s Bill?’

She doesn’t seem phased.

‘Inside my head somewhere,’ I say.

‘Well, that’s two less on your side,’ she jeers. ‘We’re in the majority now.’

‘Did you know this was coming? I ask. ‘You don’t seem in the least surprised.’

‘Why would I be surprised about anything that happens here, for heavens sake? It’s a miracle I came back, and it’s even more of one that Peat is with us, isn’t it, love?’

She smiles at him and he grins back.

‘I kind of expected that some of us could disappear at some point for some reason, just in the same way as we two did the opposite before.’

Emmie comes to the table with a tray of drinks for the three of them.

Peat looks pleased with his purple milkshake.

‘You look happy, Indie,’ Emmie greets her ‘What’s been going on?’

‘There’s three of us and only two of them,’ she smirks.

‘Come again.’

‘Bill’s done a bunk into Pete’s brain and Chris and Fred have blended into this old man. Sorry, what was your name again?’

‘Roberto Ammergioli.’ He spoke for himself this time.

Emmie sits down next to me looking slightly stunned, while Indie and Peat join Robert on his side of the table. I guess the old guard, of which she is one, whether she likes it or not, were not expecting anything like this to happen.

‘Talk me through what this means exactly, but do it slowly.’

Roberto picks up Emmie’s challenge.

‘We’re all just aspects of Pete, though it doesn’t feel like it. We come into existence to solve a problem in his mind, though I guess he feels we arrived to make trouble. When the time comes we will dissolve into something else more expressive of the current dynamic going on. When we disappear in this way we have not gone completely. We are integrated into something larger in his mind and have a broader more unified function. His ideal would be for us all to fuse together into one enriched and higher consciousness. And that day may come if we can learn to work together constructively.’

‘I’m not sure I want that,’ Emmie responds grumpily. ‘I like being me, even if I am frustrated by the way things are in here. Thank goodness we’ve got completely rid of the poet at least. I never did buy that unacknowledged legislator crap. This Jennings woman you’re so fond of at the moment, Pete, even if her poems were absolutely brilliant, sold only 225,000 copies of her stuff. You’re blog’s only just past that in terms of hits. That’s never going to change the world anytime soon. Protest songs and rap probably do better than that by a long shot. Stories are the best, though. Look at Pullman and his Dark Materials – 18 million sold by 2017 –and Rowling’s Harry Potter has reached more than 500 million, and that’s not counting the film versions. If you want to sit at your desk and change the way people think, why don’t you try that for a change?’

She pauses for effect, then, before I can speak, thrusts in the final dagger. ‘As that’ll never happen, why don’t you join us on the streets?’

Roberto rescues me from my speechless state.

‘Everyone has a different set of skills and gifts. What counts is when you put the skills of many together into one pot. Changing the way the world works is not about some single genius best-seller breaking all records, as Rowling did. It’s about hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, contributing their efforts, however modest, to bettering the way the world works. When Rowling got rich, she used her money to make changes in the world. It’s not just the book-sales that count in her case. It’s how she uses her fame and her profits. At some point, hopefully before the climate crisis does, the numbers of those working for our collective good will reach a tipping point, and . . . ’

‘Stop right there,’ Emmie butted in. ‘That is exactly the problem. We don’t have the time to reach that positive tipping point by the methods you describe, before the climate topples into its lethal Armageddon.’

‘But,’ said Roberto, calmly, ‘if, in our impatience, we use methods that will alienate millions and divide us in our efforts, we won’t achieve anything either. We have to get the balance right.’

‘What Roberto is saying comes close to the position I am striving to believe in.’ I find my voice at last. ‘The kind of dynamic altruism and collective will needed to address this issue, and others that face us, such as polluting plastics and gross and oppressive inequality, require efforts that have to draw on the very qualities they seek to promote. As one Bahá’í thinker puts it, Noble aims must be sought through noble means. Anything less will make things worse not better. And before you tell me, I know that I am relatively rubbish as a writer, whether in prose or poetry, but in terms of my skill set as a whole, I think it’s my best bet in terms of the kind of issue we’re discussing. And …’

I say this a bit louder because I can see Emmie is about to interrupt.

‘I don’t think I have the energy now to sustain anything more than that nowadays.’

‘That’s just an excuse,’ Indie steams. ‘We can all find reasons for doing less than needs to be done right now. What we need is the guts and drive to get out there and make a difference NOW!’

Peat has stopped sucking on his milkshake through the straw, and has tears in his eyes.

‘There won’t be a world for me when I grow up,’ he whispers. ‘We can destroy in decades now what it took millions of years to create. We have to stop.’

We all fall silent. There is no way round this point at least. Humanity as a whole has to change its habits, habits that mainly in the West have taken centuries to evolve. I remember the submission to the Committee on Climate Change that a psychologist has recently made. Not just legislation, but behavioural shifts by millions of people have to start to play their part. However, I also remember what Dana Greene wrote about how Elizabeth Jennings faced formidable obstacles and yet won for herself a large following of readers, something that expanded the poetry-reading audience substantially. If she could do something like that, why couldn’t I, if I were sufficiently at one with my selves, even at my relatively advanced age?

The very idea of such a challenge sends a shiver down my spine. Am I too much of a coward to risk it? Maybe there is something I could learn from my activists inside. What they are doing may not be my cup of tea, but how they are doing it might be something I can take on board for my own purposes. I can get bolder as get older!

I decide to speak, as no one else wants to.

‘I know you and Indie see me as some dithering Hamlet, infirm of purpose, standing mammering on the brink of disaster. And maybe part of me is like that for a reason. I’ve spoken before about needing to have the courage of my confusion sometimes. But there’s another reason as well. It’s because I’m divided inside, at war with myself, one part pulling one way, other parts pulling in different directions. We’ve all seen that with our own eyes, no?’’

For once they seem to agree with me. That’s a good start.

‘If we could combine together your blazing courage and Roberto’s wisdom with my smouldering creativity, for what it might be worth, to further a purpose we could all agree on, maybe we could just get out of this bind and do something really useful. You saw me publish Elizabeth Jennings’s words earlier. You know the ones: But poetry must change and make/The world seem new in each design./It asks much labour, much heartbreak,/Yet it can conquer in a line. It wouldn’t be easy to change what I write in that way, as she says, but it would be really amazing if we could pull that off. Maybe not in poetry, though I’m not writing that off at this stage. Dylan managed to get his songs recognised as literature and he’s got a huge following. Yes, yes, I know I can’t sing, but maybe we could do something similar, if less ambitious, with our words somehow. Writing is an act, even though many don’t see it that way, and it’s more powerful if it comes from a life lived in tune with its message, so we have to act out our values as well as write about them.’

Indie, Emmie and Peat aren’t leaping out of their seats with enthusiasm for this idea, but they’re aren’t leaping down my throat to rubbish it either.

‘It this a plan worth pondering on then?’ I ask.

‘We’ll sleep on it,’ Indie says, with a sideways glance at the others.

‘I thought you didn’t sleep’ I react.

‘Just joking!’ Emmie grins.

At just that point there is a thunderous knocking on the front door, which jerks me out of my sleep. Yet again moving this forwards will have to wait until another day.

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I’m in a queue to buy a cinema ticket, but I can’t remember the name of the film I want to watch. I’m next in line. A woman barges in front of me. I’m annoyed but I don’t protest. I need time to get out my phone and check the list of films showing at this cinema even though I’m not sure what cinema it is.

The usual problem with the screen occurs. It’s full of pretty pictures but none of the usual options such as Safari for Googling the cinema house. My mind has been primed for some time to realise that when this happens I’m dreaming. I give up on the cinema and walk off to enjoy the experience. Even though I’m strongly tempted, I decide not to do anything dramatic like flying, as that usually brings a lucid dream to a quick end. I just keep aware.

I go down a corridor full of people. At one point I see an old friend from my university days in the fenlands, looking a lot younger than he is now. I say ‘Hi,’ he nods, but we don’t stop to talk.

I’m enjoying the vividness of it all, so different from my daytime aphantasia where I can’t visualize anything at all, no matter how hard I try. I go outside down a path into an evening of broken cloud by the side of a river. I enjoy the shine of the water as it catches the dying light.

It feels a bit chilly so I go back under cover into a nearby arcade. I could do with a coffee. I spot a café, but something causes me to pause before I get too close. Outside Emma, Indie and Peat are handing out leaflets. Do I really want to confront them again? It was bad enough last time, and I’m not quite ready for another battle.

I notice there’s a side door into the café, which helps me avoid getting too close to their pitch.

I creep inside, breathing a sigh of relief, only to hear my name being shouted from the other side of the room. Oh God! It’s the rest of my parliament of selves, the silver sect, skulking in a far corner pretending they’re not with the lot outside.

I have lost my sense that I am dreaming, though it was good while it lasted. My dreaming mind has become very good at inducing me back into a dream state. I can’t fight against the feeling of being trapped in this situation whether I like it or not. I smile faintly, wave and walk to the bar to order a coffee.

I’m wondering whether it might even be best to go with the flow and make the best of this opportunity. Maybe we could have another go at reconciling our differences and reaching some kind of agreement about how to move forwards. It looks a long shot even so, with the rampant activists outside collaring unwilling listeners, and the aging introverts hiding away indoors.

It’s when I can’t access my coffee loyalty app on my iPhone that I realise I’m still dreaming. I take the coffee anyway and wander slowly back to the table with the trio of Chris, Fred and Bill waiting impatiently for me to join them.

I realise I don’t want to try and pull any tricks though I know I’m dreaming. I want to use my awareness to stay grounded in my waking mind, unphased by whatever bizarre things might happen in the next few minutes. I want to get the best possible outcome.

I sit down beside Bill, facing Chris and Fred. I need to be careful not to do or say anything that might trigger the other trio outside into thinking we’ve been plotting against them in here. I guess they’ll be joining us at some point.

‘What’s taken you so long?’ Fred Mires, the obsessive psychologist asks. ‘Even Chris, with all his meditative practice, has had steam coming out of his ears. The activists have been giving us a really hard time. It’s all right for you,’ he said, speaking as the expert in the subconscious process. ‘You have no idea what’s been going on underneath. It’s been pure hell down here, believe me.’

Chris Humfreeze is nodding as if his life depends on it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so disturbed.

‘Fred’s not exaggerating,’ he confirms. ‘We don’t get a moment’s peace, except when they’re out on a mission, like now. We don’t just get their propaganda campaign in stereo. There’s three of them at it day and night. You realise we never sleep, don’t you? Even when you’re awake, or not dreaming about us, we’re fully conscious. And the hammering goes on and on and on. I don’t think I’ve had more than five minutes to myself at any time to meditate and recharge my batteries. To be honest I just wish we’d left Indie and Peat where they were, then we’d only have Emmie to deal with. And she was bad enough on her own, always banging on about protesting and demonstrating.’

His voice tails off into silence.

William Wordless is strangely silent for a poet.

‘You don’t seem so upset about them, Bill’ I say, turning my head in his direction.

‘Well, no, probably not,’ he says quietly staring at the tabletop.

‘How come?’

‘I don’t know really. I’ve just had this feeling that there’s a way out of this mess. Poetry’s got something to do with it, but just can’t put my finger on it.’

Both Fred and Chris can’t suppress a snort. Bill looks up and sees the incredulous expressions on their faces.

‘I know that seems unlikely, but the idea just won’t go away.’

At exactly this point I begin to have the strangest experience. When Bill stops speaking I can still hear his voice in my head.

He is continuing his thread.

‘It’s to do with when Pete started reading about Elizabeth Jennings. I could feel a shift in my thinking. Before I’ve always jabbered about poets being the unacknowledged legislators, without really believing a word of it. I still don’t take that on board, but I am beginning to think they can take readers to a deeper level of understanding, but they have to do this accessibly enough to create a wide enough readership to shift a whole culture upwards, not just an educated elite within it.’

This feels really weird. It’s not just that I can hear his thoughts as loudly as his voice. It’s that he is thinking much the same as I’m thinking. This has never happened before.

Chris and Fred are looking at me with a worried expression on their faces.

‘What’s going on, Pete?’ Fred asks. ‘You’ve gone quite pale.’

‘I’m not sure,’ I mumble. I turn to Bill hoping for some clarification. If this wasn’t a dream, I’d say that he was dying, or at least fading slowly away.

‘What’s happening to Bill?’ I demand of Chris and Fred.

‘Oh God!’ Chris gasps. ‘It looks as though he’s started to disappear bit by bit into you.’

‘What!’ I snap back. ‘That’s not possible surely.’

Then I manage to remind myself that this is only a dream after all. Anything’s possible.

I look back at Bill. There’s almost nothing of him left, only a translucent shadow of his former self.

‘Bill!’ I shout. ‘Where are you? Come back!’

There is no answer, not even in my head.

‘You’ve blended with him or he with you,’ Fred explains. ‘He was a split off part of you, as we all are, and you have both reintegrated.’

‘Why now? What does that mean?’

‘I think it means that if we continue down this road, we will all end up the same way – fused back into your consciousness, no longer separate. This is the direction these encounters have been taking us,’ Chris clarified. ‘Perhaps the way that reading Elizabeth Jennings changed your way of thinking created a perfect moment for him to join with you again.’

‘Hold on a moment! I can understand what you’re saying, but even so, I would have thought a merging with Fred, as a psychologist, would’ve been more likely.’

I look towards Fred for some kind of validation.

‘I don’t think you get why we split in the first place,’ Fred replied. ‘You were always an applied psychologist. I always wanted to study it purely for its own sake. I am an academic not a practitioner. That’s why we all split off. We were frustrated by the way you did things. Isn’t that right, Chris?’

‘Definitely. Your way of dabbling in meditation wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. Just as Fred wanted to focus intensely on the study of some aspect of the mind, I wanted to devote far more time to learning how to meditate properly. Bill was the same with poetry. He wanted to spend all his time turning experience into lyrics. But you wouldn’t do that either. You’re a jack of too many trades, and you know what that means. We were all fed up with you in the end. Emma the same of course, though her activism didn’t suit any of us most of the time.’

‘But why would Bill think I’m going to be any different about poetry now than I was before? If I am mediocre and half-hearted in terms of his passion, why would he think now was a good time to get back on board?’

‘We’re not sure,’ Fred said. ‘Maybe he knows something none of the rest of us does. My guess is that it’s partly because, since you retired, you’ve been reading and writing more poetry than anytime since the eighties. He feels more at home within you than anytime since you were studying, and later teaching, literature. And he’s had writer’s block himself for ages. It’s not for nothing he’s named William Wordless. Of course, I’m bogged down as well, in my own way. That’s why I’m Frederick Mires by name. I’ll leave Chris to speak for himself.’

‘Christmas Humfreeze, my full name, speaks for itself as well. Frozen into hesitation. Couldn’t be worse really. We’re all wanting to find a way to get unstuck and become more creative each in our different way. Trouble is finding a way to do that which suits us all. Emma Pancake’s more than a bit flat herself, as I think she knows somewhere inside. We’re all in the same boat. Indira Pindance is spinning around in small circles getting nowhere fast, and Peat Humus is even more bogged down than Fred.’

‘Stop, for heaven’s sake! You’re depressing me.’ The words are out before I can stop myself. I know my full name means a rock and Hulme comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning an islet in a fen. Not the best names to suggest focused creativity, I’ve always thought.

But this recent unexpected event is making me wonder whether I might be missing the point. Why did I meet my old friend, from my time near the fens, at the beginning of the dream. Was this a hint of some kind? Should I look more kindly on the whole idea of bogs, fens, marshes, peat and the rest. I’ve been aware for a long time that peat is a pun on my name and that the sense of connection this gives me with the earth is important.

‘Look,’ I blurt out, ‘Pete, peat and poet are also close in sound. This might explain why Bill has stepped back inside. But where would the rest of you fit in, for heaven’s sake? Until we solve that somehow, I think we’re still stuck.’

I fix my attention once more on my companions only to discover a stranger sitting opposite me.

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‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me . . .’

(Richard II Act 5, Scene 5, line 49)

After what seemed an interminable silence, I just have to say something else.

‘I’m not trying to minimise the problem with global heating. It’s an international emergency, I know that. I think we all do. But it is not the only issue. Genuine consciousness changing is far wider and goes far deeper than the consciousness-raising involved in the climate situation.’

‘Where’s this going exactly?’ Indie interjects. ‘Are we just going to be finding excuses for doing nothing?’

Fred comes to my rescue.

‘We’re very good as a species at focusing on one thing at a time with a narrow band of attention. That got us through the stone-age fine, when our main concerns were not getting eaten or wiped out by a neighbouring tribe, but it’s not so great when you are dealing with a wide range of complex and toxic problems stretching over a globally connected society. Plastics, potentially genocidal prejudice, a competitive ideology based on a distorted Darwinism preaching a divisive and misguided doctrine of the survival of the fittest . . .’

Emma groans out loud. Chris is nodding. Fred is oblivious, sitting at the back of the classroom on the right hand side, staring out of the window at the rain spattering against the tall glass.

‘. . . rampant consumerism and greed for profit fuelling an unbridled and unsustainable exploitation of the earth’s resources, extreme inequality, treatment resistant bacteria, as well as the climate crisis, to name but a few of the most obvious. And I can’t list the ones we don’t know.’

‘Have you quite finished now?’ Indie and Emma moan in unison, ‘or do you need another hour?’

Though I resonate to Fred’s line of argument, what he has said seems only to exaggerate the divide.

I hesitantly wade in again, from the doorway I first entered 53 years ago. My struggle with the lower sixth, when I eventually found where they were, is nothing compared with this.

‘Maybe we have to dig deeper still, much deeper than any of us have dug so far.’

‘What do you mean exactly?’ Chris queries, probably feeling that none of us could ever possibly have dug deeper than he has.

‘Well, first of all, I don’t think any of us, including me, is wise enough to know what’s best.’

‘But most of us think we need to be more active,’ Indie feels.

‘Half of the six of you, to be fair,’ I correct her.

Emma scowls.

I try again.

‘Look, the whole point is that even when we put our heads together we can’t agree what to do. We’ve got another stand off. Carrying on arguing, with feelings running so high, will never get an agreement on what’s best to do.’

‘We’re stuck then, I guess,’ Bill shouts from the back corner, his expression darker than the cloud outside. ‘But at least I can carry on writing poems, while Chris meditates and Fred learns more about the brain.’

‘That’s all right for you three but it’s not all right for the rest of us,’ Peat says. ‘Mum’s really upset and so is Auntie Emmie.’

‘That’s the problem,’ I respond. ‘We’re each seeing only a part of what’s wrong and so can just suggest a remedy that works for that bit only. We need to work out how to get closer to the whole truth. And, the way I see it, there’s going to be only one way to do that, given consulting together at our current level of understanding is getting us nowhere. We all have to step back from our attachment to the person we think we are.’

‘Sorry,’ Bill, leaping to his feet, jumps in. The desk rattles as he does so. ‘I know who I am. I’m a poet who loves nature. Nothing’s going to change that.’

‘And I know who I am as well,’ agrees Emma. ‘I’m an activist – always have been, always will be.’

‘I agree,’ comes the chorus from Indie and Peat.

Not surprisingly Chris and Fred seem to be taking a different line, with Fred speaking first.

‘I know about sub-personalities and I know that’s what we are. But that doesn’t mean, Pete, that you are not who you think you are. This isn’t going to break the block.’

Chris raises a hand in the air, asking for a moment’s silence. There is quiet for a moment.

He wades in, ‘Most meditative traditions contain some sense that a self of any kind is an illusion. I’m inclined to agree. So, yes, we could all be illusions, including you, Pete. The problem is that this doesn’t mean there is a real self of some kind we can tap into, which is where I suspect you are heading. Whatever self we discover apart from us, is going to be another illusion, believe me. We’ve been down that road twice already since this process started, and, with all due respect neither Peat nor Indie can claim beyond a shadow of doubt that they are the true self you seem to be looking for.’

I can see I’ve got a tough job ahead of me. Just as we couldn’t agree on what to do when the argument started, we’re not going to agree any time soon on this issue either.

I accept we can all get a long way by using all sorts of creative techniques to enhance our understanding. Dreams for one thing. The sand dream I was having when they barged in was a case in point. It flagged up the issue of how we use our time.

Reading and writing, perhaps especially poetry, are important others. My recent encounter with Machado’s blessed illusion poem is a good example of the fruits of those activities. Quoting the last few lines of my attempted translation illustrates how tricky the next stage of our development is going to be:

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

How am I going to explain the next step to them, something I don’t fully understand and I’m not sure I completely believe is possible for us? I could build on our hearticulture plan, but that didn’t carry everyone with it anyway, which is why it hasn’t got very far as yet.

While I was lost in thought just now they were all just staring at me in frustration, or at least that what it looks like now I’ve surfaced again. If anyone did speak I didn’t hear them.

I need to find some common ground, not just between them and me but among them as well. This story may not have a happy ending.

‘Do we all agree,’ I ask, ‘that we would like to achieve two things at the very least – one is to understand ourselves better and the other is to do as much as we can to make this world a better place?’

There are murmurs and half-hearted nods suggesting general agreement, with an undercurrent of suspicion. Bill is inspecting the bike shed through the rain-splattered window again.

‘OK. So, don’t pounce on me straightaway but, to explain where I’m heading right now I’ll have to use two words not all of you like.’

The stirrings of discontent begin to rise.

‘Let me guess,’ says Emma. ‘Reflection is one of those words.’

I nod.

She grimaces, looking across Peat at Indie. ‘We bloody knew this’d come up again, didn’t we?’

Peat looks confused. Indie whispers an explanation to him.

‘Look,’ I pleaded. ‘Can we strike a bargain here? The three of you are passionate about combatting the climate crisis. Did I use the right word there, by the way?’

‘It’ll do,’ Indie smiles, probably aware I’d learned the word from Fred.

‘Well, you claim I’m doing nothing, but that’s not quite true. I have been vegetarian since the late 70s and now I’m cutting down on dairy and trying to become vegan. Most of the science suggests that this is the single most important thing any individual can do, more effective than just flying less for those like me who don’t fly much, or giving up the car when you hardly drive at all. So, I’m asking the three of you in particular for whom this is so important, meet me halfway. At least think about working on our ability to reflect and learning to tune into our heart at the deepest level – that’s the second part.’

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

‘Nice move, Pete,’ grins Fred, ever the pragmatist. ‘You know you can drag the rest of us on board more easily. You know what? I’ve been thinking that we can treat it like an experiment. It’ll be hard to test properly for whether it’s working, because how will we know for sure that what we do has helped us get closer to the truth. Remember William James – you can discover the truth, but you can never know for sure that you have done so.’

Chris also looks reasonably pleased though Bill looks a bit glum still.

‘How is this going to help me break through my writer’s block?’

‘If what we finally plan to do works,’ offers Chris, trying to be helpful, ‘surely your poems will start flowing again because they come from the heart, don’t they, and we’re going to try and connect to that more strongly. I may distrust this true self stuff, but I have experienced how tuning in more deeply to what is going on beneath the surface of consciousness produces unexpected insights which our conscious mind cannot usually access. You’d go along with that as well, Fred, wouldn’t you?’

Fred nods in agreement. ‘You bet. It’s happened to me a lot as well. And there’s a lot of evidence to support this in the literature.’

Bill looks a bit happier.

‘So, where does this leave us?’ I ask, moving to stand near Fred at the front of the class. It makes me slightly nervous because of the memories it brings back of disruptive teenage lads muttering with each other, or fidgeting inside their desks instead of listening, and possibly planning their next unsettling move.

‘Are we all on board with at least an experiment to see where this gets us?’

While Chris and Fred have been working on Bill, Indie and Emma have been helping Peat keep up with the arguments put forward.

Indie nudges Peat. ‘Go on, love. Don’t be scared. Say what you want to say.’

‘I am glad you’re going vegan, sir.’ He’s obviously got a bit carried away with the classroom situation. ‘I think we all are. I hope we’ll be able to do more than that in the end though. For now, I’ll agree to try this experiment. But how long are we going to do this before we decide whether it’s going to work or not? We haven’t got forever.’

He looks nervous but speaks clearly.

‘I’m not sure, Peat. The experiment won’t mean we do nothing, remember that. I’ll be blogging and networking. I’m sure Bill’s poems will help people focus on important issues, and Fred’s reading and Chris’ meditation are both going to help as well. And what you three feel about climate change is going to still influence us all in that we do, write and say. The experiment will be a crucial focus for all of us, though. Because we will not be doing it full time, and because we’re not experts in what we are going to try and test out I think we’ll need to give it at least six months before we review. Would that be OK.’

Peat looks at Emma and Indie, checking out their expressions, before nodding his agreement.

‘That’s good,’ enthuses Chris, moving to sit in the front row. ‘So, what’s the exact plan then?’

‘I think we’ll have to work out the details after we’ve all given it some more thought. The key component will be using reflection, in the strong sense of the word, involving withdrawing our identifications not just from our thoughts and feelings, but even from our sense of who we are, so we can tune in more strongly to the depths of our being. I think we will also have to build in a pause button to press when we catch ourselves reacting automatically, particularly when we’re under pressure or in social situations. And in addition to learning how to remain more deeply grounded, we’ll need to find words to catch the insights that we find. This might mean we need to dig up the right images to do that with, rather than relying on ordinary prose. That should suit you, Bill!’

He doesn’t hear me. He has taken his notebook out at the back of the class and is scribbling something down as he mutters to himself – it’s about being as lonely as a clown, if I heard him right.

‘There’s always one,’ I find myself thinking.

I start to draw a diagram on the blackboard to try and explain how all these factors relate to one another. It doesn’t seem to work and I give up after a few boxes and arrows.

‘Shall we leave it a month to ponder on and then come back together again?’ I ask. ‘We’ve all got more thinking to do before we can make a clear plan.’

‘That makes sense,’ Fred agrees. ‘This is going to be really tricky.’

The walls of the classroom and the faces of my parliament of selves begin to fade as the need for a visit to the toilet takes control. Even in my dozy state I realise I’ve got some serious thinking to do about an issue that matters a lot to my waking self.

References:

For the first and last post in the original Parliament of Selves sequence see links.

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‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me . . .’

(Richard II Act 5, Scene 5, line 49)

I bring a huge plastic bucket full of sand into the kitchen. I try to get rid of it in the sink. I pour most of the contents of the bucket onto the draining board, the crockery rack and taps. It spreads all over the sink area. I try to scoop it up with spoons to flush it away in the sink. This doesn’t seem to work.

I begin to hear familiar voices in dispute as usual.

‘There you are, you see. Even his dreams are telling him he is wasting his time. He should be out there on the streets doing something that would make a real difference,’ complains the activist, Emma Pancake, never one to miss a chance to score a point. ‘He’s forever on his laptop or scribbling in his notebook, while the world goes to hell in a pool of plastic.’

A more measured if somewhat sad tone breaks in.

‘I agree he is wasting his time on admin and prose when he should be creating poetry. It would at least be making sculptures out of the sands of time if he just focused on carving out a few lyrics.’

Bill Wordless, still stuck in the quicksand of his writers’ block is as eager as always to see the possibility of a breakthrough in any chance event.

I try pushing the sand down some kind of protruding drainpipe with a plastic tube inside it. That doesn’t work. I try to shut out the voices and focus on the task in hand, but that doesn’t work too well either.

Chris Humfreeze, master meditator, gently intervenes with his usual obsession, in defence of which he was happy to lose the few friends he might still have. ‘You’re both wrong. If you don’t master your interior by disciplined meditation you’ll never achieve anything.’

The word ‘never’ grates on me – a typical baseless overstatement.

I see a cat and a dog in front of the window near the sink trying to eat lumps of damp sand but in the end spreading more of it around than goes down their throats. With every moment my job gets harder.

‘Rubbish!’ flashes another tactless intervention. My parliament of selves is really beginning to earn its name. ‘You don’t master the mind by meditation alone. You have to understand the science that underlies consciousness.’

Fred Mires really begins to get into his psychological stride. ‘He skims those books on meditation and dreams, but fails to master the neurological details. That’s how he is squandering his time.’

The elder statesmen of my inscape are at loggerheads as usual. I haven’t heard anything from the younger generation inside as yet. I decide to find a plastic bag to put all the sand back in so I can take it outside. I search a cupboard but there are no bags. I can’t even find the bucket I brought it inside with either.

Then that sweet voice breaks the silence. Indie Pindance has her say, the girl we all worked together to rescue from the trauma cupboard she had been locked in at the time of my hospitalizations as a child.

‘It’s not just that. He gives up on everything too soon. He jumps from one thing to another so fast, with his butterfly brain, he could never make a difference. He’s infirm of purpose.’

I wince at the contemptuous words of Lady Macbeth leveled in my direction. Not that I have any daggers to dispose of as far as I know.

It’s then, when another voice breaks through, that I realize where the roots of her passionate intervention lie.

‘ Yes, mum,’ Peat Humus has always called her that, ever since he could talk, long after we exhumed him from his burial chamber in my heart, where he had been placed even before I was born, in response to my mother’s grief and its impact on her womb.

‘Exactly,’ he continues, ‘If he really believed what he writes he’d be out there supporting Greta Thunberg and her youth movement by joining other adults in the Extinction Rebellion. What does he do instead? Write, write and write again.’

How can she not speak out for him, whom she loves so much, when his feelings are so strong on such an important issue? She steps up to the plate again.

‘Yes, he should be out there on the street, raising consciousness, surely. I’m with you, Emmie, on this at least.’

Emma grins from ear to ear. At last someone agrees with her.

‘Poetry is the best way to raise consciousness. That’s why Shelley called us the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

Bill doesn’t give up easily in his defence of poetry.

Just then the owner of the house comes into the kitchen.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ she asks. The shock jerks me out of that dream and I have no choice now other than listen to the choir of my divergent selves expand on their dissonant chorus.

For some mysterious reason, I find myself standing with them in a classroom I haven’t been near in the last 50 years or more. It’s the grammar school where I had my first job after college, teaching English Language and Literature, and this is the very classroom I taught my first lesson to the lower sixth. I walked into the room to find it empty. For a moment I had been puzzled until I heard all the noise from the classroom next door and realized the whole class had moved in there to confuse me. I never quite got control of that class for the rest of the year. With the first years it was easier.

The same rows of wooden desks on iron legs were spread before me. There was one huge difference. The whole of the back wall was covered with Munch’s picture of the sun and the sidewall with his evening street scene of skeletal pedestrians in top hats.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

It took some effort to focus on the conversation again.

Fred, somewhat predictably given his psychological hat, comes at it from a somewhat different angle, standing at the front of the classroom, near the tall windows overlooking the bicycle sheds.

‘You’re wrong there, Bill. Educating the young should be his focus.’

It’s about time I chipped in.

‘At the risk of repeating myself, don’t any of you remember what we so nearly agreed last time we clashed?’

I’m not sure what the expression is on all their faces as they come into focus now my sand dream has finished fading. It could be embarrassment or confusion. I can’t be sure.

Hearticulture. Does that ring any bells?’

There was a faint murmur of recognition.

‘Didn’t we come close to agreeing that working to grow hearts, our own and other people’s, would draw on all our skills and interests, and meet all our concerns? Do you remember how I said at the end “All my life, I suspect, I’ve been unconsciously striving to achieve a creative fusion of all our different strands of activity, and now it seems we have achieved it. I think it will work because, for me and hopefully for all of you as well, the heart is at the core of us all and is a bridge between matter and spirit, earth and heaven.” And I asked if we could all pull together with this.’

Finally, they all seem to click with it. It’s as if this had all happened in a dream for them, which they forgot on waking. Just as with a dream, when the memory is triggered, fragments of it come back.

Emma is the first to speak, sitting in the front row with Peat and Indie.

‘Well, I for one thought it was a load of twaddle. It sounded as though all you were going to do was read a lot and talk to people. How is just talking to people going to change anything?’

‘I think I’m on the same page as Emmie still on this,’ Indie confirms, with Peat, her adopted son, nodding as he sits in-between them.

‘The problem is,’ Chris begins thinking aloud from the desk at the back, just in front of the sun. ‘Pete is the one who has to do something. None of us inside his head can act directly on the world. And he’s only going to do what he feels he can best do in the circumstances. I just can’t see him getting up every day and dashing to the nearest city with a ton of leaflets and a megaphone. He’s got to play to his gifts, and we are going to have to compromise some of our desires and support him.’

‘But we don’t have time for anything less. We have to demonstrate, lobby and protest until things change,’ Indie insisted.

‘I think I can see where Chris is coming from,’ murmured Fred, thoughtfully, moving to sit in the teacher’s place, facing the class. ‘Pete’s in his 70s. Sustained direct action is beyond him. Even his days of teaching the young are behind him now in terms of a regular classroom approach, sustained day after day, week in week out. He can run a short series of workshops, give talks, that sort of thing. But in terms of action that he can sustain over long periods of time, writing and blogging stand the best chance.’

This is doing a little to ease a long-standing sense of guilt I’ve harboured, feeling I am just not doing enough direct action of the consciousness-raising kind. Maybe I should stop punishing myself. It was sapping energy I could devote to study and writing. My divided state of mind distracted me from focusing for long on what I was reading or writing. ‘You are wasting time,’ a voice in my head would say. ‘You should do something more useful.’

I looked around wondering whose voice that was. One of the younger ones surely. The white-haired men in my head seem more sympathetic to this sedentary silver scribbler.

‘It’s good to hear Fred say that,’ I said, sending him a smile of gratitude, ‘but, much as I would like to, can I believe it?’

‘Not really,’ Emma butts in. ‘There are loads of people your age who go out on the streets to protest as often as they can. You never do.’

That word ‘never’ again.

Memories come back of decades ago, when I was out on the streets, shouting for the troops to come out of Ireland. But that reminded me too of why I grew disillusioned with that kind of action. Not only was it divisive, but, as I learned more about the politics of it all, the more lies and/or violence I found lurking not far under the surface. I definitely would not have wanted to demonstrate if I’d known what I do now.

I feel I have to respond to Emma.

‘I know that demonstrating against global warming is . . .’

‘Heating. It’s heating,’ Emma spits out in fury.

‘Sorry,’ I try to make amends. She’s hardly mollified.

‘. . . global heating is a worthy cause, but what worries me is whether the demonstrations will get more violent as frustration increases, rather as happens in other campaigns for other causes, now as it did in the past. That will just make the situation worse. There’s quite enough bitterness and division in our society already without adding to it. Not every movement has a credible Ghandi or Martin Luther King at its head working effectively against using violence.’

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile (for source of image see link)

The words of ‘Hope, the maiden most serene,’ in Shelley’s poem about the Peterloo Massacre, float at the back of my mind, but not clearly enough for me to quote them out loud.

“Let the fixed bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood,
Looking keen as one for food.

“Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars,
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms, and looks which are
Weapons of an unvanquished war.”

I plead with them again.

‘I have to find another way of operating and I really need to have you all working wholeheartedly with me. Our hearts must all be as one on this, or we will be paralysed.’

There was a long silence.

‘Just how exactly are we ever going to reconcile our differences of view?’ Indie challenges me. ‘Three of us in here passionately believe that direct and unremitting action, protesting on the street and campaigning outside centres of power, are the only effective ways forward. And have you noticed two of us are women and one is a child? It’s because we care more about children than any of you men can ever possibly do, that we are so determined to protect their future from the damage you men have done. You men just want to sit back and pontificate.’

I could see we were a very long way from a consensus.

I make the same plea again. ‘I don’t know how we are going to achieve that, but we must, or the rest of our days will pass in fruitless wrangling.’

There is an even longer more unbearable silence.

References:

For the first and last post in the original Parliament of Selves sequence see links.

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(The edited picture was scanned from the Taschen edition of Munch, Self-Portrait with wine bottle.)

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