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Panchgani

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Memas

Memas

The Quest poem was written in Mumbai in December. Next Monday’s poem will be about Panchgani at the same time. Below is a poem written after a visit to Panchgani in 1992. It seems appropriate to republish it now.

Memas

In Panchgani
in the cold front room
of the small cottage
which she didn’t own
she lay still
under the white sheet
beneath the crimson and green
of the freshly cut
half-opened rose
with her headscarf tight
against the breeze
from the open window
still in the pale flowered brown dress
she always wore for travelling

there were many guests that night
her granddaughter served tea in her stead
for everyone who came and went
throughout the cold black hours
and everyone sat down for a time
and talked, told stories,
laughed, wept,
about the days in Yazd
(no one knew how long ago
exactly) when her son at five
after his father died travelled
to India with his uncle on a donkey
when she was so hungry
she fell in search of flour
down the cellar
of the house she served in
and when the sharp-eyed
mistress returned
the flour she’d hidden in her scarf
was running down her face with sweat
and the bruises of her fall
were nothing to the bruises
of her beating for the flour

and in the morning
there was the washing of the body
which the women did
the arguments about
how many layers of cloth
should wrap her round
what should be written
on the ring she’d wear
whether the body should be
carried in a blanket
through the streets
so that the coffin could leave
from her son’s house not
from her daughter’s house
which had no proper bathroom
in which to wash a corpse
though it was where she had most loved
to clean and wash and cook
until the last
because nobody tried to stop her

in the end
the body was lifted
from where she left it
into the coffin
(I never knew till then
how heavy and cold a small old
dead woman could be)
then the coffin was lifted
into the jeep which drove us
to the big house where we prayed and ate

when the sun was directly overhead
and the dust on the road was slow
to settle and all the children
from the school she’d served
had gathered we drove off
at walking crawling pace to the gulestan
where a large crowd from almost everywhere
waited to see this long life end
in a small grave
under a small tree in bloom

and candles were lit
and joss sticks
and blossoms strewn
all round the grave
and her five year old
great grandson from Hereford
who had known her
only for ten days cried

first when they nailed the lid on
don’t let them for she can’t get out

and cried again
when they lowered her
down into the steep red soil
for fear she could not climb the sides

and cried again
when they heaved the grey slabs on top
please stop them for the weight
will be too much
and sobbed out loud
when the men threw
buckets of wet concrete
into the grave for smoothing down
to stop the monsoon
resurrecting her

for then he knew
she’d never wake again down there
to play with or serve us

Pete Hulme Text © 1991

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'Modern Times' (for source of image see link)

‘Modern Times’ (for source of image see link)

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts appear on consecutive days.

In the last post we looked at Paul Mason’s discussion of surplus value and some of its implications. What seems to me particularly important for present purposes is the way he teases out so clearly how this process is destined eventually, whenever eventually might be, to running out of road. There will be not enough labour involved in production to create enough surplus value to sustain the capitalist model.

Karlberg, whom I also quoted at length in the last post, is largely focusing on value-based and moral arguments and the evidence that supports them. While I find them compelling not everyone will, not least the average profit-centred believer in the market.

The special interest to me of what Mason says lies in the fact that it is, if true, a pragmatic argument. It suggests that it is in the interests even of those, whose drive for increasing profit is their primary motivation, to recognise that what they are seeking to do is not only ultimately unsustainable because of the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which seems a long way off;  unacceptable because of the costs in terms of pollution and climate change; and morally indefensible because of the debilitating hardships of the workforce. It is also unsustainable in its own materialistic terms. That capitalists appear to be in denial about the nature of their own reality does not diminish the power of this idea if it is true. Even if only partly true because it is only one aspect of a far more complex reality, the idea deserves a wider hearing than it seems to get at present and needs to be mnore carefully considered.

One of the reasons it remains so hard to prove is adduced by Mason himself in a different context in his book (page 271):

Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that… there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics, or traffic flows.

This is partly what makes debates about what major steps will most benefit the economy so flawed: there is no way exactly to predict what will happen in economic terms as a result of any specific option, so the power of the arguments lies then not in facts but in gut reactions, a very dangerous scenario. As a result, such debates, in any society with gross inequalities such as ours, can and frequently do reduce down to the pain and anger of the marginalised and disadvantaged being focused, by those seeking to influence them, on any convenient scapegoat as the cause of problems whose origin is far more complex.

We are often also blinded by our competitive materialism to the existence of other options and other arguments. Where do we go from here?

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Consumption:

From the point of view of us as individuals, given that the business world is largely blind to the problem, what can be done?

We don’t have to look far for a key component of the problem, which is to some degree within our control: consumption. An interesting article on the Bahá’í Teachings website looks at this from within the context of climate change.

That vast range of potential sea level rises, which our children and our grandchildren will inherit from us, will depend on our consumption of fossil fuels, food and material goods. If we continue to consume those things in the same way we have in the past, we will flood the planet’s shores. If we mitigate and reduce our consumption, by converting to renewable energy sources, eating less wasteful and more moderate plant-based diets and finding ways to control our runaway, materialistic habits as consumers, we still have a chance of averting the drowning of the world’s great cities.

Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha had these future conditions in mind when he said “The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it.

It is important to realise also that there are other admittedly embryonic models for how society could begin to organise itself beyond the purely individual level. A recent symposium on Strengthening Local Economies for a Just Global Order, was held on 23 February this year at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, India. Its speakers articulated where we might begin to focus our attention:

“When village economies develop, why must they be limited to either capitalist or socialist models? We are seeking to forge new patterns and new models.”

The University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Dr. Kanhaiya Ahuja, emphasized the need for economic models that would reinforce the values of community life, such as compassion, contentment, cooperation, justice, and a sense of duty towards the common good. “Unfortunately,” he mentioned, “at present economic growth is being driven by consumerism and competition that are destroying these values.”

Speakers also discussed the need for balanced and just economic growth, viewing development within a broader vision of the spiritual and material prosperity of humanity.

“Economic models today give humanity a very limited range of options in explaining human behavior,” Dr. Fazli said. “One is to explain it in terms of greed, self-interest, and profit motive. The other is to say that the only way to organize society is to have absolute equality.

To understand our power as consumers we could start with Ehrenfeld, to whose thinking I turn now. In Flourishing, a book which records his thoughts in an interview with Andrew J. Hoffman (page 151) he states:

Consumers can exert a great deal of influence over corporations, just like voters can exert a great deal of influence over the political structure. So as consumers start turning away from products that have been purchased to feed some addiction and can’t satisfy them, and seek goods to help them authentically care for themselves and others in the world, then they become able to push back very hard on corporations.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Flourishing:

There are many encouraging signs that the prevailing wind might be changing direction.

For example, Ehrenfeld analyses in detail exactly where our mindless absorption with consumption has brought us and summarises it at one point as follows (pages 82-83):

Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”

But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.

As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.

Even our remedies unfortunately are flawed. Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion (page 11):

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements (pages 27-28):

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics (page 41):

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring (pages 99-100):

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.

Ehrenfeld (page 104) also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’ This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’

His thinking though does not stop there as we shall see in the next and final post in this sequence tomorrow.

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In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.

Footnote:

[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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'Modern Times' (for source of image see link)

‘Modern Times’ (for source of image see link)

In the last post we looked at Paul Mason’s discussion of surplus value and some of its implications. What seems to me particularly important for present purposes is the way he teases out so clearly how this process is destined eventually, whenever eventually might be, to running out of road. There will be not enough labour involved in production to create enough surplus value to sustain the capitalist model.

Karlberg, whom I also quoted at length in the last post, is largely focusing on value-based and moral arguments and the evidence that supports them. While I find them compelling not everyone will, not least the average profit-centred believer in the market.

The special interest to me of what Mason says lies in the fact that it is, if true, a pragmatic argument. It suggests that it is in the interests even of those, whose drive for increasing profit is their primary motivation, to recognise that what they are seeking to do is not only ultimately unsustainable because of the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which seems a long way off;  unacceptable because of the costs in terms of pollution and climate change; and morally indefensible because of the debilitating hardships of the workforce. It is also unsustainable in its own materialistic terms. That capitalists appear to be in denial about the nature of their own reality does not diminish the power of this idea if it is true. Even if only partly true because it is only one aspect of a far more complex reality, the idea deserves a wider hearing than it seems to get at present and needs to be mnore carefully considered.

One of the reasons it remains so hard to prove is adduced by Mason himself in a different context in his book (page 271):

Given that we are decades into the info-tech era, it is startling that… there are no models that capture economic complexity in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics, or traffic flows.

This is partly what makes debates about what major steps will most benefit the economy so flawed: there is no way exactly to predict what will happen in economic terms as a result of any specific option, so the power of the arguments lies then not in facts but in gut reactions, a very dangerous scenario. As a result, such debates, in any society with gross inequalities such as ours, can and frequently do reduce down to the pain and anger of the marginalised and disadvantaged being focused, by those seeking to influence them, on any convenient scapegoat as the cause of problems whose origin is far more complex.

We are often also blinded by our competitive materialism to the existence of other options and other arguments. Where do we go from here?

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Black Friday (for source of image see link)

Consumption:

From the point of view of us as individuals, given that the business world is largely blind to the problem, what can be done?

We don’t have to look far for a key component of the problem, which is to some degree within our control: consumption. An interesting article on the Bahá’í Teachings website looks at this from within the context of climate change.

That vast range of potential sea level rises, which our children and our grandchildren will inherit from us, will depend on our consumption of fossil fuels, food and material goods. If we continue to consume those things in the same way we have in the past, we will flood the planet’s shores. If we mitigate and reduce our consumption, by converting to renewable energy sources, eating less wasteful and more moderate plant-based diets and finding ways to control our runaway, materialistic habits as consumers, we still have a chance of averting the drowning of the world’s great cities.

Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha had these future conditions in mind when he said “The sea of materialism is at flood tide and all the nations of the world are immersed in it.

It is important to realise also that there are other admittedly embryonic models for how society could begin to organise itself beyond the purely individual level. A recent symposium on Strengthening Local Economies for a Just Global Order, was held on 23 February this year at Devi Ahilya University in Indore, India. Its speakers articulated where we might begin to focus our attention:

“When village economies develop, why must they be limited to either capitalist or socialist models? We are seeking to forge new patterns and new models.”

The University’s Dean of Social Sciences, Dr. Kanhaiya Ahuja, emphasized the need for economic models that would reinforce the values of community life, such as compassion, contentment, cooperation, justice, and a sense of duty towards the common good. “Unfortunately,” he mentioned, “at present economic growth is being driven by consumerism and competition that are destroying these values.”

Speakers also discussed the need for balanced and just economic growth, viewing development within a broader vision of the spiritual and material prosperity of humanity.

“Economic models today give humanity a very limited range of options in explaining human behavior,” Dr. Fazli said. “One is to explain it in terms of greed, self-interest, and profit motive. The other is to say that the only way to organize society is to have absolute equality.

To understand our power as consumers we could start with Ehrenfeld, to whose thinking I turn now. In Flourishing, a book which records his thoughts in an interview with Andrew J. Hoffman (page 151) he states:

Consumers can exert a great deal of influence over corporations, just like voters can exert a great deal of influence over the political structure. So as consumers start turning away from products that have been purchased to feed some addiction and can’t satisfy them, and seek goods to help them authentically care for themselves and others in the world, then they become able to push back very hard on corporations.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Flourishing:

There are many encouraging signs that the prevailing wind might be changing direction.

For example, Ehrenfeld analyses in detail exactly where our mindless absorption with consumption has brought us and summarises it at one point as follows (pages 82-83):

Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”

But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.

As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.

Even our remedies unfortunately are flawed. Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion (page 11):

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements (pages 27-28):

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics (page 41):

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring (pages 99-100):

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.

Ehrenfeld (page 104) also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’ This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are (page 105): ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’

His thinking though does not stop there as we shall see in the next and final post in this sequence.

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Memas

After recently posting Unfinished Business in response to Sue Vincent’s book addiction post, and finally managing to finish Reading in the Park after only five decades, it struck me that it might be useful to post the family related poems, not in chronological order of composition, which is how they have appeared so far, but in a sequence that better reflects their chronological sequence in autobiographical time. I started last Monday with the first one after Unfinished Business, as that was posted so recently. The rest are following at the rate of a poem a day.

Memas

In Panchgani
in the cold front room
of the small cottage
which she didn’t own
she lay still
under the white sheet
beneath the crimson and green
of the freshly cut
half-opened rose
with her headscarf tight
against the breeze
from the open window
still in the pale flowered brown dress
she always wore for travelling

there were many guests that night
her granddaughter served tea in her stead
for everyone who came and went
throughout the cold black hours
and everyone sat down for a time
and talked, told stories,
laughed, wept,
about the days in Yazd
(no one knew how long ago
exactly) when her son at five
after his father died travelled
to India with his uncle on a donkey
when she was so hungry
she fell in search of flour
down the cellar
of the house she served in
and when the sharp-eyed
mistress returned
the flour she’d hidden in her scarf
was running down her face with sweat
and the bruises of her fall
were nothing to the bruises
of her beating for the flour

and in the morning
there was the washing of the body
which the women did
the arguments about
how many layers of cloth
should wrap her round
what should be written
on the ring she’d wear
whether the body should be
carried in a blanket
through the streets
so that the coffin could leave
from her son’s house not
from her daughter’s house
which had no proper bathroom
in which to wash a corpse
though it was where she had most loved
to clean and wash and cook
until the last
because nobody tried to stop her

in the end
the body was lifted
from where she left it
into the coffin
(I never knew till then
how heavy and cold a small old
dead woman could be)
then the coffin was lifted
into the jeep which drove us
to the big house where we prayed and ate

when the sun was directly overhead
and the dust on the road was slow
to settle and all the children
from the school she’d served
had gathered we drove off
at walking crawling pace to the gulestan
where a large crowd from almost everywhere
waited to see this long life end
in a small grave
under a small tree in bloom

and candles were lit
and joss sticks
and blossoms strewn
all round the grave
and her five year old
great grandson from Hereford
who had known her
only for ten days cried

first when they nailed the lid on
don’t let them for she can’t get out

and cried again
when they lowered her
down into the steep red soil
for fear she could not climb the sides

and cried again
when they heaved the grey slabs on top
please stop them for the weight
will be too much
and sobbed out loud
when the men threw
buckets of wet concrete
into the grave for smoothing down
to stop the monsoon
resurrecting her

for then he knew
she’d never wake again down there
to play with or serve us

Pete Hulme Text © 1991

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glass of green teaAt the end of last Monday’s post I stated that a sense of common humanity was one of the most important lessons I have brought back with me from my recent demanding but rewarding trip to Indian and China. What binds us together at a deep level is of far more importance than what tends to split us off from one another. We are indeed ‘leaves of one tree’ even though it has been all too easy in the past to pretend that we are not.

As a result I find as yet vague intentions taking shape within me. I want to be able to communicate more fully with my aging memas, who only speaks Persian and Hindi. I also want to understand the culture of China better, what Habermas might have termed the life-world [1]of China, that intricate and subjective web of implicit values and relationships that predates Communism, or even the Republic, and has not been completely obliterated by their modernity. Last week’s Guardian article on the fruitful legacy of Raymond Williams’ thought amplifies exactly what this might mean:

Williams’s tool for elucidating these unexpected inter-relationships [between country and town] is the so-called “structure of feeling” of any given period – described by his cultural studies ally, Stuart Hall, as “the way meanings and values were lived in real lives, in actual communities”. How did people conceptualise their present state, what was the material and intellectual underpinning behind it, and how did it structure their feelings? Or as Williams himself explained: “The most difficult thing to get hold of, in studying any past period is this felt sense of the quality of life at any particular place and time; a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living.”

Not all of that web will be light I realise. The history of marginalised and foot-bound women is only the most obvious example of the historical dark side of a deeply stratified and bureaucratic society. However, much of China’s implicit life-world on the positive side relates not to the overlay of competition that is so current, but to the importance of the family and the community as co-creators of a more harmonious reality in many ways.

Michael Wood deals with this theme as an historian in his BBC2 series The Story of China. It was screened while I was away and I’m just beginning to catch up on what I recorded. The first programme opens with a family connecting with their ancestor of a thousand years ago. They had to find the gravestone, lost during the cultural revolution, and reinstate it. At the personal level this parallels the scholars of Confucius who found the pieces his gravestone, also destroyed during the heyday of communism, and put them back together again. Rituals to celebrate ancestors on the one hand and Confucianism on the other went unobserved for decades, but can now be seen again reverently played out at these two locations that could so easily have been lost forever.

The second programme explores how the spirit of Buddhism was brought to China and how it blended into and helped shape the culture. Already the complex mix of influences that are still alive in China is becoming apparent as this series unfolds. I am very much looking forward to the next episode.

Watching the rest of this fascinating series will be easy. Will I have the determination to follow through with the idea of learning conversational Persian and deepening my understanding of China much further? I hope so. My relationship with two key people in my life – memas and my daughter-in-law – will be greatly enriched if I do.

Wild GrassWild Grass

I’ve started my exploration of China with a book I bought in 2005 that has remained untouched on my shelves ever since. It’s Wild Grass by Ian Johnson. It tells the stories of three brave and forward-looking people who, each in their different way (page 9), ‘represents key problems facing China: the crises in its villages, cities and its soul.’

What surprised me as I started reading this book was that the sentence that triggered the strongest response early on was about tea. He is travelling on a train through the Loess Plateau. In conversation with a man in the otherwise empty open-plan sleeper compartment they are drinking tea together. He writes (page 15): ‘We blew on our tea leaves, hurrying their descent to the bottom of the cup.’

Memories of my recent trip flooded back. I couldn’t count the number of times we ended up drinking green tea from a glass. The leaves float on the top of the water for ages only dropping to the bottom as they soak. If you drink at that point, they get in your mouth and you have to discreetly spit them out. I found that poking at them can help them sink but it’s not guaranteed. I wish I’d read this book before I went to China.

But the glasses of tea are just one node in a web of many other memories.

We sat at least twice a day at table.

One table was round, and, during the big family meals of Chinese New Year, it was expanded by bringing a large disc of plywood from the back room. This was adapted to fit more or less securely on top of the table. There were one or two moments when a heavy elbow triggered a wobble that spilt the tea, but most of the time it worked well and we all fitted comfortably round the adapted table.

Another table in a different house brought back other memories. It was rectangular with a split in the middle. A handle plugged into a socket so that turning it opened the split and an expansion of the table top could be slotted it. No wobbles with that one to spill any tea, but my mind flooded with pictures of a larger table we had at home when I was a child. The similar handle and a similar extra piece of table allowed us to seat far more people when other family members visited at Christmas and New Year.

The Round Table

In China, the way the meals then worked was to have a couple of people on kitchen duty. For at least an hour most times they stayed there, producing dish after dish while everyone else tucked in. There were usually at least a dozen dishes served. No rice during such big gatherings.

We were touched to see how our for them eccentric vegetarian diet was catered for so carefully. On at least three occasions a salad, lovingly researched on the internet, was served specially for us. Apparently this was the first time anyone there had ever seen a salad served as part of a meal in this way.

At the same time as tea was served, the cooks of the day appeared from the kitchen. Some of us made way and they sat at the table to eat.

The culinary rewards and challenges of India were different. I have always loved Indian food and eating vegetarian is easy over there. As long as I avoid the tap water, with its dense population of unpleasant bacteria and other organisms, I’m fine. This can be difficult when eating out, as salad may have been washed in it and yoghurt and even fruit juices been diluted by it.

Where my wife’s mum lives has challenges in terms of cooking rather than eating. Aluminium pans with no handles that don’t balance well on a basic gas hob would raise the blood pressure of every health and safety expert for miles around in the UK. The pile of oven gloves nearby was no guarantee you could safely grab a pot of boiling dhall before it spilled everywhere.

The most alarming practice, which none the less had delicious results, was reheating yesterday’s chapatis on the naked gas flame. At least the long tongues kept vulnerable fingers out of harm’s way. Regrettably, my enjoyment of the outcome somehow prevented me from protesting vigorously enough against the method.  Reheating chapatisIn China, once the meal was finished it was time for cards – they played a complex variation of rummy, which I never quite worked out. Memories again. As a child I remember how, once the dishes were cleared away, the cards came out and we played Newmarket. It was a gambling game but we played for dried peas, which had been equally distributed to all the players at the start of the game. We were as noisy then at Christmas as these family members were at their New Year. Laughter rang out constantly as fortunes fluctuated within the game. My wife, our son, his wife and I had our deck of Uno cards and were given a table of our own to play at. The four of us probably made as much noise as the ten at the other table.

Uno

It was like going back in time for me – the custom of more than sixty years ago brought back to life. And it is striking how sharing such a simple game seems to bring you closer.

As I progress through Wild Grass I know the dark side of China, not just the hope that lives in the hearts of its ordinary people, will come to the fore. Even so, I don’t think the strong links, that began to form with this family during our stay in Dafeng this Chinese New Year, will be damaged by that. I might be saddened to understand more fully how hard life is for them in many ways, but that will bring me closer to them for sure.

The VagrantsSo, I’m closing my laptop now and going back to the book, the first of many unread volumes about China on my shelves.

I might even summon up the courage to read The Vagrants by Yiyun Li. I still have the bookmark at page 10 where I stopped in my first attempt in 2009. The book, based on a true story, is about a couple in 1979 whose daughter is executed. Because my parents, all through my early childhood and even beyond, were grieving for the loss of my sister before I was born, I found the painful theme of parental grief too hard to cope with. I hope I can tackle it now. Let’s see how it goes.

My copy of Colloquial Persian has arrived. Will I ever get past the alphabet in the Introduction?

Footnote:

1. Kraus is quoted in Wikipedia as stating: ‘Life conditions mean a person’s material and immaterial circumstances of life. Lifeworld means a person’s subjective construction of reality, which he or she forms under the condition of his or her life circumstances.’

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