Posts Tagged ‘mortality’


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Much has been happening this year to give me cause to reflect, whether I wanted to or not, on the meaning of life.

‘Judging by your blog posts, you do this anyway,’ I can almost hear you comment.

Yes, that’s true but only up to point, it seems.

I accept that I have explored at possibly excruciating length the importance of reflection, and kept coming back relentlessly to the issues of the afterlife, and the nature of the mind/brain relationship. I have banged on endlessly about the impact of my sister’s death before I was born and how grappling with my parents’ grief shaped my childhood.

The same kind of preoccupations persist, of course.


Recently, when I was in Birmingham, I bought a book that I already owned. This is only the second time I’ve done so. It was the greeny-blue paperback edition of Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: the Time-torn Man. I knew I owned one book about his life but it didn’t look like this one, so I bought it, partly motivated by the BBC’s recent screening of a new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

It took me a while to find the one I’d got. I combed my re-arranged shelves (we’ve been de-cluttering again), and was almost on the point of putting my name on the flyleaf of my new acquisition, when I spotted a cream coloured hard-back.

‘Found it!’ my mind shrieked.

I managed to get my money back from Waterstones and, afterwards, decided to check whether I’d read the book. My de-cluttering and reorganisation process is based partly on examining books to see when I bought them and if I’ve even looked at them. I’m operating a 10 year rule. If I’ve had it 10 years and not read it, I should consider taking it to the Oxfam shop.

This book surprised me. I’d bought it in 2006, but there was no evidence I’d ever read it, though I thought I had.

Next test: ‘Read the opening pages.’

I did.

There was no way this was going to charity.

Memories came flooding back, even more than had been triggered by the film, which linked only with the other novels. The biography brought back the poems, because they were the focus of the prologue, including a particularly haunting one, written after the death of his wife, from whom he had become increasingly estranged over the years, though they continued to live in the same house:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Tomalin doesn’t quote the whole poem, only the first and last verses, but my mind (or was it my heart?) filled in much of the rest.

I am now almost at the end of her engaging account of his life. The debt I owe to Hardy, who helped me place my family’s grief and suffering in a wider context as I grew up through adolescence to something closer to maturity, is very great indeed. It’s good to be reminded of that, even though I had much further to go than he could take me.

But even describing this, and mentioning the next book on my list, Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison (another one rediscovered unread) which deals with suicide, doesn’t quite convey where I find I’m up to now.

Recent Experiences

To do that I need to touch briefly on some events of the last few months.

First, there was the series of colds that left me with a cough I couldn’t shake off, and a deep sense of fatigue. This overlapped with a health MOT that flagged up a highly elevated blood pressure, which I thought might have been triggered by the series of  infections.

Antibiotics, which cleared the cough, and Amlodipine, which brought down my blood pressure, levelled things off for a while. Even so something had shifted in my consciousness.

Maybe it was the evident panic of the nurses at the sight of a systolic BP in excess of 200, and the manic sequence of blood tests that followed to check out the state of my major organs, that changed my sense of my own body. Whereas before my body was something that I identified with so closely that I barely noticed it if it did not hurt, tingle or display some similarly intense experience, now I was aware of it plodding along most of the time.

But, and this is an important ‘but’, I do not feel I am my body. I have a body obviously, and depend upon it to get me around and carry my consciousness.

Somehow, though, the hand I write with and the feet I walk with, no longer feel part of who I really am. They are instruments I use, and I catch myself watching them as I write or walk, but they are not me. I need them, and as my body gets tired faster than it used to, I get impatient with them and frustrated by them more often. Yeats’ expression of feeling ‘fastened to a dying animal’ is taking on new meanings for me.

More recently, and literally the day before I was due to travel to Scotland to run a workshop on unity, I found myself needing to go to the doctor’s again, unable to drive myself because I was suddenly seeing two of everything. My GP couldn’t explain why it had suddenly occurred, though he knew the name for it: diplopia.

He referred me to the hospital and they confirmed my diagnosis but had no real idea either what might have caused it. They gave me a prism patch to place on the left lens of my spectacles. It deflects the light and corrects my double vision. I’ll need to wear it till the damaged nerve is repaired, which could take months.

This diplopia, perhaps predictably, redoubled the problem.

Not only was I feeling different about my body now, but the world had changed its appearance and was reinforcing the sense, which I have had for as long as I can remember, that all I have is a simulation of reality. When your simulation breaks down further, and doesn’t even fulfil its evolutionary purpose too well, there’s no get out.

Not only am I not my body, it feels, but I don’t even know what the world is really like anymore, if I ever did.


This has led me to reaffirm even more strongly the importance of reflection, stepping back from my identifications with the contents of my consciousness, and consultation, comparing simulations as dispassionately as possible with others in order to get closer to the truth. Learning to act reflectively has come to seem even more crucial.

Following on from that reminder, I added in my journal:

This needs to be held in mind along with my metaphor of the bees of reflection gathering the pollen of wisdom and the honey of love from the flowers of experience, and with my dream metaphor of the hearth (see link for a full description) with its associations of earth, heart, art, ear and hear, plus the peat that burns within the structure of the grate to provide light and warmth.

It was only as I re-read those words this morning that I realised another level of interpretation of that dream.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

My interpretation of ‘peat,’ as written down several years after, was that ‘the essence of my being – peat – is to fuel’ the process of’ ‘giving warmth to the mansion of being.’

Peat was perhaps not simply, as I had originally thought, a pun on my name that related to the idea of sacrificing an innate spiritual deeper self for a higher purpose (light/warmth): it now seemed to be pointing towards something more complex.

This is partly because there are implications concerning the time scales involved. The Wikipedia article explains: ‘In natural peatlands, the “annual rate of biomass production is greater than the rate of decomposition”, but it takes “thousands of years for peatlands to develop the deposits of 1.5 to 2.3 m [4.9 to 7.5 ft], which is the average depth of the boreal [northern] peatlands”.’

If I translate that into personal terms, peat, although derived from the earth, becomes to some degree at least an attribute painstakingly acquired, something that takes long periods of time to create or evolve. It is not already available nor can it be created impatiently, in a rush. Yes, it is the fuel which gives the energy to bring light (wisdom?) and warmth (love?) into the world of being but it needs work to bring it into existence.

In short, I am not burning something that is already there fully formed from birth, as it were, ‘the Soul that rises with’ me, as Wordsworth put it, but something that I have had to devote time to creating. It is almost certainly related to my soul and to spirit, but it is also involves something which I have a responsibility to develop, create, bring into being.

Perhaps I had only partly understood my dream all this time, glibly oversimplifying it. Why doesn’t what surprise me?

What had seemed like separate aspects of experience suddenly have come to seem connected.

Reflection requires patience. Long periods of practice are required to even begin to get the hang of it. Using it entails slowing down. Periods of silence, as quiet as the deep ground that holds the formation of peat, are essential prerequisites to reflection and the ultimate creation of its fruits.

I am still in the process of digesting these insights and refining them. I can’t yet articulate them clearly or exactly.

What it means for this blog is that I will only publish when I feel I really have something to say, not at the dictates of a calendar deadline. I am still not even sure exactly which direction my writing will now take.

There will be more silence and fewer words. Be patient with me. It may prove worth it.

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jmweselby_1408639046_74I have recently discovered Joanne Weselby’s blog which is packed with poetic gems. The one below is the first one that grabbed my attention. Do not be deceived by the apparent lightness of the tone. It goes deep and is profoundly moving.  I haven’t had time to savour her prose fully as yet, but have no reason to think it will not be just as rewarding as the poems. 

Five Minutes

Don’t put me in the ground just yet, I beg you
Let me revel in my five short minutes of fame
Give them a moment to speak my name
And remember what little thing they loved best.

They caked my face in youth, so don’t turn away
Before they close the lid, lay your eyes on me
For this is the one time I will not age, you see
Soon you’ll forget how I looked when I could breathe.

Refer to all my faults in the present tense
Don’t summarise or bathe me in sentimentality
That turns me into the stuff of hazy memory
But in brutal truths I can live forever.

Pity flowers ensure my door is at its darkest.
To turn up draped in black and sympathy
Just mocks my absence from the party
Honour me who laughed loudest, but not last!

Remember this day like I had attended
See me swiping wasps away from my sandwich
Badmouthing the weather in colourful language
Like I was at the picnic, not inside the box.

And in the years that stretch before you, instead of your tears
Bring your smiles to my grave, and long tales of good years.

See the original poem by Wallace Stevens here: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-emperor-of-ice-cream/

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MSR with butterfly

Our consciousness has a wall around it. One of the jobs of a poet is to create windows in that wall so we become aware of what was concealed from us before. Poetry, in my view, should, as one of its main tasks, strive to bring those previously concealed aspects of reality closer to us in vivid ways.

Sadly, much of modern poetry makes windows of curiously patterned frosted glass. We hope it is showing us something, but can only make out blurred and distorted shapes that make no real sense at all. It is, of course, possible that some poets of that kind believe that all that lies beyond the illusions we have that make reality seem coherent, is a fragmented and meaningless chaos, and this is therefore all they can display in their windows if they are being honest. (I have explored this problem in previous posts.)

My view is different. I believe that the reality that exists at the edges of perception, and beyond, is coherent and potentially discernible with practice under the right conditions. Meditation and poetry can each in different ways train us to tune in to these elusive wavelengths experientially: science tends to do it for us inferentially.

It is refreshing indeed to find a poet, born well into the second half of the twentieth century, writing about these fringe realities in an intelligible way that does not sell them short, at least most of the time in his recent collection.

This is not to say that all the poems are easy to understand completely even after several careful readings or that I am experiencing them all as equally successful. What is true though is that they all resonate with me, and some very deeply indeed, and they are all dealing with issues very close to my heart.

I am still at a very early stage in my acquaintance with these poems and have therefore by no means plumbed their depths. I felt it was worthwhile blogging about them even so, because many of them have the spine-tingling quality I associate with the best poetry and song. This may seem an odd critical criterion, and not one that would endear my approach to the more abstruse journals of poetry criticism. However it works for me. It signals that such a poem requires rereading and will reward the effort of doing so a hundredfold.

So, what are the spine-tinglers for me in this collection.

Well, they probably fall into two main groups with a third group chasing close behind. There are poems about mortality and, most excitingly, poems that inhabit the hinterland between what we know and what we don’t. Some poems seem simply surreal and they are in the chasing pack. If I suddenly twig that they deal with either mortality or thresholds of the unknown they shift into one of the leading groups.

Picking examples is difficult as I don’t want to quote whole poems and I can’t possibly quote something from every poem that fits these criteria. Anyway here goes for a few short samples from some poems.

To start with an obvious candidate, here are the central lines from Portrait of a Skull (page 49):

. . . What about its role as thought-keeper,
guardian of memory, goldfish bowl
where words can feed and grow?

The poem moves through apologetics from the skull, proclaiming its wonders, through this questioning by the poet to the brutal anticlimax of its ‘gormless rictus grin’ along with the chilling warning from the skull itself, ‘So keep me under your skin, or you’ll be sorry.’ Given that a provisional title in my head for all my own collected efforts in this genre is Facing Uncertain Death, the appeal of this poem should come as no surprise to any close reader of my poems.

It’s the switches of perspective and the unusual insights they provide that make all the poems in this collection a disconcerting and sometimes puzzling exploration of what it means to be human: only a few of them remain almost completely inaccessible to me so far.

A powerful poem that combines the mortality theme with the surreal is In Cutaway (page 75). Here he makes a laboratory specimen of himself, cut in half and pickled in formaldehyde:

dutiful sentry in cross-section,

everlasting witness to the visceral
crimson swarms that make us tick,
one open wound that will not heal.

But the surreal can also work to bridge a threshold as in Night Train (page 67):

. . . I would like to say
our thoughts, as passengers, crack

between us like a static cloud, and soul
means a million points of interconnection

The stanza break works perfectly to jerk us into feeling what he describes.

Though he skirts around the frankly spiritual most of the time he is not too afraid to tackle it at all. Take Soul Song for example (page 107):

. . . feel the hairs lift on your neck,

that static charge, and know that we
have met our souls, invisible but physical,
akin to gale force, thunder, gravity.

And so I rest my case about the validity of the spine-tingle test and recommend this volume of bulletins from edgeland as well worth a visit.

JW on Drysalter

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