Friday, June 17, 2011

Beach reading

I remember sitting on a beach with friends in Normandy.  One was reading a primer on the philosophy of religion, one was reading Karl Barth, another was reading a weighty tome on the future of Christian Democracy in Europe. I was reading Dostoyevsky - the Devils - which I subsequently threw across the room in a momentary frustration at the endless, spiraling emoting! Only Margaret appeared to be 'holiday sane' -she was reading Zadie Smith's 'White Teeth'!

I was thinking on this as I pack for summer vacation in Montenegro. Somehow taking my new acquired 'kindle' feels like cheating. I do not have to sit down carefully thinking what to bring - except, of course, I am taking 'real' books as well.

I am continuing to work my way through the works of Neil M Gunn - the next novel is 'The Key of the Chest'. I am haunted by his work with their blend of realistic evocation of Highland life, woven with the complexities of particular character, shot through with the possibilities of spiritual illumination.

The second novel is the 'Jewel in the Crown' - the first of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet - his masterly exploration of the last days of empire in India. It is a wonderfully complex set of novels. I read it first when living in Nizhny Novgorod, reading all four books in quick succession. They evoke two cultures in a complex dance of love and hate and have a series of characters strikingly memorable including one of the most compelling delineations of evil in literature.

Matthew Crawford's philosophically and practically informed exploration of the nature of work comes next - well-reviewed and I heard him on Start the Week, pricking interest; and, in a related space, Wendell Berry's 'The Gift of Good Land'.

This was the first of Berry's that I read and embarked on one of the richest reading experiences available with a contemporary author. Essayist, novelist, short story writer, poet and farmer, he is my candidate for the sanest person alive - and one whose work has been a continuous source of illumination. Two moments reverberate in my mind, both from novels: an image of what it means to be a parent, a continuous caring trepidation and an image of our family connection: a room through which we pass is present, shared time, and death carries us to other rooms of a shared house.

Didier Maleuvre's 'The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing' is a cultural history of a particular set of ways of being and looking and what they have meant. It is one of those books that promises much and which I am instinctively drawn but who knows whether it will deliver! The holiday wild card...

But then there is the sea, sun, sand...


The drama that is unfolding in Greece is an exemplar of that cliche, 'a slow motion train wreck'.

Everyone 'knows' that a sovereign default is high likely but everyone is in denial.

As you push back the likely default, it both becomes more likely and its consequences become more awful to contemplate; thus, you push it further back, trapped in a vicious circle or, more likely, a downwards spiral.

I have every sympathy with the protesters at one level - this is not a crisis directly of their own making. The political class of all persuasions has conspired to have Greece live beyond it means and with entry to the euro make it less possible to escape the consequences through devaluation.

But at another level methinks they protest too much - anyone who knows Greece knows the collective collusion of a bloated state and a tax evading public. If the British sin has been easy but expensive credit and a mass religion of shopping, Greece's has been imagining that you can be employed by the public sector while somebody else is not paying for it (unless maybe it is an EU subsidy).

Meanwhile, at a meta-level, virtually nothing has been done to mend our financial architecture to either resolve our current difficulties or prevent future crises.

I am all in favour of pumping money into the system (if invested in the right places, as Keynes, noted to generate future revenues) rather than imagining that you can cut yourself out of a deficit (as if a government budget behaved like a household one). But at the same time you have to change the architecture of finance - making it, once again, as boring as a utility for making and doing things in a real economy (rather than speculating on itself).

At the moment, we appear to be pumping money in one end and taking it out at the other - like pumping up a punctured tyre without  ever repairing it and wondering why everything remains precarious!

If ever there was a time for political leadership this was it but we appear to have abdicated to the unfathomable mysteries of 'the market' (not apparently realizing that it is something made by human hands) served by that strange priesthood called 'economists' whose language has the coherence of the failed builders of Babel!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A forest of peace
Osage was founded by my friend, Sr Pascaline Coff, modeled after Shantivanam, the Christian ashram in India, established by Fathers Monchanin and Le Saux and carried forward by Father Bede Griffiths. Fr Bede christened Osage the 'Shantivanam of the West'. It is a located in a beautiful setting - acres of woods in rolling hills near Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I fear my only image of Oklahoma, before I visited, was forged by Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath': all flatland and dust bowl. This landscape, however, was a delight. You live in your own wood cabin and can walk out into trees and bluffs that look down at a distant, quiet Arkansas river, green-grey in the distance.

It has recently been reinvented as a lay community, after being a community of Benedictine Sisters, and I hope to visit in the autumn.

The central building is a combination of library, communal space, kitchen and wonderful chapel that on three sides is window opening out onto the forest. Within around the centrality of Christian sign are the symbols of the other major traditions, and the local one, that of the Osage Indians. It makes a space that is inclusive both of human search and of natural place. I have spent many hours encompassed in silence in this space and in shared communion.

It was a place that I had intended to spend my sabbatical (in 2001/2) but the fates intervened and I simply visited, as it happens in the week after 9/11. In that time of deep anxiety (and as it happens sadly forestalled introspection), it was good to be in a place that in its very architecture proclaimed a unity that recognized identity but refused boundaries.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Balthasar's Feast

Wittgenstein once remarked that 'the difficulty was knowing when to stop'. He was referring to 'argument' - knowing what counts as an explanation and when that explanation cannot be improved upon.

I was reminded of this when listening to Walton's First Symphony driving home from my mother's. Walton appears never to know when to end!

Sir Michael Tippett once said of Walton that, 'he failed to renew himself'. I have always had a sense of what he meant. He does not have the depth or invention of Britten nor that capacity that Vaughan-Williams had to enter wholly new territory as he does in his 'bleak' later symphonies. Walton's music carries an instantly recognizable sense of itself including a certain sense of limit.

Yet how glorious it is at its best, after the symphony, came the oratorio, Balthasar's Feast that must contain the most beautifully joyous explosion in music when the king falls, found wanting by God, and the Jews can return home from Babylonian exile. It is primitive, raw and deeply felt (and controlled by a great discipline and understanding of choral textures).

In truth, I would happily sacrifice all Tippett for this one beautifully constructed exploration of Biblical story.

Monday, June 13, 2011

One Foot in Eden

One foot in Eden still, I stand
And look across the other land.
The world's great day is growing late,
Yet strange these fields that we have planted
So long with crops of love and hate.
Time's handiworks by time are haunted,
And nothing now can separate
The corn and tares compactly grown.
The armorial weed in stillness bound
About the stalk; these are our own.
Evil and good stand thick around
In fields of charity and sin
Where we shall lead our harvest in.

Yet still from Eden springs the root
As clean as on the starting day.
Time takes the foliage and the fruit
And burns the archetypal leaf
To shapes of terror and of grief
Scattered along the winter way.
But famished field and blackened tree
Bear flowers in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in Paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.

This a later poem by Edwin Muir. I thought of it on my last day at Schumacher College when we were considering 'intractable problems' and returning to the world from our educational retreat. 

That sense that though the view from Eden is a necessary one - the paradise that sits at the heart of things is a bearer of promise - the loss paradise was an essential one. A happy fault, as the medieval hymn exalts the Fall, that makes for a richer, more complex experience at the heart of things. The paradise re-gained is a different place from the one lost - there is an enriching consciousness of loss and renewal. The distance we travel away from is a measure of the depth of our returning.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Life Together

By one of those happy coincides (or by synchronicity), the weekend after my first real experience of community after several years, I find myself reading Bishop Seraphim Sigrist's 'a life together: Wisdom of Community from the Christian East'. 

It is an extended meditation on the word: 'sobornost' that appeared, as he writes, newly minted in nineteenth century Russia and appears virtually untranslatable precisely because, as the Bishop suggests, it indicates a future hope yet to be realized and yet that lures us on.

It was a word coined by that strand of thought called "Slavophil' that wished to demarcate a place of community that navigates between the twin poles of 'individualism' and 'collectivism'. It is a vision of community that delights in the difference of persons and sees in their journeying together those differences as complementary, weaving a unity in which they all will live fulfilled.

The book is divided into four principle parts: an exploration of 'sobernost' as a vision that exists being made real in a pilgrimage together; and, three ways of practicing the vision - in adopting new ways of seeing, in a deepened understanding of complementarity and in a renewed sense of mission as conversation.

In each section, written in an engaging, simple yet profound manner, you are invited to think anew about the meaning of community and church.

My favourite section, to which I will return, is the '30' brief, linked chapters on complementarity. Here there is a wonderful suggestion that the belief-sets we inhabit, necessary as they may be, are what I would call enterprises after a deeper, more inclusive truth. It is different to be a Catholic than to be and believe as a Protestant but each form of life rather than presenting an inviolable boundary can be seen as a different aspect of the same face - the face of Christ in whose gaze all perspectives, all seeing is reconciled. As the Bishop's friend, Andrey Cherniak, notes we need two ears to know which direction a sound comes from. We may favour an ear in our life but if we are to discern a fullness of listening, we will have to lean on the hearing of others.

Throughout the book, there is a delightful, urgent sense of the church as a work in progress moving into an unknown but invited future, shaped by our learning of what it means to be a unity in diversity, unique persons shaping a dance in which their reality as God's friends, and friends to one another, is ever more deeply revealed.

His words arrest you to think more deeply and see more clearly towards a life that walks to meet you. He quotes with approval the words of Fr Bede Griffiths on his last day, 'to serve the Christ who is growing' -and whose eyes and hands, as a saint reminds us, are our own.

At one level it is a place removed from here to spending a week at Schumacher college. It is, after all, not a religious community (nor a Christian one), it is a place of residential education; and, yet consciously it has taken on the mantle of being a community that lives a way of life meant to help exemplify a real present and a hoped for future.

I could see both the delights and tensions of this, real to any community, but it carried the marks of any genuine attempt: a regard for hospitality, a process for listening and a sense of humour!

Both Bishop Seraphim's book and Schumacher capture beautifully a sense of community as a work in progress evolving to a hoped for deeper expression of truth. Here are not 'answers' but in shared experience a deepening of the questions whose 'answers' will be a lived truth, only ever partial to the full possibilities of our glory but nonetheless carrying the possibilities of real joy, authentic witness.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Biographies of surprise

Reading biography is always an exercise in surprise.

The first is usually to discover a biograophy that manages to strike the right balance between narrative and detail: modern biography apparently wants to drown the former in a tsunami of the latter until you expert the inevitably thick volume to be supplemented by appendices of laundry lists and itemized daily expenditures (I did have a chemistry teacher at school who did the latter - detailed notebooks of every expenditure, stretching back to the 30s lined his office)!

The second that manages to meaningfully address the subject's inner life in ways that are illuminating (rather than merely speculative or, worse, psychoanalytic)!

Anne Chisholm's life of Rumer Godden is achieving both though occasionally you would like a touch more depth...

Reading today of the making of the film, 'The River' a transformation of her book of the same title by Jean Renoir, I discovered, incidentally, that it was Patrick White's favourite film.

It is marvelous film as the great director weaves a story of innocence and its fall within a wider setting of discovering for himself and sharing with others, India. The films flaws - an amateur and varied cast, a sometimes in parts startlingly arch English dialogue; and, a failure to blend the story of an English family in India with a wider vision of place and culture - are transcended by a painterly vision of place, the sincerity of the story and its universality; and, a ravishing glimpses of an India that both does and does not still exist.

My initial surprise was conditioned by trying to imagine this most complex (and sophisticated) of modernists as a devotee of this artfully simple tale. This was until I remembered that so much of White's art was devoted to the difficult art of seeing simply, and many of his most significant protagonists are characters who wish to unfold into the freedom of that seeing, that untied vision of things.

It was the first film in 'technicolor' made in India and was deeply influential on Indian film makers  - including Satyajit Ray who forgave its 'colonial' story line to learn from its many gifts, not least the capacity to tell a story rooted in the unfolding details of a place that followed the contours of ordinary life.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Consciousness Cafe

I had lunch today with a dear friend whose diverse career has embraced psychiatry, interior design and gardening. She spent a period in situ training people from the Caucasus to work with people traumatized by the ongoing conflict and with the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, founded by the inspirational and redoubtable, Helen Bamber.

One purpose of the lunch was to invite me to be the guest speaker at the 'Consciousness Cafe': a monthly meeting in Totnes that gathers to explore a broad range of issues around consciousness - what is it? how does it work? what meaning does it carry or possess? How might it be transformed within both personal spiritual quest and social transformation? It sounded a fascinating format and gathering of disparate minds so I agreed for September: to talk about both the work of the Prison Phoenix Trust and the broader metaphor that 'We are all doing time': that we all inhabit different forms of imprisonment that condition our lives, our behaviours - and what our work with people in prison (on meditation and yoga) have to teach us all on becoming free, realizing from within a different potential.

I am delighted to be invited: to return to a space and an activity that I have inhabited too little of late - the interface between intelligent exploration and adult education. It is a space I have loved: maybe it is an inkling of things to come!

We, also, talked about a parallel meeting with 'Transition Totnes' on exploring social innovation. I think we (from a work perspective) have a lot to learn from the Transition movement - not only about the content (how to build sustainable living spaces in an age of gathering resource constraint) but also on methodology (how do you galvanize/organize communities to take effective action on this content when the system conspires against you).

A related theme occupied one of our sessions today on complexity - what is the dissonance between our expressed values, say towards a simpler life, and the actual lives we lead? Are we simply feigning our real values, geared towards consumption, and lying about the virtues of simplicity?

I think not but we assume that values are 'ours' (they inhabit our skin) rather than being a dynamic interaction between 'ourselves' and the multiple contexts/systems in which we live. Values to be lived need sacrifice or support - the former is for the few, the latter is necessary for the majority.

So, for example, in Macedonia, when I first arrived there was virtually no crime. This was not because Macedonians were inherently more virtuous than other people but partly because they inhabited social networks that we known and transparent. The social networks could not be bear the presence of a criminal and worked to avoid it through means both positive and negative. As those networks broke down - people became more autonomous, geographically distant etc - so crime edged upwards. Opportunities to perpetrate crime grew (as did inequalities that fostered it), sadly.

At Schumacher

A delightful week at Schumacher College exploring complexity theory and its applicability to the design, resilience and sustainability of organizations. A discovery that many of your best intuitions have a supportive intellectual framework and a language to give them expression and a content that moves them forward in practice.

More than the content of the course is the context: the blend of intellectual and practical work is a joy. Yesterday cooking for the group was a delightful experience of creativity in service.

More than this are the walks in the gardens at Dartington especially in the early evening. They are quiet, virtually deserted, with a transfixing stillness.

I stood today at the fountain of the two entwined swans looking out across the formal lawns, the twelve Apostle yew trees to one boundary, out across the Devon countryside. The air was saturated in birdsong to the foreground and backgrounded by the distance toll of church bells being practiced on a Wednesday evening, England is now and always (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot).

It was a moment saturated with beauty.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ripeness rage

As I sit over my breakfast eating my not perfectly ripe apricot (from M & S), I wonder how we allow ourselves to be seduced by a piece of marketing that we know cannot be true given the nature of the business.

We know that you get perfectly ripe fruit if you are close to source and that the fruit at hand has been handled with care and attention and with regard for the appropriate season. We know that at times you will get a surfeit of the same and will have to think of imaginative ways of coping: bottling, jamming etc. We know that a system that disregards this, and hopes to provide the 'same food' all year round (from different sources) is likely to provide a sameness of failure (that may be redeemed if in your fruit bowl long enough but are as likely to wither as to ripen)!

The difference between an apricot ripened on the tree and its pretend equivalent is especially stark - but the foolishness of my hope keeps trumping my experience!

Sunday, June 5, 2011


One of the distinct advantages of attending a course at Schumacher College is its proximity to Dartington Hall and its gardens (as an initiative of the same trust, it is 'down the way').

It is a space wedded to my imagination (and unfolding story).

My first visit was to attend the first Temenos conference on art and the renewal of the sacred (though the title should have been reversed: the sacred renewing art).

It was a remarkable gathering - an extraordinary blend of the academic and the practical: the practice of particular arts. Between sessions I could wander the grounds that are a balanced admixture of the highly formal and the wild, breaking out to views over open, rolling Devon hills, with the backdrop of the medieval buildings behind.

The conference forged several lasting friendships and in the on-going reading of Temenos an education in the arts that I continue to return to.

Most notably on that occasion was meeting the artists - Thetis Blacker and Patrick Pye.

Thetis I met at breakfast when I found myself sitting opposite her and she inquired as to whether I was a poet. Something in me prompted in declining this description, the suggestion that I was a dreamer. This was the perfect introduction. Thetis was a formidable dreamer - they unrolled within like short stories (and indeed she published a remarkable book of these) and they were a critical place for the inspiration of her art. We became friends exchanging dreams over the museli: a conversation that continued until her death.

Patrick I met on the evening of the first day when we found ourselves in search of a mutual cup of tea that somehow progressed to whiskey, shared with the English scholar, Peter Malekin. This quickly evolved into ritual. Each evening this particular three would gather to talk, and explore the days proceedings. It was a time of heady talk and simple comforts.

It was a moment when I felt most deeply at home.

But of the garden I remember one very particular incident from the second Temenos conference. We had an exceptional studio performance of Noh drama from the troupe of Hideo Kanze. This highly ritualized drama had made a deep impression on me: concentrated feeling symbolically expressed, charged. Each member had been absorbed in their role both as performance and as spiritual practice.

Later that afternoon, I encountered the troupe in the garden, being shown around, and noticed that all but Hideo Kanze had returned to simply being Japanese tourists in an English country garden. But Kanze was different: he walked his practice, with an extraordinary bearing of attention and engagement. In him there was no performance, it was at one with his practiced reality. It was a beautiful exemplar of presence. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Godden's life

Anne Chisholm's biography of Rumer Godden is a vivid account of her life as a consummate story-teller and gives a marvelous account of pre-war Calcutta.

It was a city (as now) of extraordinary contrasts: then a small elite, British and Indian, presided over their separate but inter-locking worlds, over and across a sea of people whose lives they did not share.

One community in particular attracted Godden's attention that of the Eurasians - doubly excluded from both communities - the men squeezed from both sides for not being part of either; the women forced to exploit their often startling looks in various indeterminate roles. Godden herself employed a number at her thriving dance academy (itself a liminal activity on the fringes of the British community, highly stratified as itself was). They are a community that continues a marginal life in India today: a legacy of history and continuing multiple prejudices.

One of her pupils was my friend, Tigger. There is a wonderful story of her feeling Godden's severity when she, Tigger, had misbehaved and how it made one feel exiled (however temporarily) from a gifted teacher with real presence. It was the beginning of a friendship that was life long, elaborated through Tigger's mother, as well as directly. It was Tigger who was to help with the research on what became Godden's last novel.

Dinah, Tigger's mother, was also a defier of convention in the friendships she forged - and the work she undertook. One day visiting a hospital, she witnessed an Indian woman leaving in deep distress. She was a newly made widow and faced an uncertain future. Dinah took her home and installed her on the verandah. It was, she now discovered, a common plight and began collecting newly made widows and bringing them home - teaching them new skills so they could support themselves beyond destitution or prostitution. After a time, the need for new accommodation arose, and Dinah persuaded a wealthy Indian to give her one: a new charity - Helping Hand - was born!

It makes one feel deeply attached to this life at one remove as it unfolds in a world known through the disparate other eyes of friends, one's reading and those visits that I have been able to make.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I was a very factual child who read mostly history and studied maps (and watched Westerns and documentaries). It was not until I was si...