Saturday, November 29, 2014

Buck in China

When the distinguished scholar of Buddhism and Taoism, John Blofeld, was a small boy in England, he saw a Chinese Buddha in an antique shop and applied pester power to his accompanying aunt to secure it. It fascinated, haunted him and as a young man, with only a few pounds in his pocket, he went to China in the 1920s and forged a life for himself. He was in love with a China that was rapidly changing, dying, that he records lovingly in his revealing memoirs - a China of both sensuous delights, cultivated charm and spiritual depths.

I find his experience with the Buddha, that convinced him to take notions of reincarnation seriously for whence had come this strong attraction to something apparently so unfamiliar and out of place, strangely resonant. In my case, it is the period - China from the Boxer rebellion through to Communist arrival - that is especially alluring. Every time I read of it (or see it depicted on the screen), a tingle of recognition traces up and down but only if it is a China seen through Western eyes! This is doubly peculiar for I have never, except for one brief trip to Hong Kong, that I unexpectedly loved, even been to China!

I was reminded of this reading Hilary Spurling's 'Burying my Bones'. This is her biography of the American novelist, Pearl Buck, who's 'The Good Earth', revolutionized the American (and Western) public's view of China. Unlike Blofeld, Buck was born to China, ever afterward seeing it as home, and grew up a distance from Blofeld's cultured China. Buck's parents were a missionary family, immersed (yet separated) from 'the Chinese masses' who toiled in fields, lived on the knife's edge of famine and whose women folk led lives of continuous resistance to outlandish repression. They narrowly evaded humiliation, depredation or even death during the Boxer uprising, when Pearl was eight ,and Pearl and her first husband avoided a similar fate during the 'Nanking incident' when Chiang Kai Shek's temporarily victorious Nationalists occupied Nanking in the 1920s.

Spurling beautifully describes a life lived between two identities - Chinese and American - and how it was both the engine of Buck's imaginative work and its undoing. Once she left China in 1934, never to return, something in the sensed immediacy of her creative process withered and the quality of her fiction declined. She remained immensely popular during her lifetime, not least for her championing of many humanitarian causes, but her long term literary reputation suffered.

As it did in China. Before the revolution, Chinese cultural elites were made uncomfortable about her exposure of 'the masses' - making them individuals, with thoughts, feelings, identities of their own - because she was exposing a life utterly remote to them (but not to her) and who too wants one's shadows exposed by an 'outsider'? After the revolution, she was an imperialist colonialist associated (through her parents) with an imposed, external ideology - Christianity. It is only with the passing of Maoism that her work has been receiving the attention it deserves, her books published in Chinese translation, a more generous assessment made, as an important witness to a time of extraordinary social change and political upheaval.

True to form, it was Spurling's descriptions of Buck's life in China and the complex interactions with people and place that arrested my attention - unknown yet puzzling familiar! I was reminded that it deeply matters where one is born (Buck) and yet something matters too about what one is born with (Blofeld). We come, if not bearing clouds of glory, with traces of yet something other - instinct, inheritance, remembrance - all three possibly. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Zen in the art of Neil Gunn

The Scottish novelist, Neil Gunn, came late to a discovery of Taoism and Zen (as wonderfully described in John Burns' study, 'A Celebration of the Light: Zen in the Novels of Neil Gunn'). It was only in later life when he read 'Zen in the Art of Archery' that he noticed that there was a deep, underlying similarity between Zen's account of sudden breakthroughs in illuminating experience, ones that moved you closer to an abiding union with the unfolding reality of things and Gunn's own experience that he wove into his novels, especially as he grew older, as he turned from 'social realism' towards a deeper interest in 'inner experience' and a connectivity with nature.

It was a 'turn' that perplexed many of his readers as this defender of 'community' and the political realities of a down trodden, yet to be reborn, Scotland (Gunn was a lifelong nationalist), began to explore the inner dynamics of the person. An exploration to which he came both too late and too early.  Too late because his readers had slipped into a groove of a certain expectation (and his readership was semi-fixed by his labelling as a 'Scottish author', caught in a particular place) and too early because he peaked in the 40s and 50s, when his audience was fixed upon 'social questions' - the breakdown and rebirth of Europe rather than the apparently inconsequential flickerings of the soul! It may have been a different matter if both his pedigree and his key interest could have been carried over into the sixties when a new audience might have been found. By this stage, however, age and acquiescence led Gunn to put down his pen.

I found myself comparing him with Huxley who moved from social satire to social critique and spiritual quest and either carried or created an audience as he went. Huxley, of course, was not bound by a country referent, indeed having moved to the US, found a more deeply congenial (and extensive) audience for his 'inward turn'. Huxley was better too at connecting his spiritual commitments and his social critique as they stand together; and, he is more explicit and structured in both.

However, Gunn created a 'dystopia' every much as intrinsically interesting as 'Brave New World', focusing on the dark arts of psychological persuasion rather than biological manipulation, in 'The Green Isle of the Great Deep'.

He was masterly too at describing the eruption of an illuminative experience within a common background. It is precisely because Gunn did not have the encyclopedic understanding of the mystical tradition that Huxley possessed that makes his accounts so fresh and revealing. What does it look like when such experience comes to us, afresh, out of the intrinsic nature of the world, free of the tradition(s) of interpretation? It takes on a simple normality in which we can, if we scrutinise our own experience carefully, a startling resonance.

His is a body of work that calls out to better known, especially when tradition(s) decay either into decline or fundamentalism because they quietly reaffirm that the natural state of being human is being connected to a deeper whole that expresses itself in an unfolding Way, that, at its best, 'the religious' is merely a description of the highest possible state of simply being.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Time must have a stop

Having read Van Lommel on 'death and an afterlife', I pack my bags for a week in Central America and pick up a copy of Aldous Huxley's novel, 'Time must have a stop', to read on the plane, not realising that one of its core themes is precisely this, death and the afterlife. It has a character whose post mortem journey is beautifully traced with an indebtedness to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. We watch as the epicurean 'Uncle Eustace' expires in the bathroom, thinking heartburn, experiencing heart attack, and we follow him on his journey of refusal of the transfiguring light of communion and forgiveness and see him lured to his next incarnation. It is a transition told with great skill, weaving high seriousness with satiric humour.

The former manages to compellingly convey what it might be like to refuse the offer of liberation: the slinking away from losing one's pivotal ego. The latter especially when his mother in law contacts him through a medium and he watches, with amused horror, the medium mutilate his attempted communications! Eustace, though self-indulgent and selfish, is painted very sympathetically. He, at least, refrains from imagining that his life is an ideological model. There is in it only an invitation not any imposition,unlike the assorted 'world saviours', who were, at the moment of Huxley's writing, breaking down the world.

Uncle Eustace's nephew, Sebastian, seventeen and a would be poet, is the novel's central character - gifted and childish - his pursuit of the set of evening clothes, denied him by his austere, widowed, rich but socialist father becomes the 'deus ex machina' of the novel's unfolding events and Sebastian's moral and spiritual education.

Its core realisation is that the way of a transforming spirituality is one of a continuous vigilance and begins, as it must, with one's self. Any attempt to reorganise the world for the better will go awry unless the self is aligned with the Self. The self surrendered into a divine patterning that returns you more fully to yourself. Of which the gentle model is Bruno, a distant cousin of Eustace and a bookseller, who rescues Sebastian from the complications arising from the quest for the evening clothes and in whose later death, Sebastian finds a counterbalancing image to the one his uncle's had presented to him. A joyful living into a death that is a new beginning.

As always with the later Huxley, the zest of the ideas can sometimes overwhelm the dynamics of the story (as is apparent in the epilogue) but since the ideas are rich and compelling (and the characters illuminative rather than merely illustrative), you can forgive him.

You are, also, reminded how prescient Huxley was. He skewers our obsession with progress and the endless postponement of the good whilst we (often forcibly) rearrange the world, imagining that we are in control. Knowing that ultimately all we can control is our willingness to cooperate with grace and become who we were divinely gifted to be. Content in this,  many of our wantings dissolve and in a realisation of basic needs fulfilled, a true, caring ordering of our world might emerge.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Is there life after death?

You have been blind or deaf since birth. The physical reason for this is known, recorded and accepted. You have a traumatic health crisis - a cardiac arrest, a coma - where you find yourself, for the first time, having veridical perceptions of the world through senses you 'cannot' use. You see, you hear. You are resuscitated or recover and you are back with your blindness or deafness in tact. So not only were you having a heightened consciousness event when everything we think we know about the brain says, in all likelihood, you cannot be, you are having a heightened consciousness event, sensorily structured, that you have never had (in you body) before!

These are two of the most arresting examples of 'Near Death Experience' that Dr Pim van Lommel gives in his quiet, sober and yet provocative book, 'Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near Death Experience'. Van Lommel, with colleagues, was the first researcher to make a prospective (as distinct from retrospective) study of 'near death experience' (that was published in the Lancet in 2001). A prospective study, among heart patients in a number of Dutch hospitals, enables you not only to have a control group, who report no such experience, but allows you to immediately cross reference a person's first hand account with the accounts of the attending teams and with the medical data. Subsequent prospective studies correlate with Van Lommel's findings, and reinforce (while adjusting) past retrospective studies.

The book patiently proceeds through all the current physical/psychological approaches to explaining the experience and finds them wanting - either they are plain wrong or only partially suggest lines of enquiry that may just contribute to future understanding.

Near Death Experiences are, in Thomas Kuhn's language, anomalies in the prevailing scientific paradigm and they are not being easily wished (or explained) away.

So what does happen if we go back to the drawing board? There follows several 'difficult' chapters (that I will need to re-read with a damp towel around my head) on quantum mechanics, non-locality and the functioning of DNA. However, the core analogy is clear - the brain is a transceiver of consciousness, not its originator. Imagine the analogy of a television set - in order to receive pictures here and now in my living room, it must be switched on and functioning (and this latter may be of varying quality), but what it displays is not produced by it, it is picking up waves that are there whether the television is on or not.

Now none of this, Van Lommel graciously concedes, explains consciousness - perhaps consciousness if it is the fundamental field from which all things are born forth is 'inexplicable' - but it would not be the first 'field' or 'force' that itself is unseen but its effects are known (think gravity or electricity).

Nor, of course, does this come to terms with the irreducible subjectivity of the actual experience itself.

For me the most interesting, and moving, parts of the book are people's accounts of those experiences and the consequences of their aftermath. Many, unsurprisingly, found it very difficult to articulate - first because of the difficulty of putting it into words and second in sharing those descriptions with either medical professionals or loved ones who might (and often did and do) meet them with incredulity, even scorn.

However, the overwhelming testimony, backed by qualitative research, shows how an NDE - an out of body experience, an encounter with a light filled space beautiful beyond compare, a life review and unconditional love, and potentially an encounter with predeceased loved ones - does transform a person's life stance, behaviours and priorities, in usually highly positive ways. The fear of death goes, one becomes more loving and tolerant and engaged in spirituality and social action, concern for material possessions withers. Compellingly the effects appear to deepen over time, rather than fade away.

There was one finding too that I found highly instructive namely that whereas an engagement with spirituality rises significantly that with religion declines substantially! It is as if having been to the banquet, why would you want to keep chewing on the menu?

I was reminded of a story David Lorimer  told me (who himself has been very active in the field of Near Death studies over many years) of going to a science and religion conference and discovering that the only person there who was an empiricist was himself. The scientists and theologians were both very happy to exchange their well articulated and structured views about how the world was, each comfortable in their separate silos, but nobody wanted to step out on to the messy ground of what people's actual, empirical experience might be. Thus, the Sunday Telegraph quote at the back of Van Lommel's book, 'Church leaders will cite it as evidence for the existence of the soul' is, sadly, unlikely (if they read it rather than merely cite it) because, of course, it may transform (by adding new evidence) what people have believed 'on faith'. What 'faith' is, its content, may well have to change.

Genuine exploration is always deeply undermining of authority - whether scientific or religious - and van Lommel's book is a wonderful example of such an exploration, made doubly so by both his own willingness to describe how his views have changed and the obvious generosity of spirit with which he listens to his 'subjects' (and too responds to the rather ill-tempered attacks from the 'scientific establishment').

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Now All Roads Lead to France

I remember being lent a copy of W. H. Auden's selected poems by a school friend as we cruised through the Mediterranean at the age of sixteen. They were the first poems I read voluntarily. 'This is poetry,' I thought ambivalently. However, I was sufficiently drawn to persevere in a world, that before, had merely been suffered in the classroom under the all withering tutelage of my English teacher.

Off to the bookshop on my return home and, in browsing, I decided on two volumes, one of poetry and prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, who had the virtue of being a priest so something in his content might be salvageable; and, the 'Collected Poems of Edward Thomas' who struck me by his apparent accessibility and his writing of places familiar (in the English countryside) if not precisely known.

They were good choices, as it turned out, for both slowly entranced me. They approach a natural world with precise observation and loving care and with a contrasting presence and absence of faith.

I quickly added to their company more visionary fare - in Blake and Henry Vaughan - and cumulative pathways were set into a widening poetic land.

Your first loves, however, always leave their mark upon you and reading Matthew Hollis' wonderful "Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas" reminded me why I love this 'late born' and 'early killed' poet.

He began writing poetry in his late thirties drawing on his prose. It was, famously, Robert Frost that had suggested it had poetry in it - though as Hollis shows this was a seed that fell on prepared ground. He stopped writing poetry because he was killed at Arras shortly after deployment to the front in 1917. He left behind a body of work that Auden described as his having 'little or no hope of equalling'.

What makes it so special is its acute sense of objective observation of people and places known, engaged with, loved balanced with a mood of uncertainty - what do I actually think and feel about what I see so precisely and well? He captures both a unique moment writing, as he is, as the world he knows and loves is pressurized by war but also an everlasting moment where our shifting moods play over what we see, heightening both light and dark, mirroring our moods, often determining what we notice and regard.

This, I think, is beautifully symbolised in his marriage to Helen. He, though uncertain of his capacity to love, remains consistently faithful, even as his behaviour, to his shame, often emerging from depression, bites her. She, always faithful, convinced of the reality of his love meets his own shifting moods with persistent regard and care. He is the subjective pole that moves around a hard consistency. He sees both, in his human and natural relations, and the tension betwixt them and out of that tension comes the double edged seeing of his poetry - almost Chinese in its objective observation with a subjective, often melancholy twisting overlaid.

However, the book too is a beautiful account of the value of a friendship - with Robert Frost - and its meaning and a reminder that 'creativity' is not the solitary work of genius (though it may require much isolated and isolating labour) but a gift of conversation and of real meeting.

It is also a harrowing reminder, in this the hundredth anniversary of the conflicts starting, of the costliness of that conflict whose effects continue to percolate through our world. Though Thomas, unlike Sassoon and Owen, never directly addresses scenes of conflict - his immersion in it was in fact all too brief - but it haunts his steps, as Hollis shows, illuminating more deeply what he loves for its very, threatened fragility in the face of war.


Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


All day and night, save winter, every weather,
Above the inn, the smithy and the shop,
The aspens at the cross-roads talk together
Of rain, until their last leaves fall from the top.

Out of the blacksmith's cavern comes the ringing
Of hammer, shoe and anvil; out of the inn
The clink, the hum, the roar, the random singing -
The sounds that for these fifty years have been.

The whisper of the aspens is not drowned,
And over lightless pane and footless road,
Empty as sky, with every other sound
No ceasing, calls their ghosts from their abode,

A silent smithy, a silent inn, nor fails
In the bare moonlight or the thick-furred gloom,
In the tempest or the night of nightingales,
To turn the cross-roads to a ghostly room.

And it would be the same were no house near.
Over all sorts of weather, men, and times,
Aspens must shake their leaves and men may hear
But need not listen, more than to my rhymes.

Whatever wind blows, while they and I have leaves
We cannot other than an aspen be
That ceaselessly, unreasonably grieves,
Or so men think who like a different tree. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Revolutionaries of the Soul

It was the Enlightenment that put the final touch (in the West) on the division between our state of being or consciousness and our state of knowing. The latter, knowing, was now a function of one part of the mind, namely reason. This one dimensionality was matched in mainstream philosophic reactions with an emphasis on a contrasting sub-mind - 'the imagination' or 'feeling' or 'the will'! It was left to certain poets - Blake or Goethe - or the esotericists such as Swedenborg to defend traditional modes of knowing that linked what you beheld as the 'state of reality' with who you were - on the quality or state of your consciousness. Transforming consciousness through embodied practice was at the core of this view.

Gary Lachman's 'Revolutionaries of the Soul' is a series of essays on the defenders (and reanimators) of this traditional view in the West, through Yeats' 'three provincial centuries', down to our own time.

They range from the familiar such as Blavatsky and Jung, through the lesser know such as Dion Fortune to the frankly notorious such as Evola and Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed (and self-regarding) 'great beast'.

Each essay is a compressed, elegant vignette of the person's life reflected through their experience of a world other than the commonplace, daily reality of things and on their work to bring this other dimension to a more conscious level of knowing and living. They succeed both in being stimulating in themselves and as an invitation to further exploration. They succeed too in reminding us of the challenge and cost of maintaining a sacred view of things in the face of an age turned materialist, emptying out and privatising religion as it did so.

Often this encounter with the alternative possibilities of consciousness began in childhood such as the young Rudolf Steiner encountering the apparition of a female relative, asking for help, at the exact moment of her later reported suicide.  How were these psychic revelations to be understood - what manner of metaphysic gives account of them - and how were they to be integrated into the pattern of one's living?

The answers to these questions are many-fold, borrowing from traditions, West and East, and shaped within the biographies of diverse souls and yet sharing family resemblances both across traditions and within the particular biographies of each person.

However, I found myself thinking of themes implicit yet not directly addressed by Lachman's accomplished accounting.

Primary amongst which is the notion that truth needs not only to be understood but also withstood. The revelation of other worlds, other levels of consciousness, and their integration, require a level of physical and emotional maturity that not all of Lachman's subjects possessed and this possession depends on two key factors.

The first appears to be the ability to make sense of one's experience within an intellectual framework that is both owned and shared. Meaning springs from an abiding narrative that is woven within a life of an answering community. You may step into the fires of revelation as a 'solitary' explorer but coherence is granted by a hearing community. Jung plunged into his 'breakdown' alone (if within the context of a loving family) but emerged into a shared pattern of thinking and living that was embraced in his coterie of remarkable, primarily female supporters and co-workers, not least of whom was his wife, Emma. A number of Lachman's subjects committed suicide, in part, because apparently they could not reconcile their life of seeing with a community of being seen (and an accompanying assurance of intellectual coherence and life meaning).

The second appears to be a degree of emotional stability (or intelligence) that allows the challenge of transformation to rest within a space clear. I was reminded of a young monk who comes to study on Mount Athos, charged with the idea of becoming a 'holy elder'. His teacher gives him a copy of David Copperfield and suggests he read it. He is disgusted. He has not come for this - reading sentimental nineteenth century novels. His teacher admonishes him: if he cannot absorb the normal lessons of a commonly shared, compassionate humanity, how does he imagine he can go further into the demands of a supernatural love? A number of Lachman's subjects appear disabled by their inability to rest in emotional currents of ordinary fellow feeling and outstretching empathy. The space from which we can respond to 'revelatory experience' with the necessary mix of assurance and humility; and, can affect the difficult work of what in Zen is called 'polishing the stone', of bringing the new awakened sense of reality home, within the dynamic complexities of our lived life.

Many of the most attractive of Lachman's revolutionaries are so because they have both an intellectual (even if you may disagree with the content)  and an emotional coherence and express their vision through patterns of shared healing. They were not simply theoretical revolutionaries - their revolution remade the possibilities of their soul, souling and an empathetic offering to others.

For myself, it is the accounts of Swedenborg, Jung, Steiner, Jean Gebser and Owen Barfield for which I am most grateful. Through all of them runs a current of do not look at me but search within for your own, gifted resilience, hope and wisdom. Running through them is the sense that their intellectual exploration was truly married with the embodied ability to ensoul their lives and the lives of others in practice.

Finally, it is a sense that you could be trapped in a lift with them in the confidence that you would emerge with a shared wisdom, carried in an abiding compassion.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Edge of Extinction

The Anglo-Welsh painter and poet, David Jones, knew that a landscape only becomes real to us when it is, "actually loved and known", when we inhabit it not only physically but in the histories and stories that it carries as part of a living community and tradition.

It is a lesson that Jules Pretty, Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex, exemplifies in this fine book, "The Edges of Extinction" that takes us on a journey through twelve particular places from New Zealand to the desert landscape of the United States and allows those places, and their people, to speak of what they 'actually love and know'.

In doing so, he invites us to consider how these communities, many fragile, embattled yet always courageous in the face of the march of 'progress', have deeply valuable stories to tell of how we might re-envision our own relationship to place, and the place that is our earthly home.

The stories, beautifully unfolded, slowly accumulate into helpful lessons for living of which I would like to identify four.

The first is the the importance of inviting conversation and of listening to what emerges. So often these are communities that have been deliberately marginalised and yet no one is better equipped to understand the realities of their place. You have the image of the Corps of Engineers spending billions of dollars trying to overawe the ecosystems of Louisiana, to render them 'safe' for human living (or perhaps commerce) without ever once consulting the long accumulation of local knowledge, embedded in indigenous occupants and long time resident alike. Repeated failure does not appear to imbue any humility in the engineers! Yet, as the example, of Tuva shows, when an indigenous community are in power there is, at least, the restored possibility of a sensible pattern of land use after the depredations of 'Soviet scientific agriculture'.

The second is that conservation can only be fully achieved if we allow ourselves to live within and be bounded by natural limits - extracting ourselves is always a failure. The most common form of extraction is, of course, our current consumerist trajectory, living as if neither local nor planetary boundaries truly mattered. But there are others - the conceit, for example, that many of the so called wilderness areas should be depleted of humans to make for their long term viability, not recognising that indigenous people have been an essential part of the landscape's life for generations. This practice has resulted in the creation of 'conservation refugees' - like the San Bushman in Botswana expelled so that tourists can enjoy the illusion of 'pristine nature'. Or where we force populations to become sedentary so they can be fully 'civilised', deeply wounding them in the process, like the Inuit in Canada, forced into dispirited settlements so they can be educated like us, depriving them of the nomadic patterns that allow for wholeness. There is a beautifully moving section of the chapter from Labrador where a young Inuit reestablishes the tradition of long distance journeys through the landscape and invites people, young especially, to join him, each winter: a modern enabling of a long tradition. One that reminds us of recent studies on the importance of being in nature for the preservation and deepening of our own well-being; for example, in studies relating to the reduction of attention deficit disorders in children that comes with exposure to play in nature.

The third is that this pattern of embodied listening to and living in a particular place gives rise to forms of knowledge that we may be tempted within our materialist frames to dismiss; and, yet, these forms arise, and complement, more mainstream, scientific manners of knowing. What does it mean, for example, when a traditional fisherman in Finland says that it is a tradition in his family that they dream where fish are located and he does not mean it metaphorically? What does it mean, as a Polynesian sailor, to navigate great distances over open bodies of water, with striking accuracy, using a range of sensory and intuited knowledge that extends the boundaries of what it would be normally imagined we can pay attention to? It is to Jules' credit that he reports these occasions with an open minded phenomenology that allow them to stand pondering in our own minds without rush to any conclusions.

The fourth is that we are only likely to preserve what we first learn to love; and, that here are a continuous series of images of what can and is loved, embodied in real people, living fulfilled lives, that are happy. Time and again in Jules' chapters, people speak of their love for the world in this their particular places whether it be of the nomadism of Tuvan herders or traditional fisherman in Finland or the Amish renewing the possibilities of agriculture on their highly productive small farms in Ohio. The Amish are a powerful example of the possibility of love of community, of the valuing of social capital, as a filter through which to judge change. Is it good for the community is their key test for any proposed innovation - the Amish are not 'archaic' but their movement through time moves at a different pace, one more attuned to what makes for long term sustainability. As a result, they weathered the 2008 crisis with merely a ripple of its recognition. The key to a long term sustainable future is an appeal to a loving care of beauty and the vibrant communities it gives rise to, rather than either the instilling of fear of catastrophe or utilitarian calculation.

It is, finally, this recurring testimony that makes the book not only a thoughtful exploration of the lives of others, genuinely other, tracking different paths to the mainstream, but a tracing of the patterns of what it might mean to love a place and be at home in it.

The homes themselves are all strikingly different but bound by being places that first and foremost are genuinely listened to - its possibilities and the stories it can give rise to.

The invitation is to truly listen to where we are and build a renewing life out of that shared landscape of hearing.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...