Giving up the past

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

A little piece I wrote back in 2010 – Sanitation? … or sanitization? – has been receiving a bit of attention from blog-readers in recent times, so I took another look at it myself … and it seems quite an appropriate topic for the season of Lent (which began last Wednesday (05 March).

Responding to a comment on the original post, I explained that “The between-the-lines inferences and implications of my post [had] to do, on the one hand, with destroying incriminating evidence, hiding my inner life … and, on the other hand, with holding on to mementos and souvenirs, and maintaining a record of things I [wanted] to remember.”

A bit cryptic – to say the least.

In the original post, I quoted something from A. Whitney Brown: “The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.” (A. Whitney Brown, in The Big Picture)

What I didn’t make clear, in that 2010 post, is that what happened in the past is still in the past – nothing of the event itself is actually happening now. In effect, all that’s happening now is that a voice in my head is reading aloud what got written down in the past, and maybe reminding me about the wrong I have done and the good I have not done … and maybe I’m cringing, feeling guilty.

An act of contrition is one thing; getting rid of the rubbish is another. But this is not a lenten sermon, so back to the crux of the matter: “Giving up the past”.

In my experience, the inclination to clutter is often the outcome of either of two impulses: at one extreme is the Proustian urge to document everything (see note 1 below); at the other end of the scale, I hang on to things I cannot find the inner resources to attend to, process, or deal with.

Of late, I’ve been managing pretty much all the day-to-day chores and commitments, but there is a persistent residue that is harder to shift. A high percentage of that stuff still clutters my living-space; the remainder clutters my mind and my heart. The physical clutter is the manifestation of inner states, and its persistence is invariably anchored in the past.

The prophet Isaiah – who, by the way, had some worthwhile things to say about fasting and repentance (see Note 2 below) – said: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” (Isaiah 43:18, NIV). Whilst digging around on the interweb, I found a nice paraphrase: “When your past calls, let it go to voice-mail. It has nothing new to say.”

So I have plenty of work to do – giving up my past, and putting out the psychological and emotional trash.
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NOTES:

1/ Proust, who claims to have no memory, keeps track of everything. His letters (there are several thousand) provide a running inventory of his bodily functions – letters to his mother providing an update of his respiratory condition, letters to his doctor listing the details of his menu, little notes handed to his housekeeper every morning reporting the number of times he coughed the night before. (Rebecca Comay, in Proust’s Remains)  

2/ The symbolism of the familiar Ash Wednesday ritual – a cross smeared on the forehead using the ashes of palms gathered up after the Palm Sunday procession – connects back to repentance practices in Old Testament times – see Isaiah 58, for example. 

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Everything happens for a reason

Everything happens for a reason and this reason is usually physics

graffiti on tile

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How many people do you know who – even though they don’t profess any sort of religious affiliation – are convinced that “everything happens for a reason”? Or else they say particular things are “meant to be” … or “not meant to be”.

An example: A customer comes into the store you work in and looks at a set of dinner bowls, or a beautiful French knife, a hand-crafted scarf, or a pair of gold earrings. You come out from behind the counter and spend time with the customer, attentive without being pushy. You know she really wants that lovely thing, and you intuit that she’s trying to convince herself it’s okay to make the purchase.

“If it’s here when I come in on pay-day,” she tells you, “I’ll know it was meant to be.” And you realise there’s a ‘back-story’ underlying her behaviour – one about which we know virtually nothing – like the string of silk handkerchiefs a magician might pull from his sleeve at a children’s birthday party. (Yes, it’s a trick, a deception, but very effective when expertly handled.)

“Everything happens for a reason and this reason is usually physics.” I’m on Facebook, and this meme has been posted by a page calling itself Empty and Meaningless. One pedantic person has commented: “Except that it’s called a ’cause’ instead of a ‘reason’.” Yeah, yeah. Yadda yadda yadda.

The point is that the machinery of “life, the universe, and everything” operates on the basis of cause and effect. Chaos theory and quantum physics have tried to explain it, of course, with talk of things like the butterfly effect – but it’s still mindbogglingly complicated.

And what about when things go wrong? Do they really happen in threes? “The perceived perversity of the universe has long been a subject of comment, and precursors to the modern version of Murphy’s law are not hard to find” (Wikipedia: Murphy’s Law). But there’s nothing perverse about it. Everything that could possibly happen is waiting in the wings, eager for its opportunity, its big moment. And as soon as it gets a chance, it’ll happen. Don’t take it personally.

But of course we do tend to take everything personally. And rightly so, because each of us lives in a unique – and uniquely personalised – world that exists only in our mind. “Reality is not what it seems to be, nor is it otherwise” (Tibetan Buddhist teaching). Furthermore, “We don’t know what matter is any more than we know what mind is” (Christian de Quincy, in The Paradox of Consciousness).

So if most of what is happening within us and around us can be explained by (or at least attributed to) physics, what else is there which – albeit less frequently and/or less likely – might have something to do with driving what’s happening?

There’s a Talmudic tradition that “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow’.” Alan Lurie explains that “everything yearns to grow; it is an inherent drive embedded in all creation”(Listening To The Call Of Growth). “According the Talmudic writer, one of the forces that angels carry is the urge to grow – to develop, improve, and evolve. By noting that even every blade of grass is imbued with this urge, the Talmudic saying teaches that, like light, gravity, and electromagnetism, growth is a ubiquitous force of nature.”

Life is opportunistic. Everything yearns to grow.

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NOTES:

1/ The origins of Yadda yadda yadda can be traced back with certainty to the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce in the early 1960s (see The Straight Dope for further information).

2/ Recommended reading: Consciousness and Reality (Peter Russell).

3/ “Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.” (René Magritte)

 

 

Plink! Planck! Plunk!

plank (27 February 2012)

plank (27 February 2012)

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve. (Max Planck)

Nobody intended me to see this – let alone photograph and exhibit it. It was just there, being itself. Some carpenter nailed it up as part of a fence, but I have deliberately dismantled that particular functionality and reconstituted it as a work of art.

Frankly, the original photograph (now more than a year old) was marred by fish-eye distortion, and I had filed it away, doubting it was worth spending Photoshop time on. But what I had seen didn’t go away; the idea of it persisted.

So here it is. Make of it what you will.

There is no matter as such – mind is the matrix of all matter. (Max Planck

Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right there in the imperfection is perfect reality. (Shunryu Suzuki)

Culture of encounter – the foundation of peace

Pope Francis with dove

Pope Francis

“Doing good” is a principle that unites all humanity, beyond the diversity of ideologies and religions, and creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace: this is what Pope Francis said at Mass this morning at the Domus Santae Martae …” (Vatican Radio, 22 May 2013)

“In a message delivered Wednesday via Vatican Radio, the new pontiff distinguished himself with a call for tolerance and a message of support – and even admiration – toward nonbelievers.” (Salon, 24 May 2013)

The pope spoke of the need to meet each other somewhere on our on common ground. “Pope Francis … stated that it doesn’t matter if people are non-believers as long as ‘we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.'” (Free Your Mind and Think (24 May 2013))

But doing good, according to Francis, is not a matter of faith. On 16 March this year, the new pontiff told journalists he was “inspired to take the 11th-century saint’s name because he was ‘the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation,’ the same created world ‘with which we don’t have such a good relationship.'” (Catholic News Service) For Francis, doing good clearly means tackling the world’s problems.

“This commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace,” Francis explains. The story in Salon calls the pope’s words “a deeper affirmation of his comments back in March, when he declared that the faithful and atheists can be ‘precious allies … to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.'” (Salon, 24 May 2013)

The words of the Dalai Lama come to mind here: “Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.”

Predictably, Pope Francis’ call to “do good” has met with a wide range of responses. One comment on Facebook was quick to remind us that “he still condemns same-sex marriage, last I heard.” Other comments accuse the Roman Catholic Church of “protecting pedophile priests”.

On and on it goes.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. (Rūmī)

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. (Rūmī)

Michael Schultheiß / Schultze / Praetorius

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Born on 15 February 1571, Creuzburg an der Werra, Michael Praetorius died in Wolfenbüttel on his 50th birthday, 15 February 1621.

According to Wikipedia, he was born Michael Schultze, the youngest son of a Lutheran pastor, in Creuzburg, in present-day Thuringia. The CyberHymnal says his real name was Michael Schultheiß (German for ‘mayor’, which in La­tin is ‘Praetorius’).

Wikipedia adds: “His family name in German appears in various forms including Schultze, Schulte, Schultheiss, Schulz and Schulteis. Praetorius was the conventional Latinized form of this family name.”

The Dances from Terpsichore, a compendium of over 300 instrumental dances, is his most widely-known work – and, regrettably, his sole surviving secular work. His harmonization of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming) – written by Praetorius in 1609 – is a particular favourite.

From your Valentine

Antique Valentine (1909)

Antique Valentine (1909)

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I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street.

(WH Auden, in As I Walked Out One Evening, 1935)

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Saint Valentine’s Day – also known as the Feast of Saint Valentine – is an official feast day in the Anglican Communion, as well as in the Lutheran Church.

At last count, there were as many as three saints named Valentinus associated with 14 February, and up to eleven commemorated by the Roman Catholic Church on various days. But in the 1969 revision of the Calendar of Saints, the feast day of Saint Valentine was removed from the General Roman Calendar and relegated to local and regional calendars. (adapted from Wikipedia)

The Wikipedia article also explains that “The day was first associated with romantic love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the High Middle Ages, when the tradition of courtly love flourished. By the 15th century, it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards (known as valentines).”

With Lent falling so early this year (Ash Wednesday yesterday), roses and chocolate might seem frivolously at odds with spiritual practice – but the florists and confectioners are counting on the commercialisation of courtly love.

In spiritual practice all religions are connected


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If you examine the great religions of the world, you can discern philosophical and metaphysical views, on the one hand, and daily spiritual practice, on the other. Although the philosophical views differ and sometimes contradict each other, in spiritual practice all religions are connected. They all recommend inner transformation of our stream of consciousness, which will make us better, more devout people. (His Holiness The Dalai Lama)

Dressing the tree

dressing the tree (19 Dec 2012)

dressing the tree (19 Dec 2012)

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The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime. (Encyclopædia Britannica)

Over recent years, it has been my habit to wind a green garland of synthetic pine around a cylinder of chicken wire, and to dress it with white lights and clear glass baubles. Year by year – remaining loyal to our family tradition – I have added to the collection of ornaments.

For this first Christmas in my new apartment, I wanted something sculptural and spare to complement the quiet stillness of my décor, but which would nevertheless look good dressed in glass. So I went to Trade Aid‘s Wellington store and bought a tall tree woven from bamboo.

The photo shows only part of the tree … I hadn’t yet decided on what this year’s new additions ought to be.

Cantillation signs – “black-limbed curlicues”

example of biblical Hebrew trope

example of biblical Hebrew trope (from Wikipedia article on “Cantillation”)

“In the holy tongue, cantillation signs are called taamin, which also means flavors. These little flourishes above and below the letters not only score the melody of the text, they bring out its essence. In time, you, too, will savor the holy verses.” (Zalman, in Anouk Markovits’s novel, I am Forbidden [p54])

… In Josef’s sleep, the black-limbed curlicues scuffled and spun threads he could not unravel, Zalman stories within Christ stories amid which Josef searched for a last letter, a first letter, that spelled a lost word. (I am Forbidden, by Anouk Markovits [p54])

“Cantillation signs guide the reader in applying a chant to Biblical readings. This chant is technically regarded as a ritualized form of speech intonation rather than as a musical exercise like the singing of metrical hymns: for this reason Jews always speak of saying or reading a passage rather than of singing it.” (from Wikipedia)

Anouk Markovits has such a remarkable power to weave words. “But the wonder of this elegant, enthralling novel,” as Susannah Meadows so aptly puts it in her review for The New York Times, “is the beauty Ms Markovits unearths in the Hasidic community she takes us into. She remains largely nonjudgmental about the most difficult-to-grasp practices of the Satmar sect, while showing how even the most fervent believers struggle with the letter-of-the-law faith.”

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Markovits, Anouk. 2012. I am forbidden. London: Hogarth

For links to reviews and related material, see The taste of clouds, (07 Nov 2012)

The taste of clouds

"I am Forbidden" – cover

“I am Forbidden” – cover

On the crest of the Pont des Arts, they leaned over the bridge’s railing and turned up their palms for the first drops of rain. The sky unleashed itself and they whirled as they had as children, arms stretched wide as their tongues searched their lips for the taste of clouds. (Anouk Markovits, in I am Forbidden [p138]) 

As I read I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits – pen and paper always at the ready – the text drew me, deeper and deeper, into a profound experience. There is much to share … but not all at once.

Anouk Markovits was raised a Hasidic Jew in France, but at 19 she fled her community to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to get a master’s degree in architecture and a PhD in romance studies. “I Am Forbidden,” her first novel in English, centers on two Hasidic sisters: one who leaves, and one who stays, shunning modernity. (from a review published in The New York Times (15 May 2012)

There’s a succinct synopsis on GoodReads, and a review with links to related material on The Telegraph.

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Markovits, Anouk. 2012. I am forbidden. London: Hogarth