Poem – I shall set beauty

This morning I read a beautiful poem by someone I know who suffers from cancer. I was overwhelmed by her courage, and the wonderful images she had conjured up. It inspired me to write the poem below. (Just in case any reader is concerned that I am the subject of the poem – I am not, thank goodness.)

I shall set beauty seagull - 180424

I shall set beauty

Against this thing,

This gnawing thing,

Against this greedy, gnawing thing

That steals my body, steals my ease,

This greedy, gnawing, agonising thing

That steals my light,

I shall set beauty.

 

The beauty of an owl’s flight

In the dark night,

The beauty of a gull that glides

Above the endless tides,

The golden beauty, pure and bright,

Of an angel shining with gentle light,

These will defend me in my fight.

 

And yet the beast grows strong,

It feasts, a glutton,

It swallows all I savour,

It swells, burgeons,

Spawns

As I grow frail

And slowly crumble.

 

What help is beauty as the end draws near?

Even the gold of angel’s wings cannot stop fear,

The gull soars free while I lie helpless here.

 

And yet…

It is enough…

 

A long shadow

We are all shaped by joy and sadness. We all experience tragedy at some point in our life. Sometimes events echo down generations. Sometimes healing takes many years to accomplish. How we deal with tragedy makes a difference to its effect on us. If we can accept it, we can find healing. It’s a different matter if we rail against it, and curse…

A long shadow Khao Lak 170815

A long shadow

The ocean at Khao Lak was pellucid aquamarine, and it glittered with a million shards of reflected light. Throughout the rehearsal for his son’s betrothal, Narong seemed uneasy, glancing repeatedly at the water, swallowing, clenching his fists. Rehearsal over, the other participants drifted away, laughing and chattering; Narong began to weep.

Seeing a grown man cry was horrible. Narong had always shown iron self-control and yet suddenly he was broken. He no longer seemed to care what other people would think of him. The tears flooded, the nose streamed, the mouth drooled, the body heaved in great sobs. It was disgusting. No son should ever feel disgusted by his father.

“Dad! Wipe your face. Duangkamol will see you. She’ll think you’re mad!”

I urged my father across the hotel lobby towards the lift. Please let it come soon, and be empty!

In the lift, I handed my father my handkerchief.

“Here, clean yourself up. This is my betrothal, for goodness sake.”

I kept my finger on the button to keep the doors closed until he was presentable, then I pushed him onwards until he was safely out of sight in our suite.

“Now, pull yourself together. You must be over this by eight o’clock, ready for the banquet.” He nodded, then his eyes filled again and he curled into a ball on the bed, sobbing as though his heart was broken.

I headed for the bar. I needed a whisky.

“Somchair!”

I turned.

“Aunt Lamai! It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you, too!” She gave me a beaming smile, and held out her arms for a hug. I embraced her heartily, engulfed by the brightly patterned silk of her clothing.

“I’m sorry, I need a drink, Auntie. Would you like to join me? I’m going to the bar.”

After a glance at me, she said, “I would love a glass of iced tea, Somchair. Is the bar the best place for that? I’m not used to luxury like this hotel.”

“I don’t know about the best place, Auntie, but they’ll certainly serve it, and I’m afraid I need something stronger.”

I made her comfortable in a corner, and ordered the iced tea and a double scotch.

“Nerves?”

I shook my head.

“Well you don’t have to tell me, of course.”

Aunt Lamai looked disappointed. I loved my aunt. After my mum died, she’d given me the same love she’d given her own children. I felt like her child.

“It’s Dad. We’d just finished a rehearsal for tomorrow’s ceremony when he broke down. I mean, totally broke down. I had to rush him back to the suite.”

Aunt Lamai thought for a moment. “Could you see the sea?” she asked.

I was surprised by her question.

“Yes, we could. Why do you ask?”

“Well, this is where it happened, isn’t it, Somchair? Have you forgotten the wave?”

It had all been so quick. One moment I had been happily playing at the water’s edge, the next Dad had seized me, picked me up. He was yelling, “Achara! Run! Run!”

I remembered my mother’s face, stiff with shock, staring out to sea. With a last despairing shout of “Run, Achara!” my father had started to race shorewards.

The wave struck.

My memory thereafter is of a wild, brown confusion, of being now under the water, now on my father’s chest as he held me above him; of pain, as the water scrubbed me against obstacles; and, finally, of darkness that ended with agonising retching as I coughed brine and mud out of my lungs and came back into the light.

And then the blankness of learning that Achara, my beloved mama, was dead.

“Why do you think your Dad never remarried, Somchair?” asked Lamai, softly.

“I should never have come here again. I should have guessed.”

Lamai shook her head.

“No. You were right to come. These are your roots, yours and Duangkamol’s too. You were born here, and you were reborn here when your father saved you.”

“What do I do, Lamai? How can I help him? What a burden he must have carried!”

“I always wished he’d married again. Achara and I were very close. After she had died, I could feel her longing for him to find someone else. But Narong is a strong man. He once said to me, ‘I saved my dear son, but I should have been able to save them both. I left her to die.’”

Lamai sighed.

“Go and talk to him, Somchair. No, go and listen to him. Make him tell you what it has been like. Help him to feel he hasn’t failed. Help him to lay her to rest.”

She patted my hand. “I must join my family. Thank you for the drink.”

Her smile was as soft as goosedown, her eyes filled with a wistful hope.

My father rarely drank, but when he did it was cognac that he chose. I bought a large one, and went up to our suite. Narong was lying on the bed, rigid, eyes staring at the ceiling.

“Dad. Dad!”

Slowly he turned his face to me.

“I’ve brought you a cognac. Would you like to sit up?”

I thought he wasn’t going to answer. He looked at me, wooden-faced. At last he cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You are a good son, and I shamed you.”

“Here, let me help you up.”

He glared at me and sat up, then rose to his feet and moved towards the balcony. I followed, shaking with agitation. My father opened the door and stepped out onto the balcony overlooking the sea. He walked to the rail. I stood beside him. Together we gazed at the ilne where sky and water met. I saw beauty; but what nightmares was my father confronting?

“I couldn’t save you both,” he said at last. “I don’t really know if I saved you. It was sheer dumb luck that we weren’t washed against concrete, or…” He stopped, swallowed. “Or a tree. I never told you. That was how your mother…” he paused again, “how Achara, my beloved Achara, died. She had escaped drowning, only to be broken against a tree.”

There was a depth of sorrow in his eyes that I had never noticed before; I had seen only the fierceness of the thin, straight mouth in his domineering face; and yet, now that I had perceived the sorrow, I knew it had always been there.

I put my arm around him. He stiffened, but then relaxed.

“I cursed that tree, Somchair. I cursed the sea. I cursed this town. They took my beloved from me, and I hated them all. But here they are; and I have been the one living under a curse.

Achara is at peace now, Somchair. I am at peace. Will you come with me to her grave? We will take flowers, lotus, her favourite.”

For a few minutes longer we gazed into the infinite. I poured out the cognac as an offering; to whom I could not say, but it seemed right; and my father and I left arm in arm to find flowers.

 

Thai names, and their meanings

Lamai – a woman of soft skin, a caring person

Narong – one who creates war, or is always ready for war

Somchair – one who is macho or manly

Duangkamol – right from the heart

Achara – an angel, who is very pretty or beautiful

Khao Lak – a small town devastated by the tsunami in 2004. Somchair is 21, nearly 22, so he was 9 at the time.

In the moment – Growing Older

In the moment – Growing Older

When I was young – and even when I was mature – I had quite the wrong idea about what it was like to be old. I thought it was just slower, everything a little less acute. Perhaps, too, I felt that grey hair was an indication of a greyer, less vivid experience of life.

Now I know that I move slowly because I have less energy; that hearing less well makes it harder to have a conversation in a roomful of chattering people; that my sense of smell has deteriorated.

And yet, I’m more joyful now than I’ve ever been.

Largely that’s because I know and accept who I am. It’s also because I have learned, at least to some extent, to live ‘in the moment’ – savouring the experience of life, whatever it is, moment by moment.

DSC00002

There are also blessings that are reserved for older people; grandchildren, plenty of time to reflect, leisure to spend with those you love.

So, although it’s been years since I could run upstairs, I can walk up them and read a bedtime story to my grandchildren.

Although I can’t smell the coffee in the morning, I don’t have to rush off to work. I sit with my wife over breakfast and enjoy her company.

I’m no longer the fastest to solve problems and learn new skills, but I can quarry my experience for memories and images, wisdom that I can share with others.

I no longer have the responsibility and status of working as a manager, but I have time for the privilege and joy of sharing love with my friends.

And as for ‘a less vivid experience of life’ – nothing of the sort! Life is great!

 

In the moment – negative emotions

It’s easiest to open up and be aware of our emotions when we feel secure, and when we think the experience will be a happy one. Often, we have a special place for this. I have several – on Dartmoor, by the River Erme, by the sea, beautiful places where I usually feel happy.

Bluebell wood 170508

Despite this, though, there will be times when the emotion is negative. We’ll feel angry with somebody, or upset that something has happened, or let down because we’ve been disappointed. And that’s okay. We don’t feel good every minute of every day, and it would be wrong to expect that.

Mindfulness can be helpful when we recognise and accept a negative emotion as it happens. Note the phrase and accept’. This is a key part of being mindful.

Let me give you an example. Like most people, as I made progress in my career I needed training in new skills. I’ll admit something embarrassing; I’m not very good about being trained! Unless the training was very good, I became critical and argued with the trainer. For years I was probably a bit of a nightmare trainee! Then I started to practise mindfulness.

I needed to recognise and accept when I was becoming angry. That gave me space to ask myself “Why are you getting cross, Penny?”. Usually, the answer was, “Because I don’t think this trainer’s doing a very good job”. To which my mindful self could reply, “So what? They’re doing the best they can. It’s stuff you need to know. Getting cross is a waste of energy and you don’t need to do it.” Little by little I found that recognition of the anger enabled me to let go of it.

That’s a small example. However, if you add up lots of occasions when you’ve appreciated that you’re happy, and lots of occasions when you’ve recognised and dealt with negative emotions, that adds up to a significantly happier life.

One final point. Life has many challenges, both in the physical world and in our mental health. There will definitely be times when you feel a negative emotion and it stays with you. If there is an obvious cause in your circumstances for a negative emotion – bereavement, for example – then mindfulness can help a bit, but of course it’s not a magic bullet. If there is no obvious cause for persistent, frequent or long-lasting negative emotions, then, while mindfulness can help, you would be wise to also seek professional support from a counsellor.

 

In the moment – the power of a symbol

Sufferers from anxiety know that the condition can be debilitating. I was in that state some years ago; thankfully I’ve now recovered. In the recovery, I learned a number of mental habits that help me to avoid recurrences; living ‘in the moment’ is one of them; hypnosis for relaxation is another. I recently came across another influence, namely the power of symbols.

Miyajima cherry blossom 170425

I’ve recently returned from a holiday in Japan. I’ll start this post by confirming what a wonderful holiday it was. It was full of interest, full of beauty, full of emotion. My wife Daphne and I really enjoyed it.

It was a big, important holiday; we cashed in savings to be able to afford it. I was looking forward to it eagerly – but I was also apprehensive, because I am prone to anxiety attacks. They are sometimes very unpleasant, and they’re triggered by stress…

Travel – especially long haul flights – can be stressful. A different culture – and Japanese culture is pretty different from European culture! – can be stressful. Visiting a place where you don’t understand the language can be stressful – and although English is taught to all children in Japan, it’s not widely spoken, and only the most important signs are in English as well as Japanese.

And yet I have returned feeling tranquil, and the feeling has endured. This was sufficiently unexpected that I have tried hard to understand it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any definite conclusions, but here are some of the thoughts.

Before going to Japan, I recognised that I might suffer from anxiety, and I accepted the possibility. I find that acceptance is a big deal. It goes at least halfway towards dealing with anxiety symptoms. I must make a very clear distinction at this point. To accept the possibility that something might happen, is definitely not the same as expecting it to happen. It’s the exact opposite of worrying about something. It’s realising that something may happen, and saying “Yes, I understand that, I accept the possibility. I don’t have to worry about it.”

So I considered in advance what might happen.

The anxiety would be very unpleasant. Could I get through an attack without going home? Yes. Could I get through two attacks without going home? Er, yes, probably. What about repeated attacks? It would spoil the holiday but I’d survive.

What about a worst-case scenario? The worst case would be that I would have repeated anxiety attacks that would leave me feeling so vulnerable that we would have to return home before the end of the tour. It would be a great shame to lose the holiday. It would cost a lot of extra money to change flights for an early return.

I consciously accepted that this could happen, and used my usual hypnotic relaxation regime to put aside any worrying about it.

I’m sure it helped. But I’m equally sure that it’s not the whole story.

Could the tranquillity have arisen as a result of having succeeded in surviving the stress of the holiday? I took on the challenge of a visit that in prospect I found quite intimidating, and came through it unscathed. Was I just feeling relief?

Well, I suppose it’s possible. But the tranquillity seems such an active feeling. I’m a slightly different woman from the one who set off to Japan. I would have expected relief to be a reactive feeling, and to dissipate quickly.

One of the features of the holiday was that we visited some important Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines. Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eight-fold Path, and includes a recognition that human suffering is unavoidable. It also teaches, among many other things, that true happiness can be attained despite human suffering, by relinquishing useless craving and by living in the moment. Surrounded as we were by pilgrims, it seems possible that some of their piety ‘rubbed off’ on me, so to speak.

Beyond any of these possible explanations, though, my emotions tell me that the answer may lie in the symbol of cherry blossom. It was the ‘Cherry Blossom Tour’ that we took, and there were several occasions when the symbolism of the blossom overwhelmed me emotionally. The blossom is beautiful – and transient. But the symbolism goes far beyond the recurrence of beauty in the world despite personal tragedy. I can’t explain it; I had to experience it.

I suspect that Japan has given me a most valuable gift. I’m so glad we took the holiday!