Thursday, 1 December 2016

I Admire A Teacher

It's afternoon, already after dark, and I'm sitting in the corner of a small music room.  I keep my coat on, though it's warm.  The radiator's providing a background swish of moving water. 

I'm pretending to be passing through, waiting to take my son home, popping in to sit in on the end of his lesson, but in reality, I've arrived far too early and I'm audience. The teacher knows this, and is kind: extends the allotted time into evening.

What I see, what I hear is this: a teacher giving of himself, of his years of accumulated technical skill and musicianship, boundless in his generosity.  He's passing on wisdom, understanding, compassion, diligence, and all this across several decades to my young son who sits, guitar propped classically on his left knee, as they chat in-between playing.

This talking is as much as the practice in these lessons.  I watch them draw meaning out of their age-differences, their common passion, their acknowledgement of what joins and separates them. For now they're discussing the various means of plucking the strings in order to achieve the warmth needed for Villa Lobos.

This is a master class.  I'm watching what it is to teach by drawing out the knowledge of what makes truth beautiful from all that's available: the music itself, the instrument, his own experience and expertise and my son's unique and forming understanding of the world.  And he does this with the tender authority of one who knows himself and his art, who desires above all that his pupil finds as much joy in its pursuit as he does.

Monday, 21 November 2016

I Bare My Psyche

I've been tidying my desk.  Something to do with jogging the Park Run has made me think I can achieve other impossible feats.  I've been tidying my desk and I came across a list.

I jogged five or so years ago as a way of trying to defeat sadness.  Sadness won, so I went to therapy.

"How do you feel?" my therapist, TP, asked each week.
"Sad," I replied, each week.
"What does it feel like, this sadness?"  TP persisted.
"Well .... sort of .... sad."
"For a poet," TP stated, never one to hold back from the necessary truth, "you're remarkably inarticulate about emotions."

What the sadness felt like was a weight I'd been carrying since Upper 3 Biology with Miss Beynon.  I could tell you about how I was working hard, copying a diagram of a radish from the board, labelling tap roots and leaves, wanting her approval.  But the point is that in the middle of recording and analysing life according to someone else's prescription, I realised everything was meaningless.  And I realised Miss Beynon preferred plants to children.

I was 11 and the afternoon sun was making things too hot in the lab, and I had a home-made haircut, and a home-made skirt and a home-made God-given attitude, and I didn't know what to do with this feeling.  These feelings.

I tried re-thinking things in History, and found a bit of relief in hearing about the Battle of Waterloo, but after that, the weight never left me.

Never one to take the truth or an insult lying down, I prepared myself for therapy, and TP's next knowing provocation, and started a list, took it as a script to my next session.  That'll learn you. We ended up laughing, a lot.

And I found out that the point of everything, for me, is to know how, exactly, to go about, and around and about, naming things.

One Hundred Words For Sad

1.       inadequate

2.       sorrowful

3.       leaden

4.       ruined

5.       desolate

6.       despairing

7.       depressed

8.       deflated

9.       damaged

10.   dead

11.   dreadful

12.   desperate

13.   anxious

14.   lonely

15.   overwhelmed

16.   vulnerable

17.   weak

18.   flat

19.   heavy

20.   sombre

21.   tired

22.   lost

23.   apathetic

24.   bitter

25.   resentful

26.   gloomy

27.   grumpy

28.   dumb

29.   condemned

30.   pathetic

31.   hurt

32.   judged

33.   disheartened

34.   shrivelled

35.   trapped

36.   frozen

37.   absent

38.   melancholy

39.   distressed

40.   unhappy

41.   discomforted

42.   glum

43.   afraid

44.   wounded

45.   stressed

46.   guilty

47.   insecure

48.   paranoid

49.   marginalised

50.   miserable

51.   disillusioned

52.   deserted

53.   failed

54.   bereft

55.   abandoned

56.   forlorn

57.   barren

58.   low

59.   blue

60.   misunderstood

61.   purposeless

62.   aimless

63.   dreary

64.   hapless

65.   useless

66.   pathetic

67.   morose

68.   fatalistic

69.   trapped

70.   resigned

71.   disappointing

72.   disappointed

73.   dissatisfied

74.   fearful

75.   pained

76.   careworn

77.   weary

78.   defeated

79.   helpless

80.   hopeless

81.   friendless

82.   alone

83.   redundant

84.   insignificant

85.   doomed

86.   destroyed

87.   pointless

88.   fucked up

89.   scattered

90.   fractured

91.   splintered

92.   fragmented

93.   bruised

94.   down

95.   negative

96.   sullen

97.   weighted

98.   weighty

99.   hollow


Saturday, 19 November 2016

I Jog The Park Run

This morning, I completed my third Park Run in beautiful early winter sunshine.  I set myself a goal this week which was not to fall over on the icy paths.

Falling over from a great height is no fun.  Garrison Keillor, of Lake Woebegone Days, describes seeing a tall person falling as like watching timber being felled.  When I first re-started playing badminton four years ago, I wore a pair of my son's trainers that he'd outgrown. My feet hadn't grown for a while and they were a bit too big for me. Whilst going for a tricky shot, I tripped over and fell hard on my bottom, which led to me sleeping on a bag of frozen peas.

The Park Run is a 5K route and in Shrewsbury it goes through the magnificent Quarry Park: 29 acres of grass, mature trees and paths sloping down towards the River Severn.  It's the best thing about the town. 

I mentioned to my brother I've been doing the Park Run and he told me to look ahead, not down, and to buy some decent trainers.  He didn't mention anything about peas, but he did talk about joints and so I went out and bought these:

It was hard to look ahead at 9am, the orange sun still low in the sky.  So I looked up, saw three swans flying the Severn's course. 

Before last week's Park Run I set myself the goal of running the whole way without slowing to a walk.  The week before, the first week of all, my goal was to complete the run.  Then, there were still leaves on the avenues of trees which line the paths.  This morning, the trees were standing strong, stripped to their dark winter skeletons, braced for the coming winds.

I've known what it is to run wheezing with asthma across Hampstead Heath for school cross country, and to run as an adult against the pain of being, as a form of self-flagellation.   But this running with friends and strangers, with the very young and the not-so-young, with the fast and the easy-as-it-goes, is becoming an unexpected pleasure in my life.

Monday, 7 November 2016

I Do My Bit (for the US of A)

Last week, I checked the statistics for my blog and discovered, much to my surprise, that my largest audience, by country, is in the USA.  My natural response to this discovery is to think that these 'hits' might not be readers but cyber robots patrolling the web for blogs to do with plumbing.  But just in case you're really reading this, my dear Americans, I want to use my influence.

In his book, 'How to Save the World', John-Paul Flintoff's thesis is that it's so easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the big things wrong with our planet that we are inclined to give up trying to make it a better place.  He argues that as a strategy, we can focus on the small things.

This is not a new idea, but he expresses it eloquently.  If you can smile at the person checking out your groceries, or grow your own parsley and then give the excess to a neighbour, he argues, the world becomes a better place by degrees.

Flintoff lists ways in which we can use our influence and advocates political action, on however small a scale.  So in response to him, I'm ditching my usual there's nothing to be done stance and urging you to vote.  And, I'll  make no bones about it, to vote for Hillary.

(There.  That wasn't so difficult.)

We in the UK (everyone, but everyone I know) are watching all agog and with  horror as the land of the free and brave looks in danger of voting in a self-declared racist misogynist to the White House.  Use your vote to make this less likely. 


Friday, 28 October 2016

I Escape From Hell

I've been to hell and back.  Let me tell you about it.
This is the entrance to hell: an eternal conundrum of false choices and vanishing points, of concrete and staircases, Escher-esque in its confusing circularities, but without the graphic style and precision you'd hoped for.

I don't believe in hell, but I entered because I wanted something, felt a need.  Of course, like most people, I didn't set about going there, but I was tired and a sign said 'Costa' so, prompted to think about a cappuccino, I followed it.
It would seem that the road to hell is paved with what could be, under extreme circumstances, temptations.

If hell exists at all, then the opposite of hell must be heaven, or paradise.  If paradise is pleasure and contentment, then it's an autumn wood lit by sunlight; wood smoke; a view of the sea; travelling by train; laughing till it hurts; Beethoven's piano sonatas; chatting to a beloved one over a drink at a pavement café on a Friday afternoon. 

Hell must feel threatened by heaven, as it is dead set on passing itself off as paradise.  It smells of sulphur, makes a mockery of a pavement café on a Friday afternoon.

Hell is a place without concern for anything like love: a place which wraps up despair and tries to sell it to us as a sense of humour failure. 

Like Dante's Inferno, hell has many circles, each with its own sense of disorientation, intensities, and unpleasant characteristics.  No one can say what someone else's version of hell is - we must listen to what they have to say about it.

Whenever I've been to hell and sat amongst its contents, the more pointless life has seemed.  Fortunately, I've had a strong instinct to escape.

Despite mythologies perpetuated by those with a vested interest, it is possible to escape hell.  There is always a stairway, if not exactly to heaven, then at least towards something approximately Out of Hell.

What I've learnt about escape is to trust my instincts, follow my sense of direction, and the signs, which in this case, some devil has tried to erase.

And so, I escaped hell, and this is what I learnt: 

Hell is a metaphor, and in this case, the metaphor was Bridgwater Services, just off the car park that is the M5 on a Friday afternoon in the school holidays.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

I Act The Man

Not for the first time there was an imbalance between the number of men and women at badminton, so it was suggested I join the men's doubles court, as an "honorary man".  The implication I wanted to hear was, "You're a good enough player for the top group," but the subtext I heard was, "We think you can hold your own amidst the stronger, faster and (let's face it) better players.  And by the way, men are generally superior to women.  Be flattered." 

I did feel flattered, a bit disgruntled and confused all at once.  Blushing with annoyance at feeling flattered for the wrong reasons ("honorary man"!) I let rip with my smashes.  This display of an approximate sporting prowess felt powerful.  I glowed and perspired through my sweat in equal measure.

This smashing experience might have been the one which prompted my recent god as goddess poem / conversation.  "What would it be like," I asked people who mind about such things, "if the word goddess were substituted for the word god throughout the C of E liturgy?"   I believe in Goddess, the Mother almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  I don't believe anything of the sort, by the way, but I find it extraordinary how much the change of the gender of a noun shifts things in my socialised imaginings, mainly towards something Pagan, or Greco-Roman.

The status of honorary man is familiar to me. At 51, I am tall for my age.   That badminton evening's mixed emotions echoed the themes from my all-girls school days when I was cast as a man-boy in plays and country dancing.  As luck would have it, I've never been asked to dance Sir Roger de Coverley anywhere other than in the hall at South Hampstead High School.  If I had been, I would have got it all inside out and back to front.

I told a friend what had happened at badminton. "What," he asked, "did you do to attain that exalted position?  Did you comprehensively internalise your emotions? Did you use doner kebabs as a substitute for real relationships?" 

"What are you up to, showing sensitivity and insight with self-deprecation thrown in?" I responded. "Are you, by any chance, having a go at playing the woman?"

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

I Answer Some Questions

"Shall I at least set my lands in order?"

Last night was University Challenge night.  Now that my elder son is actually at a university, my younger son and I watch it a deux.  Some of the answers I got this week were: 'Platinum Blonde'; '1812 Overture'; 'Napoleon III'; 'Polaris' and 'Copper Sulphate'.  We even managed Caravaggio and Botticelli in the absence of our art expert. 

"Who is the third who walks always beside you?"

My son was particularly impressed by my knowledge of the Roman name for the city of Bath: Aquae Sulis.  Ever since I stopped understanding his Maths homework, moments like this have been particularly sweet.

"A pool among the rock"

Lines from TS Eliot's The Wasteland did not appear in last night's questions, though they and he often do. The thing about many of the answers I blurt out is that I didn't know I knew them until Jeremy Paxman reads the question.

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins"

These snippets of knowledge, however inapplicable to my daily life, feel like proof of something: of my own university years, of the reading I've done, the music I've listened to, the films I've watched and the people with whom I've learned, listened, and watched.  Fragments pop into my head in response to a question, having often lain dormant for years.  They make sense of a kind, like quotations from a life-script, and (my son always being pleased when I score points for the team) they lend a convivial peace to our Monday evenings.

"Shantih    shantih    shantih"