Thursday, 22 December 2016

Land of the midday night

One of the things I would love to see, but probably never will, is the midnight sun. If I were to travel North to somewhere like Tromsø in Norway around the middle of June, I could stand on the elegant bridge across the Tromsøysundet Strait and watch the sun set over the water, then around midnight it would hover briefly just above the horizon before ascending once again to start the new day.
Of course what goes up must come down, and every year around Christmas time, the sun never quite manages to rise as far as the horizon. The sky begins to lighten around midday but then darkens once more and falls back into night. In Tromsø it requires a special kind of courage and endurance to keep your spirits as Winter approaches. The days get shorter, darker and colder and then disappear altogether into perpetual night. You need to stay strong to survive, but each year some inhabitants find they no longer have that strength; that is why there is a tall fence along the Tromsø bridge.
That is also why all over the world above the Tropic of Cancer, around the middle of December, there are festivals of light: Christmas, Saturnalia, St Nicholas Day, Saint Lucia, Hanukkah, Yule. We need the reassurance of good company, laughter, food, bright colours and light. Some authorities call it a superstitious attempt to rekindle the sun, but that is just a metaphor. We are really keeping the light alive in us.
Spare a thought for those who are alone this Christmas, those whose light has been taken away, whose loved one has died, those who find no joy in the tinsel and glitter. For some, Christmas simply adds insult to injury.
For the twelve days of Christmas the year holds its breath, the days refuse to lengthen, but gradually at first, then faster and faster as we move towards Spring, the light returns. For us too, in our lives, like a miracle out of nowhere, after sorrow, we find peace. May the spirit of peace bring light into your life this Christmas.

Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun's love,
In the spring becomes the rose

The Rose, Amanda McBroom

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Heroes and Villains

In 1966 the Beach Boys released the groundbreaking album “Smile”, including two classic hit songs Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains. The multi-part harmonies were a technological wonder, being recorded at different times and different studios then cut together afterwards.
As so often happens, the music is so powerful it overwhelms the lyrics, which seem almost redundant. So it was a discovery for me to read them for the first time today. According to Vandyke Parks who co-wrote the song with Brian Wilson, it was about “the Indian thing - we were trying to exculpate our guilt, to atone for what we had done to the aborigines of our own place. There’s a lot of things about belief in Smile, and its very question of belief is what was plaguing Brian at that time”.
Here's a sample of the words:
Fell in love years ago
With an innocent girl
From the Spanish and Indian home
Home of the heroes and villains
Once at night Catillian squared the fight
And she was right in the rain of the bullets that eventually brought her down
But she's still dancing in the night
Unafraid of what a dude'll do in a town full of heroes and villains
But the US makes movies like Dances With Wolves, feels guilty, and carries on regardless. As I write this, the Sioux nation are blockading access to lands guaranteed to them under treaty, in an attempt to stop an oil pipeline from being driven through. As the old hymn goes “And the choice goes by forever, 'twixt that darkness and that light”. Each age throws up a new set of villains and a new breed of heroes to oppose them.
Protesters, including members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, march to a construction site for the Dakota Access Pipeline, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, on Sept. 3 Robyn Beck/Getty Images

It sometimes seems as if it is coming to a showdown. The world is facing critical challenges, climate change, record numbers of mouths to feed, war and mass displacement of people, an increasing divide between rich and poor, all these need urgent attention. On all these fronts the heroes are in action, developing renewable resources, feeding the hungry, tending the wounded and distributing aid. And yet governments around the world seem gripped by some insanity, determined to do everything in their power to make matters worse.
The recent bombing of Aleppo in which eleven Red Cross workers were killed is a perfect example. Those responsible – the U. S. and Russia – have no regard for death and destruction so long as it is not on their own soil. They have little regard even for their own citizens. In Britain our government has made war against the poor and the sick, withdrawing funds from organisations trying to help. The villains are getting cocky.
In The Lord Of The Rings, the ring of power bore this inscription:
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them”.
In our own lives we are seeing Tolkein's words fulfilled.
Faced with the immense power of darkness in the world, the heroes are facing a dilemma: whether to give up the struggle and admit defeat, whether to fight violence with violence, or whether to embody a better way to be, and hold out against all the odds.
This is the same choice that faced Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. The Emperor taunts him:
“Good, I can feel your anger. I am defenceless. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete! “
What a temptation that is! But giving way to that anger would mean becoming a part of the cycle of violence, joining the villains. We can't let that happen. Luke does not give up. He replies:
“Never. I'll never turn to the Dark Side. You've failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me. “
We are the heroes, we are the lightbearers. Though we may be few we are powerful. As the writer of John's gospel says: “The light shines on in the darkness. The darkness has not enveloped it.”
The light will come.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The Tree Of Adventure

My mother and father under the tree
At the bottom of the back garden of the house where I grew up there stood a tree. Not a very big tree, about 25 feet or so, but I and my brother could climb up and sit on a platform, which was a bit of wood we had found and fixed between two branches. From there we could see up the garden through the apple trees to the kitchen window, or the other way over the fence and into the park as far as the wood. Looking sideways we had a view over the neighbours' fences and into their gardens as they stretched along the road.

There was a knack to getting up there. First we had to get one foot in an easy foothold a few feet off the ground, and then stretch up and grab the one branch that was small enough for our small hands to grasp and pull ourselves up into the air high enough to reach out for the next branch across. Then we could scramble up to the platform, holding tight in case we fell down.

The day came that I had grown that little bit too much. I reached for the branch and pulled but it suddenly snapped, sending me sliding and crashing down the trunk to the ground.

This sounds ridiculous compared with the giant redwood tree that Julia Butterfly Hill climbed in 1997. That tree, which she named Luna, stood not twenty but two hundred feet tall, and Julia stayed high in a shelter in its branches not for half an hour, but for 738 days, through rain and storms, tossed this way and that.

The wood where I played
My tree was an alder, not a redwood. Alders are supposed to grow by streams, and I always wondered how this one came to be in my garden, until one day my father was digging and found the remains of a well next to the tree. That made sense - there was a stream running through the wood where I used to play, and that stream must have run under my garden.

The stream and the wood and the garden are still there to this day, and that makes me happy. I have moved to the West Country, my brother now lives 150 miles away and my mother and father now tend a garden in Paradise. I think we all outgrow our tree in the end, but nonetheless a part of me is still a small boy, perched breathless and excited in a tree 60 feet away from home.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Tree Of Life

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

This picture is my computer's wallpaper at present. There are many similar photos to be found on the internet and on greetings cards. They are well-liked because they are so beautiful. Commonly they depict a lone tree with the sun's rays shining through its branches. Often the tree is near the brow of a hill, with the sunlight shining in radial shafts from its centre.

The tree stops you in your tracks, it seems to speak to you. Although you don't necessarily understand what it's saying, it speaks of a mystery, as if it were a secret portal to another realm. According to the book of Exodus, Moses had this experience when he encountered the burning bush in the desert. ("Bush" is only a guess; the original Hebrew word is only used in this one place). The story goes that God spoke to Moses from a bush that burned with a fire that did not destroy it - rather like the tree in the picture; the sun also burns with perpetual fire.

Symbolically, a tree stands with its roots buried deep in the nourishment of the Earth, its trunk shoulder to shoulder with the human race, and its branches reaching up to heaven. Thus it acts as a bridge between three worlds. In Shaman practice the tree acts as a pathway for journeys of the soul. The phrase "touch wood" originates in the pagan custom of going to a tree for healing or for guidance.

Often, when a tree stands alone in a field or at the top of a hill, people get to know and love it. They feel that as long as that tree stands, no matter how bad things may get, there is still hope. The felling of landmark trees attracts fierce opposition. In 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill climbed into a 1500 year-old Californian redwood tree threatened with destruction and stayed there through all weathers for 738 days in a successful campaign to save it. Other famous trees include the Glastonbury Thorn and the Honor Oak, as well as many less famous ones like the Brenchley Oak in Kent.

Sometimes a single tree standing alone acts like a lighting conductor. Lightning tears off branches, scorches the bark and leaves the tree twisted and disfigured. But it still stands, like Paul Simon's boxer, the fighter still remains. Then it can seem as if it has acquired magical properties - like Harry Potter it has taken on power from its adversary, the power to endure:

Down in the meadow where the wind blows free,
In the middle of a field stands a lightning tree.
Its limbs all torn from the day it was born
For the tree was born in a thunderstorm.
Grow, grow, the lightning tree, it's never too late for you and me;
Grow, grow, the lightning tree, never give in too easily.
(The Lightning Tree by The Settlers)

Perhaps we really can learn something from the trees. Like them, we too can be a bridge between Earth and heaven, (as St Francis said: "Let me be a channel for your peace"), so that people may come to us for healing and guidance; so that when we suffer tragedy, we can hold fast and endure; so that people may say of us: As long as there are people like them, there is still hope.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Forty Years On

Forty years ago I stood at the altar next to my beloved, repeating the marriage vows after the minister, surprised to find they were different from how I remembered, somehow finding just enough voice to be heard down the aisles, full of trepidation, full of confidence anyway, with my life spread out in front of me like a pile of presents waiting for me to unwrap them.
I wrote my speech on a scrap of paper on the way to the wedding reception. Jenny the bridesmaid, aged 4, ran up and down between the tables shouting while I strained to make myself heard. My new bride and I slipped away to the nearby canalside to have some romantic photos taken by my old school-friend Tim. Eventually we said our goodbyes to all the friends and relations and were driven to the railway station, thence to Devon for the honeymoon. When we changed trains at Exeter, the friendly and sharp-eyed train guard made sure we had the carriage to ourselves.
Two weeks later we were on our way to Gadaffi's Libya, where I would take up the post of English Language Teacher at the Petroleum Institute. That was followed a year later by a similar assignment in Saudi Arabia. Those two years changed my life. Returning to England I retrained as a computer programmer, bought a house, and brought forth a child.
Twenty years later my children had flown the nest or were about to, my parents were dead, the computer work had finally dried up, my house was sold, and my dream of becoming a Church minister was history. At this point my life as I knew it came to an end.
I bought myself a canal boat to live on and the next twelve years were spent wandering the watery wilderness. As the old song goes, “Life goes on, long after the reason for living is gone”. Probably the only reason I can sit here writing this now is because my wife never gave up on me, which I suppose proves I married the right one, no-one else would have stayed the distance. I survived as best I could, taking whatever work came my way – shop assistant, driver, chambermaid (yes!). Canal life was beautiful but hard. I remember one night searching for firewood in the pouring rain so that I could light a small fire, as there wasn't enough money to buy fuel for the stove. All through this – and more – my wife stuck with me, keeping me going, because I just didn't care any more.
There's a great passage in Ezekiel where the prophet is taken in a vision to a valley where the bones of Israel's dead warrior's lay strewn. God asks: “Man, can these dry bones live?”, and all Ezekiel can say in response is: “Only you can answer that” (my rendition). That was exactly how I felt about my life, and so apparently did God. Because bone by bone, piece by piece, he reassembled my life.
It hasn't been easy. I'm older and I hope wiser now. Almost all the older generation who witnessed my marriage have gone from the Earth, Gadaffi is dead, my best man (and best friend) won't talk to me, my children are forging careers in art and music, Jenny is managing a holiday business in France, my photographer friend became director of a well-known company, left (to run a hotel, lost it) then made a heroic come-back. Time passes.
I don't know what the future holds in store for me, but I hope I will live it authentically, and I hope I never stop until I get to the very end. This weekend the two of us will celebrate with a quiet couple of days on the coast and a meal out. I think we deserve that.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

A Tale Of Two Babies

Life is precious, but we don't realise just how precious it is until we come close to losing it.
It was 1981 and my wife was pregnant with my first child. In due course she was admitted to hospital and I returned home in the evening to await a call with the good news. Coincidentally at about the same time, Jilly (not her real name), my colleague at work, was admitted to the same hospital to give birth to her own first baby.

As I happily went to bed that night, little did I suspect the dreadful ordeal my wife was going through. All through the night she was in labour but no baby appeared. For nearly twelve hours she struggled with the pain and effort of childbirth, with only gas and air to help her, until she was at the point of total exhaustion. In the morning when the day shift arrived they quickly ascertained that the baby was in trouble; the umbilical cord had got twisted, essentially cutting off the air supply to the little one, putting its life at risk. I was called on the phone to attend as soon as possible. An emergency caesarian section was performed under general anaesthetic. My son was safely delivered by the medical team, wrapped up and settled in a cot next to my wife's bed.

When I arrived they were both sleeping off the anaesthetic, which had crossed the placental barrier. I sat with them, bathed in the bliss of knowing they had come through okay. For the next three days my visits were to someone who could scarcely mumble through parched lips, and a baby almost completely concealed under its covers, his eyes determinedly shut.

While they convalesced in hospital, I carried on working as normal. Soon after my son's birth, news came round the office about Jilly. She too had given birth by caesarian, but under anaesthetic she had inhaled something which had started a serious infection in both lungs. Antibiotics were working, but not fast enough. Her lungs were filling with fluid so that breathing became more and more difficult. Her husband was called to her bedside and told to expect the worst. She was transferred by ambulance to the nearest specialist hospital 30 miles away. It was a race against time. Would she survive long enough for the antibiotics to clear the infection?

It became hard to concentrate on my work. In the evenings after visiting my wife I would heat up a ready meal and sit alone in the house we had moved into the previous year. It seemed unfair, it seemed wrong, that my wife and baby were doing well while Jilly was at the point of death. So of course I prayed. When I had finished praying I realised that I had nothing better to do so I carried on praying. My prayer became a sort of dialogue with the Almighty. As the evening turned into night and darkness filled the house I continued. I didn't need the lights. I knew my way round the house with my eyes shut and the Lord was my eyes – I didn't need to see.

This became a habit. Working half in a dream during the day, nocturnal petitions to God at night. I did not, I would not, give up.

Several days passed and I heard no further news. Until one morning word came round that Jilly was out of danger. It would still be a long time before she was well enough to return home, but when she did, it was to a magnificent welcome. Her house was adorned with balloons and streamers, and a huge banner that said “Welcome home Jilly” draped from the first floor windows. It made the front page in the local newspaper under the headline “Miracle Mum comes home”.
I later found out that doctors from all over the country had come to see the woman who had somehow carried on living when she should have died. She became a famous medical curiosity. I also found out how many others, friends, family and church, had also been praying hard for her recovery.

Both boys were quite independently named after gospel writers.

My son has grown to become a noble, gentle man, an artist, a thinker. And he has a brilliant gifted musician for a younger sister. My wife is still blossoming and still beautiful. The last I heard, Jilly and her son were doing fine.

The reason for this story, I suppose, is that life really is a miracle, and it shouldn't take a brush with death to remind us of that fact. Every day we wake up and stretch is a brand new miracle, fresh out the bag.

In the film “Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure”, Keanu Reeves strives to say something wise; what he comes up with is this: “Be excellent to each other. And party on, dudes!”. Which, with a slight stretch of the imagination, is what Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God... and love your neighbour as yourself”. Loving God comes down to the same thing as loving life.

Life is a celebration, a feast, a party. Every day. Every miraculous, wonderful day. Enjoy!

Sunday, 27 March 2016

All Is Full Of Love

Isn't it annoying when you've got a tune going round in your head and you can't remember what it is? It happened last night as I was listening to the internet radio station Chill FM. Slipped in between two tracks of angelic ethereal beauty, one short piece that I know well, and almost certainly have on CD. Is it Nitin Sawhney? I picked my way through Prophesy one track at a time; not there. Moby? So I stepped through Play as if crossing a stream on stepping stones. What a lovely stream, how it flows! But the mystery music did not swim by. Transglobal Underground? I followed that cavern down to the end but failed to hit gold. Was it on the World Chill compilation? World Chill on Chill FM? How cool would that be? But no, the trail was getting colder.

In the end, I found a lot of things that I was not looking for. I found the Lost City Of Atlantis, the Lost Chord, I discovered the source of the Nile and the proof of The Trisection Of The Angle, I unearthed a sledge called Rosebud, found Lord Lucan and Shergar but that track got lost in the undergrowth.

I had listened to some fine music along the way though.

So instead I looked up the third of the trio of tracks I had heard. It was a remix of Bjork's All Is Full Of Love.

“All Is Full Of Love...
Maybe not from the sources
You have poured yours
Maybe not from the directions
You are staring at”

That's when I realised my failed search had been successful, because without it I would never have listened to all that great music. My CDs were All Full Of Music which I had not been looking for.

Last Friday I was walking on the edge of Salisbury Plain near the Westbury White Horse. It was a clear sunny Good Friday and a fair number of people had come up the hill – walkers like me, motorists and their families, army jeeps, a trail motorbike, hang gliders, model plane fliers. Everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves. The wind blew steadily up the North side, keeping the hang gliders and model planes aloft; children ran around up and down the grassy slopes shouting and playing. I had got out of the house, stretched my limbs and breathed the fresh Spring air.

Before I reached the White Horse I stopped walking. I was no longer a hiker, but a listener. First I heard the silence, a stillness stretched over twenty miles of secluded fields and trees, virtually uninhabited bar the odd army quarters. As I stood still, the quiet slowly receded and the sound of the breeze softly stirring the grasses sang in my ears. Suddenly a bird started up behind me, and then the music of the skylark fluttered down from the sky with a sound like water rippling over pebbles. That skylark - and for all I know, farther and farther, all the birds of Somerset and Wiltshire, for it seemed as if all time and distance existed in that moment.

I'm sure everyone up at the White Horse got what they wanted on the hillside that day. I had my walk and a pint of Cornish beer at the end. And if that was all I was looking for it was all I would have got. But like someone crossing the road I stopped, looked and listened. All is full of love, and we pass by without noticing.