Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"Man is a thinking reed..." ~ D T Suzuki and John Cage

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki said
"Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.  'Childlikeness' has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness.  When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think.  He thinks like showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze.  Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage."
Yes, yes, yes.  These words encapsulate much of my own feeling about what a good life well lived actually is.  And it seems to me that how ever far I may be from achieving this remarkably natural state that this is the point of it all, the whole purpose of life here on this good earth: to be in accord with the elements and drawing on the same all-pervading life force; not separate but part of the whole.

I came across this quotation in the book "Where the heart beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the inner life of artists" by Kay Larson (2012).  It appears on page 164.
The quotation is drawn from the book "A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered" edited by Masao Abe (1986).

"Where the heart beats" is an exceptional book.  I came across it in the public library and enjoyed it so much that I bought a copy, an unusual treat.  It has been so worthwhile, as I often pick it up to remind myself of a very different way of looking at life.  Intertwined with this biography of John Cage, musician and composer, is the influence of Zen philosophy that came to shape his life and music.  I'm a compulsive problem-solver and creative thinker, so I find the Zen concepts of quieting the mind helpful.  I find it relaxing to take small rests from my usual busy thoughts and accept that I can just sit, just accept things as they are, and stop analysing and working things out, which is a relief!  This book is chock full of text that invites me to take a step back - in a good way.

I also found in it a raft of concepts that were new to me, and a fascinating history of the avante garde music, art and dance scene of the middle of last century, and the way in which Zen influenced all of that.  Congratulations to Kay Larson for writing this splendid chronicle.  

The story of John Cage's life is both fascinating and inspiring.  He lived and worked according to his inner principles and showed an enduring commitment to addressing intense and lasting difficulties both within himself and in his professional life.  In keeping with what I understand of Zen philosophy he does not seem to have drawn a distinction between the two. 

Cage was always experimenting with new forms of music.  One of them is described to the author by Ara Guzelimian, composer and concert pianist, who experienced one of Cage's sound installations at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1976.  Kay Larson wrote:
'At CalArts, without expecting anything, he walked into a two-story hall circled by a mezzanine.  Suddenly he found himself in the middle of Cage's Winter Music with Solo for Voice No. 45.  He heard "one delicate note here and one chord there," soaring in crystalline purity through the valuted hall.  The shining voice of singer Joan La Barbara floated in from the staircase.
'Cage had installed twenty pianos in distributed locations.  "You would hear one piano play a small delicate precise gesture, then silence, then a piano off on the mezzanine would play another gesture," Guzelimian told me.  "It was a magical arc of sound in space.  That was my first experience of a very different musical world, and it almost completely changed my feelings about music." '   (Page 259)
When I read this it occured to me that this is how sounds occur in nature.  Beautiful!

Perhaps this piece, "Ocean of Sounds" includes some of those elements:

Not all Cage's music was tranquil by any means.  I'll leave those readers who are keen to find out more for themselves!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

"Who knows what pain is behind virtue and what fear behind vice?"

Human behaviour is so often baffling: sometimes helpful, sometimes hurtful; what lies behind it?  What we observe and react to is only ever a very partial measure of the whole.

The glimpse of the creatures in the rock pool shown below is similar in that we can only ever see a small portion of what is there, and are left to guess the rest, either by science or imagination, or a combination of the two.  Of course, we can simply stroll on by, glancing at things superficially, but that would be to miss a lot.  It's so interesting.

Sea anemones

Two thousand years ago Roman philosopher, Seneca, put his view of personalities well:
It is not possible for us to know each other except as we manifest ourselves in distorted shadows to the eyes of others; therefore why should we judge a neighbour?  Who knows what pain is behind virtue and what fear behind vice?  No-one, in short, knows his thoughts, his joys, his bitterness, his agony, the injustices committed against him and the injustices he commits.
This is unarguable, and, I think, beautifully put.
The quotation continues:
God is too inscrutable for our little understanding.  After sad meditation it comes to me that all our lives, whether good or in error, mournful or joyous, obscure or of gilded reputation, painful or happy, is only a prologue to love beyond the grave, where all is understood and almost all forgiven.
I find this second part less convincing, based as it is on conjecture about God and life beyond the grave.

It leaves me with a whimsical notion of some angel of the afterlife thumbing through a stack of papers on which past misdeeds and sins have been recorded, saying, 'Exempt... Exempt... Exempt... Oh, ... this one NOT EXEMPT!" and the long, ominous look, followed by a call to the guards to come and take away the poor wretch!

In my view Seneca's sentiment that almost all is forgiven, is entirely human: even in those we most love and respect there are often a small number of things, incidents perhaps, that we can't altogether let go of or properly forgive.  Of divine forces we can't know how, or even if, these exercise judgment and forgiveness.  Only from looking at the natural world can we see ample evidence that there at least, consequences of every sort follow every action.

Given the extent of human folly and destructiveness, both individual and collective, most of us would wish for forgiveness.  

One wonders what it was in Seneca's life that he considered unforgiveable, in himself and in others.  There were two Seneca's, father and son, both of whom were eminent in their time.  From information culled from Wikipedia, I infer that this quote is from Seneca the Younger.  Since the Wikipedia article about him dwells considerably on his rumoured hypocrisy - a clash between what he said and how he actually lived, and his enforced suicide as ordered by emperor Nero, there seems to have been plenty of scope.

Seneca doesn't seem to have been all that successful in walking the talk.  To me this emphasises both the fallibility of human nature, and the necessity of hope with a capital H.  Hope for what?  Perhaps Hope that each of us may better embody the high standards we espouse and expect of others; for better understanding, for increased tolerance, for less complacency, or for the existence of a comfortable afterlife and ultimate forgiveness?  Take your pick.

The yawning chasm between high ideals and human behaviour can be disturbing.  So why bother with ideals?  On an everyday level we have to be guided by something, a shared commitment to the greater good, for instance, which does imply decent standards of behaviour and a courteous regard for others. We all fall short of that at times.

I am interested in people and the human condition, but there are times when my experience and observations are painful.  When consternated by people I turn to Nature for solace.  My interest in rock pools has been part of that. 

If you like the photograph of the rock pool you might enjoy articles in my beach series which can be found by clicking on the link below:
That particular image is from an article about sea anemonies

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Yes, money does matters ~ to all of us!

Many of us are oddly uncomfortable about money, and either through embarrassment or evasion readily dismiss it as unimportant, even as a subject of bad taste.  This attitude is inherent in the slang term, 'filthy lucre'.  This is clearly crazy, as we all need money to get by, as a means of exchange for food, goods and services, and a roof over our heads. 

Difficult it may be, but in my view English novelist Anthony Trollope got it exactly right when he said:
“If honest men did not squabble for money, in this wicked world of ours, the dishonest men would get it all, and I do not see that the cause of virtue would be much improved”.
This quote is from the novel "Barchester Towers".  Trollope gives the line to Archdeacon Dr Theophilus Grantly in his conversation with Septimus Harding in Chapter XIV,  The New Champion.

Trollope (1815 - 1882) knew all about financial troubles first-hand: during his childhood both parents suffered one financial eclipse after another until his mother turned to writing and thereafter made a good living from it!  

Barchester Towers is one of a series of books set in Victorian England entitled the  "Chronicles of Barsetshire".  Although it is many years since I have read them I highly recommend them for holiday reads, or at any other time for that matter.  The world of Barsetshire is chock full of human warmth, as well as coldness, exactly the characters that we both love and hate, with all the attendant tensions and dilemmas of real life, from the crashingly mundane to the highest of moral questioning.  Trollope wisely knew that in life the best answers any of us arrive at are likely to lead us on to other trials which are equally testing! 

The sequence of the series is as follows:
  • The Warden
  • Barchester Towers
  • Doctor Thorne
  • Framley Parsonage
  • The Small House at Allington
  • The Last Chronicle of Barset
 I think it's time I read them again!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year ~ dreams for the future and making them happen ~ people who inspire me

The nearby pohutukawas which are coming into bloom are inextricably linked with the beginning of the New Year.  They are a cheerful and uplifting sight.  The massed flowers vibrate with birds and insects all busily making use of the bounty of pollen and nectar.

The New Year is a popular time to reflect on the past and consider plans for the future, to contemplate our dreams and consider what we can do to make them happen.

Our hopes and dreams can readily be dampened by pressures from multiple sources, discouraging us from applying our best efforts, and yet if we want our goals enough and have the tenacity to keep on working towards our them, step by determined step, hugely important things can be achieved, not just by and for ourselves, but with and for whole communities.  In the last year I've been made aware of two New Zealanders who have done this outstandingly: Dale Williams and Bob Harvey both of whom happen to have been mayors. 

Dale Williams, Mayor of Otorohanga, achieved tremendous results in his community solving an intractible three-fold problem in that region: an alarmingly high level of youth unemployment which was driving many to leave or otherwise languish; businesses that could not get the skilled labour they needed; and the local high school which had no connection whatever with local businesses.  These groups needed to be brought together and solutions worked out between them.  What he achieved with the group he led continues to benefit the entire community and shows politics at its best - truly inspiring!   
The talk he gives here is entitled: Small town, big change:

Bob Harvey, former advertising man and later a mayor or long-standing, has a life-long love for and connection with the West Coast beaches of Auckland, particularly Karekare.  In the talk linked to below he expresses his concern for the future of this very special and spectacular coastline and adjacent Waitakere Ranges.  He is now in his 70s.  He describes how, at the age of 52, a time when he had no clear direction in his life, he swam out to sea at Karekare and, looking back at the coastline, asked himself the question: "Who is going to save this from the developers, who's going to save this coastline?"  He continues on:  "And by the time I got back to the beach I thought, it's going to be me".  As part of his strategy he put himself forward for the office of mayor, a position he held for eighteen years, and eventually, after twenty years, he achieved his goal: the protection he worked towards so diligently and for so long is now enshrined in law, in the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act 2008.  It's a huge chunk of land and coastline (see map) and includes the west coast beaches of Whatipu, Karekare, Piha, Bethels Beach, and all the way up to Muriwai.  This again is politics at it's best - benefiting everyone.

I have a slight acquaintance with Bob, from many years ago when he was in advertising.  He used to come to the studio where I worked and I would be summoned to make coffee.  He was always amiable and brought a lightness with him that was always welcome, a man likely to make anyone smile. 

This interview, conducted on Radio New Zealand on 9th November 2012, is entitled
"Bob Harvey: Untamed coast"
He has written a book about it which is now in its third edition.  The image of the cover below is a click-through link to New Zealand's on-line book shop 'Fishpond'.
  • "Untamed Coast: Auckland Waitakere Ranges and Heritage Area".
Untamed Coast: Auckland's Waitakere Ranges and Heritage Area

But many of our dreams and aspirations are more personal.

I found this conversation with Jonathan Chase inspiring: he is autistic man who has proved in his own life just how much more can be achieved than even experts may expect: by learning many small steps and gradually extending skills in a structured way.  During his autism diagnosis experts informed him that he would never be able to do work that required the use of his hands or manual dexterity.  Two years later he was working as a full time electric basist, and performing as a magician doing conjouring tricks, both of which he demonstates admirably.  As he says, " one can decide whether or not you will be successful, ... you can decide what you want to work on and how hard you push yourself to see it through."  He elaborates on this eloquently in the video.  This is excellent advice for anyone. 

Each of these people makes it clear that to achieve your dreams takes time, hard work, and many steps, but most of all that you have to want it enough to make it happen.  And each of them is doing what they can to help others.  I found them inspiring. 

Sometimes our best achievements are not the result of a conscious dream or wish, but arise simply from dealing with life as it happens - although none-the-less with a degree of drive and enthusiasm.  

My achievement with The Rushleigh Chronicles is just such a one: about six years ago I started writing tentatively as an avenue of self-expression at a time of crippling difficulty, to share my experiences as well as the resources I developed or found elsewhere.  Over time my writing has become more assured and purposeful, at times motivated by fury at the obstacles put in my way!  I have, however, always done my best to be constructive.  Now, greatly to my astonishment, I see that Rushleigh has attracted over 100,000 page views!  

So I've been wondering what it is I want to achieve in the year ahead, and also what is likely to wash in with the tide...

I wish you well with yours. 

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A solitary Christmas Eve ~ and a special one

Christmas Eve dawned with rain and blustery wind, and the day was dark and stormy, but by evening sun the sun was slanting through clouds and misting showers - the perfect weather for rainbows.

Despite its gloomy start it turned out to be a remarkable day, both weather-wise and musically, but the musical part came first:

I had been looking through a case of Dad's LPs, recently given to me by my mother, and come across an old favourite, "Music of the Service from the Temple Church".  How could I have forgotten it?  It must have been over 30 years since I had seen the cover and yet how familiar it was.  The date on the back at the foot of an extensive commentary by David Lewer was 1962, and it was still in near perfect condition.  I put it on the record player and the years rolled back.  The music, all of which came back to me moment by moment, is glorious.  When you grow up listening to certain pieces of music they live on in your bones.  I had sung in choirs when young, and later enjoyed singing in the city choir with Dad.  It was a love we had in common.

My feelings about church are mixed, but with classical devotional music I have no such reservations: the sheer beauty of it takes me straight to that quintessential devotional space without regard for either belief or theology.  

That record is so special, I took time to search for comparable performances of some of the music so that I could share it here.  

The one I like best is Psalm 121, "I will lift up mine eyes".   This version  was set to music by Henry Walford Davies: (1869 - 1941).  I am glad to see him acknowledged in the video and to see the photograph of him that has been included.  From what I can gather from the Dutch text the psalm is sung by the choir of the Protestant church (of ?) Willibrord, Oegstgeest in the Netherlands.  Their singing is superb. 

Below it is performed by the Saint Paul Cathedral Choir, also very beautifully.  I find the parallel dedication of effort made by these two widely separated groups touching:  

"Blessed are the pure in heart", also by Walford Davies, deserves to be as widely known and sung, but I found only one performance of it - by the Redeemer Choir of the Episcopal church.  You'll need to click through on the link which I have included in the name above in order to go to it on YouTube.

On the Temple Choir record the version of Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd", was set to music by Thomas Attwood Walmisley (1814 - 1856), which I was unable to find on the Net.  Here is another version, also lovely, set to music by Sir John Goss (1800 - 1880):

And since it is Christmas here is the King's College Cambridge Choir singing the carol, "Once in Royal David's City".  The words were written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander in 1824, the music by Henry John Gauntlett, and published in 1849.  Gauntlett is credited with the tunes for about 1,000 hymns!  I should think this one is likely to be his best known!  Watching this brought back much of my own involvement with choir singing: the hours of rehearsals which went on week after week, and which didn't always go smoothly, and the difficulty presented by a congregation that would lag behind the choir in their singing - as they do in this one!  The video shows careful timing has been worked out so that they process along the aisle and into their places to finish at just the right moment - it has all been worked out and practiced, most admirably.   

The record concludes dramatically with Charles Stanley's Trumpet Voluntary here played exclusively on an organ.  If you have ever wondered about the complexity of sound generated by organ performances this video shows just how dextrous organ players are required to be, not only with their hands but also with their feet - an astonishing range of pedals, keyboards, stops and no doubt much more besides!  The organist is Massimo Gabba - Bravo Massimo, Bravo - I kiss my fingers to you! 

The place here has a wonderful view out to sea and as I was listening to all this I watched the weather roll across it from the south.  The day had been so wet and grey: 

Despite this I was feeling very uplifted by the music.  I watched various raincoated people walk past along the road below, conscientiously walking their dogs.  Thunder started to roll overhead.  A group of friends made their way up the road, three of them with umbrellas raised and one lagging behind carrying a little puppy inside the front of his jacket.  As I continued to gaze out to sea I became aware of a tiny moving smudge on window in front of me, which on closer examination I could see was an aphid or other similarly tiny fly; I recollected that two of my neighbours are still not speaking to me, which I don't understand, and felt less lofty: you can't make people want to get on, and it's such a waste.  

However, as the thunder continued to roll the sun came through and created drama of a different sort.  The setting sunlight catching the surf was dazzlingly beautiful and I wondered if it was dry enough to risk taking my camera out to see if I could capture some of what was going on?  I decided I had a choice: to stay indoors safely or get out amongst it, breathe it in and be a part of it and knew that if I stayed home I would be annoyed with myself, so the choice was easy: I looped my camera strap around my neck, zipped my raincoat up over it, and set out.  Thunder continued to roll on and on, and I wondered a little nervously, what the likelihood was of being struck by lightening, but since I couldn't see any hoped I would be more likely to win lotto.  The odds seemed to be in my favour and I hit a jackpot of a different kind: I took over a hundred photos and thoroughly enjoyed myself, enough to share a selection of them here:

It was 8.30pm when I set out.  The setting sun was almost directly behind me, and the anti-crepuscular rays within the rainbow were magnificent.  This is the context of the landscape...

...And here is as much of the big rainbow as I could manage:

The sky was changing moment by moment and the thunder continued to roll.  In the image below one especially large anti-crepuscular ray can be seen crossing the rainbow.  Rain was misting down all the time and the protection I was able to gave my camera was sketchy to say the least, but to exercise greater caution would have been to lose the moment forever!

The whole tone of the atmosphere was changing rapidly and for a while seemed more threatening.  I didn't like the look of it and hurried home...

...Only to find that once I got to the gate I was confronted by fresh splendours - which sent me scurrying back to the best vantage point: 

Turning in the opposite direction the sky overhead showed intense atmospheric activity right up high:

The upper level of soft fluffy cloud was really hoofing it!

Within minutes it began to visibly interact with the lower cloud:


The light over the ocean and the surface of the water were mirroring each other; both continued to change rapidly.

The cloud activity intensified:

The Earth's shadow finally made its very late evening appearance.  It was 9.23pm:

By then the sea looked like liquid satin:

And the wind had neatly brushed out these clouds like a cat's pelt:

Looking in the other direction five minutes later it was easy to see what all the thundering fuss had been about:

But the stormy weather had passed over and the sky was mantled with the rosy glow of the sun's last rays:

And at 9.37pm the sky showed its last salute before nightfall:

I went inside replete with visual glories, and put on that record again.  It was almost too much.  It was too much.  I shed some tears.

It had been an astonishingly beautiful evening and I truly felt that my Christmas had already come and was spilling over, so much so that I have spent much of the day writing about it, so that all the other quiet things I had planned to do today have been set aside for tomorrow, Boxing Day.  

Whoever you are and wherever you may be
I wish you a peaceful Christmas and New Year.

My earlier article about the my plans for Christmas can be found by clicking the link below:

Sunday, 31 March 2013

What Easter means to me ~

Was Jesus divine or not?  The Christian observance of Easter raises complex issues, which deserve serious consideration, one of which relates to whether he was resurrected, and therefore divine - or not. 

I used to take all that as read, but now hold much simpler views: I see these questions as a distraction from the practical reality of his life: that Jesus was an incredibly brave advocate of peace, who was killed by those who wished to continue to suppress the poor and disadvantaged as well as those who thought differently from themselves.  I find the story of his life inspirational.  Being reminded of this at Easter time places the challenge of what I am doing in my own life squarely before me, making it a good time to reaffirm my commitment to contribute as best I can to what is good and wholesome here and now. 

Jesus, like other great spiritual teachers, taught the value of love and forgiveness, of helping others with no thought of return, and made a point of relating to everyone as equals, the poor and powerful alike.  No wonder the authorities of the day, both Roman and religious, found him threatening.  It would seem however, that he did not intend to be disruptive, advocating that everyone pay their taxes as required.  This must have had the authorities scratching their heads.  But he didn't bow down to them, or pay any attention to what he considered to be petty codes and rules, which as we all know from daily experience can make the said authorities very angry indeed.  Hmm. 

I often carry the little rosary pictured, not because I consider myself to be a Christian especially, but to remind myself of what's important.  In this respect Easter time is a time when I raise Jesus up - in my awareness and as a source of inspiration.  I am content for the truth about his resurrection and ascension to remain a mystery. 

I also remember those dear to me who have left this world, to whom the teachings of Jesus were an inspiration and guiding light: dear Zoe, who on Easter Sundays would get up early to drive to a deserted hilltop there to watch the sun rise; and my father and his mother who both earnestly studied the scriptures as well as other books on spiritual guidance and who pushed back against the conventions of their day with which they found themselves at odds.  I learnt much from each of them and enjoyed their friendship. 

While I was reflecting on this Rewi summoned me back to the present by calling me to lunch.  I grumbled.  I'm not good at changing gear - from my inner world to the outer one, or from one task to another.  I grumbled about the cabbage water which had inadvertently been served with the meal and then burst into tears.  I really miss the older friends I had been thinking of, and have to manage without them, which I would much rather not.  Tears for the dead...  

But lunch was delicious and life goes on.  My sister phoned while I was eating, and I will phone her back for a proper chat; then I will go next door and photograph the new wooden casings which John has just made and fitted on the corners of the house next to where it has been re-roofed.  Life with its ups and downs is still full of good things.  And I in turn can add to that.   
~Happy Easter ~      

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Neil Gaiman speaks about the importance of Making Good Art ~

The New Year is a time when many people consider what they hope to achieve in the year ahead. 

In this speech to university graduates Neil Gaiman, who has been described to me as a rock star of the literary world, gives advice about choosing and securing work, working for money, the value of mistakes and the pitfalls of success, and above all he advises his listeners to Make Good Art.  His speech is the antithesis of what is likely to be suggested by the average career advisory service and is delivered in his characteristically quirky way. 

So if you're wondering what you're doing with your life and whether to instigate changes, this video may provide inspiration: 

Note: Neil Gaiman is married to Amanda Palmer, a few of whose performances feature in my earlier article in The Entertainment Chronicle which can be found via the link below:
Nice one, Neil and Amanda!