Tag: Death

Vault Finding #4

Looking through my unpublished drafts, I found this intriguing quotation. The only thing I know for sure about it is that the words aren’t mine. But they did prompt me to write the poem which follows.

“I was talking this week to a friend who is dying. We talked about the meaning of death, whether our consciousness survived our passing, and if so in what form. We talked about the love in action he had experienced from his family, his friends and others during his illness. He described how humbling and touching this was, while tears of joy welled up in his eyes.

We soon realised that in talking about the meaning of death, we were at the same time talking about the meaning of life. How that special human quality which infuses our lives with true meaning and deep satisfaction – the sharing of love through action – somehow survives beyond our brief physical life here, to live on within the hearts and lives of those who remain. Who then in turn pass this on, relayed in pure undiluted form, when their own time comes. An essence of life that is unbound, and eternal.

We then wondered whether we were in fact talking about heaven – and if so, how lucky we were to have found heaven on earth.”

This has certainly struck a chord with me so I’ll take the liberty of adding a few words of my own by way of response. With apologies to Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Johnny Rotten!

no future
for you are now
and only now

what then

no then
for you are now
and always now

no once upon a time
the past is never dead
it is not even past

for you

are always
only
ever
now

and always now
you are forever
if only in the thoughts
of those who know you

now

like a spotlight
moving through the dark

ever a bright spark
to kindle fires
of fierce remembrance

ever a steady point of light
where now


and now

and now
the dark is not

 

so dance

 

Image result for american indian dance

 

Image: World Arts West

Non, je ne regrette rien (2/3)

There are many things I ought not to have done in my life but, like Edith Piaf, I regret nothing. Those mistakes have made me the person I am today – more careful, more collected, more considerate than the callow and somewhat confused youth I once was.

Life, said the poet John Keats, is a process of soul-building – an extraordinary insight from one who had to cram a whole lifetime’s self-construction into 24 years. Terminal illness robbed Keats of his chance but sadly some young people with their lives ahead of them become so jaded that they toy with the idea of taking their own lives or even the lives of others.

My emergency message to them would be this Buddhist advice: don’t just do something, sit there. I’d follow that up with: hang on in there, my fellow-sufferers, give life a chance to work its slow magic and one day you too can reap the fruits that only time will bring.

To continue the metaphor: pick the blossom and the fruit won’t grow. Ripeness is all, as Keats’s adored Shakespeare once and forever put it. And as that famous modern philosopher Ian Anderson (aka Jethro Tull) once sang – and still sings – life’s a long song.

Ha, cue music!

 

I’ve said it before, but our certain knowledge that the tune comes to an end is what gives it sweetness. We share a common sense of its poignant, fragile beauty and if we have a purpose it is surely to cherish and nurture that sense in ourselves and in others. We cannot wish away pain but we can sometimes gain solace by subsuming it in the deeper communications of art. It won’t always be obvious what is meant because what is meant is sometimes too deep for laughter or tears:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Unsettling it may be but then so is existence. That’s probably the reason kids keep asking us all those crazy questions – who, what, where, when, why? I’m still a kid. What I want to know is, why do they keep asking me stuff I don’t know?

Talking of big questions, this astronaut comes back from the red planet and all these scientists cluster round asking, Is there life on Mars? The astronaut replies, Only on Saturday night …

Ah, punchlines … as Terry Jones of Monty Python realised, Spike Milligan showed that if the sketches are funny enough (funny haha or funny peculiar), you don’t need ’em! Spike who, you ask? All is explained in my previous post (and lovesick fan-letter) https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com/2015/11/10/spike-in-audience-ratings/

Where was I? Oh yes … art … as opposed to kitsch, perhaps. The difference? Kitsch is considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but is sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way. Kitsch, in other words, is cliché. Whereas art seeks to give voice to what is yet unspoken – to discover the key to a once and future kingdom.

Perhaps.

If anyone ever deserved to feel regret it was Pandora who turned a key in the forbidden lock and unleashed blind hate, conflict and ignorance upon the world. But without those awful furies how would we be able to picture the love, peace and understanding that underpins the still unwritten constitution of our new realm?

Do I regret embarking on this further raid on the inarticulate? In a word, non! Besides, there’s Part 3 to come, when all these disparate strands will miraculously weave themselves together into a set of new clothes fit for an emperor … whoops!

 

 

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Image: Totally Kathy 

Art Attack #3

Hmm, time to pull this rambling argument with myself together! Ah, time

The poet Andrew Marvell, frustrated by his lover’s reticence to commit herself, gently reminds her they’re not getting any younger:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime …

… But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

And the elephant in the room is … well, here’s a selection of euphemisms from those clever Monty Python chaps:

Image result for dead parrot sketch

Owner: Well, he’s…he’s, ah…probably pining for the fjords.

Mr. Praline: PININ’ for the FJORDS?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that? … ‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

The English language probably has more ways to avoid this subject than Eskimos have words to describe snow. Which subject, you ask? Well, er … look, I’m not being coy, it’s just … you see, moving from funny to serious ain’t easy! Right, deep breath, dive in …

Image result for blackadder goes forth

Laughter can be nervous. There is such a thing as gallows humour. Blackadder Goes Forth found plenty in trench warfare to laugh at but the final moments were filmed with admirable solemnity, ending in a memorable still frame which dissolved to a field of poppies:

Image result for blackadder goes forth ending

Image result for blackadder goes forth ending

Philip Larkin puts it as well as anybody:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

from ‘MCMXIV’

Time heals, they say, but public feeling about World War One seemed to intensify in recent years. Was this because Old Soldiers approaching their natural end of life at last broke traumatised silence to speak of less fortunate comrades? Perhaps it was the sheer number of WW1 centenary events after 2014, its battles engraved on monuments and hearts in so many nations – the likes of Mons, Liege, Ypres, Anzac Cove, Suvla Bay, Verdun, Jutland, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele.

Premature death is always shocking – a loss of human potential which prompts urgent political questions about the denial of entitlements. What, we wonder, might those young people have contributed to the common good? And where, we ask, is the machinery to stop such pointless suffering?

Death on such an industrial scale is a shared agony and betrayal and shame that creates a public demand for a community wider than the flag-waving armed camps that march to war. The cry goes up: Never again! And how often we hear of friends and families campaigning to protect the safety of strangers in the name of a loved one who has suffered an avoidable death … Never again! 

No one should live in vain. All life has value. And I would suggest that all death has meaning because without it life would have no shape, sweetness or intensity. Would each day be so precious if we could live for ever? Each day we hold others in our hearts who are not with us, dead or alive, and so become temples of eternity. We honour the living and the dead, even those ancestors we never knew, because they have fitted us for this moment.

Realising this can be an epiphany leading to a kind of apotheosis. The words may be religious but the ideas aren’t, though they are sacred to me. As Nietzsche said: Be faithful to the earth. I also take heart from novelist Lawrence Sterne:

When we are – death is not; and when death is – we are not.

Live in the moment and last forever. Growing older, I find, most desires fade away but one burns brighter: the desire for remembrance. I would like people to have a good time at my funeral, remembering they are still alive. And I would like to produce something which has a value to others after I am gone. Re-enchant the world, maybe, or at least give somebody a good laugh.

Ha, just remembered my previous post promised to answer this question: if nature is broken, can art mend it? Nah, is the obvious answer, but DH Lawrence offers a crumb of hope:

It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead.

Include poems, songs, plays, films and other art forms and you could get something going to win hearts and minds for the good fight. If nature is broken, only we can fix it – if we’ve a mind to give up shopping and go living instead. Could the aesthetic rewards of friendly art wean us, perhaps, from the addictions of lonely consumption? Art is story and stories make good signposts.

Art, like love, can even transcend death. This is because art, like love, can only exist between us – a sacred unity, the two that is not two. I find paradox miraculous because it breaks down oppositions. Without Contraries there is no progress. It takes a writer and a reader to create meaning. Anger can become Compassion. Death and Life are one.

Image result for paradox

 

‘Everything is the opposite of what it appears to be.’    – John Lennon

 

Art Attack #2

Where was I?

Oh yes, just like you, here … and trying to make sense of it! My previous post set several hares running, so let’s see if we can catch up with some of them.

The Buddhist Higher Worlds (Learning, Realisation, Compassion) emphasise relationship, the core skill of a social species. The Lower Worlds (Hunger, Anger, Animality, Tranquillity) demonstrate disjunction, the breakdown of communication. What separates Higher and Lower is the difference between the collective and the individual. This gulf can be bridged, however, as Anger – to take one example – over injustice can lead to Compassion.

Snakes and Ladders, anyone?

Or swings and roundabouts. Did you know our power of speech is an evolutionary gain which increases the risk of choking? Thankfully we can use it to remind ourselves of the Heimlich Manoeuvre at the start of every dinner party …

I don’t really consider Buddhism a religion because it foregrounds the shared life in the here-and-now, unlike death cults which put individual salvation ahead of collective welfare. I Before We.

Perhaps the most famous example of We Before I is the stirring cri de coeur of the French Revolution – ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité!’ Unlike the Higher Worlds, however, these three beauties aren’t easy bedfellows. My liberty to do whatever I want, for example, can make a mockery of your right to be my equal. We may need some relationship counselling. Or maybe some helpful quotations:

‘Equality is the soul of liberty. There is, in fact, no liberty without it.’ – Francis Wright

‘Love is not accidental. Love can only exist with freedom.’ – Leo Tolstoy

‘Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.’ – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

‘Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.’     -Eastern saying

Whoa, more hares disappearing over the horizon! That last quotation suggests we need more than just a little give-and-take. What’s required, it seems, is a radical change of consciousness. And who better to guide us than, gulp, a politician?!

‘The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.’ – Franklin D. Roosevelt

It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it? Like Keep Calm And Carry On, it makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide …

Besides, what’s so great about Tranquillity? It’s one of those pesky Lower Worlds, isn’t it, full of zombies and yes-men? Far better to think for yourself, expand your capabilities and refuse to hate the unfortunate patsies and scapegoats they sling your way to hide their own incompetence and lies.

They? If I hate anyone, it’s those who get elected on promises of strong government and then dismantle safeguards against unfairness to favour their own kind. You know. Them.

But the bad old days of freemasonry and closed shops are long-gone, right? Surely no secret deal is safe in these days of WikiLeaks and world-wide web-sharing? We are entering, are we not, a golden era of openness and honesty in which we are all fellow-citizens of a world without borders or barriers or ignorant bigotry?

Hmm, could be … but in the meantime, dear Netpal, you’ll find my FacePaint Page under a sassy pseudonym with a pirated profile picture and a plethora of posts carefully curated to present a thoroughly positive image: witty, sophisticated, discriminating, intelligent, thrusting, upbeat … all friends selected, all nerds unfriended … a perfect shop-window for a world that’s open for business 24/7!!! 🙂

😦 Now I am frightened. Just looked at my FaceAche Page. My satire is uncomfortably close to the truth. Sometimes the internet resembles the aftermath of an explosion, numberless fragments flying around, a crazy chaos without context. Conventional media, caught up in the blast, dance to the same broken tunes. And you can find whatever you want unless you want to make any real difference to anything.

Too gloomy? I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

If you’d asked the Ancients to imagine a magical way of talking to everyone in the world, what might they say were its possibilities? A marvellous theatre or a great debating chamber? A gallery of wonders, drawn from art and nature? Above all, perhaps, they might have envisaged a repository of truth and goodness and beautiful flashes of insight – a pathway to enlightenment.

When I was a kid, giving little puppet shows to anyone who’d watch and listen, such a vision seemed to beckon. The other day I told my granddaughter, 2 years old, about toys I’d lost as a child – the little manikin out of a favourite forklift truck, a plastic crocodile floating into the overflow drain of a sink. She asked me to retell these two stories over and over. Then she devised a drama in which they were returned to me.

You know what? It worked. There they were.

When nature is broken, I wonder, can art mend it? It’s a question I’ll return to in my final post in this sequence … no guarantee of reader satisfaction, of course, but I can promise this picture clue will be part of the answer

 

Image result for skull

 

Image: Dr. Odd

100 word story – Forgiven

Gone?”

April nodded.

“But not forgotten?”

Trust him to come up with a cliché at a time like this! She watched the soles of her mother’s feet turn purple, as the nurses told her they would. Everything was correct.

Mum had cared about propriety until the last. “Is this normal?” she’d asked when her words began to flutter like released butterflies. “I’m glad. Where are my black nurses?”

They’d worked out what she meant. Mum wanted the ward orderlies who cleaned her room.

The ones who talked to her. They’d come in smiling. Now April smiled at her brother.

“Never!”

 

Image result for ward cleaning

 

 

Image: http://www.thefamilygp.com/mrsa-and-hospitals.htm

We Can Be Together

jefferson-airplane-e28093-original-jim-marshall-photograph

The death of Paul Kantner has hit me harder than I expected. More than anyone else that comes to mind, Paul represented the idealistic free spirit of the late 1960s when I had the very good fortune to come of age. Wordsworth’s lines about the French Revolution always carry a special power for me:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Wordsworth grew more conservative with age, perhaps because his fame and celebrity drew him to the establishment, whereas Kantner remained unapologetically radical to the end. His later Starship band may have been more commercial but was based on a concept that Paul brought to fruition as late as 2008, with the protest album Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. His continuing radicalism is clear in a recent interview with Ed Vulliamy:

“After a while, a figure approached, walking up the steep street in slippers, no socks, hair flowing from beneath a beret with a red star on it. Unmistakably: Paul Kantner …

… I always try to explain the entwined processes of age and politics in terms of two lines written by Paul. One is “Tear down the wall” – self-explanatory, from the Airplane’s revolutionary canon – and the other is “We are leaving / You don’t need us”, from Wooden Ships … One line affirms the revolutionary faith that is only extinguished – if it was ever felt – in those who lack soul. The other is the realisation with age that “the Wall” is still there, doing just fine, but one’s head hurts from banging against it and it is time to leave. For that distant place, be it in space – as Kantner believed – or within, or some shore towards which the Wooden Ships sail on their “fair wind blowing” …

… Kantner seemed ready to set sail. He broke into a requiem for all the things he and psychedelia had stood for, and a tirade against former vice president Dick Cheney – “almost as dangerous as fascism – at least Hitler had a cause!” – against SUV vehicles and mobile phones. But, he insisted, once the Summer of Love had happened in San Francisco, and the Airplane’s music was unleashed, “You are not going to be able to unring the bell! Thank you for your time.” With that, he stood up, shook my hand, signed my vinyl first edition of Surrealistic Pillow and strode off into the morning, cigarette in hand.”

In those volatile times – Vietnam was a huge awakening – Paul Kantner’s lyrics rang celebration and alarm bells alike and still resonate half a century later. But the revolutionary nature of bands like Jefferson Airplane was as much in the medium as the message. There was a wild, unpredictable, improvised edge to the music that defied the glib egotism of commercial celebrity with the fierce teamwork of a firebrand popular democracy – freedom, equality, solidarity – and the end result was always more than the sum of its parts. Surrounded by so many impassioned live bands – as I was lucky enough to witness – acts like the Airplane kept their headline status with a thrilling and daring musical empathy bordering on telepathy.

Bath-Festival-70-joe-poster

The musical collective was as much spiritual as political.  Soon after hearing that Paul Kantner had died, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sat down and composed a statement about his fellow rhythm guitarist.

“Paul lived at the heart of the music, where the chords, the melody and the rhythm join together with the lyrics to form the story. His guitar was the glue that held all that together. His voice was the foundation of the choral vocals. Paul lived at the heart of the song. He was there for the Muse – when she needed a human voice or instrument, she channeled it through him.”

Weir explains that in the Airplane, the spotlight was on Grace Slick and Marty Balin, and musically, on Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady on bass.

Paul’s work was the mud from which those two lotuses grew. He made it possible for Jorma and Jack to be more adventurous with their lines, because they had a harmonic context, and a rhythmic context, to work off of.

As Bob Weir implies, Paul’s singing also underpins Grace and Marty’s extraordinary vocal flights in much the same way. His pivotal role is confirmed by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, speaking after Paul’s death:

The Airplane was an amazing aggregate of personalities and talent. That we could all coexist in the same room was amazing. That we could function together and make the lasting art that we did was nothing short of a miracle. In my opinion Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious… he could be loving and kind… his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable.

These revealing personal insights made a refreshing change from the many lazy obituaries I ploughed through, all recycling the same facts and reducing Paul Kantner’s cultural significance and influence to a kind of celebrity tick-list. Put him back in the Sixties Box seemed to be the main idea. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Wall has been rebuilt and the Man is in charge again …

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But let’s not get gloomy, that was never Paul’s style. Bob Weir concludes with a more optimistic thought:

When somebody you’re part of, and of that kind of import, dies, it’s a good time to take stock of what he offered, and see what you can make of it, and what you can take from it.

Haha, where do I start? Well, I began this post with the intention of saying what Paul Kantner means to me and ended by sharing what he means to other people. But I am moved that what I sensed from a distance is confirmed by people who knew him. It feels good to have and to hold Paul Kantner in common. He was, after all, a warrior fighting for a shared human future. And are we brave enough to honour his memory, I wonder, by looking for all the other things we have in common and learning how to settle our differences amicably?

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We live in the spaces between one another. Music teaches us that. Like songs, we live on in the minds of others whenever we are out of sight and sound. In that sense, I suppose, we are already ghosts. Alive, dead, who cares as long as we are remembered with pride and affection? As William Faulkner once said, ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’ And I’m still 19 whenever I listen to Crown of Creation.

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What else have I learned from Paul Kantner? Well, today, it’s … don’t vote for people who preach hate and division …  get out the car and go for a walk … and switch off your mobile phone.

It’s a start …

 

My Prayer

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I reckon being separated from people in life helps to prepare us for their absence in death. And when they die, their lives take on a new shape and significance. Where a life has been full and complete, we can only celebrate it.  We express its value in the currency of contribution, influence, relationship. Where there has been pain and suffering, we view death as a release. Quality of life is valued over mere existence.

And wherever death is unexpected or premature, we value the human potential that has been lost. So often the prematurely bereaved become campaigners and even reformers, honouring the memory of their loved ones by seeking to save others from the same misfortune. Their lives … and deaths, we hear time and again, will not have been in vain.

Avoidable death is a constant spur to human progress. It challenges politics, economics, ethics – to my sceptical ear, diminutives with a sonic similarity to ‘antics’ and ‘frolics’ – by reminding us that within each word there beats a moral heart … respectively liberty, equality, fraternity. And no other human right outguns the right to life.

But whatever the circumstances, death can be the moment that life burns brightest. With our last breath we pass into the collective consciousness, an apotheosis far superior to any egoistic notion of individual transcendence. This is poignantly described in the second verse of Wilfred Owen’s  Anthem For Doomed Youth (quoted below) where the dead can be said to pass into folk memory. Funeral elegies and fond memories held in common can bring us back to life where we really belong, in the hearts and minds of others.

What greater incentive could we have to slip the reins of ego and gallop free of death’s burdensome saddle? What greater reward for a good life could we hope for than to be recalled with a grateful smile? What else could have driven great artists through the present pain of creation but the knowledge that they might live on in their masterpieces?

And my prayer?

Let not humankind curse me for a destroyer but praise me for a creator.

 

“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.”   –  Terence

 

‘Days’

What are days for? Days are where we live. They come, they wake us time and time over. They are to be happy in: where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question brings the priest and the doctor in their long coats running over the fields.

Philip Larkin

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen