Ghosts In The Walls

I wrote this in October 2019:

The time is 5:30am. I’m sitting on my favourite chair with the curtains open. I’m watching the sky emerge from the dead black, not quite day, not quite night. Coffee in my right hand, cat on my lap. The gentle sounds of snoring emanating from upstairs reminds me that this is my sacred time, before the obligations of the day start.

we’ve only just moved into this house and it is dripping with signs of human occupation: a pair of sunglasses found stuck behind the living room radiator, a child’s matchbox car buried in the soil in the garden, scraps of the old wallpaper hiding behind the old light fittings and the long-defunct burglar alarm. Ghosts in the walls I call them: odd memories of people who have called this house “home” from the past 120 years.

The house seems to have a character of its own: the windows too small, the garden seemingly in shade at every hour of the day, it seems to resist our desire to force it to be modern, light and airy.

One of my favourite novels is On The Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin. It follows the fortunes of two brothers who grow up farming the titular Black Hill on the border of Wales through several generations. The description of the slow incremental change but ultimate stasis was so vivid it had me feeling a yearning for a kind of home you can only really know with an investment of time counted in decades.

Given a large enough budget, a house can be redecorated in a matter of weeks, but home takes much longer. Home is a relationship between a person and their physical environment. You make a pact with ‘home’, it is a dynamic evolving space. We lived ten years in our previous house, long enough to design the garden, enjoy it, change our minds, redesign it, plant trees that we later regretted, build raised vegetable beds and watch them rot. Long enough for the shine to wear off; long enough for the character of home to form and reform around our motivations, successes and failures.

And yet here we are in this new house, still strange and unfamiliar and full of ghosts of other people’s lives, full of potential of our own future.

Sanctuary

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We were driving through a picturesque West Somerset village on the way to the sea when we saw the church with a large sign outside. “Methodist Church For Sale” it proclaimed in bold.

We have done our time in churches of various sizes, ages and denominations over the years and at the moment our relationship with the church is best described as “it’s complicated”. But whatever my thoughts are about sermons and worship bands and prayer meetings and communion and raising hands and bible studies and drinking tea, one thing struck me in that moment about the loss of our churches: we are losing our only public spaces dedicated to spiritual sanctuary.

Public spaces show what things are important in a society. Well-stocked and well-used libraries show that reading is important. Pubs show that drinking and socialising are important. When I travelled through Budapest I enjoyed seeing old men gathering in public parks to play chess, something I had never seen before in the UK, perhaps showing Hungarian society makes more space for the old, or values intellectual games.

But it seems to me increasingly our towns and cities are only places of commerce. Every journey out of my house is an opportunity for me to spend money. Do I ever leave my wallet at home? Very rarely.

But what of churches? I love the quietness, the way that one hundred years or more of prayer has just seeped into the walls of these old buildings. I like the huge towers and pock-marked stone, I like the funny nooks and crannies, the statues and engravings. Many churches are locked most of the time now, but still I always try the churchyard gate and if it’s open I’ll sit by an ancient yew tree amongst the graves of long-forgotten parishioners and let my spirit quieten for a moment or two.

I thought all this as we drove past this church for sale. Chances are next time we go down that way it’ll be a newly developed apartment complex and the gates will be locked to the public. So the question remains in my mind, in 30 years time when my children are grown up and looking for a spiritual space in which to reflect or collect their thoughts, will there be anywhere left?

The Pursuit of Depth

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Photo by Kelly Rabie on Pexels.com

Yesterday whilst struggling to get both my children into their school uniforms and out of the door, I came to a realisation: that there is a hidden quality to our daily experiences that of ‘depth’. Not all experiences have depth, some are really quite shallow – pairing socks for example.

On the other hand some experiences are clearly deep experiences and stand out from our daily lives like an ice cream van in a desert. These are the moments we remember for the rest of our lives:

  • The first time you held hands with that person you liked,
  • That meandering bike ride when you got lost and saw a deer,
  • A trip to the beach when the enormity of the sea suddenly expresses itself to your soul.

You don’t need to work hard to find depth in these moments, you only have to marvel and perhaps hold your breath to stop it disappearing into the past.

But then there are those other experiences that have got depth to them but we don’t notice. The experiences when you were thinking about something else: about how cold your hands were or why the self-checkouts in Asda are so loud. A hundred minor thoughts distract you from the experience like missing the depth of the lake because you can’t see past your own reflection. It’s only in hindsight when the daily concerns have evaporated off, that the depth of the moment is revealed.

It is because of this last category of depth that I have become an active hunter of depth in my daily life. When I am doing the washing up, I revel in the process of creating order: I look at the clouds through the window and let my mind wander. When I lie in bed in the morning I open the window and let the cold and the birdsong enter my room. Or  at times when I get up before dawn I open the curtains and let the inky darkness into the room and just try to experience the ‘otherness’ of the night.

Getting the children out of the door became a stressful experience because I was worried about being late for school, and thinking about what I needed to do for work later. But in focussing on these temporary concerns, I missed the joy and the depth in their interactions. I allowed myself to forget that sometimes being late is less bad than clouding everyone’s mood with my own stress.

In John’s gospel the phrase “eternal life” is used, not to mean ‘never dying’, but rather as a comment on the quality of your present life: eternally deep, not eternally long. Imagine life as a graph with two axes: ‘time’ on the x axis and ‘depth’ on the y axis. Rather than thinking that ‘God’ will provide eternal life along the x axis, it might be more true to say that the pursuit of God provides an eternal depth of experience on the y axis of life.

So when I find something dull, shallow and forgettable I ask myself whether  this is this an inherently shallow experience, or whether I am missing the depth by focussing on my daily concerns. If it is indeed an inherently shallow experience (like playing Candy Crush on my phone) then do I really want to waste my finite life on it? Or if I am missing the depth is it because I am too busy? Or caught up in addictive behaviours? Or stressed from time pressures?

Whatever is robbing us of this fulness of life, we do not have to allow it. If we reposition depth to the centre of a fulfilling and happy life, then we can choose to chase it with abandon. We can choose to sacrifice money, possessions, prestige, or security in its pursuit. And maybe that is more important than all my socks being in perfect pairs.

Resolutions

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I’m not against New Years’ Resolutions, I’m becoming less curmudgeonly about the idea as I get older. However I am becoming aware of how much energy the different elements of my daily life requires and how even a minor addition to my daily routine can add an incommensurate burden on the finely tuned equilibrium of my routine.

When I buy a beautiful plant for my garden I do so because I have a vision for where it will go and what kind of garden I’ll have and what kind of person I’ll be. I will be an engaged person with a blossoming beautiful garden. However, if I just dig a hole somewhere in my garden and plonk the plant in then within a few weeks it’ll be choked with weeds. I didn’t prepare adequately for the new addition.

Before you plant anything new you have to prepare the soil. You have to weed out the old soil. You have to research how much sunlight and water this particular plant needs and what kind of acidity it likes its roots to have.

Resolutions are like beautiful new plants that we buy in January because we want to be  a new, better version of ourselves. But to ensure that your plant doesn’t get choked by old weeds, you need to spend time weeding out old habits or useless parts of life.

It’s an unpopular truth, but we only have finite energy and resources to spend on all the aspects of our lives. An amount of our energy and resources go on daily processes like cooking, cleaning, tidying, ablutions and sleeping. I have found a lot of comfort in owning these daily processes, ritualising them and slowing them down.

Another amount of our energy and resources goes on our work. In the past I have found myself miserable own my work and yet diligently plugging away at the miserable business as if there’ll be some kind of reward for not giving up. There isn’t, so if you’re miserable at work then change it as soon as you can.

A further amount of energy goes on relationships and interactions with those in your immediate family or daily social circle. Personally I have found this to be a good investment. With young children I split it further into a) things I need to do for them, b) time spent with them actively playing or eating and c) time spent in the same room doing separate things. I think of b) as being the most important time and I try to ring-fence an amount of this everyday, a) is necessary while they’re young and c) is nice to feel like we’re all in the same family even when we’re doing different things.

For me a further amount of energy is spent browsing Facebook and watching Youtube videos. This is partly because all of those other things are taking up headspace and even when I have a couple of extra hours in my day, I don’t necessarily have any extra headspace for something new.

So where in all of these things do I find time for my new plant, my resolution? The honest answer is that I don’t. My resolution is not to add anything to my life, but to do the things that are already in my life more mindfully, to be more engaged and more present. I feel like if my daily routines, my interactions with others and my work are done slowly, thoughtfully and deliberately then I can find fulness of joy without recourse to adding a new plant.

Through physically decluttering my space, decluttering my hobbies and projects and minimising my useless parts of life I reduce my experience down to just the things that are truly important to me. At that point I give myself real time and space to be able to do justice to my simple life processes and in that simple space I find true contentment.

 

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

The Beautiful Mundane

There is nothing dramatic about meditation; the most important thing to understand is its absolute ordinariness.” – John Main, Silence and Stillness in Every Season

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It is easy to think of meditation as something mystical, something separate from “the body” and “the bodily”, something requiring different emotions from our daily lived experience. Hollywood feeds into this idea with regular portrayals of Eastern sages in mountaintop temples, sitting in the lotus position tranquil and serene for hours at a time in a haze of transcendence.

But if we see meditation in this way then we will always be disappointed by its mundanity, and we will begin asking ourselves whether we are really doing it right at all. My meditation is no more and no less than me sitting on a bench repeating a prayer word over and over for 20 minutes whilst trying not to think of other things.

So what actually is the point? Thanks for asking. It’s an exercise in practising stillness, in inviting ‘otherness’ into our lives, and in discipline. It helps put the stresses of life into perspective, it helps develop personal reflection and it places the pursuit of connection in a central position – taking up our position as part of a whole and not outside observers.

It’s day two of November and I didn’t want to get up at 5:30am today. Meditation is not bringing me instant enlightenment, it has not felt like a transcendent moment when time disappears and I float in a numinous nebula. It has simply felt like sitting in the cold and repeating my prayer word, trying not to think of anything while the sun slowly comes up.

But for now, I persist.

Frustration

fullsizeoutput_4f6.jpegOn Wednesday night I was working until 9:30pm after which two hyper children needed settling to sleep. Then I got the chance to do a warm-up meditation (as it’s not November yet), after which I did some washing up (because it’s never finished). I set my alarm for 5:30am and went to bed around 11:30pm.

These practicalities are the very essence of spiritual practice. The meditation space needs to be fought for, negotiated and protected.

At precisely 5:29am (I checked) my son came into our room and asked if it was time to get up yet. My heart sank: one of the key reasons for my lack of spiritual discipline over the last 5 years have been not wanting to wake up a sleeping child early in the morning and be forced to spend that hour watching Peppa Pig. I had hoped that now was a time in my life when I could claw back some of that beautiful and fertile early morning time that I used to love.

I fetched a bread roll and some water and sat down with the boy for 20 minutes while he quietly battled with sleep as he has done since he was a baby.

The daily realities of work commitments, domestic duties and childcare seem designed to frustrate our desire to experience something deeper. However at 5:50am I finally managed to leave my still-just-about-awake son and made my way downstairs, put on my warmest coat and ventured outside for my date with the silence.

Lack

I have this lack in my life, I can feel it like a deep pit in my stomach. It’s the lack that demands endless mugs of coffee, that zones-out by over-entertaining myself, that skittishly clicks between tabs half-watching videos which leave no lasting impression on the salt flats of my mind.

When I was younger there was this polar bear in Bristol Zoo that was kept in a white concrete enclosure. It went mad and would endlessly pace in a figure of eight and bounce up and down. Eventually the zoo had to hide it from the public because it was distressing the children.

For an animal to be happy it has to have its needs met, not just its need for food and water but its need for companionship, for safety, and for challenge.

Similarly for us humans we have needs beyond just having enough to eat and drink: we need mental challenge, we need social companionship and we need connection. It is impossible for us to feel connected with ourselves if we are disconnected from other people, from nature and from God.

It’s tempting to try and ignore the lack and just continue browsing Youtube trying to find a video that fills the void. It’s tempting to think the lack will be filled with a bigger, nicer, tidier house, or an important career.

But when I feel this lack gaping and yawning in my stomach, I recognise a solution: one that I have been taught since I was a child. Reconnect.

Clear some space on the floor, sit there and invite the vast unknown to abide for a time. Connect with the plants in the garden, with the trees in the forest, with the bugs in the damp loamy earth beneath the stones. Feel a sense of their quiet satisfaction at existence. Notice the unfurling of the leaves in the morning sun and the size of the silence outside.

I’m going to make a change this November. I’m not going to grow a moustache or give up alcohol, instead I’m going to meditate twice a day for 30 days in a row. I’m seeing it as a journey, albeit an inward journey: a journey into the pit in my stomach.

It starts tomorrow. I’m not really looking forward to it.

Ocean Deep

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Standing chest-deep in my wetsuit at sunset, letting the waves scoop me up and put me back down, feeling their gentle power massive and unthinkable. I wait as the sun goes down. The sea still feels warm. Mother ocean welcomes me with warm indifference, with alien familiarity.

“Young man. Come deeper, let your feet leave the sand.”

“But I will drown.”

“Perhaps, but you will be loved, sequestered in my endless embrace.”

“What can be loving about death?”

“To be loved is to be seen and known.”

And I think of all the times I have stood in the company of strangers, longing to find a like-mind; someone who also feels the spark of potential in the evening air, someone who senses the mystery so close beneath the skin of all things, someone whose thoughts twist and burrow like a rabbit’s warren, deep and labyrinthine.

And I want someone to lead me to strange places, to navigate the depths and draw me to different understandings and surprise my ear with new harmonies; the old life through new eyes.

And as a child I used to stare at the distant horizon, longing to be consumed in it, to take my rightful place as a part of the beautiful earth. Then as an adult in the ocean finally feeling that connection, that marriage of what is seen and what is felt.

And at times like these I yearn for something I cannot name, and my soul howls a long-forgotten cry. I sit in the silence and wonder whether someone will ever answer and remind my spirit of all that has been lost.

And the ocean is so ancient that she remembers us from before. Before when we left the womb of her depths to walk around on the surface. But we have disappointed her with our disconnectedness, creating our own lights, climates and habitats, whilst keeping nature in cages to be observed as if it were something apart from us, as if it ever could be.

And now every human I speak to cares little for the deep, and prefers to speak in certainties about their six month plans and last night’s tv.

So as I stand chest-deep in the ocean at sunset I feel alone, but I feel held.

Death

Death-944x629Easter Saturday can be a bit of an uncomfortable day. On Good Friday you remember the torture and death of Jesus and on Easter Sunday you can remember the quiet relief and the mystery of the empty tomb. But Easter Saturday? All there is is emptiness and death.

So this morning on Easter Saturday I fancied a cup of tea, but I did not make one. I wanted to put the radio on to fill the silence, but I did not put the radio on. I sat with the discomfort of nothingness. I felt how it is for my ego to have desires and for those desires not to be met.

In my life I err on the side of bright lights and primary colours. I fill my life with ambitions, goals and achievements, or with Netflix, social media and beer. My days are a constant swing from desire to satisfaction and back again. These constant yearnings and cravings feel like ‘life’ and their lack feels terrifyingly like death.

We have become so used to the idea that desires, ambitions and achievements are the whole point in life that we feel incredibly uneasy when these things are taken from us.

Meditation has been my way of facing up to death. By waiting in the silence, my greatest fear is always that there will be nothing there and that by sitting in that void, in the grip of a vast emptiness, I will recognise the futility of all the petty little feelings, struggles and victories that I call my life.

But the incredible thing about meditation is that in the silence I don’t find nothing. I find the space is full of something. That in the silence is a dynamic potential which is totally separate from myself. The parts of me which are constantly making noise: my fear, my stress, my pride, my excitement and my curiosity suddenly become unwelcome static creating a barrier between me and this something else.

Then meditation becomes a process of trying to quieten those voices, to still the ego, to die to self in order to experience that something else.

Subsequently for me dying has come to feel like a positive thing, like all the chatter of my mind is really only skin-deep and if I can move past it I’ll find oceans of love, endless skies of creativity and mountains of peace.

So Easter Saturday is when I reflect on death and feel the horror of not having my desires met, and discover the cold beauty of the thing that lies behind the thin skin of everything.

5 Principles For My Depth Year

I recently counted the number of projects that I had on the go. Some were years old and some were relatively new, but all of them took up mental space and created an expectation of action which in turn was linked to an amount of guilt or stress. I realised with a growing horror that my projects were basically unending. They included:

  • learn to paint watercolours
  • practise circular breathing on the didgeridoo,
  • decorate my busking guitar,
  • learn to cook lasagne properly,
  • reform the barbershop quartet,
  • practise soloing on the double bass
  • join a jazz band,
  • learn to use my welder and build my cargo bike,
  • convert a bike trailer into a go-kart,
  • reach my potential on the violin,
  • write the string quartets I need to complete my band’s second album,
  • read the music books on my shelf,
  • take quotes from the books to add to my academic database,
  • learn to ride my BMX on the halfpipe,
  • set up a musical meditation and gong bath group,
  • record my new songs on my home studio,
  • create a piece of spray paint pallet art for my church foyer,
  • learn to play the cornet well enough to perform at a gig,
  • break up my old pallets and use them as floorboards,
  • re-roof the lean-to,
  • do a cycle tour of Britain,
  • write a musical and perform it locally,

etc. etc. etc.
Sounds exhausting, right? Well I recently came across a blog which addressed this issue of starting too many projects, and in it the writer invents the idea of a rite of passage called the Depth Year. You can read it here.

The idea is that once a young person has finished their education, perhaps started in a job and had a chance to experience some of the breadth of life, then they have this Depth Year. During their Depth Year they are not allowed to start any new projects but instead sink deeply into the ones they have already started.

It’s an appealing idea in a culture which can seem so shallow. It maps onto my experiences of meditation and lifestyle minimalism: if you remove things you are not left with nothing, but rather you expand to fill the space.

During meditation you aim to quieten the mind of its incessant chatter (which is all but impossible, but the process of trying is rewarding), and the resulting stillness is incredibly full, not empty.

In the case of lifestyle minimalism, removing 100 things from a room doesn’t leave you craving those things, but leaves you space to focus all your attention on the one thing left.

With this in mind I have embarked on my Depth Year. I have been selling, donating and throwing away a lot of physical, mental and emotional clutter and this has helped me focus on what I really want to do.

I have chosen to practise my violin, which I have basically not played since about 2001 and I have already found 5 ways to help me on this journey:

1. Simplify the space

Starting with a tidy room gives my mind the focus I need. Having less stuff in the room to start with also helps.

2. Remove obstacles to starting

In the past when I wanted to practise violin I had to dig out the violin case, get the violin out, tune it up, find the music stand, tighten the bow, find my music, and then begin. This all requires an amount of activation energy which my mind rebels against.

Now I keep my violin out on a display stand, the music stand already set up and the music I want to practise already open. I can walk into the music room, grab my violin and be playing in a matter of seconds.

If a child goes into a room and there’s one toy out on the floor and one toy away in a cupboard, the child will play with the one that is out, and we are basically just children so keeping the thing I want to do already set up helps my inner child.

3. Simplify the process

When I used to practise for exams I would have to practise my scales and arpeggios, then work on three pieces of music. I have come to realise that this is way too much to fit into a session – any one of those pieces would have individual passages which could be practised for hours by themselves and by trying to stick to a particular process, however worthy it may seem, I fail to experience the depth of doing just one thing.

Instead I now have one thing I am working on. Right now it’s a study by Wohlfahrt. A study is a technical exercise, it’s a piece of music that you wouldn’t necessarily put on a CD and listen to but is great for working on technique. It is important to choose something well within my capabilities: the important thing is the subtlety of technique that I can focus on, not just stumbling over 24 notes per second for the sake of it.

I have now played this same piece scores of times and each time I spot small things to improve for next time, including:

  • 4th finger position on the G string
  • neatening up the staccato notes
  • crossing the strings more gracefully
  • Intonation of F naturals on the E string
  • etc.

By just focusing on one manageable piece of music I find a whole world of violin technique opening up which will help me improve in all other areas.

This point is so vital, we sometimes think we are doing it properly by having a long tortuous process, but what we’re really doing in that case is putting mental obstacles between us and our wanting to do the activity.

4. Don’t time yourself

Another key for me is not to set a time when I am going to do my violin practise and not to set a time limit for how long I will practise for. From personal experience this creates a negative obligation and an opportunity to fail. It feels good on the first day when you play violin at the time set and for the correct amount of time but on day two you get distracted halfway through the hour and suddenly instead of celebrating the 30 minutes of playing you feel like you’ve failed.

Much better in my experience to say that practising my violin is now one of the things I do in my day like making coffee and browsing Facebook. It happens organically when I wander into the music room several times a day. I pick up my violin and play my one piece of music and either stand there enjoying it for a long time, or just play it once or twice before doing something else.

I recognise that many people will disagree with this point. I probably would have done as well 15 years ago, but for me and other people I have spoken to, rigid structures and timeframes are great in the short term but unsustainable in the long term.

5. Think termly

The idea that I will be playing the same piece of music forever is a bit depressing, but also it’s possible to think the piece has always got more to teach me. In order to know when to move on I think of a school term of between 4 and 6 weeks. I aim to have my Wohlfahrt study on my music stand for around 6 weeks, and to play it roughly 6 days per week. At the end of this time I will put Wohlfahrt away and get out a Vivaldi concerto.

In this way I resist the urge to rush ahead of myself and start another piece before I have absorbed all the teaching from the first piece. What I am aiming for is depth of learning, not breadth.

Here goes…

So those are my 5 principles. They can be summed up with the word “simplify” – the space, the set up, the process, the piece. I’m excited because I’m already feeling myself engage with the instrument in ways I never allowed myself to before. In the past I used to just choose the fastest flashiest piece of music I could struggle through and squeak my way through it once before becoming disheartened, never learning anything from the process. This feels deeper, more grown up and I’m already noticing many small but significant ways that I am improving. I’ll let you know how it goes.