Saturday, December 20, 2008

Assimilating it all - A Prose Poem

I do not wish to live in the land of denial; in the country of delusion and especially not in the city of self-delusion.  I want no tawdry trinkets, no bright lights, nothing fast at all.  Instead, I want the slow acceptance of a body breaking down into age, letting go of all the surface sham.  I want to lessen the desire for boyish toys, not to kill it.  Oh yes, I still want the odd toy, the odd present, the odd comforting soft-centred chocolate, the odd gift that says I'm loved.  Oh yes, I still want, and even need, some of these things, but not them all, and certainly not to excess.

I want to tame the Ego, send it back like a naughty boy to its unique place where it can play its proper and only role, to diligently study for success, not to strut upon the stage of its own importance like a self-obsessed peacock.  Nor do I want it to become so power hungry that it will walk over those who get in its way.

There are so many things about my Body-Soul or Soul-Body or my total-self that I'm learning.  I am diving deep into the murky waters of the unconscious - individual and collective.  I have learnt so much and am learning so much more.  I am at one with Jung and Storr that my unconscious is no mere stinking cess pit of repressed, denied or stymied desires, sexual or other.  Sure, some of those stinking bits are there in those murky depths.  Sure, sure, sure, and they float about like rotten meat, but with Jung and Storr and so many others, I realise that deep down there is more than that smelly, sticky, stinking and sweaty Id, that there is so much more - great colourless and shady creatures who, when they swim into less dark waters, show such bright colours.  Oh yes, there are beautiful surprises deep down there, like David slaying Goliath or like the hero Bond abseiling down the cliffs of hurt and disappointment; door after door leading into room after room of self and deeper self, treasure boxes, most surely, with such mixed delights, not quite gold or silver coin, yet there are some of those, yes, but mixed with some of Pandora's bitter and evil delights.

There are smiling tears there, oh yes, even the tears of the very young, and even bitter laughs and so much more.  There are also the bright robes of academic success, the darker robes of vested priests making their rounds as Blake would have it or preaching from the pulpit heights of Superego.  But there are also the damp sheets of pain and enforced rest, the damp sheets of post-operation and recuperation, the great pens that drip their medication into my veins and the surprising images of great ships upon even greater oceans and I captain, crew and ship and all, yes all, all rolled into one.  Oh yes, Jung was so much more correct than Freud, even though I love this latter's work for its richness of insight.  Deep down all these images, which come almost randomly but often with synchronistic purpose, surprise, shock, frighten and even sometimes terrify me, though often, too, they make me smile and nod my head in mature acceptance.

Once I used to swing between those extremes of Good and Evil, Black and White, ever so polar, ever so extreme, but diving down has taught me more, has taught me so much more about all those false dichotomies, all those false and polarised opposites.  I am no longer willing to swing between the happy high or the sad low.  No, I'll travel ever more willingly, ever more consciously on the road between, the rocky road to self-awareness.  I fully realise that I cannot dwell on a mythical Tabor or some idyllic mount of blessed happiness for any extended period.  I also fully appreciate that neither can I afford dwell for any extended period in the tormented depths of hell (unless, of course I am suffering from  horrible endogenous depression or some other psychiatric illness like schizophrenia.)   No, no, no.

I am travelling on a road far more complex, far more colourful, far more intricate and ever more interesting the stark polarisation of Opposites; ever more gripping that the extremes of Black and White, ever more realistic in the owning of their healthy tension within my very self.  In short, what I'm getting at here is what Jung termed the acceptance of and the incorporation of our Shadow nature into our whole being.  And so we swim in murky waters.  We may not like it but we do get covered in slime.  I am reminded of that wonderful film Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne has to swim through a huge sewer to attain his freedom/salvation/redemption.   Life is full of sweat, dirty work as well as clean work, full of frustration and pain on the one hand as well as occasions of clean success, beautiful holidays, and all that money can buy on the other.  It is a complex admixture of joy and pain which must be taken whole if we are really to heal ourselves.  One good friend of mine often reminds me that we have very little or no problems at all in changing a child's nappy while on the other hand we recoil at the thoughts of having to do it for injured or invalided adults or for the aged.  Doing all that - caring for those who are dependent on us - is soul-making work because in doing it we are symbolically cleaning up our own spiritual mess. (I am reminded of John Keats' letters and his references to soul-making) In short we are preparing for our own death.

Life has taught me that we sanitize living  at our peril.  Yes, yes, yes, we do need to keep our homes and places of work and all those public spaces that we frequent clean and free from contamination.  However, there are limits and those limits are written in our very genes - that our very bodies are born to grow old and die, to sweat and secrete.  Existentially, there is much we simply cannot sanitize and must not sanitize if we are to grow in acceptance of the very essence of life, that to live is to die and to breathe the air of life is to learn to live and to learn to die. 

There is much war, hatred and pain, too much greed and too much suffering from want, want, want in this oftentimes sad world.  The sadder fact is that there is more and more and more of it because people fail to look within, fail to integrate the good and the bad in themselves, the white and the black within.  In desperation of integration, or in fear of that very task, they prefer to project their evil or black pole onto others, especially upon their enemies.  In so doing they accept the Light only within themselves and they project the rejected Dark upon their foes.  Again, they are sanctifying themselves (High Moral Ground) on the one hand and demonising their opponents on the other.  Again and again, this is a sort of schizophrenic reaction, a sheer denial and a real splitting of the centre of the self, a fragmentation of the self, a dissociation of factors and elements that go to make up the essential and real person.  How can we sanctify the Light without accepting and embracing the Dark or shadow side of ourselves.  The Light needs the Dark to be Light and the Dark needs the Light to be Dark.  This is perilously Manichaean, I know and fully realise.  As I grow older and older my Body-Soul or Soul-Body or total-Self tells me that deep down I must needs be so if I am to be whole and integrated, if I am, as my title puts it, to assimilate it all.

Above I have uiploaded a picture I took of how life lives on/off life, how from possible stagnation beauty grows. I took this picture from the banks of the Garravogue River, Sligo 2005

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

And while all this was going on...

We get so locked into our own worlds of care that we become very unmindful of what is going on in the world of others.  Let me explain: - For the last four months I have been back at work teaching in my new post as resource teacher.  This has meant that I have been at once studying, researching and working on a multidisciplinary team.  For the previous twenty eight years I have been a mainstream teacher of Irish Language, Life Skills and Religious Education, a job centred mostly on the classroom, with the usual preparations, exam setting and corrections.  Now I'm involved with teaching pupils with ASDs or Autistic Spectrum Disorders and it is both challenging and extremely rewarding.  Outside that I have inscribed on a degree programme for counselling and psychotherapy with PCI college here in Dublin, a degree validated by the university of Middlesex.  Be that as it may.  I'm not attempting to go on an egotistical rant or to engage in puffing myself up as a great fellow or attempting to be narcissistic.  Perish the thought!  No rather, what I am underscoring is the fact of how locked into our own busy little worlds we all become.  Yes, I'm aware that the students I deal with in our outreach Asperger's unit are often locked into their own little worlds too.  Yet, that is not what I'm getting at.  I suppose I could say that there are as many perspectives and takes on the world as there are conscious individuals within it.  What I wish to say is that being locked in my own little world of care has dulled me to so many other cares, pains and suffering which others experience perhaps on a daily basis.  If you have had the patience of staying with me thus far, I congratulate you, I thank you because here is the point:

While all this was going on for me a good friend has gone through, unknown to me, great physical and mental suffering.  I shan't mention her name here in this public space at all but I will write a small prose poem for her here.  I dedicate it to her and to her wonderful soul, to her wonderful way of being in this world.  I also dedicate it to all those of us who are suffering either physically or mentally at this moment in time.  I dedicate it also to my pupils and my friends insofar as it is a call to all of us to be aware of the preciousness that is life.  And so let me begin:

And while all this was going on in my life, the books I love, the articles I've written and researched, the students I was and am attempting to help, the cares of visiting my mother in her nursing home, the bits and pieces of the daily business we call life, there you were, my dear and lovely friend, yes there you were with your inoperable tumour of the brain.  Oh God, I have known quite a few others with that hell of cancer eating their brains away and I am stopped stone still in my tracks on receiving your beautiful Christmas card and enclosed letter.   It is a lot to take on board. And while all our petty cares of  which suit we should wear, the blue or the gray, this or that shirt or tie or that special pair of cuff links were causing me some concern there you were with your three major surgeries. While all that was going on how we laughed and joked, unmindful of it all.  Oh yes, dear friend, we laughed and cried and went on living our daily cares, big and small.  Oh, and often we blew our cares so much out of proportion - all our hills were mountains and all our little cares were often very large woes.  And while all those conferences, voices of experts, all those lofty words and phrases, all those learned terms being catapulted out, all those smart-arsed experts scoring points of one-up-man-ship with their neat and tidy jargon, ah while all this hot air was going on, you ended up finally with a shunt neatly installed in your brain - a shunt that carries your vital brain fluid to your body.  And while all your suffering was going on, I was unaware, blissfully and blithely unaware.  I wish I had known because it would have called me back, called me back onto the inner path of mindfulness, mindfulness that we are here in this life to learn to care and to learn to die as gracefully as we can.  And while all your suffering was going on, I was somewhat too concerned with self, thinking of my future, my glorious career which I wanted so much to be vocation, wanted and wanted so to be to be a vocation of heart and soul, and not of head or ego, there you were on the flat of your back in pain.  It's a Pineocytoma you inform me - ever so practical and ever so pragmatic.  You tell me that's a tumour situated in the Pineal gland in the brain.  My goodness, I am bowled over with your courage.  Gentle creature, gentle creature, I say, appalled as I am, I say again to any god or principle of life there could possibly be - if there is one - how could such as you deserve to suffer more? Oh this is a poem in prose, wrung from my heart, wrung from my soul.  While all this was going on in my life - all my little cares, all my pumped up self-importance which so needs be deflated - there you were suffering three long weeks in intensive care, the ignobility and indignity of a bald and butchered skull (I'm speaking from my feelings, not from facts as I'm sure the brain surgeons are such wonderfully skilled doctors - praised be them, indeed.  My two words beginning with 'b' are for alliterative effect and mean no criticism of them!) and the pain and tiredness of chemotherapy and radiation.  There you were lying for six weeks in St Luke's, Rathgar, getting Radiotherapy while all this our petty lives were going on.  And then you say the MRI scan that your tumour has shrunken a little.  You are thankful for small mercies, so you say.  Oh my God, if there is a God, such suffering, such suffering.  Yet this is the real world, the world we seek to deny - that to live, my friend, is also to die.  I have read so much and enjoy reading so much, and enjoy reading so much and am so grateful for my little life, for my own little piece of earth, for my own little job which gives me a reason to live and, hopefully, a reason to die.  And then, you, sweet and gentle creature, tell me that you are so thankful to be alive, and that you are back at work at last.  And while all this was going on in my world I was unaware of all that was going on in yours.  It's the way it was meant to be.  I didn't know.  I would have been concerned, upset and not a little disturbed.  Dear friend, I read and re-read your words.  I am taking them on board.  I am not taking my life for granted and have not indeed since my breakdown at forty years of age.  Every day is a blessing also for me.  I am thankful you are up and doing, that you are back lecturing and visiting schools.  There will be no pious words here, no "piosities" as a friend of ours used to call them.  I'm not going to trot out those old tired phrases - those trite old words that fail to stick in our throats.  I will be no Job's comforter in your hour of agony.  I can never be.  I value you too much.  I value life to much.  I value the lessons life teaches me too much.  I, too, wish to learn to die.  It is the hardest lesson we all have to learn.  I will write to you a letter, a longer and a more personal letter.  This is just a way of weaving words to cope with the unexpected news.  I am in the company of Dostoyevsky's Ivan railing against the Grand Inquisitor.  I am in the company of Bertrand Russell walking across the children's ward where too many were dying of inoperable tumours. I am also in the company of Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich and that of Kafka's Josef K.  I can only cry out at the pain of the injustice of it all.  I can only cry out because such is life.  I can only mumble the words of Stephen Hawking that this is a mere uncaring world of chance or the words of the great American poet, Robert Frost, who when asked what he had learned from life after having lived so long replied "It goes on."  And so it does and so it does.  Amen.

Above I have placed a picture of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Russian writer and philosopher who lived between the dates 1828–1910. As well as being a writer he was a brilliant moral philosopher. He would have understood!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Spirit of Christmas and the Joy of Giving will never smother under the blanket of Naked Greed.

It's amazing, or on second thoughts not so amazing, how greedy and acquisitive we have all become in Ireland.  We have got used to such unprecedented wealth with an accompanying very high standard of living as a result of that now mythical beast called The Celtic Tiger. It is now truly dead and put to rest.  Actually, whether it truly existed or not is another cause for concern.  It would seem that we were living on "virtual money" for some time.  Anyway, I'm a very poor economist and know nothing of how the world of high finance works. However, until relatively recently I had been listening to my daily dose of depressing news from our national media.  In fact, of late I'm getting sicker and sicker of depressing myself on its gloomy diet and have recently begun to listen to some uplifting music instead. We are inundated on a daily basis almost, nay bombarded, with "gloom, doom and dyspepsia" as an old teacher I had once used say.  We hear reports of more and more workers being laid off, of the bottom having fallen out of the building industry, of small businesses going to the wall, of immigrants returning to their native soil, of high numbers on the dole, of yet another multinational pulling out and going to another country in Eastern Europe where they will have less costly overheads - code for paying workers a pittance, that is, until that country gets its act together and workers get a proper wage.  Then once again that multinational will move on.

Moreover, it is depressing for the ordinary "man and woman in the street" to have read of the gross misuse of expense funds by the high echelons in the FÁS agency here in Ireland.  I teach inner city kids, mostly from a poor and uneducated background.  One little boy recently asked our principal whether he could be kept in on detention even though he had not been bold that day.  The reason was simply that the poor boy had no heat in the house when he went home. To think that certain people are so nakedly greedy and so oblivious of the obvious poverty in certain quarters around them is sick to say the least.  Like many others, I am disappointed, sickened and angry at such nonchalant, unthinking, greedy and grossly unethical and irresponsible behaviour.  To think that some of us have come to believe that we are entitled to absolutely the best of everything - the dearest hotels, the best manicures and pedicures money can buy, the best hair dressing salons, the most sumptuous of food in the most sumptuous of surroundings, the best of transport at the taxpayer's expense is nothing short of downright disheartening and oh so very sad.  What has become of the caring Ireland?  What has become of a lot of us that we are blind and deaf to the needs of others and so engulfed by our own greed?

Well, my title today says it all.  This naked greed described in my two opening paragraphs will never suck me down to its level.  Why?  Well, I've spent the last week or two preparing for our annual Christmas Vincent de Paul Party at school.  Most of our young lads come from ordinary decent working class backgrounds.  For the last seven or eight weeks we have sent boys around with a large bottle from class to class to collect some small change.  That bottle coughed up some 400€ in total - brilliant.  Then the staff donated some 450€.  Added to that the local Conference of the St Vincent de Paul Society gave us 700€.  From this money we fed some 70 old folk, entertained them and gave them each a present.  We will also select 5 of the poorest families and give them a decent hamper for Christmas.  All from small donations from decent ordinary human beings.  Yes, yes, yes.  The Spirit of Christmas is alive and well.  This happens all around our country in many hundreds of other venues where like minded people do nice things for the old, the lonely and the poor at Christmas time.  It's nice to give, and it's so rewarding to be nice.

There was such a great buzz and such a great "good feeling factor" alive and tangible at our little party last night that it renewed my flagging belief in humankind.  There are always sentences, phrases and lines from poems, plays and films rattling about in my mind.  As I type I recall the words of Agent Ward (Willem Dafoe) says to Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman) in the great film Mississippi Burning (1988) viz., "Where does all this hate come from, Mr Anderson?"  I'm inclined to ask, "Where does all this greed come from?"  Yes, there is much greed there.  There is too much wealth in the hands of too few.  Too many are going without even the basic necessities.  However, it is the small acts of kindness that count, those small acts of generosity either with little money or with the voluntary giving of time that will heal the wounded animal the Celtic Tiger has become.  Surely we cannot allow another dangerous and soul destroying animal akin to this greedy and voracious Celtic Tiger to be created in this lovely land of ours.  There is no future to greed except the exploitation of the vulnerable and the eventual asphyxiation of the soul of our culture.

The Spirit of Christmas can never be let die because we will only do so at our peril - the very death of our souls.  Charles Dickens'  wonderful small book A Christmas Carol (A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (commonly known as A Christmas Carol) is what Dickens described as his "little Christmas Book"and was first published on December 19, 1843) is still so relevant today.  We must become like the new, redeemed and kindly Ebenezer Scrooge we encounter at the end of this wee book if we are to save ourselves form the pit of lifeless and sickening greed and excess

As I finish these words, let me sing the praises of my colleagues, friends and pupils, as well as those of the dear people who attended our Christmas party.  Let me sing those praises loudly, for I am filled with a spirit of kindliness, love and tenderness you all have engendered in me.  You have been wonderful, kind and thoughtful. We need this so much in our often poor sad world.  Let the Spirit of Christmas live in all our hearts this Christmas.  Let us, in the words of William Shakespeare, which I never tire of quoting, rejoice in the fact of a very possible "brave new world that has such people in it." (Miranda's speech in The Tempest, Act V, Scene I) 

Happy Christmas one and all!

Above, I have uploaded a picture I took of an Italian crib Christmas 2006. It was on loan from some Italian town - in Sicily, I think, if my memory serves me well. The marvellous display took place in the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin.