The Wisdom of Things Found 5: The Teaspoon

TeaspoonThis was found on a track that runs along by the river Wear. At the bridge at the bottom of Page Bank, the path is metalled with what seems to be rubble from old houses. There are tiles and bits of pottery, brick and plaster, the occasional door handle or tap washer. I always keep my eyes down in case, in a final bid for immortality, the past has sent something forwards in time to be found.

It was no surprise to find a battered teaspoon, then, but this one made me smile. As a gift from a demolished home, this was well chosen for me.

I like teaspoons: chatty little upstarts in the cutlery drawer. They have heard all the gossip in the world from their hiding places in sugar bowls, on saucers, on the kitchen sideboard, and they like to stir things up. Just as a junkie’s paraphernalia (often including a teaspoon) becomes comfortingly associated with the addiction, so teaspoons speak to me of the good pleasure in my life that is coffee. A good teaspoon has a little weight but not too much. It should  nestle comfortably between thumb and forefinger and clink lightly against the cup when stirring. Holding it, one should feel inspired to gesticulate for emphasis and, possibly, to flirt.

She makes the sign of a teaspoon
He makes the sign of a wave
The poor boy changes clothes
And puts on after-shave
To compensate for his ordinary shoes
(Paul Simon)

In specific, look at this little one. Stamped out from cheap, thin metal, like a paper doll, I’d say it was born in the leaner war years, giving its understated, sinuous decoration a note of defiance: “I will be pretty. I will be more than ‘just a spoon’.”

Does it have anything wise to say? I think so.

I’m reminded of the times I’ve chosen to eat desert with a teaspoon instead of with a fork or table spoon, taking smaller mouthfuls, savouring each of them, drawing the experience out.

I picked up this spoon at a moment when I felt overwhelmed by life. I realised I needed to go back to ‘eating’ with a teaspoon. Even if there’s a mountain to move, and just a teaspoon to do it with, the main thing is to make a start and to savour each small moment.

Some of Mevlana’s words came back to me. These have never failed to unlock a sense of presence and peace for me:

Take little sips of air for the rest of your life.

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Coffee Shop Pop Psychoanalysis

I’ve blogged previously about my ongoing battle with fountain pens. As a Scotsman I knew once said, “It’s a sair ficht.” While he was referring to the daily struggle between the ways of the flesh and the ways of the spirit, I feel, in microcosm, so is the Way of the Fountain Pen for me. I love the romantic icon of the fountain pen, but for as long as I can remember it has only loved to scratch holes in my paper and (somehow) put ink in and around my mouth.

Rorschach and CoffeeOur most recent skirmish was held this morning in a local coffee shop as I tried to do some journaling. Thankfully, I was prepared with several squares of scrap paper on which to get the pen working before damaging my journal. Nevertheless, Stanley (yes, my pens do have names) was channelling Hermann Rorschach — so not much journaling was done. I obligingly embraced the opportunity to do a spot of coffee-shop psychoanalysis, folded the papers in half over Stanley’s leaked blobs to see what could be found. What do you see in these, I wonder?

(Add your answers in the comments – but don’t look there until you’ve decided what you see; and don’t overthink it!)

Rorschach 1
Rorschach 1
Rorschach 2
Rorschach 2
Rorschach 3
Rorschach 3
Rorschach 4
Rorschach 4
Rorschach 5
Rorschach 5
Rorschach 6
Rorschach 6

A couple of these are absolutely startling. to my mind (it’s that first one that blows me away). Of course the reason our minds are so quick to see things in these ink blots has something to do with the fact that they are fractal (so they inevitably resemble the forms that occur in nature) and the fact that we are fundamentally wired to try to interpret sensory input. That what we see varies from person to person, supposedly indicates differences in our state of mind, our habits of thought or perception.

I just think they are fun to play with.

Review: Why Follow Rules? Trust Your Intuition by James Maberly

Why Follow Rules? Trust your IntuitionWhy Follow Rules? Trust your Intuition by James Maberly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is not bedtime reading; it’s far too stimulating for the mind. It’s not a book I read at a steady pace either, I pretty much tangoed my way through it over a few months: slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Sometimes reading with great speed and excitement, at others trying to slowly digest and apply the insights. As a steady consumer of the self-help genre and with long experience in coaching, mentoring and spiritual formation, I can say that this book certainly offers something a little bit different.

As it suggests in the title, the essential message of the the book is a call to trust and follow our intuition. This grand theme crystallises eventually and satisfyingly; however, it also comes with its matrix: a ‘mind dump’ of a lifetime of thinking and creating, researching and relating that the author has done.

Maberly builds his thesis, drawing from his experience in education, wide reading in psychology, friendships, current affairs – all becomes grist to the mill. Of course he has opinions and sometimes speculates, but you can sense ‘intuition’ at work in the early chapters, and that is the whole point. I’d recommend the reader just listen and keep an open mind. The elements do come together, like an impressionist painting.

After Part I, where he introduces what he means by the word ‘intuition’, Part II challenges us with ‘eight critical questions’. These may not seem immediately to be about intuition per se. It’s as if he’s let us peek through the window, and then taken us a circuitous route to the door, during which we learn what we’ll need to know about ourselves when we get into the house.

We begin to discern the small gestures of brush strokes in a generous distribution of quotes and anecdotes. The author uses stories very well, more with the pipe-and-scotch, here’s-my-pet-theory approach than the journalistic precision of, say, Malcolm Gladwell. However, as with Gladwell, there’s an incredible diversity of material hauled into the discussion. He doesn’t shy away from speaking unashamedly of the spiritual aspects of creativity or making certain assumptions about the cosmos. There’s a good measure of synthesis from the well-trodden paths of postmodernism and new-age philosophy, but it’s given with a refreshing naivete. Maberly is like a kid in a sandpit, building something completely awesome with whatever comes to hand.

Then, quite suddenly, I think he goes in for the kill when he comes to distinguish the ‘inituitive self’ from the ego. This was the moment in the book when my mind reached out and latched on for the ride and I felt I was about to see a new horizon. Like the greatest truths, it dips in and out of view like a ship on the swell but it is suggestive of a direction in which we might like to set our compass.

I’m a product of my generation. I’m suspicious of authority and I have no love for rules. Of course, I’m going to pick up a book like this and read it to reinforce what I believe. However, It has become clear to me that the second step of trusting my intuition is something I don’t know so much about. It doesn’t naturally follow. It’s easy enough to throw out the rule book and keep stoking the fires of the ego.

Part III of the book introduces five individuals who have ‘broken the mold’. In Maberly’s terms, they’ve followed an intuitive path and found freedom from the rules. There’s a good cross section here, from famous to relatively unknown in global terms: a millionaire, an artist, a musician, an educationalist. With the exception of Steve Jobs, these individuals are all known personally by the author. He allows them to speak with their own words, then mines their lives to show the outworking of the very things he’s discussed in the book so far.

This is an inspiring section. Each case study brings to light a story of overcoming diverse struggles. I suppose it’s inevitable that each reader will identify more or less with them, but there’s something for everyone here. For me, particularly, it was reading about the cellist and improviser Francois Le Roux that set off a magnificent domino rally in my soul: an invitation to go forward intuitively, drop the trappings and live freely. The insights here alone were worth all the words in the book for me.

To balance my gushy response to this book, I’m not sure if a skeptic would be completely persuaded. If you resist the thesis of the work, you’ll find plenty to argue with, and anyone with an aversion to pop psychology or new-age jargon will need to sit on it in order to finish reading. If that’s you, I think it’s worth trying to hear this on its own terms rather than deciding whether it maps onto your own concept of personality or the soul. I was pretty much in agreement with the ideas before I started reading, and I’ve got pages of journaling and copied-out quotes to keep chewing on.

In some ways I feel the author has made a mistake by disclosing a lifetime’s worth of wisdom that could have been eked out over several books. On the other hand, I’m grateful for such a complete agglomeration to be mined and somehow feel that his continuing journey through intuition and persistent curiosity in the future will unearth still more to share with the world. I very much hope so.

View all my reviews

Offerings for National Poetry Day

I couldn’t let this moment pass without a tip of the hat towards National Poetry Day. As previously mentioned on this blog, I’m semi-regular at a writing group in Second Life, and it forces me to churn out something in 20 minutes. Sometimes, with a little polishing, I’m reasonably content with these.

 

Small

There’s this pebble that makes me feel small
But I can hold it in my palm
Broken, sheerly like a miniature cliff
Inlaid with lines, pencil fine
By spirit-level silty seas, advancing, retiring, layering
Then waiting
Then squeezed, tectonic tight
Then baked in earth’s belly and uncovered
By archaeologist’s brushes of
Wind and water
Shorn by ice and rolled in the tide
Like dough
It’s just those lines, no thicker than a fingernail
Each a few thousand years deep
That make me feel
Small

 

Speak

Eyes speak
In accents deep set or bulging, narrow or wide, turned up or down
With lumen whites for a larynx, elastic lids for vocal cords
Blinking like a cursor
Pupil and iris for tongue and teeth

Eyebrows speak
Punctuation marks, up or down at the end of sentences
Or hovering for emphasis

Hands speak
In accents fine or rough, round and knobbled, flecked like bark
Or medieval tones of lily white
They have ten inflections, each topped by a nail
Their salute is mightier than the sword
Speaking without boundaries of language
Forceful words seldom misinterpreted

Feet speak
They even vote and carry on political campaigns
With the whole entourage of body

Which speaks
All at once achatter
Often contradictory

Mouths?
Oh, no
Mouths
Almost never speak

How jazz shaped my philosophy of life

I’m not alone am I? I mean, most guys in their thirties … with a waistline you don’t want to be reminded of, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the world … most guys are wondering what happened to that little boy they once were: his focus, his energy, his passion, his fundamental optimism … his innocence?

A mid-life crisis? It’s basically a second adolescence where the question has changed from ‘who do I want to be?’ to ‘who have I become?’

There are a few things that make me feel sixteen. One of them is swimming in open water, another is listening to jazz, old jazz, New Orleans jazz from the early 20th century. That’s essentially the sound-track of my teens.

How do you rebel in a world of non-conformists?

It’s a strange choice, but honestly it was about the only avenue left open to express my rebellion, while I was trying to be a non-conformist like everyone else. My peers were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, House of Pain, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses. My family (and music teachers) listened to baroque and classical music. Even the lefty teachers listened to New Model Army and The Levellers. I got captivated by the energy and optimism of jazz, and later found in it a voice for the melancholia and rebellion I treasured in my adolescent heart.

I started out taping jazz radio programs on BBC Radio 3. I ended up collecting photos of jazz musicians, reading every scrap of jazz history I could find and spending every break time on a piano in the music school. This music became one of my earliest mentors and I’m only discovering now how much it set my expectations and shaped my outlook. That boy I once was is still fundamentally running the show from a speakeasy in the back of my mind.

Freelancing is the highest form of employment

For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my assumption that freelancing is the highest form of employment. I learned this from my trumpet-blowing heroes. At the end of the day, they had themselves, they had soul and a horn to blow it out from. They pitched up, they did their thing, then they disappeared back into the night, beholden to nobody. If they were good, they got booked; if they weren’t hot enough, they got cut. If they got into self-destructive habits, they burned their career, because they were inseparable from it.

Gentlemen prefer banjos
Gentlemen prefer banjos

That’s it, you know, these musicians stood or fell on the basis of something that it was quite impossible to fake. You can paint jazz by numbers, and I’ve heard plenty of these guys who have emerged from conservatories who can run up and down scales very prettily — but the elusive elements of soul, swing and hotness … sticks out a mile.

Of course I’m romanticising it – but it’s the myth that wired me to be a freelancer.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it

Then there’s my almost-pathological preference for spontaneity. My heroes were (and still are) improvisers. None of them would pitch up to a jam session and ask to see the score, or dream of showing up with a bunch of pre-rehearsed licks. They’d internalised the outer forms and the inner core of their art a long time before they stepped up to the mic.

I can’t see the problem with going by the seat of your pants as long as, you know, you made those pants yourself, you know they are up to the job, and you carry a sewing kit in case they get torn

I still believe that you’ve gotta be a sponge and soak in stuff, so when you get poked that’s what comes out. If it’s not in you already, it’s too darn late to start preparing now. Being an improviser isn’t about not being prepared, it’s about the preparation happening over years in the past.

Individualism can coexist with collectivism

Then take the matter of ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and all those buzz words you’ll never find on the sleeve notes of a hot record. My take on these tings is still cast acccording to the loose categories of ‘ensemble’, ‘soloist’ and ‘bandleader’.

The feature that makes early New-Orlenian jazz so special compared to what followed is the ‘ensemble’. Everyone plays together – everyone improvises together. It’s not about the solos, like it is today. You might not hear any solos; sometimes the most a single instrumentalist gets to play in the limelight is a four-bar break to key the ensemble back in.

The phenomenon of a band leader is an interesting one in this egalitarian context. From my reading of early jazz history the bandleader is:

  •  needed by the entertainment industry so they have a name they can use to sell records and attract the punters (‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers’ is going to sell better than ‘some guys with horns and stuff who happened to be available on Friday afternoon’)
  • the one with the personal influence, the network and the contacts (in modern business terms) to convene an assortment of seasoned musicians who are going to sound good together (the cats dig him/her enough to pitch up)
  • someone who has to take care of that client-facing stuff, you know, and make sure everyone gets paid if they’ve been sober

None of that means the band leader is any kind of big-shot when it comes to the team performing (or the band playing).

Classic New-Orleans jazz is a shining example of how both individualism and collectivism can play loud and strong together in society. I guess I’m holding out for that.

That’s almost enough said … yup, enough. I’ll just let the music speak for itself. This is Black Bottom Stomp (it still raises the hairs on my neck):

“True voice” blogging

So, I recently found a great website. I think that’s a rare event. More than half my time online is spent sifting irrelevant information and wincing at bad copy. I don’t say that to set myself up as a discerning arbiter of good taste – I do as much wincing when reading back over this blog as anywhere else.

HighExistence is on a mission to:

  • Provide a medium for freethinking individuals to connect & discuss
  • Compel you to follow your bliss & make a life, not a career
  • Explore all aspects of the human condition
  • Question anything & everything that is considered ‘normal’
  • Promote the general spread of happiness and love

That sounds like an invitation for every crackpot theorist to dive in and fill our screens with the kind of misspelled and vacuous user-generated content that we spend our lives clicking away from. But, like Reddit, HE has an upvoting system for posted items, and it works. Plus, it looks like a bit of vetting goes on before you become a contributor (known as a HEthen).

The platform seems to have become a good place for reading about folks who are taking an experimental approach to life, with themselves as the lab-rats. That’s the kind of stuff I can’t stay away from because, just like everyone else adventuring on the seas of post post-modernity, I’m always obsessing over the grand question of ‘how to live’.

Anyway, there was an article there titled “The Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fu@!<“. I thought, “I’m going to read this but I’ll not be sharing it with my network because it has swears in it.” In one sense the article is a shameless tid-bit of click-bait, but I found, for once, I didn’t click away with a sense of “there’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back”.

It wasn’t the content (generic self-help chat you’ve probably heard before) that kept me reading , it was the style.

I’ve seen stuff a bit like it before. You might describe it as “true voice”, a little bit “stream of consciousness”. On the surface that’s exactly the type of rubbish I want to sift out. I get hired to straighten out people’s words, and I sometimes feel I’m in a lonely battle to get the world to, you know … use sentences.

However, I have to admit to noticing that the stuff that gets upvoted and read is seldom written in proper sentences and often commits grammar crimes.
Lomogram_2013-12-17_11-19-14-PM
I’ve seen it in countless non-fiction bestsellers on Kindle too. It’s a conversational, ‘true voice’ chat style that could easily have been written in an afternoon by somebody using voice recognition software as they drove in their car, or lounged in the bath.

There are still plenty of inane anecdotes and rambling passages of thought out there. I mean, when will cookery bloggers learn that I’m there for the recipe and I’m skipping the six paragraphs where you gush about when and where you first tasted this dish and how delicious it was, and where your quest for the perfect ingredients took you next?

I’m not talking about that. But there really is a place for the uber-conversational style, when a writer really has something to say. In fact, it’s more engaging.

I’ve been on a bit of a journey in this blog’s five-year lifespan. The way I read and write now has changed, but I still cling to a more ‘literary’ feel on here.

I’ve blogged far less in the last couple of years. I think this is because:

  • having a sense of the blog as a ‘shop window’ has limited what I dare to put in it
  • writing it has started to feel too much like work
  • I’ve been very busy
  • it feels like I’m in a rut with my writing style here and I’m bored with my own voice
  • I’m overwhelmed with ideas for posts because I have too many interests
  • some of my energy is going into writing a book that is becoming a receptacle for a lot of what I’d probably be blogging about

So (and it’s okay to start a sentence with ‘so’) I’m hoping to shift things a bit and make posting more fun for me. Maybe this is a place where I can be a bit freer from the restraints of ‘professional’ writing.

Taking a leaf out of the ‘true-voice blogger’ book feels worth a try.

It’s time to break a few personal rules like this post does. Not only have I abandoned proper sentences but I’ve also posted one of those cringing self-conscious blog posts that ends up talking about the blog and what I’m going to write, instead of actually writing it.

Time to sign off for now.