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Sunday 29 November 2009

Lady Constance Lytton

Like Grand Duchess Elizabeth, Lady Constance Lytton (daughter of the Viceroy of India and Queen Victoria's lady-in-waiting) is one of the half-forgotten heroines of history.

A gentle person - a vegetarian and animal lover - who had been a semi-invalid for much of her life,Lady Constance had a chance meeting with a group of working class girls, among whom were some suffragettes. Although she had been opposed to the militancy, she empathised with their cause and gradually began to realize that, without any political voice, all their peaceful protests were ignored. Eventually, she participated in a demonstration to Parliament and was arrested. On account of her aristocratic background she was given preferential treatment in prison and released early. When she received the same treatment a second time, she wished to prove the injustrice of system that treated working class women one way, and wealthy women differently.

She disguised herself as a poor seamstress (as seen in the picture above) and was subsequently arrested for making a protest about the appalling treatment received by other suffragette prisoners in Walton Gaol. Once imprisoned she adopted a hunger strike and was brutally forcibly-fed, without a medical examination which would have revealed her chronic heart complaint and which had been the excuse for her earlier shorter sentences. The treatment she received seriously damaged her health and she never fully recovered.Shortly before her death she wrote a book "Prisons and Prisoners" describing some of the tragic stories of other women prisoners.

In that book she quotes some very beautiful lines, which I think are extremely inspiring:

"Have you seen the locusts, how they cross a stream? First one comes down to the water's edge and is swept away. Then another comes and another, and gradually their bodies pile up and make a bridge for the rest to pass over." She ended by saying, "Well, perhaps I made a track to the water's edge."


There's an old film - "Random Harvest" - about a husband suffering from amnesia and how his wife tries to return him to his memories. The final scene, when he remembers her is so beautiful!

Imagine if, for a moment, we forgot everything we ever were told. Imagine if, for one single second, all we could remember were the kindnesses shown to us and the people we love. All the rest of our memories vanished - no appalling news stories, no bloody history, no slights or affronts - all we remembered was our love for others and our response to love in others. Every day we would awaken with a sense of awe and 'newness'; we would feel such wonder at seeing the sunrise or the moon, the changing seasons and the myriad of colours even in the dark seasons! Every moment would be a blessing and, like babies and small children, we would be able to gaze in fascination at a truck or a flower, a weed or a puddle, and see everything as wondrous!

I guess, as so many wise spiritual teachers say, there really is no moment except this one and in this moment everything that went before is gone like a mirage. There are no grudges or axes to grind and if ever we learn anything from our memories it is surely that, at the end of the day, all we have to do is let it go and know we don't need to make the same mistakes tomorrow, and can simply be in this moment. There are always unresolved issues that need to be laid to rest - the memories of people who were wronged in the past, whose stories need to be re-written to come closer to the truth - but, even more importantly, when we learn from those people we can let the past go and, regathering power of the present moment, know that we need no more tyrants or people to govern us.

We don't need some EU president, unelected prime minister or any governing body to tell us how to live. We don't need some manipulated bank crisis or economic decline to close us down and tell us we are dependent on the state. When we learn to live within ourselves, forgetting the fears that have been instilled into us, enjoying the amnesia that releases us from the bizarre notions that people just like us want to hurt us, we can simply remember that we are much bigger than all of that nonsense because we are created solely out of love. All the rest will pass away but, at risk of sounding trite, Love is the only thing that is eternal...and Love, to my mind, simply means that every single being, all people, all animals, all plants are born with the ability to grow and be themselves.

Saturday 21 November 2009

The Tsar's Album

For whatever reason, Prince and Princess Michael of Kent sent some of their 'family silver' to auction. Among the treasures was an album of photographs from the Russian Imperial Family. There are very few material objects that I possess which hold great meaning for me, but one or two things I would be very reluctant to part with because of their significance in my life. Things handled, created or given to me by people whom I love, still hold something of that person in them. It's not the object itself, it's the energy of the person it belonged to; as D.H. Lawrence wrote:

"Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing
for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them."

Oh, how I hope that the person who purchased the Tsar's album was someone who bought it out of respect for the family, rather than someone who bought it as an investment.

People talk about the redistribution of wealth (which, for the most part, simply means robbing anyone with money out of jealousy!) but wouldn't it be wonderful if things which had meaning for people, landed in the hands of those people simply because they appreciate them? That way, Van Gogh's paintings would never be consigned to safes, not seeing the light of day; beautiful jewels wouldn't be hidden away in bank vaults; people would just treasure what they treasure for whatever reason they treasure it. A diamond is really of no more value to me than a stone gathered on a beach and given to me by someone I love so, if I possessed a priceless diamond and knew someone who loves and appreciates diamonds, it would mean nothing to hand it to them...

But 'some old things are lovely, warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them...' I do hope the Tsar's album was purchased by someone who appreciates its worth!

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Splinters and Planks

In the magical, mystical world of childhood, which we never quite grow out of but sometimes hide for a while, we can be anything we choose to be - a princess, a fairy, a wizard, a king - and we can take any situation and turn it into a fabulous realm where we play the hero, victim or narrator or whatever role we choose. There are no responsibilities there beyond slaying the dragons of our own imagination, or ruling our kingdoms with justice and peace.

Fact is, it seems to me, that fairy tale kingdom is really the Truth about how we live our lives. We come into this world without any responsibilities but, at an early age are taught that we are responsible for one another....and there begins our decline into the idea that somehow we are omnipotent and everything is laid on our shoulders and we grow up. That's the point where we eat the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden - that's when we turn away from our natural playfulness and peace into the idea that we, not God are responsible for what happens around us. And religion encourages this. It's somehow our responsibility that someone is starving, that someone is suffering, that someone is in pain. We must stop our games, and subject ourselves to all kinds of sacrifices to correct this terrible thing that has happened to someone else. It's my fault that someone else hurts. It's my responsibility to care for the poor, the suffering, the oppressed. This is taught from pulpits every day.

And along came Jesus who said, "Why do you attempt to take the splinter from your brother's eye, when there is a plank in your own?" I always took this to mean don't judge other people when you make bigger mistakes yourself, but nowadays it takes on a new meaning.

There we are playing and, while playing, gathering splinters of ideas - ideas about original sin, about debt to society, about how we need to obey people who are cleverer than we are, about how wars are necessary and people are aggressive and not to be trusted, and we need to listen to masters and mediators between us and the Divine - and gradually building whole forests of lies about about who we are, what we're doing here, how we are sinners and have to appease a God who sacrificed his son so horrifically to pay for our sins....and at the same time try to help each other and take the splinters from someone else's eye.

Supposing it were different. Supposing we all cleared our own vision of the world; cleared out our planks, our vision and how we view the world; and more than that, cleared out all the old ideas of how we are supposed to live, then indeed we would see clearly enough to say to one another, "Want to come and play?" There would be no poverty then; there would be no one in need. Sometimes it's easier to feel good about 'doing good for others' than it is to clear our own shadow side, but unless we clear our own planks first, we can never see the beautiful expression of the Divine in others.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Armistice Day

On Armistice Day, in memory of the lost generation of World War I, and those who gave their lives on all sides in so many, many wars.

I love Rupert Brooke's poetry - and his is one of a million tragedies of young men whose lives were cut short 'in foreign fields'.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Friday 6 November 2009

Is it Interesting?

Is it interesting that those who speak most vociferously of the 'redistribution of wealth' are either those in positions of luxury who have no intention of parting with their own, or are those in positions of envy, who feel an inadequacy about themselves - equating who they are with what they possess?
Is it interesting that those who speak most vociferously of 'national security' and keeping us safe, are those whose actions made us targets for other people's anger?
Is it interesting that those who march most vociferously against poverty are often those who step over or by-pass a person begging in the street? Or wouldn't lend you a penny and turn their noses up against someone who doesn't fit their image of the grateful pauper?
Is it interesting that those who speak most vociferously for what Christ stood for, and have such a need to convert the world, are often the least tolerant people of all, and condemn all other beliefs and ways of life(forgetting that Jesus was accused of mixing with Romans, tax collectors and sinners)?
Is it interesting that those who speak most vociferously in praise of a late prophet, are the very people who vilified, stoned or even crucified that prophet in his lifetime? (it's always easier to love a dead prophet and turn him/her into our own image).
Is it interesting that those who speak most vociferously about anything, are often the most insecure people of all and those who have not yet sorted out their own 'demons' so project them onto the world?

No, it's not interesting because it has ever been thus.

What is interesting is the way that someone opens a door for someone else to pass through...and then smiles; or a stranger, seeing someone trip on the pavement, automatically opens their arms to help; or if someone you have never met before and might never meet again, for no apparent reason, suddenly talks to you in a friendly way about whatever they happen to be thinking; the casual conversation in a queue; the person who lets you go in front of them because you have fewer things at the check-out; the person who tells you, you just dropped your purse, or the person who lets you stroke their dog and tells you how old he is, how naughty he is, how much s/he loves him. Interesting, too, the way that they bulldoze buildings and suddenly greenery sprouts through the cracks in the concrete - tiny flowers, little yellow-headed leaves and small shoots, forcing their way against the odds towards the faint November sun (even on cold days this happens!). Interesting how the ducks and birds and ancient trees don't give a fig for the pettiness of who is supposedly 'in power' - they just go on growing, floating, flying and being wise - and they are ever interesting and ever new.

Really, some little boys or girls playing their games of power becomes very tedious. True wisdom often looks like foolishness but the wise things are very different from what appears to be wise, don't you think?

Wednesday 4 November 2009

A Dilemma about a War Memorial - Just Some Thoughts

There's an outcry about the student caught on camera urinating against the poppy wreaths on a War Memorial and the suggestion that he could face a prison sentence (however unlikely) for this offence. The student, utterly ashamed, was apparently so drunk at the time that he has no recollection of the offence and, wearing his poppy to court, expressed his remorse. This, I read in the papers and have no knowledge of the 'accused' other than that.

But it raises all kinds of questions. The fact that someone in a state of intoxication was incapable of seeing where he was relieving himself - for surely it was not meant to be any kind of insult to the 'glorious dead' - is as old as time. The fact there is now a backlash to what the newspapers have chosen to call 'binge Britain' and this particular person was caught on camera, panders to the scapegoat mentality. The indignation of the British Legion and the families recently bereaved by recent wars is absolutely understandable but, putting all personal agendas aside, this was simply a drunk student relieving himself and he happened to do it in the wrong place with no harm or insult intended.

To whom was that Memorial dedicated? To the young men who gave their lives for their country. Many of them - particularly in the First World War - were exactly the same as the student who was arrested. In 1914, young men were intoxicated by the belief that they were going to participate in the 'war to end wars'. They believed in a better life for themselves (and the idea of travelling abroad and coming home as heroes) and were caught up in the dream that what they were doing was heroic. Some short time later, some of them awoke to the reality of what had happened - in much the same state of hangover as that young fellow awoke to his arrest.

In the case of the student, he had offended the sensibilities of decency and what is seen as the honour of those who died. In the case of the volunteers of WWI, they awoke to the realization that they had been sold a lie and had been involved in mass slaughter for someone else's dream. The hangover must have been much the same.

So much spilled blood - for what?? What did World War I achieve?? Only World War II. Had the student lived a century ago, he would have been one of those young men...instead he, without murdering anyone, without depriving a family of a son or a brother or husband, had the opportunity to get drunk and happened to pass water on those poppies. No harm meant. I'll bet some of those soldiers would have given anything to be in that position, rather than squirming in trenches on the Somme. Would they care that someone later urinated on their memorial?

Of course, I don't think it's alright to desecrate memorials, and I have absolutely utter respect for those who gave their live to allow me the freedom to write this, but the average soldier in 1914 (and, like everyone else here, we have our own family members who gave their lives in that war) would probably much rather have joined that boy for a whiskey and have weed on a grave, than to have spilt so much blood in some political war. The student is repentant; enough said.

Siegfried Sassoon (himself a war 'hero') wrote a brilliant poem that speaks many more volumes about what is truly a desecration than the action of the scapegoat student:

The house is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.