Cutting Grass

[This essay is by contributor Eric Gandy, lifted with permission from his excellent blog of essays and stories at https://egansite.wordpress.com]

Our summer cottage overlooks an acre of meadowland which slopes down to the shore of a small lake in a series of natural terraces, a legacy from the ice age. The meadow is like a valley protected on both sides by tall, old trees: pines, firs, silver birches and oaks. By the lake a 25-foot high outcrop of granite, worn smooth by the ice and now covered in moss, provides a natural boundary.

In summer an almost impenetrable jungle of grasses, ferns, wild flowers, bushes heavy with roses and currants and small saplings blankets the meadow. A few narrow paths which follow the contours of the terrain make it easier to move around in this undergrowth. They were originally made by the local badgers on their nocturnal excursions. We follow them too.

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The meadow

Rain and sunshine before midsummer lead to an explosion of green vegetation, and the meadowland becomes dense and entangled. The dog, a large boxer, disappears into the grass to find a good place for a snooze. The kids play “spot the dog”. Evenings are devoted to tic-picking, which he doesn’t like. Soon it will be time to harvest the currant bushes, red, white and black, if we can find them before the blackbirds do.

The grass needs cutting. For the past 60 years or so this has been done using a scythe. Before that the local farmer’s horses and cows did the job. I inherited the scythe from my father-in-law, 25 years ago. It hangs on a rusty nail in the shed, as though waiting to be used in a horror movie. There was no way back, I had to learn how to use it.

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Scythe, whetstone and water

Mary had often seen her father in action, so she demonstrated how to swing the scythe. Over the years I have gradually got the hang of it, and in particular avoided any major injuries.

First I had to learn how to sharpen the blade using a whetstone. The picture that came to mind was of the butcher using a steel to sharpen his knives. Sharpening a scythe blade is different, stone on steel. The whetstone is a block of stone with fine and rougher grades, and has to be wetted for a good sharp edge. The action is different too – the butcher strokes his knife along the steel, the whetstone is stroked along the scythe blade. Both alternate between the two sides of the blade. To sharpen the blade, I stand with the scythe handle nestling in my armpit, arm extended along the dull side of the blade and other hand sliding the whetstone along the edge in steady strokes. I don’t use gloves but so far I have not cut myself.

It is easier to cut grass while still wet with morning dew or when the evening mist rolls in from the lake. We still use the same scythe, but switched to a heavier, shorter blade about ten years ago. Cutting grass with a scythe is quiet; only a slicing sound as the blade cuts through the stems of the grasses and like a scalpel separates the grass from its roots. It is heavy work swinging the scythe from side to side, rhythmically exposing the contours of the land one step at a time. We usually let the grass lie for a few days, to release next year’s seeds and make it easy to rake up the grass. Over the years I have cut down a currant bush or two by mistake, but the dog still has a tail.

Swinging a scythe is a sweaty business but physically satisfying, and I tell myself it is good exercise. Often I am too enthusiastic at the beginning of the cutting season, and get a stiff, sore back which turns into a chronic condition as the summer proceeds and more grass is liberated from its roots.

In August I have a regular date with my chiropractor. He tugs and presses my body, twists and manipulates until I feel like a loose rag doll. After a particularly long and painful session he smiled ironically and pronounced:

“It’s about time you hang that scythe up for good!”
“No way, what will happen to the meadow then” I replied, despairingly.
“Get a machine, a trimmer. I have one. Perfect. Got it second-hand and share with a neighbour”.
“But we’ve never used a machine on the meadow before.”
“Mark my words. Next year I might not be able to get your old bones back into working order.”

To cut the story short, I ordered a machine for cutting grass. A month later a large, heavy box arrived. It could easily have doubled as a budget coffin.

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The Box

The machine came in several parts which had to be assembled. Also included was a 30-page manual (four languages), safety instructions, grass cutter, trimmer head, tool kit, harness, various nuts and bolts. That was not all; the machine demands a special petrol/oil fuel, not included, a funnel, ear mufflers, face shield, heavy boots and thick gloves. I skipped the special grass cutting safety trousers.

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Machine and Accessories

A couple of days later I had assembled the machine and studied the manual carefully. At least half of the instructions were about safety. Sadly I couldn’t figure out how to start the machine. A safety precaution perhaps? I phoned Customer Service and explained my dilemma. The service technician agreed that the manual was rather unclear, but blamed a poor translation. I didn’t think it advisable to ask what it said in the original language. He said it was one of the easiest models to start on the market and explained the procedure slowly and with a loud, patient voice. Obviously he had been trained to communicate with regular folks.

“If you still feel uncertain, there are excellent instruction films on YouTube” he said, with a rather cheerful voice, and hung up.

I took his advice and searched YouTube using the model number of the machine. Rather unexpectedly the films which came up were all in Russian. OK, I don’t have anything about Russians, so I clicked on the first film. It was quite entertaining as far as instructional films go: two portly Russian men in shiny shorts and old gym shoes were happily prancing around an overgrown orchard like horses in a circus ring, waving their motorised grass cutters with such abandon that I expected a harvest of toes to crown their performance. They swung their machines about in a very carefree fashion, clearly not having read the extensive safety instructions. Not the reading kind, I guess.

Suddenly one of the machines shut down, rudely interrupting their pas-de-deux. The owner’s attempts to restart the machine were worthy of a performance by Coco the clown, ending with him abandoning his machine in the tall grass and stomping off for good.

As an instructional film it had some shortcomings. I suspect it was a “how-not-to-do-it” film. The user manual seemingly had the same origin, a Russian orchard.

D-day arrived. Kitted out in sturdy boots, thick gloves, jeans, harness, ear mufflers and face shield I filled the petrol tank with the correct oil/petrol mixture, carefully wiping off excess petrol, and then moved at least 20 feet away from the “filling area”, as prescribed. First I pumped the transparent fuel pump a few times until I could see the fuel bubbles, pulled up the choke and, with my hands in the right position, pulled the starting handle several times in quick succession until the engine coughed and almost started. Down with the choke, and the engine died again. Two quick pulls on the starting handle and the engine roared into life. “Eureka”, I shouted, almost falling over in shock. It worked. I lifted up the machine and hooked it onto the harness, albeit after some fumbling with my thick gloves.

Assuming the correct stance, I grasped the controls, pressed in the dead-man’s grip and then squeezed the gas pedal. It burst into action, the grass-cutting head spinning at an alarming rate as I looked round for some grass to cut. According to reliable sources, the engine was loud. Some pheasants flew squawking over the fence into the neighbour, the dog ran into the cottage and hid under the bed, while Mary took a long walk. I could hardly hear anything, thanks to my mufflers.

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Man At Work

After half an hour or so I cut the gas and released the dead-man’s grip before pressing the “STOP” button. The engine slowed down with a grateful whine, but the blade carried on spinning for a minute or two, slower and slower. Relieved I unhooked the machine and removed mufflers, harness and the rest. The machine left me with fingers still shaking and ears wet with sweat.

My first grass-cutting session over, I surveyed the results. Grass, ferns and flowers plus a couple of unknown bushes lay in one great tangle of vegetation. All in all a good job. But it doesn’t end there. The manual concludes with a twenty one item maintenance schedule for daily, weekly or monthly maintenance. With the scythe I simply wipe off the blade with an old rag and hang it up on its nail in the shed. At the end of the cutting season I wipe it over with oil to protect it from rust over the winter.

Cutting grass with a machine is faster than with a scythe – but, sadly, noisy and lonely. With the machine, I must focus on one thing – the machine, and not injuring anyone. It is definitely too fast and violent to avoid chopping up the wild red strawberries hiding in the grass. I miss the silence of the scythe, I miss the birdsong and the sound of the slow waves as they reach the shore. Working with the scythe I can meditate, contemplate, allow my thoughts to wander, and I get to eat more strawberries. Is the new machine a sign of progress? My answer is no – and the dog agrees.

Trouble in Husby

(This was written by contributor Eric Gandy, a resident of the Stockholm suburb, Kista. These are his observations and impressions, in prose-poem form, of an adjacent community, Husby, where there has been civil unrest for five days as of this posting).

A heavy morning shower has rinsed the dust from the grass and leaves. The air is full of the smells of spring, the rotten earthy smell of last year’s vegetation and the perfumes released by the new generation of flowers and leaves.

Suddenly a new odour attacks my senses – are there cows nearby? Further up the hill I meet a herd of Highland Cattle and Herefords lying in the lush green grass, silently chewing their cud, winter diet of sour silage now forgotten. All are facing in the same direction, as though toward Mecca. But see only the grey motorway bridge, which is nearing completion, perhaps observing the progress made since last autumn.

In the distance, giant the earth-moving machines are putting the final pimping touches to the brutal concrete flyover. The cows’ silent whisking of tails and monotonous chewing appear lethargic when compared with the drone-like swooping of the black swallows overhead. Their target is the flies which are constant followers of the herd.

Police sirens in the distance reveal that all is still not calm in nearby Husby, after nights of rioting. The usual stuff – burning cars, smashing windows and the usual culprits – disaffected youth.

Today the area has been invaded by a herd of media people, on their annual visit to a problem suburb. Like the cows, all facing in the same direction and chewing their cud. The hooligans have got more media space than the local activists, despite their organisation named Megaphone. Unfamiliar with press attention, the moderate activists call for understanding and an end to structural segregation and discrimination. But this is repeated against a backdrop of a masked hooligan, Molotov cocktail already burning. Give us jobs, give us education, stop police brutality, we want a public enquiry and apology by the police, or else…  The tired politicians trot out their patent solutions from afar, safe in their electronic havens, while the media hacks speed off to make their six o’clock deadline.

–E. Gandy

The Holy Zygote

I have been appreciating Stockholm’s  new crop of seemingly highly fertile youngsters emerging from the cocoon of winter into this glorious summer. Nature has a plan for them, despite what each rational mind, shaped by culture and family, importunes.

Males and females, each in their peculiar way, dress, decorate, perfume, preen, position and display their charms for attention. Some will seem to dress to avoid attention, but we know they want attention from others who appreciate the subtle and understated ways.

It is, of course, all part of the pre-mating ritual organized by the double-helix that rules our lives, no matter how earnestly some opinionators will argue that “nurture” is at least as important to an individual’s development and motivations as is Nature.

Nature is telling us to go forth and multiply.

“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” — Genesis 1.

Everything else is just to support this multiplication. The oldest structure in the brain of vertebrates, other than the brain stem, is the limbic system where the reproductive impulse originates:

The limbic system is a set of evolutionarily primitive brain structures located on top of the brainstem and buried under the cortex. Limbic system structures are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Such emotions include fear, anger, and emotions related to sexual behavior. The limbic system is also involved in feelings of pleasure that are related to our survival, such as those experienced from eating and sex. (Source).

Here’s my punch line: our bodies are the living support systems and vehicles for the gametes which will, for some, unite with the gametes of another or others to create The Holy Zygote.

There are some who will say that humans are a scourge upon the earth and should die out to save the planet. I am not one of these. Such people are implicitly positioning the human cerebrum, where human rationality is located (a recent evolutionary development), against the ancient limbic system.

I have no say in the matter. The old brain will rule.

However, for those who do not reproduce, by choice or any other reason, they still can assist The Holy Zygote in preserving and advancing the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens and its successors.

I wrote this list in a moment of reflection on this notion:

The purpose of any individual is to contribute to the survival of its species. This purpose can be achieved in any one or more of these ways:

  • Create and nurture progeny
  • Protect the progeny of all or any member of the species (until each can or should be able to protect itself?)
  • Provide nourishment/sustenance to members of the species
  • Provide for the widest possible dispersion of gametes throughout the general population to enhance the possibility of favorable genetic combinations and, thereby, enhance the opportunity for adaptability of the species to changing external conditions
  • Aid and comfort the diseased and injured
  • Teach others in the ways of the above and below
  • Honor the force(s) that have created the resources to fulfill these contributions to one’s species
  • Preserve information about exemplars and their successes in these contributions, and recount them in stories

I ask readers to please add to this list.

Regarding Belief, in the Realm of the Religious or Spiritual

I do not disbelieve in anything. To believe in anything is to shut out all the things that are not within the belief system. I have a notion that Jesus, the Buddha, and others, had glimpses of “The Great Everything” as I like to say. These two may have dwelt in that infinitude in some manner not available to most of us and saw the greatness of this “everything.” In any case, all these words and ideas and structures are man-made in his attempt to understand the mystery of it all.  Man is part of the everything and cannot stand outside of it, and outside of himself, to see it. It will always remain a mystery. I accept this mystery, and delight in whatever little glimpses of it I may occasionally have, typically while hiking alone.

I am not concerned about conversion by others who have approached me with this in mind because there is nothing to convert from. I live, mostly, in an open system with no philosophical boundaries. I have practical boundaries, however, for purposes of living with honor—within my own values—and effectively in the practical world.

It is one’s choice to be in a closed (defined) system or an open (evolving) one. There is no one system better than another, objectively (that is, from the standpoint of a disinterested observer, whoever she may be, and if she may be). Some people do not choose either way and merely drift, unconsciously—and who is to say this is not a Way, also? (G.I. Gurdjieff fought against this Way).

I think it fruitless, however, to try to apply rational thought and processes to a subject which is primarily of a non-rational (not irrational) nature. Belief and feeling are neither measurable nor manageable as things. Therefore, there is no disputing another’s beliefs.

Which brings to mind the question of the proper use of the verb ‘to believe’ and its derivatives: when is it acceptable for a scientist to use the verb ‘believe?’

Get Real: What is ‘Reality,’ Really?

This is a question often discussed among people, especially during their formative years and during some parts of their formal education—or over a libation at one’s favorite watering hole.

Great thinkers have propounded their ideas on this subject, some of whom I quote immediately below, after which I will proffer my formulaic creation and solicit your ideas and arguments.

“One of the most basic realities is the definition of reality. All of the rest of philosophy depends upon it. Therefore, philosophy hasn’t gotten to the starting point until reality is defined properly. Of course, it never is.”— Gary Novak

“Reality: • noun (pl. realities) 1 the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them. 2 a thing that is actually experienced or seen. 3 the quality of being lifelike. 4 the state or quality of having existence or substance.”—Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, Oxford University Press, 2005.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”—Albert Einstein

“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”—Arthur Eddington

I report; you decide

I report; you decide

“Reality is not protected or defended by laws, proclamations, ukases, cannons and armadas. Reality is that which is sprouting all the time out of death and disintegration.”—Henry Miller

“I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal.”—Groucho Marx

Now I expose the formula I have created for myself:

reality

Measurers of things such as (some) physicists, engineers and accountants will argue there is an objective universe which constitutes reality, but one can’t get outside the universe to view it “objectively”. Therefore, we must rely on philosophers and other thinkers, including ourselves, to think it through, to use our intuition, to trust a revelation, or all of these.

I stand by my formula, above.

What say you?

Responses will appear under “Comments,” below.

ADDENDUM

Immediately after I published this article I came across a discussion of “reality” which buttresses, I feel, what I have written above. I am re-reading Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals, by Peter Matthiessen. I recommend you read the journal entry of October 9, 1973 in Chapter 7, which includes this passage:

The mystical perception (which is only “mystical” if reality is limited to what can be measured by the intellect and sense) is remarkably consistent in all ages and places, East and West, a point that has not been ignored by modern science. The physicist seeks to understand reality, while the mystic is trained to experience it directly.

All are nothing but flowers
In a flowering universe
—Soen-Roshi

 

“Healthcare,” Health, Sickness: A Brief Essay on Our Confusion in These Matters

Lotus Flower (lotusflowerimages.com/)

Lotus Flower (lotusflowerimages.com/)

In the western world we have dissected ourselves into separate, sometimes disconnected parts: mind/body/spirit, most pertinently. We treat our bodies as we do our automobile: we maintain our body to some or no degree and when it fails (or we worry about it failing) we ‘go to the doctor’ to get it diagnosed and fixed. We fail to see that our values, our assumptions about the spiritual realm (for those who accept and dwell on it to any degree), our assessments of ourselves as worthy and useful creatures (or the opposite) are all part of our ‘health.’

Genetic determinants and externally caused accidents are of another matter: chance.

You know these things, but we are trapped in our culture to think and talk as if the mind and body and spirit were separate entities. The problems of body are addressed by ‘doctors’; the problems of the mind are addressed by psychologists or psychiatrists or counselors with other appellations; the spirit is the province of the church or coven or whatever place is currently attractive or fashionable.

‘Health’ is generally seen an attribute of the body or mind, mind-health being seen as affecting body-health but seldom the other way around. Spiritual health is seen as a private matter and outside the realm of the other two ‘parts.’

Outside the workings of chance, I see spiritual health as fundamental to general health. But there I go separating us into parts. I can’t help it.

In any case, we have no clear, agreed-upon definition of “health.”

Sunflower (flickr.com/photos/lucaspost/)

Sunflower (flickr.com/photos/lucaspost/)

Our language is a problem in these matters. We are told language is an integral part, a determinant perhaps, of our culture and the way, therefore, we perceive the universe and ourselves in it (as if we could stand outside of something in which we are embedded).

“All words are lies.” I wish I knew whom I was quoting. I sometimes attribute this to G.I. Gurdjieff, but I’ll say it is mine until I find another, older and verifiable source.

It’s a significant problem for me as a writer to know that no word or words can capture and communicate the reality of direct experience.

Which gets me back to the words ‘health,’ and particularly, ‘healthcare,’ a mash-up I detest. It’s a marketing invention.

Until we define our terms (e.g., healthcare) in simple words we all can agree upon, we are going to be crosswise of each other when we go forward to manage ‘healthcare’ or to guarantee ‘proper’ or ‘adequate’ or ‘comprehensive healthcare’ or ‘universal healthcare.’

I enjoyed managing hospitals and the business affairs of medical groups. I was in the ‘sick business.’ This concept is so much more tangible and generally comprehensible and, I will argue, more useful than ‘healthcare’ or even ‘health.’

[I have ignored here, for the sake of brevity, the vital role of public health disciplines and entities in preventing sickness and accident in the general population].

Chambered Nautilus (seasky.org/)

Chambered Nautilus (seasky.org/)

I once worked with a physician who was my own doctor, and a friend and colleague in the management of a county hospital. If I remember correctly (and I may be conflating my memory of him with memories of other wise physicians) , he said something like this: “of 100 patients whom I may treat, 10 will get better because of my intervention, 10 will get worse, and 80 will get better mostly by themselves, through time and their own processes.” He (or another physician) said, also, something like: “the effective physician is like a ‘witch doctor,’ addressing not only the physical body, but the other attributes of mind and spirit, including the family and social circumstances.”

Another way of interpreting the two above, paraphrased quotes is: the healing mostly comes from within; the physician helps the subject recognize and effectively use his/her own intrinsic healing powers. Medicines help as allies, not the main ‘cure’.

Back to the use of words and concepts.

We are asking our physicians to fix us, but we are not recognizing that the ‘fix’ lies, ultimately, within (again, excepting accidents and other workings of chance). Whether this should be labeled a ‘spiritual’ approach is irrelevant and possibly not helpful, because it tends to narrow our vision through the preconception of what ‘spiritual’ means, if anything. Some things can be fixed, or course, like broken bones and diseased tissue. I am speaking here of those things the general physician sees most commonly in his or her patients:

The ten most common health complaints

Erasistratos discovers the illness of Antiochus, son of the King of Syria

Erasistratos discovers the illness of Antiochus, son of the King of Syria

1. cough

2. throat

3. itchy or rashy skin

4. vision problems

5. knees

6. back

7. stomach

8. ear ache, infection

9. hypertension

10. depression

Judge for yourself if you may really need a physician or someone to fix any the above you may encounter; or, whether you, and time, can take care of things.

Slow down.

Treat yourself with respect.

Drink lots of good water.

See a physician, of course, when you feel the need for guidance; I certainly do.

On Anger

While reading The Storyteller, by Mario Vargas Llosa, I came across this passage which, for reasons still obscure, affected me deeply: “Anger is a disorder of the world, it seems. If men didn’t get angry, life would be better than it is.” I finished the book and the feeling remained, like background music.

Then, a few days later, as I was avidly reading Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, by Donald Spoto, I was surprised and further affected by reading: “[Francis] and his companions, he said, ‘must be careful not to be angry or disturbed at the sin of another, for anger and disturbance impeded charity in [ourselves] and others.'”

I know there is a message for me here. I have often reviewed, with regret, times when I have allowed anger and related emotions to rule me. I cannot remember having made a correct decision or having taken a correct action when anger was uppermost in me.

I am especially harmful to myself and possibly others, while assuring the reader it is not in my nature to initiate physical violence, when I am in a state of righteous anger or indignation, ‘knowing’, in the moment, I am right and that someone else is wrong. This notion extends even to irritation with others when I am doing what I think is best and when I get ‘helpful’ suggestions without asking for them.

I have since resolved to attend promptly to all instances of anger, in whatever degree manifested, and to deal with them harmlessly. I conducted some Internet research toward this end.

The subject of anger has been considered, deeply, by writers and philosophers—even saints.

Seneca regarded anger as a form of madness. He says this emotion is:

…wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of the dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it….it is equally devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent and diligent in whatever it begins, closed to reason and counsel, excited by trifling causes, unfit to discern the right and true-the very counterpart of a ruin that is shattered in pieces where it overwhelms.

…there is nothing useful in anger, nor does it kindle the mind to warlike deeds; for virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the help of vice.

And again, to the assertion that anger is necessary for politics and warfare, Seneca responds:

…what use is anger when the same end may be accomplished by reason? Anger is not expedient even in battle or in war; for it is prone to rashness, and while it seeks to bring about danger, does not guard against it. [Source of quotations].

Geoffrey Chaucer, in The Summoner’s Tale, has this to say:

Anger’s a sin, one of the deadly seven,
Abominable unto the God of Heaven;
And it is sure destruction unto one.
This every vulgar vicar or parson
Can say, how anger leads to homicide.
Truth, anger’s the executant of pride.

I could of anger tell you so much sorrow
My tale should last until it were tomorrow.
And therefore I pray God both day and night,
An ireful man, God send him little might!
It is great harm and truly great pity
To set an ireful man in high degree.

In Aquinas Ethicus, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, I find:


ON THE EFFECTS OF ANGER

Article II., § 2. Everything must necessarily be weakened by time, the cause of which is impaired by time. Now it is manifest that the memory of events is impaired by time, for events of ancient date easily drop from memory. But anger is caused by memory of wrong done, a cause which is gradually impaired by time, until it altogether disappears. A wrong also seems greater when it is first felt; and gradually the estimate of it is diminished the further we recede from the present sense of wrong. And it is the same case with love, if the cause of love remain in memory alone. Hence the Philosopher says that “if the friend’s absence lasts long, it seems to produce forgetfulness of the friendship.” But in the presence of the friend the cause of friendship is multiplied by time, and therefore the friendship grows. And the same would be the case with anger, if the cause of it were continually multiplied. Yet this very fact of anger quickly burning itself out attests the vehemence of its fury. For as a great fire is soon out, having consumed all the fuel, so anger soon dies away.

In scanning advice from anger management counselors and others in the realm of psychology, it seems that anger can be dissipated by taking physical action that is not harmful to others, such as running, hitting an inanimate thing (e.g., a punching bag), and other substitutes for acting against living beings.

I stopped my research here and came to these conclusions:

1. Anger is a fire that, if left to itself without carrying it beyond its initial borders (that is, the narrow space surrounding one’s own body), it will burn out over time. This containment will include not sending verbal messages and physical indications of anger toward any other person or entity.

2. A person who takes action in a state of anger will harm all proximate parties, and possibly others in contact with them.

3. It is best, therefore, first, to quickly recognize when one is in a state of anger and, second, to take action to contain the anger within oneself and dissipate it through time and other methods, such as harmless physical action.

The question of the possible value of anger, if used or manifested in certain prescribed ways, are refuted by the theologians and philosophers who have addressed this subject.

N.B.: I would like to hear from anyone working in the realm psychology or a related discipline who disagrees with the theologians and philosophers on this latter subject.

The Divided Self

The Varieties of Religious Experience

William James, 1842-1910

… is a series of university lectures in the psychology of religion given around 100 years ago by the great American psychologist and educator William James. Three contiguous lectures of the twenty have captivated me and I am poring over them to be sure I understand fully what Professor James has presented. These three lectures are named The Religion of Healthy-mindedness, The Sick Soul and The Divided Self, and the Process of its Unification.

[Please note that the full text of the three chapters discussed below lies under the links immediately above]

Healthy-mindedness and The Sick Soul

The chapter on “healthy-mindedness” explores the psyche and other aspects of the person we might call a typical optimist. The following chapter on the “sick soul” can be similarly assigned to the pessimist. We have elements of each of these characteristics within us, but our inherent natures will cause us to lean, on balance, one way or the other. I was surprised to see that James feels the “pessimist” has the more apt outlook. I quote here from The Sick Soul:

(T)here is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may be after all the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deeper levels of truth.

The above tends to validate two of my father’s many borrowed aphorisms: “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”; and “Murphy’s” famous law, “If anything can go wrong, it will.”

The Divided Self

Around age 21 I perceived I had two aspects: the watcher and the watched. That is, the evaluator and the actor (in life) being continuously evaluated. This “evaluator” was relentless and harsh in my early years, but after some very large ups and downs, and after several decades of living fully, the evaluator seems to have faded from, or merged with, the “actor.”

This perception of a divided self and an ultimate resolution or “unification” is what James addresses in The Divided Self and the Process of its Unification.

Nikos Kazantzakis, 1883-1957

Nikos Kazantzakis, a passionate man, wrote this in his Report to Greco: “Fire and soil. How could I harmonize these two militant ancestors inside me?”

The writer Alphonse Daudet remarks at the beginning of his Notes on Life, “The first time that I perceived that I was two was upon the death of my brother Henri, when my father cried out so dramatically ‘He is dead, he is dead!’ While my first self wept, my second self thought, ‘how truly given was that cry, how fine it would be at the theatre.'”

Annie Besant, a leading figure in the beginnings of the Theosophical movement, states the following in her autobiography: “I have ever been the queerest mixture of weakness and strength, and have paid heavily for the weakness…An unkind look or word has availed to make shrink into myself as a snail into its shell, while, on the (speaking) platform, opposition makes me speak my best.”

 

 

The Process of Unification

Professor James give further examples from the writings of Leo Tolstoy, John Bunyan and Henry Alline, among others, most of whom dwelt upon the resolution of their “divided self” as being in the religious or spiritual realm. But finding a new religious or spiritual path is not the only mean of unification, as Prof. James writes:

John Bunyan, 1628-1688

(T)he process of unification…may come gradually, or it may occur abruptly; it may come through altered feelings, or through altered powers of action; or it may come through new intellectual insights, or through experiences we shall…designate as ‘mystical.’ However it come (sic), it brings a characteristic sort of relief; and never such extreme relief as when it is cast into the religious mould. Happiness! Happiness! Religion is only one of the ways in which men gain that gift. Easily, permanently and successfully, it often transforms the most intolerable misery into the profoundest and most enduring happiness.

“But to find religion in only one out of many ways of reaching unity…For example, the new birth may be away from religion into incredulity; or it may be from moral scrupulosity into freedom and license; or it may be produced by the irruption into the individual’s life of some new stimulus or passion, such as love, ambition, cupidity, revenge, or patriotic devotion…

“These examples may suffice to acquaint us in a general way with the phenomenon technically called ‘Conversion’.” (Note: Conversion is the title of the subsequent lecture and can be read in full under the preceding link).

Although it was in the making due to some recent personal hardships and, as I mentioned earlier, having lived fully for decades, I had a conscious realization of this unity at the age of 60 and wrote this as a poetic memoir of it while observing a sunrise during a solo, early morning hillside hike on Easter Sunday of 1997:

This Sixty-Year Journey

Yes, there was pain,
But why dwell on it
Except for the lessons learned?

Yes, there was disappointment,
But then,
What was I expecting?

Yes, there was joy,
But I was too young
To fully know of it.

Yes, there was love,
But until now,
I did not understand it.

Until now,
I was trying to be
Someone not-me.

I now know there is
A wisdom residing within
That will let me know what is right.

I now know that love exists, endlessly,
And to drink of it
I need only to be open to it.

I am reborn!

I have a lifetime of experience ahead.
I enjoy my moments.
I laugh at my mistakes.
I love unrestrainedly.
I have plans.
I have no Plan.

My journey recommences;
I’ll see you along the way…

(END)

In accordance with Professor James’s citation of love as being one of the many triggers for such a realization (“Unification”? “Conversion”?), I was newly in love when I wrote this poem.

Usefulness

Within the last few years I have been buying and reading collections of short stories, from Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) to the present, trying to learn the trade from the masters. I remembered recently that as a youngster I enjoyed reading the short stories of “Saki“, as H.H. Munro (1870-1916) pen-named himself. So, I ordered and received The Complete Saki and currently am tasting the pleasures of my youth with a more mature palate.

Here is a review of Saki’s work by A. Woodley:

The Complete SakiSaki has more twists in his tales, and injects his stories with more wickedness and biting satire than any short story writer before or since him and is truly the master of succinct, and highly descriptive writing.

He used a couple of wickedly engaging and attractive main characters for a couple of his collections – these were Clovis and Reginald. To illustrate their essential characters take this quote from ‘The Innocence of the Reginald’ the following discussion takes place when talking of a painting;

“Youth,” said the other, “Should suggest innocence.”

“But never act on the suggestion…” [replied Reginald]

The stories are marvelously un-PC – written before the First World War and probably indicative of a lost age when the British roamed country houses for most the year visiting one another and being grand. Saki, with his wicked pen and sharp wit dissects them beautifully. As there are no stories much longer than a few pages you don’t have to commit yourself to a great deal of reading, but once you start reading he is very hard to put down again.The entry in Wikipedia on Saki states: “He was influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, and Kipling, and himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward, and P. G. Wodehouse.”

In reviewing, mentally, the various books and films by Britons about the Victorian Era British upper class that are so wickedly funny, I asked myself what the source of the reader’s pleasure might be in reading about these ridiculous and ridiculed people. I believe the source of our pleasure is in seeing how absolutely useless these caricatured people are, who nonetheless voice the opinion of their being superior to people who are useful. We know that they are not superior, no matter how materially superior their circumstances.

Rarely does a character in this genre ever “work,” unless sitting on a board of directors or having a nominal position in an inherited business.

FreuchenLife has taught me that we have a need to be, or at least to feel, useful to others, however this may manifest itself. An extreme example, from our citified and “civilized” point of view, is the self-abandonment of the female Inupiat who stays behind, to die, on a trek across Greenland because her teeth had become useless in chewing on seal hides in order to soften them. I remember this example from reading, as a youth, Adventures in the Arctic by Peter Freuchen.

Remaining useful, after a lifetime of schooling, employment and helping to nurture five children, is now the major consideration in my life. I am “retired,” although I prefer to say I am no longer an employee. I do work, at my own pace and in my own way on my own projects, including being a house-husband to my still-employed wife and being a reasonably good step-father to her daughter who lives with us. I find ways to be useful in small ways to others of my family and friends, even sometimes to the point of being a bit annoying. It’s important to know where the boundaries are.

This blog helps me feel useful. It is in my nature to imbibe information and impressions of the world through reading and direct experience. But this is of no use unless I can transform it all into words that may entertain, even inform, at least a few others.

My mother provides, perhaps, the ultimate example of usefulness. She continued to be useful until shortly before her death at age 90, simply by offering love, compassion and understanding to her family.

Stay useful, keep loving.

Artemis Pavellas, née Pagonis, at around age 60

Artemis Pavellas, née Pagonis, at around age 60

Music for my Funeral

No, I am not anticipating my demise at any particular time. My physician assures me I am in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in.

Perhaps we all have fantasies about what people will do and say subsequent to our achieving room temperature. I guess my fantasy has a bit of sadism in it because I want everyone who attends my memorial event to listen to music that I like.

So I have been piling up digitalized music into a special file on my computer as I listen, while doing other work, to randomly selected pieces from the hundreds of CDs I have sent to the hard drive. There is no way everyone, or anyone, will stand or sit still for the enormous amount of music I have tagged as “my favorite” or personally significant.

Here are some pieces I particularly like:

Bach: Cello Suite 1, I. Prelude; Chaconne from Partita in D minor; English Suite, BWV811, Movement IV, Sarabande
Bartok: Rumanian Folk Dances (piano & violin)
Beethoven: Symphony #6, “Pastoral” Movement- 3. Allegro; Symphony #7, Op.92, Allegretto; Violin Sonata No. 8 in G, II. Tempo di minuetto
Bernstein, Elmer: The Magnificent Seven(from the film)
Chopin: Berceuse for piano in D-flat major, Op. 57, and many of his préludes
Eno, Brian: Sparrowfall From “Music For Films”
Glass: Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out Of Balance) and Naqoyqatsi (Life As War)
Grieg: Edvard: Jag Älskar Dig (“I Love You”) and Solvejg’s Song
Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74 No. 3, II. Largo
Hovhaness: Prayer of Saint Gregory, from “Celestial Gate”
Khachaturian: Spartacus, Suite #1, Scene & Dance and the Waltz from “Masquerade”
Loeillet: Sonata in b: I. Largo
Mozart: Requiem In D Minor, K 626 – 1. Introitus and his entire Mass in C minor
Schumann: Piano Quintette–Scherzo
Sibelius: Valse triste, Op.44 No.1

Some significant composers I have not yet included: Boccherini, Brahms, Bruch, Chabrier, Corelli, Debussy, Delius, Dvorak, Faure, Gershwin, Ligeti, Marais, Martinu, Mendelssohn, Messaien, Pärt, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Rautavaara, Ravel, Satie, Scarlatti, Schubert, Stravinsky, Takemitsu, Tavener, Tschaikovsky, Vivaldi and Ralph Vaughn Williams. There could be more, indeed.

So, you who are to survive me, you’d better let me know which of the above you can’t stand so I can do some necessary editing. There are some non-“classical” pieces that come to mind without research: “The Original Boogie Woogie” by Tommy Dorsey; “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by “Earl Scruggs and Friends”; “Infinity Promenade” by Shorty Rogers.

Suggestions for inclusion in either realm are welcome.

What do you want played at your memorial?