Sunday, 13 May 2018

Ghosts

 
Sometime last summer I posted on my Facebook page a cryptic message. It read: “When someone who caused immense emotional turbulence over 20 years ago finds your (locked) twitter account and, out of the blue, requests to follow you... Accept or Decline? Or stay awake wondering, Why?” It was interesting to see how people interpreted what amounted to a tabloid-style headline of scant information with enough sensational content to create a reaction.
 
Only one of my 300+ Facebook contacts – my lifelong friend Sarah – had any true idea of what I was talking about. I received a number of responses, mostly of the ‘don’t go there’ variety, or ‘decline – sleep well’ kind of thing. Others were less aghast. My good friend and collaborator, Paul, said “Do it!!” suggesting this would lead to more material for my miserable stories! Another friend, who is a writer, said that curiosity would get the better of her.
 
This writer was working on a memoir at the time, so I asked her how far should you go; how deep should you delve into the rabbit-hole of the past? “As deep as you can go,” she replied, suggesting that I shouldn’t leave any stone unturned. “You might not be able to use all of it, but – yeah – dig away.” I can’t wait to read her book when it comes out next year! We also agreed that it seemed people reacted adversely without knowing the context. This sums up the way most journalism works.
 
Allowing this person to follow me on twitter wouldn’t change much. These days I rarely tweet, and my account is locked to prevent specific people from abusing me and my friends. Furthermore, the question I posed didn’t talk of following her back: that would open a different can of worms... perhaps. So before I say what happened next, I should give a bit of context.
 
Exactly when this person requested to follow me is hard to say. I’d not been using twitter much, and wasn’t in the habit of checking my follower requests. She now had a different surname (she got married many years ago) so I didn’t spot her at first. However, I’d been looking up old friends on Facebook and saw her profile picture among the friends of an organist I once knew. This was her twitter avatar also. When, by chance, I looked through my follower-requests, the penny dropped.
 
Accept, or Decline?
 
There were too many other questions before I made a rash decision either way. Most pressing to me was: how the hell did she find me? She wouldn’t have known the ‘nom-de-plume’ I have taken on since changing my direction from music to writing ten years ago (although she would have known about my writing aspirations.) Also: why did she find me? We haven’t had any contact for, possibly, twenty-five years. As far as I’m aware she is happily married with two teenage girls and is getting on with her life. Why would she want to know anything of my soap-opera life now?
 
Perhaps I should give some back-story before I try to answer these questions. When I graduated from Music College, I went to live in a small provincial city west of the Midlands to start my life as a singer (and also, I hoped, as a writer) but found this change a massive jolt after London. I was far from happy, but someone whose unhappiness far out-stripped mine became a frequent visitor to my flat. A young woman who was deeply troubled by something that she was utterly incapable of putting into voice would come and sat with me for an hour, and then left with barely a word.
 
It would be several years before I got to understand something of what had silenced her. When she left for university, I sent her a copy of Maya Angelou’s first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This at least opened up a conversation through letter-writing (this was before email existed) but, in the end, it seems she was forced into silence again. We fell out of touch, and I was left wondering: what was the truth of her story.
 
This not-knowing and yet-knowing-something has had a profound effect on my life. It has informed and influenced almost everything I have written, and caused colossal turbulence in ways I cannot bring myself to talk about. Now I am the silent one. Something I must be absolutely clear about is that I do not bear a grudge, or blame this person for any of this. I have never stopped wondering how things worked out for her, nor ever ceased to hope that she has ‘survived.’
 
Does this answer any of my questions? I doubt it. Her twitter account is also locked, and Facebook gives no clues. What plagues me most is that my part in her life, over twenty-five years ago, created more disturbance than I had the right to cause. What if this twitter-request was an olive-branch? Surely I’d be a fool to ignore it. Or was it some kind of threat? A sword of Damocles, hanging over me? It seemed unlikely.
 
So I clicked ACCEPT. And – guess what – nothing happened.
 
Summoning the ghosts of the past is one thing, but when they come knocking at your virtual door, you have a choice to ignore them and hope they go away. Or, better still, to let them in so they might never haunt you again. There was, however, one more thing I could do having opened this one-way portal to my past. Request to follow her back. I waited until January this year before I did so.
 
Within days it was accepted.
 
Curiosity couldn’t prevent me from having a look. There is little action on her twitter-feed, and only a long list of followees mainly relating to her daughters’ activities. One thing I noticed as I scrolled through was that, despite showing little interest in literary feeds, there was one author (sadly, who died three years ago) who this person follows.     Maya Angelou.
 
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
 

—Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”
 
 
What happens now I cannot say; I simply don’t know. I can’t resist, although it does not match our situation, ending this post with a poem by Elaine Feinstein.  My former friend will understand why.
 
 
 
A Letter from La Jolla
 
On a balcony in California
being surprised by February
which is the sweet season here, when
blue-scaled grunion dance
on their tails, at high tide
on La Jolla sands, to mate there
and are caught in pails and eaten,
 
I write across distance and so much time
to ask, my one-time love, what happened to you?
Since my last letter which I meant to be
as cruel as my own hurt could barb it, now
under yellow skies, pale sun, I sit
sucking fresh limes and thinking over
my childish spite, and how much life I’ve wasted.
 
I’m jealous of the sensible girl
you must have married long since.
Well, I’ve been happy, too.
Sometimes. You always knew
the shape I’d choose would never
be single or sober, and you did not need
what you once most admired.
 
Unswerving as you were, I guess
you must be prosperous, your children neat,
less beautifully unruly than my own
perhaps less talented, less generous;
and you won’t know my work or my new name,
nor ever read my books.
Our worlds don’t meet.
 
And yet I doubt if you have altogether
forgotten the unsuitable dark girl
you held all weekend in your parents’ flat,
talking and talking, so this letter
comes to you this morning almost in play:
our thoughts once moved so easily together
like dolphins offshore to the land mass of the day.
 
ELAINE FEINSTEIN
(from Badlands)
 

 

 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Try Praying? Try Doing!

 
Whether April is the cruellest month is neither here nor there; it is the weirdest month when it comes to the weather. There’s something wrong about snow after Easter, but even after the Beast from the East had done its worst, winter was slow to release its grip. Every type of precipitation, from snow to hail to misty rain to ready-made slush to drizzle and dreich continued to drench our streets and blot out Arthur’s Seat. And then, within weeks, the hottest day in April for some seventy years was recently reported – if we can believe the news – albeit, some miles further south.
 
For some reason, I’m reminded of lines from The Persians by Aeschulus: “When waves of fortune break on us, we think to enjoy the same fair weather all our lives.” This is from the speech of Queen Atossa who has to confront her Court with knowledge of the reality of Xerxes’ failed war-mission. I could bang on about the usual stuff to do with the recent strikes on Syria, which seem to be another sinister sidling up to America by our sycophantic Government, but I want to talk about issues closer to home.
 
Here in Edinburgh, where April showers are anathema, we have a tricky compact between the haves and have-nots, insofar as we know that both exist, but we comfortably live together without the one needing to acknowledge the other. This is a rather perverse reading of Matthew who reports Christ’s assertion that the left hand shouldn’t know the actions of the right. These days, this concept is (wrongly) interpreted as an example of organisational ineptitude, rather than charitable deeds performed without calling attention to themselves.
 
Sometimes, however, the Church needs to make its deeds and intentions known. So when our funny wee country was blasted with blizzards, a church I am familiar with posted this advert on its railings, near where the famous and sometimes controversial mural is displayed, I must say I felt proud of my former association. Until, that is, I remembered I had seen another banner in the same vicinity that made me – frankly – angry. It was that pathetic advert/plea that says, “TRY PRAYING.”
 
This sort of campaign so often comes out of the evangelical wing of Christianity, and tends to solicit a simple, if crude, response from me: FUCK OFF! The idea that ‘praying works’ is nonsense if there is no premise of what it is that praying ‘does.’ Why not start with ‘try doing’ and then, if that gets results, change ‘praying’ to ‘being?’ And having done that, one can pray... but pray only that more can be DONE to help people to BE.
 
I’m in the comfortable position of being able to comment on Christianity and religion from outwith the restrictive confines of The Church, since I no longer subscribe to the latter, and can therefore hold lightly to the former. So when, at an Edinburgh dive bar where I hold the spurious post of Resident Poet, we held an event, titled Easter Hymn Service for Pagans and Sodomites, in the spirit of this freedom, I performed a set in the style of a sarcastic liturgy beginning with...
 
Opening Sentence:
 
Jesus Christ was raised from the dead
having died for your sins, you fuckers.
Oh, hold on? It was just an April Fool
 – get back to your sinning, suckers!
 
 
After that rather irreverent start, I invited the audience/congregation to join me in thoughts and prayers, and recited this poem, written shortly after a bunch of American school kids were gunned down.
 
Thoughts and Prayers
 
The banners on the buses
and outside certain churches said, ‘Try Praying.’
It was almost as passive aggressive as #justsaying...
and – if I may say so – a touch condescending.
As if prayer will cure all the ills of the world!
As if praying will make a damn difference!
As if praying brings instant happiness, ending
the suffering of our existence!
As if people hadn’t been ‘trying’ for years:
It’s a natural part of the human condition
to cry out for help or offer petition or praise
to a God who we think has the power
to appraise our position and intercede
according to our intercession.
As if our pious thoughts and prayers
Could quash the aggressors, suppress the oppressors,
silence the bullies, or muffle the guns;
As if prayer could help children sleep tight in their bed,
As if mere thought could bring back the dead.
Of course we all know that it can’t.
And as Byron once said, these days the cant
Is as strong as the cunt – by which he meant
the language of hypocrisy is as offensive to some
who consider a perfectly beautiful word to be strong.
Sadly the pen seems no stronger than the gun.
Isn’t it strange that a nation
obsessed with its own (and only its)
quest for a personal salvation seems hell-bent –
while sending its prayers up to heaven –
on preserving its supposedly well-meant
constitution allowing every adult citizen
to bear arms as he offers to God his holy orison.
 
Well, I’m not so much against religion,
or a person’s right to profess a belief,
and while I don’t engage with ‘prayer’ as such,
I’m sure it brings to some people much relief,
just as quietness and gentle meditation
bring to others inner peace and contemplation.
And Christianity gives a story of a man who, they say
was crucified next to a common thief,
and instructed us exactly how to pray
(I won’t spell it out – you probably know it anyway.)
He also told his disciple to put away his sword
(which nowadays = gun, it’s just a different word).
And who lived out an Old Testament prophecy
which sadly every World Leader has failed to see,
that “nation shall not lift up a sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.” That was Micah
the prophet, and whether you like a
quote from scriptures, or prefer to try praying,
or live by other strictures, this (just saying)
is what the ancient Micah prophesied:
“They shall turn their swords into ploughs,
and melt down their guns into forks.”
So try praying, but only if it allows
you to turn thought into action that talks.
 
 

 
In true Presbyterian style, I paused briefly for the notices, in which I pointed out the exhibition on display in the side aisle (ie, stage right of the mosh pit,) a photographic display titled Walking on The Water (ie, my photographs) and also, announced that this week’s evening Discussion Groups were on the personality system known as the enneagram, in which people could discover whether they belonged to the Head, or Heart, or Gut-led triad of personal typology. Then we had the reading.
 
You’ve got a Friend
 
I have a friend called Jesus,
they say he walks on water;
he’s the Son of God, although if he was female
they’d surely call him God’s Daughter.
 
I think he’s a fan of the Beegees
(I’m not saying he likes a good jive)
Because whether you a lover or whether you’re another,
follow him: you’ll be staying alive!
 
Not that I believe in Life After Death
For we all face that final curtain,
and whether there’s heaven or whether there’s hell,
I really can’t be certain.
 
But being a friend of Jesus
doesn’t offer any certainty;
loving your neighbour as you love yourself:
that’s the point of Christianity.
 
Not everyone likes religion these days,
and some find it terribly hard –
when Jesus says you should love your enemies,
where exactly is the reward?
 
Well it’s not in Heaven, nor in Hell,
For God’s Kingdom is here on earth.
If you want to live in peaceful harmony
you should LOVE for all it’s worth.
 
II
 
I have a friend called Dorothy,
She says there’s no place like home,
and no matter how far you are over the rainbow,
with her, you’re never alone.
 
My companion is the Straw Man,
For sure, man, he’s camp as tits;
when he tries to walk on his wobbly legs,
he ends up in pieces and bits.
 
And here is a man – well, in fact he’s lion –
who ROARS, though, in fact, he’s a coward.
If he’s gonna rescue Dorothy from that burning house
He’ll have to be slightly less-froward.
 
And me, I’m just a man made of tin,
but my joints have been rusted for years.
I long for a heart and a wee squeak of oil
and a tissue to dry up my tears.
 
So Dorothy encourages all her friends
to walk in a clockwise direction,
through thinking or feeling or doing, a circular
journey will help you to make a connection.
 
Yes, we’re all friends of Dorothy; some
in mind, some in heart; others, physique.
Wherever you’re over or under the rainbow,
it’s okay: you’re still unique.
 
III
 
I’ve got an imaginary friend –
you might not have heard of her –
but you may want to be acquainted some day:
her name is Angela.
 
For if, on a hot date in our venue
procured through Tinder or Grindr,
things aren’t going quite as they ought to,
that’s when you need to find her.
 
Is this the first time you’ve met them,
and things seem wrong from the start?
Has your ‘hot date’ created a strange sensation
in your gut or your head or your heart?
 
Perhaps their dating profile
doesn’t match their personality;
does it feel a bit weird; do you feel unsafe,
are you heading for a calamity?
 
If you go to the bar, or ask at the door,
to mention your situation
just ask for ‘Angela’ – you won’t need to give
any further explanation.
 
The staff will help immediately,
using their utmost discretion,
to remove you from danger before it turns into
an act of potential aggression.
 
CODA
 
So if you’re a friend of Jesus
it doesn’t have to be hard labour –
if you want to live life to the full before death,
just LOVE your fellow neighbour.
 
And if you’re a friend of Dorothy,
whether in heart, mind, or gut;
do the clockwise walk, you’ll get back home
and the door will never be shut.
 
But if you’re a friend of Angela
(don’t worry – she doesn’t exist)
Just go to the bar and ask for her,
we’ll help you get out of a twist.
 
 
Following this, I admitted that sometimes my poetry could be a bit preachy, but since this was a Service (albeit for Pagans and Sodomites) it was time for the sermon.
 
The thing about schemes such as Ask for Angela is that some people feel that it encourages a culture of victim-blaming. Well, this may be so, but the way I see it is, while women feel the need to protect themselves by wearing lockable knickers, or inserting barbed condoms, or using nail-varnish that changes colour if they dip their finger into a spiked drink, then we should be doing ALL we can to help and stand by those who are vulnerable, at risk, or in trouble.
 
That’s why we, in our little bar, endorse the Ask for Angela scheme. The same goes for Churches opening their buildings for the homeless: they shouldn’t have to, but until there is adequate social care and justice, it is our duty as citizens – or Christians, if you subscribe to that system – to love our neighbour, and do our best for all people, whoever they are. Here ends the lesson. Now a hymn.
 
At this point, I sang a poem, inserted into a copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern, to the tune of the hymn, There is a Green Hill far away. (The tune, ‘Horsley,’ is an in-joke known only to me)
 
The service was concluded with a totally irreverent flourish, “In the name of the father mother, son daughter, and holy friendly ghost – Amen?” Some people might find this stuff offensive, but I don’t care. I find the abject hypocrisy of church and state offensive. If there is something I have taken with me in my turning away from the Church, it is that I still believe in the main tenet of Christianity.

Love.

Unconditional love.