Sometimes I go to Facebook and I find myself wondering what on earth I can post. You know, as if it’s some kind of competition to see who can get the cutest cat pictures or the most exciting looking plate of food excess. And when I’m in that space I can think of nothing. My brain shrivels. What I’ve learned is that at such moments I can do better. I don’t have to play anyone’s game. I just have to be me. And the best way of being me is to remember some event during the day that made me happy. Suddenly I discover I’m full of things to say. I overflow with the moments that made my heart feel full and transformed my day. I discover I have had sensations that will stay with me (I hope) until my dying gasp. I’m in contact with love and the wondrous, fleeting moments of life. Pay attention, those moments say, or you might miss us.
The other day I had to buy new sneakers as my old ones had split along the side. So I went to my local sneaker store with my two shopping savvy fashionista side-kicks, Zoe (3 and 1/2) and Ellie (18 months). I know I can rely on their good sense. It was a nice big store, with wide aisles and good music playing, plus big mirrors so you could admire yourself in whatever new sneakers you were trying on. Now, when you're a very small person under the age of 4 big mirrors are immensely attractive, and music is, well, just great. Pretty soon I'm dancing with my two little personal shoppers, checking our moves in the mirror, and squealing with delight. Assistant : Can I help you sir? Me: Just trying out these shoes for fit. Zoe: Dance with us! Dance with us! Assistant leaves looking thoroughly fed up. The sneakers passed the test; Ellie liked the colors and Zoe liked the laces, and I liked the way they brought out my inner dance. At the cash the same fed up assistant waited. Leaving, I thanked her for her patience and I smiled. And, after all -- if they didn't want us to dance then why did they play the music?
Zoe ("I'm three" she says, and she holds up three fingers) has gained in confidence and seems no longer to be particularly interested in toys. That is to say, the conventional doll's house, the pink plastic "child's computer" and such like highly crafted items don't interest her that much. She's much more likely to say "can we go outside?" and then frolic in the garden, with imaginative games that involve picking up pine cones or, indeed, almost anything - and she calls this "picking the corn" or "collecting apples", or "going shopping". I'm hoping that this shift away from the specificity of things and towards the realms of the imagination (where anything can be anything you wish, for now) will stay with her forever. For things are not reality. How you look at them is your reality, and what you make of them is very much up to you. We can learn from this.
People keep asking me about Brexit, so here's my view. Let’s consider this all as an elaborate political game that got out of hand. Cameron wanted a way to divert attention away from internal Tory dissent, so he proposed a referendum on the EU. The Labour party, seeing how daft this was, found themselves caught. They didn’t want to vote “Leave” but then they certainly didn’t want to be seen as supporting a Tory initiative by urging “Stay”. What should they have done? Possibly they should have protested loud and long that a referendum such as this would be a farce. But they didn’t. It didn’t seem like it was their fight – and anyway perhaps it wouldn’t happen….. Well, it did. What we might want to bear in mind is that it exposed the real problems. First, that Cameron’s government has done nothing to address rural poverty and the creation of jobs (hence the right wing anger at so-called “foreigners” taking “our jobs”). The government has done nothing to address the erosion of health and social services (which are stretched to the limit by all these “foreigners”). Third, nothing has been done to alter the recurrent tendency to favor the very wealthy at the expense of the less wealthy -- this time actual foreigners have been actively encouraged to buy housing as a way to park their cash while not in fact living in the housing, nor paying any taxes. This has created acres of super high priced developments with no one in residence. Londoners can no longer afford to live in London. You can see how well that would go over with the right wing. Meanwhile, fourth, no one has done anything about the refugee crisis. Do you see a pattern here? It is, truly, a crisis around what to do about “foreigners” but it’s been couched as a deceptively simple question: “Should we get them out of here?” It makes about as much sense as responding to a twisted ankle by amputating the entire leg. Cameron hoped no one would notice that he’d done nothing about serious issues. He simply waved a diversion flag at us. Now he’s resigned. Or perhaps not, as he’s still in number 10. And we’re out of the EU. Or perhaps not, because no one has triggered article 50. And the referendum itself wasn’t legal. Or perhaps it was. No one’s in charge; no one’s admitting responsibility; nothing’s happening -- apart from an increased lack of confidence in the pound and a threatened recession. Despite all this I am not pessimistic. Good old British indecision and obfuscation will cloud the waters and about six months from now we’ll notice that the UK will still be in the EU, where it will remain. I write this on the hundredth anniversary of the first day of Battle of the Somme: arguably the most costly day in human lives in military history, and nothing gained. It seems fitting, somehow.
I’ve noticed that the concept of a toy is a very broad one – and one that can tell us a few things if we are alert. Little Zoe (3) has always chosen her toys based on her imagination. Yes, the cardboard box is often more enthralling than what’s in it, and that’s always been true for her. But better yet is the way she doesn’t buy into the idea of what is “special”. The antique teddy bear from my mother is not more important to her than any other toy. In fact she’s just as likely to hug and cherish a rolled up sock or the plastic number 7, and she will sometimes insist on taking to bed with her such things as a toothbrush – having developed a lively imaginary rapport with it during the course of the day. The toys she returns to get hugged, dropped, thrown, and need frequently to be dusted off, washed and repaired. They get trodden on, forgotten, remembered, and generally have a hard life. Like parents, they have to undergo all kinds of indignities, but their job is to simply to endure; our task is to recognize that all of it, every bit, is part of the messy business of love. We’re not here to look pretty, like dolls, nor to sit safe on a higher shelf. We’re here to be in the rough and tumble, get messy, and know that this is love.
I really wish I didn't have to comment on this, but there seems to be no way we can disregard it now. Britain has voted and will leave the EU; the multinational financial institutions that have lodged in London for the past 40 odd years will also flee (probably to Germany) to wherever the center of the EU will be now. This much seems pretty certain. England may lose Scotland and Ireland, too, as they are already talking about seceding. The UK, the third largest economy in the EU, will now face the possibility of fragmentation and falling into recession. The US will also suffer a mini recession, most likely. These are dire predictions, and yet I think it's wise to look ahead and see what is likely to change, and then meet the changes with determination and intelligence. And remember -- the anger that caused irate British voters to sign their own suicide note is the same feeling that fuels Trump supporters. They're tired and upset and will smash anything they can without thinking too much about the consequences. Like the drunk who tells the boss at the office party exactly what he thinks, the pleasure of the moment may have dire results.
I have a confession to make - every so often I have not made it to watch my students walk across the stage at Commencement. You may feel that is unbearably callous of me, so I'd better explain. Sometimes, at the end of a semester, I'm exhausted; and on occasions I've fallen ill with some sort of flu-like ailment, right after I'm clear of grading. Now, I cannot be sure that this is an actual ailment. It could be psycho-somatic. All I know is that this year I had all the symptoms of flu, plus a deep, deep sadness at having to say goodbye to students I've grown to know, admire, and love over the previous four years. After thirty years of teaching I'd expected to be immune. I suspect the real truth is that every class, every student, opens my heart just a little more to the poignancy of knowing that I probably won't see most of these people again - nor should I. They need to go and make their own lives. So while I am happy for them, I'm also very aware that I'm losing some wonderful people....
My friend Lena is visiting a whole lot of art museums in Europe – she’s an artist and she takes it seriously – and she seems annoyed by the hordes of people who don’t appear to have a clue what they’re looking at. You can’t blame her. I recall one night watching Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford and two whole rows of oriental tourists (Japanese, perhaps?) stood up in the middle of act five and went to get their bus. The actors managed to fill the stage time until they were all safely gone. Michael Pennington then resumed one of the most poignant speeches of the entire play and soon got us back in the flow. The speech? It was the famous “the readiness is all” meditation, so a little unintended irony seemed to be going on. And yet --- would I have been able to make much sense of a Japanese Noh drama if the positions had been reversed? Would I have known when to applaud at the end of a Javan gong concert? I doubt it. I rest secure in only one thing; art - real art - has a way of moving some part of us, even if we have no idea what stands before us, and even if we’re half asleep. Art touches us before we know we’ve been touched.
I needed a break so I took a couple of days to be in the country. I listened to the nightingales; heard the sigh of wind in the trees. I watched a calf being born; I saw the wind ripple the young wheat in gusts that reminded me of the shivers that go along a horse’s coat on a cold day; I made friends with a barn cat called Schlaffy while the rain gurgled down the gutters; I stopped reading and checking the internet. After a while the sun came out and butterflies danced around each other above the honeysuckle. Make no mistake, we live on a magnificent planet. Let’s look after it.
I'm pretty sure it's not just me. I've observed a level of distress and exhaustion in people over the past few weeks that is rather interesting. Actually, it's worrying, because these kinds of emotions have a way of spilling over in everything. For people to be happy and productive they need to feel that the world is relatively safe, relatively equitable most of the time, and that progress is possible. When enough of these basics are eroded we get depression and gloom. Despair by any other name. The 1% ripping everyone off, global warming, refugees, shootings, the destruction of the middle classes -- all these will bring us down even on a good day. But we struggle on anyhow. But now we have Trump. In almost all the reporting that has swamped us regarding this individual very little has been said about the cumulative effect on the national psyche of those who have to witness this unfolding disaster. Isn't it time we considered this? I wonder if anti-depressants are having a banner year? If therapists are booked up solid? If people are giving up? What do you see?