Baltic Gallery

I’m sitting in Stockholm airport with a few hours to kill. What better way to spend them than putting together a few thoughts from the past ten days spent in the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia?

The top photo was taken in a ruined former soviet submarine base in Estonia. The second one was taken on the Curonian Spit, near Klaipeda, Lithuania.

Each one of these countries deserves more time than we were able to give them. Beautiful, engaging, stirring, struggling, memorable, quircky, intriguing, interesting, inexpensive and friendly; all three should be at the top of your list if you’re looking to experience cultures at once similar to and very different from those in the mainstream.

Growing in understanding the evolution of languages, witnessing national determination to overcome recent soviet occupation, and gaining an insight into cultural traditions of the West are added bonuses if you want them. The food is phenomenal too, but someone else will have to write about that.

Expect to be surprised when you visit the Baltic. For a start, it’s quite inexpensive if you are prepared to explore outside international hotels, major department stores, and tourist trap old town centres. Large beers for one euro and a tasty, filling salad from a supermarket for 2 euros might give you an idea. In any case we came away having spent much less than we planned for!

Anyway, enough of the travel advice. I’m more interested in sharing the impressions that will stay in my heart and call me to return to this less visited region.

These are personal impressions gained over visits of about four days to each country. A longer visit would of course yield a fuller picture.

In brief:

Lithuania is a diamond in the rough. It struggles with infrastructure such as roads signage and public transport, but excels in convincing the traveller that what they are experiencing is the genuine deal. People are friendly, and the food is phenomenal, but there is not as much money here as in the other two countries. Tons of natural beauty but few signs to point the way to sites. This can be frustrating and be prepared to ask, ask, and ask again to find places like the Hill of Crosses.

In order: Hill of Crosses, Curonian Spit (2 and 3), Old Vilnius.

Latvia is a beauty, shy of too much attention but full of forests, astoundingly beautiful wooden architecture and like Lithuania, good food. Latvians seem very proud of their country. I’m not sure why I say that but it is a strong impression. The infrastructure seems a little better here, and prices are correspondingly a little higher than in Lithuania. Signage was no better though!

Top: Jurmala beach resort, near Riga. Bottom: City park, Riga.

Estonia was my favourite, but maybe that is because it was the most recent place visited. The Estonian economy seems to me to be stronger than in its two southern neighbours and the prices are noticeably higher, although not as high as in other european countries. As a rough guide, prices were double those in Lithuania, but I realise that is just my estimation. The national parks in Estonia are to be savoured, as are those in the two other countries. It is very much worth taking the time to visit them, maybe on an organised tour.

All above photos are from Lahemaa National Park, east of Tallinn, Estonia.

As to politics, they each seem to be stable democracies, even if they are at different stages on the road to economic development. We spoke to one guide about the perception of threat from their Russian neighbour. Her response was that while the people were generally concerned about Russian influence, a re-occupation would be, in her words, a “mistake”.

English is widely spoken in all three countries, especially by younger people in tourist areas. We found the languages themselves to be quite challenge to master even a few phrases and we gave up, unfortunately. Sign language helped a lot. A longer visit might have seen us try harder.

Do yourself a favour. Visit these small yet impressive countries. Take your appetite and your camera.

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What truth will raise you
above bigots, beyond hate;
apart and superior
to all with a different take?

Might you find it in a sacred book,
or some mystic’s secret locker;
your own personal dragon slayer
and conversation stopper?

Or

imagine rights and justice,
deliverence for the poor,
and imagine others never stood
on a pedestal as sure?

Or

join the righteous and enlightened,
freed from superstition.
Deify science, misrepresent it
and fight all opposition?

And

blind to your arrogance;
oblivious to your prejudice;
jump to condemn
the truth quest in others.

Start a truth collection.
Grasp and shape your prize.
Gaze at its reflection;
watch the ugliness rise.

img_0864-1More thoughts about stuff that doesn’t seem to matter all that much, except to me. This is really two posts, but they are sort of, more or less, related.

If you’ve been around a while you might recall a book and subsequent TV series by Jacob Bronowski (pictured below). Then again, you might not. Either way, it’s not really central to the topic, but it’s a handy place for me to start.

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At the time (early 1970s) I was quite taken with its grand story of how human kind had emerged from caves, lifted itself out of ignorance, cast off superstition, and scaled the heights of science to reach enlightenment. Heady stuff, and I was on the brink of adulthood. The future stretched out, assured, onwards and upwards, to ever greater achievements until all the questions worth asking had been answered, with the help of science of course, and of the human intellect. And I would be part of all that.

Or so I assumed. Looking back, I think I was sold a pup.

How’s it all gone in the years since then? Have we stuck to the script? Answered all questions have we? Especially those that gnaw at the human soul? Have hopelessness, loneliness and meaninglessness been given their marching orders? Eliminated poverty have we? Banished violence and warfare? Created a completely just, equitable and safe society anywhere yet?

On the other hand, I guess I should concede that in many matters science has taken central position and assumes it can speak with authority on what is ethical and good for us. Religion, tradition and superstition have lost a lot of ground in western culture, if not elsewhere. “Scientifically proven” is still a well used phrase in knock down arguments by people everywhere who should know better. I don’t have time or space to explain or debate that here, except to say that “scientifically supported” is a much more accurate phrase. Science does not, in general, prove anything. It is a very good method for establishing whether certain propositions are consistent with starting assumptions but, unfortunately, shiny instruments, miracle cures and wonder materials aside, that is all it can ever be. You may not agree with me on this, and may think science has, or can find, all the answers worth finding, and if so I know I cannot convert you and I wish you well in your belief.

I no longer buy it myself however.

To summarise. There is a popular way of viewing the world that elevates science and the human intellect to the pinnacle of all existence. It is not my world view.

That popular world view can be represented, admittedly in a fairly simplistic way, as follows:

Ignorance and superstition, epitomised by religious belief, is a primitive state for people to occupy until they discover more advanced ways of thinking. These advanced ways have grown out of scientific study of nature . . . With this telescope for example . . .

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(Photo taken in the Science Museum, Munich)

which has been followed by ever more advanced contraptions such as this early mechanical clock . . .

 

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(Science Museum, Munich)

and this early digital computer:

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(Science Museum, Munich)

I could (and maybe should) continue with examples of the advancement of science bringing with it the advancement of human civilization. I don’t have the space however, and I suspect you may not have the patience.

Suffice to say that, while I believe in the value of science, have studied it, and appreciate the things it produces, I do not have any faith that it can answer questions that are important to me, or serve as a guide to my ethical decision making, or tell me who I am, or where I fit into the scheme of things.

Anyhow, I sense myself drifting off topic a little.

Back on topic.

The reason I began to write this is I read a commentary article in a national newspaper on the weekend. The article argued that the fabric of western societies was crumbling, disintegrating, weakening, whatever, and that the cause of this was the declining interest of western people in Christian faith.

Naturally, it elicited a host of feedback comments from defenders of Christian faith and attackers of that faith. Nothing new there. Ho hum . . . I prepared to move on, but then I began to think. I did not agree with one of the article’s central propositions.

The decline of western civilization may indeed be underway (I don’t want to get involved in any arguments on this) or it may not be. It depends on what you use to measure whether civilization is declining. I would, however, take issue with the assumption that the level of Christian faith in the population is the same thing as the level of influence of the established Christian church. I think that’s nonsense! They are two very different things.

Where I part company with the newspaper article bemoaning the loss of faith and its effect on society is that I just don’t believe that the level of individual faith is lower these days than it ever has been in the past. My reasoning is this:

The Christian church took a wrong turn and transformed itself into a great edifice of power when it allowed itself to be aligned with the civil government of the Roman emporer Constantine, 1700 years ago. It never looked back from there, gaining influence, wealth, power and adherents who basically had no choice but to join up. In the years since, the church institution has kept itself closely associated with the powerful and successful end of town in all countries where it established itself. This necessarily compromised its role as messenger of Christ’s gospel.

In my view, the Christian church as an institution compromised its authenticity as Christ’s followers and representatives by embracing worldly success, amassing wealth, and legitimating the rule of the powerful. The Christian gospel is, and always was, the complete antithesis and repudiation of the seeking of worldly power and wealth.

 

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(Photo taken in the cathedral choir, Toledo, Spain)

Recently, of course, the moral authority of the church has all but collapsed in western countries as a result of reveations of sexual abuse of children and the protection of offenders by church heirarchies. The church has been exposed as caring more about appearances than the children in its care.

I grant and admit that the Church ( with a capital ‘C’) is doing it tough in western countries these days. So it should be! There are very good reasons for where it finds itself at present.

On the other hand Christian faith exists both in the church and outside its established structures. As the church loses legitimacy and influence, it is my belief that individuals with Christian faith find new and different ways to live their faith.

In the past, it was not nearly so easy for people to live outside the structure of the church. It would be a mistake to interpret this as evidence of higher levels of faith in the past. There has always been probably a majority of people at all times in the history of the Church, especially since the time of Emporer Constantine when it became more or less compulsory to be a ‘Christian’, whose ‘faith’ was little more than a matter of convenience. The declining numbers of people who list Christian adherence on census forms is, in my view, simply a result of a decline in social pressure to declare Christian status. It is not evidence of a general decline in Christian faith among the population. Put more simply, there has never been a time when the majority of people had any more than a passing interest in faith, still less an active personal faith in the Christ of the gospels.

The doomsaying in the weekend newspaper article may well have been justified. There is evidence enough of societal decline around us. Whether or not our civilization is decaying has little to do, however, with a general decline in personal faith as the article argued. The declining power and influence of the Christian church may indeed be related to the general decline of the west, but that decline is more likely due to the church having long since backed the wrong horse and forgotten its reason for being.

Those of us who have faith in the Christ of the gospels will continue regardless.

 

 

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Beach Walk

Grieving for a father
who was never there.
Missing a man
who couldn’t share
himself in moments
as (I hear) other fathers did.

Already gone before he’s dead
All that we should have said
We cannot now, nor ever.
Dementia snapped the only thread
of a link that never ripened.
He could not do father, nor I son;
both of us too frightened.

I stand and gaze at winter waves,
their foamy sunlit diamonds,
and wonder why I feel such loss.
He was never destined
to stay and care and nurture me;
the child man dad who left me.

I wondered what it was he loved
all those years ago.
Can a son ever know
things a father cannot show?
I walked away and knew it wasn’t me.
Perhaps he wanted to be free.

Beyond the grief; behind the frown;
the hurt and shame,
pushed so deep down,
has long since ceased to matter.
You once were dad and I was son.
All else is only chatter.

Gazing at Buddha

A small Buddha

sitting calmly

in the morning gloom;

taking shape in early light.


The black resin idol,

composed and serene,

stares past me

to where I cannot see

and cannot go.


Sitting impervious,

untouchable, inanimate.

Its atoms no more or less exceptional

than the miracles dancing

in my bones.

We share that at least.

I look through Christian eyes

and see in you nothing to recoil from.

You are not the risen Christ

but you point me to him.

I think of people you inspire

and warm to them;

if not brothers and sisters; my friends.

A model of contentment.

Untouched, transcendent,

you exist in harmony with all things

just as I do not.

You don’t manipulate, obligate,

retaliate, pontificate or desecrate.

You simply are;

take you or leave you.



Many kinds of Hell

Tell and retell

the tired tales that serve us well.

Grievance, grief, remorse, regret.

The mind recasts, renews

pasts more wisely left;

that stunt and choke a soul.

Private little hells,

factory fitted,

home delivered.

Deep thought pits

with vertical walls

and slippery bits.

Everyday hells;

returned to habitually,

invoked mindlessly.

Repeated insanity,

drifting endlessly,

clung to hopelessly.

No images from Dante;

mostly less heroic;

not the least bit romantic.

Hells up close and personal.

Tawdry, tragic, ordinary

hells right here and now.

Many kinds of hell

in the stories we tell.

Real, imagined,

accepted, denied.

Each resonating

with the shriek of a shackled soul.

This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

​​
I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.


You might glance at the title and move on: banal, trifling, inconsequential, clichéd, trite, well-worn, you might think. Adjectives are powerful qualifiers. They can damn and skewer just as effectively as they praise. Here’s some more of them: Heartbroken, wide-eyed, incredulous, insecure and somewhat aggrieved. 

That was pretty much me for a day or two this week.

Some background:

A couple of days ago I accepted that the battery on my ipad needed replacing. That part was straightforward. The procedure involved resetting the device, returning it to factory settings, the erasure of all content and swapping it for another ipad. No problem. I backed everything up and went to get the battery changed with an air of indifference. Just one of those occasional necessary distractions. 

The battery replacement was a success, and arriving home again I hooked the ipad up to reload its content. 

“Corrupt backup file”, was the screen message. Some instants engrave themselves on your consciousness. Heart-sinking is an appropriate adjective. Incomprehension dissolved quickly into dread, and then just as quickly into anger. I am not nice to know at such times, suffice to say.

The second worst thing was realising how much stuff I had lost. The worst was when I couldn’t remember exactly which files had vanished. Gigabytes of music, photos, business and travel documents, passwords and poems had found their way onto my ipad, and I had grown complacent. I had allowed the device to carry my life inside it.

I know, I know. The fault is mine. A better back up system yada yada. 

So anyway, hours of recovery work has put my music, my apps, and most of my photos onto the new ipad. The rest doesn’t bear thinking about as I have given up ever finding it. I guess I will learn what was important when I need it and can’t find it.

But enough recriminations and techno babble. What has become pretty obvious to me is that I had become way too invested in a device that had wormed its way into my life. 

I’m writing this on my new ipad, but I’m a wiser man now. No more trust. No more complacency. Perhaps most important of all is no more dependency! I no longer trust the creature and while I will continue to use one, I won’t ever again allow it to carry so much of me and mine around. 

You’ve blown it ipad! You’re a tool; a device. You wanted to take over, little by little, file by file, password by password, contact by contact, but this sucker has woken up to your game. From now on you work for me!

I was already suspicious of Siri and distrustful of cloud storage, not to mention apps and search engines like facebook and google that pry into personal preferences and use them in marketing. I am more so now. Truly disturbing when you think about how they use our information. I’m warming to the idea of mounting a guerilla resistance by denying them access or misleading them wherever I can. 

Well, that’s the revolutionary in me asserting itself. I don’t suspect facebook or google will be overly concerned, but sometimes gestures matter.

So I guess, what began as a technology disaster has started me on a quest to reclaim control of my life.

Wish me luck.