Beauty, simply.
(Water plants near the mouth of the River Danube 2016)
 
 
Try as I might I don't understand the world. Never have. Don't expect I ever will. So I guess I'll just have to accept the presence of beauty, without knowing why it's there, rather than not there.
 
Now and again the world disappoints me. Some of its inhabitants disgust me, and others surely frighten me, but despite that, the sum of life has always seemed to me threaded with beauty.
 
I said 'sum'. I meant 'essence'. There's a purity to be distilled; a vein of hope to be discovered in all things. I believe it, and won't be persuaded otherwise.
 
I won't say all things are shot through with beauty. Sometimes there may be only a strand of it; thin, tenuous and tiny; visible only to eyes that want to see it. Sometimes it will only be seen in hindsight. Sometimes the presence of beauty would offend us if it were suggested.
There are circumstances, and I've lived through my share, where even the suggestion of beauty would be blasphemous. Grief, anger, rage, hopelessness, injustice, fear; a complete list would be a long one. Even at these times, in my experience, there is an essence, a presence, that waits patiently and respectfully for us to be ready to turn towards it.
 
(Memorial for victims of the Thai Burma Railway construction World War 2)
 
 
Through all the things that make life monotonous, pointless, useless, or cruel, beauty, simply shines through. I don't understand it, but I accept it.
 
I will thank God. You may thank who or what you like.
 
 
(Shrine. Luang Prabang, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, 2017)
 
 
A Life worthwhile.
 
I've posted on this theme before, but this afternoon I feel the need to continue the conversation, even if this post maybe needs more time spent on it.
 
(Waterfall in Erawan National Park, Thailand)
 
 
Might there be a recipe for a worthwhile life? A formula? A user's manual? A hack?
 
Don't know really, although I suspect there is some good advice here and there.
 
 
Hundreds of priests, sages, gurus and life coaches will tell you such things exist. Not all of them will charge you for the information.
 
You will be pleased to know I'm not in the business of charging for sharing wisdom. Nor am I in the business of preaching, advising, or (hopefully) patronising. Nevertheless I do have some thoughts on the topic, and here they are, incomplete and hopelessly generalised:
 
A life that is worthwhile is one for which I am grateful. I could leave it at that, because that sentence, properly understood, is the key to much wisdom. But since I've begun, thoughts flow from this.
 
A life worthwhile is one in which I stay humble, in which I take time to think, to weigh up. I realise my life isn't and never was all about me.
 
I know my own mind, my values, and what I would be prepared to die for. It is a life in which I recognise and remember what is important and what is not.
 
Through many false starts and blind alleys, I begin to understand that how materially successful I am, how much I earn, how much I own, how attractive I am, has no bearing on how much I matter in the scheme of things. I learn to accept others (who all also matter in the scheme of things).
(Street sweeper in Delhi)
 
 
Because I understand its not all about me, I have time for others. I hold their love and their dreams gently.
 
I don't know why I am, or even what life is, so I accept all of it as a gift. I accept I have been created by a loving God whom I worship naturally instead of myself. I realise not everyone will agree. I have given up worrying about that. Religion has a bad press in some arenas, and deservedly so. There is too much temptation to strangle ourselves in misunderstood dogma and to create a monster that imprisons us, rather than frees us. I'd better stop there or I might begin to preach.
 
((Taken in a UNESCO protected temple complex in Kanchanaburi, Thailand)
(Lady in a village in Armenia)
 
 
I know the world is not perfect and that many of my brothers and sisters have not seen justice and love in their lives as I have. I talk to God about this. I don't often understand God's answers.
 
 
Notice I've used “I” exclusively?
 
You need to work out your own path. Hard work, but you don't need to do it alone.
 
 
(We're all different. Each of us matters.)
 
 
 
 
I find myself feeling increasingly isolated by the groupthink I see everywhere these days.
 
Am I the only person who is uncomfortable with the spirit of the times which divides people and judges them on the basis of what they believe or how they vote?
 
(Photo of a memorial to prisoners of war killed building the Thai-Burma railway in World War 2.
Hellfire Pass, Thailand)
 
 
How sad it would be
 
 
If I believed in tolerance so strongly,
I could show no tolerance
to those who saw things differently.
 
 
If I praised diversity in all things
except opinion.
 
 
If I defended human rights
with personal abuse,
foul language
or violence.
 
 
If I believed those who thought differently
were stupid,
deluded,
bigoted,
or evil.
 
 
If I my belief in a cause
stopped me reaching out in friendship.
 
 
If I believed I held the truth and it were mine alone.
 
 
How sad it would be.
 
Many years ago, in the distant past, I was an apprentice to to printing trade. Master printers were then called 'journeymen'. These days, in retirement, I have apprenticed myself to the classical guitar.
 
I have come to accept I will never be a guitar master. The guitar will always master me. It intrigues and delights me, but doesn't yield its secrets easily. Hard work and practice make difficult and complex skills easier, but even then, if ever I'm tempted to bask in the sunshine, my guitar waits to humble me. It's a humiliating experience to have a string buzz or my finger select the wrong string when I least expect it on material I have played perfectly multiple times before.
 
There are, of course, other bits that I manage to play badly most times. A string insists on buzzing discordantly when I play the barre chords in the music below:
 
 
That's ok. I am a humble person, mostly. I am learning that my guitar will cooperate on this, as in every other matter, only when it is satisfied that I know my business properly. Near enough is never good enough it seems.
 
 
My guitar, on the other hand, is not humble in the least.
 
It has every reason to act like an aristocrat. When everything comes together, harmony and voices from nylon strings are truly beautiful things. I hear them, transcendent and ethereal, and marvel at how flesh, nail and sinew, nylon and wood coax them into being. The sounds decay almost as soon as they're launched, but live afterwards in the spring in my step and the inner smile in my soul.
 
Now and then I clutch the guitar closer as I play, and feel my chest cavity resonate with its notes.
Truly beautiful. Worth every hour of practice I will ever do, to learn how to create them on demand and tame them at will. The guitar has won my heart. My hand and finger dexterity is struggling to catch up.
 
In the meantime I am grateful for the sense that progress is happening, even if it is slower than I would want. I read somewhere that it takes about ten thousand hours to master the guitar. I have been playing up to ten hours a week for two years. That makes it only another 18 years or so to go.
 
I read somewhere else that there is no end point in playing an instrument; that it is a never-ending journey that you can enjoy along the way. Maybe in that way I can see myself as a journeyman, if not a master.
 
A guitar journeyman? I'll cling to that.
 
 
A Guitar Progression
Adventures in Guitar Consciousness
 
I posted the image below on this blog one year ago. It shows the old Yamaha guitar I used to strum and sing along with before life got in the way and it was left in a cupboard for 40 years. When I posted this I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, making music with my old instrument again. I was so pleased that after months of ploughing through all the teach yourself books on Kindle, I could play stuff. Well, I could play easy stuff, sort of, after lots of practice, and never without mistakes. The music in my head was beautiful. The sounds coming from the guitar were a little less so.
 
 
 
 
Listening to the former, and ignoring the latter, I began to tell myself I wasn't all that bad at it. My own opinion of course, untainted by contact with anyone who could actually play notes, chords and arpeggios without having their audience looking around for the exit.
 
Emboldened, I turned up at the door of a classical guitar teacher. You know! Someone who knew their way around a guitar; had a Masters degree in guitar performance and another one in composition. He combines private tuition with live performances on the national stage solo and in ensembles. If I had been looking for someone to massage my ego I should have looked elsewhere.
 
Luckily, I swallowed enough pride and humility to let him teach me things about technique and practice I had no idea even existed. He was polite, but he left no doubt that what I had been doing by myself had been largely a waste of time if I wanted to learn to play beautiful music. That he was in his early twenties was inconsequential of course, but it did not really make things easy for an old codger more used to giving instructions than accepting them.
 
I began again, from square one. Concentrating on correct fingering, posture, hand and finger dynamics, fingernails, breathing and paying respect to quavers and crochets as they were written on the page, saw me progress – far too slowly for my liking – through the book he recommended for preliminary students (pre-schoolers and the like). All the while, I was straining. Impatient to play real music, I often became angry with myself and with him, frustrated by how long it was taking to learn simple skills. As he reminded me though, ever so gently, the skills were not simple skills. They were complex fine motor skills. The process was not unlike a child learning to use a pencil for the first time. It would take practice and time. No shortcuts, was his repeated advice.
 
He was right of course.
 
So, another year has passed. I've purchased a more expensive guitar (below). I've learned much about playing the classical guitar and am playing pieces from the AMEB grade 3 level. Big deal I guess. Hundreds of school kids do that too, and better than I do. But I am beginning to realise that I do not care about that at all. I just love learning and playing.
 
 
I love the music I can coax from my guitar. On a good day I can almost slide into a trance while brain and fingers work together in a way impossible just twelve months ago. I can play a piece like Lágrima (Francesco Tarrega) imperfectly, but just as its name (teardrops) suggests, I hope one day to play it well enough to moisten the eyes of any listener. Another piece by Tarrega, Adelita, is more difficult, and could take me longer to get my fingers (and brain) around. So be it. The journey is what matters. The destination can be left to itself.
 
Other things I have learned at the feet of my young teacher this past year:
 
Getting angry with myself at mistakes or mastering a technique more slowly than I would like is pointless. It achieves nothing. A mistake is a mistake; nothing more; nothing less. Shrug it off and continue playing. Which reminds me of another of his maxims:
 
 
Do not stop when you have made a mistake. Continue to play as if nothing happened. Most probably your listeners will not have noticed (even though it is a clanging, jarring event for you). (Great advice, I guess, for future concert performers).
 
You cannot practice correct technique enough. Nothing short of perfection is sufficient. (Near enough is not good enough in this game).
 
Practise slowly; very slowly. In this way you can identify flaws in your technique and deal with them before they become ingrained. This is also the best (only?) way to learn a new piece. Practice a few bars at a time, very slowly. If you can play it perfectly, slowly, you can also then play it fast. (So he says anyway, and I am starting to believe he is right).
 
Caress the guitar as you play. Become one with it. Be part of the music. Use it as a meditation technique if you like. (I am trying this).
 
Do not interpret the music your way until you can first play it the way the composer wrote it. (I rankle at this).
 
The metronome is your friend. (Yes, well, maybe).
 
 
There is, however, one particular aspect of the guitar I continue to struggle with. Just one, I hear you think. Well there are many to be honest. For instance I always want to progress more quickly than my technique allows. I continue to become frustrated and grumpy when I can't play something right, although I am getting better at going with the flow. I detest the metronome but I suffer it because I know it is doing me good. No, the one aspect that is providing a big challenge to me – still – is overcoming anxiety and nervousness when playing in front of other people.
 
My teacher has no specific advice for me on how to remain calm and how to still jittery, disobedient fingers and thumbs when playing in public. No advice that is, apart from his observation that I need to work on it. Maybe he is not too worried as I am unlikely to be playing in front of a concert audience ever. That is so, but I really would love to be confident of playing for friends, even if I am a silly old man who needs to understand he is past performing age.
 
 
Well there you have it: A synopsis of a year of classical guitar lessons. Learned heaps. Feel good about myself. As my teacher tells me . . . God bless him . . . “a couple more years and we will have you playing beautiful music”.
 
 
 
Posts have been a bit sparce on this blog lately. Is it that I've had nothing to say? Have I struggled for inspiration?
 
Yes, and yes. Simple answers for simple questions. We could leave it at that if you like. I will wish you a Merry Christmas and a safe journey, wherever you are bound.
 
 
Or, you could stay with me a while, as I prod and rattle a cage or two (gently of course).
 
 
(Europa Rosarium, Sangerhausen, Germany)
 
 
 
You're still here then? I'm glad you stayed.
 
Let's begin with the fairies that live at the bottom of gardens. My garden has a few, but they're shy and good at hiding. I sometimes think I notice a trace as a leaf, deftly pulled aside by tiny fingers, springs back into place, or a rustle in a garden bed makes me look up from my book. Our dealings are fleeting you see, nothing more than an inward smile and a whimsical nod to mark them.
I sense you shifting uneasily and wondering where this is going. Relax. You are in safe hands.
 
Some people of course would deny that any such fairy beings exist. Where is their imagination I ask? Where is their trust and innocence? What are the stories that light up their lives and transcend the everyday? Well I suppose they might have trust; in things different from those I trust in.
 
Can't pretend to be an authority on what others might trust in but I can account, with some authority, for myself.
 
 
Christmas, for example. There is a spirit in Christmas that speaks to me even though I can't see it or touch it. However much I try to dissect it, analyse it, or explain it away as a creation of consumer culture, it defies me. It is as real as anything in life. I feel it. That's enough for me.
 
Christmas delights me in spite of myself. I can't put my finger on exactly why. Coloured lights, Christmas trees, and carols play a part, but they are not Christmas in themselves. Giftwrapped presents? No, while they're nice, they're not Christmas. Family gatherings? As much as I love everyone in my family, such get togethers can be trials as much as delights. Any of these things can be missing and Christmas would still weave its magic.
 
Christmas gives me a renewed passion for life and for others. It reminds me that I am part of something larger than myself. It causes me to think about my life and how I'm spending it. It inspires me to do better than I have in the past. Memories of Christmases past stretch back through the years and passages of my life to childhood; to where it began for me. At this time of year I remember my grandparents, long gone, and how they loved me. I hear long forgotten Christmas carols, unwrap long discarded presents again, smell those delicious cooking smells again, taste figs, dates and stone fruit of all types in my mind. Such are the memories that return every year.
 
Christmas anchors me. It reminds me of who I am and from where I come. It cuts through the layers of my selfishness, even for only a week or two. Just as with fairies at the bottom of the garden, I am richer for its presence in my life, whether or not I can understand it, quantify it, commodify it, or tell myself I'm too old to be taken in. It is as real as I am. What more do I need to know?
 
 
I am noticing this Christmas time that our culture has changed significantly. Some of that leaves me sad. So be it. Change is inevitable and we can either accept and work with it, or not accept and be sidelined by it. I know that increasing numbers of people in my culture do not share my Christian faith, or have any spiritual dimension to their lives for that matter. I am comfortable with that. I think Christendom has done a lot of damage along with the good. Churches have allowed themselves for the past 1700 years or so to enjoy the trappings of power and the riches that come with it. That was a mistake, for which Christians in today's world will pay an increasingly heavy price as people turn towards churches with hostility. The Christian gospel was never about power and influence. It was always about setting people free. A pity churches largely forgot that for so long.
 
 
 
For some people, life is no doubt nasty, brutal and short. I have been luckier, although no doubt like you I've had a few ups and downs. Part of my good fortune has been to know that there is more to life than toys and prizes; more than self interest; more than is apparent to eyes and ears. I have learned that it is just as much folly to sneer at another person's faith as it is to deny the possibility that there might be fairies at the bottom of every garden, never to be discovered by those who will not see.
 
 
Whether you share my faith, or a different one, or believe you have none at all, I wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that you might catch a glimpse of the fairies who are surely there at the bottom of your own garden.
 
 
 
 
I am not you.
 
I see what you see,
but I see differently.
 
Let me be.
 
 
(A Garden in the Alhambra Palace, Granada)
 
 
I do not need
to think like you,
but I might need to hear
what you have to say.
 
 
Don’t exclude me
or demonise me.
My heart beats as yours does
and I breathe as you breathe.
 
 
We touch the same air
and live in the same streets,
but you look ascance at me.
You question my sincerity and motives,
as you preen in the righteousness of your own.
 
(The anger of zealots expressed on a church wall in Granada, Spain)
 
 
You float through life in a bubble
self referencing,
self affirming,
convinced of your moral superiority.
 
 
I believe
as sincerely as you do
but hold a different truth
in my heart.
Mine is as precious to me
as yours is to you.
 
 
We flatter ourselves
that we own the truth.
Maybe if our truths have no room for each other
there is no room for either of them?
 
If what I value makes me unworthy;
If how I see things excludes me
from your regard;
then so be it.
 
I will let you be.
 
 
(Embossed door of the Sagria Familia Cathedral in Barcelona)