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.


Guitar Journeyman

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 Life of Dreams

(Image of the Carina Nebula – Wikicommons)
I'm the first to admit it. I'm a nerd. A dreamy nerd, but a nerd.
Have been, on and off, right through my life. Now in my sixties I'm more adept at reading social cues than I used to be, and have learned to temper the hard angles of my nerdishness, but looking back at the nerdish boy-man of yesteryear I see a pattern.
As a boy I liked to read much more than to play sport. Still do, but that's more of a physical imperative now, with aches and pains and such. I lived in my mind then, designing intricate palaces, imagining great adventures in this world and out of it. I would spend hours inventing board games and playing them by myself. When encyclopedias were books, I revered them, leafing through and vacuuming up information about everything and nothing.
As I said, I was a little different . . . to say the least. A nerd.
Gadgets fascinated me; not so much fixing them, but using and understanding them. I was pretty much clueless when it came to repairs. The only workshop I felt comfortable in, was the one inside my mind.
And then I discovered astronomy. With a school friend who shared my passion, we would spend nights in the back yard gazing through small telescopes, entranced by what we saw and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of the night sky.
Yeah, I know . . . risk takers we were . . . adventurers. When other young teen males were dreaming of their sporting heroes, pop music, cars they would like to own, or girls, our dreams were extraterrestrial.
Astronomy was the first of a series of interests to grab me and inspire me to dream. As it turned out my mathematics scores did not let me realise my dreams of becoming an astronomer, and in hindsight that was no bad thing. You see, although I didn't know it, I was barking up the wrong tree as they say. Along with the wonder and physical beauty of the universe, which I love to this day, I had absorbed a trusting belief that the answer to my dreams was out there somewhere waiting for me to discover it. Sort of like Douglas Adams' boffins in his book “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” when they asked the great god-like super computer for the answer to 'life, the universe and everything'. The answer they got was 42.
Just as I did eventually, those boffins walked away glumly, disillusioned, except it took me a good few years, a physics degree, wrong turns and blind alleys to realise I'd been sold a pup. Ever slow to see the really important things in life, it was only in the fullness of years that I began to appreciate that although there might be exciting dreams aplenty in science and technology, my dreams were now to be found in an entirely different direction.
Mind you, I admit I remain prone to bouts of nerdish indulgence. I'm more excited about the latest toy drone I'm flying in the lounge room than is my grandson who has just received it as a birthday present. I'm interested in reference material of all types: Data tables of vehicle performance; Google Maps; Google Earth; optical devices; wiring diagrams of all types. These are but a few of my remaining guilty pleasures. Furthermore I read books on byzantine history, political analysis, German and Italian language learning, and I am learning to play classical guitar. There, I've said it! What a weight off my conscience. Us nerds carry a lot of guilt about being different.
But, where was I? Yes, my dreams. Nerds have them no less than most people, you know.
I used to dream about gadgets. It seems to me that gadgets are gadgets, and as fascinating and addictive as they may be, they remain gadgets. Computers, wireless devices, CAT scanners, GPS modules, hadron colliders, telescopes. Some of them produce data and information. Some of that is meaningful to me. None of it is the stuff of my dreams now.
Which begs the question: What does a nerdish old man dream?
My old school friend reminded me this morning via email of our shared interest in astronomy as boys and it inspired me to write this blog entry. Not surprisingly, my dreams have evolved along with me in the decades since those evenings in the back yard with a telescope. Dreams of what I would do with my life are no longer relevant. Such dreams have been rendered obsolete by the passage of time. I know what I am doing with my life now, and I am content.
Possibilities of meeting alien life forms or communicating with them via sophisticated gadgetry no longer seem quite so likely. The answer may be out there somewhere, but I didn't ever find it, and my questions, and dreams, are different now.
Now I dream of being accepted and valued for who I am: an old guy with nerdy tendencies, some of which he has learned to temper.
I dream of letting go of self importance and of embracing humility.
I dream of letting go of the need to know and to be in control.
I dream my wife, children and grandchildren will know I love them unreservedly.
I dream of being a good and true friend.
I dream of bringing smiles to people who need them.
I dream of being as one with my creator.
(Image of the Crab Nebula – Wikicommons)
So, the dreams change, bringing with them different questions that have different answers.
I guess life is about people, not gadgets. If you knew that all along, why didn't you sit me down and explain it to me when I was young?
(Image – Wikicommons)
In a life of dreams, I have indeed been a slow learner.

Seeing with different Eyes

(Rocks at South Head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour)
I was in Sydney last weekend. Sue was at a conference and I had the time free to explore on my own. With me that means taking time to see, to think, and to wonder. If there's a coffee shop here and there, well, so much the better.
On Saturday and Sunday I had the time to wander where ever I felt like going, and I did.
The harbour is breathtaking of course, but my walks took me to places further than mere distance could explain. I had time to ponder stuff and see, in ways I can't when I'm at home and locked into routines.
Some people are rejuvenated and encouraged by the beauty around them. Others nod at it and move on. Some seem oblivious to it. I think I'm in the first group, especially when alone and far from home. Maybe that's why philosophers and prophets have always sought quiet lonely places to do what they do. Well, anyway, it works for me.
With such an uplifting weekend behind me, I read a short passage by Father Richard Rohr this morning. He founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico a number of years ago and publishes online a lot of stuff I find attractive and compelling. This morning's passage helped bring together some of the weekend experiences and give them meaning.
Now for the insight:
I am not in control of my life. I am a part of something much bigger that I don't and can't understand. Realising this and accepting it opens a window to reality that would otherwise remain opaque to me. When I stop trying to control and manipulate my life and the people around me I have the opportunity be who I am meant to be.
Trying to call the shots in my life has been a persistent aim of mine. The older and uglier I grow, the more I realise the futility of that aim. This weekend's insight came clearly and boldly to a person who needed to receive it. Letting go and trusting that I am part of something bigger; that there is a plan and a structure to things that works with or without my understanding or permission is, perhaps surprisingly, liberating.
It seems I am but a cog . . . but a cog that matters.
Two short quotes from Fr. Richard's email might explain it better:
“You and I came along a few years ago; we're going to be gone in a few years. The only honest response to life is a humble one.”
“Authentic religion leads you to a place that you initially know nothing about. Like Habakkuk the prophet, you have to be picked up by your hair and set where you need to be (Daniel 14:36). Once you know what you need to know, there is no other explanation except that there must be another Power at work in this world. It's not believing doctrines; it's having an experience of being changed or moved to a new place, almost in spite of yourself. Sometimes no one is more surprised than you. All you can do is offer thanks.”
And so I offer my thanks . . . humbly.

Tough Love

Madness swells and seeps under doors.
The darkness in each of us seeks out its own.
We are like blind mice
feeling for the exit
in a warehouse stalked by cats.
A thousand stolen childhoods rise up in anger,
shaming hypocrisy and demolishing excuses.
Childhood sexual abuse:
The perfume of privilege turns to the stink
of yesterday's household garbage.
Stripped naked of all pretension,
emptied of respectability,
the gatekeepers only now
turn around in confusion and sorrow.
Transitioned into care,
yesterday's people outlive their usefulness.
The boundaries of independence
tightened in stages to a choke hold.
Those who might otherwise have loved them
steal their dignity;
legal sensible, faux compassion.
Unspoken sadness for their children
who consigned them there;
who plan
and confirm their own decline
in turn and in time.
A termination
on the strength of a prenatal scan.
Imperfect parents will try another time
for a perfect child.
This one flawed;
airbrushed out of a family's history.
Binned as biological waste;
the child spared at least,
the obscenity of having parents
like these.
Fragments of a hundred butchered innocents
lie on a hot black road;
litter left by soldiers of Allah.
An unfinished jigsaw of heads and limbs
sorted and ripped by beaks and talons
like the hands of bargain shoppers at a Christmas sale.
Forget love and kindness.
Cruelty and violence are the price
of entry to paradise.
Who'd have thought?
love is not set aside for the greater good,
explained away by self interest,
dishonoured through selfishness,
or perverted by a pustulant ideology.
Love that is not obedient or predictable,
but wild and radical,
risky and frightening;
waits to lead the way
out of darkness
into the light.

Afloat on the Elixir of Youth

I suspect more than a few people of my age try to avoid the reality of their own bodies. Inside we are the same we’ve always been. The brain is sharp. The self is in charge. We’re as ready for a challenge as we ever were. But we’ve also begun to avert our gaze from the mirror, haven’t we? That reflected face, lined, worn and lived in, isn’t us. Why can’t we look like the person we are inside? Why must our bodies hurt when we do stuff we need to do?

I had a deeply unsettling experience recently when I was in a shopping centre. An employee giving directions to a customer pointed to “that old bloke over there” and, swivelling around, I realised with rising embarassment that he meant me! A humbling moment. I blundered outside feeling stuff that I carefully disguised, but it marked the beginning of the demolition of an old friend; my image of myself.

Lately, in my internal world, as long as I don’t look in a mirror (why do they allow mirrors everywhere anyway?), or God forbid, look at photos of myself, I am of indeterminate age. I am just ‘me’, and I have become comfortable with that ‘me’. It’s the thread of connected consciousness throughout my life from early childhood. It’s the store of memories I deposit into and revisit. In the process these things have come to define ‘me’; the way I think of myself. Ever refining but adjusting itself but never challenged significantly, my ‘me’ has been a reliable constant. Until recently.

With increasing frequency and insistence, a changed reality has begun to knock on the door of my internal self. It refuses to be ignored and in time I expect it’s mechanism and effects will prove seismic. C’est la Vie.

I had begun to feel quietly proud (maybe even smug) that I had remained aloof from the usual compensating strategies so favoured by those staring down the barrel of the onset of old age. However what does a fellow do when he has a dicky knee, shoulder pain, carries a smidgen more weight than is good for him, and has recently turned sixty?

Yes, obviously, he buys a kayak.

Not for him the Harley Davidsons, or the high tech carbon fibre wallet busting bicycles and lycra suits, or the gym subscriptions that sucker in others of a similar age and ilk. No, not even a personal trainer and tailored weight loss and fitness program will serve to deny and delay the inevitable decline into old age.

At first I was a little concerned that I was trying to deny reality. Paddling a kayak is a young person’s game, or at least lifting it on and off a roof rack certainly is. Feeling vaguely foolish I perservered, eliminating problems and issues one by one. The first step was to walk into the kayak showroom. When the sales person didn’t appear too surprised to see someone with my body shape and vintage I stood up a little straighter and began to ask some of the questions I needed to. Would this one be big enough (a.k.a. “support my weight”)? What sort of paddle did I need? Life jacket? All the while I was acutely conscious of not feeling as if I belonged in this world of active sports. No one seemed to mind. There were no mirrors anywhere so it was easy to go with the flow.
Thinking of a clever system to assist the loading and off loading of the kayak from the car roof was a minor personal triumph, and cost about one tenth of the commercial systems on offer. Score one for experience!

The inaugural launching was planned with military precision and went well, as far away from spectators as I could manage. Pulling away from the shore I had a feeling of boundless well-being and of being united with the water and sky. Surely this in itself was worth the purchase price!

I have nothing to prove. Having nothing in common with a sun-tanned athlete I’ll be restricting myself to sheltered waterways where I can just glide across the surface when my shoulders get tired. Tide and current can be a bit of a bother too for an ageing kayaker so I tend to watch these factors too.

Life has a changed perspective on the water. The spiritual release is profound. From water level it’s possible to see clearly. I haven’t rediscovered or recreated my youth, but some of it’s memories and feelings come to revisit at these times.

The only remaining issue for me is to keep up my daily walks along with the paddling sessions. The body tends to be a little sorer after paddling and the temptation to sit it out rather than walk is powerful. Then again, I guess, no pain, no gain.

It’s not the elixir of youth, but it’s a pretty good substitute. Stay tuned for some more photos.


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