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The decades have passed almost without my noticing. I’ve mellowed. Those powerful youthful certainties, towering passions and cruel emotions have ebbed away with the hormones that stirred them. I’m comfortable in my own skin now, more or less. I’ve learned to recognise the battles worth fighting, and ditches worth dying in.

 

While there are certainly still battles worth fighting, there are now fewer ditches I would choose to die in. Those that remain seem so clear to me, so fundamental, so bleeding obvious. If only people would listen! But they don’t.

 

They wont, any more than the younger me did when truths were simpler, possibilities were many, and freedom was a word that resonated through my soul.

 

I ask different questions now. I value different answers.

 

Which is the bigger delusion then? The brittle arrogance of youth or the patronising wisdom of age? Is it possible they are flip sides of the same thing? Who would have wanted to miss out on the power and the impetuousness of their youth? Who at the time would have swapped it for sensible, safe and cautious?

 

Some of us don’t survive our youth. A few of us never outgrow it. For the rest of us, caution and wisdom grow from the seeds of mistakes that went with the territory. I speak only for myself here, but I don’t want my youth back. I grieve for it, but like a butterfly in the wind, it’s gone. Wisdom is the compensation. Wisdom, and acceptance, starting with acceptance of myself and extending it to others.

 

I should clarify something. Acceptance is not the same thing as approval. Far from it. This is where wisdom begins for me. Accepting other people as they are does not mean that I need to approve of them or things they do. They do not need my approval, any more than I need theirs. It’s nice of course, but unnecessary, and counterproductive if we make it an overarching aim to be approved of by others. For me, approval is a personal thing, a testament to who I am down deep. I’ll award or withhold it as I see fit.

 

Now, where was I?

 

Lost in my delusions, that’s where. In my more expansive moments, I concede the arrogance of youth is no more a delusion than my thinking I have now tamed wisdom. We grasp at certainties, and having caught some, cling to them at all costs, even at the expense of discounting the humanity of those who see things differently.

 

In so many ways I see us divided into camps, dismissing those holding opposing views as stupid or perfidious (one commonly applied cliche is ‘hateful’ I believe). We deny the personhood of those in the opposing camp. Politics has descended to this. Look around you and say it’s not so. We have done this to ourselves, at least partly because we crave certainty and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.

 

I sit comfortably with ambiguity. I do not and never will have enough insight to be able to judge other people with authority (although I admit I haven’t always remembered that). I don’t approve of everything I see around me, but I don’t believe I hold all the answers either. Nevertheless I hold some beliefs deeply and without compromise.

 

This does not of itself make me a bigot. My certainties do not imprison me; they free me to accept and make allowances for those who are so certain of themselves they would deny me my humanity.

 

So, which ditches would I die in now? As I said earlier, not too many, but I’m wise enough to keep my powder dry and not list them here. If and when they come for me, I’ll be waiting in one of my choosing.

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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.


(Inside the Thousand Buddha Cave, near Luang Prabang, Laos)

 

Where are thoughts we no longer think?

Forgotten fragments of an earlier us

who breathed

and knew differently.

Links to an earlier self;

tumbled in memory, frayed, misplaced,

saved by random connection

of an unexpected smell, or taste.

Is there a place where old thoughts go?

A graveyard somewhere out of mind?

Is there an archive for them,

uncatalogued, unsigned?

Do past thoughts persist?

Where do they stay

when they’re unremembered;

with passing days?

Off the radar and out of mind,

unsummoned, bypassed,

do they wither and die

like cut flowers on glass?

Those ghostly constructs

that earlier selves spun,

elude us and withdraw,

leaving the question:

Just who are we after all?

 
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.)
 
 
 
 
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.
 
 
 
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)