Monday, 27 August 2012

Lives less ordinary

This summer, a friend came over from the US. It was the first time that we’d met in the flesh and it turned out to be one of the year’s highlights. He’s from Pennsylvania and, all I know of this state is, that it is home to the Amish. Living across the pond, we only hear of these people whenever investigative reporters take a camera crew to film their daily activites.

Their way of life, customs and dress are so far removed from our daily experience that we seek to understand how such a community has resisted the powerful forces of social and scientific change. For almost 400 years, their lifestyle has remained largely unchanged.

During the 1600’s there was growing dissension in the Church of England that it was in moral decline.  These dissenters became the Puritans and, in a back to basics policy, they banned the wearing of colourful clothing, music and celebrations of all kinds. This was a bleak period in English history and, as you can imagine, Puritans were not too popular with the masses who enjoyed wine, women and dancing in the street!. Today we’d call them “poopers!”

After the Puritans failed to pass on their lacklustre lifestyle and were overthrown in England they decided to head to the New World. With renewed hope, shiploads migrated and settled to the frugal life as God had intended. The English-Swiss-German settlers, after formal introductions had been made, proceeded to inter-marry and raise a barn or three!!

The interesting thing is that they have managed to preserve their language even today, known as Pennsylvanian Dutch. They live by strict codes where the emphasis is on church and family. If you’re an Amish woman, you’ve got the short straw! Feminism is unheard of.  Women play a subservient role as homemakers – wives and mothers. There’s no electricity so household chores are hard labour. They ride in buggies and live off the land.

God's country
On the plus side, they are mostly economically independent people. They have achieved mastery over technology by shunning it completely. They only submit to God and, in many ways, appear as puppets of his will. Individualism, in this society, would be a threat.  I guess no one told them that God is a feminist and he is the sower of the seeds of innovation that man, with his free will, chooses to use for good or evil.

I like the idea of frugality, community and fidelity to God but extremist measures are not for me. 
The challenge of duality is to live in and out of this world. Religious exclusiveness in the midst of diversity is the pathway to discord. We all know that we need to leave behind our gadgets and seek more human connection. It’s amazing that in an age when we can phone, text, email, instant message and skype, many of us do not wish to keep in touch. The Amish see technology as disconnecting them from God and it's easy to understand why!

The good life
Who doesn’t dream of a home on the range? Who doesn’t hark back to an era when we walked rather than rode? Who doesn’t know the value of manual labour in keeping us mentally fit and physically active? Who doesn’t yearn to live the simple life and end their evenings in front of a log fire? Who doesn’t want to eat fresh, organic food every day? Who doesn’t want more peace of mind?

I was raised on TV shows such as : “Little House on the Prairie” and “The Waltons”. Their attraction lay in their simplicity and authenticity as it was portrayed. It was spiritually powerful television and addictive for the hungry soul.  It was picture perfect but so unreal. Life’s just not like that! 

Life does not go backwards or “tarry with yesterday” as Kahlil Gibran, a famous Lebanese poet said. 
Our tomorrows march on. Time waits for no man.  To stand still is to stagnate. To go forward is to journey into potential. A closed mind is not what God intended for his people.

One pioneering spirit who made an epic journey into a new world was, the late Neil Armstrong. He was an explorer in the vein of Columbus, Polo and even the first Amish settlers.  He was a regular guy with a mind open to infinite possibilities. He had a vision and with NASA’s help it was fulfilled. He made a small footprint on the moon’s surface and a bigger one in all our minds.

Though he was feted the world over he was a humble figure, perhaps a puritan at heart. He shunned the limelight but he did not shun progress.  

Mr Armstrong has left a magnificent legacy and when future generations are taking their holidays in space, they’ll know who they have to thank for this endeavour.

The Amish and the Space Programme will endure. There’s much we have to understand about the paradoxes presented here. Progress is a double sided coin; it comes with a price. Western civilisation was established by the most uncivilized means – war, death and torture – but there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Uncommon Pennsylvanian
The Amish are an uncommon people who teach us about a way of life that is past. Neil Armstrong was an uncommon hero who provided us with a glimpse into the future.

There's a little bit of Amish in all of us when we relish the idea of getting away from the capitalism and consumerism that dominates our daily lives. There's something compelling about that kind of freedom, though we might miss electricity...just a little bit! There's something of a Neil Armstrong  in all of us too...if only we cared to nurture our adventurous spirits....we could also be at the cutting edge of great achievement.

This summer, I found a kindred spirit in an uncommon Pennsylvanian. - part world traveller and part home steader.His life is inspiring too…..but that story is for another time.


Sunday, 19 August 2012

Difficult people can be our best teachers...but do we need the lesson?

 It’s true, difficult people can be our best teachers but how valuable is the lesson they teach?

Looking back on my life, which has been littered with difficult teachers, I’m not sure I learnt anything but the art of avoidance.  Difficult people are wearing to mind, body and soul. M Scott Peck’s first line in “The Road Less Travelled” is that “life is painful!” This is painfully obvious and that’s why our entry into the world began with birth pangs for our poor mothers.

Childbirth pain however is soon forgotten and it’s the pain of child rearing that lasts for the next twenty years or so. Pain, we are no strangers to. Once we’ve burn our fingers and reap the consequences then the best lesson we can take away is to avoid the cause of our pain, like the plague.

Conditional love
Avoidance is often our default mode. No one consciously walks into the path of trouble. However, too many times, we seem to be attracted to trouble, go on a date with it and end up married to it! Yes, trouble comes in many a disguise. The cute guy you see on your daily commute to work who makes you go weak at the knees could be concealing a dark secret….like a gambling addiction. Of course, you-who-can’t-resist the lure of his piercing blues gets drawn into his web.

The reformer in you wants to help him to change his ways. When the first alarm bell starts to go off in your head you turn down your hearing. You are having a whale of time sampling his charms and this is one fire where you need to feel the heat.

Once we’ve sent our rational mind to a cabin in the woods for a long holiday, we’re happy to indulge in the glorious recklessness of falling in love with a bad ‘un. Well only our friends and family think so. To us, he becomes our raison d’etre and like a moth to a flame we’re on a collision course to disaster.
We think we can change difficult people because love conquers all, right? Wrong, glib phrases cannot smooth over the cracks caused by abandonment, abuse, neglect and disrespect.

If the serpent in Eden hadn’t persuaded Eve to persuade Adam to eat that fruit, wouldn’t generations have avoided that difficult lesson? The forbidden fruit, like Pandora’s box, contained all the evils of the world that were unleashed in that unconscious moment. Are we to believe that that difficult lesson is a good thing?

I think not. There’s no escape from suffering but I believe that we can choose to avoid some of the administrators of the said pains.

Naturally, there are some we can’t get away from:

Our parents – where do I start? Some parents are really poor teachers but, with a little luck, we come to understand that their mistakes are never to be repeated.  Good lesson!

Siblings – know how to push our buttons. Especially when they’ve entered into relationships with difficult people and now enjoy telling you where you’ve gone wrong in your life. Your Christmas table might have less people around it but perhaps you could see them in every Olympic year??

School teachers – whoever heard of a student getting good grades when he didn’t like his teacher? Teachers are responsible for extolling the virtues of knowledge. A good teacher has the ability to pass on the love of his subject with patience and good humour. A good teacher is never forgotten.

Not a coward but a tactician
Abusive partners – don’t we just love them? We do. Sometimes you have to love them enough to let them go. Once you feel depleted, have lost your confidence and dignity it’s time to release your “difficult teacher”. There may be others who need the lesson more than you do. In fact, a difficult person deserves another difficult person – that’s poetic justice!

Aggressive bosses – I’m sure there’s an encyclopedia or ten that could cover the spectrum of difficult employers. The ones you love to keep you small, destroy your work/life balance, provide remote working (unpaid) and never appreciate your talents. If you don’t quit – it’s a bad lesson!

Thoughtless neighbours – if you’ve ever lived next door to someone who throws trash in their front garden and rotting food in their back garden, has a dog that escapes and digs up your flower beds you’ll know that these particular difficulties teach you a lot! Move – that’s a good lesson!

Difficult people teach us the art of tolerance (though your nerves might suffer) and gratitude (when they leave). That is something healthy that we can take away but I can’t help feeling that we’re all supposed to be making a little Eden of planet earth.

Just imagine if we had experienced unbroken unconditional love we would have evolved into consistenly loving beings. You don’t always need bad happenings to reveal your inherent goodness. If we’re made in the image of God then our potential for god-like behavior is huge.

So what happened to the blueprint? Did the serpent poison it all? Is the co-existence of good and evil are natural inheritance? No and we must never believe that it is.

Roads less travelled
Love enhances the intellect. Love promotes self-belief. Love is the fix we are all seeking. This love is spiritual, all encompassing and removes fear. Difficult people interfere with the love you deserve to receive making you feel guilty if you find it from another source.

We have to keep fighting to let the good prevail. We must teach evil that he cannot win and if he doesn’t learn this lesson he’ll be standing in the corner of the classroom (with a dunce’s hat on) for eternity.

Within your soul there is nothing you do not know. When you identify with mortality then you’ll seek answers to the questions and opportunities for learning.

The immortal one, deep inside you, knows that it is far better to seek questions and avoid conflict.

Whatever you're selling...I'm not buying!
Difficult people are like travelling salesmen, looking to offload their woes, hang-ups and grudges, to anyone soft-hearted or soft-headed. Don’t let it be your heart or head. This is the kind of retail therapy (and lesson) you don’t need!


Sunday, 12 August 2012

Love Story

Yesterday, I watched the 42 year old Hollywood weepie of the above title starring Ryan o’Neal and Ali MacGraw. It was  a groundbreaking film for its time as the love portrayed was gritty and honest. Ali Macgraw’s character , Jenny, packs quite punch and her language is altogether more earthy than Oliver Barrett VI, played by Ryan O’Neal. 

It’s the classic love story of poor girl marries rich boy after meeting at university. Naturally, poor girl dies (from a rare blood disease) and rich boy mourns. The great punchline of the film is: “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” which is poignant in the film but meaningless to those of us who’ve lived or are living our very own love story.

There’s a love story woven into the tapestry of our lives. It’s different for everyone with both happy and sad endings. Love is not a fairy tale and this film bears testimony to the many struggles that accompany a seemingly perfect love. Conflict with parents, financial worries, class issues, ill health are all played out against a fateful storyline.

When I was a teenage dream
This film is close to my heart as, when I was an impressionable 16 year old, I fell in love. Although the film was already ten years old it was still fresh in people’s psyche. I cast myself in the role of Jenny as I was poor, studying to go to university and dark-haired. “Oliver” was the Ryan O’Neal look-a-like in my neighbourhood, fair-haired and rich. We met at a mutual friend’s party and, to my utter amazement, he was attracted me. I was in shock and seventh heaven all at once that the most good looking (and much sought after by other teenage girls) had noticed me. 

We started to go steady but I knew that his family disapproved but did their utmost to hide it. I often felt out my league at the high brow events he went to. He did everything he could, in his teenage way, to make me feel comfortable and accepted but my brittle self-esteem got the better of me. After a few months I ended the relationship and he took the hint. He had ambition and an illustrious future ahead of him so he pursued his destiny. Today, he’s successful – I checked him out on Google – and seems to be happy in the world he’s made for himself.

My unrequited love story
Due to a variety of negative factors, the most damaging being my poor self image, I didn’t even make it to university. I found a job and got on with the business of living a quietly, desperate life. I eventually got married to escape my home life (and to avoid becoming a miserable spinster), got a mortgage and had three children. I ticked all the boxes and smiled in all the right places but, deep down, a nagging doubt started to gnaw at me. My life was far from authentic and I found myself sinking into a depression. After 22 years, I extricated myself from that unholy state.

Our love stories are locked inside of us. They’re like a ship in a stoppered bottle. We replay it in our mind’s eye but we can’t touch it ever again. I’ve had slices of love in my life and I’ve made peace with my love story. I don’t over analyse it. I want to look forward to more love. For my past, present and future love stories I say thank you and thank you Hollywood for the memory.


Saturday, 11 August 2012

The pursuit of inspiration

Relationships are not about happiness. Relationships are not about finding “the one”. Relationships are not about “happily ever after” and they are most certainly not “made in heaven”!

Relationships are what they are. Whoever engages in them can only bring into them what they already have – nothing more. Don’t ask a leopard to change their spots…at least not overnight….or over a decade or two. 

Changing your ways can be a lifetime’s work and sometimes it’s  near impossible to change ingrained habits and ways of thinking.
You are my inspiration but not my happiness
Nevertheless we try since, as humans , we just can’t leave it alone. 

There’s something challenging and  rewarding to speculate, manipulate and propagate to improve our lot. It’s plain crazy to just accept things the way they are. We thrive on the struggle even though it wears us down to the bone.Life was never meant to be this hard and there’s a simple benchmark that’ll measure the strength and value of your intimate relationship(s). 

Inspiration is the most valuable asset a person can bring to their relationships. At the start of a relationship there’s plenty of it……you and your significant other are just oozing with it. 

You can think of a million and one things that’ll make your partner happy – going on a picnic on a glorious summer’s day, a moonlight walk under a canopy of stars, walking through snow or autumn leaves, reading your favourite poem aloud, a candle-lit dinner made to eat in, cuddling up together to watch a scary movie,  listening to your favourite music,  holding hands and gazing into each others’ eyes, watching your partner as he/she sleeps, thanking god for the beautiful children you’ve created together, wanting the day to never end and feeling as if you’re on top of the world. Simply put, inspiration makes a better person out of you. 

Notice that none of these things cost any money; it’s not a motivating factor. Inspiration doesn’t have to break the bank!

Inspiration made me!
Happiness and inspiration are quite distinct entities. Happiness is a journey you take alone. Along the way, there’ll be contributors to it but they are never the source of it. The potential for happiness lies within you and you have to allow it into your life. There won’t be a constant stream of it but, now and again, you’ll find yourself getting happy for no reason. Happiness is mostly to do with being yourself.

Inspiration, on the other hand, is something you have to choose. If happiness is a passive then inspiration is its active twin. Whatever inspiration you bring to your relationship each day is the measure of its success. Planning projects, hobbies, holidays, surprise parties, barbecues and special, alone times fuels inspiration. Relationships need creativity to thrive and prosper.

You can't cage your soul
Sadly, many of them flounder ,due to one or both party’s inertia and indolence. What’s inspirational about seeing your partner lying on the couch like a lump of lard whilst you put out the trash? What’s inspirational about being left to do the dishes after you’ve slaved over a hot stove? What’s inspirational about watching your partner on the computer laughing as he/she instant messages her friends? What’s inspirational about watching your partner in a fit of road rage? A significant other can crush the day following bouts of temper and emotional abuse. Words, spoken and unspoken, leave scars that are not easily healed.

Inspiration + Happiness = Love; but this is not an equation you find very often in the home. The absence of inspiration is the absence of love. Not easy to accept but it’s true.  A crumbling marriage / relationship has lost inspiration and it takes two to make or break it.

Going solo...inspiration will take you far
Leaving a relationship can spark inspiration. It doesn’t always take two. After years of trying to find inspiration together you might just realise that you can have it on your own. It’s myth that you need to be “a couple” to find a little inspiration.

Inspiration to our souls is like oxygen to our lungs. We live an unfulfilled life when we try to get by without it. Existing without daily upliftment is to be deprived of sunlight and water. We become withered automatons – doing what we have to, to just pay the bills and survive.

I paint with no hands
When you were born you were imbibed with the will to live. Inspiration was breathed into you and, taking your first steps, you knew there was a big world out there to conquer. Somewhere down the line, your parents, teachers and care givers told you you were going the wrong way and you believed them.

You took a detour into monotony and mental slavery. You forgot about inspiration as you tried to live up to other peoples’ expectations. Inspiration doesn’t follow the crowd and neither should you!

Seek and find it within and then propel it out of you. God knows you want to. Look for it in every corner and dark place – there’s no where on this planet that doesn’t have it. You’ll find it in the strangest and toughest places. It’s not always pretty! 

I run with no legs
Sometimes it’s called blessings and, when you recognize that, you’ll know you’ve had a brush with inspiration. Birthing your dreams requires inspiration as your mid-wife. Inspiration can seem as elusive as a rare butterfly but once you have it you’ll never want to let it go.

Inspirational people change the world and that's what you're on this earth to do.


Sunday, 5 August 2012

Olympics - why it's important to keep jumping through the hoops

I’m watching the Olympics on TV and marveling at the physical feats on display. There are some mean spirited people who say that the Olympics will add to the UK budget deficit and we may be facing austerity measures a few years down the line. 

Austerity will always be with us – with or without the Olympics – as long as greed and corruption are alive and well. I’ve seen no evidence that either of those two playmates have changed their ways.

If money was not spent building Olympic parks, athletes’ villages, swimming pools, gymnasiums and velodromes – how would the money have been spent? It wouldn’t have been spent of welfare, hospitals or schools I can tell you that!

The problem with spending money for governments, businesses, institutions and ordinary folk is that we don’t really know what’s best. As a benchmark we can say that whatever furthers the progress of humanity through endeavour is worthwhile.

A hero for all seasons
Spending money on medical research serves to eradicate disease and suffering. Spending money on infrastructure makes our life journeys all the more easier then if we are constantly falling into potholes that never get repaired. Spending money on learning is never wasted though we mustn’t lose sight of the greatest learning and that’s by making mistakes. Spending money on welfare alleviates the need for people to endure miserable conditions in order to make a living. 

As I write these words, I know I’m lucky that I live in a country that can host the Olympics on a grand scale whilst not having its people at starvation level.

If human endeavour is worth championing then why not our sportsmen and women? Are they to only compete at other venues and events but not showcase their talents in the Greek tradition of the Olympics? Does the budget deficit come before upholding history?

Bathing in glory
Many people, descended from the Philistines, might agree. The pragmatists among us, care nothing for history and their lives are a little less richer. Though they may live in a fine mansion surrounded by opulent furnishings, a 72 inch plasma, hot-tub and manicured lawns their spirits are poor, in my opinion. 

Whilst material acquisitions are important, they are not as important as enriching the mind. History provides countless examples of wealthy individuals who have not found lasting happiness or peace of mind.

Crushed flower
As I write, on this day fifty years ago, the great Hollywood icon, Marilyn Monroe, was found dead in her apartment. Though she rose to great fame she was plagued by inner (and some outer) demons that rarely provided peace of mind. Her life was a tragedy from the point of view that, whilst her body enjoyed the benefits of fame and fortune, her innocent spirit was  destroyed by it. "Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul." 

By contrast, sporting heroes who have reached the top through giving their all and proving their mental endurance are not burnt out. Their bodies and minds  are constantly striving for higher physical and mental achievement. 

I can bounce back
They inspire the future generation and battle through their injuries, insecurities and defeats. It’s rare for them to just give up and, if they face life-threatening illness, they are triumphant in life or death.
Hollywood produces tragic-heroes. They achieve stardom through acting as if they’re heroes. In real life, they’re candles in the wind. Their fragile egos cling to the adulation of the masses and the next film studio to cut them a deal.

"Can do"attitude
Olympic champions have an indomitable and gracious spirit. The arduous training and support from the fans contributes to the feel-good factor for all. Even if they cave in one day, the next day, they pick themselves up and start again. If only Marilyn had had the strength of mind to do the same.

A champion of life
Government and businesses must continue to promote sport – to all levels and ages. Barriers are broken down and unification occurs as we compete or spectate. Let’s keep jumping through our personal hoops, conquering our fears and moving closer to our aspirations. 

Let’s support our Olympic hopefuls and keep on chasing the Olympic-sized dream. Our national pocket may be somewhat depleted but our hearts feel a little richer for it.