A Slight Glitch and Shakey

Morning, readers. Today I’ve changed my site format and that’s done something odd with my photos in previous posts. Hope to sort this double vision soon. Advice gratefully received.

But don’t want to let that glitch interrupt my morning reading and writing.

I am still thinking about Thursday’s meeting with Sonya Hale, and about Daniel Magariel’s novel, One of The Boys, (see yesterday’s post) and about the deep resonances and ancient feelings that meeting and that novel provoked into life. For that reason, this poem by William Shakespeare caught my attention this morning. I must have read it before but I really don’t remember it. Why not? Today it is full of meanings. If you are new to Shakespeare read it aloud. Read it aloud anyway.

Sonnet 110
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
I felt a delight in the opening line. There is nothing like recognition for provoking pleasure, even when it is recognition of having made a fool of yourself.
As I read on  the poem seems to be about having been unfaithful yet it didn’t feel to me only about sexual fidelity.
The shame of the opening is about having been disloyal to yourself. And ‘Here and there’ made me think of things Sonya said about the moving about from town to town when she was street homeless.  There is real, sad recognition (as much as guilt) in  ‘made myself a motley to the view’. (‘Motley’ is the name given to clothing worn by fools). It’s not only the humiliation of that idiocy but the shame of having done it to myself.
By the time I got to line 3, ‘Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear’, I was thinking about old mistakes and infidelities, not to my beloved, but to my better self. The violence of ‘gored’ gave me pause to reflect on the self-injury of bad thinking.
Alas, ’tis true I have gone here and there
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new.
Now I read the next four lines together, another  little lump of thought:
Most true it is that I have look’d on truth
Askance and strangely: but, by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.
Is Shakespeare is responding to something another person has said – in a row, perhaps?  ‘You’ve looked on truth askance and strangely!!’ Thus he begins ‘Most true it is…’ but going off after others, or dishonesties, or cheating  or whatever he means by ‘these blenches‘ , it  ‘gave my heart another youth/and worse essays prov’d thee my best of love.’ Thus, out of bad something good may come? I realised you were the one for me!
The ‘askance and strangely’ is resonant of the ways in which, when you are not able to be true, all things are twisted. In Magariel’s novel, the father’s love for his sons is a twisted ‘askance’ version of something which is more like ownership. Will he one day go into recovery and see what he has done to his sons?
Now all is done, have what shall have no end!
Mine appetite, I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confin’d.
Shakespeare’s saying he’s never going to go off with someone else, never again! I’m back, forever. Would you believe him? Well, no, I wouldn’t, much as I often don’t believe myself when I promise myself I’m going to keep my room tidy.  What? After all these decades of chaos? You’re really going to change?
No, this is the return of a philanderer. Don’t give him welcome. As my friend Shelley once memorably said, ‘Chuck him, love, he’s a loser.’
But say I overrode these thoughts and feelings about the top-level  experience of the poem, the  unfaithful lover, and  went to something under the  lines, something about not being true, not necessarily about love or sexual relationship.
There are many ways in which a person can be unfaithful. Because of my conversation with Sonya, because of Magariel’s book  I’ve been thinking about the way in which one is required to practice faithfulness to a true ideal (I want to be a decent person, I want to be responsible and honest). How many times in that long effort have I ‘gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view’?  if you a re not going to get stuck at that point, you absolutely need to believe there is a place to which to return.
Thinking of Daniel Magariel’s book; the addicted parent may try to clean up, to get sober, to become  good parent (in another book!). The boys may grow up and want to learn to be decent men, not easy after growing up with a Dad like that. But these desires for change can and do happen even after we have ‘sold cheap what is most dear/made old offences of affections new.’
Believing in hope and change, you’d have to find a way to say ‘welcome back’ to the sinner that repenteth, wouldn’t you? When that sinner is yourself, when the offences are against your self, the only place you have to come back to is your self. I see the poem is ‘about’  a lover returning after shenanigans with others, and I read that at one level, as if it were a story I can lend myself to. But to understand it, and to feel it, I have to make the underlying connection with my own experience. So  I read as myself, returning to myself, after messing up again.  It would be good to be welcoming, pure, loving.
Then give me welcome, next my heaven the best,
Even to thy pure and most most loving breast.
And that makes me think of Derek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love.
Excuse me, I need to tidy my room.

Just finished: One of The Boys, by Daniel Magariel

img_0466

Yesterday a day full of  addiction and hope.

I visited the wise Karen Biggs, CEO of Phoenix Futures, one of  the UK’s leading addiction/housing charities. We’ve done some great work with Phoenix over the years, and it’s always a joy to spend time with the energetic heart and brain that is Karen.

Later in the day I spent time talking to playwright Sonya Hale, a truly remarkable woman. Sonya became an addict in her early twenties, and was street homeless for a decade. Much later she changed her life, partly through meeting the charity Clean Break.  She won the Synergy Theatre’s national prison writing competition with her play, Glory Whispers. She spoke to me of  the pain of losing her son, when her addiction became unmanageable, and he went to live with his Dad, and how that finally helped her confront her addiction and get into recovery. The interview will be published in The Reader magazine at a later date.

It was a long chat with Sonya. We’ve a lot of common and I’m always interested in learning how people live and why they sometimes learn to change.  I feel as if something new has entered my bloodstream and I’ll be processing the  conversation for weeks ahead.

On the  train on the way  down to London I finished (a two-sitting book) Daniel Magariel’s One of The Boys. I think I found this through a recommendation on twitter by the exceptionally emotionally intelligent writer, @carysbray. It also came with a blurb from my top-rated author, George Saunders. Those are two very remarkable writers, so I ordered my copy. I thought Karen or others at Phoenix might be interested in it so I when I arrived at her office in Elephant and Castle, I gave my copy to Karen Biggs.

green wall
The wonderful green wall at Elephant and Castle

It’s slight in terms of pages, a novella, but it is enormous in its content and concentrated experience, not unlike my two-hour conversation with Sonya. I felt I had been reading for a week, not two one-hour sessions. Reading with eyes glued to the page, full-pelt, non-stop. Told through the eyes of a child, the younger of two in a family where the father is a drug-user and is a manipulative, violent man, it’s a slice of real time, an immersion in an experience you might not want to know about. It’s not an easy read but its a real good one, with exceptionally careful writing about emotions.

The story is almost all about ‘the boys’, the father and his two sons; we don’t see the mother much and we don’t know her story,  but the scene where she dances ‘salt and pepper shaker’ had a grim and utterly real  graveyard humour. Apart from that, I did not laugh. I found the book frightening and true to life. Like Frank Alpine in Malamud’s The Assistant, when he is reading Crime and Punishment, I had the crazy feeling I was reading about myself.

When you have parents who do not parent you, you live a cycle of  caring for them when they need looking after, craving their attention when they don’t and then suffering when they don’t look after themselves, or when they turn on you. All that is carefully detailed here, in under 170 pages.

Every care worker, every social worker or children’s home assistant, every teacher, should read this book.

Scrub that, it’s a big problem with wide  ramifications. Everyone should read it.

Neither of  my parents were straightforwardly ‘like’ the parents in this book but there are certain underlying resemblances, the bone structure of addiction remaining the same whatever the flesh looks like. An addict is not a grown up, is not responsible, is broken, is ill. As the child you carry a lot of weight for them. You think their thoughts, feel their feelings. As a result you never really know where your own emotions begin and your parents’ end. That’s what most struck the chimes here.

After a particularly bad night, where the father and younger son (‘we’ in the quotation  below) have attacked and threatened to kill the older son, the younger struggles with guilt, anger and loneliness:

That night after we had cleaned up and dragged the coffee table to the Dumpster, my father called him into his room. I listened outside the door as he told my brother that he should never have contacted our mom. That we’d felt betrayed and did not know what else to do. “I would never hurt you,” my father said. “We only meant to scare you. Please forgive me. Do you forgive me?” Then he said, “Thank you, I forgive you, too. Can I have a hug?” The bed squeaked as my father scooted closer, I guessed, because a moment later he said, “Put your arms around me, son.”

I stepped outside to the park.

Overhead the moon was hidden. Clouds were backlit at their feathery edges. A strong wind from the east, from the Sandias, swept over the grass. I winced at the thought of today. My father turned us against each other – it was his method of control. And I’d fallen for it again. Any remorse I had for the Polaroids now felt false. I had let down my brother just as I had my mom. I was so disappointed in myself and I swore then that I would never again choose my father. I never again wanted to harm anyone I loved. I was on my brother’s side now. He was my brother for life. I’d been lucky today that he had not been not more seriously hurt.
A flock of birds came to rest on a nearby pinon tree, populating its limbs like leaves. and though I could hardly see them, hear them, I was happy for their quiet company and hoped they would not leave me soon.

Frightening, touching and educative – highly recommended.

A bit more time management, plus the Cherry, hung with snow

cherry 18.04.JPG
Cherry blossom in my garden 18.04.17
I don’t know who created the management theory that time is elastic, and that you can fit in whatever you want to fit in, but it’s not true. It is true that time changes as we experience it, but there are still only 24 hours in a day, 168 in a week. but there are two types of time: there is time-experience which speeds up or slows down depending on the amount of  flow-concentration-energy you are putting into whatever is happening, and there is clock time, which ticks on whatever is happening.

Three thoughts I’ve picked up on this topic which have been helpful have  been (i) how slowly time would go if you were sitting on a hot stove (thanks Gay Hendricks in The Big Leap) (ii) how you’d find time to deal to deal  with a flood in your house, whatever was happening at work (thanks Laura Vanderkam at TED). These thoughts are both about priorities and pain – it hurts if you don’t attend to either of them, and so they shoot to the top of the list of priorities. Time management isn’t about  time  so much as what matters most.  You can’t do everything. Unless perhaps your name is Tim Ferris but even then… from Tim Ferris I picked up the third thought: (iii) it matters how you start your day. I used to know this once, but somehow  over the last twenty years had forgotten. Writing this blog every day is helping me remember. I’m giving an hour a day to reading, and writing about a poem. That’s seven hours reading I wasn’t previously doing. This choice has made me happy (and only a little bit late on a  couple of occasions).

Perhaps some of our inability to manage time comes from the refusal to accept the necessity of choice, and the subsequent inability then to act on such (unmade, perhaps unacknowledged) choices. Time management might be more helpfully called choice management. No poem does the simple sums about time, life and choices better than this, from A. E. Housman:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Believe me, this is a scary poem to read when you are sixty-one! That middle stanza is remorseless.

I do hope to live beyond 70, but everything now frankly  feels a blessing: I know quite people of my age who have died. So I’ll stick bravely with Housman’s computation and recast it for myself: Now, of my threescore years and ten, / Sixty-one will not come again… only leaves me nine more! Ouch and aieee! Why the hell would I be  doing anything that wasn’t vitally important to me? Have I seen the cherry blossom?

I run out into the garden for another look.

Last time I read this poem was in an NHS addiction service centre, sometime in the last ten years. I thought then it was a bit of a risky poem to take, given quite a lot of us in the room were over 50, and I guessed that like me, quite a few people might feel (a little) frightened by the poem,  after all we’d all wasted quite a lot of time one way or another. But I thought you might only be a little frightened by the poem. And indeed, there’s something so tender and quiet in its tone, something so strong in its resolve, that no one was scared, and everyone agreed they would go for a walk and look for cherry blossom this week. Does making that choice affect one’s chances of recovery? I think every strong choice affects one’s chances.

I find the poem’s sums strengthening. You could ignore or not notice the first stanza, yeah, yeah, blossoms, again, so what. It’s a normal verse about normal blossom. you are in a normal state of mind as you read it. But the killer second stanza, quite unexpected  – yet not really unexpected, is it? Because the key thing about cherry blossom is its transience, it’s there and gone. Fifty chances to see it? That’s not enough!

‘Fifty springs are little room’ and I sure as hell don’t have  fifty ahead of me. Maybe twenty, maybe none for all I know. Therefore I finish writing a little early today, so I can get to Calderstones Park before I need to be in the office. I will go walk around and see the blossom. What could be more important?
See the late, great Denis Potter, two months before his death, discuss this blossom with Melvyn Bragg, here.

The Babe Leaps Up

babe leaps up
Baby Grace leaping up in her mothers arms in an office at The Reader

Been reading – very slowly – Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality here all week and not got very far. You’ll find the whole poem here. But I’m only up to this bit;

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!
—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Today I’ve got a piece in the Comment section of The Observer about why we need a reading revolution. In it, I remember seeing a baby, one of those gorgeous chunky one-year-olds, leaping up in his mother’s arms on a doorstep in North Birkenhead and thinking ‘that baby will never read Wordsworth’. That thought (or was it a feeling?) helped propel me into creating The Reader.

But why, in a hard life, and that baby’s was almost certainly going to be a hard life, would Wordsworth matter at all? Why not concentrate on housing and vegetables? Of course, we need those things but as Rose Schneiderman famously said, we need bread and roses. And we need them at the same time. Humans have inner lives and those inner lives have profound effect on our ability to  renew roofs and grow vegetables, to create a sour-dough bakery in an area down-on-its-uppers, to develop a rose-growing business out of a wasteland.

Poetry matters because we might have forgotten, as Gillian Clarke writes in Miracle on St Davids Day, that we have anything to say. Of a mute labouring man in a mental health ward, moved to speech by poetry, she writes;

Since the dumbness of misery fell
he has remembered there was a music
of speech and that once he had something to say.

What we, in the our time, call ‘mental health’ or ’emotional experience’ is really about inner being, the most complicated, uncharted, rewarding and dangerous parts of human experience. I wish we had other names for this stuff. Our present vocabulary feels as unhelpful as grunts would be in working out the impact of black holes on the development of the universe. For one thing, calling it ‘mental health’ allows a good  half of the population to think it is nothing to do with them. But everyone has inner life, emotional experience. Our ability to understand and learn from it is a vital part of our human survival kit, as the psychotherapist Wilfred Bion writes;

If a person cannot ‘think’ with his thoughts, that is to say that he has thoughts but lacks the apparatus of ‘thinking’ which enables him to use his thoughts, to think them as it were, then the personality is incapable of learning from experience. This failure is serious. Failure to eat, drink or breathe properly has disastrous consequences for life itself. Failure to use emotional experience produces a comparable disaster in the development of the personality.

W.R.Bion, Learning From Experience

The World Health Organisation tells us that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. We are failing to learn from our own emotional experience partly because we do not have the language to think about it; at best we talk about this stuff in terms of ‘mental health’. But we should be speaking of  ‘human experience’.

That’s why we need great literature – Wordsworth, Kate Beaton, George Herbert, George Eliot, George Saunders, Frank O’Hara, Frank O’Connor, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Anton Chekov, Jeanette Winterson, Tolstoi, Dave McKee, Shirley Hughes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Jon Klassen, Marilynne Robinson and all the rest of them.

We need great literature and we need to relate to it in a different way. Our current way organising education so often turns it into dead stuff, despite the best efforts of good teachers. Great literature isn’t dead, it is just waiting for readers to make contact. Pupils who are being taught there are correct answers are not readers, they are exam-passers.

As a young mature student of twenty-five, the previously benefits-living single mother of a five-year old child, I first read Wordsworth  in the summer between first and second year when I was thinking of  dropping out of my university course due to class-dislocation. My goodness, but I felt unhappy and out-of-place.I can remember, across a lifetime now, the shock of recognition I felt when I first read these words;

—But there’s a Tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone;
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Though I felt massively excited by these lines, I did not ‘understand’ a word.

I did not know what  the ‘Tree’ was.
I did not know whether the ‘single field’ was real or not.
I did not know why it was a ‘pansy’.

Not knowing doesn’t matter.

Being moved, being touched, being excited in ways you don’t understand is what matters. It leaves you in a place where you can ask questions. And why is asking questions good? Because that’s how we learn!

I did not know what ‘the visionary gleam’ was but I knew I knew about its absence.
I did not know what ‘the glory’ was, nor ‘the dream’ neither, but I knew I missed them both.
The words spoke to some feeling I had and did not understand.
The feeling was about ‘something that is gone’.

There is no amount of on-curriculum study that would have made any of this clearer to me – I had to absorb the questions and realise, over years, that they were clues to hard-to-reach parts of my self. I’ve been reading this poem for thirty-six years. It still works, I still don’t understand it, it still gets me to ask questions!

What we’ve found  in sixteen years of Shared Reading is that  working out feelings and language with other people is easier than doing it on your own. I am grateful to the University curriculum for making me read Wordsworth and I’ve tried to translate that into Shared Reading (don’t just read what you already know and like). Without that looming second-year course on Romantics I’d never have read Wordsworth of my own volition, because it was too far, it seemed from my own experience. But that’s the thing about great writing, it is never far from your own experience. That’s what makes it great.

Euphorbias & Viburnums v Sullenness & Rage

euphorbia close.JPG
Euphorbia asserting its noble beauty in an unkind world

March has been a difficult  month on almost every front, but I don’t want to describe or even list any of those difficulties.

Instead,  after a particularly difficult day yesterday, in which I felt a lot of feelings I did not wish to feel, including – rare one for me – rage, and in which the good that happened (Teamwork, time with Megg, euphorbias, Carys Bray, my dear and loving husband) all seemed overshadowed by bad stuff,  I woke up with these words in my mind;

Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

These words come from the Bible, Letter to Phillipians 4:8, but I first got them from Iris Murdoch, in her strange, wonderful and difficult book, Metaphysics As A Guide To Morals. She’s talking about what you can do if you don’t have religion to assist with difficulties of living, and writes about filling your mind up, deliberately, with good things.

The book came out in 1992 and I think I first read it then or the following year. Soon after that I was in the thick of the hardest time of my life and in my desperation I found her advice helpful. I particularly found the quotation from Philippians helpful and what’s more, it seemed to stick. I used it like a mantra but it also gave me something active to do. When bad stuff came into my head I would recite, ‘whatever is good…whatever is honest…whatever is just…’ and the very presence of  such words, and the thoughts associated with them, seemed to help me. As one of our readers in a special project where volunteers read with children in extremely difficult situations said, ‘when Jess reads with me it makes all the bad memories go away and good memories come in…’ I know that feeling well.

So, whatever is good, think on these things.The habit is a useful one. It also works with poetry.

Well, grandchildren  – all babies! –  are good and make me feel great joy. I think  on them, and see them whenever I can. Birdsong is heartening at this time of year. Dogs rarely fail to delight me (you know who you are, you dogs who don’t delight). Euphorbias display such energy that I find they restore my faith in life, and the small pink viburnum (don’t know what variety it is and need to know because I want one in my garden) on the right of the gate into the  walled gardens at Calderstones Park is currently providing daily inner restoration through its gentle colour therapy. I do think on these things.

viburnum close.JPG

An unequivocal good has been changing my morning routine so that I read and write about my reading every day before I go to work. There is never enough time but even the smallest amount of it seems to do me some good. After years of ‘no time to write’ and reading while falling asleep, it feels a breakthrough. This change is the result of a chance meeting with a kind stranger on a train the day Bearhunt blew away. That’s how it happens isn’t it?

I’ve been reading Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality for the past three mornings. The whole poem is here. But I’ve been reading a few lines each day. Yesterday we got  to the point where Wordsworth, feeling some ‘glory’ is lost from life, finds something ‘glorious’ in the world and tells himself

Oh evil day! if I were sullen
While Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:—
I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!

The word ‘sullen’ seems to do for bad feeling what ‘whatever is good’ does for good. It puts it in my mind.  It’s foul. And then I see it, hiding behind ‘sullen’,  ‘Oh evil day’  as if Wordsworth first feels the evil before he has identified where/what it is. Evil emanating from my sullenness. Ouch. Thinking bad things is not good.  Is that how ‘evil’ starts?

Instead of continuing with his feeling (‘sullen’) he lets it go, looks around, looks for good and sees it;

…Earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May-morning,
And the Children are culling
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm,
And the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm:

I love that line, ‘the Babe leaps up on his Mother’s arm’ and it is an important one for me, but I am out of time and need to carry on tomorrow.

viburnum form.JPG

 

 

Wordsworth a glorious brain scanner

magnolia march calderstones
Tall Magnolia in huge blossom at Calderstones March 28 2017

Still reading Intimations of Immortality, and into the next section now. Read the whole poem here.

Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song,
And while the young lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound,
To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

The timing is interesting in this poem. We began in the present, looking back to a golden past (‘there was a time…it is not now as it hath been of yore’). It’s hard to know, now, as we begin this third stanza, where the opening word, ‘Now’ places us. Has any time passed between the opening of the poem and this moment? Or is Wordsworth grounding himself (and us) in one specific  – present – ‘now’ moment? He is  out-of-doors, in the fields, which may be where he was when he started…or that may have been  ages ago. Then I wonder – has all this (thought) happened in an instant, is there no time here? The poem seems to be mapping out, putting into slow words, a feeling that anyone might have, and which – if you are not a poet might well pass, nameless, unexpressed, hardly known. How do such feelings, thoughts, fit with time? They often seem instanteous.

But to go back to the poem…’Now’ puts us in a definite place in time, when something extraordinary has happened /is happening right now:

To me alone there came a thought of grief:
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong:

So: he had the feeling (though I’m wrong in calling it  that, because Wordsworth calls it ‘a thought’) then said something (‘a timely utterance’) then felt better (‘and I again am strong.’). This is a pattern many of us will recognise.

But what was it, ‘the ‘utterance’? Have we had it already in the poem? I don’t think so, but let’s go back and see;

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

Perhaps the ‘utterance’ is simply that last line, ‘That there hath past away a glory from the earth’. I suddenly notice the structure Wordsworth is giving this  poem – this account of the working of his feelings, mind, thought, self;

Stanza One – sense of some glory lost
Stanza Two – remember certain other, more specific glories (moon, rose, heavens, sunshine) and calibrate one’s feelings – yes, they are good but still something lost.
Stanza Three – note how saying something, getting it into words, ‘an utterance’, has changed the way I feel.

Having found strength in saying something,  in getting his thought into words, Wordsworth is strong enough again to look up and  see that world, which suddenly feels ‘glorious’ again;

And I again am strong:
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
No more shall grief of mine the season wrong;
I hear the Echoes through the mountains throng,
The Winds come to me from the fields of sleep,
And all the earth is gay;
Land and sea
Give themselves up to jollity,
And with the heart of May
Doth every Beast keep holiday;—
Thou Child of Joy,
Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy.

Something has shifted, those cataracts blowing their trumpets are quite glorious, annoucing something, and they are loud, they are ‘trumpets’! Wordsworth now seems in a different relation to his own feelings. Whatever the glory was at the beginning is still gone, but at least now he seems able to be glad of what he can see and hear and feel. The shouts of  the Shepherd boy bring ‘joy’, not the opening sense of dislocation.

For me this is about a  kind of readjustment  you have to make – repeatedly – in life. Something is lost, you feel the loss, and the pain of loss is sometimes overwhelming. You lose more than the original loss with the loss of your capacity to feel joy. Over time the loss doesn’t go away, but you recalibrate and somehow that allows ‘joy’ to re-enter  your universe.

What I love about Wordsworth is that he is like a brain scanner, tracking feeling, thought and language, showing how it moves and changes in us. You have to read him very slowly for this to happen. Most of us are not neuroscientists and don’t have access to that big tech. This is the next best thing.

Later life, running and reading

cherry blossoms in Calderstones
Cherry Blossom in Calderstones Park 6.00pm 24 March 2017

A day with Paul Sinton-Hewit, founder,  parkrun

For those who come for the poem, here it is:

From Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets

VI

We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.
We see the things we do not yearn to see
Around us: and what see we glancing back?
Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be,
For which we steer’d on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.
If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

Christina Rossetti

Searching for a copy online, I came across a great 2012  blog post from Casi Dylan who was the person who set up our training at The Reader – always a good read, anything Casi writes about her reading.

I wanted to read this poem this morning because yesterday I spent the day with Paul Sinton-Hewit, ‘father, husband, runner, parkrun founder, Ashoka Fellow and CBE’, as he describes himself on his twitter homepage.

We met last year following Paul’s election to Ashoka, when I realised, hearing Paul talk about the parkrun set-up, that The Reader could learn a lot from him. Yesterday he spent the day with us at Calderstones, talking to staff about developing a truly volunteer-run model, answering questions about log-ins and quality control and race directors and sponsorship, and later we held an open event for people – mainly parkrunners – who wanted to come to meet Paul and hear his remarkable story. You can read it here.

There are many parallels with The Reader, not least the mid-life crisis, to give it a shorthand title, that we both endured in our different ways and from which our respective vocations emerged.

‘I had no plans for this,’ Paul said, yesterday. ‘I didn’t set out to  create this movement. I just wanted to spend time with my friends and I couldn’t run because of injury.’

I have a similar relation to  The Reader – it grew organically from something I wanted , or perhaps needed, to do. I didn’t plan to set up a charity, didn’t think of creating a Shared Reading movement across Europe, I didn’t imagine ‘one day we’ll build the International Centre for Shared Reading at Calderstones.’  I just wanted to read with people who weren’t into reading and to get them into it. I had very powerful personal reasons for wanting to do so. Necessity, as they say, is the mother…

Certainly it was for Paul, who spoke to Reader staffers about a broken relationship, having lost his job… and the one thing he relied on for mental wellbeing, running, being lost to him because of injury. In such a crisis, you might have flopped into misery, got bitter or given up and turned to drink. Instead, Paul created parkrun, by getting mates into a park and timing their runs…

Almost everyone , by the time they are thirty, forty, fifty… will have experienced what Christina Rossetti describes , looking back

Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seem’d to be,
For which we steer’d on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.

What a waste of time! What a waste of effort!  What a mess! That is how things were, when I started The Reader. Partly in my professional life – my teaching life at the University of Liverpool was unsatisfactory for reasons I won’t go into here; my life as writer (I had written five  novels over a fifteen year period and they  had all been rejected by scores of publishers); and in my personal life, for a decade or more, I was living with grave and distressing life-rocking problems.

I had no sense of future with anything in it, and the day I decided to stop writing and give up the defining mode of my life to date,  I had no sense of a future that I longed to bring about or could imagine. I did love my garden and worked on it. But professionally, I had nothing.

I had – I can see it now, but it didn’t look like that then – a blank slate.

On that slate, slowly, and without a plan,  The Reader began to be formed. In 1997, the first issue of The Reader magazine was launched, and by 2003 the first manifestation of Shared Reading – 11 groups  meeting weekly in Wirral – was happening. I do not know what it is that makes a person willing, able or desperate enough to create a future. It is partly the trappedness of nowhere else to go, as Christina Rossetti says;

If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

Can’t go back, can’t go left, can’t go right…there is only either stop and be frozen or keep going. She puts it, as she must, as a question;

‘Why face we not our future once again?’

And some hard answers follow.

Sometimes when we can’t act, it is because ‘Launching with hardier hearts across the main’ (main=sea) is too hard, because our heart is not hardy, never mind ‘hardier’.

Sometimes, it is because we are tired and ‘Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight’ is  just asking too much of our tired selves.

Sometimes we are simply not strong enough to be ‘strong to bear ourselves in patient pain’. Sometimes the pain is overwhelming.

Later life is not easy. The sense of ‘something missing’  and having no idea what that ‘something’ might be can become more than painful;

We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.

You feel juddery. You can’t concentrate. Things go flying off. You feel your facial expressions give you away. You feel scared. At those times we  need to hunker down and wait, (see George Herbert, ‘The Flower’), let time pass, get stronger. ‘Grief melts away/like snow in May/ As if there were no such cold thing.’

During those down times, I found, regular hard reading built up my mental and spiritual muscles. Still find that. Also, good people.

‘I needed to be with my friends,’ said Paul yesterday. ‘My friends were runners, those people suited me.’

‘Parkrun and The Reader do the same thing,’ said Paul. ‘We do it through running, and The Reader does it through reading. It is about community.’

I woke up with that thought of Paul’s in my mind. My reading friends ( Phil, Angie, Brian, my colleagues at The Reader, you people here reading these daily poems alongside me, the hundreds of people I have read with over the past thirty years…) as much as my reading, have given me strength and purpose, meaning and community. My hard-won advice to the stuck: connect, realise, change – through Shared Reading, or parkrun or whatever it is that offers connection. It is finding the connector that matters.