Mumming and Ghouls

Spot the ghoul.

I blame the Germans. November 1st took over from an earlier Celtic tradition which, it seemed, liked to remember the pious departed who suffered grisly deaths, in April. At the beginning of the 8th century, churches were already hijacking the in-house festivities, celebrating All Saints Day on 1 November to coincide with or replace the Celtic festival of Samhain which was nasty, pagan and involved drink. Today’s rites, while sombre, are supposedly benevolent, in spite of invoking horned gods and, although centred on death, do not involve human or animal sacrifices which does come as something of a relief, I have to say. After watching and listening to the screaming of the lambs during the ritual slaughter that is Eid, having more beasts slain in the name of religion is really more than one can bear.

The ‘Aos-Si’ or fairy folk have transparent passage from their world to this one on Samhain and the practice of ‘mumming’ where people went door to door, often in disguise, reciting poetry in exchange for food, was widespread, although the significance of such an activity is lost in antiquity. Dead people showed up at their former homes – just to check that people were looking after them properly, one supposes – and are invited to dinner. I’m not sure if Elijah gets an invitation in addition to Pesach. One imagines not.

Apparently, the feast of All Saints achieved great prominence in the 9th century, in the reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI – ‘the Wise’ (866–911). His wife, Empress Theophano, lived a devout life, spending lots of time on her knees in draughty chapels being shriven by monks. After her death in 893, her husband built a church, intending to dedicate it to her. When he was forbidden to do so – history is rather dark about who forbade him –  perhaps the troubled Pope Formosus, he decided to dedicate it to “All Saints”, so that if his wife were in fact one of the righteous, she would also be honoured whenever the feast was celebrated; quite a good call really, all bets being suitably hedged. According to tradition, it was Leo who expanded the feast from a commemoration of All Martyrs to a general commemoration of All Saints, whether martyrs or not. Everyone included then, the only criterion being you had to be dead.

And all this is the basis for kids dressing up as ghosties and ghoulies – hammering relentlessly on their neighbours’ doors, demanding excess sugar, without even the courtesy of a line or two of Keats. It must by now be clear that I’m not in favour of this sort of thing. I bar my gate with a broomstick and write runic incantations I got from the Internet on the doorposts, on the grounds that I will not be held responsible for the spike in dental caries as a result of overindulgence. Happy, er, Hallows or Toussaint or… to one and all, martyrs or not.


Do It Yourself. Please.

I know a man in Canada for whom power tools are simply an extension of his hands and the thought of using filler is as sacrilegious as spitting on a crucifix.

Would that we were all so gifted.

You had one simple task. Just one.

Oh, yes. And, while achingly fresh in my mind, a word of caution. I would entreat you, with all the earnestness at my command, to resist. Do not for one moment – a half moment, consider it. I refer, of course to what you might consider doing if your plumbing leaks, your electricity fails, you need a door re-hung or even a shelf put up, more or less horizontally. The same applies to any and all electrical appliances in need of refurbishment. Do not call me. Ever. I can change a light bulb and even a fuse and I’m very proud of myself that no lives have been lost. As yet.
Should you, in a moment of madness, with honeyed words and (if you happen to be female) Cleopatrine charm offer me a flight to somewhere exotic (business class) plus emolument rich beyond dreams of avarice as payment for  repairing a leaking washer, you will see a small, receding cloud of dust on the horizon.
In short, I don’t do DIY. I have spent the best part of today re-learning this very simple truth. Irritatingly, houses are not made of rectangles, they suffer from shrinkage, cracks, warps and so forth, making them bloody difficult to fix. Plaster falls like pigeon droppings when I attempt to fill holes. The hammer I actually need is eight hundred kilometres away and all I have is a massively headed stonemason’s tool which isn’t terribly useful for knocking small panel pins into delicate woodwork. Despite having a Master’s degree in a discipline requiring the ability to measure to the nearest hundredth of a nanometer in reciprocal space, I am not capable of using a tape measure to accurately mark a length of wood with any real certainty of accuracy.

All my own work.

In common with every other optimistic incompetent on the planet, I bought a new saw, with three separate blades, in the vain hope that it might raise my game a little bit. Rather like the retired golfer playing off plus thirty-six who fondly imagines that by buying the very latest set of clubs they will miraculously shrink his handicap to single figures. In attempting to use my new saw, I almost severed a thumb.
Any task requiring the use of something more sophisticated than a Swiss army knife is beyond my ability. Be advised.

Joy in the Journey

Scott Martin, adventurer, on the Ottawa River

“It’s probably wise to bury losses” was a remark I made to myself a week or so ago. Careless, perhaps, a too-cavalier, throwaway approach to something that deserves to be taken more seriously. After further reflection I came to realise that loss is not like a paper napkin, discarded after use, it is a panorama of unfolding that has defined us all – a vast data set – where does one begin to catalogue what we have lost? Relationships, love, career, opportunities, youthful good looks, loved ones through the inevitable visitation of death. The scenery of life continually changes, like watching from the window of a train. In order to keep our emotional footing we are blessed with two gifts. Memory allows us to look back and recall wisps of sensory information, half-grasped and poorly held as we reach out to touch, to hear, see and smell vaporous ephemera of who and what really was, blurred by time. Anticipation allows us to imagine and peer into the nebulous cloud of space between the present and the horizon, filled with possibility. Rewind and forward buttons; they’re the only two that work. If we can’t bury losses we may do well to box them up, tie them with a bow, and archive them in places only we allow ourselves to go.
And what then about the loneliness of the journey? Life is full of small comings and goings, some leading us far from the place we call home and into spaces about which we know nothing, but we can only imagine and hope, hope for the best. And why possibly our greatest human need is to feel understood and cherished by and relevant to at least one other person on the planet. Without that, we are horribly, dangerously alone in the darkness where the lost gibber and moan.
One of our greatest fears is of being forgotten and irrelevant, hence the human need to connect. The need to share memories of the past and visions for the future, the pain and the joy, the ridiculous and the sublime. We look and touch and listen so as to create a virtual reality, a hologram that we can walk around, rosily familiar and warm, an image of another in our mind for future reference. We need to interact because we need to learn the choreography of altruism and where we can spend the spiritual currency of friendship, loyalty and love that redeems our solitude. Subconsciously it all gets stored away for anticipated change and loss.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. There is a strange sorrow to this, to being a creature that carries its fragile sense of self on an endless tearful pilgrimage to some promised land of belonging. We are willing to erect many defences, marmoset-like, to hedge against the emptiness and buttress our fragility. But every once in a while, we encounter another such creature who reminds us with a persistent yet undemanding affection that we need not walk alone and there is joy in the journey.



Between Earth and Heaven

Soyuz returns to Earth, Kazakhstan 2015 (Bing image detail)

There is, it would seem, no right way to experience bereavement, the neither here nor there between earth and heaven. Which of itself is a comforting thought. I recently wrote that I had lost two people close to me – yesterday I added a third. To say “lost” of course is absurd, they were not mislaid like a bunch of keys which could be rediscovered at some later time, neither did they disappear on the magician’s stage to be spectacularly reincarnated with a drum roll and a tinselled twirl from his assistant, but “gone for ever”.

I suppose some people derive comfort from visiting a funeral home and “viewing” the deceased, as if they were a work of art, which in one sense, they have become – a statuesque representation of what they once looked like – if you want to drop twenty or more years all you have to do is die and the undertakers make you look really good. I hope people find closure in so doing; I do not.

But, they have departed, which is a much more meaningful term. Looking at a dead body, serenely presented in its little box, brings the stark realisation that, in the words of the famous meme ‘Elvis has left the building’. It is as if they have left behind a breath of half-familiar perfume, a wisp of blue cigarette smoke, easily dissipated and so very ephemeral. Whoever they were has begun the journey and there in the funeral home it’s clear that they’re a long way away now and the carapace left behind is merely a representation of who they once were.

It was, of course, my mother, old and grey, full of sleep and memory, who slipped away like a tiny ship casting off in the fog, almost unnoticed in her sleep, five years short of a century. She was born on a Wednesday, on a spring day as England was just beginning to stand unsteadily on her feet in the aftermath of the Great War and the world shifted a little on its axis. She lived through Hitler, the Sixties rebellion, mass immigration, the birth of the Internet and a million other cultural shifts and nuances, much of which rolled off her mind like dew off a cabbage leaf. And, what is left? As people age, their belongings dwindle. She had, it seemed, a few scraps of clothing, trinkets and gewgaws each holding some shred of sentiment for her, perhaps, otherwise, nothing. What little there was will be collected and stored until someone picks them up or leaves instructions what must be done with them. The room in the nursing home will be cleared for another occupant today, a metaphor for the fact that life grinds mechanically along and another aged individual will sit in the same chair and wait for the reaper’s visitation.

Everything has been taken care of. Lawyers and undertakers are processing without emotion, which is probably for the best. I am the detached bystander, waiting to exhale.

A Time to Dance

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One, is a twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment) for observant Jews. It is traditional for them to say the Shema as their last words and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.

Who or what is this ‘one’, whom we anthropomorphise so readily? An external being – separate, discernible as we discern neutron stars or the behaviour of butterflies? Perhaps not.

The notion of panentheism lies at the heart of much rabbinical thinking. It is the belief that the “divine”, whatever we conceive that to be, pervades and interpenetrates every part of the Universe, extending beyond time and space, thus obviously not detectable by telemetry, spectacularly sensitive though it is.

Gravitational Waves (Artists impression) CalTech

The Nobel Prize for Physics this year was awarded to three men who built a detector so sensitive it could detect the ripples in the fabric of spacetime as two black holes collided over a billion light years away – Einstein’s century-old prediction finally vindicated.  But not enough to find God. A God beyond and greater than the Universe, perhaps? Is God its ‘soul’ as we imagine ourselves to have souls. Two people I knew well have departed this life in recent times and as their earthly tent is rolled up as a scroll so I imagine them to have begun a journey outside of space and time, slipping silently through a shimmering barrier to another country where things are so different that imagination provides us with nothing more than blind speculation.

Just after ten o’clock on the Sunday morning of October 3, fifty-nine people died and over five hundred were injured in the deadliest mass shooting in US history. It was as if Passchendaele had torn a hole in spacetime and had visited itself afresh on a sunny American street. A man waited, having stockpiled automatic weaponry, for three days, then calmly and systematically opened fire from a room on the thirty-second floor of a hotel on to a crowd of people enjoying a country and western concert in the open arena below. As of this moment, the crime seems motiveless, cruel, evil beyond description. It seems almost irrelevant that he took his own life as a final act of rebellion.

Where was God, and, more importantly, what kind of theodicy are we supposed to use to attempt an explanation?

Perhaps the easier route would be to reasonably argue that there is none. Yuval Hariri in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind writes “As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning, humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary (and sociological) processes that operate without goal or purpose.” Presumably therefore, death by random shooting is simply an event, like a melanoma, merely unfortunate, something that happens without rhyme, reason or purpose. The atheists and even the agnostics can breathe a sigh of relief – here is an explanation, our intellectual honour has been satisfied and we need look no further.

We hate a loose end, when it doesn’t make sense. But, what if we were to speculate that God is present throughout all existence, that Being or YHWH -related to the word for existence or being, underlies and unifies by processes outside of reason all that is. At the same time (and this is panentheism as distinct from pantheism), this whole is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent componentry which may of course not exist, cramped as it is by dimension and structure.

So, given that God is part of the great evolutionary panoply which we dismiss as ‘nature’, or ‘astrophysics’, we can perhaps discern or at least imagine that the entire process of the evolution of the universe and ourselves rolling out along with it is “meaningful“. There is a One that is constantly revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life, the shadow of death and the tragedies of our failures. That One is Being itself, the only constant in the endlessly changing parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to the discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. We have not found the One. If we had, we would know why men do as they do, dealing death and destruction from hotel windows or slashing throats on a street in Marseille and why children have cataracts and why people die from disease and on fields of battle.

And yet, we are creatures of hope since we ourselves have created it, it belongs to us, Pandora’s evils were all released when the jar was opened, leaving hope alone inside after she had closed it. We hope to understand, one day, why bad things happen to good people, why bad people are as they are and what moral laws govern the Universe so we can tell the difference. Until that time, we can only weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn in the hope than one day, there will come again a time to dance.