Tuesday, 31 January 2017

What I've Been Reading lately

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Wndow and Disappeared. by Jonas Jonasson
This 2010 novel is hard to categorise: comedy? historical novel? farce? All of the above? The complex plot meanders, Forest Gump style, through the history of the 20th Century. It's very funny in parts, but is either not spectacularly well written, or not well translated from the original Swedish, or both. The complicated and inventive plot kept me persevering far past the point where the literary critic in me was screaming give up now, there are a dozen far better things waiting for you on your to be read shelf . It has been made into a variably reviewed Swedish movie, and is crying out for Hollywood to take notice.


Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children/ Hollow City / Library of Souls. by Ransom Riggs.
I saw the movie Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children on a plane a few weeks back, and on the strength of that bought the boxed set of 3 novels by Ransom Riggs.  The movie was OK, but seriously compromised by being given a craptastic Hollywood action ending. The books are wonderful. The boxed set, containing three hardback books and a small envelope of photographs,  is beautifully produced. The books are so exquisitely written that Ransom Riggs can make quite believable his simply preposterous premise of a subculture of peculiar people: people who are invisible; who can set fire to or freeze things with their bare hands; who can predict the future or animate inanimate objects; who have bees living in their stomachs and a score  of others besides. His fanciful plot seemed to be always one step ahead of my ability to second guess him, and his two principal characters, Jacob and Emma are both believable and likeable. These are "young adult" novels, but they kept this 65 year old riveted.

 Talking Pictures by Ransom Riggs
Part of the charm of the Miss Peregrine novels is the way some genuine antique photos have been worked into the plot. This is a separate collection of old pictures, rescued from yard sales, each selected because it bears an inscription of some sort. They are beautiful and powerful, with the pictures and the words of the original owner combining to give an extraordinary insight into long forgotten lives.

Waking, Dreaming, Being by Evan Thompson
Evan Thompson is a cognitive scientist who collaborated with the great Francisco Varela on a book which was powerfully important to me a few years back, The Embodied Mind. Waking Dreaming Being compares the philosophy of mind found in the Upanishads, Buddhism and contemporary brain science. It is profound, well informed and enlightening. It manages the difficult balance of being faithful to its academic sources while remaining accessible to lay people. This is a book I read slowly and which will, I think, still be feeding me many years from now.

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes
The title says it all, really. Well written, well researched, fair. And convincing enough that I immediately cut sugar out of my diet and, without making any other changes,  immediately lost 3 kg.

The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three by Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopalian Priest and a fairly well known teacher of  and writer about meditation. This book examines the doctrine of the Trinity in the light of the works of Gurdjieff, and in doing so traverses some of the same ground explored in a more orthodox framework by Sarah Coakley of the Trinity as a process or a relationship.

The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault
After Thomas Keating, no one has had a greater influence on my personal spiritual practice over the past few years, than Cynthia Bourgeault. This book is an argument for seeing Centering Prayer as a pioneering development in distinctively Christian meditation. It combines a clear, practical guide to Centering Prayer with an analysis of the psychology of meditative practice and an exposition of its undergirding theology.

 



Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Webcaster

 
It's 10 o'clock on a cloudy Sydney morning and the temperature outside is 36 degrees and rising. Thunderstorms are forecast for later in the day, so Naomi will lead  the expedition to Five Dock Park very soon. I'm coming home in a few days but Clemency will stay here. Nick was riding his bike to work a few days back and was bowled on a roundabout by a distracted driver. He broke the windscreen of the offending Toyota with his head but escaped - miraculously - any damage to his head and neck. 3 cheers for bike helmets! He does have a few other injuries, which are inconvenient rather than life threatening so Clemency will continue the nannying and chauffeuring which have been occupying us for the last few days. She's getting pretty adept at negotiating Sydney traffic and in manoeuvring an electric wheelchair up a ramp and into the back on an SUV. 

Ask any Kiwi for their opinions of Australia and odds are they'll mention snakes and spiders in the first couple of sentences. We don't have any snakes here in Five Dock, at least, not that I've noticed, but in Nick's quite petite outdoors Ive seen three really impressive spiders. There's a wolf spider with a body the size of my thumb who lives by the outside tap. Naomi calls him Wolfie and knows not to touch him, but is happy to show off this accepted member of the family. Out on the deck there is an impressively sized and quite beautiful St. Andrew's Cross spider, sitting quietly in her web, waiting for any passing quarry, which doesn't include humans unless they are silly enough to interfere with her day's schedule. But the really good one is the Webcaster. 

Nick called me last night to come and look at this, Dad, and led the way outside, hopping on his good leg, lighting the way with the torch app in his iPhone. The spider was hanging, suspended from a shrub by a single thread, about three or four inches above the ground. She was large but not impressively so, a body an inch or so long, and holding in four of her limbs a small square of web. If a victim should happen to pass beneath her in the dark she would expand this square into a casting net to throw on it and trap it. 

This is behaviour I find awesome, in the meaning that word used to have. And in the meaning it has now, too, I guess. I can see how there is a Darwinian explanation for it, and a quite straightforward one at that, but somehow a simple description of how behaviours arose, not to mention the associated changes in the physical construction of the web and the ingenious expanding design, miss so many important questions. Such as what is the nature of intelligence?and of consciousness? And for me, these questions are the truly important ones, leading, as I think they do, most directly to the most important questions of all:  how did the spider get to be here? and why? 

There's one of those party puzzle questions. Suppose you are a bus driver. The bus leaves Dunedin at 3 pm for Timaru with 16 people on  board. At Waikouaiti there is a stop and the number of people on the bus doubles. At Palmerston there is another stop and 1/4 of the people get off  and another 6 get on. At Oamaru the population of the bus doubles and at Glenavy 17 people leave the bus. The bus arrives at Timaru at 6 pm. How many times did the bus stop and what is the driver's name? The puzzle works, obviously, because the extraneous information distracts the hearer from paying attention to the main question. So the evolutionary history of the spider, while interesting enough, is, similarly,  not the main question. If it crowds out all our vision, it is a distraction from what is obvious, and what might lead us closer to the heart of all things: a sense of the wonder and beauty and ingenuity of this elegant Universe, which as a matter of course produces such an extraordinary phenomenon as a web casting spider. And the even more extraordinary one of this son of mine, who in spite of everything else, sees; understands; rejoices; shares. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Territory

View from one of the streets during an evening walk in MY neighbourhood.

I have hung a bird feeder under the eaves of the roof on a corner of the deck that can be seen from the couches of our living room. The tuis visit it most obligingly and satisfactorily, but there is a problem. It seems that our deck is now a very desirable piece of tui real estate, and at sunrise several of them have taken to staging quite heated discussions about its ownership. Tui song is a beautiful sound, and I was thrilled the first time, but sunrise South of the 45th parallel is before 5 am these days and they are loud.

As early risers the tuis are only slightly more Trappist than the blackbirds who take up duties pretty much immediately after the tuis leave off. The blackbirds really appreciate the efforts Clemency has been putting into the garden since her retirement, what with the recent explosion in the worm population and everything, and they too have some unresolved ownership issues concerning our back yard. And then there's the possums. They have a sort of chattery call as they discuss the grazing rights to the roses, generally around 1 A.M. .

I got a kindly email from the Anglican Church Pension Board yesterday. We have, Yippee!, only one more payment to make on the mortgage and then we will own our place, all 1250 square metres of it, even if we have only the vaguest of notions of where our Southern boundary actually lies.

So here we have all these overlapping ownerships: us, the tuis, the blackbirds and possums, and who knows? no doubt the bellbirds and sparrows and the local cats and goodness knows what else besides, all fiercely defended and policed. All of these ownerships are pretty much invisible and irrelevant to all the others, but are recognised and subscribed to by those whose DNA makes them relevant. All of these ownerships are part of the holders' sense of self and place. And all are equally illusory. Don't make any mistake, if  you try and cash in on the fictitious nature of my soon to be acquired freehold by moving in, I will employ the services of all the others who subscribe to this particular shared fiction to make sure you are in trouble. But spiritually I am in trouble myself if I believe that it has any lasting veracity or worth, or if I let it define who or what I am.


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Fiction

It's 6 am and there is the usual knock on the caravan door as Noah makes his pre-breakfast visit. He comes in, makes himself at home, and we go through the routine which is evolving day by day. Over the week one element has grown and now crowds out all the others. "Talk the Beebops, Pappa", he says, almost as soon as he arrives, and this initiates a game which he is very reluctant, always, to end and very eager, at any opportunity, to recommence. He has a stuffed rabbit, Beebop, well, two actually. A year or so ago Beebop was lost, and Noah was distraught with grief. His mum managed to find a replacement in a local toy shop and to distress it into a reasonable facsimile and effect an impersonation. Of course, a  day or two later the original made his way home, so now we have Old One Beebop and Other One Beebop.

So Noah and the Beebops set off on an adventure, often involving air travel, pirates, policemen, cannonballs, submarines, the drinking of fluffies and the eating of lollycake. There is little movement. He lies or sits beside me and I voice the Beebops and make them walk or wriggle or leap as stage directions require, but the game is almost entirely verbal. I try not to direct the plotlines, except when the tedium of repetition forces me to seek a little variation. At three years old Noah is producing fiction, and finds the exercise addictively compelling.

This is what kids do. All of them. Eavesdrop on their games, and they are developing characters and stories and timelines and narrative tension. Look at the young of other species and they all play, for this is the way little animals learn the necessary skills to survive and become big animals. Carnivores play at stalking and catching and killing. Herbivores play at leaping and dodging and evading. Social animals of whatever dietary habit play in groups, developing the social nuances which make their herd or flock or gaggle or murder or pod viable. So, why do little humans play by creating fiction?

The purpose of play is skill development, and several different layers of skills are being worked on simultaneously. So he sits with his lego, and is learning all manner of things about the manipulation of physical objects. He is facing obstacles and solving problems. And as he negotiates with his cousins about who gets to use that particular size of tyre he is learning useful social skills. But all the time, threading its way through the play is this overriding element of fiction: there is a plot being developed and improvised. And sitting down with me and the Beebops there is pretty much nothing other than the fiction. I think he, and all children play this way because it is an essential human skill to be learned and developed. We are, all of us, adepts at producing fiction, because that is how we are in the world. We are here as part of this vast multifaceted event we call the universe and we make sense of all that is happening around us by the powerful device of fiction: we make up a story which explains the world, and this story becomes self affirming because it becomes a kind of filter through which we experience all that is happening around us.

Of course, by watching his favourite videos with him I can see where many of his plot themes come from, and I am reminded that our work with fiction is two fold. We produce and we hear stories and these two processes are inextricably entangled. And as his grandfather I am faced with my share of responsibility for his development: how do I foster his ability to tell stories that are as true as they might possibly be? And how do I monitor what stories he is being told, for these are surely and indelibly shaping who and what he is.  

Friday, 13 January 2017

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close  is one that I found compelling - I read it in a couple of days - but somehow, not particularly enjoyable. The premise is intriguing: the book tells the story of a nine year old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father was killed in the 9/11 attack. Oskar finds a key in a vase belonging to his father, and feels compelled to discover the key's origins and purpose. From a note left inside the vase Oskar concludes that the owner of the key is named Black, and sets out to visit everybody in New York with that surname. The book is thus a kind of journey story, and is filled with a range of eccentric characters, but there was some thing about it which I did not find engaging.

The novel is told in the first person, but Foer contrives, by introducing two separate series of letters,  to shift the narrator from Oskar to his grandfather (writing to Oskar's father) and his grandmother (writing to Oskar himself). The letters tell a parallel story of the bombing of Dresden and the effect of that other, older act of terror on the development of the Schell family. Foer also manages to work in a brief first person account of the bombing of Hiroshima. The book thus deals with the themes arising from the sudden intrusion of catastrophic events into peoples' lives: grief, mental illness, disorientation, the destruction of familiar anchors, death, mortality, optimism and depression.

The style of the book is a sort of fragmented, meandering, erudite stream of consciousness, and here was my first stumbling block with the book: I sometimes found it hard to keep track of what was going on, and with the switching of narrators, sometimes with who was speaking. And the sheer inventiveness and depth of some of the flow caused my second major problem: the narrator often seemed a lot older than nine. He is treated by others as a lot older than nine ( for example in the amount of autonomy granted him by his mother, and in the content of his grandmother's letters) so I couldn't get a firm grasp on Oskar at all; he seemed to be on some sort of spectrum, a social isolate and with a raft of  mental health issues, as I suppose any kid would have who had been through what he had. He was original and inventive  and intelligent but  I found it hard to engage with him, in the way that I did with, for example, another fictional autistic, Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

The story is resolved when it is revealed that Oskar's mother, who seemed oddly and unbelievably detached from her son for most of the novel, has been producing and directing much of his personal drama from a distance.Oskar is able to release information he has been keeping, I think inexplicably, secret

I didn't greatly enjoy it, but it stuck with me, as it raises some significant questions about the nature of the reality we live and the stories we tell ourselves to explain what is going on around us. Everybody in the novel is creating a fiction, either by withholding information or by invention, and doing this in order to cope with the effects of profound pain and loss. Which is a process most of us engage in most of the time to some extent or other; which is something that has been intriguing me greatly of late, and about which I will write more later.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Epiphany


An evening walk with Clemency after a busy day. This is the Andersons Bay inlet, ten minutes walk from my back door.

Epiphany, being the twelfth  day of Christmas, was when I took down the Christmas tree. Of course. All the little angels and glass stars and balls and various peculiar manikens and sewn things with abstracted shapes were sealed in bags, along with another year's memories, and stored. Then I took the tree outside to where it will be cut into firewood, and packed the crib scene and poured out the steel bowl of water and  wrapped up the long rope of lights and vacuumed up the old pine needles. Thirty or forty times now, I have done this.  Christmas ends, with me handling all these things, and as I clear them away, remembering the long history of each with fondness and thanksgiving.

I spent the rest of the day in my study. I emptied drawers and shelves. I fed black council rubbish bags with CDs and the notes from long past conferences. How had I managed to accumulate so many pens? Why did I need to keep all those name tags?  The bags filled. The paper shredder whirred. By the end of the day the room was lighter and the compost heap heavier. I sat at my neat and spare desk in the warm half light and knew that for the first time in months, years maybe, this was a peaceful and undemanding place to be. 

In the evening I went outside into the first clear, warm evening Dunedin has enjoyed for a good long while and scrubbed down the wooden back steps where they meander downhill  from the house to the garden. Years of accumulated grime slaked off, revealing the form and pattern of the wood. I painted them with stain, the first instalment of what promises to be a long task of restoration of the house. The neatness of the steps has made more obvious the weathered edges of the rest of  our place. There is quite a bit of pruning and painting and replacing to be done. This is a lovely place to live, and it will be lovelier now that we can finally address the consequences of fulfilling two vocations neither of whose long suit is oodles of spare time. 

Epiphany was a powerful day for me. God is revealed to the Gentiles, or at least, to this Gentile, not so much in addition as in removal. The beauty and power of the universe lies about me on every hand, obscured by the detritus of years. I take stuff away. I sift and sort. I put things back where they belong. I dump the stuff which I once thought so important, and which may once have been, but is no longer. I see, as if for the first time, the beauties around me. Deep memories and connections. Simple shapes. Colour and line and form. Stillness. And in these things I glimpse myself and my place in it all and I return, praising and glorifying God for all I have heard and seen, as it has been told me. 

Monday, 2 January 2017

Holidays

I slept away the first couple of days. Not dozing, but deep dreamless sleep which crept up on me wherever I happened to be sitting. I hadn't realised I was so deeply tired. Days tired. Months tired. Decades tired.

There are no anchor points to the day except the ones I choose to find. So, shortly, this is what life will be like, all the time.

I have finished slogging my way uphill through the Torah and am into the easy downhill of the historical books. I am surprised to be reminded how much space is given over to Balaam - 3 chapters, more or less, which is an interesting comparison to the brevity of the Christmas stories . And I had forgotten that Moses had him executed.

I'm reading a few books, concurrently as is my wont. Cynthia Bourgeault on the Trinity. Mitch Cullen's Mr Holmes. Evan Thompson's Waking, Dreaming, Being. Clemency has just finished Archibald Baxter's account of his time as a conscientious objector in the First World War , We Will Not Cease. She found it profoundly moving. I know I will read it but can't bring myself to open it just yet.

I read an article on the BBC website, speculating on the idea that the universe is a computer simulation. Some very bright people are fairly convinced that this is the case, basing their belief on the sheer improbability that our universe could be so finely tuned to produce life by chance alone. They point also to the mathematical precision and elegance of the universe and the way matter behaves when examined closely. Well, OK. It seems at this point that science is slipping quietly into theology. There is, so these bright people say, good reason to believe that the universe has an intelligent creator, and they are doing what we all do - speculating, and making themselves a picture of the creator in their own image. It seems to me to be a very good step in the right direction.

Catherine is home. Christmas was perfect. We've been to Bridget's place for a bit and to Akaroa. So far, 2017 is working out just fine and dandy.