accidental good

I’ve been listening to some Ariana Grande.

A little less conversation and a little more touch my body

It is not aimed at me, but I see good in it. In the videos, the singer dances around in her underwear, but is clearly singing for female fans. “Dangerous woman” might even have a slight lesbian vibe. She sings that her boyfriend better shape up his ideas and consider her wants and needs. I am all for Millennial empowerment. This seemed a proper response to the Manchester bombing, to hear what the dead had gathered to hear, to spend time with what they loved.

Ministry this morning had a perfect shape. One spoke of Manchester coming together. I spoke of racial tensions: the picture is more complex than the stories we tell. Thesis- Antithesis: the synthesis was beautiful.

I lift up my eyes to the hills
from where will my help come?

He says the hills were the dangerous places, where there were bandits and lions. You might die. I had not thought of the psalm, whose words I know well, that way before. Ah. Complexity, darkness, comfort- in the Meeting.

I can’t remember what she said because I was interested in how, rather than what, she communicated. “It’s —— 4 ——-, written —– 4 ——” and she gestures in the air, writing the first word, the 4, then the second word. She repeats the gesture. “Oh, —– 4 ——” says the other, gesturing. They emphasise the 4 in their gestures. But both write from left to right as they would see it, in the air- so from the other’s point of view it is less comprehensible, seen right to left. I watch, intrigued. I would always, gesturing like that, use mirror-writing to be more comprehensible, and expect to get my meaning over immediately. You could say “The 4’s a digit”. We ended up absolutely clear, except that I do not remember what it was 4 what.

It’s worth listening to Ariana to understand how Millennials think. After all, when I am eighty they will be running the country, and I would like to not be completely confused. And, try to find something good in it. That is like in education, she says: however poor the student’s attempt, you should start with praise. No, actually, a teacher should encourage students, but this is different: you should find good in it because that is a better way to understanding it. If you are simply dismissive you don’t see it.

I share my joke. I am disappointed with it, because it works beautifully from a linguistic standpoint- the last word changes the idea round completely- but the concept is too horrible. So it does not work as a joke. Here it is:

I scatter lots of bird seed on my lawn. I do love to feed the cats.

One laughs, one does not. I hurry to explain that I don’t think it works, and that is the first time I have shared it.

The “Gifts reserved for age” in Little Gidding have haunted me since I first read them. In Meeting, a pastiche came to me, which I wrote down after to ensure I could remember it:

Things done right, and accidental Good
to show your “thoughtless bumblings” are virtue

Sometimes you can go into things in too much depth. We tell ourselves stories about reality, we have words and concepts, because understanding everything is impossible. Trying to understand too well may paralyse action. Know just enough to make the next step good enough. I am a good person really. Totally failed at life? From an absolute standpoint, possibly I have- no family, no job, no savings etc- but from a relative standpoint perhaps I have done alright- I am still alive!

Gift of days

We will meet in the place where there is no darkness, says O’Brien, and it sounds wonderful. No darkness, a clear mystic metaphor for truth, answers, understanding, enlightenment. It is that, literally: in these cells and corridors the lights are never turned off. But all Winston achieves there is the knowledge of his powerlessness, and that he will do anything, however depraved, in order to survive.

In Gift of Days by Mary C. Morrison, she describes her illness around the time of her 91st birthday. She nearly died from an infection, which weakened her so that she could not turn over in bed. She suffered paroxysms of shaking, so that she tried desperately not to shred her lips with her teeth, and wanted to die. “No, there’s more,” said a voice, as inexorable and terrifying as the Raven’s “Nevermore”. With occupational therapy, with the workout that is everyday life for a person in that position, she regained the ability to get about her house, to prepare her meals, to go outside her front door; this was after she started writing again, and found her hand illegible.

Something she had known how to do. How could it be that she could no longer do it?

She continued writing.

Possibly, she wanted to. She wanted to die, and she could not. She wanted to write, she failed, she failed again, she succeeded. She wanted to get back to her house, and she succeeded. When there, she found a way to silence her monkey mind. “Can’t you just stop thinking?” A total impossibility as far as I was concerned. Yet with three spoonfuls to go of her breakfast cereal, It came into my head to wonder if I had ever really stopped still enough in my mind to taste, savor, enjoy, really experience the pure pleasure of it. So she did. For once I was really there, truly present to the experience, I was living, not just thinking, thinking, thinking all the time.

What? 91, and only just learning to do that?? I can drop into that whenever I like; though relating it to what I must do is difficult, beyond cleaning my teeth, or eating.

Or, perhaps, writing. I am writing. I don’t care if you get anything out of this (she says bravely- of course I care- Please Comment!). It is for me.

Possibly, her task was to live as an old woman, cleaning her house, talking to visitors, writing. To live as herself. Other parts of the pamphlet might grasp my attention if I read it again.

Am I really squeezed out? Tried and found wanting so often that there is nothing left to try, known so that no game is worth playing any more, you can predict my tiresome response. Then we need a modus vivendi, and if there is no pleasure in it the important thing is to avoid pain.

Well, that is the worst way it might be.

Or that job. I thought about it, thought of applying, did not, approached the deadline and still did not. They did not recruit, so readvertised. Today at noon was the second closing date, and I did not see my friend yesterday because I wanted the energy to do the application. Instead, I wrote a poem, did my washing, watched TV. Today at nine I could have written something, even something I thought might appear sane, on the application form. So I thought about this, and about mystic understandings of what it means to be human- the way wherein there is no ecstasy- until I had no time to put anything worthwhile on the application. Then I watched TV.

The concept of a job application is simple. Do you want the job? Have you a reasonable chance of getting it, or, is the chance of getting it worth the effort of applying? If so, then you apply. Simply because of good luck, in this precise moment I do not have to apply in order to get money to eat. Jobseekers Allowance has the soul-destroying requirement of making a certain number of applications, whether you fit the job or not, pretending to apply because otherwise you will not get the JSA money.

It seemed to me that what mattered, considering that job application, was my self-image. I hope I have these particular gifts and qualities, fitting me for this job. I fear I have not. In applying, rather than wanting to get the job I want to shore up my hopes- yes, I am that admirable person- and stave off my fears, which overwhelm me.

I procrastinate because I imagine applying, and seeing my hope confirmed in my own words; but fear all my fears being proven. And there is outside judgment as well: on the few jobs I have applied for I have almost always had interviews, so gone through a process of judgment, and been found wanting- though people might console me, they preferred someone else, it did not mean you would not have been suitable. Though it did mean I did not get the job.

Self-image is so important to me that I might make a grand gesture to prove my noble generosity, only to find afterwards it proved nothing of the sort and I ended without anything I might want.

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

Self-image. Failure after failure after failure!

the knowledge derived from experience…
imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment

Possibly the most clear thing he wrote

And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

Oh Christ! Eliot understood this problem of self-image! Or at least, those words have this so personal meaning for me now.

Would that I could create a rule. That self-image or valuation is a fantasy. So, stop fantasising! But fantasy is the way humans work out what is possible, if we can resist the temptation of wallowing in fantasy of what is not possible. These two types of fantasy are not clearly distinguishable except by hindsight.

The best rule I can come to is, Appreciate. See all the good, all the things it is possible to be grateful for, all the things which could possibly be said to please, rather than always seeing failure. It seems to me that is a choice- cry for what might have been (in fantasy) or delight in what is. What is seems so little, but is all there is. No wonder we distract ourselves with alcohol or television.

My idea of Wisdom and what it could do for me gets in the way of true wisdom and gaining anything from it.

This is good enough. It has to be. What do you want to do, or try, now?


My pictures the last few posts have been by Louise-Catherine Breslau, or Maria Luise Katharina Breslau, a Swiss-German painter born in Munich who worked in Paris, because I love her work. The technical draftsmanship, and the psychological insight, appear to me as accomplished as far better known artists, yet the work seems mostly in pastels rather than oils, and I had not heard of her. I want to give the name she would prefer as a mark of respect to her, and do not even know that.

I am this person

It is not that I like being humiliated,
but that what I like humiliates me.

I am this person.
I am this person.
I have done what I have done.
I have believed what I believed
and do not now believe.
I believe what I believe.
I do what I do.
I am this person.
I want what I want.
I am who I am.

Humiliation and shame and denial and judgment
Such judgment! Cruel, harsh, unsparing judgment
which judges me for being unable to bear it.

I have done the best I can,
which I resent, which horrifies me
because it seems so little.
It is as it is.

I like myself.
I am kind, soft, gentle, peaceful
and that pleases me.
I have done all I can,
understood as best I could
admitted and accepted as much as I could,
protected myself as well as I could.

I am where I am, and wish I was not.
I am this person,
where this person is,
having everything this person has.

This is a direct answer to TS Eliot, East Coker III:

To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

“The darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing” has deeply moved me.

And this “Keep Britain in the European Union” meme:


I commented, I have indeed totally failed at life. Some people say it is not entirely my fault. However, I voted remain, and am fairly liberal in my ideas about refugees and immigration. It is a gross generalisation to think of Leave voters as non-metropolitan losers- some of us voted remain. Because I have totally failed at life, I really dislike this meme, and possibly it is not the best way to win over Leave voters either.

Someone replied, I did chuckle at the meme but take your point, made with such humility, in the same spirit[…] someone who can take responsibility for her own life’s path is in some sense more successful than most. If anything, I fear that you may be taking the self-blame too far, and hope that you do so in part for rhetorical purposes…

Perhaps I have achieved what I most wanted to achieve.

The meaning of life

with TS Eliot.

Everyone should do a meaning of life post occasionally. I refer to Portrait of a Lady, in which despite the first person pronouns, the young man reading the comics and the sporting page may not be Eliot himself. Yet it speaks to me most insofar as I am that young man, or the older lady.

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends

I have many memories of things going well, but one in particular, finding and making the perfect legal argument to win a difficult motion, and ten thousand pounds. My feelings, drives, intellect came together to achieve what I wanted, and it felt good. It still does, in retrospect, and I am aware of people whose working lives contain many such days- as well as a great deal of work to reach the standard where it is less of a fluke for them.

I don’t know. What do you think? Working in a challenging, rewarding job, where pleasure in success generally outweighs the frustrations- possibly, it is not the external circumstances which matter to anyone, but their own ability to take pleasure exceeding their frustration. It’s not what happens, but how you see it. Any expectation that that brilliant day would be often recurring for me was doomed to failure, but its memory is pleasurable and there are pleasures now.

The lady imagines life without her friends. “Nightmare!” Actually, it being Eliot and this particular lady, she says “What cauchemar!” I did not have the internet when I first read that. I get a feeling of making the best of it. She is so glad to have found such a sensitive young man, she says, and he realises, or imagines, or worries that it is not so, they do not have the intimately empathic understanding she imagines. Though why should his judgment be better than hers? She sees potential in him he denies. He is less than she imagines, he thinks, lolling in the park, reading the funny papers.

Velleities and regrets…

Her life is odds and ends, and what is his? She may talk of Michelangelo, but not write a thesis or give lectures; perhaps her observation of the Sistine chapel gives new insight to another of the young men she invites to entertain her. As my observation of the Baptistery in Florence pleased the Bishop of Beverley once.

Stacking the shelves of the supermarket may give a well-deserved sense of achievement, and so might tapping out a blog post, or getting a few Likes. And the world is full of contingent delights- dare eat the peach, and its juice may overwhelm you, or it may have gone soft without properly ripening, and that must be good enough. It is good to be her, able to appreciate Chopin, and he, wondering in horror Is that all there is???? might only realise that his own mediocrity is good enough, too, long after. This young man reads in the park, perhaps killing time until dinner at the Drones’, rather than working in the bank, or the publishing house. I read that happiness for the young is excitement, for the old, contentment, and that makes sense.

It is better to be alive than not. Any meaning one must find in what is, rather than what might be or what one ought to want. We are only living, and never “partly living”, and no Archbishop can save us.


What to feel?

Not knowing what to feel or if I understand

The young man imagines the death of the Lady- well, she said she was one about to reach her journey’s end- and wonders should I have the right to smile?

What to feel. There is a right feeling, which the decent person should feel. Grief, obviously, at a death, perhaps love or admiration, perhaps gratitude for friendship and appreciation of a human being. Or perhaps revulsion- I shall sit here, serving tea to friends- at a life wasted in odds and ends. And pleasure at a lucky escape.

I have just heard Portrait of a Lady, read by Jeremy Irons– recording available till the end of the month- and it moved me, when it had passed me by in my teens when I found Eliot. I don’t know- it was cruel and pointless in its portrait of her, I did not know what to make of that narrator, I tussled with four quartets and found the thought of being consumed by either fire or fire exciting rather than terrifying or despondency-inducing. “Only Live”- what a calling! The calling was not yet impossible.

Where was I? Oh yes, “What to feel”. I may come back to Meaning of Life stuff- would I write sensible, continuous prose, or odds and ends?- but first I wanted to say

feel what you feel. It is the Only Way.

Feeling denied or suppressed sets up intolerable unmanageable revolt within you. It will not be denied, but erupts, in violence against others or self, smashing things or tearing at your hair.

Ha. Only the slightest pause before I typed “intolerable”- the inner voice still says, you could have managed if you had minimal abilities and I give it the slightest credence, then reject it.

The sadness is not that intolerable shirt of flame, even if it feels like it when it is there. Am I bargaining again? I feel the pain of sadness with the purpose of not showing it, not needing to express it. I want not to express it, and having failed to suppress it, perhaps feeling it authentically deeply, draining the cup to the dregs will be a useful technique not to express it.

Should you seek sympathy, anyway? It is all so much work. I meet a friend and all our time is spent expressing feeling and sympathising, unless it is sadness where one should pull onesself together. I don’t know, by the way. I start typing a sentence and its meaning forces me into considering its opposite. Perhaps Chopin’s soul, resurrected among friends would mean we would not have to speak, only understand together.

Bring all the feeling to consciousness!

Aha! I have an answer, a guiding light, a solution, a rule, which may be more valuable in contemplating than in practising it.

I could feel all my feelings then move on, my actions rationally chosen and effectual, responding not reacting, doing the right thing. One more way to avoid mistakes.

Avoid mistakes! I can learn, I get better at this stuff was the phrase which entered my mind, by which I mean living but not as good as I desperately want to be.

The young man at the Lady’s death might not feel what he ought to feel, but a cacophony of conflicting feelings, many of them mean and unpleasing to him. He really is that mean person. I am my shadow. I am a human being. I am beautiful! was an answer to this- I must admire and delight in the shadow-parts, the bits I do not like, because they are real- yet should I also bear the roiling change of it, confusing me, always behind it? If I only had a chance to contemplate, accept, move on, but I never have time-

Is he really better than she is?

That’s all, that’s all, that’s all. that’s all,
Birth, and copulation, and death.

Good night sweet ladies


Iris Murdoch

To repent of egoism: is autobiography the best method? Possibly. If I attempt honesty, I am confronted with questions, inconsistencies, things done wrong and done to others’ harm, which once you took for exercise of virtue… unconscious acts, whose motivation may never come to light; and can only attain truth if I surrender the need not to be repulsed by it; and then Love it.

By being willing to accept the demons and gods and goddesses as they are, Milarepa transmuted them. They became dakinis, or the energies of life.

So far, so clear. This is my spiritual understanding- teach me to care and not to care etc.

I read almost all of Iris Murdoch’s novels about ten years ago, struggling through some, loving moments from them- like that first sentence has caught me now, from The Sea The Sea. At first it seems ridiculous, then the contrast becomes richer and more ambiguous as I contemplate it. I remember Mor cycling home, always wanting to pedal to the top of the hill, always getting off at the same point. I thought at the time that The Green Knight was wonderfully ambiguous: one could see a character as an angel, intervening for Good, or as a series of accidents. Both interpretations worked, I remember it seemed, though I cannot remember any of the plot to argue this. I remembered Julius King, a destructive force playing on people’s illusions to make them suffer, purely for the fun of it, and Tallis, who cares, and seeks to do the right thing- who knows it better than anyone- yet who fails. Tallis’ house is disgusting: there are loving descriptions of half-empty milk bottles with horrid things inside, newspaper laid on the damp floor still there and black days later, of vermin. What are we to make of Julius cleaning Tallis’ kitchen?

I started The Sea The Sea in 2000, before deciding to transition, and could not get anywhere with it. I saw a character I could not admire, doing foolish, embarrassing things, which might endanger him, deluded, and gave up after hardly beginning. I could tolerate a character having a hard time, but not someone so pointlessly disgusting. I liked my novels to be elevating and cheering, of good people overcoming difficulty.

A man called Emma in a swimming pool, in the heating system, which somehow seems to be vast, over many storeys’ height: being trapped there in the dark and falling through it could kill him. I have a vague idea he attained Enlightenment, as did the man who fell down a drain like a flume and rode the stinking black water, without hope, until it disgorged him. Now, possibly, I think only the death of hope can bring enlightenment- and my despair is not the same thing. Hope and despair dance, both linked to illusory concepts of how something ought to be. I have a few confused memories of the novels- the man in the West of Ireland sinking into a peat bog like quicksand, there’s another-

having reread A Fairly Honourable Defeat and enjoyed it, I now turn to TS,TS. I will allow it to be what it is. Or not, and stop.

Ingres, Belle Zélie

Half-hearted affirmations

I am Abigail, which isn’t a bad thing-
I am Abigail, and that is sort-of all right.
I am Abigail, which is better than the alternative
I am Abigail, and just sometimes I do something worthwhile-
not a big thing, and only just worthwhile, but still.
I am Abigail. Sometimes, I have decorative value

I am Abigail. I am not getting up, but I am still twitching.
I am Abigail. Not everyone despises me.
I am Abigail. I didn’t kill myself.
I am Abigail. I am OK, for the moment-

I am Abigail. I met someone’s eyes, yesterday.
I am Abigail. I made her laugh.
I am Abigail. We understood something together.
I am Abigail. She said something affirming of me,
and I might just be able to hear it-

It is raining, but I am dry.
It is cold, but I have a blanket.
It is confusing, but there may be peace in me
if only I could accept the confusion-

The darkness is not yet the light.
The stillness is not yet the dancing.
But I am not denying reality quite as much as I used to,
on the whole, some of the time,
and though I cling to it very hard
God, circumstances and wise friends
might yet prise my burden from me

John Lavery, the Green Sofa, detail, featured


Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov is the devil.

After this became clear to me, I returned to the scene where he woos Marya Kondratyevna, who later supports him. He sings to her, in an affected, cloying falsetto, a sweet tenor: beautiful and seductive, and foul at the same time. He dominates her, contradicting her, giving definite, destructive opinions- poetry is a lot of rubbish- which she finds so intelligent. His rage and self-pity do not put her off. He toys with her, threatening to leave.

Like Christ, everything he says proceeds from his individual nature. None of it can be believed, but convincing Ivan that he wanted his father dead is his most audacious, yet typical, lie. I know such lies. I can torture myself with imagined wicked motivations for any act-

things ill done, and done to others’ harm
which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.

Ivan is enraged at Smerdyakov, hitting him and kicking him: Smerdyakov does not resist, increasing Ivan’s self-loathing and frustration. Christ did not resist his persecutors, and might win them over to his love; the devil does not resist, to inflame their hate. Ivan is so clever, the successful writer from Moscow, and so rational, creating the famous story of The Grand Inquisitor; yet he has no way of resisting the Devil. He does not have Alyosha’s faith in himself, and in humanity.

Smerdyakov implies truth only to ensnare his victims.

When Alyosha speaks to him in the garden, Alyosha speaks frankly and fully, and Smerdyakov dodges questions and falsely claims good motives which you know are untrue but hard to refute- “I come here out of normal neighbourly friendliness.” Alyosha’s generosity embraces him: neither can affect the other.

Fyodor, Russia, raped the village idiot, who spawned the devil: like Christ, he is the child of a maiden. Smerdyakov’s last act, destroying himself, is done to create the maximum malicious damage: again like Christ he follows his purpose to death.

I found the sculpture, Expulsion from Paradise by Ivan Korzhev, here.

Ivan Korzhev, Izgnanie.

Paths to Enlightenment

Modigliani, Mme. KislingElaine is back from India. Her friend wanted to show her his village. It was difficult arranging water she could drink, and they defecate in the open air, in a field reserved for it. She brought back pictures of the people, and we exclaimed How Beautiful! One particularly stood out, a middle-aged to elderly man. Perhaps it is that his face is unaffected, with no mask like we all wear, as Grayson Perry points out.

While still at school, Emma, later Madame Bovary, had a reputation for great piety, weeping over the statue of Mary or her rosary beads, before they got to know her. S told me that being brought up Catholic, she stared at the statue of Mary long enough to see it move- “Of course it moves! Your eyes go all funny!” praying for success in exams with her rosary round her neck. And now, for her, spirituality must be rigorously without emotion. Feelings are the siren to drag her away from any spiritual depth or insight.

If for me it is the opposite-

Here am I, typing on a blog, and I will break off to comment on other people’s, like a man drinking Carlsberg, on a bench in the town centre, haranguing the passers-by. I am afraid of the silence, so it seems to me I live my life at half-mast or less. Entering the silence, at meeting or at home, I am overwhelmed by my feelings, so at home, as if living on Modigliani, Antoniavalium, I hold them at bay by playing on my computer, getting peevish at things which do not matter.

Then I enter the silence, and feel what I feel.

Do not tell me that is unreal, or a temptation, or an immature place on a long road towards another maturity. It is where I am now, the right place to be. Perhaps it is not so for everyone: feeling is the thing from the depths of me which I have to come to know, just as the narrator in In search of lost time gets so overwhelmed by feelings he does not recognise at the time, and cannot see the humanity of others, not even his partner Albertine’s. This is my task now, and something else is yours, and each of us may have easily mastered something the other finds supremely testing. Or something. That is a possible map of the shifting territory.

That was a way of putting it- not very satisfactory;
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
with words and meanings.

Since I am on Eliot, I should go further- You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy– Eliot appears to support S’s view. I am where I am. On the bus going home I saw a woman quite as beautiful as any of those Indian villagers, whether her face was relaxed, or unaffected, or without a mask, or whatever it was. Had I plucked up the courage to ask to photograph her, and she had agreed, it would not have been for me to share her face here. There are always other faces to see.

Sympathy with the devil

EarthriseWe create what we need.

Seeking to enter in sympathy with all human conditions, I pick on the Nazis as a good theoretical example. Certainly they were the baddies. I was pleased to read of the Ustaše that while they allied themselves with the Axis in the second world war, this was a way of building alliances against the greater Serbian kingdom of Yugoslavia, their historic oppressors, historically clients of Russia.

Nirad Chaudhuri tells of the riots in Delhi during partition, that there was an inoffensive Muslim street-food seller, and his Hindu neighbours decided to lynch him. Chaudhuri exhorted them to leave him alone, and go with him into the Muslim areas to defend their fellow Hindus. They refused. I can admire the moral act of Chaudhuri and sympathise with his neighbours, in that situation of black and dark grey.

And with the Estonians who suffered under Russian rule, with Russian rather than Estonian the medium of education and ethnic Russians moved in to their country, who restrict those Russians’ descendants now to tolerated residence but no citizenship.

Where are you, and where does your act come from? A reason may not be an excuse, but may help one understand, may be some mitigation, for people do their best under difficult circumstances and under appalling pressure people do appalling things.

And- if I can sympathise with such monsters, I might even come to sympathise with my own monstrosity, cowardice, stupidity, perverted deviance and uselessness.


No, I do not think of myself only or constantly as those things; and there is an undercurrent of self-loathing in me which I overcome so gradually. It could, I suppose, give rise to loathing of all humanity; and in me it has produced an attempt at sympathy, feeling with all sorts and conditions of people. This is sometimes theoretical rather than actual; it is not my only constant response; it is part of my response to my world.

I am kind.
I seek reconciliation.
I seek the healing of hurt.
The wounded surgeon plies the steel

Picture, title, ideas: I do this with clichés, with the tools I have.