FoMO is a MoFO

FoMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out and it can be a bitch. I first heard the term at Burning Man two years ago, used by my fellow BEEple to describe a kind of mania that overtook us all as we scuttled to fit in all the surreal naughty naked neon delights a week on the Playa had to offer. Recently, as I followed the conversations electronically unfurling in my inbox in the build-up to the Burn and afterwards, as BEEple posted images on BookFace and wrote quivering emails about what a heartfuck the experience had been for them, FoMO popped back into my head.

Today, in Screenworld, it's hard not to be a victim of FoMO. Capitalism works by stimulating desire. Marketing is all about making sure our craving for stuff is never quite fulfilled so we keep on wanting more. This also applies to the feel-good psychotechnology that aims to colonise our mental real estate. Now that we blithely market ourselves on BookFace and other social media platforms - photographing our food and feet in sunny locations and smoothing the rough edges off our messy real lives - we've added a whole new dimension to FoMO.

The power of the gloatagraph

I'm a freelance writer who mostly works at home so I'm constantly tip-tapping into social media. Not so long ago I noticed that a hard day at the BookFace left me filled with a mild irritation at having my envy button pushed by yet another photograph of, I don't know, two pairs of feet either side of an ice-cream tower being licked by a kitten on a deserted beach.

Naturally, I conveniently forgot how my own gloatagraphs (copyright moi) might be viewed by all my many millions of true friends on BookFace. I'm just as guilty of marketing my life as shiny and happy as anyone else.

Smiley revisionism

I sympathise with the feelings of the people who were pissed off by Zuckerberg wanting to edit that heartbreaking image of the little naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl out of history. It is, of course, historical revisionism with a smiley face. But I really don't want to be slapped in the eyes when I'm grazing on BookFace. The medium is designed to tickle my fancy, to stimulate my desire for a better life, for all that heaven will allow.

All life may be suffering but I don't want to be reminded of that noble truth when I'm in the mood to LMAO.

Envy and empathy

There's an argument that indulging our capacity for envy, accompanied by shadenfreude, reduces our ability to empathise. ('Shadenfreude', if you've never come across it, is a fantastic German word that means delighting in other people's misfortune.) I don't agree.

Novelist Martin Amis wrote that 'Envy is empathy in the wrong place at the wrong time' and he's bang on the money. BookFace works by stimulating our natural curiosity about each other. All the time. Because we can't escape the fact that we live in a capitalist society and social media only exists to make money, this healthy curiosity can easily curdle into envy.

We - I - need to remember the third noble truth: to stop suffering, cease to desire.

And the next time we feel envy we should take a deep breath, close our eyes and turn the negative into a positive. We should be delighted that our friends have the opportunity to sit on sandy beaches eating ice-cream with kuddly kittens.

People who burn, burn, burn: Lessons learned on the Playa

Two years ago today at around 4AM I got down and rolled in Nevada desert dust. It's the initiation ritual all Burning Man virgins go through. Lying on my back under the stars in the biggest sky I'd ever seen I felt both foolish and tearful. Over the next ten days I got used to this feeling.

I went to Burning Man to change my life. I had been sober for six years (five months, seven days and 32 minutes and counting) and was tired of being trapped in my own skull. In all that time my relationships with women hadn't gone beyond a kind of emasculating platonic friendship. It had got to the point where, at 52, I'd regressed to pre-adolescence.

At Burning Man, I figured, I could take a holiday from my head and maybe relose my virginity.

I also had an idea to write about Burning Man. I wangled myself a press pass which, as it said, entitled me to nothing at all. Two years later, I'm still unable to write anything more than a series of snapshots about my experience in the desert.

The Bees

When I was invited to camp with The Bees I had no idea how much of a big deal it was. Who you camp with makes an enormous difference to how you experience the Burn. The Bees are a fine mix of people mainly from the Bay Area whose desire to take things as far as they can go is grounded in the great American 'Fuck yeah!' can do mantra. Cut loose from their default world lives they're a dayglo version of the Walton Family.

Men wearing ballet tutus slam tent pegs into the ground with sledgehammers. Women congregate in the kitchen to make a vast breakfast, politely ignoring the girl who stumbles in naked from the waist down, buttocks pink and dusty.

Burning Man champions radical self-reliance but life with the Bees was radical kindness.

Coming home

The first morning I walked out onto the Playa - the area of desert around which the camps are arranged in semi-circles - a boy wearing nothing but goggles and shiny purple hotpants said 'Welcome home, brother'.

Against all odds, I did feel right at home. What I was looking at was a dusty, pumped-up technopunk carny version of all the hippy fairs I'd been to as a kid growing up in rural England in the 1970s. Bizarrely, given that we were in the desert and everything I'd read warned me about the ferocious temperatures, it had rained in the night, turning the Playa into a quagmire and the air was cool. This made me feel even more at home.

I'd come back to something in my life I had no idea I was missing.

Quiggles

The healing camp was painted witchy purple and offered everything from tantric massage to free therapy. My therapist was a strawberry-blonde woman with a deep freckly cleavage named, of all things, Quiggles. I explained to Quiggles that I was a flop with chicks and had been that way since I was 46.

Quiggles asked me how I defined myself. We agreed I was a poet. She suggested that the next time I saw a woman I liked I should announce myself as a poet, ask if I could take her for my muse, write her a poem, read it to her and request a kiss.

It was a fantastic, nicely absurd idea. I didn't do it but, bless her, Quiggles made me feel there was hope for me.

A magic bicycle ride

I was high on light. Every so often I'd feel a whooshing rush of colour so intense I thought I'd fall over. My head was empty but I knew exactly who, what and where I was.

I lay on my back in the dust for what seemed like hours looking up at a light sculpture made blinking white cubes, tuned in to the thump of the music, deafening whenever an illuminated art car came close. When I was ready I cycled back to camp, drained but refilled.

Mankind circle

We sat in a circle in the shade of an RV. We were old, young, gay, familiar with the Mankind Project or, in my case, not. Hearing other men talk about the crap, and good stuff, they were going through on the Playa was a revelation. These were men who'd had experiences every bit as bad, and good, as mine who were willing to share them and make us all feel better about ourselves.

At first, I struggled with the idea that the guy leading the group had a Native American name (deciding on the spot mine would be Baffled Bear). The bellowed 'HO's' that went with every one of our intimate revelations took a bit of getting used to. But at Burning Man it made as much sense as anything else.

I had nothing to lose but my stiff upper lip.

DJing

The soundtrack to Burning Man is pretty much EDM all the way. Like the ashy-white dust, the music gets into you for good. You wake up and fall asleep to it and there can be Diplo knows how many sound systems playing at once.  When I was asked to DJ for the Bees I was worried that they might hate my music, which is old school soul, funk, disco, hiphop and reggae.

I'm grinning as I write this, listening to a playlist called Sounds for Sunrises, remembering all those dusty bodies barely dressed in all every possible combination of black and yellow dancing to 'Can You Feel It' by The Jacksons. At 52, in my black DJ gloves with yellow fur trim, I felt hipper than I'd ever been.

Polymorphous perversity

Although I saw plenty of dusty nudity, my Burn was chaste. As a single man of a certain age I assumed I wouldn't be particularly welcome at the Fisting or Eat Pussy Like a Champ workshops. Camped next to us was a group who were into tying people up, hanging them upside down, putting clamps on their dangling bits and, you get the picture. I couldn't imagine wandering in by myself and, in any case, being transgressive seems to mean having no sense of humour.

By accident, I did go to a talk given by a Dutch transvestite. (S)he looked like an anorexic, middle-aged secretary and told his/her stories of perversion in a monotone. 'Yes, and I was on the sofa with the wine bottle up my ass, my friend was pouring hot wax on my nipples and the puppy was licking my balls. It was naice.'

When (s)he told us how she nearly died when she got the bag (s)he was sniffing glue from stuck on her head, I burst out laughing and had to crawl out of the tent on my hands and knees through a crowd of people taking notes.

No sex for me, though. In among all the nudity and promiscuity I felt further away from it than I ever had.

Andrew's wedding

Andrew is a Scotsman who lives in San Francisco. He's also the guy who designs the Man and ovesees its building. A friend of the Bees, as they say, I think he makes honey in his backyard. Andrew married his American significant other on the Playa, out by the Man. He wore a kilt and played the bagpipes.

The happy couple were married by the Reverend Billy Talen, a social activist who's adopted a cartoon fire and brimstone Billy Graham persona to spread the word.

When Andrew's bride to be arrived - she was, of course, late - our collective eyes moistened with joy and a little relief. I'll never forget hearing the heart stirring skirl of the pipes as the sun set on the Playa and the shadow of the Man grew longer by the minute.

Amerika is good

Amerika was va-va-voom and wore a fur coat over a clinging shiny turquoise pantsuit. Her hair was long and dirty blonde, her voice shot and husky. It was perhaps 2AM and we stood in the front of the Apis, the Bees art car. This is shaped like a giant bee and fires flame from either side of its nose.

It felt like we were sailing the plains on a psychedelic pioneer wagon. I babbled on about how wonderful I thought Burning Man was, how it showed the best of America, how we were all Ginsberg's children. 'America is good,' I said.

'I America,' she said.

'Wow,' I said, stroking her hair and her fur coat while she stroked mine. She did look like a wobbly, sexy Statue of Liberty. 'You are America. What's your name.'

'I am Erika,' she said.

Temple burning

The Temple, an ornate place of worship for a religion still being born, is made of wood. It goes up in flames on the last Sunday of every Burn, before the camps and art structures are taken down and Burners head back to the default world.

A crowd of tens of thousands watched the Temple catch fire and collapse in silence. When a soundsystem drifted over and didn't turn off its music in time - a particularly horrible hillbilly EDM hybrid - there was a wave of righteous anger. The soundsystem itself came close to going up in flames.

Watching the Temple burn, my soul was agape. The Temple honoured pure human potential and burning it to the dust acknowledged our courage, our capacity to begin again over and over. Like everything to do with Burning Man, it was a ritual both profound and preposterous.

The aftermath

While I accept that I may never be able to shape my Burning Man experience into a coherent story, I know exactly what my time in the desert did for me.

I discovered I could get safely out of my head any time I needed. Which, of course, has meant that I haven't since. When, on New Year's Eve 2014 at a party in Budapest I plucked up the courage to talk to another Erika, this time a beautiful sparkling Hungarian, I was following Quiggles advice. Our first conversation was about writing and I told her I was a writer. Coming up for two years later, we grow more and more in love every day, and she constantly inspires and challenges me to write and live better, further, deeper.

And Burning Man? Reading the emails the Bees sent to each other in the days leading up to setting off for the desert this time - the military precision with which they planned an excursion into profound frivolity - made me smile and remember my own excitement. But I didn't feel I was missing out and, if I never go again, I'll have no regrets. Because the truth is that one Burning Man did enough for me to last me a lifetime.

I'll still be processing those ten days in the desert for years to come and, as my California friends say, that's awesome!

Two fingers to flipping the bird

No matter how corny they are, rock and roll redemption movies make me tearful. Last night I sniffled through the 2016 Irish movie Sing Street, about a boy who finds his way out of early 1980s brutal Dublin reality and into a wannabe model's heart through the power of perfectly xeroxed twitchy clever-clever pop-rock. U who?

I would be curious to know what my Irish friends who lived through that time in the city would make of the movie. But I thought the actual stuff of it, from the sheer joy that teenage boys get from discovering they can make songs together to finding common ground with a scabby skinhead, rang kind of true. So many lives were, as Lou Reed had it, 'saved by rock and roll'. (Will EDMers be able to say the same 20 years from now?)

The movie looked about right too, apart from a shot of Connor, the hero, wearing a pair of bootcut flares in what I guess was meant to be 1985. And, now I think of it, his older brother wore those horrible acid or snow-washed jeans that appeared like a plague some time in the early 21st century.  I can live with these minor anachronisms but I really can't accept one thing about the movie.

Skinhead boy's inarticulate defiance manifests itself in giving the finger to whoever's tormenting him. But back in the early 80s we only ever stuck two fingers up to authority. Oddly enough, the first time I clapped eyes on this appalling period faux-pas was in another skinhead movie, Shane Meadows's 2006 This Is England.

Two fingers good

I was always told that sticking up two fingers comes from English and Welsh longbowmen taunting the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It was the practice of the French to cut off a captured archer's index and middle fingers so they couldn't use their longbows. Flicking Vs was a way of defying the enemy. The only problem is there's no evidence to suggest this actually happened.

Whatever its provenance, sticking up two fingers was definitely the insult of choice for those of us who inhabited the battleground that was the 1960s British school playground. There's something about snapping up one's hand from the wrist and flicking a V that's deeply satisfying. Believe me, I just tried it.

Oddly enough, the Great Beast Aleistair Crowley claimed to have invented the V for Victory sign as a magical counter to the Nazi swastika. According to him, he passed the V to friends in British intelligence in 1942 (he was a spy for MI5) and it was taken up by Churchill.

The finger

Giving someone the finger simply means 'F*ck you'. (Have you ever noticed that all American insults involve 'f*ck'? They're not a patch on, say, the Australians. Having said this, my favourite insult of all time comes from the great American rock and roll writer Lester Bangs who, in his mind at least, told some bland twerp like Eric Clapton to go 'eat a bowl of f*ck'. Isn't that great?)

Apparently, although it spread to the UK as a result of our slavish aping of all things American, giving the finger or flipping the bird is actually far older than flicking a V. It dates back to Ancient Greece and originally represented the phallus. 'F*ck you, Appolonia!'

Devil signs and the evil eye

Digressing somewhat, did you know that the heavy metal devil horns sign popularised by the mighty, if diminutive Ronnie James Dio originated in Sicily, where it was used to ward off the evil eye?

According to scholars, belief in the evil eye spread north from desert regions of Africa and it related to the idea of vital human liquids drying up. Eyes contain liquid, of course, as do testicles. Traditionally, Sicilian men placed what became the devil sign over their meat and two veg when a woman believed to have the evil eye looked at them.

As it migrated even further north, the sign for protection against the evil eye became the upside down horsehoe. So there you go.

But back to flicking Vs versus giving the finger. I guess it's simply that for a movie to make any money it has to make sense to Americans. Sticking up two fingers is, outside the UK, only understood as a heinous insult in former commonwealth countries to which Brits emigrated. Which reminds me.

Go wank!

From 1978 to 79 I was an exchange student in Michigan. Back then, Yanks had no idea what the word 'wank' meant. A fellow exchange student from New Zealand was sent to a tiny town somewhere deep in Flyoverland. Having played rugby all his life, probably barefoot, he was a natural for American football. His high school liked to put players' nicknames on the back of their football shirts. When my friend was asked what his was, he said 'Wank'.

'So I'm racing down the field, on my way to a touchdown, Dave,' he said. 'When I hear the cheerleaders chanting "Go Wank! Go Wank!". I was laughing so much I had to stop running and got flattened by some 10-foot tall farm boy. That was the end of my football career.'

Now, of course, wanking has made serious inroads into American popular culture.

Sporning monsters

'Sporning' describes the current obsession among young men with pumping up their bodies for the sole purpose of posting selfies online. It explains the phenomenal rise in gym membership among 16 to 25-year-olds and the explosion in the numbers of men so bulky they have to go through doors sideways.

Apparently, the sporning phenomenon is the result of young men who lack the opportunities to become something truly fulfilling like a data miner or call centre operative being edited out of the future. Of the developed world and developing world, that is. I can't imagine a starving Syrian refugee marooned on the Macedonian border cares too much about being peeled, ripped and shredded.

Discovering sporning (and is it me or are the names for our wonderful new tribes getting uglier?) made me think about what my ideal body type was at 16.

Punky, pale and interesting

Punk, which mercifully hit when I was 15, was all about looking as unhealthy as you possibly could. We wanted to be Mac in the Charles Atlas ads before the insult that made a man out of him. Boys who did any kind of sport, let alone go the gym, were pariahs to us. So why were we so obsessed with looking close to death?

Our heroes were, of course, the main influence. Take the Sex Pistols, Clash or Ramones. They were all white as sheets and looked like the only time they ever broke a sweat was running away from a broken window or a gang of Teddy Boys. Congenital conditions and sickly childhoods meant Johnny Rotten and Joey Ramone couldn't have built their bodies if they'd tried.

Bowie too was an enormous influence on us, as he was on our punk idols. We did our best to look androgynous, poking eyeliner pencils in our eyes and gagging on lipstick. Throughout the 1970s Bowie was death warmed up. By the time he started to look like he was going to live - around Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence in 1983 - we'd lost interest in him. Being Bowie, of course, he turned having blonde hair, shining white teeth and a deep tan into a costume in itself.

We were also reacting against the way in which organised sport like football (soccer) dominated our culture. Especially if were had the misfortune to be still at school. We were emphatically not joiners, which is why so many of us lost interest in punk when it became a flag to rally behind.

I can't get too misty-eyed about my teens though. For a start, I'd been a fat kid and starving myself on a diet of white bread, Holsten Pils (remember 'all the sugar turns to alcohol'? and cheap pink speed) to the point where I could fit into my girlfriend's panties didn't do my physical or mental health any favours. I do think, however, that my generation's determination to broaden our minds while narrowing our trousers was a far more positive response to being made to feel powerless by society than becoming a pumped up sporner.

Not that we ever really had 'No Future' as Johnny sang. Compared to the yoof of today, we had it made.

Sporning is conforming

I can't imagine that medieval farm workers gave two shits whether their guns were pumped or not. But ever since capitalism created a leisure class, social status has shaped our bodies.

To give my favourite example, up until the 1920s, the upper classes viewed having a tan as simply not done. The only people who had them were the hoi polloi who worked outside. But for wealthy young Americans, a mahogony tan proved you had enough money to enjoy the leisure of being outside with nada to do. When the real-life Dick Divers began arriving on the Riviera they made the tan deeply fashionable throughout Europe.

Sporning bothers me because it's such a sign of defeat. Young men who sporn are really saying their body is the only thing they have control over in life. (Do they remove all their body hair because they're subconsciously acknowledging their powerlessness by turning themselves into big babies?) And they're only pumping up for cosmetic reasons. They may look like cage fighters but they're oddly passive.

But perhaps I'm wrong and sporning is a good thing after all. Maybe, when things truly fall apart, hundreds of thousands of sporny young man will be the shock troops of the revolution. With Kygo providing the soundtrack and leading the charge, they'll use their brawn to storm the institutions that have denied them the right to get smug, lazy and soft in the middle.

Sporn free at last!

 

 

 

 

Lowlife: what can you say about dirt?

I was in Geneva a few weeks ago and hungry for lowlife. Anyone who knows the city will understand why.  I sniffed the air and followed my nose to a barrio near the central station. When a large African woman with a painted face and a too-short skirt crooked a finger at me I knew I was in what passes for a tenderloin in the shadow of Mont Blanc.

Time was I'd have sauntered into the least frightening of the bars, taken my place next to a tiny Eastern European girl with a sqewiff wig and huge red shiny boots and proceeded to drink myself nonchalant. But I can't do that anymore. My lowlife days are over, baby.

So, after a kebab - the most dangerous thing on offer to a sober moi - I headed back to my hotel on the shore of the lake. Still in the mood for lowlife, I browsed Kindle and came across Mishka Shubaly.

He's the author of a couple of phenomenally successful Kindle singles (Shipwrecked, Beat the Devil) and has just published I Swear I'll Make It Up to You: A Life on the Low Road . Shubaly was a hardworking alcoholic drug-monkey who found redemption in running. Not taking anything away from him but, after inhaling the Kindles and starting on I Swear...  I thought that's enough of you, pal and turned in for the night.

(Full disclosure: I was saved by yoga and was probably just as boring when I waxed spiwichewal about downward dogging as Shubaly when he bangs on about ultramarathons.)

Shubaly's not a bad writer but reading him I was reminded of Gram Parsons's immortal: 'There's nothing new that can be said about dirt.' Gram got it right.  So why can't some of us get enough of lowlife?

Rooted in bohemia

Lowlife is rooted in the bohemian, anti-capitalist notion that to be outside of society is where it's at, man. There's a line of flamboyant refusal that stretches from the Flaneurs through the Beats to the Punks (anyone for Richard Hell?). It goes hand in hand with the systematic derangement of the senses, from absinthe to Carbona.

Today, when anything remotely subversive that pops its head up above the perversion parapet is snorted up by social media, there is no revolting into style. Or transgression, for that matter. Where do you go from Genesis P Orridge? All a poor boy - and they're usually boys - has left is massive substance abuse (isn't that such a coy term?).

Which, when we're being fisted into submission by bigmouth capitalism, crypto-fascist toadbloat politics and extremist lunacy, kind of renders itself obselete. Unless you think choosing your own poison is better than shotgunning greenhouse gas or being blown up by some disaffected little monster who can't even grow a beard properly because you're in the wrong country at the wrong time. And you chose the wrong illusion to believe in.

(There's probably more real evil in Geneva than there ever was in any Alphabet City hardcore club.)

But where blandness covers that part of the earth on which it's temporarily safe to stroll, or you're born into a certain degree of comfort, there is a certain appeal to lowlife.

For whatever reason - having curly hair, not being picked for the football team, a potentially fatal degree of self-absorbtion - it wasn't difficult for me to fall in love with the notion of lowlife.  But I was never that good at it. At the height of my descent one night, I found myself with a new set of cakefiend street friends. After a few rounds of what you might imagine, a zombie with sugared nostrils took me aside and said 'You're too nice for this. Go home.'

Off into the night I shuffled.

And that's the thing. Lowlife writers are usually really rather nice people who just had the bad luck to have been born with a skin too few, as the Irish say. The Holy Trinity for them is most often Burroughs, Kerouac and Bukowski. All men who in their own way were actually oddly decent and polite, they just happened to be addicts and smart myth-cultivators. OK, Kerouac wasn't. His myth ate him.

After reading Shubaly, I was reminded that the Holy Trinity never apologised and certainly never took up ultramarathon running. Thank something or other.

A shot of redemption

Burroughs was on methadone until the end of his life. Bukowski only stopped drinking when cancer got him. Kerouac, of course, didn't make it. They were never redeemed. Shubaly writes about redemption - fair enough, yoga saved me- and I'd suggest this is why his books are so popular. 

Really, they're the K-hole, black t-shirt, crappy tatt version of those feel-good stories by people who swim oceans using the only part of their body that still works - for argument's sake, their left ear or right little toe.

(There's a trend forecasting group in New York called K-hole. Says it all really.)

But redemption is really a cop-out. And, for me, it's always the most boring bit. Whenever I start to read a lowlife book I think: I did that, I did more of that, I wish I'd done more of that, you can't do that! By the time the wobbly narrator is saved I've lost interest.

When I quit everything I bored myself to tears. I turned into Conan the Librarian. Yoga got me out of my skull without poisoning me but it didn't make me fun to be around.

And then there's the age of the lowlifer. Shubaly doesn't say how old he is on his website, where you can buy his music and t-shirts as well as the books - quelle surpreez - but I guess he's around 40. Which means he's got a long life of being sober and trying to find something else to write about ahead of him.

Aging gracelessly

I was talking about Shubaly with a friend of mine last night who's also partial to a bit of lowlife. "It's all very well and good, " I said, "but there's nothing cool about being a 55-year-old fuck-up."

"Or a 69-year-old one," he said.

So far he and I have survived the ravages of, ahem, substance abuse. He's still helping out in the busy season but I've given up everything and am now growing up by accident. The point is that an old lowlifer is about as romantic as a used syringe. You've got to be closer to good-looking than corpse.

Look at Chet Baker, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke or Mason Hoffenberg. They were addicts pretty much until the end. And their addictions hamstrung them for life.

It's also kind of tacky to still be trading on your reputation as a hellraiser when you're clearly fit as a flea. Take Keith Richards - please. In every interview you ever see, read or listen to with the beady-eyed old gurgler he makes some sort of allusion to his wicked past. It's often so crass it even embarrasses him ("I'm glad to be here. I'm glad to be anywhere." F*ck off!) But before the Stones are allowed near a stage their insurers insist they submit to the most rigorous of medicals. So, while he's merchandising debauchery in one-minute vids, Keith is probably as squeaky-clean as Justin Beiber.

The truth is lowlifing hurts and it's as boring as the worst job you can think of. I've got some good war stories but I mostly look back on my years of learning to drown, of turning every pore in my body into a mouth, as a colossal waste of time.

I have to say, though, that I still have a soft spot for the ones who didn't make it, like Keith's drug buddy Gram. It's utterly stupid, or plain bad luck, to kill yourself with drink and/or drugs. But beautiful losers have their own integrity.  Even if, again like Gram, they were arseholes.

 

 

Of poets and Pokemon Go

With a real friend the conversation never stops. The same is true of differences of opinion. One of my friends and I have a never-ending argument as to the nature of poets and poetry. It's a little oasis of irrelevance that stops us worrying over our frankly terrifying, lunatic, overheated world and the travails of being in our mid-fifties.

In essence, my friend is of the school of TS Eliot who said 'Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion; but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.'

Moi, on the other hand, argues that poetry is the supreme expression of personality and emotion. Even if it's 'emotion recollected in tranquility', as Wordsworth put it. I also believe, like William Blake, that a poet is somone who has heard 'The Holy Word', which I take to be some sort of truth, either divine or coming from somewhere so deep inside (or outside) us that it doesn't necessarily make immediate sense.

Robert Graves put it another way. He believed that a poet has 'a source in the primitive. In the prerational.' I agree. 

I would also suggest that my friend's take on poetry is in line with the second part of Eliot's statement: 'But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.' My friend puts all the force of his emotions, all the power of his personality, into arguing that they don't exist.

My friend and I will never see eye to eye on poets and poetry but there is one thing we agree on.

Poets in opposition

Whether they're the 'unaknowledged legislators of the world' as Shelley believed or 'crazy alone forever' like Bukowski, true poets oppose by their very nature. Shelley was a radical, political activist and atheist at a time when to be one was a red flag to convention. Bukowski's intensely personal poetry seems to be about nothing more than poverty, endless boozing, going to the track and loving insane women. But it's really an attack on the great American Lie-trap that work makes you free.

Today we need divinely inspired, radically oppositional poets more than ever. We need poets who speak out against the grotesqueries of world politrix, the rapacity of business, the con of the disruptive sharing economy, the sheer mindlessness of our famous-for-breathing culture. We need poets who remind us that we can see creatures in the shrubbery without Pokemon Go.

The problem is that, as we know, no-one reads poetry anymore. So what do we do?

Rock and roll poets

The other night I was watching the it shouldn't happen to a Vietnam vet movie Born on the 4th of July. There was a scene in a bar with a girl singing Dylan's 'A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall'. She wasn't up to much but I'd forgotten just how powerful a song it is. It sent shivers, dear.

Like all our rock and rollers, Dylan is an Inc now, every bit as pathological as any other you'd care to mention. A Bono or Neil Young might be ever-so-slightly provocative on stage but he's more likely to put his mouth where his money is than the other way round. (At least Dylan has the grace not to comment on anything anymore.) And, if you're a young person going into rock and roll, your accountant is your guru.

Rock and roll is part of the entertainment industry so, by definition, it can't be oppositional. We won't find our poets there anymore.

The poetic springs eternal

If we despair, we despair of ourselves. Assuming we do believe in true poets and pure poetry, we need to remember that it springs from the way some of us are wired. There will always be people who are outsiders, lone wolves by nature. As long as there's language some of them will express their difference in poetry.

A month or so ago I met a person just like this, a true poet in the unlikeliest of guises. Words have saved her, for the time being. Meeting her restored my faith in the poetic spirit. So keep your ears wide open, people. And, who knows, your true poet may even be yourself.

Meanwhile, clic on the pic and dig a great reggae version of 'Hard Rain'.

 

 

 

I hope

'I can buy you a blue Cher wig from the wig shop on Jaime III,' I said.

She smiled. Her eyes were closed. 'No more chemo, Darling,' she said. 'I'm not having my hair fall out.'

Although part of me knew without knowing that it would be a miracle if she survived, I was still hoping up until the doctor gave her something to make her sleep forever.

Hope can be a bastard.

But I can't imagine being without it, to be literally hopeless. If I was living in Syria, in a refugee camp on the Macedonian border or staring death in the face in a Spanish hospital room would I still hope? And do only some of us hope?

What is hope?

Positive psychologist CR Snyder linked hope to having a goal. His Hope Theory suggests that if you have goals, pathways to them and belief, you'll be hopeful, my child. But I've never had goals, pathways or beliefs. I just keep going. I take it for granted tomorrow will be better than today, in spite of all the crappy things that continue to happen to me - and to you, I'm sure.

This has nothing to do with having faith that the Yawniverse or God will provide. I don't believe in either (at this present moment in time). To me, life is fundamentally meaningless and, if something of us continues on after death, we'll only know that when it happens. All we have is right now and what we do with it. And tomorrow, of course.

So, am I an idiot?

There's a tendency to see hope-filled people as daft. Think of Dr Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide and his belief that all was always for the best. The 1947 English edition of the book was actuallly called Candide: or, Optimism. Intahmuhleckshewally, I agree with Voltaire - optimism is for idiots. But I still hope.

Where does it come from?

Hopeos - breakfast of champions

I think it's safe to share with you that I was a love child. My parents sacrificed for me (and my brothers), fed me properly, looked after my teeth, and raised me to believe I could do anything I set my mind to, which is why I'm a rocket scientist.

Did this make me a hopeful case? Or does it also come down to a genetic predisposition? Am I hopeful soul? My Mum and Dad are great 'get on with it' merchants but I'm not sure if that means I come from hopeful stock.

All I can really say is that, in my case, hope springs.

Can you become hopeful?

Snyder and a guy called KA Herth say you can. Herth's work on hope is mostly to do with his belief in the psychological benefits of establishing goals in relation to illness and recovery. He and others like him also claim that hope blocks pain, releases endorphins - mimicking the effect of morphine - and can set up a chain reaction that helps a patient get better.

(While I believe that's true in the short term, I'm not so sure about terminal illness. In my experience, when your number's up hope doesn't come into it. A person gives up the ghost when something inside them says 'Basta! Enough. Jupiter looks nice.')

I would say that if you're not born hopeful, it's true you can only grow hope if you have a goal to focus on, that you believe you can reach even if that's just staying alive. I swim a little further, love a little harder, write a little longer.

And if you're not already a hopeful case, I hope you'll find a way to make hope gush for you and yours.

The opportunity cost of loving

You don't want to know what's been on the end of my fork this week but let me tell you it's been a mansize portion. Reading between the lines of what follows will give you some idea.

A relationship is another country

Have you ever noticed that when you're in a different country your first impulse is to compare it to somewhere else: 'Doesn't the Great Wall of China remind you of Flowertown main street, Darling?' It's the same with relationhips, we're constantly comparing one with the other, our emotional landscape with someone else's.

When I was on my own, my distance from the man-woman thing meant I felt able to spout platitudes about relationships and offer corny philosophical advice when the truth was I couldn't actually remember what it was like to have a down and dirty set-to with a significant other.

This week has reminded me that relationships are countries all of their own. I can't map my experience on to yours. Your reality is not mine. China is not Flowertown.

Realities

As a single man I lived in/on a combo bubble-cloud. Like the inhabitants of Swift's Laputa, I felt free to pursue my spiwichewal growth, oblivious to the damage done by the shadow of the cloud on which I floated.  It was easy for me to say that we each have our own reality which we can gleefully wobble and bend by tinkering with our body chemistry.

But the notion of countless realities is a waste of brain space to someone who can't afford to look up from what's on the end of their own fork. So what do we do? We hope. (And, let me ask you, what do you think hope is?)

Responsibilities

One of my favourite lines is Yeats's 'In dreams begin responsibilities'. It rolls off the tongue nicely. The only problem is it's true.

I've spent the past few years and, indeed, most of my life avoiding responsibility.  I have no idea whether that's a good or bad thing. It just became a way of life, made possible by the fact that I'm childless. Now, at the age of 55, having found what I dreamed of for so long, I'm having to accept that it comes with a responsibility I can't shirk. 

And you could just as easily say 'In responsibilities begin dreams'. Because, unless I do my best to share this responsibility, I won't realise my dream of the future. The last thing I want to be is alone again.

Loneliness and love

Nine years ago I was 46, broken by grief and trying to drown myself in booze, and on a spiritual retreat. I stood with my eyes closed while the woman running the retreat and one of her helpers pushed me towards a place in my consciousness where I had to say what I really wanted out of life. Finally, a giant baby, I wailed 'I want to love and be loved'.

Reading this cold on the electric page, you might well say 'Duh'. But, my cry came from the deepest part of my being, up from somewhere that hadn't been numbed by loss, despair and strong drink. If I ever wonder what I'm doing here, right now, I only have to remember what life was like in the valley of lovelessness. 

And I remember stopping at the bottom of a flight of icy steps that ended at the door of the cottage in which I was to sleep that night. I looked out over the frozen lake, up at the sky empty but for an unblinking moon and then back at the big house. All the light and warmth in the world seemed to radiate from the family in that house. I had never felt so alone in my life and I do not want to feel that way ever again.

Only connect

The opportunity cost of a choice refers to the cost of not enjoying the benefit of the choice you didn't make. There was a time when I believed being alone was a choice. Today I'm not so sure - I think it might have been a condition I had to pass through. But I know, somehow, I chose love and I have chosen the responsibility that goes with it.

I have been a beast and a monk. Now I'm trying to be a man.

 

 

 

 

 

Hi Anxiety!

I've yet to see attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or watch C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. But I have seen Bou Jeloud dance. I have seen the Man go up in flames out on the Playa. I have seen John of God operate on a woman in a trance using nothing but a rusty scalpel. I have eaten doubles in Monkey Town. And I'm sure the best is yet to come.

I like to think of myself as reasonably intrepid. Right now, I live in a country where I can't count beyond three in the native language. I've been a freelance writer nearly all my precarious working life. I wouldn't have it any other way.

But I'm also prone to bouts of anxiety so intense I sometimes expect Mr Anxious to burst out of my chest and run shrieking across the airport lounge eating my passport.

Why anxiety?

Anxiety is intended to save us when danger's on the loose. But when our inner Anxious gets out of control, it can make our lives hell.  Panic attacks, postraumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (or Joey Ramone's disease), to name but three of the beauties, are all horribly debilitating.

But, and I didn't know this, all anxiety disorders are highly treatable without resorting to valium or beta blockers. Therapy, anything from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, (ACT) works. ACT 'uses strategies of acceptance and mindfulness...imparts skills to accept these experiences, place them in a different context, develop greater clarity about personal values, and commit to needed behavior change.'

Without consciously being aware of what I was doing, I've arrived at a form of ACT to deal with my own anxiety. 

Several years of practising yoga have also helped. I seem to have developed a little place of calm somewhere in my consciousness that I end up going to when Mr Anxious is rampaging. I sit inside my calm garden and I wait for him to wear himself out. (Read how yoga helps with anxiety here.)

I've accepted that I'm going to live with anxiety for the rest of my life and it's going to get more intense. My parents, bless 'em, are the sort of people who do practise runs to the airport. Another member of my family (who shall remain nameless) takes a photo of the hob on his oven when he leaves the house so he can be sure it's switched off. Add all the stupid chemical things I've done to myself in my life to how I'm wired and it's no wonder I'm anxious. 

But, baby, I've learned to love my anxiety. While tap dancing across the interwebnet in what you might call research for this piece, if you had your tongue firmly in your electric cheek, I came across the phrase 'Sacred Anxiety' . It's well hippy but good.

All hail anxiety

I'm anxious about the fact that I've yet to paint my novel or embroider a rawk classic. When I think that Erika might never get to eat doubles with Bou Jeloud I'm filled with anxiety. But it reminds me that, in the immortal words of The King, 'I've gotta lotta livin' to do'.

So, while I'm not convinced that the levels of anxiety I feel make me a better, more spiwichewal person, I'm sure they help me appreciate how lucky I am to be living this life. And how much work I've still go to do before I buy the farm. I let my anxiety give me a kick up the arse rather than knock me flat on my back.

I started thinking about how anxiety can actually be a 'very good thing' when I was whinging about Brexit with a good friend of mine who had the misfortune to be raised Jehovah's Witless. My friend is wired to expect Armageddon at any moment. While he dreads the prospect of blood on the streets of Bohemia, I think he also kind of wishes for it. (Here, I'm reminded of Robert Downey Jnr's splendid 'Worrying is like praying for something you don't want to happen.')

Looking at the response to Brexit among my friends and in Screenworld, I can't help but wonder if it's a case of Mass Sociogenic Illness (MSI). Obviously, what occurred a week or so ago was pretty shocking but, increasingly, the response seems out of proportion to what actually happened. So, while I'm not suggesting that Brexiterror falls into the category of 'dancing mania', I am saying that we might all be over-reacting.

And, even if we're not, surely we should be putting all the chaos, all the disorder at the border Brexit has ushered in, to work for us. We have a wonderful opportunity to change the nature of the clunking structures that got us into this mess. We could turn our backs on the hollow men and women who put personal power and that of the psychopathic corporations they shill for before the greater good. We could embrace our collective anxiety and turn it into something transformative and wonderful.

You first.

And don't you f*cking hate the word Brexit? How clever of some media smarm to reduce history to the status of a celebrity divorce.

 

 

Britain after the rain: a personal reflection

Apart from the obvious, two things took me by surprise in the aftermath of the vote to Brexit. The first was the cold dark bubble of gloom through which I trudged all day, despite the heat and sunlight in my suddenly not so safe Mitteleuropean home. Second was the reaction to the news by some of my Facebook chums who voted to remain in Europe.

Quality street

I grew up in Little England before it was even called that. The Suffolk market town my family moved to in 1967 was snowy white. Racism was so casual as to be taken for granted. Although my grandfather was born in London, I was called a Nazi at school because of my weirdo surname.

The irony is that the fascist BNP was spawned close to the town. Jug-eared, glue-sniffing skinheads used to come up on the train from London to be trained as the shocktroops of tomorrow. They were as pathetic as they were dangerous.

In the mid-70s, my parents bought a house on what had once been the poorest street in the town. Back then, our neighbours were farm workers, postmen, dinner ladies - the 'ordinary people' that monstrous toad Farage-o so likes to champion. Today, my Mum and Dad live among BBC-wallahs, media monkeys, classical musicians, artists and lecturers.

These naice people have decided they are the community. They're the ones who mobilise to stop cheap and admittedly cheerless supermarkets opening up in the town. (The fact that there are less fortunate people whose family may have lived there for generations, could lay greater claim to being the real community and who can't afford or don't want to shop at the deli is irrelevant.) This rural outpost of the chattering classes may employ townspeople as cleaners and handymen but they make no effort to understand or integrate with them.

They're exactly like so many of my friends who voted to remain.

The quality of compassion

Most of my Facebook friends - chums in the real world too I hasten to add - have exemplary right-on values. They're constantly asking me to sign petitions protesting against all kinds of evils and begging for more compassion and mindfulness in the world.  So, I was taken aback by the vitriol they aimed at the leavers.

Anyone who had voted to leave was automatically stupid and had been conned. My friends (some of whom believe all manner of preposterous shit) were, of course, far more knowledgeable and informed. Am I the only person to find that assumption of superiority so patronising as to be dangerously insulting?

Don't get me wrong, I think the vote to leave was a grotesque step backwards and it has the potential to make my life as an expat far more complicated than before. But I understand why many of the leavers voted the way they did. They'd had enough of being treated as if they were either stupid or didn't exist . And I would ask how many of my remain friends live in 'ordinary working class' communities (whatever ordinary and working class are now). I would ask how they know what people who voted to leave think or feel.

The answer, I suspect, is that they simply don't. I definitely don't.

Divided we fall

Before I left England for Spain, I lived in a stubbed-out street in an East Anglian city. My neighbour was a rough but amiable geezer around my age. I was never quite sure what he did for a living. Most nights we'd leave our front door at the same time, me heading for my local and him to his. Both were two minutes walk away.

My neighbour wouldn't have dreamed of going to my pub, which was patronised by real ale and wine drinkers with interesting jobs. His was one of those that look terrifying even when they're closed. I would never have set foot inside. Without being too simplistic, I always thought the fact that we were neighbours but didn't drink together was a pretty good metaphor for what had already happened to Britain.

In the past ten years that garden fence divide seems to have grown into a chasm. With terrible consequences, as we've seen.

A little epiphany

The morning after the morning after, I was sitting outside a cafè drinking coffee and I was overwhelmed by the sheer aliveness of the people who strolled past. They were all beautiful in their humanity. It struck me that it's a miracle we're here on this planet at all.

And we're all in this together. No-one here gets out alive. We don't have a choice of colour. So we don't have the luxury of hating difference. Especially when we're living with the possibility of the whole shithouse going up in flames. Somehow we need to include ourselves back in.

 

 

 

I hate hate

Watching news of the horrific events of the last few days on my various screens, I could feel myself being battered into despair. But then I remembered something that happened many years ago when I was in a band.

We are Occupational Therapy!

At that time there were seven of us, including a DJ. What I did was like singing only different. Our favourite place to play was a home for mentally disabled people run by a friend of mine. It was one of the few times we weren't guaranteed to clear the room by the end of the second number. I'd like to think this had something to do with our funkee music but I suspect it was more to do with the fact that we looked like we'd been dressed by someone else. Our audience thought we were them.

Our given name was The Moneyshots but I always thought we should have been called Occupational Therapy.

One year we were asked to play at the home's Christmas Disco. We turned up to find my friend helping a blank-faced young man wearing bottle-bottom glasses into his car. One of the man's wrists was wrapped in a towel soaked with blood. We found out later he had some sort of condition that caused him to do things that generated anger and hate. He'd rammed his fist through a window hoping that he could stop the disco from happening.

My friend prevented this by refusing to rise to the young man's provocation. Remembering what he did has helped me find a more positive angle on all the mass shootings, stabbings, burnings, streetfights and political grotesqueries playing out on my screens. 

Blinded by hatred

The older I get the more I accept that Karl Marx was fundamentally right about how capitalism only works if we believe we are separate from each other. If I'm convinced you're different from me, it's easier for me to feel threatened by you. I don't feel so bad about shitting on you from a great height and I define myself as superior to you through what I consume. If capitalism can get me to hate you, by any means necessary, I'm far more likely to embrace the 'freedom' it offers.

Today, when governments are wrapped in the tentacles of pathological corporations, capitalism is doing an excellent job of making us hate each other. Because if we're consumed by hatred, we're blind to the constant erosion of our freedom, legitimised by capitalism's venal political shills.

(I'm not entirely sure where ISIS sits in all of this, to be honest. It, and other nauseatingly barbaric fundamentalist movements, seem to be motivated purely by the desire to exercise control. But does the money ISIS makes from oil and extortion go purely to fund terrorism? I would imagine its leaders are doing very nicely out of all of the bloodshed.)

We're also blinded to the other side of our nature.

Dog feed dog

Around the time that the principle of the survival of the fittest became the mantra of capitalism, a Russian named Peter Kropotkin argued that mutual aid was actually at least as important. If we don't cooperate with each other - dog feed dog - we may thrive as individuals but our species as a whole is in trouble.

The multi-bulti-trillionaire might believe he's safe from the teeming hoards on his private island but if the whole world is still going to choke to death on fumes and plastic he's wasted his money.

Looking at the reaction to the killing of British Labour MP Jo Cox or the mass murder in Orlando, it's not difficult to believe Kropotkin was right, and that can only bring hope. That is, if our response is to be more than just knee jerk.

To really change things we have to limit the powers of pathological global corporations. We have to elect more politicians who are not in the pocket of the corporations. We have to raise our eyes from our screens more often and remember that people in the world we really live in are for the most part decent, like us. They may been infected by a different idea virus than we have but we need to remember their humanity.

Most of all, I have to remember that hatred breeds hatred breeds hatred breeds hatred. And that, in the words of that towering moral philosopher Razzy Bailey, 'we got to have love'.

 

 

Do you lack conviction or are you filled with a passionate intensity?

I first met Yeats’s immortal lines from ‘The Second Coming’ on Lou Reed’s ugly, vitriolic and thoroughly entertaining Take No Prisoners 1978 live album. Speeding off his face, Lou says ‘The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity. Now you figure out where I am.’

Ever since I heard those lines, they’ve bothered me. Because most of the time I lack conviction and when I’m filled with a passionate intensity, I embarrass myself. Today, when we spend so much time in Screenworld, promoting ‘Brand Me’, pumping out gloatagraphs of our supposedly rosy-wosy lives, it seems that passionate intensity is electric oxygen. Which leaves me lacking even more conviction.

I've never been able to figure out which one I am.

It’s no coinkydinky, I’m sure, that the word ‘passion’ is flung around with such gay abandon in Screenworld. If we’re passionate about sandwiches, let’s say, we believe we have a better chance of registering our presence in Babble-on. The fact that being passionate about absolutely everything makes nothing especially important doesn’t seem to matter.

‘Tell me, are you more passionate about balsamic chicken and avocado or vaccinating every child in the Yemen?’

‘Um…’

Negative capability

To have a chance of making yourself heard in Screenworld means appearing to be 100% certain you’re right in whatever opinion you’re expressing. But it leaves you with nowhere to go, which is why so many Facebook threads and comments areas on blogs are filled with such strident declarations – before they descend into abuse.

So why don’t we exercise our power of ‘negative capability’?

Romantic poet John Keats first used this phrase in 1817 to describe the capacity shared by Shakespeare and other great writers of ‘being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

Incidentally, ‘Negative capability’ inspired Walt Whitman’s most wonderful ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

F Scott Fitzgerald, himself a devotee of Keats, said ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.' But Keats and Whitman weren't referring to intelligence. They were talking about empathy.

Because when we empathise with other people it’s much harder to judge them. Which means it's not so easy to cling to our own ossified certainties. Exercising negative capability opens the way to changing things for the better.

And the good thing is that empathy can be learned.

William Burroughs: unlikely mentor for neurologist writer Andrew Lees

A couple of years ago, at a European Beat Studies Network conference in Tangier, I interviewed a character named Davis Schneiderman. I asked Davis what William Burroughs meant to him. He said ‘Different people have their different Burroughs. But no one has Burroughs. That’s the secret. There is no Burroughs, at least not in a way easily communicable in a few words.’ I was reminded of this when I read Andrew Lees’s Mentored by a Madman: The William Burroughs Experiment.

Andrew is a medical doctor and Professor of Neurology at the National Hospital in London. He is one of the three most highly cited Parkinson’s researchers in the world and included in Thomson Reuters 2015 List of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds. Andrew’s Burroughs is someone with an enormous amount to teach the medical scientific establishment. His Burroughs is very different from mine and perhaps yours. Which is one of the reasons why it was such a pleasure to talk to him.

I interviewed Andrew via Skype. He wore a suit and tie. Behind him was a wall of ring binder folders and a Dreamachine, the flicker device designed by Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville to trigger hallucinations. That evening Andrew was taking part in an event at the October Gallery in London, talking to Burroughs expert Jim Pennington about his book and the part El Hombre Invisible played in his medical career. As someone more used to talking to doctors at keynote presentations, the prospect of diving all the way into Beat world made Andrew a little nervous.

I started by asking Andrew whether he thought Burroughs would have been a good doctor. (Burroughs was initially intrigued by psychoanalysis and studied medicine in Vienna until 1937, when living under the Nazis became too much to bear. Until he became thoroughly disenchanted with psychoanalysis, Burroughs got a kick out of analysing his friends. Kerouac, in particular, wasn’t so sure this was a good idea.)

Burroughs had a rational way of thinking in relation to scientific matters. Although he wasn’t taken seriously by Richard Schultes or the botanists on the Anglo-Cocoa Commission expedition he did show courage and scientific method in his investigation into yagé in Colombia and later in Peru. Psychiatry first attracted him to a possible career in medicine but I think his approach would have been better suited to neurology.

Many of Burroughs’s scientific notions were considered harebrained but I believe he only got involved with things like the orgone box and scientology because he wasn’t taken seriously by the scientists and doctors he tried to collaborate with. That’s the problem the institutions of science- they’re rigid and nowadays there’s an obsession with specialisation. Someone with unorthodox ideas like Burroughs had is hard to accommodate.

I asked Andrew if he saw Mentored by a Madman as being in any kind of literary tradition.

I’m a doctor-writer which of course has a distinguished tradition. Doctors are used to narrative and the good ones are both intuitive and excellent observers, qualities helpful for creative writing. I didn’t want to write a dry self-serving memoir and I haven’t focused on the art of doctoring in the book.  Burroughs doesn’t have much to teach people about how to be a good doctor but he can teach the young to be lights unto themselves and not accept as gospel what is in the textbooks. Burroughs was a great self-experimenter and despite its successes, self-experimentation is now denigrated as subjective, risky and biased. He also anticipated all the terrible developments that have come to pass in the business of health management. Government regulatory roadblocks and university bureaucracy are as much at fault in stifling research into new treatments as is big pharma. I’d have been frightened to write this book when I was younger for fear of chastisement by my employers and some parts of the medical establishment.  

And what has been the reaction to Andrew letting the cat out of the bag with his acknowledgement of Burroughs’s influence on him and his work?

When I speak to my colleagues about Burroughs, the people who’ve heard of him are 1960s medical student veterans like me.  Some considered Naked Lunch repulsive and offensive and were put off Burroughs for life. I have to say that’s how most of it seemed to me on first reading, although I did find it funny. The routines of Dr Benway may seem like a parody but his general manner and behaviour were not far off what some of my surgical teachers were doing at the time People are intrigued by my book but most of them will struggle to make sense of it if they have never read Burroughs   

How true is the book and how much is fictionalised?

I used the word ‘fantasia’ to describe Mentored by a Madmen. Disconnected ideas and a few fly agarics are thrown in to boot but it’s all true. As far as Burroughs is concerned, I never met him so I’m at a disadvantage. I’m simply creating intersections with Burroughs’s writing in areas that have relevance to Parkinson’s research.

Those of us who are admirers of Burroughs have our own version of the man/writer/thinker, what’s yours?

My Burroughs is one of my teachers, my unlikely mentor. I have taken at face value the things he wrote about which many scientists would consider to be crazy. In a subliminal way he’s informed a lot of my major discoveries and this book is a way of belatedly acknowledging his contribution. In the 1960s, I came to a Faustian bargain with Burroughs. He allowed me to complete my medical studies provided I continued to pay attention to what he had to say

How do you think the perception of Burroughs has changed over the years, from when you first discovered him?

My children and their friends are not really aware of Burroughs, which I think is a great pity because I feel he has much to teach all of us. Their generation never really rebelled and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. Maybe being aware of Burroughs might have made them question things more in the way it did me. When I read Burroughs today his ideas seem as fresh and pertinent as they did in the sixties and perhaps even more accurate.

What are your favourite Burroughs texts?

Naked Lunch, Junkie – from which I learned about mechanisms of addiction – the essays in The Adding Machine, and, of course The Yage Letters. Oliver Harris’s introduction to the most recent edition is almost as interesting as the text itself.  I also really like Ghost of Chance, published in 1991, which has been described as ‘an important story about environmental devastation’. Burroughs wrote the book as a plea for people to save the endangered lemurs of Madagascar. This from the man who tortured cats all those years before.

After I read and thoroughly enjoyed Mentored by a Madman I went back to The Yage Letters. Were you aware that Burroughs writes ‘Nothing human is foreign or shocking to a South American’ and you refer to a hospital motto in Latin that translates as ‘I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human foreign to me’?

No I wasn’t.  ‘Humani nil a me alienum puto’ comes from Publius Terentius Afer, AKA the 2nd century BC Latin playwright Terence, and is often rendered as ‘I am a man, and reckon nothing human is alien to me.’ We all knew the motto at the hospital and tried to adhere to it as a guiding principle in medicine.

It’s intriguing. A very Burroughs connection. It’s also highly appropriate since both of you are writing about your fascination with what it is to be human. What will you write next? Is there a Burroughs connection?

I want to describe in more depth how reading the Sherlock Holmes stories helped me in my diagnostic skills and explore the neurology of crime. Kerouac and Ginsberg both drew parallels between Burroughs and Sherlock Holmes – a private space investigator if you will.

Last question. I see you have a Dreamachine. Why is this?

People with Parkinson’s hallucinate and describe seeing little people who don’t speak, as well as animals. No-one knows the mechanisms that cause this but I’m experimenting with the Dreamachine and stroboscopes using functional magnetic resonance imaging to try and find out.

With that, we finished the interview but, as is the way when two Burroughs fiends start talking, meandered on for a while. I asked Andrew if latahs really exist. He told me he’d seen one in Indonesia. It’s been suggested that latah is triggered by an exaggerated startle reflex where people who are strongly startled will cry out. In remote communities the phenomenon has been culturally adaptive and may serve some sort of comedic purpose. As well as jumping to startle, some of these individuals exhibit echoing of sounds, coprolalia and automatic obedience. Nothing human is foreign indeed.

After reading Mentored by a Madman and talking to Andrew, I can only agree with the Burroughs quote on the cover of his elegant book: ‘The time has come for the line between literature and science, a purely arbitrary line, to be erased.’

In this, as with so much else, Burroughs was a man way ahead of his time.

New festival connects Mallorca’s cosmopolitan creative conscious community

If you’re in Mallorca between Friday 27 and Sunday 29 May and keen to meet like minds, there really is only one place to be. The KreaKolektiva Music and Arts Festival at Campos is the latest, largest and most exciting flowering of the movement bringing Mallorca’s cosmopolitan creative and conscious community together.

As Matthew Clark, one of the driving forces behind the KreaKolektiva event explains, ‘We’re putting all our energy into creating something that will be enormous fun and another big step towards connecting all of us on the island who are determined to live conscious, creative lives.’

Reflecting changing Mallorca

Born out of a desire to link and inspire the pockets of conscious creativity scattered all over the island, the Festival builds on the wonderful work done by the KreaKolektiva.  This began life as a series of ‘12 x 5’ events at the splendidly named Tower of Love in Palma’s everyday magical Old Town.

Twelve creative activists, of which I was proud to be one, had five minutes to share their stories. I have to admit that I was humbled by the dedication to their creative work displayed by my fellow 12 x 5ers.

Since then, the KreaKolektiva has blossomed into organising events like the ‘8 x 8’ talks where eight practical philosophers give presentations on subjects including the body, vitality, archetypes, ethics, diet, and alchemy. Alongside this are concerts, jam sessions, the Tower of Love Social Club and other spontaneous happenings.

It’s inspiring, not to mention hugely enjoyable, to be part of these events. But what makes them much more than simply a self-congratulatory night out is the KreaKolektiva’s commitment to creative activism.

Creative activism

About creative activism, the KreaKolektiva says ‘If we want to live in a world filled with art, music, joy and compassion we have a responsibility to create it. Conscious, healthy, ecological living filled with active creativity will enable our children to also live this way. You can help us make the world in which we all want to live a reality.’

Transforming words into action, the KreaKolektiva actively supports and promotes causes that include Dignity 360, a project to help the refugees in Greek camps; the Seabin Project, working for a clean ocean, and the movie Down to Earth.

Without making too much of a song and dance about it, the members of the KreaKolektiva have given focus and momentum to the movement for positive change in Mallorca. This is no longer fantasy island but a place where creativity in all its many forms is harnessed to real change, beginning with our immediate environment.

The Festival

Over three days, twenty-two bands and a handful of DJs will offer up everything from mellow folk to infectious funk. There will be theatre, performance and dance sessions, food trucks, artists doing their thing and all kinds of opportunities for celebrating creativity, connection and conscious living. Best of all, the Festival will offer the perfect opportunity for you to meet people who feel like you do.

As Matthew says, ‘Show up, have a fantastic time and make new friends and you’ll be part of the movement for creative activism in Mallorca. You will have joined the tribe.’

Giving myself the last word, I'd add this: Taking part in the Festival isn't just about having an amazing time. Supporting the KreaKolektiva will also help make sure the Festival becomes an island tradition. What more do you need to know?

Buy your ticket now

Buy tickets and find out more about the delights on offer at the Festival here. The Festival site is an easy drive from anywhere on the island and there's a map on the website.

Jeffrey Davis and the disruptive power of poetry

Last month controversial German comedian Jan Boehmermann performed a poem criticising strongman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on German TV. The poem wasn’t very good but it tapped into outrage at the way President Erdogan was attempting to regulate German freedom of the press. It’s still causing controversy.

Good.

It’s the first time in ages a poem made any kind of impact on wider society. According to the US Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, only 6.7% of Americans read a poem in the last 12 months.

So why does Jeffrey Davis still write poetry? He’s an author, speaker, creative strategist and a writing and yoga teacher. Isn’t that enough? Apparently not. ‘I cannot not make art,’ Jeffrey says, and ‘In this faith-in-data and fetish-in-productivity age of which I am a part, poetry is a subtle yet radical disruptor’.

On the eve of publication of Jeffrey’s latest collection of poetry, The Coat Thief, I spoke to him about the place of poetry in our shiny happy digital age.

First defined as a poet

The Coat Thief is the outcome of thirty years of Jeffrey thinking of himself as a poet. He tells a neat story about when the power of words first really dawned on him.

‘When I was six or seven my father gave me his father’s daybook, which he’d been using as a diary. He told me I could write my thoughts down in it. It was news to me that I had thoughts, let alone any worth writing down. So one day I’m sitting on the curb outside my house with the daybook and a pencil, writing, and along comes my sister’s fourteen-year-old friend Theresa Stubblefield. I had a major crush on her. She says “Tell me what to write and I’ll put it in your book.” I say “When Theresa Stubblefield is eighteen she will freeze herself. When I am eighteen she will unfreeze.”’

Ever since then Jeffrey has written ‘poetry about love, grounded in the everyday that finds music in the monotony of life’.

The Coat Thief

I asked Jeffrey to describe The Coat Thief. ‘This collection is not in a singular voice. I’ve given way to my many voices, connecting with Keats’s idea that a poet has no identity. It’s a way of being in this world, of finding empathy. I wanted these poems to be accessible, plainspoken.’

What triggers the poems? ‘Sometimes one originates from a nucleus of feelings. Other times, they’re triggered by lived experience. The third trigger is art. For instance, my long poem The Source is a meditation on Rothko’s painting of the same name.’

Jeffrey’s poems have a quality of stillness about them that I appreciate. They’re clearly the product of many years of exploration, clear-eyed reporting and hard work. It takes me a very long time to respond to good poetry – as it should, perhaps – but I particularly like The Mad Man’s Grocery List and the image of the ‘Yolk-haired boy bounded by common sense’. Other poems have a feel of Gary Snyder about them. When I mentioned this, Jeffrey took it as a great compliment.

Kittens with visions

Despite Jeffrey’s years of dedication to his muse, he’s making poetry in the age of the Internet, when social media is clogged with asinine verse of the ‘kitten with visions’ variety. So, what does he think of what’s been called the ‘cult of the amateur’?

‘I do agree that there’s been a diminishment of the appreciation of craft and everything has been reduced to expression. But I’d much rather people found their voices than they were muted. I’ve worked with so many people whose voices have been stifled and stymied. Most of all, though, I think the way poetry takes rational discursive language and sometimes twists it can powerfully disrupt our habitual way of feeling and listening, even in this digital age. And, as the example of Jan Boehmermann proves, poetry can still be radical and dangerous. For myself, if people find just one poem that stays with them, that’s enough.’

Business as unusual

Despite poetry often being seen as rarified or obscure, many poets have been in business. And they’ve not just been copywriters like Salman Rushdie – who came up with ‘Go to work on an egg’ (although it may have actually been author Fay Weldon). American poet Wallace Stevens spent most of his life working for an insurance company. TS Eliot was in in the foreign transactions department at Lloyds.

For Jeffrey, ‘thirty years of thinking as a poet gives me a distinctive edge in branding, helping me figure out how I can turn a beautiful phrase. Poetry helps me find the space between sense and nonsense where wonder lies.’

I agree.

Disrupt Monday 23rd with Jeffrey

To celebrate the launch of The Coat Thief, Jeffrey’s inviting all of us, ‘poetry lovers and poetry scoffers’ to take part in what he’s calling a ‘ripple of disruption’. Jeffrey would like us to stop work, slow down and read, write or recite poetry for fifteen minutes at 10 AM Eastern Time (that’s 4 PM CET) on Monday 23rd May.

I think it’s a great idea. Find out how to join the #DisruptMonday movement now .

How to buy The Coat Thief

You can either order The Coat Thief from your nearest fine book emporium or online at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

Indiebound

Golden Notebook

Yoga for writers: a conversation with Jeffrey Davis

Before I started practising Yoga at the age of 47, I had never really lived consciously in my body. It was a machine that got me to and from the bar and the bookshelf. I wanted Yoga to help me become fitter, stronger and stretchier but I wasnt prepared for the effect it would have on my writing.

Storylines, snatches of verse, song lyrics or even taglines and advertising headlines Id been trying to come up with for hours would pop into my head when I was practicing an asana. The worst was relaxation at the end of the class. Waiting until I could dash to the changing room and grab my notebook was a lot worse than having an itch on the sole of my foot and being unable to scratch it.

Without me actually wanting it to happen, Yoga turned on the inspiration tap. And it didnt flow, it poured. Being someone who writes, my first thought was Wow, I bet theres a book in this. There was and Jeffrey Davis wrote it.

A conversation with Jeffrey Davis

Jeffrey and I spoke via Skype. He sounds like a man whos come to terms with his life, happy to give long, entertaining answers to my questions, laughing easily and in love with wonder.

Yoga and writing

Jeffrey got serious about becoming a writer aged nineteen. He was an undergrad at the University of Texas in Austin when, as he puts it, he went left and changed from business to the humanities. For Jeffrey, studying poetry was the key to being both present in the world and in his imagination at the same time. In his pre-Yoga life, he went to graduate school, published poetry, wrote short stories and essays, became a fiction editor and taught creative writing. In my creative writing classes, I showed students how to really learn and honour their craft through the lens of how they were engaging with the world. Id put them in unusual situations; asking them, for instance, to observe people in cemeteries, coffee shops and anywhere I could think of. I was actually teaching my students how to be curious.

For a variety of reasons, aged thirty-two and an admitted workaholic, Jeffrey found his way to a Yoga class, with profound results. Yoga awakened my interior imagination so my head wasnt just crowded with noise and I could feel in tandem with parts of my body below my chin. After a few weeks of practising I suddenly felt alive and grounded. Within two to three months Id regained my concentration and then the hard armour of my heart cracked open. I could feel my emotional body again, which is really important for a writer. It took me onto the next leg of my journey.

We talked about what the experience actually feels like. Yoga screwed up my life in lots of beautiful ways, Jeffrey says. For a fellow whod learned to control his emotions, reconnecting with my emotional body was a shock. Two years after I began practising, when I joined the first of my teacher trainings, I spent the first year crying without knowing why. I was going through exhilarating changes I didnt understand.

Ever the curious intellectual, Jeffrey set out to understand what was happening to him. He studied the burgeoning science of neuropsychology to grasp the effect Yoga had on his brain and body while combining his knowledge of Jung, Maslow and Joseph Campbell with what he was learning about the Eastern traditions. Delving into the classical texts, he learned exactly how Yoga helped him achieve the cessation of the minds whirling fluctuations, that flow were all looking for.

I studied translations of the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a several-hundred-years-old catalogue of movements and breathing practices.  At the same time, I experimented with their effects on me as a writer, noting which postures helped me concentrate more, which activated the flow of emotional imagery thats so important for us writers and which enabled me to open up and stay in an emotionally difficult place. I worked a lot with teachers who taught me about sequencing and I found out how to enable myself and others to close our eyes and pay attention to what was happening in our interior space.

For the next eight years of his life, Jeffreys commitment to teaching Yoga for creative writing was all-consuming.

Yoga and the creative writing establishment

In my experience, orthodox creative writing teaching tends to concentrate on the sheer slog of mastering the craft rather than nurturing the source of the writing itself. I was curious to know how the creative writing establishment responded to Jeffreys use of Yoga. 

First of all, Jeffrey says, I'm still of the hard work school. Writing is about learning, finessing, mastering aspects of the craft and then breaking the rules. I still agree with that but I have a different way of handling the work. What befuddles me is that if you write you know youre always up against the vagaries of your own mind and moods so why not find the best and healthiest means available to manage these? Especially if they increase your awareness and power to track the images that filter through its ether, enhance your ability to watch your thoughts and give you the strength to delve into emotionally difficult places. Were still doing hard work, just in a different way.

But its changing, right? Sure. Ive been invited to several writers conferences to teach some variation of my work. Ive taught an MFA in Creative & Professional Writing programme, and the director of one MFA invited me for a workshop and then asked me to speak on the soul in creative writing. I was surprised, but I think theres a hunger within academia to add some genuine humanity to the field of creative writing programmes, which can get mired in pettiness, positioning, and personalities. The conversation about embodiment related to writing and social justice is also shifting and thats incredibly exciting. A few days ago I was at the wonderful Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington DC. Together with my poet/yogi colleagues Kazim Ali and Susan Brennan, I gave a workshop called Moving Breath, Moving Justice where we used Yoga to lead people into some politically sensitive subjects. But I would say you have to be qualified to teach some of these things.

One last, slightly cheeky, question: Do you still practise every day? “I do. No matter where I am in the world or what is happening to me personally. Every single day - usually within the first 20 minutes of getting out of bed. A variation of the same Concentration Sequence that's in the book. Every single freakin’ day.”

The Journey from the Center to the Page

Ive read Jeffreys The Journey from the Center to the Page a number of times and lost count of the people Ive recommended it to. First published in 2004, The Journey offers, as Robert S. Nelson, Director of Creative Writing at the University of Texas says, a map showing the way for living the authentic life of the writer, a life not found in the bottle, in pills, or in misery, but rather a life found at the center of our authentic selves.

You dont have to be an experienced yogi to follow the sequences and breathing exercises Jeffrey suggests. But practice them before you begin to write, stick with it, and I can assure you that youll soon see a difference in your writing. Im personally eternally grateful to Jeffrey for writing the book I wanted to write.

Practising the sequences in The Journey helped me get to the next level, which is using Yoga to move beyond inspiration. In the same way that practising regularly enables us to stretch a little further, hold a posture for longer, breathe deeper, Yoga led me to concentrate on getting better at specific aspects of my writing anything from grammar to writing more believable dialogue. I came to see showing up at my desk as no different from showing up at my mat.

Id like to give the last word to Jeffrey. Forgive the length of this quote but it says everything I know to be true about Yoga and creative writing:

Yoga reverses the feeling of being a victim to some mysterious muse whose erratic schedule rarely jibes with yours. With consistent Yoga practice, you can influence your concentration and imagination, your level of vigor, and your awareness of emotions all beneficial attributes, as this book will explain, to writers. Its no secret, either, that we writers are given to depression, anxiety and insomnia, too. Numerous current studies verify what the ancient yogis stated: Yoga helps the mind and its moods. And whereas physical forms of exercise such as aerobics and running do benefit the brain and body, Yogas principles and tools offer a practical way that efficiently centers the body-mind imagination and deepens self-understanding. Yoga is a way that emphasizes less how you look on the mat and more how you live in the world. Thankfully, its a practice that also is invariably adaptable to any body, which is good news for most of us sedentary writers. To practice Yoga as muse for authentic writing involves the physical postures (asanas), breath awareness (pranayama), concentration (dharana), inner seeing (bhavana), and self-study (svadhaya).

Why Yoga? Why not?

Why not indeed?

After mourning

Lali was the love of my life, I believed. When she died, eleven years ago last February, I became part of the club no-one wants to join. Whether we’re open about telling people we meet what happened to us or not, we usually recognise each other by our eyes.

We look stunned but in pain, like we’ve cried too much. Often there’s a shell around us. We may be desperate to be touched but the way we carry ourselves suggests otherwise.

The only people who understand what we’re going through are the other members of the club. They know there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do or say that will make things better. Which contradicts what I’m about to write but, if you’ve experienced the kind of loss I have, I hope you’ll forgive me.

* * *

Like you, perhaps, I self-medicated until it was either stop or die. I had flings not relationships, and platonic friendships which I believed were safe. They weren’t. Although I missed her, I used the memory of Lali as a weapon and a shield. I followed a spiritual path until I understood again that we’re born to be with another living human being, despite knowing we die alone. When I began to make myself interested in women other than Lali, it was obvious that both they and I were trying to force something into life that wasn’t meant to be.

And then I met someone. Ten years to the month after Lali died, Erika and I began our relationship.

* * *

I felt compelled to write this post because in the past couple of weeks I’ve read the stories of people incapable of finding new love after their partner died. I understand this completely. Before she passed (and after) Lali told me she wanted me to find someone else. For the first few years of being alone, she – a memory – was more real to me than any woman I met. It also felt dishonourable to want to be with another woman, as if I was betraying Lali’s memory and cheapening her suffering. Even when I was feeling these things, I knew they were ridiculous but it didn’t help.

I don’t want to patronise anyone who’s a member of the club by adding to the platitudes you’ve had spouted at you. But it does seem to me that, as someone wrote, grief ‘hurts as much as it should do’. By this I mean that, for me, there was a time to mourn and when it ended I knew, as scared as I was, it was time to come back to life.

Those of us who lost the person we chose to spend what we thought would be the rest of our life with have another choice to make. We can either stay frozen or dive back into being fully alive. I chose to try again, or something chose for me. And I want to tell you that it is possible to mend a broken heart. You can give all of your heart to one person and all over again to another. If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll be a better partner than you ever were before, precisely because of everything you’ve learned and lost.

Fall in love again after loss and you absolutely know you have to live in the moment because it really is all you have.

* * *

Last week I went back to my apartment with Erika, to continue the process of clearing away that part of my past I no longer need, to throw light on some of the shadow. She placed her open bag on my work table and the ring I bought Lali all those years ago fell off the shelf and inside.

 

Writing in the moment – a conversation with Dave Klaus

A week or two ago, I felt I'd really lost my way when it came to writing.Then I read a post on my friend Dave Klaus’s blog called ‘Breaking the Spell of Separation’.

How I met Dave Klaus

Two years ago I went to Burning Man for the first time. As anyone who’s been will tell you, the group of people you camp with has a lot to do with how much you, ahem, enjoy the experience. I was incredibly fortunate to find myself in the middle of the Bees – the only group of people I’ve ever actually wanted to be 100% part of. Dave is King Bee, a title both serious and ironic. He wears the crown, or cowboy hat, well.

I went to Burning Man to break out of a mental and emotional straightjacket I’d strapped myself into. I was going to write about the experience. Two years down the line I’m still digesting what happened to me and coming to terms with the beautiful changes Burning Man and being with the Bees set in motion.

On a dusty sofa in the desert

One twilight, in the lull before the whole crazy carnie flickered into life around us, Dave and I sat on that dusty sofa and talked about writing. He wore a yellow and black tutu and bright yellow fur coat. My fur coat was a little too small but my new black DJ gloves trimmed with yellow fun fur that Tessa, a splendidly eccentric artist Bee had made for me, were the business. I was so blown away by Dave and the Bees – in a quiet, English, stiff upper lip way – that I offered to help Dave with his writing. It’s all I had to give.

As we talked in the months that followed, I helped Dave acknowledge what he knew already. He is a writer and he has as much right to write as anyone. Now, the thing I admire most – and envy a little – about Dave’s writing is his ability to be absolutely honest. In a way which is forceful but always gentle.

After I read Dave’s ‘Breaking the Spell of Separation’ post I had to write and tell him how much I loved it. A few days later we caught up and talked about what life writing means to Dave.

Dave, the thing that really got to me about the post was you worked through all your negative feelings to arrive at such a positive state. How do you find your way back to optimism?

The biggest gift to me in the past two years has been learning I have a degenerative lung condition, and coming to terms with the reality that in the not-so distant future I’ll likely need supplemental oxygen from a tank to breathe. It’s devastating but the gift has been to truly appreciate each breath as I’m taking it. Within each breath is untold opportunity.

When I’m doing my practice, which includes meditation, embodiment work (yoga and qi gung and biking), and appreciation of the dharma, I find I’m able to wake up in this moment and grin. I’m optimistic because I’m alive and have been so for 47 years. And I keep being able to breathe without effort. It turns out that breathing is the best drug of all.

What does the moment mean to you?

I’ve been struggling a lot recently and I started thinking about the poignancy of each moment. Which way do I want to go with what the moment contains?

The question I ask myself is ‘Am I going to fall into safety or scarcity?’. But when I do my practice and get into the Buddha groove there’s a sensation of possibility and optimism. And being connected to an amazing community means that if I do fall into scarcity I don’t languish there too long. I hear the pinging call of groundedness:  a homing beacon to the present moment.

In my professional work, I’m defending a man who killed others, who now wants to die . I have to have faith that I can keep going in a certain direction. As Kierkegaard said, I’m ‘treading water over 70,000 fathoms’ so what do I do? I just keep moving my arms and legs and breathing. There’s obviously a certain gravity to that metaphor, so I try to balance it with remembering the cosmic joke:  how funny this life can be!

In what way?

My client is charged with murdering seven people. He’s a sad and broken man with desperate mental illness. Serious stuff.  One day, I’m sitting with him in court, and I smell something. I’m thinking he doesn’t smell so good. That’s not uncommon for people living in jail, and especially for those who are ill like he is, so I let it go and forgive him. After the hearing’s over, I go back to my office. I sit down at my desk and I can still smell it. In an instant, I realise it was me not him! I’d forgotten to put on my deodorant that morning. I burst out laughing.  All my projections onto him, my clients and the situation dissolved. It broke the spell, and brought lightness to the moment. I’ve learned that when I want to defy gravity, and not be Grave Dave, I think of something funny. I watch comedy like Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, or listen to some standup by Louis CK or Aziz Ansari.

Do you get depressed?

Not so much now. I certainly still experience depressive phases but it’s much more of a rollercoaster, whereas in the old days I could sink into darkness for months. Now, I have a laugh, get a hug, go dancing. The real reason it’s changed is that I have a solid spiritual practice and I take much better care of myself.

How is the way you feel connected to your writing?

I would say that my writing tends to come fairly effortlessly when it’s happening. But I go in bursts. I’m not consistent. I’d like to become more regular, make it more of a practice. It’s built now on years of work in men’s circles, therapy, journaling, and practicing noticing what I’m feeling and then putting words to it. I've learned to identify the feelings that are arising, and to recognize the stories that I can then spin out of them. When I write about embarrassing stuff like shame, I find that the feeling settles down and dissipates.

Shame is a monster.

Sure. But I remember one of the stories about the Buddha. There’s the belief that once he reached enlightenment he became superior, untouched by feelings and emotions. Not true. Even late in his life, if Mara, the demon who tried to tempt the Buddha with visions of beautiful women and distraction, showed up at the back of the room when the Buddha was talking, he’d say ‘Mara, I see you there’. That’s it. He’d acknowledge the presence of these distractions and then move on.  I take this to mean that honouring and crediting shame is all part of integrating into being a whole person.

Back to writing…

When I’m writing down the process of what I’m feeling I actually start to feel different - lighter, more present and grounded. Then there’s the scary moment of deciding to publish the writing. Fortunately, pretty much every time I post something personal I always get at least one person who says ‘Thank you for posting, I thought I was the only one, I though I was all alone.’ Hearing that, I don’t feel so alone. I just have this belief now that when people express what’s happening to them the more empowered they feel and the safer it becomes. At least that’s how it works for me. 

What do you think is the difference between writing as a practice and as a kind of art form with pretensions?

I now call myself a writer. I say that to people. It was an important step for me and it came directly out of working with you, David. Claiming that title was a powerful transition for me, and it’s now one of the hats I wear. I carry my notebook and pencil with me at all times and I’m always looking for fodder to use in my writing. Observing and noticing as witness also gives me a little bit of a buffer. When the poignant prick of reality arises, I have a bit more distance to ask myself: which way am I going to fall, sweet or sour? Having that space, that distance, which is strengthened and enhanced by meditation, gives me choice. That’s where the writing is a practice. It gives me a little bit of a distance from the intensity of what’s happening, and then it gives me the space to realise how alive I really am.

Thanks for reminding me this space exists, Dave.

Talk to me about life writing

Life writing covers everything from blogging to autobiography. If you’d like to excercise your right to write and develop a life writing practice, and you could use some guidance, please get in touch.

Never the same - the baker and the lions

The first time she drove me to the river so I could swim she pointed out a bakery set back from the highway on the right. “His cakes were never the same after they took his lions away,” she said.

“Excuse me?” I said, leaning forward to turn down Elvis singing “Always On My Mind”.

She sighed, as if she was telling me the story for the hundredth time. “He was a simple old country man but his hobby was to keep lions. He had three on his little farm, not so far from the bakery.”

“Where had he got them from?”

“I don’t know. Wherever you get lions from. I was a teacher at the school in this village. When the teachers wanted an excuse to take the children out of school they would bring them down to the bakery. And the old man would show them the lions.”

“That’s fantastic,” I said.

“Not really. One day a little girl came from home from school with a tear in her school cardigan. Her mother asked her what had happened and she said she’d been attacked by a lion. Of course, her mother didn’t believe her and was angry. But the little girl insisted she was telling the truth. Her mother took the little girl to our school and they asked her chemistry teacher if it was true, that she took the children to see the old man’s lions. The teacher said it was. It was a big scandal. The television people came.”

“It’s a great story.”

“It’s not a story, it’s true. And they took the old man’s lions away. It was terrible for him. His cakes were never the same after that.”

“What were they like before?”

We drove over a bridge that crossed a broad river. “Is that where I’ll be going swimming?” I said.

“No. His cakes weren’t bad. But they weren’t as good as Rozsika neni’s.”

Yesterday we bought Easter cakes from the unhappy blonde woman at Rozsika neni’s with bright makeup who has lost a lot of weight. Afterwards we went into the Catholic church to light candles. The white paint around the entrance to the church was peeling but the gloom inside was familiar and comforting and the baroque painting above the altar shone.

Just inside, on the left in front of some embroidered white sheets, was a short metal box for candles divided into perhaps five rows.  Two small red candles had been lit and placed on the right-hand side of one of the rows. She put two hundred forints into the money box and I set our two candles in the centre of the middle row.

She moved them to the left-hand side of the same row as the already lit candles. “It is not the custom in Hungary to put the candles in the middle,” she said.

I lit my candle with a match and tilted the flame until hers caught. For a second the flames wobbled but they straightened out and became strong. As we stood side by side holding hands and made our wishes I felt the heavy weight of the cakes from Rozsika neni’s in the bag in my free hand.

 

Last night we ate cake again. ‘These are so good,’ I said, taking a small square of flodni from the rows on the paper tray on the table between us. “I can’t remember, was it tigers or lions?”

“Lions,” she said. “I’m sure Rozsika neni puts more into her cakes at Easter. They taste better.”