Saturday, 28 July 2018

Peanut Brittle

This post is from Sue

My mum and I loved peanut brittle . Expensive presents weren’t the order of the day growing up but once I started work one year I bought her a whole sweet jar full.  And she still had all her own teeth!

Just recently I was quite sad as a good friend had been diagnosed with cancer  So one of my daughters sent me a present to cheer me up.  Included in it was a slice of peanut brittle.  Suddenly I was smiling, going back through the years to my childhood.  It wasn’t actually about the peanut brittle, that was just the catalyst.  So what was it about?  And what about those who don’t have ‘peanut brittle‘ memories to fall back on?

I was very lucky. There are so many little things that remind me how safe and valued I felt growing up, although we only realise these things retrospectively.  The things that made me feel OK as a person, first as a child and later on as an adult.

But actually we are all okay as people.  It’s just that if no-one helps us to realise that growing up we have to find ways of doing it for ourselves. 

A very common way is not to remember anything: “Oh that’s in the past, for me it’s a bit of a blank “ Bit of a shame really as you are blocking out all the clever ways you managed to survive growing up in a difficult environment, all the things you managed to work out for yourself.

Or you only remember the bad things you were told or believed about yourself.
“My mother says I was born an angry child”.  I don’t think so but it makes some sort of crazy sense if your life was not good.

And maybe the most complicated one to deal with as we get older, we pretend it was all OK!

So what can we do about all this?

Firstly, keep repeating to yourself my dad’s mantra: ”You’re as good as anyone and better than no one”. Never mind that you don’t quite believe it yet. Just keep saying it. It affects how you feel about yourself and other people.  And how you treat yourself and other people: as equals.

Then if you’re past wasn’t good enough make sure your future is better.  Work out the things that make you feel good.  That’s not what other people think, it’s what you think. I mean going swimming fills me with fear and dread. For someone else it’s a fantastic way to relax.

And it doesn’t matter what it is you like. Train spotting, watching Coronation Street, computer games, doing nothing. All valid if it’s your choice. Rebuild your world as you want it.  And yes, I know it’s not always that easy.  But remember the mantra – you’re as good as anyone and better than no one.

 Go on, you deserve it!

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Stage 6: Delight

Today we complete our journey from despair to delight, with six of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnets as our travel guide. To celebrate, we share his pleasure in his own favourite poem, The Windhover:

I caught this morning morning's minionminion favorite, darling; also, an underling or servant, king-
    dom of daylight's dauphindauphin prince; a French historical term, along with “chevalier”, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimplingwimpling rippling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! Buckle! to bend, attach; prepare for flight or battle. The verb could be descriptive of the bird’s action, or it could be the speaker’s imperative. AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!chevalier French word for “knight” or “champion”; pronounced Chev-ah-leer, to rhyme with “here” and “dear”
   No wonder of it: shéer plódshéer plód slowly, laboriously, and without break; these accent marks, inserted by Hopkins, tell the reader to place more accent or emphasis on those syllables when reading aloud makes plough down sillionsillion Fresh soil upturned by a plow (“plough”)
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dearah my dear Compare with the same phrase in the poem “Love (III)” by George Herbert, a poet Hopkins admired.,
    Fall, gallgall to become sore, crack, or chafe themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

This sonnet really does work best when you read it out loud.  It takes a few goes to get the rhythm of it, especially the first few lines. Do try it yourself -  you’ll soon find you are flying with the falcon, up and down, barely taking a breath until the first full stop arrives, half way though line seven.

Then you can have a rest and check out some of the words and images. In line 2, ’dauphin’ means ‘crown prince’. In line 6 the imagery is ice-skating – for us today it could as easily be skiing in the Alps, or surfing the waves of Cornwall. Lines 9-11 give the image of the prince on horseback fastening (buckling) his armour. In lines 12-13, ‘plough down sillion shine’ refers to the way that soil, when turned over by a plough, becomes big and shiny.  In the final line, ‘gall’ means graze or scrape, and ‘gold-vermilion’ is the colour of fire, or fresh blood.

Hopkins used the word inscape to refer to the charged essence of a thing (a tree, a landscape, a sunset or – in this case – a falcon); the absolute individuality that gives each thing its being, its uniqueness, its sanctity, its purpose in the world.  He created a second word, instress, to refer to the energy that holds the thing together and – importantly – to the impulse which carries it whole into the mind of the person seeing it.  His heart stirs for the falcon, he is at one with it in its mastery of the air.

We can gain profound courage from this sonnet. The beauty and joy of the falcon, ecstatically riding the wind, infuses with his energy not only Hopkins the poet but also ourselves the readers. It prompts us to celebrate those moments in our own lives when we are effortlessly magnificent and free.

He inspires us to believe in a glittering luminous core to our own being - a core not crushed by the ‘sheer plod’ of our daily activities, but brought by them to the surface, honed and sparkling in the sun.

shéer plód slowly, laboriously, and without break; these accent marks, inserted by Hopkins, tell the reader to place more accent or emphasis on those syllables when reading aloudAnd all this in full awareness that our existence is precious but precarious; that danger or death may be lurking around the corner. An awareness that only heightens the intensity of our joy for life in the present moment.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Stage 5: Comfort of Others

We’ve now reached stage 5 of our travels with Gerard Manley Hopkins – and here we find his sonnet Felix Randal.

Felix Randal the farrier, O is he dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it, and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?
Sickness broke him. Impatient, he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;
How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal.

This poem is about the life and the death of a Liverpool blacksmith, whose real name was Felix Spencer. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 31 - the average life expectancy in Liverpool at that time. 

It may seems strange that I’m suggesting a poem about death and dying can help us on our journey from despair to delight, but I really think it can.

A few words and phrases may need explaining first. In line 4, ‘fatal four disorders’ probably refers to the Catholic notion that there are four elements of original sin. In line 13, ‘random’ means built of rough stone. In line 14 ‘fettle’ means ‘make ready’, and ‘sandal’ is a classical term for an early form of horseshoe.

I find a very strong affinity with Hopkins throughout this poem. He wrote it just a few minutes’ walk from my University office, where I am sitting right now. So it feels particularly real and tangible to me.

For me it resonates strongly with the real world relationships I enjoy as a family doctor today. His  vivid description of Felix crumbling in the face of disease. His application of the best evidence-based care (though for Hopkins his evidence comes from Catholic doctrine, not NICE Guidelines).   His bearing witness to Felix the man, ‘powerful amidst peers’ in his ‘more boisterous years’.

But above all, in the mutual benefits that derive from his care of Felix as his death approaches. I find the heart of this sonnet is in lines 8 to 10: ‘This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.  Sight, words, touch and tears - all shared, in a beautiful reciprocity. 

This is an opportunity for all of us. 

Connecting and giving are two of the Five Ways to Wellbeing. We can recognize – and accept as entirely reasonable and legitimate - that we ourselves receive comfort, a greater sense of wellbeing, as we provide comfort to others.  We feel, we become, appreciated - and loved. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Stage 4: Comfort of Self

We’re now at the fourth stage of our journey from despair to delight, and it’s beginning to get a little easier.  Here is today’s sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins:  

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst's all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
's not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.

A couple of clarifications - Hopkins often uses adjectives to stand in for nouns, as in line 6, ‘comfortless (world)’.  And he likes to create new words, such as ‘betweenpie’ in the last line.
There is a sense of interior space in this poem, of having (at long last) a little room to rest, to breathe, to grow. And a great message, that we deserve kindness and love.

Hopkins is beginning to be gentler with his ‘sad self’, giving himself a break from his incessant internal critical chatter.  It’s time to ‘call off thoughts awhile elsewhere’.

We can do the same.  We can take time out from tormenting ourselves about why we feel so unhappy.  We can resist our negative thoughts. I can stop yelling “Just pull yourself together, stupid” inside my own head.  You can recognise your own worth. You can realise that it’s alright to feel the way you do. 

For Kristin Neff, self-compassion has three basic elements: self-kindness, in place of self-judgement; common humanity in place of isolation; and mindfulness, observing rather than identifying with our negative thoughts.

We can be compassionate to ourselves – have pity on our hearts - just as much as we are towards others. We can treat ourselves just as well as we treat our friends and the people we love.

I love Hopkins’ phrase ‘leave comfort root-room’. It’s about giving ourselves permission and space for a sense of ease and well-being to set down roots and begin to grow.

Maybe it’s time for a duvet-day - or two….

And then, who knows, joy may (increase in) size and catch us unawares.  Hopkins’ evocative image of God’s smile, distilled within his new word ‘betweenpie’, is of a brightly dappled sky seen between dark mountains.  For him that brings memories of the hills of north Wales. For me it conjures up childhood days of sunshine over Glendalough in Ireland.

 We can help our own smiles to grow. One way that works for me is the meditation technique of visualising a constant, infinite stream of warm, spacious, liquid sunshine; pouring in through my head; slowly and gradually filling my body, from my toes all the way upwards.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Stage 3: Determination

The third Hopkins’ poem I’ve chosen to guide us on our journey from despair to delight is called Carrion Comfort.

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; 
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man 
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can; 
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be. 
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me 
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan 
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan, 
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee? 

   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear. 
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod, 
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer. 
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród 
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year 
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Now there’s a fair bit of difficult stuff in this poem, which we’ll not worry about too much.  For example how Hopkins likes to use adjectives like ‘rude’ as verbs; or phrases like ‘I kissed the rod’ which means taking holy orders, becoming a priest.

Let’s focus on the first four lines, which are all about his thoughts of suicide. Hopkins is not just accepting his despair. Now has started to wrestle with it. He is not going to die. He is not going to let anyone or anything feast on his rotting remains. He is not giving up – even though he knows how hard it is to keep going - as we can see from his double negative ‘not choose not to be’.  He can. He can stay alive. He can hope.

Unlike Hamlet wondering whether ‘to be or not to be’, or Keats who was ‘half I love with easeful death’, Hopkins is determined to survive. Like the conatus – desire - of my favourite philosopher Spinoza, these lines are all about his dogged, bloody-minded resolve to keep going, come what may.  And we can draw immense strength from that. 

There’s a lot more wrestling in the rest of the poem, but it’s no longer with himself. Now it’s a conflict between Hopkins and his God.  We can take this more generally. Since we have decided we are going to stick around, we can decide there is no point in just meekly accepting our fate. We can decide to stand up and be counted. We can decide to do battle with the conditions that have been grinding us down.  

But what’s the point?

Maybe it’s to strip away the ‘chaff’, the rubbish that surrounds us, so that our ‘grain’, our inner being, lies ‘sheer and clear’. Maybe it’s to find out that we are strong, strong enough to grapple with the toughest of them all, and not be defeated.  

And we have a clue in the last line that the worst is over, as ‘of now done darkness’ shifts these experiences from present to past tense.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Stage 2: Detachment

The second Hopkins poem on our journey from despair to delight is also deeply troubling, but it does offer us a glimmer of light along the way. 

A note before you start reading: in the first line, the word ‘fell’ means ‘deadly, ferocious evil’.

            I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
          What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
          This night! what sights you, heart, saw; the ways you went!
          And more must, in yet longer light's delay.
             With witness I speak this! But where I say
          Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
          Is cries countless, cried like dead letters sent
          To dearest him that lives alas! away.

          I am gall, I am heartburn.  God's most deep decree
          Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
          Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
              Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
          The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
          As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

The main message Hopkins conveys to me in this poem is his dreadful sense of loss; endless separation from the one he loves; sourness and bitterness; visceral, heart-wrenching grief.

And yet. 

He finds an element of detachment.  Despite his obvious distress, Hopkins is able to write perfectly formed classic sonnet lines: ten syllables, with the stress on every second one: ‘I wake and feel the fell of dark not day’.  And then in the final six lines, he decides to vary the rhyming structure from the standard <cde cde> of the previous poem to <ccd ccd> (decree/me/curse; see/be/worse).

There is resonance again with mindfulness meditation - with the point at which we begin to create a space between ourselves and the pain and distress. Instead of being caught outside in the middle of a thunderstorm, we begin to watch the thunderstorm through a window. 

He has some inner company in this time of trouble. Within the first three lines, Hopkins’ switch from the first person ‘I’ to ‘we’ (I plus heart) to ‘you’ (heart). So he is not dealing with all this on his own. His heart is taking some of the burden for him.   

And maybe there is a purpose for him, behind all this suffering.  With ‘I see’ at the end of line 14, Hopkins suggests that this experience is enabling him to understand the torment of lost souls. We do not have to share his views on the afterlife to gain value from this idea. If we have experienced grief and loss ourselves, we are so much better placed to offer empathy and compassion to people we know who going through it all now. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Stage 1: Despair

It's time to take the first step on our journey from despair to delight, taken in the company of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We’re going to jump straight in with what, for me, is Hopkins’ most desolate sonnet.

Here it is: take a deep breath, and read:

            No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
          More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder ring.
          Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
          Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
          My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
          Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge old anvil wince and sing -
          Then lull, then leave off.  Fury has shrieked 'No ling-
          ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.
                    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
          Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
          May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
          Durance deal with that steep or deep.  Here! creep,
          Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
          Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Yes, it’s a tough one, isn’t it?  It’s probably the most troubled and troubling poem I have ever read.  Grief upon grief. Fury after fury. An endless falling into nothingness. Nobody there to offer any comfort or relief. The only possibilities of escape are sleep or death. 

So how could this dread-full poem ever be helpful to someone in the depths of despair?

Well, I think it offer us comfort in three ways.

First, it makes a connection for us. I first read this poem when I was 18, soon after a big relationship break-up and living in a place and with people I didn’t know.  I felt totally alone, and utterly miserable. And I realised: this guy understands what I’m going through, he’s been there himself, he’s talking my language.  So there was a link for me with Hopkins, a sense of shared experience. And I didn’t feel quite so alone.   

Other people I know have felt the same.  ‘It’s like finding a friend,’ someone told me recently;’ I felt like he was sitting next to me, reading to me. It brings a closeness.’  

Second, reading a poem like this can help us accept that it’s OK, it’s legitimate to feel so distressed - something we may often doubt or feel guilty about.  ‘It’s allowed, you’re entitled to feel that depth.’

And third, there is something powerful and impressive about Hopkins’ absolute, raw honesty here - his ability to give deep expression to the reality of his experiences, however terrifying that reality may be.  There is no pretending, no denying, no hiding.    

You may know that mindfulness meditation is helpful for people who have recurring experiences of depression.  And this is precisely where mindfulness begins – resting in the present moment, however difficult that moment happens to be.  Staying with the reality of our situation. Without judgment or evaluation. Without avoiding the problems we face, or trying to solve them. Just being there.  

This is the first stage of the journey. If Hopkins has the courage to face his misery head on, then so can we.