Secular thoughts in a hospital car park

My reading of this piece

I was sitting in the car park listening to a podcast about secular Buddhism. The car was parked in the hospital car park, and I was waiting. It was the worst kind of waiting because I had no idea how long it would last, so the podcast about secular Buddhism seemed as good a way as any to pass unknown time.

It took about a minute to take against the podcaster and his secular Buddhism. It was round about the time that he promoted his website, talked about the joy of having his three kids and living in a small town in God-knows-where in the United States, his perfect life, his interest in hang-gliding, paragliding – something kind of gliding – and his entrepreneurial side, making camera equipment, tripods. We were encouraged to visit that site.

I found myself thinking about what the hell secular Buddhism could possibly be.

Anyway, the person I was waiting for got back from the appointment and the news was predictably grim.

I started the car and that’s when I found out the battery was flat. It’s a new car – new to us – bought second-hand, a year old, low mileage, but these things happen, and they pick their moments.

On the way to the appointment we discovered we had lost the card wallet with the insurance card and, of course, the car insurance details. So, I was there, stranded, cursing secular Buddhism, in a hospital car park, in a car with a flat battery. Time was ticking. My phone battery was running low, the internet connection was on and off, I hadn’t paid the phone bill, so the line wasn’t working but the message telling me to pay it was. It was hot and I had 45 minutes to go and pick my son up from school.

Then I remembered my insurance broker had once told me never to hesitate to contact him, for anything, I I had joked, “I’ll test you. I’ll be calling you at 3AM, asking for life advice.”

So, I called him. To cut a long story short, within 15 minutes he had appeared in person on a moped. He is in his mid-to-late sixties, full of energy and goodwill. He had already phoned the battery recovery service and he had come over to make sure I was OK because I had explained the bit about the hospital car park.

All’s well that ends well. The car works fine. I paid my phone bill. The internet connection seems to be working. And now we are just waiting for the results of the exams.

But I’m not going back to secular Buddhism. Not in a million lifetimes.

A Funny Article

The scrawl.
My reading of the text.

I remember my mother always did her best – and she was very successful in this endeavor – to speak euphemistically, to avoid being accused of vulgarity (I believe). She was born on March 23, 1932, and her generation was like that, at least the aspirational classes were. It’s likely that my preference for the vulgar in language is a natural and predictable reaction to Cynthia Quinton’s lifelong effort to avoid the profane, but perhaps it’s just that I was a child when swearing was first allowed on British television and I took to it like a pig to shit.

The mysteries of life, the things we can never know. What to do? Speculate, why not? And then look again at what we know for sure, or think we do. I recall Cynthia would sometimes refer to someone she considered to be odd, strange, or in some way unfathomable as ‘a funny article.’

I found myself thinking about this just now because of all the stupid work I have done in my life as a specialist in the English language, I have come up against the most tiresome. I am copy editing an English language textbook. This runs to 320 pages, and throughout the text, the same mistake has been repeated. The problem is the absence of the definite article before the words’ students’ and ‘children.’ There are hundreds of these mistakes, and for some stupid and non-negotiable reason, I have to correct each one individually.

I went for a long run on the beach yesterday afternoon. It was cold and foggy, and I felt like I was running in the clouds, or heaven. As I ran, enjoying the muffled booming of the container ship fog horns, I thought again about life and death and the articles of faith we make up as we go along. Again, I came to no conclusion other than I spend too much time thinking about life and not enough time living it. My mother would have called me ‘a silly bugger.’ Even she had her limits. 

The Important Thing

The 15-minute scrawl
My reading of the text

The important thing is not to worry about important things. Plural because I am sure there are many important things out there and they change from person to person, sometimes minute by minute.

The important thing is to remember that whatever it is that is important now is temporary. It is fleeting.

Important things can be categorized as impossible to categorize by anyone except you. But the important thing is to remember that both you and the important thing at the moment you consider it – whatever it is – are changing and there is no permanent thing anywhere.

The important thing is to look at important things in the same way we look at the ocean, or a river, a stream. What we see looks like a single thing, and so we have a name for it, but that is an illusion, or at least a trick we allow ourselves to fall for so we can admire the view without getting too tied up in questions of waves and ripples.

The important thing is to think about it all, ourselves to start with, in terms of waves, or ripples. These things look like they are moving in a direction and perhaps rebounding off obstacles, finding a way around them. In one way, they are but not if you simply consider that a molecule of water is just moving up or down, and maybe side to side ever-so-slightly to give the observer the idea that something larger is moving much faster.

The important thing is not to think too much about things we cannot understand, especially if you fancy our chances of illustrating the complexity of life with wishy-washy comments on the movement of bodies of water.

The important thing is that everything is important to someone at some time, in some circumstance. Likewise, everything is unimportant. The important thing is to remember that everything moves, everything changes and if you sit still and quiet for long enough, the important things will not need to be worried about. 

Honey and Lemon is not Tea

The fountain pen scrawl
My reading of the text

It’s cold here in Santos, Brazil, now, in June. Not cold but the standards I grew up in, in England, or Toronto, Canada, where in 2014 Artur was born and I experienced cold on a new level. But everything is relative and waking up at 4.19AM in 18゚C is/was unpleasant. It feels so much colder than that and I really don’t understand it.

I don’t understand much at all. This isn’t some kind of introduction to a kind of stand-up routine, or some falsely-modest attempt at self-deprecation. I just don’t understand much.

For reasons that I cannot begin to imagine as I lay in bed considering how cold it was and how I know it’s not really cold but it feels like it is, so it obviously is cold, my half-asleep mind started to go through all the things I don’t understand about kettles and tea.

I have a feeling where this came from. The other day I was messaging a friend about confusion and how it builds up ‘like limescale in a kettle over the years.’ So, it’s easy to imagine that my meandering imaginings about kettles in the dark hours were related to that. I mean, I don’t even drink tea these days and haven’t had an electric kettle that furs up because of hard water for about 30 years.

I was half-dreaming about how I don’t know anything about electricity or how it heats an element in a kettle or how an automatic electric cattle turns itself off. Then I started to think about tea.

It was then that I realized there are people in the world who will put honey and lemon juice in a cup or mug and pour hot water on it and call it ‘tea.’

It’s hardly a surprise that I understand so little when so many things make no sense at all.  

Fast

The original 15-minute fountain pen text
My reading of the text

I used to be an English language teacher. This began back in 1993, I think, when I came to Brazil. It was not like a career plan, in keeping with every single thing have ever done to make a living. I had no options at the time. I always liked the comfort of no options. It gives me this totally false but utterly seductive idea that some kind of magic is at work. Back then a lot of my contemporaries were getting into adult life. I was terrified that I had missed the chance to do the same. At a time when some people I knew had houses, cars, and kids, I was sleeping on the sofa in a shithole town call Mogi das Cruzes, in São Paulo state. I have always been lucky, I know – despite the way I often talk about life – and my great luck back then was that there was no Internet and I was able to live my stupid failing life away from the radiating success of my peers. It was a great time. I was lost but had this idea that it was going to be all right.

It would be all right, too. But not in any way I could have known. Things worked out and I was OK. I still am and I often have to remind myself of that.

Teaching English was a joy and I did it for almost fourteen years. It gave me contact with some fine people and gave me time to enjoy the weird things about the English language I would otherwise not have considered.

My favorite world in English is ‘fast.’ It belongs to a strange group of words that mean the opposite of themselves. Fast cars. Shut fast. Fast asleep. And yes – to go hungry. But that’s not the opposite of anything.

Life is fast.

Figure it out

My reading of the fountain pen scrawl above

I set off without much of a plan other than the newly-embraced idea that simple is good, and there is a lot to be said for repetition and routine if the routine you are repeating is good for you.

An idea was imposed on me as a child, I think, that we change as we get older and that change is always for the better. Growing up was a good thing. Getting older was good. You could wear different clothes, make some decisions of your own. You could, one day, smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol, get married and drive a car. Years of just about nothing were followed by a moment in time in which you could make or break your entire existence, mainly without any preparation or guidance from anyone that would be listened to.

And there’s the lottery. We spin the wheel and we have our direction, our course, set. A few early wins and we are off, full of the confidence that means we can face any setbacks and get through them. A few losses early on and the opposite happens. We quickly learn to expect only bad news, bad results, and a pattern that is hard to break establishes itself.

The first fifteen minutes of a long run tell me all I need to know about the hour that follows. Once I get through that early phase I am either happy and relaxed or the opposite. A good start means that even if things go wrong after 50 minutes or so, I will feel confident enough to get through it feeling well. So, what makes or breaks those first fifteen minutes?

No idea. There is no way to know. I only find out once I am running. Any signs, any feelings just before the run are meaningless. I have gone out feeling fantastic and then quickly fallen apart. And the opposite has happened.

We just have to figure it out, step by step.

Pointed

The fountain pen scrawl done in 15 minutes with no plan and no editing.
My reading of the text

I look out of the window to check the weather, the light, the overall state of play in the world outside my apartment. It’s time to run and I want to do it. I have to do it.

Why?

Now there’s a good question. So many reasons, all of which most adults are aware of but none of which answers the question really.

I run because it makes me feel less weak. It makes me feel like I am doing something but at the same time it stops me from thinking about anything other than breathing and the rhythm of my legs, my feet.

As I look out of the window checking things that don’t need to be checked at all, I feel anxious. I feel it now, writing this, just thinking about it. This reminds me of every test I have ever done. I have this serious sense that I am about to be exposed as in some way inadequate. I am 53 years old and still, from time to time, wake from a nightmare that tomorrow I have a test for a course I never attended.

This makes me think more about my running and why I do it. It’s not a simple answer, so that’s why I cannot offer it in casual conversation. Also, I am not really sure this is true. It might just be an answer I feel approximates to the truth, or maybe I think it makes me more interesting than I could ever be if I just said, “I don’t know. I like it.”

I think I run because I can do it alone and later share it with people I choose, people who might understand it, or maybe just find it of interest that a non-athlete can do athletic things. Running is my secret test and if I finish it successfully, I can reveal it. If I fail, I can make it part of a come-back narrative. Running makes me feel less useless. But only less useless is not useful.

The point is not to be useful. The point is to distract from any point at all.

We are aliens

We are all aliens, at home. We awake and rub our eyes, brains warming up as we focus for another day on yet more things that sit beyond us, almost within reach but not quite close enough for us to grasp with two hands.

We are aliens in our own world, no different now, really, than when our pre-historic antecessors watched the Sun rise and the Moon set, wondering in fear when they would stop their mysterious motions.

We are aliens in space, in thrall to the seasons while all the time convinced that we control life itself. Birth and death themselves are the new rising Suns and setting Moons. The last things we have to admit we have no domain over. But we are working on it.

I read a headline in the newspaper the other day. I couldn’t sell myself the idea that time would have been well-spent on reading the text that followed. The report was, I imagine, supposed to be some comfort in trying times. We were assured that some massive asteroid would not strike Earth for about one hundred years.

Well, that was a relief – until I considered that my now six-year-old son or maybe his children would face a very different headline one day.

Asteroids, viral pandemics, microwaves, remote controls, algorithms, IPOs, market prices, the past, present and future. Love, hate, fury, greed, and forgiveness. How long is the list of things I will never really understand?

We are all aliens, at home. We plump up a pillow and try to rest. The world spins round and we all stay still.

Emotional few months

It’s been an emotional few months. Well, an emotional life, really. What are we if not a mixing bowl of emotions? See? I told you. I’m still emotional and am likely to remain so. What is the alternative to emotional? Control? And what is that if not simply the pretence of something clearly not real?

So, a coronavirus pandemic announced itself last year and in June 2020 I was struck down by what everyone quickly learned to call COVID-19. I was lucky. Just five days exhausted in bed and then a few weeks to declare myself close to 100% fit. The rest of the year was a blur. Work, rest. Repeat. Then in December I lost communication with my dad. Phone trouble was all. After a few weeks of re-established contact, dad died, on or around January 21, 2020. I went from fretting that I couldn’t call him to facing the reality that I will never call him again.

So, that completes the set – mum and dad now gone to the ages. Losing dad made losing mum all the more real, oddly enough. I’ve always taken my time to come to terms with the facts of life, but over three years to fully appreciate that my mum is dead seems excessive.

Again I am reminded of the power of denial. Show me an unpleasant fact and I can show you a distraction. It’s survival, when all is said and done. How else are we supposed to go on? We can’t very well wake up every day and embrace the horror that awaits us all at some unmarked date.

And then there is regret. The most useless of all emotions. First we nail ourselves to a cross for being human and inevitably getting something wrong. Then, in the ultimate act of self-hatred, we feel bad about what we have done, and then feel bad for feeling bad. The perfect feedback loop of misery.

And I remember what my mum used to say when I sometimes expressed how worried I was about her latest self-made crisis. “Andrew, get on with your life.”

It’s been an emotional few months. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I Know Exactly What Prayer Is.

My fountain pen scrawl, done in 15 minutes in response to ‘The Summer Day,’ by Mary Oliver
My reading of the scrawl above and the readable text below

I know exactly what prayer is.

I don’t know who made all this. Who set the ball rolling, or why. I think about it often – like whenever I’m not doing anything else. So, if I’m not translating or washing up or working out, I think about what the point is and why we are here. Not just humans, either – any of us – birds, trees, sky, the hippie triptych.

I look at buildings and roads and I’m amazed that these things were built by people. The recent manifestations of people have only suggested robbery and destruction, with little room for the application and organisation that civil engineering and architecture and construction require. Perhaps hope lies hidden in buildings and roads.

But I don’t know, or even suspect what any of this is about. The human brain has been described as the most mysterious three pounds of matter in the universe. Sure, but the canine brain is the one that we should respect. Any being that can do what dogs do to people deserves respect. Dogs know stuff.

But I don’t know much.

So, it’s a bit of a claim to say I know exactly what prayer is, but I do – for me. Prayer is self-talk, hoping someone eavesdrops, and that someone is a benevolent force.

Prayer is talk therapy with no one else, entered into with the faith that something good could come of it, one day.

Prayer is personal. It doesn’t need to be explained, much less defended or even talked about. I don’t know who made all this, but I know it was made. What else do we need to know?

I’m not sure but I have a couple of dogs who look like they got it cracked a long time ago.