Golden Hour

Years ago, under a dark, fearful spell, being tested by doctors who found nothing conclusive but called me back again and again for more tests, I became fixed upon the fact of my death. The pressing idea that the people I was with would still be here next Wednesday but I possibly would not be with them, that they would continue on, but I would no longer have knowledge of them or our once shared experiences and environments haunted me.

But something else happened which was quite beautiful. After I recovered from the shock, I started to drink in all the details of life like I had done as a child. Death’s imminence caused me see the world quite differently. Like Dostoevsky’s condemned man, the threat of meeting my end charged all my senses with a massively increased thirst for life. Pleasure in details became a source of intense, melancholy joy. Suffice to say, I lived, but the experienced changed me, at the very least being a very direct experience of personal mortality.

More than a decade later, mortality is less pressing, but just as inescapable. My knees sometimes ache, my hair inexorably thins, and my eyes slowly lose their effectiveness. But unlike many of my peers, I still have good sight – at my last eye test, I was advised that while I might benefit from wearing slightly magnifying reading glasses, I was really in good shape for a man of my age, and I know this is to be true as one after another friend picks up some object with small text and holds it at arm’s length to read it. When I’m tired, or after a long time looking at small screens – the ubiquitous phone – or in the cold, then far distant signs are no longer readable and I must wait until buses are perilously close before deciphering their route number. These experiences come and go; at other times, I have no problems seeing at all.

Like billions of people I take photos, and edit and share them. Unlike billions I trained in art and that has been a mainstay of my work and life. I live and breathe image, images. I flatter myself with curating art exhibitions, being an aribiter of quality, a videographer, a director and teacher, for what it’s worth.

Just recently I was walking through the most glorious streets and the late afternoon light was arriving at that famous ‘golden hour’ when the sun warms and the shadows lengthen and the everyday suddenly appears to be beautiful and mysterious. I had my camera (phone) in my pocket and I knew I could record the moment and share it, but I didn’t want to,  I wanted to look, I wanted to see without the screen interfering with my experience. This is not new, I do it often, else I would never live in my own moment. I resisted the urge to snap as long as I could, until I could bear it no longer, then quickly took five photos, and put the camera away. Even that felt like a guilty theft.

This experience was repeated the following day but with none of the aesthetic stimulation of sunlit streets and peach-coloured clouds and whimsy. I was on a train, my eyes flicking around the crowded carriage and everyone but me and a small girl was staring at their screen or reading a book or newspaper. As I stared at places rather than faces, I became aware that by maintaining my gaze and continuing to actively look, I was allowing so much more detail to emerge than I assumed I could see. Texture, colour, shape, tiny crumbs in the carriage floor where it met the metal seat were revealed. As I kept looking, I kept seeing more, and so I continued, and after a while I knew that I once used to inhabit a world like this, years ago, when I was a child, and had no escape into a fictional reality. Then I remembered that adult experience, when I felt under sentence of death and this caused a minor revelation, but a slightly a startling one.

It is my mind, not my eyes, which skip the wonderful variety of objects. We think we see them, but we don’t, we register them, and at the same time, our minds are filled with thoughts which are nothing to do with what we are looking at. The details I imagine are becoming slowly lost to me through age and jaded weariness are still accessible, but I had simply stopped seeing them.

This morning, half awake, as I made tea, I glanced out of the window at the sky. Briefly admired the pink-lit clouds. Looked once again at the kettle as it boiled, my mind starting to go through the tasks I have set myself for the day.

Then I remembered. I went back to the window and really looked, even though I have seen this view and so many like it uncountable times. This was not any other time, it was now, unique. I kept on looking and saw how the pink warmed the many colours of brick in the wall near the window. As I continued to look, the kettle boiled and it had a music all its own.

We create our world, our lives, not just by what we include, but by what we leave out. Most of the time I was living with the assumption that I knew what was in front of me, but I was actually experiencing an edited, shorthand version of my environment. I also saw that caught up in the difficulties of navigating the real world, in an internal maelstrom of self-concern about work and paying bills and who said what to whom and what I need to do next, obsessed with outcomes, and without true regard for the self’s need to be truly connected to the fabric of this world, I was depriving myself of the pleasure of the journey.

I know about looking. But I had stopped seeing. So, to just look and keep looking, to drink in the mundane has become something I never want to lose, all the while these senses are mine.

Golden Hour

Up at 5am

Awake at 5am (4:58 to be precise), breakfast at 6am after lying in bed wondering if I am really awake, then examining myself for physical tiredness and realising my brain was doing its normal hello-day-chat. This internal monologue (which used to be a dialogue, but I’m lonelier now) alerts me to the fact of my being alert. You might say it’s a solipsistic reassurance, except that with my history of wavering sleep patterns it feels more like the enemy I know than a close friend.

I used to rise early through choice, and savour the times when I could remain in bed until the day was well advanced, but now it seems as if there can never be adequate reasons to remain horizontal. The luxuries of lying in, reading in bed, breakfast in bed, long mornings of chat and sensuality and sex are gone. The comfort of the day’s fatigue resting with the warmth of another close body is gone. Gone and not forgotten, though I force myself not to dwell upon the fact.

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Recently I slept with a friend, and it was just that, sleep. My friend kindly accepted me to share her space and there was no question in my mind of its chaste nature. In a flat so small I had to leap a bicycle to get out of bed, we were a good boy and girl and there was no confusion. Both of us old friends single, both rather low, both lonely. How very British it was that we didn’t even offer one another the crumb of a hug, but instead, like repelling magnets, both kept securely to our side of the bed. It wasn’t that we found each other repulsive, but I sensed there was a tacit acknowledgement that a perfectly good friendship could so easily be ruined by intimate contact.

Later, I couldn’t help thinking that if we were from another, gentler, more generous culture, we’d have comforted and accomodated one another more confidently and with no confusion, without the fearscare of S E X (which wasn’t going to happen) stopping us even touching.

Cut to: one of the happiest times of my life. I was in a long-term relationship which was physically very satisfying, though it suffered from a certain lack of emotional compatibility that would eventually break us up. I was working abroad, and one of the team members, a sassy, confident girl, had the hots for me. I wasn’t looking for anything else, and was thus relaxed and friendly with everyone.

Oblivious to the elixir of hot sun and late nights, we grew close and within two weeks had relaxed enough with each other to fall asleep in the back of a car, hand in hand, head resting on sleep-deprived head, the scent of pine and suntan lotion and hormones drifting in and out of our dreams. It was so romantic. When I got home, I was full of love, of the perfect, unrequited kind. Within 48 hours, my girlfriend was distraught with the agony of jealousy, and demanded to know who it was.

I hadn’t even noticed that I was glowing like warm night coals with the appreciation of being appreciated, and in my naivety, couldn’t believe she had noticed the change in me, but there was no point in denying it. She on the other hand couldn’t believe we had not fucked each other senseless, as that’s what she would have done in my position. Her parents were not born in Britain, they originated in far sultrier climes, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and she had not the Methodist-Baptist mix which ran through the veins of my family, of repressed lust, delayed gratification and the sensible use of prophylactics. I always found this earthy acceptance of her desire deeply attractive, being so much the polar opposite of my own set up.

I did regret not acting, later, in cold London, and somewhat embarassed myself – but that’s another story. And yet, I did the right thing by not responding animally to her almost nude, cold, wet body as it landed upon my back, shocking me out of sunbathe slumber. Being in a better place enabled finer feelings to emerge and I was glad of it, because that was the catalyst, the key which fused sleeping chemicals and created the potential for much deeper experiences a few years later. It wasn’t sex I needed, it was this effortless connection to another soul. I had to go through loneliness to find it.

This is once again where I find myself, and why my sleep is erratic. It’s not the lack of sex, though that would help. When I share my bed, I share my life, and I find it difficult though not impossible to do otherwise. Years ago, I remember coming across some graffiti in a grotty pub bog which read, “Sex is easy to get – stand up comedy you have to work for” and thinking, God help me if that’s true. At least I can make people laugh.

First published here

Fresh and relevant, like a refreshing elephant

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Nonsense Ltd.

Sunday morning thunder

I used to go to church as a child, sent there with lower-aged siblings by my parents to sing in the choir while they had three hours of uninterrupted breakfast in bed. I had heard the phrase “thundering from the pulpit” and as we half-listened to the watery Anglican preaching, used to wonder where the admonishments were, the Vicar’s words were so gently uncritical of the elderly parishioners of St Margaret’s, Upper Norwood.

But it seemed to me there was plenty of scope for outrage, what with the natural world being destroyed in front of our eyes, and the perfect example in Jesus himself who threw the money lenders from the temple and told everyone that priests were unnecessary and everyone could be like him, if they wanted. Even two thousand years later, after extensive revisions and corruptions of his message, that thunder remains – the sweeping away of the old, the ways of vengeance, the jealous God to be feared, replaced by a loving, compassionate God who wants only that we live in harmony with each other. Why is the Old Testament with its fury and contradictions and intolerance even considered part of the same teaching? One of the things systematically edited out was Jesus’ rejection of the old, painful ways.

Meanwhile, in straight-faced protest, I changed the words of the hymns, singing in a loud, clear voice, “TO BE A PENGUIN” “AND DID THOSE GEESE IN ANCIENT SLIME” and at Christmas, “GLO-O-O-O-O-O, GLO-O-O-O-O-O, GLO-O-O-O-O-O, GLORIA, HOSANNAH IN EX CHEL-SEA!” even though I was a Crystal Palace fan.

In the same way, even though I meditate, and connect more deeply with Buddhism and the Tao, my heart lifts itself unto Jesus. I don’t go to church, unless it’s for architectural, historical or marriage reasons, but daily I practise the forgiveness of sins, on the basis that my own fuck ups might somehow be made less frequent, and as time drags me to the end of the branch, that I might become less prone to brooding resentments and the inevitable depression this brings.

A wind moves through the temple, upturning tables, sending small change rattling and ringing as it is swept out.

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The Society for Appropriate Compliments

As an English speaker from England, I enjoy and lament many things about the use of this fine language of mine.

Language is formed of habits, and not all habits are healthy. English is the glue to endless and multiple confusions and misinterpretations both of language and behaviour, as it spreads itself around the world.

In particular, I’m watching “social” media come between people and their more important statements. Formality seems passé, but it is crucial to peaceful co-existence, and despite being seen as impersonal, often a far more appropriate response than any “personal touch”.

For example, the bereaved. People these days can read each others comments, and it seems there’s a bird-like clamour of similar messages which queue up on a post about death. These are meant to show sympathy but actually show nothing of the kind – they just indicate that someone thought they would show they cared, probably because some other people were doing that, in between liking a funny video or buying a new pair of pants.

Observe the repeated formulations of commiseration. Very few of them escape cliché, but that is acceptable because it is mostly painless, unless you think for more than a second about is actually happening. “My thoughts and prayers are with you at this time” – maybe so, momentarily, but I don’t believe there will be any special kneeling in the majority of cases. The writer of this platitude won’t spend too much of their time on those prayers, if any at all, and so in the vast majority of cases it’s dishonest. However, this innocent phrase is religious-person shorthand for “I’m sorry to hear that”. Using it doesn’t make them bad people, maybe just a little vacuous, and at least it’s not rocking so many boats.

People reach for sincerity but find hyperbole. “Gone far too young” is always too dramatic even when used for the untimely death of young, or eminent people. Who are we to know what time the cosmic clock has set for anyone? The phrase seems at best to be a reference to life’s brief flickering candle, at worst to the pointless futility of life itself and our ultimate powerlessness, but in any case, your personal philosophies of life and death really are no business of the bereaved in this situation. Loading your fears onto the emotional bandwagon at the time of someone else’s grief might be an honest response, but it’s not helpful.

Unless you’re a close relative or friend, or part of the medical team who should have tried harder to keep the person alive, you should normally stick to formula and avoid honesty. Though it may be honest, “I’ll remember next time, it’s the green tube” is not comforting. Just stick to formula. “I am sorry for your loss” is real, if small. It doesn’t matter that it’s unoriginal. So is death.

I wish that people everywhere would be less enthralled by the play of sincerity, and would use that most important of human expressions denoting seriousness, empathy and concern where it is important.

Likewise, the use of compliments. Yes, some people really are wonderfully talented and attract thousands of admirers, but people with lots of followers have mostly been playing the popularity game, for reasons of personal insecurity or of the desire for personal wealth, and they attract other people whose admiration is mainly based on their success in being successful, rather than anything they actually do. I watch the flocks of people who have opted into praise as a way of life with something approaching despair.

For example, Instagram. Some truly wonderful photography and art on this network, no matter the naysayers. It’s as valid a platform for sharing the fruits of your camera and your editing as anywhere. But, the choruses of delight which churn out at every post serve to challenge the mind. I wish for every “Fantastic!” to read “I have seen this” – which is what they are actually saying. It’s especially galling when one or other talented, famous, deserving photographic artist posts an image which falls below their usual standards, and the compliments rain down just the same, like damp cake falling from the soaked table at a rained-off wedding.

I wish all the flowery clichés to wither and die and for the instinct for this over-the-top gushing, this mania for hyperbole to be replaced with a universal sincerity, the rise of thoughtful truth, or even litotes, the art of understatement. “Not bad” is good.

In our use of language, commiseration and compliments, it’s the same situation as the loudness war, where the desire to stand out in contemporary recorded music has been driving the quality of the final mastered mixes inexorably downward. We need dynamic range in our daily expressions.

I want people to adjust, so that seeing the comment “Acceptable” on something you have created, rather than assuming your work is being damned by faint praise, this simple, unadorned comment becomes the reason for a happy glow.

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The Question of Attraction

I’m pretty good at looking after myself, it has to be said. Not stupendously smug about it, but given that I never expected to see 30 and yet here I am two decades later still functioning in body and mind, my genuine joy in mere existence is unexpected and delightful. 

I prefer being single, I’ve realised, in theory. It’s great, and it makes self-care much easier. No explanations needed re: odd habits, no apologies for accidentally trampling on carefully-nurtured, fragile preconceptions, no need to request “me” time when I need to think or write, no expectations carried or judgements made. No embrassing relatives, no dodgy friends. It’s almost perfect, apart from lack of emotional and physical intimacy and the sense that I must be wasting some essential aspect of myself known only to God and one special person.

Happy as being single makes me, I can only go so long before the need for union asserts itself. When I look back, as is my wont, I start to wonder if my mostly wonderful, occasionally nightmarish relationships have been born simply of physical attraction combined with a certain personality type. Physical desire has always been a necessary factor for me to take the risk of making myself vulnerable, but there is something beneath the surface which I can no longer deny. I am drawn to unbalanced women. I find them, they find me. Aware, unaware, there is a pattern. The great magnet pulls all souls towards truth as K.D. sang, and my truth seems to be that I experience my deeper attractions to women  who are creative, intelligent and kind, but also frequently suffering, psychologically unstable, obsessive, sometimes self-abusive. I wish it were different, but I’m uncertain whether that conscious knowledge will reach my instinctual nature any time before death.

In my waking dreams, I stroll barefoot, hand in hand through warm, shallow waters, my beautiful lover and I laughing at the perils of the world which are conquered by love and loyalty, comforted by the knowledge of our compatibility.

In reality, I choose (or am chosen) unwisely. It may take months or years but however long the relationship lasts, in the end, I hang on at the waterfall’s edge, trying to prevent disaster for one or both, often cut off from the kind, loving souls in my life who would extend their hands to stop me plummeting, more lonely than I ever was being single.

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That’s Not Love

It’s been many months since I applied myself to the task of channeling experience into melody and words, and I’m happy to announce on this full moon that I have completed a new song, That’s Not Love.

I never know quite where I am going with music until I start, even when (as in this case) I do know what I want to write about and the manner of it. If you can spit blood with a mouthful of candy floss, that’s what I was attempting; but don’t think it’s a punk performance piece on consumerism and diabetes, it’s just a song about love gone wrong, like many of my songs, and all of my love affairs.

I say that with confidence because otherwise I would be married – or perhaps having found the the love of my life, widowed, heaven forfend – which I am neither.

So, lyrics.

As opportunities go, it was a good one
And we may never see it again
In the dark of the night windows are mirrors
And there’s nowhere to hide from the rain

You can’t do what you want, it can’t hurt me
Cuts and bruises will heal over time
But the lies that you tell are a tale of personal hell
“As long as it hurting, he’s mine…”

And you can’t tell the saints from the sinners
Gonna feed you or have you for dinner
In her mind she’s a bitch, she’s a grass, she’s a snitch
And the ice that she’s on’s getting thinner

Ooh, that’s not love, no that’s not love
That isn’t love

You shine like a light in the darkness
Grown cold and burnt out by the brightness of day
You pay for the rides on your big rollercoaster
But you secretly wish you could just walk away

There’s a place in your heart for the madness
Which you couldn’t leave if you tried
You know very well it feels safe in your personal hell
“Won’t you please join me inside?”

And just like mummy and daddy
You can’t tell the good from the baddies
Moon and stars are aligned, so she tries to be kind
But she can’t understand why she feels so sad

Ooh, that’s not love, no that’s not love
That isn’t love

© Dean Whitbread 2013 All Rights Reserved

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