Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The Doubts of Conversion

In February 1990 my life changed forever.
I became convinced that Christianity - not that I even began to understand it - is true.
I converted, became a Christian, "born again".  I "prayed the prayer".

This year I've had to reject many of the bases of my Christianity.  And that's led me to have to question everything else about my faith, about religion, and about spirituality.  I've had to question whether the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, really is good news, and if it is good news then of what that news consists.

And so I look back on that conversion event, February 1990, in a room in Bradford with a couple of friends I lost contact with many years ago.  I felt greatly joyful and peaceful by the end of that night.  Secure that Jesus really was and is alive and part of present day life.

Recently I've had to ask: did I meet God or just psychology?  The inner jury is still out.  But the question has been posed.  And I believe 2014 will see me drawn to answers that surprise me, perhaps answers that I have not before been able to contemplate as valid.

So, a few thoughts on my conversion:

An initiating prayer.
Into overwhelming peace.
A securing place.

Unexpected joy,
Convictions of certitude -
Evangelical excitement.

Was it God releasing me?
Or did I release myself?
Was new freedom mine, or divine?

What wisdom was I embracing?
Just a God who agreed with me
That I was broken, stained, full of wrong?

So did I meet the joy of Spirit
Or the joy of being proved right?

Did I encounter the love of a saviour
Or the love of a broken home?

Was fire life given from above
or ignited from martyred mind, hater heart?

On that night all was clear:

Clarity of a thoughtless mind and satisfied heart.

Initiating prayer became crazy hope
God reaching out to man, or so it seemed.

Or was I reaching out by reaching in?
Self-trickery for moments of bliss.
More lost when securely found.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Past Made Present - Glastonbury, 1985

On a family holiday, when I was fourteen, we visited Glastonbury for the day.  After a visit to Glastonbury Tor - where I had a most interesting talk with a stranger about how he liked to levitate there - we visited the village, including some of the more spiritual shops that have boomed there.  If I remember rightly I bought myself a book about occult exercises and practices. 

After lunch we visited Glastonbury Abbey which was unsurprisingly packed with tourists and coach parties.  Why shouldn't they be there - it's famous and a beautiful ruin.  Wandering off alone down some steps I found myself in St Mary's chapel - cooler, deserted at that time and with an atmosphere more powerful than the Tor.

This shouldn't be a surprise given the Christian and pre-Christian history of the site.  Looking online a moment ago I found this statement:  The Mary Chapel in the Abbey lies in the Vulva of the Birth-Giving Goddess of Glastonbury. This is one of the most potent places on the Island.  Make of that what you will!  People write all kinds of things about Glastonbury, based on all kinds of spiritual belief and practice, which is appropriate for somewhere that was such a centre for both paganism and Christianity.  I will leave it up to you whether Glastonbury really was Avalon, home of the Goddess.

Last week I was thinking about early experiences of "the sacred".  Without defining "sacred" I am pretty certain that I experienced it/him/her/them that day in the few brief minutes that I stood, alone, before the altar of that chapel.

Writing came as I sat in a cafe.  It's in the form of a sestina.  Six stanzas of six lines and an extra three lines at the end, with the last words of each line rotated through the different lines of each stanza.  There's an official way to rotate them but I was sitting in a cafe with no access to anything that told me the "right" way, so this may all be "wrong".  In any case it's not good poetry.  I hope next year to write far more - to learn something of the art - and eventually produce something decent.

Abbey of noise, far from Cistercian silence
Hurrying coaches, camera snappers seek the common view
Japanese tourism - the south-west in a day.
Here stood Arthur; Joseph planted his tree.
We must see it all, rush, rush, rushing
This, no holy hour of freedom to seek the monastic.

Abbey of noise, I seek God, I, monastic,
Walking alone, from tourism, tack, time, into a silence.
Underneath, under the crowds, root of cloistered tree.
Above, the teashop calling, the people still rushing
Below, place of prayer, of silent, silenced voices singing: God in view.
Below, presence of lost centuries manifests this day.

Away from shallow, short life, the longevity of the tree,
The chapel altar stands stark, a remembrance of the day
Monkish voices were squeezed, squashed, quelled in the rushing
Of a King seeking to rule God, abolishing the monastic.
The chants, the rich intonement, God's praises turned to silence.
Five hundred years, God unchanging, time cannot shroud the view.

I stood in profound riches, feeling guilt for not rushing,
Alone with the alone - but why not with camera pointed at that tree?
Inside, impulse escapes, birthing the thrill of the monastic.
In quiet, in immense living atmosphere, the sacred opened my view.
Minutes, just minutes, stretched like chant memory into a day.
Above, above, bustle, noisy chaos; but for me, long silence.

I would have stayed, could not stay, force to leave that view.
Moments of a life, just a glimpse of the eternal monastic.
Moments of a meaning, brief, all changing, revolutions in silence.
Come back, return to the wells that enabled this day,
Back to family, to that other deep rooted tree
Back to above, we too were tourists - more to see, onwards, rushing.

Years pass but still present to me are those moments, that day.
A moment of calm, stilling the rushing.
Whatever darkened horror appears, the beyond comes to my view.
In the deafening noises, a present past, a moment of silence
That set in place a yearning for a life monastic,
For timeless prayer roots, deepening of the tree.

Abbey of silence.  Gone but called to view.
I was not there a day but it's strong seeds became my tree.
I've lived, rush, rush, rushing.  But ever inward, turning to monastic.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Perils of Bad weather & Good Health (from The Daily Express)

Over and over again we see predictions of weather sent to us from the most evil ice queen to ever create a snowflake.  Every winter will be the worst ever.  Every summer half of us will die in a heatwave the likes of which we've never seen before.  Go to facebook posts, twitter posts, Google search results and live in fear - the meteorological Armageddon is happening.  The world will end in snow or heatwave.

There's a new prediction today of a hell storm causing chaos this week.  The Met Office have predicted some wind and have issued a weather warning for parts of the UK this weekend.  The tabloid headlines - with the help of "experts" at The Weather Channel - turn this wind into something we all need to be afraid of.  The Daily Mail have turned this into the coming chaos.  This storm will "wreak havoc".  Beware! 

The Met Office spokesperson - ever more cautious - says that in parts of Scotland the temperature might drop to freezing tonight.  Oh no!  Freezing point.  In Scotland.  In mid-December.  It's not exactly a Biblical apocalyptic sign is it?

And then there are other headlines.  Tabloid newspapers and many websites seem to take a perverse joy in their headlines.  Take, as an example, The Daily Express.

Somebody with plenty of time has been kind enough to compile Express front pages into one handy picture:

Ah, the joy of the Daily Express.  The Daily Mail is no better - that's been known to use completely made up weather experts (allegedly - though the evidence online is good) and has cured cancer several times this year!

Good news from the Express:
A blood pressure drug beats dementia.
An arthritis drug beats dementia.
Exercise beats dementia.
You can stop Alzheimer's
There's a pill to beat Alzheimer's

With all these cures apparently already available, it's amazing that the government need to fund any more research at all.  That's the logical conclusion if we believe Express headlines.  We can all stop worrying about dementia - the Express has it beaten.  Whoopee!

Good news:  Pensions are going up 25%
Bad news:  Pensions are going down 20%

And as for the front page WE'RE ALL DOOMED weather forecasts, they've been lying to us (or at best unintentionally and repeatedly misleading us) for years.   Similar front pages - back at least as far as 2003 can be found with not too much searching.

All that and repeatedly demonising asylum seekers and people on benefits too.

Why would anyone, anyone, choose to buy this crap?  Save your money.  Go to the library and get a decent book instead.

Photo taken from http://newsframes.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/curious-repeated-headlines/ which includes another batch of front pages - but one Express headline seems to merge into the next after a while.

Asylum Seekers and Facebook - Where Does the Truth Lie?

I use facebook.  I use it a lot.  Some people would tell you that I use it too much!  And I tend to get annoyed by hoaxes and scams.  They crop up regularly - some of them crop up over and over again.  But I get most annoyed when those posts that unfairly demonise a group of people or individual people - the posts that began somewhere as a malicious lie not just a silly joke. There are politicians and organisations I don't particularly like and rarely agree with - but I've sprung to their defence when I've seen lies told about them, intentionally or otherwise.  Because of course most hoaxes and scams are passed on by well intentioned, pretty decent people. 

Here's something that I see variations of posted on facebook quite regularly.  There's a good chance that if you use facebook then you've seen it too.  A 30 second look on Google brings up several articles that show how wrong it is.  But people tell me they don't know how to do that - yes, there really are regular computer users who claim that Google is a complete mystery.  And other people tell me they haven't got the time to do that - which only shows that they would prefer to risk spreading lies, demonising other human beings, rather than spent 30 seconds giving them the benefit of the doubt.  I truly think the "no time" excuse is a symptom either of evil or of a belief in the basic rotten nature of humanity.

And this particular post, one I've seen quite a few times in different forms, makes me very, very cross:

I don't personally know any asylum seekers at this time.  We had an asylum seeker and his family at church for quite a while and they went through great suffering until they were granted asylum and could finally start to create a life here.  But I know people who are involved in working with asylum seekers and refugees - through an aid centre for them (which received my entire wardrobe of clothes in the last few months - new outward gender means new clothes for me) and through various groups run for them.

From those people I hear horror stories - families living in one room, without furniture, without extra clothes, with only one cup between them.  Asylum seekers who know they face life imprisonment or death if they are sent home, so live in great fear each day.  They may have the "wrong" race, religion, politics, sexuality or whatever else to be free in their nation of origin.  They are usually innocent of anything we'd call a criminal offence under our own comparatively very freedom loving laws.

There is a group of LGBT asylum seekers in this city who would face terrible punishment if sent back, because of their sexuality or gender - because of that fear and because of prejudice among others from their nation they cannot be openly gay, or lesbian or seek help as transgender.  Yet in order to stay the kind British government wants to force them to "prove" their sexuality or gender.

But tonight (at the time of typing - not of posting this) I saw the above set of lies on facebook.  Again.  Yet again.  And I just had to respond.

It'll do little good I suspect. (edit - I removed my post the following morning)  If someone wants to believe the worst about people and situations then they'll still believe the worst no matter how much light or truth is passed their way.  So I responded, and the likelihood is that someone will not like my response much - I'm afraid it's not 100% the epitome of calm diplomacy but does improve after the 'baloney'!

I think it's a total disgrace that such complete and utter baloney keeps getting posted on facebook and elsewhere - especially when it's by people who know about the work of refugee centres and who have seen what poverty asylum seekers generally have to live in while often in desperate fear for their lives if refugee status is not granted.

But go ahead, scapegoat them.  They can't fight back.

An "illegal" immigrant gets nothing.  The clue is in the word "illegal".

A single asylum seeker can receive £36.62 a week.  That's under £2,000 a year to live on. 

A roof is provided - usually horrible as the contract goes to the lowest possible bidder and this can change at any time, without warning.  Recently some asylum seekers in Newcastle had to move to Teeside - with less than one hour's notice.

Under £2,000 a year doesn't leave a lot of spare cash and asylum seekers have to report in regularly.  In Shields.  So they walk, very regularly, from Newcastle to Shields and back in order to receive their £36 because they can't afford a bus.

But hey, that's only a 17 mile round trip and I'm sure we'd all be happy to walk that in the middle of winter in order to receive £36 to pay for our food, fuel, clothes, and anything else we might need to survive.

We wouldn't be allowed any other money - asylum seekers aren't allowed to seek work unless refugee status is granted.

If the asylum seeker is eventually granted refugee status he/she is entitled to the same benefits as anyone else.  Anyone who thinks that's wrong is wishing these people a quick trip back to their nation of origin where imprisonment or sometimes death awaits - for their politics, race, sexuality, religion.

They are scared, have run for their lives.  They arrive in Britain.  And people on facebook listen to lies and just piss all over them.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Death of My God. And The Dancing Stars.

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: "Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that God is dead!" (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra)

GOD was dead
I had killed Him

Yet I turned to truth,
to light, to the real.

I sought the above,
the spiritual heights.

No God.  No God.

But beautiful, bountiful,
brilliant, blinker-breaking
boundless BEYOND.

 Yet, even embracing God
I lived a lie.
God was still dead.
I still killed Him.

Those centred words describe something of my God, from the time I turned as a child from a Christianity that I didn't begin to understand, to the often unhealthy Christianity I embraced as an adult.

Nietzsche wrote:  "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"    The Gay Science

Does this mean there is no God.  I don't think so - only that many of the concepts of God that we have used are dead.  Or dying.  They were too limiting.  If God is truly God, then God is bigger than any human words or thoughts or imaginations.  To contain Him in one book, one interpretation is to risk missing Him altogether.

To contain him in one gender - as I, following Christian tradition, have done here, is to risk missing Her or Them, to risk so much of what God must be being lost to view.

Nietzsche, in rejecting not just the concept but the entire exterior immense sacred, missed God and proposed other meaning, that man - the bridge not the goal - is something to be surpassed, and that in itself is a laudable aim.  Nietzsche wrote much that I disagree with, but his writing is often wonderful and his ideas challenge in a good way, and I recommend a slow read of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.  The book isn't too long - but the ideas are massive and can be seen trying to work themselves out in sizable aspects of 20th Century history and thought.

God is dead.  We have killed him in our thinking, our narrowness, mistaking our own blindness for clear vision.

I killed him.  And, looking back, as I have been doing recently, I find that I very often killed him more as a believing, theistic, Christian, worshipper than as an agnostic seeker of revelation and ever fresh insight.  It's not that Christianity is bad.  Christianity can be full of wonder.  It's not that Christianity is the God killer.  But my Christianity was often the God killer.  Too often I held so fast to dogma that I forgot that God is the God of play and that dogma, as Matthew Fox wrote, can at most only be the outline, the border of the fields in which we play. 

With the unexpected effects this year has had on all my beliefs and imaginations, now is the time for me to learn to stop killing God.  At this point I do not know whether I will hold on to a Christianity that most Christians would recognise as "sound".  But whatever happens I need to include the searching, the openness, the disquieted chaos, the recognition that the boundless beyond will always bring new thrilling surprises and transformations.

Just as Zarathustra explained, "One must still have a chaos inside oneself to give birth to a dancing star."

May we all find the excitement in chaos, in uncertainty, so that we can all give birth to dancing stars.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Distraction of Ra, Disappointment of Apollo

What was a spiritual seeker to do having rejected the church at an early age?  It's a common question, asked by many who never had a religious faith and many who lost their faith.  Outside of God, where is meaning?  Philosophers ask it - Nietzsche found meaning, others found none.  My faith at that time said "There is a sacred beyond appearances.  But it's not to be found in a church."

I'd been reading books on spirituality and the occult from time to time for a few years.  Now my reading and collecting became more enthusiastic.  By the time I was eighteen and converted to a personally held Christian faith I had over 1000 books on themes related to the occult, the new age, spirituality, world religions and philosophy.  Most of them I hadn't read.  Nearly all I threw out or sold: my new Christian faith urged me to cleanse my life of all these supposedly unclean, evil things.

Where was a young person to go, having decided Christianity to be based on a false story but having a yearning for something beyond this world?  I looked into lots of things.  Vedic wisdom.  Meditation.  Astral projection.  Yoga.  Cartomancy, chiromancy, lots of mancies!  Many other little obsessions.  And magic.

There's not a lot of old ritual magic that a young person can do in the comfort of their own bedroom.  The Golden Dawn rituals aren't designed for a few square feet of space, or to be performed as a solo endeavour.  But there's some ritual, proper ritual - not the books of invented "spells" that are now so common on the spirituality shelves of bookshops.  I've forgotten most of what I ever read about magic but remember part of a ritual that I tried each day for a while.  Not for too long, nothing seemed to come of it, so I moved on to other things:

In sadness, turned from a religion without meaning,
I turned, turned, turned again.
Where is hope, truth, peace?
Where is that God, that promised life?

I turned, incense burning, held tight in hand, widdershins turning.
Give me reason    -     Hail Ra
Give me purpose     -      Hail Mithras
Take my dark agony      -      Hail Apollo
Light bringers come      -    I welcome thee
I turned, turn, calling      -      Into the light of my life

Turning, burning;
        felt my fall, called, pulled by dreaming.
Turning, turning;
        from empty God to godly life
Hail Ra, Mithras, Apollo, I welcome thee,
Turning in holy ritual, come, come, light beings come.

You came, if you came, in silence.
I heard.

In sadness, turned, lost again,
Spinning, direction free,
Turned, turned again.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Sing, Choirs of Angels - more childhood minutiae.

Desiring to sing, Melody in my heart
I became churched that I might cry out the word.
Beyond the song, a story that gave no peace.

Seeking, seeking, but finding nothing for my spirit.
Entering in tranquility, destination looked empty.
I left that place, some inner light turned to darkness. 

I liked to sing.  That's all that lay behind it.  I liked to sing.  And I wanted to sing.  I was ten and the idea formed in my head, "I want to join a choir."

I was quite surprised by the reaction when I mentioned this at home.  The idea didn't suffer immediate rejection like other ideas - tap dancing, for example, was both silly and just for girls.  I'm not sure Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly would have agreed with that view!  My mother knew someone who ran a choir, someone I knew too.  I found out when they met and went along - not knowing beforehand that it was a church choir.

And so began my first experience of the Christian church beyond the odd Christmas service and one Easter service that we really only went to so that the Easter Bunny could hide her eggs.

A child friendly version with an evening children's group that didn't mention God too much but did play silly games and set challenges to make egg box monsters or fill match boxes with as many things as possible.  We did do one God related activity - beyond the forgotten prayer that must surely have started or finished each evening.  We performed a dramatised version of the story of Jonah in a Crawley Festival, open air in the main shopping square.  I played God.  Typecast at an early age.  My little self had a crush on one of the other people narrating the play.  I hope she is having a good life.

A child friendly version with a Sunday school that did mention God all the time.  I'm sure we talked about the Bible every week but most memories now are of dull worksheets and learning the names of the first eight books of the New Testament.  That's not the most impressive feat ever achieved by a Bible scholar but it's the one bit of Sunday school knowledge I never lost.

And the choir.  Quite enjoyable - and I could sing.  Plenty of practices for Sunday services - though we only sang some Sundays, a special occasion choir.  I ended up singing some solos.  We weren't a rich, high church choir - we had no robes.  We just sang.

I was seeking - I'd been seeking something more than earthly life, in little ways, for years.  Seeking, disquieted within, long before devouring a dictionary of the occult when I was nine.  I wanted more and I hoped I'd find that more in the church.  In God.  I'm sure that others in that church found something - a number of them are still faithful there, thirty years later, and it was good to meet some of them again on a visit last year and see that church so lively and enthusiastic.  But all I found was silence.  Stories from the past that did not gel with my young life.  I got bored in the church - apart from the singing and developing worryingly good skills in locating Bible passages in the traditional Sunday School game of "Bible Sword".

I was seeking.  "Seek and you shall find," said Jesus.  I did not find.  For me there was just emptiness - and with eleven year old priorities a great chasm when a previously faithful Sunday School boy stole a Lego figure from me and then stopped coming to the church!  My interest waned.  I stopped attending the church - absent most weeks unless the choir was singing.  And I dropped out of the evening group having previously been proud of my metal badge gained for regular attendance.

And then I was thrown out of the church choir because of my ecclesiastical absences.  The only reason I was still involved in the church, in some Christian religion, was taken from me.  I was sad for a while but it was fair enough - how could I sing in the choir of a church I didn't attend?

Yes, I was seeking.  I wanted this Jesus teaching to be true.  I wanted meaning.  But I wasn't given meaning.  Nobody ever told me what Christianity was about - they just told me the plot of old stories from an old book - and then told me that all the stories meant that we had to be nice.  Yes, I sought.  I was so, so proud to have my Bible as a birthday present.  I read it frequently but could not find the promised abundance of life in its pages or in the organisation that represented this God.


This week I've been thinking about my past - having been asked about experiences of the Sacred.  I've looked at those but also found myself remembering the times of seeking the Sacred and finding nothing but disappointment.  So I've looked back on that church life, what I can remember of it, and the emptiness it brought.  Had I found God I can see that my entire life from that point on would have been very, very different.  But I didn't.  I found only people.  Nice people, but not people able to show me a path to faith.

I left the Church, not to rest, but to search elsewhere. But that's not a tale for today.  Maybe tomorrow, one piece of the search.  Another fruitless effort.

I still search - even when you do find truth, you find it points to bigger truths.  The quest, the searching can and will never end.  You cannot rest, you cannot proudly assume that you've reached the destination.

Desiring to sing, Melody in my heart
I became churched that I might cry out the word.
Beyond the song, a story that gave no peace.

Seeking, seeking, but finding nothing for my spirit.
Entering in tranquility, destination looked empty.
I left that place, some inner light turned to darkness.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Psychotherapist, a Poem, Pythagoras, and a Publication

White Lodge went by several names.

It was known as The College of Psychotherapeutics.  White Lodge had several aims.  One was to help others become healed and live unfractured lives.  Another was to train others to help others become healed and live unfractured lives.  The ultimate purpose behind those aims at White Lodge was that they would work themselves out of their jobs, that those jobs would no longer be needed.

As part of the work of White Lodge, a little magazine journal was regularly published, The Psychotherapist.  I received that journal for several years but, as with everything else from that time, I destroyed them, threw them away or sold them in my Christian evangelical zeal.  The journal contained articles from the staff and students at White Lodge, poetry, stories.  Always an interesting read, if issues were still available as a bumper compilation volume or a digital file then I'd get hold of them.

I wrote poems.  I submitted a couple informally to The Pyschotherapist.  Very informally, as I probably had never been intending to submit them for anything.  And I think they both appeared in print.  The short one certainly did - a triolet.

I'd been taking an adult education writing class in the evenings - I'd had to get permission from the school headmaster to take the class because I wasn't an adult.  An entertaining class, we were set homework each week to write very different things in very different formats.  One week had had to write short poems - haiku, clerihews, triolets, and a longer poem, a sestina.

Until this moment I had forgotten the word sestina.  But I wrote one.  I have no idea what the 39 lines were about but seem to recall it had minor merit.  Perhaps this week I should write another.  It's a disciplined form.  Six stanzas of six lines followed by a three line envoi.  The words that end the lines of the first stanza also end the lines of the other five stanzas, but they are rotated to appear in different lines.  Lots of people have written sestinas.  Here's a link to one, The Guest Ellen at the Supper for Street People by David Ferry.  I'm a poetry ignoramus so hadn't heard of Ferry but am impressed by this poem.

The sestina is lost.  If it did turn up I'd probably be very embarrassed by it.  But I still remember one of the clerihews.

Pythagoras, Pythagoras,
You'll never quite catch up with us.
Most of your rules are out of date,
But your rule of the triangle still works great.

Very silly - but that's normal for clerihews.  Some are much more clever than mine - but I was only sixteen.  That's my excuse anyway!

And I still remember one of the triolets.  It's not exactly to the level of Thomas Hardy's triolet but, as I plead, I was sixteen.  And I'm not a poetic genius.  So this is the triolet that turned up in the pages of The Psychotherapist.  Since that time I have rarely written poems.  The only poetry I've tried this decade has been written in the last six months and is already on this blog.  And since that time I've certainly not been a published poet!

Why am I here?
I'd quite like to die.
If I did, people would cheer.
Why am I here?
Why won't people hear
When I talk and I cry?
Why am I here?
I'd quite like to die.

I knew depression.  I knew about feeling bad.  And a memory came out as I wrote.  By the time I wrote it for the class and then took it to White Lodge I was happier and did not want to die.  Later the school English teacher set us homework to write a suicide note.  We had such joyful school lessons!  Fortunately the teacher didn't turn out to be an evil cult leader, "Bring in your suicide letters children, and then we can enter into the spirit of things."  I began my note with that poem - and my note received an A+ grade.

My experiences of depression were awful.  Later experiences were worse.  But I can't claim it's all been worthless - they did at least give me good marks in an English lesson.

(This has been written without aim or plan and without any conscious memory of words like sestina)

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Pilgrim Hymn of Dedication (A Half-memory Restored)

I haven't written of White Lodge yet.  That will happen soon and put this post into some context.

In my teenage years I took a couple of courses at White Lodge.  After that I converted to an enthusiastic form of Christianity that quickly became narrow in its outlook.  That's not a surprise - a teenage convert swallows whatever preaching they are exposed to, no matter how odd or extreme or even abhorrent it may seem to the non-convert.  In joy, in zeal, in the thrill of new meanings, the convert can forget to think - or even be encouraged not to think.  Sadly my experience of embracing things I now regret is a common one.

To digress, by leaping forward to this morning:

I popped into the local Christian bookshop.  I'm not quite sure why as there is very little there that appeals to the person I am now.  But I picked up a book called "Christian Philosophy."  A good title.  An exciting title.  I hoped the book might be as intelligently written as something by Aquinas or one of the more modern Christian philosophers and it might be a stunningly challenging read.  I was quickly disappointed

The book contained nothing that I would call philosophy and nothing that any philosophy student or teacher would recognise as part of their subject of study.  Instead it was a book that promised to tell us "This is what the Bible means."  Worse, the author didn't start with the Bible and honestly seek to ask what the Bible is.  He started with a preconception and so explained "This is what my preconceived notions say that Bible means."  He had a literalist, fundamentalist preconception - so creation happened in six days and there is no evolution, homosexuality is great evil, without personal faith in Jesus you're doomed to Hell, and so on.  I was the teenage convert who swallowed teaching like that.  At least for a while.

Returning to the topic.  I took courses at White Lodge.  At the end of each course all the students gathered in "The Galilee", a chapel there, with the course tutors.  Each of us received a personal blessing, a couple of paragraphs, from one of the tutors.  I wish I still had those blessings but in evangelical post-conversion zeal they were destroyed.  We had a service.  And we sang.  I have never since experienced anything so warm, so love-filled as those services.

At the close of every course at White Lodge a particular song was sung.  It was written by Ronald Beesley, the founder of White Lodge, a man I never met as he died some years before I first visited.  The words at that time were printed on a sheet that I'm semi-sure said "Words by Ronald Beesley and The Dalai Lama, written on the shore of Lake Galilee."  We sang it to the tune of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  Just in case anyone doesn't know it, here's a version from The Proms.  (You do know it - even if you don't know what it is)


Those little services of blessing were a wonderful experience.  Pretty much everything at White Lodge was a wonderful experience.

So why am I writing about this?

This year I've found myself singing the hymn.  Regularly.  As I've wandered around it has kept coming to my mind and I've started singing - sometimes out loud in the street!  But all year I've been faced with a frustrating problem:  I only knew the words to three-quarters of the first verse.  I'd get there and be stuck, either getting annoyed or just starting again.  The words have been quite prominent in my life, especially in the last six months.

Last week I asked online - there is a small facebook White Lodge group.  Does anyone have the words?  And yes, someone did.  The words were posted within hours and then someone posted them with the original tune they were sung to.  I am so thankful for those people and for those who still store the archives of White Lodge - though White Lodge itself is no more.  I am so thankful that I can finally finish singing the song that I've been singing for months.

 The Pilgrim Hymn of Dedication - White Lodge

      Oh, teach me Lord to know Thee,
      Thy wisdom to reveal,
      And place Thy mantle o'er me,
      And guide me how to heal.
      Thy footsteps I would follow,
      Thro' rock or barren waste,
      To dry the tears of sorrow,
      Thy Kingdom here to haste.

      By Galilean mountains,
      By shore and quiet sea,
      O'er stony paths and desert,
      You paved The Way for me.
      I would my Lord and Master,
      A Galilean be,
      To share Thy Hands in serving,
      And set the prisoners free.

      My life is Thine to do with
      Such as Thou would'st name,
      From now I am Thy servant,
      Thy blessing I would claim.
      To serve the need of others
      As Thou hast done for me,
      For all men are my brothers,
      To serve eternally.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Psalm Workshop

Before the summer, a few weeks after I started to attend MCC, the church ran a psalm writing workshop.  Several of us gathered one Saturday morning and we each wrote psalms - mainly in words but also in pictures.  My first attempt in several years at writing something other than sermons.  Sharing those words and pictures afterwards revealed a set of gifted, creative people - writers of far more impressive words than the ones that follow.

I wrote a lot about how my life had been, the thoughts I'd had about myself and the relationship with "God" that I'd had - based on what I thought that God was and what I thought he had said about people.  I later cut down those words to three lines.

With fractured head and heart I said the right words and lied.
My fundamental fault was all I saw but could not find
and mercy was pleaded for and the gift of freedom rejected.

And then I turned to life as I saw it by then - a lot had changed.  I chose a verse from the Biblical psalms.  A verse I'd heard many times before but not accepted.  I couldn't accept because it wasn't how I saw myself.  The following is some of what was written that day.  I believe now that this is true of me.  Not just true of me - but true for every human being who has lived or will ever live.

We are all wonderful, splendid, magnificent creatures.

Psalm 139:14:    I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.    Wonderful are your works;        this I know very well.

You O God made me, created in beauty.
You O God made me, and you saw that I was good.

Can I reject the divinely inspired splendour that is me?
Can I reject this glorious being you embrace?

I am your wonderful work
    Enlighten me of the wonders of my uniqueness.
That I may Know Your love
    And weep in the freedom of thankfulness.

Beautiful lover, bowing to me, kissing your child
Teach me my beauty
    that passionate, extravagant thankfulness may thrive,
So all I can do is bow to you;
    Kissing you, my creator
    Kissing your child, my salvation
    Kissing your spirit, my comfort.

You created me in magnificent beauty,
And God saw that I was very good.

When I was fifteen, I was depressed.

Waiting for the wind and rain and hail to die down, I began to type again.  Here it is - unedited.  It's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  At least as far as I remember it, twenty-eight years later.  With the length of this it must at least be nearly the whole truth!

When I was fifteen, I was depressed.

I can't remember being depressed. There are many parts of my childhood that I cannot remember and this time of darkness was one of them. I know that I was depressed, very depressed and I've been told that I'd been talking of suicide. I can't remember. I have to trust what I've been told. I remember nothing of it or why my words and manner must have worried people as much as they did.

But I can remember the outcome. That's a week for which my blankness becomes a finely detailed portrait.

The week begins.

Monday. I was taken to see a child psychiatrist. I remember that. I remember her name and I remember seeing her, how it felt to be there, and her opinions regarding my immediate future. Perhaps I shouldn't have been there at all, but when your fifteen year old son talks of killing himself there are few options open to most parents.

I saw her alone. I remember the dread. I remember not talking. I remember the pain, the guilt, the confusion that I was even there. It wasn't the first time I'd had problems. Some years before a child psychologist had come to the house and written words like “Schizophrenia?” in his notes. I've always wondered how there could be no follow up when a psychologist thinks you may have schizophrenia. I'd spent time in the withdrawal unit for “maladjusted” children at school when I wasn't coping. And I recall my confusion and worry and fears when at the age of twelve I suddenly could not be the normal semi-sociable person I'd been at school and found it almost an impossibility to be involved in anything.

I saw her alone. She asked questions. I don't know what they were but obviously I gave the worrying answers, or more likely no answers. I don't remember doing a lot of talking, just sitting, bottled up, feeling like it was a punishment to be there rather than a plea for help.

I saw her alone. Forty-five minutes of the alone with the psychiatrist. And that was enough. Enough for her to make a certain, clear diagnosis and to formulate a certain, clear course of treatment. She knew, the expert, as much an expert in her eyes as any psychiatrist or doctor I later saw. She, trained, had her vision. A vision she imparted to my parents when we were together again.

I was to be treated to everything the health service could offer me. Immediate hospitalisation, for months, with a range of drugs to be my chemical salvation, and regular ECT to electro-zap my brain back to health. And she sold the treatment well. The pleasantness of the children's psychiatric hospital. How I'd have my own room. My own things. My own space. A TV in the room. A computer to play with. How wonderful and enjoyable the whole experience would be at this utopian settlement.

Wow! How exciting. Yippee! The promise of such great things. And I felt excitement. Who in my position wouldn't? That evening I must have felt good – but memories of that night fail me.

The following morning I felt worse than I had ever felt before. Much worse. The exciting hospital now seemed more like a nightmare gone bad. I didn't want to leave home for months and be stuck somewhere. I didn't want drugs that I didn't understand or electric shocks that I couldn't really even fathom. I cried. Cried. Cried some more. I don't want the only help available. And I won't have it.

That day, in a moment of “what the hell am I supposed to do now, with the only normal option being bad?” my mother did something right. Her actions that day turned my probable death into my life.

First she found out we had time – immediate hospitalisation wasn't normally possible as the children's hospital had a several month waiting list for all these medicalised unfortunates. Then she thought, and searched and found another answer, a fully-grown answer with seeds planted months before:

I'd seen an advert in the local newspaper for some Mind, Body, Spirit sort of fair in a nearby town. I pestered my mother and wanted to go. It was the sort of thing I was interested in. These were the books I read. But I was alone, knowing nobody so strange as me. And I pestered some more. She talked about how awful it would be but more pestering won the day and she drove me to it. When we got there we found there was an admission fee – it was no more than a pound. But that was too much. My mother seemed determined to tell me “I told you so”, that the whole fair was some rotten con by money grabbing frauds. She moaned.  Moaned about my stupid ideas.  I guess there were other stressful things going on that I knew nothing about - rattiness like that wasn't an everyday occurrence.

And the person taking admissions was kind. We were let in for nothing – after all it was late in the day.

I can't remember much of the fair, who was and wasn't there. Probably lots of shallow dross among the gems. I do know that there were quite a few free food samples – and how, because it was late in the day, some of the samples became almost “just have the rest of the pot” sized. And then there were some people into health – the Mid-Sussex Natural Health Centre. We got talking with them and took a card. And, thankfully, kept the card.

Some time later – I don't recall if this was before or after the psychiatrist's chair – we went to a natural health day at a member's house. It was a free event and I remember nothing of it except for receiving “music therapy”. Whether it was therapeutic or healing in any long-term way I don't know, but it was certainly relaxing.

The fair had been good. It had been free. There was lots to see and lots of free food. And we had met nice people. And my mother, who had been so negative on the way, changed her mind. On the journey home she said to me, “I knew that it would be good.” Why did she know it would be good? Because she had seen a train on Balcombe Viaduct on our journey. And that's lucky. Apparently.

So we had a card. And that card was very important. The day after I saw the psychiatrist, in panic, in stress and fear, my mother phoned the number on the card and asked, “What can we do? Where can we go? Is there any hope?” Or words like those. I didn't hear the call. I was in my room. Miserable. Weeping. Very, very scared.

The person she talked to had an idea. A good idea. She knew of a place that offered counsel. And it was a place that seemed to be perfect for someone as spiritually odd as myself.

I will write of that place sometime. I've thought a lot about it this year and many memories from visits there have returned to me. I've said hello again to someone I knew there. I've seen pictures that evoke joyful tears. I've read a few of the things I read there. I later ran, spiritually and physically from that place but that's another story, largely a tale of great regret now.

That's not this tale though. It's a tale that came out of a Christianity – a Christianity I was glad to embrace, but very different from the Christianity I currently follow. And that old Christianity was embraced so strongly from a self-dislike and despair, not from the self-love and hope I currently live.

For now I will say that the place offered hope. An alternative to the horrors of drugs and electric shocks. It would cost money, it wasn't the NHS freebie, but it might be much better. I am quite firmly of the opinion that the place probably saved my life. And that the phone call that day saved my life. And visiting that fair put in place what would save my life. For now, all I'll say is that two days later I went to that place, found out I was not alone, received useful counselling and had my eyes opened to possibilities.

It had been quite a week. Monday – see the eager doctor. Tuesday – despondent, seek solutions. Thursday – visit that solution.

Friday – return, the whole family, to see the eager doctor again, all of us together for the consultation.

Going back into her lair was awful. I returned to my closed-up, staring, watery eyes place for the whole time. I almost squashed fifteen years of all my fears and anxieties into that one hour. My mother and father said bluntly, plainly, that we didn't want all that she was offering to me. And so I was rescued thanks to them from that fate, a fate that ultimately may have equalled death. Curiously, the doctors did not follow anything up. Having seen me as worthy of extreme measures there were no check-ups to see if I was healthy or suicidal, alive or dead.

That was the week that was.

A week arising from a darkness I cannot recall.
A week of greater darkness and pain.
And a week leading to a greater hope and a rich light.
A week that could have led to my death but which led to new life.
A week, bookended by horror, but for which I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Six Months Ago

Words written this morning while sitting in a cafe this morning.  Just written down, no editing, no corrections, no deep thought or goal in the writing.  I promise that not everything I write will be about this transgender life.  Six months on, so much has happened.  I have moved far more quickly than I'd dreamed was possible and not stopped to write things down.  So there may be quite a lot more written in the next six months.  I'll try to write other things too.  And in a month I should have a a decent camera - there is a lot to look at and enjoy nearby and I plan to explore and write thoroughly when time allows.

Six Months Ago

I didn't know where this would lead.
Had I known, would I have allowed the experiments?  The new honesty?
Would I have played with my thoughts?  Permitted possibilities of change?
Would old beliefs of horror have risen, turning my back on what I almost knew was coming?
Would I have stood before the dam, watching the cracks grow, trickles of truth flowing, threatening torrents, unstoppable floods?

Or would I have secured the walls, erased the clues, again seeking the ignorance of lies?
I'd killed truth so often, conscientiously, deliberately, systematically.
Truth.  Pressed down, shaken.  Crushed.

Or was I ready?  I knew what was coming.  I knew, in moments of bareness.  I'd dreamed my new name.  I'd dreamed my future.
And in that revelation I did not run, I kept embracing.
Little sprinted steps, searching, fearfully enjoying, almost hammering at the cracks, pleading for what is to be revealed, what is to be.

Was it really only six months ago?

Only six months since I stood, for the first time, honestly, without guilt, ready to accept the deep everythings?
Only six months since I dressed, for the first time, honestly, as me, as she, without torment, ready to behold and be held in deep wonder?
Only six months since I spoke, for the first time, honestly, to me, to she, 'Hello.  I welcome you and I must die'?
Only six months since I wept, for the first time, honestly, Clare, in new life, in infinite potentials, infinite release?
Only six months since I saw, heard, sniffed the air, honestly, as me, as she, no more the dread dark stagnation of oubliette?

Yes, yes.  Only six months.  The wild ride of a rodeo bull.

Would he have allowed this to happen?  Would he, if he saw me here, now, Clare, in all important ways woman, would he have stood firm or let go?  If he had known he would have to die, would he have begun to play at all?  I do not know.

But if he had foreseen my joy, my healing, the meaning of his life as protector become prison guard, if he saw all that he would, in recent times, gladly let me live.  And so he did.  Six months ago.  He said to me "Hello Clare.  If this is really real, truthful truth, then I set you free and I will pass, fade, and rest in new peace."

I am Clare, grown woman, six months old.
I am Clare, the screaming prisoner, now released.
I am Clare, condemned for the crime of existing, now pardoned.
I am Clare, alone inside, for he was true, happily self-sacrificing.
I am Clare, the future, and it will be wonder.
I am Clare, discovering myself, excited at the education.

Six months.
Just six months.
I am Clare.

Time to Change Your Dressings

Not every post here will be about transgender experiences, whether mine or linked to the varied experiences of others.  But today is an important day to me and my thoughts are on my past, my present, the future and the paths that have and will connect them.  This morning I sat in a cafe with a drink and, finding it hard to read, wrote instead about a little of the changes this year brought.  Apart from slightly altered but still bad punctuation and the addition of three "I"s this is as written, without plan or direction.

Time to Change Your Dressings

I dressed as him, shook with loathing.
Hiding, hunched over,
Withdrawn into the agony of existence.
Fallen face, sunken eyes
Unwilled outflow of resented, repented past.

I dressed as her, shook with terror.
Shaking, visibly, but walking tall, proud
Inward she - joyed, blissed
Outward he - rejected, hated, abused
Unwanted, the "queer tranny" appears in their world.

I dressed as her, shaking, fearing this life.
Refusing to hide, imprisonment over,
Thrusts herself into the insult of existence.
Taunts and jeers.  Weeping eyes.
Undefeated - never the final, fatal loss.

Still dressed as her, shaking silenced
Courage to continue became confidence, clarity,
Curiosity for she who is free.
Outward, she, still she in flesh of he,
She, willed, flowing out in rejoiced, full joined present.

Six Months

A few words jotted down while sitting in a coffee house, 3rd December.

Be warned again, this has a very low quality threshold due to being slammed down onto paper in under 10 minutes.  It's honest - but certainly not crafted.  All the repetition was (mainly) intentional.

Unforeseen, from unforeseen.
Six months, a lifetime
Pain filled joy, joy filled pain.

I stood before myself.
Stripped naked in the clothes I wore
Naked, revealed, plain as the face
Through which I found release.

I stood before myself.
Stripped of illusion, the manhood I wore
Truth, revealed, plain as the body,
The flesh that hid the she who is.

The unforeseen, clearly seen.
Six months, beautiful revelation
Pain into clarity, tears into joy.

I stand before myself
Naked, washed clean by the torrents
Stripped of the lies, barricades broken
Into the unity of open knowledge.

I stand before myself
Stripped naked, bare flesh of a new life
She, revealed, plain as that man's face
She, brilliant freedom, released in love

Unforeseen, from unforeseen.
New life begins now.

Unforeseen, from unforeseen.
Given future, given hope.

Being and Nothingness - a memory of today

Written on the evening of 22nd November. Written in my head halfway through the first poetry evening I've ever been to.

That day I'd spent hours in unhappy discussion with a local Minister who dismissed my identity and told me I couldn't be a Christian unless I wanted to repent of being who I am and what I am.  He could not see any possibility that anyone could be transgender without living in great sin.

I am sad for that man.  I am sad for his church.  And I worry for people he may talk to, people who may be feeling less secure than I was.  The consequences for them may be more severe than an attempt at a poem.

Being and Nothingness

I met a man today.
We met. We spoke.
He on my right. I on his left.
I spoke with him.
But he did not speak with me.

He told me I do not exist.
I could not exist, there is no way.
Yet I, the impossible woman, continued to speak.

Would you Adam and Eve it?
He could.
I could not
For Adam was male and Eve was not.
Or so they say.

And I, I broke the mould.
Eve in Adam's flesh.
I broke the rule
So could not be real.

Yet I, the impossible woman, continued to speak,
to feel, tangibly
to suffer and to cry
for the man who could not see me.

A few random thoughts on coming out publicly as Clare

Written on November 21st:

Take it from me - if I was chasing an image of what a woman should look like then I would never leave the house except dressed as a man because quite frankly that's how my brain tells me I look. I'd be too scared to go out if I thought I had to "pass" as some ideal or even less-than-ideal picture of what a woman should be.  Because my brain looks at my face and tells me that I fail.

Somehow I decided not to care about that - which isn't easy and some days I've gone out terrified, physically shaking in fear.  It has got easier. So wandering round Wallsend and Newcastle today in the same skirt I wore yesterday wasn't worrying in the slightest - neither was wandering round Matalan and Tesco tonight in a rather shorter skirt.

I was expecting hell for becoming Clare publicly - rejection from friends and family, constant abuse and even violence in the streets.  I'd read stories and it's easier to absorb the stories of horror and suffering.  Fear could have stopped me doing anything, even with support at home.

But the one thing worse than the worst of my fears - which haven't come to pass - was not to transition.  To remain as him knowing that I am me would have led metaphorically, or possibly literally, to my death.

I can't speak for anyone else, or advise anyone else, and understand the massive range of ways of going about things that aren't any more right or wrong then the others.

I can only speak for myself, that coming out and starting to live as myself was about the scariest thing I'd ever done but it turned out that most of the fear was self-created and about imaginary phantoms.  Some bad things did happen and more may still happen - but if I'd left it 10 years most of them would probably have still happened and I'd probably have been even more terrified by the whole thing.  It's been very difficult to jump in and do this almost in no time from the point of coming out to myself with the truth.   But - in my case, not necessarily in anyone else's case - I am very glad I did it.  It would also have been very difficult for me not to do it because of the agonising pain every day that I felt I couldn't be myself.  I'd go from weeping for joy at being me to weeping in great anguish at not being able to be me - I pretty much cried myself to sleep every night.  It didn't take long to know that I had no choice but to transition quickly and be very public because even if it had all gone wrong then living as yourself is better than living as someone else.  Which didn't make telling anyone easy, the adrenalin mixed in with the fear of rejection felt horrible.  Every time.  My mother inadvertantly helped by accidentally leaking it on facebook to a number of people at which point I thought "oh bugger it all" and went from telling someone every 2-3 days to telling pretty much everyone in the following week.

That's just me though - having lived with crappy mental health for most of my life (long history of problems - shrinks, 9 antidepressants, other meds, day hospitals and so on up until 2009 but that year is another story of hell and learning) I could see how much better, for me, this would be and how much of a joy it is to be me in comparison with the despair of being him.

I'll be working through the unforeseen consequences for a good long while.  So much has changed and is changing. The next year may be lead to some unexpected places.  Just as this year has led to unexpected places.  Seeds are being sown and I wonder which will grow and bear fruit.

Advent Reflections - Saturday before Advent

Today (30th November) was the MCC creativity day.  Much activity and togetherness.  After lunch I grabbed 30 minutes in the chapel, alone in the peace.  After a while, resting in stillness, I took a pen, and an empty notebook I've carried for weeks and not opened.  I have turned from any urge to write for years.  Now is the time to begin.  To learn.  To make fractured, amateur, flawed attempts at expression.  These are the results of today's quiet minutes.  Written here as in the notebook, throwing words out as seemed fit, without editing or going back to turn them into something more pleasing.

The Afternoon before Advent

(St Martin's Chapel, Byker, in the stillness, the advent wreath prepared but cold.  To be read at my slow, chew-on-words pace)

Candles, dimmed,
Blackened wicks,
Standing proud, yet dead.
We wait for life, for fire
For the dull tool to become beacon,
For darkness, invisible in the dark
To be darkness, intangible in the light.
For bare sticks of wax, waiting, waiting
To signify your light, heat, triumph.

You came. The light was lit.
Prophets sang. The light was lit.
A yes was spoken. Be it done to me.
The light was lit. Darkness forced back.

Candles, lit, you came, you remain,
Come, come again, again, come again.
Light us, symbols of you
Not to reveal darkness but to be light
You, great light of the world
We, your lights for the world.

But, for today, candles, dimmed.
No defeat. Just expectation.
Light will come. You will come.
And in light, all will be lit,
All will be well.


Come to me risen one,
Come as you came before:
   To the poor, wrapped in poverty;
   To the lost, beyond sight of the found.

Come to me risen one,
Come as you came before:
   That my potential, still in the womb,
   May birth, grow, ascend in you.

Come to me risen one,
Come as you came before:
   You, discovered, truth in human flesh,
   Reveal the discovery of my wonders.

Come to me risen one,
Come as you came before:
   Born to be self-offering
   Teach me my self, that I may offer.

Come to me risen one,
Come as you came before:
   Godhead in inconsequential circumstance
   Lead me to great consequence in you.

Come to me risen one,
Come as you came before:
   God, creator, helpless, all powerful
   Bless with the weakness of strength.

There they are, poems of sorts, unpolished, unworthy.  But pouring out of the peace today and revealing that I might still have some kind of faith after all.

The notebook has many pages.  By the time I fill them I may have learned something of an art of writing.  The forgotten gift, almost extinguished, like the advent candles after services, may still, like the candles, be lit again and bring a little light and warmth.