Saturday, January 29, 2011

Burns Baby Burns

Aye, it was a braw bricht moon licht nicht thon nicht.

On the birthday of one of the world’s most celebrated poets, Robert Burns, or Rabbie to his friends, people gather in almost every nation to deliver tribute to the Scottish Bard’s verses, sing songs in homage to well-deserved reputation, and of course, partake of the haggis and whiskey. Whether you’re in Scotland, the USA, Spain, Singapore or Turkey, “wherever ye may roam into the wild or the tame, the Bard he does remind us of the place we all call hame”.

On the eve of the commemoration I was invited to ‘Selma’s Diner’ to entertain the assembled masses with a performance of Burns’ poetry, and was honoured to slip into brogue and curl my tongue around the rolling Rs for a personally inspired Anglo-American interpretation of several of his best-loved pieces.

With a mother from the most violent wee town in the west
Or Greenock as they call it
And a father from Stirling where Wallace fought his battles
I lay claim to all his honour
So when you hear me speak of the dales
And reminisce in my blathering blether
Remember that tho’ to chill the bones it's blowin' gales
The icy rain does fall as sleet
And we dine most nights on simple stew
In my soul and through my blood
Scotland forever will run true.

Ross, in traditional dress, played a technically perfect version of Scotland the Brave on the bagpipes. Then Jacqui addressed the haggis with a rendition of Burns’ renowned poem before stabbing the mighty belly of the timorous wee beastie. It was a fabulous night that continued ‘til the wee hours with much revelry and hearty humour.

It is a shame that Rabbie is generally only recited on the occasion of his birthday, but then again, what man wishes to be reminded of his passing age more than once a year.

The highlands are astonishingly beautiful at this time of year, with the mist gathering along the hillsides and thistle grazing the legs of intrepid explorers to the upper reaches. Hiking through the glens and into the lush purple hills, breathing the brisk fresh air and scent of heather is a pleasure all should experience. It is one of the simple joys that will stay in the mind and gladden the cockles of the heart for all time.

Honest wealth is in the heart
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Follow the light in the eye
That window to the soul
For how far can real beauty go
If one’s vision of life began
By looking to the spirit
Rich as a deep blue sea
And recognise within that heart
The true essence of each man

I never tire of the scenery in Scotland, and were it not for the inclement climate would consider living there forever – but then again, were it not for the weather t’would no doubt be a mighty crowded place.

My empathy with the struggle for liberty in life is amongst the honest and friendly people who see rogues amongst us stealing the rightful place of noble ambition and watch in tired bemusement as titles and lands are handed out as honours for fools and slaves to the wicked. As my family motto, as engraved on the crest exclaims: Pro Libertate. A man is nought if not free. Liberty has been hard gained for so many, yet it is a constant battle against those who would oppress, to maintain that cause for liberty of thought and expression in this world today - just watch the news, as so many are still attempting to attain that right (for a right it is). In these difficult economic times when the material riches of this world that twinkle as so much tinsel are held aloft in false esteem by brigands and pompous pretenders as if in their insecurity of mind they must lord it over the poor and decent, then, understand good people, as Rabbie said:

You see yon ca’d a’ lord who struts and stares an a’ that
Though hundreds worship at this word
He’s but a coof for a’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
His riband his star an’ a’ that
The man o’ independent mind looks and laughs at a’ that.

On the Balearic Islands and the turquoise coast of the Aegean, over the past year I have wandered into ecstasy easily as a phantom to discover the meaning of life. I want so little more from life than to ramble along the beaches of this beautiful world in union with the sun, eat hamely fayre and share honest company with others who too dare to be free. With peace of mind to sleep beneath a starry sky beside a true love of gentle spirit and warm persuasion I feel as wealthy and welcome as the princes who once trod these distant and often mysterious lands.

Interestingly, Scottish beaches – especially those in the far north, are often of the purest white sand and dotted with palm trees due to the Gulf Stream waters that bring a little bit of the tropics to the high latitudes and create the illusion of warmth along the windswept coast of these magnificent Western Isles.

Only the sparkling cerulean seas and lochs that attract visitors from near and far to view the magnificent panoramic vistas match the clear blue skies of this magical land. Oh, to be in bonnie Scotland when my love, like a red red rose in the winter, is so very far from me.

Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine
A man’s a man for a’ that ..
The honest man tho’ e’er sae poor
Is king o’ men for a’ that
.. let us pray that come it may
(as come it will for a’ that)
That sense and worth o’er the earth
Shall bear the gree an a’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
It’s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man the world o’er
Shall brothers be for a’ that
Robert Burns

I am now looking forward to the first blossoms of spring, but enjoying the winter sunshine that keeps the spirit youthful and character strong. As I continue the adventure, learning and growing, friends around this world have given me reason to believe that a brighter day is dawning. Though I despair for the earth, I have faith in the spirit. While I see a bleak future for this world as it is going, individually I have hope in a better tomorrow.

So in raising a glass to toast the Scottish Bard, here’s to health and happiness wherever your head does lay, optimism is a better way to think it keeps the spirit bright, for only in this brief life can we expect such hardship and more often work than play.

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Read one of my Scottish dialect poems here. You can learn more about Robert Burns here, and this is Scotland's official tourist site. Thanks to Scott for the pic.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On Kerouac

Little ditty ‘bout Jack and Dean ..

Over the course of a continuing lifetime I have taken many trips, across nations and continents, to the tops of mountains and through vast lowland swamps, traversing oceans and deserts, down back alleys of sprawling cities at night and gravel strewn country lanes into cloistered villages far removed from the hustle and bustle of the frantic and of course, with the initial guidance of teachers and shamans, into the deepest recesses of my own mind. Carlos Castaneda, Voltaire, the Odyssey and the Iliad, Johnny Quest, Sinbad and Dorothy have all been inspirational, but never have I sat more frequently with groups of friends around the world discussing the ramifications of a classic novel of adventure and discovery than that of ‘On The Road’ by the famous beat-generation writer Jack Kerouac.

The anticipation of the journey is often more exciting than the arrival. I have always felt most free and cognisant of spirit when ‘on the road’. Many of us are simply born with that desire to keep moving and exploring the world and our selves as active participants within it. As I wrote in a poem, with an obvious aside reference to Kerouac, ‘.. the memory of forgotten promises reminding me of Dharma bums and hobo days, it’s always easier for the one who goes than for the one who stays ..’

When Jack Kerouac published ‘On The Road’ it was said he began the “greening of America”. That is, he pulled the world that had been existing in black and white, a model of society defined and accepted by the majority, with its shades of grey disguising intention in a cinematic fusion of outward perception into an era where colour and the revelation of awareness of self could blossom into a new age of freedom and introspective purpose focused on locating the 'I'.

It was the first time ideas of self and collective consciousness of identity outside restrictive group norms had come into being on such a scale. Post World War Two America was searching and questioning and Jack opened the doors to perception through reinventing the classic quest story for the modern middle classes.

Unlike so many tales of adventure, the archetypal hunt for fortune or glory with good and evil outlined in caricature, the characters in Kerouac’s story in a morally vague period of liminal transition, are on an expedition to find themselves; not something without but something within. In this vision of America, as it existed then, there is greater wonder in learning who one is and in rejecting a past that has for all intents decayed along with the anachronistic opinions of ‘anyone over thirty’. The world, post war, has changed, and the old paradigm no longer addresses the concerns of contemporary youth.

Kerouac attempts to redefine culture beyond the familiar frontiers of geographic territory whilst utilising the physical trip across that seemingly endless country as a setting, for California now marks the edge of the map, toward a search for the meaning of personal existence in this new and complex age of information and its constantly shifting transient society of individuals. Our protagonist, a veiled Kerouac himself, voyages through time and space meeting others who reveal the secrets of life through their own narratives of the journey to realisation; a new consciousness for a new age.

During the account of this rambling and often hectic jaunt back and forth across America Kerouac introduces various characters, each struggling to reconcile their here and now with a troubled past that no longer holds a truth for the future. For those who have read ‘On The Road’ it becomes obvious that the most poignant and lasting of these often-tragic figures is his frequent companion, the ‘crazy’ Dean Moriarty.

Alas, poor Dean Moriarty. To be thought insane or sane would in and of itself as definition deny the revelation of the character who stood outside convention – for only through the yes of the non-insane is the determination of the state of mind by which we measure such things. Is insanity an arbitrary notion? I think not.

Schizophrenia is one of the culturally manifest mental illnesses that have been shown to have universally applicable criteria (manifests itself culturally but with recurring features cutting across lines of acceptable social interaction and recognised norms of believability), and Dean doesn’t exhibit those distinguishing attributes. Yes, that dividing line may be tenuous at times and run down the centre of the road as a median we hesitate to cross yet edge along running our wheels close to the fringe of the acceptable, however what separates those who would veer to the other side from those who resist the urge is the measure of sanity.

The line is a gauge of the fragmented self and as broken hearts and minds in a disjointed world we vacillate through the gaps as the need to conform presses against the desire to follow instinct.

Dean represents both the past and the inner child. At the end of the book he stands amongst his associates, bandaged thumb protruding as a mark of ugly challenge – the iconic symbol of the perpetual hitchhiker, in blatant refusal to grow up when Sal and his friends are ‘settling down’ and coming together as suburban couples with the ordinary dreams of jobs and homes. With his dirty t-shirt and cackling laughter he is an unsightly reminder of the pain and suffering each has endured ‘on the road’ to coming of age in the new world.

As friends and compatriats they have travelled this highway of grief and are ready to accept the conformity each successive generation has faced, while Dean has yet to leave the anguish behind and see the future as one of adult requirements to reshape society in an original vision of hopefulness. Much to their discomfort, Dean is still trapped in that boxcar of the dark chilly night bouncing through the endless prairie of that old and depressive dustbowl heartland.

The suggestion of distance as miles travelled and space as the distance between places are themselves fluid concepts and subject to interpretation, or with the intention of being more accurate here, distance becomes time. The Lakota Sioux, for example, measure distance as the time it takes to travel from one place to another, that is, one does not say ‘my house is 5 miles away’ but rather ‘my house is an hour from here’. However, we also perceive distance as the space between events in our lives (we’ve come a long way since then .. etc) and measure that by what we have learned or how we have grown from each experience, or perhaps even how we have become ‘distant’ from ourselves and others as we lived in a remembered past.

This harks back (so to speak) to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland adventure, in that the protagonist finally returns to the upper world of manners and accountability after her hallucinatory experience filled with a new awareness of self, ready to meet those who dispute her progress in becoming a woman of her age (and/or time).

She recognises the need for change and lets go of childish desires while holding fast to imagination as a source of inspiration to her self, the creative play in her mind suggesting it is possible to have ‘sane’ thoughts beyond the norm and yet integrate them into personality that is still within the realm of acceptability – as “all the best people do”.

Dean, however, is not the fresh idea of change and integrated composite self, but rather the moribund form of the lost innocence of youth. Sal is touched, yes, by the sentiment of Dean’s entrance, but he is also saddened by the inability of Dean to reinvent the adventure – the quest must continually evolve, or that which we seek is no longer meaningful. By trying to stay the same, in continuing to live as he always had, Dean had lost the plot; for him the story was at an end.

Change is an essential aspect of the journey and Dean did not change with time, he didn’t grow and learn. This is Dean’s insanity, the inability to amalgamate his past with his present, his repetition without restructuring.

Constantly reliving his disappointments he was swallowed by the misery of his childhood and was forever sentenced to repeating the failures of his past. We observe in Dean the inability to grapple squarely with responsibility and mature resolution of parental flaws, and he remains the burden of truth and the image of regret for those who cannot move forward to realisation of the unified self.

The road beckons for all of us, for the road is itself a metaphor for life, with the point on the horizon where we finally arrive being that state of becoming a complex yet complete person for whom the adventure continues but the quest is variable.

Many times I have, along with friends, followed the whim of adventure; rolling along highways and back roads, discovering truths of existence and filling our heads with multicoloured dreams. I have journeyed near and far and I continue the quest today – still seeking resolution of freedom and independence with the security and comfort of knowledge of self.

However, I no longer seek me, as I am quite aware of who I am, rather I seek others – those like minded individuals who share the road as fellow travellers in life, and the exploration of space itself – the places I encounter as landmarks on the way. For where will our thoughts take us if not towards a union of spirit, the spirit of discovery – of the past and the future?

The present is a fleeting moment of existence, whereas who we have been and who we are becoming are the sincerest revelations of self. I find myself reflected in the eyes of others, on the road that forever winds and twists through the experiences of a spirited life into the heart of a new day.

I look within my own mind as the thoughts of those who have gone before are reconfigured to define my age and time for an empathetic world yet to be, and I know this path is for me the best of all possible roads.

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