Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Do people really change?

I’d never been interested in religion. I always saw the church as the bag lady of spirituality, wheeling around a load of old tat for no obvious reason. I preferred a large joint, an available woman or the rush of a career that aimed for the top.
I began in broadcasting, working alongside the young Turks of the 70s such as Kate Adie and Jennie Murray at the BBC in Bristol. But when I found myself lacking in the necessary talent to really make it big, I switched my attention to the dark arts of advertising (more smoke and mirrors to hide behind than in broadcasting), and ended up at Saatchi and Saatchi in the late 1970s.
My long term goals included a Bentley Continental, a large property in the sun, and enough money to use whenever I couldn’t get no satisfaction.
So it is with some surprise that I find myself 30 years later living in a small vicarage in Norfolk working as a vicar with a wife and two young children. I have less money now that at any time in my life, and yet I have never felt richer.
Do people really change? It is a question that still needs a clear answer. But in my case I can see a definite before and after. Before in my flat in Notting Hill Gate, at the Carnival with a party on the balcony overlooking the police barracks in the school below; joints all over the place, the stereo blaring out ‘Let it be’ in the vain hope that we could lessen any potential for violence.
Today making marmalade, while the children plant sunflowers in the garden, ready to show at the Harvest Festival Service.
Where did it all go right?
Well, of course, I had a conversion. First the obligatory trip to the Himalayas, then the Damascus road and ‘seeing the light’ (you really do see light actually!), and finally the dreadful realisation that I was becoming a Christian (a crushing blow to my self image and having the same effect as the bubonic plague on my friends).
Goodbye advertising (in spite of Tim Bell’s attempts to appeal to my sanity), hello Jesus.
Do I regret it? Not a moment of it. Someone the other day accused me of being content. And I had to own up to it. Gone was the ravenous black hole of need that consumed anything in its wake: drugs, drink, women, cars, music, shopping, holidays, and acclaim. Anything that promised to satisfy, but never did. And in the place of ‘getting what you want’, was ‘wanting what you get’.
Albert Einstein was once asked “What is the most important question you can ask of life?” and he answered ,“The most important question you could ask would be “Is the universe a friendly place or not?” Being able to answer ‘yes’ to that question changes everything. You are no longer fighting life, you are working with it. You may have various problems and issues, but if the universe is a friendly place and you cooperate with it, then what was previously dysfunctional becomes ordered.
A Buddhist friend once told me that the purpose of practicing Buddhism was to live life more skilfully. Somehow I had stumbled upon a way of doing that – God knows how.
When you accept that the circumstances of your life are in some way the means you have for transforming yourself, rather than something you have to fight against, everything becomes a lot easier.
It didn’t all happen at once, but gradually I noticed how I was less driven, and appreciated what came my way more. True, I lost most of my old friends and ran out of money, but I gradually began to recover my love of life. I was happier with less.
Accepted as a priest in the Church of England I went to train at Durham University. Finding myself slightly pissed at a Fresher’s fair at the age of 40 was very liberating. I joined ‘dramsoc’, acted in Romeo and Juliet, began reading the Guardian in Cafés and was elected President of the college. It was as if I was starting adult life over again and I was being given a second shot at it.
I met my wife in my first parish and married after 46 years of being single (Kingsley Amis once said the male libido was like being chained to a lunatic for 50 years). I have never been happier.
I do experience being a changed person. Deep down I am of course the same, but it is the way I have learnt to negotiate my way through life that has changed.
Someone once said that after 30 a man has nothing to learn from success, but everything to learn from failure. I think I know what they mean now.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

First book launch for ‘Developing Consciousness’.

I was pretty nervous beforehand – not quite knowing what to expect, or how to approach it.
Arrived mob-handed with wife, mother, sister in law and two children (anything to make up the numbers!).
The event was at the Christian Resource Centre in Norwich. They kindly provided wine, juice and crisps (most of them ‘hoovered up’ by my children, aged 5 and 7).
To begin with it’s like throwing a party and wondering if anyone will turn up. All those books spread out waiting to be bought, and the staff hoping that they have not laid it all on just for the author’s family.
But no, people began arriving at about 6.45 and it sort of turned into a drinks party with me rushing about trying to chat while keeping one eye on the door to make sure I welcomed any new arrivals.
By 7.15 there were about 70 people there (phew, thank you for all of you that came) and I got up to speak.
I kept it to 10 minutes with a couple of readings, and then left the stage while I was still ahead.
It was weird signing the books. I wasn’t quite sure when to just sign my name, and when to put a message in it. Still don’t know if I got it right.
But people were really kind, and I think we sold between 40 and 50 books.
It all ended at about 8.30, then it was home for large drink.
It is difficult to gauge how well it is going down as no one has read it yet. It is that blissful time between the launch and the reviews. Then people start telling you what they really think!
So it’s on to Waterstone’s next Tuesday for the second Norwich Launch!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Death? No Thanks

Death and Taxes, the only two things in life that are certain.
One you can avoid, the other you can’t.
We are all getting older every minute.
And nowadays we are being asked to think more about our pensions, the care that we will have in our old age, and even where we would prefer to die.
But we still do not think too much about our own deaths.
Most of us prefer not to dwell too deeply on the subject.
Apart from not wanting a horrible death, we tend to shove it to the back of the mind.
To begin with we think we will live forever. We have our parents and grandparents to go before us.
Then it is just our parents.
And when they go, we really begin to feel that we are next.
Our mortality becomes very apparent.
We realise that more people are dying around us. We become sensitive to that ache or pain, that mole which seems to be itching – could it be C….?
And so the reality of death begins to dawn. It is no longer ‘way over yonder’, but merely ‘a way off’.
But, however old we get, we rarely make our peace with it.
We still do not want to talk about it, think of our funeral, or plan the details. And if we ever do mention it to others, they quickly move us on – “don’t be morbid… you’ve got years yet”.
Yet, like birth, death is an integral part of life.
You cannot live without dying. It is one of the two bookends of life. And to fully live you have to be prepared to die.
To be prepared for death. When we say that, we generally think of “getting our affairs in order “– wills, funeral, and the mental attitude to actually dying.
But I think there is a more vital stage than that.
During our lives we should carry our deaths around with us.
To be perfectly alive and in the moment, we have to live with the fact that we are going to die.
It is a cliché that we should live every moment as if it were our last, but I am suggesting that we should live every moment in the knowledge that we are going to die.
Not to do so is like playing a football match and thinking that there is no end to the game, whereas in actuality you’ve only got 90 minutes.
That time constraint creates a focus for action.
In life we think we’ve got ‘forever’ (when we are young), or ‘quite a time’ (when we are middle aged), or ‘not quite yet’ (when we are old).
But death is a ‘now’ thing. We are to embrace the possibility of death. To know what it feels like, to reach for it.
We should get to know our death; know how we feel about it; consider its possibility daily; so that when it comes we can say “Welcome friend, you are a part of my life and I have prepared myself for your coming”.
For to welcome death daily is to live in a right relationship with life.
It enables us to treasure what we have, and not to take it for granted. To make correct decisions based upon the idea that what we are deciding is within a finite structure, not an infinity of possibilities.
It also makes us consider the darkness in death, which makes the darkness in life less dark.
To live with death is not to forsake life; it is to embrace life fully.
We cannot fully live unless we are prepared to fully die.
As Shakespeare put it:
“Be absolute for death; either death or life shall thereby be the sweeter.”