The second simplicity…


I should be packing, but here I am again. I felt compelled to reflect on one of Richard Rohr’s meditations that landed in my inbox like manna. If you have not heard of him, you might like to check him out here, via his Centre for Action and Contemplation website.

Richard Rohr speaks of the one-ness of all things; the hope that we might come to understand ourselves not as individual units of consumption, satisfaction and distraction, but rather as held in a relationship with all things.

Today he used this wonderful phrase ‘the second simplicity’, which he defines like this;

As we grow spiritually, we discover that we are not as separate as we thought we were. Separation from God, self, and others was a deep and tragic illusion. As we grow into deeper connection and union, the things that once brought meaning and happiness to our small self no longer satisfy us. We tried to create artificial fullness through many kinds of addictive behavior, but still feel empty and nothing, if we are honest. We need much more nutritious food to feed our Bigger Self; mere entertainments, time-fillers, diversions, and distractions will no longer work.

At the more mature stages of life, we are even able to allow the painful and the formerly excluded parts gradually belong to a slowly growing and unified field.  This shows itself as a foundational compassion, especially toward all things different and those many people who “never had a chance.” If you have forgiven yourself for being imperfect, you can now do it for everybody else too. If you have not forgiven yourself, I am afraid you will likely pass on your sadness, absurdity, judgment, and futility to others. “What comes around goes around.”

Many who are judgmental and unforgiving seem to have missed out on the joy and clarity of the first childhood simplicity, perhaps avoided the suffering of the mid-life complexity, and thus lost the great freedom and magnanimity of the second simplicity as well. We need to hold together all of the stages of life, and for some strange, wonderful reason, it all becomes quite “simple” as we approach our later years. The great irony is that we must go through a lot of complexity and disorder (another word for necessary suffering) to return to the second simplicity. There is no nonstop flight from first to second naiveté, from initial order to resurrection. We must go through the pain of disorder to grow up and switch our loyalties from self to God. Most people just try to maintain their initial “order” at all costs, even if it is killing them.

As we grow in wisdom, we realize that everything belongs and everything can be received. We see that life and death are not opposites. They do not cancel one another out; neither do goodness and badness. There is now room for everything to belong. A radical, almost nonsensical “okayness” characterizes the mature believer, which is why we are often called “holy fools.” We don’t have to deny, dismiss, defy, or ignore reality anymore. What is, is gradually okay. What is, is the greatest of teachers. At the bottom of all reality is always a deep goodness, or what Merton called “a hidden wholeness.”

I love this. Not because I think that I have yet embraced this deeper sense of who I am in my second half of life. I can lay claim to no great maturity, and have more than my fair share of mid life complexity. However I know that in these words there is such hope.

Not just hope for a life of some kind of Zen like personal satisfaction, for what is the point of that, but rather a hope for all things, that at the end of all things, there is a wholeness that holds everything.


They sail away don’t they?


My daughter is 21.

Let’s leave aside all the talk of the speed time passes and seems-like-yesterday…

But then again, I am less immune to nostalgia than most, particularly where my lovely lass is concerned. She has overcome a whole raft of challenges already in her young life and somehow stayed loving, creative and hard working… my pride in her is a deep well of goodness.

One of those aforementioned challenges is dyspraxia and yesterday, on her actual birthday, she exited the house too enthusiastically and came a mighty cropper, ending up in casualty. She is now stretched out on our sofa unable to walk because of a horrible cut to her knee. Not the best way to spend your birthday. We can only ope that she will be healed up in time for our house move, or we will have to find a large roll of bubble wrap.

Come to think of it that is not such a bad idea…


Our present to her was rather symbolic. She loves sailing, so we have managed (via the help of a number of friends with Towbars- thanks Andy!- and driveways- thanks Moseleys) to purchase and secrete a sailing boat as a 21st birthday present. To be more specific to those who are into such things, a very old (1964) Mirror sailing dinghy.

Because they sail away, our kids. Slowly perhaps, but their horizons will always be different from ours. The boat is small, and the ocean vast, so forgive me the fears that linger on this old landlubber but there really is no other way. They must sail away.

By the way, this was taken pre accident yesterday on the Argyll Riviera.


Kate Tempest on the process of writing…


Anyone who writes things will get this. It is a bit of a conversation between Kate Tempest and Fleabag writer author Phoebe Waller-Bridge. You can read the whole interview here.

PWB Can I ask you, Kate, writer to writer: do you ever write something and go, “Smashed it, that’s brilliant, I’m keeping that, that’s amazing.” Does it get to the point where you can step back and go, “That’s a really good piece of writing” or, “That’s not such a good piece of writing.” Or do you just write it all down and not think of it critically?

KT It’s not like, “Wooh, I’m smashing this” but sometimes everything else disappears, and that happens very rarely. The rest of the time, it’s you writing when you don’t feel like writing, writing when you hate everything that’s coming out, forcing yourself to engage with the idea that it’s going to be shit no matter what you do, and trying to kind of break through that because of a deadline, or because you know that it’s very important to continue. This is what enables you to be a writer.

The difference between a writer and someone who dreams of being a writer is that the writer has finished. You’ve gone through the agony of taking an idea that is perfect – it’s soaring, it comes from this other place – then you’ve had to summon it down and process it through your shit brain. It’s coming out of your shit hands and you’ve ruined it completely. The finished thing is never going to be anywhere near as perfect as the idea, of course, because if it was, why would you ever do anything else? And then you have another idea. And then these finished things are like stepping stones towards being able to find your voice.

The thing is, everybody’s got an idea. Everybody wants to tell me about their ideas. Everybody is very quick to look down on your finished things, because of their great ideas. But until you finish something, I’ve got no time to have that discussion. Because living through that agony is what gives you the humility to understand what writing is about.

Trump, exclusivism and my journey towards universalism…

rainbow church, Dunoon

There is a persistent message at the heart of the socio-political narrative that underpins movements in the world at present, and it might be defined as ‘me first.’ You can see it clearly in the drive towards Brexit, and the rise of the right wing ‘make America great again’ rhetoric of Trump. It taps into the fear of the rest of us as we watch the overall pot that we feed from shrinking and as outsiders seem to be massing at our borders.

The zeitgeist seems to be that we need to look after our own, because we are special. The ‘others’ are less worthy. Their needs are less valid.

The result is a kind of retreat into gated communities, guarded constantly against contamination by the unworthy, the ungodly, those who need hand outs and are too feckless to stand on their own two feet.

This thinking also seems to extend into environmental thinking. Measures that suggest that we should make sacrificial decisions in order to prevent climate change are dismissed intellectually and morally, as they are not putting ‘me first’, and anyway the Chinese made it all up didn’t they?

This kind of thinking may yet result in war. Monbiot certainly thinks so- he said this in the Guardian a couple of days ago;

Governments across the world are making promises they cannot keep. In the absence of a new vision, their failure to materialise will mean only one thing: something or someone must be found to blame. As people become angrier and more alienated, as the complexity and connectivity of global systems becomes ever harder to manage, as institutions such as the European Union collapse and as climate change renders parts of the world uninhabitable, forcing hundreds of millions of people from their homes, the net of blame will be cast ever wider.

Eventually the anger that cannot be assuaged through policy will be turned outwards, towards other nations. Faced with a choice between hard truths and easy lies, politicians and their supporters in the media will discover that foreign aggression is among the few options for political survival. I now believe that we will see war between the major powers within my lifetime. Which ones it will involve, and on what apparent cause, remains far from clear. But something that once seemed remote now looks probable.

I hope he is wrong, but this rather bleak view of the arc of world affairs has some historical backing. Wars emerge in times when unfettered self interest is inflated by the politics of fear. Add in a dose of scrabbling over scarce resources and the end result is war.

america, religion

Religion has a key role to play here also. Remember that even as religion is a declining force here in Europe, it remains a vital engine in American politics. More pertinently it is of growing significance in the wider world, particularly the Islamic world, but also the rise of Christian fundamentalism in Asia and Africa. Religion, no matter how much followers might declare it’s purity and accordance with divine texts, does not exist in a vacuum. It both influences and is influenced by the politics and defining social circumstances of the time.

We might ask then how it is possible for Christianity to co-exist with me-first politics- surely the two concepts are entirely incompatible? The defining text is perhaps the great Jesus manifesto of the Sermon on the Mount. How can anyone claim to be a follower of the man who gave us these words and at the same time want to build a wall between themselves and the desperate need of their neighbours?

It is almost as if the exclusivism demanded by our religious creeds is part of the very problem that Jesus came to challenge. Jesus who loved sinner and saint alike, who was prepared to cross and barrier of race, gender, religion in the name of love. Jesus who told people of other religions that ‘their faith has saved them’.

Which brings me to the point of this piece. A few years ago I wrote a piece on this blog in which I (almost) came out as a universalist. I said this at the time;

For most of my Christian experience, people who held universalist views were on the slippery slope to damnation, if not already in free fall into hell. Universalists believe that God’s plan of engagement with the salvation of creation includes the aim to save EVERYONE- not just a selection of (most of) those who said the sinners prayer and so escape the fate of the apostate majority.

I know a lot of folk whose position has shifted on this- who have started to believe that the discussion about what the Bible might have to say about this issue is simply not closed

Well my position has continued to shift. Many of my friends will disagree vehemently with me on this, but here goes.

I believe that God is not bound by any particular religious creed.

I believe that we have to always remain open to the other- to listen, to understand, to learn and even to be changed by the practices and beliefs of those outside our immediate understanding.

Christians, of any kind, either side of the Atlantic, are not ‘better’.

The New Kingdom that Jesus talked about does not exist within any earthy dominion. In fact, as best as I can understand it, the whole point of this new kind of Kingdom is that it is a rejection of the whole idea of kingship, and suggests a simpler way of love and the unity of all things, both human and the wider world we live in.

Today I read the something by Richard Rohr, who said this (after a couple of pithy quotes);

If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race. —Huston Smith

For those of us living in the 21st century—an age of globalization, mass migrations, and incr

The divisions, dichotomies, and dualisms of the world can only be overcome by a unitive consciousness at every level: personal, relational, social, political, cultural, inter-religious dialogue, and spirituality in particular. This is the unique and central job of healthy religion (remember that re-ligio means to re-ligament!).

Many teachers have made the central but oft-missed point that unity is not the same as uniformity. Unity, in fact, is the reconciliation of differences, and those differences must be maintained—and yet overcome! You must actually distinguish things and separate them before you can spiritually unite them, but usually at cost to yourself (see Ephesians 2:14-16). And this is probably the rub! If only Christianity and other religions had made that simple clarification, so many problems—and overemphasized, separate identities—could have moved to a much higher level of love and service.easingly multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies—mutual understanding and respect, based on religious pluralism rather than religious exclusivism, are extremely critical to our survival. The insights from the perennial tradition have much to contribute in developing and strengthening multi-faith relations. Its insights help to combat religious discrimination and conflicts between and within religious traditions, and to develop more pluralistic paths of religious spirituality. Today . . . we see scholars and spiritual teachers forging new, more inclusive spiritual paths that recognize other religious traditions as sources of insight and wisdom. They are informed by the teachings and spiritual practices (meditation and contemplation) of multiple religious traditions. —John L. Esposito

The divisions, dichotomies, and dualisms of the world can only be overcome by a unitive consciousness at every level: personal, relational, social, political, cultural, inter-religious dialogue, and spirituality in particular. This is the unique and central job of healthy religion (remember that re-ligio means to re-ligament!).

Many teachers have made the central but oft-missed point that unity is not the same as uniformity. Unity, in fact, is the reconciliation of differences, and those differences must be maintained—and yet overcome! You must actually distinguish things and separate them before you can spiritually unite them, but usually at cost to yourself (see Ephesians 2:14-16). And this is probably the rub! If only Christianity and other religions had made that simple clarification, so many problems—and overemphasized, separate identities—could have moved to a much higher level of love and service.

Ideas matter, whether we chose to acknowledge them or not. Religious ideas matter even more, not just because of their meaning, but the power they have to shape whole societies, for good and ill.

I refuse the exclusive me-first religion of Trump and his ilk, in the same way that I refuse the exclusive me-first religion of the Islamic fundamentalists. However, if I am to remain open to the Spirit that is in all things, I must accept that difference is precious but also has something to teach me, rather than requiring me to dismiss, to resist, to declare ‘evil’.

Final words go to a local hymn writer, George Matheson (1842-1906, writer of that great Victorian Hymn ‘O love that wilt not let me go’. He was the rector of the church in Innellan (we are about to be neighbours) for 18 years. It is now known as ‘The Matheson Kirk’ because of the legacy he left. He wrote this hymn;

1 Gather us in, thou Love that fillest all!
Gather our rival faiths within thy fold!
Rend all our temple veils and bid them fall,
that we may know that thou hast been of old;
gather us in.

2 Gather us in: we worship only thee;
in varied names we stretch a common hand;
in diverse forms a common soul we see;
in many ships we seek one spirit-land;
gather us in.

3 Each sees one colour of thy rainbow light;
each looks upon one tint and calls it heaven;
thou art the fullness of our partial sight;
we are not perfect till we find the seven;
gather us in.

4 Some seek a Father in the heavens above,
some ask a human image to adore,
some crave a spirit vast as life and love;
within thy mansions we have all and more;
gather us in.

The Cowal hills in early winter


Today I skived a little from all the packing and headed off into the hills. I know that down in the deep south you have had some really bad weather of late- sorry about that, we up here usually try to take the sting out of it before it falls on your soft English heads but something must have slipped by us this time as today was simply stunning.

The sky was deepest blue and the frozen leaves crunched underfoot. The high hills were anointed white but down lower the trees still clung to some colour.

I took my camera up from the Holy Loch up over the hills and down into Glen Kin, which can only be described as an ordinary glen, easily missed, choked with too many cash crop contour planted conifers. I followed one of the forestry trails that found its way to the head of the glen, where the old Coffin Road climbs up over the saddle to lay down the departed at the old chapel of Inverchoalain.

I was not ready for the friendly ground quite yet. Too many boxes to fill.

What lies dark…

All is changing here, and change is good- although a lot of work. We are packing up our house pending a move in a couple of weeks to a much smaller place. All those clichés about not knowing how much stuff you have until you move are true.

At the same time we are hard at work continuing to produce items for our Christmas sales through seatree, often involving Michaela incorporating my poetry into ceramics. We will both be without workshop space until we can erect a garden building at our next house, and given that this is a major part of our income at present we have to build up some stock.

Here is one of a series of really simple tiles she did, as little ceramic sketches. A statement of hope despite the darkness.


The heroic narrative of extreme wealth…


I have used the word ‘neoliberalism’ quite often on this blog. It is not an east concept to nail, because the norms that it brings to our thinking have become so dominant that we accept them in the way we might the pull of gravity or the wetness of water. Stick with me though, because as we grapple with how on earth Trump could possibly have become president, then it is worth stepping back and taking a bit of a look at the underpinnings of neoliberalism in the light of the enthronement of all that Trump stands for at the head of the most powerful nation on earth.

There were two articles in the Guardian this week that brought this back to me. The first was by Naomi Klein, in which she suggested that Trump arose as a howl of protest against the inevitable disenfranchisement of the white working man caused by the political class being caught up in a neoliberal agenda;

That worldview – fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine – is no match for Trump-style extremism. The decision to run one against the other is what sealed our fate. If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.

At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.

For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.

Is Klein right? It is pretty obvious that in a time of austerity, extremism grows in a toxic mix of anger and power mongering. In the UK, we know these forces well- but the unbearable loss that Klein describes somehow did NOT result in anger towards the Davos class, but instead is easily refocused on convenient victims; benefits claimants, immigrants, Johnny Foreigner and his accursed European Union. The narrative has been reformed. By accident or by design? You decide.

The second article was by George Monbiot, who begins by defining the beginnings of neoliberal philosophy. I will quote liberally from this article as I think it is really important. He describes Margaret Thatcher’s embracement of a book by Frederick Hayek as defining the values of her Conservative government in the 80’s and 90’s;

The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trade union activity or state provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would trickle down to everyone.

This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal programme advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.

He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible conception of liberty: an absence of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands.

Democracy, by contrast, “is not an ultimate or absolute value”. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take.

It all sounds instinctively familiar right? This philosophy defined not only Thatcher’s government, but also Blair’s- in fact it became the globalised status quo.

Monbiot goes on to describe another logical development of this adoption of neoliberalism by the ruling elite. Back in 1960, Hayek framed concentrated wealth as not only necessary but also a social benefit;

He justifies this position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, spending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific pioneers. Just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion.

The ultra rich are “scouts”, “experimenting with new styles of living”, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The progress of society depends on the liberty of these “independents” to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore, arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limit to the rents they can charge.

Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: “the idle rich”, who don’t have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.” Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but “aimless display”, they are in fact acting as society’s vanguard.

Viewed through this set of lens, the world as we know it is revealed in great clarity. It did not stop there however, as once an idea has ascendancy, it gives traction to a wider agenda- the rolling back of the old evils;

Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and attempts by the state to raise the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is “an overwhelming case against a free health service for all” and dismissed the conservation of natural resources.It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics.

By the time Mrs Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayek’s doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the world’s richest people and businesses, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant effect, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayek’s anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme.

So, for those of us who have always puzzled over the Conservative (particularly the American version) opposition to universal health care, look no further than Hayek and his ascendant twisted logic.

But back to this concept of heroic wealth. Monbiot makes the point brilliantly;

The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow. The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies, beginning with the agreement to limit global warming.

The question for those of us who do not concur is what our response to this should be? If not neoliberalism, what philosophy should we follow? What stories do we tell that are more beautiful? Here is Monbiot again;

A few of us have been working on this, and can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that – as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear – human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature.

Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.

I simply could not agree more. It sounds a lot like this to me;

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.