Saturday, 6 January 2018

A Story of Life and Death. And Life...

There are no people in this story, just cliffs and rocks, sand and water.  A whole ocean of water.  And it assumes that all life, from a single cell bacterium to the most complex mammal, is in the business of being and becoming itself.

Each of our lives are like a tide, it comes in and it goes out.  But perhaps not quite as we think.  For we think our life belongs to us, when actually we belong to life.

Our story begins when our tide is out.  The waters are low across the ocean but the pressure of water far away and the pull of the moon further away are already building momentum.  As the tide starts to rise, our story too begins, with our parents developing in capacity, strength and vigour.  Midway into the tide's flow, our parents' life peaks (at around 25 or so) when their striving in the world has prepared a life we children can be born into.

Life comes from life.  We are already alive before we are alive.  Every one of our parents' cells are living.  A live egg encounters a live sperm and those lives are changed, becoming a unique, different life.  While our tide is rising, we are born into that rising tide.  We grow in capacity, strength and vigour until our tide reaches its peak, at around 25 or so.

Some tides rise in stormy conditions and in some places waves at high tide batter cliffs made during other high tides.  Some of those waves bring down mighty rocks.  But most of us are born in gentler times.  Our impact is more like moving sand, smoothing pebbles, perhaps leaving a little flotsam behind.

But before we know it, our tide has turned.  As we approach 50 we notice our strength ebbing.  We still strive, but the urgency has gone out of it.  For we suspect life is about more than simply succeeding.

This second half of the ebbing tide is a time few notice and even fewer value.  Yet it is the time of greatest opportunity.  Greater than anything we can ever do.  We are approaching an horizon we cannot see beyond.  We will not see another tide, just the receding of this one.  But if we are lucky we can learn to die before we die.  This is the best time of life to realise (make real) what the words 'life' and 'death' actually mean.

The undercurrent is stronger than any incoming waves, though that too will soon weaken.  The water that rushed up the shore has almost all returned to the ocean.  With nothing else going on, perhaps we can pay attention to our receding water as it falls back into the deep.  The tide will come again, we will not.

Or perhaps (despite what everyone seems to think) our life never was our activity on the shoreline?  Haven't we always been the water, urged first forth then back, part of a rising and falling that is wider and bigger than our understanding?

There is still a little time left to enjoy life without the narrowed mind inevitably created by striving and knowing, wanting and doing.  Things are just as they are, and all is remarkably well.  Sometimes there are storms, sometimes stillness.  But always change, always Life, forever being and becoming itself.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Cain and Abel Build a House

What do we know about Cain and Abel?  The Bible doesn't tell us much.  We know they shared the same genetic material, being brothers.  We know Cain kept animals while Abel grew crops.  And, of course, Cain killed Abel out of jealousy.

This is the story of a modern day Cain and Abel.  Their father had plenty of land, enough for Abel to farm and Cain to graze his herds.  But as young men they wanted their own place, distinct from the family home.  So they planned to build a house together.

Cain, the eldest, always took the lead.  Abel had pleasant enough features and they were both healthy young men.  But Cain was strikingly good looking with a confident charm the girls found irresistible.  Abel was married first, though.  Cain attracted people who were forever aspiring to bigger and better things. Meanwhile, Abel tended to be content, whether he had much or little.  He got on better with people who understood that "good enough" was, actually, good enough.

So Cain chose the site.  They had camped there as children.  It was a patch of raised ground in the shelter of a wood, within sight of a brook that wound downward through the valley.  It was a good place and Abel wanted to live in their new home from the beginning.

Cain thought Abel was stupid, putting up his tent right on the place where the house would be.  How could he make a comfortable home there?  He would have to move it as soon as they started building the foundations.  And so it proved.  The plan Cain drew up had a load bearing wall going through a corner of Abel's tent.  It was the best place for it, so Abel and his girlfriend were happy to move.  They were just glad it was actually going ahead.

Building took much longer than they thought.  Farming is hard work.  So they could only work on the house in their spare time.  While the stone walls grew slowly around Abel's tent, months turned into years.  They both married and tents were extended as children came on the scene.  Cain was proud of his now extensive pavilion, with all the comforts of home.

Abel simply added extensions to his tent as needed.  The canvas was spattered with mortar, covered with muddy footprints and stained where a bucket had fallen on it.  They kept only necessities so they could easily move from one place to another.  For they had to keep clear of the focus of work as it shifted around them.  Abel's family were literally living in a building site, so they spend much of their time getting on with building their home, while Cain and his family spent most of their time at home in their comfortable pavilion.

There was surprisingly little animosity between such different families.  Abel was never able to articulate what he felt, and his brother couldn't understand why anyone would want to live that way.  For Abel, being at home meant being where you belong, however uncomfortable that might be.  Cain, on the other hand, saw home as a place where life should be easy, all problems were sorted out and you could feel safe.  So both brothers were happy because each felt they were creating the home they wanted. 

The turning point came for Abel's family when the roof was finished.  The house was without timber floors, windows or plumbing, so Cain still thought of it as a mere shell.  But the first night Abel and his wife went to bed under canvas that had a roof over it, they burst out laughing.  Cain probably thought Abel's lot were mad as their children ran in to join the celebration.  That night the walls rang with laughter as, despite draughts and dirt, they sang and danced throughtout their new home.

Eventually, every room had windows, central heating and decor that met with Cain's wife's approval.  Cain chose the best rooms and moved their abundant possessions into more than their fair share of the house.  Abel's family weren't envious.  They happily accepted Cain's need to be superior and didn't need as much room.  Besides, they too were living their dream.  They'd had space for a while.  Now they had warmth, running water and best of all, others to share it with.

Unfortunately, Cain, who had chosen to live detached from the construction, could never shake the feeling of being an outsider in his own house.  Abel did nothing to antagonise him, even going out of his way to make him and his family welcome.  But Cain was unable to get passed the fact that Abel's family had grown up in this house while Cain's had moved into a home that already existed without them.  That festering sore turned to jealousy then murder.

After Abel er, died, his family feared for their lives and fled.  So the house because Cain's family's home from one generation to the next.  But genetics will out.  From time to time, a misfit was born into the family.  Someone who felt no need to strive and saw things from the inside. While those around seemed more aware of the surface of things, these descendants of Abel's father knew the joyous treasure within as the most natural thing in the world.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


Trees without their leaves is an archetypal image of winter.  They give us some insight into that dark season – the time when creation is at its height; most strong.  Not the usual way of seeing things, I know.  But it is winter that produces lasting results; the growth each of the other seasons contributes largely falls away again and is lost.

I used to think that for the trees, losing their leaves must be the hardest thing.  During autumn the tree appears locked in a struggle that it loses little by little as the sap lessens, eventually failing to sustain the leaves.  Too weak to cling on, the leaves are lost to the bitter wind.  Winter begins and the tree seems to sleep until spring awakens it again.

That view is what we see when looking at a tree from the outside, as it were; as beings that are not-a-tree.  From the 'inside', things look rather different …
Sap rises: the natural consequence of being fibres connecting earth below and sky above.  The warming earth stirs the root system into activity just as the sun fosters sprouting where it can amongst the branches.  The leaves that form need the rising sap; cleaning and re-oxygenating it in return.
Summer is like a down-hill run.  Plenty of rain, plenty of nutrients in the soil, plenty of daylight: how can there not be growth?  This may look like a time when the tree is growing – its most fecund period.  However as in spring, the tree in summer is doing nothing special: it is simply responding naturally to the abundance surrounding it.
Surely autumn must be the most creative time, for this is when the tree bears fruit?  Seeds of new trees are formed and released to grow into new trees.  But the seeds are not lasting results either.  Spring buds open into leaves and flowers.  Summer growth blooms but inevitably fades again.  The nuts that are formed are static offerings, made as a consequence of growth at its peak, with nowhere else to go.  They fall.  Some die, some sprout new shoots.  But their fate is quite independent of the tree that completed its part when the nut fell.
The fallen leaves are no loss.  As the strength of the sun fades and the ground cools, the sap rises less strongly and can no longer sustain the leaves, now as large as they will be.  Processing nutrition is no longer necessary once the nuts have formed, so the oxygen once provided by the leaves is wanted no longer.  It is a relief when their demand for sustenance diminishes.  And a release when the wind takes them; for the tree suffers less from the gales and dying foliage will grow mould and decay well away from branches that bore them.
However, not all of the new growth has been blown away. There are new shoots amidst the branches and buds on the older wood, too.  They are not ready yet.  Winter has yet to make them what they will become.

The role of winter is to turn the fruits of the rest of the year into a real tree: to 'true' or test what is, nearly to destruction, until it is as it should be, without weakness.  Winter dessicates the new stems: forming an exterior crusty enough to protect future sap.  It toughens these new branches so that not only will they be able to stand up to the gales but they will have the internal structure needed to bear spring's new growth.

Spring and summer provide the raw material and autumn strips away what is no longer needed.  But it is winter that forms the tree itself.  It makes roots and branches that will endure, strong enough to bear roots and branches of their own: the structure that we call 'a tree'.