I’m conscious the last few posts have been focussed on human mortality – though I prefer to think of them as a celebration of life if you read more closely. But at the risk of distressing still further…..
You may have heard of Alice Payne. And if not then you need to: http://www.alicepyne.blogspot.com/
I tweeted (a little tearily I admit) about Alice’s inspiring (if a little heartbreaking) blog on the morning of 8th June and then again that afternoon.
And so, it transpires was everyone else. And so by this morning Alice was tweeting about how the twittersphere was making a series of wishes come true….while newspapers as far aways as Sydney were running her incredible story.
There are a few lessons in Alice’s story. One being the power of the Internet to spread news/share stories/inspire action among many. Another being of course the power of connected consciousness – when harnessed - in the service of good. But the most important is a very human one….
The most important lesson perhaps that Alice has taught us all is that we should never underestimate the ability of one person – even in the face of the most insurmountable of all human obstacles – to affect many for the greater greater good.
I doubt Alice has heard of Victor Frankl, the celebrated psychiatrist and of course, holocaust survivor. And why should she. But in his famous book: “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl wrote something that I recalled as I read Alice’s blog the other morning.
Frankl wrote of the lesson he learned from simple acts of courage and humanity he observed among the devastation of the internment camps, in the face of the most insurmountable of all human obstacles, death itself:
“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”
In Alice, Frankl finds the modern embodiment of that sentiment. She is choosing her own way, her own – incredible – attitude in the face of her given set of circumstances.
I hope Alice completes her buckletlist. I hope she outlives her diagnosis. I hope. But whatever transpires she has served many of us in a more profound way than she might ever imagine….a 15 year old girl, writing with such gentle sadness and wonder reminding us and perhaps challenging us to ask the question….do we truly appreciate and exercise that last (and maybe the greatest) of all human freedoms….the ability to choose how we might live. Even in dying.
Alice. Thank you.
- Live Like you are Dying #AliceBucketList [Dean 'Warrior Coach' Grimshawe] (ecademy.com)
- What Is Alice’s Bucket List & Why Is It Trending? (socialtimes.com)
- Alice Bucket List Is An Internet Sensation (worldnewsvideos.wordpress.com)
- “Alice Bucket List” on Twitter, 15-year-old with terminal cancer Alice Pyne reaches out online (cbsnews.com)
On 27th May, the celebrated ”bluesologist” Gil Scott-Heron sadly passed away, aged 62 years old, to what he might allow us to refer to – in a nod to one of his most notable works - ”The Other Side”.
Gil Scott-Heron was many things to many people: writer, composer, poet, recording artist, long time drug-addict, son of Chicago (and an ex-Celtic footballer!), resident of Harlem, father, convict, cultural critic, “voice of Black protest culture”, husband, anti-apartheid activist, friend, inspiration….to quote Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, speaking in The New Yorker in 2010, “You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word”.
I came late to Gil Scott-Heron. While aware of his early work and influence on the music and social culture of the 1970′s, I hadn’t engaged at any real level with his music. I picked up his last album, “I’m New Here” in early 2010 just after it’s release. It was a crucially important time for me personally and perhaps as a consequence of that, something in him and this album, at this moment deeply affected me. In particular the title track struck a deep chord. When you understand Gil Scott-Heron’s own life story, what he achieved and lost; what he succumbed to, suffered and ultimately overcame (however briefly in the end), the lyrics take on a genuine power and for me, at that time, a deep and important resonance. From opening with a searingly honest two line admission of personal responsibility (or at least complicity) for what we may each become, it plays out ultimately as a celebration of and a testament to the ability to change; to redeem oneself; to renew and redefine a life, however late, in the face of any adversity; in spite of any past.
Gil Scott-Heron has come full circle in this life. And wherever he is now, I’m sure he’ll find someone to show him around. But I’ll always feel sorry that I never got a chance to express to him that while our respective challenges were, of course, very very different, he reminded a fellow seeker in this life that whatever we face, however daunting the road ahead, whatever we carry with us from the past – in an echo of the great Invictus - we can always, always, turnaround.
And so thanks, at least in part to Gil Scott-Heron, as the first hour of my 36th birthday rolls past, I truly feel that after a long long time….with a voice of reason….I am new here again.
I’m New Here lyrics
I did not become someone different
That I did not want to be
But I’m new here
Will you show me around
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around
Met a woman in a bar
Told her I was hard to get to know
And near impossible to forget
She said i had an ego on me
The size of Texas
Well I’m new here and I forget
Does that mean big or small
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around
And I’m shedding plates like a snake
And it may be crazy but I’m
the closest thing I have
To a voice of reason
Turnaround turnaround turnaround
And you may come full circle
and be new here again
- Gil Scott-Heron, “Godfather of Rap”, dies at 62 (cbsnews.com)
- Gil Scott-Heron, the ‘Godfather of Rap,’ Dies in New York Hospital (foxnews.com)
- Gil Scott-Heron dies aged 62 (guardian.co.uk)
- Gil Scott Heron Harlem Tribute (harlemworldblog.wordpress.com)
For my Mother.
On this date….still hidden among the stars.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
~ Song of Myself, LII by Walt Whitman
Anyone familiar with the novel will probably suggest it isn’t the most obvious choice for Saturday night “entertainment” and true to the original work, while beautifully shot, it undoubtedly makes for bleak viewing. However, while watching it I was most particularly struck that it comes to cinema’s here precisely as a larger, albeit also very human, tragedy unfolds in Japan where the book and film play out and the parallels one might draw between two apparently very different stories.
For while the novel and film are dominated by the themes of unfulfilled promise, love, loss, death, regret and displacement it seemed to me that at it’s heart it is really a story of survival, of human endurance, embodied in the experience of and ultimate commitment to living of the protaganist, Watanabe.
And while the loss of so much life, in such shocking circumstances, can never be measured nor made right, it is the struggles of those left behind in today’s post earthquake Japan that I kept thinking of last night; people who’s lives, loved ones and therein very meaning for (and proof of) being has been stripped from them. The same people who are now faced with the task of recovering, rebuilding, reclaiming, reinventing, remembering, regretting, restoring….
I’ve often felt those who are left behind suffer as much – if not more – than those who have departed. And yet what is there to be said? What words can ameliorate such pain associated with the loss of one loved one, or the loss of thousands? And as I watched the film last night and thought of those coming to terms with what has happened in Japan today, I kept running the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald over in my mind:
“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual. There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still. The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or the sight of an eye. We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it”.
It seems a rather cold and unsettling contemplation and it doubtless offers little comfort to those suffering in the towns and cities of NE coastal Japan today but it goes to the very heart of what it means to be human and to inevitably experience the suffering that entails. Most importantly it reminds us that “to forget” or “try to forget” is futile and indeed to remember is exactly what we must do.
Some scars run deeper than others but they are scars nonetheless. And it is these which enable us to understand – at some level – what others experience in the face of loss and tragedy; it is what helps us to empathise; it is what reminds us to reach out, to offer ourselves in whatever way we can to those whose time it is to suffer and it is what propels us forward as individuals, as families, as communities, as countries, as a population….helps us to evolve, to learn from (and not forget) what has gone before so that we might look to and prepare for the future with greater understanding, readiness, hope and indeed, as we are reminded of the fragility of life itself: humility.
- Nowegian Wood (15)(independent.co.uk)
- Tran Anh Hung enters Norwegian Wood – and emerges to tell the tale(guardian.co.uk)
Earlier this week I tweeted a link to this piece by Joan Bakewell entitled: “Do you really want to live forever?”. I thought it was a beautiful reflection not just on the aging process, or our human mortality, but on what it really means to live; to be alive.
Sadly, I was offered another reminder of just that question this week with the untimely passing of the indomitable Elizabeth Edwards. I never met her directly but, like many, I always admired her from afar. Here was a woman who has known real pain, loss, hurt – much of it experienced in the public glare – but refused to be bowed or defined by it. A woman who kept her head held high and focused her energies, however diminished in the end, on making a positive contribution to others. Who saw her own mortality not as something to rail angrily against but as something to shape how she chose to live in the time – the finite time – granted to her; something she ultimately was grateful for.
Her final Facebook post read:
“The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.”
As a reflection on mortality, human imperfection, aspiration and mindfulness it is as powerful as I have read. It is a reminder and a challenge to each of us.
And for that, we should all be grateful.
- Elizabeth Edwards Posts Apparent Goodbye Message(cbsnews.com)
- Elizabeth Edwards Loses Cancer Battle(blogs.forbes.com)
- Elizabeth Edwards Mastered Grace, Maintained Dignity [Goodbyes](jezebel.com)
- Elizabeth Edwards Passes Away at 61(thehollywoodgossip.com)
To the Harbormaster
BY FRANK O’HARA
I wanted to be sure to reach you
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.
As David Cameron prepares for his two day visit to China (commencing tomorrow, Tuesday 9th November) at the head of the largest-ever official UK delegation to the country, I thought this might be a timely post.
See below for a short insight into how the 24 year travels around China by Marco Polo (as well as his lesser reported father and uncle) changed the very nature of life itself in Europe.
I wonder if DC (or we) dare expect his visit to prove just as seminal?! I’d personally doubt it though given his Bullingdon Club background, the odds on him too returning with a Mongol servant called “Peter” are probably quite short. Could make an interesting addition to the historical catalogue of PM gifts. Certainly better than a box set of 25 American films and certainly more useful around the house.
Anyway, hǎo yùn Mr Cameron.
“[Upon their return from China], the three Polos received respect from their fellow citizens, with Marco singled out for special attention. ‘All the young men went every day continuously to visit and converse with Messer Marco,’ Giambattista Ramusio claimed. ‘who was most charming and gracious, and to ask of him matters concerning Cathay (China) and the Great Khan, and he responded with so much kindness that all felt themselves to be in a certain manner indebted to him.’
“It is easy to understand why Marco attracted notice. The significance of the inventions that he brought back from China, or which he later described in hisTravels, cannot be overstated. At first, Europeans regarded these technological marvels with disbelief, but eventually they adopted them.
“Paper money, virtually unknown in the West until Marco’s return, revolutionized finance and commerce throughout the West.
“Coal, another item that had caught Marco’s attention in China, provided a new and relatively efficient source of heat to an energy-starved Europe.
“Eyeglasses (in the form of ground lenses), which some accounts say he brought back with him, became accepted as a remedy for failing eyesight. In addition, lenses gave rise to the telescope – which in turn revolutionized naval battles, since it allowed combatants to view ships at a great distance – and the microscope. Two hundred years later, Galileo used the telescope – based on the same technology – to revolutionize science and cosmology by supporting and disseminating the Copernican theory that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun.
“Gunpowder, which the Chinese had employed for at least three centuries, revolutionized European warfare as armies exchanged their lances, swords, and crossbows for cannon, portable harquebuses, and pistols.
“Marco brought back gifts of a more personal nature as well. The golden paiza, or passport, given to him by Kublai Khan had seen him through years of travel, war, and hardship. Marco kept it still, and would to the end of his days. He also brought back a Mongol servant, whom he named Peter, a living reminder of the status he had once enjoyed in a far-off land.
“In all, it is difficult to imagine the Renaissance – or, for that matter, the modern world – without the benefit of Marco Polo’s example of cultural transmission between East and West.”
Extract taken from Laurence Bergreen‘s excellent book ”Marco Polo” (2007)
- Diageo and Alliance Boots hope to ride on David Cameron’s coat tails to China (guardian.co.uk)
- Business heavyweights bolster David Cameron’s trade mission to China (telegraph.co.uk)
- David Cameron: Building British Cooperation With China (online.wsj.com)
- Cameron to sign trade deals in China (topinews.com)
- UK’s Cameron Visits China Seeking Trade, Influence (abcnews.go.com)
- Activists call for David Cameron to press Beijing over human rights record (guardian.co.uk)
- David Cameron goes to China with eye on mutual benefits (guardian.co.uk)
Feeling almost hopeful today after reading The Guardian piece on Frank Field (former Labour minister, now the Coalition’s “Poverty Advisor”)) preparing review on ‘how to prevent poor children becoming poor adults’.
Apparently, Field said he said he was disturbed by research showing how accurate a prediction can be made as to where a child will be in their 20s, by looking at their ability at 22 months and just before five years. Narrowing divisions in children’s readiness for school at five was central to tackling divisions in later life, he said.
He is right to be disturbed. But he shouldn’t be surprised.
Certainly this has been known to the wonderful Sutton Trust Charity for some time and even an uninformed observer such as myself has been bemoaning the lack of interest in and commitment to progress interventions aimed at supporting the development of disadvantaged children in their most formative years. My three previous posts over the past year on the subject: here, here and here.
This has been a particular concern of mine in Northern Ireland where most of last year was spent arguing on post Primary education when the real prize is – as the Sutton Trust continually point out – closing the cognitive and associated aspirational gap among children way way before we start to concern ourselves with means of post primary selection.
Anyway, maybe Field is starting to listen and will follow through on the plans outlined in the article. If so that’s commendable but I also hope this is only the start.
In Northern Ireland I hope @conallmcd and NI Minister for Education, Caitríona Ruane take notice. Closer to home I hope that @cllrstevereed and @chukaumunna pick this up and recognise it is for this very reason that local residents are so concerned about plans for an extension of the Ofsted rated Outstanding Sudbourne Road Primary School (and nursery).
What I wrote in March of this year seems still to be relevant today. Shame. But saves me re-typing:
“Consistently on this blog I have maintained that while some form of streaming or selection is a must in any mature and inclusive education system, our real focus should be on primary education; on ensuring our administration of that education is innovative and inclusive enough to support pupils from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and encouraging an ethos of and commitment to ”concerted cultivation” of our young children among parents and local communities. We are currently failing our young people during their most formative years”.
- Children need parenting classes to break poverty cycle – Frank Field (guardian.co.uk)
- New study indicates children and parents want science assessment for 11-year-olds (eurekalert.org)
- Poverty report targets early years (mirror.co.uk)
- Frank Field: Children suffer when parents abandon ‘tough love’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Child poverty: five-year-olds are the key to social mobility (telegraph.co.uk)