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The Woman in White Marble

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Tuesday
Nov272018

Beyond The Pale

She pulled the curtains back ever so slightly and peeked out onto the cobbled streets. She stepped back from the windows and looked the other way, looking out for anything suspicious. Things out of place. Signs or symbols that might hint at a good or bad day ahead. She stepped back from the window further and then retired into her armchair sofa. The rest of the room was dark and all the other curtains were drawn. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and the sunlight outside was begging to be let in but that couldn't be done until 12 o’clock.

There was no rhyme or reason as to why this needed to be done this was just one of the myriad of checks and balances that Susan went through each day as part of her religious rituals. It never appeared religious to her but it was. The way she had placed all furniture in the room to be symmetrically opposite to each other. How each piece of ceramic pottery or brass statue was placed two inches away from the end of the shelves, or tables on which they sat. And how the checking of the furniture and ornaments required an early rise each day. She was a priest preparing her sacraments.

The only thing missing were any references to a religious god or deity. Susan had no faith. Routine and order were her faith. Once she had checked and double-checked everything in the house she would go about preparing to get ready for the day. On her coffee-table lay a white business card and stamped in black letters was the name Michael Davidson : Grief Detective.

Michael lay on his bed. His quilt and bed sheets were wrapped unceremoniously around and through his legs. He slept in a position that said much booze had been consumed last night. There was an ashtray on the bedside table that looked like it belonged to a tramp. The ashtray sat in front of a photo of his long dead wife. The irony was astonishing. A man whose job was to help people through their own grief was still consumed with grief about his wife that had passed away ten years ago. But it was more than that. Michael seemed consumed with the grief of nearly everyone passing away. His last shrink said he couldn't work out if it was death anxiety or a morbid way for Michael to seek attention. This hurt Michael and naturally he let the shrink go. Not because he didn't know what he was doing but because he was too good and had hit a nerve.

Michael was great at seeking help from others but not so great at seeking help for himself. He was a car crash that had happened again, and again, and again. But today he was feeling good. He had received the call last week from the lady in grey and had to admit she had been the most beautiful, fragile woman he had worked with to date. Michael never mixed business with pleasure but found it difficult to manifest the cool exterior he was supposed to when visiting Susan in her home. Most clients were broken in a visible and obvious way, but Susan showed no signs in the way she dressed, but the attention to detail when it came to her house and her insistence on regimentally checking everything, showed classic signs of death anxiety.

Susan was an astute and very aware woman who was watching every move Michael made and looked as if she was analysing every single word he spoke.

It was always a tougher case when the client had awareness about their own condition. In many ways one would have to play a careful game trying to unpick the remnants of psychological traits that had been taken on while the client continued to hide and add others.

Today would be their first proper walk and talk after the introductory chat. Susan only went outside of the house at 12, 3 and 9 o’clock. Her first outing would be for two hours. The mid-afternoon stroll was 45 minutes and the 9 o’clock time was a brief 15 minutes. Not a second more or less. She kept a keen eye on her watch. If she erred over the seconds a resultant panic attack would occur. She had arranged for Michael to call the bell at least five minutes before, and of course not a second less.

Michael made sure he had risen earlier and was waiting down the street where she lived, leaning against a lamp post. He was unsure about leaning against the lamp post as it made him feel like a stereotyped character from a post-war movie. All he needed was a cigarette and a three-quarter length jacket. The cigarette he had. The jacket he didn't. His kind of jacket was a black leather jacket that middle-aged men wore when they wanted to appear cool. He refused chinos and the expected checked shirt.

He swore blind he would try to hold off from wearing the age appropriate stuff even if it meant he would end up looking like a poor man's Mick Jagger. He flicked the cigarette towards the bin opposite him and it landed in the bin. That made Michael feel cool. He decided on a brisk walk as he felt the environment didn't quite match a saunter. You sauntered in Central London, Paris, Rome. You walked briskly in suburbia.

He reached the door and checked his watch. He was three minutes early and knew that he would have to hang around idly for two minutes feeling like a poorly dressed Jehovah’s witness. The curtains across the road twitched. Either a wealthy older woman, bored and lonely, while her CEO husband played Golf after a business lunch, or an elderly lady or man, bored shitless with retirement and counting the seconds till death came. Michael shuddered. Death. The biggest bummer ever invented. Why oh why, did he end up in this profession. The door suddenly opened which made Michael jump and owing to Susan's fragile condition she screamed and jumped too.

Michael calmed himself down and raised his hand for reassurance, 'Sorry Susan. It's ok I'm here for our talk. It's Michael.'  

Susan composed herself. She was about 5ft 2in and very svelte-like. Her hair fell in a low-bob just above her shoulders, which he noticed were showing, and again the grey dress. An open white cream jacket and this time red shoes. She also had pearls around her neck and a pearl bracelet. She dressed as if she was a very wealthy and classy woman and Michael wondered about her choice of residence. It didn't seem her.  

Maybe the entire house and neighbourhood was a kind of safety net. Each plot was divided into equal parts. Each house looked the same. With a green carpet of grass out front the only connection to nature. She stepped outside the house and looked both ways. Michael stood around wondering what to do next but the problem was answered when Susan placed her hand through his arm and said, 'Let's walk this way.'

Michael's chest puffed with pride as he walked beside her. He tried to readjust himself and appear relaxed so as not to show that he was too impressed by her presence. She walked with a little uncertainty and he could see her eyes darting to the left and right, as if on the lookout for some spook or stalker.

Her condition forced her to squeeze his arm a little bit more which made him feel happy. It also brought back memories of his wife and the love they had for each other. Again, that churn in the stomach.

They continued to walk down the street for a few minutes not saying much until Susan stopped, 'You see him over there. What does he want?' Michael looked across the street to see a man leaning against a lamp post reading a newspaper. He looked like the burly type, wearing slack blue jeans, and a beige waist length jacket. There was nothing imposing or suspicious about him unless you counted the idea of anyone reading a newspaper during a day as grey as this as suspicious. The man did look over briefly, then folded his paper, and walked away.

'You see. You see. It happens to me all the time. Come let's walk quickly to the cafe.' Susan tugged at Michael’s arm and they were off at a quick pace further down the street. The street opened onto a small village green with another manufactured cricket pitch. Maybe the whole town was seeking some kind of eternal perfection? An escape from the chaos of the world we lived in.

'I think you can slow down Susan. It's probably nothing.' But she continued walking quickly. Michael could sense her breath was quickening and hoped she was not about to go into a panic attack. Luckily the cafe was not too far away. He quickened his pace to match hers.  

Michael opened the door for her and as soon as she went in, one of the waitresses recognised her, but said nothing. She just walked over to a table in the far corner and pulled out a chair. No looks were exchanged as Susan started to take off her jacket and sat down in the chair pulling the menu up to her face in almost a comical fashion. Michael nearly laughed if he hadn't seen the palpable expression of worry on her face and the modest smile coming from the waitress. 'Thanks.' He said to the waitress as he sat down composing himself. They both ordered small espressos.

The waitress brought the coffees to the table and placed them down. The cafe was a very neat and tidy place. The kind you would expect in a town like this. Most of the other people drinking were about ten years older than Susan. Another oddity that added weight to my argument that she was looking for safety and comfort. Michael thought he would ask her a question to test his hypothesis.' May I ask you how long you have lived here?'  Susan continued to look at Michael for a while as if she was trying to read his thoughts. 'Since my partner passed away. And yes, I agree that the monotonous visual appeal of the place, drew me in after his death. I seek safety and reassurance in the world around me, because I no longer have it in my life. But you are no different Michael, accept where I seek safety in the bland banality of suburban mediocrity, you allow your life to unravel into a perceived unintentional debauched and tramp like existence. You seek safety in the seeming chaos of your disordered existence. I seek it in the perceived order.’

Michael pulled his coffee cup closer to his face and put on his poker face. He didn’t like defeat. She knew it all but he was convinced that she was in a worse state than him. ‘I go where I want to. You are trapped by your routine and need for order.' She said nothing. Her face dropped. Michael felt it was a weak response but Susan didn’t want to take this conversation into a ‘you against me’ tirade, which is what it was starting to feel like.

'Yes I seek order Michael because I fear death but want to live. There is living in my detailed existence. You care so little about yourself that you follow this ‘mock’ rock-and-roll existence. It’s not death you stick two fingers up too but life.’

Michael didn't like that at all. He finished the last remnants of coffee and got up to leave. He was confused about who called who. 'You called me.' He blurted out childishly. He was showing anger now so decided to leave.

'Maybe. Maybe not.' She got up and pulled a gift box from her bag and handed it to Michael. Michael took the parcel. 'Now walk me home as it is nearly three o'clock.’ Michael was confused. What was in the box? She had called him for assistance but now he wasn’t sure. He walked her home in silence. On the way back his thoughts were on his own anger and returning home to drink more beer. He got to her door and she kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye.

Michael walked home quickly. When he got home he couldn't wait to open the parcel. He moved the ashtray to the side. He stopped and looked at the mess on the table and the beautiful parcel that had been so carefully wrapped made him painfully aware of how ugly his own existence had become. It was the first time something so beautiful had entered into his life and home. He went to the kitchen and emptied the ashtray out. He wiped the table clean and then placed the parcel on top of the table.

He unwrapped the gift like a greedy child and then stopped. It was a light brown wooden case with a golden clasp on the front. He thought of cigars and whiskey. He thought of Susan and then he thought of love. He stepped back from the case and looked at it. He took the picture frame of his wife from the bedside table and placed her on the mantelpiece. Close but not too close. He undid the golden clasp that kept the box closed and lifted the lid. Inside was a gun and to the right were six bullets. Michael let out a gasp of air.  

Michael pulled the gun from the box and picked up six of the bullets. He felt sick with remorse. That his own illness had taken him so far and he couldn’t see it. He threw the gun across the room and placed his face in his hands. He couldn’t believe he had come this far. He wanted to live but didn’t know how to. Just then he received a text.

‘Ready to live Michael?’ It was Susan. He got up from his bed and looked around his room. He could do with a better place. He started to clean up the things from the floor and placed the glasses in the sink. He opened the curtain to let the sun in. It was cloudy outside but cloudy was good. He watched a large grey cloud move across the sky. A great metaphor for the passing of his own mourning. He thought of Susan. He thought of love.

Copyright © David Swan

Wednesday
Oct242018

Beer and Buddhism

They say that smoking is no longer cool. A guaranteed way to usher you along life’s path to an early grave, but in London you have no choice. You breathe in the smoke of the obnoxious car fumes every day. Gulp in huge bowls of the stuff. If it’s not the smells from the bullying traffic. It’s the way too personal smell of other people when being stuffed along the tube line at some unceremonious hour in the morning. So as you can imagine it was with great relief that I had received a letter from my friend Mara who had recently taken robes as a Tibetan Nun.

She had been tucked away in a monastery hidden amongst the foothills of some nondescript Scottish town. I had decided that it was a good excuse to get out of London and visit my spiritual friend, hoping that some of her accumulated goodness would wash away the filth from this belching town. It was convenient for me that this monastery, in the heart of Scotland, was just a direct train ride from London. This was my chance to stock up on some good karma. Revive my work ethic and make amends for the wrongs that I had done in this unforgiving city. Before I could say, ‘Avalokitesvara’, which I couldn’t, I was off on a train towards the foothills of Dumfries.

After a few hours of pre-packed sandwiches and over expensive, non- branded coffee. I arrived in the small town of Lockerbie. Without thinking I was expanding my lungs to Superman size as my body greedily took in as much real air as possible. Real air. Fresh air. Scottish air. I drank in my surroundings and noted the lack of skyscrapers allowing me a reasonable panoramic vision of the area. Beautiful. I still had one more leg of the journey to go until I reached a small town called Eskdalemuir which was where the monastery was located. I hailed a cab and settled into the passenger seat allowing the view of the low slung hills of Dumfries to decrease the erratic waves of my city mind. The countryside was dotted with cows, sheep and small cottages. It was the kind of life I would view through Sunday night television programmes. Dream places I would never think of going to. I leaned my head back and smiled to myself feeling secure in the arms of mother-nature once again. The taxi driver was one hundred percent Scottish. Complete with an accent thicker than my winter gloves.

 

‘Where ya goin?’ ‘Samye Ling. It’s a Tibetan Buddhist place along the road. Have you been there?’ ‘Oh aye sure. It’s thon wee Buddhist place. Karma an all that. It’s a nice place,’ he said, and returned to his driving.

A nice place I thought. The word ‘nice’ would get you a suspicious look in the city but nice was good enough out here far away from the self-centred competitive mentality of London. He continued along the roads at an uncomfortable speed as I tried my best to empty my mind of work. Karma. What actually was karma? It was funny to think that I had spent years sitting in a Zen centre in the middle of London and somehow had managed to escape any serious teachings on Buddhism.

Karma. Action. The ripening of seeds that would have been sown, not just in this life time, but the many lives we have had before. I wondered for a while about my previous lives. Indulged myself with delusions of some grand Egyptian Pharaoh, and then settled for a marauding Saxon Viking. As I pondered on the ever more elaborate and glamorous lives that I could have lived, my eyes caught the fluttering of multi-coloured flags. Bright colours of red, white, blue, and yellow were flapping from the washing lines outside of the small cottages that lined the road we travelled along. The flags were flying not just from the washing lines but the houses and trees. Just as we turned a corner I could see a large golden turret sprouting into the skyline. I suddenly felt I had been transported into some dream land with all these colours shouting at me. The golden turret was part of a white monument known as a stupa. A ceremonial building used for worship.

Things almost took on a more surreal shape as more gold from the Tibetan Temple rose into view fighting space with the blue sky, and white clouds.

I was reminded of the first stanza of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Kahn’ as the taxi turned into the gates of Samye Ling and parked up.

‘In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn a stately pleasure dome decree.’

This miracle dream was rudely interrupted by a not uncommon London phrase.

‘Oi Dave you asshole.’

I turned to see my friend Mara’s bald head and welcoming smile beam at me through the taxi window. I got out and retrieved my suitcase paying the taxi driver for his service. ‘Are you allowed to swear? Aren’t you supposed to be holy?’ I enquired jokingly.

‘I’m struggling. I’ve only been in robes for four weeks. I need to practice more.’ I went to give her a hug but she pulled back. ‘Oh so you can swear like a trooper but I can’t hug you. Nice one Mara.’ She looked at me funny.

 

‘I’m not Mara anymore. Sorry if I sound a bit anal but can you please call me Ani Padma.’

‘Ani Padma. Bloody hell. No problems Ani. Let’s drop my stuff of and go for a beer.’

‘Dave there’s no intoxicants here. This isn’t the world of Zen where all is allowed. You need to refrain from a few things when living on, or near a Monastery.’

My heart sank as Ani Padma led me to the Tibetan Café. Clearly there were some big differences between the world of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. While in the Café I was introduced into a very different crowd of people from the ones I knew at work. They used names such as Planet, Ranjung and Sky. They were all well-meaning modern-day hippies who lived and breathed the organic lifestyle. They were a million miles away from the friends I’d spend a Saturday night in with; all engrossed in popular game shows, a medium Chicken Tikka, and a couple of beers. This lot had spent years following the Buddha, travelling to India and Nepal for Buddhist teachings.

 

After a couple of cappuccinos I was given the A – Z of Tibetan Buddhism. In Zen it’s simple. You sit on your ass and one day you’ll become enlightened, or maybe one lifetime.

Tibetan Buddhism uses all things on the path to enlightenment; sight, sound, and colours are utilized to support and transform the thoughts and emotions of the mind from negative to positive. While in Zen you have Zazen. In Tibetan Buddhism you have mantras, visualizations, mudras, and prayers. Anything to get you there. After way too much coffee I joined my friend for a walk around the courtyard and into the main shrine room. I was immediately struck by the riot, splendour, and magnificence of all the colours that were displayed inside the shrine room. I watched as my friend fell to her knees and then spread her arms out in front of herself and then came back up again.

 

‘What’s that for?’ I asked. Almost whispering. But she hadn’t finished and kneeled down a further two times.

‘They’re called prostrations. The same as bowing. It’s about offering respect to the Buddha, but ultimately about bowing to the Buddha within yourself.’

I considered doing a few myself but was conscious of ruining my clothes. I continued to look around the shrine room while Ani continued with her duties. The beauty of the place made me feel uneasy. It wasn’t just the two foot high golden statue of the Buddha that put me in awe. There were hundreds of other smaller golden Buddha’s encased in glass, either side of the main statue.

I imagined myself bowing to all of them. Saying hello in my own way. I was surrounded by brightly coloured religious paintings known as Thangkas. They depicted a variety of deities that to me appeared quite terrifying. Some had four arms, and more. Some wielded swords. Some deities faces wouldn’t look to out of place on Halloween night. I was reassured by Ani Padma that the deities, some wrathful, some benevolent, were just manifestations of my own fears and poisons. They were here to help us on our path. I settled on one deity who appeared more cheerful. His name was Chenrezig. He only had four arms. He was the Lord of Compassion. Four arms I could handle.

 

Whatever my beliefs or motivations for coming here, Samye Ling had an air of goodness about the place. People came from all backgrounds. Some to learn Buddhism. Some just to escape from the stresses of their busy lives. It had the fresh air from the countryside and the fresh effort from the people who came here trying to understand themselves better. I settled in for the next few days taking walks around the grounds, and gulping up the fresh air. When you live in London you don’t realize how reluctant you are to fully stretch your lungs out. I had decided to stay a few days extra to gather my thoughts and try abstaining from beer for as long as I could. I sat in the café drinking my double mocha cappuccino with cream spiralling upwards, and a chocolate flake to the side. In no way was my increase in sugar relative to the decrease in alcohol. I think it was more boredom and the lack of everyday distractions that drove me to ever fancier and elaborate coffee drinks. I wondered briefly whether I could obtain nirvana just by increasing my sugar intake.

 

I had been attempting to read a book on the nature of emptiness and my head was aching. Of course I should have gone for something more straight forward ‘an Introduction to’ etc but just the name ‘emptiness’ drew me in with its esoteric allusions. It’s always nice to have something deep and profound to wave around while drinking coffee but if I was honest I was struggling with the introduction, let alone the chapters on the non-existence of the self. Lucky for me a more experienced Buddhist beside me noticed my confusion and came to my rescue.

‘That’s a fantastic book you have there. So lucid in its explanation on the meaning of emptiness,’ he said.

I smiled knowingly. Doing my best to hide my ignorance. I reached for the chocolate flake to take away the dull pain in my head. It looked like I was about to be enlightened by North London’s answer to Deepak Chopra. He leaned towards me as if he was about to reveal the mysteries of the universe.

 

‘Although the cup exists. It’s actually empty. What we mean by empty is the concept of the cup exists only in the mind, and the object that you see is made of many things which are dependent on each other.’

His voice trailed off as he started to look as doubtful as I did about his explanation. We both looked at the cup. I held its firmness. Observed its round curve. The fact that it was made of a base, and a handle, and on looking inside, he was right. It was empty. To save us any further embarrassment I ordered another deluxe chocolate drink, and it was very full indeed. After another super choc drink arrived my teacher had felt rejuvenated enough to try a further explanation.

 

‘It’s like this. We see the cup as a whole cup. An individual thing, much as we see ourselves as whole and separate, but in fact we are made up of many different things. All dependent on each other.’

We both stared at each other believing we had both grasped something quite important. This was actually the most focused I had been since I last took cocaine. He continued unabashed.

‘The cup is made of a handle, a base, the wall; much in the same way that you are made of your legs, arms, body, bones, blood, emotions, and thoughts. Together we see them as one whole thing when in fact they are many things taken as a whole. Emptiness on a relative level is seeing that the cup like yourself, while appearing whole. Is actually empty of these things.’

I stared at him quite stunned as my mind tried to understand what he was talking about. The best I could do was imagine myself as Mr Potato Head from Toy Story and each of the plastic parts falling of me one by one. I excused myself and went outside for some fresh air. My mind was being bombarded with teachings. To many teachings. Everything is empty but it’s not. Reality is just an illusion. Your ‘self’ exists but it doesn’t exist. Nothing was clear to me in this Buddhist world. Either things were real or they were not. I thought it was best to remove myself from the monastery for a while and head to a place no Tibetan monk could find me. The pub. I heard a rumour of a pub existing a couple of miles away, so when the rest of the camp was involved in meal time prayers. I jumped ship and headed to the waterhole.

‘A pint of lager please.’ I asked. Plonking myself on the bar stool. I watched the golden syrupy liquid bubble its way to the top. I felt myself refill just as quickly as the glass did.

‘Are you here on holiday sir?’ asked the barman. ‘Sure. Just staying at the local Buddhist place for a while,’ I said. ‘Oh yes I know it very well. In fact I’ve been reading this book about The Two Truths.’ ‘What do you mean two truths?’ ‘You mean they haven’t told you about the absolute and the relative truths?’

I excused myself very quickly before I was about to be enlightened again. I sat in the alcove studying my pint. Noticing the glass. Its roundness. The fact that it tasted so good. Then ordered a second and gave myself a pat on the back for abstaining for so long.

Copyright © 2018 David Swan

Tuesday
Oct092018

Dot Dot Dot/Dash Dash Dash

Malcolm felt good. In fact Malcolm at sometimes felt almost elated which was strange considering the terminal diagnosis.  He had been battling with cancer for over twelve months now and had ticked of as much as he could from his bucket list. He had made his peace with family and friends and now knew that the next thing to happen was his death. But he didn’t want to die without answering one last question.

What happens after death? And how could he answer this question. Malcolm being a well-read scientific sort of guy wanted to find a way to answer this question and he had found one.  A Professor in London was conducting research on speaking through thought for the severely disabled. This involved, in some cases, a paraplegic communicating by imagining ones and zeros in his mind which would be picked up by transmitters in the brain and passed through responders attached to a skull cap they would be wearing.  The ones and zeros could be used like dots and dashes in Morse code and then translated.  Malcolm and his morbid sense of humour had written to the Professor and suggested and experiment with Malcolm wearing the cap and seeing if it would pick up faint signals as he tried to communicate beyond earth.

Michael’s family were not too happy about this as he was essentially turning his death experience into an experiment. It took a lot of persuading to get his family and loved ones to remain outside while he passed away and tried to communicate what he was experiencing.

Malcolm’s health had deteriorated considerably as he accepted his passing. His family were gathered around his bed and knew that when he passed his last breath they would have to leave the room for a while.

Malcolm was apprehensive as he lay there. His body felt like stone and he would switch from hot to cold as his heart beat seemed to get slower and slower. His vision seemed to move in and out of focus.  Malcolm was still surprised at how peaceful he felt. Visions of white glows would appear in the outer edges of his sight. His family would zoom in and out of focus. The skull cap that he wore for the experiment started to feel heavy on his head as he started to fall asleep. He could hear the beeps from the heart machine and his family weep. He could hear their steps as they left the room.

A rush of white seemed to cloud his vision as the slow beating of his heart became a loud drum. And then the outer edges of the bright whiteness started to turn black and he found himself almost being pushed into the universe and this enveloping blackness as Malcolm felt catapulted out of his body. His family started to leave the room while the scientific team waited for communication.

Malcolm said he would use Morse code to try and think a message to the team but Malcolm was consumed by the vastness of his experience. Along with the blackness came changing sounds. Volcanoes erupting. Rivers rushing. Whole mountains pushing up from the ground. And the view, oh the view.  It felt like tears were streaming through his soul as he tried to comprehend the greatness of his experience.

Dot Dot/Dash/Dot Dot Dot

I                 T                S

Dot Dash/Dot Dash Dot Dot/Dot Dash Dot Dot

A                 L                              L

Dot Dot Dot/Dash Dash Dash

S                      O

Dash Dot Dot Dot/Dot/Dot Dash/Dot Dot Dash/Dash/Dot Dot/Dot Dot Dash Dot/Dot Dot Dash/

B                               E       A              U                       T          I             F                               U

Dot Dash Dot Dot.

L.

 

Copyright © 2018 David Swan