Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Divine Disinfectant

Do you know what it is that we all need in these grey, damp February days?
No, I'm not thinking of sunshine, I'm thinking of what was once called 'that divine disinfectant' . . . I'm thinking of laughter.

Surely laughter is the most unlikely and inspired gift from God? Who else would have thought of it? There's not the slightest practical necessity.
We don't need to laugh in order to function perfectly well physically. An appreciation of the ridiculous is no requisite for efficient hunting, gathering or procreation . . . although a sense of humour can enhance all of those occupations!
No . . . the stomach-wrenching act of laughter, the cacophony of mirth, is a useless, senseless, inexplicable stroke of sheer genius! It's a wholly beneficial blessing . . . one that enhances our health, lifts our spirits and restores our humanity.
I defy you to listen to this laughter and not smile in response.

But, wait a moment, in saying that laughter is useless I could well be completely wrong. A disinfectant is far from useless, it fulfills a very important function. What if laughter is man's inbuilt survival mechanism . . . a final, fail-safe way to prevent us from destroying each other?
Tell me, have you been able to retain a sense of anger or animosity after sharing a laugh? I haven't.
An old Yiddish proverb puts it perfectly:
"What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul."

So . . . I'm game if you are. Let's defy those grey skies with a laugh.
And, although the pictures I've chosen to illustrate this letter would suggest otherwise, laughter is by no means monopolized by the young.
"You don't stop laughing because you grow old," a wise man said, "You grow old because you stop laughing."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

"Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . "

Have you a moment to spare?
There's something which I really want to tell you . . . something which, I know, you'll want to share . . . the story of Chloe's first assignment as a Pets As Therapy Cat.

When we'd both recovered from the excitement of receiving our official badges, I discovered amongst the literature a list of possible places to visit. Were there any in our area? I was delighted to find a nursing-home less than half-a-mile away.
Five days later, having established that we would like to make a regular weekly visit, Chloe and I (one of us a little apprehensive, the other more than a little excited - I leave you to
guess which was which!) arrived at the nursing-home and presented ourselves at the Reception Desk.

There was no doubting the warmth of the welcome, a welcome which emanated from the enthusiastic organiser of our visit, quickly spread to the Receptionists and the nurses, and went on to attract a large number of helpers. After everyone had stroked a now highly-excited, wriggling Chloe, it was necessary to sign the appropriate forms and then, in exchange, receive a list of the residents who had voiced an interest in meeting a visiting cat. Finally, thronged by this group of eager escorts, we embarked on our first tour. Confidently leading the way, Chloe galloped happily up the stairs . . . determined that she wasn't going to explore the building on her own, I held firmly to her lead!

We moved quite quickly from room to room. This was only a brief, introductory visit, I couldn't keep my escorts waiting so didn't want to linger.
"Chloe will be back next Thursday . . ." was my constantly repeated message as I dragged her away from yet another new admirer.

But my eagerness to share this story with you stems from one particular encounter. It took place in a room in the dementia ward, near to the end of our visit.
A figure sat slumped in a chair by the window. It was a man of no more than sixty-five, but dementia had robbed him of all but the most basic forms of communication. As we stood in the doorway, the nurse accompanying us called out to him that we were there, and his head slowly turned in our direction. At first his unfocussed gaze failed to notice Chloe. Then, as I stepped forward and placed her beside him on a chair, he realised what she was. His body stiffened, his eyes shone with recognition, and on his previously impassive face dawned an expression of pure delight.
"Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . " he burst out excitedly, " . . . yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . "
I moved Chloe's chair a little closer.
"Would you like to stroke her?"
"Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . " but he made no movement.
"It will take a little time," said the nurse.
I prayed that Chloe would remain still on the chair until the man was ready.
"Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . " he repeated and, as I held my breath, his hand reached out, at first unsteadily and then with growing certainty, until it rested firmly on Chloe's head.
"Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . " the voice rang with pleasure and satisfaction as he started to stroke the soft fur.
Shortly afterwards it was time to leave.
"No . . . no . . . no!" cried Chloe's new friend in distress.
I assured him that we'd be returning the following week, that Chloe would be back.

We had one more visit to make, to a woman so frail, so feeble that she couldn't even lift her arm from the sheets. Taking Chloe's paw, I used it to gently stroke the wasted hand . . . a shadow of a smile crossed the shrunken face on the pillow.

It is impossible to foresee how beneficial Chloe's encounters will be. All I can say with certainty is that my life was enriched by that visit.
As for Chloe, after sleeping off all the excitement, will she want to return?
I can anticipate her answer to that question . . . an enthusiastic, "Yes . . . yes . . . yes . . . !"

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Turkish Delight

Have you a moment to share a delightful, but very surprising, story?

Don't ask me how the internet works, don't ask me how anything is done in cyberspace (to me the whole system is a profound mystery). But, even if I'm totally incapable of understanding the 'hows' and the 'wherefores', I can muddle my way around in a very elementary fashion. I can even go online and find out how many people are reading this 'letter', where they come from, and whether, having read one instalment, they stayed to explore further. It can make interesting reading. Which is where we come to the delightful, but very surprising, story.

I paid a memorable visit to Turkey many years ago, a visit that mainly focussed on Istanbul - a city that was captivating, exotic, and profoundly different from London. Sad to say, I've been unable to return and, to the best of my knowledge, know no-one living there.
And yet . . . yes you've guessed what I'm about to tell you . . . the number of people in Turkey who read these 'letters' grows daily.

It's wonderful, it's humbling, it's very surprising . . . but it presents me with a quandary. Whereas these idle thoughts might have a certain insular appeal in the British Isles (particularly to those who have cats, or even to those who have found orbs in their photographs) much as I could wish it were otherwise, I cannot see what appeal they would hold for anyone living in Istanbul, Ankara or on the shores of the Black Sea.

So . . . if you should happen to be reading these words in Turkey, this is the only means I have of telling you that I am touched, delighted, and deeply moved that my very English ramblings should strike a chord with a people who were civilised and cultured long before we were, and who straddle Europe and Asia with such ease.

There is a poem by James Elroy Flecker which I learned as a child, it is called 'To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence'.
The closing lines would seem perfect for this occasion.

Dear, distant, unknown friends . . .

'Though I shall never see your face,
Nor reach to take you by the hand,
I send my words though time and space
To greet you . . . you will understand.'

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Without taking thought . . .

I wonder . . . when you were young, did you do what I did? Did you keep a Quotations Book?

Between the ages of thirteen and twenty-seven, I accumulated a succession of these journals. Into them, in handwriting far more legible than my handwriting today, I carefully transcribed page after page of what had moved me, inspired me, amused me . . . passages from plays,
from biographies and autobiographies, from poems and novels. I still have them.
More surprising, I find that I can still quote many of the passages from memory.These notebooks set a bedrock of beliefs and aspirations that, surprising as it seems, has barely changed down the intervening years. Encountering my teenage self in the browning pages I'm impressed and humbled.
Could it be that I peaked at fifteen and have been going downhill ever since?
No . . . we won't even consider that one!

What made me think of my Quotations Books? It was one particular passage from the autobiography of Victor Gollancz, carefully transcribed by me in my late teens, "Love is not love," he wrote, "unless you can love, without taking thought, the unloving. Tolerance is not tolerance unless you can tolerate, without taking thought, intolerance . . ."
It was the 'without taking thought' that I found so difficult all those years ago, and, this week, it was those words that came shining out of the past to unexpectedly illuminate the present.

I'm sure you know of the TED Prize. In the words of the organisers, ' it is awarded annually to an exceptional individual who receives $100,000 and, much more important, "One Wish to Change the World."'
The assurance is also given that TED will do their best to make this wish come true.

In 2007, following in the footsteps of other 'exceptional individuals' such as Bill Clinton and Jamie Oliver, the award was given to the writer Karen Armstrong. And her wish to TED, the wish that would change the world?

"I wish," she said, "that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion . . ."

It sounds wonderful, doesn't it. Wonderful, that is, until you get down to the nitty gritty and come to Gollancz's 'without taking thought' aspect of the Charter.

Compassion for all of those undergoing the trials of persecution and deprivation . . . ?
Oh yes, I can manage that.
But compassion for the persecutors . . . and those causing the deprivation . . . ?
Aye, there's the rub.
Compassion for those suffering from prejudice and bigotry . . . ?
No problem.
But compassion for the prejudiced and the bigots . . . ?
You see my difficulty?

But, as Karen Armstrong explains so cogently, compassion is not compassion unless it embraces everyone . . . every concept . . . every belief. Unless it gets down to the common ground that underpins all of us, the common humanity, the divine life-force, it is not true compassion, merely selective support.

So . . . with Victor Gollancz and my teenage self urging me on, I've signed the Charter.

Please, will you join me . . . ?
You could help to prevent me from 'taking thought'!