Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

If you've stumbled upon here randomly, then I suggest you check out my biography and other pages.

Please Note: This site, and the social networking profile pages connected with it, reflect my personal interests & views which do not necessarily represent those of organisations I am affiliated / associated with.


Silent Love

I happened upon this today and found it to be moving. I wonder if the 'you' depends on the reader - a lost loved one, someone you admire (not necessarily romantically) or maybe even God?

“I choose to love you in silence…
For in silence I find no rejection,

I choose to love you in loneliness…
For in loneliness no one owns you but me,

I choose to adore you from a distance…
For distance will shield me from pain,

I choose to kiss you in the wind…
For the wind is gentler than my lips,

I choose to hold you in my dreams…
For in my dreams, you have no end.” 

― Jalaluddin Rumi


Giving Up The Ghost

I mentioned recently how I had embarked on studies back at university - a doctorate to be precise. It's been a positive experience in the sense the doctorate programme I joined was really well-designed and well-supported. I also briefly met some great colleagues and fellow-researchers. I also enjoyed the content... it was technical, challenging, mind-bending even - but nothing to fear.

But I am now admittedly talking about this adventure in the past tense rather than present or future. This is because I have faced a growing 'reality check' regarding how much workload, in terms of hours of the day, that I can take on. This is in the full light of my day job and family life - and the need for good mental health.

To reach this difficult decision - this acceptance I cannot practically do something I really wanted to do - I have sought the advice of a few trusted people in my life. In particular, I have spoken with one person I consider to be a soul friend, over a chinese buffet meal funnily enough. 

I also consulted 'Imitation of Christ' by Thomas Aquinas - or, arguably, it consulted at me in that I flicked through it casually one day and arrived at a section that seemed to speak directly to me and rebuke me in one fair swoop. The passage reads as follows - with the most cutting bits highlighted:


'HE who follows Me shall not walk in darkness,' says Our Lord. (John 8:2)

In these words Christ counsels us to follow His life and way if we desire true enlightenment and freedom from all blindness of heart (Mark 3:5). Let the life of Jesus Christ, then, be our first consideration.

The teaching of Jesus far transcends all the teachings of the Saints, and whosoever has His spirit will discover concealed in it heavenly manna (Rev. 2: 17) But many people, although they often hear the Gospel, feel little desire to follow it, because they lack the spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9). Whoever desires to understand and take delight in the words of Christ must strive to conform his whole life to Him.

Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. If you knew the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God? `Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,'(Eccles. I: 2) except to love God and serve Him alone (Deut. 6:13). And this is supreme wisdom - to despise the world, and draw daily nearer the kingdom of heaven.

It is vanity to solicit honors, or to raise oneself to high station. It is vanity to be a slave to bodily desires,'(Gal.5:16) and to crave for things which bring certain retribution. It is vanity to wish for long life, if you care little for a good life. It is vanity to give thought only to this present life, and to care nothing for the life to come. It is vanity to love things that so swiftly pass away, and not to hasten onwards to that place where everlasting joy abides.

Keep constantly in mind the saying, `The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. '(Eccles. 1:8). Strive to withdraw your heart from the love of visible things, and direct your affections to things invisible. For those who follow only their natural inclinations defile their conscience, and lose the grace of God."

On Personal Humility

Everyone naturally desires knowledge, (Aristotle, Metaphysics I,1.) but of what use is knowledge itself without the fear of God? A humble countryman who serves God is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul (Ecclus.19:22). A man who truly knows himself realizes his own worthlessness, and takes no pleasure in the praises of men. Did I possess all knowledge in the world, but had no loves how would this help me before God, who will judge me by my deeds?

Restrain an inordinate desire for knowledge, in which is found much anxiety and deception. Learned men always wish to appear so, and desire recognition of their wisdom. But there are many matters, knowledge of which brings little or no advantage to the soul. Indeed, a man is unwise if he occupies himself with any things save those that further his salvation. A spate of words does nothing to satisfy the soul, but a good life refreshes the mind, and a clean conscience (I Tim 3:9), brings great confidence in God.

The more complete and excellent your knowledge, the more severe will be God's judgement on you, unless your life be the more holy. Therefore, do not be conceited of any skill or knowledge you may possess, but respect the knowledge that is entrusted to you. If it seems to you that you know a great deal and have wide experience in many fields, yet remember that there are many matters of which you are ignorant. So do not be conceited,(Rom 11:20) but confess your ignorance. Why do you wish to esteem yourself above others, when there are many who are wiser and more perfect in the Law of God? If you desire to know or learn anything to your advantage, then take delight in being unknown and unregarded.

A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always to think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection. Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself."

Funnily enough, I had this inclination of heading along the wrong path, having read Ernest Hemingway's 'The Old Man and The Sea' (which I wrote about this summer) - the image of the fisherman returning with a worthless carcass after a gigantic struggle, his life-force arguably misspent, has hung with me these past few months. But perhaps I needed more than a metaphor and that's where 'Old Tom' stepped in!

I could go into a long-winded analysis about this chapter of my life - my various motivations for it in particular. But there is no need really - I have no regrets about embarking on this short-lived journey and maybe one day I will return to it.


Peace of mind?

"There seems to be something close to a peace of mind industry out there, complete with its own sales force. Nothing makes me want to cancel my life insurance like those smug inhabitants of magazine adverts and billboards, lying back in hammocks or staring out at the ocean, at peace with themselves because they have the right kind of insurance policy, or pension scheme, or investment fund."

I listened to a great piece on Radio 4 today, by chance, on 'Peace of Mind' by Michael Symmons Roberts - above is one of the cutting opening lines. He explores the different aspects of 'peace of mind' and, as far as I understood, settled on the idea that to be at peace is to be living constructively both for yourself and others - though not necessarily conflict-free or noise-free. 


To be free-range

I recently read the book 'Why look at animals?' by John Berger (available free online if you look around hard enough). It's a fascinating read but also one that, to use a term I've recently encountered in academia, creates 'disturbance'. It has certainly left me considering certain aspects of my lifestyle - particularly my consumption of meat, but also how I cultivate the garden, how I look after my two pet cats, how I approach my work with educating young people via my day job.

This write-up more or less sums up much of what I took from the book:
In a roundabout way, the book taps into a conversation that I have started with a friend, someone with the same longstanding affiliation to Unitarian Christianity, about the experience we both share of being wanderers - of somehow being 'free range' in our mentality, a mentality that never really allows us to become too immersed (or excuse the pun - 'cooped up') in churches, societies, political parties and so on.

It is a restlessness that is both potentially creative and destructive. And I have found, both in recent times and as I cast my mind backwards to events over the years, it can be a threatening position for those who have built their nests (another pun!), be that the self-declared conservative types or those who go under labels such as 'liberal' (yet nevertheless exhibit similar traits).

Hopefully I'll be able to write more about this later, but for now this blog post and this little book - this point in time - marks the start of what might be a new conversation, an exploration that might lead me, and quite possibly my good friend, in new directions.


A Garden Pew

I was asked recently, "How's your church life?" I gave an answer that, yes, I was attending church but I was finding it painful - a process, a going through the motions, a chore even - rather than something deeper. This is no disrespect to the people I worship alongside - it is their warmth that ultimately keeps me going - but I am finding the style of worship (the 'hymn' sandwich) to be the painful part which I tend to just endure.

Away from church I have been spending more time in my garden, both on Sundays and other days of rest. I have worked tirelessly on the garden these past few years, learning as I go along. It has become something of a passion. Although I did not start with any vision greater than 'tidying it up', I have focused in particular on a garden for wildlife. 

By chance, I have also been given a church pew which I have restored and placed at the head of the rear garden, looking outwards. This has created more opportunities for reading and meditation, for contemplation of the divine - more than I seem to find at my local church.

These past few weeks, as the strange month of September - with its last hurrahs of summer, with its early signs of the coming Autumn, with its hazy morning and evening light - has seen me continue this longing to simply sit in quietude. 

I have also been drawn to the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, namely his essay 'Nature'. I do not intend to read his works page to page - like many Unitarian preachers of his age, he is wordy to say the least. However, I am struck by little pieces, as much as his works can be dipped into.

In particular, I have loved reading and re-reading this passage:

"To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood. When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects. It is this which distinguishes the stick of timber of the wood-cutter, from the tree of the poet. 

The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms. Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape. There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet. This is the best part of these men's farms, yet to this their warranty-deeds give no title. To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. 

The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood. His intercourse with heaven and earth, becomes part of his daily food. In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me. Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind, from breathless noon to grimmest midnight. Nature is a setting that fits equally well a comic or a mourning piece. In good health, the air is a cordial of incredible virtue. Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. 

Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years."



The Fisherman and The Pianist

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I am currently on sabbatical from my day job. And following the intensity of the Brexit debate - and with a view to September where it is likely I will return to postgraduate studies on a part-time basis - I have made a conscious effort to 'lighten up' in terms of my reading and thinking.

On preparing for a trip to Central Europe, I had a look through my books - currently boxed up in the attic due to house renovations - and I had a good scan around Waterstones, on a relatively rare trip into Manchester city centre. With 'lightening up' in mind, I cast the theology, history and political philosophy books to one side, insteading picking up a few novels.

I also opted, as much as possible, for smaller novels. This is partly because I have not read a book from cover to cover since last summer - instead tending to dip in and dip out out of books, a reading habit which I believe has been encouraged by internet reading.

The two standout books, from around half a dozen that made the shortlist, were 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway and 'A Life's Music' by Andreï Makine.

Ernest Hemingway's story, his last published work during his lifetime, tells the tale of an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago who - following a period of failure - sets out ostensibly for one last big catch. In doing so he goes out further than any of the other fishermen, who had largely taken to mocking him, into the deeper, more dangerous seas. This leads to the old man essentially 'half-catching' a huge marlin who he proceeds to struggle with over a number of days, in a fight to the death. 

The old man narrowly prevails and, exhausted, attempts to bring his haul back to shore - with an eye to both feeding himself and restoring not simply his pride (the dangers of which he is acutely aware, expressed during his monologues) but his deeply held identity as a man of the sea. This in itself brings around further struggles, as the towed corpse of the marlin attracts sharks which progressively destroy its fleshy bounty. The final image - one I have found has lingered with me for the past few weeks - sees the old man laid face down at home in a deep sleep with his arms stretched out and palms facing upwards, possibly in a coma, whilst being tended to by his young protégé Manolin (for whom Santiago has laid down a powerful marker about how to live). 

The catch, now a skeleton following the successive shark attacks, is applauded by the locals who recognise its inherent magnitude - regardless of its apparent loss - but significantly the passing tourists confuse it for a large shark or whale hinting that the old man's legacy is already being distorted and diluted. Yet, in his comatose state, the old man returns to a dream of lions playing on the beach - a pleasant dream he has had since his youth - suggesting he is somehow re-fulfilled or regenerated spiritually.

For all of my attempts to eschew more serious reading, I have since learned from reading about this novel, that it is in fact embedded with Christian imagery in terms of the old man's wounds to his hands, his Calvary-style carrying of his mast up the hill to his home and that final powerful image. The story also can be analysed as a commentary on nature, on the interplay between life and death, on humankind and the planet earth.

Having read 'The Old Man and the Sea', and from there 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (which I will not comment on at this point, having not really enjoyed it), I moved on to 'A Life's Music' by Andreï Makine. Again, this was a short novel - a novella - coming in at around one hundred pages.

'A Life's Music' is set within a small, obscure train station in the Ural Mountains around 1958, on the western edge of Siberia, at a time when thousands were being released from the gulags of the Russian Far East. The train station itself is described by the narrator in detail, as a passenger waiting for a delayed train, staring at other passengers and the cold, near-on inhospitable environment in which they are marooned - perhaps a microcosm for Communist Russian as a whole.

What follows is a conversation between the narrating passenger and an older man, dressed in such a way he first appears to be what we in the West may label as a 'tramp', 'vagabond' or 'down and out'. The conversation becomes a retelling of the older man's life story.

The older man, Alexei Berg, recalls his childhood as son of prominent artists and his own development into a pianist of great potential, bringing him to the night before his debut performance at a factory. Already aware of his family's precarious position as possible targets for purging - due to their place amongst those deemed to be dangerous intelligentsia - he arrives home to see, from afar, a member of NKVD (pre-cursor to the KGB) stood at his kitchen window. 

From there, he flees to Ukraine to seek refuge with family. It is 1941 and his journey westwards collides with the Nazi's push eastwards. In the carnage that ensures, Alexei takes the identity of a dead Soviet soldier and finds himself, whilst safe from the hand of Stalin, thrust into war. What follows is Alexei essentially becoming less and less of the pianist he wished to be and more and more of 'homo sovieticus' - gaining honour for his courage in battle and a seemingly privileged position as loyal-yet-robotic driver for one of the Red Army's generals.

But, what initially seems an insignificant development as Alexei watches the daughter of the general learn to play the piano, leads to an explosive climax in which he reveals his true self. All we are left to learn, from there, is Alexei was forced to joined the ranks of Gulag victims for at least a decade.

As with 'The Old Man and the Sea', there are so many points of reflection that could be drawn from 'A Life's Music' - both are stories that seem to sit on the mind for weeks after reading.

What I have personally drawn from both is that humans must each individually uncover our true self, what it is we truly wish to become and be, as interconnected yet unique sparks of creativity within the universe. For the Santiago, it was a life out at sea. For Alexei, it was a life in front of the piano. And in this continuing uncovering and re-uncovering of the true self, we must be willing to face fear, discomfort and possible ruin.

If we think about it, this is the age-old path of the hero - be that Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, King or Mandela. 

As I approach the next yearly cycle of work, as I weigh up a potential return to university studies which will require a significant commitment and may well change my career direction in the long run, I have found - for all my intentions to 'lighten up' - that these two stories have carried some serious messages. 

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, 

"Now is no time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with that there is..."