Friday, March 30, 2012

More friends are waiting

I like Facebook. It appeals to both my desire for interaction, and my need to closely guard the borders. It's friendship on my terms. I decide who, when, how much. Whatever sort of day I've had, I can turn it into a flippant, chipper little sentence; and that's my social interaction done.

I realise that makes me sound like a grumpy old bugger. The truth is, just like almost everyone else on this planet, I crave friendship: real friendship, the sort that doesn't let you down, overlooks the shortcomings, and doesn't try to find fault. That doesn't laugh dutifully at your jokes, but genuinely delights in your sense of humour. That looks out for you, knowing you so well that it can predict what situations will send you spiralling into self-doubt, and swiftly move to stand alongside you. That tells you the truth, because it's good for you, not because it's what you want to hear. That anticipates the bad times, and celebrates the good. Facebook can help you keep up with distant friends, and even meet new ones; but it can never foster that sort of friendship.

And the truth is, I'm, rubbish at it. That sort of commitment takes time and effort. Oh, I've taken the time and made the effort with my nearest and dearest: almost 23 years of marriage surely bear that out. But human beings need more that one person in their lives, more than one who is allowed to get past the peripheral trivia of our daily conversations. So how many is enough? How many, to fulfill my needs? How many can I reasonably be expected to keep faith with, to that extent?

Tracey, more friends are waiting...

Facebook insists I should go trawling for more and more people to add to my collection, however tangential the link. It suggests family members of someone I once met; work colleagues of loose acquaintances. It is hungry for me to connect. The more I do, the more stretched I feel. I become thinly spread, my friendship like a devalued currency. I lose my grip on what friendship is. Is it telling the world what I am doing, where I am, who I am with? Does relationship deepen if I share that cartoon, those photos, this YouTube clip? More friends are waiting. But what are they waiting for? Should I entertain them? Reveal my innermost being to them? Or simply count them, clicking the abacus higher and higher until I reach some sort of Friendship Nirvana?

Tracey, have you found all of your friends?

No, I haven't. There are so many people in this world: surely more of them want to be my friend. Surely I would find a sense of well-being in befriending them. So far I have found some long-lost friends, from way-back when, and I am so grateful to Facebook for enabling this. And there are some dear friends that I interact with in this odd virtual houseparty on a regular basis. But most of my list either rarely use FB, or play a walk-on role in my life - as indeed do I in theirs. We cannot truly connect with so many people: it overwhelms us, and we pay lipservice to true friendship.

So, to all those people out there who are my friends: thank you. I'm a grumpy old bugger with flashes of humour, and I welcome your constant presence in my life. Please never assume that I keep you at arms length because I prefer it that way. The truth is - and there's been a lot of truth in this blog - I would love to learn how to be the sort of friend that doesn't do aloof and reserved. I'm learning: but it doesn't come naturally.

And to those out there who may become my friends, however tangentially: welcome. But please don't stretch me too much. I may break.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Art in Lent: The Baptism of Christ

War can produce some terrible, ear-shattering sounds. The noise of shelling, quite apart from its dreadful consequences, was and is enough to unnerve, leaving soldiers trembling and, at times, catatonic. Yet conversely war is a time of great silence: of whispers between those in the know; of hiding, and stealthy movements, breaths shallow and staccato with fear.  Of great cloaking hush, waiting in the darkness for the first drone of bombers overhead. Of paranoid looking over the shoulder, using the lowest voice possible because you never know who might be listening. Of partial scraps of information from loved ones, or worse, no news at all as they retreat into memory. The silence of war is a terrible, all-embracing and smothering blanket of unknowing.

When the bells rang out for the first time after the Great War was declared over, the sound they made symbolized so much that had been lost. They shouted out, joyfully: it’s done. At great cost, yes; but this is the time for shouting, and celebrating. No more whispers in corners; no more hiding in darkness. Now is the time for crying from the rooftops, it is here! It is here! The longed-for day is here!

The Baptism of Christ marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry; but also the end of the period of his anonymity.  God spoke from the heavens over his beloved Son. The bells rang out: the silence was broken. Yet the painting below, by Piero della Francesca, holds an immense stillness at its heart.

The Baptism of Christ: Piero della Francesca, 1450s

It stands alone in the National Gallery; although originally it was the central panel of several, with the side and bottom panels painted by another artist (Matteo di Giovanni). It is probably Piero’s oldest surviving work, and was hung as the altarpiece in his home town, Borgo Sansepolcro, in Tuscany.

We know little of Piero. He was born and died in Sansepolcro, but spent time working in Florence where presumably he met some of the great artists of the early renaissance, or at least was exposed to their work – such as Fra Angelico, Luca della Robbia and Donatello. His heritage was mixed: whilst his father was a tradesman, his mother came from Florentine nobility. He was a keen mathematician and geometer, who brought his understanding of form and perspective to his painting. In Florence he worked under Domenico Veneziano, who painted frescoes with particular attention to colour and light; this influence is seen in Piero’s solo work. Apart from this small influence he kept himself to himself, working out his own distinct style.

Like his peers, Piero wanted to depict scenes that were rooted in modern domestic life, portraying the human form with as much realism as possible whilst still having an eye on the whims of his patrons. The Baptism scene is set in a Tuscan landscape, and the small town in the background is most likely his home town of Sansepolcro. The colours of a Tuscan spring day sing out; compare this with Bellini’s baptism, painted 50 years later. The composition is very similar; yet the feel is one of gathering gloom, as John the Baptist takes a bow and fades into darkness.

The moment of baptism is often cited as one of the most explicit indications in the gospels of the doctrine of the Trinity, since Jesus, the Father and the Spirit – in the form of the dove - are all active in that one moment. So let's look at the components of Piero’s Baptism.

Firstly, it pays meticulous attention to geometry. The tree is a third of the way from the left; the dove is a third of the way from the top. Both devices make the whole more pleasing to the eye. St John’s outstretched arm mirrors his elevated left leg, so that there is a clear diagonal line. Christ, and the dove, are central; it is probable that originally there was a roundel above depicting God the Father. The curve of the hills mimic that of the arch, as do the shape of the trees.

What figures are depicted? There is Christ and John; both serene and focused. There are also three angels; a man undressing – the next to be baptised – and a gaggle of onlookers. What is the significance of all these?

In depictions of Christ’s baptism angels are often shown watching, usually three, sometimes two or four. It is a reference to the angels that came to sustain Christ after his long period of fasting in the desert; before Jesus enters the wilderness the angels accompany him to the baptism, to stand and watch. 

Piero’s angels are a curious mixture of timeless heavenly being and present-day human. Usually the angels hold the cloak of Christ as he enters the water; here they hold hands in a stance that brings to mind that of the three graces, with only one actually watching the events.

There is some thought that the angels further represent the Trinity, as do the three angels that visited Abraham (depicted most famously in Rublev’s icon). Possibly there is a more complex explanation: around ten years prior to this painting there was a fierce debate between the Eastern and Western arms of the Church over the doctrine of the Trinity, that culminated in an agreement of sorts; peace between the factions. In the three angels we see God (the white angel) bringing both parties together, over the doctrine of the Trinity. Incidentally this harmony was broken soon after the painting was completed. If so, this is a far more complicated image than it first seems, with a deep respect for the doctrine of the Trinity at its heart.

The figure undressing deliberately disrupts the calm vertical lines, bringing both a diagonal that echoes that of John’s leg as well as a welcome messiness to an otherwise overly still and tidy picture. Christ is one of a number coming for baptism; humbly offering himself, in the same way as other penitents. In the crowd behind there may well have been familiar faces to those who saw the painting for the first time – that of his patron? His friends? Himself? Piero is thought to have placed self-portraits in other works, including ‘The Resurrection’ – perhaps his most famous painting. In casting himself as a Roman soldier he is not seeking to elevate himself, but to identify with those responsible for the death of Christ. It reminds me of the works of Stanley Spencer, often set in his Berkshire village of Cookham. 

Spencer’s ‘Crucifixion’ shows Golgotha as a rubbish pile in the high street, with all the locals leaning out of windows to watch. The implication is clear: Golgotha is now. And we are all implicated. In Piero’s painting, God comes to his patch of Earth; both the joy of revelation and the tragedy of the human sin that necessitated Christ’s sacrifice are on our watch. And are that line of people, richly dressed, actually walking away without offering themselves for baptism?

The dove is foreshortened, an artifice in order to make it appear like one of the clouds. There is perhaps a suggestion of uncertainty – is it real? Did it happen? Did we see it, or was it a trick of the light? This seems such a quiet moment – not even the angels are giving their full attention, much less those standing behind. Yet in the gospels we are not told if the voice from heaven is loud or soft – a mighty declaration or a gentle kiss upon the brow. So many times in the gospels there is a hush-hush moment – seen in the nativity, a baby born not in a palace but a stable; in the many admonishments ‘not to tell anyone about me’; even to his own mother, Jesus said ‘my time has not come’. Yet to me this moment – along with that of the Transfiguration – expresses a noisy joy, disregarding any need for propriety or caution. ‘This is my beloved Son’, shouts the Father, ‘in whom I am well pleased’. It’s the bells ringing out at the end of war time; it’s the letter home from the long-lost soldier. And this comes at the start; all Jesus had done was grow up. Later, at the Transfiguration, when God again spoke from heaven calling Jesus his beloved Son, the words may be seen to be celebrating all that has been done; or readying Christ for the final push, the equivalent of the pep talk before going over the top. But here, at the beginning of his ministry, God is delighting in who Jesus is, not in what he has done.

Of course, the missing figure in this panel is that of God the Father, although his presence is hinted at in the three angels and may have been depicted in a separate panel above. Renaissance art did not shy away from imagining the Father, usually depicting a strong but stern bearded man floating on a cloud; or sometimes a pair of disembodied hands, as if the picture has been cut off, like a badly framed photograph. Such images may look rather antiquated to us, and alien to our understanding of the God who is neither male nor female, despite imagery of a father. 

I like this modern baptism of Christ, by Daniel Bonnell, in which the father seems absent – until you realize he is in the colour and radiance all around Jesus. Christ is baptized in the very essence of God, infused with his being. Is this something that is on offer to all of humanity?


Monday, March 19, 2012

'And, snap! The job's a game!'

A friend of mine just commented on Facebook that changing wet beds at 3am was no fun. Presumably this was a grumble about her small child's nocturnal habits, this being the least unpleasant assumption. It struck me that most of the stuff I do every day does not come under the category of 'fun'; certainly the balance is in favour of tedium, with washing, ironing, shopping, hoovering etc on one side of the balance well, actually there isn't much every day stuff on the other side. I mean, I spend some time relaxing - reading, listening to music, writing, watching TV. But I'm not sure that counts as fun. For most of us fun is the more occasional treat, once you're out of your teens or twenties. If you're lucky it comes round every weekend, when you have the opportunity to go out, meet friends, laugh at nonsense.

SO, in an effort to redress the balance - and given that the dull stuff still needs to be done, and there aren't any more hours in the day - the only way to redress the balance is to recategorise what is fun. In the spirit of Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar, and in this Olympic year I present to you...the Household Olympics. Yes, I know that top athletes go through all sorts of blood sweat and tears that are definitely NOT fun, in order to get to the Olympics. But once there - it does look kinda fun, doesn't it? So arm yourself with a stopwatch and your courage. Wear those skimpy track shorts with pride. Don't forget to warm up. And begin...

Event 1: Diving
Stand, teetering on the brink for several tension-building seconds. Then, grasping 2 corners of the duvet, execute a perfect 2 1/2 somersaults in the pike position, into the far end of the duvet cover. 8.5!

Event 2: Curling
Team up with a friend to mop the kitchen floor. Push something heavy - a bag of potatoes, say, or a well-fed cat - across the greasy floor, then mop furiously around it in order to coax it towards the cat flap (note: if using potatoes, they usually need help using the cat flap as an exit strategy).

Event 3: Table Tennis
'Hello, is that Mr / Mrs____? I want to speak to the person responsible for the gas / electricity/ telephone bill.' 'That would be _______. They're out.' 'Well, may I speak with you anyway? We have an offer that I am sure you will be interested...' Click. Brrr. Points please. The only way to deal with cold callers - bat those calls away.

Event 4: Rhythmic Gymnastics
Time to don your leotard. Perform a  three-minute routine to music of your choice, holding a feather duster. 

Event 5: Archery
Arm yourself with a quiverfull of dry cat food pellets, take aim, and fill the cat's bowl pellet by pellet. Points deducted for hitting the cat, even if he is eating the 'arrows'.

Event 6: Cycling
Get on your bike (remember to fit panniers), start the clock and...go! How fast can you be back home with a full complement of shopping?

Event 7: Dressage
Steer your hoover carefuly around various obstacles. Canter down the main carpet. Painstakingly manouvre around children's artwork. Leap nimbly up the stairs. Use all attachments, however finickerty, to impress the judges.

Event 8: Judo
Wearing a dressing gown, wrestle those shirts and trousers into submission using only your wits and strength. Oh, and an iron.

Event 9: Shot put
Pick up object. Test it in your hand: is it heavy? Is it useful? Is it yours? Is it IN THE WRONG PLACE??? If the answers to these questions are 'only a little bit; no; no; yes!!!', then cheerfully FLING that object away. Best to do that twirly thing on the spot first, to build the momentum and the required amount of fling.

Event 10: Hurdles
As the day draws to a close and you realise that there is still a long list of jobs to do, set that clock again, speed up, and joyfully LEAP over anything and anyone that gets in your way. The finishing tape is the sofa, where a champion's glass of wine awaits you. Wrap yourself in your national flag, if it helps, and bask in your wonderfulness. Job well done.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Take Cover

I've held off; I've bitten my tongue, for the last two weeks; but I just can't do it any longer. After being subjected to this cover version in the gym every time I go, I just HAVE to have a rant. Brace yourselves...

To be fair: I'm not anti-cover versions per se. For one thing, it introduces the next generation to some excellent tunes, allowing those of us getting a bit long in the tooth to smile indulgently with the hope that they'll also find the original. Sometimes the original really isn't worth finding, and the cover improves markedly. Sometimes, even if the original is good, the cover version becomes definitive - such as Jeff Buckley's version of Leornard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'; or Hurt by Johnny Cash, which trumps the original by Nine Inch Nails, and gives me goose bumps Every. Single. Time.

Then there are those covers by the original artists themselves, often with the 'it's for charidee' tag. They should quit while they're ahead. Why couldn't The Police leave 'Don't stand so close to me' alone - could it be the m-o-n-e-y? And why did Dead or Alive feel it necessary to reboot their only hit single - oh, wait. I see...I suppose 'You spin me round (Like a record)' has its charms: any song title with brackets does it for me, I'm partial to well-placed punctuation. Although one cover leads to another; in which case they are indirectly responsible for this, this, and indeed this. For which there is clearly no excuse. As for Bono teaming up with Mary J Blige to RUIN one of my favourite tracks EVER...words fail me. Respect your own, Bono. Leave 'One' alone. Dierks Bentley did a far better cover of a U2 track, coming over all bluegrassy on 'Pride'.

Then there's the 'Could do better' category of covers; the ones that leave you wondering what exactly they were meant to have contributed. Such as the (usually reliable- but he should probably stick to being creative: this was a film tie-in) Rufus Wainwright cover of 'Across the Universe'. Pretty, but...meh. I mean, if you're going to do a cover, bring something new to the table! Surprise me! For example: I seem to be making a collection of covers of 'Love will tear us Apart. I adored the original, the angry relentless eighties Joy Division track. But I also love the sweet whimsy of Nouvelle Vague's version; and the slow bleeding anguish of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. All feel necessary to me; they are facets of the same jewel.

So WHAT, in the name of ALL that is SACRED, is this TRAVESTY of a cover version that has got me so SHOUTY and NEEDING TO TYPE IN CAPITAL LETTERS, I hear you ask?

The White Stripes burst onto the music scene all minimalism and tight bass and drum riffs. Seven Nation Army was their definitive single, raw and perfect. Even a version I saw performed by 11-year-olds in a school hall couldn't disguise its brilliance. And it's this that X-factor runner-up - RUNNER-UP on a TALENT SHOW - Marcus Collins thought he'd have a crack at.

The video has (*shudders*) girls. Dancing girls. Dancing girls, standing behind him, waving their arms in a parody of a Hindu goddess.

Don't say I didn't warn you. But in case you need to wash your ears out, here's the original. And kids - accept no substitutes. Cover versions - Just Say No. At least when it comes to X-factor fodder.

Friday, March 02, 2012

This Charming Man

The last Safe Space session saw us gathered together to share stories, some half-remembered, others branded onto our spirits: all of the God-man who walked upon the Earth so many years ago.

We retold those encounters that resonated with us most, that we could imagine our way inside. Zacchaeus, climbing a tree in order to watch as Jesus passed by, elevating himself to a place where he could see and not be seen; yet made the centre of attention when called upon to host supper for a weary Messiah. The Samaritan woman at the well, drawing water for a man that should have rejected her, and indeed knew many reasons why he should; yet finding herself inside his grace. The centurion, another outsider by race and religion and part of the oppressing nation, yet having such kindness towards his servant and such faith in the ability of Christ to heal that Jesus smiled to see him. The haemorraging woman, who had withdrawn from human touch many years before lest she contaminate with her supposed uncleanliness; yet reaching out to touch the hem of the healer.

So many thought themselves unworthy - of salvation, of healing, of notice. So many tried to duck in under the radar. Time and again the story is of Jesus stopping to notice, and then to raise them up.

We also talked of the story of the nativity, imagining ourselves first as the shepherds and then as wise men. Two groups of people approaching and becoming aware of the person of Jesus through totally different routes - sudden revelation, versus slow intellectual journey. How do we see both at work within our own pilgrimages?

We then shared communion together. Sharing bread and wine is not a solitary experience; we come together, and in that togetherness we share our faith and our doubting. If faith feels like an uphill struggle we may find in the celebration of  God's feast a special solace, when all the words and the worries fall away and we are left with simple images of the love of God for us and between us. However, it may also provoke further anxieties: do I believe enough 'stuff'? Can I tick all the points of the creed? Am I worthy to receive, or am I letting the side down?

Our faith is personal, but it is also communal. In sharing bread and wine we demonstrate our connectedness. We become the face of Jesus for one another, sharing his life between us as we do. And in that act we celebrate the extraordinary love of this man who willingly gave his life, despite his sorrow and fear in Gethsemane; and despite his sense of loss and abandonment at Golgotha.

The Hesitant Eucharist

We approach
Quietly, softly, tiptoeing our way through familiar words

Or on our knees, fingers interlaced, knuckles white
Willing faith out from our tired hands.

We come, tripping over obstacles strewn in our way
Many of our making, some not:

Still we advance, inevitably, drawn
Towards the light that comprehends our darkness
But is not extinguished.

We open our mouths to speak: but what words
Would usher in your kingdom?
What words
Would excuse our meager offering,

Our comfortable grumblings?
Our pace slows
at this realization: that we have nothing to say,
nothing but the Nothing that throbs and aches
at our centre. We stop, and stand,
bowing our heads in frustration.

And you are there, waiting, as always:
The one who searches in the garden, whilst we
tried in vain to hide our naked forms.
The words that come are your words:
‘Why did you abandon me?’
and ‘take this suffering from me’…
We forgot, alone in grief, that the pain was first and foremost
yours to bear:
Yours to be alone, Yours to ache and grieve and mourn,
Yours the encounter with the Nothing that eats at human hearts.

You answered with hands that uncurled to be impaled
You approached with feet that bore the scars
You spoke the words of desolation

So now, we come.
Quietly, softly, tripping and stumbling; but we come,
Wanting to understand how the abandoned God
The God in human flesh, divorced from his sense of belonging
Desires to share with us his body and his blood.

TAW 2012