Breathe, the air is not too rare

Painting by Nicholas Roerich

I walked an odyssey to there
The mountains crisp sun crystal glare
High grass so sweet around my feet
The curious birds, the fox, the hare.

I came across an enormous sign
6000 metres from this line
My lungs they froze and fear arose
The air fell thin, I had no time.

I began to plan a quick descent
My courage gone, my heart all spent
I weaved and tripped and tumble skipped
My smile erased, my spine all bent.

Yet before I’d stepped too far from here
A wagtail fly-glanced my right ear
I stopped dead still, and listened ’til
Its message shone all bright and clear.

Before the sign I had no cares
Truth and love had laid me bare
There’s only one direction home.
Breathe, the air is not too rare.

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Waning vaccine immunity: the unprintable lead

The politics of immunity: part 2
The politics of immunity: part 1

The biggest story of the past six months in the world of CV-19 science is the declining protective properties of the vaccine, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the evening news.

I will never forget listening to a lecture by a psychologist who was talking about the challenges of adjusting our attitudes to adapt to new realities. He compared it to how the Apollo missions got to the moon. Nobody actually knew how to get to the moon because no one had ever been there before. All the scientists could do was to set a course for the moon and then correct it when it went wrong. Course. Correct. Course. Correct. Over and over again. That’s how we got to the moon. It is somewhat terrifying. All that unknown, all that uncertainty. But that is how we succeed in things as difficult as flying to moons; by remaining open and alert to newly emerging data. If we didn’t continue to correct our course — if we had simply stubbornly headed towards where we imagined the moon to be — we would never have made it.

Our covid policies are in danger of becoming like the rocket that has no hope of lading on the moon, and instead goes spiraling off into the void because the course was never corrected. We are becoming mired in ideologically-based rather than evidence-based positions which have less to do with controlling the virus and more to do with controlling ideas. The media is largely monolithic and seemingly incapable of creating space for any serious exchange of views. And as history has taught, when something becomes unsayable, it soon becomes something unthinkable. But we need to think, and hard. Because the decisions we make collectively from now on are going to affect the future of pretty much everyone on earth for generations to come.


Scientists don’t go around saying things like, ‘This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated’. Politicians do. All the way back in March of this year, experts were expressing skepticism that herd immunity against CV-19 could be achieved. This was not because of people not getting the vaccines, but because of the ability of the delta variant to outsmart the them. The vaccines cannot prevent transmission of the delta variant of SARS-Cov-2, nor can they stop vaccinated people becoming infected.

Since March, the highly transmissible delta variant has soared, from less than 5%, up 87% of US cases by the summer, up to almost 100%. The original Wuhan variant against which the vaccines were developed is no longer even detectable among the variants currently circulating in the United States. Whether you prefer to focus on the virility of the delta variant or the unreliability of the vaccines, it amounts to the same thing. The vaccines are less reliable because of delta, and delta is a problem because of its ability to bypass the vaccines.

The burden of the relative failure of the vaccines to protect vaccinated people from infection and others around them from getting infected by them has been almost magically transferred from the vaccine manufacturers to the unvaccinated. The fading dream of herd immunity is now the shame of those who didn’t get the vaccine, even though the primary reason is – as scientists continue to try to tell us — that vaccines have not been able to keep pace with the variants. A jab in every arm is a political goal, not a scientific one.

Most scientists seem to have no problem admitting when they are wrong. They don’t take it personally. They just go back to the drawing board and look for another approach. Politicians, on the other hand, prefer to move the goalposts rather than admit that the ball never actually made it into the back of the net. And so we saw the herd immunity threshold quietly go from 60-70% of the population functionally immune – either through the vaccine or through previous infection – to people losing their jobs, communities being torn apart, the bullying of concerned pregnant women, the immuno-compromised and complete disregard of the naturally immune, to achieve a shot in every arm. No questions asked.

When a population in crisis is offered a solution that doesn’t live up to expectations, people very soon look for someone to blame. And this is exactly what has happened with the CV-19 vaccines. Officials began targeting the unvaccinated rather than the inability of the vaccine technology to keep pace with viral mutations. For decades to come, social historians will be studying how the failures of a medical intervention was successfully blamed on those who didn’t take it. 


Perhaps the only dependable feature of the CV-19 pandemic is its continuously shifting nature. This creates an enormous challenge for the various organs of state to adjust systemic responses accordingly. In this environment of constant threat and constant change, new evidence struggles to find a foothold in the dominant narrative, which resists nuance or complexity for easy to digest one size fits all solutions.

Jet leg is when when our body clocks are operating on a former light/dark cycle than the one we find ourselves in after crossing several time zones. Data lag can be described as when our approach to a problem is based on information from a former scenario that has evolved, leaving us maladjusted to the new situation. This data lag has kept a great deal of the emerging science out of the mainstream news, even though much of it is hiding in plain sight — available on government agency websites.


The article published in Nature back in March has turned out to be prophetic in a number of ways. The general trends it pointed to have been gradually increasing over time. That herd immunity through vaccination is no longer possible is a view that is now widely held by scientists because of this single factor: the ability of the Delta variant to sidestep the vaccines so that the vaccinated can now become infected with the virus and transmit it to others. And yet our governments trudge on with draconian vaccine mandates that make little sense in light of what we now understand.

The most disturbing trend we are seeing is the declining efficacy of the vaccines against emerging variants and the increasing cases of covid among the vaccinated. This is happening particularly among the elderly – the very demographic prioritized for vaccination due to their significantly greater vulnerability to CV-19.

On the positive side, naturally acquired immunity from previous infection is proving to be far more robust and durable than previously thought. Another positive development is that we have improved our understanding of early-stage therapeutics for CV-19, even though there is woefully inadequate support for making these interventions available to patients.

We have to accept that things have not worked out the way we’d hoped and that 95% CV-19 vaccine efficacy is yesterday’s news. There is now a new reality. Drink a glass of wine, don’t answer the phone, go for a long hike, whatever it takes to get your head around the headlines that we should be reading.

THE VACCINES ARE LOSING THEIR EFFICACY. Data out of Israel and the UK reveals that the vaccines are losing ground against the virus at an alarming rate. Although the booster shots are being lauded as the answer to this, it is an open question whether either the medical technology or the vaccine supply chains can manage to keep even one step ahead of novel mutations.

THE VACCINATED CAN TRANSMIT THE VIRUS. We have now learned that vaccinated people who become infected with Delta SARS-CoV-2 can carry as much virus in their nose as do unvaccinated people, and can just as easily spread it to others.

ALMOST THREE-QUARTERS OF COVID CASES AMONG THE ELDERLY ARE AMONG THE FULLY VACCINATED according to a US Department of Defense (DoD) study called ‘Project Salus’ that looked at 5.6 million recipients of the RNA vaccines among the over 65s.

COVID DEATHS ARE MULTIPLYING IN THE VACCINATED. Since March, the percentage of CV-19 deaths among the fully vaccinated in the US has increased by over 10% in only 4 months according to a leaked CDC report. More recent evidence from Israel now shows that vaccine protection continues to decline in the months following the jab. This is the reason for the campaigns for ‘booster’ shots, but it is still unclear how protective they will be in the long term.

It is now clear that that this is not a pandemic of the unvaccinated. The virus is very busy circulating among the vaccinated.

NATURALLY ACQUIRED IMMUNITY THROUGH PREVIOUS INFECTION IS ROBUST AND DURABLE. Herd immunity is gained in only two ways; either by catching the infection and surviving it, or through vaccination. Naturally acquired immunity has been practically ignored by the current US administration, even though there are to date 45 million covid-recovered Americans potentially immune to the virus who can play a crucial role in any CV-19 exit strategy.


Data lag is keeping us committed to strategies that were designed for a strain of the virus that is no longer among us. Statistics like 95% vaccine efficacy are yesterday’s news. Delta changed everything.

We have to accept that things have not worked out the way that many of us had hoped with the vaccines. Drink a glass of wine, go offline for a while, pack a tent for the mountains; whatever it takes to get your head and heart around this reality. Vaccines alone are not going to provide the solution. We have to think differently.

  • We need to consider CV-19 vaccines as part of a larger strategy.
  • We need to acknowledge the role of naturally acquired immunity and adjust public health policies  accordingly.
  • We need to invest in research and faster pathways for early-stage CV-19 treatments and preventions that include diet, lifestyle and therapeutics.

Broad scale public health policy affecting the lives of billions is being based on old data. The emerging evidence for waning vaccine immunity in light of delta requires us to update our thinking about both the problem and potential solutions and to go beyond the single solution scenario. Government officials and the media must allow this information to become part of the public discourse — so we can decide on our response measures accordingly.

If we can correct the course we are on, we might just stand a chance of reaching the moon. Maybe this moon is not a covid-free world, but it could well be a world where we are free to live our lives beyond the fear of covid. And that would be a world worth living in.

the politics of immunity: part 1

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The politics of immunity: Part 1


If you research naturally acquired immunity to SARS-CoV-2 you can’t help but be struck by a conspicuous disparity in how the subject is approached depending on who is talking about it. It is like two parallel universes that stubbornly maintain distinct and competing narratives. One universe is of science-based research. The other is the universe of public messaging. The two rarely cross except on occasion. When they do, for a short time, it seems like a light has been turned on somewhere, illuminating a fascinating and meaningful space, but that light then dims again as the universes re-divide and go their separate ways once more.

In the scientific universe, the evidence is considerable and mounting that natural immunity from previous infection is at least as good if not superior than the immunity provided by vaccines, even against variants of concern. But you wouldn’t know it by watching the news.

Dr. Marty Makary, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine elaborates [1]: “…here we are now, over a year and a half into the clinical experience of observing patients who were infected, and natural immunity is effective and going strong. And that’s because with natural immunity, the body develops antibodies to the entire surface of the virus, not just a spike protein constructed from a vaccine.”

Initially, there were concerns that natural immunity would quickly fade, but more and more studies are revealing this not to be the case. Vaccines, however, have shown serious reductions in efficacy [10] after only a couple of months and, by some reports, even as little as a couple of weeks. [11]

A primary reason that naturally acquired immunity is showing such durability is because a person exposed to SARS-CoV-2 was exposed to the entire virus is a view shared by Matthew Memoli, director of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases Clinical Studies at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) [2] While “vaccines are focused on only that tiny portion of immunity that can be induced” by the spike, he says. This broader exposure “would likely offer a broader based immunity” that is better at fighting off the variants.” 

Studies that indicate natural immunity plays a significant role occasionally make it into online reports of major news outlets but rarely make headlines. And yet their sheer number and consistency raise serious questions about our current health strategies. They suggest that the CV19 recovered have little to gain from vaccination, and possibly some things to lose.[3]

The emerging science supports the prioritization of vaccination for those who have not yet developed an immune response, particularly in less developed countries that are struggling to make their vaccination targets. Perhaps most of all, they suggest that the covid-recovered have an important role to play in our long-term efforts to keep the virus at bay in the wider community. Ultimately, they reveal that the policy of a “shot in every arm” is not based on the current science.[4]


When we do hear about natural immunity outside of the research field, the language is largely shaded in political tones. Who is talking about it and the nature of their political affiliations is given more weight than the evidence itself. This was not always the case. At the start of the pandemic, even in the US, public officials recognized the potential role of natural immunity. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to the President, was also in broad agreement. [5]

So what changed? In the scientific universe – nothing. The research continued and the studies kept coming, although it mostly remained shared between peers. But in the public space, radically dualistic politics began to divide people – and issues — into separate camps with their own armies of followers and their own credo. Group A was suspicious of government, medical agencies, and Big Pharma, they questioned certain public safety measures such as lockdowns, and was generally more afraid of the erosion of public liberty than the virus. Group B exhibited a high level of institutional trust, was willing to participate as a civic duty in all the health measures advised, and was generally more afraid of the virus than loss of civil liberties. In reality, these groups do not fall along sharply Republican and Democrat lines, and there are many sub-groups with less easily broad-brushed positions, but the media had little patience with such distinctions.

In this polarized space, while Republican politicians such as Kentucky senator and physician Rand Paul began to advocate for natural immunity in opposition to the government’s approach to the health crisis, Democrats recoiled from such associations practically by default. They became even more antagonistic when last October President Trump, never one to miss a bandwagon, tweeted that he was now “immune” to CV-19 (flagged by Twitter as “misleading and potentially harmful information”).

That same month saw the circulation of the Great Barrington declaration [6], which argued for replacing blanket lockdowns with measures to help protect the most vulnerable and build herd immunity through exposing the people least at risk. The declaration became a lightening rod for the debate on public health policy. Critics began referring to this strategy as “let it rip”, and natural immunity received another public shaming. If natural immunity had been a celebrity, its publicists would be starting to ignore their calls.

People began using language in entirely different ways. You had scientists using the term ‘herd immunity’ in a very positive sense, to mean the only way we would ever get ahead of the virus – either through vaccination or natural infection, and most likely a combination of the two. But in the public space, the term ‘herd immunity’ became saturated with a kind of recklessness or at least a contrarian position to lockdowns and mass vaccinations. While experts continued to calmly repeat to anyone who would listen that broad scale immunity to the virus was the only way to ultimately defeat it, politicians began to use this kind of language less and less. The UK government did a complete 180 after negative public reaction to the herd immunity concept back in March 2020, so much so that few can even remember it.


It was after the vaccine rollout that natural immunity was more or less cancelled in the public universe. Medical institutions went to the extreme of referring to natural immunity as a “myth”.[7]

By May 2021, Fauci had changed his tune, and was now rhapsodizing that CV-19 vaccines were “better than nature.” [8] He was basing this assessment on studies that show increased antibody levels from previous infection plus vaccination, not vaccination or previous infection alone.

As time went on, and the vaccination program herd immunity, natural immunity, all began to smell suspiciously like the same thing; anti-vaxxers. Even though the mass vaccination programs are aimed at exactly the same target—herd immunity, it was as if herd immunity and vaccine immunity became two competing products like Pepsi and Coca Cola, and then one day Coca Cola mysteriously disappears from all the stores and everyone suddenly is acting as if only Pepsi had existed all along. Coca what?

Some observers began to accuse officials and the media of trying to ‘memory hole’ natural immunity. This is a reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, where a small chute that led to an incinerator was used to disappear information deemed embarrassing, inconvenient or subversive to the State. Since naturally acquired immunity to CV-19 was deemed an obstacle to universal vaccination mandates, officials chose to side-stepping the topic and the media chose to either ignore the evidence around it or to disparage those who tried to bring that evidence to public attention.

Even before Delta began circulating in the United States in March this year, studies were demonstrating how memory B cells and memory T cells form in response to CV-19 infection and how the adaptive immune system was producing antibodies perfectly capable of taking on the variants. A number of experts openly questioned why this wasn’t being taken into account in terms of government vaccine mandates. Freelance journalist, Jennifer Block, wrote an article that was published September 13 in the British Medical Journal called, Vaccinating People who have had covid-19: Why doesn’t natural immunity count in the US? The article is notable for its scope and international perspective, being one of the first and most comprehensive overviews of the studies and discussion of the topic. Block reports on experts who are questioning the science and ethics of treating the recovered as being ‘equally vulnerable to the virus—or as equally threatening to those vulnerable to covid-19—and to what extent politics has played a role.’ [9]

Many of us were saying let’s use [the vaccine] to save lives, not to vaccinate people already immune,” Marty Makary, a professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins University told the British Medical Journal (BMJ).


Some countries do acknowledge a window for the immune protected before vaccine recommendations. In Israel it is three months before one mRNA vaccine dose for the previously infected and a “green pass” (vaccine passport) to those with a positive serological results regardless of vaccination status. [12]

Within the European Union, people are eligible for the health pass if they’ve had a positive covid test within the past six months, which also allows for a single dose of an mRNA vaccine. [13] Although some Scandinavian countries appear set to repeal health pass requirements for everything except international flights. In the UK, the NHS (National Health Service) covid pass is valid if you have a positive PCR test result within the past six months. [14]


Block notes that not having a national health pass actually makes it harder for the US to factor naturally acquired immunity into its public health measures. Members of the medical community like Jeffrey Klausner, clinical professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California and former Center for Disease Control (CDC) medical officer, have been speaking out in favour of giving those with prior infection the “same social status” as those vaccinated. Various proposals have been made for how this could happen, yet at least some of the resistance to this idea is because of the additional logistical complications it creates in the implementation of universal health measures. [15] As Alfred Sommer, dean emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health bluntly puts it, “It’s a lot easier to just give them the damn vaccine.”

Some experts and medical professionals question if it is only an issue of logistics, however. As the BMJ article states; ‘a recognition of existing immunity would have fundamentally changed the target vaccination calculations and would also affect the calculations on boosters’.

“There’s a very clear message out there that ‘OK, well natural infection does cause immunity but it’s still better to get vaccinated,’ and that message is not based on data,” says Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at University of California San Francisco,. “There’s something political going on around that.”


There are literally dozens of studies to date on the role of natural immunity and CV-19 from several countries, but let’s look at a sample from Israel and the United States. Since it was such an early adopter of vaccines and orchestrated such a fast and broad scale distribution, Israel has always been a few months ahead of Europe and the Americas. Their past is in a very real sense our present, and their present is fast becoming our future. The Israeli studies have also been some of the most substantive, with scientists having access to a national database that contains the covid medical data of the entire population.


Israel has been lauded with having pulled off one of the fastest and most efficient CV-19 vaccine programs in the world. Their campaign began as early as last December. They had 20% of the country single jabbed in only three weeks, and by March they had the highest global per capita vaccination, with 50% of the population having received both doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer.

In April this year, a three-month long nationwide study concluded that the vaccine provides slightly less protection than naturally acquired immunity. The evidence showed protection from vaccination was encouragingly high, at 92.8%. Protection from prior SARS-COV-2 infection, however, was 2% higher, at 94.8%. The researchers said that these results ‘question the need to vaccinate previously-infected individuals.’ [16]

Although this study suggested that natural immunity was more effective than vaccine immunity, the vaccine was still showing a high deal of protective strength. That was until the summer of 21, when data from several countries began to reveal an alarming rate of decline in vaccine generated immunity. Something had changed the game, and its name was Delta. The virus had mutated and was increasingly able to evade the vaccines that had been developed to block the original Wuhan strain. Immunity from previous infection, however, was discovered to remain comparatively more stable.

On July 23, the Israeli Health Ministry reported that another large study had found that a full course of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, although 88% effective at preventing hospitalization, was only 40.5% effective at preventing symptomatic illness and only 39% effective at preventing infections. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was found to be 33% effective against the Delta variant. Put another way, the Pfizer vaccine failed to prevent symptomatic illness 61% of the time and the J&J failed 67% of the time in preventing symptomatic CV-19 illness.[17] This was a decrease in vaccine effectiveness by 25% in only a fortnight. [18]

Another Israeli study published in August demonstrated that people who had already contracted SARS-CoV-2 were much less likely to become infected with Delta, develop symptoms or being hospitalized compared to those never infected who had two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Individuals who were both previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 and given a single dose of the vaccine gained additional protection against the Delta variant.

Science Insider reported that this study reveals the ‘power of the human immune system’.  Charlotte Thålin, physician and immunology researcher at Stockholm’s Danderyd Hospital and the Karolinska Institute who studies the immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 called it, “a textbook example of how natural immunity is really better than vaccination.” [19]


One of the earliest studies into SARS-CoV-2 post-infection immunity was funded by The National Institutes of Health (NIH) from La Jolla Institute for Immunology [21]. It was the largest study at the time of all four major types of immune memory for viral infections: antibodies, memory B cells, and the two main types of memory T cells. It was published in January, right at the start of the national vaccination campaign.

Researchers discovered that ‘the immune systems of more than 95% of people who recovered from COVID-19 had durable memories of the virus up to eight months after infection.’ Although antibodies declined moderately after 8 months, memory B cells (the body’s antibody factories) actually increased over time. The researchers said that their results provided hope that the level of immunity developed by people who got the vaccines could be at least as good. An intriguing implication of this study was that antibody tests were not as predictive of T cell memory as previously thought and that ‘simple serological tests for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies do not reflect the richness and durability of immune memory to SARS-CoV-2’.[22]

Scientists like Monica Gandhi have been trying to divert reporters away from their single-minded focus on antibodies as the ‘defining measure’ of immunity since the evidence indicates that declining antibodies does not mean that the immune response has declined, just as a high presence of antibodies doesn’t guarantee protection. Antibody levels naturally decline after the body has successfully fought off a pathogen, but immune memory remains through other cellular mechanisms. “It is accurate that your antibodies will go down” after natural infection, says Gandhi. If they didn’t, “our blood would be thick as molasses.” It is the T and B cells that seem to hold the key to long-term immune memory.[23]

In May, researchers from Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, observed that people who have recovered from mild cases of CV-19 are likely to have immunity for their lifetime. Lead researcher, Ali Ellebedy said that the media had misintepreted the data relating to decline in antibodies post-infection.

“It’s normal for antibody levels to go down after acute infection, but they don’t go down to zero; they plateau. Here, we found antibody-producing cells in people 11 months after first symptoms. These cells will live and produce antibodies for the rest of people’s lives. That’s strong evidence for long-lasting immunity.” [24]


The summer of 2021 was notable for the extraordinary amount of research data and studies published on how the natural immune system responds to CV-19 infection. It was also when New York Times and The Washington Post both broke the story on a leaked Center for Disease Control (CDC) report [20] that had been presented on July 29th by Meredith McMorrow, the co-lead of the Vaccine Effectiveness Team Representing the EPI Task Force (expanded programme on immunization). The report contained some startling conclusions based on emerging evidence on the impact of the delta variant, and urged US officials to “acknowledge the war had changed.” Two of these conclusions stood out from the rest.

*Breakthrough infections could be just as transmissible as unvaccinated cases. 

*There is no differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated people in terms of how much virus they harbour.

*Older vaccinated people are more at risk of hospitalization and death from CV-19than previously thought.

For reasons best known to itself, the New York Times ran a headline from the report’s least surprising (and least controversial) conclusion: that the Delta variant was more transmissible than chicken pox; a classic case of ‘burying the lead’ if ever there was one.

‘Individuals who have had SARS-COV-2 infection are unlikely to benefit from Covid-19 vaccination’ was the conclusion of a large study from Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, at the beginning of June. It showed significant protection among the those previously infected but unvaccinated against CV-19 infection. Not one of over 1300 unvaccinated employees who had been previously infected tested positive during the five months of the study.[24]

June also saw the publication of a study from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Maryland that concluded that “immunological memory is acquired in most individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2 and is sustained in a majority of patients for up to 11 months.”[25]

In July, a comprehensive study from Emory University found durable immunity in the covid-recovered as well as cross immunity with SARS-CoV-1. Antibody responses of those with pre-infection were seen to decay at a slower rate than previously thought and the immune response actually increased with the severity of the disease as well as with each decade of age. Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed, a lead author on the paper said that these results suggest that “patients are generating longer-lived plasma cells that can neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.” [26]

On August 13, Science published a study suggesting that people who had contracted and recovered from the original Wuhan virus produce antibodies that are also potent against the highly transmissible variants such as Delta and Lambda. This study, out of the Vaccine Research Center, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Maryland, showed that antibodies developed in response to currently available CV-19 vaccines had less efficiency in neutralizing novel variants of concern (VOCs). [27]

A study published August 16 in the journal Immunity, [28] concluded that natural immunity confers longer lasting and stronger protection against infection, symptomatic disease and hospitalization caused by the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, compared to vaccine-induced immunity.[29]

There are many, many other studies from dozens of countries; far too many to mention here.

The ability of the immune system to adapt, learn, remember, and mount complex defenses and offensives against its attackers is a remarkable fact of biology. It is an extraordinary and dangerous hubris to suggest that our intellects are any match for its millions of years of evolutionary wisdom. Our bodies have developed immunity against numerous pathogens in the past such as measles, and those far more dangerous than SARS-CoV-2 such as smallpox with a whopping 30% infection mortality rate. We have developed natural immunity against SARS-CoV-1, SARS- CoV-2, and we will undoubtedly develop it against the next pathogen down the line. The human immune system does not give up its secrets easily. For all its terrible costs, CV-19 has presented scientists with a new opportunity to probe more of them.

Just as the virus is evolving, we also need to evolve as we enter the endemic phase of the virus. We need to evolve our ways of thinking about the problem we face, and how we can best come together and unite our strengths and capabilities. Immune responses have been found to be highly individual. Just as individual are how people respond to Covid, and also to the vaccines developed to protect us from it. Immunity testing will also need to develop far beyond simple calculations of antibody titers.

Complexity and public health policy are like oil and water, but it is perhaps time to begin to seriously consider imagining measures that are more targeted than the one size fits all versions that most countries have been applying to combat the virus.

We also need to change our language. And this might be the hardest of all to do. We have got used to mantras like ‘a pandemic of the unvaccinated.’ The science is showing us that talk of the vaccinated and the unvaccinated makes little sense in the context of immunity. “If we want to be scientific,” says Dr. Mart Makary, “we should talk about the immune and the non-immune.” Or perhaps ‘the naturally protected, the vaccine unprotected and the unprotected.’

But the change that will make the most difference of all is the end of the segregation of scientific and public discourse on matters that our governments find problematic. Scientists are not generally experienced in public policy and admittedly are short on answers in this domain, but denying the evidence in order to make the policy go down easier with the general public is not the way forward. It only creates more distrust of the very institutions that are asking people to put the health and lives of themselves and their loved ones so firmly in their hands.































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The power of the little “no”

It is understandable to me how some people see it as being by design. All part of some grand and grandiose plan for mankind. Conspiracy theorists, they’re labeled. They must, of course, be wrong in a very big way. They must be seriously unhinged. Whatever they are, it seems to be important that they are not at all like us–the hinged.

I’ve always had a wide window of tolerance for the un-hinged. They don’t scare me one bit. Sometimes they make more sense than the sensible and I’ve heard notes of truth struck even in the mad ramblings of obvious lunatics (and here, I don’t refer only to politicians). It seems to me it used to be easier to distinguish between the hinged and the unhinged. It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference, isn’t it? In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve got a lot of things not only a wee bit wrong, but completely ass-backwards. Obvious truths seem, well, less obvious than they used to. It’s like the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland is now in charge of reality. “Whoooooo are yoooooooo???” This is fine on a personal level (what some would call ‘spiritual’) and even on an intra-personal one. But on a societal level it gets really, really weird. It’s like quantum physics is now strolling down the local high street bold as brass. Welcome to the upside down.

I look around me at what the world has become in a little under two years. Two revolutions of this bright marble around the sun and our way of life is becoming increasingly unrecognizable to me. I don’t know if it is by design or simply human nature. It is perhaps more likely to be an intersection of the two – a kind of crisis opportunism. History teaches us that this doesn’t bode well.

Like farmers who must learn to observe the signs of a storm, to read the wind in falling leaves, to detect the scent of earth that signals coming rain, there are those of us who read the patterns and signs of change in the fields of human behaviour with the same level of attention. But it should be obvious by now, to anyone with even just one squinty eye on the horizon that some very bad weather is on its way.

Navigating the pandemic itself has been hard enough. The virus has destroyed millions of lives and disrupted millions of others. It has not only killed, it has also bereaved and disabled. Naturally, we have done what we can to protect ourselves. Some might argue we went too far. The more radical steps that societies have taken to protect themselves from this threat have caused as yet untold losses. We may never know the extent of these, even in relatively quantifiable metrics such as physical and mental health, education and jobs. There is a loss much, much harder to quantify but one which is felt just as keenly – that is the loss of the Future. The Death of Dreams.

We now seem to be in a place where the future is a dark veil – too heavy for any of us to lift. No one makes plans any more. We are trapped in a turgid dystopian present. There is now no doubt in my mind that either by design or opportunism, a concentration of mutually aligned powers are attempting to take over our lives in ways that have already become untenable to enough of us that can actually make a difference.

When even one single person says “no” to a wrong with the full spirit of intention, it becomes more than a word – it becomes a verb that can rally to action, to agit as the French say, to agitate. When enough people say “no” with the full spirit of intention, the effect of this collective agitation becomes more than this still – it becomes a prophecy fulfilled.

I can’t speak for all our motivations, but for myself I do it always with you in mind — the Next — because you do not deserve the sad, timid, grey-haired world we are in danger of leaving behind us. You do not deserve to have liberty and democracy written out of your will just because we were too distracted or self-centred or complacent or blind or just too damn comfortable to do what we should have to preserve it. We acted like inheritors when we should have been guardians.

Our grandparents have carried the burden of freedom for too long now. It’s our turn – this will be the revolution of the middle-aged, inspired by the warriors of old, with the watchful eyes of the young and unborn as our talismans. Because the sacrifices we’ve been sold to keep each other safe from the virus is not the one that is calling us in our hearts.

The sacrifices presented to us from the brittle mouths of politicians and corporate agency managers threaten to squeeze us into smaller and smaller spaces where personal agency becomes so truncated as to be rendered meaningless. The only measure of freedom in the space left to us is as a consumer. It comes down to the freedom to choose the brands, colours and styles of the stuff with which we fill our living space and decorate our bodies. Like our other ‘freedoms’ such as the freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the freedom to vote, it pretends to a level of choice that in reality is unavailable. Life has become like a game where every choice you make leads to the same result but if you don’t play it you can’t survive. In politics, the margin of difference between parties is exaggerated beyond all actuality by voices that call out “traitor” to those who refuse to buy into the sham and “conspiracy theorist” to those who suggest that the game exists at all.

We are still in the process of handing over the wheel to people who do not have our interests at heart. The measures of control that are being sold to us in the name of public health may make us feel safer from the virus, but the damage to individuals and to society at large will be far, far deadlier. It will lead us to an ever darker, dystopian more heartless world. Social austerity measures like health passports may be packaged in morale boosting mottos that smack of civic duty, but we – the farmers of the Future, know that they come from a place of No Soul. Either by design or opportunism, it is clear to me know after almost two years that what we are seeing is nothing less than the hijacking of the Future by networks of interests led by soulless narcissists who think they have the right and the ability to run the show, when they have neither.

The real sacrifice, the one we are being called to bear from the voices of the next generation, will demand a lot more courage and honesty than we might be willing for. I am not ashamed to say that I myself am very, very afraid. But I am even more afraid of what will happen if we let the Liars, Narcissists and Manipulators win. I don’t want to go to my grave ashamed that I lived through this time and did nothing except shout at the television. That I didn’t say my little “no.” Whether I fail or not is almost irrelevant to me. What is required to go to my grave at peace is only a meaningful effort. Meaningful in the sense that it comes from the heart. It may or may not make a difference out there, but it makes a difference in here.

Make no mistake about it. You have been deceived. This is not a political fight. It is not a struggle between the Right and the Left or between the individual and the collective. It is a struggle between those who seek freedom and those who seek to control. Right wing dictatorships and left-wing dictatorships are being challenged alike in this global struggle against authoritarianism. We need to counter it uniquely as individuals as well as collectively in whatever group structures support the resistance so long as they respect the Golden Rule. If those structures are not to be found, we must create new ones.

Last night I sat up late and shared a bottle of wine with a stranger. Something about the encounter made me feel like I was 18 again. We discovered that we had an unusual amount of commonalities between us. Details of our personal lives overlapped in remarkable ways. She even had a faulty light fixture in the entrance way of her house just like me. It was like meeting myself in a parallel universe. We talked excitedly about our common love of traveling, of exploring other lands and cultures. We spoke of our youth with fondness and appreciation, of a world that now seems less like another time than another planet. We had both journeyed to the near east while still in our teens, and with our parents blessing. I left for a whole year with my boyfriend who was four years older. (For the record, I’d be reluctant to let you go now if you were mine. Or if I did it would be under strict guidelines.) This was 1981, before the Internet, before laptops and mobile phones. We communicated by letter through the Poste Restante, an international mailing system. Each letter took two weeks to arrive if we were lucky. Some letters we never received because we had already moved on, by boat, train of plane to another country. I think I spoke to my mother once in that whole year. I remember busting over with excitement about all my experiences and telling her (with the remarkable certitude of youth) how I planned to do this for the rest of my life. I remember her saying to me, “Enjoy it now.”

We slept in building sites, rose with the sun and walked crazy miles with heavy metal-framed backpacks eating nothing but halva and cheese and sandwiches. We played backgammon in tiny curtain-doored cafes in countless middle of nowheres across Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt. We broke bread with strangers every day, we listened to them complain about their neighbours across the border that seemed to dress and eat and speak a lot like them. We learned that old disputes get ground into the bones of each new generation and replayed like old records, but that although we prefer to talk about our differences people are mostly the same. I didn’t know at the time that thoughts like these would be considered a kind of political heresy in only a few decades. It was a year of learning and adventure. Our futures spanned out before us like peacock tails, into fractal horizons encoded with iridescent possibilities. What does the future feel like to you, I wonder?

At the beginning of the pandemic, in Spring of 2020, I was like everyone else. Can you cast your mind back there? Can you recall the sense of camaraderie, of facing something down together? The first lockdown was treated as something of an adventure for those of us who could afford to embark on it. Gardens bloomed like never before, people rediscovered lost talents or found new ones. We used humour to ease the loneliness and uncertainty, and the challenges felt tolerable, even enlivening. We watched – some with wonder and others perhaps with a touch of unease – how quickly the natural world moved back into the gaps that humans left as we retreated back into our caves, how the footfall of humans was replaced by paws and hoofs, how the cessation of our frenetic comings and goings created pools of tranquility. This was the best part. Perhaps some of us thought it was all there was too it and we would all bounce back after a season knowing how to cook flan or play Moonlight Sonata on the piano or cultivate an orchid for the first time in our lives. We checked up on one another, we asked “How are you?” We provided services for free. We offered to help. How far away that all seems now. And how I miss it. That kinship. That optimism. It was the shining best of us.

The change in the dynamics of social behaviour during this pandemic has been dramatic and will likely fascinate social historians for decades to come. We’ve gone from checking in with one another to checking up on one another. Requisitioned for the panopticon, we watch and monitor each other for signs of non-compliance. With what, we’re not exactly sure, but it has something to do with being on the ‘right’ side with being a ‘good’ person. This view is never questioned and is reinforced constantly by all the major information networks. Righteous indignation towards those who see things differently has become the hallmark of what it means to be a good citizen.

How did we get from there to here? From mutual support to mutual withdrawal, from conviviality to suspicion, from common ground to an aching chasm. Bonding to division. I am not sure how history will record this period, but I suspect we will not receive a glowing report. If you were my child, we would talk about it together. We’d find things to laugh about and perhaps to also cry. We’d create our own conspiracy, our own tiny theory of things. We’d find a way to say “no” together. Instead I find myself writing this blog like a letter to a Poste Restante of the Future. The future YES that has been sewn together from the wriggling awkwardness of all those little NOs.

All I can do is to be a witness; to tell you the story as and how I saw and lived it. Me and some of my friends. Like all good stories, it involves some darkness, and it is certainly a warning of sorts. But it is also a peek into the possible. If it describes the building of a prison, it does so from the point of view of the inmates. Not the ones who make deals with the guards for extra portions of gruel or rearrange the furniture in their cells, but the ones who keep their wits sharpened and spirits lifted with plans for escape. It is the shaking off of shackles of dualism. The empty dictates of black and white thinking. It is a story of non-duality, of Indra’s Net made manifest in the socio-political sphere. It is the rising of the best of us again, individually and united.

We started with the common sense that “something ain’t right”, but we now have something that could be called a map–scruffy and wildly inaccurate no doubt, but it provides clues and markers; a notch in a tree trunk here, a ring of toadstools there, for a possible way through, to pierce the dark veil of the Future that hangs like a sombre hopeless fog over our heads, and let in a pin prick of light. It is not much but it is perhaps enough to see one step in front. And this might all we need to feel our way to the Truth. And in the face of the Big Lie, it might give us just enough courage to say our little “no”.

Posted in epoche | 5 Comments

The blind men and Ivermectin: medical politics in the time of Covid

When you mix politics and science, you get politics.” John M. Barry

When stories become deeply divisive it is a good time to ask some deeper questions. So here’s one: what is up with Ivermectin? Why has a decades old Nobel prize winning drug become a flashpoint in political divisions around pandemic policy, and who has most to gain or lose from its rise or fall in the Covid medical landscape?

Like in the parable of the blind men and the elephant who became convinced that the elephant was in fact a tree if they only felt its legs, a snake if they felt only its trunk, or a rope if they felt only its tail, Ivermectin is a completely different character depending on what part of the story you approach it from. It is a hero for anti-vaccine activists and a bête noire for those who rail against them. For thousands of doctors and researchers it is an effective workhorse in the fight against the pandemic, while for international medical agencies, politicians, Big Tech and most of the media, it is persona non grata. Ivermectin is a saint for the patients it has helped to cure. An outright nuisance for Big Pharma. The question is, in this story, who are the blind and who are the sighted? And is it even possible to see beyond the parts to the whole elephant?

If absolute truths are becoming harder to find in this world, it surely must be possible to wrangle a closer proximate out of the evidence than in the emotional octane bully pits on social media platforms and in what passes for debate in much of the mainstream media. For those who would rather simplify the Ivermectin debate to a tug of war between the political right and left, things become true or false depending on who is saying it is so and who is saying it is not. It is less important what is said than who is saying it. If you don’t like the politics of the person saying it then it must be false. This is truth as advocacy, not truth as reality. It reduces all debate to posturing. Evidence, if considered at all, is picked over for morsels that feed a preset agenda.

The results of a single study are treated as an adequate basis for evidence. The negative bias around Ivermectin in the press is now so extreme that to say anything about it other than to denounce this “horse drug” is to risk becoming marked with the rather tired out label of “right wing conspiracy theorist”. This is a balance that needs to be addressed, not by responding to hatchet jobs with uncritical “miracle drug” advocacy, but by making a sincere attempt to see a bit more of the elephant in the room.

This story from the LA Times is fairly typical of the tone around the subject. The author clearly intends for the reader to conclude that Ivermectin as a Covid treatment should be tossed onto the rubbish heap of medical theories on the basis of a single medical trial. What he fails to mention, however, is that the Together COVID-19 Trial from which he quotes was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With its high level of interest and financial investment in Covid 19 vaccine companies, this would seem like a serious conflict of interest. In withholding such information, journalists are denying their readers the right to make up their own minds–to be exposed to more than just the leg or tail of the elephant and to decide for themselves what kind of animal they’re dealing with.

If we shift our focus from the United States to the rest of the world, the debate around Ivermectin as a Covid treatment becomes a very different one. It involves doctors, scientists, researchers and public health professionals, many of whom swing not the right, but to the left. It is also, at times, a battleground between stakeholders; Big Pharma and powerful health agencies on the one hand and doctors and patients on the other, often in the world’s poorest countries.

At its best, the debate around the role of Ivermectin in the pandemic goes to the heart of questions around the ethics of medical commerce, the right of doctors to treat their patients as they see fit, and the political and financial power dynamics in the global pandemic response.

What we discover when we take the time to ask the right questions is that the Ivermectin story in the time of Covid is not so much a conflict between the political left and right, but a conflict between interests that are driving the response mechanisms to the crisis. This conflict has been exacerbated by a dearth of investment and research in Covid therapeutics that actually treat the illness and the single minded focus on vaccines as the sole path to safety. In the United States, these responses have found their cheerleaders–either accidentally or intentionally–within two distinct political camps that assert arguments around “good” vs. “bad” science (or even science and anti-science) and civil responsibility vs. individual rights. This has resulted in people reduced to caricatures; of the sane, reasonable and compassionate people versus the insane, unreasonable and selfish. This has all given the impression that the different views in how we should respond to the pandemic are fundamentally political in nature, but are they? Could it be that there are other forces at work, with other interests, who might actually be quietly profiting from these divisions?


Ivermectin (also sold under the names Stromectol and Mectizan) is a drug that was developed by the American pharmaceutical giant Merck. It was first used as an anti-parasitic in veterinary medicine,but has been used for almost fifty years to treat a number of conditions in humans, primarily water-borne parasitic illnesses. Ivermectin is on the WHO’s authoritative List of Essential Medicines. It it has a long safety record, and is described in the scientific literature as “astonishingly safe for human use”. The drug was found to have extraordinary efficacy against river blindness (onchocherciasis), a nightmarish disease caused by the larvae of a parasite carried by blackflies that has maimed millions of people in the developing world. Ivermectin has been so successful in helping to eradicate river blindness that its discoverers won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2015. From 1987, former Merck CEO, Roy Vargelos, was inspired to donate billions of doses of the drug for free in collaboration with the World Health Organization.


In June 2020, Ivermectin was shown to have potent anti-viral properties against SARS-COV-2 in the lab. Scientists called for more studies to explore the potential to repurpose this widely available drug that already had approval from all major health bodies to treat Covid19. In December, intrigued by the in vitro study, scientists noted that certain African countries had a low frequency of cases and deaths from the SARS-CoV-2 COVID-19 compared to others. When they delved deeper, they found that Covid patients in countries where Ivermectin had been used as part of the WHO-sponsored African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), had a significantly lower chance of dying than in African countries that had not been part of the APOC protocol. The researchers suggested that a mass public health preventive campaign against COVID-19 may have “inadvertently” taken place, and again called for additional studies.

The additional studies came thick and fast. To date, there have been 104 of them examining the action of Ivermectin as either a preventative or treatment for Covid-19. Of these studies, 64 have been peer-reviewed and 60 have been control studies–that is studies that compare treatment with control groups, the gold standard of scientific research. Not all of these studies found efficacy for Ivermectin against Covid, but a significant number of them did.

The Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC) led by Professor Paul E. Marik was founded in early 2020 with the mission of providing a continuous review of the emerging science and clinical data on treatment protocols for COVID-19. The group conducted a meta-analysis of Ivermectin interventions in the American Journal of Therapeutics the results of which were peer-reviewed and published in April 2021. The analysis included 18 randomized controlled treatment trials, controlled prophylaxis trials, and distribution campaigns that had been conducted up until January.

The researchers found that Ivermectin was effective “in all phases of Covid”, that treatment led to “statistically significant reductions in mortality, time to clinical recovery, and time to viral clearance” as well as significantly reducing the risk of contracting the virus. In their conclusions they suggest that Ivermectin “may prove to be a global solution to the pandemic.” Another meta-analysis of the evidence was published in June 2020 out of the UK. Bryant-Lawrie et al. concluded with “moderate certainty” that “large reductions in COVID-19 deaths are possible using Ivermectin”. Moderate certainty might not sound so convincing, but as clinical care physician Dr. Pierre Kory of the FLCCC points out, corticosteroids are also graded only with “moderate certainty” in their efficacy against the coronavirus even though they are currently the standard of care for Covid patients.

At the end of June this year, another meta-analysis by Roman et al. published in Oxford University Press for the Infections Diseases Society of America found against efficacy of Ivermectin in treatment of either early or late stage Covid. This was followed by an Open letter signed by 40 physicians detailing errors and flaws in the Roman et al. meta-analysis, as well as conflict-of-interest concerns and requesting a retraction.

In the first week of July 2021, Andrew Hill, a senior research fellow at Liverpool University doing research on Ivermectin for Unitaid, had a preprint of his own meta-analysis published in the Oxford Academic Open Forum Infectious Disease Journal. His analyses of the evidence showed that Ivermectin reduced deaths from Covid-19 as well as hospitalizations and significantly improved medical outcomes. The Youtube presentation of his results was removed and re-uploaded and removed again like a game of whackamole.

Critics continue to point to lack of quality peer-reviewed double blind control studies of Covid-treatment and Ivermectin, and questions over research quality and meta-analyses conclusions continue to dog those who have become convinced of its critical role in the war against the virus.


Some of the most compelling evidence for Ivermectin as a useful Covid treatment comes not from randomized control trials but from mass public health campaigns, particularly those that have been conducted in India, Mexico and South America. The campaign in Chiapas, Mexico, that rolled out in July 2021 appeared to have drastically reduced more serious forms of the illness.

On June 10, the Spanish-speaking media began reporting on the success that Peru was having in controlling the virus using Ivermectin. At that time, Mexico was in the middle of its worst peak with records breaking daily, and interest in Ivermectin rose dramatically. On June 20, the pan-American WHO (OPS/OMS) issued a statement strongly opposing the use of Ivermectin to treat Covid. Nefvertheless, Mexican health authorities decided to move ahead with with a distribution protocol for out patients that included Ivermectin.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Mexican health authorities chose to ignore the WHO advisory was their experience with the awful disabling impact of the parasitic disease onchocherciasis, known as river blindness. In 2015, the same year that the developers of Ivermectin won the Nobel Prize, the WHO declared this disease to have been completely eradicated in Mexico. One of the states hardest hit by river blindness had been Chiapas, which was where the Covid Ivermectin campaign was carried out. Many Mexicans in Chiapas must have had friends and relatives who had been affected by river blindness and probably felt a level of trust towards the drug that had cured it.

Relatively small doses of Ivermectin were distributed as part of a multi-drug treatment protocol for Covid positive patients suffering mild to moderate symptoms. The aim was to reduce hospitalization since the hospitals were completely overwhelmed by critical Covid cases. The campaign was substantial. In one month alone, 83,000 medical kits were distributed. The program was found to offer protection against the disease between 50 and 76%. By the end of the program Covid deaths in Chiapas had reduced dramatically while the deaths in the rest of the country had risen. A Peruvian study published January 2021 had similar findings. Ivermectin was also shown to reduce viral load, and hence the transmissibility of the disease.

Along with successfully treating Covid patients with mild to moderate symptoms, Ivermectin was also discovered to help prevent people from contracting Covid in the first place. Uttar Pradesh was the first state in India to introduce a large-scale prophylactic as well as therapeutic use of Ivermectin. It began in early summer 2020 in Agra, where Ivermectin was given to all emergency health workers in the district. None of them developed Covid-19 despite being in regular contact with Covid positive patients. Based on the findings from Agra, the state government sanctioned the use of Ivermectin as a prophylactic for all the contacts of Covid patients and later extended its use to therapeutic doses for treatment. Whatever the cause, death and infection rates in UP plummeted compared to other Indian states. Between September and October, the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) ran a study that found that only two doses of Ivermectin resulted in a 73% reduction in Covid-19 infection among their healthcare workers.


Despite the growing evidence of Ivermectin’s usefulness in the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, Merck took pains to distance themselves from their own Nobel prize-winning “wonder drug”.

In February 2021, Merck put out a strong statement on Ivermectin use during the Covid-19 pandemic. Claiming that their scientists “continue to carefully examine the findings of all available and emerging studies of Ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19 for evidence of efficacy and safety” they concluded that they had found “no meaningful evidence for clinical activity or clinical efficacy in patients with COVID-19 disease”. They concluded that: “We do not believe that the data available support the safety and efficacy of Ivermectin beyond the doses and populations indicated in the regulatory agency-approved prescribing information.”

Even though since this date, dozens of studies and real-world distribution programs have resulted in data that suggests otherwise, Merck has remained intransigent in their position.

Curiously, the only Ivermectin/Covid study published in JAMA, arguably the most prestigious medical journal in the world, concluded that the drug was ineffective against patients with mild to moderate to symptoms. This was the March 2021 López-Medina study out of Columbia. Because of its prestigious appearance in JAMA, this study was naturally given widespread media coverage. But one detail stands out. At the bottom of any published study the researchers must mention any conflicts of interest. And this study had them in spades.

The lead researcher in the study, Dr López-Medina, reported receiving grants from Sanofi Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline, and Janssen as well as personal fees from Sanofi Pasteur during the conduct of the study. Another key researcher reported receiving grants from Janssen and personal fees from Merck Sharp & Dohme and Gilead Sciences. All of these actors have something to gain from a study that disproves the effectiveness of Ivermectin.

Janssen (owned by Johnson & Johnson) is, of course, the developer of one of the top vaccines against SARS-COV-2. Merck, has vested interests in side-lining Ivermectin in order to promote their new therapeutic, Molnupiravir, which we will learn more about later. Gilead Sciences is responsible for Remdesivir which (remarkably since even the WHO says it doesn’t work) is the only Covid drug with FDA approval. Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline are currently in collaboration to develop a whole new generation of multi-valent mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. How the fact that the Columbia study was funded by the very same entities that had some serious stakes in keeping Ivermectin out of the picture somehow slipped the attention of the journalists at the New York Times is anyone’s guess.

Even more perplexing was that in spite of the mounting evidence that Ivermectin was a potentially powerful tool in combating the pandemic, in spite of its long safety record, its widespread availability and affordability, none of the world’s major medical bodies – neither the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), European Medicines Agency (EMA), nor the National institute of Health (NIH – authorize even its emergency use as part of Covid treatment protocol. Not even for patients fighting for their lives in the ICU.

In January 2021, the US National Institute of Health shifted their position on Ivermectin. They stopped short of recommending for its use but ceased to recommend against it stating “there are insufficient data to recommend either for or against the use of Ivermectin for the treatment of COVID-19. Results from adequately powered, well-designed, and well-conducted clinical trials are needed to provide more specific, evidence-based guidance.” The UK’s COVID-19 Therapeutics Advisory Panel—an independent panel of experts that recommends what treatments should be proposed for testing through the various UK platform trials—expressed the same opinion. The response was always, “more trials, more trials, more trials”.

In richer countries the media became increasingly anti-Ivermectin, associating it with the right-wing fringe. Meanwhile, doctors and health care professionals in the developing world were claiming Ivermectin as possibly the best available drug at preventing and treating the disease. It was like two parallel universes.

Even the most ardent critics of Ivermectin—at least the honest ones—do not claim that Ivermectin doesn’t work against Covid, only that the evidence is methodologically limited. But here’s the Catch 22. To build a strong body of evidence for any intervention requires double blind controlled studies but these are expensive and require substantial resources and organization to run. Medical agencies such as the WHO are perfectly set up to fund such clinical trials. Indeed, WHO set up their own Solidarity Trials for the very purpose of exploring potential Covid treatments.

WHO has granted Ivermectin use only within controlled trials and yet bizarrely refuses to include Ivermectin in the clinical trials that the agency itself conducts.

For many scientists and researchers reviewing the evidence and for doctors working on the front line of the disease, the situation was incomprehensible. Even if Ivermectin wasn’t as efficacious against Covid as some of the studies indicated, they argued, any efficacy was better than nothing. Since there were literally no drugs approved to treat Covid apart from the ineffective and whoppingly expensive Remdesivir, what was the harm in including Ivermectin in treatment protocols when lives were at stake? Dr. Tess Lawrie, the lead researcher on the UK Ivermectin meta-analysis, who consults for the WHO and NHS to support clinical practice guidelines, went as far as to make a plea on Youtube for the public to inform themselves about Ivermectin.

Our evidence shows that Ivermectin is effective, safe and very cheap. We should be using it for both prevention and treatment of Covid. However, governments and health organizations are ignoring the evidence – and there’s a mountain of it – and I think this is because they are heavily invested in novel treatments. So I’m asking you please, take responsibility for your health, educate yourselves and inform your friends and family and most of all speak to your doctors. Help us spread the word, help us save lives. Thank you.”


Dr. Lawrie hints at the answer to this question in her video appeal when she says that health organizations are “heavily invested in novel treatments.” The small percentage of biopharmaceutical firms involved in the search for COVID-19 treatments (as opposed to vaccine development) raises the question of whether such firms may have insufficient incentives to redirect innovation efforts to respond to the pandemic. There are even less incentives to explore the potential use of repurposed therapeutics—that is, drugs already circulating in the healthcare market with tested safety records.

Firstly, getting funding and interest for trials for pre-existing drugs is not as easy as for novel ones. Discovering and developing new molecules has more cachet than re-purposing a common generic, but the main reason for the challenge in funding studies is that discovering new uses for older drugs is simply not as profitable. New drug molecules can be patented, meaning that companies can control the sale and receive all profits from their creation. Once patents expire, other companies are allowed to manufacture and sell the same generic drug, which drives down the price. Ivermectin was launched in 1981 and Merck’s patent on it expired in 1996, though it was extended for different periods in various countries. Today, generic forms of Ivermectin are widely commercially available.

Simply put, Ivermectin is not going to make anyone rich. A single dose of the drug is $2.64 compared to $520 for a single dose Remdesivir. It costs more to put Ivermectin into tables than it does to produce the drug itself.

Tocilizumab, one of only three WHO recommended drugs so far for the treatment of Covid is produced by the Swiss company Roche. Even though this drug—sold under the name Actemra —has actually been on the market since 2009, Roche has kept the price so high that it remains out of reach for most, with price tags per dose (600mg) set at $491. This could help to explain why most of us have never even heard of it. (The other two WHO recommended drugs for treatment of Covid19 are sarilumab, sold as Kevzara manufactured by Sanofli and the corticosteroid dexamethasone).

It is important to note that currently all the WHO recommended Covid treatment drugs are only for patients with severe and critical conditions. There are no recommended drugs for patients who have mild to moderate symptoms, although this is poised to change. As the world shifts from pandemic to endemic, this is the gap in the market that drug companies, who are finally turning their attention from vaccines to therapeutics, are eager to fill—with anything except Ivermectin, that is. And this is where the story really starts.


Although Ivermectin has not received official approval from the world’s major medical bodies, it has been part of the Covid treatment protocol in many regions of the world since early in the pandemic. In January 2021, Merck scrapped its plans to develop vaccines against SARS-COV-2 to concentrate exclusively on therapeutics. The result of their efforts is Molnupiravir. This is the drug that is poised to corner the market for therapeutics against mild cases of the disease.

EIDD-2801, as Molnupiravir was formerly known, was developed at Emory University by Ridgeback Therapeutics before the pandemic for use against Ebola and influenza. After a study revealed that the drug blocked transmission of SARS-COV-2 in ferrets, Merck acquired exclusive worldwide rights to develop the drug and related molecules in March 2021, in collaboration with Ridgeback which is responsible for funding and conducting the Phase 1 and 2 trials.

The following month, in April, on the other side of the world in India where one of the world’s largest populations was battling against the second wave, the use of Ivermectin was formalized at the national level by All Institute of India Medical Science (AIIMS) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). All the evidence from the country’s own research studies and distribution programs had confirmed Ivermectin as an important part of any Covid 19 treatment protocol. There is no vaccine hesitancy in India—people are falling over themselves to get the vaccines—and as such Ivermectin has never been a political football in the way it has in the US. It is simply seen as a drug that has shown effectiveness in preventing and treating Covid.

That same month, Merk announced that it had entered into “non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreements” with five major Indian drug manufacturers for the novel drug Molnupiravir. The statement by Merk CEO, Kenneth Frazier, was curiously lacking in any mention of the curative properties of their new drug, focusing solely on its promised accessibility.

The scale of human suffering in India at this moment is devastating, and it is clear that more must be done to help alleviate it. These agreements, toward which we have been working as we have been studying molnupiravir, will help to accelerate access to molnupiravir in India and around the world,” said Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and CEO, Merck. “We remain committed to aiding in the global response that will bring relief to the people of India and, ultimately, bring an end to the pandemic.”

The truth is that Mr. Frazier couldn’t very well talk about efficacy because at that time Molnupiravir was still “investigational” and in Phase 3 trials, the results of which had not yet been published. In spite of this, Merk was already engaged in signing licensing contracts and anticipating emergency authorization for its use by Indian authorities.

On June 9th, Merck’s aspirations to capture the Indian Covid patient market were given a further boost when the Union Health Ministry and Family Welfare’s directorate general of health services abruptly ceased their recommendation of the use of Ivermectin in Covid treatment.

On that very same day of June 9, the U.S. government committed to purchasing approximately 1.7 million courses of Molnupiravir at a price tag of 1.2 billion dollars. Once again Merk’s statement was lacking in any mention of the drug’s effectiveness against the disease it was developed to fight. The entire focus, once again, was on access as expressed by Rob Davis, the company’s president. “In addition to this agreement with the U.S. government, we are actively engaged in numerous efforts to make molnupiravir available globally to fulfill Merck’s commitment to widespread access.” Merck expects to have more than 10 million courses of therapy available by the end of 2021. And all of this while the drug is still being evaluated in clinical trials run by the very drug company that developed it.


Either willingly or unconsciously the media and Big Tech have been doing Big Pharma, and particularly Merck, a huge favour by helping to smear Ivermectin’s reputation by aligning it with the loony fringe. It wasn’t that long ago that Ivermectin was touted by the mainstream media as the drug to watch with potential to be a game changer in the treatment of SARS-COV-2. And yet, in the name of protecting the public from misinformation during the Covid pandemic, the media and Big Tech have treated Ivermectin like woo woo at best and a public enemy at worst. Even the alternative press are getting in on the act. I have a Medium account but I cannot post this story there. Those who write about Ivermectin outside of the orthodox narrative have their accounts suspended as happened to Joyce Kamen, an Ohio-based writer and filmmaker.

Posts are routinely removed from platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. Doctors who talk about Ivermectin have their accounts banned. Ivermectin might be the first drug in history to have been de-platformed.

By their own admission, Youtube is basing its content rules on guidelines from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and are still running from a May 2020 playbook. This means that not only are they are woefully behind on science that has evolved in leaps and bounds since that date, but they are aligning their censors with a medical body that has consistently refused any meaningful engagement in the research of treatment options for Covid 19 patients.

The only drug that the CDC have approved to treat Covid—Remdesivir—is a product of their own collaboration with the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. The WHO advise against Remdesivir as a Covid therapeutic claiming that it has “little or no effect on hospitalized patients with Covid-19.”

Those who like to cite issues with the data on Ivermectin would do well to look at the alarming paucity of evidence for the only FDA/CDC approved drug for Covid, Remsdesivir. They would be left scratching their heads as to how on earth this drug got emergency use authorization as early as May 2020 and full FDA approval for hospitalized patients by October 2020.

In their list of banned content, Youtube includes any posts that recommend the use of Ivermectin for the prevention or treatment of Covid-19. This comes right beneath a ban on Covid cure claims involving prayer or ritual. The content managers claim that these topics are being disallowed because they “pose a serious risk of egregious harm”.

A huge setback for Ivermectin proponents came in mid-July 2021, when a large study led by Dr Ahmed Elgazzar from Benha University in Egypt that had seemed to confirm what advocates of Ivermectin had been saying all along was withdrawn over accusations of plagiarism and concerns about discrepancies in the data. At the time, the Elgazzar study was only one of 62 studies that had shown Ivermectin efficacy, but the problem was that it had been so substantial and the results so promising that its retraction called into question the accuracy of the meta-analyses that had included it in their findings. The Guardian could hardly contain its glee and lost no time in further politicizing the situation. “The efficacy of a drug being promoted by right wing figures worldwide for treating Covid-19 is in serious doubt after a major study suggesting the treatment is effective against the virus was withdrawn due to “ethical concerns” was their opener.


Journalists can only report on what the medical science discovers. Fortunately, there are currently large trials of Ivermectin underway that hopefully help us all to better understand the potential role of Ivermectin in the fight to end the grip of this disease. Oxford University has already recruited several thousand volunteers for a large-scale clinical trial to study Covid and Ivermectin that they describe as “a well-known medicine with a good safety profile”. The US government has spent $155 million on ACTIV-6 a US study of repurposed medications for treatment of Covid 19 that includes Ivermectin.

It is increasingly being recognized, although at a bewilderingly slow rate, that antivirals must be developed as we move into the endemic phase of the disease. At a White House briefing last winter, Anthony Fauci, chief of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had this to say. “The bottom line of what we need to do looking forward, and the clear need is this, is the development of potent antivirals directly acting on SARS-CoV-2. Antivirals would revolutionize the fight against SARS-CoV-2, since they block viruses from replicating and can stop people from getting very sick or dying.”

Naturally, Merck would prefer that Molnupiravir—not Ivermectin—become the go-to Covid anti-viral in the future phases of the disease. Many doctors will continue to prescribe Ivermectin off-label, but one can already see Ivermectin losing medical legitimacy as it already has in India. The Peruvian press has been touting this drug for the past several weeks and now the European press has come on board. It is fast nearing approval in Australia.

Molnupiravir may prove to be worth the investment, but as it moves into the spotlight an uncomfortable question remains: did Merck have a hand in the canceling of a safe, cheap, life-saving drug in order to profit from the suffering of millions?

And if the answer is yes, it is not technically criminal. After all, Merck’s loyalties are to its shareholders not to patients. And the drug it’s replacing is one of its own creation. But it’s a long way from the company that handed out free doses of treatment to billions to protect them from disease.

When former Merck CEO Roy Vagelos who was responsible for the free distribution of billions of doses of Ivermectin to combat river blindness was asked, “What would be an incredible moment of your career at Merck?” he answered, “When we eradicated a disease.”

I doubt the executives at Merck say anything quite so noble today.

We cannot expect giant profit driven companies to play nice or fair, but we have a right to expect a better standard of practice from our media. Just as the media has contributed to the unfair de-platforming of Ivermectin, it has the power to restore it through more responsible journalism. New York Times best-selling author in Michael Capuzzo, in May 2021, called upon his fellow journalists to “open their minds to legitimate, unreported doctors and therapies and write about all sides of the Ivermectin story” calling it “a historic opportunity,” adding, “Journalists may be the ones to save the world.” This last part is a little grandiose, but if that’s what it takes to get a clearer view of the truth, let them get their superhero suits out, flick open their laptops and get down to business.

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‘Pandemic’ – are you game?

maskIt started in January
Or possibly November
I just know that it’s something
I’ll always remember.

So many ways to play this NEW GAME
WHAT the hell is it?
And WHO is to blame?

I heard it was bats.
No, no, that’s fake news.
It was leaked from a weapons lab
Funded by Jews.

Nah, it wasn’t created
By this human race
It arrived on a meteorite
From somewhere in space

It’s all part of a genius DEEP STATE PLOT
I have all the links in several Word docs
It’s clear that the markets were about to tank
Now they’ll blame the RONA instead of the banks.

No man you’re wrong
That’s not THE plan….so
Let me give you the lowdown
From ONE in the KNOW

It’s a magical feat that will BRING DOWN THE BANKERS.
Keyboard warriors have faith, you’ve walked a long road

Me? I don’t really care how this all began.
I charge 10 times for toilet paper and 5 for hand san

They say money’s infected
Can’t you all see?
The roll out of a CASHLESS SOCIETY
Who do you think profits from us staying at home?

It’s bigger than that if you open your mind
It’s AI making it’s move on mankind.
The end of all work but don’t cry yippee
It’s the start of your life in the NEW SLAVERY

It’s the end of CAPITALISM! A new GOLDEN AGE
A world run by the FREE and the TRUE and the BRAVE
Sorry, but that one’s lost on me, mate.
Don’t worry my friend, it’s still not too late

People are dying. The next could be you.
It doesn’t ADD UP
It’s only THE FLU

Get out of the prison of your pre-programmed head
Get out your mask or we’ll both end up dead

Seriously, dude, you just gotta stop.
My wife is a medic, she’s ready to drop.
I now play lead guitar in an online band.

I’m telling you man, it’s like Logan’s Run
They want to KILL OFF THE OLD, leaving only the young
In all the statistics of the sick and the dying
You don’t even count if you’re above 69

Stay home. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Keep your nerve.

It’s the end of FREE MOVEMENT
Farewell liberty
It all looks a lot like

Give us the chance to DIE FOR OUR NATION
Let us be a SACRIFICE for the next generation
For the good of the future, we will go down.
Our lives will mean something if we brave THE CROWN.

It’s enough to make a man like me weeple….
With joy! With despair!

False flag in reverse

It’s a ruse to ROLL OUT THE KILLER 5G!

Slow down. Learn Chinese. Read Infinite Jest.

Lockdown’s the socket
Merging minds with machines
No free thought allowed.

The moves have been made
The die has been cast
You think they’ll release us
When the virus has passed????

I don’t trust the system
And I don’t trust you
Did I already mention MORE DIE FROM THE FLU?

Dear God take me back to the dolphins of Venice….

You guys with your plots and political manoeuvres
Can’t you see that it’s GAIA herself who will move us
THE PLANET has plotted the perfect solution
Just look at the sky and the lack of pollution!

It’s coming for us
I know in my bones
It will wipe us all out
We’ll have last rites by phone

Oh fellow earthlings!
The next evolutionary stage!
Can’t you feel the vibration?
Let’s smudge it with sage!

It’s a message from GOD to bring FAMILIES together
It’s just random chance – it will fade with the weather
It is a message from GOD but not that one, I’m sure.


The worse and the best of us.
All will be tested.

Well done, my friends.
You finally guessed it.

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The Turk at Twelve O’clock

DSCF1873 (1)On a long road in Tottenham I walk with my eyes on the drains.
With one love behind me and one more still giving me pain.
A drunken Turk heading towards me from twelve o’clock
Well at least I know how to avoid touching someone today.

My hair’s in my face and the morning is damp and unkempt

A crisp packet launches a hit to my head in a vent
A car wheel churns up the rain from last night on my shoes
With the hurricane inside me, I barely can note the event.

I’m small and he’s huge and I’m straight and he’s zig-zagging hard
He’s smiling at me through his stubble as I go on guard
I swerve to the right then the left as he mirrors my moves
I try to outwit him but he holds only trumps in his cards.

Now we are so close I can see the sweat on his brow
It seems he’s not slept and I think of his mother somehow
The size of his arms makes me wonder if he could kill me
And I notice that I want to die and I’ve broken my vow.

His arms fell around me, my sight went to black in the folds
Of his coat that smelled spirits and old milk and Marlboros and mould
We traveled through space on a comet of made out of our parts
Then he stumbled away in the grey and the past and the cold.

There are times I return to the folds of that coat and I find
Some measure of comfort in knowing the wounds of our kind
A moment of grace is just one step away from the fall
The eye in the storm only opens to those who are blind.




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the wall of leaves

There is a wall of leaves across my little street. It took three years before I ceased feeling bereft when every September the handsome bearded men would arrive with their open top truck and long poles. They would hack away at the wall for hours, cigarettes dangling, until the pavement was knee deep in leaves, and the wall was bare. I would think, “Oh! They have killed this living beauty that made my road feel like a forest lane. How short-sighted of them?!” The men would return to pressure wash the walls a few days later. The imprint of the vines that had lived on them would darken over the days in-between, like an x-ray in negative, but the men were determined and scrubbed and hosed until the crème fraîche stucco was devoid of any residual visual memory of its tenacious tenant.

Then the Winter would arrive with its siege of easterlies, mornings of sipping tea in the dark, and on the streets, faces downcast against the wind. The Spring arrived long before the sun, with the insistence of a small bud, a point of brilliance in between the graveyard tones of brooding cloud and wet rotting leaves.

leavesAnd then, some time around the first week of June, I would notice a burst of greenery on my neighbour’s barren wall. In less then three weeks, it would go from that vanguard to a most definite and confident ascent, an entirely new route would be found than any year before, through the great impulse of Life. This impulse soared through its constituents, giving direction. Grow. Grow. Grow. With no other particular instruction. I marveled at this Creativity. This impulse to start again. With no regrets or fears. But perhaps that was only from my point of view, eyeing the scene from my balcony. When I could no longer see the vine, I assumed it was no longer. I had somehow forgotten the less visible continuity below my own horizons. What seemed like a new beginning to me was aeons old a performance.

By the third week of June, the wall was as it had been when the handsome men in white canvas overalls arrived. There was no more ‘wall’ to be seen. Only a framed dance of serrated leaves, a goddess of a thousand hands, green upon green upon green. And then, in September, there they were again, one of them hacking with excessive determination at the last stubborn leaf, fluttering from beneath the gutter. He ended up leaving it, chucking his cigarette in the street, and driving away, his truck bed quivering with the harvest, soon to become a source of new decay in a lonely field, 12 kilometres away.

I took my tea to the balcony and watched the wall of leaves disappear, that had once seemed hope by fragile hope. Yet this time, the Return was there in the going. I was seeing with different eyes—one eye turned outwards to the starkness of the wall, the other eye turned inwards to the dark nudging movement underground.


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The ‘selfie’ as self-enquiry

This is a longer version of an interview conducted with Catriona Mitchell, founder BRAVA a creative forum for women across cultures.

window meBRAVA: Rebecca, as a survivor of sexual assault, you are now (many years later) finding an unusual way to investigate your relationship to your body and perhaps re-frame it: with the camera, in a series of nude auto-portraits taken in your home. The photo series was an entirely private endeavour for you until the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and the ’me too’ social media campaign took over almost every woman’s postings across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Now, you find yourself opening up to discussion about something that you’ve been keeping quiet – not just the photo series, but the experience behind it. Why has the ‘me too’ campaign changed your attitude towards speaking out?

First of all I feel I should point out a certain irony here, in that I’m not actually a big supporter of Facebook even though I use it compulsively at times. I’m one of those irritating people who think social media is ultimately eating away at our attention spans and capacities for meaningful engagement with others but post about these concerns on social media. Having said that, the ‘me too’ meme did have an impact on me. It was the enormity of it, really. Pretty much every woman I knew posted it. Some elaborated and others chose not to, but I know how much courage it takes to talk about this stuff in a public space. As you say, this all came on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein revelations that exposed him as a serial sexual predator, so I think there was a feeling of it being time, time to say something, even if it was just two words – “me too”.

I had gone in and out of the idea of sharing the photos. On the one hand there was a natural shyness around it, but also I didn’t think anyone would be interested. It was so deeply personal, though I was a bit curious how an outsider would see the project. Would they understand what I was trying to do? Would it translate? But what I feel moved to share more than the photos themselves are the reasons behind why I took them and what the process of taking them taught me.

BRAVA: When did you start taking the photographs?

I took them over a period of three months. It started in Rishikesh, India, in March 2016 and I completed the first phase that June in France. Then I began another series in Varanasi later that same year. It was really only five or six ‘sessions’. I wasn’t taking it terribly seriously and only did it when I really felt in the mood. But every time I did something interesting happened, so I kept going.

BRAVA: What gave you the idea? What was the impetus behind it?

I had been taking selfies to post on a dating site. I had never taken a selfie in my life before that. I didn’t know what it was. I first heard the term from a 22-year old boy who sent me a naughty message. I was like ‘”Selfie? What’s that?” He thought I was joking. I actually thought it was slang for masturbation. This was 2014. I had been based in India for years and had really fallen out of touch with Western cultural trends. (I have to say that Indians picked up on the selfie craze pretty fast after that in no uncertain terms!) Anyway, I started taking these photos to post on the site, and I found the process of taking them really intriguing, far more intriguing than what was happening online with these men which was mostly just guys wanting casual sex or sexchat, often to satisfy their MILF fantasies. That got dull pretty fast.


The word that come up later around this photo was “ready”. A primal, intensely natural feeling.  The will to survive, the intention to thrive.

I had never felt particularly attractive before and certainly not photogenic, and I found the element of control immensely satisfying; how you could photograph yourself from every angle and find the one that made you look the best. It was all intensely narcissistic, but it led to something else. I began to observe the process itself and what it was bringing out in me. I was presenting myself in those photos in ways that seemed to have little connection with my everyday personality; as a seducer, as a vamp, as a highly sexual creature. Interestingly, a few men saw right through these attempts at reinvention. What I thought was tough and seductive, they saw as vulnerable.

I began to think a lot about self-image, about how we choose to project ourselves to the world when we have the tools to do that, what makes that projection believable or not, and how we work so hard to avoid being seen or seeing ourselves in more authentic ways.I found the idea of controlling my body image very appealing, and this probably links back to certain formative experiences where I felt a total lack of control. I’ve always liked the Tantric idea that anything can be taking into the path of self-discovery. The selfie is a cultural trend that’s mostly about putting on an act, about distancing ourselves from ourselves. I liked the idea of turning that on its head, as a path to exploring that act, as a path to self-intimacy.

I became curious how I would photograph myself if there was no intended audience other than myself. Would it be different? In what ways? So I decided to cut out the middleman or men, as it were, get off the dating site, but continue to take selfies – which you so nicely describe as ‘auto-portraits’. I really had little idea what was going to happen. It was all a big experiment. I decided to photograph myself naked because that felt scary and vulnerable, and I knew that vulnerability was important if I was going to discover anything of value. I only had one rule—that I wouldn’t shy away from what I saw no matter how embarrassing, or disturbing or difficult, and that is what kept it real, and ultimately what kept it interesting.

BRAVA: To what extent is this about an invisible, intangible exploration rather than an end result? How much of the project is geared towards creating a tangible artwork?

It was all very intangible at first. Mostly because I wanted to see where it would take me without having a preconceived idea of the destination. It felt like a bold exploration, like going out into a snowstorm without a compass or flashlight. At the same time, I think I did have a sense that this was going to end up as a body of work, although I always thought of it as something I was only doing for myself and not for anyone else’s consumption. This was really important, especially as the project developed.

BRAVA: Whose ‘gaze’ are you seeing from, when you take the pictures? Do you imagine a male gaze? Do you imagine /experience yourself inside your body, outside, or both?

Well, that is the entire question, really. The whole project was an exploration into that. I think I had this rather naive idea that I could achieve some level of non-dualism, that I would somehow manage to transcend the personalization of that ‘gaze’, but there was always another pair of invisible eyes, always a witness there somewhere. At first I couldn’t stop posing for some invisible man. He wasn’t there, but he was having an impact in how I was holding and presenting myself. Once I had managed to more or less exorcise him, there was a whole bunch of invisible women in there wagging their fingers at me! And then, of course, there was the revolving door of alter-egos.

Then instead of seeing this as a problem to be solved, I realized it was an opportunity to examine how I actual saw myself. I kept peeling away at these levels of self-perception and self-deception, until I got to a place where I realized that these layers are endless. In the end, I became comfortable with the fact that the camera was creating an artificial presence in the room. Marshall Mcluhan’s the medium is the message kind of thing. It seems obvious to me now, but it was something I had to recognize. Still, I managed to access some pretty deep layers, certain levels of conditioning around body image that I simply hadn’t been aware of before.

I didn’t have expensive equipment. I had a Lumix DMC-FS3 digital camera that a friend had given me. It wasn’t an amazing camera but it had a really good timer capacity. I used all sorts of tricks to get the angles I wanted, and to make the most out of natural light. I had no idea what was going to happen each time I set the timer. The not knowing was thrilling. There was always this rush of adrenalin right before the shutter clicked. I mean what was I going to do once I put the camera on myself for no one but myself? There were so many possibilities, but which ones would manifest?

Basically the camera was like another version of myself. I was on both sides of it at the same time, playing at being the witness and the witnessed. Watching myself watching myself. It tugged at the boundaries of self-identity, which was simultaneously frightening and liberating. Again there was this great feeling of being in control, of being completely free creatively, and yet at the same time there was this wonderful surrender to the unknown. This play of control and surrender was immensely satisfying.

BRAVA: How have the pictures evolved, from the first one you shot to the most recent?

One evening in Rishikesh, there was this gorgeous late afternoon light streaming in through the window of my room as the sun set on the Ganges. It had a soft, pinkish ethereal quality that reminded me of landscapes by the romanticists or a Maxfield Parrish painting. It inspired a series of photos where I played around with a theme of quiet stately erotica. I was mostly just getting comfortable and figuring out the technical issues at that time.

Later, other themes developed, some much darker. I just let them happen. I became less attached to looking good and better at jumping into that abyss. I began to trust what was coming up in the sessions. It was the last two photographs of the series that became the title for the project – Enter the Animus. I had been interested in Jungian psychology for some time, but I no idea that this is where I was heading when I started, that it would become about the integration of the male psyche, but that’s what happened.

BRAVA: If there have been changes, is this a marker of shifts in your psyche?

Yes, definitely. It felt like I was writing, directing and acting my own mythic story. And I didn’t have to explain it or rationalize it or apologize for it. I could just play. It was only later that I began to write about it. A turning point came when I sent one of the images to a guy I had gone on a date with. He was an artist and he became intrigued by the project. Although I didn’t want to take things further with him romantically, we had kept in touch as friends. I sent him one of the photos to get his perspective. He asked me all these questions about it and as I began to answer him I had all these insights that had eluded me earlier. It forced me to articulate intellectually something that had been mostly sensory and emotional.

He ended up doing a portrait from the photo I’d sent. I actually saw it when I went to his house in England. His walls were covered in paintings he’d done of women in various states of despair and depression. I suffer from depression, and although I hadn’t been depressed in the photo, the image looked like I could have been. When I saw the portrait I was horrified. It was a good portrait, he was very talented no doubt, but I felt somehow really exposed, hanging up there with his sad collection of limp miserable ladies! I was more protective of the project after that.

BRAVA: Your suffering must have been enormous both in terms of the assault and the more insidious effects that have followed over the years. In what ways has the photo series helped you to resolve and heal the pain, if at all?

To be honest, if I had felt more pain at the time of the rape I think it would have done better. For 30 years I barely thought about it. Occasionally, I got the idea that it had affected me in ways I didn’t understand, but I had shoved it deep down inside me in good British fashion. And then the lid came off in my mid-40s. I don’t think it was all about the rape, but that was part of it. I didn’t feel inclined to delve into it, but I just couldn’t ignore it any longer. There is a great quote by Jung that ‘All neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

I very much believe that we are more than the sum of what happens to us, but in a very real sense I had removed myself from the experience. I knew so many women who’d suffered far worse experiences than me. It felt indulgent to dwell on it. I think I had become afraid of my own feelings. Maybe I thought they would engulf and overwhelm me if I let them in. But I had already been dealing with several years of depression and anxiety by that time so I didn’t feel I had a lot to lose. The photo project was part of a broader exploration that included yoga, meditation, dream analysis, etc. It’s hard to say what became the trigger for what, but I had all kinds of bizarre dreams, emotional lows, panic attacks, and so forth. There were a few red pill moments.

One thing I’ve learned is that you can only ignore the subconscious for so long. If you have disallowed genuine feelings at the time of some key traumatic event in your life, at some point you will probably have to feel it. If you don’t it can keep raising its head in other ways—in fits of inappropriate anger, in depression or hyper-sensitivity. It can mess with your relationships, with your confidence, with your ability to carry out your ambitions. It can muzzle your true voice and hijack your talents. And you’ll always sense it lurking somewhere like a Gollum, like a shadow self. I’m not talking about reliving the emotional pain of traumatic experiences. But when you bring a level of awareness to the physiological effects of trauma and allow yourself to feel the unfelt in the body itself, you can generate a different response. This is why body-centred systems like yoga can potentially be so liberating when seen as more than an exercise.

This photographic project is just one tool in my toolkit to reframe my connection with my body. Different people are bound to have different experiences. But I can honestly say that it has helped me get in touch with a side of myself I’d been missing. The side that can look after myself and look out for myself. The side who can spot a predator a mile away and who is my own ally, defender and guide. In other words, the Animus. I realized at some point that I was having a conversation with myself in images, a conversation that for some reason I hadn’t been able to have in words, even with a therapist. Each photo was a like a piece of code. I was telling myself a story. Of course people have always used art as therapy, but this was very direct. And I still have a long way to go. It’s early days.

BRAVA: What have you learned from this project that has surprised you?

At first it surprised me how difficult it was to let go of how I present myself to the world and to jump into the abyss, even if I was the only person there to watch. I was also surprised that even being the photographer, being naked in front of a camera was intimidating. Luckily, I got over that pretty quick. There were so many surprises. How attached I am to my idea of what beauty is and how conditioned that idea is, how limited. How afraid I am of ageing, of no longer being attractive. But then I sort of stumbled on a new kind of beauty, one I had never identified with before, that was sensual and strong and unapologetic. It was a kind of beauty that I actually liked, one that I wanted to hang out with. It was this coming into comfort with the inevitabilities of this changing physical form that was one really positive outcome. In a very real sense, it helped me to grow up. I don’t think I would have done a project like this in my 20s or even my 30s. I would have been too self-conscious. Being in my 50s I had more perspective. I could observe these levels of identity without getting so caught up in them.

But actually every time the camera clicked it was a surprise. I did part of the series in Varanasi, India. Varanasi is a very powerful place. It’s basically a charnal ground. It’s where people go to die. Sex and death are so intertwined in our psyches. I did a photo series in my room. I felt very safe and I was in a really good space mentally. But when I looked at the images there was a lot of sexual violence in them.

BRAVA: Do you plan to take the project further into the world, or will it go back to a quiet endeavour, one that’s just for you? If you do now want an audience for the pictures, why so?

It was never intended for public consumption. I felt it would be like publishing transcriptions of sessions with a therapist. It never crossed my mind, at least in the beginning. But later I did wonder if the images would make sense to anyone else but me. I’ve shown parts of the project to a couple of photographer friends who took it seriously as a body of work and seemed to understand what I was up to. I discussed the possibility of one of them curating an exhibition. I had self-published a small book and had printed one hard copy. I had problems with the program and wasn’t able to get another one made to send to him. I took it as a sign and didn’t pursue things further. Although I have great respect for him as an artist and trust his integrity completely, my instincts were not to share it at that time.


The word that came up around this photo was “safe”. It was after a series of photos that examined levels of shame. This was a turning point, when the shame dissolved into a place of self-acceptance which was its own security.

I had spoken to a French photographer about doing a photo series where he took the photos. We met a few times and got along well. I trusted him and the work he’d done with other women was really impressive. I felt that technically I had reached a wall, and I just couldn’t achieve the kinds of portraits I wanted. But it didn’t go anywhere because a huge aspect of the project is that I take the photos myself. If someone else is behind the camera then it changes the dynamic completely. I might work with this photographer in the future but on something different. I’ve shown the photos to two women so far, and you are one of them. I’m more nervous about how women view it actually. Women can be so vicious to one another! So that makes six people in all who have seen it.

I guess I’m not terribly interested in getting an audience for these photos. I’m a writer, that’s what I want an audience for. Female nudity has been so co-opted that it will almost certainly be misinterpreted. And that misinterpretation would likely entangle me into a defensive posture that would sap my energies. Even posting one or two less revealing shots on this blog to give visual context for this interview is dipping into tricky territory. You and I discussed it a lot. Should I? Shouldn’t I? It’s scary. We have so much negativity and projection around the body. Prudishness can be the result of interior shame, while exhibitionism can be the flip side of that same coin—another way of coping, a defiance. It all gets so complicated and messy that I find it  refreshing to remind myself that we came into the world unclothed! Our ideas around public nudity are pretty much limited to porn or the classical arts, with little ground in-between. Erotica can be beautiful but it’s still sexually driven, and mostly by men’s sexual fantasies. I’m not against erotica or porn for that matter (except bad porn which is 90% of the market) but that’s not what this is about. But I do think that sharing the idea of the project in the context of passing it on as a potential therapeutic tool is worthwhile and I’m interesting in exploring that and writing about it more.

BRAVA: Do you think there’s something in this process that might be really helpful to others, as a safe form of self-exploration and expression? Can it perhaps repair some broken links for them, in their relationship to their own bodies and agency?

Yes, certainly. That’s why I can talk about it. It’s not that difficult to do. You just need a camera with a good timer, some private space and a willingness to step into the dark. It’s better to have as few preconceived ideas as possible. You don’t have to do it naked. If you do find its something you want to share it’s easier to do so if you’ve got some clothes on! I would actually like to do some sessions where I dress up. I know it all sounds deadly serious but there’s a playful aspect too. But I would urge anyone to put the idea of anyone else seeing your work aside, at least in the beginning. The whole point is to get beyond this voyeuristic patterning, to deconstruct self-image to find a new friendlier and more honest relationship with yourself and the body. But that isn’t likely to happen until you create the right conditions to be able to examine how you see yourself in the first place.

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The spam of loneliness: Once I understand your desire

*The third in a series of poems made up of fragments cut from dozens of spam messages I received in my email. The humanity is in the reach for the other. Even if it’s just someone to lie to. 

Respected friend
Have you read the news already?
Something amazing has happened
A foreign client
died in an auto crash
No next of kin

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Unclaimed millions
Just waiting for you

Once I understand your desire.

You have been chosen
by the board of trustees
Take time and thought
in spending it wisely
on something that will last you
a long time….
I have a plan for you, dear friend

Once I understand your desire.

I advise you
Keep this confidential
What need is there to include others?
Surely we are destined to meet one day

Once I understand your desire…

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The Politics of Unfriending

Lately, I’ve seen a number of chaps on Facebook posting their intention to ‘unfriend’ Trump supporters or those promoting his views (if Obama can say “folks” then I can say “chaps”). This has led me to contemplate the politics of unfriending—partly because contemplating anything else right now is too painful. It is something that can be done so easily, with the mere click of a button. The act itself feels trivial in the larger scheme of things. But the larger scheme of things is so damn overwhelming that it can also feel strangely…..significant.

unfriendI myself have taken to ‘unfriending’ some people in recent times, even though I find the very concept vaguely ridiculous. Yet my feelings are mixed. For one, I worry that already we are ‘preaching to the choir’ whenever we post an opinion or article on Facebook, and that by limiting our connections who those who share our world view, we are narrowing the reality tunnel even further. We have already become a society so divided that our networks are more like reality bubbles. Perhaps the best that can be said of Facebook timelines when it comes to political outrage is that it satisfies our need for validation and bonding. Petitions may serve some purpose, but personal rants do nothing but make us feel less alone when they are ‘liked’. 

One of my Facebook friends recently threatened to unfriend anyone spouting support for Trump on his timeline. In the responses there was this; ‘You can’t unfriend someone for their political beliefs’. I thought about that for a moment and a few things came to mind. First of all—of course you can! Everyone has the right to friend and unfriend away. But the poster had a point. Should political differences be the cause to end all contact , even if they were only friends in a very loose sense of the word?

I think in light of the latest US election, it is pertinent to take a closer look at the politics of unfriending because although it is often done in a fit of pique, I believe it is not always so perfunctory. When implemented by those whose normal modus operandi is inclusion, unfriending someone has less to do with politics and more to do with instinctual mechanisms around circles of trust. When I consider more deeply, it wasn’t politics that prompted me to unfriend these people. It is not as if I can’t stomach sharing a forum with those who think differently to me.

This is not about getting snippy with people who disagree with my position on the minimum wage or universal health care or college loans. This is about choosing to close a circle against those who reject core human values of decency, altruism and respect.

One man I unfriended repeatedly posted anti-gay rhetoric and seemed fond of shaming individuals towards whom he clearly felt superior. (When I met him, none of this was apparent).) Another, went from posting thoughtful pieces about drug policy to incendiary (and inaccurate) remarks about refugees fleeing war zones. These differences are fundamental as are the differences that divide America right now. For those who call for unity, pray explain how to unite with someone who cleaves to what you abhor and abhors what you embrace?

Our choice of Facebook friends is not going to change the world, but in some small way it changes our own private world, and it speaks to a larger trend of isolating ourselves from the ‘other’. Americans have already paid a heavy price from distancing ourselves from what we don’t want to see. But Facebook has never been a forum for mediation. It is more of a personal scrapbook. Anyone who has ever tried to have a meaningful exchange of views (apart from the resolutely polite) has witnessed how rapidly it sinks into mean-spirited solipsism.

It might be time to give up on the future as a singular concept – if indeed, it ever was one. There will be multiple futures going forward as we come to terms with the fact that the forces that divide us have become—at least, for the present—indomitably greater than those that unite. The choice is how we respond to this reality. Do we cling to those whom we recognize as our siblings in spirit, or do we continue to try to engage the ‘strangers’ who seem to have lost faith in their own ability to live in peace with the world? Is there a middle ground and if so, where do we find it? Not on Facebook, that’s for sure.

Jim Morrison chose the ‘feast of friends’ over the ‘giant family’. But was the giant family ever a viable alternative? Do we have time to bring everyone around to the ideals necessary to create a world worth saving for our children? Perhaps the best thing we can do is salvage decency and hole up with the like-minded around the fires of reason and kindness while the bitter winds howl around our ears.

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Uncle George’s feet

“You inherited your Uncle George’s feet,” said my mother. Clearly, this was not a good thing. In case I had missed the point, she added, “He had ugly feet too.” I looked down at my twelve year old toes and tried to picture Uncle George in them. Many years later I took a photo of my feet in Varanasi. Feet that had got me around more than half the world over the course of half a century. “Thanks, Uncle George,” I said, and my left big toe nodded in reserved acknowledgement.

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Journey of a neopilgrim— Kedarnath (Part 2 of 3)

September 10th, 2015

Pilgrims recognize one another by a capacity for wonder, and a gut-level discomfort with bigotry.‘ From Pilgrim’s India

The sun has not yet risen but my mood is already quickening. I dress fast, having prepared my pack the night before and am out on the Gaurikund street by 5:30. It is ‘street’, singular. Well, really more of a lane, too narrow for anything more than a scooter. I find an DSC09875open chai shop and sip piping hot sticky sweet tea under a greasy 60 watt bulb while half a dozen mule herders conduct their morning meeting. They seem to sense I am not planning to hire them since only one makes any attempt to engage me. I move on to where the dozen or so grocery shops (all stocking the same items: soda, bottled water, cigarettes, crisps, biscuits and washing powder) ends, and am thwarted again by the police.
“Seven starting,” says the jawan, pointing to his watch.
He invites me to wait with him. I politely decline and return to the guesthouse where Palao’s uncle makes aloo paranthas to die for.

I step out again an hour later, and this time the jawan ushers me along. The morning temperature is perfect for hiking. My pack rests gently against my back. My body feels rested and my limbs supple. I try to pace myself as my excitement overtakes. The road is broad, the cement inlaid with flat rocks that provide a good gripping surface. The incline is undemanding. I pass a milestone that puts Kedarnath at 16 km ahead. I wonder if that is the old distance before the re-routing of the road after the floods.

At first I meet no one except for a handful of mule herders—all in their twenties and thirties. They greet me with “Jai bholey!” the mantra of this yatra. Bholenath is another name for Lord Shiva. Bholey means “simplicity” or “innocence”. So “Jai bholey” means something like “Praise to Simplicity” or “Praise to Innocence”. I love saying this. For me, it is a reminder to return to basics. To what we are underneath all these labels we’ve imposed on ourselves and on others.
“Jai bholey!” I return.
“Dollar! Dollar!” one of them jokes and rubs his fingers together in the international ‘money’ mudra.
His antics jar with the gracious atmosphere.
After half an hour, I spot the little Tamil man. He acknowledges my presence in that stripped-down Indian way, with an almost imperceptible nod.

He disappears around a series of bends, but twenty minutes later I catch up with him at a chai shack and he gestures that he is going to buy me chai. I try to insist but it’s no use. There is something super focused about him. It is difficult to describe DSC00014the impact this small gesture has on me. In India, where so many have so little, foreigners are often viewed as targets —“a wallet on legs” was how one American friend described it. Westerners are all de facto ambassadors of India’s mesmeric and often schizophrenic relationship with modernity, informed by a potent mix of envy and suspicion. Foreign women are dual targets, for both money and sex. I don’t mean just the literal act of sex. Despite the much publicized reports of rape in India, most ‘actual sex’ remains in the category of wishful thinking. I’m referring more to a set of behaviors that can best be described as sexual teasing—‘eve-teasing’ as they call it in India. This is not the same as flirting. What would be called ‘flirting’ in the West is very rare in India, just as what is called ‘eve-teasing’ in India is rare in the West. I’ve only experienced something close to ‘flirting’ from Indians who have spent time abroad. Flirting is one-on-one, whereas sexual teasing is almost always carried out in packs, where individual sexual anxieties can be temporarily tranquilized by the group ego. Even if some women find it annoying, flirting is more sophisticated, playful and respectful than the crude objectifying and vaguely threatening way in which many Indian youths engage women. Foreign women are often assumed to have loose morals, as if they’re ready to strip off and get down to it right there in the street. But you can sense that the bravado in these man-children masks a deep-seated fear, deprivation of physical intimacy, a general state of confusion about the true meaning of power, and an inability to manage their own sexual energies. I often see Indian men treating foreign women like they’re poking a stick at a caged lion; with a clumsy combination of cocky posturing and pant-shitting terror.

In India I am constantly treated as a source of something because I hail from ‘Desire Factory Central’ aka ‘The West’. But the more time I spend in India, the less certain I am that everyone knows what exactly it is that they want from me. It’s a bit like Marlon Brando’s famous retort “What you got?” when his character, Johnny, is asked, “What are you rebelling against?” The programming works to assume that I have something desirable. When a beggar asks me for money, the motive is very clear. But it is not always about money. Sometimes it’s a photo, or just a brief exchange. It is often very cordial, but there is always a subtle imbalance that is no one’s fault but which prevents most encounters from reaching any real level of sincerity. At times, being on the receiving end of this continuous grasping can feel uncomfortable, but it must not begin to compare to what women of colour experience, and what Indian women endure on a daily basis.

Even my so-called ‘progressive’ male Indian friends seem oddly blinkered to this reality, and respond to such observations with a kind of patronizing dismissal. One of them I used to meet regularly in Delhi could not seem to get his head around why, when we were planning to go somewhere together, I insisted on meeting in a café or other venueDSC09873. He seemed to think I was just being difficult that I didn’t want to wait for him on the street, to be bombarded by overt projections and repressed fantasies of hordes of sex-starved men. He had no idea what I was talking about because when he stood on a street corner in Delhi, he experienced an entirely different set of behaviours. I would put good money down that if they were asked to endure such treatment even for a minute, many of my male friends would need to restrain themselves from punching someone in the face. It is not even about understanding. I have come to the conclusion that understanding is over-rated. Indeed, true understanding may be an impossible aim. But it is necessary that we a least try to understand. I can share my experience of men while happily admitting that I have only a vague idea of the inside scoop of the average male. Teach me, I say. Illuminate me! I am Jane Goodall with bells on! I am befuddled by so many otherwise intelligent men who find it hard to admit that they are equally unenlightened about the view from behind a woman’s eyelashes. Collective embarrassment, perhaps?

But the Tamil man didn’t want anything from me. He just wanted to buy me a chai. And this from someone who appeared to have so little. He was walking barefoot and had no luggage at all. Not even a blanket. Tradition states that more spiritual merit is gained when pilgrims on yatra walk without shoes, so his being barefoot was probably more out of choice than necessity. But his appearance and demeanor were of a man of very humble means. The chai was relatively expensive—fifteen rupees compared to ten in the lowlands. He spoke no English or Hindi and I spoke no Tamil. Our communion was reduced to a few simple gestures and a temporary higher purpose.

My surroundings are exhilarating. The way is occasionally interrupted by waterfalls, that slip horizontally across the trail, before continuing to plunge into the Mandakini river. It is impossible to cross them without getting soggy feet and I’m glad for the extra socks I packed. DSC09868After two or three hours I begin to be passed by other pilgrims riding mules. The ones who look more middle class engage me as a Western tourist. I return with “Jai bholey!”  hands together at my heart. Most return in kind. They holler at me from their saddles. What country am I from? What is my name? Am I a single person? Sometimes the order is different, but I am only ever asked these three questions. Except once when a woman leans down dangerously low from her mule to shout in my ear, “What is your purpose in India?!”

I am beginning to feel good about my “fitness level” when a lady in a sari and sandals overtakes me. I notice she is knitting. Here am I all earnest and decked out with backpack, bandaids and special sweat-absorbing vest, and this woman is meandering up the mountain making a sweater! We chat for a bit in my terrible Hindi. She establishes that I am a “single person”, meaning not just that I am unhitched but traveling solo. Indian women seem intrigued by this state of affairs. They eye me as if considering their odds. The men usher them on quickly, as if eager to put distance between them and one who seems to be managing quite alright on her own.

DSC09870The heat is still manageable and my body is responding to the mountain like a long lost friend. It has been a very, very long time since I have hiked alone in the wilderness. When I lived in California, walks like this were regular therapy. Arguments, anxieties, indecisions, would all get worked out of my system, and I’d return with renewed perspective and vitality. But in a country of one billion people you have to work harder to find solitude. It is also not especially sensible for a woman to walk alone, and company, although pleasant, changes the experience completely. I press on for the next three hours, occasionally digging into my stash of walnuts, figs and amaranth cookies when my energy begins to sag. I come across a shack where a stubbly-faced elderly man is frying samosas in a giant wok-like pan on top of a wood oven. They border on the divine.

About a kilometre further up, a bridge spans the river and on the other side the road begins to steepen. I begin to feel the weight of my pack, but I plod on. Palao had said the trek could easily be done in five or six hours, and according to this estimate I am only two hours away. Two hours later, I am feeling the strain. Fatigue sets in suddenly; loads up my thighs with sandbags and compresses my lungs in a vice. On this side of the river, the sun is blazing, and I am soon drenched in sweat. I am no longer marveling at the scenery and swinging along like a happy idiot. I am nose to stone, fixated only on the next three feet in front of me. I stop to make use of one of the numerous portable toilets that are kept immaculately clean. I’m impressed by the facilities prepared for the yatris that even includes a staffed medical dispensary. I buy a bottle of water at a roadside stall, and start to doze off on a bench. After ten minutes, I have trouble getting upright again. Six hours in and I am still five kilometres from my destination, according to the mule herders, who breeze up and down the mountain in flip flops. I plonk myself down on a bench under one of the numerous sun shelters that line the route. Next to me a middle-aged gentleman in a white vest and matching moustache is chatting to a young man whose job is to sweep away the mule droppings. I am very grateful for the presence of these sweepers. In the few places where the droppings have been allowed to accumulate, the acridity is overpowering.
The man is asking the sweeper how much he makes a month.
“Ten thousand rupees,” is the reply.
The man nods as if making internal calculations, and I sense a professional interest. He looks tired and I offer him some water. We talk a little. He tells me that he is a retired IAS officer from Bangalore (Agricultural Section). He is a very fit 65, his biceps would be the envy of a man of any age, but like me he is struggling. We are being challenged physically in different ways; me with the altitude, him with the gradient. Somehow we both know that we will make the next leg of the journey together.

Almost nobody is walking to Kedarnath. I count eight in entirety. But those that are do so with quiet purpose. I’ve seen Indian families hiking up Triund near Dharamsala. Most look as if they can’t wait to get back. But on yatra no one squabbling over the snack ration, taking selfies or moaning about their blisters. On yatra, Indians will endure almost supernatural hardship, extend themselves physically and psychologically in every way, just to make it happen. Today, however, the vast majority are making the journey on mules that are goaded with sticks and beaten when they falter. Those who can afford it whizz above us in a government-run helicopter that makes about DSC09979one trip every hour. The private helicopter companies have been temporarily shut down, for reasons I can’t readily ascertain. A man on his way down stops us to ask how much further it is to Gaurikund.
“My helicopter did not provide me with a return ticket!” he complains.
He is out of shape and wheezing heavily, with impatience as much as fatigue. My fellow pilgrim and I can’t give him a straight answer, since we ourselves are unsure. The man tuts and stomps away.
“I don’t have time for this conversation!” he blusters. “My car is waiting for me in Sonprayag.”
It is an odd encounter and we gaze after him quizzically.
“Chalo,” says my companion after a few seconds. Let’s go.
We speak very little. He doesn’t ask me any of the “three questions”. I never tell him where I am from, or whether or why I am a single person. He doesn’t even ask my name.

At times I am a few minutes ahead. At others he is. If he falls behind, I wait for him, and he does the same. It is not up for discussion. It is the natural thing to do. After another hour, we are only making it about 500 metres, about every other bend, before we have to rest. At first, I look for rocks that offer conducive-looking contours. Soon, I am taking respite on any rock that is vaguely arse-shaped. We greet the occasional shelters and benches like they’re desert oases, and rest for longer and longer periods of time. Then one of us decides it is time to move and rouses the other with an encouraging, “Chalo!”

During one rest, I casually ask if his family are happy he is going on yatra. I am not expecting his response.
“Not at all,” he replies. “My wife did not want me to go. My children think it’s a waste of time. They are both university professors. They have no value for such things.”
He is a a true gentleman with a strong sense of duty. He must have wanted this very badly to forge ahead without the moral support of his family. He tells me that after retirement, he had planned to devote some time to spiritual philosophy. He has a strong desire to study Buddhism. But retirement has not provided the time or space he had hoped for. It has been filled to the brim with domestic duties and family pressures. His days are spent baby-sitting grandchildren and mediating family squabbles.

As we’re talking, who comes to join us but the little Tamil man who had bought me chai that morning. He has already been up to Kedarnath, performed puja at the temple, and is on his way back down. He looks proud and happy. There is a blaze of fire-coloured paste between his eyes. I wish I had half his energy. He shows us photos on his digital camera and poses earnestly while I take one of him. He is on his way to Badrinath, another of the Chota Char Dham pilgrimage sites. He has no plans to sleep. The contrast between him and the man we’d met earlier could not have been starker. The other man could afford to travel to this holy place by helicopter and private car, and yet he seemed to have taken nothing away with him, except a temper. The man from Tamilnadu was traveling by the slimmest means possible, yet his contentment was radiant. There are many ways to get to pilgrimage sites, but it seems that not all of them involve pilgrimage.

As we make our incremental headway, we meet more and more pilgrims on the descent—those who went up by mule or helicopter and are now walking down, having received DSC09916their blessings and said their prayers at the famed Kedarnath temple. For many as well as my companion, a pilgrimage such as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and the general mood is of serenity and completion. As tired as I am, I feel buoyed by this Caravan of Joy. I am still the subject of some curiosity, but there is another connection being forged now. In their eyes, there can be no other motive for me to be on this road than a spiritual one. And this makes all the difference. It is one of the rare times that it matters less that I am a foreigner or even a woman. Something else is being acknowledged. Something beyond the labels. Although Western travelers have made much of how the common greeting “namasté” supposes an acknowledgement to the divine unity within mundane plurality, the fact is nowadays the term is rarely imparted with this spirit. It has been devalued in the cultural marketplace into little more than a “Hey, how ya doing?” But here, walking the pathway between man and God, “namasté” regains its rightful etymology. It is delivered boldly, with meaning and depth.

In India, where every social interaction is characterized by difference, whether it be gender, caste, or the condition of ones shoes, it is immensely refreshing to find a situation where the focus is on “sameness”. In the exquisite book, Pilgrim’s India, Richard Lannoy comments on how pilgrimage temporarily allows for caste to be transcended since all are sinners. But the bond between sinners is not as strong as the bond between expressions of the divine.Those coming down the mountain have been to the source. There is still the scent of unity in their nostrils. It will fade soon enough. Even before they’ve reached the bottom, the distinctions will begin to re-concretize: woman/man, adult/child, this caste/that caste. But right now the distinctions are still in disarray. I can perceive my own private boundaries undergoing a slow unmistakable unification. It feels like space. And moves like freedom.

As we ascend, the scrub forests are replaced by alpine meadows in the middle altitudes, and further up by alpine grasslands. Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary is the largest protected area in the western Himalayas but I see no animals except the mules with the ever-present jingling of their harness bells. What is becoming increasingly evident is the environmental impact of the floods and slides of 2013, when the yatra route across the ravine was more or less annihilated. At times I can make out a short flight of steps here, a section of path there, and then—nothing. Just swathes of barren scree. I recall the news footage of people clinging desperately to rocks, to brush and to each other. Over 100,000 were evacuated from these valleys by the Indian military and paramilitary, but for thousands more there was no escape. My heart sinks into the thoughts of such despair, when around yet another bend, the glimpse of a snow-capped mountain makes a majestic promise of the journey’s end.

DSC09923After another hour, we pass the man and his son who had started with me at Sonprayag. They are on their way down. The man seems surprised to see me.
“You are very late,” he says, looking at his watch. It was two o’clock.
I’m startled by this statement. Late indeed! The affrontary!
“You still have five kilometres to go.”
“That can’t be,” I protest.
We’d been told the same thing over an hour before. The father continues his descent with a  ‘have it your way’ backhand wave of his stick. I feel annoyed by this encounter. My friend looks sapped of strength. We are stepping across a glacier but I hardly notice. All I can think about it sleep. We start taking shortcuts across the curves, which since they are steeper, often prove even more exhausting. We come across a bed of clover and without any announcement both flop to the ground. I wake up a few minutes later. My friend is lying beside me, snoring loudly. We have fallen asleep together, side by side. It is so intimate and innocent. And we still don’t know each other’s names. I can’t imagine any other situation where this might occur, except perhaps during a natural disaster.

I wake him with a husky “Chalo!” He pulls himself to his feet, and sways a little unsteadily. When I put on my backpack I suspect some mischievous child has filled it with with rocks tentswhile I was sleeping. We stagger back on to the road. By this point, we’ve both lost any hope of actually arriving. I am feeling vulnerable, breathless and disappointed in myself. I am clearly less fit than I had thought. We pass orderly lines of large white tents, and I suddenly realize we are in Kedarnath. It has taken us nine hours. The place looks like a bombsite. Hardly a building is standing. I spot the temple in the distance on the far side of the town. I turn to my friend. It is time to part.
“What is your name?”
“Puttiah,” he replies. “And you?”
I clasp his hands in mine.
“I could not have done this without you, Puttiah.”
I hadn’t meant to sound so dramatic. It wasn’t as if we’d just climbed the Eiger. But the exhaustion and lack of oxygen prove a heady cocktail. I can feel myself tearing up.
He raises my hands to his forehead.
“Same to me. I shall never forget you.

We go our separate ways. Unlikely to ever to meet again. But friends forever.

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Journey of a neopilgrim – Kedarnath (part 1 of 3)

There is no happiness for him who does not travel, Rohita! Thus we have heard, Living in the society of men, the best man becomes a sinner….Therefore, wander!

Indra (Protector of Travelers) to a young man named Rohita

September 9, 2015

DSC09671It’s 6:15 and the Uttarakhand mountains are busy steaming up slow-moving clouds into the early sky. Swathes of cloud are literally flowing from mountain tops like the steam from coffee mugs. It is condensation in progress. Far more engaging than the diagrams called How Precipitation Works I hazily recall from geography class. Arrows on paper are forgettable, but drag a schoolchild up a mountain and stand them in the rain and they’ll be sure to remember the lesson. Far below and to our right as we head north, the Ganges flows south, gleaming like a platinum chain necklace.

DSC09676I’m on my way to do yātrā—Sanskrit for ‘journey’ or ‘procession’. Tirtha-yātrā is a journey or pilgrimage to a holy site. I am heading to Kedarnath, the most remote of four sacred sites in a Himilayan pilgrimage circuit called Chota Char Dham (‘small circuit of the four abodes’ since there is another Char Dham that covers a greater geographical area). The other three sites in the Chota Char Dham circuit are Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, all in the Northern Garhwal region, around 50 kilometres as the crow flies from the Tibetan border. Badrinath is a seat of the god Vishnu, the Preserver. Gangotri and Yamunotri are both goddess sites. Kedarnath is a seat of Shiva, the destroyer, and was the epicenter of the floods and slides in June 2013 that become one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history. I had found myself just three days earlier, researching guesthouses and booking taxis, and inspecting backpacks and shawls in the shops in Rishikesh, with a gently focused compulsion. I didn’t tell many people I was going. This compulsion felt private in effect and universal in origin. But not social. Not social at all.

DSC09796I kept my intentions to myself, partly because I didn’t want to jinx it, and partly because I wasn’t sure I could satisfactorily explain my motives. For one thing, I am not a Hindu. I am drawn to do this, as I have found myself increasingly  ‘drawn’ to places rather than ‘planning’ the next trip. Plans, such as booking travel tickets and hotels and such are simply the technical responses to this draw. The question, ‘Where do you plan to go next?’ becomes a bit of a non sequitur. These days it feels more as if I am pulled somewhere like a swallow is pulled south in the winter ‘whose way and motion is a harmony and dance’ as Wordsworth said. Well, at least that’s the idea. The reality is often awkward, messy, sweaty, exhausting, frustrating, and occasionally intimidating. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

DSC09696Arjun, my driver, stops for chai and we take the measure of each other. He is gentle and carefree and seems happy that I’m doing this. “You will see the power of Shiva,” he promises, reminding me of the famous temple at Kedarnath that some claim is 6,000 years old. Arjun’s mood, already maintaining a position well towards the upper end of the positivity scale, improves noticeably as we get deeper into the mountains and further from the hubs of commerce. A youth stands in the road and waves a blue flag at us. Arjun explains that he is letting Char Dham pilgrims know that there are free refreshments, all funded by individual donations. The CD player grinds out a percussion-heavy chorus that somehow reminds me of Welsh male choirs. It blends well with the scenery.
“This is Garhwali music,” Arjun says, proudly.
“Are you Garhwali?”
He glances at me in the rear view mirror and smiles.
“Yes. My family live in Rishikesh thirty years, but this is my home.”
He throws an arm out of the open window and gesticulates at everything between heaven and earth. When we stop for breakfast a couple of hours later, we sit next to the owner who is involved in heated debate with a young man.
DSC09725“I don’t understand what they say,” says Arjun ruefully. He looks embarrassed that he does not know the language of his heritage. “It’s not like Hindi at all.”
Many people here look Tibetan. This is Bhotiya country, the Transhimalayan people who reside in the upper Himalayan valleys between India and Tibet. Things are different here from the plains. I see local women hitch-hiking alone, something I’ve never seen anywhere else in India.
“This is an interesting part of Uttarakhand,” I comment.
“This is not Uttarakhand.”
Arjun is joking, but not quite.

We make good time (only once do the road conditions require me to get out and walk) and reach the town of Sonprayag in the Rudraprayag district by one o’clock. Here, we learn that we can’t travel the 5 km to Gaurikund by car, where I had planned to spend the night because the road is still under construction from the damage inflicted in 2013. We are surrounded by around 40 bored-looking semi-employed young men, mostly taxi drivers and mule herders neither of which I’m intending to recruit. I feel suddenly self-conscious, reluctant to exit the car. The Kedarnath yatra is open from mid-April or May through until Diwali (New Year) around October/November. Chota Char Dham used to receive 2.5 million pilgrims annually, but numbers dropped dramatically after 2013. The last spike in visitors was in June/July during Shravan, the holy month dedicated to Lord Shiva. From September 17 it will spike again with the start of Ganesh Chaturthi. But now is a definite lull. I am the only foreigner, and also the only woman that I can see. I often find myself wondering where the women are in India. They seem as elusive as Snow Leopards. As a Westerner, I represent the hope for some fast cash, a hope I dash almost instantly by announcing that I plan to walk the whole way rather than hire a mule. I am, thereafter, looked upon with a kind of sullen disinterest. Arjun is shuffling his feet, obviously itching to get back on the road.

I head towards the GMVN office. The acronym stands for Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nagam; a state government agency that oversees tourism activities in the Garhwwal region, which is largely related to pilgrimage. I feel a DSC09797bit relieved when a kindly gentleman is able to explain to me in passable English that I need to register as a yatri (pilgrim) and that the registration office opens at three.
“Single person?”
The question is many layered. “Yes, single person,” I reply.
I brace myself for a two hour chai session as he casually adds, “And you also get medical check.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“My what?”
“All pilgrims must take medical check.”
What could he mean? All kinds of unsavoury images spring to mind, mostly involving sharp shiny instruments. All further inquiries from the staff behind the registration windows are rebuffed. They won’t speak to me. It is not yet three o’clock. In a country where only 2% of things happen on time, that 2% can be surprisingly intransigent. I find a tiny chai stall and stuff myself and my backpack in a dark corner, scrawling notes in my journal while being silently assessed by the other customers. I write, Possibly in over my head at last.

I return to the GVMN offices promptly at three. A sign the size of the window boasts a new Android application for pilgrims offering ‘real time self-navigation’, and access to emergency services. The clerk throws me a suspicious look and grabs my passport.
“Single person?”
This is obviously highly irregular.
DSC09826“Go police,” he barks.
I try not to sound unnerved.
He motions dismissively towards an office perpendicular to his. On the veranda, one policeman and a heavy set man in plain clothes are seated on plastic chairs.
“You need go registration,” says the heavy man before I can say anything.
“But they sent me here.”
I decide the best policy is to silently refuse to move while smiling innocently. My presence was bound to become irritating sooner or later and they’ll be happy to be rid of me. Perhaps suspecting my tactics, the plainclothes man enters the office and returns bearing a large musty register. After a few false starts, he begins—rather reluctantly—to jot down the relevant details from my US passport, during which he looks up to ask. “Single person?”
I nod to confirm.

DSC09828It proves an impressively incremental procedure, with an additional five minutes of rummaging through the office desk drawers to find a workable pen. Somehow between us, we complete the form, though I am unable to stop him writing ‘United Kingdom’ in the box asking ‘country of origin’. I return to the registration officer who equally reluctantly issues me with a pink receipt slip and shoos me into an adjoining office. I am relieved to discover that the medical check up consists of a blood pressure test and two questions. Am I a single person and do I take hypertension pills? No, did he think I needed to?
“Your fitness level very high,” he says, which I find encouraging.
DSC00087I am presented with a “biometric” card, that officially establishes me as being in adequate physical condition for the journey ahead. On the back is a brief message in English, Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil from the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare about the merits of breast-feeding babies up to six months. I had my own bar code and a hand-written number. I am a card-carrying pilgrim. Number 154. No one has asked me for any money. But I am still unclear about the logistics. An internet search had generated conflicting results. The old road from Gaurikund to Kedarnath had been washed away in the floods and an entirely new route built in 2014. I’d been quoted anywhere between 16 and 22 kilometres.

This did not sound especially far, but the route spanned altitudes between 2000 and 3500 metres. I had traveled to high altitude regions before; Kashmir, Ladakh, Spiti, and Upper Kinnaur—and to some domains significantly higher than where I was headed. But I had not trekked in those places and I wondered how my middle-aged body would cope. Come to think of it, I had never trekked in my life. Before I left Rishikesh, a friend and experienced trekker had asked me if I had any trekking experience.
“I’ve gone on lots of long walks, does that count?”
She hadn’t said anything.
I finger the biometric card in my pocket, as if its existence alone could guarantee physical endurance. I strap on my backpack and merrily trot through the next police barrier heading for Gaurikund, 5 kms north. Sonaprayag is a one road town, so even with my poor sense of direction I was in no serious danger of getting lost. I wave cheerfully at three policemen stationed in a wooden hut the size of a garden shed. One of them waves back but then shouts something in Hindi. I decide to ignore it and keep walking. I hear more shouts and pick up the pace. I’m in no mood for a repeat performance of the two-hour interrogation by Delhi police two years earlier. I can’t let this whole crazy venture be scuttled by a petty bureaucratic technicality pounced upon by some bored jawan scanning for CIA plots in the bottom of his chai glass. A chilum-soaked saddhu with rasta hair and loincloth leans down from a rock temple.
“Yes! Om Namah Shivaya!”
“Om Namah Shivaya,” he says, his hand raised in a kind of salutation.
It’s like a gateway. A test. The saddhu has blessed me. I’m good to go!

But then the whistles start. By this time I have crossed an iron bridge and am picking my way through a construction site. A road worker lopes up alongside me and points urgently to our rear. I wave my hand in a ‘don’t worry I’ve got this under control’ way and pretend to be on the phone while my heart starts to race. The whistles begin to fade and I relax a little. But then they start up again and this time they sound fully insistent. Oh my god! Can they please stop blowing their whistles? I just want to go on pilgrimage! I keep going, banking on the jawans being too lazy to pursue me very far. But I am wrong.
DSC09833“You not hear whistle, madam?”
The policeman’s face is more perplexed than angry. I mumble something about having been absorbed in prayers, feeling uncomfortable lying, and even more so for lying about a religious practice.
I’m still walking but the return to the checkpoint is inevitable. The policeman slows down and I give up and turn to face him.
“Stamp! Stamp!”
With a flash of clarity simultaneous with a slight pang of shame I realize that all he wants is to stamp my registration card. We walk back together to the police post, where (to make me feel even worse) he buys me a chai and lets me take his photo. This false start is the first in many lessons from the yatra guru—the teachings received through the very act of pilgrimage itself. I didn’t need to elbow my way in and insist on a place in the queue. I was already there. The path was already open. I just had to walk it. The jawan was far more forgiving than he needed to be and I had been far more stubborn than I needed to be. Trust. Trust is the first lesson.

DSC09832The second is patience. It turns out that the police are not letting anyone through the checkpoint until 4 pm. It is now a quarter to four. I am the only one there. Couldn’t they bend the rules a bit? No. It is impossible. Quarter to four and no sooner. I sip my chai and consent to discuss the relative merits of Barack Obama and Narendra Modi with the cops and respond to the occasional inquiry about being a “single person”. By four o’clock, eight other people have gathered at the checkpoint. A middle-aged man and his son, a jolly group of four students from Delhi, and two single men; a tiny curly-haired barefoot fellow from Tamilnadu, and a thin laconic serious-faced youth. When we at last get the all clear to forge ahead, and begin to make our way north along the half-built road, I see the sense of keeping strictly to a common starting time. I was beginning to understand that everything going on around me was for the protection of the pilgrims. If everyone set out at the same time, then the police could keep track of who was on which leg of the journey. If one of us didn’t turn up at the next registration post, an alert would be raised and a search would ensue.

The silt and gravel road soon diverted to a wide path paved with flat rocks to prevent slippage and lined with a railing painted in the colours of the Indian flag. Only one DSC09835kilometer in, and the concrete huddle of Sonprayag slipped effortlessly behind me and soon disappeared behind a bend. As I head up a series of switchbacks, forested mountains encircle me like a mother’s arms. To my right, mountain slopes of pine, oak, birch and rhododendron, sliced by waterfalls the length of skyscrapers that plunge into the Mandakini river, barreling through the ravine with a pounding roar or low rushhhhh depending on the relative acoustics of my circuitous ascent. To my left, a lushly shifting rock collage of moss and lichen rummaged by fat-bottomed lizards is interspersed with waterfalls cooling the surrounding air like a natural AC, and glacial water springs where I pause to splash sweat from my neck and face. The number of pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand is why it is known as ‘Dev Bhoomi’—‘God’s country’, but the landscape alone seems a suitable stomping ground for any passing divinity. An ebullient post on Tripadvisor asserts, in such surroundings ‘even an atheist would get involved with the feeling of spiritualism’.

I pace my stride to try to keep in occasional sight of at least one of my fellow pilgrims. My sense of security stems from a trust that those of us who share this road also share some common values, but I am also breaking the golden rule of the solo female traveler by walking alone in the wilderness. The little Tamil man keeps looking back DSC09839in my direction, as if checking on me. I arrive in the mountain village of Gaurikund one and a half hours later. I actually walk through and out the other side before I realize there is no more to it. At 6,000 feet, the town provides a base camp for the Kedarnath yatra, and until the road is repaired, it can only be reached on foot or by horse. There are two streets. One winds down into a staircase to the riverbank. The other continues on and up 17 kilometres and another 6,000 feet into the Garhwal Himalayas. Gauri is another name for Parvarti, Shiva’s wife. It was here, legend goes, that she performed a series of ascetic practices to win his affections, while he remained unmoved, deep in meditative retreat and in mourning for his deceased wife, Sati. Even when the God of Love shot arrows at him, intended to make him fall for Parvarti, Shiva opens his Third Eye and incinerates him on the spot, returning to his meditation as if nothing had happened. But meantime, as Parvarti’s own spiritual practice deepened, she developed complete control over body and mind and came to realize her true self as the universal goddess, Mahadevi. Eventually, the fervor of her realizations generated an intense heat that threatened to set the whole region on fire and shook Shiva from his meditative state. When Shiva went to see what was going on he found Parvarti–no longer a love-sick maiden but a force of nature. It was through the intensity of her love for him that Shiva came to realize his own power. Shiva and Parvati are the most passionate couple in history. For one thousand years, they did nothing but have sex, and didn’t even speak to another soul. Their passion made the earth tremble and the gods blush.

DSC09865Gaurikund is also the place where Parvarti, while bathing in the hot springs, is said to have fashioned her beloved son, Ganesha, out of the soap suds from her body. Gaurikund’s hot springs were converted into a public bathing place, but were entirely destroyed, along with much of the town, in the natural disaster of 2013.

After one or two inquiries, I find the Tourist Rest House tucked away down a short flight of stone steps. I hadn’t booked a room, finding the online booking form confusing and deciding to trust the travel agent in Rishikesh who told me not to worry since it was low season. Fortunately, he was right and the place is only half full. Again I find myself the only woman, something I am going to have to get used to on this adventure. After another marathon form-filling session (into four separate ledgers), I am shown to my room by Palao, the earnest and diligent manager. It’s a bargain at 700 rupees; spacious with a large bathroom and plenty of hot water, and a double bed with spring mattress (Indian mattresses seem to have a personal grudge against human comfort). Palao’s uncle makes me yellow daal, chapati and aloo jeera. It tastes utterly amazing. I regret not having bought a map. There’s one hanging in the dining hall, but it’s faded and upside down. I twist my head around to try to figure it out and get suddenly dizzy. I check my phone. There is no reception. There is no wifi. The TV in my room has no signal. I can’t quite explain why this makes me feel so happy. But it does.

Palao hands me a chai on the balcony that affords a soothing wooded vista half way between the riverbed and the mountain rim. I pull a woolen shawl around my shoulders, welcoming the chillier air after the energy-sapping humidity of the plains.
“Nice view.”
He looks with me across the ravine.
“Before 2013, three large guesthouses were there.”
I scan the hillside but can find no evidence of any buildings having been there. Not a single cement block or piece of foundation.
“One guest house all 300 people die.”
The beauty all around me trembles a little as I take in this news. It will tremble some more in the days to come.

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Radical friendship and the end of the guru

DSCF0017For three days now I’ve been stalked by a saddhu. Wherever I stop to drink chai or pause to circumvent a cow, he’s there. Tiny and persistent, with standard issue trident, topknot, and road safety orange robes. Our exchange is always the same.
“I can be your guru. I can teach you many things,” he says.
“But I don’t really want a guru,” I reply.
I’m not sure he even hears me. His eyes are glassy. Even looking right at me, he doesn’t seem to see me. He is on the street, peddling liberation. Just like the postcard seller at the Laxman Jhula bridge, or the ear cleaner with his questionable guarantee of rejuvenated aural faculties.
“I can help you, teach you many things.”
“I’m fine,” I insist.
His stride is shorter than mine and I can speed up imperceptibly and slip into a café where I know he won’t follow. Westerners are batting off gurus in Rishikesh like wasps at a picnic. Every day saddhus attach themselves to foreigners (almost always women) usually on their way to yoga classes. They speak to them intently, with body language broadcasting neediness more than serenity. The women look unmoved, tolerating the intrusion like a local condition of weather or terrain, to be patiently endured. There is almost a hint of sympathy in their expressions; as if somehow they know that the end of the time of the Guru is nigh.

Guru. The word evokes such different reactions in us. From some it elicits devotion, for others suspicion, skepticism, even mockery. In the 2012 documentary, Kumaré, Indian-American filmmaker and lapsed Hindu, Vikram Gandhi, becomes a temporary guru, enticing Western students with a philosophy hobbled together from Vedic teachings and slogans from Nike and US Army recruitment ads (he even translates ‘Just do It’ and ‘Be All You Can Be’ into Sanskrit*). His stated intention for this rather elaborate project is to teach that gurus are unnecessary for inner development and happiness after personally becoming convinced that most gurus are self-deluded charlatans. His insistence upon spiritual self-reliance, however, only seems to endear him more to his students, and further convince them of his authenticity as a ‘real’ master. At times the film is painful to watch. While Vikram repeatedly maintains that he is a fake guru and that no one can lead his students to inner peace but themselves, their eyes grow wider with devotion. It is all strangely reminiscent of a certain scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’.

Regardless of your opinion about the ethics of this social experiment, the film is a fascinating exposure of the power of spiritual projection. In fact, Vikram uses the metaphor of a mirror throughout, always claiming that what his followers are seeing in him is only a reflection of their own potential. And what is fascinating to watch is that although they are following someone who is merely acting a part, their lives actually start changing for the better. Even when Vikram reveals that he has made the whole thing up, the majority of his students accept it as another teaching with no hard feelings.

I watched Kumaré (at the time of writing it is still findable on Youtube) during a period of reflection on the guru/disciple relationship. I sense that the desperation of the Rishikesh saddhus is a sign of a new Zeitgeist. We’ve heard of post-feminism; post-modernism, post-capitalism, even post-idealism. I believe than in order to evolve and fully claim our spiritual heritage, we need to embrace post-gurusim.

DSCF0021For eighteen years until his death in 2009, I was the student of a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. His name was Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen. More than any other branch of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the guru-disciple relationship in the context of “guru devotion”—an attitude to one’s spiritual teacher that is radically receptive (or submissive depending upon the disposition of the student). This involves complex meditations where the student mentally engages with the teacher as a template for enlightenment – the ‘mirror’ idea that Vikram toyed with in his experiment – along with receiving teachings on classical Buddhist texts appropriate to the lineage to which the teacher belongs. The essential idea is that the guru, if followed perfectly, will lead you to the realization of your inner guru. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had a teacher like Geshe Gyeltsen. I took the process so seriously, that I studied under him for seven years before I even accepted him as my guru. (When I asked him after this time if he would be my teacher, he just laughed). He always encouraged me to be more confident, and never seemed especially happy when I prostrated to him. He himself was intensely devoted to his own teachers, particularly to the Dalai Lama, but he always remained firm with me when I felt tempted to unquestionably surrender my own judgment to his.

On a number of occasions over the years, I had the opportunity to spend many precious hours with him going over the drafts of the books I had edited from his teachings. During these times, he would often ask me what I thought of a particular change here or there. I was so in awe of him, I found it hard to articulate any disagreement with his opinion. But during these sessions, I learned that voicing a different point of view is not a sign of disrespect, as long as that point of view is genuine and mindfully asserted. In fact, to comply with spiritual authority merely out of faith is an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps this is why Geshe la so often brought up the Buddha’s counsel to his disciples to never accept what he said merely on faith but to always test the value of his teachings the way a goldsmith would test for the quality of gold.

My teacher never claimed to be clairvoyant (although I have reason to believe he was) and he was humble about what he did not know. People would come to him for all kinds of reasons: from requests for prayers for dying loved ones and questions about their spiritual practice, to whether to ditch their boyfriend or buy a new sofa. Although he tolerated the trivia, Geshe la kept focused on his job description; to teach the path to enlightenment as it had been taught to him. The temple politics and jostling for position among his students was sometimes hard to stomach. Shortly after he passed away, I had a dream where he showed me up a long path to his temple. Inside, there were a number of rooms. In one room, some of my fellow students were arguing, in another, one was crying, and in the puja hall, another was being enthroned as the new guru.
“Where is your room, Geshe la?” I asked.
He pointed to a tiny windowless room in the basement that was little more than a cellar.

After the passing of my teacher in 2009, I imagined that sooner or later I would find a new one. I remained open to the possibility, attending Buddhist teachings here and there, observing the guru-disciple dynamic with a certain fresh distance. But I was not in a hurry to re-enter that relationship. At one teaching by a Tibetan lama who had become especially popular with Western women of a ‘certain age’, it was clear that I was fast becoming uninterested in formal Buddhism with its traditional teaching methodologies. Although I had no issue with what this guru was saying, I was less and less able to relate to the hierarchical architecture of instruction through which he was saying it and the strange atmosphere of pride and elitism around his students.

I then spent two years organizing international Buddhist conferences. At the first one there were over 900 delegates that included some of the the most prominent figures in the Buddhist world. This gave me the opportunity to study gurus up close and personal. Though many of them were sincere, I witnessed first hand a disheartening amount of posturing and spiritual competition. Some of the behaviour was so shocking that one of my volunteers felt like quitting. “I thought Buddhists were supposed to be nice!” she moaned. I’ll always remember the comment of a lovely gentleman who to me embodied the best of Buddhist wisdom and compassion. “No matter how big the stage, it is never big enough for more than one saint.”

After this experience, I began to study Buddhism from an academic perspective, through a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies from the University of Wales. Over the next three years, I became exposed to the sutras for the very first time—the texts purporting to be the actual words of the Buddha to his followers while he was alive. In all the years of studying Tibetan Buddhism I had never read a single sutra since the tradition is to teach from the commentaries on these sutras by Indian and later, Tibetan, masters. The authenticity of some of the sutras is up for debate, but these texts, faithfully transcribed, translated and transported from culture to culture throughout Asia, are the closest we have to a record of what the Buddha actually said.

Studying these texts gave me pause in my identity as a ‘Buddhist’. Nowhere did the Buddha suggest that his realizations were beyond the reach of ordinary men and women, and he always insisted that his realizations were not unique, that he had merely discovered an ancient pathway walked by humans who came before him (SN 12:65). Apart from setting the ground rules for a harmonious community of ascetic monks, it didn’t seem to me that he was intentionally trying to found a religion. For one thing he refused to appoint a successor. ‘You are your own protector,” he told his devoted attendant, Ananda, in the days close to his death, when asked who the monks could turn to for direction without him. These are not the actions of someone wanting to create an institutional legacy.

DSCF0021In 2010, I visited key places of Buddhist worship, such as Bodhgaya in Bihar, widely considered the Mecca of Buddhism, where it is said the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. For the first week after his awakening, it is written that the Buddha sat under the Bodhi (awakening) tree in a state of bliss. The second week, he moved to a hill about 20 metres away and gazed at the tree in gratitude. There is a little temple there now, and this is where I seemed to spend a lot of my time gazing at the extraordinary Mahabodhi temple. It looked like a spaceship built by an ancient race of god men and at night was lit from below in a way that gave the impression that the whole structure was about to lift off from the earth and head out into space at any moment.

Bodhgaya, especially the inner temple-city of Mahabodhi, is a truly other-worldly place. It was so overwhelming that it took me an entire day before I felt able to walk around the inner circuit. At one point I saw this huge tree and noticed that it seemed to be emanating waves of love. It had this vast generous presence that was extraordinarily powerful and gentle at the same time. It hadn’t dawned on me yet that this was the famous Bodhi tree since there were many trees of this species—the peepal—growing around the temple. I just knew that I wanted to be near it. It was only when I looked for somewhere to settle myself that I noticed about 25 people seated in silence beneath its branches, one of which was so massive and low that it had been propped up by a large plank of wood with a U-shaped support, giving the impression of a venerable old person leaning on a cane. I sat there for three hours beneath a statue of the Buddha staring at a candle flame while waves of chants rose and fell from every direction. Upheld by the collective wisdom of those past present and future pilgrims, I experienced a level of single pointed concentration far beyond anything I had previously known. By the time I stood up, I knew I was no longer a Buddhist. When I walked away from that Buddha statue I was not walking away from the Buddha’s teachings, but from the idea of the teacher as an object of worship with a backstage pass to enlightenment. Pure devotion is a beautiful and inspiring attitude when it is aimed at a genuine teacher (the alternative is a soul-level violence from which it is not easy to  recover), but at that moment the whole thing began to look like a circus. A profound circus, no doubt, but a circus nonetheless. The ringmaster was the Buddha himself, one finger pointed at the sequined acrobats and lion-tamers, another at an empty ring of sawdust on the ground.
“I never intended any of this” he whispered. “You are your own protector.”
An old Nepali monk sidled up to me and asked me for my phone number through a set of rotting teeth as two decades of identity as a ‘follower of Buddhism’ slipped away like a silk cape from my shoulders.

There is a beautiful passage in the Uppadha Sutta (SN 45.2) involving a conversation between the Buddha and Ananda. Ananda praises ‘admirable’ friendship, companionship and camaraderie as being “half of the holy life.” To this the Buddha replies.
“Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”
The Buddha goes on to explain that when a disciple has admirable people as friends, companions and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue path to liberation.
Here it is. The new paradigm of post-guruism, spoken by one of the most influential gurus of all, two and a half millennia ago.

“It’s not like there aren’t any realized beings in Rishikesh,” says Mark, who has lived here for twenty years. “There are. But you won’t see them running after foreigners. They rarely even come into town.” He pointed his chai glass in the direction of the hills. “They’re out there in the forest. Getting busy with enlightenment.”
The next day I met Peter, a fifty-five year old Dutch hippy. He told me a troubling story. He had fallen asleep drunk in a Delhi train station. In the morning his wallet was missing along with 50,000 rupees. I was less than sympathetic.
“You broke every rule in the book. Why on earth were you carrying that much cash with you? You got drunk and fell asleep in a train station!??? Would you do that in Holland? Did you want to get mugged?”
He looked down sheepishly at his battered trainers.
“I thought this was a spiritual country.”
I burst out laughing.
“Then I came to Rishikesh. A saddhu took me to his cave and asked to use my laptop. We got stoned together and I fell asleep. When I woke up, the saddhu and my laptop were gone. I feel so angry. He said he was going to give me teachings.”
“He did,” I replied. “He taught you not to fall asleep and leave your laptop with strangers!”
Although my heart went out to him, I sensed he wanted some tough love.
“What do you think I should do?” he asked.
“Either go home or stop being so naïve.”
There it is again. A glimpse of the recalibration of the politics between the knower, the known and the as yet unknower/unknown. I see Liberation Camaraderies replacing Mystical Theocracies. The shapes in my mind are not pyramidal, but spiraling. Here, the number of pathways to liberation are infinitely diverse but with a common ground of deep interdependence and common concern. Seekers tune in to what they need to hear like radio signals, sometimes getting a hug, other times a loving kick up the backside. I see a lively jumbly caravan of jijñāsus – the “inquisitive ones” – off to sea in a sieve, hell bent on wringing at least one drop of beauty and humour from even the darkest shadows of the world and returning with tales from the Chankly Bore. Somehow those passing over one line of latitude find themselves sitting next to someone who passed it last month – even if only to hear ‘yes, I crossed over and I didn’t die’. On these journeys, travelers leave notes, clues and spare pairs of socks, admire each others compasses, compare scars, and swap old maps and new yarns. There are experts among them to be sure. Some are renowned sailors or mountaineers. They give the occasional lessons and then themselves attend lessons for the gaps in their knowledge. None of them are a one-stop-shop sage. Wisdom is horizontal not vertical. But I still can’t seem to quite get the measure of it…

DSCF0021It is my last day in Rishikesh and I want some time alone, on the banks of the Ganga. With its gluttonous swarms of humanity that can bully the social animal right out of a person, the urge to be alone in India can become almost an obsession. No surprise that this land has spawned so many hermits and solitary seekers. Behind me I hear a squeaky, “Madam ji!” and know with an inexorable sigh that it’s the voice of the tiny saddhu. Somehow, he has found and foiled my quest for solitude. As I walk back to my hotel, he skips up alongside me with his well-rehearsed salesman’s pitch.
“Come to my cave,” he entices. “You can be my student, I can teach you many things.”

As I look into his eyes, my irritation dissolves. There it is again, and this time it takes shape completely. A gentle but inevitable reciprocal adjustment of the classical didactic posture of spiritual education. I see a world where admirable friends and companions support, share and laugh with, advise, love, comfort and hold one another; tolerate each others phases of grandiosity, crudeness and stubbornness, and never give up on the fundamental belief that we are all in this together, that just as in outer space there is no ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ – only galaxies spinning stories into the void. In this world, my guru can be the man who hands me my roti in the morning, the young girl who makes it, or the monkey who tries to steal it. In this world, liberation is not a destination, but a natural condition of life itself, as wet is to water or hot is to fire. Where symbiocracies replace mystocracies. Where radical friendship replaces guru devotion. And where ‘awake’ can mean many, many things.

*Karam Yaivah Dikaarastha – Just Do It; Sarvau Bhaav – ‘Be all you can be’

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Hitchhiker’s guide to duality

elephant signThe tall slender Sal trees of Uttarakhand’s Rajaji National Park shuffled passed the car window, fast as a deck in the hands of a Vegas card shark. I had heard that these forests either side of the Rishikesh-Dehradun highway are home to around 500 elephants, and that very occasionally they ventured out onto the road and attacked passing vehicles. Eighteen people have been killed by rampaging bull elephants (‘tuskers’ as the Indians rather endearingly call them) along this route, including some who have been crushed to death through the metal frame of their vehicles. The reports like this one from the Hindustan Times are sobering. ‘While Devi’s son and daughter-in-law got down from the car and managed to run away from the scene, the elephant caught her by its trunk. The tusker repeatedly pummeled Devi against the ground killing her almost instantly.’

Prem, my ever-smiling driver, told me that now no one travels this road at night alone any more. The police have set up a barricade after dark where traffic must wait until there is a convoy. At the other end of the elephant road the cars get to go their separate ways. Prem is not a fan of this approach.
“This is more worse than driving alone. If one elephant comes from one side and one from other they can block everyone. And then, can you imagine? This is very danger.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Have you ever been in danger from an elephant?”
“One time. I was traveling in a jeep in Corbett National Park with few Westerners. I wasn’t driving. An elephant charged our vehicle. The driver reversed for over a kilometer. His driving was mind blowing. The girls they did pee pee in their pants. It was a horrible.”

I peered into the pack of trees, imagining that I saw a flash of tusk, a muscle twitch, the flap of a giant ear. But there were just trees and more trees extending into all that was visible. A light grey figure loomed upon us from the roadside, so suddenly that I thought we might to run it down. Then another, and another, four men lingering, at the edge of the forest, covered in what looked like chalk dust, with long matted hair, wearing nothing but tiny cotton dhotis.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“They are bad people. They eat humans.”
I had heard tell of these peculiar saddhus from some boatmen in Varanasi. They are devotees of Shiva (though most other Shaivites consider their practices utterly bizarre) They adhere to the unity of opposites and pursue social taboos to experience non-duality, to the point of losing all discrimination in both thought and action between the vile and the desirable. They meditate on corpses, live on raw human flesh and have been known to chew the heads off live animals. One night a boatman had shown me a video about them on his phone. I was utterly amazed to watch them picking up half decomposed body parts out of the Ganges and tucking into them like they were prime rib at a steak house.
We passed by the group and noticed that the last one was gesticulating towards the passing traffic.
“Is he asking for a lift?”
This road was getting more interesting by the minute.
“Ooooh. Let’s give him a ride!”
I began to ponder all the questions I wanted to ask him.
“No, No! This is not good human beings!”
Prem laughed nervously.
“They wear human bones like jewelry. They eat people!” he added, as if he thought I had missed that singular detail. If a bull elephant had charged out of the forest right then, I thought, his anxiety would not be much higher.
“I know,” I replied, seeing his point, “but how dangerous could he be just sitting in the car?”
I entertained a fleeting fantasy of having this same conversation back in the English suburbs with my Aunt Jean. Prem looked unconvinced, but slowed down anyway.
“Their bodies are covered in human ash from cremations,” he said as a final protest. Hmmm, was he more worried about cannibalism or his upholstery? The aghori snatched a penetrating glance at me as we passed.
“Awww, c’mon Prem. I’ll protect you.”
“Oh, alright.”
The subtext went something like, “But if I get eaten I’m never forgiving you.”

The aghori looked momentarily surprised when we stopped. He jogged up to us, and opened the car door. After a brief exchange with Prem, he jumped in. The sudden twinge in my stomach signaled that my bravado had once more over-stepped my courage. But surely, the man wasn’t going to tear Prem’s arm out of his socket while he was driving! Even cannibals must have some code of honour, even if they do fall short on table manners.
“He’s going to Rishikesh,” explained Prem.
He was by far the strangest hitchhiker I’ve ever encountered. His hair was so matted with ash and dirt that it seemed to have fossilized into his head. I couldn’t even see the skin underneath the thick ash coating, that had cracked to form tiny lizard-like scales. He shifted in his seat as if unused to being in a vehicle, and rested his tiffin tin on the floor in front of him, while Prem eyed him nervously.
“Can I ask him a question?”
Prem relayed my request it in Hindi and the aghori consented.
“Why do you need to eat human flesh? Can’t you gain spiritual understanding without doing that?”
While Prem translated my question, the man tugged the rear view mirror in his direction and looked at me through it. His face was caked in a clay of blue-grey ash and dirt. His eyes looked jaundiced. I felt as if I were talking to a ghost. He began to speak, slowly, still looking at me. I wanted to look away from him but he had me transfixed, and I felt he knew it. Prem translated his answer.
“Spiritual understanding does not come so cheap.”

I stared out the window into the heart of the Sal tree forest. Somehow I recalled Buddhist scriptures saying that it was under the Sal tree that the Buddha’s mother gave birth, and it was between two Sal trees that the Buddha lay down to pass away, causing them to blossom out of season. As I continued to look, the trees seemed to lose all definition. It was as if they all became the same tree, or were all emanating ‘treeness’. I turned my observation to myself, and all I could see was ‘me-ness’. I looked at my hand, and there was ‘hand-ness.’ It was like seeing the architecture without the building. But where is the architect? No sooner had this question entered my mind, than the trees, my hands, the taciturn aghori, Prem’s smile, the invisible car-stomping elephants, all began to swirl together like different flavours of ice cream melting in the sun. I wanted to resist, to maintain the Neopolitan certainty of discernible ‘things’, but they kept on glooping into a general sticky ‘thingyness’. The experience was utterly disorienting but oddly beautiful.
It was Prem.
“I didn’t say anything”
Surely my voice was coming from someone else’s throat.
“You said something about spiritual practice.”
“Yes, I was talking to the….”
Prem’s questioning eyes flashed at me through the rear view mirror. My heart began pounding against my chest like a prisoner demanding justice. The passenger seat was empty.
“Where is he?”
“Where is who?”
“The aghori.”
“We passed them ten minutes back. Ha ha! Forget them. They are bad people I keep telling you.”
“Right,” I said. “They eat people.”
“Yes! Ha ha. You are learning.”

I rested my head back against the seat and watched the trees disappear through the window as a monsoon downpour sent large gobs of rain quivering against the glass, holding on to their identity for as long as they possibly could before being annihilated in the deluge.

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The backstrap

gymkhana1A Tibetan friend recently popped up on gchat in a mild panic. The university he was attending in the UK had sent him a contract for his accommodation. “I don’t understand half of it,” he said, “and the language is so intimidating.”
“That’s the point,” I replied. “They don’t want you to understand it. That way they can stiff you later.”

Please refer to section 8 paragraph ii where it mentions that the bedside table should not be moved more than 2.5 cms to the right except during equinoxes. Well, you get the idea.

This is the great British bureaucracy at its garbled patronizing best, the kind that regards everyone like criminally minded five year olds and speaks to them like their criminally minded robots. But there is no truer believer than a convert, and Britain’s constipated legacy is hard at work in India that now carries the distinction of being officially voted the worst bureaucracy in Asia, according to a report by Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, scoring 9.21 out of a possible 10. It slows down all manner of everyday social processes like cooking oil in a kitchen drain, creating scenarios that could make Kafka raise an eyebrow. One professor of literature told me that after her mother had died of stomach cancer, she had not been able to cook for three months because the gas board wouldn’t let her refill her kitchen gas cylinder. She had visited the concerned office six times to appeal, but the clerks kept telling her that her mother needed to come to make the payment.

On very rare occasions the small print can actually work in favour of the individual. Two years ago, I went for a meeting at the Gymkhana Club in New Delhi accompanied by another Indian friend. These clubs were set up by influential colonists in the late 19th century for the country’s ruling elite within a model of stiff upper class Britishness “to promote polo, hunting racing, tennis and other games, athletic sports and pastimes.” It now serves as a watering hole for India’s retired brigadier-generals, sports celebrities, wealthy industrialists, intelligence chiefs and the like. Elections for club president are as hotly contested as those at the national level (the one in 2013 was even reported in the international media, where ‘allegations of “dirty tricks” and claims some candidates are trying to lure supporters with glamorous drinks parties’). The language of choice is Queen’s English. We had only got as far as the lobby, before our presence caused an uproar. Seconds later, we were surrounded by no less than four staff members, all looking decidedly nervous and pointing at my friend’s feet.
“I’m sorry, sir” explained one, “we do not accept sandals”.

gymkhanaHe then directed us to an ancient wooden signboard where the club’s dress code was handwritten in faded blue paint. The awkwardness of that moment was priceless. We were here to see an influential club member which made it even more confusing.  They had boxes of spare ties for tie-less visitors, they explained, but did not have spare closed shoes. They fluttered around my friend, bending down, and anxiously examining the offending footwear with the stealth of a bomb disposal squad. My friend looked annoyed and embarrassed. And then, when I thought the tension might actually cause a spring to leap out of the desk clerk’s neck, he squealed.
“Sir! You have a backstrap!”
To which the rest clapped their hands with relief and ushered us in to the dining hall. Apparently, the small print in the club rule sheet stated that sandals could, in fact, be worn, as long as they had a backstrap. My friend’s legitimate presence in the establishment had been determined by a half-inch strip of leather. Although the situation was comical, there was no doubting the implicit social intimidation involved.

And if you think that you’ve got away with something, you’re probably fooling yourself. Once written, nothing is ever forgotten. Made in Britain bureaucracy writes in the blood of your children’s children. The giant forces of the small print will come and hunt you down, even centuries later, with exactly the same tenacity whether it’s student accommodation contracts or international treaties. Just look at the way the British government invoked the 14th century Treaty of Windsor (incidentally, the oldest diplomatic alliance in the world) to ensure that Portugal remained neutral in WWII and the UK could use the Azores as a military base, and again as a navy refueling station during the Falklands War.

Yesterday, I received a more or less incomprehensible end of tenancy agreement regarding a flat I’d moved out of in Oxford. At the end it read: If you don’t think this letter applies to you please disregard. I still haven’t replied, clinging to the fantasy that my inaction will make it go away. But the clause phantoms still taunt me in my dreams, wagging their stubby pen-filled fingers, and rubbing my nose in the small print.

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Your tranquility is here

vc_jacket_openIt seemed a perfectly reasonable mission—to find a bottle of champagne in Paris. How hard could it be? But circumstance conspired to make it more of a challenge than I could have imagined. For one thing, it was a last minute purchase, inspired by Fintan’s idea to buy a special gift for our host-to-be a couple of hours train journey south. We decided that he would keep watch over the luggage in a cafe at Montparnasse, while I marched out into the streets on the hunt for the nearest bottle of high quality bubbly.

Fifteen minutes later, I was beginning to despair, having passed an inordinate number of pavement cafes, and a fair number of chemists, and trying to calculate my return march to the station in lieu of our train. I sought the assistance of a man walking a poodle using my best schoolgirl French.
“Pardonez-moi. Savez-vous ou je peux acheter du champagne?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, in his schoolboy English. “Perhaps down there?” pointing further up the street, seemingly into infinity.

A few hundred yards further on, I passed a small market and nipped in to find quite an impressive stock of wine and the choice of five or six champagnes. The man at the till beamed at me through a well-trimmed beard. He was about 35, quite short as I recall, with an attentive open face.
“Puis-je vous aider?”
I didn’t understand but assumed that he had just asked me what I wanted.
“Champagne!” I blurted in a dreadfully exaggerated quasi-French accent.
We both laughed.
I acted out that I was in a hurry, making train wheels with my arms, which caused more hilarity, and a mimicking of my train impression. Our increasingly slapstick interaction quickly co-opted the attention of the four other customers. The shopkeeper pulled up a small ladder and grabbed a few bottles from the shelf. While I was deciding between the Moet and Chandon and the Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label, he threw a forefinger at the sky, said something loudly in French which I pretended to understand, and hastily retreated to the backroom, emerging a few seconds later triumphantly holding up a bright orange ice jacket. That sealed the deal.

He began to ring me up, and while this part of the exchange was entirely normal, there was clearly (and to everyone else in the shop as well) undoubtedly ‘something else’ going on. “Êtes-vous célibataire?”
I wasn’t sure if he was asking if I was celibate or a celebrity, but both questions seemed rather odd. One of the customers, an elderly lady with a headscarf the colour of an aged vintage, leaned in to dispel my confusion.
“He’s asking if you’re single.”
“Oh, right! Oui. Je suis célibataire,” I replied, while puzzling over the etymological assumptions involved in the conflation of celibacy and flying solo. He looked determined to pursue something.
“Es-vous hereaux?”
I motioned that once again I hadn’t understood.
“Joyeaux?” he offered.
The question gave me pause. For some reason it seemed important to tell the unadulterated truth to a shopkeeper in Paris who I had never met and would never meet again.
“Je suis….” what was the right word to describe the condition of the heart—that état du coeur—that my single life now offered me? “Je suis….” if his eyes had been flowers they would have stretched their stems a little in my direction. His gaze demanded something from me to hold, perhaps because of this endearing readiness to enter into this thing so completely without context, history or familiarity, and all of a sudden I found I had lost my nerve.
“Excusez-moi. Je ne parle pas Français.”
He wasn’t having any of it.
“Vous parlez Français,” he insisted. You are speaking French.
And then I knew had the word, like a sail knows it has the wind.
“Je suis tranquille.”
“Je suis célibataire,” he replied, “et je ne suis pas tranquille.”
The palm of my left hand somehow found its way to the place above his heart, where I pressed in softly.
“Votre tranquillité. Il est ici.”
That bitter-sweet flush of feeling that glistens the eyes—an empathy endowed with the knowledge of its own inevitable transience. What the Japanese scholar, Motoori Norinaga, termed mono no aware. I remember the murmur from the line of customers behind. The warmth of his hand pressed against mine. But I don’t remember the link between that moment and the one where our lips met. A lifetime of possible futures, a time-lapse reel of joy and heartbreak, met in that kiss. The headscarf woman muttered something romantic-sounding in French though she may just of well been saying “I wish these idiots would hurry up and let me buy my potatoes” for all I cared. Someone else cheered. A thousand champagne corks popped around the city.

I hurried back to Montparnasse where Fintan was waiting, trying to hide his impatience. “Did you get the champagne?”
I showed him the bottle with the snazzy orange ice jacket. He nodded his approval.
“Excellent choice,” he said. “Was it hard to find?”
“No, not really,” I replied. “Not in the larger scheme of things.”

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The greatest show on earth

Amelia Earhart once said, ‘You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.’ Well, I think it must also be true that you haven’t seen a lunar eclipse until you’ve seen it in Varanasi. Here, where salvation eclipses administration on a daily basis, such celestial advents are no mere sideshow—a passing distraction after dinner with the kids first telescope. They take full and emphatic centre stage.

All terrestial events are put on hold. The moment the earth’s shadow touches the moon, over three hours before it can even be seen (the city’s astrologers having calculated the precise timings with charts of the Chaldean order) shopkeepers roll down their shutters, the lattice iron doors on the roadside shrines are padlocked, and a heavy curtain is drawn across the ten-foot marigold-painted Hanuman statue behind Meer Ghat.

It was a little after five on April 4, 2015, and Manu ji was lounging on a sofa in the lobby of his modest guesthouse when I ordered chai for myself and two friends. “No chai during the eclipse,” he replied with a languid gaze in my general direction, and went back to reciting his mantras, his sights set inwards as if on the passage of interior worlds. gangaThe steps of the ghat, normally the scene of bustling activity, were strangely subdued. A dozen men and women were standing in the Ganges up to their waists, eyes closed palms together at their chests, utterly immobile, facing East—the direction of the rising moon. “The gods are in trouble,” explained Sunil,” as we walked by them. “We need to pray for them.” This was a novel twist on things. For one day at least, divine intervention was the job of mortals.

“They don’t understand it’s just the shadow of the earth passing in front of the moon,” said Leo as we set out in a boat towards the phar—literally the ‘other side’. But I couldn’t really see any ‘just’ about it. A graduation, a wedding, a new job, aren’t these all ‘justs’ by comparison? Are we so certain of our own importance in the scheme of things— when one of us makes a single lap around the sun we break out the champagne. But this. This was something worthy of celebration. Something to stretch the canvas beyond the anniversaries of ants. The earth’s shadow is passing across the moon! This was literally the Greatest Show on Earth. Roll up! Roll up!

And in Varanasi. They rolled.

When we reached the bank, our little eclipse party—the unlikely cluster of pilgrims customary for India: a Jewish-Parisian violinist, a Romanian-Greek kite-surfing yogi, a Danish boat rowing Olympic gold medalist—prepared to take our own Nielsen rating, as a dusky jacinth moon rose over the sandy desolation of the phar. It should have been full, but tonight there was a sinister bite deep into its right flank. In North India, the eclipse could only partially be seen, but there was no sense that we were in any way getting short-changed. The hairs on my arm felt like they were tuning in to the collective focus of the city’s residents on this single point.

Sunil and Santos joked and laughed with the rest of us, but in between they murmured their prayers, occasionally surveying the moon’s progress with reverent concern. Just four minutes later, the battle of shadows was over, and the moon was beaming free and clear in the eastern sky.

As we rowed back to the northern bank, a tumultuous cry rose from the ghats. “Hare hare Mahadev!!” By the time we arrived, the scene had been transformed from the one we’d left. Gone was the hushed mood of private devotion. This was party time. Boys dived off boats into the water squealing with joy. A boat with a 6 foot speaker pumped out mantras set to Hindi pop songs. Chants of Hare Hare Mahadev!! throbbed like a football anthem with a backtrack of splashing and laughter and the gentle chorus of women. I recognized a young college student, a Brahmin, who every evening without fail came down to pick up trash from the ghat. Even those well aware of the astronomical facts aligned the full force of their spiritual attentions with the occasion, no less wondrous or mysterious for a few astronomy lessons. eclipse

As if seized by some invisible force, Leo reared up a little rockily in the lap of the boat, threw back his head, and boomed out: Hare Hare Mahadev! Ohm Namah Shivaya! A few minutes ago he’d been squarely on the side of science. Now his lungs roared with the name of god. The young Brahmin had come from the other direction, from God to science. And tonight neither were disappointed. For either way, the moon had won the battle of shadows, and I too wanted to shout in celebration of its freedom.

That day had felt all akimbo, as if lingering between cause and resolution. Although not technically a ‘believer’ I had found the locked shrines unsettling. If Varanasi had an industry it was worship, and it was as if the gods had closed up shop, thrown up their hands at the state of affairs and dispersed to more sympathetic realms. It was as if Rome stopped serving pizza or Paris had banned lovers. I had sat down to write a few times but had produced only doodles. As the earth’s shadow crossed the old moon’s heart, old ghosts had walked over mine. But as the full circle of light broke away from that murky shroud, I felt the shackles of the past loosen their hold and was engulfed with the desire to praise something for it. The singing women and dive-bombing boys, Leo’s appeals to Shiva in a Danish accent, Sunil’s foot-in-both-worlds smile, the young Brahmin’s tears—somehow became the same language in different tongues.

That night none of us slept. Perhaps it was the disco mantra boat that patrolled the river well into the early hours defying the city to slumber, or the deep-night thunder that shook the balcony railings, or the skirmish of shadows celestial and private. The next morning the city was back to normal – well, at least what passes for normal in Varanasi. The gods were back in business and the chai was flowing freely. The  haze had been dispersed by nocturnal rains. From my balcony, I could just make out an orderly line of buffalo ambling toward the water’s edge.

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My scalp itches for release

shave5Every morning from the steps of Meer Ghat, I hear the unmistakable sound of middle-aged and elderly women getting their heads shaved. The act of shaving is silent. The sound is the barrage of instructions lobbed at their young male barbers, and their laughter. I don’t think I’ve ever heard women laugh so freely. They are all from the South—probably Karnataka. Here on pilgrimage, to give their karmic laundry to Mother Ganga.

shave2I watch these ladies from my balcony….one waves at me to join them. The Vedas advise shaving the head at least once in a lifetime. Who am I to argue?

They seem so ready. To let it go. Beauty. Youth. Being desirable. Being desired. They do it together, like holding hands to jump….I tell Sunil about it later on the boat. “It wouldn’t shoot you,” he mumbles through a mouthful of paan. Which makes it seem all the more appealing.

shaveI pass them in the galis filling the streets with song on their way to the Golden Temple. Their dark eyes glinting in the dung-filled light. And I laugh too….as my aging scalp itches like a sympathetic string.

shave 3

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I don’t trust you

Am I wrong?

Am I wrong?

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Left hand urve

Don’t worry about getting lost once in a while.
It’s an occupational hazard of all explorers…

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A new adventure

Nothing quickens the spirits quite like a new adventure


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Near and far…

It takes modern-day luxuries like time and space to slip under the surface, to cultivate a way of seeing that involves more than retinas and optic nerves.  On the surface, fog obscures the distant things. I watch it now, brushing out the mountain, curling around my feet, content and sure as as the smoke from an old man’s cigar, or the tail of a dreaming cat….

fog…But fog has other tricks up its sleeve. It pulls the closer things more clearly into view. In blocking out the scenery, it frames and highlights the objects near to us that, like neighbours, we come to ignore through proximity.

It’s good to see into the distance. It’s good to not overlook the close at hand.

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Castles in the air (or a few lessons in data breaching)

tiara2Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Your readers might like it.”
William Randolph Hearst

About a week ago I accidentally publicly published a blog post that was meant to remain private. The post had gone out to 875 people, and had been automatically sent to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Not that I’m deluded enough to think that 875 actually READ my blog, but even the idea of five people seeing this was like being caught drunk in a cubicle trying on a dress that I couldn’t pull off. When I realized what had happened (Rebecca has posted a new blog post on Facebook….aaargh!) I felt like I was going to wretch on the keyboard. But in under five minutes, after a bit of damage control, I reclaimed the errant post back into my private domain. But the first two sentences were out there. A friend popped up on gchat.  ‘Data breach!’ ‘Calm down!’ I messaged back – more to myself than to him. ‘What will people think?!’ ‘Fuck off, I don’t care!’ But I did.

Lesson one.

That could have been that, I guess. Just put it down to some odd karmic twist and Origami it into an amusing anecdote to pocket for some future evening over wine and friends. But it’s given me pause to reflect on a number of things having to do with honesty, compassion, humour and courage. My first reaction was one of deep embarrassment. Not only because the topic was about that icky sphere of human engagement—romance—but because of the spectacularly bad writing. Since I hadn’t meant for anyone else to read it, I had written it in a stream-of-consciousness journaling-style. I had actually used the phrase ‘castles in the air’. Ugh. I think I would rather an even dirtier load of laundry flapping out there than that sorry idiom. As much as it stuck in my throat, I had to face that fact that when it comes to this particular aspect of my psyche, my ‘stream of consciousness’ is less Orphic wisdom and more Brigitte Jones’ Diary.

Lesson two.

Romance is like crack for artists. It boggles the mind how much great art has been inspired by the muse of love. But when I look over some of the outpourings during my most recent passion play, it’s well, not to put too fine a point on it—drivel. The most poetic comment in the whole weary episode came not from me, but from a certain seventeen-year-old, who summarily dismissed my new romantic interest as ‘predatory and up his own arse’. Now, this is haiku of the highest order.

He’s predatory
Said the girl to the woman
And up his own arse.

Lesson three.

But I had to admit, it was also pretty funny—my most well-concealed thoughts spewing into the blogosphere like an oil spill. It’s a problem that writers before the 1990’s never had to think about. But I flattered myself, as usual. It wasn’t an oil spill. It was far too vanilla for that. My pride was hurt, and that also made me giggle. Humour, my most loyal friend—the one that can say anything to me and I can take it, because it’s delivered with affection.

Lesson four.

But even though it stings a bit, it’s not so hard to acknowledge the bad writing. And I can feel a kind of nobility in fessing up to it, like it’s the grown up thing to do. But this is just more damage control. The other, more difficult part to admit, is that I got slain. Emotional entanglement. This is the stuff that nails us to the floor. It’s also the stuff we tuck away in the backs of drawers among the socks, thinking the burglars will never find it there, when actually the first place burglars look is the sock drawer. This stuff makes us seem weak, pins our soft spots under high watt bulbs, with alien life forms sneering down at us, poking about at our most private mutations and demanding explanations for them.

The day I changed my mind, and decided to embrace this ‘mistake’ of mine rather just file it away under things NOT to do online along with drinking and messaging, I received a beautiful and humbling email from a man I’d met on a dating site in the UK. We don’t even really understand the nature of our relationship, but there is a core of humanity to our connection that invests no particular interest in the labels of ‘friend’, ‘lover’ ‘boyfriend’ etc. He took a risk in contacting me, in being so open, since we don’t know one another well. Somehow, he said he’d felt ‘seen’ by me, and it had inspired him to divulge some of the steps of the journey he’d been on since. His honesty and vulnerability touched me deeply, along with his emotional courage. Do we really ever see each other? Or is it all just a trick of the light? But more important than the answer to that question was that he thought I had, and this was a kind of responsibility. He had dropped his guard because he was tired of the fight, but he was moving with caution. He’s right to be afraid. There are some out there who, if you lower your shield, will smile and barrage you with sweet words while taking careful measurement of the distance between their weapon of choice and your vital organs. It’s not always easy to tell who is who in the battlefield, especially with rainbow-coloured mud in your eye.

I felt honoured, but also sad at how hard it is for us to extend genuine trust. If even we, who are unequivocally on the side of love, of justice, of tolerance, of beauty, of humour and personal freedom, if even we whose first instinct is empathy not cynicism can’t trust one another, then what hope is there for the world? But I have to admit, my own trust is now coated in a quality veneer of skepticism. And so it should be. Not to sound too George Bush here, but there are people in the world with evil in their hearts. Duh. There are people who will do and say anything to get what they want from you. Duh. There are people who will happily feed off your emotions until you’re bled out, discard you like a used wrapper, and then claim they did you a favour (No duh. This was news to me). To know that such creatures are irrevocably damaged, and to wish them well in spite of the pain they cause, is not the same as condoning their behavior. Compassion does not make evil okay, it makes us okay.

“Do something every day that scares you” was the advice of Ariana Huffington, back in the day when I interviewed her. This is not so hard for those of us who find ourselves in a low boil panic most of their waking life, but the repercussions from accidentally sharing raw, unedited content in my blog is showing me that although I’ve got quite adept at doing things that scare me, I’m also pretty nifty at avoiding the things that terrify me. As usual, these are the most instructive. I’ve spent the last few months trying to understand what to do with all the pain. Stuff it down deep into my hurt locker in true British fashion; project it onto something/someone else; numb it with narcotics; let it possess me entirely so I wither away while scrawling bad poetry on the toilet wall of my heart (case in point). Gratefully, I had no choice in the end. Exhausted from the manic adrenalin of speed-induced Dodgeball, my pain and I now sit across from one another. Not exactly pals, but ready to talk.

When I was twenty-three, I went to a talk by a man whose name I forget. I do recall that in some language his name meant ‘Close to God’, which I thought was pretentious. He said, before you begin to seek enlightenment, there is another mantra you need to know. It’s ‘I’m a mess, I’m a mess, I’m a mess.’ I didn’t like that. Speak for yourself, I thought. I’m a child of the universe. Today, I know both to be true. I’m a messed up child of the universe.

Lesson….I’ve lost count.

You see, I’ve been abused and used, but in some ways I’ve used in return. I’ve judged and been judged. I’ve wanted, been wanted and Been Wanted. I’ve hurt and been hurt. I’ve got drunk, sobered up and found hidden storeys of inebriation. I’ve gone so crazy, I’ve felt a God’s-grace-hairs-breadth from tin foil and shopping trolleys. I’ve specialized in troll-sized lapses of judgement, sent myself on all expenses paid package tours to various Circles of Hell, and been sucked almost dry by human leeches masquerading as fellow pilgrims. And the fact is, I still believe. I still believe in you, in me, in this whole whacky-Barnham and Bailey-business.

And here is an even scarier truth than being both capable of asinine writing and a romantic fool. Those first two lines, the ones that got away—one thing I hated about it was that they made me seem like everyone else. When the truth is, I am everyone else. I want all the same things, I have all the same fears. And I tangle with demons and talk back to angels while doing my laundry and paying my bills, just like you. And it’s no state secret, so why is it so hard to admit?

So yes, it’s good to do something every day that scares you. And one thing every so often that terrifies the shit out of you. Like skydiving. Or this.

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Call of the void

VoidIt was one of those conversations. The kind that packs enough fuel for the musings of a life time. It began in the restless banality of a Sainsbury’s check out line in the heart of Camden Town. I had just landed from Delhi. I was back for a brief visit after a one-year experiment of reintegration into my country of origin after a 26 year absence had failed spectacularly—I could not then, and am even less able to now, call England my “home”. I would be back in Mother India in less than three weeks, but I already felt nervy, as if undercover jailers walked the streets—I could almost hear the jostling of keys—scanning supermarket aisles for escapees like me.

The checker was tapping away at a stubborn till key with a crimson talon.
“Roxanne! I need assistance here!”
The pot-bellied hipster behind me grumbled a fat crumb of sarcasm into his beard. Roxanne arrived. Squat, square-jawed and rosacea-faced. She didn’t look much of a Roxanne. More of a Linda or a Debbie. But a penny-sized tattoo of a sleeping fox below her right ear was a wink of Roxannyness.
“What’s the problem?”
“The call button doesn’t work.”
“Okay, but what was the problem before that?”
“It just went blank. I dunno what’s wrong.”
“Did you void it?”
“Turn it on and off” the beard offered with a self-satisfied snort, “Always works with the telly.”
I was used to machines going haywire in my proximity. One of the reasons I didn’t wear a watch. That and not putting much store in time. Cashier tills were the most aggravating manifestation, as it involved the cardinal English sin of holding up a queue.
“There’s that woman with the wonky magnetic field,” they must be thinking.
I was sent to another line where a lanky European girl was opening up the register. No one followed me, because no sooner had I moved away than I heard the ding of the opening till drawer, Roxanne’s exasperated “Look, it’s fine!” and the crimson talon return to business.
I put my Greek yoghurt and three Mars Bars down on the counter and waited. But the cashier just stared at me. I thought her eyes an unusual pale of blue. Her hair gripped into a tight ponytail all the way down to her coccyx. I didn’t hear the first words she said, partly because they were shrouded in a heavy German accent, and partly, well, because what she said was so odd. Something about “the void”. I thought she meant the cash register. While I waited for her to call Roxanne over, she repeated herself with precise deliberation like I was a deaf two-year old.
“You’re looking for the void.”
“I am?” still thinking maybe she was talking about cash registers.
“Most people they would do anything to keep away from the void, but not you. For you, the void is all you want.”
Okay. She wasn’t talking about cash registers. Now, I should mention that I’m no stranger to recondite conversation openers such as this. People just seem to think they can rock up to me in the street and unload about a break up, their dying Spaniel, their latest philosophical insights, anything at all. But I can recall only three instances where the subject of the matter was “me” as opposed to “they”. One is too private to share, even with protected identities. The last two also took place in London, where in the space of one week in June 2014, two ladies—one Jamaican the other Korean—had asked, “Are you okay, darling?” I hadn’t been. Not even close to it. And I recall fighting back tears that two complete strangers had not only noticed I wasn’t, but had cared enough to ask. Of course, I’d told them I was fine, under their gentle knowing better gaze. But today, I was fine, in the sense that I had become much more adjusted to my lifelong condition of rampant mythologizing (or “exaggerating” as my teachers had called it) where everything was five times taller and ten times wider than the measurements everyone else seemed to be taking. The worst of it meant the shadows cast giant-sized demons; the best of it meant the light cast behemoths of loveliness. I was falling in love all over again with the goalless meanderings that I had the audacity to call a journey.

Back in the UK, during that ill-fated year, I had almost succumbed to the insidious propaganda that hurled suspicion, disdain and hostility at my chosen life. But I had shook myself awake from that dream, the one where I stood half-drowning in a sea of waving anemone-fingers, accused of the crime of dreaming as if it amounted to high treason. Had begun to hang my head, even as the eyes of my most energetic prosecutors, when they looked at me, became windows into the never-healing wounds of their own thwarted missions to the stars. And though that trial was history now and I had returned to my magical walkabout, I had somehow remained uncommitted to the stark demands of freedom beyond the matrix. I found myself on occasion still chewing on half a crumpled plan to settle down and try my hand at a “normal” life, even though the very thought sent my body, in its own visceral wisdom, into adrenal overdrive and head to toe nausea.

“You’ll never fit in here,” the German girl continued, as if hearing my thoughts. “It’s not your path. You should give up now. You’re going to travel far, speak to many wise people, and learn many things. You will grow old happily and you will know exactly why you are here. In this life.”
I began to wonder if I was on a hidden camera reality show, and eyed up the CCTV just in case, to let them know I was onto them.
“You may have a bit of trouble in the Middle East, but you’ll survive.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” I said, not convinced it was. I figured I should just jump in and take this at face value. I could dismiss it all later as the creative diversion of a bored under-achieving immigrant with a talent for pranking. But what if she was the real deal? I couldn’t help myself.
“What about money, relationships? Do you see any of that?”
Both accounts were running low, but the question sounded silly even as I asked it. She closed her eyes momentarily, as an unexplained waft of strawberry ice cream hit my nostrils. If an expression could say, “Meh,” hers was it.
“Give up this thought of normal life. It’s not for you. For you is the void and the journey to the void. You want to get all the way this time. And you will.”

Deep inside my chest cavity, a spontaneous rewiring of conduits shot quantum electrical signals into the dormant chambers of that imperial organ. I don’t know why, but the story about a scroll of Gregorian chant music that had been discovered buried in the vault of a ruined church slipped into my mind. A local choir became the first instruments of its message in half a millennium led by a choirmaster named Ian. But where was the music all that time the parchment lay silent in that dank lonely vault—between the last lips that sang it and Ians? Was it always still there, in a sense, trapped inside the inked annotations, like a cake lurks inside a recipe until someone puts the ingredients together and cooks it for twenty minutes at 360 degrees?
“That’s four pounds thirty pence.”

The unusual pale blue eyes peered over glasses. They had clouded over, rainbows and unicorns summarily dismissed. I started to laugh, but she was serious.
“Four pounds thirty pence, please,” she said again, without a hint of irony. I made to cross her palm with silver. Not only had I been given permission to light a campfire with my Curriculum Vitae, I had been practically ordered to. I felt like a six-year-old who’d been told they can celebrate Christmas every day in a house made of candy. I figured it was a bargain. The void was calling. There was no stopping me now.

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Just now

Duration only means delay whenever it exceeds the span necessary for realization.’
Count Hermann Keyserling, traveler and philosopher

broken heartIt’s a long bone- battering bus ride from Dharamsala to Delhi. My seatmate began to chat from the moment I cranked up my footrest. Sandeep. Young, Indian, polite, inquisitive. I found myself curling my blanket more tightly around my torso and my privacy while he whittered on about how much he loved coming to Dharamsala, well more precisely Dharamkot, a mountain village which over the years had become a stronghold for baggy-panted charris-eyed guitar-wielding Israeli youth fresh from the bootstraps of military service —‘the occupied territories’, as it’s come to be known, complete with synagogue and falafel plates. He also loved sketching, music, Bob Dylan, meeting new people, walking up mountains, gazing at mountains, sketching mountains. Snoozing on buses? I wanted to add. His lengthy repertoire of enthusiasms was only interrupted by the thumping decibels of a Bollywood movie, spinning out its multiple wardrobe changes and nonsensical plot, while the bus swerved like a tanked Anaconda out of the lap of the hills into the plains below. When we stopped for dinner, he hung around the restaurant entrance waiting for me and I resigned myself to his company. When our thalis arrived, he watched as I launched into mine, a roti dangling from his fingertips.

“I loved her so much, you know.”
“Sure,” I replied, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to begin a conversation this way.
“But it was one-sided.”
I looked at him properly for the first time. He was about twenty-six. An open, trusting face, and a mouth that turned up at the corners so he seemed to smile even in repose. We could hardly have been more different, and yet he had recognized me. A fellow veteran from distant wars.
“One-sided,” he repeated, as if still convincing himself of the fact. “We lived like man and wife for over one month. And then she left. I was ready to marry her. I was very foolish.”
His large clear eyes welled with emotion. He was a true believer. She must have seen him coming a mile off.
“You were in love and you got hurt. It comes with the territory. Like skiing.”
“Yes, I got very hurt. I’m in so much pain. It’s been two months now. I still think of her all the time. What can I do?”
The waiter tossed two more rotis in our general direction.
“Just keep going,” I said. “Don’t give up. You’re in good company.”
It felt like small change, but it was all I had.
“Does it get easier?”
“Yes. Now eat your dinner,” I said, sounding more maternal than I intended. “The bus is leaving soon.”

Two days later, he called me and asked to meet. I don’t know why I agreed, but his young and sudden trust and half mad intuition that we shared some core truths, had touched me. We sat in a booth under a flickering fluorescent light in a crowded South Indian restaurant. A temporary confessional. Over salt lassis and masala dosas, he continued his elegiac story. The girl was from Israel, very pretty and flirtatious. She both craved male attention and was damaged by it. She had once called him from the Andaman Islands, crying into the phone that she had narrowly escaped being raped.
“I would have done anything for her. Anything at all. But in the end she said she’d just wanted me for the sex. How is that possible? Sex she could have with anyone. She didn’t need the emotional connection we had.”
“Maybe she did,” I shrugged.
“I don’t understand. She keeps telling me how many guys she’s having sex with. Why would she tell me this? To make me jealous?”
His vulnerability was humbling. And it was mining something buried in me.
“Possibly. She may not be thinking about your feelings at all.”
He handed me a sketchbook; thick-lined angular charcoal drawings of curvaceous women playing veenas and Himalayan forest scenes.
“This is all I did for a month. I just drew and drew. I lost my job. It’s funny. I think I miss her but really I miss…”
“Yeah. This is exactly true.”
Carbon copies from distant worlds.
“Look. You’ve lost a lot of confidence, but you’re not broken. Just badly bruised. You need to distance yourself from her.” I spoke as gently as I could. “You know that, right?”
“Yes, I know.”
I was, finally, and rather reluctantly, giving him what he had come for.
“You need to treat her like a virus. It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person, though she may be…damaged in a way that makes her bad for people like you.”
His eyes locked onto mine. Pupils taking notes.
“Right now, every time you engage her you’re re-infecting yourself.”
“That is exactly how it feels.”
My rickety dented heart was now a holy book, its sorrows a cantica. He roughed up his thick short hair, and smiled awkwardly.
“My friends think I should just get another one. You know. To get over her.”
“Is that what you want?”
The smile dissolved in thoughtfulness.
“No, I don’t. It seems cheap.”
“That stuff’s for amateurs. Professional romantics like us have to do better.”
There was an adumbration of relief in his laugh.
“Pain doesn’t go away by taking it out on the world. And anyway, you’re not like that.”
I had known him only a few hours, but I knew it to be true.
“No, I’m not like that. I don’t want to use someone that way.”
“Then don’t. And anyway, right now you have a great opportunity.”
“For what?”
“To connect with your own power.”
Was this a line from Kung Fu Panda?
“I’ll do that.”
The flickering fluorescent settled into the ‘on’ position and lit up his face as if his words had turned luminous. A young couple and small boy were waiting their turn for the confessional. It was time to go.
“Tell me something. How do you know when you’re…you know, over it?”
“When you stop pouring your heart out to random women on buses?”
He laughed but was quickly serious again. He wanted more. Actually, the question had startled me. I was someone to talk to about crashing into snowdrifts and getting back up. I wasn’t a ski instructor.
He stood there, stubbornly patient.
“I guess…..” I pushed his wallet away and laid 500 rupees into the silver tray the waiter had slid artfully onto the table edge, trying to dredge up another Kung Fu Panda line but coming up empty “…a good start is when you feel okay about having fallen so badly in the first place.”
“So when did you know you were? Over it, I mean.”
The carbon copies fluttered in the karmic winds as he opened the door for me to leave.
“Just now,” I said. “Just now.”

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Stay a minute….

Best listened to


Stay a minute
And know that it won’t kill you

Stay a minute
And know that it won’t kill

Stay a minute
And know that it won’t

Stay a minute
And know that

Stay a minute
And know


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The unforgettable Mr Sharif

Sharif7I boasted among men that I had known you.
They see your pictures in all works of mine…
I put my tales of you into lingering songs.
The secret gushes from my heart.

Rabindranath Tagore

Mr. Sharif parted the crowds on the platform of Jaipur train station like the Red Sea. Maddy and I had staunchly forged our way past the “money mosquitoes” as Mr. Sharif later referred to the hopeful gaggle of drivers and hotel wallahs that hovered around us. To hesitate was a sign of weakness; to stop was complete surrender. But Mr. Sharif moved with a focused grace; relieving us of our bags, launching them into the open trunk of his black and yellow Ambassador, and flicking open the back passenger door in a single seamless gesture. I’d been told that our hotel was fifteen minutes from the station. I was already visualizing a warm shower, a soft mattress, and a generous shot of the Scotch whiskey that I knew Maddy had stashed in her travel case. Mr Sharif carefully adjusted the rear view mirror. He was dressed in the standard uniform—black trousers/white shirt—of waiters and drivers, Arabica-coloured eyes gleaming beneath a prominent groomed hairline, a dash of grey at the sideburns. He was only 29 I learned later, but he looked closer to 35. Absent was the well-worn expression studiously designed for the foreign tourist, cheerfully resentful and wearied by repetition. Mr. Sharif was fully engaged. I’m sure he had said it all a thousand times, but somehow had not lost enthusiasm for the delivery.
“See the book beside you?”
Between us on the seat lay a worn hard-backed notebook with red cotton binding—the kind found in every schoolchild’s backpack.
“Please read the last thing inside.”
I complied with an internal sigh, wondering what the scam was this time. Using the light of my mobile phone, I began to read. The writing was elegant, old-fashioned. My wife and I are eternally grateful to Mr. Sharif for all his kind assistance…
“Please read speaking, Madam.”
My internal sigh almost achieved audible capacity as Maddy gave me a we’re not going anywhere until you comply kind of look.
I cleared my throat.

“My wife and I are eternally grateful to Mr. Sharif for all his kind assistance on our first visit to Jaipur. In his capable hands we explored the fascinating historic sites of Rajasthan for two glorious weeks. His knowledge, integrity and concern for our welfare, but above all, his generous company, will be warmly remembered in years to come. You who are reading this are lucky to have him in the driver’s seat. With much appreciation, Arnold and Bessie Wahlberg from Oklahoma.”

Sharif1When I looked up, Mr. Sharif’s eyes seemed to have percolated an extra shine. It was then that a penny rather long in the dropping, registered that this must be the first time he had heard what the Wahlbergs from Oklahoma had said about him. It was quite likely that he didn’t read English, and certainly not Mr. Wahlberg’s elaborate cursive. By way of this ingenious method, Mr. Sharif accomplished a dual benefit. He learned what his last customer had said about him, and impressed the new customer with this knowledge. It was a leap of faith on his part, for he had no idea in advance the substance of the most recent entry. But that was likely part of what kept it interesting. Mr. Sharif believed in himself and was very much his own man.

It was two days before we saw Mr. Sharif again. Properly stimulated by India’s literati at the Jaipur Literary Festival (with inevitable discussion over how exactly racist was Rudyard Kipling—a less ponderous exercise if he hadn’t muddied the waters with the poem We and They), we had a few spare hours for shopping and sightseeing before our bus headed back to Delhi. He seemed genuinely happy to see us, and was patiently attentive, though clearly amused, by our rambling discourse about where exactly we wanted to go. He was immensely likable, and took no advantage of our indecision to whisk us off to his third cousin’s pottery factory.

Sharif12After an extended period admiring the handiwork of  pillow cases and bedspreads in one particularly well-stocked textile shop (and having been talked into buying more than either of us felt we could afford) Mr. Sharif took us to lunch at what he assured us was the “very special best” restaurant in Jaipur. The place was an unadorned canteen-style concrete square on the first floor of a tatty shopping block. But being seasoned veterans of India’s commonly inverted relationship between ‘upscale’ and ‘delicious’, Maddy and I remained optimistic. When the vegetarian thalis arrived – the masterful blend of colour and spices with the piping garlic nans, a succulent buttery shine between heat-bubbles perfectly browned, grabbed our helpless appetites and spun them into a rumba. We began to politely ease the nans apart, but after the first mouthful, all decorum had been tabled, and we were ‘ripping and dipping’ like starving babies. Mr. Sharif launched into a story about his childhood. I glanced up at him over my spoon every now and then, to give what I hoped passed for an ‘I’m listening’ nod, but the contents of the little silver plates before me held my attention far more firmly than Mr. Sharif’s reminiscences. Though this was about to change.

“When I was twelve, my family moved to the city so my father could find work. He had been a farmer before, but things hadn’t gone well. In Jaipur, he couldn’t find any work. We were so poor, we could barely afford to eat. I used to hang out near my uncle’s chai stall near the Jaipur post office. I liked watching the foreigners. They were so interesting to me. One day, an American man and his wife came with some textiles they wanted to send back to the US.

Sharif4I noticed that they were having a lot of trouble figuring out how to wrap it and fill out all the forms, so I offered to help them. I took care of that parcel and a few others for them over the next couple of days, making sure it was properly stitched up in white cotton by the local tailor and addressed in black marker pen. On their last day, the man shook my hand and thanked me. He pressed some money into my hand. I didn’t know what it was so I took it to my uncle at the chai stall. He said it was fake and that it was worthless. I began to cry. I was so upset that after everything I’d done the man had given me fake money. I hadn’t even asked him for a fee. I would have done it all for nothing. But fake money? I was so angry I ran home. I didn’t want to see any more tourists that day. My other uncle was in the house and he asked me what was wrong. I showed him the note.
“This isn’t fake,” he told me. “It’s $100”.
I almost fainted. I got the money changed into rupees and I wrote down on a piece of paper exactly what I was going to do with it. I bought rice and daal and other tinned food to last my family for three months. I bought my mother a new sari. I gave my father enough money for one month’s rent. The rest I kept for myself.

Then I stationed myself outside of the post office, and whenever I would see a tourist, I would offer them my help. I did this for a whole year. One day, an American woman asked me to help her to send a package home. After I helped her she came and sat next to me. She asked me all about myself and my life. I found her easy to talk to. Then she told me she wanted to see something of Rajasthan, beyond Jaipur. I told her that I knew many beautiful places to visit, and she asked me if I would be her guide. I said, “Of course I will.”

I barely knew how to drive, but my uncle lent me his car. Her name was Jenny. I told her about the Western deserts of Jaisalmer, how black the night sky is there, how bright the stars shine. She said, “Okay, let’s go there.” On the way she asked to stop at a Beer & Wine shop. She bought some beer and drank it in the car. She offered it to me but I didn’t take any. I’m a Muslim, and we never drink. She got quite drunk that day and at one point she cried. I think she had some troubles.

sharif20When it was getting dark, she asked me if I knew a hotel nearby. I told her that I could take her to my uncle’s guesthouse” (Mr. Sharif seemed to have an endless supply of uncles). “I was very happy. I told her that I would make her mutton for dinner. It was my most famous dish. Like gourmet style. Everyone loved it when I made mutton. When we reached the hotel, she said she wanted to walk to the market to get some more beer. I went into the kitchen and began to prepare our dinner. By eight o’clock it was ready. But she didn’t come back for dinner. I watched it turn cold. I couldn’t eat any of it. Finally, I threw it to the dogs. I didn’t know where I was supposed to sleep, so I crawled into the car with a blanket. She eventually came back around eleven on the back of a motorbike. The driver was a young man from the village. She took him into her room and closed the door. That night I didn’t sleep a single minute.”

Maddy and I were nodding and emitting the occasional “hmmm” and “aha” to show that we were listening–though truthfully we were more concerned in getting as much daal as possible onto our nans and getting the whole to our mouths before splodging it across the table. But I admit that by now I was getting intrigued. Mr. Sharif was a consummate story teller. It was like he was reliving every word.

Sharif6“In the morning she came out and asked if I wanted to take a shower in her room. The man must have left already. I couldn’t look at her. I didn’t want her to see that I was crying. She kept asking me what was wrong. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. I shouted, “I spent the whole night cooking mutton for you. I had to throw it away. I cooked it especially for you! Now it’s all ruined!” I could hardly speak through my tears. She was standing directly over me. Her hair was golden and the sun shine on her blue eyes, ahhh so beautiful. Then she looked at me for a long time without saying anything. I kept crying and going on about the mutton. Finally, she said, “Come with me.” She took my hand and led me into her room.”
Mr. Sharif paused while my head arose from the daal, the last piece of nan dangling in thin air. Maddy was in a similar state. Both of us staring at Mr. Sharif in amazement.
Then what?”
Mr. Sharif put his chin in his hands and shook his head slowly as if he himself could hardly believe his own memory.
“I did not see the sun for five days.”

Sharif5Maddy’s eyebrows were levitating ever higher up her forehead.
How old were you?” she asked.
“I was fifteen.”
“Was that ….erm…?”
“Yes, it was. My first time.”

He was not about to elaborate, which made it all the more compelling. There was nothing rude or lascivious about him, or the way he shared his coming of age story. It was all very natural and deeply human. I wondered who else he’d told; and why us, why today. Perhaps because he sensed we wouldn’t judge him or think he was trying to pick us up. I could picture it all so easily. Little Mr. Sharif, crying into his mutton. I was intrigued by this mysterious woman, somewhere in her thirties and her decision to be the leading lady in the carnal rite of passage for this romantic entrepreneurial teenager from Rajasthan. I could see him entering her room; a besotted boy, wiping away his tears. And coming out a man.

“That began something in me. I was never the same. A year later, my parents arranged my marriage to a local girl. I’d known her for some time. She was lovely. I liked her a lot. But I knew I would cheat on her. I told her I could never be the husband she deserved. She was very understanding.”
“So you never got married?”
“No. Never.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
“Of course. But I decided that I’d rather be lonely than be dishonest. You see. I only can be with foreign women now.”
“Isn’t that difficult?”
Mr. Sharif laughed.
“Yes, it’s very difficult. But a year later, when I was sixteen, I met a girl from Germany. She was much younger than Jenny.”

Sharif13Maddy and I’d had this vague plan to visit Jaipur Palace, as one does. My Delhi neighbor, Tsering, had insisted that I see the imperial Moghul harem where, according to legend, the concubines and their lovers bathed in hot milk laced with hashish. But Mr. Sharif was far more entertaining than the ruins of an ancient harem. I could see by Maddy’s face that she was in full agreement. Mr. Sharif did not disappoint.
“She had gone through a crazy time, this German girl. I think she was a little crazy. She was in a hospital in Berlin. She couldn’t stop cutting her arms. She had tiny scars all over them. Someone told her she should go to Varanasi to find a guru. When she got there she met some saddhu and asked him for a mantra, or some meditation she could do, that would help her when she felt crazy. But instead of giving her a mantra, this saddhu told her she needed ‘man energy’.
“Man energy?” I intercepted.
“Yes. And he told her she would find it in Jaipur. So, she came to Jaipur.”
Mr. Sharif smiled.
“And we stayed together for some time.”
He was not interested in bragging about his sexual exploits as would many other young men who had found themselves in this enviable position.
“And how many days did you not see the sun this time?” Maddy piped in.
sharif30I was a veteran of tall tales, but this was for real. I knew it down to my shoes.
I couldn’t help emitting a soft “wow”.
Maddy was less restrained. “Seven days!?” she exclaimed.
“Yes. She told me I must have Mughal blood!”
Mr. Sharif looked momentarily shy at having succumbed to a boast.
“And did it work? I mean did she get better?”
“Oh, yes. She was fine after that. She seemed very happy.”
“How did you know she was happy?” I ventured.
“She was peaceful and she smiled all the time.
“And were you happy, Mr. Sharif?”
“Oh yes. I was very happy. For a while. She taught me a lot. We stayed in touch for a few months after that. I loved her very much.”
“Do you mind if I write your story, Mr. Sharif? I think people would be interested to hear it.”
“I don’t mind at all. I have nothing to hide. But you must promise me one thing.”
“Sure,” I said, leaning in a little.
“Don’t say the name of this restaurant. I don’t want it to…you know, get ruined.”
“Like the mutton.”
Mr. Sharif threw back his head and laughed so his belly shook.
“Yes, madam. Like the mutton.”

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For rent

roomLovely room for rent in upscale third floor flat in sought after area of West London. We are seeking an averagely attractive*, well-dressed single female heterosexual professional tenant aged between 30 and 33 (passport ID required for age verification) for long-term tenancy. Part-time employees, students, those on benefits, or anyone who shops at Primark should not apply. Prefer tenant on regular overtime or packed gym/volunteer schedule for minimum household impact. Eaters considered but with preference to microwave-users. Not requiring heating or use of washing-machine is a plus. We are a popular, good-looking couple (PhD graduates) with interests that include talking to our friends about how great we are and taking ‘selfies’. The ideal tenant will not engage in conversation except to compliment our taste in home furnishings. The lucky candidate will be tidy, easy-going and silent before 7:59 pm and after 8 pm. Occasional muffled sobbing allowed (within reason). No phone calls after 6 pm. No guests in room. No smoking, music or pets. Three months rent plus life savings. References required (plus one celebrity endorsement). Please send a double-spaced 1000 word essay on why you think you deserve to live with us and include a recent photo.

*non-threatening to monogamous females.

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The spam of loneliness: all I need from you

This poem is another made up of fragments cut from twenty-five spam messages I received from January through March 2014 and is part of a series. Our humanity is when we reach for each other. Even just someone to lie to.

You do not know mespam
But I am compelled

All I need from you…

An old account
Kept in a secret place
Are you the friend of my father?

This will come as a surprise
It is understandable

All I need from you…

An uncontrollable crisis
You must have heard
My life no more protected
The only son

At such a turning point
One has to risk confiding
the language of friendship

A deadly bomb blast
Such wild destruction
A huge sum of money
Lost by fire

Dearest One
I need to confirm
In the name of Allah
Are you dead or alive?

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The piano extremist: maestro of Euromaidan

piano extremist

The self-styled “piano extremist” plays on the roof of a burned “Berkut” bus near the barricade across Hrushevskoho str. Kiev (WikiCommons)

He calls himself the “Piano Extremist”—his real name is unknown. He disguises himself with ski masks and combat gear. But though he is dressed up for a fight, this young man has for months now been performing lyrical recitals on old uprights for Kiev’s battle-weary Maidanites. Impromptu musical performances have become popular during the Ukrainian protests, but this mystery pianist has become something of a musician laureate for Euromaidan. He has played in the battle zone of Independence Square, on trailers coursing the ragged barricades around the city, and on the roof of a burned out bus of the “Berkut” – Ukraine’s feared paramilitary militia.

The only thing he’ll say about himself is that he’s in his 20s and studied at a music college in western Ukraine. “My music shows that the people here are normal, educated people,” he told Reuters. His moniker refers to the use of the term “extremist” by Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko to describe anti-government protestors. There are photos of him with sheet music folded into his flak jacket. He favours the music of Italian composer, Ludovico Einaudi, best known for his score for the movie Dr. Zhivago. He wears a silver ring on his wedding finger.

The Youtube link reads: Video was made under walls of KMDA 24.01.2014 on Euromaidan. Outside is 15 degrees below zero. Sorry for low quality…

KMDA is Kiev’s City Hall, which became a rebel HQ in December until the occupiers vacated this and other government buildings in a conciliatory move on February 16th. The amateur footage is deeply evocative of what freedom means, emphasized by being so poorly lit; something powerful enough to move the hearts of millions, yet always dancing on the threshold of vulnerability. As he plays, people slowly gather around his piano as if around a hearth, listening in respectful silence in the cold uncertain night.

In this recital a beer in a plastic up sits atop the piano while he gently feels out the keys through a ski mask, gloves and fatigues. He nods to a young girl standing next to him to signal when to turn the page.

This footage (below) was taken at a dimly lit Ukrainian House on January 26th. Ukrainian House is Kiev’s most prestigious Convention Centre, right on European Square, 250 metres from Independence Square. A few hours before, anti-government protestors had fire-bombed and taken over the building that police had been using as a stronghold. After two days, the Ukrainian parliament offered concessions and repealed anti-protest laws, only to resort to a brutal crackdown on the demonstrators two weeks later.

The “piano extremist” has exchanged his ski mask for a more protective motorcycle helmet. As he plays Einaudi’s “Divenire” the camera pans around to show a woman perched at his side, the Ukrainian national flag, a few people quietly scattered among the theatre style seats. Normally this place is host to prestigious trade fairs, award-winning exhibitions and fancy banquets. Earlier that day it had been a war zone. But on this Sunday evening, just one among Kiev’s troubled calendar, it’s a few pairs of ears, a flashlight and this guy –reminding us all of the things worth fighting for.

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The spam of loneliness: My dearest friend

This poem is made up of fragments cut from dozens of spam messages I received over the past month. I found myself sifting through them for some humanity I could connect with. In rearranging their words I felt like I was putting together a robot made of bits of scrap and finding a glint of sentience. The humanity is in the reach for the other. Even if it’s just someone to lie to. 


My dearest friend
Can I trust you?

I am afraid
this message may offend

An undisclosed sum of money

$10.2 Million
sum of $10.5M
One Million Great Britain pounds
In the tune of excess of eight digit number

Over $900 million
in Saddam Hussein’s hideout
In two metal trunk boxes
Coded with high security gadget

Even the security house in Jordan
will not be made aware

Work with me
with one mind without betrayer

I need someone I can trust
I am searching

I already lost a box of gold

Please can we?
My dearest friend

Me and my fellow Soldier

They took us to a cave
In the process of torture they confessed

Forgive my indignation
In the face of civil war
We are willing to negotiate
We appeal to you

My best, most private
My dearest friend

You may not understand
Please save me

I need
Divine intervention

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The shipping forecast: moderate or good

radio1My mother was an avid radio listener, loyal to ‘The Archers’ and most of BBC Radio 4, and would turn on the radio when she was cooking or sleeping. As she got older, she cooked and slept less, but the radio remained a constant reassuring presence.

I lived in California for the last 20 years of her life, visiting once a year at most in the beginning, but more often towards the end. She had trouble sleeping, and would put the radio on when she turned off her bedside lamp. I was always jet-lagged for the first week of any visit, and would come to bed around 2 am to find her dozing peacefully to live reports of bombings in Baghdad or a humanitarian crisis in the Sudan. I always found something so touching about seeing my mother sleeping; tufts of auburn hair sticking out from under the duvet, with the radio blasting all the troubles of the world.

I’m fairly certain that it was a Hacker RP72 Sovereign III, which came on the market in 1973. Now considered vintage, at the time it was state of the art. As an RAF family, we moved around a lot, and every couple of years everything would change; the house, the school, the neighbourhood, my friends. So as a kid I always paid close attention to the things that didn’t change. They were marvels to me, those unchanging things. My mum’s Hacker radio was one of them. Even when she bought a bedroom radio in the 1980s she kept the Hacker. It had separate dials to adjust the bass and treble (I recall a few slapped hands when I twiddled them) and the Long Wave option captured the bass and clarity of the announcer’s voices perfectly.

During my jet-lagged weeks, when late night television became unendurable, I would make a cup of tea and a couple of slices of toast and marmalade, and sit on the kitchen stool in the dark listening to that radio. Often, the only thing on at that time was the Shipping Forecast, a weather broadcast for the coastal seas off the British Isles produced by the Met Office. The 00:48 broadcast of the Shipping Forecast was always preceded by a few bars of the bubbly tune ‘Sailing By’, but the content is read straight, with no background or interruptions, and sent out on Long Wave as well as FM since the LW signal can be easily received at sea.

For those whose lives don’t depend on it, the Shipping Forecast is an endearing mixture of poetry and code. With a maximum word count of 370 there is almost no room for variation in the script. The steady measured pace of the delivery is intended for sailors to hear it easily and to have time to write it down, but with the unintended effect of producing a rhythm and tempo that is utterly mesmerizing. For those at sea it is potentially life-saving information. But for me, grabbing a sense of home for few weeks a year, it was the sound of a kind of soothing familiar peace. It’s only recently that I’ve discovered that the Shipping Forecast has made a similar impression on many others, and I feel a kinship with them as if we’re fellows of an unofficial society of romantic code-breakers.

shipping-forecast-locationsThe broadcast contained repeated phrases such as ‘moderate or good’, and Edward Lear-esque terms like ‘expected Norwegian basin’ and ‘becoming cyclonic’. Lyrical names of sections of sea; North Utsire and South Utsire (pronounced Üt-SEAR-ra and always mentioned together), Dogger, FitzRoy and German Bight (that I heard as ‘German bite’) caught the imagination much like Narnia or Avalon. But it was about half way through the broadcast, with reports from the coastal stations, that things would begin to get seriously hypnotic. After every sentence, starting with stupendous names like ‘Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic’, the announcer would pause momentarily and then end with, ‘falling slowly’, ‘now falling’ or sometimes simply ‘falling’. I assume there must have been the occasional ‘rising slowly’ or ‘now rising’ but I can’t remember hearing it. After a few minutes of this, I would begin to feel drowsy and trundle off to bed, falling slowly to sleep.

For years, I’m certain it was the same announcer, the kind of comforting woody BBC voice it would be nice to hear in rough seas. Later, the announcers seemed to change quite regularly, with regional accents and even (god forbid) a woman. There’s a character in a Peter James novel who recites the shipping forecast when he can’t think of what to say. I must say I find this rather appealing. When someone asks how you are, you could reply “becoming cyclonic” or “falling slowly”. And if that doesn’t cut the mustard you could just stick with the old sailor’s standby—“moderate or good.”

NOTE: (Only those already familiar with the Shipping Forecast will find the Brian Perkins version funny, below)

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2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,200 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 53 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Will anyone take this bear home for Christmas?

I found him at the rubbish depot in my neighborhood, sitting alone in the corner of the lot.

abandoned bear1

He was soggy and huge.

abandoned bear2

The depot manager told me he’d been putting off taking him to the tip.

abandoned bear3
“I feel like putting some tinsel on him and sitting him in the back of the truck on the way, with a sign that reads: WILL ANYONE TAKE THIS BEAR HOME FOR CHRISTMAS?”


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Squirrel vs. Lamborghini

A less than sympathetic sun elbowed its way through the fog and smirked on my cheeks that were paling from too long on a rose garden bench in my local park. The roses were taking refuge in non-existence, but it was good enough for North London in mid-December. A long 6 foot + Lamborghini_vs_squirrel_2silhouette filtered in and out of my peripherals – leaning down now and then, and clucking softly. A gentle-looking black man in an ankle-length black coat, carrying a blue plastic carrier bag. The sun-fog swirled around his ankles like stage-production of an old Hammer. I focused in on him, to see him lean down again, pull something out of his bag and put it into the mouth of a Grey Squirrel that was stretched up eagerly on its hind legs. I looked around, scouting for Health & Safety, the Rabies Police and any members of the Red Squirrel Lobby; which pretty much covers everyone in Britain apart from the Nihilists and the Red Squirrel Lobby Haters. Which pretty much covers everyone else.

It occurred to me how much-maligned the Grey Squirrel has been, since the outbreak of the 100 Year Squirrel Wars. I mean, they didn’t ask to be trapped and shipped from their native America in Thomas Brocklehurst’s suitcase. And what was a Victorian banker thinking playing Squirrel God by letting them into the wild? But it is still the case that the Red Squirrel, smaller and arguably cuter, has been driven to the British outback – Scotland – poor wee things, by the vicious teeth-gnashing Greys who chase them out of their beds in the dead of night and infect them with a nasty puss-seeping virus. The situation is deemed so desperate there is even a Red Squirrel Survival Trust, with Prince Charles as its patron. And here is this reckless individual, hand-feeding the bastards in a public park.

But wait, I thought. Aren’t we also driving other species to extinction from the helm of our own evolutionary fortune? Maybe there is a debate going on in the Pleiades right now about whether to exterminate us?

“Look, Zomopharan (continuing a time-honored tradition of naming alien leaders from failed sleeping pill brands), it’s them or the dolphins.”
“True. And the dolphins are cuter.”
“Then I propose total annihilation of the human species. All in favour……?”

Actually, there are some lonely, yet persuasive voices, who suggest that maybe the Squirrel Wars story isn’t quite as bullet proof. They say that the Greys get the nasty virus too, they just developed better immunity to it, that they happen to thrive in trees that we chop down less, and that they don’t actually chase Red Squirrels at all. In fact, they assert, the reason the Grey Squirrels are so much more numerous is simply because they have adapted better to changing circumstance. Their crime is their success. But at the time of this story, I hadn’t done a massive Google search on squirrel eco-politics, and remained unequivocally on the side of the Red propagandists.

I sauntered along West Green Rd–as only the unemployed mulling the Darwinian implications of British wildlife can at 11 on a Thursday morning–ending up at the dry cleaners. And lo and behold! standing at the counter plain as day was the Grey Squirrel Scab still clutching the evidence of his crimes – the blue plastic bag. He was having a rather polite difference of opinion with the proprietor about the speed of his laundry.
“My good man… (yes, he actually said this)…you seem to fail to understand that I require this item in a more timely manner. How do you intend to please me?”
He stepped back a little when he saw me tentatively displaying my yellow laundry ticket, and beckoned me to the counter.
“By all means, go ahead. This could take some time.”
“Did I see you feeding the squirrels?” I asked, trying to not add the word ‘bastard’ before the word ‘squirrels’.
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful! I’ve decided to return to Mother Nature.”
Deciding to ignore the myriad questions this raised, I asked.
“Do they always let you feed them by hand?”
“Oh no. But there’s a first time for everything, don’t you agree?”
He continued.
“I’ve decided to go the other way. Now I do yoga under the moon. We’ve gone as far as we can go this way. I’ve accepted that I’m never going to get that Lamborghini. I’m trying something new.”
His face bounced with tiny vibrations of energy as he spoke. I was happy for him and decided not to trouble him with the complexities of Squirrelgate. Maybe one of the aliens will take pity on me. Even though I’m a scourge on nature, I can still look cute up on my hind legs.
“I still want that Lamborghini though,” he added as I picked up my laundry and turned to leave.
In the battle for this man’s philosophical attention, a squirrel had won over a Lamborghini. This was, I thought, in an odd but indisputable way, impressive.  Okay, maybe it was the wrong kind of squirrel, but goddammit if I didn’t have a grudging admiration for this vintage romantic.
I wished him luck to which he thanked me and promptly returned to continue his courteous dispute.

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Gongylus Gongylodes!

Yes, it’s real. I had the honour of witnessing this wondrous Jabberwocky of a creature in the Auroville forest, Tamilnadu.

DSCF1056It’s Latin name is Gongylus Gongylodes, otherwise known as a Dead Leaf Mantis or (rather poetically) the Wandering Violin Mantis. It moves like Michael Jackson doing the robot dance in a hurricane if Michael Jackson was made out of leaves. The Wikipedia entry says that the males are capable of flight (which I’m glad I found out about later) but I was reassured by the following: They live and breed in large groups without unnecessary cannibalism. An example for us all.

My friend Chris [conspiracyofjoy] managed to shoot a video of it. (Excellent work considering he only had one useable leg at the time).

And here’s how to handle one – should the situation ever arise.

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Tipping Point: Love, booze, and climate change

‘Clomance’. Climate Change meets Romance.

“The West Wing” meets “Sex in the City” – me writing my own review.

“Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.” Albert Einstein
“No. But climate change is.” Jude Windsor


Climate Change isn’t sexy.
Jake’s text arrived just as they were sitting down to dinner. He was replying to her texted question. Why? His text before that: Cute, but it’ll never catch on which was a response to her original text: I’m thinking about writing a blog on love and climate change… 

pink“So, what do you think?”
Jude looked up from her mobile back across the table.
“Sorry, I tuned out for a minute. What were you saying?”
Jalil raised one eyebrow in that rock ‘n roll photo shoot way. Wistful and rugged at the same time. His dark eyes even darker in the low lit restaurant. It had been her idea to come there, a new Spanish wine bar in a funky part of Camden. But now she felt odd in the intimate atmosphere surrounded by lovers, like they were on a date.
“The carbon tax?”
She wiggled her wine glass at the waiter who replied with an affirmative thumbs up.
“You want another beer?”
“Not for me.”
The carbon tax. Jude sighed inwardly. They hadn’t seen one another for two months. Not since he’d left his position as head of a corporate responsibility think tank, where she’d worked as a reacher. He’d since been posted to the Foreign Office, advising the government on climate change. She was hoping for some small talk at least.
“Well, of course it’s a step in the right direction. But it’s dead in the water, isn’t it? ‘Assisted suicide,’ isn’t that what your energy minister called it?”
“He’s also your energy minister, I’ll have you informed. He also called it ‘absurd’.”
“Aren’t you guys supposed to be playing for the same team?”
Jalil shrugged as the waiter brought their food. Jude tried to signal that he’d got their orders the wrong way around, but it was too late.
“It’s a weathercock isn’t it?”
“Excuse me?”
” A way to gauge public reaction without the leadership losing face. Isn’t he Joint Energy and Business Minister now?”
Jalil picked up their plates and switched them around. He got the paella with prawns. She the Spanish omelette with salad.
“Are you suggesting an unholy alliance?”
“Or a Faustian pact.”
“Or perhaps some people thought that we need to try to solve this problem together.”
“And I thought I was the hippie.”
“You’re a cynical hippie, which does a disservice to both cynics and hippies.”
Jude decided to ignore this.
“I don’t get it. Energy industries are complaining that the EU is stalling their 100 million compensation package. But if the polluters are compensated then what is the carbon tax for? Just so it sounds like you guys are doing something?”
“You’ve forgotten ‘lining the coffers of the Exchequer’. That’s the usual allegation.”
“I’m trying not to be cynical.”
“Prices are the most reliable way to guide decisions of both producers and consumers. Adam Smith.”
“Don’t values come in to the equation?”
“Partly. But the price tag is what counts in the end. And pollution should have a price tag. G20 governments agreed four years ago that fossil fuel subsidies were bad; that they encourage wasteful consumption, reduce energy security, and basically undermine efforts to deal with climate change.”

blueJalil took a mouthful of paella and downed the last of his beer. Jude wondered why she could find him so arrogant and attractive at the same time. Even with that scrap of half-chewed food perked on his chin.
“So what happened?”
“Corporate spin machines. Always shifting the focus away from their profits. Now we have the BASF calling the carbon tax “an unsustainable policy”?
“Only the largest chemical company in the world. In 2011, Britain gave tax breaks of 280 million pounds to oil and gas producers and reduced VAT on fossil fuels by several billion, and they keep holding out their begging bowls. These guys are priceless.”
“I think it’s brilliant?”
“What do you mean?”
“Using the word ‘unsustainable’ to attack the carbon tax. It’s like homosexuals in the US taking back the word ‘gay’ from the haters and turning it into ‘gay pride’ in the 60s. Gay used to be a derogatory word. Now we don’t use anything else. Why don’t we have people like that on our side?”
“What? Liars and manipulators like the BASF spokespeople, or gays?”
“We have liars and manipulators. They’re just not as good as the other guys. I assume most gays are for the carbon tax.”
“Why do you assume that?”
Jude adjusted her seat in the chair. Something about the way he was talking to her tonight she found irksome, that half-smile, the way he was waving his hand around like he was giving a public speech.
“Well, because more gays are politically liberal.”
“Really? You know that for a fact?”
“Well, they’re statistically more likely to support parties who support gay rights, and those parties are more environmentally friendly.”
“You talk about gays a lot, have you noticed that?”
“It’s a topic close to my heart.”

Jude raised her glass and threw back a hefty swig. Jalil looked mildly disapproving, or perhaps she just imagined that he did. She often felt that he drank just to be sociable. Even though he wasn’t a practicing Moslem, drinking didn’t suit him somehow, and she’d never seen him drunk. A few months back she’d got tipsy at a colleague’s leaving party and had kissed him in the taxi. Even though they’d laughed about it later, things hadn’t been quite the same between them since. She knew that climate change was his job now he’d been promoted, but somehow they never seemed to get around to talking about anything else. Also, she felt he’d become a bit of an apologist for the government since his promotion, something she felt it her duty to challenge.

sepia“Why are governments subsidizing climate change?”
“That’s a bit of a stretch.”
“Did you see the report from that think tank, the Overseas Development Centre?”
“It’s the Overseas Development Institute. Not Centre.”
Damn, he was annoying her tonight.
“Okaaaay. Well, then you’ll know that it said that the ratio of renewable energy investment to fossil fuel subsidies globally is 1-6 dollars. Basically that sounds like subsidizing climate change. I know you believe in a political solution, but it’s not just a matter of political will. You admit that the corporatocracy is in control.
“I didn’t say that. And isn’t it corpocracy?”
“Corpocracy sounds daft. I’m sure it’s corporatocracy.”
“That sounds dafter.”
“You’re very combative this evening.”
“Isn’t it combatative?”
“Now, you’re really being annoying. And you have paella on your chin.”
He wiped it away with a forced laugh.

“Can we talk about something else?”
Jude felt a rush of blood to her cheeks. Climate change was all he ever wanted to talk about, and now he was asking her to change the subject?
She dug in her metaphorical heels.
“The Overseas Development Centre says…’
She shouldn’t have told him about the paella on his chin.
‘…says that the developed nations are creating barriers to investment in low-carbon development. Why do you think that is?”
There was that half-smile again. The one that got under her skin.
“Jude, I know where you’re going with this, but I’m not going to follow you down your yellow brick road of conspiracy theories. Economies need time to adjust to green industry.”
“It’s not a theory that the energy companies run the global economy.”
“I thought it was the Illuminati.”
“The energy companies are the Illuminati.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Hard to tell, isn’t it?”
His flippancy wasn’t reading as entirely sincere. She thought she sensed a new uncertainty. Was he getting disillusioned?
“Do you know how Denmark was able to reduce its carbon emissions so successfully in the late 90s?”
“Yes, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“Because the tax revenues from their carbon tax were used as incentives for companies to use cleaner sources of energy.”
“And what makes you think that’s not part of the UK government plan?”
Jude fished around in her handbag, regretting that third glass of wine. Jalil had been late as usual, and she’d downed two at the bar. She pulled out a magazine and flipped through it looking for the page.
“This is a quote from an April 2013 report from KMPG. ‘While the UK may have a strong system to tax industrial emissions, it scores more poorly on incentivising low carbon investment.” It goes on. “The report suggests the UK isn’t doing enough to incentivise the development of renewable energy.”
“Are you sure you don’t mean incentivate?”
Jude glared at him though she knew he was just having fun with her.
“KMPG is one of the world’s biggest auditors.”
“I know who they are.” Jalil lent his chin on his fist and looked at her with mock earnestness. “What I don’t know is why we can’t seem to talk about anything else.”
You’re the one who can’t talk about anything else!”
“Sure I can.”
They both paused as the waitress cleared their plates.
“Do you guys want dessert?”
“No, thanks,” Jalil replied hastily.
The waitress looked quizzically at Jude.
“I guess not,” she murmured.
She longed for a taramisu but didn’t want to draw out the evening. She thought she should at least make an attempt at changing the subject. The waitress had provided a segue.

DSCF0050“So. How was Newcastle?”
“It was fine.”
“And your mum?”
“She’s okay. She was happy to have me home for Eid.”
Another pause. Jude was almost grateful when he started up again.
“And what about the chief executive of E.ON UK, calling the carbon tax a ‘stealth poll tax’? I suppose you think that’s brilliant too.”
“Well, it is. Everyone hated the poll tax. And it’s associated with Maggie Thatcher. Two things against it. But why would anyone believe what an energy exec says against carbon tax anyway?”
“It’s not like he has anything to gain from knocking it.”
“You’re being funny now, aren’t you?”
“Of course I’m being funny.”
“That Telegraph article was toilet journalism. They didn’t even bother to make an attempt at balance.”
“He also said that the carbon tax was going to push up the price of electricity.”
“Well, I’m comforted to know that the world’s largest investor-owned power and gas company is worried about my electric bill,” said Jude, still distracted by the vague promise of taramisu.
Jalil looked down at his watch and felt behind his seat for his coat.
“But he didn’t say that.”
“Didn’t say what?”
“He didn’t say it was going to push up the bills of ordinary households. That’s just what people assumed he meant. He said it was going to push up the price of electricity. Now that’s brilliant.”
Jalil stood up and threw his coat on.
“Are we leaving?”
“Yeah, I have to go. I have a meeting with the Energy Minister in the morning.”
“You mean the Business and Energy Minister.”

Jalil waved her off at the Underground after another of their rather awkward hugs. He walked a few paces towards the Piccadilly Line, then turned to face her again. She half thought he was going to say something personal, something sweet.
“Do you know who was one of the very first world leaders to speak about climate change?”
“Margaret Thatcher.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Google it.”
“I will.”
She watched him walk briskly up the escalator, pulling up his collar against the wind tunnel that flung his woolen scarf up in the air.
“Maggie Thatcher,” she said out loud. “Who says climate change isn’t sexy?”

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Queen of West Green Rd

I feel I should preface this post by confiding that I’ve always had a tendency to attract ‘marginal’ types. By ‘tendency’ I mean that they hone in on me like a terrier I used to know on a discarded piece of camembert. By ‘marginal’ I mean the kind of people we shrink away from on the bus. You know who I’m talking about. The ones who natter to themselves about unspecified objects, [“It’s getting closer now, there it goes…“] talk loudly out of context about people you don’t know, [“Arthur’s not here!“] draw you in to abstruse conversation streams, [“He’d changed so much, but you would recognize him, I’m sure…“] address people as a group [“You’re all Godless sinners!”] and demand answers to unanswerable questions, [“Did you see Arthur get off the bus!?“]

Meet Uncle Charlie. Animated. Jamaican. Bestower of royal titles. I was shopping in my favourite Turkish supermarket, content in my usual illusion that I was minding my own business. It turns out I was having a psychic conversation with the man next to me. I know this because he began to talk to me (as they all do) as if we’d already been conversing.

“And why do you suppose that is?”
“I really couldn’t say.”
(I really couldn’t).
“Dang! You are a striking looking ladeeee!”
“Thanks, you’re quite striking too.”
He was dressed like Captain Haddock in Tin Tin.
“Well, thank you sooooo much. And for that I shall…what shall I do? What do you all think?”
The girl behind the register pursed her lips and tentatively shook her head.
“I’ll make her…I’ll make her…..QUEEN!!!”
The girl’s lips spilled out a nervous laugh. He glanced at her suspiciously. I re-directed his attention back to me. Being an old hand at such things, I felt it only fair.
“Queen of what?”
He looked back at me, brow suddenly furrowed.
“Queen of…..of…..” he felt around for the word.
“Queen of West Green Road?”
This seemed to focus his attention.
“Queen of the UNIVERSE!”
He swung one leg in the air and clapped his hands. A tall slip of a blonde rested her shopping basket on the counter and smiled encouragingly across the chasm of unknown quantities. My glance in her direction spun him 180.
“What do YOU think?”
He leaned in expectantly, right hand dramatically held up against his ear.
“I like it,” she said, unflinchingly.
I admired her pluck.
“And I like YOU! You’ll be a…..a…..”
“Another Queen?” I suggested.
“Don’t be silly. There can only be one queen.”
He shot me a reprimanding look.
“You’ll be a PRINCESS!”
He looked at me, presumably for my regal approval. I nodded vigorously. He then leaned over and extended his right hand. When I shook it I thought I felt a mild electric shock.
“I’m Uncle Charlie. I’ll be your main advisor. Can I give you my number?”

As he scribbled it down on the back of my receipt, the store manager approached us. He was burly and unamused.
“You’d better get going now, ” he said.
Uncle Charlie’s face darkened and all the smile drained out of him.

“Get going?! Get going?! Why you….you….”
(Prince? I half-considered offering)
“…..shit face! You shit face!! I’ve been at sea! I was in the Navy! Where were you? You pathetic….shit.”
“He’s okay. He’s just doing his job.”
“We’re ALL doing our job!” he shouted.
I made eye contact with the manager and gave him an, “It’s cool” expression.
“Hey, I need that number from you. I’m gonna need some advice if I’m going to be queen.”
He shot the manager a dirty look for good measure, filled in the last 4 digits and handed me the slip of paper. He folded my fingers over it like a secret gift of candy to a niece.
“You call me whenever you need advice. Call Uncle Charlie.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, and walked out into the rain, contemplating the implications of my freshly received powers.

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Print and shoot

The Science Museum in London’s South Kensington has changed a lot since 1986. Cool interactive exhibits show you how you’ll look 10, 20, 30 years from now. (I declined). You can see what you would look like or sound like as a man or woman, and ‘paint’ a wall with your shadow. I had some trouble with the exhibit that tells you what kind of ‘planner’ you are. Mine came up as ‘bloody awful’ or something similar, which I was putting down to jet-lag. Then I wandered off to yawningly peruse the world of 3D printing, which I was finding only mildly interesting, until I saw this….


It’s called the ‘Liberator Gun’. The description read that the first time someone tried to fire it, the bullet blew the gun apart. I was transfixed. A new order of social implications paraded across my mind’s eye, like a manifested footnote in a second-rate Hollywood sci-fi. The whole gun ownership debate turned abruptly on its head to be rendered essentially meaningless.

This is the dark side of ‘open source’ technology. It’s going to get really crazy. If you think it’s already crazy then you’d better tighten your seatbelt. Nothing ever gets ‘un’ invented. America’s gun lobbyists will seem rather quaint. When you can just knock one off while you print out your movie tickets, guns won’t need a lobby any more. When anyone can just print and shoot, there will only need to be a certain percentage who do so, for everyone to justify following suit. I leave it to the economic sociologists to figure out exactly what that percentage is. I only know that it’s coming. Either no one has guns or everyone has them. The danger lies in all the places in between. And that’s a whole lot of danger.

The Ayn Rand Libertarian fringe believe in the wisdom of radical individualism, which I would argue has already been proven to be a profound failure. A sense of collective values are required for us to live together respectfully and successfully. This wasn’t so urgent 500 years ago or even 100 hundred. But with the population tottering at 7 billion, and State systems groaning with the weight, with resources diminishing and our environment changing, we need to learn how to form communities that offer an alternative to the two dishes we’ve seen on the political menu; that is, every man for himself or rote subservience to authority.

A week later I read this in a story on the BBC

‘A 3D printer and suspected “homemade” gun components seized during police raids in Manchester are being examined….The world’s first gun made with 3D printer technology was successfully fired in the US in May.

(The gun was made on a 3D printer that cost $8,000 (£5,140) on eBay)

The BBC story continues: ‘The group that created the firearm, Defense Distributed, said it planned to make the blueprints available online [italics mine]. Defense Distributed is headed by Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas, who defended making the design available by saying: “I’m seeing a world where technology says you can pretty much be able to have whatever you want.”‘ In an interview with the Guardian, Wilson said:

“I think we should be allowed to own automatic weapons; we should have the right to own all the terrible implements of war, as [American political philosopher] Tench Coxe said, and I think this principle probably applies globally.” Guns are just the beginning. Wilson envisions everything from drugs to birth control.

Wilson is described as a market anarchist activist and crypto-anarchist (from the Capitalist-Libertarian mould) who believes in information access and a citizens economy that by-passes any State legislation. True to form, he’s funded Defense Distributed almost solely through donor use of the digital crypto-currency, Bitcoins. He was voted by Wired Magazine as one of the “15 most dangerous people in the world.” Says Wilson in A Forbes report, “Anywhere there’s a computer and an Internet connection, there would be the promise of a gun.” He admits, “It’s kind of scary.”

I walked away from the Liberator with a hollow sense of foreboding. “Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy,” wrote Ayn Rand. “The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

In a world of instant weapons, I have the freedom to print or not to print, but that freedom starts to look a lot like another round of slavery to the desire factory.


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Smelling the pickles

The drunken Turk mirrored my movements as I leaned first to the left and then the right, trying to avoid him as he approached. But he had me in some kind of arak-soaked-force-field. Before I knew it his substantially muscled arms had embraced me. For a moment I thought I was being mugged…

It’s quite the move back to the UK after 26 years away, and six and half of those years in India.  A sort of retrospective de-blending of the ingredients of my cultural history. But I’ve found, to my relief, that I don’t have to ‘de-blend’ too much. For one thing, it’s almost unrecognizable from the place I left in the late 80s; though the psychological profile is only too familiar.

My neighborhood in North London, is mostly Caribbean/Turkish/ Greek with a little Kurdish/Ugandan thrown in for good measure. The Turk and Greek Cypriots have been here for decades. I hear that after Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974, they used to run into each other’s restaurants wielding steak knives and kebab skewers (okay, I added the skewers, but it probably happened), but things seem to have calmed down a bit since then. I thought I would miss India’s colours, but I find boldly printed Jamaican wraps instead of saris. Pita bread instead of chapatis. I rarely hear English spoken on West Green Lane. English is used the same way it is in India – to communicate across communities, not between them. Animated exchanges that spill easily (and generally amicably) onto the street. Men in woolen rainbow Rasta hats sucking at barely concealed joints outside shops selling incense and hair extensions – none of them blonde.

The drunken Turk now had me in a bear-hug. In the middle of a bustling street at 11 am on a Saturday morning. He was over six foot, so my cheek was squashed into his breastplate as he swayed gently. He smelled strongly of liquor and filterless cigarettes, and faintly of pickles.

Most people walk with eyes glued to the pavement. On the buses and tubes, 80% are wearing headphones. They seem, if not entirely switched off, then turned down so low they may as well be. Tuned in to an interior world where they control the soundtrack, but removed from any sensorial immediacy. But I walk with my head high still. I look and listen. In India, if you don’t use your senses you die (or at least break some bones). Here, in the land of Health & Safety, the dangers have been managed by higher powers.

I smile at people when they catch my eye. Some of them smile back. Some of them wonder what I’m after. But I’ve noticed occasional moments of kindness also. People making way for the elder ones on buses. Giving up their seats for pregnant mothers. Most are too wired up to notice. You could get a lot by these people, one can’t help thinking. They’re literally not paying attention.

Seven Sisters by Nicobobinus

Seven Sisters by Nicobobinus

I didn’t want to push him away, in case he became agitated. But somehow I knew he was harmless. I patted him on the back. “You take care now,” I said. He didn’t say a word, but moved on with a surprising grace down West Green Rd., while I carried on to the Seven Sisters underground feeling surprisingly unflustered.

The only two people with our heads held high had collided, simply because we were paying attention….and one of us was drunk. Perhaps this is one reason why everyone is wearing headphones. To avoid merging those leftover interstices of humanity, where we have no choice but to smell the pickles.

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Madrasa of the mind

kufi-prayer-hat-white-220-pI performed a rapid assessment analysis of my fellow bus passengers as Doha international terminal receded through the rear window. Just in case we miraculously survived a plane crash and got stranded on a desert island, I would naturally need to determine who would be most likely to eat or be eaten. I had plenty of time, since our Qatar Airways plane was still a dot in the distance and the driver seemed in no hurry to narrow the gap between it and us.

Standing next to me, a slim mid-30’s man in a short thobe—long-sleeved thigh-length white shirt and a kufi prayer hat—was muttering under his breath.  He was of medium height with an insubstantial beard (no moustache), a probable mix of English/Middle Eastern. He was fingering a set of well-worn prayer beads. When he wasn’t nervously glancing at a dark blue backpack stacked on the luggage rack behind him, his gaze was firmly fixed on the floor of the bus, lips moving continuously. His forearms and elbows were scarred with pink contrails of eczema. He was, in short, the perfect visual profile of a terrorist. I scrambled together a story in my head. Disenchanted youth from [insert name of disenchanted British city here], torn between worlds and identities, becomes radicalized in a madrasa in [insert name of Muslim state here], while his inner tensions and contradictions manifest as ugly skin conditions. He is saying his final prayers to purify his soul before he blows us all up and floats off to heaven and the 72 virgins.

The bus crawled along the tarmac, our plane still a few hundred yards up ahead. I had to say something to him – had to see how he would respond. But what? “What’s in the bag?” sprung to mind. I could ask him where he’s come from. I imagined he would look at me with automatic disdain. Perhaps he would ignore me completely, not wanting to infect himself with infidel parlance.

“Looks like we’re going to be driving to London,” I said finally.
He stopped his prayers and looked at me blankly. And then something happened. He smiled.
“Yeah, you’re not kiddin’,” he replied in a strong North English accent. “But I’ve been waitin’ to leave for hours, so I’m not complainin’.”

He then went on to tell me, in a chatty relaxed manner, how he’d missed his connecting flight that morning due to wrong information from the airport ground staff and he’d been waiting in Doha for five hours with his increasingly grumpy wife and mother.  He nodded over to a large woman wearing a paisley headscarf with a backpack printed with large pink and white daisies. She smiled at me wearily.

He asked me about myself and I told him I was moving to the UK after six years in India. I don’t exactly recall what else he said apart that he was from Manchester and that  he would be happy to get home. I was too busy thinking how normal he seemed. I filed away my movie scene where I rush down the aisle of the plane shouting ‘Take him down!’ – spinning his gun through the air with one gesture and constricting his windpipe with the next. Everything was suddenly reversed. I was the one approaching the world with a fixed set of assumptions through a rigid narrow view from the window of my own madrasa.

When we reached Heathrow, I passed him in the aisle where he was waiting for his family.
“Good luck with it all,” he chirped.
“Thanks,” I said.  “I appreciate it.”

And I did. More than he could know.

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Cloudburst – drenched in euphemism


Lord Shiva, whose temple in Uttakharand was one of the few buildings left standing after a boulder lodged behind it and protected it from the floodwaters.

The retired Major lifted his scotch to his moustache with a sober pause. It was July 2013, just a few weeks after the terrible floods in Uttarakhand; the worse national disaster India had endured since the 2004 Tsunami, and the subject was on everyone’s lips. This natural catastrophe had taken over 6,000 lives and forced the evacuation of over 100,000 people. One month later, 6,000 were still missing. Though the response from central government was initially sluggish, the media was soon filled with images of heroic rescue efforts by the Indian army. “People don’t understand the might of the Himalayas; what those mountains can do to weather,” opined the retired Major. “Take the cloudburst. It’s like a tsunami falling from the sky.”

I first heard the term in August 2007, when traveling by jeep in upper Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh through some pretty bad weather. Along the route, the tragic news was relayed that an entire village had been wiped out and 50 people killed in less than an hour from what people were referring to as a ‘cloudburst’. The village next door just got wet. But in talking with the Major I began to realize that I didn’t know what a cloudburst actually was. I imagined a rather cartoon-like event with a cloud exploding like a kid’s water bomb in Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon. In our party was a young British diplomat, about to get transferred to the Foreign Office to work on climate change.
“It’s just a lot of rain,” was the answer I got.
“Isn’t that rather like saying a tornado is a lot of wind?”
He shrugged, clearly disinterested.
“I’ve never heard of it before I came to India,” he replied, as if to suggest Indians were using the term somewhat hysterically.

The floods in Uttarakhand were not caused by a cloudburst according to India’s meteorological office in Shimla, but to unusually high rainfall (375 percent more than benchmark levels) from clouds saturated with moisture from the Bay of Bengal. But I began to get increasingly fascinated by the cloudburst question particularly since there was so little about the subject on the net. When I mentioned all this to a friend from the hills, he was unequivocal.
“Cloudbursts are not just a lot of rain. If you go to Manali, you’ll see how both the landscape and the locals are scarred with the memories of these extreme events.”
There is even a meteorogical centre that’s been set up in Manali to study cloudbursts, he said. He told me that one autumn he’d been hiking in the mountains above Dehradun. It was a beautiful clear sunny day. But just across the next valley, he could make out a thin grey vertical line from the sky to the ground that became darker and darker as he watched. He later found out that an entire village had been wiped out in one hour from the cloudburst, when all around him the sun had continued to shine.

For those villagers who lost everything they held dear, an explanation is demanded. Without science, the  event must be explained in mytho-religious terms – an angry God being the usual suspect. In the cloudburst analogy, I see the importance of science as a new mythology – stories that help to make sense of this strange and seemingly random world. For don’t those of use who consider our world-view to be more sophisticated than that of a remote mountain village also demand an explanation when our loved ones are singled out by a lightening strike or a machine-gun toting psychopath in a schoolyard? Don’t we also turn to the skies, and ask the question, why?

According to a joint report by the National Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, India and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, USA, cloudbursts are ‘among the least well-known and understood’ type of weather system.

Turns out this fire-fighting device is aptly named

First, to qualify as a cloudburst, rain has to fall over 10 centimeters an hour – but it was almost 10 inches in one hour in the devastating cloudburst in Leh in 2010. The deluge is often accompanied by high-force downwards winds, but it is the flash floods formed from the sudden increase in water volume that causes the most damage and loss to life. It seems that mountain-enhanced precipitation can take on a whole other dimension in the mighty Himalayas (which is why ‘cloudbursts’ are rarely reported in other parts of the world, though have been recorded in Jamaica and Romania and even some parts of the US). In ranges of such enormity as the Himalayas, convective clouds like cumulonimbus can occasionally grow to heights of 15 km. The precipitation that forms, therefore, combines unusual levels of pressure and weight descending from a great height over a localized area, with raindrops repeatedly merging with one another until the final effect is like someone taking out the bottom of a giant water tower. A person on the receiving end of all of this is not going to experience ‘rain’ in the normal sense of the word–although it is rain water–but something more akin to  a vertical wave – hence the retired Major’s ‘tsunami’ analogy.

diagramI was surprised to learn that there is still quite lively debate over the fundamental processes of precipitation. The stuff of all geography text books that we ingested and regurgitated like gospel. Even NASA is putting up nifty-looking weather-detecting craft to find out why some clouds produce such spectacular amounts of rain. It is this quest for understanding, this willingness for inquiry, that keeps science from replacing religion.

Yes, a cloudburst is technically “just a lot of rain”, as cancer is “a lot of illness” or depression is “a lot of the blues”. But stand under a cloudburst, get cancer, suffer from depression and you will experience something of an altogether different order. Science loses its power when it simply replaces the gods, and blind faith in its tenets replaces a measured but marveling exploration. Of course, science still cannot answer the villagers who ask, “Why this village, not that one? Why my son, not his?” But without science, when the cloudburst bursts, all we have left is a Higher Power with “a lot of irritation.”

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Audio Journey of a Neo Pilgrim

 Click on the photo…


An Audio Pilgrimage – from Bodhgaya to Varanasi

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Wrestling Oysters

blastoiseIt began with a hearing glitch.
“Are you resting on those stairs?”
Siddhartha had come over for lunch that day. Had been winded by the time he’d reached my door. He was referring to the four flights of concrete steps up to my apartment, but the phone connection was crackling away in Delhi’s radiation battlefields.
“Am I wrestling oysters?” I shouted through the static.

Wrestling oysters. For some reason that stayed with me. Oysters, of course, have no limbs. And so wrestling them would be…well, impossible really. Like a Zen koan, or a Glasgow challenge. An impossibility inside a improbability inside your make believe garage band. So I looked it up. Because now it seems that everyone has already thought of everything else. It’s the end of history. Or is it? Perhaps Indra’s Net was always pumping away through the www, even before it was invented. Each jewel reflecting all the other jewels from its own singular perspective. Just another hearing glitch from two millennia ago.
“It’s called the Inter Net!”
[half-deaf old woman] “Indra’s Net?”
But I digress…

The point is that everything now takes you somewhere. Even two words as randomly thrown together as ‘wrestling oysters.’ Here’s one destination. Raider Wrestlers Enjoy Oysters on a site out of the small town of Brainerd in Minnesota called the Brainerd Dispatch. The Raiders are a wrestling team from North Dakota. The oysters in question are three brothers: Jared, Joab and Jake Oyster–all star wrestlers. Their father is a wrestler. Their mother is a coach. They live on a dairy farm. And now I’m reading about them.

Here they are. Two of them anyway.

‘When asked what it took to maintain the level of excellence all three Oysters had a short answer,’ goes the article. “Determination, dedication, and giving 100 percent,” said the Oysters.’

Now, I’m researching the history of Brainerd. I get sidetracked by an odd little story in the Wikipedia entry:

In those early years the relationship between the settlers and the Indians was complicated. The most famous example of this tenuous relationship was the so-called “Blueberry War” of 1872. Two Ojibwe were hanged for allegedly murdering a missing girl. When a group of Indians approached the town, troops from nearby Fort Ripley were called to prevent a potential reprisal. As it turned out, however, the Ojibwe only wanted to sell blueberries and the settlers avoided a bloody misunderstanding. Guilt of the two Indians was never proven.

And then there is the advice oyster wrestling sub-meme on a site called City Fish Market. Stop Wrestling with your Oysters.

It says things like: Keeping the blade of the knife pressed firmly against the top shell, move handle from right to left along the top shell, cutting the adductor muscle free from the top shell.

I’m wondering what an adductor muscle is and wonder if I have one. And then there’s the strange incident on a World Wrestling forum of a guy who swallowed a whole oyster by mistake and seeks advice from his fellow wrestling fans.

POST 1: Well, if you’re not choking on it, expect a painful bowel movement.

OYSTER MAN: What if it shatters? [good point, I’m thinking]

POST 2: If Jeff Hardy wins the world title, I’ll cut my penis off. You can quote that! [clearly unconcerned by the oyster emergency]

POST 3: Your going to turn into a Blastoise.

POST 4: I guess all you can do is wait until you next need a dump. GOOD LUCK, may the force be with you.

OYSTER MAN: I am dreading taking a crap right now. I think I’m just gonna hold it on.

oyster2The chat is interspersed with photos like this.

The thread ends abruptly without resolution. Now I’m thinking about what happened when this guy went to the toilet.
And now I’m out of searches on Google and I realize something. I’ve just added to the meme. In my reflection of the meme itself, the meme itself has changed. Schrödinger’s meme. This is what happens when you start to wrestle oysters.

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The difference an age makes

tiara2You’re in your early 20’s sitting with friends, having lunch in a gastro pub somewhere along the Thames River. Swans are idling by. The chardonnay is flowing. You’re in the middle of a funny story. You have everyone’s attention. A commotion erupts from just outside your line of sight. You try to continue, but the darting eyes tell you you’ve lost them. You turn to see what has interrupted your moment. It’s a middle-aged man, careening from table to table, moaning out the lyrics to ‘The Wind Beneath my Wings’. He’s smartly dressed in an indigo business suit. His hair is awry. He stinks of gin and cigarettes. He gets to the line ‘I can fly higher than an eagle’ and stumbles to the ground, legs splayed open across two over-turned chairs. Gasps of horror all round. He pulls himself up and lurches towards your table. Everyone recoils, including you. The discomfort is painful.


A waiter arrives and escorts him out of the building. Everyone sighs with relief. You continue your funny story….

tiara2You’re in your mid-40s sitting with friends, having lunch in a gastro pub, somewhere along the Thames River. Swans are idling by. The chardonnay is flowing. You’re in the middle of a funny story. You have everyone’s attention. A commotion errupts from just out of sight line. You try to continue, but the darting eyes tell you you’ve lost them. You turn to see what has interrupted your moment. It’s a middle-aged man, careening from table to table, moaning out the lyrics to ‘The Wind Beneath my Wings’. He’s smartly dressed in a navy business suit. His hair is awry. He stinks of gin and cigarettes. He gets to the line ‘I can fly higher than an eagle’ and stumbles to the ground, legs splayed open across two over-turned chairs. Gasps of horror all round. He pulls himself up and lurches towards your table.

You get up and ask him if he’d like a drink. He says, yes, and you escort him to the bar. You sit him down and order coffee for two. Then you ask him where he lives and call him a cab. You wait with him while he tells you you’re beautiful and sings the rest of the song. You pay the cab driver and ask him to make sure he gets home okay. You never get to finish your funny story. But it’s okay.


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Way of the ninja….yeah, right


This is how I imagine myself.
The reality might be a little…erm…different.

Recently, people have been introducing me like this. ‘Oh, Shuili, this is Rebecca. She doesn’t have AC’. To which Shuili will reply, ‘Really? How do you manage?’ Then she’ll look at me with slightly narrowed eyes, like I’m some rare breed of mongoose.

Last year, I swore to myself I would never spend another Summer in New Delhi, and certainly not another without air conditioning. But although it’s still only May, 43 degrees is Summer enough. And here I am, still sweating it out. I’ve got use to my odd little life, so when someone asked me lately to describe my place and lifestyle, I found myself becoming aware of how…well, strange it must seem to most denizens west of the Suez.

I live on the fourth floor of a five story apartment building in a sort of urban village, roughly the size of five New York City blocks. The area is inhabited and run by Haryana Jaats, the descendents of farmers, who’ve done well in the real estate business and, in the city, make their living mostly as landlords. They’re known throughout Indian history for their courage in the battlefield, though unfortunately, these days, Haryana is becoming increasingly associated with stories about rape. One thing I do know about them, they’re very protective of their property. I live in the building, so I get protected too. It’s taken over a year for the locals to get used to me. The staring can be intimidating. But I feel strangely safe here.

My kitchen is the size of a (not very large) closet. I have an office-sized fridge, so I’ve become skilled at packing things into small, irregular spaces. I have two burners (no oven). I don’t have hot water, except in the Summer when the plastic water tower on the roof heats up so much that the ‘cold’ tap spews water that’s scalding hot. A cold shower is impossible. In the Winter, I use an electrical rod to heat water in a bucket. I don’t have a washing machine or access to a launderette, so I wash all my clothes by hand. I keep a flashlight by my bed and a large bucket filled with water in case of a shortage like I’m preparing for doomsday. I can’t drink the water, so I lug 5 gallon bottles up four flights of stairs every other day (elevators are rare in India). I’m plagued by interminable heat, humidity, mosquitoes, almost daily power cuts, and an endless invasion of black soot that blows in from the kilns erected around the city.

Today my internet went down 23 times. I don’t have television, a smartphone or anything that begins with an i. It’s an exciting event when I manage to procure a movie that’s less than five years old, but the noise from the street outside my building is so loud I can’t hear the dialogue without headphones. I don’t own a car. Only three pairs of shoes. In fact, I have few possessions, partly because I hate shopping, but mostly because I like to lead a portable life. When the wind blows from a certain direction, or a strange bird alights on my balcony, I know I have to be ready to move.

In fact, when I go to Europe or the States and see how ‘normal’ people live, with their reliable internet and coffee makers, I don’t get envious. Quite the opposite. Because my life is so simple, I’m not attached to stuff. I could lose it all tomorrow (except for my laptop!) and not look back. If the electricity goes out in the UK, it’s a notable event. Here, it’s just part of the routine. I’m used to things not working, and am mildly surprised (and always appreciative) when they do. I don’t take much for granted and am highly adaptable. After repeated days of plus 44 degrees, I have to add rehydrating solution (affectionately known as ORS) to my water bottle or I begin to start seeing things. I can’t use my bedside lamp because even the additional heat of a 60 watt bulb becomes unbearable. The heat wakes me up sometimes, and I lie awake in a pool of sweat under a single plucky fan, feeling hard core. Do I envy those snug inside their REM-TV, bathed in cooling zehyrs from ozone-eating machines? Nah. Dreams are for cissies.

When the electricity goes out and the fan creaks off, the darkness bakes the heat into flapjacks. I’m a prisoner in Guatonomo Bay, I muse, as I attempt to recall stirring passages from the Koran. Sometimes, I get up and run on the spot for half an hour like I’m training for some top-secret mission deep in the deserts of Rajastan. I’m sure someone will recruit me soon. Other times, I’m just an over-heated ex-pat on a budget and a comic book fantasy.

This morning I looked into renting an AC. Not because I need it, mind. Just that my carbon footprint is so small, I’m getting a complex. Yeah, right….

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The danger game

waspsThey sent out a couple of drones at first, hovering inches from my nose, casually racking up data in their tiny sensor fields. Elegant things, the colour of mandarins. Their torsos and abdomens joined by a single cellular thread.

Then they began to build. It was a while before I noticed the nest. Tucked behind my bathroom door. Hmmmm, I thought. What do I do? I decided to wait and see. They hadn’t hurt me yet, I reasoned. I’m not sure why it never crossed my mind to destroy the nest. I live alone and I don’t have pets. Perhaps, it was the company.

Over the next week or so the nest got bigger and more of them moved in. I counted thirty by then. But they were so busy, they hardly seemed to notice me. Occasionally, one or two would hover next to me while I took a shower, but not in any threatening way. Then I went away for a week. The first time I went back into my bathroom, I was immediately surrounded, like bi-planes around King Kong. I was startled, but then I thought, these guys don’t know me. Either they were new ones (not up on the the life cycle of Indian wasps), or they’d forgotten I was ‘friend’ not ‘foe’. I stood stock still, while a dozen of them scanned me for potential threat. After a minute or so they went back to their nest, and continued to busy themselves with wasp-domestics.

It was at this point that it occurred to me to take down the nest. By this time, I realized that the situation had crossed some kind of invisible line. For one thing, I had no idea how to do this without causing myself injury. Secondly, the decision not to harm them had been made over a gradual involvement, dare I say, relationship, that had formed over, what to them must seem like a whole generation. I was the giant entity who came in and turned on the water. I always had kept my bathroom window open, so they had free access. They had found a safe place with resources and no predators. And, like I said, they hadn’t hurt me…”Yet” as Thupten reminded me over a cup of tea.

Were they going to simply freak out one day and go into swarm mode? What if one of them decided I was no good and convinced the other ones not to trust me any more? Who would advocate on my behalf? Electric lights stir them up. I feel a bit vulnerable standing naked while they do their aerobatics above my head, so these days I tend to shower and brush my teeth in the dark. But they still haven’t hurt me.

Occasionally, one of them stumbles into my bedroom and flaps around the lightbulb. Sometimes I managed to get them out and return them to their family. I think I’m getting rather fond of them. Even if they attack me, it’s only their nature, after all. It leads me to half-formed musings on the nature of conflict–national, regional, communal, familial, interpersonal. How often we pull the trigger before the fight has even begun, to protect ourselves from a familiar possibility. But how much more interesting to open up to an entirely new one. And how, perhaps more than compassion, what we really need is mutual respect. To allow for a margin of error between ourselves and a potential foe.

And then I stumble across this. An article about the peacenik paper wasps of India.

These insects seem to have an innate sense of their position in the succession line, and when the time comes for a new queen to take the throne, she is allowed to rule without riot or squabble. This is contrary to the common law of the insect world, rife with wars over territory and the right to pass on genetic material….“As far as we know, this [behavior] is unique among the social wasps,” said Robert Jeanne, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin- Madison and an expert on the behavior of social insects.

So, we stay in the moment. My mandarin wasps and me. They, building their little monument to life; me, brushing my teeth in the dark. And no one hurting anyone…yet.

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Liminal: the only place to be

liminal1“I don’t want to rush towards the sunrise,” I told a friend a few years back, while describing emerging from a six month-long depressive episode. “I want to hang out a bit in the pre-dawn.” She looked at me across from the Café Coffee Day in McLeod Ganj; a kind of gentle skepticism on her lovely dark-eyed face. The hardest thing to do is to stay in the dark when the sun is rising; and that in itself I found appealing. The popular wisdom would say, “Why on earth would you want to?” But by that time, popular wisdom was like a vitamin pill for cancer. Popular wisdom was the murmurings of those who hadn’t ‘been there’. Couldn’t even find it on a map.

Perhaps if I’d had therapy (which I would eagerly have taken full advantage of if I hadn’t been stuck in India) all this would be different. But I can’t know for sure. When I stumbled upon Andrew Solomon, my Pixie Guide to the Inferno, who had suffered severe depression for two years and written about it, the question that he kept asking was, why are some people more resilient to depression than others? After years of research, this was his answer.

“A lot of it has to do with integration. There are some people who go through depression and as soon as they’re feeling okay, they want to shove it aside, and not think about it, and not look at it, and not talk about it, and in the course of doing all that , ironically, they make themselves more vulnerable to its next ambush because they have dissociated themselves from it and therefore have no new coping mechanisms. And there are other people who have been depressed and who say, “Okay, I would never have chosen this, I would never have wanted this, but having had this experience, I’m determined to find some kind of meaning in it….It won’t prevent you from getting depressed ever again, but it will allow you to tolerate the fact that you do get depressed from time to time.”

Find some meaning in it. Of course. But I went a bit further than that. For some reason, I wasn’t allowing myself to leave at all. It’s the liminal state—the in-between times—where all is decided. Do you move forward or fall back? And if you move forward, how do you proceed? I only felt comfortable in uncertainty. I had become attached to the perils of the threshold.

liminalBut now that I have not gone through a serious depressive episode, apart from a few brief blips, for almost two years, I still hesitate to write about it. Because to write about it, I have to, in some way….return. Sure, I’m not empty-handed now. I have a home-made abseiling kit for that unexpected abyss, a nice long Gandalf staff, a nose mask for the stench of batshit. But I know that I can’t be certain of getting out. I wonder if Andrew Solomon found himself despairing a few times during his brave scrawlings on the walls of the underworld. To return with a candle flame flickering in the wind is the only way most of us can return. And there is nothing that delights the Dark Lords more than a flickering candle. But it is also, I have to admit, what delights the nihilistic daredevil in me.

As more space-time has wriggled its way between my present state of functionality and the sulphur-spewing border regions, it has become increasingly difficult to say anything that either makes sense or seems helpful. So, I’ve stopped trying. The following are a couple of Post-It notes that make a tad more sense than the one I discovered on my bedside table the other morning that read: ’64 hexagrams in the I Ching, 64 codons of DNA…we are time machines!’

In the liminal state, ordinary mundane things have enormous consequences. Like eating regular meals, exercise, not sending that text that you think will explain it all. It’s like training under extreme weather conditions. Nothing feels conducive. But it is possible during this time, to notice our behaviour patterns, as absurd as they might be. It is almost impossible to change behaviour patterns directly in this state, but simply extending our reaction time to events can have a moderating effect on how our mind and body behaves. To learn to respond, instead of react. It is a gruesomely slow process. How can making a sandwich or taking a shower make any difference to such enormity as this? But it does. We can’t see this effect though, in the same way we can’t see photosynthesis, or a wound heal. It’s operating at a molecular level. And so we feel little encouragement and are always ready to give up. But when we choose the sandwich over not eating all day, or we take choose a shower over itchy and stinky, for a while we are not choosing despair. And it is those ‘whiles’ piled on top of one another, that become the boxes we clamber over to get out the window of our mental basement.

As the negative thought loops begin to recede we may make the mistake of thinking that they no longer have the power to affect our behaviour. But they can slam into the back of our head like a boomerang from Andromeda when we least expect it. It is excruciating sometimes, the balance between maintaining a positive outlook while being realistic about where we are. But optimism is not the same as blind hope. It doesn’t mean that we think things will be okay. It doesn’t even mean that we believe we can handle everything. It simply means that we learn to trust in our capacity to respond in an authentic way to what happens to us. A large part of the problem is the tendency to over-react to periods of defeat. So much energy is extended in berating ourselves for succumbing to bouts of despondency. The question, “Why did this happen again?” is not as pertinent as “So, what are you going to do now?” And I’ve found that answers like, “I’m going to overcome this if it kills me” aren’t as helpful as, “I’m going to eat a mango,” or “I’m going to write a birthday card to my niece”or “I’m going out to look at the moon.”

These days, I visit the liminal states less often. They are easy to enter but hard to exit, even after all this practice. The secret doorway is never in the same place twice. I try to make the most of my time there. And I sometimes forget that the pig-nosed guardians at the exit are my own doubts about my right to leave.

To try to unravel the ins and outs of circumstance and events that intersect with our own little nodule of being is a Sysiphian task. You may as well ask why is the wind blowing the leaves of that tree? It’s an impossible question. In the liminal state, such questions haunted me for a while. The wind is not blowing, the leaves are being blown, I would think. Or then. The leaves are not being blown, the wind is blowing them. Perhaps the blowing is taking the form of a wind or is it that the being blown things are taking the form of things being blown? Is there a difference between the wind and its blowing?

I’ve blown it so badly. My mind is now totally blown.

[If you can dedicate blog posts to people like pop songs on the radio, this one goes out to Marty, who first named me the ‘Liminal Gal’ . Oh, and he also said this as a response to this blog post. Perfect.]

Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: `The flag is moving.’

The other said: `The wind is moving.’
The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them:
`Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.’

Wind, flag, mind moves.
The same understanding.
When the mouth opens
All are wrong.

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The importance of social connection to feeling safe

Our sense of safety and social connection are intrinsically interlinked, creating feedback loops that allow us to not only form healthier connections with others but to combat loneliness and be more gracefully alone.

Dr. Stephen Porges calls the ventral vagal complex the “social engagement system” and refers to Polyvagal Theory as “the science of feeling safe”. What is the link between social engagement and safety, you might well ask? The answer to this question offers insight into one of the most important features of our nervous system.

Remember, the primary job of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is to keep us safe. Its our main protector; our personal bodyguard. It does this in several ways. We can think of these as different programs that our nervous system runs. These programs produce their own particular physiological responses in the body, with their own particular set of hormones and neurotransmitters.

In what I have termed the three GROUNDS OF BEING of our ANS, the Vagus Nerve informs the GROUND OF CONNECTION. The two main programs we generally hear about are the fight or flight (the GROUND OF defensive AROUSAL of the sympathetic system) and the rest and digest – perhaps better identified as the tend and befriend program which is run by the ventral vagal complex. Fight or flight is a state of defensive mobility in the face of a threat. Either we’re moving towards the source of the threat to tackle it head on, or we’re moving away from it, to escape it. There is a also state of defensive immobility (GROUND OF WITHDRAWAL) when the nervous system shuts the body down in response to an extreme threat from which there is no obvious means of escape.

The first two programs, the GROUND OF AROUSAL and the GROUND OF WITHDRAWAL are both foregrounded by our nervous system in response to danger. The third state, the GROUND OF CONNECTION of the parasympathetic, is non-defensive and is foregrounded when we feel safe. This is the domain of the Vagus nerve. And this is where the social connection comes in because humans are social animals. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have engaged in non-defensive group and coupled activities when they feel safe. When the feedback loop that is always occurring in nervous system states is operating optimally, not only do we naturally engage in these other-connected activities from feelings of individual safety, engaging in them helps to make us feel safe.

When we feel safe and secure, in other words when we background our defensive systems, we can relax. It is in such a safe and secure state that we most easily engage in non-defensive behaviors, which is why this state is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ state. Relaxation states are certainly conducive to resting and digesting, but also involve many other behaviors such as nursing babies, cuddling, massaging, healing, etc. These are all non-defensive activities with little to no mobility. But the parasympathetic Vagus nerve complex is also very much involved in activities of non-defensive mobility.

Mobility is not always about defense. There are playful, creative and explorative forms of mobility that engage the Vagus nerve to run completely different physiological programs than the fear-based grounds of arousal and withdrawal. This includes all forms of play, exercise, sports, ritual, dance, playing music, creating art, and so on. Now these activities can be performed alone, of course, but there is a powerful feedback loop of safety and relaxation signaling that occurs when we do these things in groups or even with just one other person. Just like how puppies play in litters, we also play and perform other social activities in order to enhance our social intelligence.

So how does this work? Well, the feedback loop of the Vagus nerve helps us to interpret signals from others to determine whether they can be trusted or not. It also ensures that the signals we are sending to others are aligned properly with our intention. What signals are these? Primarily, they involve facial expressions, particularly the eyes and the area around the mouth. Smiling is how we signal to one another, “I’m not a threat, don’t worry.” Smiling does not just signal to the other person, it signals to one’s own nervous system, since the Vagus nerve innervates the face, especially the area around the mouth. So when we smile, even lifting the corners of our mouth slightly, we immediately feel a bit more positive. Now, of course, this isn’t always the case and people can smile deceptively. There are other signals too such as the tone and rhythm of the voice called ‘vocal prosody’. There is very good reason why we find ourselves making silly-sounding high range cooing sounds around babies. Those sounds are soothing to a baby’s nervous system. They signal the presence of safe and loving humans.

Dr. Stephen Porges has developed a therapeutic tool that is being used effectively for children with trauma and behavioral issues, called the Safe & Sound protocol that uses specially produced musical tones based on the frequencies of the human voice that trains the middle ear muscles to better tune-in to cues of safety. This in turn stimulates the social engagement system of the Vagus nerve by repatterning the neural networks to improve regulation of the ANS.

When we misinterpret the signals that others are sending, or as is often the case, we send out signals that do not properly reflect our inner condition – all kinds of trouble can ensue. Of course, there are times when we need to hide our intentions for the safety of ourselves or others, but in general honesty is the best policy, especially in the context of small community groups where it’s difficult to stay anonymous. This stuff is programmed very deep. And these programs start running as soon as we’re born. Early exposure to signals of safety are crucial to healthy neural development. Myelin, for example, the fatty sheath around our nerves that helps to carry messages around the body, develops in babies as a direct response of the nervous system to safe-inducing signals from caregivers. A child who grows up with under-developed or damaged myelin can be prone to a whole range of medical conditions from slowed or blocked nerve impulses.

We have all had moments when we’ve got our wires crossed. We can misinterpret a neutral or sad face as being angry, especially if we’re in a bit of a sour mood. In an extreme situation, if we’re feeling really unsafe, we might even interpret someone’s gestures of kindness and compassion towards us as threatening. You might have experienced this second-hand if you’ve ever tried to help calm someone right after a traumatic event.

Humans are social animals and spending long periods of time alone and isolated is very bad for neural health with implications on both mental and physical health. Like an instrument that needs to be tuned to perform optimally, we need to engage with other beings for our nervous systems to perform optimally. When we spend too much time alone, our social engagement system gets rusty. Without the influence of ‘positive others’ for neural feedback, we have to find ways to self-calm and self-motivate. Even if we are moderately successful at this, we might find that our threshold for stress tolerance has narrowed and that we remain easily triggered into states of fight or flight. We can become unnecessarily defensive, perhaps even a bit paranoid, reflexively distrustful of the intentions of others. This is a very uncomfortable state to remain in for the long term. Someone in this condition will scan their environment for cues of safety, but since they are doing so in a highly stressed state, their powers to discern threat and safety are compromised. They may perceive ‘negative others’ as trustworthy, becoming submissive and gullible, especially towards authority figures, making them easy prey for people with malicious intent.

Such experiences can create negative feedback loops that make us want to withdraw even more from the world. We may become emotionally numb, detached from our own feelings because the social engagement system is no longer functioning properly. If this becomes a chronic condition, then there is a cascade effect where withdrawal and stress continue to feed back upon one another. It’s a tough one to resolve. There is no quick fix. It will take time and patience to learn how to regulate again.

So let’s keep our social engagement system intelligently engaged and make sure to get out once in a while. This is not about being a social butterfly. Actually, a high functioning social engagement system means that we can spend time alone and not feel lonely or bereft because we have this deep sense of connection. Seek out company where you feel safe, with one other person or a small group, and by safe I mean safe to be who you are. It doesn’t require a lot of conversation. In fact, I find it better to do a simple mutual activity like a board game or a walk where the conversation is focused on the activity itself. It doesn’t need to be often or for very long, but afterwards you will feel that was time well spent and when it comes to spending time alone you will feel more connected with your Self.

When we spend too much time on our own we can become a bit solipsistic, thinking that the world really is just about us and our ideas. We need other people for many reasons. Not just to bounce our thoughts off, or to hear another point of view, but to meet the challenge of engaging face to face with someone who thinks differently from us. That in itself is mind expanding. To allow oneself to be corrected if we’ve gone off on a wrong tangent; to discover unexpected areas of common ground; to agree to disagree; to ask whether someone is okay, and to be asked in return; to allow ourselves to be seen through another’s eyes; to engage others as morphing complex wholes and not just as a set of opinions, which is so often and exhaustingly the case in the online world that skews our interactions with people into boring and inaccurate boxes.

Now you might say, what about meditators who spend so much time alone? They seem fine. When we think about cultures that have solitary meditation traditions, we will find that those cultures have very strong family and community bonds. The meditators have received years of training and are usually operating within a close-knit spiritual community. Although they may spend long periods of time physically alone, they are very much part of a support network, under the guidance of a teacher or several teachers and are generally cared for by others in the spiritual community as they pursue their meditative practice. This is not at all the same thing as being thrown into a situation where we are forced to cut all ties with our fellow humans. There is a reason that social isolation is used as a punishment and is regarded as a form of torture. The long-term effects can be devastating.

Spending time with others is not a luxury. It’s something that we need on a very fundamental level. It doesn’t have to happen every day or to be for very long, but we do need a degree of social interaction. It is absolutely vital to our well being. When we understand this, our alone time and social time will modulate each another effortlessly. We will just naturally seek out company when we need to engage, and seek our own company when we need to disengage. Whether we are an extrovert or an introvert is only relevant to how we work the balance.

The science of the nervous system helps us to accept our essential humanity. We understand on a visceral level that connecting and engaging with others is not something that we can dismiss as an optional expendable treat; like a bar of chocolate in the weekly food budget. Social engagement is pivotal to who we are as human beings. Accepting this doesn’t make us weak. It makes us stronger than we could have imagined.

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Bubbles of mine

You all fizzled up this evening large
From the eyes of an open spring
Bubbles of mine, bubbles of mine
And hey, what stories you bring.

We’re all such skeins to one another
Our proches, our close, our far and kin
Bubbles of mine, bubbles of mine.
From where do you hail, from what origin?

Here you come, and there you go
to help me more to see

Here you go, and there you are
in the empty face of me.

Bubbles of mine, bubbles of thine.

We fizzle out, one way or another
Some to get trapped and some to get free

Oh how soon I’m in dance with the Other
And the One skips right into the We.

Bubbles of mine, bubbles of mine,

Linger awhile, dear sister, dear brother
For so few abide with me.

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Move over Mr. Burns: how the institutional imperative explains state and corporate corruption

Most of us are governed by institutions, and when they go bad we suffer serious consequences from entrusting them with our welfare.

I came across a term recently that set off a whole series of lightbulbs in my head. The institutional imperative. It is a term that is neither poetic nor elegant, but I think it is useful, especially in today’s dualistic political climate. This term, and what it describes, has helped me to arrive at a deeper understanding of how institutions, both state-run and private, can become corrupted without the need to invoke authoritarian governments or shadowy cabals. This process is liberating my thinking with regard to the ethical integrity of institutional power structures from the extremes of both paranoia and naivete that limit our ability to reason with clarity.

The term ‘institutional imperative’ was coined by economist Warren Buffet who first used it in a 1989 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders letter, where he defined it as: “the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so.”

The institutional imperative then involves not so much a shared ‘herd’ instinct as an ‘alpha’ instinct where the leaders copy one another’s ideas and behaviors often just so not to be left behind, even when doing so is clearly creating to a bad result. Bad ideas enthusiastically adopted and incorporated into the practices of institutional governance do not remain simply bad ideas. They lead to systemic corruption over the course of time. The actions of Wall Street bankers that led to the 2008 financial crisis is one of the most startling examples of the potentially devastating effect of the institutional imperative, which is perhaps why Mr. Buffet expressed regret at not learning about it in business school.

Andy Lin offers one sobering example: ‘Citigroup CEO, Chuck Prince, at the height of the mortgage and leverage tsunami of the mid-2000s famously said, “As long as the music is playing, you got to get up and dance.” Prince was transfixed by the lure of conventional wisdom, but the institutional imperative, and he and his shareholders would soon dance off the cliff as the company’s stock plunged from a 2007 high of 40 dollars to less than 3 in early 2009. During a period of horrendous market and industry performance, Prince managed to underperform both the S&P and his peers.’

Scale and time also influence the reach of the institutional imperative. Smaller organizations can tackle the infiltration of bad ideas much more easily than large ones. Corruption is not only more easily identified but can be rooted out without taking the entire organization down with it. Large legacy institutions develop nested bureaucratic structures operating at every level, that process even the smallest of decisions. Creativity expressed in new ideas are automatically filtered out by the bureaucracy. Once these structures become habituated to preference certain incentives, it becomes almost impossible to effect even a small change within the institution since every decision is channeled through the same system that remains invested in keeping everything exactly the same. Thus when strains of corruption begin to emerge, they never do so in isolation but always as part of the greater whole, which is why, especially when the whole is a huge lumbering entity, there is enormous pressure not to address it.

The institutional imperative explains why fraud cases are never uncovered voluntarily within the institution, but always require either an internal whistleblower or an ex-employee. Companies and institutions cannot tolerate criticism and will respond with threats to dismiss (or worse) those who dare contradict their internal narrative, and tie employees to legal contracts that prevent them from speaking out even when they are no longer in the organization’s employ. The institutional imperative gets passed on through all the levels and structures so that eventually everyone becomes tainted by the poor choices being made at the top. In a sense, everyone is to blame and no one is to blame. A finger pointed somewhere, ends up pointing everywhere, and so is rarely raised.

All authoritarian governments corrupt the institutions that serve them, but institutions do not require overtly authoritarian states or dictators to become corrupt. The institutional imperative is all that is required. This does not mean that there are never bad actors pathologically oriented towards their own personal concerns at the expense of others. In all likelihood, there are. The apex of power structures whether political or commercial tend to attract personality types that lean towards narcissism and sociopathy. But it does mean that a lot that goes on within institutions that looks as though it must have been motivated and planned by conspiring malevolent forces, might well be less conscious than we suppose.

This actually can make the situation harder, not easier, to address. Bad actors can, in theory, be identified and expelled, even if the process to do so is convoluted. But if the entire system is running on interdependently mirrored damaging themes set on autopilot, then changing a few people at the top of the pyramid will have little effect on the rest of it. Both horizontally (in terms of the leadership of peer institutions and their institutional bed fellows) and vertically (in terms of the structures of the individual institution itself) everyone else is still playing the game. The game is now in charge. This is something that Buffet observed: that simply changing the management of a poorly performing company did not bring about the positive changes expected. “I’ve said many times that when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”

Perhaps if the institutional imperative remained only peer to peer, while it would still inform catastrophic decision-making, it wouldn’t necessarily capture the entire downstream culture. But whether we are talking about a university, a corporation, a government agency, or even a field of study, institutional imperatives are passed down through the chain of command to become an unspoken but nonetheless vital ingredient in the choices and decisions being made on a daily basis by every single participant. Buffet explains how the institutional imperative drives the leadership to embrace policies that support their resistance to change (despite evidence to the contrary) and how subordinates clamor to carry out executive orders regardless of how dumb they are. Eventually, like with a highly transmissible virus, everyone becomes infected.

Someone with a high level of institutional trust will contest that our institutions run on certain foundational principles: good governance, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, etc. and it is these principles that rule the day. Such people argue that the good guys are ultimately running the show, those with our best interests at heart. Of course, there are a few bad apples here and there, their argument goes, but the system – being ultimately good – filters them out in the end. The institutional imperative puts paid to such fancies.

It is just as naïve to believe that institutions cannot become corrupt as it is paranoid to believe that all of them are necessarily corrupt. What the institutional imperative teaches us is that there is another way to look at institutional corruption that doesn’t require us to engage in willful blindness nor to become, as Carl Sagan so perfectly put it, ‘so open-minded that our brains fall out’. Beyond the paranoia that sees corruption under every suit and the naivete that sees decency where it is unmerited, lies a cooler more discerning gaze that understands how even our most nobly conceived institutions can lose their way.

With an understanding of the institutional imperative, we can step out of the naivete that blinds us to more difficult truths without becoming a raging conspiracy theorist, simply by embracing a more realistic, a more human, and yes I am sorry to say, a more prosaic, story. Again, this is not to suggest that evildoers cannot and do not exist [see my blog post See no Evil, Farewell to the Good] simply that it is not necessary to evoke them in order to understand how institutions can go truly and horribly wrong.

The institutional imperative is closely connected to incentives. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, are incentivized to create reasonably effective products, but the biggest of them are so wealthy that they can absorb the lawsuits from faulty ones. Their own legal teams calculate losses from lawsuits from medical side effects into their marketing strategies. This is how they are able to pay such massive fines such as Pfizer’s 2009 2.3 billion dollar settlement for misrepresenting their products and paying kickbacks to doctors. Eventually, companies like Pfizer become a law unto themselves, setting their own rules for who can litigate against them and who cannot, and are powerful enough to pressure governments into contracts that remove all company liability.

Pharmaceutical companies are ultimately more incentivized to create profit for their shareholders than to create beneficial products. It should come as no surprise then that this incentivizes grossly unethical behavior such as the mass manufacturing and marketing of a product so addictive that in the words of US Department of Justice’s Deputy Attorney, General Jeffrey A. Rosen, it caused ‘a national tragedy of addition and death’ citing a civil settlement of 8 billion dollars against the opioid producer, Purdue Pharma. Were the actions of Purdue Pharma evil? Perhaps they were close enough that the difference is irrelevant. Was everyone involved in these actions evil, every single employee from top management down, or just those at the decision-making level? This is a different and far more difficult question. An individual might be unaware of their role in a crime through ignorance. But is ignorance of the connection between one’s involvement and a harmful outcome sufficient to be considered innocent? Perhaps this is why the institutional imperative is so prevalent, because it cushions the individual conscience against uncomfortable revelations of personal responsibility.

When an entire institution is corrupt then blame is parsed out. Everyone is implicated but it is hard to find anyone responsible. People will say, “I was only following regulations” or orders or protocol or whichever word they prefer. Blame is even further dispersed when institutional imperatives get transferred out from the boundaries of the institution itself to the general public who may continue to enact the institutional imperative out of a certain ideological loyalty, or through habit or fear or a lack of any alternative.

Government institutions are supposed to serve and benefit the people, not corporations. When corporate interests and state interests become indistinguishable from one another, this is the power structure of fascism. What happens, for example, when one institutional body whose job it is to regulate another institutional body is incentivized to appease that body instead? Fortunately, we have a perfect example of this in the relationship between Big Pharma and the American governmental regulatory body, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA gets 75% of its funding for drug research from the pharmaceutical industry – an industry which the FDA was set up to regulate. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the corruption that might ooze from such an arrangement.

This is how institutions can, sometimes so gradually that it is difficult to notice, become captured by motives and behaviors that increasingly direct its energies towards shallow internal interests as opposed to the common good. Whether these interests are to benefit the shareholder or the funding partner (as in the case of the FDA and Big Pharma), the result is the same: success becomes measured in terms of profit, while harmful outcomes are brushed under the rug.

Institutional trust types might counter, wait a second, this is all very well, but someone in the chain of command will surely put up their hand to say, “No. This just isn’t right and I won’t be party to it.” But that’s not what tends to happen. At a certain point, everyone signs off on the bad the ideas circulating within the institution simply by complying with them. And anyone who doesn’t is ejected. The pressure to comply comes from all sides and attempts to complain or even actively disagree are met with a metaphorical brick wall. We all like to imagine ourselves as Oscar Schindler, but at the end of the day, most people ‘go along to get along’. Everyone has to eat, after all.

Further downstream from the toxic brew of the institutional imperative is the unsuspecting citizen/consumer depending on whether we are talking about a governmental body or a corporation. In the case of the Covid pandemic, it was both, since we the public were called upon to consume a product (in this case a vaccine) created by corporations and which was touted by a governmental institution (the FDA) which those same corporations significantly fund. Most of us find this problematic. Others might consider it a perfectly convenient arrangement.

It is still somewhat baffling to me why some remain reluctant to seriously entertain the possibility that shocking levels of corruption could be happening now, right under our nose, within the institutions that have been set up to protect us. It is as if such people can only imagine such corruption as the stuff of history books or dystopian fiction. Even after witnessing one of the biggest public frauds of all time, which bankrupted and robbed the savings of millions of ordinary people, and then watching as our leaders bailed out the criminals. Even after that. Baffling.

Perhaps one of the reasons that we struggle to except the reality of institutional corruption, even when it stares us in the face, is that our own lives and values have become entwined with the very institutional imperative that caused the corruption. To free ourselves from its toxic influence, we have to accept the unpleasant fact that we have been fooled, cheated and lied to. And in the words of Mark Twain,’ it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.’

Much as it makes for a better story to believe that our institutions are run by cackling Mr. Burns-like specters or else by noble knights in shining armor, the reality is, generally, far duller. The institutional imperative is running them; a kind of lemming-like mass-hypnosis. When more of us turn and take a firm stand against these self-destructive impulses, the more chance all of us have to steer things back in the right direction. The only other choice is to follow the rest of the doomed sorrow throng – over the edge of the cliff.

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Leave it broken

Along a sombre winter road
I felt this life a heavy load
A robin blown upon a tree
Began to sing, it seemed, to me.

“Stay the hand that would repair
The heart’s old wounds,
Each cut and tear.
Hear the deathless love well spoken
Stay the hand
And leave it broken.”

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drawing a blank

The blank page
Dishevels my thoughts

Sends them reeling
Ten directions

The blank canvas,
Unravels my mind,

Sends me teeming
To times gone, and to become

But there is nothing
Nothing more disarming

than the look
You laid upon me

When I told you
That I might love you.

I cannot fathom
I cannot fill

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The future is China

From predatory boardroom practices to draconian public health measures, Orwellian technologies, state-corporate partnerships on censorship and surveillance, Digital ID’s to social credit scores, China’s ways are quietly going global.

PHOTO: Qilai Shen

We may prefer to forget that China operated as the model for the pandemic response in the entire Western world. This is a country whose president Xi Jinping has “embarked on the most intense repression” of its citizens since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and which is described by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth as representing the biggest threat to human rights in the world.

This is a country where you can get arrested simply for sending a text criticizing the government; where tens of thousands of people are disappeared by the authorities and detained in secret locations without trial under circumstances that amount to nothing other than state-sponsored kidnappings. And this is the country that we in the West chose to emulate in a crisis. We copied their lockdowns, we copied their violation of medical ethics, and we copied the technology they used to enforce them both.

Small wonder that we are currently witnessing several public inquiries into the handling of the pandemic that can be more or less summed up by: “what were we thinking?” Policies that hitherto had seemed inconceivable such as lockdowns that put whole societies under house arrest, the violation of informed consent that had been the cornerstone of the doctor-patient relationship in the West since Nuremberg, and the rollout of biomedical passes that determined people’s right to access certain freedoms and services, became not only normalized but – for a while – irrefutable. And those who had any questions were shamed, marginalized and censored.

China’s Zero-Covid policy under Xi Jinping is nothing short of terrifying. It has resulted in parts of the country enduring a truly Orwellian existence, locked in their homes for months on end or sent off to Covid camps simply for having traveled in the same bus as a Covid positive person.

To get some idea of the level of paranoia, when one woman tested positive for Covid after visiting Shanghai’s Disneyland, 706 of her so-called ‘close contacts’ and 141 ‘secondary contacts’ were tested by the following Monday, with a total of 67,715 people tested, according to China Daily. All from one positive test.

Authorities can change your QR code from green to red simply for not having the mandatory Covid tests which expires every 48 hours and costs 50 dollars per month. This Halloween, a Chinese woman dressed up as a red ‘positive’ QR code was voted the scariest costume of the year by Chinese netizens.

Those who work in the human rights field become habituated to the ho-hum attitude of the international community to on-going abuses. We watch as human rights remains almost exclusively an opposition party issue, with only those not currently in power willing to speak with any force on the subject. This is especially true when it comes to human rights in China for one simple reason. Economics. There may be an award for a prominent Chinese dissident here, a phrase or two of tough-sounding language there, but the idea of putting ethics over and profit never seems to get much thrift.

The approach of Western democracies, exemplified during the Clinton presidency, entails shaking a finger at the CCP with one hand while shaking on business deals with the other. Coarse business interests are dressed up in the reassuring fabric of moral ventures as doing business with China is positioned as an opportunity to educate them on democratic principles, liberal ethics and best practices. Not only could everyone make a buck but they could feel virtuous doing so.

The argument goes something like this. The more we do business with China, the more China will mirror our industry standards. The more we open our universities to Chinese influence, the more they will come to value our knowledge and culture. In short, the more we welcome China into the international community, the more China will become like us.

The hard truth is that the opposite has taken place. China has not become more like us. We have become more like China.


China was the first country to use tracking mechanisms through mobile phones and social mediaApps such as Wechat and Alipay to monitor people’s movements during the pandemic. This then developed into a national health QR code system which was adopted by several Western countries during Covid.

China has a long history of applying technologies to limit individual freedoms, and these technologies continue to be traded to foreign countries, including democracies. During the Covid lockdowns of 2020, Australia gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first Western country to use facial recognition technology as a containment measure against its own citizens; the same technology that the Chinese government uses to control the persecuted Uighur minority in Xinjiang.

Kai Strittmatter who worked in China as a German news correspondent, writes in his book, We Have Been Harmonized: Life in China’s Surveillance State: ‘In 2019, a study by the Open Technology Fund identified 102 countries to which China had exported information-control technologies.’ Samantha Hoffman, fellow at Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Centre put it mildly when she said: “I think we don’t even quite understand the full scale of the problem that we are dealing with when it comes to Chinese surveillance technology when it is exported.”

It is not only a question of authoritarian-style technologies creeping into liberal democracies but broader questions around how state-controlled technology is used to penetrate and manipulate personal data and condition citizen behaviour. John Danahar, a lecturer in the School of Law at NUI Galway, concerns himself with just such questions. Danahar has written about the concerning implications of the rise of an ‘algocracy’, where AI driven algorithms determine what is allowed and disallowed.

A hallmark of authoritarian regimes is the insistence on citizens proving their loyalty to the state over family or community. The CCP has always encouraged its citizens to become part of the state-surveillance apparatus by spying and informing on one another. As China has risen as a global power so has the general level of paranoia around national security. Authorities have worked to make it ever easier – and lucrative – to prove loyalty to the state by the willingness to inform on one’s own community. In 2018, China launched a website so that people could more easily report foreign spies and national security threats. This June, the Chinese state announced cash rewards of up to 20,000 USD for this information, as well as what they call “spiritual rewards” which amount to a certificate of appreciation from the state. All very Communist, all very Chinese. But not any more.

Just this week, New Zealand intelligence services announced their own citizen spying program that encourages people to view their loved ones as potential terrorists.

We do not yet live in a fully dystopian world, but it is crystal clear that we are playing fast and loose with rule of law and civil liberties. It takes less than we think for the roots of authoritarianism to gain traction. The pandemic has revealed much to us, and one thing it has revealed most clearly is the startling fragility of the principles of our democracy. Because these principles do not depend merely on legal structures for their continued existence, but upon the persistence of mutual values and the vigilance of the people to preserve them. During the initial months of lockdown, for example, the voter analytics firm PredictWise harvested location data from tens of millions of US cellphones and used this data to assign a “Covid-19 decree violation” score. People who were “on the go more often than their neighbors” were given a high Covid-19 decree violation score while those who mostly or always stayed at home were given a low Covid-19 decree violation score.

Although China’s social credit system appears not to be as pervasive, advanced, nor as pernicious as some have feared, the ultimate use of digitech to track and manipulate behaviour through incentives and punishments metered out through a digital Panopticon appears an inevitable outcome in country whose leadership is so heavily invested in penetrating the space between the individual and the state. The CCP has never seen its job as representing the people, the ideal attitude of government in a liberal democracy, but only ever to manage the people. As the technological infrastructure, data management and computational capabilities increase, it is likely only a matter of time before China has all of its people at the end of a digital leash. The reason that Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode Nosedive was so deeply creepy was not because it was so outlandish but because it was so imaginable.

While we are soul-searching the wisdom of our pandemic response, we would do well to encourage open and candid discussion about the threat to human rights that state-to-citizen algorithmic technologies present. The European Commission is presently deliberating on the AI Act that aims to regulate the more dystopian uses of AI technology, and which is expected to conclude some time in 2023. Although such legislation is clearly a positive step, market forces are more likely to win out against the average citizen in attempts to regulate for both public protection and industry innovation. Human Rights Watch in a recent report, has called for a more rigorous document that ensures that human rights are built into the procurement, design and modification of AI, assessed in post-deployment, and are stricter in terms of transparency, oversight and pressure for product compliance that includes a mechanism of public appeal to manage violations and misuse. The draft document states that AI systems used for general purpose social scoring should be prohibited. However, Bologna and Rome have already become the first Western cities to implement a government sponsored social credit system through a smart wallet where individuals are given a score linked to their compliance with certain behaviours such as recycling. At the moment, the app is optional. We shall see.

Banks are also getting in on carbon tracking. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia has launched a feature that ‘…will allow a select group of retail customers to view their carbon footprint via the CommBank app and offset their previous month’s transactions by purchasing carbon credits.’ This feature is set to become ‘available’ to all retail customers by next year. So when does the feature turn from ‘available’ to ‘indispensable’ in order to participate in society?

Legal mechanisms to protect us from the misuse of powerful intrusive technologies are running far behind the development and application of the technologies themselves. In Australia, for example, the facial recognition trial by local authorities “took place despite the fact that the enabling legislation for the national database has not yet been passed,” as media scholar, Mark Andrejevic, points out. For those invested in the advancement of such technologies, this legal protection lag is less a problem than a golden opportunity.


Perhaps that is the idea.The looming inevitability of Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) that only a few months ago was dismissed as a conspiracy theory, raises genuine concerns about a specific kind of social credit system that directly controls what people can and cannot do with their money in ways never before envisioned.

The pace of the development of CBDC so outstrips the pace of serious public discourse as to appear driven by some kind of divine will. Cash is already being phased out as an optional payment method in certain regions like Scandinavia. In the wink of an eye, Deutsche Bank has become the first Western bank to announce that it will go cashless and just last week the German Finance Ministry proposed limiting cash payments to 5,000 euros. Meanwhile, banks and Big Tech in the European Union are collaborating to develop digital smart wallets, set to be operational as early as September 2023.

In the United Kingdom, a government CBDC “taskforce” has been set up ostensibly “…to coordinate the exploration of a potential UK CBDC”. This language belies both extent and intent, since the UK is one of 8 countries on the Digital Identity Working Group (DIWG) of the Digital Government Exchange (DGX) tasked with assisting with the digital wallet transition. All of these developments are taking place at a pace so fast that it is hard to keep up with. Perhaps that is the idea.

Although CBDC’s have not yet been formerly established nationwide, China’s digital RMB was the first digital currency to be issued by a major economy. China is poised to become a lead player in this revolution. Hong Kong and Singapore are not far behind, with Japan, Korea, and Australia well into the R&D stage.

CBDC’s will involve linking personal finances to digital currency and this will not be possible without universal Digital ID, which is why Digital ID and CBDC’s are being marketed in tandem. China announced in March that it will introduce Digital ID cards this year, based on its existing national ID card. Countries that already have a national ID card system such as India and China, will have fewer obstacles to the application of Digital ID, since the population have already been conditioned to its use.

In Western countries more sensitive to the over-reach of technocrats, Digital ID is a much tougher sell, although the experiment with digital health passes during the Covid pandemic has helped to smooth the way. Every week it seems we hear somewhere else announcing plans to adopt Digital ID – for our own benefit, of course.

Austria, which imposed some of the most authoritarian Covid measures on its people, has introduced its first digital ID in the form of a drivers’ license app, ostensibly to help prevent identify theft, while the Canadian province of Saskatchewan will provide digital IDs to residents ‘to enable them enjoy more public services’. Citizens are not yet being forced to subscribe to digital ID, but life can be made increasingly difficult – and practically impossible – without it. In Japan, for example, those reluctant to sign up for digital IDs are being told they risk losing their public health insurance.

CBDC is regularly presented in a development narrative that speaks about the individual’s ‘right’ to digital ID as if it is somehow an instrument for social justice. We see people protesting their rights all over the place; most commonly these days the right to affordable food and energy. We do not see people taking to the streets to protest the ‘right’ to digital ID. On the other hand, an online petition against the enforcement of Digital ID currently circulating in Japan has gathered over 100,000 signatures in a matter of days, calling for continued use of the current health cards. And a modest but growing ‘cash only’ movement has already begun in establishments across the UK.

Both digital ID and Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) are being lauded in the West as tools of convenience and security, fitting snugly with the UN Sustainable Development Goal that calls for ‘legal identity for all’ by 2030. The UK’s latest unelected Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is a big fan. Here he is telling us how banks across the world are working together to ensure that we the people can benefit from CBDC. Because if there is one thing we learned from 2008 it is that banks have our best interests at heart. No wonder he’s smiling.

In the UK, universal Digital ID, which remember is essential to the successful enforcement of digital banking, is presently caught up in the pesky red tape of parliamentary procedure.

Hannah Rutter, Deputy Director for Digital Identity at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spoke at an OIX (Open Identity Exchange) Conference titled: Are you ready for Digital ID?

Apparently, the answer is…..not quite. A few days after the conference, the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill was paused in parliament. The bill is required as a matter of law to underpin the so-called ‘trust frameworks’ – basically the rules and regulations that the Digital ID industry will be required to follow – as well as the certification process.

“Tell them how digital identity is going to support growth,” said Rutter. “Tell them how it’s going to support the rights of individuals and protect them, that we’re not creating ID cards, we’re creating a system where people will be able to have control over their data and be able to use it to make things easier for them while they have control.”

“Help us to spread that message because without that, my little team can’t get this through Parliament, and my little team can’t get this to the finish line.”

The language of rights, convenience, facility and safety cleverly guises something that no one understands or even asked for as an unquestionable and knowable good. Vast digital data matrices are being networked and advertised as welfare technologies with little public scrutiny of the obvious and necessary issues around access, privacy and potential for malfeasance. The ultimate issue, of course, is that of control – who will wield it and how? Digital ID industry wonks would like us to believe that control will lie with the consumer.

In the United Kingdom, CBDC is being introduced alongside and as an alternative to cash and bank deposits, but many believe that the goal is to phase out cash entirely. The immediate motivations for such a dramatic move are complex but are essentially aimed at offsetting a massive debt crisis that was created by the very banks that are set to enforce the solution. The slowdown of Western economies is in large part due to cautionary saving trends and reduced spending, and this could all be manipulated under CBDC. With their hands in your wallet, governments can more easily control societies in times of unrest and can prevent a run on the banks when confidence collapses. CBDC’s would also ensure that cryptocurrencies are brought under control. Business Mirror contributor, John Mangun:  From the governments’ point of view public holding of cash must be eliminated or at least curtailed….Governments can forcefully make people spend their wealth where and when the government desires. When money is only available in electronic form, there is no way to hide from government confiscation.

Can you imagine a world where all of your finances, health and consumer choice data, together with your personal digital footprint from your browser history and your every movement and interaction, is matrixed into a centralized system where faceless powers, unanswerable to anyone, work to modify your on and offline behaviours through a digital nudge system of scores, perks, incentives and penalties? Perhaps not yet, but we can surely get a peek into some of the steps that our governments would need to take along the way.

In February 2022, the Trudeau government ordered Canadian banks to freeze $7.8 million (US$6.1 million) in just over 200 accounts under emergency powers. The accounts belong to key participants in the Winter 2021/22 Canadian truckers protest against the Covid regulations.  pressured the online fundraising group GoFundMe to freeze millions of dollars in donations that had been given to the protest movement. After announcing its plans to redistribute the donations to charities of its choosing, the group walked back its decision after facing a potential fraud investigation.

Eight months before Trudeau used the Emergencies Act to seize the accounts of Canadian citizens, a branch of the Bank of China in Henan province announced that the peoples’ savings were not savings at all but merely ‘investment products’ and as such were not withdrawable. Some people upset by this tried to take their money out, with the provincial government responding by sending out military tanks in scenes reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. 

Did Trudeau, who has publicly expressed his admiration for the “basic dictatorship” of the Chinese state, take this leaf directly out of China’s playbook?

Some legal scholars are warning that the kinds of patterns we are seeing emerging in liberal democracies that resonate with established patterns in the socio-political landscape of China, have the power to completely redefine the institution of citizenship as liberal democracies have come to know and understand it.

We may well be heading towards a future where individuals are no longer be treated as ‘republican citizens’- thinking, feeling agents of awareness with their own political consciousness but as ‘cybernetic citizens’ where the individual is reduced to a node of functions, holding value solely in terms of their compliance and utility to the State machine. In such a system, surveillance and control becomes not merely a tool of governance but the very basis for governance.


Recently, the world looked on in quiet discomfort as Chinese president Xi Xinping orchestrated the removal of term limits, declined to put forward a successor and got himself conferred president for life. During the pandemic, however, Western governments bestowed upon themselves extraordinary powers that contradicted their constitutional limits. These same governments proceeded to then enact laws restricting the right of their citizens to protest how these government’s exercises these powers. This pattern of authoritarian creep has been repeated so much across the European continent in the past couple of years that the President of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has warned, ‘This is a Europe in which the rule of law is at risk of disappearing’.

Possibly the most egregious example of a pandemic power grab was that of former Australian PM Scott Morrison, who used the “human biosecurity emergency” to secretly confer upon himself the powers of five ministries. In the name of public health, Morrison proceeded to unleash upon the country a lawless carte blanche that according to the New York Times allowed for ‘the prosecution of whistle-blowers, raids on journalists’ homes, suppression orders that keep court proceedings private, and a persistent rejection of public records requests.’

If there is one thing that you learn when working in the field of human rights it is this; power, once taken by the State from the people, is rarely returned without a fight. Retired judge, Lord Jonathan Sumption, warned UK citizens back in 2020 of the naivety of believing otherwise. People thought ‘we can go from being less like China and more like the UK when it’s all over,’ he said, referring to the pandemic. ‘This is an illusion.’ His words have proved to be prophetic. The UK government has been pushing hard against citizen rights for the past year, placing into law legislation that will make it harder to hold the government to account, and is about to pass a bill that would ankle-tag protestors. Said Conservative MP, Charles Walker, “Those Chinese in their Embassy will be watching this very closely.”

Coincidentally, these laws are coming into force just as these countries are about to plunge into a Winter of food and fuel shortages; exactly the kind of conditions that breed popular unrest.

The Chinese state views its citizens as merely tools of collective national policy. It is getting harder, every day, to make the case that our own governments don’t view us the same way.


With its Great Firewall, China became famous for its unabashed surveillance, monitoring and censorship of the internet. In the Covid era, global Big Tech began colluding with government agencies to control what it calls ‘misinformation’. But let us be clear, when the government tells people what they can and cannot say or uses corporate media platforms to control speech, that is censorship. Youtube, Facebook, Google, Twitter have all participated; blocking, shadow-banning or de-platforming users that do not engage in right speak.

We are now all policed by a shadowy army of censors who are not required to reveal their identities, their credentials or even their reasons for the decisions they make about what is and what is not permissible. Even Paypal has got in on the act, threatening to fine its users 2,500 USD for spreading whatever it deems in its wisdom to be ‘misinformation’. When thousands of people closed their accounts in protest, Paypal withdrew the language from its terms and conditions, only to reinstate the same language one week later.

In California, this misinformation line is even being used against doctors. Governor Gavin Newsom last month signed legislation that would punish doctors that spread ‘medical misinformation’ about Covid. Considering the level of contradictions and inconsistencies in the health guidelines coming from government agencies over the past couple of years, not to mention the fact that expanding scientific knowledge means that what is not true today might well be true tomorrow, this law could quite easily create more harm than good. Do we really want the State having more control than doctors about what can and cannot be discussed with patients? As students of history will point out, the last time this was tried in the West, it didn’t go so well.

Since the pandemic, extraordinary measures have been enacted in hitherto liberal democracies to advance censorship, quash dissenting voices and authorize punitive measures against those who do not comply. Since the launch of the Trusted News Initiative at the start of the Covid era that coordinated the narratives of major media outlets, mainstream media has lost much of its journalistic integrity and public trust, ignoring, dismissing and marginalizing credible voices that present differing, and often valuable, perspectives. At the same time, government decision-making processes are becoming less and less transparent. Some progress has been made through freedom of information requests, but these are also under threat as certain British journalists are warning.

In the end, however, it will not be our laws that will protect us. The power of the law depends upon the will and vigilance of the people to ensure that their governments are held to account. As Jonathan Sumption puts it: ‘Our status as a free society doesn’t actually depend on our laws or our constitution. It depends on convention. It depends on a collective instinct as to the right way to behave.’

Chinese exceptionalism is leveraged as a logical extension of being a self-posited global power that gets to make the rules it wishes to follow. When faced with accusations of oppression, China often turns the West’s own arguments back upon itself. Foreign powers that point to the invasion and occupation of Tibet or to the Uighur genocide are offered lectures on colonialism in return. Those who point to internment of political dissidents without trial are sternly reminded of the squalid legal limbos faced by prisoners of Guantanamo Bay.

China was never interested in becoming like us, only in beating us at our own game. And it is quite possible that the Western powers never really cared whether China changed its ways or not, as long as the deals continued to be made. The 20th-century German jurist and theorist Carl Schmitt captured it perfectly when he said that what the West confronts “is not the threatening advance of alien civilizations but its own dark shadows”.

And those dark shadows are getting longer every day.

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Pieces of me

Pieces of me
Crumbling down like bits of an abandoned house
There goes another broken tile
A shard of shattered window glass
An historic stone.

With each gesture of deconstruction
Less and less remains
Of what bound it all together
In that seeming entity
A house, a life, embodied strife
That multi-storied me.

I’ve retired my trowel and mortar
No plans to renovate or re-occupy
Though I admit at times I return in dreams
and encounter the filaments of nostalgia
I once called ‘my past’
But it never lasts.

This letting go is not a giving up
Do not mistake it for neglect
It is merely an absence of occupation
That Nature already busies to reclaim
Like a vacant Badger’s set.

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See no evil, farewell to the good

Why imagining evil is key to our very survival

We need to rediscover our capacity for imagining evil, not just in the mind of an individual but at scale. If we do not, evil will consume us as it has in times before, irrespective of whether or not we believe it. Perhaps this language sounds alarmist, even irrational, but I believe we have already crossed the Rubicon and are now well into the terrain where evil is flourishing in ways that we in the relative comfort and security of the West have not witnessed for several decades.

I use the word ‘imagine’ in its original sense as meaning ‘to conceive’. Our imagination literally helps us to generate conceptual thought. When harnessed to our sensory perception our imagination also helps us to survive. Our ancestors learned to ‘imagine’ the possible presence of predators through experience and developed highly attuned nervous systems that could identify danger well before the conscious mind got a whiff of it, They used powers of reason to launch an appropriate response based on this neuroception, the subconscious system that works to keeps us safe. As Orwell told us, all totalitarians systems work to undermine neuroception; the individual capacity to know at the sensory level whether something is safe or a threat. ‘The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.’

If we accept the existence of goodness as a force of benevolence, then we must also accept evil as a malignant force. This malignancy can manifest in different ways, but it always sits opposed to life, to creativity, to truth, and to seekers of truth. Those who have lived through the personal or social histories of evil know it in their marrow. Those who have not must come to know it first with their perceptions. I am not talking about the boiler plate corruption and narcissism of political life. I am talking about a whole new order of ignominy that most of us have not seen in our lifetimes. It requires an adjustment of vision, like learning to discern form from shadow when the lights go out. You begin to learn to see in the dark. It starts with a nagging ‘feeling’ that something ain’t right that sits somewhere deep in your gut, and sometimes fingers the back of the neck whenever you turn on the news. You begin to sense a widening disconnect between truth and what you are being led to believe. This is your nervous system whispering “danger”. Then you begin examining the possibility of evil in the words and deeds of those you have entrusted with your fate, and then comes the conscious, often painful shifts of perception as the mounting proofs of malevolence come into sharper focus. This may well be followed by a period of grieving, for the world you once knew, that although far from perfect, was kind and free enough to dearly miss.

In the Arab world it is widely believed that everyone born is influenced by supernatural spirits called jinns: a good one and an evil one, equivalent to the angel and devil on each shoulder of old American cartoons. Humans are in a constant interplay with one or the other throughout their life, in a mostly unconscious struggle between competing motives; between those that elevate and transform towards truth, beauty, harmony, wisdom, compassion and peace, and those that whisper to the heart of greed, cynicism, hostility, futility, ignorance and despair.

The mythic visions of all cultures provide a dramatic dimension to the relationship between the forces of light and darkness in our own lives. To wrestle with our demons is to train for such encounters. Sometimes they manifest as addiction, alcohol, drugs, fetishes of dominion and cruelty, sometimes as mental health issues, sometimes as individuals, and sometimes as entire social systems. In the periodic rise of totalitarian regimes, both fascist and communist, we have witnessed a collective thrust towards thanatos – the death instinct. Everything these dark architects touch smells of death, if not the strictly mortal kind, then the kind that makes life not worth living; the death of the spirit.

It is not as if we have not been warned. According to Achille Mbembe, a political historian from the Cameroons, the conscious engineering of this ‘necropolitics’, the earthly enactment of God-like power by sovereign forces over life and death, creates ‘new and unique forms of social existence in which populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead.’ Necropolitics is an extension of biopower, a term coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault, to describe total state subjugation of its citizens’ physical autonomy often in the guise of protectionism. In this context, Italian philosopher Georgio Agamben viewed the horrors of Nazi Germany, not as a wild aberration in the development of Western civilization that resulted in its conquest by the forces of good, but as proof of the capacity for necropolitics to formulate its own social order that would inevitably be replicated in the future. “In modern bio-politics, sovereign is he who decides on the value or non-value of life as-such.” Agamben believed that the elite have continued to manipulate these powers in our modern era, enabled by a fearful and confused citizenry, to make it increasingly difficult to act in any way that is contrary to State will.

In such times, evil is not concentrated only in the maniacal executors of soulless agendas, nor in the final solutions of undesirables, but is parsed out among countless numbers of the stunningly unremarkable—in the bureaucrats, administrators and civic functionaries that unquestionably service the deathward agendas of the totalitarian state, and who believe they themselves to be ‘good people’. In them. we find what political historian and holocaust survivor, Hanna Arendt, termed ‘the banality of evil’ that she warned would characterize totalitarian states of the future. C.S. Lewis concurred. “The greatest evils in the world will not be carried out by men with guns, but by men in suits sitting behind desks.” In modern dictatorships, terror is used more as a weapon of control rather than of annihilation. There is no need to exterminate a population of supplicants. People who do not stand for something will fall for anything.

Even a casual glance at history should teach us that it is not always the case that the checks and balances of the basically good always win out in neutralizing the architects of evil. It is part of maturation to accept and understand that ‘basically good’ people can participate in utterly terrible acts; particularly when the masses have been mobilized through fear and propaganda to surrender their individual moral compass for some abstract social good that posits the welfare of the group above that of the individual. Such psycho-mythic forces have the power to melt the will in us all and forge monsters from its molten core. In his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Dr. Mattias Desmet recounts the story of an Iranian mother who, after the overthrow of the Shah, placed the noose around her son’s neck at his execution in 1979 by the new regime, and felt pride rather than remorse in doing so. In reading such a story, do you shake your head in disbelief, utterly assured that this would never be ‘you’? And what makes you so sure? It may be better to imagine ourselves capable of the worst, because only then will we place value in nurturing and harnessing the best.

I believe we are now historically in such a thrust towards thanatos. The dealers of fear and death are in ascension as the masses forge their own shackles, mistaking slavery for safety, stoned on the mantra of the ‘greater good’ that is neither great nor good. And yet no matter how nonsensical and harmful the privations that are being forced upon the general population, there is a kind of institutional coherence created by the uncritical buy-in of so many. Here is where the banality of evil lurks. If evil looked like evil it would never succeed. Evil is always hidden through layers of deceit, skillfully persuading in reasonable and reassuring tones that the ends justify the means.

“Is it a bunch of evil men in a room chomping on a cigar, laughing hysterically?” says former Blackrock assets manager, Edward Dowd. “No. It happens over time.” Dowd was discussing the origins and development of pervasive institutional fraud, such as we saw in the 2008 banking crisis and which he believes has now captured the Food & Drug Administration of the US that gets 50% of its budget through the pharmaceutical industry.

Everyone becomes tainted through a process called the ‘institutional imperative’ in which the institution becomes gradually corrupted through a copycat chain of incremental choices–someone undeserving getting promoted here, a reward for unethical behavior there–that have the cumulative effect of normalizing not just bad behaviour but even irrational behavior across the board. In short, people are rewarded for doing the wrong thing over time. At a certain point it becomes impossible to remain a ‘white hat’ operative in such an environment. To even be there is tainting because it requires all the participants to play a tainted game.

It is not hard to see this pattern playing out through various sectors of society, where moral norms are being abandoned through the social pressures of groupthink. Soon, no one will remember what those moral norms even were. As Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński wrote, “Real barbarism begins when no one can any longer judge or know that what he does is barbaric.” When, for an easy life, we go along with the erosion of basic human values and turn a blind eye to our better natures, we end up in a world where not only does no one encourage basic goodness, no one protests atrocities.

And yet we encouraged not to look too closely at the mechanisms of the institutions that govern our lives, but instead to find fault with the very people who encourage such inspection. In projecting our own unaddressed shadow, we end up seeing enemies everywhere except the ones that have their hands around our throats and a knife at our backs. Without the liberation of self-knowledge we succumb to the paralysis of self-loathing and willingly accept all kinds of abuse. We lean into the death-instinct in an unaddressed suicidality that is the ultimate trajectory of the totalitarian path of fear, submission and slavery. We ultimately co-conspire towards our own demise.

Former Greenpeace president Dr. Patrick Moore observes that the environmental movement used to care about humanity. The ’peace’ in Greenpeace was against nuclear arms. But gradually an anti-human ethos crept in and people were posited as the problem itself, as the enemies of nature rather than as stewards of the natural world to which they belonged. This anti-human creep now informs the governments and institutions that run the world. “We’re now facing a situation where a huge number of very powerful organizations and elites at an international and at national levels are calling for policies that are basically a suicide pact. Basically a death wish of some sort.”

For Moore, this steps uncomfortably close to the territory of ‘Original Sin’, and indeed in their demonization of carbon, the building block of our own bodies, the climate priests unencumbered by the need to justify their ‘solutions’ through rigorous scientific enquiry have effectively repurposed the existential guilt that in the Middle Ages allowed the Catholic Church to trade in ‘indulgences’ – activities that lessened the punishment a believer was required to undergo for their sinful deeds. “Any movement can be captured by thugs,” says, Princeton University professor William Happer, even, and perhaps especially, one populated in large part by ‘good’ people who struggle to imagine the bad.

The truth, of course, is that we all have the capacity for both good and evil. Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning wrote about how the camps exposed the depths of human nature as an ill-defined mix of good and evil. ‘The rift dividing good and evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss…’ Frankl wrote.

We are not yet at the gulag/concentration camp stage, but that stage is reached incrementally through a number of steps that can appear almost innocent, as we see played out in the ‘institutional imperative’. The signs have been here for some time and are becoming ever clearer that the direction we are heading is towards a kind of hi-tech totalitarianism. Why this thrust is meeting with remarkably weak pushback has to do with a kind of ideological capture that psychologist Mattias Desmet describes as ‘mass formation’ which allows for the rise of totalitarian regimes. Mass formation, as the term implies, requires a large mass of people such as we saw in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union. These masses must share a number of factors in common. These are: a lack of social cohesion, a lack of meaning and sense-making, free-floating anxiety that has no clear and obvious cause, and a crisis where the state provides a solution, a landing-pad for this free-floating anxiety, and thus creates a new sense of social cohesion through a common project of addressing the crisis together.

The rest is all too familiar. Expansion of governmental systems of control, censorship and self-censorship, increased justifications for monitoring and surveillance of alternative opinion, the redefinition of language to align with political aims, the stifling of experts who contradict those appointed by the state, populations encouraged to shame and hate on each other, a highly compromised and uniform media, a contraction of institutional and governmental transparency and accountability, and a nudging towards mass applications of technology that allow ever-increasing top-down control over the citizenry.

Those who marvel at the lack of resistance to policies so clearly aimed at causing irreparable damage to both civic and private life, miss how deep self-loathing runs among those who repress the shadow. Because to imagine evil intelligently, rather than in a superstitious neurotic way, is to have addressed the capacity for evil not just in the hearts of others but in one’s own – in psycho-mythic terms, to have shed the light of awareness on our dark jinn. This means to acknowledge and address our own histories and capacities for deception against others and self. As Carl Jung writes: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

Most people would rather ‘tie themselves in knots’ as Neil Oliver puts it, rather than face the idea that their governments and institutions might be working against them. Oliver invites us to ‘think the unthinkable’ however difficult it might be to do so, and contemplate at the very least the possibility that our leaders do not have our best interests at heart. If someone has their hand inside your jacket pocket and on your wallet, he says, instead of reassuring yourself that this person just wants to check that your wallet is safe, you might want to try to imagine that you’re being robbed.

Those of us who have been seriously damaged by acts of fraud or deception; medically, psychologically, financially, either from an individual or a group, are more sensitive to its presence and possibility. However, and this is a big however, once you have digested the bitterness such experiences leave behind and gathered your wits around you once again, you gain certain new skills.

For one thing, you learn to spot the deceivers as easily as a UV light detects bodily fluids. There is simply no mistaking them once your nervous system has captured the slime they leave in their wake. Your survival instincts are rebooted to superhero levels. Your gut instinct becomes your wingman. The deceivers find themselves thwarted. They may flex their talons in your direction but they will not get a firm grip. You are no longer soft fawn-like prey. You are a craggy cliff, that they have neither the skill nor patience to climb. After your recovery, which depending on the level of psycho-emotional damage might take years but which will happen, you make carry a few scars, but you are far more capable of healthy love because of the boundaries you set against the peddlers of deceit. You become a walking polygraph test. You stop out-sourcing your critical faculties and you sense when you are being gaslit; by individuals, by institutions, by the media, by the government., by the orchestrators of entire movements.

Like a compass naturally seeks magnetic north, you become a natural seeker of Truth, no matter how uncomfortable, how frightening, how isolating, how humbling, no matter the beliefs you have to let go of along the way, the enemies you make and the friends you lose. Because it is only Truth, however dark, that releases us from becoming a prisoner of the shadow worlds.

I too believe that people are basically good when the conditions support the flourishing of goodness. When those conditions change, the human soul is up for grabs. We are in a time like this now. It is difficult to see because our imaginations have been captured by ideology. We need to again become capable of imagining evil, because if not we will be unable to face its consequences when they come for us, nor be capable of rendering impotent its networks of deceit which addle our minds. When we learn that we are merely pawns in a game, that is not just rigged for us to lose but for us to suffer, then our best recourse is to refuse to play the game at all. And we do this by refusing to participate in the lie.

When I speak of imagining evil I do not mean to suggest that we concoct evil out of thin air, engaging in creations of paranoid fantasy, but to tap into our natural ability to conceive and thus to discern evil if and when it emerges, using all the biological, perceptive and critical faculties at our disposal. Being able to imagine evil is a vital step, because if we cannot imagine something can exist then we cannot see it, even when it is staring us in the face. We cannot defend against something that we cannot see. And if this blindness persists much longer, then all we can hope for is a final hour of horror and desperate petitions of atonement as the terrible truths dawn darkly.

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know the risks

Heart attacks are all the rage
trending high among the fittest of the fit
no one is safe

defibrillators in the playground

headlines warn us to ‘know the risks’

sleeping too much
sleeping too little
sleeping on the left side
or is it the right?
going to sleep later than 11 pm
nodding off in front of the telly
sleeping with the light on

making the bed

cold weather
hot weather
changing weather
climate change
living on a busy road
under a flight path

going on holiday

shoveling snow
not enough exercise
winter storms
having a weak handshake
too much exercise
being short, being tall
sitting down, standing up

taking a shower

being single
in a bad marriage
good sex
bad sex
watching porn


eating out
too much coffee
not enough coffee
cleaning the house


not knowing when you’re being played

being sarcastic

note: all of the above, except the penultimate line, are actual media headlines from 2021 to 2022

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The wisdom of the letting go

I was listening to a talk by the English bard, Malcolm Guite. If the mossy time of ancient stones, their mysterious placement mute to the clamouring conquests of intellectual certainties that frame modernity could produce a human interloper, it would probably look like Malcolm. Whiskerish to the point of wizardry, adamantinely intense, brimming with the kind of playful wisdom that respects so much its source that it takes hours and hours to unravel, and in the unraveling, disperses every but the truly thirsty listener to things elsewhere.

It is no accident that he is an expert elucidator of JRR Tolkien and his circle which included C.S. Lewis. In a talk on the numinous mythic dynamics of that epic narrative Lord of the Rings, that I listened to as I cooked my lunch, he says something quite remarkable, that made my onions pause in their sizzling. Most mythic stories, he reminds us, concern a quest for possession – of something – a treasure, knowledge, a person, perhaps the reclamation of something lost, but the hero is always engaged in a task of conquest. A task of claiming, or reclaiming.

The Lord of the Rings, he reminds us (because we need to to be reminded from time to time) is, in contrast, a story of DIS-possession. It is, uncharacteristically in the well-worn genre of heroes and their adventures, a story about LETTING GO. The impossible task – and it must always be an impossible for the embarker who needs to be ripped bodily from the glue of the possible – is the RELINQUISING of a source of ultimate knowledge and power. To see all, is to know all. To know all is to control all. And to control all is the DOMINION.

While the rice simmered gently in the pot, it hit me. And his words spilled over. It is not just the letting go, but the REFUSAL of the object of power that is central to the mythos in the trilogy. The refusal to be owned by that power, and ultimately, the willingness – nay the DUTY – to DESTROY this source-object for the good of all. Tolkien’s genius as one of the most important philosophers of the modern age, gets lost in his choice to frame his philosophy in the genre of narrative fantasy. But Malcolm reminds me – our best philosophers did something more than tell us how to lead a good and meaningful life. They told us a STORY. And we find the life that resonates with us WITHIN that story.

I read Tolkien at a time of my own letting go. I was only 18, although at that time I imagined myself fully formed. I had a broken leg. I had returned from a great adventure, hitchhiking around the near east with my boyfriend for a year funded by youthful optimism and 800 British pounds. We were so young in so many ways, but we had something that our parents had passed on to us. Something we rebelled against at the time, but which later we both understood as a profound and deep stratospheric continuum, Neither of us understood, rebels that we imagined we were, that our parents having rebelled in their own ways, had created the conditions for this quest of ours in the hope that we would bring back something back that would add to the collective wisdom of which they were a part.

But we knew nothing of this. We were islands crashing into tectonic plates. We returned feeling like we had something precious to share. We hadn’t died, after all. And more. We had slayed dragons, we had slept in muck, we had walked when it was not possible to put one step in front of the other, we had made friends without language, we had gradually discarded the unnecessary and discovered how little we needed, we had not taken a warm shower for several months. We stank, truth be told, but we felt like giants.

And then it all fell apart. And there I was. On my mother’s olive green couch, injured and beaten. Facing the prospect of depressed 80’s Britain after the sapphire coasts and vertiginous gorges of Crete, after the spinning wisdom of the Nile, the hearty camaraderie of Istanbul and the bread-breaking generosity of strangers everywhere. Here I was. Back in Maidenhead for crying out loud, the grotto of Theresa May. Humbled. Hurt. Falling back in love and understanding with my Mother – who asked me every evening, “What would you like for dinner?” The person I had held accountable for for the disaster of shattered trust that had befallen our family. And learning that she too, had been broken. That she too, sought redemption. She wasn’t just there to help me heal from the crash of my re-entry. She wanted to hear what I had learned on the journey. She was the only one who was interested. We were never the same after that. I learned the meaning of this relation of Mother to Daughter in those months with my stupid heavy left leg resting on the coffee table, my friends all gone their separate ways, my will finding its way again, outside the confines of the SHIRE.

So. Going back to the Bard. What he said about the letting go. Of course, I didn’t understand it at the time. None of us do, do we? We need elders, mentors, teachers, friends, to point these things out to us, from time to time. I had to let go of that year. Because the fact was, no one was interested. I wanted to say, “Hey you guys, you who I love with all my heart. There’s a whole world out there, and they think kind of different to us. And they have wisdom and history and culture up the yin yang.. And what’s more! They’re happy to sit down and and share it. And they want to know what we know and they want to share what they know. And it’s bloody magic mate.

“Really? Do I have to look at another photograph of you guys looking indecipherably happy? Want another pint?”

So it did not take very long. To have that adventurous spirit snuffed out.
And my strength to go on came from an unexpected source.
My mother.
My mother who I had battled and raged at and defined myself against. My fortress of books and music, and poetry and art and philosophy – protected ME from HER. And feelings she could, of course, never understand. Because I was not HER. And she was not ME.

But damn. That Tolkien. He brought us together. In ways neither of us expected.

You see. While I had been away. Fleeing my past in the same rhythm that I sought my future. Both of us had grown. Of course, at the time, I believed it was only me. But that wasn’t true. She was different, when I turned up again on her doorstep. She had lost her mother while I was gone; my grandmother who was all love and custard and with whom I felt safe. My mother was softer in her very private grief, and I think our need for each other’s company and care came together perfectly. I had done something she could not imagine doing. I had earned her respect. And in caring for me, she earned mine.

I will forever remember the gin and tonic she brought to the hospital, hidden in the Pepsi bottle.

She told the doctors, who kept insisting on the skin graft, from my upper thigh to my calf, that if they just let me go outside – in the sun – for an hour or two a day – I wouldn’t need that skin graft. They scoffed. They were little older than me. Sure and arrogant. But unlike me, they were not lying in bed being told day after day, “You will never dance or jump again. You must lead a life of care and caution. You are handicapped, we are sorry to say.”

My mother would have none of this what she called “negative thinking”. She had been a nurse before she met my father. She was a healer in all ways. Eventually they ran out of reasons not to let me sit and read Tolkien under that beech tree in the hospital grounds.

I read the entire Trilogy while the sun worked its magic on my muscle and skin and bone. And deep in my bones, I knew it was about LETTING GO. My time ‘abroad’ had taught me many things. I was less sure of what I knew but more sure of myself. I knew there was another side. And I knew I would never forget it. I knew it was possible to disagree on many, many things, but that that the things that hold us together go deeper, deeper even than our skin. I had, accidentally, stumbled upon a new humanity, that took care of the sick, that listened to the elders, that tolerated the young, that respected the forces of nature that weaved their cruel justice into the tiniest cranny of faith. And that faith, somehow remained. I learned the same thing, country after country. I listened to the gossip and slander they loved to share about each other, they were petty and jealous and all of the things we are, but. At the end of the day. They knew something we did not. They knew they needed one another.

And when I returned and did cartwheels in the sky on the A308, and that poor woman who forgot to indicate left, and my poor boyfriend who accelerated too soon – the CRASH. I didn’t lose my leg. I was whisked away in an ambulance. Delirious. My boyfriend looked – crashed. And the woman. I never knew her name. They were both in shock. I must have been too. My only thought. I remember it now. 40 years later. It was this. Are you ready to die? And the answer. It flooded through my veins. “Noooooooooooo! Let me learn!!!”

And I did. Stubborn and dull-witted as I was. I learned so so many things in that time. I learned I was not a hero. I learned I needed my Mother. I learned how to be someone who could learn. I stopped being what my teachers had said in my school reports UNTEACHEABLE.

Because LIFE IS OUR TEACHER. Life will teach us, if we let it – how to grow in a way that makes the most of our dreams, both lost and found, and found again.

The key to the wisdom of the camaraderie of the RING was this. I cannot put it better than Malcolm Guite the Olde. “Cease to possess it, and it will cease to possess you.”

He was, or course, referring to the RING. The ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL. But the RING means what each of use hold desperately to as the definition of our truth – our ILLUSION of CONTROL. All ideology ended for me, in that erosion of time on my mother’s couch, as my bones healed and my mind melted and knew in my boisterous 18 year old mind that I would never be the same again. I never could believe it any more. I could never believe it ever again. The forced LIE. We all, the creatures of Middle Earth, we all, had moments like that. The only difference between THEN and NOW. Is that now I know I am not alone. And neither are YOU.

Malcom Guite was right about Tolkien. I didn’t know it then. But what I was learning on that couch, all those decades ago, was how the fight must always COME HOME. When we revert to LOVE AND TRUTH to the power of the ONE RING fades. Because we don’t need it for ourselves. Because we want it for ALL.

The DARKNESS OF MORDOR will end when we choose it to end. It is we who allow it to enter. It is we who decide to bow and scrape to serve it. And it is we who RESIST its ATTRACTION, it is we who gather its hat and coat and show it the way out. And every one of us has that POWER TO RESIST WITHIN US. We were born for better things than this.

Cease to possess it, and it will cease to posses you.

I will talk more about this another time.

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