Going round in circles

I woke up yesterday morning with this Schumann song in my head:

I’d known Hugo Wolf’s setting of Mörike’s text since my teens, but had only discovered Schumann’s during a compare-and-contrast exercise in my final year at Oxford. (Thank you, John Warrack – your seminar was the undisputed highlight of my time there.) I’d been reminded of it at a discussion at Lake District Summer Music earlier this month, where the panellists were considering how different settings can bring out different facets of a poem – even facets that aren’t obvious in the words themselves. And then yesterday morning… well, there it was.

For me, the power of Schumann’s setting is the way the music accentuates the trapped, hopeless situaton the singer finds herself in. Listen to the rising and falling motif of the third and fourth lines (0:30-0:47) which reappears throughout the song. Listen too to the way the vocal line begins in the upper register, but is quickly and repeatedly dragged down to a lower register by that motif, despite a brave attempt to escape into the upper reaches with the flying sparks of the fire.

This song doesn’t offer its singer anything in the way of hope or escape, but it does offer her one thing: companionship. Sometimes that’s all we can cope with – not encouragement, not a well-meaning comment that things will get better, and God knows not a pep talk or a Bible verse – but just quiet, patient companionship. (Curiously enough I was listening to a podcast just last week which said exactly the same thing.) Continue reading

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Living from the heart

the-shack1Every once in a while I read a book that seems in some way to be describing me, and seems somehow to understand me better than I do myself. The latest is The Shack by William P. Young.

The Shack describes perhaps the worst experience a father can go through – the loss of a daughter to a kidnapper and murderer. The enormity of that experience is something most of us will never have to face, and it would be an insult to pretend that I could understand the shock waves of grief, despair and self-recrimination that ricocheted through the lives of the protagonist and his family after the tragedy.

But there is something about the way Mr Young tells the story, a warmth and an inclusiveness, a generosity, that somehow makes it about all of us – at least, if we want it to be.
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A voice that needs to be heard

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This may be one of the most important books of the last one hundred years. It is certain to be one of the most underrated.

I pick the timescale advisedly. Susan Cain starts the first chapter of Quiet in 1902 with the story of Dale Carnegie, whom she views as marking the beginning of America’s “culture of personality” – a fixation with an “extrovert ideal” which has come to dominate everything from the preschool classroom to the Wall Street boardroom. And not just in the USA, but increasingly in the rest of the Western world.

There’s a problem with that, she says. I would agree.

The problem is that one-third to one-half of the population, if they were subjected to a Myers-Briggs test, would identify themselves as introverts. And introvert has become a dirty word.

Cain takes pains to point out that introversion and extrovertion are not value judgments; they define where we get and where we spend our energy. Extroverts draw energy from social situations and find themselves drained by solitude. The introvert draws energy from solitude and is drained by the crowd. Most of us will recognise one or other of these about ourselves.

It is not only that the culture of personality and participation leaves many introverts feeling left out, though it does. Cain records case study after case study where the most influential voice in the room is the loudest, rather than the one with the most valuable things to say. She is alarmed by teaching styles which reward participation over achievement, everywhere from first grade to Harvard Business School. (I might have said something about these teaching styles myself a while ago…)

More disturbing, though, is the marginalisation of the the particular qualities that introverts offer. Continue reading

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Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any book that quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot in its first few pages is going to speak to me quite personally. I knew from the outset this would be a book to be taken seriously and considered thoughtfully. I guessed it might be hard work. I was not wrong.

Falling Upward is a book for those who are on a journey. Richard Rohr illustrates his thesis with the journey of Odysseus, but the journey he describes and seeks to explain is a spiritual and emotional one – and moreover a journey that, according to him, not everyone will be ready, willing or equipped to make.

Rohr’s central point is that we live a life of two halves, each with its own task: “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold”. The world’s focus, he says, is fixated on the first task: establishing one’s identity, creating boundaries, seeking security and status, building community. That is all our society and culture seems aware of or demands of us. But it is only half the story.

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Taking responsibility for our words

Someonimagee in the NHS ought to be feeling very embarrassed this week. As The Independent reported on Thursday, there has been a major public outcry over this poster, which dates from 2005-07 but has recently been seen on NHS premises and elsewhere.

I know, I know. It was a perfectly sincere attempt by the NHS and the Home Office to encourage people to drink responsibly.

It was also completely irresponsible.

As The Independent and others (including a former Solicitor-General) have pointed out, it implies strongly that rape sometimes happens because the victim is drunk. It doesn’t. Rape may sometimes happen when a victim is drunk, but rape only happens because of one thing. Rapists.

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A larger identity

Every now and then my inbox feeds me something unexpected that changes the way I see things. This week it was Matthew Taylor’s RSA Chief Executive’s lecture, The Power to Create:

It came at the right time. Having been made redundant a couple of months ago, I have been thinking a good deal about what I should be doing with my life. It’s not a quick or straightforward process, but neither should it be. It has certainly not come up with a slick answer, but it has been a surprising gift of an opportunity, and has started what I hope will be a long and fruitful train of thought.

The problem is this. In the meantime I am expected to apply for jobs. I have edited and dissected and refined and polished my CV; I have submitted applications by the megabyte. In the process, I am starting to learn some awkward things about what makes employers tick.

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A city set on a hill

Berlin bookended my formative years.  I first visited at the age of seven, though I have little memory of the long, hot trek through the flatlands of East Germany in my parents’ camper van.

800px-Berlin_schoeneberg_belziger_26.10.2012_11-53-22_ShiftNI returned seven years later, in 1982, with one year of schoolboy German and a deep fascination for the city and what it represented. I had read about the Berlin Airlift and the building of the Wall. I had stared at photos of Checkpoint Charlie. I had sat in the school library listening to a faded recording of JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech from 19 years earlier; I stayed with a family friend just yards from the Rathaus Schöneberg where that speech was given, within earshot of the Freedom Bell as it rang every day at noon.

Berlin then seemed a self-conscious place, under scrutiny from West and East alike, almost brazen in showcasing western freedom in the heart of the grey, barren German Democratic Republic. A western S-Bahn line, forced by the arbitrary geography of the Wall to run through one East Berlin station, offered me a glimpse of the sinister bleakness of life on the other side – all weeds, discoloured concrete and heavily-built Grepos -before restoring me to the carefree relaxation of the free world. Continue reading

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