Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.
Those words above are attributed to Mother Teresa and I have no reason to doubt that.
I selected them because they seemed to capture the mood that flowed out at me from a recent essay by George Monbiot.
Many will know George for he is a British writer very well-known for his environmental and political activism. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books.
Way back in the early days of this blog I was moved to republish some of GM’s essays and sought his permission to do just that. He responded promptly giving me blanket permission to republish any of his essays.
Now it’s a long time since I have availed myself of that permission for the simple reason that so very often George writes about matters that are tough to read and I choose not to share with you because there’s no shortage of tough commentaries about today’s world. That’s no criticism, actual or implied, into George Monbiot’s integrity as a reporter and writer.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd October 2016
Two years ago, I wrote a column for the Guardian in which I argued that what distinguishes our age from those preceding it is an epidemic of loneliness. Throughout human history, we have been hyper-social animals, dependent on each other for both physical and psychic survival. Thomas Hobbes’s claim – that our natural state is a war of “every man against every man” – is a myth proposed by someone whose understanding of human evolution was confined to the book of Genesis. But the myth is now being realised through the religion of our time: a celebration of extreme individualism and universal competition. The resulting loneliness, I argued, is a deadly condition, which kills as many people as smoking or obesity.
To my astonishment, the article exploded, and the ripples can still be felt today. A documentary it inspired, called the Age of Loneliness, aired recently on BBC1. Several publishers asked me to write books on the topic, but I could think of nothing more depressing than spending three years sitting on my backside, documenting social isolation. There was plenty I wanted to say on the topic. But how?
A few weeks later, I dashed out to buy some screws from a hardware shop. Ahead of me in the queue was an elderly woman. She lent on the counter, dithering about what she wanted and trying to engage the sales assistants in a riveting conversation about her state of health. Stuck behind her, I quietly fumed: it seemed as if she would never leave.
But as I cycled home, and my frustration ebbed away, I saw what should have been obvious: here was a person who seemed desperately lonely. “Where’s your empathy?”, I asked myself. “Isn’t that what you were writing about?”. What if that conversation was the only one she would have all day? I felt guilty about my feelings in the shop.
When I returned to my desk, I began dashing out a rough poem about a woman living with little to keep her company but memories, who goes to the shops in the hope that she might talk to someone, but discovers that the tills have been replaced with automatic checkouts. As I wrote, it seemed to me that it was trying to become something else: a ballad. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with the topic: I wanted to write an album.
There were just a couple of minor hitches. I can’t read music, I don’t play an instrument and my singing is banned under international law. But I knew who to ask.
I first heard Ewan McLennan while listening to Late Junction on Radio 3, in 2011. I was transfixed by his voice, his playing and what seemed to be an almost supernatural ability to find the heart of a song. He was just 25. I bought his first album, Rags and Robes, and listened to it over and again. Three years later, I heard him interviewed by Mary Ann Kennedy, whose programmes I’ve followed since she began broadcasting on Radio Scotland. He spoke with the same ease of expression I had heard in his music. He was relaxed and funny, politically engaged and plainly fascinated by the roots and text of songs and poems. He came across as a cracking bloke.
I did something I have seldom done: I sent him a fan letter. I invited him to a talk I was giving in his home city, Bristol. He came, and over dinner afterwards we clicked. So, a few months later, with some trepidation, it was to him that I sent my idea of collaborating on a themed album.
To my delight, he agreed. I would start by thinking up a story and writing a rough sketch, which might incorporate some potential hooks, rhymes and choruses. I would send it to him on the understanding that he could do whatever he liked with it. I did not try to write to his style, as I knew he would take from each sketch what he wanted and make the song his own.
I wasn’t wrong. A couple of weeks after I emailed the first sketch to him, I found an audio file in my inbox, and opened it with the excitement of a child at Christmas. It was wonderful – he had turned my base metal into gold. The songs he sent back to me were riveting and heart-wrenching, capturing sensations I have long struggled to express.
The album is a mixture of dark shades and light: sad ballads and stirring anthems. We want to use it as a means of not only talking about loneliness, but, in a small way, addressing it. With advice from charities working on the issue, we are designing our gigs to try to bring people together. I will talk about the themes and Ewan will perform the songs. We will encourage people in the audience to talk to each other; then it will end up with a party in the nearest willing pub. Music naturally makes connections; we want to take it a step further.
In one respect, the album is already succeeding, as the collaboration has relieved the usual solitude in which we both work, making our lives less lonely. I hope it has the same effect on other people.
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot, is released on October 14 by Fellside Records.
Here’s a short video about the project, featuring some of the music:
This remarkable collaboration between author George Monbiot and musician Ewan McLennan seeks to address the curse of our age: a crowded planet stricken by loneliness. Using music and the written word, it seeks to make connections in a splintered world.
Now, dear reader, you would be disappointed if I didn’t close today’s post without reference to the value of a dog or two in one’s life, and I have no intention of delivering such disappointment!
From the dozens of pictures that have been presented here over the years I chose this one.
Because I have this notion that one can never be truly alone if there is a dog in one’s life.
Today, I want to revisit what we mean when we use the word ‘love‘ and feel the emotion. I say revisit because it’s not the first time I have dipped my toes into this particular pool. Last August, I wrote a piece What is love? It opened thus:
How the relationship that we have with domesticated animals taught us the meaning of love.
This exploration into the most fundamental emotion of all, love, was stimulated by me just finishing Pat Shipman’s book The Animal Connection. Sturdy followers of Learning from Dogs (what a hardy lot you are!) will recall that about 5 weeks ago I wrote a post entitled The Woof at the Door which included an essay from Pat, republished with her permission, that set out how “Dogs may have been man’s best friend for thousands of years longer than we realized“.
The following day, I wrote a further piece introducing the book and then commenced reading it myself. Please go there and read about the praise that the book has received.
What I want to do is to take a personal journey through love. I should add immediately that I have no specialist or professional background with regard to ‘love’ just, like millions of others, a collection of experiences that have tapped me on the shoulder these last 67 years.
The challenge for us humans is that while we instinctively understand what emotions represent: love, fear, anger, joy, grief, sadness, happiness, et al, we really have no way of knowing precisely what another person is feeling and how that feeling compares to our own awareness and experience of that emotion.
Stay with me as I explore how others offer a meaning of love.
As it happens, this week’s Sabbath Moment from Terry Hershey was much about love.
If you judge people you have not time to love them. Mother Teresa
Where there is great love there are always miracles. Willa Cather
Someday, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness… the energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world man will have discovered fire. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Then some further reflections:
Here’s my take: Life is complicated and at times, very, very challenging. And sometimes, overwhelming. Bad things can happen to good people. Decisions can be thorny and disconcerting. However. Even in the midst … where there is great love, there are always miracles.
Here’s the deal:
Love is not always where I predict it will be.
Love can grow and blossom even in the face of striving and anguish.
If we judge we cannot love. Just because I see something one way, doesn’t mean that I am right and you are wrong.
When we do love, we are present. When we are present, there is always a thread. The good news is that we are in this together. One day you may be that thread for me. And one day, I may be that thread for you.
Powerful words! Words that will have many nodding. Yet still nothing absolute that offers a definition of love that would be universally understood. Because there can be no universal definition. That is the magic of all emotions – they defy the ‘science of life’. So let’s just treasure that magic.
Last night I wrote this poem, its been a while since I posted one, so as my pen flew across the page I was inspired with these words.. Maybe due to the recent Solar flares, but my ears have been ringing ever louder as the energies have intensified.. The Silence space within is a place to reflect and absorb the peacefulness of Oneness with the Universe…. A place I often go, where we can just close our eyes to the constant noise as the Planet cries with yet more pain… Meditation helps centre our minds. If you would like to follow a meditation I often do… You can find it Here on a post I did back in 2008 .
Silence booms in an explosion of sound
Splintering static high pitched and loud
Morse Coded downloads in intermittent bursts
The Cosmos is talking-Do you hear its verse?
I escape to the mountains and I run to the sea
But its chatter surrounds me as I long to be free
I hear cries of children, laments from the old
Each on a journey their stories to be told
The Elephants and Dolphin their cries go unheard
Yet I hear their low rumbles and clicks how absurd
Each voice in the matrix – every thought in the mix
A Planet in Crisis – will it ever be fixed?
So I turn down the volume as I shut the outer door
As I meditate inward finding higher-self law
Here I seek Peace in the stillness I find
The Key to the Cosmos we turn in the mind
All things are great and all things are small
The Mind gives them power and shall overcome all
The Universal Plan- I am part and unique
Each one is searching to fit the pieces they seek
And the answer is simple- but we make is so hard
With the choices we choose as we shuffle life’s cards
How to close it for today? Frankly, I’m not sure. So I’m going to ‘cheat’. By which I mean republish something else from last August. A guest essay about the loss of love. Because it seems to me that one way (the only way?) to experience what love truly means is when we lose it. As Eleanore MacDonald describes below in the most heart-rending and beautiful fashion.
one of the seven great dogs
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Anatole France
A great squall came upon us here on our farmlet a week ago. I saw it first from a distance, in that dawning of the morning when Djuna usually announced the coming day with his gentle, breathy ‘woooof’, his polite plea to join us on the bed. Mysteriously disturbing, it surely was a sign of things to come, but we didn’t know how dangerous it really was until it was upon us.
And when it was suddenly there, a Great Joy was sucked from our world and an overwhelming sadness took its place … a raging stillness, hot and stifling, no breath, no heartbeat.
My springs of Joy are dry … (a sentiment stolen in part from that great old song, Long Time Traveler)
Djuna Cupcake was one of the Seven Great Dogs. If you’ve seen the film ‘Dean Spanley’, you will know what I mean. If you have loved and been loved by a dog of pure heart … one who was a great teacher of presence, of patience, one who was the dispenser of unconditional love and the blessings of an incomparable joy … one who was a great listener, guardian, and the embodiment of Buddha, Coyote, the Goddesses Eleos and Kuan Yin all in one soft coated body … one who was your loving shadow because he or she felt that it was their job to see you safe at all times … you will know what I mean.
He died quite suddenly. Like that squall, his death came with no warning and for days after Paul and I were sucked deep into that great black hole of grief. The dread attacked us at every turn, where we would always see him but now only a glaring emptiness stood. I felt as though my heart and soul had a raw, oozing, gaping, searingly painful wound where he had been torn away from me. Stolen. We cried a lot.
Some people will never understand. I try to feel compassion for them, rather than issuing the big ‘EFF YOU”, but I am only human. What is this BS about a ‘three day’ rule? What? Because he was ‘just a dog’ we should be over it all in 3 days? Djuna was surely a better person than most Humans and I will never stop missing him. I feel so deeply sorry for those people who have overlooked having such grace and beauty bless their lives –– the companionship of a great dog (or cat or horse, or human person) –– so that, when the monumental end comes and they’ve come through the great fires of sorrow, and have been washed by the flush of a million tears, they come through to the other side where they are able to see the remarkable love, joys and lessons they’d been gifted by that companionship. I can only hope now to ‘be’ the person Djuna thought me to be.
3 days and 3 more and 3 million more and even then more just won’t do it.
Paul and I were with Djuna on our bedroom floor when he died. I lay with him next to my heart, whispering love, my arm draped over his neck … and as he was leaving us, I saw him standing just beyond Paul. Alert, ears akimbo, head cocked, eyes bright, a wad of socks in mouth, standing in his particularly great exuberance, as he did each morning when the time for chores presented itself – “Come on! It’s time to go! Get with it you silly humans! There’s work to be done, there’s a barn to clean and a day to sniff, there’s delight to be found!” And then he left.
My ‘joyometer’, my daily dispenser of mirth, and my constant reminder of the importance of presence, has gone missing – his lessons of ‘Be Here Now’ measured in doses of ’Oh, sense the beauty in the music of the wind!’, ‘Let’s just run in circles and laugh’, ‘I love, love, love you!’ … gone. It is wholly up to me now to remember to stay in each moment, to just be a nice person, cry whenever I must, to laugh as much as possible and dance for the sheer joy of it. And when the cacophony of the deafening silence has quieted and the colors of sorrow have muted and gone transparent and I’ve had some time to let the Aegean clean up those bloodied wounds in my heart and soul, there will be room again here for another one of the Seven Great Dogs. And the cycles will continue on.
Almost every evening Djuna and I took an evening stroll down our quiet lane. I loved watching him dance his great joy, nose to the ground scenting all of the news of the day or nose to the sky, sensing what was coming on the breeze. On our walks I watched the seasons change, the rising of the full moon, the greening of the new spring and the evening skies, like snowflakes, no one ever alike … I watched the Canadian geese come and go, the Red Tail hawks courting in the air above me, and let the build up of my day fall away as I tread softly with my gentle friend. It took me several days after Djuna’s death for me to realize that here was yet again another gift he had left for me in his wake, and one I should continue to enjoy. The sky was black to the West, we’d had heavy winds and rain all day, but when there was a break I set off on ‘our’ walk. Wrapped tightly in sadness and hardly breathing with the missing of him, I shuffled along about a 1/2 mile and turned for home before the rains started up and the chill wind began to blow, fierce again, from the south. That wind battered and bashed me until it freed the tears from my eyes, and the freezing rain lashed my face until I grew numb. As though suddenly realizing I was about to drown, I surfaced, taking in great gulps of air as though I’d not been breathing for several days, and began to climb free of the suffocating bonds of my sadness.
My Djuna, my Cupcake … My Heart of Hearts who knew my soul, my every thought; great lover of Paul and I, and of Breelyn; great lover of his mare and his pony, of socks and his furry toys and his GWBush chew doll; great lover of his evening walkies and of riding in the car, and feeding the birds; great lover of sofa naps and sleeping in late with us on the bed and chasing BALL and rolling on the grass and of eating horse poop; bountiful bestower of stealthy kisses; joyful jokester, Greek scholar (he knew about 15 words and understood several phrases spoken to him in Greek; something we did only after he’d begun to understand words and phrases *spelled out* in English! ‘Car’, ‘dinner?’, ‘play with the ball?’, ‘feed the birds’, water, pony, get the goat, etc!); Djuna, beloved Honorary Cat, our timekeeper, our guardian angel, our boss, our playfully dignified friend (thanks for that Marija) and family member, and one of the Seven Great Dogs – we will love and miss you forever.
But now – there’s work to be done, there’s a barn to clean and a new day to sniff, there’s delight to be found!