Politics and the Tao Te Ching

And then there is the other great Taoist classic, undoubtedly the Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching: the Book of the Way and its Power. It also has a lot to say about the conduct of the state, how rulers should rule. Probably the best known aphorism is

“Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.” (Chapter 60) We take this to mean that those who govern in accordance with Tao should not meddle too much. If you poke a small fish that you’re frying, it will disintegrate. But I think it also means you mustn’t neglect what you’re doing but need to keep an eye on it the whole time, so that you see the exact moment you need to do something. ‘Like cooking a small fish’ doesn’t just mean you leave it alone, as the extreme small-government people might have us believe.

But there’s much more good stuff. (Both the following extracts are from the J. H. McDonald translation) I love chapter 17:

The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.

The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.

Next comes the one who is feared.

The worst one is the leader that is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

they will become untrustworthy.

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When she has accomplished her task,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

And chapter 18 sounds disturbingly appropriate in our increasingly nationalistic times:

When the great Tao is abandoned,

charity and righteousness appear.

When intellectualism arises,

hypocrisy is close behind.

When there is strife in the family unit,

people talk about ‘brotherly love’.

When the country falls into chaos,

politicians talk about ‘patriotism’.

The version I’m reading at the moment is the more recently published translation by John Minford (Viking, 2018) It’s a bigger book than most versions. The Chinese original contains only 5,000 words. It practises what the Tao preaches about using few words. Minford, however, has chosen to accompany his translation with helpful commentary from some of the great commentators on the Tao Te Ching, especially the River Master and Magister Liu, together with some short Chinese poems that illustrate the theme.

He advocates a slow, meditative reading of the text which he calls Lectio Sinica, a Chinese version of the familiar Christian and monastic practice of Lectio Divina. This commends itself as a useful way of approaching such a strange yet deeply attractive text.

 

Politics and I Ching

易經

I’ve been fascinated by the I Ching for more years than I can remember. Maybe it’s having lived through the 60s and Flower Power and all that stuff, and being intrigued by some of the artistic, literary, and psychological associations like Hermann Hesse, George Harrison, and Jung; but I didn’t start looking at it more seriously until the 1990s. Since then I’ve kept taking it up and putting it down again, frustrated by its opaqueness and, quite simply, its foreignness.

And still I come back to it, and have a modest collection of different translations and books about it. I’m attracted to it not as a book of divination… who really wants to know what will happen, especially at this moment in history? It will be bad enough to find out when it actually happens. No, what appeals to me is the sense that it speaks with a voice of wisdom, a very different kind of wisdom from what we’re familiar with in the West, although often saying many of the same kind of things. It has a lot to say about how to develop moral character and right behaviour: how to study to become a better person; and I like that.

But still, much of what you find about it in books or on the Internet seems either mad, or unnecessarily esoteric, or alternatively just plain trivial. What has changed in the most recent time, has been coming across the idea that I might actually read it. (I know, I’m slow on the uptake… But the Changes don’t reveal their deep secrets to the person in a hurry. I think.)

Thomas Cleary, in The Taoist I Ching, insists that you cannot make any sense of this book, if you have only a limited knowledge of it, and this is especially true of any random approach (such as, only reading the hexagrams that result from some random process, whether counting yarrow stalks or tossing coins).

“Therefore, the first step is to read the book in its entirety, without pausing to judge or question, just going along with the flow of its images and ideas. … Ancient literature suggests reading one hexagram in the morning and one at night. At this rate, this initial phase of consultation can be completed in approximately one month. This may have to be repeated one or more times at intervals to effectively set the basic program into the mind.”

In fact, on this first read through of the 64 hexagrams (Book I in the Wilhelm/Baynes version), I’m going faster than just two chapters a day; I can come back to that more leisurely approach later. But the overview is already yielding wonderful nuggets: not least the quaint old-fashioned ideas that moral character is important; that it’s especially important in people with power and influence in the state; that everyone has a responsibility to cultivate it; that things go badly for everyone when moral character is lacking – especially aomng the people in power.

Take, for example, the Image of hexagram 12, P’i / Standstill (Stagnation):

The hexagram for this is ䷋: made up of the trigrams Ch’ien, the Creative, Heaven over K’un, the Receptive, Earth. These are complementary realities, but in this particular arrangement they are pulling away from each other, rather than working together, hence the idea of Standstill or Stagnation. (Don’t worry if this is all Chinese to you: walk with me for a while.)

The text for the Image reads:

Heaven and earth do not unite:
The image of STANDSTILL.
Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worth
In order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.

And the commentary begins:

When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong.

It seems to me you could hardly find a more accurate summary of Brexit Britain, and what’s wrong with the state of our nation and politics at the present time. People have simply lost all trust in our political class because the perception is that they are morally inferior people. It used to be the case that society, schools, the whole process of education and upbringing, taught that you should regard it as a moral duty to use your skills and gifts for the general good, not just for your personal advantage. Especially if you enjoyed any kind of privilege or position: and even receiving a free secondary, let alone tertiary, education, was an enormous privilege, bringing responsibility with it. Certainly that’s one of the things were were taught at my local grammar school, even if the invisible sub-text was that we would possibly be called upon to govern the Raj (or whatever the 1960s equivalent of that was) under the supervision of the gentlemen whose privilege had been to enjoy a public (sic) school education. This is no longer the case. The antics of the entitled classes, as exemplified by the Bullingdon Club and its many wannabes, is enough proof. The popularity with the Tory Party of the unspeakable Boris Johnson, and the absurd and terrifying likelihood that he will soon be Prime Minister, confirms it.

And all the while I’m sure there are many, many people in pubic office, perhaps even in Parliament, who really do have a notion that they are there to do good and to work for the common good. It’s just that their efforts are made invisible by the greed and wealth of those among them who continue to vote for measures that oppress the poorest and most vulnerable, and make their lives a misery. Theresa May appeared to say the right things when she spoke of making Britain a country that worked for everyone, but most of the policies of her Government shouted the opposite, and much louder. Francesca Martinez spoke for many, and earned the applause she received, when she said on Question Time that the Tories have blood on their hands, because their austerity policies have been a direct cause of 130,000 deaths.

There is much more in the I Ching about how rulers in particular, and all people in general who seek to live in wise harmony with the universe, should fashion their lives. Sadly, I doubt if the Boris Johnsons of this world and all those who admire them, so much as give a damn.

Adventures with a catheter

The title of my next book? A light-hearted, yet strangely deep and philosophically wise memoir of the experiences of a trainee urology nurse? Not quite…

This is the next instalment of my continuing health saga. In the last episode, I promised that ‘the next part of the adventure sounds so scary I haven’t even dared to google it’. Now read on, if you have the stomach for it…

The discharge summary after my TWOC just over a week ago was couched in a more breezily colloquial (yet also more coded) style than some of my consultant surgeon’s summaries have been.

Mr Price had a optical urethrotomy for bulbar urethral stricture on 15/05/19. He was discharged home with a urinary IDC in situ. Today, he presented to triage for a TWOC. He was otherwise well in himself. The IDC was removed with ease. He successfully passed the TWOC with 97mls PVR. We therefore discharged him home with safety netting advice which he acknowledged. Nil urology triage f/u needed.

Today’s scary part that I hadn’t even dared to google, because I really didn’t want to know too much about it beforehand, was innocuously advertised as an appointment at the ISC and Continence Clinic. That ISC is the sharp-toothed part: it stands for Intermittent Self Catheterization. The problem with urethral strictures, apparently, (whether bulbar or otherwise) is that the scarring can get worse again, causing the stricture to grow and cause renewed urinary retention. The way of preventing this, and keeping the urethra as open as possible, is to insert a catheter at regular intervals. Not to stay in, but just to remind that stricture not to grow.

We met K., the lovely nurse who was going to deliver this training. She produced three different types of catheter which she showed, described and demonstrated. It was a touch like speed dating, because she then popped the question, “Is there one of these that you feel particularly drawn to?” ‘None of the above’ was clearly not going to be an acceptable answer; but in fact there was one design which looked less unappealing, maybe I should even say more my style, than the other two.

Thereupon the next step was to actually try the thing out, watched with loving attention by K. and Alison (who was there to learn how it was done, in case I ever needed help or encouragement?) With reminders and a lot of that encouragement as we proceeded, I succeeded in catheterizing myself with the device I had been particularly drawn to. It is the weirdest of sensations, strange enough when it’s being done to you by someone else, but even stranger when you’re doing it to yourself. There was quite a lot of

“How far does it have to go in? Are we nearly there yet?”

“It has to go all the way into the bladder.”

“How will I know when it gets there?”

“You’ll know.”

Yes, you will, because when the end of the catheter arrives in the bladder, it immediately begins to drain urine, even if you’ve only just been to the toilet. It only took a few seconds to stop draining, since I had retained very little after the flow test that preceded all this. And then the catheter is removed. Slowly and gently. And this also is a weird sensation.

Much praise from K. (“You did really well.”) Much relief from me. I’ve always been a great fan of Lifelong Learning; but I never expected the syllabus to include this. But there is certainly a large amount of pride in doing something you could not have imagined doing, or even thought would be impossible.

K. tells me to do this impossible thing daily for the next fortnight, then every other day, then perhaps once or twice a week. Maybe ‘for the rest of my days’, as she put it. Or maybe it will only be when, or if, I sense the stricture is becoming a problem again. There’s a follow-up appointment in a few weeks’ time, which may shed more light.

They say that a huge percentage of NHS services are consumed by the over 65s. I’m beginning to have a much clearer understanding of what this means; and that I am one of those more frequent users. Thank God for the NHS.

O Land, Land, Land

Just started reading Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Transcription (just appeared in paperback — whee!) and I come across an epigraph which includes the translation of this Latin inscription in the foyer of Broadcasting House.

“This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”

“…That the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness…”

In the present car crash of British politics: the Brexit referendum, the implosion of the Tory party, the unfathomable triumph of the Brexit Party whose only policy is that they want to crash us out of the European Union even if it means leaving with no deal … I’m wondering if the first Governors of Broadcasting didn’t pray hard enough? Or, more likely, whether it’s ‘the people’ who have simply squandered their precious inheritance of honesty, good report, wisdom, uprightness and faith.

(The title of this post is from Jeremiah 22.29, the prophet’s lament over God’s people’s wilful deafness, refusing to hear and heed God’s message to them: “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!”)

And so it goes on

The health — or rather ill-health — saga continues.

At the beginning of May we decided to go away for a few days, the first time we’ve had a ‘holiday’ kind of break since my operation in December. Just a little break for a change of scene and a bit of pampering with other people doing the catering for us… There were a couple of days when the weather was good enough to do a bit of walking, about as much as I could manage, or to go and visit a nearby National Trust property. The food was good, the room was comfortable, the setting was pleasant. So it was nice break. Except for the last night when I developed acute urinary retention, and was awake much of the night trying unsuccessfully to empty my bladder. If you’ve never had this experience, just take it from me that it’s a painful one.

Fortunately we weren’t too far from home; but even so, the drive home was painful. By the time we arrived, Urology wouldn’t agree to see me because I presented my situation wrongly, and they told me to contact my GP, but by that time it was too late to get an appointment. Instead the GP suggested I should phone 111 and contact the out-of-hours service. An interesting experience, where you’re faced with a barrage of questions obviously being read off the screen of some iDiagnosis app. My favourites included ‘Are there any blisters around the genital area?’ ‘Have you recently had sex with anyone who might have had an STD?’ and ‘Have you recently been suffering severe breathlessness?’ (I’ve since discovered this last can be a symptom of sepsis, so I’m glad I didn’t have it. Or, incidentally, any of the others.) The result was, I was given an appointment to see a clinician within about an hour, though it did involve a 15 mile drive to Bicester.

The doctor I saw had a feel of my abdomen and confirmed that I had a palpable bladder. Yes, I could have told him that. He catheterized me: the first size he tried to insert was too big, so he had to use a smaller 12-bore instead, which successfully drained about a litre of urine. He then prescribed tamsulosin to stretch the passage, and an antibiotic because he believed I had a urinary infection. (I was sceptical about this, having been on ciprofloxacin for about 8 weeks, but …) And sent me away for the weekend.

First thing on Monday morning I tried to contact my surgeon to tell him what had been going on; he phoned me back with an appointment for his clinic the following day. Which we attended, and he attempted to perform a cystoscopy but couldn’t insert it because of the narrowing of the urethra. This at least confirmed that this was the problem, so he admitted me as an urgent case to perform an urethrostomy.

Urethrostomy: (an endoscopic procedure typically performed under general anesthesia. A thin tube with a camera (endoscope) is inserted into the urethra to visualize the stricture. Then a tiny knife is passed through the endoscope to cut the stricture lengthwise and open the flow of urine. Wikipedia.)

No theatre time available that evening, so I had to wait till the following day, and in the mean time my bladder was full again. This time they didn’t want to insert another catheter, so they drained it by inserting a needle into the bladder through my abdominal wall. It sounds worse than it felt — though indeed, I wasn’t looking — and the worst thing was them pressing on my abdomen to get the urine to come out through the needle which was only the size of a hypodermic. It took a while, but it was ahuge relief, and kept me comfortable until the time of the procedure late the following morning.

It didn’t take long, which meant the general anaesthetic didn’t leave me as groggy as the last one I had on Christmas Eve. The stricture was cut, I was left with another catheter in place, but at least the choice this time of whether I wanted a leg bag, or a short tube with a tap on the end that I could drain at will, with the option of a larger night bag while I was asleep. I chose the second: the leg bag was really not something I wanted. Though the catheter with tap was also not a comfortable thing to have around, principally because it was in the tube where I’d recently had the knife.

One week on: catheter removed; TWOC satisfactorily passed — though this time the nurse tells me (which I didn’t want to hear) that success is only provisional in a sense, because the ‘trial’ continues through the following two or three days, when, if you have any recurring problems with retention, you need to contact Urology and be re-admitted. At least if it does happen again, I will know how to describe my condition in the right way and be able to insist on being admitted.

For the time being, it’s a huge relief to be catheter-free, able to pass urine more easily, and just feeling a lot better. Yesterday I had an appointment with the bone infection unit, where the consultant was pleased with what he heard about my improvement while taking the ciprofloxacin. The pain in the pelvis has more or less completely gone. I can walk again, though I could still benefit from some physiotherapy to build up the core strength I lost during the weeks I couldn’t walk. The antibiotic still has three more weeks to run, and he said I should take it to the end. He can’t give an unconditional promise, but he’s confident that that should ‘almost certainly’ clear the infection completely. He wasn’t planning to do another scan because at this stage it was unlikely to provide any helpful information. I should carry on with life when the course of antibiotics finishes, and contact them only if there’s any recurrence of symptoms. So I suppose that’s good news.

We’re not completely out of the woods yet, and the next part of the adventure sounds so scary I haven’t even dared to google it. (Watch this space.) But we may be getting nearer to being in sight of the end of it. Perhaps then I’ll be able to blog about something more cheerful than my pelvic regions and bladder.

A better resurrection

Since my last post accompanied by the image of Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Resurrection, when I said it was one of my favourite images of the Resurrection of Jesus, I’ve been thinking it over and over, and may have changed my mind…

There’s no doubt that the image powerfully represents the triumph of the Risen Lord. It also dares to portray the actual moment of Resurrection, and so is different from the great majority of images which portray the aftermath: the empty tomb, or the women or disciples first encountering their risen Lord.

I’ve since been reading John Dominic Crossan’s latest book, Resurrecting Easter: How the West lost and the East kept the original vision of Easter. It recounts a succession of pilgrimage visits to historic sites of the Western Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, searching for evidence of the thesis that it was the East which retained the original vision of what the Resurrection meant. It’s an attractive book, lavishly illustrated with images taken by Crossan’s photographer wife Sarah Sexton Crossan.

Whereas Western art, when it shows the moment of Resurrection at all, emphasises the individual nature of Jesus rising from the dead, Eastern iconography came to focus on the universal aspect of Resurrection: that Jesus did not rise from death alone, but brought with him the whole of humanity, all who had “died in Adam”. This idea seems to have originated from the words in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion:

Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Matthew 27.50-53)

So, in this typical icon of the Anastasis or Resurrection, the risen Jesus is depicted with a cross-shaped halo, enclosed in an almond-shaped mandorla representing his luminous, risen glory. He stands astride the shattered gates of Hell, beneath which the chained figure of Hades or Satan lies crushed. With his two hands, Christ reaches out and grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, the first parents of the human race, and draws them out of their graves and into the light and glory of the Resurrection and of heaven. Behind Adam stand three other figures: King David, King Solomon (beardless) and John the Baptist. The figures behind Eve differ in different versions of this icon: here they seem to include Abel as a shepherd, and Moses. For a fuller description, see this post in the Orthodox Road blog.

After all, this Eastern icon tradition seems to me to present an image of a ‘better resurrection’. Not the ‘heaven and hell’ destiny that has so often been preached in Western Christianity, but a grand vision of a redemption that will embrace the whole human race, which believes with the Epistle to Titus that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all”. (Titus 2.11 NRSV)

Do we believe in a big enough, and loving enough God, to accomplish this?

Preaching Resurrection

Resurrection, by Piero della Francesca, c. 1460

I’m currently reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, in the course of which my attention was grabbed by his almost throwaway remark about preaching, in which he describes sermons as:

that peculiar, intense form of dramatic mass communication that early Christianity seems to have invented: a struggle between the speaker, his God, the text of the Bible and an audience of believers.

That ‘struggle’ is a good word… Preaching is not about a speaker learned in theology who pours his or her knowledge into the empty minds of sheep-like hearers who know so much less. However much some (chiefly Evangelical) preachers seem to think it is, or would like it to be. Those hearers will always have their own ideas about whether, and how much, they will accept the speaker’s words as true, helpful, credible or relevant. They may have been schooled not to voice their dissent, or indeed to offer any comment beyond the conventional “Lovely sermon, vicar”, but whether they will allow what they’ve heard to change their lives or not, is another matter. And then there are the other characters in the conversation: God, and the biblical text, both of whom may have something to say about it, whether the preacher will or not.

For 37 years, and to some extent still, from time to time, I have dared to venture into that struggle. I’m ashamed to say I have sometimes believed that I was the one who knew, delivering the very word of God to those who knew not. After all, it can’t have been for nothing that I had spent all those hours and years studying the Bible and theology – can it? But as the years passed I came to what I thought in the end was not only a more honest, but also a humbler and more effective attitude to what I was doing in the pulpit. No longer the purveyor of all truth, but someone who had been given the privilege of standing among believers (and sometimes unbelievers, too) with the Bible open, and saying to them as it were: “These are the words which many of our forebears have believed to be, or to convey, the Word of God. A message from God! Let us sit here together and see if we can make sense of it: discover if it is indeed such a message to us, and if so, what it is saying to us.” Of course, I may have been in the position to have learned more of the text and its background that some of the listeners; but many of them knew much more of life than I did. My sermons were rarely in the form of a dialogue or discussion; but I hope they came to be speech in which I imagined and offered not only what I (the expert?) had to say, but also what any of the hearers might have had to say in response.

And one of the questions I found myself asking, and asked myself again as I listened to this morning’s preacher, was: Who are we preaching to, when we dare to stand in the pulpit and open our mouths about God? So often (like this morning) I think we preach with the assumption that out hearers are unbelievers whom we are trying to convince. Really? There may be some churches where people with no faith or understanding pitch up on a Sunday morning thinking, “I’ll just go in here and see what these Christians have to say for themselves.” But I’d be astonished if they were ever more than the tiniest minority. Perhaps – in the spirit of the shepherd who expended such effort in searching for the one sheep out of a hundred that was lost – we should preach to that person. But this morning I found myself thinking: Most of the people here believe, in some sense. What is the Gospel message, the good news, for those of us who believe?

I wasn’t sure that there was much that wasn’t thin fare indeed. It seemed to amount to: If you believe this, go out and tell everybody! Which seemed more guilt-news than good news. But I don’t mean this as (much) criticism of this morning’s preacher. I have been there myself, and done just the same. But now that I’m not so preoccupied with what I am trying to feed, and to whom, I find myself thinking more and more about what kind of spiritual nourishment I and others need to receive.

Often the words, and the preacher who delivers them, seem to be more of an obstacle to nourishment than a provider. We love our words so much! But sometimes I feel less nourished by the sermon, than by the words of the liturgy, or the words or melody of the hymn (not so often the ‘worship song’) we are singing, or a picture. It’s hard to depict the Resurrection… so I find myself wondering why one of my favourite representations of it is Piero della Francesca’s, dating from around 1460. It captures a moment before the women arrived at the tomb, when Christ rose triumphant while the guards were sleeping (Matthew 28.13). The risen Christ stands with his (curiously English-looking) victory banner in hand, his foot raised to lift himself out of the tomb (a very Italian, above-ground kind of burial place). But why does he look so spaced-out and joyless, as if he’s just awoken from a bad trip? His gaze is directed straight at us, but I wouldn’t call it warm, or attractive, or inviting. When, or if, he opens his mouth to speak – what will he say to us?

Will thinking and wondering about a question like that, do as much or more good, than all the words of those of us who preach to the unbelievers who aren’t even there?

Do I really need an everything bucket?

During this continuing long convalescence – if you don’t know what that’s all about, you haven’t been paying attention to my earlier posts – I’ve had to resort to all the kinds of amusements and pastimes that the long-term sick commonly resort to. It’s a tedious business, being ill for a long time and unable to engage in all the activities you’re used to. You get bored with inactivity, stir-crazy from being effectively housebound for long days and weeks; it’s alarming, even, to discover how quickly your muscles begin to waste away if you’re not using them. True, I’m now able to get out a bit more and walk half a mile or so; the muscles in my buttocks and thighs don’t complain as much as they did when I first tried getting out again. But there are still long hours of sitting at home without much to do.

So… there are books to read. Though the one attraction you imagine there will be about illness – “Now I’ll be able to read all those books I’ve not been able to get around to!” – doesn’t quite live up to hope and expectation, because most illness takes away the concentration that you need to read as much as you’d like. Still, I’ve read or re-read a number of good things. Currently I’m about halfway through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, which I never managed to finish before. It’s a fascinating story, well-told and entertaining, and one of those books that makes you wonder how anyone can possibly know and remember so much and present it in such an engaging way.

There are DVDs and TV and Netflix movies to watch. I finally viewed my way right to the end of The West Wing: it only took me 4 or 5 years because of a long intermission after I first retired. I even watched a few more episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though on the whole I have much preferred more recent series like Sex Education and Fleabag. And a recent discovery, recommended by one of the reviewers in The Big Issue: Deutschland 83 on All4.

And then, of course, there are my computers and the Internet. One of the constant quests of my computing history has been to find the perfect note-taking, -keeping and -storing programme. Some years ago there was a lot of talk about this being an ‘everything bucket’: a place, program or app where you could simply dump and save everything. Conventional filing systems were places you could typically store stuff, and typically never find it again – or only with great difficulty. The ‘everything bucket’ would have perfect search and retrieval functions, so that you would never be unable to find what you wanted, ever again. As far as I can tell, there is no longer much talk about everything buckets. Perhaps it’s because Evernote has pretty much cornered the market? I did use Evernote for quite a time, but for me the problem was not lack of ability to search and retrieve, but not being able to remember what I’d thrown in there, anyway. Also, I became disenchanted when they changed their terms and wanted to charge a subscription for some of the functions I had been using for nothing.

Since then, of course, much more of everyone’s computing is in the Cloud, and it’s become much more usual to have to pay for the privilege of using some of these functions. I still much prefer the freebies, but… So I’ve been looking at some of the current crop of

Evernote Alternatives

These are the ones I thought looked best (with comments from the site). You’ll note that most of them emphasise the

Coda

Availability: Web-only

Pricing: Free (pricing unreleased)

Coda is a new resource combining document creation with interactive tools like gantt, kanban, tables and more. Coda is a combination of Dropbox Paper and Evernote. With a growing audience and template gallery, Coda is becoming a fluid place to store your notes.

Rating: 7.5/10

Best for: doc lovers, Google users, professionals

Dropbox Paper

Availability: iOS/Android/Web

Pricing: Free w/ Dropbox account

Dropbox Paper is one that many praise for its flexibility and connection with storage tool Dropbox. Paper allows users to create documents, meeting notes and assign and delegate tasks across a team. These collaborative documents are similar to Google Docs and Coda but combine more media and project management tools to the table.

Rating: 8/10

Best for: doc lovers, professionals

Notion

Availability: iOS/Android/Web/Mac/Windows

Pricing: Free, with 1k blocks. $4.99 per month (personal)

Notion is the rising star of the personal productivity space. Notion combines the interactivity of Coda and Dropbox Paper whilst allowing you to add elements anywhere, anytime. Notion doesn’t have a structure, but for those who want the add more than just text and images to their notes.

Rating: 8/10

Best for: project management, visual thinkers


But as for the question of whether or not anyone actually needs this…

Why you should have an ‘everything bucket’

Why you shouldn’t use an everything bucket

Are digital Everything Buckets a good filing system? – Unclutterer


So here I am, still trying one of these after the other, and still little the wiser. On the other hand, I really do need somewhere I can keep all the records of my symptoms, the meds I’m taking, all those Google searches for the terrible possible side-effects, my hospital appointments… and so on. It helps to pass the time.

All-of-us in Blunderland

In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book The Blunders of Our Governments, a study of the cock-ups of British Governments in recent decades. Here’s their opening paragraph:

“Our subject in this book is the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades. We believe there have been far too many of them and that most, perhaps all, of them could have been avoided. In previous generations, foreign observers of British politics viewed the British political system with something like awe. Government in Britain was not only highly democratic: it was also astonishingly competent. It combined effectiveness with efficiency. British governments, unlike the governments of so many other countries, knew what they wanted to do and almost invariably succeeded in doing it. Textbooks in other countries were full of praise, and foreign political leaders often expressed regret that their own system of government could not be modelled on Britain’s. Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.

When I first looked at this book, probably in 2014, I just thought it would be too depressing to read. Who could imagine that, five years later, there would be so much more evidence, and even more incontrovertible evidence, of the authors’ assertions? It has become a truism, repeatedly written about and discussed in the media, that our ‘political class’ have failed us, that our whole politivcal system is no longer fit for purpose, that Britain has become a laughing stock, over which former friends scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering how we can so far have lost our sanity.

The blunders that have clustered around the whole Brexit debacle are so egregious, that they probably draw attention away from all the other blunders of the same period (failure to deal adequately with the 2008 Crash, austerity policies, out-sourcing to private companies, Universal Credit…) So, just a recap (I’ll probably forget some of these, so do prompt me if memory fails.)

  • David Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership in the first place
  • … without sufficiently defining the terms of whether the result would be advisory or mandatory, or what majority would be required to force so great a constitutional change
  • Parliament leaping to accept the narrow 52-48 result
  • Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election to help her implement ‘the will of the people’
  • Her precipitate invoking of Article 50 before there was any kind of plan about how to implement it
  • Spectacular failure of a succession of (let’s face it, often ignorant and incompetent) negotiators to negotiate or reach any kind of deal until beyond the eleventh hour
  • Failure of MPs to agree to any proposed Brexit plan
  • All of this to appease the most extreme Eurosceptic members of the Tory party

And all the while, this process is accompanied and orchestrated by the right-wing press whipping up hatred and issuing threats against anyone who dissented from the new orthodoxy. And no one challenges the lies that continue to be told to smear opponents. In the interest of ‘balance’ and the reporting of the most sensational events, the most extreme individuals and groups have constantly been given more airtime than the voices of reason. (Ask yourself how many times Nigel Farage has appeared on the News or in panel discussions, compared with, say, Caroline Lucas?)

It’s not just the Governments that have blundered. Somehow the whole electorate, the whole country, has taken leave of its senses and continues to follow the path of most damage. At least Alice got out of Wonderland, and managed to return from Through the Looking Glass to the world of reality and sanity. I wonder if we will ever be so fortunate?

A long, long Lent

Lone and dreary, faint and weary?

Often sung during Lent (and at weddings?) is the well-loved traditional hymn, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us. Written by James Edmeston (1791-1867), an architect, surveyor and prolific hymn writer – though this is the only hymn penned by him that appears in any of the hymnals I know – it takes a trinitarian form in which the three verses are addressed in turn to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as we pray for their presence and guidance through life.

The second verse, addressed to Jesus, appeals to his humanity which enables him to understand, because he has shared, all our experiences of weakness and temptation:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go.

The last time I sang this in our parish church, I found that something strange had happened to the 5th line of this verse. Perhaps some bright spark, or possibly committee, felt it sounded a touch too, well, defeated, for the Superhero Saviour that we want to present Jesus as nowadays? So that the verse we sang went:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
tempted, taunted, yet undaunted,
through the desert thou didst go.

Three little adjectives, in place of Edmeston’s four; yet the third somehow undermines the effect of the first two, by making Jesus’ victory sound easier and more heroic. Am I the only person who thinks this might even reflect a kind of Docetic tendency in modern Christology? The heresy which teaches that Jesus only seemed to be human, over against orthodox teaching which has always been that it was only by being really, truly, fully human in every way, sharing every weakness of the human condition, that Jesus was able to be a Saviour at all?

Anyway. All of this (possibly anorakish?) hymnological rant is really only to serve as an introduction to the account of my long, long, not lone, but certainly dreary, faint and weary Lent. Most often the virtue of Lent is that you choose the disciplines of giving something up, or taking something up, in order to try and grow spiritually. Some new discipline or personal prayer or reading. Some self-denial of abstaining from a pleasure like alcohol or chocolate.

But then, sometimes, life whacks you with the kind of Lent you don’t choose for yourself, like the extended Lent I’ve been having. Weeks of pain from the osteomyelitis bone infection, so that I’ve been virtually housebound and unable to do many of the things I would have liked to do – even just going for a walk, walking to church, going out to the pub or for a meal. A whole pharmacy-full of antibiotics and pain medications and accompanying laxatives. And yes: no alcohol. What I’ve rarely been able to achieve for a whole Lent by choice, I’ve had to do because alcohol is strictly forbidden if you’re taking codeine. And I’m not even sure that this imposed Lent will end with the joyful Resurrection of Easter on April 21. The six-week course of antibiotics, which may in any case need to be extended, doesn’t end until Easter Week. I’ve been hoping the pain would have gone before the antibiotics finished, and I’d be able to come off the codeine and start making up for all the glasses of wine I’ve missed. But we’re over halfway there, and who knows?

And what about the spiritual aspect of all this? My spiritual director or soul-friend is going to be asking, “And what do you think God is saying in all of this? What have you been learning?” These are good questions… But the answer is mostly, I simply don’t know. Perhaps it’s a message about mortality. About the inescapable fact that we are not in control of our lives, our destinies, our health or our future. Perhaps it’s some kind of training in trust, patience, courage, simply accepting whatever bad stuff life throws at us, and getting on with it. Perhaps it’s one of those times you’re supposed to count your blessings, like I did when I was in hospital for a couple of nights and all the other guys in the room were much worse off than I am. Perhaps it’s a preparation for relief, joy, or gratitude when (or possibly, if) it’s all over and I’m better. Perhaps it’s all of these.

But in the mean time, it’s still a long, long Lent. That I’d often rather be doing without.