Thursday, April 16, 2009

What do I believe?

It’s a question that’s been bobbing around my head for a couple of months now, and came into sharper focus after I read ‘Elizabeth Costello’ by J.M. Coetzee in which a celebrated writer at the end of her life is forced to petition a panel of old judges in a small literary Italian town square before she is allowed through to the afterlife. I have no idea if one day I will have to endure the same ordeal, but if ever I am, I thought it might be a good opportunity to prepare my answers in advance. So here we go. Heart on sleeve. Feeling as apprehensive about the task as Moses looks in this photo. Think of it as work in progress if you will.

The first thing to say, as only the West Wing’s Press department could have taught me, is it’s normally prudent in today’s politically sensitive environments, never to accept the premise of any question. And the premises behind this old chestnut run to a long list. In the last few years I have more or less come to the conclusion that the nature of stating one’s believes, moreover, even the nature of belief itself, has been such a conflict-ridden and troublesome affair for mankind since our inception, that at best it has served to separate brother from brother and at worst to rationalize and justify brother killing brother on such an horrendous disastrous magnitude that it surprises me how we still, en masse, knowing the probable consequences, continue to desire to classify each other simply by what we believe. You’d think we’d have learnt a thing or two by now.

Just pick any one of the multitude of regional or global conflicts taking place on planet earth at this very hour, and you will, without doubt, find their roots in some kind of historical difference, disagreement, dissimilarity over belief of one type or another. Often the most vicious, the most malignant of these disputes originate between people groups whose belief systems are actually quite similar, in the same relative ball park as it were, they’re merely now only a deviation from, or a variance of, exactly the same original shared philosophy. Often it is actually the same original guy and the problems arising from the interpretations, or as each side would have it, misinterpretations of what he was reported to have said or believed himself. Abraham, Gautam Buddha, Lao Tsu, Jesus, Mohammed, Elvis.

Throw in a few other ingredients such as current, or for that matter ancient, incidences of vast inequalities in power or wealth between people groups and you create the perfect conditions for vindicated, hideous, self-perpetuating and utterly destructive warfare. Yet, at its roots, all our wounded history appears to have arisen at some level or other from our differences in belief.

Consequently, the premise behind the question of “what do I believe?” is so inextricably linked to those notions of religious, socio-cultural delineations and differentiations leading ultimately and inevitably to various stages of separation, segregation, oppression and violence, that I have tended in recent years to avoid answering it at dinner parties, but more particularly, avoided answering it for myself. Until now, that is.

I suppose one could argue that my reluctance to be drawn into a statement of belief is in itself a belief. “I believe it would be best not to say what I believe.” But I couldn’t honestly sign my name to that one. A bit of a cop out. So what are the other options out there?

“I believe in fairies. (I do, I do).” And, as an unavoidable corollary, in their tales. Fairytales. I could sign up to that one I think. The world, well at least my world and that of my children’s, has been the better for the existence of fairies and their tales, proven or otherwise. The joint realms of religion and science have systematically robbed us of the right to believe in fairies and therefore, I feel quite predisposed to undersigning for that very reason alone. Or maybe because we just watched ‘Neverwas’ on DVD last week, which if you have not seen, is a must. Although I have to say, Eloise sporadically chastises me for telling her when she was “only 6 Dad!”, at a time when I had felt she should know the truth, that both Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy were, in fact, actually only her mother and I conspiring in secrecy to perpetuate their myths. Rightly, Eloise is letting me know in her own special perturbed way that, “I, not you Daddy, will be the one who decides when or if I want to be enlightened thank you very much!” She has a point. Fairies stay. I believe in fairies.

“I believe in man.” This is a statement that would need a deal of unpacking. After a few volumes, you might not even succeed in explaining it. So, for the blogness of it all, and because it’s more fun to be trite, I would have to sign a “Yes”, but with the postscript “Rarely”. As touched on above, man does not have a great track record overall. ‘Selfish oppressive polluting exterminators’ is probably how we will be remembered by the aliens (or the evolved ants or the artificial intelligent machines) who will browse through the summation of our annals in future. Although we do sometimes get it right. Eloise, Josh, Vonnie. They are 3 examples I would cite. I believe in them. That will do. That’s enough.

“I believe in love.” Yeah baby. No doubt. Makes the world go round. Unashamedly, I am a true believer in love. Not only the romantic stuff, but the full gritty real total acceptance of another, type of love. Love love love. I love love!

“I believe in God.” Now here’s the biggy, is it not? Who is this God to be believed in? Or whose God are you thinking of? Depending on what or who you think he or she is (or not as the case maybe), might influence my answer. Yet for the sake of this brief distillation of my own beliefs, it is who I think God is, which will have to suffice. Of my own limited understanding, of my own limited experience to date, I believe in God. I believe she made all that I see, all that I cannot see, and she made me. I believe she waited a mind boggling amount of time after initiating the entire universe (even though most eminent scientists concur that the majority of stuff in existence took form in a breathtakingly short space of time – measured in parts of one solitary second no less) before experimenting with creating living things on Earth, and then a vast more imaginable, yet still ginormous, length of time before facilitating the emergence of humans. Whether she used the processes of evolution to achieve this or took some dirt and made an Adam, I’m not that bothered, but the scant evidence that demonstrates we evolved from Apes let alone air breathing fish is hardly a compelling argument. As such, I also have to believe she had to have an intention for creating Man and one that is probably, because I love it so much, is bound up with the notion of love. Love for the whole of what exists, for ourselves, for our fellow human beings, and at varying degrees of blindness and intimacy, love for her herself. I will never know for certain all this mystery, but I have an inkling that it is indeed possible to believe and even to love the creative force behind the entire cosmos.

In the miniscule chapter of life on earth that includes mankind, I tend to believe, probably because I feel the same as well, that God became and becomes utterly frustrated with us. And that a couple of thousand years ago she sent herself in our own form, in the miracle moment of a life that is Jesus. He had some pretty awesome things to share (as have a very few precious others from other cultures and other histories), but it was in his life, death and resurrection that I see the ultimate vision of love that grips me today as firmly as it did the first time I properly saw it, understood it, felt it in my teens. What an example. What an inspiration. What a magical, compelling, irresistible fairy tale. It is enough to sustain me until the end of my days and in all probability for a good while longer than that. Jesus is enough. His father is enough. His spirit is enough. For me. For you? Well, that’s your question, not mine.

So there you have it. I have my answer. I believe in fairies. I believe in man, rarely. I believe in love, always. I believe in Vonetta, Joshua and Eloise (and Moses, sorry me ol' china, almost forgot you there). I believe in God and in her son Jesus.

Hardly an original or imaginative response to that incommodious question but one that must be, as far as it possible to be, a true reflection and one under which I would be more than happy to pen my autograph one day, if it is ever required, in that Italian purgatory town square. Whether it would be enough to let me through the old Pearly Gates, would be to completely miss the point of what it enables me to appreciate this side of them. As the evangelicals like to say “Cake on the plate while you wait rather than pie in the sky when you die.” Or as John Banville in ‘The Sea’ more eloquently writes, “Perhaps all of life is no more than a long preparation for the leaving of it.”

It is the Easter holidays at the moment and the kids are ever present with us once again. We popped over to the coast the day before yesterday to discover a completely deserted beach just south of Figaro de Foz and savoured the refreshing power of the Atlantic surf for a couple of days, camping overnight 300 metres behind the dunes. The vid below provides a sneaky peak of the uninhabited bliss of it all.

On the beach near Figaro de Foz...

Today, back at Moses, on the terrace in front of the bathroom, Von built a little stone wall to border a flat patioesque area under a white rose and another white flowering bush (an Easter something) growing in the slate walls, and on which we have placed a garden table and chairs for our forthcoming al fresco delights. Eli duly responded by baking another fabulous lemon sponge for the occasion, we supped gratefully on real English tea sent Airmail by Arlene and Sally, then before sharing this blog aloud with them, I undertook a quick vox pop family poll. “Fill in the following sentence for yourself.” I said. “I believe in….?”

“Cake”, declared Eloise instantly.

“Life”, proposed Joshua definitively.

“Blossoms”, giggled Vonetta cheekily.

“Walkies”, thought Moses hopefully.

Me too, folks. Me too.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Green for Grey - by Josh

Olá, it’s been a while, but I'm finally writing another blog. I don’t really remember the last time I wrote a blog so I won’t write about everything but at least some of the many highlights.

I'm going to start where anyone reading this will have most questions. School. School is going really well for me (actually now I think about it I should probably say really, really, really well). I'm “classified” by my friends as one of the top three students depending on the lesson: maths 1st; sciences 1st; and of course, Portuguese 3rd (although I got the equivalent of an “A” in my grammar test which was the best mark in the class). The other top two students are Anatoly and Andreia.

My three best friends Anatoly, Fábio & Rodrigo are really cool. Anatoly (or Anatoli as he likes to write it) is from the Ukraine and he’s the only other person in my class apart from me that has authorization to leave the school during school hours, so we tend to do a lot together like walk around the town or go to the Internet Café. Fábio, who is Portuguese is literally like my Portuguese double, he loves taking photos (yay!!!), loves graffiti (not those stupid little squiggles but the really big designs that take like 4 hours to do and 5 people so I said that he should go to London just to admire the “art” of the city), and thinks that bikes, computers and cameras are the best things invented so far. My other friend is Rodrigo who is French, and won’t let me stop thinking about it. He talks about Cristiano Ronaldo so much that I almost think he’s got a crush on him. He also thinks that the world revolves around football and that he’s a “babe-magnet”. He makes me laugh at him more than with him and I'm not the only one.

I’ve got 11 subjects at school and I participate in two clubs: ICT and football it would be nice if I could get a Cricket club going and the student will be teaching the teachers this time.

Right now I'm on Easter holidays but I can’t manage to sleep past 7am at the latest. School really gets you into a rhythm and I think I’ll go mad if I don’t get out of it so I tend to lie in bed until 10am just because I can. But waking up at 6 in the morning has its upsides (they are few but there are some), but before I get to them here are some funny sides leading up to the up ones. Every morning I fall out of bed and whack my head on the ground. Then I stand up straight and whack my head on the central beam. I then pull on my clothes while holding my throbbing head and afterwards I tumble down my super steep stairs but as I look out the window to see the morning world, I forget about my head (maybe that’s half because my ankle’s hurting now). At 6:30 in the morning you can see the first rays of the morning sun shining on the facing hill and the undergrowth makes the world look all fuzzy (or maybe that’s the tears falling down my face from my hurting head, ankle and now leg because Slinky is using it as a scratch pole). Seeing this dawn marvel, I remember my concrete birth place. Looking out your window in New Cross you see the sun rays shining on a drunk by the side of the estate begging for money because his wife has kicked him out the house at 3 in the morning without letting him get any breakfast (don’t worry, that wasn’t you Keith). If you could combine these two views, London and Amieira, you might get green flats (aka: eco-flats, which apparently exist according to Dad) and concrete trees (that I’ve seen in front of the Tate Modern and said “wow”). Just thinking about the dramatic change that we have made makes me shiver with shock.

Life here is different in many ways in comparison with the city in which I was born and grew up in (mummy says that I give London a hard time which is a little true considering the people, memories and places that are good there). At school in the big cities the teachers say that everything comes in different seasons of the year at different dates but you can never see it. Here suddenly 50 flocks of mallards fly in on the same day or 15 lines of processional pine caterpillars each 2 meters long march in. One day the pumpkins are still tiny vulnerable little things then suddenly they are the size of a couple of bowling balls. The Portuguese culture isn’t much different either. I’ll give an example: last weekend I went to stay over at Fábio’s house and in the morning they had killed the pig (to give him a name he will be called Bert). The whole day while Fábio and I were playing his family was working. In the evening we ate pork. I said that the meat was very sweet for pork and Fábio’s mum said that was because the pig was killed that day aka: Bert. I asked if they had already sorted out all the eatable bits (which in Portugal is everything) and she said no, all that was left was the right front leg. So they had basically killed, gutted, cut up and sorted out Berty in less than 12 hours which is quite an accomplishment. Sadly it’s the same with the forests. One day they’re here the next they could be gone.

So as not to leave you on that sad note I shall write my about my hilarious school trip. We went to Lisbon last Thursday to go see the planetarium and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. We left our little town at 9am and set off on a 3 hour journey. We got to Lisbon with time to spare so we ate lunch and another of my friends Paulo & I took a bath in the sprinklers (when it’s 30 degrees and you’ve got nothing else to do what would you do?). We then walked to the planetarium and after a 20 minute talk about what we were going to see we saw exactly what I see every evening out my front door basically whole constellations and galaxies. We then proceeded to the monastery that I had already seen when we still had the MosieMobile. With time to spare we went to a café that is the only place in the world that sells pasteis de Belém which are little tarts with cream, cinnamon and sugar. While we were eating them Anatoly & I saw a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, 5 Porches of which two were Locusts and a Formula1. Seeing the last we both looked at each other and then at the sports car with our mouths open and saliva hanging from them. Maybe the trip was worth it after all.

This is my last paragraph. Everything is rushing through my head so fast that I can’t actually focus on any one thing and most of my thoughts are in Portuguese so now I'm going to get my well earned beauty sleep and I shall do my homework in the morning (when dad reads this he will say “ha” and frown and mummy will tell me to go and do it there and then to which I will complain).

Tchau. Josh.

Ice creams in Sertã...