Meditation 62

As I sit here and begin to write beside my candle, I am not thinking about Marcus Aurelius, the inspiration for this blog. Instead, my thoughts have drifted towards another Roman emperor.

I have recently visited the city of York and in the square in front of the cathedral there, York Minster, is a bronze statue of the Emperor Constantine. He sits on a throne looking appropriately powerful and commanding. His gaze seems to go beyond the square to take in the centuries since he reigned (306-337 CE). Perhaps this was intended by the sculptor, Philip Jackson, as the statue was officially unveiled in 1998. It was a millennium project I suppose, suggesting that Constantine transcends the millennia, (as does Marcus, not least, I hope, in my humble blog!).

There is a small marble bust of Constantine dating from Roman times in nearby Stonegate, an altogether more modest image but with that commanding stare nevertheless. When I was in Rome, I saw the fragments of a colossal statue of him (including a very large head with a more mellow gaze and and a hand pointing upwards) in the entrance to the Capitoline museum. It must have been a massive edifice and would have dwarfed all around it. Should my school decide to place a statue in my honour outside my dear Drama studio, I would be quite happy with a small marble bust. In reality, I am happy with nothing at all (just as well, you may say!) as you only have to stand in the centre of the studio and look around you to see my monument!

It may seem strange but Constantine was actually crowned Emperor in York which was then a Roman settlement called Eboracum. There is a large stone column from that time quite near to the statue on the small square. Constantine had served in the army under his father Constantius since 305 (having fled from the reigning Caesar, Galerius, to serve the army in Western Europe). When his father died he was declared emperor by the army. It is appropriate that the statue is situated in front of the Minster as Constantine was reputedly crowned near that spot, and also because eventually he became the first Christian emperor.

York is a city steeped in history: it not only has a Roman past, but also was a Viking settlement and was a thriving medieval town around the Minster. There are also some elegant 18th and 19th century buildings and some beautiful city gardens and parks. I very much enjoyed staying with friends in York and having a little city break – my first break since last autumn and my first major venture out of the lockdown stockade. It was heartening to see the streets busy, not with international tourists of course, but with visitors from the UK. The city seemed to be going about its business in a relaxed way, unlike my visits to London last summer where the streets were virtually empty and a tense atmosphere pervaded the metropolis. There was a gentleness about the place which I hope won’t be swept away when lockdown ends (possibly) in a few weeks. At the moment in this hopefully last stage of lockdown, we seem to be in a gentle and quite relaxed phase. I wish this could be the so called ‘new normal’ and that we do not return to a frenetic or even frantic lifestyle once lockdown ends. I hope we do not forget what we have learnt from lockdown.

My first reason for travelling up North was to be with my sisters and family in Leeds. I hadn’t seen them since last August and was so very pleased to be with them, especially as we were unable to spend Christmas together. So we had Christmas in June instead! I travelled on the train with my Christmas gifts for them, like a Santa who had lost his way on Christmas Eve and had spent six months trying to find his way home! We exchanged gifts and had a turkey dinner and hats, crackers and games and it was a wonderful festive occasion especially as we hadn’t seen each other for so long.

It has been wonderful that families have been able to get together at last over the last few months. I imagine not a few have also re-celebrated Christmas, with all the family together at last. At the end of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed man and the narrator comments that ‘it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well’ and hopes that ‘may the same be said of us and all of us.’ Well my family and I did our best last month. They had already been together last December 25 and celebrated without my being with them but, nevertheless, the spirit of Christmas was present among us on June 24!

On that trip to Leeds and York, I came to realise that I never travel light. I always have too much stuff with me. I suppose I had a good excuse this time as I was carrying presents for seven people as well as clothes for a five day stay up North. Also I must confess to being quite nervous about travelling even though I have made the journey so many times before. I think the pandemic may have made us all nervous at times about the most ordinary things (especially travel). I spent the day before I travelled packing and repacking and deciding what to wear (as the weather is so changeable at present) and what else to take with me: books, I Pad, headphones for my music etc. My bag was heavy enough without my personal accessories.

Of course I was forgetting that I would be spending most of my time in the company of my family and my friends. I would have little time to read or play music. They weren’t important. My bag wasn’t much lighter either once I had emptied out the gifts in Leeds and gave them to my family as I received gifts too from them to take home with me. As I trundled along station platforms with my large tunnel back at my side and my backpack

on my shoulders and heaved myself onto trains for my journeys from London to Leeds then from Leeds to York and later back home again from York, I slowly began to realise that I was literally weighed down with possessions. I came to the conclusion that I need to live lighter let alone travel lighter.

I had also forgotten one of the lessons I had learnt from the lockdown last year: that people are more important than possessions. And more especially from our days of isolation, that the company of others is very precious.

Yes, I hope we do not forget what we have learnt from lockdown.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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Neilus Aurelius


As I sit here beside my customary candle, I am not in my lounge but in my kitchen at the table, looking out of the window onto a balmy summer’s evening. Now that we are hopefully approaching an end to lockdown, it is a time for looking out, as our vista is gradually widening.  Soon we will once again be able to make some firm plans for the future instead of gingerly taking tentative steps for fear of disappointment. 

As I look out into my little garden, twilight is approaching. It is my favourite time of day, especially in the summer months. It is the time when the garden is cool and still, the flowers quivering in the sultry breeze, their fragrance heightened in the evening air. I like to stand in my kitchen doorway and breathe in the subtle sweetness of the lavender at the edge of my little patio, which lays almost at my feet. It reminds me of twilights on Vancouver Island: there the lavender combines with the breeze from the Pacific Ocean creating a heady perfume.

I have once again begun to read Marcel Proust’s six volume novel, ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ first published a hundred years ago. Reading the great French novelist’s masterpiece is one of my retirement projects. I am reading it in translation I hasten to add! I do not think, my O Level French would cope with Marcel’s long lyrical sentences! Proust is a writer to be read slowly, a writer to savour. You have to enjoy good prose, like a good wine, to appreciate him. And good prose, like good wine, should be enjoyed slowly. I am hoping that reading him will slow my reading down and that I will overcome my habit of endless skim reading, as a result of becoming addicted to my iPhone.

The first volume begins with the narrator thinking back to when he was an adolescent, living in Paris but vacationing at his grandparents’ home in the fictional town of Combray. While staying there, he is invited to the house of a cultured widowed neighbour, M. Legrandin, and they dine on the terrace by moonlight. M. Legrandin comments, ‘My boy, there comes in all our lives a time, towards which you still have far to go, when the weary eyes can endure but one kind of light, the light which a fine evening like this prepares for us in the still room of darkness, when the ears can listen to no music save what the moonlight breathes through the flute of silence.’            

I do not think I have reached that time of life yet. I am not yet in the late evening of my life, but have arrived at the twilight. Fortunately, I do enjoy twilight’s muted sounds and stillness. As twilight is my favourite time of day, I should be very happy and comfortable in my twilight years. I hope I will. At the very least, I am beginning to relax into retirement, now that the lockdown seems to be easing and there may be an end in sight.

I shall definitely feel more comfortable when I no longer have to wear a mask. I am sure  we all will. Though I have got used to wearing one, I still find them obtrusive especially when wearing one for a length of time. My spectacles still get fogged up even after using a mask for over a year now. My brain gets fogged up too as, after a while, the mask leaves me light headed, because I am not breathing in fresh air. I have noticed this when I am in the supermarket. After a while I get all fuddled and end up putting the wrong items in my trolley, generally the more expensive ones. Perhaps this is a ploy of the supermarket. I have yet to sit in a cinema or theatre and wear a mask. I wonder how that will feel. But then I am used to sometimes being left bewildered or confused by a play or a movie, so I guess it won’t be a new experience.

 There are so many different colours and designs of masks. I was amazed at how quickly companies produced them for sale last year. There are a plethora of different colours and shades and patterns available: everything from camouflage to polka dots. Then there is the ubiquitous, dependable dear old pale blue surgical disposable one, which I mostly use. We are all walking around as if we are auditioning for some medical drama like the BBC’s ‘Casualty’. I find the ones with an air filter rather sinister as they appear to cover a wider area of the face than the others. They would not be out of place in a science fiction movie and they magnify the wearer’s breathing so that he or she sounds like a Cyberman from ‘Doctor Who.’

Because a mask covers the lower half of a person’s face, it highlights the person’s eyes and potentially the emotions behind them. When I was teaching Drama, I was constantly underlining the importance of eye contact between actors and of the emotions behind the eyes, especially when the actor is reacting and not speaking. Of course this is virtually impossible to achieve if you are constantly looking at a script (as I constantly reminded  my student thespians). I used to tell them not to just look at the other actor but to really look.

I have noticed when I have been on buses, trains, in shops or in the street that people are really looking at each other more and engaging in more eye contact because they are wearing masks. This leads them to be more aware of the feelings of the other person than would be usual, I suspect. I have also noticed that this has led to little acts of kindness.

I remember going into Kingston for essential shopping in April or May last year and noticing so many anxious faces. The masks seemed to  accentuate the wearers’ fears. I remember standing outside Boots in the queue to enter. I was collecting my repeat prescription. The lady in front  of me turned and looked at me with frightened eyes. ‘I am so scared,’ she said. I encouraged her by saying she would be OK if she stayed safe and followed the rules and that the pandemic would soon be over. Little did we know! Now, a year on, happily there are fewer fearful expressions on the streets and public transport. I do hope she is well.  It has been heartening too to see strangers talking to each other during the pandemic ,especially in those early months of lockdown.   

I have been trying to work out the difference between the face masks we are currently wearing and the masks worn in Venice at the famous carnival. The traditional Venetian face mask covers the upper face except that there are openings for the eyes of course. The lower part of the face and the mouth are visible. And yet both masks allow the eyes to be seen. But of course it is more difficult to discern the expression of the eyes in a Venetian masks as the forehead is completely covered. You have to look very closely at the face to see the eyes of the wearer clearly. Therefore there is an air of mystery about the Venetian mask; it is provocative and alluring, inviting a romantic assignation and has done so down the centuries I am sure. That is not to say that our ubiquitous pale blue disposable ones could not be equally as provocative, if our mask makes us look more closely at the other person. It could provide an opportunity for flirtation, a romance of the eyes.  I wonder how many lockdown romances have begun because of masks.

However, it is also possible for the expression in the eyes to be misread. I was recently in Waterstones bookstore in Kingston. I had not been there for some time, not since before the long lockdown I think. I had gone in to browse as I had a voucher to spend from Christmas. But the deeper reason was because for me a bookstore is a place of normality. I imagine we have all been looking for places of normality recently, places that comfort us.  Normality is comforting. Well one of my places is a bookstore. I feel comforted by being surrounded by books. I do not think a kindle or an Amazon website can provide the same comfort. In any case a website like Amazon agitates rather than soothes. A bookstore is like a blanket, a blanket of culture.

It is also a place of quiet, of hushed conversations. Even though Waterstones in Kingston is situated on the top floor of a shopping mall, above the Apple Store crèche of young people faffing around with the latest expensive gadgets, yet the second you enter, the quietness calms you. At least it calms me. I actually find it refreshing to walk into a bookstore. It revives me.  

It is not a place of stillness, though, as obviously there are customers milling quietly about and this branch of Waterstones is quite busy. Neither was I still myself, on that afternoon. I was perusing the shelves to see what I might buy (as if I need any more books on my shelves at home). For a moment I stood in the centre of one of the rooms in the store. I don’t remember what I was looking for, if anything in particular. But I stood there in my mask and looked vacantly at an assistant who was passing by. Behind my mask,  I was in  need of some fresh air. My discomfort must have put a frown on my brow, because the assistant came up to me and asked me if I was ok and needed any help. He must have thought I looked lost, or was becoming ill.  I smiled (behind my mask) and said, ‘No thank you. Very kind of you’ or something like that.

A little later, I went into another room and browsed in there. Then I stood still, struggling to find air behind my mask again and must have frowned again because this time another assistant, a studious looking girl, came up to me and asked the same thing. Well at least the assistants in Waterstones are kind and attentive, even if they sometimes misread the expression in a customer’s eyes. I was forgetting of course that I am an actor and have an expressive face. When I was teaching my students, I would always ‘overplay’ expressions to demonstrate to them. Perhaps I haven’t got out of the habit. I guess I need to make sure I ‘play neutral’ in future in public places.  Heaven knows what trouble I could get into otherwise!

I have a feeling that, even after the lockdown ends, masks will be with us for a while. When we are able to finally get rid of our masks, I hope we will not get rid of being aware of others.        

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 60

I have been thinking about the stained glass window again, as I sit here by the steady flame of my candle. In my last meditation, I mentioned a visit to the beautiful church of St Pierre in Montmartre in Paris several years ago. I explained how the panes of different colours in a stained glass window which I saw there reminded me of all my friends and loved ones. The window also reminded me that I am not alone. Isn’t this one of the positive features of these long months of lockdown and uncertainty, that we have been reminded that we are not alone, and that we have all been working our way through this most difficult of times together?

However, as I reflect upon it now, that stained glass window has taken on another meaning. The window is me. It is myself in all the different facets of my life, including my relationships and friendships of course. I have also come to realise that at certain times in my life, I have been polishing one pane in that window at the expense of others.

This is certainly true of my career, enjoyable and fulfilling as it has been. Because I have had a long career in mainly one school (with only one year in another one!) and especially because for over two thirds of my thirty- seven years there, I ran my department on my own,  I came to be defined by my career. There were times when work was in charge of me  rather than the other away around. It is a common mistake if you are committed to your occupation to a high level: call it a vocation, if you will. Perhaps this was exacerbated by living alone, without a partner. In other words, I was polishing that one pane in the window until the glass was wearing thin, or rather I was. It was part of my mid-life crisis when I became 50 years old, and I am sure others have had a similar experience too.

At that time, during the crisis, I became aware of being too consumed by my career and then I began to polish a few more panes of glass in my window and to lead a more integrated life. I was able to develop this further in my final years at the school when I relinquished my role as head of department and became a part time member of staff and, as a result, had more spare time. Then, after my retirement, I continued directing and going into school as necessary with more spare time still.

Nevertheless, I still felt defined by my role in school. I was still polishing that pane of glass to some extent. I couldn’t stop myself. It was a habit with me. Moreover, it had become an image of myself. It is a difficult image to shake off. I did not realise how ingrained it was in my consciousness until I finally left the school last February.

I call it my ‘King Lear’ syndrome, after Shakespeare’s tragic hero, who though he gave up the throne, could not give up being King. ‘Aye, every inch a King’ he says in his madness on the heath in the storm. I do not think I am slipping into madness or have been guilty of his rages for that matter, but the problem remains: retirement can be tough if you are defined by your work role or become aware that you are and then try to divest yourself of it, to start a new life. A friend said to me, ‘It is difficult to live in the shadows, when you are used to the limelight!’

You may remember that the window I described in my last meditation was of a modern, abstract design. It was not dominated by a scene from the Bible or an incident from a saint’s life, as stained glass windows in churches normally are. There might be intricate foliage etched around the edges of the scene or in a bigger window, smaller scenes from the Bible or the saint’s life in squares or roundels might decorate the top and bottom of the main picture.

Perhaps my own personal window would also be dominated by one scene in the centre: Neil, with a large copy of Shakespeare in his hands and a group of totally attentive students at his feet. Or Neil, holding a script whilst directing a couple of eager students in a scene.  It wouldn’t be a window of Saint Neil – I am definitely no saint. Neither would it be a stained glass window of a school production when I played Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest’!

But no: the window that impressed me was not dominated by one image. In fact there was no one image at all: it had an abstract pattern and the glass was multi-coloured and of different shapes and sizes.  It was multi-faceted as we all are, if we really look at ourselves.

I have recently been enjoying a beautiful pink camellia shrub in my garden. It is near my kitchen window. The flowers tend to last for a month or so and are fading now. Their pale pink blooms will soon be gone for another year. So I have been savouring them in their delicate glory. I inherited the shrub when I first moved in, 27 years ago. The flowers look pink from a distance, but when I look at them more closely, some of the blooms are a hybrid of a lighter and a darker shade, so dark it is almost red. There was one flower this year that was completely dark pink.

I pick them and put them into tiny vases on my kitchen table, which gives me the opportunity to really examine them. Actually, the petals are not completely pink. They have a thin white border and, if you look really closely, behind the pink of each petal is a white membrane making an intricate variegated pattern. At the centre of the flower is a deep golden stamen. So they are not just pink at all.

Just as we are not just one thing as individuals. Hopefully this last year will have enabled us to sit back and reflect on ourselves a little and may have led us to appreciate that there are many different facets to our lives, other than the persistent drives that fuel our interior selves; that make us deaf and blind to the truth of ourselves in all its stained glass splendour.       

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube. 

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Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 59

Marcus Aurelius is in my thoughts tonight as I write this meditation. Recently I had my first visit to the barbers since the long lockdown ended. When the barber had finished my haircut and beard trim, I checked my face in the reflection in the large mirror in front of me. It looked a little like Marcus himself. Reflected in the mirror, I seemed to look more like him than in my photo at the top of this blog.

At last, after nearly sixty meditations, it is time to explain the origin of that blog photo. I am going to come clean. The photo was not taken in the ruins of Rome, but in front of a black scenery flat in my Drama studio. I wasn’t wearing a Roman toga either but a white sheet draped over my shoulders to look like one. The inspiration for the pose was partly statues of Marcus himself, which I had seen on visits to Rome, but more specifically a bust of the emperor Hadrian, Marcus’ great-uncle. Several years earlier, I had been to an exhibition at the British Museum about Hadrian and brought home a postcard of a striking black and white photo of the marble profile of the emperor. The postcard gave me the inspiration for the image for my blog and it gave my photographer an idea of the image I wanted.

Our image of Marcus is somewhat idealised, coming from statues which were meant to flatter the Emperor. However, statues or busts of emperors were more realistic by his reign (161-180 CE) than those of the earliest Caesars. In all of the statues or busts I have seen of Marcus, his hair and beard are not as close cut as mine are. Recently a statue of him has been discovered in Ryedale in North Yorkshire. It looks quite primitive compared with the elegant ones I have seen in Rome and was probably carved by Roman settlers. However the beard and hair are unmistakable and there is writing underneath confirming that it is Marcus and not Hadrian, though it could be him as he ordered the building of the famous Wall that bears his name to mark the perimeter of the Roman province of Britannia. The Wall is situated further North from Ryedale,

I find it interesting that the lives of Marcus and myself are once again in some small way connected. I was born officially in North Yorkshire before the area where I was brought up became Teesside and then Cleveland. And now a statue of Marcus has been unearthed in North Yorkshire. He never visited there of course but he did stay in Pannonia, which is now Hungary, on his military campaigns. I have also spent time in Hungary leading my school Drama tours and I mentioned in a previous blog that coins bearing his image have been found in the Buda Hills on the outskirts of Budapest. I did not know any of this before launching this blog in Autumn 2018, with his Meditations as my inspiration. So the connections are quite uncanny. I would love to play him in a play or a movie. For the moment, however, I’ll settle for this blog. I definitely need to re-read him – another one for my retirement bucket list!

Perhaps when I was looking at my reflection in the barber’s chair the other day, I was idealising myself. Or was I seeing just a glimmer of Marcus in myself? I hope there is at least a glimmer of him in these meditations.

We sometimes have an image of ourselves in our mind’s eye, don’t we? Hopefully it is a positive rather than a negative one. This self-image can change depending upon the circumstances we find ourselves in. It will never be the whole truth about ourselves, but hopefully not completely false either. Moreover, to believe in a false image of oneself and try to live up to it could spell disaster, or would at least be a huge ego trip. I am sure we could name quite a few celebrities who have fallen into that trap (not least the last incumbent of the White House). We need our friends and family to shatter that false image, not bolster it. I have had those moments once or twice in my life and fortunately for me, close friends have coaxed me back to reality.

I have also had my delusions of grandeur when preparing productions. It is important to have expansive ideas when directing a play and some kind of creative vision for the production. These have usually come to me away from school (at home or on my travels or even sitting in a theatre). But the reality of being back in the drama studio, my classroom, would soon make me pare down some of my ideas to fit my young and inexperienced cast (and the small budget!). I remember a colleague, who had trained as an actress, once told me she was amazed at the number of productions we managed to stage over the academic year: usually three as well as re-staging of two on the Hungary Drama tour, the practical exams (which involved staging scenes) and the House Drama competition. She said that the department was like the National Theatre, staging one show after another. It was a great compliment. I must confess that there were a few moments when I thought I was running a mini-National Theatre and forgot about the rest of the school!

I have the impression that Marcus was above self image. In his ‘Meditations’ he describes himself as ‘a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler.’ He does not mention his official title of Emperor. His ‘Meditations’ were no ego-trip, in fact the title of the first printed edition (in 1559) was ‘To Himself’. From his ‘Meditations’ we can see that he is looking at himself to see his faults and failings in an attempt to rectify them; and to reflect upon and use his experience of life to primarily teach himself. But of course, he is also teaching others who read his book, although whether he intended others to read his Meditations is unclear.

Marcus was very much aware of his friends and family (alive and dead) as is evident from the very first chapter, his first meditation if you like. There he gives a list of the family members, friends and tutors whom he admires and he also lists what he has learnt from them and would like to emulate in his own life: ‘From my grandfather, Verus, decency and a mild temper’ for example. I mentioned this in one of my own earliest meditations.

In that early blog I recalled that I was once in Paris (heaven knows when that will happen again) and having a miserable day, exploring the city or rather, my mid-life crisis at that time. I found myself in Montmartre and wandered into the medieval church of St Pierre de Montmartre. It is the oldest church in Montmartre and has been restored. Its ancient walls have been cleaned up so they are a pristine grey. I remember sitting in a quiet side chapel. At one end was a beautiful stained glass window of a modern abstract design. It stood out because it seemed incongruous in its medieval, Gothic setting. The window was a blaze of different colours as the sun shone through. Gazing at the window, I was reminded of my family and friends, each one a pane of glass, a different colour and shape, individual, yet somehow linked to me, just as each pane of glass is

essential to the overall design of the window. It was a great comfort to me then and as I recall it, it is now.

I could only appreciate the overall design of the window in its intricacy and vibrant colours because I was sitting at a distance from it, of course. A stained glass window is never seen at its best close-up. To some extent we have all been sitting at a distance from friends and loved ones because of the restrictions of the last year. At times we may have felt that physical distance acutely. It may have been palpable or, in our darkest thoughts, almost insurmountable. I am reminded of the old adage: absence makes the heart grow fonder. It is the physical distance of absence that helps us to appreciate others more and to realise how much they mean to us and how much we miss them. There have been occasions in this last year when I have been able to experience the ‘stained glass window’ effect in my moments of loneliness. Perhaps after a phone call or zoom or even just a text I have been able to see the other person as a bright colourful pane within the design of my own window. And there have been rare moments when I have seen in my mind’s eye the whole window itself in its intricate design and varied hues and have once again appreciated how essential my friends are in my life, different as they are.

I hope that you have experienced the ‘stained glass window’ effect too, in the last months, and, like me, will remember it, and carry it with you as we hopefully move on from lockdown.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

If you are enjoying my blog, and have not already done so, please sign up below to receive notification of each new blog by e mail. Just add your e mail to ‘Follow’ as it pops up.

And please do pass on the blog address to others who may be interested.

A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube. I would also value any feedback on or my Facebook page or Twitter.

Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius

Meditation 58

As I sit here this evening, beside my candle, memories from my youth come to mind. These have been prompted partly by my time of life and partly by our current situation. Inevitably, retirement is a time for thinking back on our lives. Our minds are no longer filled up with the busyness of work, so they are freer to roam and inevitably we find ourselves revisiting paths already trod. Sometimes these moments of recall will arouse a smile or a laugh, sometimes feelings of pride, sometimes regret or even embarrassment! For myself the lockdown has created even more time and space for this, as the active retirement I envisaged has been put on hold along with everything else. But then, I have been active. After all, I have continued writing these meditations if nothing else.

I am aware that watching television has prompted memories of my youth. This is not to say that I have been glued to the nostalgia channels on cable to avert lockdown blues. It is possible to live in the 1970’s or 80’s or 90’s by watching them all day, I am sure.  I discovered this quite a while ago when my aunt from Canada came to stay with me and loved watching old 1970’s series on my cable TV in the afternoons. Every afternoon we were back in the 1970’s as if the world outside was in the 70’s too.  She still watches the old detective series ‘Murder She Wrote’ every weekday afternoon in her apartment on Vancouver Island. She has confessed to me that she must have seen every episode by now (all 264 of them!) and is now working her way through them all again. At least she has now moved on to the 80’s and 90’s!  In her honour, I filmed a spoof version of the show (actually of the cheesy title sequence) for my retirement cabaret. I called it, ‘Murder He Taught’. Some of my lessons have been murder at times: either for myself or my students or both!

No, I haven’t been gorging myself on nostalgia TV.  Like everyone else, I have been streaming away and sampling new Netflix and Amazon series. So I have been very much keeping up to date with my viewing. Well, inevitably these days conversations with family and friends end up with ‘What have you been watching on Netflix?’ so it is best to have something to share! The conversation usually continues with regurgitations of the labyrinthine plot of whatever series. I am being hypercritical. I tend to watch (and share with others) the shorter series as they tend to be more credible and entertaining than the longer ones, which drag out the plot like a piece of chewing gum until the holes can be seen in the middle.

I think watching and sharing TV series has kept us all going over the last year (as we have had little else to share). I include in that programmes from the terrestrial channels. This reminds me of when I was a schoolboy and sharing ‘last night’s TV’ with my friends in the classroom or playground. Of course, in those days nothing was streamed and nothing could be recorded either so if you didn’t see a programme when it was scheduled on one of the two or three terrestrial channels available you missed it. You would have to wait in hope for a repeat months later – or even longer! I remember at age 15, watching the first ever episode of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’  and being really enthusiastic about it to my friends at school the next day. By the end of the series, six weeks later, most of the class were watching it and sharing the funny lines of dialogue. With all the channels now available and with streaming, I suppose that communal aspect of viewing is receeding now.

I have made a serious effort, living alone in lockdown, to watch series on the terrestrial channels on the right day and at the right time as scheduled, just as I would all those years ago when I was at school. This would give some structure to my viewing (and the week) and also something to look forward to in the evening. I have generally found that I have been more focused on the programmes and have enjoyed them more as a result. I have started to adopt the same regime with streamed programmes, by making my own schedule in the evenings.

From talking to my friends, I am not the only one who dips into streamed programmes and half watches them or records programmes which never get watched at all.  I think it is symptomatic of the malaise we have all been suffering: that inability to settle because of the unease caused by the situation we have been living through. To be honest, I haven’t indulged in ‘binge-watching’ on streamed channels over the last year as others have. I’ve taken in two consecutive episodes of a series at most. I guess I’ve been quite disciplined!

Recently the BBC has been showing past TV series to fill up the schedules, because the various lockdowns over the last year have to some extent affected the filming of current or future ones. Some of the series are old, dare I say it, venerable, such as ‘Fawlty Towers’ and ‘All Creatures Great and Small’.

Every Wednesday evening over six weeks at 9 p.m. I have recently been watching the re-run of the classic historical drama, ‘Elizabeth R’ starring Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I, a role that made her a star. The first episode of the series was screened on the exact date it had first been transmitted fifty years ago in 1971. I remember watching the series then. It was really useful as I was studying the Tudors in A level History at the time. I am unsure whether we had a colour TV at home by then. Or the correct television set. If you didn’t have a 625 line set you couldn’t watch BBC2 and would have to wait until the series was repeated on BBC1 (which it was). And of course, if you didn’t have a colour TV you would be watching in black and white, which would have been a great shame as, from my recent viewing, the costumes and sets were outstanding. It is odd but I do not remember watching the series in black and white or colour, though I did remember some of the scenes vaguely. 

Of course the presentation was very different from today: scenes were mainly filmed on videotape in the studio with inserted outdoor scenes shot on film. Also scenes were longer and heavier on dialogue than today. In fact, ‘Elizabeth R’ is a series of six separate 90 minute historical plays each with a different scriptwriter, focusing on key moments in her long reign. The formula had been a huge success with ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ a year or so earlier, with each of the six plays focusing on a different wife and with a different writer. I have a suspicion that this formula has influenced the structure of Peter Morgan’s recent series ‘The Crown’ about our own Queen Elizabeth.

Despite what now looks like an archaic technical presentation, the series holds up well because of the well-written scripts and the excellent acting, particularly from Glenda Jackson herself, who has to age from a young teenage girl to a very old woman (for those times) of 69. The scripts do capture  the dramatic events and crises of her reign really well and therefore were most useful at that time in bringing my dry A level History notes to life!

Revisiting the series in 2021, I enjoyed picking out the actors and actresses who were regularly on the TV in my youth and whom I wanted to emulate. At that time in my life, I wanted to be on that screen with them, in a costume drama. I wanted to be an actor or perhaps a TV scriptwriter. That has come about in a different way of course. I became a teacher of drama instead and wrote plays for my students.  I didn’t become a classical actor like Robert Hardy (who played the Earl of Leicester in the series), though I would have liked to. But then I can’t image Robert Hardy directing a school play or pushing pupils (talented or not so talented) through a GCSE Drama course. He has played Winston Churchill on various occasions so perhaps that would have helped!

The final scenes of the series depict Elizabeth’s death and closely reflect true events. In her final days, knowing that she was close to death, Elizabeth refused to lie down on her bed, let alone sleep. Instead she spent hours sitting up, on an cushion. The dramatisation has her sitting there in full regalia on a large high-backed chair, gradually going silent and refusing to indicate by even a nod to show her agreement that James VI of Scotland should succeed her to the throne. The scene includes the actual words of Elizabeth. Robert Cecil, one of her ministers,  politely tells her she must go to bed; to which she replies angrily, ‘Must is not a word to use to Princes, little man.’  Eventually, sitting on the chair, with a finger in her mouth like a child, she passes away. It is a remarkable scene, watching her using all her strength (ebbing away though it was) to resist death.  

Elizabeth reigned for 45 years until her death in 1603 and was the longest reigning monarch up to that point in our history and for many years afterwards: until the 18th Century and George III (60 years) then Queen Victoria (64 years) and our own Queen Elizabeth who has currently reigned for almost 69 years (as long as the first Elizabeth’s lifespan).

Elizabeth I  had spent the 45 years of her reign holding onto the crown despite initial political and religious upheaval, several rebellions, numerous plots against her life (and numerous attempts to get her to marry, which she refused) and even an attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada. So perhaps she can be excused for using the last dregs of her formidable willpower to hang onto her crown even against death. All her energies since she was a teenager had been spent in survival, to the extent that it was ingrained in her. So why change now, in old age, even at the point of death? Or was she scared of the after life, having a religious faith, of meeting her Maker with the blood of those she ordered to be executed on her hands? 

The scene conveys how difficult it can be to let go of power. We have been made very much aware of this in recent times with the scenes that played out in the White House last winter. Sometimes it is difficult to accept the inevitable, or more precisely, to accept that there is and will be a future without you. So, just as Elizabeth I refused to lie down on her bed, so Donald Trump refused to concede electoral defeat. Eventually, both had to give in to the inevitable.

Strangely I sympathise with these two powerful but disparate figures.

It is difficult to let go of the career that has defined you, especially, in Elizabeth I’s case, when it has defined you for a length of time. 

It is difficult to let go.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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Neilus Aurelius


As I sit here gazing at the candle beside me, I am thinking ahead to the future. I imagine most of us are looking to the future this week as at last the gates of the long winter lockdown have opened – even if only slightly. Perhaps those of us who are prudent souls, are making short term plans rather than long term ones, if any. The dark clouds of disappointment have not quite dissolved into a bright shiny day. We have not quite reached a new dawn yet. So it is as well not to make too many plans to travel or meet up with loved ones and friends, incase they are scuppered once again by re-imposed restrictions.  Nevertheless, plans are a way of hoping for the future. Though we may feel rather downtrodden by the last long months, we must not give up hope. We have got this far. 

How will we view these strange times when they are all over? How will we look back? In one sense, as we return to some kind of normality and begin to engage again in our usual pursuits, it will be as if nothing has happened. The months of lockdown may begin to fade away in our memory, unless we have been seriously affected by the pandemic on a deeply personal level.  

Yesterday morning, on the first day of the lighter restrictions, I walked past the barber shop I usually frequent. There was a small socially distanced queue of customers outside the front door eagerly awaiting a haircut. I remember seeing that queue last summer, when the shop had re-opened after the first lockdown. It seemed to me as if the months in between had not happened. I have not yet ventured into my nearest town, Kingston, but I imagine when I do, I will see shoppers going in and out of the shops or queuing outside, just as before the lockdown and again it will be as if the lockdown has not occurred.  

Once we start milling around the shops, or share a meal and bottle of wine with a friend in a bar or restaurant or drive off into the sunset, perhaps the events of 2020 and most of 2021 will dissolve, unless revived by the TV documentaries which will inevitably be screened afterwards along with media articles, books and movies. But then we are not obliged to watch them or read them. After all we have already got used to screening the latest Netflix series to anaesthetise us from the pandemic and lockdown if necessary.

In Virgil’s epic Latin poem ‘The Aeneid’, Aeneas, one of the royal family of Troy escapes from the burning city with his lame father Anchises on his back and his son Ascanius at his side. Along with his band of surviving heroes, they flee the city by boat and after many adventures arrive on the shores of Italy. In the Roman legend, he is the first true hero of Rome and the ancestor of Romulus and Remus who, also according to legend, eventually founded the city.

At one point in the epic story, Aeneas cries out and weeps bitterly as he recalls the blood shed at Troy. In the poem, Virgil comments that Aeneas is suffering the ‘lacrimae rerum’, the ‘tears of things’. He further observes that ‘The world has tears as a constituent part of it and so have our own lives, hopeless and weary.’ He might have been describing our own pandemic. Our lives too have seemed  ‘hopeless and weary’ at times and we have been made acutely aware that tears, that suffering, is an inevitable part of our world, of the human condition.

This is after all what the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius is all about: acknowledging the tears and suffering in life and finding a way of accepting it. In our own post-Christian era we would add, finding a way of alleviating the suffering of others too.   

Hopefully, when the pandemic has receded, like Aeneas, we too will pause, look back and remind ourselves of the ‘tears of things’. Also, like him, hopefully we will be thankful that we have survived. Perhaps too we will be a little more grateful for what we have in our lives. Surely this enforced hiatus we have all been through has made us appreciate each other and ourselves more, along with the clutter and the bric-a-brac we have accumulated around ourselves.

For Aeneas and his companions in the story, the destruction of Troy became a painful memory, a past event. For us, though the lockdowns may become a past event, we may still be living with the virus for some time.  

There has been much inevitable speculation about what the ‘new normal’ will look like: in other words, what we will be able to do and not do. For how much longer must face masks be worn? Will office workers be working from home or back in their offices or both? When will our schools and hospitals and surgeries be back to normal? When will there be full gatherings in pubs, bars, and restaurants and in arenas, theatres, cinemas and in churches? When will air travel recommence at full throttle and when will it be as easy and casual as before? 

There will also be a lot of changes and the transition from lockdown to a kind of normality may take quite some time.  To some extent, just as Aeneas and his followers on the shores of Italy, we too will be walking in a new and different world for a while, perhaps for a long time, if not forever.  Let us face it, we already are.

These questions are obviously highly relevant to our own lives and to our society. But perhaps we should not be asking ourselves what we may or may not be able to do in the future but what we are going to be in the future. What have we learnt about ourselves in the last year? Will that change our own individual lifestyle and attitude to life and towards others in any way? Maybe we should be reflecting on what the ‘new normal’ will be for ourselves as individuals. Perhaps we should be saying, I am going to create a ‘new normal’ for myself.

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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Many thanks

Neilus Aurelius



The ‘new normal’

Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’



Roman legends.      


If I had begun to write this meditation yesterday afternoon, I would not have been able to see the candle beside me clearly. The screen of my iPad would have been cloudy too. Yesterday morning I went to the eye clinic at Kingston Hospital for an examination and consultation. The examination was very thorough and involved two different liquids being squirted into my eyes by a nurse so that photographs could be taken of each eye. I was told that the liquid would make my vision blurred for up to five hours afterwards. In addition to that, the final examination involved an extremely bright light being shone in each eye. So when I came out of the clinic into the hospital car park and bright daylight, I felt a little disorientated, almost as if the ground was going from under my feet. It was a momentary sensation making me tread slowly and carefully. The blurring in my eyes went on for some time.

However, this temporary change of vision did not stop me for getting on a bus and going into Kingston for a walk along the river Thames with a take-way coffee. I needed fresh air and a wider view after being in the clinic. To my eyes, the swans serenely skimming through the water had a white sheen around them as if they were photographed in soft focus. Indeed, everything I looked at had a softer edge to it. I had to avoid looking into the sunlight, however, as the glare, welcome though it is in these days of early Spring, made my eyes smart. I also had to really focus on my coffee in its paper cup in case I spilt it all over myself.

I moved over to the barrier and rested my cup on it while trying to focus on the traffic on the river. Several canoes and a rowing boat with eight rowers at the oars scudded past along with the swans, geese, seagulls and little terns bobbing about. They were all enhanced with that soft edge because of my slightly impaired vision. I began to think that as we are coming into Spring and the lockdown will be slowly opening up, our lives are beginning to take on that softer edge and maybe a brighter future is coming into focus.         

When I got home, I did not feel like writing as the hospital examination left me a little exhausted. Medical tests and examinations, even though they may be straightforward,  always upset our personal equilibrium, don’t they? They are invasive even though they are for our own benefit. The personal equilibrium of all of us has been severely upset this last year. We have been truly shaken up. The relentless restrictions have been a major intrusion to our everyday lives and plans and like medical tests, they have been invasive too though also ultimately for our own benefit. Perhaps we can consider ourselves fortunate, as I am able to do, that the virus itself has not been a major intrusion in our lives. As I sat in the clinic yesterda, waiting for my appointment, I was reminded of how very precious our eyesight is and I thought how difficult this last year must have been for those who are blind or whose sight is severely or even partially impaired. I have been very fortunate.   

Now, this evening, as I sit here by my customary candle and write this, my eyesight is clear again.  But I keep thing back to yesterday and that experience of walking around Kingston with slightly impaired vision. It reminds me of my childhood and youth, when I lived in Redcar, in Cleveland by the North Sea. Sometimes if the weather was cold and turning to rain, a very light, delicate drizzle would come in from the sea. It made the horizon indistinct, with a soft blur, almost like an Impressionist painting or one by J.M.W. Turner. Perhaps that delicate drizzle, which was like looking through an intricate veil, is what inspired his blurred seascapes. We used to call this opaque mist, ‘sea fret’.  It was as if the sky was anxious and fretting before pouring out its tears of cold rain. Although it could be cooling and even refreshing, the arrival of sea fret was always the signal to leave the shore and go back into the High Street or home as rain was on its way.

At times, we have all been fretting in the last year and our anxieties may have blurred our vision too, making us get things out of proportion. Fretting was at the root of all that panic-buying in the supermarkets this time last year: all the trauma over toilet rolls and the intrepid pursuit of paracetamol. It all seems senseless now but was the result of that first shock of lockdown, which sharpened our instinct for survival. Just like myself in the hospital car park yesterday, we have felt disorientated at times. as if the ground were going from under our feet. It is as we have all been in a sea fret ourselves unable to see the horizon clearly, with the future just an indistinct blur.

Of course, the future is always an indistinct blur, despite all our plans for going here and going there. We do not know what the future holds and we are certainly not masters or mistresses of the future, though, with all our plans and projects we may think that we are in control. I seem to recall I made this comment in one of my meditations last Spring. I have come to see that perhaps I over-planned the early months of my retirement, with several trips abroad and various theatre visits with dear friends. As those early months coincided with the early months of lockdown, those plans have come to nothing or are hopefully being put on hold. I have been left with copious travel and theatre ticket vouchers to use when lockdown is over. But I shall be pacing myself  and the travelling and performances will no doubt seem so much more precious to me, having been deprived of them for a little while.

But not as precious as my eyesight.           

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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May I first mention, dear reader, two mistakes, in the last two meditations, which a couple of friends have very kindly pointed out to me. In Meditation 53, ‘I pad’ should read ‘iPad’ and in Mediation 54, ‘fit of peak’ should read ‘fit of pique.’ I stand corrected.   

Sitting here as usual beside my candle I am thinking back to a year ago, March 9th 2020, which was the last time I visited a theatre. It was the Royal Opera House, where I attended a performance of Beethoven’s only opera, ‘Fidelio.’ How was I to know then that I wouldn’t be visiting a theatre with friends again for some time in the future? Also how was I to foresee that eating a meal with friends in a restaurant would be a rare experience indeed over the months that followed? Then a few weeks later, we were in total lockdown and here we are now, still locked down a year later, despite a few months of respite here and there.

Beethoven’s opera is a very moving plea for political freedom. A political prisoner, Florestan, is unjustly imprisoned and about to be executed but he is saved by his faithful wife, Leonora, the ‘Fidelio’ of the title. Little did I know when watching the opera and being transported by Beethoven’s rapturous music, that we would be in a kind of imprisonment ourselves a few week’s later – but in a just cause.

Marcus’ stoicism has certainly been stretched to the limit within me in the last twelve months. He writes, ‘You have the power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this and you will have strength.’ This is true of course, but difficult when my iPhone wants to have power over my mind all the time and it is very difficult to have the strength to resist that insistent mistress, the iPhone!  He also advocates, ‘Confine yourself to the present.’ This has been most useful over these last months. Concentrating on and enjoying the present moment has helped me get through, as have family and friends, my dear friends. St Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian observes that ‘There is nothing on the earth to be prized more than friendship.’ How right he is.  

Where are we now, a year on? From the friends I have shared with, it seems we are all exhausted and burnt out with living on adrenalin as much as coping with the changing restrictions. We are like an old clock that has slowly wound down. And, much as it has been a comfort and support, our eyes and our brains are exhausted with technology, at least, mine are. I am streamed away and zoomed out, exhausted by a plethora of media platforms and endless choices for digital entertainment. I feel as if I am like a little over-tired child, unable to settle to anything yet refusing to give in and rest. Rest is what we will need when all this is over. 

In the last few days I have been in my garden inspecting my plants. When the weather is cold and rainy and especially when the sky is overcast or just dull and dismal with no sign of the sun, it is easy to forget that signs of Spring have appeared. Buds have emerged on my magnolia and apple trees and on my pink camellia shrub, the first slithers of pink are just appearing in the buds. My daffodils and alliums have also made an appearance, though they are not yet in bloom. Similarly there are new vivid red and green shoots on my rose bushes.

I think it is the same with our current situation: our eyes are dulled to the signs of hope (such as the vaccine) by the monotony of these months. We have been locked down into winter and probably have never felt winter so keenly or heavily. Though we have been overstimulated as usual by streaming and media platforms, these haven’t been enough to alleviate the weight of this winter. Usually perhaps we would get through winter by being overstimulated in other ways: by seeing people, going out for meals, socialising and partying over the Christmas season, jetting off to the sun, Christmas shopping or taking in a show or an exhibition. Most of this has been impossible or severely restricted. So, we have felt the weight of winter. 

It seems that we have felt the weight of winter on our shoulders to the extent that maybe we have not noticed the first signs of Spring at our feet.  We are all so exhausted with the physical and emotional demands of the last year that it is difficult to perceive the signs of hope, the light in the tunnel.        

The other day I came across a video clip on the BBC News website. It was from a frozen lake in Canada somewhere – the location was not specified. A man with a broad grin on his bearded face was joyfully dancing a Bhangra on the ice. Gurdeep Pandher had just received his first vaccine shot and was dancing to ‘share the positivity and joy he felt’.    

I have recently discovered a rare word from the 16th Century which is not in use anymore but should be at this present time. It is ‘respair’. It means ‘fresh hope and recovery from despair’. Now after long dark months of near despair at times, we are in a period of respair, a time of fresh hope and recovery. The man on the ice, therefore, was performing a dance of respair. Perhaps it is time for us to dance too, to dance in our hearts. To share the positivity and look to the coming months with fresh hope. 

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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As I begin to write beside my customary candle, I am feeling cabined, cribbed and confined, as Macbeth would say. I have been asked to self-isolate according to the NHS Covid app on my phone. I have six out of seven days still to run as I received the message yesterday. 

Of course I have decided to obey the instruction, annoying though it is. When I delved into my personal data on the app, I discovered that whoever I came into contact with had declared a positive test yesterday, so, it must be said, the app is very efficient. But it is also, to the best of my knowledge, wrong. I was supposedly in contact with this person on Saturday. However, I never left my house on Saturday, so it was impossible for me to be in contact with anyone, except myself and I certainly haven’t had a positive test.

My annoyance, of course, stems from an injustice, petty though that injustice is. I am reminded of my career as a teacher. Children and young adults have an acute sense of injustice and, in my experience, more than most other things, it arouses an acute anger in them. So too with adults. The sense of being accused of something we didn’t do digs deep.   It did with me yesterday. I smarted at it. ‘My gorge rises at it’, as Shakespeare would say; well it did rise. It is like being in a lunchtime detention and angrily watching your schoolmates playing outside the classroom window.

The injustice is, as I have already mentioned, petty and slight. It is nothing compared with those who are imprisoned for something they haven’t done.  Or those who are incarcerated by oppressive regimes because of their political views, ethnicity, sexuality or religious faith. Neither have I been asked to shield for many months as so many have, with little opportunity to see loved ones. As I write this paragraph, I ask myself why I am complaining at all through this blog. 

As I think back to yesterday, it was the loss of personal freedom that annoyed me most. But then, it is only for a few days, I have a freezer that is replete with food and none of us are going far at the moment anyway. Marcus would tell me to persevere, to endure this present annoyance. 

But I have been asking myself why was this sudden loss of freedom so irksome to me? I think there were echoes of those first weeks of lockdown almost a year ago: the sudden changes imposed externally by the government, the return of a twinge of fear.

None of us likes to forego our liberty, It is something we have all battled with over the last gruelling months and we have perhaps, over time, been reduced to a tired resignation about it. But our liberty has to be gently pushed to one side in the medical emergency we are still in for the good of others. Just as having the vaccine (which I had two weeks ago) is not just to protect ourselves but also to protect others. So I am asked to self-isolate, even if erroneously, for the good of others, just in case. In the same way, we wear masks and drown our hands in cleansing fluid, just in case and as much for the good of others as for ourselves.

 I am reminded of one of those occasions when my aunt Barbara would show me some of her numerous volumes of photographs, while staying with her on holiday on Vancouver Island. She was showing me pictures of my childhood and there I was as a toddler in a walking harness with her young and glamorous self holding the reins behind me. ‘You were so cute’ she said to me, I remember. I must admit to a cringe of embarrassment. I did not like to be reminded I was a toddler once and barely out of babyhood. There I was with my fat little legs – they are more shapely now of course!  

In the photograph I was squirming in those walking reins and itching to move off, to walk away, to be free.  It is a natural impulse -to be free. But the reins were there to keep me from falling over, from harming myself. We, too, at this moment are itching to be free of the reins of lockdown, to move on. And perhaps, yesterday, I was squirming in those reins again, because I had suddenly been reminded of them. 

The weather has not been too cold to sit in my garden. Sitting there, I read these words. ‘Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.’  The words are not by Marcus Aurelius but Anne Frank, who was in hiding with her Jewish family behind a bookcase in concealed rooms above offices in Amsterdam from 1942-44 during the Nazi occupation. Self-isolation is nothing compared to what she endured with her family or afterwards, when she was discovered.

The great French novelist Marcel Proust (1877-1922) says ‘Turn your griefs, your suffering into ideas.’ A suitable creed for a writer, and so I have written this particular blog.  

But I am not grieving or suffering. I am only annoyed.  And, like all of us, I am weary with almost a year of various versions of lockdown. It is weariness, grumpiness, a fit of peak. My apologies. But if you read a blog, you must put up with the shifting emotions of the writer! 

Perhaps Marcus can help us to endure what will hopefully be the last phase of lockdown, however long or short that phase may be: ‘When you arise in the morning,think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive and breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.’

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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Many thanks


As I sit here beside my candle writing this meditation this evening, I am thinking over the day’s events. I, a pseudo-philosophical emperor, have been rebuked by a philosophical ex-President. This afternoon, I have been reading Barack Obama’s memoir ‘A Promised Land’. In his preface to the book, he explains how he came to write it after he left office in January 2017. He explains that he wrote his book in longhand because he feels that using a computer ‘gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.’ There is a hint of humility in this which is endearing.

Perhaps I should take him as my model and write my meditations in longhand first, instead of using my own mini-computer, my I pad. Then, hopefully, I will be sure that my blog will not contain ‘half-baked thoughts’ under the ‘mask of tidiness.’ I hope it doesn’t. But that is for you to decide, dear reader.

If I decide to write out my reflections in longhand, perhaps I should use the same stationery as Mr Obama does: lawyer’s yellow lined paper. He may use these ‘legal pads’ to remind him of his earlier career as a lawyer and to put him at his ease before writing. My little I pad, which has travelled everywhere with me, certainly puts me at my ease when I open it to begin to write.  

There are advantages to writing with a computer, which we are all well aware of. We are able to correct the text we are writing as we go along; to cut and paste words, phrases, sentences and even entire paragraphs or sections, moving them around the text at will. My handwriting is not of the best so I prefer writing letters, even personal ones, on my laptop or I pad. As Mr Obama says, whatever we write is given a ‘smooth gloss’ and a ‘mask of tidiness’ because we are seeing it in print on the screen, as I am seeing this meditation now.

Psychologically, seeing your words in print on the screen is a way of boosting your personal confidence. I have found this to be true. Most writers have issues with personal confidence. Seeing my words on my I pad screen in a lovely elegant font has often provided a boost to my confidence, more than my untidy scrawl on paper has! But then, Shakespeare’s handwriting was also an untidy scrawl so I am in good company, though I will never come anywhere near to his genius!

There are also advantages to writing in longhand, which can be a slower, quieter and more relaxed occupation than typing away on a keyboard. It can also give rise to reflection, as dear Marcus Aurelius obviously discovered when he was was writing his own meditations, which are the inspiration for this blog. Writing by hand can allow for time to stop and think. I am sure you can stop and think using a keyboard too, but there is always that tendency to want to quickly clatter away on a keyboard. I have to force myself to take my time.  These days we see so much text on various devices that our eyes can become strained and our brains addled with text; and not only the text itself, but also the light on the screen behind it. Writing in longhand, therefore, could be a recuperative alternative.

There is a danger to seeing our words or the words of others in print on a screen, which Mr Obama has pinpointed. ‘Half-baked thoughts’ are given a ‘gloss’, an importance, an authenticity even, which they may not deserve. ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers’ says the old warning. In our own time, the warning might be ‘Don’t believe everything you read on a screen.’  Dear me: that warning could include this blog! However, I have always tried to be honest, sincere and truthful with you, dear reader.

The plethora of websites and social media create a miasma of fact, truth, half-truth, opinion, prediction, rumour and surmise on our screens, fogging our minds. The result is that it is often difficult to see clearly, to distinguish fact from opinion, truth from half-truth and a valid prediction from rumour or surmise. This is particularly true of social media.

I studied ‘O’ level Latin at school. The set text for the examination was excerpts from Book Six of  Virgil’s epic poem ‘The Aeneid’, where the hero Aeneas, after escaping from Troy, on his wande

rings visits his ancestors in the underworld. A phrase from the epic poem has always stuck with me in translation: ‘Truth veiled in obscurity.’ Virgil might be describing our media rather than the mist-laden, dark depths of the underworld. To traverse the underworld and avoid falling into the dank river Acheron, our hero Aeneas has to tread slowly and carefully. To find our way through the miasma of the media to arrive at the facts and the truth, it is often necessary for us to read slowly and carefully too.        

But, of course, often we don’t. We skim read quickly, especially if we are glancing at the news on a smartphone. This is the advantage of a smartphone, we have everything ‘on the go’, with the result that our minds are often ‘on the go’ too, reading too quickly and not digesting what we have read.

Reactions to the news on social media are also frequently made ‘on the go’, without thought, reflection, or reserve. Although it must be admitted that an initial response may be highly relevant. However, so many comments on Twitter and Facebook are knee-jerk reactions to events. They are often ‘too rash, too unadvised, too sudden’ as Juliet says of Romeo’s protestations of love in Shakespeare’s play, as was often the case with Mr Obama’s successor, and his endless tweets. 

I have also recently been reading a collection of the letters of Leonard Bernstein (1918-90), the American music conductor, pianist and composer. His works include several symphonies, ballet scores, film scores and of course the music theatre pieces ‘West Side Story’ and ‘On The Town’.

Bernstein was quite close to the Kennedy family and conducted a special performance of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, ‘The Resurrection’ with his orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22 1963. (Incidentally, almost four years later, Kennedy’s younger brother, Robert, was also assassinated, and Bernstein arranged and conducted the music for his funeral Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York).

Bernstein also appeared at the ‘Night of the Stars’ a memorial for President Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in New York on the day after the concert he had conducted. There, he gave an address to the audience, which is included in this collection of his letters. In his address he mentioned John F. Kennedy’s final speech, which he was to have made in Dallas on the fateful day when he was murdered. In it President Kennedy would have put forward the precept that  ‘America’s leadership must be guided by learning and reason.’  By ‘learning’ I presume that he meant not only appropriate reading and research, but also listening to others to learn from them. 

I sincerely hope this precept will be adopted by the new incumbent of the White House. I was very impressed with Joe Biden’s inaugural address which to me encapsulated not only the ideals but also the soul of America. I hope his term will be guided by learning, reason  – and a search for and respect for truth.’

Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!

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A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus AureliusASMR on YouTube

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Neilus Aurelius