So here I am once again gazing at the candle on the table beside me. Like the flame, memories are flickering in my consciousness. For this week it is 30 years since my first visit to Hungary. That was the planning trip for our first ever Drama Tour. And now I am planning for the last one next February. ‘In my end is my beginning’ as T.S.Eliot says in his poem ‘East Coker.’

It is also 30 years since we were rehearsing our first show on tour – ‘Julius Caesar’ – and I have just reminded one of the cast members of this by text. As I mentioned earlier this year, in one of my blogs (or meditations!) on that planning trip I was stumbling into history. For on the Tuesday of that week, the new Hungarian republic was declared and Soviet rule was ended. If you remember, I witnessed all this in the school we visited at Balatonalmadi, by the shores of Lake Balaton. It was in the Headmaster Sandor’s office in fact and there all the staff and ourselves watched the momentous events in Budapest on television.

Next month we shall be reminded of another thirtieth anniversary. For less than a month later, on November 9, the Soviet East German government also capitulated, allowing the free passage of citizens from East to West Germany. And so the Berlin Wall, which cruelly separated East from West Berlin for 28 years, began to be joyfully dismantled brick by brick by the people. Formal demolition took place between June 1990 and November 1991.

As I write this, I am listening to a cd which reminds me of the events in Berlin. It is a live concert performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its magnificent choral final movement, Beethoven’s hymn to universal brotherhood (and sisterhood).

The concert took place the following month, in December, twice – in both East and West Berlin, on both sides of the Wall. The concerts were therefore a huge symbolic gesture and who else to conduct them but the great Leonard Bernstein, conductor, pianist, composer of symphonies, ballets and ‘West Side Story’ and a passionately committed musician with deep political convictions.

It was decided that the soloists, orchestra and chorus would not only be from East and West Germany but also from London, Leningrad, New York and Paris, symbolising the allied powers that had defeated Germany in the Second World War. Therefore not only would East and West Germany be joined in music but also the former victors and the former defeated from East and West.

The choral piece in the final movement of the symphony is a setting of the ‘Ode to Joy’ – ‘An Die Freude’ – by the poet and dramatist Schiller (1759-1805). For this concert the words were changed to ‘An Die Freiheit’ – ‘Ode to Freedom’. There is a legend that Schiller had

written ‘Freedom’ rather than ‘Joy’ in an earlier draft of the poem. Clearly singing the ‘Ode to Freedom’ rather than Joy was another deeply felt symbolic gesture in the concert. Bernstein writes in the cd sleeve notes that ‘If ever there was an historic time to take an academic risk, this is it,’ and that he was sure Beethoven would have given his blessing.

What of the performance? Despite enlarged chorus and orchestra there is a warm intimacy about it, like two soldiers from opposing sides shaking hands over a barrier. There is also precision and clarity and it is clear that not just Bernstein and his four soloists, but also every individual orchestra player and chorus member is giving their heart to this performance. As did the recording team – it’s an amazing recording even after all these years. Needless to say, the performance has been re-issued on cd, DVD, blue ray and streaming prior to the celebrations next month. Do take a listen.

Even though the words of the final poem were changed from ‘joy’ to ‘freedom’, there is a pervading infectious joyousness about the performance especially in the final ensemble moments. The performance is not only a deeply felt expression of Beethoven’s vision for humanity but also a reflection of the buoyant mood of the time of the performance. As Justus Frantz, the organiser of the concert, said at the time: it was a ‘festival of jubilation.’ After so many years, East and West Germany was reunited. Already Poland and Hungary had received their freedom again, and soon, with the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, so were the other nations that formed it. I remember it being a heady time and in its positive sense, anything seemed possible. In my childhood and youth, the Soviet Union seemed impregnable. It was impossible to believe then that it was disintegrating or that several years later, those newly free nations would seek and be granted membership of the European Community.

It is therefore tragically ironic that at this time of remembering the collapse of the Berlin Wall, my own country should be seeking to leave the European community. Hopefully we will not create another wall between us and the EU but will maintain a friendly, respectful and healthy relationship in the future. But that barrier, however small, is being created. Furthermore we must not let the aggressive use of language create a wall between us, as has been evident in our own parliament in recent months. As we will no doubt view those events of 1989 in Berlin being re-run in the media in the coming weeks, we should remember that the people of East Germany were truly celebrating freedom from an oppressive and totalitarian state. Our exit from the EU bears no comparison as the EU is not an oppressive and totalitarian regime, though there those, including some of our politicians in their colourful rhetoric, who would have us believe so. Creating walls, real of metaphorical, is not an expression of power but of fear.

As might be imagined, those Berlin concerts were a media event at the time. I can remember watching the East Berlin concert (which took place appropriately on Christmas Day) on the television and there was a documentary accompanying it. I revisited the documentary a few years ago on YouTube. There was Lenny slowly walking through the Brandenburg Gate (which was only officially opened three days earlier) from the West to the concert hall in the East. He strode confidently with an overcoat over his shoulders and white scarf casually hanging from his neck and his mane of white hair held high. In his hand was his customary long cigarette. He was an inveterate chain smoker and would succumb to emphysema ten months later at the age of 72.

This was not to be his final concert however. That took place in the summer at the Tanglewood Festival near Boston. But it might as well have been because it was the ultimate expression of who he was. Yes: he was a showman (as his critics labelled him), but a showman devoted to humanity. He used his talents and media power to further humanitarian causes. It was so appropriate that he was conducting Beethoven’s final symphony because he tried to live up to the vision expressed in its final movement: as should we all. ‘Alle Menshen werden Bruder’: ‘All men shall become brothers’. The 18th century language of Schiller’s poem is not inclusive but the sentiment is. It is more that inclusive: it is universal. If we treat each other as brothers and sisters then we become so.

So there was Lenny strolling through the Brandenburg Gate, head held high: a dignified citizen of the world with our without the Berlin Wall. We too are citizens of the world and with or without Brexit, we are certainly citizens of Europe.

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Neilus Aurelius

Here I am again sitting beside my solitary candle and gazing at its steady flame. I have just realised that that it is a over a year now since my first blog appeared. I can’t believe that, in the midst of my busy life, I have managed to write so many meditations in the last year. There are 27 so far. But then, times of reflection are important to a busy life or our busy-ness takes over us and we cease to be fully human. Our perspective can become narrower and our compassion for others can diminish because we are ‘too busy.’ I hope writing my blog has averted this in my own life over the last year! Something else I need to reflect upon. My thanks to those of you who have read all of them or most of them or just a few of them.

Co-incidentally, I have been preparing and recording an audio version of these meditations. So now, as they enter their second year, a selection of them will be appearing on YouTube. The trailer and first two are now available on YouTube as ‘Neilus Aurelius ASMR’ and, dear reader, you are now able to hear my voice as well as read my words, if you so wish. My sincere thanks to Henry Riley for setting up and posting the written blogs and to Jordan Trinder for setting up the audio one. Ex-students have their uses!

I have been rather unsure about the audio venture even though I have enjoyed choosing the selection and recording them. I have always been more of a vocal actor than a physical one so reading into a microphone has not been a problem, although I have had to adopt a quieter level and more intimate tone than when I am acting on stage or teaching a class. Yes it is an intimate experience. You are almost treating the microphone like a lover. There is a gentleness about it. Actors say that film acting is relaxing as it requires less effort than theatre and recording is the same. But you still have to concentrate and focus, you are still ‘on’. Who knows: in my retirement I may start a new career as a voice actor!

When I started these blogs, friends asked me whether I wanted to film them. I said no because I would either be standing in front of a camera trying not to read from a script or I would improvise them and blather on (which is similar to what my teaching career has been like!).

Besides it is best that, like Marcus Aurelius, my model for this blog, I set down my thoughts in writing as he did and through modern technology to present them to others, which he may not have intended at all. His own ‘Meditations’ were private and for himself, to remind himself of his own ideals. These ideals were taken from his reading of philosophy, tested by his own experience of life and the example of relatives and friends he admired. His meditations were then, a corrective of his own behaviour. He reminds

himself of his own ideals so that he can try to live by them. Therefore, they were, from a myriad of sources, an attempt to create his own philosophy of life.

When his ‘Meditations’ were published in the first ever printed version (in 1559) they were called ‘To Himself’. They were written by himself and for himself. They are a private document. So I wonder if he ever wanted them to be published at all. Or if he had modern technology at his disposal, if he would, like me, present his own meditations in his own blog, let alone make an audio or video version.

However, I would be fascinated to hear what his voice sounded like. I imagine a warm baritone voice and a firm measured tone. That is what I have tried to present on YouTube, although, my own voice is a tenor.

Emperors kept their distance from the populace. It is how they kept their power. Rare but well staged personal appearances kept the populace happy. Saturating the media with a constant presence would be anathema to them, let alone bolstering their own self image with continual tweets. But these are different times.

His own philosophy of life. How many of us have ever sat down to formulate our own philosophy of life? I wonder if many of our current political leaders have. Have we ever sat down on a beach somewhere with pen and paper and written down what we believe in and the ideals we hold most dear? I am reminded of when I was in the Sixth Form at my school, one of my friends was called Philip – I can’t remember his surname. He was, what we used to call a ‘pseud’, in other words someone rather pretentious as only sixth formers can be. He would call trousers ‘strides’ and underwear ‘understrides’, I remember.

But I also remember in one of our discussions in the pub, he told our group that he was going to make a list of what he believed in: his articles of faith, if you like, or his philosophy of life. And he did and he read them out to us on another occasion.

Perhaps this will be my aim for this second year of my blogs: to create a philosophy of life. Or perhaps I am already doing so

You can now watch the first meditation on YouTube HERE https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGJwqviWUTk

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Neilus Aurelius

Now I have returned from Budapest and I am writing this beside the steady flame of my customary candle. The Cafe Dumas on the Danube embankment, where I last wrote to you, dear reader, seems far, far away now. My travels are over for a while and I am ‘home for good and all’ as Fan, the boy Scrooge’s sister, says to him, when she comes to the boarding school to take him home for Christmas. But I should not be mentioning Christmas yet as we are only into September!

While I was away, I did not spend all my time in Budapest. I went with friends out of the city several times. One of the places I visited was Esztergom, in Upper Hungary, which, like Budapest, is on the river Danube. You can look down on Slovakia on the other side of the river from an elegant promenade. This is behind the imposing Basilica, the largest church in Hungary and one of the largest in Europe, and the remains of the Royal Palace. For Esztergom was where the Hungarian Kings first lived before the royal residence was moved to the Buda hills overlooking Pest. St Stephen, their first King was crowned there and baptised into the Christian Faith on Christmas Day 1000.

Centuries earlier, according to my guide book, it was also where Marcus Aurelius had an army encampment during the Romans’ reign over the territory. It was here, on the banks of the river Hron, which runs into the Danube, that Marcus wrote his Meditations. Sadly I did not have time to write one of my own there myself. I did discern a quietness and stillness about the castle area and the town, however, which was conducive to reflection.

It is that stillness and quietness of the towns we visited that impressed me most, aside from some beautiful buildings and piazzas large and small. As I sit here by my candle it is is the lamps that I remember: ornate and brilliant, beaming on stucco walls of yellow ochre, pink, grey, green and blue.

I was staying at my friend Adam’s apartment in the Taban district of Budapest at the back of the Royal Palace. Behind the block is a road where he parks his car with the Palace towering above it on the other side. There are similar lamps all along the road in the walls, elegant and warmly inviting, making me feel at home as I get out of the car. They remind me of the lamps in chapel quad at Pembroke, my Oxford college. I didn’t notice them much when I was an undergraduate there but I do now when I occasionally return.

Yes it was the lamps that I noticed as I sat one evening in the main square of Szekesfehervar, with my friends and a glass of wine. They slowly became brighter as the twilight faded into evening, their beams warming the yellow stucco walls until in the darkening sky, the square became blanketed in one incandescent comforting glow.

The great French novelist Marcel Proust commented in his masterpiece about memory ‘In Search of Lost Time’ that he would like life to be a series of happy afternoons. For myself, I would like life to be a series of mellow twilights. I image that Marcel was thinking of summer afternoons and I am certainly thinking of summer twilights, for it is only in summer that afternoons and twilights seem to stretch forever.

The square was quiet and quite still with a relaxed atmosphere. There was the low hum of conversation and music playing somewhere, perhaps in another street. The square was pedestrianised so children were running about, playing with their cycles and with water in a fountain.

People were quietly enjoying the evening and each other, sitting in the cafes and restaurants dotted about the square. There I was, in a town in Central Europe, enjoying the peace and quiet of a twilight evening. “Isn’t this what people really want?’ I reflected. To lead peaceful quiet lives enjoying being with their partners, their lovers, their friends,their children; enjoying being with each other? Life can be difficult enough after all. Is not this what the so called ‘European project’ is all about? It is not the ‘European project’ but the ‘European Peace.’ A peace we have shared somehow and not without problems. for seven decades and with which we have also embraced our ex-Soviet block neighbours. In abandoning the European project we should take care not to abandon the European peace.

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, said Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary at the start of the First World War. We must do our utmost to make sure they do not got out again.

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Neilus Aurelius

I am writing this meditation with a candle nowhere in sight. I am in a rather cosmopolitan location. I am seated in the Cafe Dumas in the Institut Francais overlooking the Danube in Budapest. As I am soon about to begin rehearsing my dramatisation of a great work of French literature, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo, perhaps it is appropriate that I am writing my meditation here in the Institut Francais and in a cafe named after two other great 19th Century French writers : Alexandre Dumas, father and son. And my dramatisation of Hugo’s novel will be presented here in Budapest next February. So the location is very much appropriate.

So here, quite close to the famous Lanchid (Chain Bridge) I am watching the boats on the river and the yellow and white number 2 tram going up and down the opposite embankment. It is the most popular tram in Budapest, the tourist tram. The weather has been extremely hot here since I arrived as it is the last days of summer. Today is cooler with a welcome breeze and distinctly autumnal. The leaves on the trees on the embankment are beginning to change colour already and are a mix of vibrant green and russet brown.

How many journeys have I made on that tram since I first came here? Next month, it will 30 years since I first came to Hungary and to Budapest. The Republic of Hungary will be 30 years old too next month, as first I came here in the week the republic was first established in October 1989. So like the leaves in the breeze, there are many memories swirling around in my head this afternoon. I am feeling distinctly autumnal. I am autumnal. I may even be slipping into winter. These last few days have made me realise that I am getting older, if not old! I have finally realised how old I am.
I have just been in one of the city’s museums: the Museum of Fine Arts.It has an antiquities gallery in the basement, with artefacts from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Italy. In this gallery there is an funerary monument: a man and woman and a boy between them. The boy is not their child or grandchild but one of their slaves as they were obviously a wealthy couple, if they were able to have funerary statues for their burial.

The man has a middle-aged head with curly hair and a beard ( a typical ancient philosopher’s head) but his head is on top of a youthful, athletic body. His body suggested to me that he was guilty of wishful thinking! Or was he a young man with an old head on his shoulders?
However, the woman’s head was missing but her body looked clearly like that of a Roman matron, ‘a lady of a certain age’ as we would say. So it appears that the man was in some sort of mid-life crisis: middle-aged but imagining himself still youthful and athletic (if he ever was!). Looking closely at my own torso in the mirror recently, I think I am beyond imagining that now! I have now become part of the ‘realist’ school of literature!

By reading the information card beside these statues, I discovered that this kind of funerary statue was common in Roman times. It was an attempt to depict the idea of ‘a beautiful and good man.’ Presumably the ‘philosopher’ head of the statue suggested that the man had good and humane thoughts and lived by them and his youthful, athletic body suggested that this way of thinking and living made the man beautiful. For is it not goodness that creates beauty in a person?

I may be getting old but I still have a youthful spirit or I wouldn’t be in any way successful as a director of young people. They appear to still enjoy rehearsing with me. So here we are about to start rehearsing another production in the next few weeks. And next February we will be embarking upon another tour to Budapest. Except it will be my last production and my last tour.

It was quite emotional for me as I walked into the Kolibri Children’s Theatre last Friday for my usual meeting. We have been presenting productions there for over 20 years. I found it very hard to tell the production team that next year will be my last one. But it is time to bow out, to retire. I did not realise how difficult it was all going to be until I stood outside the theatre last Friday. How difficult it will be to let go. That is because I did not fully comprehend how close I am to the Kolbri Theatre and its director, Janos and its staff and it’s wonderful, warm appreciative audiences down the years. I had not realised how big a part of my life it has been. Or how big a part of my life this country has been.

In the antiquities gallery there was a quote on one of the large information boards. This quote has been attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: ‘The invisible connection is stronger than the visible.’ That is what I had forgotten: the invisible connection. The invisible connection that binds us together, that touches our heart, becomes part of us. And so this city and my friends here and the dear Kolibri Theatre will still remain part of my life because of that invisible connection, but in a different way. Like one season shifting into another.

Several friends who read my blog have asked me why I do not include photos . My reason is partly because, although I do sometimes write about my travels, I would hope my meditations are more than a holiday diary. I would hope that my blog is more discursive than that and that my powers of description are sufficient for you, dear reader, to visualise the people, places and works of art I seek to describe. Besides, shortly you will be able to hear the author’s voice as well as read his words as a selection of these meditations will be appearing on YouTube in an audio version. More news on that in my next meditation so:

Ave atque vale until the next blog.

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Neilus Aurelius

I am gazing at the flame of the candle beside me. Normally it is a steady flame which reminds me of Marcus Aurelius himself or rather what I imagine him to have been like as a person. Statues of him show a steady stoical gaze on the world, confident but not arrogant. For surely it is a lack of self reflection which leads to arrogance in a person and from his ‘Meditations’ we know that Marcus was, par excellence, a man of reflection. There is a stream of humility flowing through his mediations. Some of our current world leaders would do well to drink from it!

At the very least, perhaps they would not tweet so much or would stop and think before they did. Perhaps they may even begin to consider that their comments might be of little interest to others, except that they are the person posting them. But then that it true of all of us who indulge in media messages and posts. And blogs! Perhaps we should all stop and think carefully before we post or even blog. (I do try to!). Aside from important news, if we think before we post, there may be less posts flying around the Internet, but those there are, would possibly be more heart-felt or thought-through than knee-jerk.

I very much doubt that, aside from official pronouncements, Marcus would have indulged himself in messaging on Twitter let alone Facebook or Instagram et al. He would have remained aloof from such means of communication. You may be thinking it is alright for him to be aloof as he was an emperor and remoteness goes with his social status. But I have a feeling that his humility would also have prevented him from engaging in ill-considered internet discourse.

I am reminded of some advice an American Jesuit priest gave me when I was a student at Oxford. He was explaining that you can achieve highly in the world without losing your humility. He added that you could even be President of the United States and still be a humble person. I would like to know what he thinks about his current President! But then we do not know – deep down inside ‘the Donald’ might be striving to be humble – but sadly with little effect.

The flame I am gazing at is larger than usual. It is is not a Marcus steady flame and is not flickering either as if it might go out. It is dancing. I am captivated by its constant movement. The shape of the flame changes moment by moment, rising and falling in the air. There is no draught in the room from the open window. The flame’s movement has not been caused by that. It is because the wick of this new candle is wide and made of cord. It is not a mass-produced candle but made by an ex-student of mine who has taken up beekeeping as a hobby and makes his own honey and candles. So the wick of the candle I am observing is wider than a mass-produced one and so has a more spectacular flame.

The dancing flame gently flares up and down joyfully. It has made me think of the creative mind: constantly in motion; ideas and thoughts dancing around our consciousness and, at its best, a joyful process. I have realised that inspiration is not a steady flame but it flares up and down like this candle’s effortless choreography.

I have been thinking about the writer’s creative process recently. Last week I spent six days at the annual Swanwick Writers’ Summer School which takes place in a conference centre in the Derbyshire countryside. The summer school has been running for over seventy years and provides talks and tuition on all genres of writing: everything from full length novels and TV Drama to short stories and poems and children’s picture books as well as ways of promoting and publishing. It was a busy week as there were talks and entertainment into the late evening.

We were a disparate group of 300 people of different ages and backgrounds, with different interests, genres, skills and aims. Some were there for the talks, others so they can have a space away from home or work to write. Some are keen to find a publisher for their work or to self-publish on the Internet, others enter writing competitions (of which there are many) or they write as a hobby and go to a local writer’s group perhaps. Some are committed to most or all of these. Some were keen to promote their work among the participants there.

All were committed to writing: to expressing themselves in words and to learning the craft of shaping those words into whichever form or genre seems most efficacious to express themselves. I remember once writing to the celebrated actor Sir Derek Jacobi about becoming an actor. This was when my teaching career was getting off to a shaky start (did it ever improve?). His advice was the advice that had been given to him: ‘If you want to act, think twice. If you have to act, go ahead.’ It was advice I later gave to my own Drama students. Many of the participants at the summer school have to write. I have realised this about myself now.

Everyone I met there was keen to talk, to share and to help and encourage. This created a kind of solidarity among us and as writing is, in the main, a solitary pursuit, I found this both comforting and energising. I remember going for my daily walk around the two lakes on the Swanwick site. Both lakes have beautiful flotillas of water lilies floating on them. Some were already in bloom, a delicate pink and white; others were still green in foliage. But they were all clumped together in those large floating pads. There wasn’t one water lily floating on its own. Though highly disparate, and though there were 300 of us, we Swanwick writers were like those lily pads, at different stages of bloom, of development, but together. We became a community for the week. I find this remarkable. The school was like the flame in front of me now: dancing with ideas, flaring up and down with inspiration.

This was my second visit to Swanwick. I first went there last year. On my first visit I spent some time at the prayer labyrinth which has a water feature in the centre. The labyrinth is marked out on the floor and is like a maze without the hedges. When I got to the centre, I noticed the water feature in detail. It was a large silver globe on a raised bed of pebbles. Water poured from the top of the globe and cascaded down into the pebbles in a continuous motion. The water reminded me of the writing process. Like the flame I have just mentioned the water is carefree. It just flows down not worrying where it is going. I decided to see where my writing would lead me.
It led to this blog.

Ave atque vale 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!
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I would also value any feedback on nzolad53@gmail.com or my Facebook page or Twitter.
Many thanks
Neilus Aurelius

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I am home again from my Canadian sojourn in British Columbia. Once again I am writing this meditation beside my familiar candle with its steady flame. It has taken a while to recover from my trip. My return flight was the customary overnight one and so I have been suffering from jet lag. This, combined with the extreme heat we have been experiencing here in the UK, has been quite a heady cocktail for me! Perhaps, when we suffer jet lag, our bodies are telling us that it is not right that we should travel such long distances in so short a time by air, (aside from the carbon emissions issue). Perhaps our bodies are telling us that we have travelled too far too quickly.

Nevertheless, it is wonderful to think that within half a day or so I travelled over 4,700 miles. And then made the same journey back again two weeks later. An impossible feat for Marcus – even though he was an emperor! Of course I did not have a real sense of those thousands of miles as I jetted through the clouds. Only a journey by sea would have given me a real impression of the distance travelled. It would take over a week, I imagine. This is the illusion that air travel creates: we do not realise how far we have travelled. Only a different time zone or a different language or culture reminds us of that – once we have landed at our destination of course.

Our lives sometimes create the same illusion as air travel. We do not realise how far we have travelled, how far we have moved forward. That is because we are thinking of the next destination: be it a job, a project or a relationship or another stage of our life. It is only when we have the chance to look back, to reflect, that we can see how far we have come as a person, and appreciate how much we have changed – hopefully for the better!

I do not think this perspective is only for older people looking back on their lives. It is a perspective we should all have, whatever our age. To do this we need to forget our immediate, pressing destination for a moment and take time to reflect, to appreciate how far we have travelled thus far. So often, when I was teaching, I have comforted a student with the observation, ‘You have come a long way since you started this course.’ It is a comfort. And it can be a challenge too to move on further. Reflection is rather like a plane landing to refuel before moving on.

So over the last few days I have been in the throes of heat and jet lag. I have also been bereft. I am missing the big skies and the ocean; the tall pines and firs and cedars; the beaches with their rocks and scattered driftwood blanched white by the waves and that special moon I mentioned in an earlier blog. And I have met with so many people, who have been kind and generous towards me. So I am missing them too. There is an emptiness when you come back to your house alone after seeing so many people.

When I have laid awake at night, unable to get back into my normal sleep pattern, moments from my holiday have flooded in: people I have met, places I have explored or stayed in, details of conversations, views and vistas I have seen and meals I have enjoyed. A myriad of impressions, like a frantic slide show on a laptop or like one of those kaleidoscope toys I had as a child. I would shake the tube and look through the glass at one end and the colourful pattern at the other end would have changed. The moments of my holiday seemed to change shape too, melding into eachother.

One place keeps coming back to me. Maybe it is because it is a place where I could see myself. It is in a little town called Brackendale and it’s quite near to Squamish, an hour or so out of Vancouver, up the ‘sea to sky’ highway. My godson Jonathan drove me there as he has a friend who lives there. The journey itself is very spectacular. You can see the ocean below one side of the highway and rocks and mountains towering over the highway on the other.

It’s a small community and there’s a rail track at the back of it. We heard the train go through while we were in Jonathan’s friend’s home – that old fashioned train bell ringing that you usually only hear in Western movies. It’s a really small town and calls itself ‘the World Centre for Eagles’ as it is near Eagle Run, which we visited, where thousands of bald eagles spend the winter. Understandably, as it was summer, we didn’t see any eagles (though there are other species in the area) but we did see hawks circling around in the sky.

And we also visited the Brackendale Art Gallery. It is a small wooden building set in a lush little garden of greenery, where statues by local artists are scattered about. There are First Nations designs on the outside walls too. As I went inside from the brilliant sunshine, the gallery looked quite dark but welcoming nonetheless. There were some artefacts by local artists on display and pictures by local photographers too. As I stood at the top of the steps at the entrance and looked down into the gallery, the place was a hive of activity. A group of volunteers were arranging tables and chairs for what looked like some kind of meal that evening or maybe a party or cabaret. Because of the wooden architecture of the place, inside seemed snug and cosy and the volunteers were warm and welcoming. Then I noticed the stage: a modest black platform at one end with a black back cloth, a few theatre lights and some old church pews for seating. At the opposite end was a tiny bar, more like hatch, for interval drinks I guess.

I was quite excited by that stage. I wandered down the stairs to take a closer look. Standing in the centre of the room, I could see myself in that gallery, helping to run the place, performing and directing. What a way that would be to spend my retirement! Looking around at the little gallery and watching those volunteers shifting furniture there was a real sense of community. In fact, it felt like home.

I went upstairs where there was a loft area with some local Squamish artwork and some striking photographs of the forests and of course eagles and hawks. There was even an office behind a screen. And there at one end, underneath a window, were some copies of pictures by one of my favourite artists, Emily Carr (1871-1945).

On my visits to Vancouver Island I have got to know Emily very well, through her pictures and her books. When she stopped painting, she had a whole new career in her 60’s and 70’s writing books, mostly quirky memoirs of her youth in early Victoria and the boarding house she ran for a while. I have mentioned her once before in my blog.

I have seen the permanent exhibition of some of her drawings and paintings in Victoria Art Gallery several times. She was a true original who embraced tribal art forms and frequently visited far flung Haida villages by boat and canoe to do so, an amazing feat for a single lady to do at that time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her paintings of totems have become iconic. Most of all she is a great painter of forests (especially in the last phase of her work) and she was an early environmentalist. She finds the teeming life force within tree trunks and branches. The trees are never still, they are always in motion, sometimes even dancing in the wind.

I don’t know why I like her pictures so much. I normally prefer portraits or scenes with people in them. That’s why I love Rembrandt. His portraits are such wonderful character studies. Any actor or director should go and look at them: the hands and the eyes say so much about the person sitting for the painting. That’s what acting is about: hands and eyes.

But Emily’s trees? I guess I like them because they are so full of life, her forests are teeming with life. Emily and the trees are rejoicing in being alive, rejoicing in being. She made several sketches and paintings of areas in the forest where the trees have been cut down. The logging industry in BC was taking off in the early 20th century, when she was painting. Those pictures have a real sense of desolation about them, of stark tragedy.

So apparently Emily came across the water from Victoria on Vancouver Island to Brackendale on the mainland to look after her two nieces who were ill. This was in 1913 so that would have been quite a journey then. She made several visits to the area and made sketches of the forests nearby which led to some of the tree paintings I have just mentioned.

Somehow Emily will not let me go. I didn’t visit her pictures in the Victoria gallery on this trip but here she was in Brackendale, reminding me of herself.
What was it about that little gallery and art centre that made me want to be part of it? It is amazing to think that a place thousands of miles away could have gripped me in this way.

Was it Emily? Or that little stage? Or the friendly community of volunteers? Or the cosy atmosphere? It was more than somewhere where I felt I could do. It was somewhere where I felt I could just be. Where I could live another life -not that different from the one I am living now – but different enough.

Now that I am home, I have learnt that British Columbia has become a part of myself. I have also learnt from Emily and her trees to rejoice at just being. Here where I am.

Ave atque vale until the next blog.

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Neilus Aurelius

I am still staying here on Vancouver Island in my aunt’s apartment and I am once again writing by lamplight and not my usual candlelight. My aunt goes to bed early so there is a stillness in the apartment and there is much of the evening left. I have been out on her balcony looking at the sky. The sky always seems more open and expansive here than in my little garden at home in the UK. Of course the sky is open and expansive everywhere, but here there are less houses to block the view. Tall spruces and pines on the horizon add to the sky’s grandeur. High as they are, they are dwarfed beneath its immensity.

A full moon has already appeared, even though the sky has not yet darkened and is still a light azure. Streaks of pink twilight clouds try in vain to hide the moon from view. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s line from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: ‘the watery eye of the moon.’ The moon does look like a watery eye tonight. Its shadowy contours look like tears forming. So as I gaze at the sky, I am at one with Shakespeare again. Those moments have been magical in my life. I am sure he was a sky-gazer himself in his youth in rural Stratford and in London for that matter for there were fewer tall buildings then to block his view.

As I look at the moon, I wonder what it would be like if could see two moons from the earth in the night sky. What if they were in orbit close together – like two great eyes shedding tears for the woes of our world? My reverie is broken as a flock of crying seagulls, presumably on their last flight of the day, suddenly dart through the sky beneath the moon as the chill night breeze rustles the leaves of the pines.

I sit down and admonish myself for not sitting in my own garden enough so far this year and looking at the sky. Marcus would have spent hours gazing at the sky on the Danube plains on his campaigns, helping him to reflect, as much as gazing at the fire in his tent would. Sky-gazing is an ancient form of meditation and no doubt it was practiced by the indigenous communities on this island as it was by indigenous communities across the world.

I am now thinking back to a little ceremony I was privileged to witness this evening. It was conducted by Bruce Underwood, a representative of the Salish nation. The Salish are one of the Canadian First Nations. They are the indigenous people of this particular part of Vancouver Island. The Pacific Ocean on this coastline is also known as the Salish Sea, being named after them.

Bruce Underwood, the Salish representative was performing a ‘blanketing’ ceremony. In the ceremony, someone receives a blanket as a symbol of high regard and respect from the Salish nation. The blanket, which has a clasp to turn it into a cloak, is placed over the person’s shoulders, like a ceremonial robe. Before he did this, Bruce gave a speech explaining that we are all people of the spirit and that our own spirit speaks to the spirit in another person. Just as the spirit of one nation can speak to another nation, one community to another community and needs to in these fractured times.

Then he chanted a song, a blessing, while slowly beating a small drum. The slow beat of the drum reminded me of the slow beating of the heart. The chant was haunting, strong and resonant in his baritone voice, yet gentle and beautiful. As soon as he begin to sing it, I was aware of the echoes of distant times and places. It reminded me of the soaring of the human spirit through the centuries, as simple as a sea bird in flight.

Through this simple chant, this Salish man’s spirit spoke to my spirit and perhaps the spirits of his ancestors did too. For there is more to us than our physical selves and our cognitive selves for that matter, our critical and analytical faculties. Our minds are never still, forever processing the endless bombardment of different media. It is only in stillness and silence that our own spirit can speak to us and the spirits of others too, as his spirit did to me. We are mind, body and spirit and the chant was an integrated expression of all three: the drumbeat signifying the body; the words of the chant, the mind and the music of the chant, the spirit. So his slow dignified chant helped me to listen to my own spirit and to experience the spirits of other times, of other ages.

It also prepared me for the blanketing ceremony that followed. There is nothing regal about a blanket yet the ceremony was as dignified as a coronation. A coronation robe is a symbol of power and therefore of finest gold cloth and bejewelled. A blanket is a piece of woollen cloth after all, but it is warm, protective and comforting over the shoulders. I could see from a distance that the blanket had a special woven design. What it signified I do not know. But it was lowered on the person’s shoulders with great dignity.

There have been times when I have felt lonely, apprehensive or lost and it has seemed as if my shoulders were covered with a blanket of snow. But there have been other times when I have felt surrounded by love – the genuine love and affection of friends and family, the respect of colleagues and students. The ceremony I witnessed tonight has made me realise that I am more than surrounded by love – I am blanketed by it. This is what covers me, keeps me warm, protects and comforts me. It invests me with a special dignity. We are all blanketed – it is just that we don’t stop and listen to our spirit to realise it.

By now I imagine you are wondering who was ‘blanketed’ at this little ceremony and where it took place. You may even be thinking it was myself! Well it wasn’t. Although, as I have just explained, in a highly personal way, I did feel ‘blanketed’ myself.

The person who was ‘blanketed’ was a priest, Fr Rolf Hasenach, at the beginning of a party at his church to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of his ordination. The ‘blanketing’ was a sign of respect which the Salish nation have for him as he does for them. It was an acknowledgment by Fr Rolf and his parish community that the celebration was talking place on the sacred ancestral lands of the Salish people. So Bruce Underwood, their representative was invited to give a welcome and a blessing before the great ‘potlatch’ – the great feast – to celebrate the anniversary. Hence his chant with the drum.

It was a wonderful occasion with 350 parishioners and I felt privileged to be invited and especially to witness the blanketing ceremony at the beginning of the festivities. Some of Rolf’s brother priests were present and the local bishop and yes, prayers were said too. I felt that he was also blanketed with the deep and warm affection of all the guests in the room. As was I being only an annual visitor.

But as the Salish representative said, we are all spirit and our spirits speak to eachother. Fr Rolf’s celebration was a witness to that. In the Christian church we speak of the ‘communion of saints’, of being one, through prayer and through silence, with the holy men and women who have gone before us. Perhaps there is also the ‘communion of spirits’: of being one with the spirits that have gone before us. They may not be people we have ever met or even read about or know about. As I listened to the Salish chant, I was experiencing this, as much as when I listen to ancient plainchant sung by monks in a monastery. There is a unity of spirit which binds all humanity together. Any attempts at uniting peoples is an expression of this.

At the celebration, I felt myself wanting to stand up and recite a toast written by Noel Coward for a one act play of his called ‘Family Album’.

‘Here’s a toast to each of us
And all of us together.
Here’s a toast to happiness
And reasonable pride.
May our touch on life
Be lighter than a seabird’s feather
And may all sorrows in our path
Politely step aside.’

May our touch on life be lighter than a seabird’s feather, indeed, and may our own spirit circle and soar like a seabird too.

Ave atque vale 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.
I would also value any feedback on nzolad53@gmail.com or my Facebook page or Twitter.
Many thanks
Neilus Aurelius