Kill your child

Wandering alone without a home in the outdoors, you face your fears, all of them, the greatest of which is death. When you face that death, walk with it and embrace it and even come to love it, then death slaughters the child that you were and turns you into an adult. 

The place you kill your child is outdoors, mine on that long bloodbath walk that lasted two years. In nature and separated from the world of people. I loved that flow so deeply I never wanted to return to the their silly world. The world of people who remain greedy mewling children until they die of old age. But I had to if I was to survive, although content, my teeth were falling-out and I was sometimes too hungry to move.

It is easy to be a Buddha in the wilderness. Less easy in the city surrounded by anger and violence and poverty. Kill that child who wants and hopes and wishes and just live in that moment where the beauty of the world floods in. The birds sing, the cars pass, the people and the flowers live and seed and die and everything is just as it should be.

Morning Meditation

 

At 9:30 the church bells ring the half hour and I go to my mat, sit cross legged, my hands in my lap. Lower my eyes and begin to watch my breathing, slowly in and out through my nose. 

I imagine myself a frog on a lily pad, the rain falling around, the birds singing and I pull my attention back to my breath and let the images fade. In and out, slowly in and out, deeply in and out. As time passes the breath gets shallower, my body settles, my mind settles, my heart rate and my breathing settle. 

I hear the boiler in the next room click on and realise that the pump starts a fraction before the flames ignite. And I pull my attention back to my breath. In and out slowly and time passes. 

I think ‘I must write a passage about what it is like to meditate’ and I pull my attention back to my breath but quickly think that I must take a photograph of my meditation space, my mat and its cushion facing the wall, and I pull my attention back to my breath and settle again. The breath flows in, the breath flows out and time passes as I exchange molecules with the air around me. 

I notice my posture has slumped and as I pull myself back to a more vertical one I imagine a meditation master standing behind me pulling an invisible thread attached to my head to make me upright and I pull my attention back to my breath. 

Outside a cat howls. Raindrops begin. Somebody passes by. Leaves blow. Another person passes by. I hear them, almost feel them with my body but do not think about them and they pass without thought. I allow my attention to slip away from my breath into complete inner stillness. The sounds I can hear are like ripples on a pond that fade. The bells ring the quarter hour. The thought comes: ‘half way through’, then I pull my attention back to my breath. 

There is often pain with meditation, that is not a bad thing, It provides something to ignore – no, not to ignore – to accept, not fight and cause yet more discomfort, but to hold as a natural part of being alive. Discomfort is normal in life. Loss, pain, hunger, cold. A pain in my right hip, my left leg is more flexible than my right. I let attention pass and the pain remains but has no importance. My attention comes back to my breath. 

Later and I drift into thought again and imagine all the other people in the world meditating right now and how we are all emanations of the force of life, all temporary flowers in the garden, and I pull my attention back to my breath and that attention fades until once again there is nothing but a wide stillness and ripples on the pond.

Time passes and I feel my body has slumped again, I pull myself straight, my attention on my posture, then when I have settled I put my attention back on my breath. In, out, in, out. A wood pigeon calls incessantly, my breath comes in and goes out. My inside connected to my outside. The world flowing into and out of me. My attention remains on the quiet stillness of being connected until the half-hour bells ring and my sitting meditation is over for the day. Tomorrow it will be different, it is always different. Now it is time to eat and shower and dress.

Anybody sitting in meditation is engaged in an epic struggle to calm and quieten the ‘monkey mind’ that grasps at everything around in order to ‘own’ it. Creating an emptiness is like pouring water from a jug, this empty jug that is left is then available for use. Unlike a jug that is full and its contents are continually added to as it  constantly overflows and cannot take any more. Each morning the jug is emptied and is ready for a new day.

Yesterday in my meditation there were feelings of self-hatred, then feelings of ego. The feelings faded, accepted but unfed, starved of the attention they craved, they withered and balance was restored. Meditation is always different, always the same. Sometimes the half hour passes and the attention has passed from the breath and there is no attention anywhere, the head remains empty, the sensations from ears eyes, nose mouth, skin come in and pass, a deeper connection with all that is passing, a oneness with it all. At other times the chattering monkey mind will not be silent for anything more than a few seconds and all I can do is sit and watch it chatter away, it is fine, just a child, let it be and it will fade. Meditation is emptying the left overs from yesterdays pots and washing them, sometimes they need a little soak.

It’s over too quickly. I keep myself hungry so that I am desperate for it each morning. When it is cold and dark or hot, bright and sticky I am still hungry.

I think of my morning meditation as cleaning the hearth, brushing away the ashes from yesterdays fire, clearing the dust and laying a new one for the days burn. It is as natural as brushing my teeth. There are often many more meditations through the day, active ones; when I cook a meal or go for a walk and my attention is on walking, the texture of the earth under my feet, or the scent in the air or the sounds and tuning out everything else. These active meditations are easy, very easy, a little light relief from the days worthless chattering thoughts. When I worked as a gardener I meditated for hours each day. Each pruning of a rose bush became a silent meditation, no internal chatter, just a tool, a hand, a rose, a bunch of senses connecting them all. Each mowing of a lawn, each step behind a wheelbarrow. Through meditation I am free from desire and have no fear. 

In yesterdays meditation when I had feelings of self-hatred I remembered a time may years ago when I had planned to find a monastery, to become a Zen monk and I realised that the reason I wanted to do that was because I wanted be a Zen monk. Desire, pride and ego. A project that I abandoned for that reason but also on reflection an awareness that I hate being told what to do, would rather learn for myself and a distrust of human systems. I could have ended up in completely the wrong kind of temple. The reasons for our decisions are never simple. Instead I chose to follow the Buddhas route and sit each day alone in humble meditation. Under a tree, or in an empty room. I rarely sit with others although I have done. That would require, getting dressed, washing, travelling. I prefer a simple routine that flows easily from one event to another, bed, tea, yoga, meditation, food, tea, shower, dress, work. 

How a Bookshop Changed my Life

In praise of Independent bookshops

In October 2019, as ‘How to Catch a Mole’ was published in North America, the American Booksellers Association picked it as one of the top 20 books of the season for independent bookshops, and ‘Indy Pick’. I was asked to write a response to this and at short notice I wrote a little note of thanks and mentioned how important bookshops and especially independent bookshops had been to me as a young man. But I didn’t tell the whole story of just how important they were.

As a child we moved around a lot, travelling from town to town. We were often very poor as my parents looked for work. My father working on the railway, a chauffeur, factory worker, Santa in a department store, eventually renting a guest house in Blackpool for a few years then becoming a pub landlord. My mother usually finding work as a cook wherever we went. As a child this meant moving from school to school, making friends, losing them and eventually becoming very isolated. The day came when I thought, ‘there is no point making friends in this new school, we will be off again soon’ and so I didn’t bother, and we did move on and my Education and relationships were continually broken. Poverty is hard on children in so many ways, not just because of the poor chances in life and lousy education, I would take time off school from time to time when it suited my father because he needed work doing in the cellar of the pub or a 56lb sack of potatoes needed peeling in the guest house. After school it was more of the same labour, and constant worry and punishment at school for homework left undone.

I came from a house with very few books. A couple of old paperbacks about cowboys that were my father’s. Other books I had been given as Christmas presents; four or five paperbacks of horror stories a hardback collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, a copy of ‘Heidi’ which I had secreted away – stolen from a caravan we had stayed in in Wales for a week. This handful of books I would read over and over, my family joked that I was always reading. “He will read the back off a cereal packet that one” I remember my father saying. Very early in life I was banned from one school library because I had library fines that my father refused to pay. I never bothered joining another one because it would happen again and I was embarrassed that I wasn’t sure how the library in the new school worked. I was horribly shy.

At 15 I left school and began working as an apprentice in a steel works in Wigan, Lancashire. I was there for about a year before my mother died and I was made homeless. I went wandering in the countryside. After a couple of years of living rough I found a home and a job on the railway and grassroots bookshop in Manchester. I was 18 and bought the first book I had ever bought. It was ‘Down and Out in London and Paris’ by George Orwell, chosen obviously because I had been a down and out. That was followed, of course, by ‘The Road to Wigan pier’.

In that bookshop I discovered that I was not alone in the world, I had a family, a tribe. I fell in love with Gudrun Brangwen in D.H. Lawrences ‘Women in Love’ and then with Lawrence himself having discovered that he was the son of an illiterate miner. I started to write for those authors because they had written for me. I met Winston Smith in ‘1984’ and Apeneck Sweeney in T.S. Eliots ‘Sweeney Among The Nightingales’ and through them and their creators I learned that there were men unlike any other met I had met in my life, men with passions other than football and beer. Men who did not tell me what to do or how to behave. Men who did not do what they were told. Men who said ‘Fuck the Authorities’. Lusty brave men like Jean Genet and wanderers like Thoreau, angry Bukowski and grumpy Ted Hughes and Larkin and all the demented poets Thomas and I fell in love with Plath of course and crazy Stevie Smith. I came home to them and they to me and the more I read the more I wrote. I found people who showed me how to be a man, they showed me there were different ways of being a man and that I could choose.

Others taught me how to think and what to think about, when school had just taught me about competitive team games and fitted me to go down the mine or work in the steelworks. Sartre and Nietsche, Seneca, Kropotkin and Christmas Humphreys and back around again to my beloved George Orwell who is still published and reissued in different wonderful forms.

I wander into bookshops now, wherever I go, travelling around the country to speak at book fairs, festivals and little independent bookshops just like the one I used to spend so much time in as a hungry young man, and there on the shelves by my heroes and teachers, books and authors I think of as family and friends, there is my own little book, ‘How to Catch a Mole’, published by Harvil Secker / Vintage, Orwell’s publisher and I am so very very grateful to those publishers and those dedicated people who curate and run those little bookshops.

 

You can read more about ‘How to Catch a Mole’ at www.marchamer.com

What is Home?

Having lived for quite some time as a homeless person, the concept of ‘home’ interests me. What is it? It’s a thing that seems deeply important and yet I am not sure that I understand what defines a ‘home’? 

When I was homeless I felt myself to be more ‘at home’ on the banks of a river or by a hedgerow than I did in towns and cities. I felt comfort in some places and discomfort in others and over time came to equate the word ‘home’ with the word ‘comfort’. However, I felt most comfortable while I was walking. Not going from one place to another, not aiming to get anywhere, just walking. The act of walking alone in silence is a meditative act, the rhythm of stepping, the sounds and scents bring a person into an appreciation of the moment that is being lived through.

When I stayed in one place, made camp for anything more than a couple of nights, that place would inevitably start to accumulate paraphernalia. I would sort out some kind of seating, a crate or a stump, In the long evening I made things, a shelter from my tarp strung between a couple of trees. Even ornaments, twisting sticks together with string to make a star, things that could be considered ‘my things’. Instinctively or just to pass time I began to build a nest, a home. Then came fantasies of building a fire and getting a torch so I could find a book and read at night. As I noticed the accumulation of stuff and the desire for more stuff I became quite fearful for it, afraid of losing it but also saddened by it. I realised that I was trying to replicate what I had been thinking of as ‘normal’. I decided to abandon the feelings of sadness and the desire to be ‘normal’. Knocked it down and left. It was better to have nothing. There was less to worry about, I still had to find food, I still had to stay clean and healthy I didn’t want to add sadness to my troubles.

The path became my home, that was where I felt comfortable and at peace. For much of the time there were no questions, there was just being in the world, like the birds and hedgehogs, no territory to defend and interestingly no intellectual territory to defend either, no personal philosophical or political position to fight for. There was nothing to fight for or run from. Few earthly concerns other than finding food and getting out of the rain when it came and staying warm at night and wondering what life was for. No books, no teachers, no television, just my own thoughts to play with when I was walking or lying under a tarp and looking at the stars or under a rhododendron bush or a tree when it rained.

I came to understand that ‘home’ was not a place, it was a feeling and furthermore that feeling came as all feelings do, from the inside, it was my feeling that I created and owned.

Now I have a house, and possessions but they are not home they are playthings, stuff. At the moment those things are inaccessible, on the other side of the sea, in a place I cannot get to because of the pandemic. I am not in my ‘home’. But I do feel ‘at home’ because home is a feeling that I carry inside. I am not going home, I am never going home, how could I go somewhere if I am already there?