January 30th, 2013
In Praise of January!
I love January. I know that I’m in a minority but it really is one of my favourite months. What’s so great about January? Well…
It isn’t December! OK – we shouldn’t moan about Christmas unless we want to be branded as Scrooges. But there is something horribly predictable about December. The same decorations, the same wretched music, the same full-on advertising, the same stress, the same overindulgence. It never really changes from one year to the next. Somehow, January is always different.
Nothing happens in January. Apologies to those with birthdays in January – but the month is blessedly free of over-hyped events. No Valentine’s Day, no Easter, no Mothers Day / Fathers Day, no vile Halloween – no excuse for the big retailers to bombard you with demands for your money. Yes – you see Hot Cross Buns in the shops and boards outside of pubs telling you to Book Now for Valentines Day!! Don’t miss it!!! – but one can ignore such things. There is Burns Night of course but, mercifully, the supermarkets haven’t got round to hyping it up yet. Long may that continue.
January never disappoints. We have no expectations of January therefore, whatever the weather may do, it never lets us down – unlike July and August, which always seem to disappoint.
January is a seriously beautiful month. Not a majority view I know! But the light in January seems to be somehow special and unique to the month. Nothing is darker than an early morning in the first weeks of January – as cool, austere and beautiful as a Dowland pavan, and all the more cherishable because that special stygian quality will soon give way to the lighter mornings of spring. The dense gray clouds of January quietly illuminate the Sussex countryside revealing every possible shade of dark brown, dark green and gray. And sometimes it snows. And when every bad thing has been said about snow, and in spite of the fact that I have the deepest sympathy for those who have to travel in it and those for whom it brings hardship, it remains miraculously beautiful.
January is – a virtuous month! It is the month for resolutions and change, but he strange thing is that January always gives you the feeling that you’re making changes for the better even if you’re just resuming your normal diet / alcohol intake / exercise routine after the excesses of Christmas. You feel like you’re being good, you feel like you’re turning over a new leaf, even if you’re just reverting to normal.
New Year’s Resolutions in Britain and America.
January is a good month for making changes because, after the Christmas mayhem, it already feels like you’re moving away from the past towards something better. But what sort of changes do people want to be making in January? According to a Journal of Clinical Psychology, published by the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Top Ten New Years Resolutions for 2012 are:
1. Lose Weight
2. Getting Organized
3. Spend Less, Save More
4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
5. Staying Fit and Healthy
6. Learn Something Exciting
7. Quit Smoking
8. Help Others in Their Dreams
9. Fall in Love
10. Spend More Time with Family
Compare the above American list with the following British one, taken from the Daily Mail Online:
1. Lose weight
2. Get fit
3. Eat more healthily
4. Save money/spend less
5. Get a new job
6. Spend more time with people who matter
7. Try new experiences
8. Get out of a rut
9. Visit a country you’ve never been to
10. Read more
Interesting to compare these two lists. Four of the resolutions are more or less the same (Lose weight / get or stay fit / spend less and save more / spend time with family or those who matter).
On the American list there is one for quitting smoking. The other five resolutions are very striking for two reasons – they are very positive and extremely vague. What exactly does it mean to “get organized”? It is important to be clear about this because otherwise sensible time management can spill over into obsessively tidying one’s desk etc. Again, what does “enjoy life to the fullest” actually mean? Does it simply mean enjoying everything around you to the utmost – in which case, is it OK to spend hours and hours watching every TV program you fancy or every YouTube clip that grabs your attention? Does it mean to get what you fancy right now, at all costs, and to hell with the future – to borrow money to get the things you think you want or to have an “enjoyable” affair and put a stable relationship at grave risk?
“Learn something exciting” – like what? Anything you learn can be exciting if you approach it in the right frame of mind. Many people take up studies in some area or another and expect the subject to excite them and get bored if it doesn’t. But anything worth learning requires work and effort. The excitement has to come from within. If you can get excited about learning then the sky’s the limit.
“Help others in their dreams” – which others? What dreams? Or what if their dreams are potentially harmful, unrealistic and doomed to disappointment? “Fall in love” – easy enough to do, too easy perhaps, but a positive outcome is likely to depend upon your present situation and who you choose to fall in love with.
The British list is a little more practical and a little less starry-eyed. Healthy eating ties in with both weight loss and fitness resolutions and is an eminently sensible resolution. Most of us have a rough idea as to what is healthy and what isn’t. Again, “Get a new job” is unlikely to be a vague resolution for those who make it. Work is the major modern preoccupation. Most people know what sort of new job they would be going for.
However, “Try a new experience” and “Get out of a rut” suffer from the same problem as several of the American resolutions. What sort of new experience and what do you want it to achieve for you? Get out of which particular “rut”? Even the most zany and spontaneous life has its routines, habits and ruts. Is a rut always a bad thing?
“Visit a country you’ve never been to”: Foreign travel has, over recent decades, become the major modern leisure activity. Nowadays, everybody has been everywhere. But this trend has gone hand-in-hand with another. Nowadays people are often shockingly ignorant and unaware of where they actually live. We are so desperate to leave our country that we’ve forgotten what it contains. People know about the roads and traffic routes in the areas they live in but are often totally ignorant of the actual neighbourhoods or surrounding countryside.
“Read more”. Read more what? More Shakespeare? More Aeschylus? More red-top tabloids or fashion mags? This resolution is meaningless unless you have some idea as to what you want to read and why you want to read it.
How Are Your New Years Resolutions Going?
From looking at those two lists of Top Ten resolutions we can see that the vital, and often missing, ingredient is clarity. Which changes do you want to make and why do you want to make them? Get that right and you’re half way there. But if you don’t know where you’re going you’ll never get there.
As January 2013 draws to a close, the January Joggers continue to disappear. They’ll be back again next year. They were out in force between Christmas and New Year and into the first weeks of January. The wet weather and the fall of snow probably dampened their spirits. But why does this happen every year? Lots of people jogging in brand spanking new lycra outfits with bottles of water and iPod headphones and every other accessory you can name. Then they disappear. Why? Because what these people want is to enjoy the benefits, the results, of exercise. They don’t enjoy the exercise itself. And until they do, all the New Year Resolutions in the world won’t help a bit. The new lycra will languish in a cupboard. The gym membership fee will be wasted. But if you learn how to enjoy the exercise itself the positive results will happen as a matter of course – and may come as a big and welcome surprise.
Here’s where hypnotherapy may lend a helping hand. Be clear about where you want to go and what you want to achieve. It is better to set the bar low and achieve something than to set targets that are nothing more than castles in the air. When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, then hypnotherapy can help you to start enjoying the journey. All journeys have their tough moments, their obstacles, their setbacks, their challenges. But if you can start to enjoy the new experiences which even the smallest changes can bring in their wake then your goals, or some of them at least, can at last be realized.
You don’t have to wait until next January to make new resolutions…
January 25th, 2013
What makes a truly great poet? Is it complexity – a style so rich and dense that you can spend half an hour staring at a couple of lines and still not have a clue what the poet is saying? Is it simplicity – a style so easy to digest that one might as well be reading prose? The answer is neither. Ezra Pound and Robert Browning are great in spite of, not because of, the sometimes impenetrable complexity of their work. And the poet who dares to be simple always runs the risk of falling off the tightrope of inspiration into the void of banality.
Whatever the answer may be, I think that one of the defining characteristics of a great poet is an ability to express something large and complex with the simplest of means. In English literature, William Blake is a shining example. And, of course, Burns.
JOHN ANDERSON, my jo, John,When we were first acquent,Your locks were like the raven,Your bonnie brow was brent;But now your brow is beld, John,Your locks are like the snow;But blessings on your frosty pow,John Anderson, my jo!John Anderson, my jo, John,We clamb the hill thegither;And monie a canty day, John,We’ve had wi’ ane anither:Now we maun totter down, John,But hand in hand we’ll go,And sleep thegither at the foot,John Anderson, my jo.
The above text is from the 1919 edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse (ed. Quiller-Couch). The meaning is immediately clear to any English speaker, but here are the meanings of the unfamiliar words and phrases:
Brent – smooth
Beld – bald
Pow – head
Monie a canty day – many a cheerful day
The above verses are a new version of an earlier, anonymous song. Actually, there seem to have been several versions of this song, one of them is very bawdy indeed. If you’re curious, the filthy version can be found here (but this is not for the easily offended!): http://www.springthyme.co.uk/songtexts/JohnAndersonMyJo.html
So – Burns has taken a smutty ditty and turned it into – what exactly? He has turned it into an expression of enduring marital love – one of the hardest things a poet can do without lapsing into sentimentality. And he does it by the simplest and most powerful use of natural imagery. In the first verse, John’s hair was black, like that of a raven, the image implying youthfulness, strength and the ability to soar into and above the clouds. Now his hair is the colour of frost and snow – and the man himself is at the end of life’s cycle of seasons. So much expressed by means of so little.
The imagery of the second verse is even more impressive. Married life is conceived of as a journey up a hill. Initially the journey is all uphill but the travellers have youth on their side and can make their way onwards and upwards. Having climbed the hill they share many a “canty” (merry, happy) day together. Now, they’re on the downward journey and they’re starting to tire and totter. At the foot of the hill lies sleep and rest. So much expressed by such simple means. And if there is more compelling image of happy and enduring married life in the whole of literature then I have yet to encounter it.
This song has a tune associated with it. For a marvellous performance of the traditional song, given by Eddi Reader (pictured above), click here:
The composer Robert Schumann also loved this poem. He set a German translation of it twice. Martial love struck a chord with Schumann, as well it might, for his supremely talented wife had sacrificed her gifts on the altar of her tormented husband’s genius. His second, simplest setting, for unaccompanied choir, can be heard here:
The simplicity and power of the original poem so beautifully captured by Schumann.
Enjoy Burns Night! Raise a glass or two to an imperishable genius. I know I will…