Great Britain 3 April: Edinburgh

Reflections by Alan Spence

We are very proud to call Alan one of our Peace Run organizers in Edinburgh, Scotland and we thought you might enjoy his reflections on our current situation. Alan lives in Edinburgh and serves as Edinburgh’s Makar - a literary ambassador of the city of Edinburgh.

I’m writing this on day one of the lockdown. The announcement that this was imminent was made by Nicola Sturgeon in a speech that was memorable for its dignity, its truth and its deep humanity, exhorting us to proceed with love and in solidarity, echoing a leader column she wrote last week in the National: ‘The crisis is a reminder of how fragile our world is. But it also shows us the power and strength of communities and of human solidarity in times when we are tested.’

I took inspiration from that, as I did from a piece by Olivia Laing in last weekend’s Guardian, on the importance of art in a time of crisis, its power to remind us we are interconnected. She wrote, ‘Hope is the precursor to change. Without it, no better world is possible.’

The work is to keep that flame of hope alive in ourselves.

Of course it’s been difficult to deal with the conflicting messages, the ever-changing story. The pace of acceleration is alarming.

Just a couple of weeks ago I still had my writing regime – getting on with a new novel. I would work in the back room of the little bookshop my wife and I run. Last week I closed the shop, but kept my routine of writing in the back, self-isolated (aren’t all artists?) behind closed doors. I felt not so much quarantined as cloistered.

Now it’s a new phase and I’m working-from-home (as I always used to do). Our tenement flat is small and there’s been some reorganisation required so we both have space. We’re lucky in that our back window looks straight across Holyrood Park to Arthur’s Seat. It’s our backdrop, what the Japanese call ‘borrowed landscape.’ We also have the park as our back garden for those daily walks while they’re still allowed.

The world is in meltdown and there’s a strange dreamlike quality, a sense of unreality, as life goes on, the sun shines, the birds are singing on a beautiful spring day. It feels like the ‘phoney war’ as we brace ourselves, knowing things are going to get worse. And yet, and yet…

I’m reminded of a haiku by Issa, a wonderful Japanese poet of the 18th century:

We walk
the roof of hell,
looking at the flowers.

And it’s essential to keep that focus as the pandemic rages.

A neighbour in the ground floor flat across the road has posted a message in the window, little plastic letters spelling out, TAKE CARE. BE WELL.

Our lives (like everyone else’s) have become simplified. There’s a concentration on what’s essential and true.

We’ve been practising meditation now for almost 50 years, following the path of Sri Chinmoy. We always get up at 6am and meditate first thing. Now our meditations are longer, and deeper, and we spend more time singing our teacher’s songs, reading his books.

Here is one of his poems, about that return to what is real in us.

Ever the same again
My lost Truth rediscovered.
Ever the same again.

Ever the same again
My forgotten Self remembered.
Ever the same again.

Ever the same again
My lost Goal regained,
Ever the same again.

Alan Spence is a poet, playwright and novelist, as well as the current Edinburgh Makar. He is based in Edinburgh, where he runs the Sri Chinmoy Meditation Centre with his wife, Janani. His longer writings include novels: Its Colours They Are Fine; The Stone Garden; The Magic Flute; Way to Go and The Pure Land. He has also written a number of plays: Sail Makers; Space Invaders and Changed Days. He became writer-in-residence at the University of Aberdeen in 1996, and has held a personal Chair in Creative Writing since 2001. He was also the artistic director of Aberdeen’s annual Word Festival 1999-2011. He runs the Edinburgh bookshop The Citadel.