The Return of Old Habits

Another few tidbits from my little book, The Essence of Zen:

Past and future are illusions. They exist only in the present, which is what there is and all that there is.
~Alan Watts~

Solitude is freedom. It is an anchor, an anchor in the void. You’re anchored to nothing, and that’s my definition of freedom.
~John Lilly~

Within yourself is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.
~Hermann Hesse~

Questions, of course, grow from such quotations. Are they just so much hokum, meant to make us feel like we are receiving personal messages designed to change our lives? Or are they opportunities to spark our own thoughts, create and explore and contemplate? Or, perhaps, something else? By the way, the Hesse quote is one to which I return on a regular basis. I’m certain I’ve posted it here on this blog or, if not this one, another of my blogs. It resonates with me.


I remember only vaguely the details about that lengthy period known as “the Troubles,” that roughly thirty-year period during which tempers and violence flared in Northern Ireland. The U.S. media and the public here seemed to believe the conflict was primarily religious, pitting Catholics and Protestants against one another. In fact, it was a politically fueled dispute whose participants coincidentally identified either as Catholic or Protestant, with religious affiliation that paralleled political positions. Here’s a statement from Wikipedia about that period of unrest and bloodshed:

A key issue was the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Unionists, who were mostly Ulster Protestants, wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. Irish nationalists, who were mostly Irish Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland.

The reason the Troubles is on my mind this morning is that violence has flared again in Belfast, this time fueled by tensions about post-Brexit trade rules and deteriorating relations between the parties in Belfast’s Protestant-Catholic power-sharing government. Even though the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 effectively ended the open conflict between the opposing groups, the problems seem to have simmered over the years. The only party to oppose the agreement was the Democratic Unionist Party, which favored British identity. Today, the Democratic Unionist Party holds the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, by a tiny margin of one.

I have not been keeping up with the political rest or unrest in Ireland in the intervening years. Like most Americans, my political focus and my attention has been inward-directed; we are encouraged to believe that American politics are the only truly important politics. Or maybe we’re simply too lazy to pay attention to the world beyond our borders. For whatever reason, we are insular even when we claim to welcome the world with open arms; we may welcome the world, we just don’t want to be contaminated by it.

That lengthy introduction to the reason the Troubles is on my mind this morning is leading to a set of shorter points. My first point is that scars can become scabs again if not properly tended. My second point is that human societies tend to forget the lessons of history. My third point is that youth (the primary participants in the current flash of violence) tends to intensify and execute the biases of the rest of us; older and unable or unwilling to take up arms on our own behalf. My fourth point is that pleas for calm are ignored unless accompanied by emotionally moving arguments in their favor. And, finally, my fifth point is that youth tends to be unable or unwilling to deeply explore issues which foment violence; the wisdom of age and maturity is ignored, except for the wisdom and maturity of people who have never really matured intellectually. My bias shows in my declarations of what “is” and “is not.”

I dearly hope the violence in Northern Ireland dissipates quickly and completely and that cooler heads prevail. Another thirty-year war would do just as much good as the last one.


Much of what I’ve read about grief admonishes the bereaved to ask for help when he needs it. “Don’t wait for someone to offer what you need, ask for it.” The problem with that, of course, is that unless the person has extensive experience with grief, I doubt he has even the most remote clue as to what he needs. He may not even know he needs anything—he just feels pain and wants it to subside. The same books and pamphlets and videos tell friends and family of the bereaved not to wait to be asked; do what must be done.  But how are they to know what must be done? How are they to know the bereaved person needs either company or solitude?

Frankly, and despite all the good intentions I’ve read and heard and felt, I think a lot of the advice about grief is based on the assumption that what worked for one person is going to work for the next. And I know with more than a little certainty that is not true. Sometimes, even months into my grief, I just feel a need to have someone in the same room with me. No tender words or soothing assurances. Just a presence. And, if not for COVID, an embrace—a long embrace uninterrupted by words. Sometimes, though, I want words. Lots of words. Words of appreciation for my wife and what a remarkable person she was. Too often, I feel like I am the one who’s getting the attention when it should be her.

As much as I appreciate the sympathy and tenderness and comfort that has come my way, I have to understand that no one—no one on Earth—knows what or how I feel. No one knows what’s buried inside me that I will never let out. Or maybe I will, but not to anyone I know on a personal level. I’ve considered the possibility of seeking some sort of counseling because I can’t or won’t say what I need to reveal to someone who knows me. Not even myself. Odd, that. I sense that I have to express myself in some way that will explain myself to me. Hmm. Who is that masked man?


I was annoyed with The Local, but I should not have been. The Local is an English-language French online newspaper and companion website that I occasionally visit. I do not remember the last time I visited, but I suspect it has been several months. This morning, when I tried to read some articles about some idiomatic French expressions (one of which was être aux manettes), I was greeted with a short peek at the article, followed by a pop-up that demanded 5 Euros for two months’ access, then 5 Euros a month thereafter. That was the minimum. I was used to having free access to The Local, so when confronted with the demand for payment in exchange for access, I was perturbed. Yes, I should be given free access to all newspapers, magazines, websites, etc., etc. because “it used to be that way.” That was before it became glaringly apparent that ad revenue was not going to cover all the expenses. And it was before we should have begun to acknowledge that you get what you pay for. In an ideal world (the one for which I am in perpetual search mode), some form of global access to news sites would be offered for a set fee; the fee would cover every website, with some form of metered limit. If I could pay €5 per month for global access with a reasonable limit, I would. And that little payment would give me access to the slang or colloquial meaning of être aux manettes. It means “in charge,” but I think there’s another meaning that’s more commonly attached to the term; I just don’t know what it is, thanks to my refusal to pay too much for two months’ access.


Would it be utterly unreasonable of me to buy a small tract of land, a tractor, and a manufactured home to place on my land? Would it be silly of me to finally, after sixty some odd years, pursue my dream of a “place in the country?” Yeah, probably. My bones are too creaky and my muscles are too weak to do what should have been the dream-fulfilled of a forty-year-old man. There are elements of my unlived life that I’d like to be able to pursue, but only as a younger, stronger man. Too bad I cannot exchange the years I do not remember for years I’d now like to experience.


I’ve been up for two and a half hours now; back to my old habits, it seems. It’s 6:33 now and I’m finally ready to have a full international breakfast. But I’ll have bran flakes, instead, because they’re easy. And I’m tired now, having been “working” for a couple of hours.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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