The Greatest Sin of All

The world has never been easy. Let’s face it, there’s a lot out there that’s downright dangerous,  misunderstood and unknown. Even walking to the bus stop can get you killed these days. Terrorism, poverty, global warming, pollution…Homo sapiens has done a pretty good job screwing up a planet that had been just great for billions of years. And we’ve only been doing it since the last few thousand years, since we stopped being hunters and gatherers and settled down into communities.

And there are many reasons why we’ve done that. Not settled down, I mean screwed up the planet. But there is one thing that drives the destructive gene in human beings, that is the seed, as it were, for all the other stupidity we’ve managed to pull off since we climbed down from the trees and decided walking on two legs was a good idea (which it wasn’t).

I’m talking about ignorance.

You know what that is. We’ve all been guilty of it. Hell, I’ve managed to look pretty dumb on the odd occasion. But by ignorance I don’t mean just not knowing something. I mean deliberately deciding not to know something.

There are four types of ignorance. I mention these in my novel Plato’s Cave, but here they are again:

(1)   What we know we don’t know. For example, we know that we don’t know if there is life on other planets.

(2)   What we don’t know we don’t know. Until we know about it, we can’t actually know that we don’t know something.

(3)   What we think we know, but don’t. Maybe apples don’t really grow on trees, it just looks that way. We’ve been fooling ourselves with appearances.

(4)   What we don’t think we know, but do. Maybe we already possess the key to time travel. We just haven’t realised it yet.

Those types of ignorance are fine because they allow the possibility that our ignorance will one day be lifted. If we keep asking enough of the right sort of questions and keep looking for the answers in a practical way, there’s a chance our ignorance will change to knowledge. In other words, the four types of ignorance listed above are scientific. Used properly, they have the ability to lead a sufficiently curious anthropoid ape towards the truth.

But there is another type of ignorance that actually lies beneath these four. And that is the type I’m calling the greatest sin of all.

(5) What we choose not to know.

For many reasons, there are people who deliberately decide not to know about something. The knowledge they eschew might conflict with their own personal beliefs. If they accepted the truth, it would contradict what they choose to believe, and that keeps them ignorant. Or, they might think that discovering the truth is too much like hard work. Or it requires them to associate with people they don’t wish to acknowledge. There are many reasons. None of them are legitimate.

This is what makes that type of ignorance a sin.

A few examples:

  1.  Homophobes choose to be ignorant about why people are LGBT. They think there is a choice in the matter, that gay people somehow, at some point in their lives, choose to be gay. The homophobes don’t want to know that gay people are gay because they are gay. They were born that way. Maybe homophobes object on religious grounds. Maybe they think gay people have some kind of hidden plan to steal children because they can’t have their own. Or that there is some kind of  “gay agenda”. (If there is I missed the memo). All poppycock of course. It’s worth remembering that the word “homophobe” means “fear of man”. That’s what their hatred stems from. Fear. Not knowledge.
  2. Literature.  Love it or hate it, it’s still a necessary part of our lives. I am a teacher and when I teach poetry I tell my students that there are only two types of people who read poetry: other poets, and students who are forced to read it by their teachers. That’s not true, of course, but it breaks the ice. I then tell them that the reason people don’t like reading poetry is because it forces them to think. And who wants to do that? Then I ask them what pop songs they like and get some responses. Their interest in poetry usually shifts after I explain to them that songs are just poetry set to music. They already like poetry, they just weren’t aware of it (see types of ignorance number 4 above). So too with other types of literature. Reading helps relieve ignorance. But some people choose not to read because it interferes with their decision not to think about things, or it’s too much hard work.
  3. Global warming. Most people accept global warming. A few don’t. A dangerous few. They have chosen to be ignorant for commercial reasons. Because the fact of global warming interferes with their desire to make enormous wads of cash they refuse to accept the truth. These people unfortunately have the capacity to influence politicians who decide to accept their dangerous disbelief because it keeps them in power.

There are many other examples. War. Religion. Conspiracy theories. World hunger. Terrorism. Astrology. All of these stem, ultimately, from deliberate ignorance.

That’s why I became a teacher. I help take some of the ignorance away from the world. Sometimes I despair when I go on the internet and find someone touting homeopathy, or warning that the world will end next Tuesday week. But I keep trying, because deliberate ignorance can be fought and defeated.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com

 

“Rafen” – Y. K. Willemse

It’s my pleasure today to interview a fellow writer and all round decent human being Yvette Kate Willemse, otherwise known as Y. K. Willemse, who has just released the first of a new fantasy series titled Rafen – The Fledgling Account Book 1 out now from Permuted Press.

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(Y. K. Willemse in typical New Zealand weather.)

Yvette hails from New Zealand, and is a talented writer who has written a different and challenging epic fantasy series. A seven book series is no mean feat, and as you’ll learn from the interview below Yvette takes her writing – and her beliefs – seriously.

I am proud to recommend her fantasy series to you and I hope she earns the success she deserves.

1. Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Y. K. Willemse?

Yvette Kate Willemse is a kid who was fortunate enough to be saved by God. Most everything I do is an expression of that – I kind of can’t help myself, to be honest. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be an author, ever since my Mum put a pencil in my hand and taught me to write my name. There’ve been many times when I thought that there was no point in treading such a hard road, and I was close to giving up or actually did give up. It never lasted long, however. Not writing is a form of mental agony with me. For me, writing is a type of prayer – a liberation, therapy, and immense relief, because I seldom express myself properly in speech. Making music gives me the same high, but to a lesser degree.

2. Where do you get your writing ideas from?

This is the ultimate question! I’m a true novelist: I only have a few good ideas, which I stretch into books or a series of books. I pray for my ideas. But the best ones come completely unbidden, like a strike of lightning. They feel like a tangible pressure point on my brain until I get them out.

3. What inspired you to write in the first place?

Rafen inspired me to write. I’ve known my main character since I was five or six. Having a story to tell propelled me onwards. Without the story, I wouldn’t be an author.

4. Who are your favourite writers/influences on your writing?

I love Scripture, particularly the Psalms. I’m also a huge fan of Thomas Hardy and Katherine Mansfield – depressing authors, surely, but so exquisite. The blood and grit of authors like Stephen R. Lawhead and Matthew Lawrence have influenced me as well. J. K. Rowling has made a profound impact on me, and her critic Jim Adam (author of Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series) has forced me to become more conscientious about my character development.

5. What are you working on now?

I’m working on The Fledgling Account, bouncing back and forth between different books. I’ve just finished editing book three with my editor, and I’m working on book five, preparing to submit that for publication at some point. I’ve also worked hard on book six this year, and put together some notes for book seven. A seven-book series is complicated!

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(Cover of Rafen – Book One of The Fledgling Account)

6. Do you think readers are after book series these days, or is there still a place for the one-off novel?

A series is hard work for a reader to stick with. It’s effort to keep getting the books and pushing through them. However, I think people enjoy them because once they’ve found an author they like, they can keep going back for what first pushed their buttons. Nevertheless, there have been some one-off successes, so I still reckon there’s a place for them. However, depending on how commercial the author and their publishing company is, these one-off hits might become a series! Even Harper Lee wrote a sequel in the end.

7. Are you working on anything else besides The Fledgling Account? What else can your readers expect?

I have a trilogy I’m desperate to work on after this series. But I may have to wait for a while, as a seven-book series is such a job. The Window Trilogy is true children’s literature, with a boy protagonist who is intent on making as much mischief as possible. The only problem is, “every bad child has a window”, which appears beneath the culprit’s washing line and opens up to reveal a band of kidnapping monsters. Jerry’s trouble-making might not last long…

8. What do you like about fantasy stories?

I adore fantasy because it simplifies the world around us, enabling us to see patterns and reasons behind things. At the same time, it exaggerates particular sufferings and desires, painting a vivid picture that speaks to our souls. I like to think of fantasy as a metaphor that helps make better sense of the world around us. For me, the genre is a lens that distils reality.

9. What are your pet hates about fantasy, if any?

For a start, I can’t stand commonly used fantasy names like “Freya”. I just can’t. I also think there are too many female protagonists these days, and there are way too many vampires. In some cases, it’s almost like particular YA authors decide that because they can’t write a sex scene, they can pen the next best thing to it: the exchanging of blood! Such sensuality can never replace a good story. Also, I hate it when people write in the present tense. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m too fussy, but it drives me nuts.

10. What are the necessary qualities for a fiction hero/heroine?

I think one of the most important things is that they have a goal or desire to fulfil, and they actively work toward it. I also love it when they are genuinely good – when they inspire you to do better. Nobody likes a moralizing character, but I think there’s still a place for the hero that tries hard to overcome their shortcomings.

11. Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I honestly don’t know. I really hope it’s London! I’d love to have successfully finished my Fledgling Account series by that time, and to have done a good job on it. I also like to think that it will have gathered a readership that appreciates it. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur regarding fame. I’d be happy just to have a handful of loyals.

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(Part of Yvette’s fantasy world of Mio Pilamur)

12. Music plays a big part in your life. Does it influence your writing?

Yes! So much! As a singing teacher and piano teacher, I love instructing my students to “tell the story” with their music making. I literally cannot write or edit without music. When I run out, my mind goes blank and I have to find a new CD to listen to. Music lifts me above drudgery and transports me to where I need to be to write effectively. Life would be very bleak without music, I think.

13. What would be your top three favourite books and why?

The Bible, because I can’t live without it. It’s totally changed my life. Then I love John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, because it’s probably the most incredible example of descriptive writing and character development that I have ever read. The dialogue is incredible. And J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is another essential for my bookshelf. I learned so much about setting up a series from reading this book.

14. What are your top three favourite films and why?

I’m going to be really uncreative here and just say The Lord of the Rings trilogy forms my favourite three. I’ve just never seen any other films that move me so much and that speak to my heart in this way. They’re not too idealistic either. I felt like the Harry Potter series was a bit idealistic – at the end, in the books, Harry’s not torn up by everything that he’s seen. He’s not struggling to go back to normal life or to heal. He’s thinking about Kreacher bringing him a sandwich, and in the background, Peeves the ghost is singing. Such a let down at the end of an epic series. Frodo’s state of mind, after all his travails, was much more realistic, even comforting. The idea that feeling old scars isn’t a sin was very reassuring.

***

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(A sample of the script invented for the series.)

So there you have it. Yvette’s novel Rafen, the first book of “The Fledgling Account” is now available from various places around this turgid little planet. Here are the links:

Amazon

Amazon UK

Amazon Australia

Wheelers

Fishpond

I had the privilege of reading Rafen before publication and I can definitely recommend it. Something different in the world of fantasy.

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

Why Nothing Works

I’m going out on a limb here. I’m going to say something totally radical and see who tells me I’m a complete moron. I’m also going to see who agrees with me and who says ‘Yes, you have a point, but…’

Because all of those points of view are valid.

So this is what I’m going to say: No one is right.

That’s right. No one is right. Right?

As we grow up, various people tell us what is right and what is wrong. Most of the time, at least during our early years, these people are relations. Parents, uncles and aunts, well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) brothers and sisters and cousins unto the fourth and fifth generations. Later on, these people are teachers, and friends, and then celebrities and even later on, they are our own children and then grand-children and basically the rest of society telling us do it this way or get out of town.

But in the end, the only person you should listen to is yourself.

And here’s the rider on that last statement that completely throws caution to the wind: not even you are right.

You’re wrong, ok? And so am I. And so is my mother, and your mother, and Kanye West and your favourite teacher in primary school and that man up on the pulpit telling you what you have to believe, and your favourite song and that inspirational meme you found on Facebook this morning.

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None of them (us). Because none of them (us) has the slightest idea what they’re (we’re) talking about. And they (we) never have.

You see, life doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Every single one of the 108 billion people who have ever lived has had to wing it. That isn’t to say we haven’t looked for guidance, or embraced life lessons with a fervour that has often led to misunderstanding. Religion has brought comfort to billions of those billions, and yet has also caused divisiveness on a global and catastrophic scale. Worldly wisdom is both comforting and self-contradictory. Science strives to give us answers and yet produces more questions. Even your mother (sorry to bring her up, but she is important) has changed her mind about how best to raise you. But none of them, I venture to say, has the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

And this is perfectly natural. Because every one of those 108 billion people has been an individual. Unique. As a teacher, I try to instil the art of critical thinking in my students. ‘Question everything!’ I demand. ‘Even what I’m saying to you now!’ The ability to ask questions is the single greatest ability of the human mind, which is the single greatest and most complex organ in the known universe. ‘The worst reason for believing something,’ I continue, foam often frothing in the corners of my mouth, ‘is that someone told you it was so!’

I have no idea if any of my students have ever done what I have implored. It may well be a good thing if they haven’t. Because knowing that life is basically a make-it-up-as-you-go scenario and nothing anyone has ever said actually means squat is not the most comforting way to live one’s life.

Let me give you an example. Maybe more than one.

I’m a writer. I’ve had books and short stories published. This makes me feel good. I enjoy knowing that people are reading what I’ve written. I have so far made a bit of money from my writing. Not much, but making money isn’t why I write.  If I was slaving over a hot computer in order to make money I’d be in the IT industry or something to do with computers that actually made money. That’s my conscious decision and I’m fine with that. But I’ve read a lot about how to write books, and how to promote what I’ve written and how to make sales and I’ve also read a lot about how what I read about promotion actually doesn’t work and even the Big Five publishers have no idea what they’re doing and if I listened to both sides of the argument my head would explode. So nobody knows what they’re doing.

Take elections. Any elections. Nothing divides people more completely than politics. Except maybe religion. Both politics and religion have been responsible for an immense amount of human suffering, possibly to the same degree. But let’s take politics, because if you started me on religion my head would explode, and it’s already done that once so far since you started reading this. It doesn’t actually matter what politics a particular candidate wants to follow. Because all politicians are united in one way: a politician is utterly useless unless he or she is in power. So a politician’s whole agenda is geared towards getting into power, by whatever means possible. Once in power, he or she has the sole agenda of staying in power as long as possible, because otherwise they have no meaning. So politics is pointless, because ultimately nothing they do makes any point, because their whole agenda is self-centred.

Take science. I love science. Science has put people on the Moon and created this computer I’m typing on now and even saved my life when I was nine years old and was very, very sick. I have nothing against science personally. But it really does make life difficult. It’s got hard mathematics and big words and forces people to think and let’s face it, most people don’t want to think. They want answers, and all science does is provide ones they don’t want to know about. Global warming? Way inconvenient! Vaccines are safe? But that means the ‘research’ I did on the internet about how it causes autism is wrong! Evolution? But that means God may not actually exist! Excuse me, but I’m not sure I want to know that! And then you get scientists who don’t agree with each other. Where is that going?

Take human relations. I’m divorced. I got married and it lasted less than a year before my wife and I separated. I’m not casting blame here; it was the fault of both of us. We applied for a joint dissolution of marriage and were quite amicable about it. I even remember that after the divorce we both went to lunch together to celebrate. Human relations (love, romance, sex) are so unbelievably difficult that people like me just have no idea what is going on. There are a million how-to books and websites on obtaining a mate, and dating services and copious amounts of advice from friends and relations. And in the end we end up (or don’t) with someone. They may be the person of our dreams, Most often they aren’t. But most of us end up pretty much more or less happy. Usually. Or not. Because in the end, no one has the slightest idea about how to go about finding the right person to wake up next to forever.

Take diets. No, actually, don’t. Literally.

Look, I could go on. But basically, the point I’m making is that in every field of human endeavour there is a large number of people who spout all sorts of wisdom and how-to suggestions and tell us what it’s all about and what works and what doesn’t and what we must do in order to succeed or at least not fail or avoid fiery pits of eternity and in the end none of them actually have something that necessarily applies to us. We are all individuals.

What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for you. Or me. Or anyone else. In the end, we’re all just making it up as we go.

I’m sorry if that’s depressing. But there’s nothing I – or you – can do about it.

Just do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you.

 

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

Being Dead

Recently, I’ve thought about  being dead. Not that anyone I know has died lately, and I don’t have a terminal illness and I’m not thinking of shuffling off my mortal coil anytime soon. But it’s an interesting thing to think about nevertheless. After all, it’s something that we all have to do eventually, like it or not, so we may as well accept the inevitability of it. Because people are different, they have different attitudes to death, and most of these are determined by what they think will happen afterwards. Religions favour the idea that a good life will be rewarded and a bad one punished – although the concept of eternal punishment for a temporary sin is a weird one when you think about it, and more than a little unfair. But is it a given that anything at all will happen?

I mean, I know things will happen after my death. The world will keep turning, seasons will change, events will continue in their inexorable way. It’s just that I’m not going to be around to see them. So yes, there definitely is life after death. It’s just not a life I’ll be participating in. The universe seemed to function moderately well before I was born and I have the feeling it will continue to do so after I’m gone.

But of course, that’s not what most people worry about. They are more concerned about what happens to them. Which is understandable. But is an afterlife all it’s cracked up to be? Is it actually a ‘consummation devoutly to be wished’ as Shakespeare put it when Hamlet was considering not bearing any fardels (He actually uses the word fardels  – check it out at Hamlet III, i).

There are many considered possibilities about what happens when we die, and  I’ll address some of them. They aren’t all of the possibilities I’m sure, but they are the major ones people tend to consider as possible outcomes of this brief mortal span of ours. And bear in mind, this is just my opinion. People are free to believe other things if they wish.

All right, so let’s assume I’m dead. There are a myriad of possible causes of that. Extreme old age is about as attractive as I guess it gets, so let’s pretend I’ve just popped off after a good sojourn on this turgid little planet. So, what happens to me now?

1) I’ll go to heaven, or achieve some state of life after death where I am rewarded by  an applicable deity.

I won’t suggest any particular version of heaven or specify any actual deity, as  there are a lot of religions around. Some scholars put the number of different creeds at about 4,200. I don’t know which might be the “right one”. If we were honest, we’d have to admit no one does.  Nor is there being a right one required for this topic. Seriously, most people are the same religion as their parents. Coincidence? Of course not. Children are indoctrinated into a particular religion depending on what faith their parents have. Some change later in life, of course, but mostly it’s a safe bet that a person was raised in the same church as the rest of their family. So it’s just an accident of birth that anyone is the religion they are.

Now, whatever the version of heaven being considered here, it’s probably not going to appeal to me. Think about it. No one is actually sure what’s going to happen even if you do go to heaven. Look at just one viewpoint, which asserts that Lazarus spent four days dead. This would be a great opportunity, one might think, to bring back some details about the place. But he didn’t. No one knows. Even those “psychics” who reckon they can channel the dead never ask what’s it like? All we get are vague things about forgiving those left behind and “I feel fine”. Details, please! And if the glory of heaven is too great for mere mortals to explain to other mere mortals, then it’s beyond our comprehension and therefore meaningless. Check out my novel Plato’s Cave for more information about that viewpoint.

Recently, a boy who wrote a book (with the aid of his father) about dying and going to heaven admitted he’d made it up. It was a bestseller because it satisfied people’s preconceived notions about heaven; it told them what they wanted to believe. But no one actually knows.

My point is, I don’t know if I’d like it. Imagine if everyone in heaven is so holy all they do is talk about God for eternity. If God arranged it that way, he’s been a bit selfish. If he is an eternal deity, he doesn’t need constant praise. That just makes him human.

Others say you get to be with your loved ones. Fair enough, I love my family, and it would be great to see my Dad again, but I don’t want to spend forever with them. Get together occasionally and have some fun, sure, but not forever. Let’s face it, that’s a long time.

If we believe some commentators, we’ll be “one with God”. What does that mean? Are we actually a part of him, like another limb or something? Are we spiritual part? If so, what does that mean? God has given me no peace in life, so I doubt I’ll be terribly comforted by being a part of him after death. If I’m to learn the love and truth of God only by dying and becoming a part of him after I’m dead, it’s a bit late.

Many religions, if not all, focus on the afterlife because life itself actually sucks for a great many people and it’s a comfort to them to think they have immortal and eternal souls beyond the ability of mere physical laws to detect or explain. It gives purpose to their lives, maybe. That’s good. But making the most of our time while alive is important too.

Whether we are talking Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or any of the others, details of what happens in heaven are actually rather vague. They shouldn’t be.

So I think I’ll pass. I don’t want to spend eternity somewhere if I haven’t read the brochure.

 

2) I’ll go to hell.

Another tricky religion-dependent concept. Hell, of course, is an invention, because churches needed to frighten people into believing, because having faith is really hard and so a threat of eternal punishment would give them incentive. Even Pope Francis has stated that there is no Hell.

So, no. I’m not going to a place that doesn’t exist. Besides, it’s not fair to have an eternal punishment for a temporary sin. I steal a loaf of bread to feed my starving family and I get punished FOREVER? That’s not justice.

 

3) I’ll become a ghost or spirit or something paranormal.

This means people who fancy themselves as TV hosts will come along with torches and delicate recording equipment and attempt to find me or exorcise me or something. I don’t fancy hanging about the same place, presumably the place where I died, for eternity. I wouldn’t do it. If I had the ability to walk through walls and be invisible I’d put those abilities to some good use, not hang about twiddling my ethereal thumbs waiting for some idiot with a camera to spend their time looking for me.

Have you ever noticed on those TV shows where they look for ghosts or Bigfoot or the Sasquatch or whatever spooky critter has taken their fancy that they never actually find one? Ever? I wonder why. Are the hunters that unlucky, that incompetent, or is it that the things they are looking for don’t actually exist? Maybe a combination of all three.

Of course, believing in ghosts is easy, because you can’t be disproved. If I say ‘Ghosts aren’t real’, it’s easy to prove me wrong – just find a ghost. But if I declare ‘Ghosts are real’ it’s impossible to prove me wrong. When asked for evidence, all I have to say is ‘We haven’t found one yet.’ Science is falsifiable. Faith is not.

 

4) I’ll reincarnate.

If I’m supposed to improve as a person, at least let me remember what I did wrong the last time so I have some kind of chance. If I’m going to come back as an ant or a toad or something because of mistakes I’ve made (see my above thoughts on unfair punishment) then some idea of precisely what it was I did wrong might help.  You take your chances.

Sure, religion give us an idea of how we should behave in real life, but that pesky Karma idea means I’ll be sent back again and again to have another go, like a kid who keeps failing his exams and is held back until the other kids laugh at him. Maybe I should study for my exams a bit harder, but this just makes it my fault, which doesn’t tie in with forgiveness and divine mercy. It’s just petty. I’m being told how to behave, and even if I do achieve relief from reincarnation the whole problem of what happens then is still there. The doubts and uncertainties and the fact that no one actually knows remain unresolved. It solves nothing in the end.

 

5) Nothing will happen.

You see, the problem with possibilities 1 to 3 above is that they depend on the idea that I will have some sort of consciousness after I’m dead. But there’s no evidence I will. Possibility 4, reincarnation, means I don’t have any conscious memory of my previous lives, and that’s unfair.

The most attractive possibility, therefore, is this one. Number 5. Nothing will happen. I won’t be sitting there going ‘Hmm, I’m not supposed to do what I did last time but I don’t know what that actually was.’ I won’t be praising some deity that made me flawed in the first place and gave me the choice whether to have a good time or not and I choose having a good time and then he gets mad because he didn’t want me to. I won’t be going to Hell, because it doesn’t exist. And being a ghost would be really, really boring and if I did have ‘other business’ I’d make sure I did it and got the next bus out of there.

So I’m looking forward to number 5. I will have moved on. It won’t bother me. I don’t have to be concerned about anything at all. The universe will go on without me very well.

If the history of the universe is a line from the Big Bang up to the moment you are reading this, like so:

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and I was to pick a random point on that line that stretches for more than 13 billion years, the overwhelming possibility is that I wouldn’t exist. I am now 57 years old. So the chances of picking a year on that line that falls within my lifetime is 57 out of 13,000,000,000. Or, as Douglas Adams would have put it, ‘as near to nothing as makes no odds’. So really, I’m not very important at all. None of us are, in the cosmic scheme of things.

This is an idea that a lot of religious people have an issue with. They want to be important. They want to matter. That’s fair enough. Be important. Write a book. Save children from starving. Rescue animals. Do something that makes you important NOW, while you’re alive, not after you’re dead. It’s too late then.

So believe what you want. This is a personal reflection about me. Just make the here and now as useful as you can, because it’s your one shot at it.

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

Don’t Drop Jesus!

When I was a professional actor, which was some time ago now, I became involved in the presentation of Christmas shows at Brisbane’s Southbank. If you’ve never been to Brisbane, Australia, you may not be aware of Southbank, which (as the name suggests) is on the south bank of the Brisbane River, one of the finer waterways in the civilised world. It’s a public recreation area very popular among the local population.

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Anyway, I would be part of the Christmas shows there. Each year I would be involved in the week leading up to Christmas. The public would come to Southbank and we would put on a variety of entertainment. Now, I don’t know if I was good or bad, but the truth is I was offered a different role each year, like they were trying me at everything until I found what I was good at. Actors worry a lot about how good they are.

So I did a different role each year for five years. With the Christmas season upon us, I thought I’d reveal some the good (and bad) times involved with being an put-of-work actor struggling to put bread on the table and taking on whatever was on offer in order to do so.

Year One:
This will live in my memory forever. I was a gypsy dancer. Yes, me. For those who don’t know me personally, I have absolutely no sense of rhythm. None. And the first year I had to dance the length of Southbank in a parade, accompanied by a gypsy band (guitar, drum, violin and flute), while proclaiming something or other that had something to do with Christmas. I forget what it was now.

I was married at the time. At one of the performances my wife was present along the route and I ran over and kissed her and later the band members were saying to me: “You did know that chick, right?” which probably meant my role as a hot-blooded gypsy was fairly realistic.

I wore the same costume each night, which mostly failed to make me look anything like a gypsy. It got soaked in sweat because of course it’s summer here in Brisbane at Christmas time and Brisbane is a particularly humid part of the world. It also didn’t help that accompanying me and my gypsy band was a fire-eater, who would shoot great gouts of flame from his mouth as I sang and danced my way along. I had to time things just right or else he would have blasted me with fire, which would have upset my Mum.

Year Two:
This year they put me at the head of the parade. I was there complete with foot-long beard, dirty robes, staff and loud voice, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. The first person the assembled crowd saw was me. Two moments stand out. The first was when a boy (must have been about 18, but a boy to me) stepped out in front of me and said ‘Can I have your staff?’ I mean, really! Here I am, floor-length filthy prophet’s robe, obviously using my staff as a vital prop, and this kid wants to use it for some reason or other. I just ignored him and moved on.

The other moment was when I spied a friend in the audience, a fellow actor named Jacy. She was right at the end of the parade, sitting with some of her friends. I remembered my success of the previous year when I kissed my wife and it made a major stir, so I went over to Jacy and said hello and announced loudly, “It’s very lucky to kiss a prophet!” and planted one on her. Fortunately she took it well and accepted the kiss. It made good theatre and people thought “Here’s a prophet we can relate to!”

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Year Three:
This is the Don’t Drop Jesus bit.  I was one of the Three Wise Men this year. Mr Myrrh, in fact. We were further back in the parade this time riding camels and preceded by Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus represented by a doll. Mary rode on a donkey led by Joseph, holding Jesus in her arms. We paraded along the river then went to a stage area where Joseph and Mary sat in a Nativity scene suitably decorated with real animals. At a certain time we Wise Men entered and presented our gifts with appropriate speeches.

Being Mr Myrrh, I was in line behind Mr Gold. So I had a pretty good view of Mary on the donkey, so I was in a good position to see precisely what happened.

Mary was, as I said, riding the donkey. At various points on the path that follows the Brisbane River at Southbank there are brightly-coloured mosaics set into the cement. The donkey, which up until this point had had no problem with these mosaics, for some reason stopped suddenly at one of them. Maybe it had noticed it for the first time and got a fright. Anyway, its sudden stop meant trouble for Mary. She was riding bareback and side-saddle, being dressed in robes, with the doll representing baby Jesus in her arms. This  meant she couldn’t hold onto anything else, but Joseph was walking beside her leading the donkey in case she needed help to stay on at any time.

Anyway, the donkey pulled up sharply. Mary, according to Newton’s First Law of Motion, kept her momentum and continued along Southbank, slipping forwards over the donkey’s shoulder. As she clutched at the animal’s neck to stay on, she let go of Jesus, who, also in accordance to Newton’s laws, took off out of her arms. Mary let go of the donkey and fell off. Fortunately, she landed on her feet and managed to catch Jesus who was at that point descending in a head-first power dive towards the cement path. The crowd applauded and we Wise Men breathed a sigh of relief. Mary climbed back on and the parade continued as if the whole incident was just part of the show.

We congratulated Mary afterwards in the dressing room for her brilliant save. The girl who played Mary explained she’d been rather good at netball when she was at school, so it’s good to know the Mother of God had a keen interest in wholesome team sports, and found them useful.

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Year Four:

This year I was Santa’s Head of Security. You may think the he doesn’t need such a thing, but I took the role very seriously. So there I was, dressed as an Elf (yes green tights and all) with sunglasses and a rather fiendish looking “Naughtiness Detector” which could make various sounds when buttons were pressed. I’d mingle among the crowd prior to the show starting and run the detector over children and adults, making the detector beep and bray according to whether the target had been naughty or nice that year. Of course, all the children had been nice and all the Dads had been naughty. This amused the kids, of course, as well as the parents.

I also had the job, as head of Security, to announce Santa’s arrival. I’d get on the public address and make announcements like “The Fat Man is five minutes away”, “The Fat Man has landed”, etc. All good fun. Santa was played by a man who actually ran a Santa School teaching other people how to be Santa. He had an amazing trick he did with the kids who came to visit him in his tent. He had an Elf assisting him. The child would enter the tent while Santa was talking to another child. The Elf would ask the waiting child their name, and then pretend to look them up in his big book that he had in front of him. Now, I don’t know how it was done, but by the time the child arrived in front of Santa, he already knew their name. Santa would smile and say, “Well, hello Billy!” or  “I remember you, Sally. I visited your house last year!” Because, of course, Santa knows the name of every child in the world. He never missed it once. Since he was talking to another child at the time, it was hard to see how he could overhear what was going on between the waiting child and the Elf, especially as he was several metres away on his big chair. It was a neat trick, but out of respect for his methods I never asked how it was done.

Year Five:

This was my last year with the Christmas Show because I moved out of town after that. My final gig was a storyteller. There were several actors scattered around the arena and while the families waited for the show to start we would gather kids together and tell Christmas-themed stories to keep them occupied.

I remember my story was about a Green Tree Frog and while I told the story I acted out the Frog. I had an assistant who would play the other parts in the story and help with the voices and narration. It was a lot of fun and the story was actually quite funny.

The only incident of any note happened when a small boy, no doubt assuming that since I was a frog and therefore liked water, decided to shower me with his drink bottle right in the middle of the story. Since I was squatting down pretending to be a frog at the time he was tall enough to upend his water bottle over my head. It was actually quite refreshing on a sticky December night.

So those are five Christmases I remember fondly. I haven’t been with the Southbank show for ages now, but I had a great time and I hope the crowd did too.

Have a great Christmas and New Year.

holly

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

The Magnificence of Being Insignificant

The Cassini spacecraft has taken a picture of Earth and its moon from out near Saturn. It is an evocative one (see above). Taken on 19 July 2013, the picture isn’t the first of its kind. We’ve had the famous  Pale Blue Dot picture taken by Voyager in 1990. And the Cassini picture will be added to with other things eventually. Photo time is precious out near Saturn, and there is much work for the spacecraft to do. But this is what we have so far. Earth is the bright shiny bit in the middle; the smaller dot is the Moon. (Picture courtesy of NASA).

It stirs my blood that this picture captures every single one of the 7 billion people on Earth. Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve achieved, all the stupid mistakes we’ve made, all of history, and all of life as we know it, happened on that tiny bit of dirt in the immensity of space.

It is hard to look at this picture and not feel conflicted. On the one hand, we have an overwhelming sense of isolation and insignificance. The universe is so big it contains absolutely everything there is. It is so bizarre we are only just beginning to understand how bizarre, much less comprehend its weirdness and explain it. And there we are, so small that if you dropped into the Cosmos randomly, the chances of being anywhere near enough to even notice the Earth exists are not far removed from infinity to one against. It is hard to accept that some god or gods created this enormity and then made Earth so utterly pointless.

On the other hand, the picture tells me we are utterly amazing creatures. The very fact that we can take this picture, or the Pale Blue Dot or any of the others, is an indication of just how bloody brilliant we are when we try.

If we are the only sentient beings in the universe, as Carl Sagan pointed out, then we have an enormous responsibility to get things right before we become extinct. If the universe has life other than us in it, then it must be so far away the chances of ever meeting it are next to none. If the universe is teeming with life, then what a magnificent opportunity to “join the club”.

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It’s a shame, then, that we waste so much time on dumb things. Being sentient takes its toll. The fact that we can think makes us think we are enormously important. We are selfish, wanting to be important, successful and meaningful. We only have one shot at this, so we want it to work. Evolution has required us to be competitive, and we are, to the point of destroying others and ourselves. To the point of screwing up the little we have. People invent gods because they are frightened of oblivion and because they require meaning (even if most religions say we are incapable of understanding god’s plan anyway). We worship technology because it is a way of learning about the universe and also because it helps to provide the instant gratification our short, violent lives require. We fight among ourselves because the orthodoxies we embrace only make sense if others believe them too. We have to feel special, so we make sure everyone else suffers.

But then we go and take this picture, and suddenly it all gets put into perspective. We are both insignificant and mind-bogglingly amazing at the same time. For a little patch of over-emotional DNA, we haven’t done that badly. The more people come to appreciate a picture like this, the more hope there is that we come to terms with it.

Is destroying this beautiful blue little world worth being selfish? Is the brief glimmer of life you have worth wasting on triviality? I’m not asking everyone on Earth to achieve greatness. There isn’t room for that.

But try, ok?