Caged butterlies

Berthe Morisot 1875

Berthe Morisot 1875

I love antique fans… there is something about them that has always fascinated me. I remember vividly standing in tears at Harewood House at an exhibition many years ago. I don’t quite know what it is… their delicacy and craftsmanship, the artistry in miniature, their ephemeral fragility… or perhaps it is the stories that they could tell. They were given as gifts, symbols of love and affection, hid shy smiles and coquettish glances, indeed there was a whole, discrete language that could be spoken in silence by the hand that held the fan.

I used to collect them. It was one of those things I had always promised myself when I could afford to do so. The delicate lace and gauze, painted satin and  feathers of the Belle Époque were my favourite, though the little brisé fan that belonged to my great-grandmother was the most precious. They went long ago, when times were tough, but  it was a privilege to be their custodian for a while.

Amongst my dreams one night I dreamed of a fan. I was being shown how it was to be restored. The whole ‘lesson’ was about perception, and it went on for what seemed like half the night.  In this particular passage though there was a broken fan. The gauze had split and frayed through mishandling, the sticks were  damaged and broken, the guards detached. Yet it had been a lovely thing of mother of pearl and spangled silk, painted with tiny creatures and nasturtiums… School colours and not unlike a fan I once loved.

James Tossot 1885

James Tissot 1885

The restorer showed me how to fix the guards… how to stiffen the leaf, backing it with  fine fabric to strengthen the damaged bits… how to mend the sticks and replace the rivet that held them together. I remembered how to tie the wrist ribbons. And when we had finished it looked beautiful, almost as good as new…

Except, it didn’t feel right, somehow, it was too heavy, unbalanced and the extra fabric meant it could no longer fold… certainly it could no longer be opened and closed with one graceful flick to make a conversational point. Although the body of the fan was repaired, it had lost something. It was no longer fit for the hands of coy damsels or elegant matrons. It had been patched and mended so skilfully to preserve its outward appearance that it was no longer fit for purpose. It had lost its soul.

Next I was shown how to back the fan, sewing each stick in place, supported and unfurled in all its beauty so it could be framed in glass to protect it for the future. No longer would it be handled or used, it would lay against no other cheek to say I love you  in that secret language… indeed… we had to wear white gloves so as not to contaminate it with our nasty, sweaty hands… the same that gave the beautiful patina to sticks of ivory and wood.

Alexandre Roslin 1768

Alexandre Roslin 1768

The sticks, sewn into place, could no longer flex and move, there was only stiffness where there should have been fluid movement. The butterfly was caged, pinned in a frame, a lifeless beauty, preserved for posterity in all its glory… but inanimate, soulless…. Its very nature changed by its preservation. Yet collectors of beauty would pay highly for the framed fan, seeing only the artistry, not the cage.

The waking mind sees further than the dream… or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the waking mind is able to unpick what the dreaming mind already knows and bring it into consciousness. I do not believe that there are regimented meanings to the content of dreams, although some of the images we encounter are so deeply rooted in human consciousness that their symbolism is readily apparent. Dreams are personal and it is up to us to be the key that unlocks the doorways into our subconscious that they offer.

I have mulled over this one, on and off, for a long time and there are so many layers of possible meaning that unveil themselves that, as with most dreams, there is no single, clear-cut answer. It is possible that all those layers of meaning are right… each on their own level. The mind is a fabulously creative thing.

Fans have always seemed like precious, if ephemeral things to me. Perhaps, given that I was already caring for an injured son, it was a lesson in the care and diligence it would need to ‘mend’ him… and a reminder that no matter how carefully we worked, the end result would be different, though perhaps even more valuable, than where we began.

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Maybe the dream was telling me that we have to let go of the past? That attempting to preserve what is beyond repair will only render something stiff and soulless, outwardly attractive, perhaps, but no longer useful. Most of us cling to outworn behaviours, habits become futile and even relationships that have long since failed.

The battle for social acceptability through conformity might be epitomised by the broken fan too. How many of us choose by default or are forced into the roles and boxes that society deems acceptable, when we yearn for a different life, only to find our spirits starved of colour and movement, sliding gradually into an old age of stiff regret?

Caged butterflies.

Or was it, like the rest of the dreams that night, simply another lesson in perception? That beyond the outer form, whether beautiful or tatterdemalion, all things have a purpose. To try to force someone into serving a purpose for which they were not destined, is to rob them of their chance to fly… and perhaps this applies especially to oneself. To deny the inner purpose of our being is to deny our Selves and leads to a lifeless life.

Sometimes, to escape the cage and find our true wings, we have to follow our dreams.

Fresh air

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I had an odd and unexpected encounter today. One of those chance meetings that seem small and unimportant yet which leave a mark deeper than we realise at the time. I had wandered over to the next village this afternoon… on a quest for information about a legendary tree…one with a history some two thousand years in its growing. While I did not find the one I was looking for, I found what I needed to know about its eventual demise and unlooked for replacement. Of course, Quainton is a glorious old village with wonderful buildings… and so many overhead cables that getting a decent shot is nigh on impossible. But although I had the inevitable camera in tow, that was not my primary reason for the jaunt. I just needed air. It has been a rough few days.

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I met a lovely old gentleman in the churchyard who taught me a lot about the village and showed me the oldest buildings still standing there, telling me of the medieval forge and culvert discovered under one of the houses when it was renovated. We walked through the village together and he told me of how it had changed over the years, pointing out the chaffinches, dragonflies and blue-tits as we walked, and taking time to show me the house-martin’s nests under the eaves of one of the houses. It was a slow, leisurely progress, stopping every few steps for the dog to sniff and my companion to rest. He was a very old man.

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It is a mellow place with the traditional village green bordered by cottages whose roofs are sighing with age and the George and Dragon… what else?… looks out to the ancient preaching cross and the windmill that is the most visible landmark of the village.

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It is the details that I notice though. The little marks of human hands and humour, like the variety of thatch creatures perched on the roofs, the village pump, or the small crosses carved into the stone of the church by pilgrims who have long since reached their ultimate destination. In many of the churches there are little games carved into the pillars and walls near the pews… often low enough to be out of sight of the officiant. You can imagine small hands surreptitiously working away to make these miniature game boards, whiling away the boredom, perhaps, of a service then in Latin and beyond their reach.

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I love the quirkiness of the fads and fancies that traverse the ages… from the civic pomp and ceremony of the Victorians to the graphic representations of death from earlier times.. the memento mori that may appear gruesome or shocking to our eyes today, yet which served as a reminder that in death there is neither princely estate nor poverty… it is the great leveller of all and in the beyond of their belief only the riches of virtue would hold meaning. In an era before the advent of antiseptics and antibiotics, when life was fragile and tenuous and dying not a sanitised process, perhaps they did not shrink as we do today from its presence.

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My companion and I stopped before the place that had once been the old rectory, now undergoing renovation. He admired the new capstones on the gateposts while I quietly admired a bronzed and shirtless Adonis worthy of any sculptor’s efforts.  The old man asked me suddenly what it was that made me take photographs… what was it I tried to capture? I turned my glance from the flexed and gleaming muscles to the equal and warmer beauty of the wrinkled face and the twinkling, questioning eyes. I had a fleeting vision of the thousands of pictures on my hard drive… birds and flowers, skies and buildings, trees and faces, architecture and hilltops, history and humour…and realised I had never really asked myself that question. For a moment, looking mentally at that dizzying array of images I was at a complete loss. There was, it seemed, no common thread. A mish-mash of images, a plethora of subjects… They are not all pretty pictures, not all are gentle, some are harsh, some wild, some dark… and beauty is such a subjective vision anyway…

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Then I saw it, the common denominator, winding through them all, a sparkling cord that bound them together. I chuckled as I understood the Ariadne’s thread that has always led me, I think. “Life,” I answered, still laughing at myself. “I love Life.” My companion smiled and nodded, satisfied, as if he were a teacher and I a dense pupil who had finally understood. Maybe he was right.

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The Marsh King’s Daughter: Bud…

 

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‘…The Earth will see you on through this time…’

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…There always is.

The Marsh King sinks back beneath the waters with the unnamed Egyptian Princess in his thrall.

Some time later a green shoot with a water-lily bud appears above the slime.

The bud unfurls to reveal a small girl-child.

The child is spotted by a watching Stork and is taken to a barren Viking couple who, quite naturally, are enthralled with the gift and immediately besotted with the child.

Children normally display both the physical and temperamental characteristics of their ancestors, predominantly their parents, and usually in more or less equal measure.

Here, these tendencies are pronounced.

Helga, for this is the name the Viking couple choose for her, is a beautiful girl-child during the day, albeit displaying a strong blood-thirsty streak, whilst as the sun sets she turns into a compassionate, toad-like monster!

Is the name significant?

How important is it that Helga is the only named character in the story?

Could any device be better chosen to make us consider the diurnal polarity of Day and Night and their profound affects upon our consciousness and its natural tendencies?

Cold mountain…

Warm earth…

If we are in any doubt as to what we are to make of these devices we are introduced to the somnambulistic nature of both Denmark and the nether regions of Marsh-Land later in the tale.

To make matters worse, Helga’s apparent beauty beguiles all those who gaze upon her and blinds them to the reality of her brutish day-time nature.

It is only her adoptive Viking mother who witnesses and begins to see and realise the true nature of the problem presented to both her, and by extension us, in the form and expressions displayed via the mysterious Marsh King’s Daughter.

There is more…

*

Mist on the Moors

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… We met up with author and blogger Graeme Cumming and his partner for another wander over the moors. We followed a path that leads from a place of hoary legend and gory history, where a headless body was found, up onto a moor cloaked in low clouds.

We climbed to the plateau, sharing the archaeological features on the way… features mostly hidden by mist and bracken. In the distance, limestone cliffs shelter this place that is hidden in plain sight, unseen from the road that snakes through the valley.

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From here you can see the distinctive shapes of the hills that are shadowed in stone… except that we couldn’t as they were wreathed in cloud. But what you can see, if you know where to look, is a stone circle.

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Like all the circles in this area, the stones are quite small…as if their builders knew that power resides in what lies behind the symbol, not in the form itself. The land seems to centre on the circle and we have passed hours watching the dome of the sky sparkle above us.

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But we haven’t been back for two years… and here, as at Barbrook, reeds and bracken begin to encroach on the space within the stones. For the first time here, there is a sense of unease… not about the land, but an overlay, imposed and alien.

Looking at the stone named for the Fae, where their lights, it is said, can sometimes be seen dancing, we saw a possible reason why. The hollow  in the top of the stone was filled with something that I hoped, just for a second, was a mangled plum… but which I knew was nothing so acceptable.

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The fresh entrails of some small creature… no fur or feathers, no bones of sign of predator, were neatly placed in the hollowed stone. A fire pit in the centre of the circle held newly burned cinders…evidence of a Friday night sojourn beneath a full moon. It is not the first time we have found offerings here, though usually they are just flowers. Nothing so darkly disturbing as this.

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We walked the circle, weaving light about the stones and did what we could. I love these moors and the ancient places they shelter and feel a responsibility to care for them. There was no caring in what we had found. For the first time, we did not linger and I, for one, felt nothing but anger and distaste for what had been done.

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A rift in reality

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We were up at the crack of dawn, not because there had been too much wine the night before, which might have been expected during an evening in an Italian restaurant, but because the bug that had been stalking us for days had decided it would be fun to strike its victims during the celebratory meal and had knocked us off our feet.

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With no clear plan for the days ahead, we lingered over coffee, debating what we should do. The evening was taken care of… we were going to see Robin Williamson. We had missed his Sheffield performance last year, due to the dates of the Ilkley workshop, and his music was the main reason I was lingering in the north.

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We decided that it would be a good idea to check on the stone circle at Barbrook. After the work we had done there, we needed to re-visit the stones and, if nothing else, pay our respects and thank the spirit of the place for the gifts we had been given. The sun was rising steadily as we drove, climbing the long road to crest the hills above the awakening city.

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Three, they say, is the charm…and this was the third time in less than a week that we had passed through the gates onto Ramsley Moor. The morning mists wove mystery from the pale sunlight and the bejewelled land was bathed in gold. It may just have been the beauty of the morning, but the place felt different, alive and awake, as if two thousand years had dropped away and we were stepping beyond the veiling mists back into a time long gone.

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Retracing our steps along the path, just a few days after the workshop, it seemed like a different place. More of the mounds were visible,  shifting  swathes of mist opened pathways and vistas into a landscape of dreams. What we had done had undoubtedly made a vast difference here… though whether that difference was objective or just in the way we perceived the land is another matter.

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Nor does it matter. Reality is only real in as far as we perceive it to be. It is our perception that determines how we can interact with it and what our reaction to it might be. A tiny spider, if perceived as a threat, will make us afraid. If the darkness holds monsters for a child, the fear is real. If a stone circle seems awake… that too is real in its own realm. When we left the moor at last, we were smiling.

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Reaching Realisation

(Above: Realisation: more than meets the eye)

The purpose of language is to convey meaning. We cannot convey meaning directly because it exists in an invisible mental realm unique to the individual. We all live in slightly different worlds, based on our experience. As a tribe, society or country, we each agree to subscribe to the inherent values present in that shared group.

We use language to pass meaning to others – such as our children, which is why the child’s brain is hard-wired to rapidly absorb language in infancy; an ability that is reduced as we grow older.

If we can teach our children to understand our meanings, then we have a hope of passing onto them our values – sets of meanings that assemble into patterns of behaviour; differences between selfish and selfless, the latter for the good of the ‘tribe’: a quality that seems to be abandoned, cyclically, in our common history. 

Language changes. It can be likened to the sand patterns left on a beach. The water comes in and re-maps the sand (language) emphasising certain popular meanings but partly or wholly erasing the original, deeper meaning.  The time-tides will always be there, but their effects on the beach will not always be positive, from any given perspective. It is up to us as a society to protect the deepest meanings if we value what they are. These are often considered to be spiritual; meaning representative of a higher order of consideration than those we are concerned with in our daily work.

Classical teaching protected the language, allowing the deeper, historical meanings to survive. But it may move too slowly to prosper in an ‘internet age’ of rapid changes. Modern society is both fickle and casual in its populist allowing of ‘meaning-slip’, allowing deeper meanings to be devalued or lost altogether. One look at the Internet shows the alarming erosion of what were considered essential meanings not long ago. 

For ordinary meanings, this is frustrating, but the ‘next generation’ have always had the freedom to create their own idioms. For deeper meanings, we sometimes need reminding that they are there, and a review of their possibly timeless value.

One such word is ‘realisation’. It’s a word at the heart of true spirituality. Why is the act of realisation so important?

It is rare that a single word contains two states: one, the ‘before’; the other the ‘after’ – mirroring a quite definite process of growth within the human mind and heart.

That growth is in the understanding of something, and that something is nothing less than the nature of reality. To make this post into a journey of deeper understanding, we need to step back and define our terms…

An example of the common use of ‘realisation’, might be this:

‘Suddenly, James Strange realised the key to Mariella’s guilt was the colour of her hair!’

It could be a line from a detective story, which is not a bad way to describe the human ascent that moves from ‘world’ to ‘self’ as the mystic strives to comprehend their place in that world. In the above line of fiction, the word realisation means the dawning of a new level of understanding. It’s that moment when the inner comprehension goes ‘click’ and something more than the sum of the parts comes into existence.

The word has an ancient origin. We can approach the literal meaning of it by dividing it into ‘real’ and ‘ise’ (or ‘ize’), both of the latter implying to ‘be’.

We encounter the living act of realisation when we try to learn a new language as an adult. This may be in support of a longed-for trip, for example. Initially, we may struggle, but when, at the end of the term, our teacher invites us all out to a (say) French restaurant where we will be expected to speak a little of the language we have been learning, we have our chance to use this new way to convey meaning.

Initially fearful, we might find ourselves at a moment where – through living it – we come to a feeling of what can only be described as ‘belonging’. Suddenly, French is ours, and we will work so much harder to build on that foundation of inner growth.

We’ve all had such moments. They may be found in the acquisition of any new skill that requires work. In our trivial ‘detective’ example, the hero – by having that light-bulb moment – is able to connect everything he knows about his suspect.

A realisation has that power. It’s far more than the assembly of facts; rather it is a deeply personal involvement in the transformation of what we know into a new type of knowing. The ancients even had a word for it: they called it Gnosis – an increase of understanding that changes the person experiencing the ‘inner expansion’.

The mystical journey may be undertaken by anyone. Schools such as the Silent Eye are founded upon the development of a ‘path’ comprising stages of understanding marked by specific gateways. These gateways are often called initiations – a word that implies a beginning, or more accurately, a new beginning. In that new beginning, we understand the hidden meaning of realisation: to make real…

In that new beginning, a new world is born…

©Stephen Tanham 2022

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

Derbyshire’s Green Man…

*

Beyond the forest’s leafy shade,

The hooded one, with giant’s pace

From pinnacle to pinnacle

Leap’t silently, in moonlit grace… 

*

In eremitic solitude

In caverns deep to meditate…

Within, the riddle of the night,

A key that will elucidate…

 *

Beyond the stones, to four once nine

To where the goddess meets her mate

And heavens dance at winters turn

Bends earthwards to illuminate.

*

A Journey at Solstice

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I wrote this  a few years ago after a journey through the English countryside one Solstice. As the vernal equinox marks the turning of the year once again, I thought I would share this again today.

I have always been aware of magic. A strange, eclectic upbringing allowed me to grow without religious prejudice in a world where Bast and barguests were as possible as any other cat or dog and where Jehovah, Allah and the Buddha were held in equal respect.

I was taught to love the Earth in all her beauty and mystery, through folk tales and science in equal proportion. There was nothing of glamour attached to magic. It was simply there. Always and everywhere.

So what happened at Solstice…just happened…

I work in field sales and one of the privileges of that job is to organise one’s own workload. So, as Thursday dawned windy, but gloriously sunny, I decided to visit customers in the Cotswolds and treat my city–sated soul to the beauty of thatched cottages and rolling English hills. For some reason, I threw a pair of jeans and my painting easel in the car along with the files, which I’ve never done before.

I had a good day with customers and my final visit took me within a stone’s throw of the Rollright Stones, a stone circle set in a ring of trees on top of a hill. I went there once before with a friend and had shown him how to dowse with copper rods. This was the first time I’d been on my own and, being midweek, I had the site almost to myself.

I parked in the lane and stripped off my business suit, feeling that as I did so, I was stripping away the world’s perception of my persona. Donning jeans and T-shirt brought me back to simplicity devoid of pretension or pretence.

Leaving the mobile phone behind I stepped away from the humdrum need to make survival money and felt I crossed more than one threshold as I walked between the gateposts.

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The circle, though weathered, is almost complete. The stones stand like broken teeth around a green lawn, not manicured, but scattered with daisies like little bright stars lifting their faces to the Light. The path enters the circle at the wrong place. A stone there has fallen, leaving a natural entrance, but it was never the original portal. Nevertheless, I enter the circle and as there is no-one around to notice, I bow to the Light and enter barefoot, treading deosil around the perimeter.

The sand is hot underfoot, the circle is sheltered from the wind by a horseshoe of trees, but here and there little dust devils dance. At the four quarters flowers have been left as offerings, sweet williams, with their heady scent and blood red petals, stark against the white and ochre of the lichen covered stones. Last night was the summer solstice and I have heard that this ring is still used by devotees of the Craft. I know that I will find the same flowers at the King Stone, a single monolith, as well as at the fallen burial chamber called the Whispering Knights, which form a triangle with the original entrance to the circle.

Circles and triangles take my mind to the Tree of Life with its great inrush of Cosmic Force and I wonder what the ancients were doing when they built this Temple of Light.

I walk to the centre of the lawn and sit, cross legged, in the circle. I am no longer alone; four men are also seated on the grass, talking quietly. We are isolated here and perhaps I should be careful. Yet I know there is no threat and a deep serenity enfolds me. One of the men stands to leave and I hear the words “Blessed be” repeated softly.

The sky above is a clear blue, scattered with clouds chasing each other in the wind. There is no road noise here; the only sounds are the birds and the rustling of leaves, overlaid by the muted conversation of the men. I close my eyes and begin the fourfold breathing as I have been taught. My body relaxes and I sink into the landscape.

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In my mind I see the circle as a great chalice. It is empty save for its memories, yet I feel it was meant to be full of Light, a beacon for the soul. An empty vessel fulfils no purpose. The chalice is a vessel which gives form to that with which it is filled.

From the centre of the circle I renew my pledge of service. Around me I feel the wind spiralling into a great silver vortex, carrying me skywards on the wings of faith, yet the Earth is steady and solid beneath me and the grass tickles my feet in the slight breeze. Reality contradicts itself and I let it carry me with it, humbled and awed.

The vortex climbs through the azure haze, upwards, outwards, expanding and encompassing, the rhythm a great heartbeat, a counterpoint to my own, carrying reflected Light back to the heavens. The spiralling slows, stops climbing and rests, perfectly balanced on the point of the vortex in the circle where I sit. Then I am falling, in decreasing circles as it winds down and down, until the wind rushes through the Earth, in a subterranean vortex of white fire, funnelled from on high. The afternoon sun is warm on my upturned face as I swirl ever faster in the rushing fire. I can feel a pressure mounting. Suddenly, like a great star bursting, the fire spreads through the stones and out across the landscape. I can see it from my vantage point among the stars, a vast net of pure white force, veins of lambent silver spreading out across the land, carrying Light like blood.

One of the men laughs softly and that seems to fit. Joy is allowed. I open my eyes and smile, a smile shared by the men. Inside I feel different, a golden serenity which carries me home to my hearth.

Later, leafing through a book while I wait to kidnap the bathroom from my hoard of teenagers, I read the author’s words on how to honour the ancient places and smile. Perhaps those who work still at Rollright have kept it alive. It is I who was honoured today. Call it imagination or daydream if you will. I only know how it has made me feel and that today was a day of unforgettable beauty.

A Simple Soul?…

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Bright.

Free.

Easy…

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Or superficial?

Blissful in ignorance

rather than poised,

tight-rope like,

upon the very lip of uncertainty…

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We have no words for it,

this ‘traffic jam’ of artifice

which we seem content to pursue.

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Our infinite regress of virtuosity

is no more than a virtual virus.

*

Our end?

Yet another blind-bumper

away from the real.