It turns out that I found myself greeting the arrival of each of my grandchildren into the world with equal awe; with equal emotion and equally special feelings. The birth of our first, a granddaughter, two and a half years ago, moved me to write my first poem after thirty years in a sort of 'creative desert'. For the arrival of my grandson the week before last, however, it may seem a little unkind, perhaps even unfair to confess that, at first, I felt my response was a little muted, perhaps somewhat underwhelming, because we had already been there two and a half years ago. So was this to be expected?
I don't think I had any expectations. My daughter and son-in-law, to their credit, apart from the fact that my daughter, in particular, had been extraordinarily tired after a few days of significant sleep deprivation, didn't bring any emotional baggage to the occasion of our arrival on his seventh day in the world; we were simply greeted in their usual way and... well, there he was in his Moses basket. I think I had just left my mind open to influence, without being afraid of expectations, with no particular air of excitement, no requirement to get excessively jubilant about the event. I just wanted to see what it felt like.
I wasn't to be disappointed.
When I say there was no expectation, it has to be said that I had a pretty good idea that a poem would be expected, and so I duly delivered one. 'A Lion is Born' was posted in 'My Poetry Library' the day before our arrival. So all seemed well, in a sort of very British, understated way; that is until a day later, when, for various reasons, I came to hold him for a few hours. This moment produced an unexpected depth of feeling; it moved me, profoundly; but not any more so than I can remember feeling when I held each of my own three children, in their first hours of life; and no greater feeling than my granddaughter had precipitated two and a half years before. But this was different somehow, almost, no, not almost... it felt like a spiritual experience!
Now, before I go any further, I need to say a word or two about religion and my own leanings.
If I were asked to describe my religion, I suppose I would have to be honest and say that I am nearly an atheist... but not quite! I was brought up as an adherent to the Church of England, not fire and brimstone stuff, just straight forward middle of the road, dutiful church attendance every Sunday and, as a choir boy, donning the surplice, cassock and ruff playing, or singing my regular part in the rituals of church and later school choirs. The other side of me evolved in my early twenties, when I'd left home. As a student metallurgical engineer, the more analytical, scientific if you like, but definitely philosophical facet of my thinking emerged, which enabled me to take a view of religion and religious belief systems as a very broad church, so broad in fact that I began to envisage the religious world as if from a helicopter, hovering at a considerable height above the earth (the psychologists among you will probably be able to attach a certain psychiatric condition to this perspective - please let me know if you do!).
This view brought me to where I am today; a position, which combines a touch of angst that derives perhaps from a guilt born of my early indoctrination - and I mean indoctrination in the most benign sense of that word, not the sense that produces zealots and suicide bombers - with a feeling of calm acceptance of a human condition that will always have a need for some kind of belief system, for a faith, particularly when things are not going well for us; and particularly for those people born into extreme poverty that those of us, who live in the relative luxury of the western world, can only try to imagine. Such feelings as these have, since the dawning of our time, been responsible for the great legends and mysteries, particularly those associated with the stories of Jesus Christ and Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Manichaeism, Mazdakism, Mithraism, Yazdanism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, African diasporic religions as well as a host of so-called new age religions, amongst many differing systems that have evolved over the ages of man.
So, it is the story of Jesus' entry into this world, as a babe in arms, that is for me more a point of reference that helps me draw a comparison to help my understanding of this experience; it is a narrative that helps me explain my feelings, rather than one which says that I've let Jesus or God into my life in some dramatic life-changing way and, whilst this is always possible, it is not the case at this point in time. The baby Jesus was probably a very sweet, heart meltingly beautiful looking baby, perfect in every conceivable way.
This brings me to the crux of my story: perfection.
It's simply the story of a deep insight, which I am certain will have been experienced by countless individuals, throughout our history, who have ever held a new born baby in their arms. Perhaps this is elevated by the famous Christmas narrative about Jesus' birth just over two thousand years ago. It is an insight nonetheless that I didn't expect; clearly an illumination of the capacity that is built into the human condition, that provides the strength to bind us together, to protect us against antagonistic forces and, above all else, to give us hope that the perfection we perceive in a new born child is somehow attainable, or retainable in later adult life; at the very least, it can act is a goal that we should seek, a light that should guide us through life, always aspiring to emulate this perception: the possibility of perfection in the human spirit.
It is probably the crux of the story of Jesus, that it records the fact that he died to absolve the rest of humanity of their sin and corruption. I would like to offer my interpretation of this process. He was born perfect, but in later life, increasingly committed to his mission, he became corrupted, but I don't mean that he turned bad! This was symbolic of the great strength that he appeared to have, by which he was able to absorb the corrupting influences of imperfect men, as it were, in exchange for giving them a better outlook, a more divine, less selfish, more giving character and able to go on and teach the Christian doctrine to others.
No great revelation there then, but one that always bears repetition; reinforcement. It is another philosophical observation that I have made in my life that the more you give of yourself, not only in the process of helping others physically, but also mentally and emotionally - particularly emotionally - the more it takes out of you and the more you have need to rest and refresh your spirit; to refill the fuel tank. I imagine Jesus, as a man, was probably.. if you'll pardon the use of modern vernacular here.. 'wasted' after giving so much of himself, because doing what he was reported to have done for so long would have caused weaker men to break down, emotionally. It is no wonder that he wandered off into the desert on his own to recover and renew his spirit. Any one of us, who lead busy and stressful lives can surely identify with our own human fragility.
So I had changed my grandson completely and, with his new set of clothes, he lay in my arms for the best part of the evening, whilst my close family sat and talked and watched television together. He went quiet even as I changed him and, although he had another brief bout of crying, he then remained quiet for the rest of the time that I held him, relaxing in my arms in a way that signalled complete trust and contentment. That complete trust and contentment was both awesome and infectious; in some strange way, it renewed my faith in myself and humanity.
I need to tell you that I am not in any way exaggerating the depth of feelings that came to me through this experience; there is no poetic embellishment here; it is told just as it was. I hope you will understand this feeling or will at least be able to relish it one day.