Take nothing for granted

A Piraha hunter

“What are you thankful for?” asked a blogger friend, seasonably. What shall I do with the days that remain, if not give thanks? For the birds that sing in my backyard. For everything.

I always go to meet my wife at her office in the hospital, at the end of her working day. It’s a twenty-minute walk each way. On Thursday I muttered some words into my voice recorder on the outward journey. In America it was Thanksgiving; here it was just another day. This is an edited transcript.

‘…to capture the very essence sometimes of what is going on in this world at this moment. I’m sure that what we see is a reflection of where we are at. I see cheerfulness, despite the debris and desperation. There’s always reasons for those. This morning in the playground—my shortcut into town—a man was sitting on a low wall, hunched, head sunk on his chest, motionless. It looked like despair, but it might have been a meditative ecstasy. The dishevelled clothes and beer can in his hand didn’t decide the matter. They were merely indications that he was not looking after himself well.

‘I’m seeing things precisely, in fine detail. There are three realms: sensations, thoughts and emotions. In ordinary life they are not easily separable. Each of the senses is a sub-realm, but they too are usually active all at once, though we may not give them equal or any attention. Here in the twilight I note a hedge bordering a front garden, rigorously pruned but apparently covered in pink blossom, flourishing in November. I can only guess its colour as the sky darkens, and I don’t slacken my pace. I’m a creature totally alert: for this I give thanks. I observe with all my senses and think too, trying to classify this botanical phenomenon taking into account the time of day, the time of year, possible optical illusion, my memories of similar phenomena; whilst the cold wind and the faint combination of scents that it carries all form part of what I observe.

‘I’m thankful for the sky. It’s still above, always putting on a display, whether it be fantastic cloud-shapes, fathomless blue, dazzling sun or impenetrable night. In this well-lit town I seldom see the full pageant of stars, as one would in the desert, or I once saw when bivouacked on the Isle of Wight Downs. We sat round a circle of dying embers and ash, gazing in wonder at a hundred shooting stars.

‘I pass down a street with houses either side. A smell of stewed beef hangs in the air. A Chinese man emerges from his house for a smoke, followed by two little dogs, who look Chinese too. I don’t mean they look like the man: more like mongrel versions of Chinese dog breeds (Pekinese, Chow). In the privacy of my thoughts I wonder if these are the dogs which are bred for cooking purposes in China. The man glances at me as if reading my thoughts. That’s the thing: it is all right to observe the world of Nature as if one were an outsider, like Hesse’s Steppenwolf. But I must remember that people are more “psychic” than common reason acknowledges. Perhaps I must not even think “racist” thoughts. Now I hear a yapping behind me. Did the dogs read my thoughts too? A young black man walks towards me, so tall, striding so powerfully. There is more than rhythm in his stride: there is music and dance too, I don’t mean literally, for he carries no iPod, only music pulsating in his veins. Life is so interesting! If it were really the case that I could have an influence on the world, to give something back, I would gladly respond to a vocation of sharing this immediacy of experience: not to entertain others but encourage them to find it for themselves. This immensity, without any drugs!

“Now I’m behind two little children who stepped out of a car in absurd school uniforms—blue blazers too large, skipping along in front of their mother. The girl is smaller, wears thick red stockings and her footwork fascinates, for it’s uncontrived, not intended for any audience. Maybe she goes to ballet class, maybe not.”

Does everyone experience such things? I may not presume one way or the other, but give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m pretty sure the Piraha tribe of the Amazon live in a similar world:

“Piraha problems with reading, writing, and arithmetic stemmed not from slow-wittedness but from a cultural conviction about how to converse, Everett proposes. From the villagers’ perspective, talking should concern only knowledge based on one’s personal, immediate experience. No Piraha refers to abstract concepts or to distant places and times.
. . .
“Moreover, the Piraha tell no creation myths and don’t make up stories or draw pictures. They believe in spirits that they directly encounter at times, ‘but there’s no great god who created all the spirits, in the Piraha view’ Everett says.

“Cultural mandates to express only one’s immediate experience and to shun outsiders’ knowledge have kept the Piraha population, which now amounts to around 200 people, from learning other languages despite more than 200 years of regular contact with Brazilians and various Amazonian groups, he adds.” (From an article on the work of linguist Daniel Everett.)

I also give thanks for the blessings of counting and reading and writing.

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6 thoughts on “Take nothing for granted

  1. No, vincent, the ability to see, experience, and record in the moment while laterally relating is either attained gradually, or it is a gift.

    A wonderful experiment, all in all, one I hope to be able to try myself. It would mean gaining far more control over my ability to describe in real time.

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  2. Very beautifully written, and quite timely indeed! And so I am left to observe co-incidences and wonder about them too, as if a thought can occur and somehow make its way to another who catches it and percolates on the same thought too.

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  3. Ah … I came to post my comment only to find that my sentiments echo those of MarcLord. There are those who never learn the art of truly experiencing the world around them and giving thanks for the small moments. I feel a measure of pity for them. For some awareness comes later as circumstance and consequence of one's life bring enlightenment. And, yes, there are those who are gifted with such “sight” and appreciation from birth. It is one of the finest gifts one can have.

    I make an effort to absorb fully the world around me. I do not always succeed. Thank you for reminding us of how beautiful and wonderfully strange life can be when we take nothing for granted.

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  4. Vincent, you see as an artist does, with enormous detail.

    I recently read of an art teacher who scheduled l-o-n-g work sessions – what he looked for was one thing only – the capacity to continue discovering – “seeing” – more and more detail as long as the object is observed.

    It's my belief that “seeing” can be learned. But – one must decide that one is willing to turn off the mental chatter and take time to observe. Most won't.

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