Beginnings

the pipe to the sewage farm, as seen in summer

My head says that the perfect wayfaring is to follow an ancient trail through the hills, where the eye can roam to horizons beyond where the feet can tread: a Himalaya or Grand Canyon of the soul.

So much for my head: my feet know better.

The other day, I set out on a banal errand, accompanying Karleen to town on a Saturday morning to the Post Office and thence to the market where she would buy yam, green banana and other West Indian staples. She usually undertakes these trips alone, as our shopping styles are incompatible. Mine is purposeful, I don’t slacken my pace. Shops and malls in principle are enemy territory. So when I saw the queue at the Post Office, I left her there and walked on eastward. I’d promised to get her some memory for her computer. I also wanted an LED light on a flexible stalk that clips on the bedhead, for reading and writing without disturbing her sleep in the hours of stillness. There’s a retail park along the valley which has such things.

This was when my feet expressed their gladness, like a dog when it sees its master unhook the leash and put on his walking boots. I’d unconsciously planned to break free as we set out from home, for I’d already put on those boots.  Part of my glee was to subvert the whole concept of a retail park, for it’s designed as a place out of town to be reached by car. But I know a footpath beside the secret river. In town you only catch glimpses, as it’s largely hidden within culverts. In the outskirts it flows past industrial premises, the sewage works and a disused railway line. It splits and runs either side of the Rye, a park with children’s playgrounds, football pitches and an open-air lido in summer.

As I traversed the park, ideas started fluttering into my head like bats in twilight. It wasn’t so much thinking as being receptive to everything, including ideas from within. The surroundings were pretty enough but it but wasn’t their picturesqueness that set me off. It was something bigger: the joy of the morning, the perfection of the moment. As if these were raw materials, no finished product; a modelling clay ready to be shaped into anything. Ready for new beginnings.

Following the river-bank, I saw that what stops us learning—synonymous with a new beginning—is that part of us which doesn’t really look. This, we say smugly, is something we do know. We have a ready-made opinion or nugget of knowledge. Thus for example we know what is meant by the unconscious mind, and the various ideas of Freud. But “knowing what is meant by” has nothing to do with knowledge. It’s the antithesis of curiosity. And perhaps we say to ourselves there are too many ideas already. Let them be silenced. I will say “aye” to that.  For when I’m free from thinking that I know, there’s a freshness like this morning, where I observe and listen, while moving in this crisp air.

This is what I call wayfaring: not to admire the picturesque—that tree, this leaf, yonder panorama—but to sense the universe put back together: me a thinking walking man, part of this landscape, this river valley, this county, island, continent, planet. My consciousness, in the centre of all this: the very environment which evolved it in the first place, over the millennia. *

I wrote the other day about The Centaur; about not wanting to be just the rider, but fused completely with the horse.

In the world of ideas, there is too much abstraction. In the world of books, you need to read the original, not the gossip around it. Let your own ideas spring up unbidden, just as the author’s did. Procreate, don’t plagiarize.

I suspect there are innumerable discoveries to make but we have to be like a child in front of them, hungry to learn, not weighed down with the staleness of the preconceived. Darwin was like that. BBC radio celebrates his centenary, and also the 800 years of Cambridge University, which started as a group of students fired by eagerness to wrest secrets—theological or scientific—from the bounteous æthers.

It’s always worth going back to the source: to the moment when something began. Where did man begin? In Africa, they say. I have never set foot on the continent, but my body, or if you will, my unconscious mind, dreams of it constantly, for though my skin be white, my ancestors come from a region around Kenya, like your ancestors, like everyone’s. The closest I got to Africa was in 1946 when my ship anchored at Port Said on its journey through the Suez Canal. Passengers could get off to buy souvenirs and feel dry land under their feet after weeks sailing from Fremantle, but I stayed with my mother, looking over the rail at naked boys diving for pennies. I was astonished. Some of them were scarce older than me (I was 4) yet there they were, in Paradise, unconstrained by mothers. Mine gave me a couple of coins to throw and each time the boy caught it before it sank to the bottom, and bobbed up like a cork grinning and holding it in high triumph.

I’m trying to convey some of what went through my head as I walked to the retail park along the valley floor beside the humble river. It was a very quiet sense of exaltation. I felt privileged to participate in the world’s discovery: not to be celebrated as a discoverer, but merely for the joy of looking: finding new ways of looking. I’m not talking about a particular discovery, a new idea that runs through academia like a benign infection, but just a kind of seeing. For anyone can do it, I believe, though I have no evidence to back this up. I prefer to speculate like a philosopher. Others will be scientists. They’ll want to prove their theories, but that’s hard or impossible. So they look for certainty in scepticism and disproof.

Give me learning and keep your belief. When I learn, I tune into something I never knew was there. Once I can tune to it, then I can begin to see it all the time. This is a true beginning, as celebrated for example by Dante, in his Vita Nuova.

The retail park has been built on the site of an old paper mill which took advantage of river-water to dissolve the wood-pulp from the trees in these surrounding hills, and the water-power to drive the machinery. I’m so glad at my discovery of this route to get there: glad that this trail, this old railway line, have not yet been razed by bulldozers. I reach a point where I tell myself I should write about it: a piece entitled “Enjoy while you can!” We should never cease from celebrating that which cannot last. This is where I differ temperamentally from those mystics who claim we should celebrate the eternal and infinite. No! If it’s eternal, it can wait. Let me rejoice in the ephemeral, gather rosebuds while I may.

All will disappear: not absolutely for the world will remain and miracles never cease. But this unique combination of body and ever-sharpened intelligence, with consciousness added as a bonus, consciousness that allows joy: it’s like the original cast and crew of a film. Once they have dispersed, there is nothing left but a record on celluloid or digital media; which is perhaps all that others will value. A good reason to write this down.

I’m not saying “stop the world”. Of course not. Change the world. It needs change along with people who can effect that change, whose fulfilment is to change the world. (As I compose this, I am walking down the old railway line. No rails, no sleepers any more: just raised earthworks and a ditch like the prehistoric settlements that abound in these parts.) It’s not my aim to leave a legacy of writings, or to change the world, or even to populate the world with my offspring who may do it on my behalf. I just want to go on being excited about life, and if some of that rubs off, it’s good too.

And here in the woods near the old railway line is a sewage works, at the town’s lowest point, whose input arrives in a large iron pipe and whose output is pumped into the river, making it flow faster downstream. You hear the sound of a man-made waterfall and the constant low hum of pumps. And here if not before, I see that my heightened feeling, my overflow of joy can’t be explained by a mere “love of nature”. I stand in a triangular hollow, bounded by the river, the diagonal path and the old railway line together enclosing a shallow pond over which the big pipe and a smaller one are supported by brick columns. The pond’s surface is disturbed in more than one place by evidence of a spring: you can see one in the middle of the photo under the pipes. I must be an engineer at heart for I find all this completely fascinating. The more so because I have been here before. I come again. It’s a place of anticipation, of pilgrimage. Just like the eagerness in my feet when I contemplated this walk, I receive information from the part of me that isn’t censored and controlled by conscious intellect. It tells me what interests me.

I see that in a child’s world, a mammal’s world, a true human world, there is an endless fascination in repetition: the same only different. Music: rhythm, melody. We seek the new, we return to the familiar. I don’t seek to understand or explain this. I merely observe and report.

There is nothing grand about this river. It runs behind industrial premises, some derelict. It’s twelve-foot wide at the maximum. The path is muddy. But it has the power to evoke parts of my past life. Good parts. Parts I never understood at the time. I don’t mean just my life, but the world I observed. Things that were happening in the world, that I was born into. I give awed thanks for that life.

Anyhow the footpath eventually debouches into the retail park, for which too I give thanks, I cannot explain why. It’s ugly enough. PC World doesn’t have the computer memory. Argos does have the clip-on flexible-stalk LED reading-light (and it works wonderfully!)

On the bus home there are two boys in front of me. The larger one is a pink-faced flaxen-haired lump of a lad. The other is a dark-haired boy with wires going into his ears: quiet, he looks more intelligent or from a more privileged family than the pink-face, who holds forth loudly whilst he remains quiet. I don’t tune in at first but the larger boy is speaking of another, compassionately recounting his shortcomings and peculiarities. The smaller or younger boy is attentive, admiring: so am I. He has to get out, presses the bell-button for the driver to stop at the next bus-stop. The pink-face says “Oh, is that what you’re doing, seeing how late you can leave it to press the bell?” Then the smaller one gets up to go. “And you’re seeing how late you can get up to go?” I wonder if the shapeless pink-faced boy is in some way seducing the other, charming him with the way he can make the most trivial events in life into something of note, something to remember. It’s not aimed at me, but it works on me anyhow. As a person’s companion, he knows how to be as attentive as an imaginary friend.


* [Eight years later I discover that whilst dictating these thoughts I was passing the site of a Roman villa.]

The bulldozers came sooner than I expected. Some time after this post, the footpath was closed for several years while a new housing estate was built alongside. I wrote another post about the day I discovered it had been reopened: “Infinite are the Depths“.

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21 thoughts on “Beginnings

  1. Last night I watched a portion of a Documentary called Dogtown and the Z-boys.

    A film about a group of boys, who in the 1970's revolutionized the sport of skateboarding.

    What connected your story to theirs was 1st, their playfulness. Their ability to see a new way of doing something using what they found in their environment.

    There was a drought one summer. With water at a premium, many swimming pools were drained. They sought out these empty or near empty pools as playgrounds for their favorite passtime.

    I had looked up to one of these boys when I was a kid. (Tony Alva)

    What was most interesting was that the boy who was looked at by some of the other boys in the group as the most talented of them all, never really capitalized on his talent.

    Many others in the group became famous, marketed their skills successfully. However, this boy was only interested in having fun, he was not interested in signing a contract and having people tell him he had to be here or there, at a certain time.

    Funny how things go.

    Sometimes people who are the most tuned in, are also the people most often left out. The rewards are often available only to those who sacrifice some of what they can be in order to be in the right place at the right time.

    In the same way, I have kept my creative endeavors to personal ones, rather than pursue commercial outlets.

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  2. what a lovely photo, I felt myself quite lost within it. But of course, lost is the wrong world, because that means that “I” am the noise of my thinking – instead I drifted into quiet, and an absence of time that is eternal. It's quite different… but made me long for the creek running through my Michigan woods…

    another lovely, musing piece.

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  3. This very beautiful post does justice to the great Basho–

    I am very glad to find it, as it echoes thoughts I had today, while wandering through the snow with my dog…

    I feel that we are meant to perceive each moment as new, unique, and magical–and when we commit to doing that, we see the world through the eyes of grace. You seem to have a similar outlook.

    The photo evokes the narrative–is it the same place? It is lush, mysterious and peaceful–through your eyes…

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  4. Yes, Firebird, it is the same place, but it’s not my photo. I wrote an earlier post about the place, illustrated with my own photos. I'm glad we share a love for Basho! He was devoted to making pilgrimages, as recorded in his books such as The Narrow Road to the Deep North. What I find is that the pigrimage doesn't have to be to a publicly acknowledged holy place. The place becomes holy by repeated visits. I have found that Glastonbury Abbey, and the ruined Chapter House of St David's Cathedral, in Wales (in fact half a mile round that site in every direction), have an extraordinary spiritual power; but then so do other little spots I sometimes encounter, places where I erect (in imagination) a little wayside shrine.

    I very much like these words of yours: “I feel that we are meant to perceive each moment as new, unique, and magical–and when we commit to doing that, we see the world through the eyes of grace.” That says it perfectly.

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  5. Charles, you story is very interesting, especially your observation about choosing to do something for fun and not profit. The dedication to ambition and success, measured in celebrity and money, seems to me the psychological equivalent of ruining the land with fertilisers, pesticides and over-cropping. And man of the other perversions of our society, each one of which is taking revenge in these interesting days.

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  6. Hayden, I like to hear that phrase – it's new for me – re “I” being the noise of my thinking. In my year of being a therapist (treating CFS) I often got frustrated with clients and their sense of “I”. Their “I” was indeed the noise of their thinking. They needed to move their centre of perception to a place that they described as an “it”.

    It's funny about the photo. It never occurred to me till your and Firebird's comments that there was any special picturesqueness to the place, but I see it now!

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  7. Long story short, I'm using Speakonia, a text-to-speech reader. I tend to analyze everything or think too much for my own good.

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  8. Siegfried,

    The synthesis used in Speakonia is quite long in the tooth now (I was responsible for its production) and you will soon be able to use something far more natural–or you can always stick with the monotone.

    How did you find out about it? And how long did it take you to get comfortable with it?

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  9. Dear Vincent,

    If Blake's imagination had come with a camera. His exaltation echoes in your essay, and the photo is a fine accompanist.

    I seldom get to the places you do in wayfaring, being more a collection of anxieties, duties, urgencies, and vices. And it is hard to learn, hard to be.

    Beautiful women were my exaltation, and I have been ridiculously privileged in them. Sex holds a sacred ritual for me, and my mind preserves their souls and bodies, the individual strokes of their irises, napes, parts and voices, into a holograph including every whorl.

    A strange thing, I suppose, fetish or proclivity, and those are the first lines I've ever written on it. It would be embarrassing for my friends or family to hear, and frankly I feel guilty, but if liberated could probably write to quite favorable reception.

    It's the details which seduce, and noticing and acting upon them requires a sort of bravery. I once noticed a compelling stranger, walked up to her and said in candor, “When you are 75 years old, you'll still be beautiful.” She was possibly the most beautiful woman I've ever seen in person, and was mine right then.

    It's then that I have the same capacity to slow time down, am free to observe and parse the unspeakably gorgeous, ethereal, profane, to revel in rosebuds and take everything by giving pleasure. This is not new in men for women, surely, and hopefully not rare. Even so, I know damned well it's not common.

    You achieved much the same state by walking to buy a memory card and a light clip. You truly inspire me, sir, and have made me happy.

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  10. Marc, your comment deserves more than a simple acknowledgement. You have made me happy too, and yet the reminiscence of your “proclivity” (I’m proud you have unveiled it here first!) remind me of my own similar youthful aspirations, alas made miserable and frustrated by my shortcomings in looks, charm and self-awareness; attributes which you have not lacked. The self-awareness is the most important, methinks. For by this one can know one’s destiny, and mine was always to be a solitary wayfarer, rebel, questioner and seeker.

    But now you have started, you need to continue. You have started to speak the unspeakable, broken the ice, identified something “common” but “hopefully not rare”. An agenda has been set out in your words here. Will you follow through? Now that marital bliss has ended that chapter, will you expand it into several chapters of text?

    The world is surely ready to know more of this “capacity to slow time down … free to observe and parse the unspeakably gorgeous, ethereal, profane, to revel in rosebuds and take everything by giving pleasure.

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  11. “If it’s eternal, it can wait. Let me rejoice in the ephemeral”..”The place becomes holy by repeated visits” – liked your thoughts, all the wonderful comments.
    The picture tookme down a memorypath to school in the evergreen northeast of India where I grew up, where it truly was like Firebird says, “lush,…mysterious”, very fecund, wasn't quite peaceful tho, bec this girl was small, used to be scared, disturbed with that kind of quiet, bec in jungles only the predator can be that quiet and still…

    Rabindranath Tagore had said, “Deliverance (for me)is not in renunciation…” ur “let me rejoice in the ephemeral” is almost like that poem of his from Gitanjali.

    During my vacs after the exams, wd find out all the instances of auto-destruct they mention in Mahabharata at least, for you, if u r interested…sorry abt tht hurried thing

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  12. Tagore, yes, I loved his translations of the songs of Kabir. As for Gitanjali, can't remember how much of it I have read. This, by Ortega y Gasset, seems fair: “Tagore's wide appeal [may stem from the fact that] he speaks of longings for perfection that we all have … Tagore awakens a dormant sense of childish wonder, and he saturates the air with all kinds of enchanting promises for the reader, who … pays little attention to the deeper import of Oriental mysticism”. I wonder if he means that the deeper import of oriental mysticism is the notion of escaping the wheel of birth and death?

    Well, perhaps a few more lifetimes and some of us may not want to come back. But I don't believe (or indeed disbelieve) in reincarnation. To me it doesn't make sense. (1) It would imply two separate lineages: the body's genealogical lineage and the soul's previous lives. (2) I don't believe body and soul are distinct, but agree with Blake that body is the visible part of soul.

    Please excuse these ramblings inspired by your comments, Rolling. I look forward to the harvest from your excursion through the Mahabharata!

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  13. Vincent,

    far from ignoring your glittering gauntlet, I've been thinking about it for a week. Jury's still out on when or how, but…some day I'll pick it up. What I learned is worth passing on, at least to my sons.

    Women are in a permanent, plasticine state of mental arousal, one which easily slides into the physical. Their biggest desire is to be desired, with gaining intimacy a close second. They are ruthless appraisers of men for their genes and prospects.

    These factors make them especially vulnerable to boldness, confidence, and urgency. Every time I ever pointed to a passing girl or woman and, in a commanding voice, said “You! Come over here,” they did so. And then I would tell them them to sit down, which they did. This is more than about self-awareness or decent looks. It's about ancient hard-wiring.

    I hesitate to write these and other things for a large audience because the potential for abuse is enormous. Trust me.

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  14. Marc, I'm glad you responded to the gauntlet-flinging to this degree. What you say seems unarguable to me.

    Except for this, that you imply that you may impart some tips for others to follow. It seems to me that would be a mistake. The world is replete with self-help texts. One man's meat is another man's poison and besides, as you say, the potential for abuse is enormous.

    I'd recommend more of a personal approach, akin to a memoir.

    Now that you put it this way though, I recall that in my troubled young adulthood I was not short of role-models who followed the line you advocate, with complete success. Indeed they were blessed with neither looks nor self-awareness.

    In my case, no more blessed than they, I dimly knew that I must follow my own Destiny, which would take its twists and turns to a destination which only it knew. As it were.

    Wow.

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  15. Vincent,

    it must be fictional memoir, never a how-to thing, no, but anecdotes and details would still be problematic.

    How to explain. I had a Miss Brazil, a reigning Miss Teen USA, a former Miss Harley Davidson, and (by sheer coincidence) dated a future Miss America. In retrospect each is a cautionary tale, amongst the least satisfying women (Miss Harley excepted) I knew, yet they are real. Useful insights and techniques would be obvious lest the experiences are altered.

    As is tempting to do, since they don't much show me in kind lighting.

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  16. Thanks Ashok, I have addressed you by name in my latest post, for some of its themes were provoked by your latest, and my feeling that you had taken metaphors about gods and goddesses, for example, so literally as to locate them on distant planets.

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  17. Marc, I think what is really problematic in the project is the relationship between author and reader. The way I see it is that in any piece of writing, fiction or otherwise, both get some kind of payoff that repays their effort.

    I can't imagine that for you the payoff would be name-dropping or otherwise boasting, nor that you would pitch at the reader of kiss-and-tell memoirs. Nor do I see you as a purveyor of erotic tales aimed at arousal.

    I'm suddenly reminded of John Cowper Powys, in some of whose fiction there arises the theme of sadism, a perversion which afflicted him addictively. He took enormous pains not to cater to any such similar impulse in his readers, but nevertheless to delineate some of the drama in that particular landscape.

    In the same way I see your tales as a (possibly new) genre of literature in which the erotic encounter is stripped of the stimulus, and described in sensual detail as an aesthetic experience bare of any moral framework, stripped of male ego; so that seductions are described in all their beauty and ugliness for the reader to reconstruct without the Hollywood guidance of soundtrack mood-music.

    Put it another way, you have the world copyright on your own recollections: the names can be changed and you can do what you like with the raw material. It's a glorious chance to do something avant-garde, allowing your reader, wherever he or she sits, to undergo a personal transformation out of your control.

    (This fevered proposal comes from one who in quick succession has been reading Dostoyevsky and watching Antonioni: see my latest post.)

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  18. i greatly admire your gift of writing, along with your immense talent of obersving and expressing. Here in America, where I live, many people do not question or challenge themselves about their own ideas on life…philosophy…etc. They find it through telivision, propoganda. People lack the desire to be individual. So, with that in mind, I hope that there is change as well in our world altogether. As you said, we all derive from the same place. Humans branched off and continue to explore the world. However, right now in 2009, that inspiration has halted. Barack Obama being the new president of the U.S. shows that we as a country are evolving and wanting transition. We are trying to unite. But what I hope for you is that you continue your journey! I'm young and your words provide me a great insight on what I can choose to see in this fabulous world!

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