I couldn’t imagine how they must have felt that day when the rope broke and their four companions fell 4,000 feet to their deaths…
“…it dawned on us that we had no songs, we had nothing to offer.”
(Image above is ‘Kanchenjunga’ by Nicholas Roerich)
“If all the old songs are lost, then we don’t remember who we are.” (Aboriginal Tiwi elder, Lenie Tipiloura)
We had no songs. That’s what it boiled down to in the end, we really had no songs to offer. And now here we were, six westerners sitting around a fire in the Himalayan foothills of northern India looking awkwardly at one another while a ring of happy brown faces and expectant smiles awaited our contribution. To be honest, for me it was more than just embarrassing. It was much more than that.
The porters, guide and cook all looking at us, “Yes, yes! Please sing some songs where you are from!”
It was our last evening together. We had completed the Yuksom to Dzongri trek in Sikkim. It hadn’t been a long trek, less than a week. But from a 13,000 ft. ridge festooned with Buddhist prayer flags, we had seen the light of sunrise shining through the morning mists and illuminating the upper reaches of Mt. Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. A place and a vision I’ll never forget.
We had been really enjoying being an appreciative and enchanted audience as the porters took turns singing the traditional songs from the valleys and villages where they were from. Their work for us was done, everyone had been paid well and now it was a time to celebrate together. It was the kind of experience that makes travel to such distant places and different cultures so worthwhile.
But now this sudden and completely unexpected role reversal. Now they were the audience and we were to be the singers.
Because this is what they had been doing. Singing the songs that they had grown up with that they had learned as children. They were singing the songs their parents, aunts, uncles, neighbouring families and grandparents had grown up with.
Even the shyest among them sang in such a natural, lit up, open and unselfconscious way. A way that I found amazing- given how things are for most of us in our culture. I doubt that it ever occurred to any of them at any time in their lives that they couldn’t sing. They would have grown up with singing as being as natural as talking or laughing.
I’ll never forget that feeling of awkwardness, of how we all looked at one another. Weak jokes of maybe singing ‘Oh Canada’ or ‘Frere Jacques’ or maybe ‘Row Row Row your Boat,’ or some popular rock song we all knew. But that was not what was being asked for here in this place. All the while I was just squirming inside- like I was at a potluck dinner and now everyone wanted to know and taste what I had brought. And I had brought nothing.
Anyway, our ideas soon fizzled out into an awkward fidgeting silence as it dawned on us that we had no songs, we had nothing to offer.
Fortunately, they soon rescued us and started off on another of their own songs and we six could all breathe a sigh of relief and once again simply watch, listen marvel and enjoy.
But I have never forgotten that feeling of what it felt like to ‘have no songs’ in a place where everyone else did. It felt like a kind of poverty. It revealed a place of emptiness, a place of silenced voice in me that I hadn’t been aware of before. I’m aware of it now and its not a comfortable feeling. For to feel a sense of ‘something missing’ there must also be a sense that there was once something there. I wonder what that ‘something’ was?
That was in the fall of 2005, and I really hope that they and their people of all ages are still singing their songs in that beautiful place. It would be a great loss if they weren’t.
And according to Wade Davis, I have great reason to be concerned…
“If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite – the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that takes for granted an impoverished environment – is a source of dismay. There is, indeed, a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and re-inventing the poetry of diversity is perhaps the most important challenge of our times.”
― Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World
I wonder about these things. I wonder about the idea that not only are we losing such things as the traditional songs of people and place along with species of plants, animals, birds and old growth forests- we are also losing the species, nuances, sensations and illuminations- the sense of pure wonder of our own experiencing that our encounters with such diversities grant us. No matter how far away we are from that place, when such things disappear from the world we all lose something.
“So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story making events of our lives…”
I was snowshoeing last January along the trail leading to Helen McKenzie Lake on Vancouver Island. The trail winds its way through an evergreen forest, past small ponds and open sub-alpine meadows. An arctic high pressure ridge had settled over the area. It was well below zero- cold and clear and everywhere, a winter wonderland.
I was plodding my way through a shaded forest section when I came to a place where a single column of sunlight was shining down from the tops of the trees all the way to the ground. I paused there for a moment looking up. Just then, a flow of ice crystals sloughed off a high branch and drifted down through the air.
The crystals were so fine, that they floated down in slow motion- almost invisible until reaching the column of sunlight and then suddenly they were ablaze. An instant and dazzling illumination as millions of tiny diamond facets formed this brilliant cascade of crystalline white light against a backdrop of evergreen and golden sun rays.
Everything went very quiet and very still. For a few moments, it seemed as though nothing else existed except this drifting fall of glittering light in a silent forest.
Such a simple thing. Some snow falling off a branch and yet in that moment it seemed like one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
Sometimes, maybe ‘everything’ can be seen in a single snow crystal…
Another such moment happened when I was in my early 20’s and living in a second floor apartment above the corner of Jervis and Pendrell in Vancouver’s west end. It was in the early spring. The sun was out, the sky was a vivid blue, a northwest breeze was blowing and all the cherry trees were festooned with pink blossoms. They looked otherworldly –like I was looking out the window into a living Renoir painting. Looking out into streets lined with cotton candy pink.
I was standing with coffee in hand looking out the window idly watching a middle-aged woman walking east on Jervis street. She was wearing a long dark coat and carrying a full bag of groceries in each hand.
A sudden gust of wind blew through the trees just as she was passing beneath and a great shower of pink petals came cascading down-falling and whirling all around her. She stopped. She put down her burden and then just stood there with her arms raised up and wide open. Her face upturned to the shining sky as the fall of flower petals filled the air all around her. She gazed upwards with this radiant, beautiful smile that lit up her whole face like that of child. Suddenly stopping the world for this moment- being filled with the wonder, the sheer joy of just being alive. Here, now- in this life, in this world. This single moment. I have never forgotten that. And even though it was over 40 years ago, I can remember that sight as clearly as if I was just witnessing it again.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
(William Blake from ‘Augeries of Innocence’)
And maybe, seen in just the right way- we can also experience all that in the sight of just a single cherry blossom.
Another such remembered moment was of my daughter Kira and the fern circle. How a morning walk through a grove of old growth forest led to a moment that I’ll remember the rest of my days. She was about four at the time, embodying the archetype of the ‘Wonder child’ and she certainly was that.
As the three of us ambled along, Kira suddenly jumped into the open middle of a large circle of ferns- scrunched right down into a ball and then called, “Look, I’m a sunflower!” And she was! With her shining crown of blonde hair, she was scrunched right down in the middle of that green fern circle and she became exactly that right before our eyes- a sunflower. Who ever would have thought. She showed me that such a magical thing was possible. Just like that.
A few months ago, I was startled awake from a vivid dream. Jolted upright with a gasp of ‘Omigod!’
I had been standing on a beach near the edge of the water and it was very calm. I saw what at first looked like an eagle taking a steep dive at something in the water- a spot where there was a mysterious rising of white mist out of the blue stillness.
Then I realized it was a huge osprey. It hit the water with a great splash, extended talons reaching deep into the middle of that patch of white mist and then it lifted off again. I couldn’t tell what it had grabbed- but I could see it was clutching something.
“It’s an osprey!” I blurted out to whoever else was there, if in fact there was anyone else there. And then this great bird, using the momentum of it’s dive to soar high off the water’s surface then folded it’s wings in a bit, paused in mid-air and shook out all its feathers to shed the water from its plunge. And in that split second with the sun behind – the whole bird suddenly looked as though it were made of a brilliant, shimmering crystal- this shining burst of light and water drops against vivid blue sky background. In my dream,I literally gasped an, ‘OMIGOD!!’ of wonder at the sight of it- and that was what woke me up.
That single image was branded deep into the otherwise blank canvas of my waking consciousness. It was so clear, so vividly real. I was standing on that shore, I could feel the sand cool under my feet. I could feel the sun warm on my face and in that moment when I woke up, I could still see that great shimmering bird- I could still see that crystalline shower of water light suspended high in the sky.
And if I close my eyes and ask, I can still see it.
As with the falling ice crystals and the woman being showered with cherry blossom petals, I knew that also with this dream that I was experiencing one of those special moments- one of those ‘small silent moments’ that Douglas Coupland speaks of.
Perhaps as he speculates, there indeed are qualities to these ‘small silent moments’ that gradually infuse and inform the deeper stories of our journey through this life. That there is a particular kind of energy, something else present that has some unique and enduring qualities that causes us to remember these things.
It sometimes feels to me that there is a kind of catalyst, some kind of alchemy there that somehow transforms the base metals of a particular experience into a kind of ‘gold’ which then settles deep beneath the surface gravel of our everyday awareness.
Perhaps now out of sight of our ‘normal’ everyday consciousness- but they are not gone, are they? There seem to be things that we try to remember, that we must make that effort not to forget and then there are other things that just seem to be remembered for us through some unknown means. As if these special moments become part of a deeper story is somehow remembered for us. And we just need to go in search of it in the places where it is patiently waiting for us to show up.
And I think we all long to be able to share our deepest story with at least one other person in our lives. Someone who can really hear our story.
“Much of the illness of our time is that people have no place to tell their story.” Carl Jung
And if Jung is right and many ‘people have no place to tell their story,’ how long will it be before people begin to forget their own deeper stories? How long will we even be able to remember the language to be able to share such stories?
“So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story making events of our lives…”
Thank-you for taking a moment to visit this place.
‘What the heck are you writing about?,’ you may ask.
The first thing that came to mind was a line from Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat,’ suggesting that, “I hope you’re keeping some kind of record…”
Yes Leonard, I actually have been. A record of musings, events, experiences, encounters, upsets, mysteries, loves, revelations, fragments, intimations, glimpses, remembrances, wonderings and ponderings consisting of well over 100 small pocket notebooks, a box of journals, innumerable scraps of scribbled paper that lie about everywhere and some 2,000 pages of Word documents that I have grouped loosely together under the heading of ‘Raw Materials.’ And that’s exactly what I have- a whole pile of raw material.
Which brings up the second thing that comes to mind which was in answer to a question a friend shared with me from a workshop she had been taking, “What is your passion?” The answer that arose immediately and without thought came in the form of two words, ‘Interpretation’ and ‘Translation.’ In that order. I was surprised by that, and yet the more I think about it the more sense those two words make.
All added up, these writings over the decades do indeed qualify as ‘some kind of record.’ Not just any kind of record though. It was never enough to simply record the events, dates, who, what and where of my journeying. Those are the outer forms, the outlines. But the living essence of a thing, the deeper story layers of a given experience or a memorable encounter are held within those outer forms just as water is held within a glass.
The ‘raw material’ of an ‘outlier’ kind of experience to me is like the visible ten percent of an iceberg- which does indeed form a kind of record, a kind of story of our life. But what has always intrigued me is the story that is not so obvious, not so visible. The forming story that is beneath the surface and is not so readily seen and cannot be so easily conveyed.
An element of discernment is needed to guide the work of interpretation and translation as I approach this heaped jumble of raw material- as I try to explore what can’t be seen so easily from the surface. Not unlike being a kind of prospector, gold-panning along the living streams and river banks in the unmapped wilderness of one’s own life.
The third piece, which has really come as a form of guidance for me began when I came across the quote below by Douglas Coupland. He had put into language exactly what I had been doing all along without really knowing it;
“My mind then wandered. I thought of this: I thought of how every day each of us experiences a few little moments that have just a bit more resonance than other moments- we hear a word that sticks in our minds-or maybe we have a small experience that pulls us out of ourselves, if only briefly- we share a hotel elevator with a bride in her veils, say, or a stranger gives us a piece of bread to feed the mallard ducks in the lagoon; a small child starts a conversation with us in a Dairy Queen- or we have an episode like the one I had with the M & M cars back at the Husky station.
And if we were to collect these small moments in a notebook and save them over a period of months, we would see certain trends emerge from our collection-certain voices would emerge that have been trying to speak through us. We would realize that we have been having another life altogether, one we didn’t even know was going on inside us. And maybe this other life is more important than the one we think of as being real- this clunky day-to-day world of furniture and noise and metal. So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story making events of our lives.” (my italics/bold)
(Douglas Coupland from, ‘Life after God’ P.254-255)
This came as a revelation to me- the magnitude of which is difficult to describe. All that time I had been ‘keeping some kind of record,’ it had been something that I felt compelled to do without really knowing why I was doing it.
There was a sense that it somehow mattered but beyond that I didn’t have much insight into the ‘why’ it mattered. But when I came across the Coupland passage above, a light went on. As if I had looked down at my feet, as if I had looked behind me through that light and glimpsed a path for the first time. It was just a glimpse- but one that changed everything. I had not just been bumbling blindly along here, there and everywhere. Some part of me had been following ‘something’ all along. Some part of me had been creating, had been treasure hunting, had been intuiting, had been noting the outliers from the ‘normal’ bell curve of experience all along.
And all along, I had been marking a kind of rough route, a crude kind of path the whole time. Only by looking back, in moments when the fog of ‘everyday’ cleared for long enough could I really see that.
The title ‘Raw Materials’ is an appropriate one for most of the writings I have done to date. I have this image of a cleared area on a piece of undeveloped land with forest, the blue of water and open fields all around. There is a huge pile of building materials there that has been accumulating over many years. Pieces of lightning blasted granite carried down from the mountains, smooth water rounded stones from the river nearby, touchstones, symbols from distant lands, old growth timbers harvested from the fallen giants of the forest, wood found storm washed up on the beach, a mound of gravel from a gold bearing stream, salvaged windows, doors and ceramic tile. Metaphorical materials that have endured- that have withstood the tests of time, change and doubt.
In short everything needed is now there to build something that will last, that will stand the test of time.
My creative task now is one of both interpretation and translation. To get in touch with and converse with these things- these voices that have been trying to catch my attention, that have been trying to speak with me- and then explore that conversation, that journey, these questions, these intimations through my writing.
It’s like creating a very complex jig-saw puzzle where I have no idea what the finished image will look like. Where there are no straight edges, no obvious corner pieces. What I do have is a sense of what some of the individual pieces might look like and therein lies the challenge. To carefully and intuitively craft each separate piece from the raw experiential material using the tools of interpretation and translation. That’s what this blog will be about.