from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 18 April 2011

kayaks, cusps, peak experiences & the canto hondo

For some months now there has been a memory resurfacing for me as a recurring image: it's dawn, summer, the kind of cuspal stillness that can happen before day picks up (have you noticed how dawn and dusk are so often exempt from wind, no matter what's preceded them?), a light hazy mist over a river tributary and me, alone, sixteen or seventeen, in my long sharp pride-and-joy yellow kayak, paddling so gently that barely a drip touches the water and I glide in silence towards the river estuary. As I paddle the mist burns off, and I'm sliding on the water's surface as if on silk, and the fat sun of summer rises, the swans barely cease from their underwater feeding as I pass them, and gradually the banks come into focus; the bullrushes, the yellow flag irises, clumps of marsh marigold and kingcup.
   The bank to my right borders and contains Vellator Marshes with their herds of placid Ruby Red Devon cattle. Here my father used to take us as children to net the little stickleback that we'd take home and keep in a vast glass tank; and tadpoles. It was here that I'd cycle lonely as a – no, not cloud; as lonely as a romantic teenager with poetic leanings can be; and ride on the foal-grown-to-ponyhood that I'd bought straight from Dartmoor with my £25 Post Office pocket money savings; and here I'd bring friends and, later, boyfriends to walk the 3 miles to the idyllic 3-mile long beach.
   It was here that Henry Williamson of Tarka the Otter fame (written about the stream that ran 100 yards from our house) set his most magical book, The Pathway, about a conscientious objector, and with a little story within a story, The Star Born, which so caught my adolescent imagination. Williamson was a contradiction, and, like many of his era, made some to us unimaginably crass-seeming and unthinkable decisions: himself disgusted with war after being conscripted in WW1, and determined to do all he could to prevent Britain and Germany going to war again, he in WW2 joined the Fascist Party. But I try not to hold that against him as his nature writing is excellent (and that raises the old old question about whether art stands alone or whether one has to judge the artwork against too the integrity of the creator. I can't easily answer that for myself: I want to say the latter, as I always hope idealistically no doubt that there will be congruence between the two. And yet we have work like T S Eliot's 'Four Quartets', to my mind some of the most extraordinary poetry produced in the C20th – and he was reputedly anti-semitic. And our literature would have been that much the poorer without. So.)
   But that was a diversion. What I wanted to say, have been thinking about, is that that memory – and although I experienced similar (and occasionally a great deal more dramatic) trips a number of times, it's that one in particular – seems to me to encapsulate the enormous sense of wellbeing, happiness, that comes when one is living truly in one's own skin and also within the deepest song of the universe, no matter how brief the moment, with no separation. A 'peak experience', or moment of transcendence, I later learned it might be labelled. In Zen we'd call it a moment of satori. And I guess after a moment, or moments, like that we spend the rest of our lives repeating or trying to repeat that experience – or deadening ourselves in order not to feel the pain of not experiencing it...
   And for me that is the measure, I guess, of whether my life serves me and I serve my life; and whether I then serve the greater purpose, whatever that might be, of life itself; whether I can close the gap between 'self' and 'other' being one expression of it, perhaps.
   And the second thing I have been thinking of, related, is how one digs down through the layers to restore the canto hondo (or cante jondo as Lorca had it): the 'deep song' that might, if we let it, sing us. As I think about this I think about reclaiming that which is deeper than ego and the ego's desires and connects us into – well, everything; and how much work, a life's work, maybe more, it seems to take to reclaim that part of ourselves. (Or maybe it's a continual and ceaseless process. Yes, of course; that's more like it.) I go in search of Clarissa Pinkola Estes book here where I'm horse-sitting for my daughter; I'm not sure she's read it but I know she has it, as I gave it her; and no doubt, when she's ready she'll read it (always a mistake to give to your children the books that are important to you!). I look up canto hondo and she says very little about it; but she does say this, which is lovely: 'When we think of reclamation it may bring to mind bulldozers or carpenters, the restoration of an old structure... However, the older meaning is this: The word reclamation is derived from the Old French reclaimer, meaning "to call back the hawk which has been let fly"... to cause something of the wild to return to us when it is called.'
   Yes. That's the work that excites me. That's calling the canto hondo.

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