Boleh Tahan ~ THE LARK'S SONG

HAVING LEFT THE LAND OF MY BIRTH many years ago to travel around the world, I am a stranger there now, and know countries like India and Malaysia much better than I do England. But this doesn’t bother me, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever return to live there permanently. The place where I was born and grew up, however, was really quite beautiful, being in the countryside, and for many years, feeling the urge to trace my roots, I had wanted to go back for a visit.

In 1995, therefore, I made the effort and went back, and in this article, I want to tell of some of my observations there.

Although our family was not well off, neither were we poor by the standards of that time and place; in fact, we were really quite lucky, as we always had a car, and later on, we were among the first in our village to have a TV set (yes, the 20th century, not the 19th, and after World War II, not before; sounds incredible, doesn’t it?). I do not remember it, but food-rationing went on for several years after the war; you couldn’t just go out and buy whatever you wanted, even if you had the money; they were not the easiest of years, but after the War that practically bankrupted Britain, anything was good. (Until now, it is still spoken of as ‘the war’, as if there was only one war! It shows how, when we are involved with something directly, it becomes ours, subjectively, whereas other things—even though they are similar—are remote from us and somehow far away).

Our village was lovely—so lovely!—with hills, fields, woods, streams, ponds for fishing, various kinds of fruit- and nut-trees, and even old castles within range of our wandering feet. During holidays—weather permitting (though I don’t recall it raining as much then as it seems to do now)—my younger brother and I would leave home in the morning, with sandwiches packed by our mother, and cover many miles before coming home in the evening, tired but happy from the day’s adventures, with something or other in our pockets or over our shoulders. Our parents didn’t worry about us; it was just the way things were; there was almost no crime in our area then.

School was not the most favorite part of my life; it wasn’t that I was dumb and incapable of learning, but that I didn’t like being made to learn, and wanted to learn in my own way. I was somewhat like Mark Twain, it seems, and preferred being in the open air to being confined in a classroom. It was not uncommon for me, therefore, to decide at lunch time that I wouldn’t go back to school afterwards and instead, went off into the nearby woods. When classes resumed, my absence was discovered, and—twice that I remember—upon being informed that someone had seen me going into the woods, the headmaster brought the entire school out to search for me (I guess it was a nice break for him, too). But I knew the woods better than they did, and was, moreover, very good at hiding, so they would be all around me and still not see me. After a while, the search was abandoned and they returned to school, and I, thinking how smart I was to outfox them, then went home. The next day, however, I had to go to school again, where the teacher was waiting for me with his cane! I was so happy to leave school!

There was one spot in the woods that I particularly loved: a rocky outcrop that soared like the bow of a ship above the waves of the tree-tops. I would sit there for hours, dreaming away. I even scratched my name in the rock. Far below was a farm-house among the trees and patchwork fields; I used to call and wave to the people there, and they would wave back. Carefree, simple days. On the other side was one of the two castles in our vicinity—a mock-Norman fortress, built only 150 years ago in the forest. For young boys, of course, such a place drew us like a magnet; it was irresistible. Round and round the walls we would go, hoping somehow to find a way in. Years after first discovering the castle, we did manage to get in, and how happy we were to have a castle all to ourselves! Our imaginations, given free rein, went wild!

In our village, there were two places of worship: the Church of England and the Methodist chapel. People were divided in their loyalties between them, although there was little difference in belief. My family—led by our mother—went to chapel (we didn’t call it ‘church’; it was chapel, and nothing else). It was, for me at that time, rather boring; you could count on seeing the same people there week after week, and people were noticeable if they didn’t turn up. There was David Dodd, who invariably went to sleep during the sermon, grumpy old Eric Chesters, the farmer who used to yell at and chase us if we set foot in his fields, though we were doing no harm, and Mary Hassle, the organist. My mother was active in the chapel, and often used to conduct the services. The whole service—consisting of two prayers, three hymns, some announcements, and the sermon—lasted an hour. The sermon should not have gone on for longer than twenty minutes, and if it did, people would become restless, coughing and looking at the clock on the wall, wondering when it was going to end; it was a formality; the content wasn’t important. Such was my religious background, and though I was later to abandon and reject it, I learned something from it, and am grateful.

Every summer we spent two weeks at the seaside in a rented chalet. Such chalets—which were really only shacks; there were caravans and even converted buses, too—clustered in the hollows between the sand-dunes; most of them had no running water, so we had to carry it from the taps placed at intervals along the road; at times, when usage reduced the pressure to a trickle, we had to stand in line for quite a while, little by little shifting our buckets and cans nearer to the solitary tap, hoping it wouldn’t run dry before we got to it. Nor were the shacks wired for electricity; we made do—and quite well—with kerosene lamps. And, needless to say, there were no flush-toilets, but little out-houses with buckets that had to be periodically emptied in pits dug for that purpose. it was all part of being on holiday; we didn’t mind.

The dunes were covered by rushes with spiky tips, which would break off in your skin and fester if you brushed against them; among the rushes, here and there, were patches of sea-holly, and black-berries, with fruit and thorns. The unspoiled beach stretched for miles and miles, and sloped very gently. The sea would recede so far, then advance almost to the dunes; what fun we had with an inflated airplane-inner-tube that our dad had acquired somewhere! (He was somewhat eccentric, and an inveterate patron of junk-shops and sale rooms, coming home with all kinds of odd things—treasures as well as trash). A light house stood on the beach, alone, aloof, mysterious, unoccupied, and slowly lapsing into ruin.

As a child, I loved nature, and was given to solitary musings. It was not unusual, therefore, for me go off on my own at the beach and sit or lie quietly in the dunes. There, I would listen to the sky larks sing high above, and strain my eyes to locate them; I could hear them, but where were they? Why did they fly so high to sing like that? Such a beautiful sound—I can hear it now!

I stayed with my second sister when I went back in ‘95, and from her home I made my forays to the scenes of my childhood, fifteen miles or more away. My village had changed quite a bit, and wasn’t as well kept as I remember it; the grass verges at the roadsides—which used to be so neat—were overgrown with weeds and briars. The house where I was born had gone—almost without a trace—demolished long ago (it was so old that to renovate and modernize it would have cost too much); the garden was like a jungle. I lived there for many years? I was born there? Not much remained apart from an ash tree I used to climb, an oak gate post—still solid—set firmly in the ground by my dad, a lilac bush that my mother had planted, and a few moss-covered stones in a garden wall.

Wandering around the village, I noticed some new houses, and gaps where others—like ours—had been. I met several people I knew and who remembered me; some had even heard that I had become a monk; looking back now, I suppose I was always odd; whoever would have supposed that a village boy like me would wander the world and return a monk? But I didn’t find the hospitality I’d grown accustomed to in S.E. Asia; no-one invited me to stay with them. Someone who I had gone to school with for ten years kept me talking outside his farm gate for quite a while without even asking if I would like a cup of tea! Would I have done that to him, if it were he coming back after almost thirty years away?

Visiting the church yard, and the graves therein, I came upon that of my school teacher; thinking thoughts of “Thanks for your efforts with me; even the canings were good!”, I moved on. Names of many other people I had known stared up at me from the stones; I read their touching epitaphs. “Rest in Peace”, David Dodd and Eric Chesters.

The Chapel, because it was situated on a slope that had begun to subside, was closed until funds could be raised to strengthen and make it safe; the church, in the meantime, had offered to share their premises with the chapel-goers, until their own were again usable—quite a development, considering how at odds they used to be.

The forest surrounding my rocky eminence had become a game-reserve for breeding pheasants (for shooting in the autumn; cruel sport!), and was out-of-bounds. Having come so far to revisit it, however, I wasn’t going to allow a few signs to deter me; early one morning, therefore, before the game-wardens were around, I went there and sat pondering on how strange my life has been. It seemed to be like a river—its source at that place—twisting, turning and meandering its way into the distance, but to no perceivable end. My name was still there, etched in the rock.

Our castle had been opened to the public as a tourist attraction, so this time, I paid to go in, but it was so many years since I’d last been there that it seemed different, somehow. Perhaps the difference was more in me than in the place, however; I was seeing it with different eyes this time—eyes that had seen so many other castles and things since then.

I was never very close to our relatives—aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.—but when one of my cousins discovered I was back, and decided it was a good excuse for a family get-together (she’s very much into such things, and together with another cousin, is engaged in tracing back our family tree), she set about arranging it. Not having seen some of these relatives for almost thirty years, I thought it would be interesting, but the actual event was somewhat of a let-down. While I did not expect or want to be the center of attention, I found their topics of conversation banal; it was as if I had never been away; no-one asked me anything about my travels. It was not because they were Christians, either; although they might call themselves so, they are not practicing Christians, or religious in the real sense, at all. Maybe my life style and the things I’ve done are so different and removed from their routine world that they considered me a threat to their security. (Their reaction—or non-reaction—to me was quite different than had been that of other relatives in the US, when I met them there in ‘85; they were Christians—white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS)— whose cold unfriendliness indicated their disapproval of my abandonment of the family religion to become a ‘heathen’). What you do not understand may be dangerous; you must be cautious, even afraid. It’s probably the last time we will meet.

A visit to England for this purpose would not have been complete without going to our holiday beach. I went alone, as I had done to our village. What a change! The shacks among the dunes had vanished, as if they’d never existed; only when I searched did I discover a pathway to one of them, overgrown with weeds. I was told that the area had been bought by a consortium years before, but the plans they had to develop it into a resort had come to nothing. What a pity. Many people had happy times there. Now, those same people—or their children—probably jet off to the Costa del Sol, but are they happier there than they were in the rustic shacks among the dunes? A moot question.

Nearby was a caravan-park, but since it was not yet holiday season, there weren’t many people about. The beach was deserted, so I was able to wander and muse undisturbed. The dunes looked much the same, although some had gone altogether—trucked away to glass factories, perhaps. The light house still stood, solitary, lonely, unused.

Apart from the cries of a few gulls and the sound of the sea far out, it was very quiet. I sat on the sand to eat the lunch my sister had kindly packed for me. There, along the beach, I ‘saw’ my father with his inner-tube, and two young boys beside him; I ‘heard’ a black dog barking, happy to join in the fun (he was such a faithful old dog, the black one we had so long ago). Of that small group along the sand, only one remains, and he is no longer young. I have come a long way since then.

As I sat there, suddenly, a sound I’d been waiting for came from far up in the sky: the silver song of a sky lark. I lay back and closed my eyes, not even bothering to search for the bird. Memories welled up in my mind, of things long not thought of, that if told of here might mean nothing to others. It’s amazing how much is stored away in the files of the mind.

My eldest sister in Australia had shown no interest in my desire to trace my roots, saying, “You can never go back”, which is true, of course; we can only go forwards. But the past has not really gone like we think it has; it is still here, and we carry it with us; in fact, we are the past; the present is the past with a little bit more added to it. And we can make sense of the present only by understanding the past, for without the past, the present doesn’t exist. The more we understand of the past, therefore, the more sense we’ll be able to make of the present. This is why I wanted to go back to England: to take stock of my life before going any further. I’m glad I went; I think I understand myself a bit better than I did before.

Recently, in a magazine more than thirty years old, I came across at article that inspired me; the song of the lark reminded me of my own experience. It says many things that I feel. I decided to include it here, acknowledging its author, Wayne Amos, with thanks. It is entitled:


“What is the secret of those

rare moments of ineffable happiness,

when all the world is in tune?

“After many years in New York and Europe, I was back in the plains-states visiting my cousin Riley on the farm he had never left. We walked through the fields and sat on a log. Alert, amused, Riley whittled on a stick as I told stories of London, Paris, Madrid.

“The leaves of the cottonwoods rustled in the summer breeze. A redbird called, its notes so clear they seemed to split the air. I forgot my story as I listened to the leaves and the bird and felt the same inexplicable happiness I had felt a lifetime ago on this same farm.

“I was 15 then, Riley 20. Riley had wanted to get the ploughing done and was working all night. I had just learned to drive the tractor and was eager to help. We took turns ploughing and sleeping in the haystack. The hired girl would bring us coffee and sandwiches at midnight.

“When I awoke at 11:30 the three quarter moon had risen. The tractor droned powerfully, its light eating into the furrows. At the end of a row Riley would jump down and hold a book in the light for half a minute. He was memorizing a poem, something by Walt Whitman about “ ... rich, apple-blossom’d earth! Smile for your lover comes!” He was a great reader; the librarian used to say he checked out more books than anyone else in the county.

“As I was watching the scene, some strange sort of light seemed to turn on for me. I saw the moon, the tractor, the field, the trees, the house, the haystack, as if from all sides at once. It was so beautiful, so magical, I feared to breathe lest I change something. Time seemed to stop, and I wanted it never to start again.

“And now, sitting on a log many years later, I felt the same ineffable happiness. I heard the bird, the leaves. I was in the scene, part of it.

“I tried to explain to Riley but knew I couldn’t. I recalled the tractor, the moonlight. I was there, I said. The moon was there. Oh, it was hopeless trying to put it into words. But Riley nodded, and suddenly I realized something. Riley knew all about that magic. He had experienced it often.

“You know the secret!” I cried. “What is it?”

“Riley smiled and put aside his whittling.

“No-one can explain it,” he said. “Oh, I’ve found hints in many of the books I’ve read. But first I felt it, just as you did. And so did the men who tried to write about it. They felt it independently, separated by oceans and centuries; yet they all shared the same experience.”

“But what is it?”

“If I had to put it in one sentence,” Riley went on, “I would say, ‘Full consciousness brings joy.’ One of the mysteries is that the Universe contains innate joy. Once you fully open your senses to anything—a sunset, a waterfall, a stone, a blade of grass—the joy comes.

“But to open the senses, to become really conscious, you have to drop out of the future and the past and remain for a while on what T. S. Eliot, in his poem, ‘Burnt Norton’, called ‘the still point of the turning world,’ the present. The only true reality is the present. The past is gone; the future is not yet.

“That long ago night was beautiful to you because of the unusual circumstances. Waking up at midnight in a haystack turned you upside down. You stopped planning into the future and thinking into the past. You were there in the Now.

“Children have these moments frequently. But they grow up and lose the capacity. Yet, with the dim memory of ecstasy and the hope for more, they pursue this hope for the rest of their lives, forever grasping and forever analyzing. They’re on a journey which has no destination, except death. For this reason, most men do actually live ‘lives of quiet desperation’.

“Schopenhauer said that most men are ‘lumbermen’. They walk through a beautiful forest always thinking: ‘What can this tree do for me? How many board-feet of lumber will it produce? Last year I netted such and so; this year I must do better’. They are always in the past or future; they are always becoming, they never are.

“Then through the forest comes the artist, though maybe he never painted a picture. He stops before a tree, and because he asks nothing of the tree he really sees it. He is not planning the future; for the moment he has no concern for himself. The self drops out. Time stops. He is there, in the present. He sees the tree with full consciousness. It is beautiful. Joys steps in, unasked.

“It is not important how you explain this; it is the feeling, the experience that counts. Some people believe everything in the Universe—a field of wheat swaying in the wind, a mountain, a cloud, the first snowfall of winter—has a being, an intelligence and soul of its own. When we can think of things in this way it is easier to love them, and love is the prime ingredient of these experiences. But our love must not be possessive. William Blake put it perfectly when he said, ‘He who binds to himself a joy, does the wingéd life destroy; but he who kisses the joy as it flies, lives in eternity’s sunrise.’

“Martin Buber says we can learn to love the world—things, animals, people, stars—as Thou. And that when we do love them and address them as Thou, they always respond. This is probably the greatest thrill of all—the response of joy to joy.

“I believe most men can have their glimpses of the eternal, their timeless moments, almost any time they choose. Many of our little practical tasks—say we are hoeing the garden, picking fruit or trimming a hedge—require only 1/100 part of our consciousness. We use the other 99 parts daydreaming of tomorrow or remembering yesterday. If we can only watch the movement of our hands, the trembling of a leaf, feel the sun on our skin, the breeze in our hair and eliminate quickly the constant intrusion of thoughts of past and future, if we can successfully do this for even tens of seconds, the joy will come.

“The eyes will shine with a new light, and if a stranger passes during one of these moments and you exchange a glance, the chances are”, said Riley, “that he, too, will share in the mystery.”

“Driving back to town alone, I stopped the car and walked down a winding lane. Pulling a leaf from a bush, I tried to “see” it. But I found immediately that I was planning tomorrow’s appointment. I studied the leaf, stared at it—and was remembering some trivial thing from the past.

Suddenly, out of the clear sky came a clap of thunder: a plane breaking the sound barrier. In the silence that followed I heard, to the exclusion of all other perceptions, the musical call of a meadow lark. There was strength in the loud, brief song and a flutelike delicacy, peaceful, plaintive; and, over all, there was a joyous acceptance of the eternal now, astride the centuries and millenniums”.

"Full consciousness brings joy”. Yes!

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