Boleh Tahan ~ THE LARK'S SONG
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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:
ROUTE TO THE ETERNAL NOW
is the secret of those
moments of ineffable happiness,
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,
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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”.
consciousness brings joy”. Yes!