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Carpe Diem: Tales of Carpentry

wood-pileStrange how one must choose at age thirteen the subjects that will determine an adult future. Fortunately, I now know they don’t determine anything much at all, but that was how it seemed.

Amongst the careers a child is encouraged to imagine, I’d settled on horticulture at the time. I remember neither why, nor what I thought it would mean. Maybe I expected a sort of early retirement, pottering in loamy soil, reading the weather in cloud formations, growing prize tomatoes. The reality would probably have been more about chemicals and machinery and commercial viability. As with my other imagined roles – veterinarian, costumier etc. – the dream evaporated before I had chance to be disillusioned.

“Tick one of the following,” the school form said at a rather contentious line: “Woodwork / Cookery / Latin.” It seemed the three were mutually exclusive. Following the social norms of the early 80s, it was assumed you were either a boy, a girl, or an academic. I very much wanted Latin, and my ‘career’ would surely demand it, but that would have been a dangerous choice.

No doubt there is more social unrest at some other schools in the world – maybe even in England – but ours had more than enough for my liking. As I saw it, there was no point worrying about a future at all unless my current life was preserved. Let’s just say you’re more likely to be left alone if you know how to handle a chisel, or even if you have access to such a thing. Knowing how to conjugate a Latin verb – indeed any Latin verb – is not much use in a conflict. In fact it could be a disadvantage.

Two girls joined me, for which I was glad. We huddled nervously like cornered sheep in ‘Workshop 1’ for a half-day per week – three staunch pacifists posing as barbarians. A pity I only recall the teacher’s rather rude nickname, as he deserves better. Let us call him Mr Jones, and assume that’s not his real name either. Behind his ear was always a pencil – or a cigarette at break time – and he was only ever to be seen in one of those shapeless buttoned overalls that would make anyone look like Arkwright in Open All Hours.

His most distinctive feature was having just the one thumb. His other had been sacrificed to the bandsaw – that item of most sacred machinery, feared by even the most brutish of boys. I like to think the incident prescribed Mr Jones’s teaching methods, at least in part. “Lads,” he would tell us all collectively, “be ekk’yurit!” Surprisingly, unlike in the playgrounds, I never witnessed so much as a minor injury in Workshop 1. That a teacher could lose a thumb there was clearly enough warning for all of us.

I’ve always found the scent of freshly sawn timber intoxicating. There is nothing like the feel of wood in the hand – its many warm textures, firm but yielding. There’s nothing like the grain of wood as it’s revealed in the cutting, shaving or sanding – a private journal of all its years and seasons. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of a mortise joint or a dovetail slotting together at the perfect angle. Although he never put them into words – at least not in our presence – Mr Jones surely knew all these things.

Ultimately, I don’t feel at all deprived of education. I can follow a recipe well enough, and learned more Latin phrases at university than I’d ever drop into conversation. Two more phrases have been far more useful anyway. Carpe diem my father gave me at an early age. A later one came from my stepfather, and I ought not to repeat it here, but roughly it means: don’t let the naughty people grind you down. While it may not be real Latin, it certainly helped me through school.

Wood was always in my blood anyway. Excepting myself – the only square tenon in a round mortise – there are three generations of engineers in my immediate family, and many a DIY zealot. Among their fathers before them were carpenters and other craftsmen, makers of cabinets and coffins, apparently. Who knows the wonders the women might have fashioned, had they been let loose on a chisel or a lathe.

So this is how I come to be standing here in the parental garage, surrounded by generations of clamps, saws and mallets. The smaller things, like rasps and files, pliers and bradawls, are in a battered old chest with deep drawers that groan when you drag on their wooden handles. I’ve never been let loose in here, so I’m not sure what half of them do. Many look as though they wouldn’t have a use at all in this century.

There are rows and rows of tiny compartments too – a beehive of bolts and screws, pins and bungs of countless sizes and materials. There are ordered sets of things like wrenches and drills, in coloured tin cases with handles. They smell of dust and oil and elbow grease. They’re so well-tended, I imagine them as almost sentient, like old soldiers full of memories, comparing tales of battle and triumph.

I’m most drawn to the ones in the hard plastic boxes of our present age – power drill and power driver, power plane and circular saw – not for their power per se, but because they’re clever, and they’re much more fun. Both the folks need wheeled access to the garden now. Sensible people would order a ready-made ramp conforming to Health and Safety regulations, or they’d call someone out to make something. We considered both, so perhaps we are sensible, but we’re also resourceful, and stubborn too.

After a few cursory tips, the man amongst us goes back to his newspaper. He knows that a seven-inch blade spinning mid-air is enough for my nerves, without my being observed. Thanks to my mother’s engineering accolades and her patient holding of various things – via my silent invocations and sufficiently ekk’yurit measurements too – we meet with success. A retired picnic bench is repurposed as a sturdy (if not exactly beautiful) accessory.

I wish I could tell my child self that all the talk of vocations was a waste of time, and that everything will turn out better than I could imagine. Certainly one may have aptitudes, likes and dislikes as a child, but firm plans that endure the test of time? Unlikely. My current job did not even exist in the early 80s. I’d never heard of a website, and thus neither a web designer, so I could not have foreseen it. Neither could I have foreseen that rather than a career, or even the raising of a family, my priority would be a spiritual life.

I remember Sri Chinmoy would try his hand at all sorts of things without any formal training. He played hundreds of instruments and all manner of sports. While he would sometimes take tips from those adept at certain disciplines, he was essentially self-taught. He would draw or paint, write poetry or music, inspired directly by his meditation rather than following any learned formula or tradition. Everything he did was thus vibrant, surprising and original. He was constantly practising, in order to transcend his previous achievements.

Inspired by this example, I endeavour to follow my heart – ideally without fearing conflict or failure, though I’ve a way to go on that. I try to give my full attention to the present moment, offering what I have and what I am to it, however much or little that may be at a given time. I pick up what’s needed as I go along – whether wielding a computer or a circular saw. Carpe diem – why not? A day is more than enough life to be going on with anyway.

Do not worry about the future.
The present moment is heavy enough
For you to carry.
How do you know that tomorrow
A bright and illumining dawn
Will not invite you?

– Sri Chinmoy, AP 23166

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Gavarnie

Notre-Dame des NeigesWere I to set more store by the zodiac, I’d blame it on a Cancerian date of birth. Perhaps it has more to do with past-life experience, or maybe it’s just one of those things. Either way, the fact remains: my thoughts about leaving the house generally range from ambivalence to reluctance.

I use the word house loosely, as it is neither manor nor cottage, nor even a town maisonette, but a single room by a railway line. I fancy I could live quite well somewhere as an anchoress, so long as there’d be Wi-Fi, and deliveries posted through a hatch in the wall. The only other concession might be a little patch of garden. A kettle. A heated towel rail. I wouldn’t ask for much.

What could impel me then to squash bedding and four days’ clothing into an improbably tiny cabin bag? What could induce me to share a room for five where mounting (and especially dismounting) a bunk will require the strangest contortions? What could draw me to the cattle-truck confines of a budget airline, not knowing where my next good cup of tea will come from?

“Joy Days, Joy Days! Nothing gives me as much joy as Joy Days. When my children meet together to pray, meditate and play, they feed their souls, they feed their hearts, they feed their physical existence. What else do they need?”
– Sri Chinmoy, The Temple and the Shrine

Reaching the Pyrenees meant an overnight in Lourdes – two trains, a bus, a brief hotel, another bus, plane and cab away from my northern English home. Though life has brought me almost no experience of Christianity, I felt a kind of kinship with my fellow passengers – most of them clearly pilgrims, and in various states of health. I’ve waited in many an airport queue to have my tickets inspected, my bags rummaged and my person scanned for weapons. Never have I seen a queue so cheerful, so calm or polite than the one for Lourdes.

At Lourdes we would be three, and could make a small adventure between us. Although it rained prolifically, doggedly – one could almost say spitefully at times – everything but our enthusiasm was dampened. I was struck by how real and recent was the life of Saint Bernadette. I think of saints as trapped in medieval carvings or unlikely illustrations, their humanness censored and their stature extended out of all proportion. How is one then to separate miracles from the vagaries of imagination?

Like Thérèse of Lisieux, Bernadette Soubirous was alive in the late 19th Century. She has photographs. I have seen her little wooden shoe behind glass, the dress she embroidered, letters she wrote home to her brother from the convent in Nevers. I’ve stood inside le cachot – the dungeon – where she lived in poverty with her family at the time of the visions. I’ve looked on the very bed where she slept.

While the countless gift shops are rather too gaudy and sentimental for my taste, the atmosphere at Lourdes is distinctly numinous. It also has particular qualities one might call feminine. That which is pure, gentle and nurturing is often overlooked in the West, written off as trivial or weak. I wonder, is that why God chose a simple girl of 14 to receive the visions, and specifically visions of a young Virgin Mary?

There was to be a military parade in the town that weekend, soldiers from many countries convening for services, marching the streets in elaborate uniforms, marking time with drums and shiny brass instruments. While that seemed to me rather incongruous, I suppose the chance arrival of the Peace Run seemed to them equally so! We could not light our torch, but unfurled our banner all the same, and processed to the sacred grotto for prayers and pictures.

Queuing for water in the rain may sound pointless, but it was the only way to drink from the spring that appeared at the feet of Bernadette. Families waited with us under capes and umbrellas, chattering in various languages, filling anything from their hands to glass phials and plastic gallons. Lourdes may not be an outwardly peaceful place, but inwardly, yes, and a happy place too. I was often reminded of our own gatherings in New York. Time slows down. The boundaries between people are softer than usual.

What was once a rubbish dump is now a shrine, trailed with vines and wild roses. One can pass by the edges of the cave and touch its surface. Long candles of white and blue blaze at the entrance, and thousands more wait their turn on covered tables, imbued with the prayers of those who offered them. The enormous basilica of grey stone grows as though from out of the rocks. The river Gave churns and tumbles beside it, all milky molten turquoise.

* * *

Our true destination was Gavarnie – its falls forming the source of that very river. Sri Chinmoy encouraged a special bond between our French and British Centres, and asked that we all meet four times a year for Joy Days. We may do the same things each time – meditating, singing, playing games, sharing meals, news and inspiration – but each brings a new experience.

After a languorous breakfast, most of us walked. Some of us ran. Even from the window of our gîte, I struggled to take in the scene. First there was the fat green of the ground, acres of open meadow, each blade in its Sunday best, the leaves and needles of trees outgrowing their winter jackets to stretch out bare and shiny.

But up there, where there would be sky, was an amphitheatre of limestone, dark and ruckled, draped in snow, crested in ice, coddled in cottonwool clouds. And drawn down the middle as though in dusty chalk, La Grande Cascade, the highest waterfall in all of France. Only then came the canopy of violet blue, and a very buoyant sun.

The warm air rang with birdsong. Butterflies were at their leisure, playing tag on the breezes – black, white, orange, yellow. Even ants and flies and beetles looked well fed. Bees were just as comfortably off, surveying their estates and muttering approval – blue gentians and purple orchids, too brilliant for the focus of human eyes.

The scent of pine in cool arbours. The scent of earth in sunlight. Trails were dotted with seasoned hikers and Sunday ramblers, tracking the river upstream to its source. Giant raptors wheeled above in their dozens – vultures or eagles, too high to tell. Below, each crevice spilled with melting snow and white noise. It chuckled and funnelled into pools sheer as glass, then drove recklessly on, crashing and overtaking itself, ecstatic to be free of mountain stone at last.

Whoever thought to build a hotel so high? That meant a cup of tea. A good cup of tea, and all the better for climbing. We talked of concerts, classes, other Joy Days past and yet to come. We stared into the splendour and said nothing at all – that comfortable silence enjoyed only in the best of company. The more intrepid clambered over a moonscape to the snows and the falls. Donkeys lumbered up the slope to be tethered by the grass, so their little passengers could shout and run and drink soda.

In time we ambled back to the village, ate bowls of ice cream made of local berries, and sat amongst the meadow flowers listening to cuckoos. We drove to Luz-Saint-Sauveur for galettes with native cheeses and crêpes with sweet marrons, then scrambled into our bunks to read, welcoming the sudden sleep that follows a day in mountain air.

Most left next morning with the Peace Run, and there were three of us again. We met nobody on our walk that day, save the birds, butterflies, and Notre-Dame des Neiges – Our Lady of the Snows. Her statue towers over Gavarnie, holding the child Jesus aloft as he blesses all beneath. Warmth, purity, gentleness against a rugged, icy backdrop.

All was silent but the wind across the peaks. The feminine aspect of the divine again celebrated for its subtle yet powerful grace. Absorbed in her devotion, Notre-Dame is at once perfectly vulnerable and perfectly invulnerable. In the words of Bernadette, “One who loves does not notice her trials; or perhaps more accurately, she is able to love them.” [Source]

Driving to Lourdes I realise I’m not ready to go back home. Strange for a would-be anchoress. These days have surely fed the soul, fed the heart, fed the physical existence. What else do I need?


Postscript

519ZBA8YGVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This adventure inspired me to find out more about Saint Bernadette. If you’re ever interested in doing the same, I highly recommend Bernadette Speaks: A Life of Saint Bernadette Soubirous in Her Own Words, by René Laurentin. This is a real treasure, meticulously researched and carefully presented. Laurentin has endeavoured to stand back and let Saint Bernadette speak for herself as much as possible. At first glance this seems like a rather hefty textbook, but Bernadette comes to life so clearly in the pages, the result is enthralling. She feels accessible not only through the relative recency of her life (1844-1879), but also through her very human struggles, her simple background and her pragmatic nature. I had trouble putting this book down.

4

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

old-booksDo you remember believing that adults know everything? One believes a lot of silly things as a child, and perhaps a lot of sensible things that ought to be remembered.

Statistically speaking, I am over halfway through this life. The longer I live, the less I seem to know, but the less it seems to matter. Take times tables, for example. Some people have a knack for ball sports, and some for line drawings. In either case there’s a certain amount of progress to be made through practice, but essentially you either have it or you don’t. Quite so with mental arithmetic.

In my day, it was implied that without an intimate knowledge of The Tables, one would be cast out of society, or remain unemployed at the very least – as though an interviewer might do a spot check, and could not be trusted to choose one of the friendlier numbers. With tens, fives, twos, most of the elevens and threes, I could get by. Fours would be pushing it, and anything else would be disastrous.

“You can’t carry a calculator around with you everywhere,” the teachers would say. That was a valid point in the seventies, when calculators were the weight of roof tiles, with buttons the size of postage stamps. True, sometimes I’ll be asked what six nines are, or eight sevens, but clearly only because the person asking has forgotten, so I dare admit I haven’t the faintest idea. Not knowing the time of day can be swiftly remedied by taking out a smartphone. So also the gaps in my times tables can be bridged at will.

We surely live in a fortunate age. Information can be gleaned or shared quickly when necessary, but analog methods are still open to us. One only need type a word into a box for its past and present to be revealed in more detail than is even necessary. Arguably that’s progress, at least in a sense. I don’t look back entirely fondly on history, but I do also fear losing its values. Given a reasonable choice I’ll still read from a printed book. There can be no virtual substitute for the whisper of a page turning, the scent of paper, the weight in the hand.

A friend recently got me hooked on Cadfael – a fictional medieval monk with a talent for solving crimes. One story surrounds the value of books in the 1100s. There was no paper as such, but only vellum, painstakingly fashioned from animal skins. Messages were thus rarely written down. Instead they were learned and repeated by couriers on horseback or foot. To read was a great privilege in itself, and to write yet more so. An illustrated book could be a work of art so priceless a person may literally kill to own it. (Or may not in a given case – let us have no spoilers here).

When I was growing up, our most valuable reading matter was the encyclopaedia. Probably it was sold to my parents by a travelling salesman who knocked on the door. What pressure must have been on that generation to retain as much information as possible! You either knew a thing or you didn’t. There was no finding out without the encyclopaedia, or a trip to the library. Even then, to unearth the right book might need assistance from expert librarians with microfiches.

The encyclopaedia had a finality and a gravity to it, partly as a single volume could only just be lifted with two small hands. It had the peculiar aroma of must and almond sweetness that books acquire in time. The covers were of black faux-leather, hard and scaly to touch. Opening a volume was like opening a small tomb where a fading past was buried. It was approached with almost funereal reverence.

Mars could properly be found in the same book as marsupials, mollusks and Monroe, Marilyn. Babylonia was correctly filed with Beethoven and the bubonic plague. If certain people became important, or significant things were suddenly discovered, they would have to wait for the yearbook. Over time, the neat order and classification would thus be increasingly disturbed. I found that disturbing. The all-knowing encyclopaedia was, by its very nature, incomplete and out of date.

I suspected I’d need to absorb all the contents of that collection on the long journey to adulthood, so as to arrive equipped for anything. Who knew when I might need to distinguish between a freshwater perch and a pike, demonstrate semaphore and sailing knots, or identify the flags of Tanzania and Mozambique. But there was plenty of time for that.

Meanwhile I would dwell mostly on the anatomy sections, as they had more than their share of coloured plates. There were leaves of transparent paper that stuck to the fingers, displaying layers of the body from skin to skeleton. I imagined turning back my own skin like the page of a book, to find tendons and muscles, impressive arteries and bones with funny names written next to them.

Nowadays I have little space for keeping books, and usually pass them on once finished. Sri Chinmoy‘s writings are the exception, though I only own a fraction of those printed. My favourites are the Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees. Naturally I will always wish there were more of them – as with any of Sri Chinmoy’s creations – but that’s just human greed. Actually there is more instruction, illumination, inspiration in a single volume than one could need in a lifetime.

In a sense, I even like the fact that the series is “unfinished” – a sort of ellipsis leading to timelessness, at the end of the fiftieth book. The poems are eternally relevant, so there can be no real beginning or ending to them anyway. On the surface they may be simple – a single one might take a moment to comprehend mentally, and to learn by heart a little longer – but to live its essence authentically is another matter, and therein of course is its highest value.

Sometimes I read a volume in sequence, but more often I open one at random. Turning each page is like turning back layers of spiritual anatomy. I recognise doubt, pride, insecurity, as I know my own skin, blood and bone. Aspects of human ignorance are peeled away further to reveal their transcendent solutions. These are in turn strict and consoling, forthright and comforting, sometimes humorous and others almost melancholic in their understanding of human struggles. Always they are fresh and lively.

Probably I will never know my times tables, and presumably will not be able to identify all the flags of the world in this lifetime. Inner wisdom is not even so easily won as outer knowledge, but spiritually speaking it is far more practical. Sri Chinmoy returns to this theme many times in the series itself:

Knowledge
Knows nothing
About God.
#20974

Knowledge-sparks
Finally bow
To the wisdom-sun.
#17936

My spirituality rises
Not on the horizon
Of my knowledge-might
But on the horizon
Of my wisdom-light.
#19188

Knowledge has
A very short breath.
Wisdom has
Eternity’s Breath.
#30328

Knowledge
Is limited strength.
Wisdom
Is unlimited power.
#30587

The outer knowledge is
Information-collection.
The inner knowledge is
Life-transformation.
#32015

The choice of illumining wisdom
We must make,
And not the choice of precise knowledge.
#11457

All poems by Sri Chinmoy, from Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees

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Dubrovnik

DubrovnikA boat was rented for an afternoon to show us the surrounding isles, cutting through glassy Adriatic blue, inviting us to villages of white stone houses shuttered blind in hibernation.

At one shore the air hung pungent with oranges in stages of decay – bright baubles on every tree and fallen in abundant waste to alleyways and gardens. Neglected fruits seemed the only life, but for feral cats and fishermen absorbed in old habits of stillness, so all was quiet as a postcard photograph.

Till children ran out from a shadow, hair wind-ragged and sun-golden from a summer long past, dark brown eyes measuring us like the curious eyes of wild things. One laid out a faded towel to make a shop of treasures, turning each to show its better side – seashells in careful rows, classified by species. His sister bent to test the wares, lifting to an ear one by one their empty mouths, listening for oceans before bargaining a price. Her nod confirmed no private sea had drained or dried away, or in storage lost its moon to pull a tide and make the roar and rush echo secretly inside.

Unless preserved in hearts or words and put away for future seasons, days may fall like oranges, yielding their goodness, squandering their magic on adulthood. But in that place long forgotten in winter eternities were up for sale – oceans of believing and remembering caught in the nets of greater commerce, surplus and discarded. Time capsules of other shores in other winters, chapters from the life of any listener – my grey English waves and clumsy pebbles, my new beginnings on clean Asiatic sands.

I came with empty pockets so returned with pockets empty too, though what could I have traded for the unhorizoned riches offered by those little hands.

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A Pilgrimage in 50 Parts

My goodwill is itself
The height of my victory,
Even if I cannot or do not
See any satisfactory result from it.”

– Sri Chinmoy, Flower-Flames, Part 2


lendal-towerYork is a wizened little city, halfway from London to Edinburgh. Tourists come by their busload between the two, alighting for a day here, taking high tea, snapping group portraits against medieval backdrops. It’s a place that asks little and gives much, like one of those lone benign family members who’s glad when you drop by, and always has something freshly baking just in case, but who won’t detain you. It’s a place that well remembers the times when everything was horse-drawn and hand-tooled, when you could leave your back door open.

But these are not the reasons I’m mounting the bar at Micklegate, treading the curved hollow in the steps where countless feet have worn down the stone before mine. If a pilgrimage is a journey of spiritual significance, I suppose this is a pilgrimage of sorts. Although not taking me far from home, I still hoped it would take me a little further from my own limitations – inner expansion through outer expedition.

I itched to get away from here as a teen – to be anywhere but York, anywhere but Yorkshire, anywhere but England. I’d probably have renounced the planet itself if I could, not knowing it was the confines of my mind that were so disappointing. I won’t say I’d be happy anywhere – that wouldn’t yet be true – but now I carry my interior home with me, I want for much less outside of it. Meanwhile, this city, this county, this country – all these ancient charms and imperfections – have sneaked up on me and snared my heart.

It must have been a year ago I saw a video of Sri Chinmoy talking about goodwill. I can’t recall enough to quote his words, but he compared the inner manifestation to the outer – the one being vastly more powerful than the other. The effect of mechanically putting up a given number of posters for an event is nothing to a yogi in the Himalayas silently offering goodwill to the world. This he described as having the strength of lions roaring in their thousands. Imagine that.

York is too quaint a place for public posters on the whole, but we take leaflets door-to-door, posting them through letterboxes. I enjoy the simplicity, and there’s a certain mental satisfaction to completing each bundle of 100, 500, 1000. Of course we all try to approach such tasks as a meditation, but I suppose I wanted to go back to the very roots of manifestation – the inner offering of goodwill with nothing to show for it. That sounds easy, and I don’t doubt it would be for you. I can’t claim to have heard even one lion testing its voice thus far, but the effort has certainly changed me for the better.

I was humbled and somewhat daunted by the list circulating in January – pledges of projects to celebrate Sri Chinmoy’s 50th year since coming to the West, all to be complete before his birthday in August. Brave, arduous things they were, beyond my dreams. But I’ve come to see it’s not one’s current standard that matters most. Short of a great miracle, there’s not much can be done about that overnight anyway. Forward movement itself is a better yardstick – the sincerity and direction of each new step, the offering of whatever one has with both hands, however insignificant that may seem.

So I decided to circumambulate the city 50 times throughout those months, practising silent japa, offering goodwill to the people around me. It’s a small place, as I think I mentioned – each walk takes 50 minutes. Even so, my health kept me from the August deadline. Undeterred, instead I aimed to finish before the frosts would come and make the venture dangerous. So it is that I’m out at first light on the last November Sunday, to make my way clockwise around the city for the 50th time, on top of the boundary walls.

I was maybe 9 years old when I first walked the walls here, and felt I’d stepped into one of those Heath Robinson drawings in old storybooks where nothing looks quite real. That was the irony. Growing up in America, I’d only seen turrets and arrowslits at Disneyland, or on plastic toys from Mattel. Here the medieval bounds are raised on grassy ridges of earth, a platform of stone slabs a few feet wide to walk on, a shield of stone to one side, and a perilous drop on the other.

The only way up is through gatehouses called bars – entrances to the inner streets that would have been tolled and heavily guarded. I see them every day, and every day feel I’m on the set of some rousing adventure. It’s best not to wonder too closely about the history of such a place though. It never ceases to amaze me what people will do to one another, and life was all the more expendable in days gone by – its ending too often brutal and public.

Now there’s no toll and nothing to guard against. The only sentries are blackbirds accusing me of some ill-mannered interruption, or pigeons idling away the morning, lumbering off reluctantly when I step too near their reverie. Squirrels too, chubby and busy this time of year, croaking strange alarms to one another from the trees above when I approach a world they consider their own.

While I’m sorry not to have made this journey in summer, watching each season unfold brings a different satisfaction. In spring the green banks are peppered with daffodils, thousands of yellow light bulbs, miniature messengers of the sun. Wild geese shepherd their children patiently from one water to another on the streets below, barking orders, halting and confusing traffic. In summer the sycamores wave jazz hands in the breezes, the banks made gold again with buttercups.

One flagstone is a game board scored out for soldiers – some ancestor of chess or checkers – empty of players now. The corner lookouts are empty too, the warming rooms beneath them empty of fire, their turrets like a long-dead giant’s jaw, with gappy and decaying teeth. I’m too late to offer them my little farthing of goodwill, but I like to remember them, and to thank them for their labours. The masons too who cut these stones 800 years ago, and the Romans before them in the layers beneath.

I walk in solitude for long stretches, but aware of all this silent company I’m not really alone. Around me the city is stirring, and up here the first keen vanguard of backpackers arrives, marching on an early breakfast. I snatch halves of sentences in many languages as they pass. A few wisps of steam rise from the gutters of houses, the air fragrant with coal smoke and the damp rotting of leaves. The Minster begins its call to prayer, and I picture bell-ringers hauling ropes with all their attention, earnest church-goers in their Sunday best. I smile to these neighbours as yet unseen. Some days it’s too cold to know if I’m smiling, or if it just feels that way.

Soon the foot-traffic would turn 50 minutes to hours. More care is needed then to pass safely, more time to stand and wait outside of photographs. It’s cheering to be carried along by the buoyancy of visitors, but rather more challenging then as a meditation. In my state of evolution, the simple act of walking, chanting and offering goodwill is like rubbing the belly, patting the head and hopping on one foot. I have no more limbs for extra tasks, and no more inner bandwidth.

Between you and me, my concentration does break occasionally, but only in emergencies you understand. Sometimes there’s no choice but to fully wonder at the sun dazzling through an orange canopy of leaves, or to mark the vicious stare of a crow and muse on what his dark thoughts could be, or to study a curious mushroom growing out of bark. Some favourite passages I confess to taking at an amble – one tunnel of trees with an underwater quality of light, one aspect of the Minster, magnificent, imposing, enormous for a city its size.

On weekdays the schools and office blocks are lit up inside, little figures hurrying to the entrances under umbrellas or already pulled in close at their desks. I imagine myself in the shoes of those I see, on buses with steamed up windows, or pedalling by in a suit and bicycle clips, sculling on the river, walking a dog, digging up the road. What is goodwill really? To me it feels like a a glance of the heart, an inner smile from one to another, a prayer for something positive but small, undemanding of God’s time – I don’t yet fully trust my appeals.

Passing once through a gatehouse I found a man asleep, his possessions rolled up in a bag, a carton of milk ready for the morning, whenever morning came to him. The same place another day a Hollywood actor was stretching for a run, trying to be invisible with his plain black clothes and lowered head. But quietly I knew him, and so did the woman passing from the other side. We raised our eyebrows to each other and carried on. I’ve never been homeless or famous, and could not sincerely put myself in either pair of shoes, but I know there would be something we hold in common, something we could talk about between us if we had the chance – something I could offer and something else I could receive.

Watching my shadow walk home beside me, I wonder what other shapes it made before this life, and what shapes are yet to come – which of God’s infinite guises. I suppose this pilgrimage has shown me anew that we’re each a significant part of this great spectacle. I have a right to no more than my part, and also no less.


My philosophy is the acceptance of life. We have to accept life — not run away from life or enter into the Himalayan caves. Here on earth we have to offer goodwill, inspiration and aspiration. We have to love and serve mankind. Then only this world of ours can be transformed.”

– Sri Chinmoy, Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 23

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God’s Great Experiment

This story was first published in Inspiration-Letters #25, an online magazine of articles, written by members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre around the world. The theme for this edition is “Living in the Now”.


My father forwarded an email to me this morning — one of those circulars sent between batches of friends and family. I always read them; I know my own friends and family would only share with me those topics that had profoundly moved them or amused them. This one must have been going around for years, and yet the story was new to me. Maybe you know it already.

It was the morning rush hour, some time in early 2007, at an especially ordinary subway station in Washington DC. An unassuming busker played violin, wearing jeans and a baseball cap. During his performance of 43 minutes he made $32. Not a bad haul, until you find out he was Joshua Bell, one of the most highly acclaimed virtuoso musicians in the world. Three days earlier, one of the cheaper tickets to see him play at Boston Symphony Hall would have set you back $100. In concert he can earn something in the region of $1,000 a minute: the same man playing the same pieces on the same violin.

The violin was hand crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, during what was known as his ‘golden period’. The performance was to begin with Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. According to Bell, it is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” [Source] It is also considered one of the most difficult pieces to master for solo violin, and is said to celebrate the very breadth of human possibility itself.

And almost nobody noticed.

Only one woman recognised Bell, and was responsible for $20 of his $32 takings. Most of those who seemed to pick up on anything special were children, but they were whisked away by harried parents in the rush to work. Others threw in a perfunctory handful of pennies as they passed, perhaps just out of duty or habit. Some did recognise this was no ordinary busker, but a man demonstrating considerable skill and a deep connection with the music he was offering. Woefully few noticed anything much at all though, buried in their own thoughts and iPods, fixed on some future moment — the start of a working day, a business meeting, a deadline. Many queued to buy lottery tickets at the top of an escalator, well within earshot, not knowing they already had a winning ticket to see and hear one of the greatest performances they may ever witness in this lifetime.

I am not saying getting to work on time or getting children to school is unimportant; I am not saying I myself would have recognised Bell — far from it — but just reading about it saddened me and made me wonder about this age of stress and bustle. Are we so ruled by clocks and achievements that we have nothing spare for beauty and expression? Are we even looking and listening at all, or are we quite literally losing our senses? It was a deliberately tough challenge on the part of those who set up the experiment — rush hour commuters caught in their routine are bound to be a fairly downbeat and inflexible crowd, especially in such an uninspiring setting — but the response is still saddening.

It certainly made me think.

How can I augment my own tiny jigsaw piece of this world, treasuring it more and thus perhaps in some microscopic way raising the general awareness of its wonder? This world is itself God’s great Experiment. Will I then rush past it, flinging behind me a few spare pennies at His creation? Or will I let myself be ravished by His constant outpouring of surprise and adventure?

* * *
I remember a few months ago walking through a railway station somewhere in the north of England. There was a series of hoardings, each featuring a photograph of a destination that could easily be reached from there by train. One was a stretch of moorland, reminiscent of some enigmatic Brontë novel, fading back for miles, as though into the very mists of time. Another was a futuristic angle on a city, all glass and metal, like the winning project in some architectural award scheme. I was not reading the words, but only glancing at the pictures, imagining the sounds and smells that might go with them. A third was of higgledy-piggledy shops and houses, so bent with age they were nearly leaning into one another’s facades across a cobbled alley. The scene was almost ridiculously quaint, like a fairy-tale illustration born of an over-active imagination.

“Imagine living there!” I thought to myself for a tiny moment of childlike joy, before I realised where it was: York. I do live there.

My home is just outside the city walls — a two-mile circuit of stone begun by the Romans two thousand years ago. Through the middle ages, York is said to have been England’s second most powerful and consequential city after London. It also then became the northern capital of the Church of England, and the building of its imposing cathedral was soon under way. Known as a ‘minster’ — originally a missionary teaching church — it is now the second biggest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, after Cologne. It holds the single largest example of medieval stained glass in the world, some of the other windows dating back to the twelfth century. With the rise of York’s importance, the protecting city walls became increasingly fortified, and its four portcullised entrances more elaborate. Since then, apart from retaining its religious status, its power and influence have faded almost to nothing. Its modest size and relative insignificance have thus kept it safe from war damage and inappropriate development. It remains a rare jewel of England, a delicious layer-cake of eccentricities, a living picture book of almost impossible charm.

Appreciating this city is never a conscious effort for me; each time I walk to town, the sight of it really does take my breath away. The streets are so small and condensed, the buildings such a raggle-taggle patchwork of styles and eras, only a slight turn of the head can reveal a whole new undiscovered story. Admittedly some days I appreciate it more than others. When caught in a downpour of hail, or when the ice on the bald cobbled pavements has not been gritted, or when I am quite simply in a rush to get things done, no I do not stop and wonder at the enchanting marvelousness of it all, I just want to get home. But today, sobered by the story of the violin, I am running all my errands at an ambling pace, and via all the tourist routes. Not exactly a hardship on the first sunny Saturday of Spring.

One of the things I love most about this place is that people are almost always here because they want to be. There is no significant business other than tourism, and although it sits exactly halfway between London and Edinburgh, York is not really on the way to anywhere. People visit here from all over the world precisely to be fascinated, to be swept away by legends of conquerors and gladiators and Viking ships, to walk into a living folk tale or a ghost story. Many are children, and those who are not are either escorting children or taking a childlike view. They walk slowly, smilingly, gazing in all directions. They pause to point out a gargoyle in a nook, they queue patiently for a table at the best teashop, they listen attentively to buskers; they are constantly stopping, looking and listening, because that is exactly what they came for. This is perhaps the opposite end of the sensory spectrum from a Washington subway station in rush hour.

Naturally it is a slightly different matter to see these sights every day, to do the shopping and other chores in the middle of a tourist attraction, but today I give all my attention to the people around me, and immerse myself in their wonderment. Two girls walk hand in hand, tiny feet in great big boots, smiling and laughing at a shared story, talking all at once in a Japanese jumble of memories. A hen party gabbles across the bridge, bursting with loud and insalubrious laughter, high precarious shoes, identical devil horns covered in pink feathers. A regatta is under way — teams of university rowers heaving red-faced along the gloss of the river. An elderly couple cling to one another for strength or out of familiar habit. A tiny child peeps out from a fabric sling on the chest of its father. A little boy strides ahead of his parents with a blunt wooden sword and a plastic Roman helmet, protecting them from sudden marauders. English in countless accents, languages I have never heard; faces I have never seen and will never see again. Everyone is looking, listening, stopping, smiling, captured only by a constantly unfolding moment; ordinary people doing ordinary things, fully engaged in God’s virtuoso Performance.

Walking home along the tops of the city walls, I hear the peal of church bells fading behind me. I peer over the battlements to see the long green banks full of daffodil buds, ready to explode into their annual sea of yellow any day now. Stepping down at Micklegate Bar — the old main entrance to the city — I pass one final cluster of visitors, and a woman’s voice is the last I hear. Glancing at the heavy bag of vegetables on my shoulder, she turns to her companion:

“Imagine if you lived here…”

HERE and NOW
My life must learn
How to become
The life of the world.”
–Sri Chinmoy
[Source]


Read more of Inspiration-Letters #25 at SriChinmoyCentre.org »

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The Humble Gourd

My mother was an engineer, and still is at heart, even in retirement. Growing up in her presence everything could be questioned or taken apart: physically or theoretically. I thus learned that the Way of Things followed logical reason, whether or not we understood that reason at a given time. We were scientists, artists, tailors, chefs and gardeners, mechanics and explorers, borne on the wings of patience and liberty. Life was a joint adventure: the victory craftily skewed to me; the mess and mistakes discreetly absorbed by her.

One of our forays was the growing of sunflowers and ornamental gourds. I did not care for mud, so my mother did most of the squatting and furrowing. Having been stung by a wasp between ice-creamy fingers at an earlier age, I could not tolerate dirty hands. My self-appointed roles were instead Sower of the Seeds, and Wielder of the Watering Can, as both carried acceptable levels of pomp and cleanliness.

Gardening was one of many good bargains for me, but when it came to gourds I was not sure even my small efforts were well invested. Sunflowers I could understand – they are lofty and radiant, and can be used as food when they have finished blooming – but gourds? They can be hollowed into scoops or instruments. Ours would simply be varnished for show.

Varnished for show. Where was the logic? Even the name sounded disappointing. Gourd: nobbled, puckered, unwieldy, inedible, notable only for its unabashed ugliness. Gazing at the photograph on the seed packet for long enough, I came to a secret conclusion though: life itself was their reason, and perhaps life was reason enough. Being garish and warty was their role in the world, and they did it very well.

I learned more than I bargained for that day – undoubtedly more than my mother set out to teach me too.

* * *

The gourd is often referred to as the “humble gourd”. Humble in this case is more a kind word for unattractive, or unsophisticated at best. I was pondering the subject of humility this morning, and I realised there are so many different interpretations, ranging from modesty or servility to shyness or a simple lack of confidence. Humility thus could easily be misconstrued as a weakness: modesty can sometimes be false or insincere, a subtle ploy for attention rather than honest self-acceptance; servility may be more a desire to be liked, or a fear of punishment, than a longing to be of selfless use.

Then I came across a passage by Sri Chinmoy, where he makes a clear distinction between humility and unworthiness, reasserting humility as a positive force, an unshakable divine strength.

There is a great difference between humility and unworthiness. Let us deal first with unworthiness. When we are about to do something, certain incapacities that we are born with may make us feel unworthy. Again, unworthiness may come as a result of something undivine that we have done. But whatever the reason, he who feels unworthy of something will automatically remain far away from the world of delight.

This is a negative way of approaching the truth. But if we take the positive approach, then we feel always that we have come from God. We have to be conscious of God within us, not through the feeling of unworthiness, but through humility. If I am unworthy of my Source, then why did the Source create me? Parents bring a child into the world. Now, who is responsible for the child’s life? The parents! If the child feels that he is unworthy of his parents, it is a mistake on his part. According to their inner capacity, illumination and meditation, the parents have brought their children into the world, so the children must not feel unworthy. Only the children should be humble, because in humility there is soul’s light.

– Sri Chinmoy [source]

In this time of spring and seed-sowing, especially as today is apparently Mother’s Day (at least everywhere in the world except Britain), it seems a good opportunity to remember one’s roots. Also to remember that worthiness or unworthiness are equally irrelevant: I just am and you just are. Life is reason enough.

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Accidental Spirituality

I did not have a religious or overtly spiritual upbringing, in fact the subject of God was conspicuous by its absence. I am grateful to my family for not forcing any beliefs on me, for deliberately letting me choose my own way, but it seems quite funny now looking back on my first encounters with religion, and my childly interpretations of them, not really having a clue what any of it meant inwardly.

I suppose my late development in a spiritual sense was partly down to the fact that I was not destined for a Christian path, and yet as I grew up in England and America, my exposure to spiritual teaching was naturally through Christianity.


A First Encounter with Christianity

My first encounter came via an afternoon film in the style of a soap opera. Its leading lady had a disappointing romance, and travelled a long way from home by herself. She came to a stone house with gates at the front, where a much older lady answered the door, wearing a cape and a long matching headscarf.

‘Why is the lady wearing a cape, Mummy?’

‘She’s a nun, they all wear those clothes. It’s not really a cape, it’s called a habit.’

I had thought habits were supposed to be bad, like sucking one’s thumb or biting one’s nails, but the nun seemed very rational and well presented.

‘What do nuns do?’

‘They’re all ladies and they live in a big house together with a garden where they grow things and sometimes keep bees. They sing songs and read books and do kind things for people. They don’t go out very much and they never get married.’

‘So they don’t have to learn how to drive a car? And they don’t have to have babies, or pay the bills?’

‘No, I suppose not.’

‘How old do you have to be to be a nun?’

‘I don’t know, maybe twenty.’

I was only five. It was too big a sum to take five years from twenty, but I knew it would still leave a very long time. I quite liked babies back then, because my brother was one, but I did not like pain or mess at all, and I knew the three could not be separated. Driving a car seemed precarious, and paying bills was definitely worse; it needed a calculator and the repeated invocation of Gordon Bennett. I was scolded most while my parents were driving or paying the bills – any amount of noise during either could cause a permanent disaster. I secretly decided I would be a nun instead – that would put paid to all sorts of complication. I would not even have to wonder what to wear. Although the plan was discarded within a week or so, it was a comfort for a time.


A Second Encounter with Christianity

The second encounter came four years later, courtesy of an aunt. Although she was stern and prickly, she always gave me five pounds for my birthday, which easily made up for any gruffness the rest of the year. Regardless of the season, she wore fine cardigans over matching box-pleated woollen skirts, hardy stockings and frumpy lace-up shoes. She seemed to have only one stalwart measurement around her whole body: shoulders, waist and hips all the same circumference. If my grammar was slovenly, she became deaf; sometimes after several repetitions at an increasing volume, I was forced to rephrase a sentence in the hope that it would finally warrant an answer.

Auntie brought me a miniature boxed set of prayers and Biblical quotations one day. They were in three parts – perhaps symbolically – each with a pale satiny cover. Nothing was said about them, or about God. They were neither wrapped nor adorned nor explained; there was no occasion for a gift, and only I received one. I am not sure whether Auntie even believed in God, or whether she simply thought it proper for a young lady to keep such publications in her library. Maybe she just thought I needed improvement more than the rest of the family. The whole event was strange, and therefore seemed significant.

When she left for the day, I chose one prayer to learn by heart – The Lord’s Prayer – which I repeated throughout the house with jubilant abandon. That was too much for my mother, and she asked me to put the books away. I read them quietly and covertly thereafter, so they formed a sort of tryst for a time, but while proper young ladies with seemly libraries might be delighted with the three-part God in satin jackets, I honestly did not have eyes for Him there. I considered it my own failing, but accepted it nonetheless. The boxed set decorated a shelf until it reached the table of a school fête, and finally left my charge.


A More Meaningful Understanding

It may sound ironic, but only since becoming a student of Sri Chinmoy fifteen years ago have I come to inwardly appreciate the essence of Christianity. Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual path is the path of the heart, a path of Yoga in its original sense, meaning “union with God”. In his own words:

There is no fundamental difference between one religion and another because each religion embodies the ultimate Truth.” [source]

With that feeling, I have begun to develop more and more affinity with other spiritual paths, whether or not they are considered religions, as their goals are the same as my own: union with God. I still would not claim to know a lot about Christianity, but I have gained a lot of inspiration from the teachings of Christ, and from reading about Christian saints. Sri Chinmoy has written many songs dedicated to Christ, as well as  figures from other world religions, such as Lord Buddha and Lord Krishna.


My Favourite Christian Nuns

Saint Thérèse de Lisieux

Her autobiography The Story of a Soul is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. She was obviously born an extraordinary divine person with an uncompromising spiritual calling, and yet she tells her story with such simplicity and humility, it becomes relatable. Somehow I find it comforting that even a saint can have earthly struggles: not just physical ailments, but sometimes even just problems getting along with people when they are unkind.

Hildegard von Bingen

I have loved her music for a very long time. Somehow it has intense purity without austerity – it’s hauntingly beautiful, as though truly from another world. The insights she gained through her visions were outlandishly ahead of their time – not just spiritual insights, but scientific truths, especially related to medicine. I saw a film about her recently, simply called Vision. Again it showed her struggles and her fears, despite the fact that she was born with these incredible divine gifts, and with an uncompromising inner calling. I suppose I love this relatable quality most, as it hints that we mere mortals will not forever remain so very far away from divinity. In that case it is worth striving for, however long it takes.

UPDATE: Hildegard von Bingen is now Saint Hildegard von Bingen. She was canonised 5 days after this post was written! It took over 800 years, but better late than never.

  • Read more stories related to Christianity here at sumangali.org »
6

Emus and Egyptology

I live right on a railway line. The whole building shudders when the heavy freight goes by, and I can hear the echoing announcements from the platform when the wind blows the right way. Somehow I find it comforting. I always had a happy association with trains, even when I was little. They knew the way to mysterious exotic places like Brighton and Burgess Hill. Trains were harbingers of good fortune. They brought people I loved – my father from work, or other relations for family visits.

My very earliest memory is of a railway platform. I was eighteen months old when advertisements came out for a major exhibition in London. The image on the station wall beguiled me: a gigantic burial mask, two wide eyes in frames of kohl, a gentle smile of gold and a collar of precious stones. My father taught me to pronounce the name in grand, deliberate syllables. I had barely mastered the mechanics of walking, and a waddle was all anyone could have managed in underwear so heftily frilled and reinforced, but I was keen to share my word with anyone who would listen. Tottering towards an old lady, I thrust a newsreaderly “Tutankhamun,” and a pudgy pointed forefinger. I probably hoped more for a discourse on Egyptology than the start of silence she gave in response. I had yet to realise I was not an adult like everyone else.

We allowed extra time for getting anywhere, partly so I could button my own coat at an age when it would have been much faster for someone to do it for me. We also needed time to look at things along the way, and for me to request explanations. Everything, without exception, was important.

Animals fascinated me more than anything – in books and in the world – so my parents took me to London Zoo. Of all the creatures the emus are the only ones who lodged in my memory, because they taught me something permanent. Older children were gathering particular leaves and posting them under the barrier. The birds found them irresistible and unfolded their necks to receive them, much to the children’s delight. I did not see them eating leaves, I thought they were giving kisses, so I waddled over to join in and had my little pink fingers mistaken for greenery. I was quite sure I was about to be eaten whole, but once my mother had placated me and explained, I knew for good that blindly copying people is not wise. It is worth taking a moment to gather the facts (and leaves in this case), also to assess any risks particular to one’s own size and circumstances.

What are your earliest memories?

16

An Early Friendship

Dogs were my first obsession, and from the time I could talk, I repeated an ardent desire to have one of my own. In the innocence of youth, my parents decided to grant my wish just before my brother was born. They soon discovered it was not their greatest plan, but I was euphoric almost to the point of madness.

Spaniels themselves are mad at the best of times, at least when nobody has time to train them. Left to instinct they revert to a state of random ebullience, as if their brains are full of sherbet and their bodies made of slack elastic. They are free from cares or aversions, remaining cheerful while their ears are sucked and their eyes prodded. Whether ridden bareback by a lopsided infant or locked in the laundry room by a haggard mistress, they are simply glad to exist. Mine was no exception, and we were instant friends. The lawn soon grew small craters and an air of carefree wildness. The flowerbeds were troves of half-eaten, half-buried wellingtons and other rubber treasures. Anything made of anything so flimsy as paper or fabric, anything so delicious as a crayon or an electric cable, either had to move fast or be hidden above snout level.

My secret tears often fell on the ears of that dog. When I was sent to my room for being naughty, she would come with me, head and tail hanging low. Although she was of a skittish breed, almost brainless, and later even epileptic, she dissolved into a mute stillness whenever I was sad. The same eyes that told only greed and vandalism in everyday life then offered a pathos more genuine than most humans could muster. As if I had bared my heart to her in verbal detail, she understood immediately: not what had taken place, but how to heal it with her warmth and attention.

I still have a thing about dogs. Such a thing that I could probably never have one of my own now, as I would never get anything done.

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