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:
To the wisdom-sun.
My spirituality rises
Not on the horizon
Of my knowledge-might
But on the horizon
Of my wisdom-light.
A very short breath.
Is limited strength.
Is unlimited power.
The outer knowledge is
The inner knowledge is
The choice of illumining wisdom
We must make,
And not the choice of precise knowledge.
All poems by Sri Chinmoy, from Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees