Today the story made full circle. As a child my father´s garden was a real paradise to me. There were trees, shrubs, crops. In between the plants there were exciting paths that nevertheless felt safe. In summer the green coolness of the leaves protected me from the scorching sun. There were animals, too, but I did not call the animals by their names. Nothing had a name yet: the plants nor the animals nor the green coolness nor the scorching sun: to me it was as if it were one. And not only didn’t I distinguish between the phenomena around me, I didn’t experience a separation between those phenomena and me either. All was one and eternal.
But one day I was riding on my tricycle in my father’s garden: back and forth. Just a few inches, back and forth, back and forth, over and over and over again.
The day before it had rained a lot and with my head bent downwards I watched the wheels dig deep into the mud. Back and forth, back and forth, still deeper into the morass.
I must have been four or five years old. Oh, I awoke in anger, so alone and terrified. I wasn’t part of the wholeness anymore.
It was an early winter morning, two years ago. I drove my wife to work. Wet snow was drizzling down. Suddenly she says:
“I know what you should do. You get off that bike, leave it stuck in the mud and start looking for a new horizon. Remember as a child, in church, what you wanted to be? Well, become that bird in the child’s hand and fly away!”
Today the story has come full circle. I was back in the village of the cinema.
The cinema has been closed for years. As I passed by I saw a child’s tricycle lying in the middle of the road. Without thinking I picked up the tricycle and put it at the front door of the former cinema.
It wasn’t until I walked away, that I realized how wonderful and mysterious this moment was. Thank God, because otherwise I might have taken a picture and spoiled the mystery.
I remember what my wife had also said during the car trip two years ago: ”You may believe that you are kicked out of paradise. Or you may believe you walked out voluntarily to experience life in a world with myriads of choices. In either case you may stay out of paradise or you may return at any time you choose to do so.”
For a brief moment I felt like flying, far away from the mud.
In Lorraine we drive down another hill and I think of my father. How he had lied down on the floor in a nursing home, blood gulping out of his mouth, dying from gastric hemorrhage. An hour and a half before his doctor had called me on the phone. He wanted my father sent to hospital, but my father had refused. The doctor asked if I could affirm that my father was lucid and aware of what was going on. In the background I heard my father saying that he was as lucid as could be and that he didn’t want treatment. I asked if I should come, but my father was adamant and said I shouldn’t.
All day long he had been throwing up blood and he knew he was going to die. But he didn’t want me around. He wanted to spare me the sight. I had to respect his wish, but ever since I have been torn between guilt of not being with him in that moment of agony and gratitude for his characteristic unselfishness. It remains a note of discord in my life that will never be harmonized. My father was my brother, my friend, my closest ally.
The Coast No Cow Can Tell
As we reached the valley, I realized that the song was not only about my father’s death but also about the cow which now lay dying in the meadow. Tears were dropping from my chin on the steering wheel. As I looked at my wife next to me I saw that she was crying, too. Now there was nothing that stood between me and sorrow and relief. I had become sorrow and relief itself. Is it the real me for a moment: the child in front of the silver screen?
It is the last song of the album. The silence afterwards weighed lightly upon us as we were driving through another empty French village. We neared the last houses of the village. The road took a slight bend to the right. Around the bend a bird was sitting right in the middle of the road and it kept sitting there until we were very, very close. As if to show itself to us in all its alien-like beauty. When we were at a distance of about ten meters, the hoopoe flew up and disappeared into the trees by the side of the road.
Instantly I understood that the cow had just died and sent the hoopoe as a sign.
It was 11 AM.
Death, grace, glory
Finally we arrived at the Basilique du Bois-Chenu, which is devoted to Joan of Arc. It’s two kilometers from Domrémy-la-Pucelle where Joan of Arc was born.
Outside the church men in working clothes were putting up a stage and a huge lighting installation. A man in a green coat greeted us and said something in French. As I didn’t understand him at first, he quickly switched to a somewhat laborious English. Carefully searching for words, he explained that next weekend there was a spectacle with 200 supporting actors and a sound and light show. The show was directed by the famous Damien Fontaine who is, among other achievements, a four time winner of the Trophée des Lumières at the Lyon Festival of Lights. For a moment I considered staying longer, but alas we had to be home by next weekend.
It was such a nice gesture from a stranger though: taking time and bowing to us by speaking laborious English. (We should bow to each other more often).
Such a nice gesture on this day of death, grace, glory.
When we returned to our house on the hill, we heard that the cow had been euthanized that morning after having been examined by a vet of the insurance company.
“At around 11 AM,” the farmer said (truly, truly true of course).
That evening the glowing finger on the hill glowed sadly and gloriously in the red and purple sunset.
I am always on guard in a group of people, but the gesture of an individual can move me to tears. Like in church in the old days, I shouldn’t mind words that much and pay more attention to gestures. Small gestures made unconsciously, without calculation: a father holding a little child’s hand or a grandma blowing kisses into a pram.
But sometimes words can make a difference, too.
I remember the night before one of my dogs was to be euthanized. It was the one dog that I had had since it was a puppy. I could literally read its mind. It was only eight years old and dying of cancer. That night I picked up the Tibetan Book of the Dead from my bookshelf and let it fall open arbitrarily.
I started reading to the dog:
Dazzling Bright Light
Be not fond of the dull, smoke-coloured light from Hell.
That is the path which opens out to receive you because of the power of accumulated evil karma from violent anger.
If you are attracted by it, you will fall into the Hell-Worlds; and, falling therein, you will dig yourself deep into the morass of unbearable misery, from where there is no certain time of getting out.
That is an obstruction on the Path of Liberation, look not at it; and avoid anger.
Be not attracted by it; be not weak.
Believe in the dazzling bright white rays of the Light.
I understood that these words weren’t meant for my dog. My dog was a playful, happy fox terrier who hadn’t known anger. It was a time during which I myself fed the malign wolf way, way more than the loving wolf.
Yes, it’s true: we live in a Universe that is ruled by the Law of Cause and Effect. But sometimes this Universe holds its breath to give way to the Grace of God. We wouldn’t stand a chance if it were otherwise.
In this bleak winter of existential loneliness (not a trace of the Big Painter, even the candles in the alcove of my mind have dimmed) there’s nothing I can do than sit by my window and wait for God to come by in the words and the melody of a song, a spring bird that lands on my windowsill or, yes, the small gesture of a grandpa scratching his head in amazement. Is that all there is to life in this world? It seems so. But it isn’t forbidden to keep dreaming of a Pure Land where God manifestly walks with us every single step of the way.
Whenever I get impatient with the imperfections of my species and myself, I try to remember what my old dad said: “Neither you nor the others have created yourselves. That is an advantage as well as an disadvantage. The clear advantage is that if humans were only slightly able to create themselves, they would have made of themselves unbearable, self-indulgent gods which wouldn’t allow imperfections neither from themselves nor from others. That’s the First Sin.
But we were driven out of the Garden and allowed to become human. We may make errors or may not make errors. We grow by our imperfections, the shadows cast in front of us. The disadvantage is that this growing takes a million reincarnations, over and over and over again, and a hundred thousand wars and famines. But we can’t have it all, you know. We can’t have freedom and perfection at the same time. Thank God there’s forgiveness.”
On Sundays my parents used to take me to Holy Mass, even though I was still very young. In a way the weekly gestures of the priest swaying his aspergillum, his arms spread wide over the sacred host, his fingers subtly making the sign of the cross, marked the passing of time to me. Until then I had floated around in a vacuum where time didn’t exist. Sunday’s mass was like a levee in that vacuum to which I returned every week. But there was also another presence at that center: lady Madonna
Madonna watching me
I was fascinated by the gestures, though, not by the words. As soon as the priest started to preach my glance strayed to the Madonna which stood in a side aisle. Candles were burning in front of the statue.
The Madonna held a child that seemed to be floundering in her arms as if it tried to escape from her grip. In his left hand the child held a bird.
As the priest’s words floated unabsorbed high above me in the nave of the church, I wished I was that bird.
As time goes by…
I have not been back to that church ever since I was ten years and I don’t intend to go back soon. I’m too scared to destroy the perfect image of the candles, the loving countenance of Mother Mary and the floundering child with its bird. Mother Mary is closer to my heart than abstract concepts as the Big Painter in the Sky, God or the Universe.
I reckon Mother Mary understands us, having gone through the same tribulations as we do.
Often I ask Her to give me some of her warmth and mildness in my voice as I speak to others. Some of Her peace, gentleness, simplicity, the radiant look of Her eyes when I meet other human beings.
However, I don’t build my castle on a force from outside. I believe in the Rock in the Dry and Weary Landscape of my Interior, where there is no water.
Sometimes the Rock disappears under the sand.
Don’t despair then.
Only those who are unaware of the Rock inside, never doubt its existence.
…when through the branches of a barren tree the full moon paints freak patterns on the ground, the men from the village dance their ecstatic moves. They wildly jump around and stamp their feet wrapped in the skin of deer on the soft springy soil. Their bodies, sweat accentuating strong muscles, stirred up by the rhythmic beating of wood on wood, their minds brought into a trance by a secret potion of henbane, belladonna and dried fly agaric…
The men dance in circles around the shaman, the initiate who is at the center of the open space dancing his own crazy dance. He is totally immersed in his own pre-worldly universe and is dancing even wilder and more ecstatic than the other men. His head is hidden behind the mask of a deer’s head, the horns sweeping through the air as he dances around the fire. Still faster and wilder until he is just running in circles around the fire, slipping and sliding and falling down, his mask rolling aimlessly over the trodden grass. His body is shaking while he turns his face to the flames.
The women and the children sitting at the edge of the open space are the first witnesses to the miracle. Their cries wake the other dancing men from their trance. They stop dancing and look at the initiate and they see it, too. The fire in the eyes of the shaman and the fire of the flames seem as one. No, his eyes are not alight but for a short moment in time it looks as if the flames and the eyes of the shaman are of the same origin.
Fire, that is not as any of the other phenomena in this world as it doesn’t stand on its own but can only exist as long as it flames consume other things and in doing so create the beginning of something new, that fire is the representation of divinity on earth. And the eyes of the initiate, who may have been passed on secret knowledge from his forefathers, but for the rest is, just as the other men in the village, a farmer of the desert, those eyes represent humanity, taken from the soil.
And so, on this first night of spring the great miracle occurs in which divinity and humanity become one again for a short while.
In that short, holy moment the people of the village bow their heads and ask humbly from the divine spirit if the farming may bear fruit again this year: twentyfold, fortyfold, sixtyfold…
…when through the branches of a barren tree the full moon paints freak patterns on the ground and the stars make their rounds of the Eternal Mill through the endless universe, deep into the desert the coyote, feared and revered, sends his invocatory howl travelling through the night. For the time being the coyote still drowns out the sound of drums of an unknown people that has come from far away to, as rumor has it, subject all other races in the world and put an end to the old way of living that was taught by the Great Spirit.
Without making a sound a desert owl hovers over the open space. With fearful premonition the people around the fire raise their heads and pray that this year everything may still be well. For this one year at least…
This is the world into which I am born, time and time and time again…
Peace, One Fine Afternoon
I have this vivid memory of how my life was at the beginning. The kid in the cinema who became one with laughter. And look what has become of it 50 years later: a bag full of opinions. Conflicting, constantly changing opinions, too. A bag full of mixed emotions and passions: generosity and greed, compassion and rudeness, love and hate, pleasure and pain. Driven from the garden of oneness and openness, predator and prey at the same time.
The more I am at peace with what has become of the kid in the cinema, the more I am able to slip into the garden of Eden. Be it just for a brief moment.
As we drove up the hill called Sion I thought of another hill long ago. The hill where the shepherd had been waiting to lay his healing hands upon my ancient wound while singing: Be at peace with yourself.
“You know,” the shepherd on the hill said while he blew the smoke from his cigarette through his nostrils. It’s been years ago now. I was in some sort of mountainous free state. I left my car in the valley where traffic jam, tax free shops, billboards with shrill colors and the eternal concrete construction sites made my head spin. Taking a narrow path that wound up into the green, green grass of spring mountain I finally reached higher ground. It was quiet here. A bird of prey soared silently around snowcapped peaks. On the top of a hill I saw a flock of sheep and a shepherd. I climbed the steep slope.
The shepherd greeted me in the stubborn way of men who are alone most of the time.
“Are you in for a chat?” I asked casually.
“Yeah, sure,” the shepherd answered surprisingly friendly. “I don’t see too many tourists up here. They stay in the valley. So feel welcome.”
He nodded with his head to sit down in the grass and rolled a cigarette from my tobacco.
The Shepherd and the Way of Nature
“You know,” the shepherd on the hill said, while he blew the smoke of his cigarette through his nostrils. “You know, in a pack of wolves there’s a strictly observed hierarchy. On top of the social structure is the leader. The place in the pack is determined by dominance and submission. The position in the pack is already being established while the wolves are still pups. It looks like they are just playing, but in reality the strongest, smartest and most ruthless of them emerge to become in time the next leader.
Further down the line there is a fiercely guarded hierarchy. If there is a ranking from first to last one animal, as a matter of course, must be the last. We call it the underdog or outcast. The outcast is easily recognized, for it follows the pack at a little distance. It belongs to the pack and it does not belong to pack. The outcast is warily watching evolvements within the group, always alert in case the other wolves might let off their frustration and wrath at any time on him or her.”
The shepherd was silent and looked into the sky where the bird of prey was making a nose-dive. I knew the shepherd had been talking about me. He had seen me climbing up the slope, gauged me, seen through me. I had never belonged in high-school. You may say it’s merely regular teenage angst. That is absolutely true. But at the same time it was maybe more than just that. I was fatty and thought that was the reason I didn’t belong.
I became obsessed with diets. And again that didn’t suffice.
At night I heard the voices of classmates and teachers, saying: “You should this and you should not do that.” I thought: “If I just literally do as they say, then maybe one day I will belong after all”.
Every night, before falling asleep, I promised myself: “Tomorrow I will start a completely new life. I am going to be perfect from then on.”
The pursuit of perfection turned into an obsessive-compulsive disorder. An unforgiving winged creature guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden and the child in me. But his fiery, flashing sword didn’t only kill the naturalness and intuition of the child, but was severely condemning others too. I was stuck in a morass of anger.
The kid who was once one with laughter in the cinema, had also dreamed of becoming a missionary. But it wasn’t gonna be that way. Maybe it was never meant to be in this world. I remained an outsider, scrubbing floors in factories.
The Shepherd and the Way of Grace
Meanwhile driving through the next village in Lorraine my wife and I saw a castle. The castle was built as a calendar with 365 windows and 52 fireplaces.
“Look up there,” my wife exclaimed and pointed to one of the chimneys.
A pair of storks had built a nest on top of the chimney. I saw how they were feeding the young storks. The fledglings reached deeply into their parents’ beaks for food, flapping with their wings. I realized that this is part of this world too: all this love and caring and all these creatures parading before my eyes.
The shepherd on the hill blew out the last smoke of his cigarette.
He sighed and whispered: “Dominance and submission, that’s the Way of Nature, son. But that’s not all there is. One fine day of death, grace and glory you will find another Way, the Way of Grace. The Way of Grace will bring you delight and happiness and deep bonds of friendship and brotherhood.”
I was thinking about the shepherd on that hill a long time ago and how he had laid his healing hands upon an age-old wound.
Some historians say that there is a striking similarity between today’s wars and rumors of wars and the events that led up to the First World War, a hundred years ago. But does history really repeat itself that way? On the surface history seems an endless cycle of empires that shoot up like tall trees and then are blown over by the storms provoked by their own insatiable greed. So, always the same thing? Or like Schopenhauer said: always the same, but different?
“I pour a drink, I need one.” Sometimes even the finest of whiskies don’t ease the pain and anger. But doubt is already raised with the first word of that sentence: “I”. Do I really know who that “I” is? Of course, when I talk to my chief-executive or the lady next door, I maintain some consistent convictions and opinions of which you may contend that they belong to a more or less clear cut identity. But when I’m alone, those consistent convictions and opinions sometimes disappear like snow in summer. As soon as another light falls on them they tend to evaporate, change into anything but cohesion. Inside me there’s really nothing that is cohesive or consistent.
If you learn to accept that identity is merely a means to communicate with others rather than an end in itself, you’ll create room to breathe, to be human. Realizing your own condition humaine, you can accept the absence of cohesion and consistency in others more easily. You’ll stop judging and experience oneness and openness in an instant.
So let your identity be free-flowing. Surrender to the Big Painter in the Sky. And let Him, using a palette where the grimmest grey of war and depression are joined by the brightest sunshine colors of your heydays, paint His masterpiece.