The lightness and darkness of our valley of weeping and thirst

The Valley

The valleyThe valley of weeping and thirst… Reality is often much harsher than our dreams.

The next morning the cow was still alive, laying on her side. Her four legs were moving simultaneously as if she were on a last stroll through fields of gold. The calf was drinking from her udder, waggling its tail. The sight was unbearable. We decided to leave on a trip to the hill of the glowing finger.

We crossed a river. I craved to hear music andput Steve Forbert’s album Alive On Arrival in the car’s cd player. The album was Steve Forbert’s debut in 1978 and it has been dear to me ever since. Especially ‘It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way’ which had often offered consolation on the countless other occasions when dreams had gone up in smoke.

But now opening track ‘Going Down To Laurel’ didn’t seem to fit the mood nor the landscape. I took Steve’s cd out and played Life Is People by Bill Fay instead. Though I had heard it a couple of times before, the epic sweep of organ and the poignant words about war and destruction of opening track ‘There is a Valley’ took me by surprise.

On becoming laughter itself

The dying cow in the meadow had disturbed my peace of mind and caused the images of war to come back again. When had the bloodshed on our planet begun? Some would agree with Saint Augustine and say it was after the Original Sin in the Garden of Eden. But I had never read the first chapters of the Bible in such a literal way. The ousting from Eden appeared to me a rather archetypical drama of coming of age. In the beginning  a child experiences no separation between itself and the world around. It does not judge, has no sense of good and evil. As you would expect of a true paradise: All is One.

Let me illustrate it by something that took place in my own childhood. I must have been about four or five years old. During a vacation my parents took me to the cinema where they showed movies for children. I’d never been to the cinema before. I sat in the front row and was awed by what I saw on the silver screen. One of the movies was with Laurel and Hardy who were driving in California trying to sell Christmas trees. At one point they start getting into a row with the owner of a house who resorts to destroying their tree. Upon which Laurel and Hardy start ruining the house. It becomes a frenzy of absurd reciprocal revenge. After a while I got up from my chair and stood bent over from laughing in front of the silver screen. The child in me didn’t judge whether revenge was good or evil, didn’t take sides with either one. Nothing stood between me and my laughter. I had become laughter itself.

Judgement

But alas, it is a feature of our species that sooner or later we are all driven out of paradise. We eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil: we internalize the punishments we receive from grownups and from then on we judge ourselves as well as others. We strive to be like God, pursuing perfection for ourselves and demanding it from others, too. But we are human, imperfect by nature. And a winged angel swaying a flaming, flashing sword guards the way back to the garden of oneness and openness.

Today psychologists call this winged creature the superego. So maybe those who blame the Ancestral Sin for the violent nature of our species may not be that wrong after all. For the fiery, flashing sword doesn’t only kill the child in us, but also points menacingly to ‘them’ outside. We make judgments, divide into categories of good and evil and in the end resort to crucifixion.

Valley of weeping and thirst

Deep under the embers of a smothered heavenly fire, still hides the child in us. We long to revive it. But the road back leads through a valley of weeping and thirst, where life presents itself in ways we definitely wouldn’t have chosen ourselves. But those who walk the valley uprightly, find springs of water along the way and a hilltop at the end where grace and glory reside.

As I was listening to the closing lines of The Valley, I added one more line in my mind:

The suffering of every animal

Is written in His palm as well.

The desert: they are not like us

The desert

The desert teaches cause it takes away2

It hadn’t rained much out here this year. Drought had yellowed the fields. Twenty five years before I had travelled to Hopi nation. The colors of the fields in France reminded me of one late September evening when I’d crossed the state of Oklahoma on a Greyhound bus, as the last rays of the sun touched the red dust lands.

Instantly I felt a nagging craving to go back there.

The desert teaches…

A French farmer told me that crops of Cole seed and wheat were already lost. The dried-out fields were like an allegory of the moral crisis, that we’ve been living through these last years.

‘The desert teaches, ‘cause it takes away,’ the Walkabouts sing in a song called They Are Not Like Us. The desert, as a metaphor for our spiritual poverty, makes us fragile and open. We lose all spiritual certainties we have gathered in times of bless and rain in the blink of an eye.

The desert is unrelentingly peeling off layers of the stubborn shell with which we define ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’. The desert boils us down to our essence: because there is neither ‘us’ nor ‘them’. We are snake and bird, predator and prey, Saint George and the dragon, all at the same time.

The lion and the lamb inside us learn to lay down next to each other: in the desert we finally become human.

Charolaise

Meanwhile back in our house on the hill we had new neighbors: a herd of cows, including a bull and calves. “Charolaise,” the owner said proudly. “They make for good beefsteak.” He smiled, but being a vegetarian that wasn’t a recommendation for me. But at least these cows would have had a good life when their final hour comes. The meadow was like a prairie, vastly stretching out on three sides of the hill. They could wander around for hours and hide under trees from the scorching sun. Every morning I greeted them and as Charolaise are very docile and quiet, I even dared to stroke their foreheads and slap them on their backs. There wasn’t much grass for them to eat, but rain was on its way.

That Saturday the heat was oppressive. The red kites, the golden orioles, the Charolaise, the drought-stricken fields, the insects buzzing in the red light of sunset and the glowing finger to the west pointing towards heaven, all were waiting for the thunderstorm that certainly would burst out during the night and shatter the pastoral to pieces…

First Flash Of Eden

At First Flash of Eden

First Flash of Eden
…we race down to the sea…

My wife and I had been in Lorraine a couple of years before, on our way to the south of France. Just two hours, but the memory of the view from a hill overlooking the low plains had ever since been lingering in my mind.

There was a chapel on top of that hill. As I had stood next to the chapel watching the wide open space, the vastness of the landscape had invaded my head. It was as if I was back for a split second in the Garden of Eden.

I had felt oneness and openness: for a moment I believed in everyone.

As we descended the hill, we had spotted a flock of hoopoes in the meadows.

Space Oddity

So when we booked our next vacation in Lorraine, I hoped to find the same spacious feeling in my head again. And some flocks of hoopoes too.

The house we had rented stood on top of a hill overlooking the green rolling countryside and a small dormant volcano nearby. When the sky was clear, we could see the mountain range of the Vosges to the east, some 40 miles away.

To the west was the hill with the chapel on it. In the red, purple sunset its tower glowed like a golden finger pointing towards heaven. As evening fell foxes, hares and a pair of roes used to wander in the meadows on our hill’s slope. No sounds of cars or trains were to be heard. Just once in a while the faint buzz of a plane flying high overhead in the late night starry sky. It felt like paradise and not for all the money in the world I didn’t want to spoil that feeling.

Obituaries

So deliberately I avoided the news. I only bought a local newspaper once in a while. It contained only one page with international news that I neatly avoided. But the local obituaries to deceased people were a pleasure to read.

This way the frightening wars and the even more frightening rumors of wars seemed far away.

Much to our regret we didn’t spot hoopoes, but red kites and golden orioles were abundant. And though it’s common knowledge that one should never try to repeat feelings once felt in the past, after a few days the healing spaciousness of the landscape crept into my head again.