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.
The 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.
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 album John Wesley Harding was released in 1968. Recording took place shortly after Bob Dylan had had his infamous motorcycle accident. The album radiates a somewhat dark, religious atmosphere. Experts counted some 60 references to the Bible in hardly 40 minutes of music. The initials of John Wesley Harding (JWH, Yahweh) seemed to hint at a return to Dylan’s Jewish roots. From the twelve songs on the album, it was “I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine” that appealed most to me.
Saint Augustine: alone and terrified
In an earlier stage of my life with a somewhat dark, religious atmosphere of its own it had appeared to me as if Augustine had stood in a corner of my smoke-filled room. He had called on me to get up. And, as there hides no martyr nor saint in me, go my own messy way. In the knowledge that despite all, I am not alone.
I dreamed of Saint Augustine and the image, that I, scorched by his fiery breath, was among the ones who put him out to death. Or, in yet another dream, was in the crowd that shouted: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
I had felt alone and terrified back then. But in the hazy smokiness a breathtaking, unnameable presence had reassured me, that though I was far from perfect, I was still loved.
This evening in France I tapped my fingers against the empty whisky-glass on the table before me and bowed my head and cried without making a sound. Moved and amazed by so much grace.
I was sure, that now there was grace for the cow, too. In heaven…
(As there is no video of Bob Dylan performing “I dreamed I saw Saint Augustine” on Youtube,you find here the original on Spotify. In case you have no access to Sptify there is an nice cover by Oxford-based singer Thea Gilmore on Youtube.)
Sunday mourning: The dreamy pastoral was shattered to pieces overnight. A cow waggled on its hind legs the next Sunday.
Struck by lightning
The farmer stood by in the drizzling rain, looking miserable. An old man on crutches – I guessed it was the farmer’s father – crawled up the hill, panting heavily.
After a while a van drove up the meadow. A veterinarian got out of the van, put on blue overalls and shook hands with the farmer and his father. The veterinarian took a close look at the cow. With a stethoscope he listened to the cow’s chest. A calf stood motionless next to the cow. The farmer held the calf’s head in his hands and spoke softly into its ear. When the vet was ready, he talked lengthily with the farmer while the father looked at the cow with a sad expression on his face.
The veterinarian took a huge syringe from the back of his van and gave the cow a shot. Then he drove off. I walked up to the farmer and his father and asked what was the problem. “Un coup de foudre.” Struck by lightning.
“It’s a pity,” I said. “Oui, c’est dommage,” the farmer answered. He was close to tears. “An expert of the insurance company must inspect her.” Sadly, he shook his head and walked to his car, the old man on crutches lagging behind.
Thanks to the shot the cow descended the hill. It grazed for a while. Her calf drank from her udder. Then the cow made a few steps and fell over on her side. She tried to get up, but didn’t succeed. For three or four hours she tried to get on her legs. The other cows came by, sticking their noses under her body as if to help her get about. They stood in a circle around the cow, went grazing for a while and, in a show of solidarity, came back again.
Sunday mourning, so hard to bear
The sight was unbearable. That afternoon a thrilling match was on TV in the round of 16 at the World Championships Soccer in Brasil. But during the match my wife and I watched the cow downhill. My favorite team won in an exciting climax, but I couldn’t be happy. Even the 14 year old Clynelish whisky that I drank, could not change the gloomy mood.
Yes, I understood. To be able to claim his indemnity the farmer had to wait until the expert from the insurance company determined the exact cause of death. And, being in France, he wouldn’t come on Sundays. That is why the poor animal had to lie on its side till next day when its suffering would finally end.
I understood that it couldn’t be any other way. This small farmer needed every penny, but the situation was heartbreaking. And though there was nothing I could do about it, I felt guilty. As evening fell, all the other cows came by one more time as if to say farewell. Half an hour later the cow didn’t move anymore. With a sigh of relief I assumed she had finally died. This Sunday mourning had finally come to an end.
Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers – The Last Mile of the Way. Click hyperlink
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.
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.
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.
Packaging versus Gift: This is a story about how the words and the melody of a song, a bird sitting in the middle of the road and the small gesture of a stranger can make a difference.
When I first told it, someone asked me if it was a true story.
I said: Maybe.
However, why bother whether a story is fiction or fact? That is not what real stories are about. There is a deeper layer in these stories where the truth resides. It’s almost like getting a present. If you think the packaging is the actual present, you might miss the real gift inside.
Packaging versus Gift: moreover you actually may find that there is nothing inside the packaging.
The same goes even more for the greatest stories that mankind has conceived: the holy stories. As soon as they are considered to describe actual facts, their essence, the true gift inside, is lost. We will get into real trouble. Most of the time it ends in bloodshed. And that’s a pity, because inside the sometimes harsh shell of these stories hides the most beautiful gift to mankind.
As for my story, when asked for, I would swear by everything that’s dear to me that it is truly true and that it was situated in Lorraine in France in the glorious summer of 2014.
The dead cow, the hoopoe sitting in the middle of the road, the gesture of a stranger and how the words and the melodies of Bill Fay’s song mixed in perfectly on a day of death, grace and glory.