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Hearing the Cries of the World

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
User is currently offline
on Saturday, 05 July 2014
in Practice · 0 Comments

Perhaps the most important reason for "lamenting" is that it helps us to realize our oneness with all things, to know that all things are our relatives

–Black Elk

A saint (is one) who does not know how it is possible not to love, not to help, not to be sensitive to the anxiety of others.

–Abraham Heschel

THIS STORY IS SO OLD we don’t know who told it or who it’s about, except that it speaks to all of us. We no longer know if it was a “he” or “she” at the center of the story. No doubt the story has grown for every telling. But for this telling, let’s call our central character Kwun and let her be a heroine.

One day Kwun crossed a valley and stumbled on a bloody scene. An entire village was laid to waste, the people torn apart. Walking among the bodies, her heart was breaking open, enlarging for coming upon the suffering. She was drawn, almost compelled to look inside their bodies and at the same time repulsed by the violence that had opened them. There was an eerie silence steaming along the ground. It looked like the fierce work of a warring clan. Suddenly, Kwun heard a terrible cry from the middle of the scene. She had to pull a dead man aside to find a woman barely breathing, clinging to her little boy who was bleeding from the head. Kwun fell to her knees and without thinking embraced them both, their blood coating her.

As the wind can lift the snow off a branch, the cries altogether can somehow lift the sadness off a broken heart.

The cry of the dying mother was as much from her own pain as from her powerlessness to help her son. When she saw Kwun, her cries grew worse. It was clear she was asking Kwun to take her boy. At first, Kwun shook her head, unprepared for any of this. The dying mother clutched Kwun’s hand and fell away. The boy was unconscious, still bleeding from the head. Wherever Kwun was going before stumbling into the valley, that life, that plan, that dream was gone. It was too late to close her heart and walk away.

She lifted the little, bloody boy and, though he was unconscious, Kwun covered his eyes as she walked over the rest of the bodies, leaving the village. Carrying the boy, she began to cry, feeling for the mother who had watched her man die and her son be bloodied, and feeling for the boy who, if he woke at all, would be all alone. She began to moan as she walked, keeping the cry of the mother alive.

By the end of the day, Kwun managed to climb out of the valley and, exhausted from the tasks of surviving, fell asleep at the mouth of a cave. When Kwun woke, the bloodied little boy had died in her arms. She didn't know what to do, though there was nothing to do. She held him for a long time, then opened his little eyes, wanting to see what was left within him. And looking there, she began to feel the cries of the world, long•gone and long•coming. It overwhelmed her as she felt a pain that almost stopped her breathing. But she kept rocking the little one, certain the world would end if she put him down. Without her knowing, she began to hold the broken that would ?ll eternity, long before they would suffer: the stillborn, the betrayed, the sickly, the murdered, the thousands left to mourn. Letting them move through her began to open her heart like a lotus flower. And the cries of the world, though she couldn't name a one, made her stronger. At last, she fell asleep again. While she slept, Kwun became a source of healing. When she woke, she spent her days touching the wounded, holding the dying, and keeping the cries of the world alive. The cries became a song she didn't understand, other than to know that, as the wind can lift the snow off a branch, the cries altogether can somehow lift the sadness off a broken heart.

Wherever We Go

KWUN may be an ancestor of the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, also known as Kuan-yin, whose name means hearing the cries of the world. We’ll never know, but like rivers joining in the sea, stories coalesce and merge over time into the one story that remains, the one we each wake to, surprised it is ours.

Wherever we go, wherever we wake, we are challenged like Kwun to hear the cries of the world very personally. The cries are unending and overwhelming, and our noble charge to hear them—to hold them and keep them alive—is how we keep the life-force we need lit between us. As Black Elk says at the beginning of this chapter, the reason to lament is that it helps us to realize our oneness with all things, and to know that all things are our relatives.

This has never been easy; for grief is so challenging that it often blinds us to its importance. As the Sufi poet Ghalib says, “Held back, unvoiced, grief bruises the heart.” Try as we will, we can’t eliminate or solve these cries, for they are the song of existence. When we try to mute or minimize the voices of suffering, we are removed from the life-force that keeps us connected. If we get lost in the cries, we can drown in them. So what are we do with them? What is a healthy way to relate to them?

I've found that whatever I go through opens me to what others have gone through. This is the gut and sinew of compassion. Our own ounce of suffering is the thread we pull to feel the entire fabric. Having pinched a nerve in my back, I can feel the steps of the elderly woman who takes twenty minutes to shuffle from the bread aisle to get her milk. Having lost dear ones to death, I can feel the weight of grief that won’t let the widower’s head lift his gaze from the center of the Earth where his sadness tells him his wife has gone. Having tumbled roughly through cancer, I can feel fear arcing between the agitated souls who can’t stand the wait The fully engaged heart is the antibody for the infection of violence. in the waiting room. I've begun to meet the cries of the world by unfurling before them like a flag.

I was in college, sitting with my grandmother in her Brooklyn apartment, when she fell into another time and left the room. She’d left an old photo on the table. It was of a young family posing in a studio in 1933. The parents seemed to have the whole world ahead of them. When she returned, I asked. It was her sister and brother-in-law and their small son. They lived in Bucharest. There was a long pause and an even longer sigh, “We saved and sent them steamship tickets to come.” She dropped her huge hands on her lap, “They sent them back, and said Romania was their home.” They died in Buchenwald.

It was pulling that thread that opened my heart to the cries of the Holocaust and from there, to the genocides of our time. Those cries plagued me, wouldn't let me sleep. In time, I realized I was opening myself to the enormous suffering of history for no other reason than to feel the complete truth of who we are as humans. This is impossible to comprehend, but essential to let it move through us, the way the cries of the world moved through Kwun so many centuries ago.

Each of us must make our peace with suffering and especially unnecessary suffering, which doesn't mean our resignation to a violent world. For the fully engaged heart is the antibody for the infection of violence. As our heart breaks with compassion, it strengthens itself and all of humanity. Can I prove this? No. Am I certain of it? Yes. We are still here. Immediately, someone says, “Barely.” But we are still here: more alive than dead, more vulnerable than callous, more kind than cruel— though we each carry the lot of it.

That we go numb along the way is to be expected. Even the bravest among us, who give their lives to care for others, go numb with fatigue, when the heart can take in no more, when we need time to digest all we meet. Overloaded and overwhelmed, we start to pull back from the world, so we can internalize what the world keeps giving us. Perhaps the noblest private act is the unheralded effort to return: to open our hearts once they've closed, to open our souls once they've shied away, to soften our minds once they've been hardened by the storms of our day.

Always, on the inside of our hardness and shyness and numbness is the face of compassion through which we can reclaim our humanity. Our compassion waits there to revive us. When opened, our heart can touch the Oneness of things we are all a part of. Then, we can stand firmly in our being like a windmill of spirit: letting the cries of the world turn us over and over, until our turning generates a power and energy that can be of use in the world.

Running from the Cries

SOMETIMES, BEING ALIVE is so hard that we think it would be better to avoid all the suffering. But we can’t, anymore than mountains can avoid erosion. And there is a danger in running from the cries of the world. In extreme cases, our refusal to stay vulnerable can twist into its opposite in which we strangely get pleasure from the suffering of others. The German word Schadenfreude means just this. Such perverse pleasure derives from the utmost denial of being human; the way running from what we fear only makes us more violently afraid. Severely renounced, the need to feel doesn’t go away, but distorts itself. In the same vein, the term “Roman Holiday” refers to the grisly spectacle of gladiators battling to the death for the pleasure of the Roman crowd.4 This danger is insidious in today’s rush of incessant news coverage twenty•four hours a day. We can be brought into heartbreaking kinship in a second, as with the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City or the horri?c massacre of twenty schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. And like Kwun in the ancient tale, we can be compelled to look at the raw insides of tragedy to glimpse how tenuous our time is on Earth, while being repulsed by the violence that opens such a stark revelation. But if not careful, the endless replaying of tragedy from countless angles can push us over the line till we fall prey to that perverse pleasure of the Roman crowd.

To view tragedy beyond our feeling of it adds to the tragedy and turns us into dark voyeurs. Yet just as Kwun’s rocking of the lifeless, little boy enabled her to hear and feel the suffering of those yet to come, keeping our heart

Hearing the cries of the world causes us to grow,

the way every power opens for receiving the rain. open to one torn life can enable us to hear and feel the cries of all who suffer.

Which side of reality we dwell in determines whether we are offspring of Kwun and Kuanyin, descendants of those who keep the cries of the world alive, or offspring of the warring clan, descendants of those who gut whatever is in the way, who cheer the bloody spectacle. These twin•aspects of life are closer to each other than we think. The seeds of both live in each of us. It is our devotion to staying vulnerable that keeps us caring and human.

True connection requires that a part of us dissolves in order to join with what we meet. This is always both painful and a revelation, as who we are is rearranged slightly, so that aliveness beyond us can enter and complete us. Each time we suffer, each of us is broken just a little, and each time we love and are loved, each of us is beautifully dissolved, a piece at a time. We break so we can take in aliveness and we dissolve so we can be taken in. This breaking and dissolving in order to be joined is the biology of compassion. The way that muscles tear and mend each time we exercise to build our strength, the heart suffers and loves. Inevitably, the tears of heartbreak water the heart they come from, and we grow.

Our fear of such breaking and dissolving keeps us from reaching out, from stopping to help those we see in pain along the way, telling ourselves it’s none of our business. But no one can sidestep being touched by life and, sooner or later, the fingers of the Universe poke us and handle us and rearrange us. Running from the cries of the world makes the Universal touch harsh. Leaning into the sea of human lament makes the Universal touch a teacher. Hearing the cries of the world causes us to grow, the way every power opens for receiving the rain.

What Are We to Do?

THE LIFE OF Kwun and Kuanyin calls, their simple caring in our DNA, though it’s never easy to cross into a life of compassion. Since the beginning, we have all complained, when weary or afraid of the power of feeling, that we have a right to happiness. Can’t we ever look away? Must we always feel guilty for those who've suffered beyond our control? But guilt is the near•enemy of true kindness. It won’t let us look away or let us give our heart to those who suffer because our lives will change if we do.

No matter how we fight it, life always has other plans and we are faced, when we least expect it, with the quandary of living softly in a beautiful and harsh world. Under all our goals and schemes is the sudden need to help each other swim in the mixed sea of joy and sorrow that is our human fate.

The truth is: my suffering doesn’t have to be out of view for you to be happy, and you don’t have to quiet your grief for me to be peaceful. Allowing our suffering and happiness to touch each other opens a depth of compassion that helps us complete each other.

There are always things to be done in the face of suffering. We can share bread and water and shelter in the storm. But when we arrive at what suffering does to us, there is only compassion—the genuine, tender ways we can be with those who suffer.

Some days, I can barely stand the storms of feeling and fear civilization will end, if we can’t honor each other’s pain. But in spite of my own complaints and resistance, I know in my bones that openness of heart makes the mystery visible. Openness to the suffering we come across makes our common heart visible. If we are to access the resources of life, we must listen with our common heart to the cries of the world. We must forego our obsession with avoiding pain and start sensing the one cry of life that allows us to flow to each other.

ENDNOTES

1. Joseph Epes Brown, recorder and editor, THE SACRED PIPE, BLACK ELK’S ACCOUNT OF THE SEVEN RITES OF THE OGLALA SIOUX, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 46. Black Elk was a Native American sage of the Oglala Sioux.

2. Abraham Joshua Heschel, THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S: THE INNER WORLD OF THE JEW IN EASTERN EUROPE (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001), 20.

3. Mirza Ghalib, translated by Jane Hirsh?eld in THE ENLIGHTENED HEART Stephen Mitchell, ed. (New York: Harper, 1989), 105.

4. The barbaric gladiator combats were extensively showcased in the Roman Coliseum, peaking in popularity between the ?rst century BC and the second century AD. The Coliseum was built just east of the Roman Forum. Construction started in 72 AD under emperor Vespasian and completed in 80 AD under emperor Titus. Seating ?fty thousand spectators, the amphitheater was also used for pub•lic spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, and executions.

Excerpted from Mark Nepo’s book in progress, from our summer 2013 issue (which happened to be our 150th issue of Parabola Magazine).

Photography Credit: Fernando Lemos

Tags: Mark Nepo, Summer

Fires of the Solstice

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
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on Tuesday, 24 June 2014
in Culture · 0 Comments

The winter solstice has Christmas as its festival; Easter at the spring equinox, occupies itself the place of other festivals renewal, such as that May Day which the beauties and gallants of the Middle Ages celebrated by riding into the woods or dancing on meadows, or Rogation Days, which have become virtually outdated as the men of today love neither earth nor heaven enough to invoke the blessings of the one upon the other. The Feast of St. John, the festival of the summer solstice, has had its fires of joy extinguished almost everywhere, except perhaps in Scandinavian countries, where their tall flames are reflected upon the water of the lakes. But no one in Sicily any longer watches at dawn on June 24th to see Salome dancing naked in the rising sun, bearing on a golden platter, which is itself a solar image, the head of the Baptist. There are exceptions; scattered here and there the old rites survive. In Greece and in Portugal, there is the ceremony of walking barefoot on burning embers, which is more ancient than Christianity itself. Florence has its fireworks, and in Greece and some small villages of France children roll in front of them wheels adorned with candles. But all this is hardly connected in the people’s minds with the antique glory of sol invictus.

And indeed, this man of the desert nourished with honey and locusts, this prophet burned by the shimmering of the noonday sun on the rocks, this preacher with words of fire, can be a good symbol in the Middle East for the scorching season, and the refreshing contrast of the River Jordan only increases its intensity. Yet it would appear that that element of splendor and luminous serenity, so closely associated in our temperate regions with the very idea of the June solstice, is badly missing in this story of asceticism and blood. There are other Christian festivals of summer—Pentecost, with its mystical flames, and Corpus Christi, with its rustic, floral profusion around the monstrance; but they have never been felt to be the festivals of summer. That season which is a festival in itself lacks, properly speaking, a festival of its own.

Nevertheless, it would appear that in France our Chinese lanterns and fireworks on the Quatorze Juillet and in the United States the avalanche of firecrackers and Roman candles on the Yankee Fourth of July answer man’s age-old need to reproduce on earth a great solar episode, to add a bit more, if he can, to the heat and light which fall from the sky. And one cannot regret too much that those ancient fires of joy which traveled from village to village and from summit to summit, threatening the forests and the high grass with conflagration, have been definitively extinguished, however picturesque the leaps of the dancers jumping around or over the flames must have been. Our dances in the streets and in the dance-halls, themselves almost obsolete, have in their own way taken their place, but they are desacralized, except perhaps by some of the images d’Epinal out of our history. And it may be that the vast, almost panicky summer exodus of today is some solar rite without a name.

Yet at the very thought of a solsticial festival a curious sort of vertigo overtakes us, like that of a man balancing on a slippery sphere. That full measure of light, that longest day of the year, which lasts almost ten weeks at the North Cape, is also the moment in Antarctica when night reigns, illumined only by the distant fires of the stars. What is more, this apogee signals the beginning of a descent; from now on the days will get shorter and shorter until they reach the nadir of the winter solstice; the astronomical winter begins in June, just as the astronomical summer begins in December, when the hours of light imperceptibly grow longer again until they reach the pinnacle of the Feast of St. John. We have before us three months of green meadows, flowers, harvests, warm sand on the beaches, and songs in the branches; but the movement of the skies is already preparing our winter, as, in the depths of winter, it prepares the summer. We are caught in this rising and falling double helix. "Verweile dock, du bist so schon” (“Stay with me, you are so beautiful”), Faust could have said to the June solstice. But he would have said it in vain. It is within ourselves, and without too much hope or belief, that stability must be sought. •

"Fires of the Solstice” is excerpted from the collection of essays,That Mighty Sculptor, Time by Marguerite Yourcenar. Translation copyright © 1988 by Walter Kaiser. Originally published in French in Le Temps, ce grand Sculpteur © Editions Gallimard, 1983.

Art Credit: Engraving of the Supernatural Light by Robert Fludd,  Ultriusque Cosmi, 1619

From our summer 1988 issue, "Repetition and Renewal"

In The Small Hours

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
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on Saturday, 14 June 2014
in Practice · 0 Comments

In the small hours,
When the sun is on the other side of night,
The crows are perched and silent.
Come to us now, oh darkened angels,
Stilled upon these wings of prayer.

Take pale hand and ragged breath,
Forsaking all the known, and reach
Towards heaven, rending hearts
With all the rapt attention awe commands.

There is no compromise with God
And no negotiation; He
Has laid out the good path
For all to follow.

—Lee van Laer, Parabola's Poetry Editor

Where Will All the Stories Go?

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
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on Wednesday, 07 May 2014
in Culture · 0 Comments

A Conversation between Laurens van der Post and P.L. Travers from the Parabola Archives:

The following conversation–or as P.L. Travers calls it, a “coming together”–took place between two people who must certainly be well known to PARABOLA readers: African-born Laurens van der Post and Australian-born P.L. Travers, both of them lovers and guardians of story. Sir Laurens, recently Knighted by Her Majesty in recognition of his distinguished career as writer, soldier, and explorer, is the author of many books, including Venture into the Interior, Heart of the Hunter, The Dark Eyes of Africa, and Bar of Shadow. His fields of expertise are many and varied, and his friendships and enthusiasms have a wide range–from the Bushmen who influenced his childhood and whom he later sought out and celebrated in his famous book Lost World of the Kalahari, to C.G. Jung, whose close friend he became in Jung’s later years.

P.L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins, author of Friend Monkey, The Sleeping Beauty, and other books, is preparing a new book for publication later this year and, she tells us, has just “made a sort of literary history by removing the heart from one of the Mary Poppins stories and transplanting another,” the first having, after many years of faithful service, suddenly been deemed by San Francisco librarians to be “insulting to minorities.” “I am now,” she says, “awaiting a deputation of Polar bears, Dolphins, Pandas, and Macaws saying that they are insulted.” These two friends and apostles of story met to talk, and here we share their unique insights.

 

P.L. TRAVERS

Laurens, let us go back to the beginning of things. I have long carried this question–where, having come so far, will all the stories go? Naturally, since it is your country, I am thinking specially of Africa. And I wonder, when everyone there has a gun and a television set, what will happen to the ancient lore? Only today I was reading of the increasing number of suicides among those who leave the wild for the cities. Lacking the extended family, separated from the tribe, and therefore from the stories, what have they to lean upon? Already the stories are becoming unavailable to those who need them most. Well, you know more about this than anyone, almost, in the world. Let us share it together.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Ah, I do not believe that I know more about stories than you do, but I couldn't love them more. And I love them because it seems to me that without stories, human beings wouldn't be here. Human beings are a story; they are living a story and anyone open to this story is living a part–perhaps all–of themselves.

P.L. TRAVERS

So there is no need to invent myths, which is what–feeling a lack in themselves–people are nowadays trying to do?

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Well, I think that that is an impossibility. It is one of the great illusions of the literature and art and the life of our time that people like Tolkien are supposed to have “invented” myths. They have done nothing of the sort. They have substituted a sort of intellectual effort, a conscious determination–which they, quite wrongly, call myth–for this very profound process which cannot come from anywhere but out of life itself. It is something that falls into us. I have been very much concerned about this because, only recently, I was asked to say something about Descartes’ famous statement–“I think, therefore, I am.” There, it seems to me, is the beginning of the fatal hubris of our time. Of course, there is an area in which we think–who could deny it?–but, really, all the most important aspects of thought come from that which is thinking through us. And this process is the myth, one of the most profound things of life; it is creation itself, which becomes accessible and, in part, energizes and gives, of its own accord, a sense of direction to the human creature. It is something with which–we are in partnership. And the story is one of the roots of this area, this area from which myth arises, which sustains and feeds the human spirit and enables man, and life on earth, to be greater than it could otherwise have been.

P.L. TRAVERS

And that’s what men are now hunting for–for life’s sake, one could say–and they think they can get it by inventing the kind of thing that brought Roots to all the television screens in America.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

I thought it was appalling, phony and untrue to myth and even historically untrue. And what makes it so sad is that it comes out of the genuine longing of millions of people for roots, those millions of people who do not realize that in the most profound sense, we carry our roots within ourselves. They need not be physical roots, which is what this man has tries to provide, a phony kind of physical source for what, in a sense, is the super-physical, a hunger for roots in the myth.

P.L. TRAVERS

I would say that really we don’t even need that “super.” It exists. It courses in our blood, carried along from one generation to the next–wouldn't you agree?

LAURENS VAN DER POST

I would. I only use the word “super” as a substitute for the whole process which moves and works within us.

P.L. TRAVERS

It’s the same with the word “supernatural.” For me, the natural includes the “super.” And this brings us to what you wrote in, I think, The Heart of the Hunter, where you say–or, rather, the Bushmen say–“We are dreamed by a dream.”

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Ah, I was very moved by that because, being in the company of a very ancient form of man, a Stone Age hunter in the Kalahari Desert, I was pressing him to tell me about the Beginning, his idea of the Beginning and the beginning of those stories you were speaking of. He looked at me in astonishment and said, “Well, that’s a very difficult thing because, you must know, there’s a dream dreaming us.” And this seemed to me to sum it up, to arrive, for instance, at the point where all explorers of the human spirit have begun–and also ended. It leads us to Shakespeare’s famous conclusion in The Tempest, one of the last plays he wrote, where he comes face to face with the fact that he has exhausted all his own powers, come to the frontiers of himself, where something other than what has brought him to this point must now carry him on. You remember the epilogue–

“And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer…”
But even before that he has come to the conclusion that
“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on.”

And what is the distance between him and that little Stone Age man who had never before seen a white man and never heard of Shakespeare? For his own myth inside him tells him: “Look out! Watch! Listen! A dream is dreaming through you.” And this enriches him. It seems to me that this man, whom everybody else thought of as poor, despised, rejected, was rich in a  way that we, without our technological abundance, are destitute.

P.L.TRAVERS

We have nothing, we are poverty-stricken. This, in a way, is like the Australian concept of the Dreaming, of which I know a little, having been brought up there. Everything that is not at this very instant–when we’re chopping wood or finding witchetty grubs–is in the Dreaming. I can go into the Dreaming and you can go into the Dreaming at any moment and be refreshed. The anthropologists call it the Dreamtime but that word “time” immediately makes things move serially, puts them into place and locality. The Aborigines speak of it as the Dreaming–in their tribal tongues, Yamminga or Dooghoor–and for them everything is there. It is similar to what the Celtic peoples mythically call the Cauldron. They cannot go further back in their thought than a great-grandfather, nor further forward than a great-grandson. Beyond these, all is in the Dreaming–the making of the world, the great days, the great heroes. I was reminded of all this when reading–oh what you–or the Bushmen, rather–call “tapping.” “There is a tapping in me.” Perhaps if Tolkien and the makers of Roots and all the other inventors of what cannot be invented could hear that tapping,  listen for it as your Bushmen do, it could be in them as well, don’t you think?

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes. It is very interesting that we have both instinctively picked up on Tolkien, because–though few realize it–Tolkien himself was born in Bushman country–at a place I know very well. And his own journey, his particular inward journey, began when, as a boy of eight, he had a vision of the evening star in the sky over Africa, that part of Africa which was ancient Bushman country. And to that extent he was sustained. It was those first eight African years that impelled him on his journey and aroused in him a sense of the importance of myth; but not sufficiently strongly for him to approach myth in a spirit of humility, in the sense that he could have laid himself down and said: “Take over. Tell me what you’re about.” Instead, he began telling the myth what it was about and so, of course, it’s no longer mythology. It doesn’t work.

P.L. TRAVERS

It remains invention. It comes out of his own enthusiasm and not from the myth’s requirement.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

It is the same process which has made modern man speak of this organic, dynamic force in the human spirit as unreal. They use myth as a synonym of that which is not.

P.L.  TRAVERS

As synonymous with a lie. I am constantly protesting against that. What would Mantis say, I wonder, Mantis who is one of the great embodiments of myth that you write of so often and that I remember, too, from childhood. For me she was simply a praying mantis, I did not know her as a mythical creature. But she filled me with a sense of wonder–the long narrow-waisted insect praying. I would stand for hours watching her, wondering when the prayer would end. But it never did. The saints must envy such energy! And then, when I grew up, I found Mantis in your books and knew her–or him?–for one of the Lordly Ones. Tell a little about that.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Well, it’s almost impossible for me to see Mantis as apart from my own Beginning because of my early experience. One of the great influences  in my life was a Stone Age nurse, far more important to me than my own parents. I remember, as a very little boy, hearing her talking with Mantis. She was asking, in the Bushman tongue, “How high is the water?” And the mantis would put down its tiny hands.

P.L. TRAVERS

You actually saw the mantis doing this? It is so completely a ritual.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

I saw the mantis doing this.  And I protested to my nurse, “But, look, we’re not near any water. We’re a thousand miles from the sea. Why do you talk to Mantis about water? Does water come out of the desert?” “Well,” she said, “in the beginning, water was everywhere and Mantis was nearly drowned. And a bee came and rescued him and flew and flew all day long till the sun began to go down. Then the bee looked desperately round for a place where it could put Mantis and, suddenly, there it was! A wonderful flower above the water, a flower we no longer see on this earth, and the bee put Mantis inside it. So Mantis was safe, for from there, under the power of his own wings, he could find a dry rock to sit on.”

P.L. TRAVERS

Ah, the bee! It had to be in the story, the sacred creature that everywhere brings and symbolizes life. Do you remember how the bees stung you and tried to send you away from the place of the sacred tree, so that your presence should not profane it? You first saw it in the swamp, remember, then in your dream, and again among those mysterious rocks that would not have their photographs taken. The bee was there, in that place of magic, where the paintings refused to go into the camera

LAURENS VAN DER POST

This is one of the strangest things that ever happened to me and it continues to haunt me. It’s as though there’s a parable in it, for, at that moment, not only myself, but the people for whom I was responsible, were in very grave danger. We were in a great treacherous swamp and one of my paddlers–we were using dugouts–was Samutchoso, a name meaning “That which is left after reaping”–I didn’t know what he was the so-called witch-doctor of my dugout people, the Makoros–and he said to me: “There’s something I ought to tell you. Out there in the desert there are some hills and in these hills, right inside them, there are many rooms, and in these rooms live the master spirits of all created life. And on top of these hills, there’s a pool of water that has never yet dried up; and beside this pool there is a tree whose name we not only do not know, but are not allowed to try to know, a tree that has fruit on it and this fruit is the fruit of knowledge.” “Why are you telling me this?” I asked.” “Ah,” he said, “that is for you to say.” “Well, if we get out of this alive,” I said, “will you take me there?” “Yes, I will,” he said, “but on one condition–that on the way to the hills there is no shooting, no killing. It’s the law of their spirits–they are called Slippery Hills, the Tsoudilo Hills–that no one may come to them with blood on his hands.”

I solemnly agreed.

Well, it so happened that I had a great deal of trouble getting out of the swamp and after that many difficulties to face. But when, many months later, I was free to go back, I myself remembered my pledge but, alas, I forgot to share it with the people who were traveling with me. So, on the way to the hills, with Samutchoso guiding us–I, as always, in the rear, for in the desert that is where trouble starts–one of those in front sighted a buck and, knowing that we needed food, shot it. I went cold when I heard those shots ring out and, seeing the expression on Samutchoso’s face, I said to myself, “Pray God, they’ve missed!” and to Samutchoso, “Forgive me. Don’t blame them. I forgot to tell them.” “It’s not for me to forgive,” he said. “Only the spirits can do that.”

When we caught up with the others we found that, unfortunately, they had not missed but had killed two animals. And, when we eventually got to the hill, rising so extraordinarily out of the desert, we were in trouble from the moment we arrived.  All night, with our camps pitched at the foot of the hills, hyenas and jackals and carrion crows cried like creatures out of The Valkyrie. But when my mechanic, who was also my tape-recordist, tried to record those noises, the machine–we had very primitive equipment, but the best that could then be had–simply wouldn’t work. It had been all right before, but now we could get nothing from it. And then, at dawn, just as were walking, we were suddenly attacked by hordes of bees, coming from all directions. One of my guides, on all my Kalahari journeys, a marvelous and blameless man who had been for three years in the desert with me, got forty-three stings and was very ill. Curiously enough, I, alone, was not stung. And the moment the sun rose, all the bees vanished. So, we set out to start filming on the way. Looming above the desert, we came across a large rock and on it a set of rock paintings which no human being–I mean the words in the European sense–had ever seen. “Film!” I shouted, and the camera started to turn. Then, suddenly, it snapped! It wouldn’t work. The photographer inserted another magazine. Again the thing started turning and again it snapped and went out. So it continued all the morning, magazine after magazine not working and, as a last straw, the pivot on which the magazine turned–it was a fine German Araflex camera–disintegrated. Imagine it–a thing of steel! We were now without a camera but I still have in my possession such reels as we could save and it’s extraordinary how the shots start in frame, then gradually the frame narrows and–the stops.

“Well, at least,” I said to Samutchoo, “you could, perhaps, take us to that pool that is never without water!”

In silence he led us on, past what must have been an ancient temple of some sort, for all the way to the top of the hills the rocks were embellished with most marvelous paintings–thousands of them, as though the animals they depicted were leading us in procession towards the pool, to keep us company. Thus it was we arrived at the water and beside it the tree with the strange fruit on it and a rock in which could clearly be seen two deep indentations.

“Here,” said Samutchoso, “is the place where the first spirit knelt when he prayed to the tree to take care of all that had been created. I will show you how he prayed.” And he knelt down in the two marks and was about to raise his hands in prayer, when he fell back, shocked, his face ashen. “The spirits have tried to kill me,” he cried, and hurried us away, back to the camp, not permitting us to pluck any of the fruit in order that it could be identified. “No! We are not allowed to take it,” he said. “The spirits are very angry.”

That night, the recorder again refused to work and the next day we were again assailed by bees. We were all of us in such a state about this that I even began to wonder whether my Landrover could be persuaded to start. For three days we tried to get camera and recorder working–nothing doing, nothing.

P. L. TRAVERS

Man’s work. Man’s work. It failed because something more powerful had taken over

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes. And I was at my wits’ end. So I walked out, in the evening, to be on my own, taking my gun–it was dangerous country–simply for protection. I walked for miles round the base of the hills and suddenly, out of them, stepped an enormous Kudu bull, a marvelous animal; it really seemed to me like a god, in the level light of the sun. I looked at it and it looked back at me, absolutely without fear, as though in that look it was trying to tell me something. I was so moved by this that I gave it a military salute; and it turned around and went into the bush and away back up the hill.

As I returned to the camp, something happened in me that made me say to Samatchoso–“Suppose I wrote a letter to the spirits asking forgiveness and buried it at the foot of the first rock picture–a pair of hands impressed in paint on the rock–do you think that would help?” In reply, he took a needle, asked me for a piece of cotton which he wound round his hand, then, putting the needle in the lifeline of his left hand, he gazed at it in a sort of trance. And suddenly it seemed as though he were seeing millions of beings around him, for he murmured to them “No, no, not you! Nor you, nor you, but you over there, come here to me.” Apparently, whatever it was obeyed, for he communed with it for a long time and then came out of his trance, saying: “Yes, I think it might work, but the spirits are very angry with you.”

I felt in my bones that this letter would need to be correct in every detail–even with place and time and date and a map reference as well. So I wrote, asking forgiveness for any unintentional disrespect we had shown, saying that this letter was an act of contrition not only on our own behalf but on that of others who might come after us. I made everybody sign it and those who could not, made their mark.

“Really, Laurens,” said my hunter–a great friend and terribly English–“this is too ridiculous! I simply can’t do a thing like this! What if they hear of it at my club?” But he signed, nevertheless, and I promised that the club would never know. So we rinsed out an old bottle, put the letter inside, and securely corked it, and Samutchoso and I went out at dawn and buried it at the foot of the hill. A feeling of some kind of catharsis came over me then, and I said to Samutchoso–“You brought us here. Can you tell me if it will be all right to take us back?” “It’s not for me to say. You must ask the spirits.” And again he went through his motions with the needle. “The spirits say that all will be well now, but at this place to which you are going–(I did not myself know, at the time, where we were going)–you will meet more trouble. You must realize, however, that it belongs to the past.”

Then, as we walked back he said sadly, even tragically, “You know, even ten years ago, if you’d offended them like this, you would now, quite surely, be dead. They are not what they were, the spirits.”

P.L. TRAVERS

They are not what they were because man is not what he was! Though I can’t help feeling a little kindly towards the hunter who was afraid the club might get to hear of it! That spirits could read an English letter and the marks of untutored men–who would believe that? It takes an acquaintance with myth to recognize that what you did was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual intention.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes. And there’s a sequel. People now know from my books about this letter and the place where it was buried, and fly aircraft overhead to try to get a glimpse of the paintings. Immediately after my experience a German scientific expedition went to investigate them, and barged in with their trucks which were immediately destroyed by fire. So, it’s not just subjectivity. There is also objective evidence. And yet, knowing all this, and the spirit in which I had done it, they have dug up the bottle and it’s now in the museum at Botswana. That’s where the myth is, in museums, for most of us.

P.L. TRAVERS

Sacrilege. And I asked you where the stories go! I can’t ask what we can do to get them back but know only that it has to be done. There must be a few men who understand the need for this. For instance, not long ago, I was told of three or four English doctors who had gone out to live with some African tribe to learn their methods of healing; and how they discovered that this is not a matter of giving a medicine or an antidote to one sick person, but that it is, rather, a communal matter–the whole family, the whole tribe, is concerned with the healing; feasting, dancing, sharing the sickness and the health among all. How could we bring such an activity to our world–such sharedness? But perhaps something has started.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Well, I think you must just go on telling stories. They, too, are under law and cannot escape from it.

P.L. TRAVERS

You mean, perhaps, that, ultimately, the stories themselves can heal?

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes, that is probably a more accurate way of saying it. This process cannot be defeated; life itself depends on it. I could tell you so many examples from the primitive world.

P.L. TRAVERS

Well, tell me about the one–because I have something to add to it–where the Bushman woman came down on a cord and promised to stay with her Bushman husband as long as he did not look into her basket.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes, that story is much to the point. Stories of the stars play a fantastic role in their lives, if you know how to decode them. You touch the spirit of Greece here. The Bushman’s origin of the Milky Way is very like the Greek. I once saw a Bushman woman holding up her child to the sky and asking that it be given the heart of a star.

P.L. TRAVERS

I have thought that that’s where Haley got his scene where the child is held up to the moon–from your Bushman story.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Well, you probably know as well as I do the enormous amount of borrowing that goes on in the modern world.

P.L. TRAVERS

Ah, but, you know, it has to be, this borrowing. It’s not yours or mine. It’s there to be taken, a great big cauldron. One man takes something from it, another sees this and says “That’s true, that’s what I want.” So he goes and takes it from the first man. I’m not worried about this, it’s part of the general heritage.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes, It’s only the miserable ego that steps in. In the Bushman story that child was to have the heart of a star because “the stars,” they say, “are great hunters. You can hear them on their courses up there.” And that hunting, as you know, is a symbol of the search for the story, for meaning. Baudelaire talks about art being the summons on the horn of the hunter. “Les chasseurs perdus, dans les grands bois.” Lost in the great forest of life, they blast out the summons which is art, which is story.

P.L. TRAVERS

As a child in Australia, the stars seemed so close. I used to think I could hear them humming. I never told anyone, they would have laughed.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

But you do. You do hear them hum. “Listen,” my Bushmen would say, “they are hunting.” But to get back to the story of the woman with the basket; it carries an immense mythological charge. The man, after feeling somehow that something was being stolen from him, saw one night a group of beautiful girls coming down from the sky on a cord. Each carried a little tightly woven basket. And one of them he caught. “Yes,” she said, “I will live with you, on condition that you never look inside my basket without my permission.” He agreed, but, inevitably, he said “What the hell!” or the Stone Age equivalent of the phrase. And one day, when he was alone, he opened the basket, peeped inside and roared with laughter. “You have looked into the basket!” she accused him, when she returned. “Yes, you silly woman, why make such a secret of it when there is nothing in it? The basket’s empty.” “You saw nothing?” She gave him a tragic look, turned her back and disappeared into the sunset. And the Bushman who told me the story said to me, “it wasn’t the looking but the fact that he could not perceive in the basket all the wonders she had brought him from the stars.” And that, for me, in a sense, is one of the images that the story is to the human spirit. The basket brings us its star-stuff and the pundits–the intellectuals and the critics–look into it and say it’s all rubbish and superstition, and that there’s nothing in it.

P.L. TRAVERS

Would you accept a carpetbag coming from the stars? I had never read your story, but when Mary Poppins arrived, the children looked into her carpetbag and, like your Bushman, found it empty. And yet out of it came all her mundane daily possessions, including a camp bed! Did all that come from the stars? We do not know. Emptiness is fullness.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

It is, it is. And I think the use of a carpetbag is a wonderful example of what I mean by making a traditional story contemporary. That carpetbag had, in fact, a magic carpet inside.

P.L. TRAVERS

Yes, but disguised. And from where was the magic carpet stolen? Out of the cauldron, of course! For instance, your film on the Kalahari gave me the ostrich egg, which also must have come from there. The ostrich was such a forgetful bird, you said, that she had to put one egg in front of her outside the nest to remind her of what she was doing. Later, when I was listening to the Greek Easter service on the radio, a reporter described the monks filing in, with eyes downcast, all except one, who was gazing round at the congregation. “Clearly,” said the reporter, “he had forgotten the ostrich egg hanging over the altar.” But how, I wondered, had the ostrich egg got there? I sensed a myth in the air. Years later, seeing a group of Coptic churches on television, all with ostrich eggs strung across the ceiling, my question arose again. I wrote to the producer, who told me that there were two schools of thought here, one that says the ostrich is a forgetful bird and another that of all the birds she is the most remembering. So, does she remember or does she forget? It almost doesn’t matter. The egg, in both cases, is the reminder, and the link between my three experiences.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes, yes, the link. However much we try to deny it, the dream goes dreaming through us. Deep in the spirit of European man there is an ostrich and it lives heraldically. Our Prince of Wales has three ostrich feathers in his crest;  in Stone Age mythology, the moon was made out of the feather of an ostrich. So the ostrich, in a sense, is Prometheus, the bird from which man, Mantis and the god-hero stole the fire and brought it to man.

P.L. TRAVERS

But there’s a sequel to my egg story. Hearing it, a Jungian analyst we both know have me an ostrich egg to take with me to America. And while I was there it sat on my bookshelf, sometimes but, alas, not always, remembered.  And when I was leaving for England, it seemed to me that it said “Don’t take me!” So I gave it to the Dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York who thought it would look well on his mantelpiece. But I knew it wouldn’t stay there. The egg would go where it belonged. And it did. The next time I saw it, on another trip, it was hanging in the Cathedral, above the altar of St. Saviour’s Chapel. There’s a story for you!

LAURENS VAN DER POST

And add to it the belief of many primitive people in Africa that the sun is an egg.

P.L. TRAVERS

It is known by whom or what it was laid?

LAURENS VAN DER POST

It hatches great birds! And how it was laid is not to be known. You will find this determination among instinctive people not to try to carry an act of knowing too far. They say, “This is where we must stop.” And then they let the myth take over and wait till it tells them what else there is.

P.L. TRAVERS

That is what I’ve always found. We must stand in front of the mystery. “Take upon us,” as Lear said. “the mystery of things as if we were God’s spies.”

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Yes, and if one looks at it that way, one finds the lines of communication between the storyteller of today and the first storyteller; between us and the person who dreams, or is dreamed by the universe, these lines of communication are intact. They can never, never fail.

P.L. TRAVERS

We have ancestors.

LAURENS VAN DER POST

We have ancestors. Long ago I sat at the feet of a Japanese storyteller and he began with “Once Upon a Time.” And years later, in a night of great turmoil, the expression on his face when he said those words came back to me.

P.L. TRAVERS

The old phrase! Everywhere!

LAURENS VAN DER POST

And hearing it, a great peace came upon me. I was beyond space and time, everybody was a neighbor–this universal feeling of propinquity which makes the mystics speak of the forever which is now.

P.L. TRAVERS

And it will be along these lines, remembering the long genealogical tree, would you say,that we’ll preserve them?

LAURENS VAN DER POST

Very good, very good–Yes, through this world of ancestors, this genealogical tree of the spirit and the myth, the material of so-called barbarians. Cafavy, one of the most civilized of modern poets, wrote:

“And now what will become of us without
barbarians?
Those people were some sort of solution.”

P.L. TRAVERS

Let them be blest, the barbarians, and not vanish from the world!

 

***

From Parabola, "Dreams and Seeing," Volume VII, Number 2

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Willing

Posted by Luke Storms
Luke Storms
Luke is the digital director at Parabola.
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on Thursday, 01 May 2014
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I am a member of the Vietnam generation. We’re an independently minded generation, but a selfish one; our nobility of heart did not, in the end, translate so fully, and we are left with a burden of responsibility that outweighs the optimism of our youth. We’re at the age, now, when our parents are fading, those ones we rebelled against so powerfully; by now, we see how right they were about many things. In some cases, we come to that a bit too late. I am one of the fortunate ones who came to it early enough to make a difference.

My father, who was a businessman with a certain kind of genius, is now mentally unfit, his heart failing, barely able to mumble a few words to me. I called him today from Shanghai and the only intelligible phrase he could muster through a haze of antipsychotic drugs (he’s become combative and fearful) was “I love you.”

The words brought me to tears; up until now I’ve been able to see the humor in his struggle, but no matter how acute one’s sense of black humor is (mine is primo), there is nothing humorous in the immediate presence of personal suttering and pain.

I hung up the phone understanding that it’s my role to submit to God here, even though I do not have the understanding or inner authority needed to complete that action. I would fix the whole world, if I could; but I am small and human and can’t fix anything, really. I am required to submit to the truth of this moment, of our frailty, of our essential humanity and its inevitable limits and ends, without anything more than a loving acknowledgement of the truths it demands from us; the limits of the powers of our own love, a willingness to face old age and death straight in the eye without flinching.

Well, perhaps flinching a little.

I found myself wondering whether I should come home, already knowing that it won’t do any good, and that my father is unable to communicate anyway. My mother and I discussed all this before I left; if needed, I will drop everything, but life has to be forever lived on the razor’s edge of difficult questions, and right now the appropriate thing to do is stay here and attend to the job in front of me.

I know that if he could talk, if he were able to cut through the fog of war—in this case, Risperdal and delusions— he’d tell me to stay here and get the job done. I know without a doubt it’s what he’d want. He has always been inordinately proud of my success in business, because it was the one great yardstick he measured his own progress with. He was never so satisfied as when he saw me, the bohemian artist, lay down the paintbrushes and follow in his footsteps; and if that is the place my father puts his pride—in my acknowledgement, ultimately, of a responsibility— who am I to argue? In fact, if my own children are ever faced with the same situation, I hope they include me lovingly in their thoughts, but hold their heads high and keep their sights and actions firmly focused on their own lives, not on the end of mine, in the certain knowledge that I love them.

To love and honor, at such times, is to carry on with courage.

This kind of thinking might be another kind of selfishness, but I think not; I can hear my father’s voice in me; and not just the voice of my father here on earth, but that Father who asks us to trust Him, even in the midst of our sorrow.

We begin life in rebellion; we end it in submission. If we’re lucky, we can do that with a certain Grace.

The humility instilled by helplessness is a helping hand; today, I reach for it willingly.

—Lee van Laer, poetry editor, Parabola Magzine

Tags: Lee van Laer

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