trout [ 9 ] October 2001
Heather wafted directly towards us. She was clad in a body costume that enveloped her limbs and torso like pressed lilac blossom. Her eye washed over our bodies. "Here was the fix, the trance, the beginning of the spell," I wondered. "The magic of immersion in the soothing serendipities of the trance may do some good," I mused.
Heather stood in front of us, a slim sliver of a human being, all concentrated vital essence. With a wave of her arm, and a twirl of her body, as lithe as an Etruscan Aphrodite, she showed us how to recline gracefully on the floor.
I made to follow her fluid movement, but stumbled in a crazed heap on the floor, emitting a half-cursed, half-sighed guffaw: "Aa-a-a-ach." I adjusted my folded crumpled limbs into the streamlined straitened supine position.
I closed my eyes, shutting out the unlovely sight of a cream-blotched, tobacco-stained ceiling and allowed my imagination to invent its own screenplay. The piped music was something suitably oceanic: fluid and swirling, punctuated by the tremulous shrills of whales' copulating. Heather's evenly modulated voice-overs hitched my inarticulate meteor-shower thoughts to a galvanic masthead, and I was hoisted into a cosmic caravan, a royal progress, a cinematic adventure through caverns measureless to man.
I became like unto a camera.
There had been tui, as many as five, drunkenly feasting on drooping kowhai blossoms by the TV1 lounge door. Now, in my swirling swooning reverie they had become the gatekeepers to my rites of passage. The first camera-shot in my interior screenplay was a bush-clearing spotlit in electric shafts of light. The trees were sturdy broad-leafed evergreens: karaka, hohere, hinau, under-canopied by umbrellas of ponga fronds on midnight-black pitted shafts. I and my companion had paused for refreshment beside the smooth sooty bole of an ancient puriri, which dimly reflected dark green lucid light patterns on our faces, smiling and dappled. We exchanged a bottle of lemonade and took hearty gulps.
My cinematic scenario dissolved into a thousand bubbles. Great chunks of ice vaulted like rebounding hail. Kingfishers sped slantingly athwart those splintering showers of ice, their iridescent blue bodies and ruby-red beaks great plumes of fire and ice. Tui dived dizzily all plump and black-green sheened, for they on honeydew had fed. A great tower of ice crashed and slid into the Antarctic Sea. A frozen cathedral engulfed. Forever.
Entombed. I shuddered. I sneezed. I flicked my eyelids. The music changed from a titanic Tapiola to a sultry saraband. My fixated memory thawed and floated in that soothing sea of soft silk. Caressed. Eased out. Facilitated. Ah.h.h.h.h! I drifted. I began to unwind. To relax. For a moment my limbs quivered like a coy blancmange. The twinges and twitches subsided. Better this soft gel than the baroque histrionics of unsycopated raw nerve endings. A random belch came. But a faint echo of the once prowling desire to vomit. The balm of sensuous unguents stilled my quivering soul. There was a soft susurration of bees sawing.
It was very hot. My interior mind's screen panned soaringly over vast fields of fresh-mown hay, which on all sides fell swiftly to a pohutakawa-fringed beach. The tiny points of fading red pohutakawa blossom blurred into a slurried haze. But still there was a strong murmuration of bees. I dissolved into a soaring high-rise ceiling of sunburst gold and palest powder blue.
And then it came. An electric flash of kingfisher ultramarine rent the dome in twain. That awesome slicing of that azure dome wrenched my head to one side. To check my place, my reality I raised one lidded eye. Sure, praise God, I was still in TV1 lounge. And that was the slim electric-mauve filament figure of Heather arcing across the firmament? No, a figment of my transposed fantasy. Heather was seated passively, enveloped in transfigured abstraction. She was a point of light in that dim corner of the room, Ariel's cave.
The music changed. It became eerie. It was quite strange. My imagination flitted over possible identifications: Purcell's Requiem for the Death of Queen Mary? ... Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima? ... The Lamentations of Jeremiah? I knew not.
But I felt like those who were stilled after a rough watery passage. Washed up. Strewn. Limp. Stilled. Comforted. Safe. But what was my head doing? Where were my nerves? Was my heart still in its pericardium?
I decided to check out the powers of my willed concentration once again while I lay safe, supine, on the floor of Ariel's Cave. Ariel had her own kind of potent magic, a special concoction of sublimated reverie and rigorous attention. Her wisdom was concentrated, centrifugal, particular. Her stamina finely honed, fashioned, determined. Her mind so focussed, so fine, so perfectly synchronic, no idea could violate it. I envied her ascesis.
I gritted my molars, I shrouded my half-opened eyelids, I tightened my buttocks, and tried literally to pull myself together. A giddiness enveloped my soma, seemingly located in the genitals. The ventral dizziness migrated to my head where it frenziedly burrowed between my eyes. On my interior cinema screen dark globules of viscera swarmed and sawed. I recalled: always when I had the first double gin-and-tonic of the new day, there was a brief sensation of black clouds boiling up, followed by a sharp elevation into a net of light. Instant release. Instant grat. Then, almost like now, I had the same sense of being enmeshed in a photism of pure hedonism. I would become a focal point of numberless glittering radiations, many colours borne on carrier waves of burnished gold. I would hear again the sharp ggggggg-rrrrrrutching (as sharp as chalk skidding on blackboard) of blocks of frozen ice gyrating in the bottomless cradle of gin-and-tonic. And I would imagine I was back crouching in the heart of the crystal chandelier in Geraldine's drawing room, watching, as she, that enticing Clytemnestra served deadly iced-bullets of martini.
The memory of that cold shock (a passport to another un-temporal realm), of gulped release, shriveled my frame. My mind was as if still frozen on an inter-galactic trip. And then it would come. The cosmic lurch. The instant dissolution of consciousness. In dazzling darkness. There was cosmic chaos. The awful algebra of the universe. The tonic water would refuse to flow downward from the bottle to glass. I would rage. The cosmos should be ordered. Since this was my world I should be able to command it. At least, I used to think that way in my insensible fury. The planets should spin in careful, predictable patterns. My patterns. Imposed by my writ. This was my universe, once validated by the subordinate appurtenances of my ego, now littered with the refuse of my life. Then, in that black terror of willed oblivion, I had to endure the wet misericordes of a room shaking with demonic orchestras, the voices outside the window gnattering half-heard, the snatches of fearful sleep, the nightly grapple with death, the rending tumult of ego-driven disorder, the wringing squeeze of inconceivable anguish, the noise of the unbandaging of great giants in agony : the wet clammy terror of being finally frightfully alone, enmeshed in my own soggy vain-spun tricotage, my cosmic matrix.
Enough! A cold-like spasm graunched me back. I opened my eyes. I was on the floor. I began to thaw. This was not the abyss of Hell. I had been trapped, fixated in a freeze-frame of cinematic memory recall. I had been disquieted by the re-play. Next time perhaps in Heather's cave of solitude, the fire of therapy would thaw again my rigid frames of memory, and melt them into air. I had been trapped in my labyrinth, my own metaphysical torture chamber. But, I speculated, as I gazed at the awful ceiling; it is a nonsense when I find myself in dreams the wrong way up, to be tormented by intermittent intellectual assessments of my situation, the realization that I was un-provided with moscan equipment or suckers for ceiling-walking. I needs must love what I have and what I am.
My heart thumped in affirmation. The original felix culpa is thought itself. My body felt the tremulous surge of joy. The pursuit of my own identity through the labyrinth of my experiences. It was like the hound of hell chasing its own tail. A self-consuming feast of despair. An endless re-run of a B-movie with an indifferent script. The point is, one will never get to the end of it, never get to the bottom of it, never get to the out ... outside ... the other side … never, never, never. And that never, never, never is what I must take for my hope and my shield and my most glorious promise.
An involuntary spasm engulfed my viscera. My lower limbs gave a momentary heave of release. My shoulders shifted up/down in a clumsy pas de deux. The body was beginning to break out of its mould. There were signs of a battle going on deep in my soma. Parts of my body were struggling against my case of skin like fishes in a net. Then the movements subsided. The music changed gear. The syncopated mellifluousness of the baroque gave way to the elusive vapours of a Chopin nocturne, its distant poignancies poetic and martial at the same time - like cannon buried in flowers. The synchronic ambiguity comforted and soothed my limbs, eased out and quelled the jerking spasms of my mind. I felt content, dissolved. But a core of stubborn flint remained.
Heather's soft orotundities smoothed over the sharp melancholy of Chopin : "Lie still. Make your mind quiet. Breathe quietly. Say words quietly. Any words softly ... Any words...even a babble, or just 'stop' or 'help' or ‘please’..."
"Words without thoughts never to heaven go," I interjected half-heard.
"Say 'stop' to some thoughts, keep your intent pure, live quietly in your pain, quietness is good. Imagine your body reaching out and touching things gently .. other things … things outside… beyond out there ... out yonder ... out of the frame... out of the trap...of the mechanism. Reach out with your hand and touch things gently, other things, innocent things. It may seem artificial, like a ritual - like when you wake in the morning and hear the bellbirds singing, and just think, 'the birds are singing' and hold that way from the blackness and keep it there, even for a second."
"Bloody deus ex machina," I mumbled. The plaintive ether of Chopin ignored my half-voiced protest. I cast an upward glance at Heather, folded into the corner, her faint-scented gillyflower radiance quietly aglow. Immanent. Some ray of purity touched my nether part. A tiny ember kindled within my heart. I had once thought of her as a mediator, a facilitator, an enabler of the gods. This was now more true, more appropriate. I recalled a discourse I had with her some days ago:
"Learn meditation. It is so calming so beautifully constructive."
"No. No. Meditation is refuge, quietness, purification, replenishing, a return to whiteness. On the other, contrary hand, prayer is struggle, pleading, even ... groveling. That... the latter… involves being caught in an inexorable wheel of psychic machinery, the machinery of guilt and repentance. Most efforts at virtue, which, imperfectly understood, can grip and destroy. Just let go, and let God."
"And fall into the abyss."
"Yes, but it is the abyss of faith."
"I'm not certain that I have any."
"Then find some. Erect some yourself. Make yourself your own ideological construct. After all, you are the sociologist. You should understand the power of the abstract imperative." And she smiled. One more smile from her thick herbal of smiles.
I knew that smile of old. I was intrigued, no, maddened by it. She was like the chess player who is letting her opponent know he made an error in the previous move. I touched a pebble. We were on Rotoroa's beach, seated on a tide-combed bank of pebbles and shells. Once, a long time ago when I first sighted them, their very multiplicity and randomness had appalled me. Then, in my self-absorbed obsession, my inability to attend, to notice, to focus and concentrate, their variety and excessiveness had seemed irrelevant, contingent, and cruel. I picked up a pebble. I felt its too, too solid reality, its striking individuality, its particular shape and feel.
My mind-set on first arrival many weeks ago would not have permitted the contemplation of these stones. I was locked in a concreted idée fixée that the intention of God could only have reached a little way into the opacity and density of the compressed matter, and where it failed to penetrate, there was just jumble and desolation.
Now I perceived each stone, each pebble, as a taonga of lovable individuals, not as an expanse of abomination where the spirit had never come, not as a chaotic stretch of senseless, random, contingent matter. I stroked my stone with a loving caress.
I glanced at Heather. "Feel this stone." I passed it to her.
"It is quite beautiful," she sighed.
"Remarkable. It has its own unique particularity."
"You know that marvellous piece of poetry by Arnold?" I fixed my eyes on Heather. " ‘Dover Beach’."
"Every stone of it." She laughed at her pun. "It's so frightful. So moving in its evocation of the despair of life without spirit, without meaning. Without spirituality. It's too, too awful." She paused, then quietly pronounced in measured tones:
" ‘But now I only hear / Its melancholy/ long withdrawing roar, /Retreating, to the breath / of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world.’ "
"I used to be like that. To feel that. Nothing but desolation. Nothing but absence of purpose. Filled (if that is the correct word) with pointlessness, with shame, with guilt." I paused and picked up a pebble, rubbed it dry on my sweatshirt, then with great care and deliberation laid it atop my bended knee.
I looked at that little perfect stone, so silly, yet so appropriate, perched on my kneecap. "You know the writings of that great English mystic, St. Julian of Norwich ... those lines of hers: ‘And all shall be well / And all manner of things shall be well,’ that T.S. Eliot incorporated in his Four Quartets?"
Heather nodded in recognition.
"It's amazing. The metaphysical comprehension of that mystical power. It’s a paradigmatic shift. A way of conceptualizing, of transcending, seemingly the laws of the natural world. It is sort of pure cognition, pre-cognition." I stumbled over grasping those high-flying philosophical concepts.
"Yes. It requires a massive relocation of one's perception, even, dare I say it, in this religious place," she said as she turned her head backward toward the distant chapel, "a re-appraisal of one's values."
I lowered my arm to touch my stone. I felt its completeness. It's ineffable compactness. "Do you know," I proclaimed, "Julian of Norwich saw, no ... perceived, boundless love in the stone-like hazelnut that her mystic Christ had clutched in his stigmatized hand?"
"Yes, I know the passage. She – Julian - was paralyzed with incomprehension that something he held could be so small, could not perish. She was mystified and appalled by its ambiguity. "Everything that is, so little..." Heather’s voice trailed off.
"I believe that that is what is needed, what is demanded, what is enjoined of all of us. To focus, to regard, to attend to the little things; the localized, the provisional, and to forsake the general and imperial. To arm oneself with a fixity of purpose (but not so rigid it can not bend to changed circumstance), to negotiate the detail and contingency of the world, of the chaotic calculus of the cosmos."
"You are beginning to sound like some old wind-bag philosopher," she chortled. Heather sprung lightly to her feet. She suddenly broke into song, the triumphant lyric of Henry Higgins: "By George, she's got it," and pirouetted across the pebbled shoals.
I jumped up and ran after her. "Stop!" I cried. She was fleet of foot, like some lithe gazelle. I stumbled after her. "Stop!"
She ceased her gamboling. I caught up with her. I was half breathless. "But haven't I left something out, something larger, something grander?" My breathing became more even. "What about the truth. The search for God?"
She fixed me with a look of impatient querulousness. "What more do you want? God is a task. God is a detail. It all lies close to your hand. That is all you need to know."
I glanced at my opened hand. It contained no pebble. I had, of course hurled my little talisman away into the sea.
A child-like choler erupted in my loosened chest. "But what about the meaning of the life - the world view?"
"Forget it. Forsake the grandiose. Renounce the grandiloquent."
She dismissed my plea, and with peremptory purpose, began to take long strides in the direction of her cabin.
I trailed behind. Her figure receded. I dawdled. She was right. But I petulantly would not admit it. I mused. I mouthed thoughts into the wind. "All right, I'm changing, but is it in the right way?" I glanced around at the stony beach. The evening light altered the shapes of the stones. They seemed closer, more immediate, more defined. Each stone had its own sweetness and light, contained its own ruggedness and weight, enclosed its own awfulness and strength, retained its own magic and power. I had never thought of them like that before. It was rather like those Ngati Porou Maori who went on fishing when they first saw Cook's ships. They did not know, could not feel, what they were. They were locked within a primitive mode of conception. Then as the ships drew closer they saw white men bedecked in strange plumes. And then some sinking feeling of recognition, something analeptic occurred. They knew they were men like them, only different. White. Like albatrosses with gold hair. Toroa-o-Urekuhu.
My mind gave quantum leaps. That's it. Different ways of perceiving things. Thought itself tries to freeze what is 'brute and nameless' behind words, to fix what is 'more and other' than our descriptions of it, what is but a ballet of bloodless categories. That's it. Heather's right. Prayers are struggles. I have been like Job, always guilty before God, a sort of exalted sado-masochism. Heather's so devilishly right. Prayer involves concern about self, sometimes about other people, and naming of names, self-flagellation and self-degradation. How ambiguous such supplication was! Naming of names. How powerful those opening passages of the Bible were: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God." But were they just not an ideological construct? The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. To break down those... to leap out of the mould ... to flow...outwards...towards...what?
I broke into a run. I gained on Heather. She had just reached the door of her little house. I lumbered right up to the doorstep over which I awkwardly lurched as I brought my clumsy hulk to an abrupt halt. "Heather, I've just had a revelation … an insight."
From the threshold of her little house she peered down at my crumpled frame. Her long limbs seemed like twin symbols of rebuke. "I need to get some of my own things done now. I need my own space and time. I’ll see you on Wednesday, after relaxation. I can give your claims greater consideration. And you'll have had time to reflect."
I took in her words with equivocation. They had a gritty quality that seemed hard to take in. She smiled. She looked quietly exalted. I felt vaguely stunned. I began to gently nod my head in quiet acceptance. I turned and took some steps across the grass, towards the giant palms. I stopped under one.
"Good night, sweet Prince," she waved. I moved off and began the long climb to my communal quarters. I felt quietly enabled, quietly elevated. It had been a long day's journey into night. The twilight, darkening, had a brightened rim across the horizon. I thought as I strode upwards, "It has been a good day. And tomorrow will come." I felt good, requited, replete. I reached the top of the steps. The remainder of the day's warmth caressed my callused footpads. I felt at one with the world. "Good night," I called to the light below the canopy of palm-fronds.
A faint echo returned. "Good night."
Chopin's shivering cascade of cacuminal velvet chords caught my attention. A golden shimmer of hammer-struck strings reverberated, and trickled into my whorled ear. I felt its warmth thread into the mesh of my tightened guts. It began to thaw the outer brittle edges of my hardened core. Its firm soft poignancy whittled away my stubborn and bloody-minded false posturing. My muscles began to relax. I felt the golden sounds sink into my very heart. I had a sensation of total liquidity, of dissolving into the soft pillow of my mind. Touches of sweet harmony stilled my shrieking psyche. A great voice boomed, "Be still, and know that I am God." I melted into the seamless fabric of the resonant redolent air. The music had allayed my silly fears. My mind soaked up the warm susurrations of sweet music.
I opened a furtive eye. Heather was gliding noiselessly past her recumbent charges. She noted one novice was seated upright like a bent staple. A wry smile creased her jaw. Another neophyte was stoically arched in bowed resistance to the music's dulcet imperative. She felt for this reluctant acolyte. A newcomer was perched in rigid bewilderment on the edge of an un-comforting wooden bench. She washed her eyes across the frozen form. His cast-iron visage, tiger-striped with the red embers of smallpox, and puffed out with lumpen varicosity, ignored her fond puzzled ray of empathy with scarce-gloved antipathy. Some figures were sprawled ventrally upon the dull gold grubby carpet, their faces snuffed into stale pile. She pondered on the questioned potency of the dulled odours emanating from those tangled close-pressed wool/nylon fibres. Perhaps it was better to sniff these safe aromas than toy nosily with the acrid volatilities of glue. Heather glided on. I admired the concerned concentration of her surveillance. She caught my watching and beamed quietly, "Richard seems perfectly re-constituted. He has arrived at a close comfort zone. That is good." She nodded in rhythmic accord with the limpid strains of the Chopin adagio. And quietly she pleated her slim figure into the folds of the corner of the room.
With an adroit flick of her curved long index finger she touched the control button on the tape recorder. Chopin was stilled. Ravel's Bolero began its plangent incantation. On my interior movie screen the plastic forms of Torvil and Dean exuded their antiseptic gloss. I expunged that clip of brittle lacquer and conjured up a vision of tussock country, sheep country, great waving deserts of wind, golden country, dry, the ridge tops lined with stark rocks.
"Breathe quietly, breathe softly. Oh! So sweetly, so smoothly ...oh! so sensuously." Heather's voice slid with polished grace over the soft slippery silk of the sibilants. It melted into the stately swisser-swasser of the bolero. "Sing slowly ... yes... so slowly...." I slid into the whispering grass and the sky sunk into me in a swoon of gentleness. I was fused into the medium, safe within the sanctuary of bliss, of grace, of serenity. The blue came down and down and down until I felt I was dissolved in it. I lay on that hard floor, rolling gently in the washing tides of the sky like a rolling shell on the sea floor and my hands parted the earth, the whole earth opening for me and I felt the snowberries' softness. Snowberries. They lie under the high country tussocks like nests of rosebuds and taste of warm ice cream. I lay on that soft soil under the still, hot sun and heard the continuous chirruping of cicadas. Or a lark. I could never see any of these creatures. I could not conjure them up into sight even now. They had their own spell, the sounds of silence.
I sighed. It was a sign of surrender. Such is the power of concentrated attention. The storms in my soul seemed quelled. The sense of Shakespearean hopelessness had slipped away into the deep-sea caves of memory. The rap cars and sounds of Sten gun staccato slid into an abyss. They were immured in silence. I felt supremely unabashed. The music soared to a surging crescendo, and then halted abruptly in a burst of triumph.
Heather and I stood outside the sliding doors in the sunshine's strong robes. A quite rapture enfolded us.
"The world is independent of my will."
"The sense of it must lie outside it. In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value."
"If good and bad willing changes the world it can only change the limits of the world. The world must wax and wane as a whole."
"The world of the happy is quite other than the world of the unhappy."
"As in death too, the world does not change, but ceases."
"If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, he lives eternally who lives in the present."
"Not how the world is but that it is, is the mystical."
"Whereof we cannot speak."
Above in the kowhai, a bellbird called with its quick falling note that sounded rich and sweet like "come-on-hither, come-on-hither right now," and revealed in ending, a desperate waiting lost silence.
"The rest is silence."
"The rest is silence."
2001 Trout &