Me and Michel Chapter Eight

engulfing sorrow

sly tide on a shallow shore

submerge me alone!

Considering the cycle path runs pretty straight, south to north, with few branches in other directions to confuse me, I often stop to check the map just for a break. I take the chance to be consciously present in the moment by noting, quite dispassionately, my unchanging surroundings and feeling some sense of achievement at every staging post, each new to me, though they do look uncannily familiar.

Occasionally, fellow travellers pass by and wave or say, ‘bonjour’. We smile at each other, acknowledging we are on the same journey, this way or that, all following the same route between land and sea. But there are not many and few stop to chat so usually it is just me, alone with the pines, each tree a carbon copy of its companions, uniform sentinels of this landscape, a silent crowd, an army in formation, like the third century terracotta soldiers of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor, guards, charged with protecting him in the afterlife. And whether because I’ve been so long in suburbia, the quiet monotony of the pine forest is rather confronting at first. My honour guard has an eerie quality. I’m more used to the endless variety of a deciduous forest, gnarled oaks and wispy silver birch reaching up for their share of sunlight; Larch and Beech and Maple, each with their own timetable of colour and leaf fall, and my favourite tree, the Aspen, Populus tremula, with its silvery leaves that shiver in the breeze and sound like the sea seeping through pebbles.

There’s a whole stand of Aspens behind the bungalow where my sister and mother and I often sit in the summer as if we were in deckchairs by the ocean, just looking and listening. The pines, by contrast say nothing, though I’ve no doubt that when an Atlantic storm hits the shores, they show their feelings.

Just in passing, Aspis, the Greek name for the Aspen, means shield. The lightweight wood of the tree was thought perfect for making the metre-wide circular shields the Greeks used in battle. ‘The Tree of Heroes’, as they called the Aspen, took on magical properties and the trembling leaves gave the power to visit the Underworld and to return safely. At a more earthly level, the dried wood of the Aspen is so buoyant, Greek soldiers could use their shields to help them float across rivers, using the buoyancy like undersized coracles.

The very tops of the pines are moving in the breeze today, but I can’t feel the breeze down here on the cycle path. Still, there is shade and the water in my bottle is still cold from the night, so I decide to stop and sit awhile. With my conscious mind preoccupied by the routine of the road, my unconscious emerges from the shadows to play and I get a chance to watch, or listen, to my own thoughts just as Michel did in his study. This is a quite different kind of thinking than I’m used to from the endless priorities and problems to be solved in the usual run of things, one that in effect involves not thinking. Time is plentiful out here, along with fresh air and the insouciance of nature letting me be.

I lay my sleeping bag out just off the path, keen to put a soft layer between me and the needles and cones that litter the ground. I sit, cross-legged if my stiff muscles will give a little, and still my mind to make my peace with the pines. Monotony has a meditative quality all of its own, one that encourages intuition to go to work and I want to grab some of the mindfulness of the moment. In his essai, On Solitude, Michel says:

‘…we must reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principal solitude and retreat.’ 

Trappist monks, for instance, are said to cherish the monotony of their lives. Monastic life is Spartan and rigidly organised days where repetitive rounds of work and prayer lead to an unremitting sameness they say can allow a person to reach ‘the right kind of consciousness’. Whatever that is. I read of an anthropologist called Van Reidhead who studied the lives and habits of a group of Trappist monks over three years and noted that the monks are generally healthy, free from the usual Western sources of angst, highly productive, alert and vigorous into old age. There is evidence that the monotony and asceticism of a religious life – as a Trappist or a Buddhist monk, or indeed any religious order that creates the right conditions – leads to a longer life. Some say you can gain up to five years over the population average; five more years where presumably not much happens. When each day is the same, why worry about what is to come?

And yet many people complained bitterly of the ‘groundhog days’ the pandemic brought in its wake. With long hours isolated from one another, from the outside world of work, and from change of all kinds. I guess enforced imprisonment is very different from a free choice to live a simple life with one day much like another. Monotony is also utterly different from the hectic pace of our daily lives in the modern world, rushing between tasks, competing with others, valuing speed and consciously pursuing goals – be they more money or status, or any number of promises of future happiness. That kind of stress is bad in so far as it generates the feeling that though we give it our all, what we give is never enough to feed the machine. We may imagine we are mere cogs that trigger levers, turning wheels that push pistons that rev engines to drive us on and on. But I sometimes think the truth is worse; that we’re so preoccupied with busyness that we’re more like crash dummies heading inexorably towards the brick wall of oblivion without ever being fully alive.

Even before I took up residency in the slow lane of life, I was never a competitive fast-laner. My father worshipped competition and saw it as the lingua franca of being a man in a dog-eat-dog world…if you see what I mean. Competition and acquisition. These twin pillars were the hallmarks of success, the portico to his world. I had no choice but to rebel and I can only imagine how disappointed he must have been. What he would never imagine is how disappointed I am in myself. Right kind of consciousness or no, I’m not banking on any extra years because I’m not sure I can afford to be alive for that long, and to be honest, I’m not very good at monotony. Instead, I’m interested in the Trappists and other ways of being, not for the extra five, but because I am looking for answers as to how to find that elusive ataraxia.

Occasionally, I think I’ve found a clue, but my thoughts are hard to put into words and seldom coalesce around anything substantial. Certainly, my notions are a million miles from anything that might be coherent as philosophy. They are rather a series of…what, exactly…notions, conundrums, unformed ideas, disconnected insights that sometimes seem to me connected though they have been filched from many different traditions and sources. And they only come to me at times like this, when I get the chance to stop the world from turning, and the intuitions are no more tangible than scents and no more permanent than whiffs of smoke. They’re not even thoughts – more intuitions really – ones I have carried with me all my adult life, like a wash kit with useful lotions and implements, seldom used, but missed when they’re not to hand. None are original or exclusive to me. All are thoughts someone else has come up with, and many I have to confess I don’t quite understand. The usual suspects, you might say, and not just for me. I am inclined to follow well-trodden paths because I am certain that if an idea is worth repeating over and over, to the point where it has an afterlife in popular culture, there must be something to be learned. Take John Keats for instance:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

 If that’s all I really need to know, that’s great, I feel a huge sense relief. Only I don’t really have a clue what Keats means by those words. So all I can is to ponder their meaning whenever I find the opportunity to just sit and stare. And of course, that may very well be the point. Perhaps Keats was proposing a mystery that cannot be resolved, like a Zen Koan, the most famous – or infamous – of which is ‘the sound of one hand clapping.’ Koans are apparently intended to frustrate the rational mind that seeks to reduce the world to something coherent, but misses out on the truth, and indeed the mystery, of things as they are.

Freud did us a disservice – though it could be my misreading of him – in leaving us the popular idea of an unconscious as a swamp of primitive needs and desires, unruly and unreliable. Experience tells us the unconscious is a rather brilliant, if not always reliable source of inspiration and creativity. Robert Louis Stevenson spoke of his ‘internal theatre’ and the small people who worked there that he dubbed, ‘my brownies’, who were the source of his ideas for stories, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, a book that just happens to be a perfect metaphor for the way we see our conscious and unconscious minds as conflicting forces, when they should be working hand in hand. Einstein was a notorious daydreamer and spent many hours sailing a boat or staring at walls, and who famously said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’

Intuition, the unconscious, whatever one wants to call this aspect of our thinking, can lead to insight and wisdom of a kind our conscious minds can only wonder at. And often, the only way to achieve such insights is to withdraw from company, to learn just to be. To whit, Keats again, and his notion of the poetic state as one of ‘negative capability: ‘…that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

How often are we alone in nature, as I am now, with no incoming information other than my ruminations and the natural world around me, and no desires or needs to be met, no actions required? And when we are in such a state, how often do we run screaming for the hills, inventing some crazy sense of purpose, to ward off the…what exactly? The existential? The void? Or is it simply the awesome realisation that we are here, now, and fully alive in this particular moment in time?

It takes courage to face ourselves in this way. Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician – a man who incidentally found Montaigne’s insouciance regarding certainty of any kind, but especially god, deeply upsetting and ‘shameful’ – put it rather eloquently like this: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

There is a similar sentiment – or preoccupation – with acceptance and things as they are in T.S. Eliot’s long poem, Ash-Wednesday, perfectly preserved in the Zen-like amber of these lines: ‘Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still.’

Again in passing…I am prone to digression I’m afraid, it’s a habit I should try to break at some point, though perhaps not just yet – T.S Eliot was rather rude about Keats ideas on truth and beauty… he called the lines “meaningless” and “a serious blemish on a beautiful poem.”  So I can at least count myself in good company, though I’lll miss the mystery…

All of which amounts to a convoluted and circuitous way to say that I have, to my own surprise, begun to use the monotony of the forest and the ride to compose poems – haikus, very loosely defined I should say – as I go. I am not a poet and I have never written poetry before, and I’m aware of the potential to make myself absurd, just by trying. But I am alone, and I can take the sting of pretentiousness out of this exercise by thinking of the haiku as merely my version of Sudoku – which being comprised of numbers, is totally alien to me – where three lines of words can be juggled and shuffled to my heart’s content as my legs go around and around, and remembered as the trees go by, each one the same and unchanging, and the path goes on and on, until I find a moment to write them down in the evenings as I sit outside the tent. I harm no one, it suits my temperament, and I claim no literary merit for my efforts. But like the in-and-out breaths of a dedicated Zen Buddhist, counting the five-seven-five syllables in three lines banishes conscious concerns, encourages attention, and crystallises thoughts I didn’t know I was thinking.

I think these lines are about me, but I’m not sure. They could just as easily be about Lilly, or maybe Phil.

engulfing sorrow

sly tide on a shallow shore

submerge me alone!