Based on a detail from a Canaletto painting……
“Mark my word”, my wife says to me as we drive to Heathrow, “You’ll regret having spent four hundred dollars on New Age hocus pocus – you mark my word.”
What annoys me is that my wife may be right. I’m now in Palm Springs, California and I’m nearly halfway into this ten-day workshop, and nothing has happened. I’m sitting cross legged on a mattress in a darkened room with some thirty other participants listening to soft music and alternating between breathing exercises and meditation. We have been doing little else for four days, apart from meal and coffee breaks, and talks on altered states of consciousness and psycho-babble about so-called ‘theta brain states’. The whole thing is beginning to sound like nonsense, and I’m annoyed.
What irritates me particularly is that some other participants seem to be enjoying some (probably bogus) success. Only yesterday a bearded and sandaled man said that he had been in contact with Krishna, and another said that he had been present at the creation of the universe. Someone else claimed to be a shaman. And even today – and we have only been going half an hour – a young woman has started writhing around as if she was St. Theresa having one of her ecstasies, presumably some kind of cosmic orgasm.
I decide to press on with the meditations, at least to show some willing. I turn my attention to my breath, gently sliding into relaxation. At least there is some effect. With half-opened eyes, I take a sneaky look at my watch – another forty minutes to endure until the coffee break. And am I desperate for a coffee! God help me – please!
How time can be slow! Do they have clocks in Heaven? Do the hands go forwards or backwards? Or do they go forwards and backwards at the same time? You can tell you are in Heaven by the clocks. Also by the auric moondust and the angel starbeams….
Abruptly, I am wide awake, alert, standing on all four legs. I am overwhelmed by a kaleidoscope of smells – the exotic perfume of my mistress in the cabin behind me on board the boat, smells from the rotting vegetables in the water, smells of sewage, smells from other animals on the shore, other dogs each with their distinctive odour, the oarsmen smelling of sweat. And smells of food: the waft of this morning’s freshly baked bread, the wood-smoke, smells of exotic spice from passing cargo-boats. And the sounds too, which carry so well across the water: the greetings of boatmen and passengers to each other, the familiar bark of recognised dogs, the unfamiliar squeal of new arrivals. I turn my head and look my mistress straight in the eye. How I love her. She looks back with love.
How I love that dog, beloved companion, beside me through all my tribulations and betrayals. I have known her since she was a puppy. She has been the only one faithful, wonderful love, passing the love of men. I almost feel I can get inside her soul, and she into mine. Perhaps we are all indeed one soul. How she enjoys standing so firmly on the prow of the boat, so sensuously drinking in life. I wonder what her thoughts are? And if we are all one soul, can others know us outside time? I feel the presence of God in the early morning sunlight on the gently rippling water, the townsfolk starting their daily routine the early morning light and the gentle breeze and the sound of the gulls……O that I could share all this with someone……
A gong sounds, a long resonance trailing through the room. I rise slowly like a deep sea diver, summoned from the surface.
“We’ll break for coffee now – please be back here by eleven-thirty promptly for our feedback session.”
But part of me is still back in eighteenth century Venice with the woman and her beloved dog and I want to go back there again and I will now forever know that there is indeed another country where God is in the sunlight and the rippling water and that I will never be entirely at home and at ease in this world.
Our Falling Star
Miss Havisham, long ago jilted on her wedding day, sat as usual in her high-backed chair, dressed in her yellowed and tattered wedding dress. She looked around her and surveyed her dusty, cobwebbed and spidery lounge, and thought dusty, cobwebbed and spidery thoughts. For over the years the cauldron of her mind had filled itself with a simmering potage of love, yearning, hatred, regret and many other emotions. This night in particular, Miss Havisham felt in the core of her psyche that this cauldron was not only on the boil, but was, at last, about to boil over.
By now her adopted daughter Estella was asleep in bed. Awake and restless, Miss Havisham looked out through the French windows at her decayed and overgrown garden, lit by the cold light of a full moon. And as she contemplated her barren and wasted years, she espied a shooting star drop out of the heavens, and lose itself beyond the eastern horizon. How lucky was the star, she felt, to find ultimate peace and oblivion.
And then she suddenly had an idea. A terrible idea. She was shocked by its horror. As if in a trance, she got up out of her chair, put on her shoes, and tip-toed out to the kitchen. With some trepidation, she selected a carving knife, wrapped it in muslin, and secreted it in a pocket of her wedding dress.
There were two people Miss Havisham loved: her daughter Estella, and Firefox, Estella’s grey mare. Perhaps because of this, Firefox showed only moderate irritation at being tacked up at such an hour. Miss Havisham’s riding skills, learnt in her youth, had not been lost, and soon she and Firefox were off at a trot into the night. The trot changed to a canter, the canter to a gallop. A weird spectacle they made, galloping through village after village, the train of her wedding dress flying behind. The two to them looked like some strange spectre, perhaps a female Valkyre.
It did not take long to find the house of Compeyson, the man she so hated. Tethering Firefox some way away, she stole quietly up to the house, anxiously feeling the knife in her pocket. The foolish man had left the back door open. She entered, and stealthily climbed the stairs.
Miss Havisham rapidly found the master bedroom, and in the light of the full moon shining through the window, found Compeyson deep asleep snoring, his mistress alongside. Carefully removing and unwrapping her knife, for a moment she paused, contemplating what she was about to do.
“Perish, our fallen star. Let this be our first and last consummation, and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul”
And with this she, holding the knife in both hands, stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. And as she stabbed, a thrill went though her body, a thrill she had never experienced before, an ecstasy she might have felt, if things had gone right, in a conjugal embrace. A deep peace descended on her as she observed, creeping over the sheets, a widening black patch: for blood looks black in moonlight.
“But where has Compeyson’s mistress gone?” Miss Havisham wondered. She was there beside him one moment, gone the next. What would happen if she came back?
Suddenly, there was a sharp knock on the bedroom door.
“Mummy, Mummy – are you all right? You were shouting in your sleep – something about ‘the Lord having mercy’. You must have had a frightening dream”
“I’m fine, thank you Estella”. Miss Havisham was relieved to know that it was indeed only a dream, albeit the most vivid of her life.
“Would you like me to light the fire”
“Yes please, darling”
“And would you like me to bring you some breakfast, after your troubled night?”
“Thank you, Estella – I think a little later. I’d like to be on my own just for a little while. Oh – and could you please bring that large pair of scissors?”
The fire was lit, and Estella retreated. Miss Havisham took off her wedding dress and her undergarments and her shoes, and knelt naked in front of the fire. There was only a slight wistfulness as she snipped off strip by strip of her wedding clothes, feeding the fire, which returned warmth to her as if in gratitude. When these symbols of her past were now embers, Miss Havisham arose and found herself a simple smock and an old pair of slippers. She opened the French windows, and walked onto the lawn to salute the newly risen sun.
She looked back now without remorse or regret; unaccountably, the locust years of her life had been restored and healed. With a deep peace (and she suspected with the grace of God) she realised that she had forgiven Compeyson and (equally important) had forgiven herself. As she looked out to the east, she saw what she had not noticed before: a road, like a golden braid in the morning sun, winding its way through the surrounding fields and up and over the horizon.
“When Sorrows Come”
After an idea by Maeve Peake
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, and mindlessly reached for yet another Mars bar. He was accustomed to comfort eating.
It seemed to Humpty that he had reached a nadir in his life, and well did he reflect on the words from Hamlet: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions”. Or so it seemed. He reflected on the memories of his neglected childhood, and all the overeating that he had engaged over the years to try to dull the pain. He reflected on the breakup of a recent relationship: only the last in a long series of failed encounters. He reflected too on his general lack of direction, his long-term unemployment and the general the pointlessness of his existence.
Like many who live sad and lonely lives, Humpty had, over the years, neglected himself. Many teased him about his sedentary lifestyle, most of the time spent sitting atop a high wall, as if his superior position could compensate for his low self esteem. His overeating too constituted a serious health risk. Like many who see little value or point in their lives, Humpty was generally careless about both his self- management and his general safety. Indeed, many considered that Humpty was an accident waiting to happen. Little did he know that events were about to get much worse.
And so they did. One rainy day, Humpty dropped his box of Mars bars, down onto the ground below. The box landed in a puddle, scattering its contents in the mud. Humpty stared down in horror.
Then Humpty fell; he came crashing down, suffering multiple fractures both in mind and body. Some folk looked on aghast and passed by; others tried to help, but to no avail. Even a company of the King’s guards came past and tried to help, also to no avail. Besides, the soldiers had much experience in battlefield triage, and knew when a situation was hopeless. The healers in the company, before riding away, did however feed Humpty some laudanum, to take the edge off the agony of his shattered mind, body and spirit.
Humpty’s past life flashed by, like some sad documentary. But he did remember some of the better moments: his weekly visits to Sunday school, and his lessons on prayer. “Help”, Humpty cried out, God help me”.
As if to cue, Humpty saw something strange in the distance. Across the fields, and coming slowly towards him, were three figures. As they came closer, be began to make them out. He was astonished by the surreal images that he saw. The central figure was a slightly ungainly man, perhaps six feet tall, wearing a Victorian frock coat and a top hat. To his right there walked a young girl of around twelve years of age – a rather pretty girl, with an intelligent and enquiring face. To the man’s left, Humpty saw, to his astonishment, a large white rabbit, walking on its hind legs. To Humpty’s further astonishment, the rabbit was carrying a pocket watch.
When they saw Humpty, this strange trio quickened their pace, and were soon standing in a semicircle around the prostrate and broken figure.
“Help”, cried Humpty.
“We will,” answered the man. My name is Lewis Carroll. And these are my friends – Alice and White Rabbit. We heard your call, and have come to help you. “Your see,” said Lewis, “I am your author; I made you. I can now rewrite your script and make you whole again. Would you like that?”
“Yes please,” said Humpty, starting to cry. These however were tears of joy, because he cognised that here were people who understood him and could offer him love, wholeness and healing. He had met his creator.
“For the next hour or so, you will lose your identity; you will have little knowledge of who you are or where you are. But don’t worry, I shall not be far away. Some call it metamorphosis, some call it editing, others call it re-writing the script; the effect is the same. Is it all right to start now?”
“Yes,” nodded Humpty.
Humpty’s world slowly dissolved. Lewis, Alice and Rabbit disappeared. Earth and sky turned into a kaleidoscope of swirling colours, Humpty’s mind to a kaleidoscope of unrelated images and thoughts. This was of itself not frightening, but made little sense.
Slowly, Humpty’s world started to resurrect. His identity came back to him. He knew that he was Humpty Dumpty. He dimly recalled an accident and a meeting with some people. Out of a dissolve of colours, the landscape slowly returned, together with the sky and the sun. He was sitting at the foot of the wall, together and whole.
“Welcome back,” said Lewis, “you are now healed.”
“Thankyou,” said Humpty, weeping.
“I have some arrangements for you,” said Lewis. “Alice and Rabbit are here to give you support, and you can call on them whenever you need them. There is also a therapist I know who can help you deal with past issues, and move on in your life, and who is I think also a bit of an expert in eating disorders. Would you like that?”
“Yes please”, said Humpty. “and thank you, thank you, thank you”
“You are welcome,” said Lewis, “Goodbye for the time being. See you soon, good luck and don’t go falling off any more walls!” The three of them then turned and walked away in the direction they had arrived, Alice turning to give a kindly wave as they passed over the brow of a hillock and disappeared from sight.
Copyright Tony Roberts January 2014