On Time and Death

Time

  1. Time is entirely dependent on movement.
  2. Space is entirely dependent on outward movement, from a non-space-time origin to the dimensions resulting from outward movement.
  3. If there is no movement, there is no space and no time. Even if there had been movement, and thus space-time, when movement stops, our ability to comprehend it will cease also.
  4. Our experience and comprehension of space and time is based on the regular occurrence of natural movement, the repetition of movement: the cycle of the sun, and the cycles of the moon, the length of the day, the steadiness of the resting heartbeat.
  5. If movement were chaotic, and irregular: a stream of ever changing movement, we would not be able to measure or comprehend duration, because a sense of duration depends on the yardstick of regularity. Without being able to measure duration, we would not have a sense of space either.
  6. If there were no movement at all, there would be nothing to compare with anything else, nothing to measure, and thus there would effectively be no time. Non-time cannot be comprehended, but it can be experienced as infinity.

Time and Death

  1. Towards the point of death, human body functions slow down. As functions slow down, the sense of time changes. The sense of time speeds up, relative to the slowing of psycho-physical functions.
  2. But concurrently with this effect, the innate sense of time slows as well, relative to the speeding up of the dying psyche’s experience of phenomena.
  3. Which is why those reaching the point of death seem to experience everything (“my whole life raced before my eyes”), as well as sense of “timelessness.”
  4. At the ultimate moment of human life, the last microsecond of consciousness everything is experienced, and it is experienced infinitely.
  5. The nature of this total and infinite experience depends on the psyche either accepting everything experienced, or resisting something that has been or is being experienced.
  6. This is the difference between the “yes” of “heaven”, and the “no” of “hell”.

My personal take on point 6, is that everyone gets to experience the “yes” at the very end, even the “worst” humans.

Why do I think this? People who subscribe to religious belief have their own ways of explaining this: redemption after a single life, the final end to the cycle of illusion after many lives, and so on.

Unity

  1. Having been invited to stand outside and embrace the entirety of existence, which is huge, but also, infinitely small, (the universe is space, but this dimensional space is contained within “no space”) and
  2. having observed dispassionately the entire workings of what we consider good and evil – and in my experience, on approaching the experience one fights against it, thinking “I cannot be dispassionate in the face of evil and suffering and I fear the moral outcome of being so”, but then the experience is granted again, and one allows oneself to say “yes” to the unity of all experience – then,
  3. everything we so rightly as humans judge as good and bad (we must, innately make these distinctions, in order to be human), is, at a non-human level, seen as the “way things are.” Not seen coldly, but seen with an accepting but non-emotive empathy.
  4. So, as our human existence slips away, we experience an infinite moment of this unbound acceptance.

Note: The approach to this experience is terrifying in its implications for a human mind. The experience itself is inexpressible other than in vague terms, and whilst still being alive, on returning to normal human consciousness, shattering to contemplate after it has passed.

Night Train to Konya

Haydarapaşa Station looms over the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The gateway to the East, this elephantine Prussian castle was built by the Germans a hundred years ago as part of the Kaiser’s Berlin to Baghdad railway, intended to bypass the British-controlled Suez Canal. The grandiose sandstone pile shadows a huddle of railway platform kiosks selling packets of biscuits, bottled water, cans of thick, sugary peach juice and bread rolls stuffed with cuts of processed cheese and wilted lettuce leaves, tightly bound, like Egyptian mummies, in bandages of plastic film. I stock up on water, and find a kebab stand grilling a dripping cylinder of chicken pieces, and fill my stomach with a couple of cheap tavuk döner sandwiches. The waiting room is imperial and dingy, and the restaurant expensive.

The Meram Ekspresi to Konya leaves at 19:20. It’s another hour’s wait, but there’s a cafe serving tea by the ferry dock. The sun sets behind distant slabs of cloud, and the sky glows mauve and sooty over the domes and minarets of Istanbul across the water.

Turkish train carriages are sleek, white and narrow. There’s room for three seats abreast, two on one side, and one across the aisle. The ticket is cheap, only 23 Lire for a reserved seat in a Pullman car. Another 30 Lire would get me a bed in a couchette. However, nearly everyone smokes in Turkey, usually harsh, dark tobacco, and there’s no guarantee, even in a non-smoking compartment, that someone won’t light up in the middle of the night.

On my way to my carriage, I pass a row of compartments already full. Youths sprawl across the padded benches with their feet up on each other’s seats, joking, talking, smoking. The couchettes are filling up fast with families, groups of friends, and baggage. I step into an empty one for a minute. The brown velveteen-covered seats are pocked and burned, and the air is flat, a whiff of floor cleaner and dead brown smoke. For the moment I feel lonesome.

My seat in the open car doesn’t recline properly but it’s not so bad. After I’ve settled in and spread myself out a bit, a pale, black-clad young man passes and turns back, grimaces carelessly, and flops down next to me. He seems irritated at having to share, and we ignore each other. The train rolls out of Haydarapaşa, smooth and heavy over the regular meter of clicks and jolts, surges ahead and slows down again as it skirts the coast, the Asian shore of the sea of Marmara, through miles and miles of suburbs. We pass by a ridge of five- to eight-floor blocks of flats, with docks and jetties on the seaward side, small and rusty freighters, fishing vessels and large cargo ships lining the shore, and many more out at sea as well.

The light fades to grey beyond the glass. We leave the bright outskirts of the city and the train turns inland. The world of exterior things fades away, the shifting stream of the world disappears.

*****

A small, dark, wiry-armed man runs down the trembling carriage aisle with a large tray of simit, crispy bread rings dotted with sesame seeds, and plastic pots of ayran, a salty yoghurt drink. Down by the front end of the carriage a raging child chokes on his indrawn breath, and then explodes in sobs and wails. His mother murmurs wearily. Another snack vendor runs down the aisle, with tea, Nescafe and small packets of biscuits.

The young man next to me gets up and heads off to the vestibule at the end of the carriage. When he sits down again he reeks of smoke, and clicks his teeth in annoyance at the wailing baby.

I get out my dictionary and find the words, “tren, dolu” (train, full). He responds immediately with a smile and a shrug. Yes, train full. Then I find, “bebek bagirmak, yok uyumak” (baby cry, no sleep). He shrugs again. He speaks as much English as I do Turkish. But we exchange a bit of information. His name is Husayn and he is going to Eskişehir, a couple hundred miles inland. I tell him I am going to Konya.

“Konya, Mevlana, Sufi.” I say. He nods. The Mevlana (or Rumi, as we know him) is a famous poet and everyone knows he lived in Konya.

I show him the book I am reading, by Yashar Kemal, and find the words, “mükemmel yazar, Kurdçe yazar” (good writer, Kurdish writer). He frowns and waves his hand in disagreement, replying in English, “Turkish writer.” I try to find the sentence on the back cover, about how Kemal is from the Kurdish part of Turkey, then remember where I am and reply tactfully, “peki, evet, Turkçe Kurd” (OK, yes, Turkish Kurd). Kemal is Turkey’s most famous novelist, and Turkey does not recognize Kurds, preferring to call them Mountain Turks.

*****

The train rolls on. Hours pass. I manage to sleep. Husayn dozes next to me. Next time Husayn gets up to smoke, the fellow in the single seat opposite asks me, with a few words of English, if the seat next to me is taken. “Yes,” I nod, “it is.”

Husayn comes back, and the fellow in the lone seat across the aisle joins the conversation. He’s a mathematics teacher going home to Kayseri, another day’s ride beyond Konya. I find out through him that Husayn works in IT in Istanbul, Microsoft stuff. They want to know all about me. “Where are you from?” “What are you doing in Turkey?”

I tell them I am going to Konya, Kayseri, and maybe over to Dogübayazit, to see Agri Dagi, Mount Ararat.

“Why do you wear that gold ring on your finger? Are you married?”

I tell them I am divorced. There is laughter and merriment in our row and a grizzly fellow in his fifties two rows behind us chimes in and sighs, “wish I divorce…”

A ginger haired fellow, also in dark business pants and a white shirt, comes along and squeezes into the single seat with the mathematics teacher.

They’re friends, both teachers heading home to Kayseri. It’s sweet to see them tucked in there so close. I’ve heard and seen that Turkish men are comfortable holding each other as a gesture of friendship. But it turns out the ginger haired guy bought a ticket, but only his friend got the seat reservation, things are that tight. So he has to make the whole twenty-four-hour journey finding whatever seat he can.

The train remains full the whole night. As soon as a family alights at some tiny rural siding the empty places fill up again. The seats around me are full of sleepy young men. Further down, a couple of bubbly babies stumble around, laughing, wailing and laughing again.

I doze under the train’s soothing rumble and clack, my face pressed to a cold window, sour dirt moulding the hard aluminium corners, lulled into soothing dreams, a spaceship slicing through nothing, a whistling sword of light plunging into black rock, speeding toward sunrise, or death.

I wake after we’ve passed Eskişehir. Husayn has gone. The ginger haired man gets a bit of rest in the seat next to me. He looks crisp and clean but exudes an agreeable, nostril-pinching stench of sweat and tobacco smoke. It seeps under the lid of my half closed eye, and the sweet puke of vanilla rose cologne mingles with the dried brown mildew of spilt tea soaking the worn carpet.

The children are asleep now but the overhead lights stay on. The grey-stubbled man two rows back snores into the upturned lapel of his old flannel suit jacket. Sometime after midnight the train rattles slowly past more concrete blocks of flats and warehouses and stops at a large station. Is it Afyon? I hope it is Afyon already. But it isn’t Afyon, it’s Kütahya. The journey is going to take longer than I thought.

*****

A slim, delicately-built young man arrives at our row, wondering why the seat next to me is taken. He rouses the ginger haired teacher from his sleep and politely asks him to move, and ginger squeezes in with his friend across the aisle once more.

The new arrival is speaking to me in Turkish, and I respond with “Ingiliz, yok Turk.” He manages a few halting words of English to me. He is a student at the University in Kütahya, studying Physical Therapy. He is going home to Diyarbakir, but will stop in Konya just for a day, to see his girlfriend. His face is dark and solemn. His slender brow is crowned with flowers of black curls. His name is Ihsan, and his English improves rapidly as we speak. And he speaks in a lovely, lilting whisper, about Kurdistan.

“I cannot speak about Kurdistan to Turkish people. Trouble with police.”

“Yes,” I reply in a half joking way, “but talking politics to me in English you’re quite safe. I am not a Turkish policeman, as you can see.”

I show him the Yashar Kemal novel. We find the original Turkish title inside the front cover, “Ince Memed.”

Ihsan is delighted. “It is Kemal’s best book.”

Ihsan gets up several times to smoke, and invites me to join him. I smoke with him in the draughty vestibule. He’s quiet, curious, and serious. I’m employing my usual half smile, a slightly dry shyness. It veils the intensity of the empathy and attraction that is growing as I get to know him. Back in our seats, Ihsan shares his biscuits with me, and I fill our empty plastic tea cups with fingers of Raki, and cloud the pungent and sugary liquor with warm bottled water.

We talk for most of the rest of the night, occasionally delving into my little dictionary for Turkish or English words.

“I do not like to be lonely,” says Ihsan. To respond, I find the different words, “kimsesiz” (friendlessness), and “yalnizlik” (solitude). He agrees that they are indeed different experiences.

“And I do not want to be married or have children. I need to be free to work wherever I am needed.”

He wants to help his people as a Physical Therapist. I hunt for the words, “adama” (dedication, or vow), and “meslek” (career, or vocation), but he does not seem to understand what I am trying to say with these words.

“I would not want to raise a child into a difficult life.”

“But someone like you would be such a good father,” I say.

He shrugs his shoulders. Later he tells me that if he were to marry, he would be expected to marry a Kurdish girl and settle in his parents’ home in Diyarbakir and look after them. Marrying anyone else and moving away with her seems out of the question.

A thin, ascetic-looking teenage madrasa student in baggy black pants, loose beige shirt and large knitted skullcap sitting in the row ahead glances back at us now and then, coolly, through the delicate prisms of his wire rimmed spectacles.

“I do not like religion,” says Ihsan.

I find the word “ruh” (soul).

“But we have a soul,” I say. “And there is God, and the relationship between the soul and God is not dogma, it is a mystery.”

I get all of this language out slowly, flicking through the pages of my dictionary for the big words in Turkish. Ihsan nods in appreciation. I tell him briefly about my Christian background. That it is a language in my heart, and not a dogma.

“Yes,” he says, “I have Islam in my heart too, but I don’t like the religion.”

I point to the Madrasa student. “Let’s hope he gets a chance to fall in love, and be broken hearted, and experience sin, before his mind closes up.”

Ihsan smiles.

I do not question him about it, but wonder how he thinks about his need for independence, to not be encumbered with a wife and child (never, he insists strongly) contrasts with his statement about the fear of loneliness?

*****

One by one, throughout the night, men shuffle along the swaying aisle to smoke and talk in the vestibule. Do any of the women get up to smoke or stretch themselves? Do women actually have lungs, or legs? The wives and mothers stay sleeping in their seats until morning. If they move about at all, it’s so no man will notice.

It seems Ihsan and I have both managed to sleep. I wake with a backache, a crick in my neck, and my left kneecap hammering away from the inside. The dawn glowers over the plain like a red-hot poker. Through the windows on the other side dry white peaks have risen. The jagged peaks sail past slowly. The dawn looks as hot and dusty as a desert sunset does. We have reached the beginning of the great Anatolian plain, and Konya is a few hours away.

I need the toilet, and leave wet footprints on the floor as I squat over the shit-flecked stainless steel hole, filling an empty juice can several times from the small brass spigot and balancing precariously in order to splash and clean up properly.

*****

I want a decent breakfast, and invite Ihsan to eat with me in the dining car. He is a student, with no money. It takes a while, and some persuasion, but he eventually accepts my offer. So we get fresh bread, boiled eggs, and a dish each of cheese, olives, a shriveled slice of tomato, a fresh slice of cucumber, butter, jam, honey and cups of tea.

We talk about Northern Europe, about financial opportunities, versus the coldness of the cultures up there, about capitalism and communism. Ishan’s father was a communist, and he is too, idealistically, but acknowledges the difficulty, of dogma versus human nature.

A low grey wall rises out of the haze, ringing the dry yellow hills to the South East. As we get closer, the wall morphs into concrete apartment blocks, the outer suburbs of Konya, shadowed by tall, belching factories producing cement, asphalt and beet sugar. Konya has become a sulphur dioxide-choked boomtown, as well as having been, for millennia, a place of pilgrimage, a city which grew rich on woven carpets, processed cotton and silk, mined salt, cinnabar and chrome. It was once Iconium, where the apostles Paul and Barnabas preached, first persuading, then angering the population of pagans and Jews, before getting themselves kicked out of town. It became the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rome (Rum, in the Turkic tongue), the city of Celaluddin Rumi, the Mevlana, saint and mystic poet of Sufism. And there were nearly as many Christians as Muslims living here before the upheavals that erupted after the end of the First World War.

The train shudders slowly into the railway station. Exhausted and elated, I invite Ihsan to stay in touch, and we exchange email addresses. He’d like me to visit his hometown, Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish South East. We wish each other farewell, and he heads north to meet his girlfriend at the bus station.

It’s 10 am, and the air is not stifling as I’d feared it might be, though the sun burns my face and neck. It’s a mile and a half walk north and east along wide but busy streets, past shops and apartment blocks, to the old part of the city. I am comfortable stopping people and gesturing a request for directions. An older fellow helps me out. He speaks German. He’d worked and travelled all around Europe in a trailer. I understand enough to respond. To his delight I manage to say, “teşekkür ederim, hoşçakal.” Many thanks, and goodbye.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

On the Greyhound From El Paso

The cowboy falls asleep across me,

his blue jeans slung low, red belt buckle

thick over long bones and wrangler’s muscle,

his tooled boot eases onto mine, his sharp shoulder

caves in, the curve of the road drags his head down to my collar,

rolling heavy, so close, oh! the risky odours

of tobacco breath, the rank musk of hair, Sierra Blanca salt…

I want to spiral swiftly down to his lips

spread full like a raptor’s wings soaring over his earth-stung face

his lips are driving me dizzy, before I turn and fall

my eyes control the dive and catch the hands asleep between his thighs

swooping to kiss his copper veins, to lick the hard belly of his palm

half-cupping his crotch; it stretches in his sleep

like a man’s arm reaching out under the sheet

bearing a heavy load, or maybe dreaming about the next ride

bucking hard to the rhythm of the Texas road

I get to hang there for hours til Abilene takes him,

to slip a knot and lock his hands to his bronco

then throw a line to tie his falcon’s wing to mine.

La Raphaéle

Over the decades I’ve had a few weird experiences, mostly inspiring but occasionally ominous, of the soul, or the psyche, or maybe psychosis. I don’t know. Usually descending in the wee hours of the morning, they’ve been encounters I can appreciate and reflect on deeply or flippantly, but I don’t try to attach explanations to them these days.

And I was a harpsichord student at university. The harpsichord is an instrument that can sound quaint and dry under academic hands. The famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once snidely remarked, “the sound of the harpsichord is like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof.” Well, it might sound that way when Bach or Scarlatti are rattled off á la The School of Velocity. But if you are sensitive to its delicate touch and the poetry or spiritual ethos of the music, you can make a harpsichord sing with a deep, sustained and sonorous rumble.

In my case, nothing came of these studies professionally, but I love to play now and then when I come across an instrument. So here’s a little memoir culled from my diary, about a moment in time these two quirkily cobble stoned alleyways on my life’s journey once met and crossed.

It was still dark on an early winter morning back in 1986. One of those mornings when a fairly cold onshore breeze blows across the Swan River, and heavy cloud rolls over Perth from the Indian Ocean.

It must have been about five a.m. when I got to the Eileen Joyce studio at the University Music Department, to which I had the privilege of a key. I let myself in and lit everything up. The studio contains a large, aseptic wood veneered space with plate glass windows facing a garden of pine trees, and beyond that, the campus football field.

I can remember, from the many hours I spent practising keyboard music there, the instruments standing around the room in various states of rehabilitation. A dusty square piano from the 1850s, a squeaky medieval organ that no one knew how to fix, a fortepiano styled after one Mozart might have used, a small teal and rose painted clavichord, and a big grand piano. The piano sat there like a shiny black limousine among the spindly phaetons and cabriolets from earlier times.

In the centre of the music studio sat a glorious instrument, ancient and recently recovered from decades of disuse; a Kirckman harpsichord of worn and glossy walnut, with brass and iron strings, ebony and ivory keys. The ebonies were soft and yielding to the touch. The ivories were grainy and brittle, like an old man’s fingernails. The instrument was made in 1760, a year after Handel died.

There were a couple of other Early Music students beside myself, and a couple of excellent double keyboard reproduction harpsichords, but I took an interest in the Kirckman, worked up some suites to play on it, and the department decided it’d be good to restore the old thing.

They got a builder out from England who fixed it, and showed us the basic principles of tuning and other arcana. So on this early morning I got out the tuning key to finely adjust the intervals, the fifths as flat and calm as cream, the minor thirds narrow and tangy, suitable for playing around B minor and its closely related tonalities.

I did an hour’s practise and then began to play through a suite I was working up for a student recital, the eighth Ordre from the Piéces de Clavecin by Francois Couperin. This suite opens with a prelude, titled La Raphaéle. It’s a slow, sinuous piece almost ready to burst with passion. The first strophe announces itself as a grave arpeggio. The bass rises in fifths. The treble falls in thirds. The concord of notes then rises to a minor ninth suspended over the tonic, then to the dominant, gushing further upwards, tense with growing colour, before it sinks and darkens again, suspended and falling through the air, coming back to rest on B minor.

I loved this music, spun on those deep and dazzling strings, mystical and gloriously sad, music that the language of B minor was thought to incant most appropriately back in Couperin’s time. And of course, I also liked to think deep studently thoughts as I played. Perhaps about grandeur being a vast cold joy that holds up the empty spaces in one’s mind; or about the Shadow of God, and other such things.

The music must have drawn it out of me, so I felt attuned to it. These old keyboard dances are like civilized swordplay, like games played under the faint smile of Apollo, with the formal protocol of pause and return, perhaps so that the power and passion deep within the melody and harmony would not tear one’s heart open with their daggers as laughing Dionysus would have them do.

So I played, and the formal praeludium of this first movement rose, straining against the steady four-beat measure, and fell back, took a courtly bow at the cadence, and began again.

And then I remember, and my diary records, that I stopped unaccountably, as though the room was expecting something.

I hadn’t slipped a finger or spoiled an ornament. It was as though the room, and my existence at that moment, slipped between the notes into a rest, a second of silence like the entrance to an underground cavern, into which I might have fallen.

There was a presence standing behind me. I could see it through my back. It was nine, or maybe twelve feet tall and shimmering with silver light.

I didn’t know if I was going to jump out of my seat in fright, or resume the dance. I think I sat very still for a while.

The being, made of invisible light, embraced me from behind. I could sense the ethereal warmth of its arms. And knew its broad shoulders as though my back and neck leapt out to meet them. The presence didn’t have a clear gender, but my emotions allowed it to be male. That’s the only way I have of describing the perception. I decided to let go, but remain watchful. The presence rocked me back and forth, with an imperceptible yet obvious force. My body went hot-cold, as it has on other odd occasions. The visitor, still standing behind me, made the hairs on my neck rise. A chill coursed down my spine, both terrifying and hilarious, then the sense of a light blue breeze or an indigo flame glowing and licking my back and head, flowing up and around.

It was as if the being had brought me to the pivot point in time between the upward swing of yearning and the downward plunge into terror and possible madness. I couldn’t decide whether to strike the notes, and will the visitor away with a sharp “no” and a tension-releasing shrug of my shoulders. Or accept. My head was emptied of speculation, having had the very useful, and timely, realization that I didn’t really know anything about anything.

A warm, almost hot shaft penetrated my lower spine and rose through my diaphragm and into my chest, making a bowl of warmth there.

I neither heard nor sensed any name, except possibly the thought, “No need to fear, you are safe.”

I sat there at that bench, hands resting in the air above the keys, ready to strike. I wanted to say something, but also keep it light and formal, so I just uttered quietly, “Well, you seem to be benign.” The shining presence remained behind me, shimmering, as though made of stars I could see through my back. I didn’t dare turn around. Perhaps I feared that if I did the experience would vanish.

“I hope you like the music,” was all I could add.

I don’t know for how many measures of time I sat at that keyboard as the experience left me. I began to play La Raphaéle again, the strands of suspended dissonance descending over several pedal points before the dance falls towards its close, the cadence ending on low B, F sharp and B. I was alone again with the music. I held down the ivory and ebony keys of the final chord, letting the vibrations follow my visitor as far as they could fly, before lifting my fingers, one by one letting the plectra slap quietly against the damped strings.

And then suddenly a whip crack lashed out from the soundboard like a shot from a flintlock pistol. The longest iron string had snapped. It snarled across the other strings before coming to rest, a quivering tangle of dark wire on the ancient yellow wood.

I sat for a minute longer, silent, not breathing, wondering what had happened to me, and who the visitor might have been. I realized that I oughtn’t ruin the memory with too much thought. Why, some years later, rereading my initial scribbled account, I’d scrawled, “it was nothing but the skeletons in my closet copulating on a harpsichord.”

But at the time I just sat there repeating quietly, between long bars of silence, “I hope you liked the music.”

I came back to my immediate surroundings after a while and got up to unhook the broken string and coil it. On the other side of the expanse of glass the ferns, the pine trees and the sky slowly filled up with the morning.

It had begun to rain a light silent winter rain. A weak patch of light glanced against the wall of the studio. The shadow of a branch quivered there for a moment and faded again.  The early morning sun must have passed across a narrow opening between the plane of the earth and low layers of rain as it rose.

I let myself out of the studio and locked the door behind me as the birds screamed with joy at the brightening light. There were dozens of them in the bushes, plumping their feathers and shaking open their tiny wet wings.

 

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Christmas in Maridalen

Silent wooded hills surround our valley of fields and farm buildings in Maridalen, the Vale of Mary, a few miles above Oslo. Near where the road divides and hems each forested slope sit the ruined remains of an ancient church abandoned after the Black Death: a thick stone wall lanced with Romanesque apertures and outlines of rubble. In the summertime the site rests on a mound above a waving meadow of gold at the northern tip of the lake, but now most of it lies buried in snow. A mile further up, past the new school and the old wooden church a few dozen brightly painted houses huddle under the hills above the western branch of the road. Below that several farms divide the long bowl of the valley. Through it the river winds south under its winter ceiling of ice.

The seasons express themselves intensely here. Halfway through spring, masses of tiny violet and white flowers push themselves up through gobs and rivulets of sunny slush. Summer is for bike riding and berry hunting in the forest; tiny strawberries, then redcurrants, blueberries and hazelnuts. Days are long and yellow as the grass. We go to bed with the sun still up, heavy curtains drawn against the blue. Autumn, and school: I’m shy and inquisitive among a rowdy mass of kids. At home the cellar is full of small wrinkled apples and potatoes, pots of redcurrant jam, one with a drowned mouse in it. There’s the distant rumble and clank of hay harvesting. My friend and I ride the tractor with farmer Brodin. His nose drips and he makes rude remarks about “the angels who will be pissing on us soon enough.” Now, bruised shadows line the tired eye of winter, opened only a few hours each day to peer wearily at the blue-black hills and gritty roads, before shutting down for another sixty-five long nights.

The snow descends silent and slow. Sometimes it falls along the narrow path between spiny cliffs of black trees, and then the world makes a sudden turn and we all rise and spiral into heavens of floating snow. It drifts sideways like white opium ash. When we aren’t making angels wings or pissing our initials, the drowsy numbness reduce our small forgetful bodies to piss our steaming woollens instead. Falling snow envelops our innocence with its warmth, but once fallen, cannot erase the grimy adult miseries induced by darkness.

My mother, my brother and I live at “Trollstein,” a place father had bought three years earlier. There are a dozen steep steps, then a sunken path to the small wooden house. The windows are shuttered, but the rough square panes are iced thick. Ours is an old yellow cottage with a tarpaper roof on a patch of grass surrounded by rocks. A few scabby apple trees and a row of evergreen sentinels keep us away from the larger houses on either side. We are friends with the Buringrud family on our right, but we must have nothing to do with the people in the big green house on the left.

We have our baths in the kitchen in a big plastic tub. My mother sleeps on a sofa bed in the living room, she shares it with my father on the rare times he is home from the sea. My younger brother and I have bunk beds and teddy bears in the back bedroom

Pine and spruce buttress the slopes behind our little spot. What rears beyond it is an unknown wilderness. Wet, snow-sunk boulders loom and lean against each other under the trees above us. They are the troll stones. Perhaps those stones have sent me the same terrible dream several times: Long after midnight I fly over fir-dark hills to an invisible lake. An Indian paddles his canoe across the cold reflected stillness. He raises his feathered head and cries a single eerie cry, the long scream of a bird in the ghostly moonlight.

*****

On a late December afternoon Norbert and I come home from hours of play. We find ourselves outside the locked kitchen door in a canyon of snow, unable to get in. We are warmly dressed, with our rubber boots and waterproof overalls, but before long I’m raging in frustration, banging on the door, kicking it vigorously, and hollering out to our mother who is inside. I can hear her call out, “just wait, I won’t be long,” but we have never been locked out like this and I do not understand at all.

After what seems a whole afternoon she lets us in. Wonder and excitement replace our tears. In the corner there’s a tree with chains of coloured paper, little heart shaped baskets filled with sweets, white lights and a star on top. The first we’ve ever had. We find a pile of parcels under it. I recognize a small pair of skis under the wrapping. Mother has laid out bowls of nuts, oranges, and marzipan pigs, a traditional Christmas treat. We have been told that father will be coming home soon, but I am lost in all the presents.

Evening arrives at three o’clock, and someone else is banging down the door. The Julenissen stomps in with his loutish charcoal-bearded boys, doing the rounds of the village with a sack of trinkets. “Good evening, have there been good children here?” Norbert and I recite our merits and get a little plastic car and a piece of marzipan each. They sing a drunken little ditty. Mother gives them some oranges. We’ve forgotten to put the bowl of sour cream porridge in the toolshed out by the outhouse. Norwegians like to encourage goodness in their gnome-folk, but mother is Australian, and she could not have thought of everything. Perhaps our neighbour and his teenaged sons would prefer some Aquavit before they stumble off. Their speech is warm, with Nordic words flying like woodchips off a log. Mother’s accent has a pewtery English quality, careful and formal. She is giving us the best Norwegian Christmas she can.

The house is silent. Norbert and I are dabbling around, waiting for the day when we’ll be allowed to open our gifts, and watching Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble babbling in Norwegian on TV. Four candles sit glowing on the sideboard by the plastic crib. Next to them, paper dolls of the wise kings Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior. The last gilded door on the Advent calendar has yet to be prized open.

Mother stands for a long time by the window, gazing in silence at the black void outside our little cocoon. She says nothing, then leans against the sideboard for a while and gently blows three of those four candles out before tucking us into bed, for the long, dreamless sleep at this deepest edge in the trough of the year. But life has returned late next morning as we tumble out of our bedroom. Mother makes the tea and takes a box of matches. One of the four candles had burned down to a stump. She relights the three that remain. There is accordion music on the radio, then melancholy classical sonatas.

*****

It must be Christmas Eve. Father is not yet with us. We join our neighbours, the Buringruds, and visit the little timber church in its grove of bare beech saplings. Other fathers push their kids along the white velvety road on their sparkstøtter, wooden chairs on sled runners, or haul them along in toboggans. I don’t remember having been inside a church before. The white-planked walls pulse with joy in the creamy dazzle of brass chandeliers and a hundred candles. It must be almost as exciting as visiting King Olav’s glittering palace. The room is full, farmers and kids and city cousins. Many dressed in traditional costumes; boys in colourful vests and knee britches with white stockings. We sit with our neighbours, their girls Mona and Dora in red dresses, embroidered camisoles, lace aprons and filigree jewellery.

A couple of fiddlers play along with the organist on his harmonium. Big rosy men rocking back and forth, their hard heels drumming the floorboards as they spin a slow dance on their Hardingfeler, fiddles with mother-of-pearl inlay, ink rosettes and maiden’s heads, and half a dozen sympathetic strings droning under the courtly polyphony.

The pastor ascends to his pulpit, clears his throat and announces the birth of a magical child in round buttery tones. He rests up there, well upholstered in his black cassock, with jowls swelling over a thick white ruff. I wonder why we’re getting alphabet crackers to eat. At last we all stand and stretch, and the grown-ups sing a hymn. It’s strange to hear my mother singing, a girl’s voice, gentle and a bit tentative. A sound so unlike her.

Et barn er født I Betlehem, I Betlehem, I Betlehem.
Nå gleder seg Jerusalem. Haleluja.

*****

Father has come home from the sea. He is first mate on a Wilhelmsen cargo ship and gets back to his wife and kids every six months or so. I have small icons of his visits tucked away. The shapes of them have crumbled at the edges, and though they may have lost their original place, flashes of sound and colour remain intense. Like half a dozen pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in a tin kept in my pocket, or fragments of mosaic laid upon the mantelpiece.

I have fallen on the ice and cut my chin badly. My father tapes it up with cotton and sticking plaster. A day later he squats in front of me and tells me he is going to pull the bandage off very slowly and gently. I am whimpering with anticipation. He sighs “oh, yo, yoh” and rips it off clean and quick before I have time to think.

I see my father naked as he changes out of his clothes in our bedroom on a summer’s day. He is swift and shy and turns away.

He dandles Norbert on his knee, up and down, cooing “my lit-tle tiny tot.”

My mother has a screaming fit, shouting at him across the living room. I can anticipate her laughter and anger, but the sound of her weeping, so rare, fills me with shame; it seems to me like the sound of cold water falling into an iron cauldron. She hurls her shoes at him as he lies across the sofa uttering nothing.

Father is tall and lean and quiet. Perhaps it is Christmas day when he gets here, or soon after. He has brought us more gifts from far away; a little wooden camel and a bronze bust of Nefertiti from Egypt. A copper boomerang with a thermometer mounted on it from Australia.

I help him prepare a great pile of doughnuts. He towers over me as we work at the kitchen bench, mixing sour cream, eggs, sugar, cardamom and flour. He shows me how to roll the dough and join the strips into rings before he fries them in hot fat and dusts them with sugar. My father is methodical, explaining as we go.

He bakes a salmon. It’s a silver ship on a reef of boiled, peeled potatoes, anointed with butter and black pepper, then broken to reveal its cavernous pink bowels. He stirs the sour cream porridge, cooks it down with sugar and puts a knob of butter in each bowl.

He sits and takes his coffee at two in the afternoon, sipping the hot liquid through a lump of sugar tucked between his teeth. He gives me a green piney cough lozenge coated with sugar. He drives us up to the Holmenkollen ski jump, racing along the narrow roads and tearing round the corners. Mother laughs. “God! Kristian you’re a dreadful driver!” She says sailors are pretty dangerous behind the small jittery steering wheels of cars.

I don’t know how long he might stay here with us, perhaps a week before he goes back down to Oslo, to the black ship with its salty derricks and blue striped funnel, off to trace lines in the rolling seas between Gøteborg and Tilbury Docks, Port Said and Port Hedland, or Lisbon and Sao Paulo.

It is the first Christmas I remember, and the last one we will have with our father. After he has gone away again, it is as though mother has begun to lead us deeper into the dark-white valley, into the river with its ceiling of ice, under the hard grey lake, down to the fjord and out along the ocean floor, walking miles below the storms, too far down for her to notice the short pearly days between the long vacant nights. Perhaps her sun will rise again months after Christmas day, after a voyage past the Canary Isles, Africa, the Indian Ocean, and on to the coast of Western Australia, the farthest shore of an unimagined world.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

Sad Swedish Porn

It’s one o’clock on a sticky Wednesday morning and I haven’t been able to sleep.  I’m all hot and bothered, praying for any kind of release from wakefulness, and there’s nothing to do but put this churning mind in neutral and let my feet sneak me out of the house. There’s a little place these dirty feet of mine know by Central station. In a twenty-five minute stroll they get me to a steel doorway with its spluttering neon tube and gum-pocked turnstile. With great cunning my toes fish money out of my pocket, disturbing me not at all. Without me knowing (I swear) they pass the grubby blue ten-dollar bill to my sleepy fingers, paying the sallow gatekeeper before trotting me down some worn stairs. Once down there I’m half aware again. Goodness me, am I here? Yes, I am!

I feel around sweatily in the dark and flop down into a rancid seat. I’ve landed on my ass in the basement, hoping for a piece of my favourite genre, the Puerto Rican Prison Pic.  The scenario of the PRPP varies but the theme is always the same. Hapless hunky inmates, brutalized by their big white prison guards, turn the tables and show those sneering starchy uniforms who the real funky bosses are. The bad nasal acting evaporates after a while and equilibrium is restored. It invariably ends in joyous delirium, a carousel of manly merriment for all involved where everyone ends up a homeboy. But (oh bugger!) I’m late or the show times were wrong. The closing credits, accompanied by monotonous grooves on a cheap Casio keyboard and drum machine, are rolling on Live Hard Or Die. It’s a typical Chandler Waxwurst production, featuring the brutal and languid Rusty Springstains in combat with the astounding undercarriage of legendary Latin former soap star Don Quidique. Hot Damnation! I’ve missed it.

The joint I smoked fifteen minutes earlier (it must’ve been my toes that rolled it, put it in my sleepy mouth and lit it) is beginning to take effect, my eyes and ears prick with sense data, my brain is now a nervy horse flaring his nostrils.  A few shadowy figures lurk in the background and hover in the squeaky cigarette-burned seats to my right and left.  Something quite different unfolds itself on screen.

The dialogue is Swedish, and subtitled. As the forest scene opens two tall blond travellers have come to a sort of clearing and have collapsed on the moss. They lie quietly listening to their own breathing. The camera zooms in to a close up of tanned skin, golden chest fuzz, and the sound of heartbeats. The forest is wild and impenetrable. Eskil the vessel of God gazes at Eugen the noble. Eugen gazes back at Eskil. “Soon dawn will come, but the heat continues to hang over us like a smothering blanket” says Eugen dreamily. Round one starts with a delicate stroke around a nipple, and two fingers snailing down a polished belly of steel.

“Mmmmmm. These are like wild strawberries from the forest,” murmurs Eskil. “I have never seen such large ones. How they smell!”

They look up. A workman in the forest is watching. Hadrian the raven-haired is leaning against a tall tree. “I feel that something is going to happen to me, but I don’t know what,” he whispers to himself as we gaze up at his foreshortened chest, lips and aquiline nose.

Fifteen minutes later the scene ends with three bangs and a whimper. The strawberries have been polished off and all the cream lapped up.

The actors are superbly chiselled Nordic gods of chilly countenance. The director (I missed his name, is it Lars von Queer? Or perhaps it’s the notorious transsexual auteur Ingrid Bergdorf-Goodman) must love art, because now the lads are in a palace garden, grouped on a marble terrace under a pavilion of Ionian columns standing in a parterre of roses and yew trees. Arne the eagle and Andreas the strong have joined Eugen, Eskil and Hadrian. The five are grouped as naked statues in a Nazi Academy of Art pose d’un tableau vivant heroique. The camera circles the pavilion to strains of Schubert, and then moves in for the kill as the action gets going. Stylised arm wrestling and head holds become sweatier groping further down the virile chain of command. The sculpture has come to life, like some wobbling perpetual motion machine.

They’re like a vision of Munktell’s Swedish Steam Engine of 1853 sculpted in meat. The wet blanket of neoclassicism has been ripped aside to reveal great glistening cylinders huffing and puffing, with greased pistons pumping away at rubber gaskets. The camera surges in and rears back, the action broils as though in an oven. Now the tableau transforms into a carcass of beef on a spit tended to by adoring cooks, pounding and basting, licking and tasting. The hole where the meat had been skewered is like a tight little mouth opened in slack-jawed amazement. After another fifteen minutes of vigorous ministration balls and whistles all go off at once. The five of them whirl that smothering blanket of heat and hurl it sticky and damp right off the screen at our faces flickering in the dark. The scene fades into a lactic mist, to the heavenly lengths of poor syphilitic Schubert.

The camera pans across the broad parterre to a pair of old palatial doors. Eugen, still the beautiful and lonely nobleman, greets Eskil, now playing a delivery boy. You may imagine the clipped, quietly modulated Swedish, “ah, Eskil, arriving as you always do, when the warm melancholy evening sinks into the sadness of night.”  They gaze into each other’s icy blue eyes like two cool hells yearning for heaven.

Eugen and Eskil have this 18th century chateau to themselves. It seems deserted apart from them. They walk from room to room. There is only emptiness and a quiet echo. Outside, the rain is heard roaring noisily.

The boys have wandered into a huge, taffeta walled drawing room, and set themselves down on a yellow silk covered empire chaise longue.

“Your smile is like brandy. Your eyes like blackberries.”

“And your manhood, like a great brain sausage.”

A zipper is heard grinding its gears slowly down to the ground.

“Ahhh, Eskil you are so perfect, in your perfect imperfection.”

“Why do we torture ourselves this way Eugen?”  They collapse into each other’s heaving skins, chewing tongues for thirty-five seconds. The third glorious duel has begun.

And the music! This round of the action is carried on wings of song, a chamber version of Chopin’s piano prelude in B minor. Lento Assai, with clarinet, flute, cello and piano querulously warbling away. The music, interwoven with every subtly understated thrust and gobble, rises and falls in sad, sad strains. Da-de-da-de dumm, dah, de-daaah. Up, two, three. Down, two, three. The actors’ bodies sway in peachy-cream pie-in-your-face slow motion against the mustard silk taffeta. In, two, three. Out, two, three.

I can’t help giggling at such paradox, a koan of Calliope and carnality, of Erato upending Eros. Back down here in the smelly seats my nervy horse brain tells me that the guys groping away in corners are glancing at me sharply. I think they think I’m laughing at them.

Suddenly there’s a rat-tat-tat of guns, and five tall slender Swedish soldiers burst in. Birger the rescuer and Enar the warrior now accompany Andreas, Arne, and Hadrian. Eugen and Eskil unshackle their engines. Eugen rises from the chaise longue and demands, with insinuating hauteur, that the soldiers strip. The men are cocked in a Swedish standoff, the steam still rising from the muzzles of Eugen’s and Eskil’s guns. Their fate is sealed.  Heat and gravity drags them all down together on the Aubusson carpet in a mad, mad whirl of manhood. They’re like seven golden seals brawling gloriously on a silk tasselled beach.

And over it all, like a troubled Baltic sky the narrator intones . . . “The hot day has become night. Singing and howling can be heard from the distant inn.  In a hollow near the forest, the light still lingers. Now, a soft gleam of light strokes the hilltops, a last reflection from the red clouds over the sea.  The plague is spreading along the west coast. People are dying like flies.”

There’s a final close up to the noble lips of our two heroes. “Who watches over us Eugen? Is it the angels, or God, or the Devil, or only the emptiness?“

“Oh the emptiness, the emptiness Eskil.”

Milky fountains splutter and flow.

Herre Gud, such art, such impeccable, exquisite taste! This is porn to be pondered, Cinema Perversité for the delectation of philosophers and cultured gentlemen. Could it even be possible that in a hushed, sky blue and gilt rococo recess by the back stairs of Stockholm’s Royal Palace, a certain descendant of Queen Victoria would be titillated unto his little death by this offering? If not amused?

Ahh, but it didn’t do it for me. I sit there in the sweaty gloom, fending off the darting, farting shadows, not yet exhausted enough to let my feet take me home to sleep, waiting for what comes up next. Some new offering from Ballywood? Or a sardonic Sardinian romp? Where the hell are Rusty Springstains and Don Quidique when you need them? Up on screen a didgeridoo begins droning under the tinny chords. Saliva! Australian Outback? No, just a trailer. The drums start beating. It’s Saliva! Vanuatu – Island of Fire.  I settle back. A trio of good sex, coconut oil and bad music is a form of homo-pathic medicine. It will cool me down eventually.

 

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

The New Year’s Cadence

November 20, 2005

It’s only the middle of November, but a new year is beginning.  I’ve had the same list of assessments and resolves for ages—haven’t we all.  Occasionally there’ll be something fresh, and something I considered important might be excised from the current draft.  The same big issue items appear every year, moved up or down the page depending on whether health, wealth or wisdom are uppermost.  But New Year’s Resolutions are for one’s inner committee to debate and agree upon on Saturday morning after a big breakfast and two cups of strong coffee.  Resolution embraces resolve, synthesis, clarity and rest.  A night away from everything, no matter where or how you spend it, allows resolution to speak as though from nothing.  It arrives like a small furry creature that creeps across the grass towards you when sleep has become deep and soundless.

***

On a beach near Torquay
I’m three hours south of Melbourne, parked on a lonely stretch of beach on a dirt track off the highway, with the van I borrowed hidden from view by a couple of sand dunes.

Putting my picnic things away in the dark I’ve banged my ankle severely on the tow-ball of the van.  I get such a shock I begin to shiver violently.  I’m shaking as though my body is unzipping itself. With all my body zippers slowly ripping down and the flesh falling off my bones.  I stumble into the driver’s seat and sit there shivering and holding my shape together.

The invisible prison rises and breaks across the sky.  I can see the bright half moon in the deep well of heaven between thick arms of cloud.  I wonder what the moon would look like seen through a glass of red wine?  I have so much wine but no glass to pour it into.

In the right hand corner of my field of vision appears a small half circle of peachy orange light rising from the beach town up the coast.  The clearing sky is brightly black.  Silhouetted against it is a long low stretch of thick dead-black bushes.  They have a little bit of shape and dimension to them.  Under it is a band of grey beach gravel.

In the left corner of my vision there’s a small shed on the far side of the parking area.  It’s a little broken down toilet block with two doors.  One door painted white is closed.  I sense rather than see its whiteness.  The other door is open, flapping in the wind, an inky hole, banging and winking.  As I imagine, inside that door a naked man is seated.  There is writing and strange symbols all over the walls.  The naked man is still alive but he has been half eaten.  He may have been eating himself to death.  I can see the stump of his arm reaching out of that doorway.  It is the image of a man not yet ready to let go of his debts, paying his devil the remaining interest due on past transactions.

The shivering has left me.  I’m drawn for a second or two into deep and soundless wakefulness, a cool and dry clarity, not hot and humid and decisive.  Questions dissolve.  Tiny bubbles, perfect little answers, float to the surface of the cup and foam for a moment before they burst and disappear.

Waiting for the complex to be simple again
Anything new that strikes the heart-mind has no image yet, because images are formed out of what I already have.  In the first confusion, what strikes seems too big and too complex to cope with at face value.

I could fire up my school brain to reduce it to something intelligible, something theological.  But maybe I’d take the life from it by doing so.  Theology is like attempting to build the model of a waterfall out of a Meccano set, or to construct a feathery wing of cirrus cloud out of Lego blocks.

I’m learning to sit with what I cannot see.  Whatever it is will be made visible through what I already possess.  It will be a rich and tangible truth for as long as the form is needed, before it resolves back into an unknown and total presence.

Where is the seat of faith?
If the seat of faith is the mind, is faith threatened every time the hinges of the mind are broken open by a prying question?

If the seat of faith is emotion, are joyful, hopeful feelings the truth of faith, and dryness and despair the absence of faith?

Can I see, touch or taste faith?  Perhaps faith rests where it cannot be expressed at all, but where it might influence the architecture of thought and the effulgence of feeling.

How do I imagine God?
Do I mean the God I constantly refashion in my own evolving image?

What else can I know?  All I know is, my God prefers honest shit to “pious ejaculation.” At worst, he averts his nose from pious crap.  No, no, God does not avert his nose at anything.  That’s what I do. It is we, the proud ones, who avert our noses at things.

The God I sense loves best our clumsy loving, our naked, foolish hearts.

Who am I?
When someone asked, “define yourself,” and I rattled off an answer, I was describing a mask.  I don’t have these answers any more, though I still have my masks handy.

A proud man or woman, bluffing against the terrors, says firmly, “I know myself.  I can look myself in the eye, in the mirror any day.”

Someone who accepts that they possess no full self-knowing might say, “I cannot always look myself in the eye, and I must wait.”

What is vanity?
Vanity gazes into the mirror, searching desperately for signs of ugliness and decay.

How will I end?
I will not die alone.  I must take my self with me when I go.  How long I spend with this self at the time of passing will depend on how well I know and how much I have come to accept.

***

I fall asleep, and wake up at 4.30; pull on some pants and a jacket and walk away from the salty rumble of the ocean, lifting my legs over a slack barbed wire fence to get onto to some fields with a few sheep and cattle in them.

Before dawn the Otway hills are made of cloudy glass.  There is a soft dreamy solitude about the dawn.  As the sun rises the land is like a wet painting.  The dewy grass looks like frosted glass in the chill early morning.

The mist lifts its white tendrils off the water of a muddy dam, the water flat, not yet ruffled by a breeze.  The tendrils of mist rise like a chain of ballerinas in gossamer tutus slowly dancing Swan Lake on a brown linoleum stage.

I pass a scraggly patch of bush, and then a broken down wool shed.  Its timbers are no longer hewed from trees, but cast in pewter.  In the distance big black rectangles of cattle, their tails sticking out, graze and shit.  The grass is sage-blue in shadow, and like butter where the sun shines across it.

And so back to thoughts about the New Year, and quiet resolution: After a messy climax, during which dissonances have begun to untangle and relax, I’ve arrived at another cadence, one of several in life that are regional, oblique, and plagal.

Resolution is hidden in these cadences.  The perfect one will be the final return from dominance to tonic.  This cadence, which is the resolution of life in all its meanings, is always present in the air, more easily sensed at night under an open sky.  You can also feel it in the ground underfoot, in the prickle of thistle and gravel in your heel after you’ve kicked your shoes off.

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org