Another country…

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Claude Nougaro

“…and Claude Nougaro,” said my boss, brandishing the baguette. Her husband nodded. The three of us were at the dinner table, lingering over the cheese as usual. My employers had asked how I was managing, living in France. I had been there a couple of months, arriving with no more than schoolgirl French and was getting along quite well. I had made friends of many nationalities in Paris, shopped, dined and travelled in French and was fast learning the difference between the stiff formality of the language I had been taught in school and the laid-back colloquial version as spoken by Parisiens. I was even getting to grips with the local ‘argot’… those slang terms which, if they are in the dictionary at all, are used in an entirely different way from that suggested by their definition.

One thing I could not do, though, was grasp song lyrics. If I could read the words as I listened to music , I had no problem, but plucking the words from the music? I had no chance.

The French like music and my employers were passionate listeners. From jazz through pop to the classics, music was very much a part of our lives. I learned a huge amount from them about areas of music I had barely touched upon before and I had the use of their enormous and eclectic collection of vinyl and cassettes. But I struggled to understand anything with words. Music felt, quite suddenly, as though it was a world to which I had no key. I would see eyes filling with tears or sharing a glance sparkling with laughter at the lyrics of a song… and have no idea why. I knew this other world was there, just waiting for to be explored… but to ears unused to the nuances of its expression, understanding seemed as impossible to reach as the Otherworld.

I explained this to my employers and they came up with a list of singers I should explore. It started with artists whose diction was clear, but soon became a lesson in the music and poetry dear to the national heart… laying out before me yet another world, another layer of reality.

So I started listening, really paying attention, catching phrases here and there. Sometimes, although I could mimic the sounds, it would take a while for the words to separate out enough for me to recognise them… and sometimes they were words not yet in my vocabulary.

And then, one day, I was doing the housework and not thinking about the music at all. I realised, quite suddenly, that I had been singing along to the tape that was playing. It stopped me in my tracks. Not only did I understand the lyrics, but I also grasped the layers of meaning implied by them, could see the way the writer had played with the words, understand the symbolic landscape painted by the song. When had that happened? After that, there was no stopping me. I eventually married a French musician, wrote songs with him and my reality became a world of music.

It was driving home from work yesterday that took me back. I was singing along to an album by Claude Nougaro and, although it is now more than thirty years since I was last in France, neither the language nor the lyrics have left me. Some doors, once opened and stepped through, never close.

It occurred to me that the same leap of understanding happens in many areas of life. We struggle to grasp a new concept, a new and pertinent language… without which we do not even have the most basic chance of the proverbial lightbulb moment. And then, very often at a moment when we are neither concentrating nor struggling to ‘get there’, the light comes on. It is as if some unconscious process has synthesised all the random bits of information we have gathered, all the groundwork we have done, all the hints and intimations… and, deciding that the sum is greater than its parts, assembles a whole from the fragments, filling in the spaces between scraps of knowledge with intuitive understanding.

It is the same when you study the Mysteries. Those moments of utter illumination that come out of the blue and with no prior, conscious knowledge do happen, but they are rare indeed. There is a theory that such moments come from unlocking the memories of previous lifetimes, from the unconscious mind that pays more attention to life than the surface mind, or even that something is  passed down at a cellular level as part of the genetic memory.

For most of us, though, such clarity of vision comes only after putting the foundations in place. We study, meditate and learn, accumulating knowledge about ourselves and the path we have chosen until we come to a fork in the road. For some, it is that accumulation of knowledge that matters the most and they may go on to become lore-keepers, hoarding or making knowledge available to posterity, adding to its store for others.

Many, though, will take a step onto an unknown path, and, like the Fool of the Tarot, carrying unseen treasures in his knapsack, will walk towards a new landscape in trust. That journey is very much like setting out into a foreign land, where the ‘vocabulary’ of reality is different. And, although knowledge is necessary as a starting point, it is understanding… that unteachable knowledge of the heart… that leads to those moments of clarity when the doors of perception are opened.  And those doors, once opened, never close.

Only the good die young…

virgin rainbows 082

Sitting in the interminable traffic I had been listening to music and the lyrics of a Billy Joel song had sparked a train of thought. Switching off the stereo I explored it a little, allowing the thoughts to conjure images and wander off at tangential angles. The song had a simple and, at the time of its release, controversial story, but some of the lyrics fit so well with  some of the core tenets of the School that I had to take notice. Take the religious element out and it ceases to be controversial at all… just thought provoking.

They showed you a statue and told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
But they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done…

Isn’t that exactly how so very many of us are caught by ‘the system’? The statue… the idol… is success. It doesn’t matter in what… but within the parameters of our allotted field… be that businessman, housewife, artist or artisan… we are expected to aim for and achieve a measure of ‘success’ that is comprehensible to the world. The housewife must have the pristine home; the businessman is measured by the material trappings of commercial acumen, the artist by the name he carves for himself. The temple is the cage that this need to conform imposes upon us and its name is acquiescence. We accept the bars of this cage, one by one, first from our parents, schools and culture, then, once we pass a point of critical mass, we are blinded to the fact that the temple we have built is a prison and blithely… proudly… keep adding the bars of our own cage. Our dreams take second place and the things we might have really wanted to do slip further and further down our list of priorities.

We ain’t too pretty, we ain’t too proud.
We might be laughing’ a bit too loud.
Ah! But that never hurt no one…

Not only that, but many of the very qualities that would have allowed us to do the things we might have done are leached from us by the pressure of conforming to that standard we have been set and have accepted as a goal. All our energy is channelled into the business of achieving; we grow tired, the passion wanes, the embarrassment at stepping outside the accepted bounds grows; we are afraid of looking like idiots, of being laughed at, of not being good enough… of failing or letting people down… even of being seen to be different. And that last applies in some subversive and surprising ways. Many who look like rebels to one section of society are simply conforming to another set of standards. We forget how to play because we are too busy ‘playing the game.’ In a nutshell, we can lose ourselves. That’s a hell of a price to pay.

The stained glass curtain you’re hiding’ behind-
Never lets in the sun…

Of course, while we are doing as we ‘should’, behaving as expected, the world nods in approval and we feel pretty good. Basking the approbation we increase our efforts… much as we did as children, being good to earn our parents’ praise. Even when that nagging yearning reminds us of a different life we might have chosen, that ‘stained glass curtain’, that sense of virtuous compliance with expectations… both the world’s and our own… colours our vision of life, casting pretty shadows that prevent us from seeing through the window to where we might play, and forms a multihued veil behind which we can hide from the touch of the Light.

We are almost afraid of that Light, even when we glimpse it through a crack in the glass. It makes us uneasy in our safe little world, reminding us of a life that seems beyond our reach… a place where we could play, instead of playing the game, where there is freedom to dream and to reach for the stars… a place where we can laugh for sheer joy at the daily miracle of a sunrise instead of politely because it is ‘expected’. A place where we can simply be ourselves and revel in life itself. Yet we are afraid, conditioned by the cage, not knowing any more how to be that self we have lost. Even when the cage door stands unlocked.

We all have those cages on some level. Some are veritable fortresses, some mere gilded filigree… but they all have the bars that enclose. Bars called duty, need and responsibility form the framework upon which the heavier bars of ambition, image and ego are added, one by one and breaking free without breaking faith is no simple thing. Some of the bars must remain, but we can open the door, walk beyond the curtain… cease our self-imposed slavery to expectation. We can learn that we may move between a cage which, when open, is no more than a shelter, and the clear space beyond … because neither are the whole story. There is a freedom in that ability to move between the two.

It was the title that had first set me thinking, though. Looked at in this way, ‘the good’ are those who in the eyes of the world conform to social standards, achieve in visible manner and are probably pillars of the community. Yet there are many such who have no access to joy. Their life of the heart, their inner child has been bound and fettered early as they knuckled down and worked hard. When, having achieved and attained, they look around at the ‘things that they might have done’, they are lost… adrift in their own forgetting. You could say that they ‘died’ young, often before they have ever lived. The ‘sinners’ in this scenario are those who walk a less conventional path, or who have retained a sense of the ridiculous, nurtured their inner child and remembered how to play, just for the sake of playing. They have an inner light that shines and, like moths, they draw us. They too have their cages, but they can see the open door and move between inner and outer at will and carry laughter with them.

I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.
The sinners are much more fun…

You know that only the good die young!