Helen continues her journey through the sacred sites of Derbyshire…
I recently attended a workshop with The Silent Eye about Facing Our Fears, an extraordinary weekend spent among the hills and grey stone villages of the Peak District. It’s taken me a little while, as it usually does, to process everything that happened. Once again there was history and mystery, good company and tasty food, old friends greeted and new friends made. And, as always, revelations.This is part six of my account, parts one, two, three, four and five can be found here…
As you pass between the gateposts leading onto Stanton Moor, there is a feeling of entering another world. Perhaps it’s the Cork Stone, a great stone guardian whose sphinx-like profile has monitored the path for millennia, or the old quarry marks, now overgrown. Or perhaps it’s the many cairns hidden amongst the heather, silent indicators that this is a land of the dead.
Humans have been using this place for thousands of years, which is why Stanton Moor is a place of national importance and, as such, is protected. Prominent signage advises visitors to leave no rubbish, make no marks and, something that became important as we journeyed further into the landscape, keep their dogs on a lead at all times.
“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
“Bebop died. I stayed with him. Said thank you.” He choked again. “Said goodbye. It was really emotional.” The voice managed to sound both surprised and a tad embarrassed, even through the evident emotion, and well he might. “…and then Arthur died too…”. There was a silent pause. I am fairly certain I heard a sniff. Bebop was his horse… not a flesh-and-blood horse, mind you, but part of a computer game my son had been playing for some time. Arthur was the character as which he had been playing. Oddly, I didn’t laugh. I could quite understand why he was feeling that way, even though, on the surface, it should have been funny. I have cried my way through too many books and films to laugh for such a reason.
The game, one of the latest generation, is graphically gorgeous. The wide landscape it portrays is beautifully done and very realistic. You can wander it at will, exploring the Wild West in its heyday as well as following the story through the game. He had shown me the scenery and I was impressed, not only with the artwork and animation, but with the attention to detail. Birds and butterflies randomly rise from flowers, day turns into night, grass bows in the wind as the seasons cycle and there is wildlife in abundance.
What had impressed me more, though, was that in spite of it being a western in which you play as an outlaw…and the inevitable gun-slinging that goes with it… the game does require you to make moral choices. Your character can choose the be helpful, compassionate and honourable… though that doesn’t always work out too well for him… or to simply be a violent, mindless outlaw, taking what he chooses at gunpoint. There are consequences to violence, and you will be hunted and imprisoned, or worse, should you choose that path, though doubtless many do, as violence and gore seems to be part of the gaming culture. My son had chosen to follow the honourable path instead, and that choice determined how the game unfolded.
‘His’ character takes care of others in his camp, and helps them with their problems. If he hunts, he must do so with respect. The animal must be killed cleanly, the flesh used for food without delay and the skin must be used too. No wasted deaths. His horse must be fed, groomed, watered and encouraged. It cannot be overridden and needs enough attention to bond with its rider. It needs to be protected… and the character needs sleep, food and shelter too.
But no matter how honourably you choose to ‘live’ as your character, both you and your horse will ‘die’. It is part of the story. How you die depends on how you have ‘lived’… My son had invested time, attention and care the virtual horse. He had identified with the character in the same way you do when you watch a film or read a book. And his choices in the game had given the character the gentlest of the programmed passings, against a beautiful sunset and he had found it moving.
For a game, it is engrossing and, after many hours of playing, I could quite understand the emotional attachment my son had formed for both the horse and character. Even though it was just a game, he had put the welfare of horse and friends before his own and had lavished attention on his horse, even going so far as to name it, and naming things has always been a big part of the bonding process. It illustrated very clearly that you learn to care about what you choose to care for.
It reminded me of the Rose in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince. The Rose is not a particularly nice character, but the Little Prince loves her and when he finds a whole host of roses, he explains why:
“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”
The emotions that grow when you make a choice to care are almost inevitable. It is not the same as shouldering a duty or a chore when it is a chosen course and the reward comes quietly, as an opening of the heart; it becomes an act of love. If we care for person, we grow close to them, if we chose to care for… looked after… our planet, the way the Little Prince cared for his Rose, we would care about it too. The two go hand in hand.
It doesn’t really matter whether the thing you care for is what you feel it to be. It could be a cantankerous rose, or a virtual horse… the reality and the beauty is within the love and the care that is given, it is not always obvious in what we choose to care for. “But eyes are blind,” says the Little Prince. “You have to look with the heart.”
I love my bedroom. It is nothing special. The decor is plain and simple and the room holds far more book-space than clothes storage. I sleep, read and dress in there and, more importantly, the dog does nothing in there except for the occasional illicit pounce on the bed, so it stays permanently tidy. There are no to-do piles, no strewn dog-toys, no bills awaiting payment… just shelf upon shelf of books and, for good measure, the window faces the rising light of dawn. It is a temple of calm.
On my bedside table there is a lamp, an inlaid musical box that was a gift from my mother, the inevitable vicious alarm clock and a book. Nothing more. It reminds me of a magical altar where the implements each hold a ritual significance beyond their outward form. The lamp and the alarm clock symbolise the extremities of time and the boundaries of my conscious life… points of transition between dark and light, day and night. The musical box symbolises continuity, love and beauty… and by extension, eternity. The book changes its outer form regularly, each form representing a different experience and slice of reality. Yet it is always a portal to another world, whether one built in the imagination of its author or within the stranger realms of or own inner life. Within its pages lies a bookmark, keeping my place in the story… and that too has a deeper meaning. The nightly ritual of placing the bookmark long ago became my signal for sleep.
Each night, before sleep, I make the ritual gestures… switching on the lamp, setting the alarm, picking up the book. Then, the bookmark is slipped between the pages, the light extinguished and darkness wraps me up for the night, becoming a blank screen upon which dreams can play.
The ritual of the bookmark goes back a long way… all the way to childhood. I was taught early that between the covers of a book, all the wisdom of the ages can be found. Every human experience, every thought and emotion, every scrap of knowledge and worlds both real and fantastic reside within the inner space of a book. Even, said my mother, within the trashiest novel, there is something to be gleaned; if nothing else, the shadow of the writer’s thoughts litter the page, giving another perspective on the life we share.
My mother’s respect for books did not extend to their pages… or more specifically, to the corners of their pages. Many of the books in my little library still bear the traces of her enjoyment. Her place in the story was always marked by a turned-down corner and, after every few pages, a corner would simply be missing. She liked the taste of old paper. It was probably this latter habit… frustrating when she had eaten the ends of several critical lines…. that encouraged me to use a bookmark.
As with any ritual, there is a symbolism beyond the obvious… just as there is more within a book than words. The strip of green faux leather that is currently in use has been in and out of books for years. There are no special associations or memories; of itself, the bookmark has no value, nor is it particularly attractive, yet it marks more than the last page I read.
The bookmark is the outward and visible sign of respect; not for the books as objects in themselves, but for what they hold, invisibly, in the spaces between the words. The real worth of a book, just like a ritual, is seldom in the print and paper, but in the spaces between, where ideas and insight await the touch of mind and the understanding of the heart.