Stone and sea

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“Stone and sea are deep in life

Two unalterable symbols of the world

Permanence at rest

And permanence in motion

Participants in the power that remains”

Stephen R. Donaldson

P1110297I thought about those lines a lot over the past few days. It is the chant of the giants in Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. As we wandered through a landscape of gigantic structures in stone and earth, saw giant figures carved into the hillsides and sat by the ever-moving waves of the shore, it kept coming to mind.

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He’s right, of course, we see them as permanent, yet they too change and shift with time. Those who wrought in stone millennia ago left a mark on the landscape we can still see and touch today, yet how much has been lost? What was there that we no longer see? How much have we pillaged from their constructions to build our own? The stone may remain, but altered, shaped, reduced, perhaps, to dust. And even that, even the stone they used was once other than it became when it was hewn from the earth. Before that it was not even stone, but the possibility of stone, grown in the crucible of a new-born earth and formed into stone, perhaps, by the weight of the sea.

moors 023It is the same with the sea. It appears a constant, moving mass, yet, of course, it isn’t. Water evaporates and condenses, becoming clouds and rain, ice and snow. It falls on the land and runs through the stone, filtered by the living rock, until it again reaches the sea. The cycle never stops, and the permanence itself is but an illusion.

weymouth 032Yet their essence remains whole, throughout the changes wrought by millions of years. What they are does not change, only how they are seen, only how we see them, form them, harness and mould them. Water is water, whatever form it takes. Stone, whether shaped or crushed, does not change its essential nature with its form. So maybe we, too, though we are born, live and die, are also permanent in our essence. Maybe we too are ‘participants in the power that remains’.

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Something there is in beauty

which grows in the soul of the beholder

like a flower:

fragile –

for many are the blights which may waste

the beauty

for the beholder –

and imperishable –

for the beauty may die,

or the world may die,

but the soul in which the flower grows

survives.

– Stephen R. Donaldson

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July 2013

A clear draught

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I came across an old photo quite by chance, putting things away in the loft. It set me off thinking, as such things do. In the picture my late partner is holding a coffee cup… You can’t see it, but I know precisely what it looked like all those years ago. White with a blue rim and dots, with three tiny flowers, red, yellow and blue.

I remember it because it meant something. Not in itself, of course, but because of circumstance. When he died I had just made his morning coffee. There was a moment when it was all ‘over’, when the ambulance men had left and I waited for the undertaker, and I picked up the cup, still bearing the last traces of warmth, and I finally wept.

I used that cup for a long time afterwards… just me… even when it was chipped and the handle dangerously cracked. I used it till I didn’t need to… then it went in the cupboard. It stayed there until I didn’t need it to be there anymore. It took a while.

Why? Because it had held more than coffee for me and it had become a symbol of something more than its physical form.

As I drove into town, I got to thinking…

We can be picky about cups and glasses, those vessels which seem to epitomise that which they hold. Champagne… a rarity, of course… I like to drink from a flute, red wine from a deep bellied glass. Tea must come in a china cup with a saucer… or a big mug filled with a deep mahogany brew.  Coffee, to be fair, can be administered through an IV drip for all I care… but my preference is for the tiny cups of espresso.

There is a reason beyond habit for these things. Champagne really does taste better in a flute… honestly, there have been scientific analyses done to prove it… something to do with the way the gas bubbles collect in the glass. The same for red wine, though more to do with the warmth of the hand that holds the bowl. Tea ? Let’s not go there… I’m a Yorkshire lass… it isn’t up for discussion.

I do wonder though if the vessel holds expectation just as much as liquid. We see the shining silver and porcelain of a tea-room and expect good tea… A tiny cup and a pavement café in Paris are synonymous with that certain je ne sais quoi. The misted surface of a cold glass of beer simply invites thoughts of a hot summer’s day… We see and expect even before we taste.

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Yet, if we are thirsty, truly thirsty, do we care about the vessel that holds the water? The vessel merely contains, so that what is held within may be moved from source to lip, it gives the water shape… may even seem to colour it… but what lies within the vessel is still water.  Do we need crystal glasses or fashionable plastic bottles? A cracked mug, a paper cup, our hands… or even, perhaps especially, just plunging our face into a mountain stream  and drinking from the earth. All will serve, for it is not the vessel that counts, but what it holds. To those whose thirst is urgent and visceral even a muddied puddle holds salvation.

In many of the Sufi poems we ourselves are likened to vessels shaped by the Hand of the Potter. It does not matter if, as Khayyam wrote, the Hand shook in the making, nor if  the vessel has been chipped and cracked by usage. It matters little if it thinks itself fit for champagne, comfortable enough for tea, or as holy as a chalice… it is filled with what is needed to quench the thirst of the one who drinks. The pot has no say in the matter. It is filled by another Hand.

When we are seeking the clear water of inner truth we can find it in many unexpected and unlikely places and the expectations we have for the vessel may not reflect what it holds. The draught in the chalice may be wine or bitter herbs, the clay bowl hold pure water, we cannot know until we raise it to our lips and taste what lies within.

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Heart to heart

“I don’t get it,” said my son. “We’re an island… how can we be short of water?” I had been telling him about the shocking state of the Derwent Valley reservoirs. I have seen them very low before, but never this low. The water is no more than a trickle in the lake bed and the villages drowned at their creation are once more feeling the sun on their stones. We discussed desalination, technology and our acceptance of water-on-tap in developed countries. From there, we went on to other countries, where the populace is not so lucky and water may have to be drawn from a dirty well several hours walk from home. My son continued, “I mean, if seventy per cent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, and, if it all comes from the sea to begin with and goes back into the water cycle, how come anyone is short of water?”

“Money.” I thought back to a job I once had, selling water coolers to offices. The company supported a water charity that dug clean wells and brought water to arid villages. I loved being on the road as a salesperson, but I could never reconcile the difference between the luxury of cooled, filtered spring water and children carrying water jars for miles.

It always tickled me too, that the elegant secretaries who convinced their bosses to buy the spring water would, for the most part, have been horrified if I had asked them to drink from a stream… the same streams that supply the now-industrialised springs. But they would happily drink chlorine-laden tap water, because that is clean and safe… even though it may also contain other things they wouldn’t even like to think about.

It is not that I think we should deny ourselves, or feel guilty about, enjoying the benefits of progress or earned luxuries… but we should not forget that we are privileged to be able to do so.

At least the company was putting money into the pot with every sale… but it is a poor set-up when charity is dependant upon profit. I agreed with my son, no one should be without access to clean water in this day and age. Globally, we have the money, the technology and the resources… if we chose to use them.

I was on my soap box. From water, it moved to access to adequate food, housing, education and healthcare… all basic human needs that should also be rights. I have worked in the charity sector and acknowledge both the incredible effort of the staff and volunteers, as well as the impact of the work they do. But why should we need to rely on charity for such basic human needs in a world where corporations and individuals have billions in the bank? It makes no sense to me.

Leaving aside ideas about the distribution of wealth, even the defence budget of a small nation would probably be enough to supply water to a continent… and don’t get me started on the misnomer of ‘defence’…

“But,” interjected my son, attempting to stop me in full flow, “why bother talking about it? What good will it do?” The question was obviously rhetorical, but, with the bit between my teeth, I was going to answer anyway…

Actions spring from ideas, and ideas are born when people talk about things… not when they sweep them under the carpet and can comfortably and conveniently forget that they are there.

Money may have the reputation as being the root of all evil, but I wonder if that is true. Is it not what choices people make that is at the heart of the problem? And how can we make informed choices unless we communicate?

I thought a lot about that on the way home. In this day and age when the internet connects us worldwide, it should be easier to talk… and we do, often about things that may seem quite unimportant… just the small doings of everyday…but by doing so, we keep the lines of communication open, and every so often, something really important filters through. The weight of public opinion can work miracles, changing the face of society…or making one life worth living.

Misunderstandings thrive when people do not talk. Relationships deteriorate when resentments cannot be aired and are allowed to fester. Loneliness and depression deepen when there is no-one to talk with. And whole worlds of possibility open up when we do.

 

It is the same on a personal level too, as we are talking to ourselves internally all the time. For most of us, there is a commentary on the surface of the mind and yet, we are conscious of other levels of thought running beside it, observing it, sometimes in agreement with our thoughts and actions, at other time raising metaphorical eyebrows.

But, although we are aware of these other levels of thought, observation and information, we seldom take the time to engage them in conversation. Meditation and contemplation are ways of doing so, and those who give some time to these methods reap rich rewards. Both conscience and consciousness reside within, and unless the surface mind is prepared to converse with them, we may be missing out on a large percentage of who we are and who we might become.

I wonder if ‘the root of all evil’, rather than simply blaming inanimate money, stems from the barriers we, and the way we live, erect around the core of our being? Barriers that seek to protect us by preventing us from really hearing what those around us and those inner voices may have to say?

When we let the barriers down and talk to someone openly and without subterfuge, we call it a ‘heart to heart’. Perhaps that is what we are missing… and maybe what we are afraid of in this modern world? The ability and the openness to speak and to listen, allowing our true selves to flow from the heart.