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The Conch Shell’s Song

Conch (or Whelk) Shell- Nantucket, originally uploaded by Chris Seufert.

A loud cacophony of honking arrested my ears as I left my son’s preschool this morning. The mother of one of J’s classmates hurried outside and joined me in looking skyward.

“Look, they’re coming our way!” she exclaimed.

“Canada Geese?” I asked.

“Yep,” she affirmed. “They know where they’re going. They’re probably headed for Westminster Field.”

They know where they’re going.

The words flooded over me like a warm spring breeze.

I stood rooted to the spot, watching that seamless and unified flight pattern that was more precise and effortless than the flapjack flip of a Blue Angel jet. I watched them move joyously and fluently in the pure music of the moment. And then, inexplicably, my eyes filled with tears.

We have much to learn from Canada Geese. They are masters of Being and Presence. (Both terms deserve capitalization, I feel, because really, what else is there?) They know instinctively, as all creatures who are unmolested by “mind poisoning” know, the very essence of pure joy. I didn’t understand the cause of my tears until I spent some time in quiet reflection. Then I experienced the “Aha! Of course!” moment. The ductal waterworks were a conduit—from the thinking mind straight into the heart of Presence. The flight of the Canada Geese was a gentle call to return to the source.

If only I could stay in that Presence during every moment of every day. That is the goal. Yet I try to keep it as a moment-by-moment meditation instead of a “goal” in the traditional sense of the term. Unfortunately, the word “goal” conjures up more of what ails us as a culture, which is to say: more of the same false time continuum, in which important things are accomplished at some distant point in an unknown future. Ultimately, the promise of a “future” is as false as it is hollow. Our souls are bigger than that. Presence is patience manifested—it will wait for us throughout eternity. And longer. The trick is to stay quiet in order that we may notice it more expeditiously.

Many of my posts on this blog suggest a compulsion toward the theme of Presence, though I’m the first to admit that the noise of my life has often stolen me away from it. But lately I’ve experimented with paring down life to its most simple and unfettered form so as to invite silence into a less encumbered and more comfortable living room. What I’ve found is this: the more time I spend addicted to certain compulsions—which I will actually name as this blog, Flickr, and the trumpeting misery of certain online news outlets—the more divorced I become from the essential nature of the individual I wish to become. Of course, in reality I already am that individual—I just can’t always hear myself due to the loud din of thinking noise inside my head.

Here’s my practice: In the past week I have refrained from taking photos (and posting them) and from compulsively commenting on photos in the streams of my Flickr contacts. I felt a tiny bit sad in this beginning stage of (metaphorical) mortification of the flesh, as though perhaps I was letting someone down. As though perhaps I wasn’t fulfilling some vaguely prescribed duty. But as I started spending more time in the fresh outdoor air with my horses and less time cooped up in my head, I began to notice a powerful shift in consciousness. And not only in my own consciousness either.

For the past few months, my husband’s habits were mirroring my own. He stole precious moments away from the heavy task of siding our house and his work as a sub contractor to hover—with excruciating focus—over The Daily Kos and Salon.com. He chortled over the stupidity of conservative pundits as they scrambled to regain a toehold of power in temperamental Washington. He often read entire blog entries aloud to me and delighted when the unctuous greed of the crooked financial sector at long last met with its just rewards. Like an ingénue lapping up second hand smoke in a swank bar full of celebrities, I too would enjoy a rush of righteous “Bout f**king time, too!” anger.

Therefore, it came as a surprise when my husband abruptly snapped our laptop shut and announced that he was taking a vacation of indeterminate length—not only from The Daily Kos, but from all hard-boiled online news outlets of its ilk. Naturally, I laughed and goaded him with teasing rebukes.

“Ha! You’re actually giving up Kos? Your Holy Grail? Yeah, right!” I hooted.

“No really, I am,” he calmly insisted.

And, as the days slowly crept by, I silently watched as he upheld this seemingly impossible vow. But uphold it he did.

“So what made you decide to give it up?” I asked one day, thinking this was probably one of those Kamikaze news diets that would only succeed in leaving him feeling withered and starved.

“It wasn’t getting me anything,” he replied.

“What do you mean?”

“It was just the same ugly green monster erupting from a different sea. They never really rise above the discourse. It’s all the same squabbling and petty name calling, but I justified it as being okay because it was the liberals doing it.”

“Well…what are you going to do instead?” I asked. I mean, would I even recognize this man without The Daily Kos screaming through the screen just in front of his beard?

“Something that isn’t such a waste of time,” he replied, returning to his crossword puzzle. “Something that brings me closer to Being.”

And that’s when it hit me: His crossword puzzles! Once ubiquitous, they’d become conspicuously absent during the long winter of his Kos discontent. And ever since Comcast had blasted through our sleepy backwoods neighborhood, stringing up enough wires to light a thousand Christmas trees.

And I remembered something else: Our old ritual. After he had finished the crossword puzzle, I’d take my turn reading Dear Abby and the comics. A little diversion that took only five minutes of my time.

Time. How much more of it we seemed to have then. I wondered why. Must be because the only real time is Presence. Lack of Presence projects us into a world of judgment, censure, ridicule and lack. We are far from the delighted honk of the flying geese and ever farther from our authentic selves. Far away indeed.

Once before I wrote about the ability of intense Present moment awareness to catapult one into the waiting arms of a long cherished memory. And once again, it took the simple setting of my son’s preschool for the moment to present itself to me.

J sat in my lap as we huddled into the small circle at story time. The story is Can You Hear The Sea? by Judy Cumberbatch.

The story went like this: A little girl is given a conch shell by her grandfather. “It’s a magic shell,” he tells her. “If you listen carefully you’ll hear the sea.”

During the ensuing week the child dutifully holds the shell to her ear and hears sounds aplenty. She hears the sounds of children playing, of her grandmother’s laundry water sloshing, of clothes snapping back and forth on the line to the wind’s tune. She hears every sound except for the one her grandfather asked her to listen for.

At the end of the week, the grandfather asks his granddaughter how she’d got on with the shell. She informs him that the week was long and frustrating. And by the way, there’s no ocean sound coming out of this here shell.

So the grandfather leads her to a quiet spot under a mango tree, where he patiently suggests that she try again. And she does, but all she hears is the sound of his breathing. She is about to give up once and for all when her grandfather instructs her to sit quietly and really LISTEN.

“Quiet!” he says. “Now close your eyes and this time listen to what the sea tells.” The little girl obliges, and  when she does, the joyful hum of the ocean’s song reveals itself to her.

By the end of the story, my eyes were again wet with tears.

A conch shell sits in a bucket at the front door of my grandparents’ seaside house in Maine. It sat there when I was a child, and it sits there still.

“Pick up the shell,” my grandfather used to tell me, “Hold it to your ear and listen for the sound of the ocean.”

The shell is the first thing I pick up when I walk through the door of that house, which now belongs to my mother. I listen to it before I walk through the house and out a different door, which leads me to the actual ocean. I stand on the beach wall and feel the salt spray on my face and listen to the sea’s song.

What are we left with when the flimsy door of illusion falls to splinters beneath our feet? Where are we taken?

Simple: into Presence.

The presence to hear the song of the geese in joyous flight. To enjoy a scramble of words in vertical and horizontal rows, unfettered by judgment and rancor. To hear the ocean’s sonorous request that we be kind to Mother Earth and treat her well.

When the earth offers to sing for us, we are receiving a sacred invitation to listen. We are being given the precious opportunity to enjoin the silence of our presence with the joyful presence of every living thing. Forever and always, we are being called Home.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.

Photo courtesy of Chris Seufert, under the Creative Commons License.