I just had a long phone call from a friend who had trekked off to help an old family acquaintance/distant distant relative, way out in the wop wops in Australia. This was a rich family with many properties, and that word in Australia implies very large land holdings indeed. Usually such properties were/are used for meat production, raising “beasts.” (As a practicing yogi, attempting to live to a standard of ahimsa, or non violence I am vegetarian. No further comment at this time!) The last time she had visited them was 30 years ago with her mother and they had stayed in a gracious old Queenslander.
The then matriarch of the household had been both artistically and practically inclined and these propensities were expressed in her many hand carved furniture pieces, as well as beautifully carved doorways and architraves. Maybe a decade ago death came and the carver went. Family squabbles over the will and who should get which property or live in which homestead have meant that a number of these old houses have stood empty for years, floors littered with rat poison, and rat and mouse traps. My friend was distressed by the use of rat sac, because it causes so much pain in killing those animals unfortunate enough to eat it. Not a quick death and not a pretty one.
But she was also distressed, disturbed, by the state of the house she had stayed in as a younger woman. It was a ghost of its former self. Wallpaper was hanging from the wall. Windows were broken. Valuable antique furniture was out on the verandahs, being destroyed by the elements. She could picture the entrance of dingos and other wild life, and see the evidence of termites. This experience was repeated as she was taken to each of these remote forsaken old homesteads, travelling along dirt roads where seasonal storms meant that plants had just been returned to a temporary green, and that there were continual bodies of water lying alongside and over the road, not yet having soaked into what had been the impervious rock like surface of the long time water starved soil.
I read her the following poem by a dead NZ poet, Dennis Glover, which these old farmhouses recalled to me.
“When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm The bracken made their bed and Quardleoodleardlewardle doodle The magpies said Tom’s hand was strong to the plough and Elizabeth’s lips were red and Quardleoodleardlewardle doodle The magpies said Year in year out they worked while the pines grew overhead and Quardleoodleardlewardle doodle The magpies said But all the beautiful crops soon went to the mortgage man instead and Quardleoodleardlewardle doodle The magpies said Elizabeth is dead now (it’s long ago) Old Tom’s gone light in the head and Quardleoodleardlewardle doodle The magpies said The farms still there. Mortgage corporations couldn’t give it away and Quardleoodleardlewardle doodle The magpies say”.
The difference with the situation my friend was describing was that there were no mortgage corporation or financial difficulties involved, but rather family dissent and squabbling. But that is a side point, I was heading towards a bigger issue. She told me how the experience reminded her of a series on television which projected what would happen to all the edifices, the buildings, the bridges, the monuments, the very roads themselves, produced by our civilisation, if humans suddenly all died out. Without the constant human effort to maintain, for instance, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it would rust, disintegrate, buckle, and eventually bow to the law of gravity, sinking into the ocean it currently arches above. Dust and dirt would cover the roads and seeds would germinate, their roots tearing up the asphalt, until there would be no road to be seen.
The series had been produced prior to 2011, but time was shown to be capable of destroying the Twin Towers just as effectively as any flown planes, if in slower motion. I said I could certainly understand the feeling of sadness, of nostalgia for what once was and was no longer, that she was experiencing, but that there was an important point to be learned from this. She said, what, that everything can revert to Nature again so easily? And yes that is true, but that wasn’t quite what I was getting at, and she clicked… Ahh, everything is so temporary. And so it is. In this world, nothing lasts forever.
I was clearly in a poetic mood so I read her Shelley’s classic Ozymandias:
“I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear —
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.’ Nothing we create will last forever, neither our statues, nor our reputations. And as my friend then noted, neither will the natural features, the mountains themselves wear down.”
Yet I, the living entity within the very temporary mortal body, the atma, am eternal. As such I feel always a contradiction, a disjunction between my natural eternal nature and the temporary environment I find myself in. I develop attachments to people, places and things, just to have them ripped away from me. I identify with the form of my temporary body, and never feel safe or at home because deep down I know it is not going to last. The clock keeps ticking, very slowly, but very surely. I get attached to where the hand of the clock is pointing, and like a vine I grow around its current location, but as the hand moves onwards, ticking another stroke, the fronds I have wrapped around the second hand are ripped off, and I grow more fronds wrapping them around the current situation, the place the second hand is right now, only to have them ripped off again at the next fatal tick.
The experience is continued suffering, like the story of Prometheus who was punished by being bound up, his body liver eaten each day by vultures, then growing back at night, just to experience the same thing again. If this seems extreme, consider the range of suffering we can experience, related to this conflict between our natural desire for eternality, (natural because we ARE eternal, and even if we don’t realise that now, on a deeper level, it is a part of our existence, and the effect of that will always be there. So sometimes the suffering is less intense – we call it nostalgia, a hopeless desire for things past.
I described to my friend a poem on the subject that I could no longer identify or rediscover, in which the poet describes being a child seated under his mother as she played the piano, and the intense nostalgia the memory brings. (If anyone knows this poem, I’d love to find it again, I find myself nostalgic for the poem on the subject of nostalgia… sometimes we like to poke a bruise to see if it still hurts.) And sometimes that suffering is overwhelming, as when a loved one dies, or we ourselves are ripped from our body. We need to know what is true lasting and eternal love. Nostalgia Do you too know the feeling Of years’ impressions peeling back at the sound Of guitar’s riff stealing through cobwebbed sad centres? Or the sight of lad walking Beside mother, talking, Sunshine on blond hair blowing around? Such memories abound.
And the tug is revealing How tightly bound. The cog rolls relentless The flesh grown around rips at each second’s sound Like vulture torn body, Prometheus bound. But fortunately, although we are eternal our bonds are not… We can choose at any time to turn towards the eternal, and develop our attachments in that realm. In that realm there is no second hand, there is no time, there is no dissolution. If we wrap the tender fronds of our attachments around the eternal Supreme, we risk nothing. Time cannot conquer such bonds; instead we are moved into the eternal atmosphere, even while still in our temporary bodies in the temporary world.