I’m sitting in our crawl space under the steeply pitched roof, on the floor in the vee of the rafters. The space is about 8′ wide, at the centre under the ridge board, I can just stand. We live in a duplex and so only half the roof is our space. Relaxing against a plastic bag filled with some stored clothing, I am admiring a frame for shelves just installed in Anne’s half of the space where once we get shelves for the frame will store her photo albums. She has spent the last six months of Covid lockdown sorting through her pre-digital camera photos. She now has albums dedicated to various trips she took with her mom, albums of her family going back generations, an album for her sister, her son, the family cottage, her friends. On this shelf in the crawl space under the roof will be her life in pictures. The stories of her life are in her memory, her telling about this aunt or that as we look at the pictures.
I’m looking at images with her of people who I see enjoying life but who are now dead. They graduated. They made it through death and know in some place where they are, if in scattered molecules throughout the stardust of the universe.
We living humans have lots of accounts of what the moment of our last breath passing will be, accounts we imagine and attribute to wise people or divine revelation. The curious thing about the writing down of divine revelation is that it looks very human, not that that’s without value and beauty to be admired. Take the opening chapter of the Hebrew Torah, Christian Old Testament, also referred to in the Quaran that describes the creation of the world. Certainly not an eyewitness account but an inspiration of divine revelation. One of the peculiarities of the divine wisdom relaying how all this began is that in the chronological steps to the inception of creation is that light appears well before the sun does. Now various rebbes and other minds making sense of this have come up with notions such as the first light referred to is not the light we see by, but a primordial light. Alternatively, we can see this divine unfolding has a human perspective. If we were to go down to the shoreline and look over the sea first thing in the morning, as perhaps the recorder of the divine inspiration might have done often, we and our ancient forebear would sitting in the darkness first notice the sky brighten. Much later we would observe the sun appear in the sky. We know the light comes from the sun just below the curvature of the earth, but our forebear didn’t. Our forebear saw light, and something then quite distinct, saw the sun.
We have no idea what becomes of us once dead. But we live in our imagination. We imagine all kinds of possibilities. That is our humanity.
The imagination of human beings is what leads humanity its greatest achievements to understand our own existence, how the body works, how the composition of ground and air and light and water becomes drugs to eradicated disease, palaces and towers, bridges and jet planes. The human imagination comes up with gas chambers to annihilate other humans, and efficient weapons of war and political machinations to acquire great wealth and power, convincingly stealing it from other human beings.
At some point for all of us humanitarian and despot, our imagination brings us to our end, the end of life. In the Egyptian and Celts and many other peoples, humans did take their life with them past the grave. Some along with food and furniture even has servants accompany them in their grave to be available on the other side.
Well, a lot of humans end life thrown into a mass grave. Millions of humans have had that end. I guess it seems to us that by that point, death, it’s all over.
So sitting on the floor of the crawl space I’m doing what a lot of older people like me do. One, I’m taking a break because I just don’t have the energy I once had. Two, I’m trying to sort out the meaning of my life. Three, I’m being exhibiting creative rationalization to keep myself sane, give myself reason to keep going on.
I’m wondering what my dreams are now. What are my dreams those little offspring, like dreams, that are born out of the hidden working of the imagination.
I’ve had a dream for the crawl space to remove the unused, 19th century chimney that wastes a lot of space. And change the roof to a flat roof so that the crawl becomes a large room on the third floor, with a nice window for a sun room on the south side, and on top of the roof, solar panels. All the storage in the crawl could go into a dug out basement under the kitchen that at the moment doesn’t exist, but could, and does in my dreams.
I’m sitting there thinking what I nice idea but even with the resources to pay for it, it would take 18 months or more and we’d be in chaos all that time. And then how long would we be able to live in this house of steep narrow staircases. Actually how long do we have to live. The increasing likelihood of death as we age makes dying tomorrow or in the year or a couple of years and if we win the lottery of good health, I could have another twenty, but I know those twenty years aren’t going to be dynamic living. Even now I’m taking a needed break to restore my vitality. It’s only going to get worse. I’m in excellent health right now.
The dream of a nicer house doesn’t inspire me. My thoughts are to finding the pleasure in what I have, not in what I don’t have. Sitting on the floor I’m looking up at yesterday and this morning’s work. I made a frame out of 2×3 lumbers that I disassembled from another project. It’s spruce and about the cheapest lumber one can buy. The shelves are 5’high and 4′ wide. I pocket holed shorter pieces to make up the lengths I needed. I then assembled them all into a solid frame. I love using pocket holes. I have a satisfying out breath each time a screw pulls two boards together, locking them tight and square.
I’m thinking with my overworked rationalizing brain how it doesn’t matter that I have made something out of cheap warping spruce instead of walnut, for example, a nice walnut and maple side table with mortise and tenon joinery and a silky oiled finish. Hey, i sanded my spruce boards to 180 grit. They feel nice and smooth. Now, I’m starting to defend myself!
Nothing matters but the present. If I can find pleasure from what is in front of me, be content bending down to walk into the crawl rather than wishing I was entering a nice third floor gallery space and sun room, then pleasure is mine. If I was young I would have time to take my pleasure from dreams I’d made real.
It didn’t happen in my youth mind you. I had lots of dreams, but none of them came to anything, which is why I’m really good at rationalization. And as with other great bearers of rationalization from martyrs on down, one shifts focus from ambition in the material world, the world recognizing achievement and success, and one turns to the spiritual world. Some do. Others fight it, get out there and advocate for change, for rights, for a new order. I am so grateful to them, applaud them, but I am not one of them, yes wishing as they wish, but am not a knock em down fighter. Too sensitive. Instead I and I am not alone, look to the chthonic, the ground beneath the surface, the imagination of poetry which comprises, dreaming and myth, fiction and verse, drawing and dancing, acting and singing.
The imagination for some is the building of rooms, and it is a good work, a creative work that inspires with beauty and order. The imagination for others is in the hesitant wave of a hand, a balloon rising in the wind, a bit of colour caught by the sun, a wind bending a tree back and forth that isn’t the thing itself but something else, something we feel about ourself, stirring in the ground of our being, and in that is a beauty.
As an older man, looking back over a life of little accomplishment, I know that the searching I did, the longing I had, the lifetime of working hard, trusting others to be let down, eventually leaving my wasteland of a life, at age 58 one summer morning in a campground, looking in the mirror of the washhouse, that there in that reflection of a face I’d seen everyday, that on that day I was looking at a man who had just been freed from prison. And I felt a beauty in that moment, and a new beauty in the wasteland, a gratefulness for the wandering and struggling and loneliness of purpose, the missing out, for I felt alive for having lived, and I missed out nothing of life and felt the words later given me by a mentor, Freeman Patterson: “you living ‘in God.’ It cannot be otherwise. Endeavor to relax into this reality, into being part of all that is, and the incredible mystery that accompanies it. You are the person for whom you have always been waiting.”
I’m sitting in front of my seemingly pathetic spruce frame screwed to the studs. And I am grateful, that I have done something, found beauty, not because the thing is laudable, but because I am alive, and find beauty in breath, in belonging in life along with the spruce boards and the rain on the roof, and the sun coming each day over the horizon warming my body, sinking each night in a glow of promise. People pictured in Anne’s photos of her family had their time, led their lives. The neighbours over the fence are living a life, and the neighbours across the street. We are all living with each other this life. And the life is a brief time. Seeing them as they are, not wishing them different, listening to them, being interested in them, not in dreams of winning something I don’t have, but relaxing into the peculiarity of life, listening to what life will tell me about itself, is my delight. Not desperate for the sun room, but running my hand over the smoothly sanded spruce, glad to be here and feel the surface of the spruce under my finger and say, as was said on each day of creation, and it is very good.
I come to this after a life time, with the end of life looming. Some know this when they are young. Another mentor, James Roose-Evans, writes a blog, a short one now that he is well into his nineties. In the last post he quotes from a book by Patrick Woodhouse the words of young Etty Hillesum, for at 29 she was gassed to death in Auschwitz. As James says, she wasn’t religious, never saw a rabbi or went to a synagogue but she understood at her age what I took a lifetime to find. Her insight in her words is about “not thinking but listening to what is going on inside you. If you do that for a while every morning you acquire a kind of calm that illumines the whole day. I listen all day to what is inside me, and even when I am with others I am able to draw strength from the most deeply hidden source in myself. there is really a deep well inside me and in it dwells God. God is our greatest and most continuous adventure.”
I must read the book to know, but I’m guessing she held to this, so convinced in her insight into life, as she she was carried along in the press of the other grey, gaunt, bony bodies, all of them like her body, carried along into the showers at Auschwitz that were her death. She knew a profound sense of life even as life was stolen from her.
Another of my mentors, Thomas Moore, quotes his colleague and friend, psychologist James Hillman, author for one of The Dream and the Underworld, who Moore says Hillman’s most startling observation of soul among many deep thoughts about soul, is that soul leads us into unconsciousness, and that for our own benefit.
That is to see our way and our longing not for the things of this life, but how the things of this life open the door, make a crack in the veneer or what is and reveals, a longing that is deep within, a love within, a beauty for the breath we breath, in and out, in and out, and giving up ourselves to that breath, allowing ourselves to breath, relax into what is, in our imagination, our great adventure. Hand in hand with our life.
James Roose-Evans http://jamesrooseevans.co.uk
Moore, Thomas. Original Self. Harper Collins, 2000. p90.