The Rhyme of Life
This January morning the world greets me with misty fog, and moist crispness refreshes the whole of nature in its beauty. Outside, a deer fawn strides cautiously on the lawn ten meters from my gaze. I can see no mother deer. No father deer. No brothers or sisters. She is grazing, this fawn, amid a scene of soft browns and grays and muted greens, two patches of white accent her gray coat. She feasts on grass and leaves, oblivious to time and weather, alone and yet serene. Her head turns to distant voices and she is still. For minutes she is still, poised to move. And then, she is gone.
For me, it’s a morning for reading, and I’m immersed in Bruce Chatwin’s novel The Songlines, a potpourri of philosophical and anthropological ruminations braided through encounters with Aboriginals in Central Australia. Bruce, the narrator, explores human migration, parallel with his search for the etiology of his own restlessness.
Towards the end of the book, Bruce is in the London library researching animal migration, when he comes upon “the most spectacular of bird migrations: the flight of the Arctic tern, a bird which nests in the tundra; winters in Antarctic waters, and then flies back to the north.” He steps out into the street and, seeing a beggar rebuffed by a rich man, offers to buy the tramp lunch in exchange for the man’s travel stories. After two generous helpings of steak, the tramp tells his life story, and then as they part, the tramp says with great seriousness: “It’s like the tides was pulling you along the highway. I’m like the Arctic tern, guv’nor. That’s a bird. A beautiful white bird what flies from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again.”
My library copy of The Songlines seems barely used; no dog-ears or stains or underlining. Its spine is surprisingly stiff. A visit to my local library (the supervisor tells me she loved the book), reveals that my copy, in the past three years, had been borrowed thirty-two times and renewed twice. For a city the size of Victoria, it’s a fair amount of interest for a novel published over a quarter-century ago. Then stopped at a red light, I see across the upper part of the facade of a six-story office building to my right, a large sign with the name of one of the tenants in big black capital letters: “Chatwin Engineering.”
Synchronicity is what the Swiss psychologist, Cart Gustav Jung called simultaneous events linked together in a meaningful manner “where something other than the probability of chance is involved.” In Synchronicity, an Acausal Connecting Principle, Jung tells the story of a young woman patient who had been psychologically inaccessible. She always knew better about everything, with her “Cartesian rationalism” approach to reality. Jung had tried unsuccessfully to sweeten her rationalism with a more human understanding, but he’d been left only with the hope that “something unexpected and irrational would turn up.” In one of their sessions, she related an impressive dream she had had the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab, an expensive piece of jewellery. While she was telling Jung this dream, Jung heard a gentle tapping and turned to see a large flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. He opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was a “scarabaeid beetle, whose gold-green colour most nearly resembles that of the golden scarab.” Jung handed the beetle to his patient, saying “Here is your scarab.” This meaningful coincidence, writes Jung, “punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. “The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.”
For years, I’d been fascinated by that extraordinary ancient creature, the chameleon, perhaps a nostalgic image from walkabouts I might have had as a child in the Negev desert. In 1999, well into my forties now, I’d left my job in Vancouver, sold the house and the furniture and the car, gave away the rest, and set out on a quest to visit small communities where people lived in harmony with nature. In two years I’d managed to visit over sixty of these ecovillages, on four continents, and even discovered several places I would have been proud to call home. But while finding utopia was easier than you’d expect, living in utopia turned out to be as elusive in reality as it had been attractive in imagination.
My chameleon encounter happened in November, 2000, when I’d been a volunteer with the month-long olive harvest on a kibbutz. The four of us were given long, thin, bare branches to whack the trees and shake loose the olives to the ground. One day, I’d been whacking olive trees under the hot sun when I noticed a chameleon on one of the branches. As I watched curiously, the green-skinned chameleon descended from a leafy olive branch to the ground, transforming itself into a tawny-skinned stick with a lizard-head. With eyes capable of rotating 180°, independent of each other, chameleons seem to float through space and time like tai chi chuan practitioners, sometimes upside down, grasping a branch with four two-pronged prehensile feet. We know them best for their natural camouflage, changing skin tone to match the colour of their surroundings.
That same afternoon, while walking on a path to the kibbutz dining room, I’d come across another chameleon almost under my feet. Again, I paused for a few minutes to admire the creature’s slow and deliberate ambulation.
Before I’d set off on my round-the-world quest, probably in February, 1998, I’d become interested in learning Italian, that musical language of bicecletta, farfale, and arcobaleno (bicycle, butterfly, rainbow). Strolling down Robson Street one sunny afternoon, I bought a copy of Il Piccolo Principe, to help with my Italian. But after the first phrase, which translates to “Once when I was six years old,” the rest of it was like Greek. So I picked up The Little Prince in English, and now, having read the book in English, I was intrigued by its author, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and I read several books by and about this French writer and pilot, lost with his plane while flying a reconnaissance flight over the Balkans in 1944.
Italianissimo had not been the only topic occupying my time in those days. I’d also been consumed by the study of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. Curious to find follow-up to Abraham Maslow’s work (Maslow had died in 1973), I finally found one research study by Michael Piechowski, published in the Genetic Psychology Monographs in 1982. Piechowski’s paper, 58 pages of small print supplemented by charts, lists, and over a hundred research sources, is an assessment of the biographical character traits of two famous “self-actualizers.” Piechowski concludes the first of these self-actualizers, Eleanor Roosevelt, had been a non-transcendent self-actualizer (a “doer”), while the second had been a transcendent self-actualizer (a “seer”). This second personality was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
You could say I’d had a peripatetic upbringing. Not because one of my parents had been a pilot, or a diplomat. We moved around because my parents were unsettled; in personality, as a couple, and how they fit with people and place. We moved around where we were based, and we moved from Israel to Canada and back more than once. I must have learned to accept life on the move, but I remember the painful realization growing up that my parents were dysfunctional together, like oil and water. It was on my fifteenth birthday that my father left us for the last time. That day I was so sick I was sure I was going to die from cholera. As I lay in bed worrying about death, my father came to say goodbye to his firstborn. Years later, I remember the prickly sensation that came along with knowing I couldn’t say that I loved my mother and father. Until shortly before their deaths, my feeling towards my parents had been a blend of ambivalence with a tinge of contempt.
Much later, in July of 2000, we convened for a small family reunion at my father’s house in Toronto. Joe and Judy had been separated for thirty years, and Judy had not been invited. Over the years, Joe had tried to reconnect with his offspring, with varying degrees of success. Most recently, he and I miraculously found some common ground. We had arrived at a calm rapport, like two retired pugilists who’d given up the boxing gloves and resolved to respect each other’s differences. In the desert of differences we even found a few oases of shared interest.
In my father’s chest then beat the heart of a young man. Transplanted half a decade before, it had, in Joe’s own words, given him the best years of his life. From the skeleton-like door of death, he’d been resurrected as his pudgy corporeal self. Now, as my brother recorded him on video, Joe reminisced about his early years in Israel and later labor battles he’d fought as plant chairman with the Canadian Auto Workers Union. And as if playing a role in a film, he entertained us with old Jewish tales and jokes that would perhaps have hit with more punch had they been told in the original Yiddish instead of being punctuated by the occasional full-belly laugh that more than once almost choked the air out of him.
I stayed for a few days, and then on the day of my flight to Vancouver, Joe had awoken with a strange pain in his left arm. He was taken to hospital, where doctors assured us the problem was not serious. In my seat on Air Canada, five minutes before takeoff, a flight attendant told me coolly there was a telephone call for me at the gate. On the line was my youngest brother, and I found out Joe had died at the hospital, from complications due to heart failure.
This was still my wandering time. I went to a workshop in California, attended a conference in Virginia, visited The Farm in Tennessee, and Serius Ecovillage in Massachusetts. Spent a week helping with the annual clean-up at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, and flew off to another program at Findhorn, in Scotland. Much of the northern winter that year I lived in the New Zealand summer. There I volunteered with the Tararu Valley Sanctuary and Land Trust, where I met young Sarah (from Victoria, B.C.), whose job it was to look after the dozens of stoat traps laid out along the hundreds of kilometers of trails. Stoats are slender-bodied carnivores, from the mustelid (weasel) family; voracious vermin introduced in New Zealand in the late 19th century to control the rabbit population, which itself had been brought to New Zealand earlier that century for sportsmen to hunt and to remind the British colonizers of home. Unfortunately for the kiwis, stoats feast on kiwi eggs and decimate the kiwi chick population. I’d been told only five percent of all kiwi eggs survive to hatch.
That spring, like a migrating bird, I was back in Vancouver, determined to treat my mother with the love and respect she had always deserved, something I’d been withholding since my voice had changed. She’d recently lost her only companion, Hamlet, the yellow lab guide dog who hadn’t left her side for ten years, to lung cancer. And she’d experienced unexplained blackouts and episodes of collapse. We walked in Jericho Beach Park, my mother with her portable oxygen unit and white cane, smoking a cigarette. We took the ferry to Granville Island, rode the bus around town, and I treated her to her favourite fish and chips meal in English Bay.
Meanwhile, I’d made plans to spend six months in California at a retreat centre, volunteering in the gift shop while taking a therapeutic massage training course. The night before my 24-hour bus ride to California, my friend Shelley joined us for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant in Kitsilano. My mother did her best to impress Shelley with tales of me as a child in Israel, with a hint of pride and more than a little relish. I asked her if she recalled me ever fibbing my way out of blame for my occasional mischievous misadventures. She thought not.
Early the next morning, I’d boarded the Greyhound with backpack in hand, Canadian flag bright red and white on blue canvas. At the Peace Arch border crossing, I answered questions with what I had realized later was probably more candor than necessary. Suddenly, an international crossing at the longest peaceful border in the world, one I’d made nonchalantly a dozen times before, turned into an episode Kafka would have been proud to report. You need to have a visa to work in the US, the man in the dark uniform, gun holstered at hip, had told me. “But I’m actually paying them to take the course. I’m a volunteer,” I pleaded. It didn’t matter. “Entry to the US denied.”
Shelley came to get me and back in Vancouver I found out my mother had died in the night, alone in her bed, probably from a stroke or a heart attack.
In The Songlines, Bruce is introduced to the titular Aboriginal creation myth by his friend Arkady. Unlike the creation myth in Genesis, Aboriginal ancestors created themselves from clay in the Dreaming time. There are hundreds of thousands of ancestors, one for each species. Each scattered a trail of words and musical notes along these Dreaming-tracks – the Songlines, which became “both map and direction-finder. If you knew the song, you could always find your way.”
In those moments when synchronicity pays me a visit, I am awed, as though I’d been sent a special message from the Gods. Being present for the deaths of my father and my mother forced me to look again at my heritage, and to respect the values I hadn’t appreciated until later as ones I’d adopted from them by osmosis. Or maybe I’d been rewarded for my resolve (better late than not at all) to accept and love them as they lived. And the chameleon encounters could simply be saying my survival method of adapting and changing to match my environment is completely appropriate. The Songlines reminds me of my affinity with the desert, with nomads, and with indigenous peoples. And Maslow and Antoine de Saint Exupéry intersected in my life to validate my own search for truth.
More than anything, though, I realize that even an unsettled fool sings his landscape. There are moments when I catch the rhyme in my life, or should I say when the rhyme catches me, and in those moments I know that even as I walk alone on this alien planet, I am never lonely.
Outside my window, mid-morning sun glistens on maroon and orange and auburn apple trees as songbirds fill the air with melody, joyfully announcing their spring return. I watch and listen quietly, doing nothing, as the grass grows by itself. Sunny dandelions hold their heads up high, and I see a fawn has arrived to graze. Soon there are two of them, munching on succulent leaves. Perhaps they are brother and sister. A minute passes and a doe joins the young ones. And then a young buck arrives. Suddenly they all turn their heads towards the street, and in an instant they scamper up the hill and are gone.