Monday, March 21, 2011

"Follow the Drinking Gourd"

It's always really interested me, from early childhood, that there isn't any such thing as the present. There's the past, and the future. Even before the clock has a chance to tick, the moment has passed. No matter how fine the knife, how quick the hand, you're never going to be able to cut a notch in the river of time and say 'Ana! Here is the present."

As Lewis Carroll put it: "Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today." It's a little dismaying, because either everything is always too late, or hasn't come yet. If there's no present, away flies free will.

A few years ago I was swimming and playing in a very fast moving river. We would walk up the river and ride the current down. I had become too blind to do this any more, but my friends said "Just swim behind us, and you'll be fine." I jumped in, but then they held back, fooling around on the shore, and I was gone. One of them swam behind me, yelling a very sharp "Look out!" Right. I'm in the jaws of the river - there's no choice now. The river doesn't permit of free will.

I lived, obviously.

On the other hand, maybe equally disturbing, there may not be any past or future. Just the eternal Now. In that case the rueful humour of "Jam yesterday etc" somewhat grows in its tragic proportions, and becomes "Jam never." If it's not there now, it's academic at best. It's in that eternal now that mystics and visionaries claim to find their home, calling it maybe samadhi. Indeed, if there's no future, how can you ever be afraid? And if there's no past, how can there ever be sorrow? Yet we are all sad sometimes, all afraid sometimes.

Preparing to write this, I drew the card Strength. On the Tree of Life Strength, properly called Teth, is the path joining four, the number of preservation, and five, the number of destruction. It is the balance between the somewhat annihilating idea of no past, no future, only the rushing river, and the huge timlessness that is its alternative. As is always the case with the polarities the human mind throws up, neither is true. We require binary systems to think (hence our love affair with the computer) but they are constructs of our mind. Between them is the dynamic tension of Strength.

To truly stand between the polarities is very difficult. Physically it can create nausea, vertigo, sometimes intense anger or sorrow. But when you are able to hold it, even for a moment, you can see the caste, roof shining in the spring sun, flags bearing golden lions flying in the laughing wind. You can only see it when you quit trying to get to it, because every time you try the jaws of death open behind you, and while you may not dare to look, you can hear their creak as they approach.

For some reason, though it's hard to see its relevance here, I'm struck by the words of a song. When slaves were trying to escape north they were instructed to follow the Big Dipper. Sometimes called "The Chariot" (swing low, sweet chariot" and sometimes the Drinking Gourd.

"Follow the Drinking Gourd
Follow the Drinking Gourd
There's a Chariot a-waitin' to carry us to freedom
Follow the Drinking Gourd."

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