Friday, July 16, 2010

educating Crow

Not only has Crow been around longer than any of us but he's also been quite generous in sharing his history with me. I was most surprised when he asked if I'd agree to draw some pictures and write down a story of his to share with you. How could I refuse?

You've always known me as a cultivated corvid, so it's difficult to convey just how much I've matured over the millennia since I was hatched and nursed through fledglinghood by dear Mama and Pater. They taught me as much as they could and sent me to the best schools where I learned a little geography, astronomy, calligraphy and systems theory. It was so long ago there was no such class as history.

There came a day when I grew bored with practicing the Copperplate chicken scratch font I'd been working on for days and I knew if I pulled one more quill to use as a pen, I wouldn't be able to fly for a month. From the window near my desk I could see mountains in the distance where I'd never flown. I remembered having been told a wise old bird was reputed to live in that vicinity so, just for fun, I decided to see if I could find him and see how smart he was.

It took some time to search out his aerie, but when I did I got right to the point and asked him the toughest question I could think of, 'So, old fella, what's the meaning of life?'

'Hmmm', he sighed, 'Are you sure you're prepared for the answer to your question at such a young age?'

'If you know, I think you should get on with telling me, but I'm guessing you don't have a clue', I replied. (Have I mentioned I was a callow and sharp-tongued youngster?)

With a twinkle in his beady eye he said, 'Since you're so sure you're ready, the answer to your question is that the entire world is the supreme reality and your highest Self is the same as God.'



Well, I was pretty cocky back in those days so what he'd said hadn't come as much of a surprise. I was young, healthy, could fly hundreds of miles without resting and was the smartest bloke in my class. So I decided to go out and test the theory.

While flying over the dense jungle near the sage's mountain I spotted an elephant walking purposefully along a narrow path. 'Ahah', I thought, 'Here is the perfect opportunity for me to show just how powerful I am in the world. Once I stop this perambulating pachyderm dead in his tracks everyone will come to me to learn the secret the wise old bird told me for nothing. I might even make some cash out of the deal.'

I made a perfect three point landing a couple of dozen yards ahead of its bulky bearing, and assuming a stance sure to convince him of my powers of persuasion, I opened my wings so the beast would be sure to see as well as hear me when I ordered him to halt. The ground shook beneath my feet as I smelled the warm, dusty scent of a hot monster with places to go.

'Halt!', I cried.

The jungle canopy began dancing to the pounding rhythm of massive feet that drew closer with every second and I heard a voice overhead screaming, 'Get out of the way!'

'Stop!', I shouted as the behemoth drew closer and I stood my ground with firm intent. (I had faith as well as conviction, you see.)

'GET OUT OF THE F*#KING WAY!', shrieked the mysterious voice again. It seemed to be coming from somewhere near the top of Gargantua. Was that a monkey riding the tremendous tusker? Yes! It was!

The elephant kept on coming and I knew it was time to bring all my language skills to bear if I was to arrest his progress. There was simply no way I was going to dive into the shrubbery. 'Cease! Break off! Pause! Pull up! Desist! Cool it!', I bawled.

'MOVE!!!', was the last thing I recall hearing that afternoon. There's a mammoth amount of inertia involved when an elephant lumbers along the path of his own least resistance.

Let it be sufficient to say I got flattened and we'll leave it at that.

Time passed.


Eventually, the splints were removed and so were the sutures. I was able to stay conscious for longer periods and spent much of the time idly staring at the scenery through the corbelled window arches of my room. The anger I'd cherished toward the old sage for telling me lies gradually slipped away, but I still wanted to express my disappointment and looked forward to our next meeting.

On a late afternoon not long after I'd finally been allowed out of bed, I heard a commotion from the hall outside my room; laughter and general chortling, along with the sounds of tinkling glass, led me to limp across the chamber to remind whoever was out there that in here was a recuperating patient requiring peace and quiet. Who should I see but Pater and the old sage chuckling up a storm as they juggled bottles, glasses and a large fruitcake on the other side of my door?

Still guffawing at the memory of whatever had caused their amusement, they came inside wiping their eyes and laid their burdens on a small table. Dad looked at me and snorted on his way out, leaving me flummoxed about his unusual behavior. Meanwhile, the old sage ascended the antique perch near the table and cut a small slice of cake which he held out as an offering.

'Hmpff', I thought to myself, 'Does he think a piece of my favorite dessert will gain my forgiveness of his perfidy?' Nevertheless, as I considered how to best phrase my dismay at his act of treachery toward an innocent young scholar, I took the proffered morsel and chewed (and chewed).

Finally, I gave voice to the question that had been plaguing me since I'd awoken in traction. 'You told me God is everything and I myself am one with God, so what I want to hear is your explanation about why that colossal creature was able to clobber me?'

Fixing me firmly in place with his eagle eye, he placidly replied, 'Oh yes, it's a fact that everything is God. Since that is true, why didn't you listen when God told you to get out of the way?'

I was dumbfounded. It was so simple but I'd managed to misunderstand. While I surveyed the floor in search of the socks I'd had knocked off, my ears pricked up to the distinctive chime of crystal. When I looked his way, the venerable teacher smiled softly and said, 'You're grown enough now to have a snifter of Remy Martin to wash down your fruitcake'.


I hope you've enjoyed the story Crow told when I asked him how he became a connoisseur of fine French brandy.

Monday, April 19, 2010

the voyage

It wasn't like an escape from Tibet through the high Himalayas without a yak but travel from England to North America in the early fifties wasn't without hardship of its own. In March of 1953 we traveled by train to Southhampton where we would board a ship to take us across the Atlantic. As we walked along a huge pier we saw a dozen tugboats towing a giant ship into dock. I don't remember the remarks between my parents as we watched its stately progress but it's a conversation that was recounted many times as I grew up. My mother said, 'How wonderful you found us such a beautiful ship to sail on. I know I won't be afraid in that'. To which my father replied, 'No, that's the Queen Mary and we won't be sailing on her. That's our ship just over to the left of us', and he pointed down at a little Greek liner docked nearby.

I didn't know why she was crying. I was six, a young six even for those times, and I remember standing in the doorway of our living room watching my mother cry as she finished laying out the china that had been sold along with the dining room set and all the other furniture. We were going to Canada because I was too weak to remain in England's damp climate in the post war years what with rationed food and overburdened hospitals - the ones that hadn't been bombed or burned. There were strict limits on how much immigrants could take on the ship so almost everything had to go. Even my dolls. I was allowed one but not my favorite because a neighbor had borrowed one of the others and had sewn and knitted little outfits for him. That was the one who came with us, packed away in a trunk somewhere.

We must have boarded but I have no memory of doing so. Do you remember I mentioned it was March? That's a very nasty time of year to sail the North Atlantic with its high waves, squalls and even storms blowing. The ship was small and not having the stabilizers used on modern cruise liners resulted in me not seeing my mother again until we reached the far shore. Seasickness is a very unpleasant experience. I had my own little cabin but was too ill to get out of my bunk. I have a vague memory of a stewardess bringing me a little bowl of mashed potatoes saying they would help settle my stomach. It must have worked.

Next morning my dad came to get me. He'd been in the navy for more than six years during the war and he loved ships. There was no way he was going to leave me throwing up and moaning with the mighty ocean waiting just along the companionway and up the stairs. He said the sea air would soon set me to rights. Warmly dressed and a little wobbly kneed at first I held his hand as we walked around the outer deck. I was fascinated enough by the gulls, the deck chairs, the life boats hanging near the rails, the ropes, the giant ventilators curving up from the deck and every big and little thing but my father had a destination in mind and urged me along.

He'd been making friends with the captain and the sailors too and had permission (at least I think he did) to take me on a visit to the engine room. We went through a door and down dimly lit long narrow staircases - far, far down. The throbbing noise of the engines grew louder as we went deeper into the ship. Finally we were at the last staircase and below us were dozens of men feeding boilers, turning dials, rushing back and forth as whistles blew, steam vented and bells clanged. It was pretty crazy. Meanwhile, my dad, who'd spent his navy career in just such a place, tried to tell me what everything was and how it all worked in harmony. I knew it was important to him that I understood but I was so completely boggled by the dirt, the dark, the heat and the overwhelming noise that I all I remember now is an impression of what I saw.

The trip lasted nearly eight days and was by far the longest time I'd ever spent alone with my father. Every day he'd take me by their cabin where my mother would give me a weak little wave before collapsing back into her blankets. Most of the other passengers rarely left their cabins to come on deck so my dad and I had the ship to ourselves. We visited the captain and officers on the bridge who were kind enough to let me hold the wheel until I got bored. They let me blow the foghorn too - which was okay because it was foggy that day. The dining room tables were like big trays with shallow wooden borders so your plate wouldn't slide off during heavy weather.

Everyone was supposed to participate in the lifeboat drill but dad and I were the only ones there the afternoon the sailors demonstrated their finesse at launching the things. He reminisced about riding zip lines between ships in waves much higher than these and told me about the naval battles and ships being bombed from the air. He learned how to swim from a ship in the Mediterranean when that sea was so clear you could see a mile down to the bottom. He told me most sailors don't swim because if your ship goes down there's no place to swim to. I had a feeling my mother wouldn't approve of all he told me.

There was one place we loved to go every day and that was to stand at the bow while the ship cut through the waves. Water poured through the scuppers and dad held my hand as we watched the sun set. He told me a little saying familiar to all sailors everywhere, ' They went to sea to see the world but all they saw was the sea'.