12 Feb There Was a Child Went Forth
With apologies and thanks to Walt Whitman for the title lifted, a brief ode—first published in Inspiration-Letters—to the now faded, sun-filled days of childhood, and the eternal summer of meditation, where the inner child, bathed in a sunshine that will never fade, eternally plays.
My childhood was idyllic for the most part. I grew up in an outer suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, city in name but near rural in nature, farmland on one side, motorways and city the other, green and blue, sun all around. I do not have unhappy childhood memories—perhaps in this day and age I am a little unusual in that. Mine was a simple upbringing, an only child of a solo-parent, little money but also little need, and other than at times being lonely I was usually happily self-occupied, and satisfied. Reading, writing, art and sport passed my time; outings to friends houses and return visits planned as frequently as parents would allow.
Not entirely appreciated at the time—such ingratitude is the human way—this childhood now looms like a golden age against that which followed, a purple mountain majesty receding across the horizon of a sea that no longer shines.
My trauma of heart is trivial compared to many, but the first of something is always the hardest to endure, and shifting house and country for the first time was for me just like a first broken heart—a rawness of pain and despair that, in the manner a burn causes a scar, in some ways never fully heals. At age eleven, with almost no warning and no small augury, my mother uprooted our tiny family unit for overseas, tore me out of the nurturing soil of the only home I had ever known, completely against my will. Friends had names and faces that could not be replaced, and like a timber native to a particular soil and land, I simply could not imagine taking root anywhere else, could not accept that love, like the sun, might shine upon every land.
Not that I was really consulted—one doesn’t pause to barter, discuss the terms of God’s offer or will. In answer to my mother’s prayers, destiny was delivered one mid-winter evening, fate sealed by a thin, rain-soaked envelope, placed in our letterbox as if by Providence Himself. Unaddressed, no writing inside, there was an untraceable, slightly sodden $8000 bank cheque within.
The only home I had ever known, surrounded by the only friends and city ever loved, were suddenly to be no more. Already possessing sufficient measure, this cheque gave my mother the means to be a missionary for a year, in voluntary service of an international Christian organisation. I would be placed in involuntary servitude, sent to Canada and the father I had never known.
I remember well a living room conversation not long before the hammer of destiny fell. A friend of my mother paid a visit for tea and talking, of matters presumably beyond my junior years. Not a part of the conversation and not even in the same room, I remember somehow the grasped fragment, “When the time is right, one door will close and another open, in answer to your prayers.” An $8,000 door did open soon afterwards, and the all-reaching, all-guiding hand of fate was framed within. First gained at this early age, the intuitive knowledge that I was not fully in control of my destiny would stay with me for years.
As has been the case so many times in my life, I did not willingly greet nor reach for the beckoning hand of fate, did not walk of my own volition across the threshold of destiny’s door. Just as many years later, when I became a student of spirituality, life conspired to choose the path I would follow, without signature or consent, a fait accompli served as if dinner upon prison cell plate.
Superiority to fate
Is difficult to learn.
‘T is not conferred by any,
But possible to earn
A pittance at a time,
Until, to her surprise,
The soul with strict economy
Subsists till Paradise.”
* * *
To say that my father and I hit it off immediately would not exactly be correct. Although at heart a good, kind man, he was, perhaps from the example of his own father, acutely uncomfortable in expressing his feelings or love—something of a shock for a child accustomed to a mother’s love and warmth. Years of being told how much my father loved me were never confirmed in person, shown neither in word nor deed.
Although by no means Dickensian, things were hardly easier at school. Technically the same age as my peers, I was younger physically and emotionally by at least several years. I felt inwardly, stood outwardly an inch smaller, and culturally, with my strange, hard-to-place accent and shabby, out of date clothes, I was not even on the same page. The schoolyard affairs in which I was an expert—sport and games—were now all hopelessly immature, sidelined by the new, unfamiliar playing fields of sophistication, romance and fashion. Being academically successful was also derided. Where in New Zealand being the best with words or numbers had been sought after, and a point of pride, I now found myself first in everything, yet nobody’s friend.
I remember being shocked every time some schoolyard disagreement would come to blows, schoolmates literally running to form a circle around the protagonists, chant “fight, fight, fight” with more bloodlust and passion than those actually blooding noses. Perhaps I was from a world more innocent than most, perhaps my little corner of New Zealand more Garden of Eden than Mitonian paradise lost, but in the face of this not so brave new world I was nothing but unworldly, and hopelessly ill-equipped.
Neither entirely at home in my new home or school, I made much of my glass being half-empty, although such was hidden stoically from family and classmates. At times drowning in self-pity, I swam quietly in a sea of never admitted home-sickness, lost in remorse for what could no longer be. If this dislocation, alienation in a foreign land was bitter medicine administered for my own benefit, it would be years before I had heart or wisdom to recognise it, for like a butterfly in a cocoon, I had not wings to fly beyond the happiness of an only known home.
Stay near me–do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!
Much converse do I find in thee,
Historian of my infancy!
Float near me; do not yet depart!
Dead times revive in thee:
Thou bring’st, gay creature as thou art!
A solemn image to my heart,
My father’s family!”
—William Wordsworth, Excerpt from To a Butterfly
I had always been a city boy, and after living in Canada, would be once more again, but for one brief year I lived in the country, in an old farmhouse surrounded by farms, on the outer edge of a town not at all big. I would leave our property and roam when it all got too much, discover a new tree to climb, or lie atop a giant bail of hay, ponder, bemoan my fate to empty fields of sun-gold wheat. Walking as far as I could, to the edge of homes and other lives to which I could not escape, I would hope against hope that paradise might be found somewhere unexplored, like the lost city of Atlantis, a golden age of the past to be rediscovered beneath the waves.
Yet those times alone in nature were like early moments of meditation. On my back, doing no more than watching clouds drift unhindered overhead, my self-pity, mourning for happiness lost would be scattered by the wind, dissolve into the nothingness of an infinite blue sky.
That such comparatively small dramas caused so much misery and angst may seem looking back absurd, but one should not be too harsh a critic of childhood self, still without the tools or means to influence, shape his own fate. And I was yet to realise that such tools were, even then, within grasp of flailing hands.
Soon after I began my year’s sojourn with my father he became a vegetarian. Meat was banished from the table in his presence, and semi-vegetarianism became my unwelcome lot. Junk food too gained a meaning broader than of any dictionary I would look up: hot dogs, served once a week at school, were banned because of “carcinogens;” McDonalds was too salty, white bread too unhealthy, soft drinks and chocolate bars the same. Already without much missed family and friends, it was as if the ingredients of life had all sweetness and taste removed, and the missing flavour of the food I was forced to eat—tofu, guacamole, chickpeas and tabouli—absolute horrors all to this child’s palette—further compounded the blandness of the world I was forced to consume.
I didn’t discover until years later that my father had become a vegetarian in order to join an Indian spiritual group, and he had given up smoking and alcohol as well. I do recall strange, new books appearing, with metaphysical titles and authors unpronounceable, but, judging a book more by the man reading it than cover, I was more than suspicious of each and every page.
Fate may at times be cruel, but destiny is more kindly—a mistress with a sense of humour, prone to poetic flourish and cosmic joke. Who but she could have known that in less than a decade I would have read all the books upon my father’s shelf, and be vegetarian as well.
* * *
The end of my year in Canada came with a trip to England, to join my mother for a month of holiday and summer before returning to New Zealand and school. Getting on the plane for London was my own flight across the Red Sea. No pharaoh or tyrant was my father, but all I had dreamed of that year was the day I would pass over the Atlantic, escape from unwilling bondage in a foreign land. And after the snow and ice of Canada, my mother’s warm heart and an English summer really were promised lands.
I spent most of that month in the West Midlands, in an old reform school for wayward youth transformed into headquarters and home for wayfarers to God, centre of operations for the international Christian organisation my mother had dedicated her year to. Idyllically nestled amongst sheep and castles outside the town of Oswestry, birthplace of Wilfred Owen and bordering Wales, I did not find a great deal of Christianity in the traditional sense—in fact I do not recall once going to church. But I do remember meeting people for the first time who had been truly touched by God—you could feel it quietly, like a silent, hidden strength within, or slowly radiating love. There was a brotherly, sisterly oneness: single, married, young and old—all were demonstrably part of the same family.
I still remember clearly a man well into his seventies, enthusing unbidden about the goodness and greatness of God, on the shore of a Welsh lake. He would point to rocks, pebbles, the water and slowly rippling waves as if carried away in private rapture, lost in contemplation at the beauty of what he saw. Many would have called him mad, or more kindly eccentric. I now call him sane.
There were miracles too, talk of the kind of coincidences that seekers of all religions claim as happenstance and everyday, once feet are planted firmly upon chosen path. Talk of prayers being answered, oft-mentioned doors opening and closing, as if by hidden hand; even a photograph of Jesus, arms outstretched, divine protector amidst lightening and clouds, picture taken through the window of a plane caught in a tumultuous storm.
I was touched by God in England. The touch wasn’t anything concrete, did not come in words or angels singing, but I felt a new, compelling inspiration to do something with my life, to have a purpose and somehow be of service. I fell in love with England that summer, and upon returning to New Zealand never felt at home again. I had craved New Zealand every one of three hundred and sixty-five days away, almost held my breath until returning, but when I did everything was different. Like a square peg into a round hole, my memories no longer slotted into the reality of the present. My childhood was gone, and I would never be the same again.
You can see the summit but you cant reach it
Its the last piece of the puzzle but you just cant make it fit
Doctor says youre cured but you still feel the pain
Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drain
—Howard Jones, Excerpt from No one is to blame
* * *
Back at the same school I had left, old friends were more or less as worldly, as mature as my Canadian peers across the waves, and all seemed to be adrift, seemingly without misgiving or regret, in a grey mist between childhood and adulthood, where innocence or simplicity can never navigate again.
As months and years passed, the calling I had felt in England, as those Christian missionaries would have called it, was still there, but it had no outlet, or discernible place to claim as home. Several churches were tried, but without success—I would sooner or later flee the stilted atmosphere so unlike that experienced in England. I found the people dull, as if atrophied, and without love.
Yet the calling would always be there, to a greater or lesser extent, the burning fire of inspiration to be and do. I can remember it arising most powerfully to television images of Gorbachev and Perestroika, the end of the Cold War and dismantling of Iron Curtain; also when watching the Olympics or listening to music.
I remember a vivid dream not long after I returned to New Zealand, of a most beautiful young woman who took me to house where many people were meeting, and above the head of each a small, shining speck of light. The woman, whom I instantly felt a deep, wordless love for, explained this point of light as the soul. Her name may well have been Destiny, for that was what I found upon joining Sri Chinmoy’s path.
There would be another seven long hard years before I discovered meditation, two more until I became a student of Sri Chinmoy, and childhood joy in my heart was born again. From this distant vantage of surmounted wisdom and knowledge, it seems as though I was unerringly, inexorably drawn towards my present point, as if all along I was riding the tale of a giant snake named Destiny, whose head had already reached where I stand today.
From the time when I was torn from New Zealand until when I learned, through meditation, to seek happiness within, it was as though I was in a race to get somewhere, and all the major events of my life, consciously unplanned, mostly unexpected, were hurdles to cross on the way. Now they are like barriers to prevent me ever turning back.
Because you are a born-heart, My child,
I tell you for sure,
No, not even the greatest doubter
Can blight you.
Because you are a child-heart, My child,
I tell you for sure,
No, not even the worst possible rogue
Can spoil you.
Because you are a oneness-heart, My child,
I tell you for sure,
No, not even the most powerful
Can divide you.
A born-heart, a child-heart
And a oneness-heart
Are unparalleled treasures
Here on earth.
—Sri Chinmoy, 10 October 1980, Excerpt from Aurora-Flora