As dawn rises over this new day, I am filled with wonder and love for the bedrock of books. Books wise and curious, which draw me in every morning and sometimes allow for a marvelous coincidence to take place, a flame to flicker, as if the authors were hovering nearby, with smiles growing wide, because someone finally got it!
This morning, the light of wisdom was sparked by an accidental discovery in Alan Watts (The Way of Zen) that led me back to a book I just finished rereading yesterday: the obscure, frightening, and yet comforting story called The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. (Hmmm. I suspect Gaiman’s story contains more wisdom than appears at first glance. To do: read it again some day!)
The passage from Alan Watts comes from his explanation of the intermediate stage in a student’s life as he (or she) pursues Zen Buddhist training:
“The continued practice of za-zen now provides the student with a clear, unobstructed mind into which he can toss the koan like a pebble into a pool and simply watch to see what his mind does with it. As he concludes each koan, the roshi [master / teacher] usually requires that he present a verse from the Zenrin Kushu which expresses the point of the koan just solved. Other books are also used, and the late Sokei-an Sasaki, working in the United States, found that an admirable manual for this purpose was Alice in Wonderland.” (The Way of Zen, p. 167).
The passage from Neil Gaiman comes from the climactic scene where the seven-year-old hero is standing in a field as night falls, careful to remain inside a circle in the grass, as voices and shadowy figures taunt him. His friend, Lettie Hempstock, led him into that circle and instructed him to remain there no matter what happens. So he does. But it is so hard.
Here are some key moments from the passage, and the coincidences I heard along the way. Do you hear them too?
I sat down with my back to the dead tree in the center of the fairy ring, and I closed my eyes, and I did not move. I remembered poems to distract myself, recited them silently under my breath, mouthing the words but making no sound.
Fury said to a mouse that he met in the house let us both go to law I will prosecute you… I could say all the poem in one long breath, and I did, all the way to the inevitable end.
I’ll be the judge I’ll be the jury said cunning old Fury I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.*
“You are hungry,” said the voice in the night, and it was no longer Lettie’s voice, not any longer. It might have been the voice inside my own head, but it was speaking aloud. “You are tired. Your family hates you. You have no friends. And Lettie Hempstock, I regret to tell you, is never coming back.”
I wished I could have seen who was talking. If you have something specific and visible to fear, rather than something that could be anything, it is easier.
“Nobody cares,” said the voice, so resigned, so practical. “Now, step out of the circle and come to us. One step is all it will take. Just put one foot across the threshold and we will make all the pain go away forever: the pain you feel now and the pain that is still to come. It will never happen.”
It was not one voice, not any longer. It was two people talking in unison Or a hundred people. I could not tell. So many voices.
“How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. … You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die in there, of hunger and fear. And when you are dead your circle will mean nothing, and we will tear out your heart and take your soul for a keepsake.”
“P’raps it will be like that,” I said, to the darkness and the shadows, “and p’raps it won’t. And p’raps if it is, it would have been like that anyway. I don’t care. I’m still going to wait here for Lettie Hempstock, and she’s going to come back to me.”
There was silence. … I thought over what I’d said, and I knew that it was true. At that moment, for once in my childhood, I was not scared of the dark, and I was perfectly willing to die (as willing as any seven-year-old, certain of his immortality, can be) if I died waiting for Lettie. Because she was my friend.
Time passed. … The moon rose higher. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness. I sang, under my breath, mouthing the words over and over.
[“The Mouse’s Tale” from Alice in Wonderland morphs into a snippet of a song by Gilbert and Sullivan, from Iolanthe]:
You’re a regular wreck with a crick in your neck
And no wonder you snore for your head’s on the floor
And you’ve needles and pins from your sole to your shins
And your flesh is a-creep for your left leg’s asleep
And you’ve cramp in your toes and a fly on your nose
You’ve got fluff in your lung and a feverish tongue
And a thirst that’s intense and a general sense that you haven’t been sleeping in clover…
I sang it to myself, the whole song, all the way through, two or three times, and I was relieved that I remembered the words, even if I did not always understand them.
(from Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane [New York: HarperCollins, 2013], pp. 132-133, 138-140.
* “The Mouse’s Tale” in Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—chapter 3, “A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale”.
The lesson: “I was relieved that I remembered the words, even if I did not always understand them.”