To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand,
And Eternity in an Hour.
– William Blake: Auguries of Innocence.
I read blogs and articles and books which provide lots of information, yet there is always a little niggling thought lurking in the back of my mind: What does this have to do with my life? Here? Now? Objectively, I know it all does effect me, but it seems to be at arm’s length, almost abstract and I’ll always feel this way until I am personally the person unemployed, foreclosed, wounded, PTSD’d, imprisoned, etc. On the other hand, the biggest thing on my mind on a given day might be juggling work and two doctors’ appointments, which are important to me but register only a shrug to the other seven billion people on the planet.
Life is full of changes, some public, some private.
There is a middle ground between the public and the private, a way to personalize the general and generalize the personal.
As I think and write, I try, with varying degrees of success, to achieve the required sense of perspective, to remain aware that in the final analysis we are each insignificant but at the same time so is everything else. It is our participation that gives meaning to our world. (If that seems an arbitrary judgment on my part, sobeit. Who’s writing this anyway?). We seldom have that perspective consciously and rarely “see the World in a Grain of Sand” because we’re too busy getting that damn sand out of our shoe so we can keep walking, usually aimlessly.
When I was four years old, I was sent to a pre-school – they called it ‘nursery school’ in those days. Every morning I set out, walking about 3/4 mile. It says a good deal about changing times that no one thought it inappropriate to send a 4-year-old off by himself and expect him to get to school and back, crossing the highway and avoiding vehicles. One morning, as I made my way up the unpaved street toward school, I spotted an unusual insect in middle of the road.
I remember squatting down to watch as it was attacked by a bunch of ants. (It also says a lot about the times that I wasn’t run over or yelled at by a passing driver). Eventually the ants won or the bug escaped or my interest waned and I went on my way, only to discover the teacher quite upset. When I hadn’t arrived at the expected time, she called my home. My grandmother said I’d left as usual and promptly called my mother at her office. I got to school just as they were about to launch a search-and-rescue party. I naturally caught hell from my mother. I could vaguely understand why she might have been upset, but since I’d always been a pretty independent cuss and too naive to be afraid of anything (Hey, I was only four!), I rather resented her lack of confidence in me. The only person who seemed to understand at all was granny. She understood little boys and she understood that the middle of the road was as good a place as any to “see the World in a Grain of Sand”. Looking back, I pity anyone who hasn’t done something like that, because it means they never had a real childhood, never experienced the world directly instead of through the medium of the media, filtered through adult [mis]perceptions. Children, particularly pre-school children, are human in a way that is lost as they grow up, simply because culture imposes an artificial, arbitrary and often questionable designation of importance or unimportance on so much of the world around us.
When I was 20, I found myself in the military, stationed at the Presidio of Monterey, CA. At the time, I was investigating religions and philosophies, reading extensively and doing the mental exercises typical of trying to figure out What It’s All About. (When I later returned to college, I was spared the usual sophomoric discussions because I’d already had them arguing with myself). One of my nightly walks took me from the Presidio to a USN installation several miles away. As I strolled along, my mind was simultaneously holding two incompatible ‘truths’. “X is true” and “Y is true” and “X and Y are mutually contradictory”. In the event, the truth or falsity of the ideas really didn’t matter. What mattered was that my mental gears moved faster and more frantically to resolve the paradox until they eventually ‘jammed’ and thinking came to an abrupt halt. I cannot say that perception stopped, but the filtering of it, the categorizing, rationalizing, cataloguing and examination of it ceased. Contemplating a paradox is one of the practices of Zen Buddhism and I can tell you it can produce a mental state outside our cultural envelope. In this completely foreign state of mind, I walked back to the Presidio. It wasn’t until I reached my barracks that the overwhelming familiarity of having arrived at a destination ‘brought me to my senses’. (And there’s a term ripe for redefinition). I did not remember a single thing about the walk back or the world outside my mind during the hour or so it took me to get back to the Presidio, yet I had crossed many busy, noisy, well-lit, high-traffic steets. The experience taught me two things: I only need a miniscule part of my mind/awareness to navigate the physical world around me; and I really can “hold Infinity in an Hour”.
There are transitions in life from one situation and its appropriate mindset to a different situation. It is at such thresholds that we may be able to skake free of old habits, like a dog shaking off the rain, and view the world with fresh eyes, forgetting what wasn’t worth remembering in the first place and remembering things we should never have forgotten. In the next two or three weeks, I will find myself unemployed and unemployable for the first time in over 60 years. As you can imagine, it represents a major change in not only my day-to-day activity, but in my view of myself and my relationship to the world. With a little bit of luck, I hope to take advantage of the opportunity to adjust my mental habits toward experiencing the world more directly, less culturally.
I want to again “see the World in a Grain of Sand” and “hold Eternity in an Hour”.