A Meditation on Simple Things
In the past few months things have been drastically stripped back. Where we have come to expect choice, variety and preference, these have been replaced all of a sudden by a narrowing of options: we must rely on what we can get. But in the process I’m sure it’s highlighted how complicated our lives had become, and the lengths to which we were prepared to go to satisfy what we had become accustomed to identifying as our desires or needs.
All this has made me want to connect to something tangible, the consistency of which has survived longer than the inventions of our own generation. I began to look out for those things which have brought humans pleasure, solace and sustenance over the centuries. For tangible things are still vitally important to the human schema. We are not just beings of spirit, but beings who need to be able to reach out and touch the world of which we are a part.
This is my own little list of ‘essentials’.
I am not so interested in the breath as a placeholder for neutrality. But I do like how it provides a sign of the function of the whole. William Wordsworth writes of ‘the breath and harmony of music’: that which holds it together, and sustains each note and phrase. The breath is the architecture. It is the simplest, most constant and most flexible part of the composition.
I imagine that bread looks and tastes different depending on where you live or where you come from. This has probably long been the case. But its meaning must be the same: it fills the hole that hunger has left, and it is good for sharing. The dough or the loaf must always be broken into pieces or portioned out so that there is enough for everyone. It is a wonderful gift, keeping us linked to the earth and to the grains which it nourishes into life.
In Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘Blessing’, rain can only be imagined: ‘the small splash, echo / in a tin mug’. The noise is what is missing in the time of drought. The sound of rain must be one of its great pleasures. Sometimes pattering, sometimes drumming down onto the earth. Rain reminds us of all the happenings outside of our own control. It commands the space, before withdrawing again. And the best times, I think, are when we least expect it.
In Emily Dickinson’s poem the everyday is no less remarkable for being everyday: ‘I have seen the Sun emerge / From His amazing House / And leave a Day at every Door …’ In Greek mythology, the sun god was represented as emerging with the dawn on a horse-drawn chariot to ride across the expanse of the sky. Without this image in mind, we may perhaps be less inclined to look to the body that is doing the bestowing for any sense of company or intention. But Dickinson helps us to feel this bestowing once again, as if on one occasion she was able to observe it all anew: with eyes that could be genuinely amazed.
Candles have become a luxury item now that we no longer need them to see in the dark. They captivate now with the scents and colours that have been added to the wax. But the image of a flame in the darkness has an enduring resonance. A single flame flickers, and wavers. It is alive and moves. It bends, and remains steady.
Colour lends meaning to what we see, but it is also a gift in that, like music, it does not have to denote a particular meaning. The colour of a flower for example simply shines forth; it is part of its identity. In the same way, colour speaks to me of choice. Its very existence gives us a reason to be creative, while choosing between different dyes, paints, crayons or inks, or picking clothes, flowers or food. To be in possession of colour is to know a kind of richness.
I am trying to think as widely as possible: the tin bath in front of the fire; the ritual baths that are used for instance in Judaism or Hinduism; public baths; open pools and rivers. Across time, people have found a way somehow to honour the body’s need for relief and immersion in this other element. Surrounded by water, there is not an awful lot that can be done, except to move, to be still, and to be.
It is a detail such as this that brings the literary text of the Bible to life for me. In the preceding verses, the whole cast of Jacob’s future life has been set in motion as a result of the directions of his father Isaac. But then Jacob embarks on a journey to Haran, and because the sun sets while he is on his way, he stops at the place he has come to, ‘took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.’ Who knew that pillows were so important? Clearly we have been needing a place to rest our head for about as long as we can remember.