ON WHAT I CAN SAY

Man Fishing     Mae Toranee copy

Here’s a writer at work beside what he’s working on — and as usual you can click on him to see better, indeed more than once if you really want to get into his world as well as into hers which is multiple too. He’s fishing on an autumn day in Stuttgart, Germany, and she’s wringing the very same water he’s fishing in out of her hair at Wat Pha Lad in Chiang Mai. And for the record, he’s Everyman and she’s Mae Thorani.

Some of you reading this will have been to Wat Pha Lad with me, and will understand what I mean when I say it’s the most beautiful mess in the world, an abandoned other-world nursery full of broken toys, baby buddhas, bric-a-brac, cast-offs, and basketfuls of dressing-up glitter. A very old water Wat in the jungle on the way up Doi Suthep, the holy mountain that hangs over Chiang Mai, Wat Pha Lad is a spiritual honey-pot that every day attracts mysterious little things that seem to sprout up out of the ruins — like that preposterous white chicken rocking back on its heels to gaze up at Mae Thorani wringing the water out of her hair. Indeed, this image of the goddess herself just turned up out of nowhere the other day, complete with the over-the-top dime-store necklace, and I was so excited I had to go all the way home and come back the next day with my camera. I almost said fishing rod, but that would be getting way ahead of myself.

I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Christopher. ….

P.S. Next day. ……………………………………………………..November 1st, 2017.
If you clicked twice on the goddess you might have noticed the bejeweled dancing girl scrunched up in the lower left corner behind the white chicken. When I first saw her I thought the curled leaf was her skirt, but in fact it’s not clear where her legs are, which of course are important for who she is and what she does, which is dancing. For she’s a Nang Ram, and even disheveled in the undergrowth she minces and glitters with her beautiful bare arms and her bracelets thrown back on the pillow beside her slightly turned head. What you might not have noticed is that her body is poised on the edge of an upturned bowl — that’s the remains of a red lacquer offering tray which may or may not have been instrumental on the day of her arrival.  On the other hand, the offering tray could have brought up anything that matters, the place being piled so high with the detritus of hope.*….

* NOTE:…………………………………………………………..November 3rd, 2017.
Things that are really important shouldn’t be talked about, that’s my feeling, and I know I’m already skirting dangerously near the edge. That’s why I’m not going to tell you what a Nang Ram is, because if I do I’ll tell you things that I don’t know myself, and those things will get in the way not only of your understanding of them but, even worse, indeed fatally, of my own. Because in my experience the deepest things have to be seen out of the corner of the eye, so to speak, a flickering shadow, an apparition, a bump in the dark, and the moment you turn your head to focus on such things directly, turn on the lights, let’s say, they vanish into things you already know. And that’s simply not what or who they are.

It’s in the detritus of hope where the meaning lies, remnants in the bushes at the back of the house, for example, or buried in the leaves, broken and twisted or lost — off the path, off the record, off limits /sides /color /balance /duty /one’s rocker etc.

The evidence of the spirit world that we can see is way beyond its expiry date, if I might be so bold — it’s because the spirit has ‘gone off’ that we can follow its scent like the physicist can ‘track’ the fading footprints of atomic particles in a cloud chamber, or the mathematician ‘crunch’ what is left of what may or may not have been there in the numbers at Cern. You may remember some of the photos I’ve posted of what I sometimes call the ‘cloud chambers’ where I live, like the terrible mess in this one. (Forgive me for coming back to that, but I think it’s really worth visiting again.)

Human beings are afraid so they sweep the floor and make lists. The spirit lives equally in disorder as in order, and it falls apart as fast as it’s born. It’s on- and off-hours, on- and off-work all at once.**…..

**NOTE 2:…………………………………………………………November 4th, 2017.
The “writer at work beside what he’s working on” is off-work, of course he is, and the water he’s ‘working,’ as we fishermen say, is the same water that she’s wringing out of her long black hair. In addition, do note that Mae Thorani is gathering the water that flows from her hair into her cupped hand — and that’s woman’s work, needless to say, and why men need her so badly and hope she’ll understand when they come home from the river full but empty-handed.***

Here’s another with a clay pot for the water she’s gathering this time, and a fish.…..

***POSTSCRIPT…………………………………………………November 5th, 2017.

So here’s what I think happened.

Because the original fisherman had been sitting there for so long with his eye fixed on that one still spot which all fishermen know is just where it happens, he was absolutely sure this was it. But the place was also the lair of the beautiful goddess called ‘Earth,’ and she loved her fisherman so much, and wanted him so passionately, so ‘badly’ as we say, to stay right where he was. That was because when he was there on the bank beside her, everything in the world mattered, everything was full and steady, everything moved so smoothly with the light caressing the eddies and the ripples and the flicker of the leaves and the shadows of the birds overhead and the fish slipping like lovers into each other’s perfect shelter beneath. But if her fisherman went away, if he left her, how would she ever recover from that? How could she ever let the man she loved so much slip away like some dirty little hermit out of her life?

So she decided to keep him, and to do that she would have to make him surrender, make him give up his selfish quest to abandon her world for another place he preferred — an unreal, negative place where there was no more desire, or so he explained it, no more impatience, no more striving or anger, conniving, or killing above all, and no more broken hearts, at least that’s what he said. But this would-be lover-woman was a fierce-some power to be reckoned with, no doubt about that — because she was Mara herself,  the invincible Wicked Witch of Nature, the fanged woman, the specter of lust, rivalry, betrayal and anger, and totally red in every root, rotten tooth and wretched claw of her being.

So Mara came out perfectly suited in her slippery-wet dappled trout-skin with her bright red gills and mascara and musk, irresistible for the task at hand — which was to seduce the Buddha and knock him off the Path of Enlightenment once and for all. With nothing on but her bracelets and bangles she knelt before him perfectly at ease, and she reached up over her head with her strong brown arms as all women do with supernatural grace so many times each day all over the world. And she drew her heavy black hair out in a long thick plait that gleamed with the water she’d just come up out of herself —  and she twisted it deftly and the water streamed out in a jet of perfectly clear, perfectly uncluttered, perfectly free water. And the water was the new water in which all human beings are blessed and fulfilled and feel right in themselves, i.e. just as we are if we’re patient whether we catch a fish or not. So Mara the Whore is also Mara the Nang Ram, the lovely, light-hearted Dancing Girl crumpled in the bushes as well as the heavenly Deva with the necklace above, indeed both up and down come together in the frank, irresistible allure of Mae Thorani.

That’s what the Thais call her, Mae Thorani — and how they love her. “Mae” means “Mother” in Thai but you have to bleat her name like a goat to get the full sense of the sort of mother she is, that rough and that intimate. The name “Thorani” comes into Thai from the sacred language of the Theravada scriptures, Pali, a close cousin of Sanskrit — dhāraṇī, earth. And her name is often preceded by the highest celestial title of  them all:  Phra —  Lord, God, Brahma, Seigneur!Mae Thorani**
Phra Mae Thorani is everywhere in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma — almost every shrine, temple, garden and ordinary household has at least one of them. The figure I have chosen here is even more naked than usual — but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? On the other hand, she’s never immodest, even this one, and how could she be, being who she is and so close to you, and the hope in the water she brings!

C.

ON WHAT WE’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SAY

Dear Bill,
I never forget your final comment at the very end of one of our most fruitful collaborations, “Kim, Kipling and Kakamura:”

Christopher,……………………………… ……………… July 4th, 2011
Have enjoyed our adventure with Kim. To quote the holy man:
“‘Go in hope, little brother,’ he said. ‘It is a long road to the feet of the One; but thither do we all travel.’”
………………………………………..
Bill.. (W.F.Kammann)

And yes, that is the great adventure, but it’s also the great conundrum, at least for me it is. For you can never stop on that road, it’s so steep and narrow, indeed, any attempt to turn round and head back is curtains. Why, even just pausing to catch your breath can trigger an avalanche!

Which is why I’m still trying to be here, to move on anyway, to trouble the world with my precarious, unstable words and images. And I don’t always like the words that I write either, but I have to live with myself, and they’re there. On the other hand, if I keep at the words long enough, and I mean for years and years, what emerges sometimes speaks to me in an independent voice, telling me important things I never knew or even guessed at before.

For me the process feels like I look in the photo below — because it’s obvious I hadn’t a clue what all those signs were saying when the photograph was taken in Yangon. Yet three years later I dare to write about what they mean today, and yes, I hear what I’m saying.

INDISCRETION 2

Indiscretion #1.

It’s now October 6th, 2017, and I have just finished rewriting an old post that’s been haunting me ever since it went up on our East is East and West is West thread on May 22nd, 2011 . You can click on the old date to read the new version. And if you do, please be sure to include the accompaniment as the post makes no sense without it, or at least it doesn’t for me.

You can also click here  to read what Kipling actually said in his poem called “The White Man’s Burden.” (I still like what I say about the poem, and have left the notes alone. See what you think.)

Although the May 22nd, 2011 essay has been extensively revised, the gist of the argument remains the same,  and that’s very important to say as I’m not trying to cover up anything or to apologize. On the other hand, because the writing is better, more fluent, more attentive, less self-serving, the essay says more of what I was trying to say 6 years ago but couldn’t. The whole thing is still very borderline, I know, but in such musings it’s the risk that occasions the rising, isn’t it? Isn’t that what makes whatever it is happen, because you can’t just say certain things, that you’re simply not allowed to?

Here’s another “not allowed to.”

A few days ago in The Guardian, the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, was scolded for reciting Kipling’s famous poem, “Mandalay”  “live” and “on mic,” —  a situation that was deemed “not appropriate” by the British Ambassador to Burma. For of course the recitation was in Yangon, right in front of the Schwedagon Pagoda no less.

I do understand the discomfort of the Ambassador, given his position, but to conclude that Boris Johnson’s recitation is “not appropriate” in Burma today is to misunderstand the whole poem, and in particular its very moving invocation of  Burma, love, nostalgia and worship as experienced by a common soldier in 1890. The narrator is  just a bloke,  after all, a Cockney “10 year man” without any social, imperial or so-called “British” pretensions. Furthermore he’s ‘back home’ in London feeling lonely and displaced, and missing what he almost worships as a heaven on earth. Indeed, to be ashamed of the poem is to misunderstand entirely what’s being expressed in it and, even more importantly, to demean the very people whom the British Ambassador thinks are going to be offended by hearing the poem recited in their country. For those Burmese who are literate, and there are many, know and admire Rudyard Kipling — yes, and in some ways they understand him a whole lot better than the self-conscious Ambassador does. Because the Burmese actually read English poetry thanks to the British education they still receive, and are very proud of too, and they not only know the poem personally but can recite it as fluently as Boris Johnson can, and indeed in much the same ‘I’m-not-just-a-bloke’ accent, which is a subject in itself.*  Because you simply can’t take away that Britishness from the Burmese, however politically correct you think you are or they ought to be — indeed, not even the brutal social and economic scorched-earth-regime imposed by the Junta on the whole region could do that, even after 60 years of trying really hard.**

And another parallel indiscretion — a much harder one that you can only talk about in a whisper:

The modern history of Myanmar is terrible, and the Rohingya nightmare just the worst of a great many ethnic entanglements the region faces. And here’s the rough part that very few understand. Just as we have to try hard to understand why it’s not actually offensive for the British Foreign Secretary to recite Kipling’s “Mandalay,” even in the shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda, we westerners have got to try to understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s mind-boggling silence on the subject of the Rohingya. For the issue is not a national problem that can be settled by any Burmese  leader, however loved and charismatic he or she may be, but rather the expression of the profound anxiety of a huge, displaced, muddled region that isn’t a coherent nation at all, and in many ways still doesn’t want to be. And most of that we’re not allowed to say.

To put that in another, no less shocking but more familiar context, Rakhine State is subject to an ethnic blight as sore and as septic as that which plagues Charlottesville, Virginia in the U.S.A. Because America is infected by exactly the same ethnic malaise, and has lived with it for an almost identical time-frame too.

So here’s the big question. Which is less destructive, a genocide that inches its way along like a glacier, demeaning, thwarting, imprisoning and snuffing-out the lives of generation after generation of individuals in the same family, or one which scorches the earth like a forest fire, consuming a whole community of families in just one day? Yes, and which one in the end will prove to be more destructive to human dignity and potential?

And here’s another very hard thought for me personally. Though I try to be sensitive to Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, to hear what she is saying by not saying anything,  I have to admit how disappointed I am that such a great, strong, courageous, near perfect heroine has emerged with such dull feet of clay. Indeed,  I’m writing this in part to have the opportunity to say that Aung San Suu Kyi can still count on my trust, love and respect for her as a person, because my own feet are so parochial, so low, colonial and clayish too — as revealed in my May 22nd, 2011 imperial-sized, blotched-copy text on Privilege and Service.

Which was and still is very hard to say, yet is even harder not to say, at least right now as I sit at my desk in Chiang Mai.

Christopher Woodman

* In another article the day after the one above, The Guardian referred to the Foreign Minister’s “schtick:” “Etonian accent, Latin tags, supposedly lovable Wodehousian eccentricity, sub-Churchillian evocation of the glorious past of this island race.” And of course there’s the orange hair and the smirk, as if we hadn’t seen that before!

** And yet another Guardian article today (Oct. 7th, 2017),  ditching both the Ambassador and the Foreign Secretary but redeeming “Mandalay.” “Kipling saw a road that led to romance rather than to slaughter,” Ian Jack writes, and then quotes the famous opening lines:

,……    By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
,……    There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
,……    For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say
,……    Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”