“Hello be Thy name.” That is what I used to say as a seven year old at boarding school, in my pyjamas with knees pressed on the cold floor of the dormitory. “Oh cheeses!” I would say whenever frustrated. A fellow boarder pointed out that I was blaspheming the Lord’s name. That I was saying, “Oh Jesus!” I had no clue that I was blaspheming or what blasphemy meant. It sounded pretty terrible. Then it was pointed out to me in the Ten Commandments and my blood turned cold – well just a little – and I never said Cheeses again.
It took me a long time to figure out that Hello be Thy name was not the opening petition of the famous prayer. But by then hello, for me, lay at the heart of awe, mystery and life. Hello was an opening to, not a closing from. For me it still indwells the adventure of authentic spirituality and artistic pursuit, any “God-quest” or “search for enlightenment”. (Quest, enlightenment, spirituality … all those terms blurring, skittering into one another like winter leaves during rainfalls on the old school playground, some forty-odd years later.) And Hello was followed by those mysterious words, thy kingdom come. This is the kingdom of love, the priests told me.
I liked Hello by Thy name. I still do. I wanted the world to be an inviting hello, opening up to me, inviting me in, letting me belong. Of course, all too often enough, it wasn’t, and it didn’t. (This is the discovery of many, not only the boy Gautama, finding with horror for the first time all the sadness and impermanence which his family hid from him.) Doors and windows do bang closed. People say no! They move on, or die without saying goodbye.
For me, for many of us, the word goodbye was not learned in a dictionary. It was fluttered up in front of you in the form of waving hands and backs turning, dwindling away. It was and is the acid wrench in your stomach, loved ones’ arms raised as the train doors or the international departure lounge gates slide closed. Between the vaunted, oft-prayed hello and the petal-soft, ice-sharp nature of the viscerally learned goodbye, there’s the sense of wanting to belong. Without which there’s no need for hello and goodbye.
Belonging. The word’s etymology hearkens back to the sense, “to be the property of”. Ownership. What is it to own land, houses, bodies of water? What is resumed by, “my house, my land, our garden, my carpet, our veranda overlooking a wonderful view of the sea?”
There is a delightful bridge running over a property I care for in Murray’s Bay, New Zealand. Water flows under the bridge from one end of the customer’s land to the other. I often stop and ask myself, as the water flows into his property, at what point does it belong to him, and at what point, as it leaves, does it cease to belong to him? Can he not have buckets ready to catch all the sliding water that belongs to him so he can keep it forever?
I think of those hoarded buckets gathered on the stream’s banks at night. They are dead pools slowly filling with scum. Right now, late in the evening, I know those rushing waters are fizzing and sparkling with the champagne of starlight. Does the customer also own the reflected moonlight and cloud-light? And when that light disappears from them, what does he own?
“This is my property,” you say. “I paid for it with hard work and paying off a mortgage. This is mine.” You stroll across your garden or your field or through your orchard. Around you your trees blossom in one season, or are laid bare in another: black and rusted blades sharp with death. In another season the flowers spread, regardless of ownership, coming from absolutely nowhere, and ask with open faces only for their daily bread. When the new buds appear, like rings on ladies’ fingers, at what moment did they start to belong to you? When, as they shrivel and fall off, do they cease to belong?
Let’s give your property a name. 18 Springfield Avenue. Now you die. Perhaps you are buried on 18 Springfield Avenue, perhaps you are not. Is it still your property? Who owns whom? Did you remember to say goodbye to your property? Did you hear the land, with all its secrets and buddings, those roots creaking under oaks or pohutukawas, say goodbye to you?
Goodbye is the most difficult skill to learn. It comes from the wordless sense of learning to belong with everything. There is the house and street that will still be there after you have gone. All animals, be they pets, domestic animals and the ones that can never be tamed. There’s that walk through the woods. There’s that favourite tree, or the window you like to look through. The park bench where you and your loved one like to sit. They all contain your stories. Do your stories only belong to you? Do only you own your laughter and sadness? Goodbyes take a long time to learn well, and we have forgotten what they mean. They need to be practised every day.
In memory of Zane.
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