Not in entire forgetfulness

apple blossom
Apple blossom, Calderstones Park, 3 April 2017

24 hour grandparenting duties performed with no injuries and a jolly good time had by all… Yesterday I got two small children up and sort of washed and dressed (allow myself some leeway there, or as W.B.Yeats puts it ‘forgive myself the lot’) and breakfasted (delicious made-by-the-boy-himself smoothie with banana, milk, greek yoghurt blueberries and  …. chocolate cake) ready for school and childminder and got myself to work for ten to nine, triumphant but knackered. Bowled over with admiration for parents who do this every day – it is hard. Then you go to work! Well done!

Thinking about the little one year old and The Immortality Ode. She seemed so perplexed by our presence  when she woke up – as if really asking herself, what on earth’s going here? These people aren’t usually here. She looked from one to the other of us as if checking we were really ourselves and not her parents. She took it in her stride but you could see she was trying to work out, and with no background information e.g. weddings take place, your parents travel to Harrogate for a longed for bit if time alone together, what could be going on.

And so to the Immortality Ode, which I’ve been reading here in tiny chunks as my daily reading practice. I’m up to the fifth stanza.  When I first read this, as  a not-very-mature-student of twenty-four years old, the single mother of a five-year-old child, a person without religious belief and not  at all  into Wordsworth or  much poetry, I was profoundly moved by, excited by  this stanza. I suddenly felt I knew what he was talking about. I’ll put the whole stanza here, although will only think about the first few lines;

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,

And fade into the light of common day.

I had read, perhaps a year before this, what for me became a life-changing, life-shaping book, Doris Lessing’s Sci Fi novel, Shikasta. The novel introduced me to some powerful new ideas – the key one being vocation: life has purpose though you may not know what it is, may simply suffer an uncomfortable sense of things not being right, may feel out-of-kilter. Shikasta  sets out a universe in which  more highly evolved beings, which the story calls Canopeans (we might call them ‘gods’) get involved in the development of less evolved  planets…such as ours, which we call Earth, but they call Shikasta, the broken one.

I’ve stopped recommending this book. Lots of people don’t like it. But for me, it came from a trusted source (I’d been reading Doris Lessing for years, as she was, in the seventies and up to the publication of this book, a great favourite of the  women’s movement, which had  been my source-of-meaning-home) and reconnected me to my early love of SF. It came to me when I was in a receptive state, and it came with a way of thinking that literally, overnight, changed my mind.  Like The Immortality Ode, it posits the idea that souls, that come from elsewhere,  are incarnated into bodies and must live on earth. I’d been obsessed with the novel  for a year when I read this poem.  My mind was set up to receive it. I read the lines and felt they were already in some way my own thoughts;

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:

It, we, I – my ‘soul’ – still struggle with that word, hate religious language, don’t like religions – but it is a word that stands for something and I don’t have a better word, so must use it, ‘cometh from afar’. True or false? It felt true to me. First Shikasta and now this poem were giving me a language for previous unknowable feelings. I had thoughts, as Bion says, in the quote I posted the other day, but I didn’t have the equipment for thinking them. I could not process my own emotional experience. The language of this poem gave me that. What did I recognise as true?

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I knew that when my daughter had been born I had felt I knew her. That she existed, fully, in her self, was something, someone already before any experience had affected her. She seemed to be here. It was one probably the most powerful emotional experience of my life (repeated when my son was born twelve years later). There were no words for what I felt I knew. She came partly knowing something – ‘not in entire forgetfulness’ and clothed in something – ‘not in utter nakedness’, and certainly she came ‘trailing clouds of glory’.

I did not like the word ‘God’ but I ignored that. These days I can use it, but then, it was too loaded with other people s meanings to be real to me. Yet the second part of that line, ‘who is our home.’ also seemed to strike a chord of truth. That I could believe. Something in us is connected to, comes from, is at home ‘elsewhere’ – that word is a lovely pointer to somewhere specific we don’t yet know, isn’t it?

Yikes, gone over time. Late for work!

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