Herman is not with us

(Shortened version that was published)

 

 

We were in a business meeting today and I went and stood in front of the boardroom window for a long time. “Herman is not with us,” one of my colleagues observed.

Then he smiled and whispered: “Where are you now?”

I stood silently for a while, still drinking in the landscape, before slowly replying: “In the future…”

 

I was staring at the Outeniqua mountains. Cradock peak – the prince of summits, etched as a blue salute against the pale southern sky. It was heart-breakingly beautiful in the soft amber light that accompanied a cold front blowing in. I kept thinking how ironic it is that the people who live here don’t seem to see the beauty around them anymore. I still can’t get over the loveliness of the land. I don’t think I ever will.

 

But I have always been different. I was born with different eyes. I have always seen a part of the world which most men could not see. Because there are still men who see the world through their hearts.

 

I turned around and looked at their familiar faces. The yellow boardroom table. The cold grey walls and the clean cream tiles. The questioning faces of my team. Our notes and scribbles on the cold wooden slab of our corporate mortuary. Then I returned to my chair and I patiently allowed the chains to be re-attached to my ankles. But even as the voices droned on, I smiled inwardly. Like an old circus lion. Because once upon I had been free. And I still remembered. You can chain me to the present. But you cannot imprison my mind. My heart lies in the past. And my eyes look towards the future. This is not my home. I just happen to live here for a while.

 

(This is a long version of the abridged article that was published)

 

We were in a business meeting today and I went and stood in front of the boardroom window for a long time. “Herman is not with us,” one of my colleagues observed.

Then he smiled and asked: “Where are you now?”

I stood silently for a while, still drinking in the landscape, before slowly replying: “In the future…”

I was staring at the Outeniqua mountains. Cradock peak – the prince of summits, etched as a blue salute against the pale southern sky. I was heart-breakingly beautiful in the soft amber light that accompanied a cold front blowing in. And I kept thinking how ironic it is that the people who live here don’t seem to see the beauty around them anymore. I have been here almost six years now, and I can still not get over the loveliness of the land. I don’t think I ever will. But I have always been different. I was born with different eyes. I have always seen a part of the world which most men could not see. Or perhaps I was not born this way. Perhaps I was born with ordinary eyes, but my mother taught opened them. My father did the same. But it was my mother, more than any other, who taught me to see with my heart.

 

Some of my earliest memories were of warm summer nights when my mother – still a light-hearted young girl of 25 herself – used to take us by the hand and lead us out onto the expansive lawn in front of our old farmhouse. There she would make us laugh by letting us chase our shadows in the moonlight – trying to outrun them – or somehow sneak up upon our own images and pounce upon them before they could escape. I can hear her bubbling laugh yet. Her pearly smile, and her perfect skin of marble – Tretchikoff blue in the mild starlight. And I can still see that African moon – enormous and white as it rose across the dignified black mountain that stood behind our home.

 

In the moonlight, so bright you could almost read by it, she had us pick evening flowers on the lawn. The soft petals that would only open at night, we carefully brought inside and pressed between the pages of our big old family Bible. She it was, who pressed our eyes closed in the night and taught us to listen to the sound the wind makes as it sighed through the tall gum trees outside. To listen for the voices they contained. Or to hold our ears against a telephone pole to hear the incredible singing sounds that were transmitted through the wires. Or against an old tree so we could hear the mysterious groanings and knocking of branches.

“Listen and see if you can hear words in their voices,” my mother would tell us.

And we believed her. It is so easy to believe when you are young.

 

I can also still feel the warm sun and see the blue sky as my mother lay with my sister and I on our backs, staring up into the heavens to see how the clouds made figures: “There a gnarled old face. Is that a dragon or a chameleon? And see there – that one looks just like a little dog – and now it is changing to what looks just like a shoe.” My mother taught us to see and appreciate textures. The way that sunlight reflects on rippled water as the breeze brushes its fingers across. The reflection of the trees in tranquil pools.

“Just like a Monet painting,” mother would sigh.

Then she would half-close her eyes and whisper: “So ha-a-a-z-z-y-y-y…”

 

As time went on, we learned to see the world without the spectacles of our mother’s imagination. We had developed the gift of sight ourselves. And there I was – a young boy sitting up night after night on the old stone table outside, staring up into the heavens. Dressed in an old German airforce coat of wool, scarf, balaclava and gloves. A book with celestial charts in one hand, and old shooting lamp in the other – and my grandfather’s superb Zeiss binoculars around my neck. I had read Carl Sagan’s books. I had borrowed the physics and astronomy books in the town library so many times that the librarian knew to just renew them for me automatically. And they had opened my eyes to the wonders of the heavens in world that the mind can scarcely being to imagine.

 

I imagined I could see into the dark spots in the Milkyway – see right through our own Galaxy – past Andromeda, and the Cloud of Magellan – right into the deepest depths of outer space. And far, far beyond that – past where even the greatest telescope had ever seen. I could see it because I could imagine it. And I looked into those limitless pools until it was as if I could see right into the very throne room of God. And no matter that the world around me was asleep, because there – so far away that astronomers couldn’t reach it – yet so close that I could touch – I always knew I had a Friend. Someone who was closer to me than I was to myself. I knew because times without counting, His words were the last ones my ears could hear before sleep carried me away into Neverland as a child. My mother read us to sleep out of the Bible so many times. You cannot experience this for so many years and not recognize the familiar words of the Creator when He speaks in the silent chambers of an overfull heart.

 

There I sat, staring up into the limitless distance of space – waiting for Haley’s comet to appear – and dreaming about the future, and the lifeless worlds that lie and wait for us to find them. “It would only be back in 75 years,” I silently repeated to myself. “The next time it will be seen by the eyes of men, it will be from the Kingdom of God.”

 

Those were beautiful times back then. Ignorance can be an object of exquisite value when it is found in just the right setting. That was the time when I still believed that I could be anything I wanted. That the world owed me something – and that all I needed to do was to remain patient for long enough until it was ready to repay its debts to me. I don’t know how I ever got born with such a powerful sense of destiny in my mind. But I was. And it took a long time for experience to scratch that awareness out of the pages of my mind. And when it did, I was left with a feeling of indescribable loss. For years, I just sat and stared at the pages where the letters of my dreams had faded beneath the harsh light of reality.

 

Those were childhood dreams. Like little pieces of glass, bottle tops, marbles and beads that a small boy would collect and wrap in cotton wool to place inside a box – imagining them to be some wonderful secret treasure.

But then we grow up and one day someone laughs and points at our objects and observes: “See – they’re just worthless everyday objects.”

And when that happens, you look at them and suddenly your vision clears. And in stead of seeing with your heart, you suddenly see with human eyes. And then you realize that the magic is gone. And that the show of life without the illusion is not worth paying admittance to see the performance anymore. That’s when you wake up from the dream, crying with the agony of a loss that can never be shared by anyone except you yourself and your moon shadow when no one else is near.

 

But still. Part of the vision remained in me. Even now, I will walk upon the beaches when the weather is cold and the wind is wild. I would get lost in the roaring of the waves, and the screaming of the wind. I’d feel my soul blown out of my body – until it would fly like a kite against the leaden sky – tattered and barely attached to what I am – by the thinnest of silver threads. But there – fluttering in the madness of the storm it would for a moment feel light and wild and free. And for a while at least, I would remember what it was like when there was still every reason to believe that everything we can imagine could one day become real.

 

I still see with my mother’s eyes. I still sense the energy of the ocean – I still drink in the overwhelming silence of the night when all the world is sleeping. When the moon rises upon lonely landscapes I still pause to stare with wonder – whispering “beautiful” to myself, just like my mother used to. And sometimes, late at night, I still walk upon the lawn to look for evening flowers. But I never find them. They do not grow where I now live. I know I have grown up now and those things are of the past. But inside of me there is still a boy. I think there always will be – even when I am old and worn one day, he will still be there. I don’t chase moon shadows anymore – but although I would not admit it to a living soul – there are still times when I slowly stretch my leg out – just to see if in an unguarded moment there was a chance that I could surprise my shadow yet.

 

How do I tell my friends and colleagues that all these things were the thoughts that surrounded me as I stared out the window today? They would not understand. They are the blind with 20-20 vision of unseeing eyes. All they can see is reality. The wonder of the illusion is something their hearts have never known. My sense of loss when I think about the beautiful days I once knew is so great that I cannot describe it. But then I think of the future which lies unseen beyond the mountains of life. I don’t know what to expect on the other side, or what I will be when I get there. All I know is that when I think back and what lies behind me, I know that I am a man who once had been wealthy beyond the description of words. There really had been such a time – and I had not merely imagined it. It was real.

 

I turned around and looked at their familiar faces . The yellow boardroom table. The cold grey walls and the clean cream tiles. The questioning faces of my team members. Our notes and scribbles on the cold wooden slab of our corporate mortuary. Then I returned to my chair and I patiently allowed the chains to be re-attached to my ankles. But I even as the discussions droned on, I smiled inwardly. Like an old circus lion. Because once upon a  time I had been free. And I still remembered. You can chain me to the present. But you cannot imprison my mind. My heart lies in the past. And my eyes look towards the future always. This is not my home. I just happen to live here for a while.