The wisdom of the letting go


I was listening to a talk by the English bard, Malcolm Guite. If the mossy time of ancient stones, their mysterious placement mute to the clamouring conquests of intellectual certainties that frame modernity could produce a human interloper, it would probably look like Malcolm. Whiskerish to the point of wizardry, adamantinely intense, brimming with the kind of playful wisdom that respects so much its source that it takes hours and hours to unravel, and in the unraveling, disperses every but the truly thirsty listener to things elsewhere.

It is no accident that he is an expert elucidator of JRR Tolkien and his circle which included C.S. Lewis. In a talk on the numinous mythic dynamics of that epic narrative Lord of the Rings, that I listened to as I cooked my lunch, he says something quite remarkable, that made my onions pause in their sizzling. Most mythic stories, he reminds us, concern a quest for possession – of something – a treasure, knowledge, a person, perhaps the reclamation of something lost, but the hero is always engaged in a task of conquest. A task of claiming, or reclaiming.

The Lord of the Rings, he reminds us (because we need to to be reminded from time to time) is, in contrast, a story of DIS-possession. It is, uncharacteristically in the well-worn genre of heroes and their adventures, a story about LETTING GO. The impossible task – and it must always be an impossible for the embarker who needs to be ripped bodily from the glue of the possible – is the RELINQUISING of a source of ultimate knowledge and power. To see all, is to know all. To know all is to control all. And to control all is the DOMINION.

While the rice simmered gently in the pot, it hit me. And his words spilled over. It is not just the letting go, but the REFUSAL of the object of power that is central to the mythos in the trilogy. The refusal to be owned by that power, and ultimately, the willingness – nay the DUTY – to DESTROY this source-object for the good of all. Tolkien’s genius as one of the most important philosophers of the modern age, gets lost in his choice to frame his philosophy in the genre of narrative fantasy. But Malcolm reminds me – our best philosophers did something more than tell us how to lead a good and meaningful life. They told us a STORY. And we find the life that resonates with us WITHIN that story.

I read Tolkien at a time of my own letting go. I was only 18, although at that time I imagined myself fully formed. I had a broken leg. I had returned from a great adventure, hitchhiking around the near east with my boyfriend for a year funded by youthful optimism and 800 British pounds. We were so young in so many ways, but we had something that our parents had passed on to us. Something we rebelled against at the time, but which later we both understood as a profound and deep stratospheric continuum, Neither of us understood, rebels that we imagined we were, that our parents having rebelled in their own ways, had created the conditions for this quest of ours in the hope that we would bring back something back that would add to the collective wisdom of which they were a part.

But we knew nothing of this. We were islands crashing into tectonic plates. We returned feeling like we had something precious to share. We hadn’t died, after all. And more. We had slayed dragons, we had slept in muck, we had walked when it was not possible to put one step in front of the other, we had made friends without language, we had gradually discarded the unnecessary and discovered how little we needed, we had not taken a warm shower for several months. We stank, truth be told, but we felt like giants.

And then it all fell apart. And there I was. On my mother’s olive green couch, injured and beaten. Facing the prospect of depressed 80’s Britain after the sapphire coasts and vertiginous gorges of Crete, after the spinning wisdom of the Nile, the hearty camaraderie of Istanbul and the bread-breaking generosity of strangers everywhere. Here I was. Back in Maidenhead for crying out loud, the grotto of Theresa May. Humbled. Hurt. Falling back in love and understanding with my Mother – who asked me every evening, “What would you like for dinner?” The person I had held accountable for for the disaster of shattered trust that had befallen our family. And learning that she too, had been broken. That she too, sought redemption. She wasn’t just there to help me heal from the crash of my re-entry. She wanted to hear what I had learned on the journey. She was the only one who was interested. We were never the same after that. I learned the meaning of this relation of Mother to Daughter in those months with my stupid heavy left leg resting on the coffee table, my friends all gone their separate ways, my will finding its way again, outside the confines of the SHIRE.

So. Going back to the Bard. What he said about the letting go. Of course, I didn’t understand it at the time. None of us do, do we? We need elders, mentors, teachers, friends, to point these things out to us, from time to time. I had to let go of that year. Because the fact was, no one was interested. I wanted to say, “Hey you guys, you who I love with all my heart. There’s a whole world out there, and they think kind of different to us. And they have wisdom and history and culture up the yin yang.. And what’s more! They’re happy to sit down and and share it. And they want to know what we know and they want to share what they know. And it’s bloody magic mate.

“Really? Do I have to look at another photograph of you guys looking indecipherably happy? Want another pint?”

So it did not take very long. To have that adventurous spirit snuffed out.
And my strength to go on came from an unexpected source.
My mother.
My mother who I had battled and raged at and defined myself against. My fortress of books and music, and poetry and art and philosophy – protected ME from HER. And feelings she could, of course, never understand. Because I was not HER. And she was not ME.

But damn. That Tolkien. He brought us together. In ways neither of us expected.

You see. While I had been away. Fleeing my past in the same rhythm that I sought my future. Both of us had grown. Of course, at the time, I believed it was only me. But that wasn’t true. She was different, when I turned up again on her doorstep. She had lost her mother while I was gone; my grandmother who was all love and custard and with whom I felt safe. My mother was softer in her very private grief, and I think our need for each other’s company and care came together perfectly. I had done something she could not imagine doing. I had earned her respect. And in caring for me, she earned mine.

I will forever remember the gin and tonic she brought to the hospital, hidden in the Pepsi bottle.

She told the doctors, who kept insisting on the skin graft, from my upper thigh to my calf, that if they just let me go outside – in the sun – for an hour or two a day – I wouldn’t need that skin graft. They scoffed. They were little older than me. Sure and arrogant. But unlike me, they were not lying in bed being told day after day, “You will never dance or jump again. You must lead a life of care and caution. You are handicapped, we are sorry to say.”

My mother would have none of this what she called “negative thinking”. She had been a nurse before she met my father. She was a healer in all ways. Eventually they ran out of reasons not to let me sit and read Tolkien under that beech tree in the hospital grounds.

I read the entire Trilogy while the sun worked its magic on my muscle and skin and bone. And deep in my bones, I knew it was about LETTING GO. My time ‘abroad’ had taught me many things. I was less sure of what I knew but more sure of myself. I knew there was another side. And I knew I would never forget it. I knew it was possible to disagree on many, many things, but that that the things that hold us together go deeper, deeper even than our skin. I had, accidentally, stumbled upon a new humanity, that took care of the sick, that listened to the elders, that tolerated the young, that respected the forces of nature that weaved their cruel justice into the tiniest cranny of faith. And that faith, somehow remained. I learned the same thing, country after country. I listened to the gossip and slander they loved to share about each other, they were petty and jealous and all of the things we are, but. At the end of the day. They knew something we did not. They knew they needed one another.

And when I returned and did cartwheels in the sky on the A308, and that poor woman who forgot to indicate left, and my poor boyfriend who accelerated too soon – the CRASH. I didn’t lose my leg. I was whisked away in an ambulance. Delirious. My boyfriend looked – crashed. And the woman. I never knew her name. They were both in shock. I must have been too. My only thought. I remember it now. 40 years later. It was this. Are you ready to die? And the answer. It flooded through my veins. “Noooooooooooo! Let me learn!!!”

And I did. Stubborn and dull-witted as I was. I learned so so many things in that time. I learned I was not a hero. I learned I needed my Mother. I learned how to be someone who could learn. I stopped being what my teachers had said in my school reports UNTEACHEABLE.

Because LIFE IS OUR TEACHER. Life will teach us, if we let it – how to grow in a way that makes the most of our dreams, both lost and found, and found again.

The key to the wisdom of the camaraderie of the RING was this. I cannot put it better than Malcolm Guite the Olde. “Cease to possess it, and it will cease to possess you.”

He was, or course, referring to the RING. The ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL. But the RING means what each of use hold desperately to as the definition of our truth – our ILLUSION of CONTROL. All ideology ended for me, in that erosion of time on my mother’s couch, as my bones healed and my mind melted and knew in my boisterous 18 year old mind that I would never be the same again. I never could believe it any more. I could never believe it ever again. The forced LIE. We all, the creatures of Middle Earth, we all, had moments like that. The only difference between THEN and NOW. Is that now I know I am not alone. And neither are YOU.

Malcom Guite was right about Tolkien. I didn’t know it then. But what I was learning on that couch, all those decades ago, was how the fight must always COME HOME. When we revert to LOVE AND TRUTH to the power of the ONE RING fades. Because we don’t need it for ourselves. Because we want it for ALL.

The DARKNESS OF MORDOR will end when we choose it to end. It is we who allow it to enter. It is we who decide to bow and scrape to serve it. And it is we who RESIST its ATTRACTION, it is we who gather its hat and coat and show it the way out. And every one of us has that POWER TO RESIST WITHIN US. We were born for better things than this.

Cease to possess it, and it will cease to posses you.

I will talk more about this another time.


About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
This entry was posted in epoche. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The wisdom of the letting go

  1. daskarblog says:

    Love it. I can picture every step of the way! However, the text needs just a little editing.

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