house on a hill

23-05-2010 09-13-22OLD NOTEBOOKS: Chiang Mai: I used to have a house on a hill in England, so far away from here – it’s just a memory now. I had it for 36 years and it was sold just a few days ago… feels like a part of me has become extinct. Another part of me says, what’s gone is gone, let it go because I never really lived there. I’d stay there for a while, go away to Asia for a year, then come back; very long grass in the garden and generations of spiders.

Curiouser and curiouser it was part of a larger building owned by my Great Aunt Liz, a spinster, a recluse and she could read fortune-telling cards. Aunt Liz gave me the house by Deed of Gift in 1978, then became a bit distant and elderly and quite stubborn about allowing me to help.

I’d send Aunt Liz postcards from the places I’d been and bring back gifts but she became more and more remote. Our communication dwindled and in the end she hardly spoke to me. When I knocked on her door, she would open it on the chain, smile and say: ah, so you’re back. You’re looking well… then close the door. I’d hear the lock go: click, and I was left outside.

This is how it was, a kind of companionship, no more than that. She was probably disappointed that I wasn’t going to just come and settle down in that place and be what she’d imagined I’d be. But what could I do? Her decision to create a situation for me to have a ‘home’ next door to her was just so kind. There I was in the centre of rural life and the simple rumbling-along of things, but… never for very long, always moving on to somewhere else.


She died in 1989… I was in Japan and it was impossible to return. I negotiated with a relative who inherited Aunt Liz’s part of the house and to cut a long story short, eventually I owned the whole building. Contractors were hired to renovate the place, but it was two or three years before I managed to get back. The house on the hill had long since become a dream… years and years spent thinking and planning how I could go live there in the end, and just get old sitting by the fireside. These last few days I have revisited that same place in the midst of these rememberings, knowing that sometime soon I have to disengage from it – it’s not my house anymore it’s somebody else’s. People I don’t know walk around in these rooms where I used to be, sit by the fireside stare into the flames.

02062011038How long do memories remain? One time I was sitting there burning some old floorboards removed during the renovation of Aunt Liz’s bedroom. The wood was dry and old and good for kindling. They were also painted along the ends – she had a carpet in the middle and painted floor boards all round the edge. It all came back to me when I found it… stuck in the paint on a piece of the floorboard, a human hair – a single strand of hair, quite long. It got stuck there as she was applying the paint. I kept it for a while; would hold it between thumb and forefinger for a moment and pull the tension of it gently… still attached to the painted wood. Then one day I placed the wood piece in the flames and watched it burn away.

Everything is always in the process of ceasing to be, turning into ash. There’s a reluctance to leave, drawn towards the extinguished fire; something peaceful about the absence of everything…

As fire, through loss of fuel grows still [extinguished] in its own source, so thought by loss of activeness grows still in its own source… For by tranquility of thought one destroys good & evil karma. With tranquil soul, stayed on the Soul, one enjoys unending ease. [Maitri Upanishad 6.34]


25 thoughts on “house on a hill

  1. Wonderful writing…

    You know, several people at a recent retreat shared about how their psychological “house” has cracked, or even fallen. Reflecting on this…I thought, “our “house” will always fall…what we think of ourselves…our identity, out delusions even…but the earth will remain. Thich Naht Hanh talks about how we are the earth. The elements of earth are inside us. I’ve found this teaching to be quite relevant as I progress though life.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thanks for this wonderful comment; the house as a created ‘self’ and holding on to the belief in its permanency. It’s a pointer to the Truth that everything is subject to change and fundamentally we are all a combination of Earth, Water, Fire and Air…

    • Interesting, somewhere in my notebook there’s a scribble: ‘rearranging the furniture in the mind’ and I don’t know if I read it somewhere or it’s my own but anyway, the furniture arrangement continues to change as the years go on. Thanks for the reference…

  2. What a remarkable post… I felt I could have written it myself, musing as I lately have been on attachment and impermanence in the wake of moving out of the Massachusetts town my family has inhabited for one hundred years. My grandfather arrived there from Ireland in 1915, and I was the last remaining member of the family… all others have died or moved away. I’m currently drafting a post about the moving experience which should be viewable shortly (I tend to fuss over these things a bit more than is necessary.) It’s quite juicy stuff though, these rituals of physically letting go… I’ve run across quite a few “hairs stuck to floorboards” myself, tangible memories I’ve hung onto for a bit then decided it was time to part with. Funny how I never miss such things once I let them go. Thank you, I always enjoy it when a fresh post of yours pops up in my inbox… Jeff

    • Thanks Jeff, sounds like there’s been a lot for you to let go of, although you’ve seen how it was going to end up for some years already and plenty time to be prepared: “tangible memories I’ve hung onto for a bit then decided it was time to part with.” I’m not at that place yet, attachment remains. What I did notice was that the actual point of inexorable letting-go brings with it such a surge of relief…

      • Often it seems that the things I cling to most tightly (physically or psychologically) are the ones that bring the greatest “surge of relief” and make me say “thank God that’s gone! Why did I hang onto it for so long?”

      • I know the feeling. For me there’s this unaware, like/dislike attachment to things, even a locked-in response to adversity. The discovery often happens when I eventually see it’s driven by habituality, only that…

  3. I dunno if it’s partly to do with the traditions of my people but to me ‘self’ has always been more about place than the physical boundaries of the bag o’ bones. The narrative memories that tell ‘my’ story are always bound up with the landscape I’ve traversed; especially the bits I’ve called ‘home’.

    When I look out I don’t see ‘me’. My life is the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met.

    • Thanks for these words, I feel drawn towards this sense of ‘place’ you describe, and ‘self’ as part of the landscape. Reminds me of grandfather standing in a huge panorama of fields and sky. The climate in the North of Scotland meant people had to be indoors; the house as ‘self’. It was a shared house in those days; the community as ‘self’, but I don’t think they ever had the kind of transcendent consciousness the aboriginal community had then or have now. In the West, any inherited traditions we might have had were devastated by consumerism, and for me it’s been a very long journey away. I stumbled into the Buddha’s ‘homelessness’ and going-forth about 20 years ago. Losing my last foothold in the old country recently feels like a kind of commitment; there’s only the landscape seen from this ‘bag o’ bones’ and everything that’s all around is part of that. Thanks again, there’s an angle on this now that’s quite new…

  4. Pingback: presence | dhamma footsteps

  5. I enjoyed both of these posts, and in particular felt what you meant about a part of you becoming extinct– a feeling the re-emerged when I read your recent comment response that said “losing my last foothold in the old country…” It’s amazing how comforting it can be, without our admitting as much to ourselves very often, to keep a few threads open to the old life.

    There’s a sadness, a lump in the throat, and the realization of no going back that comes with truly putting the last of the old into the ground. We feel as though we’re losing some piece of ourselves, and realize the extent to which we’ve identified with what has been. It’s as if the loss of these routes back, these vestiges of our beginnings and our pasts, have the possibility of marooning us in the unknown.

    Yet we have to make this crossing over from the known into the unknown, don’t we, if we wish to relinquish our suffering…


    • Thanks Michael, you have seen this so precisely; an awareness of something held, an attachment to vestiges of a former life lived in a place that’s becoming more and more distant as the years go by. A feeling so deeply part of the collective consciousness of all North Americans; sons, daughters and descendants of immigrants. There’s an earlier discussion here about the great surge of relief when we eventually arrive at an easy willingness to let it go – a reference to the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth (suffering is caused by holding on to what we like) and, as you say, ‘we have to make this crossing over… if we wish to relinquish our suffering.’ It’s a kind of death… the most part of a lifetime spent acquiring an identity and yet there’s this surprising ease about giving it all away.

  6. Pingback: nostalgia for winter | dhamma footsteps

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.