what is ordinary

POSTCARD#303: Chiang Mai: I picked up a carton of milk in the supermarket with the label, “Plain Flavor”… looked at it disbelievingly; hmmm, if it is plain, how can it have a flavor? I was wrong of course, according to my Thai niece M (see the M posts) who is now 14. She explained to me that a Thai company makes the milk, and it is ‘plain flavor’, in Thai; รสจืด rod jeud, because there are so many flavors in Thai food, something that is ‘plain’ has its own flavor, doesn’t it? How could it not be like that?

Yes but the milk in that carton is manufactured, created in a laboratory with cow’s milk as a starting point for all kinds of elaborate subtleties in taste. So let’s agree that cow’s milk is the ‘real’ taste, okay? Extensive experimentation and proliferation spin-offs arrive at the so-called ‘plain’ flavor, a laboratory product that mirrors the real taste of milk. I see it this way because in the West (and that includes the whole of the Indian subcontinent), we are part of the Great Cow Culture; consumers of cows’ milk, we are the children of the bovine deity.

From South East Asia to the Far East, it’s a rice culture, so there’s a proliferation of rice products parallel to the milk culture – no real familiarity with milk. I heard from Japanese friends that in a confined space like an elevator, the Western body sometimes gives off a noticeable smell of sour milk. Ah well, I lived in Japan for three years and nobody said anything to me about such odors. Maybe they were being polite. I drink milk, therefore I am (an upright, standing-on-it’s-hind-legs, cow person).

Jiab says what difference does it make, the whole thing is perception anyway, and why do I have to go on and on about something as ordinary as cow’s milk. It gives me pause, as some things in Thailand do, but what does ‘ordinary’ mean? I’m deeply familiar with the taste of cows’ milk, from childhood in the North of Scotland, the place I was born. I remember warm cow’s milk from the body-heat of mama cow at breakfast time on my grandfather’s farm, there in the half light before dawn.

I remember the constant wind, the sharp clear air, and summer sun shining all day and all night (latitude: 57.4778°). I couldn’t now say it was ‘ordinary’ there, a Viking consciousness of the North, proximity to the Arctic circle where morning emerges from the glimmer of light all night, because it never gets dark in the summer time (see ‘Insomnia’ movie 2002 starring Robin Williams and Al Pacino). The school holidays, full of light, all through the summer months… an endless time.

Winter is the other way round, there’s hardly any light at all. Sharp rebound on the opposite wall of the court. Extreme is not the word, when I bade farewell to the windy, blustery North and headed South, it was hard to believe weather conditions could be so … ordinary? What is ordinary? The absence of that vital quality of what a thing essentially ‘is’. At that time, the adventure had been intense, ordinary things were extraordinary – I didn’t know of any other way to see the world. I didn’t see that the polarization was caused by this confusion of thought underneath everything, just circulating around a great chasm of uncertainty.

Never-the-less one perseveres with the needs of the journey and on to locations where the surroundings are extraordinary, and familiar in that sense. I just kept on going, driven by the need to fill the empty space inside me with something – that underlying Buddhist sense of lack (although I didn’t know that ordinary things are, somehow exceptional), and learning how to not want to fill the emptiness with everything and anything.

Then seeing the Truth of strawberry, vanilla, chocolate, and coconut flavor, as well as the Plain Flavor, along with all the others to form an endless proliferation of choices that distract the mind for no purpose other than alerting the innate creaturely hunger.

Thus hovering on the edge of awareness, I fall into the realm of samsara without end, but Awareness picks me up and I’m back in wakefulness again. Mindfulness (of awareness) exists because my attention to remembering it is activated as soon as it’s not there …

A sense of the universe, a sense of the all, the nostalgia which seizes us when confronted by nature, beauty, music – these seem to be an expectation and awareness of a Great Presence. [Pierre Teilhard de Chardin]

Thank you M for writing the Thai for rod jeud (plain flavor)

grown-up children

POSTCARD#301: Chiang Mai: I got back to the apartment in the afternoon, slightly deaf and the feeling of being shipwrecked. It was the immediate sense of the journey that brought me here, the tuk-tuk, lady driver’s alertness and skill in what was for me a sudden urgency of speed. And those of us who don’t know the Thai tuk-tuk, it is a three-wheeled vehicle with a low canvas roof and no walls. The sound of its 2-stroke engine enhances the sensation of the whole vehicle entering into the passenger’s body/mind consciousness in a strange embrace, and it’s this, only this, that prevents you from falling out. That’s how it was for me; like gale-force winds, the whole outside, rushing through the inside, and everything on either side shielded from view because of low headroom and overhang of canvas roof. So the only place to look is over the driver’s shoulder, through her small windscreen and thus captivated by the directionality of the journey hurtling through a wormhole in space/time, and plunging towards a vanishing point that looks like it never arrives.

Definitely, it would have been easier without the large cork notice board I was clutching, fingers adhering desperately to this ‘thing’ measuring 47½ inches by 31½ inches, that wanted to be a sail in a sailing ship. Perhaps buying it in that discount place slightly out of town (and taking it back in a tuk-tuk because no car available) was a foolhardy idea, now it was tugging in the wind, and I’m seeing the very real possibility of it escaping my fingers and flying away like a kite without a string. But it didn’t, we reached the place, and tumbled out on to terra firma. The board and its sudden flatness, placed on its narrow end, up in the elevator and into the room.

Why this sail-like notice board, uncomfortably dwarfing nearby objects which shuffle out of the way to make room for it? Well, I could fix it on the wall with a hook, but right now it’s good just standing and leaning against the wall. I can move it around and pin things on it with a small box of pins I got at the discount shop. What things get pinned? Drawings that would be otherwise hidden, animated scribbles, and things developing more and more into what we can say is Art.

Let them see the light of day! Exhumed skeletons from long ago and far away, when and where I was an artist, intending to be an easel painter, studied 4 years in art school, exhibitions and all of that. Then one day my investigations led to a dead end, a place where everything was called into question, Creative Block… one’s own worst enemy. So I gave up, became an anarchist, conceptual tight-rope-walker, then stepping into the light, a teacher and the world of respectability. Anyway, the path led me to where I am now – that was decades ago and I’ve carried this sense of incompleteness all that time. So now, thanks to voices of encouragement from blogging friends, and my Thai niece M aged 14, I’m beginning to see that there is a way out of this conundrum.

Bring them out of hiding, pin them on a board: I had planned it only this morning. I have a printer so, cut, crop, say it’s finished, print and pin it on the board. Rediscovering these old plans for pictorial adventures and voyages long forgotten, pin them on the board as they are. With that, no tugs and pulls, push and shove, everything becomes neutral, non-intrusive random thought mechanisms that function at the edge of a dream pull me into the gentle whirr and flicker of thinking-about-things.

Each page of the world turns over and there’s another, and another. We’re all grown-up children, every song that’s sung, spoken in rhyme, is done in a spontaneous leap of words that, falling to the floor, arrange themselves, themselves.

See the Art page in this blog. Note: photo taken in a quiet moment at the red light