The Music of the Heavenly Spheres

Schwedagon Pagoda, Rangon

In 2009 we spent 4 weeks in Burma, the maximum time permitted on a visa. For years we’d debated back and forth about whether to go. Does one travel to a repressive regime? Just the year before, monks were shot for demonstrating peacefully in the streets. In the end we decided to go and bear witness. A country closed tight and ruled with iron fists, the poverty and corruption are unbelievable… as are the loving kindness of the Burmese and the beauty and magic of their land. I have been pondering what to post about our trip to Burma and how to write it, because Burma is unlike anyplace on earth.

But these are only words.

Let me begin again, this time with a story:

Sacred Pali script

On our very last day in-country, in Yangon we stopped at a café on a busy street with outdoor tables. All of the tables were filled with other tourists. The locals did not have the money for anything so extravagant. A beer, a pineapple juice, and hot green tea arrived; I wrote out some last post cards. Hovering in the street were the post card seller, a hawker for newspapers (used and days old), and a skinny boy with an endless “Hello? hello! Hello? hello!” When a tourist looked his way he said “Eat,” and mimed someone putting food in his mouth. He hovered looking over the wall dividing the café from the street, persistent with hunger.

I became aware of an ethereal music swimming its way up from the background of my consciousness. I thought someone down the street a ways with access to a power generator was playing a recording of a beautiful, haunting voice. Then the sound came nearer, and it was a young Burmese person. At first I thought it was a man slowly making his way down the road. It was a woman: she had her hair up under a cap and thanaka paste on her cheeks to protect her skin from the sun.

A voice from the Heavenly Spheres
A voice from the Heavenly Spheres

She halted and stood very still as she sang, or chanted verses, or recited a Buddhist prayer. It wasn’t clear if she was singing or speaking and didn’t matter. The purity of that voice pierced all barriers and reached all hearts. Every so often the little metal cymbals in her fingers went ching! in a perfect counterpoint.

When she stopped, the entire café burst into spontaneous applause. People kept getting out of their seats to put bills in the can on a string around her neck. I checked my wallet. I knew my last offering in Burma was going to this young woman with the voice that sang with the music of the spheres. This music usually can’t be heard. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras of Samos believed the movement of planets (heavenly spheres) creates ethereal and earthly harmonies; Shakespeare wrote often about how these harmonies affect events. All I know for sure is that on that afternoon, in a dusty street in Burma, a young woman was channeling that music for us to hear.

I walked out with a 1,000 kyat note, stepped around the restaurant’s retaining wall to donate – and saw my singer had just one leg. She was propping herself up with a rough plank of wood.

This is my final image of the country sometimes called Myanmar. This is my avatar for Burma: a transcendent voice beyond language, standing with only one leg, singing gloriously, regardless.

I will post more about Burma in the coming months.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

The Outback

In The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough vividly depicts a turn of the century sheep ranch in the Australian Outback. The hardships of working an unforgiving landscape, conditions that seem too extreme to be real, and the isolation are all accurately portrayed.

You’re already yawning, right?

All right then, how about this? In The Thorn Birds, young heroine Meggie and the priest Father Ralph de Bricassart, many years her senior, fall in love. Their life long passion is both forefront and backdrop to the fates of a family in the Outback.

That caught your attention!

I’m not usually one for the guilty pleasure of romance novels, but this one works on so many levels that it’s irresistible. Whether as romance, family saga, or historical portrayal, The Thorn Birds is a great read. It’s also accurate to a fault. As you read this book, you experience Australia’s hard climate along with McCullough’s characters.

Uwe and I drove through a small portion of the Western Australia Outback. Our goal was the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and we had a long, stop-every-3-hours to stretch our legs drive to do. The Coolgardie-Esperance Highway goes on with no bends or turns (and very few trees).

We halted briefly in Norseman

Norseman, Western Australia

and purchased sandwiches and drinks for a planned picnic stop. But there was a problem: no picnic tables anywhere. We drove and drove. Why, on such an endless highway, were there were no facilities?

We finally gave up and pulled over to the side of the road.

At least there was a tree and some shade
Note the deep red soil

I got out of the car and spread lunch on the hood. I was too hungry to wait for Uwe, so I unwrapped my sandwich and yummy cake, and gazed out into the endless empty brush.

The Indian Ocean is somewhere on the other side of those mountains

Every fly in the endless empty brush left wherever they’d been snoozing. Within seconds my eyes and mouth, my hands and arms, and my lunch were engulfed with fat hungry insects. My sandwich was rendered way beyond salvaging; it had vanished under layers of crawling flies. I wrapped everything back into a bag to throw away later and contented myself with a piece of fruit (eaten in the car, with the windows all closed).

In case you’re eating your own lunch as you read this I won’t tell you what it is in The Thorn Birds that’s covered in flies. But man, that McCullough sure can write!

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)