The first time I remember noticing it was when I was a toddler. I had a picture book I loved to read. I would lie on the floor in the side room of the hotel my parents managed, head propped up on my arms, staring and staring at the pictures. I can remember everything about those times. How I would cycle between complete absorption in the pictures, feeling so in the scenes that I could feel, hear, smell everything in them, and then a sudden awareness of everything about me. How it felt to be stretched out, my feet swinging behind me. The carpet pressing on bare legs where they touched it. The sounds and smells of the hotel as its routines unfolded – lunch, afternoon tea, cleaning, guests checking in, guests checking out.
It didn’t feel like two worlds – one real, one imaginary. I don’t remember thinking that they were different. Just part of the same thing, the same experience of quiet absorption in the experience of life being lived. ‘Virtual’ and ‘real’ sensations tumbled about in my head. I could ‘feel’ the resistance of the hard typewriter keys with the little ridge of metal all around them as I listened to my mother typing in the office, could smell the pies fresh from the oven in the bakery of my book. My legs would tense a little in sympathy with the sound of a waitress walking by with a silver tray heavy with plates. Being in the world was a fluid thing, no need to fix, to formalise, to explain.
Sometimes (well, often really) at school I would get into trouble for not paying attention. I longed to be able to tell the teacher that I was paying attention, just not in the way she meant. I would try hard to concentrate on her voice but my mind would get lost in contemplation of the sounds of the heating pipes, or the feel of my fingers sliding along the grooves on the desk left by generations of others pupils. I would be writing when suddenly the tiny vibrations in my fingers created by the scraping of pen nib on paper would take me off into a world where things didn’t need to make sense in some intellectual way but could just be melded into you until the difference between ‘you’ and them was no longer important. I look back now and see school as the start of the binary time – when you were told that real life was the life of consciousnesses of self, of paying attention and making sense in ways that were prescribed and structured. Of leaving behind full absorption in the world, which we were taught had a (pejorative) name: day dreaming.
I often wondered if this was what everyone felt like, how everyone experienced life, or if others found this binary living, the solid world, easier than I did. It’s something I have carried with me through adult life. As a deeply shy teenager struggling to work out how to be in the world I struggled to let go of that need to ‘be’ like that (as the world wanted me to let go, I learned at school). As a more confident adult I can pretended now more easily that paying attention to the surface of things, the bits that lend themselves to rational explanation, to analysis, is what really matters. And then I go to a concert and all pretence is abandoned.
I have no intellectual engagement with music – much as a try to learn about, be interested in it, at that level. I can be curious about its mechanics, its logic, now and again. But as soon as I sit down in the audience the need to think is overwhelmed by the need to feel, to experience. I sat down a few days ago in the Wigmore Hall to hear Ann Hallenberg sing with the Classical Opera Company. As she walked out on stage I instantly felt myself let go of formal thought, I was here for this. For a singer so skilled, so powerful, that I could safely count on her to take me to that magical place where ‘being’ was enough. No need to think or rationalise or judge. Just sit there as these incredible sounds created such a tumble of sensation that sense of self, of life, of things to be managed, done, dealt with could slip away.
Effortlessly the sounds plunged so low you felt yourself falling with them, then just as effortlessly you felt sinews stretch up as the notes climbed up and up. I have no idea how a human being can do that, but I am so grateful she can. The world wants us adults to pay attention so hard to so much that removes us from our sense of simply being, that distances us from the essence of our spirit in the world, from that ability to be with others quietly, observantly. Perhaps for religious people this can be achieved through prayer or contemplation of God. I often think music must be my religion. Not all music, not always. But when music as beautiful as that is played and sung as perfectly as that, well then yes it does feel spiritual. I long for it almost physically, chase it like an addict.
I have no rational, technical, analysis of that concert to offer. I cannot explain if this cadenza was good, that aria better than another. But I can offer my experience – my experience of utter joy, of freedom from the endless impoverished world of rational thinking and surface level being, of time held in abeyance while life energy at its most fully spiritual is replenished. Our lives are so filled with noise, and busy-ness, and demands to pay attention to the surface of our experience here on this amazing planet. Ann Hallenberg’s singing cuts through that, her voice and artistry craft a magical place where we can once again simply be. Be thrilled, be absorbed, be stilled. Really with music as beautiful as that I need nothing else. I am that little girl lying on the floor again. I am neither here nor there. Neither this nor that. All is fluid, I am swept into the sea of experience, fully alive, experiencing life so directly and richly and fully I long for it again almost as soon as it ends. Could anyone give us a more precious gift than that?