Encounters with Infinity

                                  Originally drafted in June 2020

During 2020, a post on Facebook caught my attention.

Seeing this set me thinking and pondering.

I am a keen reader of cereal boxes, especially in 1972 when I lived in Canada and they were in French and English.  Good for practising my French.

The picture triggers a memory from my early years in Adelaide, the memory of a particular cereal box. I would have been 4 or 5 years old, since we left Adelaide to live in Brisbane a few weeks after my 6th birthday.

I have a clear memory of being fascinated by the Weeties box, which had on it a picture of the Weetie King holding a box of Weeties, with the picture of him holding a box of Weeties, with the picture of him holding a box of Weeties … and so on. I remember understanding that it would get smaller and go on getting smaller, and smaller.

It proved to be my first encounter with infinity. 

That memory has me thinking about other encounters with infinity. It turns out there have been many.

Adelaide in the mid 1940s

King Willie Weetie, winking as he holds a box of WEETIES, on which there is a King Willie Weetie holding a box of WEETIES, on which there is yet another picture of Willie Weetie holding a box of WEETIES, and so on, and so on, getting ever smaller, until it is just a dot, and even the dot is made up of ever smaller boxes of WEETIES. 

A world in a full stop.  How great is that?  My first encounter with infinity.

I realise now, as I share these thoughts, that this discovery will have influenced the way I see the world.

Harris Park, NSW in the 1950’s

Later as a teenager, we lived in Harris Park, west of Sydney.

On one particularly clear and starry night, I remember looking up and thinking how bright were the stars that night. As I marveled, I realised that the light that I was seeing had been emitted from those stars millions of light years previously. I also realised that as I was standing there, taking that in, I was on a planet that would be reflecting light back to that far off star. I was part of its reflected light and that light would take as many million light years to reach back to that star!

Not only that, but this was not just an idea, or a realisation, I comprehended it, it was within me. That was enormous. That was profound. That was my high school physics being made personal, being internalised.

Then it hit me, like having a bucket of cold water thrown over me, that once I realised this, once known in this way, this could not be unknown. 

I could not give back this amazing feeling, this awareness that I was a part of an infinite and timeless space.  Changed for ever, I was.  Bigger than before, but smaller than ever in relation to all else. 

Awe. Wonder. Another encounter with infinity.

Goroka, Papua New Guinea, February 1968

Fast forward to 1968, having completed Medicine and started my post graduate training in Internal Medicine, I had been seconded as Medical Registrar to Goroka in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. On duty for a weekend soon after I arrived, on the Saturday, a missionary pilot who had crashed his plane was flown in and came to us with sever multiple injuries. It was a miracle he was still alive.  

The surgical team patched him up and we settled him in a room in the two roomed building set aside for expatriate patients. He asked if one of his community, a young priest pilot, could remain, to “watch and pray”. I put a chair for him on the veranda. Then on Sunday morning another very ill patient, having his second major heart attack in a month, was admitted into the other room.  He required some intensive work, but settled in a couple of hours. His wife asked if she could “Stay and Pray”, so another chair was placed on the veranda.

We were pleased to see them both settled and stable during the rest of Sunday, but I was called urgently on Sunday night when the pilot needed urgent attention. Having settled him, the other patient developed severe pulmonary oedema.  We worked on him for a couple of hours and won that battle.  It was in the early hours of Monday morning that I returned to the main hospital to check on another patient. As I walked across an open courtyard, I was very aware of the night sky and the stars, brighter, deeper and more infinite than usual. As I paused and looked up, I experienced an immense sense of well-being.  Here were two patients that should be dead but were not, I had no explanation and I did not need to know why. Stars again, and an absolutely immense night sky. It felt like another encounter with infinity.  Both men improved sufficiently for them each to be later transferred back to Australia.

Nepal, December 1970:

From my long friendship with poet Walt Whitman and music maker Ralph Vaughan Williams, the ‘Lark Ascending’, his Fifth Symphony and the ‘Five Mystical Songs’ had become firm favourites. On a four-week trek into the Himalayas in December 1970, I took with me a cassette recorder and tapes of these works. I would ration myself to one piece per evening, in order to make the batteries last the whole trek.

However, when walking alone on a trail that gave me views of the high Himalaya, I would sing at the top of my voice one of the Five Mystical Songs ‘I GOT ME FLOWERS’.

I got me flowers to strew thy way;

I got me boughs off many a tree:

But thou wast up by break of day,

And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The sun arising in the East,

Though he gave light, and th’ East perfume;

If they should offer to contest

With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,

Though many suns to shine endeavour?

We count three hundred, but we miss:

There is but one, and that one ever.

These were moments when I would feel very much at one with the mountains.

I wrote in my journal on one of these occasions

And to have been part of it means to always be a part.

How can I comprehend it lest it become part of me. 

Grandeur, Beauty, Peace  fill the inner me and give me the desire to float out and become one with them; 

to go on into life with an increased awareness of the reality of height and depth; of self and environment”

We count three hundred, but we miss; There is but one and that one ever” has become a mantra, a working principle, a guiding light;

Another encounter with infinity

Scotland, June 1971

Another encounter with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, this time with the words of Walt Whitman, words which reflect the feelings experienced when the music is heard for the first time. ‘On the beach at night alone’ is a story from my travel Journal (Journal entry, June 16 1971, Onich, Scotland)

“Discovering Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, Scotland, summer 1971: Driving through Scotland with my sister Elizabeth, exploring family connections and family history, I heard on the radio that the BBC would be broadcasting Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony” that evening. I had not heard this work, although Vaughan Williams was already a favourite of mine. I suggested to Elizabeth that we camp early so that we could have made our supper and cleaned up in time to listen to the concert. We were able to find a beautiful camping spot in a farmer’s field on the shore of Loch Linnhe. We cooked our supper, cleaned up and with the portable radio moved closer to the shore to listen to the Sea Symphony.

Kaleidoscope of clouds, piled high above the sea loch –  clouds that sail across the sky, music and soft colours softening me, bringing the close mountains near and the far ones close; clouds form and reform – play the wind, as the sea gently laps the shore; as patches of sunlight slide up the hills, lighting the clouds from above and then below; the lap of the sea is gentle, mostly quiet; a sheepdog, on his evening run, loping along the shore, crosses the field to greet us, sits and seems to listen with us to the music.  He stays awhile, then bounds off to continue his run, bushy tail waving in the breeze like another wispy cloud, into the evening through the far corner of the yellow green field, watched lazily by the black faced shaggy Highland sheep; all this to music, now our music, as it imitates the sea and transforms us who sit on its shore; and Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony is all around; each compass point worth our full gaze within this dome of beauty; within this place of peace; within the soft shadow less shades of the Scottish coastal twilight.

How hard it is to describe the setting, for what I see is now but a part of the whole, that sea surrounded by mountains, green and brown and shades of blue; that sky above, around, behind and in front, with clouds from right to left moving across and upwards, changing shapes changing types, all part of a greater connectedness

The music finishes. We linger, becoming part of the Highland twilight glow. Evening’s gentle colour softens the blow of days departure. The horizon seems longer now. There is more to each part of my world now. The wind blows cold, the clouds change their character, as many times as the waves seemed to have lapped. It grows cold without, hands and nose, but warm, very warm within, in the knowledge of what it is to feel the folding of the day.

… … and so to our tent, into our sleeping bags, withdrawing like the closing buttercups and daisies of the seaside field; withdrawing from the now purple sea; where there is less light now, but where hills, shadowed before, are now a new glow in the evening sky.  

As we get into our sleeping bags, we agree that it had been a beautiful evening, neither wishes to let words spoil the magic. What a multi-directional experience, as Elizabeth and I sat in a field,  with the Sea Symphony bringing all together, that sea of waves, of clouds and of hills, of buttercups, of joy, all seas on which to sail, seas joined across time and space in harmony creating their symphonies of life, weaving us into each day as a wave upon the shore rising and falling back, to rise again.

We are awake on Thursday within a soft blue morning, – blue water, blue hills across the water. We breakfast, pack and are ready to move on when I say to Elizabeth “I would like to do some writing before we do so”. She says that suits her, as she wishes also to write.  I write in my journal and she writes a letter home. I write describing the evening before, the magic of the music, the transcendence and the connections that it made for me with people near and far, with places far and near.

On the road again, I share these thoughts with Elizabeth, and discover we had expressed the same sentiments, she in her letter and I in my journal.

Weeks later, in London, I found a copy of the LP record of  ‘A Sea Symphony’. Its box contained the texts of the poems by Walt Whitman which Vaughan Williams had set to his music, and you can imagined how delighted I was to discover they expressed all the sentiments that we had felt, the feelings that the music had evoked within us, sister and brother, sitting on the shore of Loch Linnhe on that special evening in June 1971.

On the Beach at Night, Alone     Book XIX: Sea-Drift: On the Beach at Night Alone

On the beach at night alone,

As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,

As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.

A vast similitude interlocks all,

All distances of place however wide, All distances of time,

All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,

All nations,

All identities that have existed or may exist

All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,

This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,

And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

I marvel that the words of Walt Whitman (1819-1892) were written in 1856, more than a hundred years earlier, set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) between  1903-1909, 60 years previously, first performed in 1910, and encountered in June 1971, by two young Australians, a brother and sister, who felt and experienced what had been written and what the music responded to. 

Resonance and infinity.

And just now, I notice that Walt Whitman speaks of “watching the bright stars shining”, having all the while remembered this piece for his “vast similitude interlocks all.. all distance of place, all distances of time”.

I notice also that Vaughn Williams was about the same age as I was in 1971 when he started writing the work.

Truly an encounter with the infinite.

Kathmandu September 1995

Jotted down on September 8, 1995, in Kathmandu, having gone ahead, alone, to a new posting in Nepal:

“to be anchored in this firm infinity of reality, this network of souls, as I in my alone-ness make conscious connection with those who give me strength, who give me being; and in doing so transform my alone-ness into the richness of being alive with them. But I do miss them so much, being able to touch, to hug and to realise the physical dimension of being with them all, at the end of this grueling week;

Berry, NSW Australia, December 2003

Extract from an e-mail to Leslie, away in Germany with her sister who is about to start chemotherapy:

“The beach this morning was so different. Cloudy bright with several fishermen not having much success.

I walked for more than an hour and a half towards Shoalhaven heads. It felt so good. I had you there with me… just to give YOU some space. There is so much space down there, walking alongside those waves that have been washing that shore for the last million years, and who will be still washing a shore of some sort in a million years’ time. That is space… and that space can hold all our dreams and all our disappointments. That space holds all the energy we need for the day, and for the days ahead.

And finally, Seven Mile Beach National Park, 2006

sunrise on seven mile beach

earth turns.

sea horizon slips

out of its own shadow

into sunrise.

one sphere spins

the other gives day its energy

and light for its shadows

later another horizon

slips back into its own shadow

for rest and readiness for tomorrow.

camping on a beach long before,

from sunset to sunrise

to sunset and beyond

day became an ever setting sunrise

how infinite is that?

Having been so for millions of years

Being so until the end of time

And I realise

If one can grasp that

One can grasp infinity

And grasp I did, and hold:

And that makes a difference…….

Bill Pigott

Prompted by that early memory of infinity expressed on a cereal box, many more memories of my encounters with infinity tumbled out.

When I did a word search on ‘Infinity’ on my computer, I was amazed just how many times the word has appeared in poems and pieces I have written over the years.  There are too many to collate here, so I will leave that for another time.

So, these are some of my encounters with infinity.

To see such as a dimension of the space we inhabit is like an antidote to the certainty that many seek. 

An antidote? You ask. 

Yes, in a roundabout way, infinity is that certainty that accommodates each and every uncertainty faced in our day to day comings and goings, in that space in which we encounter infinite dimensions, infinite connections, infinity.

Meanwhile: –

  • King Willee Weetie is still holding that box of Weeties with its picture of Willee Weetie holding an infinite number of boxes of Weeties.
  • The light of which I was a part as a teenager is still on its way back to those distant heavenly bodies.
  • Music, poetry, and the stars continue to weave me into their magic, into their infinity
  • The waves still crash on Seven Mile Beach, not only there, but all around the Pacific Rim, as they have been since time immemorial, and will be until the end of time…

Such gratitude for such encounters.

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