Michael Harding: ‘The first longing I had was for a bee’
Our columnist revisits his childhood and muses about being as secular as Beckett
“The first longing I ever had was for a bee. I was 9 years old and I had a jamjar and thought that if I could get the bee inside, then my life would be perfect.”
“Can you explain what you mean by the word longing?” the therapist asked, because sometimes she doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
“Well,” I said, “the first longing I ever had was for a bee. I was 9 years old and I had a jam jar and thought that if I could get the bee inside, then my life would be perfect.”
Some of the other boys put pebbles in their jars before they went hunting in the thistles. And when the big furry bumbles were inside, they would shake the jar and taunt the bee; whispering things like – “Die! You little bastard,” as the bee tried to dodge the flying stones.
“But I couldn’t do that. All I wanted was to be close to a bee. There was nothing more beautiful than a bee on a flower. But it was out of reach. So I longed for it. Does that make sense?”
“Go on,” the therapist said.
“I also longed to be a poet. Every time I scrawled on a copybook in secondary school I tingled with excitement at the possibility that I too might become Yeats.”
The therapist listened.
“Then another longing kicked in; the longing for intimacy. The time of novice adulthood, when boys obsess about their erections and crave sex. But it was the softness of being enveloped by another human being that I really longed for.”
The therapist’s face was without expression.
“And then I found the beloved,” I declared. “Which was another kind of longing; to forget my own troubles and reach out to her. That seemed like a perfect recipe for happiness.”
“So what’s your point?” the therapist wondered.
“Well” I said, “my point is that longing is an unfulfilled ache. It’s an ecstasy in itself. I’m not a bee, and I’m not Yeats and the beloved is from another planet.”
“What do you long for now?” she wondered.
“Heaven,” I said.
“Which can never be fulfilled,” the therapist added. “Because there is no heaven in our universe.”
She was getting the picture.
“You’re saying that longing is a verb without an object.”
“Correct. A child can cling to a chair,” I said. “They grip the chair, because they are afraid to risk the first step without it. But when a child gazes at flowers and wishes that they too were a bee, then their heart is open. When we long for impossible things, our hearts open. That’s love. And love is always incomplete. So I long for heaven in the face of death.”
The therapist winched. She’s not really a religious woman.
“Sometimes I too feel as secular as Samuel Beckett,” I continued. “I cling to some small domestic reality and feel as alone as a man on the moon when the spacecraft has folded up the ladder and gone home without him. In fact I often dream of being abandoned on the moon,” I confessed. “And then I wake up in a sweat, suffocating, and clinging to the bed as if it were a barren rock. Am I making sense?”
“Not one bit,” the therapist said, “but go on.”
“One night I was in the kitchen at 4am, devouring marmalade on toast and as the moonlight fell on the floor a great longing arose. As if there was a presence all around me; but hidden. The moonlight felt intimate. The mountain across the lake felt like a person that was gathering me into her shadows. The woodland was enfolding me. Heaven was everywhere, its exquisite tenderness just beyond my fingertips.”
The therapist sipped a glass of water.
“So I went into the lounge and found a Russian Orthodox choir chanting on You Tube, and I sat for a long time, in the moonlight, surrendering to the pain. Surrendering to the wonderful ache in me for the sacred. And sometimes I feel that listening to monks chanting about the serenity of heaven does more for me than all the therapy in the world.”
I was sorry I shared that detail with the therapist. So I returned to the subject of bees.
“The bees were so lovely on the flowers that I would risk anything just to be close to them.”
“And what did you do when you had them in the jar,” she inquired, her eyes penetrating me for any sign of evasion.
“I’d allow them loose again,” I said. “I’d watch them stagger up the air in shock, and fly away into the wind. Because longing always ends in the bliss of letting go.”
There was a pause. Neither of us spoke for a long time. We just watched each other, in silence.