You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Diary of Opal by Opal Whiteley

I want to tell you about a most extraordinary book.

There are a lot of books that I love so intensely and profoundly and I wish I could share the wonder of them with others. But in most cases I'm aware that though I loved the book that much, it wouldn't really be for everyone. Very rarely a book comes along that is so deeply universal that I really feel that I need to tell everyone "You have to read this book before you die. Preferably as soon as possible."

I'm currently reading Opal by Opal Whiteley again. I've still got the same copy, the Jane Boulton adaption, subtitled the journal of an understanding heart, I found on a clearance table in Fuller's Bookstore in Hobart. And I guess I was really meant to have it, because I lost it once, and it came back to me. I had lent this book to a friend when she went on a holiday and never came back. But some months later I found it in the op shop down the street from my flat. It's the same copy - I'd written my name in it.

It's a diary written by a five-year-old girl living in an Oregon lumber camp in the very early 20th century. And it's one of the most astounding and profound pieces of writing I've ever encountered in my life. The only literary experience I can think of that is anything like it is Mister God, This is Anna by Flynn (again, you have to read it before you die). What makes its achievement more staggering is the fact that it was written by a five year old girl, and one in underpriveleged circumstances at that. Yes, there has been a lot of debate about whether the diary, or indeed, Opal's life story was genuine - you can look all that up and make a decision for yourself, or you could just read it regardless of where it came from.

Opal's diary describes the pure state, in constant communion with the Divine, that children naturally have until they are educated out of it, so blatantly that it's just heart-stopping to encounter. Opal, like Anna, is well acquainted with God, and with all the mysteries of Heaven and Earth, and all its creatures, and she loves all of it dearly and fiercely. She feels everything, absolutely everything, to a degree that cannot be maintained in a modern functional adult. It drives us mad, feeling everything like that. Ultimate reality is too enormous to be held in the human psyche. Biographical information tells us that Opal did not grow up to be a mentally healthy, functional adult by modern standards. But she has left us this precious legacy, this letter to the world from a being who touched the Divine and knew it as being the true nature of the world.

Potatoes are very interesting folks.
I think they must see a lot
of what is going on in the earth.
They have so many eyes.
Too, I did have thinks
of all their growing days
there in the ground,
and all the things they did hear.

And after, I did count the eyes
that every potato did have,
and their numbers were in blessings.

I did have thinks these potatoes growing here
did have knowings of star songs.
I have kept watch in the field at night
and I have seen the stars
look kindness down upon them.
And I have walked between the rows of potatoes
and I have watched
the star gleams on their leaves. 

It's extraordinarily beautiful, and also heart-breakingly tragic. I've read this book several times now and I still cry through a lot of it, either for one of those reasons or the other. I can't read it aloud without having to stop to breathe back the tears enough to keep speaking quite often. It's not easy to face the depth of Opal's reality, but oh, people, it's worth it. Please, read Opal's words, let the constructs you've learned to live be torn apart, and let her voice into your heart. Be someone who is willing to let in the Divine, and to feel deeply, even when it hurts terribly. Be this, as much as you can, just because the world needs it.

Now I have thinks about trampers.
How they do differ.
A week ago one did come to the door.
He gave a gentle rap.
He had a clean sad face
and a kind look in his eyes.
The man said he was on his way
to the camp to get work.
The roll on his back was heavy.
I straightaway did go 
and get my bowl of bread and milk
and gave it to him.
He ate it in a hungry way
like Brave Horatius when we are back
from a long explore trip.
Then, when the man did eat all the bread and milk,
he did split some wood in the woodshed
and pile it in a nice way.

When he did go he said,
"The Lord's blessing be with you, child."
I said, "It is."