Ice-Hole in Altai

There is a well-known eastern proverb that goes: ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood, haul water; After enlightenment, chop wood, haul water. This is my friend Vitya, my neighbour, who helped me haul water in the short, dark days of winter. We both had our problems with enlightenment; I was foreign to the land, Vitya was having difficulties with his ancestral line.

The river freezes over in winter closing off the only water supply. Each morning, one of the villagers crosses the ice with an axe and hacks away at the hard surface freeing an area large enough to put a bucket through. Then they leave a stick marking the place beyond which it is no longer safe to lean on the ice. That was last winter. This winter I simply turn on a tap and out it comes. Must remember to tell Vitya. In this story there is no before and after enlightenment, but for me, at least for now, there is before and after two years of living beside the ice-hole. What’s changed?  Why do I miss it? Vitya and I exchanged various essential words in Russian and Altai during our time as neighbours…..wheelbarrow, scythe, clay…. One day, when I really didn’t want to talk to anyone at all, Vitya asked me if I had a rope. It was one of those days, when something mysterious was changing in the village. Something totally invisible yet physically very demanding was engaging my brain and so as I gazed into the meadows towards the nearest mountain ridge I hardly acknowledged my neighbour’s question. ‘Of course I didn’t have a rope. What would I need a rope for.’ I told Vitya that I didn’t have a rope.

‘That’s ok’, he said, ‘You can borrow mine.’ ‘You need a rope for your bucket’. Used to the fact that demonstrating was more effective than explaining, Vitya nodded towards the river and off we trotted. As we both peered over the edge into the ice-hole I realised that the height of the water had dropped dramatically. Just yesterday, the water had flown high. Now it was just a few feet above the river bed. To haul water one either had to lie down fully outstretched on the ice dropping the bucket as far down into the hole as one could reach, or, one  masterfully lowered one’s bucket on a rope into the hole letting it fall to one side to fill with water before hauling it back up again. Vitya had my full attention.

Throughout the winter the level of the water varied. There were days when the current was reduced to barely a trickle and I wondered what kept it from drying up completely leaving us without water. Life hung on barely a few centimeters. After more than 700 days of living opposite the ice-hole, from somewhere inside, I knew that the trickle depended on us. There wasn’t a single villager who didn’t talk to the river in their own way. All those prayers, thoughts and musings went to make the winter a little warmer, making our living conditions just that little bit softer. The water heard us and if we all stopped talking the trickle would dry up. It was in these moments that I realised how the little things in life that you can’t see matter. The little thing in this case was the people’s prayers.  This is what has changed for me in life post-ice-hole. However boring, untimely or seemingly irrelevant the question, I hear my neighbour. Now I know that whatever I do in life the most important thing is to find a context in which I can put my soul into it. Although Soul is invisible it has real power and can be heard by ‘the intelligence between the particles’ in the world around us. A little soul power can be just enough to keep an essential trickle going when the river is threatening to freeze.

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