At this time of year, a very strange thing happens. People in different countries across the world get together and sing a song that has its origins in the land of my birth, Scotland. And what is even more strange is that the words of the song are written in the Scots dialect, so that most of us who stand there with arms linked and sing with passionate nostalgia, including many of we Scots, do not have the slightest idea what we are singing about.
I have heard the song sung in America, and in Europe. I’ve heard it sung in China and the Philippines. And an acquaintance in Japan even wrote down the words for me in Japanese; although not being able to read Japanese I have no more clue as to what those words meant than I am confident about the meaning of the original. Yet this song, with its enigmatic message, seems to mean something to everyone who knows it.
For me, it is a song about remembering all those people I’ve encountered in my life, no matter how briefly, who left an impression on me and made me who I am. For life is like that. Sometimes our paths cross in a fleeting moment. Sometimes we walk together for a little way, then our paths diverge and we may never see each other again. And sometimes our destinies are locked together until one of us is no more. But in every one of those cases there is a consequence of our meeting that remains with us long after the companionship has gone.
I am reminded of one such fleeting encounter that I experienced many years ago. I was travelling on a Greyhound bus from Vancouver to Calgary in Canada when we stopped at a small city called Kamloops, deep in the Rocky Mountains, and a girl in her late teens, joined the bus and sat beside me. I must have looked less off-putting in those days. Anyway, a conversation ensued as conversations often do between strangers on Greyhound buses and I quickly learned that she was a Native Canadian; something that I found rather exciting because, to the best of my knowledge, I had not previously met a Native Canadian (or Native American for that matter). She told me that she worked in Kamloops and was on her way home to the small town, a little farther east, where she lived with her family.
On hearing my unfamiliar accent, she asked where I was from and became a little embarrassed when she had to admit that she wasn’t sure where Australia was. She explained that the farthest from home she had ever been was Vancouver; and seemed quite baffled by why I had chosen to travel around the world, especially on my own.
“Don’t you get lonely?” she asked, revealing that my journey was well beyond her comprehension.
“Not really,” I replied. “I always have someone like you to talk to.”
And talk we did, right until we reached her hometown and she left the bus.
It was already late in the evening and since her town was a very small place, no one joined the bus there. We lurched back onto the Trans-Canada Highway and built up speed and I looked out into the darkness where all I could see were the reflections of the other passengers in the glass. And I thought to myself, ‘Maybe she was right. Maybe there are times when I get lonely.’ And I reflected on the lyrics of a song that was popular at the time: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’
I was still thinking of that song some time later when the bus made its next stop and three young men boarded. I had met John and Carl and his brother, Tom in Vancouver. They’d travelled all the way to the west coast from their home in Newfoundland and when I had last seen them, they were about to start hitching back; but in the middle of the night, in the middle of the Rockies, no one was stopping for them; so they had decided to take the bus to Calgary; and as it happened, I was on that bus.
Life is like that. People come and go. When I look at my contact list on Flickr I see people with whom I have travelled some distance and others whom I have only recently met; some remain casual acquaintances, while others have become friends; but the majority are people who have already slipped into the past and with whom I no longer have contact; and I feel a little sad about that. Yet, like the girl on the Greyhound bus in the Canadian Rockies, their impact on my life cannot be erased; and I am sure there will be others, whose impact I have yet to experience.
So as I sing Auld Lang Syne at midnight tonight, in this wonderfully multi-cultural country of Australia, I know that I will be singing it alongside people whose native tongue may be Hindi or Arabic or Chinese or maybe even Shuswap; and none of us will really know what we are singing about. But for that brief moment, we will be one, singing together; and whether or not we agree on the meaning of the song will matter far less than the fact that it does mean something to each of us; and we can accept that, and share the moment together.
My very best wishes for 2011 to you all.