I read Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us To the Things of This World,” and think he is writing it for me. Arriving again in a new world and culture after moving from India, I see anew the million wonders of this earth, and marvel once more at human productivity and creativity. Living now in London, this is the sixth country I’ve lived in outside of the US. Different than visiting as a tourist, when you live in a place, your threads weave deeper into the fabric of the location. You absorb more of the culture’s spirit and geography, or perhaps it is living in a place that allows it to inhabit you. Maybe it takes most your life to get your bearings anywhere you live. The Australian aboriginals were nomadic people, and sang songs as they walked from place to place—the rhythms, pacing and words corresponding with the landscape’s features as you moved across the terrain—enabling the traveller to recognize their location. Like the Australian aboriginals, many things here in England appear familiar from photos, stories, history, and previous visits, but because I’m living here, the context is new. As I ride the subways, visit houses and museums, and walk the neighborhoods, I see sites I would never see elsewhere. The myriad languages, hairstyles, clothing styles, and the layers of history intermingle here, and rest side by side. When I read, Wilbur’s words,
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
and spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn
my ears grow wide. An invisible pulley is, indeed, calling. I have merely to exit my door and I can see amazing things—an elderly man with long white hair dressed in a pure black suit wearing a crisp, for example, wearing a white shirt and Borsalino hat—traditional amongst Orthodox and Hassidic Jews, or I look up from conversation to discover a man in
a shining red jacket with brass buttons and black beret atop his head hightailing it down the road in his wheelchair. At the National Museum, I see Turner’s enormous painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and consider the feats humans have attempted—both Hannibal and Turner. I stand in the room where Samuel Johnson penned his dictionary, where Handel composed his music, and where Hendrix slept, or visit a bookstore that holds over 200 thousand volumes, barely able to breathe thinking of the explosion of stories, ideas and the immeasurable hours of research and effort that went into their making. How does one take in such wonders? In this city, however, such things are common. Histories are sandwiched together, living side by side. “Outside the open window,” writes Wilbur, “The morning air is all awash with angels,” and this is how it seems here in London. The ripples of lives inter-lap with each other, resonate together, creating an enormous symphony of life. The English countryside needs to remain as it is—gentle and subdued with rolling hills, weather misted over and gray, in order for there to be space for the overwhelming mountains of everything else that resides here in the way of literature, history, and art. To allow sun and the geographic drama of precipices and volcanoes into the scene as well would stagger the body and mind beyond recovery. I drink in this place in sips and gulps. Like the bed sheets and blouses in Wilbur’s poem that “rise in calm swells/ Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear/ With the deep joy of their impersonal feeling,” I sit on the subway and though no one wants to be seen looking directly at each other, I think: for however briefly, I am part of this world. These people with their multitude of ways, languages and thoughts are my people—they fill my life with a new spirit, a different vision of the world and how it looks and behaves. The world can’t remain as it was. It must widen, old ways of doing, thinking and being crack open. Whatever is solid inside will emerge.
It’s a challenge to be here, though, difficult to rise every day and recreate the world again as I start a new school year in a new school teaching with an entirely new approach from all the years I’ve previously taught. When I get to Wilbur’s lines describing how “The soul shrinks/ From all it is about to remember,/ From the punctual rape of every blessed day,” I recognize the difficulty he describes. I know this year I will face a mountain of papers to read and evaluate, and recognize the devotion and energy that takes. My knees are still swollen and recovering from the five-hour hike I took with students through the Stiperstones nature reserve over a week ago now on a school trip. My body says I’m living on the edge of my ability to do such things, best to make way for a bigger change to come. But for some reason I hope will reveal itself to me, I felt called to come here and teach for one last year. I remember walking amongst the damp and drying sheets my mother hung on the line when I was a child. I loved inhaling their coolness, their clean scent, on hot summer days. It would be wonderful if the world were as Wilbur’s description of the beautiful laundry on the line—“Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam/ And clear dances done in the sight of heaven,” but there would be no substance there. We have to accept, as Wilbur describes it, “the bitter love” of the “waking body.” We walk into an ancient building with its beautiful mosaic floors and sculptures, absorb its beauty at a glance—all the time, knowledge, effort, skill, devotion, money and effort it took to make what we see. It astonishes and overwhelms the eyes and heart—the “prodigious reality of the world,” as Octavio Paz calls it. We stand on shoulders that stretch across millennia to make whatever it is we create or do. It is too much to fully absorb. What does it all mean, though, for this one small life of mine? Who or what am I in the face of such giants? The immensity of work done by certain singular humans is not the work for all to aspire to. Numbers and size impress, but bigger, better, more—these are not what love calls us to.
Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”
These words suggest that substance is found in the body. I must do my work, whatever it is: that daily effort—the habits kept in secret that enable us to keep our balance, and making it possible for beauty to float out through them—moving beyond the borders of our actions. The end of Wilbur’s poem brings us back to the poem’s title: “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” We must take up our cross, so to speak, and carry our weight. We don’t love on a grand scale. We love in small numbers, in relationships of twos or possibly tens, and relationship is what brings us meaning and is where we find love. It is doing our daily work, our recognition of that ongoing effort that allows us to stand in awe at the grace in a sweeping marble staircase, powerful words and worlds emerging from writers’ pens, or laundry fluttering so effortlessly in the wind. Though we don’t often take the time to notice it, even ordinary life is extraordinary. When I consider the multitude of people, effort, time and knowledge it took to bring me my meal tonight, it is an astonishing gift—the salmon swimming in the ocean, the fisherman who caught it, the sun shining down on the lettuce leaves and olive tree, the goat eating the grass that made the milk that allowed us to later produce cheese from that milk, the truck drivers, grocery store workers, the cooks who taught us to cook—the collective effort of all that is surrounds and sustains us. The blessings come.