The winter solstice is only a few days away now, the shortest day in the year. Perhaps I should be thinking about joy, as this is the Christmas season when much of the world decorates with lights and gives gifts to each other but I’ve been thinking about the thin, winter places of life, where we have less time in the light–what it’s like living in that place where you don’t know when or if the light will be coming. Maybe joy and loss aren’t always separate things.
Currently, I am reading Beloved On the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude, edited by Jim Perlman, Deborah Cooper, Mara Hari, and Pamela Mittlefehldt. In this volume you will find Kenneth Salzmann’s poem, “Musaf: Additional Prayer,” a poem exploring a world where loss and loneliness are well known. The poem begins,
Praised be the one
I have lived contentedly without;
who reveals the Berkshires today
are an unexpected house of prayer
and sorrow, as just one green month
rises to repair a broken circle; whose
search for me is unfulfilled
and perhaps not ended.
The Berkshires are a rural tree-filled hilly and scenic area in Massachusetts. In Salzmann’s poem, they are a place of meditation, one he hadn’t counted on as he has lived without the one who is searching for him. Because the hills are referred to as a house of prayer, though who the “one” is isn’t named, it could be suggested that it’s the speaker of the poem’s father, or possibly even God, that’s searching for him, a search that has gone on for some time, and isn’t quite over yet.
In the first stanza, the writer mentions the sorrow present in this place he is walking. In the stanza that follows, Salzmann describes a kind of paradox, where the loss and sorrow also carry with them a kind of wonder and beauty,
“Blessed is eternal loss and glory, wonder of the universe,
splash of color slipping from a winter-weary wood
that I have often walked alone;
Though the poem’s speaker seems to have traveled a far distance from the one who is searching for him, he finds himself becoming whole again, reconnected with himself and the world around him, “the world finds a voice/ and whispers Shema;” he writes. Shema is the beginning word of the Jewish prayer said in the morning and evening, “Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.” In English this reads, “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Like perfume left in a room after someone has just left, though the writer describes loss, he also leaves us with a sense of a presence that isn’t wholly nameable.
Unending Adonai, help us to go on imagining
that, wherever we go, we have only missed you
by a moment; allow us our untenable conviction
that we might become a blessing.
Though loss is present, though we have missed the blessing of a presence we longed for, we can ourselves become the blessing. We can give to others what it was we so wanted to be given. Salzmann suggests that we receive what we need by giving it away ourselves.
The green moth that in the first stanza repairs the broken circle is a small, fragile and temporal being, yet in the poem it is this moth that makes things new. “Blessed Father, command us to be free,” states the final line, and it surprises. The poem’s speaker asks to be told to free himself. Why would the poem’s speaker ask to be commanded to be free? The joining of wills, however, can give us the strength to change directions, to start anew–to transform.
Like the poem’s speaker, we may not know we are setting out on a journey of transformation as we walk out into the woods–into a place where things are not laid out in straight lines as on a well worn city street, roads we are overly familiar with, or as we travel back, possibly, to a place of origin. When we’re at a loss for where to go, when we’re sad, perhaps it’s a good idea to interrupt that way of thinking and to take a walk. As in Salzmann’s poem, insight can come unexpectedly in the form of single green moth leading us unintentionally to a new insight or discovery. Problems might be less fixed and the worlds we live in more permeable than they appear to be.
“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.”
from Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Keep Quiet”