Uncategorized

Being Brought Low

IMG_8865Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.

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Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.

Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.

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Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.

What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become

but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.

Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.

Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”

poetry, Uncategorized

Between Boundaries

When bicycling, you feel the wind brush your skin, and you inhale the landscape. When walking, however, you can move slowly enough to notice things you wouldn’t otherwise. You can easily stop and look closely; you can pay attention, and perhaps that is an important reason why walks are often refreshing. It’s not just the movement and blood circulation walks offer; it’s the opportunity they open for your mind to wander associatively, weaving together your feet with your breath, body, and the earth. Thoreau, in his essay, “Walking,” writes about those who go sauntering—roaming the countryside under the guise of going to the sainte terre, the Holy Land, but who were actually simply wandering the countryside. In Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Late March,” the poem’s speaker takes a walk. If you also read the poem as a walk, as Ammons suggests that poetry is, and saunter along with Hirsch through the poem’s landscape, you might find that by the time you reach the poem’s final lines, you’ve found a way to arrive in a kind of sainte terre.

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Hirsch describes “Late March’s” setting details vividly. You sense the landscape with your body as the walker journeys, and you read: the biting cold, the sky blue as in a Magritte painting—how winter has left so recently that if you look hard, you can “almost see it/ disappearing over the hills in a black parka.” At the poem’s start, Hirsch never states that the walker sets out with a specific purpose. The path he takes very well might be one he travels frequently, but this particular walk occurs on the first day of spring, and something unknown is surfacing. You can feel the lightness Hirsch describes in the air’s chilly sting, and in his use of imagery—how “the skyscrapers stood on tiptoe,” in addition to the very sounds of the words he uses, the near weightlessness of the numerous “s” s and “t” s in the second stanza’s second half, that add to the sense of release. As Hirsch moves into the third stanza, a sense of airy quality continues in images he chooses of the moon as “a faint smudge” in the sky’s “vacant mind,” and seagulls that emerge “out of vapor,” while all along, an opposite force, some sense of gravity, pulls the walker down to the sea.

By the time the fourth stanza appears on this walk’s horizon, the reader notices a boat. The suspense created earlier in the poem with the wind whispering a secret to the trees, now expands into a fanfare for passengers leaving for unknown destinations. As the boat leaves its pier, Hirsch describes some of those left on shore as “jubilant,” others as “broken-hearted.” It’s here we pause in our walk because as the boat sets out across the water, the poem, too, moves further into its depths: the poem’s speaker says he has “always been both.” We understand now that while the walker in the poem may have started out simply to stroll, he ends up on the shore—a borderland where he stands between realities—and that the experience of living in this in between state is the poem’s destination. The poem is a walk, but imbedded in the walk is an exploration of those moments in our lives where we are brought to stand at a frontier between worlds—between winter and spring, shore and sea, grief and joy—and find ourselves participants of opposite realities at the same time.

The border world is a liminal space of transformation and possibility. Standing in that boundary area makes us aware of our aloneness. This is not a place others stand with the walker. In his last stanza, Hirsch highlights this idea in his description of how the boat “rumbles into the future” the crowd cheering the departure on, their cry cutting the air, “like an iron bell ringing/in an empty church.” A bell is meant to call the faithful to gather in common recognition that they’re not just on a journey through time. They share life together. In Hirsch’s poem, however, the sound is heavy as death, and the church is empty. Traditionally, cathedrals have a nave, the long, central portion of the church where the congregation sits. Symbolically, because the nave is also in the shape of a cross, it represents sailing across the life’s ocean together, recognizing in that journey, the need to live together in awareness of the love given them in Christ’s life and death. In Hirsh’s poem, however, when the ship sails out of sight, the crowd’s cheering ceases, and the community disperses. The experience is a kind of death, the people on the ship—those who were the cause of celebration, have gone. The walker is left alone, deserted.

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In the poem’s first stanza, the poem’s speaker says he is alone, and he carries as his companion, “a book of the Alone.” At the end of the poem, the walker is still alone. “I felt lucky to see it off/ and bereft when it disappeared,” says the walker of the boat. Underneath the noise, expectation and excitement, in the turning moments when others or we ourselves move off into the future and change, we experience the loss and emptiness of what we left behind as well. Beneath and beyond the celebration, we’re alone in working out how we will embody the transition between worlds. Part of us cheers, part of us cries as we stand there on the dock between worlds. “What are these comings and goings about?” we wonder. “What world am I a part of?” We are forced to contemplate who we are, and to notice we participate in more than one world at the same time. All we’ve experienced continues as part of us, even the worlds we’ve only imagined.

Significant moments of change in our lives make us more conscious of the multiple realities we participate in. But in actuality, we’re always standing alone in the liminal doorway between worlds. All of life is a turning, a greeting and a parting, a birth and a death. We don’t get one without the other. Whether the journey in this poem is about life, or death’s great journey into the unknown, a part of us is always dying while part of us is also being born. In Hirsh’s poem, the seagulls, creatures who live out their lives on the border, dip into both sea and sky crying out, “Don’t let our voices die on land,” as if to speak the words those who have departed on the ship are thinking. I think of the many, both past and present who have left their homes, sailing towards some vague notion of a place holding the dream of a better life in a different land—the bravery it takes to leave, but the courage, as well, to be those who stay behind, either by choice, or because they’re unable to leave. They, too, want to know their voices will not die on the land they’ve left—that their story continues on.

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What is it about, this walk to the sea where we see a boat leaving for some far place we don’t even know—this journey that ends in no journey? What is our walking for? Some years back, I traveled to the Farasan Islands off Saudi Arabia’s coast. Before going there, I imagined the islands as so remote that visiting them would be like venturing back in time, where I would witness another way of being—a place somewhere like Sana’a, Yemen’s mud city, but smaller. When I arrived on the Farasans, however, I noticed people lived in concrete houses similar to those in the city where I lived. They drove cars through the town, stopped at the grocery stores and carried on life as people do in many other small towns across the world. I learned, however, that the islands had mangroves, a castle, some abandoned homes cut from ancient dead coral beds, and a mosque with an ornate and beautifully carved façade—all unexpected and wonderful to experience. In “Late March,” the walker’s journey leads to a place where sky and water meet—a place between known destinations, and in that frontier space the walker stands alone, participating equally in both joy and sorrow, joined to opposites at the same time. As sainte terrers, we roam the world telling stories and creating meaning. But what things actually are, is often different (and frequently more) than any story we might shape. What if we let our journeying lead us to a place between, like the walker in “Late March,” where we simply stood on the shores of our lives, open to the comings and goings, the joys and sorrows, equally willing to experience it all? Maybe the Holy Land is found when we allow ourselves to stand between boundaries and move beyond definitions of this and that, here and there.