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.

IMG_2307

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.

IMG_2417

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.

IMG_2314

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.

Uncategorized

Traveling Out to Travel In

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” One of the reasons I have chosen to live abroad is to be able to see the world from different perspectives. Walking in a different world can make you come face to face with the reality that what you may hold dear and precious others may not comprehend. Alternatively, you may be able to see that there is another way of living and being that makes very good sense in the context it exists, or perhaps a very good way of interacting in the world that you could benefit a great deal from if you followed that path.

Sometimes there comes a time, though, when you’ve been journeying out for a long time, and you realize it’s time to come home. Coming home, however, doesn’t always necessarily mean coming back to the same place. It could mean that you need to travel out in order to change. Change is a constant factor in our lives. Life is a river, an energy source that wants to flow, and we need to let it flow through us. We are meant to experience life’s wonder, and live in awareness of it. If we dam river, silt begins to build. Alternatively, if we siphon off all the water into a hundred channels, the river loses its energy flow. Similarly, sometimes coming home to yourself, means traveling out in a new direction, remaking yourself or removing from yourself the things that are blocking the water’s flow so that the silt that has been building up can enter the river and once again flood the land with the nutrient rich soil that allows life to grow.

A few months back I observed a snake hidden beneath the miner’s lettuce growing in the blueberry box in our garden. It sat very still as it hid beneath the shade even though I was weeding around the blueberry’s base. The snake was molting, shedding its skin that was too small for the snake’s body that wanted to grow. When we know it’s time to change, we may need to travel out on pilgrimage, so to speak, into a space without distraction, a place for walking and wandering where we can see ourselves differently and anew, where we can reflect on who it is we are or want to become. Like the snake beneath the miner’s lettuce, we need to be able to lie still long enough, that even though someone else may be pulling out the weeds around us, we can do the work of letting go our old skin so that the new skin can grow, and so we can grow into it.

“Before tourism there was travel, and before travel there was exploration,” wrote Paul Fussell, explaining that in exploration there isn’t a specific path set out. It’s an exploration, a discovery. The path to our new selves may not be a well lit path. How do you know the way? What is closing in behind you? What is opening before you? The children of Israel fleeing Pharaoh’s army as they left Egypt didn’t necessarily know the way through the wilderness to the promised land, but they left anyway. When they got to the sea, they didn’t know how they would cross the water. The way behind them was most certainly closed off, but the way before them opened, even though it appeared there was no way it could occur. Maybe the story is a metaphor, or maybe it’s what really happens to us when we set off into new territories in our lives. It takes courage to begin such a journey.

When we are young, we have marked points of transition, a driver’s license, graduation, college, a first job, marriage. When you grow older, there are no fixed points for transition, yet we all go through them. They are subtler, more fuzzy around the edges. Maybe we all need to invent ceremonies for ourselves, rituals that physically demonstrate the fact that like the snake in the garden, we are molting. We are changing, or have changed. We are entering a new era, we see things differently, or we want to–we want to understand how to re-envision who we are so we can integrate all we have been and done in our lives, what it is we have become so we can give it away.

Maybe during this transition we start to let go of things we have lived with. I’ve noticed how a number of people getting ready to make transitions clean out their closets and garages. It’s a natural part of moving, and in the process, we realize we don’t need everything we thought we did. We see newly that we can live with less and actually have more. What matters most are those we love, and how we can give away who we are, what we’ve taken our lifetime to become. As our eyes weaken, they are opened to the understanding that time is a kind of Holy Land, and we want to live in it by sharing it with others. We want to give away what it is we have created through the whole of our days so we can become ourselves, so we can become whole.

Thoreau, in his essay on walking describes the word saunter as those who were seeking the holy land, the “word is beautifully derived, ” he says, “from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la saint terre” — to the holy land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a sainte-terrer’, a saunterer — a holy-lander.'” There isn’t enough sauntering in this sense of the word these days it seems, and yet I think we long for it even as the literal wilderness around us diminishes daily.  It would do us good to saunter out on literal walks, or interior ones, but walks where we wander out into a wilderness, where we create silent space in our minds and hearts, or even a small space where we can lie in the shade and do our work of molting. Moses, after all, lifted up the snake in the wilderness for the children of Israel, and when they looked on it, we are told they were saved. Those bitten by snakes did not die. Maybe we will not die either in the process of our transition, even though we fear such journeys, such changes.

Do you recognize that you are on a journey, or do you realize you’re getting ready for one? Eventually, we will die someday. That is a journey we must prepare for with smaller journeys out into the wilderness where we discover who we are and what we are here for. Time is passing. I ask myself, am I living the life I want to live so that when I get to the end of my life and am accountable for my days, I will know I have used them well? I want to have made of my life something that is beautiful, to give an offering back to the world as best I am able.

We journey in order to come home. We leave the garden in order to be able to come back to the garden and know it for what it is. In the words of Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” “So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”

Where are you now? What is your journey?