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Solitude, Song & Poetry

When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.John F. Kennedy

I’ve begun reading Diana Senechal’s book, The Republic of Noise. In the first chapter she talks about the “virtual clutter” of our lives–it’s jittery jangle that has us jumping–and how the slow movement that has caught on because people are trying to fight back and regain something meaningful in their lives. The problem, Senchal suggests is connected to “our weakened capacity for being alone and our dwindling sense of any life beyond the immediate scramble.” (p. 5) Senechal works to define a way of living that is neither disconnected from contemporary society, nor sucked into its whirlpool, and writes to help readers define the “strength it takes to do what we find most rewarding. The strength it takes time to build.”

Artists need hours alone behind doors tuned in to their work, she explains. So do we all. In our scramble for quick answers, she suggests that we may be going against what we really want. We need, instead, to be able to stand alone and apart, to know our own thoughts–thoughts not based on what someone will “like” on a social network site. What we need most of all, Senechal states, is solitude.  “We cannot have meaningful relationships with others unless we know how to stand apart. We cannot learn unless we make room for learning in our minds. We cannot make sound decisions unless we are able to examine the options on our own, in quiet, along with any advice or information at hand. We cannot distinguish fads from sound ideas if we have never questioned social pressures and fashions. We cannot participate in democracy without the deep understanding of the issues at stake. We cannot accomplish anything of beauty unless we are willing to spend many hours working on it alone. We cannot endure disappointment, rejection, bereavement, or distress unless we have a place to join in ourselves. Without solitude, our very thoughts tend toward one-liners. Without solitude, we set ourselves up for halfhearted pursuits. The catch is that solitude, by its nature, cannot be a movement. Each person must find it alone.” (p. 9-10)

I’ve recognized for years that I need a lot of quiet time in order to restore myself and regain energy for the week ahead where I interact with people all day long. I need the time to write, do art, go out into nature for a bike ride or walk. I need the soundless open hours for inner thought in order to gain the strength to go on giving the rest of the week, and it’s affirming to read a book declaring the value of solitude. In solitude, Senechal explains, we get to know who it is we really are and how to hold on to that knowing. We live in a society where collectivism (her word) is promoted. But, without knowing how to separate ourselves from a group, she states, we also won’t really know how to create community because we won’t have an authentic self to bring to a group.  Solitude allows us to confront ourselves–our faults and strengths, and gives us the opportunity to practice becoming who we are. It’s not going to wipe away problems but it will give us a way to “collect ourselves,” she explains, and can help keep us from giving up. When we let go of solitude, we give in to the group because we don’t have the strength to “stand up for something or to stand apart…Without time to stand back or the strength to separate oneself, one has little opportunity to form one’s own thoughts, let alone defend them.” This is the root of loneliness, Senechal suggests.

But where are we encouraged to stand apart, I wonder? Certainly, the arts is a place where individual expression is still valued. This is, in part, why I’m attracted to them. Perhaps it is also a reason why the arts and artists have long lived on society’s fringes. Artists live inside their respective cultures, but also nurture a critique of it. I’m reminded of an interview with Ilya Kaminsky on the Poetry Society’s web site. “Writing about blackbirds, in our day and age, is political,” he explained to the interviewer. Everything is political, he suggests. It’s true. People don’t give that much attention to nature, to our connection to the natural world, so, yes, writing about blackbirds, for example, can be a political act.  “Our job is to discover something new and fresh and transformative in language; to tell something unexpected or deeply moving about human condition,” Kaminsky continues. “We don’t get there by avoiding certain subjects all together. To do so is shallow.

” In the interview, Kaminsky states that Wallace Steven’s poem, “Mozart, 1935”, “is one of the greatest poems ever written during a time of war.” The poem describes the artist at work at the piano playing while the “The snow is falling/And the streets are full of cries.” In the way the pianist plays his music, he describes the world’s wordless grief, anguish and fear at that moment in history. The artist gives the humanity a way to express the soul. (Read the full poem here.) This is why the artist shuts the door and does his work, why she goes on doing the slow work of developing her skill, so that she can give back beauty to the world, and the strength needed to keep on going in the dark hour.

Earlier, I’ve written about the value of singing as a way to keep your heart open and to give you strength of heart for each day. A favorite song of mine for this, as I’ve said in a previous post, is O Sole Mio. It lifts the heart even on dark and gloomy days because when you hit the high notes, it can’t but help but carry out into the world your pain and grief as if on the wings of a bird or in the crash of a wave, and you are somehow lifted out of yourself as a result.

This past week I’ve woken up with a different song that has me breaking out into song, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a hymn widely used by Baptists and Quakers alike. Though I’ve no idea what brought it to mind as I’ve not heard it sung in ages, I love the encouragement in the words when thinking of them in relationship to the problems across the world I read about in the news, those learn about from different people’s struggles and disabilities, and as I face each day hoping to give to it whatever is needed. The lyrics remind me that whatever difficulty I or others face, the difficulties of the moment are not totality of life experience. By not taking things completely at face value and assuming a wider view, I can keep myself from being consumed by whatever the problem of the moment is. There is a new creation, I can make in myself while practicing day to day–one not based on fear.

To do this I must center myself elsewhere on a larger, wider, deeper foundation that is drawn up out of the well of hours in solitude. When focusing on this center, the tempest can roar, but inside, I can know the storm isn’t the world. As the lyrics state, tyrants can roar, but their time will come to an end and their power pass away. Love’s truth is bigger. We can cling to that knowing, and in that clinging we can find ourselves restored again.

Living in this mind frame when things are falling apart is difficult. Music is one of the things to help us remember ourselves, and to stay centered. You might like this version of the song, sung with lovely harmony by the group T Sisters.  I especially like Eva Cassidy’s version of the song. She sings it with a gospel flair, and her voice delivers the lines with a soulful power that can’t help but strengthen one’s own soul while listening. Whoever you are reading this, whatever you are facing in your life, I hope you find the way to keep on singing.

“How Can I Keep From Singing?”

My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

Oh though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
Oh though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
How can I keep from singing?

Lord, how can I keep from singing?
Oh, how can I keep from singing.

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Climbing the Mountain of Uncertainty

I’ve done a number of challenging things over the years, at least they were challenging for me. One summer I biked up the west coast of Ireland with my husband, nephew, and two other friends. The most difficult day was biking from Galway to the ferry take off point for the Aran Islands. When we started out, it was raining hard. We crouched behind a bus stop wall as we left the city, watching the rain blow horizontally, hoping it would let up. When we could tell that it wasn’t going to, we pushed out into the wind, riding against it the whole way, making it to the ferry five minutes before it took off. After another fourteen miles of riding once we landed on the islands, we arrived at our bed and breakfast. There, I opened up the bicycle guidebook to read that the ride we had just done should the easiest day of riding up the coast, as it was flat. Obviously, this statement didn’t account for riding into a fierce oncoming wind and driving rain the entire way. What seems like it should be easy can actually be quite difficult.

Several years back my husband and I climbed Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 4,095.2m or 13,435.7ft. The climb up takes hours–most of the day, as I recall, and you pass through several ecosystems as you rise in altitude. Then you stay the night in bunks at the guest house, and rest up a bit before getting up at 3:00am to climb the rest of the way to the top so that you can be there soon after the sun rises, and before the mists engulf the peak. Because you are climbing in altitude, it can be slow and difficult walking once you are at about 10,00 ft. We made it to the top, and the views were truly stunning as the mists rolled into the sun and over the pointed granite peaks and saddles. We began the descent as the mists thickened into cloud, and the clouds began to rain. The walk up to the peak the second morning, and then back down the mountain again took nine hours, and was the most physically difficult thing I ever did. The trail up and down the mountain is made of steps of varying height, and we were walking down them in what eventually became torrential rain. For hours I didn’t know if I would be able to carry on putting one foot in front of the other. There were no rest stop areas, however. What could we do but continue on? So we did. It amazed me how when it had to, the body could move beyond what I thought was its absolute limit.

But challenging as these things were, these physical experiences were, they weren’t the most difficult thing to bear. The most difficult thing I’ve done was sitting by my father’s side day after day the month that he lay dying—knowing he was dying, and just sitting with him, being with him as he climbed the highest mountain, and continued on through the rain and wind, to cross over to the other side.

In California, it has finally begun to rain after months of winter filled with drought. In Montana it is truly winter. Today as I bicycle through our New Delhi neighborhood, the sky has a hint of blue after months of pollution and fog. I glide past smoke from burning heaps of garbage, and women crouched over blankets spread out on the sidewalk, sorting grain, and children playing cricket in the streets. I think of the estimated 100,000 who live on the streets in Delhi.

When someone we know is dying, or suffering, and we don’t know what the end of it will be, we feel open, raw, and especially aware of how frail our strengths really are—how fragile the line between life and death. All we have and are could change so easily, and it has made me realize how every day our very breathing is a kind of sacrament. Our life is and becomes day by day what we are paying attention to. It is what we open our hearts to, how we are listening to the people around us, to their spirit, and what is being said underneath the words.

Or not. Many people from developed countries are removed enough from the suffering in the world to remain comfortable while others in many other places suffer. Ilya Kaminsky in his poem “We Lived Happily During the War” talks about how those who are well off in the world hear the suffering around us, or see it, and feel badly about it—enough to protest, yet still we are able to sit outside on the porch in the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

In this life there is suffering. We might be from the great country of money, but everyone suffers. We might be comfortable now, but in actually, we don’t know what the future will bring. We spend so much effort trying to make ourselves comfortable, aiming to fend off suffering. Suffering comes to all. How will respond when it does?

Recently, a friend of ours who seemed perfectly healthy began to have prolonged unexplained fevers. In the hospital, he learned a rare bacterial infection nearly claimed his life. We don’t know what is in our future. I want the people I ride by on my bicycle, and the people I meet to be well. I want those I love and know to be well, to be whole. There is so much suffering in this city, so many needy, and as I think about and see those who are suffering, I feel each time I’m being asked how am I responding to the needs of the world? Even the planet suffers. What is the suffering telling us? Can we hear what it is telling us about our choices? How can we be whole inside of and in spite of our suffering?

This past week I read these words by Henri Nouwen, “Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu…Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something.” As Nouwen suggests, ours is a society that admires toughness and roughness, values getting things done over being present with another, over listening. Do we counteract suffering by taking action, making change? Maybe the place to start is by being gentle, keeping an open heart, deep listening, presence—these are not easy qualities to cultivate, yet in our deepest selves, we long to know that we truly matter. So much suffering begins, continues on, and expands even into violence because people do not feel that they truly matter, do not feel that their life rests in the heart of someone else who holds them precious. Again, as Nouwen says, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Do we have the courage to be gentle? Can we hold it above productivity and success, above accomplishment? Can we learn to be humble?  We don’t necessarily have to have answers, we can simply sit with another in shared awareness of  helplessness. That can be powerful, even life changing.

How do we know what path to follow in the days we have remaining on earth to live, so that when we come to the end of our days, we will be able to climb the mountain, or find our selves able to keep peddling into the wind and the rain though we feel our legs are leaden, so that we can find the boat that will carry us onward? How easily we get thrown off track of what is important, pulled in to world of worrying about the uncertainties. Thomas Merton in his book, Thoughts on Solitude, suggests that we don’t have to have all the answers. In his prayer, he says, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” We don’t have certainty. Even Jesus’s own disciples asked who Jesus was. And they walked and lived with him. All of us are incomplete. The path we walk isn’t about achievement or accomplishment. It is about walking the path—the journey. It is in our reaching out in the intention to love, to be, and to be made whole that matters in spite of our questions and uncertainty, our incompleteness.

I noticed the trees were filled with leaves today as I rode down the streets, biking not necessarily to anywhere, just weaving back and forth along the pavement, practicing what it is to move, to be alive in this moment just as it is. Breathing in, I said to myself, “peace,” as I lifted my leg on the pedal. Breathing out I thought, “blessings.” Blessings on those around me who suffer. Blessings on the world that suffers because we don’t know how to be gentle. Blessings to all of us traveling from uncertainty to uncertainty.