When I was a child...

For the longest time, like a child, I associated the "good things" in life with God and the bad, hard and broken times with... well, not God.  I wasn't raised with "Satan/devil" language - and I am still not comfortable with it - although through the years I have come to trust that it does have some limited value.  Still such dualistic thinking began to outlast its usefulness for me some 15 years ago.  Not that I had yet discovered helpful alternatives, but I knew intuitively that one cycle of images had to be buried and laid to rest before another would arise.

I suspect that is when I rediscovered poetry.  I can remember the moment like some born-again Christians can tell you the exact time and location when they received grace from on high.  It was a rainy, cold autumn evening in Cleveland.  My first marriage had ended and I was trying to regain my emotional and spiritual balance.  Dianne and I were wandering through a newly opened Borders when I came upon an anthology edited by Robert Bly, Michael Meade and James Hillman.  I had already been nourished by some of Bly's mytho-poetic writing so I started flipping through the thick paper back.  Two poems jumped out at me - and changed my life.

The first, by Rilke, read:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on his as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies, there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.


Before I realized what was happening, I discovered that I was weeping.  Why? No idea - maybe it was the beauty of the words - perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke was describing what I was discovering - maybe I was being lured by God through my grief towards a new way of living.  Probably all of this and more; I just know that it felt like I had forgotten that church that was out in the East in the wild beyond all that was known and safe and civilized.  And now I was moving towards it.

Putting the book back on the shelf, I wandered around the bookstore trying to get my bearings for a few minutes.  Then I returned and read this poem by Michael Blumenthal:

There is a voice inside the body.

There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, that sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings
for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.

But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin,
he sees the thrush and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.

And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost -
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.

THIS was me, too I felt - wandering, reading poetry, for no good reason, hearing new sounds and making new connections as the mist of the river awakened my senses - and my life WAS never the same.  I had to force myself to buy the book; after all, American men don't do poetry.  Bly writes in the foreword:

While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic to say nothing of the many tongues of African and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside poems, drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and recite...

We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation.  Men blame their own lives for the deficiency of the culture.  For, without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There is a lack of spirit, of vision.  The loss in the heart appears a a loss of heart to take up the great cultural challenges that are part of every man's citizenship. It is in this sense that we have come to think that working in poetry and myth with men is therapy of the culture at its psychic roots.

Rumi helped me find a way past yes and no, good and bad, heaven and hell.  So did Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.  Sharon Olds and Eugene Peterson made me laugh at myself and risk  being open to mysteries I might never comprehend.  Joy Mead and Gunilla Norris speak of bread - how there is death and life together at the same time - and how that is the way God made it.  Same with Bob Dylan, Sarah MacLachlan, Bono and the Boss - and let's not forget Carrie Newcomer.

Knowing bread
is knowing the whole round
of life - shaped
from wood and roots,
bodies of dead animals
peat and grass
water and honey sweetness,
the best of earth's gifts
shaped into fleshiness,
so that we wonder
at its softness:
how it smells like us
salty and moist, good
for one last deathlike gesture
oven burial, home to warmth

then joy in the rising
the finished loaf
our own becoming.

We are what we eat.
(Joy Mead)

These days I trust my encounters with awe and the mystery of reverence are ripening within as replacements for relying on "God is good" thinking. It is less precise, this living with ambiguity and nuance and paradox and poetry, but it is more alive and real, too.

Comments

Black Pete said…
This and Emily Dickenson are one posting split into two parts. We live is a world of clashing dualities, held together by a paradoxical force that denies neither. And bids us accept the same.

I've also heard it said that if you dance while others cannot, you are dancing on their behalf.
Black Pete said…
Ooops--I meant "in a world".
RJ said…
That is so true... thank you: one post certainly gave birth to the next.
Hope said…
Your last sentence reduced me to tears.

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