Eleven days out from the last round of chemo, I feel something like my old self again. Despite another desert heat wave (107° yesterday), I took the dog for a 20-minute walk around the neighborhood, sticking to the shade wherever it could be found. Later, my wife gave me a splendid haircut (see below), and I did something else I haven’t done in a much longer time. I wrote a poem, which had been percolating through the night in my head as I half slept.
This resulted from the influence of finding and listening to the poems of Robert Bly on YouTube. It was spring of 1984 when I spent a weekend in the Poconos at a workshop with him, as he talked of Grimms’ fairy tales and the ideas that were going into his book Iron John (1990). As an advocate of what came to be called the men’s movement, filling what then seemed to be a waiting space next to the women’s movement, Bly was attempting to fathom gender issues as a poet, not an academician.
His approach was intuitive and informed by an understanding of human psychology that didn’t shun the language or framework of spirituality and mythology. That a “men’s movement” never materialized as such is evident from the lack of progress in liberating men that is anything parallel to what has happened for women since then.
|Mid-day clouds and ocotillo|
That weekend with Robert Bly had a big influence on me, as did a compatriot of his, the Jungian psychologist James Hillman (Kinds of Power, 1995). Now in his late 80s, Bly has much the same public persona he had in 1984: a shock of thick white hair, with a wide flowing tie and a colorful vest buttoned over a stout belly. His seriousness is quickly broken by self-deprecating laughter. Though of a different temperament, I can identify with his Minnesota farm boy background, and his Norwegian Lutheran ancestry.
Finding him again 30 years later, I recall the sadness I felt that weekend as the group gathered one last time on Sunday morning before parting. I gave him a hug, and he hugged me back with some words of encouragement I no longer remember. He knew I was leaving teaching and changing careers.
During that weekend, he had given us an exercise during a break, to walk out into the surrounding woods and come back with something we found that seemed to mean something to us. One man rejoined the group with a 4 x 4 block of wood wrapped in barbwire, which generated some amused comment.
I had found a stone shattered by frost into fragments and returned with one of the pieces. I didn’t realize until later that the entire broken stone was probably closer to the truth of who and what I resembled at the time—something rigidly hard and crushed by a force as subtly powerful as a winter’s freeze. Today I can see that’s too obvious. More likely it’s one of those things that preserve their ambiguity to puzzle over forever.
So I’m picking up a personal thread that goes back 30 years to when I left my first sojourn in academia and spent 15 years in the world of marketing and technical communications. You pass through a sequence of portals in a journey like that. It’s not cancer, but there are points of similarity.
Anyway, the poem. It was triggered by one of those divisive political comments friends will leave on Facebook (before I unfriend them). The poem, I admit, is influenced by Bly, who accepts spirituality as a practice of learning what it is to be fully human. That puts it at the opposite pole from the Lutheran background we share, which makes a life’s work of escaping our humanness as something sinful and unclean. Giving voice, in that black-and-white formulation, to the human soul that wants to be known feels like an invitation to punishment, potentially a sure ticket to hell.
Shamelessly borrowing from Bly, the poem resembles the form of the Persian ghazal, made popular in the 13th and 14th centuries by Islamic poets Rumi and Hafez and again now by Bly. Writing it has made a connection with something internal that I abandoned decades ago, whenever it was I stopped writing poetry.
For today, it feels like I found an inner chamber in which to contemplate, without the usual constraints, this new human condition that cancer presents me with. I don’t know whether it will continue, but I’m noting that the room has no roof above, and the night sky is full of stars.
What are you so afraid of, I want to ask.
What scary perils:
That Ebola on the baggage carousel,
Wanting someone to take it home;
The police helicopter circling
Your sleepless neighborhood;
The bought-and-paid-for goons in Washington.
You can bet, when it’s time to deal the next round,
Ron will be asking for more cards,
Without even looking at his hand.
Previously: Time and survival