While I complained in last Sunday’s post about a lack of poetry for guidance and companionship on this journey of mine, I mention two poets today who have shown up, not dense with forced left-brained cleverness and demanding of me an intellect I do not or cannot lay claim to. Walt Whitman is one; the other is William Stafford, whose last published collection in 1993 is aptly called The Darkness Around Us Is Deep.
Both poets owe their identity in part to their roles as noncombatants in wartime. Whitman, an anti-slavery Northerner, worked as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals. Stafford, a pacifist, was a conscientious objector during World War II. As I read their poems, each shows what it is to be in touch with what is human in them, and they generously invite the reader to do the same.
That humanity finds expression in what I’ve come to understand as a mystery that reveals itself where Scripture, “holy texts,” or whatever you want to call them, converge with poetry. Both find at the core of being human a condition of woundedness—a suffering that takes many forms, physical and psychological, and cannot be escaped despite a tireless pursuit of happiness.
I can’t vouch for doctrinally sound (officially approved) readings of Solomon’s Song of Songs, but how more wonderful a way to express the soul’s yearning than to speak of it as the desire felt by young lovers? Anyone who has experienced separation from a loved one knows the intensity of that kind of “suffering.” And what a metaphor for the human condition.
Because happiness in our culture is usually conceived as material and imagined as contentment, it does not make much sense to be told that God enters us through our wounds. But when brought by circumstance or necessity to matters of mortality, such a notion assumes a resonance that’s harder to dismiss—for me anyway. Meanwhile, thanks to metaphor, what I can observe of the visible world around me takes on a resonance of its own.
For example, after more than a year of drought, there was a dawn downpour one morning this week. Out on a walk yesterday, we studied the patterns of sand and mud left in the washes where runoff from the hills swept past our neighborhood. Standing in bright sunlight under a now cloudless sky, one could feel the force of that moving water and understand how weathered rocks can lie scattered across open areas of desert, not having fallen from the sky as they seem, but pushed where they are by some long-ago, forgotten flood.
The desert has stark lessons like this; the hold we may seem to have on the solid surface of what lies under our feet can dissolve in an hour; a weight we could not lift with the strength of both arms is set to zero—less than zero—and we fetch up in some new place, with a different view of everything. The next time the moon looks down, it must search a while to find us, with that look of surprise it often gets.
Sitting down in the patio on another morning after the storm, I noticed what I’ll call “ungrowth rings” marking the evaporation of a puddle of rainwater on the table beside me. Gone now, the water molecules ascending into the dry desert air, they have left this trace of their presence after a descent from the sky only a couple of days before.
In a sliver of time during the usual mental running commentary of Radio Ron, I saw them as a metaphor for the shrinkage of whatever prevents spiritual awakening—like a reverse growth of a tree’s rings visible on a cut stump. Both became evidence of a mystery at work in the universe that science can account for but still leaves you in a state of wonder.
That state of wonder is a good one for me to be in. A sense of mortality actually finds a niche somewhere in the complexity of it, and there is company to be had there among poets. Part of me would like to gripe about the literalist reading of Scripture I was once taught—a reduction of it to bald facts, lifeless as an algorithm—and with little depth of feeling for how to live day by day in a state of grace.
But another part knows that griping will serve no useful purpose. Better to focus on where mystery pops up next, when it’s ready with more metaphors—and while I wait for that, to recite a few needed prayers: “Help me not be such a jerk” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Plus a mantra lately added to the list: “Be not afraid.”
I am ending here this week with thanks for all the blog comments and e-mails from those who, whether they know it or not, join hands in what I experience as a circle of caregivers, whose words give me much to consider and cherish. Together, you keep me going, one day at a time, even when you disagree with me, challenge me, offer advice and counsel, or just report in with news of what you’ve been up to lately.
Previously: Too much thinking