Sunday, September 7, 2014

Too much thinking

Desert morning walk
I am at that point between chemo cycles when I get irritable and grumpy, with lapses of impatience. I’d like to find an island of calm, but the usual routes to that seem blocked. Proofreading the book I’ve been working on brings some relief as long as I can concentrate, staying unstuck and in a creative flow, fully in the moment, not getting sidetracked with my restless complaints.

For a while I thought I’d be talking today about poetry. I like Robert Bly’s and Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi and Hafez (see below). They ring a note that resonates and is hard to find elsewhere. There’s a copy of Mary Oliver’s dog poems in the house, but I can’t seem to tap into whatever it is she is dedicated to expressing. Her little tributes to her dogs seem superficial and sappy. I must be missing the point.

I tried a volume of Raymond Carver’s last poems, but they seem written for some other sensibility, though he was dying of cancer at the time. His quotes from Chekhov got me reading that Russian master of the short story again, but the heavy-handed irony in the few I tried had me putting my Kindle aside and muttering, “Enough.” I feel that literature is letting me down, though I have not yet given up on it. I will discover a poet yet who knows what to say to me and how to say it.

Morning clouds
A good and caring friend tells me to read the Psalms, but I know from experience that they are often laden with anger and fear. They describe a tormented relationship between a punishing deity and a guilt-ridden king calling down God’s wrath on his enemies. Sampling the Songs of Solomon, I find words and images more in tune with a longing for solace. They use the language of human love to evoke the mystical and emotional depth of divine love. I intend to go back to them.

The mind is its own place, said Milton in Paradise Lost, and can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. And as that pops into my own mind, I sense the relevance, especially as they are Satan’s words. Thinking is not only the noise that interferes with meditation and leaves me wanting release from it—some silence, some stillness. It insists on its own reality, its own belief in itself.

Summer evening
How much I would prefer that thinking brought the relief that music sometimes can bring. Listening to old cassette tapes, I can feel a ripple of relaxation in the body and a shifting of moods. Welcome, alas, when they don’t trigger memories of forgotten unfinished business. I can feel areas of the brain, long unvisited, light up, and a flood of dormant emotions comes to life—maybe raw and uncomfortable, like a surprise from Pandora’s box. Which should come with a warning.

And I discover again that part of the work at this stage of life is acts of forgiveness (not self-approval as one may have hoped). The mind in its ready judgments separates us from whatever it is that might bring what we long for. As if I needed some metaphor of my own for this dilemma, I have a brain tumor to contemplate, and time yet to wonder.

Coleman Barks reading Rumi, “Love Dogs”

On Prayer
Two thousand years of prayers for peace,
And the world is madder than ever.
What does that tell you?
My dog is a dog just being a dog.
This is how to pray, she says, flopping onto my lap.
Listen. Even the birds are still,
Somewhere in someone else’s yard.
Ron thinks prayer is talking to someone who isn’t there,
When he’s the one not showing up.

Previously: Flashbacks


  1. You seem to be finding in the midst of crisis that we are more than intellect, and meaning is larger than words. I thnk often of how much the squeeze of a hand can mean, in some circumstances.

  2. Philip Larkin or Gerard Manley Hopkins, perhaps? Both write poems which fight their way out of despair to calm in different ways. Robinson Jeffers- who fits with your Western subject- for a different kind of acceptance in his inhumanist philosophy.

  3. I memorized the first part of Hopkins "Hound of Heaven" when I was a freshman in high school because it was Mom's favorite poem. It certainly is worth reading aloud for both the sounds and thoughts behind them. I can still recite it. Ah, youth with your clean platter of wax on which to record.

  4. Thoughts are seldom comforting. At least I don't find them to be. Sometimes poetry comes out of me because I can't express my pain in any other way that would be socially acceptable. But ultimately poetry seems meaningless too. to go through such a restless period is pretty normal, though. I usually find that mood breaks. eventually.

  5. Ron, I have yet to come across one who isn't looking for that elusive island of calm. I can conjure up images of peace and quiet, of mental well-being, of contentment, merely thinking about such an island which, I'm told, lies not outside but in the recesses of our own self. I find the route blocked too but that is my own doing.

  6. I think self-reflective people are at a disadvantage with illness. They try to find meaning in places that offer none. I would use movies rather than poetry because it takes you our of yourself more. You are looking for personal resonance in poems and poems are so personal to their author they don't often offer that. And I agree with Charles, thoughts are seldom comforting .Do something that takes you away from your thoughts. You can only spend so much time reflecting in a positive manner.