February 25, 2018
In Place of a Curse
By the humorist and poet John Ciardi is a well- known poem to many people
At the next vacancy for God, if I’m elected,
I shall forgive last the delicately wounded
who, having been slugged no harder than anyone else, never got up again, neither to fight back,
nor to finger their jaws in painful admiration.
They who are wholly broken, and they in whom
mercy is understanding, I shall embrace at once
and lead to pillows in heaven. But they who are
the meek by trade, baiting the best of their betters
with the extortions of mock-helplessness
I shall take last to love, and never wholly.
Let them all into Heaven-I abolish Hell-
But let it be read over them as they enter:
“Beware the calculations of the meek, who gambled nothing, gave
nothing, and could never receive enough.”
What We Fear Most
for R after the Accident
is a subtle poem by the prolific Linda Pastan
We have been saved one more time
from what we fear most.
Let us remember this moment.
Let us forget it if we can.
Just now a golden dust
Settles over everything:
the tree outside the window,
though it is not fall;
the cracked sugar bowl,
so carefully mended once.
This light is not redemption,
just the silt of afternoon sun
on an ordinary day
unlike any other.
Some of you may remember when the Kingston Trio sang:
Scotch and soda, mud in your eye,
Baby, do I feel high,
Oh me, oh my, do I feel high.
Dry martini, jigger of gin,
Oh, what a spell you’ve got me in,
Oh my, do I feel high.
But before that there was Louis Armstrong and
I hate to see that evening sun go down
Cause my baby, he’s gone left this town
Feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today
If I’m feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today
‘ll pack my truck and make my give-a-way
…I got the St. Louis blues, blues as I can be
That man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.
Those were the songs we sang…once…still sing….the words we used…still use… the images we create. We speak them haltingly or fiercely. We find them doing somersaults in our stomachs some times, folding and unfolding into stories short and long. Lines, lives, quite simply, filled to the gills with a thousand feelings, our feelings.
But, although our emotions are as much a part of us as our minds, most of us do not find dealing with them, in a satisfying way, very easy. Oh, we come up with simple, comforting Schemes-to-Explain-Everything, nice and neat
Men are from Mars; women from Venus
Scorpios are like that, you know!
What do you expect from an electrical engineer?
And along with our Schemes-that-Explain-Everything, we move ahead to make day-to-day judgements based on some presumed common understanding of how other people feel.
Last fall, I was in the barber chair when they announced that the execution of a young man, scheduled to die by lethal injection in Texas, had been stayed by court legal action. The television commentator said that this young fellow “received the news without any emotion.” As I walked back home, I wondered just how this newscaster knew that. Did he expect that the man, who received the news only a few hours from his scheduled execution, would jump on his chair and show “Hooray!”? Did he expect a smile, laughter, a raucous “Oh, My God!?” Did he expect tears?
Did the reporter have x-ray eyes? Could he see into the man’s brain, there at the mid-cortex, the little purple arch of the limbic system and notice no emotional synapses firing? Did he think that feelings always flow fast and furious, flashing like a flooding stream in an extra heavy April deluge? Did he assume emotion is of one sort, clear, easily understood, shared evenly across the span of human-kind. Did he imagine emotions only as dramatic as Edvard Munch’s Scream?
Annoyed as I was with the newscaster’s turn of phrase, I haven’t been much better.
I worked with a ministerial intern in Madison years ago who used a wheelchair to get around. Her hands and arms were strong but something had sapped the strength from her legs. She got around just fine. She drove a car with bench seat and a clever device that looped around the steering wheel so she didn’t have to use pedals. She kept hre fold-up wheelchair on the passenger side of the sea. When she wanted to get out of the car, she’d lean over to the right door, open it, then push the wheelchair out of the door. Then, she would use here hands to slide across the seat, host herself into the unfolded chair, grab her valise, datebook, papers, put it on her lap, and roll over the parking lot to the side door of the meeting house.
I watched her preach and pray and lead circle dancing on Thursday evenings, placing her wheelchair in the center of the circle, dancing above her waist.
She taught me to say, “Please rise as willing and able,” when leading opening words or a song. “Please don’t ask people to stand,” she said, “You see, I cn’t stand but I sure as hell can rise up!”
I told her once that I admired her, that she was an inspiration to me, that I didn’t think I could face her limitations with the grace that she did. She said: “Does your life as a walking person cause you emotional upheaval? Are you annoyed that you have to walk places?….I think you are putting yourself in my chair and imagining what I must be feeling. But you are not sitting in my chair, and you cannot know what I am feeling, and you would never know what you would feel until you’d been sitting here and for a long while. Anyway [I remember her saying] feelings are not life. Life goes beyond feelings”
I learned a lot from Jean on a something as close as my own pulse yet as hard to grasp as a handful of water. Why? Because even though I have no reason to doubt that we all have feelings, it’s sheer arrogance for me ever to suggest that my emotional life overlaps yours precisely at all. There is no such thing as feelings in general. There are only very particular feelings.
I know my feelings…at least I think I do…at least for the most part. (A few are still looking for nametags) That doesn’t mean that I know your feelings. We live in the same world (sorta) but something may make you angry – it may get me to laugh. Your way of getting angry…turning into an iceberg…many not be mine…exploding like Mt. Vesuvius. You may not even recognize someone else’s anger as anger, but rather as an expression of a barely restrained violence that frightens you.
I’ve experienced many kinds of anger directed toward me, I assure you. I can by now tell the difference between anger that comes deviously, with a smile, and anger that is crisp, cool and efficient. I’ve experienced anger that blames me for vastness beyond my control, and anger that looks for a shared solution to a shared problem I had been ignoring. I have experienced anger that I can recognize as the sign of a deep, clear love, and I have experienced anger that dismisses me as an utter irrelevancy in the universe.
All trade by the name “anger” but they are hardly the same. Some are health and productive. Others serve only to hurt and destroy.
Can we tell the difference? It’s not easy – I find the going tricky indeed, but I’m learning that unless we spend some time thinking about our feelings, our feelings may try and take up the slack and disguise themselves as rational thoughts…which they are not.
“We cast the shadows of our emotions on others and they on us. Sometimes we threaten to choke on them.” (Armenian grave inscription)
If I feel rejected, it does not always mean that I’ve been rejected. If I feel hurt, it does not always or rationally follow that someone is out to get me. I may feel good and right signing a petition to protest the harassment of women but my feeling good and a computer petition, does not necessarily accomplish anything except to make me feeling better about myself. Justice can hardly rest on such a foundation.
Feelings can be confusing, yes. But the Armenian grave inscription is also true: “Without them there would be no light in our lives.” Like Lawrence Ferlingetti said “The world is a beautiful place/to be born into/if you don’t mind happiness/not always being/so very much fun.”
I don’t cry easily…well, I didn’t cry easily. Today, I carry a handkerchief to the cinema who knows what Dunkirk or the Shape of Water may precipitate. And, I can sob in the shower some mornings. I know some people – like my father, actually – who never cry at all, in the ordinary sense of the word. I knew a fellow once who claimed that sneezing was his form of crying. To me a sneeze means a cold is coming on or I’ve just developed an allergy to chocolate or something awful like that.
Where I live, a notice with a photo is posted on a bulletin board in the mail room when a resident dies. That happens rather often. When I see a notice that a good friend has died. I don’t wail. I don’t “keen,” as the Irish say and fall to the floor. No, I stand and say to myself over and over “Let not your heart be troubled….Let not your heart be troubled” I’m not dull of spirit or depressed or listless, but my heart is troubled. Unfocused and foggy. Troubled…the numbness comes fast. Tears, far more slowly. They do come, however.
Michael Korda’s new book Catnip: A Love Story is drawn from scribbles that amused in a time of anxiety. Korda’s wife, Margaret, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She went riding most days of what turned out to be the last year of her life, and each day, he sketched cartoons of their cats on the back of old manuscripts in the tackroom.
Cats cooking and dining, cats in cowboy hats, cats playing musical instruments and dancing the cat-can. Margaret shared photos of those cartoons, drawn in love and intended to distract and delight. Michael compiled a book. On NPR the other morning, Scott Simon asked Korda how the cats are doing. “The cats are doing just fine,” he said. “But you know, it’s very interesting, they know Margaret is gone, and they miss Margaret. Ruby, for example, always liked to sit next to Margaret in the bathroom in the mornings, while Margaret put on her makeup. And she’ll go and sit in that exact place every morning, at exactly the time Margaret put on her makeup. And wait. And you can’t ascribe to animals feelings they don’t have. But clearly she knows Margaret is gone, and she misses her, and she goes to that place. I think cats know more than we think they do.”
And the tears came…just as they come…now years after our dear Maggie left us…when I glance across the room to her photo…and they do now as I hold it before you.
As I grew up, to be visibly sad or depressed was clearly unwelcome, so even when I was miserable, I would insist. “I’m OK.” Nowadays, I count it a great privilege to blue when I’m blue. It’s a relief not to owe the world a happy face day after day.
I don’t think I’m a rare bird either when it comes to it.
Sometimes when a person comes and tells me about a true calamity in her life, I read Ciardi’s lines:
“I shall forgive LAST the delicately wounded who having been slugged…never got up again, neither to fight back nor to finger their jaws in painful admiration”
I tell them “what you describe is no delicate wound. What you describe is a real fist in the face. Instead of standing up after such a blow or denying it hurts, why not just fall down, and finger your jaw in painful admiration.
NO, You don’t have to suffer such outrages by pretending it didn’t hurt. It did. Once you admit the pain, you can begin to let it heal. But if you don’t admit it, even grouse about it a little, it might come out another day looking more than bit crooked.
Linda Pasten’s poem was for someone with the initial R, who had an accident. We don’t know what the accident was … she doesn’t say, but it is clear that R got away from “what we fear most.” “Let us remember this moment,” she writes, and then immediately “Let us forget it if we can.”
“Well which is it,” you ask. “remember or forget.” The heart answers: Both. You want to remember and forget that awesome moment, that terrible, wonderful day. At the same time. “An ordinary day…unlike any other”
Accidents happen every day. Life offers no guarantees. And yet sometimes…there is a reprieve. Other times
“There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down
And learn to live with the unimaginable” (from “Hamilton”)
Harry Chapin had some of it right:
“All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown
The moon rolls through the nighttime, till the daybreak comes around
All my life’s a circle but I can’t tell you why
It seems like I’ve been here before, I can’t remember when
But I got this funny feelin’ that I’ll be back once again
There’s no straight lines make up my life and all my roads have bends
There’s no clear-cut beginnings and so far no dead-ends.”
Encounters between people, it often feels to me, are like cars passing at breakneck speed in the deepest night. Just a flash in the headlights. Strangers passing one another in rain and wind. Do we see who rushes past? Do know each other? No, but we sit next to a lot of people longer. We eat and work together, lie next to each other, live under the same roof, sing songs from the same pews week after week. But it all passes so quickly…Everything that gives the appearance of permanence, familiarity and intimate knowledge: Is it a deception, perhaps meant to reassure, with which we attempt to cover what we could hardly bear in every moment – every glance , every exchange but a ghostly brief meeting, looks bouncing off one another, conjectures, slivers of thoughts, fictions. Not people who meet, but rather the shadows cast by their imaginations?
“Life is not what we live, “Pascal Mercier once said; “but what we imagine living.”
Or, as Anais Nin said: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”
Is that why we seldom say what we think, why we hold on to broken marriages, false friendships, boring birthday parties. What would happen if we refused all that, put an end to skulking emotional blackmail and stood on our own? What we fear most, those feared feelings—what do they consist of ? Of the silence of absent reproaches? Of creeping
through the minefield of social lies and friendly half-truths while holding our breath? Of the fullness of time that yawns ahead when the barrage of twitters falls silent.
When time feels less like a ticking clock and more like a permanent state of being…when most ambitions are either already achieved or abandoned; either way, belonging to the past, and the future, instead of the ladder towards the goals of the life, flattens out into a perpetual shifting present.
I realized many years back that we strive toward intimacy in anticipation of loss, beyond present feelings. I knew if that my father – then 83 and slipping away – were destined to live forever, and if I were destined to live forever, too, then our affection would be stripped of its poignancy and urgency. If my children had been destined to stay indefinitely 6 or 8 or 10 years old, I wouldn’t cling to their childhood for its sweetness; nor would I endure its liabilities with the reassurance of imminent maturity.
The cornerstone of optimism is the willingness to believe that the inevitable is desirable.
No, while experience demonstrates with ringing lucidity that no science can mitigate the the inevitability of change and finality of loss, anyone who is fully alive need not worry that its meaning will be lost. The transience of life is the engine of its meaning. Meaning moves beyond feeling.
In the end, maybe these are not reflections on feelings at all. Maybe I have been leading you and myself astray. Maybe I’ve simply been doing what I do over and over – trying to use words to say what cannot be said – or asking in some peculiar way if in this place and among these people where we affirm our differences and are inclusive in our attitudes, can we forge a faithful and deep community that respects differences and covenants not to hold each other hostage to differences in politics or philosophy or management style and imagery. I think so. I really do. To assume in any way that we are “all basically alike” is just to say “I wish you were more like me so that my way of being in the world can be blessed by your assent.” And that, as far as I’m concerned, is not Unitarian-Universalist thinking. It’s something else entirely. Learning to understand the otherness of the other, and accept and bless that where we find it is the true and abiding basis for an authentically diverse and inclusive religious community. And dealing with differences in emotional speed, culture, style and depth is part of our
deeply spiritual work
T.S. Eliot reminds us that “as we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated…not the intense moment isolated, with no before and after, but a lifetime burning in every moment. And not a lifetime of one man only. Here or there does not matter. Grief is there, but it is not the only truth. Death is there but there is no day without its moment of paradise. We must be still and still moving into another intensity, a deeper community.” (adapted from East Coker)
Believing that may be our only way to make the best of our situation – but what a way it is! Right?
So it is!