Joy Harjo: Remember
Seamus Heaney: Follower
Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate
I’ve always loved edges: the edge of light when color drains from the land, the edge of an argument where a fixed idea adjusts to other points of view. Edges where we can see past and present together; history made visible.
For the past year, where Jack and Casper and I live on the edge between land and lake, we have lived on the edge first of a great pit dug deep below the city pavement to erect a new apartment tower and then a mountain of landfill, hovered over by an alien space-ship (an immense, escalating crane, really, red lights flashing, lowered on spindly legs and a long tube spewing cement from time to time and sprouting stalks and trestles as it extended, glowing purple as night approaches. We were, it seemed, seeing the ending of one world and the beginning of another.
I loved them…those days before the arrival COVID-19…dumbfounded before such change, staring at the mute, recalcitrant shift of time below me. The past was there, cracked, sinking away in the path of future and yet not there… unutterably gone, absent as the dead. I think of those moments now as we together now stand at the edge of much that is already there and much more coming upon us, when we still feel the presence of what has gone before, when we sense, too, the onrushing promise—or threat—of things to come.
Maybe it’s just the time of year. Just weeks ago we all picked our last tomatoes, not knowing they were the last until we woke one morning to see snow (not just frost but snow) blanketing lawn and fields and our petunias slumped in their beds. Maybe, too, my interest in these edges is personal, existential. I stand at the edge of a life made shorter (daily) by age, and can’t help being pulled out the present moment into mourning my losses, courting my fears. I sigh over my lost prowess as a hula dancer. I fear the day when I will be unable to lift a spoonful of lime Jell-O to my lips.
But, we all stand at the edge. The present moment is itself an edge, this evanescent sliver of time between past and future. We’re called away from it continually by our earthly pleasures and concerns. Even now you may be thinking it’s time for another cup of coffee or one of the pumpkin muffins on the counter in the kitchen. Reading there in your chair, you find yourself thinking of last week’s argument over the vote count. You’re thinking of the leaves still waiting for the rake.
The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, is an endangered species. Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of all that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline. More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life.
Yet, some part of me holds back, remembers other days and other ways of seeking the true and the beautiful.
I am frank to admit that in facing the failure of my own flesh, in facing every day the reality of intransigence and hateful rhetoric of men and women in high places, the reality of physical suffering and neglect and injustice all around me, I have found my life’s greatest challenge.
Wallace Steven’s “The Poems of Our Climate” begins with the lines: “Clear water in a brilliant bowl/pink and white carnations.” It’s a conventional poetic image of beauty and perfection: a bowl of flowers, pure, simple, and, well, (maybe dull)?
There are two ways (at least) to seek the Divine, the poem reminds me. The first way fixes on images of beauty and perfection, shunning all that is evil and ugly. This was Plato’s way. It was the way of Dante, too, who, following Jesus’ example, knew that to reach Paradise, he had to travel through the Inferno. It was the way of Job. That is one way.
But Steven’s poem goes on to argue that even if one could achieve such purity and simplicity, “one would want more, one would need more,” for “there would still remain the never-resting mind,” calling us back from the cold purity of perfection to the hot, bitter delight of human imperfection – where “the imperfect is our Paradise.”
I have become, perhaps by force of experience or necessity, a seeker of this second kind, but it was not always so.
I once was a seeker of the first kind, on the path of beauty and perfection. Through my teens, 20s and into my 30s I sought transcendence, enlightenment, bliss of a sort. I studied Zen, practiced esoteric Tantric disciplines, retreated alone (in city and wilderness) waiting for a transforming vision, for the voices of bodhisattva or angels robed in fire.
I sought God in the extraordinary, in things not of this world.
Then….at one point, caught like a deer in the headlight between the guilty collapse of a long-doomed marriage (What have I done?) and the blazing, white-hot prospect of
FREEDOM (What do I do now?), I made a retreat far out west to a commune – no hippie hangout but a community founded in the thirties by a Methodist minister’s son who had spent years studying at an ashram with a spiritual master in India. I meditated, did breath work and kundalini yoga. It happened that in that area there was a grove of bristle-cone pine trees, some of them more than 5000 years old. (Perhaps you have seen them in photographs: gnarled, almost lifeless, bark blasted from weathered trunks except for one thin lifeline that snakes up to sustain the green bottle-brush needles…truly spiritual objects) I decided close my retreat with a hike to the trees. If ever there was a place for transcendence, I told myself, this was it. Arriving, I settled against the tortured trunk of an ancient tree, my legs crossed, spine erect, sun on my face, breeze over the hair of my forearms. I closed my eyes, ready for a vision.
I waited. I waited some more. I quieted my thoughts, stilled my breath.
It began as an itch, a small one, low down on my back., something that with discipline, I could ignore. I bore down, counted my breath, focused on my crown chakra. The itch moved higher on my back, disturbing m focus. I held on, projecting a cone of white light from crown to high heaven, seeing contact. The tickle rose between my shoulder blades, a torment.
I could take it no longer. I writhed and scratched, hanging on to my perfect moment. I removed my shirt, shook it out. What was this thing? Was THIS the stirring of kundalini energy, heralding enlightenment. .
No, it was an ant. It had crawled up inside my shirt on business known only to itself. My meditation spoiled, I scrambled my way down to the road and the retreat house beyond. I had come for a miracle. What I got was an ant.
Now, years later, have I come to understand that the ant WAS the miracle. More than in those ancient trees, more than in mountains and vast spaces and inner probing, the true nature of the divine was revealed to me in the humble meandering of an ant. It was the ant that returned me to the world, that called to another way of worship, the way of all things ordinary and small, the way of all that is something less than perfect, the way of stubbornness and error, euphoria and despair, the way of all that is transitory and comes to grief.
Now, when I say this, you could accuse me of being a mystic. And I am, perhaps, but if so of a very ordinary kind. My mysticism does not involve access to other realms, only the deeper experience of this one. Mine is the mysticism of everyday, the bruised toe, overcooked broccoli, sunrise and sorrow, laughter and linguine. No special powers, only a doting and practiced attention to the ordinary, a willingness to be surprised by grace.
Still, if I say I’m looking for eternity in a pile of dirty laundry, you might wonder if I’ve been going a bit heavy on the Tabasco. But I’m just being pragmatic. I don’t know what, if anything, follows this life. Certain scenarios are appealing: reunion with Cicero my first dog who taught me how to go up the steps and down the slide, an all-summer tutorial with Julia Child or reincarnation as a basset hound. None of that may come to pass. I don’t know. What I can know is that I’m here, now, in a world of worn shoes and fog-dampened leaves, seeking eternity wherever I can find it. You might say I want my eternal life now, before it’s over with.
T.S. Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from our exploration/and the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.
So I have come to be a seeker of the darker way, perhaps. I’ve grown suspicious of perfection, seeking not a perfect life but a full one. We have all had our magic moments. We have all heard poems, songs, and prayers that exhort us to see God in a blade of grass, a drop of dew, a child’s eyes. When I hear such things, I say, “That’s too easy.” Our challenge is to see God not only in the eyes of a suffering child but in the suffering itself. To thank God for broken bones and broken hearts, for everything that opens us to the mystery of our humanness. The challenge is to stand over the grimy toilet bowl with a scrub-brush in hand, fuming over a quarrel with your spouse, grandkids at your back clamoring for attention, media blatting more outrageous mis-information from DC or LA, and to say: “God is here, now, in this room. Here in this virus, in this challenging renovation campaign, on this ugly bathroom linoleum.”
Still, in these despairing and startling days I remember the speaker of Robert Frost’s poem, “Desert Places,” who watches a field being filled up with snow and thinks:
“They cannot scare me with the empty spaces/between stars–on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home/to scare myself with my own desert places.”
We have plenty to scare ourselves with in this plagued life, this life of peril and promise, so my mystic vision, this living on the edge, requires and an extra fearlessness. Most times, it strikes me unprepared. I can be sitting in a Zoom room full of remote presences, and eating baba ghanoush, listening to Monserrat Caballe or discussing the shortcomings of the Aging Americans Act, and suddenly I’m aware that everyone in the “room” will someday die. It does not come to me as an idea, as something to analyze or ponder but as a quality of vision, as though my inner cameraman had flipped to a different lens. Accuse me of having an overactive imagination, of being one slice of bread short of a sandwich, but it’s more a feeling, really, than a vision. Nothing literally changes. Rather it’s as though faces, bodies, gestures have suddenly grown fluid, changeable, translucent. My awareness flickers between seeing people as they stand before me but apart, solid somewhere and breathing, and then sensing how the world will be when they have vanished from it.
The experience of living at the edge is not so extraordinary as it may sound. You have all had it or may at one time soon. You have sat with someone who was near death and found yourself drawn into her inner radiance, into a place where pain and fear give way before a lucid awareness of the nearness of life’s source. Or, you have listened to a friend who has just lost a loved one and heard in his voice, through the grief and exhaustion, a wondrous and wondering connection to life’s deepest levels. You have had it while giving birth or witnessing a birth, when we can seem to rise out of our bodies and become winged things, hovering ovr all we love. Or when all you ever did was follow your dad’s broad shadow around the farm. Or you have had it in those ordinary moments, when watching a child butter slice of bread or a foal stand on wobbling legs for her first sip of mare’s milk or when you listen to an old lady at the bus stop or sitting on a park bench describe a scene from years now long gone, with the light hitting her face just so, and suddenly nothing else matters, and you feel like removing your shoes and bowing down.
These days when I’m out on the city street, I have the unexpected but regular pleasure of being greeted warmly by drunks and the homeless. I suspect I’m something of a spectacle, a change from the usual collegiate and Generation Z passers-by, but I may just be recognized as kin. I’m happy enough to be welcomed into the family of the marginal, the old, odd and maimed. Last week, I was on my way to pick up beansprouts at Whole Foods. As I waited at the intersection of North and Prospect for the light to change, a man staggered toward me across four lanes of traffic.
He was a sight – shirt half-buttoned, twisted sideways, head badly shaven, runny nose. He stopped short well out in the busy street and stared. He pointed a finger at the side of his head, making a disbelieving Am-I-Crazy? gesture and called out: Are you all right? I assured him I was and told him to get out of the street so he would be too. At another time, I’d have had my defenses up but instead I found myself moved to discover that, no matter the illness and sloppy despair of his life, this man’s concern at the moment was for MY welfare.
An hour or so later, Casper and I were strolling up the same street. Some people were walking briskly, talking on mobile devices. Others walked in bunches, shoulders bent against the wind. An elderly couple, tiny, elegantly dressed, and fragile as dried leaves, tottered toward the curb. Each held a four-point cane in one hand and with their free hands, they held on to each other, as though bracing against a wind that might at any moment carry them off. At another time, on another day, I might have been downcast by the scene, but then I sensed its rightness and beauty and was strangely buoyant.
Facing our own private calamities, headed to our separate destinations, we seemed fellow travelers, carried along on the same living stream. Somehow, astonishingly, in the midst of what might soon be carnage, we became immortal.
My point is simple, in a way. If eternity includes all time, then we are living eternity now. But we must sharpen our angle of view enough to see it. When we do, we can touch life’s common essence, the bedrock beneath the edge of all that is.
Some stand on the edge with eager delight. Some are pushed to it. Some of us find ourselves there by grace. But, all of us get there at some time in our lives, when through the gateway of the present moment we glimpse something beyond.
There will be daffodils and sunshine and waterfalls, yes. Somewhere, sometime. BUT, this is the ground of being, here, now, in all that is ordinary and impermanent and frightening and imperfect. As Joy Harjo says, “Remember you are all people and all people are you. Remember your are this universe and this universe is you.”
This broken, flawed, and all-too-human moment, this something less than perfect is our paradise. May we live it fully and with joy. May it be so.