Tag Archives: spiritual life

A Birthday Is the Thing With Feathers

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday.  She is 182 years old.  Here is the poem that came to hand this morning.

#1228

So much of Heaven has gone from Earth
That there must be a Heaven
If only to enclose the Saints
To Affidavit given.

The Missionary to the Mole
Must prove there is a Sky
Location doubtless he would plead
But what excuse have I?

Too much of Proof affronts Belief
The Turtle will not try
Unless you leave him — then return
And he has hauled away

A birthday is the thing with feathers. So much to say now. I’ll try to encompass it all, as we move deeper into the winter dark.  First an update:  The weather is springy warm and humid.  The Saints lost yesterday.  The end of the world is nigh.  Not necessarily because the Giants killed the pants off the Saints, 52 to 27.  Yet, surely these facts must have some meaningful resonance with each other.  I couldn’t help myself.  I was depressed and declared that the dwindling days of the Mayan calendar and the Saints’ abysmal performance are energetically linked . . . somehow.  Then it was time for dinner.  Pizza and beer helped my mood.  I also had to ask Geoff, “What spiritual lesson do we take from this game?”  He hates spiritual lessons and would not answer.   He was even more depressed than I was.  After dinner, several hours after I asked the question, he did finally answer it.  I’m paraphrasing here:  The lesson is that however bad it feels when the Saints lose, it’s never so terrible that you cannot recover and look forward with some optimism, a little joy.  Of course, by “forward” we mean next season, not the next game.  This season is cooked.  And that “look” will have to draw on the deepest stores of renewal and fundamental faith in the simple ideas:  Onward, practice, figure it out, and try again.  Try again.  And then try again.

Now for the poem.  Honest, I did choose this one at random.  The Saints line jumped out on its own.  The stanza at the end holds me.  “Too much of Proof affronts Belief.”  The literalness of the physical world diminishes our capacity to strive toward the fuller development of our Self.  We won’t do it without that ever receding thing we call faith.  (Faith in what, you ask?  Oh, I don’t know—honor, dignity, fairness, goodness, that seamless connection on the long pass out of the shotgun, the poetry of beauty that works.)  If the things we want to believe in announce themselves in the world as if produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, we’d scoff at these as too literal.  Paradoxically something seems less spiritually True if we can see it as literally true.

So those things we believe in or have faith in—whatever it is, doesn’t have to be God—such ephemera make us get up in the morning and try to accomplish tasks greater than merely maintaining bodily existence.  In order to draw this effort from us, these ephemera must remain slightly unknown, just beyond the limit of the mind’s capacity to comprehend.  If these ephemera that ask for our faith appeared in concrete totality, so we could see all the sides, top and bottom, then we would not accept them as worthy of our faith.  And the engine loses its drive to exist.

Emily plays with the mind’s ability to set its own impossible tasks.  Human survival requires that we try for something that will never be realized.  That’s the job that keeps our blood circulating.  So this is not idle poetic meandering to formulate such ephemera as honor, dignity, fairness, goodness . . . the hope for that perfect long pass.  These are deliberately elusive.  Suggested without complete realization.  (It takes imagination to love the Saints; you have to be able to see things that may never exist.  Imagination feeds the human life force as much as pizza and beer.)  The power of the unproven outcome to simulate our life force is counter-intuitive, but it works.  Now, you’d want to build a house on a solid four-square foundation, such that you can see all the physical aspects and know it has structural integrity, in order to trust that foundation to hold up your house.  Conversely to build a life, you’d start with a foundation made from a concept (honor goodness dignity) that never fully reveals itself.  You must place your faith here without compete proof that it exists.  Human existence rests on the continuing puzzle of unverifiable existence.

Thank you Emily and happy birthday.  I am so happy that you exist.

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Proximity to Chaos

A few weeks ago I went to the AWP Conference in Chicago.  One of the panel discussions I attended concerned Emily Dickinson’s poems.  The panelists focused on certain themes.  One scholar discussed bird imagery.  Another examined how Emily treats the marking of time, hours, seasons, on the calendar.  David Baker said that Emily is “the most terrifying poet in the English language for sheer proximity to chaos.”

The scholars read from prepared remarks, eloquent and formal.  Then one of the readers looked up from his pages and interrupted his own erudite exegesis to blurt out: “She’s so weird.”  The words seemed to jump from his mouth of their own will.  His tone was part admiring and part exasperated.  I appreciated his honest emotional and subjective eruption.  Time and again, after all the academic wrestling with Emily’s poems, she leads us back to the beginning . . . where she is just so weird.

I notice this the most when I read a poem that I had already wrestled with sufficiently.  I thought I had gotten my arms around it and understood it, or at least some small part of it.  Then after some time passes, I read the same poem again and it appears as an entirely new animal to me.  My second reading is nothing like the first.  Somehow that “understanding” slipped through my grasp.  Hers are less like poems than smoke.

Emily the shape-shifter, she is her poems, stripped bare of any of the easy handles.  Yet in that nakedness she remains utterly cloaked.  We just have to start over again, new to the poem each time.

Here is one that I have not wrestled with yet.  At least I don’t I think I have.  Or not lately.

#578

The Body grows without —
The more convenient way —
That if the Spirit — like to hide
Its Temple stands, alway,

Ajar — secure — inviting —
It never did betray
The Soul that asked its shelter
In solemn honesty

The Soul and the Spirit are not interchangeable terms.  These are identified separately, although both reside in the same holy place, the Body.  The Spirit may hide, while the Soul asks for shelter.

My first reaction here is to recall the Mother Superior character in The Sound of Music when she counsels the troubled Maria that the convent is not a place to hide from the world.  Women choose the cloistered life to pursue something within themselves that they can only find in solitude and isolation from the world.  A woman who is afraid of the world or needs a hiding place would do better to face the thing that frightens her.  The contemplative life is not for cowards.  Although one could be tempted to treat it as a refuge from a cracked and chaotic world.

If Mother Superior could have this conversation with Emily, the poet would have responded that her Temple, her body, is both ajar and secure.  The Body invites.  But who gets this invitation?  It’s very exclusive.  Other people?  I doubt it.  The Body invites the Soul inside to join the Spirit (present at birth, maybe) residing or hiding depending on how you look at it.  Soul comes to the Body from the rich, complicated world out there.  Soul is some non-embodied source that may join that indwelling Spirit.  The Body protects this union, offers a safe place for this marriage to take place.

I am not sure who would win the rhetorical contest between Emily and Mother Superior.  It would be an interesting debate.  I don’t think the answer to Emily’s prayers lies “out there.”  Something else in Emily’s Temple keeps her “in here.”  She isn’t saying . . .   Weirdo.

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Between Spirit and Dust

As we move toward the best season of the year, Emily’s birthday on December 10th, the news is good.  Ford in his Flivver and all is right with the world.  The Saints are 9 and 3.  Last night, Patrick Robinson flew like a bat out of hell to block that field goal attempt by the Lions.  A thing of beauty.  I’m happy with where we are at the moment.  Although the Titans could give us some trouble next week.

Despite the cheery season, Emily returns to her favorite subject.

#976, c. 1864

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death — The Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” —

Death doubts it — Argues from the Ground —
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

Here Death is the argument between the matter of the earth and the ghost in the machine.  Death gets to say something, but Death owes its existence to the tension between the physical outcome of organic degeneration and our imagination’s stubborn refusal to give in to that.  So much spirit talk is born out of sheer obstinacy.

My focus goes to the line where she characterizes Death as a dialogue, not an entity, although Death does assume form and speech in the poem.  Death is a conversational exchange.  It takes two to create Death.  An essential split in our nature is where Death emerges as a character with something to say.  Without that duality within ourselves, we don’t have anything to talk about.  Or rather we have no one to talk to . . .  No dialogue, no Death.  Only changing form.  Skin, hair, bones, teeth, dust, mud . . . fertilizer.  And then some other form.

My own conversation with Death has been lively off and on since I was fourteen years old, both as a theoretical concept and as a more brute consideration.  This past September is a good example.  If you want my advice, don’t get cancer.  It puts a damper on things.

All right, I’m being glib.  That’s how we roll in my tribe, especially when considering Death.  The way to get through life with any dignity is to act the fool.  Afraid of Death?  Grab him by the throat and crack wise.  You’ll never make a friend of Death.  But do make him your straight man.

For the record:  I’m not dying.  Not yet, at least.  But I had an interesting brush with malignant melanoma.  A bad mole on my left arm.  The good news is that we found it at an early stage, so the surgeon removed it all in one swoop, along with a large portion of my skin.  No need for further treatment, no chemo or sentinel node biopsy.  I will have to be on high-alert for other bad moles, but for now I am in the clear.

Those are the clinical facts, over and done with in the space of a month.  The waves that move out from those facts continue to roll up against my thoughts, and I expect will do so for the rest of my life, which I hope will be a long one.  My sister who is a survivor of stage III breast cancer has talked about “the gift of cancer.”  My friend Shaun who is also a melanoma survivor used the same phrase.  They were talking about cancer as a great awakener.  That it clarified how they had been neglecting some essential part of themselves.  They said cancer gave them the power to love their own lives and act accordingly.

So I have been looking for the gift of cancer in my medical adventure.  It’s here.  What great material.  I can run my engine on this for a long while.  And I’m not done yet.  Not by any means.

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