Tag Archives: faith

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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Cosmic Gymnast

Summer solstice glided past me a couple of days ago. Now we are well into the thick of the heat. A lunar eclipse happens this Saturday. Look alive.

This year summer begins with a thunderstorm. Lance is cowering inside the house, while I brave exposure to the elements on the porch. First Lance wants to escape from the house. Then he wants to seek refuge inside the house. He can’t stand the noise, and he can’t decide where he will be safe because the trauma is everywhere all at once. What does he imagine is happening? Probably it seems to him that the house and the sky and everything that makes any sense at all is about to cave in on his head. Poor dumb dog. How can he have so little faith in the essential stability of things? Really.

Emily says the following:

#576, c. 1862

I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to —
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel — to me —

If I believed God looked around,
Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty —

And told him what I’d like, today,
And parts of his far plan
That baffled me —
The mingled side
Of his Divinity

And often since, in Danger,
I count the force ‘twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it doesn’t stay —

Her intelligence and maturity will not permit her to accept the bland assurances of prayer. Talking to God as if he were a big Santa Claus in the sky? Not for Emily. So where does that leave a clever girl in a world that tips and whirls and crashes? Emily says she’d love to invent a God strong enough to hold her life and make sure all is well in each of the particulars. She might have been willing to believe in that until it goes out of balance. Something crashes and falls. Someone dies. The impulse then for some is to pray all the more. Danger makes us faithful. The response to catastrophe beyond our control is to create another intelligence and put that One in charge. We are thrown back into our childhood again and again. Wouldn’t it be nice to think someone could move the thunderstorm from over our heads? The noise! The confusion!

In the end Emily removes God from the conversation. She occupies the last stanza with her first person singular pronouns, all by herself. Balance is the sense of coherence in existence for a faithful doubter like Emily. Tipping out of balance is the thing the life inevitably does to all of us, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” The difference between Emily and those who fall to their knees in prayer, is that Emily recognizes—in this final stanza—that the balance is hers to achieve. Not God’s to give. Her grammar makes her the originator of the balance or the coherence. In this stanza, she identifies “Balance” with the neuter third person pronoun “it”. Not a divine “Him” because the problem with inventing a God and giving that entity a gendered pronoun is that you also give Him a human mind. This creates all sorts of bafflement down below when He does things or allows things that no human would permit—death of the innocents, for example. Instead, Emily identifies “Balance” as a state of tension against that impersonal force in the world, the chaos that pushes up against the human mind, destabilizing it. The immature response is to beg for a parental cosmic entity (God as daddy) to make it all better. Emily takes responsibility for her own sense of balance.

The cosmic gymnast, Emily will bob and weave her way back to center. Forever holding her thoughts, bone, muscle, desire, all of herself on that balancing point that wobbles occasionally but then returns. Weighted more or less evenly on all sides, she remains mindful of her own life force at the center. A girl like that is indestructible.

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Love the Uncertainty

Today is Good Friday. The candles in the sanctuary are snuffed out. And the president of St. Bernard Parish went through his office today washing the feet of his employees. He said he did it because he ought to be “as humbled as any other sinner in the world.” Apart from these gothic pockets in our strange swamp, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know that today is meant to be spent in solemn contemplation of the greatest sacrifice. The parks are filled with joyous dogs and kids freed from school.

Someone drove their car into the Bayou this morning. Again. Another early morning jaunt gone awry. It always happens at the same bend in Moss Street. I wonder if the people who live across from this fateful turn in the bayou have documented each wreckage. It’s comical to everyone except the driver of the car. Fortunately the water is shallow so you can walk out.

The birds are going nuts in the trees and beyond my house. Gulls are screaming. They tend to come inland when we have weather coming in from the lake. The air smells like rain.

For Good Friday, Emily sends a thought:

#861, c. 1864

Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music —
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled —
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood — you’ll find it patent —
Gush after Gush, reserved for you —
Scarlet Experiment ! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

She likes to write about Doubting Thomas. He was the disciple who would not believe that Christ had risen from the dead until Christ took Thomas’s hand and placed it in the wound in his side. Only that literal touch of flesh upon flesh could move Thomas’s mind and heart to accept the truth of this miracle.

As a story, it’s interesting. Particularly so since it engages Emily. She is the sublime doubter, making her altar on the windowsill of her house in the church of her garden. Here she draws an image of someone looking for the Lark’s music by splitting open the bird. The music must be in there, right? The lark opens its beak and music comes out, so naturally the most literal and precise way to locate the music is the cut the bird open. This “scarlet experiment” of course, will only kill the lark and the music. She uses Thomas and all his doubts to describe the destructive force of literalism. A search for proof—whether proof of love or the divine—will yield nothing. The search itself will in fact destroy the source of that precious ephemeral thing.

Here is something else to know about Thomas. He did not have real faith because that does not require proof. In the story, Christ the magician, performs another one of his famous parlor tricks to amaze and astound the onlookers. It was meant as a one-time shocker to become a story that we would read and believe. He can’t keep doing that for everyone.

The real purpose of the story, as I and Emily see it, is to show the inadequacy of literalism. How paltry is this proof, really. In the end, doesn’t this proving do more harm than good to faith, splitting the lark to find the music? To break open the mystery at the center of existence and render it as something prosaic doesn’t serve the action of faith. The doubter, who wants to have faith and strives for it, hungers to crack the code, find the God gene, split the lark, so that we’ll understand everything. Well, maybe we’ll understand, but the thing we seek will die. Only the cold light of an autopsy can fully expose how a thing works. Under that precise scrutiny, the essential part most devoutly hoped for has escaped.

Augustine said: Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe

I say analysis annihilates.

Emily says: Better not to demand proof. Learn to love the uncertainty.

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