Always good for more than just sublime poetry, Emily Dickinson here suggests that, for our best understanding, which emerges slowly, we’d best learn to squint!
Always good for more than just sublime poetry, Emily Dickinson here suggests that, for our best understanding, which emerges slowly, we’d best learn to squint!
Writing is a good life metaphor.
These are interesting days. I approach my life much as I do the page, with contentment but with trepidation. The clumsy plasticine oozing from my pen leaves me a bit numb. A little bored, to be honest. A stultifying sameness guards the words from taking on a life of their own, of actually taking anyone on any kind of journey.
This is especially true of poetry. Ironically, I find my greatest enemy to be the stronger, more captivating work of previous years. It is the equivalent of creative shadow-boxing, a grasping after one’s own ghosts. It is to hide from the potential of my own gifts. The glory days, whether in life or art, can straight-jacket us right out of good days now.
Life is often this way. In creative-artistic terms, this is so commonplace as to be ridiculously cliché. This haunting of the present by an elusively successful past can choke the life out of bold, new ventures. Even the very desire to try is rendered impotent. A sterility can only be achieved by writing. Shit, but still writing. When acedia takes hold it keeps me from even getting that far. Writing poorly is still better than writing nothing at all. Bad sex is still better than no sex at all!
Does this call into question my dedication to word-craft? Do I need to turn in my lit-card? Have I become less a writer and more of a word-ler (word burglar)? I suppose the creative struggle can be compared to dieting. One can lose weight through amelioration of already good habits-in-stasis while destroying bad ones. But, for it to “take,” a completely different way of living is required. Sure, lose thirty pounds, buy new clothes, take a thousand selfies on a new, air-brushed social media persona. Eat McDonald’s and chocolate cake for a week or two afterward and one’s previous successes merely mock present realities.
“Look how well I was doing,” we crow. “The effort really paid off,” we chirp. “It’s about bloody time,” screams our waistband. We gaze with fondness and well-earned satisfaction at our accomplishment only to groan with the recognition that that was then and this is now. Shit.
It can be genuinely depressing to read poetry or other bits and bobs of writing from even a few years ago when I had over-weening confidence in an under-developed, largely self-indulgent output. Now, possessing some measure of success, a proven track record in this whole letters enterprise, I find confidence a bit shaky to say the least.
Perhaps this is a case of art imitating life. Never have I been so content with so little. Not that I have little. I have in fact considerably more of everything than I could ever use. But my requirements are far fewer than ever. My writing is undergoing massive change right now, too. It’s not as clever-turn-of-phrase-y as it was, relying instead on that which, though simpler, might actually say something. I guess I’m losing my desire and, frankly, the need, to write for the academy – words for lovers of words. Insider talk.
Now, I write because it acts like a shower. My soul gets buffed up a bit more. My heart gets a jolly good brushing and I feel refreshed. And, I want to tell people about it. I want people to know who I am so they can meet me here. A welcome mat more than a Hadron Collider of complexity. There is a loneliness in creating something only a handful of erudites with too much industry-speak in their tool-belts can enjoy. And by “enjoy” I mean quietly compare to their own far superior material. Ha! Rightly so.
I guess to live better, we must learn to live on purpose. Correspondingly, to create better means to engage the process with trembling tenacity, even in the face of overwhelming self-doubt in one’s own ability.
I want to be the best writer, poet, musician – person, I can be. But it appears that what that means is a whole lot less words and a lot more conversation. Less erudition, more simplicity. Less academy, more living room. Less library, more kitchen table. Less bookstore, more backyard barbecue. Less thinking, more doing. Less of someone else, more of me.
Well, how about that. I just wrote myself out of my own funk. I rest my case.
The king of Vegas rockabilly, Elvis Presley, once sang this refrain, “we’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.” He was one of a number of artists to sing it. I mention it because it is a song of unrequited love, specifically at Christmas time.
If ever there were an emotionally heavy-handed time of year it is Christmas. As early as September we begin to see the familiar commodified images of sleek, effeminate reindeer, suspiciously rosy-cheeked Santas, Hallmark this ‘n that, and the tsunami of stuff we’re meant to buy to help us feel how we’re meant to feel.
It’s a construct and we know it. Well, at least the shiny baubles, taut packages ‘n bows part. But, lest I find myself on the receiving end of Scrooge-comments, let me say that I’ve loved this time of year my entire life, in spite of working outrageous hours as a church music director. I love the ambience. Sometimes I don’t even mind its rom-com, syrupy-saccarine motif falsely imaged and poured over us like a jolly-happy goo.
The whole thing smacks of an out of control Norman Rockwell painting, replete with the expectations that we all play along with the happy themes. We’re supposed to be joyful, full of gratitude and happy family times, with family-dog-stealing-roast-beef-off-the-counter type fun. Why wouldn’t we, right?
Quite often, it’s not that simple. For those who have lost a loved one, a parent, a friend, a pet, heaven forbid, a child – this can be an especially difficult time indeed. The ache of loss still fresh in their mind pinches their guts and narrows their emotional field of vision. It can almost feel like an insult. All these happy faces everywhere and not a hint of respite from their pain on the horizon.
Tonight, our congregation chose to remember these people, to bring a light into dark places this Advent-Christmas. More metaphor than Elvis, we called it, quite simply, Blue Christmas.
Rather than barrel through the weekly lighting of Advent candles, special readings and prayers and favourite songs we thought it best to stop. Stop, to remember those faces no longer in our crowds. The missing pictures on our mantelpieces. Our family gathering a little less Rockwell and a little more Orwell. We spent silent time memorializing them, lighting a candle in their honour. Maybe crying just a little.
Wherever you are in your journey, maybe spend a few moments this season just quietly remembering those no longer there to taste your grandma’s apple pie or mom’s Yorkshire Pudding.
We will remember them.
Having just finished Richard Rohr’s Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps for the second time, I am suitably inspired. It is an insightful commentary on the wisdom of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and their potential for a probing, expansive, and transformative spirituality.
The steps dovetail wonderfully with the best spirituality. They are a template suitable for the best diving – a way of life not just for addicts, but for everybody.
Thanksgiving Day, 2017.
Thank God I am breathing so much easier these days. Thank God there is not the same anvil of dysfunction and dystopia crushing down upon my chest. Thank God that, with each passing day, it grows clearer how the addictive consciousness has robbed me of confidence and joy. And, thank God, in the clearer light of day, has come an emerging contentment, fragile but inextinguishable. It appears to be smiling at me.
As the days roll into weeks of years, the tick-tocking of time becomes more precious and, simultaneously, of vital importance. If fifty-four years can sneak past this easily, I had better stay awake to and aware of God’s presence and activity! I don’t want to miss a single thing.
One cannot help but attest to the wisdom in the pursuit of stability, constancy, simplicity, rootedness and, most of all, gratitude. The more rooted, awake and contented we are, the more supple, compliant, effective, and portable we become. We are learning to carry such attributes brought about in us through these values out into a world utterly gagging for them.
Ironically, the happier we are where we are the readier we become to uproot and transplant our grateful presence elsewhere. It is at once paradoxical and antithetical to how I have lived so much of life.
Unhappy? I look for it out there. Somewhere else.
Dissatisfied? I blame it on circumstances. Coworkers. Geography. The weather. Indigestion.
Unfulfilled? I blame my employer. My shitty decision-making skills, spiritual blindness. My job, so obviously unfit and small for one as grandiose and important as I!
Through all the blaming and escapism (the answer to which was drinking myself into oblivion), I never learned the deep contentment of gratitude, the satisfaction of awareness; the fulfillment of presence, all of which, ultimately, promise peace.
A book that has always been among my top fifty, the kind of book that needs to be reread every few years, is Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. Here, Lewis was not just the Oxford don, the professor, the intellectual, or famous author. He was instead, a fellow sojourner. An atheist become Jesus follower. A doubter become dreamer.
It is his most personal book. A spiritual memoir. A biographical retrospective. A conversion narrative. A soul mirror. In it he describes the imaginative, albeit escapist, means by which he endures the difficult challenges of family life as a young boy.
Lewis constructed a vast imaginary playground he called “Boxen.” There, he could hide from the soul-crushing realities beyond his ken. There, he found a measure of joy and a respite from all that troubled him. His pursuit of an elsewhere, a better place in which to abide, resonated with me in profound ways. But, in later years, while confronting his cognitive dissonance with the Christian faith enterprise, he found it wasn’t intellectual satisfaction that coming to faith brought.
It was a personal joy that most surprised him.
For me, as for C.S. Lewis, acquiescing to the wooing voice of God, has brought with it the simple voice of love, tucked in a story of grace. And, in spite of devils still shadow-boxing in the back rooms of my life, I am in a place of great contentment these days.
Sober. Settled. Satisfied.
All of it reeking of the transformative power of a God who loves to show off His/Her penchant for inundating lives in delirious grace.
Thanksgiving? I should think so.
November 11. Remembrance Day.
Such a sad irony given the need to remember when I recall so little so much of the time But, I remember as much as I need to for right here. Right now.
I remember all that I’ve been given – and I smile.
I remember that I get to sleep with someone who loves to be with me, who chooses to share my life, even the dark places – and I smile.
I remember, through that same love, two babies, now young men, came into the world if for no other reason than to taunt my lesser joy with a still greater one – and I smile.
I remember the man I call brother, the woman I call sister, the man now dead we call father, the woman upon whose shoulders and within whose heart we all dwell, we call mother – and I smile.
I remember that I’ve been entrusted with notes, lines, hands, and voice, and then charged and blessed to engage in it, both as a living and as hobby – and I smile.
I remember the sight of candles burning, a dark and peaceful sanctuary full of singing voices, and the strains of “Silent Night” – and I smile.
I remember that I am given poetry and words to share with the weary world, much of it published, and fulfilling whatever destiny for which it has been prescribed – and I smile.
I remember the incredible home we call our own, poised handsome and stoic on a proud hillside where it stands year after year, waiting for the valley to breathe in and out each new season – and I smile.
I remember that, as a man of fifty-four, I am healthy enough to run miles in double digits – and I smile.
I remember the touch of cold hands in mine as she congratulates my choice of hymns, the hearty back slap as he celebrates “this young man” – and I smile.
I remember the ache of loss for faces of those once bright and full, now gone and buried, the sound of tears, the taste of mourning, the honour of sharing it – and I smile.
I remember the seraphic sound of my choir as they collude together in happy voice to mirror the world’s unreasonable beauty – and I smile.
I remember the one God of One in Three; eternal, but who once had an address, now forever bearing the scars of his coming, who is my friend – and I smile.
And, though I never knew their names, I remember their sacrifice, caught in whirlwinds not of their choosing. Sometimes they were sent by selfish kings to do the bidding of empire. They went anyway. Sometimes, they were thrust out to defend the lack lustre and apathetic against the threat of unknown horrors. They went anyway. Mostly, they went because they believed it to be their best legacy. This I remember – and I smile.
I remember all this and cry just a little.
These things I remember – and I smile.
It’s about time.
This is a little story about the value of time. Or, perhaps the timing of value. Either way, here goes.
The numerous eccentricities that sequin this life of mine would not, to the uneducated stranger, seem to include punctuality. Spend just a few minutes with me and you’ll wonder how I manage to dress myself every morning, let alone have a driver’s license, or be allowed to procreate. But, in contradistinction to everything else one might know of me, I’m a stickler for being on time. To everything. Always. It is a point of pride. More so, it’s an exercise in lessening anxiety.
Friday, November 3rd. The Highland Dancing competition that provides the opportunity for this little sojourn takes place in Portland, Oregon, a mere three and a half hours south of us. It offers one of the most stunning drives one could ask for. And today is that day.
A leisurely drive over Satus Pass, stopping at my favourite monastery (like I have so many) for their legendary coffee and spanakopita. The Orthodox nuns who run the joint do so with friendly smiles and winsome personalities. And, they run a pretty tight ship. They’re a credit to their tradition.
Once over the pass, I descend the golden hillsides of Eastern Washington and cross the Columbia River Bridge. Then, it’s through the green, rain-soaked, monolithic tunnel o’ rock otherwise known as the Columbia Gorge. It snakes along Interstate 84, hugging one of the world’s biggest rivers. To my right, the Columbia, deep and slow and deceptively dangerous. To my left, the tufted ancient rock formations thrust up over millions of years that now frame this idyllic little meander.
A pain-free, largely traffic-free, Google-guided route to one of those perfectly perfect Portland neighbourhoods, more trees than people. Just as it should be. I park without difficulty right outside the B ‘n B where I’m to be staying. Then, in an effort toward appropriate courtesy, I stand for some time outside the door, searching my email history for the owner’s phone number. To call first means avoiding that uncomfortable walk onto someone else’s deck or anywhere a family might not want such interruption.
It was an unnecessary concern since another occupant opened the door just as I reached for the buzzer. Australian guy I think. The home owner – let’s call him Roger – greets me at the kitchen door with a look of confused amusement on his face. Confusement? Amusion? He is already scrolling through his Air BnB phone records looking to secure what, to him, is apparently a surprise.
“Um, it seems there is a bit of a mix-up here,” he says, face super-glued to his cell phone screen. His thumb scrolls over face after face. It suggests a tidy little business he’s got here. But, none of them appear to be mine. He gives one more healthy swipe of the thumb and up pops my profile Gravatar, making its embarrassing appearance.
Now, as I’ve mentioned, punctuality is a point of pride for me. But this was precedent setting, even by my exacting standards. Roger is a cheerful enough chap, professional and gregarious. He probes a little further.
“Well, this is a rather unique situation,” he offers. “It appears you’re booked for next Friday evening.”
My dumb numbness, framed by my gawking, is matched only by his look of pity. He can afford it. He has a place to sleep tonight! I squint my eyes in disbelief at the reality staring at me from his phone. Sure enough. I’m booked for the following week.
I could have feigned a look of personal incredulity. But, alas, this is not exactly precedent setting for me and I’d be anything but convincing. The best I can manage, “well, shit.” This however acts also as my admission of guilt in this matter. It effectively relieves him of any wrongdoing.
He thus forges ahead. “No matter. Obviously, you need a bed for the night, and finding anything on a Friday night at 5:00pm won’t be fun.” Pause. “I’ll need to check with my wife. You know, whether she’d feel comfortable with this…”
Great setup I thought, for the kind but awkward punchline that followed.
“We actually have another room upstairs we don’t normally rent since it’s right next to our bedroom.”
My gut clenches a little as I consider all the uncomfortable scenarios that might make this not such a great idea. Two adult males, mentally circle, both grasping for enough manhood not to appear either retarded or lacking control of the situation. Mercifully, he steps outside to begin the negotiations with his wife.
No use trying to “man-up” with this mix-up. Instead (and instinctively I might add) I do what I normally do and call my wife. She knows these calls. Really well. She’s had lots of them and is well practiced in the art of the de-pickle, quite like the one in which I presently find myself.
I agree with her immediate assessment. “You need to let me make your reservations from now on.” Normally, such statements would seem an affront to my masculinity (a bit shaky right now), hinting at an inability to tie my own shoes. Given the circumstances, and how good she is at these correctives, I hand it over to her capable contrivance.
Within seconds I had cancelled my hastily-made reservation and she’d booked me a hotel room nearby. This was a huge sigh of relief since Roger was still nervously pacing back and forth outside in obvious negotiations with his wife. I smile. I know those conversations. I bid farewell and made a hasty exit, allowing him respite from whatever deliberations were underway. Roger, you’re welcome.
The moral of this little tale?
Who cares. Life isn’t merely a collection of “teachable moments.” But, since we’re on the subject.
More often than not life is, quite simply, about life. We live it, trip over it, and usually love it. It comes to us as is, unadorned, but real, unpredictable. And, all the better for it.
Failure is a promise (to some more than others). Embrace it. I’m getting pretty good at it. Well, really good if you must know.
Independence is not a biblical principle. Dependence is (God). Interdependence is (each other).
God is good. Theology lesson over.
I’m well rested (albeit at a financial loss).
Roger is once again snuggled safely in his world none the worse for wear.
My wife, as much an expert in unexpected chaos as I, once more proves her worth as booking agent, social convener, and non-judgmental partner.
It’s about time. Wait, that came out wrong.
I pray this is something we can always say with authenticity and joy. Be at peace, dear souls.
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