Thursday, May 28, 2015

What comes from silence

The fog shifts to light ... Photo by Justin Kern, Flickr

HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

-- Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems (via brainpickings.org)

Some more thoughts on the power of silence:

Prayer #285: "Prayers Prayed Back"

God of the interior third place --

It could be the coffee shop, the bookstore, the pub ... or none of the above. I'm searching for my place, the spot where my mumbling, inchoate pleadings can echo back, as if I were standing in an empty and ancient cathedral laid bare by time, with only enough light to outline the pews where I should be sitting.

Insight (I am slowly understanding) does not come gilded or be-bowed. It does not spring forth fully formed. It does not even arrive large enough to see -- more an accumulation of specks pushing through the fibers in the curtain of silence around me, like peckish moths picking at an overripe snack. I sense I must draw the curtain tighter. Yet not too tight -- just enough to allow the lighted dust.

God of the unpretentious revelation, I will gather the breadcrumbs as You drop them. I will guard them. Arrange them. And when the time is right, I will serve them as a feast made holier by its quiet preparation.

Amen.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The genesis of art

Out of chaos ... Illustration by Patrick Hoesly, Flickr.

Step 1 of today's post: Read this passage (emphasis mine).
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.

Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. God saw how good the light was. God then separated the light from the darkness. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." Thus evening came, and morning followed -- the first day.

Then God said, "Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other." And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome "the sky." Evening came, and morning followed -- the second day.

Then God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear." And so it happened: the water under the sky was gathered into its basin, and the dry land appeared. God called the dry land "the earth," and the basin of the water he called "the sea." God saw how good it was. Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it." And so it happened: the earth brought forth every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree on earth that bears fruit with its seed in it. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the third day.

Then God said: "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky, to separate day from night. Let them mark the fixed times, the days and the years, and serve as luminaries in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth." And so it happened: God made the two great lights, the greater one to govern the day, and the lesser one to govern the night; and he made the stars. God set them in the dome of the sky, to shed light upon the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw how good it was. Evening came, and morning followed -- the fourth day.

Then God said, "Let the water teem with an abundance of living creatures, and on the earth let birds fly beneath the dome of the sky." And so it happened: God created the great sea monsters and all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds. God saw how good it was, and God blessed them, saying, "Be fertile, multiply, and fill the water of the seas; and let the birds multiply on the earth." Evening came, and morning followed -- the fifth day.

Then God said, "Let the earth bring forth all kinds of living creatures: cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of all kinds." And so it happened: God made all kinds of wild animals, all kinds of cattle, and all kinds of creeping things of the earth. God saw how good it was. Then God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle, and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground."

God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth." God also said: "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food; and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, and all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food." And so it happened. God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed -- the sixth day.
Step 2: Let's chat.

Stars shining bright above you. Photo by Pippy, Flickr.

So. Why did I just ask you to read Genesis 1:1-31 from the New American Bible? Because if you have ever created something in your life -- wanted to create something, tried to create something, succeeded in creating something -- you have lived this story.

Let me explain. After nearly three years of study, I am in the final phase of my writing degree, the thesis project of which is to put forth a body of publication-worthy fiction. For the next six months, I will wrangle my stories into works of literary genius (read: passable prose), and those works into a collection. By the end of the process, I will graduate from the program, and then I will start submitting these works to the wider world. And on its way to becoming art, each work is living the Genesis story.

Look for a moment at the bolded statements in the passage above. By my count we have six elements that God deems good -- light; earth and sea; vegetation; stars; sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds; and wild animals, cattle, and creeping things. Then God steps back, surveys what he hath wrought, and deems it all very good.

Steps in a process. Photo by Polpolux !!!, Flickr.

To my mind, each element reflects a critical piece of the act of creation -- not the Biblical version of "creation," but rather the creative births that all artists midwife on a regular basis. For example:

  • Light is the spark, the candle in the coal mine, the brief but vivid hint that something bigger, deeper, richer lies ahead if we keep walking.
  • Earth and sea form the foundations that stay firm beneath our feet and carry us in their currents. They are our envelope, the structure that gives us a cyclical, reliable, immutable space in which to play.
  • Vegetation acts as both fuel and cover. It nourishes us when our energy flags and shelters us when our eyelids droop.
  • Stars symbolize our greater compass, the fiery winks that point toward the meaning of our artistic pursuits. Why must this work live, they ask, and why are you the one to bring it forth?
  • Sea monsters, swimming creatures, and winged birds represent wild leaps, flights of fancy, the spasms of imagination that grip us and help us believe that what we're making is fantastic and beautiful.
  • Wild animals, cattle, and creeping things are whatever keeps us grounded. They are the everyday plod, the humble crawl forward, the fight-or-flight instinct that instinctively moves us -- maybe not always in the direction we want, but still, it's movement.
Then, lastly, we look on everything we have made -- our voice, our message, our art -- and we experience a dizzying moment where the steps gel and the work takes on a very good life independent of our own.

If all goes well with my thesis, my words will transform by the end of it into a new world for reader and writer alike. But unlike the humans in Genesis, I won't have dominion over what is created. Rather, I will watch my art walk off alone into a brave new land born of my mind, not ruled by my hand, and greater than the sum of the acts that formed it.


Prayer #284: On the Seventh Day

On the seventh day my work will be complete.
A nap's in order -- we must celebrate!
My work, however, cannot bear to rest.
Created, it must stretch, inhale, and flex --
a strut of strength within a universe
of countless other works. Art, listen up.
Abundance is your fruit; the fact that you
exist at all illuminates your life.
So revel mightily in your array --
your bursting seeds, slow-creeping things, white wings
that beat against your rib cage. Multiply
at will. Dominion's overrated.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The procession of grief

Go. Photo by Brian Talbot, Flickr

In a day of GPS, Google maps, and smartphones, why do we still have funeral processions?

I asked myself this on a frigid Friday this past February, as I impatiently tapped the gas pedal of my rental car, stuck in the middle of a long row of vehicle-bound mourners for a dear family friend. My four-ways were flashing; the procession tag was stuck in my dash; my youngest cousin was seated beside me, ready for the ride. Our slated route was set to go through neighborhoods in and around the area where I grew up, places I hadn't considered in decades, much less seen. It should take, the funeral director said through my passenger window, 45 minutes.

The line began to move. I followed suit. Within 10 minutes I saw that this endeavor would likely result in gray hair and/or a totaled car. No matter how closely I paid attention or drew Lamaze-like breaths, I could not get into the nonstop flow. The idea of blowing through red lights scraped against every defensive driving muscle I've ever built up; I either hit the brakes too hard (bouncing my petite cousin against her seatbelt) or left too much room between cars (inviting interruption in the link). The result was a herky-jerky, brake-or-bust stumble through the outskirts of Philadelphia -- a display so inept that my parents called me from their car, one length away, to reiterate the rules of procession.

By the time we arrived at the cemetery, I was stressed and sweating. My poor cousin was an unsavory shade of chartreuse. We both leaped from the car the minute I put it in park, not considering how it appeared to look so over-eager at a graveside.

But we made it there. Together. Even though I'd almost rear-ended my own parents at several points, they were now standing with me and dozens of other mourners, united in mourning and remembrance for someone we loved.

Move toward the exit light. Photo by David Goehring, Flickr

Removed from the jerking car, now able to view it at a safe, still distance, I recognized the funeral procession as the vehicular manifestation of grief and consolation. When you are part of a procession, you are not only driving that single route -- you are also entering a long continuum of suffering that stretches far past your personal experience and winds its way back through every other human who has followed a body to its inevitable final stop. You are moving with others who share your emotions, while allowing people outside your insulated cushion to sacrifice a few moments of their day to make your way a little easier at a difficult time.

My defensive driving, it turns out, was too defensive. I was trying too hard to control a process that required me to let go to be effective. Instead, I should have relaxed into the grief, allowed the current to carry me to the cemetery, to our loved one's side one last time.

The minute the final rites ended, my cousin escaped back to her family's car (understandable), and my mother joined me in the rental. As each car passed the cemetery gate and hit the main road, they scattered, charting their own routes to the hall for luncheon. With no procession to lead us back, I fired up the GPS. I obeyed traffic signals. I followed the automated voice's instructions. And it was not as comforting as I once thought.

Prayer #283: Turn ... Up?

In one hundred feet --
enough distance for you
to scream, stall, stew,
hem, haw, hide,
run, rage (but god forbid
respond) --
turn
right into My arms
and you will reach your
destination.

Amen.

Friday, May 01, 2015

What (not) to do when the world is falling apart

Unraveling. Photo by Populux !!!, Flickr

This week, man.

First came the Nepal earthquake. Then the Baltimore riots. Then the Supreme Court hearings on gay marriage. Then a cold. Then my period. And to tie it all up with a neat red bow, today's unbelievable-but-true event: a structural collapse at my office building.

Are all these events on equal footing? Of course not. Do they all contribute to my deepening sensation of helplessness, confusion, tension, anger, and disbelief? You bet.

What's worse is my growing acknowledgement of a hard truth: I have not been brave. At all. Through any of it. Because what did I do after following a classmate's sobering updates from the ground in Nepal? After reading furious headlines and online battles about Baltimore? After evacuating my building and being sent home for the day, laptop still on at my desk, unsure of when we'd be able to return?

I dusted.

Yes, dusted. I attacked the snow-drift levels of dust coating my bookshelf with ferocious vengeance. I vacuumed the floor in wide, cutting jabs. I wiped off the tchotchkes with furious pressure. Hell, I even cleaned the baseboards, laughing maniacally as I sucked hair and skin and dirt -- the detritus of a life unattended -- into oblivion. That's how eager I was to put energy toward restoring order in my life.

I dusted.

What I did not do was donate to relief efforts. Or drive to Baltimore to call for peaceful responses. Or notify newstations about the collapse. Or even take medicine at the early symptoms. On all these occasions I puttered. Hedged. Avoided. What would I add to the conversation? I thought. How can $10 help? Why shouldn't I look out for my own safety? What do I know about it all, anyway?

I was not brave. I saw my role as insignificant, my contributions as futile, and what I saw became reality.

So I dusted. The world is still a mess, and I am still an emotional wreck, but my room is clean for at least the next few days until it's inevitably not. And then I will have to decide again what course of action to take.


Prayer #282: Easy

How easy to give up.

How easy to ignore. Excuse. Hide.

How easy to claim no responsibility, to throw your hands up against the avalanching world and run, knowing that your puny frame is no match for its force.

How easy. Much easier than the hard work of staying. Much easier than the hard work of contributing. Much easier than the hard work of educating yourself and others, confronting tragedy and injustice, and challenging your beliefs and your faith.

How easy to give up.

Easier still never to start.

To the God who knows my hesitation -- push me, trip me, do whatever You need to do to move me forward, as long as I'm not standing here, suspended, unused.

Amen.