This morning I resolved to ride my bike- just in the neighborhood, to check its alignment before I frighten drivers on busier streets. But now rain streaks my windows and drools out of the gutters, so I sit squinting at IRS forms and thinking of poetry.
You asked why I don’t write more poems.
Quite actually, you didn’t, but there I’ve beaten you to it,
and in bending the truth thus, accomplished that subtle
weave of fact and feeling that I associate with poetry.
But I undid the threads. The truth is, I have internalized Rilke
when he said that perhaps we are here simply to make lists:
House. Bridge. Fountain. Gate. Pitcher. Apple tree. Window.
To say things as they are in their integrity, without embellishment.
So every night at 9:50 I add to a list: Train going by in the dark.
Small singers’ hugs. Kitchen table. Two hawks. Dent in my car.
One huge arched cloud trail. Skeletal trees.
I notice the way the rain envelopes and becomes the sky, content to sink through the earth and change its form, abandoning flight and keeping me indoors, where I sit like a reservoir of simple things, making my lists when I ought to be doing my taxes. Rilke says we ought to speak the lists aloud, or write them, as the most fitting beginner’s form of poetry. “There are the hurts,” he writes. “And, always, the hardships. And there’s the long knowing of love – all of it unsayable. Later, amidst the stars, we will see: these are better unsaid.” So I write: the soft way light reaches through the window to rest in stripes on a girl’s brown hair during church. A friend talking about Paris. Unexpected meetings and free food and my hand out the window to feel the warming air and, of all things, Call Me Maybe on 95.5.
These are no more than fragments that I, in listing them, weave into a body. Rilke, again: “And the things which, even as they live, pass on – understand that we praise them. Transient, they are trusting us to preserve them – us, the most transient of all. As if they wanted our hearts to transform them into – o endlessly – into us. Whatever we are.”
I cannot yet call that transformation Poetry. I slowly fulfill my human duty to name things, but it is ironic that I have no name for the Opus that results. There is great and solemn joy in the mystery. To all the spoken and word-upheld world, I say: be.
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This week I sit curled up next to family, watching small siblings opening gifts. I lie on carpet squinting at economics and algebra textbooks, and watch the pilot episodes of a couple of shows people have instructed me to see, weighing whether I can sustain the commitment to finish their stories. I wake up late. I run. I sit cross-legged on my bed in the temperate glow of my single strand of Christmas lights and ponder things. What am I looking for? What do I need to manufacture for myself vs. find outside of me? What duties/joys am I shirking and why? Where am I needed? I read T.S. Eliot:
The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
There are things you lose when you pursue a career: Worship as an obvious chief vocation. Time to be still. Motivations unaffected by the hope of rising higher.
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
I have lost the easy stride of a worshiper. I am like my brother who, untrained at piano, can play hymns in full harmony by ear– but when I straighten his bench and sit down to teach him note names and fingerings, inspiration is forgotten and he languishes in a tangle of thumbs and accidentals.
I am that child. Learning technique. Questioning my choice of direction and reminding myself what I leave behind. And still, still drawn to my work. But the work and the life get confused often because I think about density and walkability and sustainability and ecology and community and bake myself into a buzzword pie but forget to till my own land and speak to my own neighbors.
What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them.
Many desire to see their names in print.
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of God,
Much is your building, but not the House of God.
And the wind shall say:
“Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”
I fight suburban sprawl and automobile-oriented environments. But imagine I win; who am I then? A decent godless person: her only monument the pedestrian-oriented streetscape and a thousand lost souls?
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
So I hear the questions and I am afraid because it turns out I am not good at walking this path, but I refuse to turn back. Like a fool, I wander forward into the unknown because I just want to HELP, but I don’t know if I will. I want to be important, but I’m afraid it would destroy me. I want to be independent but I don’t want to be alone. I want to worship AND be accepted in a secularized city. So it’s a mess. But I believe I’m meant to wade through it.
In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.
I believe Jesus will be faithful to complete a good work in and through me. Halfway in and halfway out of the dark, I will keep Christmas.
The work of creation is never without travail;
Lord, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order.
And intellectual pleasures of the senses?
The Lord who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creating.
(Poetry taken from Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock”; I recommend the entire poem.)
stretch out your hand in trepidation
open your palm with your frightened eyes shut
do you trust the gifts you’re given?
neither do I, yet we both risk the touch
often our reaching has brought us to ruin
there have been serpents disguised as doves
like a fisherman, your sight is blocked by the surface
like a fish, you so seldom look up
in your chest is a heart and each pump starts a pulse
your body is water; your heart is a stone
a stone splashes once and the ripples convulse
every vein channels rhythm and urges the flow
your pulse is a call to you: open your hand
gifts may betray but will not fail to teach you
I once wished for love and got wisdom instead
each gift you accept is a bite you can’t chew
you will swallow the bitterest dose of reality
you will wish you had never unfolded your fist
even in pain your pulse will keep beckoning
you are constantly summoned to open your gifts
stretch out your hand in trepidation
open your palm with your frightened eyes shut
do you trust the life you’re given?
neither do I, yet we both risk the touch
[this post appeared first on Torrey Gazette]
yellow grass curls and straggles its way to the sky
as do I.
in a way, I long to follow the hawk lifting on borrowed air
but I do not know where he is going
and I care; I have to walk very straight and narrow
because no one is flying there.
I’m always the one who puts the lights on the tree. The task used to fall to my mom, but once I got old enough to have an eye for that sort of thing, I took over. I wanted it to be me hanging the light.
I play Christmas music and I start with garden shears. Giving myself a hand cramp, I squeeze the shears and bite off the branches that are going limp or yellow. Then I sit back on my heels and size up the crowded mess of fir, deciding where to make holes.
Needles fall thick. Sections of the trunk appear. It seems wrong to trim perfectly good branches but the tree is so stuffed with green that there’s no room for light. I can’t hang the lights until there’s enough emptiness for them to fill.
The tree looks hurt when I finish. The holes I’ve made stare at me accusingly. I start unwinding the strand of yellow lights and twisting them around branches. I cluster light in the holes I made, all the way up the tree. My hands get splotchy with sap. When I’m finished, I step back.
The once-bare places shine.
“and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?” -Herman Melville
Light cannot enter us until there’s enough emptiness for it to fill; until we are scraped empty and trimmed bare.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.” Isaiah 9
A fire in the cotton field
purity turns to ash
nothing white is strong enough
all things good will pass
like a river, wishes go
to weathered sea from wistful snow
ignorance is all I know
but dimly, through a glass
Alas, my trade is done with words
and they have all been said
epiphanies are blown to rags
by time and bitterness
all to do is done, my love
and love is just a word, my love
and words are just charades, my love
or shadows, at their best
Trudging circles through a fog
man proves himself a fool
for all the lies in all the world
cannot make up one Truth
I grow too old to open doors
for dreams are lost and words are torn
and all that matters any more
is what I repeat after You
“Except the LORD shall build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD shall keep the city, the watchman waketh in vain.” Psalm 127:1
Sometimes I try too hard to find out who I am. I study myself, I look for patterns in my likes and dislikes and experiences, but the answers I find are only illusions.
Because my identity is hidden in Him. I am His, and nothing on this fragile, transient earth can define me. I am not defined by my talents. Or my clothing. Or my friends. Or the books I read. Or the movies I watch. I am not a singer, a writer, a dancer, a geek, a grammar nazi, an anglophile, a cowgirl, a Chestertonian, a poet, a friend, a speaker, a wearer of pearls, or a bearer of words. I am His.
And that is the only answer that will ever satisfy. It’s the only category in which I will ever belong. Everything else is a mask, a costume for my short time on life’s stage. Everything else is a lie.
He is, therefore I am. I am His. I am His. I am His.
“I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”
“I felt it first when I was younger… a strange connection to the light. I tried to satisfy the hunger; I never got it right. So I climbed a mountain and built an altar… looked out as far as I could see. And everyday I’m getting older. I’m running out of dreams. (I’m running out of dreams.) But Your love, Your love…. The only thing that matters is Your love. Your love is all I have to give. Your love is enough to light up the darkness! It’s your love, Your love. All I ever needed is Your love.”
Yesterday, I was accosted by my 19th birthday. Amid all the activities, I managed to allow myself some time for reflection, because one shouldn’t simply blow through life without remembering what made life what it is. So, in no particular order, I recalled to memory my preschool years (with bangs and Lamb Chop and playing grocery store in the kitchen and Bambi), my elementary influences (with Jungle Jam and suddenly green eyes and my drama queen t-shirt and patient parents and playing ‘house’ with my cousins at Christmas), middle school turmoil (with choir obsession and fashion realization and The Chronicles of Narnia and questions about Christianity and international student ministries and changing churches), and the combined confusion and clarity of high school (with state-wide singing competitions and The Lord of the Rings and NCFCA and the beauty of sound doctrine and the passions of wonder and love and voracious reading and poetry and discovering what friendship means).
“You know the effort I have given, and You know exactly what it cost. And though my innocence was taken, not everything is lost. (Not everything is lost, no.) You’re the hope in the morning. You’re the light when the night is falling. You’re the song when my heart is singing. It’s Your love! You’re the eyes to the blind man. You’re the feet to the lame man walking. You’re the sound to the people singing. It’s Your love!
Your love is all that I needed. All I ever needed is Your love.” [Brandon Heath]
When my spurts of breath fog up the window of the airplane and I lean as close as I can to the sky, I think that mankind’s sense of direction is slightly boggled. We fly, and think we’re going up and out, but aren’t we really going up and in, closer to the centre of Reality?
I bounced on that trampoline until I could almost kiss the stars. And maybe I’m more like Icarus than I had previously supposed. That broken spring couldn’t have held up forever… but no one said it would hurt so much to fall. Lying in a hospital bed, I wonder why I half-expected flowers. My mind will go too someday, and there’s no brace that can hold it up to the light long enough for it to heal. What’s beyond the wallpaper of my soul? If I could only get out of myself and walk along that poplar-lined street…. But the door is too small, and there’s no potion to make me shrink like Alice. Anyway, the key’s lost at the bottom of the swimming pool where it slipped from my fingers when we were playing mermaids in the the twilight. I remember we turned all the lights on, and everything was orange and blue and almost perfect. I could float on my back and watch the rumours of the sunset steal across the walls, until my body decided to rebel against Archimedes and descend into the twinkling depths…….
I open my eyes and there’s a butterfly above them– a memento of a life I almost lived. I was interrupted by a curly-haired boy who had a question for me that he never could bring himself to utter. His feet sifted through the grass, but he never could smell the hidden meanings in motion. Sometimes I think about him and wonder if someone ever taught him how to breath deeply enough to feel truly brave… and I regret that I didn’t teach him when I had the chance. I can’t calculate the opportunity cost of rushing away to a swan-speckled river and the row-boat that waited for me on the shore. But such is the path I sprinted along. We were required to wear life-jackets while boating, and I felt like a fat bird unable to fly. I laughed off the feeling of despair, and learned to veil my eyes, because it just didn’t make sense for it to be raining inside my heart while the sun was glistening on the water outside.
Understanding and perception are priceless and dangerous gifts, but even they have their limits. Somehow, only the squirrels outside my window ever looked into my eyes long enough to notice the rust on my trampoline springs, and see that it was always only a matter of time. Maybe I just imagined it, but my bedroom walls seemed to understand my personality better than I did, and they changed color ever-so-subtly to help me adapt. No one else saw behind the mischief in my eyes and my tendency to bounce with excitement. No one saw the shadows… in all shades of grey. No one ever expected me to fall, and when I did, no one ever knew. It might seem impossible, but I was always an actress, you know. So we’ll go on to talk about bed-knobs and broomsticks, of cabbages and kings, and forget this ever happened. Forget that there’s bitterness behind the brilliance or sadness behind the smile… the world is made of truth denied.
But how can I make you understand that my feelings are as real as yours? Who would suspect me, with my bright pink jacket and playful retorts, of writing poetry dripping with tears that come from encounters with faithlessness and betrayal and uncertainty? Surely I should be happy forever. How could it be possible that I could go to bed and cry myself to sleep?
Arbitrary memories whish across the parchment of my mind. Science fair projects with shells and frogs and meat tenderizers remind me of that night I wore a very unattractive plaid shirt, and I wonder what my evaluating judge thought of my sense of style. Stylistically speaking, I’m not sure how to employ the word “arcane” as often as I’d like to do so. Judging by my knack for changing the subject, we could be here all day. Please fasten your seat-belts, and if there is a sudden change in cabin pressure, fasten the oxygen mask to your face and breathe normally. If you should experience hallucinations of 13 Tolkein-esque dwarves, join them so their number is no longer unlucky. We may all be needed in the future, for sacrifice is a service which cannot be bought and a dish which is always served warm. I opened the refrigerator and realized I was looking in the wrong place. What would Sydney Carton do in my situation? Never mind, he’d never find himself here anyway. If he did, I’d be the first to say hello and offer him my gloved hand. But if anyone was to come and ask for my gloved heart, I’d tell him it was still under repair.