Knots

A meditation on the ties that bind us.

In these moments of becoming, over time,

we passed our histories across tables and

channels and we followed crude maps.

Where to? Some knowing, we hoped

but would not say. We named instead 

our somewheres, each seeming distinct.

Maybe what pained us then was knowing

that none of us could arrive ––anywhere 

or ever––except with these others, strangers,

and each seeming bound to separate yesterdays

amid the crossing and re-crossing 

of inherited meanings intended with such

density of intention that we could hardly 

move anywhere before one or another

of our limbs were caught again in our own

nets and we were forever stopping to 

unknot. That was most of our trouble, 

then.

Grumbling over losses and expenditures

and the cost of the voyage, we could contrive 

no value except from what was

freely given. Eventually, we gave ourselves

up to the net, and it wrapped us in its ties

and we dropped our sails, and surrendered

to move by nothing but the current 

and whatever was binding us. What

was it? We hoped it knew us. We

waited and were silent, bound.

On Service: An Allegory

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw.

When it came time to fight the dragon, one among them shouted, I will not serve.

He would not submit, but others would, to the lies he commissioned, always dressed in righteous robes.

The fighters went on, the one before them saying, I will.

Those moved by this example said nothing. They did not shout. No trumpets blared.

They did not turn their faces from the landscape in the dragon’s gaping maw. Announcing allegiance to another order, they moved with the quiet conviction of visitors to the dying and the sick. Each tended to another’s wounds and they left no one behind. They brought diapers to new mothers and to orphaned children; soap to the unwashed, clothing to those who had been sticking to their own stink. They shielded the unsheltered from the elements, including fire from the righteous. They brought water to those beginning to hallucinate with thirst. Not food, but meals. Not pretend answers, but real questions to real needs, and the mess of it never left them. They wept often under the strain, and knew joy, too. And in the land of fire with the dying in the dragon’s mouth, there was peace because they were there, offering it where they could. 

Words for Unknowing

Head in these clouds.

You menace, you specter, you shadow, you––

bear? No, airplane! That one’s an elephant.

You vapor, you veil, you gloom, you mist,

I see you, dragon! Your tail, like this!

Muddle, obscure, puzzle the lot. We name you anyway,

cataloging images like suspects’ mugshots: cirrostratus,

arcus, shelf, roll; towers of cumulonimbus plotting hail.

We can’t resist forecast’s temptation to fate; foretell

this foreboding, foreswear it true.

Shapeshifter of heaven, where are you? Count me

in, you said, and left when we reached nine. 

Our heads followed where we kept losing them. You

were the nightmare horizon, wandering lonely;

hold my unknowing and sing a feather canyon.

We’ll cross ages like you do these skies. 

Melancholy idyll, romantic torrent, ominous calm.

You annihilate language, and still, we can’t keep

from naming, even if nothing holds beyond the

first sound you inspire: Ah! Oh, what is this

but the beginnings of awe, and here in this

open field we fall silent, planting alleluias

and waiting for rain.

Inheritance

Seen through a glass, darkly.

Giant wheel, the unpronounceable name at its face, 

and here is a version of law: mercury, sulfur, water, 

salt. Let there be life. Two serpents surround it.

One descends, another rises. Welcome, souls,

a watching sphinx greets. Now the four corners:

angel, eagle, lion, bull. Look, they are leaving.

It’s turning now, and now come the signs, and

now wonder, the magic behind you. 

Now darkness. Know this 

watching wait, the terror

a praise song, too. 

The Art of Perplexity

On the virtue of resisting the easy answer.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1131-1205), is a good person to meet if you’re looking for some antidote to the excesses of a mode of thought (typically Greek in origin) that tends to value “the universal, the general, and the unequivocal” over modes more typical of Hebraic scholarship, namely an openness toward “ambiguity, contradiction, and plurality of meaning” (from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). The title of Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” was enough to pull me into his orbit. The following is inspired by this treatise, as translated by Shlomo Pines

***

Consider this: the meaning of a sacred text can only be glimpsed. It is best accessed by those prone to being perplexed. Consider also how contradictions, so often maligned, may be embraced instead of being shunned as flaws.

I am moved toward those terms that may sometimes have one meaning, and sometimes many.

When it comes to some subjects, a sensible reader will know better than to demand a complete exposition and will not expect any given meaning to be exhaustive. A sensible reader would never consider the possibility of removing all difficulties, ever, from the interpretive challenge. The most valuable truths may at best be glimpsed, and then concealed again.

Sometimes, in a long, dark night, a flash of lightning will illuminate the landscape. It’s like that, and yet––

Many a fool has so hungered for certainty that he refers to pretend the flash continual, pretending night is day,

––hence the parable, the riddle, the poem, the allegory. Let me show you a deep well. Would you drink? No, you cannot reach it, except by attaching the pail to one, and the next, and the next of each of these, in succession and with humility of mind. You will find no rope long enough, but the vulgar won’t bear this truth. They’ll keep insisting, tell it straight and in a single breath, and when you can’t they will call you a liar and when you won’t you are nothing.

My goal: to guide a single, virtuous reader to rest. Most will be highly displeased. Here is no answer, no show. What may be told to mortals of their own beginnings, except obscurely?

Salt, Light, and the Living

To honor the dead and the living, against despair.

Considering the permafrost, one doctor observes: we have melted back to the stone age, we are speeding back in time. He is speaking about the iceman that revealed himself recently in the melt: body the color of tea, his was probably a case of bleeding to death from a shoulder wound.

Another speaks of other findings: sights of the ancient massacres of whole villages; instruments of killing among the oldest known artifacts. There’s a puppy carcass too, believed to represent a link between dog and wolf, friend and killer. The Lena horse, the cave lion. Like a library on fire, says the doctor, regarding the impermanence of the freeze, how fast it melts. The point, he says, is to save what you can.

One gets so exhausted: the constant fire, the latest extinctions. There’s a question in this moment: how to resist despair without giving in to vapid, empty optimism? The doctor is silent, considering. Another speaks, slowly and deliberately–– of the stoics, how necessary their discipline is now: to meditate deeply on negative possibilities, to sit with the anxiety, the grief, the sense of relative powerlessness, and after sitting, resolve to act anyway on behalf of the living. It’s the only way, the doctor insists, to cope with the trial of the moment.

I am sitting with this today, and meanwhile, I am also aware that it is All Souls Day, and after dinner an old friend reminds me how the grandmothers would light a candle so that those who have died can return for a brief visit. They knew that in order for the dead to return with their animating force, they needed the strength of love and intention as a guide. One would also set out two small vessels: one of salt, one of water, to represent life and the meal we would make for them if they could join us at the table. On this day, they would come, leaving their love and blessings, and taking many of our troubles with them. They are also able to have some communion with us, when the veil between the worlds is thin. 

While nothing like the stoicism that the doctor shared, this reminder rings harmonious to my weary ears, relieved to be called back to the quiet, steadfast patience of these grandmothers. The responsibility to the living requires us to keep going, and our responsibility to the dead demands that we tend a tiny flame and these small vessels, because what is nourished will grow, and this, even now, is still a meaningful choice.  

***

Inspirations

I was reading about the permafrost melt this morning (In The New York TimesAs Earth Warms, Old Mayhem and Secrets Emerge from The Ice, and As Earth Warms, the Diseases that May Lie Within Permafrost Become a Bigger Worry. Later, I came across this article (from Columbia Climate School) about the need for Climate Stoicism, and hours after that a friend returned me to certain Irish traditions for celebrating All Souls Day.

Seen and Unseen

When the saints come marching in.

The Lives of the Saints is a book that captured my childhood imagination, perhaps because it reads like a catalogue of horrific challenges and mystical superpowers. Opening the illustrated version felt somewhat transgressive, like indulging in an arcane comic book. I first found it in the rectory waiting room while I waited for my grandparents, and again in the home of the sisters, where we brought ice cream and visited and sometimes attended midday mass in the chapel. It was the 1980s, and I was ignorant of most of what the adults of my parents’ generation seemed to discuss. What was it? I don’t remember, only that their conversations and general absorptions seemed tied to being in the world in ways that didn’t make much sense to me, and the inscrutability of adult life tended to make me anxious when I considered that one day I would have to become one. 

I was aware that I was a hopeless sinner, guilty of fighting with my sisters and of gluttony around Halloween candy and holiday desserts, and of wondering, during the high point of a Mass, whether my grandparents would be moved to make a stop at the deli on Post Road after church, visions of poppyseed buns dancing in my head when it should have been the mystery of transubstantiation of the body and blood.  It was doubtful I had any of the merits of a saint, and yet their strangeness made more sense to me than what passed for normalcy.

The saints, as I read them, tended toward singular obsessions: Francis with his poverty and love of creatures, Bernadette with her daily visits to the water at Lourdes, Eustachius who became transfixed by a vision of the savior in the antlers of a deer. I was awed by, and felt oddly familiar with, their various intensities, and with how they tended to give themselves over to visions that ran parallel to this world while being apart from what was generally taken to be real. These were my people, I thought, even though, given my accumulation of sin, I knew I had no right. But I didn’t get the impression that any of these saints spent much time worrying about sins. They were too busy with their visions and singular obsessions, so it seemed possible that if we met, they would welcome me into their community of oddball misfits. 

To mark the occasion, I opened my old copy this morning. I made the grave mistake, when I found it used on amazon a few years ago, of neglecting to specify the illustrated version, so my stodgy copy bears little resemblance to the book of wonders I remember. My point, as it often is when I am looking for these Breadcrumbs, was to gather what phrases seemed useful, regarding the celebrations that mark All Saints and All Souls Day. Here’s what I found:

For the martyrs whose names are not recorded, and the children lost in innocence, for those who died in a state of grace known only to them and the angels who carried them home, who remembered and held us in their intercessions, and for all the souls, that they may be loosed. Let us bear in mind the dead, holding them in our earnest intentions. Remember.

Desert Walk

A desert walk, and considerations of the pilgrim in borrowed space.

Forever with your help, reads the desert park slogan. Regarding longevity, consider Pliocene beds of oyster shells and the ancient remains of a coral reef.

Remember the saber-toothed cats, camels, giant turtles, and the condor-sized vultures. Remember the vertical faults, pushing up ridges with each quake. Remember when the river shifted course, filling the basin with two-thousand square miles of now-ancient lake, fringed with tule, arrow weed, willow, mesquite, palm.

Keep walking, keep looking, the names alone like an invocation of what was once understood: creosote, burrow weed, agave, mesquite, cat’s claw, jumping cholla, indigo bush, smoke tree, desert willow, ironwood. 

Watch for scorpions, watch for snakes, watch for ghost lights and the ghost rider, lantern in his chest; watch for bones, holding the wind.

Watch for it: every creature out here arranging itself in creative response to thirst. Watch for hidden water but beware the interior gorge. The ancients knew this as the home of the dead. Of course, it is also the most likely to be wet so there are those that take their chances, hiking down and further until every sound revolves into an echo of its origin, and the only place left to move is back up, or farther along the path you’ve been warned to avoid.

Etymology of Gravity

Considering the force that holds a body here.

If time is spinning earth on axis in rotation around the sun, it should send us flying away, except that we are held by force of attraction, to the planet that insists by its incessant motion on our aging, recording all the while: lives, deaths, mutations, development of fins where once there were limbs, trading original fur for original sin and taking it like penance in the furs of those that warmed us, fed us, watched us. We knew them. But a body bent on survival will induce forgetting when it needs to––for a time, anyway.

Then we watched the sun. Rising, setting, it seemed about to retreat from our waiting, and we sang to pull it back. It shaped our voices, our habits, our sleep, birthdays, solstice, winter.

We lived in one dome, and some said that there were other domes beneath us, in layers, through which certain ancestors had passed, struggling up and up; and now it seems obvious, the tension that holds us: on the one hand up and out, and on the other, here––as in, Here is your hand, and because it holds mine, I do not fly away. These are the first words, I like to think, that we might have said to one another when we first lost our furs, grasping for a language better than any of our words.

The first shelter we found when we knew we were naked was nothing but translucent blue, infinitely distant, and it was endlessly spinning, and everywhere you looked, there you were, at the center of the turning skies, shattered. How does a body ask to be held when the words for the safety it suddenly needs are not yet invented? Cruel irony, to place a set of eyes in the center of a universe just to remind them of the possibility of being tossed by the sheer velocity of a relentlessly spinning planet––into nothing.

Why language, when words feel so feeble, most of the time? Here is why: a body on the verge of certain annihilation cannot help but cry out, and there is no use for words except as some version or another of the open hand, pleading in mute and sudden exposure: Hold.

Gift of the Skies

Considering the vast wisdom of ancient dreamers against the small spectacle of contemporary foils.

October skies prompt certain recollections. Consider the ghosts of sky watchers, for example,  how they once stood among the old ruins, unruined among the old stars.

Those beautiful dreamers, for whom knowing was learning the way back to the original vision, before words.  It must have been something to be among them within the stories they must have told, and the tellers of them: rooted and sturdy as trees to sleep in, and who ever does that now? In contrast, I’m recalling the parable of the dreamer, a much more contemporary tale, apropos to the moment, overheard when I was out somewhere, wide-eyed with possibility. I had listened with rapt attention, waiting for a brilliant conclusion. It wasn’t that sort of story, but I couldn’t know this at the time. 

The parable I am remembering was not about one of these dreamers, but a self professed “dreamer” in the popular sense. The sort that loves to confess, “I am a dreamer,” as if doing so might lend a certain je ne sais quois to a cultivated artifice, aside from being an excellent excuse from the terrible burden of being tethered to anything of heaven or earth beyond his own needs. How unlike the real dreamers he was, whose original visions would never let them forget that they were nothing if not obligations to be more than mere selves, those notorious tricksters, those endless constellations of illusions and untamed wants who thrived on mischief-making, knowing nothing else.

The wise ones before him would chant with the rising sun, and for it, an act of worship borne of humility. Our latecomer arrives, knowing nothing but himself since he’s been so steadfast about resisting ties to anything else, right down to being unable to believe that anything could be nearly as real. Coming down to absorb the energy of the moment, he asks one of the reverent about their purpose. Upon learning that the object of worship is the sun, he cannot help but arrive at a singular and fateful conclusion: not that he is the sun exactly, not as a matter of fact (he isn’t much interested in facts, which too much resemble the proverbial ropes and chains from which is he is ever-wanting to free himself), but that he could be.

“I am here!” he declares, “And behold, a great light!” and raises his hands to absorb the energy of his adoring crowd. Proud of himself for remaining unsullied, he imagines the warmth he is feeling to be the pure radiance of his own miraculous self. 

Oh, the cheering! He thinks, how magnificent! When he deigns to remove himself from this heightened state, he must tell them!  He must tell the people. He is not selfish, after all! Truly, he had sometimes wondered. But if he were, how do you explain this impulse to let the common assembly, infinitely less complex than the smallest finger of his two outstretched hands, partake in this radiant heat?

The old ones shake their heads, chuckling at a misreading so far-fetched that they could never have dreamed it up. They’d love to see what else this one comes up with, but they can’t stay for the rest of the show. Dreaming, as they know it, is the hard, daily work of a lifetime, and they share a common agreement to get back to it.

“Should we say something?” One says, as they are walking away.

They pause, look back. But in the looking it becomes clear that saying anything to someone in such a state is about the same as saying nothing, and possibly much worse, given the likelihood of misunderstandings like the one that led our infant dreamer to claim the altar as his own.

They go, a procession of ancients in unison, under an ancient sky, pulled by an ancient purpose, older and more vast than any one among them.