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.

In Loving Attention

It’s in the details.

I have heard of counting worlds in grains of sand, and the angels on the head of a pin, but Look. Notice this toucan smaller than a pencil tip, mouth open, the articulated wings, spreading. Attention to such detail, in this moment, is as an act of radical love.  It began with a sense of awe, the artist explains, at the body of an insect. It was the magnificent fragility that moved her. There is no way to do this, she says, except by accepting the storm of tremors in the heart and hand, the sandstorm of breath against dust. Everything cracks on this scale, she says, and flies when you cut, and all you are doing is making and remaking, twig by twig.

***

Inspired by (and using found phrases from) Sara Barnes’ MyModernMet article “Artist Carves Impossibly Small Bird Sculptures You Need a Microscope To Fully Appreciate” about the work of Marie Cohydon.

The Escape Artist to the Magician

Harry Houdini confronts predecessors, past illusions, and posers of the moment.

On this day in 1926, Harry Houdini gave his final performance, at The Garrick Theatre in Detroit. To mark the occasion, I spent some time exploring what I could of several books he left behind. I was interested to learn that Houdini had suffered a period of deep disillusionment when he discovered that much of the appeal of the artist who inspired him, Robert Houdin, was artifice assembled from the work of countless unnamed others. Houdini set out to name these in The Unmasking of Robert Houdin. Later, he devoted much of his non-performance time to debunking the claims of many of the leading mentalists of his time, a process he describes in A Magician Among the Spirits. This is an imagined monologue in which the escape artist considers the toll of his lost belief, even as he remains steadfast in revealing the truth. It includes borrowed phrases from both texts.

Do you think I imagined nothing of soaring heights? My first act was the trapeze. I was nine, and my father had lost his job, and all we knew then was how to live on the edge. It should go without saying that not all edges are the same. Some you walk by necessity; others are brandished by the charmer, those swords and weapons not for protection or battle, but merely to catch the light, wow an audience, earn applause.

With some people, greater intimacy only yields greater discoveries, the rewards like that of earth itself: the closer you look, the more there is. With others, these sword-bearing magician illusionists, the effect is the opposite. The more you look, the less there is to see. Looking long enough, the familiar patterns and tired tricks reveal themselves. Finally, broken hearted, the once and future believer has no choice but to accept. The emperor wears no clothes.

I have been interested! I held seances, surprised clients. It was a lark! My ambition, my love was gratified. Moving forward, some hallowed reverence advanced with age, and I was chagrined.  I became more plastic, interested to discover if it was possible to return from beyond the veil.

What lengths I have gone to, by now. How many compacts I have made with the living: when you go, will you reach me? They agreed. I have waited, watched. No one can accuse me of being unwilling to receive a sign.

To be clear, I am a sceptic, not a scoffer. My heart softens still to remember the believer I once was, the unsuspecting heart of inexperience. I sometimes wish I could return. It is not so unusual, after all, for the senses to mislead. A little sign, appealing to the waiting imagination, the endless promises and guarantees of charlatans claiming special insight, heightened vision––becomes a menace to health and sanity.

No doubt some are sincere. Even my trained mind can be deceived, how much more susceptible the ordinary observer. Magician, you are lost to me since I have seen you. I thought knowing, as with all good things, would only enhance appreciation. I could blame you for pretending to be what you are not, but now who is the fool? I was told I had no finesse for illusion, not enough sleight in my hand. I lacked the guile that came naturally to you; it was your daily bread.  

I’d prefer not to look, but there are others at risk. My purpose is to warn them. After all, I was never the magician, only the escape artist. I have escaped the nailed box, the sealed coffin, the underwater milk jug, the chains, and now I fly from the illusion that you were ever anything like the promise you pretended to be. It hurts my sore wings, long cramped. I’d rather not do it, but there is an audience, after all, and their attendant faith. If my loyalty runs parallel to the seed of this faith, then my exodus is the sacrament at hand. Blame the moon for peeling back the veil; blame the intensity of my childhood will, to believe. Blame the failure of the blinders that you counted on, to hold. Blame the persistent posture of looking; I learned this as a matter of devotion early on. Try as I might, even in the early days of watching you perform, I could not unlearn it, not completely, until now. 

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.

Saint of Creatures

On remembering each creature as its own message.

You offered, in your daily practice, some reminders, such as: each creature carries its own message, its own metaphor, and how to recognize the animal soul.

If you have men who will exclude creatures from the shelter of compassion, you said, so will they do with other men.

You would speak with birds, who stayed with you until you said goodbye. You called after a cicada, saying Sister, sing, and she did.

Even worms, moving close to your path, were moved by you. Be safe, you would tell them, setting them back from the approaching feet.

Flash of ferret, oriole oracle, what you remembered with the rabbit; insect insight, iguana inspiration; the vision of vipers; signs and symbols you shared with the swallows.

Wonder of wolf, its terror transcended to peace in your presence; how did you know?

Had you a microscope, I wonder, what might you have made of the tardigrade, its ability to live in what others would call hell. What epiphanies would you have seen in these; about the limits we imagine for the living?

And I wonder what you would have made of the yeti crab, who appears like a child’s pet monster, hovering near the ocean’s hydrothermal vents? The mineral level is poisonous, but she carries colonies of bacteria in her pincers to null what would kill. What songs could you hear in her patient waiting in those depths?

And I’d love to know what you’d make of the sea creature that reverts to infancy after maturity, who renews herself again and again, body without a seeming end. What would you say to her, and how would you learn to listen, over time, to the bass-beat of her endlessly whispered devotion?

Notes:

Inspired by the coming feast of St Francis, as illuminated by Richard Rohr’s Every Creature is an Epiphany, from his Daily Meditations series at the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC.org).

and also by Mihei Andrei’s article Meet the World’s Only Immortal Animal on ZME Science

Faith and Apple Seeds

John planted apples in nurseries. He headed west barefoot. He listened through lies and went on loving, gently.

Until this morning I considered Johnny Appleseed to be one of those figures I associated with made-up stories like George and the cherry tree or Casey at the bat, which are told to distract children from larger questions about what is really going on here. I remember a cartoon image: goofy-looking barefoot guy in a straw hat, Scandinavian features, strolling barefoot over hills, munching on an apple he held in his left hand while he tossed apple seeds from a satchel with his right. A folksy song played in the background, the lyrics no doubt including something along the lines of, Here comes Johnny Appleseed. . .  Something, something apple trees!  But this morning I learned that he had another name, and it was John Chapman, and that he was born on this day in 1774. In 1840, someone took a photograph of him (or was it a daguerreotype then? I don’t know). He has the face of a man who is kind and serious, who has seen through the ways of men and will not be easily fooled. How different he looks, from the cartoon fool they made him into.

He was eighteen when he left home. He took his half-brother Nate with him. Nate was eleven. They went West, as one does. For thirteen years they lived as nomads. John’s mother had died when he was two, while his father was away, fighting redcoats, so he was used to it. 

He wasn’t tossing seeds or even planting orchards. It was nurseries he planned and built, tended, and left in the care of someone he hired, with promise to return. 

He almost died in a tree while picking hops. He fell and his neck was caught in the fork. It was his eight-year-old help that cut the tree down to save him. 

Near the end, he was moved by a sermon, although not in the manner intended. The preacher went on and on, eager to make a point, asking again and again, where is the primitive Christian, barefoot in coarse raiment? ––Alluding, it seemed, to the original disciples, and some perceived spiritual distance between then and now.

The point had something to do with indulgences. Calico was one; tea was another.

Chapman grew weary of the obvious play for power by guilt and so he approached the podium, which at that moment was a tree stump. He put his bare foot on it, said Here is your primitive. Now what? The congregation was dismissed.

Later, he preached to anyone listening, not of a vengeful God, but of the one who came after. Killed for his simplicity, John suspected. His blessings on the merciful, the poor, the grieving, the hungry, the persecuted. After all of that, who would be left to save, but the rich, who wanted no salvation unless it came on their own gilded terms?

His leader was the one who washed the feet of his brothers, who was gentle with women; who saved harsh words for the moneylenders and thieves in the temple, and for the robed men who used religion like a sword. 

Where is it, anyway, someone asked John, with regards to the kingdom of God.

Right here, John told them. Right here, only look.

And they sat barefoot among the trees, and the wind moved them, and they knew. 

Gutter Prayer

You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

Let’s touch them, you said. Of the disposable––the lonely, too.

Never eat a single mouthful, your mother told you, unless you share it.

When asked for beliefs, you disappointed. Only here, only this.

It’s not that you hadn’t sought more. It’s not that you hadn’t gazed into the heavens with an aching heart, waiting for some response. Finding nothing only made the ache worse, so you turned what you had of longing to those who mirrored it, to offer the comfort you would seek.

I remember the time. It was a year of massacre, mass suicide, mass extinction. The machine won the chess game. I was finding Joan Didion, the epigraph from Yeats framing her chronicle of the end of an era of wild hope. For? The promise of a new age, Turning and turning, some human achievement promised, but the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

It wasn’t going to work, was it? Meaning, any of the ideas.

You were done with ideas, too. Only love, you offered. Only this.

Unbreak my heart, we sang, our fragile candles in the wind. We were building a mystery, but it seemed to be swallowing us whole, like Jonah’s whale, the secret gardens of our imagined inheritance forever a million miles away.

No, you insisted. Only here. You held what was before you in your hands, giving of your heart until it was done.

And wasn’t this the ultimate hope, some finite relief to our dreams of immortality? That there was something we could do, really do––not dream, not imagine, not vision our way into or out of–– with all its messy, mundane details, its fluid and its stink, its inevitable decay, and the inevitable rejuvenation of this endless, wanting need? We could meet it just as endlessly until we couldn’t anymore, until we could be relieved of the pressure of our promise, swallowed back into the great void you saw everywhere, especially when you sought an answer or a cosmic face toward which to offer your prayers. Only here, you said. Only these outstretched hands. 

We could meet them, again and again. This you can do, you showed us. This you can do until you are done.

This morning, I am reminded that on this day, in 1997, Mother Teresa died, so I am considering the legacy of her life.

Bury My Ash and Plant a Tree

What if we gave it up, this whole habit of protecting these temporary husks?

I have an idea.

About what?

How to die.

Please. I’m trying to just––

No, it’s about that too, hear me out. Let’s not put these bodies in boxes when we’re done with them.

Ah, the boxes. What size, what wood, what level of cushioning? Where to put the box, and what shoes?

Let’s give it up, that whole thing.

You mean––?

The whole habit of protection, when it comes to these temporary husks.

From?

The inevitable ends we want to rage against. The humiliation of decay.

Not to mention of a bare face, unpainted.

Exactly. What were we doing with all of that, anyway?

What were we hoping to keep?

Look at the fate of cut flowers, gathered with the same impulse. I mean––

Any vase, however flimsy, will outlast its contents, destined in most cases to wind up broken.

Or on a Goodwill shelf with a sticker.

Let’s try something else. What if we burned as we lived, saving none?

Fuel for the living. What if––

we used the container we keep––

––for growing, instead?

With all the dirt, filth, worms––

Husks of fruit––

Let the falling seeds have at it.

If I’m going anyway, let me spend what I have on the living.

Here it is, take it. This hand.

Not to chain, but to comfort.

Yes, and this face. Not to photograph,

To hold a gaze. These eyes, even.

Don’t cover them with coins. 

Eat this vision, I am giving it up.

Don’t strike me down.

Don’t box and bury me. 

Let the fire eat my excess.

Let me prefer this and the way it reduces

––my body from its confines, to magnify

––Its purpose?

Infinitely. Then put me at the base of a tree.

Let me be dust. I am going now. Hold none of me.

In the spring, I will bloom for you, reminding you back.

To what?

To an original question: what is beauty without death?

To make it something we ache to be, hold; being held inside it, holding.

Wait. It comes for you also, but also coming is this impossible bloom. 

A thousand bursts. Like cotton balls when you squint, in baby-blanket pink.

Rest against this trunk.

Of my shade. There will be nothing to hold

but there you will be, cool inside it.

Cool from burning?

Yes, you will be cooling from the burning

there, in the shade of my ash, for a little while.

And you will welcome me there?

Yes.

For how long?

How long will you stay? Don’t answer.

Why not?

Because when the time comes, you will burn it all up again. 

But––

Still, I will be at the end of the burn and the beginning of this tree––this cooling shade, waiting.

Wait.

This post is inspired by an article I read this morning in My Modern Met (one of my go-to haunts for inspiration), about new environmentally friendly developments in burial rituals: vertical gravesites, human compost, and the option of burying ashes at the base of a new-planted tree.

Cohesion

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees.

You can survive a shark attack by hitting back, a giant octopus by pulling away. Do not go limp. Try somersaults and aim for the surface. If lobsters escape in the kitchen, it’s okay. You can retrieve them. Use a pot lid to herd and wear oven mitts. Grab from behind. 

There are methods, you know, for discouraging an attack by mountain lion Hold your ground. Do not run. Do not crouch or turn.  If wearing a jacket, open it out to appear larger than you are. 

There are techniques you can use to wrestle free from an alligator, evade a charging reindeer, an angry gorilla, a runaway camel, and killer bees. If there are piranhas in the river, you can cross at night.

You can avoid sinking in quicksand if you carry a stout pole. You can smother a grease fire with baking soda.

You can land a hang glider in a wind shear, survive a riptide, drive in a blizzard, find water on a desert island. 

Name another disaster. I bet there’s a way. But what do you do when it doesn’t come? How do you survive the space between calamities? What do you do with the sudden shattering behind the next breath when the laughing child before you, so suffused in the laughter of the moment, claps his hands to announce, “Again!”

*Ideas for this list were culled from The Complete Worst-Case Survival Handbook, by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. Chronicle Books, 1999.

In Loving Attention

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day.

It’s easy and expected to underestimate the value of giving our full attention generously and with love. So many forces in the world can work to divide us from ourselves and each other. Plenty profit from engineering more advanced ways to do just that. It’s frighteningly easy to fall into a habit of looking where we are expected to look. Fortunately, it’s not actually that hard to do the opposite, and look with intention. Most of us just need regular reminders, that this is one of the most valuable acts we can do. 

Considering this at the start of a very full week, I am remembering how moved I was when I discovered the work of artist Marina Abramović through a video about her 2010 MoMA exhibition, The Artist is Present. Here’s a description of this installation:

“The work was inspired by her belief that stretching the length of a performance beyond expectations serves to alter our perception of time and foster a deeper engagement in the experience. Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”

Rebecca Taylor at smart history.org describing Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present.”

Abramović speaks about her work with trust, vulnerability, and connection in her 2010 TED talk:

Poet John Clare has written, “Poets love nature and themselves are love.” These lines can be powerful reminder for an artist in any medium. These words remind me back to back to deliberate absorption, which is very different than being absorbed into the pull of endless tasks and distractions. 

The endless tasks will be there, always. But we have a choice to work with and through them, in total attention, or to be pulled from ourselves and others by the noise of the day. The work of a generous artist, offering presence and attention, never fails to remind me back to this. As Greg Boyle, one of my favorite artists of the heart has observed, “We are here to return ourselves to one another.”

So today, my focus is on returning. Not once, but over and over again. The beauty of intentional attention is that its rewards are immediately apparent. We have only to try giving it, to be reminded back to why it matters. We have only to offer ourselves fully, to be returned.