Small Wonders

Faith and humility.

When you are small, she said, you can move around and between what the big ones cannot. You will never carry much you call your own and can be easily lifted. Whatever comes your way will only be found, and you will not confuse it with something earned.

No hope is real comfort when you will often have to go without it. Same for inspiration, same for confidence. What you want to keep, she said, is what is left when hope and confidence and self-respect are gone. When all the rest collapses, notice: what is here, still breathing?

Accept its life and protect its breath. It is not distinct from your own, only infinitely more vast.

Hide and Seek

Morning notes, on looking.

Come out, out––wherever you are is called here and here you are again, strange stranger, at first light––which, in this room, at this hour, is always the lamp by this bed.

Most of us remember the heartbreak of knowing we had finally found the best hiding spot, the one sure to win us widespread acclaim and shouts of amazement, only to notice that the voices of the seekers we’d been counting on had grown faint and then gone, with night coming and then lights on in the windows and kitchen sounds, the whole world indoors, and us outside

––[but all alone, not yet us because we could not know until much later that others had endured such betrayal, also alone; each had carried the shame in silence until one afternoon, laughing over ice cream with friends we were fairly sure would not leave us, a confession came, and the solidarity of finding other left-behinds was so sweet, however fleeting, that we did it again, years later over drinks with other friends we were by now fairly sure we would lose over time, not by decisive acts of Leaving but gone anyway––to distance, illness, marriages and breakups, children and the grinding gears that wore us down to our creaking bones until we began to suspect that perhaps it was ourselves who had grown tired, who had gone inside at the third call for dinner, gone to eat, leaving another waiting to be found and no one coming].

We’ve been at this for how long now, and what do I have to show for myself? I think you must be chasing me, running into the last place I’ve looked after I’ve left it, only to leave when I eventually return, wearing the baffled look of someone trying to remember why they walked into a room. 

I’ve given up my reasons now, old friend. Same for certainty in all things but this resolve: to look and look again; to keep calling by the light of this lamp. Come out.

What Lives

A still, small voice.

My grandmother used to say something about the darkness of hope. How it bears fruit in the light of wisdom. By watching her when she was living and listening after her death, I knew Grace. This was her name.

Revolt against death, she would say, by remembering the dead; the next breath a reminder that it was their breath before a final exhalation. Knowing this, breathe full and long. To forget is to die a little.

There were pages and pages behind these reminders. I read them as survival manuals for creatures of flesh. They said, be poor. Go down. Be despised, love anyway. Serve instead of demanding service. 

There were maps too, but no territories. They said only: Look––in hunger and thirst, through long nights and vast deserts. There you will find company with the soul of all souls. You will hear the heartbeat and what follows will be the first song of the world. 

You will know it, child. Go down.

Holding Out

For the dreamer in a dark night.

Careful with the dark, now; adding to it rarely helps anyone to see––at least not until it is complete and total, but then we’re talking new levels of perception. Finding these, one might notice: though the stars still faintly flickering are distant, there is a way to take root among them––after enough practice in losing it all while still managing to hold the first posture in what might be the organizing element in every dance that has ever reminded a body back to what it was for, to throw it forward into what it does when it moves with the wide-eyed clarity of one who remembers being blind. I mean how it reaches and keeps reaching, toward the next living dream.

Ask the Oracle

The weight of remembrance.

In the days of constant violence and plagues, when the crops are dead with drought and fire and even the shade trees are gone, the citizens gather. The cry is help, and the answer calls to mind a riddle and a mirror, and who is the most mysterious of all?

––And the mirror answered back with a reflection, the face of the king and all behind him. But what does it take to read a body’s history? 

Ask the oracle, she’ll tell you again: not until there is justice, will you know peace in your homes and shade for your children. The old questions return: whose death continues to echo within the city walls; whose blood stains the soil of these charred acres? What severances between life and the living continue to bleed.

Bring in the blind prophet to remind the assembly of the weight of this knowledge and what it means to have it, where no gain can come except through the death of a timeworn dream. 

Nevertheless, they resisted.

***

I am inspired by the work of Brian Doerries and Theatre of War in placing Greek tragedies at the center of community discussions around central challenges of the moment. I jotted these notes while reviewing his translation of the Oedipus Trilogy and related notes.

Aftermath

In the dark between destruction and rebirth.

After the promise, before the fallen fruit, love was so loud that what followed might be called nature’s reproach. We suspected it was. But our memories of watercolor flights stayed anyway between water and sky, and us gliding in wide-winged pelican formations­­––long after their welcome, ignoring the new signs warning against the trespass of our breath.

After the storm, our eyes fall into these empty hands and roll across the wreckage around us until they are soaked in the sludge of charred remains. 

Only this silent plea between us now, strong and invisible; and time no longer ours, and in the dark hours before dawn, it may echo an inquiring trinity, Love, will you make the world here again? and then Hear, again and Love, here.

Elegy in Blue

For Robert Hayden.

Your preference for the long view was balanced by an exquisite attention to the ragged, beating heart of the impossible moment. You called history a long, bloody becoming toward what might finally be, this beautiful, terrible, needful thing, still stirring.

You were moved by the idea that against failure after failure, something wars, something goes forward, something lights a match, and remembered the winged man of the laughing, longing night.

You kept your eye on the sharp sails that flayed the albatross and on a promise that it was yet possible to walk back home over Galilee’s waters to be washed of the effluvium of living death.

Your own aches bent elsewhere, you trained your eye toward life upon these shores, to study the deep immortal human wish amid a timeless yearning for the good old days that had never been good.

You studied the choreography of spirit hanging on, dancing its own shelter with an intensity bright enough to shine through the sordid and cruel deniers of hearts, of lives, of life itself.

You argued that a poem is an action unto itself, a catalyst of compassion, a weight to bend the moral arc ever slightly toward a softer hand, toward community, toward home.

You knew despair could seed a song to raise the roof and the hard loving of laughter in bed with misery and as a constant reminder you drew heart-shapes in the constant dust, as if to mark this side of heaven.

Even as you mourned the moaning empress of the bluesfour bullets in her heart, you lifted us up with ostrich feathers to feel her still shining forward, to look with you, through the transience of loss, to the way they would rise early next Sunday, even against the next fistful of snow.

What did any of us know, anyway, of love’s austere and lonely offices?

***

On this day in 1913, American poet Robert Hayden (d. 1980) was born. The title of this post is adapted from an article Frank Rashid published in the Winter 2001 issue of Callaloo, “Robert Hayden’s Detroit Blues Elegies.” This post is composed using ideas and phrases from Hayden’s work and interviews, as well as a line (italicized above) from Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, a work that moved and influenced Hayden, particularly his historical vision. Where possible, I have linked lines above to the works from which they are adapted.

Magnificat

Song for the unseen.

Let’s remember to hold one another in this moment, reveling in the possibility that what really is, is still invisible. And may we never forget––our dead, our not yet living, and the true purpose of these wild hearts. To celebrate what seems utterly worthless in this world, including everyone bearing witness to the unseen, those other dreamers and the lonely and those crazy fools on the corner––and in the next room, and in the mirror, and all the tiny creatures underfoot and hanging on in the distance. The strongmen and the celebrated seem to hold the world in their fists, but they will lose and be lost amid those who have nothing. Let us remember this always, to remain empty, seeking home with others, hands open and ready to receive what comes––yesterday, today, and tomorrow––not to keep and hold

but to give it away

that we might remain

forever vacant

and ready to receive

the opening notes

of its next

arrival.

***

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Magnificat (from the Gospel of Luke 1:46-55, when Mary greets Elizabeth) “the most passionate, wildest . . . most revolutionary hymn ever sung.” He was executed by the Nazis. This morning, I learned that these verses were considered so subversive that they were banned from public recitation in several countries, including Guatemala, Argentina, and India. Naturally, I was moved to revisit the text. I am also reminded back to a comment by artist Mariko Mori, on Botticelli’s iconic painting of the meeting of these women (The Annunciation), that they appear to her “like two Buddhas bowing.” 

Stranger Still

Through a glass darkly.

In love with an unknown intimate briefly glimpsed, the stranger moved so steadily towards the source of longing that he became transparent with time. Suspended in its liquid, the desert salts of his waking form dissolved in her waters until he knew himself at once known in the shadow of the apocalyptic cherub.

I am surveyed, he admitted, but it was good to be untethered from the demand to be any sort of self in any of the atomic cities, to join the games with no winners, to keep company instead with a chorus of loss, its abundant ache seeded in the silence of this elsewhere when the voices that will be heard choose themselves

***

Inspired by various morning readings, including Thomas Merton by way of Richard Rohr. Italicized phrases above come from Thomas Merton’s “Day of the Stranger,” first published in The Hudson Review, summer 1967.

Out of Exile

For Vladimir Korolenko.

You knew the blind musician, leaning in to hear birdsong and river stones, the murmur of distant water, and you brought him the shepherd’s pipe. You knew that to play it well meant knowing love and sorrow. You knew the dying peasant’s dream of heaven, bad company and the children of the underground, and how to abide for the day of atonement. Above all, you knew your unknowing, ceaselessly seeking some light within darkness, to heat against the killing cold. Leaning always toward the glow of truth, all of this danced with you, joyful and alive in your open hands.

***

Inspiration: Today is the birthday of Vladimir Korolenko (1818-1868), a Ukranian-born Russian writer, humanitarian, and human rights activist devoted to serving the poor and maligned. He spent a period exiled in Siberia for his criticism of tsarism and is best known for his short novel The Blind Musician (later, he was also silenced by Stalin for his critique of Bolshevik hypocrisies). I consulted available translations as well as Natalia M. Kolb-Seletski’s article, “Elements of Light in the Fiction of Korolenko” (The Slavic and East European Journal, Summer 1972). Some of the phrases above come from the titles of Korolenko’s short stories.