We’re brought into this world alone…and leave this world, alone. In between, when we enter into relationship with someone, we have the intoxicating illusion that we become one with the other…that we are no longer alone. In some strange and beautiful way…for a while…we share identity.
I’ve been finding that, for me at least, a major part of the grieving process has been coming to terms with the reality that I am once again alone…that half of this shared identity is now missing. For a while, part of myself was sublimated…hidden away…for some greater good. Now…it’s natural to feel incomplete, and it takes a while to rediscover and recover that part of ourselves that, for a while, was lost. And…to recognize that the time has come to get reacquainted with ourselves. Perhaps…that too is part of the healing process?
I recently heard a poem by Derek Walcott that crystallizes this thought as only poetry can…
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
…to all from Crystal River, Florida.
Like a poem poorly written,
We are verses out of rhythm,
couplets out of rhyme,
in syncopated time…
~ Simon & Garfunkel, The Dangling Conversation
Once again, I find myself in the old city of St. Augustine this Saturday before Christmas. I like to arrive on foot, so my lodgings are on the far side of the Bridge of Lions. It was unusually cold and windy this morning, which made the hike over the bridge a bit bracing. With no definite plans for my walk, I began wandering aimlessly through the town…hoping for some inspiration to lead me on…or some curiosity to grab my attention. I walked the length of St. George Street…passing tourists who were ducking in and out of shops…with steaming cups of coffee in hand. And…far too many obviously homeless people, dejectedly sitting on benches with all of their earthly possessions held in beat up rucksacks or plastic bags on the ground at their feet. All under a crystalline blue sky…with the cloying scent of waffle cones wafting in the cold breeze.
It was at that moment that I heard music emanating from a nearby open doorway…the above verses of The Dangling Conversation. It set me wondering…and gave me a theme for my wandering. What I like best about walking the streets of St. Augustine doesn’t have anything to do with the tacky souvenir shops…the alligator farm…or the people dressed up as pirates. All of that can be amusing…but it’s only a thin veneer that has been hung on the old bones of what once was a real city…inhabited by real people. It’s almost as if the two very different times are sidling up to one another in some eerie kind of cross-temporal dimensional shift. When I look up at the windows of what were once guest rooms of the Ponce De Leon Hotel, I can imagine someone from another century gazing out upon what must have been, at that time, a very strange and exotic landscape…traveled to by train from the far north.
We can be separated by a chasm of time that crosses centuries…or by space that spans continents, or just a few feet. For most of us, our syncopated lives are disjoint from one another. From time to time we hit the same beat at the same time…and harmonize together for a while. Sometimes…we’ll manage to stay in sync with someone else for years at a stretch…and make heartfelt music together. Those collaborations seem to be the most meaningful for us. But eventually…we fall out of time…and space with each other…slowly drifting…each in our own direction. We can, however, still be thankful for the music that lives on in our hearts…and acknowledge the same in those we anonymously pass by on the streets as we walk through this world.
Sometimes, it’s very easy to fall prey to the darkness of this season…and seemingly lose our way but once again. But if we listen carefully, inspiration can be found in unlikely places. I remember reading some poems of Rilke when I was very young. But…at that time…they didn’t have much effect on me. I guess that I just wasn’t ready. I heard this poem of Rilke’s last night, read by Joanna Macy…and it brought me out of the gloom. I’m reminded that everything that happens to us…good and bad…colors us…makes us who we are…or who we are becoming. And we need the courage to just keep going.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
(translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
The Big Dipper is high in the early morning sky…black and very cold. Merak and Dubhe pointing to the North Star. A reminder that the Winter Solstice is very near. Graced by the brief appearance of a shooting star…flashing across the heavens on this wintry morning. That such a heavenly visitation occurs in total silence…is simply awesome.
To be truly free one must take on the basic conditions as they are – painful, impermanent, open, imperfect – and be grateful for impermanence and the freedom it grants us. For in a fixed universe there would be no freedom.
~ Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
These late Autumn days in the Carolinas are simply gifts. Gifts to be appreciated in this impermanent…this improbable world. I took a late afternoon drive…stopping for a walk along the Catawba River. The sun was low in the western sky, filtering though the now leafless trees…illuminating the far shore…deep blue sky mirrored in the water softly flowing over the rocky shoals.
Things don’t always go according to our plans. But impermanence…change…does offer us other possibilities…other opportunities. You never know what may be around the next bend of the river…or down some never-before traveled country road…
I awoke to another fine morning in the Carolinas…so after my weekly visit to the recycling center, I headed into town to do some walking. I stopped in at the new Native American Studies Center on Main Street…run by USC Lancaster. Most of Lancaster County is on lands once held by the Catawba Indian Nation, and the center has many informative exhibits about this tribe native to the area, including examples of their distinctive style of pottery. There were also displays relating some of their native tales. I found one, in particular, both amusing (I like Snail) and touching. If you click on the image you should be able to read it for yourself.
This Catawba tale will come to mind whenever I hear my old friend Barred Owl on a dark Winter night. Next stop up the street was the newly restored historic County Courthouse (now a museum and visitor center). It was designed by Robert Mills, the architect who also designed the Washington Monument.
Directly in front of the courthouse is a Civil War monument, erected in 1909, dedicated to ‘Our Confederate Soldiers’. This is the South after all. I’ve also read that this site is where one of the last witch trials in America was held. It involved a woman from nearby Chesterfield who was allegedly accused of turning a young Lancaster girl into a horse…who she then rode into town to burgle some shops, entering through keyholes. I’m not quite sure what they were smoking in those days…but it was definitely some bad weed.
The main courtroom on the upper floor was beautifully redone, and in the silence of that room, I could almost hear the whispered voices of all the people who had occupied this space over the many years since it was built…who perhaps gazed through this window as they awaited their fates.
My last stop was Bob Doster’s Backstreet Studio and Gallery, which was having an open house today. Doster is an internationally acclaimed metal sculptor, who has converted a row of storefronts on one of Lancaster’s side streets into an eclectic (to say the least) studio and gallery. Out front is what I presume to be his ‘Great Wall of China.’
After that…I’d seen enough for one morning. It was back home. I will, however, be keeping an eye out for any strange horses wandering down the road.