I visited the garden deep in fall, 
after many trees had been robbed 
of their summer dress. 
The sun was slow to rise 
and even in midmorning slouched low 
as it strolled the southern sky. 
The garden centers on a pond, 
a mirror to the stones and trees 
edging its circumference.
While I stood beside it, 
no leaves fell, or even rustled; 
nature was at rest, 
serene.

My life, in contrast, has it’s share of waves. 
The churn of change disquiets me, 
Foundations roll and sway with the uncertainty. 
Would that everything was like 
this still and sheltered place.

I watch a while, and notice that the water 
wavers more than what had seemed at first. 
Rays of sun bounce off the ripples, 
then scan a rock that’s cornering a nearby island, 
so that lines of light rise softly up 
its shadowed side. 
Maybe this is what I need.to see 
Until death, there will always be a breath 
or more to break tranquility, 
but the resulting waves are just a way 
that light is lifted, lines moving in the dark.

David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

This poem is a meditation on Psalm 77, a lament that seems suitable for the current moment. At the end I reference Marta C. Gonzalez, an Alzheimer’s patient who still retained a memory of her days as a ballerina. At the bottom of the page I link to a video of her that went viral.

Troubles fill the day
and spill into night.
My unresting hands reach out,
refusing sleep’s deficient comfort.

It’s not me, God, who wants
to prop my eyes ajar,
so it must be you.
I remember my night songs,
doves fluttering with hope,
and wonder where they’ve flown to.

“God, will you always be like this?
Did your unending love
reach its end?
Favor, mercy, sympathy—
have they all been chewed to pieces
by your angry jaws?”

Sometimes, I think it to be so,
but stubbornly my mind
recalls your deeds, the wonders
that my eyes have seen,
my ears have heard.

Even if I forget all else,
may your music and your dance
be so implanted in my heart
that I could be like
Marta C. Gonzalez.

She,
though wheelchaired and demented,
became again a ballerina,
filled with grace and light,
when she heard the song.

“Sermon on the Mount” by Aurel Naray. Image: http://www.hungarianartmastergallery.com

Blessed are the destitute, the desperate,
the bankrupt and impoverished,
the penniless, insolvent and exhausted,
all those who know they lack.

Blessed are those who bleed,
cut by the knives of race and class;
blessed are the aberrant,
eccentric, odd, and offbeat,
peculiar, queer, or freakish.

What, though, of the stiff and solid,
punctilious and diligent,
respected and presentable;
what of those who sit on
straight-backed chairs counting silver,
stashing it in sacks?

Which group will be welcomed
into the coming kingdom of rejoicing seas,
elated fields, and delighted, singing trees?
In the teeter-totter world
where the lowly are uplifted
and the pompous are pushed down,
open my hermetic seal to let
the pressured air of pride hiss out.
In emptiness alone
can I be filled.

Here is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11:1-6, written after I had been hiking on wooded trails in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.

I walk among the fallen trees
recumbent on a mat of leaves;
no matter that they once reached high,
they’ve yielded life, surrendered pride.

One day I’ll join them, lying down
and, north or south, it’s still the ground
that will receive my tired limbs
consumed by rot, or felled by wind.

Until that day I’ve no complaint;
I’ll watch the clouds, receive the rain
divide my share by spilling seed
to sprout out from the teeming peat.

I’ve cast my bread, and it’s come back
in countless ways; it’s only apt
that God be praised, for it is he
who planted, nurtured, treasured me.

Here is a reflection on Ecclesiastes 9:11 as it played out one night:

I rush, intending to be finished early—
wash the floor and vacuum,
fold up clothes and fix tomorrow’s lunch.
I’m hoping to have time to sit
out on the porch and read a bit.
All goes well until
it quickly doesn’t.

The sink is the first to balk;
the disposal chokes on a chunk of metal
dislodged from its innards.
Water spills into the space below,
soaking boxes and bottles and jugs,
a variety of oddities. Everything
needs to dry. A plumber
will have to come. Oh, boy.

Meanwhile, it’s started raining
I had left some stuff—a mask,
a paper napkin, and a music player—
on the car trunk. Soaked. Toss
the napkin, dry the mask,
will the music play?

The chair on the porch is wet as well.
No reading there tonight.
The shower curtain falls as,
too quickly, I snatch a towel
to absorb disordered water.

Swiftness does not win the race,
nor strength the fight or smarts the cash;
welcome time and chance
and watch tranquility dissolve.
Remember, Bob, that you are dust
and give to God your trust.

 

 

Photo by Victor He on Unsplash

I continue to write poems every Sunday. Recently, I’ve focused on the devastation caused by the coronavirus. Yesterday I wrote about the remarkable ways in which our life in the public places of society have changed. The poem ends with Lamentations 3:26: “It is good to wait in silence/for the salvation of the Lord.” The book of Lamentations describes the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC., so it has much to say about life in times of sorrow and hardship.

Chairs sit in shuttered restaurants,
waiting like forsaken dogs for the return
of those who might not come.

Plazas have been emptied of the thousands
who once poured through them like sand;
just a few grains remain.

Cars that used to prance about mostly stand
in their stalls, hoping for the day they will
return to roaming.

The city’s hum and throb has ceased,
engines stilled as the hands that goaded them
suddenly slack from their endeavor.

Life is paused in midstep as an enemy invades,
we listen to dispatches from the front,
mourning all the fallen.

I rest in the stillness, where comfort is
proportional to trust: it is good to wait in silence
for the salvation of the Lord.

In a remarkably short period of time the coronavirus has changed how people throughout the world are living their lives. Here in the U.S., we are exhorted over and over again to practice social distancing—to stay home as much as we can and, should we have to venture out, to remain at least six feet away from those we encounter. The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tells us that we’ll need to practice these restrictions for several more weeks at minimum. That degree of restriction will be difficult for many of us to handle.

I was thinking of all of this when I read the lectionary passages that a large number of churches will read this Sunday (or would read if they could have services). I was particularly struck by the psalm that the Revised Common Lectionary uses this the fourth Sunday in Lent. It is Psalm 23, David’s psalm of thanksgiving for God, the shepherd of his flock. It begins as follows:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.  (Ps. 23:1–3, RSV)

That passage speaks to me in this time of trouble. Many now fear want; David tells us that the shepherd anticipates the needs of his sheep and makes provision for them. It’s interesting that the first thing the shepherd has the sheep do is lie down. That suggests that what the sheep needs most is rest and stillness. Though I’m partly retired, most of the time I have a variety of projects going on, so rest is usually in short supply. Maybe the coming weeks will be a time to stop the busyness and “lie down.” And then I might discover that I don’t need to look elsewhere for green pastures; God has already provided them where I am.

Once the shepherd has brought the chaos we’ve created to a halt, we are more inclined to hear his voice and follow him as he leads us beside still waters–places of peace and refreshment. I’m inclined to be on the outlook for tumultuous waters, and I find plenty of those in the news stories that my phone, computer, and TV direct me to every day. The challenge will be to push those aside and notice the still waters I’m being led to walk beside. Following him there, my soul will be restored.

And that in turn will prepare me to be led in the paths that are right for me. For some of my life I think I’ve been on such a right path; other times I’ve strayed far away. I didn’t set out to stray; I was on a good and healthy path, then I wasn’t, and was uncertain how that had happened. Perhaps I stopped listening to the shepherd. Perhaps he wanted me to just lie down for a while, to let him take care of me until I relaxed and trusted enough to see what was the best path to take going forward. I hope I can use the next several weeks of social distancing as a time to lie down in God’s good pasture, follow him beside still waters, and, restored, listen to his guidance for the path ahead.

 

I’ve been making it part of my spiritual practice to write a poem each Sunday. Sometimes I have an idea days before, but other times on Sundays I have no idea what to write about and I’m looking for some touch of grace, some glimpse of the transcendent, to try to put into words. Such was the case the last Sunday of 2019. Earlier in the day I went to a show of 17th century Dutch painting at the St. Louis Art Museum and was particularly struck by one portrait by Rembrandt. The subject was an older woman, rather plain in appearance but vibrant nonetheless. She’s been identified by scholars as Aeltje Uylenburgh, 62 years old at the time and wife of a Protestant minister.

 

In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth described the modern tendency to think that only the present matters. She wrote:

“If time is always moving forward, the past is always becoming more distant and irrelevant. In a sense, modern people are ‘stranded in the present,’ without a meaningful connection to anything that has gone before.”

As the title of her book indicates, she thinks that reflecting on the lives of earlier generations can be a meaningful spiritual practice. As a Christian, she especially encourages believers to engage with the lives of those who have preceded us in the faith. Aeltje Uylenburgh is quite likely to have been one such predecessor, and Rembrandt’s portrait of her was the occasion for me to reflect on her. Here’s the poem I wrote:

Aeltje Uylenburgh, who are you?
I saw your portrait at an exhibition that toured from Boston;
before that the canvas had time-traveled almost five centuries.
I doubt that even in your day
your black gown and black fur-lined cape were stylish–
same with the flat white collar and cap equipped with side flaps.

What calls across the years is not your clothes but your face.
You were old when painted; wrinkles and some sag
along the lower jowl attest to this, and decades of experience
seem encompassed by your gaze.
Your trunk is turned a little to the left, but your head turns less
and your eyes come near to looking out directly,
so that as I stand before you they aim just over my shoulder.
It seems you’re seeing something in the distance.
I suspect the sight is beatific; some such holy vision could account
for why you appear both old and childlike all at once.
You are ageless though of a particular age.

You’re Dutch enough you won’t permit yourself a smile,
but I can see it’s nearly there despite yourself.
I almost know you, sister! One day, when the saints unite,
I hope to recognize you amidst the throng.
I’d like it then if you’d describe
the touch of grace reflected in your face.

I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I read the book I was most interested in what DFW had to say about the struggles we in present-day America have with living meaningful and genuine lives. The first four posts provide some thoughts about what I take to be Wallace’s portrayal of those struggles. This post and the next one will focus on what he offers that might provide help.

As I noted earlier, one place that Wallace thinks provides assistance is in recovery programs such as AA and NA. Wallace was himself an alcoholic and was quite familiar with the 12-Step model of treatment. As he describes the recovery program at Ennet House, a treatment facility, he both repeats some of AA’s standard dogma and offers his own observations about the nature of this approach to recovery and how it works to bring about change.

As discussed back in the first of my posts, IJ describes a world in which most people have strong desires that can gain control over their lives. Pursuit of these desires seems to promise a better life–not only a life of pleasure, but also escape from pain. Unfortunately, with time the pleasure fades and pain returns. One of the first things that must be done in treatment is to face the inevitability of pain:

“[T]hey tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain…. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.” (p. 446)

There will be pain associated with growth, but focusing on the pain to come is counterproductive. Instead, the emphasis is on living with the present moment’s pain. It’s the AA slogan “Take one day at a time” broken into even finer portions, as in Ennet House staff member Gately dealing with the pain of withdrawal from opioids:

“He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down to like one second–less: the space between two heartbeats.” (p. 860)

Accepting the pain and the need to participate in meetings and daily routines that are associated with recovery (though these are always offered as suggestions, not as requirements), the addict is encouraged not to look for the causes of his or her addiction, but simply to remember that they are indeed under the influence of that addiction:

“The Boston AA ‘In Here’ that protects against a return to ‘Out There’ is not about explaining what caused your disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back Out and eating your heart raw and (if you’re lucky) eliminating your map for good. So no whys and wherefores allowed.” (p. 374)

Recovery–Keep Going to Meetings. Image from brickjest.com

The new residents often think the program is simplistic; they have trouble believing that it will work. The staff encourage them to put aside their doubts and simply do the things that the program recommends. One aspect of the program that many residents resist is turning  to God. The agnostics and atheists especially have trouble doing this. However, Wallace offers the following wry observation in the list of things that new Ennet House residents are likely to learn:

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.” p. 205

Several months into his recovery, Gately has been praying every morning and evening–and has found it helps him maintain sobriety through the day. Nonetheless, speaking at an AA meeting, he admits he still has no sense of God:

“He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing–not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with.” p. 443

After the meeting, one of the attendees, a biker named Bob Death, tells him “the one about the fish.” Wallace told this story in his well-known 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. An old fish meets two young fish and greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As the two fish swim on, one turns to the other and asks, “What the f*** is water?” Gately listens,

“And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.” p. 449

For Wallace, God is like the sea, surrounding and supporting all of us, his/her very pervasiveness preventing us from recognizing his/her presence. Our growth towards wholeness doesn’t depend on believing in God so much as on acting as if we did. Practice matters, ideas mostly tend to trip us up rather than help.

So, then, some strategies that characters in IJ find helpful in living meaningful lives relatively free from addiction include accepting the pain, acquiring (but not analyzing) regular habits that interfere with unhealthy attachments, and putting trust in God, whether or not you believe his existence. I’ll reflect a bit more on the reasoning behind this approach to life in my final post on the book.