In one of my favorite poems, Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” a plain woman dressed in “dull, null navy” grieves her loneliness and observes the animals, “these beings trapped / “As I am trapped, but not, themselves, the trap, / Aging but without knowledge of their age.” She ends her monologue with something like a prayer to a vulture. “Step to me as a man,” she begs. “You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!”
Jarrell isn’t an exclamation point junkie. At least in her mind, the woman is shouting. I can’t sit with this poem without being close to tears. The woman at the Washington Zoo, with her common clothing and numbing existence, speaks for me in those moments when I understand that some of my flaws are probably life sentences. Her plea is my prayer: “You know what I was. You see what I am. Change me. Change me!”
A couple weeks ago knowledge of flaw gave itself to me not at a zoo, but in a small sanctuary, and not during a liturgy, but during a concert. The Misery Bay Dulcimers were playing at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I serve as pastor. Wife Kathy and daughter Elena were with me in the back row, which is like a ringside seat in large churches. Gentle music from sixteen or so dulcimers graced my ears and touched my closed eyes. Was it “Danny Boy”? Or “Wild Irish Rose”? I don’t remember what song brought me to myself, like Jarrell’s woman, like Luke’s Prodigal Son.
“You’re not really here, John,” the dulcimers sang. “You’re off to Next, and you don’t even know what’s Next. Stay with us, brother. We’ll take care of you.”
I’ve spent embarrassing energy in recent years staring at my own reflection, greeting age spots, explicating crow’s feet beside my spirit’s eyes. And wondering: “At fifty-two can I learn to be where I am, when I am, how I am, who I am? Can I mute the restless gravity that pulls me away from now and pushes me toward Next—without more medication, that is?
Hell, Next could be scooping litter boxes or scouring neglected dishes, but his rasp is relentless: “Let’s go. It’s time to go. You’ll be at peace only when you’re facing my way, taking the first steps in my direction. Never mind that when you get to me, I’ll be gone, laughing at your sorry ass and limping into the distance.”
As the dulcimers offered love, Elena leaned into me. I put my arm around her and rested my hand on Kathy’s shoulder. What better place to be? Ah, but Next. Stubborn shithead Next, with his tobacco-stained fingers and dank breath. I always hear him in my chest. His commentary translates into anxiety, like static electricity in the spot where you get choked up.
But hope lives. My days aren’t enslaved by Next. I’m often fully present, though sometimes in peaceful, sacred moments, the old deceiver nags: “Listen to me, small man! Fragile man!”
“You know what I was,” I prayed to the God breathing on me through strings and fingers. “You see what I am. Change me. Change me!”
Sweet dulcimers. They persisted. A woman made a little wooden puppet do the jig on an oar. And minute by minute, they sang and danced Next mostly silent. “Dear one,” they said, “you still have time to find peace. Hear us. Be still. The Loving Mystery is always trying to kiss you.”