Poem: “The Myth of Embracing”

Woman Lying Curled Up On Floor, Holding Head, B&w

“Like pines and doves unable to hug completely.” (Credit: Laurent Hamel / PhotoAlto / Corbis)

The Myth of Embracing*

Even in this furious sunlight,

the pine’s long arms form the promises

of circles, incomplete and longing for the sky,

where a mourning dove leaves curve trails

as its wings suggest huggings of the world

that just keep coming up with air—travel

is incidental. Our bodies curve, too.

The longest laugh, like pain, eventually

bends chest to knees, everything surrounding the heart.

When my daughter was born, her shocked eyes,

smeared face, jerking arms wanted something,

one perfect thing to calm the frigid light.

She screamed, like pines and doves unable to hug

completely. Embracing is a myth:

our arms grow strong for all we cannot hold.

42-23072140

“Our arms grow strong for all we cannot hold.” (Credit: Stewart Cohen / Blend Images / Corbis)

*Between 1986 and 1995 I published mostly poems. This one appeared in slightly different form in The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (Winter, 1991).

Advertisements

Waking from a Dream of Separateness

Unknown

Thomas Merton (Credit: Wikipedia)

In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . .

After a couple paragraphs of poetic crescendo and decrescendo, Merton closes his epiphany:

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

But even if it were possible for me to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I can see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I’d appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I’d stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.

It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who’s been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s skin I could see a spirit beyond shining. He seems to be engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He’s got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.

GetAttachment.aspx

Kathy’s grilled vegetables, a dog, and deviled eggs

During my first beer last night at the Tap Room, Kathy e-mailed me a photograph along with this message: “Wish you were here to share our fresh garden veggies.” Behind the food I could see my wife shining; she lives as if she were a sail, snapping full in a puff of wind and going where the weather takes her. I’m not adventurous, but I can join her when my neuroses permit and stand clear when they won’t.

IMG_0868

A potless plant: as good a reason as any for a shared belly laugh

Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she’d be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.

Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but—honest to God—their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.

IMG_0846

Hanging on the church office at Abiding Hope

IMG_0848

Another painting from the office gallery

IMG_0850

Taped to my office door, a portrait of me by Meghan, a kid who shines like the sun. I especially like my nostrils.

IMG_0729

Barista Abbey knitting or crocheting something and wearing a little girl’s crown.

Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice multiple daily shinings. Some time ago, here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting something as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion regal gladness out of construction paper. As I talked to them, for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.

Of course, sometimes seeing people shining like the sun causes sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she’s now retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she’s crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have a fist in my stomach I’m trying to breathe away. And now she’s gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.

I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.

P.S. Who broke that pot? Wife Kathy just confessed. I should’ve known.

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

2660261019_1530e49be8_m

Good morning! (Credit: Royalty-Free/Corbis)

5:28 a.m.: birds in the boulevard’s maples sing in the first breath of light. Hoping for a scratch on her temples, portly cat Shadow waits by Kathy’s hand. This is sweet pre-dawn, an hour made for shamatha—calm abiding. I woke up around 4:30, stepped on the bathroom scale, grimaced, and returned to bed for thirty minutes of propped-up prayer. Now I have until 7:00 to do as I please. One flat note on this start to my day off is a neighborhood skunk that harrumphed at some threat. Ugh.

There’s always something to spray about: two pounds forward, one pound back; my right foot getting chilled in the breeze, now covered by the sheet; the moppy dog across the street complaining about newspaper delivery; skunk is as skunk does. But none of this noise overcomes the silence. Even a distant train’s groan and rattle treat the morning’s meditation kindly.

I want to be kind, too, kind and loving toward this day. For starters, I just set my iPhone alarm for wife Kathy, who has to get up at 6:50 and go give cancer patients chemotherapy. She doesn’t want to keep clicking her snooze button, and I don’t blame her.

IMG_0866

Inspiring photograph of sardine can

Since an out-of-town visit to a friend got scuttled, I plan—in no particular order—to visit my friendly barber Pat, go for a four-miler at Presque Isle State Park, fold laundry, buy sardines in mustard sauce (yes, I do like them and recently read that they’re a nutritional marvel), and skim The Erie Times-News at Starbucks while sipping an iced coffee with a shot of espresso, all decaf, half and half, two Splendas.

The fish, jog beside Lake Erie, handkerchiefs, and the rest aren’t this Friday’s center of gravity, though. Neither are two ABC News articles slated for Starbucks: “New Limits on Arsenic in Apple Juice” (Huh? Shouldn’t the limit be . . . none?) and “The History of Urinating in Space” (pretty sure I’ll regret this one). With luck, loving silence will be the force pulling this day together.

With luck! I hope to devote two hours to prayer and napping, both sane and quiet acts. Lots of slow, deep breaths will be signs that my spirit is blinking its eyes. Breathing in and out makes wispy sounds—not noise pollution at all. Most important for the environment, I’ll try not to litter with my mouth.

400px-Scream_crosathorian

Not me, but I covet those glasses (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Eco-friendliness is not only fantastic, but fashionable, and I’m on board. Like many families, the Colemans have a compost pile, recycle everything we can, conserve electricity, etc. My personal care for creation also includes the unconventional measure of shutting-up. Readers who know me personally are laughing: “Seriously, John?” Far from being quiet, I’m probably known as talkative and occasionally buffoonish. To be more specific, then, I want to practice environmentally-friendly speech: healing and productive rather than wounding and destructive.

I want to talk in life-giving ways, but my mindfulness slips constantly. If I could view a daily transcript of everything that comes out of my mouth, I’d be discouraged at how many words are either unkind or unnecessary. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to lose sleep over this. Humans talk a lot of crap, and I’m human.)

Still, I want to honor the life I’ve been granted by letting blessed silence—like that of pre-dawn shamatha—replace blather, gossip, snark, and holler. To center myself for the effort, I’ve poached some quotations from the Internet:

  • “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” (Franz Kafka)
  • “The deepest rivers make least din, the silent soule doth most abound in care.” (William Alexander)
  • “Words can make a deeper scar than silence can heal.” (Author unknown)
  • And, finally, a beloved quote from Anne Lamott, which you shouldn’t read if a mild swear-word will put you out: “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole” (from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith).

Regarding that last quote: I figure shutting-up is one of the best ways not to break Rule 2. Now that I think about it, Lamott wrote in four words what I just sweated out in a couple hundred. That’s why she makes the big bucks. I’ll be satisfied with getting a little better each day at listening to her.

IMG_0863

Sign hanging over my dresser; $3.00 at an estate sale