Time (Again)

In her new collection of poems, Jane Hirschfield writes,

A day is vast.

Until noon.

Then it’s over.

 

Yesterday’s pondwater

braided still wet in my hair.

 

I don’t know what time is.

 

You can’t ever find it.

But you can lose it.

Every one of those short lines resonates for me. Like Hirschfield, I don’t know what time is. But I know with awful intimacy lots of ways to lose it. Last week I spent one whole morning indulging a kind of fierce nostalgia brought on when two of my three children flew back out to Chicago where they now live. The Christmas vacation had been lovely, with all three kids under our roof for what seemed at the start to be an enormous stretch of unstructured time — but which was suddenly over.  With the house again feeling too big and too quiet, without even realizing it I found myself wandering in the land of memory, going back to their childhoods, baffled and sad that all of that time has passed.

Nostalgia is a classic way of losing time. If we think about it through a spiritual lens, we can recognize that it is also a form of suffering: willful, self-inflicted, delicious in a kind of perverse way — but still, in the end, suffering. We get seduced by a sweet memory, and  instead of lightly waving to it with an easy smile, we cling. Before we’ve even recognized what’s happened, the interior weather has gone grey and cold.

When I caught hold of my own nostalgia last week, it was because I realized — again and for the millionth time — that this is the truth about our backward gazing. I stopped myself and questioned this sadness swirling around me: Is there something I regret? Something I want to change or do differently? Not at all! The truth is more embarrassing:  I want to have done exactly what I have done with my life so far, lived everything that I have lived — but I don’t want it to have taken any time!  I want all the events, adventures, relationships and experiences, but I don’t want to have aged in the process, and I want still to have the same wide swathe of years in front of me that I felt I could count on when I was thirty.

What a greedy little mind, and how delusional! There are only two antidotes, as far as I’ve been able to discover. One is gratitude: we pry open these clinging hands of ours and lean into our gladness for all that life has brought us. And we bring our minds back here, to the present moment — the place where our bodies always live, after all, no matter where our imaginations wander — and greet this moment as a gift.

William Stafford wrote a poem about time called “The Gift”, which ends with these words:

It’s a balance, the taking and passing along,

the composting of where you’ve been and how people

and weather treated you.  It’s a country where

you already are, bringing where you have been.

Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,

turning the world, moving the air, calling,

every morning, “Here, take it, it’s yours.”

 

So welcome in this new year. Here, take it: it’s yours.

Slouching Out Of Iraq

Yesterday the New York Times reported on Iraq in the immediate wake of the U.S. withdrawal:  “Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq threatened on Wednesday to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago, throwing the country’s fragile democracy into further turmoil just days after the departure of American troops.”

Okay, for starters, could we please agree to stop using the term “fragile democracy” in this context? Iraq is not and has never been a democracy, fragile or otherwise. Constructing a democratic government was the thin disguise for a U.S. invasion that was premised on other things: illusory weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and the drive to secure the American oil supply.

Webster’s defines “democracy” as:                                                                                       a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority                                                   b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. 

The stage props that the United States set up to create an illusion of this definition are swiftly crumbling just days after our army withdrew, so let’s stop pretending that it is a “fragile democracy” that’s struggling in Iraq.  The Times article continues: “The escalating political crisis underscores the divisions between Iraq’s three main factions — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — that were largely papered over while the American military maintained a presence here and lays bare the myriad problems left behind with the final departure of American troops: sectarianism, a judiciary that the populace views as beholden to one man, and a political culture with no space for compromise…..I’d say that this analysis is a direct contradiction of the earlier characterization in this article of a “fragile democracy”.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Because words matter, and the truth matters. Call Iraq a “fragile democracy” and it implies all kinds of things: that the United States really intended to foster democracy in Iraq and truly succeeded in that wildly ambitious plan; that this delicate new flower of freedom is now threatened by outside forces bent on destroying it; and that the United States will be positioned on the sidelines, wringing its collective hands in regret that our well-intentioned efforts, so heavily financed by both money and the lives of over 4,000 Americans, are threatened by the forces of evil.

It would be well to point out that if our goal in Iraq had been democracy, we could have begun at any point during Saddam Hussein’s rule, since we established and sustained him in the first place. And it would be honorable to admit that the people of Iraq might organize for their own democracy, like those in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have begun to do, if they’d not been beaten down not only by years of dictatorship, an earlier US war, terrifically costly sanctions and then nine years of another US war.

I’m in the mood for a little humility and a lot of truth-telling as this shameful war winds down. I will not say “ends” because it is not going to end, though the US troops are largely withdrawn. We have set the conditions for more suffering. The least we can do is be honest about it.

Poetry For Life

I love poetry and read it all the time — sometimes old favorites that sit by my bed for months at a time and sometimes new voices (to me) that I stumble on or find through Poetry magazine. Today I was interviewed on WPKN and read some excerpts from my book Shine and Shadow. I was followed by a local lawyer cum poet, Charles Douthat, whose interview I listened to while driving home (a drive that included the intense juxtaposition of a poem of his about his infant daughter’s life-threatening illness, just as my car inched past a horrific accident on the interstate… somebody’s baby…). He’s got a book out that I just ordered, Blue for Oceans, and a website, charlesdouthat.com. I highly recommend the poems; and for you parents of teens or young adults, this poem pretty much says it all. Enjoy!

The Hold by Charles Douthat

There it is!  Just before putting out the light.
Here in the doorway to his room. 
The unmistakable smell of him,
though his train pulled out an hour ago. 
Not a child’s smell anymore, but a young man’s air 
of college nights and long wool coats 
and jokes so cool they cannot be explained. 
You had to be there, Dad, he says.

Now in his scented wake I wait,
knowing he’ll soon be gone for good,
graduating to some new city,
paying too much rent.
And this room where for years he slept
and read, while brown hair broke through
on his face and chest… Soon 
it will be a place for someone else to rest.  
But not quite yet.

This fragrant air is sweet to me 
tonight. The dusty heat rising 
from baseboard vents. The windows tight.  
His house-warmed high school books 
upright in their case.
Like me, they’ve done their work.
What we instructors had to say
has all been said.  And what he took to heart
is as unfathomable now
as what he cast away.

For he’s moving on and on his own
to worlds he’ll live to see 
but I will never fully know.  Of course 
he’ll stop again to sleep and eat.
We’ll speak again of Charlemagne
and Russell Crowe.   But the being of him,
that second self housed for years
nearly inside my skin, is elsewhere
flowing on, flown.

How does a father live, I wonder.
But it’s late now.  At the stair 
my wife is calling.  And so I remember 
that morning my son was first handed to me,
still blood-smudged and birth-slippery.
And because I was a new father then
and because my inexperience showed 
the midwife taught me how to hold a child properly.
Lightly now, she cautioned.  
But also pulling at my arms, testing me,
until I sensed what it meant
not to let go.

Welcome! What Are You Doing Here?

This post is a reiteration of a recent “Faith Matters” column in the New Haven register, which a number of folks missed and wanted to read:

The Catholic priest Henri Nouwen lived for many years in Toronto, serving as the resident pastor in a community home for mentally disabled adults. He liked to recall what he learned from the way he was greeted by two of the residents there. Each day, a woman smiled at him as if seeing him for the first time and said, “Welcome!” And a man looked at him quizzically and asked, every day, “What are you doing here?”

Nouwen said he came to think of these two members of his group home as angels who brought him important messages each day: the assurance that he is welcome here, and beloved;  and the challenging reminder to ask himself what he is doing with his life on the earth.

This anecdote is one that crystalizes the purpose of a faith community — a place in which we should hope and expect to find both embrace and challenge.  The message of embrace is simple: Welcome! You are welcome here, with your rough patches and flaws, your uncertainties and doubts. Your religious home is meant to be a place where connection and intimacy flourish, where love and respect bind people together across all their differences.

The message of challenge is more complicated, and just as important. What are you doing here?  Behind this question we can hear, as Nouwen did, the implication that we are all still works in progress. Though we are welcome and beloved just as we are, we also have some growing to do in order to be as kind, compassionate and open-hearted as we are called to be. We have some work to do — both on ourselves, and out in the wounded world.

The two messages of embrace and challenge are both essential. Through an open-hearted welcome, we recognize that we are all one people, we human beings — whatever our faith, culture, language or color, whatever lines and walls might divide us. Through our challenge to ourselves, we recognize that we are called endlessly to the task of growing into the kind of people we truly want to be. We’re called to ask: What are we doing here, on this fragile little planet, to bring peace and to ease suffering?

Surely this is the core question for people of every faith — a question by which we build our lives, and bind ourselves to one another.

Primitive Theology

News began to filter out of Haiti Wednesday morning and through the day, revealing to the rest of the world the full and catastrophic dimensions left in the wake of Tuesday’s earthquake. By today there is still no clear understanding of how many are dead and dying, but the numbers will surely reach into the tens of thousands. If international aid on an enormous and sustained scale is not organized and delivered soon, the toll will go on rising for months.

That’s how it works among the poorest of the poor. Catastrophe strikes dramatically in the form of earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, and for a few weeks or months your town or country hits the headlines, your suffering eyes look back at us from the photos, and people who live elsewhere, who live in the unimaginable comfort of running water and supermarkets, scramble to find the best place to send their twenty dollars. And then it all fades out of the world’s consciousness as the next disaster bumps yours off the front pages.

But for you, living in Haiti or Nicaragua or Darfur, the crisis never ends. You were at the rock bottom to begin with, already suffering what is for you an almost normal level of calamity. Now you’re living about as close to a definition of hell as any person could conjure, and you know — because in one form or another you’ve seen it before — that “recovery” will almost certainly mean a new plateau, a new “stability” in which daily suffering is even more profound than what you were living out before the earthquake.

Into the unspeakable injustice of this reality steps televangelist Pat Robertson. On his Wednesday television show he said, “…something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil.  They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story. And so the Devil said “OK, it’s a deal.” And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Set aside for the moment that Robertson is not obligated, unfortunately, to cite his sources for this extraordinary declaration. Think instead about Robertson’s notion of God. It is a primitive theology that imagines a Devil with whom one can make a pact: “Okay, it’s a deal!” It is a cruel, senseless theology that posits a God who routinely (eternally?) punishes any single person — much less generation after generation of people — by sending natural disasters to ravage their nation. The Christian Broadcasting Network should be ashamed to have such manifestly un-Christian poison spewed over its airwaves, but Pat Robertson is well-known for this kind of venom. Shame at the cruelty of his own statements or on the part of those who send it out into the world appears to be beyond their moral powers.

So it falls to the rest of us to lift up not only the voice of compassion but a sustained attention to the literally unimaginable suffering that now unfolds in Haiti. It falls to the rest of us to name the Holiness that can move through us, putting our compassion into action. It falls to people of any faith who put connection ahead of blame to not turn away this time, once the media has lost interest, and to sustain our commitment in the weeks and months ahead so that Haitians might not live perpetually in the hell that is created not by Robertson’s “Devil” but by the insidious and far more banal devils of colonialism, racism, corruption and poverty.

Today the New York Times described a scene from last night in Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of people camped outside a wrecked clinic afraid to sleep inside any building because of the aftershocks. “With no electricity, stars offered the only illumination in the city, which, with its suburbs, is home to nearly 3 million people…Then the singing began. Those gathered outside in tents, on lawn chairs, sitting in the middle of empty streets, sang their hymns. One phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls, as if those voicing the words were trying to make sense of the madness around them.

“Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”

Tending the Secret Garden

As I sat at my desk last week I found myself staring out at the bleak-looking woods in our back yard. The recent winds took down nearly all the leaves, and the rain has wiped out the bright colors that pooled on the ground for a little while. Add in the high overcast blocking the sun, and all I could see were the dulled colors of early winter: brown and gray, drab greens and faded yellows. It was more than a little disheartening. And then as I looked out over this scene, feeling a little dull and gray myself, a pair of bluebirds flew suddenly to a branch directly at eye level, flashing almost neon in their brightness.

The “bluebird of happiness” has never been an image that works very well for me: a bit too saccharine, and certainly far too clichéd. And yet I have to admit, my heart did a little flip-flop of joy when those beautiful creatures lit up the scene, and after they had danced their jaunty bird jig on the branch for a few minutes and then flown away the landscape had a sheen to it, a little backwash of light left behind.

One of the quotes I keep posted in my home office on my Wall of Wisdom is from Sarah Breathnach: “Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend.”

Not a bad reminder as we wend our way toward Thanksgiving. Which secret garden will we tend today? Lord knows, most of us take meticulous care of our inner Garden of Dissatisfaction. We wander through its open gate almost before we’ve fully wakened in the morning, sorry for ourselves because of too little sleep or the wisp of some crabby dream. We admire each new little sprout and return, again and again, to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favorite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whining vigor.

But there’s another garden growing right alongside this one for each of us, so that just a little tilt of the head or a shift in our vision puts us deep within a world of a different shape. Along its paths we can see the ordinary grace of our lives that we ignore so easily: breath, health, love, friends, food, and all the small gifts brought to us by the unfolding day. In the Garden of Abundance, the bare branches against a November overcast become a blessing, not because of the bluebirds that lighted there for a moment but because the branches themselves exist, and I have the eyes to see them.

Which secret garden will you tend today?

Once and For All

As I mentioned in my last post, my father-in-law died last month. This is an essay I wrote about him more than two years ago, as part of my coping with his Lewy Body Dementia.

My father-in-law, Dan Nyhart, is a man of bright wit and tender heart. He is only seventy-five years old, but for five years he has been fading away from us into dementia. It’s like watching someone we love sailing off in a little boat on a very still lake, slowly gliding away and away, alone, while we stand on the shore and wave farewell. The movement toward the horizon is relentless but incremental, the waving and the ache of saying goodbye seem endless.

With considerable effort last August we were able to bring both my parents-in-law to Maine with us, but by then Dan had declined so much in his mental state that he couldn’t be left alone. One afternoon I took my turn sitting with him in front of the cabin where he could look out at the inlet and islands he has known for so many years.

The precise spot where we sat is the gravitational center of the family camp. Five generations of Nyharts have hauled their rickety chairs off the porch and into the afternoon sun, to rub bare toes in the low-growing cranberries that invade the spotty lawn and watch the blue water flow in or out of the tidal marsh. From this place we see the terns in their acrobatic dives, or the gulls as they drop mussel shells to crack on the rocks. We hear the high ospreys as they whistle to each other and teach their fledglings to fly, and sometimes a bald eagle soars massively right over our heads. This is where we always sit as the sunlight begins to tilt and shift to gold and orange. We linger over a congenial cocktail and easily count our blessings.

On this particular August afternoon with Dan, I was immune to the blessings and saturated with sadness. So much has been lost, and there is so much to grieve in the losing. I long for the old personality, the days of repartee and humor, the many threads of exchange that have shaped our relationship over time. Now even a simple thought grows tangled for him as he tries to put it into words, and the words themselves seem to flutter away like bright birds, just out of reach.

I turned to look at Dan sitting next to me, tremors jiggling his arms. He falls asleep easily and often, and then his mouth goes slack and pulls his beloved features into the dreaded blankness we have seen so often in nursing homes. But just then he was awake, looking out at the inlet with a little half-smile.

Dan’s particular illness is dementia with Lewy bodies, which brings with it not only memory loss but hallucinations. The twilight shadows are the worst, sometimes giving rise to terrifying glimpses of men skulking in the trees with machine guns, but there are fanciful dream images he sees in broad daylight as well: a dancing elephant, a new Volkswagen skimming along on the waves, acrobats balancing on the telephone wires. So there was no telling what exactly he was “seeing” as we sat there: the wash of light and wind on waves, or something completely different.

“Dan, where are you when we’re just sitting here like this, not talking?” The question sounded a little desperate to my own ears: what in the world could the poor man make of it? But I had nothing more to say or to ask, and yielded without warning to an almost childish need to have him back, to hear some whisper of soul still retrievable among the fragments this illness has made of his mind. I wanted the existential answer to my question: Where are you now? Where have you gone?

There was a long pause as the question wound down into his mind and the response struggled up, intrepid messengers traversing a shadowed and winding trail. Finally he raised both hands up and said, “Well, it’s caught up in all of this”, waving at the sun, the water, the wind.

“You mean just sitting here and enjoying it?”

Very emphatically he corrected me: “Not enjoying: being in it. Being in it.” I was surprised and impressed by what seemed a burst of theological clarity.

“Dan, that’s very Zen of you!”.

“Hmmph. I never have understood Zen.”

We both laughed, and though I found myself crying at the same time, as I so often do these days, there was a shift in my load of sorrow. I felt myself cracked open at last to that sliver of a moment, and came home to the landscape, the afternoon light, the wind on the water.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So we could be blessed if we lived in the present always, and [received] every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” Lovely words of wisdom, Henry, but it is so much more easily said than done. To receive every accident that befalls us is a tall and terrible order. Yet what else can we do, when what happens to us lies outside all our powers to change it? This is the way we move through our fragile lives: we receive what befalls us, which includes, after all, the accidents of sun and sweetness, joy and love, the lucky accidents of people we cherish and receive so truly into ourselves that like the grass soaking up the rain, we are made something else because of them.

We can’t go back to what was before. Once those we love have gone from us we don’t get to touch a cheek or say what we meant to say, or hear that laughter rippling out again in the way that so delighted us. And yet it isn’t just metaphor to say that we carry them with us and remain bound to them, and they to us. Because we are more like the waters of the earth than we know: rain and snow and mist, ocean, lake and river, seep and puddle, falling and rising and falling and rising again in so many different forms. And nothing is ever lost.

Published in the Fall 2007 issue of the UU World.