Saturday, April 28, 2012

Poem, Wind, Slippers, Light

Loving the Flesh
by Todd Davis

Last night I lay beside you, unable to sleep,
and read the stories written on the cells by one
who long ago breathed into dust, shaped flesh
from earth and deemed it good, who set me
in the boat of my mother's womb rocking.
How could I imagine a heaven without
these legs, these arms, this heart that beats
inside the cage of my chest, blood pumping
outward like the first days when sap rises
to meet the warmth of some late winter sun?

Tonight after dinner as we spoke to one another
in that careless, sleepy way we do when the children
have left us with nothing more than our love
and its weariness, you told me that the things
of this world were far too heavy for you to carry
into the next, that you hoped one day death
would be a move toward something better, like leaving
an old house with no more than a backward glance.

But what of the pear, I said, whose perfect skin shines
in the basket by the window, and what of Christ
who could not leave this earth without his love
for the woman who drew water from the well,
without first cooking fish for those he knew
could never hold fast: Cool breeze of morning
coming onto shore, bread warming hands
that still ached from holes not yet healed, fire
burnt down to a circle of coal and ash.

Now going up the stairs to our room I think
about how tomorrow morning the rabbit will leave
his den, how the early light will move against the far wall
and we will wake to each other's body, how you will allow
me to kiss the top of your head, line of scar near the corner
of your mouth, the narrow bone of your shoulder blade
that peeks out from under your gown, your breasts
that tip away from your chest, like our minds when we forget
that we would not know a soul if it were not draped by skin
and muscle, by tendon upon bone, by artery and vein entwined.

I've been thinking about vulnerability again (always) and I started to write this to confront my driving desire to hide, to disappear into the surroundings around me most days.  But as soon as I write the word, invisibility, I think of writing's ability to make the invisible visible - to hold up to the light that which wants to hide, to bring the intangible to form.  Ah, language, you old goat.  I have loved you for so long.

My father gave me a beautiful journal when I was in college.  (It was actually an elaborate day calendar, a business accoutrement some associate had given him.  My father, being my father, had no use for such a heavy thing and passed it onto me.)  I remember writing little poems into it, propped on the top shelf of my dorm room bunk.  The leather, the wide pages, and the poems I tried to chase, come back to me now.  I was writing in snippets for a lot of my life, but college pulled my obsession with language straight through my veins.  I was hooked.

Over the years, I have learned that many famous writers started first in ministry, or wanting to be priests, shaman, healers, and - to quote a Ritter lyric - other 'portals of prayer.'  I was ecstatic to see this information, confirming as it did my own experience.  I once considered applying to seminary schools, drawn to the idea of devoting my life to religion. 

Now I know that art, and life itself, is my playground for religious exploration.  Someday I may find that a church once again supports this mission, too.  For now, the candle at my desk holds my flame for love, as do my friends who write with me, each of us seeking the deep river that flows beneath us all.    

Okay.  I digress.  As much as I love the practice and secret power of writing, there is also the next stage where the foundational writing is finished, where the monkish hours of formulating identity, love, and words, turn to stagnation if the inner chamber doors are not opened.  And this, I believe, is where visibility comes in. 

Two months ago, I checked Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People out of the library and, as I do with such books, left it sitting untouched on my shelf. Finally accepting that I was not up to the charts located inside (there are diagrams, people! lots of quadrants and triangles with arrows pointing around them.  It's intimidating, like a stock's annual report.  On the other hand, a lot of it could have been ripped straight out of a book about the chakras.) I started to return the book.

When I started to return it, however, a passage presented itself to me.  It said:

Well, shoot.  I can't find it now.  Let's just say it said something like: 'Recognition is one of the biggest needs we have as human beings.' 

I read a similar sentiment in a book called The Healing Wisdom of Africa, this time written about in the context of the societal need for elders and mentors.  It was put this way:

'No matter what culture you belong to, certain personal situations and social relationships are inescapable For example, common to everyone is the recurrent feeling of needing to expand and to grow. Similarly, you cannot help at certain points in your life feeling the need for the emotional, psychological, and social support of others. Everyone needs to come into some kind of visibility, and some sort of recognition...Where a mentor invites the genius of a youth to come out of its hiding, an elder blesses that genius, thereby allowing it to serve efficiently the greater good.'

Ooh, I really love that line: 'an elder blesses that genius, thereby allowing it to serve efficiently the greater good.'  Yum, yum. 

And while this isn't exactly why I am drawn to old people like a moth to the light, I love this idea of being initiated, and of using one's genius for the greater good.  I try to do this every day.  And though I fall short some days, it is this greater good which calls the monk into her cell - so that she may return and share what she has heard, what she found whispering faithfully, generously, in the quiet and the dark.  We must go in - metaphorically, physically, or merely psychically - to find our truths.  But once we find them, the power - and responsibility - then shifts to bringing them out, in whatever way is appropriate: a letter to a friend, a phone call to a beloved, a difficult conversation, a work of art. 

Every step we take is a work of art, when we bring this sort of understanding to it.

Finally, here is Josh Ritter singing about this very idea in his song, Lantern.  It's what I aim to do here, for you, and for me as well.  Because this kind of light-work may very well be what we were invited to these bodies to perform.

With love, and hope for our collecting wisdom,

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Inventory (Getting a Handle On Not Having A Handle)

Well, I found it - the picture of me among my old books, pondering what the h to do. What to keep, what to toss, what to let go to welcoming friends. And behind me all the while, my beloved old red bookcase (back when it was purple) which currently lives in my parents garage, a couple thousand miles away.

I went hunting for the picture this week, when I found myself in front of a shelf of what I have come to think of as my "spiritual" books. There sometimes seems to be no other way to think of these sorts of books. But most books are spiritual, really, and I guess that's why I'm ready to pare down this shelf.

I was a little shocked at the urge I had, though, when standing in front of the awkward shelf, wondering how to organize it better. I honestly thought it was the shelf's fault that things were bothering me so much.  It's the books, a voice inside said. They have to go.

Really? I thought, panicking.

These books nurtured me through graduate school, and helped me stay sane for most of the past seven years of my life.  I have piled them next to my pillow at night, their presence like a childhood blanky.

But for the last six months or more, they have been annoying the crap out of me, leering like angry hangnails from the corner of our living room. It is time to say goodbye.

This week, I also dug up an article I printed out a while ago, when I first started at the company I work for. The article is titled (hilariously?) Handling Your Perfectionism, and I don't remember now how I happened upon it. But I have been stressing out lately, for some good reasons, for some illegitimate, and I pulled out the article to - what else? Get a handle on my obsession with getting a handle on things.

It is my experience that what lurks behind the perfectionist urge is actually terror.  Certainly, some components are aesthetics, and a desire to perform well. But I believe that perfectionism is really an expression of fear - fear of failure, fear of being wrong, and most importantly, fear of being seen.

This fear of being seen is really a fear of being vulnerable. But, the skill of becoming vulnerable is one of the most powerful ones we can cultivate as sentient beings.  Because, as Robin Williams says in Good Will Hunting, that's where the good stuff is. And it's true.  It isn't easy to do - to stand fully within yourself and let yourself be seen as your whole, flawed, perfectly imperfect being.  But that's what courage is.  And radiance and authenticity.

It is a sleepy Sunday night over here, and my eyes are getting droopy. I wish I had a story to illustrate my point, but I thought it more important to simply write and say hello, and try my darnedest to write an imperfect post.

Lastly, I want to post these pictures of my old office during graduate school, when I felt like the worst writer on the planet.  I felt like the office was claustrophobic, and dumpy, and lame.  It looks so beautiful to me now.  And the books look so perfectly selected, clear and muscular on the shelves. 

I prefer to work with dead dogs nearby.

Eternally listening to the Avett Brothers.

The red bookshelf.  Now in red.

At the same time, the lack of confidence I had then took me deeper into myself, to find out where grace and comfort live, because the alternative - of living within the critical voices that stormed my mind and gave me migraines - was unbearable.  Pain and hope for its utter alleviation led me to the yoga studio, and to my meditation practice, and to the play of handstands and back bends, and twisting philosophy books.  It is tempting to feel shame for the mistakes we make, but what if they truly are invitations to grace?

I have heard that compassion's root is a broken heart.  This I believe - it is our healing that births our strength.

As I go, I want to say - let us all learn to be truly good to ourselves, for we teach others how to treat us when we know how to treat ourselves.  And in those teachings are the light of our hearts.  May we hold them high for one another.

With tenderness,