It is all around me, the darkness. You are my only shield. Your name is my only light. What love I have, your law is the source, this dead love that remembers only its name, yet the name is enough to open itself like a mouth, to call down the dew, and drink. O dead name that through your mercy speaks to the living name, mercy harkening to the will that is bent toward it, the will whose strength is its pledge to you – O name of love, draw down the blessing of completion on the man whom you have cut in half to know you.Leonard Cohen, Book of Mercy, 37
These are troublesome times for coupled-in and singled out alike. How can I uncover my union with God and the other in this unrelenting solitude? How can she recover her heaven-sent solitude with God through earth-bound union with the other? I would rather have her here to hold and comfort me on this last cold morning of November, and in the many cold mornings to come. Instead, I have only this stubborn wood that has caught fire, finally. But I am not comforted. I am bundled but buffeted. I walk outside and feel the wind rushing in; it cuts through my many threadbare coats to the raw skin.
What is real? What is real is I have steeled myself against Life, and now nothing alive can get in, and nothing alive can get out.
What is real is Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, and so I have become abhorrent to her, and what can I do but buckle under the weight of her hatred. Who can I be but my tainted double, who huddles in the corner I’ve painted myself in.` Who among the cornered wouldn’t call it a blessing to be turned to dust by such an untouched divinity. Who divides the land from the sea. Who clamps this powerless body onto the rack of Time and shoves the wooden frame into the straightjacket of straightforward decay. Who surveys with indifference this chamber of tortured diffidence, within which I feel more like these stone walls each passing day.
What is real? If I become cemented within these cemented stone walls, if I become hard and demented and silent like you, guarded and impenetrable and violent like you, will you love me then? If what I make with this pen gives you glory, though I myself feel no joy in what I have done, will you love me then? Blend me into your beauty. I want to be inside you. I want to be inside my experience inside you. I want to stop this lie I am trying so hard to make true, but I do not know how to slide through my fenced self and arrive, undefended, onto the vast plain within me that embraces you. I want to make this aching stop forever, and I want to let it make me new. I want and want forever, until my wanting is my only reason for being. I want to hear from you.
But what is real is I am tied too tightly to the way I feel to hear the truth that abides beyond thought and feeling. I am gripping the wheel with all my strength, but the ship is anchored to the shore. All a man can do, who is not free to be, is pace like that poet’s panther inside its cell, where it has steeled itself against what its life has become. Nothing alive can get in, and nothing alive can get out.
It is the last morning of November. I wake at four to a cold house. Time to start the fire. The wood takes a long time to catch, and it takes me no time to grow impatient. Self-accusation begins at once, and the accused is guilty until proven innocent. How can you be so incapable? How, after hundreds of times starting fires, can you still struggle to accomplish the task this morning? The accused is in his own movie, the main and only defendant in a staged trial by fire, but try as he might he cannot get the wood hot enough to be tried. The case is neither well received nor poorly received by the jury. There is no jury, and there are no witnesses. No one else sits in this theatre of the absurd to watch this film on repeat reel. There is no reception; there was never a wedding; there will be no consummation.
October is half over as I write this, and I am indoors. The change of seasons was abrupt. Last week it was upwards of 90 degrees; today it’s in the thirties. Writing inside, I feel more isolated, less connected with the world outside my skull and skin. I don’t feel the wind through my hair, and I can’t hear if any birds are braving this cold morning, sounding their songs as if in cheerful rebellion to the coming winter. I want to learn how to rebel so cheerfully to my heart’s winter.
But it is not so easy, and perhaps not so valuable, to rebel that way against the heart, for any cheerfulness that is in me comes from my heart, and to rebel against my heart’s tundra is also to rebel against its open sunny plain.
When my heart is snowed-in, I feel like the snow will come down forever, the roads will never be cleared, and all I will ever feel is what the trees in winter might feel. Who am I to say that these oak trees have no emotional presence and feel nothing? Might they like me feel empty, naked, bare? Through the naked branches of the wintered trees, the light shines clearly, unobstructed by lush foliage. Clear and pure and direct. Are these the qualities of the heart in winter, when it knows through experience that sooner or later spring will return?
I can still hear the wind through the closed glass doors. It is strong today, as it has been for the last three days. I want to live like the wind, propelled into motion by invisible forces. I want to move and not to stagnate, not to remain forever in this same languishing place, moving only to run in loops or out and backs, or to walk with apparent purpose from the kitchen into the dining room to bring my customers their medium rare burgers with extra crispy bacon and cheddar cheese and a side of onion rings, their over-easy eggs and over-syruped pancakes, their buffalo wings with blue cheese on the side and their (almost as good as mom’s!) chicken pot pies.
I want to move internally from where I am—feeling wedged into a corner, trapped on the wheel of my internal misery-go-round, lamenting this seemingly intractable position—to where I could be, unrolling the filaments of my fluid being, redoubling my commitment to praise the beauty of these trees that today still shine in the many shades of fire and gold. But even the glory of their vibrancy reminds me of its imminent loss, how the colors will change from the reds and golds of a vital resplendence to the browns and greys of a monotone existence. A monotone existence, a monotone existence…
The days go by and before long I start questioning where my life has gone. Wasn’t I just eight years old, double-bouncing my brother on the trampoline; ten years old, sprinting on the hot sand into the Atlantic Sea; twelve years old, obsessively practicing free throws in the hoop attached to the brick on top of the garage? Am I really twenty-eight years old? Yes, in linear time at least, in that terrifyingly one-pointed line from birth to death. I am 28 years from birth, and an unknown number of years from death. Is that it? Birth and life and death as the final end? What is the end of life? What is the chief end of man? And all the bored children in chilling, joyless voices intone: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
Except one child, in a voice brimming with vitality, shouts out much louder than the rest, and continues long after their short refrain, exclaiming: To love the fields I run and play in and my friend I love and play with, and to love the one who created the fields and my brother and my friend and myself, and to love too the bluebird I listen to, as we both praise the rising sun: he with his song, and I with mine.
And this patently unacceptable and unorthodox ode to creation immediately provokes the accepted and orthodox wrath of the stern teacher in his charge—she who educates and lives by words alone because the Word itself has died within her, and since she refuses to heed her grief, or admit her need for the Spirit she professes to believe in, she passes on her corroded mode of being to those who still have Being in them, and they too learn how to let the Word die in their hearts and not grieve over its death—and the one mistakenly seen as mature punishes the one mistakenly seen as juvenile, and what is at stake is no less than the tyrannical oppression of an impressionable young soul.
And so this one child who had shouted from the rooftops what he believed, perceiving no difference between the original faith behind the words he spoke with all the life in his soul and the original faith behind what the others spoke with all the life drained out of them, begins after repeatedly being scolded and punished for his distinctive and animate words, to feel that he is different from the others, and as he starts to feel different, he starts to lose contact with the rapture he had felt in the fields, the harmony he had felt with the bluebird, the intimacy he had felt with his friend, and the unself-conscious union he had experienced with the Creator of the fields, the bluebird, and the friend, and he begins to create an identity out of the feeling of anguish that comes from these unbearable losses.
And when he first falls to the ground, and lets himself weep, he finds a kind of substitute for what he longs for in the terrible pain of longing for it. The longing feels more real than everything but the actual Reality he longs for. He begins to feel the reality of his own person most acutely when he is in acute distress, for he feels that the deeper he experiences his distress, the deeper he moves toward the initial Source of his unrest—his own estrangement from the Source—and thus the closer he grows toward the Source itself, toward regaining contact, repairing the life-giving thread that had torn between him and his capacity to feel held and loved by his invisible Twin entwined in that creative thread.
Stranded buccaneer, buck your fear-driven plan to seize the ship that flies no flag. Stand aside and hand the wheel to the attending captain, who senses the tides and sets his course by instinct and not by compass, who points the ship north and leans into the storm, for he means to go through it to the other side, where on the far undivided shore his true love abides. He takes each wave as his own, the shock he needs at this moment to speak his vow: that in this clashing marriage of sea and now and forever again, he will bow, he will bow to the very end, and seek to know a single word, borne of a crashing silence.
Now stand aside. Put aside the separate arm that commands its unpaid deck-hands to fire cannonballs at the flagless ship until nothing alive remains, the phantom limb that climbs aboard the deck now strewn with dead bodies to take back the wheel, stealing the map it has not learned to read, the one that leads to the treasure that mind-defended appendage buried in the homeland the very moment time began—and I, and I alone, began to forget the blessings of that essential land no pirated vessel will ever discover anew. Only the body brave enough to bend down and pick up the spade blazing with the heat of sincerity, to take the tool to the frozen earth until the ground that was hard and unyielding finally yields, and the whole body feels its resistance give way as the sharpened blade sinks into deep contact with soft soil—only that body, willing to lose its standing ground to be found anew in dark communion, can find the way back. Let that body, with steady hands, take the wheel.
This silence I have not treasured is my mother, and this storm I have not weathered is my father. As a captive son of storm and silence, let me lie down at the eastern edge of this chain-link fence and surrender to my parents in this extended hour just before dawn. Let me trust that neither father nor mother will let me bleed forever in the unreachable country, but that both together will teach me how to be reached, and how to be re-created in reconciliation with my co-creators.
It was a marriage made in water, and land and sea consummated their union all through the night, and all through the next day, and all through all days and nights to kingdom come. Why should I not sing of how the sea met the earth, how they came together with delight when the dawn’s bright reveal shed new light on the old truth that they had never been apart?
Why should I ask for another miracle? Why should I wait for another sign?
I want to staunchly defend my right to life. Abort this mission of lifelong constriction with the guileless admission that my aliveness has been in remission, as if living were the disease.
Freedom is a motivating force, the source and the end of hope. I want to bend to its flexible iron, become pliable, liable to lift off the ground, finding flight and descent both viable options, adopting a position of delightful collision with silence, a momentous joining with the moment.
There is too much goodness to bear. Still, bear with it. Allow it to unfold. The gold is hidden under piles of sludge, mounds of dung, lost and found among the ashes of the stung self. Enter that sting with instruments of healing. Follow the bee that has stung you, bumble and stumble after his humming flight until he leads you to sweet honey. Be stunned by the inner sweetness you’ve shunned.
I’m hungry, alert, on the lookout for food. I want to stay hungry, not to lunge at every passing squirrel or deer, but to wait for the big game, the sleepy-eyed moose that can wake in an instant.
The Bible on my left, the Bhagavad-Gita on my right, and my hands, poised, on the keys in between. I want to hold the west and the east within me, hold the tension of my divided being: both the one who prays for help, and the one who resists all help. There is no help for that one. There is no shelf large enough to fit the living and breathing book of the living. Open your arms, embrace this book, and begin it again.
Let my hands work independently of my mind, until my mind and heart get on the same page. Let my hands work as they were made to work, while my mind looks for some way to keep the work from happening, to keep from being seen through in all its insubstantiality, all its trickery and thievery, its whole mindless charade.
Watch the parade of characters go by: some in regal vehicles, awaiting the fanfare they believe is their due; some hunched over, as if they could hide themselves in plain sight, overwhelmed by the crowd of people on either side of the road they walk down, feeling personally attacked by the laughter and merriment raining down from both flanks; some standing up tall, chest puffed out, as if to ward off attack by going on the offensive. And so many more, a veritable army of characters populating the mind, the battalions running on self-importance or self-denigration, on self-love or self-hatred, on self-righteousness or self-doubt. The parade is supposed to be a celebration of independence, but in this state, under these influences, it wouldn’t make much sense to celebrate Independence Day, would it?
In this state, under these influences, the only thing that makes much sense to me is closing my eyes, opening the door, and accepting the wind’s invitation to spin wordlessly through the air, to bear for a moment the absence of my mind, to let that beast lie, and become friends again with the world outside my skull and skin, become intimate with surfaces and learn from them how to rest in the silence out of which they surface.
Leaves on the oak trees that are even now turning color, help me to wait like you do, green in the sun all summer, for your unwilled transformation into the deep reds, bright yellows, and rich auburns of autumn. You do nothing, make no efforts to change yourself; you stay green until you are changed by nature of some power outside your control. I do not know why you change, and I do not know why it is so much harder for me, who sees you not simply as you are but as a symbol of what I could be, to change with the seasons, to express freely and openly the bright golden joys and deep red passions of a full and vital existence. This past summer, as you hung patiently on the trees, I lost touch even with my own longing for that full existence. I cowered from the endless ache at the heart of that longing. I stayed away from this silence, so as not to let that ache surface. I could weep now at my self-betrayal.
Let this silence break my will and break my heart open. Empty and purify me, make me a clean window. Let ear and tongue be open windows: the ear letting in the wind from outside; the tongue letting out the breath from within. Breathe in and breathe out. Shout from the rooftops the good news. Or lament from the basement the pain of your separation, your longing to stand on the roof and let the beauty of the sunset bring you to tears every evening. I want to live today, and not in the basement. But perhaps it is only there, only here—flattened, split and shattered—that I will find myself nailed to the ground of humility, and pray from here, from the depths of my being, that truest of pleas: help me.
A dog yips and yaps from next door. Why? A human types and taps the keys. Why? Why are the leaves turning color before I am ready? Why don’t they follow my own timetable? I am not ready for the summer to end. I was not ready for it to begin.
One night soon, my small world of woods will go silent. The crickets will suddenly stop their songs, and so will the birds. Even the wind will absent itself for the night. A real chill will fill the air for the first time in months. I will want to go outside and run for ten or more miles, or crawl under the covers in my bed and stay there for ten or more hours. Anything I can do to escape the chill, to fight against the continual recognition of my lonely mortality.
To every feeling and every action there is a season, and I know I am stuck because in every season I hurt in the same ways and do the same things to try and alleviate my pain: this same chill that keeps me frozen in time, burning for eternity; this same tightness in my heart that starts the moment I wake each morning, and my futile attempts to distract myself from the raw awareness of my diminished capacity to love; this same gaping wound that keeps me scraping open again and again these ancient scabs. If only there were some clearly visible marker to show to the world, some irrefutable cause of my hurt, so no one would need to ask why I was in pain, because everyone could see it. It would be impossible to hide. Here is my wound, I’d say, untying the layered bandage so they could see, and look how deep it goes. Look, I’d say again after many years, look how my wound has refused to heal.
See how deep it still goes and understand why I can’t move on, for the wound has infected my whole body, the body that houses the soul. If the house is on fire, how can the one trapped inside ignore his burns? The whole body is sick, and no physician has yet been found who can heal it.
Physician, someone once said, heal thyself. There is a long line to enter the gates of the true physician, gates that swing inward rather than outward, and I do not have the patience to wait in line, so I turn away and head out. I will heal myself, I say. Why should I need to enter the gates that swing inward to see the true physician? Who is the true physician? What is Truth? I am innocent; I wash my hands of his blood. But something unclean has entered me, and I am like a blind and deaf tracker with no sense of smell, unable to follow its trail to catch it and make it clean. O Lord, create in me a clean heart…What God hath cleansed, let no man call unclean. Let no man lean over the abyss without a man behind him to catch him if he leans too far. Let no man hear the soft hush of the wind and run for his life in the opposite direction. To run for your life is to run away from Life, to deafen your ears to its clear, unwavering call. The call that says, ‘stop running, come back to me, return to yourself. There is nothing between us but your fear that there will always be something between us.’
There is nothing between my skin and the wind. Shirtless, I feel the late summer breeze moving through the light hairs on my arms, and the darker hairs on my stomach. It is still September as I write this. The wind is colder than it was yesterday; it will be colder tomorrow than it is today. There is nothing between my skin and the wind and the world except for my mind that tells me I am separate, out of contact; my mind that reminds me I am completely alone and should feel very bad about being so. But everyone is permitted to have a different experience every now and then, and this afternoon I do not pay too much attention to these thoughts. They are so familiar; the feelings they produce—hopelessness, emptiness, loneliness, sadness—feel so much like myself. But I am more than my predictable reactions to the thoughts that impress upon me how disconnected I have always been, how unimpressive I am now, and how unfulfilled I will continue to be until the day I die.
Sometimes I wouldn’t mind being somebody else. Somebody with an easy-going confidence, a carefree vitality, and a naturally expansive disposition, who goes out to meet his fellows and the world with warmth and goodwill.
There is no such thing as a pure introvert, Jung said. Such a person would be in the insane asylum. No argument here. I am a kind of architect of dysfunction, working overtime to construct my own insane asylum. A refuge for my fugue-like states, a sanctuary for my fill-in-the-blank neuroses. Please let me be here, at least until I understand why I can’t just let myself be, why I am always interfering with my soul’s natural course. Let me travel the perilous seas of my longing until I reach that golden shore where my solitude meets yours, and my feeling of being stranded at sea all my life is first understood and then transforms into an experience of landing, dropping the anchor, and resolving to stay awhile on the unfamiliar terrain of shored belonging.
My soul needs this asylum in order to be restored to sanity, but my ego, the pirate captain of this aimless ship, gets in its way. The latter wants protection, too. But what to the soul is a precious dwelling-place where it can regain contact with itself, to the ego is a brick wall behind which it can hide, keeping itself safe from contact with anyone or anything else that might call into question whether there is anything of substance here. Is there anything of substance here? Is there anything but a certain stance, and a need to express that stance, so as to defend its legitimacy?
It’s a legitimate question. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know why I have abandoned the blank page for so long. I am uncertain of how to come back to it, so I’m writing with my uncertainty, keeping it company with my pen. I don’t want to hold my fluid unknowing or my intuitive knowing or anything else within me, known or unknown, at a distance. I want to hold everything inside myself like I would hold the pen, if I were writing in a notebook and not typing on a computer. How would I hold it? I would hold the pen as if it were both sides of a railing on a narrow rickety bridge that spans across a canyon rim, my only support to keep from falling to my death in the river far below. I would hold the pen as if it were a wedge, to keep some secret door from closing completely, allow just enough space for my foot to open the door another crack when I am ready.
I want these words to dance with light feet, to juke quickly when I try to tackle them to the ground, to run away from me, teasing me as I try to catch them. Though I may be on the road to serious illusion, I want these words to keep their sense of humor. I don’t want to fill them with my own heaviness; they deserve a lighter touch. They have the right to live on their own merit, free of my confused interference. No referee is needed here. These letters play by their own rules. While I sink in stagnant waters, struggling to get my own way, to be my own sun, I want these words to swim in living waters, to float on their backs as the only sun on this planet smiles down on them.
I am up to my neck here. I am upstairs, and afraid to go back down. I have forgotten, or maybe never learned, how to descend gracefully. I am not Cinderella, lovely and pure, tip-toeing down the spiral stairs as if floating on the zephyr wind. I am one of her spiteful step-sisters, and I hate her beauty. I hate that she loves someone, and someone loves her back. Why does she get to be loved, while I rot here with my rotten twin and hideous mother? I was supposed to be the beautiful one. I was supposed to be the one touched by a magic hand, woken from my trance with a kiss, but I was living in the wrong fairy-tale.
I wanted to be white as snow. I wanted to go to ground and hibernate inside my soundproof den all through the long winter, watch the snow come down and wait to be transformed into the sleeping beauty who is kissed, and who lets herself be kissed, and so wakes up. But why would anyone enter this cave and wake me with a kiss? Who over there cares that I am not awake in here, but sleeping? Who would it concern if I slept my whole life through? If I cannot find the will to attend to my own unlived life, why should I expect some princess to abandon her kingdom, drop her own cares for a moment, and kiss my own away?
I am on my own today. It is not the way of the warrior but the way of the worrier, the way of the soul bound not for freedom and glory but inside the horror story of contraction and resistance.
As a boy I wept on my first day of first grade. In the home video my brother bounces down the stairs with a big grin on his open and curious face. He is a happy child, so young and so excited for his first day of kindergarten. He cannot wait to meet whatever Life has to store for him that day. It is impossible not to love him. He is Joy made flesh, Hope in the human form.
In the video I am curled on the couch, my face pressed into the pillow. My whole body is shaking, and I keep repeating, ‘I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!’ I am a distraught child, so young and already so frightened of whatever Life has in store for me that day. I am Sorrow made flesh, Anguish in the human form.
And this day, as I sit here now, it is the same, for the fearful patterns of that six-year-old have stuck with me all these years, have kept me stuck all these years, although my body has grown much bigger now, and twenty one years have apparently passed.