Without your sun, I become a hard knot of tension in a dark room with the windows shut and the shades drawn. Without your touch, I suffocate as I try to incorporate the abundant silence of dawn. Without your bread, I stuff my buffering brain with empty calories of heady knowledge. Without your breath, I gulp the humid air, straining to fill the floors in my body’s home, as if intending to hoard a diminishing commodity. Without your ear, I swoon on the seesaw of a thousand dualities. Dizzy as an erratic acrobat, I long to climb down off my childish contraption, surrender to the soft grass, and gaze up in wonder at the black sky, re-establishing contact with night. Only there, aware of my smallness and your grandeur, can I ask from the last dregs of my solitude: ‘O Most High, tender attendant of stardust, won’t you seal my heart’s cup? Let me end these litanies of lament, and glorify your fine handiwork.’ But how do I praise the sweet juice oozing from a plate of Mazafati dates, while I waste away in a fruitless desert? So many worlds of difference exist between taking the cup with a willing heart and sucking it down with a heartless will. Lord, let the seeds of willingness spill through the holes of this powerless body and grow fertile in the holy ground of my soul. As my physical form slowly declines, may my essential nature gradually arise, and may I ride that transmutation train through the dense towns of my pain, down into the sacred center of now.
I shrink back from my lack of direction. I blink once and come to months later, in the same exact location. Either I admit my honest terror in the face of barren obscurity, or I lock my soul in a windowless cell, and call it job security. Help me keep the faith I’ve never had. Help me feed the hope I’ve tried to kill. Hold me when I sweat through every pore, releasing the toxins that block me from breathing in your perfect air. Without you I become my song of lonely longing in the Texas night. If I must gnaw this bone without you, then send me deeper into the valley of separateness. Help me remember my thirst, whenever I pull from the well. Remember my hunger, whenever you ring the bell. Remember my poverty, whenever I cling to time. Remember my nakedness, whenever you house my mind. Remember my homelessness, whenever I find my home.
Let the darkness of a solitary night unbind the chains and find the hidden pain in my deepest heart, the weeping son given all but that sole food his soul is starving for.
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.
Clinging to longing
Mosquito sucking my blood
Stings, and leaves its mark.
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 remember—in my limited, image-less, non-specific way—being a young boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, feeling a strange kind of longing as I looked out at a homeless man on the streets of Washington D.C, from the backseat of my family’s pine-tree green Honda Odyssey. Let’s say we were driving over Key Bridge a few days before Christmas, on our drive back from the Kennedy Center, where the extended family on my mother’s side—cousins, aunts, grandparents, and later uncles—would get all dressed up in suits and dresses (for the grown-ups) or uncomfortable Christmas sweaters and slacks (for the kids) and watch a play every year. Usually the plays were entertaining, even for us kids with itchy feet, but my favorite part of the ordeal was usually the king-size package of Dots candy I would always get at intermission. Pure sugar, enough to keep me wide-eyed for the first ten minutes of post-intermission before I crashed. My same-aged cousin Jack preferred the peanut M & M’s. One year the nutty crunch of these M & M’s, and Jack’s involuntary nonverbal expressions of his unabashed delight in them, got under the pallid skin of a couple of hot-and-bothered well-to-do’s in the row behind us, who shhshed and hissed their displeasure.
After the show was over, it would be time to spend at least an hour trying to get the perfect family picture on the velvety red steps outside the theatre. No face could be partially hidden by another face, no one’s eyes could be blinking, and everyone had to be grinning widely with teeth bared. When all of this criteria had been met, there was another half hour to hour of prolonged goodbye’s to people we would, save some unforeseen tragedy, almost certainly see in the next two days.
Finally, we would drive home. By now it would be close to midnight. Late December, usually some kind of snow or slush on the roads, the Potomac River partially frozen. And on the bridge under the streetlights a homeless man huddled in a threadbare coat, unsheltered in the cold night, eight hours or more until the wan winter sun rose meekly above the horizon. And I, a young too-well-dressed boy in the green suburbia minivan, looking forward to my warm bed that night, and even more to the upcoming two weeks off from my usual shy schoolboy agonies, two weeks to play in the snow with my brother and sister and cousins, knowing the warm shower and heated house would be right there whenever I needed them, felt this strange longing. What could I, apparently wanting for nothing, possibly want?
It was me, John Fogerty; I was the fortunate son. My family was well-off, deprived of no material thing. My parents could and did send me to the best schools available, where the teachers were contractually bound to care for each and every student, and the environment was conducive not only to intellectual growth but to the growth of students as whole persons, mind and heart and body, spirit and soul. I came from a large, tight-knit extended family. The virtues of love, faith, and hope were instilled in me at a young age, and the people around me seemed to embody those virtues to varying degrees. And yet, looking out through the letters of my name spelled in messy cursive on the frosty window at the cold bent figure on the bridge, I felt from deep within my body’s slight form a stripped-naked and skinned poverty no material wealth could repair or warm winter coat conceal, and a formless but full-bodied longing for I knew not what.
I did not know about alcoholism and drug addiction, about unemployment and desperation and crime. I did not know about the physical suffering this man must have undergone on a daily basis, in all seasons. Constantly facing the heat in the D.C. summer, unable to find refuge in the air-conditioned indoors. Blinded by the driving snow in winter, his coat absurdly thin and worn, unable to protect him in the slightest. His hunger and thirst, fevers and pneumonias.
I did not know about the mental torture he must have faced, the inner voices that told him he was a failure, a bum, a good-for-nothing ghostly presence that would soon be gone, with no one to remember him in a eulogy with fine words, delivered to a mourning audience who would miss him for the rest of their lives, with no one to remember him or miss him at all.
I did not know about the emotional slings and arrows this man—forced like all men who are utterly alone to remember always how he would not be remembered—must have endured, both from being sole audience, sole victim of his internal executioners twenty-four hours a day, and from being subject to the external voices that sometimes intruded into and compounded this hell on earth, who insulted him in similar ways, who with cold, contemptuous voices told him to get a job, get a life, get off the sidewalk, leave. Who told him he was not welcome here. How easy it would be for that man, after being told hundreds of times that he was not welcome here, to extrapolate and conclude that he would not be welcome anywhere, that Life itself had long ago decided to imprison him forever outside the gates of belonging. How hard it would be for this man to hold out any hope of ever finding his home.
I did not know about the spiritual agonies this man must have suffered, the unfathomable loneliness, the bitter hatred toward Life and all the people that seemed to move along smoothly and easily through it, the envy of the fortunate sons safe in their beds and the successful CEOs ensconced in their mansions, the shame that had burrowed its way into the very fibers of his being, the terrible fear of death that alternated with a terrible desire for it, the pain of an unlived life, the daily traumas of a soul born for heaven yet trapped in hell.
No, I did not know about any of this suffering. I was ignorant, a child already with pain of my own, and did I look at this homeless man on the bridge and see a kind of liberation from my own seemingly causeless pain, rather than certain bondage in his pain which had thousands of causes and no bottom or end but death? But how exactly was I suffering? From what particulars did I desire freedom? What could I possibly desire freedom from, as an young boy with loving parents, a warm extended family, supportive teachers and coaches, a roof over my head, clothes for all weather, friends to play with, food to help my body grow stronger, books to allow my mind to dive into its natural curiosity, and all of the above to help me discover and live out of the depths of my heart? Wouldn’t my spirit flourish? Wouldn’t my soul be nourished and at ease?
Alas, all the external wealth and support in the world cannot bring the soul through the dark night and into the sunlight. Though the surface of my life left little to be desired, yet I was filled with and burdened by desires and longings, and seeing this homeless man somehow brought all of this to the surface. I was longing for the inner wealth, the steadfast support, the perfect freedom, that resided somewhere deep within me, with which I had lost contact at a young age, leaving me without confidence or hope for the future, out of contact not only with people and objects in the outer world but most especially with my own heart, feeling an inner impoverishment that resonated with the homeless man’s outer impoverishment, feeling as deprived emotionally as I was privileged materially, unlike the homeless man in the prosperity of my upbringing but like him in my feeling of being down and out.
Down and out. Pressed down and left out. Pressed down as if under glass, divided by a fragile mirror that allowed me to look up and out at Life above the glass, to look but never touch. A mirror that also reflected back to me my own self, and because of this two-way mirror I became absorbed by the disparities between what was beneath the glass and what was above it, focusing on all the real and imaginary deficiencies that kept me gasping for breath as if under ice, perceiving everything below the glass as frozen in a dull and grey and painfully insufficient and lifeless image, and everything above the glass as a fluid Reality that was full of color and warmth and movement and vitality and fullness, left to conclude with a depressing finality that I would be forever estranged from that Reality, that I would be left to wrestle in unwelcome though unconsciously chosen isolation with my own inadequate and self-sabotaging devices, which only multiplied and exaggerated my sense of lack.
One of these devices, these defenses against the felt knowledge of my estrangement, which if recognized fully might pierce through the glass with its direct and unsparing insight, and re-connect me with the Reality that severed the boundary between inner and outer, above and below—one of these defenses was withdrawal. I withdrew in one sense in order to re-connect with the feeling of being myself. It was almost as if I could not feel or be that self in the presence of others, though I could not articulate who that self was.
There was a kind of freedom in withdrawal. Being around other people I was reminded painfully of the glass pressing down on me and increasing my feeling of separateness. Once alone I could imagine (to the extent that I could with my blind mind), a world where I never abandoned my truth and could easily be myself, where I did not fear rejection, where I never blushed when a teacher called on me and I had to speak in the presence of the rest of the class, where I never had to answer how my day went because everyone already understood how it went. There would be no need to hide who I was or what I felt. Written on my face would be the joys of a contented being, a soul at ease with itself. To speak of this contentment would be unnecessary, redundant.
But, in a cruel but predictable twist, the withdrawal that seemed like freedom was its opposite. It was the default response to my unsettling sense that I never responded to the events of Life authentically, blocked as I was by embarrassment and shame, by fear of judgment, fear of my actual self being seen by others and then scorned by them and rejected (or worse, ignored), which fears I reacted to by once more escaping into the well-grooved pathway of withdrawal. The comfort and familiarity of this default response made it feel like home, but it was a home that was cold and dark and silent. No one was home because the only one who could have been there was gone, lost in imagining what truly being at home would feel like, and the perfection he imagined there only made his time here, outside this suspect sanctuary, all the more distressing, lonely, and bleak.
Heart that will not let itself belong,
I speak from you, to you,
not to distract you away
from the ways you suffer,
but to redeem you in your suffering.
Be in it, since you must.
Let it be there, since it is.
I cannot help but be here, where you are,
but there are countless ways you can evade,
escape, exaggerate, distort, transport yourself
elsewhere. You’ve done it before,
you’ve done it today, this hour.
In this minute be with the pain
without naming it,
possess it by letting yourself belong
to it. Allow it, give it room to breathe,
as you sit in this room
and listen to the voice of your longing
Heart that will not let itself belong,
let your resistance persist,
allow yourself to feel
your struggle to allow yourself
here, or anywhere.
the heart sings in its refrain.
Anywhere but here.
Take me away,
give me the sharp fleeting pain
take from me the dull continual suffering
of this settled state.
Restless heart, I speak to you,
and as always I speak from you.
Where can you go
where what you feel now
will not go with you?
Heart that will not let itself belong,
that longs without cease, listen
as the voice of your longing grows
deafening. It is a commanding voice.
Another voice speaks
it does not command.
Listen: is this the voice
that will let you belong?
Drink in this silence as the earth
drinks in the summer rains.
Is it you, the one
whose name rises softly to my lips,
who I am longing for?
You who are absent, while I am here.
If you were here with me, would I find
someone else to long for?
Today rain falls on the ground,
and from within my heart this longing rises,
like a river surging over its banks,
like an eagle soaring above its nest,
like a stone rolling from infinity to infinity.
Rain falls, stones roll, time moves on,
and all but this longing in me is still.
Yet: what am I
but what longs
Your name is like the gentle rhythm of rain,
falling, and my voice keeps speaking it,
though to speak it brings me pain.
Who are you, you who are
absent, whose name rises softly to my lips?
Are you the one I am longing for?
The rain comes down harder now,
not so gentle as before.
It is a day to love or to love
from a distance, which is to long.
No distance is far enough, no closeness is close
enough. There is no safety or rest or comfort
in distance, there is only this longing, this aching
unrest of being apart from, separated by
the river you once crossed to meet her.