While driving some distance, I put on a collection of poems written and read by Mary Oliver. It’s one of the ways I am introducing my younger son to poetry and the ideas of language as metaphor, as imagery. He is very concrete and literal in his use and understanding of language. From the time I received Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses as a gift from my Great-Aunt Annie, I have loved poetry. From the silly and humorous poems of Edward Lear, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to “The Jabberwocky” of Lewis Carroll. As I grew up, unlike so many others I knew, I never lost my love for poetry; probably because I never lost my love for language and learning new words.
I chose to listen to Mary Oliver because of her writing so clearly about the natural world (birds, animals, nature) and these are all things that are dear to my younger son. Sitting in the back seat of my car, he was clearly listening to her with rapt attention because he would begin to ask me questions about what certain lines or phrases meant. I often responded by asking him, “What do you think it means?”One of the worst things to do when teaching about poetry is to take the approach that there is only one meaning to poems and to dismiss or not even listen to a child’s thoughts about what they think it means. To encourage and, hopefully, nurture and nourish a love of poetry, I never have told either of my sons that a poem only has one set meaning. Instead, poems are open to interpretation and so much of what makes poetry powerful is what the reader brings to the poem. It’s also important that poems be read aloud.
Then Oliver began reading from her poem “Bone,” which comes from her collection entitled Why I Wake Early. The poem begins with these lines:
Understand, I am always trying to figure out
what the soul is,
and where hidden,
and what shape –
As soon as she read those words, I knew she had my son’s attention. The soul has been a topic of much conversations and questions since the passing of one of our dogs. He has asked my wife and I questions like: What is a soul? What does it look like? Is it the same as a ghost? Where does the soul go after we die? Do animals, like our dog Chloe, have a soul? Do animals go to heaven? What happens to our bodies after we die?
His questions are theological, spiritual, and complex. We listen to him and take his questions seriously because how we respond can shape how he approaches the subject of death and dying, as well as his concept of God, an afterlife, and what it truly means to be alive.
The concept of a soul has been around for centuries. Archaeologists discovered a slab that dates from the 8th century BC and comes from an Iron Age city called Sam’al in Turkey. On this 800-pound, 3′ tall rock with a carving of the deceased man and words that explained how his soul was now residing within this stone slab. Not exactly what most of us would think of as an ideal eternal resting place (not even for a geologist, I’m guessing).
Around the same time as this stone carving, the Greeks who wrote a great deal on the nature of the psychê (or soul or to breathe), whether it was Plato (first in Phaedo and then in The Republic), Aristotle (in De Anima or On The Soul), Epicurus, the Stoics, Plotinus, Platonists, as well as the early Church Fathers. In 5th century Greece, the soul was simply being alive and is attributed to every living thing, not just humans. Later, into the 6th century, it became the essence of what it meant to be alive: reason, character, feeling, memory, perception and being. The soul became more abstract than just simply being alive. The soul was the breath that gave life to the anima (or that which animates) the being. Of the soul, Plato wrote, “The soul of man is immortal and imperishable.” For many Plato, like many Greeks, the psyche was what determined how we behaved and tconsisted of three parts:
- Logos or reason. This is located in the head.
- Thymos or emotion. This is located in the chest.
- Eros or desire. This is located in the stomach.
The Platonists, or followers of Plato, believed that the soul was immaterial and incorporeal. While the Epicureans disagreed and believed that the soul was made up of atoms like the rest of the body. This body-soul dichotomy would originated with the Greeks but would be taken up by early Christian theology of Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Augustine (who believed in the trichotomic view of body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma).
Unlike the Greeks, the Egyptians believed in a dual soul. The ka (or breath) survived death and remained near the body. The ba (expressed in the form of a bird) is mobile and leaves the body and goes to the land of the dead.
In early Judaism, they did not separate the soul from the body. Biblical references connected the soul to breath and the word for both were the same: nephesh.
Hinduism also has the soul as the atman or life breath.
For as long as humans have had consciousness, we have wrestled with the idea of a soul and the nature of it; although many, like William James, believe that the soul is no more than a collection of psychic phenomena. Some consider the soul immortal. Others that only part of the soul is.
Like so many things, we don’t like this uncertainty, these unanswered questions. We prefer to do what Mary Oliver writes of in the poem as “sift it down into fractions and facts.” But we cannot. We can, as she continues, only “play at the edge of knowing” just as we would play at the water’s edge of “the gray sea” that will not offer up its answers. But this is so unsettling to a great many people. They are not willing to say, as she did in her poem, “truly I know our part is not knowing.” Such a non-answer is found unsatisfying.
As my mother lay in a bed in the hospice wing of the hospital, she wrestled with a faith that had always been so settled all of her life. What lay beyond this life became a question, not an answer, even as she fidgeted with the ribbon-bookmark of her Bible, and asked me, when we were alone, “What do you believe?” The woman who, in a great sense, gave faith to me, was tired, broken and afraid from battling with cancer. There was clearly fear in her eyes. I was shaken, to say the least. How could I answer this question for her when she was the one who had always appeared to have such certainty?
“Hope is a thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson (Saint Emily, to me) wrote, “that perches in the soul.” Her poem begins like a psalm or a hymn. But hope was not perched on my mother’s soul. Doubt was (something that seemed more akin to Emily Dickinson than hope). Certainly death was a central theme of so many of Saint Emily’s poems. Preoccupied by a subject that was a daily occurrence in her small New England town with its high mortality rate for young people, Dickinson’s poems about the subject struggle deeply with whether or not the soul survives death, as seen in a poem like “This World is not Conclusion.”
What happens after death is a question even the wise cannot answer, she writes. This poem portrays this conflict of faith and doubt without being able to rest solely on either. But such lines do not give comfort, particularly for the dying and the fearful.
Mary Oliver ends her poem “Bone” with saying that “our part is not knowing but looking, and touching, and loving…” In our not knowing, we are to continue to live life. The parts she emphasized were looking (being aware and present), touching (again a presence and awareness) and, lastly, loving (to truly love another is to be present to them). Oliver stresses that we should not spend all of our time so focused on what happens after life that we do not live this life we are now in.
The Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.” For him, this meant “losing” his “soul in God’s love.” He believed in an afterlife, as do I.
One of my favorite theologians is George MacDonald. His writing would go on to influence C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll (who took the above photograph of MacDonald), W.H. Auden, E. Nesbit and Madeleine L’Engle. MacDonald wrote, “Never tell a child you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.’ As we learn to think of things always in this order, that the body is but the temporary clothing of the soul, our views of death and the unbefittingness of customary mourning will approximate to those of Friends of earlier generations.”
How I answered my mother is the same as how I answered my sons after the death of our dog: I believe that death is but a door. It is not an end, but a connection to a life after this one. For me, the “hope” that is perched in my soul is that this is real and true.
Still, when those we love die, we lose a part of ourselves, and the world seems somehow irregular and missing something. When my mother died, her body remained but that which gave her life and made up her very being was gone. And a part of me was gone with her. A part of my own life and story was lost. Just as we now find our house somewhat unfamiliar without our sweet little dog scampering about in it.
What I love, though, is that despite my not having all the answers, I can have this conversation with my sons. That they are questioning and thinking about such deeper things now and that they will continue to do so. That a poem like “Bone” can spark this dialogue between us. That words and language matter because they allow us to talk about such ephemeral and eternal things. Today, this poem was a gift in so many, many ways because it opened our minds to something bigger than ourselves and formed a stronger connection because we allowed ourselves to be present to it.
Understand, I am always trying to figure out
what the soul is,
and where hidden,
and what shape
and so, last week,
when I found on the beach
the ear bone
of a pilot whale that may have died
hundreds of years ago, I thought
maybe I was close
to discovering something
for the ear bone
is the portion that lasts longest
in any of us, man or whale; shaped
like a squat spoon
with a pink scoop where
once, in the lively swimmer’s head,
it joined its two sisters
in the house of hearing,
it was only
two inches long
and thought: the soul
might be like this
so hard, so necessary
yet almost nothing.
the gray sea
was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
unfolding over and over
its time-ridiculing roar;
I looked but I couldn’t see anything
through its dark-knit glare;
yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
is there at the bottom,
though our eyes have never seen it,
nor can our hands ever catch it
lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.