Poets As Lights In The Darkness

IMG_6356

The Persian Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” Such tender, compassionate words that one would long to hear when the darkness is tangible and one’s soul is anguished. Who was the poet speaking these words to? Anyone who now reads them; for that is the power of poetry, of the written word, that long after the author has died they continue to speak to us. They remain lights shining in the darkness for those who come after them.

This reminds me of that wonderful passage in chapter five of Madeliene L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, when Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which are talking to the children about the fighters who come from earth to battle the darkness.

“And we’re not alone, you know, children,” came Mrs.Whatsit, the comforter. “…some of the best fighters have come from your own planet…”
“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.
“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs.Whatsit said. Mrs.Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly.
“And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

The list includes Jesus, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Einstein, Bach, and Gandhi.

How many of us would add names to that list because they have helped bring light into the darkness of our own lives?

For me, in my own life, there have been many, many poets. Poets like Hafiz, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, and Christian Wiman. When I think of them and all the other poets who have been ministers of balm in the midst of my own suffering, I cannot help but agree with Jane Kenyon when she said, “The poet’s job is to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name, to tell the truth in such a beautiful way, that people cannot live without it.”

Anne Sexton taught me that I am not alone in my awful rowing towards God. In the midst of my own bouts of depression, I understood her completely when she wrote:

God went out of me
as if the sea dried up like sandpaper, as if the sun
became a latrine.
God went out of my fingers.
They became stone.
My body became a side of mutton
and despair roamed the slaughterhouse.

I think of poor Anne as she felt like she was rowing and rowing with “oarlocks” that are stuck and rusty. I think of the old priest who came to visit her in the mental hospital, after one of her first attempts at suicide. She told him, “I cannot go to church,” to which he replied, “Your typewriter is your altar.” She then revealed to him, “I cannot pray,” and he understood and spoke truth, “Your poems are your prayers.”

Poems as prayers. There have definitely been periods in my own life when poems, including Sexton’s, were my only form of meditation and spiritual nourishment. I could not pray, I could not read scripture, I could not enter a church. But there, in that darkness, were the lights copied down onto pages. Rilke’s Book of Hours telling me what I felt but could not speak, could not write down (not even in my own private journals):

I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
to make every moment holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action;
and in those quiet, sometimes hardly moving times,
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.

In my own spiritual path, I grasped how Rilke felt when he stated: I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.

Rowing towards. Circling around. Both away from and outside of God. Yet I was not alone. These poets were with me during the dark night of the soul, during the acedia, during the dark depths of depression. When I did not have the strength, their words did.

Just as Gerard Manly Hopkins defiantly cried out, I cried out:

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

These poets, like dear, sweet companions spoke into my darkness and even let me know that the darkness, itself, could be a kind of gift (though it definitely did not feel like one that I wanted to keep. If only there were a receipt for darkness so that it could easily be exchanged for light). I clung to the words of Denise Levertov:

In the dark I rest,
unready for the light which dawns
day after day,
eager to be shared.
Black silk, shelter me.
I need
more of the night before I open
eyes and heart
to illumination. I must still
grow in the dark like a root
not ready, not ready at all.

Only after we come out of the darkness, for those who do, can we begin to understand this. Depression, itself, is like a form of living death. To struggle with depression and still cling to even the faintest sliver of hope to get through the day is a courageous act. These poets and their words were often that sliver of hope. They taught me that there is growth in darkness, that the wounds I came out into the light with, were the very ways of empathy that I could enter the pain of others as they suffered. As the Buddha wisely understood, “If you light a lamp for someone else, it will also brighten your path.”

I think of these poets as a candle lighting the next candle to light the next throughout history. I am thankful and filled with gratitude for them, for their ability to translate their own suffering into beauty, into the art that helps others transform their own woundedness, their own brokenness into light. They have gone into the abyss (as John Berryman wrote, “We must travel in the direction of our fear”), come back and translated it into the most delicate and strong language, imagery that conjures up the reality and the struggle, and offers hope, even when the poet, themselves, felt it not. Their poems have, as Berryman suggested, “are not meant to be understood . . . They are only meant to terrify & comfort.”

To each of these poets who have made the pilgrimage to hell and back enough to write their poems, I offer my eternal and undying thanks. I count myself as one among the living because their words “support like bone” (to quote Peter Gabriel in his song “Mery Street,” a tribute to Anne Sexton).

Who are the poets who have been light in your darkness?

 

 

Advertisements

Komorebi & The Love Of New Words

IMG_5511

When I was a child and I would read a word in a book that I was unfamiliar with, I would go and ask my mother what that word meant. At first, when I was really young, she would tell me it’s definition. But when I got a little older, she told me to go look the word’s meaning up in a dictionary. I was enthralled that I could go to our shelf, pull down two volumes from our Encyclopedia Britannica set that were dictionaries and look up so many new and exciting words. Yes, I was one of those weird kids who actually loved reading the words and definitions that were found between its pages.  And, unlike so many of my peers in school, I didn’t go to dictionaries just to find the “dirty” words and snicker.

Some of my favorite children’s books were the best at introducing me to new words.

Where The Wild Things Are

It started with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Sendak’s use of the word rumpus. I learned that rumpus was “a usually noisy commotion or ruckus.” It was thrilling to me to declare, like Max, “Let the wild rumpus start!”

Owl-and-the-pussycat

Then there was one of my favorite childhood poets, Edward Lear. His most famous work “The Owl and the Pussycat” introduced me to the word runcible, as in “they ate with a runcible spoon.” I was delighted to find out that Lear had simply made this word up (Even more thrilling than a wild rumpus was that one could simply make up words). Edward Lear loved his new word so much that he used this adjective to not only describe the spoon, but also a cat, a hat, a wall and a goose. The word came to mean “silly.” Another writer who delighted in making up nonsense words to the delight of children was Roald Dahl whizzpopper).

Carroll

Lewis Carroll enjoyed blending existing words to form new ones as what he called “portmanteau words.” One sees this usage of words in his poems “The Jabberwocky” or “The Hunting of the Snark.” Frumious was just such a word formulated in the imaginative mind of Carroll by combining fuming and furious.

Dr. Seuss was, of course, a master of made-up words and language.

Beatrix Potter introduced me to the word soporific in her book The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and my mother explained that it meant that something had the effect of making one sleepy.

A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to the world of science and the concept of a tesseractThe spider Charlotte first made me aware of the word radiant when she described Wilbur that way in Charlotte’s Web. The Little Prince was where I first encountered the baobab tree.

Phantom Tollbooth

Just as I longed to go to Narnia (Lewis taught me the word wardrobe), I also longed to visit Dictionopolis from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, where King Azaz decreed a law that words were more important than numbers. As someone who has always struggled with math, I’m with King Azaz. This was the land where the protagonist, Milo, learns to use words and times wisely.

From elementary school on, I was a logophile (from the Greek logos for “word, reason” and philos for “dear, friendly”). It never once abated. I adored words. If I grew bored, particularly during the winter months when I couldn’t go exploring the woods, I would take down a dictionary and simply begin reading it. I thought I was the only one, but then, years later, I found out that David Bowie did as well. “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary?” he once asked someone,  “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” Now I’m sure there was some tongue-in-cheek playfulness about that statement, but I still found Bowie a comrade.

IMG_3795

As I have gotten older, I continue to love new words, particularly if they are related to the natural environment around me. One of my newer favorites is a Japanese word KomorebiKomorebi means “the sunlight filtering through the leaves or trees.” The fact that there is a word for that is magical to me because now I can use it whenever I see light coming through the leaves of trees. There is something transcendental about the light coming through the leaves and can fill me with a sense of awe. This was especially true during the last eclipse. Komorebi also describe that effect that happened after the solar eclipse, where I was more fascinated by the light playing on our patio than the eclipse itself.

IMG_4661

I love language that reads like poetry or makes the world more poetic and somehow names that which was previously ineffable.

Komorebi is what Dylan Thomas called “windfall light” in his poem “Fern Hil” when he writes “Down the rivers of windfall light.” Like myself and Thomas, C.S. Lewis was someone who loved Komorebi and he described them as “shafts of delicious sunlight” or “Godlight.”

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” And he’s right. Words cannot touch the absolute truth but they can, however, guide us there. When we give something a name, we give it meaning.  As Robin Wall Kimmerer wisely said, “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

And they have. Words have taught me to see. They have opened me up to being able to call something a specific name instead of just a bird (a Brown-headed nuthatch – so much more wonderful than just saying “bird”) or just a plant (Eastern Blue Star is far more poetic) or just a tree (Carolina Silverbell).

anne-and-matthewI, like Anne of Green Gables, understand the value of naming a place(the White Way of Delight or the Lake of Shining Waters). Like one of my favorite fictional characters, I agree with her assessment of in this passage of the book:

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about?” she asks Matthew on their first drive to Green Gables. “It’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

Words help give us that scope of imagination for discovery, for being able to name something we once could not name. I can use the German term Waldeinsamkeit  to describe “a feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and having a connection to nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote an entire poem about this.

So I will continue to take the dictionary down, even when I’m not bored, just to open it randomly and find new words. It not only expands my vocabulary and my mind, but my world as well.

Dr. Who, Wonder Woman, & A Wrinkle In Time

Doctor Who

One of my favorite TV shows, Doctor Who, just announced that the next Doctor would be a woman. Does those bother me? No. Not at all. It makes me excited at the possibilities that this opens up for storytelling. The actress, Jodie Whittaker, I know from her work on Broadchurch, another show I love to watch. She’s a strong actress who I am rooting for that the story lines will be strong enough to showcase her talents.

The DoctorAfter twelve male doctors, it will be great to have a female take on this iconic role. When I told my oldest son that the next Doctor was going to be a woman, it made me proud that he responded with enthusiasm and was excited by this change.

What can a strong female bring to this role that a male could not? How will she and the writers see the Doctor through the lens of being female and is there a difference to how she will be played compared to that of a male actor? This will be challenging and thrilling and interesting, which is never a bad thing for drama. I also love how young girls will now be able to see themselves in this Time Lord as they had not been able to before.  I love how my sons will now get to see yet another strong female role model in the media (as they get to see one at home with my wife).

Wrinkle Poster

Just a day before the BBC announced their casting decision, the teaser trailer for A Wrinkle in Time finally came out. Far longer than my love for Doctor Who, is my love for this novel. As a young boy, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s classic back when I was in middle school. Instantly, I connected with the character of Meg Murry. Like Meg, I felt like an outsider and an oddball. I identified with her and loved that L’Engle used what Meg considered to be here weaknesses to be the strengths that saved everyone from the Darkness. Even though I was a boy, I saw much of myself in Meg and longed for her to be real so that we could be friends.

A-Wrinkle-in-Time-images-700x300When I heard that Ava DuVernay was directing this epic for Disney, I rejoiced. Not only did I love her film Selma but also her powerful documentary 13th.  Both brought a masterful eye to their subjects and made me to stop and consider what I knew about a subject that was familiar (Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the racial injustice of the American prison system. The idea that a story that was so familiar to me would be seen afresh and anew made me excited at what lay in store.

Then when I saw the diversity in casting for not only Meg, but Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), I loved that it made these characters alive again.  I loved the character of Meg Murry and the fact that she was being played by a young actress of color meant that even more children would be able to love and identify with her was brilliant. Besides, Meg should be defined not by her color but by her character.

Hopefully, this film will make such casting normal and not be seen as brave or unusual.

A WRINKLE IN TIME

All of this comes after a summer where our family’s favorite movie was Wonder Woman. When asked what I wanted to do for Father’s Day, that film was my choice to go to with my sons. Growing up, I loved super heroes and there have been many, many, many super hero movies – predominantly male. How many versions can we have of Batman, Superman, and Spider-man (including one this summer)? Yet, as a boy, one of my favorite super heroes wasn’t Superman but Wonder Woman (played on television by Lynda Carter).  When I heard they were making a Wonder Woman film, my hopes were very low because of all the dreadful DC movies that had come out (Super-man, Batman Vs. Superman, Suicide Squad). But Wonder Woman was vastly different and far superior to not only those films, but many in the super hero genre. Why?

Wonder WomanBecause Wonder Woman was a hero to be a hero. She wanted only to help out of a goodness. In the midst of dark, brooding super heroes who appear to be conflicted and miserable all the time, it was refreshing to see a hero who was a hero. How sad that we so seldom see that in movies now. Gal Gadot portrayed a super hero who was strong, moral and good. Her Wonder Woman had both an inner and outer strength of character. And it was awesome to watch as the Amazonian women came riding out on that beach or swinging down from the cliffs to attack the Germans. Who’d have thought that Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride could shoot a bow with three arrows in a manner that made me want to stand up and cheer? I also love that Wonder Woman is now my younger son’s favorite super hero.

WW

Seeing female characters that are equal and empowered does not threaten or emasculate me in any way or do so to my sons. I embrace and welcome them. Having grown up in a house with a strong mother taught me that this was not something that challenged my male identity. My mother’s strength did not weaken me but raised me up to be strong, too. Her intelligence meant that she taught me to question and wonder and ponder and really investigate and challenge why things were as they were. “A closed mind shows open ignorance,” she taught me. She raised me so that when I got married, I would seek a woman who was strong and intelligent to go through life with together so that we could exhort each other, as well as have each other’s back.

And indeed I did.

My wife’s strength only makes me stronger just as I hope to do the same for her. I love that she has opinions that differ from mine and that she’s not afraid to say so.

Jo March

As a boy, I was never told not to read a book because it was a “girl’s” book. Because of that, I grew up reading about characters like Meg Murry, Jo March, Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls, or Sara Crewe. It also meant that as I got older, I continued doing so and discovering Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Cassandra Mortmain, and, most recently, Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen.

LeighI also loved movies that had strong females in them, especially Princess Leigh from Star Wars, who was often the one who got the males out of a tight spot, as well as had some of the best lines.

I don’t believe equality should be an issue for debate but a given for all, no matter a person’s race or sex or sexuality. When I see that the Doctor is going to be a woman or that Meg is going to be a girl of color, I welcome it because that means that these creations that I love and have held so dear are opening themselves to more people loving and caring about them. It means that a girl of color can now see herself as Meg or a girl can see herself as being able to save the galaxy while traveling through time in a TARDIS.

These changes do not threaten me, they make me hopeful that the world will be changing to a better one. By casting Dr. Who as a woman or characters from A Wrinkle in Time as people of color, then that means others can now embrace and see themselves in them in a way they could not before.  I hope that, not only will girls watch these shows and movies and feel empowered, but that these works will do the same for my sons. By seeing these TV shows and films will encourage my boys to continue to champion equality and not see such casting decisions as unusual but as the norm. I want a world that’s better reflective and inclusive of all who are in it. The universe is now bigger and without limits.

As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in A Wrinkle in Time, “Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.”

YES! We must. All of us.

For that reason, I cannot wait for 2018 with its new Doctor and its new Meg.