May 25, 2010 § 13 Comments
Since I’m starting to pull together the “Desire” issue, I’m especially struck by these lines from “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, which a reader graced this blog spot with after my last post: “This is the use of memory: For liberation–not less of love but expanding of love beyond desire, and so liberation from the future as well as the past.” I’ve never thought of it this way before, but remembering is a way to expand love beyond clinging, beyond the anxieties and needs of the moment. Remembering can be a path to compassion, a way off the wheel of conditioning that determines the future as well as the past. The trick is remembering ourselves and those we love right in the present moment–bringing a finer, more liberated attention right into the thick of things.
Lately, I’ve come to suspect that this liberated attention comes from the heart, not the mind as we usually think of it. The other night at our “Parabola Live” event, Phil Robinson sang a great rendition of “Finnegan’s Wake,” an Irish ballad that arose in the 1850s. In the ballad, the Tim Finnegan, born “with a love for the liquor”, falls from a ladder and is thought to be dead. Lo and behold, whiskey gets spilled over Finnegan’s corpse at the wake, causing him to come back to life and join in in the celebrations. Whiskey causes both Finnegan’s fall and his resurrection— and good old wiki reminds us that “whiskey” is derived from and Irish phrase that means “water of life”.
Phil Robinson reminded us that “Finnegan’s Wake” was the basis of James Joyce’s final and according to some his greatest work Finnegans Wake (1939), in which the comic resurrection of Tim Finnegan is employed as a symbol of the universal cycle of life. A few days later, Phil sent me the wiki link that described how “as whiskey, the ‘water of life’, causes both Finnegan’s death and resurrection in the ballad, so the word ‘wake’ also represents both a passing (into death) and a rising (from sleep). ” Wiki goes on to explain that Joyce removed the apostrophe in the title of his novel “in order to suggest an active process in which a multiplicity of “Finnegans”, that is, all members of humanity, fall and then wake and arise.”
It really astonished me to learn that Joseph Campbell borrowed the “monomyth,” i.e. the journey of the hero that appears in mythologies in virtually ever culture, from Finnegans Wake. Heroes were important to Campbell because they conveyed universal truths about the path to meaning and liberation. Intriguingly, Campbells’ first important book (with Henry Morton Robinson–no relation to Phil) was A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944). I have to confess that I haven’t read either of those challenging book. But I have read The Dead, which I excerpted in the “Love” issue. Come to think of it, the protagonist Gabriel Conroy can be understood as a kind of modern hero. He comes to glimpse the kind of remembering that Eliot’s great poem speaks of. He moves past selfish vanity to compassion. He learns that beneath the surface glitter and glare of the social world(everything about Conroy from his hair to his glasses and shoes is shiny) there is deeper world of love, a subtle world where appearances and divisions between living and dead dissolve. Like Finnegan, he died and glimpsed a new world. He waked up.
May 20, 2010 § 3 Comments
Last night, at Ciao Stella, a cozy Italian place on Sullivan Street, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of people about life after death. I tried to speak about the many lives and many deaths we endure in this one body, rather limiting myself to “the big one.” A little more than a week ago, a friend of mine died suddenly of a heart attack. Since the funeral, I’ve been awash in memories and impressions of simple exchanges I had with this man, simple moments of being humans together and having a laugh at the comedy and mystery of it all. This man had literally hundreds of other friends who had been touched in similar ways. It made me realize the truth of something that great being Mr. Rogers once said (and I paraphrase): In the face of loss or great trauma, it isn’t the big achievements and things–big houses, big prizes–but the softest, least coveted qualities we have given and received–moments of good humor, friendship, love–that prove to be the strongest and most enduring things in the world. As the Taoists say, the softest things overcomes the hardest.
“I would have died if I hadn’t died,” said Soren Kierkegaard at some point or another. This is a quote I have been comforted by, educated by, more than some whole books, whole college courses even. If my heart had not been broken, if my dreams had not been dashed, if I hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have been opened to receive the real magic possibility in life. I would be able to be transformed by it. At my friend Jon Rothenberg’s funeral, people spoke about how he had changed in recent years, after the shattering death of his daughter. One person described him as being like a great warm campfire that people were drawn to sit around. At his best, he emanated acceptance and a keen interest in the mystery of life that people. In his last years, Jon gave many people the incomparable gift of considering their own unsuspected depths and possibilities.
Fresh from experiencing this, and still marveling at the way this fallout of love and acceptance can live on, I tried to begin a conversation about what we might actually acquire when we suffer loss. What can come is a quality of willingness to be here in the real world, a wish to be open to it and changed by it. Phil Robinson, who organized the myth group and invited me to speak, commented that the conversation that evolved had a warming, intimate quality, like sitting around a campfire. May it be so. It was good to be there.
May 11, 2010 § 10 Comments
“Man remains a mystery to himself,” writes Madame de Salzmann in her upcoming book The Reality of Being. “He has a nostalgia for Being, a longing for duration, for permanence, for absoluteness–a longing to be. Yet everything that constitutes his life is temporary, ephemeral, limited. He aspires to another order, another life, a world that is beyond him. He senses that he is meant to participate in it.”
I once heard that the Latin root of the word “nostalgia” has to do with longing for one’s true home. Something deep inside us is homesick for a place most of us can’t recall ever visiting, consumed as we are with life. Even the very best of us are up to our eyebrows every day trying to have life be this way or that way (which is like herding cats in my experience, but still there is stuff to be done). We rarely get a chance to stop and just be with what is. And yet something in us knows.
The great short story writer Katherine Mansfield (who also happened to be a student of Gurdjieff) captured this in her short story The Garden Party. As she bustles about helping her mother prepare for a lavish garden party on a beautiful spring day, Laura, an upper class young English girl, is painfully aware of her seeming difference from the rest of her smug family: “Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for friends…?” When Laura hears that a young workman has been killed, she briefly thinks the party should be called off, even though the accident occurred quite a ways off in a mean little village that is actually the “greatest possible eyesore.” After the party, Laura’s mother presses her to take a basket of left-over sandwiches and cakes to the poor widow and off she goes- marveling at how much more sensitive and aware she seems to be, even having visited the horrible village before (“one must go everywhere; one must see everything”)–even wondering if taking scraps from the party would be appreciated, etc.
Laura delivers the sandwiches and is pressed to go into a tiny bedroom and view the body. She dreads it. Yet, seeing the peaceful countenance of the dead young man, Laura realizes that there is another possible state of being–entirely finer and higher than her seemingly fine awareness: “What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy…happy….”
All the while, we go about our busy, busy lives, trying to think ourselves into a higher and finer place, as we are pulled this way and that, all that time another life is possible, just waiting for us to remember.
May 6, 2010 § 7 Comments
“Death cannot be understood without compassion,” wrote Thomas Merton in No Man Is an Island. “Compassion teaches me that when my brother dies, I too die. Compassion teaches me that my brother and I are one.”
In the weeks since the “Life after Death” was published and sent out into the world, death came calling. My smart and beautiful black lab Shadow was diagnosed with lung and possible bone cancer and given months to live. No sooner had I shaken off my sadness and begun a new, more conscious life with Shadow, than word came that my 90-year-old mother-in-law Jean Zaleski had fallen seriously ill. Days later, she died. Everyone who loved Jean agreed that her death was a blessing. In recent years, this formerly intrepid artist and world traveler had become a prisoner of advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. The root of the word “blessing,” I learned at some point, means sprinkled with blood. This must refer to the ancient practice of sacrifice and to that which was set apart for sacrifice. It makes sense that the word lived on still sprinkled with blood because I am coming to understand now that every significant passage in life–every liberation–must be paid for through some kind of sacrifice. And finally, we pay with our lives. I don’t mean to strike a somber note. Wonderment is what I feel. The arcs section of the current issue includes some extraordinary descriptions of where people go when they depart this world. Where do you suppose they come from? We have touched on the religious imagination before in this blog. Where do suppose such often gorgeous imaginings come from and what do they serve? Descriptions that used to seem literal and sentimental to me suddenly seem to contain a deeper truth. Years ago, for example, the Catholic chaplain who presided over my brother-in-law’s burial in Arlington said: “Our brother Stephen has gone to the table of the Lord.” Now this expression suggests a profound communion to me–passing away out of the pain and darkness of this world, into the light of love and compassion. I really can picture souls joining hosts of luminous beings, what Christians call the communion of saints. Am I soft in the head, or have I become more open to the possibility that there is a truth of love and compassion that connects us and passes our understanding.