Miracles

I pass on a story of despair and miracles, of real persons — of love, grief, and rainbows. He is the son of a Holocaust survivor and in his forties achieves international notoriety as an Israeli astronaut. You might sense a rainbow over his life, perhaps, a miracle, to have risen so from memories (at one remove) of death camps.

He’s married. Their lives are rain-bowed by children. He dies in the spectacular Columbia space-craft reentry disaster. The world grieves a hero. Rhona plummets in despair.

There is slow recovery from this catastrophe. She raises her now-fatherless children with warmth, attention, and affection. You might sense here a second miracle and rainbow.

Impossibly, six years later, her eldest son, a young air force pilot, dies in air-borne military maneuvers. Her second plunge. Grief laid on grief. She struggles that love for her remaining children can breathe. It does. A third rainbow, third miracle.

This Job-like story of unimaginable loss and survival is also a story of love. I listened, riveted, as it spun forward, nearly out of control. It was as if the shattering, healing, horror and grace were my own.  

Years later, before her youngest child is fully grown, this heroine of survival and hope, discovers she has terminal cancer at age 54. At first, she clings to faith in a miracle. She wills to shoulder herself into survival, if for nothing else, for the sake of her children. God will grant that.

But that hope is dashed. She dies even as the glow of love for her children abides. At her bedside they return that glow. To save her children excessive mourning, she requests cremation and no funeral ceremonies. The last words of this story are love, miracle, and rainbow. 

The outlines and detail arrived in the mail from my muse, Tami, who delivered words like this at the commemorative gathering for Rona Ramon, who died December 17, 2018.

I’d like to let the tears arise, as they please – not increased by instigation. I’d hold another through these tremors or afflictions.

Or sit by them as comfort—witness, as I’d hope, to things both deep and strange. Where eyes are turned to pearls of tears and back to eyes again, More lucid but more misted than before.                                                                  

                                             ~Postcards Dropped in Flight

 

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Tribute to Mary Oliver

[Borrowed from Brain Pickings by Maria Popova <newsletter@brainpickings.org> Sun 1/13]

 

“The most regretful people… are those… who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”  — Oliver

 

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.

But just as self-criticism is the most merciless kind of criticism, and self-compassion the most elusive kind of compassion, self-distraction is the most hazardous kind of distraction, and the most difficult to protect creative work against.

How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays.   Oliver writes:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.

The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:

Certainly, there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits.

Dani Shapiro insists that the artist’s task is “to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s counsel that as an artist you ought to be “keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Oliver considers the central commitment of the creative life — that of making uncertainty and the unknown the raw material of art:

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Van Gogh’s spirited letter on risk-taking and how inspired mistakes move us forward, Oliver returns to the question of the conditions that coax the creative self into being:

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

Upstream is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality, grounding and elevating at the same time. Complement it with Oliver on love and its necessary wildness, what attention really means, and the measure of a life well lived.

 

 

 

Festivals of Dark and Light

A little over three weeks ago, Phyllis Marley took her last breath. She met her end with equanimity.  I knew her from the choir. She had sung with it 40 years. Her spirit survives, and that’s a Gospel lesson. Death is terribly sad and it’s also trans-formative, raising up the best of a spirit to a higher plane.

Death can be prelude to rousing celebration. It lives hand-in-glove with resurrection. I can grieve Phyllis’ departure and simultaneously celebrate her good life. Her life-and-death provide emblems of joy and emblems of grief, emblems of hope and emblems of despair, all mixed together.

There’s a wonderful book from the sixties by Theodora Kroeber: Ishi, a Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. I read it decades ago to know how this last man free of white civilization endured, what gave him hope. I flipped to the end just to find out. I read the next to last chapter, and on through the night back to front.

I’d blush, but after all life is bits and pieces. It can’t be read start to finish. It can only be read as a mosaic of ups and downs. I learn a song in bits and pieces. I get to know someone, bits and pieces. I build up unfinished mosaics of hope and faith. There’s seldom just one angle: is death darkness or light – or a mosaic of both?

You can hear funeral bells and heavy steps in Schubert’s D946 Piano Sonata. They toll sadly for the composer’s early death, a death he was certainly aware was upon him. Yet he faced death joyfully – as well as darkly. Tolling passages are interspersed with phrases of child-like happiness. He is somber about death yet joyful about life—all within a moment or two.

**

In early December, I traveled to the holy land for Hanukkah, known in the ancient world as the festival of lights, of hope.

Between the fifth and second Centuries BCE first the Romans, then the Greeks and Syrians, invade Palestine, greedy for Empire. The Jews fight back but are defeated. Each time the punishment is to reduce the Jewish temple to rubble. In 168 BCE Judaism is outlawed. To rub it in, Yahweh is replaced as the temple deity by Zeus.

While Jews held the Temple an oil lamp burned day and night. As invaders approached, it was secreted away. In 165 BCE the temple was recaptured,[1] rededicated as the Second Temple, and the sacred lamp came out of hiding. In the confusion, however, only a one-day supply of consecrated oil remained. Lo and behold, a miracle. Out of darkness came light. The flame lasted for eight days while new oil was pressed and consecrated.[2]

This abundance of light is remembered as the festival of lights, and later as Hanukkah. A new candle is lit in a menorah for each of Hanukkah’s eight days. Thus light replaces dark – hope is replenished, and all dwell in a festival of light.

**    **

Hope’s work is varied. We may not be walled out of Jerusalem, nor, like Ishi, deserting a failed civilization. At State Street we muster hope moving from our present pastor to the next. The death of a loved one, or the specter of deportation can prompt our reach for light-giving hope.

Children and parents need hope in moving from infancy to childhood, then to young adulthood. The way from young adulthood to maturity, and from maturity to full age, can be covered in darkness. Yet each resting point on the way can be a festival of lights and hope. Then there’s the netherworld or paradise of death. Can I hope for a festival of light?

**              **

Abraham died at 175, a great age and in fullness of days. He was close to God, his days, full of satisfactions. He became a light for others.

I’d be a blessed if I could die in the fulness of days at 175. Or die like Moses at 125, with God’s kiss.[3] The Hebrew is al pi Adonai, “by the mouth of the Eternal.” The kiss sanctifies. If birth is often marked by cries of pain, death can be marked by a kiss — as with Moses, not a dark deprivation but a shining moment of intimacy. 

To die as Moses or Abraham in their blessedness can’t be a certainty. It’s a HOPE – hopes can be painfully disappointed.

During her first pregnancy, a dear friend looked forward full of hope to the blessing of a natural childbirth. It would have been a festival of light. After struggling for 48 hours doctors intervened with a caesarean. Her hopes were dashed.

**        **

I hope for a natural, death in fullness of days free of surgical or pharmaceutical interventions – though it may come to that.

I hope to greet death with joy and gratitude, as Abraham and Moses did. I’ll be sad, but not from a sense of being cheated of more life. More of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Like desert, I can be satisfied with my serving.

Joy and gratitude can be paradoxically mixed with sadness. I can be sad to leave others behind whatever my joy and gratitude. I remember what’s been best in the times shared with those I love – it’s been a kind of heaven. And as I leave, I also know I’m entering a kind of hell, for how can there be happiness without them?

Emily Dickinson knows this:

Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

We live in two worlds at once, in joy and in sadness.

If I’m not racked with pain, I would die with sadness leaving others, joy and gratitude for a full life. Without gratitude, I become Scrooge, jealously hoarding my days and hours, never having enough.

In Winter darkness steals light. Like a hoarding Scrooge, I can resent the theft. Yet I can look on a setting sun with gratitude for the fullness of this day. As I consider my death or the death of a loved one, why feel resentment rather than sadness and joy. Absent pain’s torture, why hoard time? In the fulness of days death doesn’t cheat us. No span of life is due us. There is no cosmic balance sheet, and no need to scrooge after another hour, day, or week. To be a scrooge snuffs out the candle.

I hope for festivals of light and God’s kiss as I drift toward the last dark. And I’d be buoyed by this affirming temple whose light gives hope. I imagine Phyllis Marley departing with God’s kiss. Death and Hanukkah, dark and light, embrace.

 

                                                     

 

[1] This recapture is called the Maccabean revolt.

[2] Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah but appears later in the Talmud (500 AD). The event it celebrates took place in 165 BC, long after biblical times. It repudiates Hellenistic materialism and celebrates the soul. It is not just faux-Christmas.

[3] God ends Moses’ life with a gentle kiss. Deuteronomy 34:5: “Moses, the servant of the Eternal, died there . . . at the command of the Eternal.” The Hebrew reads, al pi Adonai, “by the mouth of the Eternal.” God kisses Moses at his moment of death: perhaps the kiss takes his last breath.

The Reality of Love

Screen Shot 2018-09-26 at 12.22.39 PM**

It’s not like me to be still thinking about a Netflix series three days after the finale.

It’s not like me to be writing at all about a Netflix series.

There’s something mesmerizing, horrifying, yet almost lovable about River – Stellan Skarsgard, who plays the detective. River’s his last name. We never hear his first.  He’s not close enough to anyone to get addressed by his first. And there’s something mesmerizing and, well, lovable, about his sidekick, Stevie (Nicola Walker). Her presence-absence haunts the show and it’s she who unexpectedly teaches River, at long last, to laugh and sing (even if only with her mirage). Does the reality of love depend on a mirage?

This is a crime thriller, and as important, a family drama, and a study in hearing voices and hallucination. It’s a study in the abuse of illegal immigrants who will do anything, including murder, to get residency. It’s a story of marital infidelity and the bare-faced corruption of apparently good men in high  places.

Because there are six episodes, we see Stevie’s murder, in agonizing slow motion, numerous times. Working a case with River, she has ventured into the street just outside a suspect take-away shop. A gunshot from an approaching car throws her violently to the pavement.

We watch the scene as River studies the video in slow-motion looking for clues. Stevie had no apparent enemies. River has no apparent friends. He was abandoned early in life and his friendless solitude no doubt has roots there. Perhaps his ‘visitations,’ where a cast of three or four characters periodically appear to taunt him, are rooted in that trauma.  The maternal, adorable, hugable Stevie appears regularly in postmortem visitations. She’s there not to taunt but to smile, and cast an unforgettably vibrant radiance his way.

It would be fruitless – and tedious — to try to replicate the twists and turns of the plot. Let’s just say it’s gripping, through six episodes. After her death Stevie appears repeatedly to coach River, to edge him out of his icy reticence. Bit by bit she succeeds. He goes for a generous midnight swim with her son (she’s there for us on screen though invisible to all but the hallucinating River). She coaxes him toward holding and smiling a bundled infant still in diapers. As he drives, she turns on the radio to sing along. With her smile and magnetism she tries to entice him to join. She’s a good angel, and ever-so humanly alive. The catch is that all her appearances are River’s postmortem hallucinations.

River is perceived by most others as ‘nuts-o’ – yet tolerated for his brilliant detective work. They’re utterly baffled when he undergoes an hallucinatory seizure. Yet somehow we’re taken in by Stevie’s admiration and warmth and so we avoid the temptation to view him in a clinical light — though we don’t for a moment doubt he actually gets accosted by the mirages we see on screen. And we utterly believe in the magnetically joyful Stevie. In fact, she is clearly as real as he is — perhaps more real. As is her love.

 

The Chickadee

The Chickadee

Pecked between the bricks

Unthreatened by my approach

Slow to move,

As locals are

Some sip coffee

Others loll to greet the blue

Across the bay and all above

Slow, as locals are

Even drifters,

Gulls or hulls pulling

At their ties against

The tides

Take their time

There’s no rush

Don’t push

Just hold my hand

Slow, as locals are

The Triumph of Kindness

There’s a kindness that slips between the cracks: there’s a crack in everything to let the good light in. It’s the capacity to relax into affirmation. It escapes headlines. It’s so often under the radar, the triumph less of action than a heartfelt state of kindness played out in simple unheroic gestures.

Kindness can envelope two persons, or a small group, known in the sparkle of eyes, the tenderness of touch, the light laugh of togetherness. In the movie The Wife, it envelopes grandparents answering a phone to welcome a new grandchild into the world. There’s a burst of joy that’s also a burst of kindness, affirmation, and affection.  Heartfelt kindness takes over and displaces all irritability.

We’re heartened by news of kindness, the boon of acts that transcend indifference or dismissal.  And we’re heartened by less public moments when kindness passes privately between friends or partners, between grandparents and new grandchildren, between pets and their guardians. These more private moments are also triumphs – triumphs over the banal, over indifference, over streams of irritation, masked hostility, competitiveness, that so easily get the upper hand.

The triumph of simple kindness rebukes dark clouds of despair.  We are not strangers to disaster, killing, cruelty. Unhappily, incessant bad news becomes its own disaster, casting the unwary toward despair. The kindness that slips between the cracks triumphs over despair. We come to relish simple smiles, hugs, the kiss of eyes.  The warmth of human kindness defeats lurking despair, lack of hope. Despair is a failure of empathy and kindness.

Celebrating moments of kindness is not just didactic, as in stories, perhaps Biblical ones, meant to encourage kind actions. Celebrating their triumphs is not self-indulgent or a detached, impersonal observation of goodness in others. Celebrating is bracing joy in the triumph of kindness. There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.

The Look of God

Found art (prose):

Maya Rudolph looks like God — that is, she looks at you the same way, you must imagine, that God takes in his creation: happy to see it, while somehow existentially disappointed in it, but forgiving of it and still maintaining affection for it, even though it has absolutely let him down in some indefinable way only he can understand. Her wide eyes, which lend themselves so easily to bald astonishment or mania in her comedy, turn down one fraction of one degree at the outer corners when at rest, lending a suggestion of ruefulness to her neutral gaze. The effect is offset by Rudolph’s cautious, closemouthed smile, which rests on her face as easily as powder on a puff. It’s invigorating to find yourself the subject of a look so wistful, even if the expression is inadvertent. It makes you want to be the better version of yourself. Maya Rudolph apparently knows you can be that.

                                                   ~~ Caity Weaver, NYTimes,

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