For Rob who will never know;
for Parker Palmer for his wisdom and
for David Whyte for his fierceness
Some days ago, an acquaintance visited my home and I could tell he was uncomfortable there. He told me later that my house had told him much about what my life was like now, after the divorce, the tornado, the earthquake, as I am trying to put things back together. This surprised me, because although I think of my house as a way station of sorts, it is a comfortable way station, a kind of refuge that I am, for the most part, comfortable in. Leaving aside the unpacked boxes of things I do not plan to keep, the empty bookshelves I do not intend to fill, the mirrors I do not plan to hang, it is still a place of protection for me. So I was startled by his negative reaction and asked him to tell me more. “It seemed so empty,” he said. “You seem so lost.”
This struck me, and as I wandered from room to relatively empty room, I could see what he saw. And I felt the truth of what he noticed. I was lost, in so many ways. This house was not my home. My life was still being pieced together one day at the time, with a sufficient yet utterly intangible sense of coherence about it. Who was I? Where was I going? Why did I still have that ridiculous box of dissertation crap from 16 years ago sitting in a box in my “office?”
Fortunately, being lost is familiar territory for me, and one of my most trustworthy guideposts is the poem “Lost,” by David Wagoner (Who Shall Be the Son?),** introduced and made popular to many readers by David Whyte. The poem is meant to be an elder’s response to a young native American child’s very real question of what to do when s/he is lost in the woods, something that could surely happen when you lived in the great Pacific Northwest from whence these poems originated.
So I sat in my bare living room, the one with no curtains, and few “decorations,” and I let the words of the poem slowly sink into me, into my pores, into the tight, tired, lonely muscles, then finally into the bone. “Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you/Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,/and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,/Must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Had I done that with this house, this quiet, solitary dwelling place that I sought merely out of refuge from the utter nightmare of living with my soon to be ex-husband and the woman he moved into my home when my side of the bed was barely cold?
No, I hadn’t. This house had treated me well, though; it made absolutely no demands on me. But now, as I sat in silence, I understood that I had not asked what “Here” was. What was this place? And who was I in it? Aside from the one paying the mortgage, and the one who tidied the worst of the debris now and then, what was I? I was reminded of the Dido song about home and displacement, “Life for Rent:” “But if my life is for rent/and I don’t learn to buy/I deserve nothing more than I get/’cause nothing I have is truly mine.”
“The forest breathes. Listen. It answers./I have made this place around you./If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.” This strikes me as a call to homecoming no matter where we are–physically, emotionally, spiritually. It strikes me as a reminder that what surrounds us is on the one hand there for our knowing of it, but just as powerfully for our embracing of its unfamiliarity. It is not made for our convenience, but it will respond to our bravery if we are willing to step forward and say, “Here.”
“No two trees are the same to Raven./No two branches are the same to Wren.” In other words, this is not your world alone; there are many around you who know exactly where they are. “If what a tree or a bush does it lost on you,/You are surely lost.” If you have lost your powers of observation, you will never find out where you are, let alone where you are going.
I remember taking a walk with my 8-year old son Gabriel and our friend Cloydia and we stopped to observe a humble but ingeniously designed barn swallow’s nest (Gabe insisted it was a yellow tail, Cloydia held firm that it was a barn swallow), and we watched as the parent brought fortification for the nest, and food for the babies, and if you had not seen the intricacies of this perfect system, then you would indeed have been lost. The world goes on without you, in its own season and it its own time. Eventually we would come back and the mud nest would be empty but we had seen it, and we knew what it had been for.
I admit that I’ve never quite reckoned with that part of the poem before, but I feel I get a little piece of it now. If you aren’t paying attention to even the smallest things, things that seem inconsequential to your human existence, you’re missing something really, really big. If you are a writer person, like I am, you have been born with a contract you can either accept or reject. The contract is that, “I am here, and I will pay attention. I’ll never get it right, but I promise, and I believe, that if I try, the world will open and I will have something to share.”
What’s more, and what David Whyte in his new book Consolations, and other essays brings us is important meditations on the ordinary–concepts like procrastination, concepts that, without gentle and insightful reflection, make one feel as though one should just be getting on with it, for God’s sake. Whyte writes: “What looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavour to which we have set our minds. To hate our procrastinating tendencies is in someway to hate our relationship with time itself, to be unequal to the phenomenology of revelation and the way it works its own way in its very own sweet, gifted time, only emerging when the very qualities it represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination. [From Readers’ Circle Essay, “Procrastination” ©2011 David Whyte.]
Carrie Newcomer sings, “I thought if I tried hard enough/with endless motion like a bribe/as if by this the will of God/would be bent to my version of right.” But then she goes on to sing, “What happens next is clearly weightless. The opening , we stand breathless, on the clean edge of change.”
Sometimes, many times, perhaps all the time, change is weightless, free of striving, free of hacking our way through foreign underbrush to force our way out. Sometimes, many times, it is sitting in the silence of a room that is shelter and refuge but not quite home. So that when home finds you, and the promise is that it will, we are ready to kneel gracefully, and kiss the ground of our uncertainty and start on our way home.
My favorite man sent me another email forward that I usually glance at and then delete. But he got me again with this one, from Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” When we have this, we have all we need, and we can give all we have away and never be bereft.
My friend and writing sister Cloydia shared this Ursula LeGuin poem with me. I hope you all love it (I know you won’t Dad, but I love you, so I’m prefacing just the last lines for your walks: “Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one, Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.”
As always, in all love,
Initiation Song From Finder’s Lodge
by Ursula LeGuin
Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.
**Gift time!! If you’ve read this far, and share a comment below, I will send you your very own copy of David Wagoner’s Who Shall Be the Sun! Just comment and send me your deets! Woo-h00! Happy mail in winter!