Following a practice I began last week, I am including here in Reckonings the letters I send weekly to participants in our group exploring the tradition of Celtic spirituality.
Here is today's letter:
Following a practice I began last week, I am including here in Reckonings the letters I send weekly to participants in our group exploring the tradition of Celtic spirituality.
Here is today's letter:
I first knew Edward Espe Brown as the author of The Tassajara Bread Book, from which I learned to bake bread many years ago in a small village in western Massachusetts during the 1980s. Now that I live in his home territory of northern California, I delight in the fact that he is still writing about food, and about bread baking. The picture that accompanies this entry in Reckonings accompanies his article, "Gifts From Beyond," published in the Summer 2018 issue of Parabola Magazine.
The article begins, "Many years ago, in the early '80s, when Thich Nhat Hanh was giving a talk prior to departing from the San Francisco Zen Center where I was living, he said he had a goodbye present for us. We could, he said, open and use it anytime, and if we did not find it useful, we could simply set it aside. Then he proceeded to explain that, 'As you inhale, let your heart fill with compassion, and as you exhale, pour the compassion over your head...' It was a gift I used daily, repeatedly, for two or three years. Rough edges softened. Tension melted. I had been given, I was giving to myself, a renewed body, which felt more and more like home, warm and hospitable. Gifts like this take practice, the practice of giving your attention, your warm-heartedness, to your activity."
"What is it we really want? What more could we ask for, than the capacity, the heart's capacity, to sense what is truly precious, to acknowledge and receive the gifts born of our care and attention, to nourish and be nourished? Hearts awaken, and we feast."
I remember those days as I remember yesterday. Yet this is a lesson in remembering and forgetting. I have not baked a single loaf of bread since those days. So now comes the graceful invitation of Edward Espe Brown to say, To remember is enough. The gift is within.
"To be at home in this world, to be at home in this body and mind, receiving the gifts from Beyond, and passing them on." That is the essence.
The paper to which I direct readers below was published by Modum Bad, a remarkable healing community and psychiatric hospital whose campus is nestled among forest and fields typical of southern Norway, just above the beautiful inland lake of Turifjord and the village of Vikersund, little more than an hour's drive north of Oslo.
I completed the paper in May 2007, after my wife Leigh and I had returned to our home in Dedham, Massachusetts, having completed two visits, each of several months, at Modum Bad as guest psychologists. Most of the research upon which the paper is based was completed on those visits, and early drafts were shared with members of Modum Bad's clinical staff, whose responses were generous and enormously valuable.
Leigh and I knew that we would return to Modum Bad, she as director of its Research Institute, I as lecturer and consultant to staff and patients. That next stage of our Modum Bad life was cut short by the illness that was to take Leigh's life in 2012. That is another story, one that someday I may be able to write, but for the time being, I'll simply add that my own relationship with Modum Bad continues, with a moving memorial service after Leigh's death, and occasional editorial work on papers written by Modum Bad staff.
My high regard for Modum Bad has only grown with time. The admiration and promise that weave through the 2007 paper continue, and I would not change my overall assessment. At the same time, I need to be clear that while the spirit of Modum Bad lives on, much of the specific content of the paper is dated. Many papers of Modum Bad staff continue to be published in prominent English-language journals. I am hopeful that my friend Ole Johan Sandvand, who retired last year as Modum Bad's director, will undertake a more current assessment of Modum Bad's life in the years since 1957. It remains an important international source of accomplishment and continuing innovation in mental health and human development and deserves the international attention of psychological and psychiatric practitioners and students worldwide.
From The Guardian nine years ago. When do friends send unexpected reminders of moving events in their shared past? Whenever, they are welcome, reminders of anam cara,* of sadness and delight in the Celtic imagination.
For a priest and academic who spent most of his time living in solitude in a remote spot on the west of Ireland, O'Donohue was as startled as anyone else by his success. Not long after he had decided to leave the priesthood - he found himself having "less and less in common with the hierarchy" — his 1997 book on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World (1997), became a word-of-mouth hit, racing up the bestseller lists.
For a student of Hegel who had written his Ph.D. in German, O'Donohue found it amusing that pop stars and presidents had his book at their bedside, that Hollywood directors and household name actors sought his counsel. It confirmed his view that there is an intersection between philosophy, poetry and theology which can host an audience increasingly exiled by what he called "the frightened functionaries of institutional religion". As an accomplished poet, he had the literary tools and dazzling vocabulary to speak a language that persuaded you he was right.
His books, emerging every three or four years, were written in a kind of long-form, prayer style which was impossible to read quickly and did not work for everyone. They were the distinct product of a life often spent in meditation and solitude. Not that he was not a gregarious, fun-loving companion, and mesmerizing storyteller in the bar, but that his public presence grew from private silence. One of his great influences, the German mystic Meister Eckhart, believed that nothing resembles God like silence and O'Donohue suggested that the highly strung character of western life was explained by the absence of silence. "When you acknowledge the integrity of your solitude, and settle into its mystery, your relationships with others take on a new warmth, adventure and wonder."
John O'Donohue's life cannot be encompassed within the one act of birth, life and death. He was not a finite act that existed and is now lost for evermore. He is just a story that is written, spoken and lives amongst us. Just as we are and continue to be. His themes of echo as the response of continuity, imagination as the ability to still see the mountain behind the mist, and absence as the transformed presence of the vanished, awaken our thinking and provide food for our spiritual journey in an increasingly hungry world.
* Celtic for soul friend.
UPDATE, Thursday, September 28:
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, breaking down during one TV interview, says people on the island are in a “life and death” struggle." More than a million people lack drinking water and most of the island is without power.
“I know that leaders aren’t supposed to cry and especially not on TV, but we are having a humanitarian crisis," Yulín Cruz told WUSA-TV. “It’s life or death, every moment we spend planning in a meeting or every moment we spend just not getting the help we’re supposed to get — people are starting to die.”
My friend Gail Reed lives in Cuba. She writes today: "Cuba has just offered 4 'light brigades' to Puerto Rico to get electricity back. Trump: LET THEM IN!!"
New York Times:
"At Centro Medico in San Juan, the main hospital on the island, power went out again Tuesday, forcing staff to switch to generators that have to be constantly refueled, said Jorge Matta González, the hospital’s executive director of medical services.
"The emergency room, busy under the best of times, is a jumble of patients, doctors and nurses all scrambling to treat 164 patients a day. Only two of 24 operating rooms are working. Outside Centro Médico, beige tents house federal disaster medical teams from Texas, South Carolina and California.
“'This is like in war: You work with what you have,' said Dr. Carlos Gómez-Marcial, the emergency room director...
"On the ground, Puerto Rico remains a patchwork of desperate fixes, with 3.4 million people improvising ways to get much-needed medicine, diesel for their generators, food for their shelves and water to either drink or bathe in. With no choice, people wait and wait, some as long as a day for gas or hours for food at local supermarkets, which are letting in 25 people at a time to avoid mayhem...
"The potential for a public health crisis is a big concern, he said. Rats and decomposing animals can spread disease, the doctor added. Without running water, people are probably not washing their hands or boiling water often enough, or cooking their food well enough. This could lead to gastrointestinal outbreaks.
“'What worries me is the possibility of epidemics,' Dr. Rodríguez-Mercado added."
"As the devastation from Hurricane Maria became more apparent Sunday, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton implored President Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to help the people of Puerto Rico. Send the Navy, she tweeted, especially the hospital ship USNS Comfort.
"Navy Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a service spokesman, said that the ship will leave within the next four days, and it will take up to five additional days to reach Puerto Rico. He called the move a “prudent decision in light of current conditions on ground.”
"Clinton’s tweet lacked important context
: The Navy already had two amphibious ships off the coast, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Oak Hill, so the few thousand Marines and sailors aboard could launch relief operations. But her call to action took off , with a petition on the website Change.org garnering more than 100,000 signatures in three days and critics expressing frustration with the hashtag #SendtheComfort.
"Since then, the call for the Comfort has come to symbolize something larger: A call for the Pentagon to send more.
"More food. More water. More generators. More aircraft.
The Nation, on March 2, 2017:
One hundred years ago today, on March 2, 1917, more than one million Puerto Ricans were granted United States citizenship. It wasn’t exactly a gift. Exactly one month later, on April 2, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. The point of extending citizenship to Puerto Ricans was to get about 20,000 more bodies into the World War.
The centennial of that dubious bestowal makes now a good time to kick the tires and see whether citizenship ended up being a vehicle for human development or a beat-up car that only benefited its dealer.
After one hundred years of citizenship, US federal agencies control the island’s currency, banking system, international trade, foreign relations, shipping and maritime laws, TV, radio, postal system, immigration, Social Security, customs, transportation, military, import-export regulations, environmental controls, coastal operations, air space, civil and criminal appeals, and judicial code.
After one hundred years of citizenship, the per capita income of Puerto Ricans is roughly $15,200—half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in the union. Yet in the last five years alone, the government raised the retirement age, increased worker contributions, and lowered public pensions and benefits. It also hiked the water rates by 60 percent, raised the gasoline and sales taxes (the latter to 11.5 percent), and allowed electricity rates to skyrocket. In 2013–14 alone, 105 different taxes were raised in Puerto Rico. But this was not enough.
After one hundred years of citizenship, Puerto Ricans are prohibited from managing their own economy, negotiating their own trade relations, or setting their own consumer prices. Puerto Rico has been little more than a profit center for the United States: first as a naval coaling station, then as a sugar empire, a cheap labor supply, a tax haven, a captive market, and now as a a municipal bond debtor and target for privatization. It is an island of beggars and billionaires: fought over by lawyers, bossed by absentee landlords, and clerked by politicians.
After one hundred years of citizenship, Puerto Ricans enjoy the media images of the American dream and the underside of the US Constitution. They are free to be poor, under-educated and unemployed; free to be invisible and unheard; free to lose their homes to Wall Street; free to flee the island in utter desperation, as hundreds of thousands have done in recent years.
After one hundred years of citizenship, Puerto Ricans know that that their homeland was invaded, its wealth exploited, its patriots persecuted and jailed. But they continue to suffer in solitude, their cause largely ignored even by those in the United States who generally pay attention to such suffering “abroad.” Separated by an ocean, a language, and a century of propaganda, they are more unnoticed than Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and more forgotten than Macondo, the town in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
My Day (September 26):
Long, full day, with ongoing challenges including Whole Life Challenge (https://www.wholelifechallenge.com/). Three meals as usual with friends. Lots of stairs to climb. Camelbak water bottle at hand: 76 oz down the hatch. Skype calls with Norwegian friends. A moving seminar on keeping vigil with those close to death. My regular Tuesday evening group, reading news stories and poetry to those whose blindness doesn't allow them to read on their own.
Elaine de Kooning wrote in retrospect:
“Painting a Portrait of the President”
By Elaine de Kooning
In the winter of 1962–63, the artist traveled to Palm Beach to execute a portrait commission of President Kennedy, destined for the Truman Library, Independence, Mo. Challenged, Elaine de Kooning Presented herself in the task, producing a whole series of studies (six of which are reproduced on this page) and finished paintings (one of which is on the cover of this issue; three others are on view in the Massachusetts Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair.)
President Kennedy was off in the distance, about twenty yards away, talking to reporters, when I first saw him—and for one second, I didn’t recognize him. He was incandescent, golden. And bigger than life. Not that he was taller than the men standing around; he just seemed to be in a different dimension. Also not revealed by the newspaper image were his incredible eyes with large violet irises half veiled by the jutting bone beneath the eyebrows.
One of the reasons I was asked to do the portrait is that, with luck, I can start and finish a life-size portrait in one sitting (after a couple of preliminary sessions of sketches to determine the pose and familiarize myself with my impression of the sitter). After years of working on my portraits (mostly of friends) for months at a time, I found myself getting bogged down in overly conscientious effort and discovered that by working swiftly I could enter into an almost passive relationship to the canvas and get closer to the essential gesture of the sitter. However, working at top speed this way, I require the absolute immobility of the sitter. This was impossible with President Kennedy because of his extreme restlessness: he read papers, talked on the phone, jotted down notes, crossed and uncrossed his legs, shifted from one arm of the chair to another, always in action at rest. So I had to find a new approach.
I began with fragmentary sketches—first in charcoal, then in casein, sometimes just heads, sometimes the whole figure. For the first session (during a Medicare conference), I sat on top of a 6-foot ladder to get an unimpeded view of him. Concentrating on bone structure, most of my first sketches of him made him look twenty years younger. This was also because the positions he assumed were those of a college athlete. I made about thirty sketches at the first session and rushed back to a big studio that had been turned over to me by the Norton Gallery, made further drawing combining different aspects, and finally, after a couple days, decided on the proportions and size of the first canvas—4 by 8 feet.
In succeeding sessions of sketching, I was struck by the curious faceted structure of light over his face and hair—a quality of transparent ruddiness. This play of light contributed to the extraordinary variety of expressions. His smile and frown both seemed to be built-in to the bone. Everyone is familiar with the quick sense of humor revealed in the corners of his mouth and the laugh lines around the eyes, but what impressed me most was a sense of compassion.
Everyone has his own private idea of President Kennedy. The men who worked with him had one impression, his family another, the crowds who saw him campaigning another, the rest of the world, which saw him only in two dimensions, smiling or frowning on a flat sheet of paper or a TV screen, still another—and this last, by far the most universal. Beside my own intense, multiple impressions of him, I also had to contend with his “world image” created by the endless newspaper photographs, TV appearances, caricatures. Realizing this, I began to collect hundreds of photographs torn from newspapers and magazines and never missed an opportunity to draw him when he appeared on TV. These snapshots covered every angle, from above, below, profile, back, standing, sitting, walking, close-up, off in the distance. I particularly liked tiny shots where the features were indistinct yet unmistakable. Covering my walls with my own sketches and these photographs, I worked from canvas to canvas (the smallest 2 feet high, the largest, 11) always striving for a composite image.
Copyright 2017, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc.
VIET THANH NGUYEN AND RICHARD HUGHES
Phan Thanh Hung Duc, 20, lies immobile and silent, his midsection covered haphazardly by a white shirt with an ornate Cambodian temple design. His mouth is agape and his chest thrusts upward, his hands and feet locked in gnarled deformity. He appears to be frozen in agony. He is one of the thousands of Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.
Pham Thi Phuong Khanh, 21, is another such patient. She quietly pulls a towel over her face as a visitor to the Peace Village ward in Tu Du Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, starts to take a picture of her enlarged, hydrocephalic head. Like Mr. Hung Duc, Ms. Khanh is believed to be a victim of Operation Ranch Hand, the United States military’s effort during the Vietnam War to deprive the enemy of cover and food by spraying defoliants.
Perhaps Ms. Khanh does not want strangers to stare at her. Perhaps she feels ashamed. But if she does feel shame, why is it that those who should do not?
The history of Agent Orange and its effects on the Vietnamese people, as well as American soldiers, should shame Americans. Fifty years ago, in 1967, the United States sprayed 5.1 million gallons of herbicides with the toxic chemical dioxin across Vietnam, a single-year record for the decade-long campaign to defoliate the countryside. It was done without regard to dioxin’s effect on human beings or its virulent and long afterlife. Agent Orange was simply one of several herbicides used, but it has become the most infamous.
Chemical companies making Agent Orange opted for maximum return despite in-house memos that a safer product could be made for a slight reduction in profits. American soldiers were among the unintended victims of this decision: Unwarned, they used the empty 55-gallon drums for makeshift showers.Over the years, there have been both American and Vietnamese plaintiffs in Agent Orange court cases in the United States. Possibly the only one that could be considered a victory for the plaintiffs was an out-of-court settlement of $180 million in the 1980s for about 50,000 American veterans. Many more never benefited from the case because their illnesses did not show up for yearsThese American veterans have fought for decades to get medical treatment and compensation for birth defects and ailments presumed to be Agent Orange-related diseases. Records from Agent Orange lawsuits indicate that both the military and the chemical companies involved were well aware, early on, of the dangers of dioxin, so much so that our government terminated the program three years before the war’s end.
Our government has acknowledged some of its responsibility to its veterans. In 2010, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki added three Agent Orange-related diseases to the V.A.’s compensation list, and Congress allocated $13.3 billion to cover the costs. An enterprising Senate aide slipped in $12 million for Agent Orange relief in Vietnam, only a small portion of which was for health. These disparities in funding are unconscionable, as is the American government’s illogical refusal to acknowledge that Agent Orange has caused the same damage to the Vietnamese as it has to Americans.
Pham Van Truc is another Vietnamese victim of Agent Orange. With his crippled, birdlike limbs and patches of scaly skin, he had as his only blessing, it seemed, exceptionally devoted parents who cared for him, night and day, all 20 years of his life and who were devastated when he died in March. His mother, Nguyen Thi May, 66, had pleaded for a solution to just one of Mr. Truc’s afflictions, such as testicles that had not descended or the attendant pain unrelieved by ineffective medicines.
By contrast, only $20 million has been allocated for victims.
The most common American bureaucratic excuse for this disparity is that a definitive connection between Agent Orange and the illnesses has not yet been made. But the evidence is overwhelming: Vietnamese soldiers, from both sides, with perfectly healthy children before going to fight, came home and sired offspring with deformities and horrific illnesses; villages repeatedly sprayed have exceptionally high birth-deformity rates; and our own Department of Veterans Affairs now lists 14 illnesses presumed to be related to Agent Orange.
The reason for official American reluctance is not lack of scientific evidence. The problem is the distance between American policy makers and the Vietnamese people. Vietnamese victims are too far removed from the American public, and too reminiscent of an unpopular war. Agent Orange victims are also among the most visually disturbing consequences of the Vietnam War. Few who look at photographer Philip Jones Griffiths’s powerful book of photographs “Agent Orange: ‘Collateral Damage’ in Vietnam” have the stomach to do so twice. It is easier to keep one’s distance, to not look at all.
The reason for American reluctance to look or act is not even about money, as one might suspect. A solution for the Vietnamese would cost what one congressional aide wryly referred to as “decimal dust,” or, by one estimate, $35 million a year for 10 years. Given a Vietnamese Red Cross estimate of three million victims, the amount of aid is approximately $12 a year per victim and a decade of help — merely one-fifth the time that has elapsed since Operation Ranch Hand reached its apex in 1967. Such funding would provide prostheses, wheelchairs and orthopedic surgery; speech therapy and rehabilitation; basic feeding, bathing and sleeping equipment; an enhanced case management system and medical staff training; and stipends to families providing full-time care.
That $350 million is an inconsequential amount compared to what it cost to produce, transport and deploy the herbicides in the first place. But the legacy of Agent Orange is not about science or economics. It’s about human decency. Americans created Agent Orange here in a laboratory, shipped it overseas and dumped it with abandon, where it continues to shatter thousands of people’s lives. Denying the reality of the need can only take an unacceptable toll here in the United States.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.
Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.
Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
Wtih slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Dessication of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.
Time and the bell have buried the day,
the black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.
The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always —
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.
|Quotation of the day|
|“There’s a massive amount of carbon that’s in the ground, that’s built up slowly over thousands and thousands of years. It’s been in a freezer, and that freezer is now turning into a refrigerator.”|
|— Max Holmes, deputy director of the Woods Hole Research Center, on the thawing permafrost in Alaska.|
|We often go back in history for our back stories, but today we’re going way back.|
|Mount Vesuvius erupted on this day in 79 A.D., burying the Roman town of Pompeii under a heap of ash, rocks and pumice.|
Casts of victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, Italy.
Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
|Most of what we know of the event we owe to Pliny the Younger, who described it in a letter to the Roman historian Tacitus. According to the account, in the early afternoon that day, Pliny’s mother told his uncle, Pliny the Elder, that “a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape” was approaching.|
|“I cannot give you a more exact description,” Pliny the Younger wrote of the cloud, “than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches.”|
|Pliny the Elder set off by boat to explore the cloud’s source, encountering “black pieces of burning rock” along the way. Yet he continued onward, reportedly telling his pilot, “Fortune favors the bold.”|
|The maxim, however — at least that day — proved false.|
|“He suffocated,” his nephew wrote, “by some gross and noxious vapor.”|
by Annie Dillard
reprinted from The Atlantic, August 8, 2017
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
I lay in bed. My husband, Gary, was reading beside me. I lay in bed and looked at the painting on the hotel room wall. It was a print of a detailed and lifelike painting of a smiling clown’s head, made out of vegetables. It was a painting of the sort which you do not intend to look at, and which, alas, you never forget. Some tasteless fate presses it upon you; it becomes part of the complex interior junk you carry with you wherever you go. Two years have passed since the total eclipse of which I write. During those years I have forgotten, I assume, a great many things I wanted to remember—but I have not forgotten that clown painting or its lunatic setting in the old hotel. The clown was bald. Actually, he wore a clown’s tight rubber wig, painted white; this stretched over the top of his skull, which was a cabbage. His hair was bunches of baby carrots. Inset in his white clown makeup, and in his cabbage skull, were his small and laughing human eyes. The clown’s glance was like the glance of Rembrandt in some of the self-portraits: lively, knowing, deep, and loving. The crinkled shadows around his eyes were string beans. His eyebrows were parsley. Each of his ears was a broad bean. His thin, joyful lips were red chili peppers; between his lips were wet rows of human teeth and a suggestion of a real tongue. The clown print was framed in gilt and glassed.
To put ourselves in the path of the total eclipse, that day we had driven five hours inland from the Washington coast, where we lived. When we tried to cross the Cascades range, an avalanche had blocked the pass.
A slope’s worth of snow blocked the road; traffic backed up. Had the avalanche buried any cars that morning? We could not learn. This highway was the only winter road over the mountains. We waited as highway crews bulldozed a passage through the avalanche. With two-by-fours and walls of plywood, they erected a one-way, roofed tunnel through the avalanche. We drove through the avalanche tunnel, crossed the pass, and descended several thousand feet into central Washington and the broad Yakima Valley, about which we knew only that it was orchard country. As we lost altitude, the snows disappeared; our ears popped; the trees changed, and in the trees were strange birds. I watched the landscape innocently, like a fool, like a diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on the bottom while his air runs out.The hotel lobby was a dark, derelict room, narrow as a corridor, and seemingly without air. We waited on a couch while the manager vanished upstairs to do something unknown to our room. Beside us on an overstuffed chair, absolutely motionless, was a platinum-blonde woman in her forties wearing a black silk dress and a strand of pearls. Her long legs were crossed; she supported her head on her fist. At the dim far end of the room, their backs toward us, sat six bald old men in their shirtsleeves, around a loud television. Two of them seemed asleep. They were drunks. “Number six!” cried the man on television, “Number six!”
On the broad lobby desk, lighted and bubbling, was a ten-gallon aquarium containing one large fish; the fish tilted up and down in its water. Against the long opposite wall sang a live canary in its cage. Beneath the cage, among spilled millet seeds on the carpet, were a decorated child’s sand bucket and matching sand shovel.
Now the alarm was set for 6. I lay awake remembering an article I had read downstairs in the lobby, in an engineering magazine. The article was about gold mining.
Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.
In South Africa, in India, and in South Dakota, the gold mines extend so deeply into the Earth’s crust that they are hot. The rock walls burn the miners’ hands. The companies have to air-condition the mines; if the air conditioners break, the miners die. The elevators in the mine shafts run very slowly, down, and up, so the miners’ ears will not pop in their skulls. When the miners return to the surface, their faces are deathly pale.
Early the next morning we checked out. It was February 26, 1979, a Monday morning. We would drive out of town, find a hilltop, watch the eclipse, and then drive back over the mountains and home to the coast. How familiar things are here; how adept we are; how smoothly and professionally we check out! I had forgotten the clown’s smiling head and the hotel lobby as if they had never existed. Gary put the car in gear and off we went, as off we have gone to a hundred other adventures.
It was dawn when we found a highway out of town and drove into the unfamiliar countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of cirrostratus clouds in the sky. Later the rising sun would clear these clouds before the eclipse began. We drove at random until we came to a range of unfenced hills. We pulled off the highway, bundled up, and climbed one of these hills.
* * *
The hill was 500 feet high. Long winter-killed grass covered it, as high as our knees. We climbed and rested, sweating in the cold; we passed clumps of bundled people on the hillside who were setting up telescopes and fiddling with cameras. The top of the hill stuck up in the middle of the sky. We tightened our scarves and looked around.
East of us rose another hill like ours. Between the hills, far below, 13 was the highway which threaded south into the valley. This was the Yakima Valley; I had never seen it before. It is justly famous for its beauty, like every planted valley. It extended south into the horizon, a distant dream of a valley, a Shangri-la. All its hundreds of low, golden slopes bore orchards. Among the orchards were towns, and roads, and plowed and fallow fields. Through the valley wandered a thin, shining river; from the river extended fine, frozen irrigation ditches. Distance blurred and blued the sight, so that the whole valley looked like a thickness or sediment at the bottom of the sky. Directly behind us was more sky, and empty lowlands blued by distance, and Mount Adams. Mount Adams was an enormous, snow-covered volcanic cone rising flat, like so much scenery.
Now the sun was up. We could not see it; but the sky behind the band of clouds was yellow, and, far down the valley, some hillside orchards had lighted up. More people were parking near the highway and climbing the hills. It was the West. All of us rugged individualists were wearing knit caps and blue nylon parkas. People were climbing the nearby hills and setting up shop in clumps among the dead grasses. It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day. It looked as though we had all crawled out of spaceships and were preparing to assault the valley below. It looked as though we were scattered on hilltops at dawn to sacrifice virgins, make rain, set stone stelae in a ring. There was no place out of the wind. The straw grasses banged our legs.
“Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
Up in the sky where we stood the air was lusterless yellow. To the west the sky was blue. Now the sun cleared the clouds. We cast rough shadows on the blowing grass; freezing, we waved our arms. Near the sun, the sky was bright and colorless. There was nothing to see.
It began with no ado. It was odd that such a well advertised public event should have no starting gun, no overture, no introductory speaker. I should have known right then that I was out of my depth. Without pause or preamble, silent as orbits, a piece of the sun went away. We looked at it through welders’ goggles. A piece of the sun was missing; in its place we saw empty sky.
I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. During a partial eclipse the sky does not darken—not even when 94 percent of the sun is hidden. Nor does the sun, seen colorless through protective devices, seem terribly strange. We have all seen a sliver of light in the sky; we have all seen the crescent moon by day. However, during a partial eclipse the air does indeed get cold, precisely as if someone were standing between you and the fire. And blackbirds do fly back to their roosts. I had seen a partial eclipse before, and here was another.
What you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and 15 years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.
You may read that the moon has something to do with eclipses. I have never seen the moon yet. You do not see the moon. So near the sun, it is as completely invisible as the stars are by day. What you see before your eyes is the sun going through phases. It gets narrower and narrower, as the waning moon does, and, like the ordinary moon, it travels alone in the simple sky. The sky is of course background. It does not appear to eat the sun; it is far behind the sun. The sun simply shaves away; gradually, you see less sun and more sky.
The sky's blue was deepening, but there was no darkness. The sun was a wide crescent, like a segment of tangerine. The wind freshened and blew steadily over the hill. The eastern hill across the highway grew dusky and sharp. The towns and orchards in the valley to the south were dissolving into the blue light. Only the thin river held a trickle of sun.
Now the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen. A dark sky usually loses color. This was a saturated, deep indigo, up in the air. Stuck up into that unworldly sky was the cone of Mount Adams, and the alpenglow was upon it. The alpenglow is that red light of sunset which holds out on snowy mountaintops long after the valleys and tablelands are dimmed. “Look at Mount Adams,” I said, and that was the last sane moment I remember.
I turned back to the sun. It was going. The sun was going, and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head, and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. This color has never been seen on Earth. The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a 19th-century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded. All the people you see in the photograph, distinct and detailed as their faces look, are now dead. The sky was navy blue. My hands were silver. All the distant hills’ grasses were finespun metal which the wind laid down. I was watching a faded color print of a movie filmed in the Middle Ages; I was standing in it, by some mistake. I was standing in a movie of hillside grasses filmed in the Middle Ages. I missed my own century, the people I knew, and the real light of day.
The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed.
I looked at Gary. He was in the film. Everything was lost. He was a platinum print, a dead artist’s version of life. I saw on his skull the darkness of night mixed with the colors of day. My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way galaxies recede to the rim of space. Gary was light-years away, gesturing inside a circle of darkness, down the wrong end of a telescope. He smiled as if he saw me; the stringy crinkles around his eyes moved. The sight of him, familiar and wrong, was something I was remembering from centuries hence, from the other side of death: Yes, that is the way he used to look, when we were living. When it was our generation’s turn to be alive. I could not hear him; the wind was too loud. Behind him the sun was going. We had all started down a chute of time. At first it was pleasant; now there was no stopping it. Gary was chuting away across space, moving and talking and catching my eye, chuting down the long corridor of separation. The skin on his face moved like thin bronze plating that would peel.
The grass at our feet was wild barley. It was the wild einkorn wheat which grew on the hilly flanks of the Zagros Mountains, above the Euphrates valley, above the valley of the river we called River. We harvested the grass with stone sickles, I remember. We found the grasses on the hillsides; we built our shelter beside them and cut them down. That is how he used to look then, that one, moving and living and catching my eye, with the sky so dark behind him, and the wind blowing. God save our life.
From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the Earth rolled down. Our minds were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. Only an extraordinary act of will could recall to us our former, living selves and our contexts in matter and time. We had, it seems, loved the planet and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.
* * *
It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold has risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the strata again.
I saw, early in the morning, the sun diminish against a backdrop of sky. I saw a circular piece of that sky appear, suddenly detached, blackened, and backlighted; from nowhere it came and overlapped the sun. It did not look like the moon. It was enormous and black. If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once. (If, however, I had not read that it was the moon—if, like most of the world’s people throughout time, I had simply glanced up and seen this thing—then I doubtless would not have speculated much, but would have, like Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, simply died of fright on the spot.) It did not look like a dragon, although it looked more like a dragon than the moon. It looked like a lens cover, or the lid of a pot. It materialized out of thin air—black, and flat, and sliding, outlined in flame.
The event was over. Its devastation lay around about us.
Seeing this black body was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart screeched. The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself. If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance. This is all I have to tell you.
In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil. Its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.
The world which lay under darkness and stillness following the closing of the lid was not the world we know. The event was over. Its devastation lay around about us. The clamoring mind and heart stilled, almost indifferent, certainly disembodied, frail, and exhausted. The hills were hushed, obliterated. Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring.
You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.
You see the wide world swaddled in darkness; you see a vast breadth of hilly land, and an enormous, distant, blackened valley; you see towns’ lights, a river’s path, and blurred portions of your hat and scarf; you see your husband’s face looking like an early black-and-white film; and you see a sprawl of black sky and blue sky together, with unfamiliar stars in it, some barely visible bands of cloud, and over there, a small white ring. The ring is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese—if you happen to notice a flock of migrating geese. It is one-360th part of the visible sky. The sun we see is less than half the diameter of a dime held at arm’s length.
The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the Earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. Now it is not so bright, but it is still exploding. It expands at the rate of 70 million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding 70 million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken 15 years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at 50-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.
The small ring of light was like these things—like a ridiculous lichen up in the sky, like a perfectly still explosion 4,200 light-years away: It was interesting, and lovely, and in witless motion, and it had nothing to do with anything.
We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity.
It had nothing to do with anything. The sun was too small, and too cold, and too far away, to keep the world alive. The white ring was not enough. It was feeble and worthless. It was as useless as a memory; it was as off-kilter and hollow and wretched as a memory.
When you try your hardest to recall someone’s face, or the look of a place, you see in your mind’s eye some vague and terrible sight such as this. It is dark; it is insubstantial; it is all wrong.
The white ring and the saturated darkness made the Earth and the sky look as they must look in the memories of the careless dead. What I saw, what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world. We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing. We remembered our living days wrong. With great effort we had remembered some sort of circular light in the sky—but only the outline. Oh, and then the orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overlapped the towns. If there had ever been people on Earth, nobody knew it. The dead had forgotten those they had loved. The dead were parted one from the other and could no longer remember the faces and lands they had loved in the light. They seemed to stand on darkened hilltops, looking down.
* * *
We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust. As adults we are almost all adept at waking up. We have so mastered the transition we have forgotten we ever learned it. Yet it is a transition we make a hundred times a day, as, like so many will-less dolphins, we plunge and surface, lapse and emerge. We live half our waking lives and all of our sleeping lives in some private, useless, and insensible waters we never mention or recall. Useless, I say. Valueless, I might add—until someone hauls their wealth up to the surface and into the wide-awake city, in a form that people can use.
I do not know how we got to the restaurant. Like Roethke, “I take my waking slow.” Gradually I seemed more or less alive, and already forgetful. It was now almost 9 in the morning. It was the day of a solar eclipse in central Washington, and a fine adventure for everyone. The sky was clear; there was a fresh breeze out of the north.
The restaurant was a roadside place with tables and booths. The other eclipse-watchers were there. From our booth we could see their cars’ California license plates, their University of Washington parking stickers. Inside the restaurant we were all eating eggs or waffles; people were fairly shouting and exchanging enthusiasms, like fans after a World Series game. Did you see...? Did you see...? Then somebody said something which knocked me for a loop.The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not.
A college student, a boy in a blue parka who carried a Hasselblad, said to us, “Did you see that little white ring? It looked like a Life Saver. It looked like a Life Saver up in the sky.”
And so it did. The boy spoke well. He was a walking alarm clock. I myself had at that time no access to such a word. He could write a sentence, and I could not. I grabbed that Life Saver and rode it to the surface. And I had to laugh. I had been dumbstruck on the Euphrates River, I had been dead and gone and grieving, all over the sight of something which, if you could claw your way up to that level, you would grant looked very much like a Life Saver. It was good to be back among people so clever; it was good to have all the world’s words at the mind’s disposal, so the mind could begin its task. All those things for which we have no words are lost. The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try to save our very lives.
There are a few more things to tell from this level, the level of the restaurant. One is the old joke about breakfast. “It can never be satisfied, the mind, never.” Wallace Stevens wrote that, and in the long run he was right. The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, and God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.
Further: While the mind reels in deep space, while the mind grieves or fears or exults, the workaday senses, in ignorance or idiocy, like so many computer terminals printing out market prices while the world blows up, still transcribe their little data and transmit them to the warehouse in the skull. Later, under the tranquilizing influence of fried eggs, the mind can sort through this data. The restaurant was a halfway house, a decompression chamber. There I remembered a few things more.
The deepest, and most terrifying, was this: I have said that I heard screams. (I have since read that screaming, with hysteria, is a common reaction even to expected total eclipses.) People on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun. But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.
The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon. I have since read that this wave of shadow moves 1,800 miles an hour. Language can give no sense of this sort of speed—1,800 miles an hour. It was 195 miles wide. No end was in sight—you saw only the edge. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it. Seeing it, and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, “Soon it will hit my brain.” You can feel the deadness race up your arm; you can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.
This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds. How could anything moving so fast not crash, not veer from its orbit amok like a car out of control on a turn?
We joined our places on the planet’s thin crust; it held.
Less than two minutes later, when the sun emerged, the trailing edge of the shadow cone sped away. It coursed down our hill and raced eastward over the plain, faster than the eye could believe; it swept over the plain and dropped over the planet’s rim in a twinkling. It had clobbered us, and now it roared away. We blinked in the light. It was as though an enormous, loping god in the sky had reached down and slapped the Earth’s face.
Something else, something more ordinary, came back to me along about the third cup of coffee. During the moments of totality, it was so dark that drivers on the highway below turned on their cars’ headlights. We could see the highway’s route as a strand of lights. It was bumper-to-bumper down there. It was 8:15 in the morning, Monday morning, and people were driving into Yakima to work. That it was as dark as night, and eerie as hell, an hour after dawn, apparently meant that in order to see to drive to work, people had to use their headlights. Four or five cars pulled off the road. The rest, in a line at least five miles long, drove to town. The highway ran between hills; the people could not have seen any of the eclipsed sun at all. Yakima will have another total eclipse in 2086. Perhaps, in 2086, businesses will give their employees an hour off.
From the restaurant we drove back to the coast. The highway crossing the Cascades range was open. We drove over the mountain like old pros. We joined our places on the planet’s thin crust; it held. For the time being, we were home free.
Early that morning at 6, when we had checked out, the six bald men were sitting on folding chairs in the dim hotel lobby. The television was on. Most of them were awake. You might drown in your own spittle, God knows, at any time; you might wake up dead in a small hotel, a cabbage head watching TV while snows pile up in the passes, watching TV while the chili peppers smile and the moon passes over the sun and nothing changes and nothing is learned because you have lost your bucket and shovel and no longer care. What if you regain the surface and open your sack and find, instead of treasure, a beast which jumps at you? Or you may not come back at all. The winches may jam, the scaffolding buckle, the air conditioning collapse. You may glance up one day and see by your headlamp the canary keeled over in its cage. You may reach into a cranny for pearls and touch a moray eel. You yank on your rope; it is too late.
Apparently people share a sense of these hazards, for when the total eclipse ended, an odd thing happened.
When the sun appeared as a blinding bead on the ring’s side, the eclipse was over. The black lens cover appeared again, back-lighted, and slid away. At once the yellow light made the sky blue again; the black lid dissolved and vanished. The real world began there. I remember now: We all hurried away. We were born and bored at a stroke. We rushed down the hill. We found our car; we saw the other people streaming down the hillsides; we joined the highway traffic and drove away.
We never looked back. It was a general vamoose, and an odd one, for when we left the hill, the sun was still partially eclipsed—a sight rare enough, and one which, in itself, we would probably have driven five hours to see. But enough is enough. One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.
This post is excerpted from Dillard’s book The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. Copyright © 2016 by Annie Dillard. Published by arrangement with Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Two topics that have been central in the pages of Reckonings, almost bookends sustaining its diverse realms of inquiry and reflection.
Emily Dickinson's poetry has been as close to me over the years as the work of any other author, grounded in the personal history for which I've been grateful: the most productive years of my vocation, my teaching and learning in Amherst, Massachusetts, her home. Over the years, walking along Main Street, I returned often to that home, to the room in which she wrote.
These two Dickinson poems were the subject of a recent discussion in a seminar on spirituality here at The Redwoods. We were exploring the development of our own religious experience, how it was nourished or neglected, and shaped our paths in life.
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church −
I keep it, staying at Home −
With a Bobolink for a Chorister −
And an Orchard for a Dome −
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice −
I, just wear my Wings −
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton − sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman −
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last −
I'm going, all along.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Christian Wiman is a poet and former editor of Poetry magazine. He was born in what he described as “a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pump jacks and pickup trucks, . . . a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void that I never really noticed until I left, when it began to expand alarmingly inside of me... People were tough as old mesquite trees, and just as vulnerable to the spiritual elements—bare, forked creatures before a quite palpable and demanding God. I admire that intensity now, and miss it. Of course there were also plenty of self-righteous zealots and fire-eyed maniacs, who also seem to thrive in waste places. Them I don’t miss so much."
For years he traveled the world – from Guatemala to the Czech Republic – devoting himself to the craft of poetry. He has published several books of poetry, translated the poetry of Osip Mandelstam, and written an eloquent and widely admired collection of reflections on the relation of poetry and religious faith, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2013).
The novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, author of the novels Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and Lila, wrote that Wiman's poetry and scholarship "have a purifying urgency that is rare in this world. This puts him at the very source of theology, and enables him to say new things in timeless language, so that the reader's surprise and assent are one and the same." In her New York Times review of My Bright Abyss, fellow poet Kathleen Norris wrote,
"This is, above all, a book about experience, and about seeking a language that is adequate for both the fiery moments of inspiration and the 'fireless life' in which we spend most of our days. It is a testament to the human ability to respond to grace, even at times of great suffering, and to resolve to live and love more fully even as death draws near."
Look, as well, for Bill Moyers's conversation with Wiman. He told Moyers, “When we think of our memories, they’re moments of intensity. Whether they were sorrowful or happy, moments of great loneliness or moments of great communion — we live for these moments in our life. And I do think poetry is a way of recognizing the moments in your life. But also a way of preserving them. One of the ways in which I feel close to God is writing poetry.”
In 2012 Wiman joined the Yale Divinity School Institute of Sacred Music as a senior lecturer in religion and literature.
Wiman's short essay in 2007, "Love Bade Me Welcome," was widely reprinted on the internet and evoked much response from readers. It is available on Krista Tippett's website, On Being, along with the text of Tippett's conversation with Wiman in 2012.
In his preface to My Bright Abyss, Wiman writes of "Love Bade Me Welcome":
"It was about despair: losing the ability to write, falling in love, receiving a diagnosis of an incurable cancer, having my heart ripped apart by what, slowly and in spite of all my modern secular instincts, I learned to call God. It was my entire existence crammed into eight pages. The essay detailed a radical change in my life, and then it seemed—or the reaction seemed—to demand a further one."
A further such radical change, which in turn gave birth to the deeply insightful and thoughtful book, My Bright Abyss.
Since "Love Bade Me Welcome" merits two readings and is sometimes demanding, I'll preface it here with a shorter synopsis and some questions:
On “Love Bade Me Welcome,” by Christian Wiman
John R. Boettiger
Wiman published “Love Bade Me Welcome” in The American Scholar in its summer 2007 issue, when he was about 40 years old. He begins by looking back at the poetry he wrote in his 20s and 30s: how “the forms and language of Christianity” thoroughly shaped his imagination, and at the anxiety, the unease, he felt throughout those years. The two were intimately intertwined: “poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me."
Our own spiritual journeys over the years are often circuitous, expressive of continuities, crises, changes, depths of which we are only partially conscious.
Wiman cites a passage in Simone Weil that deeply moved him.
“Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time – and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time – they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. ‘It is the same with us and God,’ [Weil] says. ‘Every separation is a link.’” Those last words are Weil’s, but Wiman feels them profoundly: “Weil’s image for the human condition is a person in solitary confinement. There is real hope in the image, but still, in human terms, it is a bare and lonely hope.”
Then Wiman describes three shattering events in his own life, allowing him “to recognize the full beauty, and the final insufficiency, of Weil’s image.”
First, by choice and exhaustion, he stopped writing. His poetry, devastatingly, died in him, but also made unanticipated room for new consciousness and relationship – and in time, the renewal of his writing.
The second of his transformative events was falling in love, and soon after, marriage. …It was consuming, as great love is. It felt, “for the first time in my life like I was being fully possessed by being itself. ‘Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,’ Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.”
Love, given and received, slowly softened Wiman’s anxiety and awakened his yearning, his longing, for divinity, for God. He and his wife began to pray before their evening meals, at first awkwardly, then with more and more natural grace. And one morning, as he writes, “we found ourselves going to church. ‘We found ourselves,’ in both senses of that term.
But then the third transformative event: Married less than a year, Wiman discovered an incurable cancer in his blood,” rare, with no prognosis. It was fatal, but could take days, months, or years. That the diagnosis came when it did, after their love and marriage, did not lessen his and his wife’s mourning, but altered it powerfully. They mourned the death of the life they had imagined with each other.
“What extreme grief had given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope and a new belief: by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called, ‘hope toward God’… I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost."
He started to write again, and beautifully. “But the language I have now to call on God is not only language, and the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is no longer a cell, but this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone. As I approach the first anniversary of my diagnosis, as I approach whatever pain is ahead of me, I am trying to get as close to this wall as possible. And I am listening with all I am.”
Some possible questions for discussion:
How do you respond to Simone Weil’s story about the two prisoners in solitary confinement slowly building a relationship through the wall that separates them, by learning and practicing “taps and scratches”? How does Wiman’s experience of love, yearning, and “hope toward God” connect with your own experience? How have grief and suffering shaped your calling, your deepest vocation? How are you affected by his last comment: “I am listening with all I am”? How is your own spiritual journey similar to and different from Wiman’s?
Poetry, for me, has always been bound up with this unease, fueled by contingency toward forms that will transcend it, as involved with silence as it is with sound. I don’t have much sympathy for the Arnoldian notion of poetry replacing religion. It seems not simply quaint but dangerous to make that assumption, even implicitly, perhaps especially implicitly. I do think, though, that poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me. Partly this is because I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am, and it seems reductive, even somehow a deep betrayal, to attribute that power merely to the unconscious or to the dynamism of language itself. But also, if I look back on the poems I’ve written in the past two decades, it almost seems s if the one constant is God. Or, rather, his absence.
There is a passage in the writings of Simone Weil that has long been important to me. In the passage, Weil describes two prisoners who are in solitary confinement next to each other. Between them is a stone wall. Over a period of time — and I think we have to imagine it as a very long time — they find a way to communicate using taps and scratches. The wall is what separates them, but it is also the only means they have of communicating. “It is the same with us and God,” she says. “Every separation is a link.”
It’s probably obvious why this metaphor would appeal to me. If you never quite feel at home in your life, if being conscious means primarily being conscious of your own separation from the world and from divinity (and perhaps any sentient person after modernism has to feel these things), then any idea or image that can translate that depletion into energy, those absences into presences, is going to be powerful. And then there are those taps and scratches: what are they but language, and if language is the way we communicate with the divine, well, what kind of language is more refined and transcendent than poetry? You could almost embrace this vision of life — if, that is, there were any actual life to embrace: Weil’s image for the human condition is a person in solitary confinement. There is real hope in the image, but still, in human terms, it is a bare and lonely hope.
It has taken three events, each shattering in its way, for me to recognize both the full beauty, and the final insufficiency, of Weil’s image. The events are radically different, but so closely linked in time, and so inextricable from one another in their consequences, that there is an uncanny feeling of unity to them. There is definitely some wisdom in learning to see our moments of necessity and glory and tragedy not as disparate experiences but as facets of the single experience that is a life. The pity, at least for some of us, is that we cannot truly have this knowledge of life, can only feel it as some sort of abstract “wisdom,” until we come very close to death.
First, necessity: four years ago, after making poetry the central purpose of my life for almost two decades, I stopped writing. Partly this was a conscious decision. I told myself that I had exhausted one way of writing, and I do think there was truth in that. The deeper truth, though, is that I myself was exhausted. To believe that being conscious means primarily being conscious of loss, to find life authentic only in the apprehension of death, is to pitch your tent at the edge of an abyss, “and when you gaze long into the abyss,” Nietzsche says, “the abyss also gazes into you.” I blinked.
On another level, though, the decision to stop writing wasn’t mine. Whatever connection I had long experienced between word and world, whatever charge in the former I had relied on to let me feel the latter, went dead. Did I give up poetry, or was it taken from me? I’m not sure, and in any event the effect was the same: I stumbled through the months, even thrived in some ways. Indeed — and there is something almost diabolical about this common phenomenon — it sometimes seemed like my career in poetry began to flourish just as poetry died in me. I finally found a reliable publisher for my work (the work I’d written earlier, I mean), moved into a good teaching job, and then quickly left that for the editorship of Poetry. But there wasn’t a scrap of excitement in any of this for me. It felt like I was watching a movie of my life rather than living it, an old silent movie, no color, no sound, no one in the audience but me.
Then I fell in love. I say it suddenly, and there was certainly an element of radical intrusion and transformation to it, but the sense I have is of color slowly aching into things, the world coming brilliantly, abradingly alive. I remember tiny Albert’s Café on Elm Street in Chicago where we first met, a pastry case like a Pollock in the corner of my eye, sunlight suddenly more itself on an empty plate, a piece of silver. I think of walking together along Lake Michigan a couple of months later talking about a particular poem of Dickinson’s (“A loss of something ever felt I”), clouds finding and failing to keep one form after another, the lake booming its blue into everything: of lying in bed in my high-rise apartment downtown watching the little blazes in the distance that were the planes at Midway, so numerous and endless that all those safe departures and homecomings seemed a kind of secular miracle. We usually think of falling in love as being possessed by another person, and like anyone else I was completely consumed and did some daffy things. But it also felt, for the first time in my life, like I was being fully possessed by being itself. “Joy is the overflowing consciousness of reality,” Weil writes, and that’s what I had, a joy that was at once so overflowing that it enlarged existence, and yet so rooted in actual things that, again for the first time, that’s what I began to feel: rootedness.
I don’t mean to suggest that all my old anxieties were gone. There were still no poems, and this ate at me constantly. There was still no God, and the closer I came to reality, the more I longed for divinity — or, more accurately perhaps, the more divinity seemed so obviously a part of reality. I wasn’t alone in this: we began to say a kind of prayer before our evening meals — jokingly at first, awkwardly, but then with intensifying seriousness and deliberation, trying to name each thing that we were thankful for, and in so doing, praise the thing we could not name. On most Sundays we would even briefly entertain — again, half-jokingly — the idea of going to church. The very morning after we got engaged, in fact, we paused for a long time outside a church on Michigan Avenue. The service was just about to start, the organ music pouring out of the wide-open doors into the late May sun, and we stood there holding each other and debating whether or not to walk inside. In the end it was I who resisted.
I wish I could slow things down at this point, could linger a bit in those months after our marriage. I wish I could feel again that blissful sense of immediacy and expansiveness at once, when every moment implied another, and the future suddenly seemed to offer some counterbalance to the solitary fever I had lived in for so long. I think most writers live at some strange adjacency to experience, that they feel life most intensely in their re-creation of it. For once, for me, this wasn’t the case. I could not possibly have been paying closer attention to those days. Which is why I was caught so off-guard.
I got the news that I was sick on the afternoon of my thirty-ninth birthday. It took a bit of time, travel, and a series of wretched tests to get the specific diagnosis, but by then the main blow had been delivered and that main blow is what matters. I have an incurable cancer in my blood. The disease is as rare as it is mysterious, killing some people quickly and sparing others for decades, afflicting some with all manner of miseries and disabilities and leaving others relatively healthy until the end. Of all the doctors I have seen, not one has been willing to venture even a vague prognosis.
Conventional wisdom says that tragedy will cause either extreme closeness or estrangement in a couple. We’d been married less than a year when we got the news of the cancer. It stands to reason we should have been especially vulnerable to such a blow, and in some ways love did make things much worse. If I had gotten the diagnosis some years earlier — and it seems weirdly providential that I didn’t, since I had symptoms and went to several doctors about them — I’m not sure I would have reacted very strongly. It would have seemed a fatalistic confirmation of everything I had always been equally fatalistic. It would have been the bearable oblivion of despair, not the unbearable, and therefore galvanizing, pain of particular grief. In those early days after the diagnosis, when we mostly just sat on the couch and cried, I alone was dying, but we were mourning very much together. And what we were mourning was not my death, exactly, but the death of the life we had imagined with each other.
Then one morning we found ourselves going to church. Found ourselves. That’s exactly what it felt like, in both senses of the phrase, as if some impulse in each of us had finally been catalyzed into action, so that we were casting aside the Sunday paper and moving toward the door with barely a word between us; and as if, once inside the church, we were discovering exactly where and who we were meant to be. That first service was excruciating, in that it seemed to tear all wounds wide open, and it was profoundly comforting, in that it seemed to offer the only possible balm. What I remember of that Sunday, though, and of the Sundays that immediately followed, is less the services themselves than the walks we took afterward, and less the specifics of the conversations we had about God, always about God, than the moments of silent, and what felt like sacred, attentiveness those conversations led to: an iron sky and the lake so calm it seemed thickened; the El blasting past with its rain of sparks and brief, lost faces; the broad leaves and white blooms of a catalpa on our street, Grace Street, and under the tree a seethe of something that was just barely still a bird, quick with life beyond its own.
I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the Earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the Earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the Earth, but into it. And by some miracle I do not find that this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the Earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, and not in an aestheticizing Death-is-the-mother-of-beauty sort of way either, for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope. This is not simply hope for my own life, though I do have that. It is not a hope for Heaven or any sort of explainable afterlife, unless by those things one means simply the ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called, “hope toward God.”
“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy,” Weil writes, “in order to find reality through suffering.” This is certainly true to my own experience. I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love. To come to this realization is not be to suddenly, “at ease in the world.” I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable. Though we may be moved by nature to thoughts of grace, though art can tease our minds toward eternity, and love’s abundance make us dream a love that does not end, these intuitions come only through the Earth, and the Earth we know only in passing, and only by passing. I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.
So now I bow my head and try to pray in the mornings, not because I don’t doubt the reality of what I have experienced, but because I do, and with an intensity that, because to once feel the presence of God is to feel his absence all the more acutely, is actually more anguishing and difficult than any “existential anxiety” I have ever known. I go to church on Sundays, not to dispel this doubt but to expend its energy, because faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world. How charged this one hour of the week is for me, and how I cherish it, though not one whit more than the hours I have with my wife, with friends, or in solitude, trying to learn how to inhabit time so completely that there might be no distinction between life and belief, attention and devotion. And out of all these efforts at faith and love, out of my own inevitable failures at both. I have begun to write poems again. But the language I have now to call on God is not only language, and the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is no longer a cell but this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone. As I approach the first anniversary of my diagnosis, as I approach whatever pain is ahead of me, I am trying to get as close to this wall as possible. And I am listening with all I am.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Waiting, praying, breathing without pain,
It is called happiness.
Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, "Here, take it, it's yours."
Time wants to show you a different country. It's the one
that your life conceals, the one waiting outside
when curtains are drawn, the one Grandmother hinted at
in her crochet design, the one almost found
over at the edge of the music, after the sermon.
It's the way life is, and you have it, a few years given.
You get killed now and then, violated
in various ways. (And sometimes it's turn about.)
You get tired of that. Long-suffering, you wait
and pray, and maybe good things come − maybe
the hurt slackens and you hardly feel it any more.
You have a breath without pain. It is called happiness.
It's a balance, the taking and passing along,
the composting of where you've been and how people
and weather treated you. It's a country where
you already are, bringing where you have been.
Time offers this gift in its millions of ways,
turning the world, moving the air, calling,
every morning, "Here, take it, it's yours."
by William Stafford, from My Name is William Tell, 1992
Last week, as I wrote here on Sunday, March 5th, our meditation together focused on the meaning of sanctuary. I've always loved, as I remember writing here many moons ago, the deeply intimate resonance, the sense of safety and nourishment, the diversity of experiences and places, that word evokes. I recall my wise age-mate Parker Palmer movingly capturing its evolution, nuance and importance in his own life. "Sanctuary," he wrote, "is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival... [The sanctuary] I need may not be in a church, but in the silence, in the woods, in a friendship, in a poem, or in a song [like that of Carrie Newcomer in her album "The Beautiful Not Yet."]
Used as a noun most commonly, derived from the Latin sanctum, sanctuary typically describes a sacred or holy place, a refuge. Although I find that quality in church and temple services, I like also to sit in churches when no service is occurring, treasuring in silence just those qualities of refuge. And like Palmer, I've found sanctuary among trees, along barely perceptible trails, and in shorelines.
When I first thought about vocation as a child, my two ambitions were forest ranger and architect. In the first, I imagined inhabiting a tower, a simple square room above the forest, and caretaking for the silent arboreal surround, requiring both a soft alertness and a keen eye. In the second, thinking of what I would draw − and later working with board, drawing paper, T-square and triangles − I had most in mind homes, open and U-shaped like a three sided square or rectangle, with the fourth side a courtyard or patio open to the natural world beyond.
My current home, a cosy apartment in a community of folks sharing with me the later stages of adult life, has close kinship with both of those early images. I look out − through sliding glass doors − upon greensward, a courtyard with trees now in early spring coming into leaf and flower. The courtyard in turn leads into marsh land with circuitous tidal streams, trails and walking bridges made of salvaged redwood, and hills beyond.
The community part of my circumstances is a relatively new experience for me: starting in Norway at Modum Bad, the last home that Leigh and I shared before her final illness; and then, fortified by the gift of those years and guided by the wisdom of my family, I came to The Redwoods. I occasionally say to others that I taught about community for thirty years before I knew what I was talking about. I wasn't way off the mark, thankfully: a gift of God.
Which brings me finally to my subject, sharing silence. As I recall, The Buddha himself is said to have said that of the triad central to Buddhism − the sangha, the Buddha, and the dharma, the first among equals is sangha: the community of practice.
Gunella Norris − to whom my teacher sent me − puts it well: "Sharing silence with others is a profound act of trust, love and courtesy. It is a gift, a necessity, a helping hand, a path, and a discipline." I've wished since childhood, in my heart, that I had been raised a Quaker, because its tradition embodies shared silence in community, and is deeply, compassionately political. As Parker Palmer writes, "For centuries Quakers — though few in number — have been disproportionately represented in movements for peace, truth, and justice." Norris says, in words worthy of careful meditation (read contemplatively, as one would a fine poem, more than once):
Within each of us there is a silence
—a silence as vast as a universe.
We are afraid of it…and we long for it.
When we experience that silence, we remember
who we are: creatures of the stars, created
from the cooling of this planet, created
from dust and gas, created
from the elements, created
from time and space…created
In our present culture,
silence is something like an endangered species…
an endangered fundamental.
The experience of silence is now so rare
that we must cultivate it and treasure it.
This is especially true for shared silence.
Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act.
When we can stand aside from the usual and
perceive the fundamental, change begins to happen.
Our lives align with deeper values
and the lives of others are touched and influenced.
Silence brings us back to basics, to our senses,
to our selves. It locates us. Without that return
we can go so far away from our true natures
that we end up, quite literally, beside ourselves.
We live blindly and act thoughtlessly.
We endanger the delicate balance which sustains
our lives, our communities, and our planet.
Each of us can make a difference.
Politicians and visionaries will not return us
to the sacredness of life.
That will be done by ordinary men and women
who together or alone can say,
“Remember to breathe, remember to feel,
remember to care,
let us do this for our children and ourselves
and our children’s children.
Let us practice for life’s sake.
One day the Buddha was strolling along with his congregation when he pointed to the ground and said, "This spot is a good place to build a sanctuary." Indra [Hindu god] took a blade of grass and stuck it into the ground and said, "The sanctuary is built." The Buddha smiled.
As my teacher Lee deBarros writes, koans bring up living questions −
What is a sanctuary? Is it a place of personal refuge? Is it a community? A temple? A church? What is your sanctuary? When do we need or want a sanctuary? Is there actually a sanctuary? How does it relate to practice?
As we discussed sanctuary in our lives, members of our meditation group or sangha shared a manifold experience of sanctuary: our twice-weekly sangha itself, its safe, companionable and nourishing silence, and our care for each other when one of us is suffering or ill or departs this earth; The Redwoods, the community in which we live and share diverse experiences; our childhood homes and the homes of our grown children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; the larger enveloping mystery that is often known as the presence of God in and among us.
I recalled vividly my life as a child, when my parents would come into my room to listen to me say my prayers. I told them that in the prayer that begins, "Now I lay me down to sleep," I was frightened and confused by the lines, "If I should die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take." So my father suggested I substitute the lines, "Guard and keep me through the night / and wake me with the morning light." Seventy years later I still say that prayer as I ready for sleep, and remain grateful for my father's gift.
Day's social activism is also described in her autobiography. In 1917 she was imprisoned as a member of suffragist Alice Paul's nonviolent Silent Sentinels. In the 1930s, Day worked closely with fellow activist Peter Maurin to establish the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement that combines direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. She practiced civil disobedience, which led to additional arrests in 1955, 1957, and in 1973 at the age of seventy-five.
Day was also an active journalist, and described her social activism in her writings. As part of the Catholic Worker Movement, Day co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933, and served as its editor from 1933 until her death in 1980. In this newspaper, Day advocated the Catholic economic theory of distributism, which she considered a third way between capitalism and socialism. Her activism and writing gave her a national reputation as a political radical, perhaps the most famous radical in American Catholic Church history.
Dorothy Day's life is an inspiration for the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI used her conversion story as an example of how to "journey towards faith... in a secularized environment." Pope Francis included her in a short list of exemplary Americans, together with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton, in his address before the United States Congress. The Church has opened the cause for Day's possible canonization, which was accepted by the Holy See for investigation. Due to this, the Church refers to her with the title of Servant of God.