Assurance: a poem by William Stafford and autumn photographs

Wawona, CA.  November 2013

Wawona, CA. November 2013

We were fortunate enough to be able to spend most of last week in Yosemite.  Though all seasons are wonderful there, late fall is my favorite in the Sierras.  It had recently snowed, and another storm was said to be moving in, but our days were mild, and the winter light was on fire.  Wherever I walked, a poem by William Stafford accompanied me.

Wawona, CA.  November, 2013

Wawona, CA. November, 2013

Assurance by William Stafford

You will never be alone, you hear so deep
a sound when autumn comes. Yellow
pulls across the hills and thrums,
or the silence after lightening before it says
its names- and then the clouds’ wide-mouthed
apologies. You were aimed from birth:
you will never be alone. Rain
will come, a gutter filled, an Amazon,
long aisles- you never heard so deep a sound,
moss on rock, and years. You turn your head-
that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone.
The whole wide world pours down.

– from The Way It Is, Graywolf Press, 1999

Yosemite Valley, November 2013

Yosemite Valley, November 2013

You will never be alone, you hear so deep
a sound when autumn comes.

Yosemite Valley, November 2013

Yosemite Valley, November 2013

Yosemite Valley, November, 2013

Yosemite Valley, November, 2013

Yellow pulls across the hills and thrums

Yosemite Valley, November, 2013

Yosemite Valley, November, 2013

You were aimed from birth:
you will never be alone.

Yosemite Valley, November, 2013

Yosemite Valley, November, 2013

You turn your head-
that’s what the silence meant: you’re not alone.

Wawona, CA.  November, 2013

Wawona, CA. November, 2013

The whole wide world pours down.

Wendell Berry on His Hopes for Humanity

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that isn’t endangered.” – Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry by Lou Gold, 2012.  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wendell Berry by Lou Gold, 2012. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wendell Berry, 79, is a poet, farmer, and author of 40 books.  He is also an outspoken advocate and activist for a radical change in our treatment of the earth.  “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” he says.  “The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”

In a rare TV interview with Bill Moyers released on October 4, this gentle poet, who works a Kentucky farm that has been in his family for 200 years, reveals the fire of his determination.  Speaking of recent demonstrations against mountain top strip mining, which poisoned Kentucky rivers, Berry said,  “This is intolerable. There’s no excuse for it…there’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world.”

I invite everyone to watch this brief trailer and if interested, tune into the full interview, or read the transcript here:  Wendell Berry on his hopes for humanity

Berry is eloquent in denouncing the “disaster of being governed by the corporations,” and he speaks of both the importance and the difficulty of holding onto hope.  He finds hope in the growing number of people who share his views and in his certainty that the present order of things cannot last because it runs counter to “creation itself.”  He also puts a lot of hope in “ordinary” people choosing to do the right thing.

There’s a eloquence in Wendell Berry’s interview, and there’s an equal eloquence in this poem, which fills me with hope and a sense of the love he feels for the forests and fields, the river and animals – the whole of creation – which he has spent a lifetime defending.

Manifesto:  The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Happy August

The month of August, named after Augustus Caesar, begins with Lammas Day, the start of traditional harvest time in Britain and the end of summer in the old Celtic way of reckoning.  It feels like that in the northern hemisphere, doesn’t it?

Mid-Day Rest, Harvest, by William Frederick Witherington, British, ca. 1840.  Public domain

Mid-Day Rest, Harvest, by William Frederick Witherington, British, ca. 1840. Public domain

There’s something slightly ominous about August.  Back in college, I watched an eastern European apocalyptic film called, The End of August at the Hotel Ozone.  It was about as cheery as the name, and when you try them out, you find that none of the other months work as well in the title.  On the 4th day of August, in 1914, guns belched fire and World War I began.  On the other hand, like any month, there have been good and bad times in history; the second world war came to an end on August 14.

I like August.  I stand outside, watching the warm light of evening, and there is both beauty and poignancy, for you can’t help but notice the days getting shorter.  Here it is in a poem by Dana Gioia, “California Hills in August.”  He speaks to those who find the end-of-summer hills barren:

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion.
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain—
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.

The end of summer evokes its own sort of romantic feelings too, and I think that goes along with the dying of the light.  In earlier times, at the Lammas fairs, young people could enter a “trial marriage,” generally lasting 11 days.  They were free to walk away if it didn’t work out.  A bit more sparse than our hearts and cupids in February, but maybe more realistic.

And in that romantic spirit, I’ll end with a beautiful harvest song / love ballad by Fairport Convention, a marvelous group from across the water that is still going strong after 46 years.

The Worlds Revolve

As I scanned reviews of The Great Gatsby, I tuned in to one comment about the visionary quality of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book:  he saw the end of the roaring 20’s in 1925, before almost anyone else.

Almost anyone else…

I’d argue that T.S. Eliot, in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), saw where our 20th century mode of life was leading even before the party began.

Here is how the title poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

And here is how Prufrock ends:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweek red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

One of the best professors I ever had helped me engage Eliot with the visual imagination, which helped me see how radical he was compared to the literary establishment of the day.  A kind of tired, watered down romanticism was the norm before the war, so describing the sky as “a patient etherized upon the table” was shocking.  “Have you ever seen someone unconscious?” the professor asked.  “Or very sick or dead?  Eliot isn’t describing a postcard sunset.”

But perhaps my most unforgettable poetic image came from another piece in Eliot’s first book.  Regarded as a minor work, “Preludes” is even less cheery than Prufrock.  Here’s how the poem ends:

Wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

“Picture it,” the professor said, so I did.  I imagined an empty field on the outskirts of London, on a dark winter’s day.  Old women with scarves, patched sweaters and faded coats circle slowly, eyes on the ground, looking for sticks or slats from a discarded crate they can burn at home to stay warm.  Half a dozen figures or more in slow orbit.  They might as well be 100 miles apart, even though they are next to each other, doing the same thing.

Which worlds revolve like ancient women?  I’ve entertained many answers over the years, but one came up this week that helped clarify a sensation I’ve had very strongly since the November election.

The May 20, Time Magazine cover story featured our current crop of young people who are tagged as “Millennials.”

Time cover, May 30

I’ve read such generational articles since the days when they were written about me and my cohorts.  If you don’t take them too literally, they yield some interesting insights.  In this case, when author, Joel Stein, wrote “Millennials aren’t trying to take over the establishment; they’re growing up without one,” I literally jumped to my feet and ran out to brew some coffee.  I do that a lot when a light bulb goes on.

Millennials are growing up without an establishment.  Bulls-eye.  We’re all growing up without an establishment!

The worlds revolve like ancient women,
gathering fuel in vacant lots.

We’ve always had personal areas of concern, particular to our interests, our regions, and the groups that we align with, but have we ever been so lacking in the kind of national ethos and ideology that used to weld us together as one nation under one official God?

When journalists wrote about my generation, the lines were clear.  We had an ugly war which you were either for or against, yes or no, no ambiguity.  Now it’s all too inviting to forget that we’re still in a war no one believes in anymore, and maybe hasn’t for years.  In earlier days, we knew who was good and who was bad.  Now our enemies change on a regular basis.  Who is our biggest threat this month?  The worlds revolve and I can’t remember.

This week, if you live in Boston, you are concerned with the dead bomber’s burial.  In Washington, you follow the Benghazi hearings.  If you’re in congress or one of the 1%, you care about the deficit, though polls show that 92% of the rest of us do not.

If you live in Pennsylvania, you’ve got a new worry.  The legislature decided it’s probably unconstitutional to ban guns from public college campuses.  Think of armed drunken students on Friday night.  A well regulated militia, indeed.

My own new biggest concern springs from a report that our CO2 levels are higher than they have been in three million years.  I drive a hybrid car and use pumps instead of sprays, but clearly that’s not enough.  Some still say it’s a made up problem, and a few believe these are the end-times, so it’s a moot point.  What do I do if I’m not convinced?  Does anyone write to their senators anymore about anything?

No establishment means no one at the helm.  We’re on a ship without a rudder, or rather, many ships, going in circles like women gathering fuel in vacant lots.  The guy next to you at the stoplight is either talking on bluetooth or talking to himself.  You hope that if it’s the latter, he isn’t too angry and doesn’t have a gun.

House behind vacant lot, 2008, by Samuel A. Love, CC by-NC-ND 2.0

House behind vacant lot, 2008, by Samuel A. Love, CC by-NC-ND 2.0

These days some of those ancient women have concealed weapons and none have had background checks.  You spot a piece of wood at the same moment as another who narrows her eyes as if to say, “Are you feeling lucky today?  Well, are you?”

Yesterday’s paper featured an article on the current generation of survivalists, who now call themselves, “preppers,” a terrible name that sounds like a table condiment or the slacks and sweater look for high school students.  They are getting ready for the big collapse, which they say is just a matter of time.  They make a compelling point – ships without rudders run aground.  One local prepper who teaches his skills to others asks, “What would you do if you hadn’t had any water or food for three days?”

Strictly speaking, I think you die after three days without water, but it’s a good question.  I know what I hope I’d do in a crisis, though I don’t think anyone knows in advance for sure.  I recall stories of people helping each other during disasters and others doing just the opposite.  What’s scary is that I think you tend to help people you view as neighbors, and we all have fewer neighbors than ever before.

The survivalists are right about one thing – you have to plan the future you want and practice for it.  Isn’t that the real question, “the overwhelming question,” as Eliot put it? What do we want our lives to be like?  What kind of lives are worth surviving for?

What would happen if those ancient women teamed up to help each other gather fuel?  That’s so un-20th century, but now that we have no establishment, all bets are off.  That kind of future is so foreign to our current way of life that even with the best intentions and effort, many of us won’t see it in our lifetimes.  But that doesn’t really matter.

Outcomes are not as important as the questions.  What do we want our lives to be like?  How do we want to live?  Better to start asking now, lest the day come when human voices wake us and we drown.

The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

We have all heard and read more words this week than we want or need. The ones that keep coming back to me were written in 1919, in a poem called “The Second Coming,” a haunting vision written by William Butler Yeats in the wake of the first world war.

W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent.  Public Domain

W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent. Public Domain

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

***

Yeats was a member of The Golden Dawn, an early 20th century occult organization centered in Britain that sought to recover lost elements of the western mystery traditions.  Their once-secret teachings are now posted online, where we can see that the group practiced the kind of visualizations that could give rise to spontaneous “images out of Spiritus Mundi,” the World Spirit, one of the Golden Dawn’s concepts.

Elsewhere we can read that the poet worked out his own concept of world cycles or “gyres” as he put it here.  We find theories of world cycles from many cultures in many times.  The Greeks said there once was a Golden Age, but now it is Iron.  We’ve all heard of the Age of Aquarius, though unfortunately astrologers now tell us it won’t begin for a few hundred years.  Eastern cultures envision vast cycles that rise and fall and rise again eternally.

In all of these visions, this is the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, a time of degeneration, where the ceremony of innocence is drowned.  Different traditions differ on where it goes from here.

In one account, offered by Paramahansa Yogananda, the crucifixion marked the nadir of this particular world age.  Things are getting better; right now we are experiencing inertia, a last gasp of the dark ages.  Even in this hopeful account, nothing is fixed or pre-determined.  It’s up to us.  How we live our lives, what we think, and what we do, matter more than we know.  More than we can imagine.

In truth, we already know this, just as we know that despair is not an option.  It seems to me the only choice we have is to live moment by moment as if we are the people we want to be, living in the world we want to live in.  There may not be anything more important.  Isn’t it true that the sum of our collective thoughts and actions is going to shape our world and the one future generations are going to inherit?

Dylan Thomas reading, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”

Here is the poet himself, reading one of my all time favorite pieces of Christmas writing.  Enjoy!

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six…”

“…Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.” 

Reflections on Story Water

My second post on this blog, on July 1, 2010, featured a poem called “Story Water” by the 13th century Persian mystic, Rumi.  It came to mind in the light of recent events.

Friday morning, as I worked on post #420, I got up for coffee and flipped on the radio.  The post concerned what folklore can teach us about living in difficult times.  After I heard of the murdered children, I put it aside.  Some events seem too much for stories.  Yet reflection later reminded me that stories are always with us, one way or another.  Rumi knew this.  He knew how the stories we hear feed our inner tales and the importance of choosing wisely where to place our attention.

On friday night, hundreds of people in Newtown, Connecticut went to church.  As I heard how they turned to a story of hope in a dark time, I thought of one of the first such stories I told myself.

One day in first grade, a classmate went home sick.  The following monday, the teacher told us she died.  I had seen dead birds in the woods behind our house, but that was the first time I realized death could visit at any time.  It could steal our friends and loved ones away in a heartbeat.

The dead girl’s name was Cindy Erwin, and she was the minister’s daughter.  I figured her father’s vocation gave her an in with Jesus, and she would be fine.  I never worried about Cindy, although I’ve never forgotten her name.  I knew it was the rest of us who were in trouble.

Stories like this, the ones we tell ourselves, shape our lives in ways we can barely imagine.  Everyone young or old who lived through events at Sandy Hook School or watched them unfold on TV will remember the day as long as they live and tell themselves stories about what happened and why and what it means.

According to Rumi, few of us know the answers with certainty.  That’s why we have stories.  That’s why they matter so much.  I think he would have agreed that in the end, the world is made of stories, so it matters very much which ones we tell each other and ourselves.  In ways we don’t understand, they shape the world as it unfolds.

STORY WATER by Rumi

A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,

and then not.

Tempest – Bob Dylan’s latest recording

Bob Dylan in concert in Spain, 2010, CC-by-2.0

Fifty years after his first album, Bob Dylan, 71, has released Tempest, his 35th studio album, to critical acclaim.  Over half a century, Dylan has never repeated himself.

Randal Roberts of The LA Times says,  “Dylan lives in every molecule of our being, has taught us about lyrical possibility, has reveled in the joy of words and the power and glory of making things up from scratch. To learn that a new Dylan project is in the works is to know that there’s a good chance your brain will be forever changed by at least one new rhyming couplet, snarling oath or graceful guitar line. On “Tempest,”…there are many such moments.”

The songs range from light to dark, from blues to ballad, from topical references to phrases borrowed from Child ballads, all resonating to Dylan’s unique and raspy voice.

“Scarlet Town,” echoes the “Barbara Allen,” where Sweet William on his deathbed lies, but veers away from easy interpretation, much like the inviting but ultimately opaque American folklore references in Dylan’s much earlier, John Wesley Harding, 1967.  Then and now, the poetry is Dylan’s own:

Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours,
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes, but it comes too late
By marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born

The title song, “Tempest,” is a 14 minute ballad about Titanic, phrased as a waltz that echoes the rolling of waves as it borrows The Carter Family’s “Titanic.”

The night was black with starlight
The seas were sharp and clear
Moving through the shadows
The promised hour was near

Lights were holding steady
Gliding over the foam
All the lords and ladies
Heading for their eternal home

Tempest opens with a blues number, “Duquesne Whistle,” written with Robert Hunter, The Grateful Dead lyricist.  It’s followed by the angry and topical “Early Roman Kings.”  There is “Roll on John,” a tribute to John Lennon, “Tin Angel,” a song of murder and suicide, and it ends with “Soon After Midnight,” which sounds like a slow song at the end of a high school dance.

If you’ve ever enjoyed Dylan’s music; if like Randal Roberts it has “forever changed your brain,” I urge you to check out the songs online. I bet you’ll download some or all of cuts, and marvel at the phenomenon of an artist who has continued to grow over fifty years.