Lent is bracketed by fire in my neck of the woods. At around the beginning of Lent comes the annual ritual burn of the golden winter lawn at the nearby Garden*. Instead of green or gold, the space is carpeted in a breathtaking black just as the narcissus begin to bloom and the canopy of the plum grove pinkens signalling, if not a warm up, then consolation for the lingering cold. The bloom resembles an orchestral tune up: the early seasonal blush turns rhapsodic, symphonic even, as the blossoms go from pop-corn twangs, parps and plucks into something deep, mature, energetic and dignified. All this beauty assails the senses! The trees seem frozen in dance moves, attended by soft, improbably bright neon green moss. On ground level, our feet are in contact with the sooty, bronzed earth. Remember: this is what you have come from, these ashes, this darkness, it says; this is your destiny. The burned grass has its own characteristic smell: shaggy, acrid and uncultivated, contrasting with the light, fleeting, delicate perfume of the plum blossoms.
The black is framed by pathways. Sauntering through the garden in this state one cannot help but be humbled.**
This ritual burn is for the health of the lawn, to rid it of creepy crawlies, large and small, that could do it and the surrounding trees harm. As Mags Blackie has noted in her reflections on the recent fires in Cape Town [here and here], there is a psycho-spiritual corollary to the (hopefully) regular practice of the controlled, or ‘prescribed’, burn. How do we best contain potentials for (ecological & personal***) devastation? Mags lists things like taking time-outs for retreats, receiving spiritual direction and engaging with therapies that allow for the figuring out of things, say, for allowing time and space for inner-outer pattern recognition, and the pursuit of deeper integration. I would add to that list the need for ritual practice.
Certainly, it is wise to try to limit the damage that can be done by life being life; but I can’t help thinking that devastation seems an almost necessary madness from time to time. It seems to me that we need to be reminded that we are human, to have our addictions and arrogance checked by something uncontrollable, disproportionate and utterly wild. Something that returns us to the basics; that makes us to slow down, review and examine our lives and relationships, and jump-starts the care for strangers that often erodes in the workaday world.
I make this claim from amid a culture that prides itself on control–beginning with the self in community and stretching through many venues and expressions. Japan has a special attachment to technology (don’t we all, nowadays?)–the logic of the tekhnē–the Japanese are master systems-makers and managers. It is a country well-versed in (natural) disaster which has, in turn, developed an almost obsessive focus on rules and ‘safety’ in the face of its vulnerabilities.
We are days away from the 4th anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami disaster; if ever there was, a sharp reminder of human limitation. And yet, also a reminder of the power and beauty in the very humanity of humans: their heroism, their selflessness, their boundless generosity, empathy and compassion.
Something deep in the human psyche, mythical and (thus) recurrent, is at play here. And here are a few pieces that came to me as I reflected on those Cape fires there, the Earthquake-Tsunami disaster here, and the spring fires of my Lenten journey.
- The black burned lawn and the narcissus (narcissi?) made me see death and life entwined and to recollect the story of the abduction of Persephone [Beautifully told here by Helen Luke in The Way of Woman in the chapter ‘Mother Daughter Mysteries’ in Part III]. How else, I wonder, are we to make contact with the Dark Goddess, the Black Madonna, the Ground of Being, except by way of chaos and walking through the fires?
- I thought also of Annie Dillard’s dizzying and paradoxical book For the Time Being which is a strangely comforting mooring place for me in the wake of disaster. The book (and the author, I’d bet) has a mordant yet compassionate tone. What I most appreciate is Dillard’s cool, calm willingness to look at and weigh what emerges before her. [Reviews, here and here]
- I suddenly had a desire to give the music of the Stabat Mater some attention [there are plenty of renditions online. I am fond of the Dvorak only because it is most familiar]. Yes, the sorrowing mother – a bit early, liturgically speaking, but why not? Fires, dark goddesses, (extreme) suffering and the aftermath: we need company along the way. We are quite vividly (perhaps it is ever-so?) in the throes of dying and birthing in/on/through many layers of our life together on the planet.
- And finally, today’s serendipitous find (and only because I could not be asked to venture out into the relentless pouring rain to my office to collect the book), a video (80” in length) of the Jungian analyst, whose work has enriched and illuminated my world immeasurably, Marion Woodman. The documentary is called (aptly enough) ‘Dancing in the Flames’ and I commend it wholeheartedly, friends.
Walking in the Garden on a recent morning past the tea plantation I looked back toward the east. The sun had risen over the bamboo forest and seemed trained on the small, old ornamental maple positioned on the banks of a smoking stream, at the side of a stone bridge and a stone lantern. I was instantly struck by the look of electrification the tree had taken on in that moment, a hundred red tips of the leafless branches stuck out: a moving, wordless morning invocation. These are the fires on my mind presently, the ones traveling with the rising sap. Soon, before the end of the month, perhaps, more blossoms will come, the leaves will peel out to feast upon the fires of the sun, the giver of life. Then will our celebrations of the Paschal mystery begin.
Until then, keep on keeping watch and tending your fires.
* Okayama’s Korakuen
** Where humus, the root of humble, is the earth.
*** The ecological and the personal are reflections of each other. I do not see them as separate realms; they are mutually informing.