No Manual. One instruction: Love.

Walking in downtown Oakland one day with a jolly blonde giant whose name meant Life, we passed an addled, homeless-looking man on the street, and she began to cry.  Out of her tumbled the story that her son, a heroine addict, had relapsed and was back, last she heard, on skid row. ‘That man,’ she said, ‘he could be my son … Wherever he is.’

I was reminded of this encounter reading Carol Christ’s recent post ‘All Children Are Our Children‘, and thinking, as an outsider, about the patient endurance of mothers, as well as the boundless creativity motherhood requires. Mothering is, Christ suggests, an excellent metaphor for the priming of a non-violent mind. My own mother was fond of reminding me that children did not come into the world with instruction manuals, and parents just did the best they could with all the love they could muster. The call to exercise mother-ing, by both women and men, –toward self and other, I might add–is a technique by which violence may be stemmed.

Like mothering, peacemaking and nonviolent resistance calls for patience, endurance and boundless creativity. It is, necessarily, an experimental art. It must adapt and shape-shift according to circumstance. It is emergent, in a way, and so the ground of one’s being needs to be conditioned (often) by the commitment to peace. Nonviolence is not the same as an absence of conflict. Not at all. It is a willingness to meet each other where we are, to collaborate, to listen and to learn together, to live that we might all be less violent, more whole, loving and life-giving.

There is no manual – there are techniques, yes, and these are founded and grounded in Love.

Do you know the story of the two men from different worlds who, by mothering one another (being respectfully present, patient, open, and willing to listen carefully enough that parts of who they were broke down), affected radical change in each other? This account, by Jennifer Pierce, tells the story of the holocuast survivor, Eiie Wiesel, working as a journalist in Paris after the war, meeting the rock-star Catholic theologian and writer, Francois Mauriac. [1] “To Elie Wiesel: a Jewish child who was crucified” read the dedication in one of his later books. His mind, his world, and Wiesel’s, too, had been transfigured by a willingness to stay present and dialogue. I like to think that both were transformed by their fidelity to one another.

Francois Mauriac . . . lived well beyond the Second World War and thus faced the challenge of revisioning his traditional faith amid the ruins of the old world.

~Robert Ellsberg, All Saints, (377).

The poet, Paul Celan, wrote that ‘No one / bears witness for the / witness’ but, surely, there is a degree to which we could agree that both Mauriac and Wiesel held space for the other. Celan’s words are undoubtedly true, considering the enormity of the tragedy both he and Wiesel survived. Mauriac is credited with encouraging Wiesel to release what he had been incubating for ten years in exile, and Wiesel’s testimony is, and should be, as shattering to us as it was to Mauriac.

Could we listen carefully enough to this story, to the people suffering in it and being changed, with enough sustained attention, to allow parts of our own selves to break down, or, at least, soften? 

There’s no manual. There’s really only one instruction and that is to love. 

You are the one to do it.

[1] A more recent write up by Mary Boys can be found here: “When Elie Wiesel met Francois Mauriac.” http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/when-elie-wiesel-met-francois-mauriac

Difficult!

A few weeks ago in class I was trying to draw the distinction between ‘very difficult’ and ‘too difficult’, gently suggesting that very difficult are problems that, with patience and work, can be resolved, whereas something that is too difficult really means that the problem (however temporarily) is impossible to solve. It felt important to point out this small but significant difference to the students because  I hear, far too often these days, the whine, ‘Sennnseeeeeeiiii, it’s toooooooo difficult!’ and while I try to show the value of patience and taking time to chew something properly rather than just opening your throat and slurping down some noodles that will slither down easily, this notion does not exactly catch fire. Who has the time? 

Darlings, I want to say, you must learn to weather difficulty. I am not training you for karōshi, nor even for enjoyment; I’m preparing you for joy. 

“You’re only prepared to enjoy what you already have a taste for: whereas joy is shocking and surprising” 

(Geoffrey Hill).

I find myself these days re-reading bits of Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I came back to it when I’d heard that the poet Geoffrey Hill had passed away and I wanted to re-read “In Memoriam: Gillian Rose”, a poem Hill wrote, that appends the NYRB edition of Rose’s stunning autobiographical gift to the world. I confess I am not very familiar with Hill’s poetry, a lack I am looking forward to filling. I am slightly more familiar with Rose who is brilliant and demanding (and, if I’m honest, a little frightening). Both Hill and Rose enjoy the reputation of being ‘difficult’ writers. Both use language consciously, carefully and to powerful effect. Both engage with the pressure language exerts in a struggle for truthfulness knowing that, as Hill writes, ‘. . . There are achievements/ that carry failure on their back, blindness/ not as in Brueghel, but unfathomably/ far-seeing.’  

Getting rid of difficulties by way of simplification is often insidious. Hill writes: ‘Art that keeps us alive to the moral ambiguities of life is the best protection against the slogans of ideologues and tyrants.’ How else do we avoid Brueghel’s tragic line-up of the Blind Leading the Blind? ‘Tyranny,’ Hill declares, ‘requires simplification. Genuine art is truly democratic.’ Thus, Hill’s ‘difficult’ language, Rowan Williams reminds us, far from being ‘a mark of elitism or contempt for the simple and innocent, […] is a fierce defense precisely against the worst kind of contempt–self-interested or manipulative collusion with what you imagine is the capacity of your public.’ (Darlings, I want your capacities and skills to exceed what your government seems to believe they are.)

Reading Rose and Hill I am cognizant of the fact that there are life-giving and productive difficulties of the  soul-expanding kind. And also, that failure and frailty are part of the human condition. Sometimes radical suffering, pain and loss are the only way that we can come to know certain things about ourselves and the world, about its fragility and our own. Sometimes we must ‘recognize devastation as the rift/ between power and powerlessness.’ Sometimes we must simply go on wrestling in the dark, all through the night, and hold: ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’   Perhaps then we may find our heart(h)s, return to Love, know

                           This ending is not the end,

More like the cleared spaces around St. Paul’s 

And the gutted City after the fire-raid. 

(Hill)

And then, waking up, keep trying to ‘stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, responding–in this sin of language and lips’ (Rose, 144).

Crossings

The full animality of the body looms in the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer. Thriving, for anything other than vegetable matter (and bugs), I believe, is impossible. Striving, too. Everything  goes slack; ‘effort-ing’ is pointless, resistance futile and there’s a great sense of (rather unpleasant) melting that comes over many of us.

 

No-one would tell you that the season is without its charms – but as exhausted as we mostly are, the simpler, the better. One desires, above all, relief and refreshment, to be transported to more pleasant, airier climes. We do not want this humiliation, being reminded of our human condition so rudely. But here we are: human. And, being human, escape comes via the gifts of imagination and story. We cross from the vividly-hued, hulking, hot, sensory bodies to the cool softnesses of the skies, greys and blues and pinks, pale watery colours, and nights with silvery streams of story easing our plight.

pink lotus

 

We wake in the dark, the coolest part of the day, before dawn, and take a slow walk, say, to gardens, along jasmine scented paths, green air hanging heavily, to contemplate beside ponds filled with lotus blossoms, as the sky turns rosy, listening quietly for that opening ‘pop’, the sound of a lotus blooming. The sound of a heart opening.

(Even the cicadas hold silence for this!)

 —

Poems are woven for the gods at this time of year and hung onto ‘Wish Trees’, tall stalks of bamboo. Bamboo, of course, because it is a reliably strong yet flexible thread between the terrestrial and celestial worlds. It grows tall and is sure to reach the heavens, enter the current of breezes and deliver our messages to the gods.You don’t have to write to send your message to the gods; everyone gets to send their prayers heavenward. The weavers hang colourful streamers on the bamboo, remembering the Goddess Weaver, a heavenly princess; the fisher-folk hang gossamer threads reminiscent of their nets, hoping for good catches. Some hang little origami bags wishing for prosperity; some, paper cranes hoping for longevity.

Issa, Tanabata

Haiku, by Issa

 

For our entertainments we recall ancient aristocrats sitting beside small streams, wind-chimes tinkling intermittently to mimic the water flowing over rocks. Gazing at the stars stories are told, poetry is written, saké is sipped. There’s one night of the summer, the seventh day of the seventh month, that is especially powerful. On this night brushes sweep hearts lightly loaded with ink ground and mixed with dew collected from a lotus leaf into poems elegantly written on coloured paper. Amid laughter, I hear, each poem-a prayer, a wish, a gratitude-is tied to a tall stalk of bamboo which is propped up and left outdoors as the party wobbles its merry way home.

hiroshige2c_the_city_flourishing2c_tanabata_festival2c_1857

Woodcut, Hiroshige

On the seventh day of the seventh month we remember the story of the Milky Way and the star-crossed lovers. There are two main variants of the story. The classic and better known one [1] concerns a working girl who begins to feel lonely and her father, worrying for her, finds her a mate. Married life is an absolute hoot and, alas, the duties of the couple go by the wayside – no more fine cloth from her and his cows are all over the place! Daddy is displeased and, as King of the Heavens, is sufficiently annoyed that he decides to separate the two—across the Milky Way. Lots of tears ensue. He is persuaded to soften his stance (a little) and agrees to let the lovers meet once a year provided all is in order with the world. This is all well and good except that crossing the Milky Way is no small feat. For one thing, a bridge is needed. When Princess discovers this lack she makes such a racket with her crying that some sympathetic feathered allies, magpies, arrive and make a bridge with their wings so that the lovers can meet.

IMG_5400_2

Straw sandals worn by pilgrims on a temple gate.

The second (and new-to-me version) [2] reminded me of the selkie stories of the Celts. It concerns a young farmer who lies about finding a gorgeous robe but who promises to help the beautiful woman (a goddess!) to look for it. They fall in love, but then she finds out that he has lied and cannot stay. For him to make it up to her she instructs him to weave a thousand straw sandals and bury them under a bamboo grove. Filled with remorse, he sets about the task and when, after a long, long time he finishes, he shimmies up the bamboo only to find that he’d lost count of the sandals, made only 999, and is now one step short of heaven. He calls out to the goddess who gives him a hand and helps him over. Then he comes nose to nose with her father who, none too pleased to see him, sets him a test: watching the melon patch for three days. (No touching.) He fails. The lovers are forever separated when the melon he touches, splits open and out spills the Milky Way.  As in the classic story, the father’s heart does not stay hardened and one day a year permission is granted for a reunion between the lovers.

All these  decorated trees make me think of Christmas. Being from the Southern Hemisphere, yes, I am used to Christmas falling near midsummer. The Tanabata stories bear resonance of the Edenic myth, separation and the longing that attends it; the folly that causes it, the hunger for connection that proceeds it. The attitude of the father-king got my attention. His heart does not stay hardened; he is moved by emotion and he allows a day a year for the two lovers to meet again, but does nothing else: they have to work out how to actually make it happen. The first story shows how; the second stretches us further.

Perhaps, too, there is something about the (difficulty of the) crossing that reminds us of Christ’s story? Tanabata is a love-story; stars feature prominently; it centres on the desire to bring things together.

Summertime, the full force of the sun upon us, in the north, is a time of growth and meshing, of hopeful bridge-building, of opportunities for crossing over, and finding ways to reunite all number of things, not least the mind (Vega) and the body (Altair).

May it be so.

Tanabata Boat Crossing

Tanabata Crossing [3]


[1] The Tanabata Classic

[2] Mick and the Princess

[3] Okumura Masanobu, Art Institute Chicago