Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Il ritorno

Outline map of Mídhris

I spoke a little last night of voyages and homecoming, of the protagonists of my fiction and myself. There are a few more thoughts to share on this theme.

Ian Dyrnedon, aka Darkslayer, is torn from his home in Yorkshire and never returns to earth. He and most of his companions, who became known as the Light Bearers, are so changed by their experience that they are touched by a restlessness. (Spoiler alert: I am about to share something that happens in the fourth book, as yet unwritten.) They end up migrating from the Forest of Norrast southward to Wolmsley Wood, which is central in later tales.  Ian is forced by circumstances to make his home among the people who took him in and to join other migrants in creating yet another home in new territory.

Grevedan Deveril, my alter ego and the fictional redactor of the entire series, crosses between worlds and spends years in Mídhris before crossing back to earth.  As with all the characters in the series, he has no control over this "slipping between dimensions."  There are locations where it is more likely to happen and individuals to whom it is more likely to happen but nobody wills it into occurring. Grev thrives in Mídhris as a scholar and historian and has a great love affair there.  It is doubtful he would have returned to earth if left to his own devices.  If he could return, he would but once he finds himself back in Central California there is no chance of seeing Mídhris again.  All he has left is his own memory of it (mercifully a photographic memory) and family stories.

A sketch of Grev's arms from the early 1970s

I chuckle as I look at Grev's coat of arms.  From his mother he derives the honorary title and the great oak tree (there go my trees again!) and from his father the flaming sword expressive of the cherubim guarding Eden and Matt's role in the Great Fire.  A home among the trees (my "treehouse" among the alders in Hercules?).  Exile and unspeakable loss.  The crest of the earthly line of Wolmsley is a blossom of Hermann's Peace, a magical flower with its own tale to tell, a tale of reconciliation and healing.  The motto is from Hosea 14.7: "They that dwell under his shadow shall return" (Authorized Version).  That theme is taken from the story of St Mirksel the Healer, of exiles returning to the land.

Looking at this fictional series as a reflection on myself is a fascinating exercise. There is a magical parallel world that may echo my ability to dissociate from my present circumstances.  There is loss of family and fostering in an alien society that may echo my being adopted.  The personal and psychological displacement of characters in the tales is immense and often irrevocable.  Narrative tension and storytelling adventure dictate restlessness and many journeys and what does this say about me?

A factor in writing this fantasy series that I find fascinating is how much of the storyline arises from my attempting to answer questions.  The family trees that I have developed are treated as fixed historical data to which I almost never make changes, though I keep adding to them.  I ask myself what becomes of Ian's descendants.  Where do they scatter? Whom do they marry?  How does the bloodline run from Ian all the way to Grev?  If Ian finds himself in Norrast, why do we encounter his family in the Isenwild and Wolmsley Wood centuries later?  What happens to the earthly line of the Dyrnedon family and how do the Mithron and Terran lines cross and mingle?  It is akin to solving a multidimensional puzzle.

It is usually only after spinning out a narrative that I can look back and see what I have just revealed (even if cryptically) about myself.  It is interesting as I go through this current exercise.  Looking at various segments of my life I do see the continuing threads that weave it all together. That helps make sense of the journey and of myself.

One could also say that the psychological exploration that I am doing now is really groundwork for returning to the series.  I yearn for a "ritorno" (return, homecoming) to writing this fictional opus.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
- T. S. Eliot, "East Coker," Four Quartets

--the BB

Musa, quell’uom di moltiforme ingegno

Be forewarned. The following is not a coherent essay but a collage of thoughts around the theme of coming home from a journey and being at home.  It is rather disjointed but I am not going to labor over it. [The title is the opening of the Odyssey in Italian.]

As I turn to the Odyssey, I am confronted with the theme of the "nostos" (νοστος)" "homecoming" if you will.  As Wikipedia puts it: "the idea of returning home from a long journey."   That is what the Odyssey is all about and many mythic contexts would suggest that is what our life is all about.

When I began a bedtime story that would turn into The Adventures of Jonathan Grubbley, way back in November 1972, I turned to Liz, who was working on her master's degree in folklore and mythology, and asked her for a story line.  She suggested the hero quest, and that is what the bedtime story became, my tongue very firmly planted in cheek.  It was very silly and lots of fun for all of us, but clearly the tale of a hero's journey, even if the hero happened to be a ten-year-old boy who was bored on a rainy day.

It is pretty damned hard to escape archetypes.  Young Jonathan wound up in the middle of my cycle of tales while his ancestor Ian turned into the hero of an epic poem.  Ian's tale launches the entire cycle and proves a deadly serious journey, sending Ian forth to battle an evil that threatens his world, rounded out in his journey home.  It is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story, in which his adventures shape him from a lost boy into a remarkable man.

Then there is Grev, descended from both Ian and Jonathan, whose own journey rounds out the Chronicles, shaping and shattering him in the process, leaving him and the reader to ponder all that is gained and lost, then make of it what meaning we may.

I have commented that Ian is who I wish I were and Grev is who I am.  Well, Grevedan Deveril is my alter ego (and nom de plume).  And Jonathan's tale could easily have been one of the tales with which I entertained my nieces and nephews half a century ago (though it actually beguiled graduate students who needed a break from studies).

All these stories are inevitably woven from my own life journey, the sources and people and events that enriched me and my imagination. All that has formed (or deformed) me becomes grist for the tales, ground together, leavened, and turned by the mysterious alchemy of storytelling into narratives that do not sound anything like my life and yet are totally my life.  As some of the opening lines of the Odyssey put it:
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
So, what of homecoming?

Odysseus and the Sirens

This particular graphic leads me to think about the Sirens as figures of whatever might lure me to my destruction.  In light of recent posts here, that could well be whatever has enticed me, or tried to entice me, from being true to myself.  Having talked about that already, I won't develop it here, only note it since it is a powerful image from myth.

 Ascension of Christ by Bagong Kussudiardja, Indonesia

Most of my past sermons on the Feast of the Ascension have used the image of homecoming, not merely Jesus returning to his Father but, since by the incarnation and his baptism he has united all creation and humanity to himself, the return of humanity and all creation to the Creator.

Not that homecoming is necessarily all fun and games. At the end of the Odyssey, Odysseus slaughters all his wife's suitors.  Their behavior had unsettled society in Ithaca, overturning all that was right and proper and healthy, and when Penelope's husband, and the true king, returns he sets things right again with a bloody vengeance.  Lord of the Rings fans know The Return of the King is not a walk in the park.

In Darkslayer I tell of a young boy who, by accident (or the will of the Stars), finds himself separated from all he calls home, torn forever from family and early eighteenth century England.  He must now live his life in another world, among a forest people and a warrior society.  He is accepted, beloved, and celebrated. He and his wife are best friends as well as lovers and, the initial adventure completed, they live a happy life.  She has one nagging anxiety: that he will be taken from her world as suddenly as he was taken from his original world.  He sees more than most people see and his mind is often very far away.  At the end of book two she asks if he is truly happy. Given all he has lost and gained, he has to think about it.  His home is now with her and their children.  Oh, he answers "yes."  I am a romantic; what did you expect?

But it is not a simple or easy answer.

The question all this poses for me tonight is not whether I am happy (I am ) but where do I feel at home?  Am I a perpetual wanderer who can never settle?  Can I put down roots and feel a sense of belonging and peace?

I have wandered and every time I moved it seemed not all that difficult to move on.  Bill will tell you that this very passive Taurus needed two years (and almost dynamite) to get him from Los Angeles to the East Bay.  Well, LA was the big city after life in Central California.  It had represented freedom and new life to me.  Once in the Bay Area I quickly realized how good it was to be there instead of Smogsville. Still, I was able to pick up and move on.

Part of me still misses our home in El Cerrito, though I am very glad now to be in New Mexico.

I do feel at home in my back yard.  It is a little oasis that I have developed over the years.  It was a sandbox and in April 2007 it looked like this:

Only one tree in that photo survives, lol.

I certainly have a sense that I love this spot and do not want to leave it.

In this first year of being a student at the University of New Mexico, I find the campus growing on me.  From the perimeter it is not very attractive, but when you get into the heart of the campus it is really quite nice.  Yes, once again I am bonding with landscape... with TREES.  But also with the sense of a place of learning, of youthful energy and potential.  It is very invigorating.  I would not call UNM home but I do feel that I am where I ought to be.

Those who have watched my posts at Facebook will recognize how many times I post shots of the mountains and sky here in Albuquerque and comment "I love where I live."  I do.  I feel deeply anchored by the mountains to the east, the volcanoes to the west, and the Rio Grande running from north to south.  I love the cycle of the seasons here: not harsh seasons but real seasons, nonetheless.

I do sense rightness and belonging.  Am I at home?  Probably as much as I have ever been. Although I love traveling, I have no urge to move.  Have I come to a resting place?  Well, right now I am at a wrestling place, not a resting place, yet I have a sense of contentment.  My journey is far from over.

Where, besides here, have I felt at home?

Evidently in the landscape of my dreams, discussed earlier.

In the hills around Hume Lake when I have been by myself: just me and nature.

At Mount Calvary before the fire, when the monastery and the Order of the Holy Cross provided a spiritual home for a pilgrim whom most considered neither fish nor fowl (no longer a Baptist but not really an Anglican).

Interestingly, though not a surprise to me, I feel very much at home here:

Yes, in the heart of Paris. Though I am not a citizen of France, nor a native or resident of Paris, when I am in that city I feel at home.  There is, for me, a rightness about being there. Something simply unquestioned.  I feel safe in Paris, comfortable, at ease.

I have only been there four times.  The first was in December 1967 as a young student, completely on my own for the first time in my life.  Yes, I was anxious, but also excited.  The second time was in the summer of 1969 when I served as an interpreter for a group of fresh high school graduates on a church tour that included helping to build a church in northern France and attending a conference in Switzerland.  We were only in Paris three days.  In 2012 Bill and I spent twelve nights in an apartment and caught as many sights as we had energy for, soaking up museums and architecture.  Then last May I spent twelve nights in the same apartment, on my own with no agenda, no timetable, and no responsibilities to anyone but myself.  Just like that first time forty-seven years earlier.

In sum, I think I have felt at home where I could be me.

To the extent that I feel sufficiently strong, free, and unanxious these days, I am increasingly just myself and thus increasingly at home. Because home is ultimately right where we are, and we must be at home within ourselves.

May we all welcome ourselves because journeying can be hard.

--the BB

Monday, October 20, 2014

Senza riserve

This fountain was on the street where we stayed in Rome in April 2011.  I love the simplicity of something so delightful. Somehow this photo seemed apt for what follows.

There is a bit of free verse that I wrote, I believe, in 1965.  I had taken a bucolic scene with lots of green grasses and blue sky and silhouetted trees from some magazine, trimmed it so it came to a point on top, then sliced it in vertical thirds.  In my imagination it had become three portions of a stained-glass window, a triptych from nature.  And alongside those three sections, taped onto lined pages, I wrote.  This is the third section:

And this is the poem on that page.  I do not deem the first two sections worth preserving or commenting on, but this captures something that I consider significant.

this little corner
all i ask
to infinitely live
its finite bounds--
this limited expanse
shall ever be
i limits share--
to care a lot
about a little thing
is more than
suffice but well
a little song to sing
without reserve
without a fear--
this little corner
the world
my altar

I had not yet read Teilhard's Hymn to the Universe, his offering of the world itself when he lacked bread and wine to celebrate the Mass.  But yes, the closeted Baptist boy was showing his sacramental, yea even Catholic, leanings that early.

As in earlier posts, I shall indulge in my own commentary because the point of this exercise is not to tell any reader what they should find in my old poems but to explore what I find in them that is meaningful to me today, especially as I look back over my life.

To see the infinite in the finite is a very sacramental view of existence.  If, as we proclaim in the Sanctus, "heaven and earth are full of [God's] glory," then the smallest, meanest particle is imbued with the Shekinah.  The Jerusalem Temple does not contain the divine presence anymore than a random strange quark.  So within finite bounds one can encounter the infinite and as one participates in the divine Life, as I believe all creation does, then one may infinitely live even within the confines of time and space as we experience them.  Even in this I could recognize the truth that God is God and I am not.  I share limits, but that is all right.  That is both profoundly challenging (I am but a fragment of Creation's grand dance, partial, incomplete, broken, and mortal) and yet this cannot undercut my connection with all that has been, is, or ever shall be.

I really like the segment that reads: "to care a lot/ about a little thing/ is more than/ amplitude." That captures so much for me.  It speaks deeply, affirmatively, and joyously.

The current reflections are all designed to help me understand what has led me away from myself, tempted me, coerced me, or misled me to try to be something other than who I most truly am.  It seems that given my obnoxiously quick intellect, my easy tuning into to the feelings of other people, and my desire to please and to help, I was a perfect project for those who wanted to make something grand of me.  Someone who would go far in this world.  Be some kind of success.  Do great things.  My pediatrician said, "If you want to be a missionary, fine, be a medical missionary."  Well, as with any good Jewish mother (and she was one), the dream of a doctor is always there, right?  My sense of a religious vocation was distressing to many. Shouldn't I be something more prestigious? But if a pastor (which was respectable but hardly the image of a huge success or of someone who would change the world), at least a pastor of a very large successful (bourgeois, respectable, wealthy) congregation, OK?  And yes, that latter image was expressly put forth by my parents.

And yet, as this poem clearly articulates, I really would be happy with a small corner of the earth, and my introverted self would certainly be more at ease.  I did not want to stride forth on some grand stage.  I felt as though so many people (teachers, counselors, family, etc.) wanted me to 'BE SOMETHING," something more than I really wanted.  Dang, if I could have been a high school teacher like Mr. Amend, who could passionately share not just knowledge but the love of knowledge and of the riches of human culture, and seen lights come on in the eyes of students, I think it would have been awesome.  Granted, as the years went by he was bitterly disillusioned in the educational endeavor and that remains a sadness on my own heart for his sake, and for what students who followed us seemed unable to receive from him.

I would probably have been happy as a college instructor.  Not a full professor.  Fuck committee meetings and the pressure to publish or perish.  That is not me.  I do not want to be a front-line researcher (and I knew that full well when I was in a doctoral program).  I wanted to be the popularizer who could take the research others do and share it in a way that others could enjoy the fruits of that research.  And I knew and articulated that when I was in grad school.

As a clergyman I never wanted to be rector of what we call a "cardinal parish."  A smaller church was always much more to my liking.  I did not want the pressures to succeed in some corporate business model (the curse of the church in so many ways these days).  And some of the greatest joy in my years as a priest were the moments when I could see by an expression or hear in a tone of voice that something "connected" for someone.  Something made sense, some context for a life was gained, some new meaning discovered, some new inner strength revealed, some hope kindled, some fountain of grace unblocked so forgiveness and healing and new life could happen.  As someone who has been a teacher all my life no matter what work I ostensibly did, I knew I was only the midwife and that was plenty for me.

So here I am, still yearning to get to the rest of my novels, or as many as I can write.  I can hardly call them some "little song" and yet they are not aimed for the rungs of great literature.  I still wish that what I write as fiction will constitute some "rollicking good tales" that entertain.  I am confident they can also encourage, challenge, inspire, move, and exalt the reader as well, but the first rule is that the tale must engage and entertain. That would be my little song and it would suffice.  I do know that as I wrote the early seeds of the series and as whole books take shape, I write without reserve and without a fear. This fantasy parallel world is my little corner (and it is just a corner of the parallel planet).  It is my altar on which I offer up my vision, my wisdom (such as it is), my tears and my joys: a gift given with a free and open heart to whosoever will enjoy it.

I know I had a sense of being groomed for great things.  I hated and resented it. Fiercely and bitterly but never spoke of this to any one. So my walls grew higher and thicker and stronger.  And this may be why so many of my carefree dreams are set in the geography of my pre-adolescent years, before the pressure came. And the anxiety dreams are set in high school and college.

If one examines what gives me joy...
If one looks at the subjects of my photographs...
So often it is just details or the everyday.

to care a lot
about a little thing
is more than

--the BB

Friday, October 17, 2014

Ora sei un sconosciuto

I have already confessed a great fondness for the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. They arrived, if you will, at just the right moment in my life.  I was young, impressionable, and all that, of course. Additionally, the lyrics, melodies, and arrangements all provided a variety and richness beyond the simpler rock and roll I knew up to that point.    I think "texture" may be the category I am seeking here.  My ears and mind encountered a musical texture that I had unknowingly yearned for.

Be that as it may, another of their songs popped into my head this evening as I was looking at another segment of my life.

"The Dangling Conversation"

It's a still life water color,
Of a now late afternoon,
As the sun shines through the curtained lace
And shadows wash the room.
And we sit and drink our coffee
Couched in our indifference,
Like shells upon the shore
You can hear the ocean roar
In the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
The borders of our lives.

And you read your Emily Dickinson,
And I my Robert Frost,
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Couplets out of rhyme,
In syncopated time
And the dangled conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.

Yes, we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
"Can analysis be worthwhile?"
"Is the theater really dead?"
And how the room is softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow,
I cannot feel your hand,
You're a stranger now unto me
Lost in the dangling conversation.
And the superficial sighs,
In the borders of our lives.

Copyright: Paul Simon Music

 The reason this particular song, one of my favorites, came to mind was reflections on a photo I found while cleaning out boxes of "stuff" in my garage.  I came across this photo, done for a church pictorial directory.

 I posted it on Facebook, noting that it was scary.  A very ambiguous comment and responses have been interesting.  One college classmate did note that the smile seems a bit sinister.  Maybe all clergy have something of the oily used-car salesman about them?  I suspect it is only scary to me.

Life is complex, as are our motivations and actions, our interpretations and evaluations.  I will save for another post a discussion of factors that led me to feel called to ordained ministry and the struggles related with that.  Now that I am officially retired from same and, in fact, keep all things ecclesial at a distance, this photo seems removed from my current reality and identity by more than the eighteen years that have elapsed.

A friend who knows me well speculated aloud, but without elaboration, that one might wonder just how good a fit the church and I were. That is quite a speculative bombshell, given that I felt called at age fifteen, pursued ordination as a Baptist until hands were laid on me in 1972, and then after I became an Episcopalian pursued it all over again--complete with all the obstacles of being openly gay and eccentric--until hands were laid on me again in 1990.

I did genuinely care about parishioners, grieving when they wept and smiling when they rejoiced.  I sought to feed them with the riches of Christ's grace and never felt I was anybody's savior.  I tried, as best I could, to be faithful: to God, to the People of God, to the Church. There were things I was good at and areas of pastoral ministry where I sucked.  I had my share of those parishioners known in some circles as "priest killers."  I came away with some deep and serious wounds in my home diocese and in the one where I now live. Also with some great joys and satisfactions.

Over time I have realized that my life is actually "in the world" and not "in the Church."  Probably the most effortless, effective, and well-received ministry I have ever had has been in the business world and in everyday encounters in which I function with no collar or title.  So, unlike many old photos, this one does not strike me as "me."  I look at it and the words of the song rise up: "You're a stranger now unto me...."

Yes, I recognize the features of my face and I cannot deny the history of my life.  But that fellow seems like an alien. Sort of creeps the hell out of me, to tell the truth.

And this guy?  Taken about the same time but mercifully minus the collar.  Shot at some social in the parish hall, crazed and exaggerated grin, one gold crown shining amongst those teeth. But that feels like me.  I still have that shirt and that down vest.

Few things can make me cringe more than being introduced as "Father Paul."  It sometimes leads to someone wanting to share their religious journey (and gripes about organized religion) with me in a social situation, sort of like asking a physician for a medical consultation at a cocktail party.  No, this is not the time and place to discuss your spiritual gallstones and no, I don't care. Sorry. Share your life journey with me and I may find you interesting and engage but I don't talk church-speak anymore.  Call it a language I have forgotten, or am trying to forget, while I work to learn Italian and keep my French and Spanish alive.  If you have been damaged by bad theology, so have I.  It is not that I lack sympathy; I just don't want to hear about it.  I have dealt with it for six and half decades and I am tired, sick, fed up. Too many toxins for me to deal with anymore.  The gymnastics involved in sifting out the gold from the dross in the biblical tradition has become draining and I have better things to do with my life.

Mind you, the last congregation I was with exemplifies, to my mind, what church should be.  The people worship God, love one another, and serve the community in which they live.  They do so with hear, mind, soul, and body.  It is a joy to be in their midst.   The only reason I am not in their midst is that they meet in church, and church does not speak to me.  My discomfort would, I believe, have a negative effect on these wonderful people.  And I am quite happy doing anything else on a Sunday morning.  I admire those who still minister as clergy and theologians and count some very fine ones among my friends.  I just cannot do it anymore.

I am not saying religion is a crock of crap.  That is not what I believe at all.  Nor do I think "organized religion" is some ogre in the universe of spirituality.  Saying one is spiritual but not religious sounds like meaningless tripe to me, but since almost everyone I know says that I won't confront them on it.  I take it to mean you have some experience you sense is spiritual and you reject anyone who would tell you what your categories of religious experience should be or what it should mean.  You are a modern individualist (or spiritual narcissist, but I will give us all the benefit of the doubt at first).  I think you should reject spiritual straight jackets!  (Chances are the categories you use to do that come from some tradition, but we can pretend you reject all traditions and are going with your gut and that you invented the wheel.)

My roots are deep in a specific tradition: Christianity.  I was raised a Protestant with heavy Calvinism polluted with the modern heresy of Dispensationalism, but rejected that and went for deeper roots in Western Catholicism (not Roman) and increasingly steeped myself in a piety that is Eastern Orthodox.  My home is still full of icons and candles.  But, like the banyan tree, I have not only an original taproot but have branched out and sent down other roots, most notably in Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, and an earth-centered orientation that is friends with the neo-pagans of our time.  All of these and more nourish me and my fantasy fiction has its own mythology and parallel "Christianity" that blend.  Just because I do not use the language of my tradition(s) in everyday life does not mean they do not form me deeply and constantly.  "You can take the dude out of the Church but can't take the Church out of the dude" or something like that.

Yet I stand with those outside the Church and feel at home with them outside those walls, outside those rites, outside that imagery (for the most part).  And the nagging question remains: How much of a fit was there between me and the Church? Deeply and essentially.  I do not know the answer.  I believe I did much good and certainly some harm in my years of ministry.

It just seems like it all happened in a galaxy far, far away.

And the man in that photo is a stranger now unto me.

But me?  I am knowing myself and liking myself better all the time.  Feels good.

--the BB

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Un sonetto francese

Le jour était morne à travers le crachin gris
Où s'enfonçaient les cimes des chênes, où toutes
Les feuilles tombantes abandonnaient leurs voûtes
De gothique rayonnante--j'en fus épris,
Car mon âme aussi tombait, une douce pluie
L’accompagnant dans la chute du désespoir.
Mon esprit, s'égarant, entra dans un bois noir.
--De cette douleur, me dis-je, que je m'enfuie.

Mais je fus saisi d'un inexprimable peur
De ne jamais revoir le soleil ni les astres,
Qui serait peut-être le pire des désastres.
Je me tournai donc et, en rehaussant le cœur,
Je descendis d'un mont, j'émergeai de ce bois,
Je vis de la lumière, et je pensai à toi.

26 février 1968

Oui, mes amis.  I know this is drama as only the young can do drama.  We speak of purple prose and this is, well, indigo verse or something, lol.  But the structure is fairly solid, the style literary, and after all these years I remain pretty proud of it.  I will try a translation into English.

The day was gloomy through the gray mist
Where the tops of oaks were thrust, where all
The falling leaves were abandoning their high
Gothic vaults--I was struck by it,
For my soul was also falling, accompanied
By a light rain in the descent into despair.
My soul, straying, entered a dark wood.
I said to myself, "Let me flee this sadness."

But I was seized by an inexpressible fear
Of never again seeing the sun or the stars,
Which would be the worst disaster.
So I turned and, lifting up my heart,
I descended the mount, emerged from the wood,
Saw the light, and thought of you.

I told you it was drama.  Indeed, high overstatement.  Though line 8 speaks of fleeing despair through implied suicide, suicide has never been a temptation for me.

Ah, sweet retrospect.

I have commented that I could not have written Darkslayer in my youth.  I needed to experience depression and the re-emergence into light in order to write that tale.  The depth of actually living this was necessary and so the opening volume of The Chronicles of Mídhris was begun in 2006.  Yet the theme lies here, just months before I graduated from college and several years prior to the germ of the Chronicles.  As I reread this poem I can see the thread clearly.  The conflict between light and darkness is so universal that there is nothing surprising here, yet the clarity of an abiding theme in my writing does grab one's attention.

By the way, I am pretty sure there was a conscious nod to Dante in the dark wood.

Just thought I would share this.  Yes, I have written sonnets over the years. I believe my first was to Miss KJK.  There was an entire cycle dedicated to my first French teacher.  Many scattered through my journals.  Some in the last twelve years.  It is a form I enjoy.  I hope there are enough francophones to enjoy this one.

--the BB

For Narnia fans

The Lion makes a net with lines of love
and wisdom, bound with knots of power
and command.  It is a net of magic song, of
calling into being.  See, a shower
of stars stands forth where the net was flung,
its weaving now entwined with intricate
counterpoint, for where the Lion has sung
now sing as well the noble stars, so late
come from the void.  And in their light stands
Aslan, at whose roar the universe thrills.
Now, from his feet to the sea-lapped sands,
and across the silent valleys to the hills,
the grassy green of life shoots out like fire
and a world breaks forth like a note upon His lyre.

11 August 1971

[I thought something lighter than my life review might serve as a palate-cleansing sorbet.]

--the BB

Monday, October 13, 2014

Quattro poesie

Today we revisit some poems I wrote during the months of July and August 1971.  I am commenting upon them, a very odd thing for any poet to do.  Verse should speak for itself and readers should be free to make of it what they may.  The purpose of commentary here is not to elucidate any meaning of the poem for others but to explore, for my own understanding, healing, and growth, what those things I wrote when I was twenty-five might mean for me today now that I a sixty-eight.

I shall not curse

I shall not curse this harsh, unyielding rock
which holds the sky up, and forbids the sea
to charge beyond the bounds of shore and bank
and thus engulf my frail humanity.
This stony soil is both a friend to me
and my opponent.  It may perhaps break
me as I toil to set its secrets free,
yet if I would but hear, and it could talk,
the earth might call me brother.  I might learn
that jagged rocks I trip upon today
have always borne me up that I might walk.
And where I struggle most against the clay
the right to overcome I slowly earn;
and stone may yet become the strength of me.
17-21 July 1971

This is certainly not the classic rhyme pattern for a sonnet, but we will let that pass.  The opening describes primal boundaries, as though some ancient view of the universe saw mountains holding up the sky's dome and the limits of land and water were firmly set, themes that echo Job 38:4-11.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? 

 Do we have a recurring theme? Yes, we do.  I grew up with a terrible imbalance of no boundaries on the one hand and immensely over-fortified ones on the other.  The idea of a secure, healthy identity of my own that could freely engage others in a genuine manner: well that was the facade and the fantasy but not the reality.  "My frail humanity" might be taken, in retrospect, as an image of my frail sense of self.  That was terribly threatened then and over much of my life.

With soil as friend and opponent there is a contrast as old as Eden. Adam is made from the earth into which the breath of God is breathed to create a living soul. 'The noun 'adam is also the masculine form of the word adamah which means "ground" or "earth."'  (Yes, I lifted that from Wikipedia but also know it from taking Hebrew in seminary.)  Much as "human" is related to "humus."  We are of the earth and part of it.  Yet in the myth of the Fall we must toil to bring food from the earth.  Good farmers and gardeners see this as cooperating with the elements, not doing combat, but the tension is there.

There may be a contrast between being and doing as the poem moves on to toiling to set secrets free, and possibly being broken in the process, versus learning to listen and then to receive the secrets as gift. These are very different approaches to life and, though I would not make an absolute of the contrast, they can be found in Western versus Eastern philosophies. Bringing the two into balance is the great art, yielding to the harmony of yin and yang to discover the transcendent Tao.  That which today is a stumbling stone may be revealed as part of what upholds me at all times.  For that matter, my headlong fall at times may prove the call to attention that may lead me to learn and change, to heal and grow.  As the poem's end nears I wrote of earning the right to overcome through struggle.

This puts me in mind of Harry Carroll, my classical Greek professor, saying, "πάθει μάθος, Mr. Strid," when I grumbled at the end of an exam.  It comes from Aeschylus' play Agamemnon in line 177:


τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας
180μνησιπήμων πόνος: καὶ παρ᾽ ἄ-
κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος
σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.

Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding, Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that “wisdom comes by suffering.” But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, drips over the mind in sleep, [180] so wisdom comes to men, whether they want it or not. Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods enthroned upon their awful seats.
--tr. Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph. D., 1926 

So we find in this irregular sonnet a blend of struggle and gift.  I think the concluding line is one of transformation: our opposition becomes our source of strength.  It resembles the Lakota wisdom that the North Wind that blows fiercely and bends the grasses and trees is the very force by which those grasses and trees develop strength.  Even so our tribulations give us what we need to be strong and healthy.  As it is summed nowadays, "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger."  It is much deeper than that.

A final comment: I am a Taurus, born under a fixed earth sign. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, part of that great Central Valley devoted to agriculture.  Even though I am, and always have been, a city boy, the soil and what grows from it is very central to my being.

 The following was inspired by the Tarot card of the King of Cups (pictured at the head of this post).  I had read Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance because it had influenced T. S. Eliot, as he explicitly states in his notes to The Waste Land.  She wrote of the Grail legend, of ancient fertility rites and Christian overlays, and she discussed the symbols in the Tarot deck as expressing some of that semi-underground tradition.  Now, any good fundamentalist would recoil in terror as I acknowledge that as a Baptist seminarian I gave some attention to the Tarot.  They would say, "See!  There is where he went wrong, turning to the occult."  I would say, "Codswallop!"  My mind works in symbolism and I do not fear to venture where Eliot has gone.  I do not, in any case, ascribe metaphysical reality to any occult symbol.  I think astrology is bullshit if you actually promulgate the idea that the position of the planets and stars shapes destiny.  I do, however, gladly accept that the symbols of astrology, mythology, etc. provide tools for us to discuss, in very powerful and helpful ways, the psychic realities of our lives.  This is why I can say that I am a Taurus.  It is easy, shared symbolism.  And I will go further to say I am very skeptical of any Christian metaphysics as well.  All language is metaphorical so what I say of God is symbolic, limited, inadequate, and--even though it may point toward the truth--remains untrue.

But back to the poem:

The King of Cups
The waters roll and toss; they grow and swell
with hidden purpose, splashing freely now,
then gathering their random force to burst
upon the shore.  What strength can break or quell
their strange attack?  Who shall withstand the thrust
of their aggression? Rising to surround
the rockbound isle, they lap now at the throne
and at the feet of him who holds in trust
the power of life.  With calm command, his brow
unwrinkled and benign, he stoops at first
to fill his cup and drink.  Then, at the sound
of his voice they recede, as if to bow
and acquiesce.  The only king they own
acknowledges their faith, yet sits alone.

1 August 1971

Why this card?  Well, I read somewhere that the King of Cups was the card of the theologian and what was I back then but a budding theologian?  I have said many times throughout my life that I have always thought as a theologian.  Between my inherent mysticism and sacramental mindset (words that Baptists do not use but have always been part of me), I found it difficult to experience or conceptualize anything without reference to the Ultimate and to the ultimate questions.  The last fifteen years, roughly, have reflected a shift in my journey in which those two aspects (mysticism and sacramentalism) have emerged more strongly and ecclesiastical trappings have increasingly fallen away.  To see God as permeating yet transcending everything that is makes me a firm panentheist and back in Baptist seminary we discussed that and some of us, at least, were convinced that this was orthodox and probably necessary if we were to make any sense of creation and experience. When one sees "the veil of Temple rent in twain" and any distinction between sacred and secular as artificial and unhelpful, then it becomes difficult not to see the divine everywhere.  And since, by a combination of choice and circumstance, I have spent most of my working life "in the world" (what a silly phrase), it is in the world that I must, and do, experience the holy and live out my ministry as it takes many surprising shapes.  The Church has seemed increasingly irrelevant to the lives of those around me and, though it has formed me deeply, I consciously try to avoid using its obscure, precious, and frequently misleading language.

As for this poem, clearly related to the one before it, there is this sense of threat and isolation. Will the savage waters rise and drown the King?  You can easily note that the card itself does not posit angry waves that threaten, only that he is surrounded by water.  It is rather my own projection, my personhood that feels so isolated and cut off, so threatened by all around it.  The poem expresses a few things.  One is transformation.  These would seem to be sea waters, based on the card's depiction of a large vessel in the background, yet the King fills the Cup and drinks, so the waters are somehow sweet and life-giving.  He draws water by stooping, so although he expresses calm--even wordless--command he is not rigid or haughty, simply secure and in control.  I see here a projection of how I wish I had been back then.  If there is anything I was not at that point is was secure and in control.  I was a closeted queer in an evangelical context, hoping to be ordained.  I would, in the following year, be so overcome by anxiety that I would fail my oral exams, reduced to a terrified, inarticulate mess.  I retook them a week later and did fine, but secure I was not.

The man on the throne and the waters all about him are in harmony.  Yet he remains in isolation.

The poems here were written just two years after the Stonewall Riots in 1969.  The drag queens and their allies, bless them, stood up for themselves and the world would not be the same.  As courts across the United States find that equality before the law includes the right of marriage equality in 2014, we are now in a very different world.  Back in 1971 to be deep in the closet and hope to become a minister of the Gospel was about as insecure as you could get.  I was very, very alone.

Breaking down the walls

What is the cost of breaking down the walls,
and what the price of lowering the bridge?
What is the risk of teetering on the edge
and what the end of him who slips and falls?
Do they really crown the victor? What's the catch?
Should I really try to trust you? Do you care?
Do I really want to open? Do I dare?
Will I always choose to sit it out and watch?
Am I tossing empty questions to the air
as in a game, only to receive them back
unanswered? Do I really seek to crack
our of my shell? Why do you simply stare
at my deliberations? If I try,
will you help me come to life, or let me die?

August 1971

So, I was clearly wrestling with all of this back then.  But I lacked the inner strength, the experience of living, and safe allies.  As I look back I am convinced it was not safe then.  I did come out "as bisexual" to a handful of classmates.  They took it calmly, except for the woman I was dating.  It was very hard on her and I can only hope that from the other side she can forgive me.

Now forty-three years have passed since these writings.  So very much has happened.  When I dropped out of the doctoral program in history at UCLA in 1974 I did not break down all my walls but I partly opened my closet door and partly had it yanked open for me.  I could stop pretending to be straight, or even bi, and just be my gay self.  Yes, in fits and starts, and it took a while before everybody knew and I no longer cared.  When I dropped out, Mom wanted me to come home.  I was firm in rejecting that suggestion.  It would have been death on a thousand levels.  Poverty and struggle in Los Angeles were infinitely better than the straightjacket of fitting back into familiar (and false) patterns.  Families fall so quickly and unconsciously into old patterns that to this day I have zero sense that I can relax and just be me around family.  I am sure that on some levels they understand this, though I seem so anti-social by limiting visits to once very five years or so.  It only takes a few hours for me to be climbing the walls, even though I love them and rejoice in their happiness and grieve for their sorrows.

In any case, a number of walls fell a few years after this poem.  Others remained firmly in place until recently. 2013 was a year of many transitions.  Three very special men came into my life and taught me that I am capable of so much more than I thought. They are still, if only at a distance, part of my life (and daily prayers) and I will forever be grateful.  Over the past year I have also had to "let go" of each one and on several levels had to let go of my best friend as well, not for any sad reason but because he has a new love and life partner, a wonderful man.  I wish them all happiness and support their relationship, but I no longer am able to rely on the man I spent twenty-four years with for a huge amount of my social life and main emotional support.  It is right and good, and good for me especially, that I must learn to do things for myself.  Long overdue.  2014 and beyond are the Years In Which I Must Finally Grow Up.  Yeah, I know.  Kind of slow on the uptake there, BB.  In any case, I want to thank Chris, Brian, and Math for helping me break out of my shell.  The final walls are falling and I no longer choose to sit it out and watch, or remain passive.  And Bill, who has been there for almost thirty-seven years, I thank you for the hard conversations we have had to help us both heal and grow and move forward. And my shrink, who has proven to be a perfect companion at this particular point. Thanks also to my coworkers who have listened to me endlessly talk about the roller coaster ride of the past two years and have been there every step of the way with their friendship and support. (This is where the drunk tears up and says, "I love you guys!")

So, in short, I am trying, and those around me have proven safe and trustworthy and are helping me come to life.

The morning caught its breath

The morning caught its breath
when the halfgreen tint of sky announced
the sun's brief hesitation.
A squirrel darting behind a clump of firs
distracted my wonder and nearly made me fall
from the whitened log I balanced on,
forcing me to grab the sticky limb
of the cedar to my left.  When I looked up,
the sun was there,
shooting goldstreaks through the haze
in the valley where my heart leaped
to welcome the day.

August 1971

Not sure this needs any comment.  It speaks of my sense of being at home in the forest and rejoicing in simply being.  A good place to pause for today.

--the BB

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sulla strada dell’esilio

Paris Night

Upon the stonework bridge I stood
   with shoulders bent and head
And listened to the songs of night
   sung by the river below
And the clouds above which veiled
   the winter moon, so far
From what I once called home
   yet farther still from all I'd dreamed.

A shadow in the alleys of the heart
   wandering in fear and hope
Surrounded by the memories of now
   and then and tomorrow
Squeezed into a moment caught between
   the massive centuries
Yet living in that moment all
   unuttered human drama

Now sensing in my soul that night
   forever there yet gone
I know of many waters fled
   beneath the bridge of stone
And much to flow.  I await
   the ultimate union
Of river and sea, of sky and earth,
   reality and dream.

Cum subit illius tristissima noctis imago,
Qua mihi supremum tempus in urbe fuit,
Cum repeto noctem, qua tot mihi cara reliqui,
Labitur ex oculis nunc quoque gutta meis.

20 mai 1968

The closing quatrain is Ovid, Tristia 1.3, in which he laments his exile from Rome.  One translation is as follows:

When the saddest memory comes to mind,
of that night, my last hour in the city,
when I recall that night when I left so much
so dear to me, even now tears fall from my eyes.

The photo shown here was taken in May 2014.  I am sure the view was less brightly lit when I stood in the same spot in December 1967, a young student far from his native California yet who felt so at home in this great and beautiful European capital.

This is one of the items buried amid chaotic gibberish in the journals of my college and seminary days.  Evidently written just before my college graduation it speaks of the memories and yearnings awakened during my semester abroad.  The "many waters fled" suggest the immense changes I felt within from my time in France, experiencing a different culture, thinking and even dreaming in a different language,  learning to eat and dress and behave somewhat differently from the ways of home.  Memories "squeezed into a moment caught between the massive centuries" even today makes me think of the exterior reality of walking down streets with stone walls on either side, ancient walls (especially to someone whose entire life had been lived on the West Coast).  In fact, I walked each day past Notre Dame de Paris going to and from my hotel.  And here was my little life caught in that immense context, and feeling that I was very much part of it while simultaneously a stranger in its midst.

Well, let us assume a kid who cites Ovid in Latin must have some feeling for centuries of history.

Exile, journey, and longing for a home still unknown are undoubtedly themes of my life and now that I am in my late sixties it is certainly time to reweave these threads into some deeper wholeness.  The Italian title ("on the road of exile") comes from Turandot, possibly my favorite passage in the opera:

LIÙ (si avvicina al Principe, piangendo)
Signore, ascolta! Ah, signore, ascolta!
Liù non regge più!
Si spezza il cuor!
Ahimè, ahimè, quanto cammino
col tuo nome nell’anima,
col nome tuo sulle labbra!
Ma se il tuo destino
doman sarà deciso,
noi morrem sulla strada dell’esilio!
Ei perderà suo figlio...
io...l’ombra d’un sorriso!
Liù non regge più!
Ah, pietà!

Non piangere, Liù!
Se in un lontano giorno
io t’ho sorriso,
per quel sorriso,
dolce mia fanciulla,
m’ascolta: il tuo signore
sarà domani forse solo al mondo...
Non lo lasciare,
portalo via con te!

Noi morrem sulla strada dell’esilio!

Noi morrem!

Dell’esilio addolcisci a lui le strade!
Questo, questo, o mia povera Liù,
al tuo piccolo cuore che non cade
chiede colui che non sorride più...
che non sorride più!


LIÙ (weeping, approaches the Prince)
My lord, listen, ah! listen!
Liù can bear it no more!
My heart is breaking!
Alas, how long have I travelled
with your name in my soul,
your name on my lips!
But if your Fate
is decided tomorrow
we’ll die on the road to exile!
He will lose his son...
And I...the shadow of a smile!
Liù can bear it no more!
Ah, have pity!

Don’t weep, Liù
If one far-off day,
I smiled at you,
then for that smile,
my sweet girl,
listen to me: your master tomorrow
will be perhaps alone in the world...
Don’t leave him!
Take him away with you!

We’ll die on the road to exile!

We’ll die!

Soften for him the road to exile!
O my poor Liù, this, this
is what he who smiles no more
asks of your unfailing heart...
he who smiles no more!

Darkslayer, books one and two of The Chronicles of Mídhris, tells of my young hero Ian Dyrnedon who slips between dimensions and finds himself in a parallel world.  He never returns to his family in Yorkshire and is forced to make his home in a new world and among a new people. There he finds such happiness and peace as he can, though life forces upon him so many and such strong experiences that there is always a restlessness, a source of perpetual uneasiness for his wife, a strong woman whose sole weakness is concern for him.

Books three through eight have similar threads in the story lines and the final two volumes (should I live long enough to get them written) bring the story of the redactor of the Chronicles, my own alter ego, who suffers an ultimate parting no words can capture.

I suppose the two clearest life tasks I now face are making sense of the journey of my life and getting the story of the Dyrnedon family journey into published (or publishable) narrative.  Whether any other huge tasks will come to pass remains to be seen, and I am agnostic there.  That I leave to Christian grace and Eghran's chance.

--the BB

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Ho i miei libri

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries. 
--Paul Simon

I was a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel.  Their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, was released on October 19, 1964.  I started college in fall 1964.  Going back to those songs is total nostalgia for me.  A wistful alienation, so common in that era, spoke to me.  They were overshadowed by the Beatles but I much preferred Paul and Artie.

There is no question that I saw the tragic sadness of anyone so cut off from others as the narrator of "I am a rock," and I did not hold that as any kind of ideal.  I admired the skill with which Paul Simon's words and music captured this kind of isolation, a shielding from the hurt that others can inflict, a defense against vulnerability, love, loss, betrayal, doubt, etc.

Tonight I listen to this song and look at these lyrics and think, "OMFG, that is truly who I was when I first fled my home town to the exotic environs of Claremont, California."  From the perspective of maturity I can look back and see exactly how deeply armored I was (and have been).  The added resonance of the moment lies in my current project, returning to the books of my youth to relive my journey, only this time without so many defenses.

I confessed in an earlier post that I have seen trees as guardian spirits: friendly, safe, watching over me.  I have often preferred trees to people. With trees I have never been pressured to perform, to be something I am not.  I am safe with trees.  Extending the imagery a bit, from trees we make books.  If trees represent the external (non-human) world in which I feel safe and which exalts my soul, then books represent the internal world in which I feel safe, the world of my mind and imagination, the meeting ground of souls across time and space where ideas and emotions are shared... but at a remove. A book or an idea may make some claim on me, demand some response, but there is not a physical person facing me: the situation where I immediately start to gauge "what does this person want from me?" and start to shape myself to that intuited, projected, genuine, or utterly misread desire of the other.  In short, when I am with other people my knee-jerk response is to abandon my self-hood in order to respond to them or elicit a response from them.

When one has done that for almost seven decades it is difficult to stop.

There is an element of shock in finding myself musing on this tonight.  As I seek to break out of the ancient patterns that initially allowed me to survive but then crippled me across the years, here I am going into one of my greatest retreats: books and the inner world of my mind.  Then again, the way we find healing of our past wounds is by naming them and dealing with them, often reliving our past, seeing if from new perspectives, letting ourselves grieve (with all the steps of denial and anger and bargaining, etc.), and eventually coming to peace.  We can acknowledge our very personal truth, honor both the good and the bad, keep what is of value, let go of the rest, and move forward.

So I retreat once more, but this time quite consciously and with the guidance of a good shrink, with a heart full of hope, and with friends who graciously put up with and support me in this journey.  I go within in order more freely and honestly to open up and open out.  As Hestia helps me to guard the hearth fire of my heart, the security of the inner flame can allow me to open more doors and windows and not hide a terrified spark behind so many barriers.

Beginning with my college years I kept journals.  I think I had thirteen notebooks eventually and only a few years ago tossed almost all of them.  I thought I could walk into my library right now and pull out the first one, started in my freshman year--contemporaneous to my early listening to Simon and Garfunkel. What I laid my hand on was volume two, spanning from July 1970 through January 1976.  Now this is going to be interesting reading!  Here is an early snippet, selected for the obvious link to the theme of Odyssey.

15 novembre 1970
Always going forth hoping to find
eternal journeys toward the evening
and the unknown - my own odyssey -
endless descriptions beyond the door
which marks my beginnings and measures the rhythms
of missed returns.  And so I wonder,
as I start my search just once again,
if destinations lurk beyond
the shadows of night, and if I might
perhaps this time be able to pierce
the curtain which cuts my dawn from my dusk,
airwoven mistwebs tangled in branches,
memories caught in my moments to snare me.
Then the mingled fires might greet me,
sunset, lamp, and hearth together,
waiting for my weary footfall
coming up the steps and crossing though
the door at last and knowing I was

[Below that is written: "That's a lousy vehicle for two lines."  I have no idea now which two lines.]

 I am tempted to comment: "Holy fucking shit! The conclusion of that poem is basically the ending of Darkslayer, Volume Two."

The thing is, of course, that my books and my poetry do not protect me.  Yes, they give me a safe space to ponder but they also pierce me to the depths, nourish me, challenge me, and remind me of truths deeper than words.  And, even if only in private, they have kept me vulnerable.  Rather like the desert monastics in the third and fourth century who fled to the Egyptian desert and there, in such incredible isolation, united their beings to the cosmos and to God, facing within themselves all the life-and-death struggles of the society they seemingly left behind.

So my current plunge into classic texts seems, to me, anything but safe.  I am off on the hero quest. There will be monsters.  Whether I need to slay them or befriend them or both or neither remains to be seen.  There is no formula, no rulebook, no guarantee. As my friend Lee shares in the old proverb:
Caminante, no hay camino; el camino se hace caminando.
[Traveler, there is no path; it is made as you go.]

 I also want to add that in the past few days some pains that I have admitted with my head but had immense difficulty feeling in my heart and gut now seem to be surfacing and I give great thanks for this.

--the BB