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

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Chi non ama

My current odyssey involves looking into my distant past and all my journey since, seeking the threads woven into the fabric of my life, the connections, the clues, the glorious adventures and disastrous wrong turns--and making some kind of sense of it.  I did not type "find some kind of sense" but "make some kind of sense."  The extremely rational part of me that views the universe as a complex marvel of quantum mechanics considers everything to be a dance between Randomness and Pattern.  Randomness means we mostly waste our time asking about purpose but that does not deny meaning.  We create meaning as we tell our stories, giving shape to events.

Rephrasing this somewhat: Does everything happen for a purpose?  I do not believe so. Most stuff just happens.  To believe everything happens for a purpose implies that there is a force controlling everything (goodbye free will) and that this force purposes all sorts of disaster and meaningless suffering.  I cannot buy that. Hello, Theodicy 101. Which is background for this essay, though not truly its central issue.

Anyone who knows me is well aware that I have a questioning mind.  In fact, even more questioning than appears on the surface because a lot of skepticism, evaluation, doubt, and testing is going on in the background that I don't even bother to discuss.  I did not make life easy for my teachers.  I even uttered "bullshit" during a class in seminary.  Yes, aloud.

And what about the role of faith?  Ah, any survey of my life journey would find mountains of material around faith.  Yes, there are things I accept as basic, regardless of any lack of empirical proof and sometimes in the face of contrary evidence.  But that body of faith assertions is very limited and has grown smaller over time.

I have always had a problem with "faith" being invoked to short-circuit rational inquiry, to dodge contradiction and inconsistency, and to bully people into silence and unthinking obedience.  And the evidence for that kind of "faith" (invoked as a weapon) is vast and overwhelming.  I grew up with it.  I spent my summers surrounded by Fundamentalists (I capitalize the word to insist on its original historical context among a subset of conservative evangelical Protestants).  I did not. Fit. In.  I am quite aware that I will be reacting against religious fundamentalism to the day I die.  If my rants against it are problematic for you, feel free to skip most of my posts because my abiding pain and anger do not incline me to go gently.  I do hold such preachers and teachers and organizations responsible for much that is wrong with the United States today and for the anguish, fear, and anger they infuse into their listeners.  If I believed in purging people from society, which I do not, that is where I would begin: pastors.  Yes, I know.  I am a clergyman. Why do you think I know this shit from the inside?

Image from Wikipedia, released to public domain

The heart of stubborn adamant
unyielding would resist
the twists and turns, bullshit and cant
that others would insist
must have assent, must be believed,
set limits to the mind.
That tender, rocky heart was grieved.
It knew the Truth was Kind.

That is a piece of doggerel I composed last night.  I do not offer it as I do poems of which I am proud but as something that captures part of my truth.

Part of my challenge in relating to other people has been the defense I developed early on in order to resist the pressure from without to conform: to say things I did not believe, do things that made me uncomfortable, not do things that gave me joy, deny my feelings and my needs, and attempt to be someone other than myself.  Yes, as a clever, white, middle-class, Protestant male in post-WWII America I had incredible privilege denied to those who started life without those unearned advantages.  Yet even in that privileged context there were messages, constant messages, that there were things wrong with me. When you look simply at sexual orientation, this means who I am is wrong, not just what I believe or say or feel or want.

To live with that judgment, always unspoken but sometimes shouted from pulpits, can lead to a crushed soul.  To many it opens the door to despair and suicide.  That was not my temptation.  But in order to survive I kept a spark within me buried so deep even I could rarely remember it existed.  It was protected by granite, adamant, and steel.  I should not be surprised if a cherub or two also watched over it with a flaming sword (thanks, angels, by the way).  My soul was protected because it was locked in a prison.  You were a rare soul, indeed, if I ever invited you past the first few gates (and they were countless).

I could appear expressive, in touch with my feelings, outspoken, etc. but that is because the surface persona was as free as the deep self was tightly bound and hidden. Performance.  We introverts perform a lot when around people.  Now that I am trying to be authentic it requires immense shifts in my perceptions and behavior.  No small task.

So here this introvert is sharing these deeply private musings publicly on the internet.  Bizarre, yes?  It is easier to open up at a distance.  I am not watching your face for clues, dear reader, that might shape what I say.  Instead I attempt to speak my truth and you may make of it what you will.  I need allies to share this journey with and I hope at least some of my real life friends in what some call "the meat world" will read and engage what I write here.  I hope they will be gentle. As strong as I feel these days, and ready for change, this remains scary stuff.

One of the most immense shifts of this past year is that I have ceased attending church.  There was a time as a devout Catholic (not Roman, just Catholic) Christian I missed being fed if I did not attend Eucharist and receive Communion every week. (Yes, I was a lousy Protestant; way too mystical and sacramental, and Protestants don't even speak those languages.)  I do not miss it now.  My life is lived in the world, out with the tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners and drunkards that Jesus hung out with, if you will.  Most church language sounds meaningless to most people and I just cannot try to speak it any longer.  If I still believe in Good News (and I do), then I must share it in ways that make sense and that is mostly by the way I am with other people.

I am rather agnostic on all matters metaphysical.  As a language major I view all expression as metaphor.  The word is never the reality we try to communicate, it is a symbol, usually at several levels of abstraction.  No word can capture any reality, much less a transcendent one. This does not relieve us of the the task of communication.  My personal, mystical experience of the Ultimate calls for some response from me.  The language I use may all be symbolic but that is all right.  For me it is the language of Love.

There is incredible comfort between me and my atheist, agnostic, and pagan friends, not to mention folks of many faith traditions.  I feel no compulsion for them to believe any set of doctrine.  I want them to experience love and to rejoice in it.  As I said to a friend years ago, "I am not troubled that you no longer believe in God.  I believe that God believes in you and that is enough for me."

I would like to be clear that when I defend my right to my own selfhood, feelings, thoughts, and needs I am not rejecting our relationship to society and the larger whole or denying responsibility toward that context. But I am defending us all against mindless conformity.

All those decades when I feared causing trouble for family or church by expressing who I am and what I feel and think....  And the trouble I have gotten into when I expressed myself freely.... All I can say is: Fuck that noise!

This blog is my blog for my musing and my sharing.  I have some really rude words for those who got their knickers in a twist when I was trying to serve the church for nothing more than the satisfaction of being faithful, but I won't kick up that dust today.  It is nice to be retired from church. I simply can no longer fight the fight against meanness, willful ignorance, and hatred in the name of Christ--and I do NOT speak of the congregations where I served or the dioceses to which they belong, but to that vast, heretical, hateful phenomenon most Americans witness as Christianity. Where people worship God, love each other, and serve their communities they have my unqualified blessing.  Where communities try to straight jacket though and behavior, they have my hearty curse. 

Do I still believe anything?  Actually, yes.

Chi non ama non ha conosciuto Dio, perché Dio è amore.

As the Rabbis Hillel and Jesus said: Love God.  Love neighbor.  Love self.  The rest is commentary.

--the BB