Thursday, March 2, 2017

Some Time When

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden, and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

- William Stafford, "Ask Me"

* * *

I once was plagued by trying find and secure ultimate answers about God, meaning, the depth of the cosmos, an answer to the question, "Why?" Because my goal was impossible, nothing satisfied and I could pride myself in the search, as if futility were an accomplishment. Such thoughts no longer trouble me. Instead, I only want to know who I am. Should I ever figure that out I have a sense the other questions will be answered as much as they can be.

* * *

Ask me whether what I have done is my life.

It is written as a dare, no? Ask me, go ahead, ask me. I'll tell you. Or maybe it is written plaintively, a request to be relieved of the haunting of the unasked question: who are you? It is a loaded line. Everything else in the poem turns on this question: doings, love, hate, distances, forces of nature beyond our control. Is who we are the origin of these things? And if we don't know if what we have done is who we are, what have we created by not paying attention? 

Here's the thing, it is impossible to always be aware of how each step, each breath, each glance somehow reveals, projects, makes manifest who we are. And those projections are often default settings we operate under just to manage getting through the day. We move by rote and muscle memory in order to move more smoothly, with less friction because to pay closer attention would, invariably slow us down. By moving through our days this way it is both easier to manage and harder to ever know our own names. Layer upon layer, fog upon fog, we mute and muffle what we might have once recognized as our soul, our spark, our fire in order to simply get through. A day of it makes a second day more likely - less pain - and a year of it makes a decade of stifling the thought of who were before we learned to love a frictionless life a done deal. Into the mix we find every sort of justification for turning down the flame and come to believe, honestly believe, we're better off doing as everyone around us is doing: American Dream, mortgage, debt, Netflix and chill.

And if we came to those choices unencumbered by expectation, if we came to them by knowing whether what we have done is our life, then those choices would be fucking gold.

But, that's not the way it is, is it?

* * *

Ask me whether what I have done is my life.

How to clear the fog? How to know if what you are doing to clear the fog is even up to the job? Again, there are bookshelves full of justifications, programs, models for getting at this question, but, love, listen, a book can't do it. Neither can a poem. All they can do is ask a question. The rest falls to you. Should you demand more of them, should you follow someone else's trail of breadcrumbs, nothing much will change. Maybe the language you use will change (psychology, theology, poetry, philosophy, etc.) but the underlying facts will not. The muting of your one precious existence will continue. No, you have to use what is at hand to go beyond whatever they might offer.

That is the risk, the challenge, the privilege.

That would be challenge enough, but should you choose to embark, like smoke and sparks, you will have to do so surrounded by the fears and aspirations of your time, your culture, your society, community and family. Of what possible value is such a journey in the time of Trump? Aren't there bills to pay? Walls to build? Others to blame? 

Well, every life has had to move through the politics of their time. It is always, in all places, a limiting factor, an impingement, a threat to life - if not yours, then the fellow you have demonized. Joseph Campbell, in one of his lectures at the Cooper Union, spoke of the limiting horizons of the in group versus the out group. Each society claims affection and protection for their own against any who are deemed outside the group. Tribal, you know? But as mankind moved from hunting and gathering to cultivating, to the origins of landed society and civilization each step brought about the destruction of the previous horizon. Each step exploded the horizons outward until you reach Copernicus who places the sun in the center, instead of the Earth, instead of man, and suddenly the horizons are now cosmic. What was true for the pre-Copernican society of western Europe, was no longer true. This change occurred because of an expansion of conscious thought. When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969 another expansion occurred, or least it held the possibility of it. It seems to me we have contracted from that possibility of redefining horizons. Things have become narrower, meaner, more cut-throat than they otherwise should have been. Why?

Ask me whether what I have done is my life.

We have conflated the things we do to secure shelter, food, to find a partner, to maintain a home, with who we are. We have let slip any knowledge of ourselves for the certainty of borders and limited horizons. We have become afraid.

The cure is to stand along a frozen river and know that its currents still flow below what we see, to know, without saying, the distances covered, how rivers are the past, present and future all at the same time, to know that what appears to be present for us is yet to be for others, is already past for others still. Rivers move to the sea. Their horizons expand and still they flow. 


And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I'm flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

* * *

Ask me whether what I have done is my life and I will tell you no. The things I have done, the mistakes I have made, the kindness I have managed are not my life. They are the externals, the ice of the frozen river, the thing you see. My life is in the current below all that. It is part of a past I did not witness, a future I will not see.  The only worthy goal is to integrate the two, to introduce my shadow to the light so that what feeds from below is made manifest above. We live, to our great detriment, too much in either one or the other, with no harmony or rhyme present. It is easier to endlessly search, or ceaselessly comply than to challenge either. Justifications abound for both and it is very easy to get lost, to be made afraid. Justifications are constrictions, a limiting factor, a narrow horizon. To know who you are no justifications will do. It can only be you and your experience of the river.

* * *

What the river says, that is what I say.

* * *

I wish you well.


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