Thursday, August 18, 2011

One or Two Things

Don't bother me
I've just
been born.

The butterfly's loping flight
carries it through the country of the leaves
delicately, and well enough to get it
where it wants to go, wherever that is, stopping
here and there to fuzzle the damp throats
of flowers and the black mud; up
and down it swings, frenzied and aimless; and sometimes

for long delicious moments it is perfectly
lazy, riding motionless in the breeze of the soft stalk
of some ordinary flower

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things; I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now
he said, and now,

and never once mentioned forever,

which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning --- some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.

But to lift the hoof!
For that you need
an idea.

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
"Don't love your life
too much," it said,

and vanished
into the world.

- Mary Oliver

I heard this poem last year during a Monday night class with Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.  Those last few lines have been lodged in my mind ever since.  "Don't love your life too much," says the butterfly.  This is the stinging message I feel like sharing with everyone since losing my boy. 

For me, the butterfly is a symbol of our impermanence.  With both its short life cycle and its metamorphosis, it represents a deep truth about the nature of reality -- that one thing always changes into another.  The butterfly is telling us not to grow too attached to things as they are because everything, even our suffering, is temporary.  In my grief, I also hear the butterfly shouting out a reminder not to let our lives pass us by.  This is the "idea" we need to "lift the hoof."  When we are touched by death, we see the preciousness of life.

When I look back on all of the stress, anxiety, and depression I've had in the past (and there was a lot of it), it all feels like dress rehearsal for what my family is experiencing now.  It all seems like small stuff.  While I wish I would have seen the preciousness of life back then (and skipped all of the years I struggled) I also think that going through all of that gave me some tools for navigating these waters now.  All of our experiences are our teacher.  

The "one or two things" seem to be hinting at the non-dual nature of reality.  Life and death, pleasure and pain -- these are inseparable and this knowledge gives life meaning... but this alone doesn't end our suffering.

The "sharp iron hoof" must be our human suffering -- the nagging feeling that something is wrong with our lives.  It's my understanding of the Buddhist teaching that we experience this dissatisfaction, or dukkha, when we deny the transient nature of reality -- when we grasp too tightly to things as they are -- and when we desire for things to be different. 

Maybe this poem is saying that by accepting the impermanent nature of reality, the sharp iron hoof at the center of our mind is lifted... that our suffering ends when we see that each fleeting moment is beautiful just as it is... and that we would be wise to realize this, to listen to the god of dirt saying, "now," before it's too late.

Where the light enters you...

Trust your wound to a teacher's surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.
Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.
Don't turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged wound. That's where
the light enters you.
And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself.


Long before we lost Julien, I loved this poem by Rumi.  "Keep looking at the bandaged wound. That's where the light enters you," he says.  I've discussed this poem many times but now that my bandaged places are bleeding through, I feel challenged to look again. 

In the days following Julien's birth, I remember telling myself, "just be present," again and again.  No matter what I was feeling (panic, nausea, hysteria) I knew I had to just stay with it -- to ride it like a horrible, inescapable roller-coaster.  I also kept reminding myself (and our daughter) that the most intense feelings would soon pass.

My dad had just died last year and those memories were all too fresh in my mind.  When Julien passed, I recalled everything I felt with my dad and knew just to hold on to the present moment for dear life.  With a white-knuckle grip, I told myself again and again that each day would get easier -- and it did.

This was a HUGE exercise in both trust and in acceptance.  By letting every emotion wash over me like a river, I think the pain became less intense.  I'm not saying that it doesn't still hurt.  It is to this day the most grueling thing I've ever felt... and turning into the pain sometimes seems like self-immolation.  Still, for me, just being here for all of it feels better than running away from it.

I think Rumi is suggesting that our suffering is our salvation.  Our capacity to feel deep sorrow and profound joy is what defines this human experience... and the two are inseparable.  But is all suffering salvific?  Perhaps.  

Without it, how would we discover grace?


with the night falling we are saying thank you 
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings 
we are running out of the glass rooms 
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you 
we are standing by the water thanking it 
smiling by the windows looking out 
in our directions 

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging 
after funerals we are saying thank you 
after the news of the dead 
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you 
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators 
remembering wars and the police at the door 
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you 
in the banks we are saying thank you 
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us 
our lost feelings we are saying thank you 
with the forests falling faster than the minutes 
of our lives we are saying thank you 
with the words going out like cells of a brain 
with the cities growing over us 
we are saying thank you faster and faster 
with nobody listening we are saying thank you 
we are saying thank you and waving 
dark though it is
-  W. S. Merwin 

The Unbroken

There is a brokenness
out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness out of which blooms
the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow
beyond all grief which leads to joy;
and a fragility
out of whose depths emerges strength...
There is a hollow space
Too vast for words
Through which we pass with each loss,
Out of whose darkness
We are sanctioned into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.

- Rashani Réa