It Was Already Late Enough: A Reader Recollects
From the introduction of Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a way of life : The consolation of philosophy is to “recall well-known things, to reactivate them in the soul.” And they need to be reactivated because they are forgotten, over and over again. Remember?
“There is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again,” says T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets. “And now under conditions that seem unpropitious.”
April 30, 2001 , Jericho Beach , Vancouver
Talking with Jacob on the beach about the artistic life, and the rejection of another of his manuscripts.
Jacob says this: “The artistic life? What's that? It's the frustrated, difficult, agonizing, bloody life of not being able to settle on doing one thing.” He is paralyzed by his inability to choose. He lists five choices that assail him daily, hourly, about what to do or be in his work: writing, directing, photography, editing, or giving the whole thing up for a steady income crewing on bad movie-of-the-week tv movies. Steady income, that is, plus long, exhausting, strenuous days and the recurrent problem of repetitive strain injury from dragging around all that heavy equipment.
“People are dropping dead,” he says, scuffing his shoe in the sand, head down, dark frown-lines puckered between his eyebrows, “and you have only one chance at it. My life is frozen; I'm terrified now about the risks that ten years ago were a dream, a big adventure. Fuck that. I'm 46 years old. When you're 30, you hold out the hope that it's all going to work out later. But now, later is today. Or maybe it was yesterday. What if there is no later any more? Every day is a crap shoot, waiting for the other shoe to drop, when the test results show that the tumor is malignant or those memory lapses really are the early warning signs of Alzheimer's.”
“What is the hope you can't give up?” he asked me. “Why can't you?”
I didn't have an answer.
To either question.
May 24. On the train from Nova Scotia to Quebec City
Another phrase of Eliot's echoes and repeats:
The sleepy rhythm of one hundred hours;
The sleepy rhythm of one hundred hours;
The sleepy rhythm,
Charlie the Porter ran through the essentials—when is supper, how to make up the bed, where is the bar car—as the train began to move. He was lingering on purpose, I think, holding my gaze, knowing I wanted him to go away so I could look out the window and wave good-bye.
The wave, when it came, came too late -- a gesture of lost opportunity; tentative, apologetic. A smile and a shrug, in the public sign language of farewells enacted through a train or bus window, or an airport departure gate. Together. Apart. Move along.
After an hour or so of going, the land has been a monotony of scruffy forest and the occasional small farm, softened by sunlight and the hazy notion of spring. The woods beckon, as do the long driveways up to the farmhouses and the jumbles of stuff in the yard that must signal a homecoming for someone. Under a blue spring sky, it looks like such an easy life.
Where are you going?
Where are you going?
Where are you going?
But where is here exactly? Crossing a muddy river, fourteen more hours to Quebec City.
I could rumble along for days like this, like socks in a dryer, tumbling and rolling, tumbling and rolling. Air travel obliterates the hours in between, focused on destination and distraction, getting there. The train invites something different. The going is an occasion, almost celebratory of the in-between. The interlude is a place to occupy, not simply get through.
Last night I had dinner with Sister Margaret, an elderly nun from a convent in Halifax . We were seated together in the dining car, and traded stories over filets of sole and tumblers of rattling ice water. She had pale blue eyes, like talcum powder, like childhood, set in a faded old-parchment face. But she spoke with the zeal of a trucker or Hells' Angels biker about earlier days in a prairie convent, driving whenever she could, hell-bent across the prairies, as fast as the car could go.
June 5, Bethany Centre, Antigonish, Nova Scotia
And here I am surrounded by a knit-sweatered congregation of more parchment-faced nuns, on the first night of my first-ever 10-day silent retreat. What am I doing here? When Doug dropped me off, he carried my suitcase to the door and bolted. I'm the youngest person here by several years, I think, and there's only one other woman who isn't a Sister of some order or other. Who knew there could be so many Sisters of this and that?
Last night we gathered in the evening as a heavy yellow moon rose outside the window. We were invited to introduce ourselves not by our own name but by the name of some part of creation that had personal resonance. Here's what I know about these women:
· red soil
· green fields
· ruby-throated hummingbird
· serviceberry blossoms
· new shoots
· the estuary
· a storm at sea
This morning I woke tired and confused for awhile about where I was, sticky-eyed, and stumbling my way out of a long, dark, sleep -- heavy-boned; a stone dropped in a well.
John 4. This passage from the Bible is our theme for the week. It is about the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman who has had five husbands, whom Jesus asks for a drink of water. “So Jesus, being wearied from his journey, was sitting thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.' She said to him, ‘How is it that you, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?' Jesus answered and said to her, “if you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, give me a drink,' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
What am I doing here? The whole idea of Jesus and quoting scripture makes me more nervous than I can say. But the story has something of a dream quality, with the five husbands, the sixth-hour meeting at the well, and the sound of water running through everything like a river or a freshwater spring.
Isaiah 55. “Come to the water, all you who thirst.”
Thirsty? Well, yes. That would be me.
And a poem (from Rumi):
For 60 years I have been forgetful
Every single minute....
I play the living music for my host.
And two other poem fragments from somewhere, maybe Rumi, maybe someone else:
You hasten to outpour yourself on others
when your own soul is only half full.
Fall in love; stay in love.
It will decide everything.
Come with me and we will walk
away from all the buildings and high places.
I love to go with you and enter the valley
where no one is king.”
June 7, Bethany . The Third Day
The retreat topic of today is woundedness. The world's wounds, and our own. Letting “Jesus lay himself in the wound of your soul” is not a language I come to easily. But the image lingers. He would do that?
I marvel at these nuns, who balk at nothing.
From Rilke's, Letters to a young poet :
“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud-shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand, it will not let you fall.”
Question: What happens when the name you are given is not your true name?
Answer: We each have a name that cannot be given; only claimed.
And naming. How not to shy, in Tim Lilburn's phrase, before the “wilderness of indeterminacy”? How to dislodge the belief that “names are coterminous with essences” (p. 56)?
June 8, Day Four
Today we said a river prayer, each one adding a word to the chain:
dried up river
neverending, punishing, glistening, inconstant, heart, home, down-to-the-sea, moody, lazy, fish-swimming, choked, poisoned, living, pulsing
And so, to Lilburn again:
“...Dark river, burly aimlessness, gathering and losing itself, darkening in mid-November....The river can't be known because it is an unlikeness: you can guess but in guessing here the truest guess is the most deferential, wobbling with equivocation, the one whose assertion permits itself to be dismantled even while it is being made. The one who makes it knows that what is being said may appear to suffice, but whatever the river is it is such and such in so utterly a distant way that the names of the qualities assigned it can't possibly go deep. The names expose the namer more than they limn what's caught the eye. The act of naming, too, seems an encasement and the confidence of this feels wrong; it would seem even comic if such presumptions weren't so dangerous. The best names are wadded about with apology; they duck their heads because they are abashed. They are abashed because naming is what humans do and believing that names are co-terminous with essences is an error humans typically make: but none of this has to do with the river, none if this knows the river, is close to the river, except perhaps whatever loneliness and beguilement quickened the naming.
Even if the river were me, I couldn't know it: think of Augustine's consternation before the indeterminate complexity of his own much-considered soul in the Confessions .
The river is a dark thing and it is infinite. (p. 56).
June 9, Day Five
And now today, after woundedness, we are invited to love this flesh and bone. However we are, is how we go to the well says Liz, the retreat leader; however your body carries you, feet, legs, muscles, sinews, and the aches that accompany them. The starting point for prayer is the owning of whatever is real. Who knew?
From this, an image, a recollection:
I have been,
like Belgium ,
trampled by the thumping boots
of too many invading armies,
whose war, whose defeat, whose victory
hardly matters: it all ends up
that the grass
still gets flattened, earth
churned to mud
as the troops go marching through.
Broken shrubbery and
wreckage in the flower beds
only so much collateral damage.
“The price of kissing is my life.”
But remember, also, this:
The communion of sun on skin,
smell of wood chips and manure.
And the sharp instruction
of crows at dawn:
awe, awe, awe
Rumi says this: “Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don't open the door to the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
And here is Marian Engel, from The Glassy Sea , about a woman who enters and leaves a convent:
“She wanted to be certain. To know. To know not, as she thought, philosophy, but something more important. The truth. The truth for her. Not always to be torn,
to wonder if....” (p. 160).
Engel goes on: “I don't know. I don't know. I'll never know. One day I'm sure my sanity lies on the seashore, another I want a lover, on the third I am organizing a playground. I'm capable, in one breath, of dismissing union with the One as anti-intellectual claptrap invented to control the masses, in the next of repeating the Jesus Prayer twenty times. Hoping, too, that it's slid from head to heart like heavy water” (p. 163).
July 2, Repton Hotel, Bloomsbury , London , England
I've been in England for over a week now, visiting Andrea in Oxford , and attending a conference at the brand new but already desolate Projects-in-waiting campus of the University of East London . The next conference starts tomorrow at Birkbeck College . My paper is about images of knowing and unknowing in Four Quartets . The Repton Hotel is dumpy and sagging but it's only half a block from Russell Square , and Birkbeck College is just around the corner. Across the street, as it turns out, from the former offices of Faber and Faber, the publishing house where T.S. Eliot worked for many years. Imagine that.
My hotel room is like a long, thin closet, with two beds placed end to end along a wall with peeling floral wallpaper. The ceiling is so high that the room seems taller than it is wide. There is a compressed feeling about the way the space is configured, as if the walls might start moving closer together in the night, squeezing out all the air. To be on the safe side, I keep the window open.
When I was staying with Andrea at the convent (this being the year for convents, evidently; they keep popping up everywhere), I thumbed a copy of Simone Weil's, Waiting on God , and came across this:
“It is not that I feel within me a capacity for intellectual creation. But I feel obligations which are related to such creation” (p. 51). Me too, Simone, me too. But how to enact those obligations, there's the trick.
July 5. Last Day in London
The arts conference ended last night with a big party and the usual round of hopeful goodbyes. I have spent the morning walking, from Russell Square to Leicester Square to Picadilly and on to Trafalgar Square, walking just to walk, to be moving, an urban alleycat winding through the human tumble of London crowds. I stopped briefly at the National Gallery mostly just to sit down for awhile, but also to spend some time with two self-portraits by Rembrandt: One is Rembrandt at 34, at the peak of his fame, cocky and well-dressed, with an arrogant glint in his eye and a fancy cap, cocked just so. The other portrait hangs across the hall, spanning a physical space of several meters (crammed full with ambling and elbowing gallery visitors) and a temporal space of 30-odd years: Rembrandt now aged 63, the year of his death, looking wryly (or so it seems) at his younger self across the busy room. His face has grown pasty and bulbous-looking, his hat is more modestly set back on his head, and his eyes are heavy-lidded, creased. He looks tired. His older face reminds me of my conversation with Jacob at Jericho Beach a few months ago, facing into the jowly self-questioning of middle-age. And of course, Eliot again:
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to
Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom, only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes.
Is this what it means to grow older? I don't feel quite as defeated as all this sounds, but I admit there is a heaviness I'm dragging around the streets of London that jangles against my memory of the place when I was here several years ago, going to endless galleries and wine bars and looking forward to everything. There are ghosts, echoes of the younger me, like the younger Rembrandt, peering across Trafalgar square at the same step where I sat yesterday and years ago, perplexed at where these grey bits came from, and why I made the choices I did.
After Rembrandt, this passage from Lilburn.
“Contemplation is inquiry into the nature of being; it is not amelioration practiced by the credulous, not a shirking of the adult task of intentional activity. It is silence in response to the utterly exigent human vocation to understand the world” (p. 27).
September 15, 2001 . Back home in Antigonish
We're all saying that the world has changed and I feel that, when I lie in bed and imagine all the different ways the world can end. Whether it's with a bang or a whimper hardly seems to matter anymore. Or maybe it's just that they seem so equally possible, so equally imminent. But when I look out the window, the wind still tugs at the grass with the same old nagging impatience, and the crows in the maple at the back of the yard still sit together grumbling the same old complaints. They can't have been listening to the news.
Through it all, though, I keep thinking of a line from one of the stories in Alice Munro's latest book, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage . The story is about a woman who either fears or discovers she has cancer, and goes through all the usual emotions of dread and upset at the anticipation or pronouncement of her diagnosis. But in the back of her mind is also what Munro describes as “the unspeakable excitement that comes when galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility.” There is a similar secret hope in the air right now, I think, with a slight amendment of the final word. In this case, it's not so much that the galloping disaster promises to release us from all responsibility, but from all duplicity . Can't we all just stop farting around and speak the truth for once, without the disruptive, disastrous, protective armor of pretended civility and business as usual? I doubt it, to be honest, but the hope is there, I'm sure it is; a shadow at the funeral along with all the rest of it, the public and private shock, the keening and fingerpointing, and the obscene presidential exhortations that it is our civic responsibility, not to love our neighbours, tend to the wounded, or even to save string, but to get out there and go shopping .
Fast forward now, to year end. We're all still here, and winter still approaches in the same old sly way as always. Sidelong. A few frosty mornings. Heh, heh, heh. And then, kabbam.
December 15, Antigonish
A quote from Deleuze and Guattari, from What is philosophy?
“As Schelling put it, the Greeks lived and thought in Nature but left Mind in the “mysteries,” whereas we [moderns] live, think and feel in the Mind, in reflection, but leave Nature in a profound alchemical mystery that we constantly profane.”
And Thomas Merton, from Asian Notes:
The duty of the contemplative life (duty's the wrong word) -- is to provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices -- beyond routine choice -- become manifest. To create a new experience of time, not as stoppage, stillness, but as “temps vierge” -- not a blank to be filled or an untouched space to be conquered and violated, but to enjoy its own potentialities and hopes and its own presence to itself. One's own time (not dominated by one's ego and its demands), hence open to others -- compassionate time (pp. 68-69, Miller, p. 114).
Compassionate time. It makes me think of that heroically compassionate man, Jean Vanier, and the talk he gave at the university a few weeks ago, The title of his talk was “living the truth” and he spoke in the university chapel on a bright, cold Friday afternoon. It was the middle of exam time, and everyone was busy and harassed with end-of-term deadlines. But the place was packed with faculty, students, members of the local L'Arche communities, and just about everyone else from the town or county who could squeeze themselves into the pews and corners. Doug and I sat near the back, so that all I could see was backs of heads and the sun streaming in, wide slanting beams, bevelled through a side window.
Vanier 's voice is soft and unhurried, so you had to listen hard to hear what he was saying. Maybe it's because of that, or maybe it was something to do with the accoustics of the chapel, but there was a certain solemnity in the air as he spoke, as if the clocks had slowed for this quiet hour, and had been set to a different tempo or time zone.
Most of what he had to say was kindly, gentle stuff about the importance of attending to your heart as well as your head, spending more time playing with each other and opening ourselves to things that the differently abled can teach us. He said also that most people are probably much closer to depression than they like to think, and that our daily lives consist of a good deal of whistling past the graveyard to divert our attention from this constant threat of darkness. He said that “living the truth,” in the face of all the things that encourage us to live otherwise, is no small accomplishment; “risk” and “courage” are small words that are easy enough to say, but harder, much harder, to live by. Physical courage is one thing, but moral courage, to speak and act according to the heart, and against the temper of the times, is of another order entirely, more necessary, more terrifying, and more deadening when courage falters and the sound of everybody whistling, as hard as they can, ends up being the only tune you can hear.
As he spoke, the dust motes tumbled in the spotlit air, above countless heads angled in a pose of listening, some nodding in physical accord with the words being spoken. Afterwards, the audience dispersed to return to whatever other obligations or activities had been temporarily set aside. A knot of people clustered around the chapel entrance where a wooden folding table had been set up with copies of Vanier 's books for sale. I met a colleague walking down the front steps who said, “he's a living saint, a living saint that man is, a living saint,” as if the incantatory repetition of the phrase might confirm his place among the beatified.
When I got back to my office, it was hard to rev up much energy for the pile of student papers sitting on the desk waiting for my attention. Out the window, the sky had already begun to darken into the bruisy melancholy of an early-December afternoon. I thought about Jean Vanier, and wondered what kinds of images and thought-scraps would be stirring behind his eyelids that evening whenever he closed his eyes to go to sleep. I also thought about the university president, who had been one of the head-nodders sitting a few rows in front of me in the chapel, and wondered the same thing about his pre-sleep ruminations. “Hey, Prez,” I thought about saying to him -- maybe I should call him up or send him an email. “I'm not coming into the office next week because I think Jean Vanier was right. We need to play more and worry less, and the whole way we relate to each other in the academy is fundamentally messed up. Let's have a big party in your office and invite all the L'Arche folks. We'll sing goofy songs, and tell bad jokes, and sling banana peels around the room.”
Somehow, though, I don't think this would go over well. And maybe this was a part of what made me wonder about what Vanier himself might be thinking when he goes to sleep at night. What does it mean -- what would it be like? -- to be the teller of stories that urge, like Rilke does, “change your life,” when the only change that appears to happen is that people nod and smile and go back to work. To be the bearer, in other words, of sympathetic magic.
You be the living saint.
That leaves me off the hook.
Is that too skeptical? I don't know. But the question that has been hanging over my head for the past several months now is, “what does change look like when it comes?” I expect too much, I suppose. Proclamations and trumpets, when it's probably more like a thief in the night.
December 31, White Point Beach , Nova Scotia
We're here at the beach to celebrate the last day of a difficult year. This afternoon I went for a long walk along the sand, towards the golf course at the other end of the bay. The horizon out to sea was flat, grey-blue, with that trick of the light along the horizon where maybe there are boats, or maybe it's just where the world disappears. On the foreshore, the waves came sweeping in, accomplishing nothing more than themselves before surrendering to the shoreline, replaced by the next incoming wave.
Ebb and flow. Here's a thought from Milosz:
“Alas, our fundamental experience is duality: mind and body, freedom and necessity, evil and good, and certainly world and God. It is the same with our protest against pain and death....I am not seeking an escape from dread but, rather, proof that dread and reverence can exist within us simultaneously.”
In the middle of the golf course was an old cemetery. Most of the gravestones were aslant and eroded from their years of standing sentinel on the edge of a hard sea. But here is the epitaph from one of them:
Sacred in the memory of experience
Died 1818. Aged 36 years.
It has been a year of journeys and memories, and the big memento mori that slammed into us all in September. Like Roethke, I too dream of journeys repeatedly. Running away. Starting over. Starting fresh. Couldn't we?
So says Mary Oliver, in The Journey :
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice --
thought the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones,
But little by little,
as you left their voices, behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you coul do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Coleman Barks The Essential Rumi . HarperSanFrancisco 1995.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari What is Philosophy? Columbia University Press 1994.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets. Faber & Faber 1944.
Marian Engel The Glassy Sea. McLelland & Stewart 1978.
Pierre Hadot Philosophy as a way of life. Blackwell 1995.
Tim Lilburn Living in the world as if it were home . Cormorant 1999.
Thomas Merton The Asian Journal . New Directions 1973.
Cseslaw Milosz To Begin Where I am Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2001.
Alice Munro Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage McLelland & Stewart 2001.
Mary Oliver New and Sellected Poems . Beacon 1993.
Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a young poet Norton 1954.
Simone Weil, Waiting on God Harper & Row 1973.
Jane Dawson lives, writes and teaches in Antigonish, Canada . She has published several academic articles in the field of adult education, which is the area of her academic specialty. Apart from publishing a few poems in a college literary journal when she was an undergraduate, too many year ago to mention, Plum Ruby Review is her public venture into more literary genres.