May 2011 Archives

Speaking of Life and Laundry

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Love Calls Us to the Things of This World


The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries,
"Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven."

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world's hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
"Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance."


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This has been a strange spring in many ways. We had snow on the shady side of the house until the end of April. And then May 1st the season changed, and all the apple trees had bright green buds, the hyacinths unfurled overnight, and delicate pale, pale pink blossoms, yet to be identified, sprung up once again under the arbor. Yesterday I hung out laundry for the first time this year, and I realized that hanging out laundry is my true ceremony for marking the beginning of spring, more than planting the peas or setting out seedlings to harden off, it's carrying the wet sheets up out of the dark basement and running the line from the shed to the pole. When I brought the clothes in, around six, bright sunlight still streamed through the woods behind our house.

Meanwhile, I find myself living in a nation in which killing someone is being celebrated with beer-chugging parties and exclamation points. Recently our president announced that the CIA and Special Forces had assassinated the titular head of Al Qaeada, the man behind the planning of the September 11 tragedies. Only a few days earlier, the headlines trumpeted that American bombs had killed the son and three grandchildren of a loathsome dictator, responsible for the torture and death of thousands in his own country.

I don't know how to respond to this sort of news. My husband asked how I would feel if I heard someone had killed Hitler. Glad, I think. Relieved. And yet, do I want the state to have the right to kill people, for any reason? Suddenly, in this season, life seems immensely valuable.

A few weeks ago I was having coffee with a group of people and someone said, casually, "April is the cruelest month." After which, someone else asked where that quote came from, and what it meant anyway, and I found myself again in the oddly uncomfortable position of knowing a lot more about that line of poetry than anyone in the group actually wanted to hear. Of course, it's the first line of Eliot's poem, "The Wasteland," and the poet explains exactly what he means in the first four lines--April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain. He then goes on to expand that meaning in each of the five sections, venturing into the worlds of Tarot cards, Easter Sunday (the Road to Emmaus), Augustine's Confessions, The Golden Bough, the Upanishads, the Holy Grail, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Dante, and Wagnerian opera--among others. Eliot was having a long, slow nervous breakdown during the time he worked on the poem, and The Wasteland has always struck me as the perceptions of a man whose nerves were on the outside of his skin, unsheathed. The post-WWI world of western Europe felt unbearable to him, thus it seemed cruel to have memory and desire stirred. Better to accept our wasted fate and huddle under winter's blank cover. To be honest and unfashionable, I tend to read the poem more optimistically than some. The poet ends with Shantih, shantih, shantih, which the poet footnotes as the formal ending to an Upanishad, and translates loosely as "the peace which passeth all understanding."

During that same coffee gathering, a friend told me about sitting by the bedside of a woman we both know, who is dying of cancer. My friend is leaving to work in a distant country for two years, so she will never see the dying woman again. She said she knew it sounded trite, but sitting there in the hospital, she really began to wonder what it was that filled her head most of the minutes of the day, what those worries were, and why they seemed so compelling. Suddenly I understood that I spend a good deal of my energy protecting some illusion of my self from some illusion of the world, as if my precious little self were made of cheap glass and the world were a big bad hammer.

Of course, an individual life can seem fragile. But life, in the largest sense, is also and equally irrepressible. That's what the rituals of this season confirm. Though I'm a Christian, I'm not a big fan of the way most churches celebrate Easter--too much triumphalism for me. In fact, I don't really need Jesus to have come back and proved he was still around, but if he did that, I hope he actually walked the road to Emmaus with two of his followers, who remained entirely blind to his true identity throughout their journey together, who spent the whole time telling him all about his own death and resurrection. That is a human story. We're so busy recounting the bad news of the day, we miss the miracles.

If we accept the theory that the world's theistic religions are grounded in seasonal rituals, celebrating the planting and harvesting of crops, it all makes sense. Jesus reappears in the spring, along with everything else. The birthday of the prophet Muhammud is celebrated in late February, or early March, of the western calendar. The Sikh New Year is observed on March 14 of our calendar. When I join friends at the Seder table, they sing raucously to G-d that it would have been enough just to lead them out of Egypt, or just to split the seas so they could escape, or just to give them the Torah. They survived. They are careful to remember those who did not. They are careful to tell all the stories--of slavery, of death, of escape, of miracles--because one set of stories does not cancel out the other. We mourn, we pray, we celebrate, we hope. Next year in Jerusalem, they say. L'chaim.

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