“Every day has something in it whose name is forever.”
(Everything That Was Broken, Mary Oliver)
Recently that “something in it” was the sight of my granddaughter and two friends plucking wine berries from the bushes by the dirt path and popping them in their mouths. The path they were on led to a large fallen oak. The girls hoisted themselves onto the trunk, which rested majestically in loam and leaves on the forest floor. They proceeded to walk fearlessly along the broad rounded beam, which ran crooked, though true, into the branches that once had danced in the sky. They were utterly at home, skipping effortlessly through imaginary worlds and back again to the present of tree, branches, leaves, balance, height; perfect play in the woods.
These moments open on the eternal, surely: the assurance of wholeness, of rightness and the timelessness of relationship. Something swells in the heart, which is full. Love is nothing as fleeting as an emotion. It is the inpouring of belonging. I thrilled to the knowledge that each young girl, and I, all of us, are wondrously woven together and held.
The poet also acknowledged this: “But what in this world is perfect?” (The Ponds)
The trunk on which the girls played was the third of a magnificent “three sisters” oak, one tree with three bonded trunks. The first two fell in May, just before the Heroine’s Journey retreat (see “The hardest love we carry”, June, 2019). The third came down in a storm a couple weeks later, falling away from her sisters, so that the tree lay cracked and splayed like spokes in a wheel. The girls were gamboling across a piece of broken forest in an increasingly imperiled planet. And more, their young souls and tender hearts, like those of all children, were and are unprotected in a world that contains catastrophes and peril, even as wine berries offer their wild sweetness by the trail.
This is the unfair dilemma in which we find ourselves: how to hold the miraculous belonging, to accept the precious, joyous gift of kinship and community, while absorbing the telltale signs of a deeply unwell world and the unpreventable suffering of those we love. I have been thinking about this lately as the outer landscapes we love are more and more subject to the destructive forces of climate change and the inter-landscapes of human relationships have become increasingly disconnected and hurtful.
Here is what I have come to: we cannot and should not take this lying down, cannot and should not crumple into despondency and hopelessness. I recently came across this line from the poem “A Brief for the Defense” by the late American poet Jack Gilbert:
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
During a homegrown festival of music and poetry (i.e. a talent show among friends) that was part of our summer solstice celebration, our dear friend Phil stood up and sang the classic “What a Wonderful World”. This song was written in the turmoil of the late ’60s and made famous by Louis Armstrong, who performed it near the end of his hard-working, generous life. Phil offered the song as a defiant anthem of delight and gratitude in these times when so much is unwonderful and wrong. I believe it should ring out every day, though singing it is achingly difficult.
Thankfully, there is an orchestra to help hold the melody. David Whyte reminds us, “Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously part of something rather than nothing. Even if that something is temporarily pain or despair, we inhabit a living world, with real faces, real voices, laughter, the color blue, the green of the fields, the freshness of a cold wind, or the tawny hue of a winter landscape.”
Many of those millions of things breathing together inhabit the spaces right outside our doors. They have been there all along, patiently waiting for our attention.
Also, we have mentors: the poets, storytellers, and wise ones.
We have stories. As Martin Shaw says, “look to the old stories, they’ve turned up perfectly on time.”
By keeping these allies close at hand and turning to them frequently it may be possible to love unreservedly and fearlessly; to hold all we care about tenderly in the fabric of belonging and when the time comes, to let it go.
Her visit over, my granddaughter has returned home, away from the sweet forest sanctuary to whatever might await her in other places and realms.
Perhaps most needful of all, we have prayer:
Call out to the whole divine night for what you love. What you stand for. Earn your name. Be kind, and wild, and disciplined, and absolutely generous.*
*from “A Counsel of Resistance and Delight in the Face of Fear,” by Martin Shaw https://medium.com/@schoolofmyth