Showing the power of creative writing to address one’s concerns obliquely, Marty Miller records the thread of his associations in an inner dialog of images and authorities as he makes his way toward the prospect of giving wise counsel. We sense the longing for rest in a restless time that weighs on him as he imagines a dreamlike inquisition. ~ mark gardiner
Standing Quietly in the New Life
We had met before on the edge of the woods in the fall, the woodsman and I. But this time we met in mid-winter not far from the village where new leaders had been elected. We watched the shadows lengthen in the meadow under a Hunger Moon.
The woodsman asked, “What happens to Soul in times such as ours when oligarchs go one way and the water protectors go another?”
“What kind of question is this?” I growled. “I am a starving bear in a great forest of starving bears mad for sweet fat words to dribble down my chin when I speak them and instead you hand me these bleached bones and a mirror?”
“Just a few thoughts,” he said, “to feed me and your fellow bears now that winter has come.”
Meager rations, I thought. I longed to lay my head on a pillow of cow parsnip and dream as is my due this season. But the woodsman had prodded me out of my torpor and now I would not let my roar go unheard.
“What happens? What happens? A great ripping in the fabric of our everyday lives happens. The scrim is torn. Evil is creeping along the edge of your village right now just outside the firelight. It is cruel, is it not, to sense and not to warn others of its presence, however shadowy or inchoate it may be?—‘cruel, and maybe the root of all cruelty / to know what occurs and not recognize the fact,’ said William Stafford. We know what is happening with the nominations, with the uncivil discourse, with demonizing of the ‘Other.’ Yet somehow it may fail to fully register in our bodies. We may think, ‘This cannot really be happening.’ But it is. It is as if our democracy has been infested with termites and many of us won’t recognize it until the floor goes and the roof caves in.
A hurry of hoofs in a village street ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The woodsman sat blinking at me, eyebrows raised.
“Look, Progress is not inevitable. The arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice on its own. At least, the moral universe does not travel on rails; it has no pre-ordained destination. It backslides, reverses, goes in circles and regresses as often as it progresses. There is no salvation to be gained by adopting the right attitude, right religion, or electing the right party. There is no hopping the right train and being done with the struggle.
“As for Soul— nothing happens. Or as Juan Ramón Jiménez said,
I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
—Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?
“What is it you think we have struck down there, Bear?” the woodsman asked. He had taken out his knife and had begun to whittle away at a piece of basswood.
“We are still taking stock of the damage, aren’t we? I don’t think we know yet what we may have struck way down there in the deep,” I said, warming to the subject and to my companion, and scratching my rump on a birch tree.
“One of Milan Kundera’s characters in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Sabina describing the meaning of her multi-layered paintings said, ‘On the surface an intelligible lie, underneath an unintelligible truth showing through.’ On one level, she is referring to the disparity between the optimism of Prague Spring, the promise of ‘socialism with a human face’ in pre-1968 Czechoslovakia, and the dissonance caused by the dim but growing awareness of imminent Russian invasion.
“But on another deeper level, the author Kundera is referring to our tendency to believe only in the most convenient, easily accessible answers. We are like ducks who paddle after the bread crumbs those in power cast on the pond’s surface. The harrowing unintelligible truth, however, often lies in the unconscious murky depths. A surface lie should be called a lie; there is no such thing as ‘post-truth’ except in the pages of George Orwell. Yet we need the wherewithal to suffer for a time not knowing what looms beneath the surface.
“If Sabina were painting a tableau today, she would paint the grim parody of this presidency on the last layer of the canvas. Beneath that layer you could easily make out the figures of greed, malice and fear showing through. But this layer too seems rather thinly painted; we can discern another layer. Perhaps there’s another vision beneath the fear and the modest hopes that we are only now beginning to imagine.”
“Go on,” said the woodsman, brushing wood chips off of his lap.
“We cannot yet know how this is all going to turn out—this new administration, our lives. The truth is seldom known. It is only gradually discerned with attention and a great deal of patience. We only know that in this lifetime we are called to bear witness to endings. Our culture that was founded on notions of empire, unlimited growth, and salvation is ending. We are being called to hold the hand of a culture that is going through great paroxysms of denial and, ultimately, death. How does one solve the ‘problem’ of death? One doesn’t. One grieves.”
The woodsman paused for a moment and then somberly spoke these lines from Robert Bly’s , “Call and Answer,” “Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days / And cry over what is happening.”
“Before we can cry, our bitter malaise has to ripen into the mature fruit of sweet and specific sorrows. Our heartbreaks need names. If we do not remember what we love by name, how can we praise and protect it?
“We need a patience like the kind Robert Bly noted in a review of the psychologist Robert A. Johnson’s memoir, Balancing Heaven and Earth. He wrote, ‘Let’s imagine Robert Johnson is living in a tent in a desert and he becomes thirsty. He waits until a spring comes up through the sand just in front of his chair. That’s the kind of person he is. There is no irritable reaching for an answer, a resolution, a career, the next step.’
Robert A. Johnson, American Psychologist
“It may seem counter-intuitive, perhaps, to wait, ‘But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting,’ as Eliot said. In a time ripe for fundamental personal and social transformation it takes great courage to not chase mirages in the desert and instead to sit with one’s thirst and wait.”
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
T. S. Eliot, East Coker
“I understand the need to grieve and the need for patience when dealing with deep truths,” said the woodsman. “But is there not such a thing as soulful political action?”
I paused for a moment, picking at an acorn with a long claw as I pondered how best to reply. He had a way of whittling with his endless questions, doggedly shaving away the superfluous to get to the heartwood form.
“Look, I said, I am no ursine Talmudic scholar and I do not mean to debate the doctrine, definitions and ambit of the soul with you, friend. I do believe there is a way to move in the world while remaining connected with Soul. But I would advise you not think of Soul as a moral or political vehicle. Imagine instead your soul is a lodestone that helps you orient yourself in changing landscapes, helps you find what you value and what you are called to protect and embody in this lifetime.
“The Elders at Standing Rock protecting the water from risks of the oil pipeline made sure the camps’ actions stayed rooted in prayer and ritual. Prayer and ritual are ways of remembering that Mystery dimension; call it the vertical axis with soul at the pole below and spirit at the pole above. Moral battles are played out here on earth on the horizontal axis. Our challenge is to stay in the middle of both axes. If we stand like a great tree with our feet humbly planted on the earth, our roots firmly embedded in this life and guided by the heavens, we stand strong. If we are not rooted in soul, our spiritual energy, that hunger to dissolve our bounded selves and be carried away, can be misdirected and channeled by blowhards and political storms. We can become ungrounded, rootless, more like tumbleweeds piling up on the fence line rather than sheltering oaks.
“In this spirit, the Elders said, ‘Don’t make this action at Standing Rock about an abstraction no matter how worthy, not for Global Capitalism, nor Climate Change, nor the Environment, not even fighting Big Oil. Remember this is about protecting this water, here, on this stretch of the Missouri River, on this soil, home to the bones of our ancestors.’ The wisdom here is to ask ourselves this: what is in my heart at this moment in time? And what am I, this embodied soul, called to do about it today? What do I love and to whom do I belong?
“So how does one know one’s actions or the actions of another are soulful rather than self-serving?” asked my bearded interlocutor. I noticed that what had once been a basswood branch now had taken on the shape of a flute.
“To be soul-full means, ultimately, to be whole—not good, not saved, not perfected—but in deep relationship to our own depths. To be soulful means to be vulnerable to truth, beauty and compassion. When we can listen to the music in our soul, we develop the capacity to attend to the pain and fear in our depths. We can attend to others. This attention itself can heal. We are each born with that medicine.
“To go deaf to that music is to suffer trauma. Another word for trauma is soul loss. Gabor Maté wrote ‘No child is born a bully, cruel or cold-hearted.’ But for those who do not grow up nurtured and held in compassionate regard, their development becomes distorted. If they experience significant trauma and do not face it eventually in their lives, their souls retreat, become sealed off. Maté continued, ‘A political leader in denial of his trauma may be so little able to bear his core pain, fear, and weakness that he will identify with the powerful, disdain and attack the vulnerable.’
Gabor Maté MD
“Vladimir Lenin, who was responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of peasants during his Red Terror campaign said, ‘I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell.’
“As our most recently elected president admitted to a biographer regarding the emotional abuse in his childhood, ‘I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see.’”
“So how do you find our way to a life worth living in an era of soul loss?” asked the woodsman, putting away his knife and staring at me somberly.”
“How will you find your way home in the dark tonight, my friend?” I asked. “When we enter dark times difficult to see through with our day-adapted eyes, we learn to see by the moon’s reflection. We begin to see shapes and shadows, especially our own shadow. As the great and irascible Edward Abbey said, ‘You can’t study darkness by flooding it with light.’
“You can write letters, call representatives, divest from corporations, put yourself on the frontline where moved to do so. You can vote. And when public discourse becomes impoverished and spiteful, you can remember writing and speaking poetry out loud, playing music, creating beauty of any sort, is a lavish and potent form of resistance to forces corrosive to soul.
“And when you can no longer see your way, when darkness hides even the moon and stars, navigate by feeling. What does your gut tell you? Remember the body and your senses. Gather in the scent of dirt and moss in your wet nostrils. Listen to the counsel of trees and rocks. Listen for the sound of your friends’ laughter. They may be calling out to you right now. Each of these can guide you home.”
The woodsman drew in a breath as if to continue but then said nothing more, nor did I. We sat silently gazing up at the wheeling stars. After a time, we embraced and bid each other farewell. I ambled off to my den and he to his, flute notes trailing him like moths on the scent of night jasmine.
I placed my big bear heart on the land that had claimed me. I slept. And while I slept I dreamt that the ice had melted and I was adrift at sea. Waiting in the dark, I felt the presence of a thousand vessels in the seas around me. As morning bled along the horizon, a beautiful terror, unexpected and wondrous, began to heave and part the oily black waters beneath our tiny boats.
~ Marty Miller
Gabor Maté, MD, clinician, author, educator
Robert Bly, review of Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir