May my heart’s truth still be sung

Seattle Times, July 16, 1995 (50th anniversary of the first atomic bomb).

Strange things happen in life––a ticket here, a ticket there, and twenty, thirty, forty years later the destination.

–– William McPherson, Testing the Current

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

–– W. H. Auden, For the Time Being

Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.

––– Collect for the first Sunday in July, Book of Common Prayer

 

Today I turned 75. I’ve seen it coming for a long time, but I’m still surprised! I took my first breath early in the evening of July 16, 1944, at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. Twenty-two years later, four days before my birthday, my father would take his last breath in the same place.

Every birth date collects an assortment of associations and memories. My favorite film noir, Double Indemnity, begins with a doomed Fred MacMurray speaking into a Dictaphone, beginning with the date: “July 16, 1938” (the film was released in 1944, and co-star Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday was July 16). On my 7th birthday, Catcher in the Rye was published. I saw Paris for the first time when I turned 17. On my 29th  birthday, Alexander Butterfield revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee the existence of the Nixon tapes.

My hometown paper on my 25th birthday.

When I turned one year old, the first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico. On my 25th birthday, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon. And on my 50th, a comet crashed into Jupiter, creating the largest explosion ever witnessed in the solar system.

If those explosive bursts of heat and light were some kind of sequence (1…25…50…), what was in store for 75? Apocalypse? Thankfully, on this 50th anniversary of the moon launch, the iconic phenomenon proved both gentle and fitting. No great event, no big bang. But not a whimper either. What happened tonight was this: a full moon rose in silence over a collapsed volcano (whose supposed similarity to the moon’s surface had provided a valuable training ground for the lunar astronauts). The tranquil orb shed its luminous blessing, the close of a perfect day. O gracious Light!

Rising moon above Newberry Crater, Oregon, July 16, 2019.

From 1956 to 1962, I attended an Episcopal boys’ school in Los Angeles. In my class of sixty-five, three of my best friends had, like me, been born in July of 1944. After sharing a formative passage through adolescence and being collectively imprinted––or cursed––with the high expectations fostered by a privileged education, we maintained our bonds into adulthood. In the month of our thirtieth birthdays, we gathered at a California beach house for a weekend of celebration and memory. Toward the end, there was a midnight toast. “Hey Jude” came on the stereo as we lifted our glasses to past and future selves. Take a sad song and make it better. We were not yet where we wanted to be, but we still feasted on dreams and a sense of promise. In ten years, we pledged, our forty-year-old selves would gather again to trade stories of the journey.

O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Dylan Thomas wrote these hopeful words when he turned thirty. But it doesn’t always work that way. A year after our glad toasts by the sea, on the last day before our birthday month, one of the four committed suicide. We three who remained gathered to sing him home in our old school chapel. We could only guess at the pain that took him from us.

When Jon died, I was deep in the mountain wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Just before sunrise he came to me in a dream, assuring me that he was all right. I awoke and looked at my watch––6:00 am. It was, I learned later, the hour of his death.

A week after his funeral, on the day of my 31birthday, I rose early to take a long walk in the hills above Los Angeles, where pockets of wildness and quiet still thrive in the heart of the teeming metropolis. Jon and I had both been runners in high school, and we loved training together in these hills. Our school was situated along their lower slope, so it only took a few minutes of running to leave the cityscape behind.

As I walked these same hills so soon after his death, Jon was very much in my thoughts, and one particular workout came to mind. Just behind the school chapel, a 150-yard stretch of road climbed steeply to a crest. During our senior year, in a pouring rain, Jon and I challenged each other to run a series of all-out sprints up this grade, one after another, until we both collapsed, utterly exhausted and sick to our stomachs.

We made it back to the gym to recover. Jon stretched out on a bench and closed his eyes. He lay there a long time, not saying a word. When he finally spoke, he said he’d had it with running. He was going to quit the team. The feeling soon passed, and he would go on to win the southern California half-mile championship in a time of 1:53.1. But I remember feeling genuine alarm in the presence of his momentary despair. It was like a black hole, sucking up all the light around it. Jon was made for running, and his powerful spirit made the rest of us faster. To see that spirit falter, if only for a moment, was unsettling, like witnessing a saint’s crisis of faith and wondering about the fragile poise of your own soul.

After my birthday walk, I put this recollection in a letter to an east coast friend. But I prefaced it with a report of what I had seen around me on that particular day––not darkness and death, but the beauty of a summer morning in the hills of home:

“The intensely blue panicles of a ceanothus shrub arched across the path like an enchanted boundary, a gate back to Eden. Near a jocular little stream, a California thrasher poked its long, curved bill into the debris beneath an oak tree. A solitary yellow leaf, suspended by a long spider’s thread against a background of dark mist, spun ecstatically in a ray of sunlight. The path unfolded before me like a narrative––meandering through the hush of sheltering thickets, emerging onto a golden slope of drying grasses, climbing upward into the enfolding blankness of a beclouded ridge, dipping downward to become a gentle country lane, purple-strewn with eucalyptus leaves, and finally spilling out into the alluvial plain of houses, lawns and swimming pools.”

It was as if an essential part of my response to loss and grief was to pay close attention to the gifts of one summer day, offered so generously to my receptive heart. To pay attention as if my own life depended on it.

“How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?” asked the poet Stanley Kunitz, who lived to an even 100 years. The longer you live, the more the losses mount up––but also the beauties, the graces, the affectionate motions of the heart. I like what another poet, Vera Pavlova, says about this:

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.[i]

In one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, the boy gets a letter from his past self. It reads: “Dear future Calvin, I wrote this several days before you will receive it. You’ve done things I haven’t done. You’ve seen things I haven’t seen. You know things I don’t know. You lucky dog! Your pal, Calvin.”

Calvin sniffles a bit and says, “I feel so sorry for myself two days ago.” To which his tiger friend, Hobbes, responds, “Poor him. He wasn’t you.”

Stanley Kunitz could sympathize. “I have walked through many lives,” he wrote, “some of them my own, / and I am not who I was . . .” So who am I now? Hmm. But ever since my baptism in November of 1944, the more critical question has always been, Whose am I?. As we say at the end of every mortal life, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” Is it possible to live in the light of that truth, come what may?

After my mother died in 2010, I found a prayer she had written on the flyleaf of her Daily Office book. It’s something she would have said almost every day: “God, whatever . . . Thanks.”

On my twenty-first birthday, my father, a priest, celebrated eucharist in our living room with my mother and me. Afterward, he presented me with a letter he had composed for the occasion. “Happiness is not found in security,” he reminded me, “nor can it be bought with money, but it is a holy mystery that is a gift from God, found only in serving Him.”

When I turned 40, my sister Marilyn sent me a list of questions.

What would you like to accomplish in your work? In your personal life?
How long do you think you will live?
What would you like to begin?
What would you like to end?
Name a physical risk you’d like to take.
Name an emotional risk you’d like to take.
Of what might you be afraid?
What do you want to mend?
What song describes your life at 40?
What writer touches you deeply at 40?
What would you like to create for yourself? For the world?
What are 3 things you are most satisfied with so far in your life?

These remain searching questions for me today, despite the somewhat eroded sense of future produced by thirty-five additional birthdays. I’ll start to ponder my answers tomorrow (God willing). Meanwhile, what Stanley Kunitz says, that is what I say:

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.[ii]

Twenty-five years ago, on my 50th birthday, I made a 9-mile pilgrimage through English countryside to an old church cemetery in the Lake District. Arriving just after sunset, I laid a pair of California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth. A waxing crescent moon hung suspended over a nearby hill. Shining very close to it was Jupiter, where the comet was making its cosmic crash. But here on earth, in this quiet churchyard, nothing but peace. I had pressed the two flowers––California poppy and Farewell-to-Spring––in my copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude, whose buoyant embrace of the human journey––rejecting the melancholy “wandering steps and slow” at the end of Paradise Lost––I claimed for myself at the beginning of my sixth decade. In these latter days, I do so again:

The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!

Laying wildflowers on Wordsworth’s grave on my 50th birthday.

 

 

Related post: Grace Me Guide

[i] Vera Pavlova, “Four Poems,” translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour, The New Yorker, July 30, 2007, 37.

[ii] Stanley Kunitz excerpts are from “The Layers,” The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002). Poetry Foundation link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers

 

I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

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.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178