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Reflections Looking Back on an Illness

An old saw has it that what is broken is revealed, that in order for something new to emerge, the old must die, as if death is a kind of brokenness, from which decay eventually and necessarily transitions into rebirth.  I say, “saw,” because of something I witnessed as a child.  It was at the Grange Hall where the hillside created its own local entertainment.  I once saw a dozen accordionists, all girls and women who had been blindfolded and who had cotton coverings over their keys, play “Lady of Spain” on the corner platform.  So we were now back with all the other neighbors in folding chairs made of wooden slats.  On the corner platform, a scruffy man rosined up a cello bow, then positioned the handle of a saw on his thigh, and by bending the metal extension of the saw in subtle ways began playing a melody, drawing the cello bow across the flat edge of the saw.  A familiar melody, I suppose.  The adults were in a keen state of adulation and were humming.  It was literally an old saw, refurbished.  It had once shivered planks of wood for barns, outhouses and garages; now it was making music.  It had broken living tissue, and now it had reemerged as an enchantress, and poured out from the old man some ache of his heart.  It must have hurt to produce such beauty.  I remember that when he was finished, the Grange Hall was mesmerized and silent.  Then he slowly rose and shuffled out of the building.

No one tells you in so many words that profound beauty will break your heart.  Or that the only worthy response is silence.  Except for perhaps the opera.  Highly civilized people go mad with beauty.  They cannot leave it alone.  Cities are crazy when it comes to rapture, and their hands sting from their generous applause.  But I was raised with country folk who didn’t know how to handle being made vulnerable by beauty.  The ride home was in silence.  My grandmother looked at her hands folded on her cotton dress, rubbing the flower print on top of her own thigh.  Of course, that was in the 1940s.  I say of course, because TV is now awash with compulsive disclosure:  many seem to think it crude if they are not told everyone else’s intimate details.  But is anyone actually broken?  We find out about all sorts of people, but in the end what do we know about them?  Where are the old men who shuffle off corner platforms having exposed their tenderness, the listeners driving home in silence and forgetting to say “good night” as they turn over into sleep?   Brokenness, like beauty, seems windowed in somnambulance, viewable for admission.  Perhaps I am being too harsh.  Perhaps I miss the innocence of old saws.  Perhaps descents down unswept stairs into an infinity of creativity actually are happening quietly in side places of the continent.  An old woman taps her knee while singing a cradle song; a baby reaches for a rattle; a teenager creates the most dense black ink possible and makes one extended brush stroke across a canvas and opens his mouth in order to breathe; someone in her apartment plays the opening measures of the Sibelius Violin Concerto as if the sound crept out of the wilderness with blinking eyes; and out of the fog a morning bird sings.  This and a million other moments of beauty recreate the old saw, “If you don’t sing your song, who will?”   I must be too harsh.  Brokenness and beauty are everywhere, if we can be still enough to notice.

And if we cannot be still enough, but yet it is a lesson to be learned, then the Universe steps in and aims its lesson at our foundations.  And it aims to dissolve our structures. 

Of course, it—the Universe—doesn’t violate our will.  That would be spiritual rape.  And the Universe is not cruel.  In fact, I don’t think the Universe cares much at all one way or the other if we are inconvenienced by its operations, whether or not we think things are cruel.  Volcanoes erupt; hurricanes smash coastal villages; rising seas make migrants out of whole island archipelagos; fires rage across thousands of acres and burn houses.  But does nature “care” as such?  No:  it is neither cruel, nor devastating nor capricious by being what it is.  It just is.  Lake Pontchartrain was not violating the good people of New Orleans when so many people drowned.  Water is as water does.  It doesn’t, in fact, care.  No matter what the newspapers say or how we react, it wasn’t a “tragedy.” 

So, when I woke up one morning and could not breathe, that was not a tragedy.  And it was no more morally beatific of me to have chosen on the next day to live.  My experience of “The Presence” is that It would have been at peace whichever way I went.  The implicit nature of The Presence seems as much to provide death as it does to shower our skin with the florescence of vital energy. 

But we can interfere.  Our personal will can trump the potency we call The Universe.  Somewhere in the recesses of our personal fundament there must be an aching question, a question or a request that must be there in order for The Presence to act as decisively as it did in my life.  Really, it’s not unusual.  If you ask for an utter transformation of how you live your life, it may eventually come to you.  Per your request.  Answered prayers.  On the other hand, no one tells you to be ready to accept the consequences of everything being taken away from you.  No one tells you about the night terrors, sleepless nights when you will wonder if you are truly insane.  I have heard such laudation for renewed lives:  Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  That phrase is not, however, followed up with the perfunctory business under the surface:  “but not so much as to have actually changed at all.” 

Suppose any of us said the social truth:  Oh, do stir the pot of my life and charge me with daily renewal.  But, then, oh do it such that I am the same person I recognized myself to be yesterday.  Continuity of personality, I mean, would you recognize me if I am changed utterly?  Would my name still be written across my forehead?   Oh, you whom I call Creator, do not do as creators do when they enjoy chaos, dissolving the former forms and then make something new.  Let me, O you Creating One, deny that you are fundamentally Creator.  I want to be recreated.  But do not let it be so.  Let me not admit your own nature, but let me build you churches and temples of glory and ritual circles and feasts, and put you there, so that I may visit you occasionally.  I pray to be broken, to become a hollow bone for your presence, so that as long as I keep asking this, I may join many organizations where many people desire this, and we shall become excited about the possibilities.  Forever.  And have biannual meetings to track the progress.

I need to clarify a theological point.  I say “The Presence,” because that is how it felt to me.  I shall not call it “god,” or “creator,” or “universe” or any other thing.  It was just there.  It wasn’t a belief.  And unlike the prevailing thought that The Presence is loving and caring, that was not my experience at all.  On the contrary, something else happened.  And what happened dissolved the pillars of my beliefs and began building something else entirely.   I am still in construction.

This is what happened.  On the second day of consciously having to pull in breath and consciously having to exhale it, which was the beginning of six such sleepless days and nights, I suddenly was in a place of an utter and endless darkness.  What kind of darkness could be that deep, that much deeper and more extensive than what is humanly imaginable?  When we dive deeply, how deep is that inky fog at the bottom of the ocean of our resources?  And past the fog, past the feeling of clear dark, into the bottomless eternity, what is the limit of deepness?  How far can any of us dive?  And are we ready to go there?  A dear friend in the Santeria tradition asked me that question, when my connection to Olokun was revealed.  Behind my struggle to breathe is the deity of profound depths who takes everything.  And behind him is the Dark Lady of the Druids, who in fact did take everything within a month of my commitment—home, lover, and soon enough my employment.  Behind that the six vivid dreams of grizzly bears destroying my entire home and work sites.  And behind that the shaman in Peru telling me I had a death wish.  And behind that the several times I tried to commit suicide, because I could not know what the foundation of my life was.  And behind that the constant brokenness of a family that moved me around, disrupted and moved me out of all possible, lasting friendships while I was being incested.  Can we ever experience all the things we have yet to imagine? 

I was not afraid.  And I was not alone.  “Something” was with me.  There in the endless dark, where no stars shone and in a vacuum of sound:  The Presence.   Unseen, but everywhere and next to me.  And The Presence did not, at that time, mimic a saying from The Torah, “I lay before you life and death; so, choose life that you may live.”  Instead, it simply “was” what my options were and “was” free choice.  Either way would have been okay.   Stop breathing or continue breathing.  I could have done either.  It wasn’t that The Presence cared at all, but only that it is an infinite regard for our own choice.  It fulfills life and death equally and unconditionally.  Nor did it feel like a well of salvation rising from the earth as a balm for my wounded spirit, which had happened in the spring of 1993 after emotional abuse from a christian congregation.   There in the asphalt parking lot in Riverside, CA, I was frozen midstep, transfixed, as the earth opened and sang into my soul.  But this was not that.  I was hunched over in a New York City apartment, down on hands and knees, my forehead to the floor.  I reviewed the situations of my children and grandchildren.  They would all be okay.  I knew that there might be grief, but it was transitory.  Healing is part of the life force.  Even so, my boyfriend later told me he had seen my life spirit start to leave my body several times.

I fought for every breath in and for every breath out.  And this is what I learned:

In the basement of our lives, when everything has been taken away, waits the hulking beast, eying us to answer the question of our fundament.

At the root of all lies the twin fetuses of the existential condition:  How can I live an unencumbered life?  and, I no longer can live my life the way I have up to this point.  Now what?

What followed is that I gave almost everything away.  My children received much of it.  My friends took most of the rest.  I kept a few things because they are still useful.  But that is not yet the deepest part of the journey.  That is only what The Presence required of me as a condition for my life.

This is what happened:

I discovered that underneath everything is devotion.  At first, I thought that it was prayer, but it wasn’t prayer in the sense that “I” am doing something towards Something Else.  Instead, and this is hard to describe, so forgive me my clumsiness in expression, instead I realized that the difference, the gap, between me and The Presence had been bridged by an ineffable action of imperturbable longing shaped into unending and spontaneous singing.  This motion could have been any form of art.  I am a dancer, a writer, and a musician.  In me the devotion became singing into The Presence, but as if It were singing through me into its own being.  And I was Its own channel.  But within the life of a dear friend, I see how The Presence shapes into painting, onto stretched paper, of faces emerging from thrilling landscapes.  And the color!  Oh, the astounding color of those paintings!  Just so, the singing includes a thrill on account of its own expression.  Just so, when I dance, there is a kinesthetic thrill that leaves me literally speechless, and I am often unable to talk until I become reacquainted with this world.  

Shortly after this devotion arose in me, I was sitting at a sweat lodge in Portland.  Suddenly The Presence was with me, and without thinking, my body began singing out loud. 

I discovered that the devotion is not fundamentally mine.  It is not exclusively the provinance of humanity at all, that it can be heard in the wind and the mist rising from the ocean, that every child unconsciously might hum it, and that it sings through our ancestors as well as through us who are on this side of the veil.  Everywhere present; everywhere in devotion; everywhere singing.

In retrospect, looking back to that time:  when all I had was one breath to the next; when everything else I had called “my life” seemed to have been erased; when for days all I had was the constant choosing to breathe in and to breathe out; when I could neither eat nor sleep on account of focusing down to simple breath; when my boyfriend was watching my spirit start to leave my body several times over that week, I know now that The Presence brings us to our knees, forehead to the floor, because it wants to sing through us back into Itself.  Even if we are being sung through into the world, such as I have experienced with monks in their sanctuaries, It is always singing into Itself.  The Presence is reaching out to experience its own beauty.  The world is Its own bodysong.  When we are brought into this rapturous expression, we become Its body.  In mythic terms, we become Christ.  It requires of us our brokenness, so that its Wholeness is felt, restored, expressed.  We become, in mystic and literal ways, priests of nature, our sensuous bodysouls given over.

What was revealed in my brokenness is the constant, sensual singing of The Presence, singing its own beauty, transfiguring us from mere blood and bones into Its own sacrament.  Sacred soul relationship becomes established, and the life force moves through us, even when our bodies cannot contain it and break on the arc of its melody.  We ride the energy as long as we can.  The singing goes on.

This is not a miracle.  How can it be, when it is a constant in creation?  The wonder is that we are able to resist it so fervently, defend ourselves against it by every means, while at the same time yearning to be within it.   How could we have ever thought we were separate from it, and allowed religion to teach that belief.  It’s a horror! The miracle, such as it is, is not against nature or other than nature from some place outside of the laws of nature.  The miracle, it seems, is diving in so deeply, so deeply until our foundations are relinquished, so deeply until all that remains is the essential fundament, the breath, the breath which we can no longer take for granted and for which we must take a perilous journey, until we wake up and become part of the song.

Copyright © 2012 James Lawer

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