Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Poems (Mark Van Doren)

A very few readers of The Seven Storey Mountain may have discovered through Thomas Merton Mark Van Doren, a professor and poet at Columbia in the middle of the last century who served as his mentor for a while. I did things the roundabout way: I discovered Thomas Merton through Mark Van Doren, discovered in turn through the movie Quiz Show, in which he's played (and played brilliantly) by Paul Scofield. I read and wrote on Van Doren for an independent study in high school, and was almost certainly the only American high schooler to be doing anything with that forgotten poet. He has some very good poems, though-- some splendid, some quietly lovely. These came to mind recently.

Sonnet XVII

When I came back to your unlifted eyes
And spoke to you, inquiring how we did,
And you looked up without the least surmise,
Then the old music, that so long was hid,
Sounded; and I knew it was to pour
Forever while we lived, with no abating.
The unskilled players were unskilled no more
And every string had sweetened by its waiting.
There will be nothing now but one clear tone,
Of which we shall not tire, and if it pauses
We shall exist upon love’s faith alone,
That knows all silence to its deepest causes,
And comprehends the ever-devious ways
I still must follow as I sing your praise.

Woman Few of Words

Lady, excellently brief
(Let me be too),
The sweet things you say
Are salt also,
For true.

It takes my very breath, the mixing,
As if I tried
To be both hot and cold
Together; lived,
And died.

As if within a summer sky
Some lightning hid;
Not to be found except
As on love's day
You did.

And then this one, which I misremembered while walking in Vermont:

O World

O world, my friend, my foe,
My deep dark stranger, doubtless
Unthinkable to know;
My many and my one,
Created when I was and doomed to go
Back into the same sun;

O world, my thought's despair,
My heart's companion, made by love
So intimate, so fair,
Stay with me till I die--
O air,
O stillness, O great sky.

Only the last lines came to mind, and those as "O world, stay with me till I die-- O fields, o stillness, O great sky," which suited my mood and environs better than the lines above!

Hunt Mill Road, near Symes Pond

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Vermont Journal 1

I spent the week of August 12 - 19 in a little cabin on Symes Pond, a few miles outside of the tiny towns of Ryegate and Barnet in northern Vermont. I was there with four friends from college. It was a marvelous week-- relaxing and rejuvenating. I scribbled away in my casual, haphazard journal, here recorded for some sort of posterity.

Vermont Journal 1

It's really beautiful here. It's the kind of beauty that's shared with the Wisconsin Northwoods and the North Carolina Applachians-- the tall, gentle hills framing still lakes, deep woods with that wonderful smell of earth and greenness, and the flowers my mother taught me to name when I was a child.

Yesterday, we canoed down the little water passage from our pond, and intrepidly forded a beaver dam to make it into Upper Symes Pond, where A and I floated for a while in the sun. There's something just right about the pace of canoeing. It's like walking on water-- you get where you need to go soon enough, but with plenty of time to appreciate everything you pass.

I can't decide if I want to take pictures here or not. I want to remember how this place looked and felt when I'm back in Washington. But any photo I take will condense the view--perhaps too much, diminishing the memory of the quiet, peaceful expanses.

I want to remember how it feels to walk six miles down and back up the road toward the town, feeling the narrow gravel path change to one and then two lane sandy tracks, changing to pavement only just before you hit the highway. Passing five or six houses in total, two ferociously loyal and vigilant dogs, a couple of small ponds ringed with cattails and choked with waterlilies, woods on both sides of the road, except where a field or lawn has been carved out. And always the tall hills.

The breeze at every turn like a blessing on my face and shoulders. Hearing only my feet, my breath and the birds. Noting the ways my thoughts changed and changed back-- from where I ought to be going to how it felt to be walking to noticing the various flowers and trees to trying to think about what I thought I should consider (future plans, place in the world, God), only to think about whatever came to mind (work, men, spinning out possible futures, remembering poems). Realizing that walking was no longer a conscious effort-- my body was going entirely of its own accord. And then pushing up the steep hill, no time to think of anything but my breaths and putting one foot in front of the other. Turning at last toward the cabin and thinking only of the coffee and breakfast that were waiting.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Returning and setting out

Many days have passed. I keep thinking I ought to update and then wondering what it is I really have to say. It's been the same with me in general: I keep thinking I ought to do something, and then wondering what it is I really ought to do. I've been working quite hard, and to balance that out, I've been reading fluff (well-written fluff to be sure, but still...), watching fluff, talking mostly fluff.

Recently, I picked up a book by Primo Levi (The Drowned and the Saved) and it was like coming back to myself. The book is wonderful, but it wasn't particularly the book: it was the invigorating rush of the mind roaring back to full speed. The book got dog-eared; the spine cracked; I have a whole passel of notes just waiting to be written up.

I used to read these sorts of books all the time. I used to read all the time. But far too often in the last years, I've worked at a computer all day, come home to a movie or the internet and then tumbled into bed. I've gone from having stacks of books going: books on religion, on ethnic violence, history, poetry, novels-- all the things that engage me the most-- to having nothing going. Lazy and ultimately corrosive behavior.

And then, over the weekend, the rush intensified as I picked up several more books (one almost finished, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart, about which more later) and thought: "It's all very well my feeling engaged and alive and fizzing along at full speed on the weekends and evenings. What about during the day?" I have to face the fact that my job is a whole lot of nothing. I do little that could not be done by someone else. Even the original initiatives I've spearheaded are only exciting in the context of my job and my office's operations; they're not empirically important. I'm not using my full range of abilities and passions and expertise. And yes, this is the case the world over and yes, I'm lucky to have a job. Yes to all of that.

But it hasn't always been that way for me. I have great difficulty separating what I do from who I am. I'm happiest when the two are completely merged-- when I take as much pleasure in my job as I do in my non-working hours (this usually results in the latter being few and far between) and when my occupation is clearly aligned with my vocation. I'm still figuring out what the latter is, but I know when something fits me and feels right, and I know when it doesn't. And this doesn't. Religion, reconciliation, ethnic violence, the great world out there-- these are all concepts, much too general to be a vocation, but they're what I return to again and again. Nearly everything that falls under these ridiculously broad headings fascinates me-- they're my intellectual home.

So what next? I don't know. I do know that, as Rachel says, it's time to make teshuvah, to align myself in the right direction again. And to do that, I need to set out-- away from all-too-quickly-established patterns and out into something else. I'm starting to feel settled in Washington, and that's unsettling me.

This next step needs to be a bigger one than before: a move overseas, a graduate degree in another city, etc. Such a step has been rattling around in my brain for a while, and I don't know if I've been too timid in not flinging myself into the void, or if there are simply too many enticing voids out there. Both. Neither.

To stay in place is getting more and more uncomfortable. The idea of setting out feels right. It feels like coming home. A step away is a step towards a return.