Sunday, March 31, 2013

From the Exhilaration of Freedom to the Threat of Freedom

And there they were. Standing on the other shore. Safe at last. Free. They drummed. They danced. They sang. Every one of them giddy with weightlessness, the burden lifted, the yoke removed. All that pent-up energy released into rejoicing and thanksgiving.
When they woke to the world around them again, they packed their timbrels and turned to face the days ahead.

What faced them terrified them. An enemy vaster than imagining. A nothingness that swallowed up all that approached it. Boundless wilderness of time and space. And nothing, nothing to cut it down to size, carve it into pieces they could manage. No tasks to perform, no masters’ wills or whims to obey, no rituals to observe, nothing to be built or finished. Everything at the still point before the plunge into the beginning. A vast expanse promising only expanding terror, lostness, no way to get one’s bearings, each step erased as it is taken. A cruel infinity demanding to be conquered, choice upon choice, act upon act, knowing itself to be invincible. Crushing immensity. Rapacious void.

Some stopped there, never to move again. Without benefit of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, the existentialists or the absurdists, they knew the anxiety of open being and closed it off, knew the burden of freedom and shucked it off.

Others set off, in fear and trembling, into that unknown, following those who dared to blaze a path out of faith and hope, risking their lives on a tangled path carved out slowly, by excruciating and liberating trust, by law and by blood, cut into stone letter by letter, drops of blood spilling into the shifting sands on the way to a difficult, life-giving freedom.

And some—who can tell who they were or how they came that way—befriended that immensity. An immensity opened inside “as vast as night and light” that met the immensity outside and called it home. You can meet them wandering freely there today, their feet kissing the ground, their lips embracing the sky.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dust to Dust

Dust to Dust

I hate dusting, that Sisyphean task.
Impossible to remove it all, to achieve
that newborn place.
Wipe it away with your ravening rag
and specks escape,
floating free, unseen,
shrouding you in reflected light,
before settling into a new home from which you
have to drive them out.

At twelve my daughter asked me in queasy wonder,
“Dust is dead skin! We learned it in science!
Did you know that?”
I hated dust.
It left me no time for wonder.
Let it be someone else’s duty.
Let someone deal with it right,
come spray it with chemicals, kill it,
and drag the corpses away,
leaving surfaces nothing can cling to—
for a few days, an hour maybe,
a moment’s rest from laboring.

Dusting for Passover—no questions
from children—and a cloud of witnesses
rises up, sheening round me,
sloughed off skins of saints and sinners,
Hebrew and Egyptian, warrior
and builder, the free
and the bound, poets
and law givers, idol worshippers
and seekers, the cruel
and the merciful, those who hated
and those who loved, the drowned
and the saved,
a multitude forever mixed
all come to this—
dancing in the currents of a shoreless sea,
singing a song of love.
Even the dust praises you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Feast of Freedom

As Passover approaches, I find myself wondering about the meaning of freedom. Truly wondering, because I am not sure, in spite of my younger self’s confident knowing—about freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, academic freedom, and the freedom of women and all vulnerable persons to choose their lives and to live in safety, free of oppression—that I understand what it is to live freely, or that I have ever really experienced it.

As I contemplate celebrating the feast of freedom with family and friends, the abstraction, freedom, looms over me, and I don’t know how to escape its enormity. Blessedly, a distinction that John Calvin makes in the Institutes, a distinction he borrowed from the Greek philosophers, comes to my aid. Here are three ways to begin thinking of freedom these wise souls suggest: freedom from, freedom for, and freedom in relation to things that are indifferent.

Freedom from. This seems at first glance as if it would be the easiest to understand. Freedom from stereotypes, oppression, violence, illness, sorrow, lies, bigotry, shame, care, poverty of body, poverty of spirit, anxiety, worry, enemies, hatred, the power of addiction—all that grinds life down and limits the good. It seems easy to generate list, to name the things that hold us back, imprison us, and that whose absence would lift our spirits and smooth our daily lives and that would make it possible for us to experience freedom for. But these aren’t always so easy. To see the internal chains from the past or our own limiting visions of our self and our possibilities takes great effort and often much time.

Freedom for. Should be easy, right? We think we know what we want to be free to do, certainly all that we were not allowed or able to do when we were not free. But once our restraints have been lifted it’s difficult to transform our lives and begin to do what we think we want to do. We have to grow into that freedom. And there’s the difficulty that trips up so many of us. It’s often hard to know when our chains have been removed so that we are indeed free for living freely. I read recently that human beings train elephants by chaining their leg to the trunk of a tree when they are babies. As hard as they pull, they cannot break free. When they have grown accustomed to this, the trainer replaces the chains with ropes. The adult elephant could break free of the ropes with no effort at all. But they do not try. All that power within them, and they remain shackled, prisoners.

That’s the way it was in the wilderness after the children of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt. The oppressors were gone, dead. This massing 600,000 souls had incredible power, but they believed they were still chained to the tree of their trainer and so kept circling and circling it, waiting for the trainer to come and untie them and lead them off to work or perform as they had been taught. It took the children of Israel a generation to believe, to see that they were free and to exercise the creative power they had to build a life on their terms. They had to grow into freedom for and that growing was not easy. The gap between generations is always wide, but in those days, it must have seemed unbridgeable. Parents born in slavery and children born in freedom of former slaves—what different worlds they inhabited, what strangers they must have been to one another. How difficult and painful it was for that first generation to turn together from freedom from to freedom for. How difficult and painful it was for that second generation to understand the freedom from that carried with it the chains of the past. Maybe that’s the real miracle, that they did finally leave that narrow place, break free of the flimsy yet powerful rope tied round their leg and begin to roam freely toward a new life.

I’ll return to freedom in relation to things that are indifferent another day.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Man on the Street Delivered a Remarkable Message

Last week, as my son and I were walking toward Pike Place Market, a man passed by going in the opposite direction. He was tall, his step energetic. As he passed our eyes met. My son and I continued on our way. But the man turned round to speak to us and we stopped,there on Pike Street, in the crowd of people rushing east and rushing west. He asked for help to get a meal. As we fished for something to give him, he told us he was from Kenya, a stranger here, not used to the ways of people here. His face was smooth and shining,his eyes open to ours. We gave him a few dollars and were on our way again.

"Thank you" he called.

We turned round to look.

He stood still in the street, straight and tall. He looked intently at us, his face a still, clear point in the moving mass. "Thank you for looking at me," he said. Then he smiled, a warming, welcoming smile.

And then we were all on our way again, jostling and being jostled, stopping and going, looking but not seeing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Waking Up

In My Morning Bowl

in my morning bowl stars
stars waking up in a bed of oats
and clumps of crystalized honey
each dusky blue skin bursting
into five perfect points radiating
from the point where the stem once
attached to the branch
no scar to mark the moment—
just that tender opening to flesh,
a five-armed cistern now
collecting milk

How many mornings were they there
here, stars shining
as teeth crushed
each berry to pulp

I want my spirit to ripen
like that—juicy flesh stretching skin until
it tears
into a star-shaped opening
to silhouette the light