Sunday, October 14, 2007

Truth Is What Gives the World Its Fragrance

Last week I found myself immersed in a very provocative conversation with a friend about trust. She described herself as being in an existential crisis, or maybe a mid-life crisis, she wasn't sure, but was finding herself hardly able to trust anyone, to the point of mild alarm.

Immediately I felt that inner synaptic flutter that usually signals: "Resonance. Pay attention. Yes, you recognize exactly what she is going through." Once the subject of trust had been put out on the table, I knew the crisis she'd named belonged to me as well.

In the old days, it might have been called a "crisis of faith," but this was not quite the same thing. Much more brutal in its scope and grandeur, this was not just a private event, occurring in someone's individual psyche. Suddenly and clearly I could see an entire morphic field, in which the patterned integrity of the world was systematically and perhaps irrevocably unraveling, like threads in a fabric. From the reliability of the weather to the raping of the Constitution, from melting ice caps to terrorist conspiracies to the moral bankruptcy of the U.S. government, we'd have to be blind not to see "It's not working." The center cannot hold.

Something prompts me to check out William Butler Yeats' prophetic poem in my copy of "The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart." The lines I am looking for are from "The Second Coming":

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned..."

Trust, the very innocence of it, is the ground note we cannot do without--trust, above all, in the viability of the future. But this is the twenty-first century, and trust is disappearing as surely as the Carolina coastlines. The question of how to live in the world without that reassurance of trust, in conditions where we are not dressed up, not pretty, not smashing at the screen, not hyper-vigilantly scanning the horizon for the next catastrophe about to strike-- all of these things I sensed were contributing to the dissonance my friend was feeling between her own private ordeal and public events. We are all spending a lot of energy trying not to see what is staring us in the face, trying not to feel the horror of what is happening. Things will eventually be okay. They always are.

Another friend in Australia sends me lines from Rumi:

"You may make a jewelry flower
out of gold and rubies and emeralds,
but it will have no fragrance."

That's it, I think. Moments of conscience and decency are like fragrance. Truth is fragrance. And they are disappearing. Life goes on as before, but the soul is in a state of emergency. This is the misfortune of living in the twilit carnival and surreal fakery that is America now, of swimming in the chloroform of deceit and lies. I am sitting on my front porch as I write this, and a fox appears. It stares at me for a few seconds, then runs off into the woods. I go down to the end of the driveway and get the newspaper. The lead story says Blacksburg has been put on notice that litigation may be filed claiming negligence by the town and its employees in the matter of the Virginia Tech massacre last spring. Families of the victims have congregated under the umbrella of a certain lawyer and are considering plans to sue. In our current litigious society, money is to be made even from the tragedy of unwarranted death.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Turkey is considering a cross-border offensive into Iraq against Kurdish rebels. The U.S. is adamantly opposed. Referring to us, the furious Prime Minister of Turkey responds: "Did they seek permission from anyone when they came from a distance of 10,000 kilometers and hit Iraq? We do not need anyone else's advice." Another world leader takes his cues from GWB.

I return to the anthology, wanting to check out another poem on the page next to Yeats'. Some lines by David Ignatow had previously caught my eye; I wanted to look at them again:

"...Your eyes will waver
and turn away but turn back to witness
the unprecedented, the incredible,
for you are there
and your part will be to remain calm."

My part is to remain calm: it's the ultimate message about how to be a human being. I am ready to stop there, and to type, despite the pointlessness of it all. I write and write, but it seems like words, my own and others', hit the ground as dust, with no impact, no traction. I turn on the computer to type, checking the email first. A painter living in Roanoke, Bill Rutherfoord, has sent me these few consoling words. They come with the force of an oracular coup:

"Civilizations in decline always contain a remnant of the faithful, and that appears to be our position at the moment. As systemic evil spreads globally, we should identify it, and speak about it. That's what we do."

"Heckuva job, Brownie," I tell him, "but I'm trying anyway." Question is, how much truth can we bear?


Anonymous said...

Such heartache. The pain you reveal demands a strong restorative.

Modern America has produced greatness from common men … plain lives making sublime differences.

Remind yourself of the hero priest at the twin towers who withheld nothing caring for his beloved firefighters. There is great joy for the broken heart in that poignant picture. Five huge firemen struggle with the scrawny little body that only moments before housed the noble soul of their spiritual sentinel and friend: they live on with their collared brother forever inscribed in the scars of their healing hearts.

The hero of the 14th Street Bridge airliner crash. Saving others instead of himself, one after the other. Finally, his muscles enervated of vital force, we watched his face slip silently into the dark and gelid arms of the Potomac and the honored memory of his fellow man.

Cancer cures are imminent. Freedom is within the grasp of more in the world than ever before. The Polar Bear population is growing. Europe has a common currency! Gablik is writing!

There is so very much to be joyful over.

vanessa said...

Perhaps the first step is to witness.
Until we begin to see what we have created, and continue to manifest, it will never exist in the first place.
There is too much comfort and complacency in this country for the masses to really 'see' what is going on.
The passage quoted by David Ignatow clearly points to this...

"...Your eyes will waver
and turn away but turn back to witness
the unprecedented, the incredible,
for you are there
and your part will be to remain calm."

The path of 'witnessing' can be excruciatingly painful and horrifying.
It requires self-reflection and criticism.
It requires a letting go of the ego.
It requires one to feel uncomfortable.

From this comes a new perspective.
It will not consist of roses and daffodils, of peace and joy for all...
but of many riddles that demand life long attention in order to begin to scratch their surface, and see thier image.

Do not feel like your words have no impact!
Their power has moved me to the core of my being, and I know many, many, others would say the same.

I will continue to read them and know that I am in great accord with their discoveries.

I am not afraid to face the dark times ahead.
I do not want to cower from what ever the future may bring.

I will continue to live in the present, make art, and laugh as much as possible!

However, I do desire to take part in a healing process. I do want to help others acknowledge the world we have created, and perhaps allow them to begin a healing process.

I have decided to do this with the rest of my life.

As an artist, educator, friend, lover, daughter, and perhaps one day mother.

Witnessing is the first step.
I agree with Bill, we need to talk about the issues.

Then as educators, we act upon these thoughts.

For the sake of our physical, mental, and spiritual existence and their relationships to this planet, we cannot look away, placate ourselves, and ignore the truths that lay before us.

It is far too late for that.

For me acknowledging the fear is the first step.
Then I embrace it and try to begin to understand why it is a part of myself.

Then I make work and talk with others.

These are my suggestions.

Be open and listen to the world around you..the messages abound, and our instincts are usually correct.

Fear is natural.
Do not run from it.
Face it, and challenge it to a dance!

Anonymous said...


Muse on the joy the rest of us get to savor by way of the wordsmith’s art, uniting disciplines. Like Handel’s Text-Painting in The Messiah’s “Every valley shall be exalted”: “and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain ….” Such talent in practice is a dower to us who are more suited to appreciation than creation.

And isn’t there a tidal force that now compels, now forsakes the artist and virtuoso? A season? A time for every purpose? Aren’t there times for rest and revival?


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