The self you leave behind is only a skin you have outgrown. Don’t grieve for it. Look to the wet, raw, unfinished self, the one you are becoming. The world, too, sheds its skin: politicians, cataclysms, ordinary days. It’s easy to lose this tenderly unfolding moment. Look for it as if it were the first green blade after a long winter. Listen for it as if it were the first clear tone in a place where dawn is heralded by bells.
And if all that fails, wash your own dishes. Rinse them. Stand in your kitchen at your sink. Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it.
By Pat Schneider
This poem speaks to me. The older I become in years, the rawer and newer I feel, the more unfinished. The more expansive. As if there never will be an end to me, and I will ever be unfolding in some time out of mind, or mind out of time.
Yes, cold water running between my fingers. I’m like that. The cold, the water, the fingers. The wet, raw, feel of it all. Just like that.
A man lamented to an Elder in his Church that try as he might, he could not love his hyper-critical, unloving mother. The Elder told him, “My son, you don’t have to love her, you just have to love.”
That was a freeing thought to me years ago when I was having the same problem with a difficult-to-love mother. I knew I loved her, in the sense I cared about her happiness and well-being. But I was plagued by floods of unloving thoughts about her. Me being, probably, as hyper-critical of her as I believed she was of me, and just about everyone she met.
The Elder’s advise seemed to lift a heavy burden from my shoulders. I didn’t have to love the hyper-critical person, but I could be loving in my words and actions toward her, and gentle with myself for my shortcomings as well. I could love her humanity, her challenges, her struggles, and be compassionate toward her inability to be what I wanted, as well as compassionate toward my own inability to live up to my highest aspirations.
But how do we do that in these hyper-partisan times where so many people and political leaders acting out in ways that are hateful and violent and dangerously unreasonable? With the rise of tyranny and fear-mongering; the assault on truth, plain hard facts and overwhelming evidence? One worries about the fate of our nation and democracy itself, not to mention the fate of the world, plagued by firestorms, hurricanes, floods, with so little effort directed at making the changes needed to halt or even slow this global meltdown.
The world we love is being threatened by those we have come to hate. What is a loving-minded person supposed to do with all these intense, negative feelings and fears?
The answer is: You don’t have to love them. You just have to love.
But what do I “just love,” if not them? How can they be excluded if we’re “just loving” without a particular object to love?
Then I realized something, and it was like a hard, obstinate, ugly dam had been broken and the love I’d been withholding and resisting broke loose. The anger and resentment I’d been nurturing and justifying, and the fear that had been terrorizing me, were swept away.
The thing I realized is that genuine Love—the unconditional, not the personal kind —isn’t an add-on, something we choose or chose not to have. Genuine Love, the big kind with the big L, is the ground of being upon which all of us rest, that supports and sustains us all, the loving and unloving, the good and bad, the tyrant and saint.
We’re all delusional in one way or another. All living our lives on limited information and understanding about the world around us and each other, about what’s right and what’s wrong, about who we are, where we came from, and what our purpose is. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to rub up against each other and each other’s delusions, no matter what we do or how we chose to live. We can’t get out of it. We’re stuck with each other. And while things may get better for us personally, at the same time they are getting worse for others. And new challenges are on the way.
That’s where the compassion of genuine Love flows, from the realization that the one we are prone to hate or fear for their hateful deeds is just delusional, a rube to his own delusions, as we are to ours. Our sympathy, our love, extends to all of us, because we are all suffering, even while not condoning the acts that cause our suffering, and doing what we can to relieve it.
We can “just love” the whole human drama as it has rolled out over the centuries and through our own few days of existence, knowing that it will continue to roll on without us, perhaps forever in the way delusions always seem so real while they last.
But beneath all the drama that is heaving us about like storms at sea, is this deep sympathy, this oceanic peaceful presence of unconditional Love that supports and sustains us all even in the midst of all the turmoil we are experiencing.
Within that maelstrom, we each, like tiny bubbles thrown up and tossed about, clashing with each other, opposing or uniting, go about the business of being separate and apart until the delusion of our bubble of existence dissolves and we know each other as we always have been and always will be, an essential part of the underlying, unifying whole. Part of that tender, exuberant, endlessly creative flow of Love.
To sum it up: Don’t love “them,” just love “Us.”
This Metta (Lovingkindness) Prayer, which can be adapted by anyone to fit any circumstance, helps to bring that loving aspiration into focus:
In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease. Whether they are weak or strong, great or humble, wealthy or needy, omitting none, The wise or foolish, friend or foe, neighbor or stranger, Those who have wronged us and those we have wronged, Those who love us and those who do not,
May all beings be at ease!
May all beings have happiness and cause of happiness. May all beings remain free from suffering and the cause of suffering. May all beings remain unseparated from the sacred joy and that is free from sorrow, May all beings rest in the boundless and all-inclusive equanimity that supports and sustains us all.
Three summers I spent by the river in the heat of a homeless camp. (Having left my father’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)
Three summers of night terrors howling through my tent as the stars threw down their furious spears. (Having left my mother’s home, which was my home, though I knew it not.)
Three summers trolling the streets in blistered feet while eyes turned sideways at my glance. (Having lost all I loved, which loved me still, though I knew it not.)
As I walked the flesh melted from my bones, my teeth melted from my mouth. My thoughts dried up and blew away. Past and present dried up and blew away.
Nothing was left behind to claim a name, to know what I was or wasn’t.
Empty, careless and carefree, I danced along the street like a wind-tossed leaf, like a moon-mad fool, marveling at how all I saw danced with me.
Now my tent is my temple and the river flowing past me washes through me—mother and father and all I love and always was and ever will be.
Now as I walk the streets flowers grow at my feet, and every eye turned toward me is mine.
By Deborah J. Brasket
The story of the Prodigal is a favorite found in almost every faith because it tells deep truths we all recognize. We are all prodigals in some ways, whether living homeless on the streets or in the home of our dreams, if we have not, as this Prodigal has, returned home to our true self. If we have not gone through the weaning process that strips us of all we never were and gives back to us all we are, the magnificence of our oneness with the All-in-all.
This poem, too, is influenced by the tales of the old Zen Masters, relating their journey to enlightenment, a process known as “losing and losing.” Often they began their journey in abject poverty. Chuang Tzu describes how he was able to free himself from the limitations of the finite mind and gain an insight into his innermost being: First freeing himself from the concerns of the world, then from all externalities, from gain and loss, right and wrong, past and present. Finally he was freed from his own existence, from birth and death, I and Other. He sees the One and becomes part of the One. At that point, he was able again to enter again into the world of men, but this time with “bliss-bestowing hands.”
The photo above is one I took at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I wrote a blog post about that visit called “Fascinating Faces, Tao and the Arts.” I wrote: “Some works of art speak to you on a level that is hard to define. You gaze and are drawn inward. Something in you identifies with what you see there. It’s not outside, it’s in here. It was there before you saw it, and the seeing is just a reminder of its presence.” I felt an especial affinity with this face.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil. If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning. To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.
The title of this poem is so interesting. How sometimes we feel we must defend our pleasures, our moments of delight, in the face of so much suffering in the world.
Finding the balance between wanting to save the world (as if I could) and wanting to lay all that aside and just savor it while I can, has been a lasting theme in my life.
More and more I’m tending toward the latter.
My favorite treatise on the subject is the tale of the Zen monk being chased over a cliff by a tiger. He grabs hold of a vine to keep from falling, while a hungry alligator snaps at his heels in the river below. Just then, he spies a juicy red strawberry hanging nearby. He reaches out with one hand to pop it into his mouth.
This painting is considered by many as Van Gogh’s finest floral, and one of the only two paintings he chose to exhibit publicly. It was painted after breakfast on the first day at the asylum where he went to heal after mutilating his ear.
The garden has always been a place for healing, and the fact that Van Gogh found some healing comfort in painting these lovely things I find incredibly moving. A poster of these irises has been living with me for years, hanging over a hutch in my dining room in my last home. And now it adds its blue and turquoise dazzle to my pool room bath, decorated in blues and turquoise, shells and candles, and other sea inspired paintings.
The sea too, like the garden, has always been a healing place. Spending time there gives us a sense of coming home, connecting us not only to nature at its finest, but also to some deeper sense of calm and beauty that we recognize instrinsically as part of our primal nature. When we are hurting or out of sorts, seeking that connection brings us home to ourselves and we find healing. Music and art share those healing qualities.
That call for us to come “back to the garden” for healing and renewal is found in an old song from the sixties, one of my favorites, that I listened to recently when doing research on a new novel. The song isn’t actually called “back to the garden” as I’d thought. But a google search of those words brought me to it nonetheless. It was written by Joni Mitchell in 1968. The trio Crosby, Stills, and Nash were the first to sing it, and made it famous, but I like the way Joni sings it better. She named it “Woodstock,” but it’s less about that famous festival than the idea behind it. It captures the spirit of the times, that hope of healing the nation, of turning the turmoil of the times—“the bombers riding shotgun in the sky”—-“into butterflies.”
You may remember the song’s intoxicating refrain:
We are stardust We are golden And we’ve got to get ourselves Back to the garden
The garden evokes the Garden of Eden, a time before The Fall. And the reference to stardust, of course, reminds us of our even more primal origin, the fact that the stuff of which we are made is the stuff of stars.
Whether we go to the garden for healing, or the sea, what we are really doing is connecting with some primal part of ourselves that includes the whole universe of being. If only we truly knew and understood what that means, turning bombers into butterflies, or a mutilated ear into irises, would be inevitable.
My understanding of what “mothering” is, or could be, was hugely influenced by this passage in the Tao Te Ching (CHXXV). The artwork that follows amplifies it.
There was something complete and nebulous
Which existed before the Heaven and Earth,
Unchanging, standing as One,
Able to be the Mother of the World.
This Mother of the World, of course, is the Divine Creator, the all-pervading, all embracing, unchanging, and unceasing. It’s the thing that evolves, supports, nurtures, protects, and provides space for its “children,” all individual being.
A tall order for a mere human.
Yet it inspires me to embrace my children in that spirit. To step back and project in some way this more expansive sense of mothering that allows them to feel loved and supported without all the worries and anxieties and criticism and fear that accompany a mere human sense of mothering.
This mothering is not as personal, intense, or myopic. It doesn’t hover, it doesn’t obsess, it doesn’t fret. It frees them “to be,” and is based on an immense sense of trust—in myself, in them, and in the universe at large. In God, or Tao, or some divine presence or higher power that embraces all of us, and gives each of us the capacity to mother each other.
I find this kind of mothering works best when I embrace all around me with the same mothering spirit. Not just my children, but all children, all people, all things—my home, my community, my work—even the individual objects that fill the space around me and the space outside my window. When I’m able to actually feel and identify with that potential, to “be” the “Mother of the World.”
The images in this post capture some of that universal and spiritual kind of Mothering, not only of love, but of unity and wholeness—two in one, and one in two. Two overlapping, enveloping, and yet distinct identities. “Not-two” is the way a Buddhist or Taoist might put it.
The painting by Sikorskaia at the top of the post shows this beautifully. The mother’s body wraps about her breast-feeding infant and fills the whole space with the solid, four-square wholeness of her presence. Her dark head is bent, attentive, surrounded by a halo of light-colored flesh. Her arms, open hand, and bend back form another circle, encircling the first. Her feet tenderly touch each other, and with the raised and lowered legs form a triangle of unity, the base upon which the mother sits.
She is grounded and centered, while the child is loose in her arms, able to move and to feed freely, but blending with the mother’s flesh, showing how closely knit they are even while separate beings. The dominant lines creating this painting are round, curved, circling each other. Mother and child are one in body and being. Two in one. One in two.
The following image by Barnet is similar. Mother and child completely fill the space and overflow it. They are facing each other, mirror reflections of each other. She sees herself in her child, the child sees itself in the mother. Her hands are wrapped around the child, but open, as is the child’s hand, reaching up toward the mother, toward its other surrounding self.
Will Barnet, Mother and Child,1993-2006
The painting by Irwin below also creates the powerful feeling of oneness and unity. Here we see the indistinct features and form of mother and child surrounded by a shadowy, indistinct background. The vertical figure is centered and reaches top to bottom, nearly bisecting the page. Clearly it shows two in one, one in two. The soft, indistinct edges of the form feather into the background, soft and permeable. The Mother and Child are one with each other and one with the surrounding environment. The whole painting is a study of unity and wholeness.
Madonna & Child by Holly Irwin
Two-ness is more evident in the next paintings.
In the first below by Harmon, mother and child again fill the space. Wholeness, oneness, is still the dominant theme. The mother’s face seems blissful, as if she is drinking up the scent of her child, savoring her closeness. The sea surrounds them, symbolizing the womb, the place of birth, of oneness. But the child’s dangling legs, the soles of her feet, denote her readiness and ability to separate from her mother. The restless waves at their feet foreshadow the coming parting, when the mother puts down her child. We can imagine them walking hand-in-hand down the beach.
In The Ocean Air by Johanna Harmon
We see this close unity and foreshadowing of separation in the following image by Sorolla as well.
Here, the sea as backdrop both unites the figures of mother/child and introduces the element of separation in the layered waves and wayward boat. The deep shadows and strong light also denotes two-ness–the pairing of opposites. The towel flung over and around mother and child unite them, but all that takes place behind them foreshadows separation. It seems a beautiful, tender, but fleeting moment in time. Unlike the first three images which seem iconic, timeless and eternal.
Sorolla – Masterful colorist “Just Out of the Sea” 1915
This last painting by Larson is probably my favorite among these six–for so many reasons. But first and foremost because it captures that golden glow of late afternoon on the beach, when the strong light casts shadows so deep and dark. The light shimmers around them and through them, uniting them, and revealing a transparency that we see in the figure’s back-lit clothing.
Mother and child are clearly two distinct individuals now. Still, the touching heads and hands form a circle of unity and closeness. Even the shadows at their feet flowing upward through the two figures form a second circle of unity. We still have two-in-one and one-in-two, even while the separate individuals are clearly defined.
There is something nostalgic about this painting. A tender sweetness underscored by the foreshadowing of separation as the two move apart from each other and this singular moment is lost in passing time. We cannot stop passing time, but we can capture it in these sweet moments, and preserve it in our art and our memories.
“Beach Treasures” by Jeffrey T. Larson (1999)
And I suppose that’s why I find all these paintings so powerful and profound. They capture universal and primal experiences we all have shared at one time or another in our journey from one to two and back again.
Mothering, I’ve learned, is a capacity that anyone can embrace: man, woman, child. You don’t have to be a mother, or have children of your own, to mother the world, to feel that oneness, or two-in-one. When we adopt that stance, all things become our children to nurture, cherish, support, love—to help bring to their full potential.
Here’s wishing you all a lovely day of “mothering.”
I’m still trying to understand why this poem moves me so much, and thought maybe you can help.
And What Good Will Your Vanity Be When The Rapture Comes
says the man with a cart of empty bottles at the corner of church and lincoln while I stare into my phone and I say I know oh I know while trying to find the specific filter that will make the sun’s near-flawless descent look
the way I might describe it in a poem and the man says the moment is already right in front of you and I say I know but everyone I love is not here and I mean here like on this street corner with me while I turn
the sky a darker shade of red on my phone and I mean here like everyone I love who I can still touch and not pass my fingers through like the wind in a dream but I look up at the man and he is a kaleidoscope
of shadows I mean his shadows have shadows and they are small and trailing behind him and I know then that everyone he loves is also not here and the man doesn’t ask but I still say hey man I’ve got nothing I’ve got nothing even though I have plenty
to go home to and the sun is still hot even in its endless flirt with submission and the man’s palm has a small river inside I mean he has taken my hand now and here we are tethered and unmoving and the man says what color are you making
the sky and I say what I might say in a poem I say all surrender ends in blood and he says what color are you making the sky and I say something bright enough to make people wish they were here and he squints towards the dancing shrapnel of dying
light along a rooftop and he says I love things only as they are and I’m sure I did once too but I can’t prove it to anyone these days and he says the end isn’t always about what dies and I know I know or I knew once and now I write about beautiful things
like I will never touch a beautiful thing again and the man looks me in the eyes and he points to the blue-orange vault over heaven’s gates and he says the face of everyone you miss is up there and I know I know I can’t see them but I know
and he turns my face to the horizon and he says we don’t have much time left and I get that he means the time before the sun is finally through with its daily work or I think I get that but I still can’t stop trembling and I close
my eyes and I am sobbing on the corner of church and lincoln and when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know
I am seeing this the girl who kissed me as a boy in the dairy aisle of meijer while our parents shopped and the older boy on the basketball team who taught me how to make a good fist and swing it into the jaw of a bully and the friends who crawled to my porch
in the summer of any year I have been alive they were all there I saw their faces and it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn again and once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always
empty and I am gasping into the now-dark air and I pull my shirt up to wipe whatever tears are left and I see the man walking in the other direction and I chase him down and tap his arm and I say did you see it did you see it like I did and he turns and leans into the
glow of a streetlamp and he is anchored by a single shadow now and he sneers and he says have we met and he scoffs and pushes his cart off into the night and I can hear the glass rattling even as I watch him become small and vanish and I look down at my
phone and the sky on the screen is still blood red.
It starts out as just an ordinary encounter on a street corner and kaleidoscopes into something quite different. The narrator is preoccupied with his phone, with enhancing an image of a sunset to show off to others. When approached by a homeless man preoccupied with the coming rapture, he fakes empathy, saying “I know I know”, but not really knowing, not really caring. He continues to humor the man by saying, in essence, yes, I know, the rapture is coming, but since all my people aren’t here, I’m not really ready for it right now.
And it’s at this point the poem shifts from the real to the surreal, the homeless guy before him kaleidoscopes into something else, and takes hold of the narrator’s hand. Now they are “tethered and unmoving.”
From here until the end is a dreamlike episode, where poignant moments and phrases seem to flow, one after the other, like that river flowing from the man’s palm: the sun’s “endless flirt with submission,” “I love things only as they are,” “the end isn’t always about what dies,” “now I write about beautiful things like I will never touch a beautiful thing again,” and “the face of everyone you miss is up there.”
By now the narrator is trembling and sobbing. He keeps saying “I know, I know, or I knew once,” as if he’s forgotten the things he should know. And then comes this vision: “when I open my eyes the sun is plucking everyone who has chosen to love me from the clouds and carrying them into the light-drunk horizon and I am seeing this and I know”. He sees all these faces and precious moments from his past and says: ” it was like I was given the eyes of a newborn again.” Then he adds “once you know what it is to be lonely it is hard to unsee that which serves as a reminder that you were not always empty.”
After this vision and revelation, the scene devolves back into an ordinary street scene. The homeless man, when asked, apparently has not seen what he saw. He scornfully pushes the narrator away, and continues his journey into the night with his cart full of empty bottles.
I’m still struggling to put into words what moves me, but it’s in the images I’ve highlighted above, and the refrain “I know I know or I knew once.” It’s in that feeling that things aren’t really as they seem to be, they are so much more; and also in the fact that all we really want or need is already right here before us, if only we had eyes to see.
It’s in that coalescing of the real and surreal, the now and forever, the ordinary and extraordinary, and how they morph back and forth, dreamlike and elusive. It’s in that eternal yearning for “something more,” and, at the same time, the need to surrender to what is. To let that “dancing shrapnel” of light break us apart so we are open to this moment, right here, before us.
There’s so much more to say about this poem, and I’d be really interested in knowing what you think.
The constant reference to a poem is interesting too, making this a kind of meta-poem. The narrator himself is a poet it seems. And I wonder, does the act of writing (my writing this post, his writing that poem) does it take us out of the moment or deeper into it? And when I say “moment” do I mean what is happening right now in this room and outside my window as I write, or what is going on in my head and heart as I write quite unaware of my surroundings? Are they the same moment? Or are each part of a kaleidoscopic now, moments within moments?
The word “rapture” is mentioned only once, but referred to again and again, and perhaps the title of this post, “the rapture is already right in front of us,” comes closest to capturing what I take away from reading this poem. The rapture not referring to the Biblical sense of people being plucked off the streets into heaven, but to the ecstatic joy that lies just out of sight within the present moment, if only we have eyes to see.
Many thanks to The Vale of Soul-Making for introducing me to this poem and poet. And many thanks for the painting by Robert Roth that captures without words what I really wanted to say here.
The abstract artwork of Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) predated that of Kandinsky, Klee, and Mondrian, and so some say that she rather than a “he” was the inventor of abstract art. She knew herself that she was painting well before her time and asked that her work not be exhibited until 20 years past her death. However, that stretch of restraint lasted much longer. Only recently is her work being given the kind of renown and interest she has long deserved.
Like so many artists, her artwork was inspired by a spiritual perspective, in her case a keen interest in Buddhism and Theosophy, and the Occult. What I love about her paintings are the rich colors and elegant organic shapes, the playful designs and sense of connectivity. Her art reminds me of Georgia O’Keefe’s works in some ways, the boldly feminine and evocative.
More about her life and work can be found in the links below.