Monday, December 26, 2011

Dear Emily, Dear Dory, "Called Back" Love, Presvytera

I know that Virginia Wolff prized a perfect first line. I know that I rush to judge texts upon them, but I haven't got one for this post. How do I tell you that I intend to tell you about the two sprites that sit on either of my shoulders whispering to my about who I am. One sprite is Dorie, from "Finding Nemo." The other is ED, Emily Dickenson.

This is not a timely topic.** Forgive me. My narrative  begins only because I had the money to pick up Scott Cairn's The End of Suffering: Finding the Purpose in Pain. One of the Theotokos Ladies, who helped to start the Threads by saying I needed to bring 'me' to the women of the parish told me to read it.

She wanted me to read Simone Weil, Bring Forth the Best Robes by Logospilgrim and this Scott Cairns book. In it, Cairns is writing about our response to tragedy, specifically 9-11. Cairns, if you don't know is a poet and essayist, a visiting professor at St. Katherine's College in Berkeley and teaches at the University of Missouri. I'm glad I've started with this selection, of the three, because it is short, and because he weaves in Weil, about whom I know little, and poetry, which is on my mind a lot as I prepare for my spring Creative Writing course. In chapter two, he covers an Emily Dickinson piece, apropos because she was one well-acquainted with suffering.

I should tell you that ED became an imaginary best friend of mine, when I cracked her syntactic and psychological code. If I ever hosted one of those dinners with amazing anyone's-you-can-invite-dead-or-alive, I'd bribe her to leave her abode to join me. -- As an aside, I'm currently 'bro-mancing' Precious Ramotswe from McCall-Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. She'd be there too. I think she would pacify a nervous Emily.--

Cairn's picked a poem from Emily that I made my own years ago: 
After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.
This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.
But he interpreted all wrong, I told my husband, who was sick and had to get up early for Nativity Liturgy. Technically, Cairns wasn't wrong at all, it's just that his interpretation doesn't jive with mine. As ED is a queen of psychic suffering and existence, it's fair to claim my interpretation has validity too. He focuses on the end phrase, "letting go." Of what, he says is the ultimate question, since the body and soul are surviving. For him it is a severing of something we cling to. While I don't disagree, I've always interpreted that metaphor as one playing out the little deaths that come with every great pain, every suffering event. 

You see, after a great pain, I've felt that parts of me died. I perceive in my mind and soul, closeted and roped areas no longer safe for my own visitation. Doctors say that loss of blood flow kills muscle cells. Some of those regenerate, but science is out on the hope of new life for nerve cells.

Which is why I know that the depression of my adolescence, which left me writing poetry about being flat-faced in the mud. Those poems were ones of dirt and suffocation about the murderous nightmares that accompanied two years of cutting and planned suicides. There was the realization that I was not made to give my heart away more than once, when I broke off a four-year relationship with the only other boyfriend I had besides my husband. There were the years curled in the porcelain tub or on the floor of the half-bath crying in fear. He'd exploited most inadequacies I'd ever felt, and attacked every strength I thought I had during in a parent teacher conference in my first year of teaching. I've never shaken the demonic whisperings he left me. In the following years, there were the fears about failing SPED students, and twelve hour workdays with the haunting that I'd lose my job. During those years, when I medicated with food, I heard the pounds talking about heart failure, diabetes, cancer. I tried to stop eating for a while. In four years of supporting a family at seminary, taking my laptop to the dinner table, instant messaging teachers while running on-line classes and answering parent phone calls simultaneously--Oh, and so many more fears and realities to juggle that I cannot number them-- I hyperventalated. It was on the dark windowed porch, on an exercise machine, talking about finances and spiritual politics of church leadership. I was heaving with sobs. I was unable to breathe and my chest was crushing in.I didn't know for two years that it was called 'panic attack.' Trying to recall moments is impossible.Tentacles of my memory reach towards those times, trying to understand what broke. The arms of my mind retract without reaching the memory, as if only a void, or severe anguish resides in that part of me. Death. Whole parts of me died. I cannot recover any of them. But I did not die. 

One friend I met at St. Tikhon's was widowed when her son was just born. Her husband, a flight instructor, was flown into the ground in Scranton when his student switched to an empty fuel tank. I recall thinking, if she can live, so can I. I still have my helpmeet.

Those great pains have been replaced with a formal feeling. I have imagined velvet ropes and curtains. I had to find a way though, and that's when the other sprite, the other personality who spoke to me was discovered. If others found Nemo, I found Dory. 

"Just keep swimming, swimming, swimmingswimmingswimming," was a mantra and the quotes and lives of saints showed me what that looked like.

Last night I told my husband, Cairns interpretation of the freezing person's letting go was a farce. He says suffering begats opportunity to relinquish a 'habitual illusion' or some other crutch. I was being jaded when I said I didn't like Cairn's take on that metaphor. 

"Wow. I'm bitter. I feel like all of my writing, my blogs, my entire viewpoint on life comes from a negative viewpoint." It's like that line in "Say Anything" when Lloyd Dobbler hits bottom and says of "his friend that she may have the right perspective on existence: "If you start out depressed, everything's kind of a pleasant surprise." 

I told my husband that it seems my essays and poems are dominated by this negativity. I've lost my love of laughter, my child-likeness, my joy. I know that I have because my kids hunker down when I come into a room. They expect me to assign duties, before greeting and joking around with them. And they nail it about 80% of the time. 

My husband was the usual balm after that self-accusation. "I don't think your blog is depressing. People read it because it gives hope. You end with a way out."

"Just keep swimming.," I joked. No really. Dory is my other sprite. Something in her brain broke too, so now she's a handicapped person. I feel like that. Diminished physically but not spiritually, she suffers a loss that helps her through. She is child-like in the middle of jellyfish stings. She is persists even after separated from Nemo's dad. I may be more like Nemo's cranky dad, but I learn more about how to live from Dory. 

If we have good angels and bad angels on our shoulder, ED is on one. She whispers to all my narcissistic abnegation. Dory is on the other, reminding me to keep going in the wake of loss and death and suffering and handicap.

Betchoo never thought there were so few degrees of separation between Emily Dickinson and Finding Nemo, did you?


Then my fellow clergy wife sent me this for Christmas, so I guess if I'd kept up on my emails, it would have been timely. Thank you, Dear Kristin!

Hey Maria,
Thinking of you this Chirstmas. Thought you'd enjoy the one below as much as I do. Love you. Kristin
"Noble Aim"

Chances are we are the same;
Against the odds, against the grain
We lean, like gardens toward light,
But we wait, like evening for night,
Don't we?

Chances are we are alike;
Against what better judgement writes
We ache like children for love,
For a purpose worthy of
Such a noble aim,
Such a noble aim,
Such a noble aim as love.

Chances are we bruise the same;
A family tree desperate for rain.
A thirst only deserts know best.
A hurt so at home in our chests.
Call it stubbornness or bravery,
To let our branches continue to reach,
With such a noble aim,
With such a noble aim,
With such a noble aim as love.

Every broken branch and loosened leaf
That we've grown to ignore,
Is now a part of something greater than before.
Every nest that rests upon our limbs,
Seeking shelter from the storms,
Is a purpose worth being broken for.

Chances are we are the same;
Against the odds, against the grain
We lean, like gardens toward light.
We reach with all of our might
For such a noble aim as love.

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