my line of defense in the Age of Pugilism
you might have noticed. it’s hard to miss. over the airwaves, on the streets, even at your neighborhood checkout aisle: pugilism is rising to intolerable levels. i blame the bully in chief. have spent months now in my head composing the letter i would like to carry to washington, read on the capitol steps. just little old pewter-haired me, politely hollering at the top of my lungs: stop all the insidious idiocy. stop all the name-calling, the bullying, the devilish tricks. cease with the stomping down hallways and stairs, slinging god-awful descriptors on decent and honorable human beings. stop pummeling this one blessed earth. leave all the children alone, nestled by the sides of their mothers and fathers, where they belong. practice decency. exude kindness. invoke gentle tenderness. start behaving like there might be a tomorrow. imagine your deathbed: these are the moments you’ll at last call to mind. are you wincing? are these the ways you want to be remembered? a toxic trail in your wake?
it’s toxic, all right. a drip, drip, drip of toxicity. some days, more of a deluge.
my ever practical, commonsensical mother has five words of advice: turn off the damn tv!
i do, more than i used to. first few years of this siege, i admit i was glued to the loud little box. couldn’t take my eyes or my ears off the madness, praying it would end. just kept hoping against hope we could all go back to our quiet neighborly ways. might welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, feed the hungry. maybe even pick up the trash that litters the woods and the waterways.
nowadays, worn down to the marrow, i find myself building what amounts to a fort, a tall wall of defense. literally. my house is piled with books. they rise up in teetering towers all over the place: kitchen counter, window seat that looks out on the trees, floor and chair and desk in the itty-bitty room where i write.
i read to escape. but not in the way of bodice-ripped beach reads. i read to remind myself that the way of this world, of this moment, is not the only option. i read the masters: thoreau and merton and hildegard of bingen. rilke and c.s. lewis. i read newfound saints and poetesses: jane hirshfield, margaret renkl, timothy egan. i carry them wherever i go. they are my talismans, my shields against attacks of the soul.
i read lines like these, from anita barrows’ preface to rilke’s book of hours: love poems to God:
…suddenly it occurred to me that God created the world because he was lonely. He needed it — needed the ripeness of autumn, the bright air, the sunlight making patterns on the sidewalk through linden leaves that were yet unfallen. God had created all this, and us as well, to keep him company.
or this, from minnesota’s poet laureate, joyce sutphen, from her brilliant collection carrying water to the field: new and selected poems:
Some Glad Morning
One day, something very old
happened again. The green
came back to the branches,
settling like leafy birds
on the highest twigs;
the ground broke open
dark as coffee beans.
The clouds took up their
positions in the deep stadium
of the sky, gloving the
bright orb of the sun
before they pitched it
over the horizon.
It was as good as ever:
the air was filled
with the scent of lilacs
and cherry blossoms
sounded their long
whistle down the track.
It was some glad morning.
or this, the very first sentences from c.s. lewis’ a grief observed:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
or, finally, this from my brilliant friend mark burrows’ (and jon sweeney’s) meister eckhart’s book of secrets: meditations on letting go and finding freedom:
What do you think?
That God has abandoned you,
What person sees a friend
in sorrow, pain, or loneliness
without being near, present?
Don’t be foolish, my friend,
God is here.
how do you build your wall of defense? what are the bricks in your wall?
(p.s. in part, i included the bit on grief because friends here at this very table are suffering terrible griefs, loves lost and achingly so. please, remember them in your incantations. the whole of c.s. lewis’ classic, grief observed, by the way, is one that goes a very long way toward healing a brokenness, or as lewis’ stepson writes in the introduction, “it will help us to face our grief, and to ‘misunderstand a little less completely.'”)