When I was a green girl of fifteen, I was first introduced to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I’ve written elsewhere of the numinosity of that introduction, but I didn’t mention that one of the poems that most intrigued me was this one:
How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals,)
How dear and dreadful they are to the earth,
How they inure to themselves as much as to any –
What a paradox appears their age,
How people respond to them, yet know them not,
How there is something relentless in their fate all times,
How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward,
And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same great purchase.
So here we are. The portentous 2012. “A new beginning,” say jump time enthusiasts…or, if we heed the Mayan calendar catastrophizers, “The end.” Nature would undoubtedly answer, “Both,” since cycles of death and rebirth are Her calling card. Mayan calendar notwithstanding, each year we Western humans ritualize January 1, right on the heels of the winter solstice, with its tension between dark and light, as the place to mark the onset of a new cycle. We take stock, make resolutions, hope that fate fulfills all the unmet desires and longings left over from the previous year. At some point, quite a few of us not so metaphorically force ourselves to dump the sugar-and-buttery leftovers of Christmas or Chanukah or New Year’s football frenzy into the trashcan in hopes of losing the poundage we’ve put on over the holidays.
And we seek to begin again. You’d think that making a new beginning would be fun…easy…the fantasy of what might be, what should be, not yet bogged down by all those pesky and problematic details. But Whitman alludes to something else entirely in his poem. Why would beginners need to inure to themselves? And to what great purchase is he referring?
Some of it, I think, pertains to the dark and light symbolized by the solstice. We vow to do it differently this year, any year, not just because life with her complexity has inevitably thrown spanners into the previous year’s works to defeat our desires – some of those spanners involving other people, who make us grit our teeth when they just won’t co-op-er-ate. It’s also because we are conflicted beings, with nature inside us asserting her own claims, bequeathing us an inner terrain populated by warring desires and habits that uneasily eye one another like separate species, some herbivorous, some carnivorous, who don’t necessarily – as the protagonist of my novel The History of My Body observes – do too well sharing the same watering hole.
I’ve been a latecomer to environmental consciousness – a city girl who spent exactly one night under the stars (Webster Junior High, seventh grade sleepover, Angeles National Forest). You’d be far more likely to find my family members sitting indoors buried in a book than taking a hike or riding one of our famous southern California waves.
Yet, there were glimmers. A five-year-old’s numinous experience of touching a bush and becoming aware of the sun-shining-down-on-me-touching-the-bush. Or the morning after my first adolescent acid trip – yes, Virginia, there was a sixties! – seeing rainbows in the dew drops lingering on blades of grass. Which takes us right back to Whitman’s opus. It was he who really turned the key, opening me to the soulfulness of the natural world. As much as I appreciated his songs of shopkeepers and soldiers, it was his nature poems that simultaneously lifted my spirits and broke my heart. One in particular haunts me still: “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” with its poignant suggestion of the sweetness of death.
Death is, after all, implicit in the making of a new beginning. As soon as we are born, we embark upon a hopefully long and rich road toward our dying. As soon as we set out to discover the stuff of which we’re made, it’s all danger, anxiety, awkwardness, loss, shame, failure, disappointment…and of course, the occasional carrot of triumph, discovery, or sheer joy.
Recently, my dear friend Carolyn Raffensperger, eloquent advocate for future generations and the Precautionary Principle, asked us on Facebook to imagine what we’d need to take with us if we were traveling into time to “signal peace to the future ones.” I responded, “Hope. I’m bringing hope. Gratitude for such excellent fellow travelers, for being alive. Maybe a crow’s feather. And a few books…real books. Leaves of Grass would be good. Songs. A pen. The willingness to not know, to sniff the wind…if necessary, to be the fool. Calloused feet, some scars, ferocity if it’s required, a dowsing rod, fire sticks. And dreams. Lots of dreams.”
What I didn’t mention was an acceptance of sacrifice, a willingness to endure loss. For it’s a given that we lose something – most typically, a heck of a lot of things – every time we set out on a new journey. I’m thinking now of the harsh realities that burgeoned from my beginning efforts at writing fiction twenty-six years ago: the struggle to give halfway decent articulation to the voices of the fascinating characters urged upon me by my muse; the tedium and anguish of editing (and editing and editing), losing hard-won phrases and even whole chapters in service of a tightly-wrought and effective story; finding an agent after a kazillion rejections; finding a publisher after a kazillion rejections; proofreading (and proofreading and proofreading); learning how to promote a book and torturing the introvert in myself by submitting to sound bite interviews on a.m. radio (which actually, in the person of one Baltimore preacher, Horace Tittle at WJSS, made mincemeat of my FM snobbism by engaging me in a fascinating discussion of my book, autism, and spirituality); being asked a kazillion times, with an eye to the marketplace, “How is the book doing?” when my soul only wants to know that my Fleur is connecting with kindred spirits in the world who might be heartened by her story.
No, I didn’t mention sacrifice and loss in my response to Carolyn’s question, nor did I name innocence, which is truly where we start every time. Innocence of the costs of breaking with the old. Innocence of ostracism, disapproval, not being understand. Innocence of what hymens will tear, what failures will be suffered along the way. Innocence of how much inner destructive energies and outer ones will be primed to defeat us. In the case of climate change, the anguished innocence of being modern day Cassandras – knowing something awful is taking place and about to get much, much worse – but not being believed.
Carl Jung cleverly pointed out that the human psyche organizes itself in pairs of opposites. As soon as we approach the archetype of creativity, archetypal destructiveness is constellated. Baby Moses comes into the world and the edict is issued to kill off all the first-born. Baby Jesus can find “no crib for his head.”
On the other hand, Jung posited that if we can consciously hold our pairs of opposites – our creativity and our destructiveness, our liveliness and our numbness, our beauty and our nastiness, our concern for our planet and our wish to enjoy the fruits of materialism and fancy techno-gadgets – with a little grace, a new thing (which he dubbed “the transcendent function”) will be born. Not unlike the process which, as a Jungian analyst, I frequently witness with great awe in my consulting room: a finely delineated and developed soul emerging from painful engagement with personal shit and unique giftedness, despair and desire, victimhood and resilience, fear and trembling and courage.
The alchemists were right, at least metaphorically. Lead, or our ample flaws, can produce gold. Our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, our sensitivity to cruelty and thoughtlessness (not the least of which, our own!), can lead us in the direction of transformation and healing. (As in the epigraph to my novel, there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.) Or, as the quantum physicists such as my novel’s Fleur Robins are currently tantalizing us with – black holes might just act as wormholes to multiple universes, darkness leading into expansion and light. (Put that one in your pipe and smoke it awhile; I certainly am, as I begin to engage in a sequel to The History of My Body!)
As I say, I’ve been a latecomer to environmentalism. For me, it was a big deal when I first committed to recycling. I struggle to tame my consumerist appetites as much as I struggle with my desire for as many melt-in-the-mouth Christmas sugar cookies as can be downed in one sitting. On the other hand, I use very little gas for an Angelena, live in a certain uncomfortable symbiosis with termites, went to considerable trouble and expense to save a diaspora of bees that located itself in one of my walls, have insulated my roof, and buy local produce as much as possible. Whenever I can, I engage the still-unconvinced in conversations about global warming, sign petitions, donate to green causes, and have been instrumental most recently in helping frame the theme for our upcoming North/South Conference of Jungian Analysts and Candidates as Hanging on a Thread, Our Role and Experience as Jungians in a World Dangling on the Thinnest of Threads.
I’ve learned with enough lashings of Fate that each of us beginners can do only what we can. Our contributions are limited…and yet they hint at the vastness of Being that supports, enlivens, and pushes us to plumb every little bit of consciousness, unendurable torment, and deep love that we can. Along the way, we learn and suffer all the prices to be paid for daring to venture beyond our own collective constraints, despair, head-in-sand-ism, cowardice, and passivity. Advocating for our Mother Planet, for the precious species she sprouts, for the quality of our own lives is, for me, an inextricable part of being an eternal beginner. I want coming generations to know the unmitigated joy of the sun-shining-on-them-touching-a-bush.
Beginners all, we pay the price. But thinking of this glorious planet we inhabit, the canopy of stars overhead, our dear fellow travelers on the road, and, as Whitman put it, “Poets to come! Orators, singers, musicians to come,” it’s still one hell of a great purchase.
(Originally posted at TerraSpheres)