burning the old year

Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

How will you spend the next few days?  Looking back, looking around.  Or . . . looking up?  “So much of any year is flammable,” as the poet below most beautifully expresses.  And if I looked around at my own work spaces, at all the baskets I’ve crammed with notes and slips of paper saved, photographs sent to me by someone wanting me to remember a moment we shared, in all of that what I suppose I’m keeping most is not the things themselves, but love and hope and the promise of good things to come.


Burning the Old Year

By Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.


So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.


Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.


Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

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i prefer people who leap

But what is Hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of Existence. The least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of.

~ Lord Byron, letter to Thomas Moore, 28 October 1815

Barrett Meeks wandering around Brooklyn like Leopold Bloom, but instead of a kidney in his pocket, he’s got a memory on his mind, a vision of a light in the evening sky.  A celestial light revealed only to him, a beacon of some hazy hope he never quite grasps.  This is why I was so frustrated with Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen.  I haven’t been able to pen my frustrations for myriad reasons for the characters in the book seem so pathetic and the story so unsatisfying.  Creative, witty, thoughtful, urbane, and each ingloriously cresting their youth.  Ah, the middle age narrative.  The stifled yawn at life and the tepid look around, is there nothing more than this?  It’s so depressing, but so real.  Who wants to trudge through that cold snow?!

I think I would have liked this book better if the promised transcendence were resolved or at least hinted at, but the story wanders toward an unsatisfactory conclusion.  Any hope the characters reach for is compromised.  Like the shabby Bushwick apartment they live in, they only manage cheap attempts to feel more at home in the world.  Barrett can only bring himself to creep into the back of a dimly lit church.  His brother Tyler wants to go out into the storm; he wants a certain clarity that comes from feeling naked in the snow, but he can only bring himself to the window ledge.  It’s all a flirtation with jumping.  No one leaps.  And I just love people who leap is all.  Cunningham’s story is about searching for authentic, transcendent experiences, but his characters are self-absorbed, indecisive, and utterly hopeless — and they wonder why they aren’t successful.  They struggle to retain any optimism they have left and hope for them becomes “a cheap jester’s cap.”  Who has time to wear it anymore?  Cunningham is fond of these despairing characters clutching breathlessly after beauty and truth, but at least Peter from Cunningham’s previous novel By Nightfall actually dares go after them.  Yeah, it’s all an illusory quest and sure, his hope is dashed in that novel, too, but that narrative ends with a sense that he’s learned something profound in the process.

It’s hard to read a story like this, characters like these, because while I most certainly identify with their cosmic pain and carry similar questions in all my pockets, yawning and looking around just the same as they do, I can’t imagine living one day without hope.  Even when I find myself in deep holes, I’m always looking up for the light and clawing my way back into its grace and comfort.  Perhaps my ready rope is gratitude and faith and an awareness of our interconnectedness, of an eternal loving divine presence . . . the colors, dear Byron, that never rub off.

Hope knows no fear. Hope dares to blossom even inside the abysmal abyss. Hope secretly feeds and strengthens promise.

~ Sri Chinmoy


If you liked this post, you might also like these: On Gravity and What Grounds You | Happiness, It’s Only a Day Away | Thinking About Michael Cunningham’s New Book?


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on gravity and what grounds you


Eugene O’Neill, Cape Cod 1922

Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together.  Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came.  The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams!  And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience.  Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide.  Like a saint’s vision of beatitude.  Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand.  For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret.  For a second there is meaning!  Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

~ Eugene O’Neill Long Day’s Journey Into Night

I loved this passage when I read O’Neill’s play so many years ago.  I’ve never forgotten it.  Spoken by the wry and melancholic Edmund, it paints both a picture of transcendent peace and disillusion and utter hopelessness.  This was the sort of stuff that spoke to me when I was the age my students are now, but all these years later, can I just say, Ugh!  Despite its poetry, I wonder if I would be as in love with the passage today if I came across it for the first time?  It’s so sad.  I wonder still, if Edmund had had this transcendent experience  — if even for a moment — how come it didn’t change his life?  How come he wasn’t transformed by it?  Because isn’t that the sort of wisdom you try to hold on to?  He says just after this, it was a mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or fish.  As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!  How dismal!!  And yet isn’t his existential hopelessness so similar to that felt by the character Sandra Bullock plays in Gravity

She is afraid.  So afraid.  Spinning out of control and beyond reach.  And not only has she been physically abandoned and left alone in outer space, but she has no spiritual connection either– no divine pull to ground her and give meaning and purpose to her life.  Without that, what else can she do after losing her daughter in a tragic accident and then getting lost in outer space but despair and do all that worry-ish panting and grunting and giving up while George Clooney tries to encourage her and guide her to safety.  Where do his strength, and courage, and grit come from?  How come he can let go so easily and drift away from her toward certain death — and with his sense of humor intact?

And isn’t it interesting that like an angel he comes to her in a vision, lifting her up with one last option, one last hope, which saves her life and propels her back to earth.  I love how the final scene shows her struggling to stand up.  To me that’s an indication she’s undergone some spiritual healing and transformation, perhaps it’s even an image of resurrection.  From what I know of Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the film, this would never be an overt message but rather suggested through nuance.  To me, whether you think the film deals with spirituality or not is not so important as the positive themes of persistence and regaining one’s faith in the future, of a return to hope.   This is gravity, it’s what grounds us, what anchors us in the swaying tide.  And because of that, if I were to choose which story I prefer today, I’d have to say I like the movie so much more than O’Neill’s play.


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