Praying For Foolishness: A Poem

THE OLD STORY

My father spoke of atheism as if it were a religion,

pounding the points of his argument into the dinner table,

spilling the salt with the seed of his own bad temper.

He raised me to be an atheist, too,

and I learned well the commandments of godlessness.

But at night in bed I suffered for it and was penitent

memorizing prayers buy the pages

glossing the psalms with a litany of pleas

that somehow God would find me, small as I was,

and make me a believer,

and, though a prodigal daughter, much loved, much loved.

How I longed for the sweet blow of grace

coming upon me like a hammer on a nail,

or a beggar on a penny

or raindrops on the parched red clay

turned to rust in the arid fields of my soul.

 

One night – I was under the covers saying the Lord’s Prayer

with a lengthy meditation for each line –

my father, making the rounds, heard me.

What are you doing? he asked, more awful than the God I longed for.

I told him, expecting punishment,

expecting a lecture on the purity of the godless intellect.

He stood a while in silence

while I waited for the one blow I didn’t want.

Then he said, laughing,

you’ll grow out of such foolishness, I hope.

 

I didn’t grow out of it.

Though I never found God and stopped looking for Him

I remember my father’s laughter,

the hard, cold sneer of it,

laughter at his daughter longing for God

and hoping for love

that would come like a thief in the night.

 

Now that I am older I know that belief’

doesn’t fall like a hammer

that the beggar is always penniless

and that rainfall soon evaporates returning to the cloud.

Atheism is a creed I have lived by, learned by,

and have at times been comforted by.

but if God should ever find me

I pray for foolishness.

 

1988

Two Poems

Audobon Field Guide Barred Owl
Audubon Field Guide Barred Owl

TIME-BANK POEM

Dear R, you who have asked me,

via my Service Offer (“I write personal poems”),

to “create” you a poem, can’t know,

when my second late night email

fails to elicit a prompt response,

how my certainty of rejection hammers me

into old penances, and how I tinfoil walls

and barricades against my extruded poisons.

Then when your emails resume the next day

mentioning your little white house,

a she-owl who watches you with soulful eyes

and your growing “sense of despair”

I imagine a woman of mature years,

alone, though perhaps through choices

not always made freely. So to meet you

I navigate unfamiliar and unpaved roads

parking behind a half-built barn

and a muddy old green Subaru.

Younger than I expect, you’ve moved here

to escape precisely what we never discuss.

You reference only the need for peace of mind,

and a relief from startling triggers.

Nevertheless, I understand your need to know

that spirit-familiar, the barred she-owl, Strix varia,

roosting on a white pine bough

outside your window all winter,

less guardian than too starving to move away

or predate the small animals atop the ice layer

between her and proper voles held in safety beneath.

Only when deep-freeze breaks in early March

and a shadow swoops silently across your pane,

do you know who’s won the battle,

and cheer for a raptor’s kill that saves her life.

The world, after all, is all about killing or being eaten,

which is true even in the human world

where your neighbors stalk you with barking dogs,

and talk nights, beneath your bedroom window

of that woman next door, who is not like them,

with her window salad garden and that owl.

Fearful, blind, they believe that hoot owls

harbinger death. Instead you try to see

the way a mythical Owl might see,

through cold and black of night

for clarity, for lucency, for whatever it is

that warms the living embers

and rem-embers your mind to peace.

——————————————————

This next poem describes the present situation, which continues…with the following explanations.

In the Greek myth, Philomela is raped and has her tongue cut out by Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne. Rendered mute, Philomela weaves a tapestry detailing the crime to inform her sister, who, enraged, takes revenge on Tereus. At the end of the story, both Procne and Philomela are transformed into birds.  In some versions of this story, Philomela turns into a female nightingale, while in others she becomes a swallow. However, neither of these birds can sing.

Jerry Mahoney and Charlie McCarthy are two famous American ventriloquists’ dummies

PHILOMELA

I haven’t spoken out loud for many weeks,

bullied by “voices” to a frightened into myself silence.

Still, what does “speechless” mean

in these days of text-to-speech software,

with its choice of Vikki or Samantha or Victoria voices,

especially when I’m possessed of a blog and writing fluency

enough to speak my mind to my heart’s content?

Even so, being mute is not a manner of speaking.

Yet I tell you I can talk. Nothing physical impedes

my tongue, or locks my lips

except my brain’s hallucinated snarls,

Jerry Mahoney and Charlie McCarthy thrown

into surrounding shadows

ordering up this stoppage, blockage, blockade.

Now, like Stevens’ fire-fangled bird at the end of the mind

feathered unlucky, tarred, locked in golden cage

my voice remains only a memento

of everything

I wanted to say, but could not get out,

I couldn’t get it out, I could not get it out…

Toltec Wisdom (and a Little of My Own!)

Despair on Park Bench
Despair on Park Bench

Sometimes you never know who it is that has a disabling mental “illness,” not even when they are right in front of you. Not every person who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, for instance, looks like it or pushes a shopping cart laden with household “extranea” down the street, homeless, filthy, and laughing wildly to themselves…Not that this is so terrible either, frankly. We should all not be so quick to judge. And no, we should not judge even this notion of the homeless-shopping-cart-person as “bad” or “wrong” — not until we know the person and understand what he or she wants from life and his or her history. I am not saying that anyone should freeze to death from exposure, or suffer from hunger or from any unwanted basic deprivation, only that no one understands the life conditions of another until you talk with them and come to know that person…

Too many people make assumptions that are wrong and/or erroneous based only on what they want and are comfortable with, not on what the other person needs and wants. Believe me, I know, having been there way more often than I wish and experienced it from that “other side.” Far too many times have people claimed to be “helping me” and have only hurt me! It is not that I think they were badly intentioned, so much as that they were only thinking about how they felt or would feel. They were not being truly empathic, not giving an inch or a nanosecond to trying to think about how I, personally, did feel nor for that matter asking me what I might want or need at that moment.

I want to remind people to remember that “ASSUME makes an ASS out of U and Me..” so instead of assuming anything about another person, especially someone who has an apparent mental “illness” or someone who at any rate seems somehow “different” from the people who are familiar to you, ask them questions…Find out what they want and what makes them comfortable!

As Toltec spiritual advisor Don Miguel Ruiz tells us in THE FOUR AGREEMENTS, which is the best book of its sort I have ever read, you can and should ask any question you want to, so long as you are honestly prepared to accept the answer.

By the way, the Second Agreement, in his book, an Agreement I find so fundamentally important, is Do Not Take Anything Personally. By taking things personally — that way danger and disappointment and all distress lies. Truly this is so. People are all in their own little bubbles, taking their own lives personally and frankly, think about that! We are only on the periphery of everyone else’s thinking and living, and in a very real way they cannot ever know us as we know ourselves, they can only know us through the lens of their own lives, their own bubbles. This revelation can be freeing if you let it…

That is why we should not take anything personally — because other people are too busy doing the same thing and not seeing us as we are, but only as adjuncts to their lives and thinking. If we truly knew and accepted this, we would be free from a great deal of angst and upset. But of course this is a very difficult thing to do…to free ourselves of the notion that we are as important in others lives as we are in our own. No, they are the important actors on their own stage, we are not. We really need to get over thinking that we are prima donnas in everyone’s drama as well as our own…Is not our own life enough? I should think so. Who would want to star in more than one drama at a time?