Saturday, April 02, 2005

Rilke and Rumi

“Whenever I saw something that could ring, I rang.” Rilke

”The world is full of a number of magical things,
patiently waiting for our wits to grow stronger. “ Rumi?

I read the first quote in Harpers Magazine in, I think, the spring of 1967. I was twenty-one years old, very serious about building a life and a life style; trying to be well-read, well-rounded, well-liked. Well and good, but looking back I see I was building a product, testing the market, seeing what was accepted by the others at the two year college I was attending that year in the suburbs of Sacramento. I subscribed to several magazines that year, I think. Esquire, maybe Atlantic Monthly as well as Harpers, both east coast literary magazines that looked good on the coffee table in the apartment my parents rented for me across from the college campus. I also bought Playboy and House and Garden, but I don’t think I put them on display as often. And display was important.

It’s not that I was somewhat superficial – though I was – but more that I assumed life was like a monopoly board, you went round picking up pieces and making moves, avoiding fines and payments to others and maximizing the property, especially in the blue-blooded neighborhooods, you owned. And that world did not seem too big, could be construed from the books read, stories heard, tacit knowledge, family stories, the early novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger.

You need some background here: about what got me to that time, what I brought there and what was missing. I was largely self-educated. I remember hearing the comedy line, “he was a self-made man, the product of unskilled labour,” and feeling such guilt for my lack of formal education. For I had no secondary education, had left school at the age of twelve, nine years before; after a time of missing classes due to various symptoms of headaches and stomach aches, diarrhoea and just not wanting to. And as my absences increased my grades went down and after the Easter vacation in 1958 I would go to school no longer.

My parents were good people, did the best they could, I think. They gave wonderful parties, but forgot to pay the telephone or electric bills. They were well liked, but they didn’t like to look at unpleasant things, and there were some of those around in those years. This is diagnosing backwards, over forty years later, and in another country at that. But after several millennia of therapy of various schools and practices, in looking back this is what I see. I fell over the things they did not want to look at: the death of a parent, the threat of a recurrent nervous breakdown of another, a general lack of money, and a marriage that was dying, a failed business, alcoholism, extramarital affairs, a good friend leaving with some tension, my older brother moving to his own apartment. All this happened and was not spoken of, except for a quiet kind of blackmail, sarcasm, veiled threats that showed up after the third drink and when the final notice of the utility bills came in and we couldn’t use the pool at the tennis club because our monthly dues were unpaid that summer. But nothing was spoken of in the daytime, the family put on a good show except for me.

Years later, in the late eighties, after I had been away for some years, I was staying at my parents house overnight while my brother was in an intensive care hospital ward battling with the effects of acute alcoholism. I called a friend in Berkeley who was a therapist and he asked if I had been the high-achiever of the family. I laughed, “I was seeing a shrink when I was twelve!” He said that was often the case, the healthiest member of a dysfunctional family was often the designated patient that was where the move towards wholeness came. And I had thought I was the broken piece in the collection.

So all that is background to the magazines on the table, the books I read, as well as the tasks that I attempted. I was trying to get well-rounded and I felt, deeply and shamefully, that I was askew, off centre, lacking crucial information and deeply needful of the larger acceptance by the culture that would indicate that I was, in fact, existing and of some value. So the outside world had what I thought I wanted and needed, and I didn’t see much past that.

And then I read the Rilke quote in that magazine and the world opened up. “Whenever I saw something that could ring, I rang.” It was poetry, philosophy, erotica really, drawing me towards some connection I hadn’t thought was possible. At that moment I had a hint that the world was capable of more than I knew, that there was some resonance there. Just then I heard some deep and beautiful music (that I had never listened for, but somehow had known must existed, for there was something in me that was empty, open, waiting for its coming) that could call me out and take me somewhere I didn’t know, lead me to the heart of something I didn’t understand.

One of the joys of chaplaincy is that people often talk to me about moments in their lives when the centre changes, some encounter that makes the shape of the lives they live change configuration; doors open, new options, possibilities come onto the stage, other directions emerge, And that was the first big one as an adult for me. I was not alone as I supposed, a bit of music had emerged, some strain of sound, maybe even melody. The world itself could ring and that could ring in me as well. That line of print written in an American magazine forty-plus years ago opened me to a life that was larger than I had ever known, that had room for more of me than I knew, and life got bigger after that.

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