The Terrible Abyss

When I started writing this weblog right after September 11th, I was primarily concerned about the crisis our nation was facing and how we would deal with it. My hope was that we might learn something about ourselves as a nation and deal with Afghanistan in a more enlightened way then we had dealt with the Middle East in the past. In some ways, I was attempting to use these pages to talk to someone other than myself about what I felt were failures in our government’s policies. In some ways, I think America has done a better job in this war than might have been expected, even though we may well be facing an entirely new Constitutional crisis in the way we deal with aliens and those who are suspected of aiding and abetting terrorists.

Suddenly, though, that my concern over the nation’s problems has taken a backseat to my own personal crisis. In the last month-and-a-half I have discovered that I have a large cancerous tumor in my throat and have had to examine the different treatments available, none of which are very good, and decide which of these treatments I will try. In essence, I have been making life-and-death decisions and decisions about the quality of life almost daily over the last two weeks.

I’m not writing this to complain about my health or to garner sympathy for I’m getting more than enough of that. I am saying, though, that the philosophical positions I have been exploring on these pages have suddenly taken on a new importance and have influenced the way I have dealt with these problems. To the extent that these philosophies have allowed me to make calm, rational decisions based on my value system, I have been happy with them. However, when I feel unable to make a decision or when after talking to a doctor, I just want to give up and go to sleep for the night at 5:00, I feel my philosophy has failed me and I need to re-examine my beliefs.

Obviously, I would rather not be going through this right now. Just as I would rather not have gone through the Vietnam War, my first fight with thyroid cancer, or my divorce. However, I truly believe that moments like this, if we survive them, help us to get more out of life. By forcing us to see our life’s decisions in the hard glare of critical decisions, we can begin to see how strong our beliefs are and whether or not they truly help us to make decisions when we need to. They force us to consider whether we are wasting our lives when there are more important things to be done and to decide what really is important.

After I have had my upcoming surgery, I will be unable to eat, except through a tube, or talk for several weeks. I plan on spending those weeks reading and meditating. There is no better way to see life than to see the abyss that surrounds it.

So the abyss—

The slippery cold heights,

After the blinding misery,

The climbing, the endless turning,

Strikes like a fire,

A terrible violence of creation,

A flash into the burning heart of the abominable;

Yet if we wait, unafraid, beyond the fearful instant,

The burning lake turns into a forest pool,

The fire subsides into rings of water,

A sunlit silence.

from Theodore Roethke’s “The Abyss” in The Far Field

Anderson’s Fairy Tales

Illustrated by Arthur Szyk

This beautiful book and the accompanying volume, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, were my very first books, books I could keep in my room and read whenever I wanted. Small wonder, then, that I grew up loving books and art works.

Because we had no television until I was nearly twelve, because money was short in my family and because trips to the library were few and far between, I read and re-read the stories in these volumes for many years. Obviously, I still turn back to them at times.

These stories became a part of who I am and what I believe. Not all these stories have the same appeal that they once did, but some, like “The Little Match Girl,” still move me every time I read them.

The Little Match Girl

IT was late on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve. The snow was falling. A poor little girl was wandering in the dark cold streets; she was bareheaded and barefoot. She had of course had slippers on when she left home, but they were not much good, for they were so huge. They had last been worn by her mother, and they fell off the poor little girl’s feet when she was running across the street to avoid two carriages that were rolling rapidly by. One of the shoes could not be found at all, and the other was picked up by a boy who ran off with it, saying that it would do for a cradle when he had children of his own.

So the poor little girl had to walk on with her little bare feet, which were red and blue with the cold. She carried a quantity of matches in her old apron, and held a packet of them in her hand. Nobody bad bought any of her during all the long day, and nobody had even given her a copper. The poor little creature was hungry and perishing with cold, and she looked the picture of misery.

The snowflakes fell on her long yellow hair, which curled so prettily round her face, but she paid no attention to that. Lights were shining from every window, and there was a most delicious odor of roast goose in the streets, for it was New Year’s Eve. She could not forget that! She found a corner where one house projected a little beyond the next
was colder than ever. She did not dare to go home, for she had not sold any matches and had not earned a single penny. Her father would beat her, and besides it was almost as cold at home as it was here. They had only the roof over them, and the wind whistled through it although they stuffed up the biggest cracks with rags and straw.

Her little hands were almost stiff with cold. oh, one little match would do some good! If she only dared, she would pull one out of the packet and strike it on the wall to warm her fingers. She pulled out one. R-r-sh-shl How it sputtered and blazed! It burnt with a bright clear flame, just like a little candle, when she held her hand round it. Now the light seemed very strange to her! The little girl fancied that she was sitting in front of a big stove with polished brass feet and handles. There was a splendid fire blazing in it and warming her so beautifully, but-what happened? Just as she was stretching out her feet to warm them, the flame went out, the stove vanished and she was left sitting with the end of the burnt match in her hand.

She struck a new one. It burnt, it blazed up, and where the light fell upon the wall, it became transparent like gauze, and she could see right through it into the room. The table was spread with a snowy cloth and pretty china. A roast goose stuffed with apples and prunes was steaming on it. And what was even better, the goose hopped from the dish with the carving knife sticking in his back and waddled across the floor. It came right up to the poor child, and then-the match went out, and there was nothing to be seen but the thick black wall.

She lit another match. This time she was sitting under a lovely Christmas tree. It was much bigger and more beautifully decorated than the one she had seen when she peeped through the glass doors at the rich merchants house this very Christmas. Thousands of lighted candles gleamed under its branches. And many-colored pictures, such as she bad seen in the shop windows, looked down at her. The little girl stretched out both her hands towards them-then out went the match. All the Christmas candles rose higher and higher, till she saw that they were only the twinkling stars. One of them fell and made a bright streak of light across the sky.

"Someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had ever been kind to her, used to say, "When a star falls, a soul is going up to God.

Now she struck another match against the wall, and this time it was her grandmother who appeared in the circle of flame. She saw her quite clearly and distinctly, looking so gentle and happy.

"Grandmother!" cried the little creature. "Oh, do take me with you. I know you will vanish when the match goes out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the delicious goose, and the beautiful Christmas tree!"

She hastily struck a whole bundle of matches, because she did so long to keep her grandmother with her. The light of the matches made it as bright as day. Grandmother had never before looked so big or so beautiful. She lifted the little girl up in her arms, and they soared in a halo of light and joy, far, far above the earth, where there was no more cold, no hunger, and no pain-for they were with, God.

In the cold morning light the poor little girl sat there in the corner between the houses, with rosy cheeks and a smile on her face-dead. frozen to death on the last night of the old year. New Year’s Day broke on the little body still sitting with the ends of the burnt-out matches in her hand.

"She must have tried to warm herself," they said. Nobody knew what beautiful visions she had seen, nor in what a halo she had entered with her grandmother upon the glories of the New Year.

These stories have a realism, a brutal honesty, that modern children stories often lack. In fact, whenever Walt Disney remade one of these fairy tales he seemed to “dumb” them down, or at the very least, to water down the harsh aspects so that children wouldn’t be “bothered” by them. And we certainly wouldn’t want the little dears bothered when they went to the movies or to Disneyland. Apparently people don’t spend money in order to be bothered.

It may just be that I have a thing for little “match girls,” but for me at least this story manages to both show the brutal conditions some people live under and the power of any love that does appear in their lives. Even if this love cannot save them from their conditions, it offers the hope that there can be something better

Call Me Divided

"Thus inevitably does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself. The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things sooner or later fall into place. As I am, so I see; use what language we will, we can never say anything but what we are."

– Emerson

from whiskey river

That said, it’s been obvious to me for a while that there is definitely a split in topics on these web pages lately. On one hand, I’ve been focusing a lot on “love.” On the other, I’ve spent considerable time discussing zen, the philosophy/religion I feel I am moving toward.

Obviously, both of these are important to me or I wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking and writing about them. Nevertheless, I haven’t found an entirely satisfactory way to reconcile these two elements of my personality. To me, at least, they seem to pull in opposite directions.

Unfortunately, I think Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums may have been right when he sensed that there is a split that exists between the Christian concept of love for one’s fellow man and Buddhism’s concept of compassion.

I would guess that I’m drawn to Zen precisely because it does seem so “objective,” so rational. It’s more like philosophy than relgion. I’ve dabbled in Sumi-e, Japanese landscaping, origami, and haiku all of which tend toward the abstract. And meditation, through which I was originally drawn to all of these art forms, seems the ultimate abstraction. At it’s best, you are simply there, without distraction, hanging in the moment, infinite, yet finite. When I hike, particularly in the high mountains, in essence I am combining all of these elements. Hiking, for me, is a walking meditation. For a short while at least, I can live like a zen hermit in his mountain refuge.

On the other hand, the Christian religion that I grew up with and the one I have always felt part of emphasized Jesus’ love for mankind. One of the ways you manifested the godhood that is in each of us is through love and concern for others. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still believe that the most powerful force in the world is love. Simply put, it offers the best hope for a better world. Without love, life is meaningless; with it, even the worst conditions can be endured.

How, then, does one reconcile these two beliefs? Is it necessary to sacrifice one for the other? Must we become zen hermits or join a monastery in order to attain true enlightenment? Do the demands of love require us to sacrifice the time necessary to truly find ourselves? I know that I stopped meditating years ago because the demands of teaching and raising children simply didn’t allow me to do all that I wanted to do, and my children were always more important than meditation. Unfortunately, I have never gotten back into the pattern of regular meditation.

At times it almost seems that the math student in me is fighting the literature teacher. Zen is so rational and logical. And mystical Christianity it so intuitive and mysterious.

Hopefully this is a false dichotomy, one that I have not been able to bridge simply because I do not have an adequate knowledge of Zen Buddhism.

Not Your Average Christmas Program

It’s often strange, and sometimes downright scary, when you start poking around in the old memory bank. It’s never quite clear what you’re poking nor what may emerge from the past to confront you.

At the moment, I’m poking through childhood memories, particularly Christmas memories. Not unexpectedly, the first memory to emerge was of my all-time favorite toy, Marx’s classic Fort Apache. Searching the web, I found it must be the favorite toy of a lot of other men, too, because it‘s all over the net. Some people are even willing to pay way too much money for it, as if having the toy will actually bring back the past.

Strangely enough, though, after poking around for awhile I remembered something that I had no conscious memory of, though it turned out in the end to be a much more powerful memory. I started vaguely remembering an old Bing Crosby record my mother used to play until one day it vanished into that great trash heap in the sky, obviously placed next to the Happy Prince’s lead heart. Without a clue of what it was called, I invoked the magic of Google by searching on Bing Crosby and then grubbed through page after page of listings until I found a few entries that began to jog my memory.

Finally I discovered that the title of the recording was The Happy Prince and featured Bing Crosby and Orson Welles. As I read the online copy of Oscar Wilde’s tale, phrases and even whole lines jumped out at me. I was strangely moved as I reread the story, moved almost as strongly as I was when I had heard this tale as a child.

[STOP! Read the story at the above link now if you don’t want it ruined for you. It’s a very short “parable.”]

The tale begins with the statue of the Happy Prince telling the swallow his predicament.

`When I was alive and had a human heart,’ answered the statue, `I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. … So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep.’ Alhough this seems remarkably similar to Prince Siddartha’s encounter with old age, sickness and death after living a protected life of wealth, the Happy Prince’s reaction to this discovery is quite different.

In short, the statue of the Happy Prince enlists the aid of a reluctant swallow to aid the poor, suffering people of the town. At the command of the statue, the swallow strips the statue of all its beautiful adornments and gives them to the poor.

The tragic ending of the parable is foreshadowed when the Prince commands the swallow to pluck out his last eye and give it to:

a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare

Finally, all his jewels gone, the Happy Prince strips himself of any last trappings of wealth. “I am covered with fine gold,” said the Prince, “you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy.”

Although the prince has nothing left to give and the swallow should have long ago left for the south, he refuses to leave the Prince for “ he loved him too well.” Finally,

he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet.

At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two.

The ironic image of the cracked leaden heart, like the Tin Man’s missing heart, is a particularly powerful image. In the end, only the heart shall endure. The callous town officials, not realizing the Happy Prince’s true worth, decide he must destroyed because “As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful.”

Luckily, when the broken lead heart will not melt, it ends up in the ash heap where the sparrow has been discarded. Even more fortunately, God has been watching the proceedings below:

`Bring me the two most precious things in the city,’ said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.

`You have rightly chosen,’ said God, `for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.

Jewels and gold are valued because of their scarcity. Perhaps true love, particularly the unselfish love for our fellow man is, because of its rarity, even more precious.

I wonder what it says about our society that classics like this have disappeared to be replaced by “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman?”