Widening circles

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29

Yesterday, after finishing my time with the tots at Tot Shabbat, I had to dash off in the car (yes, I had to drive on Shabbat!) to go up to Baltimore and round on my patients. I always find this a challenge – I have come to relish Shabbat, and I resent the occasions that I have to give up the peace and quiet of avoiding using the car. But, patients must be seen.

So, my compromise is to put on a podcast, during my 45 minute drive to work, of the APM program On Being with Krista Tippett – an approximation of a sermon to stay in the mood of a spiritual focus, and I’m often not disappointed. In this particular case, I was overwhelmed.

My sister and I have been in regular contact this week because our mother has been going through a very rough few months, and she finally was hospitalized on Friday. No, she doesn’t have congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or diabetes mellitus, or any of the other chronic diseases with acute exacerbation that lead my own patients to be hospitalized intermittently. She has bipolar disorder, and has suffered from this condition for the past (gasp) 60+ years. Her reserves seem lower than they used to be – her current depression is deeper and more recalcitrant than recent episodes have been, although my recollection of months of near-catatonic depression during our childhoods comes back to me. But, we just don’t think she can absorb that much pain anymore. It’s unbearable.

And, I listened to this program, on my way to Baltimore.

The guest, Joanna Macy, lives in Berkeley, and sounds, in many ways, like someone who our mother would love to know. In the interview, she speaks of “occupying” Seabrook nuclear power plant, and I thought of our mom getting arrested for trespassing on the grounds of the Diablo nuclear power plant. The main message of the podcast was the translations that Ms Macy has worked on of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems, particularly the “Book of Hours”. Our mother loes poetry, but I don’t honestly know if she has read or appreciates Rilke. And, yet, as I listen, I so want to share this with her. Particularly, the poem at the top of this post, which I think speaks so poignantly to depression.

There are so many thoughts I have spinning around in my head about this interview, and I may return to these, but, right now, I hope that our mother might be able to come to a place of relative optimism where she might be able to relate to the following poem, which I found so empowering:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Book of Hours, I 59

And, there’s another, which really touched me deeply, on a personal level – it’s very much about how I conceive my own relationship to be with the world:

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Book of Hours, I 2

My circles are ever-widening, and I know that I used to resist that movement, but I feel, now, that I embrace it.  Would that we might all live our lives in ever-widening circles, including more and more of our fellow human travelers, and the entirety of the earth, as Ms. Macy so eloquently speaks of.  I encourage you to listen to the entire program.

Peace.  B’Shalom. Salaam.

2 thoughts on “Widening circles

  1. Donna says:

    Thank you for such a deep, and thought provoking post! I sometimes deal with depression myself since I suffer from chronic pain and can no longer work. I am doing better these days but it is often during the long dark days of winter when I struggle the most. I have never heard these poems before but I really enjoyed them. I am going to write these down, especially the top one, in my journal to reflect on when I am struggling. It isn't a day by day type journal. It is more like a busy book for me when I am in too much pain to do anything. Thanks again, and my prayers are with your mother.

    1. Janaki says:

      They are wonderful poems, aren't they! Depression can be so awful – it's crucial to figure out what helps to support oneself through, and lift oneself out. Journaling is a powerful tool.

      Best wishes.

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