"I am old enough now to realize we are all trying to live sufficiently long to see the self come true. None of us is likely to make it. Therefore we invent selves, we prance and pose and dream and labor, confirming what we might be by what others think we are and by what we see we have been."
- Dave Smith, "A Secret You Can't Break Free
"We go towards something that is not yet, and we come from something that is no more. We are what we are by what we came from. We have a beginning as we have an end. There was a time that was not our time. We hear of it from those who are older than we; we read about it in history books...It is hard for us to imagine our 'being-no-more.' It is equally difficult to imagine our 'being-not-yet'. " - Paul Tillich
That place among the rocks--Is is a cave,
Or a winding path? The edge is what I have. - Theodore Roethke"
I have occasionally described my standpoint to my friends as the "narrow ridge,"’ writes Buber. ‘I wanted by this to express that I did not rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but the certainty of meeting what remains undisclosed.’ (Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, trans. by Ronald Gregor Smith [London: Kegan Paul, 1947] p.184). Perhaps no other phrase so aptly characterizes the quality and significance of Martin Buber’s life and thought as this one of the ‘narrow ridge.’ It expresses not only the ‘holy insecurity’ of his existentialist philosophy but also the ‘I-Thou,’ or dialogical, philosophy which he has formulated as a genuine third alternative to the insistent either-or’s of our age. Buber’s ‘narrow ridge’ is no ‘happy middle’ which ignores the reality of paradox and contradiction in order to escape from the suffering they produce. It is rather a paradoxical unity of what one usually understands only as alternatives -- I and Thou, love and justice, dependence and freedom, the love of God and the fear of God, passion and direction, good and evil, unity and duality." -- from Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue by Maurice S. Friedman (online book: http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=459&C=371)
"The narrow ridge is the place where I and Thou meet," he [Buber] added. When I asked him to clarify this symbolism to me, he replied...'If you like, you can think of the narrow ridge as a region within yourself where you cannot be touched. Because there you have found yourself: and so you are not vulnerable."
"I have already said that every Thou in our life is doomed to become and It, a thing. The man or Woman whom we love, whom we seek to fulfil totally, becomes a given imperfect person with a known nature and quality. A young medical student dreams passionately of curing suffering humanity. Then he becomes a doctor in a crowded hospital with pressure, with not enough time to devote to every patient. And the suffering humans become objects. They recede to the world of the It. This is the tragedy of being human. And in order to avoid losing the I-Thou we must take our stand on the narrow ridge, as a company of soldiers takes up its position on an embattled hill and says, From here we shall not retreat!"
"And, as you have asked me for a clearer definition, I will say, the narrow ridge is the meeting place of the We. This is where man can meet man in community. And only men are who are capable of truly saying "Thou" to another can truly say "We" with one another. If each guards the narrow ridge within himself and keeps it intact, this meeting can take place."
-- pg. 69-70, from Encounter With Martin Buber, by Aubrey Hodes, Penguin Books, 1972
"Religion could be called “Meaning and Belonging, Incorporated...There is a need for thoughtful people to make some discriminations between and within religious groups -- to look for curing impulses that are latent in the faiths that so easily can spread disease." - Martin Marty, from "Religious Cause, Religious Cure"
The day before I moved to New York City after being kicked out of North Carolina by the Blue Ridge mountains Greybeard, Looking Glass, Shining Rock, Chimney Rock, the diminutive Huckleberry, the myopic Lookout and Height Enough, and from over the border in South Carolina, the mountain of my childhood, Roper, which swallowed Wickerbill the best hunting dog in the world ever in its red clay maw, thus was confirmed my non-negotiable eviction. One does not argue with mountains especially when they are right. I was broken, a miasmic meanderer along cone-strewn hiking trails flailing loudly at schist, thrusts of snowy quartz and invisible judges, those hold over Puritans still adamantly flinging hell and grace thickly about and I eventually came undone, psychologically wasted, pooped, popped, in what is nowadays called a state of "spiritual emergency." I had been reduced by these Buckle Toes - a friend's moniker for the self-appointed heavily-godded Christian ones spreading/spewing forth projections and hatred from Salem over the homeland to even a mountain in Tennessee. Rather than being an obedient follower I apparently only excelled at flunking "bleat" - deacon, sanyasin, chela, devotee, all the 'spiritual diminutives' related to being a 'lowly follower.' I was also most morose over not being able to get one, ye gods and little fishes, just one good poem written. Never mind the usual common-to-everyone maladies, the maladjusted scraps and scrambles of human relationships bungled, mangled in all flavors of tango and tangle, and the immense social pressure to conform to group mind and coercions which as Jung says "are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics." And hysteria. Thus Salem. Thus New Age circle jerks. Thus, alas, myself, jerker and berserker in chief.
All this and more bored even the solitude of patient mountains, their constancy challenged by my morass on the moraine. the harlequin heart-staggers - a prideful statement but it must be said to make a point: I felt at the time as an absolute truth that I could sway even the mountains where pre-eviction I hermit-ed in rhododendron-wrapped prison walls of books and empty wine bottles. Each book, each bottle, a prayer to the "God who was supposedly there" but I never saw Him or, rather, occasionally caught an almost indisputable glimpse but could not give a good description of Him to the God Protectors, the Infidel Police, since my description or approximation (which they ALL really are, right?) did not match their True God profile and fingerprints codified in The Book, their reserving all rights and authority about what is True and not True about the Almighty's apparitions and whereabouts, "Nope, sonny boy...not Him"...apparently I had only misperceived something out of the corner of my thigh mistaken for merriment most forbidden. I was with Nietzsche by then, "I can never worship a god who didn't dance." I had tried all my youth long to worship a barnacled-pier God. But no more. Dance I did in the mountain glades and trails when the travails of mind did not so much prevail upon. But even in travail the dances continued. Silent. Heavy. The nearby stream promiscuously offering it's massive wet stones as my dance partners.
And I broke my back lifting God to heaven.
This God of the Magician's Hat - now you see Him, now you don't - revealed Himself most to me via Meister Eckhart's Via Negativa which remains the natural way of my soul's stumble through wilderness stretches and wine wretches, instantly spiritually orienting on the knees shouting "please please" to tree limbs, what they perpetually pointed to always swaying swaying. Barring remote spiritual cures and pathetic prayer the "Hair of the Wickerbill" served - a triple Alka Seltzer shot with a local "moon" chaser, a homeopathic remedy derived from ghostly hidden fires, copper spirits coiling alchemically in night tree tops (now pointing downward) easily mistaken for Moon shyness, never mind the lead and rust infused. After those wasted moments I recovered on the front porch with bitter espresso, some Gregorian chant wafting through the screen door, a car battery powering the record player stacked with chants and such to soothe the burning stomach, the shaking hands, a view of the apple orchard in the valley below, an old cedar in the sloping yard just a few yards ahead made of once were two saplings which had early entwined, now-years-wound, creaking into one massive trunk, such a groan it made with the high wind crushing shrilly down from Mount Mitchell's dark hover behind the hut, or valley gales rushing up from fallen apples and Barron's Creek to my perch settled in without electricity, the cedar's drone become a home to nestle a sore head upon and within; therein I turned to Chinese poets of old to savor, one now a thoughtful lifelong companion through all cycles so far lived, Liu Tsung-yuan (773 - 819), a human homing device, an in-the-moment course correction when intercourse with the world, and my pitiable self, was just too too much to bear. Old Liu would lift me out of pathetic self muck, gather my scattered bones from the sandy bottom by the creek as he did the bones of old Heng the hired hand whose name means "persevering," and orient me toward the western woods, "I only wish for fine wine and friends who will often help me pour. Now that spring is drawing to a close and peach and plum produce abundant shade and far, far, the homeward goose cries, I step outside, greeting those I love, and climb to the western woods with the aid of my staff. Singing out loud is enough to cheer me up; the ancient hymns have overtones."
On the edge over the bee-loud Blue Ridge valley all apples and manure shining flashing of green-tailed flies, before further exile, I escaped nightly to work, late ward sits as an attendant at the local psychiatric hospital, wee hours reading Hopkins, Rimbaud, Rilke, Lorca, Berryman, Roethke, many other poets of the world who like Liu Tsung-yuan turned woes into ancient hymns and overtones. After one fateful graveyard shift all night reading Basho Matsuo's Narrow Road to the Deep North, in dawn's hut I begot to stumble-bed visions of pagodas and temples, fog-draped mountain passes, high peaks - names like Dismal Crouch and Turn Around Fool - spare anthems, such are haiku, of chrysanthemums in my head 8 a.m - "chysanthemum" means "golden flower," "gold" = chrysos, and "anthemum" = "flower" which, by the way, "anthemum" holds within it an "anthem" - with such a mind full I dreamed a Great Mountain's voice shouting, "Go away!" and that was enough for me. Where I'm not wanted I don't stay so I made plans to flee. I followed my exiled self into further exile, Deep North, a symbolic defiant suicide-by-New-York-City.
Someone or some malformed thing in me had to go, to flower-wither, to summarily croak, so plans were made whence and whither, lodgings arranged, Harlem 1980, Koch era, the internal wilderness wander further ensuing urbanly hardcore, Basho's book in my coat pocket just in case I needed a reminding map, in upper-upper Manhattan where mad Garcia Lorca once fled the sorrowful fountains of Spain to roam awhile before his return to yellow feathered assasins and an invisible grave, "some say the crime was in Granada" :
Friends, carve a monument out of dream stone for the poet in the Alhambra, over a fountain where the grieving water shall say forever: The crime was in Granada, his Granada.
- Antonio Machado, from "The Crime Was In Granada"I was enchanted like Lorca by old bricks squalid beauty, each a story told, a private gesture open to witness, mud memory mute and chrysos, sonambulant subway pitching interminably forward, graffiti scrawls clutching after a bit of fame or notoriety into what was still a pandemonium most pentecostal long ranting after dark, jazz, salsa, merengue nights gore and glory dispatched from cars, windows, stoops, sidewalks, "Thriller" and Tina Turner's question "what's love got tah do with it" my new enforced mountain-exile meditation - children's play, all ages, 3 a.m. hydrant fountains bodies hot hard in lamp glow orange apocalypse by river curl following apparitions native barks and Dutch long ships sails-full passing West 142nd, blocks south looms Cathedral Divine Saint John's hang, just beyond reach of workers, trabajadores, immigrant occupants who north of 116th street earnestly try to migrate joys few coins rolling in gutters, millions passed and passing by overlooking the Christ, hungry abject crowds, slogging for the American dream,
"I have the money and can pay for the past." - Richard Hugo
Wasn't all this redeemed/revalued a long Palestine ago? The crysos of Church and churches remains more that of fools and not of the Christos. There's much to blame. Still, I'm a gargoyle perched-a-ledge mis-churched and worn, God of the Western and American world stuck in my craw, a lightning bolt bolted to my left paw beside near-dead Aquinas-Saint about himself/his work lifelong, the Summa and more - the Church more in mind and himself in terms of the real value of all his theologizing - "All straw! All straw!" For this reason though, post-Christian, pre-Manhattan, I had hid, nay, sequestered mad-enough in mountains tall, stalled, a being-not-yet. Bequestered and confundidated. Hiding out in Nature's beauty was all I then could do. So I waited for Mister Godot. Until He showed up, a cheap bordeaux would do. And reading the nights slowly through.
Till the "Go way" notice came.
All this the above said may make me sound like I was a bad-ass but that's not true. Irreverent, yes. And bluster. Bluster counts here as disguise for I was pretty. Not handsome. Prettiness counts for much in youth, in older age it is (sadly) sacrificed for Beauty.. A necessary assault in order to grow wise. Wisdom comes from loss and blood, always of the Moon.. Even gorgeous buds must go. Nature says it so. And we can and should protest their going but in older age one loses energy to fight so gives in to what is "just so." In sorrow sore, in broken mendicant hearts, having touched tenderly and tasted the binding buds, wisdom is born.
But pretty boys make for an awful confusion amongst men, a real trouble, and, yes, violence verily. Men like pretty in their women but find it most disturbing in boys and young men. Then Golden Flowers are crushed, "righteously" so. Chapter and Verse. Sanctified wrath against sublime wraiths-most-lovely wars and destoys. It is by polite and holy society "of the male born" considered a duty harsh, justified, manly and rushed, that the feminine is preserved and men are saved from tempting male beauty.
In most forbearing mountains thus I hid my blushing pretty at war with myself (having internalized the Christian cultural fulminant Funda-fomentalism). But one must not in mountain world surpass even their beauty, or their pretty. They win such wars by time which wears down flesh and minds. Respectful of this then, and gladly, while in their secure embrace, I cultivated both god and verse hunkering down in remote cabin shade. There I braved the pretty and the beautiful by day - the bluet, the rhododendron, the trillium, the mountain laurel - to boldly reveal them ahead of the inexorable shadows that mountains make because that one and only golden Sun, ours, flowers only-danced in shortened pretty skies bluet-blue, because those who know mountains true know that valleys are king and sunlight is brief tip to top, and in the between-brief span brightness stops both Sun and seer mid-afternoons.
And obedient, some of us, the pretty ones (then), to the sheltering darkness get. Much may be done between 10 a.m and 4 but then shuts the revelation door, the valley/the veil resumes its reign. There both pretty and beauty pander to stained human palettes painfully returning as did I to fire or bulb light for all Beauty burns away to shadow (only in memory Beauty stays). One develops night vision to see it. Thus did I work the night surrounded by others tears, lost their pretty selves the youths of wards and afterwards, and also those in tenements the old, the homeless Good Will-ed, for such now my verse is bestowal most holy gentle upon their sleeping faces, chrysanthemums each a pretty a beauty, black buds made mad with themselves the blunted social world could not contain.
Toward "Being-Not-Yet" A Mountain Self Is Reborn
One more day in Carolina before leaving the spurnful mounts, Tillich's "being-no-more" chased hotly from behind pushing me compellingly toward "being-not-yet," I gathered myself inwardly for the journey with a friend, Asa, a missionary kid who grew up in South Korea. He was newly married to a woman named Dahlia who, too, had grown up in Korea, also a missionary kid. Asa was living in Dahlia's family home where they were both taking care of her grandmother who had spent her entire life as a missionary in Korea until retiring to the North Carolina village mostly occupied by retired missionaries and ministers of her particular denomination.
Grandmother, in advanced old age, a hundred years old, was beginning to "lose it" mentally. Her room was a dark one, small, cramped, musty with old yet well cared for black lacquered chests from Korea. Exquisitely designed, balanced, ornate but not precious, these ornaments were shining presences from an era of the Hermit Kingdom now rapidly receding into the past yet resonate and alive in the dark space that grandmother's long, richly occupied and fruitful life was now confined to. A small window with a single homemade faded curtain, white, obviously hand sewn Korean lace delicate at the bottom hem, was, too, darkened by the mountain hill within arm's reach just outside the house perched high on a severe grade of the house-resistant mountainside, perhaps a symbol of the immense effort needed to transplant an alien religion in Korean native soil which somehow took root, held on, and now flourishes in the southern half of the Korean peninsula.
The drive to Manhattan would begin very early in the morning with Asa bound to see a brother living in Harlem, a Korean Studies student with a Korean wife, many of her family living there as well in the renovated brownstone near the Hudson. This was to be my home for six years. Totally other cultural immersion. In Harlem at that. Suicide by New York, indeed. Just what I needed.
I rested in the small guest room beside grandmother's. Asa would touch my door all too early so I retired to bed earlier than usual in order to get up in the pre-dawn for the long drive north. Sleepily writing in my journal, reading Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot which had become my "Bible," a post-Christian guide in mine own "dark night," I would soon hear Dahlia enter grandmother's room. Grandmother will have called out in her frail voice, a voice laced as the curtain hem was laced, a voice hanging in dimmed stillness at the top of the stair, traces of an old order still alive in a voice woven with manners and bearing of a gracious Southern woman who had managed to live an most unusual life, a non-traditional life, a life that most Southern white women were not allowed to live, indeed dared not live nor, frankly, cared to as it was a life of hardship, alienation, determination built upon steely will and Biblical vision, dependent totally upon Holy Spirit and spit. And palpable grace.
Times enough that that grace seemed to be muted, remote in what was perceived as obstinate darkness of minds, "pagan" minds to be harvested for God's kingdom but rejecting or at least strongly resisting that unsought for and proffered missionary grace. Still, grace was present as anchoring thought often unfelt/unseen and thus was clung tightly to in underscored and memorized Bible passages, desperate/obstinate/woeful/hopeful knees-worn prayer, and a growing steely capacity, a sure sign of grace and adaptation, for living in the absurd contradiction and presumption needed to impose an alien belief system sincerely believed in native inhabitants who owned their own spiritual soil, a people content enough with their own root belief systems formed of their local earth, river, sea, sky, history, their unique soul and spirit inherent in whatever combinations of all these elements and more which make a people and a nation, whose religions are containers of their ultimate values and concerns. When the first missionaries arrived disease and poverty were rampant. Of such is a soil made ready - and also souls care-worn and hard laboring against regressive forces of nature and overweening foreign power usurping land and leadership - for strange nurture bearing strange fruit but barely, tree by tree, so please the patient Fructive Power.
Spirit-seed, new stuff, no matter how foreign and other in earthern veils variant, can adopt, take root, then adapt and uniquely grow though that original seed has been altered by the old indigenous gods/seeds. And the missionaries, too, are worked-upon within and by the land and culture they pilgrim-roam preaching through becoming more like the new soil and soul that they've transplanted themselves upon. As one religion professor once told me, "In the history of religions, when an old religion transplants itself in a new land with its own religions and gods, within a generation or two the old gods have their way with the new ones and the new ones, too, are transformed." And so religion wags on.
Grandmother politely called finally out, "Dear? Dear? o Deeaaarrrr?" a lilting child's singsong, a voice of charm endearing the heart. Upon the hearing I was struck by a deep resonant and somehow reverant (almost wrote "revenant") sadness. A natural sadness. Of the end of the road, the end of a toiling-for-the-Kingdom life, of having pursued and been pursued by a profound sense of calling, of mission, new seeds in an old soil made of all common and excruciating givens which form human suffering, the patient (and impatient) yearning toward immediate surcease as well as hopeful increase of one's own children and the generations to come. For grandmother, having "run her God's race," the finish-line human and divine was near, dire, but tinged with the smoke of Pentecostal fire now dampered down in her to simple kindnesses bestowed in gentle smiles, a soft yet ripened presence atop a stair in a dwelling hard-pressed into an begrudging mountain.
I, on the other hand, had no clear sense of calling or mission. For me was only a gripping desire and devotion, a lifelong draw toward the arts, toward writing, toward poetry, which would thus redeem my existence from the mundane failures of being "human, all too human." If like Eliot, like Lorca, like Rilke and so many others, I could follow "the draw" and sew a hem of words for the window soul of some single reader in need of companionship and presence, of revelation, even if only that image mundane of dancing dust "caught" in a shaft of sunlight (Eliot's image) then that would be satisfaction enough for me in my own "craft and sullen art" outborne, "Exercised in the still night / When only the moon rages / And the lovers lie abed" (Dylan Thomas), a grandmother patiently dying in her own vision bed of an older time 2000 years followed/lived and lived out into a personal harvest nigh..
I heard the young granddaughter's feet upon the old stairs as she ascended to attend to frail grandmother's beseeching in a voice a century old. I listened in the dark, the mountain's palpable gloom in my small window, too, matching the darkness within myself having lost available light but for that orienting flicker of Eliot's Quartets and a blear smear in the coming dawn toward the American northeast whose bricks and steal I would soon enough founder upon, stalled again. Apalled. Yet enthralled by the spanses of bridges spiring horizontally over rivers which below carved spaces their own like those manmade above - out from mountains and beside rivers could I enter those spaces of shapely air and be at last reborn?
I then heard the tender door-knock, the muted creak of an opening, a soft entrance into the ruminate room, "I'm here, grandmother. Here I am. Your Dahlia. What may I do for you, dear?" Silence. "How may I be of help to you before eventide and slumber?"
What world had I been so fortunate to stumble into to hear such eloquence voiced from a genteel time passed on in inherited speech to a granddaughter just launching into her own young life of vision and fire?
Silence. Then frail, polite, a voice, the voice of bearing, of manners, of divine mission heeded, obeyed, answered, done, responded, "I need to know, Sweetness, do please tell. Is your handsome Asa doing a beautiful thing? Is he? Is he doing a most beautiful thing?"
A beautiful thing? a most beautiful thing? a doing of beauty or beauty in the doing? Deep emotion sudden-rushes up from remote recesses within me, lifegiving waters up and outspring, so much so that I wrack, wrecked, sob unrestrained into a pillow infolded in a delicate handmade Korean pillowcase too perfect and silken for my rough, irreverent, indelicate American tears. Here was a reversal of mission fields, Korean pillow-grace receiving torrent tears, a post-Christian son of the South's "Christ-haunted landscape," sheening darkly wet, outlines shown upon silk, blindsided by unexpected flash..
Available light. More than available light. Grace sear and sheer. Surprising. Invasive. Breakthrough hard layers, years accretions, fortress fears against inner and outer longing, aspiring, failing, "Jesu" greatly desiring, but unsaid, unstated, unseen but intuited, felt, not known, suddenly collapsing within and crumbling down upon a gentle question innocently, earnestly, asked,
Is Warren doing a beautiful thing? Is HE doing a most beautiful thing?
This question then (and now) was (is) more than orienting. Immediately upon hearing it Vocation was finally named, attained and mine. From a dying grandmother who was dead within weeks of my arrival in New York, whose legacy to me and, I'm sure, many, is Beauty, "a beautiful thing," a doing of beauty. I keep repeating this now to remind me in this Advent season verging on the personal advent of my official and all too real old age, the need to keep being awed, and doing, for grandmother, lovers and loves, for, as the Buddhists say, "all sentient beings," and as the Psalmist says, "all creatures great and small," as the Cristos says, "for the least of these...the last shall be first," and as Dylan Thomas circumscribes the doing for those "human, all too human" all and awe, "With all their griefs in their arms,/I labour by singing light/Not for ambition or bread/Or the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages/But for the common wages/Of their most secret heart."
And secret no longer, it is Beauty pursues me. Beautiful things. The doing of them.
It is Beauty then, a containing event, a force, a hint, where all things, good, evil, the gray and in between, and always fragmenting things, the frailty and the reforming of what remains even if just another slant of light casting shard moments in ways that are revelation, revealing Beauty's doing - it is then both perceiver and that which is perceived together comprise a witnessed thing most fine and consonant (even if plain by daily eyes/ears) hitherto unseen/unheard or non-existent but born from the union of the knower and the known, and born even from known me, the useless one, the lazy one (my father's voice) trailing books, words, misused and broken relationships, wary of people-as-paths, the pricks and pieces, all promises of things sucked dry to skins, my skin now, o thin thin. Yet singing.
One framing question and a cosmos is created then. Out of darkness, light. God, I believe, still speaks worlds into being. And what is uttered is a question, a question of "Beauty's doing" and that hidden "Self" of and in matter within matter not-yet-fully-mattered sudden startle-bursts into grateful, stunned existence resonating, breaking things into further opening, unveiling, yielding, God-question quakes into trembling, yielding revelators.
And trembling, finite, we, revelators all, return to solidity as gift. Our being in finity. And God sees that which is created and declares (surprised, too, and known newly by what is perceived and responding, gazing, speaking back), "It is good."
Pressed against a mountain steep in a hamlet of august Presbyterians Calvin-severe, many of them returned from the Hermit Kingdom driven there and back by King James Word fires, conjurers of a Shining Stranger's irresistable Grace, I find myself alien and broken there again upon a silk pillow in tears, "a word, a question, fitly spoken" wringing forth one odd salvation managed for even me in the narrowing Carolina valley of what then was a yet to be lived and uttered life beholden to a first bridge, a dying gracious lady, a grandmother questioning and in that question a new being come in from Kingdom exile newly standing in kind and canyon light, Evocation leading to Vocation.
And Beauty is the Name derived from both depth and height.
What is known is variable and dependent upon available light.
[All photographs in this essay are by Warren Falcon. All rights are reserved for him]