This poem by young British poet and playwright Caroline Bird has more than a whiff of Pentecost about it. Caroline Bird was born in 1986. Already she has had five collections of poetry published. This poem is from her latest collection In These Days of Prohibition(Carcanet, 2017).
When love comes through
the vents, you press wet rags against
the grill, lest you are smoked out
of your loneliness, you tape egg boxes
to your ears so you can’t hear
the hissing, you swathe yourself
in shame like vinegar
and brown paper. At sundown,
you gather up the rags
and press them to your face
like the dress of a lover, hoping for
a slight effect, the remnants of a rush –
not enough to change your mind – just
enough to pacify the night.
Yes, I’ve done all that. And now I am full of questions.
How do we make the most of love?
How do we make the most of every minute of love?
What do we do about our preoccupations and those things which make us unprepared for love?
How dare we hope for love and remain openminded to recognise love?
How do we avoid leaving it all too late?
How can we let love do her work in us and through us?
I don’t count myself a “biblical scholar”. When I come to my daily reading from the Old Testament it is often as if I am reading the section for the first time. (Along with others I tend to tweet my naive responses with the #cLectio hashtag, here, here, here, here and here.) My current intrigue is with the Song of Songs, a tiny book of love poetry. And it is as if I am reading it for the first time. I guess it has always been a closed book to me – closed because of its reputation and the manner of its interpretation possibly as a consequence of its reputation. By reputation it is highly erotic and “saucy”. I’d prefer the description “absolutely delightful”. I wonder if a sense of embarrassment has led to its allegorical interpretations shared by synagogue and church which sees the poetry referring to the love of God for his people. Have such interpretations demeaned the text?
Some people will be surprised the Song of Songs is included in our scripture because there is no mention of God and the content is highly erotic. The Song of Songs is the title of the book. It is a superlative title indicating that this Song is very special. Colloquially we could say that this is the “mother and father of all song”. There are two speakers who are lovers. Later readers have named them Solomon (even David) and “the Shulammite” (someone from Jerusalem which translates as “the place of peace”). Allegorical interpreters have called one of the lovers “God” and the other “Israel” or “Church”. Personally I don’t see why we need to rush to their naming and I have preferred to leave them to themselves as two lovers. One of them, the maiden, has her confidantes. They are “daughters of Jerusalem”. They stand by. They have a view but no say. They stay as readers and celebrants. I have chosen to join them.
To me the couple are young lovers and with the Daughters of Jerusalem we are privileged to watch love building through them. My reading may have been influenced by Trevor Dennis (here is reason why we should reading him) who finds reason to call Adam and Eve children in his reading of Genesis. There are so many references to a garden in the Song of Songs that I couldn’t help going back to the Garden of Eden, to the boy and the girl we find in paradise. We have to be sorry the way they turned out (and the way they were turned out). I can’t help wondering whether The Song of Songs is dreaming a happy ending, building in love rather than falling in love.
One hot afternoon Adam and Eve, unselfconsciously naked, sat on the bank of one of the rivers of Eden, dangling their feet in the water. Eve picked up a flat, round stone, stood up and flicked it in twelve graceful bounces right across to the other side.
‘Who taught you to do that?’ asked Adam.
Adam turned towards God. ‘Did you really?’
‘Could you teach me?’
‘Of course. Watch.’
God stood up, chose a stone carefully, kissed it, curled his finger round it, and, with a movement of his wrist too quick to catch, sent it spinning downstream. It went almost as far as Adam and Eve could see, then swung round in a tight circle and came speeding towards them again, till with one last bounce it skipped back into God’s hand. It had hit the water two hundred times, and had left two hundred circles spreading and entwining themselves upon the surface. From the middle of each circle a fish leaped, somersaulted, and splashed back into the river.
‘Now you try!’ said God. Adam pushed him into the water. God came to the surface a few yards out from the bank. ‘That was level ten, by the way,’ he called. ‘Eve’s only at level two at the moment, aren’t you Eve?’ ‘You were showing off, God,’ said Eve. ‘You’ll be walking on the water next!’ ‘That’s level twenty,’ laughed God, and promptly disappeared beneath the surface.
So it was once in Eden. So it can be still. So it is, on rare and precious occasions. But Adam and Eve complicated matters. They grew up to think flicking stones child’s play. They turned in upon themselves, and God remained out of sight, beneath the surface. They did not sit with him on the bank any more. Now and then, realizing their loneliness and overcome with sudden longing, they would gaze out across the water and see the ripples he left behind. But these were soon gone, and the water would resume its customary smoothness, as if nothing had happened, as if he had never been there.
There are so many beautiful images in this Love Song of Love Songs. It is spring time, a time for building love’s nest. The references to spring signify love that is young, lovers for whom relationship is a novel and delicious mystery.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in the land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.” Song of Songs 2:10-13
The song is soaked in pleasant images, images that are so sensual. They are images of body and bed, field and garden. The whole of creation seems to behind their love and a rich harvest is the outcome of their love. With the Daughters of Jerusalem and with the young lovers, we are allowed into a special world. For me, this is a creation story: the mother and father of so many love songs.
(And, of course, it reminded me of another garden, the strange meeting of two people there and the love that never goes cold between them.)
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb … As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:11-16
Love has created a world of its own – always has done, always will.
This book is a lovely telling of a woman overcoming her sense of resentment and betrayal through hearing the story of her lost father. The story-telling helps Julia and the reader see life in a different way, as Tin Win (with the help of Mi Mi and U May) makes sense of his blindness through his sense of hearing.
Mi Mi can’t walk, Tin Win can’t see – together they make the perfect couple (is it an unconscious retelling of the Genesis creation story against the background of a Burmese village?)
It is a book about seeing. U May (blind Buddhist monk), speaking to Tin Win: “It’s true, I lost my eyesight many years ago. But that doesn’t mean I’m blind … the true essence of things is invisible to the eyes. Our sensory organs love to lead us astray, and eyes are the most deceptive of all. We rely too heavily upon them. We believe that we see the world around us, and yet it is only the surface that we perceive. We must learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help in that regard. They distract us. We love to be dazzled.”
“A person who relies too heavily on his eyes neglects the other senses – and I mean more than his hearing or sense of smell. I’m talking about the organ within us for which we have no name, let us call it the compass of the heart… A person without eyes must be aware. It sounds easier than it is. You must attend to every movement and every breath. As soon as I become careless or let my mind wander, my senses lead me astray. They play tricks on me like ill-mannered children looking for attention.”
It is a book that collapses distance and challenges the perceptions of the all-seeing, all-dancing world. “There were things a person who walked through the world on two sound feet simply couldn’t understand. They believed that people saw with their eyes. That footsteps overcame distances.”
It is a book about fear (or rather, the absence of fear). Rage muddles the senses. U May, speaking to Tin Win: “Eyes and ears are not the problem, Tin Win. It is rage that blinds and deafens us. Or fear. Envy, mistrust. The world contracts, gets all out of joint when you are angry or afraid.”
It is a book about the power that is stronger than fear and rage, which brings with it the art of hearing heartbeats.
Julia’s father tells her the tale of the prince and princess from two neighbouring and enemy kingdoms. They die on the same day. The prince dies in the mouth of a croc. The princess dies of a broken heart.
“The two kings decided independently not to bury their children but to burn them on the river bank. As chance would have it, the ceremonies fell on the same day, at the same hour. The kings cursed and threatened one another, each blaming the other for the death of his child.
“It was not long before the flames were roaring and the two corpses ablaze. All at once the fires began to smoulder. It was a windless day, and two great, mighty columns of smoke climbed straight to heaven. And suddenly it grew quite still. The fires ceased their crackling, burning on without a sound. The river ceased its chortling and gurgling. Even the kings fell silent.
“Then the animals began to sing … and suddenly … the two columns of smoke drifted slowly towards each other. The louder and clearer the animals’ song, the closer the columns drew, until at last they embraced each other and became one, as only lovers can.”
Maya Angelou died yesterday, aged 86. She was born poor and black and her gifts were born out of pain and hardship. She knew why the caged bird sings. Her son, Guy, writes: “she was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.” She helped many through the passion, hope, humour and compassion of her autobiographies and poetry. She is a wise woman of our age, and eminently quotable. On this Ascension Day I choose her poem Touched by an Angel to remember a woman who had a love with the power to live and see through so much.
Touched by an Angel
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
in the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and all will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
I couldn’t resist taking this photo when on Nice beach for St Valentine’s Day ’12. I don’t know the woman. She never noticed me taking the photo and my lovely wife was sunbathing further along the beach.
St Valentine’s Day was perhaps popularised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century, though, according to this blog post, the Valentine’s Day may refer to May 3rd, the feast day of the wrong Valentine, Valentine of Genoa. Legend has it that Valentine, Bishop of Rome, was imprisoned and executed for performing weddings for soldiers (they were forbidden) and for ministering to Christians (they were persecuted). While in prison he is supposed to have healed the jailer’s daughter, and gave a letter to her on the day he was executed signed with “Your Valentine”. He is said to have given heart shapes cut from parchment to the soldiers to remind them of their loves and vows.
The heart is used as a measure for our dealings with one another. The measure isn’t beats per minute, but a blood-red thermometer with hard-heartedness being the coldest, and the soft-hearted being at the top of the human scale.
Many live with the dire consequences of hard-heartedness. There is an ancient promise for the sake of the loveless victims of hard-heartedness in which God promises a heart transplant. The people will have a change of heart when their heart of stone will be replaced by a “heart of flesh”. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
Hearts of stone can never be broken. They have to be removed. The transplants don’t come with any guarantees. They are soft. They are made to be responsive to the feelings of others. They are made to be sensitive. They are made for moving. They are made for love. They are made to be broken. (There is a beautiful Blessing for the Broken-hearted by Jan Richardson)
Too many of us have been hurt, and too many of us have heeded the advice “don’t be soft”. We can become hard to know and we can be hard on others. Our responsiveness, flexibility and ability to change can be non-existent. We stop listening and we stop learning. Our cause isn’t lost in that condition. Many hearts have been changed though history by tender hearted care and by brave hearts such as Nelson Mandela. The sexualisation of Valentine’s Day may prevent us remembering all those people and moments that might have heartened us. But the extent to which we have been touched and softened by them will affect our loveliness and our eagerness to be a true lover.
A friend who was a high school teacher was a real advocate of the “unlovely” young people. She said that they had been hardened into it, and that “they’d be lovely if they were loved”.
We have become obsessed with effectiveness which, according to Parker Palmer, means that we take on smaller tasks. For the bigger tasks, like love, mercy and peace we need a different measure. That measure is faithfulness.
We can learn so much from the liturgies of other faith traditions. These are the 10 Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim in the Jewish calendar. They begin with Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s day celebrating the day the world was born, and end in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub draws attention to the Days of Awe in an article in the Huffington Post. She calls the Yamim Noraim “a kind of high speed enactment of our life’s journey from birth to death”. She says “our liturgy brings us to the edge of the precipice between life and death in order to create the emotional conditions for urgent expression”
She recalls seeing her “schmaltzy” father leaning over his walker crying his heart out. He said, “I never got to say goodbye. Everyone – my mother, sisters, and brothers – all died without knowing how much I loved them.” She suggests that the Yamim Noraim summon us to rehearse the end of our lives – “to lean over our walkers in advance. To say what we need to say before it is too late.”
She illustrates her point by sharing a moving account of Steve Martin’s final meeting with his father, with whom he had had a difficult relationship.
I walked into the house they had lived in for 35 years, and my weeping sister said, “He’s saying goodbye to everyone.” A hospice nurse said to me, “This is when it all happens.” I didn’t know what she meant, but I soon would..
I walked into the bedroom where he lay, his mind alert but his body failing. He said, almost buoyantly, “I’m ready now.” I understood that his intensifying rage of the last few years had been against death and now his resistance was abating. I stood at the end of the bed, and we looked into each other’s eyes for a long, unbroken time. At last he said,”You did everything I wanted to do.”
I said, “I did it because of you.” It was the truth.
I sat on the edge of the bed. Another silence fell over us. Then he said, “I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry.”
At first I took this as a comment on his plight, but I am forever thankful that I pushed on. “What do you want to cry about?” I finally said.
“For all the love I received and couldn’t return.”
He had kept his secret, his desire to love his family, from me and my mother his whole life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death, our pace was aligning, and we were able to speak.
I sometimes think of our relationship graphically, as a bell curve. In my infancy, we were perfectly close. Then the gap widened to accommodate our differences and indifference. In the final days of his life, we again became perfectly close.
There is a physicality to the introspection of the Days of Awe. Rabbi Melissa shows us some of the scope of atonement. I am grateful for her insights from a tradition that prepares such care-full celebrations of the grace of new life and atonement.
L’Shana Tovah. Happy New Year.
Thank you to slgckgc for the photo of the shofar blowing.
When one who professes love is wholly in control of the object of his love, then the falsity of love is exposed. Love ins the activity for the sake of an other: and where the object of love is wholly under the control of the one who loves, that object is no longer an other. It is a part or extension of the professed lover. Where the object of love is truly an other the activity of love is always precarious … it contains no assurance or certainty of completion: much may be expended and little achieved. the progress of love must always be by tentative and precarious steps: and each step that is taken, whether it “succeeds” or “fails”, becomes the basis for the next, and equally precarious, step which must follow. Love proceeds by no assured programme.