A lot has been written in the last couple weeks. For those folks that are dismayed at the turn we are taking in our country, there is a natural return to perennial questions: What happened? Where am I? What do I do?
It is some consolation to read Mark Twain's words from over a hundred years ago:
I have been reading the morning paper. I do it every morning--knowing well that I shall find in it the usual depravities and basenesses and hypocrisies and cruelties that make up civilization, and cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race. I cannot seem to get my prayers answered, yet I do not despair.
–Mark Twain, 2 April 1899
Seen from a larger perspective, historical or mythical, this is a dilemma we humans find ourselves in over and over again– struggles over power, what is real, what matters?
For myself, it is more important than ever to be making– to hold a vision, to refuse to succumb to platitudes, to take what we are given and create. What is required is fidelity to your own path, to what you cannot see, and to listen to the slender threads available, in spite of circumstances.
So many of us have been touched by the work of Leonard Cohen. He said one of the most important things he learned in the monastery was that whining became an absolutely inappropriate response to any situation. He wasn't like anyone else– he was not at center stage during the heyday of the 60's music, but continued to follow his muse– even when it meant becoming a Buddhist monk, or starting over after all his money was stolen. What is remarkable about Leonard Cohen, is that even though he was not on center stage, he is one of the few performers from the 60's still singing, writing and performing with soulful beauty into the last part of his life. He searched his soul to discover direction, and to make the best of what is by making an offering. He sang:
Whither thou goest, I will go;Wherever thou lodgest, I will lodge:Thy people shall be my people ...Whither thou goest, I will go.
Leonard Cohen's message is comforting to me. There is a trust in being willing to be small, humble and true– rather than hoping for some big prize, thirty seconds of fame or recognition. There is a willingness to keep going, in spite of all the obstacles (he was still writing at the end of his life, in spite of severe pain).
I always had a sense of being in this for keeps... I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot. –Leonard Cohen
This attitude is resonant with Robert Johnson's words:
It was not up to me to control the world around me, all I had to do was be attentive to its design and follow the slender threads.
I will end with this poem– On Angels– which talks so beautifully about faith in what we cannot see:
All was taken away from you: white dresses,
wings, even existence.
Yet I believe in you,
There, where the world is turned inside out,
a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and beasts,
you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.
Short is your stay here:
now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,
in a melody repeated by a bird,
or in the smell of apples at close of day
when the light makes the orchards magic.
They say somebody has invented you
but to me this does not sound convincing
for the humans invented themselves as well.
The voice — no doubt it is a valid proof,
as it can belong only to radiant creatures,
weightless and winged (after all, why not?),
girdled with the lightening.
I have heard that voice many a time when asleep
and, what is strange, I understood more or less
an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:
day draw near
do what you can.
–On Angels, Czeslaw Milosz