Monday, May 31, 2010


May 30 marks the anniversary of the death of Jeanne d'Arc, my patron saint (it used to frighten me when I thought about the challenge of following the example of her courage). This anniversary reminded me of an extraordinary dream I had some years ago.

Saint Joan Speaks to Me 

I am walking down the cobbled
streets of Rouen. Cabbage leaves
blacken in the gutter.
In the square they are burning

Joan of Arc. Her eyes are
transparent with light.
She says, Truth is a torch,
but it makes a beautiful blaze.

The crowd is weeping.
Her lips are charred
doors of light. She says,
A dead body is only a dead body.

How can we tell ash from soul
unless we too rise,
a blue heron of smoke
slanting into flight –

that pulse of a wing so slow,
so soaring when she says,
We are all burning.
Be a greater fire.

~ Oriana

(published in Qarrtsiluni; image credit: Qarrtsiluni)


While there is certainly a universal meaning here, at the time I had the dream, I was most affected by the message "A dead body is only a dead body." It seemed a stern warning against suicide, even in the face of shattered dreams, of what seemed like complete defeat. 

For a long time I was hoping for a religious conversion. I was afraid that without religion, the terror of dying would become more pronounced as I grew older, more and more unbearable. It's only recently that I noticed all the cherubic, blissed out old people I've been meeting all my life, without paying attention to how they could be so happy with "God so far and death so near." 

Cheerful octogenarians! It's most likely the changed neurochemistry that comes with aging, the weakened function of the left hemisphere as the right hemisphere still holds out, the dominance of serotonin over the more quickly ebbing dopamine, but study after study keeps confirming that "older is happier." The burden of worry and anxiety about the future seems gone -- what future? No worries, no regrets. With less thinking, "living in the now" is finally easy. 

But before then? It seems to me that it's not a question of the "power of now" -- not when you are forced to plan for the future and make difficult decisions. Not when your life can be turned upside down by some unexpected event. For me, it's a question of having my "life support": creative work, music, my love of nature and beauty in general -- and friendship. I am still stunned by the realization that that is enough

No need to enter Carmel -- though I feel I have entered my own inner Carmel. The steady light, and not the storms and shipwrecks of youth. Reading slowly and re-reading ten times, rather than "reading by lightning." It's the steady light of work and contentment that is that brighter fire. It's the immense patience that an artist finally masters, learning to create as if time didn't exist, and that ride with Death and Immortality (see Dickinson) would never end. 

As Zbigniew Herbert puts it in his poem "A Sign":

you have to dream patiently
in the hope that the text will complete itself
missing words will find their way
into crippled sentences
the certainty we are waiting for
will cast anchor

(~ translated by Oriana)

So it's by taking your time, rather than by rushing from task to task, keeping madly busy, that you can become a brighter fire. It's in the slowness of days that we can burn at white heat. 


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