When I read the section of my memoir “Sanctuary” to my writer friends, they began the discussion by saying things like “I could never be as good as you are.” I of course hadn’t been bragging about what a saint I was. I had after all been writing to myself, and I know to my sorrow how unsaint-like I am. My empathy for homeless people had been instilled in me by my mother and father. Although the Presence, whether inner or outer, has helped me to make the most of my three score years and ten, I don’t know if it has helped me to cure my faults. I know what the faults are, but just as I know I should exercise and eat right but don’t, I am not able to tame them. Perhaps without the Presence, I would be even worse. I am bossy, but in my marriage I was able to put that aside, partly because Bill was a strong character, and partly because I came to realize how good his judgment was. He and I made decisions together, we shared responsibilities, and we regarded our money as joint family income. I talk too much, and try to be conscious of that in any gathering. When I am weakened, as when my mother died or Bill began to have his strokes, I do go on about my troubles. When my mother died, I would say to Bill every time we went out to visit, “Don’t let me talk about my mother.” And then I would hear myself going on about her. Sometimes when I am talking too much, the realization of it flashes into my mind. Is that the work of the Presence? I love to gossip. Part of this, I know, is that I do love people and their interactions. But one terrible fault is saying something bad about others. I try to hold my tongue and feel awful remorse when I don’t. I do know I am more eager to tell good things about someone; I trumpet the triumphs of my family, friends and acquaintances. Although I was faithful in looking after Bill, I did let my anger spoil my faithfulness. I couldn’t hold my tongue when he had his irrational rages. I would pray earnestly to whatever is out there to let it pass, but more often than not, whatever was out there would not intervene. I am quick to forgive, in fact I don’t hold grudges long, don’t remember slights, but I am critical of others and not inclined to overlook their faults. I do realize that when I myself am in a good mood, I do overlook others’ faults more easily. Regrets: that I didn’t make more of Bill’s successes to him when he was alive; didn’t read his poetry to him, didn’t make more of his art work, didn’t remind him often enough of how successful he had been as a human being. Regrets: that I meddled too much in my children’s lives; that I wasn’t more understanding of Mrs. Bauer when she was going through her troubles; that unlike my college roommate, I haven’t been as faithful a friend as I should have been. These are moral failures, and that the Presence doesn’t intervene suggests to me that it isn’t concerned with them.
Monday, December 10, 2012
In the spring of 1971 Bill’s colleague went looking for two lake-shore properties, one for him, one for his parents. He scouted all the lakes in the area and found three desirable lots on what he deemed the best lake. He settled on the two side by side lots, and told us about the third. We drove out to see it. The lot is on the northern end of
, a huge body of water, 26 miles long, 2 miles wide, on the New Brunswick/Maine border. East Grand Lake
On a tiny spit of land seven gnarled stunted cedar trees wrap themselves around a granite boulder. While Bill and the kids explored, I climbed over the roots and sat in the cocoon of cedars, looking out onto the lake. It was the most inspiring spot I’d ever been in, “a spot that’s known to God alone.” The Presence didn’t appear to me there, but what did envelope me was absolute natural beauty, a centre of contentment.
Bill taught summer school and we bought the lot for $1000. Soon after we first went there, I started a novel about a woman named Grace Snow, who, sitting in that cocoon of cedars, decided to go on a pilgrimage of the holy sites of
. Later, in Flora Write This Down, the central character goes on a retreat there. I imagined this so vividly that many people asked me how long I had been on the retreat. Actually I have never spent a minute there alone. As I am writing this, I am here at the camp, Slow Loris we call it, looking out the window of the haven my son John has just built me, watching the sun come up. A bee lights on a butter-and-eggs blossom. I am looking at two tall mullein stalks, primroses, goldenrod, St. John’s-wort past its prime, jewel weed, five granite boulders, a cedar leaning into the wind. A male cricket serenaded two females—a cricket and me--until past midnight. My son and daughter are asleep in the main cabin; later on my daughter-in-law and grandson will be arriving. New Brunswick
Friday, November 30, 2012
Finding a home has been an important part of my own novels but hasn’t constituted the central plot. In 1990 when my mother-in-law died, Bill and I began to spend time with his aunt. She invited us to stay with her in the apartment she had lived in her whole life. I became intrigued by the interaction of the inhabitants of the other 19 apartments. I had written several novellas and decided to combine them into one massive novel about an apartment building,
. There the inhabitants find peace. Temple House
The narrator of the novel writes, “What sold me on the apartment was its view of the
Saint John River and across it to the hills beyond. I tried to ignore the dirty walls, the grimy bathtub, and the carpet smelling of cat urine…. I prospered in this sanctuary.” For 16 years I rented a study in such a building, the turret on the third floor, with 12 clerestory windows overlooking the river.
A poplar tree in our back woods is dying. It barely had the energy this spring to put out small, yellowish leaves. It is not dead but has to be cut down for fear that a winter storm might blow it onto the house. The presences of the trees around me are palpable. They have their stories, some of which I know, some I don’t. The spruce out in front was three feet tall when the whole family went on an outing with our neighbors to dig up trees from an abandoned farm. It is now 40 feet tall. Our plowman cuts branches from the bottom when they threaten to scratch his truck. Beside it is a maple my father dug up and planted when he and my mother came for their first visit. Some day I might have to have them cut down if they too threaten the house.
…if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace…Now my aim is clear: I must show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind. The binding principle in this integration is the daydream. Past, present and future give the house different dynamisms, which often interfere, at times opposing, at others stimulating one another. In the life of a man, the house thrusts aside contingencies, its councils of continuity are unceasing. Without it, man would be a dispersed being. It maintains him through the storms of the heavens and through those of life. It is body and soul. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
In the first ten years of my life we moved nine times. After my mother died, I asked Aunt Tempie why. She seemed surprised that I didn’t know. My mother, she said, would paint and paper, Tempie helping her, and make the rented place so attractive that it would be sold. When finally we could buy a house, the joy in our family was great. My father stopped creating watercolors so that he could spend his spare time fixing up the house. One of my obsessions is that members of my family and even my friends have a safe, pleasant home. “Homeless” is a heartbreaking word. Every month I send money to an elderly friend because otherwise she would have to move from her cozy apartment to unattractive senior housing. She and her husband think I’m an angel, but my action is completely selfish. My mother often confessed her worry to me, even when I was as young as ten, that this friend would “end up in the poor farm” because of her extravagant ways. My mother had a cousin, Willy, who would walk to our house from the poor farm, a distance of perhaps 15 miles. Willie had been horribly mistreated by his stepmother and was such a woebegone creature that my mother’s heart went out to him.
A boy who had lived here in our neighborhood had also had a sad childhood. When he was about 25, he unaccountably was able to buy a piece of land and a wretched used mobile home way out in the country. He soon learned how to tap our hearts—needing money for essential upkeep or taxes--the list was long. Tears in his eyes, he would say, “It’s my home, and I’m going to lose it.” People assured us that we were being foolish, pouring money down a rat hole. But it was a cozy rat hole, and as he often reminded us, the only real home he had ever had. He died at 40 and was able to keep his house until the end.
The well-being I feel, seated in front of my fire, while bad weather rages out-of-doors, is entirely animal. A rat in its hole, a rabbit in its burrow, cows in the stable, must all feel the same contentment that I feel. Maurice de Vlaminck, letter
Monday, November 12, 2012
When Bill finished studying at the
, he had to apply for a job. His dissertation supervisor had him applying to places where the supervisor had friends: University of North Carolina Bowling Green University, Wellesley College, are some I remember. I wanted to come back north, so Bill also applied to universities in New England: York University Boston University, University of New Hampshire, Holy Cross College, .. One day he said, “I wonder if they have a university in University of Maine .” I had known from the time I met him that New Brunswick was a place that fired his imagination even though he had never been there. We had planned to go there on our honeymoon, but Uncle Sam intervened, and he had to go into the Air Force two days after our wedding. I hadn’t known of its existence until he told me about it. New Brunswick
He looked up Canadian universities in back of our dictionary, and sure enough there was a
. He wrote away and right back came an answer, Yes indeed, they would love to have him--they hadn’t had an eighteenth century man for eight years. We drove up to University of New Brunswick for an interview just before Christmas 1964. I immediately fell in love with the place. While he was at the university, I took Ernie and Grace for a walk down Fredericton Queen Street. An elderly woman stopped, peered into the stroller, and said, “That child isn’t dressed warmly enough.” Wow: a place where strangers cared about your children--perfect. The architecture, the river, the size—and something about the feel of it, the soul of it--appealed to me. Even though Fredericton was only an hour from the Maine border, we had to drive many miles through wilderness after we left Bangor, so seemed also like a very different place, exotic, and yet close enough to our families. Fredericton
The decision had to be mine, Bill said. My mother wanted us to choose a
university. I knew that Bill longed for UNB. It was an impossible decision, between my beloved mother and my beloved husband. At last I decided we should go to Massachusetts , “just for a lark.” We would stay only a couple of years. That seemed like a good compromise. Would we have stayed only a short time if my mother hadn’t died three years after we came? I don’t know. New Brunswick
When we moved to
, we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment because we could find nothing bigger. We reluctantly decided to have a house built, the smallest one we could get a mortgage for, 1000 square feet. We had no money and of course didn’t think we would stay in Fredericton . I was worried that we had made a rash decision. We moved into the house the second of September 1966, set up the beds, put the kids to sleep, and, exhausted, I went out onto the front steps. What greeted me was a display of greenish yellow Northern Lights, the first I had ever seen. Ours was only the second house on the street, and there were no streetlights so that it was perfectly dark except for the amazing Aurora Borealis. The Presence was all around me; I was filled with it. Yes, I thought, we have made the right decision. Fredericton
You can live somewhere for decades and still in your heart it’s no more than an encampment, a place for the night, detached from collective destiny. Across the world today millions are bivouacked, dreaming of return. The inverse is also true: Home can sink its roots in little time, as if in a revelation. Roger Cohen, “Modern Odysseys”, NYTimes, July, 29, 2010
Three of my favorite novels are the Damerosehay trilogy by Elizabeth Goudge. In the first novel, the grandmother creates a refuge for her children and her orphaned grandchild.
They could come to it weary and sickened and go away made new. They should find peace there, and beauty, and the cleansing of their sins.” Elizabeth Goudge, The Bird in the Tree
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
I don’t like to imagine my loved ones having sex, yet an image will flash by if for some reason I’m thinking about such things—the conception of a grandchild for example. But watching people having sex in a pornographic movie doesn’t bother me. Those films I have seen make no pretence that love is involved. It would be offensive if they did, perhaps even sacrilegious.
In my life, I have worried about many things that turned out be completely foolish. One was that after my first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, I wouldn’t be able to have babies. I went to an obstetrician who gave me a chart and thermometer. On the day the chart indicated, Bill and I made love. I don’t think it was perfunctory, bit I can’t really remember. I brought the chart back to the doctor. Bingo, Ernie had been conceived. I know the day, even the hour. My brother’s wife did have trouble getting pregnant and used the same kind of chart. My nephew was conceived on a day my brother had the flu and they had houseguests. No child was ever loved more. I know of no better example of the intersection of the sacred and the profane.
Once when I was in my late forties I missed a period. I was worried; Bill was desperate. Having children had been hard on him. He loved them and enjoyed their company, but as he grew older he worried about them more and more to the point where it seemed like a mental illness. The great tragedy of his parents’ lives and his was the traumatic birth of his younger brother, ever after not only severely retarded but violent. Bill said to me, “I know how you feel, that you couldn’t have an abortion.” I went down cellar and paced and wept and agonized. Finally I came upstairs and told him that if I were pregnant, I would have an abortion. As it turned out, I was only beginning menopause and so never had to go through with my promise. I will never know if I could have gone through with it.
Life is complex—finding your way through it is sometimes difficult and sometimes even seems impossible. “There’s no way out but through,” as Robert Frost wrote. And there is the advice from a Perfect Wisdom text of Buddhism: “go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond.”
Saturday, October 13, 2012
With the birth of my second child, Grace, I began to connect the Presence with the holy comforter. The Greek word translated as comforter is parakletos--literally “called to one’s side.”
If you love me you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father and He will give you another Comforter to be with you forever -- the Spirit of Truth. The world cannot accept him because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him for he lives with you and will be in you. John 14:15-18
In 1963 when I was seven and a half months pregnant with Grace, three year old Ernie and I had to undergo rabies treatments. He was playing with two neighbors in their sandbox and came in with gunk on his hands. I looked at the box – an animal must have vomited in it. I phoned the pediatrician who said to bring in the three kids. He looked at our hands to see if there were any cuts where the rabies virus might have entered. The neighbor kids had none, Ernie and I had a few tiny ones. Should we have the rabies shots? The other pediatrician in the office had been present in a hospital where they had made the decision not to give the vaccine and the man had died of rabies. So we had 14 shots, one each day in the muscle of Ernie’s small abdomen and in the muscle of my huge one. The doctor explained that the shots were especially painful, but that after a few days our pain thresholds would rise to compensate.
Bill and I felt terrible that Ernie would have to undergo these painful shots, but for me the pain was as nothing compared to the worry about what this vaccine was doing to my unborn baby. The doctor said that he doubted that anyone in my condition had ever had the vaccine so although he could assure me that there would be no side effects for my son, he couldn’t give any such assurance for the fetus.
A month and half later, October 14, the obstetrician told me that the baby was going to come any minute, earlier than the October 26 due date. I phoned my mother and the next day she flew down to
Chapel Hill, the first time she had been in a plane. Four weeks passed, the doctor seemed perplexed that the baby hadn’t come, and I was growing more worried by the hour.
On the night of November 17, when the baby was 23 days overdue, at one of the lowest points in my life, we heard a woman screaming. Bill went outside to see what was happening. He came back to tell my mother and me that the police had arrived--we didn’t need to worry.
We went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep even though I was exhausted. After a while, a scene presented itself to me. Bill, Ernie and I were coming into my mother-in-law’s kitchen. I could smell the perking coffee, Mrs. Bauer was hugging us, Mr. Bauer was beaming. They were exclaiming how well we all looked and how much Ernie had grown. It was a scene that had been enacted several times, so I could have been recalling the memory, or could have been recreating it in my imagination, or could even have been dreaming. But that is not what was happening as I lay there in despair that November night. No, I was wide awake, I was actually there in the kitchen, and I could feel my mother-in-law’s joy at our arrival. I smelled the perking coffee. I felt enveloped and comforted by Mrs. Bauer’s radiant love, a palpable Presence. I relaxed and went to sleep, and several hours later awoke with the happy realization that I was having labor pains.
I had Grace Virginia at nine that morning. Student nurses were there so that their professor could teach them how to do the APGAR checklist for newborns. I heard her describe to the students each part of Grace, and then I heard her say, “This is unusual. She has a perfect score — ten!”
A few months later at a prayer group I attended at the
, Miss Klaussen described a badly burned little boy and asked us to pray for him. She had been a prisoner of war in Aldersgate Methodist Church , was a nurse in the children’s burn ward of the hospital, and was deeply religious, holy, really. Reverend Midgett, Miss Klaussen, another member of the group and I sat in silence, the dark illuminated by one candle, praying silently for the burned child, and as I prayed, I knew that something else was present. I knew also that it wasn’t because of me that the Presence had arrived, but for Miss Klaussen and for the group. Indonesia
Thursday, October 04, 2012
THE HOLINESS OF BIRTH
When my first child, Ernie, was being born, I felt a Presence--it was “thick”, like the Presence at the tadpole pool--and I thought something like, “God is here.” There could be a scientific explanation of the phenomenon -- certainly at the moment of birth the physiology of the mother must be undergoing powerful changes which might produce such a feeling. Louann Brizendine writes in The Female Brain, “As the baby’s head moves through the birth canal, more bursts of oxytocin fire in the brain, activating new receptors and forging thousands of new connections between neurons. The result at birth can be euphoria, induced by oxytocin and dopamine, as well as profoundly heightened senses of hearing, touch, sight and smell.”
But the Presence I experienced was definitely out there, something other. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be also.” The passage in The Wind in the Willows exactly describes my experience. “…it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.” In that hospital room, the Presence was very, very near me, Dr. Karsh, the nurse, my baby.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Friends and strangers alike wrote me notes with remembered anecdotes, demonstrating how special he was. I read his poetry. His “Pilot Hi-tec point V7 fine black pens” were everywhere; he had accumulated a stash of perhaps 150 of them because he was afraid they would be discontinued. His many notebooks with only a few pages written in them; his clothes—all the shirts he bought secondhand; the artifacts he created--gourds, paintings, rugs: they all invoked his actual being. The roomful of his collection of books set in
breathed his presence. At first I was reluctant to leave the house even to go for groceries because he was here, but then he was at the store too and was at our camp when I at last took courage and went there. Maine
Alive, he was a tremendous presence, thoroughly original, brilliant—often described as a genius—but I suspect that a living presence will remain even of those with a less powerful personality. I’m not talking about memories or mere reminders. “You have memories” the sympathy cards state. I am talking about something “out there”, a manifest indication of a life lived. It was not “the spirit of Bill” either; it was more palpable, more human.
I describe my encounters not sure that anyone else will understand. I describe my sense of my husband’s presence after his death. Like God, Bill hasn’t given me any irrefutable evidence that my experience was not just a figment of my imagination or a dream or the chemicals in my brain fulfilling a hopeful wish. This comforting palpable presence faded, and one day I realized that it wasn’t here anymore. I had not wept much until then, was even euphoric with relief, but when the presence was finally gone, I wept often.
God said to Moses, “I am who I am”, always a subject, never an object. Bill continues to be what he was, even now, but he is no longer an object, only a subject.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Bill had three more good years, but near the end of the last one he had a brain hemorrhage, and his vascular dementia deepened. This resulted in his being difficult at times because he would have irrational rages. His dreams became real. “Why were you struggling to get out of bed?” I asked when he had fallen and hit his head. He said, “You were brawling with two burly men.” His life dwindled down to a precious few—precious few days and precious few joys. I lost my patience with him, insulted him, swore like the proverbial trooper--using the f word, not previously in my working vocabulary. Gradually I was having those fits when I myself was being irrational. Sometimes if he slept longer than usual I would think, Maybe he has had a massive stroke and has died. The thought gave me momentary relief. But then I would think, How am I going to feel when he really does die?
He developed colon cancer, and because he was in such a weakened condition there was nothing they could do for him, no chance of an operation or chemotherapy. On the night of June 11, 2010 the palliative care nurse phoned me to say she had seen signs that the end was near. “Come early in the morning.”
My daughter Grace, son John, and I were with him at the moment of his death. The nurse came in, looked at him and said, “It’s going to be soon.” We each got up, kissed him, held his hand, sat back down to wait, stared at him for perhaps two minutes. Then the nurse said, “He’s gone.” One second he was alive though barely, the next second he was dead. Those two minutes were mystifying: the veil between life and death was so thin, but we couldn’t do anything to save him. “I’ll get a stethoscope,” the nurse said. But she was sure; she had seen so many at the moment of death. What did she see that we couldn’t? I’ve gone over and over those two minutes but still can’t make sense of them. A terrible regret: why hadn’t I continued to hold his hand?
I’m troubled that the Presence wasn’t in the room then and hasn’t been here for me at home either. Now that I am old, the Presence comes rarely. “The other” is something I long for. But the strange thing is that for many months Bill’s presence was everywhere, not as everyone hopes for, a message from beyond the grave telling me that there is an afterlife or that he was happy. But it was unmistakably his presence. One night I felt a hug. Twice I had a daydream scene in my head, at first not with him present, but then he popped into it, a wicked smile on his face. It was as if at the movies, a giant but real face appeared from behind the screen at the top. Nearly everything I did was with him in mind: grocery shopping, getting gas, making lunch.
Saturday, September 08, 2012
BILL: LOVE AS PRESENCE
He who has love is in God, and God is in him, for God is love. Leo Tolstoi, What Men Live By
One Saturday afternoon in April of 1953 my
Amherst College blind date Jack asked his fraternity brother Bill Bauer to give him a ride to to pick me up. As I slipped into the front seat (in the days when three people could sit in the front seat of a car), I looked at Bill, he smiled, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I fell in love. I can still recall the image of that smile and the instantaneous love, “sweeping like a gentle tide” over me. It was made up partially of physical attraction of course, and perhaps over the years I’ve exaggerated the feeling, but the Presence was there, not the numinous awe felt in grand cathedrals, but still the mysterium tremendum. “Some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger, you will see a stranger across a crowded Ford front seat.” Mount Holyoke College
From then, fifty-seven years ago, we lived our lives together, were married fifty-four, raised three children, and jointly created the home we lived in for 44 years. How could we be separated in any meaningful way? How could we not inhabit the same patch of history even now after he has died?
On a few occasions when Bill and I made love, I had the experience of being “no more twain, but one flesh,” a mystical ecstasy combined with the sexual. “What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Mysterium tremendum: It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. Rudolf Otto
In January 2007 a series of medical disasters began to befall Bill: first a broken arm, then a stroke, a diagnosis of severe COPD and lung cancer, three bouts of pneumonia, five skin cancer operations, dense cataracts. The fact that some day he was going to die was forcibly brought home to me.
In June of that year, he had the lung cancer removed. Because of the stroke and COPD, the surgeon warned that it would be iffy. “But it’s the best chance you have.” The morning of the operation, the surgeon and the anesthetist came into Bill’s room to talk to him, our son, and me. The anesthetist had done extensive tests, examined him again in the room, and said to Dr. Peters, “I don’t think we should go through with the operation.” The surgeon said, “It’s the only chance he has.” Sitting with my son, waiting for the operation to be over, I imagined Dr. Peters performing that delicate surgery, the courage it must have taken because he knew it was dangerous. Then we saw Bill being wheeled to the Intensive Care Unit, several nurses and orderlies running, one holding the IV post, one at the back, pushing the bed. That nurse looked back at us, a big smile on her face, and hollered, “He’s breathing on his own.”
In that moment of pure joy, I felt an intense veneration--veneration is not too strong a word--for the astonishing ability that Dr. Peters had been given and not only that but gratitude that he cared.
A little while later he and his resident surgeon came out to talk to us. They too had big smiles as if they had accomplished something tremendous. The cancer was small, contained, they had only to take out one lobe. The surgeon’s brother is a priest, and there’s a story, apocryphal perhaps, that their mother had slotted Dr. Peters to be the priest, and Father Peters to be the surgeon.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Works of theology are by their nature general, abstract. I’ve been trying to marry the abstract to the particular, to my actual experience of what, for want of a better word I will call Presence. I believe that the religious--perhaps the term should be mystical—intimations have contributed to my reverence for life. My friend Ted Colson tells me that he believes that reverence for beauty is what constitutes the concept “God.” He says, “I see beauty almost everywhere and sense that the whole world is connected so. God’s ‘justification’ of himself to Job is aesthetic.” I have a hunch that is only part of the complexity. To write for anyone else about the Presence, I had to decide whether to capitalize the word and whether the entity is an “it” or the generic “he.” Like the word God, it certainly has no gender or physical body. In this regard it is akin to “love” or to “soul.” I decided to capitalize the word to distinguish it from other uses of presence.
When I was young, the Presence appeared in the natural world. Later I connected the Presence with the holy comforter and with love because it appeared in association with loved ones. “But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Faith, hope, and love seem to be exterior rather than interior and don’t seem to need exterior signs. Happiness and grief are entirely interior and have exterior signs to indicate their existence: smile, laugh, tears.
In recent art and thought, it is not a forgetting which is instrumental, but a negative theism, a peculiarly vivid sense of God’s absence or, to be precise, of His recession. The ‘other’ has withdrawn from the incarnate, leaving either uncertain secular spoors or an emptiness which echoes still with the vibrance of departure. George Steiner, Real Presences
Once when we were young, Bill and I had been fighting. He wouldn’t leave me alone, wouldn’t call a truce. I ran into the bathroom, sat on the floor, braced my back against the cabinet and my feet against the door so he couldn’t open it. I hadn’t turned on the light in the windowless room so I was sitting there in the dark in utter despair. Gradually I sank into a deep black space. It was the opposite of the Presence, utterly interior, utterly devoid of all feeling, images or thought.
I have at times tried to cultivate the conditions for the emergence of the Presence, in prayer, meditation or in the process of writing. But it has only appeared without my willing it to.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
I had several other experiences of that Presence when I was young. When I was eleven (I always know how old I was for any childhood memory because we moved nine times in the same little village), I was wandering in the woods surrounding the Crooked Springs pond. We had only lived for a year in that house on
School Street, the purchase of which had occasioned such joy. I came upon what I later learned was a fairy ring. In a glade in the woods was a perfectly round circle of grass with an outer circle of mushrooms. Again I experienced the Presence and the awe that I had felt at the tadpole pool. Now, at this moment, the image of the fairy ring is here in my head, but I can’t bring the Presence to mind, can’t recreate it, even though I remember that it was there.
In college one night I walked out on the footbridge that spanned the
Lower Lake, looked down into the shallow water illuminated by a lamp at the edge of the bridge, and saw a fish swimming. Goosebumps crept over me when the Presence emerged.
Later I could give a name to what I experienced on these occasions--numinous awe at the sudden manifestation of the mysterium tremendum.
Mysterium tremendum: The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane’, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy
Thursday, August 16, 2012
Here is one glass-full, the experience I began with. I remember the episode vividly, but do I remember it accurately? I grew up in West Chelmsford, a small village in eastern
. Three houses occupied Massachusetts Wilson Lane: the first was my grandfather Luke’s house where my aunt Tempie, cousin Gloria, and uncle Chappy also lived. The second was the LaCourse’s with four children to be our playmates, then came “the Stones”--the house we were renting. After our house, the dirt lane led down a hill to a valley created by Stony Brook. The most enchanting part of the Stones’ farm was the pine woods where I could roam at will. I remember a stump that looked like a house, even with two doors leading underground, a home for an elf.
One afternoon in the summer of 1941 my brother Robin, four years old, and I, just seven, went with my aunt for a walk in the woods she loved so dearly. When she was sixteen and pregnant, her father wouldn’t let her go out during the day, so she would wander these woods at night. She took Robin and me to see her secret place, a small round pool arising from a spring. The area around the pool was dark because it was surrounded by tall pines with brush coming right down to its edge. I was startled to see that the water was alive with tadpoles. A smell of dankness and another smell, like the odor before a rain storm, permeated the air. Kneeling beside the pool, I felt a Presence all around us, distinct, thick. I became suffused with it. Did I tell the others about my feeling or describe it to my mother when I got home? I wish I knew for sure, but I don’t think I did. And if I didn’t, why didn’t I? I gave the experience to a character in my novel Samara, the Wholehearted.
A paragraph from “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, set on an island in a river, echoes my experience:
“This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me,” whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. “Here in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!” Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror -- indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy -- but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows
Sunday, August 12, 2012
IS ANYTHING OUT THERE? A DIALOGUE
When you are philosophizing you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, CV74
- THE AWE-FILLED PRESENCE
For nearly 70 years I have mulled over an experience I had when I was 7. Similar experiences of a Presence outside myself followed at intervals in my life. Were these occurrences evidence of something “out there”, a presence that transcended me, or were they just part of my own inner being? Before I die, I would like to understand what part they played in the trajectory of my life. Were they entirely within me, the result of some quirk in my brain, perhaps inherited and benefitting the survival of my ancestors? Or were they indeed responding to something out there, something or someone with a separate sacred existence?
I began to use paragraphs I had underlined in books that have meant much to me over the years to see if my personal, real experiences corresponded to the wise theories that these philosophers, theologians, artists proposed, if in carrying on a dialogue with them, I could better understand what, if anything, the occurrences meant.
Could the Presence I experienced correspond in any way to God? Could it be one aspect of the complexity that I name God? Over the years it seems to me to have been possible that these experiences were the way that God made himself known to me, the method God used to communicate with me. Could it be that God announced its reality in these ways, said in effect, I AM HERE?
Did the Presence suggest, after the fact, that I was on the right track; didn’t give me advice but afterwards murmured its approval? I begin with a paragraph by the philosopher William Ernest Hocking, author of a book that has profoundly affected me.
An idea, it seems, is a piece of one’s mind: a piece so delimited, outlined, (découpée ), that it can be individually used, handled, referred to. One cannot handle the ocean: but water-buckets-full, casks-full, tanks-full, taken out of the ocean can be handled well enough. Such water-bucket or other vessel, has known contents: it is a bit of the ocean, bound, measured, put under control, lifted into relief from out of the general wash of waters, and set to work. William Ernest Hocking, The Meaning of God in Human Experience
Friday, August 10, 2012
In March 2010 when I was nearing the end of my rope, I began to write an essay entirely for myself, trying to understand what I felt in my heart, if not in the rational part of my brain, that there was something “out there”, something that had tried to communicate with me. The writing became an obsession. Every morning I could hardly wait to get to the computer and even occasionally would delay making breakfast, much to my husband’s annoyance. Even though I had other writing assignments with deadlines, I would go to the essay first and have to tear myself away from it to do that other work. I had no thought of reading it to others, but one night after many months working on it and needing something to read to my writers’ group, I tried it out on them. I told my kids what I was writing and they asked to read it and as I read it to my writer friends, I realized I would have to revise it to make it intelligible to others. I would have to regularize the tenses because I had started writing it when my husband was alive and kept at it after he died. I would have to explain things that I myself obviously didn’t need to have explained. Would my experiences have any value for others, or were they entirely personal, happening to me alone, and might even be false or falsely remembered? I do know that at the lowest point in my life, I was compelled to write this essay, that wrestling with it sustained me. I will revise it, continue to read it to my friends or give it to those who ask for it, and let it make its own way in the world.