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Archive for September, 2009

Fecundity and Loss

September 2009

Normally, I have to wait for our dog Rose when we walk up the creek.  Normally, she ambles up the road, stopping regularly to sniff (my brother Ed calls it checking her pee-mail) and mark a spot.  She’ll chew some grass, maybe scramble in the brush for deer bones left by the coyotes; meanwhile, I wait.  But last Sunday was different.

It is the end of August.  On Saturday evening the last of our company—family and friends—left: on Monday, the first retreat person was arriving.  It was that turning of the year, turning from play and talking to silence and writing.  So I was in a nostalgic mood already.

It was also one of those days.  The wind down the draw was warm, but there was a hint of something else under it, a smell, a barely perceptible coolness that said autumn was coming.  I could see it all around me: the wild black currants were thick on the bushes, the blueberries almost ripe, the huckleberries and thimbleberries dried, and a few, very few, leaves beginning to turn.  I made my way up the creek grazing, picking handfuls of currants and blueberries which I shared with Rose, stopping to look and sniff myself.  This time, she waited as I drank in the path at every turn.  All the way up to the bridge, I felt gripped by that mix of loss and excitement that’s impossible to pin down; like Proust’s madeleine cookies, it is only to be experienced, not held. I savoured it and remembered first grade, standing in the neighbour’s back yard smelling ripe Concord grapes.  I was struck by the wild fecundity of the world around me, the thousands of seeds ripening, the sheer volume of the physical world’s joy that is expressed in reproduction.

I suppose I was in a reflective frame of mind because the day before, August 22nd, was the anniversary of my father’s death.  With eight children, I guess you could name him as an example of nature’s fecundity too; like some of the over-laden branches I saw, the experience came close to breaking him.  In my adult years, I see more clearly what a burden he carried and feel deep gratitude for his commitment to us.  I also see more clearly the ways that I resemble him, both in terms of the ways we strain and the things we relish.

One of my more joyful inheritances was my Dad’s love of wilderness: more specifically, all the edible bits of wilderness.  So as I made my way, berries in hand, up the creek to the bridge, I thought about how much he would have loved this place, and how happy he would have been to know that this is now my home.

That mixture of fecundity and death, munificence and loss, has been on my mind a lot these days.  I suppose it’s one way that I deal with my concern about the physical world and all the ways we humans are destroying it: I remember that even if we humans blow our chances here, this natural world has a drive toward exuberant procreation that will eventually rebalance the earth.  But I suppose that it’s also on my mind just because of the age I’ve reached and the inevitability of death.

In my meanderings around this question, I’ve felt drawn into an experiential knowing—not easy to say in words, but I can feel it—of the way that we human beings are part of the cycle of life and death, and how that all fits into the Holy.  As a physical self, we decay into mud and water, slide down into the earth or are drawn up into a tree; given off as leaf or spring up a well and are recycled again; become a turnip or tomato or algae and eventually are incorporated into another human or a marauding deer or a fish.  Our bits never quit being part of the cycle of life.  Even rocks have a life cycle, though it’s way longer than we can hold in view.

And as for our spirit parts, our soul, our us-ness: well, it seems to me that bit returns also, but this time into the cosmic soup from which it came, into the Divine One-ness that is Mystery and Balance and Harmony and Justice.

Part of the mystery of life, for me, is that fecundity of the natural world.  I can read all the scientific arguments about evolution’s drive to assure reproduction, but none of them prepare me for the sheer poetry of bursting pods or burdened branches, for the way my heart thumps and sings in the presence of this much-ness.  Nor am I prepared for the grief that comes with each death, from my father to the tomato plants that aren’t strong enough to the spider that I accidentally drowned in the shower this morning.  Even more painful are the deaths from famine, the bears shot in town because humans don’t take care of their garbage, the children dying of AIDs.

I suppose that this push and pull, this movement between the poles of joy and loss, are the essence of being human.  I believe that we are intended to treasure both the numinous experiences which make life bearable—the knowledge that we are indeed part of a bigger whole—as well as the flesh-and-blood experience which rends the heart with each loss.  Thomas Merton says this best, I think:

As long as we are on earth the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another.  Because of this, love is the resetting of a body of broken bones.  Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.

I’d like to note that it’s not just humans in this equation.  We also can’t live with the physical world—animals and plants and rocks and water—either without engendering and experiencing suffering.   We’re supposed to be mending things there, too—that’s what love of the natural world means.   As with humans, this is a seemingly impossible task which will break our hearts.

This is what it is to be human.  To deny either the mortal or the divine experience is to miss the point—to be confused about what this life really is; and to suppress either the mortal or divine experience is to miss the ride—to live life in neutral.

Much of how I’ve lived my life—and how most of us live—has been in trying to find comfort and safety, things that won’t die or fade, stuff that will continue to satisfy.  This actually doesn’t work, at all.  Clinging breeds compulsion and fear rather than satisfaction.  The whole message of Christ—and of most other religious traditions, as far as I can tell—is that we need to open our hands and hearts, to receive and to let go.  Forgiveness and food, shelter and love, all these abundant gifts are from God.  Death, loss, and pain are no less part of the gift, no matter how bizarre that seems.  To be fully alive is not to avoid the difficult bits but to live in the middle of them with open hearts, trusting that God’s deep inexplicable love and abundance is currently, and will finally and completely, fold us into the cosmic whole that is God’s Own Self.

For all this, I say thanks be to God.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2009