There is No Map
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions...For the god
wants to know himself in you.
- Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
A friend gave me a poem folded with a card for my most recent birthday. Marge Piercy wrote on being of use in the world:
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Her poem speaks to me of our drive toward usefulness, toward performing simple functions, akin to the vase made to hold corn, the amphora for wine and water. Simple work, simple function. So much of our sense of purpose can really boil down to being of use in this world and in that, of simple benefit.
The poem prompted reflection on how many folks I talk with who, in grappling with their dying, reflect on purpose and use and the worth that springs forth from feeling the clear presence of either or both within one’s living. This kind of reflection is a pulsation, bouncing back and forth, reading the contrasts. I see this as our human rhythm of knowing and integrating. We move sometimes fast, sometimes slow back and forth between the deeper deep dives and the shoreline. Ours is always a dual process as long as we are embodied. And Interestingly, the more we befriend and are aware of that, the more subsequently open we are, it seems, to the mystery that can invite us further beyond what we have known. That mystery can be exhilarating, liberating, daunting and frightening.
There is feeling useful and having purpose and then there is the opposite, the contrast. The poet Wendell Berry writes, “when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work.” When we no longer have a discernible or desired or familiar function, in whatever form - meaningful work, engagement, belonging, validating relationships, ways we feel we really serve, even the simple sense of doing things well and with skill - we meet different geography. This is harder to navigate because “doing” is often one of our fundamental reference points as humans, as is some sense of confirmation. Such is the validating fix that duality offers.
When we really look deeply, how do we navigate our own pulsing? Do we feel in our lives, threads of purpose? What happens when we don’t, when the road ahead is shrouded in fog and we aren’t sure whether we are about to tumble from a cliff edge feeling for the next steps forward, arms stretched out waving through the space around us. How do we handle the dream walks, where all there is are flirts and whispers and disparate impressions, where our sense of self, the identities that always seemed dependable, start to shift and bleed and blend and change color? How do we feel and see into this as our bodies change and degenerate, as we enter times of end?
I’ve had the surprising privilege of working with many men and women over 90 and some past 100. There are patterns I’ve noticed, many versions of people in their 90s sharing variations of “how did this happen and what is the point?” One woman, who will be 100 this summer, recently said to me, “No one gives you a map for this. No one offers instruction for this time” She was tired and baffled but very committed to finding a sense of usefulness, which at present is listening to lectures, engaging her curious mind. She also shared she does this as a conscious choice to not “dwell in loneliness.” She continued, “sometimes it works.” The pastel rings around her bright and tired eyes, relayed depths of thought and experience with no known designations but nonetheless transmitted oceans of meaning in mere moments of silent presence.
Wendell Berry wrote that "the mind that is not baffled is not employed.” The pulsation between use and bafflement, presents profound ends on a seeming spectrum. To be of true use is such a simple, loving drive and offering. So full of rich emptiness, the kind where we don’t get ourselves knotted up, we just do and be as an offering. Our whole living an offering, not a show. We don’t need to own or be seen. We trust our function, the integrity of what we offer. Use.
And bafflement, not knowing, less certainty in one’s footing, that too is full of benevolence. The benevolence of space, and of possibility. The real work seems to hint at our being more than we think and expect and overlay. So in all our dissolving versions of self and life and meaning, we are often still conscious in our own morphing shapes, in the labor of evolving. And that is a quiet rite and empowerment. In those deep times, any superficial concepts and beliefs, whether we knew them to be so or not, alight and disappear like tissue papers in a bonfire. We are then left with the pure elements of our being.
Our real work may be to not fight our own rhythms and in turn, in that gentleness, to welcome the simple use of being alive and the benefit of paying attention in our lack of control.
The Rilke stanza cited above is one of my favorites. Our “practiced powers", I have always felt to be whatever keeps us awake, whatever steadiness we know, whatever allows us to love and be genuine and loyal. We take those again and again and stretch them out so they span the chasm between all contradictions, which always meant to me seeing and knowing the pulsation of being never definite, never one thing, always a back and forth between, a morphing shape. And when we trust that movement more, live in those seeming contradictions, knowing that what appear as opposites can be true at once, “the god” can know herself, wisdom can breathe, we can trust our living differently and in that, implicitly trust our dying too. Same, same. And ever a work in progress.