a hidden life
I missed poetry Wednesday, but since I did start writing something yesterday, I thought I’d finish it up today anyway. A poem came to my mind which is actually just an old anthologized thing by William Wordsworth. I remember reading it in a high school English class. It’s a pretty enough poem but the reason it came to my mind now is because since Lent began I have been giving a lot of thought to this old fear of mine. This poem frightened me a little bit when I read it as a teenager and now I am asking myself why.
She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove.
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love;
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eve!
Fair as a star, when only one
is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!
* * *
I do love the name Lucy because it is the name of both my sister and my now departed grandmother. But that aside, I remember that the poem captured my imagination in a sad and somewhat horrifying way. I think it was the very idea of a “fair maid” living and dying in total anonymity, with no one to remember her, that made me sad. It is a part of a cluster of poems by Wordsworth called “the Lucy poems,” and historians can not really identify who Lucy actually was. Well, naturally, given that she was a half-hidden violet obscured behind a mossy stone. I remember picturing that image vividly– a beautiful flower hidden behind a stone, and thinking, “What a horrible shame.”
A few nights ago my husband and I watched a documentary archived on the PBS Frontline website. It was called “The Merchants of Cool,” and it was about how major corporations fall all over themselves trying to stay ahead of the cool curve in youth culture so that they can then market and sell cool back to teenagers, who can basically be counted on as a major source of revenue because of their uniquely large disposable income. Companies hire experts in cool to shamelessly scout out the most current yet ever-elusive definition of cool so that ads and products can be produced accordingly. This creates an oddly cyclical pattern in which it is not clear whether youth culture is spawning the marketing campaigns or marketing campaigns are spawning and defining youth culture. It was incredibly strange and sad to be presented with all of this and made me fantasize about relocating our family to the mountains in Romania, beneath the shadow of an Orthodox monastery, in order to opt out for the sake of my two little girls.
There was a segment about typical young girls, whom the industry types as “midriffs,” and who are apparently desperate to flaunt themselves, desperate to be noticeable and noticed. Now in my thirties and living far away from all of this in my own enclave (no doubt another distinctly American problem), I admit that I never really think about teenagers, particularly the ones dubbed typical, and what they do or care about. But I did attend big public schools in Orlando, Florida from K to 12, and although I graduated in 1995 when all was still grunge and pre-Brittany Spears, I have to say, I got enough youth culture in high school to last me a life time. The cool scouts from MTV would have found my high school fertile ground indeed for further programming ideas. Every morning before first period a song would play over the PA system– usually Stone Temple Pilots’ “Black Hole Sun” or something highly uplifting like that.
But thankfully it’s been a while since I’ve had to really think or care about quote-unquote youth culture. How embarrassing and ridiculous it is that I ever convinced my parents that I needed to own a certain pair of shoes (several certain pairs of shoes) or that, upon buying a new pair of jeans, immediately felt compelled to take scissors and cut off the bottoms, then wash them to make a raw edge. It’s inevitable, I guess, but still very annoying when you think of all of these corporate CEOs–freaks of nature with no moral conscience–carefully harnessing and steering these notions of cool in order to get very, very rich.
I would recommend this documentary, even though I think that it did not present an entirely balanced picture. It simply is not true that every teenager is the sort that would participate in the debauchery of a Daytona Beach spring break, is it?
But what I have been thinking about since Lent began is just this basic fear of being unknown, which I think is partly a universal human fear but maybe a distinctly American fear, because sometimes it seems that everyone is in a great, desperate competition to be known and noticed. I am not really a showy person. I have certainly never deliberately exposed my midriff in public. But somehow this worldview had already burrowed a place inside of me in some form by age sixteen: that to be unseen, unheard of, and unknown was to almost not exist, and carried with it a certain horror.
I thought of this while watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, because it was so showy and forceful, and seemed contrary to what I think of as the Canadian disposition. The message about Canada being great was put forth rather aggressively. I personally do think Canada is plenty great. But part of what I always liked about it was its seeming quietness and introversion in contrast to America’s bombastic personality as a country. I just wonder if perhaps the showy and voyeuristic nature of American culture, which produces every kind of disgraceful reality show and cannot keep anything secret for very long and most especially feels compelled to drag out a talent or remarkable quality into the public eye just as soon as it is evident, is rubbing off on all of our neighbors.
Last fall I read a book called Exploring the Inner Universe, which is more or less an interview with Archimandrite Roman Braga, an elderly Romanian priest who now lives at the Orthodox women’s monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan. He suffered years in prison under the communist regime in Romania and speaks about his experience. One of the things that he said that stood out to me was how intolerant the communists were of Orthodox monks because they would not openly talk about their inner life. They would just go about their business, their prayer, their routine, in silence and obedience. They had an inner peace which they guarded and would lose if they spoke about it, so they simply kept quiet. Father Roman emphasized that what the monks had was actually very simple– silence and obedience– but because they wouldn’t talk about it freely and yield their inner life into the open they drove the communists crazy and filled them with hate.
It was strange for me to realize that to some degree I also possess that same impatience with with silence and mystery and perhaps have exercised the same aggression toward others. I want to talk and I want others to talk to me; I want to be known and to know. I am a total sucker for facebook. Obviously there is nothing unnatural in wanting to know and be known, except maybe when it is forced instead of just allowing disclosure between yourself and others to come in its own time and way, as a gift from God, rather than in this aggressive, voyeuristic way that we are so accustomed to we hardly even know it.
I remember a discussion in a class at seminary about why, at Orthodox funerals, we pray, over and over again, that a person’s memory be eternal. “Memory eternal, memory eternal, memory eternal,” goes the hymn. The professor of liturgy said: “It’s because if God forgets you, you cease to exist. You could walk out of here today and get hit by a car; your time on this earth is up. But if you cease to exist in the mind of God, you do not exist at all.” So like the thief we pray: “Remember me O Lord, in thy kingdom.”
I just finished this really good book by Roberta Bondi called Memories of God. I cannot say I agree with all of what she is saying theologically in this book, but I really enjoyed it and learned so much from it as a memoir of how her own belief in God developed from childhood. The surprise came at the end when she writes about the death of a beloved aunt who was not really talented or remarkable in any way, and who passed out of this life without really much of a splash. Then as a reader you realize that the title is not meant to indicate her own memories of God, but the memories which belong to God– God’s memories of us–and how we are held in existence by them. Our worth is not measured by any worldly hierarchy or criteria. We slip beneath the world’s hierarchy and find peace there.
So, thankfully, I am not of the same mind now as I was at sixteen in my cowardly panic at the thought of the unknown maid that lived and died in anonymity. I am thinking this Lent about the monk or nun who has the courage to be silent and hidden.