honor and a task

Posted by on March 19, 2014

Coming home to a lit window at night © 2014 Julia Mason Wickes.

Coming home to a lit window at night © 2014 Julia Mason Wickes.

Variation on a Theme by Rilke
             (The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1)

by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what I knew: I can.

* * *

“Eventually, many, if not most, highly sensitive people are probably forced into what I call ‘liberation,’ even if it doesn’t happen until the second half of life. They tune in to the inner question and the inner voices rather than the questions others are asking them to answer. Being so eager to please, we’re not easy to liberate. We’re too aware of what others need. Yet our intuition also picks up on the inner question that must be answered. These two strong, conflicting currents may buffet us for years. Don’t worry if your progress toward liberation is slow, for it’s almost inevitable.”
The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine N. Aron

I am reading a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person. Some of it is ho hum (I must be reaching my lifetime quota for these sorts of books–there is only so much more they can teach me), but other parts of it are decently illuminating. Like so many “studies,” it hones in to prove some pattern in human behavior that is arguably observable via life experience or common sense–like the “studies” that show that playing outdoors is good for children’s brain development. Duh-uh-uh. But I find that since I really do believe that children should play outdoors, I don’t mind there being a “study” to indulge and validate my sanctimonious sense of rightness on this and many other topics.

So I appreciate this book, because it asserts that there is a slim slice of the population that could be considered, in one way or another, “highly sensitive,” and that life for this percentage (it’s actually 20%) of the population can hold particular challenges. This is something I have always sensed, and now there is a study bearing that out. Eighty percent of the population is probably smirking at this (actually, they are probably not reading my blog at all), but I am getting– as a highly sensitive person embarking on the second half of life– too old to care.

Jeff and I recently watched the first episode of House of Cards because we have heard good things about this television series from a lot of people. I can see why people are impressed and drawn in, but I’m not sure I want to go on with this series. It was not just that Kevin Spacey plays a cold and creepy southern senator so convincingly, or that his wife is so creepy that her name should be something really obvious like “Malificent,” or that their marriage is like a well-oiled machine of quiet creepiness. What is difficult is just how easy it is to believe that the people running our country in D.C. really are– in all likelihood– precisely that creepy. The show was too believable and for that reason, scary. I did not like feeling the palpable presence of that cold vacuousness in my sacred, cozy home. I did not want those prying eyes coming through the screen, like a glare of unkindness and crassness that would belittle the whole of my life. It was just television, but I had a notion to pray the Psalms when it was over–something about people digging a pit and then falling into their own pit. Something about people weaving a net and getting caught in their own snare. I need to believe that, and, let me see, do I? I find that yes, I really do. The meek shall inherit the earth.

Maybe we’ll continue the series, if I can get used to the idea of having these creeps in my living room. I picked out this poem a few days ago and was going to write about how much I have loved being at home with my girls (all things, including some discouraging times, considered) for the last school year– how I have been, little by little, pushing the boundaries of my domestic skills and hobbies, and how that makes me feel happy and empowered. There is a chance– unexpectedly– that this might change for the next school year. There is a possibility that the girls might go to a school in the fall that I really admire, but it might also not work out, so I cannot really write about it yet with any certainty. But if it does work out, life will change again and become busier, and I won’t be at home so much. But this year has been good. I think the step into homeschooling was an exercise in self-responsibility on a level I have never tried before. Just being able to say to oneself, “I am responsible for my child’s education,” is a paradigm shift away from the statement, “I could never do that.”

There is something so easy and relieving about handing something– anything– over to an expert. And yet there is something so empowering and liberating about taking on the job with your own wits and strength. There is something beautiful about the word homesteading. And I think that many people are trying to move back toward that kind of independence and reclaim some of the skills that have been lost over several generations of industrialism, of handing almost everything over to a specialist, an expert, an assembly line.

Truly, I am thankful to live in a country that gives at least some space and freedom to make, at least to some extent, an experiment of independence, because I think that people need the space to make such experiments, to exercise and test what is possible through their own efforts. I find myself ideologically caught between believing in the good of social services, like public schools, and also believing in the human spirit of rugged individuality that needs a bit of breathing room and can only reach its potential when left to struggle a bit with the prospect of extinction or making something beautiful through tremendous creative effort. I seem to have a little anarchist inside of me cohabiting with an upstanding citizen. The upstanding citizen has every intention of cooperating and blending in with society, but I’m not always sure which one I am. The rebel in me keeps emerging and will not be snuffed out. This is probably all part of the plight of the highly sensitive person, “buffeted for years by these conflicting currents,” to paraphrase The Highly Sensitive Person.

As I stay quietly at home experimenting with sourdough bread, sewing, digging out a stubborn plot of grass where I plan to put a flower bed this spring, and sitting down making up math equations with base ten blocks with my seven year-old, it dawns on me that, for quite a while now, the theme of my life and the direction of my development has been this resounding voice saying: I CAN. And I am sad to realize that this voice was absent and underdeveloped through much of my childhood as I was shuffled through the public school system. I don’t mind admitting that for the time being, I am more than happy to have the government no closer to my living room than in the form of the image of an actor named Kevin Spacey.

Yesterday at our local garden center I asked the owner why I was not seeing any seeds for milkweed. I had planned to plant some in our yard this summer because it is beneficial to the monarch butterflies, who are struggling as a species right now and need assistance as they migrate north from Mexico. Milkweed is essential to their survival. He told me that they can’t sell milkweed seeds because the State of Missouri has labeled it a noxious weed. “But,” he added, “if you go off onto the byways near a train track or other place and find the plant in blossom when the pods are rattling…,” and he trailed off.

Poetry Wednesday

  1. Kate T.
    March 23, 2014

    I bought a five-gram packet of swamp milkweed seeds at a seed exchange when I was in Winnipeg last month. You are welcome to half if I can get them across the border in the mail!