Sunday, January 29, 2023

Dismantling the Fortress

“In everything that yields gracefully, there must be resistance. Bows are beautiful when they bend only because they seek to remain rigid. Rigidity that slightly yields, like justice swayed by pity, is all the beauty of earth. Everything seeks to grow straight, and happily, nothing succeeds in so growing. Try to grow straight and life will bend you.”  - G.K. Chesterton


I was in sunny Australia when the torrential rains in California came. When I returned, the rains had ceased, but I could feel the sense of the air being cleared and the plants sparkling and the whole atmosphere washed clean. Maybe weather— the torrential storms, the constant rains, the gale-force winds, the calm and warm sunshine— is simply the gods venting their anger, weeping their grief, shouting their outrage and then tenderly rejoicing. Maybe Nature’s emotional life is not so different than us humans— or the other way around. Our own need to roar, shout, weep, whine, cry, cry out, cheer, exult is simply the way human nature and Nature are connected. 


A friend asked me how I was recently and I answered with the news of all the things I had been doing. He rephrased: “No, but how are you?!” I had to pause and look inside and realize that I had neither been tangibly happy nor sad, just kind of coasting along in a way that I often don’t. I couldn’t place my finger on what was missing. Until last night.


That’s when I realized that it had been a long time since I wept. A long time since my whole body shook with sobs. I’ve often followed Albert Camus’ advice—“Live close to tears”— but for whatever reason, not so much recently. Until last night. How good it felt. How necessary. It was short but enough to clear the inner sky and open my heart a bit wider. 


The catalyst was the film “A Man Called Otto.” I had seen the original “A Man Called Ove” and read the book, so I didn’t expect many surprises. But the surprise was how deeply it moved me. “Rigidity that slight yields, justice swayed by pity”— that captured a bit of the kind of transformation that always gets to me, the kind of story I love most, the one you encounter sometimes in fiction (Dickens’ Dombey and Son, for example) and yet so rarely in real life. Those moments when a life lived like “a mighty fortress is my God,” the perpetual building of stone walls around the heart to protect it and in so doing, walling off all available joy, beauty, love— and then, a chink in the armor and some of life in all its terror and glory enters. 


Otto is a man already on the run from his emotional life, happier working with dependable machines who only need correct assembling and vigilant maintenance to work correctly, dependably, with no surprises. His heart opens when he meets the love of his life and tenderness, happiness and beauty enters. And then life throws more harm and hurt at him than any human being should have to suffer and the doors to the heart slam shut, leaving nothing but anger at the universe, a rigid routine demanding that all around him follow the rules, a constant simmering rage at life and his fellow creatures. He wants everything to “grow straight” and life keeps bending him, disappointing him, enraging him further.


It's easy to blame him, but would I do any better? Do I do any better? We all build some kind of protection around our heart because loss is everywhere— if not now, it will come and dammit it, it hurts! Me, I start each day in the predictable way cards fall in my Solitaire games—or rather, the ways I can manipulate them no matter how they fall to try to win the game. Then the solid letters in the Crostic puzzle that eventually always make sense and tumble into place. I decide how much of the daily news I let trickle in according to what I think my heart can take. I notice which old hurts and betrayals are still circulating in my mind and choose whether to feed them, try to ignore them or sit with them and listen to what they have to teach me. 


In this way, I am intimately connected with each and every one of my fellow beings, a fellow traveler trying to make my way through the forest of grief and loss and impermanence. The only difference between me and Donald Trump is the choices we make about feeding our fury and fear or our forgiveness of the foibles of both ourselves and others. And this is where a lifetime of dedication to music has helped enormously, the way a simple diminished chord in the right place can unleash a shiver of beauty and a torrent of tears. 


And so Otto meets some neighbors who slowly chip away at his fortress and bring him back to a life where his small simple gestures of kindness take on Biblical proportions of redemption. And reminded me to keep in touch with the unspeakable beauty and heartache of this life we have been granted, to remember both laughter and tears, to dismantle my own citadel and keep the heart open. 


It is Sun-day and the air is clear, the sun is shining, both inside and out. 


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