“Faith and love are apt to be spasmodic in the best of minds. We live on the brink of mysteries and harmonies into which we never enter, and with our hands on the door-latch we die outside.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
I recently heard someone quote these words by Ralph Waldo Emerson and realized how truly powerful they are. Much meaning is contained in these spare phrases.
As with many well-crafted aphorisms and words of wisdom, there are many levels of meaning. In the final analysis, death is the final door through which we pass, and through which we well may go without understanding what the passage means. We’re too wrapped up in the crux of mystery to have the necessary perspective.
Regardless of all the layers of meaning, I like the metaphor of the hand on the door-latch. To me it calls out from the brink of possibility. I’d like to think there are certain other passages and other doors that are accessible – like the doors of self-development, spiritual exploration, intellectual awakening, a fulfilling relationship, sharing in shaping the growth of others, building self esteem in ourselves and others, becoming self-actualized, or at least setting out on the road. The sad reality is that too many of us not only don’t approach the door, or die with our hand on the door-latch, we don’t even start walking to find where those doors are, those doors that may open to fulfillment and growth. We don’t make a plan, we don’t chart a course, we don’t even set out. We don’t even realize there is worth in these activities. We engage in passive living. We sit in our comfy chairs, or cruise in our comfy cars, we listen to music with lyrics we can’t always understand and watch TV shows that advance our growth on this planet not one iota. Is it any wonder there are so many mid-life crises? So many “aha” moments in middle age where we have an inkling there might be more and panic because the getting there seems impossible and no one is in sight who might be able to help?
In 1997 I wrote a poem titled “Passive Living,” so I have been thinking on different aspects of this issue for awhile:
I don’t know whether to slap you or cry
for you, costumed like some chic Twelfth
Night mummer, spouting bleeding heart
liberal idiojabber while dolloping oatmeal
and brewing fragrant coffee in a homeless
shelter, funded by United Way leftovers.
But you are really just sipping Maya
Angelou through a straw.
I would rather you plunged in with greedy
lust and broke off great raw hunks of
crumbling housing projects, Godzilla-esque,
and slurped as you ate with your fingers
while the juices ran down your chin and
stained your shirt.
But, sans insights into the potent mythos of
a parallel universe, you will probably just go
home and read about the latest bombing of
an abortion clinic in “Time,” and then pen a
letter to the editor of the local paper about
the pros and cons of school uniforms to quell
violence in the suburbs.
Yet in a dream you are visited by Rosa Parks
with sad eyes. She holds out a courageous frail
hand to you and asks you to dance. You smile
and serve her oatmeal and ask if she takes
cream in her coffee.
The point of the poem is that sometimes we go through the motions of being involved in life, we may even volunteer for worthy causes, such as helping out in homeless shelters or in soup kitchens. But sometimes we do it without being really involved or committed, or because it is the trendy thing to do. And it doesn’t change us or grow our souls. Or we read good poetry or literature, but miss the point, or read it because it is on the best seller list so we can say at a social function “yes, I’ve read Maya Angelou’s poems.” That is what I call “sipping Maya Angelou through a straw.” It is socially dainty, you may be “in”, but the activity is not nourishing. I’d rather people be engaged with gusto in whatever it is that they choose to do, like eating ripe strawberries or watermelon and slurping up all the sweetness unabashedly while juice drips from your elbows. And the dream about Rosa Parks is an invitation to be involved in the dance of life, to become active and take a stance. But the dreamer misses the point of the invitation and responds with some trivial comments. And of course Rosa Parks took a brave stance, but the dreamer doesn’t recognize who she is, let alone her singular contribution.
I’m one of those people who, although I’ve realized some growth and some successes, could still kick myself for not doing more sooner—I don’t berate myself constantly, but now and then those “if onlys” come out of nowhere and land on my head. Why didn’t I write more and earlier? Why didn’t I seek out more meaningful relationships when I was younger? I realize it is part of the “getting older” thing, and this epiphany is not unique to me. A lot of baby boomers are coming to the same realization all over the continent. Maybe that is why so many boomers are obsessed with health and youth at this juncture. If they stay fit and healthy, there is still hope for more life, more joy, more living and more fulfillment. There remains hope that some doors still might still be opened.
In order to set out on paths toward these doors, you first have to wake up and be aware, to take stock, to be purposeful. You can be purposeful in doing, accomplishing both big things and little things. I once wrote an essay about an aunt, a nun, who was memorialized by her peers as “doing little things well.” I thought that a paltry tribute to 99 years of life. Yet, when I reflected on it, I decided you could do worse. After all, some of the things that Mother Teresa, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama did were small, yet they forged large legacies because their small acts were passionate, real and purposeful. And of course the Dalai Lama still has more time to do valuable work. Purposeful behavior, even small acts, done well and with awareness, strengthens humankind, reinforces a commitment to life on the planet, and adds color and depth to the canvas of life. Even if it is splotchy and short of a masterpiece, I say it has value if done with fervor. It is a failure to act, to be too timid to begin, that I find really sad.
Is it folly to want to find the right door to a few dreams while I still have some time? I’d like to think that with some luck and maybe some work, I can turn the door latch and go in and experience the wonder. And even if the visit is short, I will be glad I got there, and savor the richness of the room even if the mysteries aren’t all explained. I hope the awe will be palpable. And in the process, I hope I remember to savor the journey that brought me there.