(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, June 6, 2015)
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have
Not universal love
But to be loved alone
— W.H. Auden
CHARLESTON, S.C. ✦ We’re in the ocean, waves crashing at our knees, salt on our lips, my daughter and me and all these poets in my head.
My daughter (today she turns 12) laughs and dances and spins in circles and says, “No, Daddy, don’t take any more pictures. Just come and run with me. Enjoy the moment.”
In this, Elizabeth becomes a poet herself, like many children, showing that she knows something about the art of living as much as the art of any pen.
This is it, our long-awaited dad-daughter trip, Day 1, a visit to the beach with our American hosts and friends who we first met in Africa.
My wife is another member of our family who may not know much about, say, Rilke, but who lives life as if it were a poem. She freely shares a certain love, one that, as Rilke put it, is clear and binding, but releasing too, even as she freely shows it when I occasionally leave with one of our other children for special time alone.
It’s hard to know what anyone could do to deserve this particular love or to be in this particular family. It’s a family that’s not perfect — have you ever heard of the (lying) perfect family? — but we’re a travelling gaggle of souls, even with our baggage, who have been spared the hard pain of separation that’s so common in our time.
And so we, my daughter and I, are in the water and then we’re on the ground here in Charleston, this place that drips with history, where we run against the waves of the Atlantic and collect memories like they’re sea shells, where we visit old slave plantations and ostentatious colonial mansions, where we hear old voices and try to put it all together.
The first shot of America’s civil war was fired here in Charleston, in South Carolina, the South of the South, the first state to secede from that divided family of America. This is why I think of it all, because this is a nation’s history, yes, but it’s more.
It’s an echo of any brokenness, of any family, of anyone who knows the horrible truth that brother can kill brother, that sister can maim sister, that mother or father can do as much in their own unspeakable ways, that you or I or anyone, if nothing else, can simply be a family’s grand disappointment.
It was John Donne who said that no man (we’d add woman or child) is an island, that we’re all part of the main. For better or worse, we’re all stuck in this human brokenness together. As war and bitterness can touch one, it can touch all, even as peace and healing can also touch.
In another way, though, it seems like we’re all islands, strewn and scattered here and there, so very separate in our brokenness, cast together only in a common sea, but still each alone, each of us craving to be loved … alone.
Every trend and pressure from the outside says no, don’t think about this frightening reality. Here, go preoccupy yourself. T.S. Eliot — “we’re distracted from distraction by distraction” — would surely be speechless today, a century later, in our mechanized and digitized time when it’s more desirable, if not easier, to be loved widely by many (and that’s not love) than to be loved deeply by a few.
Maybe one day we’ll better understand this, what these dead poets are still trying to say. Maybe we’ll grow up and fight off these pressures, not because everyone is doing it, but because nobody is.
Maybe one day I’ll grow to do better than just rhyme off poetic words on a page, I’ll better live out this rhythm of grace myself, even as I hope that you will.
Maybe then we’ll save something of ourselves, if not our families, if not society, if not civilization itself. And on the journey we’ll grow young and have that much more of the kingdom of heaven inside us.