When I am feeling thin, exhausted, less than interesting in engaging in the visible world – I look to both nature and poetry to rekindle my inner fire and remind me how precious and brief this life experience is…to receive both the joy, the challenge and the mystery. Poetry carries all the layers of life for me. Simplicity and complexity – rawness and refinement. David Whyte’s words continue to be a touchstone – he speaks here about Exhaustion, which so many of us feel from time to time. Exhaustion is felt in the physical, but cuts so much deeper than the tissue. We need to include both – both tissue and soul.
Crossing the Unknown Sea (excerpt)
by David Whyte
You have ripened already, and you are waiting to be brought in. Your exhaustion is a form of inner fermentation. You are beginning, ever so slowly to rot on the vine.
The dark bottle stood there in preparation for a guest I would be seeing that night. I dropped into a chair and looked at the unopened bottle and the sea and the sky for a very long time. I could feel how utterly exhausted I was in body and spirit, and how much I needed to talk with someone, anyone, but also how marvelous it was that the person arriving to share that bottle had exactly the kind of perspectives I needed at that moment.
I could see Brother David already in my mind’s eye, sitting across from me with the glass of wine in front of him on the coffee table. A book of Rilke’s poetry balanced on his knees. He was reciting Rilke in his rich, Austrian inflection, the sounds emanating not only from deep within his body but also from far inside some powerful understanding mediated by long years of silence and prayer, Brother David was my kind of monk; no stranger to silence but equally at home in the robust world of work, its words, and its meanings. He also loved poetry with a passion similar to my own, and exhibited a far-reaching intellect and a far-reaching imagination in its exploration. You might be impressed by his extraordinary capacity for compassion, but it did not mean he would let any unthinking assertion pass him by without a challenge or a clarification.
A few hours later, Brother David was indeed sitting in that empty chair. The bottle framed by darkness now in the window, and the cork sitting next to it. He was turning the pages of the Rilke book with one hand and sipping from his glass with the other. I had a second copy of the book but it sat on my lap unopened. After the first sip of cabernet, I felt as if I was in a deep well of fatigue looking up toward a tiny ellipse of light flickering at the surface. I felt as if the tiny light might disappear altogether and the waters flow over me if I didn’t say something soon. I looked at Brother David, whose eyes had just lit up with the discovery of a poem to begin our evening, and heard him begin to read.
Diese Mühsal, durch noch Ungetanes
schwer und wie gebunden hinzugehn,
gleicht dem ugeschaffnenGang des Schwanes.
I found the poem in my own book and read, on the opposing page, Robert Bly’s marvelous translation.
This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.
-Translated by Robert Bly