At the tender age of 10, I wrote my first poem. It was a truly terrible one. It started off with these words, “I heard the coyotes howling one night. Howling to the moon so bright.” It went on to say something like the coyotes howled like this at the moon before any white men stepped foot in America, and I think it also said something about coyotes howling at the same star that the wise men followed. I am not sure how the star and the moon connect. Like I said, it was a terrible poem.
However, ten-year-olds can be excused for writing terrible poems. I remember I wrote it after waking up one night and hearing the coyotes howling. Hearing the eerie, lonesome sound, I lay there, moved by a longing I could not express. Why were they howling? What did they know that I didn’t know? Why did it move me so much? I needed to express what I felt and so I tried to write a poem about it. I think now what I wanted to say in the poem was that the coyotes knew of things that we didn’t, that they had howled long before I was born, and how it felt like they were steeped in some kind of ancient knowledge that I had no idea of.
As a child and also as an adult, I struggled with the way that beauty hurt. Why did a beautiful sunset dying over greening wheat fields pain me so much? How could a few words from a poem stir me with longing for something I never knew? Why did the stark beauty of November prairie grass framed by barren Osage orange trees haunt me with its images?
Ten years ago, when I was putting together my first book of poetry, Echoes of Eternity, Beulah Nisly kindly let me use her beautiful photos for the book. Beulah is my mom’s spontaneous yet thoughtful cousin, and a lover of beauty. Beulah loves to capture this beauty with her camera, and I first met her when we got together to discuss the photos for the book. After reading through my poetry, she suggested that I read C.S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory” and even printed it off for me to read.
I did and my heart leaped for joy when I read this:
That, I thought, “the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited”, that was why it hurts so much. It hurts because I can’t get enough of it. I can’t hang on to it. It is only the echo, the scent, the news that reminds me of that “something else” that waits for me.
That is why a road curving into the distance beckons my heart, why the moon rising on an October night over cornfields hurts me, why being alone on a misty mountaintop makes me cry, why rain falling on a gray day brings gives me a deep, delicious sadness, why the sound of the freight train mourning through the night makes me shiver with sadness and joy at the same time, why the words, “The eternal God is thy refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms,” resonates deep within me, why I listen to sad songs like Fernando Ortego’s “Now That You’re Gone,” or lonesome Chinese flute music or Gregorian chants of the Psalms or ancient Jewish songs. It reminds me of a place that I am going to, somewhere that I have not visited and yet somehow I carry the memory of that place imprinted on my soul.
Because of this, I was eager to read Bittersweet by Susan Cain after waiting for the book for months. Cain put even more words and clarity to what C.S Lewis began to explain for me. She talks about melancholy, longing or the “bittersweet,” how it calls to us, and how the desire it stirs up in us is a desire for the divine, even though she insists she is agnostic. She talks of embracing pain and an imperfect world, in order to find healing. She also discusses how sadness or pain triggers compassion and empathy for others, and how closeness to death makes us realize what truly important.
Cain writes, “We think we long for eternal life, but maybe what we’re really longing for is perfect and unconditional love; a world in which lions actually do lay down with lambs; a world free of famines and floods, concentration camps and Gulag archipelagos; a world in which we grow up to love others in the same helplessly exuberant way we once loved our parents; a world in which we’re forever adored like a precious baby…” This was in response to RAADfest, an event focused on anti-aging, radical life extension and physical mortality in which people who are determined not to die gather together for a seminar on advice on how not to do so, or that is the vibe I got from what Cain said. These people believe that if death were eradicated, then the inner selfish desires that drive us to survival would fade away as well, and humanity could be united. Cain writes, “And I believe exactly the opposite: that sorrow, longing, and maybe even mortality itself are a unifying force, a pathway to love; and that our greatest and most difficult task is learning how to walk it.” Cain argues that the fullest life is experienced when we embrace both pain and joy, death and life at the same time.
Cain also talks how we sometimes carry the pain of the generations past and how studies show pain from our ancestors can affect the way we are wired. I have often wondered about this, if some of the heaviness I feel at times is my own or from others. She talks about her own loss, how her relationship with her mother disintegrated as a teenager, and talks about dealing with loss and grief.
There is more, much more, to the book and I recommend it. I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, but I had it on a 2 week loan from Libby at a time when work and study and life clashed, and I had to read it in gulps. I don’t agree with everything Cain says, but it helped me become more aware of myself and that longing, and realize that much of my own poetry, especially anything printed in the “Heartsong” section of my book Dustbeams comes from that innate longing, that melancholy bittersweetness that Cain talks about. And perhaps why I even write poetry in the first place.
“All the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor…” of that that source of the longing that we feel (C.S Lewis, the Weight of Glory), the glory that Cain simply called the divine, and I call God. The writers of the Psalms felt it too in their laments of pain and songs of joy, and John when he penned the words, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
William Herbert Carruth wrote a poem called “Each in His Own Tongue”, which I discovered years ago and memorized a part. Some of the verses may be a bit controversial, but here are the ones I consider the best, and that rightly say what I am trying to say.
I think that the Preacher says it best of all,