Lens-Artists Photo Challenge: Surprise

The sudden sting of tears, unbidden. Grief leaking out along the edges of a prepared lid, supposedly clamped shut.

I have been surprised by joy often. Lately, it is surprising to find myself awakening to deep melancholy. I am not used to this. I think of myself as an optimist.

But I know that I live in a very protected world of my own design. I am educating myself intentionally. I am letting go of delusions.

“Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world…”

― Thich Nhat Hahn 

This morning, I awoke with a visceral feeling of sadness, of uncertainty, of betrayal and abandonment. I imagine it’s a response to the images and knowledge I’m absorbing through news media and films.

When emotions arise powerfully in me, I am taken by surprise. I was raised to regulate them with logic and religious faith. I have now learned to tolerate looking closely at them.

My housemate found a poem for me that helped me put the feeling into words. It is “Dover Beach”, by Matthew Arnold. 

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

“…Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, …awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world. If we get in touch with the suffering of the world, and are moved by that suffering, we may come forward to help the people who are suffering.”

― Thich Nhat Hahn

Perhaps surprise is simply the evidence that we live in a state of unknowing. We delude ourselves in order to shelter for a time in the idea that we are in control and can predict events and outcomes. The “cosmic 2x4s” of life will whack us upside the head from time to time and wake us up. It can be painful, surely. And it is beneficial as well. Once awake, we can acknowledge reality with greater perception and take actions that will be more specific and appropriate.  

“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

It is my hope and faith that the sunshine of awareness can transform the  devastation of our man-made storms into guiding visions of beauty and light.

May we awaken and become wise and kind.

Thank you, Ann-Christine, for inviting us to ponder Surprise.

Stressed for Success?

My very astute sister once pointed out to me that all stress is not created equal.  There’s daily stress, the normal result of a body functioning without rest for 16 hours or so, which is alleviated after 8 hours of sleep.  There’s distress, which gives us the feeling of being overwhelmed or upset by the amount of stress we experience, and then there’s eustress, which according to Wikipedia is “a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye which is defined…as stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfillment or other positive feeling. Eustress is a process of exploring potential gains.”  Examples of eustress could include climbing a mountain, running a marathon or sky-diving.  Or surviving a nautical disaster.

I was intrigued by a comment I read from one of the survivors of the cruise ship, Costa Concordia, that sank in the Mediterranean this past week.   ABC News reported:

‘Australian miner Rob Elcombe and his wife, Tracey Gunn, told Melbourne’s Herald Sun Newspaper they booked a spot on the Concordia as a last ditch effort to save their marriage.  Instead, the couple found themselves trying to save their lives when they boarded the very last lifeboat to leave the ship with survivors. “This has made our bond much, much stronger,” Elcombe told the paper. “Who needs couples counseling, when you survive a Titanic experience?” ‘

An adventure.   Stress worked into a feeling of gain.  Is it possible to turn your distress into eustress?

Peace like a river

Another news story I ran across came under this headline: Wife Slips Into Madness As Husband Dies of Brain Tumor. (ABC News)  Catherine Graves wrote a book called Checking Out: An In Depth Look At Losing Your Mind describing the distress of caring for her husband.  The headline rather sensationalizes an experience of overwhelming stress that is shared by a lot of people who find themselves in the role of caregiver.  I can relate.  I went through depression and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome during my husband’s illness and after his death.  Like Mrs. Graves, I was widowed at 45.  But did I lose my mind?  Not irretrievably, I don’t think.  Maybe what I’m doing now, being unemployed, slowing down, is my way of turning that distress into eustress.

There’s an old hymn that I’ve affectionately heard referred to as “The Playtex Hymn” (after the girdle).  The first line is “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word”.   It was written by John Keith in 1787.  My favorite verse goes like this:

“When through the deep waters I cause thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.”

For some reason, singing that verse always causes me to choke up with emotion.  I know how it is to feel like I’m drowning.  I have a gasp reflex that reminds me of this almost daily.  It shows up lightning fast in moments when my reptilian brain senses danger.  It first became noticeable when I was trying to teach my kids to drive.  I would gasp and grab the handle above the passenger side door at the slightest correction of the steering wheel or touch of the brake.  It happened to me again just this morning.  I was stacking packages on the table and the tower toppled over.  I gasped.  “I must be drowning!” I laughed.  It’s probably a rather annoying habit for those who live with me.   I appreciate their patience.

There’s another hymn that follows this theme.  “It Is Well With My Soul” was written by Horatio Spafford in 1873.  The story behind it is quite amazing.  In brief, according to Wikipedia:

“This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four, shortly followed by the Great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the SS Ville du Havre, but sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sailing ship, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone . . .”. Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.”

And here’s the lyric:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

I am trying to re-train my brain to believe that my deepest distress can be sanctified.  I don’t think this is an exclusively Christian perspective at all.  The Noble Truths of Buddhism are all about addressing the suffering (distress) of this world and how we think about it.   I hope that as I “explore potential gains”, my drowning will become floating, and all will be well with my soul.

Lord Have Mercy

Gospodi pomiluj.  That’s Church Slavonic for “God have mercy”, same as the Greek Kyrie eleison.  I remember learning a setting of those words in High School choir.  The entire text of the piece was just those two words, repeated over and over at increasing dynamic levels.  The suffering of the world thrown high to the ears of God.  There were moments in the opera last night (Boris Godunov) where this poignant plea rang out and reached my heart high in the upper balcony, but unlike a Puccini moment, it didn’t take full hold.  Why not?  Well, I could bicker about the staging, pointing out that the chorus milling about in the background distracted from the Holy Fool’s aria downstage left in front of the floodlight.   I could point out that the composer wasn’t really a professional and didn’t provide enough scene change music to set off these important highlights.  Others came in later (Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance) and tried to make Boris a bit more theater-ready, but the Lyric staged the original version.  But perhaps the more intriguing discussion is about the way Russian suffering compares to Italian – or Buddhist – suffering.

photo credit Dan Rest

This iconic Russian opera includes a large chorus of peasants, children, boyars (advisers), soldiers and priests.  Russia’s suffering is peopled.  By contrast, Puccini’s operas often concentrate on the suffering of one or two lovers.  You feel the depths of their grief in soaring melodies, cry with them, and feel cleansed.  (Think Butterfly, Tosca, Boheme.)  Russia’s suffering would never be so finite.  It’s pervasive.  The czar embodies this and its relentlessness drives him mad.  Well, that and hallucinations of a child he supposedly murdered.  But he cares about his people; he tries to feed them, and they still blame him for every want.  How do you find peace?

Buddhism addresses peace from the inside out.  It isn’t a peace that you could pass on to a population as their leader.  The best you could do is find it for yourself and try to be a role model.  It would be quite a challenge to maintain it as the head of a huge, suffering nation.  Would that be the Emperor of Japan’s story? Or China’s and India’s story?  Actually, the Met is currently showing Phillip Glass’s opera about Ghandi (Satyagraha).  It was simulcast in theaters this past Saturday.  Missed it, but hoping to see the encore screening December 7th.

Here’s another thought about nationalism and identity: there’s Mother Russia and the German Fatherland; what parental figure do we have connecting us to American land?  Uncle Sam?  Does that mean we are orphans?

I have to say that exploring and addressing my personal grief and suffering through Art is like taking a bitter pill with a large spoonful of glittering sugar.  Costumes, twinkly lights, gorgeously rich bass voices and sympathetic violins really take the edge off.  I appreciate the genius and consider myself enormously fortunate.   Thanks for the grace and mercy.  Oh, and I hope Erik Nelson Werner wasn’t badly hurt when he fell off the set in a hasty exit.