Doesn’t this seem to be a time full of questions? Who, what, where, when, why, and how fly around inside and outside my head. Perhaps that’s why this new book crossed my desk and made it onto this blog: Book of Questions (Libro de las Preguntas) by Pablo Neruda. It’s visually stunning and verbally fascinating, and one of the few poetry books that’s ever been on back order immediately after publication (thanks, New York Times book review!). So let’s dive in…
Is 4,4 for everyone?
My thoughts in a few days. Why not add yours – just hit the comment button….
Pablo Neruda (Sara Lissa Paulson, trans.), Paloma Valdivia, illustrator; Book of Questions (Libro de las Preguntas); Brooklyn, New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2022
It’s on the corner of Center and High streets, a lovely brick building that once housed the town library. The morning sun slants in the windows, creating an airy space within; the afternoon sun glances off this side window, and mirrors the dazzling sun-on-waves found on the river just down the street. There is a grace to this old building, and the town is made more beautiful for it.
But give it more than a passing glance and the neglect cannot be overlooked. The bricks are no longer held fast by mortar; it’s only a matter of time, and not a lot of it, before whole sections are sheared off by the erosive effects of weather and age. No matter how well constructed this building was, regular care and maintenance are necessary to keep it solid and safe for use – regular care that was withheld for at least the past twenty years.
In this building, I see the beauty of craftsmanship, a structure built to serve this town for hundreds of years. In its disrepair, I see a town’s lack of respect for its own inherited history and beauty. There’s a stinginess to withholding basic repair to save a few dollars, and a lack of understanding that routine maintenance is necessary for all things.
I hope the town invests in this building, restoring it to serve as a resource for decades to come. But leaders unwilling or unable to recognize the necessity of routine maintenance aren’t likely to invest in an expensive restoration.
If leaders cannot see the necessity for investing in what is right before their eyes, what are the chances that they will invest in the intangible and sometimes invisible elements that foster communal life – services for the elderly and poor, resources for the very young, and the preservation of the local environment and all that live therein?
A sculpture in stone: a woman walking in a beautiful green space. Unless something happens to knock her over, she will be standing amid the green long after I’ve left this life. She’ll be worn away by the elements, but that will take a very long time – a gradual blurring of her features and her skirt folds. She may even outlast the tree above her. For decades to come, she will offer everyone who passes the chance to stop walking just long enough to meet the beauty this world offers.
I am not made of stone, and I have changed from a newborn baby to nearly retirement age in these past fifty-seven years. I won’t get the chance to experience everything I’d like before a stone marks my grave, and I won’t appreciate all the experiences I did have as much as I should. But I recognize the holy privilege of drawing breath for a brief span of time, and the wonder of walking in this green place.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Psalm 19:13, NRSV
Keep back your servant also from proud thoughts – the alternate translation of that first part of the verse. This isn’t a prayer for God to keep me away from the insolence of others: it’s a prayer to God that I don’t become insolent. But, as like attracts like, if I hang with an insolent crowd I’m probably guilty of the same vice.
Proud thoughts (the ones that make me see myself as comparatively better than others) aren’t the same thing as self-confidence or self-love. Proud thoughts are those internal conversations that demean others so that I can feel inherently superior. They shrink my soul even as I diminish the worth of others. There is no doubt: this is a great transgression. Evil comes easily from such thoughts.
The Buddhists list right thought as one of the chief elements in a holy life. This is having the right perspective more than it is the lack of thinking mean thoughts. Their point is that everything else springs from this basic starting point. Wrong thoughts cannot lead to right judgement, speech, or action – harm will come from the wrong perspective, damaging others or damaging self, and often both.
Perhaps there’s no better way to avoid proud thoughts than asking for God’s help. Knowing I cannot rely on my own strength of character, and knowing I can rely on God’s love, is a good starting point.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
[For the whole psalm, click “Psalm 19” above.]
Anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics to a god, animal, or object.
It’s frowned upon, this attributing human characteristics to non-human entities. It’s considered naive at best, woefully ignorant and dangerous at worst. This is something children do because they don’t know any better.
But poets do the same, as do holy women and men. Metaphorically, perhaps, but they do it. And our lives our better for it because we find ourselves in relationship with beings and things we would never be otherwise.
The sun rising like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, finding joy in the daily run across the sky. The cosmology might be a bit off, but the gist of it is true: there is nothing in this entire creation that isn’t connected in one way or another.
It’s better to see in the arc of the sun a living spirit than to look upon this creation as nothing but a collection of objects without purpose or soul.
It’s something my grandmother used to say, a truth that’s been handed down three generations and beyond. Life isn’t easy, but it isn’t meant to be awful. Difficulties are a given, and times of trouble and sadness are just part of life’s fabric; so is fun, joy, and satisfaction. Work finds its counterpart in play, tears in laughter, boredom in fascination.
This old world holds so much, as does the world within. You aren’t made for unending misery: you are made for joy. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
“I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
Hebrews 8:10b-11, NRSV
Are you enough? Are you loved, and lovable? Do you know, REALLY know, that God delights in you?
YES is the true answer: you are enough, you are loved and lovable, and you are a delight to God. Know this, accept this, inscribe this in your head and on your heart. This is the law of love that guides life and gives us all we need to embody love in our outer actions and inner thoughts. We won’t do it perfectly, and we might not always do it happily, but we can and will do it. And that, my friend, is reason enough to rejoice.
Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
May you be content with yourself just the way your are.
No one is perfect – it’s one of the larger truths of life. No one gets the right answer every single time, perfectly executes a new skill on the first try, or embodies physical perfection. Some sing off key, others can’t draw a recognizable figure. Some can’t cook, some can’t organize their schedules or living spaces. Some show up too early, some show up late for everything. Imperfection is everywhere – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. No one is perfect.
But perfection isn’t the point, and seeking perfection is an exercise in frustration if not futility. None of us are expected to be perfect by God, and none of us should expect perfection from ourselves or others.
To remember that perfection isn’t the point, I ask myself a single question: Today, am I someone who tries to love God, myself, and my neighbor? If I my answer is yes, I am content.
There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and people can like you exactly as you are. Mr. Rogers
May you use the gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
Everyone is born with unique gifts and deserving of deep love. Everyone has something to offer their small part of the world that no one else can, bringing new realities into being. But it takes encouragement and courage to offer your gifts to the world. Often, they seem so small, so limited.
That’s where the second part of this benediction comes in…
Pass on the love that has been given to you. If you haven’t been loved as deeply and broadly as you deserve (and you do deserve such love!), let God’s infinite love fill your heart and pass that on. Gifts alone aren’t enough; gifts offered in love are.
It’s one of the great mysteries of life, and one of the most obvious. It’s amazing how easy it is to overlook.
May you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
Why am I here, at this particular place in this particular time? Why this family, these friends, this fragile and ephemeral life?
You and I are exactly where we are meant to be, not because these particular circumstances are just rewards or punishments. We are exactly where we are meant to be because we are always and eternally in the embrace of God.
Life could have been different, but it isn’t. We are exactly where we are supposed to be because it’s only from this exact spot that we take up our lives. It’s only in this exact here, this exact now, that you and I can love God, ourselves, and each other.