“[W]e do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies at the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch
This full-bodied ecstasy/tragedy/transcendence Eliot describes I read as a form of love, the petulant, senseless thing that makes us pay close attention to all words, gestures, and idiosyncrasies of the beloved to the point of being overcome with an intermingling of joy, fear, longing, and pain. What if the world in all its ordinariness appeared to us the way the beloved does?
I do believe this to be possible, especially during the times (for instance the pandemic) when for many love is in a kind of “fallow” season (to use as a metaphor the “fallow field”, the resting field which farmers leave unworked for a period of time to allow the soil to replenish itself).
It is the contention of this blog entry that love itself is a fallow land, a land of things growing invisibly, things in process, that will yield fruit, but in its own time and form, often counter to expectation, but as I trust in the way that is most beneficial, most needed for the soul’s ecosystem and equilibrium.
Love in “Special Relationships” and in the Wild Beyond
Earnest lovers, burning ones, bereaved ones out there, the pandemic has been especially hard on the heart, which has had to cope with grief, loss, and loves fleeting, or transforming beyond their recognizable species, all experienced within four walls, in the isolation, the quiet that does not necessarily translate into quietude.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it seems that many of my regular questions pertain to love, and my review of old favorite texts for teaching brings me into new and unexpected contact with it. I took special note, for instance, when the title character of Sophocles’ Antigone insists, “It is in my nature to join in love, not to join in hatred” (my translation of line 523 in Storr’s 1912 open access edition), when threatened with death as punishment for burying her brother in defiance of her uncle the king’s decree. The commentators who have assigned the motives for Antigone’s transgression to the political, or the incestuous are rather missing the mark, I think – why can love, in its undeniable simplicity, in its unrelenting demands for action, not be a heroic motivation (in Antigone’s case, for keeping the order of divine law)?
After all, love (whether philia for kin, in Antigone’s case, or eros for the beloved, as in the case of the discussion at Plato’s Symposium) is a blistering confrontation with the discomfiting aspects of human nature, the fallow, wanting ones that goad with invisible creative impulses.
There is something heroic about love’s catalyzing force, the peculiar systems of ethics it places in us in concert with its characteristic physical and psychological inflammation. Even if a love relationship ends or is not destined for fulfilment, there is something transformative, purifying (cognate with Greek pur, “fire”) in the internal experience of love, which can still be lived to its fullness, even if the specific relationship that conjured it is not extant.
For it is this stage of learning, lovers, where the going does get tough. When I was an undergraduate and fond of studying A Course in Miracles, I found a particular focus in that text on “special relationships”, and how it is so very human (and spiritually so) to imagine that a specific person, or a specific concept of God will fulfil one’s happiness and expressions of one’s best or most spiritual self, as the young Dorothea in Eliot’s Middlemarch is hoping from her marriage to the distinguished clergyman and scholar Reverend Casaubon (spoiler alert: she is disappointed).
But surely the passion of love is so consuming because it is made for more than those “special relationships”. It is made for more than all persons, and all beings. It is made for creation itself. Yes, a sweeping, far-reaching statement, and you are welcome to attribute this to my reading too many ecstatic poems, or sitting in too many kirtan ceremonies where we chant numerous divine names and devotionally embrace as many facets of the limitless sacred as possible in two hours.
Sometimes a good mindfulness practice, or in other words, the practice of slowing to the rhythms of nature immediate can render a capacity for tremendous feeling reminiscent of Eliot’s quotation with which I started this entry. And as I realized the other week on a beach walk, when I gave full attention to the sensations in my feet, to the sand and the ebbing tide, my heart ached with a new kind of openness for knowledge of the generosity and fecundity of life all around, far beyond preoccupation and care for any person or situation.
When unrequited, or left ignored, ignorant, and wandering, love is resourceful – it can work with all that the senses can deliver unto it, and transmute itself into an expansive place of knowing life, its beginnings, patterns of sustainability, and endings in all things.
Feeding Love in its Fallow Season
In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates’ teacher Diotima calls Love a daimon, a spirit that wanders the earth, perpetually longing and unsatisfied, always seeking beauty, truth, fulfilment – like the human soul.
So following this logic, anyone capable of loving, whether currently in a satisfying “special relationship” or not, is in a kind of perpetual “fallow season” of waiting, indefinitely, for something more to be experienced, or learned. If we believe Diotima (and her reasoning is hard to fault), Love destitute and desperate is the one that teaches, the one we can dance with, the one that can initiate us into wisdom, if we feel the proper measures of safety, courage, and curiosity on our side.
And so I have some of my own recommendations for all of us who choose to identify with the fallow season of love:
- Cast the ideal of the beloved, or the “perfect relationship/romance” into the heart’s fire. Let it burn there, and recognize that it might bear little resemblance to the actual person, or situation.
- Take your shoes off and stand on the earth. Smell, touch, listen to the conversations of the people around you. Notice the generations of life represented. Respect how they know love in their own ways. Observe with your heart.
- On the hard days, if it is safe, let the tears come, let the shoulders shake, let the throat be raw and the forehead scrunch up. Rock from foot to foot, and ask the feet to move in the way that is needed, that is kindest.
- Dance to your medicine songs. Mine currently include the works of Debussy, Kate Wolf, This Is the Kit, Gabrielle Roth, Simon and Garfunkel, and Krishna Das.
- Spend time with those who remind of your light, and be gentle with and undemanding of whoever is in front of you. They have hearts too, at varying stages of openness. Tend their light too.
- Read. Paint. Write. Draw. Dance. Sing. Cook. These are all reminders that the generosity and fecundity of life reside within you.
And sometimes the heart needs to close to heal itself. If you know it is in your best interest to retreat from exercises of heart, this is the right thing, for I agree with Socrates that lovers are moral philosophers – there is an ethics to the practice. And even if you dowse the flame of love for your own protection, there will be embers there, living below the dirt, waiting for the winds to turn…or, to use the fallow field metaphor, as that is where I began, there will be restoration taking place in those hidden spaces in the soil…
Abide, all loves who read this!
And enjoy a poem…
My Heart, an Altar to Love
It started with you,
who played your song on my lips.
and then you,
whose hands held my flesh, as if weighing clay
and then you,
who kissed the invisible place between my eyebrows
and then you,
who drained me of my body’s rivers
and then you,
who traced the outline of my ear under the moon
and now you,
who sing my praises like a reed in the wind.
But the winds have changed
you say I’ve lost the glimmer of your gaze
my ears have grown like my nose, in an ugly way
there is too much flesh to move between your hands
there is no moon that can make you want me anymore.
But still I burn, with this wilful longing
that belongs to none of you,
not even to myself,
the last form I could bear to love.
Even that has disappeared, like your shapes,
burned into ashes
on the altar of my heart,
where prayers go to seek
the world of God beyond, somewhere
until even the altar disappears
and I and God too,
and formless life is all that’s left.