05 April, 2009

Ontology/Repentance/Poetry

Today is one of those days in which I feel more human at the end of the day than I did when I began it. An ontological day. I am reading A Circle of Quiet for what may well be the one hundredth time, and L'Engle, my hero, uses that word a lot: ontology, the study of being. Today was absolutely an ontological day. This could partially be related to the fact that this weekend was General Conference, but I don't think so. I had various questions running circles in my mind, but the fact that General Conference addressed them was incidental. Conference addressed them, but Li-Young Lee answered them.

Don't try to interpret the above paragraph as meaning I did not get a great deal out of Conference. I most certainly did. The prevalent themes all related to me in some way: adversity, the Atonement, strengthening families, missionary work. Each one quite excellent. However, the one line from Conference that is running through my head even now is one I've been thinking about for quite some time.

In every arena of life there is a playing field, for better or for worse. Don't bother arguing with me about this because I have already made up my mind. The fact that there is a playing field does not by definition mean that those on said field are competing against each other, rather that they are all there, participating in a certain activity. Let's now imagine that Mormondom is a playing field.

For reasons I am still trying to figure out, I am in a giant hole in the middle of this playing field. I have always felt that while most everyone else on the field is running around, kicking balls or whatever, I must spend most of my time digging myself out of said hole, and filling it with dirt that so that one day, I will be on the same level as everyone else. This had yet to happen. Moving to Utah didn't do it. Serving a mission didn't do it. I like to think that getting married will even out the playing field for me, but something tells me that is wishful thinking.

I am unsure as to how I got in this hole in the first place. I used to feel it was because I had not been a member of the church for very long, which is no longer true. It could be because my family is unusual, or because something about me is strange, or because of choices I made in the past. I have honestly never figured it out. It bothers me, but obviously not the point where I am going to give up and stop trying. I even get some sick pleasure out of busting my butt trying to fit in and be good when everyone else seems to fit in so seamlessly. Well, they fit in or they get out. And then there's me, digging, ever digging. Always trying to make up for/punish myself for the bad things I've done, while keeping myself from doing more bad things, while remembering to do good things. It's exhausting and often feels like a losing battle.

At the same time, though, I don't know who I would be if I were not in this hole. Part of me feels that I wouldn't exist at all. That being on a different level than anyone else somehow defines me. So then, why do I keep digging? Am I going to be one of those characters in Dante's Inferno who keeps continuously striving for something without ever reaching it?

Anyway, today one of the apostles gave a talk which included this very line: "Those of you who feel that you have missed out on something because you have not been a member of the Church long enough, do not despair! The Church has need of you." The text of these talks is not yet available online, so I may be paraphrasing a bit. But that was the main gist. This brought me some comfort, but like I said, herein lies my main problem: I don't know who I am without that part of myself. The part of me that's a hopeless misfit. I can't say if it's nature or nurture, but I do know for sure that nothing I do seems to change it. I always thought that eventually I would fit into the Church without any effort, but if it hasn't happened by now, I don't think it ever will.

To name a minor, unrelated-to-salvation example, I try not to eat coffee-flavored ice cream, because I am afraid of how much I like it. Same thing with alcohol: I love it, and that terrifies me. I try to stay as far away from it because I am convinced it wouldn't take much to make me into yet another Koler alcoholic. Trust me, more of those we don't need. No one else seems to fear how far they could fall like I do. Everyone obviously has dark aspects to their personality, but not in the same way I do. Maybe they do and I just don't know. But being good and normal seems to come easier to others than it does to me.

It terrifies me, this infinite capacity for darkness. Yet at the same time, I feel drawn to it in others. Sylvia Plath's poetry is a good example. Tonight I was with some friends and we were sharing poetry that we liked. I shared "Daddy" and realized too late that this was a bad choice. The subject matter and language was too dark, too angry. They were filled with hatred and despair, which I why I love that poem and identify with it. But as soon as my friend was finished reading it, there was a long pause indicating no one else knew what to say. The subject was quickly, mercifully changed. To Li-Young Lee, in fact, which provided my answer to this dilemma. I am convinced that this man saved my life a few hours ago.

Li-Young Lee gave a forum address when I was a freshman in college, which I remember only vaguely. I remember enjoying the forum, but this speech did not have any crucial impact on me until I listened to it again with my friends earlier tonight.

Li-Young Lee talks of how breathing in, acquiring oxygen, relaxes our bodies, and exhaling ultimately leads to physical stress. He says that poets want to put as much meaning and depth as possible into every exhalation they make, which is why they write poetry in the first place. Packing meaning into every word, like Emily Dickinson (another person I identify with ... uh-oh). Nothing I heard in Conference today made as much sense as that one line, right there. Then he read one of his poems and I felt myself quietly crying. Because Li-young Lee manages to be sad and deep and ever digging out of some dark hole ... and yet beautiful, which is exactly how I want to be. He acknowledges that sadness without succumbing to it.

"Living With Her"

She opens her eyes

and I see.

She counts the birds and I hear

the names of the months and days.

A girl, one of her names

is Change. And my childhood

lasted all of an evening.

Called light, she breathes, my living share

of every moment emerging.

Called life, she is a pomegranate

pecked clean by birds to entirely

become a part of their flying.

Do you love me? she asks.

I love you,

she answers, and the world keeps beginning.


This poem made me believe that I can not only be forgiven continually, but that I can be good without losing who I am. That being familiar with darkness does not mean one has to submit to it, like Sylvia Plath did. That even those of us who are picked to death by birds actually become more than the results of what others have done to us. Maybe even that someone could have need of me because of (rather than in spite of) who I am.

This poem saved my life. That's all.


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