Sit down for a moment and listen, if you please. I have a few stories to share. Well, they’re not stories so much as footnotes on an unfinished canvas of a writer’s triptych.
In truth, I don’t fully understand what I’m about to share with you or even why these stories seem to me to fit together. I only know that these thoughts have been knocking persistently at the door of my imagination for some weeks now – clothed in their uncertain beauty, whole unto themselves.
Sometimes, the stories come alone – Jacob’s dream, Ferlinghetti’s “little charleychaplin man,” or, counting the 49 days. Sometimes, they come all at once, as in a parade, decked out in motley splendor.
Every time, something inside of me counsels not to let any of them go. To find room for their individual worth - their simple graces and wisdom. To give each of them ample space, out of respect and reverence. To pay close attention to the “foolish” ways they may guide and instruct, as a king would offer to the jesters in his court.
So, in this, my final post in The Breakroom before I retire from Caroline Center, I offer these footnotes to you as they came to me. Oddities of the imagination. Simple markings on an unfinished canvas.
Take them, if you will. One alone. Two together. Three if you please.
Panel #1 - Angels on a Ladder
And Jacob went out from Be’er-sheva, and went toward Haran.
And he lighted on a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them under his head,
and lay down in that place to sleep.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
And Jacob awakened out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. From Genesis 28:10-17
Along life’s journey, ‘going out’ of a place is not the same as ‘coming in’ to a place; but, the two may be distant cousins. We all go out from someplace to travel toward someplace else during our lives. Often, the journey starts simply. We travel along a horizontal earthly plane, where it’s possible to measure the distance from one place to the next. Along the way, we may, as Jacob was, be blessed to “light upon a certain place.” And, in so doing, come to realize that the place where we find ourselves has chosen us more than we have chosen the place. Should we tarry in a place long enough to dream and to see dreams fulfilled, then we may also discern that there is another dimension to the journey we are on – a vertical dimension, in which we may “behold a ladder” and “behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” Caroline Center has, for me, been such a place on my life's journey.
The art of the journey is nuanced. At Caroline Center, each woman's journey is honored as her life reveals its "uncertain beauty, whole unto itself."
Wherever life may take us, we should give and take of the blessings of that place. Wherever we find ourselves on the journey, we should seek out places of rest. But, we should take care not to rest too long or to sleep too deeply, knowing that each place, every rung on the ladder, has the power to awaken us from the slumber of inattention and inaction. Only then will we see what Jacob might have at first missed – that “surely the Lord is in this place.”
Panel # 2 - Climbing on Rhyme
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be
For he’s the super realist
who must perforce perceive
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward the still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
to start her death-defying leap
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spread-eagled in the empty air
– Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti came into the world on March 24, 1919. And, at 100+ years old, his worldly journey continues. In the 1950’s, Ferlinghetti went out from New York City toward San Francisco, where he “took of the stones of that place” to build City Lights Publishing. He wrote hundreds of incredible poems in everyday language that readers could actually understand. Nevertheless, for all of his apparent poetic transparency, I grappled hard with A Coney Island of the Mind when I first came upon it. The poem “Constantly risking absurdity,” in particular, was and remains, a powerful awakening.
Here's what I remember about my first encounter with Ferlinghetti's work. I was 15 years old. My final English class assignment was to give a rigorous explication of a poem of my choosing from a carefully curated, teacher-approved list. The work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, not surprisingly, was not on the list, which included the more predictable Shakespearean sonnets and Emily Dickinson verses; but, I was persuasive in making a case to my teacher for choosing his “Constantly risking absurdity.” So, on the appointed day, I found myself shakily standing in front of the class, giving my very first explication of a poem in my very best grown-up, teen-age voice. Under the most favorable of circumstances, I might have been accorded a polite courtesy - the tolerance accorded to a jester in the king's court.
Jacob’s dream and the ladder “with the angels of God ascending and descending on it” was an intriguing image that I had already encountered. Ferlinghetti’s ladder was something altogether different. With its feet planted on the earth and rungs for climbing on rhyme, the ladder reaches first to a self-constructed high wire upon which the poet is expected to perform flawlessly in the delivery of “taut truths,” before advancing even higher to a Platonic realm “where Beauty stands and waits.” All the while, in the performance of amazing lyrical feats, the poet meets the limits of his humanity head-on. Ferlinghetti’s “little charleychaplin man,” may or may not with his words be able to capture Beauty in her death-defying leap. Similarly, Jacob, with his head firmly on the stones of the earth, may or may not be too bound by his human nature to immediately and fully understand the mystical meaning that the ladder and angels in his dream hold for him.
One thing I know for certain is that “Constantly risking absurdity” was both a ‘going out’ and a ‘coming in’ for me on my life’s journey. Standing in front of my English class many years ago, as prepared as I could be, I was still “a little charleychaplin man.” In going out to an unfamiliar place of A Coney Island of the Mind, I felt the dizzying thrill of what it would be like to step out onto a high wire of one’s own making.
As I prepare for my next adventures after Caroline Center, I feel that same thrill of stepping out – of deep dreaming and sudden awakening; of coming into new places clothed only with the courage to “risk absurdity and death.”
Because of Caroline Center, I am more attuned than ever to the possibility of unlikely ladders, “set up on earth.” Ladders, like Jacob’s and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s, that hold simultaneously, the possibility of “taut truth” and the inevitability of angels.
Panel 3 - Counting Is Ascending
It is strange that I have been thinking of the Omer in December – as the Omer relates to the conscious counting of each day of seven complete weeks between the festivals of Passover in the spring and Shavuot in the summer, the time between the exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Like climbing on the ladder in Jacob’s dream or climbing on rhyme in Ferlinghetti’s poem, counting the Omer is also a way of ascending. When we count the Omer, we are quite literally rising up – marking the days from our going out from slavery to our coming in as a people of God.
Counting the Omer reminds us that in our ‘going’s out’ and ‘coming’s in,’ we also should be ascending. We must lift our heads from the stones where we have lain down to sleep. We must endeavor to climb higher and higher, even to the place where “Beauty stands.” And, we must constantly strive to increase in awareness, so that we come to know our full nature – that as humans, we carry the divine within.
As I say ‘farewell’ to Caroline Center, it is my hope that God will give me radiance in the days ahead. that he will grant me a full season of ‘going’s up,’ and myriad ways, as the verse in Isaiah teaches, to “go out with joy," and to "be led [in] in peace.”
My last post in The Breakroom is dedicated to my good friends at Caroline Center - lay people and sisters - with whom I have had the honor and pleasure of working since 2012. "A Farewell Triptych" is also dedicated to the most inspiring women that I will ever meet - our Caroline Center trainees and graduates - with whom I have had the privilege of sharing a special time of learning and growing. Finally, I want to make a special dedication to my amazing trainees in Class 64 - the bold and intrepid "Women of Empowerment." You are wise beyond measure; and, you taught me more than you will ever know. For this, and mostly in appreciation for the great women you are, I am forever grateful.