Monday, July 15, 2013

Altars: a poem

Depression is a load of rocks,
a memory you can't lift from your mind
of a walk through a suburban man-made park
when you thought you'd never function again.

It's the weight of these memories,
those times when your mind broke
and you were left wandering,
neurotransmitters firing and misfiring.

In some sense, it all boils down 
to chemistry and electricity in your head.
But in another, deeper, sense it is more than that.
It's childhood night terrors

and the loneliness of a Seattle rainstorm
and all that too-heavy guilt of God
and church and a million other little
memory bits that you carry with you always

somewhere inside.  There are no easy ways out
of the wilderness when you find yourself there.
Jogging can be helpful,
getting those endorphins going.

Being with those you love never hurts
except, of course, when it does.
Take your vitamins,
spend time in the sunlight,

watch a silly movie.
All these are good.
Art can be a way out, but
art can also get you more lost.

In the end, each of these episodes
is a test, and each becomes a kind of little altar,
like the ones the ancient Israelites used to build
when something really important happened

and they didn't want to forget, ever.
I have built a few altars.
Seattle, Washington, 1999
when everything came apart.

Orange County, California, 2000
when things began to come together again.
Luang Prabang, Laos, 2009,
an old abandoned temple, seeking enlightenment

but finding only desolate loneliness
and night sweats, alone in a humid hostel,
calling my brother in tears,
"Seth, I need to come home."

And the moment, one month later,
as I ran up Rolling Hills drive and the sun
flashed in my eyes and a voice in my heart
told me, "Not finished yet.  Not yet."

And I said aloud, "Oh God."
These are my altars of remembrance.
And tonight, unable to sleep,
scribbling in a notebook by lamplight,

feeling the familiar heaviness,
the wound that never fully heals.
I flip through a book of poems, 
but it is all too much, too much.

Memory can be a heavy weight,
but you can also make of memory
an altar of remembrance,
and lay your burdens down, lay them down,

and build of them something beautiful,
Moses-like, "here I lay my Ebenezer,"
the stones of memory,
too heavy for one man,

but not for a community,
even a community in the wilderness,
the ancient Israelites, wandering, wandering,
waiting for the promised land, suffering.

Suffering and healing, 
of dark roads traveled, and small lights along the way,
water out of bare rock,
a poem, a story by a story teller.

Remember Noah?
Remember the songs of Daniel Johnston,
a kindness shared, an act of mercy,
Remember when we were slaves?

And the older we get, the more we carry.
But the older we get, the more altars we've built
to remind us, "We've been desolate
and we've been full."  And we keep walking.



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