Life-Work:Balance (1)

Camellia outside my study window 17 March 2012

My husband sometimes says that I am like a woman riding a bicycle on a high-wire: confident, quick and proceeding as if without thought for dangers, excited, exciting and full of joie de vivre and probably singing…until I fall off, when it’s all bits of bike and bonesmash and railing against gravity and the shaken sobs of a person who feels the pull of natural earth is against her, as if I’d never get back up… but then I get back up and off again, riding along, riding along on my bicycle. The problem for me is one of balance in more ways than one…

Is that why George Herbert is most often my favourite poet?

The Temper (I)

How should I praise thee, Lord! How should my rhymes
Gladly engrave thy love in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes,
My soul might ever feel!

Although there were some forty heav’ns, or more,
Sometimes I peer above them all;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score;
Sometimes to hell I fall.

O rack me not to such a vast extent;
Those distances belong to thee:
The world’s too little for thy tent,
A grave too big for me.

Wilt thou meet arms with man, that thou dost stretch
A crumb of dust from heav’n to hell?
Will great God measure with a wretch?
Shall he thy stature spell?

O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,
O let me roost and nestle there:
Then of a sinner thou art rid,
And I of hope and fear.

Yet take thy way; for sure thy way is best:
Stretch or contract me thy poor debtor:
This is but tuning of my breast,
To make the music better.

Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’rywhere.

If you don’t have any sort of religious belief, what do you do with a poem like this?

I always used to switch off, turn the page, look away. But Doris Lessing’s novel, Shikasta, taught me to translate religious stuff into something I could recognise and understand. And I wonder if those acts of translation, performed now over more than 30 years, have created a religious dimension in me? It certainly seems a lot easier to do the translating than it used to do.

How do you translate? Well, I just look for moments when something in me lights up. Reading is always like testing yourself against the text, testing the text against yourself: do I know this? Would I do that? Does it feel like this? Have I ever heard anyone say that? The thing I recognise most in this poem is the bubbling energy that throws it out – it seems to come from a lived moment, like natural speech. And I recognise too that it is accompanied with an under-sense that the polar opposite could – will – come about too. You feel so much, and you know it doesn’t last and you won’t feel like this soon.

‘Oh rack me not to such a vast extent,’ Herbert cries, and I know I have felt the stretch, actually feel it as he writes.

I don’t think I share the comfort of the poem – the sense that everything somehow fits together in the end, and yet even as I type, and as I read his lines rather than think ‘about’ them, I think I maybe do share that. I wouldn’t call it ‘God’ and I don’t have a word that translates ‘God’ into my own lived language, but I think, like a baby in pre-speech mode, I do have a sense of the thing the word ‘God’ points to. I say ‘thing’ but it feels more like a function, an action. I am thinking of the ‘I Am’ of the Old Testament, a God with no name, just being.

The last verse is wonderful – I wish I shared its vision and security. But I wonder how much reading Herbert’s words of security helps to build a similar sense in me? Neuroscience is beginning to tell us that patterning experience through reading may be like having the experience itself – mirror neurones mirror non direct experience so we do experience it. This will seem like ignorant babbling to a scientist I suppose. But read Joseph Gold’s book, The Story Species, read Damasio)

Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’rywhere.

but reading the half line ‘and I am there’ ( e.g. in God’s hands) seems to do something to me as I read, a flash of -what shall I call it ? – love?That is certainly the word the poet goes for in the wonderfully balanced line that follows ‘ Thy power and love, my love and trust,’

George Herbert, 1593–1633

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