I recently told a friend I believed something my first poetry mentor told me: All art is about suffering. My friend told me I was in a dark place.
We laughed, but she wasn’t wrong. I am. To an extent, we’re all “in the dark.” We’re all trying to work out–or wait out–the problems of everyday life, and the process is often excruciating (its documentation is, I think, art). To be fair, we wait all the time, and it’s not all tortured; we wait for the alarm in the morning and the meeting at 1 o’clock and our favorite program Monday night at 8 and it’s not so bad. We know what’s coming and it’s comforting. We suffer when we don’t know what’s coming, and I think, in life, we don’t know more often than we know.
That’s really the problem with waiting–we have an expectation or wish or fear and, sometimes more pressing, a desire for that expectation or wish or fear to be fulfilled or denied. I get anxious waiting at traffic lights because I want to go–I want to be where I’m going, even if I don’t know what will happen there (and even if it turns out to be something I don’t want). Forward motion is the antidote to my imagination; in the absence of movement–or maybe results–I can create a thousand different scenarios, a thousand different outcomes of any situation. The rub: I know not one of them will ever be the reality.
During my freshman year of college, I had a Death Cab for Cutie lyric pinned to my dorm room door: “When we all grow older, the truth will be understood, because we never turn out the way we thought we would.” There are other song lyrics like it. I think of them all the time. “You can’t always get want you want.” “I’m leaving but I don’t know where to.”
I know I don’t, and can’t, ultimately know what’s coming. And so I suffer.
This, more than anything, is what resonates with me in Isaiah 64–oh, that God would take action so we could take action in turn, because in silent wait, we’re imagining the worst. We might be becoming the worst. And then what?
In Isaiah 64:10 (NIV), the “sacred cities have become a wasteland,” and Isaiah asks God if more will meet that fate, if people will be punished. In 1921, in the aftermath of World War I, T.S. Eliot posited that question, too. His great poem The Waste Land is about a broken culture, a world destroyed by its history, stuck in a place that is its worst. There’s no hope of rejuvenation or rebirth; the poem ends with resignation. It’s a bleak approach, and maybe that’s why Eliot amended it later in his Four Quartets, written from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. These poems tackle the same issues explored in The Waste Land, but with more hope–at least a kind of hope a girl in the dark can get behind.
This excerpt from my favorite of the Quartets, “East Coker,” offers, I think, a way to wait not without suffering but with acceptance for what we don’t know. It’s not an answer, but it is a way to start.
“I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away-
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing-
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.”