maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone
for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea
I was recently at the coast for work, visiting some new schools in the region. Tough job, I know. As we spent the morning at the beachfront, preparing for that afternoon’s meeting (see accompanying picture), it was this poem by e.e.cummings (published in 1958 in 95 poems) that played like a fugue in my mind.
In essence, the world around us is a mirror. The thoughts and feelings that our surroundings evoke in us are mere reflections of our hearts. When we stare long enough at nature we always see ourselves staring back, even though we do not always recognise ourselves.
So as I found myself mesmerised by the rhythm of the waves breaking and retreating, I found myself meditating on the last two lines of the poem. Cummings seems to suggest that it is inevitable that somewhere along the line we lose the very essence of who we are, and that we never stop searching for what was lost, catching glimpses of it everywhere we look. Our relentless and restless quest to restore wholeness defines our experiences of the world. And in turn, those experiences work to define who we are.
For as long as I can remember, I have felt ambivalent about the ocean. I am entranced by its wildness, humbled by its immensity and awed by the mystery of it. It simultaneously amazes and terrifies me. It always elicits from me a sense of profound loss. Maybe that’s why the cummings poem speaks to me so intimately.
I reflected that if cummings was right – and I think he was – then I needed to ask myself what it was that I had lost. What missing essence of self do I hope to catch sight of when my eyes are drawn to the vast horizon? What inner yearning do I hear expressed in the ceaseless cadences of the waves?
And I realised that I knew the answer all along. I knew what I longed for. I knew what my heart pines for when the sea hypnotises me and draws the truth from me like a painful memory. Innocence.
I mean “innocence” in the Blakean sense of the word, not the moral one (although there may be overlap). I long to be able to look at the world again through the eyes of a child. I want there to be justice. I want to believe that goodness triumphs in the end. I want to be assured that if I just persevere, all things are possible. I long to have faith that all the suffering of the world is not in vain, but serves some incomprehensible higher purpose. I want to believe that love conquers all. I crave the assurance that all of this is just a dream, and I will be awoken with a kiss to my happily ever after. I thirst for hope.
But Blake was right. The bubble of innocence must burst, and reveal a fallen world that, once seen, cannot be unseen. And cummings was right too. That revelation carries a cost: one’s very selfhood.
And I realised that I would never find comfort in the inexorable ebb and flow of the tide. It reminds me too much of what I have lost: my faith in the basic goodness of life, and in the essential worthiness of humanity. And thus in so many of my pursuits, I understood, I tend to seek those things that will – like maggie – help me forget; that – like milly – will allow me to connect; that – like molly – will help me avoid confronting my fears; and – like may – will do something to assuage the terror that comes with the knowledge that however many friends I may have, ultimately – utterly dwarfed by an indifferent universe – I must walk into an unknown future all alone.
Reading Harry Potter to David out loud (his first time) and Dumbledore has just died. I think those books remind me of LOTR in that the darkness is very real, and there is a lot to muddle and fight through, and the road is long and winding, and it’s not obvious that love will be strong enough to win, and it’s not just a straight forward arc until the end where everything is tied up in a neat bow. Also, I should say that the first time I “got” what the point of poetry was, it was with cummings in your class.
Thanks for the encouragement, Steph. If there is any one story I identify with, it is LOTR. In fact, much of the way my life-metaphor is constructed can be derived from it. The scene I am often drawn to is of Aragorn leading the Rohan remnant to the Black Gate to fight a battle he knows he can only lose. But if there is to be hope, he has to fight. His destiny is not in his hands, but in Frodo’s (and, I believe Tolkien suggests, in a nameless power beyond that). So he chooses to fight. He is under no delusions about his chances of survival. he knows he leads his men to their deaths. But it is the right thing to do. He cannot not fight. It is, for me, one of the most beautiful, tragic, courageous acts in all of literature.
I see life in much the same way. If there is to be hope, it does not lie in our hands. We cannot overcome evil nor restore the world. The evil that oppresses the world is overwhelming and, frankly, I see no way for love to prevail. But I fight anyway. Not because I think I will win, but because it is the right thing to do. Evil must be opposed. Fruitless as it is, there need to be voices that rise in opposition to bigotry, to abuse, to tyranny. And I trust, although from my writing it may not be obvious, that God has won the victory. I don’t know how the cross worked, but I believe it did. But until that glorious day when the restoration of Israel is complete, I will be fighting against overwhelming odds at the Black Gate.
So my expressions are not so much of despair as of weariness. The battle is exhausting sometimes. That’s why I really appreciate your taking the time to respond 🙂 I definitely needed a bit of encouragement to keep going. Thank you.
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