GESTURES OF THE SOUL
Judith Sarah Schmidt PhD
All real living is meeting (Martin Buber)
In recent weeks, a poem by William Carlos Williams keeps calling to me, whispering itself in my ear. It goes like this:
So much depends upon
a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water
beside the white chickens
I enter the waking dream of being in the poem’s landscape. I stand there, outside a barn, in a soft light. It is hushed, the beginning of day, no one stirs. Just the red wheel barrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens. Red like the apples and the radishes that might be growing down the path in the garden. Red with life and touched and made to shine with the sweet rain water that has fallen on the wagon. And there are the white chickens, their heads bobbing up and down.
There is something about this scene that stirs my heart with a sense of poignancy. There they are beside one another, the radiant red wheel- barrow and the rain water and the white chickens. The poet’s eye has captured this cameo image of a moment in time. This moment, like any moment, is fleeting and can and will shift. A farmer may come out of the house. The dog may run onto the scene and scatter the chickens. It may begin to rain again. Anything can and will happen in the next moment. The poet tells us: so much depends upon this moment, upon this scene, which is alive for just this moment. Even if it repeats tomorrow morning, it will not be this moment, this now.
The first thing Williams tells us is that so much depends on this moment. But, why does so much depend on this moment? The question turns over and over in my mind: perhaps for the very reason that it will never happen again. It shines in its radiant aliveness into this fleeting now. What so much depends upon is our presence, our meeting this moment as it shines into existence and we open to it and it finds a place somewhere in our being.
In our witnessing, through our presence, we are in dialogue with the life contained in the image. In a sense, Williams gave his face and all of his senses, gave his resonant attunement to this scene, leaned into it and in doing so, expressed a kind of gratitude to the life of that moment which now lives on for us in a timeless way. The existential and phenomenological philosophers explain that we are the creatures who come to open ourselves with a ‘thankfulness’ that meets and greets and names the world that is here now, everywhere around and within us.
I notice that it was in 1923 that Williams wrote this poem. 1923 was post World War 1, the worst of wars because men had to kill one another face to face. They had to be present to face the one whose very aliveness was being destroyed. In 1923, Germany suffered a hyper-inflation which left their economy in shambles and opened the way for the rise of Hitler.
In the midst of this upheaval, William Carlos Williams tells us that so much depends upon the red wheel barrow and the rain water and the white chickens. So much depends upon our presence to witness the small sacred moments of life, to witness the gestures we make toward one another for, as another poet, William Stafford tells us “the darkness around us is very dark” and we need to know who we are for one another. It was very dark in 1923 and is as well in our present day.
Perhaps William Carlos Williams came upon the red wheel barrow somewhere in his surroundings. Or, perhaps the cameo appeared to him from within as an image arising out of dream or reverie. The images we encounter as they arise from deep within us are poetic gestures of our soul. They arise out of some deep hidden knowing of wholeness and holiness carried within us. They call for our presence, for our own sakes and for the sake of our world. So much depends upon them.
Recently, I led a dream and imagery training for a group of third year CIL students. Each of the images that arose in our circle now move in my body and my soul with the vibrations of healing prayer. With the permission of those in our circle, I share these soul gestures so that perhaps one of them may, like the red wheel barrow and the rain water and the white chickens, find a place within you.
P, who is struggling with illness, is standing at a threshold
where she is shedding the personality she has always
counted on to get her by. What will come to take its place?
She is lost, not knowing. What comes as a gesture of her
soul is a purple curtain which she can reach out to and touch.
So much depends upon P’s being able to reach out
and touch the purple curtain which is there on her right side.
Only her heart knows why it comes and what healing it carries.
In her garden of flowers, M finds a rosemary bush.
She does not know what it is doing there, for it does not
bloom and is not beautiful like the other bushes. She
would rather it not be there. But it is. As she comes
into dialogue with the rosemary bush, she comes
to know how much depends upon it. The rosemary
bush: how straight it stands, and what dignity and
strength it possesses. M. sees how very much she
needs these qualities of the rosemary for her life just
now. She is thankful and she rubs her fingers on the
rosemary leaves, making contact with the scent of its
essence. So much depends on the strength of the
rosemary, not just for M. but for others in our world in
need of strength and dignity and standing tall.
L. is afraid of how dark the dark can be. As a teen,
she entered and became lost in the dark void. Kabbalah
tells us not to enter mystical exploration until we are
at least forty years old, for the forces of light and dark are very
powerful and can shatter our container. Now, L comes to
the dark again. This time, we hold a golden cord to her,
like the high priest when he entered the holy of holies
was held at the ankle with a golden cord so that he could be
brought back if he was pulled into the vortex of light.
L. takes her teen self, who is still afraid to be sucked back
Into the dark, into her heart. At last, someone comes to
find her and pull her out of a dark that is too dark. Slowly,
now, there can begin a dialogue with the spiritual and
psychological life that belongs to the nature of darkness .
So much depends upon this: that someone comes to form the
container with which to hold and know the dark, to be
in dialogue with it, for the dark around us and within us
can be very dark.
N., is called to go to Poland, from whence her family
came in 1905. The women in her family are without
feeling. They have their work to do but the juice of life
is not for them. N. wonders: was something of life left
in Poland? She journeys there in imagination. She
comes to a farm, with a house that was once grand
but is now neglected. In the kitchen, there is an old
woman. Is this her great grandmother? N. can see
that in the eyes of this woman there is a memory of life.
The woman gives her a red radish from the
garden, a gesture of her remembering the
red of life. They sit together.
So much depends upon N’s soul journey to Poland
and upon her sitting with who is perhaps her great
grandmother. In all of this there is the possibility of the
redemption of life that has been lost. Not only for N
and her personal legacy of ‘life is not for me’ but
for her ancestors as well and for those in our world
for whom the life force has been silenced.
At the agency at which she works, C.is horrified to hear
that she will have to lay off many people.
She recalls how her grandfather chose to send his sons
to medical school rather than send money to those
living in severe conditions in his homeland. How could
he have sacrificed his country folk and just taken care of
his own family? How can she be doing the same! How
can she live with herself?
C. goes on a walk with her dog, takes a turn she
never took before and enters a clearing in which two turkeys
stand like statues watching over their nest of eggs.
C. invites her grandfather to come to this spot and together
with the turkeys, they sit on the ground with tears of broken
heartedness for the things we sometimes need to do that
we never thought we could or would do. C’s anger toward
her grandfather melts and her desire to know how it was
for him back then and how it is now for the turkeys who
may not be able to protect their nest. So much depends
upon our facing the difficult and sometimes impossible
choices we must make in this life, for doing so gives us
a sense of humility and companionship with other frail humans.
As I come to the close of my sharing, I want to say that I believe that not only does ‘so much depend upon’ the red wheel barrow and the rain water and the white chickens. I want to say that I believe that our very world depends upon our giving the face of our presence to that which calls out to us; that which calls from the outer world and that which gestures toward us from within our own soul.
Martin Buber shared in his writing how it was that the ‘ I and Thou’ became the foundation stone of his work. He tells us that on one particular morning, he was sitting in his study, pouring over a very scholarly Hebrew text. There was a knock at his door. A young student entered Buber’s study and asked for some of the professor’s time. Buber, with his head still bent, explained that he was very busy doing something very important and would not be available until later that afternoon if the student would like to return. The young man never returned for he left Buber’s office and committed suicide. Of course Buber was devastated, but he did not stop there. He understood that if he had given his full presence to the young man for even one small moment, he would have heard the distressed call of the man’s life and death struggle and he would have been able to respond.
Wrapped within the I-Thou that was born out of Buber’s terrible learning, is the beauty of the ‘call and response.’ Buber tells us that each I and each Thou is unique; each giving and receiving is unique to this moment that will never happen again. Out of his heartbreak arose the sacred code of Buber’s soul: the vision of a world of dialogue and presence for all creation. It feels important to name this as a vision of a way of being in the world. A vision is never fully realized but is always there to light the heart’s way and to call us back when we lose our footing.
So much depends upon our being present to the life force that moves through everything and everyone: in outward life, for plant and animal and human being; in inner life, for the image which is itself a world. May many worlds and many moments call to us for our presence and may we respond with our full- hearted attention, for the sake of our own wholeness and for the wholeness and healing of our world.