Saturday, December 31, 2022

In the Country of Turtles

This writing project has had a bunch of names over the years. Twenty Sentences, Worthington Rag. Sentences. I am renaming it The Country of Turtles. Or was it always the Country of Turtles. See below for an important point about pointers, and words generally. Names matter less than we think, maybe. Differently?

Anyway, this is not really about names but relationship. There is a love letter, which is the love letter of the world, Love calling and Love responding, and this project is my minor but nontrivial contribution to it.

I am endlessly grateful to the one who invites me to share.

In the dense cosmos of the living in which I find myself with others, the Country of Turtles is the condition of grace, peace and joy I discovered in and with Chrisoula. She is the Queen of the Country of Turtles. She doesn't actually care what I name it or her but she does care about the world any nomenclature brings forth. We are responsible for love; there is no other way to bring forth peace. Words matter. Be nice, be helpful. Self-efface. Et cetera. Love is the law.

That is how she puts it, when pressed. Mostly she acts.

Language and praxis are not separate but inform each other, give rise to each other. I understood one half of this principle; Chrisoula taught me the other half. Together we lean on each other as we bring into application what it means to know we are not separate from ourselves, from others, from the earth and from the cosmos. 

The Country of Turtles is the condition of knowing and practicing Love with another.

A long time ago Chrisoula and I sat quietly together on a large flat stone facing Fitzgerald Pond. We were watching the light change, that was our date that day. We were content in and with each other in a way that we had both believed would not be possible for us in this life. We surprised each other. In our relationship, a certain form of confusion was ending yet what remained or would take its place was not yet clear. We were young, et cetera.

In summer sunlight Chrisoula put a hand on my heart, eased me down on the rock, and kissed me. 

When the kiss ended and I opened my eyes, there were turtles everywhere. Everywhere. On logs, on the shore, floating in the water, on rocks. Before the kiss, I was alien and confused about my function. Turtles meant nothing to me. After the kiss, I lived in the Country of Turtles and my only function was to serve its Queen. 

More prosaically:

Prior to the kiss, my life owned two phases: a painful childhood I was grateful had ended, and a young adulthood given mostly to drifting. Person to person, place to place, practice to practice. The former gave rise to the latter in which there was less pain but I was still lost. I wasn't happy so much as surprised I had survived. Not everybody did. 

After the kiss, I was found. Home wasn't a place but a person. It wasn't even a person so much as a peace and happiness that asked nothing of me, which the person - Chrisoula - embodied. 

The kiss was an invitation from the divine to remember what I was in truth and to live the truth of it which, years later when theology finally caught up with me, means to love in a loveless place. 

It is a gift to be loved by one who understands and lives by the law that love cannot be possessed, only given, over and over and over. Truly, in that moment, I uttered the only prayer that has mattered in this life: Lord make me worthy of your daughter. I urge this prayer on all men.

Between that afternoon in late August and the next couple of years, I wrote approximately fourteen hundred poems for the Queen of the Country of Turtles - notes, prayers, hymns, questions, lists, myths, fables, complaints. Chrisoula read many of them, never indicating she preferred one to another. Her focus was always on the praxis the writing brought forth. If the praxis was love, then the poems were welcome. If the praxis was fear, then they needed to be rewritten or set aside.

It was Chrisoula who first brought me to what A Course in Miracles calls the holy instant, in which we know ourselves and others as God does. It was Chrisoula who taught me to give attention to the way that only violence, not love, can be personal. 

It was Chrisoula who said, stop doing this to yourself. Do something different with yourself.

We moved to Vermont, had a baby, got a dog and some cats, bought a house. The poetics shifted. I began anticipating sentences rather than lines. We went for long walks together. I went for longer walks alone, climbing mountains, sleeping in the forest by tiny fires. We read difficult texts, and talked about them. We carried the relationship to an unfamiliar place, a dangerous place even, and left it there to fend for itself. Seams appeared. Around the time I became serious for the last time about Catholicism, our drifting became chasmic. 

It was a lonely and difficult time that lasted for decades. 

I remember one night sitting by my fire on a ridge overlooking the Black River. Bears hooted in the distance. My dog, Jake, sat beside me, patiently alert. Stars wheeled above the breezy pines. I fell asleep wrapped in an old blanket and woke up  . . . where exactly? Chrisoula and I in ladderback chairs an arm's length apart, facing an old woman who sat in a similar chair knitting a scarf. The room itself was plain and clean, like a Shaker bedroom from the nineteenth century. The scarf was the history of the world; it was the self-creating cosmos creating itself in the hands of a woman who was herself outside both creation and destruction. She neither looked at us nor spoke but only stared out the window while she worked. 

A pale moon neither rose nor fell in a sky that was neither light nor dark. 

I was fine with this at first; of course I was. I made a showy pretense of accepting and explaining it. I was effective and clear - of course I was - but for the first time since we'd met, Chrisoula ignored me. In that room, with that woman, she gave attention only to the woman. It wasn't like I was incidental; it was like I didn't exist. 

I grieved this loss of attention. I raged at it. I wish I could say otherwise. There was no grace in it. I pleaded and begged, I threatened to leave. I broke things. In beautiful stillness and perfect creativity, in the company of the holy, I acted the spoiled frightened child. My hurt and anger was revealed for the failure of love it had always been. 

This went on for what? A thousand years? A thousand lifetimes? 

One day - exhausted, empty, beyond misery - I surrendered. There was no honor in it, there was no wisdom. I merely acknowledged the obvious defeat. And yet, in that moment, I was lifted beyond victory and defeat to what is. The secret to salvation is that we are doing this - all of this - to ourselves. At last it was perfectly clear: in the presence of Her, you can only be in the presence of Her. There is nothing else. Choice is an illusion.

I was in my mid-fifties when I finally left that room. Psilocybin helped; penance helped; prayer helped. A Course in Miracles helped. Writing helped a lot. But mostly, Chrisoula's attention unto the old woman helped. It was the final pointer, allowing me to pass beyond pointers, pointing and points altogether. When I try to write about this experience directly, or about the old woman specifically, Chrisoula gently redirects me. 

That is not the work, she says. This is the work. 

The work is becoming clear so that the light of Love can pass through us and illuminate the world in beauty and meaningfulness. Poems help, but they are not all that helps. Sex helps but it's also not all that helps. Chrisoula and I grow food together. We leave some of the harvest for wild animals. We let parts of the garden grow wild. This is a metaphor and not a metaphor, both.

We name our errors and our enemies and give them to the Holy Spirit to be undone in us. 

We are not afraid of each other.

Here is the thing. In the Country of Turtles, there are no Queens and no Kings. There are only servants, whose joy is to help the other remember that they too are servants in the Country of Turtles. In a world of servants there is no conflict, there is no loss, there is no sacrifice. There is only peace. Nothing ends and nobody needs or wants to run away. You are home; you are always home.

These poems (in conjunction with other writing) reflect my ongoing half-assed attempt to invite you and others to join me and Chrisoula and all our brothers and sisters in the beautiful difficult work of becoming still enough for Creation to flow through you in the only way that will truly bring you to happiness and restore the world to peace. 

It is possible, I promise; this is my witness.

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