Late Spring, 2009. I was tired. I was scared. My marriage was falling apart. But I was also running a summer institute at the Duke University Center for Reconciliation. A man I had to fight some “not-invented-here” dunderheads to bring in, Malcolm, was giving a poetry and song lecture. I was going to take my sons to let them hear a world-class talent from Cambridge University.
I dressed that evening in my mom vest and mom pants. They were baggy. I’d lost my appetite in the stress of divorce season. My sons, nine and fourteen, dressed in khakis and oxfords, came with me.
“I’m not into this, mom,” said my younger son as he was being frog-marched to Duke Divinity School, “But if it helps you feel better I’ll go.”
“Thank you,” I said with a forced smile. Don’t do me any favors kid.
I received my breakup notice a few months earlier, on Valentine’s Day, 2009. It was a blast and a shock. Most days that Spring I felt like a burn victim walking around exposed to pain with the slightest breeze or the softest sun. Because I worked at Duke, I could wander its Gothic campus in a stupor and as a shadow of myself as I tried to figure out how I was going to recover.
The lecture that May night was not in one of Duke’s hallowed halls. It was in a non-descript, small, windowless, underground classroom at the Divinity School. The room was a thin rectangle. You either sat very far away from the lecturer or quite close. Not many people were in the room. We sat beside him.
Malcolm Guite looked and spoke like Hagrid from Harry Potter. His guitar was strapped around shoulders that must have played rugby. His cheeks were polished pink and his white beard, mustache and bangs looked like he trimmed them himself. This was a man who knew The Flower Power, The Harley, The Pipe and damn it if he didn’t also know Tolkien and the Nobel-prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. He was a chaplain at Cambridge, University in England but don’t hold that against him. He is a real, actual person who has actually lived life and not just read about it. He has touched the magic and is imbued with it.
I can’t recall the exact words he began with, but I think he started out with this:
-I’d like to tell you a story about what’s possible when there’s nothing possible.
He turned on his CD player and for the first time ever, I heard Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.
Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty
We forward in this generation
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
‘Cause all I ever have
-Marley wrote that song after he learned about the cancer that would eventually kill him.
And Malcolm went on to talk about the problem of being in a bottomless pit especially when you may not have gotten there willingly.
That seemed relevant.
My whole life I have had a sense I could get out of anything. But this season I was in that bottomless pit and I was not getting out anytime soon. I tried almost everything to change the facts of my circumstance. I groveled. I tried to be perfect. I tried being mad. I tried being sexier. I tried being sad. I tried logic. Nothing worked. Nope. I was in the pit.
Like Bob Marley.
Marley had a strong arm lift him out. How long until it came? I was waiting. This strong arm wasn’t coming.
I had never felt so low in my life. I’m Allegra Freaking Jordan and I did not deserve to be dumped by some man I helped build for two decades who….yes, yes, yes. Well I see it now as I look back. I see the ridiculousness of my situation. What I called love was co-habitation and over-functioning. I got to feel martyred and he got super-service. We, like so many others, called that arrangement love.
It’s not. No, I didn’t love him and he didn’t love me. He had the courage to voice it and leave. The result was right even if the process was brutal.
In 2009, I was entangled with him. We had children. I refused to accept divorce. I wanted to close my eyes and wake up and have things return to just the way they were.
Malcolm continued, as best I recall,
-Life has pits and we’re thrown in them, we jump in them, we fall into them. Here’s a song I wrote about what we do next…
And then he sang a song that became the anthem of my life.
Some people say that life is just a given thing/But you and I both know by whom it’s lent/ And it’s right here in the dirt, where we’ve both been loved and hurt/ That Love himself has come to pitch his tent.
I don’t listen to that much music. I can write my own laments right now, thank you. But this song was so hopeful, and it was the most delicious drop of mead for my parched heart. Tears stung my eyes as Malcolm finished his ballad, “Angels Unawares,”
“Ah but, give m leave a while/ To turn and to see you smile/ And leave to love like angels unawares/ Leave to love like angels unawares.”
Smile? I’d not felt my face smile in so long. How was I supposed to smile as my husband left me? It took years of therapy, angels, kindness, friendship and deep, abiding new love. Now I can smile as I look back at the terrible leaving, and am thankful for the rebuilding. In this, I found me.
Malcolm ended his lecture with an introduction to Seamus Heaney, a poet I’d never read, but one that blew my heart open.
Some writers have a knack of taking unformed thoughts in our souls – what comes to me as “ger-splenken-baruuuuuuuuf” and untangling them into a few words that help us regain our bearings.
For me it was just two words:
Both are true. Both are in our hearts. And how we handle these opposites is our choice.
Malcolm shared the poetry of Seamus Heaney who, I later read, said in his Nobel Prize speech:
“We are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation…the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.”
Heaney, in his lecture, offered a poem by W. B. Yeats in response:
“The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.”
/States Heaney/ “I have heard this poem repeated often, in whole and in part, by people in Ireland over the past twenty-five years, and no wonder, for it is as tender minded towards life itself as St. Kevin was and as tough-minded about what happens in and to life as Homer. It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.”
Malcolm then read Heaney’s poem Exposure, which was a turning point in Heaney’s art. In the poem, on its face is about an ancient man, cold and exposed, who declares he’s not from either tribe, but just a person who is trying to gin up sparks for warmth, when all the time above him is a huge comet pulsing with glorious, loving light.
I had never been able to hate my debate coach who murdered my best friend. I could not hate my father for his mental illness and I could not hate my husband even as he left me. There was no place in my bottomless pit for hate.
No. I don’t have to hate. Even those who kicked me into this pit. Not even them.
That night, in the space Malcolm created with his golden guitar, his melodious voice and his priestly poetry, a space opened in my heart. It began to fill with the golden light of love which grew and grew and eventually I walked out of the pit fully alive.