For the Valentines
We really like to celebrate the beginnings of things; none more so than in love. We are deluged with stories about the burning ground of soul mates and true love. There is sudden changes of plot, divine sickness at the thought of the beloved, in general far more time stewing in the fantasy whilst they’re absent then the growingly more mundane reality of their presence. We are told that this is what love is.
Love seems to indicate full bloom, an endless seasonal riff between spring and summer: it’s all connections, support, giddy leaning in, eye-contact, once-in-a lifetime imaginings. If there is much in the way of autumn’s bare trees, or the iron ground of winter, then surely love has died, we were mistaken, we have to seek the giddy feeling of newness again. And again. We expect relationship to be mono – the unchanging characteristics we societally approve, rather than myth’s poly – changeable, distant at times, suddenly wildly intense. It is not just one tree but an entire scrubland of copses, muddy streams and ghoulish owls. Complicated.
Because love rarely sustains the dynamic of the earlier, celebrated stage, we are often adrift at this deepening. Where is the giddy heights? The long married have no glamour, their stories do not litter the tabloids, we prefer to see them as stuck, or co-dependent, as we shuffle wistfully on to the next honey-gorged flower.
The writer John Welwood (2006) talks about two kinds of love – absolute love and relative love. Absolute love is that love which stands beyond human relations, but occasionally, fleetingly, shines through. When caught in its radiance we feel accepted, connected, at peace, part of the wider turning of stars and seasons. It’s wonderful. Spiritual folks will spend large amounts of their time trying to get tuned up to this, but for the wider world, we often experience it in the early stages of falling in love. So confirming is its presence that we decide that this must be love’s essence. It’s core.
The problem is that if we experience this through the temporary gaze of another human we have to then realise the frailty of the human heart. Although the outpouring is majestic, it is also finite: we are so littered with defences and hurts that this absolute acceptance cannot be maintained by a human perspective indefinitely, our very life history will cause this divine light to grow dim and fluctuate. It is here that we find relative love.
The very openness that love engenders will awaken the coal-dark hounds of unfinished business and general misery that always hunt close to the lover’s garden. There will be an equally strong counter intention to the intention of a fulfilling love relationship. These hounds sprinkle distorted perceptions, age old hurts, and defence mechanisms into the mix. Relative love, as Welwood reminds us, is dependent on time and circumstance. It is changeable, dependent on what gods stand behind us that day, the invisible inner-balcony of family members, how much sleep we were blessed with the night before. With all this in the mix, then the notion of love as a steady, unchanging state is highly naïve.
We are frequently being hurled between a sense of delicious oneness back to a relative two-ness, often unexpectedly. We reach tenderly to the resting lover and are faced by a teeth-snapping wrathful ogre.
Welwood points to openness to these moments of the absolute, but not an unreal expectancy that it is ever available. It almost never is. For every wave of euphoric connection he advises acceptance of the salty crash that will surely follow as a wider aspect of love, not as something ‘outside’ the experience, or that it has failed in some way.
This longing for oneness grows frantic when a truly religious sensibility diminishes in the world, because love becomes the only place to glimpse something that is, in truth, often beyond our conflicted psyche. It’s a glimpse of eternity. Gnostic groups of all persuasions and Sufi groups the world over have built elaborate systems to ritually encounter its radiance. The aspiration is deep and will not go away because it is the elusive core at the experience of life we all share. It is the business of connection.
All shape-leaping stories, nine day fasts, bizarre esoteric disciplines are hints of this animistic multiplicity of oneness, and that everything is alive and everything is connected. We hear this kind of language all the time – it gets tedious – but to actually experience it as fact is anything but ordinary.
A Shaw/Hoagland translation:
The Owl-Court of Ifor Hael
Welsh, From Evan Evans; 1731-88
This eerie ruin among the alders,
ghostly hump of bramble and thorn,
was once the court of Ifor Hael.
Boys don’t make
their stick-dens here.
The thrush and badger
are discreet visitors
in a low lying fog,
or at dawn’s yellow glitter.
Where are the poets?
the bard and storied-harp?
or the generous lord,
with a cup of wine at his arm?
chief of the skilled singers,
it was a bleak woe
to lay Ifor in the slick clay.
As he lit the red candles,
and the snow wetted his beard
then Dayfydd knew
that the game was up.
This used to be a welcome ground,
a broad thoroughfare of song,
but is now an owl-court
for those lost in the forest.
For all fame’s
beating of shields
there’s no ramparts here
jutting through this ivy,
Just a moon-blue cry
from the thin, black branches.
DEEP SHAPES FOR NEW TIMES: AN EVENING WITH MARTIN SHAW AND TONY HOAGLAND
FEBRUARY 13, 7:30PM – 9:00PM
ARTS, LITERARY ARTS
CUBBERLEY HALL, STANFORD UNIVERSITY
“Myth,” says storyteller Martin Shaw, “is not about a long time ago.” Created communally, over time, in full contact with the natural world, myth is instead a particular way of understanding ourselves and our world that offers new routes through the binds of the modern world. “Poetry,” says acclaimed poet Tony Hoagland, “offers a clarifying force through its similar use of polymorphic and enduring images.” Together, myth and poetry understand us in an uncommon way.
In this special evening, Shaw and Hoagland will weave myth and poetry to reveal how the deep shapes of their stories give us surprising ways for meeting the challenges of contemporary culture. Alongside select stories and poems, they will talk about the mysterious wisdom retained in these forms and how they can help us overcome the constraints that our culture imposes on our imaginations. Shaw and Hoagland will also read and discuss some of the translations of old Celtic poetry they have been collaborating on over the last two years.
Martin Shaw, PhD, is author of A Branch from the Lightning Tree and the forthcoming Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet Black Branch of Language. He is a master storyteller and currently Visiting Lecturer in the Oral Communication Program at Stanford.
Tony Hoagland is the author of four collections of poems, and winner of many prizes, including the Mark Twain Award for Humor in American Poetry. He teaches at the University of Houston and elsewhere.
Free and open to the public
Copyright Martin Shaw 2014