Sunday, August 13, 2006

oases, covers, and books

"Je vous ai tant parle du desert qu'avant d'en parler encore, j'aimerais decrire une oasis.
Celle dont me revient l'image n'est point perdue au fond du Sahara.
Mais un autre miracle d'avion est qu'il vous plonge directement au coeur du mystere."

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Terre des Hommes

For those of us who risk the voyage of the inner life, our comprehension of explorations and places become unconfined by material space. In his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen wrote of the contemplative life as the expression of something deeper and larger- and beneath the surface of our daily actions. But is the drive to understand just another over-analytical self-obsession? There is that danger, but not for Nouwen. His exhortation is to follow the impressions to their source, particularly the fears. Face them right down, and not run away. By following them through and understanding them, we can be liberated to find new ways when the tired old ways run us into the same barriers. All this self-confrontation has a purpose, and it sure better not be some kind of consumptive self-absorption. I engage the journey to learn, to not repeat what has wasted enough of my time, and to be unfettered by what has wasted too much space and energy. As Nouwen observed, "this confrontation should not lead to despair but should set you free to receive the compassion of God without whom no healing is possible." (p.83) I will add that such compassion is nothing I'd bottle up and hoard for secure storage, but is entirely meant to lavish wastefully on those whose paths have been destined to meet with mine.

Retreats seem to come in various shapes, and as aforementioned are indeed transcendent of place. My own favorites are either wilderness places which are exempt from societal trappings- and- large cities which are bubbling stews of societal trappings. Yesterday was a day to get away to a city big enough to get lost in the crowd. Being the Invisible Man in a maelstrom is preferable to the like situation in a town of eighty thousand. Amidst the captivating wonders of art museums, historic sites, and works of literature, it occurred to me how complex are our judgments of one another. Where do these "criteria" come from? How can our assessments be changed- or at least softened to the degree of mercy we would want for ourselves?

Surely, for those of us who write our reflections, and who read others' observations, we can say something about people-watching! We're looking and remarking all sorts of things to ourselves. Someone at the next table looks to have it all togther. Or the couples who appear not to have a care in the world. That homeless man may have had a prosperous career in his trail. Then there are the curiosities of those whose cell phones are surgically attached appendages, loudly regaling the public with their halves of their conversations. Another phenomenon are those who move about with earbud wires protruding from their heads, connected to pocket i-pods. Still another are the unlikely and abundant pairings of unkempt, boorish, slouching men with meticulously-groomed women on their arms. Even with the risk of judging books by their covers, I posed the observation about the latter to a female friend, to listen to her take on how the rude can attract so successfully. She said she was certain it is a matter of low self-esteem on the part of these women. That was surprising to hear, but in an odd way made sense. Inevitably comes the question of how well we know our own selves. How well do we know what we desire? For myself, such answers would be daunted by the distractions of wires running into both ears. Silence is the oasis that we all mysteriously fear.

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