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In my words, August 26 – September 1

It’s been muggy in the mountains; hot and always about to rain, the flies biting, stinging the legs. When the sun was out, I chased after the butterflies around the Rose of Sharon and the pond trying to catch them on video, which is impossible to do. The flight once caught is no longer flight in all of its surroundings; it’s only a little part, and it’s in a cage. This morning when I opened the door, two crows under the apple tree took off although I was an acre away. How do I get closer to the crows? That is the question.

In the early 70s, somewhere on the outskirts of the University of Pennsylvania in West Philly there was a Sufi people flocked to see. He appeared once a week in the evening and his house was always packed, those getting there earliest getting the best places, those coming later standing in the back peering over heads trying to see His Holiness come down the stairs carried by his followers like a Queen Bee, swaddled and turbaned with winding cloth, gray stubbled cheeks and eyes that shone. If I remember, he spoke Arabic, which one of his followers translated as he talked. I’d heard he was one hundred and twenty years old, which I doubted (I was born a skeptical Protestant). When he spoke, he never swallowed, but spit into a bowl another follower held to catch the spittle, clear little clusters of bubbles, the kind that children blow.

One evening he told us that he had seen God, and I followed his story as best as I could because I wanted to see God too. He traveled over many continents and many places to pray at holy shrines, but he didn’t see God; he worked for years to help the sick and poor, but afterward he didn’t see God, then he prayed for a whole year with his eyes closed the whole time, but when he opened them again, there still was no God; and unfortunately for me at this point of the story, I got lost somewhere in the Arabic to the English, or just in the understanding. Was I listening, but thinking about something else? Even if the Sufi was on the up and up, he never told me how. Perhaps seeing God is a lot like trying to catch a butterfly with a camera; just when you think you’re there, you’re not.

I used to read a lot of Sufi stories and always remember the one about the man chased by the tiger. When he gets to the cliff, he must either jump to his death or be eaten by the fast approaching tiger, so he jumps—Wouldn’t you?—and falling, grabs onto a branch growing from the side of the cliff. The plant begins to come loose under his weight, and he realizes that soon he will fall holding the roots and all. Just then he notices a plump strawberry growing out of the side of the cliff as well, so he picks it, tastes and enjoys. “This strawberry is delicious,” he says to himself, and that is how the story ends, with the savoring not the falling. Now that is seeing God.

Friday night, I made Dad some shrimp cocktail and corn on the cob with lots of cocktail sauce, butter, salt and pepper too on the corn. When it was over, I brought Dad a warm washcloth, which he took right away to wipe his hands and face, clean off the butter, and the slightly sticky mess that eating with your hands gives. Dad even wiped the beer can he was holding, clean now that he had the chance. Perhaps seeing God is a little bit like understanding what your father wants.

Here is a poem by Juan Ramón Jiménez about chasing butterflies, perfect for the end of summer, the beginning of a cooling September, Mariposa de Luz.

Mariposa de luz,
la belleza se va cuando yo llego
a su rosa.

Corro, ciego, tras ella…
la medio cojo aquí y allá…

¡Sólo queda en mi mano
la forma de su huída!

Butterfly of light
its beauty flies when I approach
the rose.

I run blindly after
almost catching it here and there

but all that remains in my hand
is the form of its flight.

Here in the South Mountain the barn swallows have gone. There will be no following them now soaring and swooping among the clouds. I was hoping to see them go, but the sky is vacant and the rafters in the barn are quiet, all of that beautiful excitement already flown. But as long as Dad is here, there will be swallows next year. May they return.

Swallows gather on the electric wire
one after the other in a row. I
approach as some fly up and swarm the sky
hundreds of them sweeping out. I’m inspired
watching them burst and swoop and blend and flow
into the blue as far as I can see
like premonitions of eternity.
Over the pond, the house, the world they go
well no not go, but going. Or is it
only the agitations of my soul?
I was up early this morning thoughtful
of New York working before dawn. Visit
unfinished, my mind goes with the swallows.
Here I have to stay, but it can follow.

In a sonnet about being depressed in the Spring, Samuel Coleridge ends with this couplet:

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.

Robert Frost, a man who suffered from depression, wrote a poem opposite Coleridge’s about work, the end of the summer and butterflies. It’s called The Tuft of Flowers, one of my favorite poems. As strictly as The Tuft of Flowers sticks to form (iambic pentameter couplets here), in the reading Frost changes words: the instead of a in a reedy brook and it really sounds like he says bewildered instead of ‘wildered in a ‘wildered butterfly. My ear prefers bewildered. The poem remains organic and able to change. It’s alive.

I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the leveled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Happy Fish by Akram

Certainly Frost’s ability to have a happy thought (instead of sad one like Coleridge) is an enlightened gift. Standing once at window in Oaxaca, Mexico I wrote:

This morning as I’m thinking a good thought
the sun out of the mountain rose and broke
on my face unexpected light and warmth.
To think a good or bad thought is my choice.

That had never occurred to me before.
A hummingbird appeared and looked at me
still with vibrating wings then completely
still sat a second here there on a branch.

Perhaps seeing the good instead of the bad is a way of seeing God. Just eat the strawberry and smile.

Fish Hello by Akram


By the way, I got to talk with the Sufi in West Philly. Every now and then, someone was granted an audience. When my turn came, I asked an open ended question, “Do you have anything to tell me?” The little old guru seated there on his pillows looked at me without expression and quickly answered. “He says you should get a haircut; you look like a girl,” the translator told me as I wondered if my skepticism of the Sufi was reflected in his answer to me.

Fish Caught by Akram

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