“Live in the layers, not on the litter. . .” (Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006)

My Big Horn Mountains - tectonic uplift

My Big Horn Mountains – tectonic uplift

Stanley Kunitz was 73 (three or four years older than I am now) in 1978 when he wrote his poem “The Layers.” He lived another 28 years and died in 2006 at 101. Remarkable by almost any family’s stats.

My mother lived to be 92, my father lived to be 97 and His father lived to be 92. I could continue the list of my close relatives who lived to be nonagenarians.

By the laws of averages and statistics, it seems to me that I may be hanging around here for some time (I’m only 69). Given simple genetics, I have some time left to enjoy myself—or do something, at any rate.

I want to spend more years in the mountains. The real, majestic, overwhelming mountains. Mountains like the Big Horns in Wyoming, at the western slope of which I lived my first five years. Or the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California, in whose shadow I lived for 11 years.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

I am not who I was though some principle of being myself remains.

Of his poem Kunitz said,

“I wrote ‘The Layers’ in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends. . . I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work.”

He went on to say that the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter” came to him in a dream. I suppose if one is a poet, lines appear in dreams.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

If I think about the tribe of friends and family I’ve had in my life so far, I understand the notion of the tribe scattered. I’ve been watching a TV program about the geological history of Australia. I’m fascinated that the geologists and zoologists and anthropologists can look at layers of rock and decipher the ages of fossils they find there (I’m fascinated that they can pick up what appear to be scattered rocks and put them together to form a dinosaur fossil).

My beach at Winter Island

My beach at Winter Island

The earth has—apparently world-wide—a layer of what used to be soot (it’s black, at any rate) that has been compressed into rock. Geologists find it almost anywhere on the earth they look. The residue of earth’s crash with an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Anyone who knows even the little I know science/evolution/geology knows about the great Yucatan Asteroid Smash, a cataclysmic event. And one which is revealed through the constant movement, the uplift, of the earth’s outer shell (made up of the “layers”), the tectonic plates.

Stanley Kunitz (as poets do) gave me a new way to think about the layers of the earth—the layers of my life. Childhood. Teen years. College. Floundering. Graduate school. Failed marriage. First partnership with him. Second partnership. College teaching career. Third partnership. More graduate school. University teaching. Topsoil. Retirement/whatever.

My favorite geological wonder is the uplift of mountains. How do the tectonic plates move? Is the uplift sudden and earth-shattering, or slow and deliberate (apparently it’s slow—the Andes, I’ve read somewhere, are getting taller by a milli-inch every year)? I want to know the mountains.

The uplift, the earth-shattering experiences of my life (yes, I am a drama queen). Moving from Nebraska to California for college. Getting married. Moving to Iowa for graduate school. Getting divorced. Moving to Massachusetts to be with him. Then the next him. College teaching. The real him and moving to Dallas.

The uplifts, the layer-shattering experiences of my life seem to have involved moving from one place to another.

Or simply visiting one place or another.

The greatest tectonic uplift of my life was my first trip to Palestine in 2003. Nothing about my life was unaffected by that experience. All of the layers were dislodged.

OK. I’ll stop with the (by this time over-done and corny) metaphor.

I understood there for the first time how costly, how inestimable human life is. I realized for the first time the meaning of one sentence I learned from the foundational “layer” of my life. The way I learned it first was something about losing your life to find it. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 16:24-26. I met people in Palestine who

Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. . . Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way. . . to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

I met people in Palestine—Beit Sahour, Bethlehem, Rafa, Gaza City, Ramallah, Jenin, Hebron—who know about keeping themselves but losing everything. I’ve purposefully left out the phrases in the quotation that make it explicitly “Christian.” I know some of my friends would have visceral negative reactions to that. They’re missing the point.

I’m not saying people who know about losing everything (the shattering crush of the “tectonic plates” of their lives) and saving themselves don’t live elsewhere. But most of the people I met in those places, especially the Salsa family in Beit Sahour, showed me (I still have not learned the lesson well) what little is worth “. . . trad[ing] your soul for.”

Of course, the Palestinians have been forced to learn. But they have learned. Those whom I met in 2003 and again in 2009 know about the value of life in a way almost no one else I know does. They know how to live in the layers of their lives, not in the litter around them—even the cataclysmic earth-shattering events of their lives.

“The Layers,” by Stanley Kunitz, 1905 – 2006

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

Know how to live in the layers, not the litter

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Alice (Walton, that is) and I have more in common than (I assume) she thinks we do

autoWell, now, that’s a pretty judgmental way to start a post. I don’t mean any disrespect or judgment. She’s my favorite billionaire because I’ve seen her wonderful art museum, and I’m one communication link from her–I know someone who’s had conversations with her.

Before you start berating me for having a “favorite” robber baron(ness) or speaking well of the devil, and before you demand I say any of those other (probably justifiably) nasty things you all think I should say about her, give me a break. She’s my favorite billionaire in the same way you are my favorite struggling middle-class proletarian.  “(In Marxist theory) the class of workers, especially industrial wage earners, who do not possess capital or property and must sell their labor to survive” (Dictionary.com).

I know all about you. It’s not true that you do not possess capital or property. It’s almost certain that, if you’re reading this, you have a 401K or some other retirement plan or the almost certain hope that you will someday soon. And my guess is that most of you are much better off than I am. One of the retirement counselors at SMU told me that I need at least $250,000 in my portfolio ONLY for medical expenses in retirement–then I can think about how I’m going to eat and pay my rent. I don’t have that much total in my “assets.”

And if you truly do not possess capital, tell me which of the “day laborer” lines you’ll be in this morning, and I’ll come and get you and hire you to dust my entire apartment and shampoo the carpets.

Alice is my favorite billionaire because I’ve read quite a bit of stuff about her and pay attention to what she, her siblings, and Wal-Mart do–peripherally, that is. I have much better things to do than keep track of Alice. You know, things like surf the net trying to get ready to teach my classes about Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” and watch “Project Runway”–or “The Big Bang Theory,” whichever I come to first as I play with my remote. And try to get him to walk over to the Fluellen shop on Elm street and get a cupcake. Important things.

Crystal Bridges Museum

Crystal Bridges Museum

When you hear on PBS that this foundation and that are sponsoring a certain program, and the announcer says, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who ‘believe every person deserves the chance to live a healthy, productive life,'” do you ever imagine Bill Gates in some African refugee camp standing beside a kid who’s so hungry his belly is distended and his ribs stick out from his emaciated chest? Or beside a Palestinian Bedouin kid watching as Israeli tanks destroy her family’s home as they level the land to make a “settler road” to the nearest town of illegal Israeli squatters? How in hell does Bill Gates think those kids are ever going to live healthy and productive lives?

Or think about yourself, running over to Walmart and buying your copy of the new version of “Grand Theft Auto” for $59.96 so you can be up to date in your participation in the $67 billion industry next year
So you’re going to cast aspersions on Alice Walton? Take your copy of “Grand Theft Auto” and YOU stand beside the Palestinian Bedouin kid and tell her what’s important in life and how she’s going to be OK even though her house is gone and her family’s means of providing her next meal has disappeared in a cloud of dust made by American-produced-and-profited-from Caterpillar machinery in the hands of Israeli demolition teams breaking all of the conventions of occupation and warfare–the kind of flouting of international propriety we’ve all but destroyed Iraq over.

Nope. Here’s the deal. You have a whole lot more in common with Alice Walton than you think you do. Me too.

We’re all just alike, those of us who have evolved beyond the need to think about what is real and what is not. Your $600,000 401K is no different from Alice’s $6 billion (it’s actually quite a bit more than that). And my addiction to this iPad and my brand-new paid-for car (it’s actually 9 months old) and my $200,000 in retirement assets is the same as both Alice’s “stuff” and your “stuff.”

We all think it’s important. We all want more. We all don’t really give a rat’s ass about that starving kid in Somalia or that little Bedouin girl watching her house destroyed.  But the sad thing, the grievously, unbearably sad thing about all of this is that we all think this “stuff” is real. That it’s somehow going to keep us alive forever–just me, not anyone else. I, of all the billions of people now and ever on this poor bedraggled planet, will be the one who–if I get enough money and enough stuff–beats the odds, and I, out of all the rest of you, will be the one who wins, who doesn’t die.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s what Alice’s billions, and your “Grand Theft Auto,” and the pipe organ in my living room are all about. Our sad, painful, pitiful unrelenting belief that this “stuff” is going to let us live forever. That we don’t need to give another thought to what any of it means in the long run (well, 90 or so years is NOT the long run, and we know it).

JER05_waAnd so we have no thought of giving any of it to that poor starving kid in Somalia–or even the one over there in West Dallas. It’s none of our business if the Israeli army destroys a Bedouin village–they’re just trying to insure their own immortality. The Bedouin girl is going to die someday in any event, so what difference does it make?

Makes no difference to me. I’ve got my own stuff-guaranteed immortality to worry about. Those kids will just get in the way of my beating the odds. And so will that homeless schizophrenic down in the park. Alice and you and I have everything in common–we’re deluded, selfish beyond belief and almost totally out of touch with reality.