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Where the Heart Is

You’d never know it by the way it feels, but they tell me we are actually moving now. The Earth is rotating. We are revolving around the sun. We are moving very quickly. Yet none of us loses our footing. We seem to be as still as stone.

Not that stone is all that still. Stone shifts. Earth sports its fractures and its faults. The continents are in motion, which is, I suppose, how we come to have that unsettling phrase “continental drift.” It makes movement in nature sound dull and imperceptible and slow.

But we know that’s not true, either. We know that nature can shatter the silence of mountains, or the cities of commerce with sudden chaos—remember Mount St. Helens blowing her enormous crest or the San Andreas fault unleashing its shudders. And then all is changed.

You’d never know it by the way it feels, but our bodies, too, are exploding with noise and upheaval. Our blood thrums, our hearts throb, our lungs resound with steady respiration. Our cells divide, destroy, invade, and mutate. Our organs grow weary of the body sheltering them and become troublesome. Or they blow themselves out, as we shoot a clot or ruin a sphincter or necrotize a length of bowel.

You’d never now it by the way it feels, but we are in transit.

There’s that lovely French saying, “plus ca change, plus la meme chose,’” which means the more things change, the more they stay the same. But it isn’t true, is it?

What’s true is that the more things change, the more things change.

At least that’s one of the messages I pick up in this period of early winter darkness. Though the business of living usually obscures the changes of living, we take on faith that change is a constant.

After all, the story that’s told at Christmas is all about change, displacement, the absence of a resting place. Mary and Joseph make their legendary journey. Displaced from their home for political reasons, they go to a place they have to be and, upon arriving, discover there is no place for them to be. It makes me consider the idea that maybe no place is home.

The shepherds, already sitting in fields in the middle of nowhere, are summoned by an aurora borealis of chorusing angels to go to some other little nowhere for God-knows-what reason. Their hallucinatory meandering toward Bethlehem comforts me when I find myself wandering in the mystery of things.

The Wise Men were hired to do one job and ended up doing quite another one entirely, which probably pissed off the king who’d hired them. If wise men can live with abrupt and radical changes in their plans, I should be no less wise than they.

The darkness of early winter confronts me with the perilous truth that, though I can’t really see it, I—we, all of us—are always in transit, always losing what we had, never to have it, at least not in the same way, ever, ever again.

That would make me horribly sad, except that the darkness of early winter also reminds me of this: “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose”—the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s easy to become sardonic about this “season of giving.” Still, I do think that for lots of people, giving presents is a kind of symbolic way to express a faith in unfailing love—the kind of love that’s bigger than our best intentions.

Unfailing love doesn’t abandon, but abides throughout lives of change. Friends of mine, at their wedding, made the bold promise to love each others’ bodies as they age. I heard those words as a kind of confession of faith: that the more love changes, the more it remains the same.

So I come up against this paradox: that the more things change, the more things change; and that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s as if we live in two contradictory worlds, simultaneously: One is a world of apparent stillness—that in reality is changing at a breakneck and terrifying pace, within us and around us.

The other is the world of an apparently quiet and distant God—where, strangely, in the love of those around us we sometimes find all we need to know of what’s divine.

But the paradox begs the practical question, which is how to live in the fast-flying moments of our decaying lives while at the same time luxuriating in the love that will not let us go, the love that sages and artists and children and dreamers would never dare to disparage?

Years ago a friend of mine from graduate school—a painter, a poet, a passionately brilliant student—was, to the dismay of friends, planning on becoming a Southern Baptist missionary in Argentina. It would be a far cry from the life of the intellect she was leading at the University of Virginia. I wondered if she would ever be able to harmonize her commitments and her passions, which seemed so at odds with one another.

She seemed unsure of this herself. But she loved her God, she loved her husband and children. And poetry is portable. So she took up this sojourn in a strange land.

She wrote in a poem, describing one of their first nights, before their furniture and books and usual possessions had arrived from Virginia:

“We make,” she said, “of nothing but our bodies, home.”

It’s true we are in transit in all the mortal ways: living in a shifting, spinning, exploding, drifting and decaying world.

But however you regard the homeless Christmas baby, on his myth-sized bed of straw, he invites the wild imagining that divinity could be at home in nothing but a baby’s body. And I can’t come up with a better way to live in the thickets of paradox than to risk the hope that this is so—that in wild faith we can make, of nothing but our bodies, home.

—Jo Page

 You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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