We respond to oracles according to our tendencies, as we respond to anything else life presents. Recently, a young poet (just nine) and I were looking at the Tarot cards together. My poetry student loves to write on inspiration from the beautiful images of the Crowley Tarot deck. When we first started using the cards for writing, I could feel myself wanting to protect her from the negative cards. How nervously I’ve shuffled the cards when I’ve consulted them for myself. How often I’ve worried, Will some dark image color my day… Death with his great scythe, the tower tumbling, howling dogs? What relief I’ve felt when I’ve turned up cherubs and flowers, angels and light.
And yet, my young poet reacted with neither fear nor relief to the images so charged for me. When she turned over a new card, I sensed only curiosity. The other day as she was preparing to write a poem, she flipped over the Five (Oh dreaded fives) of Wands, the card marked STRIFE. She studied its yellow color and crossed swords. Excited, she glanced at me. “I’ve never gotten this one before.” Taking up her pen, she began to write. Then, as an afterthought, she turned to me again, “What’s STRIFE?” Oh dear, I thought, she didn’t understand; now she’ll get upset. With as neutral a voice as I could muster, I said, “When something clashes with something else.” I paused. She waited. “Or someone doesn’t get along with someone.”
“Oh,” said she, no trace of disappointment or upset, only interest; she returned to finish her poem.
My young friend seems to welcome the images dark or light. As she teaches me this, I reflect on my recent life. Just as I set myself against the dark images in the Tarot, how often I resist experience. Why can’t such and such a person like me more, or another one read my novel? Why can’t my brother come to holiday dinner or the winter rains wait until our bulbs are planted?
I would love to learn to greet life as it comes, with interest and imagination, just as my poet friend greets the Tarot cards. Hello. “I’ve never gotten this one before,” I’d say, and write a poem.
But in what voice does one best greet the vicissitudes of life? Lately I’ve taken as my inspiration the voices of the milkweed and the stone in Richard Wilbur’s “Two Voices in a Meadow,” a favorite poem of mine since childhood. In the first stanza the milkweed speaks:
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.
As the milkweed surrenders to the wind, so might we surrender to music, to the imagination, to making love. Over the years I have translated the voice of the milkweed to many situations. Sometimes, when seated on my zafu, I’ve repeated these lines as a kind of mantra, hoping to teach myself to surrender to the very flow of phenomena.
Imagine this: I reach into the Tarot pack, and pluck the Three of Swords with its melted swords and harsh gray geometry. SORROW, in bold letters. I feel a compulsion to keep pulling up more cards; maybe if I turn up enough sunshine and fountains, cherubs and doves, I can bury this painful Three. I notice my habit of mind. A daring voice urges me: Don’t pretend; surrender to sorrow; let it pass through. Don’t resist the pain in life; open to it. As the Buddhist saint Shantideva once said, “Let all sorrows ripen in me.”
Joanna Macy, spiritual/social activist, writes, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Your heart is that large. . . . ” The voice of the milkweed can teach us to open to the universe, to our true nature, that is inseparable from all of nature. “Shatter me, great wind:/I shall possess the field.”
After the milkweed, the stone speaks:
I lie where chance would have me,
Up to my ears in sod.
Why should I move? To move
Befits a light desire.
The sill of heaven would founder,
Did such as I aspire.
The voice of the stone is steady, immovable, enduring. It teaches us: Stay constant, honest—whatever changes, is changing, the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows—keep mind with body, awareness with experience, action with values. Don’t flee the STRIFE card, the SORROW card, the pain when your sister won’t visit, when you feel loose skin on your once-youthful face, when you read of death squads in El Salvador.
When I first read this poem years ago, I thought that the two voices were opposites, that I had to choose one. (For all I know, Richard Wilbur may have intended this too.) But now I believe that you don’t have to choose between the milkweed and the stone; both are essential, and they come together. The Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu reminds us:
… he who wants to have right without wrong,
Order without disorder,
Does not understand the principles
Of heaven and earth.
They are correlative: to know one
Is to know the other.
To refuse one
Is to refuse both.
For me Buddhism teaches the combined voice of the Meadow—the milkweed and the stone as one: Keep an awareness which is steady and sinks like the stone in deep waters; surrender, like the milkweed, to the changing flow of experience. What a contrast to the all too familiar voice I wrote about earlier—the one that fights life as it comes. Last week a dear friend of mine said to me, “Sometimes I feel like I’m going at all this with a battle ax.” Me too. I don’t want to accept—that my family is imperfect, that my body is aging, that we all die, that others may see life differently than I.
How wonderful it would be to remain firm and present, and to also let go. To let go of clutching and fighting for my own small claims (parents who love each other, friends who always have time, my grey hair turned brown again), to face what is, like the stone, and like the milkweed to release my fighting identity into “the field” to allow a connection with all that exists.
On the evening that I was writing this, Gandhi showed on TV. Watching the movie and reflecting on Gandhi, I understood another dimension of what the images of the milkweed and the stone mean to me. Think of Gandhi and repeat the words: “What power had I/until I learned to yield. . . . Why should I move? To move befits a light desire.” The milkweed yields, but is not passive; the stone expresses stillness, but not inertia. Gandhi embodies both: the willingness to surrender and the refusal to move.
In this divided and unjust world, Gandhi sensed the potential for wholeness. He believed that love restores wholeness, and will ultimately triumph. With this faith, he committed himself to healing the inequalities and separations among people. Like the stone, Gandhi stood steadfast. Like the milkweed, he surrendered to the blows of the lathi stick, to the discomforts of prison, to the risk of death. And informing all of his activities was a fundamental surrender—to the healing power of nonviolence. Gandhi’s nonviolence or satyagraha is a beautiful expression of the combined voices of the stone and the milkweed. Satyagraha means the force that is born of truth and love.
To make the voices of the milkweed and the stone one’s own is to be truly fearless. How often I’ve panicked when trying to be present or when I’ve risked surrender. I’ve been grateful when inspiring models have come my way. This past summer, in a fearful moment, I discovered a new model of fearlessness. She is Beryl Markham, a flier, and, for me, a true woman warrior. (See West with the Night by Beryl Markham. North Point Press, 1983.)
West with the Night is Markham’s gracefully written memoir about her life growing up in Africa and flying a one-woman plane. When Markham was a child in East Africa, she spent many of her days hunting barefoot with the Murani in the Rongai Valley or in the Cedar forests of the Mau Escarpment. Hunting with the Murani was a kind of rite of passage for the young Beryl. It allowed her to see beyond her own narrow view—into the minds of animals and the wisdom of the land. To flying, Markham brings the fearlessness that she learned with the Murani, absolute attention, along with the ability to abandon herself to the wonders and dangers of the natural world.
Markham, with the combined wisdom of the milkweed and the stone, flies over Africa. Like the shaman who journeys into solitude, she flies into the night to witness the terrain of the mind.
Being alone in an aeroplane for even so short a time as a night and a day, irrevocably alone, with nothing to observe but your instruments and your own hands in semi-darkness, nothing to contemplate but the size of your small courage, nothing to wonder about but the beliefs, the faces, and the hopes rooted in your mind—such an experience can be as startling as the first awareness of a stranger walking by your side at night. You are the stranger.
Flying through the darkness, watching the flow of “the beliefs, the faces and the hopes,” Markham reminds me of the meditator on retreat who observes the flow of consciousness, and even consciousness itself, like a “stranger” by her side.
As Markham flies, her perspective widens with the clouds, the wind, the stars, the fullness of the moon.
Three hundred and fifty miles can be no distance in a plane, or it can be from where you are to the end of the earth. It depends on so many things. If it is night, it depends on the depth of the darkness and the height of the clouds, the speed of the wind, the stars, the fullness of the moon. It depends on you, if you fly alone—not only on your ability to steer your course or to keep your altitude, but upon the things that live in your mind while you swing suspended between the earth and the silent sky.
I read this and my perspective—on the universe, on the planet, on my sense of a separate self—opens with hers. I feel my own potential fearlessness to explore the vastness of the night, the vastness of the mind.
Beryl Markham, who flies into the darkness, a young girl who turns the STRIFE card into poetry, and Gandhi—unshakable in commitment, fearless in surrender—all speak to me in the images of the milkweed and the stone. I like to hold images like these in my mind, let them steep.