Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Inner Landscape of Beauty

Connemara tree
I first heard John O’Donohue’s voice during a profoundly dark season of my early adult life. I was sick as a dog, barely crawling through a brutal depression, and shut up in a proverbial dark night of the soul. My quest to save the world had been sharply aborted and turned upside-down by a mystery illness, and I’d been pretty much shipped back to a country I thought I no longer had a home in.
So there I was, very alone in a new state, working temporarily in a part-time office job someone had kindly offered me as I attempted to get treatment and maybe heal.

As anyone who’s suffered any kind of non-incidental depression knows, it was a crapton worse than any of the physical suffering I was trying to survive. I could barely think; I could barely pray; I could barely hear God or sense any kind of presence that was once so natural to breathe in. Every day after work, I’d drag myself outside to the forest by my house and trudge through the woods for half an hour in a desperate attempt to stay alive on the inside. Those days when spiritual books seemed full of dry, muted words, trudging through the forest was about as good a prayer as it got.

And then, one day a random newsprint catalog was being passed around the office advertising random overstock stuff sitting in some warehouse, calling our names. Did we want anything? I didn’t see anything interesting—except...there was this audiobook on cassette called Anam Cara. I had no idea what Anam Cara meant, but there were a bunch of Celtic knot designs on the cover along with a photo of what I [very mistakenly] thought looked like Stonehenge, and I admit I'm a sucker for Stonehenge (primarily because I’ve never seen it in real life, so they say). 

Soon, I was driving to the doctor or grocery store and sitting longer than necessary in parking lots, because I was listening to this voice with the distinct cadence of a native Irish-speaker speaking words to me about the soul, about God, about story, about pain, about connection…that I could actually hear and understand.

I probably listened to those tapes a zillion times. 

Since then, I’ve still yet to read a single book by John O’Donohue; Id get the book…but then find that I just wanted to listen to him talk about all the things he was so excited and inspired and enlivened by. (Because reading big abstract words is a shifty business, but when John O'Donohue says them as he means them, they're authentic and pulsing with life.) Somy experience of his ideas has been solely based on listening to his voice on audiobook. And because of that, when I finally heard The Inner Landscape of Beauty,* Krista Tippett’s monumental 2007 On Being interview with him shortly before he passed on, I felt I was listening to a friend. (Although I’m sure everyone else did, too.)

Anyway, beauty is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As in beauty will save the world beauty. Of course beauty draws every human being (whether or not we’re aware), but I don’t know that you look for it or recognize your need for it quite as desperately as you do when you’re in pain. Because it’s not simply a pretty landscape; it’s a landscape of power and presence that you see as it is only when your inner eye has been opened. And that landscape can be anywhere, strangely. So…this evening as I was driving home, I listened to John O’Donohue read his incredibly profound 2003 treatise on beauty for a few minutes. And suddenly, I had to shut off the stereo, because I realized I wasn’t really seeing anything, and I needed to see. And then the light hitting the leaves on the trees lining the freeway nearly pierced my heart.

This preamble is way too long, but I had to at least try to explain a little of why this one relatively short conversation/interview meant so much to me. I could be wrong, but I think it was the last time the voice of this philosopher/poet/scholar (who really stayed a priest even after he stepped away from official priesthood) was recorded. So tonight, I couldnt help but return to it and distill a bit of his voice into another “found” poem. (Although Im not sure you can really distill his voice.*) The strangest thing was that I couldnt see these words without hearing them as hed say them...I guess his voice is still uncannily present.

Again, none of these words are technically mine—only the spaces and dots and dashes. I do take full responsibility for playing with the connections between the words to create new sentences and thoughts (and any possible mis-juxtaposing that may have occurred). So if you don’t think something works, oops. But hopefully the heart of this great poet's wisdom comes through with the same refreshing voice, just in new form.

*If you've never heard it before, listen to the whole unedited interview. Absolutely worth your time.

If you love what you hear, consider purchasing for yourself Longing and Belongingthe brilliant collection of John O'Donohue's wonderful narrated books, available through his official posthumous author website. To say tit's worth every cent is an understatement! (Although, if it's too much for your budget, let me know and I may be able to suggest an alternate source for much less, depending on your country of residence.)