It is not a new practice to sit and contemplate the year to come and reflect upon the year to pass. For me, without question, one of the exceptional experiences of this last year was my visit to Connemara in Flat Rock, NC, the last home of Pulitzer prize winning writer and poet Carl Sandburg.
The weather lowered and my friend and I, one umbrella between us, arrived on Sandburg’s doorstep fairly soggy. Throughout the tour I kept an ear tuned to the docent’s stories as I did my best to remain on the runners and snap photos without using a flash and without disturbing anyone. I was particularly happy to get a shot of the library ladder in the office where the poet arranged his trips. Nearby hangs a poster depicting a life mask of Abraham Lincoln, of whom Sandburg wrote what many historians consider to be the definitive biography.
I have noticed that whenever I consider the powerful feeling I experienced there of serenity, reverence, and vitality I think of that photo. Why? After a time I realized that a part of me deep inside had been seeing that library ladder as a representation of the ladder in William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” I did not feel, however, that that fully explained the power of my response to the place nor the pull of my memories of it.
The depth and breadth of that symbol I captured in that photograph finally reached my conscious mind and I realized this was the Creative’s way of giving me a thumbs-up, a glimpse of the reality that can come when one chooses to “lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
Perhaps it took a good while for the symbol’s depth and breadth to reach me because I had wrestled with the choice some years ago and, once made, never imagined turning back from it. I just never thought to look for validation. Validation offered, however, I decided to revisit those days when I contemplated my choice. It was a common enough situation – a person faced a turning point in their life. In this case it was the children growing into young adults and the household changing.
While I had nurtured this dream to be a writer for decades I was no stranger to those niggling doubts: ‘Who am I to presume I can do this?’ ‘Do I dare?’ ‘Do I dare not dare?’ At some point in that process I found Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” I knew the feeling of seeking, seeking, seeking a theme and the fear that all I had were circus animals to show.
The sheer unadorned honesty of the last section of the poem was compelling: Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind but out of what began?/ A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,/Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can/ Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut/Who keeps the till./Now that my ladder’s gone/I must lie down where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
William Butler Yeats
As I said, compelling. I ventured down the ladder, down into that dark shop of mystery — and found William Shakespeare. Oh, I always suspected I’d have to face him someday — but at the freaking beginning? Let me tell you he pretty much dominated the place.
I wrestled with that particular ‘angel’ at the bottom of that ladder for a time because, again, ‘How do I presume …?’ Then I decided it would be best to just let go, drop all my preconceptions about him and let ‘beginner’s mind’ guide the process. To approach something with a beginner’s mind is to approach that thing with a mind empty of knowing about that thing.
Then a curious thing happened: I began to approach myself, my Self, there in that mysterious rag and bone shop of the heart with beginner’s mind. In essence, I told myself, ‘Show me. Show me who you are. Tell me, “Wherefore art thou Barbara?”‘
The beauty of all this, I think, is that the heart mysteries there never disappear. Never.
I think some lines from “The Nomad Flute,” the poem that opens W. S. Merwin’s 2009 poetry collection “The Shadow of Sirius” (Copyright 2009 W. S. Merwin; Copper Canyon Press; Port Townsend, WA) describe my feeling very well:
I have with me/all that I do not know/ I have lost none of it
but I know better now
[photos: top- Front Office of Sandburg home, National Historic Site, Flat Rock, NC; Barbara Butler McCoy; 2011; bottom– Sign for the Dog Star Tavern, City of Fernandina Beach, FL; Barbara Butler McCoy; 2011]