Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Walk in the Park

By Patrick J. Walsh

Sometimes when I’m writing about several separate things at the same time, they all kind of end up running together in a sort of literary mashup.

Lately the strings that have come together have been the result of some fiction I’ve been writing; some poetry I’ve been reading; and some prayers I’ve contemplated while wandering in the park near my home.

The park is really interesting this time of year. Where there was ice just a short while ago, and slush even more recently, there is now mud -- a silty brown mix of wet, discarded dirt, gravelly mixed with broken bits of blacktop and stones disturbed by the flow of the frozen water melted, and discarded shards of bark that have been withered off the trees by the harshness of this tumultuous winter.

When I walk, I sometimes have no choice but to slog through the mud at those stretches in which the pavement is covered or missing, and the sound of my boots plucking through the wet mush makes me chuckle. It is a funny sound, and a welcome distraction from the chill that still clings as the last gasp of this past winter struggles to hold off the encroaching spring.

Where there was ice and slush… there is now mud — gravelly mixed 
with shards of bark withered off the trees by this tumultuous winter…
This was a hard season for many of the people I love. Their difficulties recently led me to some of the cherished reading of my youth: John Donne’s “Meditation XVII,” from “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.”

A regular feature of high school and college curriculums, the famous passage of this work is probably familiar to anyone interested in literature or poetry:

“No man is an island, entire of itself... any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

But there are also other elements that have struck a chord with me lately, and which seem particularly appropriate to the winding down of the long winter season.

There is, for example, the beauty of Donne’s imagery of our lives as leaves in a divinely authored book:

“...all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language... God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another...”

...and there is the poet’s somewhat startling idea of the value of suffering:

“Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors ...for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction...”

As I walk along the tree-lined passages of the park, moving each day a little closer to a time of longer light and the charity of warmness in the wind, I think about Donne’s view of affliction and amend it a bit.

In my wishes for the well being of all those who are suffering -- those close to me, and those whose trials I know of only from the accounts of others -- I hope that any ability any of us may have to “borrow” some measure of their misery, through sharing or support or prayer, might help to relieve some of the sting of that suffering.

If such borrowing cannot stop the progress of illness or injury or even death, I pray that it might at least make the passage through misery a bit less painful for those who are hurting. That has been my prayer throughout my walks this winter, and now with the burgeoning promise of spring in the very air around me, it is transformed into an audacious hope for better days -- for those in whose struggles I share, and for that great unknown mass of all humanity, in whose afflictions we are each, and all, involved.

© 2011 Patrick J. Walsh

John Donne's Poetry (Norton Critical Editions)

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