Initiation: To Serve in Order to Know (3) — Choice   Leave a comment

Is either choice more than blind?

Is either choice more than blind?

Do choices ever present themselves clearly to the self?

You summon your judges of hunch and experience and logic and passion, your own High Court. Finally they’ve assembled, all robed and solemn, but when it comes down to it, often the choice is no choice at all. Or all choices are equally bad. Or indifferent. Nothing to distinguish between them. Or both are good, better in fact than whatever you’ve got right now.

No wonder we resort to oracles and soothsayers, or follow a prophet who shows more than half a chance of being right. Or at least less wrong than everyone else. We must choose, but we can’t. Or the choice itself doesn’t matter. Or it matters supremely. Our lives in the balance. You get it. Familiar human territory. A deep intiation all its own.  How many choices you’ve faced — a measure of how far you’re being stretched.

(We say to our young people, “Make good choices.” Sounds wise, but how many of us start out by telling ourselves, “Yes, this time I’m definitely gonna make a bad choice”? OK, one night here and there you decide to throw caution to the winds. You accept things may go wrong — part of the thrill, in fact, till that kind of thrill gets old. But an actual good choice: how is it you make one, exactly?)

I use a Robert Frost poem for my divination today. (What? You have a better oracle? Use it then — but do let us know your results six months or a year from now. That’s only fair.) Frost has served me well in the past, and besides, with a name like that, how can I refuse?! The name itself is a rune, an ogham, a sybil-whisper on my skin. Sounds like he must have chosen it as a stagey pseudonym, part of a poet’s verbal bling, though he didn’t.

Of course, Frost and his poems aren’t garbed in the ivy blessing of centuries, like the Mabinogion is, or maybe the Colloquy of the Two Sages. The old New England sage and his poems can be homely, earthbound, regional. Names matter, yes. And if names are attached to something old and venerable, aren’t a lot of us willing to trust that something, regardless of its actual track record? Safe, familiar.

waterholeWe troop to the old water hole, not because it has water right now at our need, but because it did in the past. Or so solemn voices among us say. But how many skeletons lie around the caked mud of the dried-up hole? And even now we crowd each other to stare and speculate when the water might return, bubbling up clear and fresh.

In “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Frost writes about splitting wood. In the painful Vermont cold that stalks outside our windows right now, splitting wood and feeding our woodstove is about all I can manage. Set the log up, raise the axe, have at it. The rhythm gives you intervals to think in, and when the axe doesn’t hit a knot, and a single blow neatly drops and divides the wood, your bones and sinews know a rightness hard to find in other realms of living. The physical correlate to choosing, to making a good choice: you feel it.

How often the body knows and takes action before the mind can even begin to engage! How often reflex and instinct save our lives, sparking off the spinal cord before the slow processing of a choice can become a thought. We jump, duck, flinch, blink, dodge, twist, swerve, spin the wheel, slam the brakes — the body saves us so often we’re at a loss when the body itself fails, through sickness or injury or — eventually — death. Old Reptile Brain, we erect no altars to you, though you see us through more disasters averted than we can count. Here is your winter incense, your tribute, your prayers and offerings. Hot cocoa, stews and soups, curries, sauces, butter, wine, hearthstones warm to the touch, wool scarves, light and heat and familiar voices saying Come in, get warm.

Face a choice, and what does the body say? How is it that we know things “in our gut”? Can we “stomach” what we opt to do or not do? One guide for choice, right there. A spiritual barometer we often look past. Too homely, when we want glamour. But especially good at guiding us away from bad choices, if not always toward good ones. Go with your gut.

My choices can often look skewed even from the first moment I face them:

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”

And the pause that choice may bring to me, if the spinal column hasn’t already intervened to propel me one way or another, as often as not muddies things rather than clarifying them. “Two tramps in mud time”: my choices.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

Getting and spending. Is my life only this log-splitting, this routine? It has its rightness and beauty — but right now I’m sick of them. Cabin-fever? Seasonal affective disorder? Hunger for the return of the Light? Sure. Have you felt it, the call to serve something more than this daily routine? Right now the power I might spend for any common good goes to splitting logs. At least it keeps me warm.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

Even before I choose, too often I sense the danger of choosing at all. Choice can stun us into inaction. Even thinking about it may throw everything into jeopardy — “if you so much as dare to speak.” But also, that’s just what the season does. One step forward, two back. (Right now, mid-February, I’ll take mid-March gladly.)

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Old love. There it is. “The time when I most loved my task” hits me when I see I must give it up. Or when it’s not mine anymore, but belongs to someone else. Or its shape has changed, and I must find it elsewhere, with few clues to guide me. Move along, move along. Oh, where? But no, that’s not yet the end of the story. (“Everything will be all right in the end … if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end,” says Sonny in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Nope. Can’t manage sunny in the middle of winter. You ask too much.)

Out of the wood two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps).
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
The judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

carvedinstoneI long to “know a fool,” even if it turns out it’s me. I can take it. Know things for what they are — that’s half of choosing, right? Because if I can’t do that, how can I choose? Choices come, and everything I’m doing turns “theirs of right.” They claim it all, swamping my direction, my focus, my energy. So I turn to careful, linear logic. An “appropriate tool” for the moment?

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right–agreed.

Here is the claim of need, stronger. After all, we pay attention — right has a price, right is a need. Spinal column says so. Gut may say so. You feel it, that need, creeping along nerves and veins, feathering your skin, the breath of something you can’t yet make out. But real. Hot real.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

That may be what I seek. Right now, though, I don’t even know. What am I yielding to? Separated, fractured, scattered, longing for two to be made one. Not sure I’m the one to achieve it. But worth achieving. We mate and strive to obliterate the division between us, if only for a brief interval. We choose and strive to make our choice the only thing worth doing. We live and strive to make a life worth more than the death that ends it. High stakes. Lower them, oh lower them any way I can.

In the last lines my oracle speaks more clearly. Not sure though if I can listen, if I can hear it.

Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Love and need, two guides for choice. I can live with that. I do live with that. So do we all. Faces of the same thing?

This is the Initiation of Choice, sorting out need and love. Difficult initiation. Usually lifelong. We serve it as we struggle with it, and it opens, or delays us till we earn it.

2-out-of-3And want? Oh, love and need are enough to grapple with. Need and love will open a space to figure out want, which often takes third place.  Probably should, if we’re honest. Though it rarely does, since we bundle need and want into a lump of trouble for ourselves. That old Meatloaf song: “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” Ah, but which two?!

And two questions follow the initiation, which we answer as we can, from out of who we are: Can I love through the choice I need to make? Do I need what I’ve spent my life loving?

Those are the challenge questions of the initiation of choice. I serve my life by how I answer.

 /|\ /|\ /|\

 Images: choice — paths; carved in stone; two out of three.

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