I walked out of my office this morning and the air smelled like suntan lotion. I knew something new was in bloom, but couldn’t name it. I had just gotten off the phone with a new friend, we had talked for two hours straight, and though I had been struggling on a piece of writing for weeks, I felt encouraged—though in real time, was no closer to finishing the draft than I had been earlier in the day.
Despite the fact that the piece was hanging over me, I went on a walk around the block and listened to an On Being podcast with Richard Rohr recommended by my friend. In the podcast, Rohr talked about the difference between chronos—everyday, minute to minute time, and chiros—deep time, wise time, the kind of time that reminds us each of our actual size in the universe. Rohr referenced a Latin phrase that he had learned as a Franciscan monk, sub specie aeternitatis, which means, in the light of eternity, as a context that could be applied to any moment in order to shift focus into chiros. He explained that the things that bothered young men, and at the time he was talking specifically about men, those irritants often disappeared in the light of eternity.
I saw what he meant immediately and the writing that I was struggling with ceased in that moment to have such a tight hold on me, at least in a way. I could see how finishing it today or tomorrow would had no real world consequence for me or for anyone else. The ten pages I’m hammering away at matter very little to the eternal universe.
I wound my way through our neighborhood to the public garden where the flowers are going gangbusters. Every green stalked showed off a petaled swagger. The peonies especially flaunted themselves in all their excess, the layers of pink and white petals, their over the top scent, blossoms so big and heavy that each stem seemed at risk that it might break under the weight of so much beauty. I sniffed the blossom, but this wasn’t the suntan lotion smell that had struck me in the morning.
I walked some more and wondered if my writing mattered at all. In the grand scheme of things, does anything really matter in the light of eternity, but because I’m writing about gender identities, and because gender identities transcend time in a way that I necessarily don’t, the writing did seem to matter somehow—though, you know, eternity is a lot of pressure. I might buckle under the weight of an idea that mattered that much, and plus, what does a single person’s contribution matter to an archetype. And there I was caught in the tension again—ideas matter way too much or somehow not at all. I found myself slightly disappointed in Rohr’s light of eternity, or if not in Rohr’s notion itself, the way my own mind was distorting it.
On the way home, I walked by a house with an unkept garden. Weeds rambled, the lawn was burned out in some spots, and near the edge, there was a small tangle of last year's sweet peas. By all measures they shouldn’t have been there. Lathyrus odoratus, that tendril-ed clutch of vines, humble blossoms, and scent, is an annual, and this garden hadn’t been tended this year and likely not last year either. But there it was, a wildly occurring splash of pink, seeded there who knows how. I leaned over to take a sniff, and I knew right away it was the scent I had caught a whiff of earlier in the morning.
I stole a sprig and carried it home, holding it close to my nose the whole way. It cast a spell on me, that scent. I felt small again, like my mother would walk around the corner and take my hand. There was relief in that—to be whisked away on the scent of an accidental flower, to be reminded of love.
Later in the day I found this poem. I hadn’t ever seen it before, but once again, I am grateful for Naomi Shihab Nye who speaks my own heart better than I ever could.
The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
Watching him from the birdhouse.
The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.
The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.
The boot is famous to the earth
more famous than the dress shoe
which is famous only to floors.
The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.
I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
And those pieces came together for me, the scent of unplanned sweet peas, the work of button holes and pulleys, and one word at a time. Nothing was cornered into here or there, eternity or this moment, nothing spectacular was required. And I believed it, you know which is the thing. We can know these things but not actually believe them. Perhaps what I understood today, though not for the first time, is that believing, actual faith in a thing, is an act that requires the body. The knowing needs a vessel, my mind grips, but my believing body breathes. Its a thing better done than said, but in a body whose way is characterized by language, the language just keeps coming, whether it serves or not. And so here I am writing again, after a few weeks of feeling very stuck.
Wishing you all the sweetness of springtime.