Thursday, June 11, 2009

On Poetry and Anxiety at 4am: "Horses at Midnight Without a Moon"

I woke this morning at 4 a.m. in total fear and anxiety. Do you know this feeling?
Imagine my 40 year old frame stirring: gasping for breath, sweating from too many blankets -- or the heat of bad dreams -- and the dance of my life's failures before me. All the missed deadlines, poorly completed assignments, all the areas that I could imagine I sucked in my work and relationships were parading around my bed. It was not a fun place to be at 4 a.m.

Alone. In darkness. Trying to breathe.

I replayed the dreams that took me to that moment. The long ago awkward lover showing up to greet my parents, though his presence was no longer desired. (Failure to marry?) The creative writing and performance tasks that a dear friend was completing, while I watched and took notes, but didn't dare attempt. (Failure to publish?) The former student whose heart and brilliant mind inspired me, but who I failed to ever broadcast or promote. This young man crossing the street, waving, dancing, but seemingly taunting me: you didn't ever really do anything for me as a teacher! (Failure to acknowledge?) The colleague's questions and artistic processes that I knew transformed lives, but who I didn't document. (Failure to act?)

I was shrouded in some crazy darkness and doubt, some ego-laden fears about what I conceive of my life's work and purpose, and what I have truly accomplished. It was hard. I wanted to cry. I felt really alone and unable to shirk the sweaty salty experience of an anxiety attack at 4 am.

So I prayed. I replayed James' Finley describing Siddhartha, and how this man did one extraordinarily simple, but radical act: "Buddha sat and calmed himself." I tried to do this same thing. I breathed in and out and in and out. I said the "Our Father" five times. Then, a bit more calm, I looked at my dreams and these fears presenting themselves in my awake state. I saw my ridiculous ego thinking I was all that and capable of Christ-like activity. I laughed. I said, "Thank you," to the nuns in my life and sent a couple notes of prayer and gratitude out to my okay-to-text-at-4am-family-and-friends.

And then I read this poem. Pulling up the Writer's Almanac on my pda, I took in Jack Gilbert's piece, "Horses at Midnight Without a Moon" and I laughed and wept with the incredible resonance of poetry speaking to me. Art mirroring life.

And now, how many hours later, after a day's work, and some time to look back at it all, I share it with you. How many wake in these pre-light hours with such dark thoughts? Who encounters their own egos in such a crazed dance of desire and drama, fear and shame? Who finds Gilbert and celebrates his similar knowing about the heart and the animal world and the hope present in it all?

Enjoy the poem! Happy Contemplating!

Horses At Midnight Without A Moon
by Jack Gilbert

Horses At Midnight Without A Moon
by Jack Gilbert

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there's music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.
The summer mornings begin inch by inch
while we sleep, and walk with us later
as long-legged beauty through
the dirty streets. It is no surprise
that danger and suffering surround us.
What astonishes is the singing.
We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.
Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

"Horses At Midnight Without A Moon" by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Jody said...

Been there done that anxiety thing many times. you can always call or text me 24/7. As coincidence would have it I was wide awake at that time any way.

Jan said...

We are all ugly at 4am...the only antidote I know is gratitude. I have to remember to be glad all of that is in the past, and to start say thank you for what I have really really loudly. (It takes me about a half an hour to remember to get back on the gratitude wagon).