I read the following poem this past week, and I want to share it with you, bit by bit, the way it’s coming to me,and the memories it evokes.
Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.
~ Denise Levertov ~
“Just when you seem to yourself / nothing but a flimsy web / of questions…”
That is so often how I feel, especially in this political and environmental climate. I feel unsure, spread out like a ragged web. Where once I had felt strong and supple I am now broken in places and hanging in air. My certainty is blowing this way and that way, getting caught by every passing person.
What do I do? How do I respond? How do I resist? What is my work?
“…you are given / the questions of others to hold / in the emptiness of your hands,”
In my work—in spiritual direction, in coaching, in classes and retreats, and in helping ministerial candidates—I find that my hands must be open.
If we would acknowledge our own questions, our hands must be open. And then we will find that in that openness, the questions of others come into our questioning hands.
“songbird eggs that can still hatch / if you keep them warm, / butterflies opening and closing themselves / in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure / their scintillant fur, their dust.”
When I was quite small, maybe in second grade, I found a butterfly, a monarch (sovereign!) just leaving her (I thought of it as her, because I thought of her as me) chrysalis. I picked it up so gently, I thought.
I helped her, I thought.
She began to move her wings, so slowly. Pumping her bug lymph into those strong wings made for long journeys, and I helped, I thought. I gently, gently, I thought, pulled a wing out further than it could go by itself.
And then that wing was stuck out, while the other kept moving, kept pumping. But the one I had helped was stuck out, still, unmoving, thin. So I tried to put it back, so gently, gently, I thought.
The monarch, the sovereign built for long distances, died.
I had killed her with my firm, determined, impatience.
The butterflies, “opening and closing themselves,” need patience. They need patience and a place to stand so they can open and close, open and close, pumping that bug lymph into their strong wings, covered with that tiny “scintillant fur.”
Scintillant fur! Have you ever heard such a beautiful explanation of the shimmering powder of a wing?
The questions, the butterflies, trust you, trust me, to wait. To wait and then to watch in wonder as they go, as their purpose is revealed.
“You are given the questions of others / as if they were answers / to all you ask. / Yes, perhaps / this gift is your answer.”
“Yes, perhaps,” the poet says.
‘Yes, Yes, Yes!” say I, full of impatience and determination, and gentleness too firm.
And then I remember the scintillant fur of the questions, the egg to keep warm in my hands, not by closing them, but by protecting its tender shell with gentleness. I say, more quietly, “Yes, perhaps…”
I remember the flower petals of the questions, and how they cannot, must not be rushed, if they are to live. I say, more quietly, “Yes, perhaps…”
Yes, perhaps the answers are in the questions that have been given.
I remember the dust of the butterfly wing that needs patience. Patience as though to hatch like the songbird egg. As the not-yet-singing songbird needs patience to come out.
I say, more quietly still, “Yes, perhaps…”
After all, a chick on the verge of hatching has no idea of flying, no image of Earth far below. She has only her wings, the barest stubs of feathers, one tooth, and the sure sense that where she lives is too small for her.