So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (1942)
The end is where we start from.
T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets (1942)
The occasion for this post is the New Year. As I look ahead through these last December days, I see the door to 2016 slightly ajar, a faint light filtering toward the place where I am seated, and an affective sense of the principle that – whatever the way of these times and whatever my fears of the future – there is always at least a small promise in beginnings.
I feel the New Year holiday unlike the sense I get from any other season. The truth of this has only swelled each year. Most years this is because the season provokes a nearly unbearable nostalgia for the moments which have passed away, the friends I once loved whom I no longer keep up with, the milestones which have shrunk to seeming inconsequentiality in the elapsed distance. I sit here, every year, and try to consider more than what I’ve lost. This gesture then allows me the chance to notice, perhaps, how I’ve grown, how and who I’ve become, but never without that haunting pall of the things remembered or unremembered which I have shuffled off. What comes next? I ask, yet feeling smaller than I was the year before.
This is one manner of seeing things, but it is not the only. Lately I’ve been ruminating on the poem “Little Gidding” from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The cycle of poems of which “Little Gidding” presents the culmination deals with the difficulty, even the impossibility, of determining the matter of living toward death. Time pulls us onward past unspeakable moments, unspeakable because missed or misunderstood, and the poems explicitly attempt, fail, and try again to give voice to those moments. The problem is, life happens at such an immediacy that to remark on it is to capture something which is no longer there. As Eliot works through these meanderings, he brings himself in the end, in “Little Gidding,” to a consideration of the generative site from which life happens – not a specific milestone in passing time, but the timeless manner of happening. He journeys toward “the still point of the turning world” – as he calls the timeless present in “Burnt Norton” – and, though not finding what he came to find, he discovers the opportunity to affirm the new, this beginning.
True, living affirmatively has become a staple of optimistic clichés, self-help literature, and pop spirituality, you might say. We are familiar with catchphrases like “be here now” and images of Liz Lemon pumping two fists in the air while exclaiming “I’m saying yes to life!” It’s a Zen idea, that life consists neither in wrapping a stranglehold on the future with our plans nor in rehashing melancholic memory of a rigid past, but in centering, finding the present in every moment and living there.
I guess I’m not necessarily refuting these ideas, in their essence, but seeing their recognition as a perhaps inevitable end of our search for purpose. “It would be the same at the end of the journey,” Eliot says, “If you came at night like a broken king, / If you came by day not knowing what you came for, / It would be the same…” At the end of a year, turning around again at this self-sacralized season in time, I am trying to make sense of my life. And this is exactly the wrong move, because in doing so, I allow myself only to notice the sense which I have shaved off, deconstructed, let wash away. We may come up with “resolutions” for the new year, thinking this extends a sense of purpose forward, something we may pursue and fulfill, but again, Eliot says we will not find what we’re looking for: “And what you thought you came for / Is only a shell, a husk of meaning / From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled / If at all.” Notice what he does here. He does not say that purpose at all is futile, but what he does say is that a purpose is like a seed: we plant our purposes in time, bearing the form of the meaning we have ascribed to them, but the active present of later dates will reveal the seed to show something entirely other than the meaning we had presumed.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. …
We cannot forecast meaning, but we can use it to supply the opportunity to act. To be, in the vitality of a living present, and this present will show us that what we thought is not what is, but that what is requires humility, even reverence. “You are not here to verify, / Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity / Or carry report,” the poem says. “You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid.” And what does prayer allow us? As in the best of the religious traditions, prayer opens the way, centers us, and thereby allows us the opportunity and motivation to act in the turning world.
When we become conscious of the inarticulable present, whatever words or sense we tell ourselves, as we must, become memorials to past moments. We kill the movement up till now in order continually to begin moving again. Here we stand, seeing the “Dust in the air suspended” which “Marks the place where a story ended.” Yes, there is the weight of death in this, the death even of our own lives up to now, but think about what the moment of death offers us: the eulogy, the elegy, the chance to remember our lives as seems fitting, to shape them into stories which mean something to us. “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph.” The single poem, today’s particular elegy to our own lives and meaning-making, must not become our retirement house. This is how the melancholy of year’s end happens: when we rehearse, rehearse, rehearse the “meaning” of our lives without achieving the recognition that every end is a beginning, we subsist only in death.
Being between two lives – unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past.
What has been we carry with us; it has made us. And toward what? In the poem, Eliot meets an interlocutor whom he identifies as a dead master, a collection of the voices which at one time had informed Eliot’s manner of being in the world and now returns to impel him to the present. The dead master does not wish to rehash the ideas which he had once handed to Eliot, because those ideas are like the fruit which is eaten to bring health to the body but that “the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.” The point is to move, having eaten the fruit, rather than regurgitate and eat again. “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” The master leaves Eliot with a valediction, one suitable, I think, to all of us dwelling at the opening of the new year: “From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit / Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire / Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”
We all may be dancers in the unexpected flicks and turns of the fire of Love, that force which enlivens the timeless present moment, which allows us to expand our purpose beyond desire, resolutions, toward the entirety of the universe in which live, whatever happens. It is the genesis of our involvement in happening, purifying our purpose and reprieving us of the shackles of expectation and rehearsal. Love vivifies our meditation in prayer – it beckons us only to return to the promise that “all shall be well and / all manner of thing shall be well.” It grants us “A condition of complete simplicity / (costing not less than everything)” and in so doing it opens the way, not only in the world, but in ourselves to dance – actively, affirmatively – in the wonder of ever beginning.
“The end is where we start from.” Love is the starting-from. As the New Year thrusts us into encounters with old problems, old weaknesses, old questions, old wonders, we are given the gift of beginning again. We can find our way in the world, not because we’re looking for it, but because the newness of every moment reveals what we have found and urges us to keep finding. It only seems fitting that I end this piece with a valediction from Eliot, one of my own dead masters, who, whatever you might think of him, has at least, no less, offered me a little life and a little chance at beginning, becoming. He says,
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Happy New Year, everyone, always.