This and that, physis and poesis — on losing one's ball

From the blog "Riverdaze" - worth checking out
Readings: Matthew 16:24-26

The Ball Poem by John Berryman (1914-1972)

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball,
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say 'O there are other balls':
An ultimate shaking grief fixes the boy
As he stands rigid, trembling, staring down
All his young days into the harbour where
His ball went. I would not intrude on him,
A dime, another ball, is worthless. Now
He senses first responsibility
In a world of possessions. People will take balls,
Balls will be lost always, little boy,
And no one buys a ball back. Money is external.
He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes,
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up
And gradually light returns to the street
A whistle blows, the ball is out of sight,
Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy. 

(You can hear Berryman read this on the accompanying CDs of the book Poetry Speaks)

Exaltation by Linda M. Underwood

All this talk of saving souls!
Souls weren't meant to save
like Sunday clothes that give out at the seams.
They're made for wear.
They come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul!
Pour it out like rain on cracked, parched earth.
Give your soul away, or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or laugh it up the wind.
Souls were made for hearing breaking hearts,
for puzzling dreams, remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.
These "folk" who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies who blow out candles
before you sing Happy Birthday—
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.
I will spend my soul playing it out
like sticky string into the world,
so I can catch every last thing I touch.

-o0o-

During the Heritage Open Day event yesterday here at the church a number of people took the time to engage me and others in conversation about matters theological. Naturally, many of the questions came from various versions of standard Christian belief which tend to think that life's true value and meaning is located somewhere other than in this world — i.e. in some other transcendent God, or realm. One's soul is to be saved for this future day and realm. Inevitably this brought to my mind some of Jesus words about losing and saving one's life that we heard in our reading. But I have long felt that Jesus may not have been speaking about "saving" ourselves as disembodied souls for some future life in a heavenly place and time but, instead, about helping us find salvation through seeing how value and meaning are to be discovered, not outside our natural world, but as constantly showing up and being made within it.

As Susanna and I were leaving the church to go home John Berryman's, perhaps best known poem, "The Ball Poem", sprang to my mind as saying something helpful about this. Now, those of you who know about Berryman will know his life was extremely complex and difficult and that, after years of alchoholism, he eventually took his own life. How, you might ask, can we take as a reliable guide someone who, in a very literal sense, was not saved but lost? I could say more about this but, in brief, a poet (like a  prophet — and I think the poets are the bold prophets of our our own age) — a poet can many times see and tell us something true about our world that they cannot, in their own lives, fully grasp and embody. They, in a very special way, have their cross to bear and their struggles to articulate what they have seen should be received by us gratefully as a precious and soul saving gift.

Anyway the "Ball Poem" is a poignant and moving piece which gestures towards one way by which a young child begins to understand the ways by which value and meaning show up in this world. But it begins, apparently, not with a gain of these things but their loss; and not simply a generalised sense of loss, but a specific and very tangible loss — the loss of THIS ball and not THAT ball.

I find this thought important to engage with because it pushes against our own, money orientated, capitalist, present-day culture which is seeking in so many ways to create a highly efficient technological world of infinite replaceability. You lose X, well, no matter, for in the grand shopping malls around our world you will be able to find another X and that "You'll never know the difference between them" — or so the manufacturers and sales-staff say. (I'm not saying there is nothing good in this — having just had my iPad stolen I am, just this week, very grateful for its replaceability). However, I think most of us, just like the young boy in Berryman's poem, still intuitively know that, in so many ways, there are always going to be real differences between "this" and "that" X — and they are unique, irreducible differences about which we care (sorge) a great deal. It is precisely in these differences that the most powerful values and meanings show up. 

Berryman's placeholder for technological, highly efficient, infinite replaceability is money and he states boldly and tersely that "Money is external". In passing, I think it is interesting to observe that we are taught to save money for the future in an external bank just as we are supposed to save our souls for a future in an external world. Of course, in truth, money is very much a human power — so in this sense not "external" to us at all — but I think we can all recognise our understanding how our concept of money has become increasingly detached from other key, and I would argue more primordial, existential, creative and healthy human sources of value and meaning. Technological capitalism is always tempted to try and stamp a unified scheme of valuation and meaning upon the world rather like the head of an emperor or king is stamped on a coin and, when this is the case, it's an external colonial, imperial power that needs to be resisted.

Anyway, standing by the river looking at his lost ball, the young boy has begun to understand, in an deep, existential fashion, that there are other ways meaning and value show up in our world — ways that are highly particular and contextual, which cannot be bought, sold or saved up for later; gift-like ways which can never fully be in the power of humankind.

But for the boy to feel this loss so deeply he must have first experienced one of these primordial, existential, ways meaning and value shows up for us in this world. It experienced in the mysterious way they simply whoosh up within the world, shine, hang around for a while and then — in their own mysterious and unpredictable way — disappear. (This language is borrowed from Hubert Dreyfus — see especially the wonderful book All Things Shining he co-wrote with Sean Kelly.) The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were doing this all the time as did, of course, Yahweh, the god of the ancient Hebrews in the form of the Shekinah (lit. "the dwelling") — for example in the cloud and thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19) an the fire in the burning bush (Exodus 3).

So, we may imagine that when the boy was first given the ball its value and meaning was for him just suddenly and miraculously there — it whooshed up — and he involuntarily said out loud, "Oh my! What a wonderful ball!" I'm sure we can all remember such an event in our own early lives whether connected to a ball or something else. Playing with THIS ball, in THIS moment, was simply the most shiningly wonderful time the boy had ever experienced. His shining ball did nothing less than gather a wonderful and intelligible world of value and meaning.

But, we may imagine — at least in relation to balls — that two or three years hence the ball would no longer have shone so brightly for him. We say, colloquially, but highly appropriately, that the shine has rubbed off it. His ball no longer gathers for him a whole intelligible world of value and meaning. We imagine that his world was now being gathered by something else, perhaps, by his bike, his local church community, a football or baseball team, a girl or, maybe, some complex combination of them all. Had the boy's ball bounced merrily into the river at this moment of time then he may have simply have been able to shrug his shoulders and allow it to drift down-river, perhaps with a sense of regret, but certainly not with an "ultimate shaking grief".

But, of course, Berryman's message relies upon the boy loosing his ball at the brightest moment of its shining — when the ball was at the centre of his world.

Now this whooshing up and shining, being there for a while and then going away, characterises our relationship with things that shine more lastingly, powerfully and brightly than a child's ball. For example, perhaps the paradigmatic example for us all, in the people whom we count as our best friends and lovers. They are the people who have whooshed up into our lives and who shine with an intense brightness, a shining presence that, in certain cases, we hope will be shared for a life-time. They, in their shining presence, gather for us a wonderful, intelligible world of meaning and value.

But life's experience — such as losing a ball — shows us that even our friends and loved ones will have their own moments of departure in the river of time, moments in which we most certainly will experience again an "ultimate shaking grief". How could it be otherwise?

A lost ball is, of course, not a lost friend or lover but, by the river, the boy in the poem learns something very real about a primordial, existential structure of humanly being and human value that technological capitalism (and I think certain kinds of monotheism) simply cannot understand and which money cannot buy and monotheistic theology cannot save. The boy encounters a natural, phenomenological truth central to all human existence — he learns, as Berryman says, about the "epistemology of loss" through the free gifting of a beautiful, shining ball which God (or nature) has given and which God (or nature) has taken away.

Now the Greek word for this "whooshing" up and "shining", of being around for a while and then disappearing, is "physis" and from it we derive, of course, the word "physics". The early, Homeric Greeks, understood the being of all things in this way. To be any kind of thing was to whoosh up, be around for a while, and then go away. A poplar sense of this is still found by us in the way we will talk about how a sportsman or woman or a musician, has put in a "shining performance".

Later Greek culture had another way of understanding how meaning and value primarily showed up to us. This time it was expressed by the Greek word "poeisis" — the "making" or "drawing forth" of something from the natural, material world. Perhaps the most accessible and popular expression of this idea we retain to this day is found whenever anyone suggests that the Renaissance artist Michelangelo was able to "draw forth" from the uncarven block of stone his astonishing sculpture of "David". It's not that "David" was always-already hidden in that block of stone (a platonic David) just waiting to be found, no! Rather, it was that natural events, certain contingent circumstances (such as someone commissioning it) and the developing skill of Michelangelo all came together in a way which enabled the bringing forth THIS extraordinary statue.

Here we are beginning to get a sense of how we can draw forth, or craft, meaning and value from out of both the material world and the circumstances of life, including those of loss. Berryman's poem speaks of this making, too. At the end he says:

Soon part of me will explore the deep and dark
Floor of the harbour . . I am everywhere,
I suffer and move, my mind and my heart move
With all that move me, under the water
Or whistling, I am not a little boy.


Having been so focused on the child and his experience we suddenly realise that the narrator is a grown-up man who, after having seen this boy — and having (I think we may assume) had the same kind of experience himself — is going to draw forth from the experience THIS poem. At his writing desk his adult, made, crafted perspective not yet available to the child , allows him simultaneously to explore the "deep and dark" feeling of this loss even as he knows that,  gradually light will return to the street and he will be awakened by a blowing whistle. Of course, one of the fruits of the narrator's drawing-forth is THIS very poem. As I am sure you are all aware, the English word "poem" comes from the Greek word "poesis". In short the ball's whooshing up (physis) with its inevitable later loss becomes for the narrator — and for us — a significant gain as poesis.

But notice that none of this meaning and value could have shown up if the boy could have been made happy by merely being bought a new ball or told that it had been saved for him in some future transcendent realm. Money cannot buy this kind of experience and it cannot theologically be saved up for later eternal consumption.

To live fully, authentically, — to be saved — is for me, I think, to learn both how to be grateful in the here and now for the constant whooshing up and passing by of nature's gifts and, simultaneously, to learn how to craft out of our experience of this constant gifting and loss our own lives, lives which are not meant to be saved for the future but properly worn out and given away as themselves gifts - something Linda Underwood so poignantly expressed in our opening words.

Meaning and worth is always about THIS life, not THAT life, and was not Jesus' own life a shining example of just THIS kind of life?

All this talk of saving souls!
Souls weren't meant to save
like Sunday clothes that give out at the seams.
They're made for wear.
They come with lifetime guarantees.
Don't save your soul!
Pour it out like rain on cracked, parched earth.
Give your soul away, or pass it like a candle flame.
Sing it out, or laugh it up the wind.
Souls were made for hearing breaking hearts,
for puzzling dreams, remembering August flowers,
forgetting hurts.
These "folk" who talk of saving souls!
They have the look of bullies who blow out candles
before you sing Happy Birthday—
and want the world to be in alphabetical order.
I will spend my soul playing it out
like sticky string into the world,
so I can catch every last thing I touch.

Amen.
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