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Mark Christhilf



There is something in me, I am not sure what, but I know it dwells in me.  Suns and moons pass through it—rains, snows, whole seasons.  The living depart, the young are born, and yet it remains unchanged.  I do not know what it is, but it sees me seeing.  It hears my voice speaking, hears even what I am now telling you, and watches my living as from a great height.  In it I am dust in the radiance of dust, one spark lit from the grand burning.  In it my fears and desires are yours.  All faces form one face.  And everything that happened once goes on happening.  Civilizations rise, decline, and fall, and in each one the departed are struggling to answer the same question of what it is and of how we have it.

All I know is I want more of it, more and more and more, no matter what the day or hour, no matter where I am or what I am doing, I need it as an addict needs a fix.  It is as if it were life itself, and without it I am lost, locked out of myself, bereft and abandoned, and because it comes and goes like the wind, I have chased it with coffee, tea, or wine, with waiting and listening, austerities, with solitude and loneliness.  Night after night, vigil after vigil, the search makes me what I am.  And this I am sure of:  it goes with me to the end.  After that, who knows?



The last night of summer.  Faint is the odor of earth.  Dry to the touch is the grass.  Deep in the inward darkness a voice is counting as if there is not much time.  To live is to be gathered out of the earth which one shares with the living, and it would be enough except for the voice measuring all one has done against what remains to do.  What is it but the mind’s response to the possibilities which consciousness confers.  Companions on our temporal journey, they are invisible to everyone but ourselves—yet they perpetually demand existence.  To make them real is to write our story, and through the power of will, they enter time.  Always dissatisfied with who we are in the present, they ask for a return on our talents, abilities, and capacities. When we fail to realize them, once passed over, they linger on with the mournful face of regret.

The possibilities are the truth in us, looking for a being in whom others find kinship and confirmation of their hope that the good exists.  Isn’t that why truth gets in the way of an honest person?  And why, no matter how much sweat we have given to any project or relationship, truth will not fully accept its success, disdains all smugness and conceit, and scorns complacency.  Breaking through the walls of the house, it reminds us of the times we lost patience, indulged laziness, and willful desires, and knowingly betrayed our purpose. Before the potential inherent in truth, everyone is an imposter, and due to the need to think well of ourselves, many avoid or deny it and bear enmity toward those who pursue it.  It seems that’s why truth follows our undertakings with these questions.  Could you have done even more?  Are you giving one hundred percent?  Because its possibilities are unlimited, to fulfill one only leaves another, thus there is always more to do, and more that might have been done.  Our truth, then, exists not as certainty, but as a moving target, always ahead, drawing us on toward the unknown future, and coming to seem an unpayable debt, it leaves us always unfinished.  It seems our destiny is to be reborn again and again.



It has streets of its own, lined with trees and houses that belong to it alone.  Fields and forests found nowhere else, broad lakes, and ocean beaches.  Its many faces, bright as violets. are all desperate for our attention, wanting us to live among them again, to share once more their joy, sorrow, or conversation.  What is it but memory, casting its spell, playing the past over and over, demanding our moments, our hours, our breath, and in its realm all that once happened continues to happen.  Yet everyday it grows more crowded and becomes a populous city, for from briefest encounters spring the phantoms that go with us until we die.  To live is to relive.  But why?

Are the memories who we are?  Do you cherish them, striving to keep them fresh and vital, take photos to help, save souvenirs, keepsakes from your travels, or evidence from past accomplishments?  Do you behave as if your past is real—or only an illusion?  There’s little doubt that memories are grist for the mind’s mill, help reason make sense of experience, and provide the landmarks by which we make our way through the ever-changing organization of  the world.  But they have a strange power to crowd out the present, so that the work before us becomes difficult, and they come willy-nilly, without reflection, often in a flood, a reverie, which interrupts the direction of thought.

Memory seems to insist we are our past, and our identity more fact than possibility.  Much of their power lies in the fact that our future is unknowable, uncertain, and its projects may never happen, whereas the past seems reliable and safe, imparts weight and solidity, and assures us it is who we are.  But what happens to those who cling to their past?  Don’t they often become complacent, accepting themselves just as they are, without feeling any need for improvement? Overemphasis on memory may lead us to take the ashes for the fire:  to be increasingly focused on our private lives and less able to participate in the living whole.  It may embed us solely in the dimension of spacetime so we forget the judgement of eternity which informs life with meaning.

It seems the purpose of memories is our transformation, to show us not who we are but who we could be.  By bearing witness to the fears and desires to which we once succumbed, they expose our weaknesses, shortcomings, and flaws, for not only do they bring pleasure but also remind of wrong decisions, selfish behavior, transgressions against others; and because they reenact repeatedly such mistakes, they indicate the way to correct them, signaling the work that must be done to make ourselves better and more magnanimous.  Ideally, memory points to the way ahead, revealing how much room there is within us for another, larger life. It can be a liberator as well as an enslaver.  The decision is up to us.



It’s no one thing, it’s the way it all fits:  the ocean breathing in its shoreline, the rivers swelling in springtime to drain the rain-filled fields.  It’s the communion of the water with the sky as it faithfully accepts the changing colors.  It’s the harmonious wedding of natural things that makes me want to call it love.  But the skeptic in me forbids that, seeing nothing but matter in motion; and claims that everything we see and are is only atoms falling through space, combining and recombining.

Do you too form an argument between yes and no?  Do you see too much for denial, but too little to be sure?  And when you decide on one position, does doubt begin to buttress the other, nixing your attempt to establish any sort of firm conviction?  Can it be that affirmation produces negation, and negation, affirmation?  That the two trade places naturally in our mind, just as summer and winter slowly yield to one another?  Do you strive for a balance between your positives and negatives, for one harmonious outlook?  When you feel love is the meaning, are you being superstitious?  Old-fashioned?  Romantic?  Do you consider faith a gift?  A mystery?  Can it emerge from acquisition of knowledge?  And when you feel gratitude for the simple goodness of things, who do you thank in the midst of your unknowing?



In the depth of winter when snow grips the land and icy winds bite the flesh, I often notice bare trees following the river which winds through a nearby meadow.  To think of their roots drinking beneath the white cover, and to see their naked limbs reaching skyward, can bring to my mind this silent prayer:  O let me live to see these trees green again.  Whereupon a voice from somewhere asks:  To whom are you speaking?  And sheepishly I reply:  To no one.  No one holds that power over me—either I live or not.  And find myself then a contemporary, facing a total darkness, bereft of the myths that make God omnipotent and disposed to intervene in the prayer’s life.  Yet despite what reason tells, pray I did.  But why?  From what motive?

Does prayer form naturally in the subconscious from thirst for life and fear of death?  Is it from a sense of helplessness before life’s power to change our fate abruptly and completely—through accident, financial loss, or crippling illness?  Is it from the need to lose ourselves in some greater whole, which then becomes for many a personal benefactor who grants good fortune, and even helps us to overcome harmful instincts?  Such prayer can lead easily to idolatry and a false sense of security:  we give up power over ourselves and the freedom to control our own fate.  For what is God but a possibility who depends on us for existence.  Isn’t s/he the one who needs our help, who waits imprisoned in matter, waits in the cells and neurons of the mind, powerless to emerge unless through our efforts?  Isn’t God asking to be born in us—to have us for companions?

Yet if you are like me, you may find it hard to make return on the God within, because the mind is a wild thing, full of tricks and illusions, and prone to pursue its own inclinations.  That may be where prayer has a part to play, by helping us to concentrate, to marshal the energies of the mind and apply them to the task at hand. And prayer can yield an increase in consciousness which clarifies life’s complexities.  Not only that, but without it we all too quickly forget the good done for us by others, or easily overlook the work they are doing to give purpose to their life and make a contribution.  Prayers of thankfulness can keep us from taking things for granted, and from viewing the earth as but a useful resource.  So, if nothing else, to pray on occasion serves as a mnemonic—like tying a string around your finger to remember what’s important.




Mark Christhilf, emeritus professor of humanities at Eastern Illinois University, was educated at the University of Maryland and has published a book of poetry, Gracious Is the Earth, as well as a book of criticism on W.S. Merwin. His poems, essays, and reviews appear in numerous literary journals, including The Yale Literary Magazine and The Midwst Quarterly. His last published essay, “The Essence of Consciousness,” in The Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research, explains the central role of consciousness in the formation of human identity, the evolution of the universe, and the historical process.

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