Thursday, June 7, 2007

Metaphors for Love & Death

Sometimes, sadness and joy
       are so similar.
The palolo knows
       the sea's dark glory
       the dawn's bright dissolution
       the thin membrane between.

In her book, The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Caron writes about the Atlantic palolo worm, which inhabits burrows in dead coral rock. "The life of this strange little creature seems to be ruled by light. In its immaturity the palolo is repelled by light--by sunlight, by the light of the full moon, even by paler moonlight. Only in the darkest hours of the night, when this strong inhibition of the light rays is removed, does it venture from its burrow, creeping out a few inches in order to nibble at the vegetation on the rocks." As it reaches maturity, however, the body of this little worm begins to change, as its posterior end fills with eggs or sperm, growing increasingly distended, thin-walled and fragile. "At last there comes a night when these worms--so changed in their physical beings--respond in a very new way to the light of the moon. No longer does the light repel and hold them prisoners within their burrows. Instead, it draws them out to the performance of a strange ritual. The worms back out of their burrows, thrusting out the swollen, thin-walled posterior ends, which immediately begin a series of twisting movements, writhing in spiral motions until suddenly the body breaks at the weak point and each worm becomes two."

While the anterior of the palolo retreats back to the darkness of its burrow, its newly freed second-self swims upwards toward the waters' surface, carrying within it the creative potential for new life and joining the swarms of other light-seeking worms as the night wanes. "When the first rays of the sun appear, the worms, strongly stimulated by the light, begin to twist and contract violently, their thin-walled bodies burst open, and the eggs from some and sperm from others are cast into the sea," to merge and give birth to a new generation of palolo larvae, who continue their spiraling dance among the waves for three days more, before finally seeking dark burrows of their own as the process of life begins again.

"Imagine yourself exhausted in the middle of a desert... Sitting down will take away your pain, but it will kill you. The walk for water will hurt, but it may save your life."

- Daniel Gildenlöw, from Pain of Salvation

Excerpt from a letter:

This is not suicide. If we can imagine "death as an act of creation," can we not also imagine love as a kind of dying--a dying to the self, the breaking down of boundaries, the ecstasy of utter, creative union.

But dying is painful, and I feel overcome with sorrow and doubt, even though the longing for this loving-dying is not an escapist or fear-driven desire. I relate to the palolo worm, being torn in two by conflicting natures, driven wild by the watery beauty of moonlight, but also afraid. Even when that part of me manages to wriggle up into the light, it finds itself alone, just one little worm spilling its guts out into the empty, indifferent sea. Perhaps for a while, there is bliss and joy, the certainty of giving myself to the purposeful act of loving. But in the end, it is not union or creation, it is only death. I return to that surviving part of me hiding in its burrow, wondering, "What was the point of that?" If this were some actual life-giving process, I could embrace the struggle and the losing bits of myself to the light... But each time, the certainty dwindles, and the choice to love seems to make no difference.

I am the opposite of suicidal. I want life so much, sometimes I feel like I'm losing my mind in a suicidal world. I seem to pass by people every day, doing their best to play possum, to keep still and save their strength, to preserve their sense of self. I walk the desert in hopes of water, but sometimes I wonder if this isn't just another kind of death, a kind of chasing down the mirage of reciprocity. I see others walking the horizon, chasing their own ideals with nobility or grace--but I cannot overtake them, cannot even seem to come closer. We may only be "ugly bags of mostly water," but I can't help but think there is some grace, too, in loving one another. In holding still and drinking deeply of each other's dreams.

I visited the Conservatory recently, where they have a new exhibit of intricate glass sculptures in among the flora. In the Butterfly Room, the monarchs wove in and out among the delicate rays of the crystalline sunset, drawn to the echoes of their own holy colors suffused with light. You told me to look for "the one with the waters, and all the glass," you told me I would know it when I saw it. As I walked through every room, each time I came to a fountain or pool, I wondered, "Is this it? Is this the one you meant?"

Until I came to the East Room. For a moment, I hesitated, still uncertain, unsure if I had been fooled so many times before, if I was making myself the fool again. But when I turned to go, I discovered that I couldn't--the place held me still and gradually I began to understand, "Ah, yes... this is the one, with the quiet waters, and all that glass." I sat quietly on the low iron bench for a long time, thinking about how much time we spend talking, how little we say and how well we say it. The spiral dancing of our growing up, our words the painful walking through our private deserts. I wanted to stay, to be still, to seek the deep company of loving presence.

Who'll sit with me in the East Room
       silver seafoam mosses
       moonstone waters
       cobalt fiori
be silent with me
and watch the light move in?


  1. Chilluly glass! ! They had a very similar exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden back when I lived there. I would love to have been able to explore it with someone as lively and perceptive as you.

    I had never read this passage of Rachel Carson's about the palolo worm, either.

  2. I really think poets should not be allowed to read books about biology. We have this awful tendency to turn everything into a metaphor. ;)

  3. Beautiful, beautiful post. I also think that love is the most important thing. It reminds me of another beautiful post on a Christian theology blog about divine love pouring into the universe. I must try and find it again.