Here’s an example from the poem “Aftermath” by Longfellow
When the summer fields are mown,
When the birds are fledged and flown,
And the dry leaves strew the path;
With the falling of the snow,
With the cawing of the crow,
Once again the fields we mow
And gather in the aftermath.
So, as you can see “aftermath” means something very different to what it used to. It’s original meaning had positive connotations, like a bonus crop that can be harvested again. Yet today when we think of “aftermath” this is not what we understand; today the meaning has only negative connotations.
Some say that we are living in the aftermath of the pandemic, although truth is that it is not over. Certainly not here, but especially in other parts of the world. That said aftermath isn’t about starting over it is about growing from what is already there. No one gets to start over in life. There are no clean slates or blank sheets. We live from where we are, life goes on from the moment it is in. “Aftermath” does not only mean what follows a disaster, a terrible event, it also means a new growth of grass following one or more mowings, which may be grazed, mowed, or plowed under. Perhaps this concept of aftermath can help us in our time and place.
We have to metaphorically speaking at least, graze on what we have, we have to mow on and plough on what we have, we cannot just simply begin again. We have all been through a difficult time there has been much grief on so many levels, not just in recent days, but throughout our lives. We have live with this and grow from this.
As I was thinking of this idea of mowing on again, following a difficult time, a barren harvest, the following favourite of mine by Stanley Kunitz came to mind “The Layers”. I have shared it before, but it is worth hearing again.
“The Layers” by Stanley Kunitz
I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
The poem was written at a pivotal moment in Kunitz’s long career. He believed that it spoke of something that was central to his whole experience of being a poet and a person. It was written in response to a personal crisis. He had suffered several grief’s, including his mother and two older sisters as well as several dear friends. It was a time of change in his life, both personally and as a writer. He stated that:
“. . . I wrote 'The layers' in my late seventies to conclude a collection of sixty years of my poetry. . . Through the years I had endured the loss of several of my dearest friends, including Theodore Roethke, Mark Rothko, and - most recently - Robert Lowell. I felt I was near the end of a phase in my life and in my work. The poem began with two lines that came to me in a dream, spoken out of a dark cloud: 'Live in the layers, not on the litter.”
Un my eyes the poem is a wonderful example of “Aftermath”, in both senses of the word. Yes it is about picking up the pieces after a crisis, but it is also about reaping a second harvest too.
“Live in the layers, not on the litter.” There is some beautiful wisdom here.
In many ways this simple line may well be the key to everything, to live in the layers of our lives, the whole of our lives. So often we want to move on and leave behind the litter, the mess, the pain and the suffering, but to do so is to fail to bear witness to our whole lives. I believe that we have to live in our whole lives, we can’t just pick and choose and no matter how hard we try we can’t really leave our lives behind.
Kunitz was an avid gardener and maybe it is from this love that the idea of the layers grew. In horticulture “layering” is a method of propagation that brings forth new life from the dying or broken stem. This allows new roots to form and therefore life goes or do I mean grows on.
We cannot live on the brokenness of our lives, but we can grow anew from the litter if we live within the layers. We cannot completely begin anew, nor should we want too; we cannot leave behind what has gone before, nor should we want too; we cannot escape who we are, nor should we want too. The spiritual journey is not one of distance it is one of depth, it’s about finding ourselves at home in the ground at our feet. It’s about living in the layers. We can mow and plough once more through the litter and create new life from this. We can truly live and learn from aftermath.
Life goes on, life moves forward, this can be a little frightening at times. We might not know which way to turn either. We can feel utterly lost. It can all feel discombobulating. How often in life do we find ourselves in this place and not know which way to turn. Which road do we take?
This brings to mind another favourite poem, which I have shared before:
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
“The Road Not Taken” truly is an everyman poem, it speaks such a universal truth. How often in life do we all meet that fork in the road and have to make a decision, often not an easy one, to walk down that road to who knows where? Of course for every road that we take, there is at least one other road that we do not take and I am sure that we all wonder, from time to time, where that road may well have led.
Now of course in every moment of our lives we have to make small almost insignificant decisions. We often make them without really thinking, they are purely instinctive. That said some of the decisions we make are monumental and life changing. I suspect in the poem, this fork in the road is one of those big moments, those life changing moments. Of course when making these decisions we cannot have the gift of foresight. Like the path in the poem we can only see so far ahead. The future truly is unwritten, we cannot know for certain what is to come.
“The Road Not Taken” ends with the immortal words “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence; two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”
The poem ends with this sense of not living with regret. It is about taking the path that will make all the difference; about taking the more challenging path. The path less taken is the one that will lead to the deep and meaningful life.
To leave the comfort zone of our established way of being often appears terrifying; after all this is the way we’ve always done things. To wander down an uncertain path, the one rarely travelled down, does appear scary. No doubt it will be uncomfortable and uneven and a little overgrown. But should we avoid this path? Should we choose the easier softer way? By avoiding the path, that is still partially grassed over are we choosing life, or are we just making things harder than they need to be? Is it better to choose caution, to just let life happen to us than to choose the riskier path that forces us to engage with danger?
to make those decisions what is required is discernment.
The word discernment is formed from the Latin word “discernere”, which means to separate, to distinguish, to sort out. Just think of prospectors panning for gold or sifting through the rocks and dirt in search of gem stones. They are separating, they are sorting through the muck for the jewels, they are distinguishing, they are discerning. It brings to mind once again images of layering in gardening or raking over ground and ploughing once again, that old meaning of aftermath.
Discernment is the key to making those wise choices. We need to discover what is of value and what needs to be discarded in our minds. We need to discard the dirt and muck to uncover the gold, the gems, to have clarity of thought, so that we can those decisions in life. This is not easy, especially when we think of all that information that swims around in our lives and are consciousness; information like an enormous shoal of fish swimming round and round aimlessly in a small tank and not really going anywhere. Our lives, our heads are just so full of stuff. How do we discern what is healthy, what is right? Well we need silence; we need time away from all this information and all these things that pull us in so many directions. We need time to be still, time to be silent, time to connect to our bodies and our breathing; time to hear that still small voice of calm. A voice less than a whisper, but somehow more than silence.
We need to awaken to our true consciousness in order to make those sane and sensible decisions about life. We need to learn to separate those things that are of value and those that are not. We need to do this in order to hear that voice, that is less than whisper but that is somehow more than silence; that voice that has spoken down the centuries, to those who had ears that could hear it”
The choices we make matter. It matters what we are and what we do. I do not think that God chooses this for us. Yes, God offers guidance, “The Lure of Divine Love” but it is up to us to choose the path that we follow. Often the most rewarding path is the one that is less worn and more over grown and perhaps seemingly more treacherous. Often it is the one that is less travelled by. Maybe this is truly living by “Aftermath”
So, let’s live our lives by “Aftermath”, lets rake that ground again and try to grow something new, lets live in the complex layers of our lives and separate the litter, lets live by discernment and choose the right path as we move forward. Always remembering that we can turn again and change direction at any time, should it turn out we need to reassess our decisions. Let us live in and by “Aftermath”