My first day as a substitute teacher in high school I was assigned to a class in a computer lab. The students there were supposed to be making personal websites, which they did, but this entailed searching for things on the Internet which they felt represented them. I felt older than dirt after one minute of watching them search. I had forgotten how powerful advertising is: glossy images lighted almost supernaturally, speech in even tones with no mistakes or hesitation whatsoever, everyone with bright, perfect skin.
I had forgotten what it means to have your standards and aspirations bound to this unreality. Even the students not bound to the mirage had friends that were. I wondered if underlying the entire world of high school was the craziest, most manufactured image, one meant to move product, taken subconsciously by the students as the end of a life well-lived.
I knew right then that the fact I loved poetry and books made me completely alien. What could I have to offer? All I knew by comparison were scrawlings on a page, some of those scrawlings not even that memorable.
It’s in this spirit I want to update some of the commentaries I’ve written on the Poetry 180 series. I don’t want to tell people how to think or what to think. But it isn’t fair to throw poetry and literature and higher ideas at kids—or anyone, really—and not explain a damn thing about how they may inform your own life. It’s really rich when adults who themselves don’t read books tell kids to read, as such behavior can be indistinguishable from bullying.
What do I want you to do with this poem? I imagine the same thing I did—find something about it that interests you and make it yours. For once, possession of a thing—here, a work of art—may entail sincere, open communication about things which we want to understand better:
Tour (from Poetry 180) Carol Snow Near a shrine in Japan he'd swept the path and then placed camellia blossoms there. Or — we had no way of knowing — he'd swept the path between fallen camellias.
You are there. You have made a journey to another land, walked a path yourself. You may think yourself a mere visitor, but the word “tour” comes from the Old French word for “turn,” which itself traces back to a Greek word for a lathe—a tool that shapes an object by means of turning.
You are changing, ever so subtly. It starts with wondering about the simplest things. What makes a shrine spiritual? What makes this shrine, in front of you, a place of worship?
Near a shrine in Japan he’d swept the path and then placed camellia blossoms there. Near the shrine, not in the shrine, there’s a path. Someone devoted to it is there. He has walked a path. You first think he swept it, as it looks a bit cleaner than other paths you’ve seen. The camellia blossoms stand out upon it, as if the path is meant to frame each of them.
That would be a reverential act in the way we Westerners understand reverence. God is omnipotent and must be given due respect. “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord (Isaiah 55:8). If you think you recognize the given path, you take care of it, treating it like your most precious possession.
But then, you have another thought, one more radical. You realize that not all of us worship the same way. You wonder about other sacred actions a person could take, ones that show devotion differently.
Or — we had no way of knowing — he’d swept the path between fallen camellias. You’re with your tour group. Maybe one of them blurted this out, trying to say something stupid to get everyone to laugh. But it’s not stupid, not for shrines in a country with a tradition of animism, where everything around one—e.g. rocks, plants, bugs—has a soul. The recognition that everything is sacred means recognizing the beauty and the necessity of the fallen blossoms. One would not sweep between them to clean them of dirt, but to mark the path one must take, a path between sweetness and loss.
Some forms of spirituality demand less in terms of obedience and more in terms of awareness of the mysteries of this world. I don’t say “religion” because all religions have a political, legalistic side, and the spirituality we are concerned with here, while it might be thought Eastern, could easily be seen as secular in the authentic sense of the word. “Secular” from Latin saeculum, “generation, age.”
I’ll illustrate what I mean, though it may seem another puzzle. When I first wrote on this poem, 8 years ago, I wondered if the wind blew the camellias down and swept the path. I wondered, in other words, if we were dealing with an anthropomorphized god, an air spirit living in the shrine perhaps, who perfectly realized his intent by means of an action. We mere mortals can only guess at this unity of intent and action and attempt to be reverent in our diverse, imperfect ways. Maybe we have to do homage to the blossoms, over and against the dirt, or maybe we push the dirt aside—just rearrange things—in order to acknowledge that we are seeking a path. Before the expulsion from Eden, God is described as an anthropomorphized god, one walking around the garden, looking for Adam and Eve.