Message 139, Summer Poetry to Enlighten and Inspire: Rita Dove and the Voice of Loneliness and Longing, 8-11-13rita-dove

(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved


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I don’t know about you, but I have experienced times in my life when I have felt terribly lonely.  There have been a few occasions, however, when I have purposefully chosen to be alone – hiking into the wilderness, curling up at home with a good book or retreating into my yard and garden.  Those are times I have sought solitude – time and space to think, reflect and bask in the company of self.  Those solitude times give me the energy to go back into the world and engage it as much as possible.

But then there are the times when I have felt as if I am adrift in the middle of a vast lake – alone, lonely and sad.  There are people all around me, available to me and even reaching out to me.  But I have felt isolated and disconnected.  My loneliness is not a literal fact but rather a state of mind.  I isolate inside of myself, close the doors and the windows to my soul, and feel all of the darkness of my circumstances – like the trials I experienced when I came out, the void when I did not have a partner, my shyness, my years spent in the closet praying to be made straight and terrified someone would discover my secret.

I imagine all of us have felt such isolation at some point in our lives.  Life’s burdens weigh on our shoulders, we see no light at the end of our tunnels, our pain is acute and it is difficult to explain to others.  It is difficult to feel any comfort from those whose lives seem better than our own.  What we feel is depressed, but such feelings are also experienced as loneliness – times when one IS truly the loneliest number and we have no idea how to correct that.

Loneliness in all of its manifestations is a human disease of the mind and soul.  There are many who are abandoned in the sea of life – the elderly who are shut within their houses or in nursing homes, the sick, the dying, the imprisoned, the outcast and the socially awkward.  But, there are many more who are lonely for lack of a lover, lonely as they face major difficulties, lonely as they feel unable to meet other souls who also long to be connected.

For so many persons – old and young alike – the most profound loneliness is often from the lack of a life partner, spouse, or soulmate.  And, sadly, loneliness is found even for those who have a partner but who feel deeply disconnected from him or her.  As most of us know, it is quite possible to feel the pain of loneliness even when one is married or partnered.

Just as I did last week when we looked at a poem by Richard Blanco to spiritually empathize with immigrants, today we look at a poem by Rita Dove as we seek greater insight into loneliness and longing.  As an African-American woman and graduate of our local Miami University, Rita Dove writes about the small moments in people’s lives as a way to empathize.  Her most famous work, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, details the big and minor moments in the lives of her grandparents.  Thomas and Beulah, as the book is entitled, is a partially fictionalized anthology of poems about her grandparents and how they made a life in the midst of Jim Crow America.  It’s a poignant work that finds its voice not by preaching the benefits of Civil Rights but rather through telling of the daily indignities and struggles her grandparents faced – and the quiet ways they overcame them.

And that is a hallmark of Dove’s poetry.  She tells stories in her poems that prompt introspection.  In their own way, her poems lead readers to identify with and understand feelings.  Today’s poem, “Golden Oldies”, speaks of the feelings of all women and men who are lonely or longing for a lover.  As I read the poem aloud, you can follow along with the printed version on the back of your programs.


Golden Oldies

I made it home early, only to get

stalled in the driveway – swaying

at the wheel like a blind pianist caught in a tune

meant for more than two hands playing.

The words were easy, crooned

by a young girl dying to feel alive, to discover

a pain majestic enough

to live by. I turned the air conditioning off,

leaned back to float on a film of sweat,

and listened to her sentiment:

Baby, where did our love go?-a lament

I greedily took in

without a clue who my lover

might be, or where to start looking.

The poem gives us a clue about the song that prompts such strong feelings in Rita.  The line “Baby, where did our love go?” is from the Diana Ross and Supremes song of 1964 – their first of five songs to reach the pop charts number one ranking.  Rolling Stones magazine has rated it #472 on its list of 500 greatest songs of all time.

As I speak these three Sundays of empathy and figuratively placing ourselves in the shoes of another, let us use Rita Dove’s poetry as a way to now listen to the song “Where Did Our Love Go?”  Imagine it is a hot, sultry evening.  Close your eyes and sway to music if you will.  Recently, life has been difficult, you’re alone, lamenting the absence of love or a lover in your life, and on the radio comes this song:

(Play “Where Did Our Love Go?”)

Interestingly, Rita Dove has been called an American Romanticist.  Her style of poetry is not literally romantic, but rather follows in that form of expression.  Romanticism as an art form began in the early nineteenth century largely in reaction to the aristocratic and elitist ideas of the enlightenment and rationalism.  In paintings, sculpture, literature and music, romanticism focused on the natural world and its transcendent, awe inspiring aspects.  Emotions and feelings were the focus of romantic art – such feelings as longing, passion, love, despair, apprehension, and religious inspiration.  Described as a spontaneous expression of emotion, romanticism in art seeks to reflect the sublime and the ineffable – the kinds of feelings that can overwhelm.

American romanticism is unique in its own way.  American romanticists focus on the feelings of everyday people – the laborers, farmers, clerks and others.  It is democratic and embracing of ideals identified with America – freedom, the individual, and non-traditional themes.  African-American artists embraced the romantic style and made it their own.  Deeply expressive music like jazz and Motown rock and roll are a part of that genre and are fully American in their originality. Rita Dove’s poetry is fully within the American romanticism genre.

The poem Golden Oldies describes a moment we can all understand.  Music has a way of drawing on emotions and memories that remove us from reality.  Maya Angelou, another great poet, says, “Music is my refuge.  I can crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”   To hear Diana Ross sing her lament, we feel the emotions, as Rita describes them in her poem, of a young woman dying to feel alive.  The incongruity of those words describe exactly how many young women feel when love is lost.  Their world has ended, nothing else matters, their pain is the height of all pain and death seems a fitting Romeo and Juliet ending.

Dove wonderfully captures feelings in her poetic images.  We feel the swoon and the sway as she moves to the music, with her eyes shut, and imagines another place – and four hands, a lovers and her own, caressing and searching.  How many times has a certain song inspired us to imagine, hope for or remember the same, to recall moments of courtship, passion or love?  For one who is alone and lost in loneliness, we can understand the emotion and the longing in Dove’s poem.

And the pain of her moment is not immediately apparent.  We sense the memories the song evokes, the remembrance of lost love, the stirrings of longing once felt, but not the full heartache – until the poem ends and we process her words.

Diana Ross’s musical lament “Baby, where did our love go?” not only pulls the reader into a feeling of loss, longing and loneliness, we learn that  Rita feels it too.  The music first stirs her memories or, perhaps, her fantasies of romance.  But it also confronts her with her present reality, her present pain.  Where and when will she find the love she has lost, the love for which she hungers, the passion and desire that floats on a film of lovemaking sweat?  In that sudden realization, we understand even more the lament of her rhythmic sway where four hands move across entwined bodies and of her identity with young love and a soaring pain so sharp it feels like death.

Such is the lament of too many women and men – those abandoned by past lovers, those who have not experienced the rapture of romantic love, those who hope and yearn and dream of a future lover.  And in that regard, such is also the lament of anyone who feels isolated in their suffering – in the trials of relationship, illness, or poverty.  As I said last week, good poetry evokes such shared feelings.

In those sentiments of empathy, we find spiritual ways to show compassion and care for those who ache in their loneliness.  In his life and teachings, Jesus drew the abandoned and the outcast into his circle.  He touched and healed them.  He advised and counseled them.  To the lonely Samaritan woman at the well, one who had been married six times, he gently encouraged her to seek genuine love – the kind that lasts and is not bound up in promiscuity.  To the blind, the lepers, the women shunned by Jewish society for infirmities and bleeding disorders, Jesus was a presence of compassion – one who purposefully inserted himself into the pain and hurt of their loneliness and them offered the redemption that only feeling loved and included can provide.

Loneliness and longing are experiences of the mind, as experts tell us.  Usually, they are experiences of perception and not of reality.  Even so, the suffering is real.   Humans have evolved to be social creatures in need of nurture, and relationship.   God determined that it was not good for Adam to be alone – as the Genesis creation myth tells us.  And so God gave Eve to Adam – to be his companion, lover and soulmate.

Job suffered losses and pains that would destroy most people.  His wife and children all perished.  His business, wealth and physical well being were taken away.  Job was abandoned and shunned.  But he did not wallow and perish in his suffering.  He persistently sought to understand the purpose and the why of his suffering.  He sought the advice of friends.  He pondered, prayed and reflected – beseeching God and other forces for the ability to cope, understand and find renewal – all of which he did.

The Biblical David was also largely abandoned by his family and friends.  Guilty of adultery and murder, harassed by enemies, David was a chastened man who sought forgiveness and understanding.    He found purpose in seeking redemption from his sins and in making amends for them.

Experts tell us that just as loneliness is a state of mind, so too is a sense of contentment, happiness and fulfillment.  We have the cognitive power to change our circumstances – not by changing our surroundings or the people around us, but, instead, by altering our outlook and perception of life.  Persons who feel alone can refocus their thoughts and actions toward helping others in their pain and toward finding meaning in being active.  Dr. John Capiccio, an expert on loneliness from the University of Chicago, says that those who feel alone must step outside of their own pain long enough to serve others.  Real change, he says, begins by doing.  In serving, in getting involved, in doing random acts of kindness without any agenda to meet another person – but simply to serve and care, one will be transformed.  One will become a person who no longer engages in a pity party of their own making but, instead, one who is capable, giving and content.

Surprisingly, one will likely experience the paradox of serving and giving.  When we give, we receive.  When we let go of the sorrow, longing or actively seeking a lover, we may well find him or her.  When we focus not on our own suffering but on that of others, our pain ironically ends.  A new life purpose is discovered.  New friends are made.  Life reorients itself to be the kind we are called to live – it’s not about us, it’s about others.  It’s about our family, our friends, our colleagues, and even total strangers.

How often have I, over the past few weeks, had to remind myself that the difficulties I face with my mom, her dementia and helping my parents move is nothing?  I’m their son.  I’m called to love and serve them.   That’s what children do for their parents.  That’s what people do for each other.  Out of the ashes of our despair and our loneliness can emerge the seeds of renewal – and that comes only by forgetting the self and remembering others.

We come full circle back to the poem “Golden Oldies.”  As a woman past the prime of her youth, as a woman experienced with lost love and the desire to find it again, Dove calls her reader to remember the power a certain song can hold over us, to feel the ache of young love shattered and lost, to share the reality of deeply wanting something – but not knowing how to get it.  With her beautiful images, we feel all of the emotions of longing and loneliness.  And in our feelings, comes our understanding and our empathy.

That is what we are asked to do in life.  When we meet a dirty and smelly homeless man on the street, we’re called to understand his plight – the pain of poverty, the prison of addiction, the daily indignity of neediness, the inhumanity of living in the midst of plenty but having nothing.   For the immigrant, the criminal, the lonely, the depressed, the enemy, the single mom on food stamps struggling to feed her kids, – we can only show true compassion, we can only offer real help – if we have a heart, if we seek to understand, if we figuratively place ourselves in the midst of their affliction.  Empathy is a path to shared feelings, a path to understanding, and thus a doorway to offering the kind of concern that leads to help that truly heals.

Let us stop offering opinions and judgement of the other.  Let us stop talking.  Let us stop condemning and demeaning.  Instead, let’s listen.  Instead, let’s hear the cries and see the tears.  Instead, let’s feel the pain of another.  In doing so, we will understand.  And in understanding, we will then effectively, and compassionately, serve.

The poem “Golden Oldies” is a good one.  It reminds us of our own experiences of loneliness.  It provokes us to find ways out of our depressions and sense of isolation when we experience them.  Most of all, like all great art, the poem enlightens our minds, inspires our souls and pricks our hearts.  Let us go forth and be empathetic people.

I wish each one of you much peace and joy…