Gravel pressed through my Levis there on the cement. My hands draped over my knees and I leaned my head against the stone wall, wishing it would cool the heat climbing up my neck. This person next to me in the shade — barely half my age — she asked impossible questions as though making effortless small talk.
Looking back, it was only one question. But it felt like a full entrance exam to somewhere I wasn’t sure I wanted to go.
“I know what you have to do, ” she said. “But what do you want? What do you desire?”
My mouth opened to answer. But neither my brain nor my heart delivered up any useful vocabulary. I sealed my lips around a clump of dry air and breathed it back out in relief when another person came and sat down, carrying a generous armload of subject change.
My soul tangled itself that day at my lack of a ready answer to what seemed such a basic question of one’s existence: What do you want?
I stewed on my ignorance a while, but like many things that knot up my soul, it went its way soon enough. The conversation with my friend came back to me as I read David Whyte’s chapter on Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge in this week’s portion of The Heart Aroused.
The story, centuries old and known throughout Ireland, goes that a young boy was raised by two druid sisters after his father’s murder. When he determined they could no longer protect him, Fionn set off into the world himself, perhaps even in search of his destiny.
Along the way, he joined up with a band of gifted young poets. Overnight, the infamous bandit Call Mac Cona slew his companions, but before being struck with the sword himself, Fionn declared his identity to the man, who immediately recognized the son of his old captain. Mac Cona took Fionn as his apprentice, teaching him everything he knew.
(There’s more to the story, of course, than my skeletal retelling here. That’s just one reason in a thousand why you might like to pick up this book one day.)
In the brutal slaying of the young poets, Whyte sees more than a terrible sword:
The first entrance of the adult male into Fionn’s life is in the guise of the slayer of youthful innocence. . . . Many of the youths [the adult world] has slain are still standing in upright positions, carrying out orders to the letter . . . (p. 153)
I know what you have to do . . .
The young poets remind us that our knowing must go deeper, must be a part of us. Whyte suggests that our soul itself must be our “inner sponsor.”
At a crucial moment, Fionn must declare his lineage, or he will be killed. He must know from whom he is descended, where his strength comes from, and what kind of blood flows in his veins. Otherwise that part of the world that has been orphaned without any training or preparation will kill him out of its own grief and alienation. (p. 154-155)
Fionn went on his way, meeting and finding favor with two kings, in both cases forced to move on when his identity became clear and the danger too great. Recalling the spirit of the previous chapter and the ways in which a well placed No can often open the way for far greater Yes, Whyte describes this “refusal of the call, ” an almost mystical sort of knowing by which the “soul chooses its time” and prevents us, if we’re paying attention, from engaging our destiny before we are ready.
Equipped with Mac Cona’s skills, he journeyed on in search of Fionngas the Seer and his deeper ways. He stumbled upon the Seer and found him roasting a salmon over the fire. Fionngas knew — though Fionn did not — that this was the Salmon of Knowledge, which he had sought for years.
Quite by accident, Fionn ate of the salmon. Upon discovering this, Fionngas recognized that for all his planning and strategizing, it was this young wanderer who would receive its gifts: “second sight” and for the Irish, the greater honor of becoming the greatest poet in the land.
Reading of Fionn, it’s easy enough to toss aside experienced strategy in favor of youthful whim and abandon. But Whyte is careful to conclude that we need both, for while Fionn was the one destined to eat the salmon, it was the old man who’d caught and prepared it.
The point is to make an equal place in the psyche for both strategy and soul. . . .[Fionn’s] breakthrough comes through a meeting of two parts that have been previously split — our vital innocence and our knowing experience. (p. 174)
Just yesterday, a wise friend said “sometimes the unexpected events are the most dear.” I know that to be true.
While I’ve worried that perhaps this frail sense of knowing my own desire might leave me short of some unknown destiny, I’m beginning to think it’s not something that, at least today, I really need to know.
What do you think? Have you “refused the call, ” or stumbled unexpectedly into something that seems made just for you? Do you lean more toward innocence or strategy? And how do you best join them? We’re discussing The Heart Aroused: Poetry and Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. Whether you’re reading along or just dropping in for the discussion, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box. And, if you’ve posted about the book, we invite you to share your link.
Join us next Wednesday for the final chapters, 7 and 8: Coleridge and Complexity and The Soul of the World. New book club begins April 4th, featuring Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing. Come along?
Photo by L.L. Barkat. Used with permission. Post by Will Willingham.
Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better poet. In March we’re exploring the theme Angels.
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