When you’ve been married a long time (in my case, almost 39 years), your partner becomes accustomed to aspects of your personality that might baffle another person. I often wake early and think about stuff. Sometimes it’s what I’ve dreamed about or else thought about the previous day but somehow didn’t have a chance to finish figuring out. Yesterday it was the soul. We talk about our souls, we understand what we mean, and yet, I wondered aloud as soon as John opened his eyes, “Does anyone have proof of the soul?” I saw his eyes flutter a little as if he thought he might want to go back to sleep but he was willing to talk about it with me. Is the soul an actual entity, does it have weight and presence, does it have a location in our corporeal bodies?
When I got up, I couldn’t stop thinking about the soul. Mine. Yours. How we know it’s our soul that responds to something that we ourselves might not otherwise acknowledge. I think my soul might be in my ribcage because I swear I feel it expand when I experience something that is beyond my usual experience of the world, something that replaces language, although I try to find words for it.
When I was in my second year of university, in 1974, my mentor Robin Skelton lent me his copy of Anthony Ostroff’s The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic. In it, a poem is discussed by three poets and then the author of the poem responds to them. (I have a copy of the book somewhere but I think I’ve lent it.) It was new to me, the notion of people talking about the mechanics of writing a poem, from the perspective of readers and as writers. Theodore Roethke’s “In A Dark Time”. Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”. And the wonderful Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World”. A line of laundry is a gathering of angels. “Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,/Some are in smocks…” I thought of the poem just now as I hung out the first full load of laundry this year, on Earth Day. The vintage sheet with whitework and hemstitching at the top. Pillowcases filling with air. My favourite nightdress, moving in wind so gracefully, turning this way and that, as I am unable to move because of, well, self-consciousness. And the great weight of being human. The cottons will have their day in the sun and I’ll remember how my ribcage pressed against my skin as I stood back to look at the line of laundry, remembering what happens at the end of the day.
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body…
But what about the soul? Is it real? Does it have weight? I read an interesting article at The Conversation, “Whatever the soul is, its existence can’t be proved or disproved by natural science.” Well, it was reassuring, somehow:
We recognize as fully real many things that completely lack physicality.
Mathematics, for example, clearly provides deep insights into the nature of reality, but the ideas of number and quantity cannot be grasped in anyone’s hand. The same might be said for a variety of human emotions, including despair and joy, neither of which alters a person’s weight to the slightest degree. The very desire to know in the first place cannot be weighed, measured or located.
Maybe what happens in my ribcage isn’t my soul at all but there’s no real proof that it isn’t. No algorithm. That the sight of daffodils planted with my granddaughter in November carries joy but does not alter weight; early 20th century scientists believed the soul weighed about 3/4 oz. (Rufous hummingbirds, the ones that are buzzing around the daffodils these days, weigh about 3.2 grams or 0.112877 ounces.) I’ve held a hummingbird, dazed from an encounter with the cat, and know exactly what that feels like in my hand.
I haven’t finished thinking about this yet. Sometimes ideas wait for a portal, a moment, to enter our consciousness; sometimes they leave quietly, unwelcome, and sometimes they find a place to settle and be home. Coming in from hanging out the laundry, I turned to see it on the line and behind it, the gate to the garden where all day I’ll be entering and departing, with compost and seeds, a shovel, string to tie up the roses. alert for angels:
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember…
In the honeysuckle, in the round iron disk, the beams of cedar, the light.