Composed Aug. 28 & 29, 2008, while recovering from a severe case of poison ivy and secondary infection
Song of the Leper by Mark Nielsen
I used to wail —
along with my half-brother Hamlet–
“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…”
And then my flesh melted.
And I did not wish for this anymore.
I do not wish death, decay, or pain on any living creature,
for I have tasted their bitterness.
I have known firsthand
the distracting ways of these world-given wounds,
whether visible or secret, honorable or shameful.
They cause me to obsess over myself, pity myself, prey upon myself.
I pick at scabs without ceasing.
Therefore I pray that all men be spared what I have endured.
And so today I wanted to go to the water again,
to the place of my beginnings.
I could hear it calling to me,
to come wash my wounds again.
The lake asks nothing in return for this blessing, this Wash.
The lake simply is.
The waves need not even be beckoned.
So I set out for the water.
Along the way I saw a man:
a father, and his eight-year-old son.
It appeared at first –
from the firm way he held the boy’s left forearm—
as if the father was angrily dragging the boy across the street.
But there was no tension, no rigidity in either one’s body,
nor were they talking.
I stopped to watch the mystery unfold.
Very soon it became clear that the boy was disabled:
wounded on the inside of his head;
three-year-old’s brain, frozen and arrested in a steadily-growing body.
The father’s firm grasp was suddenly transformed, in my own mind,
from a grip of anger to one providing security, comfort and love.
Here, surely, was a man with a steady hand
and a clear destination in mind.
He would not let his charge wander into unsafe places.
Calm, determined, they would arrive on time wherever they were going,
the place where they belonged.
Most importantly, they belonged to each other.
The boy had no reason to doubt that he was beloved,
that he belonged.
Soon after, I passed a tree in a park,
and it clapped me a hearty hello on the shoulder
with a falling oak leaf.
I tipped my black cap in response.
I watched a long, thin, sticklike spider dangle
from a web attached high up in the tree.
His web was weighty enough to keep him from flailing in the mild wind.
So he just hung there, between heaven and earth,
between home and wherever he was bound to go.
For that matter, it was not clear at first
if he was dead or just resting there, shoulder-high,
out for a morning walk like me,
or perhaps hunting for something
(also like me).
But as I waited,
the spider woke from it’s reverie
(or decided to stop watching me)
and began to reel in the strand of web.
Then he changed his mind,
let out some web till he was at waist-level,
then cut it and dropped to the ground,
where he looked like a dozen other twigs there in the grass.
I envied this spider for its perfect body,
its hard exoskeleton, its strength
and its beautifully-evolved, unified inner and outer purpose.
Clearly, my own rotting, flabby flesh would not allow me to blend in,
or hunt effectively, or fulfill my own purpose,
as this spider had been born to do.
I continued on,
walking north toward the beach,
walking the perimeter of the land
toward the place of escape.
I walked past opulent houses
I had once coveted
but coveted no longer.
These days, instead, by peeking through un-shuttered windows,
I could occasionally see signs that the owners’ inner chaos,
their own well-hidden wounds and shame,
were no different than mine.
Their vulnerable, ugly truth was simply stashed in china cabinets,
overpowered by the light of 60-inch plasma television screens,
or swept away by silent, hired housekeepers
who knew their secrets all too well.
But I had been down this road before —
led into temptation, then back out again.
So I knew now: it was only the fancy covering that I had wanted before
–the shielding, the gilded cage, the balm that does not soothe.
Freed from their spell (but only after much wrestling),
I put them out of my mind.
Finally, I reached the beach.
I died on this beach once, long ago.
But it didn’t take.
I was baptized into death in these very waters,
but I foolishly took up my life again.
I could not surrender.
The water did not wash the poison from my body,
so instead I had limped onward in ignorance,
still falling apart, the most wretched of men.
I began to wonder now if that first death failed
because I did not embrace the death itself,
but sought only the “new life” that was promised afterward.
Thus it had been a narcissistic washing,
a quick once-over on the uppermost surface of my soul–
instead of the complete, severe and necessary burial
of the Self that I would keep for myself
(instead of laying down my life for another,
or forfeiting that False Self for my True Self).
So was I here to do it again?
To die, to dunk, to be cleansed
and finally shed this nearly useless flesh
through yet another mortification,
some left-undone humiliation that I had delayed too long in embracing?
I did not know.
So I walked to the far end of the beach,
toward the perimeter again,
I sat in the sand and waited.
Near me was a stone shaped vaguely like a heart
(or was it a cast-off heart, now turned to stone?)
Down the beach,
a young female angel spread her towel wings
and swooped down off the raised lifeguard chair.
“No Lifeguard On Duty” the sign had said.
‘Got that right,’ I thought to myself.
There is no way to station lifeguards in enough places
to keep us all safe from harm.
Thus the need for angels.
and not just guardian angels, but healing angels,
for the wounds of this life are inevitable.
I realize as I sit in the sand
that I have not thought of my scaly skin
or my aging, broken body for some time now.
Perhaps in looking compassionately
upon a beautiful but wounded world,
I am relieved of some pain myself,
and can loosen my own controlling, angry, too-tight grip on my forearm
(on my life).
I am a man now.
I can cross the street without help,
but will hold my Father’s hand and be guided nevertheless.
I will endure this burden in my flesh.
It does not need to be washed away,
but will fall away on its own, in its own time.
I can still touch and be touched, without shame or fear.
Rain begins to fall gently on my shoulders now.
Some curtain inside me is torn in two,
letting light from the outside all the way in,
to melt my heart of stone.
It is finished.
And as if on cue, a teenaged lifeguard crosses the sand,
coming toward me to tell me it is time to leave.
The beach, the perimeter, the outskirts of town,
are no place for one as beautiful as me any longer.
So now I am going home.
I have not shed this foul, inconstant skin
as I expected to do when I first came.
But that is as it should be.
Although it does not yet show, I am healed.
Or at least now I can live in this skin again
until the Carpenter comes to make final repairs.
Until then, this wound in my side is perfect.
It lets out the poison,
and lets in the light.