The Harmonic Chaos of Icy Sidewalks with Rumi and John O’Donohue

Monday, January 24, 2011 - 9:29 am

The Harmonic Chaos of Icy Sidewalks with Rumi and John O’Donohue

whirling dervishesPhoto by Liz Napanee / Flickr, cc by nc 2.0

In the wake of a recent blizzard, cars were buried in snow, curbs of intersections were submerged in a grimy soup, and sidewalks became paths of ice. One day I was rushing to work. The sidewalk appeared mostly clear, way more concrete than muddy slush. I passed a young woman in thermal boots that I thought was going much slower than necessary, and then, about half a block later, I slipped.
My mind had drifted, probably thinking about the coffee that I would have time to drink before work, when suddenly my thigh, then my torso, then my chin hit the pavement. It was a minor spill, more surreal than scary because it seemed to happen in slow motion. Nothing hurt, but as I slid and was pressing my mittened hands against the ice, trying to resist my fall, I almost laughed at my inability to stop myself. Then finally, the force of gravity propelling me ceased and I found myself kissing a Brooklyn sidewalk glazed with dirt and ice.
This experience reminded me of the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, whom I have never really liked. Perhaps his poem has never found the right translator, but I’ve always found Rumi snoozerific and a bit pedantic. Nevertheless, I have been drawn to Rumi’s ideas and beliefs.
As many people know, Rumi was part of a mystical sect of Islam that celebrated its faith through a choreographed dance of spinning in long robes, the dancers known as whirling dervishes. As Fatemeh Keshavarz made clear about the Persian poet, this dancing was symbolic of the perpetual spinning of the universe and the idea that “everything in the universe is quickened with the force of love.”
The spinning dancers represented a willingness to be in harmony with the wonderful and wondrous chaos of the world. Though I still wouldn’t consider myself a Rumi lover, we share an appreciation of just how complicated each day on this Earth is, so many restless electrons, neutrons, atoms. Add to all that chaos the complicating fact that every person is a discreet planet, each subjected to its own ever-changing weather system of emotions, blizzards, heat waves, and drizzle. Every day we face the wildness of our own human experience.
And some days I am not able to whirl through all the wildness with the grace of an atom, or a dervish. Some days, I fall on the concrete on the way to work at eight in the morning because I wasn’t paying attention.
John O’Donohue, a poet from the west coast of Ireland who passed away a couple years ago, said before his death, “The world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach.” Rumi would agree that the world is spinning more wildly than we could ever fathom, but the Persian poet might then add that we need not fear because, if we fall, wherever we fall, there is love. You can’t fall wrong.

Charity BurnsCharity Burns is an English instructor and poet living in Brooklyn, New York. Her poetry has been published in Smartish Pace, Madison Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and West Branch, and she blogs regularly at The Beauty Works Project.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

Share Post


is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

Share Your Reflection