On my fortieth birthday, nearly ten years ago, this radio program was much more a possibility than a reality, and I was in despair. I was encountering skepticism at every turn; nothing was working out. I was about to give up — certain that this adventure, however passionately I had believed in it, was coming to an end. But somehow a copy of Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows' translations from Rilke's Book of Hours fell into my hand. I still vividly remember my defeated mood as I opened it up and read this poem in a coffee shop:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
(Rilke's Book of Hours, I, 59)
After reading this poem for the first time those years ago, I began to breathe again. It cleared none of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles away. It simply gave me courage to keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other. This project might not work out, the dream might not come true, but I would see it through to the end.
So I made big shadows. I let beauty and terror happen to me. I learned a new universe of things about the seriousness of "the country they call life." And after years of starts and stops, this radio program made its way into that country too.
I've ever after been grateful to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows, not just to Rilke. I spent the early part of my adult life in Germany, and had first read Rilke's poetry in his singular, inventive, lush German. Until I found Macy and Barrows' book, I didn't believe any translator could render him into English.
They even translate his sense of the urgency about his century to the urgency of the century that is ours. And it is a gift, and a joy, to hear Rilke's words, in Joanna Macy's English and even more in her voice, as she ponders what she has learned in 81 years bravely lived and deeply examined. She knew Cold War Europe and also post-colonial India. There her husband ran the newly-minted Peace Corps, and she came to work with Tibetan refugees fleeing their country with the young, newly exiled Dalai Lama. She later became an environmental activist before that term entered our global lexicon, visiting ravaged Chernobyl, protesting the Three Mile Island catastrophe. She is a delightedly wise elder, a kind of voice I love to bring to the air. And in all of her experiences, she has also acquired a long view of time with regard to political, spiritual, and ecological realities.
In our conversation, for example, she says this of her early discoveries about environmental degradation. "I realized that we were, through technology, having consequences with our decisions …that reached into geological time, That we are making choices that will affect whether beings thousands of generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body."
These days, Joanna Macy is best known as a Buddhist scholar and a philosopher of ecology. Her poetic sensibility and Buddhist savvy combine to give her a fresh and challenging take on our collective encounter with the environment now — an unfolding encounter that may define economics, cultures, and wars as well as ecology in the century ahead. Joanna Macy insists that we must embrace our passionate love for the world if we are to work with our grief at its unravelings and keep hope alive. She offers courage for the whole challenge of life and love in this present day.