How to be courageous, especially in the face of loss or pain
(via the marvelous poetry of C. Cavafy)
Do you prefer quiet to loud, depth to superficiality, sensitivity to cool? Welcome to the Kindred Letters - my (free) newsletter for 500,000+ kindred spirits drawn to quiet, depth, and beauty.
This is a space for finding a richer form of happiness: defining success on our own terms, and learning to thrive, as our deepest, truest selves.
If you love reading this newsletter as much as I love writing it, it would MEAN SO MUCH TO ME if you'd tell others about it:
When our second son was born, I was planning an epidural, as I’d had with our firstborn. But he came too fast. We only barely made it to the hospital for his arrival, and there was no time for anesthesia. I wasn’t prepared for this situation: I didn’t know the right breathing exercises, and I was giving birth in an NYC teaching hospital, which is the opposite of a place designed to ease you through a natural birth.
Instead of accepting this situation, I kept hoping that they could figure out how to give me an epidural anyway. I could see increasingly that it wasn’t going to happen, but I denied this reality. And how did I react to the labor pain, when it came, seeming to split my body in two? I screamed bloody murder, so much so that doctors from all over the hospital came running to see what the matter was. I’m a quiet person. I didn’t know my lungs could make that much noise.
Our baby came out perfect and happy – and, incidentally, “in the caul” (meaning that the amniotic sac was still intact around him, which is a one-in-a-million type of birth traditionally seen as a sign of good fortune and spiritual blessing)!
And why do I tell you all this? Because I met that moment in a resisting, defensive crouch – which was, yes, a totally normal reaction to the unexpected onset of terrible pain. But still. I think that next time I’m faced with impending pain or loss I could use, and maybe you could too, the spirit of this marvelous poem by the great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, whom I’ve only just discovered and have promptly fallen in love with. I posted this one on my social channels this week, and so many people reacted to it and asked what it was about that I thought I’d take a crack at that, here.
So here’s Cavafy’s marvel of a poem. After you’ve read it, I’ll give you my interpretation:
The God Abandons Antony (1911)
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
- Constantine Cavafy
You probably have goosebumps, even if you're not sure what you just read. Right?
Here's my interpretation:
So first of all, Cavafy often wrote about ancient history and literature. Here, “Antony’’ is the Roman general Marcus Antonius; “Alexandria” probably refers to both the city and to Antony’s lover, Cleopatra; and the forsaking God is Bacchus. Cavafy was likely drawing on the classical Greek biographer and philosopher, Plutarch, who wrote that Bacchus abandoned Antony the night before Alexandria was conquered.
But what’s the poem SAYING? I believe it’s this: that Antony knew what was going to happen, before it happened; that he could see his enemies coming in a glorious, musical procession, the night before his defeat.
And the voice of the poet is telling him: don’t delude yourself, don’t tell yourself that you didn’t see what you saw, that you didn’t hear what you heard: loss is coming. You who has been “long prepared, and graced with courage,” should meet this moment as you – and as the moment itself -- deserves. You should “go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotion” to the “exquisite music of that strange procession” that is coming to replace you. And you should say goodbye.
We can also read Antony’s impending loss as our own, because loss xz`will come to all of us at some point. And instead of denying it, instead of pleading with it not to happen, we could try to gather our own courage, and say our own goodbyes -- as and when we need to. And for those of us who aren't gifted with courage, as Antony was - we could substitute the word "acceptance".
Because one of the most mysterious aspects of this poem is why it should be that the enemies coming to defeat Antony should be so exquisite, so endowed with music. Aren’t enemies supposed to be hideous, aren’t they without redeeming qualities?
I think that here Cavafy’s nodding at the way that everything gives way to something else: nations, seasons, humans – we all move through the mystifying cycle of births, deaths and rebirths. Summer doesn’t want to give way to autumn, but autumn is beautiful too. It has its own exquisite music.
So the proper way to live is with grace and acceptance.
And to stand at the window, and listen.
*P.S. Another awe-inspiring detail of this poem is that Cavafy was inspired to write it by Plutarch, and then Leonard Cohen took the Cavafy and produced his own masterpiece of a song, “Alexandra Leaving.” So Cavafy lives on through Cohen, and Plutarch through Cavafy. I love it when artists pay homage to each other, across the centuries.
For this week’s reader letter, I want to share (with permission, always) one of the many heartfelt responses I received to last week’s newsletter about Kindred Letters readers David and Eleni (this is the one that was called “Sometimes I feel like Job: I lost everything, only to have it repaid beyond my wildest dreams.”) This time, I’m also going to share the reply I wrote to this letter, in case it’s helpful to you, too.
Thank you so much for sharing David and Eleni's story. The timing is providential given that I am working through some dark parts in my own difficult life story. I have been attempting to resolve one particularly awful situation for about two years. It has been roadblock after roadblock and I feel no closer to resolution now than I did two years ago. It almost makes no sense. I sometimes think there is nothing worse than unanswered prayers. I will grudgingly admit that I do feel like Job lately. Your newsletter moved me to tears and it gave me permission to have some hope and optimism for the future even though that feels ridiculous right now.
I appreciate your work very much! Thank you for what you have put out into the world.
And here’s my (slightly edited) response:
I don’t know what you’ve been through, or are going through, to make you feel this way, but I wish you so much strength and happiness. And share this, in case it's helpful:
“The birds they sang
At the break of day
I heard them say.”
–Leonard Cohen, from “Anthem”
You can't change the past or the future, I think he's saying. All you can do is start again, right here, in the present moment.
If you’d like to share the Kindred Letters with friends or family, you can do that here:
I’m always very glad you’re here, and do not take it lightly,