Everything is blooming
if it were voices instead of colors,
there would be an unbelievable shrieking
into the heart of the night.
— Ranier Maria Rilke
Nick’s shoelace problem backed me right into this business of blessing and cursing, where I didn’t want to be. Where I wanted to be was having my son tie his own shoes.
When I first saw this:
I’ve spent the better part of my adult life looking for the approval of a man who’s been dead for almost two decades. — Kyle Bradford
I responded with this:
When [a father] does not bless, he curses.
I was sure it was true. I still think so. But I confess my understanding incomplete. How easy a thing to say. How hard to practice.
To know the Tao is not as good as to love it. To love it is not as good as to practice it. — Confucious
Oh, shut up.
BLESSING OF ISAAC
This is what I know about blessing. Jacob was his father Isaac’s favorite, but Jacob’s brother Esau was the elder son. The blessing of Isaac was Esau’s birthright, built in. But Easu had sold his birthright to Jacob for some lentils.
Have you heard the story?
When Isaac was old and blind and ready to give Esau his blessing, Jacob came to him pretending to be Esau. Jacob dressed in Esau’s clothes and covered his hands with lamb’s hair so they would feel rough, like his brother’s.
Isaac was suspicious (“The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau,”) but gave Jacob the blessing anyway. After Jacob left, Esau arrived and discovered the deception.
“Bless me too, father,” Esau cried.
“Your brother took away your blessing,” Jacob told him.
“Have you but one blessing, father?” Esau begged.
And so Isaac gave a second blessing, not as good as the first, and Esau resolved to kill Jacob.
Jacob went on the lam. One night he dreamt a ladder stretched between heaven and earth, angels ascending and descending. God appeared and promised support and some real estate.
“All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants,” said God.
Jacob married and grew prosperous, but still feared Esau. One night, on the lam again, he got into a wrestling match with a strange man. The fight went on all night and Jacob was wounded.
“Let me go, for dawn is breaking,” said the man.
“I won’t unless you bless me,” said Jacob.
“Your name is no longer Jacob, but Israel,” the man said, “For you have struggled with the divine and prevailed.”
What are we to make of all this, except that Jacob was a guy who’d do anything for a blessing?
THE MAN WATCHING
How small that is, with which we wrestle,
What wrestles with us, how immense;
Were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
Be conquered thus by the great storm-
We would become far-reaching and nameless.
What we triumph over is the small,
And the success itself makes us small.
The eternal and unexampled
Will not be bent by us.
This is the Angel, who appeared
To the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
When his opponent’s sinews
In that contest stretch like metal,
He feels them under his fingers
Like strings making deep melodies.
Whomever this Angel overcame
(who so often declined the fight)
He walks erect and justified
And great from that hard hand
Which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is this: to be
Deeply defeated by the ever-greater One.
— Ranier Maria Rilke, from “The Man Watching.”
In the Robert Bly translation, the last line goes:
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Fail. Fail better.
You have to hand it to Jacob, his reach constantly escalating. A begetter of nations, he collects all the glory. But my heart is back with his brother Esau the moment he realizes what’s been stolen from him. He weeps and begs his father again and again, “Is there no blessing for me?”
Is there anywhere such a cry of agony from a son? Jesus, forsaken on the cross?
No nation begetter, Esau disappears from history. His solitary path is to endure pain and learn forgiveness. Which he does, sans dreams, sans ladders, sans angels, eventually reconciling with Jacob.
If we can’t build nations, can we at least forgive? Maybe I can bless Nick even if he doesn’t tie his laces?
So I had my neighbor John make the contraption for Nick to practice on. I gave the thing to him and announced that I would tie his shoelaces for one last week. I left him alone after that, more or less. Here’s the result:
What we fight with is so small.
This is the second of a two part post. Part 1: Shoelaces
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You’ll find the story of Jacob and Easu in Genesis 27-35. I didn’t make it up.
Translation credit: Excerpt from Ranier Maria Rilke, “The Man Watching,” translated by Edward Snow in The Book of Images. New York: North Point Press, 1994.
Images: Jacob’s ladder, by Marc Chagall; Isaac Blessing Jacob, by Gustave Dore; Jacob’s Battle with the Angel by Maurice Denis; Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, by Peter Paul Rubens.
Your wrestling story here. Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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