“Strategic Withdrawal”

By David James Duncan, from the book “My Story as Told by Water”

The page is signed,  “For Stephanie, David James Duncan”

Strategic Withdrawal

any movement inward

–as into a chair by a window the light of which you use only to stare into a cup of tea.

–or as into a habit of tea drinking, as opposed to coffee, because the former behaves so much more quietly within the body, so softly helps open the eyes and mind

–or as in letting the eyes come to a standstill, in some space on the page of the book you’ve been reading, in order to stare at nothing, or at something inside, or at something neither inside nor out-an association-sprung scene, an entire world, maybe; a place so pungent you leave your body to stand in it for a time

–or as in turning over a handwritten letter, before or after you’ve read it, to run your hand across the blank side, written words invisible now, yet palpable in the impressions the pen left in the paper, the strange backward slant you never think of as being there, the earnest weight of the writer’s departed hand, physical track of her thought still traceable, the “handicraft” evident in the paucity of words; the whole page, though we think of the paper as “smooth,” as idiosyncratically and subtly bumpy as the skin of your love’s body, in which also dwells a reverse side, unseen side, of breath, blood, inchoate words, nonverbal language

strategic withdrawal:  any movement backward, away from the battle lines of one’s incarnation (as in the phrase “spiritual retreat” but without the once-in-a-blue-moon connotations of those two words, because the backward movement needed, the spiritual retreat required, is moment to moment and day to day)

strategic withdrawal:  any refusal to man our habitual political or psychological trenches or to defend our turf, for though the turf may be holy, our defenses, when they grow automatonic, are not

any refusal to engage with that testy or irritating or ideologically loud or theologically bloated person in your life-you know the one:  the agitatedly racist or religionist, politically powerful or compulsively processing pedant, co-worker, parent, friend, or (God help you) spouse whose opinions are too poorly formed, too loudly held, or just too incessantly divulged to allow you to achieve peace in the presence of so much clanging banging editorializing mental machinery

any retreat (however ignominous it may seem to the will or the mind or the ego) not just from all such exchanges but from the underlying tensions and history that launch the exchanges (your side of the tensions and history, anyway:  the side you’ve an inalienable right to retreat from)

any movement away from one’s “urgencies,” one’s “this-is-who-I-am” nesses, one’s responsibilities, agitations, racial guilt, sworn causes, shames, strengths, weaknesses, memories, workaday identity, public or secret battlefields

any movement toward formlessness




any movement toward a beginning, as in Genesis 1, John 1, Quran Tao Te Ching Diamond Sutra Mahabharata Kalevala Mumonkan Raymayana Torah Gita 1

and toward one’s own “in the beginning”

toward one’s origin (root of originality); toward one’s ignorance (that underrated state the embracing of which precedes every influx of fresh knowledge); toward one’s amorphousness (state of all clay before the potter conceives a form, wedges the clay, centers it, and begins throwing the cup or bowl); toward one’s interior blankness (the state of the paper preceding every new idea, drawing, poem); toward one’s wilderness (wild: the condition of all worlds, inner and outer, before the creation of the man-made bewilderments from which we are endeavoring to withdraw)

strategic withdrawal:

any attempt to step from a why, however worthy, into whylessness

as in an extemporaneous walk to a destination unknown; a walk during which everything but your movement through God-knows-where becomes the God-knows-what-you’re-doing

or as in going fishing without desire for fish so that desirelessness becomes the prey you’re catching

or as in a stroll to a neighborhood cafe or tavern one or more neighborhoods removed from any in which you’re known, which establishment you then enter not to socialize, read the paper, or eat the (probably bad) food, but just to nurse the single slow drink as you soak, without judgement, in the presence and riverine babble of your city and native tongue

strategic withdrawal:  any act you can devise, and psycho-spiritual act at all, that embodies a willingness to wait for the world to disclose itself to you, rather than to disclose yourself, your altruism, your creativity, skills, energy, ideas and (let’s face it) agenda, myopia, preconceptions, delusions, addictions, and inappropriate trajectories to this world

willingness to drop all trajectories; willingness to boot up with all extensions OFF; willingness not to save the world but simply to wait for it to disclose itself, whether anything seems, even after long long waiting, to be disclosing itself or not

an act of faith then, really:  faith that the world is always disclosing itself; faith that lack of disclosure is impossible; faith that what blocks Creation’s ceaseless flow of disclosures is, invariably, our calluses and callousness, our old injuries and injuriousness, our plans, cross-purposes, neuroses, absurd speed of passage, divided minds, ruling manias, lack of trust, lack of faith–an overabundance of faith, cf. Thomas Merton: “Prayer is possible only when prayer is impossible”

strategic withdrawal:  to step back, now and then, from the possible to take rest in the impossible:  to stand without trajectory in the God-given weather till the soul’s identity begins to come with the weathering:  to get off my own laboriously cleared and maintained trails and back onto the pristine hence unmarked path by moving, any old how, toward interior nakedness; toward silence; toward what Buddhists call “emptiness,” Christians “poverty of spirit,” Snyder “wild,” and Eckhart “desirelessness:  the virgin that eternally gives birth to the Son”

strategic withdrawal:  this prayer:  When I’m lost, god help me get more lost.  Help me lose me so completely that nothing remains but the primordial peace and originality that keep creating and sustaining this blood-, tear- and love-worthy world that’s never lost for an instant save by an insufficiently lost me

“We’re all in the gutter,” said Oscar Wilde in the throes of just such a withdrawal, “but some of us are looking at the stars”

strategic withdrawal:

look at the stars

-Shepherdstown, West Virginia; cross country Delta jet; and Lolo, Montana:  summer 1999



One thought on ““Strategic Withdrawal”

  1. Pingback: …it’s a coming of age story… « Still Life With Mia

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