So few grains of happiness measured against all the dark and still the scales balance. - from The Weighing by Jane Hirshfield
When my siblings and I were kids, we observed the attributes of mercury on our kitchen table. We must have gotten it from a broken thermometer (and I’m not sure how we escaped its toxicity). We watched the mercury bead up and roll ahead of our fingers, always propelling itself away from our touch. The silver gem held its shape, in spite of being a liquid, due to its high surface tension. It was lovely and fascinating. Now, all these years later, I see it as a metaphor for longing; a soul leaning toward something precious that’s just beyond reach.
Longing resides in future tense and past tense. There is either something we yearn to have or something we used to have and want back, such as love, peace, adventure. We either reach toward something before God gives it, or reach back for something taken away.
Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Fado” speaks of yearning. The poem is titled after a type of Portuguese music of longing made popular by sailors who missed loved ones while away at sea. In the poem, Hirshfield paints a portrait of a woman in a wheelchair singing a fado in a “half-stopped moment” when dawn is just beginning to light the skies. Those in the club with her are silent as she sings her song. The wheelchair imagery suggests brokenness at the heart of the poem. It ends this way:
and a woman in a wheelchair is singing a fado that puts every life in the room on one pan of a scale, itself on the other, and the copper bowls balance.
What is this balance? Maybe it’s balance between brokenness and song, or between the audience’s empathy and the singer’s longing. We might say that the beauty of fado, and what balances the scales in the poem, is how the woman inhabits both wanting to be made whole and accepting brokenness.
Longing has its own vocabulary. It’s not resignation (it’s not what I want but, whatever), or exasperation (I’m so tired of this mess I just don’t care anymore). And it isn’t really just acceptance (it is what it is). Longing speaks the language of prayer, thy will be done. Its language resides in the tension between not wanting God’s will and holding it close. Jesus’ prayer in the garden, take this cup, balances on a word; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done. No matter how much we want out of one circumstance or into another, don’t we really long for God to have his way? The word fado translates as “fate” which is apt if we think of fate in the sense of a heavenly father who balances in his heart the precious things we long for.