art, music, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

The Incense of Fallen Leaves and the Seeds of Music

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Leaves in Nisene Marks forest, Santa Cruz County.

In his poem on the Jerry Jazz Musician site, “Paean for Coltraine,” Michael L. Newell writes,

Trane knew and blew rage
that was prayer prayer that was
rage engaged heart and mind
enveloped listeners in all
that could be
felt or known

in this miserable destructive
alluring astonishing enduring
world that enmeshes all
who pass through
conscious or unconscious
all is carnal spiritual joyous

In a world where words are so often manipulated and used in a way to distort or hide behind, music can move us into a place beyond words that enlarges the heart, becoming a prayer without words. Poetry tries to speak what is true, and to name what can’t be named. When experience becomes to large for words, music can become our poetry. As Newell so aptly describes, certain music in its melding of opposites–the miserable with the astonishing, the carnal and spiritual, the conscious and unconscious–is prayer as it moves beyond what can be articulated, and gives voice to the heart’s deepest suffering, joys, and yearnings.

Bertrand Russell wrote, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” Much of life is about loss, about learning how to let go. It is in this bitter sweet space of letting go into transformation–of not clinging to what is, but of opening our minds, hearts, and arms to all that is passing, that we find meaning. Loss helps us to identify how all we have is gift, and can thus provoke in us an attitude of gratitude and openness that allows our spirits to expand. The boundaries between the known and unknown is the space where struggles occur, and where change and growth unfold. It is the space where stories live, and stories can teach us how to live.

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Japanese maple leaf

Autumn is a season between a world of fruitfulness and emptiness. Today, in an early afternoon amble around my neighborhood, the perfume of the redwood’s fallen leaves lifted from the earth beneath my feet as I walked. Much is dry and fallen at this time of year. The garden has gone to seed. Though the garden isn’t as beautiful as when it wearing its lush spring foliage or when offering its summer fruit, the seeds it produces as it lets go its life are beautiful for all the potential stored there, and for the promise of what they will bring. The memory of how to grow is embedded into their very fibre, each seed a storehouse of physically embodied knowledge. They know how to absorb nutrients, how to grow, how to create and recreate.

Some years back, while visiting Italy, I sat on a balcony overlooking Naples Bay at sunset as a boat pulled across the water into a flame of orange and red sky, and disappeared beneath the horizon. I thought then of how like this scene it must have been for  my husband’s immigrant grandparents when they journeyed from Italy to America–the feeling of deep longing and loss, as the shore of their homeland vanished from across sea, and they recognized they were leaving everything they knew for a world they knew little about. What an enormous risk it was. Their decision changed their lives and the future of all the descendants who came after them. From the point of departure, their lives were lived in the space between two worlds–the one they were born into, and the one they adopted in coming to the US. They never again returned to the land of their birth.

The lives of our ancestors are the seeds of our lives. Rising from the loam the choice they made is the perfume of life now lived as a result that journey they took.

Citrino Naples Bay Cover idea
Naples Bay at sunset. (Photo, Michael Citrino)

Art in general, and music in specific, can bring together body and spirit to create an interior spaciousness where we are more willing to widen the heart’s boundaries.  Art arises at the intersection of loss and the need to find meaning and beauty. Art lives in the borderlands, in the space between where struggles exist. Music educates the heart. When I first heard Après un rêve, by Fauré, sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India, it evoked for me a sense of deep loss and a longing unable to be articulated in words. Immediately, the image of the ship I’d seen leaving Naples Bay and the journey my husband’s grandparents took in their hopes of finding a better world sunset came to mind. Imagining myself into that space sparked questions leading to research and many additional poems. That journey of imagination changed my world. 

Words are written thought. They have no physical weight, yet they can transform lives, can create or destroy worlds. Imagination is a seed. In searching to find, sense, hear, visualize and name the moments that defined and embodied the grandparents’ loss and their immigrant journey–the world they loved and left, as well as the new world they found–an entire world opened that was previously hidden. Whole histories were unveiled that I never before knew. 

Performed by Renata Bratt on cello, and Vlada Moran on piano, and recorded by Lee Ray, Faure’s Après un rêve on the link below is a gift to all–prayer without words. You can listen to the music, then listen again while while reading the poem below, “Luisa Leaves Home,” the initial poem I wrote in the series of poems that eventually unfolded into my newly published book with Boridghera Press, A Space Between. Maybe you will sense how the music inspired the poem, and perhaps it will be for you, too, a seed of some sort that opens for you a world. 

Luisa Leaves Home

Footsteps on the hard cobble last twilight—
harsh echoes that clattered through the brain

while I sat at the window, listening
to a child calling “Papa, papa,”
from a window above as his father

wended his way up the steep hill from the sea,
coming home from work.

Wind pushes the walls, and I unlatch
the door to narrow streets, barren hills
sloping abruptly into sea.

It is morning now,
and I am leaving this life’s empty cupboards,

going out of the stony house, the sun’s
lemon heat, the salted fish,

out from the familiar rooms and names, out
of all I know.

Down to the water, light rising
on the last day from the white shoreline
as it greets the ocean’s immensity, I go.

Slowly, the boat pulls from shore,
the hull breaking open the vast
expanse. From the sky’s broken
window, birds cry.

Father, mother, a silent photograph
held in my palm,
I lean forward over the stern,
into the rain,
and cutting wind.

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The ancient Pali text of “The Five Remembrances” says, “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.” The grandparents’ journey of a hundred years ago parallels journeys people of our own time in various locations are taking now at great risk in order to create a better life for those they love and those that will come after them. May we all find the music that carries us into a wide place of being, and may the actions we take create consequences that allow the lives of those who come after us to have greater access to love and fulfillment. 

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Lamentation, Joy, and Jory Post’s Poetry

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Owls outside my window call across the valley every evening. Carrying on for hours, their voices, soft and low, a mantra that gently soothes, and I think how much such beauty as their soothing voices can do to calm and heal in a world where so many are filled with anxiety and suffering.

Signs of impermanence abound. Our California garden is going to seed, and every day, gophers eat through plants that have taken many months of nurturing care. Prayer flags, colorful and new a few years back, are now faded, worn, and tattered. Fires. Disease. Hurricanes. Unrest in the streets. Rumors of war. Everywhere, life is tenuous. How is it possible to live in joy while the world around us or perhaps even we ourselves are in the process of fading into diminishment? Most of us want to turn away from suffering and loss. There’s already too much trauma and suffering around us. It’s painful, and usually it seems easier or better to avoid the pain rather than reflect on it, though reflection helps us learn how to live.

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Recently, I attend a poetry reading here in Santa Cruz, California in celebration of the release of local poet, Jory Post’s new book of prose poems, The Extra Year. Post’s poems hold life’s small moments and details in sharp, attentive focus, and connect us deeply to our humanity–our vulnerabilities and finiteness. Post’s writing takes the seemingly commonplace moment of shaving, turning in bed to touch your partner or sitting in the waiting room with others at a doctor’s office, and reawakens us to remember the preciousness of breath and being, even in the midst of change, suffering, and difficulty–or perhaps it is because of these. His poem “Wailing,” is a good example. The poem begins with Post’s description of how he was informed of his uncle’s death, then learns soon after that a dear friend has died. Post explains turns to data to soothe him when he feels the weight of grief pulling him under. “I discover 6, 316 people die each hour. 151,600 each day,” he writes. “Over 1 million every week. I spent the day trying to convince myself my three friends were in good company, until I finally gave up, broke down and wailed for all 1 million.” In the piling up of human death and connecting that greater grief to his own, Post moves past barren data into the felt reality of loss, enabling us to touch the humanness hidden inside the numbers.

Post’s poems help us to lament. Lamentation is an old word we don’t often use, but it precisely indicates the inner feeling people have when sorrows weigh them down, becoming unbearable. The Online Etymology Dictionary describes its meaning as ‘”a wailing, moaning, a weeping,”‘ an extension derived from the Proto-Indo European root meaning “to shout, cry.” Things can happen to us in life that we have no understanding or satisfying explanation for. These experiences are painful and difficult, and the appropriate response is to lament. We need to make space in our lives for lamentation, allow ourselves to notice our vulnerable spots, to touch our finiteness, and open into an acceptance of our limitations until such time as we can grow into a wider place of being.

We have so many plans for our lives, things we want to do or become for ourselves or for others. We make lists and plans, work toward goals. At some point, however, we realize we will run out of time. We live within limitations either imposed from the outside that we cannot move or those of our own making. Though we may want to be more or different than we are, we fall short. As Post describes in his poem, “Role Model,” “There was a time I considered myself a role model…I was sure, dedicated, driven in my quest for knowledge and truth. But something shifted, as if the tumblers in locks had magically been altered. Thirty years later I can hear the brass tumblers realigning themselves. I may publish another book. This time it will be about what I don’t know.” Touching uncertainty, affirming the mystery of our existence–connects us to a deeper awareness of wonder and fuller appreciation of the world around us. As we allow ourselves to contemplate change and loss, we can learn to let go of old fears or certainties that hinder us, and to make space for renewed vision and purpose that, hopefully, will eventually arrive.

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In his poem, “Snail’s Pace,” Post describes himself down on the floor of his house, aiming to explore his world like a snail might–a snail Post had discovered outside his window ledge. Moving slowly across the room, face next to the floor, Post experiences his world from an entirely different perspective. While it’s humorous to imagine him inching along, the poem helps us see that in altering our pace and perspective, we alter our understanding.  Similarly, in Post’s poem, “Color,” Post carries the reader through an examination of the names of color–a journey that carries one across the world, embracing the fabulous reality of vision. The world grows alive and is discovered anew as we examine it carefully, give it close attention.

In her essay, “The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness” in the August 4, 2014 issue of Orion, Terry Tempest Williams writes. “In wilderness there is acceptance in the evolutionary processes of life. No plant or animal petitions for mercy. There are no complaints rendered or excuses made. There is only the forward movement of life and the inevitable end.” Awareness of our inevitable end is difficult to look into the eye. Suffering can carry one into a kind of wilderness–a wild, forlorn place where a person might feel alone, without bearings, and filled with longing. Things can happen to us in life that we have no understanding of or satisfying explanation for. These experiences can be painful and difficult, and the appropriate response is to lament. Nevertheless, even as we experience a sense of loss and isolation, we might simultaneously be brought to a discovery of life’s preciousness, and our interdependence on each other and the natural world. Not all pain can be assuaged, but perhaps there is another kind of healing when we allow ourselves to recognize our limitations.

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“I return to the wilderness to remember what I have forgotten, that the world is wholesome and beautiful, that the harmony and integrity of ecosystems at peace is a mirror to what we have lost.” Williams goes on to say,

“Wilderness is not a place of isolation but contemplation.”

This is what Post’s poems in The Extra Year do: they carry us into a place of contemplation. They return us to see a way of living where we can feel whole, even in the midst of loss and pain. Stepping into wilderness, whether physical or metaphorical, allows us to see life from a wider perspective. In coping with pancreatic cancer, Post explains how his physical appearance changed and people sometimes don’t recognize him. Alongside the changes, losses and challenging experiences revealed in the poems resides a deeper wholeness–an appreciation for community and for the lives of those he holds most dear. In his poem, “Ponder,” Post writes, “Sometimes I ponder the miracles of my life: have I made it all up?” The miracles Post ponders are everyday experiences, “The crisp view across the bay that outlines Pacific Grove and Jack’s Peak accentuated on the horizon. The French toast at Silver Spur drenched in butter and maple syrup that soothes my stomach. My granddaughters–Georgia’s determination and Hannah’s love of the pun.” Post’s poems call us to recognize that to live means to participate in both suffering and joy. Though they may be mixed together with grief, it is the relationships we open to and nurture that give us meaning and joy. Sorrow and deep gladness do not exist in isolation from each other. To live is the opportunity to walk this earth in relationship with all we encounter. As Post suggests in “A Recipe for Closure,” in thinking about the sum of a life we should go ahead and open up, “Make some noise. Remind us of who you were. We remember. We mourn. We celebrate.”

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We need poems like those of Jory Post’s in his book, The Extra Year, to help us remember that in our difficult days, the hours or years of suffering we encounter, others have walked this path before us, and are walking with us even now. Endings can also be openings. Though bereft, we can also dance, sing, or write and in that vulnerable openness, we emerge from shadow. Like owls outside calling from the forests outside window, poems like Jory Posts call us into a wider world that gives voice to life’s shared story. Sometimes, stories and poems can heal, restore, and save us.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Transforming Walls

“Whatever the inheritance of work in this life, we are only the apex of innumerable lives of endeavor and sacrifice. Where we have come from, the struggles of our parents, our ancestral countries, their voyages, and hardships are immensely important.”
-David Whyte

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poems on wall at Angel Island, San Francisco

Between 1910 and 1940, Angel Island in San Francisco Bay was an immigration station to for people arriving from 84 different countries, including some European countries such as Italy, but the majority of detainees there were of Asian descent. At the station, people were detained for inspection of parasites, as well as to be disinfected. The duration of time spent at Angel Island varied from two weeks to two years. Depending on your race and social class, you could be required to stay longer. Separated from family and wanting to work, but waiting for clearing from authorities in charge was painful to bear. Life went on, but action was suspended for those who waited, and they did not know when the endurance trial would end.

The contributions to the US from people of Chinese descent are significant. Their labor on the transcontinental railroad, for example, accounted for 90% of the workforce, according to Michael Hiltzik’s article in the Los Angles Times, Chinese immigrants helped build California, but they’ve been written out of its history,” and as Hiltzik explains, the railroad “couldn’t have been built without their labor, and “without the Central Pacific [railroad] the history of the American West and California in particular might have been very different…They were low-paid laborers, denied a path to citizenship, victimized by violent reaction, yet without them America would be a different and a poorer place.”

Though their work was in important to the development of California and the US, people of Chinese descent weren’t allowed to become US citizens, and “were accorded no voice,” writes Gordon Chang of Stanford University. “We cannot hear what they said, thought, or felt.”  I imagine this is also much the case for many seeking their way into places, countries, and cultures where they are seen as the outsider, even though what they could contribute is needed in the places they are seeking harbor. Hiltzik states that Stanford himself in his inaugural address as governor in 1862, when described the Chinese living in the US ‘“an inferior race … a degraded and distinct people” exercising “a deleterious influence upon the superior race.”’ We do have some remnants of the Chinese’ voices, however, Hiltzik states–in oral stories, songs, and poetry. At Angel Island visitors can get a glimpse of Chinese detainees’ experience and thoughts through reading the poems they wrote there on the walls reflecting their depth of frustration and sadness.

Anger and depression

Amidst the sorrows the detainees express, beauty also resides in their words, as well as wisdom. According to information available to read at Angel Island, the poem below (author not stated) was written in Chinese language in a form of eight lines using couplets, parallel syntax, and tonal alteration.

The west wind ruffles my thin gauze clothing.
On the hill sits a tall building with a room of wooden planks.
I wish I could travel on a cloud far away, reunite my wife and son.
When the moonlight shines on me alone, the night seems even longer
At the head of the bed there is wine and my heart is constantly drunk.
There is no flower beneath my pillow and my dreams are not sweet.
To whom can I confide my innermost feelings?
I rely solely on close friends to relieve my loneliness.


Often, it’s poetry that people turn to as an expression of resistance and protest. In its use of metaphor and conciseness, poetry empowers people. Because poetry thoughtfully considers the use of each word–the connotations and denotations, the tone, mood and baggage words carry with them, poetry is an antidote to the way words are so often used in media to manipulate, sell or distort. People have sometimes asked, why read poetry, why teach poetry in schools? This is a central reason: We need words that have integrity. To write poetry is to learn to use words to tell truths, and to be able to express those truths with strength, beauty, and succinctness. We need poetry.

Poets Dante and Pablo Neruda were exiled from their countries because of the poems they wrote. Contemporary poets too are concerned with human rights and freedoms. Laila Sumpton’s poems, as her blog site describes, “explore refugee and indigenous rights.” Sumpton has edited a book of 150 poems on themes connected with human rights from poets with heritages in 28 different countries. As recently as the start of this month, protestors in Hong Kong have turned to poetry to express their struggle. In Nicole Baute’s article in The Globe and Mail, “Hong Kong writers resort to poetry amid protests to express the inexpressible,” Aaron Chan, a teacher, reads from his poem about an earlier time in the country, ‘“Extradite me to the past…When teachers could speak freely/ Without fear, though not without worry.”’ Poetry allows writers space where they can emphasize particular moments or experiences to express the difficulties, struggles, and challenges people face in the effort to protect personal freedoms. ‘“The writer can use figurative language and can also zoom into a particular image and focus on that,”’ writes Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, in Baute’s article. Ho is an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and president of PEN Hong Kong. ‘“There’s a lot of creative space to use poetry to respond to what happened,”’ explains Ho.

Wilson quote

In Edward Iwata’s August 1990 article in the Los Angeles Times, “Writing in Exile: A Chinese Tale: Authors: After the horrors of Tian An Men Square, more than 100 dissident Chinese writers have fled their home. The exiled are learning to cope and create in foreign lands,” Iwata writes, “Poets in China are widely admired. It’s not unusual for their readings to draw 2,000 or 3,000 people to town squares and auditoriums.” This is very different from America, where 20 to 30 people at a poetry reading can be considered a good crowd. Fei Ye, a writer in China’s Democracy Movement, was arrested in 1983 for a banned literary journal he printed called Lone Army. Iwata writes that, “Fei believes poetry articulates the desires of the Chinese to be free of political dogma and suffering. If poetry is killed, he said, the spirit of the people will die also. ‘“It’s a way to show our true feelings and genuine beliefs,”’ Fei said, leaning forward.’ “It’s a way to question traditional values and to wake people up. That is the start of a true revolution.”’

From Fei to Martin Espada, Haki R. MadhubutiClaribel Alegría, Heather McHugh, June Jordan, Anna Akhmatova and Amiri Baraka, these poets and many others have written poems of dissidence against dehumanizing, oppressive forces that work to terrorize people and control them through fear. Poets aim to express what is most difficult to put into words. Poets’ work is important because through their words they can give expression to suffering, and honor people’s struggle. Their words can lift readers and listeners above the machinations of suppression and despair.

SF panorama

Poetry is important to human expression and has been for thousands of years. People throughout the world held back or contained by walls both visible and invisible have sought to write poetry as a way to transcend obstacles. Those detained at Angel Island wrote poems using the very walls that restricted them as the fabric for holding their poems. Thinking of this now in our present day, this work seems a particularly brilliant thing–to write poems on walls in order to allow our hearts and spirits to move beyond them.

Poems have been placed on walls in a variety of world locations–as can be observed on this site, Wall Poems. As reported on the US Embassy Consulate site for the Netherlands, In a neighborhood in the Hague, the HSV International Primary School placed several of Emily Dickinson’s poems on a wall. Additionally, David Lehman, series editor for the Best American Poetry 2019 describes how in Salerno, Italy,  the Fondazione Alfonso Gatto has written lines from the Italian poet, Alfonso Gatto on their walls, as you can see here. The Fondazione Alfonso Gatto is “committed to “the welfare of the region, in the belief that the use of expressive art can help to build more inclusive societies.” Their dedication to this endeavor is inspiring.

Words can transform us, and we can use them to reach beyond what walls us in or walls out. Using paint, pens, photos, or what ever seems most fitting and right, we can shine poetry’s light onto the walls in our lives, our neighborhoods, or at borders between places that prevent us from creating community or encountering a wider world. Poems from the book Ink Knows No Borders, edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond might be a good place to start. Or even better, gather together with those in your community to identify the walls and write your own poems for them.

art, community, music, Uncategorized

Finding Our Lullabies

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Some bees sleep in flowers, I learned this week, in globe mallows to be specific, their bodies cupped by blossom, and dusted in pollen as they dream. This is a lovely image to keep in mind before drifting off to sleep. We need something gentle in our lives to help us turn away from fears that seem to greet us at every turn. Violence, poverty, pain, disease, death–there are already too many hard things in this world. We long for something soft to encourage and remind us goodness and beauty are still present as a natural part of our ecosystem, and to affirm us that wealth and power aren’t requirements for their existence.

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dragonfly

The Los Angeles Times tells us in Mark W. Moffett’s Op-ed article, “Are we really so different from other species?” that it’s difficult for people to act to save non-human species when they see them as of lesser value. “A significant body of research suggests that how we perceive animals and how we perceive people is closely linked,” writes Moffett. “Brock University scientists Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson had research participants read essays enumerating the human-like traits of animals. Mere exposure to this perspective caused even those with entrenched prejudices to think kindly of immigrants — to regard them more as equals — despite the fact that the essays mentioned nothing about humans.” Amazingly, if we can see how animals are more like us, we feel greater empathy toward people we see as not like us. To know and value other forms of life such as animals and plants, can help us value life in general, and that is an aspiration worthy of our effort. When we don’t see others as valuable as ourselves, we don’t act.

Recently, I visited Port Angeles, Washington, a city on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sitting on the wharf on a Wednesday evening, I was enjoying the Backwoods Hucksters’ fabulous blues and bluegrass concert there, and noticing those who got up to dance by themselves in the space between the audience and stage. Fully engaged in the music and their moves, they didn’t care a hoot about the impression they might be making on others. One of these dancers was a quite elderly woman in a white dress with pink and lavender flowers. She wore a long sleeved purple shirt over the dress, a small gold cross around her neck, large framed glasses, and thick brown cotton stockings that had a large run in them. She could barely move her feet, but raised them up a few inches off the ground in time with the music, turned around slowly, and every now and then lifted her head and both arms. Her face was mostly expressionless, though she was obviously enjoying herself as she didn’t sit down for quite some time.

After a while, a man likely in his early forties wearing a suit rode across the front of the audience on his bike. Parking it, he came over to the elderly woman, and without a pause or any verbal communication, took her in his arms and continued the dance. It was an endearing thing to witness–how they continued on as the music played, the younger man’s feet moving nimbly as he turned the woman, and swayed with her from side to side,with the music’s rhythm. I imagined he was her son, and he knew how well she loved music. He didn’t see her as somehow different and not worthy of attention or connection. I noticed no sense of labored obligation in his expression. Simply, they danced, expressing a refreshing togetherness in the moment. Music has a way of doing that–uniting people, opening us to each other, allowing us to look beyond how we might appear in someone’s eyes, and simply to be together in the moment with each other’s presence as a gift.

Ilya Kaminsky, in his book, Deaf Republic, a book with poems and a play in two acts, the setting of which is place in a fictitious country permeated with violence during a war, writes a beautiful lullaby. The music of his lines express a tenderness,

Lullaby
by Ilya Kaminsky

Little daughter
rainwater

snow and branches protect you
whitewashed walls

and neighbors’ hands all
child of my Aprils

little earth of
six pounds

How soft and gentle these lines feel, and all the more so because the words are offered amidst the book’s larger setting of violence and oppression. When faced with loss or horror, the expression of any small tenderness is heightened even more. We see the preciousness of life in every day expressions of care or nurturance, realizing these aren’t necessarily as commonplace as previously thought.

Rainwater is gentle, restorative, creating a kind of song as it falls to earth, and Kaminsky highlights this in his words holding assonance in the repetition of sounds in rainwater and daughter. Interestingly, Kaminsky identifies snow as something protecting the young one, though snow is cold and can be harsh. In his lines, however, snow is soft, and is connected to images of neighbors’ hands who reach back into a childhood world where spring lived, holding this small earthen being of six pounds–what one might be at birth. 

Both Kaminsky’s poem and the dancers in Port Angeles inspire me to reach beyond the borders of myself and my limited world of thought when considering what might be possible. What dance might I still be able to do, how might I let go more of ego and expectations if I allowed some of my boundaries to be more permeable in order to live more peacefully with myself and with greater generosity in my heart toward others as well as myself? What lullaby can I create in the midst of whatever fear or war I might find myself in the midst of struggle with–either metaphorically or real–that will work toward allowing us all to expand together into a spirit that enables us to sleep more peacefully at night though we know there is work to do the next day–like the bees curled inside cups of flowers? This is a lullaby to connect with.

What we nurture in our hearts and minds gains solidity. As Toni Morrison stated in her article in The Nation when speaking of the value of art, “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” Similarly to Kaminsky writing his lullaby’s gentle words inside a context of disruption and war, Morrison goes on to say, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” Lullabies are not always sweet. One many of us know from childhood talks about a child’s crib hung in a tree bow that rocks then breaks, the baby falling to the ground–not exactly a comforting picture. The thing is, though, the parent is there, singing to the child in the midst of the brokenness. I want to hear more of these kinds of lullabies from people. In our brokenness, we can hold on to each other through our offerings of creativity that function like these lullabies.

Our music, our creativity, is important to our survival. Similar to Pythagoras’s idea of the heavenly spheres creating music as a result of their vibrations, physicists today theorize that all of what we see with our eyes are possibly held together by the minuscule vibration of matter. Recognizing our interconnection to the music vibrating inside all life allows us to thrive.

Here is my offering to you, and a lullaby of sorts, my new chapbook, To Find a River, out this week with Dancing Girl Press, a small collection of poems exploring themes of loss, and nurturance across time and cultures in settings of deserts and gardens. I hope you will read them, and find in them a music to carry you through a hard or empty place you might sense in your life–that the poems in this short volume will be a voice singing in the night for you, connecting with you beyond brokenness, and carrying you into a recognition of a shared world.

AnnaDunes
Anna in the Red Dunes of Saudi Arabia, photo by Michael Citrino
pilgrimage, poetry, snorkeling, Uncategorized, Wonder

Into the Wide, Diverse Sea

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,” begins John Masefield’s poem, “Sea Fever,” my favorite poem in grade seven, a poem that made me fall in love with poetry because of its rhythm, and the mystery of the sea the lines evoked. The summer before grade seven, I lived in Seaside, in Monterrey County, CA, close enough to visit the ocean often, where I would sit on the rocky shoreline, mesmerized by the tireless waves–their strength, endurance and foamy beauty rolling in from depths.

 

Decades later, living and working in Singapore, a friend encouraged my husband and I to spend our winter holiday diving in the area near Palau in the middle of the Pacific, where we would be able to see incredible fish life among the reefs, including schools of barracuda, and manta. During the years I lived in Turkey, I’d loved snorkeling in the Mediterranean, and had spent many hours suspended in the water staring into the ladders of light with fish wandering through. When I moved to Singapore,  I was a new scuba diver, and barely aware of the rich life beneath the water’s surface. Traveling to spend several weeks swimming alongside fish wasn’t something I’d considered doing on a holiday.  Instead, I’d hoped to experience the world I’d read about from books but had never seen–historical places with art and architecture. I wanted to listen to people speaking languages I didn’t comprehend, and to experience something of the world other than the one I was comfortable with. I’d never considered what two weeks of diving might do to open my eyes to the world’s wonder, how diving could expand my experience of life beyond what was previously familiar. My friend’s various descriptions of diving in Palau and Truck Lagoon convinced me, however, that there was, indeed, a phenomenal new world to explore underwater beyond what I’d previously known, and I made the trip to Palau and Truk lagoon.

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Anna in the Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

The experience there changed me. Enveloped in wildness and beauty, I came to realize that to scuba dive is to have the most other worldly experience you can have on earth and still be on earth. Diving into ethereal blue waters to see bioluminescent clams and corals, watching coral feed, peering up close with a magnifying glass at a jeweled fairy basslet’s golden scales, observing a tiger shark emerge directly from the deep and swim toward you, witnessing a school of fish so large you can’t see the edges, or a hammer head swing its body back and forth in a movement fluid as an unfurling flag, watching the wildly patterned mandarin fish dance as it swims away, lying on the ocean’s sandy bottom as a ten foot wide manta ray wings its way gently over your head, these experiences are but a droplet in the life the ocean holds and that I’ve experienced underwater as a diver. It is a world other than the one we live in from day to day, operating with its own rules, and for a few minutes–as long as your air tank lasts–you are a part of it.

The nature writer Barry Lopez writes in his book, About This Life, how a man he sat next to on an airplane asked him what his daughter should do if she wants to be a writer, “…get out of town,” advised Lopez. “I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.” Ocean diving will most certainly separate you from the familiar and expose you to other languages–the ones fish speak with the behavior they display. It can also bring one a fresh sense of the world, how diverse it is, how wide, and what a gift it is to be alive. In this poem of mine written after diving in the Maldives, I describe the experience.

Days At Lohifushi
Anna Citrino

I.
Underneath the wing of the reef
twenty or more oriental sweet lips
lounge contentedly in the hammock of the ocean,
their happy striped and spotted bodies
swinging lazily back
then forward with the surge,
their yellow and black faces playing
peek-a-boo with passers by.

II.
Flowers burst in suns of buttery yellow
from the salmon pink fingered nubs
of corals stretching out from the wall,
a passion of color dancing out
into the darkness of the watery night.
I have traveled a long distance to stare at them here
thriving riotously underneath the overhang,
and notice how without traveling any distance,
with only reaching out to feed their pudgy bodies
on what happens to come their way
they dazzle with brilliance.

III.
Minuscule transparent shrimp float
almost invisibly in the shimmering
aquamarine windows, the smoldering
fiery gold jewels of their iridescent eyes
left as hidden treasure for seekers
to find, secreted inside the silent
dark caves of the ocean’s night.

IV.
Underneath me, the eagle ray rises
from the edge of the reef,
raises his wide arms, circles
the blue reach in slow spirals,
gliding, turning, each revolution
a lifting of his arm’s white lip
a mantra of smoothness.
I watch him until he slides away
into the far distance. I peer after him
though I can no longer discern
his body’s shape
from the lift of his wing,
and the shadow of the sea.

V.
We stand in a circle, waist deep in water,
watching the sea gently tumble
up the white coral shore.
Above the waving green palms, a rainbow
curves into a cup of blue sky.
Lars spins cartwheels, his legs
pointing up toward the clouds,
body twirling with the pinwheel spiral
of the earth whirling toward twilight
as the sun rolls, molten orange,
down the sky, smoothed
into the sea’s soft, silken cradle.
Hush. Can you hear the stars singing?

VI.
Skimming along the surface of the inky water
the boat speeds ahead toward the city’s lights
and the plane that will take me home. I do not want to go.
I stare off into the distance out the side window,
unable to distinguish the difference between sky and water,
the whole world folding into one. Beneath me
water flies in showers of starry phosphorescent light.
Luminescent sparks flare in bright streaks.
I am leaving, carried on the tail of a comet.

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Lion fish, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

Immersing oneself in the sea may not be what everyone feels motivated to do, but the ocean is the place where all rivers meet and a source of immeasurable life. Now that I live in the US again, I’ve not had the opportunity to dive, though I admire the work of oceanographer and explorer, Sylvia Earle, and her efforts at Mission Blue, to preserve the ocean’s biodiversity, and as well as her work with National Geographic to create underwater marine reserves--blue parks. The natural world’s diversity enriches us and brings us more life.

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Blue spotted ray, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

It’s comfortable to stick with what we know, but it’s also good to recognize that our individual lives depend on the diversity of life worldwide. Appreciating and supporting that diversity is perhaps one of the most important things we can do to bring more life into the world, our own and the natural world as well. When diving into the ocean, we can see the variety of worlds going on there all at once. Many ways of being co-exist. A manta ray might be swooping over an underwater mound of rock where cleaner wrasse wait, ready to feed on the mucus, damaged cells, and parasites that live on the manta ray. To the side and below the scene with the manta and wrasse, an octopus prepares his den, shoving out sand, while suspended between the two worlds, bat fish slowly circle.

The natural world thrives because of its diversity. In the financial world, as well, advisors tell us that a diversified portfolio is the foundation for sound investments. Similarly, diversifying our activities can benefit both our mental and physical health. Being open to new kinds of people, activities, and ways of thinking is good for us. When we purposefully choose to allow new ways of thinking and being to enter into our lives, we, enhance our health and well being, says the Harvard Medical School newsletter.

Stepping out of our comfort zones to do or learn something new, go somewhere different, to consider unfamiliar thoughts and different ways of seeing the world that contradict our former ways of being can bring challenges. Those very difficulties can also wake us up inside, though, and help us feel more alive. They can enable us to become more whole. David Steindl-Rast points out in his book, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, an Approach to Life in Fullness, that Abraham was seventy-five years old when God told him “‘Go forth out of your land, and out of your kinsfolk, and out of your father’s house.'” It takes a lot of courage to leave the world you know, in particular to do this at an age when people often prefer to settle into what’s familiar and comfortable. Abraham left his familiar world behind, though, and it’s interesting to note that Abraham didn’t know where he was headed when he set out on his pilgrimage. He was willing to be uncertain about what he knew, where he was going. Perhaps this is a central reason he’s revered–his willingness to reach beyond the borders of his understanding, and to move into unfamiliar territory and ways of being.

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino
pilgrimage, Presence, Uncategorized

Waiting and Transformation

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WAITING
Anna Citrino

The heat rises each day in Delhi now, and the trees
on my street have lost their leaves. The branches,

gone barren, crave a new life. They hold open the palms
of their hands in yearning. Hour after hour, the sun

kisses their fingertips saying, “Not yet, keep going.
Keep on,” as the trees breathe in the circling birds,

and breathe out their emptiness. They want to blow
open in sirens of life, to scream like a child in wild glee,

want to turn on the colored search lights, to shout out
the story of a yellow Eden. They want to sing

in a ten thousand blossomed glory, setting fire
to the air. But they don’t.

They wait. Day by day, a pyre of sticks, they stand
quietly shriveling into the sidewalk, as if

they understand the silence, the humility,
out of which life finally speaks.

Landscapes can embody both longing and renewal. When I lived in New Delhi, a tree grew along the roadside in front of the school and in the courtyard inside the front gate. As the year moved toward spring, I noticed the trees beginning to lose all their leaves, just as it seemed to me that they should be bursting with life. I thought the trees were dying, and felt very sad to see them go–all of them alongside the roadway drooping and bereft of leaves.

The trees were not dying, however, though they appeared to be. They were actually getting ready to burst forth in blossom. By May the trees, the cassia fistula, had become enormous clouds of brilliant yellow clusters of flowers cascading down from the height of their branches. Their vibrant color embodied New Delhi’s intense May heat where temperatures climb over a hundred Fahrenheit (in the thirties in Celsius) accompanied with May’s monsoon season humidity. Like drifts of yellow sun, their blossoms fell in thick drifts along the roadside. It felt like the trees had to lose all their leaves in order to make way for the myriad blooms.

Some people liked to call these trees the graduation trees as their blossoms arrived at about the same time as the school year’s end. People would leave school to ride out into their summer holidays and their new or their other lives, accompanied by the generous beauty of these trees celebrating their long awaited for transformation. I learned from these trees behavior that what is true in one environment doesn’t always hold true for another, and that sometimes things that appear to be dying might actually be making ready for something entirely new to occur, even, perhaps, something glorious.

 

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It’s a fortunate coincidence that the tree blossoms at the school year’s end, a time when tired teachers are very much in need of a boost to carry them into a time of rejuvenation and restoration before beginning a new school year.  It isn’t only teachers that need renewal, however. Many people carry on through years of work holding up their families, nurturing other people’s health or hold the safety and wellbeing of others in their care, and must find how to sustain themselves and others through long periods of time. Whether its for graduation, a job, retirement, better health, a word of encouragement or a hand of support, we are often awaiting renewal like the trees, preparing and storing up reserves for the arrival of that transformative time.

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Often, when we put closure to certain phases of our lives, people like to know what we’re going to do next. We don’t have to know everything about our future though as we move toward change. We each have our our own way of opening and can allow ourselves to learn how to unfold in our own time. Success and the continual idea that we must be doing something so we can be called successful or call ourselves successful can make us deeply unsettled, and can prevent us from living satisfying lives. To wait on ourselves, and to listen deeply to the rhythms and needs of our lives is important to living meaningfully and with contentment. Before bursting forth into blossom, nature practices stillness, goes into her dark place and can look as if she’s dying. Like the cassia fistula, we can hold back, listening to our inner selves.

Several years back now, the first blog post I wrote on this site spoke about the mandorla, the ancient symbol that can be found in cathedrals’ stained glass where two circles or ovals overlap. The overlapping portion symbolically represents that area where wholeness develops, and growing into oneness occurs. As Robert A. Johnson explains in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, the Dark Side of the Psyche, “The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise. This middle place is a mandorla, ” The shadow times, times we’re seemingly dying but are still living, the times where all is still and it seems nothing at all is happening as we wander and explore, aiming to understand experiences, feelings or ideas are important to our inner growth and wellbeing. “Only awareness of your shadow qualities can help you to find an appropriate place for your unredeemed darkness and thereby create a more satisfying experience. To not do this work is to remain trapped in the loneliness, anxiety, and dualistic limits of the ego instead of awakening to your higher calling,” writes Johnson, explaining how important times of emptiness are for our inner lives to grow.

We live inside a mandorla–a world where opposites overlap. Whether change occurs slowly or quickly, our lives are always in transition, moving from one world into another. The stillness and space between the oppositions in our lives is where we learn how to transform our lives and periodically allow ourselves to eventually burst into blossom. While we search for the boat of insight that will carry us to the other side of understanding, we can practice being still and enjoying the moment we’re in.

 

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poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living for the Long Journey

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Age is a strangeness. No matter
how many relatives we watched
totter into their graves, even cats
and dogs whom we’d raised from birth,
we never quite believed it could happen to us.

–Marge Piercy,

Many I know are dealing with difficulties of age, as Piercy describes in the excerpt above from her poem “How Did I Come to Be Here?” but also of repercussions from accidents, diseases, illnesses, and loss. From the recent floods in Mozambique to the school shooting in Colorado, the whole world seems to be struggling and grieving. The book I’m currently reading, Old Calabria, originally published in 1915 by Norman Douglas about his travels through Calabria, Italy, describes the intolerable circumstances the Calabrian peasants lived with. “Every attempt at innovation in agriculture, as in industry, is forthwith discouraged by new and subtle impositions, which lie in wait for the enterprising Italian and punish him for his ideas. There is, of course a prohibitive duty on every article or implement manufactured abroad, there is the octroi, a relic of medievalism. the most unscientific, futile, and vexations of taxes; there are municipal dues to be paid on animals bought and animals sold, on animals kept and animals killed, on milk and vine-props and bricks, on timber for scaffolding and lead and tiles and wine–on every conceivable object which the peasant produces or requires for his existence.” The burden of trying merely to survive went on for centuries, and is a major reason Calabrians left Italy for America at the turn of the last century when workers were needed. Pilgrimages today to new worlds continue for many who find the countries they live in unbearable. Suffering is common to the human experience.

Life has its ease and beauty, but we do not know what the next day or moment may bring. Eventually we all will face death, and having the strength to walk through the land taking us to that place is a trip it would be good to prepare for so we have the inner strength upon our arrival. But what gives us strength to make the pilgrimages life demands of us–the long treks into the unknown, the risks of uncertainty flooding over us, and how do we prepare purposefully and wisely? Any answer we arrive at will most probably begin with learning how to live meaningfully and wisely in the moment we are living now–practicing being and bringing into our lives what is life engendering.

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Recently, my husband and I took a trip up California’s west coast to visit some of the largest and most ancient trees living in virgin forests with a friend and filmmaker, Adrian Juric. Nothing is hidden about death or the stages of growth in a tree’s life when observing a forest never logged. All is visible. Standing amidst the mist enshrouded ferns in these ancient forests, I noticed everywhere around me fallen trees that had been lying there for who knows how many centuries, the echo of their thunderous long ago fall almost auditory when looking at the gargantuan ruptured trunks and shattered wood lying about. The violent disruption of life can be sensed simply by observing the aftermath. 

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But everywhere around the fallen trees, all the living trees were present, continuing on growing alongside the decaying ones, the fallen trees’ lives essential to the living ones. At the foot of the mother trees the young trees waited, ready to climb into the opening light when the mother tree fell. Trees of all ages coexist side by side, the fallen ones creating nutrient and light for those living on.

Observing nature, we’re reminded of how we, too, are part of nature. In the forest, we can see kind of mirror of our own lives–how disturbing, disabling, and threatening it became for other organisms when the tree fell–how incredibly harsh death can be. And, too, how difficult for the life of young trees near the great trees if you consider how they have to wait centuries for change, for light and their turn to grow. 

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Viewed in this way, perhaps it doesn’t seems like being in such a forest should necessarily make us feel better. We walk in a forest, and our difficulties might remain. Nevertheless, often the walk there somehow does change us, allowing us to see our lives from a different perspective. Nicholas Samaras in his poem, “Redwood,” describes how simply being in a redwood forest can give a person the necessary strength to face difficulty. You look around you at the trees’ magnificent height, the way the branches move and leaves transform light, and in them are given the opportunity to recognize what light can do when absorbed. Inhaling the fullness in the forest’s presence, you can walk back into the path of your own life differently. You might want to view and listen to Samaras’s poem here and sense through Juric’s film how a forest could change you, and perhaps, a bit of why, in concrete terms, Harvard Medical school’s July 2018 Men’s Health Watch article says that being in nature three days a week could do our bodies and mind serious good–everything from lowering blood pressure and reducing cortisol to reducing negative emotions.

There are many beautiful teachings we can learn from and practice to help us on our path of living wisely. The Beatitudes describe wise living as nurturing attitudes of becoming peacemakers who are merciful, and humble. The  Five Mindfulness Trainings  encourage us to practice respect for life, generosity, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and mindful consumption. Whatever our practice, this we know: life is fragile and we suffer. And this we know too: life goes better when we stand beside each other, holding each other as we can, when we learn from each other, letting our lives nurture and lift each other.

Conrad Aiken, in his poem, Music I Heard writes,

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

That strong tree growing in the forest is like the life of a dear brother, sister or loved friend, and the relationship with them is like music. Whether it’s taking a walk, working alongside one another, building something or eating together, relationships can bring us sustenance and blessing. As the final stanza of Aiken’s poem describes,

For it was in my heart that you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,
—They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

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When we’re with someone who suffers it may not feel our presence is enough, but in it is everything we are. To be fully present with another is to give your life in love. That is the greatest gift.

Beauty, place, Uncategorized

Wildflowers and Forgotten Worlds

A place of abandoned windmills, trailers and tractors, the Carrizo Plains north of San Luis Obispo, California carries a kind of sadness, an emptiness that fills the landscape’s wideness. In her poem, “Elegance,” Linda Gregg writes, about the neglected world,

All that is uncared for.

Left alone in the stillness
in that pure silence married

to the stillness of nature.

And there is, indeed, an undisturbed stillness to the landscape of the Carrizo Plains, a silence that absorbs you when you step out onto the sea of land and peer out into the far distance, a world that goes on being itself with out much notice from anyone. The wind rises a bit and rattles the grass. Clouds drift by in their silent carousel. Crow sits in her nest atop a tower where once the windmill turned. The countryside here is full of light, but you can feel the shadows waiting beneath the surface, a kind of loneliness.

 

Tractor, Carizzo Plains

Nevertheless, because these plains are a place left undisturbed by humanities’ hustle, traffic and expectation, something truly grand has the opportunity to appear: wildflowers. After a winter with abundant rain, a super bloom occurs in backcountry areas like the Carrizo Plains. Flowers that have waited for years, at last have the conditions they need to spring forth, forming lakes of lupin and pools of baby blue eyes. Beauty spills its bounty across the hillsides, dusts them in the pink blush of owl’s clover, clothes them in her bejeweled cape of brocaded yellows–gold poppies, topaz fiddlenecks, mustard, butter cups, and bright-eyed tidy tips. The hills reverberate with sun.

People who typically view nature as a backdrop, and who may not know the names of plants in their front yard or on the street where they live drive hours to stare at flowers. They climb hills to get a good view, spread a picnic blanket at the edge of the road, and lug their crying children along with them all for the opportunity to glimpse at the splashes of color for a few hours before making the journey back home. What is there about these flowers that pulls on our spirits so powerfully?

Carrizo Plain

 

Temporal and rare, we know the burst of color these flowers produce doesn’t last long. If you want to see them, you know you can’t put the journey off for weeks. Flowers do not bend to our schedules and timelines. They live and thrive when they choose, and wither quickly beneath the heat.

There’s something beyond the flowers’ narrow life span that pulls us to them though. Something deep inside us physically responds to what we see and experience, allowing us to feel more at ease, interconnected with the world around us, and with ourselves. We feel more whole. When standing amidst the wildflowers, like others around me, I found myself wordlessly staring out at their colorful bounty, fumbling for how to express the awe I experienced.

Something in us responds to a presence in nature that we recognize as much larger than ourselves and intricately, beautifully complex. Though nature speaks a language we in our consumer oriented society barely comprehend, when we step inside a natural world that has not been severely impaired by human interaction, we can nevertheless sense it imparting something significant into our very being. Neurologist Oliver Sacks in Everything in It’s Place describes the profound effect these experiences in the natural world have on us. “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process, as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

Carrizo

The natural world is interconnected, and our own lives interwoven into its fabric. Nature preserves are also called sanctuaries. The word sanctuary is linked to the idea of what is holy, a word the etymology dictionary indicates connects to that which is whole or uninjured. Nature continues on its vast spiral, working under its own rules to carry on its own story within the constraints of its own rhythms, its own timing. Awe of the natural world reaffirms our connection to it, allows us to feel alive and whole.

As they walked from place to place or rode an an animal, for centuries people lived closer to the land than we do now. Before factory farming, many more of us were farmers interacting daily with plants and the land. According to Sara Burrow’s article in Newsweek’s October 27, 2017 article, ‘”one in nine children “have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least 12 months.'” These patterns of disengagement from Earth alienate us from a life-giving source whose wideness is beyond comprehension, her boundlessness presence ready to carry us into a spaciousness, to use Hopkins’ words, that “flame out, like shining from shook foil.” National parks in the US are threatened by human activity. Perhaps this is because as a whole, people in our culture spends so little time in nature we don’t comprehend its value to our inner lives, and therefore don’t nurture our connection to it. As a result, we’re willing to treat it mostly as a commodity to be used and sold. 

Sadness does, indeed, roam about the world, but there are also wildflowers seeds waiting to be watered beneath the surface of loss, and despair. With blossoms and perfume, Earth call us to come join her, walk with her, listen to her voice. The story she’s telling is far bigger than our fears and worry. It’s a story of renewal, and she’s calling us to be part of it. While watering a plant on our windowsill, walking by a river, waiting beside a tree for the the local bus or looking out our window as rain clouds gather, we can open our roofs to the moment of her presence, let the seasons and scents drift in. The meadow of her refuge awaits. As Hafiz writes in his poem, “All the Hemispheres”

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.

Beauty, gardening, Uncategorized

In the Garden of Time

20190301_152744 (1)Rain has fallen relentlessly the past few months in Santa Cruz County, but today a break occurred allowing the sun to come out, and I emerged into my backyard’s delicious light. Looking up at the billowing clouds, I rested in the afternoon’s quietness, reveled in the creek’s soft rumpling as it moved through the redwoods down the road. Ill with a cold, I had no plans but to take in the day. “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel. “God is not in things of space, but in moments of time.” Time is a temple, an experience to savor and relish. Today I felt enfolded in this truth.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, my husband and I connected with friends–walking, sitting, absorbing life. We arrived without any set plans. We simply wanted to be present with our friends and the world they inhabit. While there, we ventured out into the landscape, absorbing its fabulous diversity. Hawaii is a world different from where I live, and the difference is a delight.

Traditional Hawaiian society had defined roles for men and women. In traditional Hawaiian society, men cooked and farmed while women made art. Women and men ate in different locations, and inheritance was through matriarchal lines. Additionally, Hawaiians held an awareness of the mahu, those who identified themselves with both genders–someone in the middle.

In Hawaiian traditional culture, the idea of family goes back several generations. The physical family was part of the spiritual, timeless family. As depicted in the photo of the stone shrine above, Hawaiians honored family ancestors.

Traditional ways of thinking have eroded since the arrival of Westerners to the island, however. Because Hawaiians have highly adapted to Western culture and its way of thinking, restoring traditional ways is highly problematic. Nevertheless, learning something of Hawaiian’s traditional ways of organizing society helps me to view my own culture newly, to consider anew my relationship with family and friends, and to enter into an awareness of our spiritual connection.

Though I know little about my ancestors or their history, like members of traditional Hawaiian culture, I’m attracted to the idea of timeless connection beyond our physical bodies to the lives of those who came before us. 

To understand a culture not your own takes attentive, receptive study over time. Though people may not be able to restore what was lost in the multitude of cultures that make up the world we now live in, we can listen attentively to voices other than our own and find ways we might move toward greater restitution with those around us. We don’t have to agree with everyone to value them, to give them love. We may not have answers or solutions for the hurt people and cultures have endured. Nevertheless, we can build bridges of beauty that can unite us in larger fields of compassion so we can enter into a place of being together.

One way I’ve begun this effort is by planting in my garden favorite flowers for family members and friends–iris, poppies, sunflowers, dahlias and more. Though there are differences of values and perspectives with family members, looking out at the flowers growing and blossoming in the garden, I can notice life unfolding in its various forms, connecting the flower to the person who chose it–a living reminder of the many and varied lives linked to mine.

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” says Maya Angelou, “… our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” Flowers touch the tender place in all of us where we are “shy as magnolias,” as Angelou describes. In the garden we can be alive together, planted in earth, recognizing our short lives and vulnerability as we take in the sun and rain. Without measuring one flower against the other, we can be together. Sometimes simply inhabiting time with one another, opening ourselves to its color can be enough.

pilgrimage, poetry, Uncategorized

Journeys to Widen Our Lives

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Anna biking the Camino de Santiago de Compestela, Spain

“We do not need to go to the edges of the earth to learn who we are, only the edges of our self.” – L.M. Browning, in Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Some journeys are external others internal. Pilgrimages are travels we make to places that we feel hold spiritual significance—that will speak to our inner selves and transform us. We might travel to a place where grandparents were born, to a significant site connected to our history or a religion we practice. Pilgrimages connected to poetry attract me. The year I lived in the UK, I wanted to follow the Stanza Stones poetry trail. Located in the Yorkshire moors of England, this 47 mile trail contains six Stanza Stones, poems written by Simon Armitage and carved into stones naturally found in there by Pip Hall. Armitage collaborated with the Ilkley Literature Festival organizers to create the poems for the trail. To walk a landscape is to absorb the land’s language. Arimtage’s poems connect walkers to the landscape with words as they encounter the poems as in these lines from his poem, “Snow,” “What can it mean that colourless water can dream such depth of white?” Though I wanted to walk at least part of this trail, I wasn’t able to find a good way to connect to it without better transport the weekend I had free to visit the area, so let go of the idea of this pilgrimage.

Walking Basho’s poetry trail is another pilgrimage I dream of going on. Following this pilgrimage path, walkers can hike the 17th century trail where the great haiku poet, Basho, traversed through northern Japan’s mountains to the Sea of Japan, passing by Shinto shrines, through pine covered islands, and hot springs along the way. I don’t know if I will be able to get to Japan any time soon to make the journey that inspired many of Basho’s poems. I look at photos of it on the Internet, though, imagining the quiet joy of walking for days beneath bamboo forests and among ancient trees.

 

We’re not always able to make the trek of our dream or travel to another land. Nevertheless, there are pilgrimages available to us all: quests through books, and our journey through time. A favorite journey I’ve been on since 2012 is one of the imagination. This sojourn began when I wanted to collaborate with a colleague I worked with who played the cello beautifully, and who was going to move away at the end of the year. I suggested a collaboration where I would write a poem for a piece of music he chose to play, and we would record the pieces together. The music he selected was Fauré’s, Après un rêve, (Op. 7, No. 1). The piece evoked a sense of loss and longing, transporting me to Naples Bay’s enormous circumference where I’d recently sat with my husband at sunset. As the sky burning gold-orange, we watched a boat pull from shore, heading toward the wide horizon. I thought of his grandparents departing Italy for America—how they left behind the world they knew as well as everything and everyone in their village of San Lucido on Calabria’s coast. They had no pictures of the world they moved to, didn’t speak the language, had little money and likely no maps. They never returned to Italy. Leaving was risky, enormously brave, and they would never be the same. Neither am I, as without their departure, I would’ve never met the man I married.

After writing the first poem, “Luisa Leaves Home,” in response to the music, I wondered many things: Why did they leave Italy? What was life like in San Francisco when they arrived? How well did different ethnic groups get along? What are Italian-Americans contributions to American culture? How did World War II change Italian-Americans? What does it mean to be Italian-American today? What does it mean to be American? Hundreds of questions surfaced, and I searched for answers. Paradoxically, the more I researched and wrote with the aim of unraveling threads from a century ago, the more mysterious and complex the world grew. The more questions I had.

I began listening to news items and other people’s stories with a second ear. I applied situations and information to the immigrants’ lives I was writing about, and reflected on how my experiences connected to their world. After sharing one of the poems with a relative, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That poem isn’t Noni. I don’t know who you think you’re writing about, but it isn’t my grandmother.” She was right. I never met her grandmother or lived in San Francisco. I didn’t grow up in an Italian American family or neighborhood. Neither do I speak Italian. Any of these qualifications would be beneficial in helping me write about Italian immigrants to America. The Italian grandparents were from a different time period and culture, and had little education. I had no way to access their lives or inner worlds and the family knew few facts. I couldn’t truly write in their authentic voices. Every writer has limitations of gender, culture, and time period, however. I felt drawn to understand and to journey inside Italian immigrants’ world, so I turned to research and imagination, constructing possibilities to embody a story. Research helped me to put the few facts I knew into a larger picture with a wider frame. Imagination created a bridge to a culture, time period, and people that gave me greater awareness of the complexities inside choices immigrants made.

We look in the mirror when we are at six, sixteen, or sixty. All that came in the years before is mostly hidden from view, disappeared, but still present beneath the surface, creating the life we see and experience. There are myriad stories inside one story. We’re many selves inside one body. It’s the same with cities. Years back I read Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan various cities, all of which are actually Venice. I began to see San Francisco in this way as well as I wrote—its subtle elements still present revealing the past or rising from a foundation into a remodeled version. When visiting the City, I recognized places I’d never been because I’d seen them in historical photographs and could recall events that took place there. It isn’t just San Francisco I see differently now as a result of searching for answers to my questions. The world I live in is larger and has greater dimension because of questions I’ve explored answers to. The walk into an unfamiliar world has been a pilgrimage that  widened my perspective and has transformed me.

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San Francisco from Twin Peaks

To step out on a journey into new territory can be unsettling for travelers. Today, people don’t think of Italians as the “other.” During the peak period of Italians immigration to America, however, Italians experienced prejudice. They were seen as lawless, treacherous, and having filthy habits. (See more at this CNN article, “When Italian immigrants were the other.”) Italians weren’t allowed to build a church inside Manhattan because city officials were fearful of Catholicism and the ceremonies they didn’t understand. The largest single lynching in America was of Italians in Louisiana 1891. Teddy Roosevelt, though not yet president, said of the lynching it was “a rather good thing.” The man who helped organize that lynching, John Parker, later became Louisiana’s governor in 1911.

Currently, similar to the time period one hundred years ago in America when Italian immigration to the US was at its peak, Americans’ fear of immigrants is heightened. Openness to new experiences, information and ways of seeing can enrich and expand our lives, and bridges that allow us to build deeper understanding of what is different can be helpful. Mahzarin Banaji co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People and Professor of Social Ethics in the department of psychology at Harvard explains in her interview with Krista Tippett that our minds are basically wired to distinguish differences in order to help us make sense of our world. This wiring creates biases and blind spots we’re not aware of.  Tests created by researchers to help you see your biases at Project Implicit. People can, however, gain understanding of biases and blind spots by exposing themselves to ideas and people that stretch their boundaries of familiarity. Challenges to people’s preconceptions presented in contexts allowing them to continue to feel safe can help people grow in their understanding of others different from themselves.

One terrific way to do this is through reading, as reading allows us to learn from others without having to take personal risks as we step into their lives. Scientific American’s October 23, 2013 issue reports social researcher, Emanuele Castano and PHD candidate’s research evidence showing how literary fiction, delves into characters’ thoughts and interactions. In literary fiction, explains Kidd, “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations.” As a result, readers have to imagine characters’ inner thoughts. This kind of thinking nurtures empathy as it leads readers to understand the complexity in characters’ lives and to reach for why they might do things differently than expected.

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If reading literary fiction helps break down stereotypes and prejudices, enabling readers to develop empathy with those different from themselves, it follows that writing fiction could further expand this capability as authors not only step inside character’s minds, they create their thoughts and build contexts from which they flow. As a writer, you immerse yourself in your characters’ lives, become familiar with their setting, social context and way of seeing so that you can portray their world. You reveal your characters’ weaknesses and blind spots, and come to understand your own as well.

While most people aren’t fiction writers, we’re all creators of our own life stories. We can consciously aim to expand our understanding of new contexts and situations. Simple things like taking a new route home, listening to or playing a different type of music, going to a lecture on an unfamiliar topic, trying a new sport, hobby or food can all help us expand. We can learn a few phrases in a new language, take a class in a unfamiliar subject, learn about plants in our yard or types of architecture in the neighborhood, experiment with art or try building something. When meeting new people, we can ask questions to bring out their experiences or ways of seeing things. These actions may not seem like large leaps for some, nevertheless they can open new paths in our brains to carry us on journeys widening into new vistas of understanding.

Some journeys start before you know they’ve started. I’d written quite a few poems about Italian immigrants experiencing earthquakes, crossing the Atlantic, learning about the largest lynching in America, and Italians being removed from their homes to be taken to internment camps before I realized I was actually on a pilgrimage with them. I’ve made the pilgrimage with them as I could through writing, and the trek has caused me to view my own place in the world with greater humility.

Not every story is ours to tell, but this one called to me and I felt compelled to take the writing journey to tell it. A Space Between to be published by Bordighera Press (date to be determined) describes this journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you. If you want, you can read more about the book here.

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Riding the Camino de Santiago