poetry, Uncategorized

Living in a Desert Land

Mada’in Salih, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)

The sun shines intensely in Saudi Arabia. Everywhere, light reflects off the desert floor and reverberates against stone. Filled with light, light, and more light, to stand on the earth in Saudi Arabia is to stand in the midst of a wide circle of sun. Holding immensely beautiful forms and textures, the Arabian peninsula has no rivers and no permanent natural water source.

Several years back, I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-‘Ula, founded in the sixth century BC, and located on Saudi Arabia’s north west edge. The ancient Biblical city state of Dedan slightly south of Mada’in Salih in this same area, rests on what was the incense route, and was the capital of the Lihyanites. Later, the Nabateans encompassed the area making Mada’in Salih (then called Hegra) their capital. Like the northern capital of the Nabateans in Petra, Jordan, the site contains elaborate facades of tombs cut into rock, where the earth pulsates in vibrant color.

Though there’s much to love in a light-filled day, sometimes, though, light’s intense radiance can make us long for the softness of shadow and night’s coolness. To enter a door and step into coolness is welcomed. Shade and evening hours are blessings.

Dedan, Saudi Arabia, (photos, Michael Citrino)
at ancient Dedan, Saudi Arabia, (photo Michael Citrino)

When crossing over the lintel and walking into a different world, we carry with us understandings of the world we know, making bridges from what we know to what we don’t. Gradually, as our eyes and mind adjusts, we begin to discern how the new world we’ve entered functions. There are many places and ways of being we don’t know about and don’t understand because those places and worlds are not the ones we are familiar with. When we enter a new phase of life, start a new job, move to a different city or country, fall ill, begin playing a new instrument or try learning a new language, we enter a kind of liminal world where things aren’t necessarily illuminated or clear. Instead, we’re in the dark, so to speak, and have to learn to inhabit a new way of structuring meaning and making sense.

Len Anderson’s newest poetry book, The Way Home, is a probing exploration and beautiful expression of the territory of betweenness or emptiness–places of not knowing, not seeing, the mystery life can reveal itself to be when we find ourselves inhabiting what feels like an internal desert. In his poem, “Door,” Anderson writes,

Deep in a dream
I am a lone pilgrim,
walk the ancient city
arrive at a door

It opens
I enter
and find myself
in the company
of a great silence

As a pilgrim or a seeker described in the lines above, when we enter a new world or way of living, we grow aware we stand in a place of mystery. The old rules and patterns don’t fit and the new world doesn’t speak the same language as the one we left. Traveling through unfamiliar territory is an ancient place. It’s wise to pause and to listen deeply.

In his poem, “Unknown Ghazal,” Anderson writes how the territory of not knowing is a good place to be, “Welcome, make yourself at home, here in the unknown,/ Don’t worry, you can find a way deeper into the unknown.” A thirst of the spirit or heart can last for decades, and for some, centuries. We all desire to be happy, to live with joy and be free of suffering. Thirst is, nevertheless, a given quality of existence. Like the children of Israel who walked into unknown desert for years, thirst can eventually lead to a promised land. Even the promised land, however, was located in a desert.

Because of their wide and windswept emptiness, deserts landscapes embody the longing for life and growth. As Anderson writes in his poem, “The Longing,”

You and I and all growing things
are made of longing. Even the stars
formed in the longest night we can imagine
from the dust left by that flash
that opened out into everything
could be called a kind of longing.

To be a part of creation is to know longing. Whole continents and subcontinents embody landscapes of longing, together with the very stars that were “formed in the longest night we can imagine.” Yet out of this longing came what “opened out into everything.” Everything visible was born out of a yearning.

Deserts are an embodied yearning. In seasons of adapting and waiting on the lintel of liminal space between worlds where it’s unclear what world you inhabit because the world you’re familiar with is no longer the world you live in, it’s good to remember the desert world and how those who inhabit such lands have managed to live inside its constraints. People have lived in desert regions for millennia. Entire civilizations were created in the deserts of Mesopotamia, known in Ancient Greek as the land between rivers. Channeling water for urban use and irrigation, people built entire civilizations there. Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Eridu and Babylon are all cities that grew up in the desert areas between rivers. Recognizing water’s preciousness as it fills seasonal oases after rains or flows from a mountain spring, desert communities channel the water they find, enabling it to benefit to the whole community. In this gathered effort, it’s feasible to not only survive in a desert land but to also thrive there.

Red Dunes, Saudi Arabia (photo, Michael Citrino)

The world is always being renewed, earth reimagining what shape it wants to take. Sitting at the edge of Saudi’s Red Desert you can watch wind lift and flick the sand, tenaciously shifting the perfect-edged ochre and red crystals grain by grain into new forms. “Come into being as you pass away,” says the Gospel of Thomas, logion 42. Everything in both exterior and interior landscape, is shifting, moving, becoming new, even as it alters, ages or dies.

There are sandy deserts and there are stony deserts. Since ancient times people have carved beautiful structures in the hardscape desert lands. Stone personifies deep longing in its steadfastness as it waiting to be worn down or broken open. With patience and endurance, we, too, with the help of others, can create something enduringly beautiful out of what is difficult and hard. As Anderson says in his poem “A Little Mystery,”

Inside each thing
is the possibility
of everything

Don’t worry
we’ll never find it all

Even these stones
and mud we call Earth
are a child of the Heavens
with a touch of Hell

They help hold us here
for this fleeting
eternity

Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)

In his poem, “Into Being,” Anderson describes a child “born without eyes or ears or tongue, without knowing.” This awareness is an unexpected kind of emotional and physical desert the parents in the poem have been given, and they are distraught. The doctor in the poem responds to the parents’ grief saying, “I can only speak from my own / incompleteness.” The beautiful insight Anderson gives here is that even those who are healers are incomplete. It is in recognizing our shared incompleteness with others that we can create a kind of healing. The poem ends with these words of the doctor’s advice regarding their child, “And you must listen / as you never have before. / Each cry, / even the deepest silence / is speaking.” Each one of us lives with incompleteness. If we allow ourselves to listen deeply enough, we can find ourselves in those we perceive as broken or as “other.”

Dwelling in desert places, waiting with uncertainty, we can practice being fully present with not knowing and tune our ears to the sound of small streams of water that allow us to keep going. Embracing the empty land we walk in and visiting the oases when the rains arrive is a way to live in a land between rivers. We survive by practicing hope until we’re able to hear what speaks from the silence and can open the door into a new place of knowing.

Door, Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)
gardening, poetry, Uncategorized

An Invitation

“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” ― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

At our house in California, we’re harvesting food. All year we work at tending the garden, digging compost into the soil, starting seedlings, planting, watering, weeding, and collecting seeds. From my front door I can walk out and place my feet on the soil. Living in a rural area as we do, our life is very different than it was the decades we lived abroad in mega cities. We savor the change, the opportunity to be enveloped by the natural world and its rhythms. Mornings, from the kitchen window we can see rabbits near the base of oak trees and birds pecking for breakfast in the yard. Afternoons, lizards run from planter box to planter box, hummingbirds slip between flowers, squirrels scamper up trees and wild turkeys wander through. Come twilight, deer come up the draw beneath the redwoods to wander out among the hillside oaks. Evening arrives and crickets sing outside our door, Great Horned Owls hoot. This is a world we cherish.

Though nearly everything in the garden grows in raised beds wired from beneath, though we have bird netting around our berry palace (as we fondly refer to it) animals inevitably find a way to get in. The grape arbor is alive with resonating bee song as the bees happily eat away at the fruit. Every living thing around us seems to love the food we grow, and they enjoy eating from our garden food as much as we do. This can become discouraging when working hard to grow something, only to have some unknown creature sneak into the garden at night to take a bite from your perfect tomato, then throw the remainder on the ground.

Nevertheless, we celebrate our garden and are transformed by it. It provides us exercise, offers beauty, and gives us food. From seed to harvest, the work is nourishing and rewarding. We’re grateful for our garden and the multiple delights it offers. Truly, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, the gardener develops a relationship with the land, and as in human relationships, when you give yourself to it, you see directly how the land nurtures and cares for you, how it loves you back through all the many gifts it brings forth.

 

Wonderful teachers, plants, help us understand the value of watering what we want to grow, making sure it has adequate light, the benefit of good soil, and allow us to comprehend how growth takes time; you have to be patient. It is a pleasure to watch vines lengthen, berries develop, and then to wait a few years for adequate growth to have enough berries to make a pie.

 

From the delight of dew on cabbage heads to illuminated lettuce leaves, the garden is full of beauty. Not everyone can grow their own food. It takes time and people have a lot of demands on their time. You also need earth close by that you can work in. Many of us live in heavily urban areas and aren’t able to be near land for gardening. Even a planter box on the window sill, however, can be restorative and bring us into a connection to the cycle of nature larger than the workaday world.

If this isn’t possible, then hopefully you can find time each day to go outside and savor the sun on your face, absorb the sky’s expanse, and notice the natural world around you, inhaling for a minute or two perhaps, as you stand by your door ready to enter the morning’s world, as you return from some place you’ve been, or as you sit by an open window in your home or work space. Allowing yourself these moments is to allow yourself to be held by the recognition that nature is wider than worries or fears we hold, bigger than our sorrows and our joys. It’s a gift to you can give yourself.

Cooking food from the garden and sharing that food with others is to become part of the interchange of care and nurturance. To expand this love of the earth’s abundance, my husband, Michael, and I are developing recipes with foods mentioned in my book A Space Between that I’m working to put into a small electronic cookbook. Michael cooks with his heart and the dishes he makes are as good as poetry. The food from the recipes is absolutely delicious.

Michael and I will be reading from A Space Between this Thursday, 1 October, 5:00 pm Pacific time for approximately 25 minutes. We will be reading on Zoom as part of the Poets Circle in connection with the Watsonville Public Library, here in Santa Cruz County. Follow this link to connect to join. Our reading will be followed by a second reader, Terra Summers.

You can read more about A Space Between here. You can order the book from a variety of sources: here at Small Press Distribution, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, or if you’re overseas and want free delivery anywhere in the world at Book Depository.

Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves. ”

I will be giving on Zoom together with Michael Citrino from my book, A Space Between, Thursday, 1 October at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Standard time. in conjunction with Poet’s Circle at the Watsonville Public Library.  Magdalena Montagne will be moderating.

Your listening presence is a gift. I look forward to sharing the excerpts from the book with you.  I hope you will be able to connect.

Beauty, trees, Uncategorized

On Blindness and Learning to See

Como el cometa

Quiero sentarme donde la rima no me alcance
lejos de bordes y límites, métodos y axiomas.
Donde dos más dos sea cualquier cosa menos cuatro.
Donde el ser fluido se mezcle con todo
y nada se acuerde de lo que es.

I´d like to sit where rhyme cannot reach me
far from edges and limits, methods and axioms.
Where two plus two is anything but four.
Where fluid self mixes with everything
and nothing remembers what it is.

–excerpt from Virginia Francisco’s, Like The Comet

The lines from Francisco’s poem above describe a self so completely connected to her surroundings that she merges with it, borders dissolved. How do we live a life that comes from a place of inner wholeness, that is in process of working toward unity with the world around us? We hear many voices in our world, often with opposing viewpoints, stating they are giving us the truth. Though we might have been raised in a particular way, as we age and come in to contact with other traditions, experience other cultures or other people’s ways of thinking and living, our picture of what the world is and how it works can grow less sharply defined. Instead of experiencing a sense of unity, we live in a place of inner dissonance. We might wonder how to see clearly again and ponder if we’re going blind or whether our vision is merely changing, the focus of the lens readjusting as we enter into a larger understanding of the world.

I’ve been sitting on my front porch in the morning, practicing being still. Eyes closed, I listen, and am noticing how the borders of sound are not firmly defined with specifically shaped form and edges. Sound is elastic. It bounces, reverberates, and stretches into diminishment, is more like the fading of light at sunset. As I listen, leaves rub against one another and grass rustles. Panting dogs run up the nearby road. Prayer flags flap overhead. Bees hum intermittently as they move among the borage in the planter bed. Sounds surface I earlier wasn’t aware of, and my thoughts turn to my sister who has been losing her sight to a rare disease that causes the eyes’ cones to stop functioning. How differently she negotiates now through every environment in the loss of sight. I think of her many adjustments to a new way of living and consider my own blindness in understanding what that would feel like, be like. There are many worlds that fall below my awareness. I have so much learning to do. Blindness of the mind. Blindness of the heart. As William Stafford has written in “Ritual to Read to Each Other,” “the darkness around us is deep.”

Blindness isn’t limited to physical blindness. Last week I went to the Calaveras Big Trees State Park here in California. I’d wanted to visit the trees since first reading about them in Simon Schama’s book, Landscape and Memory while living in Singapore quite a few years ago. In his book, Schama tells about the “Discovery Tree,” a sequoia that was felled in 1853. The tree was so enormous it took three weeks to cut it down. After turning the giant sequoia into a stump, people put a gazebo over it, and danced on it. The fallen portion of the trunk also had a structure put over it and it was used as a bowling alley. (Drawings of the tree and photos of the area from the time period can be seen here.)

The motivation for cutting the tree was the desire to make money. As Frances E. Bishop and Judith Cunningham state on the Calaveras History site, “Captain William H. Hanford, president of the Union Water Company, viewed the Big Tree and envisioned a way to make a fortune by stripping the bark and sending it on tour to New York and Europe. The bark was exhibited first in San Francisco and then New York, where it was consumed in a fire.” Felling the tree to prove such amazing beings existed proved futile, however. Not only did people believe the tree’s enormous size was faked, felling the tree caused much of the trunk’s wood to shatter. According to the National Park Service site, because sequoias’ wood is brittle, as much as 75% of the tree’s wood can be wasted when it falls.

The felled “Discovery Tree” measured 25 ft in diameter and the ring count ring count showed the tree to be 1,244 years old. Had it been left alive, some scientists say it would be today the largest living thing on earth other than the mycelia that is found beneath the earth’s surface.

When I saw the “Discovery Tree’s” stump, I was awed at its stupendous size and moved by the beauty in the turns of wood at the ancient trunk’s base. At the same time, I felt appalled and grief-stricken at what had been purposefully carried out. A portion of the fallen trunk that had been used as a bowling alley rested on the ground a short distance away. Sequoias have an average life span of 2,000 years but can live as much as 3,000 years. Looking at its enormous girth lying on the ground inert knowing very well it might  still be living, I felt remorse that something so rare and wonderful was cut down for such frivolous reasons.

“Discovery Tree” stump

A second famous tree in the North Grove area of the park is called the “Mother of the Forest.” D. A. Plecke on the  Cathedral Grove website states the tree was named for its graceful form. This tree also was destroyed upon discovery by people of European decent. In 1854 a scaffold was built to the height of 120 feet, and the tree was stripped of its bark, an act which destroys the tree. The bark was sent first to New York then onward to London in an attempt to make money, as well as to prove that trees as gargantuan as these exist. People who hadn’t seen the trees in person, however, didn’t believe they were real, and their views didn’t change after being presented with the physical evidence. The bark was put on display at the Crystal Palace in the UK but was destroyed by a fire in 1866. The tree was 2,520 years old, 305 feet high, and had a 63 feet circumference.

Mother of the Forest in the far center distance.

Walking among the sequoias, standing at the foot of the gargantuan wall of their trunks, one can’t help but feel both humbled, and speechless. Though nature is a refuge for our spirits and trees are a boon to our lives, little seems to have been understood about the value of trees’ living presence. We know things about trees now that weren’t understood in 1853. Among other things, they reduce asthma and depression, as well as help lengthen our life span. Trees’ benefit to our lives and complex nature are only recently growing to be understood. Even though this is true, it’s still difficult to understand why it would seem like a good idea to destroy these enormous, magnificent and ancient trees.

Cutting these giant sequoias demonstrates a blindness regarding the value of the trees’ lives. As Leo Hickman states in his article, “How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago,”  at the time the trees were cut, Americans believed nature was theirs to exploit. Nevertheless, there were at least those who felt enough outrage at felling these trees that an effort to save other remaining trees was made. Deforestation didn’t cease, however, as these images from 1915 depict. Today, according to the Save the Redwoods League, only 5 % of the original redwood forests survive. Our blindness continues.

Plant blindness, the inability to see plants and to recognize them is real, is a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee. People tend to live outside of an awareness of trees and plants precious, life-giving presence. As mammals, our brains more readily pay attention to those things similar to us. Because of this, we don’t tend to see the plants in our environment. A botanist and biology educator, Schussler explains “humans can only recognise (visually) what they already know.” Few today are involved in nurturing plants, and plants are also nonthreatening. As a result, plants tend to blend into a background of green and people mostly ignore them.

We need wood for buildings, tools, furniture, fuel, and paper. But trees, and plants in general, are also important beyond their utilitarian function. What appears to be missing in our awareness as we use wood, as well as other resources, is a connection between our use of resources and our responsibility to the greater community of life–a foundation of respect for the natural world that sustains our life. As Richard Powers in his book Overstory states, “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

In Thailand, the culture has a tradition of erecting spirit houses when humans choose to purposefully change the land or do something that alters its natural state. Spirit houses are physical embodiments of a cultural recognition that when land is built on, the life energy of the land and all it sustained is disturbed. There is an acknowledgement that one’s actions have consequences for others beyond what is seen. Spirit houses are a beautiful expression of an awareness of human interdependence with nature. In America, some people celebrate Earth Day and Arbor Day, giving recognition to the earth’s gifts, but these are one day events rather than a practice or a continuing way of seeing or interacting with the natural environment. What stories or practices might help our eyes be opened to see how the sanctity of human life depends on respect and care for life in other forms?

We are born into and grow in a particular environment or environments. Life is a long process of learning who we are, what the world is, and what our relationship to it is. While life differs from place to place and culture to culture, some form of loving our neighbors is found in beliefs around the world. Plants are most certainly our neighbors. Perhaps now could be a good time to get to know our plant neighbors better and to explore more of how we belong together in the world, and the joy a relationship with them brings. We don’t have to remain plant blind. We can start with learning the names of plants outside our door and in our neighborhood and discover what is native to our area. This website gives links as well as book titles with information to help you identify and learn about plants in various world regions. Here is a website for the US to help you do that, and also a plant database to help you learn about native plants of North America based on their characteristics. As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Don’t Hesitate,”

We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world…
…whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

 

 

community, poetry, Uncategorized

Finding the Fragrance of Home

Hills of Soquel, Santa Cruz County, California

…you and I each
carry the other in a gesture here,
a phrase there, a sudden burst of laughter,
and we have changed one another

in ways we may never recognize
and these mountains are our witnesses.

–Michael L. Newell, from “Of Goodbyes, Memories and Eidolons”

Sumac, horned toads, lizards, hawks, jack rabbits, and hills covered in wild grass strewn with granite boulders, these were inhabitants in the desert homeland where I grew up in San Diego County.

I spent many hours wandering grassy hillsides of pungent perfume with wildflowers as a child, looking out across a wide valley to hills in the far distance. Those moments in quiet solitude indelibly shaped my sense of home. The world I knew as a child was a narrow one. We didn’t go anywhere on vacations, and though we lived twenty something miles from the ocean, our family went there but a few times, and only occasionally visited the Cuyamaca mountains, though they, too, were only a little over an hour’s drive away. We were people who stayed at home. As a result, the natural landscape was our companion, a blanket we wrapped ourselves in—a place we repeatedly explored. It was an open space to wander and explore, a place of deep connection.

Hills of eastern San Diego County, California

There is much to be said for the wonder of desert lands—the Earth’s exquisite beauty is revealed there with such openness. Deserts bring us in direct contact with Earth’s elemental form, the magnificence of mineral essence. Nevertheless, listening to stories about other parts of the US and learning about the world beyond the borders of my understanding, my curiosity grew. With the wish to experience something of the way others lived and saw the world, I left Southern California, moved to the Midwest, then to Northern California, and eventually moved abroad, where I lived and worked in six different countries over a period of twenty-six years.

Western Desert, leaving Taif, Saudi Arabia

Each place I’ve lived had recurring scents unique to that particular location. In Delhi, where I lived for nine years, smoke, Hexol, and paint fumes were dominant scents. In a city of 20 million, where approximately 200 thousand are homeless, in winter months people burn whatever they can find to keep warm—including wood from the forest on the ridge near Buddha Park, garbage, dung, and plastic. The smell of smoke in evenings was strong, often overpowering. Because of difficulty breathing, in addition to running three air purifiers in the apartment at all times, each night we’d put masking tape around our doors and pushed towels up under the door to help keep smoke out. When my husband and I returned to California each summer after teaching in Delhi, we’d spend a lot of time weeding in our garden, renewing planter beds, watering, and generally nurturing things back to life again. On the far side of our planter beds a stand of redwoods rise up from a gulch. One afternoon, while hunched over pulling weeds in the blackberry patch, the redwoods’ loam released a perfume—a warm woodsy, clean fragrance that felt nearly magical. I stopped what I was doing, stood up, and inhaled deeply. The scent was light and hung in the air, an offering of only a few fleeting moments. Then it was gone. Awareness of beauty is often raised by experiencing its absence. Inhaling the redwoods’ perfume after living for years in Delhi where I would never find such a scent, my heart opened to this gift from the trees and held it as a kind of sacramental moment.

View from my apartment balcony in New Delhi on a bad day of pollution

One fallen redwood leaf by itself, doesn’t create the perfume that stopped me from my work to acknowledge the trees’ presence. Such perfume arises as the result of thousands upon thousands of leaves that have built up over time in collaboration with the afternoon’s heat. Deep presence is an accumulated practice of letting go, a perfume of spirit, blessing all who are near.

Deciding to return to the US after living abroad for nearly three decades, many people asked, “Why now?” One of the central reasons was to reconnect to the land in a more integral way. There was more life to be lived, different lives to inhabit, and I wanted to step inside a new way of being. Life overseas opened many wonders and offered new insights. Returning to live beside trees and near wild space, however, would allow me to let go of firmly fixed schedules, dig my hands into the earth, and allow myself time to discover a slower, different rhythm where I might encounter a deeper truth about living and inner space could expand.

In his poem, “Estrangement,” from his new book, Wandering, Michael L. Newell writes, “I have lived so long among strangers / that I have become strange to myself.” Returning home after so long a sojourn is to find myself in the words of Newell’s poem. Entering in again to life in the country I was born into, refamiliarizing as well as familiarizing myself newly with its history and land, I’m made aware, again, of the contradictions between America’s actions and its ideals.

The place and earth we call home wants to be known, cared for and nurtured so it can continue to regenerate. Nevertheless, as reported by the National Geographic, among other things, the current US president during his office has given the go ahead to increased logging, reduced restrictions for clean air, and narrowed the definition of what constitutes clean water, as well as sold land belonging to national monuments to private businesses for mining and drilling, There is a long history of this way of thinking, as Lucille H. Brockway describes in her article, “science and colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic garden,” clarifying how Britain, (and the West in general) sought to manipulate plants and saw them primarily a way to advance their country economically and to control trade. The disunity we’re experiencing now in the US, resulting from centuries of ongoing oppression, fear and the anxiety reaches beyond the US borders to the world at large. Human oppression is not unrelated to Western culture’s treatment of the natural world.

View of the redwoods from our California garden

As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in her talk on Emergence Magazine, when you nurture the land, it expresses back to you its love in the life it gives you. This is true in human relationships as well. One of the poem’s in Newell’s book, “That Hand Which Was Never Withdrawn,” describes a child’s heartbreak and anger after experiencing a painful fight between his parents the previous day. The father, picking the child up from school reaches out to him, still in pain.

“We must talk sooner or later.”  His voice
was barely audible.  “I hate you,” I said.  “I hate you
and will never talk to you again.”  I glanced at him:
his face caved in, his eyes lost down the country road.
His voice floated up from some deep cavern or well
where people go when pain is too great for daylight.

“Michael, you will be my son for years.  No matter
what you say or do, you will always be my son.
And I love you.”

The poem poignantly speaks to our humanness, to our loss and brokenness, how difficult it is to transform ourselves in the midst of painful events, challenges, and histories that have hurt and divided us. We can see this in the child’s harsh words, “I…will never talk to you again,” words whose pain echoes in the father’s heart as his eyes drift down the road, before his voice lifts from the depths of his own wounded heart. The beautiful thing that occurs in this exchange, however, is the father doesn’t react in anger or spite. Neither does he deny the wounding that has occurred. Instead, he extends his love and tells his child, ‘“…No matter / what you say or do, you will always be my son. And I love you.”’ There is such tenderness given here, such wisdom.

New grape leaf budding on the vine in my garden

Both our human relationships and the land we live on shape and change us, helping to create the home we live in in our minds and hearts. Whether speaking of human relationships or the natural world, renewal and healing requires us to look deeply at the conditions that bring destruction, as well as the causes of oppression, fear and brokenness in the world around us, and then to work to rebuild relationships on foundations that allow both humans the natural world to flourish. Affirming relationships, as the father did in Newell’s poem rather than feeding the pain and anger, creates a bridge  to meet each other on and begin anew.

Carrie Newcomer writes in her song, “Leaves Don’t Drop They Just Let Go,”

Leaves don’t drop they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow
Every season brings a change,
A seed is what a tree contains,
To die and live is life’s refrain

What needs to be let go of in our actions or way of thinking again and again like the leaves of the redwood? What hinders our fullness and prevents our lives from being like the redwoods whose accumulated fallen leaves release the perfume of our transformed selves so that on days when someone who happens to be near can unbend from the strain of their hunched labor and inhale life’s blessing?

At the base of a virgin growth redwood, Soquel, California

 

Note: Michael L. Newell’s book, Wandering, can be ordered through Bookshop Santa Cruz, as well as through Amazon.

Uncategorized

Making Bread, Breaking Bread

“Italians just want to welcome people by sharing what they have, however simple, in abundance. An Italian’s role in life is to feed people. A lot. We can’t help it.” —Giorgio Locatelli, Made in Italy, Food and Stories

One of my earliest memories is of my mother making bread, her mixing the ingredients, kneading it, and forming it later into dome-shaped buns. I loved the yeasty tang of the raw dough she sometimes allowed me to taste before baking, and how the bread’s aroma filled the house while cooking and as she pulled the golden-brown loaves from the oven.

When living in Turkey, bread was available from the local bakery fresh every day. Buying two loves was requisite, as with a loaf of warm bread in hand on a cold day and its beckoning aroma rising from the loaf, it was nearly impossible to get home without eating a portion of what was supposed to be available for the next day’s meals. Walking to work in the morning while living in Izimir, loaves of bread could be found in bags tied to the people’s front door so that those who didn’t have enough, could be sure to get their daily bread.

Bread baking is an ancient art. As Theresa Machemer describes in her recent article in the Smithonian, “The World’s Oldest Bread is Rising Again,” bread was made in ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago. Recently, yeast spores from Egyptian artifacts have been brought to life again to make bread, and it’s reported to be delicious.

The perfect combination of flavor, crumb, and crust is what a baker looks for when making bread. At the Bread Library in Belgium, people are collecting sourdoughs from around the world and explore various techniques of making breads with sourdoughs. You can get a virtual tour of people’s breadmaking expertise in a variety of countries here.

San Francisco is famous for its sourdough bread, began when spunky little critters of wild yeast got inside miners’ bread starter and began fermentation. Wild yeast naturally finds its way into your bread when you leave the starter out on the counter. When Italians immigrated to America, some brought with them their bigas, their bread starters. Their bigas imbued with yeast from their home locations fused with the yeasts found in the areas they settled in. The bread the immigrants made was thus a fusion of the old world and  and the new.

At my house, we’re experimenting with cooking various foods mentioned in my book, A Space Between, with the intention of sharing recipes. Naturally, bread is one of those recipes, as it is a basic food. While we were living in London several years back, my husband began his starter. Each time he bakes bread, he sets his starter out on the counter for a few hours. When the grapes start coming on the vine this summer, he plans to set the starter out beneath the arbor to collect some of the wild yeast. This is how you can begin your starter.

two quarts of starter

Starter:

½ cup wheat
½ cup white flour
Water enough to make a thick batter, added a little at a time.

  • Place in a quart jar on the counter. Cover it with a cheese cloth and place a rubber band around the jar’s opening.
  • One day later mix a small quantity of flour and water and feed the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
  • On day three feed the starter again the same way. By the end of the third day you should see bubbles in the starter. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
  • On the fourth day, remove some of the starter from the jar and feed the starter again. Leave the jar sitting on the counter.
  • Save what was removed and place it in a small container. Place this in the refrigerator.
  • Feed the starter again on the fifth day.
  • Next day, make bread using one cup of the starter.
  • Every time you take starter out to make bread (or pancakes or muffins,) feed the starter an amount equal to what you took out.
  • When baking bread, use what you need, feed the starter again, leave it out on the counter for a couple of hours and put the lid back on the jars. Then, place them in the refrigerator.

bread dough before cooking

As I write, a loaf of walnut rosemary bread with parmesan crust just came out of the oven. My husband, Michael, loves cooking and loves sharing food with others. He has coached a number of people through getting their starters going and making their first loaves of bread. Bread making is less of a science and more of an art, he says. You learn to make it with your hands and heart, through observation and taste.

Below is Michael’s recipe.

Basic Bread:

What I do is I fed the starter the day before (this is key to having your starter really active), then the next day I put 2 cups of the starter into a bowl with a cup of flour and a little bit of beer and stir until smooth like heavy pancake batter. The beer is a medium heavy amber that I made, and I usually save the bottom of the bottle to do bread (It’s kind of like putting a little sugar in the dough which you could do instead.)

  • Feeding the starter. The day before makes the yeast in your starter really active and this really helps. I let that sit in the bowl with saran wrap over it for three or four hours until it gets really active just like when you feed it; it usually doubles + in volume. I have started doing this at mid-day now, so it peaks just after dinner or a bit later.
  • At this point I mix in another 2 cups of flour and a bit more water and salt to taste.  I sometimes add a bit of organic cider vinegar too, but not always. You do want the dough to be a bit sticky as bread dough goes.
  • Once the dough is mixed up, knead it for a fairly short time (2-3 min.) on a floured surface and put it into a heavy pan that has been greased and floured like you are baking a cake. (I have been doing this step without flour using my bread scraper and just folding and folding.) Lately, I’m baking the bread in a triple wall stainless steel bowl inside my Dutch oven which adds steam without putting an extra pan of water in the oven. I put the bowl of dough into the refrigerator overnight to rise, covered tightly with saran wrap so the sourdough can do its work.
  • The next morning the dough will be at the top of the bowl. I sometimes let it warm up and rise a bit more depending on how the overnight rise has been. I preheat the oven to 460 degrees then turn it down to 415 for the last 15 minutes (but last time I tried 500 then turned it down to 450 for the last 15 min and liked the crust with the hotter oven.)
  • Once it hits temperature, I slit the dough with a sharp knife (some say use a razor blade) and carefully put the stainless-steel bowl with the dough into the castiron pot with the lid on for 30 minutes. I don’t preheat the Dutch oven because it’s only a matter of time working with a 500-degree piece of cast iron that you are going to burn yourself! I take the lid off for another 15 minutes more to brown up the crust. I leave the bread in the oven after I turn it off with the door open so the crust gets nice and crispy as the oven cools down. The tough part is waiting for the bread to cool down so you can try it. I’ve used this with the four variations of flour, and it comes out every time!
  • When I feed the starters, I usually have to pour some off, so it doesn’t overflow. I make pancakes or muffins from that occasionally.
  • Placing the bread on its side like this while it cools keeps the cut portion of the bread from drying out.

Rosemary walnut bread with parmesan crust

Making bread is a way to connect us not only to ancient cultures and to foods that have nurtured us for millennia, but a way to physically connect with the relationships that create the fabric of living. In my life, as is true for many, bread connects us to the community of others we sit at a table with, those whose lives we share and give ourselves to. In whatever form, whether steam buns made from rice flour, a grandmother’s rye, or sourdough, to break and eat bread together is to participate in a communal experience.

In participating in these shared experiences of living, we create relationships that reach beyond time.

Mother

She held me in her arms
like stone.  She was rock
and everything about her
seemed hard

except for the fact that
every movement she
made was bent toward
me, circling

around. I was the small
pebble in her palm, the one
she rubbed against
when worried.

She set the model before me,
but she was the rock I shaped
my life from. Today, her life
ground down

to gravel, when I lean to kiss
her good night. I tell her
“I love you,” and she holds
me firm, repeating one

of her two remaining sentences,
“We really do need our cereal,”
as if to mean “I love you.”
She won’t let go.

I hold her in my arms, rocks
in my throat. She knows
the foundation she has
built on.

The flint hidden in her
has burned
nearly everything
but this: The bread of life.

— Anna Citrino, from Saudade

Uncategorized

Nurturing the World With Our Own Two Hands

Imagination opens again to earth. We
believe in bees, the wild rose’s grail filled
with summer–from “In Late Winter,” Thomas R. Smith

The world has changed. Worldwide we feel it. It has been changing all along, but in the solitude of our current sheltering in place situation, we feel it more distinctly. I wash my hands or cook food and consciously consider the scarcity of everything I have, and contemplate the multitude of unknown and unseen people throughout the world who have cooperated in order for me to have the food I eat, pen and paper I use, books I read–packaging and transportation included. This is no simple thing.

Though each of us have different approaches to coping with the shelter in place, if we didn’t recognize it before, we recognize now that we literally depend on each other’s work and actions for survival. Because of the variety of perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills found in the larger community, we have the strength to hold each other up and to meet problems. Our need to depend on each other is bigger than what divides us.

As a child, I grew up in a home in a rural area with parents who lived during the Great Depression. They knew how to live on sparse resources. We grew food in a garden, and we had an orchard. My mother gave us haircuts, sewed our clothes, and also wore hand me down clothing my great aunt sent in boxes that my mother resized or remade for us. We lived minimally, learned to care for things so they would last, as well as to save, repurpose and recycle. I’m glad to have had as a model my parents who had many skills for fixing things and making things by hand.

While living abroad, my husband and I grew small gardens in pots and containers on windowsills and balconies, and while living in India, had a small plot in a community garden as well. Living in California again now, we have a garden once more where we’ve built raised beds. When we first returned home, the yard was filled with weeds. We had built some of the raised beds earlier as well as a grape arbor, and a place for berries, but in our absence, weeds grew prolifically, even though we periodically had someone weed.

It has been hard work, a long process of pulling weeds, creating compost, filling the beds with new soil and compost, saving seeds, watering, learning about what kinds of light various plants need, and how to prune them, but the physical rewards of working in the soil and watching things grow into blossom, fruit, and vegetables is a continuing delight. Recently, I dug weeds out of new areas in the garden and planted the many flower seeds left from plants last year. We just planted arugula, berries, beans, cilantro, collard greens, pickling cucumbers, kale, lettuce, onion, peas, squash, and tomatoes. The grape vines are beginning to bud, and the lemons are ready to pick. It’s a joy to see on the front porch in the morning listening to the bees and hummingbirds at work, and to see the visible evidence of physical work. In his poem, “Morning Song,” Don Colburn writes,

Spring is the dangerous season, awakening
this bee-crazed meadow to overgrowing-
and in me awe, and ache, avid to begin
like birds and the earth all over.

It doesn’t have to be spring to watch a bee-crazed garden, light illuminating flowers and the undersides of leaves as if living works of art. Cloudy days and rain filled days are good too, each bring their own mood.

Laura Spinney explains in her article in the Guardian, “It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China,” that the pandemic we’re currently experiencing “wouldn’t emerge in food markets if it wasn’t for factory farming, globalized industry, and rapid urbanization.” Humans have pushed further and further into wild places. industrialized farming in China has pushed millions of smallholder farmers, in order to survive, “into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk.”  What we eat, our lifestyle choices are costly, Spinney explains. It’s a systemic problem. The globalization of farming industries have marginalized the majority of the world’s farmers, and we are all bearing the cost.

Growing our own food is a creative act, connecting us in a relationship to the earth and its cycles. We understand this in a new way with the effort it takes to garden and grow your own food, and it is a way to come back into a healthy, life-giving relationship with the natural world. When I garden, I often remember what I learned years ago when beginning my own garden for the first time, as I describe in this poem.

What You Planted
–for Michael

Years ago, you knelt                
in the garden’s dark soil,
planting carrots,

tucking them into the earth
one by one,
telling me

“You’ve got to treat them
gently, as if they are
your babies,” then you

pulled a blanket of loam
softly over
the next seed
and tamped it down.

Tiny roots
waiting inside
reached into the earth’s
rich warmth,
and stretched.

Look at the garden now.

published spring, 2012, phren-z

Just as artists give themselves creative challenges, time in confined space can push us in new directions, allow new creative exploration. Gardens have requirements. If you want certain things to grow, you have to take care of them by renewing the soil, giving them with adequate water, continuous weeding out of what you don’t want so the plants producing food, fruit and beauty can flourish.

During this time indoors, I hope you’re able to find a way to plant a seed and grow something on your window ledge, on your balcony, or if you’re able to, in your back yard. While you’re waiting to go outside again, you will be nurturing something that grows and gives you sustenance. If you can’t order seeds to grow something or have no space, perhaps you will find some other way to allow the stillness to quietly nurture your imagination so that when doors are able to open again to the outside, you will be like the rose in Thomas R. Smith’s poem above, a grail filled with summer’s abundance.

poetry, Uncategorized

Necessary Shadows

In learning to draw, my awareness of the importance of shadows grows. Shadows help us see what it is we’re looking at. They function to distinguish shape and to define forms. They help us understand the textural differences between one element and another, and to discern the nature of things.

In everyday life, we generally prefer things to go smoothly. Shadows hanging over our heads are not generally appreciated. Shadows between the sweet things in life that bring us joy are seen in clearer light when seen in contrast with the challenging, elements in our circumstances.

Currently, the media surrounds us with messages that feed the brain’s propensity for negativity, encouraging heightened alertness, and for some, a kind of panic. At markets where I live there is a run on food staples such as beans, bread, and rice, as well as hand sanitizer, bleach and hydrogen peroxide as people prepare for possible quarantines, lockdowns, and the potential need to remain socially isolated in the effort to squash the spread of COVID-19. This fear is compounded by anxieties in other areas too: rising rents and housing costs in general, the stock market’s decline, worries over climate change, health care costs, and who will be the next US president, not to mention ongoing violence against human rights, people pushed out of their homes and countries because of internal terrorism or wars, and though not always publicized, the numbers of those dying each day from hunger, the isolation of the aged. So much disquietude. So many shadows.

How do we live in the face of such anxiety and relentless suffering? The challenges societies face today are complex and don’t have simple solutions. Inequities and systemic injustices previously accepted or hidden beneath the surface are now visible, the contrasts between worlds drawn more clearly. Is balance impossible in the face of crisis? Situations may feel unbearable, nevertheless amidst it all, the world continues on, changing, though it’s not necessarily clear what that change might look like.

Living, like drawing, is a creative act. We are each a part of determining what form that change might take by what we highlight, the lines and textures we draw, and the contrast we choose to emphasize in order to create the forms and overall tone or feeling of the world we’re making.

In Rabindranath Tagore’s book, The Gardener, he writes,
“I was walking by the road, I do not know why, when the noonday was past and bamboo branches rustled in the wind.
The prone shadows with their out-stretched arms clung to the feet of the hurrying light. The koels were weary of their songs?
I was walking by the road, I do not know why.”

Like the speaker in Tagore’s poem, we’re on a journey. We don’t always know where we’re going or may not understand why we’re where we are, but something beckons to us. We hear rustlings in the wind, shadows of those chasing after what might be answers. Tagore mentions koels. If you’ve ever listened to a koel’s vocalizations, the bird sounds as if it is saying its own name, yet Tagore mentions the possibility of a change in what they say, suggesting, too, they’ve grown tired of speaking and are saying nothing at all. Tagore observes his situation and senses something is altering in the pattern and nature of things.

We, too, like the speaker in Tagore’s poem, are sometimes pulled toward certain places, people or experiences without necessarily knowing why or having a rational explanation for why. That’s the wonderful or perhaps terrifying thing, depending on your perspective. Life can never quite be named, though one thing is growing clearer to me as a result of the recent fears over the covid-19 pandemic: we’re all in this together. The natural environment, physical environment, animal and human environment—we all affect each other. We are connected, are a community, regardless of our awareness or level of functioning or disfunction. True in art as in life, shadows can help us understand the source of light and deepen our humanity. Heartening examples of this are emerging from Italy where, as CNBC reports that though Italy is a country hard hit by COVID-19 with 17,660 confirmed cases and 1,266 deaths so far, “Italians are singing songs from their windows to boost morale during the coronavirus lockdown.” Schools, museums, cinemas are closed, soccer matches canceled. Restaurants are ordered to close, the economy is struggling, but people have found a way to express life’s joy—singing and dancing playing music together from their balconies—separated, but still seeing themselves in a shared struggle.

We fear losing what we love, our way of being in the world, our freedom, our lives. Fear shrinks us, as research shows, while love and gratitude expands us. The poems in The Gardener are love poems and reading them brings to my attention that beneath the panic and fear, there is another world coexisting alongside, one that is stable and without fear, even in the midst of disaster. There’s an interesting etymological connection between the words whole and holy. They both mean whole. Holy ground is where we are whole. To be well means to be whole and is a kind of holiness. To be well when around you the world is in panic is to find holy ground to stand on. How might we discover this holy ground to stand on while in the midst of difficult times with so much that could cause panic? This is a challenge.

Drawn to expand beyond our own walls of comfort and understanding, we ask ourselves, how do we live in joy despite the circumstances around us filled with anxiety and for many, suffering—mental, physical, and spiritually. A friend I meet with is in her eighties. This week she stated, as she often does, “Being old is difficult.” Working on writing her memories of escaping Austria with her family at the age of two during WWII, she has stories to tell before she’s ready to die, she explains, adding on to say, “I need to learn how to die, how to live with joy and die. It’s an exchange of energy you know. We drop the body, but the energy goes elsewhere.” In acknowledgement of impermanence, I’m reminded of The Five Remembrances, many Buddhists read each day:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of 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.

Perhaps from a certain perspective these remembrances sound rather grim, but their larger purpose is to see the interconnection between death and life, to live intentionally with joy in recognition of our short time on earth, and in that recognition, to focus our purpose. Death and awareness of our death, either eventual or impending, can transform us. Maria Popova in her article on the Brain Pickings site, “The Five Invitations: Zen Hospice Project Co-founder Frank Ostaseski on Love, Death, and the Essential Habits of Mind for a Meaningful Life,” quotes Ostaseski.

“I have seen ordinary people at the end of their lives develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation that helped them to emerge as someone larger, more expansive, and much more real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be. They discovered a profound trust in the universe and the reliable goodness of humanity that never abandoned them, regardless of the suffering they encountered. If that possibility exists at the time of dying, it exists here and now.”

These seem like wise words for our time. In the midst of challenges, suffering and shadows that look like death, we can still open our hearts to life, to love, to the goodness that is ever present around us. We are part of each other and of the bigger energy of life that is ever present. What we focus on grows. We can be whole.

Toward the end of Tagore’s book, The Gardener, he writes, in section 68,
None lives forever, brother, and nothing lasts for long. Keep that in mind and rejoice.
Our life is not the one old burden, our path is not the one long journey.
One sole poet has not to sing one aged song.
The flower fades and dies; but he who wears the flower has not to mourn for it forever.
Brother, keep that in mind and rejoice.

We know life has burdens and that its flowers fade, but the journey is worth taking. Though their lives are brief, every day flowers’ blossoms are worth rejoicing over.

Uncategorized

Moving Beyond the Margins of Ourselves

Things feel turbulent when reading the news, the world seeming to fall into halves. It’s difficult to feel wholeness is possible when the vision repeatedly reinforced is that we’re either in one world or are placed entirely in the opposite. “A dreadful oblivion prevails in the world. The world has forgotten what it means to be human. The gap is widening, the abyss is within the self,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel, in On Prayer. A world of interconnected wholeness seems a faraway paradise that can’t be found, and what lies ahead is unclear. People who were once friends now decide they can no longer communicate. Often, people who once found value in religious or spiritual engagement, now eschew it. Republican, democrat–these terms mean something now they didn’t twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago. Self sorting according to race, gender, region, religion is happening everywhere. Divisions abound and finding common ground allowing us to meet and greet each other is challenging.

In her February 6 conversation with Ezra Klein about his new book, Why We Are Polarized on Krista Tippett’s podcast site, On Being, Klein suggests that if we are going to move beyond the dividedness we currently experience in the US, it would benefit us to activate different parts of ourselves to call forth our other alternative identities. There are many selves within the self we currently walk around in. We are not simply and totally one thing or the other. We are complex. Certainly, the self we were as a child is different than the self we are at thirty or at sixty years old. We may think of ourselves in a certain way, stories we’ve told ourselves about who we are for many years, something, perhaps, like I can’t draw, I’m shy, I’m not adventurous, or other statements. There are other selves we can call up and nurture, and in doing so we can grow into telling new stories about ourselves that enable us to move beyond old boundaries we’ve assigned ourselves to.

sculpture by Jane DeDecker

Social connection is a fundamental need for humans. Douglas Abram’s in The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, states, “The latest brain scan research suggests that we have a rather binary understanding of self and other, and that our empathy circuits do not activate unless we see the other person as part of our own group. Often, when disasters happen, people pull together, helping others, unconcerned about things that might otherwise separate and isolate them. Similarly, when people share a creative activity, people who may be different from each other in other ways feel connected with each other. To find ourselves in others who we name as different from ourselves, we need to see with new eyes, listen to with new ears.

In his book, The Way Home, Len Anderson writes in his poem, “Who is that Singing?”

Before there were words
there was song. Have you ever noticed
what a good listener God is?
To sing, you must listen for the song.

We can’t hear the story, the song or prayer in others’ lives if we aren’t listening for it. If we listen for only what we want to hear, how do we ever become larger? Later in the poem, Anderson goes on to say,

We may wonder about the beginning of time
but at any moment we are still
the beginning of ourselves.

What a wonderful statement of awareness! There is always the possibility of beginning, of becoming new. How to find the song that will open our heart and the hearts of others who are longing for gentleness, relief and renewal may not be clear, but beginning to sing is a kind of restoration. As Heschel writes in On Prayer, “The irreconcilable opposites which agonize human existence are the outcry, the prayer. Every one of us is a cantor; everyone of us is called to intone a song, to put into prayer the anguish of all.”

Lately, I’ve been working in the garden, weeding, removing dead tomato vines, pruning the asparagus. Like work done in a garden, what we tend to and nurture over time grows and thrives. When considering how to see ourselves in others in order to find and build on our common humanity, we can work to trim, weed and water our thoughts and reactions, aiming to go a layer deeper than our initial reaction as we look for threads of our common humanity. As Abraham Joshua Heschel has said, “Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.” Many have a feeling of emptiness in their hearts these days, and perhaps this is a place to start. “Prayer may not save us,” writes Heschel, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity. “But prayer may make us worthy of being saved.”

To change a world or a nation is a grand goal. But we can begin with ourselves. In our thoughts, actions and reactions, we can practicing see ourselves in others different from our definition of those who belong in our group. We will be heading into new waters, but this is the way people have always grown–through expanding their interactions with new places, people, and ideas, and with those who hold a world of understanding are different from their own. As Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!”

 

Italian-American, music, poetry, Uncategorized

Music’s Power to Unify

20190922_103851“I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free,” said Luisa Tetrazzini during a period when an unresolved dispute arose with Oscar Hammerstein who wanted her to sing only in New York. Considered one of the greatest opera singers of her day, on Christmas Eve, 1910, Tetrazzini sang to a crowd of a quarter million at Lotta’s Fountain in San Francisco. What a spectacle it must have been! When met with a wall in her negotiations with Hammerstein where no movement or resolution appeared possible, rather than continuing the fight head on, Tetrazzini moved around the obstacle. In that choice, a different world opened to her with open arms. For Luisa Tetrazzini, those arms were found in the people of San Francisco. The Chronicle’s headlines of that event demonstrate the city’s love for her.

Tetrazzini’s audience were those who had experienced the loss of family members during the great earthquake and fire of four years earlier, as well as the many who had left loved ones and their homelands behind in the difficult search to fulfill a dream of finding a better way to live than that of enduring the unbearably difficult hardships they faced in their home countries. Tetrazzini understood her audience that December night, and spoke to their hearts when she sang “The Last Rose of Summer.” The lyrics, written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, describe the image of a remaining single rose holding on to its stem in winter’s cold, as a metaphor for being alone in a world where those you have loved are now gone.

Days grow short in December, and people long for warmth and light–desire to gather around a fire and drink something warm, and perhaps tell stories. The Christmas holiday is often a time where people return to be with their families to do these very things. We want our experiences during this time to be full of light and joy, though the reality is that many do not have family living nearby or family to turn to for warmth and acceptance. Sometimes situations we live with or in are very difficult, and loneliness and sorrow can roll over us like great clouds moving across the horizon, catching us up in its seemingly unending breadth and dimension.

20191210_163053

Present that Christmas Eve in 1910 to listen to Tetrazzini sing, and also named Luisa, is the character in my book, A Space Between. Newly immigrated from Calabria in southern Italy, she describes her story and the experience of Tetrazzini singing that evening.

MAKING A LIFE

In San Lucido I spun linen, silk and wool—thread sliding
through my fingers season after season
as I stared out at the sea’s horizon, wondering
how I could twist together my life’s frayed,
thin threads into something bigger than summer’s
white sun and winter’s cold, narrow room.

We’ve made a life here together, Gaetano and I,
loss, and hope, wound together in a garment of fog
that rolls in from across the Pacific. I walk through
my neighborhood, a thimble full of narrow streets—
a world no bigger than before but strange. Chinese,
Germans, Spaniards, Greeks, we are loose threads
dangling beneath this country’s clattering loom
of tongues, pale faces and pale ways, trying to see
how we might find our way into its fabric.

Gaetano has his barber’s shop, but I’ve given up
weaving. That was my other life. The children
are my weaving now—their lives binding this world
to the one we came from, their eyes, the rosary beads
I pray through, reinventing the world in America.

Arduino and Giovanni wait at the window
in the other room. I knead the bread, stir the soup.
Soon, Gaetano will arrive, his footsteps echoing
outside the door. All day he cuts hair, a little here,
more there, massages the scalp a bit, a splash
of cologne to go—our lives hang on thin strands of hair.

We’re not city people, though we’re living in one.
We miss our villages’ gold walls, the thousand
colors of blue swirling like music across the sea and sky.

We don’t know opera, but when Luisa Tetrazzini sang
at the corner of Market and Kearney on Christmas Eve
soon after I arrived in America, we joined the throng.

She sang “The Last Rose of Summer,” her white dress
glowing amidst the flood of dark coats and hats.

Clear, pure, her voice floated and danced on wings
above all two hundred fifty thousand of us standing in the crowd
that December night, clinging to its flame.

It lifted us from the bare dirt floors of our past, the longing
for the worlds we’d left behind, and let us believe
that fire and dreams are stronger than iron—
have substance equal to earth.

20191210_150926

To those huddled together in San Francisco’s winter streets that Christmas Eve in 1910, Tetrazzini created a shared experience that unified them with others. In doing so, she enabled them to recognize in the midst of their difficulties they were also part of each other and a shared hope.

We live in a world of growing struggle today as well. People across the continents feel bowed down, bent over with difficulties, and are struggling to right themselves. In Chile recently, opera singer Ayleen Jovita Romero broke curfew to sing into the streets from her window “El derecho de vivir en paz” (“The right to live in peace”) composed by folk singer Víctor Jara, who was murdered in the 1973 military coup by General Augusto Pinochet.

In India the Guardian reports Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, saying, “”For the first time in independent India…laws or systems are being attempted to be imposed which discriminate, which differentiate, on the basis of religion…There should be a debate on the ramifications of [the CAA] internationally,” says Tushar. “It concerns every democracy and it concerns everybody who believes in inclusivity and in the liberal ideology…“It’s not what you profess, but what you practise that makes the world realise who you follow,” he said of Modi.” Protests in India are being met with increasing violence. Similar to Chile, in India, too, actors, artists and singers have raised their voices to speak against the injustices.

It is not in India or Chile alone, however, that the masses of everyday people are protesting injustices regarding the lack of basic human rights. Across the world from Myanmar to Colombia, current ways the systems we live inside are functioning are creating crises. Though democracies are built around the idea that diverse perspectives have value and need to be heard, and though our current economic systems are built around the exchange of each other’s diverse strengthens, we humans struggle with adapting to change, wrestle with how to communicate effectively across cultural divides, and, in general, fall short of making progress toward loving our neighbors as ourselves or treating them with respect. Finding a way to create social contexts where people are not merely toiling to survive, but can flourish is extremely challenging.

Stepping into a wider view during these troublesome times, it’s worth noting how everything in nature is interdependent on the life around it for survival. To live only unto ourselves and for ourselves is to die. Though we may think we stand on the outside of others’ problems or feel the natural world is ours to use as we wish, we are actually share struggles that arise, as what one person or one country does ripples through the interactions between other countries and their citizens as well, affecting the atmosphere of our social contexts, as well as influencing our relationships to the natural environment.

The words from Moore’s poem, “The Last Rose of Summer,” speak directly to this interconnectedness. “I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one! / To pine on the stem;” writes Moore. How empty and meaningless a world where no friendship is given or exchanged. We need each other, including interactions with the natural world that not only sustain, but regenerate life. As Moore’s poem goes on to say,

When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?

When our spirits are lifted, our bodies are lifted too. Music can sustain us, can heal. This is something most of us have experienced and intuitively know, but there is also a growing body of researched evidence to demonstrate this. Robin Seaton Jefferson’s recent article in Forbes, NIH Bets $20 Million Music Can Heal Our Brains describes music’s wide range of healing capacity. Our bodies physically benefit from music, as neurologist Alexander Pantelyat from John Hopkins University explains, in this video. Engagement in making music, activates more parts of the brain than just about any other activity,” Pantelyat states.

Imagine yourself standing alongside Luisa in the poem above, newly immigrated to America in the cold December night, or imagine yourself walking the streets of Santiago as Ayleen Jovita Romero sings into the street and you recall your disappeared family members who wanted the right to live in peace, but were instead killed, or imagine yourself a person of Muslim faith standing beside your Hindu neighbors asking for your life to be held in equal value as those you live alongside of in India, and listen here as Diane Syrcle singing the “The Last Rose of Summer” that she recorded for me to be able to share with you.  Perhaps as you listen, you, too, can find yourself in the story of those who have longed for friendship and care to be extended to them, so as to not be left in this bleak world alone.

In the midst of life’s challenging experiences, we need ways to find others’ stories in our own story. Music in its ability to unify both body and spirit, can help us discover a path to walk toward that place of being together.

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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 Coltrane,” 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’s 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.