Enlarging Our Hearts With Music and Michael L. Newell’s Poetry

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and turn my back to loneliness. — Maya Angelou

Music moves and swells inside the pages of Michael L. Newell’s new book, recently out, Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge.  From the fiddler’s bright allegro at a local dance, to childrens’ “symphony of shouts echoing across fields” when released from school in the poem “Celebration,” to nature’s melody in the “songs of streams” trailing across stony earth in the poem “Voice of Waters,” the touch of music’s many moods thread through Newell’s work. Having spent much of his life abroad, Newell’s poems spread the wide spaces between the Andes, Saudi Arabia, London, and Rwanda, and music features as a central theme threading together the distances.

One of the most moving poems in Newell’s collection, “Serendipity,” is a narrative poem written during his time in Rwanda. The poem begins with the poem’s speaker walking down a dirt road, headed home from work past laundry drying on the lines outside houses with corrugated metal roofs, bricks placed on top to hold them down, when a choir singing in Kinyarwanda captures his attention.

voices rising and falling from the home’s
living room, a beautiful repetitive melody
enhanced by constantly shifting harmonies,
counterpoint melodies, and one male voice
chanting or speaking underneath the rise
and fall, the same voice lifting in ecstatic

soaring flight above the others, a song at once
celebratory and deeply sad, the melody ascending
and tumbling, repeating itself again and again, every time

Newell describes the music so distinctly that when reading his words, I, too, am standing on the pathway caught up in the harmony and sweep of sound. “I stand still,” writes Newell, “eyes shut, and listen, nearly weeping.” People passing by on the path where he has been standing for ten minutes join in, pick up the melody, and carry it out into the neighborhood as they move on, music drifting through the air as they go.

The poem continues with someone in a large vehicle stopping by to ask if the poem’s speaker is okay. Upon learning he is standing there because he was caught by the choir’s beautiful singing, the driver, fully understanding what is implied, turns off his truck’s engine to give the choir his full attention. By now, though, the music has fallen silent. Here Newell takes the moment and expands our understanding.

I do not know whether the music was religious,

or folk song, or political, or celebratory, or grieving,
but hours later I still hear the music
as I go about my nightly ablutions. I realize
I have been changed without ever seeing those
responsible for the change. I have heard
on a dirt road from a ramshackle home, music

rough hewn, homemade, finer than I could find
in a concert hall while entertained by highly trained
professional musicians. I have heard music
from the blood and marrow of people singing
because it defines who they are. I have
listened to the heartbeat of a people.

The music described here is not merely people singing to get the notes down, the rhythm tight, the harmonies smooth. This music emerges from the very center of the self, “from the blood and marrow of people singing/ because it defines who they are,”as Newell says, resulting in the deep expression of being that carries us into a wholeness where time stops and we are simply present and fully alive. Whether our lives are surrounded by joy or submerged in pain and grief, listening with full attention, we know we are in the presence of something shining, and are replete. This is what Newell can do in his poems–take us out of ourselves and immerse us in life. This is why it’s worth reading poetry in general, and why you will want to read Newell’s Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge.

“Poetry is rooted in sound,” says poet, musician, and editor of Prairie Schooner, Kwame Dawes, and neuroscience backs up this statement. In the February 2017 article of Neuroscience News, “Is the Brain Hardwired to Appreciate Poetry?” the research of professor Guillaume Thierry and his colleagues at Bangor University has shown that even though we might not be able to say why, something in our brains responds positively to poetry’s construction and its stress patterns repetition of consonant sounds. Sensuous and beautiful, focusing and intensifying emotion, not only Newell’s poems, but poetry itself is a kind of music whose play of sounds can draw the reader to it.

Though poetry’s effect on us is different from that of music, (see more about that in this study, “The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology and compositional principles”) since ancient times, poetry and music have been linked. Containing rhythm, meter, repetition of sounds, euphony, and sometimes rhyme, poetry uses words with a focus on its auditory element. NPR has a page where you can listen to the interesting effect of poetry blended together with various jazz musicians with, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art,” sung by Nancy Harms with composer Jeremy Siskind’s piano, or Amiri Baraka’s poem, “Yes We Can,” with David Murray’s composition, among other examples.

Like poetry, music changes us. I remember listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for the first time years ago, transfixed by its haunting beauty, the emotional intensity it evoked–how it could plummet into the depths of human soul, climb to the penultimate heights of spirit, whisper the heart’s tenderest thought and longing. Tom Barnes’ April 23, 2015 article in Mic, “Scientists May Have Finally Discovered Why Humans Make Music,” discusses Leonid Perlovsky’s research at Harvard University where he explains, “music’s power comes from its ability to help human beings overcome cognitive dissonance, the feeling of emotional discomfort we feel when we learn novel information that contradicts existing beliefs.” Barnes explains how a variety of research shows people most often respond to dissonance by tossing out the new information or pushing back the old. Music, however, “soothes the difficulties involved in processing conflicting information.” Additionally, Barnes’ article goes on to report, “neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in a 2013 meta-analysis of more than 400 neurochemical music studies, found that listening to music had a more measurable effect on people’s anxiety and cortisol levels than did anti-anxiety drugs,” a significant observation. Music has the ability to break down walls between people, to soothe tension and unite them. We can see this ability exemplified in the choir directed by Mica Hendler in Israel, bringing together Palestinian and Israeli young people, as well as in the inspiring music collaborations found at Playing for Change where musicians and singers from around the world are recorded in their various every day environments and then woven together into a unified piece.

Life is a journey we’re all on together, each of us affecting the other as we co-create the world around us in all its complexity. When differences divide us, we are challenged to find ways to communicate and connect that enable us to reach beyond the things that divide us. Poetry focuses the reader on the specific moments and details of life, and we need poems like Newell’s “Serendipity,” that cause us to listen from the inside out. Music moves beyond words into the enlarged world of spirit, a place beyond sharply defined boundaries and ramshackled habits of understanding. Art can heal. We need music, poetry, and art that rises up from our blood and marrow joining us together in a larger place of being. We may be worlds away from what feels like home either mentally or physically, as was the person standing in the middle of the road in Newell’s poem. We may have differences in opinion that may not be resolved, but music can carry us to a larger place where we can at least listen to each other with soft hearts, allowing ourselves to shut off the motors of defensiveness–where we can wait on the roadside for the music to rise up.

Expanding the vehicles that nurture our awareness of being and nurture our ability to greet each other fully can help us avoid traveling through our lives without ever hearing the beauty in others’ voices different from our own. Both music and poetry are gifts of this kind. They help us express and experience our lives more fully. Poetry asks to be read slowly, wants us to pay attention to the implicit, to touch the difficult and complex, feel the tears beneath the beauty, see the human side of experiences. Poetry enables us to look with greater gentleness, sensitivity, and kindness at the questions that rise up between us. While recently attending the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, I met the poet, Betty Neals. We spoke about the connection between music and poetry. She is the voice speaking on this link to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s jazz piece, “Theme for the Eulipions” from the 1976 album, Return of the 5,000 Lb Man. The music opens with Betty describing the desolation of a railroad station at 2:00 am on a weeknight. As I hear her speak, I picture myself in a cold and isolated train station with insects circling florescent lights, flakes of suspended particulate matter from city smog caught in a night sky, empty tracks leading out into the obscure dark. Poets, artists and musicians are Eulipons, Betty explains as she reads. Music, “the duty free gift for the traveler.” Then the music rises and takes off, and we are carried away on a journey far beyond loneliness and despair. May we all find and perhaps join the Eulipons.

If you’re interested in a copy of Michael L. Newell’s book, Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge, contact me and I will put you in touch with how to do that.

Posted in art, music, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Letting Go

Standing before the glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I watched as sardines swirled in graceful, ribboned unison, turning then splitting into two shifting forms, as over and again a hammerhead shark pierced through their fluid movement. To observe life under the sea’s surface is to enter another world that is our own but utterly different, and is perhaps the most otherworldly experience one might have. While staring at the fish, on one hand, a person could say that nothing much is happening: over and over one large fish chases other smaller ones. But from another view, the most essential thing is happening: you are observing life in all its mystery and it leaves you standing in awe. For a few moments you’re unaware of anything but the fishes’ movement as they glide as if in dance through the liquid blue, and you step into some larger universe where time dissolves.

Inside the ocean, life teems in myriad forms, yet we’re barely conscious of its presence, as most of us rarely encounter what is happening beneath the ocean’s surface in our day to day lives.  I would never know about the hammerhead chasing the sardines unless I were to dive into their world or view them in an aquarium. Would we miss their dance if they were no longer with us? Recently, I received a letter from a friend who mentioned that if he never published another poem, the world wouldn’t miss his voice. Most of us at one point or another have probably felt similarly. We work hard at what we do, we aim to accomplish something significant, but still we wonder if our lives have meaning to others. Does a tree, a forest, painting, piece of music, national park or act of simple kindness matter? Why should we learn to cook, build a house, grow a garden, write a story or read one? The universe is enormous and full of fecundity. What does it matter that we create or that we protect the natural world, make space for beauty or nurture others’ creative effort? Would the world miss Dostoevsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Martha Graham or Aretha Franklin if they had never produced their work?

Maybe we can’t miss what we’ve never known or experienced. We tend to take in the world we’re given, absorbing it like food, and whatever we’re given becomes part of our being. We can go through our days somewhat routinely, not necessarily sensing a need for reflection. At the same time, however, something in us hungers to be in relationship to something larger than ourselves. We wouldn’t know what we had missed if the artists who produced their creative work never did so, but our world is certainly fuller, our inner lives richer because of them. To reduce or obliterate voices both nonhuman and human— the forests, animals, music, art, stories or other creative work is to diminish existence, reduce wonder, and to take away our souls.

Though the hammerhead chasing the sardines in the aquarium was beautiful to watch, what I was watching may have also been one animal seeking to make dinner out of another. Death and life are interconnected. To be born is to also to learn you will die. Simply to eat, whether animal or vegetable, something else gives its life in order to sustain our own. All of life is transition. Day follows night follows day. Always, we’re leaving behind one state to enter another. To love someone is to know you will also someday lose the one you love. We leave our parents’ home to enter a larger world. We enter a relationship of love, letting go of something of ourselves in order to expand our lives. Perhaps we move to a new location or a new country. In doing so, we gain a new understanding of the complex diversity and multiple realities coexisting in the world. As we age we lose things—our hair, our vision, our strength. With each transition we make in life we lose something. In turn, what we lose asks us to enlarge our internal selves. To love means to be in relationship, and relationship gives life meaning. The world we breathe and move in is alive and also fragile. Writers, and artists in general, invite us to take off our protective armor and become vulnerable again—to look deeply at our lives, to notice our relationship to the world around us, and to become more conscious of the reality that we stand in liminal space: aware both that we are alive, and understanding we will die. We’re living into as well as dying to each ongoing moment. To enter the world is to experience suffering as well as joy. The more we, like the ancient Biblical Job, can allow ourselves to stand in this awareness, the more we can move out of fear into a place of acceptance of all life brings us, even our own deaths–the biggest transition and opportunity of all to enlarge ourselves.

When we gaze at a school of fish whirling by or view minuscule jellyfish slowly drifting past an aquarium window, their transparent bodies radiating with moving iridescent light or when we lean our heads back to cast our vision into the midnight Milky Way, at stars so thick they have become mis, we catch our breath. Time stops and we stand in naked amazed awareness of creation. These moments may seem small, even insignificant within the press of responsibilities we often take on, but they are important. The accomplishments and creative energy of our lives, the things we hold dear—these reflect the impulse to live and thrive. They are the voice beneath our actions and inside our silences that say, “You are alive, and to be alive is a wonder.” Creative work, our own or appreciation of others’, allows us to touch life, feel its pulse. Our creative efforts may seem small even insignificant, but they are vital. They are efforts that whisper to us why we live. Life dwells in these moments and in the details that bring us into a world larger than our selves—into the mystery of our own being.

How beautifully Mary Oliver speaks of this in her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,”

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.

Deciduous trees burn with luminescent light during autumn as they move toward winter’s dormant stage. Here in Oliver’s poem, the trees in the woods are more than trees; they are lit candles. Similarly, Oliver implies, if we open the eyes of our souls, we can experience the world move from a space where we know the names of things and can categorize them back into a space of the nameless, allowing us to once more delight in their mystery. There are things worth understanding about life’s connection to loss, explains Oliver. Loss teaches us to hold ourselves open to our mortality. Hold the world dear, “against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;” Oliver writes, but at the same time our task is to learn to also let go of what we most love. This can be painful and very difficult, but in it, Oliver states, is fulfillment. In losing our life, we find it–ancient wisdom we learn and relearn. In letting go, we can become like autumn trees–lit candles, our lives rich incense others inhale.

Posted in art, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Lifting Our Heads


“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)

Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.

“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.

Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.

Posted in art, gratitude, Italian-American, poetry, spirtuality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Standing Under Stones of Suffering and Wonder

Sentence

The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.

Jane Hirshfield

20180530_163638

A few weeks ago, I listened to the rain come down all night and thought about the grief people live with, the suffering that doesn’t go away. In our neighborhood lives a peacock that calls out through day and night. It’s mating season for peacocks, a season that goes on for four months. During this time, the peacock cries out for a mate. There is no peahen in our neighborhood, however, so the peacock’s cries echo down the valley day and night. His calls will never be answered. I hear his calls, and consider how many across the world whose needs for housing, food, clothing, clean water, clean air, or health care are never met. Suffering abounds. To live in this world is to participate in its suffering. How do we meet the suffering in the world and in our own lives? How do we cultivate the strength of spirit to be able to endure the suffering that will inevitably come to us all as we eventually approach our own deaths?

20180416_155925

As Hirshfield’s describes in her short poem above, it feels a kind of punishment or sentence to remember what you once had or could do but are no longer able to because of physical limitations caused by accident, disease, declining health or age. But our lives don’t continue on in the same state over time. Living things change and age. We need to be able to look our own mortality in the face, yet this is very hard to do. We don’t gain inner strength to deal with these changes over night. We need to prepare for it through our lifetime. 

Perhaps we have such difficulty with suffering because little in our culture prepares us to live with it, to understand or to transcend it. We don’t see suffering as as a part of life and don’t know how to learn from it. Most of us want to avoid suffering and reject pain. People prefer to be powerful and strong, not weak and suffering.

When we suffer, we tend to feel reduced and limited. The world shrinks. William Stafford’s poem, “How To Regain Your Soul,” describes a way to respond to suffering that enlarges and renews.

Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.

Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you again.

One way to deal with suffering or difficulty the poem suggests, is to wander out into nature because in doing so you enable yourself to view your ills from a broader perspective. As Stafford suggests, in nature we can find a place where the world opens again, and as the poem describes, the shadows you see coming off the hard, sheer places in your life leading toward nightfall and the west are now the very thing enabling you also to see light on the river leading through the canyon walls. This is a place to observe deeply. It’s worth spending time to understand, and the stanza closes by saying, “Put down your pack.” When we suffer, it takes time to absorb the reality that your suffering could also bring you a new life source that will lead you through the rock-walled gorge of your experience. It’s worth spending time being present with this understanding–simply taking it in.

The poem’s second stanza begins with air stirring the pines. Lightness enters in. Breath. When we take time to rest in the awareness of this new state were in, we make space for something new to enter our awareness. Stafford recognizes that world we inhabit may be weighted with heavy gravity. He relates the ancient struggles of Rome and Troy, to the beginnings of human civilization living in caves. The very words Rome and Troy echo with sounds of war. We know struggle and work are part of civilizations’ foundation and history. But these descriptions of civilization’s efforts are held together in the poem’s stanza on either side by air breathing through the pines and light lifting and illuminating the wings of butterflies. Stafford reminds us this is what it is to be human. Heaviness and struggle are required for existence, yes. But present alongside the weight and effort is the magnificence of the larger world–the stunning ephemeral qualities of existence itself–the butterflies dancing in the still sun by the thousands–those resplendent moments where beauty captures and leads us into a place toward the sublime, moments where time seems to stand still, and for an instance we taste what it is to step inside eternity. Caught in an experience of what Abraham Joshua would name as “radical wonder,” the world opens. “Suddenly, anything/ could happen to you,” writes Stafford. We see now how we can inhabit our bodies as our “soul pulls toward the canyon,” the difficult and narrow places. We are are body, and we are spirit–light shining through wings.

We get used to the way things are or have been going along in our lives, and tend to think that is the way it always has been or will be. The earth and everything in it, however, is in a state of transition. At Pinnacles National Park  in California, you can walk past gargantuan boulders and through caves made as a result of volcanic explosions, landslides, the slipping of tectonic plates on the San Andreas Fault, and erosion–both natural and chemical. The result today, millions of years later, is an amazing place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. We want to understand why we suffer and how to be released from suffering. When examining the earth we walk on, however, we can realize that it, too, has endured great change and many other life forms on earth have endured pain as result.

The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said,  “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13) The result of the fissures, volcanos and erosion is, in the end, great beauty. Maybe instead of seeking an answer to our suffering we want to seek ways to stand under the light breaking through the cracks in our life’s hard and heavy rocks where we can experience wonder.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Listening For What the Desert Says

“The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” –Emerson, “Nature”

Smoke trees, creosote shrubs, puffball bushes, ancient granite balancing rocks, vast seas of sun-soaked sand scattered with spiny cholla cactus and the splash of fire red blossoms on the ocotillo’s spindly spines–this is Joshua Tree National Park outside of Los Angeles in Southern California. Gone are the clogged traffic and freeways, LA’s colossal sprawl. To arrive here is to be made aware of the earth’s vast openness. Enormous basins stretch into far horizons rimmed by rugged mountains–a wide cup of immense beauty to drink in. Mountains here are stippled, variegated, and wear stripes. Everything in this desert is laid bare; not even the spiny thorns lay hidden, and to witness this place is to be filled with wonder.

The world at Joshua Tree is sculptural. Stone and soil. These are the foundations Earth is built from. At Joshua Tree we see the Earth’s purity. The rocks hold supple shape; their natural balance and grace evoke awe, and even the grains of sand hold form.

Nature has only to be itself to be beautiful, and her weathered age only makes her more interesting. This is a mythic world made visible where reality plays with the imagination and what you think you know about what reality is–how things are. In this world, rock seems to fold like butter, jack rabbits grow to the size of a dog, plants white and rounded as cloud pierce the skin more painfully than a needle, skeletons of trees cast calligraphic shadows, flowers can be the size of a grain of sand, and plants grow from rocks.

In its unique and stark form, there is a surreal quality to the desert, as well as a oneness to the landscape that causes me to ponder what it is that forms reality. In his poem, “Metaphor as Identity,” Nicholas Samaras writes,

I am a warm pocket of earth,
shaped like this and living for a while.

I am the memory of my good mentor who said,
“I only borrowed this dust.”

I am the dusty path out of sight.

Though Samaras wasn’t writing about the desert per se, to walk away from civilization for a few days to sleep and wake in a desert, allows me to enter a different rhythm of life and to glimpse an understanding that all our life is only a borrowing of “this dust.”

People have viewed the desert as a wasteland, a place where bombs could be dropped, and sewage dumped. Yet there are those, like Jesus, who emerged from the desert awakened. For me, the desert holds metaphors and messages. For example–we don’t have to be big or loud or young to be beautiful, the landscape seems to say. Strength isn’t necessarily the opposite of openness. We can be spacious, open, and yet survive. We can be empty. You can endure and be vulnerable as well. To gain character takes time, and you don’t have to be flawless. Ancient places can feed our spirits. Ancient places are necessary. Water and renewal are essential for survival. Too much light blinds. Shadows are beautiful.

In the desert, because of the scarcity of resources necessary for life there, I am confronted with the fragility of life, as well as my own emptiness and the real and imminent possibility of death. In that awareness, I’m brought to a place of humility and deep gratitude for the many life-giving things that sustain me. Spending time in a desert such as Joshua Tree, I also see that death and life are part of each other; “I am the dusty path out of sight,” as Samaras writes. In the desert’s sparseness, I experience a sense of solitude and a longing for a connection to all that is–a yearning for that which whispers beneath and inside the rhythms of life’s creative force–leading beyond the forms this creative effort has assumed–rock, sky, and plants–to speak to my state of being.

Though they commonly live from 150 to 200 years, one Joshua Tree lived to be an astonishing thousand years old. According to Soft Schools, however, Joshua Trees were also used for newspaper pulp for the London Daily Telegraph in the 19th century. Many say spiritual awareness and connection to a spiritual practice aren’t necessary to living well in our world. The world and all it holds are objects or resources, there for us to use to fulfill our needs and wishes. This way of thinking, though, can lead to our treating the world as paper pulp, so to speak. The Los Angeles Basin was once a wild desert place. Its loss is irrecoverable, as will be the loss of future spaces such as the Grand Escalante Staircase, under threat by our current U.S. government leader, who wants to reduce it by 900,000 acres, so it can be opened for mining interests or used for other potential commercial development.

Natural environments are far more essential to our being than ornamentation in our front yards, the backdrop to cities or a scenic spaces we see on a holiday visit. Our interactions with nature benefit us immensely, and can help heal us both emotionally and physically, as Adam Alter describes in Atlantic Monthly’s article, “How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” We still have in our language the usage of the word sanctuary when referring to nature–a remanent of the idea that the natural world is somehow a holy place, set aside and something to be protected, but this value is endangered by the desire for money and the impression that we can use our power over the natural world and disregard its needs or what is necessary for it to function well. To destroy nature is to destroy ourselves and demonstrates a lack of ability to see ourselves as connected to the land and it’s eco systems. Our very survival depends on the protection and health of the environment, and we have the choice not to accept the loss of natural environments as inevitable and necessary.

It’s worth noting that previous to modernity, Earth was seen by most to contain a spiritual presence. In her Orion magazine article, “Speaking of Nature,” Robin Kimmerer writes “indigenous philosophy recognizes other beings as our relatives…We have no choice but to consume, but we can choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence. Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food, plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.” There is an immeasurable worth in wild spaces beyond their commercial value– their beauty, their ability to connect us to the source of life, to restore and renew, and to teach us.

Kimmerer isn’t alone in her perspective. Since ancient times, the Greek Orthodox, too, affirm God is not separate or detached from creation. As a Greek Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit states, there is a spiritual “presence in all places filling all things.” The essayist Wendell Berry explains that “Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written that ‘Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.’ This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.” (Christianity and the Survival of Creation, p. 30)

In another of his poems, “Old Calendar,” Samaras writes,

Arrived at home again, you disembark
from your satchel to attend Vespers.

You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness.

The now-far clock tower resonates satisfaction

Over time,  your body will become used to these hours.

Over time, your body will become these hours.

You hold to silence and chanting filters up to the stars.

You hold to the silence and let the years come.

The speaker in Samaras’s poem rises at Vespers to pray. Why do we need spiritual practices, including things like walking in nature, doing art, contemplative reading, and purposeful acts of generosity. In our culture, we want to run away from time. We revere youth and scorn age. If we look at the aged earth, however, we notice how beautiful it is, and are moved to recognize its majesty, and realize to be present on earth is to be more than an object. We are alive, and that is a sacred. Spiritual practices can help us grow into a place of understanding that our bodies and time are melded together in the creative fire of life’s cycle. We can become aware that we are living prayers moving through the landscape. Like wind, frost, and sun, slowly we shape the stones and grow the flowers of our existence.

Similar to encountering serious illnesses or losses, desert landscapes ferry us into a world where we grow silent. The desert exposes life’s bare bones, lifts its shapely stones into the wilderness of cold, sun, and the boundless sky where time and wind work them into shapes of beauty. Its vast silence holds a wholeness. We practice holding the silence inside the bare and bald desert places of our world, and through the hours there can learn to find the gratitude that will hold us like granite through the years and weather to come.

Posted in art, poetry, spirtuality | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In a Community of Gentleness

“It’s the hard things that break; soft things don’t break…You can waste so many years of your life trying to become something hard in order not to break; but it’s the soft things that can’t break! The hard things are the ones that shatter into a million pieces!”  –C. JoyBell C.

Igor Mitoraj’s Icarus at Temple of Concordi, Agrigento, Sicily

After the recent shootings in Florida, the U.S. president stated “We have to harden our schools, not soften them.”  When difficulties happen, people are often encouraged to toughen up and get hard, to take charge, gain control. Strength is associated with toughness, power and the ability to fight back and win battles. I’m more interested in a different way of being in the world, though, the way of gentleness and humility. The world is full of so many hurts–people have lost homes, their health, their loved ones, and more. From bullying to physical abuse, humans suffer in innumerable ways. From what I observe, the world doesn’t need more hardness. There is already so much suffering everywhere we look. When we are hurt by others or are less than we hoped we’d be, what we want is to be comforted. When we suffer, we want someone’s soft words or arms. We want gentleness.

It’s rare, though, to hear of those who aim to become more gentle, making me wonder what needs to be in place before we are able to respond to each other from a state of what might be called willful kindness.

To be gentle means to be tenderhearted, kind, to be soft. Soft things are supple, can bend and are less likely to be brittle and break. As I reflect on the foundation necessary for gentleness to thrive between people, it seems a first thing needed is a foundation of trust, and trust involves a recognition of what it means to be in relationship. In Western culture, we have the idea that the world is full of inanimate objects available for manipulation and use. Overall, our awareness that we’re a part of a great life web, part of each other is somewhat shallow. Too often, it seems, people feel free to act without concern for the impact their behavior has on the larger community, including the community of the natural environment.

One recent example of this failure to see oneself as part of a larger community is in the me-first behavior of the drug firm executive Martin Shekreli. In his lack of respect for the larger community, Shekreli defrauded investors and increased the price of a life saving drug by 5,000% per pill. Dominic Rushe, writing for The Guardian quotes John Coffee of Columbia law school regarding Shekreli’s general attitude while in the courtroom, ‘“His behavior during the trial was arrogant, and he treated the judge as an irrelevancy. Every defense counsel I know, and I know a lot of them, instructs his client to be respectful and modest because ultimately the judge is going to sentence you. Your arrogance can cost you a very high price.”‘ Shekreli’s arrogance in response to difficulty is very different from a group of doctors in Quebec. Robin Levinson-King in her BBC article, “Why Quebec doctors have rejected a pay rise,” reports that the Québécois doctors asked for their salary increases to “be cancelled and that the resources of the system be better distributed for the good of the healthcare workers and to provide health services worthy to the people of Quebec.” These doctors are are aware that what they do and the attitude they demonstrate affects the lives around them. How utterly refreshing to be part of a society where people recognize their actions affect the greater good and willingly respond accordingly.

When we confront difficult experiences in our lives, rather than getting tough, perhaps it’s better to act with gentleness, and to draw closer to the suffering in order to listen to what it is telling us so we can find the clues for how the suffering can be addressed or possibly healed. To do this, we need to be able to understand how we’re interconnected with others. Charles Eisenstein in his book,  The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible, writes about interbeing and its defining principles. The first two of these principles are: “That my being partakes of your being and that of all beings. This goes beyond interdependency—our very existence is relational. That, therefore, what we do to another, we do to ourselves.” In family dynamics, as well as in personal love relationships where we are in close proximity with each other on an ongoing interactive basis, our awareness of these principals of interbeing are heightened. If one person becomes upset, everyone feels it and responds. If people are relaxed or focused on a particular activity–this, too, affects everyone’s behavior. When everyone in a group is in tune with each other, the air is suffused with gentleness, and you function on a foundation of trust that people are doing their part. It’s like participating in an orchestra–each person plays their own notes but the notes relate to each other rhythmically and melodically to create music.

E. E. Cummings writes beautifully about interbeing in his love poem “[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]”

20180308_105150

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

 

For ill or for good, how we respond to events affects others. Humans are social beings, and because of what we now understand about how mirror neurons function in our brains, we can say that people do, in a real sense carry each other’s hearts in their own hearts. When we observe someone else feeling sad, we see the emotion in their facial or body gestures, and our own brain cells connecting to what that person is feeling light up.

When we allow ourselves to be a channel for wellbeing, doing what we can to relieve other’s suffering, we tend to feel more centered, more in love with life. Our fears diminish, and we come to sense our connection to what Cummings names as “whatever a moon has always meant/ and whatever a sun will always sing.” Cummings names so well the awareness of interbeing brings: wonder. We can regain a sense of awe and an awareness of our place within the greater cosmos–a place of humility, but also that allows us to feel more alive, whole, more content–and as a result, more gentle.

In a world clambering for position and recognition, to be gentle takes courage. To stand inside the sharpened razors or heat created by living alongside people struggling for prestige, territory and power and yet remain gentle is difficult and very challenging. To survive in these contexts requires actively and routinely grounding ourselves in something wider and larger than our own intelligence, achievement or privileged place. We can ground ourselves with a wider foundation through developing a purposeful connection to community. Participating in a community that nourishes our spirits and building connections there can enable people to find ways to sustain themselves through difficulty and to become more than they could be by themselves. Research shows us, according to Robert Waldinger in his TEDTalk, What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness,” that those who are happiest in life fare the best are those who “lean into relationships with family, friends, and community.” Deep relationship requires taking time for trust to grow enough that people feel free to open themselves. Some possible ways to begin this journey with others are to share dinners, go on walks, listen to music, read books, essays or poems, attend plays, do art, share jokes, tell stories or to simply sit silent beneath a tree gazing up at the branches and the sky together–anything that creates spaces of being where lives can unfold naturally, and differences can be valued. In this context of relationship with a desire to keep the bond between each other, a natural kind of respect develops.

In community we can become free to begin to live beyond the fear of each other or the threat of being bulldozed by someone clambering for attention, position or power, we can let go of competition and focus on being present with each other. Gentleness can emerge. We can create time and space to hear, see, and know each other. Though he doesn’t name it as interbeing, E. E. Cummings intimates it in his poem; interbeing is the secret–the bud, root, tree and sky–the essence of everything. Our lives are intertwined. “I carry your heart in my heart.” To know this, to live in this gentle awareness, is what brings us into the presence and wonder of existence itself–the mystery of what it is that holds up the stars and keeps them in balance.

20171017_131911

Posted in poetry | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Worlds Inside of Words

“Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.” ~Pope Francis

20161224_092752

Market in Catania, Sicily

I’ve been working on writing and revising a manuscript I’ve titled A Space Between, a series of linked narrative poems about southern Italians immigrating to San Francisco at the turn of the previous century. I started this series of poems about four years ago, set them aside for a few years, and have recently returned to them. The writing began as a result of listening to Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve (“After a Dream”), sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India who played the cello beautifully. Because I like to write poems in response to music, I suggested he play a piece of music on the cello and I would write a poem to go with it. As I listened to Faure’s piece, I pictured Naples’ wide harbor as I had seen it at sunset on a trip to southern Italy–the sky a brilliant, burning orange with a single boat sailing off into the far horizon. The music embodied feelings of deep tenderness and loss—how I imagine it  felt when my husband’s grandparents left Calabria to sail for America at the turn of the previous century. To lose the ones you love is to lose a world. How enormous the feeling must have been for immigrants as the boat they sailed on pulled away from shore and they realized they might never again walk on the land that shaped them or see once more those they hold dear. This experience of departure is where my manuscript began.

The process of writing A Space Between has been simultaneously like looking through a telescope into a deep space of ever expanding worlds, as well as peering down into a microscope at the fascinating details inside one life, event or moment. After I’d written the first poem, I discovered I had many questions about the Italian immigrant experience, leading me to research for answers. A wide range of writers have helped me developed a sense of life in both Calabria, Italy, and San Francisco, California in the early decades of the last century. Bit by bit, the research expanded both my understanding and my questions, motivating me to write more poems. As I continued to research, read and write, I eventually realized that along with the immigrants who left their country and struggled toward making a life in a new place, I too was on a journey. Now, approximately ninety pages later, I’ve got a completed draft, though I realize there’s much more to understand. My questions and interest in immigrant stories continues.

A Space Between unfolds through a series of narrative poems told from different characters’ perspectives. In creating a world through story or poetry, as in a mosaic, writers, and readers, see how worlds are interconnected— the interior life of characters with the physical world and with the social setting. In creating a narrative, you create a world. Language is a central mode of finding and making meaning. I feel deeply grateful for how writing the story in poems has changed me, not only because of what I learned through what I read, but also for the way the act of writing brings me deeper into the heart of humanity and the worlds we share.

Stories occur in a setting that shapes the narrative. In addition to the physical geography of a location, place is also created by how we name the world we are a part of, and how we use language to talk and write about it. Place is an integration of experience, imagination, thinking, emotion, and the words we give our experience about a place. Employing your imagination to write a story or a narrative poem moves a writer beyond the facts into a felt experience. Through the process of writing, I see ever more clearly how intricately interrelated events and lives are–how worlds live inside of worlds, touching each other in deep and powerful ways, affecting all that comes after. That changes how you think, feel, and respond to the world around you.

We don’t have to be a writer, however, to sense the power of our words. We might begin simply by telling our memories to a friend or child. It’s good to tell our stories as well as to say yes to listening to others’ stories in order to enter into their worlds. I knew little about the Italian American experience of those who came to San Francisco before I began the journey of trying to their stories in poems. Their history wasn’t taught at schools I attended as a child or found in textbooks; neither was it a shared family story. By trying to learn the stories of that era and finding the words that might bring them alive, whole new worlds have opened to me–including having a better understanding of what it might be like for those in our own era whose worlds have fallen apart causing them to leave their homes and all they’ve known to enter strange worlds with hopes for a better life.

In his poem, “Love is a Place,” E. E. Cummings explains this interconnectivity.

Love is a Place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds

Love is the ground we walk on, the atmosphere we breathe, the space we move in. Love is the place we all want to live in. We might read a lot about a subject, travel the world looking at facts and scenes from the windows of our own experience, curious about ways of being that puzzle us. When we enter the arms of one we know loves us, though, we intuitively feel we belong. To say yes to love is to say yes to a deeper place of knowing and belonging. As Pope Francis says, “life is about interactions.” To say yes to love is to recognize relationship is a life source. We sense we’re home. Humans are meant for relationship. Relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the natural world help us find our purpose and express what we find meaningful.

We have the ability to create worlds and places of love with our words. Words are a kind of magic, and are powerful in their ability to heal or to harm. Writers think carefully about what words make the world they want their readers to experience. Similarly, in making a place of love in our lives, we want to be aware of choosing words that evoke the world we want to live in with those around us. The recently reported news story of how two Lebanese twin brothers, Mohamed and Omar Kabbani, created a project called “Operation Salam” is an illustration of this idea of the power of words. Selecting a neighborhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, a previous war zone during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, the brothers painted rooftops a bright lime green so that from above, the word salam, or peace, could be read. The project brought the neighborhood together, as approximately 50 people worked to find places in the neighborhood where the brothers could carry out their painting project. “…The people from both sides want to live peacefully,” explained Mohamed. This single word, salam, literally proclaims from the rooftops this Lebanese neighborhood’s desire for peace. Interestingly, by saying “yes” to their roofs being painted, a larger world of “yes” took place—a kind of healing and making of a world they want to live in. Through the physical embodiment of the word as well as neighbors cooperating with each other where previously sectarian violence had occurred, the artists, with this single word, moved people once enemies further toward living peacefully.

To write about something is to enter a door inviting us into a deeper relationship with our subject and the possibility of falling in love with it. When we are in relationship with someone or something, we are listening for what the other is communicating so we can respond. Several times now, I’ve thought I was finished the manuscript of poems about Calabrian immigrants to San Francisco, but then I learn something more about the immigrant experience or Italians in America, and I want to reconsider what I previously said or thought. Keep listening, the story seems to tell me; there’s more to understand. Around us everywhere are worlds that beckon for us to listen. Inside of words, entire worlds exist. Stories, even a single word we share with another, can open a space for understanding and connection, and writing is a way to enter into a place of love.

 

Posted in Italian-American, poetry, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Living Large

Amiee Bender’s story, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” opens with a doctor visiting a rabbi who explains an Hassidic tale describing how at the end of your life you will have to apologize for how you didn’t live. The rabbi character in the story explains, ‘“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”’ There are so many things in life to make one fearful of living large. To open your heart to the world, to become deeper or wider–or depending on your personality or circumstances–humbler and meeker, is risky, difficult, and just plain challenging. So, where does renewal come from? How does one transform?

In a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, I visited the Museo de Oro, the Gold Museum. This museum holds the largest pre-Hispanic gold collection in the world. While there, I noticed how the subject of transformation frequently recurred on the exhibit descriptions. People in the ancient world of the pre-Columbian Amerindians purposefully sought after transformation, and their art in the Museo de Oro clearly demonstrated this interest. Containers were thought to be like the female gender–they held things that could transform and gain life. The ashes of the dead were placed in urns the shape of pregnant women’s bodies as if waiting for rebirth. Furnaces and crucibles, too, were seen as a kind of uterus. Potters decorated fish-shaped objects with lizards as a way to bring together the worlds of water and land. Insects, and amphibians that changed forms, such as frogs or the butterfly chrysalis, were also common in Pre-Columbian art work. Interestingly, the culture’s  connection and observation of transformation in the natural world led them to use these these observations and objects as embodied metaphors to heightened people’s consciousness and understanding.

For Amerindian populations, the physical world of plants, animals, and even minerals, intermingled with the spiritual world and were seen as holding important connections with humans. Goldsmiths, for example, were believed to have powers like a demigod because through their work and their use of fire, they transformed earthen material. Additionally, the chief  was believed to be able to transform into an animal when he used specific clothes and objects for religious ceremonies to make him look like an animal revered for its power, the jaguar. Also, because of their reflective qualities, shiny objects such as mirrors, metals, and stones like obsidian and quartz, were thought to be able to communicate with the spiritual world. Metallic plates with their glinting lights and sound they were able to give off were thought to bring people closer to the gods, and priests used them in religious ceremonies. There was an awareness that we need renewal in order to become more whole.

Seeing ourselves as connected to the physical world is not only good practice for ancient people, however, it’s  good for us today as well. In Richard Schiffman’s 1997 interview with Father Thomas Berry at the Riverdale Center of Religious Research, Berry states, “We bear the universe in our beings,” Berry reflected, “as the universe bears us in its being.” Something in our culture is awry, however, as Schiffman goes on to say, “We’d as soon cut down our most beautiful tree, the most beautiful forest in the world. We cut it down for what? For timber, for board feet. We don’t see the tree, we only see it in terms of its commercial value.” Schiffman describes how “Scientific research has too frequently become the willing handmaiden of what Berry called “the extractive economy,” an economic system that treats our fellow creatures as objects to be exploited rather than as living beings with their own awareness and rights. Moreover, technology, in Berry’s view, potentially separates us from intimacy with life. We flee into “cyberspace” — spending more time on smart phones, iPods and video games than communing with the real world.” Rather than a world alive with spirit, this is a world where objects are separate and alienated from the world around them.

The poet, David Whyte, in his poem, “Everything is Waiting for You,” addresses the alienating effects of living in a culture where the physical world is seen mainly for its utilitarian value. Whyte begins the poem by saying, “Your great mistake is to act the drama/as if you were alone.” Several lines later, Whyte moves on to describe everyday physical objects of our lives in our own day, and how they are more than mere objects. If we allow them to, they can bring us out of ourselves and sense our connection to the larger world.  “To feel abandoned,” writes Whyte, “is to deny/ the intimacy of your surroundings.” To feel alive, he suggests, is to feel the world not as objects but to see the shine in them, the magic beneath the surface, so to speak, and our connection to it. The world is waiting, Whyte suggests, for us to be present and to respond to it as a presence, and realizing this can change our world.

…Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.

The things around us have a commonplace function but they are also a way to enter into other ways of being. In other words, Whyte suggests,  if we look deeply, we can notice how these things in our every day lives carry a story reflecting a deeper life. The object such as the soap dish holds for us the means to clean ourselves. Windows enable us to open our lives to an outside breeze. In their way, if we have the eyes to see it, these objects are a means for transformation, as well as a kind of blessing–a kind of modern form of the preColombians’s ability to see their connection to the world around them to help them transform their lives.

20171129_122801

A few lines later in the poem, Whyte explains how “the doors have always been there/ to frighten you and invite you,” implying to experience the world differently Doors have often been used metaphorically in literature to represent opportunity, and opportunity can frighten us, as well as expand us. Nevertheless, the possibility is available to us to see the whole world as our alibi in this grand experiment in living. Like the shamans and priests of ancient Colombia, we, too, can allow the physical world to transform us when we open ourselves to the possibility of seeing it as a reflection of something beyond its particular form. For Whyte, this begins with opening yourself to communication with the world–relating to it as if it were less an object but a person. “Put down your aloneness and ease into the/conversation…the cooking pots/ have left their arrogant aloofness and/ seen the good in you at last.”

So often recently, I’ve heard people tell me how they feel anxious or how people they know feel anxious. Certainly, there is enough in the daily news or family events to create anxiety, but what if we took up Whyte’s idea and instead, practiced allowing ourselves to see the world, including the physical world as actually longing to have a conversation with us. Could that allow us to be more fully human–enable us to see that we can become more completely at home with ourselves, to see our own goodness and to nurture it?

Because of my interest in trees and in learning to draw them, someone recently sent me a link to a site explaining how by spending time with trees you can receive healing. The method described for this was to begin by selecting a tree, and then to frequently spend time with your chosen tree–standing or sitting near it, to touch the tree, meditating under it, and simply to approach it with a sense of love and openness. To do these things would allow a person to see and understand a tree in a new way and to enter into a kind of conversation with it. Similarly, sitting or standing before a tree–spending time with a tree, opening yourself to it as a presence rather than an object could allow us to see like an artist sees, and to experience the tree in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. While drawing a tree, an artist’s aim is more than to duplicate the tree’s exact form. Instead, the artist works to express the personality, presence, or what could be called spirit of the subject, as this is what moves the viewer to experience the subject more fully or to see it in a new way. What we spend time doing repeatedly reinforces our own thinking and ways of being, and in the end, these behaviors transform us. If we can learn to see the life inside a tree, perhaps we can transform ourselves enough to learn it is possible to experience the presence with all of what and who is around us. To live in this way would be to live in a truly transformed world.

As Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson suggests, the motivation to care for and protect other living things helps enable the survival of life as a whole on our planet. “Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth,” Wilson asserts in the 2006 Harvard Gazette, “and they should come together to save the Creation.”’ As Schiffman says in his article, ” We Need to Relearn That We’re a Part of Nature, Not Separate From It,” on the Moyer’s site, both Wilson and Berry show “we need a story that cuts across traditional boundaries between fields to present a new, integral vision.”

Whyte closes his poem poem by saying,

..All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

To be transformed, the poem suggests, is to become nothing other than more of the fullness of our own selves–the shifting a tadpole takes as it turns into a frog or a caterpillar into a butterfly, to use the metaphors of the pre-Colombians. This is a wonderful poem to start the year with. The world is waiting for each one of us, opening its arms to us in invitation. Be it stone or water, trees or a teapot, may we all awaken to the life that waits inside every living thing by beginning with one living thing we turn to regularly with the eyes of openness and love.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loss and Transformation

The winter solstice is only a few days away now, the shortest day in the year. Perhaps I should be thinking about joy, as this is the Christmas season when much of the world decorates with lights and gives gifts to each other but I’ve been thinking about the thin, winter places of life, where we have less time in the light–what it’s like living in that place where you don’t know when or if the light will be coming. Maybe joy and loss aren’t always separate things.

Currently, I am reading Beloved On the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude, edited by Jim Perlman, Deborah Cooper, Mara Hari, and Pamela Mittlefehldt. In this volume you will find Kenneth Salzmann’s poem, “Musaf: Additional Prayer,”  a poem exploring a world where loss and loneliness are well known. The poem begins,

Praised be the one
I have lived contentedly without;
who reveals the Berkshires today
are an unexpected house of prayer
and sorrow, as just one green month
rises to repair a broken circle; whose
search for me is unfulfilled
and perhaps not ended.

The Berkshires are a rural tree-filled hilly and scenic area in Massachusetts. In Salzmann’s poem, they are a place of meditation, one he hadn’t counted on as he has lived without the one who is searching for him. Because the hills are referred to as a house of prayer, though who the “one” is isn’t named, it could be suggested that it’s the speaker of the poem’s father, or possibly even God, that’s searching for him, a search that has gone on for some time, and isn’t quite over yet.

In the first stanza, the writer mentions the sorrow present in this place he is walking. In the stanza that follows, Salzmann describes a kind of paradox, where the loss and sorrow also carry with them a kind of wonder and beauty,

“Blessed is eternal loss and glory, wonder of the universe,
splash of color slipping from a winter-weary wood
that I have often walked alone;

Though the poem’s speaker seems to have traveled a far distance from the one who is searching for him, he finds himself becoming whole again, reconnected with himself and the world around him, “the world finds a voice/ and whispers Shema;” he writes. Shema is the beginning word of the Jewish prayer said in the morning and evening, “Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.” In English this reads, “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Like perfume left in a room after someone has just left, though the writer describes loss, he also leaves us with a sense of a presence that isn’t wholly nameable.

Unending Adonai, help us to go on imagining
that, wherever we go, we have only missed you
by a moment; allow us our untenable conviction
that we might become a blessing.

Though loss is present, though we have missed the blessing of a presence we longed for, we can ourselves become the blessing. We can give to others what it was we so wanted to be given. Salzmann suggests that we receive what we need by giving it away ourselves.

The green moth that in the first stanza repairs the broken circle is a small, fragile and temporal being, yet in the poem it is this moth that makes things new. “Blessed Father, command us to be free,” states the final line, and it surprises. The poem’s speaker asks to be told to free himself. Why would the poem’s speaker ask to be commanded to be free? The joining of wills, however, can give us the strength to change directions, to start anew–to transform.

Like the poem’s speaker, we may not know we are setting out on a journey of transformation as we walk out into the woods–into a place where things are not laid out in straight lines as on a well worn city street, roads we are overly familiar with, or as we travel back, possibly, to a place of origin. When we’re at a loss for where to go, when we’re sad, perhaps it’s a good idea to interrupt that way of thinking and to take a walk. As in Salzmann’s poem, insight can come unexpectedly in the form of single green moth leading us unintentionally to a new insight or discovery. Problems might be less fixed and the worlds we live in more permeable than they appear to be.

“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.”

from Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Keep Quiet”

Posted in poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Fear Into a Larger World

In her poem, “The Best of It,” Kate Ryan, describes how it feels to have continued loss, to be reduced to be so little considered that you have next to nothing.

THE BEST OF IT

However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.

In some cultures, people choose to become monks who own virtually nothing. They have begging bowls and their clothing, and that’s about it. They depend on people around them to give them food. This helps the monks practice gratitude and to control their wants and desires, and it helps other people to practice giving and hospitality. The work monks do can encourage us on our life path. Most of us, however, aren’t monks who have chosen to take the vow of poverty. We work hard to make a space we can live in so we can provide ourselves with food, clothing, and other necessities. There comes a point when making the best of it really isn’t enough. People want to do more than merely exist–need more than just their one bean.

Circumstances can arise that make it so getting these things aren’t possible or are at least very difficult to obtain. If we’re poor, it’s rarely by choice. We need the diversity that entire gardens possess. In a flourishing society, the social structure supports people in developing their abilities and provides varied and abundant opportunities for them to contribute to the community. If someone literally doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or is struggling with severe pain or loss of bodily function resulting from a terminal disease or other such loss, what enables a person to go on, and how do people cope with their fear and anxiety during such situations?

Recently, I’ve been researching about Italians immigrants living in San Francisco during World War II for poems I’m writing. During this time period, the US government labeled 600,000 American-Italians as “enemy aliens” resulting from Executive Order 9066, an act that held numerous consequences for Italian-American immigrants.

During WWII, Italian-Americans had to carry a booklet identifying them as an enemy alien and have it stamped once a week. They weren’t allowed to travel more than five miles from home, had to stay in their homes between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., and were required to turn over radios, flashlights and cameras to government authorities. Approximately another 10,000 Italians living in prohibited zones near coasts were forced to move (sources vary, as the Smithsonian, states it was 50,000). Many people lost their jobs, some because their place of employment was further than the five miles from their house they were allowed to travel. 1,400 Italian fishermen in San Francisco weren’t allowed to fish. Three hundred Italian-Americans (some sources say more) were put in internment camps. Certainly, these changes and losses caused the Italian-American community anxiety and fear regarding their livelihoods, the safety and well-being of their family members, as well as serious questions regarding how their future would be affected.

In the fall of 1942, Roosevelt lifted the enemy alien status but Executive Order 9066 remained on the books until 1976 when President Gerald Ford removed it.

Fear in the American society at large was a significant motivating factor behind the government’s choice to remove civil liberties from Italian-Americans, as well as from the Japanese and Germans. When the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw the internment camps, she spoke out against them. “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” Her voice didn’t cause the camps to close, however. The families in these camps continued living with their difficult situation.

Italian-American immigrants faced significant injustices, as have many others world-wide throughout history, as well as currently. Life can change quickly and profoundly when you are suddenly seen as no longer acceptable. It’s easy to see how difficult life could be in such circumstances and to imagine how easy it could be to live in a state of fear, anger and resentment when facing such a cyclone of events you couldn’t anticipate and had no control over. 

We don’t know our futures. We want to be ready to face our fears and the storms that come our way. In his poem, “Snowfall in the Afternoon,” Robert Bly clearly depicts what it’s like when confronted with an unavoidable fearful situation– in this instance, a rising storm. “It was the sort of snowfall that starts in the late afternoon,” he writes, “And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.” Like anxiety and fear, the storm grows, picking up strength, feeding on its own furry as it continues, until the very home one lives in seems to be made of grass–vulnerable to gale force winds.

Yet beneath the surface, forces not attended to had been somehow present all along. Bly writes, “A darkness was always there which we never noticed.”  The poem goes on, explaining how watching from inside the house, the cornfields seem to shrink. Then, like some wayward galley holding a great weight of grain, the barn’s bulk moves threateningly closer, about to crash into the house where “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” Whether blinded or aware, the viewer is left in an alarming situation. This is how we feel sometimes when confronting unavoidable situations–waiting for a hurricane or fire that might engulf our house and ruin our entire livelihood and future. How do we cope with extreme difficulties that can’t be avoided–when we don’t know how long anything around us will last, if our efforts will make any difference, and when we’re alone in our vulnerable house made of grass about to be plowed down by something we see coming and yet are unable to do much about?

Because the darkness was there all along but simply not previously noticed, we can see a possible way to begin to understand what we fear and what we might do about it: look around. Notice where darkness is growing and storms might be brewing. Practice acknowledging the presence of fear–look at the fear and purposefully be present with it in our thoughts. Rather than rushing past our fears, covering them over with restless activity or hiding them, simply practice noticing when the fear as it arises, observe it, be curious about it—what brings it up, how it feels in the body, what it’s telling or teaching us.

When we see a storm coming toward us, typical responses are to run, to hide, fight, or even to find ways to cooperate with the storm or move with it. A significant portion of Italian-Americans during WWII, for example, kept a low profile. Parents during that generation chose not to teach their children Italian. It was considered “the language of the enemy” and they didn’t want their children to stand out. Italians also enlisted in the army and went to war as a way to demonstrate their loyalty.

Like stony mountains, difficult things don’t necessarily go away. We have to learn to live with our emotions in spite of their presence. There are other ways to respond to difficult situations, and we can teach ourselves how to think, act and feel differently in response.

Imagination is a powerful tool. We can imagine various situations we’re afraid of and practice letting go of the fear—visualizing a different way of responding. Collette Lafia, in her article on the Gratefulness.org site, describes a practice where you sit quietly with a bowl, imagining filling it with your sorrow, grief, anger, exhaustion–whatever your wound. You don’t try and fix it, you just put it in the container and with humility hold it out to the Infinite for healing. I can see how this is a way of gaining a larger perspective and how it would help instill an understanding that the working out the problem that creates the fear isn’t about will and control. By placing the fear (or other strong emotion) in a larger context we can gain a kind of freedom from the thought patterns that bind us related to our fears and see how resolving an issue or dealing with fear is part of a larger interaction.

Pema Chödrön in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty, writes, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Difficult situations can be complex and we might not readily know by ourselves what it is we need in order to resolve our fears. Maybe we can begin elsewhere, however, and simply probe the emotion without having to think it must be resolved or that we have to come to conclusions about it. Living the question until we live into the answer might be the more appropriate thing to do, as the poet Rilke suggested.

So that we move out of our own tightness and fear–our tendency to cling and be anxious–we might also shift our gaze, aiming to familiarize ourselves with others and their pain. We can imagine ourselves taking in someone else’s pain, and send them light and energy. Pema Chodron describes specific steps for how we might do this in a practice called tonglen. The specific purpose of this practice is to expand our capacity for compassion. Instead of treating people perfunctorily, as someone who performs a task, we can begin consciously practicing to enhance relationships with those around us. This could be just a thought we think when we see someone pass by us who seems different from ourselves in dress or perspective. We might in our minds wish them well, to be released from pain or to find fulfillment. Fear, anger, resentment–these can trap us, make our lives miserable but we can live alongside these emotions, observing and putting them into a wider, different context, or turn from them toward something different. Learning to love ourselves, we learn how to love our neighbors. We can open our arms, and nurture our hearts into a larger world.

We all want to live a life where we feel valued. Recognizing how the well-being of our own life is interconnected to the dignity of all people is foundational to moving beyond fear into a larger world where we can live with greater freedom and attain more of our full potential. After World War II in 1948, representatives from countries and cultures throughout the world put together The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the goal of protecting people from “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The declaration was put in place in recognition that people shouldn’t have to be pushed into “rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” Neither should people have to hide, run away, or deny their language, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other fundamental aspects of their personhood just so they might continue living. All people need dignity and should be able to thrive in living condition free from fear. Article 1 of the Human Rights Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Practicing in our lives each day how to move beyond our own fears, we can begin to integrate into our lives how we might respond to fears in others’, and perhaps see how to respect and protect their freedom. As John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition: there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”

Posted in poetry, Reading, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment