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What Shines

My parents who had nothing but their big hearts,
the circle they drew around us to keep us safe
and the place they made for others to join us at our table,
the way they taught us by what they did
to love each other and the world. 

–Maria Mazziotti Gillan, “Badge of Embarrassment,” from When the Stars Were Still Visible

We live in a divisive time. As if the multitude of difficult emotions have been waiting in a cave like a bear in hibernation for the moment to surface, anxiety, fear, anger, and bitter silence, have emerged to wander the world, hungry for expression. The Wall Street Journal reports that adults are throwing tantrums in restaurants, on planes and at home. To put it mildly, people are having a tough time.

Shame, lack of forgiveness, embarrassment, loneliness, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s newest book of poems, When the Stars Were Still Visible, doesn’t shy away from naming and describing difficult emotions that can arise when dealing with challenging experiences. With honesty and vulnerability, Gillan’s poems dive into the messy heart of being a human, the hardship of navigating a world where you don’t necessarily feel welcome, and where it’s possible to hurt people you don’t even mean to as a result of reacting to them out of your own lack of understanding.

In her previous books, Gillan has written about the search for identity, the desire to belong, aging, poverty, and sorrow. Gillan returns to these themes in When the Stars Were Still Visible, exploring them from different angles. While reading the poems, I couldn’t help but think that if more of us could be as humble and vulnerable in telling our painful stories as Gillan is in this volume of poems, we might gain greater empathy for lives different from our own, and for challenges people confront and carry that we may not know about.

No stranger to a life with few amenities, several of Gillan’s poems relate hardships growing up in her family of origin. In “The Face We Presented to the World,” Gillan describes her cold-water flat of childhood, with its oilcloth table cover, and dishtowels made of flour sacks, heated by a coal stove. “Love Song to HO Cream Farina” tells of the time Gillan’s father had surgery for a tumor, leaving her parents with only $300 to last them through the year and resulting in the family’s meals repeatedly consisting of farina. “I suppose I should remember with bitterness / How poor we were…” writes Gillan in “Even After All These Years.” But bitterness holds no place at her family table. Though faced with continuing challenges, Gillan’s parents offered the children ongoing comfort. Her mother standing at the stove, Gillan remembers the spaghetti she put on the family’s plates a physical embodiment of her care. Gillan closes the poem by saying, 

Even today, when I am sad or lonely, 
a plate of spaghetti makes me feel 
my mother’s presence, soothing 
and beckoning me home.

Love is a powerful and sustaining force. A warm potato to hold, freshly baked bread’s aroma filling the house, a plate of spaghetti–these were physical assurances that in the midst of adversity, love remained; that the world was still good. Gillan’s poems bear witness to love’s persistence and power to reach across time as a continued nurturing and healing presence. 

Several poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible explore themes dealing with falling short of images we sometimes feel compelled to meet. In “I’ve Always Envied Women with Beautiful Hair,” Gillan contrasts the perfect haircuts upper-middle-class girls sported in pages of Seventeen magazine, with haircuts she received that made her want to keep her head down, shoulders hunched, and eyes lowered. A variety of poems depict the effort to be accepted and to fit in at school, and to be perceived as “good.” Teachers find Gillan shy, and friends forget to pick her up on the way to a party. As a young adult Gillan councils young men on how to apply for conscientious objector status while still hearing the voice of her upbringing suggesting it’s best to follow the rules. Vividly capturing each of these moments, Gillan takes readers into those tender places of the heart where we tap into our own raw spots of cognitive dissonance, the times we’ve felt lost, confused, and “fragile and as transparent / as a dragonfly’s wings.” 

In a world that can often be full of posturing and craving for power, Gillan’s writing present the opposite. The poems lay bear a very human heart with its weaknesses and strengths. In doing so, Gillan demonstrates it’s possible to be loved as we are, even because of our weaknesses. In “Claiming My True Name,” Gillan relates when she began affirming her Italian name and heritage, to identify with a culture that several decades before was denigrated in America. When embracing her name, Mazziotti, with its fabulous double “z” and double “t”, and choosing to treat it with tenderness, we feel her triumph.  

And I pronounce it for them,
waving it in the air like a banner,
proud of my Italian-self,
proud of all the things that marked me
as unique, as different, a foreign creature
who can at last claim my own true name.”

The proclamation is a peak moment, a celebratory event. We read the words and recognize it’s possible to claim those parts of ourselves that have been rejected, that never seemed good enough in other’s eyes. We notice as Gillan turns inside out the notion she’d absorbed from the ambient culture that her essence was somehow inherently inadequate and not lovable enough. We feel her exultation, as if she’d been let out of a prison and at last had the air she needed to become who she was all along.

Unraveling from shame and pain can take years. Cultural shifts may sometimes be necessary before it’s possible to move past the hurt and injury arising from the various ways we’ve learned shame, both visible and invisible, that labeled us as other. Often that sorrow remains hidden beneath the surface, as described in the poem, “Moll Flanders, Zia Louisa, and Me,” where Gillan’s aunt who loved to dance the Tarantella, could be heard through the apartment walls crying at night, though she emerged each morning smiling and laughing. We rarely know the fullness of each other’s stories or the weight people carry beneath the surface. The poem releases some of that pain by making what was hidden visible.

One of the poems in the collection that struck me as particularly powerful is “Ode to Something Once Lost.” The poem describes a time when a friend mocked Gillan in front of a group of women. Surprising herself, Gillan writes that she turned on the woman and

told her she was insulting and rude
to me and everyone else, that the others
were afraid of her and that I never wanted
to go anywhere with her again.

That must have been a difficult and likely uncomfortable moment. Interestingly, even though the young woman sent an apology letter asking to be friends, Gillan writes, 

My heart was a stone,
anger like a fire inside me. I called her. We talked.
I wish I could say I forgave her
but there was always a small corner of my heart
that remained closed to her.

Our friendship once shattered could not be repaired
and I’m ashamed to say
even fifty years later,
I still do not forgive her.

Some hurts cut deeply, leaving us unable to move beyond them. In naming her inability to forgive, we learn we, too, can take courage and look honestly at our limitations. People have histories that have shaped them and create limitations. Perhaps having been hurt many times, when a new situation arises bringing up the pain again, you reach a boundary you no longer want to cross. To do so would set yourself up for being hurt or mistreated again or might mean putting yourself in a position or situation you know is not right for you, and “Ode to Something Once Lost” affirms the value of personal boundaries.

The cover for When the Stars Were Still Visible is one of Maria’s drawings. Pinpricks of light and a luminous moon festoon a dark night above a city outline where a collage of people walk a street wearing bright clothes. The scene is from her childhood memory when stars were still visible above Paterson, New Jersey, the setting for many poems in the book. The cover is perfect for a book full of poems that shine.

David Mitchell, in Cloud Atlas, writes, “These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish.” Long ago Gillan’s mother bought her a pink Smith Corona portable typewriter with a pink case so she could become the writer she dreamed to be. I’m very grateful for Maria’s mother, the gift of that typewriter, and for the poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible– the light in them that touches and strengthens the life of those who read them.

 When the Stars Were Still Visible

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Between Nets of Light and Topographies of Grace

Janet Eichelman, Renwick 1.8

You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”
–Rumi

On a recent visit to the Renwick Gallery I wandered through the enormous room displaying Janet Echelman‘s Renwick 1.8 art piece. Gargantuan fabric nets draped across the vaulted ceiling and hung in giant latticed ladles drooping in transparent overlapping layers of vibrant, ever-changing colors. The description on the wall states, the art piece is Echelman’s way of examining the “complex interconnections between humankind and our physical world, and reveals the artist’s fascination with the measurement of time.” The piece was “inspired by the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami…The lines on the carpet trace the topographic patterns of the three dimensional form above.” Whether standing in the middle of the room or circling the room’s edges, I felt both grounded and suspended at the same time–alternately shifting between the earth’s surface and under the sea or, as the colors in the room changed, drifting over the earth and through waves of sunlight.

Topographic carpet pattern under changing colors of light

Echelman’s piece is meant to be a meditation on the “contrast between forces we understand and those we cannot, and the concerns of our daily existence within the larger cycle of time.” I felt I’d entered a magical door and was floating inside an enchanted room. The prodigious size of the work, both mammoth pendulous nets as well as the massive length of contoured lines reaching across the carpet, everything bathed in prismatic color, carried me into a place of awe where beauty’s presence suspended time and wrapped me in wonder. Indeed, I felt a power at work in the art piece that can be experienced but not fully described.

In our every day world, we move through time responding to needs and concerns, following rings of repeated activity and the topographical patterns outlining the shape of our culture and the ground we build our lives on. Moving between and within waves of sound, light and energy, we live and walk inside layers of physical wonder. As in Echelman’s dangling nets bathed in light, everything in the physical world steeps in a spectrum of moods, actions and reactions, our own, as well as that of the world around us. Eichelman’s piece allows viewers to observe and experience a relationship between physical form, light and energy. As the folds and shadows in the layers of nets suggest, there is a lot of subtleties and mystery in what we experience as well.

Like visual art, music and poetry can also take us to a place where through heightened sensory awareness time seems to suspend movement. Akin to Echelman’s art piece Renwick 1.8, Michael L. Newell’s poem, “Spiritual: Listening to Charlie Haden and Pat Methany” in response to Haden and Methany’s piece, “Beyond The Missouri Sky, – Spiritual,” (worth listening to while reading this post) carries readers into a space of deeply felt attentiveness. The first portion of Newell’s poem describes a journey on a “boundless sea,” and “a never ending progression of waves,” and lengthening night

…as we

bob up and down and up again
the only sounds the slap and splash
of water and our breathing hushed
though it may be seems sacrilegious
time loses all meaning we forget our names
to be certain our flesh still exists we touch
our faces our arms our legs

As Newell writes, carried away by the music, we touch ourselves and know we are fully physically present, but we are also in a world beyond physicality or words. As Newell goes on to write,

This journey is beyond comprehension
this is a world whose existence
does not lead to prayer it is prayer
the ending silence of the music
is the definition of awe and we sit silently
for a time and then dive again deep
into this world beyond words

Enveloped in the prayer of music, we enter into and become part of the prayer itself. Music can transport and transform us, bring us into a state of rebalance and peace, as does Newell’s poem.

The exchange and transformation of energy is integral to the creative process. Often in the natural world, something is destroyed or dies allowing something new to come into existence. Natural events often demonstrate this. The 2011 Tohuku quake created a tsunami whose effects were felt all the way across the Pacific and Echelman’s piece illustrates this interactive process in the waves of netting and waves of topographic curves on the carpet. As an art piece, we can see the exchange of energy in dramatic events with equanimity. Emerging from the experience of beauty great art immerses us in, however, we often step back into an unpredictable world and are faced with challenges. Imperfect beings as we are, we’re not always certain how to respond effectively or compassionately to great change and difficulties we encounter. We tumble, fall, make mistakes. Sometimes we harm others unknowingly, and sometimes because in our own incompleteness we can’t help it. When such challenging events occur, music, art, and poetry are there to remind us that while we carry out our daily activities, we also participate in a wider plain of existence, a larger field of grace that holds and enfolds us, even though we may sense a part of us dying or falling apart. As Arundhati Roy writes, “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget… another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
 

“Spiritual: Listening to Charlie Haden and Pat Methany” appears in Michael L. Newell’s newest book, Diddley-Bop-She-Bop, published by Bellowing Ark Press.

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Hidden in Plain Sight

Depending on the lens we look at the world it appears to be an entirely different place. Years ago, I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where the explorer Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan the features, people, culture, and history of cities in Khan’s expansive empire. In reality, however, though each city depicted is seemingly distinct, they are all actually different versions of Venice, the city where they live.

Any place on earth, not only Calvino’s Venice has multiple histories and innumerable layers to its identity. As peering through a microscope reveals, there are worlds reside within worlds. Believing we know a place and why things look or function as they do, we explain them to ourselves and to others, but many things nevertheless remain outside of our comprehension. Much of what makes up who we are remains hidden beneath our skin and inside our thoughts.,

The southern most active volcanic area in the Cascade Range, at Mt. Lassen National Park in northern California, visitors can get a glimpse of nature’s hidden hydrothermal world. From approximately three miles beneath the surface rises a deep huffing sound like an enormous, arhythmic drumming can be heard while climbing the hill approaching the fumarole at Bumpass Hell. According to the US Geological Survey, Lassen Peak was formed approximately 27,000 years ago after erupting for several years and rising to a height of 2,000 feet, becoming one of Earth’s largest lava domes. The dome went to sleep for 27,000 years then woke up on May 19, 1915, when it erupted destroying a three-square mile area, created mud flows, a new crater at the mountain’s summit, and an avalanche of volcanic material, only to erupt again a few days later, on May 22 the volcano exploded again, blowing down trees, houses, ejecting pumice, and spewing gas and hot ash 30,000 feet into the air.

I sat on the hillside beyond the edge of the white mineral deposits ringing the thermal vents, watching as the vent hurled chunks of rock some thirty feet into the air, spewing them out into every growing pile. Further down the road in the park, mud pots burble up from deep below, painting the earth in tones of ochre and, rust, mustard and gold. 

Not a geologist, I don’t know how to read the landscape’s history. Much of the land’s story was hidden to me. In the park, we can now walk on what was once buried beneath a volcanic cone covering. Though the earth’s crust feels solid when we travel across it, inside there are oceans of molten, liquid earth. So much is hidden from our everyday view. 

It’s not only the land that holds and hides its history. We are an embodiment of our history, as is everyone we meet.

I am no one,
I am
everyone I have known:
all those voices coming on the wind,

writes Michael L. Newell, in his poem “Self-Portrait” from his new book, Making My Peace. As the poem goes on to say, all we’ve experienced and all who we’ve encountered have helped to make who we are. As Newell goes on to describe,

from the past, the aching, haunting past,
the faces barely recognizable in browned
and curled photos found tucked in old books,
in crumpled letters scattered among old poems,

in boxed up bric a brac long forgotten;
who, I ask myself, am I, if not these forgotten ones
who whisper in my head every second of my life,
whose words have shaped thought, deed, laughter,

As Newell indicates, the moments, places and people that have influenced and shaped our lives may be hidden from direct sight, but they are present, similar to the hidden activity beneath the earth we see glimpses of while sitting in front of a fumarole. Newell concludes the poem stating,

We are the dreamed, the dreamer, the stranger who became more
and then vanished, the intimate who disappeared into the long night,
but left behind words, images, and the tilt of a head which remain
in memory’s ever expanding pouch where nothing is ever completely lost.

While Newell’s poem describes the legacy of other people’s lives on our own, Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Living Your Unlived Life, explores playful ways to bring to light unseen aspects of ourselves such as writing a note to the Eternal Youth that continues to live in us whatever our age, and to put it by our bed or computer. My thought is that the focused awareness of what brings us joy and the dreams that live inside of us reflected in the letter will more easily help to bring that dream forward into life. Johnson suggests asking what is keeping you from stepping out and exploring a new path or the next part of your journey, how fear might bind you to ways of living that no longer serve you. Quoting Gilbert Murphy, a Greek translator, Johnson says, “Live in the service of something higher and more enduring, so that when the tragic transience of life at last breaks in upon you, you can feel that the thing for which you have lived does not die.”

Johnson has a variety of other exercises such as writing in a journal once a week or more and using black ink to record thoughts and a different color of ink to represent feelings, and a third color of ink, such as blue, to represent when you are writing about physical sensations. Over time, this gives you an idea of how you process experience, suggests Johnson, and writing in the journal can help you notice repetitive patterns such as what happens repeatedly when you’re stressed, what you tell yourself when you wake up every morning, what you do with intuition, as well as internal messages that shape decisions and how you evaluate reality.

Rob Knight, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, on his TED talk says, “The three pounds of microbes that you carry around with you might be more important than every single gene you carry around in your genome.” A person’s gut bacteria can influence things such as anxiety, stress, and mental health, among other things, according to Medical News Today.

From the Peter Wolden’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and Susan Simard we learn how trees communicate and share nutrients with each other underground through fungal networks, information about the network of life that has only recently come to light.

Outside of Bogota, Colombia, María Luisa Hincapié and her family work to protect the biodiversity of orchids in their Forest of Orchids, and around the world young people you may have never have heard of are working in their communities to carry on the work are doing to support their communities during the pandemic.

Like bees among the flowers collecting pollen, in every location there are embodied stories and mysteries that add to the greater web of life that uplifts and sustains us. As Newell said in “Self Portrait,” “We are the dreamed, the dreamer, the stranger who became more…” Life adds to life. As Lassen’s volcano exemplifies, land shifts, gets removed and remade, and “nothing is ever completely lost.”

If you’re interested, Michael L. Newell’s book, Making My Peace, is available here.

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Inside Yosemite’s Granite Palm

Yosemite, CA

“To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words…the tangent to the curve of human experience lies beyond the limits of language. The world of things we perceive is but a veil. It’s flutter is music, its ornament science, but what it conceals is inscrutable. Its silence remains unbroken; no words can carry it away. Sometimes we wish the world could cry and tell us about that which made it pregnant with fear–filling grandeur. Sometimes we wish our own heart would speak of that which made it heavy with wonder.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel

Standing on Yosemite Valley’s floor with its immense granite walls rising on either side to 4,800 feet is to be immersed in wonder and to step out of one’s self into a place of awed silence, touched by an awareness of a reality far larger than the mind can absorb, a universe more immense than can be imagined, or at least than I am able to grasp.

Yosemite Valley is the physical expression of an astonishing story. Connected to the shifting tectonic continental and oceanic plates moving across each other, granite’s formation is a tremendously long process created twenty-five to thirty miles beneath the earth’s surface where over time, magma cools then slowly rises since it is lighter than the solid rock it is suspended over. Crystals of various minerals form and bond together as the magma lowers in temperature. Some of the world’s largest mountains, the Himalayas and the Andes, are the result of this type of geologic process. The formations in Yosemite Valley, however, are a combination of this process, as well as glacial activity. Ice carrying its load of gravel and rock pushed its abrasive way in and out of the the Valley, a recurring dance that went on for 30,000 years and then ended 11,700 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, scouring the Valley into a u-shaped formation. Surface rock eventually wearing away through erosion, the granite domes slowly revealed themselves. Other erosive actions of freezing and thawing carried on, causing sheaves of granite to peel away from the dome’s fissures, creating the sheer faces we see today.

El Capitan, Yosemite Valley

Yosemite is but a part of the three hundred mile long Sierra Nevada baolith, the merger of enormous magma chambers beneath the earth. Pondering the scale of time and the colossal complex processes involved in creating Yosemite Valley and its surrounding area causes one to stand in speechless amazement at life’s vast and intricate processes, of which our passing lives, in all our own incredible mysteriousness, are but a small grain. To place yourself in Yosemite Valley is to allow a ripple of awareness to pass through you, and to touch something of what it means to be human and the miracle of existence.

Maybe humanity is but an afterthought to project Earth and to the galaxy. Whatever the greater reason for humanity’s appearance in this universe, I’m grateful to be a witness to its astounding presence. When driving into the Yosemite Valley, a passenger in the car next to me gazing out the window in astonishment at the scene we were taking in, looked over at me, face aglow, eyes gleaming. Full of joy, our mouths agape, we greeted each other waving vigorously. Later, while bicycling around the valley floor, overwhelmed by the sight my eyes were taking in, I encountered a fellow wanderer walking the opposite way. “We’re alive!” I called out as we grew close. She turned and smiled. In places of such magnificence we sense our common humanity, the desire to express its beauty rising up like a spring overflowing with life’s fountain of incredulous abundance.

Yosemite Valley

The life of a flower is one measurement of time, a human life, another. But places like Yosemite’s granite mountains take us into a realm difficult to comprehend. Granite has a solidity to it. For me, granite brings back memories of boulders I climbed among with my sisters on the hills scattered with these stony outcroppings behind my childhood home. Whether sitting on a boulder staring out over the valley, or lying back and absorbing stored heat inside the rock while staring up at clouds or a circling hawk, granite held a sense of time embodied. Resting on granite, the world slowed down and drew me into its arms. Ursula La Guinn writes in her poem, “Hymn to Time,” Time makes room / for going and coming home / and in time’s womb / begins all ending. Granite rises from both sides of the Yosemite’s Valley floor, creating the sense of being held inside a womb or the curved palm of some great hand where time is fluid, and nothing ever dies but is simply a part of a long spiral of making and remaking.

We need these moments where the immensity of all that is flashes into our consciousness and we see ourselves inhabiting a different realm, one much greater and more expansive than the routines of life or the understandings we walk around in. And we are altered, our sense of reality enlarged. Something in us is moved, a previously unheard music rising inside, whispering a kind of wordless understanding about what it means to be human and alive. I think of these words from Jan Zwicky’s poem, “The Art of Fugue, Part VI,”

Once again, the moment of impossible
transition, the bow, its silent voice
above the string. Let us say
the story goes like this. Let us say
you could start anywhere.
Let us say you took your splintered being
by the hand, and led it
to the centre of a room: starlight
through the floorboards of the soul.
The patterns of your life
repeat themselves until you listen.
Forgive this. Say now
what you have to say.

It is from this place of silent awareness where the music of who we are emerges–some place beyond goals and accomplishments, something to do with the difficult attending to what it means to be, to be present, and for our lives to say what they have to say.

Half Dome, Yosemite
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Journeying Toward Our Ithakas

Galaxidi

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

from “Ithaka by C. P. CAVAFY

As Cavafy’s poem suggests, life is a voyage. As we leave our Ithakas and places of origin to journey into the world to enter into other ways of being and interacting with people different from ourselves, we can begin to see that our own way of being isn’t the only way to conceive of or structure the world. Other people and cultures have some very good ways of living and interacting as well. Variety and differences are attractive, and this is one of the reasons people travel. In his opinion article in the NYTimes, Adam B. Ellik writes, “…traveling offers lessons on other ways of life, and in that way challenges the norms and assumptions that govern one’s own life.” Our brains light up when experiencing something new. Have a change of scenery for an afternoon or take a holiday to an entirely different location, and return home feeling renewed, able to face the same challenge with new insight.

Olympus, Greece

We come into being slowly, changing, perhaps, while we’re not fully aware of it. Cavafy states, “hope your road is a long one.” Every year millions travel to places to view ruins of formerly thriving civilizations. The story of where we’ve been, where we want to go, and where those before us have been is important, as stories are one of the central ways we make meaning and develop understanding. In the poem’s middle portion, Cavafy mentions the many wonderful things that can happen on our journey. We may “enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time; / ..stop at Phoenician trading stations…/ visit many Egyptian cities / to learn and go on learning from their scholars.” There are many benefits to venturing out from our place of origin to explore new places and worlds, and a wealth of sensory as well as intellectual experiences to savor as we travel through time. Both are valuable.

People love newness and variety, but they also love stability and routine. As the poem suggests, as we travel out, it’s good to “Keep Ithaka always in your mind.” Where we start out from and what we leave behind is as important as the new places we arrive at. Ithaka is the home Odysseus set out from on his journey. It took him twenty years to make it back home. Home is a place of wholeness, of unity. Born into a particular culture in a specific moment in history in a particular family and a specific body, like the fragments of ancient cultures, what we know of other ways of life is limited. We understand the world through identifying ourselves with what we are and are not. We may not comprehend the way of those in other cultural structures or economic levels, those with different emotional or personality make-ups from our own. We likely would find it difficult to grasp what life is like for a tuna in the Pacific, a zebra on the Serengeti, a monarch butterfly migrating to Mexico, or a bristlecone pine tree clinging to a hillside for four thousand years. But all these lives touch and influence the quality of our own; each fragment and element creating a part of the larger whole that shapes who we are.

Ancient Athens Acropolis

Eventually as we move through life, an awakening moment arrives when we realize the direction we’ve been traveling on is taking us down a curve and know our life will change. Or we recognize we must change to meet the direction our lives are taking us and see we can no longer go on the way we have been. Navigating this trajectory can take a lot of emotional, if not physical, energy. Like Odysseus, what we set out to do on our journey is finished, it’s time to come home to Ithaka. “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey,” Cavafy writes, “Without her you wouldn’t have set out.” Though we leave our place of origin, home is what our spirits long for–a place where become whole.

When my parents moved from the home they’d lived in for decades to live in a small dwelling next to my sister’s house in a different city, I recall my father telling me, “This is our home now. We’ll never have to move again.” But that wasn’t true. They did move again. Like them, there are many moves we need to make in a lifetime. I lived in the desert once but now my home is in a forest. I taught school once. Once I could ski, could run. “Once I had a garden,” we might say, “once a child. Once a country…” so many once upon a time stories. These aren’t stories found only in books. Over and over again, we move, and in the moving we leave things behind. Left are the remnants of what we once knew, souvenirs of what we had or pieces of what we were. In the poem’s last lines, Cavafy provides a kind of response to what it means to return home,

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

After years of effort and work, journeying a long time through many experiences, iterations or alterations, we come to a place of internal recognition that we want to come home again. And this isn’t necessarily to go back to a place of physical origin such as a homeland, but to come home to ourselves internally. What’s especially remarkable, though, is that once we arrive home, Cavafy tells us, “She has nothing left to give you now.” Where home is, and perhaps what it is, is no longer the same as when we left. We sense a kind of poverty, an absence or emptiness, and might question what it is we’ve actually done with our lives, what it is we’ve given. We reflect on the larger meaning of our actions. How do things fit together into a larger whole, we wonder? What is this whole big thing called being alive?

We all leave home, have to leave our Edens and Ithakas to venture out beyond the walls of comfort we were born inside, and to enter into a world where we struggle to distinguish one thing from another so we can learn who we are and what we are here to do. Where we left from to become ourselves is an important part of what makes us and enables us to discover who we are. In this poem, Cavafy wants us to understand the journey is where the wonders and treasures of being alive are. The journey is the meaning, and we are always on a journey. Interestingly, the poem’s last line uses the word “Ithakas,” implying there are several homes. And yes, by the time we reach the end of our journey there have been many homes, not just one. Each of us have different Ithakas, different homes, but perhaps it’s also true that just as we hold many selves within us, we have many homes within us as well–many places we set out from and come back to in order to create our inner place of belonging. In the place of emptiness, or in the process of emptying that coming home brings after long travel, a space can be created in which the aspects of the journey can take on greater clarity and meaning.

Mystras

When I woke this morning I watched light from an upper window travel across the room’s angled ceiling, a shadow from the window sill seemingly pushing the light deftly from one side of the room to the other, the light moving with the earth’s movement. Though the earth moves around the sun at a speed of 37 kilometers (22.99 miles) per second, my body told me I was lying still. Multiple realities simultaneously coexist, and though they seem contrary to one another, both can true. Integrating the various experiences, realities and aspects of our lives is an ongoing journey, and that journey can be taken, and perhaps is best taken, in a place of stillness.

At Delphi’s ruins in Greece stands an ancient olive tree, a symbol of life, reconciliation, longevity and peace. It has been rooted in that earth, and reaching into the sun and sky, drawing sustenance for what appears to be millennia. Yet it has found a way to continue on, giving beauty and life though the world around it that was once so sturdy and sure of itself fell apart. Maybe we can learn from the olive tree.

Ancient Olive at Delphi
Uncategorized

What Blooms in Spring

Crocus

Several years back when living in London, we went on a February holiday. When we returned a week later, we opened the door on the stone wall to find a yard filled with blossoms. What we previously thought was a scraggly, scrappy bit of lawn was actually a field of saffron crocus that hadn’t yet bloomed. What an astonishing sight! It felt truly magical, as if we had been visited by fairies. How wonderful to learn how wrong we’d been about the judgment we made of that lawn. Something much more extravagantly delightful was given us instead in spite of our misconception.

crocus filled lawn

The crocus were followed by a parade of other flowers. In Regents Park aged cherry trees ballooned sprays of white flowers, and along our urban neighborhood streets cherry trees lifted tender pink cheeks, street lamps illuminating sprays of flowers as if trying to enter a painting. Except for a few months of the year, flowers seemed to be everywhere in London, sending out their gentle greetings to whoever passed by. Flowers are such inclusive, generous folk, who seem to think everyone needs a bit of beauty in their lives, and they give it freely.

London’s cherry blossoms turned into daffodils crowding walkways in Regents Park along paths, and clearings. Blossoms are the dreams of trees and plants, the result of winter’s cold work, the absence of sun, the ongoing unseen, quiet effort of renewal. Whether by the sweat of the brow, the effort of the brain or the liquid pressure inside cells at the base of waiting blossoms, everything that blooms does so with effort. Li-Young Lee, in his poem, “From Blossoms”, describes peaches he eats as a child, fruit picked from bended bows, and ladened with dust. Eating the peach he savors the flavor, the orchard it came from, and the shade he sat in as he eats the fruit.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into   
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Flowers lift our hearts and delight our spirits. Spring after spring, the blossoms return. Like plants that need certain nutrients to bloom, humans. too, need nurturing for their lives to flower. There is not just one spring in a life, though, not just one season to bloom. On our property here in California we have a peach tree. The tree is ailing and we’re not sure how to help it. Bent and lichen covered with barely a trunk to stand on, every year we think it’s bound to die. But every year it blossoms. Every year the sweetest buds break forth.

I have a pair of slippers with blossoms on the soles. When I walk in them, I think of how they leave an invisible imprint of flowers where my feet move across the floor–blossoms with every footprint. I wish to live in the way that Thich Nhat Hahn states when he writes, “The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.”

In a world waiting for spring, longing for renewal and beauty to rise, walking across the world with the intention of leaving behind a trail of blossoms for those along the way is something worth living for, something worth doing. The Navajo prayer says it well,

Through the returning seasons, may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With dew about my feet, may I walk.
With beauty before me may I walk.
With beauty behind me may I walk.
With beauty below me may I walk.
With beauty above me may I walk.
With beauty all around me may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
My words will be beautiful…

May our presence and our words be a door for others opening into a garden filled with the gentleness of flowers.

poetry, Presence, Uncategorized

Entering a Country of Silence

There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen. ~ Rumi

Looking out my window this morning, I realize that while the weather here on California’s coast is amenable, a stiffening cold has settled in across a great portion of the nation. Hundreds of thousands are without power in the US, and more snow is on its way in the next few days. Winter is still very much with us, and for many people in many ways it seems winter has been going on for a long time.

A season for slowing down or even stopping, winter, while it may sometimes be bleak and difficult, can also be a space for going inward–for listening to the silence and for noticing what touches the heart and waits there to be noticed. The natural world is imbued with silence–snow’s heavy quilt in winter, a desert’s dunes, the forest world, vegetables growing in a garden with clouds floating through, rocks strewn along a pathway–the very earth itself. Everything that exists rises out of a space of silence. “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything…silence, like the art of sculpture, is the removal of excess material so that the true form — of one’s consciousness, of the world, of life itself — can be revealed,” states Gordon Hampton whose work has been to record the earth’s most silent spaces. Maybe this very absence of continuous movement, our being stopped in our tracks, so to speak, is calling us to a place of deeper presence, the stillness itself an opportunity for greater awareness.

We’re living in a period of reduced movement as a result of the pandemic. Fewer of us fly across the world and many of may be driving less often as well. While working at home, it may be that I don’t speak aloud for hours as I read, write or do chores. Outside the window birds flutter at the feeder. At night the tongues of stars speak with a silent, silvered light. All can seem quiet on the surface, nevertheless, I notice that it’s not necessarily true that lack of speech means I’ve entered through a door of silence. My mind likes to jump restlessly from thought to thought as if on a pogo stick. Sometimes I have to go for a walk just to grow quiet. To be fully quiet, to hold one’s entire mind, heart, and body open as if it were a listening ear is challenging. Pablo Neruda in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” writes,

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.

During winter things beneath layers of cold or snow can seem dead, but much is going on inside the earth. Inner life is connected to external life. Making plans and setting goals, these are valuable activities but as Neruda suggests, the earth can be our teacher. Ongoing and endless production and activity isn’t necessarily life-giving in the end. Eventually, resources run out. What rests beneath the surface of all our action rises to our awareness because we have finally stopped moving enough to notice it. Silence is integral to growth and shifts of consciousness and understanding. When the huge silence arises, Neruda suggests, we can turn to the earth to teach us how to move out of ourselves into a place of greater connection to life. Like the seasons rotating through the year, we too can create seasons of quiet, letting the leaves from branches of activity drop long enough to allow a quietness to enter and renewal to occur.

Sitting on my front porch in the morning, I hold my cup of tea and quietly observe the day for twenty minutes. This morning while sitting in the coolness, I noticed small buds beginning to appear on the buckeye tree, the rich, the illuminated green of chard and pineapple sage poking up from the garden beds, the nuthatches, chickadees and California scrub jays fluttering at the bird feeder, a gray squirrel scrambling up the pine trunk, thin clouds scudding through overhead. With this gentle entrance to the day, I’m reminded of my connection to a world wider than my concerns or the list of things I might want to accomplish.

The natural world is nonjudgemental, and as a result, nourishing. It can carry us into the place of embodied silence. Larry Ward, in his book, America’s Racial Karma, describes actions that reground the body and “reset the nervous system.” Some of these are looking around the space wherever you are and paying specific attention to what you observe, giving attention to the sounds around you, naming colors you see, and noticing your skin temperature. Ward also suggests purposefully greeting the day by going to a chosen spot out of doors where you feel the earth beneath your feet and the sun on your skin, then doing a slow 360-degree turn, noticing what you feel while listening quietly to the sounds in the world around you. Silence creates a pause in action, a gap inside which we can reground ourselves and grow more aware. These practices can help the mind and body calm and come more readily into stillness so we can enjoy the silence.

Daniel J. O’Leary in Year of the Heart writes, “To learn how to wait, how to be silent, how to befriend the dark…Thus do we prepare to be creative. There is a waiting, a silence and a darkness in all birthing. Heart’s winter is already a filling womb.” Out of silence and stillness a different kind of conversation with life has the possibility of emerging. While waiting for spring to arrive, we can hold a space each day for silence, observing the world with open eyes, listening to the world around us with the ears of our hearts. Entering into a place of silence we can slowly discover a new way of being in the world.

poetry, Presence, spirtuality, Uncategorized, Wonder

Day Dreaming With Clouds

Have you noticed the clouds lately–their capability for wideness, their sweeping, rippled texture, their billowed softness, the world of wideness they can bring you to? As a child, I remember lying back on chairs outside our house and gazing up into the sky, naming the shapes of clouds as they drifted by. A dog or dragon, boat or mermaid, a lot of time could be spent looking at clouds’ evolving shapes, their appearance, transformation, then disappearance into the beyond.

Clouds are sometimes spoken of negatively–clouded thoughts, a cloud hanging over someone, clouds on the horizon–but clouds can also lift us, carry us to a places we long to go in our imagination–someplace light and gentle, a place of expansiveness or wonder.

Danna Faulds, in her poem, “Walk Slowly,” writes,

It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, make space for imperfection

Cloud gazing can do this for us–bring us into a place of open quietness where, absorbed in our observation, the sense of time passing dissolves into a state of oneness with what we’re observing. Returning to California after living in New Delhi, India for nine years where seeing clouds in a blue sky was uncommon, clouds in a blue sky catch my heart, stop me still. Now because people need to stay at home more often and because many face difficulties regarding illness, additional stresses at work or loss of work because we are in the midst of a pandemic, it’s good to remember we can look up to receive the soft presence of clouds. As Faulds later goes on to say in her poem,

I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

If you’ve ever been stuck while trying to solve a problem, then stepped away from it to take a walk or simply changed locations by moving into the backyard, out onto a balcony, or into the street, and stared up into the sky, you might have experienced how this shift where you let your mind wander allows for a new idea to emerge. ‘“When one gets stuck on a challenging problem, rather than forcing the mind to work it out consciously, it is valuable to allow for daydreams to occur,”’ says Markus Baer,  Olin Business School’s professor of organizational behavior speaking to Inverse magazine. Day dreaming assists creative thinking. What we instinctively knew and enjoyed as children when staring up into the clouds opens our mind to different pathways. Restful awareness is good for us.

Sometimes appearing like apple blossoms in an orchard, sometimes the billowy expression of mountainous joy, in their wide variety of forms of cumulous to cirrus, contrails to lenticular, clouds can evoke in us an enormous range of emotional responses. Gazing at them we sense their weight, their ease. Mesmerized by their capricious, shifting forms, clouds have the ability to take us beyond worries and routines, pull us out of ourselves and the activity in our mind to slip into a space where we’re not thinking about the passage of time or anything else. We’re simply present.

At a time when many are wishing to travel, to step out into a new adventure beyond familiar walls, simply by looking up, clouds can take us on a journey allowing us to look at the world with new eyes. As Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder, Cloud Appreciation Society says, “Nothing is more nourishing, more stimulating to an active, inquiring mind than to being surprised, being amazed…You don’t need to rush off, away from the familiar, across the world to be surprised. You just need to step outside.” What a beautiful spaciousness to return to.

Once while visiting Crete during the spring, I sat for a long time at the mouth of the Samaras Gorge mesmerized by clouds appearing, changing form and dissolving into the blue every few moments, their presence completely ephemeral. We, too, are part of that floating world, forming, expanding, dissolving, always being made and remade.

Appearing, disappearing. Illuminating, hiding and revealing, there is a mystery in clouds. First we see and then we don’t see the trees and mountains they touch. Clouds are an embodied metaphor of the myriad things we have mere glimpses of understanding. There’s so much we don’t know or understand about what it means to be alive. As D.H. Lawrence writes in his poem, “Terra Incognita,”

There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.

when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight

Staring at clouds can draw us into an awareness that there are immeasurable realms of life outside of our experience. We are part of a vast intersection and abundance of universes. We swim in creation’s wonder, like water it moves in and through us. The two are intertwined.

TERRA INCOGNITA
D.H. Lawrence

There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices
there is a marvelous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty
and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life
and me, and you, and other men and women
and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight
and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft
softer than the space between the stars,
and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
alternately palpitant,
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
of purple after so much putting forth
and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.

Uncategorized

Wearing Away Into Newness

The self you leave behind
is only a skin you have outgrown.
Don’t grieve for it.
Look to the wet, raw, unfinished
self, the one you are becoming.

–Pat Schneider, from “Instructions for the Journey”

Some changes are volcanic explosions creating enormous, sudden upheaval. Other changes floods our lives, rising slowly, then carrying us away in a torrent of heavy water. Some changes, however, happen slowly–an erosion that alters through perseverance, grain by grain changing the fabric of what we are to reveal what lies beneath.

Taking a break from the task of deleting folders and papers to create more space, I took a short drive north to explore a new location north of Santa Cruz. Walking the path along the edge of the cliff overlooking the coast, I came upon an area water had eroded into honeycombed textures, lines and shapes creating a fabulous miniature landscape.

Every few steps revealed new perspectives as shadow and light played inside crevices and cracks. Rippling across the sandstone’s face, it was clear everything I stood on had participated in an enormous process of ongoing revision–a perpetual becoming. Through eons of time, water and wind had rushed and rubbed against the shore, slowly changing it, a reminder that though we may not be consciously aware of it, the world and universe Earth is a part of are also constantly changing, revising, wearing away and being made new.

“Come into being as you pass away,” states the Gospel of Thomas, saying 42, and this is the experience of life. Like the earth we stand on, our bodies and our minds are in constant change. Every single grain of days can seem so precious. As a result, it can be very difficult to let the rub and rush of time change and reshape what we once were–what felt so stable and sure–to let that life flow out into an ocean of experience and be carried away into the vastness of eternity.

Like Earth’s ongoing process of revision, we, too, never arrive. Michelangelo for all his stunning achievement and accomplishment, at age 88 speaking his last words as he transitioned into his death stated, “I’m still learning.” We’re never finished with the effort of our own life, the imagination and dreams that carry us to another plain or into a wider circle of being. As everything is in continuous movement, we can recognize we are part of a great cosmic dance the universe’s music is listening to.

Nature’s rhythms are immensely complex. Age and time working in accordance with their own internal rules, combined with the interactions of all that exists within and beyond our spheres, who can say exactly where life might take any of us? A practice of cultivating an attitude of letting go some of what once held us can be beneficial, allowing the possibility of creating something else in our lives equally as beautiful or meaningful.

The journey between birth and death is meant to expand us. If we don’t voluntarily revise our lives at certain points, time will eventually require us to do so. As we age, we accumulate losses, and loss can be deeply disheartening and painful. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, in her poem, “I Celebrate My Body,” describes the difficulty of living with the body’s erosion time carries us into,

that body that suddenly couldn’t move, 
the hand that couldn’t hold a pen or open a cap,
that body that couldn’t turn over in the bed.
Each new thing I can do—
close my hand around the pill bottle,
hold a book,
write my name—
I celebrate.
I even celebrate my faltering step,
my one leg dragging. 
These and other movements we take for granted 
until we can no longer do them 
and only then, do we learn gratitude 

Loss, as Gillian wisely understands, can also deepen our awareness of life’s gifts. When it becomes nearly impossible for the body to do what you wish, as Gillan points out, each small gesture the body allows, can also increase awareness and gratitude for the body, in spite of its limitations. Though difficult and painful to live with, loss of the body’s previous abilities can also cultivate greater depth of spirit.

Life is a pilgrimage, a journey toward understanding and awareness, every day a kind of birth and a death, an ongoing transformation like grains of sand streaming their way through eternity’s great ocean. Pilgrims want to arrive at their destination, explains Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, in her piece titled “Arriving With Every Step” on Emergence Magazine, but the journey itself is what is of central importance. When setting out, “…allow point A and point B to give way to possibility, to mystery. You are meant to allow the journey to do its work on you,” she writes. When pilgrims begin a journey, they set out with an intention. Every moment is an arrival and a departure, and our intentions and observations during the journey help shape reality of the experience. Physicist and chaos theorist Robert Lanza in his article “How Do We Collectively Determine Reality and the Structure of Space Time Itself,” writes, “…a single conscious observer can completely define this structure, leading to a collapse of the waves of probability, largely localized in the vicinity of the cognitive model which the observer builds in her mind throughout her lifespan.

All of this supports a profound shift in our everyday worldview―a change from the long-held belief that the physical world is a pre-formed entity that just exists “out there” to one in which it belongs to the observer. As we and other scientists continue to explore this new line of research, it is becoming increasingly clear how intimately we are connected with the structure of the universe on every level.”

We are connected to the physical world, are influenced and shaped by it and can learn by observing it. The world is full of wonder, but wonder is also made of more than light glistening off the ocean’s surface at sunset. Earth is wild. Falling rock, earthquakes and tsunamis are all an integral part of what forms the world and shapes its wonders. The slow wearing away of earth can be treacherous, leading to a calamitous fall.

Similarly, trauma humans suffer can affect one’s future. Andrew Curry reports in Science magazine, that a biologist at Washington State University in Pullman, Michael Skinner’s recent studies hypothesize that trauma people experience affects the behavior of our cells and can be passed on in ways that affect parents’ offspring.

Pain, sorrow and death are inevitable, yet it is our vulnerability with others that allows us to enter into deep relationship, and to nurture life that regenerates. What we think or observe and the trauma we experience affects not only our lives, but the generations coming after us as well. Enduring through unending erosion is not guaranteed to be pleasant. To prepare ourselves ahead of life’s erosion, we can gather resources: favorite films, poems, photos, art, pieces of literature, and nurture relationships that hold us up and give us hope. We can learn skills of gardening, drawing, dance, or music. We can create and practice rituals we use to sustain us and feed our spirits. Our daily walks can become pilgrimages we set out on with specific intentions, perhaps leaving behind a gift or token, or perhaps we will choose to participate in longer pilgrimages. Always, we can practice gratitude.

It’s easy to miss the instructions for how to carry on through life’s many changes, Schneider says later in her poem, “Instructions for the Journey.” We have to listen and look with careful intention in order to fully notice what’s happening and what it means for us. “And if all that fails,” she writes,

wash your own dishes.
Rinse them.
Stand in your kitchen at your sink.
Let cold water run between your fingers.
Feel it.

In other words, carry on your daily work, be present to the physical experience of the world around you. Live each moment aware that you are living.

Each of us are eroding into something new. But we are also participants in creating our lives. What we observe and attend to gains solidity, and expands.

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)