Rain has fallen relentlessly the past few months in Santa Cruz County, but today a break occurred allowing the sun to come out, and I emerged into my backyard’s delicious light. Looking up at the billowing clouds, I rested in the afternoon’s quietness, reveled in the creek’s soft rumpling as it moved through the redwoods down the road. Ill with a cold, I had no plans but to take in the day. “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel. “God is not in things of space, but in moments of time.” Time is a temple, an experience to savor and relish. Today I felt enfolded in this truth.
On a recent trip to Hawaii, my husband and I connected with friends–walking, sitting, absorbing life. We arrived without any set plans. We simply wanted to be present with our friends and the world they inhabit. While there, we ventured out into the landscape, absorbing its fabulous diversity. Hawaii is a world different from where I live, and the difference is a delight.
Traditional Hawaiian society had defined roles for men and women. In traditional Hawaiian society, men cooked and farmed while women made art. Women and men ate in different locations, and inheritance was through matriarchal lines. Additionally, Hawaiians held an awareness of the mahu, those who identified themselves with both genders–someone in the middle.
In Hawaiian traditional culture, the idea of family goes back several generations. The physical family was part of the spiritual, timeless family. As depicted in the photo of the stone shrine above, Hawaiians honored family ancestors.
Traditional ways of thinking have eroded since the arrival of Westerners to the island, however. Because Hawaiians have highly adapted to Western culture and its way of thinking, restoring traditional ways is highly problematic. Nevertheless, learning something of Hawaiian’s traditional ways of organizing society helps me to view my own culture newly, to consider anew my relationship with family and friends, and to enter into an awareness of our spiritual connection.
Though I know little about my ancestors or their history, like members of traditional Hawaiian culture, I’m attracted to the idea of timeless connection beyond our physical bodies to the lives of those who came before us.
To understand a culture not your own takes attentive, receptive study over time. Though people may not be able to restore what was lost in the multitude of cultures that make up the world we now live in, we can listen attentively to voices other than our own and find ways we might move toward greater restitution with those around us. We don’t have to agree with everyone to value them, to give them love. We may not have answers or solutions for the hurt people and cultures have endured. Nevertheless, we can build bridges of beauty that can unite us in larger fields of compassion so we can enter into a place of being together.
One way I’ve begun this effort is by planting in my garden favorite flowers for family members and friends–iris, poppies, sunflowers, dahlias and more.Though there are differences of values and perspectives with family members, looking out at the flowers growing and blossoming in the garden, I can notice life unfolding in its various forms, connecting the flower to the person who chose it–a living reminder of the many and varied lives linked to mine.
“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” says Maya Angelou, “… our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” Flowers touch the tender place in all of us where we are “shy as magnolias,” as Angelou describes. In the garden we can be alive together, planted in earth, recognizing our short lives and vulnerability as we take in the sun and rain. Without measuring one flower against the other, we can be together. Sometimes simply inhabiting time with one another, opening ourselves to its color can be enough.
“We do not need to go to the edges of the earth to learn who we are, only the edges of our self.” – L.M. Browning, in Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations
Some journeys are external others internal. Pilgrimages are travels we make to places that we feel hold spiritual significance—that will speak to our inner selves and transform us. We might travel to a place where grandparents were born, to a significant site connected to our history or a religion we practice. Pilgrimages connected to poetry attract me. The year I lived in the UK, I wanted to follow the Stanza Stones poetry trail. Located in the Yorkshire moors of England, this 47 mile trail contains six Stanza Stones, poems written by Simon Armitage and carved into stones naturally found in there by Pip Hall. Armitage collaborated with the Ilkley Literature Festival organizers to create the poems for the trail. To walk a landscape is to absorb the land’s language. Arimtage’s poems connect walkers to the landscape with words as they encounter the poems as in these lines from his poem, “Snow,” “What can it mean that colourless water can dream such depth of white?” Though I wanted to walk at least part of this trail, I wasn’t able to find a good way to connect to it without better transport the weekend I had free to visit the area, so let go of the idea of this pilgrimage.
Walking Basho’s poetry trail is another pilgrimage I dream of going on. Following this pilgrimage path, walkers can hike the 17th century trail where the great haiku poet, Basho, traversed through northern Japan’s mountains to the Sea of Japan, passing by Shinto shrines, through pine covered islands, and hot springs along the way. I don’t know if I will be able to get to Japan any time soon to make the journey that inspired many of Basho’s poems. I look at photos of it on the Internet, though, imagining the quiet joy of walking for days beneath bamboo forests and among ancient trees.
Poetry Walk, Ravenna, Italy
Poetry post on poetry walk, Ravenna, Italy
We’re not always able to make the trek of our dream or travel to another land. Nevertheless, there are pilgrimages available to us all: quests through books, and our journey through time. A favorite journey I’ve been on since 2012 is one of the imagination. This sojourn began when I wanted to collaborate with a colleague I worked with who played the cello beautifully, and who was going to move away at the end of the year. I suggested a collaboration where I would write a poem for a piece of music he chose to play, and we would record the pieces together. The music he selected was Fauré’s, Après un rêve, (Op. 7, No. 1). The piece evoked a sense of loss and longing, transporting me to Naples Bay’s enormous circumference where I’d recently sat with my husband at sunset. As the sky burning gold-orange, we watched a boat pull from shore, heading toward the wide horizon. I thought of his grandparents departing Italy for America—how they left behind the world they knew as well as everything and everyone in their village of San Lucido on Calabria’s coast. They had no pictures of the world they moved to, didn’t speak the language, had little money and likely no maps. They never returned to Italy. Leaving was risky, enormously brave, and they would never be the same. Neither am I, as without their departure, I would’ve never met the man I married.
After writing the first poem, “Luisa Leaves Home,” in response to the music, I wondered many things: Why did they leave Italy? What was life like in San Francisco when they arrived? How well did different ethnic groups get along? What are Italian-Americans contributions to American culture? How did World War II change Italian-Americans? What does it mean to be Italian-American today? What does it mean to be American? Hundreds of questions surfaced, and I searched for answers. Paradoxically, the more I researched and wrote with the aim of unraveling threads from a century ago, the more mysterious and complex the world grew. The more questions I had.
I began listening to news items and other people’s stories with a second ear. I applied situations and information to the immigrants’ lives I was writing about, and reflected on how my experiences connected to their world. After sharing one of the poems with a relative, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That poem isn’t Noni. I don’t know who you think you’re writing about, but it isn’t my grandmother.” She was right. I never met her grandmother or lived in San Francisco. I didn’t grow up in an Italian American family or neighborhood. Neither do I speak Italian. Any of these qualifications would be beneficial in helping me write about Italian immigrants to America. The Italian grandparents were from a different time period and culture, and had little education. I had no way to access their lives or inner worlds and the family knew few facts. I couldn’t truly write in their authentic voices. Every writer has limitations of gender, culture, and time period, however. I felt drawn to understand and to journey inside Italian immigrants’ world, so I turned to research and imagination, constructing possibilities to embody a story. Research helped me to put the few facts I knew into a larger picture with a wider frame. Imagination created a bridge to a culture, time period, and people that gave me greater awareness of the complexities inside choices immigrants made.
We look in the mirror when we are at six, sixteen, or sixty. All that came in the years before is mostly hidden from view, disappeared, but still present beneath the surface, creating the life we see and experience. There are myriad stories inside one story. We’re many selves inside one body. It’s the same with cities. Years back I read Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan various cities, all of which are actually Venice. I began to see San Francisco in this way as well as I wrote—its subtle elements still present revealing the past or rising from a foundation into a remodeled version. When visiting the City, I recognized places I’d never been because I’d seen them in historical photographs and could recall events that took place there. It isn’t just San Francisco I see differently now as a result of searching for answers to my questions. The world I live in is larger and has greater dimension because of questions I’ve explored answers to. The walk into an unfamiliar world has been a pilgrimage that widened my perspective and has transformed me.
To step out on a journey into new territory can be unsettling for travelers. Today, people don’t think of Italians as the “other.” During the peak period of Italians immigration to America, however, Italians experienced prejudice. They were seen as lawless, treacherous, and having filthy habits. (See more at this CNN article, “When Italian immigrants were the other.”) Italians weren’t allowed to build a church inside Manhattan because city officials were fearful of Catholicism and the ceremonies they didn’t understand. The largest single lynching in America was of Italians in Louisiana 1891. Teddy Roosevelt, though not yet president, said of the lynching it was “a rather good thing.” The man who helped organize that lynching, John Parker, later became Louisiana’s governor in 1911.
Currently, similar to the time period one hundred years ago in America when Italian immigration to the US was at its peak, Americans’ fear of immigrants is heightened. Openness to new experiences, information and ways of seeing can enrich and expand our lives, and bridges that allow us to build deeper understanding of what is different can be helpful. Mahzarin Banaji co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People and Professor of Social Ethics in the department of psychology at Harvard explains in her interview with Krista Tippett that our minds are basically wired to distinguish differences in order to help us make sense of our world. This wiring creates biases and blind spots we’re not aware of. Tests created by researchers to help you see your biases at Project Implicit. People can, however, gain understanding of biases and blind spots by exposing themselves to ideas and people that stretch their boundaries of familiarity. Challenges to people’s preconceptions presented in contexts allowing them to continue to feel safe can help people grow in their understanding of others different from themselves.
One terrific way to do this is through reading, as reading allows us to learn from others without having to take personal risks as we step into their lives. Scientific American’s October 23, 2013 issue reports social researcher, Emanuele Castano and PHD candidate’s research evidence showing how literary fiction, delves into characters’ thoughts and interactions. In literary fiction, explains Kidd, “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations.” As a result, readers have to imagine characters’ inner thoughts. This kind of thinking nurtures empathy as it leads readers to understand the complexity in characters’ lives and to reach for why they might do things differently than expected.
If reading literary fiction helps break down stereotypes and prejudices, enabling readers to develop empathy with those different from themselves, it follows that writing fiction could further expand this capability as authors not only step inside character’s minds, they create their thoughts and build contexts from which they flow. As a writer, you immerse yourself in your characters’ lives, become familiar with their setting, social context and way of seeing so that you can portray their world. You reveal your characters’ weaknesses and blind spots, and come to understand your own as well.
While most people aren’t fiction writers, we’re all creators of our own life stories. We can consciously aim to expand our understanding of new contexts and situations. Simple things like taking a new route home, listening to or playing a different type of music, going to a lecture on an unfamiliar topic, trying a new sport, hobby or food can all help us expand. We can learn a few phrases in a new language, take a class in a unfamiliar subject, learn about plants in our yard or types of architecture in the neighborhood, experiment with art or try building something. When meeting new people, we can ask questions to bring out their experiences or ways of seeing things. These actions may not seem like large leaps for some, nevertheless they can open new paths in our brains to carry us on journeys widening into new vistas of understanding.
Some journeys start before you know they’ve started. I’d written quite a few poems about Italian immigrants experiencing earthquakes, crossing the Atlantic, learning about the largest lynching in America, and Italians being removed from their homes to be taken to internment camps before I realized I was actually on a pilgrimage with them. I’ve made the pilgrimage with them as I could through writing, and the trek has caused me to view my own place in the world with greater humility.
Not every story is ours to tell, but this one called to me and I felt compelled to take the writing journey to tell it. A Space Between to be published by Bordighera Press (date to be determined) describes this journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you. If you want, you can read more about the book here.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
Cloudy skies and cold weather served as an encouragement to remain in rooms of quiet darkness during recent days of rain. When the rain finally abated, I stepped into the storm’s aftermath of misty woods to hunt for mushrooms. Feet sinking inches into the leafy loam, I peeked behind tree trunks and over sides of logs, eyes open for an unusual color or texture poking up from between leaves on the forest floor. Appearing for a few days then disappearing, mushrooms seem a bit mysterious, and hunting for them feels a bit like going on an adventure.
Mushrooms are the fruit of the amazing fine web of lacy underground filament of fungal biomass known as mycelia, their forms sometimes reminding me of coral. In her book, Lab Girl, Hope Jahreen writes, “The ephemeral mushroom appears briefly above the surface while the webbing that anchors it lives for years within a darker and richer world. A very small minority of these fungi—just five thousand species—have strategically entered into a deep and enduring truce with plants. They cast their stringy webbing around and through the roots of trees, sharing the burden of drawing water in to the trunk. They also mine the soil for rare metals, such as manganese, copper and phosphorous, and then present them to the tree as precious gifts of the magi.” As I read Jahreen’s words, I was struck by the symbiotic relationship between mycelia and trees–how the mycelia bring hidden gifts to trees, helping them thrive. Immediately, I thought of the effort of those who serve others such as mothers and fathers, teachers, scientists, doctors–all who work with devotion to provide others with things that matter deeply. Their ongoing care significantly affects how we think, feel, and live. Woven into the fabric and roots of our lives, even when unrecognized, their efforts make a difference to the very manner in which we conduct our lives. We are co-creators with them in our efforts, the fine web of their generosity interconnecting us into the roots of a community of blessing.
When doing work we find important, sometimes we sense we spend a lot of time working in darkness, following a path that somehow seems right, though we don’t quite know where things are leading. Like mycelia awaiting the gifts of rain, light, the right season, and right temperature to produce fruit, our efforts, too, can remain hidden underground for a long time before manifesting into a form others can name or see. To continue on in this work for years takes incredible persistence and perseverance. Trying to explain what nevertheless compels us in our dedication toward our efforts can’t always be sifted down to a sum of clearly defined factors. We simply know our heart is invested fully in what we’re doing and we must continue on. We can’t help it.
We don’t completely understand why mycelia choose to intertwine with trees, explains Jahreen, though she implies it’s likely because the two find benefit in the connection. Similarly, we, too, benefit from interconnection with others. People enter our worlds presenting us with gifts of insight and expertise. They offer us opportunities, help us find resources, nourish our efforts, among a wide variety of other things that enable us to thrive. Community is essential to existence, and generosity benefits us as well as those around us. In this exchange of resources and gifts with others, we create the world we live in and help others to live in the world as well.
Turkey Tail mushrooms
Recently, in addition to hunting for mushrooms, I’ve been gathering mushroom compost and horse manure for my garden beds as well, and it has surprised me the number of people, including complete strangers, who’ve chosen to comment on the beauty of the manure as I’ve shoveled it into a pile to “age.” Beneath the smell of ammonia, I imagine they see the garden that many months later will grow as a result of receiving the compost’s benefit. The plants too, no doubt, will express their gratitude in the form of seedlings, their tender leaves lifting into the sky waving their bright “hellos.”
We don’t often think about the world underground, the importance of soil or of how the life above ground depends on the soil’s quality. Soil seems such an insignificant thing. It’s merely the dirt we walk on, and we don’t think much of it, though many essential things occur there. Nevertheless, the quality of the soil affects what can grow, shaping the landscape and vision of our lives. Soil that feeds and nurtures our effort’s seeds supports the production of our lives’ fruit. People give lots of attention to end products, to the fruit at labor’s end. For these end results people throw parties and create rituals. But attention to the soil and the work in progress, the practice leading toward that end, is equally, if not more important, as this is the place where we do the work of becoming.
Turkey Tail Mushroom
Hedgehog Mushroom, scientific name: Dentinum
Beneath the surface of our work is the intention we bring to our every day patterns, actions and habits. This is where the seeds of our intentions and dreams interact with our lives’ soil, where seeds gain what they need to put forth their effort, enabling them to rise above the earth’s heavy weight. Though in this soil of day to day work we struggle and strive toward meaning and purpose, it’s here, also, that our effort can be enormously engaging, life-giving, and deeply satisfying.
In her poem “Invitation,” Renée Ashley writes about this space of beginnings,
Such luck. And no doubt the wind blowing through. Every time, each of the smallest maneuvers—and in
all directions. A largess of open doors and a staircase that winds that way forever. Come in…
Ashley captures well the energy that invigorates our spirits when offered an invitation—the way life suddenly seems to open in many places—the wideness of it all. What once felt like a wall has become a door. You forget yourself in your joy, and feel utterly fortunate and fully alive.
There are so many directions the invitation can lead toward, a multitude of possibilities it can open into or reveal. As Ashley sates later in her poem, you can feel
every dream you ever had shifting like sand toward some indefinite sea, a silence, perhaps or
There’s something fantastic about standing on the threshold of invitation where you’re consciously aware you’re living in liminal space. You have a new perspective regarding your efforts. Suddenly what you have created or given feels a bit more solid, real, leading to new awareness. “Once your eye swings open, / you’ll have to see what that might mean,” writes Ashley as she closes the poem.
possibly a White Chanterelle
Every day is an invitation toward life. How we respond to the invitation is the work of our lives, and we are the co-creators of that work and the meaning we experience. View Paul Stamets and Louis Schwartzberg’s short film,” Fantastic Fungi” with its stunning time-lapsed photos, and your eyes will swing open wide to the beauty and phenomenal inter-relatedness of our lives with the natural world. Our food web is based on mycelium, that quiet, hidden web of fungi, Stamets explains, and is critical to healthy environments. Our inescapable mutuality is a story we’re all part of. We’re invited to wade deeper into the recognition of the interrelationship of all life, to see the value of enabling others to be all it’s possible for them to be so we, too, can become fully ourselves.
Creating an environment of security, safety and support of others, we plant our seeds and do our work. Though our generative efforts may be hidden inside quiet rooms or fields of work, though our work may go unnoticed, whatever we do to create harmonious relationships within ourselves, with others and with the natural world, that effort indirectly or directly touches and helps to shape all that is.
When recent storms on the coast caused waves of 25 to 50 feet, I drove north to Maverick’s to see them. The size of small mountains, water rose from the shoreline waving its wild, terrifying and gloriously beautiful arms into the sky. A few people sat on surfboards waiting for a wave with good form they could ride. The majority of us, though, were spectators who walked the cliffs above the shore or who traversed the shoreline, gazing in awe at nature’s wonder. The world’s wild beauty is a can fills us with awe, though sometimes it also carries us to the edge of danger and the possibility of loss.
When looking carefully, you can notice loss lives beside us just beneath the surface of experience. Sometimes its absence is a mountainous weight hovering nearby like a cresting wave, waiting to tumble down at the sound of wind, a child’s cry, or the distressed look from a stranger on the street. So many seemingly insignificant things could serve as the trumpet’s blow resounding from walls that previously keep a person feeling safe. The loss of family members or someone we love, loss of work we used to do, people we used to know, a change in health—these can become waves of enormous change in our lives, and the way the world once worked, along with the things that held it together can come tumbling down. This is hard ground to walk on, difficult territory to reside in. How do we keep going? How do we begin again?
The experience of loss has been with us since the beginning of the human story as we fled the safety of the Garden of innocence and inexperience, with the awareness that we needed to begin the difficult journey toward understanding who we are and how to restore our relationships. This is a difficult task as our understanding is always incomplete. When things fall apart or we experience significant change, we like to know how we’re going to get to new ground and when we will arrive at a new place in our lives. But the timing of how this will all come about usually isn’t readily apparent. The process is less like a line and more like a spiral, and the pilgrimage to that desired place of being extends over varied and challenging terrain.
A couple of months back, I read Mari Mazziotti Gillan’s book, The Silence in an Empty House, a beautiful book of poems describing experiences in her relationship with her life partner who had a terminal illness. While experiencing the territory of loss, the writing takes the reader into the heart of relationship and the many small moments and memories that build and connect one life to another in intricate interweaving. In her poem, “Watching the Bridge Collapse,” Gillan describes how life can change in ways never expected.
We loved each other. Our children were smart and healthy and beautiful. How could we lose? then one day you, who could swim a hundred laps in the town pool, who ran even in a mid-winter snowstorm, began to move slower and slower, your hands no longer functioning the way they always had, your legs unwilling to obey your brain’s command. And now, your head bent sideways, so it nearly touches your shoulder, your legs so weak they cannot hold you up, your voice thin as a thread.
The situation Gillan describes is excruciatingly difficult. We acknowledge age brings diminishment, but to witness the vitality of one you love slowly decline in so painful a manner is a loss no one hopes for. Nevertheless, the poems show Gillan confronting the loss and suffering day after day although there is no possibility for expectation that her husband’s condition will improve. This is a struggle any of us could find ourselves in. As Gillan later points out in her poem, “What is Lost,” we do not know what our future will hold. “We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to/ the world will remain firm beneath our feet,” she writes. But this isn’t how it is for many people, and one of the things I especially appreciate about Gillan’s poems in this volume is how she describes her losses so directly. In the poem, “My Daughter Comes Home to Take Care of Her Sick Father,” Gillan’s speaks openly about the difficulty of her situation. “I do not understand,” she writes, “how love could become so complicated./ I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end, to just/ stop.” Her honesty about her struggle in coming to terms with what she has been given is powerful and moving because the story she tells is bigger than simply her own personal story. It’s the story of all who struggle against things that seem unbearable. She speaks the words that are nearly impossible to find when the burden of loss is so enormous it lies beyond the ability to name.
When someone we love difficult finds themselves struggling under difficult circumstances, it’s natural to want to offer help and solutions. Yet sometimes there are no solutions. When her husband tells her of his fear of being blind in the poem, “Because You Keep Turning to Me,” Gillan writes, “I offer what comfort I can, and when I hang up, I cry/in my hotel bed because you keep turning to me/ and all I have to offer is my hands, useless and empty, and too far away to even stroke your head.” I read her words, and recognize my own emptiness in trying to meet the loss I sense in others around me who are suffering. Gillan extends her expression of the depth of our incompleteness in such circumstances in her poem, “There is No Way To Begin.”
“There is no way to begin this poem, to say how I who have always believed that whatever happens, things always work out for the best, have finally been brought to my knees, not to pray as I did in Blessed Sacrament Church on Sixth Avenue when I was a girl, but in defeat, unable to find the thread of joy that has always waited for me just beyond tears.”
When we realize things aren’t going to get better for others or for ourselves where do we go? Thich Nhat Hahn in the 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism, recommends that we “Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Suffering being with those who suffer is necessary to the growth of our capacity for compassion and for understanding of how our lives are connected to those around us, as Maria’s poem so effectively gives voice to. What we come to realize when in the presence of suffering, is that solutions for how to cope with suffering aren’t going to be external. Like a tree that grows around a fence pole standing in its way of growth, we somehow must enlarge ourselves to be able to include or surround the loss.
When we look at others’ suffering we suffer too. The brain’s mirror neurons tell us this. One of Gillan’s poems, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” speaks directly to our interconnectedness, demonstrating so effectively how human suffering is reflected in the natural world as well. The drowning pelicans’ bodies caught in the BP oil spill are a echo of her husband’s painful effort to rise above the weight of the disease that wants to drown him. Oil covering its body, the bird in Gillan’s poem screams without sound, “a picture of torment and despair,” the silent despair Gillan recognizes her husband and family daily bear as they try to survive the calamity the disease has created–the suffering from which there seems no end.
…On the Gulf, the earth and sea are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.
Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world even the ocean can be destroyed…
Our life is intertwined with the life and suffering of the planet. Suffering continues, and so does the brave effort to meet it. “You never gave up;” Gillan writes in her poem of the same title, “you kept doing whatever you could do,/ fell each day because you’d try to walk even though/ you no longer could.” Spelling out an alphabet of loss as time passes, moments of sudden memories of beauty, but also the months and years of loneliness and long process of letting go, letting things be what they are. “The world is too full of grief,” she writes in her poem “Planting Flowers in Iraq,” a poem about a groundskeeper planting flowers when the very same week two hundred people were killed by car bombs, and Gillan recalls a mother’s face overcome with grief as she lifted her dead child in her arms. “The world is too full of grief,” Gillan writes.
It’s true. The pulse of loss throbs inside the silence. Everywhere one looks, tears and sorrow wait beneath the surface of things. I think of the 9/11 memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker where once the Twin Towers stood in New York City. An immense sense of loss envelops you as you approach the memorial, then stand to look as water pours its delicate and silvery life over the square’s edges into the firm earth, then falls again endlessly and forever into a bottomless space that cannot be fathomed, seen or known. The grief feels utterly palpable and weighted with presence, moving beyond words into a space where grief lives and doesn’t end. This is grief embodied.
How do we get to the other side of grief? How do we live beyond, into or with loss that feels too immense to bear? How do we find a way to name the grief, to hold it and still keep living? In her poem, “What if?” Gillan writes,
And what if, this moment, wrapped in the gauze shawl of stillness, is the secret after all, to learn to look more closely at the varied world, the veins of a leaf, a stone, the stippled pattern of bark, and to find, even in the shape of our hands, the curve of our nails the ability to lift a cup and drink, the secret of loving the transfigured world?
An answer is to learn to look, and where Gillan turns her gaze is to nature. Nature, too, has experienced enormous and unspeakable losses, especially in the past few centuries, but life is still present, available to us as a renewing source when we look deeply. Tree and stone, our own hands lifting a cup to drink. From the transfigured world we can drink and draw new life. As Gillan points out, it is when we allow ourselves to be wrapped in the “gauze shawl of stillness” that we enable ourselves to connect to the commonplace of the world in its transfigured form. This in turn allows us to see our experience as part of a greater whole.
We heal from the inside out. Physical wounds begin healing from the inside. It could be the same with wounds of spirit and losses of the heart. We let ourselves be present with the wounds and losses, holding them in the arms of our thoughts, speaking to them tenderly, dearly, gently. More than our direct pursuit to find an external solution for what will meet our deep need, perhaps what we seek finds us as we allow ourselves to be available to what is working within us. Or perhaps it is a bit of both.
During these winter months we inhabit the season Christian tradition names as Advent: light’s entry into the dark—into the places of our lives where we cannot see. It is a metaphor reminding us that there are times in life when we don’t know where the next step leads. Things move in complex worlds beneath the surface of what we can see or comprehend. All people experience this state of being. We don’t know when the light we feel we need will appear or how we are going to find it. It’s not a direct path. As this song written by Stephen Foster describes, our souls long for “Hard Times to Come Again No More.” Notice how in this version by Tommy Fleming, the entire audience knows the words and sings together with him. We are not alone. The whole world knows struggle. We walk together. Our inner work is to keep mind and heart open, to walk as we can, trusting that as we move, we journey toward wholeness.
Like blossoms, we wait in our own time for light to open us.
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.
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
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
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.
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.
“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.)
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia next to the Church of Santa Croce, inspiration of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”
Apse of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna
Ceiling in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
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.
The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.
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?
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.
“The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” –Emerson, “Nature”
Joshua Tree National Park
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)
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.
“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.
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 Guardianquotes 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.
(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.