community, poetry, Uncategorized

Finding the Fragrance of Home

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

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

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

The homeland where I grew up in San Diego County was a desert inhabited by sumac, horned toads, lizards, hawks, jack rabbits, and hills covered in wild grass strewn with granite boulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Uncategorized

Making Bread, Breaking Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

two quarts of starter

Starter:

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

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

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

Below is Michael’s recipe.

Basic Bread:

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

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

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

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

Mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Anna Citrino, from Saudade

Uncategorized

Nurturing the World With Our Own Two Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What You Planted
–for Michael

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

tucking them into the earth
one by one,
telling me

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

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

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

Look at the garden now.

published spring, 2012, phren-z

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

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

poetry, Uncategorized

Necessary Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawn to expand beyond our own walls of comfort and understanding, we ask ourselves, how do we live in joy despite the circumstances around us filled with anxiety and for many, suffering—mental, physical, and spiritually. A friend I meet with is in her eighties. This week she stated, as she often does, “Being old is difficult.” Working on writing her memories of escaping Austria with her family at the age of two during WWII, she has stories to tell before she’s ready to die, she explains, adding on to say, “I need to learn how to die, how to live with joy and die. It’s an exchange of energy you know. We drop the body, but the energy goes elsewhere.” In acknowledgement of impermanence, I’m reminded of The Five Remembrances, many Buddhists read each day:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

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

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

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

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

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

Uncategorized

Moving Beyond the Margins of Ourselves

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

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

sculpture by Jane DeDecker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Italian-American, music, poetry, Uncategorized

Music’s Power to Unify

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

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

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

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

MAKING A LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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art, music, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

The Incense of Fallen Leaves and the Seeds of Music

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Leaves in Nisene Marks forest, Santa Cruz County.

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

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

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

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

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

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Japanese maple leaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Luisa Leaves Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

poetry, Uncategorized

Lamentation, Joy, and Jory Post’s Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Transforming Walls

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

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poems on wall at Angel Island, San Francisco

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

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

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

Anger and depression

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

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


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

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

Wilson quote

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

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

SF panorama

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

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

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

art, community, music, Uncategorized

Finding Our Lullabies

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

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dragonfly

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

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

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

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

Lullaby
by Ilya Kaminsky

Little daughter
rainwater

snow and branches protect you
whitewashed walls

and neighbors’ hands all
child of my Aprils

little earth of
six pounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

AnnaDunes
Anna in the Red Dunes of Saudi Arabia, photo by Michael Citrino