Geography, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Into the Winds of Change

Aran Island overview of Inishmore from Dun Aonghasa

This house has been far out at sea all night, 
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, 
Winds stampeding the fields under the window 
Floundering black astride and blinding wet –from “Wind,” Ted Hughes

Years ago I bicycled with friends up Ireland’s west coast. The day we biked from Galway to the landing where we were to catch the ferry that would take us to the Aran Islands was supposed to be the flattest terrain and easiest ride of all the days of our two week bike trip. But the rain that morning was visibly horizontal in the wind as we crouched beside benches at a Galway bus stop. We hoped the weather would ease up, but after a time, we realized that it wasn’t going to stop raining. Neither was the wind going to stop blowing. We were going to have to get on our bikes and ride despite the wind and rain if we wanted to catch the ferry to the Aran Islands. We got on our bikes and started peddling. My bike seat kept slipping down, making it challenging to pedal. My legs felt like weights. Nevertheless, I kept going, and arrived at the ferry take-off point and boarded the boat moments before it departed.

Aran Island is an ancient place with homes of stone where life was a challenging struggle with the elements. The beehive huts on the island made of stacked stones are thought to date to medieval times. Though their purpose isn’t entirely certain, they may have been built for religious pilgrims. How cold it must have felt in such dwellings! Heated homes, indoor toilets, running warm water–these are current day expectations, not how life was for humans for thousands upon thousands of years.

A trip up Ireland’s coast and to the Aran Islands gives a small insight into changes the world has experienced but going much further back in time, Earth has seen even far greater changes than the fragments of ruins of ancient cultures we see on the earth’s surface. The way we see the world now and the expectations for our lives is not as it always has been. There have been five mass extinctions in the earth’s history to date. It’s hard to imagine life different from what we know when we have only glimpses and fragments of other lives and ways of being but as much as we don’t always like change, it is part of the natural process of living beings and of our planet.

In his poem, “Wind” Hughes describes the effect of the wind on place where he sits, a description that fits the world’s present day situation. “The house,” he writes,

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note 
That any second would shatter it. Now deep 
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip 
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought, 

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing, 
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on, 
Seeing the window tremble to come in, 
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

From the pandemic, to rising costs and economic challenges, to ongoing social inequities and oppression, to the effects of climate change, and the current war in Ukraine, people across the world are confronted with strong winds coming from many directions. Day to day we walk in the midst of great change. The day of Thich Nhat Hahn’s recent death, an enormous wind blew where I live. I sat for some time on a hay bale in my back yard and watched the redwoods sway in their roots and the oak trees shake. When I looked high above me, I noticed strands of cloud had formed crossroads in the sky. The sky, the trees, the very earth beneath me seemed to be saying change has arrived, life is different now.

The world is, indeed, shifting, and because there’s so much coming at people at this time, it’s difficult to cope, to absorb and then comprehend how to respond to events. Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy speaks about this time as the great unraveling. Of course what we’re experiencing is depressing and difficult, she asserts in this short film Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path. It’s not only appropriate to feel grief over the losses and challenges we’re experiencing, it’s important to recognize that the grief comes from a place of love. “The anguish we feel is inevitable, normal, and even healthy, because how are we going to do to create out of the present disarray an exquisite life, sustaining life, respecting society unless we are ready to galvanize everything.” Pain, she explains is the other side of love, and now is the time to expand into our full humanity.

Movement toward new awareness and growth doesn’t necessarily occur in a linear direction, however. Numerous times I’ve thought I was on a path to finding an answer to a question or situation, that I then would be moving in a new direction, only to discover that I was no closer than before, or at least I didn’t appear to be any closer. Questions and dilemmas have a way of persisting. Sometimes it seems to me that perhaps the universe itself is an embodied question wandering around in cycles of birth and death eons long searching for the answer to its own existence.

Ireland’s Saint Brendan is known for his wandering. He set off from Dingle Bay in his thirty-six-foot curragh-like boat made of leather with fourteen (some sources say sixteen) other monks to explore the world in what is thought to be the years CE 512-530. While it’s difficult to tell what aspects of the tale of his journey are factual, or where he actually went, whether to Greenland, the Canary Islands, the Azores or elsewhere, his story is part of a literary genre in Ireland at the time of a hero’s journey to the other world. Their pilgrimage embodied their quest to find the “Earthly Paradise.” All quests require a great deal of faith and theirs was no different.

The legend of their journey describes commonplace encounters such as meeting a boy eating bread and milk that the boy shares with the monks, as well as coming upon an island of birds and an island of grapes. They encounter a variety of dangerous situations however, as when they land on what they think is an island but turns out to be the back of a whale, and when their leather boat is circled by threatening fish, and when blacksmiths throw slag at them as the monks pass by their island. Some of the monks encounters are particularly inexplicable such as drinking water from a well that makes them fall asleep, the appearance of a silver pillar wrapped in a net, and finding a man they took to be Judas Iscariot sitting on a rock in the sea.

Brandon Bay

The central thing that comes down to us through time regarding St. Brendan is the story of his journey. Not the story of his arrival, his paradise found. While they may be valuable or even necessary to undertake, journeys don’t necessarily bring solutions to situations, though they can provide new insights and perspective. Even after his seven year wandering and enduring the many unknowns and challenges, on his death bed, he told his sister, “I fear that I shall journey alone, that the way will be dark; I fear the unknown land, the presence of my King and the sentence of my judge.” External pilgrimage and internal pilgrimages are connected. Meeting uncertainty is never easy, even when you are experienced at encountering the unexpected. Even if you’ve sought it out. Like St. Brendan, we are forever heading into an unknown land.

Where do we turn when life’s challenges seem insufferable, when the longing for change and resolution isn’t found? How do we during such times expand further into our humanity? Viktor Frankl, who endured the Nazi death camps at Theresienstadt  and Auschwitz (as well as two others) said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The way into the unknown and toward a new way of being may not be a direct path. It may take years of wandering in a wilderness, and the wandering may not finish when we want it to come to an end. It’s the journey, the seeking and the meaning we give to our exploration on our journey that matters.

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park

While reaching toward a greater knowing and unfolding, we carry what we know and what we came from. A stream of water has its own character and appearance as it falls over rocks and meanders its way to the sea, carrying with it bits of sediment from the land it has touched. Streams of water do not run in straight lines. The struggle, the pressing forth into the wind and rain while waiting for change has something to teach us. In our search we can stretch beyond what we know, we meet and respond to others who, like us, are also searching. Direct action doesn’t necessarily bring about immediate solutions to dilemmas. As Rumi wrote,

“Things are such, that someone lifting a cup,
or watching the rain, petting a dog,

or singing, just singing — could be doing as
much for this universe as anyone.”

Sometimes things that seemingly have nothing to do with the challenge we face is what most needs attending to. Before leaving her bombed out home in Kiev, pianist Irina Maniukina played on her piano one last time. A choice such as this is a purposeful action that can bring us more into the fullness of our humanity that Macy speaks of.

We may need to go wandering like St. Brendan, set out on a long ride or walk, or maybe simply to sit on a couch and give attention to our dog. Change is upon us, but as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes, “We always belonged to this mystery, and maybe we can begin to find our way back, even if it means following an almost hidden path, unrecognized by our rational selves. Despite the growing darkness and images of destruction, the gate to this garden is always open, and if we listen carefully, we may hear the many voices that still beckon us.” Change is Gonna Come

art, Geography, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Sicily, and Cathedrals of the Heart

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I’ve just returned from Sicily, a poor region of Italy, but a land rich in beauty–beauty enough to leave me speechless and in awe as I stepped inside Monreale’s cathedral and looked into the face of the pantocrator–Christ as the Lord of the Universe–depicted in the shining mosaics filling the central apse. The mosaic is so finely made it seems to be painted. A world heritage site, the cathedral holds the largest Byzantine mosaics outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Mosaic art was practiced in the Byzantine empire since the fifth century (according to the Joy of Shards Site.) Thousands of skilled craftsmen had to have worked for centuries to be able to produce the level of skill to create the quality of workmanship presented in Monreale’s cathedral and cloister. (See more images here and here.) The walls depict various Biblical stories–God giving Adam the breath of life, Noah building the ark, Jesus holding out his hand to Peter who has jumped the fishing boat he was on with the other disciples in order to meet Jesus who he sees walking across the water–stories told through images of God interacting with the world and in humans’ lives.

20161218_164013Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, writes of how the original meaning of fantasy comes from the Greek, phantasía, meaning “to make visible, to reveal.” Johnson explains how it’s our imagination that converts the invisible to the visible, enabling us to contemplate it. Interaction with world in the form of the arts and in writing enables us to understand spiritual truths. For the Greeks, Johnson goes on to say, phantasía was the way the divine spoke to the human mind. Until the Middle Ages, Johnson states, phantasía was thought of as the “organ that receives meanings from spiritual and aesthetic worlds and forms them into an inner image that can be held in memory and made the object of thought and reasoning” (p. 23). Phantasía was also the word Roman writers employed when wanting to “speak of the human faculty by which we express the contents of the soul by using poetic or spiritual energy.” In other words, practicing using our imagination, as artists and writers do, allows us to become conscious again of spirit. Johnson asserts also that when speaking of sensing the spirit, all ancient people understood, “Only our power to make images enables us to see it.”  In fact, Johnson explains, “When we experience the images, we also directly experience the inner parts of ourselves that are clothed in the images” (p. 25).  As Abigail Tucker reported in The Smithsonian’s article, “How Does the Brain Process Art?”, the brain signals the body to have physical responses to art, mirroring what is viewed.

The cathedral at Monreale, clearly demonstrates Johnson’s assertion of imagination’s power. Stepping from the everyday life of the street and entering the cathedral, I was carried out of myself into a place of wonder so astonishingly beautiful in its glowing color and intricately depicted images it could bring a person to tears—or at least it did me. A thousand years ago in Sicily, people worked the land, even as many do now—a challenging life, dependent on nature and the weather, as much of Sicily uses dry farming methods. Life could be difficult, but then there was the world inside the cathedral—a place of intense beauty, a heaven on earth, that could lift you from the mundane, and transport you into a place of wonder. In doing so, you understood your life was more than mere struggle. You were also part of a greater reality, you were also Spirit, and you participated in the life of that Spirit as revealed in the cathedral’s art.

Recognizing God speaks through nature, the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The Psalmist created music to express the presence of Spirit. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers enormous on her canvases as a way to invite viewers to engage with the natural world. “Nobody sees a flower,” she wrote, “- really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Interacting with nature as an artist, as well as simply viewing paintings and pondering them are ways to touch Spirit. Similar to O’Keefe’s intention for viewers in the paintings she produced, though cathedrals’ construction were normally initiated by kings as expressions of their power, and often with political aims, cathedrals could also be viewed and embraced as embodiments of love—love expressed in and through the hands that made them. To produce works of such beauty, heart had to be invested, not merely the use of skill. A thousand years later, the mosaics in the Monreale’s cathedral beauty draws the world to stand before them in awe.

The Norman ruler, King William, ordered construction to begin on the Monreale’s Cathedral in 1172. The building was completed in 1176, and the mosaics by 1189. That is only 17 years for a work of monolithic and intricate beauty. I think of the difficult times we currently live in, and the tremendous effort needed to rise to the challenges–social, political, economic, and environmental–that we face, not unlike that of building a cathedral. Likely, all times could be identified as difficult depending on where you live and what you’re living through, but a particular area of current concern are the many in the world who have lost their homes. The Guardian’s December 31, 2016 article describes, “War, weather, climate change and terrorism have made millions homeless,” and then goes on to add starvation, and natural disaster to the list of causes. Sixty three million people today are fleeing disaster according to The Guardian. To address the needs of these displaced people so that their fundamental necessity for shelter is met will take the effort of millions. The forces at work to create such displacement are monumental. I’m wondering, though, how we might use our imaginations to create a cathedral of spirit amidst the poverty of our current situation in order to address the human needs of those around us.

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While reading Unsettling America, An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, I came across Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “In Memory We Are Walking,” where Gillan describes how as a child, she once went on a picnic with her Italian immigrant family. The poem allows us to go inside the experience of what displaced people likely feel coming to a new land for reasons of necessity, and working to make it home. On a rare excursion, the poem’s speaker–a young girl–and her family left Patterson, New Jersey, walking out of their mill worker’s house “built cheaply and easily,” and past “squat middle-class bungalows” that, to her, appeared to be wealthy abodes. She describes how her father, hoping for a job, walked from Patterson to Passaic, nearly a two hour’s journey, to inquire about an opening. He didn’t have the money to take the train. When he arrived, a worker told him, ‘“You stupid Dago bastard,…/ Go back where you came from./ We don’t want your kind here.” The words from this poem resonate elsewhere in the world and across time. Reading current news stories, though the faces may be different now, one can still see how attitudes prevalent at the turn of last century regarding immigrants persist.

Before leaving to travel to Sicily this past December, I visited downtown London early one evening. When I emerged from the subway tunnel, I heard a loud voice calling out, “Help me. Somebody save me!” A man sat on the street outside the subway exit shouted to those walking by. I didn’t know what kind of help the man needed, or if he possibly might not be in his right mind. Like others, though, I crossed the street to wait for the bus—on my way to elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the man’s desperate voice could be heard shouting, his words echoing across the street. On and on he called, his plea reaching into my thoughts—fixing itself there, and becoming, somehow, the needy voice of us all.

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Further up the street, suspended in flight, angels hovered above the roadway in the form of electric lights. Christmas shoppers emerged from the brilliantly lit multilevel department storefronts, windows packed with a plethora of products–leather purses and shoes, sequined dresses, sportswear and down jackets, wool hats and scarves, specialty chocolates and teas. Streets drenched in abundance while at the same time, not far away, a man calls out for help, and none respond. Further down the street, I walked by a man in a grim looking Santa costume. He leaned against a wall above the sleeping bag where he slept, a cup held out for money. Entering another subway station, a second Santa stood by the escalators holding a cup for offerings, a thin woman with a drooping Santa hat, and wearing grubby Santa coat and a plaid skirt. Homeless Santas, and a man pleading to be saved–if not physical poverty, we live amidst a poverty of spirit. Those on the street have the humility to admit their need. The man on the street shouted out the words that we in our social silence, pride, and neglect fail to speak: that in many ways in the places we live, if not our lives and way of living, then in our hearts–connection to each other, is broken. If so many around us live in dire need while others of us live in physical abundance, then somebody help us.

From the crowded streets of our lives, the homeless part of ourselves calls out in our poverty. The somebody that must help us needs to arise from within. What kind of world do we want to live in? What does a beautiful world look like? How would people interact in order to create a world where we could live without fear, where all people’s needs are met? Just like those who built the cathedrals of Sicily, we each have skills we have built up over time. Humbly, and together, we can use these abilities to create the world we want to live in. We can do our art and look for ways to create neighborly acts of kindness and generosity wherever we are. Whatever the work we look for or do, we can make of our work a spiritual effort, a prayer. With our hands and mind, we can create sanctuaries of the spirit, cathedrals of the heart that transform ourselves and those around us. As poet Nancy Wood writes, “Patterns persist,/life goes on, whatever rises will converge./ Do what you will, but strengthen the things that remain.” We can use our imagination to discover ways to transform despair, and to practice the skills that will make a world where, like the cathedral of Monreale, a refuge of beauty and place of peace people a thousand years from now can inherit and inhabit.

Like the work to create the cathedral, creating such a world takes devotion, love, and hard work. Labor doesn’t have to be merely work, as it often becomes when the goal is merely for self interest and personal gain. Just as beauty can open our hearts, labor can also enlarge us as we work together. The two aren’t inseparable when we work with the intention that the labor we do is a way to give something needed for the betterment of the community–for the beauty of the earth and humanity.

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Geography, place, Uncategorized

The Geographies That Shape Us

What are the geographies that have entered your heart? As we embark on our exploration of how the physical world affects culture, consider the ways that the places you have lived have shaped you and your understanding of the world.

Nature writer, Barry Lopez, in his book, About This Life, says “Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want to not forget.”

How has the cultures and your interactions with the physical environments in the places you’ve lived influenced and shaped the way you think and the experiences you have had? How might your reflection on this question guide the kinds of things you want to learn and discover about the country you are researching about?  How might your experiences help you focus your research, write up your understandings, and talk with the class about topics you think are personally meaningful and important?