poetry, Uncategorized

Living in a Desert Land

Mada’in Salih, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)

The sun shines intensely in Saudi Arabia. Everywhere, light reflects off the desert floor and reverberates against stone. Filled with light, light, and more light, to stand on the earth in Saudi Arabia is to stand in the midst of a wide circle of sun. Holding immensely beautiful forms and textures, the Arabian peninsula has no rivers and no permanent natural water source.

Several years back, I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-‘Ula, founded in the sixth century BC, and located on Saudi Arabia’s north west edge. The ancient Biblical city state of Dedan slightly south of Mada’in Salih in this same area, rests on what was the incense route, and was the capital of the Lihyanites. Later, the Nabateans encompassed the area making Mada’in Salih (then called Hegra) their capital. Like the northern capital of the Nabateans in Petra, Jordan, the site contains elaborate facades of tombs cut into rock, where the earth pulsates in vibrant color.

Though there’s much to love in a light-filled day, sometimes, though, light’s intense radiance can make us long for the softness of shadow and night’s coolness. To enter a door and step into coolness is welcomed. Shade and evening hours are blessings.

Dedan, Saudi Arabia, (photos, Michael Citrino)
at ancient Dedan, Saudi Arabia, (photo Michael Citrino)

When crossing over the lintel and walking into a different world, we carry with us understandings of the world we know, making bridges from what we know to what we don’t. Gradually, as our eyes and mind adjusts, we begin to discern how the new world we’ve entered functions. There are many places and ways of being we don’t know about and don’t understand because those places and worlds are not the ones we are familiar with. When we enter a new phase of life, start a new job, move to a different city or country, fall ill, begin playing a new instrument or try learning a new language, we enter a kind of liminal world where things aren’t necessarily illuminated or clear. Instead, we’re in the dark, so to speak, and have to learn to inhabit a new way of structuring meaning and making sense.

Len Anderson’s newest poetry book, The Way Home, is a probing exploration and beautiful expression of the territory of betweenness or emptiness–places of not knowing, not seeing, the mystery life can reveal itself to be when we find ourselves inhabiting what feels like an internal desert. In his poem, “Door,” Anderson writes,

Deep in a dream
I am a lone pilgrim,
walk the ancient city
arrive at a door

It opens
I enter
and find myself
in the company
of a great silence

As a pilgrim or a seeker described in the lines above, when we enter a new world or way of living, we grow aware we stand in a place of mystery. The old rules and patterns don’t fit and the new world doesn’t speak the same language as the one we left. Traveling through unfamiliar territory is an ancient place. It’s wise to pause and to listen deeply.

In his poem, “Unknown Ghazal,” Anderson writes how the territory of not knowing is a good place to be, “Welcome, make yourself at home, here in the unknown,/ Don’t worry, you can find a way deeper into the unknown.” A thirst of the spirit or heart can last for decades, and for some, centuries. We all desire to be happy, to live with joy and be free of suffering. Thirst is, nevertheless, a given quality of existence. Like the children of Israel who walked into unknown desert for years, thirst can eventually lead to a promised land. Even the promised land, however, was located in a desert.

Because of their wide and windswept emptiness, deserts landscapes embody the longing for life and growth. As Anderson writes in his poem, “The Longing,”

You and I and all growing things
are made of longing. Even the stars
formed in the longest night we can imagine
from the dust left by that flash
that opened out into everything
could be called a kind of longing.

To be a part of creation is to know longing. Whole continents and subcontinents embody landscapes of longing, together with the very stars that were “formed in the longest night we can imagine.” Yet out of this longing came what “opened out into everything.” Everything visible was born out of a yearning.

Deserts are an embodied yearning. In seasons of adapting and waiting on the lintel of liminal space between worlds where it’s unclear what world you inhabit because the world you’re familiar with is no longer the world you live in, it’s good to remember the desert world and how those who inhabit such lands have managed to live inside its constraints. People have lived in desert regions for millennia. Entire civilizations were created in the deserts of Mesopotamia, known in Ancient Greek as the land between rivers. Channeling water for urban use and irrigation, people built entire civilizations there. Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Eridu and Babylon are all cities that grew up in the desert areas between rivers. Recognizing water’s preciousness as it fills seasonal oases after rains or flows from a mountain spring, desert communities channel the water they find, enabling it to benefit to the whole community. In this gathered effort, it’s feasible to not only survive in a desert land but to also thrive there.

Red Dunes, Saudi Arabia (photo, Michael Citrino)

The world is always being renewed, earth reimagining what shape it wants to take. Sitting at the edge of Saudi’s Red Desert you can watch wind lift and flick the sand, tenaciously shifting the perfect-edged ochre and red crystals grain by grain into new forms. “Come into being as you pass away,” says the Gospel of Thomas, logion 42. Everything in both exterior and interior landscape, is shifting, moving, becoming new, even as it alters, ages or dies.

There are sandy deserts and there are stony deserts. Since ancient times people have carved beautiful structures in the hardscape desert lands. Stone personifies deep longing in its steadfastness as it waiting to be worn down or broken open. With patience and endurance, we, too, with the help of others, can create something enduringly beautiful out of what is difficult and hard. As Anderson says in his poem “A Little Mystery,”

Inside each thing
is the possibility
of everything

Don’t worry
we’ll never find it all

Even these stones
and mud we call Earth
are a child of the Heavens
with a touch of Hell

They help hold us here
for this fleeting
eternity

Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)

In his poem, “Into Being,” Anderson describes a child “born without eyes or ears or tongue, without knowing.” This awareness is an unexpected kind of emotional and physical desert the parents in the poem have been given, and they are distraught. The doctor in the poem responds to the parents’ grief saying, “I can only speak from my own / incompleteness.” The beautiful insight Anderson gives here is that even those who are healers are incomplete. It is in recognizing our shared incompleteness with others that we can create a kind of healing. The poem ends with these words of the doctor’s advice regarding their child, “And you must listen / as you never have before. / Each cry, / even the deepest silence / is speaking.” Each one of us lives with incompleteness. If we allow ourselves to listen deeply enough, we can find ourselves in those we perceive as broken or as “other.”

Dwelling in desert places, waiting with uncertainty, we can practice being fully present with not knowing and tune our ears to the sound of small streams of water that allow us to keep going. Embracing the empty land we walk in and visiting the oases when the rains arrive is a way to live in a land between rivers. We survive by practicing hope until we’re able to hear what speaks from the silence and can open the door into a new place of knowing.

Door, Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)
gardening, poetry, Uncategorized

An Invitation

“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” ― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

At our house in California, we’re harvesting food. All year we work at tending the garden, digging compost into the soil, starting seedlings, planting, watering, weeding, and collecting seeds. From my front door I can walk out and place my feet on the soil. Living in a rural area as we do, our life is very different than it was the decades we lived abroad in mega cities. We savor the change, the opportunity to be enveloped by the natural world and its rhythms. Mornings, from the kitchen window we can see rabbits near the base of oak trees and birds pecking for breakfast in the yard. Afternoons, lizards run from planter box to planter box, hummingbirds slip between flowers, squirrels scamper up trees and wild turkeys wander through. Come twilight, deer come up the draw beneath the redwoods to wander out among the hillside oaks. Evening arrives and crickets sing outside our door, Great Horned Owls hoot. This is a world we cherish.

Though nearly everything in the garden grows in raised beds wired from beneath, though we have bird netting around our berry palace (as we fondly refer to it) animals inevitably find a way to get in. The grape arbor is alive with resonating bee song as the bees happily eat away at the fruit. Every living thing around us seems to love the food we grow, and they enjoy eating from our garden food as much as we do. This can become discouraging when working hard to grow something, only to have some unknown creature sneak into the garden at night to take a bite from your perfect tomato, then throw the remainder on the ground.

Nevertheless, we celebrate our garden and are transformed by it. It provides us exercise, offers beauty, and gives us food. From seed to harvest, the work is nourishing and rewarding. We’re grateful for our garden and the multiple delights it offers. Truly, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, the gardener develops a relationship with the land, and as in human relationships, when you give yourself to it, you see directly how the land nurtures and cares for you, how it loves you back through all the many gifts it brings forth.

 

Wonderful teachers, plants, help us understand the value of watering what we want to grow, making sure it has adequate light, the benefit of good soil, and allow us to comprehend how growth takes time; you have to be patient. It is a pleasure to watch vines lengthen, berries develop, and then to wait a few years for adequate growth to have enough berries to make a pie.

 

From the delight of dew on cabbage heads to illuminated lettuce leaves, the garden is full of beauty. Not everyone can grow their own food. It takes time and people have a lot of demands on their time. You also need earth close by that you can work in. Many of us live in heavily urban areas and aren’t able to be near land for gardening. Even a planter box on the window sill, however, can be restorative and bring us into a connection to the cycle of nature larger than the workaday world.

If this isn’t possible, then hopefully you can find time each day to go outside and savor the sun on your face, absorb the sky’s expanse, and notice the natural world around you, inhaling for a minute or two perhaps, as you stand by your door ready to enter the morning’s world, as you return from some place you’ve been, or as you sit by an open window in your home or work space. Allowing yourself these moments is to allow yourself to be held by the recognition that nature is wider than worries or fears we hold, bigger than our sorrows and our joys. It’s a gift to you can give yourself.

Cooking food from the garden and sharing that food with others is to become part of the interchange of care and nurturance. To expand this love of the earth’s abundance, my husband, Michael, and I are developing recipes with foods mentioned in my book A Space Between that I’m working to put into a small electronic cookbook. Michael cooks with his heart and the dishes he makes are as good as poetry. The food from the recipes is absolutely delicious.

Michael and I will be reading from A Space Between this Thursday, 1 October, 5:00 pm Pacific time for approximately 25 minutes. We will be reading on Zoom as part of the Poets Circle in connection with the Watsonville Public Library, here in Santa Cruz County. Follow this link to connect to join. Our reading will be followed by a second reader, Terra Summers.

You can read more about A Space Between here. You can order the book from a variety of sources: here at Small Press Distribution, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, or if you’re overseas and want free delivery anywhere in the world at Book Depository.

Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves. ”

I will be giving on Zoom together with Michael Citrino from my book, A Space Between, Thursday, 1 October at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Standard time. in conjunction with Poet’s Circle at the Watsonville Public Library.  Magdalena Montagne will be moderating.

Your listening presence is a gift. I look forward to sharing the excerpts from the book with you.  I hope you will be able to connect.

community, poetry, Uncategorized

Finding the Fragrance of Home

Hills of Soquel, Santa Cruz County, California

…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”

Sumac, horned toads, lizards, hawks, jack rabbits, and hills covered in wild grass strewn with granite boulders, these were inhabitants in the desert homeland where I grew up in San Diego County.

I spent many hours wandering 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 anywhere on vacations, 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 hour’s 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.

Hills of eastern San Diego County, California

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.

Western Desert, leaving Taif, Saudi Arabia

Each place I’ve lived had recurring scents unique to that particular location. 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 evenings 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 spend 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.

View from my apartment balcony in New Delhi on a bad day of pollution

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 near wild space, however, would allow me to let go of firmly fixed schedules, dig my hands into the earth, and allow myself time to discover a slower, different rhythm where I might encounter a deeper truth about living and inner space could expand.

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 newly with its history and land, I’m made aware, again, of the contradictions between America’s actions and its ideals.

The place and earth 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 centuries of ongoing oppression, fear and the anxiety reaches beyond the US borders to the world at large. Human oppression is not unrelated to Western culture’s treatment of the natural world.

View of the redwoods from our California garden

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.

New grape leaf budding on the vine in my garden

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?

At the base of a virgin growth redwood, Soquel, California

 

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

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.

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.

20191210_163053

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.

pilgrimage, poetry, snorkeling, Uncategorized, Wonder

Into the Wide, Diverse Sea

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino.

“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,” begins John Masefield’s poem, “Sea Fever,” my favorite poem in grade seven, a poem that made me fall in love with poetry because of its rhythm, and the mystery of the sea the lines evoked. The summer before grade seven, I lived in Seaside, in Monterrey County, CA, close enough to visit the ocean often, where I would sit on the rocky shoreline, mesmerized by the tireless waves–their strength, endurance and foamy beauty rolling in from depths.

 

Decades later, living and working in Singapore, a friend encouraged my husband and I to spend our winter holiday diving in the area near Palau in the middle of the Pacific, where we would be able to see incredible fish life among the reefs, including schools of barracuda, and manta. During the years I lived in Turkey, I’d loved snorkeling in the Mediterranean, and had spent many hours suspended in the water staring into the ladders of light with fish wandering through. When I moved to Singapore,  I was a new scuba diver, and barely aware of the rich life beneath the water’s surface. Traveling to spend several weeks swimming alongside fish wasn’t something I’d considered doing on a holiday.  Instead, I’d hoped to experience the world I’d read about from books but had never seen–historical places with art and architecture. I wanted to listen to people speaking languages I didn’t comprehend, and to experience something of the world other than the one I was comfortable with. I’d never considered what two weeks of diving might do to open my eyes to the world’s wonder, how diving could expand my experience of life beyond what was previously familiar. My friend’s various descriptions of diving in Palau and Truck Lagoon convinced me, however, that there was, indeed, a phenomenal new world to explore underwater beyond what I’d previously known, and I made the trip to Palau and Truk lagoon.

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Anna in the Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

The experience there changed me. Enveloped in wildness and beauty, I came to realize that to scuba dive is to have the most other worldly experience you can have on earth and still be on earth. Diving into ethereal blue waters to see bioluminescent clams and corals, watching coral feed, peering up close with a magnifying glass at a jeweled fairy basslet’s golden scales, observing a tiger shark emerge directly from the deep and swim toward you, witnessing a school of fish so large you can’t see the edges, or a hammer head swing its body back and forth in a movement fluid as an unfurling flag, watching the wildly patterned mandarin fish dance as it swims away, lying on the ocean’s sandy bottom as a ten foot wide manta ray wings its way gently over your head, these experiences are but a droplet in the life the ocean holds and that I’ve experienced underwater as a diver. It is a world other than the one we live in from day to day, operating with its own rules, and for a few minutes–as long as your air tank lasts–you are a part of it.

The nature writer Barry Lopez writes in his book, About This Life, how a man he sat next to on an airplane asked him what his daughter should do if she wants to be a writer, “…get out of town,” advised Lopez. “I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.” Ocean diving will most certainly separate you from the familiar and expose you to other languages–the ones fish speak with the behavior they display. It can also bring one a fresh sense of the world, how diverse it is, how wide, and what a gift it is to be alive. In this poem of mine written after diving in the Maldives, I describe the experience.

Days At Lohifushi
Anna Citrino

I.
Underneath the wing of the reef
twenty or more oriental sweet lips
lounge contentedly in the hammock of the ocean,
their happy striped and spotted bodies
swinging lazily back
then forward with the surge,
their yellow and black faces playing
peek-a-boo with passers by.

II.
Flowers burst in suns of buttery yellow
from the salmon pink fingered nubs
of corals stretching out from the wall,
a passion of color dancing out
into the darkness of the watery night.
I have traveled a long distance to stare at them here
thriving riotously underneath the overhang,
and notice how without traveling any distance,
with only reaching out to feed their pudgy bodies
on what happens to come their way
they dazzle with brilliance.

III.
Minuscule transparent shrimp float
almost invisibly in the shimmering
aquamarine windows, the smoldering
fiery gold jewels of their iridescent eyes
left as hidden treasure for seekers
to find, secreted inside the silent
dark caves of the ocean’s night.

IV.
Underneath me, the eagle ray rises
from the edge of the reef,
raises his wide arms, circles
the blue reach in slow spirals,
gliding, turning, each revolution
a lifting of his arm’s white lip
a mantra of smoothness.
I watch him until he slides away
into the far distance. I peer after him
though I can no longer discern
his body’s shape
from the lift of his wing,
and the shadow of the sea.

V.
We stand in a circle, waist deep in water,
watching the sea gently tumble
up the white coral shore.
Above the waving green palms, a rainbow
curves into a cup of blue sky.
Lars spins cartwheels, his legs
pointing up toward the clouds,
body twirling with the pinwheel spiral
of the earth whirling toward twilight
as the sun rolls, molten orange,
down the sky, smoothed
into the sea’s soft, silken cradle.
Hush. Can you hear the stars singing?

VI.
Skimming along the surface of the inky water
the boat speeds ahead toward the city’s lights
and the plane that will take me home. I do not want to go.
I stare off into the distance out the side window,
unable to distinguish the difference between sky and water,
the whole world folding into one. Beneath me
water flies in showers of starry phosphorescent light.
Luminescent sparks flare in bright streaks.
I am leaving, carried on the tail of a comet.

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Lion fish, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

Immersing oneself in the sea may not be what everyone feels motivated to do, but the ocean is the place where all rivers meet and a source of immeasurable life. Now that I live in the US again, I’ve not had the opportunity to dive, though I admire the work of oceanographer and explorer, Sylvia Earle, and her efforts at Mission Blue, to preserve the ocean’s biodiversity, and as well as her work with National Geographic to create underwater marine reserves--blue parks. The natural world’s diversity enriches us and brings us more life.

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Blue spotted ray, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

It’s comfortable to stick with what we know, but it’s also good to recognize that our individual lives depend on the diversity of life worldwide. Appreciating and supporting that diversity is perhaps one of the most important things we can do to bring more life into the world, our own and the natural world as well. When diving into the ocean, we can see the variety of worlds going on there all at once. Many ways of being co-exist. A manta ray might be swooping over an underwater mound of rock where cleaner wrasse wait, ready to feed on the mucus, damaged cells, and parasites that live on the manta ray. To the side and below the scene with the manta and wrasse, an octopus prepares his den, shoving out sand, while suspended between the two worlds, bat fish slowly circle.

The natural world thrives because of its diversity. In the financial world, as well, advisors tell us that a diversified portfolio is the foundation for sound investments. Similarly, diversifying our activities can benefit both our mental and physical health. Being open to new kinds of people, activities, and ways of thinking is good for us. When we purposefully choose to allow new ways of thinking and being to enter into our lives, we, enhance our health and well being, says the Harvard Medical School newsletter.

Stepping out of our comfort zones to do or learn something new, go somewhere different, to consider unfamiliar thoughts and different ways of seeing the world that contradict our former ways of being can bring challenges. Those very difficulties can also wake us up inside, though, and help us feel more alive. They can enable us to become more whole. David Steindl-Rast points out in his book, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer, an Approach to Life in Fullness, that Abraham was seventy-five years old when God told him “‘Go forth out of your land, and out of your kinsfolk, and out of your father’s house.'” It takes a lot of courage to leave the world you know, in particular to do this at an age when people often prefer to settle into what’s familiar and comfortable. Abraham left his familiar world behind, though, and it’s interesting to note that Abraham didn’t know where he was headed when he set out on his pilgrimage. He was willing to be uncertain about what he knew, where he was going. Perhaps this is a central reason he’s revered–his willingness to reach beyond the borders of his understanding, and to move into unfamiliar territory and ways of being.

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living for the Long Journey

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Age is a strangeness. No matter
how many relatives we watched
totter into their graves, even cats
and dogs whom we’d raised from birth,
we never quite believed it could happen to us.

–Marge Piercy,

Many I know are dealing with difficulties of age, as Piercy describes in the excerpt above from her poem “How Did I Come to Be Here?” but also of repercussions from accidents, diseases, illnesses, and loss. From the recent floods in Mozambique to the school shooting in Colorado, the whole world seems to be struggling and grieving. The book I’m currently reading, Old Calabria, originally published in 1915 by Norman Douglas about his travels through Calabria, Italy, describes the intolerable circumstances the Calabrian peasants lived with. “Every attempt at innovation in agriculture, as in industry, is forthwith discouraged by new and subtle impositions, which lie in wait for the enterprising Italian and punish him for his ideas. There is, of course a prohibitive duty on every article or implement manufactured abroad, there is the octroi, a relic of medievalism. the most unscientific, futile, and vexations of taxes; there are municipal dues to be paid on animals bought and animals sold, on animals kept and animals killed, on milk and vine-props and bricks, on timber for scaffolding and lead and tiles and wine–on every conceivable object which the peasant produces or requires for his existence.” The burden of trying merely to survive went on for centuries, and is a major reason Calabrians left Italy for America at the turn of the last century when workers were needed. Pilgrimages today to new worlds continue for many who find the countries they live in unbearable. Suffering is common to the human experience.

Life has its ease and beauty, but we do not know what the next day or moment may bring. Eventually we all will face death, and having the strength to walk through the land taking us to that place is a trip it would be good to prepare for so we have the inner strength upon our arrival. But what gives us strength to make the pilgrimages life demands of us–the long treks into the unknown, the risks of uncertainty flooding over us, and how do we prepare purposefully and wisely? Any answer we arrive at will most probably begin with learning how to live meaningfully and wisely in the moment we are living now–practicing being and bringing into our lives what is life engendering.

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Recently, my husband and I took a trip up California’s west coast to visit some of the largest and most ancient trees living in virgin forests with a friend and filmmaker, Adrian Juric. Nothing is hidden about death or the stages of growth in a tree’s life when observing a forest never logged. All is visible. Standing amidst the mist enshrouded ferns in these ancient forests, I noticed everywhere around me fallen trees that had been lying there for who knows how many centuries, the echo of their thunderous long ago fall almost auditory when looking at the gargantuan ruptured trunks and shattered wood lying about. The violent disruption of life can be sensed simply by observing the aftermath. 

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But everywhere around the fallen trees, all the living trees were present, continuing on growing alongside the decaying ones, the fallen trees’ lives essential to the living ones. At the foot of the mother trees the young trees waited, ready to climb into the opening light when the mother tree fell. Trees of all ages coexist side by side, the fallen ones creating nutrient and light for those living on.

Observing nature, we’re reminded of how we, too, are part of nature. In the forest, we can see kind of mirror of our own lives–how disturbing, disabling, and threatening it became for other organisms when the tree fell–how incredibly harsh death can be. And, too, how difficult for the life of young trees near the great trees if you consider how they have to wait centuries for change, for light and their turn to grow. 

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Viewed in this way, perhaps it doesn’t seems like being in such a forest should necessarily make us feel better. We walk in a forest, and our difficulties might remain. Nevertheless, often the walk there somehow does change us, allowing us to see our lives from a different perspective. Nicholas Samaras in his poem, “Redwood,” describes how simply being in a redwood forest can give a person the necessary strength to face difficulty. You look around you at the trees’ magnificent height, the way the branches move and leaves transform light, and in them are given the opportunity to recognize what light can do when absorbed. Inhaling the fullness in the forest’s presence, you can walk back into the path of your own life differently. You might want to view and listen to Samaras’s poem here and sense through Juric’s film how a forest could change you, and perhaps, a bit of why, in concrete terms, Harvard Medical school’s July 2018 Men’s Health Watch article says that being in nature three days a week could do our bodies and mind serious good–everything from lowering blood pressure and reducing cortisol to reducing negative emotions.

There are many beautiful teachings we can learn from and practice to help us on our path of living wisely. The Beatitudes describe wise living as nurturing attitudes of becoming peacemakers who are merciful, and humble. The  Five Mindfulness Trainings  encourage us to practice respect for life, generosity, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and mindful consumption. Whatever our practice, this we know: life is fragile and we suffer. And this we know too: life goes better when we stand beside each other, holding each other as we can, when we learn from each other, letting our lives nurture and lift each other.

Conrad Aiken, in his poem, Music I Heard writes,

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

That strong tree growing in the forest is like the life of a dear brother, sister or loved friend, and the relationship with them is like music. Whether it’s taking a walk, working alongside one another, building something or eating together, relationships can bring us sustenance and blessing. As the final stanza of Aiken’s poem describes,

For it was in my heart that you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,
—They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.

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When we’re with someone who suffers it may not feel our presence is enough, but in it is everything we are. To be fully present with another is to give your life in love. That is the greatest gift.