The winter solstice is only a few days away now, the shortest day in the year. Perhaps I should be thinking about joy, as this is the Christmas season when much of the world decorates with lights and gives gifts to each other but I’ve been thinking about the thin, winter places of life, where we have less time in the light–what it’s like living in that place where you don’t know when or if the light will be coming. Maybe joy and loss aren’t always separate things.
Currently, I am reading Beloved On the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude, edited by Jim Perlman, Deborah Cooper, Mara Hari, and Pamela Mittlefehldt. In this volume you will find Kenneth Salzmann’s poem, “Musaf: Additional Prayer,” a poem exploring a world where loss and loneliness are well known. The poem begins,
Praised be the one
I have lived contentedly without;
who reveals the Berkshires today
are an unexpected house of prayer
and sorrow, as just one green month
rises to repair a broken circle; whose
search for me is unfulfilled
and perhaps not ended.
The Berkshires are a rural tree-filled hilly and scenic area in Massachusetts. In Salzmann’s poem, they are a place of meditation, one he hadn’t counted on as he has lived without the one who is searching for him. Because the hills are referred to as a house of prayer, though who the “one” is isn’t named, it could be suggested that it’s the speaker of the poem’s father, or possibly even God, that’s searching for him, a search that has gone on for some time, and isn’t quite over yet.
In the first stanza, the writer mentions the sorrow present in this place he is walking. In the stanza that follows, Salzmann describes a kind of paradox, where the loss and sorrow also carry with them a kind of wonder and beauty,
“Blessed is eternal loss and glory, wonder of the universe,
splash of color slipping from a winter-weary wood
that I have often walked alone;
Though the poem’s speaker seems to have traveled a far distance from the one who is searching for him, he finds himself becoming whole again, reconnected with himself and the world around him, “the world finds a voice/ and whispers Shema;” he writes. Shema is the beginning word of the Jewish prayer said in the morning and evening, “Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.” In English this reads, “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Like perfume left in a room after someone has just left, though the writer describes loss, he also leaves us with a sense of a presence that isn’t wholly nameable.
Unending Adonai, help us to go on imagining
that, wherever we go, we have only missed you
by a moment; allow us our untenable conviction
that we might become a blessing.
Though loss is present, though we have missed the blessing of a presence we longed for, we can ourselves become the blessing. We can give to others what it was we so wanted to be given. Salzmann suggests that we receive what we need by giving it away ourselves.
The green moth that in the first stanza repairs the broken circle is a small, fragile and temporal being, yet in the poem it is this moth that makes things new. “Blessed Father, command us to be free,” states the final line, and it surprises. The poem’s speaker asks to be told to free himself. Why would the poem’s speaker ask to be commanded to be free? The joining of wills, however, can give us the strength to change directions, to start anew–to transform.
Like the poem’s speaker, we may not know we are setting out on a journey of transformation as we walk out into the woods–into a place where things are not laid out in straight lines as on a well worn city street, roads we are overly familiar with, or as we travel back, possibly, to a place of origin. When we’re at a loss for where to go, when we’re sad, perhaps it’s a good idea to interrupt that way of thinking and to take a walk. As in Salzmann’s poem, insight can come unexpectedly in the form of single green moth leading us unintentionally to a new insight or discovery. Problems might be less fixed and the worlds we live in more permeable than they appear to be.
“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.”
However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.
In some cultures, people choose to become monks who own virtually nothing. They have begging bowls and their clothing, and that’s about it. They depend on people around them to give them food. This helps the monks practice gratitude and to control their wants and desires, and it helps other people to practice giving and hospitality. The work monks do can encourage us on our life path. Most of us, however, aren’t monks who have chosen to take the vow of poverty. We work hard to make a space we can live in so we can provide ourselves with food, clothing, and other necessities. There comes a point when making the best of it really isn’t enough. People want to do more than merely exist–need more than just their one bean.
Circumstances can arise that make it so getting these things aren’t possible or are at least very difficult to obtain. If we’re poor, it’s rarely by choice. We need the diversity that entire gardens possess. In a flourishing society, the social structure supports people in developing their abilities and provides varied and abundant opportunities for them to contribute to the community. If someone literally doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or is struggling with severe pain or loss of bodily function resulting from a terminal disease or other such loss, what enables a person to go on, and how do people cope with their fear and anxiety during such situations?
Recently, I’ve been researching about Italians immigrants living in San Francisco during World War II for poems I’m writing. During this time period, the US government labeled 600,000 American-Italians as “enemy aliens” resulting from Executive Order 9066, an act that held numerous consequences for Italian-American immigrants.
During WWII, Italian-Americans had to carry a booklet identifying them as an enemy alien and have it stamped once a week. They weren’t allowed to travel more than five miles from home, had to stay in their homes between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., and were required to turn over radios, flashlights and cameras to government authorities. Approximately another 10,000 Italians living in prohibited zones near coasts were forced to move (sources vary, as the Smithsonian, states it was 50,000). Many people lost their jobs, some because their place of employment was further than the five miles from their house they were allowed to travel. 1,400 Italian fishermen in San Francisco weren’t allowed to fish. Three hundred Italian-Americans (some sources say more) were put in internment camps. Certainly, these changes and losses caused the Italian-American community anxiety and fear regarding their livelihoods, the safety and well-being of their family members, as well as serious questions regarding how their future would be affected.
In the fall of 1942, Roosevelt lifted the enemy alien status but Executive Order 9066 remained on the books until 1976 when President Gerald Ford removed it.
Fear in the American society at large was a significant motivating factor behind the government’s choice to remove civil liberties from Italian-Americans, as well as from the Japanese and Germans. When the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw the internment camps, she spoke out against them. “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” Her voice didn’t cause the camps to close, however. The families in these camps continued living with their difficult situation.
Italian-American immigrants faced significant injustices, as have many others world-wide throughout history, as well as currently. Life can change quickly and profoundly when you are suddenly seen as no longer acceptable. It’s easy to see how difficult life could be in such circumstances and to imagine how easy it could be to live in a state of fear, anger and resentment when facing such a cyclone of events you couldn’t anticipate and had no control over.
We don’t know our futures. We want to be ready to face our fears and the storms that come our way. In his poem, “Snowfall in the Afternoon,” Robert Bly clearly depicts what it’s like when confronted with an unavoidable fearful situation– in this instance, a rising storm. “It was the sort of snowfall that starts in the late afternoon,” he writes, “And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.” Like anxiety and fear, the storm grows, picking up strength, feeding on its own furry as it continues, until the very home one lives in seems to be made of grass–vulnerable to gale force winds.
Yet beneath the surface, forces not attended to had been somehow present all along. Bly writes, “A darkness was always there which we never noticed.” The poem goes on, explaining how watching from inside the house, the cornfields seem to shrink. Then, like some wayward galley holding a great weight of grain, the barn’s bulk moves threateningly closer, about to crash into the house where “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” Whether blinded or aware, the viewer is left in an alarming situation. This is how we feel sometimes when confronting unavoidable situations–waiting for a hurricane or fire that might engulf our house and ruin our entire livelihood and future. How do we cope with extreme difficulties that can’t be avoided–when we don’t know how long anything around us will last, if our efforts will make any difference, and when we’re alone in our vulnerable house made of grass about to be plowed down by something we see coming and yet are unable to do much about?
Because the darkness was there all along but simply not previously noticed, we can see a possible way to begin to understand what we fear and what we might do about it: look around. Notice where darkness is growing and storms might be brewing. Practice acknowledging the presence of fear–look at the fear and purposefully be present with it in our thoughts. Rather than rushing past our fears, covering them over with restless activity or hiding them, simply practice noticing when the fear as it arises, observe it, be curious about it—what brings it up, how it feels in the body, what it’s telling or teaching us.
When we see a storm coming toward us, typical responses are to run, to hide, fight, or even to find ways to cooperate with the storm or move with it. A significant portion of Italian-Americans during WWII, for example, kept a low profile. Parents during that generation chose not to teach their children Italian. It was considered “the language of the enemy” and they didn’t want their children to stand out. Italians also enlisted in the army and went to war as a way to demonstrate their loyalty.
Like stony mountains, difficult things don’t necessarily go away. We have to learn to live with our emotions in spite of their presence. There are other ways to respond to difficult situations, and we can teach ourselves how to think, act and feel differently in response.
Imagination is a powerful tool. We can imagine various situations we’re afraid of and practice letting go of the fear—visualizing a different way of responding. Collette Lafia, in her article on the Gratefulness.org site, describes a practice where you sit quietly with a bowl, imagining filling it with your sorrow, grief, anger, exhaustion–whatever your wound. You don’t try and fix it, you just put it in the container and with humility hold it out to the Infinite for healing. I can see how this is a way of gaining a larger perspective and how it would help instill an understanding that the working out the problem that creates the fear isn’t about will and control. By placing the fear (or other strong emotion) in a larger context we can gain a kind of freedom from the thought patterns that bind us related to our fears and see how resolving an issue or dealing with fear is part of a larger interaction.
Pema Chödrön in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty, writes, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Difficult situations can be complex and we might not readily know by ourselves what it is we need in order to resolve our fears. Maybe we can begin elsewhere, however, and simply probe the emotion without having to think it must be resolved or that we have to come to conclusions about it. Living the question until we live into the answer might be the more appropriate thing to do, as the poet Rilke suggested.
So that we move out of our own tightness and fear–our tendency to cling and be anxious–we might also shift our gaze, aiming to familiarize ourselves with others and their pain. We can imagine ourselves taking in someone else’s pain, and send them light and energy. Pema Chodron describes specific steps for how we might do this in a practice called tonglen. The specific purpose of this practice is to expand our capacity for compassion. Instead of treating people perfunctorily, as someone who performs a task, we can begin consciously practicing to enhance relationships with those around us. This could be just a thought we think when we see someone pass by us who seems different from ourselves in dress or perspective. We might in our minds wish them well, to be released from pain or to find fulfillment. Fear, anger, resentment–these can trap us, make our lives miserable but we can live alongside these emotions, observing and putting them into a wider, different context, or turn from them toward something different. Learning to love ourselves, we learn how to love our neighbors. We can open our arms, and nurture our hearts into a larger world.
We all want to live a life where we feel valued. Recognizing how the well-being of our own life is interconnected to the dignity of all people is foundational to moving beyond fear into a larger world where we can live with greater freedom and attain more of our full potential. After World War II in 1948, representatives from countries and cultures throughout the world put together The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the goal of protecting people from “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The declaration was put in place in recognition that people shouldn’t have to be pushed into “rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” Neither should people have to hide, run away, or deny their language, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other fundamental aspects of their personhood just so they might continue living. All people need dignity and should be able to thrive in living condition free from fear. Article 1 of the Human Rights Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Practicing in our lives each day how to move beyond our own fears, we can begin to integrate into our lives how we might respond to fears in others’, and perhaps see how to respect and protect their freedom. As John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition: there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”—Frederick Buechner
In the work I did for three decades, I lived with strict schedules. Nearly every minute counted, and clear goals for each hour, even portions of the hour, seemed necessary. This year I’m choosing to live differently. Thoreau went to the woods to live simply and deliberately. I’m beginning a new life in California as of this summer, and in my experiment in living, I want to focus on living with presence. I have goals–to learn to draw, play the clarinet, learn Spanish, to write poetry, among other goals. More than achieving all my goals, though, I want to open to a place of being. I want to listen to the land I live on, inhabit it physically and mentally–to take in the subtle changes as the seasons shift–the light, the color, the sounds, nurturing the awareness of its presence. I want to every day consciously notice life for the miracle it is.
As I walk across the land where I live, I notice many things that need tending to–the poison oak that’s growing up on the path, the oak trees that need trimming, how last year’s rainstorms have washed away soil on the bank. After being gone for some time, as I have been, there are numerous things I need and want to do. Perhaps these things don’t matter much in the big picture of the universe. Keeping the poison oak at bay, for example, isn’t going to influence what happens in India, though it will make it easier for me to walk around. The bigger lesson in caring for the trees, pulling out weeds, watering, and the various other things people do to their living space when living in a rural area, is understanding how living on the land involves an interconnection and a relationship. As I give to the land and care for it, it cares for me. If I avoid behaviors that cause erosion, for example, it benefits me and benefits the earth I live on as well. Tree roots don’t get undermined causing the tree to fall over. I used to not want to cut the herbs growing in front of my house, better to let them continue on their natural life, I thought. Over time, though, I’ve learned, that most herbs actually like to be cut back. They grow better as a result. The plants have taught me things about themselves.
Learning what the land you live on wants, what it needs, and how to give it that care takes time. Currently, I’m reading about what grows best in specific areas, what gophers and deer don’t like to eat. I’m also learning by getting out and walking around each day to see how things are doing. Doing the walk is a kind of observation ritual so I can better understand the organic processes of the land and my life in connection to it. Though it may be someone’s job to care for the community’s garden or shared landscape, living in an urban landscape requires similar attention. As in human relationships, the land we live on and use needs us to understand the effect our behavior has on it, if we are to live in good relationship with it, if we want a meaningful relationship.
Soquel, California sunset sky
Reeds, Neary’s Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA
Spider’s web, Neary’s Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA
Similar to learning how to have a relationship with the land I live on, learning to draw or to write require an attending to an inner awareness of what is trying to come forth. When drawing, as well as when writing, you heighten your attention to details, as the details develop the picture of what you’re focusing on. They enable you to see more fully–not just the object, but its presence and the meaning of its presence. This requires time to not be measured in minutes or in reaching a predetermined goal. Instead, we allow ourselves depth. We explore our connection to time–allow ourselves to move without measurement. Instead of skimming across the surface, we fully inhabit our actions, our thinking, our being. The German poet, Rilke, wrote about the artist’s connection to the creative act in Letters to a Young Poet “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!” It takes time to know who you are as an artist. You have to listen to your life, to what it’s trying to tell you. The message is usually subtle and complex, and takes practice. You don’t have to be a visual artist or writer to be creative. Living is itself a creative act. We have visions of what we want to create in ourselves, and we can be patient with ourselves in the act of making our life something meaningful and with beautiful character.
Observing the world enhances our ability to listen to life and to experience it more fully. This past May, while hiking around in the UK’s Lake District, I looked up from the river’s edge where I was standing to see a leaf backlit by the sun. Its vibrant color and intricate texture stunned me. All the leaf’s veins stood out as if I was looking under a microscope. If color could shout, this leaf would certainly have been deafening. The more I keep my eyes open, the more I notice the infinite variety of colors, textures and shapes. The world comes alive, and I feel more alive as a result.
Leaf, Lake District, UK
River rock, Lake District, UK
Leaf at river’s edge, Lake District, UK
River in Lake District, UK
Lake District roadside moss, UK
Often, I photograph textural details in the world around me. I carry my camera and my journal with me most places. I never know what amazing thing I might see. Holding a camera or a pen are but ways of paying attention, of nurturing a relationship to yourself and to the world. I don’t know what the various images of texture I’m collecting will add up to, the thoughts that will surface as a result. They may be nothing significant in themselves. The photo itself is not the goal. They are but a way of seeing, a pathway. As Shelley Berc, co-director of the Creativity Workshop in her article “How Fear Chokes Creativity and What to Do About It” writes, “We find wonder and beauty, new ideas and images everywhere when we allow our senses to experience each moment fully. When we shut down our perceptiveness and our sensitivity and only look to the finish line, our creativity has no access to the very elements that make it enriching and deep.” When I open the door to my house in the evening to sit on the steps, crickets croon and wind rustles the trees. Leaves fall like rain. There is an energy astir. The earth is full of wonder and alive with a kind of music in the interplay of all that is. We are more than our occupations, lists of accomplishments and goals, more than the muscle and bone of our bodies. Taking the photos or writing in a journal are mainly ways to enter a door into another way of being–one that is more awake, aware.
In his Book of Hours, Love Poems to God, Rilke, writes, “If we surrendered/ to earth’s intelligence/ we could rise up rooted, like trees.” There is a wisdom in the earth that can only be understood as we allow ourselves to absorb its sounds, its rhythms and textures, colors, as we develop an intimacy with it, enter into companionship with it. Trees have roots but they also bend and move, provide a place for birds to roost, food, shade for other plants to grow and for humans to enjoy. They offer beauty. There is more to trees, and the natural world they are a part of than merely the things they provide, however. The earth isn’t just a backdrop to human existence. It is our foundation. Perhaps recording what I see is a way to develop a different kind intelligence–one of deeper roots to all that sustains not just myself, but all of us.
The wind has blown in gusts all day. The light is soft gold. When I stood beside the redwoods this afternoon, I heard them groan. Every world region has different textures that are its own. The natural world is alive with presence. Walking in a forest, desert, beach, grassland, mountain, city park, or simply looking up into the sky and noticing it, listening to it, and then drawing or writing, photographing, or simply talking about what you are aware of draws us into the mystery of existence. Certainly, that’s worth experiencing deeply.
“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.” –-John Berger
Trees have been important to humans throughout time. The Atlantic points out evidence to demonstrate a connection between the health of trees and our human health. In countries of Turkish and Arab origin, trees are a symbol of life, and tree of life motifs are woven into carpets from the region. People plant trees to commemorate a baby’s birth, and sometimes when a pet dies a tree is planted where the animal was buried. The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, and the Bible tells the story of the Tree of Knowledge. In Japanese culture, the plum tree’s blossoms represent life’s beautiful yet fragile quality. These are but a few of people’s interconnections with trees. (The American Forest organization gives many further interesting insights about humans’ relationship to trees.)
Lately, I’ve been spending time with trees. Though I’ve loved trees since childhood when I climbed and played in the pepper and umbrella trees in my family’s backyard, I’ve developed a further interest in trees as a result of my recent endeavor to learn to draw. Drawing is a way of knowing. You look closely at what you’re drawing. You study what you observe in order to draw, and what you’re studying has a way of becoming part of you. You gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your subject. Families are connected to the idea of trees, and for my family reunion this summer I thought I would draw each family member their favorite tree. This way I could practice drawing, and get to know something new about my family, as well as give something to them. I’d also gain new insight about trees.
I set out on my endeavor. As I drew, I realized more clearly how trees each have their own unique architecture and character. Drawing them is a bit like getting to know a person. As you get more familiar with someone, their unique personality emerges. It’s similar with trees. It takes a lot of patience to draw–patience with yourself and your learning process. I want to draw better than I am able. As a beginner, it’s difficult to see well enough to draw the spirit inside of anything–which is what I want to do–to interact with the unique feeling or character of what I’m drawing and reveal it–but this is next to impossible because I’m still trying to develop the skill of how to put the lines on the page. It’s an amazing notice, however, when what I’ve made looks something like what I intended and others can recognize it! That’s motivation to continue the effort going.
After completing the drawings (a few of which are shown below), I interviewed each family member to learn more of the story behind why they chose their particular tree as their favorite. Reflecting on what I heard during these interviews, I noticed the strength and energy behind people’s attachment to their chosen tree, and decided to write a poem about each person’s tree, using some of the details told me during the interviews.
To do this, I had to imaginatively enter into the landscape where the tree grows, and envision both the tree and the meaning it holds for the person. I had familiarity with everyone’s chosen tree, but in aiming to write about the pine-filled hills of Tennessee, I was confronted with the fact that I knew little specifically about Tennessee pines. Though I’ve lived in more than one region of the US and have travelled to different states, it is not the same as living in a particular place and knowing it in its subtle moods and aspects. We connect with the land around us both physically and imaginatively. We know something by reading about it and studying it, but also by being present with it over time. This is what makes landscape or a tree personal–we interact with it and come to know it. Knowing pines in locations other than Tennessee, as well as reading about the landscape, and recalling novels and films that took place in that part of the US, helped me to imagine the pines of Tennessee so I could write about them. In this way, a world that was not my own could became part of my own experience.
After drawing and writing about trees, I decided to familiarize myself further with the heritage trees near where I live, and took a hike to the Byrne-Milliron forest. Santa Cruz County is home to some of the oldest redwood forests in the world, and the Byrne-Milliron forest contains one of oldest redwood trees in California, the Great White Redwood. The tree is 25o feet tall and a 1,000 years old. Though the tree is a redwood, its bark has a silvery white appearance. In spite of the heat, I wanted to encounter the tree, to stand in its presence and observe how that felt, so with my water bottle in hand, I set out.
The Byrne-Milliron forest lacks a high volume of visitors, so when walking through the area, other than leaves crunching under my feet, a dense quietness filled the air. Dodging poison oak along the way, and guessing a bit at which way to go, I followed a path as it wound up a hill offering an overview of the Pajaro Valley, then dipped into gullies rich with shade before narrowing into more or less the width of my feet as I approached the tree.
Standing at last in the small clearing at the foot of the great tree, I gazed up its long, near endless height. The forest was so deeply still but for the butterflies moving in a gap high up in the redwood’s branches where sunlight fell through. The journey to find the tree had been a kind of pilgrimage, and I sat in silence before the tree for some time. Even with the tree’s top obscured by leaves from its branches, the tree’s solidity and immensity moved and overwhelmed me.
Along the hike, I had seen a number of large redwood stumps where virgin growth trees had been cut at the turn of the last century. Previous to this, for a hundred years short of a thousand years, this tree and the forest itself had stood silent with only the hum of flies and the random call of a bird, rain patter, and perhaps some occasional thunder. Eons of of silence. Stillness. That’s what the forest held and the trees knew–an astonishing reality.
As I didn’t see other trees in the forest approaching the size of the Great White Redwood, it appears to be the one uncut virgin growth tree remaining. I imagined what it must have been like to enter this forest two hundred years ago where all the trees were this enormous, this ancient. Humans have done much to shape and alter the earth. Numerous pieces of human architecture have moved me–the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Majal, the Sagrada Familia, to name a few. Standing before an ancient tree is different. A tree is alive. Before this ancient living presence, I felt full of wordless awe. A large, solid slice of wood shaped like a plaque sits before the Great White redwood in the Byrne-Milliron forest, a commemoration of the tree, it seems, though the plaque contains no words. That emptiness seems worth noting.
People have altered and shaped the earth since the beginning but the land also shapes us. Our experience with geography and landscapes is an exchange–the land brings us its scents, colors, textures, lighting, and seasonal changes, but we also bring something to it with our specific interests, questions, perceptions, skills, and imagination. What is the affect on our lives of loving and caring for particular landscapes or specific aspects of nature such as trees? The nature writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, in his Education Week Teacher essay, “Losing Our Sense of Place” writes, “The intense pressure of imagery in America, and the manipulation of images necessary to a society with specific goals, means the land will inevitably be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image will, one way or another, be silenced or discredited by those in power.” Getting to know the land we live on, getting to know the trees and plants around us through drawing them, writing about them, or simply walking among them is a way to move beyond the idea that the earth is merely another commodity. These practices honor the land’s presence and our shared connection to the natural world. They help toward creating greater balance between being and the effort to possess, to attain.
How well do we know the place we live? How do we stand in relationship to it? As I draw trees, I grow more aware of their complexity. I thought I knew what a tree was, but when looking closely over an extended period of time, as is necessary when drawing a tree, I notice how there’s so much mystery inside a tree as well, so much I don’t understand. Hikmet Nazim, in his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” writes, “I didn’t know I loved the earth/ can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it.” Our lives are linked with trees. They are important to our physical and emotional health. We may not work the earth but we can nurture our love for it. It’s worth our time to read and learn about the land we live on–the land we love. It’s worth taking time to visit the natural world, to develop a relationship with the geography we are a part of, to grow close with the land we love and with the trees they hold. They are an important part of what makes us who we are.
On blue summer evenings I’ll go down the pathways Pricked by the grain, crushing the tender grass— Dreaming, I’ll feel its coolness on my feet. I’ll let the wind bathe my bare head.
I won’t talk at all. I won’t think about anything. But infinite love will rise in my soul, And I’ll go far, very far, like a gypsy, Into Nature–happy, as if with a woman.
Over a decade ago, I browsed through a book with photos of Crete at a friend’s house. The abundance of wildflowers depicted in the photos amazed me, and I hoped someday to be able to visit Crete in the spring. That day arrived this past April. I came to Crete on a pilgrimage–a journey seeking renewal through connecting with a fleeting seasonal aspect of nature that offers so much joy to so many: wild flowers.
Driving to the ancient site of Aptera, just west of Chania, I wandered the hillside above the sea. Meadows of marguerites stood chest high. Red poppies boldly waved their colors beside the buttercups sprinkled across the grass. The entire world shimmered in spring petals. Bees, legs laden with pollen, drifted from flower center to flower center, their hum filling the fields. Lying on a rock surrounded by blossoms the sky wide above me, I felt I was buoyed up by beauty, floating on time’s wide sea. Alive. Replete. I knew I’d arrived at my journey’s destination.
Flowers have a way of opening our hearts. They unfold their petals, and our hearts unfold with them. Previously, on this blog I’ve written about forest bathing, an activity that is now gaining momentum in the US, as studies, according to this recent article by Meeri Kim, “‘Forest bathing’ is latest fitness trend to hit U.S. — ‘Where yoga was 30 years ago,’” have demonstrated how it helps to lower blood pressure, heart rate and reduces stress, among other benefits, including helping elderly patients with COPD, according to another study done in China, reported in the Natural Medicine Journal. The insights this research gives got me wondering about the effects flowers might have on the mind and body. It turns out that flowers, too, bring us numerous benefits. One study shows how office workers grew more relaxed when viewing roses. Flowers, studies have found, reduce stress and speed healing. They also change our behavior. The University of Florida website, in their post, “Flower power: ‘Brain Awareness’ lecturer to discuss flowers’ positive effect on emotions,” explains how research done by Jeannette Haviland-Jones, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and director of the Emotions Laboratory at Rutgers University, unexpectedly found that “people who got flowers performed much better in memory tests than those who did not get flowers,” suggesting that flowers may effect memory functions. Louie Schwartzberg, renowned for his phenomenal time-lapsed photography, tells audiences on his TED Talk, The Hidden Beauty of Pollination, that flowers’ beauty is connected to survival. “We protect what we fall in love with,” says Schwartzberg. These examples illustrate some of the new understandings about the effects the natural world, including flowers, have on our physical well-being.
Beyond the beauty flowers bring, however, I’ve been thinking how flowers are important reminders of the value of gentleness. A flower’s life is brief, all its beauty spent in a single season but flowers are an important antidote to life’s hardness. We live in a world where power over others is often respected, where we’re encouraged to be a leader, and to take charge of our lives or of the situations we’re connected with. Get tough and be strong. Climb mountains, push your limits, and go farther. These are saying and ideas commonly found in our culture. Flowers are an antidote to this kind of thinking.
Though they can also hold their faces to the sun all day, absorbing its heat, flowers aren’t known for their toughness. Their petals are soft and tear easily. We appreciate them for their bold blossoms, their illusive, sweet scents and sassy colors but we love them for their softness. Flowers, in their gentleness, remind us that we, too, are human. Their petals are flexible, fragile, vulnerable, even, as they bend and turn with the wind, and in their softness, they allow us to speak from the tender parts of our own lives for which we often can’t find words–the part where we allow others to enter when we want to be in relationship–when we want others to know us. Tennessee Williams helps us understand the importance of flowers’ softness in his line from his play Camino Real, “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.” We see the flower growing in the stony crack, and find its softness a relief. Life is not all hardness. There is a strength in softness that moves in a different mode. Flowers touch our souls the way music does, reaching past the stony walls of reason we protect ourselves with to lift our spirits, and let us know we are more than struggle. We are alive, joined to all that is–including joy.
Rimbaud’s poem, “Sensation” illustrates this idea of how allowing ourselves to be touched by the soft things of life can transform us. Rimbaud begins with the poem’s speaker walking into a blue summer evening. It is a vivid image, perfectly depicting the tranquil essence of summer’s calm depth. Though in the next line the poem’s speaker is “pricked by grain” and “crushing the tender grass,” we understand we’ve entered a soft world because the grass is tender. The grain that pricks us serves to make us aware that our senses are enveloped in a world that is delicate and alive, and therefore breakable. As we continue reading the poem, the words bathe the reader in a scene of natural beauty–coolness caresses the feet; wind immerses the head in its essence. The poem’s speaker doesn’t resist the blue evening he enters. Instead, he surrenders himself to the wind’s caress. The head is bare, unprotected, open to experience. There is no need to talk, to reason or ponder, yet there is an exchange. Like a flower opening, as the poem’s speaker gives himself to her, Nature reveals herself to him. The sequence is worth noting here. Infinite love arises in the soul as a result of opening to the relationship. In the poem’s last lines, Rimbaud brings the reader into the heart of the most intimate of connections– one that joins human to human and human to nature. The poem’s speaker describes himself wandering deeply into nature, connected to it as if with a woman. “And I’ll go far, very far, like a gypsy,/ Into Nature–happy, as if with a woman.” Going on a flower pilgrimage can bring a person to just such a place–to arrive at a destination of softness that lets us know we are alive and in union with the perfume and color of all that is.
This coming week I’m participating in San Francisco’s Lotus Live at the Asian Art Museum–creating with others a human flower as an expression of the value of diversity and peacefulness that can be seen from the sky. If you want to spread the healing power of flowers, you might want to check out this video describing how Larsen Jay began the organization called Random Acts of Flowers or maybe you simply want to pick flowers to bring someone, anyone, even a stranger, and see how it changes them.
Sicily’s countryside speaks in dramatic beauty–sheer stone faced mountains and sweeping valleys fringed by sea, pastures with grazing sheep and mists drifting below craggy ridges, olive groves speckled with wild yellow sour grass (oxalis stricta) blossoms, and wide fields waiting for wheat. Though the historical centers of Sicily’s cities are filled with stunning architectural beauty, since ancient times, agriculture has been central to Sicilian life. Along with several other products, the Greeks introduced grapes and olives to Sicily. For the Roman Empire, Sicily served as its breadbasket. When the Arabs arrived, they introduced irrigation, which served to further intensify farming in Sicily. Traveling though Sicily, it’s exhilarating to see vast expanses of open space on land that has been inhabited from so far back in time that the stories of the original people seem to seep into the earth itself–roots half hidden in the soil, and not completely understood.
In trying to learn more about Sicily before visiting it, I came across the beautiful film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily, describing Sicilians’ connection to food through the celebration of sacred rituals. Fabrizia Lanza, historian and museum curator, heads the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily, previously run by her mother. One of Lanza’s projects is to archive videos demonstrating food techniques, that, as she explains on her web page, are in danger of extinction. In Sacred Flavors of Sicily, Lanza describes her deep interest in food. “To me, food holds significance far beyond consumption. It is a chain of humanity, encounters, and sensuality. More than an object, food is our guiding metaphor.”
Olive tree in Agrigento, Sicily
Vegetable market, Catania, Sicily
As I listened to and watched Lanza’s film, it occurred to me that the people she interviewed weren’t simply describing their work as cooks or bakers. Food wasn’t a commodity. The Sicilians in her film were intimately part of the food they grew, made, and ate. Food was the tangible representation of people’s shared coexistence with the land and their neighboring community. The film shows an elderly woman, Nellina Selvaggio, making lace cookies to place on an altar for the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the family. A tree of life motif decorates every scartuciatte cookie, explains Selvaggio, “with a stem that is never interrupted.” Food in her world demonstrates the interconnectivity of all life, and serves as a bridge from the past to the future as she passes on her skill. The fruits and flowers on the lace cookies “represent the things we create through our lives as offerings to God,” explains Selvaggio. The community prepares an abundance of foods for the Feast of St. Joseph, and people make vows. When people prepare food with their own hands, present it as a sacred offering, and share it with others, an I-Thou relationship is nurtured with the land and neighbors. One of the household members in the film offered up this prayer for St. Joseph’s, beautifully summing up this lived connectivity between the soil, human activity, and the sacred.
Love the bread, heart of the home
perfume of the table, the joy of the heart.
Honor the bread, glory of the fields
fragrance of the land, feast of life.
Respect the bread, sweat on your brow
pride in work, poem of sacrifice.
Don’t ruin the bread, richness of your country
that holy gift for human toil.
Surprisingly, when I looked up who wrote the prayer, I learned Mussolini was the author. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, in her book, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, explains that these lines are actually from a speech Mussolini made to imitate the structure of a prayer. Mussolini words were part of a larger intention. He used people’s dependence on bread as a political symbol, connecting it to the nation’s wealth, explains Falasca-Zamponi. Mussolini embodied his idea in what he termed the Battle of Wheat. Speaking to representatives of the agricultural unions of the time, he played on their sense of pride, telling them it was a shame that Italians had to look for work abroad. He appealed to values of hard work rural Italians held in order to gain their support in so they would be willing to become soldiers. Falasca-Zamponi explains Mussolini’s aim was to gain rural people’s backing in order to accomplish his desire of expanding Italy’s access to resources through invading and controlling other areas such as Ethiopia. Quoting Mussolini, Falasca-Zamponi states he wanted to ‘”augment the nation’s [Italy’s] power and virility.”‘ Different, however, is the way his words are used in Lanza’s film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily. When the speaker in the film reads the words about the bread, nothing of Mussolini’s political motives appear to inhabit them. Instead, the words demonstrate honestly valued connections between land, food, human labor and life. Placed in a context that honors the flow of life embodied in their presence of bread, and without ulterior motives, the words function truly as a prayer–affirming life, and the human effort to bring forth its bounty.
Wheat, vegetables, and fruit growing in the fields all look beautiful from a distance, but few of us pause long to consider the link of life connecting from field to farmer to food on the table. Farming has always been a difficult life. In southern Italy there are nuances to farming beyond the struggle with nature to achieve a harvest. The Maffia has controlled the food system there, making farming even more difficult. In February 2016, Reuters reported that “Italy’s mafia has infiltrated huge swathes of the country’s agriculture and food business, earning more than 16 billion euros ($17.7 billion) in 2015 from the industry.” Additionally, as Rebecca Roberts explains in her May 2014 article, “Rise of the anti-mafia land movement,” The Mafia uses food as “a tool of power, with the residents of southern Italy literally relying on the Mafia for their daily bread.” The food costs less when bought through Mafia controlled businesses, but also is often coated with pesticides or E.coli. Cooperatives like Libera Terra, however, are working to free people from this kind of oppression, and to give control back to those working the land and shop owners who sell agricultural products.
Much of the food we buy today at grocery stores is raised on commercial farms, farms, which according to Jeff Vidal’s article, “Corporate stranglehold of farmland a risk to world food security “are growing in size, and squeezing out small farmers, even though their farmland is generally more productive and sustainable. Roberto Romano’s 2010 film, “The Harvest/La Cosecha,” depicts the difficult life of farmworkers this century on commercial farms, and their struggle for necessities, education, as well as their altogether herculean effort to hold on to dreams.
The loss of the sacred, our turning most everything into mere commodities demeans existence. When we our gaze consistently views the world through a lens of self gratification, when we value earth’s fecundity and wild abundance only for utilitarian purposes, we reduce and diminish life to a few hard, dry crumbs. We want more from life, but end up with less. We have it all, but remain empty. In Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Berry writes about the experience of this kind of life,
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
It’s inspiring to see people in Sicily working the land, and to watch women like Nellina Selvaggio in Lanza’s film create art with the food they make. Most people, though, will not likely be taking the time to create such food in this way, or at least not frequently. How, then, do we find a way to step off the treadmill where everything must be accounted for, everything compute? How do we nurture an awareness of our connection to the earth, our food, and our communities so we find again an I-Thou relationship with life? Berry, long an advocate of knowing the land you live on and understanding its needs, suggests that if you eat, you are a part of the food system. In his article, “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry presents several ideas we can consider in an aim to find a deeper connection with food:
1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can… 2. Prepare your own food… 3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home… 4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist…5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production…6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening…7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.
Though we may live in cities where open land is difficult to come by, we can grow a plant in a container for a window to help ourselves remain mindful of the earth and our ultimate dependence on it. In California, as part of a Curated Feast, and in a collaboration between historians and chefs, you can sit with others at a meal and learn about the origins of the food as you eat. This could be an engaging way to kickstart a venture into learning to be your own curator of the foods you eat, as Berry suggests. Beginning with one thing, one practice, we can change our story into a different narrative, one with a more satisfying plot.
In Berry’s poem, “Wild Geese,” the poem’s speaker goes on a horseback ride one Sunday morning where he eats persimmon and wild grapes, and opens a seed with the promise of a tree to be–
what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
We have what we need to connect to the earth. Simple, daily practices can help us understand how. We have what we need to feel alive again. It is a seed inside us. We can help it grow into a tree.
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.
Jungian 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.
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.
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.
On the parkbench sleeps a tiger With a very tall old lady In his lap; she is so tall (And so noisy) that her knees Have attracted a pair of screechowls To form on them a nest that sways.
–from Kenneth Patchen’s poem, “On the Parkbench”
This boisterous, fanciful scene from Patchen’s poem awakens the physical senses, describes the unbelievable, and invites us into a world of imaginative play we can delight in.
A while back I visited the Sherlock Holmes museum here on Baker St. in London. Since I received the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a gift from my brother when I was in fifth grade, I’ve been an admirer of Sherlock’s keen ability to observe closely, to see the relevant details in a situation others passed over, and to draw conclusions from them. “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes,” Holmes states in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Doyle’s Holmes had a wonderful ability to pull together a wide array of details, imagine himself into the scene, and to find the truth of the story that rested beneath the details that others pass over. What struck me as particularly interesting when I visited the museum, however, was how the docents would tell you in all seriousness as you entered a room in the house, “This is where Sherlock slept,” and “This is where Sherlock sat, “as if Sherlock were actually a living person. While here in London, I’ve visited Handle’s, Jimi Hendrix’s, Samuel Johnson’s, Thomas Carlyle’s, and Leighton Ford’s houses where you can read about their lives and see their work. These were, indeed, real people who actually did sit in specific chairs or slept in the beds in the house. Hendrix, for example, is said to have spent a lot of his time writing while in bed. Holmes, on the other hand, though he was concerned about truth, is still a fictional character–even if he seems vividly alive in our imagination. “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth,” Holmes stated in The Sign of Four. This is why, even though I realize that the Sherlock Holmes museum is a tourist spot and is appealing to people’s need for a touch stone for this well-loved character, it struck me as odd to hear information given out about Holmes as if he had lived, and it made me wonder about the fiction’s role in our lives.
Unlike at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studio here in the UK, those who love J.K. Rowling’s books can go to the studio and experience how artists and set makers have turned the fictional scenes of the novel into tangible realities for the movies. You can see the Hogwarts’ castle bathed in dramatic light, step inside Dumbledore’s study, and observe see for yourself the golden snitch made for the game of Quidditch. This is invented reality. We know it, but like all good literature, the imaginative story in the Potter books holds life lessons we can learn from–the value of friendship, staying true to yourself to name but two.
Fiction offers truths that enable us to reflect on who we are and how we are living. Ralph Elison wrote, “Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” a statement which seems quite relevant for our current social context. Susan B. Glasser, in her article in Politico Magazine, “Covering Politics in Post-Truth America,” mentions how, “a few days after the election the Oxford Dictionaries announced that post-truth has been announced as the 2016 word of the year, defining it as a condition in which ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.'” Facts are essential to our lives, and they are particularly important to poetry. Poets rely on facts to tell their truths. One of the great purposes of literature is to enable us to see truths about ourselves that we can’t see by simply reading the news. Poetry uses the literal realities of the world to aim at larger truths about the human condition. If you read Gerald Stern, for example, in his poem, “The Dancing,” you are brought through the facts of the poem into post World War Two as he describes his father in his family’s tiny apartment on Beechwood Boulevard,
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop–in 1945–
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing–in Poland and Germany–
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.
We can feel the tension between the dance punctuated by the “half fart” sounds coming from beneath the father’s arm pit in the poem and the war, “5,000 miles away” where Jews were “dancing” to keep away from Poland and Germany’s death camps. The family is dancing and laughing, falling as if dying as a way to deal with the horrors of the world. As readers, we see the pain between the lines, how the family is caught in their poverty and loss, and the greater loss of those who they feel connected to across the world, who are, in fact, dying. Similarly to the efforts of Sherlock Holmes, poets work to help us become aware of the larger connections of our inner world to outward realties so that we bring to the surface the details that enable us to begin to see the truth of our own experience. Though still affirming emotion, poetry in this way is a kind of corrective to a post-truth world where appeal to emotion matters more than facts.
Michael Longley, in a recent interview with Krista Tippett on her program, On Being, “The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” Tippett asks Longley, “What does poetry do? What does it work if it’s not solace?” Longley responds, “if you think of an out-of-tune violin, and tuning it up so that it’s in tune, I think that’s what art is, and that’s what art does. And good art, good poems is making people more human, making them more intelligent, making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be.” This is a truth built from the fabric of the heart, and is also what I recall Lucille Clifton saying when I took a summer the Flight of the Mind writing workshop from her in Oregon during the 1990’s, “Poetry humanizes.”
Langley goes on to say in the interview with Tippett that “one of the marvelous things about poetry is that it’s useless. It’s useless. ‘What use is poetry?’ people occasionally ask in the butcher shop, say. They come up to me, and they say, ‘What use is poetry?’ And the answer is no use, but it doesn’t mean to say that it’s without value. It’s without use, but it has value. It has — it is valuable. And it’s the first thing — the first people that dictators try to get rid of are the poets, and the artists, and the novelists, and the playwrights. They burn their books. They’re terrified of what poetry can do….It means that — poetry encourages you to think for yourself…The image that I love the most… is English critic, Cyril Connolly, and he compared the arts to a little gland in the body, like the pituitary gland, which is at the base of the spine. And it seems very small and unimportant, but when it’s removed, the body dies.” Unlike those who embody a post-truth mentality, poetic imagination is central to helping readers see the truth of human experience beneath the rhetoric. Facts do matter. Intention matters. Poetry asks us to examine the details of our lives and the fabric they weave. Poetry calls us to think about what matters, and to move into relationship with the world around us.
In his poem, “Wounds” Langley writes,
Over a landscape of dead buttocks
My father followed him for fifty years.
At last, a belated casualty,
He said – lead traces flaring till they hurt –
‘I am dying for King and Country, slowly.’
I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.
Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.
In Langley’s poem, we see the human side of dying for one’s country–the visual image of a wounded young man, and how “Paralysed as heavy guns put out/The night-light in a nursery for ever;” something that is often glossed over by politicians whose aim is to gain or maintain power while sending young men to war.
Poets must look closely at facts and tell them with the truest words they know. Poets must aim to tell the truth so we don’t forget it, so we can find hope in bleak and difficult times that seek to erase those things that matter most.
When difficult things happen to you, people sometimes tell you, “I’ll pray for you.” Some people would never say such a thing because the words sound religious, and such words would associate them with a perspective they abhor. Because of the divisive role religion has played historically and in the current political environment, prayer is not a part of many people’s vocabulary. But if, as Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, said during a recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett, “democracy is a place where you can make personal convictions public. You can make them public in politics, you can make them public in civil society, et cetera. Right? Diversity is not just the differences you like; diversity is the differences you don’t like,” then as democratic citizens, rather than cutting off those around us who we disagree with, perhaps we want to hear each other’s stories. Perhaps we should, instead, listen to the heart beneath the stories people tell in order to find the ground we hold in common so we can build communities where diversity’s value is a lived experience.
As Parker J. Palmer points out in his story on the Global Oneness Project site, “Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy,” our hearts are the place “we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human.” If we are going to heal our democracy, we must do it, Palmer describes, in our daily lives, the places where we live and work. Instead of being afraid of each other and our differences, Palmer suggests that we go ahead and speak, knowing our voices need to be heard, but when we speak to do so with humility, recognizing that we are we live in a particular context that affects our vision, a context and vision others may not share or have experienced. Because of this, Palmer suggests we recognize that our truth is partial, and acknowledge that it may not even be true. This is why we need “to listen with openness and respect, especially to “the other.”” With the windows and doors open, so to speak, so new air can flow through, I want to speak of prayer, to lean into it with humility, and notice what I can learn by reconnecting to this ancient practice.
St. Teresa of Avila called prayer “An intimate friendship, a frequent conversation held alone with the beloved.” While growing up, I said prayers my mother taught me. I recited them at the dinner table and before climbing into bed. My mother also prayed with me before heading to school each morning. As I grew older, however, I began conversations with God in my head as I walked to and from the bus stop, and as I climbed the hill behind where we lived. I walked through the dry grass there, to sit on granite boulders overlooking the valley beyond where I inhaled the earth and sky, experiencing a nonverbal communication with the natural world as the heat from the boulders I rested on seeped into my body, emitting comfort. I felt alive there, connected, and nurtured by the earth’s presence. In the silence of the heart, God speaks,” says Mother Teresa in her essay, “On Prayer.” “Listen in silence, because if your heart is full of other things you cannot hear the voice of God…We cannot find God in noise or agitation. Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence. “Prayer, isn’t so much about us talking or asking God for things, Mother Teresa explains. It’s mostly about listening. We listen so we understand ourselves, and who we are in connection to everything else. Wandering on the hills as a child prepared me for this way of knowing.
The poet Czeslaw Milosz, explores this idea of prayer as connectedness in his poem, “On Prayer.” Prayer takes us to a place where “the word is/ Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned./Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,/ Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh.” In prayer, Milosz tells the reader, time seems to stand still. This place of “is” Milosz refers to, suggests the awareness of being fully connected to the present moment, alive in our being, and aware of our connectedness with others. The Hindus have a wonderful metaphor describing all existence as interconnected net. Each intersection in the net is a diamond. Each diamond is a life form reflecting all the others. Prayer is the practice of listening that draws us into an awareness of this net, helping us to recognize how we’re part of each other.
Last summer, I went to dinner at a friend’s house where before the meal, the family recited a prayer together, asking for a blessing on the food. Hearing the prayer made me consider how prayer may not necessarily be the actual words said, but the heart’s intention behind the words, similar to how much of what is understood in spoken communication is not in what is said, but the words’ intonation. If the heart during prayer is open when the words are said, they change you. Jorie Graham suggests just this in her poem, “Prayer.” The poem describes a school of minnows as they turn and swirl, “re-infolding” upon themselves in the water until a current rising from below, changes their direction, carrying them somewhere new. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want in response to requests, Graham says. Instead, “What you get is to be changed.” You’re swimming along in your circling path, but prayer takes you out of your habitual pattern, and sets you off somewhere new.
At some point in life, we encounter serious difficulty. We come to the border of our ability to comprehend or cope with our circumstances. This is where we enter the territory of wordless prayer not of communion, but of yearning that arises from the deepest wells and holes in our selves where we reach out, yet have no words to articulate what’s in our hearts: we live the prayer of loss, grief, or pain. Vassar Miller in his poem, “Without Ceremony,” says, “Except ourselves, we have no other prayer.” We ourselves are prayer. Being is prayer, and in that state, similar to the prayer where we sense communion, we are fully alive, and one might say pure, in our trust and vulnerability because we are completely open—raw. When we bring ourselves to God in this state, we sense our longing so deeply, “Our needs are sores upon our nakedness,” to use Miller’s words. We know our weaknesses well, and we know we are naked, wounded, and in deep need. In this state, words aren’t necessarily needed. Our hearts cry out from within. “We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,/ A posture humbler far and more downcast;” writes Miller. Reading these poems about prayer affirms wordless desire, this intense thirst to touch life, to live fully.
The deep longing in Miller’s poem, the need that is like a sore–the feeling like one is falling on the heart, the yearning for wholeness: we all come to know this ache. While living in Muslim countries, I heard prayer calls throughout the day. They reminded me to take a moment for mental prayer, to offer gratitude, and were an opportunity to purposefully notice what it was I was doing. If I sat in that silent space more often, allowing myself to cross the velvet bridge Milosz writes of, rather than relentlessly pressing on to the next task or chore, I would be in deeper conversation and relationship with God, with those around me, and with my own being. As a result, I believe I also would be less afraid and understand better how to live and to love. Listening requires time and focus. We don’t see what we don’t turn our eyes to. We don’t hear what we don’t tune our ears to listen to. How else might I hear God’s voice but by creating a space for entering into the place of being?
Prayer is a way for us to step outside ourselves and to listen to what lies beyond our own boundaries of vision and understanding. Prayer is listening to the words under the words. This past spring while snorkeling, I found myself in the midst of a large school of banner fish calmly floating by. As I peered out into the infinite stretch of blue at the fish slipping through the sapphire sea below, above and beyond me in complete quietness but for the sound of my breath, beauty overwhelmed me. I was swimming inside a living prayer. If “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork,” as the psalmist says, then the natural world is a kind of ongoing prayer without words. Ocean, mountains, stone and sky are all a kind of living prayer. Writing poetry requires me to notice and listen to the world and my inner self. It allows me to go down on the knees of my heart and find what is there. Writing poetry, for me, is a kind of prayer.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” but when the White Rabbit actually took a watch out if its waistcoat pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice startled to her feet. – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Since living in London, I’ve noticed how people seem to walk the streets with purpose and determination, and they walk fast, or at least faster than I’m used to seeing. Recently, I’ve begun to think of the rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and how easy it is to be a like him—anxious about where we’re going and if we’re going to make it on time. Time as marked by watches and clocks is an invention, yet as Glenn Aparicio Parry mentions in his article in the January/February issue of Resurgence and Ecologist, “Think of Time as Nature Thinks,” Time as we think of it today, measured out in precise linearly calculated capsules of existence, is an abstraction, and a somewhat recent phenomena. Previously, time was something people noticed as seasons change and animals migrated. Time was perceived as more circular, and things weren’t necessarily perceived as progressing and becoming better in the present than they were previously, Parry explains. Perry goes on to describe the Hopi, who had no words for the past, present or future. Instead, they believed things that things that happened previously were stored up and could be manifested later on. Events in this vision of time are a kind of interweaving.
I read Parry’s ideas, and wonder what the world would look and feel like if we lived with a different view of time. When you travel or live in a different culture, you enter a different reality, see through different windows. Richard Lewis, a linguist and one who studies cross-cultural phenomena, in his article in Business Insider, “How Different Cultures Understand Time,” describes some of the varying views of time. “Spaniards, Italians and Arabs will ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations will be left unfinished. For them, completing a human transaction is the best way they can invest their time.” The Japanese, Lewis describes, “must experience an unfolding or unwrapping of the significant phases of the event. It has to do with Asian indirectness, but in Japan it also involves love of compartmentalization of procedure, of tradition, of the beauty of ritual.” The view of time in Madagascar is different yet again, according to Lewis. “The Malagasy imagine the future as flowing into the back of their heads, or passing them from behind, then becoming the past as it stretches out in front of them. The past is in front of their eyes because it is visible, known and influential. They can look at it, enjoy it, learn from it, even “play” with it.”
While Lewis’s descriptions are generalizations regarding the various cultures, the Anderson Institute, a high technology research institute devoted to finding scientific solution to space time physics problems, describes most Americans as “feeling rushed,” and that because the culture pressures people to “do more, earn more, and consume more,” people, feel rushed. While Americans essentially lack free time, because for us White Rabbits, checking our watches and how much we can get done, it’s difficult to relax. This is utterly different from the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest. The Anderson Institute website explains the Pirahã as using no art, having no letters, or numbers, and no concept of time. For them, everything exists in the present.
With these varying cultural concepts of time, we can see a connection between how people perceive time will create qualitatively different perceptions of existence as well. The question this raises is how might we live within a culture where time is linear, and yet still step into a wider, more generous sense of being so that we allow ourselves to experience the sacredness of existence and our relationship to the world around us. It seems this might only be possible if we have a clear vision of another way of being, and we hold other worlds inside us. The Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland asks Alice, “Who are YOU?” Who we are is somewhat a mystery, even to ourselves. We hold multiple worlds within us. Who others see we are often depends on the context they know us in. Who we are can also vary depending on where we came from. Experiencing significant changes or defining moments in our lives such as deaths, births, or moving to a new culture, we might see ourselves like Alice who replied to the Caterpillar, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” But beyond the significant changes we might experience in our lives, and the multitude of transformations we might go through, underneath the exteriors of our housing, or occupations, our clothes, or cars, lies our essence, our common humanity, in touching that, we find our selves.
When I stand in the subway tunnels here in London, I look into the windows that flicker past as the trains move off down the tracks, and notice the myriad faces fluttering by, faces I glimpse for just a moment—the tired man wearing a baseball cap head bent in sleep, the woman with her perfectly combed hair and dangling earrings heading out for the evening, the travelers holding on to their luggage, lovers deep in conversation, a child leaning into a parent’s arm—the myriad of lives rushes by as in a moving picture. We move from one place to another, we see each other but don’t meet or know each other. We are not what we own, what we have or do. How can we find each other in our common humanity? “I am because you are,” is the meaning of Ubuntu, a way of being together understood by Africans who hold to traditional ways and shown on this short video from the Global Oneness Project.
Recently, I read a book of poems by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. Though Hikmet later won the International Peace Prize, as a Marxist, he spoke out against the use of power to oppress the common person in his home country, and wrote in his poems about his longing for those who were poor to have a better life. For his political beliefs, Hikmet was imprisoned for thirteen years and spent thirteen years in exile. Though his life was threatened even by those from within the communist party, Hikmet fervently held to his beliefs throughout his life. Reading his poems is a moving. While in solitary confinement in 1938, Hikmet wrote his poem, “Letters From a Man in Solitary.” In this poem, he describes carving his wife’s name into his watchband with his fingernail. He’s not allowed to see the sky, not allowed to talk with anyone. He describes to his wife the passing of time by the shadows that climb the walls. At the end of his poem, Hikmet writes,
And inside this is spring’s darkest hour.
In short, the demon called freedom,
with its glittering scales and fiery eyes,
possesses the man inside
especially in spring…
I know this from experience, my dear wife,
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
by how far away the sky is,
and how wide.
Then I respectfully sat down on the earth.
I leaned back against the wall.
For a moment no trap to fall into,
no struggle, no freedom, no wife.
Only earth, sun, and me…
I am happy.
What time is to a man in solitary confinement is utterly different than those pressed by time, and who like the White Rabbit are in a state of constant low grade anxiety, rushing to meet a schedule (though this is certainly an oppression and confinement of its own kind.) When Hikmet describes sitting down on the earth at last, after being held inside walls for so long, I felt the respect he describes, and the way the sky opened to him like the deepest heart of love, and gave him its blueness, its breadth—how utterly broken open he must have felt at that moment, and utterly alive with the full presence of being. Time is broken here. There is no clock. Just an entering into of all that is. These are moments we long for, when the world shifts, and we see we aren’t caught in watching the clock tick or the shadow move slowly up a wall. Instead of staring at face endlessly flickering past us tunneling their way toward the next station, we step inside the phenomenal essence of the material world and experience it as spirit and gift, perhaps even as love.
In her poem, “I Worried,” Mary Oliver writes,
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning
Time doesn’t have to be a prison to escape from. Perhaps it’s time we find ways to learn from different cultures—to purposefully notice the walls we are living with. We can learn to tell ourselves different stories about time and what matters, and look for those who will join us in finding ways to sit respectfully on the earth, and lift our faces, to see the sky in all its blueness.