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. 

shattered tree.jpg

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.

creativity, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Our Inescapable Mutuality

Russula type mushroom
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.” –Martin Luther King Jr.

Cloudy skies and cold weather served as an encouragement to remain in rooms of quiet darkness during recent days of rain. When the rain finally abated, I stepped into the storm’s aftermath of misty woods to hunt for mushrooms. Feet sinking inches into the leafy loam, I peeked behind tree trunks and over sides of logs, eyes open for an unusual color or texture poking up from between leaves on the forest floor. Appearing for a few days then disappearing, mushrooms seem a bit mysterious, and hunting for them feels a bit like going on an adventure.

(likely a fungus, not a mushroom)

Mushrooms are the fruit of the amazing fine web of lacy underground filament of fungal biomass known as mycelia, their forms sometimes reminding me of coral. In her book, Lab Girl, Hope Jahreen writes, “The ephemeral mushroom appears briefly above the surface while the webbing that anchors it lives for years within a darker and richer world. A very small minority of these fungi—just five thousand species—have strategically entered into a deep and enduring truce with plants. They cast their stringy webbing around and through the roots of trees, sharing the burden of drawing water in to the trunk. They also mine the soil for rare metals, such as manganese, copper and phosphorous, and then present them to the tree as precious gifts of the magi.” As I read Jahreen’s words, I was struck by the symbiotic relationship between mycelia and trees–how the mycelia bring hidden gifts to trees, helping them thrive. Immediately, I thought of the effort of those who serve others such as mothers and fathers, teachers, scientists, doctors–all who work with devotion to provide others with things that matter deeply. Their ongoing care significantly affects how we think, feel, and live. Woven into the fabric and roots of our lives, even when unrecognized, their efforts make a difference to the very manner in which we conduct our lives. We are co-creators with them in our efforts, the fine web of their generosity interconnecting us into the roots of a community of blessing. 

Amanita Muscaria

When doing work we find important, sometimes we sense we spend a lot of time working in darkness, following a path that somehow seems right, though we don’t quite know where things are leading. Like mycelia awaiting the gifts of rain, light, the right season, and right temperature to produce fruit, our efforts, too, can remain hidden underground for a long time before manifesting into a form others can name or see. To continue on in this work for years takes incredible persistence and perseverance. Trying to explain what nevertheless compels us in our dedication toward our efforts can’t always be sifted down to a sum of clearly defined factors. We simply know our heart is invested fully in what we’re doing and we must continue on. We can’t help it.

We don’t completely understand why mycelia choose to intertwine with trees, explains Jahreen, though she implies it’s likely because the two find benefit in the connection. Similarly, we, too, benefit from interconnection with others. People enter our worlds presenting us with gifts of insight and expertise. They offer us opportunities, help us find resources, nourish our efforts, among a wide variety of other things that enable us to thrive. Community is essential to existence, and generosity benefits us as well as those around us. In this exchange of resources and gifts with others, we create the world we live in and help others to live in the world as well. 

Recently, in addition to hunting for mushrooms, I’ve been gathering mushroom compost and horse manure for my garden beds as well, and it has surprised me the number of people, including complete strangers, who’ve chosen to comment on the beauty of the manure as I’ve shoveled it into a pile to “age.” Beneath the smell of ammonia, I imagine they see the garden that many months later will grow as a result of receiving the compost’s benefit. The plants too, no doubt, will express their gratitude in the form of seedlings, their tender leaves lifting into the sky waving their bright “hellos.”

We don’t often think about the world underground, the importance of soil or of how the life above ground depends on the soil’s quality. Soil seems such an insignificant thing. It’s merely the dirt we walk on, and we don’t think much of it, though many essential things occur there. Nevertheless, the quality of the soil affects what can grow, shaping the landscape and vision of our lives. Soil that feeds and nurtures our effort’s seeds supports the production of our lives’ fruit. People give lots of attention to end products, to the fruit at labor’s end. For these end results people throw parties and create rituals. But attention to the soil and the work in progress, the practice leading toward that end, is equally, if not more important, as this is the place where we do the work of becoming.

Beneath the surface of our work is the intention we bring to our every day patterns, actions and habits. This is where the seeds of our intentions and dreams interact with our lives’ soil, where seeds gain what they need to put forth their effort, enabling them to rise above the earth’s heavy weight. Though in this soil of day to day work we struggle and strive toward meaning and purpose,  it’s here, also, that our effort can be enormously engaging, life-giving, and deeply satisfying. 

In her poem “Invitation,” Renée Ashley writes about this space of beginnings,

Such luck. And no doubt the wind
  blowing through. Every time, each
of the smallest maneuvers—and in

all directions. A largess of open
  doors and a staircase that winds
that way forever. Come in…

Ashley captures well the energy that invigorates our spirits when offered an invitation—the way life suddenly seems to open in many places—the wideness of it all. What once felt like a wall has become a door. You forget yourself in your joy, and feel utterly fortunate and fully alive.

There are so many directions the invitation can lead toward, a multitude of possibilities it can open into or reveal. As Ashley sates later in her poem, you can feel

every dream you ever had shifting like
sand toward some indefinite
sea, a silence, perhaps or

a shout…

There’s something fantastic about standing on the threshold of invitation where you’re consciously aware you’re living in liminal space. You have a new perspective regarding your efforts. Suddenly what you have created or given feels a bit more solid, real, leading to new awareness. “Once your eye swings open, / you’ll have to see what that might mean,” writes Ashley as she closes the poem. 

Every day is an invitation toward life. How we respond to the invitation is the work of our lives, and we are the co-creators of that work and the meaning we experience. View Paul Stamets and Louis Schwartzberg’s  short film,” Fantastic Fungi” with its stunning time-lapsed photos, and your eyes will swing open wide to the beauty and phenomenal inter-relatedness of our lives with the natural world. Our food web is based on mycelium, that quiet, hidden web of fungi, Stamets explains, and is critical to healthy environments. Our inescapable mutuality is a story we’re all part of. We’re invited to wade deeper into the recognition of the interrelationship of all life, to see the value of enabling others to be all it’s possible for them to be so we, too, can become fully ourselves. 

Creating an environment of security, safety and support of others, we plant our seeds and do our work. Though our generative efforts may be hidden inside quiet rooms or fields of work, though our work may go unnoticed, whatever we do to create harmonious relationships within ourselves, with others and with the natural world, that effort indirectly or directly touches and helps to shape all that is.

poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living with Loss

When recent storms on the coast caused waves of 25 to 50 feet, I drove north to Maverick’s to see them. The size of small mountains, water rose from the shoreline waving its wild, terrifying and gloriously beautiful arms into the sky. A few people sat on surfboards waiting for a wave with good form they could ride. The majority of us, though, were spectators who walked the cliffs above the shore or who traversed the shoreline, gazing in awe at nature’s wonder. The world’s wild beauty is a can fills us with awe, though sometimes it also carries us to the edge of danger and the possibility of loss.

When looking carefully, you can notice loss lives beside us just beneath the surface of experience. Sometimes its absence is a mountainous weight hovering nearby like a cresting wave, waiting to tumble down at the sound of wind, a child’s cry, or the distressed look from a stranger on the street. So many seemingly insignificant things could serve as the trumpet’s blow resounding from walls that previously keep a person feeling safe. The loss of family members or someone we love, loss of work we used to do, people we used to know, a change in health—these can become waves of enormous change in our lives, and the way the world once worked, along with the things that held it together can come tumbling down. This is hard ground to walk on, difficult territory to reside in. How do we keep going? How do we begin again?

The experience of loss has been with us since the beginning of the human story as we fled the safety of the Garden of innocence and inexperience, with the awareness that we needed to begin the difficult journey toward understanding who we are and how to restore our relationships. This is a difficult task as our understanding is always incomplete. When things fall apart or we experience significant change, we like to know how we’re going to get to new ground and when we will arrive at a new place in our lives. But the timing of how this will all come about usually isn’t readily apparent. The process is less like a line and more like a spiral, and the pilgrimage to that desired place of being extends over varied and challenging terrain.

A couple of months back, I read Mari Mazziotti Gillan’s book, The Silence in an Empty House, a beautiful book of poems describing experiences in her relationship with her life partner who had a terminal illness. While experiencing the territory of loss, the writing takes the reader into the heart of relationship and the many small moments and memories that build and connect one life to another in intricate interweaving. In her poem, “Watching the Bridge Collapse,” Gillan describes how life can change in ways never expected. 

We loved each other. Our children were
smart and healthy and beautiful. How could we lose?
then one day you, who could swim a hundred laps
in the town pool, who ran even in a mid-winter
snowstorm, began to move slower and slower,
your hands no longer functioning the way
they always had, your legs unwilling to obey
your brain’s command. And now, your head bent
sideways, so it nearly touches your shoulder,
your legs so weak they cannot hold you up,
your voice thin as a thread. 

The situation Gillan describes is excruciatingly difficult. We acknowledge age brings diminishment, but to witness the vitality of one you love slowly decline in so painful a manner is a loss no one hopes for. Nevertheless, the poems show Gillan confronting the loss and suffering day after day although there is no possibility for expectation that her husband’s condition will improve. This is a struggle any of us could find ourselves in. As Gillan later points out in her poem, “What is Lost,” we do not know what our future will hold. “We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to/ the world will remain firm beneath our feet,” she writes. But this isn’t how it is for many people, and one of the things I especially appreciate about Gillan’s poems in this volume is how she describes her losses so directly. In the poem, “My Daughter Comes Home to Take Care of Her Sick Father,” Gillan’s speaks openly about the difficulty of her situation. “I do not understand,” she writes, “how love could become so complicated./ I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end, to just/ stop.” Her honesty about her struggle in coming to terms with what she has been given is powerful and moving because the story she tells is bigger than simply her own personal story. It’s the story of all who struggle against things that seem unbearable. She speaks the words that are nearly impossible to find when the burden of loss is so enormous it lies beyond the ability to name.

When someone we love difficult finds themselves struggling under difficult circumstances, it’s natural to want to offer help and solutions. Yet sometimes there are no solutions. When her husband tells her of his fear of being blind in the poem, “Because You Keep Turning to Me,” Gillan writes, “I offer what comfort I can, and when I hang up, I cry/in my hotel bed because you keep turning to me/ and all I have to offer is my hands, useless and empty, and too far away to even stroke your head.” I read her words, and recognize my own emptiness in trying to meet the loss I sense in others around me who are suffering. Gillan extends her expression of the depth of our incompleteness in such circumstances in her poem, “There is No Way To Begin.” 

“There is no way to begin this poem, to say how I who have
always believed that whatever happens, things always
work out for the best, have finally been brought
to my knees, not to pray as I did in Blessed Sacrament
Church on Sixth Avenue when I was a girl, but in defeat,
unable to find the thread of joy that has always
waited for me just beyond tears.”

When we realize things aren’t going to get better for others or for ourselves where do we go? Thich Nhat Hahn in the 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism, recommends that we “Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Suffering being with those who suffer is necessary to the growth of our capacity for compassion and for understanding of how our lives are connected to those around us, as Maria’s poem so effectively gives voice to. What we come to realize when in the presence of suffering, is that solutions for how to cope with suffering aren’t going to be external. Like a tree that grows around a fence pole standing in its way of growth, we somehow must enlarge ourselves to be able to include or surround the loss.

When we look at others’ suffering we suffer too. The brain’s mirror neurons tell us this. One of Gillan’s poems, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” speaks directly to our interconnectedness, demonstrating so effectively how human suffering is reflected in the natural world as well. The drowning pelicans’ bodies caught in the BP oil spill are a echo of her husband’s painful effort to rise above the weight of the disease that wants to drown him. Oil covering its body, the bird in Gillan’s poem screams without sound, “a picture of torment and despair,” the silent despair Gillan recognizes her husband and family daily bear as they try to survive the calamity the disease has created–the suffering from which there seems no end. 

…On the Gulf, the earth and sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.

Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed…

Our life is intertwined with the life and suffering of the planet. Suffering continues, and so does the brave effort to meet it. “You never gave up;” Gillan writes in her poem of the same title, “you kept doing whatever you could do,/ fell each day because you’d try to walk even though/ you no longer could.” Spelling out an alphabet of loss as time passes, moments of sudden memories of beauty, but also the months and years of loneliness and long process of letting go, letting things be what they are. “The world is too full of grief,” she writes in her poem “Planting Flowers in Iraq,” a poem about a groundskeeper planting flowers when the very same week two hundred people were killed by car bombs, and Gillan recalls a mother’s face overcome with grief as she lifted her dead child in her arms. “The world is too full of grief,” Gillan writes.

It’s true. The pulse of loss throbs inside the silence. Everywhere one looks, tears and sorrow wait beneath the surface of things. I think of the 9/11 memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker where once the Twin Towers stood in New York City. An immense sense of loss envelops you as you approach the memorial, then stand to look as water pours its delicate and silvery life over the square’s edges into the firm earth, then falls again endlessly and forever into a bottomless space that cannot be fathomed, seen or known. The grief feels utterly palpable and weighted with presence, moving beyond words into a space where grief lives and doesn’t end. This is grief embodied.

How do we get to the other side of grief? How do we live beyond, into or with loss that feels too immense to bear? How do we find a way to name the grief, to hold it and still keep living? In her poem, “What if?” Gillan writes,

And what if, this moment, wrapped in the gauze shawl
of stillness, is the secret after all, to learn to look
more closely at the varied world, the veins of a leaf,
a stone, the stippled pattern of bark, and to find,
even in the shape of our hands, the curve of our nails
the ability to lift a cup and drink, the secret of loving
the transfigured world?

An answer is to learn to look, and where Gillan turns her gaze is to nature. Nature, too, has experienced enormous and unspeakable losses, especially in the past few centuries, but life is still present, available to us as a renewing source when we look deeply. Tree and stone, our own hands lifting a cup to drink. From the transfigured world we can drink and draw new life. As Gillan points out, it is when we allow ourselves to be wrapped in the “gauze shawl of stillness” that we enable ourselves to connect to the commonplace of the world in its transfigured form. This in turn allows us to see our experience as part of a greater whole. 

We heal from the inside out. Physical wounds begin healing from the inside. It could be the same with wounds of spirit and losses of the heart. We let ourselves be present with the wounds and losses, holding them in the arms of our thoughts, speaking to them tenderly, dearly, gently. More than our direct pursuit to find an external solution for what will meet our deep need, perhaps what we seek finds us as we allow ourselves to be available to what is working within us. Or perhaps it is a bit of both. 

During these winter months we inhabit the season Christian tradition names as Advent: light’s entry into the dark—into the places of our lives where we cannot see. It is a metaphor reminding us that there are times in life when we don’t know where the next step leads. Things move in complex worlds beneath the surface of what we can see or comprehend. All people experience this state of being. We don’t know when the light we feel we need will appear or how we are going to find it. It’s not a direct path. As this song written by Stephen Foster describes, our souls long for “Hard Times to Come Again No More.” Notice how in this version by Tommy Fleming, the entire audience knows the words and sings together with him. We are not alone. The whole world knows struggle. We walk together. Our inner work is to keep mind and heart open, to walk as we can, trusting that as we move, we journey toward wholeness.

Like blossoms, we wait in our own time for light to open us.

 

art, music, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Enlarging Our Hearts With Music and Michael L. Newell’s Poetry

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and turn my back to loneliness. — Maya Angelou

Music moves and swells inside the pages of Michael L. Newell’s new book, recently out, Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge.  From the fiddler’s bright allegro at a local dance, to childrens’ “symphony of shouts echoing across fields” when released from school in the poem “Celebration,” to nature’s melody in the “songs of streams” trailing across stony earth in the poem “Voice of Waters,” the touch of music’s many moods thread through Newell’s work. Having spent much of his life abroad, Newell’s poems spread the wide spaces between the Andes, Saudi Arabia, London, and Rwanda, and music features as a central theme threading together the distances.

One of the most moving poems in Newell’s collection, “Serendipity,” is a narrative poem written during his time in Rwanda. The poem begins with the poem’s speaker walking down a dirt road, headed home from work past laundry drying on the lines outside houses with corrugated metal roofs, bricks placed on top to hold them down, when a choir singing in Kinyarwanda captures his attention.

voices rising and falling from the home’s
living room, a beautiful repetitive melody
enhanced by constantly shifting harmonies,
counterpoint melodies, and one male voice
chanting or speaking underneath the rise
and fall, the same voice lifting in ecstatic

soaring flight above the others, a song at once
celebratory and deeply sad, the melody ascending
and tumbling, repeating itself again and again, every time

Newell describes the music so distinctly that when reading his words, I, too, am standing on the pathway caught up in the harmony and sweep of sound. “I stand still,” writes Newell, “eyes shut, and listen, nearly weeping.” People passing by on the path where he has been standing for ten minutes join in, pick up the melody, and carry it out into the neighborhood as they move on, music drifting through the air as they go.

The poem continues with someone in a large vehicle stopping by to ask if the poem’s speaker is okay. Upon learning he is standing there because he was caught by the choir’s beautiful singing, the driver, fully understanding what is implied, turns off his truck’s engine to give the choir his full attention. By now, though, the music has fallen silent. Here Newell takes the moment and expands our understanding.

I do not know whether the music was religious,

or folk song, or political, or celebratory, or grieving,
but hours later I still hear the music
as I go about my nightly ablutions. I realize
I have been changed without ever seeing those
responsible for the change. I have heard
on a dirt road from a ramshackle home, music

rough hewn, homemade, finer than I could find
in a concert hall while entertained by highly trained
professional musicians. I have heard music
from the blood and marrow of people singing
because it defines who they are. I have
listened to the heartbeat of a people.

The music described here is not merely people singing to get the notes down, the rhythm tight, the harmonies smooth. This music emerges from the very center of the self, “from the blood and marrow of people singing/ because it defines who they are,”as Newell says, resulting in the deep expression of being that carries us into a wholeness where time stops and we are simply present and fully alive. Whether our lives are surrounded by joy or submerged in pain and grief, listening with full attention, we know we are in the presence of something shining, and are replete. This is what Newell can do in his poems–take us out of ourselves and immerse us in life. This is why it’s worth reading poetry in general, and why you will want to read Newell’s Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge.

“Poetry is rooted in sound,” says poet, musician, and editor of Prairie Schooner, Kwame Dawes, and neuroscience backs up this statement. In the February 2017 article of Neuroscience News, “Is the Brain Hardwired to Appreciate Poetry?” the research of professor Guillaume Thierry and his colleagues at Bangor University has shown that even though we might not be able to say why, something in our brains responds positively to poetry’s construction and its stress patterns repetition of consonant sounds. Sensuous and beautiful, focusing and intensifying emotion, not only Newell’s poems, but poetry itself is a kind of music whose play of sounds can draw the reader to it.

Though poetry’s effect on us is different from that of music, (see more about that in this study, “The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology and compositional principles”) since ancient times, poetry and music have been linked. Containing rhythm, meter, repetition of sounds, euphony, and sometimes rhyme, poetry uses words with a focus on its auditory element. NPR has a page where you can listen to the interesting effect of poetry blended together with various jazz musicians with, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art,” sung by Nancy Harms with composer Jeremy Siskind’s piano, or Amiri Baraka’s poem, “Yes We Can,” with David Murray’s composition, among other examples.

Like poetry, music changes us. I remember listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for the first time years ago, transfixed by its haunting beauty, the emotional intensity it evoked–how it could plummet into the depths of human soul, climb to the penultimate heights of spirit, whisper the heart’s tenderest thought and longing. Tom Barnes’ April 23, 2015 article in Mic, “Scientists May Have Finally Discovered Why Humans Make Music,” discusses Leonid Perlovsky’s research at Harvard University where he explains, “music’s power comes from its ability to help human beings overcome cognitive dissonance, the feeling of emotional discomfort we feel when we learn novel information that contradicts existing beliefs.” Barnes explains how a variety of research shows people most often respond to dissonance by tossing out the new information or pushing back the old. Music, however, “soothes the difficulties involved in processing conflicting information.” Additionally, Barnes’ article goes on to report, “neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in a 2013 meta-analysis of more than 400 neurochemical music studies, found that listening to music had a more measurable effect on people’s anxiety and cortisol levels than did anti-anxiety drugs,” a significant observation. Music has the ability to break down walls between people, to soothe tension and unite them. We can see this ability exemplified in the choir directed by Mica Hendler in Israel, bringing together Palestinian and Israeli young people, as well as in the inspiring music collaborations found at Playing for Change where musicians and singers from around the world are recorded in their various every day environments and then woven together into a unified piece.

Life is a journey we’re all on together, each of us affecting the other as we co-create the world around us in all its complexity. When differences divide us, we are challenged to find ways to communicate and connect that enable us to reach beyond the things that divide us. Poetry focuses the reader on the specific moments and details of life, and we need poems like Newell’s “Serendipity,” that cause us to listen from the inside out. Music moves beyond words into the enlarged world of spirit, a place beyond sharply defined boundaries and ramshackled habits of understanding. Art can heal. We need music, poetry, and art that rises up from our blood and marrow joining us together in a larger place of being. We may be worlds away from what feels like home either mentally or physically, as was the person standing in the middle of the road in Newell’s poem. We may have differences in opinion that may not be resolved, but music can carry us to a larger place where we can at least listen to each other with soft hearts, allowing ourselves to shut off the motors of defensiveness–where we can wait on the roadside for the music to rise up.

Expanding the vehicles that nurture our awareness of being and nurture our ability to greet each other fully can help us avoid traveling through our lives without ever hearing the beauty in others’ voices different from our own. Both music and poetry are gifts of this kind. They help us express and experience our lives more fully. Poetry asks to be read slowly, wants us to pay attention to the implicit, to touch the difficult and complex, feel the tears beneath the beauty, see the human side of experiences. Poetry enables us to look with greater gentleness, sensitivity, and kindness at the questions that rise up between us. While recently attending the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, I met the poet, Betty Neals. We spoke about the connection between music and poetry. She is the voice speaking on this link to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s jazz piece, “Theme for the Eulipions” from the 1976 album, Return of the 5,000 Lb Man. The music opens with Betty describing the desolation of a railroad station at 2:00 am on a weeknight. As I hear her speak, I picture myself in a cold and isolated train station with insects circling florescent lights, flakes of suspended particulate matter from city smog caught in a night sky, empty tracks leading out into the obscure dark. Poets, artists and musicians are Eulipons, Betty explains as she reads. Music, “the duty free gift for the traveler.” Then the music rises and takes off, and we are carried away on a journey far beyond loneliness and despair. May we all find and perhaps join the Eulipons.

If you’re interested in a copy of Michael L. Newell’s book, Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge, contact me and I will put you in touch with how to do that.

art, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Letting Go

Standing before the glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I watched as sardines swirled in graceful, ribboned unison, turning then splitting into two shifting forms, as over and again a hammerhead shark pierced through their fluid movement. To observe life under the sea’s surface is to enter another world that is our own but utterly different, and is perhaps the most otherworldly experience one might have. While staring at the fish, on one hand, a person could say that nothing much is happening: over and over one large fish chases other smaller ones. But from another view, the most essential thing is happening: you are observing life in all its mystery and it leaves you standing in awe. For a few moments you’re unaware of anything but the fishes’ movement as they glide as if in dance through the liquid blue, and you step into some larger universe where time dissolves.

Inside the ocean, life teems in myriad forms, yet we’re barely conscious of its presence, as most of us rarely encounter what is happening beneath the ocean’s surface in our day to day lives.  I would never know about the hammerhead chasing the sardines unless I were to dive into their world or view them in an aquarium. Would we miss their dance if they were no longer with us? Recently, I received a letter from a friend who mentioned that if he never published another poem, the world wouldn’t miss his voice. Most of us at one point or another have probably felt similarly. We work hard at what we do, we aim to accomplish something significant, but still we wonder if our lives have meaning to others. Does a tree, a forest, painting, piece of music, national park or act of simple kindness matter? Why should we learn to cook, build a house, grow a garden, write a story or read one? The universe is enormous and full of fecundity. What does it matter that we create or that we protect the natural world, make space for beauty or nurture others’ creative effort? Would the world miss Dostoevsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Martha Graham or Aretha Franklin if they had never produced their work?

Maybe we can’t miss what we’ve never known or experienced. We tend to take in the world we’re given, absorbing it like food, and whatever we’re given becomes part of our being. We can go through our days somewhat routinely, not necessarily sensing a need for reflection. At the same time, however, something in us hungers to be in relationship to something larger than ourselves. We wouldn’t know what we had missed if the artists who produced their creative work never did so, but our world is certainly fuller, our inner lives richer because of them. To reduce or obliterate voices both nonhuman and human— the forests, animals, music, art, stories or other creative work is to diminish existence, reduce wonder, and to take away our souls.

Though the hammerhead chasing the sardines in the aquarium was beautiful to watch, what I was watching may have also been one animal seeking to make dinner out of another. Death and life are interconnected. To be born is to also to learn you will die. Simply to eat, whether animal or vegetable, something else gives its life in order to sustain our own. All of life is transition. Day follows night follows day. Always, we’re leaving behind one state to enter another. To love someone is to know you will also someday lose the one you love. We leave our parents’ home to enter a larger world. We enter a relationship of love, letting go of something of ourselves in order to expand our lives. Perhaps we move to a new location or a new country. In doing so, we gain a new understanding of the complex diversity and multiple realities coexisting in the world. As we age we lose things—our hair, our vision, our strength. With each transition we make in life we lose something. In turn, what we lose asks us to enlarge our internal selves. To love means to be in relationship, and relationship gives life meaning. The world we breathe and move in is alive and also fragile. Writers, and artists in general, invite us to take off our protective armor and become vulnerable again—to look deeply at our lives, to notice our relationship to the world around us, and to become more conscious of the reality that we stand in liminal space: aware both that we are alive, and understanding we will die. We’re living into as well as dying to each ongoing moment. To enter the world is to experience suffering as well as joy. The more we, like the ancient Biblical Job, can allow ourselves to stand in this awareness, the more we can move out of fear into a place of acceptance of all life brings us, even our own deaths–the biggest transition and opportunity of all to enlarge ourselves.

When we gaze at a school of fish whirling by or view minuscule jellyfish slowly drifting past an aquarium window, their transparent bodies radiating with moving iridescent light or when we lean our heads back to cast our vision into the midnight Milky Way, at stars so thick they have become mis, we catch our breath. Time stops and we stand in naked amazed awareness of creation. These moments may seem small, even insignificant within the press of responsibilities we often take on, but they are important. The accomplishments and creative energy of our lives, the things we hold dear—these reflect the impulse to live and thrive. They are the voice beneath our actions and inside our silences that say, “You are alive, and to be alive is a wonder.” Creative work, our own or appreciation of others’, allows us to touch life, feel its pulse. Our creative efforts may seem small even insignificant, but they are vital. They are efforts that whisper to us why we live. Life dwells in these moments and in the details that bring us into a world larger than our selves—into the mystery of our own being.

How beautifully Mary Oliver speaks of this in her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,”

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.

Deciduous trees burn with luminescent light during autumn as they move toward winter’s dormant stage. Here in Oliver’s poem, the trees in the woods are more than trees; they are lit candles. Similarly, Oliver implies, if we open the eyes of our souls, we can experience the world move from a space where we know the names of things and can categorize them back into a space of the nameless, allowing us to once more delight in their mystery. There are things worth understanding about life’s connection to loss, explains Oliver. Loss teaches us to hold ourselves open to our mortality. Hold the world dear, “against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;” Oliver writes, but at the same time our task is to learn to also let go of what we most love. This can be painful and very difficult, but in it, Oliver states, is fulfillment. In losing our life, we find it–ancient wisdom we learn and relearn. In letting go, we can become like autumn trees–lit candles, our lives rich incense others inhale.

art, gratitude, Italian-American, poetry, spirtuality

Lifting Our Heads


“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)

Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.

“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.

Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.

poetry, spirtuality

Standing Under Stones of Suffering and Wonder

Sentence

The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.

Jane Hirshfield

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A few weeks ago, I listened to the rain come down all night and thought about the grief people live with, the suffering that doesn’t go away. In our neighborhood lives a peacock that calls out through day and night. It’s mating season for peacocks, a season that goes on for four months. During this time, the peacock cries out for a mate. There is no peahen in our neighborhood, however, so the peacock’s cries echo down the valley day and night. His calls will never be answered. I hear his calls, and consider how many across the world whose needs for housing, food, clothing, clean water, clean air, or health care are never met. Suffering abounds. To live in this world is to participate in its suffering. How do we meet the suffering in the world and in our own lives? How do we cultivate the strength of spirit to be able to endure the suffering that will inevitably come to us all as we eventually approach our own deaths?

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As Hirshfield’s describes in her short poem above, it feels a kind of punishment or sentence to remember what you once had or could do but are no longer able to because of physical limitations caused by accident, disease, declining health or age. But our lives don’t continue on in the same state over time. Living things change and age. We need to be able to look our own mortality in the face, yet this is very hard to do. We don’t gain inner strength to deal with these changes over night. We need to prepare for it through our lifetime. 

Perhaps we have such difficulty with suffering because little in our culture prepares us to live with it, to understand or to transcend it. We don’t see suffering as as a part of life and don’t know how to learn from it. Most of us want to avoid suffering and reject pain. People prefer to be powerful and strong, not weak and suffering.

When we suffer, we tend to feel reduced and limited. The world shrinks. William Stafford’s poem, “How To Regain Your Soul,” describes a way to respond to suffering that enlarges and renews.

Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.

Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you again.

One way to deal with suffering or difficulty the poem suggests, is to wander out into nature because in doing so you enable yourself to view your ills from a broader perspective. As Stafford suggests, in nature we can find a place where the world opens again, and as the poem describes, the shadows you see coming off the hard, sheer places in your life leading toward nightfall and the west are now the very thing enabling you also to see light on the river leading through the canyon walls. This is a place to observe deeply. It’s worth spending time to understand, and the stanza closes by saying, “Put down your pack.” When we suffer, it takes time to absorb the reality that your suffering could also bring you a new life source that will lead you through the rock-walled gorge of your experience. It’s worth spending time being present with this understanding–simply taking it in.

The poem’s second stanza begins with air stirring the pines. Lightness enters in. Breath. When we take time to rest in the awareness of this new state were in, we make space for something new to enter our awareness. Stafford recognizes that world we inhabit may be weighted with heavy gravity. He relates the ancient struggles of Rome and Troy, to the beginnings of human civilization living in caves. The very words Rome and Troy echo with sounds of war. We know struggle and work are part of civilizations’ foundation and history. But these descriptions of civilization’s efforts are held together in the poem’s stanza on either side by air breathing through the pines and light lifting and illuminating the wings of butterflies. Stafford reminds us this is what it is to be human. Heaviness and struggle are required for existence, yes. But present alongside the weight and effort is the magnificence of the larger world–the stunning ephemeral qualities of existence itself–the butterflies dancing in the still sun by the thousands–those resplendent moments where beauty captures and leads us into a place toward the sublime, moments where time seems to stand still, and for an instance we taste what it is to step inside eternity. Caught in an experience of what Abraham Joshua would name as “radical wonder,” the world opens. “Suddenly, anything/ could happen to you,” writes Stafford. We see now how we can inhabit our bodies as our “soul pulls toward the canyon,” the difficult and narrow places. We are are body, and we are spirit–light shining through wings.

We get used to the way things are or have been going along in our lives, and tend to think that is the way it always has been or will be. The earth and everything in it, however, is in a state of transition. At Pinnacles National Park  in California, you can walk past gargantuan boulders and through caves made as a result of volcanic explosions, landslides, the slipping of tectonic plates on the San Andreas Fault, and erosion–both natural and chemical. The result today, millions of years later, is an amazing place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. We want to understand why we suffer and how to be released from suffering. When examining the earth we walk on, however, we can realize that it, too, has endured great change and many other life forms on earth have endured pain as result.

The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said,  “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13) The result of the fissures, volcanos and erosion is, in the end, great beauty. Maybe instead of seeking an answer to our suffering we want to seek ways to stand under the light breaking through the cracks in our life’s hard and heavy rocks where we can experience wonder.

 

art, poetry, spirtuality

Listening For What the Desert Says

“The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” –Emerson, “Nature”

Smoke trees, creosote shrubs, puffball bushes, ancient granite balancing rocks, vast seas of sun-soaked sand scattered with spiny cholla cactus and the splash of fire red blossoms on the ocotillo’s spindly spines–this is Joshua Tree National Park outside of Los Angeles in Southern California. Gone are the clogged traffic and freeways, LA’s colossal sprawl. To arrive here is to be made aware of the earth’s vast openness. Enormous basins stretch into far horizons rimmed by rugged mountains–a wide cup of immense beauty to drink in. Mountains here are stippled, variegated, and wear stripes. Everything in this desert is laid bare; not even the spiny thorns lay hidden, and to witness this place is to be filled with wonder.

The world at Joshua Tree is sculptural. Stone and soil. These are the foundations Earth is built from. At Joshua Tree we see the Earth’s purity. The rocks hold supple shape; their natural balance and grace evoke awe, and even the grains of sand hold form.

Nature has only to be itself to be beautiful, and her weathered age only makes her more interesting. This is a mythic world made visible where reality plays with the imagination and what you think you know about what reality is–how things are. In this world, rock seems to fold like butter, jack rabbits grow to the size of a dog, plants white and rounded as cloud pierce the skin more painfully than a needle, skeletons of trees cast calligraphic shadows, flowers can be the size of a grain of sand, and plants grow from rocks.

In its unique and stark form, there is a surreal quality to the desert, as well as a oneness to the landscape that causes me to ponder what it is that forms reality. In his poem, “Metaphor as Identity,” Nicholas Samaras writes,

I am a warm pocket of earth,
shaped like this and living for a while.

I am the memory of my good mentor who said,
“I only borrowed this dust.”

I am the dusty path out of sight.

Though Samaras wasn’t writing about the desert per se, to walk away from civilization for a few days to sleep and wake in a desert, allows me to enter a different rhythm of life and to glimpse an understanding that all our life is only a borrowing of “this dust.”

People have viewed the desert as a wasteland, a place where bombs could be dropped, and sewage dumped. Yet there are those, like Jesus, who emerged from the desert awakened. For me, the desert holds metaphors and messages. For example–we don’t have to be big or loud or young to be beautiful, the landscape seems to say. Strength isn’t necessarily the opposite of openness. We can be spacious, open, and yet survive. We can be empty. You can endure and be vulnerable as well. To gain character takes time, and you don’t have to be flawless. Ancient places can feed our spirits. Ancient places are necessary. Water and renewal are essential for survival. Too much light blinds. Shadows are beautiful.

In the desert, because of the scarcity of resources necessary for life there, I am confronted with the fragility of life, as well as my own emptiness and the real and imminent possibility of death. In that awareness, I’m brought to a place of humility and deep gratitude for the many life-giving things that sustain me. Spending time in a desert such as Joshua Tree, I also see that death and life are part of each other; “I am the dusty path out of sight,” as Samaras writes. In the desert’s sparseness, I experience a sense of solitude and a longing for a connection to all that is–a yearning for that which whispers beneath and inside the rhythms of life’s creative force–leading beyond the forms this creative effort has assumed–rock, sky, and plants–to speak to my state of being.

Though they commonly live from 150 to 200 years, one Joshua Tree lived to be an astonishing thousand years old. According to Soft Schools, however, Joshua Trees were also used for newspaper pulp for the London Daily Telegraph in the 19th century. Many say spiritual awareness and connection to a spiritual practice aren’t necessary to living well in our world. The world and all it holds are objects or resources, there for us to use to fulfill our needs and wishes. This way of thinking, though, can lead to our treating the world as paper pulp, so to speak. The Los Angeles Basin was once a wild desert place. Its loss is irrecoverable, as will be the loss of future spaces such as the Grand Escalante Staircase, under threat by our current U.S. government leader, who wants to reduce it by 900,000 acres, so it can be opened for mining interests or used for other potential commercial development.

Natural environments are far more essential to our being than ornamentation in our front yards, the backdrop to cities or a scenic spaces we see on a holiday visit. Our interactions with nature benefit us immensely, and can help heal us both emotionally and physically, as Adam Alter describes in Atlantic Monthly’s article, “How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” We still have in our language the usage of the word sanctuary when referring to nature–a remanent of the idea that the natural world is somehow a holy place, set aside and something to be protected, but this value is endangered by the desire for money and the impression that we can use our power over the natural world and disregard its needs or what is necessary for it to function well. To destroy nature is to destroy ourselves and demonstrates a lack of ability to see ourselves as connected to the land and it’s eco systems. Our very survival depends on the protection and health of the environment, and we have the choice not to accept the loss of natural environments as inevitable and necessary.

It’s worth noting that previous to modernity, Earth was seen by most to contain a spiritual presence. In her Orion magazine article, “Speaking of Nature,” Robin Kimmerer writes “indigenous philosophy recognizes other beings as our relatives…We have no choice but to consume, but we can choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence. Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food, plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.” There is an immeasurable worth in wild spaces beyond their commercial value– their beauty, their ability to connect us to the source of life, to restore and renew, and to teach us.

Kimmerer isn’t alone in her perspective. Since ancient times, the Greek Orthodox, too, affirm God is not separate or detached from creation. As a Greek Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit states, there is a spiritual “presence in all places filling all things.” The essayist Wendell Berry explains that “Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written that ‘Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.’ This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.” (Christianity and the Survival of Creation, p. 30)

In another of his poems, “Old Calendar,” Samaras writes,

Arrived at home again, you disembark
from your satchel to attend Vespers.

You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness.

The now-far clock tower resonates satisfaction

Over time,  your body will become used to these hours.

Over time, your body will become these hours.

You hold to silence and chanting filters up to the stars.

You hold to the silence and let the years come.

The speaker in Samaras’s poem rises at Vespers to pray. Why do we need spiritual practices, including things like walking in nature, doing art, contemplative reading, and purposeful acts of generosity. In our culture, we want to run away from time. We revere youth and scorn age. If we look at the aged earth, however, we notice how beautiful it is, and are moved to recognize its majesty, and realize to be present on earth is to be more than an object. We are alive, and that is a sacred. Spiritual practices can help us grow into a place of understanding that our bodies and time are melded together in the creative fire of life’s cycle. We can become aware that we are living prayers moving through the landscape. Like wind, frost, and sun, slowly we shape the stones and grow the flowers of our existence.

Similar to encountering serious illnesses or losses, desert landscapes ferry us into a world where we grow silent. The desert exposes life’s bare bones, lifts its shapely stones into the wilderness of cold, sun, and the boundless sky where time and wind work them into shapes of beauty. Its vast silence holds a wholeness. We practice holding the silence inside the bare and bald desert places of our world, and through the hours there can learn to find the gratitude that will hold us like granite through the years and weather to come.

poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

A Visit from the Dalai Lama and 10,000 Shades of Blue

More important than what was recorded, these evenings
deepened my life: they framed every event

or thought and placed it with care by the others.
As time went on, that scribbled wall—even if
it stayed blank—became where everything
recognized itself and passed into meaning.

–William Stafford, “Keeping a Journal”

image

“The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets,” says the Washington Post today, describing how the tech industry is working to improve the interactive quality of the voice and personalities behind the artificial intelligences we interact with on the Internet, like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. To do this, software engineers are turning more and more to poets, fiction writers and comedians in a new wave of jobs in artificial intelligence. Additionally, an article in Motherboard, Robots are coming for our poems,”now two years old, examples are given of robots co-authoring Shakespearian sonnets and haikus. An android learns the algorithms of language you give it, makes predictions about what words will be chosen over others, and uses these to write a poem. I don’t know the definition of “co-authored” as it is used in the context of the robot working together with a human, or how many trials it took to get a poem that feels cohesive and reads like a poem, but I enjoyed the sonnet, as well as a haiku a robot created that are included in the article.

Sasha Chapin’s article, “When robots write poetry,” written this past February, also describes how the algorithms are used that enable robots to write poetry. More interesting, however, is Chapin’s statement at the end of the article, “The coming artificial beings may love good poetry for the same reason we do: how it can seem to bridge the boundaries between consciousnesses. But they will possess a consciousness we couldn’t possibly understand. And when they write poetry, it will not be for us.”

While I question whether robots have consciousness, as Chapin implies, there is a difference between a living, human mind raising questions and pondering life and poetry artificial intelligence produces using algorithms, rather than conscious reflection. The Atlantic reports that number of non-book readers has tripled since 1978. Currently, I’m preparing to present a week long workshop on poetry and poetry writing with middle schoolers at ACS Hillingdon International School, a school just outside of London. As I consider what those students’ interests and concerns might be, I’m turning over the question in my mind, why is it we write for purposes other than to carry out necessary tasks, and in particular, what value does writing poetry hold?

Though  it may be helpful to learn that the job market is currently opening up for poets and fiction writers in the tech industry, there are deeper reasons to write and to read poetry, and these have to do with the poetry’s potential to connect us to the physical world, notice its mystery, and value its presence. If you’ve not seen this short TED talk about the worldwide telescope, it’s worth viewing. What Google earth has done to map the world is now being pieced together for the universe, enabling you to map your own virtual tour of the universe with images currently available. When I watched the talk and viewed the images, I felt humbled by the wonder of all that is—the immensity of creation and the miracle that I’m alive on this planet, existing amidst it all. Writing poetry is the opportunity to reflect on that wonder. Perhaps it’s interesting that a robot can write poetry, but how much more amazing it is to experience the poetry writing process yourself—to try and put words to what it means to be alive in this moment. As Salman Rushdie describes, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” That’s a challenging task, but certainly a valuable one.

Recently, the Dalai Lama visited the school where I work. During his talk to the student body, he repeatedly emphasized humanity’s interconnectedness with each other and with the natural world. A compassionate heart and a calm mind go together, he explained, and a disturbed mind affects the body. There’s hope for a more compassionate world if we make an attempt, he said. With anger, there is no hope, and he admonished us to make an effort.
With effort, this century can be a happy, a peaceful century, he explained. When there is too much stress, violence comes. Human rights violations are first emotional problems, he stated. Violence comes as a consequence of emotional problems. “We have to make an effort to promote more warm heartedness so there will be no opportunity to kill or bully, because we take care. No one can survive without community,” he said. Selfishness destroys your own happiness. “Society is the basis of our happy life, so we have to take care of society. West needs East. Southern and Northern worlds need each other—not this notion or that,” he said. Around us we see so much fear and distrust, yet friendship is dependent on trust, and trust is dependent on compassion, he explained. Narrow mindedness and shortsightedness brings disaster.

In aiming to build a compassionate world, poetry is a valuable asset. Poetry nurtures our inner life and helps us to understand what it means to be human and to stand in relation to the world around us. Robots might be able to write, but we are human. We want to know what that means—what we can give to the world to meet its deep need, and thereby meet our own deep desire to feel we belong in this world by knowing what we can give to it. Writing poetry, in its aim to find the best words to describe experience, requires observation and awareness, as well as reflection. Because the problems we face both individually and collectively are complex, the practices of observation, awareness are especially needed. Deep reflection, allows us to work out our connections to each other and to the natural world, along with the disconnects we experience in trying to do so. Deep reflection is the territory poetry explores.

Before Old French gave the English language the word “orange,” English speakers referred to the color as yellow-red, ġeolurēad in Old English, according to, Matt Soniak, writer for Mental Floss. It’s not that orange didn’t exist before we had the word, but having the word created a clearer picture of the idea. Tech Insider the origins of another color, blue in this video, demonstrating that without a word for something we physically experience, such as the color blue, people have significant difficulty recognizing it. This phenomena emphasizes the benefit of both verbalizing what we are experiencing, as well as reflecting on those experiences in written words. Additionally, because languages have their own music and mirrors, reflecting the world in different ways, speaking and writing in more than one language expands the potential language has to enable us all to better understand ourselves and our interconnection to others and the world around us. If we are going to find how to live together peacefully, as the Dalai Lama suggested is both possible and important, we need tools to do so. Writing and poetry in specific, is a wonderful tool to use for this purpose. As T. S. Elliot said, “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”

It’s possible that one could sit with pen in hand or type at the computer, and plod mindlessly through a series of steps or items and produce writing. I’ve read this kind of writing before. But if taken to heart, writing can be a tool that enables the mind to unwind its string of thoughts and make patterns that hold meaning and change our lives both individually and collectively. Poetry and literature is our attempt to explore the meaning of being human. As Barry Lopez, explains, “I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one’s life. Wherever I’ve traveled–Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan–I’ve found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” We need stories, and poetry. They are our thread through the labyrinth of existence.

While diving in the Maldives a few weeks back, the boat I was living on passed over and past 10,000 shades of blue—blues we have no word for. I found a wonderful color palate for different shades of blue, along with their names on Wikipedia, but though many colors are represented here, it falls far short of what the eye actual sees—the way the white-blue sky bends down into the sea and becomes the sea, for example, or the depth of blue reaching for infinity behind the shoals of yellow, white and black banner fish, along with all the subtle gradations between shades of turquoise as water shallows and then brushes against white sand shores. To try and name any of the experiences we have is to call them, again, into existence, and to share with others what moves us, and what is meaningful–this is what poets aim to do. It is the focus and goal of their efforts, even though what we hold most precious is often beyond naming. “The power of poetry,” says Michael Lewis, “is the ability to express the inexpressible, and to express it in terms of the unforgettable.”

If we are to build a compassionate world, we need to be able to recognize how to nurture our lives and wellbeing of the world around us. We need to be able to reflect on our lives. In his poem, “Keeping a Journal,” William Stafford, identifies the value of writing in his closing lines when he explains how through the process of writing he found his journal to be a place where “everything/recognized itself and passed into meaning.” To speak with an open heart in a journal or a poem takes courage, but in doing so, we can gain insight into ourselves and our relationship to the world, insight that can enable us to transform the way we live and interact. Writing poetry helps open our eyes and reach for meaning. As David Whyte says in his poem, “The Opening of Eyes”

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

We write and our lives are deepened. This is what is important about poetry—it teaches us how we can live.

pilgrimage, place, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

To Bodhgaya and Beyond

The great story weaves closer and closer, millions of
touches, wide spaces lying out in the open,
huddles of brush and grass, all the little lives.

–William Stafford, from “Over in Montana”

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Buddha on the side of the temple at Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya, India, is the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment after forty-nine days of meditation under the ficus, otherwise known as the Bodhi tree, a tree related to the mulberry. Because Bodhgaya is a place of historical significance,  I wanted to visit it while living in India. Two weekends ago, I had that opportunity.

The Bodhi tree is a ficus religiosa . Its leaves, even without a breeze, are said to be continuously moving. “O Ashvatha, I honor you whose leaves are always moving…,” says a verse in the Bhagavad Gita about the tree. Gods are thought to live in the leaves causing them to move, and thus the official name, ficus religiosa–the religious fig. The name fits, in particular for the bodhi tree in Gaya. Though the tree standing in Bodhgaya now isn’t the actual tree the Buddha sat under, it’s a relative. Sanghamitta, the daughter of the 3rd century BC Indian emperor, Ashoka’s, brought a branch of the original tree the Buddha sat under to Sri Lanka and planted it in Anuradhapura. The original tree was destroyed, how is uncertain. There are various versions (see more here) of how this occurred, though most accounts state that the a shoot from the Sri Lanka tree was brought back to India and replanted at the original spot.

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Bodhi tree, Gaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment

Bodhgaya is a holy site and a pilgrimage destination. One of the things that struck me the most while in Bodhgaya, was how many distinctive faces I saw as I sat near the tree, observing as people made their circumambulation around the shrine. Many visiting were monks and nuns performing ritual prayers, but others were like me, there to stand in a place considered holy, and to absorb what it had to share. For all the crowds, the place still manages to have a sense of calm, probably because so many there are intent on doing their prostrations and sending up prayers.

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It struck me how similar people are in the way they express devotion or carry out holy acts, though they are from different religions. Burning candles and incense, offering prayers, bowing down, ringing bells, bringing flowers,–these are commonly used in acts of worship in many religions. Bodhgaya attracts a wide spectrum of people from Buddhist countries, but people from many walks of life and countries in various parts of the world had come to stand in the spot where so many before have journeyed to send up their hearts’ longings–or possibly to set them down. Possibly, however, some pilgrims had come simply with an openness, willing to receive whatever understanding their minds brought to them while standing there, listening to their heart’s inner whisperings.

I’ve been learning about Buddhism, since arriving in India nine years ago, and somehow I expected to feel moved while standing in such a holy place. Instead, I found myself noticing people’s feet, and thought of the many journeys people had taken to arrive at this place where our lives briefly intersected with a smile or a short glimpse.

Once surrounded by forest, Bodhgaya it is now a city with apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels. To imagine the place as it was when the Buddha spent time there requires you to stretch your imagination. People continue to come to this place, because they wish to make a connection with the long chain of seekers, hoping to gain insight into how to live.

Pilgrimages are taken for many reasons, but one important reason is to the desire to expand beyond the boundaries one currently lives in– to break through the skin into something new, perhaps as the snake does when it sheds its old skin because it has grown bigger. Thoreau, purposefully set out to let his soul grow bigger when he spent a year living outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts on Walden Pond and wrote his famous meditations on living known as Walden. Thoreau speaks to the those of us who have felt the desire to step out of the hamster cage of events that keep us continuously rolling, and who long to live meaningfully. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour,” Thoreau asserts, and we are led to explore the idea that every life is worthy contemplation, of spending time reflecting on what our actions mean. This act isn’t meant to benefit just a few lucky ones who can take the time off to do so. We can do this daily as when we give our full attention to whatever it is we are doing, wherever we are walking or sitting. Listening deeply to those we are in relationship, listening to the world we walk through allows us to sense the holiness of life itself underneath the surface of all that is.

While wandering through the temple grounds at Bodhgaya, I read a quote on a plaque. The quote’s first portion eludes me, but the second portion read something like “Now I enter the forest of my old age,” and it struck me as a metaphor for transformation in general. We may have been walking through a plain before where things could be easily seen, but when we change, we enter a forest. Things aren’t necessarily easily found or understood. Perhaps we are even purposefully looking for a different path from the paths we once knew or walked. A whole new life can appear. As we age, though, I think of forests in the fall, flames arising from the myriad leaf faces, the sugar inside burning before the leaves let go to the earth.

Thoreau chose to go to the woods, and set aside a year to live in a small cabin on Walden Pond. Many of us can’t do that, or at least don’t feel it’s possible until reaching such an age where regular work ceases. Thoreau bravely took time out to consider to look for life before old age.  Thoreau chose to live simply during his year away, in order to find what it is that matters in life. He went to the woods, he said “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” This is a brave statement. It requires an openness to life, to what you might understand if you listen to the world around you, including listen to the physical world.

The Buddha, as well, encouraged people to let go of their attachments in order to find life. We may be born in one place, have a particular history or speak a certain language, but we need each other’s differences. The interconnected nature of our physical environment itself demonstrates this reality. Other people in other places with perspectives different from our own have experiences worth listening to, insights worth understanding. I notice fear is such a strong motivating force in the media but it creates so much suffering. The Buddha’s path began with a question, “How do I relieve suffering?” What if we were to live differently? What if everyday in recognition of life’s dearness we deliberately asked “How do I live so I learn what life has to teach me today? How do I live today so that I don’t discover when I come to die that I’ve never lived?”

James Wright, in his poem “The Blessing,” shows the reader what it is like to live attentive to the details before us as he describes his encounter with ponies off the side of highway in Rochester, Minnesota who “have come gladly out of the willows/ To welcome my friend and me.” The ponies greet he and his friend with “shy bows,” then begin munching the grass again, as they have been all day. As the speaker of the poem carefully observes them, he becomes aware of the wonder breathing beneath the experience, “…Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom.” We become more than we are when we let ourselves experience that we are connected to all that is.

May we all break into blossom.

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