art, community, music, Uncategorized

Finding Our Lullabies

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

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dragonfly

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

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

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

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

Lullaby
by Ilya Kaminsky

Little daughter
rainwater

snow and branches protect you
whitewashed walls

and neighbors’ hands all
child of my Aprils

little earth of
six pounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anna in the Red Dunes of Saudi Arabia, photo by Michael Citrino
pilgrimage, poetry, snorkeling, Uncategorized, Wonder

Into the Wide, Diverse Sea

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino.

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

 

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

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Anna in the Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

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

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

Days At Lohifushi
Anna Citrino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lion fish, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

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

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

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

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

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

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Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino
pilgrimage, Presence, Uncategorized

Waiting and Transformation

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WAITING
Anna Citrino

The heat rises each day in Delhi now, and the trees
on my street have lost their leaves. The branches,

gone barren, crave a new life. They hold open the palms
of their hands in yearning. Hour after hour, the sun

kisses their fingertips saying, “Not yet, keep going.
Keep on,” as the trees breathe in the circling birds,

and breathe out their emptiness. They want to blow
open in sirens of life, to scream like a child in wild glee,

want to turn on the colored search lights, to shout out
the story of a yellow Eden. They want to sing

in a ten thousand blossomed glory, setting fire
to the air. But they don’t.

They wait. Day by day, a pyre of sticks, they stand
quietly shriveling into the sidewalk, as if

they understand the silence, the humility,
out of which life finally speaks.

Landscapes can embody both longing and renewal. When I lived in New Delhi, a tree grew along the roadside in front of the school and in the courtyard inside the front gate. As the year moved toward spring, I noticed the trees beginning to lose all their leaves, just as it seemed to me that they should be bursting with life. I thought the trees were dying, and felt very sad to see them go–all of them alongside the roadway drooping and bereft of leaves.

The trees were not dying, however, though they appeared to be. They were actually getting ready to burst forth in blossom. By May the trees, the cassia fistula, had become enormous clouds of brilliant yellow clusters of flowers cascading down from the height of their branches. Their vibrant color embodied New Delhi’s intense May heat where temperatures climb over a hundred Fahrenheit (in the thirties in Celsius) accompanied with May’s monsoon season humidity. Like drifts of yellow sun, their blossoms fell in thick drifts along the roadside. It felt like the trees had to lose all their leaves in order to make way for the myriad blooms.

Some people liked to call these trees the graduation trees as their blossoms arrived at about the same time as the school year’s end. People would leave school to ride out into their summer holidays and their new or their other lives, accompanied by the generous beauty of these trees celebrating their long awaited for transformation. I learned from these trees behavior that what is true in one environment doesn’t always hold true for another, and that sometimes things that appear to be dying might actually be making ready for something entirely new to occur, even, perhaps, something glorious.

 

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It’s a fortunate coincidence that the tree blossoms at the school year’s end, a time when tired teachers are very much in need of a boost to carry them into a time of rejuvenation and restoration before beginning a new school year.  It isn’t only teachers that need renewal, however. Many people carry on through years of work holding up their families, nurturing other people’s health or hold the safety and wellbeing of others in their care, and must find how to sustain themselves and others through long periods of time. Whether its for graduation, a job, retirement, better health, a word of encouragement or a hand of support, we are often awaiting renewal like the trees, preparing and storing up reserves for the arrival of that transformative time.

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Often, when we put closure to certain phases of our lives, people like to know what we’re going to do next. We don’t have to know everything about our future though as we move toward change. We each have our our own way of opening and can allow ourselves to learn how to unfold in our own time. Success and the continual idea that we must be doing something so we can be called successful or call ourselves successful can make us deeply unsettled, and can prevent us from living satisfying lives. To wait on ourselves, and to listen deeply to the rhythms and needs of our lives is important to living meaningfully and with contentment. Before bursting forth into blossom, nature practices stillness, goes into her dark place and can look as if she’s dying. Like the cassia fistula, we can hold back, listening to our inner selves.

Several years back now, the first blog post I wrote on this site spoke about the mandorla, the ancient symbol that can be found in cathedrals’ stained glass where two circles or ovals overlap. The overlapping portion symbolically represents that area where wholeness develops, and growing into oneness occurs. As Robert A. Johnson explains in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, the Dark Side of the Psyche, “The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise. This middle place is a mandorla, ” The shadow times, times we’re seemingly dying but are still living, the times where all is still and it seems nothing at all is happening as we wander and explore, aiming to understand experiences, feelings or ideas are important to our inner growth and wellbeing. “Only awareness of your shadow qualities can help you to find an appropriate place for your unredeemed darkness and thereby create a more satisfying experience. To not do this work is to remain trapped in the loneliness, anxiety, and dualistic limits of the ego instead of awakening to your higher calling,” writes Johnson, explaining how important times of emptiness are for our inner lives to grow.

We live inside a mandorla–a world where opposites overlap. Whether change occurs slowly or quickly, our lives are always in transition, moving from one world into another. The stillness and space between the oppositions in our lives is where we learn how to transform our lives and periodically allow ourselves to eventually burst into blossom. While we search for the boat of insight that will carry us to the other side of understanding, we can practice being still and enjoying the moment we’re in.

 

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poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living for the Long Journey

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

–Marge Piercy,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty, place, Uncategorized

Wildflowers and Forgotten Worlds

A place of abandoned windmills, trailers and tractors, the Carrizo Plains north of San Luis Obispo, California carries a kind of sadness, an emptiness that fills the landscape’s wideness. In her poem, “Elegance,” Linda Gregg writes, about the neglected world,

All that is uncared for.

Left alone in the stillness
in that pure silence married

to the stillness of nature.

And there is, indeed, an undisturbed stillness to the landscape of the Carrizo Plains, a silence that absorbs you when you step out onto the sea of land and peer out into the far distance, a world that goes on being itself with out much notice from anyone. The wind rises a bit and rattles the grass. Clouds drift by in their silent carousel. Crow sits in her nest atop a tower where once the windmill turned. The countryside here is full of light, but you can feel the shadows waiting beneath the surface, a kind of loneliness.

 

Tractor, Carizzo Plains

Nevertheless, because these plains are a place left undisturbed by humanities’ hustle, traffic and expectation, something truly grand has the opportunity to appear: wildflowers. After a winter with abundant rain, a super bloom occurs in backcountry areas like the Carrizo Plains. Flowers that have waited for years, at last have the conditions they need to spring forth, forming lakes of lupin and pools of baby blue eyes. Beauty spills its bounty across the hillsides, dusts them in the pink blush of owl’s clover, clothes them in her bejeweled cape of brocaded yellows–gold poppies, topaz fiddlenecks, mustard, butter cups, and bright-eyed tidy tips. The hills reverberate with sun.

People who typically view nature as a backdrop, and who may not know the names of plants in their front yard or on the street where they live drive hours to stare at flowers. They climb hills to get a good view, spread a picnic blanket at the edge of the road, and lug their crying children along with them all for the opportunity to glimpse at the splashes of color for a few hours before making the journey back home. What is there about these flowers that pulls on our spirits so powerfully?

Carrizo Plain

 

Temporal and rare, we know the burst of color these flowers produce doesn’t last long. If you want to see them, you know you can’t put the journey off for weeks. Flowers do not bend to our schedules and timelines. They live and thrive when they choose, and wither quickly beneath the heat.

There’s something beyond the flowers’ narrow life span that pulls us to them though. Something deep inside us physically responds to what we see and experience, allowing us to feel more at ease, interconnected with the world around us, and with ourselves. We feel more whole. When standing amidst the wildflowers, like others around me, I found myself wordlessly staring out at their colorful bounty, fumbling for how to express the awe I experienced.

Something in us responds to a presence in nature that we recognize as much larger than ourselves and intricately, beautifully complex. Though nature speaks a language we in our consumer oriented society barely comprehend, when we step inside a natural world that has not been severely impaired by human interaction, we can nevertheless sense it imparting something significant into our very being. Neurologist Oliver Sacks in Everything in It’s Place describes the profound effect these experiences in the natural world have on us. “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process, as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

Carrizo

The natural world is interconnected, and our own lives interwoven into its fabric. Nature preserves are also called sanctuaries. The word sanctuary is linked to the idea of what is holy, a word the etymology dictionary indicates connects to that which is whole or uninjured. Nature continues on its vast spiral, working under its own rules to carry on its own story within the constraints of its own rhythms, its own timing. Awe of the natural world reaffirms our connection to it, allows us to feel alive and whole.

As they walked from place to place or rode an an animal, for centuries people lived closer to the land than we do now. Before factory farming, many more of us were farmers interacting daily with plants and the land. According to Sara Burrow’s article in Newsweek’s October 27, 2017 article, ‘”one in nine children “have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least 12 months.'” These patterns of disengagement from Earth alienate us from a life-giving source whose wideness is beyond comprehension, her boundlessness presence ready to carry us into a spaciousness, to use Hopkins’ words, that “flame out, like shining from shook foil.” National parks in the US are threatened by human activity. Perhaps this is because as a whole, people in our culture spends so little time in nature we don’t comprehend its value to our inner lives, and therefore don’t nurture our connection to it. As a result, we’re willing to treat it mostly as a commodity to be used and sold. 

Sadness does, indeed, roam about the world, but there are also wildflowers seeds waiting to be watered beneath the surface of loss, and despair. With blossoms and perfume, Earth call us to come join her, walk with her, listen to her voice. The story she’s telling is far bigger than our fears and worry. It’s a story of renewal, and she’s calling us to be part of it. While watering a plant on our windowsill, walking by a river, waiting beside a tree for the the local bus or looking out our window as rain clouds gather, we can open our roofs to the moment of her presence, let the seasons and scents drift in. The meadow of her refuge awaits. As Hafiz writes in his poem, “All the Hemispheres”

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.

Beauty, gardening, Uncategorized

In the Garden of Time

20190301_152744 (1)Rain has fallen relentlessly the past few months in Santa Cruz County, but today a break occurred allowing the sun to come out, and I emerged into my backyard’s delicious light. Looking up at the billowing clouds, I rested in the afternoon’s quietness, reveled in the creek’s soft rumpling as it moved through the redwoods down the road. Ill with a cold, I had no plans but to take in the day. “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel. “God is not in things of space, but in moments of time.” Time is a temple, an experience to savor and relish. Today I felt enfolded in this truth.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, my husband and I connected with friends–walking, sitting, absorbing life. We arrived without any set plans. We simply wanted to be present with our friends and the world they inhabit. While there, we ventured out into the landscape, absorbing its fabulous diversity. Hawaii is a world different from where I live, and the difference is a delight.

Traditional Hawaiian society had defined roles for men and women. In traditional Hawaiian society, men cooked and farmed while women made art. Women and men ate in different locations, and inheritance was through matriarchal lines. Additionally, Hawaiians held an awareness of the mahu, those who identified themselves with both genders–someone in the middle.

In Hawaiian traditional culture, the idea of family goes back several generations. The physical family was part of the spiritual, timeless family. As depicted in the photo of the stone shrine above, Hawaiians honored family ancestors.

Traditional ways of thinking have eroded since the arrival of Westerners to the island, however. Because Hawaiians have highly adapted to Western culture and its way of thinking, restoring traditional ways is highly problematic. Nevertheless, learning something of Hawaiian’s traditional ways of organizing society helps me to view my own culture newly, to consider anew my relationship with family and friends, and to enter into an awareness of our spiritual connection.

Though I know little about my ancestors or their history, like members of traditional Hawaiian culture, I’m attracted to the idea of timeless connection beyond our physical bodies to the lives of those who came before us. 

To understand a culture not your own takes attentive, receptive study over time. Though people may not be able to restore what was lost in the multitude of cultures that make up the world we now live in, we can listen attentively to voices other than our own and find ways we might move toward greater restitution with those around us. We don’t have to agree with everyone to value them, to give them love. We may not have answers or solutions for the hurt people and cultures have endured. Nevertheless, we can build bridges of beauty that can unite us in larger fields of compassion so we can enter into a place of being together.

One way I’ve begun this effort is by planting in my garden favorite flowers for family members and friends–iris, poppies, sunflowers, dahlias and more. Though there are differences of values and perspectives with family members, looking out at the flowers growing and blossoming in the garden, I can notice life unfolding in its various forms, connecting the flower to the person who chose it–a living reminder of the many and varied lives linked to mine.

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” says Maya Angelou, “… our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” Flowers touch the tender place in all of us where we are “shy as magnolias,” as Angelou describes. In the garden we can be alive together, planted in earth, recognizing our short lives and vulnerability as we take in the sun and rain. Without measuring one flower against the other, we can be together. Sometimes simply inhabiting time with one another, opening ourselves to its color can be enough.

pilgrimage, poetry, Uncategorized

Journeys to Widen Our Lives

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Anna biking the Camino de Santiago de Compestela, Spain

“We do not need to go to the edges of the earth to learn who we are, only the edges of our self.” – L.M. Browning, in Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Some journeys are external others internal. Pilgrimages are travels we make to places that we feel hold spiritual significance—that will speak to our inner selves and transform us. We might travel to a place where grandparents were born, to a significant site connected to our history or a religion we practice. Pilgrimages connected to poetry attract me. The year I lived in the UK, I wanted to follow the Stanza Stones poetry trail. Located in the Yorkshire moors of England, this 47 mile trail contains six Stanza Stones, poems written by Simon Armitage and carved into stones naturally found in there by Pip Hall. Armitage collaborated with the Ilkley Literature Festival organizers to create the poems for the trail. To walk a landscape is to absorb the land’s language. Arimtage’s poems connect walkers to the landscape with words as they encounter the poems as in these lines from his poem, “Snow,” “What can it mean that colourless water can dream such depth of white?” Though I wanted to walk at least part of this trail, I wasn’t able to find a good way to connect to it without better transport the weekend I had free to visit the area, so let go of the idea of this pilgrimage.

Walking Basho’s poetry trail is another pilgrimage I dream of going on. Following this pilgrimage path, walkers can hike the 17th century trail where the great haiku poet, Basho, traversed through northern Japan’s mountains to the Sea of Japan, passing by Shinto shrines, through pine covered islands, and hot springs along the way. I don’t know if I will be able to get to Japan any time soon to make the journey that inspired many of Basho’s poems. I look at photos of it on the Internet, though, imagining the quiet joy of walking for days beneath bamboo forests and among ancient trees.

 

We’re not always able to make the trek of our dream or travel to another land. Nevertheless, there are pilgrimages available to us all: quests through books, and our journey through time. A favorite journey I’ve been on since 2012 is one of the imagination. This sojourn began when I wanted to collaborate with a colleague I worked with who played the cello beautifully, and who was going to move away at the end of the year. I suggested a collaboration where I would write a poem for a piece of music he chose to play, and we would record the pieces together. The music he selected was Fauré’s, Après un rêve, (Op. 7, No. 1). The piece evoked a sense of loss and longing, transporting me to Naples Bay’s enormous circumference where I’d recently sat with my husband at sunset. As the sky burning gold-orange, we watched a boat pull from shore, heading toward the wide horizon. I thought of his grandparents departing Italy for America—how they left behind the world they knew as well as everything and everyone in their village of San Lucido on Calabria’s coast. They had no pictures of the world they moved to, didn’t speak the language, had little money and likely no maps. They never returned to Italy. Leaving was risky, enormously brave, and they would never be the same. Neither am I, as without their departure, I would’ve never met the man I married.

After writing the first poem, “Luisa Leaves Home,” in response to the music, I wondered many things: Why did they leave Italy? What was life like in San Francisco when they arrived? How well did different ethnic groups get along? What are Italian-Americans contributions to American culture? How did World War II change Italian-Americans? What does it mean to be Italian-American today? What does it mean to be American? Hundreds of questions surfaced, and I searched for answers. Paradoxically, the more I researched and wrote with the aim of unraveling threads from a century ago, the more mysterious and complex the world grew. The more questions I had.

I began listening to news items and other people’s stories with a second ear. I applied situations and information to the immigrants’ lives I was writing about, and reflected on how my experiences connected to their world. After sharing one of the poems with a relative, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “That poem isn’t Noni. I don’t know who you think you’re writing about, but it isn’t my grandmother.” She was right. I never met her grandmother or lived in San Francisco. I didn’t grow up in an Italian American family or neighborhood. Neither do I speak Italian. Any of these qualifications would be beneficial in helping me write about Italian immigrants to America. The Italian grandparents were from a different time period and culture, and had little education. I had no way to access their lives or inner worlds and the family knew few facts. I couldn’t truly write in their authentic voices. Every writer has limitations of gender, culture, and time period, however. I felt drawn to understand and to journey inside Italian immigrants’ world, so I turned to research and imagination, constructing possibilities to embody a story. Research helped me to put the few facts I knew into a larger picture with a wider frame. Imagination created a bridge to a culture, time period, and people that gave me greater awareness of the complexities inside choices immigrants made.

We look in the mirror when we are at six, sixteen, or sixty. All that came in the years before is mostly hidden from view, disappeared, but still present beneath the surface, creating the life we see and experience. There are myriad stories inside one story. We’re many selves inside one body. It’s the same with cities. Years back I read Italo Calvino’s book, Invisible Cities, where Marco Polo describes to Kubla Khan various cities, all of which are actually Venice. I began to see San Francisco in this way as well as I wrote—its subtle elements still present revealing the past or rising from a foundation into a remodeled version. When visiting the City, I recognized places I’d never been because I’d seen them in historical photographs and could recall events that took place there. It isn’t just San Francisco I see differently now as a result of searching for answers to my questions. The world I live in is larger and has greater dimension because of questions I’ve explored answers to. The walk into an unfamiliar world has been a pilgrimage that  widened my perspective and has transformed me.

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San Francisco from Twin Peaks

To step out on a journey into new territory can be unsettling for travelers. Today, people don’t think of Italians as the “other.” During the peak period of Italians immigration to America, however, Italians experienced prejudice. They were seen as lawless, treacherous, and having filthy habits. (See more at this CNN article, “When Italian immigrants were the other.”) Italians weren’t allowed to build a church inside Manhattan because city officials were fearful of Catholicism and the ceremonies they didn’t understand. The largest single lynching in America was of Italians in Louisiana 1891. Teddy Roosevelt, though not yet president, said of the lynching it was “a rather good thing.” The man who helped organize that lynching, John Parker, later became Louisiana’s governor in 1911.

Currently, similar to the time period one hundred years ago in America when Italian immigration to the US was at its peak, Americans’ fear of immigrants is heightened. Openness to new experiences, information and ways of seeing can enrich and expand our lives, and bridges that allow us to build deeper understanding of what is different can be helpful. Mahzarin Banaji co-author of Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People and Professor of Social Ethics in the department of psychology at Harvard explains in her interview with Krista Tippett that our minds are basically wired to distinguish differences in order to help us make sense of our world. This wiring creates biases and blind spots we’re not aware of.  Tests created by researchers to help you see your biases at Project Implicit. People can, however, gain understanding of biases and blind spots by exposing themselves to ideas and people that stretch their boundaries of familiarity. Challenges to people’s preconceptions presented in contexts allowing them to continue to feel safe can help people grow in their understanding of others different from themselves.

One terrific way to do this is through reading, as reading allows us to learn from others without having to take personal risks as we step into their lives. Scientific American’s October 23, 2013 issue reports social researcher, Emanuele Castano and PHD candidate’s research evidence showing how literary fiction, delves into characters’ thoughts and interactions. In literary fiction, explains Kidd, “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations.” As a result, readers have to imagine characters’ inner thoughts. This kind of thinking nurtures empathy as it leads readers to understand the complexity in characters’ lives and to reach for why they might do things differently than expected.

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If reading literary fiction helps break down stereotypes and prejudices, enabling readers to develop empathy with those different from themselves, it follows that writing fiction could further expand this capability as authors not only step inside character’s minds, they create their thoughts and build contexts from which they flow. As a writer, you immerse yourself in your characters’ lives, become familiar with their setting, social context and way of seeing so that you can portray their world. You reveal your characters’ weaknesses and blind spots, and come to understand your own as well.

While most people aren’t fiction writers, we’re all creators of our own life stories. We can consciously aim to expand our understanding of new contexts and situations. Simple things like taking a new route home, listening to or playing a different type of music, going to a lecture on an unfamiliar topic, trying a new sport, hobby or food can all help us expand. We can learn a few phrases in a new language, take a class in a unfamiliar subject, learn about plants in our yard or types of architecture in the neighborhood, experiment with art or try building something. When meeting new people, we can ask questions to bring out their experiences or ways of seeing things. These actions may not seem like large leaps for some, nevertheless they can open new paths in our brains to carry us on journeys widening into new vistas of understanding.

Some journeys start before you know they’ve started. I’d written quite a few poems about Italian immigrants experiencing earthquakes, crossing the Atlantic, learning about the largest lynching in America, and Italians being removed from their homes to be taken to internment camps before I realized I was actually on a pilgrimage with them. I’ve made the pilgrimage with them as I could through writing, and the trek has caused me to view my own place in the world with greater humility.

Not every story is ours to tell, but this one called to me and I felt compelled to take the writing journey to tell it. A Space Between to be published by Bordighera Press (date to be determined) describes this journey, and I look forward to sharing it with you. If you want, you can read more about the book here.

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Riding the Camino de Santiago
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.