“If there’s magic on this planet, it’s contained in water.” –Loren Eisley
Diving is one of the most otherworldly experience a person can have while still on earth. Immersed in a different world than that of everyday life, one sees wonders that open the heart and boggle the mind with the beauty of the natural world.
Drifting through the water, eyes attentive to fish activity and the surrounding terrain, a diver grows conscious of being both a drop in the ocean and an intimate part of the intricate interweaving of all that is. Snorkeling alongside a whale shark is a rare opportunity allowing a direct experience of that wonder.
Spangled with starry dots and pale streamers on its blue, night-sky body and the size of a bus, the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, journeys thousands of miles seeking warm water and nourishment from the tiniest bits of life in the shallows, filtering plankton, krill and small fish through its enormous mouth, along with a thousand five hundred gallons of water every hour.
Jumping into the water from the side of the boat, there it was, ten feet from my body. I stared directly into the cave of its gigantic mouth. My entire body could be sucked into its gaping maw.
Thinking of Jonah, I pitched my body in the opposite direction, swimming hard for escape.
Breathless, I paused to peer down the shark’s long length, its body’s dazzling radiance. The ineffable grace of its muscled movement, colossal tail brushing from side to side.
Effortlessly, the shark glided into water’s seamless, silent expanse, the stars on its back evaporating into fluid geography.
This isn’t a small life. Some travel immeasurable distances to find what feeds the soul.
For a few breathless moments we feed our yearning, the stardust in our bodies greeting an ancient light glowing still, before disappearing into the invisible.
I’m happy to announce Buoyant, my new book of poems about scuba diving and life inside the sea is now published by Bellowing Ark Press. If you’re not a diver, the poems in this volume will allow you to experience life underwater world while remaining dry. I hope the poems feed your soul.oe
(Let me know if you’d like a copy and I can tell you how to order one.)
This house has been far out at sea all night, The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills, Winds stampeding the fields under the window Floundering black astride and blinding wet –from “Wind,” Ted Hughes
Years ago I bicycled with friends up Ireland’s west coast. The day we biked from Galway to the landing where we were to catch the ferry that would take us to the Aran Islands was supposed to be the flattest terrain and easiest ride of all the days of our two week bike trip. But the rain that morning was visibly horizontal in the wind as we crouched beside benches at a Galway bus stop. We hoped the weather would ease up, but after a time, we realized that it wasn’t going to stop raining. Neither was the wind going to stop blowing. We were going to have to get on our bikes and ride despite the wind and rain if we wanted to catch the ferry to the Aran Islands. We got on our bikes and started peddling. My bike seat kept slipping down, making it challenging to pedal. My legs felt like weights. Nevertheless, I kept going, and arrived at the ferry take-off point and boarded the boat moments before it departed.
Aran Island is an ancient place with homes of stone where life was a challenging struggle with the elements. The beehive huts on the island made of stacked stones are thought to date to medieval times. Though their purpose isn’t entirely certain, they may have been built for religious pilgrims. How cold it must have felt in such dwellings! Heated homes, indoor toilets, running warm water–these are current day expectations, not how life was for humans for thousands upon thousands of years.
A trip up Ireland’s coast and to the Aran Islands gives a small insight into changes the world has experienced but going much further back in time, Earth has seen even far greater changes than the fragments of ruins of ancient cultures we see on the earth’s surface. The way we see the world now and the expectations for our lives is not as it always has been. There have been five mass extinctions in the earth’s history to date. It’s hard to imagine life different from what we know when we have only glimpses and fragments of other lives and ways of being but as much as we don’t always like change, it is part of the natural process of living beings and of our planet.
In his poem, “Wind” Hughes describes the effect of the wind on place where he sits, a description that fits the world’s present day situation. “The house,” he writes,
Rang like some fine green goblet in the note That any second would shatter it. Now deep In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,
Or each other. We watch the fire blazing, And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on, Seeing the window tremble to come in, Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.
From the pandemic, to rising costs and economic challenges, to ongoing social inequities and oppression, to the effects of climate change, and the current war in Ukraine, people across the world are confronted with strong winds coming from many directions. Day to day we walk in the midst of great change. The day of Thich Nhat Hahn’s recent death, an enormous wind blew where I live. I sat for some time on a hay bale in my back yard and watched the redwoods sway in their roots and the oak trees shake. When I looked high above me, I noticed strands of cloud had formed crossroads in the sky. The sky, the trees, the very earth beneath me seemed to be saying change has arrived, life is different now.
The world is, indeed, shifting, and because there’s so much coming at people at this time, it’s difficult to cope, to absorb and then comprehend how to respond to events. Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy speaks about this time as the great unraveling. Of course what we’re experiencing is depressing and difficult, she asserts in this short film Climate Crisis as a Spiritual Path. It’s not only appropriate to feel grief over the losses and challenges we’re experiencing, it’s important to recognize that the grief comes from a place of love. “The anguish we feel is inevitable, normal, and even healthy, because how are we going to do to create out of the present disarray an exquisite life, sustaining life, respecting society unless we are ready to galvanize everything.” Pain, she explains is the other side of love, and now is the time to expand into our full humanity.
Movement toward new awareness and growth doesn’t necessarily occur in a linear direction, however. Numerous times I’ve thought I was on a path to finding an answer to a question or situation, that I then would be moving in a new direction, only to discover that I was no closer than before, or at least I didn’t appear to be any closer. Questions and dilemmas have a way of persisting. Sometimes it seems to me that perhaps the universe itself is an embodied question wandering around in cycles of birth and death eons long searching for the answer to its own existence.
Ireland’s Saint Brendan is known for his wandering. He set off from Dingle Bay in his thirty-six-foot curragh-like boat made of leather with fourteen (some sources say sixteen) other monks to explore the world in what is thought to be the years CE 512-530. While it’s difficult to tell what aspects of the tale of his journey are factual, or where he actually went, whether to Greenland, the Canary Islands, the Azores or elsewhere, his story is part of a literary genre in Ireland at the time of a hero’s journey to the other world. Their pilgrimage embodied their quest to find the “Earthly Paradise.” All quests require a great deal of faith and theirs was no different.
The legend of their journey describes commonplace encounters such as meeting a boy eating bread and milk that the boy shares with the monks, as well as coming upon an island of birds and an island of grapes. They encounter a variety of dangerous situations however, as when they land on what they think is an island but turns out to be the back of a whale, and when their leather boat is circled by threatening fish, and when blacksmiths throw slag at them as the monks pass by their island. Some of the monks encounters are particularly inexplicable such as drinking water from a well that makes them fall asleep, the appearance of a silver pillar wrapped in a net, and finding a man they took to be Judas Iscariot sitting on a rock in the sea.
The central thing that comes down to us through time regarding St. Brendan is the story of his journey. Not the story of his arrival, his paradise found. While they may be valuable or even necessary to undertake, journeys don’t necessarily bring solutions to situations, though they can provide new insights and perspective. Even after his seven year wandering and enduring the many unknowns and challenges, on his death bed, he told his sister, “I fear that I shall journey alone, that the way will be dark; I fear the unknown land, the presence of my King and the sentence of my judge.” External pilgrimage and internal pilgrimages are connected. Meeting uncertainty is never easy, even when you are experienced at encountering the unexpected. Even if you’ve sought it out. Like St. Brendan, we are forever heading into an unknown land.
Where do we turn when life’s challenges seem insufferable, when the longing for change and resolution isn’t found? How do we during such times expand further into our humanity? Viktor Frankl, who endured the Nazi death camps at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz (as well as two others) said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The way into the unknown and toward a new way of being may not be a direct path. It may take years of wandering in a wilderness, and the wandering may not finish when we want it to come to an end. It’s the journey, the seeking and the meaning we give to our exploration on our journey that matters.
While reaching toward a greater knowing and unfolding, we carry what we know and what we came from. A stream of water has its own character and appearance as it falls over rocks and meanders its way to the sea, carrying with it bits of sediment from the land it has touched. Streams of water do not run in straight lines. The struggle, the pressing forth into the wind and rain while waiting for change has something to teach us. In our search we can stretch beyond what we know, we meet and respond to others who, like us, are also searching. Direct action doesn’t necessarily bring about immediate solutions to dilemmas. As Rumi wrote,
“Things are such, that someone lifting a cup, or watching the rain, petting a dog,
or singing, just singing — could be doing as much for this universe as anyone.”
Sometimes things that seemingly have nothing to do with the challenge we face is what most needs attending to. Before leaving her bombed out home in Kiev, pianist Irina Maniukina played on her piano one last time. A choice such as this is a purposeful action that can bring us more into the fullness of our humanity that Macy speaks of.
We may need to go wandering like St. Brendan, set out on a long ride or walk, or maybe simply to sit on a couch and give attention to our dog. Change is upon us, but as Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee writes, “We always belonged to this mystery, and maybe we can begin to find our way back, even if it means following an almost hidden path, unrecognized by our rational selves. Despite the growing darkness and images of destruction, the gate to this garden is always open, and if we listen carefully, we may hear the many voices that still beckon us.” Change is Gonna Come
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” –Albert Camus
In the northern latitudes we’re experiencing winter’s shallow light and shortened days. Storms have arrived with record snowfall and rain. We long to discover the invincible summers hibernating inside us that will help us keep in touch with the vibrant green world that lives on, and need ways to wait through the days of cold and the minimal hours of light. Winter is a good time to read, wander through old photos, and to journey out to find new unexplored landscapes. On one such recent journey into a forest area near me, I came across an outcrop of rocks covered with moss surrounded by overhanging oaks, their twisted branches casting shadows across the leaf-strewn floor. It felt an ancient place, one that might be found in Ireland where green is a predominant color and stones can be found scattered across the hillsides.
I encountered a similar shade of green some years back when bicycling up Ireland’s west coast with friends. While on that ride, someone we met told us that the small holes found in trees are places where leprechauns like to call their home. The idea delighted me. Though leprechauns are supposed to live only in Ireland, when I see holes in forest trees here in California, I like to imagine a leprechaun lives there. These tree trunk’s holes are often quite small. It seems there’s a good reason why they are referred to as “wee folk!”
Part of Celtic mythology, stories of leprechauns have circulated in Ireland since the eighth century. Though their profession as cobblers is a humble one, leprechauns are known for hoarding pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, and are thought to be older, playful men who are nimble tricksters and very difficult to catch. Additionally, they enjoy playing the fiddle, Irish harp, drum, and tin whistle. Important characters in Irish folklore and in the cultural imagination and many writers have created stories connected to leprechauns. Now associated with the color green, the poet Yeats indicated that as solitary fairies, leprechauns wore red.
I come to the forest to wander and be renewed by its green life, by its scent and uncertain paths where we explore new ground. Leprechauns are important characters in Irish folklore and in the cultural imagination. In a world often filled with news that feeds our anxieties and fear, expanding the imagination could be what we need to help us create a more pleasant world. Imagination helps us to reconnect with wonder, move beyond areas where our mind is stuck in thought patterns that constrict the flow of life. Using our imagination can enable us to reignite joy.
Sumana Roy, associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India, in her book, How I Became a Tree, from Yale University Press, writes how she came to the realization that she’d been “bulldozed by time” and yet was not a good “slave to time” as the culture she was living in expected her to be. She noticed trees can’t be hurried or rushed. Trees never stayed up all night to meet a deadline. They keep to their own internal rules and aren’t cramped by the pressure of ambition or success, explains Roy in her article, “Tree Time” in the Paris Review. Trees have a whole different way of relating to the experience of being alive. Tree time, Roy describes, is “a life without worries for the future or regret for the past. There’s sunlight: gulp, swallow, eat; there’s night: rest.” Trees’ organic way of relating to time from within their own internal needs and rhythms is something Roy felt worthy of aspiring to.
Before I moved to live beside oak and redwood trees here in California near a large tract of forest, I used to say I didn’t want to live in a forest. It was too dark. But time spent with trees changed me. Now that I’ve lived beside trees for years, thinking of not having them as my neighbors feels like a kind of grief. An abiding beauty, trees greet me when I rise, send out perfume on sunny days, scatter the confetti of their leaves when the wind blows, and reach out to cradle the house through the night as I sleep. Constant companions, their steadfast presence is an ongoing witness to the larger arc of time that reaches beyond human worries, goals and plans, and pushes at the boundaries of my limited awareness.
Similarly, to set out for a stroll in a forest is to be renewed and steadied. Walking beneath the trees, we breathe in the forest’s phytoncides, chemicals trees release that helps them fight disease. The antibacterial and antifungal qualities of these same chemicals aid our health as well, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Recent research has also enabled people to realize the value of forests and other plant life, not merely as objects to be used, but as sentient presences. Amitav Gosh, author of The Nutmeg Curse, in Emergence Magazine‘s November 2021 interview with him explains, “in Europe as elsewhere, people had always thought of so many other kinds of beings as being capable of making meaning. But what’s really interesting there is that many people may today be willing to accept that animals are fully sentient beings, that forests are sentient, that many kinds of trees are sentient, that they communicate—they have incredibly complex communications and so on, which we are now discovering… And humans have always believed in the real presence of these unseen beings.” The language trees use, the way trees, plants sense things (and other nonhuman or more than human presences) may not be the way humans experience the world, but that isn’t to say communication and some form of awareness isn’t occurring. There’s more going on in forests than we previously understood and we are only now coming to understand this through the work of people like Susan Simard, David George Haskell, and Peter Wohlleben. In these new understandings about the world around us, we can begin to imagine ourselves into a new way of living in and responding to the world.
We don’t have to believe in leprechauns to expand our imaginations and ponder the idea that the universe we inhabit is composed of more than dead physical matter, and to understand, instead, that it’s infused with various levels and types of consciousness. “The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance,” wrote the physicist Max Born. As we walk in the forest, we can allow ourselves to be absorbed again into the landscape, develop a feeling for it, and to allow our imaginations to invent new stories about our lives and interactions.
A while back, one of our recent neighbor’s children created a story about how to catch a leprechaun. After the boy read his story to my husband, the two of them strolled around the hillside singing Ratlin Bog looking for a glimpse of a leprechaun. For the boy and his sister, the forest became alive with possibility. For months afterwards, they left notes and gifts for leprechauns at the base of trees and tucked inside the bends of the trees’ arms. Connecting with our imaginations, we can discover or rediscover a world alive and new, a kind of hidden, interior gold.
Though it might be dark outside or the earth covered with snow, in the midst of discouragement, despair or doubt, we can walk outside and know that even if there are no leaves on the branches, the trees hold within them a dream of a green life that lives on, waiting in the way trees always do, for the time to rise up and burst forth in storied leafy boughs. During bleak times, we can journey inward and draw warmth from imagination’s fire, make new stories and in doing so, remake ourselves. Stories, songs, dance and the many forms of art—there are numerous ways to allow the landscape, internal or external, to come alive and to see the earth as more than a mere object or backdrop but, instead, to develop a relationship with it.
So let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars…
Let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surrounds us.
Let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. Let’s lick the earth from our fingers.
Let us look up and out and around. The world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning.
Days grow shorter, light diminishes. Winter is on its way. Typically, people don’t like to live in sparse times, waiting in uncertainty for the light of clarity to surface. Winter is a yearly, returning reminder that clarity and the full embodiment of things we hope for takes time. We wait for love, wait for fulfilling work, for the results of a medical test, or acceptance of a visa, wait to learn if we are admitted into a school or workshop we applied for. Along with waiting comes uncertainty and questions about what the results of our waiting will be. Though it might feel difficult or even unnecessary to wait as long as we sometimes do for what we long for, things of value frequently take considerable time before they surface into our lived experience. Bread baking in the oven, the creation of an art piece, coordinating movements in a dance, the birth of new understandings, the growth of a tree and friendships, or the formation of a human life–all these take time. Their development is slow, and requires waiting.
Waiting also implies a period of uncertainty. It’s not a given when planting a seed that life will grow, that an employment position you applied for will be given you, or that a relationship with a person you love will endure through time. Things can get complicated. Accidents can happen. Waiting can carry you into liminal space between worlds and ways of being where one life is actively fading away or has died, and the arrival of a different life is still on its way. The between state of change requires us to leave behind the way things once were and to learn whole new ways of being in the world. When standing in this doorway between worlds for extended periods of time, the experience of uncertainty can be difficult to cope with as it requires us to recognize the ground we stand on isn’t firm.
Ellen June Wright in her poem, “Salt,” exemplifies this idea of uncertainty.
Did we judge her too harshly, Lot’s wife, walking away from everything she knew? We become attached to places and possessions in ways we never imagined. Our feet drag when we think of leaving the familiar as though they pull against a magnetic force. No matter how dismal, the unknown is more terrifying than the known.
Wright’s observation seems accurate. It’s true that the unknown is typically more terrifying than the known. Most of us would respond as Lot’s wife did when living a place we once called home. After all, she’d raised her children there. We feel attached to the places we’ve lived and look back at the worlds we’ve left behind, longing for them still, even though we might have escaped from a place, relationship, or experience in order to save or improve our lives. We build memories and relationships in places we’ve lived, and these give life meaning. We can picture what our own very human reaction in the story of Lot’s wife would be, and identify with her.
The trajectory of creation itself is toward continuous change and transformation. From rock slowly being worn into sand, to trees waiting for rain during drought, enduring the wait while change makes its way through the subterranean world of existence, is an integral part of physical reality, and is certainly a central part of human experience. From the heartbreaking opening poem, “New Dress,” in Linda Hillringhouse’s book, The Things I Didn’t Know to Wish For, where a young girl waits with anticipation for her parents to return home so they can see her adorned in a gloriously stunning dress she’s wearing, only to have her mother walk directly past her with no comment, and without noticing her whatsoever, to the book’s final poem, Hillringhouse’s book is filled with poems vividly expressing the longing inside our waiting for attentive human connection and care in a world that is often disheartening, and stings with disappointment. As Hillringhouse writes, in “Nieves Penitentes,”
The snow is falling as if it’s forgotten to stop: Maybe the mind that keeps mountains upright and oceans in their bed is setting up some new venture and I wish I could begin again, born in a bird’s mouth in the drunken forest, into full being, not some stick figure stilting around an empty lot scratching messages in ice.
How accurately Hillringhouse names the longing experienced while waiting to become more than what we see our lives are at a given moment. We want to express something meaningful with our presence, but instead we imagine ourselves unnoticed or isolated while trying to scrape out meaning in a frigid environment where we feel whatever we say will eventually melt away without significance to anyone. We yearn to be a person able to feed that essence in us that allows us to sing and soar above the earth, that something that when it arrives will enable us to be a rich, deep-rooted presence rocking and swaying with verdant life, the tops of our tens of thousands of leaf-tipped branches of creative effort reaching into the heavens, inscribing their wonder. But we’re not there yet, and as the word penitentes in Hillringhouse’s title suggests, waiting for those hardened blades of snow to melt and become something other than what they are can feel like torture.
Living with uncertainty implies a longing for completion. But when does the completion of a canyon or a forest occur? Rivers carve canyons over millions of years and continue carving. A forest can take a thousand years to come into being and continues to regenerate if not disturbed. These are ongoing natural forces. Like the shifting formation of fluid shapes a murmuration of starlings create, since the start of the universe, everything that exists has been slowly evolving. When things arrive at a stage of completion, another cycle of beginnings starts and the evolution, transformation, resurrection or reincarnation (there are so many ways to name it) continues. From a certain perspective, nothing is ever completed as everything, both material reality, and the subtler forms of energy, thought and emotion, are connected to a longer process of transformation. The death or completion of anything is merely the birth of another life that depended on what came before in order to give it new form.
Storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade, writes, “There are old stories that show that if the world was ever completed, was ever made perfect, that would be the end of [things]…this world and each person in it remains an unfinished project, and remains because of being incomplete….The impossible tasks, the broken hearts, the utter failures actually sustain the world.” What an astonishing thought! Incompleteness is necessary to life! If being alive requires everything to be in a process of change, and therefore by definition incomplete, then finding a way to befriend and honor our incompleteness, our longing for growth and wholeness, of which uncertainty is a natural partner, seems like a worthy thing to pursue.
Lot’s wife, fleeing her home in uncertain, traumatic circumstances, looked back to her disappearing world. As the story goes, she was turned to salt as a result. It’s a disturbing story. If we look at the story with a different lens, however, it’s worth remembering salt is a beneficial element. It seasons food, functions as a preservative, and can help heal wounds. Preserving the memory of our journey toward the self we are reaching to become is important. As she’s not even given a name in the version of the story we’ve received, we don’t know that Lot’s wife wanted to leave her home or if she was forced to do so without understanding the necessary circumstances. Perhaps the salt pillar she became is the solidified tears she shed in memory of the trauma endured in leaving a home she knew and loved, a monument to the effort it takes to leave a place you once belonged. When leaving something or someone we loved, we die to the life we once lived and enter a new life.
As Ursula LeGuin wrote, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” However we arrive at the place in life we now stand, finding a way to honor our journey as we scratch our way through the icy experiences and what we’ve left behind in order to enter our new life seems valuable. I invite you to celebrate with me winter’s darknesses and, evoking Hillringhouse’s book title, all the many as yet unnamed things we don’t know to wish for. Perhaps it will be a salt that helps to heal wounds while waiting, that preserves and sustains us through uncertain times as we are birthed and rebirthed into the fullness of our being.
“Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure.” Joanna Macy
Halloween and All Souls Day are here but I’ve been thinking about the places and things that frighten me for some time. From ongoing drought to the rising cost of living, to the continuing effects of the pandemic and beyond, so many things in our daily lives can lead to overwhelm and fear. Observing my cat, Teekeh, I notice how she’s ready to jump or leave the room over the seemingly simplest things–the movement of a chair or the sound of air blowing through the heating vents. It seems we humans are not too much different in reaction when things frighten us.
Out for a walk recently, I noticed how a neighbor down the road wove a giant spiderweb helter-skelter through the redwoods, playfully adding to the Halloween atmosphere. Perhaps it’s a good idea, to look at what webs of fear we’ve wrapped around events and people in our lives and how these hinder our thought and movement. Kay Ryan in her poem, “Spiderwebs” writes, “It isn’t, / ever delicate, / to live.” How do we live courageously and open-heartedly alongside events and people that can cause fear and create the conditions that expand a greater experience of life’s regenerative qualities rather than responding defensively, running away, or shrinking back into ourselves?
When I was in grad school, once each year a dance was held where those attending invented and wore costumes expressing a suppressed desire. Expanding on and playing with this idea a bit, creating a Halloween costume to express an inner fear could be an interesting way to observe a fear we have and what it is has to say to us through the shape, textures, and colors we choose. If creating and wearing the actual costume isn’t possible, we could draw or imagine what it might look like. Then stand at the mirror and have a conversation with the fear. Some things that frighten us we might not be able to do much about. But we could try befriending the fear in conversation, it could be interesting see how we feel in our gut when we see ourselves in the costume, or when we look at it, and what that reaction might have to tell us.
Currently contemplating the need to move from a place I’ve called home for many decades, I’m experiencing an ongoing feeling of uncertainty about where the right place will be. In any one day, I might find myself imagining living in four different locations! I’m hoping to find a place to call home that will carry me deeper into the the rhythm of my life’s heart, and to recognize it when that place tells me “This is it.” Making a wise choice about this move seems challenging when the future itself is uncertain because of ongoing droughts and fires in the West. John O’ Donohue, in his book, Anam Cara, writes, “Wisdom is the way that you learn to decipher the unknown; and the unknown is our closest companion. So wisdom is the art of being courageous and generous with the unknown, of being able to decipher and recognize its treasures…Wisdom, then is the art of balancing the known with the unknown, the suffering with the joy; it is a way of linking the whole of life together in a new and deeper unity.” Finding balance is extremely challenging as it involves not solely one’s own life, but balance within the culture we live in as well as with aiming to live in balance with the natural environment that is increasingly changing and growing more vulnerable. How do we find the balance?
Occasionally, insight arrives in a moment. Other times discernment emerges slowly after long periods of contemplation. I’ve not yet arrived at the insight into what the right move to a new home will be, but talking to my uncertainty makes living with it more bearable. The conversation isn’t necessarily long, but I’ve been taking a few moments every morning to talk to it. I might not be actually feeling concerned about the uncertainty at the moment, but I speak to the emotion anyway because at some point during the day it surfaces. Often I don’t know what to say to this emotion other than something like, “I’m here for you,” or, “I know the uncertainty is uncomfortable. Things are unfolding, even now, though you don’t see it.” Then, I stand there for a few moments, looking into the sky, gazing at the redwood trees’ sturdy height, noticing how despite drought, smoke, or many inches of rain in one day, the trees carry on. Daily, trees live with the uncertainty of drought. But they carry on as best they can despite the challenges. Aware of the wider rhythms of nature, I’m held inside an affirmation that I, too, can carry on. “Stay open,” I say to my uncertainty and then turn to go on with my day.
There are a lot of colorful fears sitting around in the environment and in our brains like pumpkins in an October field. Caught inside the maze of thoughts we can circle around them, playing our fears over and over in the mind causing us to lose the enjoyment of being present in the life given to us each day. These thoughts could become frightening jack-o-‘lanterns if we decide to carve them up in a way that allows us to scare ourselves. Alternatively, we can talk to our fears, set them out in the light and familiarize ourselves with their story, allowing them to simply remain pumpkins without need to take on a sinister appearance of a jack-o-‘lantern. Alternatively, we can transform our fears–turn them in to nourishing soup, delicious muffins, or pies through creative acts such as art, music or story.
In his poem, “My Courageous Life,” David Whyte writes,
My courageous life wants to be my foundation, showing me day after day even against my will how to undo myself, how to surpass myself, how to laugh as I go in the face of danger, how to invite the right kind of perilous love, how to find a way to die of generosity.
We like to feel comfort. We want to feel like we’re riding on the Yusuf Islam (Cat Steven’s) “Peace Train.” We like to know where we’re going and to have clear answers to difficult questions. But these don’t always come readily and there may be no easy answers, as Sami Yusuf expresses in in his song, “Make Me Strong.” Some answers require sacrifice or enormous change. Our joy, uncertainty and despair are connected to the experiences of the world that is both in and around us, both human and nonhuman. Compassionate conversations with difficult emotions we experience is a way to be generous with ourselves, and can also be a way to find laughter as we go, even while facing danger. As Joanna Macy describes how she works with her difficult emotions, “…it’s been central to my life and my work to make friends with our despair, to make friends with our pain for the world. And thereby to dignify it and honour it. That is very freeing for people.”
My parents who had nothing but their big hearts, the circle they drew around us to keep us safe and the place they made for others to join us at our table, the way they taught us by what they did to love each other and the world.
–Maria Mazziotti Gillan, “Badge of Embarrassment,” from When the Stars Were Still Visible
We live in a divisive time. As if the multitude of difficult emotions have been waiting in a cave like a bear in hibernation for the moment to surface, anxiety, fear, anger, and bitter silence, have emerged to wander the world, hungry for expression. The Wall Street Journalreports that adults are throwing tantrums in restaurants, on planes and at home. To put it mildly, people are having a tough time.
Shame, lack of forgiveness, embarrassment, loneliness, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s newest book of poems, When the Stars Were Still Visible, doesn’t shy away from naming and describing difficult emotions that can arise when dealing with challenging experiences. With honesty and vulnerability, Gillan’s poems dive into the messy heart of being a human, the hardship of navigating a world where you don’t necessarily feel welcome, and where it’s possible to hurt people you don’t even mean to as a result of reacting to them out of your own lack of understanding.
In her previous books, Gillan has written about the search for identity, the desire to belong, aging, poverty, and sorrow. Gillan returns to these themes in When the Stars Were Still Visible, exploring them from different angles. While reading the poems, I couldn’t help but think that if more of us could be as humble and vulnerable in telling our painful stories as Gillan is in this volume of poems, we might gain greater empathy for lives different from our own, and for challenges people confront and carry that we may not know about.
No stranger to a life with few amenities, several of Gillan’s poems relate hardships growing up in her family of origin. In “The Face We Presented to the World,” Gillan describes her cold-water flat of childhood, with its oilcloth table cover, and dishtowels made of flour sacks, heated by a coal stove. “Love Song to HO Cream Farina” tells of the time Gillan’s father had surgery for a tumor, leaving her parents with only $300 to last them through the year and resulting in the family’s meals repeatedly consisting of farina. “I suppose I should remember with bitterness / How poor we were…” writes Gillan in “Even After All These Years.” But bitterness holds no place at her family table. Though faced with continuing challenges, Gillan’s parents offered the children ongoing comfort. Her mother standing at the stove, Gillan remembers the spaghetti she put on the family’s plates a physical embodiment of her care. Gillan closes the poem by saying,
Even today, when I am sad or lonely, a plate of spaghetti makes me feel my mother’s presence, soothing and beckoning me home.
Love is a powerful and sustaining force. A warm potato to hold, freshly baked bread’s aroma filling the house, a plate of spaghetti–these were physical assurances that in the midst of adversity, love remained; that the world was still good. Gillan’s poems bear witness to love’s persistence and power to reach across time as a continued nurturing and healing presence.
Several poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible explore themes dealing with falling short of images we sometimes feel compelled to meet. In “I’ve Always Envied Women with Beautiful Hair,” Gillan contrasts the perfect haircuts upper-middle-class girls sported in pages of Seventeen magazine, with haircuts she received that made her want to keep her head down, shoulders hunched, and eyes lowered. A variety of poems depict the effort to be accepted and to fit in at school, and to be perceived as “good.” Teachers find Gillan shy, and friends forget to pick her up on the way to a party. As a young adult Gillan councils young men on how to apply for conscientious objector status while still hearing the voice of her upbringing suggesting it’s best to follow the rules. Vividly capturing each of these moments, Gillan takes readers into those tender places of the heart where we tap into our own raw spots of cognitive dissonance, the times we’ve felt lost, confused, and “fragile and as transparent / as a dragonfly’s wings.”
In a world that can often be full of posturing and craving for power, Gillan’s writing present the opposite. The poems lay bear a very human heart with its weaknesses and strengths. In doing so, Gillan demonstrates it’s possible to be loved as we are, even because of our weaknesses. In “Claiming My True Name,” Gillan relates when she began affirming her Italian name and heritage, to identify with a culture that several decades before was denigrated in America. When embracing her name, Mazziotti, with its fabulous double “z” and double “t”, and choosing to treat it with tenderness, we feel her triumph.
And I pronounce it for them, waving it in the air like a banner, proud of my Italian-self, proud of all the things that marked me as unique, as different, a foreign creature who can at last claim my own true name.”
The proclamation is a peak moment, a celebratory event. We read the words and recognize it’s possible to claim those parts of ourselves that have been rejected, that never seemed good enough in other’s eyes. We notice as Gillan turns inside out the notion she’d absorbed from the ambient culture that her essence was somehow inherently inadequate and not lovable enough. We feel her exultation, as if she’d been let out of a prison and at last had the air she needed to become who she was all along.
Unraveling from shame and pain can take years. Cultural shifts may sometimes be necessary before it’s possible to move past the hurt and injury arising from the various ways we’ve learned shame, both visible and invisible, that labeled us as other. Often that sorrow remains hidden beneath the surface, as described in the poem, “Moll Flanders, Zia Louisa, and Me,” where Gillan’s aunt who loved to dance the Tarantella, could be heard through the apartment walls crying at night, though she emerged each morning smiling and laughing. We rarely know the fullness of each other’s stories or the weight people carry beneath the surface. The poem releases some of that pain by making what was hidden visible.
One of the poems in the collection that struck me as particularly powerful is “Ode to Something Once Lost.” The poem describes a time when a friend mocked Gillan in front of a group of women. Surprising herself, Gillan writes that she turned on the woman and
told her she was insulting and rude to me and everyone else, that the others were afraid of her and that I never wanted to go anywhere with her again.
That must have been a difficult and likely uncomfortable moment. Interestingly, even though the young woman sent an apology letter asking to be friends, Gillan writes,
My heart was a stone, anger like a fire inside me. I called her. We talked. I wish I could say I forgave her but there was always a small corner of my heart that remained closed to her.
Our friendship once shattered could not be repaired and I’m ashamed to say even fifty years later, I still do not forgive her.
Some hurts cut deeply, leaving us unable to move beyond them. In naming her inability to forgive, we learn we, too, can take courage and look honestly at our limitations. People have histories that have shaped them and create limitations. Perhaps having been hurt many times, when a new situation arises bringing up the pain again, you reach a boundary you no longer want to cross. To do so would set yourself up for being hurt or mistreated again or might mean putting yourself in a position or situation you know is not right for you, and “Ode to Something Once Lost” affirms the value of personal boundaries.
The cover for When the Stars Were Still Visibleis one of Maria’s drawings. Pinpricks of light and a luminous moon festoon a dark night above a city outline where a collage of people walk a street wearing bright clothes. The scene is from her childhood memory when stars were still visible above Paterson, New Jersey, the setting for many poems in the book. The cover is perfect for a book full of poems that shine.
David Mitchell, in Cloud Atlas, writes, “These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish.” Long ago Gillan’s mother bought her a pink Smith Corona portable typewriter with a pink case so she could become the writer she dreamed to be. I’m very grateful for Maria’s mother, the gift of that typewriter, and for the poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible– the light in them that touches and strengthens the life of those who read them.
On a recent visit to the Renwick Gallery I wandered through the enormous room displaying Janet Echelman‘s Renwick 1.8 art piece. Gargantuan fabric nets draped across the vaulted ceiling and hung in giant latticed ladles drooping in transparent overlapping layers of vibrant, ever-changing colors. The description on the wall states, the art piece is Echelman’s way of examining the “complex interconnections between humankind and our physical world, and reveals the artist’s fascination with the measurement of time.” The piece was “inspired by the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami…The lines on the carpet trace the topographic patterns of the three dimensional form above.” Whether standing in the middle of the room or circling the room’s edges, I felt both grounded and suspended at the same time–alternately shifting between the earth’s surface and under the sea or, as the colors in the room changed, drifting over the earth and through waves of sunlight.
Topographic carpet pattern under changing colors of light
Echelman’s piece is meant to be a meditation on the “contrast between forces we understand and those we cannot, and the concerns of our daily existence within the larger cycle of time.” I felt I’d entered a magical door and was floating inside an enchanted room. The prodigious size of the work, both mammoth pendulous nets as well as the massive length of contoured lines reaching across the carpet, everything bathed in prismatic color, carried me into a place of awe where beauty’s presence suspended time and wrapped me in wonder. Indeed, I felt a power at work in the art piece that can be experienced but not fully described.
In our every day world, we move through time responding to needs and concerns, following rings of repeated activity and the topographical patterns outlining the shape of our culture and the ground we build our lives on. Moving between and within waves of sound, light and energy, we live and walk inside layers of physical wonder. As in Echelman’s dangling nets bathed in light, everything in the physical world steeps in a spectrum of moods, actions and reactions, our own, as well as that of the world around us. Eichelman’s piece allows viewers to observe and experience a relationship between physical form, light and energy. As the folds and shadows in the layers of nets suggest, there is a lot of subtleties and mystery in what we experience as well.
Like visual art, music and poetry can also take us to a place where through heightened sensory awareness time seems to suspend movement. Akin to Echelman’s art piece Renwick 1.8, Michael L. Newell’s poem, “Spiritual: Listening to Charlie Haden and Pat Methany” in response to Haden and Methany’s piece, “Beyond The Missouri Sky, – Spiritual,” (worth listening to while reading this post) carries readers into a space of deeply felt attentiveness. The first portion of Newell’s poem describes a journey on a “boundless sea,” and “a never ending progression of waves,” and lengthening night
bob up and down and up again the only sounds the slap and splash of water and our breathing hushed though it may be seems sacrilegious time loses all meaning we forget our names to be certain our flesh still exists we touch our faces our arms our legs
As Newell writes, carried away by the music, we touch ourselves and know we are fully physically present, but we are also in a world beyond physicality or words. As Newell goes on to write,
This journey is beyond comprehension this is a world whose existence does not lead to prayer it is prayer the ending silence of the music is the definition of awe and we sit silently for a time and then dive again deep into this world beyond words
Enveloped in the prayer of music, we enter into and become part of the prayer itself. Music can transport and transform us, bring us into a state of rebalance and peace, as does Newell’s poem.
The exchange and transformation of energy is integral to the creative process. Often in the natural world, something is destroyed or dies allowing something new to come into existence. Natural events often demonstrate this. The 2011 Tohuku quake created a tsunami whose effects were felt all the way across the Pacific and Echelman’s piece illustrates this interactive process in the waves of netting and waves of topographic curves on the carpet. As an art piece, we can see the exchange of energy in dramatic events with equanimity. Emerging from the experience of beauty great art immerses us in, however, we often step back into an unpredictable world and are faced with challenges. Imperfect beings as we are, we’re not always certain how to respond effectively or compassionately to great change and difficulties we encounter. We tumble, fall, make mistakes. Sometimes we harm others unknowingly, and sometimes because in our own incompleteness we can’t help it. When such challenging events occur, music, art, and poetry are there to remind us that while we carry out our daily activities, we also participate in a wider plain of existence, a larger field of grace that holds and enfolds us, even though we may sense a part of us dying or falling apart. As Arundhati Roy writes, “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget… another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Depending on the lens we look at the world it appears to be an entirely different place. Years ago, I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where the explorer Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan the features, people, culture, and history of cities in Khan’s expansive empire. In reality, however, though each city depicted is seemingly distinct, they are all actually different versions of Venice, the city where they live.
Any place on earth, not only Calvino’s Venice has multiple histories and innumerable layers to its identity. As peering through a microscope reveals, there are worlds reside within worlds. Believing we know a place and why things look or function as they do, we explain them to ourselves and to others, but many things nevertheless remain outside of our comprehension. Much of what makes up who we are remains hidden beneath our skin and inside our thoughts.,
The southern most active volcanic area in the Cascade Range, at Mt. Lassen National Park in northern California, visitors can get a glimpse of nature’s hidden hydrothermal world. From approximately three miles beneath the surface rises a deep huffing sound like an enormous, arhythmic drumming can be heard while climbing the hill approaching the fumarole at Bumpass Hell. According to the US Geological Survey, Lassen Peak was formed approximately 27,000 years ago after erupting for several years and rising to a height of 2,000 feet, becoming one of Earth’s largest lava domes. The dome went to sleep for 27,000 years then woke up on May 19, 1915, when it erupted destroying a three-square mile area, created mud flows, a new crater at the mountain’s summit, and an avalanche of volcanic material, only to erupt again a few days later, on May 22 the volcano exploded again, blowing down trees, houses, ejecting pumice, and spewing gas and hot ash 30,000 feet into the air.
I sat on the hillside beyond the edge of the white mineral deposits ringing the thermal vents, watching as the vent hurled chunks of rock some thirty feet into the air, spewing them out into every growing pile. Further down the road in the park, mud pots burble up from deep below, painting the earth in tones of ochre and, rust, mustard and gold.
Not a geologist, I don’t know how to read the landscape’s history. Much of the land’s story was hidden to me. In the park, we can now walk on what was once buried beneath a volcanic cone covering. Though the earth’s crust feels solid when we travel across it, inside there are oceans of molten, liquid earth. So much is hidden from our everyday view.
It’s not only the land that holds and hides its history. We are an embodiment of our history, as is everyone we meet.
I am no one, I am everyone I have known: all those voices coming on the wind,
writes Michael L. Newell, in his poem “Self-Portrait” from his new book, Making My Peace. As the poem goes on to say, all we’ve experienced and all who we’ve encountered have helped to make who we are. As Newell goes on to describe,
from the past, the aching, haunting past, the faces barely recognizable in browned and curled photos found tucked in old books, in crumpled letters scattered among old poems,
in boxed up bric a brac long forgotten; who, I ask myself, am I, if not these forgotten ones who whisper in my head every second of my life, whose words have shaped thought, deed, laughter,
As Newell indicates, the moments, places and people that have influenced and shaped our lives may be hidden from direct sight, but they are present, similar to the hidden activity beneath the earth we see glimpses of while sitting in front of a fumarole. Newell concludes the poem stating,
We are the dreamed, the dreamer, the stranger who became more and then vanished, the intimate who disappeared into the long night, but left behind words, images, and the tilt of a head which remain in memory’s ever expanding pouch where nothing is ever completely lost.
While Newell’s poem describes the legacy of other people’s lives on our own, Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Living Your Unlived Life, explores playful ways to bring to light unseen aspects of ourselves such as writing a note to the Eternal Youth that continues to live in us whatever our age, and to put it by our bed or computer. My thought is that the focused awareness of what brings us joy and the dreams that live inside of us reflected in the letter will more easily help to bring that dream forward into life. Johnson suggests asking what is keeping you from stepping out and exploring a new path or the next part of your journey, how fear might bind you to ways of living that no longer serve you. Quoting Gilbert Murphy, a Greek translator, Johnson says, “Live in the service of something higher and more enduring, so that when the tragic transience of life at last breaks in upon you, you can feel that the thing for which you have lived does not die.”
Johnson has a variety of other exercises such as writing in a journal once a week or more and using black ink to record thoughts and a different color of ink to represent feelings, and a third color of ink, such as blue, to represent when you are writing about physical sensations. Over time, this gives you an idea of how you process experience, suggests Johnson, and writing in the journal can help you notice repetitive patterns such as what happens repeatedly when you’re stressed, what you tell yourself when you wake up every morning, what you do with intuition, as well as internal messages that shape decisions and how you evaluate reality.
Rob Knight, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, on his TED talk says, “The three pounds of microbes that you carry around with you might be more important than every single gene you carry around in your genome.” A person’s gut bacteria can influence things such as anxiety, stress, and mental health, among other things, according to Medical News Today.
From the Peter Wolden’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and Susan Simard we learn how trees communicate and share nutrients with each other underground through fungal networks, information about the network of life that has only recently come to light.
Outside of Bogota, Colombia, María Luisa Hincapié and her family work to protect the biodiversity of orchids in their Forest of Orchids, and around the world young people you may have never have heard of are working in their communities to carry on the work are doing to support their communities during the pandemic.
Like bees among the flowers collecting pollen, in every location there are embodied stories and mysteries that add to the greater web of life that uplifts and sustains us. As Newell said in “Self Portrait,” “We are the dreamed, the dreamer, the stranger who became more…” Life adds to life. As Lassen’s volcano exemplifies, land shifts, gets removed and remade, and “nothing is ever completely lost.”
If you’re interested, Michael L. Newell’s book, Making My Peace, is available here.
“To become aware of the ineffable is to part company with words…the tangent to the curve of human experience lies beyond the limits of language. The world of things we perceive is but a veil. It’s flutter is music, its ornament science, but what it conceals is inscrutable. Its silence remains unbroken; no words can carry it away. Sometimes we wish the world could cry and tell us about that which made it pregnant with fear–filling grandeur. Sometimes we wish our own heart would speak of that which made it heavy with wonder.” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
Standing on Yosemite Valley’s floor with its immense granite walls rising on either side to 4,800 feet is to be immersed in wonder and to step out of one’s self into a place of awed silence, touched by an awareness of a reality far larger than the mind can absorb, a universe more immense than can be imagined, or at least than I am able to grasp.
Yosemite Valley is the physical expression of an astonishing story. Connected to the shifting tectonic continental and oceanic plates moving across each other, granite’s formation is a tremendously long process created twenty-five to thirty miles beneath the earth’s surface where over time, magma cools then slowly rises since it is lighter than the solid rock it is suspended over. Crystals of various minerals form and bond together as the magma lowers in temperature. Some of the world’s largest mountains, the Himalayas and the Andes, are the result of this type of geologic process. The formations in Yosemite Valley, however, are a combination of this process, as well as glacial activity. Ice carrying its load of gravel and rock pushed its abrasive way in and out of the the Valley, a recurring dance that went on for 30,000 years and then ended 11,700 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch, scouring the Valley into a u-shaped formation. Surface rock eventually wearing away through erosion, the granite domes slowly revealed themselves. Other erosive actions of freezing and thawing carried on, causing sheaves of granite to peel away from the dome’s fissures, creating the sheer faces we see today.
Yosemite is but a part of the three hundred mile long Sierra Nevada baolith, the merger of enormous magma chambers beneath the earth. Pondering the scale of time and the colossal complex processes involved in creating Yosemite Valley and its surrounding area causes one to stand in speechless amazement at life’s vast and intricate processes, of which our passing lives, in all our own incredible mysteriousness, are but a small grain. To place yourself in Yosemite Valley is to allow a ripple of awareness to pass through you, and to touch something of what it means to be human and the miracle of existence.
Maybe humanity is but an afterthought to project Earth and to the galaxy. Whatever the greater reason for humanity’s appearance in this universe, I’m grateful to be a witness to its astounding presence. When driving into the Yosemite Valley, a passenger in the car next to me gazing out the window in astonishment at the scene we were taking in, looked over at me, face aglow, eyes gleaming. Full of joy, our mouths agape, we greeted each other waving vigorously. Later, while bicycling around the valley floor, overwhelmed by the sight my eyes were taking in, I encountered a fellow wanderer walking the opposite way. “We’re alive!” I called out as we grew close. She turned and smiled. In places of such magnificence we sense our common humanity, the desire to express its beauty rising up like a spring overflowing with life’s fountain of incredulous abundance.
The life of a flower is one measurement of time, a human life, another. But places like Yosemite’s granite mountains take us into a realm difficult to comprehend. Granite has a solidity to it. For me, granite brings back memories of boulders I climbed among with my sisters on the hills scattered with these stony outcroppings behind my childhood home. Whether sitting on a boulder staring out over the valley, or lying back and absorbing stored heat inside the rock while staring up at clouds or a circling hawk, granite held a sense of time embodied. Resting on granite, the world slowed down and drew me into its arms. Ursula La Guinn writes in her poem, “Hymn to Time,” Time makes room / for going and coming home / and in time’s womb / begins all ending. Granite rises from both sides of the Yosemite’s Valley floor, creating the sense of being held inside a womb or the curved palm of some great hand where time is fluid, and nothing ever dies but is simply a part of a long spiral of making and remaking.
We need these moments where the immensity of all that is flashes into our consciousness and we see ourselves inhabiting a different realm, one much greater and more expansive than the routines of life or the understandings we walk around in. And we are altered, our sense of reality enlarged. Something in us is moved, a previously unheard music rising inside, whispering a kind of wordless understanding about what it means to be human and alive. I think of these words from Jan Zwicky’s poem, “The Art of Fugue, Part VI,”
Once again, the moment of impossible transition, the bow, its silent voice above the string. Let us say the story goes like this. Let us say you could start anywhere. Let us say you took your splintered being by the hand, and led it to the centre of a room: starlight through the floorboards of the soul. The patterns of your life repeat themselves until you listen. Forgive this. Say now what you have to say.
It is from this place of silent awareness where the music of who we are emerges–some place beyond goals and accomplishments, something to do with the difficult attending to what it means to be, to be present, and for our lives to say what they have to say.
As you set out for Ithaka hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. … Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you’re destined for. But don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn’t have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
As Cavafy’s poem suggests, life is a voyage. As we leave our Ithakas and places of origin to journey into the world to enter into other ways of being and interacting with people different from ourselves, we can begin to see that our own way of being isn’t the only way to conceive of or structure the world. Other people and cultures have some very good ways of living and interacting as well. Variety and differences are attractive, and this is one of the reasons people travel. In his opinion article in the NYTimes, Adam B. Ellik writes, “…traveling offers lessons on other ways of life, and in that way challenges the norms and assumptions that govern one’s own life.” Our brains light up when experiencing something new. Have a change of scenery for an afternoon or take a holiday to an entirely different location, and return home feeling renewed, able to face the same challenge with new insight.
We come into being slowly, changing, perhaps, while we’re not fully aware of it. Cavafy states, “hope your road is a long one.” Every year millions travel to places to view ruins of formerly thriving civilizations. The story of where we’ve been, where we want to go, and where those before us have been is important, as stories are one of the central ways we make meaning and develop understanding. In the poem’s middle portion, Cavafy mentions the many wonderful things that can happen on our journey. We may “enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time; / ..stop at Phoenician trading stations…/ visit many Egyptian cities / to learn and go on learning from their scholars.” There are many benefits to venturing out from our place of origin to explore new places and worlds, and a wealth of sensory as well as intellectual experiences to savor as we travel through time. Both are valuable.
People love newness and variety, but they also love stability and routine. As the poem suggests, as we travel out, it’s good to “Keep Ithaka always in your mind.” Where we start out from and what we leave behind is as important as the new places we arrive at. Ithaka is the home Odysseus set out from on his journey. It took him twenty years to make it back home. Home is a place of wholeness, of unity. Born into a particular culture in a specific moment in history in a particular family and a specific body, like the fragments of ancient cultures, what we know of other ways of life is limited. We understand the world through identifying ourselves with what we are and are not. We may not comprehend the way of those in other cultural structures or economic levels, those with different emotional or personality make-ups from our own. We likely would find it difficult to grasp what life is like for a tuna in the Pacific, a zebra on the Serengeti, a monarch butterfly migrating to Mexico, or a bristlecone pine tree clinging to a hillside for four thousand years. But all these lives touch and influence the quality of our own; each fragment and element creating a part of the larger whole that shapes who we are.
Eventually as we move through life, an awakening moment arrives when we realize the direction we’ve been traveling on is taking us down a curve and know our life will change. Or we recognize we must change to meet the direction our lives are taking us and see we can no longer go on the way we have been. Navigating this trajectory can take a lot of emotional, if not physical, energy. Like Odysseus, what we set out to do on our journey is finished, it’s time to come home to Ithaka. “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey,” Cavafy writes, “Without her you wouldn’t have set out.” Though we leave our place of origin, home is what our spirits long for–a place where become whole.
When my parents moved from the home they’d lived in for decades to live in a small dwelling next to my sister’s house in a different city, I recall my father telling me, “This is our home now. We’ll never have to move again.” But that wasn’t true. They did move again. Like them, there are many moves we need to make in a lifetime. I lived in the desert once but now my home is in a forest. I taught school once. Once I could ski, could run. “Once I had a garden,” we might say, “once a child. Once a country…” so many once upon a time stories. These aren’t stories found only in books. Over and over again, we move, and in the moving we leave things behind. Left are the remnants of what we once knew, souvenirs of what we had or pieces of what we were. In the poem’s last lines, Cavafy provides a kind of response to what it means to return home,
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
After years of effort and work, journeying a long time through many experiences, iterations or alterations, we come to a place of internal recognition that we want to come home again. And this isn’t necessarily to go back to a place of physical origin such as a homeland, but to come home to ourselves internally. What’s especially remarkable, though, is that once we arrive home, Cavafy tells us, “She has nothing left to give you now.” Where home is, and perhaps what it is, is no longer the same as when we left. We sense a kind of poverty, an absence or emptiness, and might question what it is we’ve actually done with our lives, what it is we’ve given. We reflect on the larger meaning of our actions. How do things fit together into a larger whole, we wonder? What is this whole big thing called being alive?
We all leave home, have to leave our Edens and Ithakas to venture out beyond the walls of comfort we were born inside, and to enter into a world where we struggle to distinguish one thing from another so we can learn who we are and what we are here to do. Where we left from to become ourselves is an important part of what makes us and enables us to discover who we are. In this poem, Cavafy wants us to understand the journey is where the wonders and treasures of being alive are. The journey is the meaning, and we are always on a journey. Interestingly, the poem’s last line uses the word “Ithakas,” implying there are several homes. And yes, by the time we reach the end of our journey there have been many homes, not just one. Each of us have different Ithakas, different homes, but perhaps it’s also true that just as we hold many selves within us, we have many homes within us as well–many places we set out from and come back to in order to create our inner place of belonging. In the place of emptiness, or in the process of emptying that coming home brings after long travel, a space can be created in which the aspects of the journey can take on greater clarity and meaning.
When I woke this morning I watched light from an upper window travel across the room’s angled ceiling, a shadow from the window sill seemingly pushing the light deftly from one side of the room to the other, the light moving with the earth’s movement. Though the earth moves around the sun at a speed of 37 kilometers (22.99 miles) per second, my body told me I was lying still. Multiple realities simultaneously coexist, and though they seem contrary to one another, both can true. Integrating the various experiences, realities and aspects of our lives is an ongoing journey, and that journey can be taken, and perhaps is best taken, in a place of stillness.
At Delphi’s ruins in Greece stands an ancient olive tree, a symbol of life, reconciliation, longevity and peace. It has been rooted in that earth, and reaching into the sun and sky, drawing sustenance for what appears to be millennia. Yet it has found a way to continue on, giving beauty and life though the world around it that was once so sturdy and sure of itself fell apart. Maybe we can learn from the olive tree.