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.
“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.
Poetry Walk, Ravenna, Italy
Poetry post on poetry walk, Ravenna, Italy
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Turkey Tail mushrooms
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.
Turkey Tail Mushroom
Hedgehog Mushroom, scientific name: Dentinum
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
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.
possibly a White Chanterelle
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.
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.
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.
Standing before the glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I watched as sardines swirled in graceful, ribboned unison, turning then splitting into two shifting forms, as over and again a hammerhead shark pierced through their fluid movement. To observe life under the sea’s surface is to enter another world that is our own but utterly different, and is perhaps the most otherworldly experience one might have. While staring at the fish, on one hand, a person could say that nothing much is happening: over and over one large fish chases other smaller ones. But from another view, the most essential thing is happening: you are observing life in all its mystery and it leaves you standing in awe. For a few moments you’re unaware of anything but the fishes’ movement as they glide as if in dance through the liquid blue, and you step into some larger universe where time dissolves.
Inside the ocean, life teems in myriad forms, yet we’re barely conscious of its presence, as most of us rarely encounter what is happening beneath the ocean’s surface in our day to day lives. I would never know about the hammerhead chasing the sardines unless I were to dive into their world or view them in an aquarium. Would we miss their dance if they were no longer with us? Recently, I received a letter from a friend who mentioned that if he never published another poem, the world wouldn’t miss his voice. Most of us at one point or another have probably felt similarly. We work hard at what we do, we aim to accomplish something significant, but still we wonder if our lives have meaning to others. Does a tree, a forest, painting, piece of music, national park or act of simple kindness matter? Why should we learn to cook, build a house, grow a garden, write a story or read one? The universe is enormous and full of fecundity. What does it matter that we create or that we protect the natural world, make space for beauty or nurture others’ creative effort? Would the world miss Dostoevsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Martha Graham or Aretha Franklin if they had never produced their work?
Maybe we can’t miss what we’ve never known or experienced. We tend to take in the world we’re given, absorbing it like food, and whatever we’re given becomes part of our being. We can go through our days somewhat routinely, not necessarily sensing a need for reflection. At the same time, however, something in us hungers to be in relationship to something larger than ourselves. We wouldn’t know what we had missed if the artists who produced their creative work never did so, but our world is certainly fuller, our inner lives richer because of them. To reduce or obliterate voices both nonhuman and human— the forests, animals, music, art, stories or other creative work is to diminish existence, reduce wonder, and to take away our souls.
Though the hammerhead chasing the sardines in the aquarium was beautiful to watch, what I was watching may have also been one animal seeking to make dinner out of another. Death and life are interconnected. To be born is to also to learn you will die. Simply to eat, whether animal or vegetable, something else gives its life in order to sustain our own. All of life is transition. Day follows night follows day. Always, we’re leaving behind one state to enter another. To love someone is to know you will also someday lose the one you love. We leave our parents’ home to enter a larger world. We enter a relationship of love, letting go of something of ourselves in order to expand our lives. Perhaps we move to a new location or a new country. In doing so, we gain a new understanding of the complex diversity and multiple realities coexisting in the world. As we age we lose things—our hair, our vision, our strength. With each transition we make in life we lose something. In turn, what we lose asks us to enlarge our internal selves. To love means to be in relationship, and relationship gives life meaning. The world we breathe and move in is alive and also fragile. Writers, and artists in general, invite us to take off our protective armor and become vulnerable again—to look deeply at our lives, to notice our relationship to the world around us, and to become more conscious of the reality that we stand in liminal space: aware both that we are alive, and understanding we will die. We’re living into as well as dying to each ongoing moment. To enter the world is to experience suffering as well as joy. The more we, like the ancient Biblical Job, can allow ourselves to stand in this awareness, the more we can move out of fear into a place of acceptance of all life brings us, even our own deaths–the biggest transition and opportunity of all to enlarge ourselves.
When we gaze at a school of fish whirling by or view minuscule jellyfish slowly drifting past an aquarium window, their transparent bodies radiating with moving iridescent light or when we lean our heads back to cast our vision into the midnight Milky Way, at stars so thick they have become mis, we catch our breath. Time stops and we stand in naked amazed awareness of creation. These moments may seem small, even insignificant within the press of responsibilities we often take on, but they are important. The accomplishments and creative energy of our lives, the things we hold dear—these reflect the impulse to live and thrive. They are the voice beneath our actions and inside our silences that say, “You are alive, and to be alive is a wonder.” Creative work, our own or appreciation of others’, allows us to touch life, feel its pulse. Our creative efforts may seem small even insignificant, but they are vital. They are efforts that whisper to us why we live. Life dwells in these moments and in the details that bring us into a world larger than our selves—into the mystery of our own being.
How beautifully Mary Oliver speaks of this in her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,”
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Deciduous trees burn with luminescent light during autumn as they move toward winter’s dormant stage. Here in Oliver’s poem, the trees in the woods are more than trees; they are lit candles. Similarly, Oliver implies, if we open the eyes of our souls, we can experience the world move from a space where we know the names of things and can categorize them back into a space of the nameless, allowing us to once more delight in their mystery. There are things worth understanding about life’s connection to loss, explains Oliver. Loss teaches us to hold ourselves open to our mortality. Hold the world dear, “against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;” Oliver writes, but at the same time our task is to learn to also let go of what we most love. This can be painful and very difficult, but in it, Oliver states, is fulfillment. In losing our life, we find it–ancient wisdom we learn and relearn. In letting go, we can become like autumn trees–lit candles, our lives rich incense others inhale.
“Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.” ~Pope Francis
I’ve been working on writing and revising a manuscript I’ve titled A Space Between, a series of linked narrative poems about southern Italians immigrating to San Francisco at the turn of the previous century. I started this series of poems about four years ago, set them aside for a few years, and have recently returned to them. The writing began as a result of listening to Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve (“After a Dream”), sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India who played the cello beautifully. Because I like to write poems in response to music, I suggested he play a piece of music on the cello and I would write a poem to go with it. As I listened to Faure’s piece, I pictured Naples’ wide harbor as I had seen it at sunset on a trip to southern Italy–the sky a brilliant, burning orange with a single boat sailing off into the far horizon. The music embodied feelings of deep tenderness and loss—how I imagine it felt when my husband’s grandparents left Calabria to sail for America at the turn of the previous century. To lose the ones you love is to lose a world. How enormous the feeling must have been for immigrants as the boat they sailed on pulled away from shore and they realized they might never again walk on the land that shaped them or see once more those they hold dear. This experience of departure is where my manuscript began.
The process of writing A Space Between has been simultaneously like looking through a telescope into a deep space of ever expanding worlds, as well as peering down into a microscope at the fascinating details inside one life, event or moment. After I’d written the first poem, I discovered I had many questions about the Italian immigrant experience, leading me to research for answers. A wide range of writers have helped me developed a sense of life in both Calabria, Italy, and San Francisco, California in the early decades of the last century. Bit by bit, the research expanded both my understanding and my questions, motivating me to write more poems. As I continued to research, read and write, I eventually realized that along with the immigrants who left their country and struggled toward making a life in a new place, I too was on a journey. Now, approximately ninety pages later, I’ve got a completed draft, though I realize there’s much more to understand. My questions and interest in immigrant stories continues.
A Space Between unfolds through a series of narrative poems told from different characters’ perspectives. In creating a world through story or poetry, as in a mosaic, writers, and readers, see how worlds are interconnected— the interior life of characters with the physical world and with the social setting. In creating a narrative, you create a world. Language is a central mode of finding and making meaning. I feel deeply grateful for how writing the story in poems has changed me, not only because of what I learned through what I read, but also for the way the act of writing brings me deeper into the heart of humanity and the worlds we share.
Stories occur in a setting that shapes the narrative. In addition to the physical geography of a location, place is also created by how we name the world we are a part of, and how we use language to talk and write about it. Place is an integration of experience, imagination, thinking, emotion, and the words we give our experience about a place. Employing your imagination to write a story or a narrative poem moves a writer beyond the facts into a felt experience. Through the process of writing, I see ever more clearly how intricately interrelated events and lives are–how worlds live inside of worlds, touching each other in deep and powerful ways, affecting all that comes after. That changes how you think, feel, and respond to the world around you.
We don’t have to be a writer, however, to sense the power of our words. We might begin simply by telling our memories to a friend or child. It’s good to tell our stories as well as to say yes to listening to others’ stories in order to enter into their worlds. I knew little about the Italian American experience of those who came to San Francisco before I began the journey of trying to their stories in poems. Their history wasn’t taught at schools I attended as a child or found in textbooks; neither was it a shared family story. By trying to learn the stories of that era and finding the words that might bring them alive, whole new worlds have opened to me–including having a better understanding of what it might be like for those in our own era whose worlds have fallen apart causing them to leave their homes and all they’ve known to enter strange worlds with hopes for a better life.
love is a place & through this place of love move(with brightness of peace)
yes is a world & in this world of yes live (skillfully curled) all worlds
Love is the ground we walk on, the atmosphere we breathe, the space we move in. Love is the place we all want to live in. We might read a lot about a subject, travel the world looking at facts and scenes from the windows of our own experience, curious about ways of being that puzzle us. When we enter the arms of one we know loves us, though, we intuitively feel we belong. To say yes to love is to say yes to a deeper place of knowing and belonging. As Pope Francis says, “life is about interactions.”To say yes to love is to recognize relationship is a life source. We sense we’re home. Humans are meant for relationship. Relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the natural world help us find our purpose and express what we find meaningful.
We have the ability to create worlds and places of love with our words. Words are a kind of magic, and are powerful in their ability to heal or to harm. Writers think carefully about what words make the world they want their readers to experience. Similarly, in making a place of love in our lives, we want to be aware of choosing words that evoke the world we want to live in with those around us. The recently reported news story of how two Lebanese twin brothers, Mohamed and Omar Kabbani, created a project called “Operation Salam” is an illustration of this idea of the power of words. Selecting a neighborhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, a previous war zone during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, the brothers painted rooftops a bright lime green so that from above, the word salam, or peace, could be read. The project brought the neighborhood together, as approximately 50 people worked to find places in the neighborhood where the brothers could carry out their painting project. “…The people from both sides want to live peacefully,” explained Mohamed. This single word, salam, literally proclaims from the rooftops this Lebanese neighborhood’s desire for peace. Interestingly, by saying “yes” to their roofs being painted, a larger world of “yes” took place—a kind of healing and making of a world they want to live in. Through the physical embodiment of the word as well as neighbors cooperating with each other where previously sectarian violence had occurred, the artists, with this single word, moved people once enemies further toward living peacefully.
To write about something is to enter a door inviting us into a deeper relationship with our subject and the possibility of falling in love with it. When we are in relationship with someone or something, we are listening for what the other is communicating so we can respond. Several times now, I’ve thought I was finished the manuscript of poems about Calabrian immigrants to San Francisco, but then I learn something more about the immigrant experience or Italians in America, and I want to reconsider what I previously said or thought. Keep listening, the story seems to tell me; there’s more to understand. Around us everywhere are worlds that beckon for us to listen. Inside of words, entire worlds exist. Stories, even a single word we share with another, can open a space for understanding and connection, and writing is a way to enter into a place of love.
Amiee Bender’s story, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” opens with a doctor visiting a rabbi who explains an Hassidic tale describing how at the end of your life you will have to apologize for how you didn’t live. The rabbi character in the story explains, ‘“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”’ There are so many things in life to make one fearful of living large. To open your heart to the world, to become deeper or wider–or depending on your personality or circumstances–humbler and meeker, is risky, difficult, and just plain challenging. So, where does renewal come from? How does one transform?
In a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, I visited the Museo de Oro, the Gold Museum. This museum holds the largest pre-Hispanic gold collection in the world. While there, I noticed how the subject of transformation frequently recurred on the exhibit descriptions. People in the ancient world of the pre-Columbian Amerindians purposefully sought after transformation, and their art in the Museo de Oro clearly demonstrated this interest. Containers were thought to be like the female gender–they held things that could transform and gain life. The ashes of the dead were placed in urns the shape of pregnant women’s bodies as if waiting for rebirth. Furnaces and crucibles, too, were seen as a kind of uterus. Potters decorated fish-shaped objects with lizards as a way to bring together the worlds of water and land. Insects, and amphibians that changed forms, such as frogs or the butterfly chrysalis, were also common in Pre-Columbian art work. Interestingly, the culture’s connection and observation of transformation in the natural world led them to use these these observations and objects as embodied metaphors to heightened people’s consciousness and understanding.
For Amerindian populations, the physical world of plants, animals, and even minerals, intermingled with the spiritual world and were seen as holding important connections with humans. Goldsmiths, for example, were believed to have powers like a demigod because through their work and their use of fire, they transformed earthen material. Additionally, the chief was believed to be able to transform into an animal when he used specific clothes and objects for religious ceremonies to make him look like an animal revered for its power, the jaguar. Also, because of their reflective qualities, shiny objects such as mirrors, metals, and stones like obsidian and quartz, were thought to be able to communicate with the spiritual world. Metallic plates with their glinting lights and sound they were able to give off were thought to bring people closer to the gods, and priests used them in religious ceremonies. There was an awareness that we need renewal in order to become more whole.
Seeing ourselves as connected to the physical world is not only good practice for ancient people, however, it’s good for us today as well. In Richard Schiffman’s 1997 interview with Father Thomas Berry at the Riverdale Center of Religious Research, Berry states, “We bear the universe in our beings,” Berry reflected, “as the universe bears us in its being.” Something in our culture is awry, however, as Schiffman goes on to say, “We’d as soon cut down our most beautiful tree, the most beautiful forest in the world. We cut it down for what? For timber, for board feet. We don’t see the tree, we only see it in terms of its commercial value.” Schiffman describes how “Scientific research has too frequently become the willing handmaiden of what Berry called “the extractive economy,” an economic system that treats our fellow creatures as objects to be exploited rather than as living beings with their own awareness and rights. Moreover, technology, in Berry’s view, potentially separates us from intimacy with life. We flee into “cyberspace” — spending more time on smart phones, iPods and video games than communing with the real world.” Rather than a world alive with spirit, this is a world where objects are separate and alienated from the world around them.
The poet, David Whyte, in his poem, “Everything is Waiting for You,” addresses the alienating effects of living in a culture where the physical world is seen mainly for its utilitarian value. Whyte begins the poem by saying, “Your great mistake is to act the drama/as if you were alone.” Several lines later, Whyte moves on to describe everyday physical objects of our lives in our own day, and how they are more than mere objects. If we allow them to, they can bring us out of ourselves and sense our connection to the larger world. “To feel abandoned,” writes Whyte, “is to deny/ the intimacy of your surroundings.” To feel alive, he suggests, is to feel the world not as objects but to see the shine in them, the magic beneath the surface, so to speak, and our connection to it. The world is waiting, Whyte suggests, for us to be present and to respond to it as a presence, and realizing this can change our world.
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
The things around us have a commonplace function but they are also a way to enter into other ways of being. In other words, Whyte suggests, if we look deeply, we can notice how these things in our every day lives carry a story reflecting a deeper life. The object such as the soap dish holds for us the means to clean ourselves. Windows enable us to open our lives to an outside breeze. In their way, if we have the eyes to see it, these objects are a means for transformation, as well as a kind of blessing–a kind of modern form of the preColombians’s ability to see their connection to the world around them to help them transform their lives.
A few lines later in the poem, Whyte explains how “the doors have always been there/ to frighten you and invite you,” implying to experience the world differently Doors have often been used metaphorically in literature to represent opportunity, and opportunity can frighten us, as well as expand us. Nevertheless, the possibility is available to us to see the whole world as our alibi in this grand experiment in living. Like the shamans and priests of ancient Colombia, we, too, can allow the physical world to transform us when we open ourselves to the possibility of seeing it as a reflection of something beyond its particular form. For Whyte, this begins with opening yourself to communication with the world–relating to it as if it were less an object but a person. “Put down your aloneness and ease into the/conversation…the cooking pots/ have left their arrogant aloofness and/ seen the good in you at last.”
So often recently, I’ve heard people tell me how they feel anxious or how people they know feel anxious. Certainly, there is enough in the daily news or family events to create anxiety, but what if we took up Whyte’s idea and instead, practiced allowing ourselves to see the world, including the physical world as actually longing to have a conversation with us. Could that allow us to be more fully human–enable us to see that we can become more completely at home with ourselves, to see our own goodness and to nurture it?
Because of my interest in trees and in learning to draw them, someone recently sent me a link to a site explaining how by spending time with trees you can receive healing. The method described for this was to begin by selecting a tree, and then to frequently spend time with your chosen tree–standing or sitting near it, to touch the tree, meditating under it, and simply to approach it with a sense of love and openness. To do these things would allow a person to see and understand a tree in a new way and to enter into a kind of conversation with it. Similarly, sitting or standing before a tree–spending time with a tree, opening yourself to it as a presence rather than an object could allow us to see like an artist sees, and to experience the tree in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. While drawing a tree, an artist’s aim is more than to duplicate the tree’s exact form. Instead, the artist works to express the personality, presence, or what could be called spirit of the subject, as this is what moves the viewer to experience the subject more fully or to see it in a new way. What we spend time doing repeatedly reinforces our own thinking and ways of being, and in the end, these behaviors transform us. If we can learn to see the life inside a tree, perhaps we can transform ourselves enough to learn it is possible to experience the presence with all of what and who is around us. To live in this way would be to live in a truly transformed world.
As Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson suggests, the motivation to care for and protect other living things helps enable the survival of life as a whole on our planet. “Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth,” Wilson asserts in the 2006 Harvard Gazette, “and they should come together to save the Creation.”’ As Schiffman says in his article, ” We Need to Relearn That We’re a Part of Nature, Not Separate From It,” on the Moyer’s site, both Wilson and Berry show “we need a story that cuts across traditional boundaries between fields to present a new, integral vision.”
Whyte closes his poem poem by saying,
..All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
To be transformed, the poem suggests, is to become nothing other than more of the fullness of our own selves–the shifting a tadpole takes as it turns into a frog or a caterpillar into a butterfly, to use the metaphors of the pre-Colombians. This is a wonderful poem to start the year with. The world is waiting for each one of us, opening its arms to us in invitation. Be it stone or water, trees or a teapot, may we all awaken to the life that waits inside every living thing by beginning with one living thing we turn to regularly with the eyes of openness and love.
However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.
In some cultures, people choose to become monks who own virtually nothing. They have begging bowls and their clothing, and that’s about it. They depend on people around them to give them food. This helps the monks practice gratitude and to control their wants and desires, and it helps other people to practice giving and hospitality. The work monks do can encourage us on our life path. Most of us, however, aren’t monks who have chosen to take the vow of poverty. We work hard to make a space we can live in so we can provide ourselves with food, clothing, and other necessities. There comes a point when making the best of it really isn’t enough. People want to do more than merely exist–need more than just their one bean.
Circumstances can arise that make it so getting these things aren’t possible or are at least very difficult to obtain. If we’re poor, it’s rarely by choice. We need the diversity that entire gardens possess. In a flourishing society, the social structure supports people in developing their abilities and provides varied and abundant opportunities for them to contribute to the community. If someone literally doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or is struggling with severe pain or loss of bodily function resulting from a terminal disease or other such loss, what enables a person to go on, and how do people cope with their fear and anxiety during such situations?
Recently, I’ve been researching about Italians immigrants living in San Francisco during World War II for poems I’m writing. During this time period, the US government labeled 600,000 American-Italians as “enemy aliens” resulting from Executive Order 9066, an act that held numerous consequences for Italian-American immigrants.
During WWII, Italian-Americans had to carry a booklet identifying them as an enemy alien and have it stamped once a week. They weren’t allowed to travel more than five miles from home, had to stay in their homes between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., and were required to turn over radios, flashlights and cameras to government authorities. Approximately another 10,000 Italians living in prohibited zones near coasts were forced to move (sources vary, as the Smithsonian, states it was 50,000). Many people lost their jobs, some because their place of employment was further than the five miles from their house they were allowed to travel. 1,400 Italian fishermen in San Francisco weren’t allowed to fish. Three hundred Italian-Americans (some sources say more) were put in internment camps. Certainly, these changes and losses caused the Italian-American community anxiety and fear regarding their livelihoods, the safety and well-being of their family members, as well as serious questions regarding how their future would be affected.
In the fall of 1942, Roosevelt lifted the enemy alien status but Executive Order 9066 remained on the books until 1976 when President Gerald Ford removed it.
Fear in the American society at large was a significant motivating factor behind the government’s choice to remove civil liberties from Italian-Americans, as well as from the Japanese and Germans. When the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw the internment camps, she spoke out against them. “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” Her voice didn’t cause the camps to close, however. The families in these camps continued living with their difficult situation.
Italian-American immigrants faced significant injustices, as have many others world-wide throughout history, as well as currently. Life can change quickly and profoundly when you are suddenly seen as no longer acceptable. It’s easy to see how difficult life could be in such circumstances and to imagine how easy it could be to live in a state of fear, anger and resentment when facing such a cyclone of events you couldn’t anticipate and had no control over.
We don’t know our futures. We want to be ready to face our fears and the storms that come our way. In his poem, “Snowfall in the Afternoon,” Robert Bly clearly depicts what it’s like when confronted with an unavoidable fearful situation– in this instance, a rising storm. “It was the sort of snowfall that starts in the late afternoon,” he writes, “And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.” Like anxiety and fear, the storm grows, picking up strength, feeding on its own furry as it continues, until the very home one lives in seems to be made of grass–vulnerable to gale force winds.
Yet beneath the surface, forces not attended to had been somehow present all along. Bly writes, “A darkness was always there which we never noticed.” The poem goes on, explaining how watching from inside the house, the cornfields seem to shrink. Then, like some wayward galley holding a great weight of grain, the barn’s bulk moves threateningly closer, about to crash into the house where “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” Whether blinded or aware, the viewer is left in an alarming situation. This is how we feel sometimes when confronting unavoidable situations–waiting for a hurricane or fire that might engulf our house and ruin our entire livelihood and future. How do we cope with extreme difficulties that can’t be avoided–when we don’t know how long anything around us will last, if our efforts will make any difference, and when we’re alone in our vulnerable house made of grass about to be plowed down by something we see coming and yet are unable to do much about?
Because the darkness was there all along but simply not previously noticed, we can see a possible way to begin to understand what we fear and what we might do about it: look around. Notice where darkness is growing and storms might be brewing. Practice acknowledging the presence of fear–look at the fear and purposefully be present with it in our thoughts. Rather than rushing past our fears, covering them over with restless activity or hiding them, simply practice noticing when the fear as it arises, observe it, be curious about it—what brings it up, how it feels in the body, what it’s telling or teaching us.
When we see a storm coming toward us, typical responses are to run, to hide, fight, or even to find ways to cooperate with the storm or move with it. A significant portion of Italian-Americans during WWII, for example, kept a low profile. Parents during that generation chose not to teach their children Italian. It was considered “the language of the enemy” and they didn’t want their children to stand out. Italians also enlisted in the army and went to war as a way to demonstrate their loyalty.
Like stony mountains, difficult things don’t necessarily go away. We have to learn to live with our emotions in spite of their presence. There are other ways to respond to difficult situations, and we can teach ourselves how to think, act and feel differently in response.
Imagination is a powerful tool. We can imagine various situations we’re afraid of and practice letting go of the fear—visualizing a different way of responding. Collette Lafia, in her article on the Gratefulness.org site, describes a practice where you sit quietly with a bowl, imagining filling it with your sorrow, grief, anger, exhaustion–whatever your wound. You don’t try and fix it, you just put it in the container and with humility hold it out to the Infinite for healing. I can see how this is a way of gaining a larger perspective and how it would help instill an understanding that the working out the problem that creates the fear isn’t about will and control. By placing the fear (or other strong emotion) in a larger context we can gain a kind of freedom from the thought patterns that bind us related to our fears and see how resolving an issue or dealing with fear is part of a larger interaction.
Pema Chödrön in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty, writes, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Difficult situations can be complex and we might not readily know by ourselves what it is we need in order to resolve our fears. Maybe we can begin elsewhere, however, and simply probe the emotion without having to think it must be resolved or that we have to come to conclusions about it. Living the question until we live into the answer might be the more appropriate thing to do, as the poet Rilke suggested.
So that we move out of our own tightness and fear–our tendency to cling and be anxious–we might also shift our gaze, aiming to familiarize ourselves with others and their pain. We can imagine ourselves taking in someone else’s pain, and send them light and energy. Pema Chodron describes specific steps for how we might do this in a practice called tonglen. The specific purpose of this practice is to expand our capacity for compassion. Instead of treating people perfunctorily, as someone who performs a task, we can begin consciously practicing to enhance relationships with those around us. This could be just a thought we think when we see someone pass by us who seems different from ourselves in dress or perspective. We might in our minds wish them well, to be released from pain or to find fulfillment. Fear, anger, resentment–these can trap us, make our lives miserable but we can live alongside these emotions, observing and putting them into a wider, different context, or turn from them toward something different. Learning to love ourselves, we learn how to love our neighbors. We can open our arms, and nurture our hearts into a larger world.
We all want to live a life where we feel valued. Recognizing how the well-being of our own life is interconnected to the dignity of all people is foundational to moving beyond fear into a larger world where we can live with greater freedom and attain more of our full potential. After World War II in 1948, representatives from countries and cultures throughout the world put together The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the goal of protecting people from “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The declaration was put in place in recognition that people shouldn’t have to be pushed into “rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” Neither should people have to hide, run away, or deny their language, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other fundamental aspects of their personhood just so they might continue living. All people need dignity and should be able to thrive in living condition free from fear. Article 1 of the Human Rights Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Practicing in our lives each day how to move beyond our own fears, we can begin to integrate into our lives how we might respond to fears in others’, and perhaps see how to respect and protect their freedom. As John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition: there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”—Frederick Buechner
In the work I did for three decades, I lived with strict schedules. Nearly every minute counted, and clear goals for each hour, even portions of the hour, seemed necessary. This year I’m choosing to live differently. Thoreau went to the woods to live simply and deliberately. I’m beginning a new life in California as of this summer, and in my experiment in living, I want to focus on living with presence. I have goals–to learn to draw, play the clarinet, learn Spanish, to write poetry, among other goals. More than achieving all my goals, though, I want to open to a place of being. I want to listen to the land I live on, inhabit it physically and mentally–to take in the subtle changes as the seasons shift–the light, the color, the sounds, nurturing the awareness of its presence. I want to every day consciously notice life for the miracle it is.
As I walk across the land where I live, I notice many things that need tending to–the poison oak that’s growing up on the path, the oak trees that need trimming, how last year’s rainstorms have washed away soil on the bank. After being gone for some time, as I have been, there are numerous things I need and want to do. Perhaps these things don’t matter much in the big picture of the universe. Keeping the poison oak at bay, for example, isn’t going to influence what happens in India, though it will make it easier for me to walk around. The bigger lesson in caring for the trees, pulling out weeds, watering, and the various other things people do to their living space when living in a rural area, is understanding how living on the land involves an interconnection and a relationship. As I give to the land and care for it, it cares for me. If I avoid behaviors that cause erosion, for example, it benefits me and benefits the earth I live on as well. Tree roots don’t get undermined causing the tree to fall over. I used to not want to cut the herbs growing in front of my house, better to let them continue on their natural life, I thought. Over time, though, I’ve learned, that most herbs actually like to be cut back. They grow better as a result. The plants have taught me things about themselves.
Learning what the land you live on wants, what it needs, and how to give it that care takes time. Currently, I’m reading about what grows best in specific areas, what gophers and deer don’t like to eat. I’m also learning by getting out and walking around each day to see how things are doing. Doing the walk is a kind of observation ritual so I can better understand the organic processes of the land and my life in connection to it. Though it may be someone’s job to care for the community’s garden or shared landscape, living in an urban landscape requires similar attention. As in human relationships, the land we live on and use needs us to understand the effect our behavior has on it, if we are to live in good relationship with it, if we want a meaningful relationship.
Soquel, California sunset sky
Reeds, Neary’s Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA
Spider’s web, Neary’s Lagoon, Santa Cruz, CA
Similar to learning how to have a relationship with the land I live on, learning to draw or to write require an attending to an inner awareness of what is trying to come forth. When drawing, as well as when writing, you heighten your attention to details, as the details develop the picture of what you’re focusing on. They enable you to see more fully–not just the object, but its presence and the meaning of its presence. This requires time to not be measured in minutes or in reaching a predetermined goal. Instead, we allow ourselves depth. We explore our connection to time–allow ourselves to move without measurement. Instead of skimming across the surface, we fully inhabit our actions, our thinking, our being. The German poet, Rilke, wrote about the artist’s connection to the creative act in Letters to a Young Poet “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!” It takes time to know who you are as an artist. You have to listen to your life, to what it’s trying to tell you. The message is usually subtle and complex, and takes practice. You don’t have to be a visual artist or writer to be creative. Living is itself a creative act. We have visions of what we want to create in ourselves, and we can be patient with ourselves in the act of making our life something meaningful and with beautiful character.
Observing the world enhances our ability to listen to life and to experience it more fully. This past May, while hiking around in the UK’s Lake District, I looked up from the river’s edge where I was standing to see a leaf backlit by the sun. Its vibrant color and intricate texture stunned me. All the leaf’s veins stood out as if I was looking under a microscope. If color could shout, this leaf would certainly have been deafening. The more I keep my eyes open, the more I notice the infinite variety of colors, textures and shapes. The world comes alive, and I feel more alive as a result.
Leaf, Lake District, UK
River rock, Lake District, UK
Leaf at river’s edge, Lake District, UK
River in Lake District, UK
Lake District roadside moss, UK
Often, I photograph textural details in the world around me. I carry my camera and my journal with me most places. I never know what amazing thing I might see. Holding a camera or a pen are but ways of paying attention, of nurturing a relationship to yourself and to the world. I don’t know what the various images of texture I’m collecting will add up to, the thoughts that will surface as a result. They may be nothing significant in themselves. The photo itself is not the goal. They are but a way of seeing, a pathway. As Shelley Berc, co-director of the Creativity Workshop in her article “How Fear Chokes Creativity and What to Do About It” writes, “We find wonder and beauty, new ideas and images everywhere when we allow our senses to experience each moment fully. When we shut down our perceptiveness and our sensitivity and only look to the finish line, our creativity has no access to the very elements that make it enriching and deep.” When I open the door to my house in the evening to sit on the steps, crickets croon and wind rustles the trees. Leaves fall like rain. There is an energy astir. The earth is full of wonder and alive with a kind of music in the interplay of all that is. We are more than our occupations, lists of accomplishments and goals, more than the muscle and bone of our bodies. Taking the photos or writing in a journal are mainly ways to enter a door into another way of being–one that is more awake, aware.
In his Book of Hours, Love Poems to God, Rilke, writes, “If we surrendered/ to earth’s intelligence/ we could rise up rooted, like trees.” There is a wisdom in the earth that can only be understood as we allow ourselves to absorb its sounds, its rhythms and textures, colors, as we develop an intimacy with it, enter into companionship with it. Trees have roots but they also bend and move, provide a place for birds to roost, food, shade for other plants to grow and for humans to enjoy. They offer beauty. There is more to trees, and the natural world they are a part of than merely the things they provide, however. The earth isn’t just a backdrop to human existence. It is our foundation. Perhaps recording what I see is a way to develop a different kind intelligence–one of deeper roots to all that sustains not just myself, but all of us.
The wind has blown in gusts all day. The light is soft gold. When I stood beside the redwoods this afternoon, I heard them groan. Every world region has different textures that are its own. The natural world is alive with presence. Walking in a forest, desert, beach, grassland, mountain, city park, or simply looking up into the sky and noticing it, listening to it, and then drawing or writing, photographing, or simply talking about what you are aware of draws us into the mystery of existence. Certainly, that’s worth experiencing deeply.