pilgrimage, poetry, snorkeling, Uncategorized, Wonder

Into the Wide, Diverse Sea

DSC09761
Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino.

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

 

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

Sierra Exif JPEG
Anna in the Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

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

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

Days At Lohifushi
Anna Citrino

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC00859
Lion fish, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

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

DSC00843
Blue spotted ray, Red Sea. Photo credit, Michael Citrino

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

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

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

DSC09756
Whale shark, Seychelles. Photo credit, Michael Citrino
art, poetry

Time With Trees

Tree at Hampstead Heath, London, UK

“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”-John Berger

Trees have been important to humans throughout time. The Atlantic points out evidence to demonstrate a connection between the health of trees and our human health. In countries of Turkish and Arab origin, trees are a symbol of life, and tree of life motifs are woven into carpets from the region. People plant trees to commemorate a baby’s birth, and sometimes when a pet dies a tree is planted where the animal was buried. The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, and the Bible tells the story of the Tree of Knowledge. In Japanese culture, the plum tree’s blossoms represent life’s beautiful yet fragile quality. These are but a few of people’s interconnections with trees. (The American Forest organization gives many further interesting insights about humans’ relationship to trees.)

Lately, I’ve been spending time with trees. Though I’ve loved trees since childhood when I climbed and played in the pepper and umbrella trees in my family’s backyard, I’ve developed a further interest in trees as a result of my recent endeavor to learn to draw. Drawing is a way of knowing. You look closely at what you’re drawing. You study what you observe in order to draw, and what you’re studying has a way of becoming part of you. You gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your subject. Families are connected to the idea of trees, and for my family reunion this summer I thought I would draw each family member their favorite tree. This way I could practice drawing, and get to know something new about my family, as well as give something to them. I’d also gain new insight about trees.

I set out on my endeavor. As I drew, I realized more clearly how trees each have their own unique architecture and character. Drawing them is a bit like getting to know a person. As you get more familiar with someone, their unique personality emerges. It’s similar with trees. It takes a lot of patience to draw–patience with yourself and your learning process. I want to draw better than I am able. As a beginner, it’s difficult to see well enough to draw the spirit inside of anything–which is what I want to do–to interact with the unique feeling or character of what I’m drawing and reveal it–but this is next to impossible because I’m still trying to develop the skill of how to put the lines on the page. It’s an amazing notice, however, when what I’ve made looks something like what I intended and others can recognize it! That’s motivation to continue the effort going.

After completing the drawings (a few of which are shown below), I interviewed each family member to learn more of the story behind why they chose their particular tree as their favorite. Reflecting on what I heard during these interviews, I noticed the strength and energy behind people’s attachment to their chosen tree, and decided to write a poem about each person’s tree, using some of the details told me during the interviews.

To do this, I had to imaginatively enter into the landscape where the tree grows, and envision both the tree and the meaning it holds for the person. I had familiarity with everyone’s chosen tree, but in aiming to write about the pine-filled hills of Tennessee, I was confronted with the fact that I knew little specifically about Tennessee pines. Though I’ve lived in more than one region of the US and have travelled to different states, it is not the same as living in a particular place and knowing it in its subtle moods and aspects. We connect with the land around us both physically and imaginatively. We know something by reading about it and studying it, but also by being present with it over time. This is what makes landscape or a tree personal–we interact with it and come to know it. Knowing pines in locations other than Tennessee, as well as reading about the landscape, and recalling novels and films that took place in that part of the US, helped me to imagine the pines of Tennessee so I could write about them. In this way, a world that was not my own could became part of my own experience.

After drawing and writing about trees, I decided to familiarize myself further with the heritage trees near where I live, and took a hike to the Byrne-Milliron forest. Santa Cruz County is home to some of the oldest redwood forests in the world, and the Byrne-Milliron forest contains one of oldest redwood trees in California, the Great White Redwood. The tree is 25o feet tall and a 1,000 years old. Though the tree is a redwood, its bark has a silvery white appearance. In spite of  the heat, I wanted to encounter the tree, to stand in its presence and observe how that felt, so with my water bottle in hand, I set out.

The Byrne-Milliron forest lacks a high volume of visitors, so when walking through the area, other than leaves crunching under my feet, a dense quietness filled the air. Dodging poison oak along the way, and guessing a bit at which way to go, I followed a path as it wound up a hill offering an overview of the Pajaro Valley, then dipped into gullies rich with shade before narrowing into more or less the width of my feet as I approached the tree.

Standing at last in the small clearing at the foot of the great tree, I gazed up its long, near endless height. The forest was so deeply still but for the butterflies moving in a gap high up in the redwood’s branches where sunlight fell through. The journey to find the tree had been a kind of pilgrimage, and I sat in silence before the tree for some time. Even with the tree’s top obscured by leaves from its branches, the tree’s solidity and immensity moved and overwhelmed me.

Great White Redwood, Byrne-Milliron forest, Santa Cruz, CA

Along the hike, I had seen a number of large redwood stumps where virgin growth trees had been cut at the turn of the last century. Previous to this, for a hundred years short of a thousand years, this tree and the forest itself had stood silent with only the hum of flies and the random call of a bird, rain patter, and perhaps some occasional thunder. Eons of of silence. Stillness. That’s what the forest held and the trees knew–an astonishing reality.

As I didn’t see other trees in the forest approaching the size of the Great White Redwood, it appears to be the one uncut virgin growth tree remaining. I imagined what it must have been like to enter this forest two hundred years ago where all the trees were this enormous, this ancient. Humans have done much to shape and alter the earth. Numerous pieces of human architecture have moved me–the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Majal, the Sagrada Familia, to name a few. Standing before an ancient tree is different. A tree is alive. Before this ancient living presence, I felt full of wordless awe. A large, solid slice of wood shaped like a plaque sits before the Great White redwood in the Byrne-Milliron forest, a commemoration of the tree, it seems, though the plaque contains no words. That emptiness seems worth noting.

Banyan, Monreale cloister, Sicily

People have altered and shaped the earth since the beginning but the land also shapes us. Our experience with geography and landscapes is an exchange–the land brings us its scents, colors, textures, lighting, and seasonal changes, but we also bring something to it with our specific interests, questions, perceptions, skills, and imagination. What is the affect on our lives of loving and caring for particular landscapes or specific aspects of nature such as trees? The nature writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, in his Education Week Teacher essay, “Losing Our Sense of Place” writes, “The intense pressure of imagery in America, and the manipulation of images necessary to a society with specific goals, means the land will inevitably be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image will, one way or another, be silenced or discredited by those in power.” Getting to know the land we live on, getting to know the trees and plants around us through drawing them, writing about them, or simply walking among them is a way to move beyond the idea that the earth is merely another commodity. These practices honor the land’s presence and our shared connection to the natural world. They help toward creating greater balance between being and the effort to possess, to attain.

How well do we know the place we live? How do we stand in relationship to it? As I draw trees, I grow more aware of their complexity. I thought I knew what a tree was, but when looking closely over an extended period of time, as is necessary when drawing a tree, I notice how there’s so much mystery inside a tree as well, so much I don’t understand.  Hikmet Nazim, in his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” writes, “I didn’t know I loved the earth/ can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it.” Our lives are linked with trees. They are important to our physical and emotional health. We may not work the earth but we can nurture our love for it. It’s worth our time to read and learn about the land we live on–the land we love. It’s worth taking time to visit the natural world, to develop a relationship with the geography we are a part of, to grow close with the land we love and with the trees they hold. They are an important part of what makes us who we are.

tree at Hampton Court, UK
poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

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

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

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

–William Stafford, “Keeping a Journal”

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

art, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

Looking Deeply: Art, Poetry, and Presence

Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel, writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”

Stories connect us to the people who came before us, the narratives they live out and the tales they tell us about what the world is, and who we are in the world. We live by the stories that have shaped and taught us. They give meaning to our experience and direct us in our journey. Stories condense experience, give us the opportunity to examine our difficulties, and to reflect on how our struggles might enable us to grow.

The oldest form of story is poetry. Before poems were ever written, they were told. People’s histories were given in poetry–words constructed to call up experiences through sound and imagery that evoked emotion and helped people remember who they were, what they had done, and why it was important. In listening to poetry, we can step inside a reflection of life that holds up a mirror, and at the same time speaks to something beyond what is experienced. It is a way to reconnect to what it means to be human and to the mystery of existence. As Dana Gioia writes, “In a moment’s pause another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.” By extension, because poetry was once connected to other art forms, stories, music, and dance, these are doors we can open to that allows us to walk into a larger reality, to see the world from a wider perspective.

image

The idea that the physical world intersects with the spiritual world is an ancient one, found in many traditions; the Celtic, Catholic, and Native American being a few examples of these. St. John Damascene, a Syrian monk who lived from c. 675 or 676 –to 749 CE, wrote a defense for the use of icons (see more here) that shaped the direction of the church. Though others at the time argued against the use of icons and representational art. God is bigger than any particular physical form, the thinking went, and therefore representation of God in icons should not be allowed. St. John of Damascene argued, however, that if God became human in the form of Christ, then two are intermingled. The sacred could be seen living and breathing through the human form, and therefore it was completely acceptable, he argued, to create icons, to worship through icons, and to paint the human form. In fact, art was a way for the illiterate to see God, Damascene explained, and to read the story of God’s compassion for and interest in humans through the paintings. Damascene demonstrated an acceptance of paradox, and the idea that one’s thinking doesn’t have to be contained in tight boxes of either or. William Dalrymple, in his book, From the Holy Mountain, quotes Damascene saying, “‘…the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.'” Through painting, as through nature, Damascene declares, God communicates his presence in the world, and art is a central way in which humans can experience and connect with the Divine.

imageThough Dalrymple describes the cave where St. John of Damascene wrote these thoughts in The Fount of Knowledge, as “crude and primitive,” he goes on to say that, “Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.” I’m very grateful for Damascene’s words and thoughts regarding art. Without them, we’d likely be deprived of much beauty, and the spirit that speaks through that beauty.

In her poem, “Pray for Peace,” Ellen Bass speaks of this interconnection of the everyday world around us with the world of spirit.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

Though a way of communicating half forgotten these days, Bass helps the reader to see that prayer can be any act we do with full attention and heart. When we pay attention to our lives, doing what we love presence, that is prayer–a breathing, walking prayer that adds meaning to our lives, and enables us to grow toward wholeness. Making a routine out of things saves energy and time, but even routines can be done with attention and heart. How do we cultivate the kind of noticing awareness in our every day lives, the ways of being that enable the act of living to become prayer?

Involvement in a creative act is a central way to connect the physical world with the inner world. Though there are a variety of art forms that can enable a person to live in fuller awareness of a connection to life’s mystery, writing is an excellent path from which to begin this journey. Whenever I leave the house, I carry imagemy journal, a small book that easily fits inside a pocket. I carry it because at any time something might appear, or someone might say something that needs to be noticed, and I want to be ready. My journal is my fishing line, so to speak. Though I may miss many things swimming in the world around me, because I’m prepared with pen and paper to notice something, I am more likely to find and catch something than if I had no tool at all to help me. Whatever I’m working on as a writer, I look and listen for moments that speak to me while moving through the day—a random phrase, a gesture, a sudden familiar scent that might embody the idea I’m reaching for in a writing piece I’m working on. I remain attentive to sounds, textures, colors, actions—the world’s details that define a place or time. As a result of knowing the questions I’m living with and what I’m looking for, things tend to show up and announce their connection like a kind of internal spark. Suddenly, as if witnessing the embodiment of a metaphor, I see, for example, how something I’m looking at or hear is related to something seemingly completely different. The discovery has a wonderful quality to it, and to then write it out is to be able to embody that insight. Sharing it with others deepens a sense of connection to the world.

Writers aim to name the world, and doing so is to participate in a kind of co-creation of life, at least this is how I experience what happens while writing, and it is one of the motivating reasons to write. To write is to observe closely, and to observe closely moves me to an awareness that I am part of a greater something beyond myself–that I swim in the mystery of existence. Writing is a path that allows me to enter a space where I’m both fully present in my life, and somehow not present at the same time as I step inside the weave of words. This is because I’m living inside of the thing I’m writing about, and what I’m writing about is bigger than me. As poet Nicholas Samaras explained to me once, writers are always writing, even when not writing. I agree with Samaras when he says, on Poetry Net, “God is in the point of my pen.” In losing myself in the work I am doing, I’m made more alive, full, and solid. It’s a paradox.

image

Writing poetry can be a kind of prayer. My father wrote stories and poetry, but my mother taught me to pay attention to the world around me. She constantly noticed the natural world, flowers on the bank or scent of orange blossoms from the orchard, bees at the birdbath, a fox that came through the front yard, or hawks that circled above the hill behind us. The wind as it blew through the pines where she grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was an ancient choir, she said. As she described the experience to me, I could hear the wind as if it were real. She recalled wild gooseberries’ tart flavor, and told me the names and shapes of wildflowers that grew on the land of her childhood home. Her descriptions lived in my mind as if they were real. Even though where I grew up in eastern San Diego county’s dry desert–very different from the Black Hills, I felt preciousness my mother’s memories of her childhood’s natural environment. Her respect for those experiences nurtured in me a love of my own childhood’s natural environment.

I played outside every day as a child, climbed around on granite boulders, or sat inside the branches of an avocado, umbrella or pepper tree. Our front door often stood open to the outside air. I ran through the yard barefoot, watched clouds parade by, and sunsets spill across the horizon. Coyotes’ yips echoed through the valley in the evening. Crickets sang. Stars came out. These were all gifts, and I belonged to that earth. The experience of growing up in such a place with the opportunity to experience the natural world as part of the rhythms of every day life created in me a foundation for wanting to remain connected to the earth. To have our feet on the earth, to literally ground our selves there, is life engendering. If deprived of such experiences, I think our bodies and spirits still long for them without possibly even knowing it.

image

Poetry relies on imagery and figures of speech. It integrates the physical world with the world of language. It tells abstract ideas by recreating the physical world. It reconnects the writer and the reader back to place, and this is a central reason why I find it so powerful. In our world, the culture of the workplace pushes us to compete, to gain power and control. When writing poetry, however, I interactively participate in reconnecting to the physical world and the presence residing beneath and inside the movement of life. I trace my origin of wanting to write back to these childhood experiences of connection to the earth’s vibrant, sustaining presence. Willa Cather writes in My Antonia, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” To be able to wander in time, to play in a landscape or place is to be transformed and enlarged by it. Writing poetry focuses the writer on presence, and in doing so, helps move the writer toward wholeness. I recommend it.

image

Uncategorized

Welcoming the Strangers

In America we read in the news of shootings, and Trump asks for the deportation of the nearly 11 million that are living in the US without permission. Last September, 17,000 Columbians fled Venezuela after 1,500 Columbians were deported from Venezuela. Syrians escaping their country as a result of the war have created the greatest migration since WWII. All this, and yet at Christmas we wish each other peace. At the start of the new year, even to strangers we often wish others happiness. Nevertheless, division lines between who is deemed as an insider and who is an outsider seem to be growing. Though it may seem that tensions are about race or religion, often times, if one digs deeper, however, the root of the tension is economic. Recent research in Germany, the  Washington Post reports, that those who are economically disadvantaged are those who are more likely to be persuaded that race and religion are causes of fear. “According to polls, whites with a high school degree or less disproportionately favor Trump. These are the same people who have seen their economic opportunities decline the most in recent years. This group also disproportionately favors tough restrictions on immigration.”

In Morocco the country I recently visited, however, a different story is promoted by the people on the street. Tourism is important to Morocco’s economy. They depend on welcoming diversity, and across Morocco you hear Moroccans tell you a story of living in harmony with others. In Tangier a synagogue, mosque, and church are within visual sight of each other. In Fez, a man tells us “We sit in the cafe talking together, Jew and Muslim. The prayer call comes. We go off and pray, then come back and pick up the conversation. We are friends.” It’s true that the majority of Moroccans are Muslim, and that only 1% are other–Christian, Jewish or Baha’i. Even so, people in Morocco have an attitude of open hospitality.

While walking around the area of Fez where the majority of Jews once lived before the sate of Israel was created and most moved to Israel, I saw an old man sitting on the street having difficulty getting up. A person near him saw his difficulty and came over to help him. To sit on the street is not an uncommon thing in Morocco. Many people do it in Morocco in order to take in the sun as well as to sell things. Some sit on the street because they are poor. To notice someone’s difficulty to stand demonstrates an awareness of others, and a sense of community. This wasn’t a singular act. Later that day, I also noticed an older man walking up a side street with a cane. His outer cape was slipping from his shoulder and the man walking up behind the older man noticed this, and stopped to lift the robe to the old man’s shoulders, then continued on his way as if helping the other were commonplace, the most natural thing in the world. Again, here I saw an awareness of others demonstrated in simple acts. On several occasions and by different people I was told that people who live near each other help one another. They share their lives with each other and are like family. They aren’t people who happen to live near each other. They communicate.

Even in the Fez medina–the winding open air market, one of the most known souqs in the world, and full of pedestrian traffic, a beggar woman looked at me kindly with a wide, open smile when I greeted her saying “Assalamu ‘alaykum.” Again, at the Moulay Idriss tomb, three women sitting on mats leaning against the wall greeted me with smiles much wider and longer than simple politeness when I said “Sabah al-khair.” At breakfast in the guesthouse where we stayed in Fez, the woman serving us breakfast went about her work with joy in her movements and her voice. It was clear her work wasn’t merely her job; it was her way to give happiness to others. The French woman at the table across from us said something, and the woman serving us food leaned over to hug her and say something to her in a cheerful voice, then went on with her work. In Bhalil, a Berber village outside of Fez, a woman invited us in to see her cave house when she saw my husband and I walking by. She was hanging her laundry out and happened to see us, and wanted us to visit. In Ait Bin Haddou a shop owner invited us to share his lunch, later insisting we return to share tea.

Not all encounters in Morocco were like this. On the streets there is the hustle bustle of business, and children wrestling with each other and running around in active play as they walk to and from school–people are involved in their own lives and worlds, as they would be anywhere. It’s also true that crime in Morocco has risen over recent years, according to the Numbeo web site as well as the Knoema website. Crime statistics are not like what you notice in the US, however, where according to BBC there were 353 mass killings in 2015,62 shootings at schools,12,223 people killed in gun incidents, and 24,722 people were injured in gun incidents.  Flight attendant Rose Hamid stands up in silent protest when, according to CNN Trump “suggested that Syrian refugees fleeing war in Syria were affiliated with ISIS.” She is booed and shouted at to get out, according to the article. In contrast, when visiting Morocco, non muslims are welcomed and shown hospitality, a quality often ignored by the media, but  found throughout this dominantly Muslim country. Why is it that Moroccans recognize the stranger and honor him or her and in America, we are afraid of the stranger? When in  Ait Bin Haddou, one man told me “To visit a country is not only to see, it is to learn something about the culture.”  Maybe the person greeting you as you walk by wants to sell you something from his shop, but he also wants to sit with you and get to know some of your story. It seems we could learn from the Moroccan’s approach to things.

image

As Barry Lopez writes, ““Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Maybe we need to become hospitable to our own selves and the the things we don’t understand, our questions and struggles–to the stranger inside us. Maybe conversations with the other–with those we are afraid of–would better help us understand not only their own story but our own. Lopez writes, “Conversations are efforts toward good relations. They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other. They are the enemies of our loneliness, our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our enormous and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need; and someone among us will act—it does not matter whom—and we will survive.” If we can’t travel to foreign countries and immerse ourselves in another way of seeing and being, we can read novels by writers from or about other cultures. We can view documentaries. It is still possible to expand our understanding through others’ stories.

W. S. Merwin in his poem, “To the New Year,” writes,

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

The US Bill of Rights supports the right to diverse voices. We can recognize the strength in that diversity and honor it. Living together as citizens of a country is a kind of marriage. The German poet, Rilke, speaking of marriage said, “…once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.” As we come closer to hear each other’s stories, we will see and hear another world. Look and look again. You will see more. When we listen closely, we will understand better.

image

 

art, Looking For..., place

The Found Art of Hampi, India

IMG_8615
Hampi from the Tungabhadra River

A plain dotted with trees and scattered with boulders, Hampi in the Indian state, Karnataka, is a beautiful landscape. My recent visit there during the Diwali holiday allowed me to wander into India’s rural outback, and to laze against sun heated granite by the Tungabhadra River. During the 1500s, the Vijayanagar had a population of 500,000. The empire covered the entire southern portion of India, but Deccan Plateau sultans joined together and defeated the Vijayanagar army. The temples’ treasures were carried off as loot, much of the population was killed, and of those who weren’t killed, many fled. One of the world’s mightiest kingdoms fell to ruin, and gradually into obscurity.

Four hundred years later, Robert Sewell, a British civil servant stationed in India, wrote about the empire in his book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India. Much later, in 1986, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In addition to being a World Heritage site, Hampi is also a place of important religious significance for Hindus. As the stories describe, Hampi is the hill where Shiva, the god of destruction, did penance before marrying Pampa. After Shiva married, the gods poured gold onto the Heamakuta hill. According to the Hampi India website, Heamakuta, means heap of gold.

Hampi’s temples and ruins are spread over more than 10 square miles, or 25 square kilometers. There is much to see, and the carvings are fantastic. Though a place of enormous significance for many people on the subcontinent in the 1400 and 1500s, Hampi and the Vijayanagar empire are mostly unknown to people outside of India. As I walked along near the queen’s palace, I ran my hand along one of the carved walls. “My hands are touching history,” I thought to myself. “My hands touch what the ancients have touched, yet I understand so little.” Whether at a ruins of an ancient empire, or walking down the street of our hometown, our lives are enveloped in mysteries. We just don’t often recognize it.

After our day of exploration at the ruins, we went on a walk on the grounds near our hotel. We stepped across bamboo bridges stretching over the river, looped up across massive granite faces. Turning a corner, we tucked ourselves through a wooden door between leaning rock slabs. As we stepped inside, it seemed we had entered into a rock cathedral with windows of sky beaming through the stacked boulders. We continued climbing a short distance to an opening where we stood, at last, to view the valley spread before us in a 360 degree view. It was as if we had entered a secret door that enabled us to see the whole world. What a wonder it was, too–a plain filled with trees, and a river meandering through it with granite boulders balancing in precarious positions and leaning agains each other in dramatic angles. Nature like this is not a site often seen when living in one of the world’s mega cites like Delhi. We scanned our eyes across the landscape, fishing for greenery, for sky, for what we didn’t even know how to name. Our hearts simply opened to the world, and when we left the hilltop, we knew something inside us had shifted. We were lighter, and ,paradoxically, somehow more solid. Nature writer Barry Lopez says, “real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it.” This is because when beauty touches you, you slip into a place that is beyond rational thought and abstraction. The divisions between the physical and spiritual worlds collapse into one unified presence. That presence is far bigger than the mind can hold. You are humbled and made whole again.

IMG_9022

The beauty of Hampi’s temples is definitely worth traveling a long distance to see. The setting of the ruins themselves, though, is what sets Hampi apart from other locations. In this landscape, you can learn that everywhere is a temple if we have eyes to see it. To be there is to walk around in a colossal expanse of found sculpture, an installation art piece of gargantuan proportions, the origins prehistorical. Everywhere I looked, I saw art emerging from the earth.

The earth is in an ongoing creative act. If you listen, you can hear it speak through its myriad forms. The wind in palm trees chatters with stiff, clattering branches. Wind through bamboo scratches and cracks like arthritic bones. Wind through neem trees speaks with a restless, dry and fragile sound like crinkled onion skins. The earth tells its stories.

In my continuing desire to learn Spanish, I’m reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse book series in Spanish. Currently, I’m reading Una momia al amanecer, or in English, A Mummy at Daybreak. The children in the novel, Annie and Jack, learn how the Egyptians “tried to protect the body against death by preserving it for eternity.” (p. 45) Travel to the Vijayanagar empire’s ruins, however, assures the visitor that empires are temporary. All we have can be lost in a moment. Even stone wears away and topples. In Hindi, Vijay means victory. Victory, if found, is elsewhere, not in empires.

The final stanza of Louise Gluck’s poem “Summer Nights” reads,

Balm of summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived–
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?

Life is so dear, and life is full of both imperial joy as well as sorrow. You don’t seem to get one without getting the other too, at least that is what I’ve observed from living in India. Everything is being destroyed and made at the same time. Maybe that is, in part, why art is necessary. It reminds us that we participate in the creative act of life. Perhaps this is why temples have so much art. Religion means to rebind, and the creative act helps us to re-member–to put our selves together again.