art, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Letting Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

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

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

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

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

art, Uncategorized

Gardens of Calm and Monet’s Water Lilies

Recently, I visited several museums in Paris where I viewed many of Monet’s paintings and learned more of his biography. What especially struck me were the many uncertainties in Monet’s life that could’ve threatened his painting career. Monet’s mother, who supported his interest in art, died when Monet was sixteen. At twenty, Monet was drafted into the army where he served in Algeria for two years before getting typhoid. Later, his first wife died leaving him with two sons. Twice he had operations for cataracts. The weight of having to provide for an additional six children he gained from his second partner, the work it was to take care of his gardens at Giverny—these many difficulties, yet no sense of these tensions surfaces in his paintings.

Entering the oval shaped room in the l’Orangerie is like stepping into a peaceful garden—as if Monet’s paintings have arisen from a place of meditation where the outer world slipped into a pool of interior contemplation, colors and textures reverberating off one another. Bending into the water’s mirrored exterior, plants and trees mingle with clouds’ reflections, blend with lily roots beneath the pond’s surface, and simultaneously give the viewer multiple perspectives of above and below the water, as well as its expansive surface.

Taking ideas from Japanese woodblocks, and with his children’s help, Monet created the garden at Giverny. He shaped the garden and the landscape, digging the ponds, putting in the Japanese bridge, and mixing common flowers with exotics, then painted the landscape and light. Dusty mauves, purples and muted blues–the color tones on the canvases in the l’Orangerie instill a feeling of calm. From the wide stretches of water textured with color, waterlilies appear in buds of illumination floating on spacious planes of reflection. Gardens filled with light and waterlilies–Monet painted the opposite of anxiety. 

Monet is especially known for his water lily paintings. On the surface it may not seem like much to be known for or to commit oneself to—painting gardens with flowers. Yet he made us see them newly, and for nearly a hundred years, these paintings have drawn people from around the world to see their beauty.

Looking beyond our fears to the larger vision of our purpose and involving ourselves in creative acts can help us to let go those things that trap us in fear, and can improve our overall wellbeing. Cathy Malchiodi in her article in Psychology Today, “Creativity as a Wellness Practice,” describes how “in 2010, a review of existing literature on the benefits of the arts (music, visual arts, dance and writing) by Stuckey and Noble considered more than 100 studies, concluding that creative expression has a powerful impact on health and well-being on various patient populations.” Additionally, Malchiodi explains how a 2015 study shows “creative self-expression and exposure to the arts have wide-ranging effects on not only cognitive and psychosocial health, but also physical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, various forms of dementia and cancer.” Participating in generative acts and nurturing our creative strengths can turn fearful minds into calm minds where, like lilies of light, thoughts can emerge gently, illuminating what we need to know and do.

art, Looking For..., place

The Found Art of Hampi, India

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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.

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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.

Uncategorized

Perseverance and Practice: Doing Art

“Art is a spiritual practice. We may not, and need not, do it perfectly. But we do need to do  it…Focused on our art, we connect to the artful heart of life. The creative pulse that moves through us moves through all of creation. It could be argued that creativity is a form of prayer, a form of thankfulness and recognition of all we have to be thankful for, walking in this world.” –Julia Cameron, Walking in this World

All morning I’ve been painting on a ceramic teapot that my husband made and called “The Mad Hatter’s Wife.” It’s a tall pot that narrows as it reaches the top. The lid is actually the head of the Mad Hatter’s wife. My husband gave her to me to paint, and in coming up with an idea of what she looked like, I figured that if she is married to the Mad Hatter, I had to make her be a woman who has a good deal of inner power. This would be necessary if living with a crazy man. Though hatters at the time Lewis Carroll was writing went mad as a result of repeated exposure to mercury vapors in the felting process, like also attracts like, and my hunch is that the Mad Hattter’s wife was probably a bit “mad” as well.

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Mad Hatter’s Wife tea pot lid (work in progress)

Married to a “mad” man, she’s likely a bit more individualistic and unique than others around her, and a bit more socially unacceptable as a result. She would’ve had to listen to her own inner voice and follow her own path. Thomas Moore said, “It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed.” The underglaze painting for the Mad Hatter’s Wife needed to reveal the soul of woman connected to her inner power and creativity, I decided. Perhaps she’s named Breena or Brucie, Alva, Erline, Orla, or Tiana– a name having to do with elves or fairies. She’s got to be a bit sassy, too, I’m guessing, as her hand is placed on her hip, and her hip explodes in a sunflower. A woman who has never lost her inner child, I’ve made her body a bit ocean, tree, river, bee, bird, mountain and rainbow. Hers is the kind of madness that keeps one sane. She wears crystals on her arm, and my guess is that she probably can fly (at least in her dreams.)

Mad Hatter's Wife teapot in progress
Mad Hatter’s Wife teapot in progress
Mad Hatter's Wife teapot in progress view 2
Mad Hatter’s Wife teapot in progress view 2

My husband, Michael, gave me the teapot to work on last week, suggesting in a off hand comment to someone that I was going to make it my masterpiece. After hearing that, I realized I needed to paint her in the way that pushed the craftsmanship boundaries beyond what I’ve previously done. (You can see my previous work by going to the Art and Poetry Connections page here on my blog.) Though I want to make her wonderful, the work isn’t turning out as wonderful as I’d like. I want my craftsmanship to be better, but I’m still learning how to control my brush and the flow of the glaze. Different glazes have different textures, and they don’t all flow smoothly or the same. Drawing a perfectly straight line with the brush is difficult. I want the glaze to flow exactly where I want it, and that doesn’t always happen. The materials have their own way of being. I have to marry my effort to the nature of what I’m working with so that I communicate compatibly. Like any relationship, the understanding of how to make the connection look effortless and take on the magic expression of soul takes time.

The element of time and perseverance is something I’ve been thinking about repeatedly this past couple of weeks. It is nearing the end of the school year here, and as often happens when things come to an end, some things unravel while others fall apart so that something new can come into existence. Sometimes reality seems like a series of dreams. You live in one world for a time, and then that phase comes to an end. The location you’ve made your home is no longer yours, and you move somewhere else, take on a new job, or whatever: reality shifts. The whole world changes, almost as if you’re reincarnated. There are so many possible worlds! Even for those of who stay in the same place decade after decade, things still change. All around us the world is changing. What I’ve really been wondering about, though, are the people who have lived in countries where there has been a civil war, or an event like the earthquake in Nepal, where suddenly everything they thought they understood about their world and the foundations they stood on has changed. It takes decades to recover. How do they cope with it? How does anyone keep going in such situations?

Light is such a wonderful thing. I love a room full of light, sun streaming through the trees on a cloudless summer day. When I lived in Riyadh, though, I treasured clouds, and with it, the rain and the darkness–storms, because these were rare. I remember sitting on the edge of the escarpment outside the city and hearing the camels far below calling. If you have the opportunity to watch camels walk, you can notice how graceful they are. The heat can be relentless, the light unbearable, but camels somehow continue on. It made me think about the dark areas in our lives, the shadow places on earth that lie beneath the surface, or that track by in shifting movement–the things, people and places that do not or cannot speak directly. These things speak in language without words, giving voice to the things that can’t be said. Here is the poem I wrote about this when living there:

PERSEVERANCE
Anna Citrino

Black camels lift their calligraphic legs writing invisible letters
across the desert sand, as if drawing up the shadowed calm
hidden inside the light imprinted on the desert floor.

The camels raise their dark, slender limbs and casually wander
through the heated brightness, wooly heads held up
with muscled grace, an act of ease

with no thought of pain or fire. They know how to store water
to carry them through dry and cloudless seasons.
I have heard them groan, the guttural sound

reverberating from deep in the belly like the rumble
miles down inside the earth before the shudder
of tectonic plates. Their voices pull up

the yearnings of hidden worlds, let go the grief
from inside the nameless forms that cannot speak or see.
The camels are the shadows we seek.

Watch them from high up on a cliff, the trails they etch
into blind and heavy earth, letters of unsaid
stories the sun refuses to speak.

________

The writer, Edna Ferber said, “Perhaps too much of everything is as bad as too little.” Camels’ embody perseverance–this nameless longing we have, the suffering of waiting as we trek across deserts, but how do we keep going like they do through the times of heat and emptiness? Though camels can keep walking through the heat, before heading out into shade-barren land, they drink enough to help them hold out. This is something we, too, need to do. We need resources to keep us going. For me, one of the great resources to help me through times like these is art–art in the form of music, poetry, writing, painting, or dance.

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Flight of the Mind writing workshop. Lucille Clifton third from right. Anna next to Lucille Clifton on the right.

Back in the 1990’s I took a workshop with the poet, Lucille Clifton at the Flight of the Mind writer’s workshops (now no longer in existence) outside of Eugene, Oregon. At that workshop, I recall Clifton explaining how poetry humanizes us. “As long as one person is writing poetry,” she said, “the world will be a more human place.” Her words stuck with me, and have gained weight and significance over time. In the act of creating, we transform ourselves and our world. When creating, we are communing with our inner selves, but art, music, poetry, and dance are also communal acts in that they are meant to be shared with others, and in so doing, we reconnect ourselves to others and to our Source.

In Rattle’s interview with Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Gillan describes her journey as a writer to find her truth. “I think poems are in a very deep place inside yourself,” she explains. It took her time to realize who she was as a poet, and this is the risk she encourages others to take as well, to “move down into yourself, and tell the truth.” This confrontation with the truth of ourselves is what transforms us. When creating, we enter into a place of deep listening. We are making a poem, for example, but we are also listening for the words to rise up and connect us with our work. This is what prayer is too: listening. Communing. And art, whether it is writing, music, painting, photography, or dance is a vehicle for listening to our own truth. The deeper we can go into that place, the more we can be transformed. Fiction writer Frederich Busch explained “Good art is a form of prayer. It’s a way to say what is not sayable.” When I write, when I paint, I am connected body to soul, and it allows me to feel alive again, to feel whole. This is how we can all persevere: we go back to a place where we reconnect body and soul–to the creative act, the practice of art.

A couple of millennia ago, St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” Everyone suffers the pains of waiting, of trying to hold on and hold out–to persevere–even creation itself. It’s almost as if loss and suffering are necessary parts of beauty. We sense beauty more keenly when we are aware of loss. Yet, it’s out of this longing and suffering beauty arises.

In Arun Kolatkar’s poem, “An Old Woman” an old woman grabs hold of the speaker’s sleeve, an experience I’ve had myself here in Old Delhi. The woman follows the speaker, begging, and she won’t let go. The speaker wishes to be rid of her, but when the old woman says, “What else can an old woman do/ on hills as wretched as these?” something in the speaker shatters. Her question splits him open, and the world around him as well.

You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.

And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.

And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls

with a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.

And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.

Beneath our clumsy actions, our imperfect voices and art, somehow, sometimes, someone hears us. They see right into us, and inside that look we see the brokenness that interconnects us all. This is India’s gift to me–the myriad people on the streets like the beggar woman in this poem that mirror my own brokenness and need.

And so, we persevere. We live out Lorca’s “Theory and Play of the Duende,

“The roads where one searches for God are known, whether by the barbaric way of the hermit or the subtle one of the mystic: with a tower, like St. Teresa, or by the three paths of St. John of the Cross. And though we may have to cry out, in Isaiah’s voice: Truly you are a hidden God,’ finally, in the end, God sends his primal thorns of fire to those who seek Him.

Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand.”

Art is not just for special people who call themselves artists. Though it is very personal, and an expression of the self, art is for everyone. It is meant to be given to the community. In the expression of our particular story, our dance, or song, we see that we have given expression to the larger community, and in that we find our place again in the human family. We are seen and heard, and through the container of that expression we find a way to endure the particular trials of our day or life–we find a way to continue on.

Art transforms us. So, though my lines on the Mad Hatter’s Wife teapot are crooked, my words not all I wish them to be, though my life continuously falls short, I keep practicing. In the end, the work is not only about the object created. The object is merely the container. The practice is the prayer. This is why we do as Kurt Vonnegut suggested, “To practice art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”

Beauty, creativity, spirtuality, Uncategorized

At The Edge of Emptiness

“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”–Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Heschel’s words strike me because there are a lot of things I don’t have answers for. Aware of my smallness in face of the suffering around me every day, I stand at the edge of emptiness and cry out.

When riding out into traffic, I’ve started a practice of looking into beggars’ faces who come to my window, or when someone speaks to me in the market asking for money, or when I see who is suffering, a family living on the street, for example, also animals who suffer, and in my mind I say, “I wish you well.” It’s a kind of prayer, and though it’s not directly answering the needs they have, it’s a way to keep my heart open–to keep noticing even though I might not be able to help the person in the way they ask of me. I want to see their humanness, and to be reminded of my own weakness and vulnerability.

Certainly, even in the lives of the desperately poor, there also must be times of joy. Even so, the human need in Delhi, is great. All the arms reaching out, the eyes–the world’s needs are immense. This week Nepal has its worst earthquake since 1934. The suffering is enormous. It will take decades, to recover, life times to become new, and we feel the grief hanging in the air as we go about our day.

The poverty in this world is not made up of physical poverty only, however. There is poverty of spirit, poverty of heart, and this is where I think that those of us in the developed world have a great lack. Everywhere around us today, from psychologists like Martin Seligman and his ideas about flourishing, to religious leaders like Matthieu Ricard, people are talking about how to be happy. Even Pope Francis has come up with his list of 10 tips for a happier life such as taking time off to be with your family, and spending time in nature. People who study what makes us happy tell us that focusing on what brings us a sense of well being actually helps us to become happier, and of course that is a good thing. But sadness and melancholy are also a part of life, and experiencing sadness and melancholy can help us become more compassionate, as Courtney Stephens explains on this animated TED Ed lesson. We learn from our sadness how to be more human.

I don’t know how best to respond to the sadness in the world, the grief so many feel, but want to give something of myself to meet that need. One must start somewhere, however small. It’s the start that counts. It makes room for greater opening, and I know I need to open.

FullSizeRenderFor months now I have been working on poems on the subject of food. It has taken some time, longer than I expected because new ideas for poems keep surfacing. I am now nearing the end of the poems I want to write for this series. I hope I’ve written well enough that after putting the poems into a manuscript I’ll find a publisher so I can use the proceeds from its sale to give to an organization that helps prevent hunger here in India. I hope it will be of some good. In the process of writing these poems, I’ve also been rereading about creativity, and returned today to Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet where I read,

“…Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

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!”

The need in India has been here for decades. It’s not going to go away in the near future. The sidewalk on the street where I live is in a perpetual state of change. It’s put together one month only to be torn up the next, a metaphor for my own incompleteness–of starting over, trying to make things work, change, to get things “right.” Whatever it is that causes that sidewalk to have to be torn up so often is a mystery. It’s just the way things are here. Likewise, whatever it is we are making or doing with our lives, it isn’t necessarily what we see on the surface. What’s really happening comes from a place far deeper, beyond the reach of our own understanding. I look into the face of my partner who I’ve known for decades now, and find him still a mystery, and stand in wonder. Who am I, I don’t even really know. Definitions, lists and examples aren’t enough to explain. Similarly, how can I in any way touch or meet the vast needs of a world as immense as India? I can’t. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 65,

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,IMG_4080
But sad mortality o’er sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

We are all frail and mortal. Beauty’s action may be no stronger than a flower, but still we need that flower. We all need to be touched, to be met, to be needed. So, I write on, my words, tiny splotches on computer screens of light wavering inside the colossal of India’s immensity, prayers of pale petals– ink floating down the Yamuna hoping to touch other lives.

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Making Space for Wonder

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel

In a few weeks my husband and I will be headed to Prague where we will be attending a workshop on creativity. To prepare for that workshop, we’ve been asked to go out in hunt for a variety of things we are to take photos of to bring to the conference– spirals in nature, human faces in man made objects, animals in clouds, inanimate objects that appear they are in love, living people who look like they belong to another century, and more. The past couple of weeks I’ve gone out for short walks around the area where I live, looking. Some things are just not easy to find. I thought human faces in man made objects, for instance, wouldn’t be so difficult. My husband’s family has a habit of looking for hidden objects in clouds, knots of wood, the trees. My father in law discovered the Virgin Mary in a whiskey bottle that he found in an abandon lot while out for a walk and had the neighborhood lined up to see it on his mantle. So, there’s a kind of family history in looking closely that we’ve practiced over the years. The results can be surprising.

I’ve had my students go on searches for things, given them a paint chip like ones you might find at the paint store and had them search for a week to see if they could match it with the exact color somewhere out in the world. Another thing I’ve asked them to find is something they think no one else would notice but that they think is interesting. A good part of a writer’s work is to notice things, I explain, things that are in plain sight but hidden because no one is taking time to notice them. A person can notice a lot of amazing things when paying attention. One of those things you might discover or rediscover is wonder. What you find is perhaps not really as important as the search. In the search you can find all kinds of wonders.

Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month,” but February can definitely be difficult too. For many who live in cold countries, it’s a snowy month–snow stacked so high you’re blinded by the white on white emptiness. With windows blocked by icicles, you know spring is coming–color will eventually return to the streets–but that time seems far off. How do you get through those bleak times? This is where a search cIMG_3931omes in. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” Give yourself something to search for, and wonder might  turn the corner to greet you at an unexpected moment. The other afternoon, I was out walking the campus where I live, looking here and there at things I’ve seen a thousand times, hoping to find a hidden face in an object so I could take a photo to bring to the workshop I mentioned earlier, but I could find nothing. Over and over again, I scrutinized objects. Nothing. I was telling myself, “There are simply no faces anywhere.” I looked down. There on the sidewalk was a face smiling up at me with a grass strand for a lock of hair. I couldn’t believe it! It’s the only face I’ve found so far in various ventures.

February may be cruel in other parts of the world, but is actually the best month if the year in Delhi. Here, February has the least amount of smoke in the air, it’s not too hot or too cold, and there are no dengue carrying mosquitos. What Delhi has a lot of in February are flowers. As I went out hunting for spirals in nature to photograph, I enjoyed looking at the splendid variety of spirals flowers present. From fibonacci spirals to the mandalas of a dahlia, flowers can make your head spin.

It’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for, however. One thing I’ve learned from living in India is that the good and bad, the exquisitely beautiful and the horrible are often side by side, as if they are part of each other. You don’t often get the one with out the other near by. Living here in India also presents questions there are no easy answers for, as I’ve written about before in these blog posts. Suffering is visibly present here. All you have to do is leave your house and go out into the street and you will see it. How to respond to it is constantly challenging.

Today, as I walked through the INA market, I was on the lookout for images of people who look like they could be from another century, as that is one of the things we are to take photos of for our creativity workshop. I saw scenes there that could have been from a past time, but I also saw scenes that make a person very conscious of all the animals sacrificed to meet our hunger. Food is glorious, but it carries with it a great deal of blood,  guts, and stench. Yes there is the beauty of flowers, the fabulous flavors of curried meat, but there is also some horror behind it all. Men torch feathers off fowl, and fur off goat heads. Boys scrub the goat heads in a plastic tub of water. Thwack, the butcher hacks a haunch of meat against a wooden block. A hundred or so chicken feet sit on a tray. Blood runs down the alleyway between shops. It’s all there, along with that beautiful cut of fish you are going to take home and barbecue.

Donald Hall’s poem, “Eating the Pig” describes well the complexity of the horrors that can come alongside the wonders,

and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig,
with his large ears cocked forward,
with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth
in a jaw propped open
by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched
in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes,
his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s
in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.

Then, there he is a few moments later, eating the pig and reveling in its flavor.

For myself, I scoop a portion of left thigh,
moist, tender, falling apart, fat, sweet.
We forage like an army starving in winter

After the pig has been devoured and just the head remains, he can’t help but feel a friendly affection for it and finds himself reaching out to pet it behind the ear as if might purr. As he does so, he sees his connection to the pig. He leans into the pig and whispers,

I take into myself, and digest,
wheat that grew between
the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.

It’s not just this pig alone, it’s the way eating the pig connects him back to who we are before the time of empires–all the way back to prehistory. The poem ends by saying,

“Fire, brother and father,
twelve of us, in our different skins, older and younger,
opened your skin together
and tore your body apart, and took it
into our bodies.”

There is a reverence for the pig, a recognition for how consuming the animal roasted in this ancient, barbaric ritual connects him to both the pig and to human kind. Life is both full of wonder and horror simultaneously, and this poem clearly demonstrates the paradox.

One weekend morning a couple of weeks back, we opened the bedroom curtain and there sat a monkey eating the tomatoes off of our plant in the window box. (No wonder we’ve had so few tomatoes this year!) The other day a monkey got into our compost box that we have on our balcony and then smeared his hands across the kitchen window. Two days ago I looked out the window of my classroom to see two monkeys walking across the roof of the building opposite me, only to appear in the courtyard below a few minutes later. You can go along for years without barely a monkey surfacing anywhere. Things seem fine, and then suddenly, there they are, monkeys jumping on your roof, tramping through your garden, and getting into whatever they can. When a monkey is around you’ve got to be careful because you never know what they are up to.

It’s good to be aware of holding both the difficult things in balance–the days with the monkeys vs. the weeks and months without them, as well the truly wondrous moments that come along. Actually doing this takes practice. When things grow dull or difficult, when struggle or white snow is all that can be seen, we have to purposefully change our perspective so we don’t feel crushed under the weight. That’s hard. But we don’t have to wait until things become unbearable. For a few moments we can break the routine of work, we can lift ourselves out of a situation that feels full or sorrow or dread. There’s a variety of ways to do it. We can sing, walk out the door and notice the trees or birds, arrange some fruit in a bowl to give away, put on some music, dance around the room, push our hands in the garden soil, pull some weeds or pick some flowers. A paint chip or a spiral, a face in the cloud–it doesn’t have to be something big. It just needs to be something; something to take us out of ourselves and connect us to something bigger. Who knows what you will actually discover in the process. It might not be what you intended. Doing that something can help us nurture joy and wonder while at the same time continuing to recognize the realness of the struggle or sorrow that we continue to live alongside. Maybe it is this very sorrow and struggle we know so well that allows us to experience the depth of joy when we give ourselves to it, or when it comes along to surprise us like the smiling face in the cement. We know then how precious such joy truly is.

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Re-imagning the world

What do you do when you feel stuck in a situation and there’s no way out? A traffic jam, for instance, or a difficult financial situation, a mistake you made in a relationship. Being stuck isn’t just something people find themselves in in every day life, though. Bigger things can be at stake. You could be put on trial for your beliefs, like Galileo was, because the world isn’t yet ready to accept the idea you have to offer–your ideas aren’t in fashion and those in power don’t want to hear it. This has happened to many groups of people through the centuries–women, Jews, Christians, Muslims, immigrants–those on the fringes of society. Recently, I finished reading Luigi Barzini’s The Italians, and Barzini describes how the Italian culture is one that has learned to live with centuries of oppression and corrupt leadership. Revolt wasn’t possible, so the Italian way of dealing with problem through the centuries has been to evade the powerful as much as possible, avoid doing the unusual, and to hide their inner most feelings in order to survive. The one institution that Italians consitantly feel faithful to, Barzini explains, is the family. Outwardly, Italians act friendly toward all, but underneath the surface there is a kind of frustration. They resign themselves to discontentment. Barzini quotes Ignazio Silone who explains that to cope, Italians take to “every known means of escape: they feign exaggerated gaiety, awkwardness, a passion for women, for food, for their country, and, above all, for fine-sounding words; they become, as chance may have it, policemen, monks, terrorists, war heroes. I think that there has never been a race so fundamentally desolate and desperate…” (p. 336)  To make the time under oppressive rulers bearable, Italians did what they could to make life as enjoyable as possible. Barzini suggests that while this appeal to the senses is why many visitors feel attracted to Italy– it is also what makes it difficult for Italy to solve its problems. What appears to give them freedom is also a trap.

Recently, Italy’s sales tax rose from 21% to 22%, a move met with protests by Italian citizens. NBC news reports “Italy’s beleaguered former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is this week facing a major decision: to leave politics or to drag the country’s fragile government down with him. In a chaotic series of events over the weekend, Berlusconi threatened to withdraw his support from the Cabinet — leaving the government hanging by a thread.” When you can’t count on your country’s leaders, and they don’t act in the best interest of the people, it makes sense that citizens turn to their families as the main institution to trust–people trust and protect those they know. It also makes sense to me that people would throw their energy into creative efforts of food and art. These are outlets of creative expression, and creative acts have proven consistently over time to renew our spirits, though it’s true that they may not solve the greater political problems countries might have.

The manuscript I’ve been working on about Italian immigrants from Calabria to America, Finding Home, explores how one Italian family responds to poverty and oppression and uses courage in the everyday acts of their lives to work their way into a different future for themselves and for their family. Illiteracy in southern Italy was as high as 70% in 1900, and most of America’s Italian immigrants at that time were from southern Italy. “As early as 1890, 90 percent of New York City’s public works employees and 99 percent of Chicago’s street workers were Italian. Many Italian immigrant women worked, but almost never as domestic servants.” (Digital History) Perhaps laying roads and digging tunnels for the subway are not what most people would call high level creativity, but working with their hands, hard, physical labor was a way out of poverty for many immigrants. It was a better solution than the fixed life of poverty they were stuck with in their own country. They recreated their futures, as well as ours as Americans, and today American citizens still benefit from their labor.

Physical labor labor can be truly rewarding, you can see the results of your work immediately. Immigrants and workers literally created much of the physical reality we live and work in. They re-imagined a future other than the one they were born into, got on a boat and pursued it, day after day working to make a future they wanted to live in.  Maybe you’ve heard of the value of having a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset, the immigrants clearly had a growth mindset, a way of thinking that is open, flexible, creative, willing to put in long-term serious consistent effort, the kind that gets people somewhere different in the world. Such a mindset takes vision, and purpose. If you haven’t seen this video, Caine’s Arcade, about a young boy who followed his passion making cardboard arcade games and how it changed his life and many others too, you might like to watch it to see the difference our actions can make when we have a dream and a purpose.