art, gratitude, Italian-American, poetry, spirtuality

Lifting Our Heads

“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)

Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.

“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.

Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.


Three Things That Can Make the Heart Glad

Pumpkin curry for dinner. How delicious! The supple pumpkin flesh surrounded in a sauce of coriander, ginger, tomato, onion, cashews, powdered coconut milk and spices, that has been zizzed in  blender. You bite in to the pumpkin, its subtle sweetness bathed in flavorful spice accompanied by plump golden raisin. Ah, the joy of eating. Eat slowly. Savor the food in your mouth. Every bite. No need to eat fast. Eat slowly and enjoy the fantastic presence of now, each swirl of flavor across the tongue. Who needs to go out for good food often when you can cook simple yet delicious meals night after night? It is such a pleasure to unwind from the day’s work with the tactile, aromatic experience of cooking the evening meal, and it is a wonderful way to transition into an evening at home.

You might recall the scene from the book Like Water for Chocolate, when Tita makes the dish of quail in rose petals, all of her love for Pedro going into the making of the dish. Those at the dinner party eat the food, and their emotions are powerfully effected. Food can do more than affect our bodies. It can affect our emotions too. Maybe not like Tita’s quail in rose cream, but it can bring us a sense of deep connection to those with whom we share the meal. I love the physicality of food, its beauty, and the caring hands that make and share it are a way of reaffirming our connection to each other and reconnecting to an awareness of the earth’s rich bounty that sustains us. When you work all day, spending a great deal of time in your head, coming home to scrub carrots as you hold them under cool water, to  chop red peppers, or breathe in the aroma of spices in a pan can physically ground and restore a person to her right self. Maybe that is why food is a part of so many religious traditions,  such as in the Christian ritual of breaking bread together at the communion table, or Muslims sharing the breaking of fast together. Such acts reconnect us. The etymology of the word “religion”, according to etymology dictionary is to go through again, rebind. Cooking and eating can be a kind or ritual that rebinds us in community. We can literally taste the goodness that relationships can bring. The Jewish religion has a wonderful way of grounding the spiritual life in physical reality. “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him,” writes the psalmist. Sharing food with a heart of gratitude can, indeed, rebind us to each other, and the earth as well as to God.  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” Our feet are firmly planted on this earth, pointing us toward appreciation.

Music, too, is a wonderful way to lift the spirits. In reading about newly unfolding knowledge about brains, I have learned how, among other things, music can help improve young children’s intelligence, calm people with Alzheimer’s, and does things like boost immunity and reduces blood pressure. I don’t have first hand experience with any of these things, but have noticed repeatedly over the past couple of weeks that singing has done fantastic things for changing my stress level. Years ago, I remember working with a woman who used to sing often. I asked her about it and she said she had had cancer previously, and during that time she learned how much she had to be thankful for. As a result she sang more often. I remember that now as I sing portions of O Sole Mio on the way to work, on the way home, and from time to time during the day. When Michael got dengue recently and was lying in bed with a fever that didn’t go away for days on end, he wanted to hear it. I found this version by Mario Lanza. What a voice!  I remember my mother having a record of his when I was a child. The song is so expansive in its expression–the heart reaching up to the sky. Light rolls across the universe, and can’t help but flood your spirit and lighten your heart when you hear it. There is also the version by Il Volo, the three Italian young men in their teens, Piero Barone, Ignazio Boschetto and Gianluca Ginoble, who sing O Sole Mio with presence and vivacity. The intensity of life coming from them, like the words of the song, is shining sun. Even if you don’t sing or can’t carry a tune, you want to sing like Pavrotti, Plácido Domingo or José Carreras after hearing them sing O Sole Mio. You can read the Italian and English lyrics here. Try singing the song and see for yourself if you don’t feel happier after singing!

One other story that shows the power of poetry to change people’s behavior and return them to their senses is the story about Dante’s Beatrice in Alighieri’s poem, “Dante’s Inferno,” and the bridge on which Dante saw Beatrice. Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Gold, explained how when he was a very young man, Dante saw Beatrice standing on the Ponte Vecchio, the bridge over the Arno River that runs through Florence, Italy. Dante fell in love with her, though he could not marry her, since marriages at that time were arranged, and he could not choose her. Nevertheless, he carries her in his heart through the rest of his life, , as a symbol of  beauty and purity. The most surprising thing, however, is the way this piece of literature affected the flow of history.  Johnson explained that during WWII, when the “Americans were chasing the German army up the Italian “boot.” The Germans were blowing up everything of aid to the progression of the American army, including the bridges across the Arno River. But no one wanted to blow up the Ponte Vecchio, because Beatrice had stood on it and Dante had written about her. So the German army made radio contact with the Americans and, in plain language, said they would leave the Ponte Vecchio intact if the Americans would promise not to use it. The promise was held. The bridge was not blown up, and not one American soldier or piece of equipment went across it.” (See more here.) Poetry can change us! That is a wonderful thought. It has in at least this one specific instance helped humans to not choose a destructive act. I remember Lucille Clifton saying at a Flight of the Mind women’s writing workshop in Oregon some years ago now how poetry humanizes us. This example Johnson gives of this decision to save the bridge during WWII exemplifies Clifton’s statement. There are too many people in this world keeping animosity between sides going, too many people feeding the engine that makes sure the lines between us are drawn and that we do not have to listen to each other and figure out how to stop blowing up the bridges between us. The name Beatrice means blessing, I vote for more of the blessing in this world that her presence inspired in Dante. I hope there are more stories about poems that have brought people together like this one. I’d love to learn of them. “Music in the soul can be heard by the universe,” says Lao Tzu. Poetry, music, making and sharing food together–these are creative acts that can unite the opposing forces in our own minds as well as those in the world.