poetry, Reading, Uncategorized, writing

Beyond Fear Into a Larger World

In her poem, “The Best of It,” Kate Ryan, describes how it feels to have continued loss, to be reduced to be so little considered that you have next to nothing.

THE BEST OF IT

However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.

In some cultures, people choose to become monks who own virtually nothing. They have begging bowls and their clothing, and that’s about it. They depend on people around them to give them food. This helps the monks practice gratitude and to control their wants and desires, and it helps other people to practice giving and hospitality. The work monks do can encourage us on our life path. Most of us, however, aren’t monks who have chosen to take the vow of poverty. We work hard to make a space we can live in so we can provide ourselves with food, clothing, and other necessities. There comes a point when making the best of it really isn’t enough. People want to do more than merely exist–need more than just their one bean.

Circumstances can arise that make it so getting these things aren’t possible or are at least very difficult to obtain. If we’re poor, it’s rarely by choice. We need the diversity that entire gardens possess. In a flourishing society, the social structure supports people in developing their abilities and provides varied and abundant opportunities for them to contribute to the community. If someone literally doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or is struggling with severe pain or loss of bodily function resulting from a terminal disease or other such loss, what enables a person to go on, and how do people cope with their fear and anxiety during such situations?

Recently, I’ve been researching about Italians immigrants living in San Francisco during World War II for poems I’m writing. During this time period, the US government labeled 600,000 American-Italians as “enemy aliens” resulting from Executive Order 9066, an act that held numerous consequences for Italian-American immigrants.

During WWII, Italian-Americans had to carry a booklet identifying them as an enemy alien and have it stamped once a week. They weren’t allowed to travel more than five miles from home, had to stay in their homes between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., and were required to turn over radios, flashlights and cameras to government authorities. Approximately another 10,000 Italians living in prohibited zones near coasts were forced to move (sources vary, as the Smithsonian, states it was 50,000). Many people lost their jobs, some because their place of employment was further than the five miles from their house they were allowed to travel. 1,400 Italian fishermen in San Francisco weren’t allowed to fish. Three hundred Italian-Americans (some sources say more) were put in internment camps. Certainly, these changes and losses caused the Italian-American community anxiety and fear regarding their livelihoods, the safety and well-being of their family members, as well as serious questions regarding how their future would be affected.

In the fall of 1942, Roosevelt lifted the enemy alien status but Executive Order 9066 remained on the books until 1976 when President Gerald Ford removed it.

Fear in the American society at large was a significant motivating factor behind the government’s choice to remove civil liberties from Italian-Americans, as well as from the Japanese and Germans. When the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw the internment camps, she spoke out against them. “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” Her voice didn’t cause the camps to close, however. The families in these camps continued living with their difficult situation.

Italian-American immigrants faced significant injustices, as have many others world-wide throughout history, as well as currently. Life can change quickly and profoundly when you are suddenly seen as no longer acceptable. It’s easy to see how difficult life could be in such circumstances and to imagine how easy it could be to live in a state of fear, anger and resentment when facing such a cyclone of events you couldn’t anticipate and had no control over. 

We don’t know our futures. We want to be ready to face our fears and the storms that come our way. In his poem, “Snowfall in the Afternoon,” Robert Bly clearly depicts what it’s like when confronted with an unavoidable fearful situation– in this instance, a rising storm. “It was the sort of snowfall that starts in the late afternoon,” he writes, “And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.” Like anxiety and fear, the storm grows, picking up strength, feeding on its own furry as it continues, until the very home one lives in seems to be made of grass–vulnerable to gale force winds.

Yet beneath the surface, forces not attended to had been somehow present all along. Bly writes, “A darkness was always there which we never noticed.”  The poem goes on, explaining how watching from inside the house, the cornfields seem to shrink. Then, like some wayward galley holding a great weight of grain, the barn’s bulk moves threateningly closer, about to crash into the house where “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” Whether blinded or aware, the viewer is left in an alarming situation. This is how we feel sometimes when confronting unavoidable situations–waiting for a hurricane or fire that might engulf our house and ruin our entire livelihood and future. How do we cope with extreme difficulties that can’t be avoided–when we don’t know how long anything around us will last, if our efforts will make any difference, and when we’re alone in our vulnerable house made of grass about to be plowed down by something we see coming and yet are unable to do much about?

Because the darkness was there all along but simply not previously noticed, we can see a possible way to begin to understand what we fear and what we might do about it: look around. Notice where darkness is growing and storms might be brewing. Practice acknowledging the presence of fear–look at the fear and purposefully be present with it in our thoughts. Rather than rushing past our fears, covering them over with restless activity or hiding them, simply practice noticing when the fear as it arises, observe it, be curious about it—what brings it up, how it feels in the body, what it’s telling or teaching us.

When we see a storm coming toward us, typical responses are to run, to hide, fight, or even to find ways to cooperate with the storm or move with it. A significant portion of Italian-Americans during WWII, for example, kept a low profile. Parents during that generation chose not to teach their children Italian. It was considered “the language of the enemy” and they didn’t want their children to stand out. Italians also enlisted in the army and went to war as a way to demonstrate their loyalty.

Like stony mountains, difficult things don’t necessarily go away. We have to learn to live with our emotions in spite of their presence. There are other ways to respond to difficult situations, and we can teach ourselves how to think, act and feel differently in response.

Imagination is a powerful tool. We can imagine various situations we’re afraid of and practice letting go of the fear—visualizing a different way of responding. Collette Lafia, in her article on the Gratefulness.org site, describes a practice where you sit quietly with a bowl, imagining filling it with your sorrow, grief, anger, exhaustion–whatever your wound. You don’t try and fix it, you just put it in the container and with humility hold it out to the Infinite for healing. I can see how this is a way of gaining a larger perspective and how it would help instill an understanding that the working out the problem that creates the fear isn’t about will and control. By placing the fear (or other strong emotion) in a larger context we can gain a kind of freedom from the thought patterns that bind us related to our fears and see how resolving an issue or dealing with fear is part of a larger interaction.

Pema Chödrön in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty, writes, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Difficult situations can be complex and we might not readily know by ourselves what it is we need in order to resolve our fears. Maybe we can begin elsewhere, however, and simply probe the emotion without having to think it must be resolved or that we have to come to conclusions about it. Living the question until we live into the answer might be the more appropriate thing to do, as the poet Rilke suggested.

So that we move out of our own tightness and fear–our tendency to cling and be anxious–we might also shift our gaze, aiming to familiarize ourselves with others and their pain. We can imagine ourselves taking in someone else’s pain, and send them light and energy. Pema Chodron describes specific steps for how we might do this in a practice called tonglen. The specific purpose of this practice is to expand our capacity for compassion. Instead of treating people perfunctorily, as someone who performs a task, we can begin consciously practicing to enhance relationships with those around us. This could be just a thought we think when we see someone pass by us who seems different from ourselves in dress or perspective. We might in our minds wish them well, to be released from pain or to find fulfillment. Fear, anger, resentment–these can trap us, make our lives miserable but we can live alongside these emotions, observing and putting them into a wider, different context, or turn from them toward something different. Learning to love ourselves, we learn how to love our neighbors. We can open our arms, and nurture our hearts into a larger world.

We all want to live a life where we feel valued. Recognizing how the well-being of our own life is interconnected to the dignity of all people is foundational to moving beyond fear into a larger world where we can live with greater freedom and attain more of our full potential. After World War II in 1948, representatives from countries and cultures throughout the world put together The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the goal of protecting people from “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The declaration was put in place in recognition that people shouldn’t have to be pushed into “rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” Neither should people have to hide, run away, or deny their language, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other fundamental aspects of their personhood just so they might continue living. All people need dignity and should be able to thrive in living condition free from fear. Article 1 of the Human Rights Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Practicing in our lives each day how to move beyond our own fears, we can begin to integrate into our lives how we might respond to fears in others’, and perhaps see how to respect and protect their freedom. As John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition: there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”

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.

poetry, Wonder

Falling Into Wonder

to my aunt blanche
who rolled from grass to driveway
into the street one sunday morning.

—Lucille Clifton, “Praise Song,”

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Aunt Blanche in Lucille Clifton’s “Praise Song” reminds me of the many times I’ve told myself I’m going to do (or not do) something, only to metaphorically fall off the lawn regarding commitments I had made to myself. Clifton’s poem presents the reader with Aunt Blanche standing in the yard with her family, experiencing the day together. It’s a Sunday, a day of relaxation, and a time to gather with family. Things seem to be going fine until, boom, down goes Aunt Blanche, slipping off the yard and into the street! Clifton explains that Aunt Blanche had a basketball body, indicating her aunt likely hasn’t practiced the habit of healthy eating, or she probably wouldn’t be as round as a basketball. In spite of her love of food, or even perhaps because of it, Aunt Blanche is a resilient woman: basketballs bounce, and this is exactly what Aunt Blanche does; she bounces up from the street, and out of danger’s way.

It’s interesting to note that Aunt Blanche’s family doesn’t run into the street to rescue her. Clifton explains that as a ten year old observing her aunt’s fall, she “understood/ little or nothing of what it meant,” but she had faith in her aunt to get up from the humbling event. “Praise to the faith with which she rose,” writes Clifton, describing her belief in her Aunt’s ability to return to the family. Thankfully, Aunt Blanche has enough wits about her to recognize she was in danger, and works to get her self out of the possibility of further harm from oncoming cars. Drivers, too, see the situation Aunt Blanche is in, and respond by moving out of the way, so as to not harm her. Then, similar to the father who waited for the Prodigal Son to return home, Aunt Blanche’s family, too, waits for her with open arms as she climbs out of the street and rejoins them on the grass: an occasion for praise. The horror that might have happened didn’t. Aunt Blanche sighs a bit, showing her dismay at her own behavior, but doesn’t stay in the road carrying on about how silly she was. Neither does she blame anything or anyone in her situation. She simply gets herself out of danger’s way, and walks back to her family, a place she knows she is safe, a place she belongs. When we fall, rather than judging or blaming, we all want to know there’ll be open arms waiting for us when we rejoin others. As Clifton indicates, such an attitude of acceptance is “like God.”

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People are social beings who need to feel they belong and are respected by those in their group. What stories do we tell ourselves about those experiences where we fall that allows us to bounce back up like Aunt Blanche, dust ourselves off, forgive ourselves, and walk back onto the lawn and continue conversation with others because we understand that in the bigger picture of things, falling is part of the learning process? How might societies as a whole create ways of reacting to those who have fallen so that they can be drawn into the arms of others?

Poet and physician Rafaelo Campo, describes one of those ways in his poem, “What I Would Give.” Many of us carry a fear of falling ill, and Campo’s poem describes the fear people carry when they come to see him for medical help. The poem specifically mentions fears regarding lungs and melanoma, but these are merely examples of the myriad fears we carry with us from day to day: fears that our bodies won’t hold up under the activities we plan to undertake, fears about appearance, fears we won’t complete our work on time or meet people’s expectations, fears about how a new change we are making will affect our family or relationships, so many fears. Campo describes in his poem that what he wants to offer people, though, is “not the usual prescription with/ its hubris of the power to restore,/ to cure.” Perhaps because Campo is not only a doctor but also a poet, he understands that wellness is more expansive than physical wellness alone. It’s also connected to our emotional and social wellbeing, and how these are intertwined with our relationship to the physical environment.

Not all illnesses, aches or pain lead to recovery. If a person has arthritis, for example, she doesn’t get better. The disease progresses. When I see a person walking with a cane, I think of how challenging it is for that person to live with pain and ongoing suffering. Campo’s vision of healing moves beyond the elimination of pain to a wider plane. Even if we can’t be cured, his poem infers, we can be well. How that is possible, Campo suggests, is by opening ourselves to wonder.

I’d like to give them my astonishment
at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that,
the joy I felt while staring in your eyes
as you learned epidemiology
(the science of disease in populations),
the night around our bed like timelessness,
like comfort, like what I would give to them.

IMG_6938These lines show the wisdom of purposefully looking beyond disease and suffering to affirm the gifts abounding around us—to notice what is perhaps commonplace in life, yet amazing: rain falling gently on hair, or joy lighting the eyes of a loved one in the discovery of something new. Campo draws our attention to the idea that wholeness doesn’t have to mean a perfectly attuned body and mind. Healing is a part of a bigger dynamic of how we relate to both the natural world and to those around us. Seeing our connection to the physical world, and delighting in relationships with those around us can enable us to move beyond isolated suffering, and into seeing ourselves as part of the greater whole. It is this “seeing” that makes us whole again, even in our incompleteness. This is the larger healing Campo wants to give. Strength to deal with the pain (and the etymology of “comfort” is to intensify strengthening) comes from finding a way to stay in love with life even amidst struggle and pain. When we let ourselves reconnect to an awareness of life’s enormous gift, we lose ourselves into timelessness. In the process, we find a larger self. Even in the midst of danger, we feel safe, so that even “the night around our bed,” whether a bed of illness leading to death, or the bed of simple sleep, is a place of “comfort.” We can be at home with what is.

All illnesses, discomforts, failures, and “falls,” are opportunities to practice reframing suffering and pain within a wider perspective. Suffering and pain can engender compassion and gratitude, but we have to cultivate those qualities. Some people at an early age are faced with challenges or disabilities requiring them to grapple with how to live with great hardship. To be at home with whatever life gives us is extremely difficult. This is a journey that requires practice, likely years of practice, perhaps a lifetime. When you are ill, you recognize what a gift it is to be well, to be able to walk, to see, to breathe. I lived in a city with air quality so poor that it’s rare to see a cloud or blue sky, as I did for nine years in Delhi, taping the front door each night to reduce the smell of smoke. To see a blue sky filled with clouds large as mountains, for me, is truly a wonder, not a commonplace fact. Practicing gratitude in times of ongoing suffering or pain enables us to recognize we are connected to something bigger than our grief and our pain, and allows us the opportunity to identify with others around the world who suffer too.

Thoreau, in his experiment in living simply at Walden Pond, said he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to live deeply. When I work, I give myself to that work fully, but I must remind myself to guard my energy, and practice purposefully widening my view—attending my ear and heart to the possibilities that allow connections to the natural world to surface. I need to practice making room for both work and wonder. “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living,” writes the Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and like Heschel, I want to walk in wonder.

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