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,”


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.”


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.



Out of Smoke and Silence

Last night the smoke in Delhi was thick. The acrid smell climbed in to all the crevices and cracks in doors and window frames and asserted itself with caustic breath. The air quality index nearby at RK Puram rated the particulate matter in the air as 534, which is rated as hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. AQI greater than 300, according to the Air Now air quality guide, “would trigger a health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.” We have three large air purifiers in our apartment, but last night breathing was still painful. The lungs ached.

Several years back, the World Health Organization stated that air pollution is the greatest threat to health, and in Delhi in particular. (See more here.) It’s worse on the roadsides, according to Time, in an article “New Delhi, the World’s Most Polluted City is Even More Polluted Than We Realized” writer Rishi Iyengar explains that “average pollution levels were up to eight times higher on city roads, the Associated Press reports.” With the number of diesel cars on the road, old cars, and the growing number of cars on the road, things are bad, and they are especially bad in winter when people burn whatever they can find in open fires in order to stay warm. The suffering continues. The problem continues.

Suffering, however, is a world wide phenomena, and comes in so many forms. Only a few weeks ago, you may recall, Boko Haram in Nigeria opened attack on villagers, burned people in their houses and left what CNN says was nearly 2,000 people dead. 30,000 people were displaced. This kind of suffering doesn’t end by people moving to a new location.

Coming to terms with the horror of such experiences make indelible marks on people’s lives that continues on for decades. You may recall genocide in other locations and eras as well. Between April and June of 1994, for example, the BBC  says, somewhere around 800,000 Rwandans were killed within the span of 100 days. That is a statistic that holds underneath it a grief too staggering to comprehend. Last week by accident, I came across the Isaha iteragera Misingi choir, from Kigali Rwandan choir on the Net. (Take a listen.) Since a friend of ours had lived there for several years, I wanted to hear them. Though I didn’t know the meaning of the words the choir sings, a spirit of joy and love comes through their bodies’ expression and their faces. It’s palpable, and I it made me wonder what it is that allows people who have known such deep suffering to express the sense of joy and open heartedness in their music.

We might be going along thinking we’re managing things okay from day to day. We may be able to do this for years, but then something happens that makes us realize we are standing on different ground: a loved one suddenly dies, becomes ill, has an operation or an accident. We lose our job, our house. What then? How do we manage? How might the way the Rwandans are dealing with their suffering suggest how others might deal with their suffering? What strikes me as particularly interesting is that in Rwanda, healing is taking place as a community and through community effort. As Henri Nouwen points out, “Suffering invites us to place our hurts in larger hands.” We go to the community for help and a growing number of Rwandans today are coming together to deal with the problems of the deep wound left behind from the catastrophic experience by using “community based sociotherapy.”

“The effectiveness of the sociotherapy in Byumba relies on the following principles which are considered as the backbone of the approach: Interest in people, Equality, Democracy, Here and Now, Responsibility, Participation, and Learning by Doing,” says Jean de Dieu Basabose in his article, “Community Based Sociotherapy” on the Insight on Conflict website connected with Peace Direct. Victims and offenders alike meet face to face, recognizing that they are in need of support and restoration. In learning to forgive, people are released from their suffering. (See the movie trailer, As We Forgive about this.) To add to this story, however, something worth noting is that in Rwanda, the offenders are also rebuilding the country. In recognizing the wrongs they committed, offenders work to take an active part in their communities in setting things right. Words and action together are making the change.

There are some principles here that are useful. We aren’t alone when we suffer. We rely on the resources within the community to move toward the needed changes. We work to build community and mutual respect for each other within the community. We nurture our spirits and skills so we can give to our communities what is needed. We do what we can in the sphere we are part of to helps create community.

Will that effort be enough? Will it end the air pollution problem within my life time? Will it end genocide? That depends on what we do with what we’re given. If we build community, we will have the support of those around us to carry us through the difficulties, and that is no mean comfort. In the midst of our suffering, it is good to know, as William Stafford says in his poem, “Assurance”

You will never be alone, you hear so deep
a sound when autumn comes. Yellow
pulls across the hills and thrums,
or the silence after lightening before it says
its names- and then the clouds’ wide-mouthed


In the silence and the smoke, the loss, we can speak together for a better, more humane world. Though we will always be incomplete and fall short. We are human. But together we can hold each other up and become more than we are.