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.


Tending Our Gardens

Yesterday, the wind blew much of the day, tossing the leaves on the trees outside my window, pushing against the walls. I love the way the wind stirs the world, and reminding us things are about to change. Life is always changing, of course, but when you hear branches creaking, and see the birds swirling and turning in the sky, it’s a good visual reminder.

While reading yesterday, I serendipitously came across Antonio Machado’s poem, “The Wind One Brilliant Day”, that talks about the wind that comes into the speaker of the poem’s garden, calling out to his soul with a jasmine scent. The wind, however, wants his soul’s rose scent in exchange for the jasmine scent it offers. Sadly, the  soul realizes it doesn’t have a garden from which to offer up anything, so the wind takes the dead petals and leaves along with water from the fountain, and departs. Then is when the poem’s speaker recognizes he should have done something earlier on to protect the garden given him so that he would have something to give the wind when it came–an understanding that many of may have come to in our own lives at some point as well, especially during times of transition.

Filmmaker Chel White has a beautiful video of wind where Alec Baldwin narrates Machado’s poem in a way that makes the view examine what we have done with the Garden of our earth. For me, however, it seems that what we are doing to our planet is  a reflection of what is collectively happening in our inner world of our mind and heart, as the two are connected. I live in a very polluted city. There are few days when Delhi’s pollution level is below dangerous, and this presents a challenge to the spirit. How do we deal with our inner gardens when in the outside world, things are just not good, maybe even downright dangerous? There are some things in the world outside that aren’t in our power to change. Somethings we have to live with. But we can change our inner world so that in the midst of the difficulty, we can still feel alive, can still breathe. We can tend to the heart.

If you’ve ever kept even a single houseplant, you recognize that you can let a plant go for a few days, without attention, but plants need attention if they are to thrive. If you give them light and a bit of water a few days a week, however, they can grow happily for a long time. If we want to keep our inner gardens alive, maybe we don’t need to make grand plans–some light, some water, and some weeding now and then would be a good start–just one small thing each day so we know we are keeping ourselves alive inside. Robert Bly reads another of Machado’s poems, “Last Night As I Was Sleeping”, a beautiful poem, affirming that “sweet honey” can be made of our failures–that even in the midst of our shortcomings and incompleteness, beauty can grow.  Great mystery–light and love, as the poem suggests, are present even now in our lives, humming. The more we open to them, the more they thrive.

Though it’s winter now, spring is coming. Today, however, after several days of cloudy darkness, I need the reminder that there are gardens already blooming, inside my heart as well as in the world now, what I water is growing. For all of us who need gardens or the reminder of flowers today, here is Coleman Barks reading Rumi‘s beautiful, “What Was Said to the Rose”.