Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,
You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.
Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.
Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.
Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.
What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become
but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.
Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.
Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”
Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror Just keep going No feeling is final
–Rainer Maria Rilke
In a short time from now, I’ll be moving from India. After nearly a decade in this country, I won’t live here any more. Though I don’t exactly know yet where I’m going once I leave, I will miss many things about living here. Through sound, smoke and heat, India literally seeps in through the windows and doors, announcing its presence, influencing the whole of what happens.
We don’t have adequate answers for life’s most perplexing questions. We are incomplete. India constantly asks difficult questions I will never have answers for–which is perhaps one of the reasons I’ve stayed here so long. Everywhere in India, it’s easy to see people suffer. As I travel through Delhi, I try to open myself to see and notice the suffering around me so I can learn from it. Looking into the faces of people suffering–noticing their difficulty–is not the same as doing something about meeting people’s needs. If I don’t have the ability to change people’s lives around me, however, then I can at least see them as fellow humans in need of compassion, just as I, too, feel the need for compassion.
Like the poor around me, I will never be all I want to be. As a result of living in India, I recognize in people’s faces and bodies a mirror of my own incompleteness and need. The more I can befriend the reality of my own incompleteness and accept limitations with compassion, the more I will be able to act compassionately toward others. Maybe I can also become more whole. India’s poverty is too enormous for any one person to resolve. In humility we have to accept we can’t necessarily be or give to others what we plainly see that they physically need. To solve huge problems requires large numbers of people working together toward change and solutions over extended periods of time. Many things aren’t in our control, or ability, though we do and give what we can to make a difference.
Because it is a kind of death, moving stimulates reflection. Often these days, I find myself wondering what existence is. It’s all so mysterious and amazing. Embodied minds and feelings walk around on planet Earth with other physical bodies in a universe containing other galaxies that hold solar systems in a space vast beyond comprehension. So much happens in the universe beyond fathoming. Over the years of living here in India, I’ve learned to understand more of the cultural patterns–which are a kind of universe of their own. When I leave, once again I’ll be moving into a different world, learning new ways of being and understanding. I’ll be transformed into another reality very unlike the current one. Even if living in my native country, my world will be widened. Parts of me will diminish, others expand, and I’ll be reborn into a different existence. I will remake myself.
The baby kite in the nest across the yard outside my kitchen window, stands up, occasionally, and perches on the nest edge to look around. Soon, like notes of music, the fledgling will fly away, though, and like the kite I, too, will leave this nest. I don’t think the change will necessarily be easy, though parts of it will be. Transformation. Transcendence. Births are noted fore being painful, but out of chaos, the world was (and is continuously) formed.
This period of transition is a liminal space of uncertainty through which to view two worlds, and to notice the myriad possibilities of creativity change brings. As a friend writes–through the dissolving curtain of now the new world awaits.
Maybe our real life work isn’t to remain whole. As Robert Bly writes, perhaps we came here to
“…lose our leaves
Like the trees, and be born again,
Drawing up from the great roots.”
In some ways, every day can be seen as a liminal space, not just the great moments of passage and change. What could I become if I were able to live more like that–like trees who let go their leaves time after time, reborn repeatedly, because they are always “drawing up for the great roots.” Let me live like that.
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.
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.
Hampi granite sheathes
Rice field, Hampi
Granite sheathe 2
Granite sheathe 3
Rice field, Hampi
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.
Of all that God has shown me, I can speak just the smallest word, not more than a honeybee takes on her foot from an overspilling jar. —Mechthild of Magdeburg
To live in India, and to ponder what it is one is experiencing when wandering out to explore what waits in the streets, is to be humbled. This is my ninth year living here in Delhi. There is a myriad of things still to see in India and a myriad more to understand–or realize I will never understand. India is immensely diverse with a long, long history. Though many things after nearly a decade of living here seem familiar to me now that are utterly different than the world I was born into–things such as buying groceries at street side stalls, monsoon heat and rain, dogs and cows wandering the streets, and erratic electricity–the more I experience and learn about India, the deeper the mystery of this culture goes until it seems I have entered the waters of the ocean and the universe beyond.
This past weekend I traveled to the state of Odisha (Orissa), and the cities of Bhubaneswar and Puri, one of India’s holiest cities. Traveling through these cities colorful streets full of ancient stone temples, is to enter a place wonder.
A few short kilometers from Bhubaneswar, we visited the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Jain caves, cut into two facing hills over 2,000 years ago. Ascetics once lived here, but now along with visitors and devotees, langur families roam the area, eating from shrubs, as well from the hands of the many Indian visitors to the temple atop the hill.
Rani Gumpha or Queen’s Cave, Udayagiri
Rani Gumpha or Queen’s Cave, Udayagiri
A bit over an hour’s drive down the coast from Bhubaneswar and north of the coastal city of Puri is the Konark Sun Temple. Made of stone and facing the east-west direction, as if carrying the sun, the temple is a World Heritage site built in the 13th century. The temple’s shape is modeled after the giant cart that Hindus pull through city streets in various locations in India during religious festivals. Though no longer safe to enter the temple, it’s exterior carving is both extensive and beautiful. There must have been an enormous bank of skilled sculptors available in order to make the temple with its beautiful carvings–something that would be rare to find in most any place in the world today in such abundance.
Stone chariot wheel, Konark Sun Temple
Konark Sun Temple
Dance Hall, Konark Sun Temple
Food vendor, Chilka Lake
Wheel hub, Konark Sun Temple
Down the street from where I stayed with my husband and friends in Puri, is a crematorium–a holy place for Hindus. To be cremated in
Puri is highly desired as it allows one to enter moksha and to be released from the cycle of life. Interestingly, directly across the street from Puri’s crematorium is the beach on the Bay of Bengal, crowded with people barbecuing fish, eating, shopping, and riding camels with a decorative red and gold cloth to sit on.The waves stretch along the coast beside Puri, though no one is swimming, preferring the activity on the shore. This is not a country or culture that isolates death from the ongoing experience of life. Death while necessary, it’s very presence is woven into the fabric of the town’s hotels and seaside attractions, as a natural partner to other activities such as a barbecue or a seaside stroll.
South of Puri, along the coast, lies Chilka Lake, one of Asia’s major areas for bird migration and nesting. The road to Chilka Lake from Puri, wanders through a wetland area of trees, verdant green rice fields, and buffalo watering holes. Black dolphin live in the lake, and you can see them on a boat ride that takes you out to where the lake opens into the sea. On our boat ride, we got caught in a monsoon downpour. As the sky turned dark and the thunder rolled, we crouched behind umbrellas, hoping to stave off some of the rain and sea spray. At the lake’s opening to the Bay of Bengal, we pulled up to the shore and climbed off the boat to huddle under a palm leaf hut with plastic tarp, watching the wind blow and the rainwater drain off the roof as the boat driver wrung the water from his shirt. Locals working at the tea hut knocked open oysters and pulled out perfect pearls time after time as well as stones hoping to sell us a few. I never saw clams produce shaped and polished stones before, but people on other boats believed it was possible, and willing bought the jewels.
Boats, Chilka Lake
Sea eagle, on post, Chilka Lake
Wetlands near Chilka Lake
Wetlands on the way to Chilka Lake
Later, we headed back to Puri, to the Jagannath temple–the Lord of the Universe’s home on earth: Vishnu’s abode. The temple, according to the Jagannath temple information site, has 6,000 priests, as well as the largest kitchen in the world, where it has prepared meals for 1,000,000 people on festival days and frequently up to 25,000 on other days. If you are Hindu, you can enter the temple, but if you aren’t, even from outside the temple there is a world of wonders to see because half of India seems to be gathered there in a celebratory mood–balloon, flute and toy sellers, fruit sellers with their carts, a woman selling grass for the wandering cattle, devotees washing themselves, beggars with open palms–all part of the throng in the plaza and funneling toward the temple gate.
Balloon seller in front of the Jagnnath temple
Opposite the Jagnnath Temple
Fruit seller outside Jagnnath temple
Food Sellers near the temple
Rickshaw driver near the side the Jagnnath Temple
Treats on a food stall cart
Street stall sellers beside the Jagnnath Temple
Grass seller in front of the Jagnnath Temple
The temple complex is large, covering an area of 10.7 acres, and as I circumnavigated its walls, I got a glimpse of an idea of the world inside. A group of men wearing white and clanging a bell trudged by carrying a wooden plank decorated with flowers, women wearing gold colored saris walked by in a group, and everywhere food sellers pandered their wares and cows wandered the streets. On the opposite side of the street from the temple, were the broken-off walls of apartment buildings and shops where some men worked to rebuild the half dilapidated walls, while others sledge hammer in hand heaved into walls, blow by blow hoping to bring them down. One thing was certain: I was in a different world. No sterile streets with trimmed hedges and clipped lawns here, no malls or neat and tidy traffic flowing to regulated lights. Instead, a cacophony of human activity filled the world on all sides. Here, the world was turned inside out. You can literally see inside houses, and everything appeared to be in a state of simultaneous construction and deconstruction–which is actually a pretty good physical embodiment of what is actually happening at any particular point in time or history. Things have a way of breaking open and breaking out of the boxes they are put in. Life, like many things found in India, is bigger than the boundaries we build to contain it. It spills out and pours over–is larger than what we can define or name. Order is there beneath the change we experience, but the birth and death of everything is happening all at once right before your eyes.
Goddess beside the Jagnnath Temple
Jagnnath Temple entrance
Beside the side the Jagnnath Temple
At the Jagnnath Temple
The Jagnnath Temple
Like some kind a satellite, asteroid or meteorite from a world other than the one people in Puri were familiar with, I circled the Jagannath temple, my eyes absorbing what my mind had the tiniest fragment of comprehension of. Here is a world to itself, one that doesn’t care that your your hair is falling out, that you once held an athletic record, that you aren’t able to walk as you used to, that you can sing, dance or draw, that you might be unable to do what someone else does or thinks is important. These are things of the world you might have been born into or come from but none of this matters when you cross into another world, and clearly the space around the Jagannath temple is another world. If it is possible to be reborn into another life without dying, than certainly, that is what occurred. Doorways mark the liminal spaces between two worlds, and to stand outside the Jagannath temple amongst the honk of mopeds, the cows and dogs lazing in the streets, the clanging bells, marigold offerings, and the sun casting a golden light across the street is to definitely see into a different reality. This was no place anything I knew in my childhood would prepare me to know or understand. Except that it was wondrous.
Door in Puri
Temple on street leading up to Jagarnnath Temple
There are things in this world far beyond our comprehension. This I knew as a child. I climbed the hill opposite from where I lived with my mother and two of my sisters when I was four, and when I looked back at where I came from, at the small house in the valley below, I knew my home in an entirely new way. Circling the Jagannath temple walls is one way that allows you to see where you call home in a new way if you call home a place other than India or Puri. Walking around the temple wall, you can glimpse into the universe of mysteries and to realize that of all the world holds, we know very little. The world, the universe is much bigger than our minds can hold. Birth is mystery, as is relationship–the fathomless bond of love. The intricate connections and interweaving of natural systems of animal life, of whales’ migration patterns, for example, serving to mix the ocean’s water columns and spreading nutrients, that according to National Geographic, enables more fish to eat and grow–just this one example of the vast natural systems that we interact with daily that have evolved over eons of which humans are just one part–all these things are working together, holding us up and together. These are far more powerful than the power of any ruler, government plan or force on earth. As in the poem I opened this post with, it’s good to be reminded of these things. We often get wrapped up in our small worlds and plans, in our way of seeing things, making it easy to forget our view is just one perspective in the wider, wilder world and universe we are a part of.
Goat among the cars, Puri
Hindu gods for sale
Temple carving, Bhubaneswar
Comprehending the complexities of Hinduism takes an outsider an effort of serious study; but I can comprehend this: by living we partake in mystery. We move from mystery to mystery as we move from birth to death, and isn’t this a fundamental truth to all religions–that we are not a world unto ourselves? Bruce Cockburn has a song you might enjoy listening to, “Lord of the Starfields.” I appreciated it for the awe it evokes with lyrics that begin like this:
Lord of the starfields
Ancient of Days
Here’s a song in your praise
Wings of the storm cloud
Beginning and end
You make my heart leap
Like a banner in the wind
Most days we move through a world of familiar routines, often with unsurprising outcomes. The past few days I spent time with friends who own a house in Peschio, a tiny village situated above Alvito, Italy, a small community located on the edge of the Comino Valley a couple of hours below Rome in the state of Lazio. In Peschio, traditions still hold sway in people’s everyday lives. Bells ring on the hour, people have close connections with their neighbors and still live where they were born. Neighbors share gifts of food such as handmade pasta. In the evening, people gather for conversation at the local ice cream parlor or sit with friends on benches in the street. The town adorns the roads with ribbons for a celebration of the Madonna, carrying an icon of her through the streets. Here, communities aren’t driven by competition or pressed down with the weight of tasks to complete in a limited period of time. Life here is simple. Houses are not fancy, neither are their clothes. It’s true that the area struggles economically and that the population is aging, yet at the same time people have time to chat on the street or gather for an impromptu dinner on the neighborhood piazza. Human connection remains central to life.
View of Comino Valley, from Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Neighborhood gathering for pizza on the piazza, Peschio, Italy
Ice cream shop in Alvito, Italy
Homemade pasta, a neighbor’s gift, Peschio village,
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley from Peschio, Italy
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley, Lazio, Italy
I feel a connection to those living in a world where tradition is still a vital part of people’s understanding and way of being, but this way of being can’t be mine. I wasn’t raised with traditions that go back to the old world. I have lived in too many worlds with too many other lives, but there is a beauty there. Unlike the world in Alvito, the world most of us live in is filled not with space for human connection, but instead with human competition and the drive to get ahead, make a name, or gain power in some area, even if a narrow one. Minutes count, and finding time to sit outside and enjoy the evening air or to chat with a friend can be challenging. In such a world it is difficult to find satisfaction or wholeness. It’s challenging to find the time to reflect on life, hard to assume an attitude of receptivity instead of needing to act or be in charge, though receptivity is a central attitude that enables us to learn respect for our limitations and to value our interdependence with others, qualities that in turn engender connectivity with others and help us experience life as meaningful.
Occasionally, however, amidst the clatter and squeeze of everyday life that pushes us along from one event to the next, the extraordinary, like a giant fish rising from the sea’s depths or storm wind shaking a tree to its roots, occurs, and we are given a window into our lives that touches us at our roots and helps us see what we are. Having recently read Nicholas Samaras’s book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, I feel I have experienced the extraordinary. Echoes from the poems’ imagery and language move through my mind, rising at unexpected moments, floating up from the subconscious where the poems have been at work. The poems probe the struggle to live purposefully with meaning when traditional values and ways of being no longer hold the world together.
Though we have access to unprecedented volumes of knowledge in our day, to live meaningfully and purposefully, all of us must negotiate between enormous areas of ongoing, continuous and rapid social, economic and technological fluctuation and change. It is no easy task to assimilate ourselves into these various worlds and learn how to integrate them into our lives in a way that allows us to develop wholeness. Each of us must explore how to direct ourselves through the current of these changes. Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich said, “Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith,” and Samaras’s poetry is an exploration of meaning making while swimming in the sea of the postmodern era. The intensely vivid quality of Samaras’s descriptions, language and poetic narratives in Hands of the Saddlemaker pulled me below the surface of words into an interior current flowing between places of exile and belonging, faith, and loss, love and death.
From the opening poem, “Lost,” describing the ease with which a person can lose his or her way, to the final piece, “Decade,” depicting the transformative moment where pain and brokenness from a relationship are let go, the poems in this volume traverse the territory between the traditions, beliefs and practices that both bind and open us. The book’s ending poem, “Decade” returns to a place of confrontation with grief and loss that allows one to come to finally release from its hold and come to a place of stasis where healing might begin. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” The ground we stand in our era is constantly shifting and most of us don’t have lives that thread us back to origins, place or carefully followed tradition. The poems explore the territory between and beyond borders, tradition and predefined boundaries, stretching into broader realms of experience and emotion where transformation is forged and meaning created amidst brokenness. This is a book of poems that speaks to our time and worthy of careful and repeated readings.
One of the poems in the volume, “Easter in the Cancer Ward” describes the process of coloring and decorating eggs for Easter, while confronting the certainty of death and contemplating the significance of belief in life after death ends. One of the children in the ward with cancer directly states “I’m dying.” Another unexpectedly later asks the poem’s narrator if he believes in Christ and living forever, prompting him to search within in himself for an honest answer. Easter, as we know, is about life after death, but the poem places us in the moment where death lives inside of life and helps us see how the two are connected. The poem ends where the children put the narrator’s hands into the red dye, staining them red, the color of resurrection. The poem’s last line, “and we are laughing,” is especially poignant. Here is an image of life in death, death in life, and the hard territory one walks between the two. The child has led the speaker to touch that place, a world of pain and wonder inseparable from each other.
In his poem about crossing borders, “Passport,” Samaras writes, “In counties of the temporary, we are forever/ accumulating, possessing, leaving behind./ In the end, our hands will finally be empty.” This is an absolutely powerful piece about impermanence. In some sense, we are always standing at a border, the border between today and tomorrow, youth and age, innocence and experience. The border is a place of transformation–leaving a country, possessions, or a life. We exchange one way of being for another, one life for another. “I cannot help but be a citizen of transience,” writes Samaras, “always looking for the land beyond language.” Forever life is changing and we are leaving behind what we were, “our pale winter/ breaths losing the shape of our bodies.” There is death, but there is also the possibility of entering “the land beyond language,” a place where presence moves beyond the clothes we carry or the language our tongues wear, or any particular belonging, and we are “fresh and farthingless[ly]” ourselves.
Earlier this summer while walking in downtown Santa Cruz, California, I walked past a street preacher standing on his soap box calling out to passers by telling them they were sinners and to come to Jesus. While it’s true that we are all incomplete and need renewal daily, the word sin, is hardly in anyone’s vocabulary these days. I found the soapbox preacher’s tone disturbing. It didn’t compel me to examine my life. Instead, I wanted to push him away. I don’t like anyone yelling at me.
Religion today is bound up in politics, is full of lines drawn on many sides defining right from wrong. What may have once been clear divisions of morality has been manipulated by motivations of profit, of revenge and the love of control, often confusing our understanding of what is really being said so that it’s difficult to know and act on the truth, even as we understand it. While some people are certain they know what is right (as I suspect the street preacher did because of his tone) in this world–the correct beliefs and actions, or at least want to convince us that they do, Samaras’a poetry presents a different vision of belief in the Divine. “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” two men enter an abandoned NY city cathedral that is condemned and scheduled to be torn down, paralleling what is in fact a reality in Christianity today, where the church is being blotted out in its geographical place of origin (see William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain) and where the church has lost respect in the general population as a result of misconduct by priests, attitudes of bigotry, injustice, and through other acts contrary to the teaching of Christ who called people to love their neighbor. Even though the church in Samaras’s “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” is boarded up, abandoned, and set for destruction, though the homeless are lined up and sleeping outside it, the two men intuitively recognize there something inside the vestiges of its structure that nevertheless still offers refuge. “There is nothing worse than a safe life,” writes Samaras, and the faith demonstrated in this poem is not one of safety. The world inside the cathedral is broken. Wires and tubes twist across the floor, the staircase is dilapidated, and the roof opens to the sky and moon. What was once sacred is strewn together with the profane. The two men find it disturbing that “such a building, such a solidity can fall to man’s priorities.” The church’s broken state reflects our human inability to discern what is holy or pure. Svetozar, one of the two men, steps on a nail that pierces his foot. Similar to this unexpected wounding in a place once sacred but now desecrated, innocents across the world have been harmed in the darkness of wars that have changed lives forever, and in particular since the World Wars. Like the homeless sleeping outside the church walls, we are all in some sense homeless now, without belief and holding a general societal disregard or nonchalance regarding injustices. Ignore the nail that has pierced the foot, however, and we die.
Why enter the cathedral? Why call on faith in a time when to believe in God is to many an absurdity? “We climb to resist/ ourselves in a complacent country,” writes Samaras. “To enter this cathedral/ this edifice was necessary.” Faith isn’t arrogance or a person calling from a soapbox on a city street. It is the climb in a church of uncertain structure to
…a level footing, an icon
and a dusty mirror.
All through palpable darkness, the ginger
feeling for where the foot should go next,
the leaning the weight into it.
Here is humility. Here is a spirituality that connects to the suffering of humanity in the dark places of difficulty and pain. Here is where Samaras brings us to at the end of the poem, “wind filters throughout clothes. For a moment, I thought/ I heard the connected lives of others.” The speaker is holding the memory of one’s own hands wrapped around the broken bannister’s weight. The Christian ritual of communion and bread breaking represents Jesus’s self broken, like the bread, and the shared selfless giving with the community of humanity. Yes the church is broken, like all human institutions. But there is also the church that is still what a church is meant to be–God living through people on earth; Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teresa of Avila, Oscar Romero, Parker Palmer, and the myriad of every day people who do the work in the world and in themselves that creates wholeness. Faith is more than a set of beliefs. As Kierkegaard says, “It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.” The poem shows us those who take the risk and enter in can learn spiritual truths that remain beneath and inside the brokenness and with it, we can find strength to change our lives.
Perhaps I feel drawn to the poems in Hands of the Saddlemaker because inside the poems I hear a voice that tells me there are no easy answers. Several of the poems in the book deal with the hard work of reconciliation. We are all living in some form of exile and we must work out our own salvation. Having lived in other countries outside my own for 25 years, I feel an affinity for the voices of those living outside the boundaries of what might have once been home. I am from the borderlands. My parents moved to California from South Dakota and I was the first in my family to be born there. SanDiego County bordering Mexico was my childhood home. For me, everywhere and nowhere is home. I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “This World is Not My Home” (and here is a bluegrass version.) Though I live in one world, I am of another world too.
Woven through this volume of poems is the sense that the writing is born from a distinct, even painful awareness of the incompleteness of one’s own life, and the willingness to confront it honestly in order to cut through to the marrow of bone where the soul is laid bare and offered up on an altar like a prayer. I think of the Rembrandt painting I saw this summer in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, of Abraham offering up Isaac and the angel holding back Abraham’s hand. The story and painting is a metaphor for what powerful art and writing is. It functions as a sacred offering. In the act of making and reading poetry and art we can be saved, so to speak, through the power of art and words to restore.
It was 3:00 am at the border as I reentered India last night, serendipitously, just like the line in Samaras’s poem, “Passport” where he says “It is always three am at the border.” I had my bag with my yearly supply of vitamins, my clothes, my journal. Men pushed a long line of luggage carts, some leaned against a wall, listless with the weight of waiting. My shoes are old and wearing through the bottoms, but again I begin. Beyond the airport doors waited the city’s broken walls, the millions who sleep on the street. Tired, without sleep, aware of the world I left behind, the world I was about to step into, I left the airport’s bright lights and glossy tiles and rode out into India. There are so many brave people living on India’s streets, each day not knowing where or how their food will come, how they will meet with illness or loss. Continuously, I am reminded here of the need to step beyond my own lack of faith, to be brave–to better understand the need around me and to listen for the voices that help me understand and how to serve out of my own depths the world around me.
The poems in the volume embody faith in periods of grief and loss, a willingness to bear that loss in order to find a way through it. I learn from the poetry in this book, and am changed. Samaras’s poems are more than descriptive words with an insightful message. They have soul. The poems in the book speak to each other in a way other poetry books I’ve read do not. The poems echo off and weave back into each other. They breathe together, become more than they were individually. These are poems whose words hold integrity, life and spirit. They help us find how to bear the hard things of this world. By example, they demonstrate poetry’s power to show us our humanity and bring us back to ourselves. Reading the poems in Nicholas Samaras’s Hands of the Saddlemaker calls me to live more deeply, to feel gratitude for the many small joys of our existence. There is a humility present in the spirit that comes through the writing at the same time that the writing demonstrates mastery and beauty. Such writing is rare, and to read it is a wonderful gift.
Abril venia, lleno
todo de flores amarillas
amarillo el arroyo
amarillo el vallado, la colina,
el sementario de los ninos
el huerto aquel donde el amor vivia.
El sol unjia de amarillo el mundo,
con sus luces caidas;
!ay, por los lirios aureos, el agua de oro, tibia;
las amarillas mariposa
sobre las rosas amarillas!
Guirnaldas amarillas escalaban
los arboles; el dia
era una gracia perfumada de oro
en un dorado despertar de vida.
Entre los huesos de los muertos,
abria Dios sus manos amarillas.
I’ve loved this poem by Jimenez since the moment I first read it several years back. I love the rhythm and the way Jimenez uses repetition. I love how the sound of the poem read in Spanish so perfectly complements the ideas. It is fully beautiful; beautiful like spring.
Bee on flower, Delhi
Butterfly and yellow garden, Delhi
YELLOW SPRING Juan Ramon Jimenez
April came, all
filled with yellow flowers.
Yellow the stream,
yellow the fence, the hill,
the children’s cemetery
the orchard where once love bloomed.
The sun anointed the world yellow in its fallen light; Oh! for the haloed irises, the gold-lit water, warm; the yellow butterflies over the yellow roses! Yellow garlands scale the trees; the day is a grace perfumed with gold, in a golden awakening of life. Between the bones of the dead, God opens his hands of yellow.
Yellow wasn’t my favorite color growing up, though it was my younger sister’s. She looked terrific in yellow, wore it often, and her room was yellow as well. Yellow was a nice enough color, but somehow too bright, too loud like brass horns. Over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate the color yellow. When you see wide fields of sunflowers blanketing rolling hills in Italy, holding their golden faces to the summer sun, their beauty and the way they lift the heart can’t be denied. Similarly, when walking down Sorrento’s streets with gold and ochre painted buildings sitting above the sea, and lemon groves growing on the hills, the lovely tablecloths and ceramics with lemon designs displayed in shops along with Sorrento’s appreciation of limoncello, it’s easy to grow an affection for the color yellow.
Because I’m currently writing poems about food, I’m also exploring some of their history and stories and the lemon has an interesting history. I grew up associating the fruit with California, as it is a citrus, and California is noted for its citrus groves that date back to the 1840’s in Los Angeles area, though citrus fruits were first brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. The word is of Persian origin, limun, and entered English through Old French, limon, related to the Italian limone. My parents had a lemon tree growing at our house when I was a child, along with a grove of orange trees.
I also associate lemons with the Mediterranean because of the fairly warm climate there. Its origins are further east, however. Though its exact origins are a bit unclear, they are thought to be India, the country where I currently spend most of my year, in the Assam region near the Chinese border. Over time, the fruit made its way into Persia and then on to the Mediterranean, carried by Arab traders into the Middle East, North Africa, and then southern Italy before entering the rest of Europe during the time of the Crusades . At first, the lemon was used as an ornamental plan as well as medicinally. Currently, according to the New World Encyclopedia, Italy and the US are the world’s leading lemon producers.
My husband’s grandmother drank a glass of lemon juice with water in the morning to aid digestion. The fruit’s juice has antibacterial qualities, and is thought to be good for the skin. It also tastes incredibly delicious in homemade lemon pasta (see a recipe here) that I’ve made together with my husband. If you happen to be in Rome, aim to try eating the lemon pasta at Vladimiro Ristorante, Marcello, 39 06481 94 67 Via Aurora 37 (Via Veneto), 00187 Rome, Italy. The sauce of rich cream with lemon is truly memorable.
In addition to all mentioned previously, Citrino is my surname, which I believe means yellow like the stone, citrine. Possibly the surname means citrus, though, too, as the origin of the English word citrus is Latin and refers to the citron tree, and the citron tree has a fascinating history. You might be most familiar with the citron fruit as part of fruitcake you’ve eaten. The LA Times writer, Jeff Spurrier, explains in his article, “Growing the etrog citron, A tree full of symbolism” that the “etrog citron (Citrus medica) is a fruit with thousands of years of human use.” Originally also from India’s Assam region, the citron is a separate species from the lemon according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Helena Atlee in her book, The Land Where Lemons Grow: the Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit, explains how the citron fruit is used in the Jewish observance of Sukkot and is one the oldest of cultivated citrus trees. According to Spirrier’s article mentioned above in the LA Times, archeologist found the citron’s seeds in Mesopotamia dating back 8,000 years. The citron may even have been the fruit referred to in the story of the garden of Eden, not the apple! A thorny tree, the citron grown in Italy is from the region between Tortora and Diamante, an area that is even referred to as the “Citron Riviera.” You can read more about this plant and its history here, and even more here with a detailed horticultural origin analysis if you’re curious.
Especially noted for its wonderful scent, Atlee, in her book, The Land Where Lemons Grow, describes her attempt to make a broth with the citron following Apicus’s ancient recipe. Not willing to sacrifice the entire fruit to the broth, she cut off the fruit’s tip and suddenly, she noticed the air was “drenched with perfume. By cutting the rind I had released essential oils from the pores just beneath its surface, and the smell of violets that comes from a citron’s outer skin had been replaced by a scent reminiscent of crushed geranium leaves in the sun, mixed as ever, with warm but indefinable spices.” Reading that description made me want to travel to find the fruit just so I could smell it!
Though the tree is too bushy to provide shade, though its is wood brittle and not good for building or adequate for burning, though its fruit isn’t particularly pleasant to eat, and though it fails at possessing qualities for most any practical use, it does have something nearly miraculous going for it, Atlee explains. It produces its huge globes of fruit at the same time it bears “a full cargo of beautiful flowers.” Not only that, wood, flowers and fruit, in essence, the whole of the tree is perfumed, and the fruit seems to never decay–all qualities giving it interest and respect from ancient people.”(The Land Where Lemons Grow) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, citron was the first citrus fruit cultivated in the West.
Another type of citron with additional unique qualities is the Buddha’s Hand citron which has multiple finger-like sections, somewhat resembling a flower. The fruit appears in paintings on India’s Ajanta cave walls. It, too, isn’t a fruit with much to offer regarding taste, though some research supports its medicinal benefits demonstrate it contains anti-cancerous, and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as possibilities to slow the development of both Alzheimer’s and diabetes. (See more here.) Though fussy about its conditions, the citron is a unique food with a fascinating history and I will have to search out finding one. Luckily, I’ve discovered someone in my county is growing them and they are for sale at Santa Cruz County farmers’ markets!
I am grateful to those who first carried the seeds for these fruits to their homelands in the Middle East, and the gifts they have been to so many for so many centuries. The interconnections between India, Italy and California in the history of lemons and citrons, are surprising and wonderful to learn. The discovery makes me curious about what other ways our lives are connected beyond the boundaries of what we know or understand.
“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”– Wendell Berry
In a few weeks I will be back home in California and able, once again, to walk out my door onto the earth and stand in the garden. I will pick berries and pull weeds, prune and plant. Growing a garden connects us directly to the earth. To garden is to learn something of what the earth needs and to care for it–to have a relationship with the earth and to love it. I miss that garden, that particular piece of earth. If earth is our mother, then I am its child, and sometimes I just want to go home–home to that particular landscape that looks and smells like home, where I have dug and weeded and planted, have walked many times–where I’ve given the trees names. When I go home, I will look out my window to see trees and mountains. I will be surrounded by nature. What a gift that is to the soul; what a pleasure to walk through greenery in forests and wild places.
But all this is still a few weeks away. For now, I am still in India. Last week was labor day holiday, and I took a short trip with friends to Musoorie, a city in the Himalaya foothills, a hill station resting at 6,500 feet, and place with roots from the time of the British Raj that is today popular with honeymooners. A walk along Camelback Road, brought views of iris growing wild on the forest covered hills, steep valleys, and the snowcapped Himalaya in the distance. We arrived during a rain storm, and the following morning, the sky was as blue as I’ve seen skies get in India. Tree leaves literally glowed in the light. This is the India I love to be in, the mountains, where the urban coat can be cast off, and the world’s natural form emerges. I felt myself alive again, filled with a sense of wholeness, looking out at the world in wonder.
Often after being out in nature, I feel more whole, as if I have returned to myself, as if in some odd way I’m being healed even though I may not have been particularly aware that I was “ill.” Since returning to Delhi, I’ve come across an Atlantic Monthly article explaining new research showing how, as the article’s title says, “Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” People who can view nature from their windows after operations generally recover more quickly, for example. “The business of everyday life — dodging traffic, making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers — is depleting, and what man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back,” reports Adam Alter. The theory for how nature does this is called Attention Restoration Therapy, Alter explains. Human made environments ramp up our attention. Nature, on the other hand, asks little of us, and therefore calms our attention. The Japanese, the article goes on to say, have long advocated what they term forest bathing– long walks amongst trees, breathing in the wooded air, and the research on the effects of this activity “compared with people who walked through urban areas, shinrin-yoku patients had lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and lower cortisol levels, a marker of reduced stress.” That’s pretty nice! You don’t have to go to Japan to experience forest bathing, however. People in California, are promoting this idea as well, and you can head out into any forest. The idea, according to Brian Wu of the LA Times, is to go slowly, not walking more than three miles in four hours, take rests as you like, drink water or green tea, read.
Going to the mountains, or going to the garden. As it turns out, gardening, too, is good for the soul. Sue, Stuart-Smith, in her Telegraph article, “Horticultural therapy: ‘Gardening makes us feel renewed inside,” suggest that when we plant seeds we interact with the earth in a way that binds us to the mystery of how a seed produces life and our minds connect that with the mystery of our own lives. When gardening, one learns the importance of cutting away and pruning, of digging and weeding–all metaphors for what we must do in our own lives if we are to nurture what it is we have as seeds within us that want to grows.
American culture seems filled with the notion of getting somewhere, setting goals, becoming somebody. We get caught in the stimulus, the distraction of competition. After a while, however, this all grows tiring or we can lose track of who are, what we care most about. We lose our zest for life and get caught up in trying to make our mark or make a living, when we’re not actually living very much. Instead, we are walking through one procedure to the next, only partly alive. Feeling this sadness, this loss, however can be a very good thing as it can lead us back to ourselves. Wendell Berry writes,
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
As Berry implies, obstacles and questions we don’t have answers for can help us find what makes us sing. When we open ourselves to the Mystery, or to mysteries bigger than our own life, we can experience how everything that is worth something in life isn’t necessarily connected to our effort or accomplishment. Our life stream wants to move from behind the dam that blocks it. It wants to flow, and confronting the question of why it isn’t can help us find they way to let our lives sing again.
The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, in his book The Heart is Noble, writes, “The particular profession or job you do is not the most important factor…Whatever work you do, you have to give yourself opportunities to just be. Even if it is only once a day, you should find a moment to just be yourself in the course of each day. This could be through a short period of meditation or quiet reflection in the morning or the evening, or in whatever way best suits you. The point is to reconnect with yourself. Otherwise, the whole day you are running around and busy, and it is easy to lose yourself. To guard agains this, you should make efforts to return to yourself and recollect what is essential for you.”
Whether it be forest bathing, gardening, or painting on pottery–as I have done this afternoon–whatever it is, let us find those things that return us to ourselves, that allow our hearts to sing so that when we come to the end of our day or days, we will find that we have lived, we have truly lived.