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.”

Uncategorized

Finding Ourselves and the Poetry of Maria Mazziotti Gillan

While looking for new ideas for teaching poetry this past week, I discovered a wonderful writer, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, an Italian American poet whose poetry recreates scenes with such vivid detail that you are literally inside the setting with her, living what it is she relates. In her poem, “My Daughter at 14: Christmas Dance,” Gillan puts the reader directly into the scene and the mind of a mother’s discussion with her daughter about her daughter’s experience at a dance. You feel the tension the mother experiences in wanting to support her daughter as at age 14, she learns to navigate emotions and relationships. While reading, you’re firmly aware of the difficulty and tension the mother experiences as she walks the line between affirming and cautioning her daughter.

We ride through the rain-shining 1 A.M.
streets. I bite back words which long
to be said, knowing I must not shatter your
moment, fragile as a spun-glass bird,

you, the moment, poised on the edge of
flight, and I, on the ground, afraid.

photo-8
Alberico Gaetano Pacifico Citrino with son

You feel the human dilemma poignantly in this poem–the difficulty and challenge in knowing how to understand the needs of the situation and to love another in a way that allows freedom and growth–blossoming, rather than fear.

In another of her poems, “Betrayal,” Gillan describes a daughter’s embarrassment of her Italian-American father when she was younger, her mortification at his yellow teeth, how he drank coffee from a saucer, and how he didn’t speak standard English. Then, as a grown woman, the tables are turned, and the daughter’s son finds her embarrassing and tells her so. The daughter remembers an earlier moment in her youth and how she treated her father,

 

I was sixteen when you called one night from your work.
I called you “dear,”
loving you in that moment
past all the barriers of the heart.
You called again every night for a week.
I never said it again.
I wish I could say it now.

Dear, my Dear,
with your twisted tongue,
I did not understand you
dragging your burden of love.

It takes most of us a long time to truly hear each other, to comprehend others’ lives on a deeper level. A recurring theme in Gillan’s poems is the theme of shame about social class, and how that gets in the way of understanding each other. It has been years since the last time I read Dickens’ Great Expectations, but after reading Gillan’s poems this past week, I am reminded of scenes from the Dickens’ novel where Pip, too, is ashamed of his father. Pip, an orphan, also was raised in a working class family. He gains education through the generous gift of anonymous benefactor (that happens to be a convict, though he doesn’t know it at the time) and with that education, a growing sense of shame for his humble social class origins develops. “I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too,” Pip explains. His stepfather, Joe, dearly loves Pip, but with Pip’s growing sense of status and pride, he finds his relationship with Joe awkward and visits less and less often. It’s not until much later, when he learns who his benefactor is that Pip is able to move beyond his false sense of self, and build a view of the world that enables him to move beyond his fixation on relationships where he projects on to them his own desires for status and power and that caused him suffering. Gillan’s poems, too, demonstrate the kind of understanding about the self and others that comes through time,  experience, and suffering that allows empathy to grow.

The most powerful of Gillan’s poems that I read this past week was her poem, “Daddy We Called You.” The visual details in the writing are perfectly chosen to help the reader envision the scene of the daughter in the poem speaking with her boyfriend under a streetlamp light while never aknowledging her father’s presence as stands nearby at the bus stop, waiting for a bus to take him home from work. The daughter is ashamed of her father’s inability to speak standard English, embarrassed of his being an unskilled laborer in a world that honors status. Now, as an adult looking back at everything her papa did, the daughter recognizes the love her father had for her and for the family. That love was the foundation beneath her father’s life. Gillan portrays so well the kind of commitment fathers of this generation often had to their families–a commitment not given in words but lived out in faithful dedication to providing for their families, often through difficult physical work.

John Peter Citrino
John Peter Citrino

The final lines of “Daddy We Called You” demonstrate the awareness that time brings the daughter in this poem as she sees beneath her father’s actions to the heart of who he is–the way he bore up under  hard work and difficulty because of his devotion to his family. The photos here in this post are from Citrino family history because these men, too, like my own father, and those in the Gillan’s poem, were fathers who worked long hours not for themselves and their own reputations, but out of love and dedication to their families–in order to give their children a chance to do something with their lives more than they themselves had the opportunity to do.

In a world today where money and status are power, Gillan affirms in this poem the dignity of those those around us who are often ignored because of their humble positions in life. Yet it is because power and status are not the center of their sense of self that these very people in their humility can, if we have eyes to see, restore us to a sense of what is truly valuable: our commitment to relationships with others. Humble people, those unconcerned with status and whose lives are not centered around their own egos and desires like the father in Gillan’s poem, treat others with love and respect even though people around them may ignore them and fail to return their love. This strength of character demonstrates a way of living and being that are sorely needed in our world. Gillan’s poem closes with these lines,

Papa,
silk worker,
janitor,
night watchman,
immigrant Italian,
better than any “Father Knows Best” father,
bland as white rice,
with your wine press in the cellar,
with the newspapers you collected
out of garbage piles to turn into money
you banked for us,
with your mouse traps,
with your cracked and calloused hands,
with your yellowed teeth.

Papa,
dragging your dead leg
through the factories of Paterson,
I am outside the house now,
shouting your name.

The daughter shouts the name aloud because she finally sees who he is; she proclaims his name unashamed, and sees who she is in relationship to her father. Both powerful and moving, the poem closes in a moment of redemption. Wholeness is restored.

You can hear Maria Mazziotti Gillan reading the audio version of this poem here. I recommend it. You can also read the full words of the poem here.

What is it we hold as most precious in our lives? What do we live for from day to day? Italian American immigrants were mostly illiterate. Their ambitions weren’t to make it rich. Their central value was relationship–to provide for their families. The table is the symbolic center of that life, a gathering round in appreciation of the sustenance that bonded them. Whatever our heritage, it is good to be reminded of our roots–the earth and the bounty given there that holds us up, and then enables us to hold each other. We hold each other as we stand beside each other through each difficulty life gives. We are present, affirming the value and gift in the presence of each other.

Why are these poems important–poems about immigrants, about Italian immigrants? Italian immigrants were one of the largest groups of immigrants to the U.S., and yet their story isn’t well known. But more than this, these poems are important because most of us today, live with a mix of cultures and social class all around us. At the same time, there is so much misunderstanding between cultures and the social classes. The German poet, Rilke said, “Love consists of this: two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.” We need these poems because we need to learn how to see past the media representations of the “other” and find how to be human together. We need to discover how to find and be our true selves underneath the weight of what we see in advertisements, propaganda or other projections of what we think we should be. “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation,” says Rilke. This is the true work of our lives, whatever it is we do or occupy ourselves with, and this is what Gillan’s poems reveal.