poetry, Uncategorized

Seen and Heard


A great man was coming to visit, was going to step inside our walls, walk inside our rooms. We had prepared ourselves as best we could–put on clean clothes and shoes, combed our hair, opened our faces into smiles. Some us stood in a line at the door with palms held open, expectantly waiting. All eyes turned toward the light streaming into the narrow passageway from outside where the man would step into the room we prepared for him decorated with white satin and gold colored cloth draped from the walls. His foot paused in the doorway, and one thousand four hundred of us fell silent. We knew it was a rare moment.

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Dalai Lama, photo by Mark Cowlin

At last he walked in, wearing his red robe and glasses. All rose in unison, except those who could not. When the 98 year old woman sitting in her wheel chair saw him, she threw up her arm and called out “Where have you been?” into the expectant silence.

“Right here in the world, with you,” said the Dalai Lama, as he bent and bowed before her, holding her hand.

When he turned to the receiving line where I stood waiting, a voice inside called out silently (as I’m sure happen to all those near me) that he would look at me in the face, reach out his hand to mine, touch me, and in that touch somehow know me. Bless me. I didn’t want to press myself in front of others to be noticed. If he touched me, I reasoned, it would be his choice, and up to fate. Some people he did look at in the face and greet. Some, he touched their hand or head as he passed by. Others, faces glowing with the light of happiness, ended up in photographs.

 

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Dalai Lama, photo by HHDL office

 

Though he glanced at me briefly, he didn’t touch me or look straight into my eyes as I hoped for, however. Neither did I appear later in a photograph, though those on either side of me did. There is no photographic record of this encounter. No one will later know I was there unless someone later tells a story, as perhaps I’m telling you now, that includes my name. Though I was close to him, I was one the Dalai Lama passed by.

Why does that matter? Why did I want him to touch my hand? What did I, or any of us, hope to gain by his touch? What kind of connection or knowing might have occurred through that brief moment? I remember when president Obama visited Delhi several years back, how he and Michelle shook my hand. Though it was an encounter I never dreamed I would experience, I couldn’t exactly say after that that the experience had changed my life. Still, I felt somehow connected to my country in a more concrete way that I wasn’t previously aware of.

We all long to be known, to be visible, to matter. There is a kind of knowing when someone looks directly into our eyes and when we hold in ours the hand of a person we care about. Similarly, rather than merely gazing at photos of the home we love, we like to walk the land, hear the sounds, smell the earth. There is a felt presence and an exchange that occurs with physical reality, with touch. A thousand faces may stream by us in a subway tunnel, and we will not feel seen or known. A different kind of encounter occurs, when we gaze out at the world with an expectant heart, waiting to receive. We long for connection.

 

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Dalai Lama, photo by Eric Johnson

People recognize that the Dalai Lama is a man of integrity, someone who seeks to live in honesty and who has given himself over to be a living presence of peace. That is difficult, and we all know it. We want to listen to such a man. He might have something to say that will help us understand how to live. We want to look in his eyes, to touch us, because in some unspoken way, we recognize that our lives connect when we touch. Maybe something of that peace will enter into our own lives and change us.

We know when a loved one is present in a room when we first open a door, though we can’t see the person. When I was injured in college, my mother half way across the country woke in the night and knew something had happened to me. She also knew her brother had died before she was told. The body has a kind of knowing that moves through the heart.

We’re told of how when he was here on earth, people clambered around Jesus, hoping to touch him. Perhaps you recall the story of the woman who amidst the crowd reached to touch the hem of Jesus’s clothes, believing that if she did so, her life would be changed. I picture her threading her way through bodies, stretching her hand to reach the hem of his clothes from a stair below as he passed by. Though the crowd pressed in around him, Jesus noticed her, and turned around to see who it was. He must have looked into her eyes directly, recognized her in the vulnerability and longing revealed in her face. “Take heart,” he told her, her faith had made her whole. There is an interconnection, an exchange of energy, when hearts open. Some door opens that isn’t there otherwise, some liminal curtain is pulled back. An exchange happens. Lives connect. Perhaps this is how miracles are able to occur.

Where have we been all our lives? We are here in the world with each other. We have something to give one another, and the world around us in the open heart of our presence. The evening I first went out with the man who is now my husband, he told me at dinner as we watched rain dripping down the crystals at the now burned down Triton restaurant in San Diego, “The world is held together by strands of light.” We are more than the sum of our bones, body and breath, but through these, we touch life.

What we are living is mostly a mystery. We need containers to allow ways in to experience. But the real knowing spills over and out of these. That is why we need art, poetry, dance, literature. E.O. Wilson speaks of how in the future humans will be more and more integrated with machines, and that is why we will need literature and the humanities more than ever–to help us explore that territory of what it means to be human with all its difficult questions.

Words can be a way of finding how to be present in the world, a pathway into letting the invisible become visible to us. Words are strands of light we make to help us see the world and who we are, what it is we are living. Here is my poem I wrote several years back, “Seen and Heard,” that appeared in my chapbook, Saudade about this practice of presence. We don’t have to be the Dalai Lama. Everyone we know and encounter, wants to know that somehow inside the press of the crowd and busyness of the day and its multitude of priorities, that it is still their presence matters most. In our look, we can bless. In a pause, the tone of our voice, we can bring peace. With a simple gesture or touch, we can lets others know they are seen and heard. Perhaps that, too, is the light that holds the world together.

Seen and Heard

As a child, I stared long at the hidden pictures
in children’s magazines, looking for the lamb
inside the cloud, the face inside a pleat or tree,
the button or missing bow that made one figure
different from another. What satisfaction
when I found them. How affirming it was
to know that all those little details, the small
realities of the world that begged to be seen
could be found, recognized, known.

Today when I peer out at the world, the picture
I see is workers, day after day rising with the sun
to start their tasks. They feed the fire or prepare
the mortar for the brick. Some lift bundled
branches to their shoulders. Some hammer nails
or paint the walls. Others sort through files, prepare
documents, answer calls, gather round tables,
or read books deep into the night.

We do our tasks, we make the rounds.
Still, things hide there inside the walls
and trees, pressed inside the body’s quiet
folds of those we meet, waiting
to be found if we know how to see.

Cezanne looked for them, the hidden forms—
the cylinder inside a tree, the sphere inside
the head, the geometry of nature, and though
his eyesight was weak, or perhaps
because of this, he found the hidden shapes
and painted them in plains of color
so the rest of us could find them.

Goya, too, painted the secrets others meant
to cloak, the fear inside the peasant with arms
uplifted, his white shirt glowing against
night’s darkness, the hidden faces of the men
turned away from view, their guns that showed
the world in thickly painted strokes the torment
of a deaf world.

We turn through the pages of time
and off we go each day to make our story,
paint our picture, lift our bricks, do our work.

Our eyesight is weak, our hearing faulty,
but we stare at the pages anyway, trying
to make sense of the world, hoping to find
the forms inside of forms, to hear the unspoken
voices or even our own voice inside
the night sky darkness we might be standing in.

There we are with our boards to nail, bushes
to trim, our books piled beside us—
with whatever it is we discover and make
and love our world with, our arms
thrust up to the heavens, hoping someone
will see us. Hear us. Hoping someone has looked
long enough, hard enough to recognize us
hiding there inside the pleats and paint of life.

 

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Climbing the Mountain of Uncertainty

I’ve done a number of challenging things over the years, at least they were challenging for me. One summer I biked up the west coast of Ireland with my husband, nephew, and two other friends. The most difficult day was biking from Galway to the ferry take off point for the Aran Islands. When we started out, it was raining hard. We crouched behind a bus stop wall as we left the city, watching the rain blow horizontally, hoping it would let up. When we could tell that it wasn’t going to, we pushed out into the wind, riding against it the whole way, making it to the ferry five minutes before it took off. After another fourteen miles of riding once we landed on the islands, we arrived at our bed and breakfast. There, I opened up the bicycle guidebook to read that the ride we had just done should the easiest day of riding up the coast, as it was flat. Obviously, this statement didn’t account for riding into a fierce oncoming wind and driving rain the entire way. What seems like it should be easy can actually be quite difficult.

Several years back my husband and I climbed Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 4,095.2m or 13,435.7ft. The climb up takes hours–most of the day, as I recall, and you pass through several ecosystems as you rise in altitude. Then you stay the night in bunks at the guest house, and rest up a bit before getting up at 3:00am to climb the rest of the way to the top so that you can be there soon after the sun rises, and before the mists engulf the peak. Because you are climbing in altitude, it can be slow and difficult walking once you are at about 10,00 ft. We made it to the top, and the views were truly stunning as the mists rolled into the sun and over the pointed granite peaks and saddles. We began the descent as the mists thickened into cloud, and the clouds began to rain. The walk up to the peak the second morning, and then back down the mountain again took nine hours, and was the most physically difficult thing I ever did. The trail up and down the mountain is made of steps of varying height, and we were walking down them in what eventually became torrential rain. For hours I didn’t know if I would be able to carry on putting one foot in front of the other. There were no rest stop areas, however. What could we do but continue on? So we did. It amazed me how when it had to, the body could move beyond what I thought was its absolute limit.

But challenging as these things were, these physical experiences were, they weren’t the most difficult thing to bear. The most difficult thing I’ve done was sitting by my father’s side day after day the month that he lay dying—knowing he was dying, and just sitting with him, being with him as he climbed the highest mountain, and continued on through the rain and wind, to cross over to the other side.

In California, it has finally begun to rain after months of winter filled with drought. In Montana it is truly winter. Today as I bicycle through our New Delhi neighborhood, the sky has a hint of blue after months of pollution and fog. I glide past smoke from burning heaps of garbage, and women crouched over blankets spread out on the sidewalk, sorting grain, and children playing cricket in the streets. I think of the estimated 100,000 who live on the streets in Delhi.

When someone we know is dying, or suffering, and we don’t know what the end of it will be, we feel open, raw, and especially aware of how frail our strengths really are—how fragile the line between life and death. All we have and are could change so easily, and it has made me realize how every day our very breathing is a kind of sacrament. Our life is and becomes day by day what we are paying attention to. It is what we open our hearts to, how we are listening to the people around us, to their spirit, and what is being said underneath the words.

Or not. Many people from developed countries are removed enough from the suffering in the world to remain comfortable while others in many other places suffer. Ilya Kaminsky in his poem “We Lived Happily During the War” talks about how those who are well off in the world hear the suffering around us, or see it, and feel badly about it—enough to protest, yet still we are able to sit outside on the porch in the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

In this life there is suffering. We might be from the great country of money, but everyone suffers. We might be comfortable now, but in actually, we don’t know what the future will bring. We spend so much effort trying to make ourselves comfortable, aiming to fend off suffering. Suffering comes to all. How will respond when it does?

Recently, a friend of ours who seemed perfectly healthy began to have prolonged unexplained fevers. In the hospital, he learned a rare bacterial infection nearly claimed his life. We don’t know what is in our future. I want the people I ride by on my bicycle, and the people I meet to be well. I want those I love and know to be well, to be whole. There is so much suffering in this city, so many needy, and as I think about and see those who are suffering, I feel each time I’m being asked how am I responding to the needs of the world? Even the planet suffers. What is the suffering telling us? Can we hear what it is telling us about our choices? How can we be whole inside of and in spite of our suffering?

This past week I read these words by Henri Nouwen, “Gentleness is a virtue hard to find in a society that admires toughness and roughness. We are encouraged to get things done and to get them done fast, even when people get hurt in the process. Success, accomplishment, and productivity count. But the cost is high. There is no place for gentleness in such a milieu…Gentle is the one who is attentive to the strengths and weaknesses of the other and enjoys being together more than accomplishing something.” As Nouwen suggests, ours is a society that admires toughness and roughness, values getting things done over being present with another, over listening. Do we counteract suffering by taking action, making change? Maybe the place to start is by being gentle, keeping an open heart, deep listening, presence—these are not easy qualities to cultivate, yet in our deepest selves, we long to know that we truly matter. So much suffering begins, continues on, and expands even into violence because people do not feel that they truly matter, do not feel that their life rests in the heart of someone else who holds them precious. Again, as Nouwen says, “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Do we have the courage to be gentle? Can we hold it above productivity and success, above accomplishment? Can we learn to be humble?  We don’t necessarily have to have answers, we can simply sit with another in shared awareness of  helplessness. That can be powerful, even life changing.

How do we know what path to follow in the days we have remaining on earth to live, so that when we come to the end of our days, we will be able to climb the mountain, or find our selves able to keep peddling into the wind and the rain though we feel our legs are leaden, so that we can find the boat that will carry us onward? How easily we get thrown off track of what is important, pulled in to world of worrying about the uncertainties. Thomas Merton in his book, Thoughts on Solitude, suggests that we don’t have to have all the answers. In his prayer, he says, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” We don’t have certainty. Even Jesus’s own disciples asked who Jesus was. And they walked and lived with him. All of us are incomplete. The path we walk isn’t about achievement or accomplishment. It is about walking the path—the journey. It is in our reaching out in the intention to love, to be, and to be made whole that matters in spite of our questions and uncertainty, our incompleteness.

I noticed the trees were filled with leaves today as I rode down the streets, biking not necessarily to anywhere, just weaving back and forth along the pavement, practicing what it is to move, to be alive in this moment just as it is. Breathing in, I said to myself, “peace,” as I lifted my leg on the pedal. Breathing out I thought, “blessings.” Blessings on those around me who suffer. Blessings on the world that suffers because we don’t know how to be gentle. Blessings to all of us traveling from uncertainty to uncertainty.

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The Value of Waiting

“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during the month of February wild iris grow in ribbons of purple across the desert in an area called Tumair. They open between 1:00 and 2:00 in the afternoon. Not before. You can light a flame near them, shine bright lights near them, but they don’t open before it’s their time. There are things you can control, and things you can’t. It’s good to know the difference. From nature we learn that all things have a natural timing. Seasons are cyclical. Most of us find it difficult to wait for things we long for. We don’t like waiting for a web site to load up on the computer, we don’t like waiting in lines or in traffic. We eat on the run. Making things go fast is important to so many so much of the time but learning to wait is also both important and undervalued.

Before Christmas this year, I woke early, the room still full of darkness, and I remember how when I was a child I would wake several times in the night, wondering if it was Christmas morning yet. Though we don’t have a Christmas tree in our house, as a child, I loved lying under the tree in the evenings when the colored lights were on. I would peer up through the branches with the tensile and decorations and imagining the thoughts of the tree when it lived in the forest, and then the thoughts it had as it stood in our living room. One of the best parts of Christmas, though, was waiting for Christmas day to arrive. At our house, we put the packages under the tree ahead of time. As we sat around the Christmas tree in the evenings, we could see all the packages, but we knew we couldn’t open them. We had to wait. When I think of it now, perhaps one of the things that made Christmas was so special was the waiting for it to arrive.

This year, a friend gave us a wreath. I didn’t know much about the tradition of a wreath earlier, but have been reading and learning more about them and how they are connected to the season of advent in the Christian church, as well as that of pre-Christian traditions to represent the cycle of seasons and of life’s presence in the midst of winter. This wisdom is a helpful one to nurture and practice, as it provides a structure in which to consciously practice how to wait. Waiting is an important part of understanding something’s value. In his essay, “The End of Advent” that I recently read in The Best American Spiritual Writing, Joseph Bottum, described Christmas as a season of “anticipation run amuck, like children so sick with expectation that the reality, when at last it arrives, can never be satisfying.” Most of us want to live a life that is satisfying. Our life situations are constantly changing. We have to be flexible and be able to stick with difficult situations, how to wait them out, in order to better understand how to live happily and well. You may have heard of the marshmallow experiment at Stanford where researchers gave children a marshmallow with a choice to either have one immediately or wait longer and be able to get two. The researchers followed up with the children latter, and those who were able to resist had SAT scores that were “on average, 210 points higher than those of those who waited only 30 seconds.” That’s astonishing, and it suggests that those who can think about the choices, and those who practice learning how to wait have nurtured an important character trait that can help them in life.

Connecting the idea of impulsive behavior and the inability to wait to the world at large, we are all aware of the way our modern life has used natural resources without restraint causing widespread environmental problems such as deforestation and desertification. Perhaps our desire and systematic use of these resources without restraint or adequate consideration of the long term effect on the world or our lives are our metaphorical marshmallow. With the ecological problems we are facing today, restraint could be a very good quality to practice that over time could create a shift in consciousness that would create a healthier environment for both us and for the planet.

Genesis tells us the earth was formed in darkness. The Celts told stories in the dark half of the year. Darkness, an organic pace of growth, waiting—these are all qualities associated with creativity. Currently, I’ve been working on a series of related narrative poems about immigrants from Calabria, in southern Italy, to San Francisco during the early 1900’s. The writing has required research about the time period, culture, and the locations of both Calabria and San Francisco. It’s a challenging, engaging and new kind of writing for me, and many times I have written into a situation where I’m not sure where to go next. Many of the poems in the series are told through the point of view of a particular person, and I’ve had to push deeply into the imagination to try and grasp the meaning that might emerge from a life dealing with the particular historical problems or relationship issues a particular poem explores. Finding what will work best for the poem means being open to a variety of possibilities and trying them out. There is a spectrum of possible ways to develop an idea, and to dig into the inner core of what situations or events suggest so that they reveal a deeper meaning in the writing that is honest and true takes time. Sometimes a piece needs to sit for days, weeks, or even months before the way through to completion appears. Other times the whole form needs to be altered, or entire sections cut out. When you are creating something you care about, what matters is not the speed at which the task is accomplished, but the quality of the work. Forcing the creativity to come out usually results in ruining or breaking the work. Perseverance is essential to the creative act. You have to put in the time but the path towards the end product isn’t typically a direct line. You also need to nurture the environment that will enable the idea to emerge, and then let it surface.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh said, “The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.” Essentially, the creative act requires a kind of waiting for a gift from the sea. You do your work, practice your skill, you prepare, but you also need to hold a receptive mind, and this involves active observation, purposeful noticing, listening deeply and staying attune to what’s coming up from the questions you hold, play as well as time away from the work itself. I recall Naomi Shihab Nye’s quote on the Bill Moyer’s Language of Life series where she is talking to a group of young writers and says something about how you may be writing your poem thinking you are going to church and it takes you to the dog races instead. You have to listen to the writing, the work and tune your ear so you can learn to understand what it is telling you it needs. Even with years of practice and study, this takes time to learn.

When making a speech or delivering a monologue or a joke, we are aware of the value of the pregnant pause. Timing, waiting is important and can make the delivery of the message more powerful. Restraint, learning to wait is a practice that in time, brings fruit we benefit from both individually and collectively. Its a new year. It seems a good season for planting the seeds for that fruit.

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Remembering How to See

“But what the poets sees with his always new vision is not what is “imaginary”; he sees what others have forgotten how to see. The poet is always inadvertently stripping away the veils and showing us his reality. Many poets, as we know, go mad because they cannot bear the worlds of illusion and falsehood in which most human beings spend their lives.” – Karl Shapiro, “What is Not Poetry?”

Writing is a way of getting to the truth of what I see, a way to peal back the layers, to ask what is this I have experienced,  how do I name it, what is its essence? There are two kinds of knowing–the experience itself, and then the re-experiencing when in the act of writing. Writing  allows me to burrow in to the original experience and know it more completely. The experiences I have nurture ideas for writing, and the writing enriches and deepens the experience. The two things are intimately intertwined.

Writing poetry is a way to keep alive, to keep in touch with the mystery. Wanting to name the mystery doesn’t lessen it, instead it helps to increase its wonder. I want to always be filled with wonder like I was as a child looking out the window of the house my father built at the sea of fog as it filled the valley below leaving islands of hills. The hills and the fog were not just objects with names, they were part of a geography that absorbed me into itself and defined me.

“The poet,” Shapiro says,”sees what others have forgotten how to see. “How do people arrive at the place where they forget how to see? How do I live in such a way that I am not asleep, so that I nurture the eyes and ears of the heart?

When I write, I am try to see with eyes open, to understand, to touch the live nerve where life touches the bone so that I know what my experiences are trying to say to me about how to live. If I want to write well, I must listen intently to the life around me and live with an attitude of vulnerability and humility. I can’t allow myself to get wrapped up in the desire to have a name, status, power, or be concerned with the competition or what others say about my work. Focusing on how people might perceive me or my work, would drain the real strength of my work and effort. It would distract, from the goal of writing itself, and get in the way of seeing and understanding that makes for good writing. The important thing is the work of writing, and to find as I write how to draw closer to being able to say what can’t be said–to stand inside the holy space of life. I must live leaning in to my experiences, looking, listening–then write what I see and hear, including the questions.

Our culture is very interested in competition and position, making it difficult to keep focused on the work of living deeply and writing honestly. A poet must be fully immersed in the world, seeing it, knowing it, but at the same time outside of it. As Shapiro goes on to say in the same essay, “Whenever the poet is not “oned” with the experience we can always detect the forcing, the insincerity.” It is this oneness with our experiences and with the world that allows us to know we are alive, and opens the door for us to experience meaning.