poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

A Visit from the Dalai Lama and 10,000 Shades of Blue

More important than what was recorded, these evenings
deepened my life: they framed every event

or thought and placed it with care by the others.
As time went on, that scribbled wall—even if
it stayed blank—became where everything
recognized itself and passed into meaning.

–William Stafford, “Keeping a Journal”

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“The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets,” says the Washington Post today, describing how the tech industry is working to improve the interactive quality of the voice and personalities behind the artificial intelligences we interact with on the Internet, like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. To do this, software engineers are turning more and more to poets, fiction writers and comedians in a new wave of jobs in artificial intelligence. Additionally, an article in Motherboard, Robots are coming for our poems,”now two years old, examples are given of robots co-authoring Shakespearian sonnets and haikus. An android learns the algorithms of language you give it, makes predictions about what words will be chosen over others, and uses these to write a poem. I don’t know the definition of “co-authored” as it is used in the context of the robot working together with a human, or how many trials it took to get a poem that feels cohesive and reads like a poem, but I enjoyed the sonnet, as well as a haiku a robot created that are included in the article.

Sasha Chapin’s article, “When robots write poetry,” written this past February, also describes how the algorithms are used that enable robots to write poetry. More interesting, however, is Chapin’s statement at the end of the article, “The coming artificial beings may love good poetry for the same reason we do: how it can seem to bridge the boundaries between consciousnesses. But they will possess a consciousness we couldn’t possibly understand. And when they write poetry, it will not be for us.”

While I question whether robots have consciousness, as Chapin implies, there is a difference between a living, human mind raising questions and pondering life and poetry artificial intelligence produces using algorithms, rather than conscious reflection. The Atlantic reports that number of non-book readers has tripled since 1978. Currently, I’m preparing to present a week long workshop on poetry and poetry writing with middle schoolers at ACS Hillingdon International School, a school just outside of London. As I consider what those students’ interests and concerns might be, I’m turning over the question in my mind, why is it we write for purposes other than to carry out necessary tasks, and in particular, what value does writing poetry hold?

Though  it may be helpful to learn that the job market is currently opening up for poets and fiction writers in the tech industry, there are deeper reasons to write and to read poetry, and these have to do with the poetry’s potential to connect us to the physical world, notice its mystery, and value its presence. If you’ve not seen this short TED talk about the worldwide telescope, it’s worth viewing. What Google earth has done to map the world is now being pieced together for the universe, enabling you to map your own virtual tour of the universe with images currently available. When I watched the talk and viewed the images, I felt humbled by the wonder of all that is—the immensity of creation and the miracle that I’m alive on this planet, existing amidst it all. Writing poetry is the opportunity to reflect on that wonder. Perhaps it’s interesting that a robot can write poetry, but how much more amazing it is to experience the poetry writing process yourself—to try and put words to what it means to be alive in this moment. As Salman Rushdie describes, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” That’s a challenging task, but certainly a valuable one.

Recently, the Dalai Lama visited the school where I work. During his talk to the student body, he repeatedly emphasized humanity’s interconnectedness with each other and with the natural world. A compassionate heart and a calm mind go together, he explained, and a disturbed mind affects the body. There’s hope for a more compassionate world if we make an attempt, he said. With anger, there is no hope, and he admonished us to make an effort.
With effort, this century can be a happy, a peaceful century, he explained. When there is too much stress, violence comes. Human rights violations are first emotional problems, he stated. Violence comes as a consequence of emotional problems. “We have to make an effort to promote more warm heartedness so there will be no opportunity to kill or bully, because we take care. No one can survive without community,” he said. Selfishness destroys your own happiness. “Society is the basis of our happy life, so we have to take care of society. West needs East. Southern and Northern worlds need each other—not this notion or that,” he said. Around us we see so much fear and distrust, yet friendship is dependent on trust, and trust is dependent on compassion, he explained. Narrow mindedness and shortsightedness brings disaster.

In aiming to build a compassionate world, poetry is a valuable asset. Poetry nurtures our inner life and helps us to understand what it means to be human and to stand in relation to the world around us. Robots might be able to write, but we are human. We want to know what that means—what we can give to the world to meet its deep need, and thereby meet our own deep desire to feel we belong in this world by knowing what we can give to it. Writing poetry, in its aim to find the best words to describe experience, requires observation and awareness, as well as reflection. Because the problems we face both individually and collectively are complex, the practices of observation, awareness are especially needed. Deep reflection, allows us to work out our connections to each other and to the natural world, along with the disconnects we experience in trying to do so. Deep reflection is the territory poetry explores.

Before Old French gave the English language the word “orange,” English speakers referred to the color as yellow-red, ġeolurēad in Old English, according to, Matt Soniak, writer for Mental Floss. It’s not that orange didn’t exist before we had the word, but having the word created a clearer picture of the idea. Tech Insider the origins of another color, blue in this video, demonstrating that without a word for something we physically experience, such as the color blue, people have significant difficulty recognizing it. This phenomena emphasizes the benefit of both verbalizing what we are experiencing, as well as reflecting on those experiences in written words. Additionally, because languages have their own music and mirrors, reflecting the world in different ways, speaking and writing in more than one language expands the potential language has to enable us all to better understand ourselves and our interconnection to others and the world around us. If we are going to find how to live together peacefully, as the Dalai Lama suggested is both possible and important, we need tools to do so. Writing and poetry in specific, is a wonderful tool to use for this purpose. As T. S. Elliot said, “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”

It’s possible that one could sit with pen in hand or type at the computer, and plod mindlessly through a series of steps or items and produce writing. I’ve read this kind of writing before. But if taken to heart, writing can be a tool that enables the mind to unwind its string of thoughts and make patterns that hold meaning and change our lives both individually and collectively. Poetry and literature is our attempt to explore the meaning of being human. As Barry Lopez, explains, “I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one’s life. Wherever I’ve traveled–Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan–I’ve found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” We need stories, and poetry. They are our thread through the labyrinth of existence.

While diving in the Maldives a few weeks back, the boat I was living on passed over and past 10,000 shades of blue—blues we have no word for. I found a wonderful color palate for different shades of blue, along with their names on Wikipedia, but though many colors are represented here, it falls far short of what the eye actual sees—the way the white-blue sky bends down into the sea and becomes the sea, for example, or the depth of blue reaching for infinity behind the shoals of yellow, white and black banner fish, along with all the subtle gradations between shades of turquoise as water shallows and then brushes against white sand shores. To try and name any of the experiences we have is to call them, again, into existence, and to share with others what moves us, and what is meaningful–this is what poets aim to do. It is the focus and goal of their efforts, even though what we hold most precious is often beyond naming. “The power of poetry,” says Michael Lewis, “is the ability to express the inexpressible, and to express it in terms of the unforgettable.”

If we are to build a compassionate world, we need to be able to recognize how to nurture our lives and wellbeing of the world around us. We need to be able to reflect on our lives. In his poem, “Keeping a Journal,” William Stafford, identifies the value of writing in his closing lines when he explains how through the process of writing he found his journal to be a place where “everything/recognized itself and passed into meaning.” To speak with an open heart in a journal or a poem takes courage, but in doing so, we can gain insight into ourselves and our relationship to the world, insight that can enable us to transform the way we live and interact. Writing poetry helps open our eyes and reach for meaning. As David Whyte says in his poem, “The Opening of Eyes”

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

We write and our lives are deepened. This is what is important about poetry—it teaches us how we can live.

Uncategorized

Dancing Into Dimminishment

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You may have seen 81 year old Sarah Paddy Jones dance the tango with Nico Espinosa and astonish crowds in Madrid, or on stage in Britain’s Got Talent for the fact that she is old and is yet able to do things that people even much younger than her can’t do. It’s amazing and inspiring to watch the grace and flexibility of these dancers. Ms. Jones has followed her passion, and worked very hard to be able to dance with such strength and beauty. Being tossed around over someone’s body and sliding across the floor with ease isn’t the norm, though probably, more elderly people might be able to move fluidly if they worked at building their strength and simply moved more often. Do we especially admire Ms. Jones, however, not because she dances well, but mostly because she is moving like a younger person would? Even with great determination, would such a dream of dancing like Ms. Jones be possible for many of those who might desire to dance like her at her age? When Ms. Jones comes on stage, the judges look highly doubtful of her ability. After they see what she can do, however, they praise her for her ability to move like a younger person. Ms. Jones is following her heart’s calling, and it’s wonderful to see her moving inside the flow of dance. Is emulating the ability of younger people, however, what older people should in general aspire to? Ms. Jones found in dance what feeds her heart and deepens her soul, and this is the reason to honor her efforts. This is what we, too, can follow into old age–the thread of who we are, so that we ripen further into what brings us wholeness. Nevertheless, while I marvel at Ms. Jones and admire her skill, I also wonder about our expectations of others and of ourselves as we age. We can’t always fix what wears out as we get older, and eventually, our bodies do wear out. It’s also important to recognize that aging and the narrowing of our powers is a normal part of everyone’s life. While we should still stretch to deepen our lives, it also might be important to understand who we are as we get older, and to move toward developing more of that, rather than emulating what younger people do, even if it’s what our culture applauds.

Diminishment comes in myriad forms. It’s not something we we want to think about or accept–losing our job, our health, a friend, a family member, our home, our country. Individually and collectively we define what quality of life means, and set our life compasses to move in that direction. What is the attitude and focus that engenders ongoing engagement and satisfaction in life, that creates wholeness all the way up to the end? We expand our understanding, develop new skills, polish others, yet for all this effort and growth, diminishment is still a destination we will all eventually arrive at before passing from this world, and we will need to understand how to stand in relationship it. How do we also learn to live into an era of loss, to accept weakness in ourselves, to invite and even welcome humility? What is the purpose of our life’s trajectory if in the end we lose everything? These are questions to live into.

Some time back, I saw this video shared on the Internet, of a man singing to his 92 year old wife on her death bed, and I thought, this couple has the something that keeps them whole, even through the stages of complete diminishment: They are fully alive to each other. I remember singing to my father as he lay dying, remember, too, reminding him of stories about things we did together, things he told me that he did when he was a child–climbing a windmill, running 16 miles through the forest at night because his feet were his only transport and he wanted to see my mother. As I watched my father during the evenings of his last days, the room seemed so utterly silent as he rested there, so still and unresponsive. As I now look back on this time, however, that experience of utter and complete silence has grown to seem significant. At the time, I so much wanted to feel the presence of something larger holding us during those final hours. What I felt most, however, was a profound silence weighted beneath everything–something like the weight of the ocean’s water at its great depths–the deepest blues fading into darkness. Nevertheless, underneath all the weight, there remained something light, something small like breath–and each breath seemed significant. We learn what love is through the love our parents bring us, and through our relationship with our partners and friends.  As James Agee wrote in A Death in the Family, “I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are not others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world. I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.” When my father lay dying, though the room felt so empty, I became aware that love was larger than any one particular love. During those last days my father’s life diminishing before my eyes, I realized that the love I felt for him wasn’t an isolated thing. It was connected to the love I felt for my sister who had watched over my parents for more than a decade through as their health diminished, and connected, also, to the love of all the others in my life who have lifted me up, supported and sustained me from day to day, year to year. Love lives beyond death.

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Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his interview with Image magazine about the poet James Harpur’s book, The Wound of Knowledge, says, “interesting thing about great poetry is the silence it generates. This is a complex area, but the great holy silence at the heart of things is not just an absence or a cessation. It’s what happens when you’ve been led to this point…The silence, when you get there, has become pregnant.” Poetry, aims to articulate and give in words the presence of such moments of deep loss. Great poetry not only generates silence, however, it also rises up out the silence of the losses that press down to crush us. Loss somehow is necessary in order for us to move beyond the borders of ourselves. Beyond the borders of ourselves a wider something awaits.

Perhaps it seems odd to be writing about loss on Easter Sunday. You’d think it might be better to turn my mind to thoughts of renewal and rebirth. Yesterday, I lost my journal in the airport on a flight back to India, however, and I’m still grieving that loss. In it were half a year’s writing, reflections, travel observations, seeds of thought about projects I’m currently working on or planned to work on. What I feel as a result of this loss is grief. I can’t think of a better word. I realize that there are much greater losses in life than this. In comparison to so many other people’s losses, this is utterly miniscule. I recognize other ideas will arrive and I will write them in future journals. But I can’t replace the pages of reflections, images, awarenesses, or ideas written in that lost journal. They are more than words. They are my exploration and expressions of what it means to be alive in the world. And that is gone.

imageAges ago now, I remember sitting in a parking lot in St.Paul, Minnesota during winter listening to Robert Bly reading a poem on the radio. I don’t recall the poem’s title or the specific lines, but Bly’s lines astonished me with the picture they created of words emerging from the mouth into the air in visible puffs. I pictured the words taking on physical shapes, having presences. Form. Being. Words have presence and meaning beyond their mere articulation, though often incomplete or imperfect, they are mirrors of our souls. For me, they are the ladder I make to climb into a place of being.

Words guide and change our lives, but they also point to larger realities that live beyond words. Recently, Ben Slavic, a colleague I work with described how he had previously worked with Sauk, Myskoke, and Chickasaw people whose languages are dying out. Only a few native speakers remain. What is it like to lose your language? We are, in fact, losing many languages world wide per year. Do those languages go on existing in some form, he wondered? “Maybe they want to hear them again, loudly and everywhere amidst the laughter and tears of life – fully alive again…Where do words go after they are spoken?” My colleague wondered, “Is there a kind of residue, an echo, of them left over somewhere? Do they get to be fainter and fainter echoes of themselves in some parallel universe of sound?” In the BBC article, “Languages: Why we must save dying tongues,” author Rachel Nuwer writes that “languages are conduits of human heritage…convey unique cultures,…contain an accumulated body of knowledge, including about geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more.” Also, as Nuwer explains, “languages are ways of interpreting the world, and no two are the same. As such, they can provide insight into neurology, psychology and the linguistic capacities of our species.” These all seem very important, yet, as Nuwer describes, “Over the past century alone, around 400 languages – about one every three months – have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of this century.”

If all we say disappears into air, if the dear companion of our own body in the end loses all its capacity, if thirty years from now all people remember of who we are or what we said or did are a few dates and our occupation, if everything shifts and changes, where do lost words, lost time, lost lives and worlds go? What is their value and meaning?

In her poem, “Happiness,” from her book, Broken Cup, Margaret Gibson writes about her husband’s Alzheimer’s. She quotes her husband reading what the Dalai Lama says, “An art, not a right, happiness,” then later closes the poem with a memory,

long ago, after
a night of reading each other’s
poems aloud, every
blessed one of them,
the road beneath us seen through the rotting-out
porous floor of the old jeep
as we traveled at the
speed of light, and nothing, nothing
could slow us down
or keep us
separate from each other
or the road, wherever it took us.

The commitment to love is what creates meaning, Gibson suggests, even in our loss. This is a hard lesson, and Gibson’s writing about loss is surpassingly powerful. In the closing poem of Broken Cup, “A Good Death,” Gibson tells about her husband who she recognizes will in the end lose all words.

…may you also, while now there’s time
practice dying

before you die. May you daily stand outside time’s rush
whose rivering is

our natural light, and there on the steep lip of what we call
darkness,

call me angel, if angel I am; draw sunbursts in the rain lit air;
sing your heart out.

Great being, radiantly still. And near.

In learning to be present and open to all that is, Gibson seems to say, we find how to bear diminishment.

This past week I was scuba diving in the Maldives. On one of the dives, I found myself kneeling on the sandy ocean floor 25 meters below the surface in front of table coral raised before me like an altar. I watched as manta rays six 10 to 15 foot wide circled and circled over my head like enormous communion wafters in a repeated mantra of movement. Rocked and bowed by the surge, I absorbed the vision of the mantas’ presence. They had come to the table coral simply because they wanted the wrasse who live there to clean them, but as I watched them swoop over me with their great wings as if they were the Passover angel, I grew humbly aware of the immensity, mystery and wonder of being completely immersed in the arms of nature. I knew I was very much alive, and part of something enormous and beyond explanation or comprehension. Animals can be identified, their behaviors and environment explained, but something much greater happens than the sum of individual parts when we enter their world, and encounter them, something there will never be enough right words to describe.

I have lost my journal, and though I’m still able to go diving, though I can go on to keep new journals and write new poems,  in the end, though I may cry for it all to come back to me, I will need to let it all go. Maybe this is when resurrection has the possibility to occur–after we go down into the depths of death or hell. We come to where we recognize we must or can let things be what they are, and trust that somehow in our diminishment we are still whole, that there is something significant moving in the depths of that diminishment beyond what the losses all add up to.

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