Some changes are volcanic explosions creating enormous, sudden upheaval. Other changes floods our lives, rising slowly, then carrying us away in a torrent of heavy water. Some changes, however, happen slowly–an erosion that alters through perseverance, grain by grain changing the fabric of what we are to reveal what lies beneath.
Taking a break from the task of deleting folders and papers to create more space, I took a short drive north to explore a new location north of Santa Cruz. Walking the path along the edge of the cliff overlooking the coast, I came upon an area water had eroded into honeycombed textures, lines and shapes creating a fabulous miniature landscape.
Every few steps revealed new perspectives as shadow and light played inside crevices and cracks. Rippling across the sandstone’s face, it was clear everything I stood on had participated in an enormous process of ongoing revision–a perpetual becoming. Through eons of time, water and wind had rushed and rubbed against the shore, slowly changing it, a reminder that though we may not be consciously aware of it, the world and universe Earth is a part of are also constantly changing, revising, wearing away and being made new.
“Come into being as you pass away,” states the Gospel of Thomas, saying 42, and this is the experience of life. Like the earth we stand on, our bodies and our minds are in constant change. Every single grain of days can seem so precious. As a result, it can be very difficult to let the rub and rush of time change and reshape what we once were–what felt so stable and sure–to let that life flow out into an ocean of experience and be carried away into the vastness of eternity.
Like Earth’s ongoing process of revision, we, too, never arrive. Michelangelo for all his stunning achievement and accomplishment, at age 88 speaking his last words as he transitioned into his death stated, “I’m still learning.” We’re never finished with the effort of our own life, the imagination and dreams that carry us to another plain or into a wider circle of being. As everything is in continuous movement, we can recognize we are part of a great cosmic dance the universe’s music is listening to.
Nature’s rhythms are immensely complex. Age and time working in accordance with their own internal rules, combined with the interactions of all that exists within and beyond our spheres, who can say exactly where life might take any of us? A practice of cultivating an attitude of letting go some of what once held us can be beneficial, allowing the possibility of creating something else in our lives equally as beautiful or meaningful.
The journey between birth and death is meant to expand us. If we don’t voluntarily revise our lives at certain points, time will eventually require us to do so. As we age, we accumulate losses, and loss can be deeply disheartening and painful. Maria Mazziotti Gillan, in her poem, “I Celebrate My Body,” describes the difficulty of living with the body’s erosion time carries us into,
that body that suddenly couldn’t move, the hand that couldn’t hold a pen or open a cap, that body that couldn’t turn over in the bed. Each new thing I can do— close my hand around the pill bottle, hold a book, write my name— I celebrate. I even celebrate my faltering step, my one leg dragging. These and other movements we take for granted until we can no longer do them and only then, do we learn gratitude
Loss, as Gillian wisely understands, can also deepen our awareness of life’s gifts. When it becomes nearly impossible for the body to do what you wish, as Gillan points out, each small gesture the body allows, can also increase awareness and gratitude for the body, in spite of its limitations. Though difficult and painful to live with, loss of the body’s previous abilities can also cultivate greater depth of spirit.
Life is a pilgrimage, a journey toward understanding and awareness, every day a kind of birth and a death, an ongoing transformation like grains of sand streaming their way through eternity’s great ocean. Pilgrims want to arrive at their destination, explains Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, in her piece titled “Arriving With Every Step” on Emergence Magazine, but the journey itself is what is of central importance. When setting out, “…allow point A and point B to give way to possibility, to mystery. You are meant to allow the journey to do its work on you,” she writes. When pilgrims begin a journey, they set out with an intention. Every moment is an arrival and a departure, and our intentions and observations during the journey help shape reality of the experience. Physicist and chaos theorist Robert Lanza in his article “How Do We Collectively Determine Reality and the Structure of Space Time Itself,” writes, “…a single conscious observer can completely define this structure, leading to a collapse of the waves of probability, largely localized in the vicinity of the cognitive model which the observer builds in her mind throughout her lifespan.
All of this supports a profound shift in our everyday worldview―a change from the long-held belief that the physical world is a pre-formed entity that just exists “out there” to one in which it belongs to the observer. As we and other scientists continue to explore this new line of research, it is becoming increasingly clear how intimately we are connected with the structure of the universe on every level.”
We are connected to the physical world, are influenced and shaped by it and can learn by observing it. The world is full of wonder, but wonder is also made of more than light glistening off the ocean’s surface at sunset. Earth is wild. Falling rock, earthquakes and tsunamis are all an integral part of what forms the world and shapes its wonders. The slow wearing away of earth can be treacherous, leading to a calamitous fall.
Similarly, trauma humans suffer can affect one’s future. Andrew Curry reports in Science magazine, that a biologist at Washington State University in Pullman, Michael Skinner’s recent studies hypothesize that trauma people experience affects the behavior of our cells and can be passed on in ways that affect parents’ offspring.
Pain, sorrow and death are inevitable, yet it is our vulnerability with others that allows us to enter into deep relationship, and to nurture life that regenerates. What we think or observe and the trauma we experience affects not only our lives, but the generations coming after us as well. Enduring through unending erosion is not guaranteed to be pleasant. To prepare ourselves ahead of life’s erosion, we can gather resources: favorite films, poems, photos, art, pieces of literature, and nurture relationships that hold us up and give us hope. We can learn skills of gardening, drawing, dance, or music. We can create and practice rituals we use to sustain us and feed our spirits. Our daily walks can become pilgrimages we set out on with specific intentions, perhaps leaving behind a gift or token, or perhaps we will choose to participate in longer pilgrimages. Always, we can practice gratitude.
It’s easy to miss the instructions for how to carry on through life’s many changes, Schneider says later in her poem, “Instructions for the Journey.” We have to listen and look with careful intention in order to fully notice what’s happening and what it means for us. “And if all that fails,” she writes,
wash your own dishes. Rinse them. Stand in your kitchen at your sink. Let cold water run between your fingers. Feel it.
In other words, carry on your daily work, be present to the physical experience of the world around you. Live each moment aware that you are living.
Each of us are eroding into something new. But we are also participants in creating our lives. What we observe and attend to gains solidity, and expands.
When recent storms on the coast caused waves of 25 to 50 feet, I drove north to Maverick’s to see them. The size of small mountains, water rose from the shoreline waving its wild, terrifying and gloriously beautiful arms into the sky. A few people sat on surfboards waiting for a wave with good form they could ride. The majority of us, though, were spectators who walked the cliffs above the shore or who traversed the shoreline, gazing in awe at nature’s wonder. The world’s wild beauty is a can fills us with awe, though sometimes it also carries us to the edge of danger and the possibility of loss.When looking carefully, you can notice loss lives beside us just beneath the surface of experience. Sometimes its absence is a mountainous weight hovering nearby like a cresting wave, waiting to tumble down at the sound of wind, a child’s cry, or the distressed look from a stranger on the street. So many seemingly insignificant things could serve as the trumpet’s blow resounding from walls that previously keep a person feeling safe. The loss of family members or someone we love, loss of work we used to do, people we used to know, a change in health—these can become waves of enormous change in our lives, and the way the world once worked, along with the things that held it together can come tumbling down. This is hard ground to walk on, difficult territory to reside in. How do we keep going? How do we begin again?The experience of loss has been with us since the beginning of the human story as we fled the safety of the Garden of innocence and inexperience, with the awareness that we needed to begin the difficult journey toward understanding who we are and how to restore our relationships. This is a difficult task as our understanding is always incomplete. When things fall apart or we experience significant change, we like to know how we’re going to get to new ground and when we will arrive at a new place in our lives. But the timing of how this will all come about usually isn’t readily apparent. The process is less like a line and more like a spiral, and the pilgrimage to that desired place of being extends over varied and challenging terrain.A couple of months back, I read Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s book, The Silence in an Empty House, a beautiful book of poems describing experiences in her relationship with her life partner who had a terminal illness. While experiencing the territory of loss, the writing takes the reader into the heart of relationship and the many small moments and memories that build and connect one life to another in intricate interweaving. In her poem, “Watching the Bridge Collapse,” Gillan describes how life can change in ways never expected.
We loved each other. Our children were smart and healthy and beautiful. How could we lose? then one day you, who could swim a hundred laps in the town pool, who ran even in a mid-winter snowstorm, began to move slower and slower, your hands no longer functioning the way they always had, your legs unwilling to obey your brain’s command. And now, your head bent sideways, so it nearly touches your shoulder, your legs so weak they cannot hold you up, your voice thin as a thread.
The situation Gillan describes is excruciatingly difficult. We acknowledge age brings diminishment, but to witness the vitality of one you love slowly decline in so painful a manner is a loss no one hopes for. Nevertheless, the poems show Gillan confronting the loss and suffering day after day although there is no possibility for expectation that her husband’s condition will improve. This is a struggle any of us could find ourselves in. As Gillan later points out in her poem, “What is Lost,” we do not know what our future will hold. “We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to/ the world will remain firm beneath our feet,” she writes. But this isn’t how it is for many people, and one of the things I especially appreciate about Gillan’s poems in this volume is how she describes her losses so directly. In the poem, “My Daughter Comes Home to Take Care of Her Sick Father,” Gillan’s speaks openly about the difficulty of her situation. “I do not understand,” she writes, “how love could become so complicated./ I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end, to just/ stop.” Her honesty about her struggle in coming to terms with what she has been given is powerful and moving because the story she tells is bigger than simply her own personal story. It’s the story of all who struggle against things that seem unbearable. She speaks the words that are nearly impossible to find when the burden of loss is so enormous it lies beyond the ability to name.When someone we love difficult finds themselves struggling under difficult circumstances, it’s natural to want to offer help and solutions. Yet sometimes there are no solutions. When her husband tells her of his fear of being blind in the poem, “Because You Keep Turning to Me,” Gillan writes, “I offer what comfort I can, and when I hang up, I cry/in my hotel bed because you keep turning to me/ and all I have to offer is my hands, useless and empty, and too far away to even stroke your head.” I read her words, and recognize my own emptiness in trying to meet the loss I sense in others around me who are suffering. Gillan extends her expression of the depth of our incompleteness in such circumstances in her poem, “There is No Way To Begin.”
“There is no way to begin this poem, to say how I who have always believed that whatever happens, things always work out for the best, have finally been brought to my knees, not to pray as I did in Blessed Sacrament Church on Sixth Avenue when I was a girl, but in defeat, unable to find the thread of joy that has always waited for me just beyond tears.”
When we realize things aren’t going to get better for others or for ourselves where do we go? Thich Nhat Hahn in the 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism, recommends that we “Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Suffering being with those who suffer is necessary to the growth of our capacity for compassion and for understanding of how our lives are connected to those around us, as Maria’s poem so effectively gives voice to. What we come to realize when in the presence of suffering, is that solutions for how to cope with suffering aren’t going to be external. Like a tree that grows around a fence pole standing in its way of growth, we somehow must enlarge ourselves to be able to include or surround the loss.When we look at others’ suffering we suffer too. The brain’s mirror neurons tell us this. One of Gillan’s poems, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” speaks directly to our interconnectedness, demonstrating so effectively how human suffering is reflected in the natural world as well. The drowning pelicans’ bodies caught in the BP oil spill are a echo of her husband’s painful effort to rise above the weight of the disease that wants to drown him. Oil covering its body, the bird in Gillan’s poem screams without sound, “a picture of torment and despair,” the silent despair Gillan recognizes her husband and family daily bear as they try to survive the calamity the disease has created–the suffering from which there seems no end. …On the Gulf, the earth and sea are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world even the ocean can be destroyed…Our life is intertwined with the life and suffering of the planet. Suffering continues, and so does the brave effort to meet it. “You never gave up;” Gillan writes in her poem of the same title, “you kept doing whatever you could do,/ fell each day because you’d try to walk even though/ you no longer could.” Spelling out an alphabet of loss as time passes, moments of sudden memories of beauty, but also the months and years of loneliness and long process of letting go, letting things be what they are. “The world is too full of grief,” she writes in her poem “Planting Flowers in Iraq,” a poem about a groundskeeper planting flowers when the very same week two hundred people were killed by car bombs, and Gillan recalls a mother’s face overcome with grief as she lifted her dead child in her arms. “The world is too full of grief,” Gillan writes.
It’s true. The pulse of loss throbs inside the silence. Everywhere one looks, tears and sorrow wait beneath the surface of things. I think of the 9/11 memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker where once the Twin Towers stood in New York City. An immense sense of loss envelops you as you approach the memorial, then stand to look as water pours its delicate and silvery life over the square’s edges into the firm earth, then falls again endlessly and forever into a bottomless space that cannot be fathomed, seen or known. The grief feels utterly palpable and weighted with presence, moving beyond words into a space where grief lives and doesn’t end. This is grief embodied.
How do we get to the other side of grief? How do we live beyond, into or with loss that feels too immense to bear? How do we find a way to name the grief, to hold it and still keep living? In her poem, “What if?” Gillan writes,
And what if, this moment, wrapped in the gauze shawl of stillness, is the secret after all, to learn to look more closely at the varied world, the veins of a leaf, a stone, the stippled pattern of bark, and to find, even in the shape of our hands, the curve of our nails the ability to lift a cup and drink, the secret of loving the transfigured world?
An answer is to learn to look, and where Gillan turns her gaze is to nature. Nature, too, has experienced enormous and unspeakable losses, especially in the past few centuries, but life is still present, available to us as a renewing source when we look deeply. Tree and stone, our own hands lifting a cup to drink. From the transfigured world we can drink and draw new life. As Gillan points out, it is when we allow ourselves to be wrapped in the “gauze shawl of stillness” that we enable ourselves to connect to the commonplace of the world in its transfigured form. This in turn allows us to see our experience as part of a greater whole. We heal from the inside out. Physical wounds begin healing from the inside. It could be the same with wounds of spirit and losses of the heart. We let ourselves be present with the wounds and losses, holding them in the arms of our thoughts, speaking to them tenderly, dearly, gently. More than our direct pursuit to find an external solution for what will meet our deep need, perhaps what we seek finds us as we allow ourselves to be available to what is working within us. Or perhaps it is a bit of both. During these winter months we inhabit the season Christian tradition names as Advent: light’s entry into the dark—into the places of our lives where we cannot see. It is a metaphor reminding us that there are times in life when we don’t know where the next step leads. Things move in complex worlds beneath the surface of what we can see or comprehend. All people experience this state of being. We don’t know when the light we feel we need will appear or how we are going to find it. It’s not a direct path. As this song written by Stephen Foster describes, our souls long for “Hard Times to Come Again No More.” Notice how in this version by Tommy Fleming, the entire audience knows the words and sings together with him. We are not alone. The whole world knows struggle. We walk together. Our inner work is to keep mind and heart open, to walk as we can, trusting that as we move, we journey toward wholeness. Like blossoms, we wait in our own time for light to open us.
I’ve just returned from Sicily, a poor region of Italy, but a land rich in beauty–beauty enough to leave me speechless and in awe as I stepped inside Monreale’s cathedral and looked into the face of the pantocrator–Christ as the Lord of the Universe–depicted in the shining mosaics filling the central apse. The mosaic is so finely made it seems to be painted. A world heritage site, the cathedral holds the largest Byzantine mosaics outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Mosaic art was practiced in the Byzantine empire since the fifth century (according to the Joy of Shards Site.) Thousands of skilled craftsmen had to have worked for centuries to be able to produce the level of skill to create the quality of workmanship presented in Monreale’s cathedral and cloister. (See more images here and here.) The walls depict various Biblical stories–God giving Adam the breath of life, Noah building the ark, Jesus holding out his hand to Peter who has jumped the fishing boat he was on with the other disciples in order to meet Jesus who he sees walking across the water–stories told through images of God interacting with the world and in humans’ lives.
Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, writes of how the original meaning of fantasy comes from the Greek, phantasía, meaning “to make visible, to reveal.” Johnson explains how it’s our imagination that converts the invisible to the visible, enabling us to contemplate it. Interaction with world in the form of the arts and in writing enables us to understand spiritual truths. For the Greeks, Johnson goes on to say, phantasía was the way the divine spoke to the human mind. Until the Middle Ages, Johnson states, phantasía was thought of as the “organ that receives meanings from spiritual and aesthetic worlds and forms them into an inner image that can be held in memory and made the object of thought and reasoning” (p. 23). Phantasía was also the word Roman writers employed when wanting to “speak of the human faculty by which we express the contents of the soul by using poetic or spiritual energy.” In other words, practicing using our imagination, as artists and writers do, allows us to become conscious again of spirit. Johnson asserts also that when speaking of sensing the spirit, all ancient people understood, “Only our power to make images enables us to see it.” In fact, Johnson explains, “When we experience the images, we also directly experience the inner parts of ourselves that are clothed in the images” (p. 25). As Abigail Tucker reported in The Smithsonian’s article, “How Does the Brain Process Art?”, the brain signals the body to have physical responses to art, mirroring what is viewed.
The cathedral at Monreale, clearly demonstrates Johnson’s assertion of imagination’s power. Stepping from the everyday life of the street and entering the cathedral, I was carried out of myself into a place of wonder so astonishingly beautiful in its glowing color and intricately depicted images it could bring a person to tears—or at least it did me. A thousand years ago in Sicily, people worked the land, even as many do now—a challenging life, dependent on nature and the weather, as much of Sicily uses dry farming methods. Life could be difficult, but then there was the world inside the cathedral—a place of intense beauty, a heaven on earth, that could lift you from the mundane, and transport you into a place of wonder. In doing so, you understood your life was more than mere struggle. You were also part of a greater reality, you were also Spirit, and you participated in the life of that Spirit as revealed in the cathedral’s art.
Recognizing God speaks through nature, the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The Psalmist created music to express the presence of Spirit. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers enormous on her canvases as a way to invite viewers to engage with the natural world. “Nobody sees a flower,” she wrote, “- really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Interacting with nature as an artist, as well as simply viewing paintings and pondering them are ways to touch Spirit. Similar to O’Keefe’s intention for viewers in the paintings she produced, though cathedrals’ construction were normally initiated by kings as expressions of their power, and often with political aims, cathedrals could also be viewed and embraced as embodiments of love—love expressed in and through the hands that made them. To produce works of such beauty, heart had to be invested, not merely the use of skill. A thousand years later, the mosaics in the Monreale’s cathedral beauty draws the world to stand before them in awe.
The Norman ruler, King William, ordered construction to begin on the Monreale’s Cathedral in 1172. The building was completed in 1176, and the mosaics by 1189. That is only 17 years for a work of monolithic and intricate beauty. I think of the difficult times we currently live in, and the tremendous effort needed to rise to the challenges–social, political, economic, and environmental–that we face, not unlike that of building a cathedral. Likely, all times could be identified as difficult depending on where you live and what you’re living through, but a particular area of current concern are the many in the world who have lost their homes. The Guardian’s December 31, 2016 article describes, “War, weather, climate change and terrorism have made millions homeless,” and then goes on to add starvation, and natural disaster to the list of causes. Sixty three million people today are fleeing disaster according to The Guardian. To address the needs of these displaced people so that their fundamental necessity for shelter is met will take the effort of millions. The forces at work to create such displacement are monumental. I’m wondering, though, how we might use our imaginations to create a cathedral of spirit amidst the poverty of our current situation in order to address the human needs of those around us.
While reading Unsettling America, An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, I came across Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “In Memory We Are Walking,” where Gillan describes how as a child, she once went on a picnic with her Italian immigrant family. The poem allows us to go inside the experience of what displaced people likely feel coming to a new land for reasons of necessity, and working to make it home. On a rare excursion, the poem’s speaker–a young girl–and her family left Patterson, New Jersey, walking out of their mill worker’s house “built cheaply and easily,” and past “squat middle-class bungalows” that, to her, appeared to be wealthy abodes. She describes how her father, hoping for a job, walked from Patterson to Passaic, nearly a two hour’s journey, to inquire about an opening. He didn’t have the money to take the train. When he arrived, a worker told him, ‘“You stupid Dago bastard,…/ Go back where you came from./ We don’t want your kind here.” The words from this poem resonate elsewhere in the world and across time. Reading current news stories, though the faces may be different now, one can still see how attitudes prevalent at the turn of last century regarding immigrants persist.
Before leaving to travel to Sicily this past December, I visited downtown London early one evening. When I emerged from the subway tunnel, I heard a loud voice calling out, “Help me. Somebody save me!” A man sat on the street outside the subway exit shouted to those walking by. I didn’t know what kind of help the man needed, or if he possibly might not be in his right mind. Like others, though, I crossed the street to wait for the bus—on my way to elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the man’s desperate voice could be heard shouting, his words echoing across the street. On and on he called, his plea reaching into my thoughts—fixing itself there, and becoming, somehow, the needy voice of us all.
Further up the street, suspended in flight, angels hovered above the roadway in the form of electric lights. Christmas shoppers emerged from the brilliantly lit multilevel department storefronts, windows packed with a plethora of products–leather purses and shoes, sequined dresses, sportswear and down jackets, wool hats and scarves, specialty chocolates and teas. Streets drenched in abundance while at the same time, not far away, a man calls out for help, and none respond. Further down the street, I walked by a man in a grim looking Santa costume. He leaned against a wall above the sleeping bag where he slept, a cup held out for money. Entering another subway station, a second Santa stood by the escalators holding a cup for offerings, a thin woman with a drooping Santa hat, and wearing grubby Santa coat and a plaid skirt. Homeless Santas, and a man pleading to be saved–if not physical poverty, we live amidst a poverty of spirit. Those on the street have the humility to admit their need. The man on the street shouted out the words that we in our social silence, pride, and neglect fail to speak: that in many ways in the places we live, if not our lives and way of living, then in our hearts–connection to each other, is broken. If so many around us live in dire need while others of us live in physical abundance, then somebody help us.
From the crowded streets of our lives, the homeless part of ourselves calls out in our poverty. The somebody that must help us needs to arise from within. What kind of world do we want to live in? What does a beautiful world look like? How would people interact in order to create a world where we could live without fear, where all people’s needs are met? Just like those who built the cathedrals of Sicily, we each have skills we have built up over time. Humbly, and together, we can use these abilities to create the world we want to live in. We can do our art and look for ways to create neighborly acts of kindness and generosity wherever we are. Whatever the work we look for or do, we can make of our work a spiritual effort, a prayer. With our hands and mind, we can create sanctuaries of the spirit, cathedrals of the heart that transform ourselves and those around us. As poet Nancy Wood writes, “Patterns persist,/life goes on, whatever rises will converge./ Do what you will, but strengthen the things that remain.” We can use our imagination to discover ways to transform despair, and to practice the skills that will make a world where, like the cathedral of Monreale, a refuge of beauty and place of peace people a thousand years from now can inherit and inhabit.
Like the work to create the cathedral, creating such a world takes devotion, love, and hard work. Labor doesn’t have to be merely work, as it often becomes when the goal is merely for self interest and personal gain. Just as beauty can open our hearts, labor can also enlarge us as we work together. The two aren’t inseparable when we work with the intention that the labor we do is a way to give something needed for the betterment of the community–for the beauty of the earth and humanity.
“Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.”—Oscar Wilde
In the streets of my Delhi neighborhood, workers are building new apartments. Women carry sand on their heads. Bricks are stacked on the walkway. Yesterday the populous celebrated Republic Day, and I was reading Pamela Timms’ book, Korma Kheer & Kismet, the chapter titled “Independence Day in Sadar Bazar” where she describes the civic protests of 2011 where social activist, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, began a hunger strike in protest of government corruption. Concerned with the amount of interest Hazare stirred up in the populace, prime minister of the time, Manmohan Singh responded, ‘”Corruption manifests itself in many forms. Funds meant for schemes for the welfare of the common man end up in the pocket of government officials. In some other instances, government discretion is used to favor a selected few. There are also cases where government contracts are wrongfully awarded to the wrong people. We cannot let such activities continue unchecked.”’ Hazare’s hunger strike began the day after the prime minister made the statement, reports Timms, and goes on to describe some of the corruptions in the system—food vendors paying as much as a quarter of their salaries to the police to be able to stay open, and rickshaw drivers paying as much as 20% of their salaries to police to prevent their tires from being slashed, families having to pay bribe money to secure a place for their child at school. (p. 55) (You can read an overview of large-scale corruption in India here if you wish.)
It’s no surprise that corruption is present not only in India. It is a worldwide problem in both businesses, see a list here of top business corruption cases, and governments. Take a look at the thematic map from Transparency International here, to see a visual representation of corruption levels in countries across the world. Justice doesn’t prevail. In many cases, it’s simply the way the world functions where people live, and the everyday person, if he or she wants to function in society, doesn’t have a lot of choice about it.
With corruption and misuse of power so widespread, an enormous percentage of people in the world are pawns to those who hold the power. How do people manage? How do people—any of us and all of us—caught in such systems go on living with good conscience? I remember listening to Garth Lenz describing on his TED Talk about the effects of mining for oil in Canada’s tar sands had on the native people of the area. Parents in that area are caught in the dilemma of needing to feed their children, yet the toxins in the river are causing cancers at the rate of 10 times what it is in other parts of Canada. Because it’s very costly to fly in all the food a person needs in order eat, the aboriginal people are forced to eat the food “..as a parent, I just can’t imagine what that does to your soul. And that’s what we’re doing,” says Lenz. (transcript available here.) Certainly there were people during the time of Spain’s inquisition, in Nazi Germany and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia who didn’t agree with the government’s position but felt compelled to go along with the crowd mentality for fear of their own lives and those of their children’s. Certainly, there are people today in our own institutions who disagree with the use of power and yet are afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their jobs and the livelihood for their families. Not everyone can just move on or move out to a new situation, new job, new country, new life, and even if that were possible, where might one live or work where corruption was not part of the way of life? We have to learn to live in a fallen world.
I’m reminded of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “I Open a Box,” in her book, Ancestor’s Song, where she describes her Italian immigrant mother’s doctor coming to her New Jersey tenement to assist her in the delivery of her baby. He arrives late, and Gillan’s mother has already given birth, cut the umbilical cord, and washed her child. When the doctor finally arrives, he doesn’t even enter the room. Instead, he distances himself from the situation.
“He washed his hands, wiped
them on one of the rough linen towels
I brought from Italy, stood in the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
“Oh, well,” my mother said, “I think
he was afraid of catching it.”
“Catching what?” I asked.
“Poverty,” she said.
Poverty is often perceived by wealthier countries as something out there over there, not mine not related to one’s own life. Like the doctor at the door, people want to distance themselves from the poor, not realizing their lives are connected. We may want to stand at the door like the doctor of this poem observing a world we don’t want to be a part of. We may think we can wash our hands, bid others well and walk away, and disconnect ourselves from what we don’t want and live in a different neighborhood. But our lives are intertwined. One example: A few years back, students in my speech class debated whether the lithium beneath Bolivia’s salt flats should be mined. The area is of tremendous beauty yet the area holds more than half the world’s lithium. Lithium is a lightweight metal used in powering our high tech products—iPhones, iPods, and other handheld devices. Now, as the world searches for alternative energy and looks towards ways to store electricity in batteries in order to meet more of our needs, including the use of batteries for electric vehicles, the need for lithium grows in greater and greater demand.
Dan McDougal, in his article on Mail Online “In search of Lithium: The battle for the third element” quotes a lithium-ion battery producer, Mary Ann Wright of Johnson Controls-Saft, ‘Since a vehicle battery requires 100 times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.’“ There’s not enough lithium to power the world’s 900 million vehicles, however, McDougal observes. Bolivia has significantly large amounts of the needed lithium to produce the batteries for the growing electric car industry, an industry that most people perceive as a green technology. Mc Dougal reports that according to “William Tahil, research director with technology consultancy Meridian International Research, ‘to make just 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate – or six times the current global production annually.” To continue, McDougal goes on to report that “The US Geological Survey claims at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted in Salar De Uyuni, while another report puts it as high as nine million tons.”’ Bolivia is a very poor country. Child workers are exploited, but children work to help their families. While mining the mineral would bring needed jobs and money into the country, a problem is that mining the mineral requires an abundance of water, and water is a rare commodity in Bolivia’s high desert. Bolivia has experienced exploitation by outsiders before in the tin and silver mining industries. An overuse of water could significantly affect the country and its people in numerous ways—making it difficult to have enough water for daily use, as well as for farming. Additionally, mining pollutes water with toxins as well. McDougal asks his readers “Is the world’s need for a green solution to transport worth the destruction of this unique environment and way of life that it lives on?”
Transportation is necessary. Our society is structured in such a way that few of us can walk to work. We need some way of getting to work. We want to do that in the least harmful way to the environment and others. As a result, in the desire to move away from our dependence on oil, many people are looking toward buying an electric car. These same people may be unaware that in doing so they are connected to moral dilemmas of another sort. We are all part of the greater web of being.
Parker Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach, which I’m currently reading, talks about the biologist Barbara McClintock, who was given the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work that changed our understanding of genetics. Prior to her work, people thought of genes as separate things, not in connection to the environment they were a part of. Palmer explains that McClintock’s interviewer who wrote her biography, Fox Keller, “wanted to know, ‘What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?’ McClintock’s answer, Keller tells us, is simple: “Over and over again she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ the openness to ‘let it come to you.’ Above all, one must have ‘a feeling for the organism.’” We co-create our world. We can’t stand at the door. The burden of the cost of anything is born by all eventually. As Palmer goes on to say, “Modern knowledge has allowed us to manipulate the world but not to control its fate (to say nothing of our own), a fact that becomes more clear each day as the ecosystem dies and our human systems fail.” (p. 57) Perhaps, then one important way of living inside of corrupt systems and move ourselves and society toward greater wholeness is to do what we can with those around us to build and restore relationships constructively. Some things or many things may not be in our power. But some things will. We can learn to listen closely to the interrelationships of people and things so we gain a greater connection to life. With this understanding, we can better comprehend what actions will create harmony both with others and with nature.
Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty can save the world.” While it may not appear to be a solution to growing environmental and social concerns, the idea deserves a closer look. What connection does beauty have in showing us a way through our dilemmas of how to live in unjust social systems? The New York Times “Books” section, published in 1987 includes an excerpt from Richard Ellman’s essay “Oscar Wilde.” Ellman relates the story of Oscar Wilde coming to New York City in 1882. “Beauty is nearer to most of us than we are aware,” Wilde explained talking to reporters. One of the reporters wanted to know if a nearby grain elevator was beautiful. Earlier in the conversation, Wilde had said, ‘I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that.” As reporters continued probing, Wilde explained further his ideas about beauty. ”’It’s a wide field which has no limit, and all definitions are unsatisfactory. Some people might search and not find anything. But the search, if carried on according to right laws, would constitute estheticism. They would find happiness in striving, even in despair of ever finding what they sought. The renaissance of beauty is not to be hoped for without strife internal and external.” ”Where then is this movement to end?” ”There is no end to it; it will go on forever, just as it had no beginning. I have used the word renaissance to show that it is no new thing with me. It has always existed. As time goes on the men and the forms of expression may change, but the principle will remain. Man is hungry for beauty. . . . There is a void; nature will fill it. The ridicule which esthetes have been subjected to is the only way of blind unhappy souls who cannot find the way to beauty.”’ Creating a world of beauty is creating the ideal world. Creating a heaven, so to speak. To do so will take great effort. But people are hungry for it, as Wilde says. We are hungry for beauty, and that hunger connects to the desire for a world without corruption. Without corruption, beauty has a better chance of thriving.
Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, speaks on her Harvard Thinks Big, “Beauty as a Call to Justice” about how experiences of beauty help to move humans toward justice. When we experience the beautiful, we are pulled out of our everyday way of interacting with our surroundings. We stand still. We are transfixed, she explains. In those moments, beauty pours into us an awareness of the “surfeit of aliveness.” It takes us out of ourselves, and connects us with a larger reality. Scarry makes the case that this experience of beauty helps lead us to love what we see and to want to care for it and have a relationship with it.
I don’t know if its true as Keats said in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” but I do believe we need to have a much deeper knowing of beauty than we currently hold. There is a relationship between our loss of beauty in many of our urban environments, a loss resulting from our pragmatic values that relegates beauty to the bottom realms, and efficiency to the higher realms of priority. When I speak of beauty, I’m not talking about beauty in the decorative or commercial sense. I’m speaking of the beauty such as nature gives us in a star strewn sky or a valley sweeping down in green fields from stoney mountain peaks. I’m speaking of the beauty Scarry described above—that stops us short, that overwhelms, and then lifts us out of ourselves. Is our culture’s pragmatic love of efficiency causing us to structure society in such a way that it’s actually challenging to make deep connections with others? We have connection to people on Facebook, but does the minimalistic communication that exists there nurture deep conversation and relationship? I doubt it. Could it also be true that our lack of seeing ourselves as connected to the beauty of the Bolivian salt flats and the lives of Bolivian miners as we pursue our technological development (and other similar realities) is part of the reason corruption continues to thrive? Do people act in ugly ways because they live in a world where connection to the natural world is broken? In glimpses of beauty, we can see the world we want to belong to, a world of balance and wholeness, and are drawn to it. If we gave beauty a place of respect and honor in our cultures, possibly we would treat the world with more respect. If we developed more of a relationship with those around us and with the natural world, wouldn’t we understand our connection to the world and realize more fully the effects of our choices? Is our collective loss of beauty causing us to lose our souls?
I never used to understand the Jesus prayer—the ancient prayer that says, “Have mercy on me.” I felt it seemed too focused on the negative and I already struggle to move beyond my failures. But as I see myself more and more intertwined with the existence of all that is, I see the value of this prayer. What the world is or isn’t, isn’t all up to me, but I’m also a part of all that is. How do we live in a corrupt world and yet continue to grow toward wholeness? The problems are all much bigger than me but mercy is extended. “For the Beauty of the Earth” is an old song that carries with it the idea of giving praise for the world around us and to the skies. Perhaps the ongoing practice of noticing and valuing beauty in the world, as the words of this song illustrate, acts to create a greater awareness of our interconnectivity. It’s worth trying.
One of the especially valuable aspects of creative work—of art and literature, of writing—is the way it nurtures the inner life. The artist must look very carefully at whatever she or he is drawing in order to see it and how it functions in relationship to itself and to the world it inhabits. In writing, an author must delve inside the subject with imagination in order to understand the subject and the interrelationship of the subject to oneself and the world. To write or to do art is to cultivate beauty. It is a way to reconnect to the world, is a way of making whole again as telling our story is a way of making us whole again. The flourishing of this kind of empathetic understanding that comes through our interaction with literature and the arts is important to not only the continuance of the world, but the continuance of a world that is good to live in.
Wherever we are, we can work with others to create greater wholeness. If we are going to change at all, it will be a step-by-step movement toward wholeness. In the mean time, we can pray as we walk, “have mercy,” and, by grace, we will continue on.
This fall I had a poetry post made for the school where I work. It’s a simple post with a plastic box for the poems and every couple of weeks I put copies of a different poem in the box. I include the author and publication site for the poem. To add interest and newness to the post, I made a ceramic plaque for it. It’s a pleasure to share poems I love in the box and to see them disappear day by day. I put about 15 poems in at a time and within a couple of weeks, enough people have found the poem meaningful enough to take with them. Occasionally, people write me a note telling me how much they appreciate the poem, or how it moved them, as someone did again this week for Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “Betrayal.”
This week I read the white paper for the Pioneer Institute, Public Policy Research, written by Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky, “The Dying of the Light,” about the value of poetry instruction. Whereas the current trend in education is utilitarian and values data collection and sameness, poetry is something that enlivens the human spirit and the imagination. Poetry is an art form, doesn’t fit in a utilitarian category, and perhaps this is why it is minimized in the Common Core education standards. The Common Core, as the Huffington Post says, is “an education push that aims to make sure students across the United States are learning the skills they need to succeed in a global economy.” While one of education’s purposes is to help people find their place in the world where they can contribute to the common good using their abilities and skills, humans are much more than cogs in an economic machine, and education should nurture the human element as well–that part of us that is asks questions about existence and that stands in humility and awe before creation’s beauty. Or have we in our competitive workaday world and habitual rhythms lost our awareness of a world larger than our own–of creation in all its wonder?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in and how are we nurturing our children through our education system to create that world. As Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky assert in “The Dying of the Light,” we might need to ask ourselves “What is a child for?” Do we want to raise our child to simply fill a role or do we want the child to be awake to life? One of poetry’s functions is to help the reader to see the world’s beauty, to notice life, and to experience it deeply in all its complexities and paradoxes. Poetry can help us see ourselves and our interconnection to the world and to each other. “One does not read poems to learn about poetic techniques. That again is backwards. One learns about poetic techniques, if one learns about them at all, the better to read poems; and one reads poems for their own sake–that is, because they are beautiful and wise,” say Exolen, Highfill and Stotsky.
Though more poetry is being published than ever, poetry is not read by the general public nowadays. As we have culturally moved toward modernism and postmodernism, as in other fields artists, and poets, in general, no longer sense themselves as a voice of their culture or their time and place in history when they write. Gardner points out in his book, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-first Century, that there is no longer any common agreement about what is beautiful. Beauty is more a matter of subjectivity he states. But does this mean it should not be nurtured? Humans were created in the image of God, our Biblical myth tell us. Robots may be able to do a lot of the thinking we used to do and do it more rapidly, but as E.O Wilson in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, points out, “With more and more decision making and work done by robots, what will be left for humans to do? Do we really want to compete biologically with robot technology by using brain implants and genetically improved intelligence and social behavior? This choice would mean a sharp departure away from the human nature we have inherited, and a fundamental change in the human condition.” The humanities and the arts connect us to the essence of ourselves. They explore meaning amidst the myriad gray areas of life. We are alive when we are connected to a creative act. Wilson advocates that we “promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future.” Our humanness and our relationship to the world is the very subject literature and poetry explore.
Pushing aside poetry and the arts in our educational system demeans our humanness and lessens the “unique potential of the human future,” to use Wilson’s words. Because it can’t be measured easily, because the processes are organic and slow, because they are subjective, does it necessarily mean poetry and the arts are not important? Dana Gioa, previously chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, explains in his essay, “Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture,” how people who write poetry and work in academic setting often are required to publish frequently in order to keep their jobs. He goes on to say, however, that “In art, of course, everyone agrees that quality and not quantity matters.” Creating anything takes time, and years of effort in most cases, to create quality.
Poetry is not reviewed seriously, Gioa says, and this is one of the reasons it’s not taken seriously. It used to be that poets once held many different occupations other than writing poetry. Nowadays, most poets are also teachers. Still, poetry matters to the “entire intellectual community,” Gioa explains, because it “involves the role of language in a free society. Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it—be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.” Gioa suggests that when writers share poetry, we share not only our own, but others’ as well, that we combine it with other arts, and that we devote more of our time in schools not to analyzing poetry, but to performing it. “Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.” This is what kept it alive for centuries, Gioa asserts. Though I have referred to Gioa’s essay that I’ve quoted from on this blog in previous posts, I come back to it again in this post because of the insights it offers.
Poetry matters deeply to me, and I want others to be able to experience for themselves the gift it is to our lives–how it can wake us up, connect us to each other, and help restore us. A poetry post is one way to keep poetry’s voice alive and to allow people to see how it is that poetry enriches, inspires and strengthens us– how it continues to speak to our spirits.
The poem copies I put in the poetry post box this week are already gone. It encourages me to know Gillan’s poem has spoken to others the way it spoke to me. A poetry post is a simple way to share poems with others, and as one parent recently wrote me, “It is amazing to see how far the poems from this small box reach.”
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.