Age is a strangeness. No matter
how many relatives we watched
totter into their graves, even cats
and dogs whom we’d raised from birth,
we never quite believed it could happen to us.
Many I know are dealing with difficulties of age, as Piercy describes in the excerpt above from her poem “How Did I Come to Be Here?” but also of repercussions from accidents, diseases, illnesses, and loss. From the recent floods in Mozambique to the school shooting in Colorado, the whole world seems to be struggling and grieving. The book I’m currently reading, Old Calabria, originally published in 1915 by Norman Douglas about his travels through Calabria, Italy, describes the intolerable circumstances the Calabrian peasants lived with. “Every attempt at innovation in agriculture, as in industry, is forthwith discouraged by new and subtle impositions, which lie in wait for the enterprising Italian and punish him for his ideas. There is, of course a prohibitive duty on every article or implement manufactured abroad, there is the octroi, a relic of medievalism. the most unscientific, futile, and vexations of taxes; there are municipal dues to be paid on animals bought and animals sold, on animals kept and animals killed, on milk and vine-props and bricks, on timber for scaffolding and lead and tiles and wine–on every conceivable object which the peasant produces or requires for his existence.” The burden of trying merely to survive went on for centuries, and is a major reason Calabrians left Italy for America at the turn of the last century when workers were needed. Pilgrimages today to new worlds continue for many who find the countries they live in unbearable. Suffering is common to the human experience.
Life has its ease and beauty, but we do not know what the next day or moment may bring. Eventually we all will face death, and having the strength to walk through the land taking us to that place is a trip it would be good to prepare for so we have the inner strength upon our arrival. But what gives us strength to make the pilgrimages life demands of us–the long treks into the unknown, the risks of uncertainty flooding over us, and how do we prepare purposefully and wisely? Any answer we arrive at will most probably begin with learning how to live meaningfully and wisely in the moment we are living now–practicing being and bringing into our lives what is life engendering.
Recently, my husband and I took a trip up California’s west coast to visit some of the largest and most ancient trees living in virgin forests with a friend and filmmaker, Adrian Juric. Nothing is hidden about death or the stages of growth in a tree’s life when observing a forest never logged. All is visible. Standing amidst the mist enshrouded ferns in these ancient forests, I noticed everywhere around me fallen trees that had been lying there for who knows how many centuries, the echo of their thunderous long ago fall almost auditory when looking at the gargantuan ruptured trunks and shattered wood lying about. The violent disruption of life can be sensed simply by observing the aftermath.
But everywhere around the fallen trees, all the living trees were present, continuing on growing alongside the decaying ones, the fallen trees’ lives essential to the living ones. At the foot of the mother trees the young trees waited, ready to climb into the opening light when the mother tree fell. Trees of all ages coexist side by side, the fallen ones creating nutrient and light for those living on.
Observing nature, we’re reminded of how we, too, are part of nature. In the forest, we can see kind of mirror of our own lives–how disturbing, disabling, and threatening it became for other organisms when the tree fell–how incredibly harsh death can be. And, too, how difficult for the life of young trees near the great trees if you consider how they have to wait centuries for change, for light and their turn to grow.
Viewed in this way, perhaps it doesn’t seems like being in such a forest should necessarily make us feel better. We walk in a forest, and our difficulties might remain. Nevertheless, often the walk there somehow does change us, allowing us to see our lives from a different perspective. Nicholas Samaras in his poem, “Redwood,” describes how simply being in a redwood forest can give a person the necessary strength to face difficulty. You look around you at the trees’ magnificent height, the way the branches move and leaves transform light, and in them are given the opportunity to recognize what light can do when absorbed. Inhaling the fullness in the forest’s presence, you can walk back into the path of your own life differently. You might want to view and listen to Samaras’s poem here and sense through Juric’s film how a forest could change you, and perhaps, a bit of why, in concrete terms, Harvard Medical school’s July 2018 Men’s Health Watch article says that being in nature three days a week could do our bodies and mind serious good–everything from lowering blood pressure and reducing cortisol to reducing negative emotions.
There are many beautiful teachings we can learn from and practice to help us on our path of living wisely. The Beatitudes describe wise living as nurturing attitudes of becoming peacemakers who are merciful, and humble. The Five Mindfulness Trainings encourage us to practice respect for life, generosity, listening deeply to ourselves and others, and mindful consumption. Whatever our practice, this we know: life is fragile and we suffer. And this we know too: life goes better when we stand beside each other, holding each other as we can, when we learn from each other, letting our lives nurture and lift each other.
Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.
That strong tree growing in the forest is like the life of a dear brother, sister or loved friend, and the relationship with them is like music. Whether it’s taking a walk, working alongside one another, building something or eating together, relationships can bring us sustenance and blessing. As the final stanza of Aiken’s poem describes,
For it was in my heart that you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,
—They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.
When we’re with someone who suffers it may not feel our presence is enough, but in it is everything we are. To be fully present with another is to give your life in love. That is the greatest gift.
“The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” –Emerson, “Nature”
Joshua Tree National Park
Smoke trees, creosote shrubs, puffball bushes, ancient granite balancing rocks, vast seas of sun-soaked sand scattered with spiny cholla cactus and the splash of fire red blossoms on the ocotillo’s spindly spines–this is Joshua Tree National Park outside of Los Angeles in Southern California. Gone are the clogged traffic and freeways, LA’s colossal sprawl. To arrive here is to be made aware of the earth’s vast openness. Enormous basins stretch into far horizons rimmed by rugged mountains–a wide cup of immense beauty to drink in. Mountains here are stippled, variegated, and wear stripes. Everything in this desert is laid bare; not even the spiny thorns lay hidden, and to witness this place is to be filled with wonder.
The world at Joshua Tree is sculptural. Stone and soil. These are the foundations Earth is built from. At Joshua Tree we see the Earth’s purity. The rocks hold supple shape; their natural balance and grace evoke awe, and even the grains of sand hold form.
Nature has only to be itself to be beautiful, and her weathered age only makes her more interesting. This is a mythic world made visible where reality plays with the imagination and what you think you know about what reality is–how things are. In this world, rock seems to fold like butter, jack rabbits grow to the size of a dog, plants white and rounded as cloud pierce the skin more painfully than a needle, skeletons of trees cast calligraphic shadows, flowers can be the size of a grain of sand, and plants grow from rocks.
In its unique and stark form, there is a surreal quality to the desert, as well as a oneness to the landscape that causes me to ponder what it is that forms reality. In his poem, “Metaphor as Identity,” Nicholas Samaras writes,
I am a warm pocket of earth,
shaped like this and living for a while.
I am the memory of my good mentor who said,
“I only borrowed this dust.”
I am the dusty path out of sight.
Though Samaras wasn’t writing about the desert per se, to walk away from civilization for a few days to sleep and wake in a desert, allows me to enter a different rhythm of life and to glimpse an understanding that all our life is only a borrowing of “this dust.”
People have viewed the desert as a wasteland, a place where bombs could be dropped, and sewage dumped. Yet there are those, like Jesus, who emerged from the desert awakened. For me, the desert holds metaphors and messages. For example–we don’t have to be big or loud or young to be beautiful, the landscape seems to say. Strength isn’t necessarily the opposite of openness. We can be spacious, open, and yet survive. We can be empty. You can endure and be vulnerable as well. To gain character takes time, and you don’t have to be flawless. Ancient places can feed our spirits. Ancient places are necessary. Water and renewal are essential for survival. Too much light blinds. Shadows are beautiful.
In the desert, because of the scarcity of resources necessary for life there, I am confronted with the fragility of life, as well as my own emptiness and the real and imminent possibility of death. In that awareness, I’m brought to a place of humility and deep gratitude for the many life-giving things that sustain me. Spending time in a desert such as Joshua Tree, I also see that death and life are part of each other; “I am the dusty path out of sight,” as Samaras writes. In the desert’s sparseness, I experience a sense of solitude and a longing for a connection to all that is–a yearning for that which whispers beneath and inside the rhythms of life’s creative force–leading beyond the forms this creative effort has assumed–rock, sky, and plants–to speak to my state of being.
Though they commonly live from 150 to 200 years, one Joshua Tree lived to be an astonishing thousand years old. According to Soft Schools, however, Joshua Trees were also used for newspaper pulp for the London Daily Telegraph in the 19th century. Many say spiritual awareness and connection to a spiritual practice aren’t necessary to living well in our world. The world and all it holds are objects or resources, there for us to use to fulfill our needs and wishes. This way of thinking, though, can lead to our treating the world as paper pulp, so to speak. The Los Angeles Basin was once a wild desert place. Its loss is irrecoverable, as will be the loss of future spaces such as the Grand Escalante Staircase, under threat by our current U.S. government leader, who wants to reduce it by 900,000 acres, so it can be opened for mining interests or used for other potential commercial development.
Natural environments are far more essential to our being than ornamentation in our front yards, the backdrop to cities or a scenic spaces we see on a holiday visit. Our interactions with nature benefit us immensely, and can help heal us both emotionally and physically, as Adam Alter describes in Atlantic Monthly’s article, “How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” We still have in our language the usage of the word sanctuary when referring to nature–a remanent of the idea that the natural world is somehow a holy place, set aside and something to be protected, but this value is endangered by the desire for money and the impression that we can use our power over the natural world and disregard its needs or what is necessary for it to function well. To destroy nature is to destroy ourselves and demonstrates a lack of ability to see ourselves as connected to the land and it’s eco systems. Our very survival depends on the protection and health of the environment, and we have the choice not to accept the loss of natural environments as inevitable and necessary.
It’s worth noting that previous to modernity, Earth was seen by most to contain a spiritual presence. In her Orion magazine article, “Speaking of Nature,” Robin Kimmerer writes “indigenous philosophy recognizes other beings as our relatives…We have no choice but to consume, but we can choose to consume a plant or animal in a way that honors the life that is given and the life that flourishes as a consequence. Instead of avoiding ethical jeopardy by creating distance, we can embrace and reconcile that tension. We can acknowledge food, plants and animals as fellow beings and through sophisticated practices of reciprocity demonstrate respect for the sacred exchange of life among relatives.” There is an immeasurable worth in wild spaces beyond their commercial value– their beauty, their ability to connect us to the source of life, to restore and renew, and to teach us.
Kimmerer isn’t alone in her perspective. Since ancient times, the Greek Orthodox, too, affirm God is not separate or detached from creation. As a Greek Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit states, there is a spiritual “presence in all places filling all things.” The essayist Wendell Berry explains that “Creation is thus God’s presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard has written that ‘Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God’s hidden Being.’ This means that we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate, for to every creature, the gift of life is a portion of the breath and spirit of God.” (Christianity and the Survival of Creation, p. 30)
Arrived at home again, you disembark
from your satchel to attend Vespers.
You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness.
The now-far clock tower resonates satisfaction
Over time, your body will become used to these hours.
Over time, your body will become these hours.
You hold to silence and chanting filters up to the stars.
You hold to the silence and let the years come.
The speaker in Samaras’s poem rises at Vespers to pray. Why do we need spiritual practices, including things like walking in nature, doing art, contemplative reading, and purposeful acts of generosity. In our culture, we want to run away from time. We revere youth and scorn age. If we look at the aged earth, however, we notice how beautiful it is, and are moved to recognize its majesty, and realize to be present on earth is to be more than an object. We are alive, and that is a sacred. Spiritual practices can help us grow into a place of understanding that our bodies and time are melded together in the creative fire of life’s cycle. We can become aware that we are living prayers moving through the landscape. Like wind, frost, and sun, slowly we shape the stones and grow the flowers of our existence.
Similar to encountering serious illnesses or losses, desert landscapes ferry us into a world where we grow silent. The desert exposes life’s bare bones, lifts its shapely stones into the wilderness of cold, sun, and the boundless sky where time and wind work them into shapes of beauty. Its vast silence holds a wholeness. We practice holding the silence inside the bare and bald desert places of our world, and through the hours there can learn to find the gratitude that will hold us like granite through the years and weather to come.
Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel, writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”
Stories connect us to the people who came before us, the narratives they live out and the tales they tell us about what the world is, and who we are in the world. We live by the stories that have shaped and taught us. They give meaning to our experience and direct us in our journey. Stories condense experience, give us the opportunity to examine our difficulties, and to reflect on how our struggles might enable us to grow.
The oldest form of story is poetry. Before poems were ever written, they were told. People’s histories were given in poetry–words constructed to call up experiences through sound and imagery that evoked emotion and helped people remember who they were, what they had done, and why it was important. In listening to poetry, we can step inside a reflection of life that holds up a mirror, and at the same time speaks to something beyond what is experienced. It is a way to reconnect to what it means to be human and to the mystery of existence. As Dana Gioia writes, “In a moment’s pause another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.” By extension, because poetry was once connected to other art forms, stories, music, and dance, these are doors we can open to that allows us to walk into a larger reality, to see the world from a wider perspective.
The idea that the physical world intersects with the spiritual world is an ancient one, found in many traditions; the Celtic, Catholic, and Native American being a few examples of these. St. John Damascene, a Syrian monk who lived from c. 675 or 676 –to 749 CE, wrote a defense for the use of icons (see more here) that shaped the direction of the church. Though others at the time argued against the use of icons and representational art. God is bigger than any particular physical form, the thinking went, and therefore representation of God in icons should not be allowed. St. John of Damascene argued, however, that if God became human in the form of Christ, then two are intermingled. The sacred could be seen living and breathing through the human form, and therefore it was completely acceptable, he argued, to create icons, to worship through icons, and to paint the human form. In fact, art was a way for the illiterate to see God, Damascene explained, and to read the story of God’s compassion for and interest in humans through the paintings. Damascene demonstrated an acceptance of paradox, and the idea that one’s thinking doesn’t have to be contained in tight boxes of either or. William Dalrymple, in his book, From the Holy Mountain, quotes Damascene saying, “‘…the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.'” Through painting, as through nature, Damascene declares, God communicates his presence in the world, and art is a central way in which humans can experience and connect with the Divine.
Though Dalrymple describes the cave where St. John of Damascene wrote these thoughts in The Fount ofKnowledge,as “crude and primitive,” he goes on to say that, “Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.” I’m very grateful for Damascene’s words and thoughts regarding art. Without them, we’d likely be deprived of much beauty, and the spirit that speaks through that beauty.
In her poem, “Pray for Peace,” Ellen Bass speaks of this interconnection of the everyday world around us with the world of spirit.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.
Though a way of communicating half forgotten these days, Bass helps the reader to see that prayer can be any act we do with full attention and heart. When we pay attention to our lives, doing what we love presence, that is prayer–a breathing, walking prayer that adds meaning to our lives, and enables us to grow toward wholeness. Making a routine out of things saves energy and time, but even routines can be done with attention and heart. How do we cultivate the kind of noticing awareness in our every day lives, the ways of being that enable the act of living to become prayer?
Involvement in a creative act is a central way to connect the physical world with the inner world. Though there are a variety of art forms that can enable a person to live in fuller awareness of a connection to life’s mystery, writing is an excellent path from which to begin this journey. Whenever I leave the house, I carry my journal, a small book that easily fits inside a pocket. I carry it because at any time something might appear, or someone might say something that needs to be noticed, and I want to be ready. My journal is my fishing line, so to speak. Though I may miss many things swimming in the world around me, because I’m prepared with pen and paper to notice something, I am more likely to find and catch something than if I had no tool at all to help me. Whatever I’m working on as a writer, I look and listen for moments that speak to me while moving through the day—a random phrase, a gesture, a sudden familiar scent that might embody the idea I’m reaching for in a writing piece I’m working on. I remain attentive to sounds, textures, colors, actions—the world’s details that define a place or time. As a result of knowing the questions I’m living with and what I’m looking for, things tend to show up and announce their connection like a kind of internal spark. Suddenly, as if witnessing the embodiment of a metaphor, I see, for example, how something I’m looking at or hear is related to something seemingly completely different. The discovery has a wonderful quality to it, and to then write it out is to be able to embody that insight. Sharing it with others deepens a sense of connection to the world.
Writers aim to name the world, and doing so is to participate in a kind of co-creation of life, at least this is how I experience what happens while writing, and it is one of the motivating reasons to write. To write is to observe closely, and to observe closely moves me to an awareness that I am part of a greater something beyond myself–that I swim in the mystery of existence. Writing is a path that allows me to enter a space where I’m both fully present in my life, and somehow not present at the same time as I step inside the weave of words. This is because I’m living inside of the thing I’m writing about, and what I’m writing about is bigger than me. As poet Nicholas Samaras explained to me once, writers are always writing, even when not writing. I agree with Samaras when he says, on Poetry Net, “God is in the point of my pen.” In losing myself in the work I am doing, I’m made more alive, full, and solid. It’s a paradox.
Writing poetry can be a kind of prayer. My father wrote stories and poetry, but my mother taught me to pay attention to the world around me. She constantly noticed the natural world, flowers on the bank or scent of orange blossoms from the orchard, bees at the birdbath, a fox that came through the front yard, or hawks that circled above the hill behind us. The wind as it blew through the pines where she grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was an ancient choir, she said. As she described the experience to me, I could hear the wind as if it were real. She recalled wild gooseberries’ tart flavor, and told me the names and shapes of wildflowers that grew on the land of her childhood home. Her descriptions lived in my mind as if they were real. Even though where I grew up in eastern San Diego county’s dry desert–very different from the Black Hills, I felt preciousness my mother’s memories of her childhood’s natural environment. Her respect for those experiences nurtured in me a love of my own childhood’s natural environment.
I played outside every day as a child, climbed around on granite boulders, or sat inside the branches of an avocado, umbrella or pepper tree. Our front door often stood open to the outside air. I ran through the yard barefoot, watched clouds parade by, and sunsets spill across the horizon. Coyotes’ yips echoed through the valley in the evening. Crickets sang. Stars came out. These were all gifts, and I belonged to that earth. The experience of growing up in such a place with the opportunity to experience the natural world as part of the rhythms of every day life created in me a foundation for wanting to remain connected to the earth. To have our feet on the earth, to literally ground our selves there, is life engendering. If deprived of such experiences, I think our bodies and spirits still long for them without possibly even knowing it.
Poetry relies on imagery and figures of speech. It integrates the physical world with the world of language. It tells abstract ideas by recreating the physical world. It reconnects the writer and the reader back to place, and this is a central reason why I find it so powerful. In our world, the culture of the workplace pushes us to compete, to gain power and control. When writing poetry, however, I interactively participate in reconnecting to the physical world and the presence residing beneath and inside the movement of life. I trace my origin of wanting to write back to these childhood experiences of connection to the earth’s vibrant, sustaining presence. Willa Cather writes in My Antonia, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” To be able to wander in time, to play in a landscape or place is to be transformed and enlarged by it. Writing poetry focuses the writer on presence, and in doing so, helps move the writer toward wholeness. I recommend it.
Most days we move through a world of familiar routines, often with unsurprising outcomes. The past few days I spent time with friends who own a house in Peschio, a tiny village situated above Alvito, Italy, a small community located on the edge of the Comino Valley a couple of hours below Rome in the state of Lazio. In Peschio, traditions still hold sway in people’s everyday lives. Bells ring on the hour, people have close connections with their neighbors and still live where they were born. Neighbors share gifts of food such as handmade pasta. In the evening, people gather for conversation at the local ice cream parlor or sit with friends on benches in the street. The town adorns the roads with ribbons for a celebration of the Madonna, carrying an icon of her through the streets. Here, communities aren’t driven by competition or pressed down with the weight of tasks to complete in a limited period of time. Life here is simple. Houses are not fancy, neither are their clothes. It’s true that the area struggles economically and that the population is aging, yet at the same time people have time to chat on the street or gather for an impromptu dinner on the neighborhood piazza. Human connection remains central to life.
View of Comino Valley, from Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Neighborhood gathering for pizza on the piazza, Peschio, Italy
Ice cream shop in Alvito, Italy
Homemade pasta, a neighbor’s gift, Peschio village,
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley from Peschio, Italy
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley, Lazio, Italy
I feel a connection to those living in a world where tradition is still a vital part of people’s understanding and way of being, but this way of being can’t be mine. I wasn’t raised with traditions that go back to the old world. I have lived in too many worlds with too many other lives, but there is a beauty there. Unlike the world in Alvito, the world most of us live in is filled not with space for human connection, but instead with human competition and the drive to get ahead, make a name, or gain power in some area, even if a narrow one. Minutes count, and finding time to sit outside and enjoy the evening air or to chat with a friend can be challenging. In such a world it is difficult to find satisfaction or wholeness. It’s challenging to find the time to reflect on life, hard to assume an attitude of receptivity instead of needing to act or be in charge, though receptivity is a central attitude that enables us to learn respect for our limitations and to value our interdependence with others, qualities that in turn engender connectivity with others and help us experience life as meaningful.
Occasionally, however, amidst the clatter and squeeze of everyday life that pushes us along from one event to the next, the extraordinary, like a giant fish rising from the sea’s depths or storm wind shaking a tree to its roots, occurs, and we are given a window into our lives that touches us at our roots and helps us see what we are. Having recently read Nicholas Samaras’s book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, I feel I have experienced the extraordinary. Echoes from the poems’ imagery and language move through my mind, rising at unexpected moments, floating up from the subconscious where the poems have been at work. The poems probe the struggle to live purposefully with meaning when traditional values and ways of being no longer hold the world together.
Though we have access to unprecedented volumes of knowledge in our day, to live meaningfully and purposefully, all of us must negotiate between enormous areas of ongoing, continuous and rapid social, economic and technological fluctuation and change. It is no easy task to assimilate ourselves into these various worlds and learn how to integrate them into our lives in a way that allows us to develop wholeness. Each of us must explore how to direct ourselves through the current of these changes. Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich said, “Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith,” and Samaras’s poetry is an exploration of meaning making while swimming in the sea of the postmodern era. The intensely vivid quality of Samaras’s descriptions, language and poetic narratives in Hands of the Saddlemaker pulled me below the surface of words into an interior current flowing between places of exile and belonging, faith, and loss, love and death.
From the opening poem, “Lost,” describing the ease with which a person can lose his or her way, to the final piece, “Decade,” depicting the transformative moment where pain and brokenness from a relationship are let go, the poems in this volume traverse the territory between the traditions, beliefs and practices that both bind and open us. The book’s ending poem, “Decade” returns to a place of confrontation with grief and loss that allows one to come to finally release from its hold and come to a place of stasis where healing might begin. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” The ground we stand in our era is constantly shifting and most of us don’t have lives that thread us back to origins, place or carefully followed tradition. The poems explore the territory between and beyond borders, tradition and predefined boundaries, stretching into broader realms of experience and emotion where transformation is forged and meaning created amidst brokenness. This is a book of poems that speaks to our time and worthy of careful and repeated readings.
One of the poems in the volume, “Easter in the Cancer Ward” describes the process of coloring and decorating eggs for Easter, while confronting the certainty of death and contemplating the significance of belief in life after death ends. One of the children in the ward with cancer directly states “I’m dying.” Another unexpectedly later asks the poem’s narrator if he believes in Christ and living forever, prompting him to search within in himself for an honest answer. Easter, as we know, is about life after death, but the poem places us in the moment where death lives inside of life and helps us see how the two are connected. The poem ends where the children put the narrator’s hands into the red dye, staining them red, the color of resurrection. The poem’s last line, “and we are laughing,” is especially poignant. Here is an image of life in death, death in life, and the hard territory one walks between the two. The child has led the speaker to touch that place, a world of pain and wonder inseparable from each other.
In his poem about crossing borders, “Passport,” Samaras writes, “In counties of the temporary, we are forever/ accumulating, possessing, leaving behind./ In the end, our hands will finally be empty.” This is an absolutely powerful piece about impermanence. In some sense, we are always standing at a border, the border between today and tomorrow, youth and age, innocence and experience. The border is a place of transformation–leaving a country, possessions, or a life. We exchange one way of being for another, one life for another. “I cannot help but be a citizen of transience,” writes Samaras, “always looking for the land beyond language.” Forever life is changing and we are leaving behind what we were, “our pale winter/ breaths losing the shape of our bodies.” There is death, but there is also the possibility of entering “the land beyond language,” a place where presence moves beyond the clothes we carry or the language our tongues wear, or any particular belonging, and we are “fresh and farthingless[ly]” ourselves.
Earlier this summer while walking in downtown Santa Cruz, California, I walked past a street preacher standing on his soap box calling out to passers by telling them they were sinners and to come to Jesus. While it’s true that we are all incomplete and need renewal daily, the word sin, is hardly in anyone’s vocabulary these days. I found the soapbox preacher’s tone disturbing. It didn’t compel me to examine my life. Instead, I wanted to push him away. I don’t like anyone yelling at me.
Religion today is bound up in politics, is full of lines drawn on many sides defining right from wrong. What may have once been clear divisions of morality has been manipulated by motivations of profit, of revenge and the love of control, often confusing our understanding of what is really being said so that it’s difficult to know and act on the truth, even as we understand it. While some people are certain they know what is right (as I suspect the street preacher did because of his tone) in this world–the correct beliefs and actions, or at least want to convince us that they do, Samaras’a poetry presents a different vision of belief in the Divine. “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” two men enter an abandoned NY city cathedral that is condemned and scheduled to be torn down, paralleling what is in fact a reality in Christianity today, where the church is being blotted out in its geographical place of origin (see William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain) and where the church has lost respect in the general population as a result of misconduct by priests, attitudes of bigotry, injustice, and through other acts contrary to the teaching of Christ who called people to love their neighbor. Even though the church in Samaras’s “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” is boarded up, abandoned, and set for destruction, though the homeless are lined up and sleeping outside it, the two men intuitively recognize there something inside the vestiges of its structure that nevertheless still offers refuge. “There is nothing worse than a safe life,” writes Samaras, and the faith demonstrated in this poem is not one of safety. The world inside the cathedral is broken. Wires and tubes twist across the floor, the staircase is dilapidated, and the roof opens to the sky and moon. What was once sacred is strewn together with the profane. The two men find it disturbing that “such a building, such a solidity can fall to man’s priorities.” The church’s broken state reflects our human inability to discern what is holy or pure. Svetozar, one of the two men, steps on a nail that pierces his foot. Similar to this unexpected wounding in a place once sacred but now desecrated, innocents across the world have been harmed in the darkness of wars that have changed lives forever, and in particular since the World Wars. Like the homeless sleeping outside the church walls, we are all in some sense homeless now, without belief and holding a general societal disregard or nonchalance regarding injustices. Ignore the nail that has pierced the foot, however, and we die.
Why enter the cathedral? Why call on faith in a time when to believe in God is to many an absurdity? “We climb to resist/ ourselves in a complacent country,” writes Samaras. “To enter this cathedral/ this edifice was necessary.” Faith isn’t arrogance or a person calling from a soapbox on a city street. It is the climb in a church of uncertain structure to
…a level footing, an icon
and a dusty mirror.
All through palpable darkness, the ginger
feeling for where the foot should go next,
the leaning the weight into it.
Here is humility. Here is a spirituality that connects to the suffering of humanity in the dark places of difficulty and pain. Here is where Samaras brings us to at the end of the poem, “wind filters throughout clothes. For a moment, I thought/ I heard the connected lives of others.” The speaker is holding the memory of one’s own hands wrapped around the broken bannister’s weight. The Christian ritual of communion and bread breaking represents Jesus’s self broken, like the bread, and the shared selfless giving with the community of humanity. Yes the church is broken, like all human institutions. But there is also the church that is still what a church is meant to be–God living through people on earth; Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teresa of Avila, Oscar Romero, Parker Palmer, and the myriad of every day people who do the work in the world and in themselves that creates wholeness. Faith is more than a set of beliefs. As Kierkegaard says, “It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.” The poem shows us those who take the risk and enter in can learn spiritual truths that remain beneath and inside the brokenness and with it, we can find strength to change our lives.
Perhaps I feel drawn to the poems in Hands of the Saddlemaker because inside the poems I hear a voice that tells me there are no easy answers. Several of the poems in the book deal with the hard work of reconciliation. We are all living in some form of exile and we must work out our own salvation. Having lived in other countries outside my own for 25 years, I feel an affinity for the voices of those living outside the boundaries of what might have once been home. I am from the borderlands. My parents moved to California from South Dakota and I was the first in my family to be born there. SanDiego County bordering Mexico was my childhood home. For me, everywhere and nowhere is home. I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “This World is Not My Home” (and here is a bluegrass version.) Though I live in one world, I am of another world too.
Woven through this volume of poems is the sense that the writing is born from a distinct, even painful awareness of the incompleteness of one’s own life, and the willingness to confront it honestly in order to cut through to the marrow of bone where the soul is laid bare and offered up on an altar like a prayer. I think of the Rembrandt painting I saw this summer in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, of Abraham offering up Isaac and the angel holding back Abraham’s hand. The story and painting is a metaphor for what powerful art and writing is. It functions as a sacred offering. In the act of making and reading poetry and art we can be saved, so to speak, through the power of art and words to restore.
It was 3:00 am at the border as I reentered India last night, serendipitously, just like the line in Samaras’s poem, “Passport” where he says “It is always three am at the border.” I had my bag with my yearly supply of vitamins, my clothes, my journal. Men pushed a long line of luggage carts, some leaned against a wall, listless with the weight of waiting. My shoes are old and wearing through the bottoms, but again I begin. Beyond the airport doors waited the city’s broken walls, the millions who sleep on the street. Tired, without sleep, aware of the world I left behind, the world I was about to step into, I left the airport’s bright lights and glossy tiles and rode out into India. There are so many brave people living on India’s streets, each day not knowing where or how their food will come, how they will meet with illness or loss. Continuously, I am reminded here of the need to step beyond my own lack of faith, to be brave–to better understand the need around me and to listen for the voices that help me understand and how to serve out of my own depths the world around me.
The poems in the volume embody faith in periods of grief and loss, a willingness to bear that loss in order to find a way through it. I learn from the poetry in this book, and am changed. Samaras’s poems are more than descriptive words with an insightful message. They have soul. The poems in the book speak to each other in a way other poetry books I’ve read do not. The poems echo off and weave back into each other. They breathe together, become more than they were individually. These are poems whose words hold integrity, life and spirit. They help us find how to bear the hard things of this world. By example, they demonstrate poetry’s power to show us our humanity and bring us back to ourselves. Reading the poems in Nicholas Samaras’s Hands of the Saddlemaker calls me to live more deeply, to feel gratitude for the many small joys of our existence. There is a humility present in the spirit that comes through the writing at the same time that the writing demonstrates mastery and beauty. Such writing is rare, and to read it is a wonderful gift.
We move through our days, reaching toward whatever it is we have set our minds and hearts on, doing our work, making our plans, joining in with the life of family and friends. In between the routines and the larger movements in our life’s story, however, lie the quiet moments where the deep wonderings and emotions of being whisper to us. These are what Nicholas Samaras’s writing does in his new book of poems, American Psalm, World Psalm. They lay open the yearning we experience at the deepest level of our mind and being. When reading Samaras’s poems, the reader senses the open heart resting beneath them, the vulnerable place from which the words rise and speak. The poems in this volume reach into the fabric of who we are as modern people and wrestle with difficult questions, addressing them in a way that is both personal and powerful.
One of the things that especially spoke to me while reading American Psalm, World Psalm, is the space on the page and inside the poems. There is breath in the way Samaras uses the white space on the page. The “Psalm of the Quietest Wailing,” for example, is a sectioned poem where the first section contains only one line, “It is attention that makes worship.” The rest of the page is empty. I read the line, and I notice it on the page as if it were a stone lying in a Japanese garden surrounded by the wide space of raked sand. The next page reveals the poem’s second section where the poem’s speaker describes listening to “the rubble of history,” how he stands with it, his breath bearing witness to what its stones declare. Here, as throughout the volume, I sensed the humility, born from standing in this place of listening openness out of which the poet speaks. The poem’s third section contains two lines. Then, once again, the remainder of the page is open, leaving space for the reader to take in what is being said, space to reflect on the words. “What is virtue,” the poem’s fourth section asks, “but whispering, Who am I?” This is the very question the book’s poems bring me back to repeatedly. The poems call me out of a noisy world where a myriad of things crowd and clamber for attention, and they bring me into a garden where words are given back space to breathe in, where they regain a sense of themselves because of the honesty they are spoken in. Over and over while reading the poems I found myself leaning into the words on the page, listening deeply, drinking in the lines from a place of thirst hidden inside me the poems had found a way to name. “The writing from my hands is the quietist wailing,” writes Samaras, “the witness of breath against a listening wall.” With spare words and deep beauty, Samaras captures the essence of the hard places we live in.
The psalms that Samaras writes in American Psalm, World Psalm, like the Biblical psalms, are a deep cry of the heart trying to make sense of how to live in this world. From the topic of global warming, to a call for readers to consider what is actually enough, versus constantly concentrating on what our consumer driven world suggests we need, the poems in the book are not about religion in the cultural sense. These poems move into a deeper place. “Believing in God after the Holocaust is political,” writes Samaras in “The Political Psalm,” just as “Writing a sonnet after Dachau is political.” How do we find that place where we can move beyond words and into a relationship with the Divine that is beyond the stale words and religious routines that culture and time have deadened and beaten the spirit out of? Through a space of stillness, suggest the poems in American Psalm, World Psalm, where we open ourselves in waiting.
We live in a monetized world where transactions are shadowed by the awareness of how even every day actions, such as the subjects we speak of in an e-mail are pieces of data collected and used as reference points to sell us something. “I grieve to live in a country where a verdict/of “not guilty” doesn’t equal “innocent,” writes Samaras in “Psalm for Public Grieving.” The poems in American Psalm, World Psalm describe a variety of desert places we are living in, encouraging us to look at them closely. One of Samaras’ poems invites the reader to not take breath for granted. Another tells how it is in our emptiness and brokenness that we may find what it is to be blessed. Samaras describes in “Psalm for the Soul in Depression,”
…I don’t want
a preacher in expensive suits. There is
no salvation by slogans. There are no sound-bites
to bring us home. We don’t work
with the aim for conversion. We only
The weight of the light shining on the desert places in us grows through the book, bringing the reader into an awareness of her own unsaid longings. “Speak to me/ about the presence of absence” writes Samaras in “Sacred Air.” “Not everything created/ can be seen.” Samaras’s poems remind us that life is much more than this narrow space in our minds we’ve confined ourselves to. The poems in American Psalm, World Psalm speak to all who long to live in a world that still contains wonder. A universe filled with mystery surrounds us still, and we are invited to partake in it. As Samaras says in “The Psalm of Give and Let”
Let our mortal bodies be so crowded
by the unseen seen
that we go home changed forever,
finally attendant in prayer.
The poems in Samaras’ American Psalm, World Psalm demonstrate the power with which poetry can speak to us, and to our current lives and culture. Music moves us, and the music of Samaras’ psalms call us out of ourselves, out of our habits and routines into a different way of being in relationship to the world. “Only when you find yourself lost/will you confront what you value,” says Samaras in “God of the Desert.” Through finely etched words, like shadows drawn by bare branches across the sand, the words in these poems scratch on our souls. I feel deeply grateful for the gift of these poems to my life and to the world of poetry. These are poems to be lost and found in.
Is poetry relevant to us today? Do poets speak to the questions we live with? When I read writer Nicholas Samaras’s poetry, I say yes. Samaras’s new book is coming out this spring, American Psalm, World Psalm, and I can’t wait to read it. Samaras’s previous book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. About that book, Laurence Lieberman said, “Hands of the Saddlemaker earns all of late James Dickey’s enthusiasm, and then some…truly an overwhelming masterwork; the whole work is a transcendent marvel.”
Taking a closer look at some of Nicholas Samaras’s poetry found on Connotation Press, “Metaphor As Identity”, “Old Calendar”, and “Petition”, I love the way these poems create space between the images and lines, opening a space for the reader to step inside.
“Metaphor as Identity” uses images that are vividly alive and felt. The stanzas describe a self that reaches below the surface into the dark space of creation where we live. This is a place where presence and becoming co-exist, a place of longing, reaching, and deep yearning to connect to the Mystery. “I am the exact space between bell-tolls to chapel” Samaras writes, and continues later in the poem to say, “I am an ascetic who cannot pray. / I am a prayer in slow making.” These images, like others in this poem, are both present and absent at the same time. They open a window into a way of seeing that enables readers to notice and step inside the ephemeral nature of our being.
If you’ve ever visited historical monuments, you will have noticed the names written in stone with dates, kings and queens, perhaps, who ruled a country, but whom you know nothing about other than their names. Obituaries list what people have done, their accomplishments. Family trees list who married who and what their occupations were–lines leading back into time. But who were these people? What was the essence of their lives, their spirits? What was it to stand in their presence? Can a whole of a life really be summed up in these references? No. What we are is some deeper mystery, and if we ask our selves who are we, and keep asking, we will eventually move past the labels to a place where we stand wordless, a place of knowing and not knowing at the same time, and this is the place that Samaras’s poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, brings the reader to. This place of knowing-not knowing is where we meet our selves, in the place between naming and not naming.
This place of not naming and naming, connects to another one of Samaras’s poems, “Eve Naming Other Animals”, found on the Adirondack Review‘s site, where Samaras describes Eve observing animals. Eve notices the way the animals move and behave, and this deep looking enables her to define and name them. Definitions separate us from the whole. They name what sets something apart from other things, and they shape the mind by calling us to notice specific elements. The very language we speak and use shapes the mind in this way, and this poem calls attention to the process. When I was an undergraduate, I had a biology teacher that took us on a walk to notice plants. Students would ask him the names of plants. He refused to tell us the name, saying if he told us, we we wouldn’t look at it longer. We’d think we knew what it was and we’d turn away to another plant, or simply walk on. Instead, he wanted us to observe closely, ask questions, notice–to really see, not just take a snapshot with our brains. Samaras’s poem shows us Eve doing the opposite, she is looking long, noticing, and calling out the essence of what she sees.
Slender horns approach, and I find
my touch makes them shapely: fronds
of opaque light that dances from angles.
I like their intimacy more than angels,
more than that shimmer that stays in place.
Into the meadow of limbs and motion, I trace
the bent wheat to be with them there.
Like a gesture moving through the air,
it is a gesture moving through the air.
I find this given language spare,
suddenly. It leaves too soon in breath.
The poem goes on, but you can see how Eve, and the poet as well, are living with the animals as presences, taking them in, not merely naming them in a random act and walking on. She notices the animal’s gestures, and how it is a kind of language it uses to name itself, she is calling attention to what its essence is, and using that to name the animal. We live too much in a world where being seen, the way you present yourself and how you are labeled, how you brand yourself–as if you are a commodity, is given considerable weight, and the actual substance is hidden somehow underneath. It’s as if we have been taken over by a media presentation. The poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, however, takes us back into that place of mystery, where we can rediscover we are more than what we have branded ourselves as or how we have been labeled. We are like Eve again, looking into the face of the animal, noticing who and what it is before we name it. We are first of all being, the Samaras’s poem reminds us. We are presence, and we stand in a presence that is hidden from obvious view, and wondrously rounded in silence–“the dusty path out of sight.” We are more than what we have labeled ourselves as. We are enigma. We are mystery.
Our lives are the crossroads of all the other lives from which we come, one of the knots in the great fabric of being that we are connected to. This is part of the mystery, and we carry the history of those people and places in our bodies, even though we may be unconscious of it. We are ourselves, and we are part of the others who came before us as well. Samaras’s poem, “Old Calendar” carries the reader into myth, and into the ways we are connected to time–our own lives, but also to history in ways we don’t necessarily understand, but can feel the presence of if we listen in the dark silence. The clock, his poem suggests, may be ringing out the years of time, but we come from a place of darkness, and go back to it. The ancient Celts started their year in darkness. Out of darkness, the place of unknowing–the great void, so to speak, comes all that is. This is the wisdom of the ancients. “You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness,” writes Samaras in “Old Calendar”. We grow used to the clock tower ticking on satisfactorily, as Samaras says, but,
You hold on to the silence and chanting filters up to stars, You hold to silence and let the years come.
Samaras’s poem shows us we live in time, but know we are part of the silence as well.
Another of Samaras’s poems, “Petition”, is utterly beautiful, so beautiful it makes the heart ache in the way it portrays the silence, the emptiness. But the silence this poem speaks of is one that opens the heart to awe, and allows us to see ourselves more clearly, humbly. There is almost an existential quality to this poem in its opening stanzas in the way the poem poem points us toward our aloneness in the universe, but it is not an empty darkness.
Ask the night to let you not be lonely.
Ask the night to heal your heart.
Step out into the black eve of winter
and breathe in the clarity.
Let the scarcely-seen stars glimmer
their small mercies on you, the air
The darkness and cold here are not hollow. Instead, they enable us to see ourselves more clearly, they offer us “small mercies.” I love the lines that go on to say, “to push a little past weariness is a good thing.” When we have pushed ourselves into weariness is when we are especially able to understand the intrinsic value of stillness, the absence of activity that enables us to regenerate. It is this stillness, the sabbath time, where we learn in our bones the “blessing of silence,” and where dialog with silence can begin.
Samaras’s poems speak to the deep places in the mind that we find ourselves wandering in as we try to understand who we are and how to live, and these are poems that teach us to listen in the silence and live inside the questions. I feel grateful for these poems, for the way they call my attention to what it means to be alive. The poems in both structure and content create a kind of space where learned answers are left behind, and we enter a kind of holy darkness that allows us to touch questions of existence and feel them in a tangible way. Reading them is like listening to the fine notes of a flute drifting across a winter’s meadow on a starry night from some distant place, crisp light outlining the tips of branches, and drawing shadows on the sides of buildings. You hear your feet crunch through the snowy meadow as you walk toward home. Just before you step inside your house, you turn and look at the sky–the myriad points of light, both faint and bright. You see the immensity of all that is, and know the wonder that you are alive amidst it all.
If you want to read more about Nick Samaras, you might want to check out an interview on the blog, “Just My Eyes”, or on the Antler blog here.