art, Beauty, creativity, Uncategorized

Becoming Tender

The ocean is an unpredictable place and wild. Stand at cliff edge and listen to the water’s liquid shatter, the crackled fizz as waves expend their energy and turn to foam. Sense the momentary quivering before the next wave rises, ready to roll in. To walk by the ocean, to observe it from a cliff is to absorb some of its essence through your breath and pores. There is a rhythm in the ocean, a wild music as it were, that washes over to envelope one in its presence, sweeping us along into the rush and calm of its life. For a few moments, we let go of our sense of obligations, the stories of what we need to be or do, and are absorbed into a presence much greater than ourselves. Time slows down, dissolves into an awareness that we’re held in a vastness of all we do not know or understand. And though the waves crash in explosions, it’s exhilarating. We are alive. We feel it in our bodies and are content.

The ocean is a liquid wilderness, a place of shifting currents without defined paths. One enters the ocean hoping to find something a bit unexpected. It’s never certain what one might experience or see. In addition to the wonders of encountering shoals of shining fish and banks of colorful coral, from stinging rays and jelly fish to fire coral and riptides, venturing into the sea involves some risk, as my poem below from Buoyant, describes.

Afternoon Breeze, Natalia Ziniak

Regarding Tenderness

Only a dozen of the three hundred shark species in the world
attack humans. I didn’t want to risk my ignorance
with one that might wish to test my skin, leaving
prolonged scars or have one shake me to a bloody death.

Mesmerized by clownfish shyly bouncing out and into
bubble coral, a pilot fish traveling with me all day
while snorkeling, a manta shrimp’s pivoting eye,
trigger fish biting at my mask chasing after my fins—
I had twenty-one dives. These were adequate adventures for me.

Others on the boat with possibly a hundred dives
or more couldn’t wait to encounter what I feared.
Questioning the source of my fear, I found myself underwater,
seated back against a rock wall, inhaling quietly,
waiting for sharks to arrive.

An offering of fish flesh fastened to a heavy chain
dropped from the boat above. In they came
with arched spines and fins pulled back, circling the food,
carrying their layers of pointed teeth. White tipped sharks
and silver, bronze whalers and gray, the frenzied pack
closed in on the meat—fifty sharks, maybe more,
their strong jaws instinctually grasping, cutting through flesh,
rocking back and forth, spinning, sawing, tearing meat.
Crunching through bone, eating the carcasses whole.

Their singular focus to feed their hunger, their nature
from ancient origin, blood incidental to their fixed intention.
I was nothing to them, could breathe calmly. The water between us
a space to observe hunger’s ravenous need to be filled,
I inhaled the furious vision of gnashing teeth, unspoken
groaning, and thundering silence.

Come all you tender people year upon year adapting
to nuances of cloudy conditions, strong currents, cold
and storm, and histories of grief, adjusting like the octopus
to every tide, carrying your hunger like a hidden wound.
Come with your strong teeth, piercing starvation,
biting jaws, and famished hearts.

There are dwellers in deep water who see your need,
places you can meet your fears, breathe them out,
and your hunger be fed.

Though the poem is written about an experience as a new diver, no matter one’s level of experience, there are always things in life’s ocean that we’re not fully prepared for, even though we’ve done the work to help us when difficulties arrive. We still feel the challenge. When we dive into the sea, we connect with life, and life simultaneously contains both wonder and experiences of things that wound and threaten to tear us apart. The sea, says Carl Jung, is “the mother of all that lives,” and living, as the poem above describes, can be difficult. Sometimes we are ravenous for things we cannot have or even name. We are starved for what feeds the soul and brings us life. We might find ourselves famished sometimes for places of calm and safety, or ravenous for kindness, hungry for a way to meet basic needs of shelter and food. We thirst for beauty. Natalia Ziniak, 26, the artist whose paintings appear here on this post, was living in Los Angles but visiting her family in western Ukraine when Russia invaded the country in February. She, her mother and younger sister and brother fled the country three days after Putin’s campaign began, their father joining them approximately a half of year later. The family has lived in a variety of temporary homes since that time and has relied on the good will of others, as described in Drew Penner’s Scott’s Valley Press Banner September article. To suddenly lose your home and say goodbye to the earth you know, leave behind its ways of being and speaking, the people and place you love, to move across the world giving up security and familiarity, that is diving into deep water with the sound and sight of hungry sharks swimming through your mind and heart. There might be space between you and the tragedy you touched, but you feel the movement of grief’s biting jaws inside your thoughts. The marrow of your bones groan, longing for comfort and assurance.

Sun Through The Rain, Natalia Ziniak

It’s incredibly difficult to experience an ongoing state of uncertainty, but the Ziniak family has lived in this stressful state with an openness to daily miracles for many months. Though the waters one might find oneself in are threatening, in the midst of deep difficulty there are places and ways for your hunger to be fed and as the poem above says. There are means to transform sorrow. One of them is painting. Like other artistic endeavors, painting enables one to touch the sun through the rain, as in the title of Ziniak’s painting above. “In my free time I love painting the ocean,” Natalia says in Drew Penner’s article. “It’s the only thing that makes me feel alive, free and peaceful—to go to the ocean and paint.” Besides being threatening, a crisis can alternatively hold the potential to become an opportunity for growth.

Observe the sea, it’s ever changing face, breathe in its air long enough, and know that while it is wild, it is also deeply beautiful and life-giving. People don’t like living with unease and misery. Nevertheless, living with uncertainty has a way of making one aware of the preciousness of all life, the gift it is to inhale a blue sky or to gaze out at the expanse of sea. Natalia Ziniak’s ocean paintings open the heart. Standing in front of her canvases, one can feel a rush of life rising up from the play of light in the colors on her richly textured canvases. Her seascapes are charged with energy–cliff edges and angular rocks divide and cut through water’s fluid motion. There is both firm stability and limitless horizon in these paintings. Water explodes open at its edges, but is healed over and whole in the greater part of its body in the distance. The ocean may hold elements of the ominous, may churn with an aspect of potential danger, but Ziniak’s brush displays that energy as an experience of vibrant sustenance.

Lone Cypress, Natalia Ziniak

Along with everything else in the natural world, we participate in an ongoing cycle of transformation involving simultaneous dissolution and creation, destruction and recreation. Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet writes, “So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloud shadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.” I love the title of Ziniak’s painting below, “Afterwater Waterfall.” There is simultaneously a softness and firmness in the painting’s lines and forms of rock and shape of water. The painting depicts the residual water that pours off of rock after the experience of a wave collapsing over it. Waves of difficulty can crash against you, but in your art you can turn the experience into an embodied reflection that reveals the beauty of forms enduring in spite of life’s turbulent forces while in the process of being worn away and reformed into something new.

Afterwater Waterfall, Natalia Ziniak

To be tender is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be open, to remain malleable and alive. Every day we stand at a threshold between worlds. To be tender is to stand at the edge of the sea in its many forms and to let it speak to you. We may look out into the abyss and see chaos, but chaos is also the formless matter out of which the universe was shaped. A person may sense being alone, but when painting, one is not alone. You become one, so to speak, with the world you are translating with your brush. You transform and recreate yourself and the world at the same time through your paintbrush. The poet Nicholas Samaras writes, “God lives in the point of my pen. In writing, I interact with the act of creativity, the act of creation.” I believe the same could be said for Natalia Ziniak and her paint brush.

Find out more about Natalia and her paintings, at her website, Natalia Aandewiel Fine Art.

If you’d like to read more of the poems from Buoyant, where “Regarding Tenderness” is from, you can see more details about the book here. I donate half the price of the book to 5 Gyres, an organization working to reduce plastics in the world’s oceans. You can also message me if you’d like to order a copy.

Beauty, Geography, poetry, Uncategorized, Wonder

Throwing Open the Windows of Imagination

“When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
— Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The world didn’t have to be beautiful but it is. Morocco’s night skies with a billion stars flung across the heavens like spilled salt, Australia’s Great Ocean Road winding along rugged coastline, Buddhist temples perched on India’s stark and stony Himalaya, wild gibbon calling from among the tree-tops in Borneo, the view of the hillside sweeping down to the sea from a hilltop in Erice, Sicily, Cartagena’s colorful streets—there are myriad beautiful places in the world.

When I recognized I needed to move from my home in Santa Cruz, I didn’t want to leave behind the trees, the sea, the beauty–though I felt that very well might be what would need to happened. After more than a year of looking for a different place to live and finally finding one, we moved in. The yard is large enough for a garden, the house has been updated, and we have pleasant neighbors. I like for things to be the best I can make them, but nothing is perfect. What bothers me about the house I now live in is the floor. It’s not level. The lift and dip can be felt while walking across a room, and some of the furniture doesn’t sit solidly on the floor. Nevertheless, at the last minute when we absolutely had to be out of our previous home, the opportunity for this house appeared and we are here living in it. Despite the floor, beauty can be found nearby. Living here feels right.

Before moving to Sonoma County, we drove out to explore the landscape along the coast. It was then, standing at the edge of the Pacific gazing into its expansive presence I recognized that despite the economic challenges of moving, perhaps my imagination about what was possible was too small. It took Earth eons beyond counting to form the land where I stood, looking out into that particular horizon. Yet there I was in my finite body through some amazing collaboration of circumstances peering into the boundless open heart of Bodega Bay, Earth’s embodied unspoken invitation that I enlarge my mind and imagination.

In her poem, “A Settlement,” Mary Oliver writes about spring–life in all its trembling, hopeful beauty, and the joy that brings–the way I felt about returning home to Santa Cruz, and what I thought would be my forever home, after 26 years of living in foreign countries to live beside the redwoods and the wonder of their amazing presence. Oliver writes,

Look, it’s spring. And last year’s loose dust has turned into this soft
willingness. The wind-flowers have come up trembling, slowly the
brackens are up-lifting their curvaceous and pale bodies. The thrushes
have come home, none less than filled with mystery, sorrow,

happiness, music, ambition.

And I am walking out into all of this with nowhere to go and no task
undertaken but to turn the pages of this beautiful world over and over,
in the world of my mind.

***

Therefore, dark past,
I’m about to do it.
I’m about to forgive you

for everything.

Mystery, sorrow–these are all there alongside the wonder of the world’s beauty that Oliver turns over and over in her thoughts as she walks about. She has no predetermined path in mind, she’s simply absorbing what is–the music of it all. She lets it fill her.

And that immersion of her full self into the landscape’s presence is what allows her to pause and then to take the next leap– to forgive the past. For everything. That pause she takes between the last two stanzas is essential. In it we can feel her weighing everything in her past before making the commitment to release what has weighed her down, perceived failures, guilt, shame–whatever incompleteness might be there.

What we think at one point in time will be the life we will have can change unexpectedly into something quite different. Moving to a new home as well as other large life changes–unemployment, retirement, disease, divorce, death, and numerous more alterations, requires a letting go, an opening, a release into new possibilities. At our previous house in Santa Cruz we had dreams of an art studio, a meditation bench under the redwoods, a greenhouse, and a terraced hillside with artichokes, berry vines and fruit trees. Those never came to be. Just as a plant produces more seeds than can ever be used or that will ever come to fruition, there are many worlds, lives, and dreams inside us. Not all aspirations blossom or come to fruition. Spring carries with it a history of winter but has to release itself from cold days with little sun in order to liberate itself into new life.

As Oliver suggests, I can forgive what I can’t change, the defects of uneven floors, the insights I wish I had but lacked. I can embrace what is and open the doors to what waits past the plains and borders I’ve previously defined. Oliver’s moment of turning in “Settlement” is a kind of invitation to let go of what weighs us down, what we’ve wanted to be different but wasn’t, to let it drop like clothes changed at the end of the day. We live in a world too big for a small inner life. We can imagine something different, plant the seeds of a different reality, stretch beyond the past hopes we dreamt of that never came true.

“We have an obligation to imagine,” writes Neil Gaiman. “It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.” Find an ocean, a sea of billowing grass, a snowy plain, or a desert’s wide expanse. Look up into the infinite sky. We are bigger than other’s definitions of who we are, bigger, too, than the roles and definitions we give ourselves.

It’s literally true, we are stardust. Our very existence depends on the unseen interconnected workings of vast systems of life that hold together not only our planet but the far-flung fringes of the universe. As Charles Eisenstein’s book title states The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, is waiting for us to discover it.

Geography, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

In a World of Sorrow and Immeasurable Beauty

“Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.
This is how the heart makes a duet of
wonder and grief.”

— Mark Nepo, from his poem, “Adrift”

Saudi Arabia is a country of amazing geological interest and the Al Qarah Caves in eastern Saudi Arabia near Hofuf are one of Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary sites. A series of narrow passages, the caves were created through the geological process of erosion in the clay, silt, and limestone earth forming a series of “very deep and narrow joint-controlled fissures.” (The Jabal Al Qarah Caves of the Hofuf Area, Northeastern Saudi Arabia: A geological investigation.)

Deserts are important. While deserts seem to be bare, treeless places and can feel like a bleak wilderness, it’s from deserts that some of humankind’s important cultures such as ancient Egypt rose. Thirteen of the fifteen types of minerals on our planet are found in deserts. Plants and and animals found in deserts have developed ways to adapt the harsh conditions and still thrive. (More of desert’s amazing qualities described here.) From deserts came innovations such as irrigation helping to nurture and sustain life across the globe. In a world where things seem increasingly bleak, and where metaphorically speaking it feels we’re heading into the depths of a desolate land without water or shade, perhaps it’s a good time to contemplate the desert.

At some point in our lives most of us come to a place where the world turns arid, lonely and vulnerable. You sense you’re in a wilderness by yourself where the path you once followed has disappeared and you recognize you need some further kind of internal strength to keep going. Barbara Brown Taylor details this wilderness experience in her talk on subsistence spirituality with these words, “In the beginning, you weep. Because all the familiar landmarks are gone, because you don’t know where you are. Because the only food left in your backpack is disgusting. And the little bit of water in your canteen has turned green. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re lost, you’re alone, it’s getting dark. And even if the sky is clear enough for stars tonight, you don’t know how to read them. You always meant to, but you never learned. So now what? If you’re a pray-er, you pray. If you’re not a pray-er, you pray. What else can you do once you’ve come to the end of what you can do for yourself? It’s time to find out what faith means out beyond the boundaries of where you were warned not to go.”

When there are no answers, when you’re waiting and waiting for a change in circumstances that never comes, how do we make the waiting bearable? Some wait their entire lives struggling to sustain themselves with adequate food, shelter, and clothing. Though they may be resourceful and diligent, some never obtain opportunities that allow them to develop the abilities they have to the full extent of their longing. Though kind or honest, some people aren’t treated with respect. When coming to the end of our resources of what we know to do, how do we continue? How do we allow our suffering to transform us into people of deeper wisdom and heart rather than fall into a pit of despair or gradually grow bitter?

In his poem “Adrift,” Mark Nepo writes,
In the very center, under it all,
what we have that no one can take
away and all that we’ve lost face each other.
It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured
by a holiness that exists inside everything.
I am so sad and everything is beautiful.

While none of us likely wants more suffering or grief, when adrift between seeing all we have and and all we’ve lost, as Nepo points out in his poem, that is when we feel the puncture of the inseparability of wonder and grief that somehow makes us aware of the sacred. It’s this insight that can be the catalyst for internal change that enables us to find a way to live alongside the unbearable.

Saudi desert near Hofuf

Saudi Arabia may be a desert country but it also holds one of the world’s major sources of energy: oil. Organic life from previous times transformed under pressure and with heat has become a source of energy. that which has died transforms into new life. Though a place of interest and beauty, nevertheless, pressure and erosion created the caves at Al Qarah. All life is in a process of ongoing transformation.

In the nature, we can experience the inseparability of life and death, how the dying of one life form engenders the birth of another. John Muir wrote “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” The oceans, as well as the mountains, are also a fountain of life, and spending time there is transforming. Saudi Arabia borders the Red Sea, one of the most phenomenal areas to scuba dive in the world, as it is where two continental plates, the African and the Arabian, have pulled apart creating an enormous and extremely deep rift. Inside this Red Sea rift over 1000 species of fish and 150 species of coral can be found–beauty and life thrives.

Blue coral, Red Sea

When I consider the processes of the natural world, I wonder about how I might view the cultural rifts and political erosions in a similar way–a process of deconstruction and reconstruction that are occurring simultaneously–a dying while living. The intersection of these seeming opposites is a place where new awareness and possibilities can arise.

In creative acts people take elements and combine them in ways generating change. Alternatively, as Muir suggests, when we spend time in the natural world, it acts on us and we are changed. We physically sense ourselves held inside a greater reality, a greater wholeness. As Kabir Helminski writes in “Beauty as a Way of Life,” “When the spiritual imagination awakens, the world is transformed. It is the same world, but seen differently.”

In specifically thinking about the challenges women have faced through history and continue to face, I offer this poem from my new book, Buoyant.

In Praise of Women Divers

This is for the woman who took her children 
to the Red Sea to paddle through water their father
had never touched, though he grew up beside it
every day looking into its face.

This is for the woman who became a divemaster
though told it was dangerous and she’d be seen
in a wetsuit, how she led other women underwater
though it was illegal, teaching them the ways of fish,
discovering together another world, finding 
every day is a good day to dive.

This is for the women who wore abayas
atop their wetsuits as if they were merely
onlookers while meeting the Coast Guard,
and the men on the boat the only divers.

This is for the friend who stood on the boat deck
wearing her snorkel and mask, black robe
flapping with wind, smilingly determined to explore
what lay beneath the sea’s sun-smoothed surface— 
all of us others planning to join her. 

This is for the women who broke the law 
by choosing to dive, who probed shipwrecks 
and gazed at their gaps, who entered through holes
blasted into steel holds—how vessels once so strong
no water could enter, are now broken open, sunken,
propellers forever halted, going nowhere.

This is in celebration of the women who saw wrecks
in water clear as windows, the happiness engendered when
something so big, so seemingly sturdy, in its destruction
became a place of beauty decorated with soft corals, animated
with angel and broom-tailed filefish sweeping through.

For those of us wandering in a wilderness, Barbara Brown Taylor leaves us with these words. “So I don’t know what your wilderness is all about. But you do…What you gain though, is the rewilding of your soul. Because the desert is the spiritual wildness protection program, open to anyone willing to leave the pavement and be emptied right out, making room for God knows what is coming next.” In the midst of our desert wandering, we can pause and ask ourselves how we can open into what’s coming next, how we can allow for a reef to form from the sunken vessels in our lives.

Puffer fish, hard corals and giant clam, Red Sea

(If you’re interested in getting the book, Buoyant, send me a message, and I will see that you get a copy. Check here for more information about the book.)

music, poetry, Uncategorized, Wonder

Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart

Honu Green Sea Turtle, Hawaii, painting on silk, Ann Pervinkler, photo Tim Pervinkler

“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer

Sometimes, it takes a long time to see something. Maybe you’ve looked at something before and recognized it, but really seeing it can be a different thing altogether. Painting on silk, as Ann Pervinkler does, the artist has to pay attention to shape, angle, blending of color and use of space, but more than that, an artist wants what she’s painting to come alive–to have spirit and life. When I saw Ann’s turtle pillow, I felt the turtle was swimming right to me, and immediately thought of my experience some years back while snorkeling beside a turtle in Sri Lanka.

When I first saw the turtle, I was elated since I’d never before swam so closely alongside such a large turtle. It seemed the size of a small, round picnic table! It moved through the water with grace and ease. Close enough to easily touch the turtle, I began to see it in a new way. You can watch this video version of the poem as I read it to the accompaniment of Kanako Fukumoto on the violin and Satsuki Fujishima on piano, (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” by A. Senju/ Kimi wo Shinjite.) The turtle in the video was filmed by Marina Goodyear in Malapascua, Philippines.

The Curious Turtle

She wasn’t like other turtles
plowing along the ocean bottom
tearing up coral with her beak.

She didn’t hide under a rock 
when I swam by for fear of what
I might do. No. 

She held intently her full mouth
of food as the surge swept her.
Trailing a string of bright bubbles
she paddled straight to me, placed
her face with its glistening eye
next to mine and peered into me. 

I stared into her eyes’ gleaming depth,
her gaze a recognition. 
Somehow, she knew me.

The universe spinning through 
its layers of mystery, I’d entered
another world, felt how Eve
must have felt in the garden
before the fall, naked, vulnerable
and scintillatingly alive.

Hawksbill turtle, Seychelles

When we give ourselves to something with our full attention, looking with the eyes of our heart, we see the world anew. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Not a mere backdrop we are moving through, when we look at at something or someone with the eyes of the heart, we become more aware of our interbeing with everything around us, the enormous wonder of reality.

In her 1982 essay, “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard wrote about encountering a weasel and being “stunned into stillness…Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key…the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.” Dillard’s description is very similar to my experience when the turtle’s eye met mine. I saw a depth there, felt what even might be called a wisdom. No longer merely an animal simply to identify and swim beside. I’d met another being with a history, a presence. When we looked in each other’s eyes, something in me woke up: the turtle’s life had depth and a way of knowing beyond my knowing–and one to learn from. I understood the turtle saw his life equally important to mine with his own interests and pursuits. Reality had expanded.

The encounter with the turtle was a gift, changing the way I see not only turtles, but animals and the natural world as a whole and my relationship to it. We can see the world as objects or we can look into the eyes of the world and see it as a marvel alive with presence.

Artists use their skill to help us see the world with the eyes of the heart to help us recognize the wonder that surrounds us that we might otherwise miss without their assistance in bringing it to our attention. Looking into the eyes of a live turtle paddling by, or into silky turquoise water the turtle Ann Pervinkler’s pillow swims through, or the tree branches rolling with wind along the road as you ride home from work–wherever you find yourself, the world is alive and is speaking. Open the eyes of your heart. Listen.

Maldives

You can explore more of Ann’s silk paintings here.

“The Curious Turtle” appears in my newest book, Buoyant, published by Bellowing Ark Press. If you’d like a copy, contact me and I can send you details of how to order one.

place, poetry, snorkeling, Uncategorized

Buoyant

“If there’s magic on this planet, it’s contained in water.” –Loren Eisley

whale shark, Seychelles

Diving is one of the most otherworldly experience a person can have while still on earth. Immersed in a different world than that of everyday life, one sees wonders that open the heart and boggle the mind with the beauty of the natural world.

Drifting through the water, eyes attentive to fish activity and the surrounding terrain, a diver grows conscious of being both a drop in the ocean and an intimate part of the intricate interweaving of all that is. Snorkeling alongside a whale shark is a rare opportunity allowing a direct experience of that wonder.

WHALE SHARK

Spangled with starry dots and pale streamers on its blue,
night-sky body and the size of a bus, the world’s largest fish,
the whale shark, journeys thousands of miles seeking
warm water and nourishment from the tiniest bits of life
in the shallows, filtering plankton, krill and small fish
through its enormous mouth, along with
a thousand five hundred gallons of water
every hour.

Jumping into the water from the side of the boat,
there it was, ten feet from my body.
I stared directly into the cave of its gigantic mouth.
My entire body could be sucked into its gaping maw.

Thinking of Jonah, I pitched my body
in the opposite direction, swimming hard for escape.

Breathless, I paused to peer down the shark’s long length,
its body’s dazzling radiance.
The ineffable grace of its muscled movement,
colossal tail brushing from side to side.

Effortlessly, the shark glided into water’s seamless, silent expanse,
the stars on its back evaporating into fluid geography.

This isn’t a small life.
Some travel immeasurable distances
to find what feeds the soul.

For a few breathless moments
we feed our yearning, the stardust in our bodies
greeting an ancient light
glowing still, before disappearing
into the invisible.

I’m happy to announce Buoyant, my new book of poems about scuba diving and life inside the sea is now published by Bellowing Ark Press. If you’re not a diver, the poems in this volume will allow you to experience life underwater world while remaining dry. I hope the poems feed your soul.oe

(Let me know if you’d like a copy and I can tell you how to order one.)

Uncategorized

Winter’s Green Imagination

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” –Albert Camus

In the northern latitudes we’re experiencing winter’s shallow light and shortened days. Storms have arrived with record snowfall and rain. We long to discover the invincible summers hibernating inside us that will help us keep in touch with the vibrant green world that lives on, and need ways to wait through the days of cold and the minimal hours of light. Winter is a good time to read, wander through old photos, and to journey out to find new unexplored landscapes. On one such recent journey into a forest area near me, I came across an outcrop of rocks covered with moss surrounded by overhanging oaks, their twisted branches casting shadows across the leaf-strewn floor. It felt an ancient place, one that might be found in Ireland where green is a predominant color and stones can be found scattered across the hillsides.

I encountered a similar shade of green some years back when bicycling up Ireland’s west coast with friends. While on that ride, someone we met told us that the small holes found in trees are places where leprechauns like to call their home. The idea delighted me. Though leprechauns are supposed to live only in Ireland, when I see holes in forest trees here in California, I like to imagine a leprechaun lives there. These tree trunk’s holes are often quite small. It seems there’s a good reason why they are referred to as “wee folk!”

Part of Celtic mythology, stories of leprechauns have circulated in Ireland since the eighth century. Though their profession as cobblers is a humble one, leprechauns are known for hoarding pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, and are thought to be older, playful men who are nimble tricksters and very difficult to catch. Additionally, they enjoy playing the fiddle, Irish harp, drum, and tin whistle. Important characters in Irish folklore and in the cultural imagination and many writers have created stories connected to leprechauns. Now associated with the color green, the poet Yeats indicated that as solitary fairies, leprechauns wore red.

I come to the forest to wander and be renewed by its green life, by its scent and uncertain paths where we explore new ground. Leprechauns are important characters in Irish folklore and in the cultural imagination. In a world often filled with news that feeds our anxieties and fear, expanding the imagination could be what we need to help us create a more pleasant world. Imagination helps us to reconnect with wonder, move beyond areas where our mind is stuck in thought patterns that constrict the flow of life. Using our imagination can enable us to reignite joy.

Sumana Roy, associate professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University in Haryana, India, in her book, How I Became a Tree, from Yale University Press, writes how she came to the realization that she’d been “bulldozed by time” and yet was not a good “slave to time” as the culture she was living in expected her to be. She noticed trees can’t be hurried or rushed. Trees never stayed up all night to meet a deadline. They keep to their own internal rules and aren’t cramped by the pressure of ambition or success, explains Roy in her article, “Tree Time” in the Paris Review. Trees have a whole different way of relating to the experience of being alive. Tree time, Roy describes, is “a life without worries for the future or regret for the past. There’s sunlight: gulp, swallow, eat; there’s night: rest.” Trees’ organic way of relating to time from within their own internal needs and rhythms is something Roy felt worthy of aspiring to.

A redwood tree in a nearby forest

Before I moved to live beside oak and redwood trees here in California near a large tract of forest, I used to say I didn’t want to live in a forest. It was too dark. But time spent with trees changed me. Now that I’ve lived beside trees for years, thinking of not having them as my neighbors feels like a kind of grief. An abiding beauty, trees greet me when I rise, send out perfume on sunny days, scatter the confetti of their leaves when the wind blows, and reach out to cradle the house through the night as I sleep. Constant companions, their steadfast presence is an ongoing witness to the larger arc of time that reaches beyond human worries, goals and plans, and pushes at the boundaries of my limited awareness.

Similarly, to set out for a stroll in a forest is to be renewed and steadied. Walking beneath the trees, we breathe in the forest’s phytoncides, chemicals trees release that helps them fight disease. The antibacterial and antifungal qualities of these same chemicals aid our health as well, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Recent research has also enabled people to realize the value of forests and other plant life, not merely as objects to be used, but as sentient presences. Amitav Gosh, author of The Nutmeg Curse, in Emergence Magazine‘s November 2021 interview with him explains, “in Europe as elsewhere, people had always thought of so many other kinds of beings as being capable of making meaning. But what’s really interesting there is that many people may today be willing to accept that animals are fully sentient beings, that forests are sentient, that many kinds of trees are sentient, that they communicate—they have incredibly complex communications and so on, which we are now discovering… And humans have always believed in the real presence of these unseen beings.” The language trees use, the way trees, plants sense things (and other nonhuman or more than human presences) may not be the way humans experience the world, but that isn’t to say communication and some form of awareness isn’t occurring. There’s more going on in forests than we previously understood and we are only now coming to understand this through the work of people like Susan Simard, David George Haskell, and Peter Wohlleben. In these new understandings about the world around us, we can begin to imagine ourselves into a new way of living in and responding to the world.

We don’t have to believe in leprechauns to expand our imaginations and ponder the idea that the universe we inhabit is composed of more than dead physical matter, and to understand, instead, that it’s infused with various levels and types of consciousness. “The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe; all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance,” wrote the physicist Max Born. As we walk in the forest, we can allow ourselves to be absorbed again into the landscape, develop a feeling for it, and to allow our imaginations to invent new stories about our lives and interactions.

A while back, one of our recent neighbor’s children created a story about how to catch a leprechaun. After the boy read his story to my husband, the two of them strolled around the hillside singing Ratlin Bog looking for a glimpse of a leprechaun. For the boy and his sister, the forest became alive with possibility. For months afterwards, they left notes and gifts for leprechauns at the base of trees and tucked inside the bends of the trees’ arms. Connecting with our imaginations, we can discover or rediscover a world alive and new, a kind of hidden, interior gold.

Though it might be dark outside or the earth covered with snow, in the midst of discouragement, despair or doubt, we can walk outside and know that even if there are no leaves on the branches, the trees hold within them a dream of a green life that lives on, waiting in the way trees always do, for the time to rise up and burst forth in storied leafy boughs. During bleak times, we can journey inward and draw warmth from imagination’s fire, make new stories and in doing so, remake ourselves. Stories, songs, dance and the many forms of art—there are numerous ways to allow the landscape, internal or external, to come alive and to see the earth as more than a mere object or backdrop but, instead, to develop a relationship with it.

So let us pick up
the stones over which we stumble,
friends, and build altars…

Let us name the harsh light and
soft darkness that surrounds us.

Let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug.
Let’s lick the earth from our fingers.

Let us look up and out and around.
The world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked,
and
our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning.

~ Padraig O’Tuama in Daily Prayer With The Corrymeela Community

poetry, Presence, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Waiting Through Winter’s Uncertainty

Days grow shorter, light diminishes. Winter is on its way. Typically, people don’t like to live in sparse times, waiting in uncertainty for the light of clarity to surface. Winter is a yearly, returning reminder that clarity and the full embodiment of things we hope for takes time. We wait for love, wait for fulfilling work, for the results of a medical test, or acceptance of a visa, wait to learn if we are admitted into a school or workshop we applied for. Along with waiting comes uncertainty and questions about what the results of our waiting will be. Though it might feel difficult or even unnecessary to wait as long as we sometimes do for what we long for, things of value frequently take considerable time before they surface into our lived experience. Bread baking in the oven, the creation of an art piece, coordinating movements in a dance, the birth of new understandings, the growth of a tree and friendships, or the formation of a human life–all these take time. Their development is slow, and requires waiting.

Waiting also implies a period of uncertainty. It’s not a given when planting a seed that life will grow, that an employment position you applied for will be given you, or that a relationship with a person you love will endure through time. Things can get complicated. Accidents can happen. Waiting can carry you into liminal space between worlds and ways of being where one life is actively fading away or has died, and the arrival of a different life is still on its way. The between state of change requires us to leave behind the way things once were and to learn whole new ways of being in the world. When standing in this doorway between worlds for extended periods of time, the experience of uncertainty can be difficult to cope with as it requires us to recognize the ground we stand on isn’t firm.

Ellen June Wright in her poem, “Salt,” exemplifies this idea of uncertainty.

Did we judge her too harshly, Lot’s wife,
walking away from everything she knew?
We become attached to places and possessions
in ways we never imagined. Our feet drag
when we think of leaving the familiar
as though they pull against a magnetic force.
No matter how dismal, the unknown
is more terrifying than the known.

Wright’s observation seems accurate. It’s true that the unknown is typically more terrifying than the known. Most of us would respond as Lot’s wife did when living a place we once called home. After all, she’d raised her children there. We feel attached to the places we’ve lived and look back at the worlds we’ve left behind, longing for them still, even though we might have escaped from a place, relationship, or experience in order to save or improve our lives. We build memories and relationships in places we’ve lived, and these give life meaning. We can picture what our own very human reaction in the story of Lot’s wife would be, and identify with her.

The trajectory of creation itself is toward continuous change and transformation. From rock slowly being worn into sand, to trees waiting for rain during drought, enduring the wait while change makes its way through the subterranean world of existence, is an integral part of physical reality, and is certainly a central part of human experience. From the heartbreaking opening poem, “New Dress,” in Linda Hillringhouse’s book, The Things I Didn’t Know to Wish For, where a young girl waits with anticipation for her parents to return home so they can see her adorned in a gloriously stunning dress she’s wearing, only to have her mother walk directly past her with no comment, and without noticing her whatsoever, to the book’s final poem, Hillringhouse’s book is filled with poems vividly expressing the longing inside our waiting for attentive human connection and care in a world that is often disheartening, and stings with disappointment. As Hillringhouse writes, in “Nieves Penitentes,”

The snow is falling
as if it’s forgotten to stop:
Maybe the mind
that keeps mountains
upright and oceans
in their bed
is setting up some new venture
and I wish I could begin again,
born in a bird’s mouth
in the drunken forest,
into full being,
not some stick figure
stilting around an empty lot
scratching messages in ice.

How accurately Hillringhouse names the longing experienced while waiting to become more than what we see our lives are at a given moment. We want to express something meaningful with our presence, but instead we imagine ourselves unnoticed or isolated while trying to scrape out meaning in a frigid environment where we feel whatever we say will eventually melt away without significance to anyone. We yearn to be a person able to feed that essence in us that allows us to sing and soar above the earth, that something that when it arrives will enable us to be a rich, deep-rooted presence rocking and swaying with verdant life, the tops of our tens of thousands of leaf-tipped branches of creative effort reaching into the heavens, inscribing their wonder. But we’re not there yet, and as the word penitentes in Hillringhouse’s title suggests, waiting for those hardened blades of snow to melt and become something other than what they are can feel like torture.

Living with uncertainty implies a longing for completion. But when does the completion of a canyon or a forest occur? Rivers carve canyons over millions of years and continue carving. A forest can take a thousand years to come into being and continues to regenerate if not disturbed. These are ongoing natural forces. Like the shifting formation of fluid shapes a murmuration of starlings create, since the start of the universe, everything that exists has been slowly evolving. When things arrive at a stage of completion, another cycle of beginnings starts and the evolution, transformation, resurrection or reincarnation (there are so many ways to name it) continues. From a certain perspective, nothing is ever completed as everything, both material reality, and the subtler forms of energy, thought and emotion, are connected to a longer process of transformation. The death or completion of anything is merely the birth of another life that depended on what came before in order to give it new form.

Storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade, writes, “There are old stories that show that if the world was ever completed, was ever made perfect, that would be the end of [things]…this world and each person in it remains an unfinished project, and remains because of being incomplete….The impossible tasks, the broken hearts, the utter failures actually sustain the world.” What an astonishing thought! Incompleteness is necessary to life! If being alive requires everything to be in a process of change, and therefore by definition incomplete, then finding a way to befriend and honor our incompleteness, our longing for growth and wholeness, of which uncertainty is a natural partner, seems like a worthy thing to pursue.

Lot’s wife, fleeing her home in uncertain, traumatic circumstances, looked back to her disappearing world. As the story goes, she was turned to salt as a result. It’s a disturbing story. If we look at the story with a different lens, however, it’s worth remembering salt is a beneficial element. It seasons food, functions as a preservative, and can help heal wounds. Preserving the memory of our journey toward the self we are reaching to become is important. As she’s not even given a name in the version of the story we’ve received, we don’t know that Lot’s wife wanted to leave her home or if she was forced to do so without understanding the necessary circumstances. Perhaps the salt pillar she became is the solidified tears she shed in memory of the trauma endured in leaving a home she knew and loved, a monument to the effort it takes to leave a place you once belonged. When leaving something or someone we loved, we die to the life we once lived and enter a new life.

As Ursula LeGuin wrote, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” However we arrive at the place in life we now stand, finding a way to honor our journey as we scratch our way through the icy experiences and what we’ve left behind in order to enter our new life seems valuable. I invite you to celebrate with me winter’s darknesses and, evoking Hillringhouse’s book title, all the many as yet unnamed things we don’t know to wish for. Perhaps it will be a salt that helps to heal wounds while waiting, that preserves and sustains us through uncertain times as we are birthed and rebirthed into the fullness of our being.

Uncategorized

Places That Scare Us

“Yes, it looks bleak. But you are still alive now. You are alive with all the others, in this present moment. And because the truth is speaking in the work, it unlocks the heart. And there’s such a feeling and experience of adventure. It’s like a trumpet call to a great adventure.” Joanna Macy

Halloween and All Souls Day are here but I’ve been thinking about the places and things that frighten me for some time. From ongoing drought to the rising cost of living, to the continuing effects of the pandemic and beyond, so many things in our daily lives can lead to overwhelm and fear. Observing my cat, Teekeh, I notice how she’s ready to jump or leave the room over the seemingly simplest things–the movement of a chair or the sound of air blowing through the heating vents. It seems we humans are not too much different in reaction when things frighten us.

Out for a walk recently, I noticed how a neighbor down the road wove a giant spiderweb helter-skelter through the redwoods, playfully adding to the Halloween atmosphere. Perhaps it’s a good idea, to look at what webs of fear we’ve wrapped around events and people in our lives and how these hinder our thought and movement. Kay Ryan in her poem, “Spiderwebs” writes, “It isn’t, / ever delicate, / to live.” How do we live courageously and open-heartedly alongside events and people that can cause fear and create the conditions that expand a greater experience of life’s regenerative qualities rather than responding defensively, running away, or shrinking back into ourselves? 

When I was in grad school, once each year a dance was held where those attending invented and wore costumes expressing a suppressed desire. Expanding on and playing with this idea a bit, creating a Halloween costume to express an inner fear could be an interesting way to observe a fear we have and what it is has to say to us through the shape, textures, and colors we choose. If creating and wearing the actual costume isn’t possible, we could draw or imagine what it might look like. Then stand at the mirror and have a conversation with the fear. Some things that frighten us we might not be able to do much about. But we could try befriending the fear in conversation, it could be interesting see how we feel in our gut when we see ourselves in the costume, or when we look at it, and what that reaction might have to tell us.

Currently contemplating the need to move from a place I’ve called home for many decades, I’m experiencing an ongoing feeling of uncertainty about where the right place will be. In any one day, I might find myself imagining living in four different locations! I’m hoping to find a place to call home that will carry me deeper into the the rhythm of my life’s heart, and to recognize it when that place tells me “This is it.” Making a wise choice about this move seems challenging when the future itself is uncertain because of ongoing droughts and fires in the West. John O’ Donohue, in his book, Anam Cara, writes, “Wisdom is the way that you learn to decipher the unknown; and the unknown is our closest companion. So wisdom is the art of being courageous and generous with the unknown, of being able to decipher and recognize its treasures…Wisdom, then is the art of balancing the known with the unknown, the suffering with the joy; it is a way of linking the whole of life together in a new and deeper unity.” Finding balance is extremely challenging as it involves not solely one’s own life, but balance within the culture we live in as well as with aiming to live in balance with the natural environment that is increasingly changing and growing more vulnerable. How do we find the balance?

Occasionally, insight arrives in a moment. Other times discernment emerges slowly after long periods of contemplation. I’ve not yet arrived at the insight into what the right move to a new home will be, but talking to my uncertainty makes living with it more bearable. The conversation isn’t necessarily long, but I’ve been taking a few moments every morning to talk to it. I might not be actually feeling concerned about the uncertainty at the moment, but I speak to the emotion anyway because at some point during the day it surfaces. Often I don’t know what to say to this emotion other than something like, “I’m here for you,” or, “I know the uncertainty is uncomfortable. Things are unfolding, even now, though you don’t see it.” Then, I stand there for a few moments, looking into the sky, gazing at the redwood trees’ sturdy height, noticing how despite drought, smoke, or many inches of rain in one day, the trees carry on. Daily, trees live with the uncertainty of drought. But they carry on as best they can despite the challenges. Aware of the wider rhythms of nature, I’m held inside an affirmation that I, too, can carry on. “Stay open,” I say to my uncertainty and then turn to go on with my day.

There are a lot of colorful fears sitting around in the environment and in our brains like pumpkins in an October field. Caught inside the maze of thoughts we can circle around them, playing our fears over and over in the mind causing us to lose the enjoyment of being present in the life given to us each day. These thoughts could become frightening jack-o-‘lanterns if we decide to carve them up in a way that allows us to scare ourselves. Alternatively, we can talk to our fears, set them out in the light and familiarize ourselves with their story, allowing them to simply remain pumpkins without need to take on a sinister appearance of a jack-o-‘lantern. Alternatively, we can transform our fears–turn them in to nourishing soup, delicious muffins, or pies through creative acts such as art, music or story.

In his poem, “My Courageous Life,” David Whyte writes,

My courageous life
wants to be 
my foundation,
showing me
day after day
even against my will
how to undo myself,
how to surpass myself,
how to laugh as I go 
in the face 
of danger,
how to invite
the right kind 
of perilous
love,
how to find 
a way 
to die
of generosity.

We like to feel comfort. We want to feel like we’re riding on the Yusuf Islam (Cat Steven’s) “Peace Train.” We like to know where we’re going and to have clear answers to difficult questions. But these don’t always come readily and there may be no easy answers, as Sami Yusuf expresses in in his song, “Make Me Strong.” Some answers require sacrifice or enormous change. Our joy, uncertainty and despair are connected to the experiences of the world that is both in and around us, both human and nonhuman. Compassionate conversations with difficult emotions we experience is a way to be generous with ourselves, and can also be a way to find laughter as we go, even while facing danger. As Joanna Macy describes how she works with her difficult emotions, “…it’s been central to my life and my work to make friends with our despair, to make friends with our pain for the world. And thereby to dignify it and honour it. That is very freeing for people.”

Uncategorized

What Shines

My parents who had nothing but their big hearts,
the circle they drew around us to keep us safe
and the place they made for others to join us at our table,
the way they taught us by what they did
to love each other and the world. 

–Maria Mazziotti Gillan, “Badge of Embarrassment,” from When the Stars Were Still Visible

We live in a divisive time. As if the multitude of difficult emotions have been waiting in a cave like a bear in hibernation for the moment to surface, anxiety, fear, anger, and bitter silence, have emerged to wander the world, hungry for expression. The Wall Street Journal reports that adults are throwing tantrums in restaurants, on planes and at home. To put it mildly, people are having a tough time.

Shame, lack of forgiveness, embarrassment, loneliness, Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s newest book of poems, When the Stars Were Still Visible, doesn’t shy away from naming and describing difficult emotions that can arise when dealing with challenging experiences. With honesty and vulnerability, Gillan’s poems dive into the messy heart of being a human, the hardship of navigating a world where you don’t necessarily feel welcome, and where it’s possible to hurt people you don’t even mean to as a result of reacting to them out of your own lack of understanding.

In her previous books, Gillan has written about the search for identity, the desire to belong, aging, poverty, and sorrow. Gillan returns to these themes in When the Stars Were Still Visible, exploring them from different angles. While reading the poems, I couldn’t help but think that if more of us could be as humble and vulnerable in telling our painful stories as Gillan is in this volume of poems, we might gain greater empathy for lives different from our own, and for challenges people confront and carry that we may not know about.

No stranger to a life with few amenities, several of Gillan’s poems relate hardships growing up in her family of origin. In “The Face We Presented to the World,” Gillan describes her cold-water flat of childhood, with its oilcloth table cover, and dishtowels made of flour sacks, heated by a coal stove. “Love Song to HO Cream Farina” tells of the time Gillan’s father had surgery for a tumor, leaving her parents with only $300 to last them through the year and resulting in the family’s meals repeatedly consisting of farina. “I suppose I should remember with bitterness / How poor we were…” writes Gillan in “Even After All These Years.” But bitterness holds no place at her family table. Though faced with continuing challenges, Gillan’s parents offered the children ongoing comfort. Her mother standing at the stove, Gillan remembers the spaghetti she put on the family’s plates a physical embodiment of her care. Gillan closes the poem by saying, 

Even today, when I am sad or lonely, 
a plate of spaghetti makes me feel 
my mother’s presence, soothing 
and beckoning me home.

Love is a powerful and sustaining force. A warm potato to hold, freshly baked bread’s aroma filling the house, a plate of spaghetti–these were physical assurances that in the midst of adversity, love remained; that the world was still good. Gillan’s poems bear witness to love’s persistence and power to reach across time as a continued nurturing and healing presence. 

Several poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible explore themes dealing with falling short of images we sometimes feel compelled to meet. In “I’ve Always Envied Women with Beautiful Hair,” Gillan contrasts the perfect haircuts upper-middle-class girls sported in pages of Seventeen magazine, with haircuts she received that made her want to keep her head down, shoulders hunched, and eyes lowered. A variety of poems depict the effort to be accepted and to fit in at school, and to be perceived as “good.” Teachers find Gillan shy, and friends forget to pick her up on the way to a party. As a young adult Gillan councils young men on how to apply for conscientious objector status while still hearing the voice of her upbringing suggesting it’s best to follow the rules. Vividly capturing each of these moments, Gillan takes readers into those tender places of the heart where we tap into our own raw spots of cognitive dissonance, the times we’ve felt lost, confused, and “fragile and as transparent / as a dragonfly’s wings.” 

In a world that can often be full of posturing and craving for power, Gillan’s writing present the opposite. The poems lay bear a very human heart with its weaknesses and strengths. In doing so, Gillan demonstrates it’s possible to be loved as we are, even because of our weaknesses. In “Claiming My True Name,” Gillan relates when she began affirming her Italian name and heritage, to identify with a culture that several decades before was denigrated in America. When embracing her name, Mazziotti, with its fabulous double “z” and double “t”, and choosing to treat it with tenderness, we feel her triumph.  

And I pronounce it for them,
waving it in the air like a banner,
proud of my Italian-self,
proud of all the things that marked me
as unique, as different, a foreign creature
who can at last claim my own true name.”

The proclamation is a peak moment, a celebratory event. We read the words and recognize it’s possible to claim those parts of ourselves that have been rejected, that never seemed good enough in other’s eyes. We notice as Gillan turns inside out the notion she’d absorbed from the ambient culture that her essence was somehow inherently inadequate and not lovable enough. We feel her exultation, as if she’d been let out of a prison and at last had the air she needed to become who she was all along.

Unraveling from shame and pain can take years. Cultural shifts may sometimes be necessary before it’s possible to move past the hurt and injury arising from the various ways we’ve learned shame, both visible and invisible, that labeled us as other. Often that sorrow remains hidden beneath the surface, as described in the poem, “Moll Flanders, Zia Louisa, and Me,” where Gillan’s aunt who loved to dance the Tarantella, could be heard through the apartment walls crying at night, though she emerged each morning smiling and laughing. We rarely know the fullness of each other’s stories or the weight people carry beneath the surface. The poem releases some of that pain by making what was hidden visible.

One of the poems in the collection that struck me as particularly powerful is “Ode to Something Once Lost.” The poem describes a time when a friend mocked Gillan in front of a group of women. Surprising herself, Gillan writes that she turned on the woman and

told her she was insulting and rude
to me and everyone else, that the others
were afraid of her and that I never wanted
to go anywhere with her again.

That must have been a difficult and likely uncomfortable moment. Interestingly, even though the young woman sent an apology letter asking to be friends, Gillan writes, 

My heart was a stone,
anger like a fire inside me. I called her. We talked.
I wish I could say I forgave her
but there was always a small corner of my heart
that remained closed to her.

Our friendship once shattered could not be repaired
and I’m ashamed to say
even fifty years later,
I still do not forgive her.

Some hurts cut deeply, leaving us unable to move beyond them. In naming her inability to forgive, we learn we, too, can take courage and look honestly at our limitations. People have histories that have shaped them and create limitations. Perhaps having been hurt many times, when a new situation arises bringing up the pain again, you reach a boundary you no longer want to cross. To do so would set yourself up for being hurt or mistreated again or might mean putting yourself in a position or situation you know is not right for you, and “Ode to Something Once Lost” affirms the value of personal boundaries.

The cover for When the Stars Were Still Visible is one of Maria’s drawings. Pinpricks of light and a luminous moon festoon a dark night above a city outline where a collage of people walk a street wearing bright clothes. The scene is from her childhood memory when stars were still visible above Paterson, New Jersey, the setting for many poems in the book. The cover is perfect for a book full of poems that shine.

David Mitchell, in Cloud Atlas, writes, “These forces that often remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be, begin long before we are born and continue after we perish.” Long ago Gillan’s mother bought her a pink Smith Corona portable typewriter with a pink case so she could become the writer she dreamed to be. I’m very grateful for Maria’s mother, the gift of that typewriter, and for the poems in When the Stars Were Still Visible– the light in them that touches and strengthens the life of those who read them.

 When the Stars Were Still Visible

Uncategorized

Between Nets of Light and Topographies of Grace

Janet Eichelman, Renwick 1.8

You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”
–Rumi

On a recent visit to the Renwick Gallery I wandered through the enormous room displaying Janet Echelman‘s Renwick 1.8 art piece. Gargantuan fabric nets draped across the vaulted ceiling and hung in giant latticed ladles drooping in transparent overlapping layers of vibrant, ever-changing colors. The description on the wall states, the art piece is Echelman’s way of examining the “complex interconnections between humankind and our physical world, and reveals the artist’s fascination with the measurement of time.” The piece was “inspired by the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami…The lines on the carpet trace the topographic patterns of the three dimensional form above.” Whether standing in the middle of the room or circling the room’s edges, I felt both grounded and suspended at the same time–alternately shifting between the earth’s surface and under the sea or, as the colors in the room changed, drifting over the earth and through waves of sunlight.

Topographic carpet pattern under changing colors of light

Echelman’s piece is meant to be a meditation on the “contrast between forces we understand and those we cannot, and the concerns of our daily existence within the larger cycle of time.” I felt I’d entered a magical door and was floating inside an enchanted room. The prodigious size of the work, both mammoth pendulous nets as well as the massive length of contoured lines reaching across the carpet, everything bathed in prismatic color, carried me into a place of awe where beauty’s presence suspended time and wrapped me in wonder. Indeed, I felt a power at work in the art piece that can be experienced but not fully described.

In our every day world, we move through time responding to needs and concerns, following rings of repeated activity and the topographical patterns outlining the shape of our culture and the ground we build our lives on. Moving between and within waves of sound, light and energy, we live and walk inside layers of physical wonder. As in Echelman’s dangling nets bathed in light, everything in the physical world steeps in a spectrum of moods, actions and reactions, our own, as well as that of the world around us. Eichelman’s piece allows viewers to observe and experience a relationship between physical form, light and energy. As the folds and shadows in the layers of nets suggest, there is a lot of subtleties and mystery in what we experience as well.

Like visual art, music and poetry can also take us to a place where through heightened sensory awareness time seems to suspend movement. Akin to Echelman’s art piece Renwick 1.8, Michael L. Newell’s poem, “Spiritual: Listening to Charlie Haden and Pat Methany” in response to Haden and Methany’s piece, “Beyond The Missouri Sky, – Spiritual,” (worth listening to while reading this post) carries readers into a space of deeply felt attentiveness. The first portion of Newell’s poem describes a journey on a “boundless sea,” and “a never ending progression of waves,” and lengthening night

…as we

bob up and down and up again
the only sounds the slap and splash
of water and our breathing hushed
though it may be seems sacrilegious
time loses all meaning we forget our names
to be certain our flesh still exists we touch
our faces our arms our legs

As Newell writes, carried away by the music, we touch ourselves and know we are fully physically present, but we are also in a world beyond physicality or words. As Newell goes on to write,

This journey is beyond comprehension
this is a world whose existence
does not lead to prayer it is prayer
the ending silence of the music
is the definition of awe and we sit silently
for a time and then dive again deep
into this world beyond words

Enveloped in the prayer of music, we enter into and become part of the prayer itself. Music can transport and transform us, bring us into a state of rebalance and peace, as does Newell’s poem.

The exchange and transformation of energy is integral to the creative process. Often in the natural world, something is destroyed or dies allowing something new to come into existence. Natural events often demonstrate this. The 2011 Tohuku quake created a tsunami whose effects were felt all the way across the Pacific and Echelman’s piece illustrates this interactive process in the waves of netting and waves of topographic curves on the carpet. As an art piece, we can see the exchange of energy in dramatic events with equanimity. Emerging from the experience of beauty great art immerses us in, however, we often step back into an unpredictable world and are faced with challenges. Imperfect beings as we are, we’re not always certain how to respond effectively or compassionately to great change and difficulties we encounter. We tumble, fall, make mistakes. Sometimes we harm others unknowingly, and sometimes because in our own incompleteness we can’t help it. When such challenging events occur, music, art, and poetry are there to remind us that while we carry out our daily activities, we also participate in a wider plain of existence, a larger field of grace that holds and enfolds us, even though we may sense a part of us dying or falling apart. As Arundhati Roy writes, “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget… another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
 

“Spiritual: Listening to Charlie Haden and Pat Methany” appears in Michael L. Newell’s newest book, Diddley-Bop-She-Bop, published by Bellowing Ark Press.