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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.

Uncategorized

Hidden in Plain Sight

Depending on the lens we look at the world it appears to be an entirely different place. Years ago, I read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, where the explorer Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan the features, people, culture, and history of cities in Khan’s expansive empire. In reality, however, though each city depicted is seemingly distinct, they are all actually different versions of Venice, the city where they live.

Any place on earth, not only Calvino’s Venice has multiple histories and innumerable layers to its identity. As peering through a microscope reveals, there are worlds reside within worlds. Believing we know a place and why things look or function as they do, we explain them to ourselves and to others, but many things nevertheless remain outside of our comprehension. Much of what makes up who we are remains hidden beneath our skin and inside our thoughts.,

The southern most active volcanic area in the Cascade Range, at Mt. Lassen National Park in northern California, visitors can get a glimpse of nature’s hidden hydrothermal world. From approximately three miles beneath the surface rises a deep huffing sound like an enormous, arhythmic drumming can be heard while climbing the hill approaching the fumarole at Bumpass Hell. According to the US Geological Survey, Lassen Peak was formed approximately 27,000 years ago after erupting for several years and rising to a height of 2,000 feet, becoming one of Earth’s largest lava domes. The dome went to sleep for 27,000 years then woke up on May 19, 1915, when it erupted destroying a three-square mile area, created mud flows, a new crater at the mountain’s summit, and an avalanche of volcanic material, only to erupt again a few days later, on May 22 the volcano exploded again, blowing down trees, houses, ejecting pumice, and spewing gas and hot ash 30,000 feet into the air.

I sat on the hillside beyond the edge of the white mineral deposits ringing the thermal vents, watching as the vent hurled chunks of rock some thirty feet into the air, spewing them out into every growing pile. Further down the road in the park, mud pots burble up from deep below, painting the earth in tones of ochre and, rust, mustard and gold. 

Not a geologist, I don’t know how to read the landscape’s history. Much of the land’s story was hidden to me. In the park, we can now walk on what was once buried beneath a volcanic cone covering. Though the earth’s crust feels solid when we travel across it, inside there are oceans of molten, liquid earth. So much is hidden from our everyday view. 

It’s not only the land that holds and hides its history. We are an embodiment of our history, as is everyone we meet.

I am no one,
I am
everyone I have known:
all those voices coming on the wind,

writes Michael L. Newell, in his poem “Self-Portrait” from his new book, Making My Peace. As the poem goes on to say, all we’ve experienced and all who we’ve encountered have helped to make who we are. As Newell goes on to describe,

from the past, the aching, haunting past,
the faces barely recognizable in browned
and curled photos found tucked in old books,
in crumpled letters scattered among old poems,

in boxed up bric a brac long forgotten;
who, I ask myself, am I, if not these forgotten ones
who whisper in my head every second of my life,
whose words have shaped thought, deed, laughter,

As Newell indicates, the moments, places and people that have influenced and shaped our lives may be hidden from direct sight, but they are present, similar to the hidden activity beneath the earth we see glimpses of while sitting in front of a fumarole. Newell concludes the poem stating,

We are the dreamed, the dreamer, the stranger who became more
and then vanished, the intimate who disappeared into the long night,
but left behind words, images, and the tilt of a head which remain
in memory’s ever expanding pouch where nothing is ever completely lost.

While Newell’s poem describes the legacy of other people’s lives on our own, Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Living Your Unlived Life, explores playful ways to bring to light unseen aspects of ourselves such as writing a note to the Eternal Youth that continues to live in us whatever our age, and to put it by our bed or computer. My thought is that the focused awareness of what brings us joy and the dreams that live inside of us reflected in the letter will more easily help to bring that dream forward into life. Johnson suggests asking what is keeping you from stepping out and exploring a new path or the next part of your journey, how fear might bind you to ways of living that no longer serve you. Quoting Gilbert Murphy, a Greek translator, Johnson says, “Live in the service of something higher and more enduring, so that when the tragic transience of life at last breaks in upon you, you can feel that the thing for which you have lived does not die.”

Johnson has a variety of other exercises such as writing in a journal once a week or more and using black ink to record thoughts and a different color of ink to represent feelings, and a third color of ink, such as blue, to represent when you are writing about physical sensations. Over time, this gives you an idea of how you process experience, suggests Johnson, and writing in the journal can help you notice repetitive patterns such as what happens repeatedly when you’re stressed, what you tell yourself when you wake up every morning, what you do with intuition, as well as internal messages that shape decisions and how you evaluate reality.

Rob Knight, a Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, on his TED talk says, “The three pounds of microbes that you carry around with you might be more important than every single gene you carry around in your genome.” A person’s gut bacteria can influence things such as anxiety, stress, and mental health, among other things, according to Medical News Today.

From the Peter Wolden’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and Susan Simard we learn how trees communicate and share nutrients with each other underground through fungal networks, information about the network of life that has only recently come to light.

Outside of Bogota, Colombia, María Luisa Hincapié and her family work to protect the biodiversity of orchids in their Forest of Orchids, and around the world young people you may have never have heard of are working in their communities to carry on the work are doing to support their communities during the pandemic.

Like bees among the flowers collecting pollen, in every location there are embodied stories and mysteries that add to the greater web of life that uplifts and sustains us. As Newell said in “Self Portrait,” “We are the dreamed, the dreamer, the stranger who became more…” Life adds to life. As Lassen’s volcano exemplifies, land shifts, gets removed and remade, and “nothing is ever completely lost.”

If you’re interested, Michael L. Newell’s book, Making My Peace, is available here.

poetry, Uncategorized

Living in a Desert Land

Mada’in Salih, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)

The sun shines intensely in Saudi Arabia. Everywhere, light reflects off the desert floor and reverberates against stone. Filled with light, light, and more light, to stand on the earth in Saudi Arabia is to stand in the midst of a wide circle of sun. Holding immensely beautiful forms and textures, the Arabian peninsula has no rivers and no permanent natural water source.

Several years back, I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-‘Ula, founded in the sixth century BC, and located on Saudi Arabia’s north west edge. The ancient Biblical city state of Dedan slightly south of Mada’in Salih in this same area, rests on what was the incense route, and was the capital of the Lihyanites. Later, the Nabateans encompassed the area making Mada’in Salih (then called Hegra) their capital. Like the northern capital of the Nabateans in Petra, Jordan, the site contains elaborate facades of tombs cut into rock, where the earth pulsates in vibrant color.

Though there’s much to love in a light-filled day, sometimes, though, light’s intense radiance can make us long for the softness of shadow and night’s coolness. To enter a door and step into coolness is welcomed. Shade and evening hours are blessings.

Dedan, Saudi Arabia, (photos, Michael Citrino)
at ancient Dedan, Saudi Arabia, (photo Michael Citrino)

When crossing over the lintel and walking into a different world, we carry with us understandings of the world we know, making bridges from what we know to what we don’t. Gradually, as our eyes and mind adjusts, we begin to discern how the new world we’ve entered functions. There are many places and ways of being we don’t know about and don’t understand because those places and worlds are not the ones we are familiar with. When we enter a new phase of life, start a new job, move to a different city or country, fall ill, begin playing a new instrument or try learning a new language, we enter a kind of liminal world where things aren’t necessarily illuminated or clear. Instead, we’re in the dark, so to speak, and have to learn to inhabit a new way of structuring meaning and making sense.

Len Anderson’s newest poetry book, The Way Home, is a probing exploration and beautiful expression of the territory of betweenness or emptiness–places of not knowing, not seeing, the mystery life can reveal itself to be when we find ourselves inhabiting what feels like an internal desert. In his poem, “Door,” Anderson writes,

Deep in a dream
I am a lone pilgrim,
walk the ancient city
arrive at a door

It opens
I enter
and find myself
in the company
of a great silence

As a pilgrim or a seeker described in the lines above, when we enter a new world or way of living, we grow aware we stand in a place of mystery. The old rules and patterns don’t fit and the new world doesn’t speak the same language as the one we left. Traveling through unfamiliar territory is an ancient place. It’s wise to pause and to listen deeply.

In his poem, “Unknown Ghazal,” Anderson writes how the territory of not knowing is a good place to be, “Welcome, make yourself at home, here in the unknown,/ Don’t worry, you can find a way deeper into the unknown.” A thirst of the spirit or heart can last for decades, and for some, centuries. We all desire to be happy, to live with joy and be free of suffering. Thirst is, nevertheless, a given quality of existence. Like the children of Israel who walked into unknown desert for years, thirst can eventually lead to a promised land. Even the promised land, however, was located in a desert.

Because of their wide and windswept emptiness, deserts landscapes embody the longing for life and growth. As Anderson writes in his poem, “The Longing,”

You and I and all growing things
are made of longing. Even the stars
formed in the longest night we can imagine
from the dust left by that flash
that opened out into everything
could be called a kind of longing.

To be a part of creation is to know longing. Whole continents and subcontinents embody landscapes of longing, together with the very stars that were “formed in the longest night we can imagine.” Yet out of this longing came what “opened out into everything.” Everything visible was born out of a yearning.

Deserts are an embodied yearning. In seasons of adapting and waiting on the lintel of liminal space between worlds where it’s unclear what world you inhabit because the world you’re familiar with is no longer the world you live in, it’s good to remember the desert world and how those who inhabit such lands have managed to live inside its constraints. People have lived in desert regions for millennia. Entire civilizations were created in the deserts of Mesopotamia, known in Ancient Greek as the land between rivers. Channeling water for urban use and irrigation, people built entire civilizations there. Ur, Uruk, Lagash, Eridu and Babylon are all cities that grew up in the desert areas between rivers. Recognizing water’s preciousness as it fills seasonal oases after rains or flows from a mountain spring, desert communities channel the water they find, enabling it to benefit to the whole community. In this gathered effort, it’s feasible to not only survive in a desert land but to also thrive there.

Red Dunes, Saudi Arabia (photo, Michael Citrino)

The world is always being renewed, earth reimagining what shape it wants to take. Sitting at the edge of Saudi’s Red Desert you can watch wind lift and flick the sand, tenaciously shifting the perfect-edged ochre and red crystals grain by grain into new forms. “Come into being as you pass away,” says the Gospel of Thomas, logion 42. Everything in both exterior and interior landscape, is shifting, moving, becoming new, even as it alters, ages or dies.

There are sandy deserts and there are stony deserts. Since ancient times people have carved beautiful structures in the hardscape desert lands. Stone personifies deep longing in its steadfastness as it waiting to be worn down or broken open. With patience and endurance, we, too, with the help of others, can create something enduringly beautiful out of what is difficult and hard. As Anderson says in his poem “A Little Mystery,”

Inside each thing
is the possibility
of everything

Don’t worry
we’ll never find it all

Even these stones
and mud we call Earth
are a child of the Heavens
with a touch of Hell

They help hold us here
for this fleeting
eternity

Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)

In his poem, “Into Being,” Anderson describes a child “born without eyes or ears or tongue, without knowing.” This awareness is an unexpected kind of emotional and physical desert the parents in the poem have been given, and they are distraught. The doctor in the poem responds to the parents’ grief saying, “I can only speak from my own / incompleteness.” The beautiful insight Anderson gives here is that even those who are healers are incomplete. It is in recognizing our shared incompleteness with others that we can create a kind of healing. The poem ends with these words of the doctor’s advice regarding their child, “And you must listen / as you never have before. / Each cry, / even the deepest silence / is speaking.” Each one of us lives with incompleteness. If we allow ourselves to listen deeply enough, we can find ourselves in those we perceive as broken or as “other.”

Dwelling in desert places, waiting with uncertainty, we can practice being fully present with not knowing and tune our ears to the sound of small streams of water that allow us to keep going. Embracing the empty land we walk in and visiting the oases when the rains arrive is a way to live in a land between rivers. We survive by practicing hope until we’re able to hear what speaks from the silence and can open the door into a new place of knowing.

Door, Al-‘Ula, Saudi Arabia, (photo, Michael Citrino)
art, community, music, Uncategorized

Finding Our Lullabies

20190809_162035-1

Some bees sleep in flowers, I learned this week, in globe mallows to be specific, their bodies cupped by blossom, and dusted in pollen as they dream. This is a lovely image to keep in mind before drifting off to sleep. We need something gentle in our lives to help us turn away from fears that seem to greet us at every turn. Violence, poverty, pain, disease, death–there are already too many hard things in this world. We long for something soft to encourage and remind us goodness and beauty are still present as a natural part of our ecosystem, and to affirm us that wealth and power aren’t requirements for their existence.

20190805_094633
dragonfly

The Los Angeles Times tells us in Mark W. Moffett’s Op-ed article, “Are we really so different from other species?” that it’s difficult for people to act to save non-human species when they see them as of lesser value. “A significant body of research suggests that how we perceive animals and how we perceive people is closely linked,” writes Moffett. “Brock University scientists Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson had research participants read essays enumerating the human-like traits of animals. Mere exposure to this perspective caused even those with entrenched prejudices to think kindly of immigrants — to regard them more as equals — despite the fact that the essays mentioned nothing about humans.” Amazingly, if we can see how animals are more like us, we feel greater empathy toward people we see as not like us. To know and value other forms of life such as animals and plants, can help us value life in general, and that is an aspiration worthy of our effort. When we don’t see others as valuable as ourselves, we don’t act.

Recently, I visited Port Angeles, Washington, a city on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sitting on the wharf on a Wednesday evening, I was enjoying the Backwoods Hucksters’ fabulous blues and bluegrass concert there, and noticing those who got up to dance by themselves in the space between the audience and stage. Fully engaged in the music and their moves, they didn’t care a hoot about the impression they might be making on others. One of these dancers was a quite elderly woman in a white dress with pink and lavender flowers. She wore a long sleeved purple shirt over the dress, a small gold cross around her neck, large framed glasses, and thick brown cotton stockings that had a large run in them. She could barely move her feet, but raised them up a few inches off the ground in time with the music, turned around slowly, and every now and then lifted her head and both arms. Her face was mostly expressionless, though she was obviously enjoying herself as she didn’t sit down for quite some time.

After a while, a man likely in his early forties wearing a suit rode across the front of the audience on his bike. Parking it, he came over to the elderly woman, and without a pause or any verbal communication, took her in his arms and continued the dance. It was an endearing thing to witness–how they continued on as the music played, the younger man’s feet moving nimbly as he turned the woman, and swayed with her from side to side,with the music’s rhythm. I imagined he was her son, and he knew how well she loved music. He didn’t see her as somehow different and not worthy of attention or connection. I noticed no sense of labored obligation in his expression. Simply, they danced, expressing a refreshing togetherness in the moment. Music has a way of doing that–uniting people, opening us to each other, allowing us to look beyond how we might appear in someone’s eyes, and simply to be together in the moment with each other’s presence as a gift.

Ilya Kaminsky, in his book, Deaf Republic, a book with poems and a play in two acts, the setting of which is place in a fictitious country permeated with violence during a war, writes a beautiful lullaby. The music of his lines express a tenderness,

Lullaby
by Ilya Kaminsky

Little daughter
rainwater

snow and branches protect you
whitewashed walls

and neighbors’ hands all
child of my Aprils

little earth of
six pounds

How soft and gentle these lines feel, and all the more so because the words are offered amidst the book’s larger setting of violence and oppression. When faced with loss or horror, the expression of any small tenderness is heightened even more. We see the preciousness of life in every day expressions of care or nurturance, realizing these aren’t necessarily as commonplace as previously thought.

Rainwater is gentle, restorative, creating a kind of song as it falls to earth, and Kaminsky highlights this in his words holding assonance in the repetition of sounds in rainwater and daughter. Interestingly, Kaminsky identifies snow as something protecting the young one, though snow is cold and can be harsh. In his lines, however, snow is soft, and is connected to images of neighbors’ hands who reach back into a childhood world where spring lived, holding this small earthen being of six pounds–what one might be at birth. 

Both Kaminsky’s poem and the dancers in Port Angeles inspire me to reach beyond the borders of myself and my limited world of thought when considering what might be possible. What dance might I still be able to do, how might I let go more of ego and expectations if I allowed some of my boundaries to be more permeable in order to live more peacefully with myself and with greater generosity in my heart toward others as well as myself? What lullaby can I create in the midst of whatever fear or war I might find myself in the midst of struggle with–either metaphorically or real–that will work toward allowing us all to expand together into a spirit that enables us to sleep more peacefully at night though we know there is work to do the next day–like the bees curled inside cups of flowers? This is a lullaby to connect with.

What we nurture in our hearts and minds gains solidity. As Toni Morrison stated in her article in The Nation when speaking of the value of art, “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” Similarly to Kaminsky writing his lullaby’s gentle words inside a context of disruption and war, Morrison goes on to say, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” Lullabies are not always sweet. One many of us know from childhood talks about a child’s crib hung in a tree bow that rocks then breaks, the baby falling to the ground–not exactly a comforting picture. The thing is, though, the parent is there, singing to the child in the midst of the brokenness. I want to hear more of these kinds of lullabies from people. In our brokenness, we can hold on to each other through our offerings of creativity that function like these lullabies.

Our music, our creativity, is important to our survival. Similar to Pythagoras’s idea of the heavenly spheres creating music as a result of their vibrations, physicists today theorize that all of what we see with our eyes are possibly held together by the minuscule vibration of matter. Recognizing our interconnection to the music vibrating inside all life allows us to thrive.

Here is my offering to you, and a lullaby of sorts, my new chapbook, To Find a River, out this week with Dancing Girl Press, a small collection of poems exploring themes of loss, and nurturance across time and cultures in settings of deserts and gardens. I hope you will read them, and find in them a music to carry you through a hard or empty place you might sense in your life–that the poems in this short volume will be a voice singing in the night for you, connecting with you beyond brokenness, and carrying you into a recognition of a shared world.

AnnaDunes
Anna in the Red Dunes of Saudi Arabia, photo by Michael Citrino

Beauty, place, Uncategorized

Wildflowers and Forgotten Worlds

A place of abandoned windmills, trailers and tractors, the Carrizo Plains north of San Luis Obispo, California carries a kind of sadness, an emptiness that fills the landscape’s wideness. In her poem, “Elegance,” Linda Gregg writes, about the neglected world,

All that is uncared for.

Left alone in the stillness
in that pure silence married

to the stillness of nature.

And there is, indeed, an undisturbed stillness to the landscape of the Carrizo Plains, a silence that absorbs you when you step out onto the sea of land and peer out into the far distance, a world that goes on being itself with out much notice from anyone. The wind rises a bit and rattles the grass. Clouds drift by in their silent carousel. Crow sits in her nest atop a tower where once the windmill turned. The countryside here is full of light, but you can feel the shadows waiting beneath the surface, a kind of loneliness.

 

Tractor, Carizzo Plains

Nevertheless, because these plains are a place left undisturbed by humanities’ hustle, traffic and expectation, something truly grand has the opportunity to appear: wildflowers. After a winter with abundant rain, a super bloom occurs in backcountry areas like the Carrizo Plains. Flowers that have waited for years, at last have the conditions they need to spring forth, forming lakes of lupin and pools of baby blue eyes. Beauty spills its bounty across the hillsides, dusts them in the pink blush of owl’s clover, clothes them in her bejeweled cape of brocaded yellows–gold poppies, topaz fiddlenecks, mustard, butter cups, and bright-eyed tidy tips. The hills reverberate with sun.

People who typically view nature as a backdrop, and who may not know the names of plants in their front yard or on the street where they live drive hours to stare at flowers. They climb hills to get a good view, spread a picnic blanket at the edge of the road, and lug their crying children along with them all for the opportunity to glimpse at the splashes of color for a few hours before making the journey back home. What is there about these flowers that pulls on our spirits so powerfully?

Carrizo Plain

 

Temporal and rare, we know the burst of color these flowers produce doesn’t last long. If you want to see them, you know you can’t put the journey off for weeks. Flowers do not bend to our schedules and timelines. They live and thrive when they choose, and wither quickly beneath the heat.

There’s something beyond the flowers’ narrow life span that pulls us to them though. Something deep inside us physically responds to what we see and experience, allowing us to feel more at ease, interconnected with the world around us, and with ourselves. We feel more whole. When standing amidst the wildflowers, like others around me, I found myself wordlessly staring out at their colorful bounty, fumbling for how to express the awe I experienced.

Something in us responds to a presence in nature that we recognize as much larger than ourselves and intricately, beautifully complex. Though nature speaks a language we in our consumer oriented society barely comprehend, when we step inside a natural world that has not been severely impaired by human interaction, we can nevertheless sense it imparting something significant into our very being. Neurologist Oliver Sacks in Everything in It’s Place describes the profound effect these experiences in the natural world have on us. “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process, as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”

Carrizo

The natural world is interconnected, and our own lives interwoven into its fabric. Nature preserves are also called sanctuaries. The word sanctuary is linked to the idea of what is holy, a word the etymology dictionary indicates connects to that which is whole or uninjured. Nature continues on its vast spiral, working under its own rules to carry on its own story within the constraints of its own rhythms, its own timing. Awe of the natural world reaffirms our connection to it, allows us to feel alive and whole.

As they walked from place to place or rode an an animal, for centuries people lived closer to the land than we do now. Before factory farming, many more of us were farmers interacting daily with plants and the land. According to Sara Burrow’s article in Newsweek’s October 27, 2017 article, ‘”one in nine children “have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least 12 months.'” These patterns of disengagement from Earth alienate us from a life-giving source whose wideness is beyond comprehension, her boundlessness presence ready to carry us into a spaciousness, to use Hopkins’ words, that “flame out, like shining from shook foil.” National parks in the US are threatened by human activity. Perhaps this is because as a whole, people in our culture spends so little time in nature we don’t comprehend its value to our inner lives, and therefore don’t nurture our connection to it. As a result, we’re willing to treat it mostly as a commodity to be used and sold. 

Sadness does, indeed, roam about the world, but there are also wildflowers seeds waiting to be watered beneath the surface of loss, and despair. With blossoms and perfume, Earth call us to come join her, walk with her, listen to her voice. The story she’s telling is far bigger than our fears and worry. It’s a story of renewal, and she’s calling us to be part of it. While watering a plant on our windowsill, walking by a river, waiting beside a tree for the the local bus or looking out our window as rain clouds gather, we can open our roofs to the moment of her presence, let the seasons and scents drift in. The meadow of her refuge awaits. As Hafiz writes in his poem, “All the Hemispheres”

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.

art, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Letting Go

Standing before the glass at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I watched as sardines swirled in graceful, ribboned unison, turning then splitting into two shifting forms, as over and again a hammerhead shark pierced through their fluid movement. To observe life under the sea’s surface is to enter another world that is our own but utterly different, and is perhaps the most otherworldly experience one might have. While staring at the fish, on one hand, a person could say that nothing much is happening: over and over one large fish chases other smaller ones. But from another view, the most essential thing is happening: you are observing life in all its mystery and it leaves you standing in awe. For a few moments you’re unaware of anything but the fishes’ movement as they glide as if in dance through the liquid blue, and you step into some larger universe where time dissolves.

Inside the ocean, life teems in myriad forms, yet we’re barely conscious of its presence, as most of us rarely encounter what is happening beneath the ocean’s surface in our day to day lives.  I would never know about the hammerhead chasing the sardines unless I were to dive into their world or view them in an aquarium. Would we miss their dance if they were no longer with us? Recently, I received a letter from a friend who mentioned that if he never published another poem, the world wouldn’t miss his voice. Most of us at one point or another have probably felt similarly. We work hard at what we do, we aim to accomplish something significant, but still we wonder if our lives have meaning to others. Does a tree, a forest, painting, piece of music, national park or act of simple kindness matter? Why should we learn to cook, build a house, grow a garden, write a story or read one? The universe is enormous and full of fecundity. What does it matter that we create or that we protect the natural world, make space for beauty or nurture others’ creative effort? Would the world miss Dostoevsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Martha Graham or Aretha Franklin if they had never produced their work?

Maybe we can’t miss what we’ve never known or experienced. We tend to take in the world we’re given, absorbing it like food, and whatever we’re given becomes part of our being. We can go through our days somewhat routinely, not necessarily sensing a need for reflection. At the same time, however, something in us hungers to be in relationship to something larger than ourselves. We wouldn’t know what we had missed if the artists who produced their creative work never did so, but our world is certainly fuller, our inner lives richer because of them. To reduce or obliterate voices both nonhuman and human— the forests, animals, music, art, stories or other creative work is to diminish existence, reduce wonder, and to take away our souls.

Though the hammerhead chasing the sardines in the aquarium was beautiful to watch, what I was watching may have also been one animal seeking to make dinner out of another. Death and life are interconnected. To be born is to also to learn you will die. Simply to eat, whether animal or vegetable, something else gives its life in order to sustain our own. All of life is transition. Day follows night follows day. Always, we’re leaving behind one state to enter another. To love someone is to know you will also someday lose the one you love. We leave our parents’ home to enter a larger world. We enter a relationship of love, letting go of something of ourselves in order to expand our lives. Perhaps we move to a new location or a new country. In doing so, we gain a new understanding of the complex diversity and multiple realities coexisting in the world. As we age we lose things—our hair, our vision, our strength. With each transition we make in life we lose something. In turn, what we lose asks us to enlarge our internal selves. To love means to be in relationship, and relationship gives life meaning. The world we breathe and move in is alive and also fragile. Writers, and artists in general, invite us to take off our protective armor and become vulnerable again—to look deeply at our lives, to notice our relationship to the world around us, and to become more conscious of the reality that we stand in liminal space: aware both that we are alive, and understanding we will die. We’re living into as well as dying to each ongoing moment. To enter the world is to experience suffering as well as joy. The more we, like the ancient Biblical Job, can allow ourselves to stand in this awareness, the more we can move out of fear into a place of acceptance of all life brings us, even our own deaths–the biggest transition and opportunity of all to enlarge ourselves.

When we gaze at a school of fish whirling by or view minuscule jellyfish slowly drifting past an aquarium window, their transparent bodies radiating with moving iridescent light or when we lean our heads back to cast our vision into the midnight Milky Way, at stars so thick they have become mis, we catch our breath. Time stops and we stand in naked amazed awareness of creation. These moments may seem small, even insignificant within the press of responsibilities we often take on, but they are important. The accomplishments and creative energy of our lives, the things we hold dear—these reflect the impulse to live and thrive. They are the voice beneath our actions and inside our silences that say, “You are alive, and to be alive is a wonder.” Creative work, our own or appreciation of others’, allows us to touch life, feel its pulse. Our creative efforts may seem small even insignificant, but they are vital. They are efforts that whisper to us why we live. Life dwells in these moments and in the details that bring us into a world larger than our selves—into the mystery of our own being.

How beautifully Mary Oliver speaks of this in her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,”

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.

Deciduous trees burn with luminescent light during autumn as they move toward winter’s dormant stage. Here in Oliver’s poem, the trees in the woods are more than trees; they are lit candles. Similarly, Oliver implies, if we open the eyes of our souls, we can experience the world move from a space where we know the names of things and can categorize them back into a space of the nameless, allowing us to once more delight in their mystery. There are things worth understanding about life’s connection to loss, explains Oliver. Loss teaches us to hold ourselves open to our mortality. Hold the world dear, “against your bones knowing/ your own life depends on it;” Oliver writes, but at the same time our task is to learn to also let go of what we most love. This can be painful and very difficult, but in it, Oliver states, is fulfillment. In losing our life, we find it–ancient wisdom we learn and relearn. In letting go, we can become like autumn trees–lit candles, our lives rich incense others inhale.

art, gratitude, Italian-American, poetry, spirtuality

Lifting Our Heads


“Nature is the art of God,” wrote Dante, whose tomb is in Ravenna, and to enter the Basilica Sant’Apolinarre Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, built by Theodoric (493-526) is to stand inside a garden and behold some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful mosaics. Walls wrapped with tiny stone chips create a paradise surrounding the viewer in nature’s luminous spring green. The walls lift us into a great meadow of starry skies, awe shining from vertical heights–light lifted into an infinitely rich blue. Viewing these, we can’t help but be changed, transformed by the beauty merely standing in its presence. (You learn more about the mosaics’ meaning here and can see more images of them here.)

Today, far from Ravenna, I walk outside to water the garden, thinking of those walls and how nature, including images of nature in art, can lift the spirits. There is so much in this world that can weigh us down–worries about our jobs, our purpose, finances, health, our relationships or lack of them. Surrounded by these woes and worries, we long for transformation–and we can receive that when go outside and gaze into the face of nature. Dante writes, “Heaven wheels above you displaying her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground.” Outside my door I see the sunflowers planted months back lifting or trying to lift their heavy heads on the long, slender stems. Things can be difficult for them, too, yet their faces gleam gold amidst the sky’s lustrous blue, and I can’t help but be grateful for their presence–the way their color, their height, the wide-eyed faces help me see the world differently.

“i thank You God for most this amazing/day:” writes E.E. Cummings, “for the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything/ which is natural which is infinite which is yes,” and though I feel the weight of the morning’s news weighting my head, I can see, too, that there is a larger world– the trees patiently lifting their arms to the sky, the sky swirled with cloud–the largeness of creation itself. Cummings’ poem, as it continues, also describes this sense of expansiveness.

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

If it happens that you’re sometimes not sure what your purpose is or what value you might have, it’s good to have a few plants nearby that need watering because when you water plants and can know you make a difference. You see you are nurturing something, enabling it to flourish. Gradually, eventually, your plant grows and takes on new leaves. Maybe a flower blooms or the plant bares fruit. When caring for plants you understand how slowly things grow and change, and yet how given time and thoughtful attention, you can bring a little beauty into the world.

Our hearts long to be lifted in difficult times. We may not be able to visit Ravenna. We may not be able to change much in our external events, but the illimitable earth is a gift of love offered every day and it can give us wings. When we practice noticing and naming the gifts, our hearts, our worlds expand.

poetry, Reading, Uncategorized, writing

Beyond Fear Into a Larger World

In her poem, “The Best of It,” Kate Ryan, describes how it feels to have continued loss, to be reduced to be so little considered that you have next to nothing.

THE BEST OF IT

However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.

In some cultures, people choose to become monks who own virtually nothing. They have begging bowls and their clothing, and that’s about it. They depend on people around them to give them food. This helps the monks practice gratitude and to control their wants and desires, and it helps other people to practice giving and hospitality. The work monks do can encourage us on our life path. Most of us, however, aren’t monks who have chosen to take the vow of poverty. We work hard to make a space we can live in so we can provide ourselves with food, clothing, and other necessities. There comes a point when making the best of it really isn’t enough. People want to do more than merely exist–need more than just their one bean.

Circumstances can arise that make it so getting these things aren’t possible or are at least very difficult to obtain. If we’re poor, it’s rarely by choice. We need the diversity that entire gardens possess. In a flourishing society, the social structure supports people in developing their abilities and provides varied and abundant opportunities for them to contribute to the community. If someone literally doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or is struggling with severe pain or loss of bodily function resulting from a terminal disease or other such loss, what enables a person to go on, and how do people cope with their fear and anxiety during such situations?

Recently, I’ve been researching about Italians immigrants living in San Francisco during World War II for poems I’m writing. During this time period, the US government labeled 600,000 American-Italians as “enemy aliens” resulting from Executive Order 9066, an act that held numerous consequences for Italian-American immigrants.

During WWII, Italian-Americans had to carry a booklet identifying them as an enemy alien and have it stamped once a week. They weren’t allowed to travel more than five miles from home, had to stay in their homes between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., and were required to turn over radios, flashlights and cameras to government authorities. Approximately another 10,000 Italians living in prohibited zones near coasts were forced to move (sources vary, as the Smithsonian, states it was 50,000). Many people lost their jobs, some because their place of employment was further than the five miles from their house they were allowed to travel. 1,400 Italian fishermen in San Francisco weren’t allowed to fish. Three hundred Italian-Americans (some sources say more) were put in internment camps. Certainly, these changes and losses caused the Italian-American community anxiety and fear regarding their livelihoods, the safety and well-being of their family members, as well as serious questions regarding how their future would be affected.

In the fall of 1942, Roosevelt lifted the enemy alien status but Executive Order 9066 remained on the books until 1976 when President Gerald Ford removed it.

Fear in the American society at large was a significant motivating factor behind the government’s choice to remove civil liberties from Italian-Americans, as well as from the Japanese and Germans. When the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw the internment camps, she spoke out against them. “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” Her voice didn’t cause the camps to close, however. The families in these camps continued living with their difficult situation.

Italian-American immigrants faced significant injustices, as have many others world-wide throughout history, as well as currently. Life can change quickly and profoundly when you are suddenly seen as no longer acceptable. It’s easy to see how difficult life could be in such circumstances and to imagine how easy it could be to live in a state of fear, anger and resentment when facing such a cyclone of events you couldn’t anticipate and had no control over. 

We don’t know our futures. We want to be ready to face our fears and the storms that come our way. In his poem, “Snowfall in the Afternoon,” Robert Bly clearly depicts what it’s like when confronted with an unavoidable fearful situation– in this instance, a rising storm. “It was the sort of snowfall that starts in the late afternoon,” he writes, “And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.” Like anxiety and fear, the storm grows, picking up strength, feeding on its own furry as it continues, until the very home one lives in seems to be made of grass–vulnerable to gale force winds.

Yet beneath the surface, forces not attended to had been somehow present all along. Bly writes, “A darkness was always there which we never noticed.”  The poem goes on, explaining how watching from inside the house, the cornfields seem to shrink. Then, like some wayward galley holding a great weight of grain, the barn’s bulk moves threateningly closer, about to crash into the house where “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” Whether blinded or aware, the viewer is left in an alarming situation. This is how we feel sometimes when confronting unavoidable situations–waiting for a hurricane or fire that might engulf our house and ruin our entire livelihood and future. How do we cope with extreme difficulties that can’t be avoided–when we don’t know how long anything around us will last, if our efforts will make any difference, and when we’re alone in our vulnerable house made of grass about to be plowed down by something we see coming and yet are unable to do much about?

Because the darkness was there all along but simply not previously noticed, we can see a possible way to begin to understand what we fear and what we might do about it: look around. Notice where darkness is growing and storms might be brewing. Practice acknowledging the presence of fear–look at the fear and purposefully be present with it in our thoughts. Rather than rushing past our fears, covering them over with restless activity or hiding them, simply practice noticing when the fear as it arises, observe it, be curious about it—what brings it up, how it feels in the body, what it’s telling or teaching us.

When we see a storm coming toward us, typical responses are to run, to hide, fight, or even to find ways to cooperate with the storm or move with it. A significant portion of Italian-Americans during WWII, for example, kept a low profile. Parents during that generation chose not to teach their children Italian. It was considered “the language of the enemy” and they didn’t want their children to stand out. Italians also enlisted in the army and went to war as a way to demonstrate their loyalty.

Like stony mountains, difficult things don’t necessarily go away. We have to learn to live with our emotions in spite of their presence. There are other ways to respond to difficult situations, and we can teach ourselves how to think, act and feel differently in response.

Imagination is a powerful tool. We can imagine various situations we’re afraid of and practice letting go of the fear—visualizing a different way of responding. Collette Lafia, in her article on the Gratefulness.org site, describes a practice where you sit quietly with a bowl, imagining filling it with your sorrow, grief, anger, exhaustion–whatever your wound. You don’t try and fix it, you just put it in the container and with humility hold it out to the Infinite for healing. I can see how this is a way of gaining a larger perspective and how it would help instill an understanding that the working out the problem that creates the fear isn’t about will and control. By placing the fear (or other strong emotion) in a larger context we can gain a kind of freedom from the thought patterns that bind us related to our fears and see how resolving an issue or dealing with fear is part of a larger interaction.

Pema Chödrön in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty, writes, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Difficult situations can be complex and we might not readily know by ourselves what it is we need in order to resolve our fears. Maybe we can begin elsewhere, however, and simply probe the emotion without having to think it must be resolved or that we have to come to conclusions about it. Living the question until we live into the answer might be the more appropriate thing to do, as the poet Rilke suggested.

So that we move out of our own tightness and fear–our tendency to cling and be anxious–we might also shift our gaze, aiming to familiarize ourselves with others and their pain. We can imagine ourselves taking in someone else’s pain, and send them light and energy. Pema Chodron describes specific steps for how we might do this in a practice called tonglen. The specific purpose of this practice is to expand our capacity for compassion. Instead of treating people perfunctorily, as someone who performs a task, we can begin consciously practicing to enhance relationships with those around us. This could be just a thought we think when we see someone pass by us who seems different from ourselves in dress or perspective. We might in our minds wish them well, to be released from pain or to find fulfillment. Fear, anger, resentment–these can trap us, make our lives miserable but we can live alongside these emotions, observing and putting them into a wider, different context, or turn from them toward something different. Learning to love ourselves, we learn how to love our neighbors. We can open our arms, and nurture our hearts into a larger world.

We all want to live a life where we feel valued. Recognizing how the well-being of our own life is interconnected to the dignity of all people is foundational to moving beyond fear into a larger world where we can live with greater freedom and attain more of our full potential. After World War II in 1948, representatives from countries and cultures throughout the world put together The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the goal of protecting people from “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The declaration was put in place in recognition that people shouldn’t have to be pushed into “rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” Neither should people have to hide, run away, or deny their language, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other fundamental aspects of their personhood just so they might continue living. All people need dignity and should be able to thrive in living condition free from fear. Article 1 of the Human Rights Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Practicing in our lives each day how to move beyond our own fears, we can begin to integrate into our lives how we might respond to fears in others’, and perhaps see how to respect and protect their freedom. As John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition: there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”

art, poetry

Time With Trees

Tree at Hampstead Heath, London, UK

“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”-John Berger

Trees have been important to humans throughout time. The Atlantic points out evidence to demonstrate a connection between the health of trees and our human health. In countries of Turkish and Arab origin, trees are a symbol of life, and tree of life motifs are woven into carpets from the region. People plant trees to commemorate a baby’s birth, and sometimes when a pet dies a tree is planted where the animal was buried. The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, and the Bible tells the story of the Tree of Knowledge. In Japanese culture, the plum tree’s blossoms represent life’s beautiful yet fragile quality. These are but a few of people’s interconnections with trees. (The American Forest organization gives many further interesting insights about humans’ relationship to trees.)

Lately, I’ve been spending time with trees. Though I’ve loved trees since childhood when I climbed and played in the pepper and umbrella trees in my family’s backyard, I’ve developed a further interest in trees as a result of my recent endeavor to learn to draw. Drawing is a way of knowing. You look closely at what you’re drawing. You study what you observe in order to draw, and what you’re studying has a way of becoming part of you. You gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your subject. Families are connected to the idea of trees, and for my family reunion this summer I thought I would draw each family member their favorite tree. This way I could practice drawing, and get to know something new about my family, as well as give something to them. I’d also gain new insight about trees.

I set out on my endeavor. As I drew, I realized more clearly how trees each have their own unique architecture and character. Drawing them is a bit like getting to know a person. As you get more familiar with someone, their unique personality emerges. It’s similar with trees. It takes a lot of patience to draw–patience with yourself and your learning process. I want to draw better than I am able. As a beginner, it’s difficult to see well enough to draw the spirit inside of anything–which is what I want to do–to interact with the unique feeling or character of what I’m drawing and reveal it–but this is next to impossible because I’m still trying to develop the skill of how to put the lines on the page. It’s an amazing notice, however, when what I’ve made looks something like what I intended and others can recognize it! That’s motivation to continue the effort going.

After completing the drawings (a few of which are shown below), I interviewed each family member to learn more of the story behind why they chose their particular tree as their favorite. Reflecting on what I heard during these interviews, I noticed the strength and energy behind people’s attachment to their chosen tree, and decided to write a poem about each person’s tree, using some of the details told me during the interviews.

To do this, I had to imaginatively enter into the landscape where the tree grows, and envision both the tree and the meaning it holds for the person. I had familiarity with everyone’s chosen tree, but in aiming to write about the pine-filled hills of Tennessee, I was confronted with the fact that I knew little specifically about Tennessee pines. Though I’ve lived in more than one region of the US and have travelled to different states, it is not the same as living in a particular place and knowing it in its subtle moods and aspects. We connect with the land around us both physically and imaginatively. We know something by reading about it and studying it, but also by being present with it over time. This is what makes landscape or a tree personal–we interact with it and come to know it. Knowing pines in locations other than Tennessee, as well as reading about the landscape, and recalling novels and films that took place in that part of the US, helped me to imagine the pines of Tennessee so I could write about them. In this way, a world that was not my own could became part of my own experience.

After drawing and writing about trees, I decided to familiarize myself further with the heritage trees near where I live, and took a hike to the Byrne-Milliron forest. Santa Cruz County is home to some of the oldest redwood forests in the world, and the Byrne-Milliron forest contains one of oldest redwood trees in California, the Great White Redwood. The tree is 25o feet tall and a 1,000 years old. Though the tree is a redwood, its bark has a silvery white appearance. In spite of  the heat, I wanted to encounter the tree, to stand in its presence and observe how that felt, so with my water bottle in hand, I set out.

The Byrne-Milliron forest lacks a high volume of visitors, so when walking through the area, other than leaves crunching under my feet, a dense quietness filled the air. Dodging poison oak along the way, and guessing a bit at which way to go, I followed a path as it wound up a hill offering an overview of the Pajaro Valley, then dipped into gullies rich with shade before narrowing into more or less the width of my feet as I approached the tree.

Standing at last in the small clearing at the foot of the great tree, I gazed up its long, near endless height. The forest was so deeply still but for the butterflies moving in a gap high up in the redwood’s branches where sunlight fell through. The journey to find the tree had been a kind of pilgrimage, and I sat in silence before the tree for some time. Even with the tree’s top obscured by leaves from its branches, the tree’s solidity and immensity moved and overwhelmed me.

Great White Redwood, Byrne-Milliron forest, Santa Cruz, CA

Along the hike, I had seen a number of large redwood stumps where virgin growth trees had been cut at the turn of the last century. Previous to this, for a hundred years short of a thousand years, this tree and the forest itself had stood silent with only the hum of flies and the random call of a bird, rain patter, and perhaps some occasional thunder. Eons of of silence. Stillness. That’s what the forest held and the trees knew–an astonishing reality.

As I didn’t see other trees in the forest approaching the size of the Great White Redwood, it appears to be the one uncut virgin growth tree remaining. I imagined what it must have been like to enter this forest two hundred years ago where all the trees were this enormous, this ancient. Humans have done much to shape and alter the earth. Numerous pieces of human architecture have moved me–the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Majal, the Sagrada Familia, to name a few. Standing before an ancient tree is different. A tree is alive. Before this ancient living presence, I felt full of wordless awe. A large, solid slice of wood shaped like a plaque sits before the Great White redwood in the Byrne-Milliron forest, a commemoration of the tree, it seems, though the plaque contains no words. That emptiness seems worth noting.

Banyan, Monreale cloister, Sicily

People have altered and shaped the earth since the beginning but the land also shapes us. Our experience with geography and landscapes is an exchange–the land brings us its scents, colors, textures, lighting, and seasonal changes, but we also bring something to it with our specific interests, questions, perceptions, skills, and imagination. What is the affect on our lives of loving and caring for particular landscapes or specific aspects of nature such as trees? The nature writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, in his Education Week Teacher essay, “Losing Our Sense of Place” writes, “The intense pressure of imagery in America, and the manipulation of images necessary to a society with specific goals, means the land will inevitably be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image will, one way or another, be silenced or discredited by those in power.” Getting to know the land we live on, getting to know the trees and plants around us through drawing them, writing about them, or simply walking among them is a way to move beyond the idea that the earth is merely another commodity. These practices honor the land’s presence and our shared connection to the natural world. They help toward creating greater balance between being and the effort to possess, to attain.

How well do we know the place we live? How do we stand in relationship to it? As I draw trees, I grow more aware of their complexity. I thought I knew what a tree was, but when looking closely over an extended period of time, as is necessary when drawing a tree, I notice how there’s so much mystery inside a tree as well, so much I don’t understand.  Hikmet Nazim, in his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” writes, “I didn’t know I loved the earth/ can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it.” Our lives are linked with trees. They are important to our physical and emotional health. We may not work the earth but we can nurture our love for it. It’s worth our time to read and learn about the land we live on–the land we love. It’s worth taking time to visit the natural world, to develop a relationship with the geography we are a part of, to grow close with the land we love and with the trees they hold. They are an important part of what makes us who we are.

tree at Hampton Court, UK