A plain dotted with trees and scattered with boulders, Hampi in the Indian state, Karnataka, is a beautiful landscape. My recent visit there during the Diwali holiday allowed me to wander into India’s rural outback, and to laze against sun heated granite by the Tungabhadra River. During the 1500s, the Vijayanagar had a population of 500,000. The empire covered the entire southern portion of India, but Deccan Plateau sultans joined together and defeated the Vijayanagar army. The temples’ treasures were carried off as loot, much of the population was killed, and of those who weren’t killed, many fled. One of the world’s mightiest kingdoms fell to ruin, and gradually into obscurity.
Four hundred years later, Robert Sewell, a British civil servant stationed in India, wrote about the empire in his book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India. Much later, in 1986, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In addition to being a World Heritage site, Hampi is also a place of important religious significance for Hindus. As the stories describe, Hampi is the hill where Shiva, the god of destruction, did penance before marrying Pampa. After Shiva married, the gods poured gold onto the Heamakuta hill. According to the Hampi India website, Heamakuta, means heap of gold.
Hampi’s temples and ruins are spread over more than 10 square miles, or 25 square kilometers. There is much to see, and the carvings are fantastic. Though a place of enormous significance for many people on the subcontinent in the 1400 and 1500s, Hampi and the Vijayanagar empire are mostly unknown to people outside of India. As I walked along near the queen’s palace, I ran my hand along one of the carved walls. “My hands are touching history,” I thought to myself. “My hands touch what the ancients have touched, yet I understand so little.” Whether at a ruins of an ancient empire, or walking down the street of our hometown, our lives are enveloped in mysteries. We just don’t often recognize it.
After our day of exploration at the ruins, we went on a walk on the grounds near our hotel. We stepped across bamboo bridges stretching over the river, looped up across massive granite faces. Turning a corner, we tucked ourselves through a wooden door between leaning rock slabs. As we stepped inside, it seemed we had entered into a rock cathedral with windows of sky beaming through the stacked boulders. We continued climbing a short distance to an opening where we stood, at last, to view the valley spread before us in a 360 degree view. It was as if we had entered a secret door that enabled us to see the whole world. What a wonder it was, too–a plain filled with trees, and a river meandering through it with granite boulders balancing in precarious positions and leaning agains each other in dramatic angles. Nature like this is not a site often seen when living in one of the world’s mega cites like Delhi. We scanned our eyes across the landscape, fishing for greenery, for sky, for what we didn’t even know how to name. Our hearts simply opened to the world, and when we left the hilltop, we knew something inside us had shifted. We were lighter, and ,paradoxically, somehow more solid. Nature writer Barry Lopez says, “real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it.” This is because when beauty touches you, you slip into a place that is beyond rational thought and abstraction. The divisions between the physical and spiritual worlds collapse into one unified presence. That presence is far bigger than the mind can hold. You are humbled and made whole again.
The beauty of Hampi’s temples is definitely worth traveling a long distance to see. The setting of the ruins themselves, though, is what sets Hampi apart from other locations. In this landscape, you can learn that everywhere is a temple if we have eyes to see it. To be there is to walk around in a colossal expanse of found sculpture, an installation art piece of gargantuan proportions, the origins prehistorical. Everywhere I looked, I saw art emerging from the earth.
Hampi granite sheathes
Rice field, Hampi
Granite sheathe 2
Granite sheathe 3
Rice field, Hampi
The earth is in an ongoing creative act. If you listen, you can hear it speak through its myriad forms. The wind in palm trees chatters with stiff, clattering branches. Wind through bamboo scratches and cracks like arthritic bones. Wind through neem trees speaks with a restless, dry and fragile sound like crinkled onion skins. The earth tells its stories.
In my continuing desire to learn Spanish, I’m reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse book series in Spanish. Currently, I’m reading Una momia al amanecer, or in English, A Mummy at Daybreak. The children in the novel, Annie and Jack, learn how the Egyptians “tried to protect the body against death by preserving it for eternity.” (p. 45) Travel to the Vijayanagar empire’s ruins, however, assures the visitor that empires are temporary. All we have can be lost in a moment. Even stone wears away and topples. In Hindi, Vijay means victory. Victory, if found, is elsewhere, not in empires.
The final stanza of Louise Gluck’s poem “Summer Nights” reads,
Balm of summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived–
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?
Life is so dear, and life is full of both imperial joy as well as sorrow. You don’t seem to get one without getting the other too, at least that is what I’ve observed from living in India. Everything is being destroyed and made at the same time. Maybe that is, in part, why art is necessary. It reminds us that we participate in the creative act of life. Perhaps this is why temples have so much art. Religion means to rebind, and the creative act helps us to re-member–to put our selves together again.
“Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.”—Oscar Wilde
In the streets of my Delhi neighborhood, workers are building new apartments. Women carry sand on their heads. Bricks are stacked on the walkway. Yesterday the populous celebrated Republic Day, and I was reading Pamela Timms’ book, Korma Kheer & Kismet, the chapter titled “Independence Day in Sadar Bazar” where she describes the civic protests of 2011 where social activist, Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare, began a hunger strike in protest of government corruption. Concerned with the amount of interest Hazare stirred up in the populace, prime minister of the time, Manmohan Singh responded, ‘”Corruption manifests itself in many forms. Funds meant for schemes for the welfare of the common man end up in the pocket of government officials. In some other instances, government discretion is used to favor a selected few. There are also cases where government contracts are wrongfully awarded to the wrong people. We cannot let such activities continue unchecked.”’ Hazare’s hunger strike began the day after the prime minister made the statement, reports Timms, and goes on to describe some of the corruptions in the system—food vendors paying as much as a quarter of their salaries to the police to be able to stay open, and rickshaw drivers paying as much as 20% of their salaries to police to prevent their tires from being slashed, families having to pay bribe money to secure a place for their child at school. (p. 55) (You can read an overview of large-scale corruption in India here if you wish.)
It’s no surprise that corruption is present not only in India. It is a worldwide problem in both businesses, see a list here of top business corruption cases, and governments. Take a look at the thematic map from Transparency International here, to see a visual representation of corruption levels in countries across the world. Justice doesn’t prevail. In many cases, it’s simply the way the world functions where people live, and the everyday person, if he or she wants to function in society, doesn’t have a lot of choice about it.
With corruption and misuse of power so widespread, an enormous percentage of people in the world are pawns to those who hold the power. How do people manage? How do people—any of us and all of us—caught in such systems go on living with good conscience? I remember listening to Garth Lenz describing on his TED Talk about the effects of mining for oil in Canada’s tar sands had on the native people of the area. Parents in that area are caught in the dilemma of needing to feed their children, yet the toxins in the river are causing cancers at the rate of 10 times what it is in other parts of Canada. Because it’s very costly to fly in all the food a person needs in order eat, the aboriginal people are forced to eat the food “..as a parent, I just can’t imagine what that does to your soul. And that’s what we’re doing,” says Lenz. (transcript available here.) Certainly there were people during the time of Spain’s inquisition, in Nazi Germany and in Pol Pot’s Cambodia who didn’t agree with the government’s position but felt compelled to go along with the crowd mentality for fear of their own lives and those of their children’s. Certainly, there are people today in our own institutions who disagree with the use of power and yet are afraid of speaking out for fear of losing their jobs and the livelihood for their families. Not everyone can just move on or move out to a new situation, new job, new country, new life, and even if that were possible, where might one live or work where corruption was not part of the way of life? We have to learn to live in a fallen world.
I’m reminded of Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem, “I Open a Box,” in her book, Ancestor’s Song, where she describes her Italian immigrant mother’s doctor coming to her New Jersey tenement to assist her in the delivery of her baby. He arrives late, and Gillan’s mother has already given birth, cut the umbilical cord, and washed her child. When the doctor finally arrives, he doesn’t even enter the room. Instead, he distances himself from the situation.
“He washed his hands, wiped
them on one of the rough linen towels
I brought from Italy, stood in the doorway.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, and left.
“Oh, well,” my mother said, “I think
he was afraid of catching it.”
“Catching what?” I asked.
“Poverty,” she said.
Poverty is often perceived by wealthier countries as something out there over there, not mine not related to one’s own life. Like the doctor at the door, people want to distance themselves from the poor, not realizing their lives are connected. We may want to stand at the door like the doctor of this poem observing a world we don’t want to be a part of. We may think we can wash our hands, bid others well and walk away, and disconnect ourselves from what we don’t want and live in a different neighborhood. But our lives are intertwined. One example: A few years back, students in my speech class debated whether the lithium beneath Bolivia’s salt flats should be mined. The area is of tremendous beauty yet the area holds more than half the world’s lithium. Lithium is a lightweight metal used in powering our high tech products—iPhones, iPods, and other handheld devices. Now, as the world searches for alternative energy and looks towards ways to store electricity in batteries in order to meet more of our needs, including the use of batteries for electric vehicles, the need for lithium grows in greater and greater demand.
Dan McDougal, in his article on Mail Online “In search of Lithium: The battle for the third element” quotes a lithium-ion battery producer, Mary Ann Wright of Johnson Controls-Saft, ‘Since a vehicle battery requires 100 times as much lithium carbonate as its laptop equivalent, the green-car revolution could make lithium one of the planet’s most strategic commodities.’“ There’s not enough lithium to power the world’s 900 million vehicles, however, McDougal observes. Bolivia has significantly large amounts of the needed lithium to produce the batteries for the growing electric car industry, an industry that most people perceive as a green technology. Mc Dougal reports that according to “William Tahil, research director with technology consultancy Meridian International Research, ‘to make just 60 million plug-in hybrid vehicles a year containing a small lithium-ion battery would require 420,000 tons of lithium carbonate – or six times the current global production annually.” To continue, McDougal goes on to report that “The US Geological Survey claims at least 5.4 million tons of lithium could be extracted in Salar De Uyuni, while another report puts it as high as nine million tons.”’ Bolivia is a very poor country. Child workers are exploited, but children work to help their families. While mining the mineral would bring needed jobs and money into the country, a problem is that mining the mineral requires an abundance of water, and water is a rare commodity in Bolivia’s high desert. Bolivia has experienced exploitation by outsiders before in the tin and silver mining industries. An overuse of water could significantly affect the country and its people in numerous ways—making it difficult to have enough water for daily use, as well as for farming. Additionally, mining pollutes water with toxins as well. McDougal asks his readers “Is the world’s need for a green solution to transport worth the destruction of this unique environment and way of life that it lives on?”
Transportation is necessary. Our society is structured in such a way that few of us can walk to work. We need some way of getting to work. We want to do that in the least harmful way to the environment and others. As a result, in the desire to move away from our dependence on oil, many people are looking toward buying an electric car. These same people may be unaware that in doing so they are connected to moral dilemmas of another sort. We are all part of the greater web of being.
Parker Palmer, in his book, The Courage to Teach, which I’m currently reading, talks about the biologist Barbara McClintock, who was given the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work that changed our understanding of genetics. Prior to her work, people thought of genes as separate things, not in connection to the environment they were a part of. Palmer explains that McClintock’s interviewer who wrote her biography, Fox Keller, “wanted to know, ‘What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues?’ McClintock’s answer, Keller tells us, is simple: “Over and over again she tells us one must have the time to look, the patience to ‘hear what the material has to say to you,’ the openness to ‘let it come to you.’ Above all, one must have ‘a feeling for the organism.’” We co-create our world. We can’t stand at the door. The burden of the cost of anything is born by all eventually. As Palmer goes on to say, “Modern knowledge has allowed us to manipulate the world but not to control its fate (to say nothing of our own), a fact that becomes more clear each day as the ecosystem dies and our human systems fail.” (p. 57) Perhaps, then one important way of living inside of corrupt systems and move ourselves and society toward greater wholeness is to do what we can with those around us to build and restore relationships constructively. Some things or many things may not be in our power. But some things will. We can learn to listen closely to the interrelationships of people and things so we gain a greater connection to life. With this understanding, we can better comprehend what actions will create harmony both with others and with nature.
Dostoyevsky said, “Beauty can save the world.” While it may not appear to be a solution to growing environmental and social concerns, the idea deserves a closer look. What connection does beauty have in showing us a way through our dilemmas of how to live in unjust social systems? The New York Times “Books” section, published in 1987 includes an excerpt from Richard Ellman’s essay “Oscar Wilde.” Ellman relates the story of Oscar Wilde coming to New York City in 1882. “Beauty is nearer to most of us than we are aware,” Wilde explained talking to reporters. One of the reporters wanted to know if a nearby grain elevator was beautiful. Earlier in the conversation, Wilde had said, ‘I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that.” As reporters continued probing, Wilde explained further his ideas about beauty. ”’It’s a wide field which has no limit, and all definitions are unsatisfactory. Some people might search and not find anything. But the search, if carried on according to right laws, would constitute estheticism. They would find happiness in striving, even in despair of ever finding what they sought. The renaissance of beauty is not to be hoped for without strife internal and external.” ”Where then is this movement to end?” ”There is no end to it; it will go on forever, just as it had no beginning. I have used the word renaissance to show that it is no new thing with me. It has always existed. As time goes on the men and the forms of expression may change, but the principle will remain. Man is hungry for beauty. . . . There is a void; nature will fill it. The ridicule which esthetes have been subjected to is the only way of blind unhappy souls who cannot find the way to beauty.”’ Creating a world of beauty is creating the ideal world. Creating a heaven, so to speak. To do so will take great effort. But people are hungry for it, as Wilde says. We are hungry for beauty, and that hunger connects to the desire for a world without corruption. Without corruption, beauty has a better chance of thriving.
Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, speaks on her Harvard Thinks Big, “Beauty as a Call to Justice” about how experiences of beauty help to move humans toward justice. When we experience the beautiful, we are pulled out of our everyday way of interacting with our surroundings. We stand still. We are transfixed, she explains. In those moments, beauty pours into us an awareness of the “surfeit of aliveness.” It takes us out of ourselves, and connects us with a larger reality. Scarry makes the case that this experience of beauty helps lead us to love what we see and to want to care for it and have a relationship with it.
I don’t know if its true as Keats said in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” but I do believe we need to have a much deeper knowing of beauty than we currently hold. There is a relationship between our loss of beauty in many of our urban environments, a loss resulting from our pragmatic values that relegates beauty to the bottom realms, and efficiency to the higher realms of priority. When I speak of beauty, I’m not talking about beauty in the decorative or commercial sense. I’m speaking of the beauty such as nature gives us in a star strewn sky or a valley sweeping down in green fields from stoney mountain peaks. I’m speaking of the beauty Scarry described above—that stops us short, that overwhelms, and then lifts us out of ourselves. Is our culture’s pragmatic love of efficiency causing us to structure society in such a way that it’s actually challenging to make deep connections with others? We have connection to people on Facebook, but does the minimalistic communication that exists there nurture deep conversation and relationship? I doubt it. Could it also be true that our lack of seeing ourselves as connected to the beauty of the Bolivian salt flats and the lives of Bolivian miners as we pursue our technological development (and other similar realities) is part of the reason corruption continues to thrive? Do people act in ugly ways because they live in a world where connection to the natural world is broken? In glimpses of beauty, we can see the world we want to belong to, a world of balance and wholeness, and are drawn to it. If we gave beauty a place of respect and honor in our cultures, possibly we would treat the world with more respect. If we developed more of a relationship with those around us and with the natural world, wouldn’t we understand our connection to the world and realize more fully the effects of our choices? Is our collective loss of beauty causing us to lose our souls?
I never used to understand the Jesus prayer—the ancient prayer that says, “Have mercy on me.” I felt it seemed too focused on the negative and I already struggle to move beyond my failures. But as I see myself more and more intertwined with the existence of all that is, I see the value of this prayer. What the world is or isn’t, isn’t all up to me, but I’m also a part of all that is. How do we live in a corrupt world and yet continue to grow toward wholeness? The problems are all much bigger than me but mercy is extended. “For the Beauty of the Earth” is an old song that carries with it the idea of giving praise for the world around us and to the skies. Perhaps the ongoing practice of noticing and valuing beauty in the world, as the words of this song illustrate, acts to create a greater awareness of our interconnectivity. It’s worth trying.
One of the especially valuable aspects of creative work—of art and literature, of writing—is the way it nurtures the inner life. The artist must look very carefully at whatever she or he is drawing in order to see it and how it functions in relationship to itself and to the world it inhabits. In writing, an author must delve inside the subject with imagination in order to understand the subject and the interrelationship of the subject to oneself and the world. To write or to do art is to cultivate beauty. It is a way to reconnect to the world, is a way of making whole again as telling our story is a way of making us whole again. The flourishing of this kind of empathetic understanding that comes through our interaction with literature and the arts is important to not only the continuance of the world, but the continuance of a world that is good to live in.
Wherever we are, we can work with others to create greater wholeness. If we are going to change at all, it will be a step-by-step movement toward wholeness. In the mean time, we can pray as we walk, “have mercy,” and, by grace, we will continue on.
Most days we move through a world of familiar routines, often with unsurprising outcomes. The past few days I spent time with friends who own a house in Peschio, a tiny village situated above Alvito, Italy, a small community located on the edge of the Comino Valley a couple of hours below Rome in the state of Lazio. In Peschio, traditions still hold sway in people’s everyday lives. Bells ring on the hour, people have close connections with their neighbors and still live where they were born. Neighbors share gifts of food such as handmade pasta. In the evening, people gather for conversation at the local ice cream parlor or sit with friends on benches in the street. The town adorns the roads with ribbons for a celebration of the Madonna, carrying an icon of her through the streets. Here, communities aren’t driven by competition or pressed down with the weight of tasks to complete in a limited period of time. Life here is simple. Houses are not fancy, neither are their clothes. It’s true that the area struggles economically and that the population is aging, yet at the same time people have time to chat on the street or gather for an impromptu dinner on the neighborhood piazza. Human connection remains central to life.
View of Comino Valley, from Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Neighborhood gathering for pizza on the piazza, Peschio, Italy
Ice cream shop in Alvito, Italy
Homemade pasta, a neighbor’s gift, Peschio village,
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley from Peschio, Italy
Peschio village, Lazio, Italy
Comino Valley, Lazio, Italy
I feel a connection to those living in a world where tradition is still a vital part of people’s understanding and way of being, but this way of being can’t be mine. I wasn’t raised with traditions that go back to the old world. I have lived in too many worlds with too many other lives, but there is a beauty there. Unlike the world in Alvito, the world most of us live in is filled not with space for human connection, but instead with human competition and the drive to get ahead, make a name, or gain power in some area, even if a narrow one. Minutes count, and finding time to sit outside and enjoy the evening air or to chat with a friend can be challenging. In such a world it is difficult to find satisfaction or wholeness. It’s challenging to find the time to reflect on life, hard to assume an attitude of receptivity instead of needing to act or be in charge, though receptivity is a central attitude that enables us to learn respect for our limitations and to value our interdependence with others, qualities that in turn engender connectivity with others and help us experience life as meaningful.
Occasionally, however, amidst the clatter and squeeze of everyday life that pushes us along from one event to the next, the extraordinary, like a giant fish rising from the sea’s depths or storm wind shaking a tree to its roots, occurs, and we are given a window into our lives that touches us at our roots and helps us see what we are. Having recently read Nicholas Samaras’s book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, I feel I have experienced the extraordinary. Echoes from the poems’ imagery and language move through my mind, rising at unexpected moments, floating up from the subconscious where the poems have been at work. The poems probe the struggle to live purposefully with meaning when traditional values and ways of being no longer hold the world together.
Though we have access to unprecedented volumes of knowledge in our day, to live meaningfully and purposefully, all of us must negotiate between enormous areas of ongoing, continuous and rapid social, economic and technological fluctuation and change. It is no easy task to assimilate ourselves into these various worlds and learn how to integrate them into our lives in a way that allows us to develop wholeness. Each of us must explore how to direct ourselves through the current of these changes. Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich said, “Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith,” and Samaras’s poetry is an exploration of meaning making while swimming in the sea of the postmodern era. The intensely vivid quality of Samaras’s descriptions, language and poetic narratives in Hands of the Saddlemaker pulled me below the surface of words into an interior current flowing between places of exile and belonging, faith, and loss, love and death.
From the opening poem, “Lost,” describing the ease with which a person can lose his or her way, to the final piece, “Decade,” depicting the transformative moment where pain and brokenness from a relationship are let go, the poems in this volume traverse the territory between the traditions, beliefs and practices that both bind and open us. The book’s ending poem, “Decade” returns to a place of confrontation with grief and loss that allows one to come to finally release from its hold and come to a place of stasis where healing might begin. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” The ground we stand in our era is constantly shifting and most of us don’t have lives that thread us back to origins, place or carefully followed tradition. The poems explore the territory between and beyond borders, tradition and predefined boundaries, stretching into broader realms of experience and emotion where transformation is forged and meaning created amidst brokenness. This is a book of poems that speaks to our time and worthy of careful and repeated readings.
One of the poems in the volume, “Easter in the Cancer Ward” describes the process of coloring and decorating eggs for Easter, while confronting the certainty of death and contemplating the significance of belief in life after death ends. One of the children in the ward with cancer directly states “I’m dying.” Another unexpectedly later asks the poem’s narrator if he believes in Christ and living forever, prompting him to search within in himself for an honest answer. Easter, as we know, is about life after death, but the poem places us in the moment where death lives inside of life and helps us see how the two are connected. The poem ends where the children put the narrator’s hands into the red dye, staining them red, the color of resurrection. The poem’s last line, “and we are laughing,” is especially poignant. Here is an image of life in death, death in life, and the hard territory one walks between the two. The child has led the speaker to touch that place, a world of pain and wonder inseparable from each other.
In his poem about crossing borders, “Passport,” Samaras writes, “In counties of the temporary, we are forever/ accumulating, possessing, leaving behind./ In the end, our hands will finally be empty.” This is an absolutely powerful piece about impermanence. In some sense, we are always standing at a border, the border between today and tomorrow, youth and age, innocence and experience. The border is a place of transformation–leaving a country, possessions, or a life. We exchange one way of being for another, one life for another. “I cannot help but be a citizen of transience,” writes Samaras, “always looking for the land beyond language.” Forever life is changing and we are leaving behind what we were, “our pale winter/ breaths losing the shape of our bodies.” There is death, but there is also the possibility of entering “the land beyond language,” a place where presence moves beyond the clothes we carry or the language our tongues wear, or any particular belonging, and we are “fresh and farthingless[ly]” ourselves.
Earlier this summer while walking in downtown Santa Cruz, California, I walked past a street preacher standing on his soap box calling out to passers by telling them they were sinners and to come to Jesus. While it’s true that we are all incomplete and need renewal daily, the word sin, is hardly in anyone’s vocabulary these days. I found the soapbox preacher’s tone disturbing. It didn’t compel me to examine my life. Instead, I wanted to push him away. I don’t like anyone yelling at me.
Religion today is bound up in politics, is full of lines drawn on many sides defining right from wrong. What may have once been clear divisions of morality has been manipulated by motivations of profit, of revenge and the love of control, often confusing our understanding of what is really being said so that it’s difficult to know and act on the truth, even as we understand it. While some people are certain they know what is right (as I suspect the street preacher did because of his tone) in this world–the correct beliefs and actions, or at least want to convince us that they do, Samaras’a poetry presents a different vision of belief in the Divine. “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” two men enter an abandoned NY city cathedral that is condemned and scheduled to be torn down, paralleling what is in fact a reality in Christianity today, where the church is being blotted out in its geographical place of origin (see William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain) and where the church has lost respect in the general population as a result of misconduct by priests, attitudes of bigotry, injustice, and through other acts contrary to the teaching of Christ who called people to love their neighbor. Even though the church in Samaras’s “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” is boarded up, abandoned, and set for destruction, though the homeless are lined up and sleeping outside it, the two men intuitively recognize there something inside the vestiges of its structure that nevertheless still offers refuge. “There is nothing worse than a safe life,” writes Samaras, and the faith demonstrated in this poem is not one of safety. The world inside the cathedral is broken. Wires and tubes twist across the floor, the staircase is dilapidated, and the roof opens to the sky and moon. What was once sacred is strewn together with the profane. The two men find it disturbing that “such a building, such a solidity can fall to man’s priorities.” The church’s broken state reflects our human inability to discern what is holy or pure. Svetozar, one of the two men, steps on a nail that pierces his foot. Similar to this unexpected wounding in a place once sacred but now desecrated, innocents across the world have been harmed in the darkness of wars that have changed lives forever, and in particular since the World Wars. Like the homeless sleeping outside the church walls, we are all in some sense homeless now, without belief and holding a general societal disregard or nonchalance regarding injustices. Ignore the nail that has pierced the foot, however, and we die.
Why enter the cathedral? Why call on faith in a time when to believe in God is to many an absurdity? “We climb to resist/ ourselves in a complacent country,” writes Samaras. “To enter this cathedral/ this edifice was necessary.” Faith isn’t arrogance or a person calling from a soapbox on a city street. It is the climb in a church of uncertain structure to
…a level footing, an icon
and a dusty mirror.
All through palpable darkness, the ginger
feeling for where the foot should go next,
the leaning the weight into it.
Here is humility. Here is a spirituality that connects to the suffering of humanity in the dark places of difficulty and pain. Here is where Samaras brings us to at the end of the poem, “wind filters throughout clothes. For a moment, I thought/ I heard the connected lives of others.” The speaker is holding the memory of one’s own hands wrapped around the broken bannister’s weight. The Christian ritual of communion and bread breaking represents Jesus’s self broken, like the bread, and the shared selfless giving with the community of humanity. Yes the church is broken, like all human institutions. But there is also the church that is still what a church is meant to be–God living through people on earth; Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teresa of Avila, Oscar Romero, Parker Palmer, and the myriad of every day people who do the work in the world and in themselves that creates wholeness. Faith is more than a set of beliefs. As Kierkegaard says, “It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.” The poem shows us those who take the risk and enter in can learn spiritual truths that remain beneath and inside the brokenness and with it, we can find strength to change our lives.
Perhaps I feel drawn to the poems in Hands of the Saddlemaker because inside the poems I hear a voice that tells me there are no easy answers. Several of the poems in the book deal with the hard work of reconciliation. We are all living in some form of exile and we must work out our own salvation. Having lived in other countries outside my own for 25 years, I feel an affinity for the voices of those living outside the boundaries of what might have once been home. I am from the borderlands. My parents moved to California from South Dakota and I was the first in my family to be born there. SanDiego County bordering Mexico was my childhood home. For me, everywhere and nowhere is home. I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “This World is Not My Home” (and here is a bluegrass version.) Though I live in one world, I am of another world too.
Woven through this volume of poems is the sense that the writing is born from a distinct, even painful awareness of the incompleteness of one’s own life, and the willingness to confront it honestly in order to cut through to the marrow of bone where the soul is laid bare and offered up on an altar like a prayer. I think of the Rembrandt painting I saw this summer in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, of Abraham offering up Isaac and the angel holding back Abraham’s hand. The story and painting is a metaphor for what powerful art and writing is. It functions as a sacred offering. In the act of making and reading poetry and art we can be saved, so to speak, through the power of art and words to restore.
It was 3:00 am at the border as I reentered India last night, serendipitously, just like the line in Samaras’s poem, “Passport” where he says “It is always three am at the border.” I had my bag with my yearly supply of vitamins, my clothes, my journal. Men pushed a long line of luggage carts, some leaned against a wall, listless with the weight of waiting. My shoes are old and wearing through the bottoms, but again I begin. Beyond the airport doors waited the city’s broken walls, the millions who sleep on the street. Tired, without sleep, aware of the world I left behind, the world I was about to step into, I left the airport’s bright lights and glossy tiles and rode out into India. There are so many brave people living on India’s streets, each day not knowing where or how their food will come, how they will meet with illness or loss. Continuously, I am reminded here of the need to step beyond my own lack of faith, to be brave–to better understand the need around me and to listen for the voices that help me understand and how to serve out of my own depths the world around me.
The poems in the volume embody faith in periods of grief and loss, a willingness to bear that loss in order to find a way through it. I learn from the poetry in this book, and am changed. Samaras’s poems are more than descriptive words with an insightful message. They have soul. The poems in the book speak to each other in a way other poetry books I’ve read do not. The poems echo off and weave back into each other. They breathe together, become more than they were individually. These are poems whose words hold integrity, life and spirit. They help us find how to bear the hard things of this world. By example, they demonstrate poetry’s power to show us our humanity and bring us back to ourselves. Reading the poems in Nicholas Samaras’s Hands of the Saddlemaker calls me to live more deeply, to feel gratitude for the many small joys of our existence. There is a humility present in the spirit that comes through the writing at the same time that the writing demonstrates mastery and beauty. Such writing is rare, and to read it is a wonderful gift.
“Art is a spiritual practice. We may not, and need not, do it perfectly. But we do need to do it…Focused on our art, we connect to the artful heart of life. The creative pulse that moves through us moves through all of creation. It could be argued that creativity is a form of prayer, a form of thankfulness and recognition of all we have to be thankful for, walking in this world.” –Julia Cameron, Walking in this World
All morning I’ve been painting on a ceramic teapot that my husband made and called “The Mad Hatter’s Wife.” It’s a tall pot that narrows as it reaches the top. The lid is actually the head of the Mad Hatter’s wife. My husband gave her to me to paint, and in coming up with an idea of what she looked like, I figured that if she is married to the Mad Hatter, I had to make her be a woman who has a good deal of inner power. This would be necessary if living with a crazy man. Though hatters at the time Lewis Carroll was writing went mad as a result of repeated exposure to mercury vapors in the felting process, like also attracts like, and my hunch is that the Mad Hattter’s wife was probably a bit “mad” as well.
Married to a “mad” man, she’s likely a bit more individualistic and unique than others around her, and a bit more socially unacceptable as a result. She would’ve had to listen to her own inner voice and follow her own path. Thomas Moore said, “It is only through mystery and madness that the soul is revealed.” The underglaze painting for the Mad Hatter’s Wife needed to reveal the soul of woman connected to her inner power and creativity, I decided. Perhaps she’s named Breena or Brucie, Alva, Erline, Orla, or Tiana– a name having to do with elves or fairies. She’s got to be a bit sassy, too, I’m guessing, as her hand is placed on her hip, and her hip explodes in a sunflower. A woman who has never lost her inner child, I’ve made her body a bit ocean, tree, river, bee, bird, mountain and rainbow. Hers is the kind of madness that keeps one sane. She wears crystals on her arm, and my guess is that she probably can fly (at least in her dreams.)
My husband, Michael, gave me the teapot to work on last week, suggesting in a off hand comment to someone that I was going to make it my masterpiece. After hearing that, I realized I needed to paint her in the way that pushed the craftsmanship boundaries beyond what I’ve previously done. (You can see my previous work by going to the Art and Poetry Connections page here on my blog.) Though I want to make her wonderful, the work isn’t turning out as wonderful as I’d like. I want my craftsmanship to be better, but I’m still learning how to control my brush and the flow of the glaze. Different glazes have different textures, and they don’t all flow smoothly or the same. Drawing a perfectly straight line with the brush is difficult. I want the glaze to flow exactly where I want it, and that doesn’t always happen. The materials have their own way of being. I have to marry my effort to the nature of what I’m working with so that I communicate compatibly. Like any relationship, the understanding of how to make the connection look effortless and take on the magic expression of soul takes time.
The element of time and perseverance is something I’ve been thinking about repeatedly this past couple of weeks. It is nearing the end of the school year here, and as often happens when things come to an end, some things unravel while others fall apart so that something new can come into existence. Sometimes reality seems like a series of dreams. You live in one world for a time, and then that phase comes to an end. The location you’ve made your home is no longer yours, and you move somewhere else, take on a new job, or whatever: reality shifts. The whole world changes, almost as if you’re reincarnated. There are so many possible worlds! Even for those of who stay in the same place decade after decade, things still change. All around us the world is changing. What I’ve really been wondering about, though, are the people who have lived in countries where there has been a civil war, or an event like the earthquake in Nepal, where suddenly everything they thought they understood about their world and the foundations they stood on has changed. It takes decades to recover. How do they cope with it? How does anyone keep going in such situations?
Light is such a wonderful thing. I love a room full of light, sun streaming through the trees on a cloudless summer day. When I lived in Riyadh, though, I treasured clouds, and with it, the rain and the darkness–storms, because these were rare. I remember sitting on the edge of the escarpment outside the city and hearing the camels far below calling. If you have the opportunity to watch camels walk, you can notice how graceful they are. The heat can be relentless, the light unbearable, but camels somehow continue on. It made me think about the dark areas in our lives, the shadow places on earth that lie beneath the surface, or that track by in shifting movement–the things, people and places that do not or cannot speak directly. These things speak in language without words, giving voice to the things that can’t be said. Here is the poem I wrote about this when living there:
PERSEVERANCE Anna Citrino
Black camels lift their calligraphic legs writing invisible letters
across the desert sand, as if drawing up the shadowed calm
hidden inside the light imprinted on the desert floor.
The camels raise their dark, slender limbs and casually wander
through the heated brightness, wooly heads held up
with muscled grace, an act of ease
with no thought of pain or fire. They know how to store water
to carry them through dry and cloudless seasons.
I have heard them groan, the guttural sound
reverberating from deep in the belly like the rumble
miles down inside the earth before the shudder
of tectonic plates. Their voices pull up
the yearnings of hidden worlds, let go the grief
from inside the nameless forms that cannot speak or see.
The camels are the shadows we seek.
Watch them from high up on a cliff, the trails they etch
into blind and heavy earth, letters of unsaid
stories the sun refuses to speak.
The writer, Edna Ferber said, “Perhaps too much of everything is as bad as too little.” Camels’ embody perseverance–this nameless longing we have, the suffering of waiting as we trek across deserts, but how do we keep going like they do through the times of heat and emptiness? Though camels can keep walking through the heat, before heading out into shade-barren land, they drink enough to help them hold out. This is something we, too, need to do. We need resources to keep us going. For me, one of the great resources to help me through times like these is art–art in the form of music, poetry, writing, painting, or dance.
Back in the 1990’s I took a workshop with the poet, Lucille Clifton at the Flight of the Mind writer’s workshops (now no longer in existence) outside of Eugene, Oregon. At that workshop, I recall Clifton explaining how poetry humanizes us. “As long as one person is writing poetry,” she said, “the world will be a more human place.” Her words stuck with me, and have gained weight and significance over time. In the act of creating, we transform ourselves and our world. When creating, we are communing with our inner selves, but art, music, poetry, and dance are also communal acts in that they are meant to be shared with others, and in so doing, we reconnect ourselves to others and to our Source.
In Rattle’s interview with Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Gillan describes her journey as a writer to find her truth. “I think poems are in a very deep place inside yourself,” she explains. It took her time to realize who she was as a poet, and this is the risk she encourages others to take as well, to “move down into yourself, and tell the truth.” This confrontation with the truth of ourselves is what transforms us. When creating, we enter into a place of deep listening. We are making a poem, for example, but we are also listening for the words to rise up and connect us with our work. This is what prayer is too: listening. Communing. And art, whether it is writing, music, painting, photography, or dance is a vehicle for listening to our own truth. The deeper we can go into that place, the more we can be transformed. Fiction writer Frederich Busch explained “Good art is a form of prayer. It’s a way to say what is not sayable.” When I write, when I paint, I am connected body to soul, and it allows me to feel alive again, to feel whole. This is how we can all persevere: we go back to a place where we reconnect body and soul–to the creative act, the practice of art.
A couple of millennia ago, St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” Everyone suffers the pains of waiting, of trying to hold on and hold out–to persevere–even creation itself. It’s almost as if loss and suffering are necessary parts of beauty. We sense beauty more keenly when we are aware of loss. Yet, it’s out of this longing and suffering beauty arises.
In Arun Kolatkar’s poem, “An Old Woman” an old woman grabs hold of the speaker’s sleeve, an experience I’ve had myself here in Old Delhi. The woman follows the speaker, begging, and she won’t let go. The speaker wishes to be rid of her, but when the old woman says, “What else can an old woman do/ on hills as wretched as these?” something in the speaker shatters. Her question splits him open, and the world around him as well.
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
with a plateglass clatter
around the shatterproof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.
Beneath our clumsy actions, our imperfect voices and art, somehow, sometimes, someone hears us. They see right into us, and inside that look we see the brokenness that interconnects us all. This is India’s gift to me–the myriad people on the streets like the beggar woman in this poem that mirror my own brokenness and need.
And so, we persevere. We live out Lorca’s “Theory and Play of the Duende,”
“The roads where one searches for God are known, whether by the barbaric way of the hermit or the subtle one of the mystic: with a tower, like St. Teresa, or by the three paths of St. John of the Cross. And though we may have to cry out, in Isaiah’s voice: Truly you are a hidden God,’ finally, in the end, God sends his primal thorns of fire to those who seek Him.
Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand.”
Art is not just for special people who call themselves artists. Though it is very personal, and an expression of the self, art is for everyone. It is meant to be given to the community. In the expression of our particular story, our dance, or song, we see that we have given expression to the larger community, and in that we find our place again in the human family. We are seen and heard, and through the container of that expression we find a way to endure the particular trials of our day or life–we find a way to continue on.
Art transforms us. So, though my lines on the Mad Hatter’s Wife teapot are crooked, my words not all I wish them to be, though my life continuously falls short, I keep practicing. In the end, the work is not only about the object created. The object is merely the container. The practice is the prayer. This is why we do as Kurt Vonnegut suggested, “To practice art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”
“Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.”–Abraham Joshua Heschel
Heschel’s words strike me because there are a lot of things I don’t have answers for. Aware of my smallness in face of the suffering around me every day, I stand at the edge of emptiness and cry out.
When riding out into traffic, I’ve started a practice of looking into beggars’ faces who come to my window, or when someone speaks to me in the market asking for money, or when I see who is suffering, a family living on the street, for example, also animals who suffer, and in my mind I say, “I wish you well.” It’s a kind of prayer, and though it’s not directly answering the needs they have, it’s a way to keep my heart open–to keep noticing even though I might not be able to help the person in the way they ask of me. I want to see their humanness, and to be reminded of my own weakness and vulnerability.
Certainly, even in the lives of the desperately poor, there also must be times of joy. Even so, the human need in Delhi, is great. All the arms reaching out, the eyes–the world’s needs are immense. This week Nepal has its worst earthquake since 1934. The suffering is enormous. It will take decades, to recover, life times to become new, and we feel the grief hanging in the air as we go about our day.
The poverty in this world is not made up of physical poverty only, however. There is poverty of spirit, poverty of heart, and this is where I think that those of us in the developed world have a great lack. Everywhere around us today, from psychologists like Martin Seligman and his ideas about flourishing, to religious leaders like Matthieu Ricard, people are talking about how to be happy. Even Pope Francis has come up with his list of 10 tips for a happier life such as taking time off to be with your family, and spending time in nature. People who study what makes us happy tell us that focusing on what brings us a sense of well being actually helps us to become happier, and of course that is a good thing. But sadness and melancholy are also a part of life, and experiencing sadness and melancholy can help us become more compassionate, as Courtney Stephens explains on this animated TED Ed lesson. We learn from our sadness how to be more human.
I don’t know how best to respond to the sadness in the world, the grief so many feel, but want to give something of myself to meet that need. One must start somewhere, however small. It’s the start that counts. It makes room for greater opening, and I know I need to open.
For months now I have been working on poems on the subject of food. It has taken some time, longer than I expected because new ideas for poems keep surfacing. I am now nearing the end of the poems I want to write for this series. I hope I’ve written well enough that after putting the poems into a manuscript I’ll find a publisher so I can use the proceeds from its sale to give to an organization that helps prevent hunger here in India. I hope it will be of some good. In the process of writing these poems, I’ve also been rereading about creativity, and returned today to Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet where I read,
“…Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
The need in India has been here for decades. It’s not going to go away in the near future. The sidewalk on the street where I live is in a perpetual state of change. It’s put together one month only to be torn up the next, a metaphor for my own incompleteness–of starting over, trying to make things work, change, to get things “right.” Whatever it is that causes that sidewalk to have to be torn up so often is a mystery. It’s just the way things are here. Likewise, whatever it is we are making or doing with our lives, it isn’t necessarily what we see on the surface. What’s really happening comes from a place far deeper, beyond the reach of our own understanding. I look into the face of my partner who I’ve known for decades now, and find him still a mystery, and stand in wonder. Who am I, I don’t even really know. Definitions, lists and examples aren’t enough to explain. Similarly, how can I in any way touch or meet the vast needs of a world as immense as India? I can’t. As Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 65,
Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea, But sad mortality o’er sways their power, How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower? O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out, Against the wrackful siege of battering days, When rocks impregnable are not so stout, Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays? O fearful meditation! where, alack, Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid? Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? O! none, unless this miracle have might, That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
We are all frail and mortal. Beauty’s action may be no stronger than a flower, but still we need that flower. We all need to be touched, to be met, to be needed. So, I write on, my words, tiny splotches on computer screens of light wavering inside the colossal of India’s immensity, prayers of pale petals– ink floating down the Yamuna hoping to touch other lives.
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.—John F. Kennedy
I’ve begun reading Diana Senechal’s book, The Republic of Noise. In the first chapter she talks about the “virtual clutter” of our lives–it’s jittery jangle that has us jumping–and how the slow movement that has caught on because people are trying to fight back and regain something meaningful in their lives. The problem, Senchal suggests is connected to “our weakened capacity for being alone and our dwindling sense of any life beyond the immediate scramble.” (p. 5) Senechal works to define a way of living that is neither disconnected from contemporary society, nor sucked into its whirlpool, and writes to help readers define the “strength it takes to do what we find most rewarding. The strength it takes time to build.”
Artists need hours alone behind doors tuned in to their work, she explains. So do we all. In our scramble for quick answers, she suggests that we may be going against what we really want. We need, instead, to be able to stand alone and apart, to know our own thoughts–thoughts not based on what someone will “like” on a social network site. What we need most of all, Senechal states, is solitude. “We cannot have meaningful relationships with others unless we know how to stand apart. We cannot learn unless we make room for learning in our minds. We cannot make sound decisions unless we are able to examine the options on our own, in quiet, along with any advice or information at hand. We cannot distinguish fads from sound ideas if we have never questioned social pressures and fashions. We cannot participate in democracy without the deep understanding of the issues at stake. We cannot accomplish anything of beauty unless we are willing to spend many hours working on it alone. We cannot endure disappointment, rejection, bereavement, or distress unless we have a place to join in ourselves. Without solitude, our very thoughts tend toward one-liners. Without solitude, we set ourselves up for halfhearted pursuits. The catch is that solitude, by its nature, cannot be a movement. Each person must find it alone.” (p. 9-10)
I’ve recognized for years that I need a lot of quiet time in order to restore myself and regain energy for the week ahead where I interact with people all day long. I need the time to write, do art, go out into nature for a bike ride or walk. I need the soundless open hours for inner thought in order to gain the strength to go on giving the rest of the week, and it’s affirming to read a book declaring the value of solitude. In solitude, Senechal explains, we get to know who it is we really are and how to hold on to that knowing. We live in a society where collectivism (her word) is promoted. But, without knowing how to separate ourselves from a group, she states, we also won’t really know how to create community because we won’t have an authentic self to bring to a group. Solitude allows us to confront ourselves–our faults and strengths, and gives us the opportunity to practice becoming who we are. It’s not going to wipe away problems but it will give us a way to “collect ourselves,” she explains, and can help keep us from giving up. When we let go of solitude, we give in to the group because we don’t have the strength to “stand up for something or to stand apart…Without time to stand back or the strength to separate oneself, one has little opportunity to form one’s own thoughts, let alone defend them.” This is the root of loneliness, Senechal suggests.
But where are we encouraged to stand apart, I wonder? Certainly, the arts is a place where individual expression is still valued. This is, in part, why I’m attracted to them. Perhaps it is also a reason why the arts and artists have long lived on society’s fringes. Artists live inside their respective cultures, but also nurture a critique of it. I’m reminded of an interview with Ilya Kaminsky on the Poetry Society’s web site. “Writing about blackbirds, in our day and age, is political,” he explained to the interviewer. Everything is political, he suggests. It’s true. People don’t give that much attention to nature, to our connection to the natural world, so, yes, writing about blackbirds, for example, can be a political act. “Our job is to discover something new and fresh and transformative in language; to tell something unexpected or deeply moving about human condition,” Kaminsky continues. “We don’t get there by avoiding certain subjects all together. To do so is shallow. ” In the interview, Kaminsky states that Wallace Steven’s poem, “Mozart, 1935”, “is one of the greatest poems ever written during a time of war.” The poem describes the artist at work at the piano playing while the “The snow is falling/And the streets are full of cries.” In the way the pianist plays his music, he describes the world’s wordless grief, anguish and fear at that moment in history. The artist gives the humanity a way to express the soul. (Read the full poem here.) This is why the artist shuts the door and does his work, why she goes on doing the slow work of developing her skill, so that she can give back beauty to the world, and the strength needed to keep on going in the dark hour.
Earlier, I’ve written about the value of singing as a way to keep your heart open and to give you strength of heart for each day. A favorite song of mine for this, as I’ve said in a previous post, is O Sole Mio. It lifts the heart even on dark and gloomy days because when you hit the high notes, it can’t but help but carry out into the world your pain and grief as if on the wings of a bird or in the crash of a wave, and you are somehow lifted out of yourself as a result.
This past week I’ve woken up with a different song that has me breaking out into song, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a hymn widely used by Baptists and Quakers alike. Though I’ve no idea what brought it to mind as I’ve not heard it sung in ages, I love the encouragement in the words when thinking of them in relationship to the problems across the world I read about in the news, those learn about from different people’s struggles and disabilities, and as I face each day hoping to give to it whatever is needed. The lyrics remind me that whatever difficulty I or others face, the difficulties of the moment are not totality of life experience. By not taking things completely at face value and assuming a wider view, I can keep myself from being consumed by whatever the problem of the moment is. There is a new creation, I can make in myself while practicing day to day–one not based on fear.
To do this I must center myself elsewhere on a larger, wider, deeper foundation that is drawn up out of the well of hours in solitude. When focusing on this center, the tempest can roar, but inside, I can know the storm isn’t the world. As the lyrics state, tyrants can roar, but their time will come to an end and their power pass away. Love’s truth is bigger. We can cling to that knowing, and in that clinging we can find ourselves restored again.
Living in this mind frame when things are falling apart is difficult. Music is one of the things to help us remember ourselves, and to stay centered. You might like this version of the song, sung with lovely harmony by the group T Sisters. I especially like Eva Cassidy’s version of the song. She sings it with a gospel flair, and her voice delivers the lines with a soulful power that can’t help but strengthen one’s own soul while listening. Whoever you are reading this, whatever you are facing in your life, I hope you find the way to keep on singing.
“How Can I Keep From Singing?”
My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
Oh though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
Oh though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
How can I keep from singing?
Lord, how can I keep from singing?
Oh, how can I keep from singing.
“…experiences of beauty remain among the principal reasons for being alive, for wanting to remain alive, for sharing the joys of living with others…once we go beyond sheer survival…the quality of one’s life proves of the essence. And a life bereft of beauty–or, if you prefer, without the potential for beautiful experiences–is empty.”–Howard Gardner, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
Traditionally, the criteria for great art was beauty. While across cultures people still find natural scenery like lakes and mountains beautiful, beauty has pretty much lost its place as an important criteria of Great Art, says Gardner. But beauty isn’t necessarily a criteria for art any longer, Gardener explains. What matters more now is whether art is memorable, whether it stimulates our interest–if it makes us see anew. This may be true, but I think for many, standing in a cathedral like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, still is capable for carrying people into a place of wonder and awe at how much beauty light hold can as it shines down through the glory hole above the altar because of the angle and shape of the skylight there as the golden walls reach up to the heavens.
Gardner’s criteria of making something that will niggle at people’s minds, stimulating their interest in memorable ways is possible if you are Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi’s Sagrada does both of these things in addition to being truly beautiful. I, on the other hand, am still working on practicing the most basic of basics in art. Last weekend I spent the afternoon painting on a pottery bowl–dragonflies, lily pads and grassy reeds. I’m new to drawing and painting, so it takes be longer than it would a person who is trained as an artist, but I don’t mind because the process itself engages me. For me, painting on pottery is a grand experience of experimentation. How will the design fit dynamically within the space without looking too crowded or too empty? How will I draw a design that’s not too complicated for my skill level? How will the line transform with the application of a particular glaze’s viscosity on the brush? How will the glazes’ s color change after firing that will influence what colors I choose before firing? I am a beginner, and these are questions I ask while working. Benchmarks of beauty for the the beginner in a particular field or craft are different from those who have been doing their work for years. Though it won’t pass for a high standard of beauty in the world at large, for a beginner the work one does can still be interesting and memorable–the hours spent creating completely absorbing.
My current drawing is a realistic one, but to paint it, I have to break the forms in the composition into their structural parts–deconstructing and then reconstructing objects in order to be able to paint them. I’m barely beginning to understand how to do that at the simplest level. Painters like Picasso, and Cezanne, deconstructed forms–painting from the inside of structures, so to speak, or the idea of what the structures suggested. Their work delves much further into complex understandings of what a forms are. I play with forms in order to understand how they function. Art masters, on the other hand, have gone through that stage long ago and have come out the other side. They understand forms so well that they have gained a flexibility that allows them to return to play with them anew–experimenting with them and knowing them in more intimately as a result. John Berger, in his book, Ways of Seeing, says, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” Maybe this is why artists are constantly making, and making again, trying to show what they see inside an object, the feeling suggested in the form that makes it come alive.
Poetry is sound and line, shape–the use of white space to create meaning. As with visual art, in poetry also there is a kind of meta meaning going on between physical form and feeling. Beneath a poem’s words is the sound of words and the poem’s design on the page that is an integral part of the poem’s meaning. The artist places a line on the page and it, too, takes shape and meaning. Jeanette Mullaney, who writes and edits e-mails for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks about visual art’s marriage to poetry. These two art forms can take you away from where you are or bring everything together, she says. In my view, they might also sometimes paradoxically function to do both at the same time.
The connection of sound to emotion is interesting, even if there are no words or the words are indistinct. If you listen to just the sounds in this short animated Pixar film, La Luna, or this Polish, British, Norwegian animated film, Peter and the Wolf, (see more about the film here)much can be understood without specific words. Just the music and general sounds give an idea of what is happening. Connecting art and poetry, allowing them to resonate off of each other. Last year, poet Kenneth Goldsmith performed poems at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City while standing in front of various art pieces. According to the MOMA site, nearly everyone at the readings felt they had an impact on their visit, some saying that the associative connection between the art and the words deepened their experience of each.
Beauty is all around us in the very structure of nature–the Fibonacci curves of roses, pinecones, and the nautilus shell, for example, a structure that is beautifully balanced. It takes time to learn how to see. I want to create something beautiful but doing that is no small task. Nature took millions of years to develop, so of course I should understand that it’s going to take me a while too. But the time element doesn’t matter, really. Just working with color and shape hour after hour is somehow very satisfying. Art and poetry connect in the journey toward finding a life of meaning. Creating art, whether the form is poetry, film, painting or dance, is a way to enter in to and connect with a state of being that engenders attentiveness to life. It’s calming, refreshing, and an antidote not just to the pace of modern life but to its process as well. As Gardner stated, without beauty, life feels empty.
I sit looking out over my yard while I write, the sun neither too warm nor too weak– a perfect gentleness for a summer afternoon. I see the stone steps under the grape arbor, and the thyme that fits between the cracks, and think of how those cracks are like the summer holiday, the space in my life that I am hungry for. The quiet. I sit here satisfied simply to absorb the green and the random dove or falcon call. At unexpected moments the scent of redwood or pine wafts through. Restaurants and movies can be good. Shopping for supplies is necessary. But many of us also need to walk in the woods, go down to the river or ocean, sit by flowers or a slab of granite, or get our hands in the dirt to find ourselves again. I am one of those. This morning I decided to read Rilke again, and pulled from my shelf the volume of Selected Poems From Rainer Maria Rilke with translation from Robert Bly. In his A Book for the Hours of Prayer, Rilke writes,
I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.
As a traveler, I’ve circled around the globe exploring and discovering, but there is another kind of travel, that of the inner pilgrim, traveling within trying to understand what it means to live and how to live meaningfully so that we can learn who we are and why we are here on earth–what it means when we meet and greet each other, what it means to be in relationship to others, to the earth, to this place in time. Like Rilke, I don’t know if I will ever achieve this, but this is my attempt.
Here on my land while watering the garden, pulling weeds, or planting, I realize how deeply satisfied I am, how little it takes to make me feel content. I feel settled inside, whole. All the years of travel and exploration, these have been good. But the continuous striving that the workplace emphasizes seems irrelevant here in a garden that holds to an organic pace of being. Things grow according to the pace they were meant to grow at. The gardener nurtures them along by making sure there is adequate soil and light, plants the plants with others they are compatible with, tomatoes with basil for example, or strawberries with borage–but the true becoming is there in the mystery of biology and the seed. All the years of working and the practice of my work, reading, writing, and then I come home to the garden and sense I have found my true self, or it is at least a place I want to find myself in.
A metaphor for life, the garden has much it can help us understand about ourselves: that there are seasons and cycles for everything, the value of weeding to protect the life you are nurturing, that plants have personalities so to speak–some need more sun, others shade, which plants help them grow better, make them taste sweeter, and which protect. Gardens take work. If you want something to grow, you have to put in the effort by digging, planting, tending, and harvesting. Gardening can be a contemplative act. When you get your hands in the soil, you start to understand the connections to your own life. These are the connections I want to explore and know through our experiment in living here at Gratitude Gardens, a garden we are slowly building over the years here on our land.
At Gratitude Gardens we will raise our food and use the garden as a place to connect to the creative process in a variety of forms, for writing and art. We have planted herbs, flowers, grapes and fruit trees, and this summer are expanding the raised beds to make way for future food. Most anything we practice intentionally with our hearts can be a spiritual path that will teach us more of how to live if we are willing to view it in that way. For me, building a garden is an important part of that practice, and I want to believe there are others like me who feel hungry for the quiet, want to connect or reconnect to the earth and learn how to listen to what it has to tell us about life.
Adam and Eve left the garden. Everyone leaves. It’s the path of learning, knowing, of growing up. But we can come back too. We can make a garden. Yes, it’s made by the sweat of the brow, but that is an important part of learning what the gift of a garden is, and learning how to find yourself in one.
Maybe you, too, “have been circling for a thousand years,” or feel you have, and like Rilke, “still don’t know you “are a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.” Why not go on inner pilgrimage? Discover and claim your path so you can find through that work how it is you can come back to the garden.
I am happy to share that three of my poems appear in the spring issue of the on-line literary journal, phren-z. Take a look, the journal is from my hometown, Santa Cruz, California, and has a pleasant diversity of art represented over its history of publication, and an excellent variety of poetry, fiction and non-fiction.
I also recommend you take a look at the artist web site, Due Artisti (Two Artists) of Arvid and Virginia Olson. The site displays the beautiful countryside of Italy, with many paintings of Venice. I especially love the realistic quality of the water in Virginia Olson’s Venetian paintings, the ripples and reflections, and the rich color Ms. Olson’s work contains. Arvid Olson’s watercolors have fantastic detail both in the architectural scenes and in those including nature. Enjoy!
We move through our days, reaching toward whatever it is we have set our minds and hearts on, doing our work, making our plans, joining in with the life of family and friends. In between the routines and the larger movements in our life’s story, however, lie the quiet moments where the deep wonderings and emotions of being whisper to us. These are what Nicholas Samaras’s writing does in his new book of poems, American Psalm, World Psalm. They lay open the yearning we experience at the deepest level of our mind and being. When reading Samaras’s poems, the reader senses the open heart resting beneath them, the vulnerable place from which the words rise and speak. The poems in this volume reach into the fabric of who we are as modern people and wrestle with difficult questions, addressing them in a way that is both personal and powerful.
One of the things that especially spoke to me while reading American Psalm, World Psalm, is the space on the page and inside the poems. There is breath in the way Samaras uses the white space on the page. The “Psalm of the Quietest Wailing,” for example, is a sectioned poem where the first section contains only one line, “It is attention that makes worship.” The rest of the page is empty. I read the line, and I notice it on the page as if it were a stone lying in a Japanese garden surrounded by the wide space of raked sand. The next page reveals the poem’s second section where the poem’s speaker describes listening to “the rubble of history,” how he stands with it, his breath bearing witness to what its stones declare. Here, as throughout the volume, I sensed the humility, born from standing in this place of listening openness out of which the poet speaks. The poem’s third section contains two lines. Then, once again, the remainder of the page is open, leaving space for the reader to take in what is being said, space to reflect on the words. “What is virtue,” the poem’s fourth section asks, “but whispering, Who am I?” This is the very question the book’s poems bring me back to repeatedly. The poems call me out of a noisy world where a myriad of things crowd and clamber for attention, and they bring me into a garden where words are given back space to breathe in, where they regain a sense of themselves because of the honesty they are spoken in. Over and over while reading the poems I found myself leaning into the words on the page, listening deeply, drinking in the lines from a place of thirst hidden inside me the poems had found a way to name. “The writing from my hands is the quietist wailing,” writes Samaras, “the witness of breath against a listening wall.” With spare words and deep beauty, Samaras captures the essence of the hard places we live in.
The psalms that Samaras writes in American Psalm, World Psalm, like the Biblical psalms, are a deep cry of the heart trying to make sense of how to live in this world. From the topic of global warming, to a call for readers to consider what is actually enough, versus constantly concentrating on what our consumer driven world suggests we need, the poems in the book are not about religion in the cultural sense. These poems move into a deeper place. “Believing in God after the Holocaust is political,” writes Samaras in “The Political Psalm,” just as “Writing a sonnet after Dachau is political.” How do we find that place where we can move beyond words and into a relationship with the Divine that is beyond the stale words and religious routines that culture and time have deadened and beaten the spirit out of? Through a space of stillness, suggest the poems in American Psalm, World Psalm, where we open ourselves in waiting.
We live in a monetized world where transactions are shadowed by the awareness of how even every day actions, such as the subjects we speak of in an e-mail are pieces of data collected and used as reference points to sell us something. “I grieve to live in a country where a verdict/of “not guilty” doesn’t equal “innocent,” writes Samaras in “Psalm for Public Grieving.” The poems in American Psalm, World Psalm describe a variety of desert places we are living in, encouraging us to look at them closely. One of Samaras’ poems invites the reader to not take breath for granted. Another tells how it is in our emptiness and brokenness that we may find what it is to be blessed. Samaras describes in “Psalm for the Soul in Depression,”
…I don’t want
a preacher in expensive suits. There is
no salvation by slogans. There are no sound-bites
to bring us home. We don’t work
with the aim for conversion. We only
The weight of the light shining on the desert places in us grows through the book, bringing the reader into an awareness of her own unsaid longings. “Speak to me/ about the presence of absence” writes Samaras in “Sacred Air.” “Not everything created/ can be seen.” Samaras’s poems remind us that life is much more than this narrow space in our minds we’ve confined ourselves to. The poems in American Psalm, World Psalm speak to all who long to live in a world that still contains wonder. A universe filled with mystery surrounds us still, and we are invited to partake in it. As Samaras says in “The Psalm of Give and Let”
Let our mortal bodies be so crowded
by the unseen seen
that we go home changed forever,
finally attendant in prayer.
The poems in Samaras’ American Psalm, World Psalm demonstrate the power with which poetry can speak to us, and to our current lives and culture. Music moves us, and the music of Samaras’ psalms call us out of ourselves, out of our habits and routines into a different way of being in relationship to the world. “Only when you find yourself lost/will you confront what you value,” says Samaras in “God of the Desert.” Through finely etched words, like shadows drawn by bare branches across the sand, the words in these poems scratch on our souls. I feel deeply grateful for the gift of these poems to my life and to the world of poetry. These are poems to be lost and found in.