poetry, Uncategorized

Lamentation, Joy, and Jory Post’s Poetry

20190113_165929

Owls outside my window call across the valley every evening. Carrying on for hours, their voices, soft and low, a mantra that gently soothes, and I think how much such beauty as their soothing voices can do to calm and heal in a world where so many are filled with anxiety and suffering.

Signs of impermanence abound. Our California garden is going to seed, and every day, gophers eat through plants that have taken many months of nurturing care. Prayer flags, colorful and new a few years back, are now faded, worn, and tattered. Fires. Disease. Hurricanes. Unrest in the streets. Rumors of war. Everywhere, life is tenuous. How is it possible to live in joy while the world around us or perhaps even we ourselves are in the process of fading into diminishment? Most of us want to turn away from suffering and loss. There’s already too much trauma and suffering around us. It’s painful, and usually it seems easier or better to avoid the pain rather than reflect on it, though reflection helps us learn how to live.

20190828_095304.jpg

Recently, I attend a poetry reading here in Santa Cruz, California in celebration of the release of local poet, Jory Post’s new book of prose poems, The Extra Year. Post’s poems hold life’s small moments and details in sharp, attentive focus, and connect us deeply to our humanity–our vulnerabilities and finiteness. Post’s writing takes the seemingly commonplace moment of shaving, turning in bed to touch your partner or sitting in the waiting room with others at a doctor’s office, and reawakens us to remember the preciousness of breath and being, even in the midst of change, suffering, and difficulty–or perhaps it is because of these. His poem “Wailing,” is a good example. The poem begins with Post’s description of how he was informed of his uncle’s death, then learns soon after that a dear friend has died. Post explains turns to data to soothe him when he feels the weight of grief pulling him under. “I discover 6, 316 people die each hour. 151,600 each day,” he writes. “Over 1 million every week. I spent the day trying to convince myself my three friends were in good company, until I finally gave up, broke down and wailed for all 1 million.” In the piling up of human death and connecting that greater grief to his own, Post moves past barren data into the felt reality of loss, enabling us to touch the humanness hidden inside the numbers.

Post’s poems help us to lament. Lamentation is an old word we don’t often use, but it precisely indicates the inner feeling people have when sorrows weigh them down, becoming unbearable. The Online Etymology Dictionary describes its meaning as ‘”a wailing, moaning, a weeping,”‘ an extension derived from the Proto-Indo European root meaning “to shout, cry.” Things can happen to us in life that we have no understanding or satisfying explanation for. These experiences are painful and difficult, and the appropriate response is to lament. We need to make space in our lives for lamentation, allow ourselves to notice our vulnerable spots, to touch our finiteness, and open into an acceptance of our limitations until such time as we can grow into a wider place of being.

We have so many plans for our lives, things we want to do or become for ourselves or for others. We make lists and plans, work toward goals. At some point, however, we realize we will run out of time. We live within limitations either imposed from the outside that we cannot move or those of our own making. Though we may want to be more or different than we are, we fall short. As Post describes in his poem, “Role Model,” “There was a time I considered myself a role model…I was sure, dedicated, driven in my quest for knowledge and truth. But something shifted, as if the tumblers in locks had magically been altered. Thirty years later I can hear the brass tumblers realigning themselves. I may publish another book. This time it will be about what I don’t know.” Touching uncertainty, affirming the mystery of our existence–connects us to a deeper awareness of wonder and fuller appreciation of the world around us. As we allow ourselves to contemplate change and loss, we can learn to let go of old fears or certainties that hinder us, and to make space for renewed vision and purpose that, hopefully, will eventually arrive.

20190322_131341 (1)

In his poem, “Snail’s Pace,” Post describes himself down on the floor of his house, aiming to explore his world like a snail might–a snail Post had discovered outside his window ledge. Moving slowly across the room, face next to the floor, Post experiences his world from an entirely different perspective. While it’s humorous to imagine him inching along, the poem helps us see that in altering our pace and perspective, we alter our understanding.  Similarly, in Post’s poem, “Color,” Post carries the reader through an examination of the names of color–a journey that carries one across the world, embracing the fabulous reality of vision. The world grows alive and is discovered anew as we examine it carefully, give it close attention.

In her essay, “The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness” in the August 4, 2014 issue of Orion, Terry Tempest Williams writes. “In wilderness there is acceptance in the evolutionary processes of life. No plant or animal petitions for mercy. There are no complaints rendered or excuses made. There is only the forward movement of life and the inevitable end.” Awareness of our inevitable end is difficult to look into the eye. Suffering can carry one into a kind of wilderness–a wild, forlorn place where a person might feel alone, without bearings, and filled with longing. Things can happen to us in life that we have no understanding of or satisfying explanation for. These experiences can be painful and difficult, and the appropriate response is to lament. Nevertheless, even as we experience a sense of loss and isolation, we might simultaneously be brought to a discovery of life’s preciousness, and our interdependence on each other and the natural world. Not all pain can be assuaged, but perhaps there is another kind of healing when we allow ourselves to recognize our limitations.

20190827_104946

“I return to the wilderness to remember what I have forgotten, that the world is wholesome and beautiful, that the harmony and integrity of ecosystems at peace is a mirror to what we have lost.” Williams goes on to say,

“Wilderness is not a place of isolation but contemplation.”

This is what Post’s poems in The Extra Year do: they carry us into a place of contemplation. They return us to see a way of living where we can feel whole, even in the midst of loss and pain. Stepping into wilderness, whether physical or metaphorical, allows us to see life from a wider perspective. In coping with pancreatic cancer, Post explains how his physical appearance changed and people sometimes don’t recognize him. Alongside the changes, losses and challenging experiences revealed in the poems resides a deeper wholeness–an appreciation for community and for the lives of those he holds most dear. In his poem, “Ponder,” Post writes, “Sometimes I ponder the miracles of my life: have I made it all up?” The miracles Post ponders are everyday experiences, “The crisp view across the bay that outlines Pacific Grove and Jack’s Peak accentuated on the horizon. The French toast at Silver Spur drenched in butter and maple syrup that soothes my stomach. My granddaughters–Georgia’s determination and Hannah’s love of the pun.” Post’s poems call us to recognize that to live means to participate in both suffering and joy. Though they may be mixed together with grief, it is the relationships we open to and nurture that give us meaning and joy. Sorrow and deep gladness do not exist in isolation from each other. To live is the opportunity to walk this earth in relationship with all we encounter. As Post suggests in “A Recipe for Closure,” in thinking about the sum of a life we should go ahead and open up, “Make some noise. Remind us of who you were. We remember. We mourn. We celebrate.”

20190327_174843

We need poems like those of Jory Post’s in his book, The Extra Year, to help us remember that in our difficult days, the hours or years of suffering we encounter, others have walked this path before us, and are walking with us even now. Endings can also be openings. Though bereft, we can also dance, sing, or write and in that vulnerable openness, we emerge from shadow. Like owls outside calling from the forests outside window, poems like Jory Posts call us into a wider world that gives voice to life’s shared story. Sometimes, stories and poems can heal, restore, and save us.

 

community, place

The Big Wide World

Values and belief systems guide our lives, but every day the news tells disturbing stories of innocent people harmed because their ideas don’t fit a definition of what a person should be. That is disturbing. Belief systems should enable us to live and work together better–to be more compassionate, understanding, and to better be able to forgive other’s mistakes and incompleteness. The complexity of today’s world often exposes us to people with different belief systems from our own. This can make it confusing to find a path through conflicting values and beliefs to follow that guides our actions–one that nurtures the best good for all and that helps people live together peacefully. When we reside in one location for years, we are less likely to see its wonders and  shortcomings. It’s interesting to be reminded of how there are many other ways of living and being besides the one we are used to, and that those ways of living and being are just as normal and familiar to them as our ways of being are to us. Outsiders can sometimes be the very ones who help us see ourselves more clearly, or to see ourselves anew.

I began writing this post while still in New Delhi after going to the market, a common task, but one that can significantly differ depending on where you live in the world. What is an every day scene for some in certain parts of the world is uncommon for others in a different geographic area. Images here are of the location in Delhi where I get groceries

Currently, I’m visiting Washington DC, a city of wonderful diversity, energy and life. Every time I come back to the US for a visit after living abroad, I feel I’m entering in a foreign land, an adjustment most people experience when reentering their country after living abroad. It’s interesting returning to the US each year, and each time to look at my country with new eyes. Washington DC has stone monuments everywhere, beautiful old brick homes, and abundant galleries and museums, as well homeless people sleeping in parks and on the streets. Traveling downtown on the city bus, I sit with people from a variety of ethnicities and listen to several languages being spoken as the journey progresses. Though Delhi also has stone monuments, galleries and museums, DC is a very different world.

The other night I went to see the the most recent version of The Hobbit, and I’m reminded of what Gandalf said to Bilbo at the end of the film, just before he returns to the shire after his long adventure. I don’t have the exact words, but something like “It’s a big world out there, Bilbo, and you are, after all, just a little being.” We all are, after all, just little humans in a big wide world of incredible, rich diversity in multiple dimensions. Does it matter that we experience what it’s like in other cities, other countries, other climates, that we experience places where people speak different languages? Yes. The exposure to different realities helps us put our own world in perspective. There are many ways of living and thinking that seem right to many people. When we find ourselves in a completely different world, we negotiate new rules in order to make sense of it. We learn to accept mysteries and paradoxes.

Because travel and computer technology are connecting the world in new ways, everywhere people are having to renegotiate rules regarding behavior and morality. Rules regarding privacy, for example have to be reformulated after people like Snowden and Heidi Boghosian have spoken out, revealing how little privacy is actually left to us, and how democracy and civil liberties are at stake. Huge, complex issues require time to work out as a global community. As citizens in the communities we live in, we can continue to consider how what we say and do affects the lives of those around us, doing what we can to create a sense of neighborliness, and how that affects and informs the world we want to live in on a broader scale.

photo 1-26A nation is made up of communities. The way we relate with those directly around us in our communities will always be important. Our way of interacting with others affects not only our own lives, but also who we become as a larger community and as a nation. If we feel we can’t do much to change what happens half way across the world or with complex issues, we can at least do what we can to learn to live with the diversity we find in our own neighborhood and to nurture a greater sense of well-being with those around us. If at the community level we were engaged in working out ways to listen to and respect the differences perhaps we could also improve the way we respond to differences in other parts of the world. A major obstacle to understanding each other in today’s world, is the way money driven interests intervene with the exchange of ideas in the political process so that the truth about situations can be revealed and a better way of living together emerge as a result. One way a clearer understanding might emerge might be if citizens of diverse backgrounds were more involved directly in understanding each other’s circumstances. What if one of our new year’s goals was make more of a conscious choice this year to learn about and spend time with someone different from ourselves, for example, someone in one of these groups–someone who has disabilities, an elderly person, someone of a different social class, of a different religious or political persuasion, a different ethnicity from our own, or whose first language is different from our own. Choosing to develop a connection with someone from any of these groups of people could help us personally and as citizens to better understand the needs of diverse groups.

On his website, The Center For Courage and Renewal, Parker J. Palmer quotes Terry Tempest Williams, “The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?” Democracy begins at home–where we live.  In his book, Habits of the Heart, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Palmer talks about ways of thinking and communicating that nurture democracy, and that can better help us live together. Palmer advocates people gathering together in communities to discuss issues and concerns. These are the habits facilitators guide the conversations around:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together.
2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
4. A sense of personal voice and agency.
5. A capacity to create community.

Living together peaceably is challenging, and more so today because media controls businesses and governments for their own purposes, making it difficult to inform ourselves in ways that enable us to make wise decisions that affect our future. Upton Sinclair said in The Jungle, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Because obscuring the truth isn’t uncommon in our era, it’s worth people coming together in person to discuss ideas, issues and goals in their communities.

Nazim Hikmet writes his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” about being on a train from Prague to Berlin in 1962, a period of change and reform in what was then Czechoslovakia. He describes as a series of remembered scenes and events, then ends the poem,

photo 2-34the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

 

As I have looked at various exhibits in museums here in Washington DC, it’s clear that life constantly changes. Truth and the sense of community, however, are worth preserving. Diverse ways of living and being help us to gain a more whole perspective on what is worth preserving. We need diversity in order to be whole. Let us this coming year do what we can to love the world we live in all its diversity before we leave behind what is most valuable.