poetry, Uncategorized

Necessary Shadows

In learning to draw, my awareness of the importance of shadows grows. Shadows help us see what it is we’re looking at. They function to distinguish shape and to define forms. They help us understand the textural differences between one element and another, and to discern the nature of things.

In everyday life, we generally prefer things to go smoothly. Shadows hanging over our heads are not generally appreciated. Shadows between the sweet things in life that bring us joy are seen in clearer light when seen in contrast with the challenging, elements in our circumstances.

Currently, the media surrounds us with messages that feed the brain’s propensity for negativity, encouraging heightened alertness, and for some, a kind of panic. At markets where I live there is a run on food staples such as beans, bread, and rice, as well as hand sanitizer, bleach and hydrogen peroxide as people prepare for possible quarantines, lockdowns, and the potential need to remain socially isolated in the effort to squash the spread of COVID-19. This fear is compounded by anxieties in other areas too: rising rents and housing costs in general, the stock market’s decline, worries over climate change, health care costs, and who will be the next US president, not to mention ongoing violence against human rights, people pushed out of their homes and countries because of internal terrorism or wars, and though not always publicized, the numbers of those dying each day from hunger, the isolation of the aged. So much disquietude. So many shadows.

How do we live in the face of such anxiety and relentless suffering? The challenges societies face today are complex and don’t have simple solutions. Inequities and systemic injustices previously accepted or hidden beneath the surface are now visible, the contrasts between worlds drawn more clearly. Is balance impossible in the face of crisis? Situations may feel unbearable, nevertheless amidst it all, the world continues on, changing, though it’s not necessarily clear what that change might look like.

Living, like drawing, is a creative act. We are each a part of determining what form that change might take by what we highlight, the lines and textures we draw, and the contrast we choose to emphasize in order to create the forms and overall tone or feeling of the world we’re making.

In Rabindranath Tagore’s book, The Gardener, he writes,
“I was walking by the road, I do not know why, when the noonday was past and bamboo branches rustled in the wind.
The prone shadows with their out-stretched arms clung to the feet of the hurrying light. The koels were weary of their songs?
I was walking by the road, I do not know why.”

Like the speaker in Tagore’s poem, we’re on a journey. We don’t always know where we’re going or may not understand why we’re where we are, but something beckons to us. We hear rustlings in the wind, shadows of those chasing after what might be answers. Tagore mentions koels. If you’ve ever listened to a koel’s vocalizations, the bird sounds as if it is saying its own name, yet Tagore mentions the possibility of a change in what they say, suggesting, too, they’ve grown tired of speaking and are saying nothing at all. Tagore observes his situation and senses something is altering in the pattern and nature of things.

We, too, like the speaker in Tagore’s poem, are sometimes pulled toward certain places, people or experiences without necessarily knowing why or having a rational explanation for why. That’s the wonderful or perhaps terrifying thing, depending on your perspective. Life can never quite be named, though one thing is growing clearer to me as a result of the recent fears over the covid-19 pandemic: we’re all in this together. The natural environment, physical environment, animal and human environment—we all affect each other. We are connected, are a community, regardless of our awareness or level of functioning or disfunction. True in art as in life, shadows can help us understand the source of light and deepen our humanity. Heartening examples of this are emerging from Italy where, as CNBC reports that though Italy is a country hard hit by COVID-19 with 17,660 confirmed cases and 1,266 deaths so far, “Italians are singing songs from their windows to boost morale during the coronavirus lockdown.” Schools, museums, cinemas are closed, soccer matches canceled. Restaurants are ordered to close, the economy is struggling, but people have found a way to express life’s joy—singing and dancing playing music together from their balconies—separated, but still seeing themselves in a shared struggle.

We fear losing what we love, our way of being in the world, our freedom, our lives. Fear shrinks us, as research shows, while love and gratitude expands us. The poems in The Gardener are love poems and reading them brings to my attention that beneath the panic and fear, there is another world coexisting alongside, one that is stable and without fear, even in the midst of disaster. There’s an interesting etymological connection between the words whole and holy. They both mean whole. Holy ground is where we are whole. To be well means to be whole and is a kind of holiness. To be well when around you the world is in panic is to find holy ground to stand on. How might we discover this holy ground to stand on while in the midst of difficult times with so much that could cause panic? This is a challenge.

Drawn to expand beyond our own walls of comfort and understanding, we ask ourselves, how do we live in joy despite the circumstances around us filled with anxiety and for many, suffering—mental, physical, and spiritually. A friend I meet with is in her eighties. This week she stated, as she often does, “Being old is difficult.” Working on writing her memories of escaping Austria with her family at the age of two during WWII, she has stories to tell before she’s ready to die, she explains, adding on to say, “I need to learn how to die, how to live with joy and die. It’s an exchange of energy you know. We drop the body, but the energy goes elsewhere.” In acknowledgement of impermanence, I’m reminded of The Five Remembrances, many Buddhists read each day:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Perhaps from a certain perspective these remembrances sound rather grim, but their larger purpose is to see the interconnection between death and life, to live intentionally with joy in recognition of our short time on earth, and in that recognition, to focus our purpose. Death and awareness of our death, either eventual or impending, can transform us. Maria Popova in her article on the Brain Pickings site, “The Five Invitations: Zen Hospice Project Co-founder Frank Ostaseski on Love, Death, and the Essential Habits of Mind for a Meaningful Life,” quotes Ostaseski.

“I have seen ordinary people at the end of their lives develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation that helped them to emerge as someone larger, more expansive, and much more real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be. They discovered a profound trust in the universe and the reliable goodness of humanity that never abandoned them, regardless of the suffering they encountered. If that possibility exists at the time of dying, it exists here and now.”

These seem like wise words for our time. In the midst of challenges, suffering and shadows that look like death, we can still open our hearts to life, to love, to the goodness that is ever present around us. We are part of each other and of the bigger energy of life that is ever present. What we focus on grows. We can be whole.

Toward the end of Tagore’s book, The Gardener, he writes, in section 68,
None lives forever, brother, and nothing lasts for long. Keep that in mind and rejoice.
Our life is not the one old burden, our path is not the one long journey.
One sole poet has not to sing one aged song.
The flower fades and dies; but he who wears the flower has not to mourn for it forever.
Brother, keep that in mind and rejoice.

We know life has burdens and that its flowers fade, but the journey is worth taking. Though their lives are brief, every day flowers’ blossoms are worth rejoicing over.

art, music, poetry, Uncategorized, writing

The Incense of Fallen Leaves and the Seeds of Music

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Leaves in Nisene Marks forest, Santa Cruz County.

In his poem on the Jerry Jazz Musician site, “Paean for Coltrane,” Michael L. Newell writes,

Trane knew and blew rage
that was prayer prayer that was
rage engaged heart and mind
enveloped listeners in all
that could be
felt or known

in this miserable destructive
alluring astonishing enduring
world that enmeshes all
who pass through
conscious or unconscious
all is carnal spiritual joyous

In a world where words are so often manipulated and used in a way to distort or hide behind, music can move us into a place beyond words that enlarges the heart, becoming a prayer without words. Poetry tries to speak what is true, and to name what can’t be named. When experience becomes to large for words, music can become our poetry. As Newell so aptly describes, certain music in its melding of opposites–the miserable with the astonishing, the carnal and spiritual, the conscious and unconscious–is prayer as it moves beyond what can be articulated, and gives voice to the heart’s deepest suffering, joys, and yearnings.

Bertrand Russell wrote, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” Much of life is about loss, about learning how to let go. It is in this bitter sweet space of letting go into transformation–of not clinging to what is, but of opening our minds, hearts, and arms to all that is passing, that we find meaning. Loss helps us to identify how all we have is gift, and can thus provoke in us an attitude of gratitude and openness that allows our spirits to expand. The boundaries between the known and unknown is the space where struggles occur, and where change and growth unfold. It is the space where stories live, and stories can teach us how to live.

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Japanese maple leaf

Autumn is a season between a world of fruitfulness and emptiness. Today, in an early afternoon amble around my neighborhood, the perfume of the redwood’s fallen leaves lifted from the earth beneath my feet as I walked. Much is dry and fallen at this time of year. The garden has gone to seed. Though the garden isn’t as beautiful as when it wearing its lush spring foliage or when offering its summer fruit, the seeds it produces as it lets go its life are beautiful for all the potential stored there, and for the promise of what they will bring. The memory of how to grow is embedded into their very fibre, each seed a storehouse of physically embodied knowledge. They know how to absorb nutrients, how to grow, how to create and recreate.

Some years back, while visiting Italy, I sat on a balcony overlooking Naples Bay at sunset as a boat pulled across the water into a flame of orange and red sky, and disappeared beneath the horizon. I thought then of how like this scene it must have been for  my husband’s immigrant grandparents when they journeyed from Italy to America–the feeling of deep longing and loss, as the shore of their homeland vanished from across sea, and they recognized they were leaving everything they knew for a world they knew little about. What an enormous risk it was. Their decision changed their lives and the future of all the descendants who came after them. From the point of departure, their lives were lived in the space between two worlds–the one they were born into, and the one they adopted in coming to the US. They never again returned to the land of their birth.

The lives of our ancestors are the seeds of our lives. Rising from the loam, the choice they made is the perfume of life now lived as a result that journey they took.

Citrino Naples Bay Cover idea
Naples Bay at sunset. (Photo, Michael Citrino)

Art in general, and music in specific, can bring together body and spirit to create an interior spaciousness where we are more willing to widen the heart’s boundaries.  Art arises at the intersection of loss and the need to find meaning and beauty. Art lives in the borderlands, in the space between where struggles exist. Music educates the heart. When I first heard Après un rêve, by Fauré, sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India, it evoked for me a sense of deep loss and a longing unable to be articulated in words. Immediately, the image of the ship I’d seen leaving Naples Bay and the journey my husband’s grandparents took in their hopes of finding a better world sunset came to mind. Imagining myself into that space sparked questions leading to research and many additional poems. That journey of imagination changed my world. 

Words are written thought. They have no physical weight, yet they can transform lives, can create or destroy worlds. Imagination is a seed. In searching to find, sense, hear, visualize and name the moments that defined and embodied the grandparents’ loss and their immigrant journey–the world they loved and left, as well as the new world they found–an entire world opened that was previously hidden. Whole histories were unveiled that I never before knew. 

Performed by Renata Bratt on cello, and Vlada Moran on piano, and recorded by Lee Ray, Faure’s Après un rêve on the link below is a gift to all–prayer without words. You can listen to the music, then listen again while while reading the poem below, “Luisa Leaves Home,” the initial poem I wrote in the series of poems that eventually unfolded into my newly published book with Boridghera Press, A Space Between. Maybe you will sense how the music inspired the poem, and perhaps it will be for you, too, a seed of some sort that opens for you a world. 

 

Luisa Leaves Home

Footsteps on the hard cobble last twilight—
harsh echoes that clattered through the brain

while I sat at the window, listening
to a child calling “Papa, papa,”
from a window above as his father

wended his way up the steep hill from the sea,
coming home from work.

Wind pushes the walls, and I unlatch
the door to narrow streets, barren hills
sloping abruptly into sea.

It is morning now,
and I am leaving this life’s empty cupboards,

going out of the stony house, the sun’s
lemon heat, the salted fish,

out from the familiar rooms and names, out
of all I know.

Down to the water, light rising
on the last day from the white shoreline
as it greets the ocean’s immensity, I go.

Slowly, the boat pulls from shore,
the hull breaking open the vast
expanse. From the sky’s broken
window, birds cry.

Father, mother, a silent photograph
held in my palm,
I lean forward over the stern,
into the rain,
and cutting wind.

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The ancient Pali text of “The Five Remembrances” says, “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.” The grandparents’ journey of a hundred years ago parallels journeys people of our own time in various locations are taking now at great risk in order to create a better life for those they love and those that will come after them. May we all find the music that carries us into a wide place of being, and may the actions we take create consequences that allow the lives of those who come after us to have greater access to love and fulfillment.