The heat rises each day in Delhi now, and the trees on my street have lost their leaves. The branches,
gone barren, crave a new life. They hold open the palms of their hands in yearning. Hour after hour, the sun
kisses their fingertips saying, “Not yet, keep going. Keep on,” as the trees breathe in the circling birds,
and breathe out their emptiness. They want to blow open in sirens of life, to scream like a child in wild glee,
want to turn on the colored search lights, to shout out the story of a yellow Eden. They want to sing
in a ten thousand blossomed glory, setting fire to the air. But they don’t.
They wait. Day by day, a pyre of sticks, they stand quietly shriveling into the sidewalk, as if
they understand the silence, the humility, out of which life finally speaks.
Landscapes can embody both longing and renewal. When I lived in New Delhi, a tree grew along the roadside in front of the school and in the courtyard inside the front gate. As the year moved toward spring, I noticed the trees beginning to lose all their leaves, just as it seemed to me that they should be bursting with life. I thought the trees were dying, and felt very sad to see them go–all of them alongside the roadway drooping and bereft of leaves.
The trees were not dying, however, though they appeared to be. They were actually getting ready to burst forth in blossom. By May the trees, the cassia fistula, had become enormous clouds of brilliant yellow clusters of flowers cascading down from the height of their branches. Their vibrant color embodied New Delhi’s intense May heat where temperatures climb over a hundred Fahrenheit (in the thirties in Celsius) accompanied with May’s monsoon season humidity. Like drifts of yellow sun, their blossoms fell in thick drifts along the roadside. It felt like the trees had to lose all their leaves in order to make way for the myriad blooms.
Some people liked to call these trees the graduation trees as their blossoms arrived at about the same time as the school year’s end. People would leave school to ride out into their summer holidays and their new or their other lives, accompanied by the generous beauty of these trees celebrating their long awaited for transformation. I learned from these trees behavior that what is true in one environment doesn’t always hold true for another, and that sometimes things that appear to be dying might actually be making ready for something entirely new to occur, even, perhaps, something glorious.
It’s a fortunate coincidence that the tree blossoms at the school year’s end, a time when tired teachers are very much in need of a boost to carry them into a time of rejuvenation and restoration before beginning a new school year. It isn’t only teachers that need renewal, however. Many people carry on through years of work holding up their families, nurturing other people’s health or hold the safety and wellbeing of others in their care, and must find how to sustain themselves and others through long periods of time. Whether its for graduation, a job, retirement, better health, a word of encouragement or a hand of support, we are often awaiting renewal like the trees, preparing and storing up reserves for the arrival of that transformative time.
Often, when we put closure to certain phases of our lives, people like to know what we’re going to do next. We don’t have to know everything about our future though as we move toward change. We each have our our own way of opening and can allow ourselves to learn how to unfold in our own time. Success and the continual idea that we must be doing something so we can be called successful or call ourselves successful can make us deeply unsettled, and can prevent us from living satisfying lives. To wait on ourselves, and to listen deeply to the rhythms and needs of our lives is important to living meaningfully and with contentment. Before bursting forth into blossom, nature practices stillness, goes into her dark place and can look as if she’s dying. Like the cassia fistula, we can hold back, listening to our inner selves.
Several years back now, the first blog post I wrote on this site spoke about the mandorla, the ancient symbol that can be found in cathedrals’ stained glass where two circles or ovals overlap. The overlapping portion symbolically represents that area where wholeness develops, and growing into oneness occurs. As Robert A. Johnson explains in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow, the Dark Side of the Psyche, “The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise. This middle place is a mandorla, ” The shadow times, times we’re seemingly dying but are still living, the times where all is still and it seems nothing at all is happening as we wander and explore, aiming to understand experiences, feelings or ideas are important to our inner growth and wellbeing. “Only awareness of your shadow qualities can help you to find an appropriate place for your unredeemed darkness and thereby create a more satisfying experience. To not do this work is to remain trapped in the loneliness, anxiety, and dualistic limits of the ego instead of awakening to your higher calling,” writes Johnson, explaining how important times of emptiness are for our inner lives to grow.
We live inside a mandorla–a world where opposites overlap. Whether change occurs slowly or quickly, our lives are always in transition, moving from one world into another. The stillness and space between the oppositions in our lives is where we learn how to transform our lives and periodically allow ourselves to eventually burst into blossom. While we search for the boat of insight that will carry us to the other side of understanding, we can practice being still and enjoying the moment we’re in.
Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror Just keep going No feeling is final
–Rainer Maria Rilke
In a short time from now, I’ll be moving from India. After nearly a decade in this country, I won’t live here any more. Though I don’t exactly know yet where I’m going once I leave, I will miss many things about living here. Through sound, smoke and heat, India literally seeps in through the windows and doors, announcing its presence, influencing the whole of what happens.
We don’t have adequate answers for life’s most perplexing questions. We are incomplete. India constantly asks difficult questions I will never have answers for–which is perhaps one of the reasons I’ve stayed here so long. Everywhere in India, it’s easy to see people suffer. As I travel through Delhi, I try to open myself to see and notice the suffering around me so I can learn from it. Looking into the faces of people suffering–noticing their difficulty–is not the same as doing something about meeting people’s needs. If I don’t have the ability to change people’s lives around me, however, then I can at least see them as fellow humans in need of compassion, just as I, too, feel the need for compassion.
Like the poor around me, I will never be all I want to be. As a result of living in India, I recognize in people’s faces and bodies a mirror of my own incompleteness and need. The more I can befriend the reality of my own incompleteness and accept limitations with compassion, the more I will be able to act compassionately toward others. Maybe I can also become more whole. India’s poverty is too enormous for any one person to resolve. In humility we have to accept we can’t necessarily be or give to others what we plainly see that they physically need. To solve huge problems requires large numbers of people working together toward change and solutions over extended periods of time. Many things aren’t in our control, or ability, though we do and give what we can to make a difference.
Because it is a kind of death, moving stimulates reflection. Often these days, I find myself wondering what existence is. It’s all so mysterious and amazing. Embodied minds and feelings walk around on planet Earth with other physical bodies in a universe containing other galaxies that hold solar systems in a space vast beyond comprehension. So much happens in the universe beyond fathoming. Over the years of living here in India, I’ve learned to understand more of the cultural patterns–which are a kind of universe of their own. When I leave, once again I’ll be moving into a different world, learning new ways of being and understanding. I’ll be transformed into another reality very unlike the current one. Even if living in my native country, my world will be widened. Parts of me will diminish, others expand, and I’ll be reborn into a different existence. I will remake myself.
The baby kite in the nest across the yard outside my kitchen window, stands up, occasionally, and perches on the nest edge to look around. Soon, like notes of music, the fledgling will fly away, though, and like the kite I, too, will leave this nest. I don’t think the change will necessarily be easy, though parts of it will be. Transformation. Transcendence. Births are noted fore being painful, but out of chaos, the world was (and is continuously) formed.
This period of transition is a liminal space of uncertainty through which to view two worlds, and to notice the myriad possibilities of creativity change brings. As a friend writes–through the dissolving curtain of now the new world awaits.
Maybe our real life work isn’t to remain whole. As Robert Bly writes, perhaps we came here to
“…lose our leaves
Like the trees, and be born again,
Drawing up from the great roots.”
In some ways, every day can be seen as a liminal space, not just the great moments of passage and change. What could I become if I were able to live more like that–like trees who let go their leaves time after time, reborn repeatedly, because they are always “drawing up for the great roots.” Let me live like that.
“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.”