Flower Pilgrimage to Crete

Sensation

On blue summer evenings I’ll go down the pathways
Pricked by the grain, crushing the tender grass—
Dreaming, I’ll feel its coolness on my feet.
I’ll let the wind bathe my bare head.

I won’t talk at all. I won’t think about anything.
But infinite love will rise in my soul,
And I’ll go far, very far, like a gypsy,
Into Nature–happy, as if with a woman.

—Arthur Rimbaud

Over a decade ago, I browsed through a book with photos of Crete at a friend’s house. The abundance of wildflowers depicted in the photos amazed me, and I hoped  someday to be able to visit Crete in the spring. That day arrived this past April. I came to Crete on a pilgrimage–a journey seeking renewal through connecting with a fleeting seasonal aspect of nature that offers so much joy to so many: wild flowers.

Driving to the ancient site of Aptera, just west of Chania, I wandered the hillside above the sea. Meadows of marguerites stood chest high. Red poppies boldly waved their colors beside the buttercups sprinkled across the grass. The entire world shimmered in spring petals. Bees, legs laden with pollen, drifted from flower center to flower center, their hum filling the fields. Lying on a rock surrounded by blossoms the sky wide above me, I felt I was buoyed up by beauty, floating on time’s wide sea. Alive. Replete. I knew I’d arrived at my journey’s destination.

Flowers have a way of opening our hearts. They unfold their petals, and our hearts unfold with them. Previously, on this blog I’ve written about forest bathing, an activity that is now gaining momentum in the US, as studies, according to this recent article by Meeri Kim, “‘Forest bathing’ is latest fitness trend to hit U.S. — ‘Where yoga was 30 years ago,’”  have demonstrated how it helps to lower blood pressure, heart rate and reduces stress, among other benefits, including helping elderly patients with COPD, according to another study done in China, reported in the Natural Medicine Journal.  The insights this research gives got me wondering about the effects flowers might have on the mind and body. It turns out that flowers, too, bring us numerous benefits. One study shows how office workers grew more relaxed when viewing roses. Flowers, studies have found, reduce stress and speed healing. They also change our behavior. The University of Florida website, in their post, “Flower power: ‘Brain Awareness’ lecturer to discuss flowers’ positive effect on emotions,” explains how research done by Jeannette Haviland-Jones, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and director of the Emotions Laboratory at Rutgers University, unexpectedly found that “people who got flowers performed much better in memory tests than those who did not get flowers,” suggesting that flowers may effect memory functions. Louie Schwartzberg, renowned for his phenomenal time-lapsed photography, tells audiences on his TED Talk, The Hidden Beauty of Pollination, that flowers’ beauty is connected to survival. “We protect what we fall in love with,” says Schwartzberg. These examples illustrate some of the new understandings about the effects the natural world, including flowers, have on our physical well-being.

Beyond the beauty flowers bring, however, I’ve been thinking how flowers are important reminders of the value of gentleness. A flower’s life is brief, all its beauty spent in a single season but flowers are an important antidote to life’s hardness. We live in a world where power over others is often respected, where we’re encouraged to be a leader, and to take charge of our lives or of the situations we’re connected with. Get tough and be strong. Climb mountains, push your limits, and go farther. These are saying and ideas commonly found in our culture. Flowers are an antidote to this kind of thinking.

Though they can also hold their faces to the sun all day, absorbing its heat, flowers aren’t known for their toughness. Their petals are soft and tear easily. We appreciate them for their bold blossoms, their illusive, sweet scents and sassy colors but we love them for their softness. Flowers, in their gentleness, remind us that we, too, are human. Their petals are flexible, fragile, vulnerable, even, as they bend and turn with the wind, and in their softness, they allow us to speak from the tender parts of our own lives for which we often can’t find words–the part where we allow others to enter when we want to be in relationship–when we want others to know us. Tennessee Williams helps us understand the importance of flowers’ softness in his line from his play Camino Real, “The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.” We see the flower growing in the stony crack, and find its softness a relief. Life is not all hardness. There is a strength in softness that moves in a different mode. Flowers touch our souls the way music does, reaching past the stony walls of reason we protect ourselves with to lift our spirits, and let us know we are more than struggle. We are alive, joined to all that is–including joy.

Rimbaud’s poem, “Sensation” illustrates this idea of how allowing ourselves to be touched by the soft things of life can transform us. Rimbaud begins with the poem’s speaker walking into a blue summer evening. It is a vivid image, perfectly depicting the tranquil essence of summer’s calm depth. Though in the next line the poem’s speaker is “pricked by grain” and “crushing the tender grass,” we understand we’ve entered a soft world because the grass is tender. The grain that pricks us serves to make us aware that our senses are enveloped in a world that is delicate and alive, and therefore breakable. As we continue reading the poem, the words bathe the reader in a scene of natural beauty–coolness caresses the feet; wind immerses the head in its essence. The poem’s speaker doesn’t resist the blue evening he enters. Instead, he surrenders himself to the wind’s caress. The head is bare, unprotected, open to experience. There is no need to talk, to reason or ponder, yet there is an exchange. Like a flower opening, as the poem’s speaker gives himself to her, Nature reveals herself to him. The sequence is worth noting here. Infinite love arises in the soul as a result of opening to the relationship. In the poem’s last lines, Rimbaud brings the reader into the heart of the most intimate of connections– one that joins human to human and human to nature. The poem’s speaker describes himself wandering deeply into nature, connected to it as if with a woman. “And I’ll go far, very far, like a gypsy,/ Into Nature–happy, as if with a woman.” Going on a flower pilgrimage can bring a person to just such a place–to arrive at a destination of softness that lets us know we are alive and in union with the perfume and color of all that is.

This coming week I’m participating in San Francisco’s Lotus Live at the Asian Art Museum–creating with others a human flower as an expression of the value of diversity and peacefulness that can be seen from the sky. If you want to spread the healing power of flowers, you might want to check out this video describing how Larsen Jay began the organization called Random Acts of Flowers or maybe you simply want to pick flowers to bring someone, anyone, even a stranger, and see how it changes them.

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Gardens of Calm and Monet’s Waterlilies

Recently, I visited several museums in Paris where I viewed many of Monet’s paintings and learned more of his biography. What especially struck me were the many uncertainties in Monet’s life that could’ve threatened his painting career. Monet’s mother, who supported his interest in art, died when Monet was sixteen. At twenty, Monet was drafted into the army where he served in Algeria for two years before getting typhoid. Later, his first wife died leaving him with two sons. Twice he had operations for cataracts. The weight of having to provide for an additional six children he gained from his second partner, the work it was to take care of his gardens at Giverny—these many difficulties, yet no sense of these tensions surfaces in his paintings.

Entering the oval shaped room in the l’Orangerie is like stepping into a peaceful garden—as if Monet’s paintings have arisen from a place of meditation where the outer world slipped into a pool of interior contemplation, colors and textures reverberating off one another. Bending into the water’s mirrored exterior, plants and trees mingle with clouds’ reflections, blend with lily roots beneath the pond’s surface, and simultaneously give the viewer multiple perspectives of above and below the water, as well as its expansive surface.

Taking ideas from Japanese woodblocks, and with his children’s help, Monet created the garden at Giverny. He shaped the garden and the landscape, digging the ponds, putting in the Japanese bridge, and mixing common flowers with exotics, then painted the landscape and light. Dusty mauves, purples and muted blues–the color tones on the canvases in the l’Orangerie instill a feeling of calm. From the wide stretches of water textured with color, waterlilies appear in buds of illumination floating on spacious planes of reflection. Gardens filled with light and waterlilies–Monet painted the opposite of anxiety. 

Monet is especially known for his waterlily paintings. On the surface it may not seem like much to be known for or to commit oneself to—painting gardens with flowers. Yet he made us see them newly, and for nearly a hundred years, these paintings have drawn people from around the world to see their beauty.

Looking beyond our fears to the larger vision of our purpose and involving ourselves in creative acts can help us to let go those things that trap us in fear, and can improve our overall wellbeing. Cathy Malchiodi in her article in Psychology Today, “Creativity as a Wellness Practice,” describes how “in 2010, a review of existing literature on the benefits of the arts (music, visual arts, dance and writing) by Stuckey and Noble considered more than 100 studies, concluding that creative expression has a powerful impact on health and well-being on various patient populations.” Additionally, Malchiodi explains how a 2015 study shows “creative self-expression and exposure to the arts have wide-ranging effects on not only cognitive and psychosocial health, but also physical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, various forms of dementia and cancer.” Participating in generative acts and nurturing our creative strengths can turn fearful minds into calm minds where, like lilies of light, thoughts can emerge gently, illuminating what we need to know and do.

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For Want of Wonder

20160913_122212“He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged them to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.” –Elizabeth Gilbert

What would it be like to live life in a state of uninterrupted marvel? Have you known such a person? This past week I heard the words above describing the poet Jack Gilbert read aloud from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear. I felt a little jolt immediately, as I recognized in the words a way of being I want to draw nearer to–a person who amidst suffering and difficulty is still able to broaden my vision so those nearby enter a place of wider heart and greater receptivity to life’s wonder.

To live life with an attitude of uninterrupted marvel requires a certain capacity to walk in the world with a sense of expectancy, arms open to what one might encounter. It requires vulnerability. I’ve been thinking about this in relationship to my poem, “Puja for Sarswati,” recently published in the online literary journal, CanaryThe poem describes a perfunctory religious ritual I saw on the Yamuna River banks while bicycling in New Delhi, India. The puja was for Saraswati, the goddess of the arts, wisdom, and learning.

…stocking-footed, the men held

the goddess above the bank, “Ek, do, teen,” a shove,
and in she fell, face first, kerplunk into the water
and mud. Then, splat, splat, splat, just like that,

three plastic bags stuffed with marigolds followed.
The men climbed into the rickshaw and drove away. Done.

The poem continues on from there, but as I recall the experience itself, I think about the ways of living in my own culture where efficiently completing duties is valued. Often, I see people walking down the street, phones held out as if they were an electronic cane or comforter. Living by the clock, obligations press against us and worry preoccupies us while we at the same time we long for affirmation and relationship. We move through one event to the next. We get things done, but how much do these behaviors allow us to feel we’re alive? Do they open us to wonder? At least once a day do we find ourselves marveling at the world, at the life we are given? How can the spirit breathe through us, moving where it will, while we live inside a Mondrian painting, so to speak, squeezing our lives into straight lines and corners–when so many of the aspects of our day are aimed to fit into a tidy containers? We are organic creatures. Rivers don’t run in straight lines. Inside, we long for expression and relationship–to be wrapped around and inside the world we flow through. We might want to consider more carefully how we want to live the rest of our days.

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G.K. Chesterton writes, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” It’s true. Wonders abound in the form of the aurora borealis leaping to gargantuan florescent green heights in the northern skies, the thundering Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the fish shoals swarming and swirling in the sea’s vast fields, the Grand Canyon’s brilliant red and ochre water cut sandstone, the cascade of stars piercing the moonless, clear night, the silence inside a deep woods, the medicinal scent of bay trees lifting from leaves after a rainfall, and the single silver dew drop held by a violet petal in the front yard. As a child, I sang the hymn at summer camp, “How Great Thou Art,” praising God’s natural wonder. My mother loved the song, and her love for it nurtured in me a love for the world’s wonders, made me notice them with wonder. Currently, however, we humans as a whole are poor stewards of the natural world and its wonders. According to Newsweek, air pollution cause 5.5 million deaths annually. Live Science using data collected by the World Health Organization reports that 40% of the deaths worldwide are, in fact “attributed to environmental factors, particularly organic and chemical pollutants that accumulate in the air we breathe and the water we drink.” That is 12.6 million people, or nearly on in four people, says the WHO–yet we go on this way, counting down, “one, two, three–” heaving goddesses face first, one after the other into the river in order to get on with the rest of the day. The hymn declares God is great, but wonder is dying.

Joseph Bruchac, in his poem, “Birdfoot’s Grampa,” describes an old man repeatedly stopping the car they’re traveling in order to get out and save small toads on the roadway. Over and over the old, white-haired man helps the toads to safety, until the one waiting in the car gets restless, telling him they can’t save them all, and to get back in the car. They had places to go. The poem ends with these final lines,

But, leathery hands full
of wet brown life,
knee deep in the summer
roadside grass,
he just smiled and said
they have places to go to
too
.

We can get to where we’re going to if these creatures can get to where they’re going to also, the poem suggests. The two events are related. The old man in the poem is aware of his fundamental connection to the natural world. Wonder is a companion to such awareness. Cultivating wonder engenders a respect for nature. It allows us to value and appreciate nature, and restores relationship to it. Wonder reawakens our spirit, allowing us to experience life as a presence within and around us. If we have a relationship with nature, as with other relationships, we value it for its presence. In our culture, we speak of natural resources. In particular, nature is valuable because we use it for utilitarian purposes. Distancing ourselves from nature, we’ve fallen out (of or at least short of ) our ability to wonder.

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We are meant to experience life as a relationship, not as processed product. Connecting with the natural world, however, can be challenging when living in a city, and according to the UN, 54% of the world’s population lives in cities. Though we’re meant to experience life as a relationship, not as processed product, many urbanites simply can’t afford to own a piece of land where they can put their feet on the ground and grow a connection to earth. As a result, those of us living in cities need to purposefully seek ways to connect to wonder. Often when we do, the natural world that before was invisible becomes more visible. Michael L. Newell’s poem “Epiphany,” published on Verse Virtual, speaks powerfully about this sense of wonder from one who dares to look out his window and see what is there. Living in LaPaz, Boliva, the poem’s speaker awakens in the middle of the night and opens the curtain to view

where lightning’s fierce scrawl
is written and thunder reverberates

among barely visible peaks
wrapped round in clouds and sprinkled
with faint lights winking upwards

in sprawling chains toward the Altiplano.
I suddenly realize that in this ancient
towering land, my presence is irrelevant.

Man comes and goes. The mountains
define this place. The storms inhabit it.
I am only a tourist, a passing fancy

imagined by the land and then forgotten.
All night I dream a vast sky filled with wings.
My throat fills with sound which predates man.

The poem shows us how when we stand in wonder, we’re restored to a relationship with the world that allows us to see our place in it as temporal beings yet also part of something much larger than ourselves. Recognizing our limitations is an important understanding, allowing us to know who we are, and to live responsibly as a result. Oddly enough, the humility wonder engenders opens an awareness of the mystery moving in and through us, to “the vast sky filled with wings.” We recognize in the core of our inmost selves who we are, and our throats fill “with sound that predates man.”

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Not all of us have mountains outside our window as does the speaker in Newell’s poem, but still we can find ways to educate our hearts. Many of us have the sky and moon to view. If we can’t see those because of pollution, possibly we have rocks, trees, morning’s mist. Something. If we don’t have practices that call us out of ourselves or places that cultivate wonder, we can look for them, allowing ourselves to move into a larger place of being.

As Newell’s poem reminds, the sky is vast. In the middle of whatever night we waken into, we can reach for the curtains that need opening so we can view the heavens filled with wonder.

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What We Need is Here

 

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Parco delle Madonie, Sicily

Sicily’s countryside speaks in dramatic beauty–sheer stone faced mountains and sweeping valleys fringed by sea, pastures with grazing sheep and mists drifting below craggy ridges, olive groves speckled with wild yellow sour grass (oxalis stricta) blossoms, and wide fields waiting for wheat. Though the historical centers of Sicily’s cities are filled with stunning architectural beauty, since ancient times, agriculture has been central to Sicilian life. Along with several other products, the Greeks introduced grapes and olives to Sicily. For the Roman Empire, Sicily served as its breadbasket. When the Arabs arrived, they introduced irrigation, which served to further intensify farming in Sicily. Traveling though Sicily, it’s exhilarating to see vast expanses of open space on land that has been inhabited from so far back in time that the stories of the original people seem to seep into the earth itself–roots half hidden in the soil, and not completely understood.

In trying to learn more about Sicily before visiting it, I came across the beautiful film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily, describing Sicilians’ connection to food through the celebration of sacred rituals. Fabrizia Lanza, historian and museum curator, heads the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily, previously run by her mother. One of Lanza’s projects is to archive videos demonstrating food techniques, that, as she explains on her web page, are in danger of extinction. In Sacred Flavors of Sicily, Lanza describes her deep interest in food. “To me, food holds significance far beyond consumption. It is a chain of humanity, encounters, and sensuality. More than an object, food is our guiding metaphor.”

As I listened to and watched Lanza’s film, it occurred to me that the people she interviewed weren’t simply describing their work as cooks or bakers. Food wasn’t a commodity. The Sicilians in her film were intimately part of the food they grew, made, and ate. Food was the tangible representation of people’s shared coexistence with the land and their neighboring community. The film shows an elderly woman, Nellina Selvaggio, making lace cookies to place on an altar for the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the family. A tree of life motif decorates every scartuciatte cookie, explains Selvaggio, “with a stem that is never interrupted.” Food in her world demonstrates the interconnectivity of all life, and serves as a bridge from the past to the future as she passes on her skill. The fruits and flowers on the lace cookies “represent the things we create through our lives as offerings to God,” explains Selvaggio. The community prepares an abundance of foods for the Feast of St. Joseph, and people make vows. When people prepare food with their own hands, present it as a sacred offering, and share it with others, an I-Thou relationship is nurtured with the land and neighbors. One of the household members in the film offered up this prayer for St. Joseph’s, beautifully summing up this lived connectivity between the soil, human activity, and the sacred.

Love the bread, heart of the home
perfume of the table, the joy of the heart.
Honor the bread, glory of the fields
fragrance of the land, feast of life.
Respect the bread, sweat on your brow
pride in work, poem of sacrifice.
Don’t ruin the bread, richness of your country
that holy gift for human toil.

Surprisingly, when I looked up who wrote the prayer, I learned Mussolini was the author. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, in her book, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, explains that these lines are actually from a speech Mussolini made to imitate the structure of a prayer. Mussolini words were part of a larger intention. He used people’s dependence on bread as a political symbol, connecting it to the nation’s wealth, explains Falasca-Zamponi. Mussolini embodied his idea in what he termed the Battle of Wheat. Speaking to representatives of the agricultural unions of the time, he played on their sense of pride, telling them it was a shame that Italians had to look for work abroad. He appealed to values of hard work rural Italians held in order to gain their support in so they would be willing to become soldiers. Falasca-Zamponi explains Mussolini’s aim was to gain rural people’s backing in order to accomplish his desire of expanding Italy’s access to resources through invading and controlling other areas such as Ethiopia. Quoting Mussolini, Falasca-Zamponi states he wanted to ‘”augment the nation’s [Italy’s] power and virility.”‘ Different, however, is the way his words are used in Lanza’s film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily. When the speaker in the film reads the words about the bread, nothing of Mussolini’s political motives appear to inhabit them. Instead, the words demonstrate honestly valued connections between land, food, human labor and life. Placed in a context that honors the flow of life embodied in their presence of bread, and without ulterior motives, the words function truly as a prayer–affirming life, and the human effort to bring forth its bounty.

Wheat, vegetables, and fruit growing in the fields all look beautiful from a distance, but few of us pause long to consider the link of life connecting from field to farmer to food on the table. Farming has always been a difficult life. In southern Italy there are nuances to farming beyond the struggle with nature to achieve a harvest. The Maffia has controlled the food system there, making farming even more difficult. In February 2016, Reuters reported that “Italy’s mafia has infiltrated huge swathes of the country’s agriculture and food business, earning more than 16 billion euros ($17.7 billion) in 2015 from the industry.” Additionally, as Rebecca Roberts explains in her May 2014 article, “Rise of the anti-mafia land movement,” The Mafia uses food as “a tool of power, with the residents of southern Italy literally relying on the Mafia for their daily bread.” The food costs less when bought through Mafia controlled businesses, but also is often coated with pesticides or E.coli. Cooperatives like Libera Terra, however, are working to free people from this kind of oppression, and to give control back to those working the land and shop owners who sell agricultural products.

Much of the food we buy today at grocery stores is raised on commercial farms, farms, which according to Jeff Vidal’s article, “Corporate stranglehold of farmland a risk to world food security “are growing in size, and squeezing out small farmers, even though their farmland is generally more productive and sustainable. Roberto Romano’s 2010 film, “The Harvest/La Cosecha,” depicts the difficult life of farmworkers this century on commercial farms, and their struggle for necessities, education, as well as their altogether herculean effort to hold on to dreams.

20161220_112705The loss of the sacred, our turning most everything into mere commodities demeans existence. When we our gaze consistently views the world through a lens of self gratification, when we value earth’s fecundity and wild abundance only for utilitarian purposes, we reduce and diminish life to a few hard, dry crumbs. We want more from life, but end up with less. We have it all, but remain empty. In Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Berry writes about the experience of this kind of life,

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.

It’s inspiring to see people in Sicily working the land, and to watch women like Nellina Selvaggio in Lanza’s film create art with the food they make. Most people, though, will not likely be taking the time to create such food in this way, or at least not frequently. How, then, do we find a way to step off the treadmill where everything must be accounted for, everything compute? How do we nurture an awareness of our connection to the earth, our food, and our communities so we find again an I-Thou relationship with life? Berry, long an advocate of knowing the land you live on and understanding its needs, suggests that if you eat, you are a part of the food system. In his article, “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry presents several ideas we can consider in an aim to find a deeper connection with food:

1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can… 2. Prepare your own food… 3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home… 4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist…5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production…6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening…7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

Though we may live in cities where open land is difficult to come by, we can grow a plant in a container for a window to help ourselves remain mindful of the earth and our ultimate dependence on it. In California, as part of a Curated Feast, and in a collaboration between historians and chefs, you can sit with others at a meal and learn about the origins of the food as you eat. This could be an engaging way to kickstart a venture into learning to be your own curator of the foods you eat, as Berry suggests. Beginning with one thing, one practice, we can change our story into a different narrative, one with a more satisfying plot.

In Berry’s poem, “Wild Geese,” the poem’s speaker goes on a horseback ride one Sunday morning where he eats persimmon and wild grapes, and opens a seed with the promise of a tree to be–

what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

We have what we need to connect to the earth. Simple, daily practices can help us understand how. We have what we need to feel alive again. It is a seed inside us. We can help it grow into a tree.

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Sicily, and Cathedrals of the Heart

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I’ve just returned from Sicily, a poor region of Italy, but a land rich in beauty–beauty enough to leave me speechless and in awe as I stepped inside Monreale’s cathedral and looked into the face of the pantocrator–Christ as the Lord of the Universe–depicted in the shining mosaics filling the central apse. The mosaic is so finely made it seems to be painted. A world heritage site, the cathedral holds the largest Byzantine mosaics outside of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Mosaic art was practiced in the Byzantine empire since the fifth century (according to the Joy of Shards Site.) Thousands of skilled craftsmen had to have worked for centuries to be able to produce the level of skill to create the quality of workmanship presented in Monreale’s cathedral and cloister. (See more images here and here.) The walls depict various Biblical stories–God giving Adam the breath of life, Noah building the ark, Jesus holding out his hand to Peter who has jumped the fishing boat he was on with the other disciples in order to meet Jesus who he sees walking across the water–stories told through images of God interacting with the world and in humans’ lives.

20161218_164013Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson, in his book, Inner Work, writes of how the original meaning of fantasy comes from the Greek, phantasía, meaning “to make visible, to reveal.” Johnson explains how it’s our imagination that converts the invisible to the visible, enabling us to contemplate it. Interaction with world in the form of the arts and in writing enables us to understand spiritual truths. For the Greeks, Johnson goes on to say, phantasía was the way the divine spoke to the human mind. Until the Middle Ages, Johnson states, phantasía was thought of as the “organ that receives meanings from spiritual and aesthetic worlds and forms them into an inner image that can be held in memory and made the object of thought and reasoning” (p. 23). Phantasía was also the word Roman writers employed when wanting to “speak of the human faculty by which we express the contents of the soul by using poetic or spiritual energy.” In other words, practicing using our imagination, as artists and writers do, allows us to become conscious again of spirit. Johnson asserts also that when speaking of sensing the spirit, all ancient people understood, “Only our power to make images enables us to see it.”  In fact, Johnson explains, “When we experience the images, we also directly experience the inner parts of ourselves that are clothed in the images” (p. 25).  As Abigail Tucker reported in The Smithsonian’s article, “How Does the Brain Process Art?”, the brain signals the body to have physical responses to art, mirroring what is viewed.

The cathedral at Monreale, clearly demonstrates Johnson’s assertion of imagination’s power. Stepping from the everyday life of the street and entering the cathedral, I was carried out of myself into a place of wonder so astonishingly beautiful in its glowing color and intricately depicted images it could bring a person to tears—or at least it did me. A thousand years ago in Sicily, people worked the land, even as many do now—a challenging life, dependent on nature and the weather, as much of Sicily uses dry farming methods. Life could be difficult, but then there was the world inside the cathedral—a place of intense beauty, a heaven on earth, that could lift you from the mundane, and transport you into a place of wonder. In doing so, you understood your life was more than mere struggle. You were also part of a greater reality, you were also Spirit, and you participated in the life of that Spirit as revealed in the cathedral’s art.

Recognizing God speaks through nature, the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The Psalmist created music to express the presence of Spirit. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers enormous on her canvases as a way to invite viewers to engage with the natural world. “Nobody sees a flower,” she wrote, “- really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Interacting with nature as an artist, as well as simply viewing paintings and pondering them are ways to touch Spirit. Similar to O’Keefe’s intention for viewers in the paintings she produced, though cathedrals’ construction were normally initiated by kings as expressions of their power, and often with political aims, cathedrals could also be viewed and embraced as embodiments of love—love expressed in and through the hands that made them. To produce works of such beauty, heart had to be invested, not merely the use of skill. A thousand years later, the mosaics in the Monreale’s cathedral beauty draws the world to stand before them in awe.

The Norman ruler, King William, ordered construction to begin on the Monreale’s Cathedral in 1172. The building was completed in 1176, and the mosaics by 1189. That is only 17 years for a work of monolithic and intricate beauty. I think of the difficult times we currently live in, and the tremendous effort needed to rise to the challenges–social, political, economic, and environmental–that we face, not unlike that of building a cathedral. Likely, all times could be identified as difficult depending on where you live and what you’re living through, but a particular area of current concern are the many in the world who have lost their homes. The Guardian’s December 31, 2016 article describes, “War, weather, climate change and terrorism have made millions homeless,” and then goes on to add starvation, and natural disaster to the list of causes. Sixty three million people today are fleeing disaster according to The Guardian. To address the needs of these displaced people so that their fundamental necessity for shelter is met will take the effort of millions. The forces at work to create such displacement are monumental. I’m wondering, though, how we might use our imaginations to create a cathedral of spirit amidst the poverty of our current situation in order to address the human needs of those around us.

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While reading Unsettling America, An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, I came across Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “In Memory We Are Walking,” where Gillan describes how as a child, she once went on a picnic with her Italian immigrant family. The poem allows us to go inside the experience of what displaced people likely feel coming to a new land for reasons of necessity, and working to make it home. On a rare excursion, the poem’s speaker–a young girl–and her family left Patterson, New Jersey, walking out of their mill worker’s house “built cheaply and easily,” and past “squat middle-class bungalows” that, to her, appeared to be wealthy abodes. She describes how her father, hoping for a job, walked from Patterson to Passaic, nearly a two hour’s journey, to inquire about an opening. He didn’t have the money to take the train. When he arrived, a worker told him, ‘“You stupid Dago bastard,…/ Go back where you came from./ We don’t want your kind here.” The words from this poem resonate elsewhere in the world and across time. Reading current news stories, though the faces may be different now, one can still see how attitudes prevalent at the turn of last century regarding immigrants persist.

Before leaving to travel to Sicily this past December, I visited downtown London early one evening. When I emerged from the subway tunnel, I heard a loud voice calling out, “Help me. Somebody save me!” A man sat on the street outside the subway exit shouted to those walking by. I didn’t know what kind of help the man needed, or if he possibly might not be in his right mind. Like others, though, I crossed the street to wait for the bus—on my way to elsewhere. Ten minutes later, the man’s desperate voice could be heard shouting, his words echoing across the street. On and on he called, his plea reaching into my thoughts—fixing itself there, and becoming, somehow, the needy voice of us all.

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Further up the street, suspended in flight, angels hovered above the roadway in the form of electric lights. Christmas shoppers emerged from the brilliantly lit multilevel department storefronts, windows packed with a plethora of products–leather purses and shoes, sequined dresses, sportswear and down jackets, wool hats and scarves, specialty chocolates and teas. Streets drenched in abundance while at the same time, not far away, a man calls out for help, and none respond. Further down the street, I walked by a man in a grim looking Santa costume. He leaned against a wall above the sleeping bag where he slept, a cup held out for money. Entering another subway station, a second Santa stood by the escalators holding a cup for offerings, a thin woman with a drooping Santa hat, and wearing grubby Santa coat and a plaid skirt. Homeless Santas, and a man pleading to be saved–if not physical poverty, we live amidst a poverty of spirit. Those on the street have the humility to admit their need. The man on the street shouted out the words that we in our social silence, pride, and neglect fail to speak: that in many ways in the places we live, if not our lives and way of living, then in our hearts–connection to each other, is broken. If so many around us live in dire need while others of us live in physical abundance, then somebody help us.

From the crowded streets of our lives, the homeless part of ourselves calls out in our poverty. The somebody that must help us needs to arise from within. What kind of world do we want to live in? What does a beautiful world look like? How would people interact in order to create a world where we could live without fear, where all people’s needs are met? Just like those who built the cathedrals of Sicily, we each have skills we have built up over time. Humbly, and together, we can use these abilities to create the world we want to live in. We can do our art and look for ways to create neighborly acts of kindness and generosity wherever we are. Whatever the work we look for or do, we can make of our work a spiritual effort, a prayer. With our hands and mind, we can create sanctuaries of the spirit, cathedrals of the heart that transform ourselves and those around us. As poet Nancy Wood writes, “Patterns persist,/life goes on, whatever rises will converge./ Do what you will, but strengthen the things that remain.” We can use our imagination to discover ways to transform despair, and to practice the skills that will make a world where, like the cathedral of Monreale, a refuge of beauty and place of peace people a thousand years from now can inherit and inhabit.

Like the work to create the cathedral, creating such a world takes devotion, love, and hard work. Labor doesn’t have to be merely work, as it often becomes when the goal is merely for self interest and personal gain. Just as beauty can open our hearts, labor can also enlarge us as we work together. The two aren’t inseparable when we work with the intention that the labor we do is a way to give something needed for the betterment of the community–for the beauty of the earth and humanity.

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Poetic Truth in a Post-Truth World

On the parkbench sleeps a tiger
With a very tall old lady
In his lap; she is so tall
(And so noisy) that her knees
Have attracted a pair of screechowls
To form on them a nest that sways.

–from Kenneth Patchen’s poem, “On the Parkbench”

This boisterous, fanciful scene from Patchen’s poem awakens the physical senses, describes the unbelievable, and invites us into a world of imaginative play we can delight in.

A while back I visited the Sherlock Holmes museum here on Baker St. in London. Since I received the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a gift from my brother when I was in fifth grade, I’ve been an admirer of Sherlock’s keen ability to observe closely, to see the relevant details in a situation others passed over, and to draw conclusions from them. “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes,” Holmes states in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Doyle’s Holmes had a wonderful ability to pull together a wide array of details, imagine himself into the scene, and to find the truth of the story that rested beneath the details that others pass over. What struck me as particularly interesting when I visited the museum, however, was how the docents would tell you in all seriousness as you entered a room in the house, “This is where Sherlock slept,” and “This is where Sherlock sat, “as if Sherlock were actually a living person. While here in London, I’ve visited Handle’s, Jimi Hendrix’s, Samuel Johnson’s, Thomas Carlyle’s, and Leighton Ford’s houses where you can read about their lives and see their work. These were, indeed, real people who actually did sit in specific chairs or slept in the beds in the house. Hendrix, for example, is said to have spent a lot of his time writing while in bed. Holmes, on the other hand, though he was concerned about truth, is still a fictional character–even if he seems vividly alive in our imagination. “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth,” Holmes stated in The Sign of Four. This is why, even though I realize that the Sherlock Holmes museum is a tourist spot and is appealing to people’s need for a touch stone for this well-loved character, it struck me as odd to hear information given out about Holmes as if he had lived, and it made me wonder about the fiction’s role in our lives.

Unlike at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, at the Warner Brothers Harry Potter studio here in the UK, those who love J.K. Rowling’s books can go to the studio and experience how artists and set makers have turned the fictional scenes of the novel into tangible realities for the movies. You can see the Hogwarts’ castle bathed in dramatic light, step inside Dumbledore’s study, and observe see for yourself the golden snitch made for the game of Quidditch. This is invented reality. We know it, but like all good literature, the imaginative story in the Potter books holds life lessons we can learn from–the value of friendship, staying true to yourself to name but two.

Fiction offers truths that enable us to reflect on who we are and how we are living. Ralph Elison wrote, “Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” a statement which seems quite relevant for our current social context. Susan B. Glasser, in her article in Politico Magazine, “Covering Politics in Post-Truth America,” mentions how, “a few days after the election the Oxford Dictionaries announced that post-truth has been announced as the 2016 word of the year, defining it as a condition in which ‘objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.'” Facts are essential to our lives, and they are particularly important to poetry. Poets rely on facts to tell their truths. One of the great purposes of literature is to enable us to see truths about ourselves that we can’t see by simply reading the news. Poetry uses the literal realities of the world to aim at larger truths about the human condition. If you read Gerald Stern, for example, in his poem, “The Dancing,” you are brought through the facts of the poem into post World War Two as he describes his father in his family’s tiny apartment on Beechwood Boulevard,

his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop–in 1945–
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing–in Poland and Germany–
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

We can feel the tension between the dance punctuated by the “half fart” sounds coming from beneath the father’s arm pit in the poem and the war, “5,000 miles away” where Jews were “dancing” to keep away from Poland and Germany’s death camps. The family is dancing and laughing, falling as if dying as a way to deal with the horrors of the world. As readers, we see the pain between the lines, how the family is caught in their poverty and loss, and the greater loss of those who they feel connected to across the world, who are, in fact, dying. Similarly to the efforts of Sherlock Holmes, poets work to help us become aware of the larger connections of our inner world to outward realties so that we bring to the surface the details that enable us to begin to see the truth of our own experience. Though still affirming emotion, poetry in this way is a kind of corrective to a post-truth world where appeal to emotion matters more than facts.

Michael Longley, in a recent interview with Krista Tippett on her program, On Being, “The Vitality of Ordinary Things,” Tippett asks Longley, “What does poetry do? What does it work if it’s not solace?” Longley responds, “if you think of an out-of-tune violin, and tuning it up so that it’s in tune, I think that’s what art is, and that’s what art does. And good art, good poems is making people more human, making them more intelligent, making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be.” This is a truth built from the fabric of the heart, and is also what I recall Lucille Clifton saying when I took a summer the Flight of the Mind writing workshop from her in Oregon during the 1990’s, “Poetry humanizes.”

Langley goes on to say in the interview with Tippett that “one of the marvelous things about poetry is that it’s useless. It’s useless. ‘What use is poetry?’ people occasionally ask in the butcher shop, say. They come up to me, and they say, ‘What use is poetry?’ And the answer is no use, but it doesn’t mean to say that it’s without value. It’s without use, but it has value. It has — it is valuable. And it’s the first thing — the first people that dictators try to get rid of are the poets, and the artists, and the novelists, and the playwrights. They burn their books. They’re terrified of what poetry can do….It means that — poetry encourages you to think for yourself…The image that I love the most… is English critic, Cyril Connolly, and he compared the arts to a little gland in the body, like the pituitary gland, which is at the base of the spine. And it seems very small and unimportant, but when it’s removed, the body dies.” Unlike those who embody a post-truth mentality, poetic imagination is central to helping readers see the truth of human experience beneath the rhetoric. Facts do matter. Intention matters. Poetry asks us to examine the details of our lives and the fabric they weave. Poetry calls us to think about what matters, and to move into relationship with the world around us.

In his poem, “Wounds” Langley writes,

Over a landscape of dead buttocks
My father followed him for fifty years.
At last, a belated casualty,
He said – lead traces flaring till they hurt –
‘I am dying for King and Country, slowly.’
I touched his hand, his thin head I touched.

Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.

In Langley’s poem, we see the human side of dying for one’s country–the visual image of a wounded young man, and how “Paralysed as heavy guns put out/The night-light in a nursery for ever;” something that is often glossed over by politicians whose aim is to gain or maintain power while sending young men to war.

Poets must look closely at facts and tell them with the truest words they know.  Poets must aim to tell the truth so we don’t forget it, so we can find hope in bleak and difficult times that seek to erase those things that matter most.

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On The Knees of Our Hearts

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When difficult things happen to you, people sometimes tell you, “I’ll pray for you.” Some people would never say such a thing because the words sound religious, and such words would associate them with a perspective they abhor. Because of the divisive role religion has played historically and in the current political environment, prayer is not a part of many people’s vocabulary. But if, as Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, said during a recent On Being interview with Krista Tippett, “democracy is a place where you can make personal convictions public. You can make them public in politics, you can make them public in civil society, et cetera. Right? Diversity is not just the differences you like; diversity is the differences you don’t like,” then as democratic citizens, rather than cutting off those around us who we disagree with, perhaps we want to hear each other’s stories. Perhaps we should, instead, listen to the heart beneath the stories people tell in order to find the ground we hold in common so we can build communities where diversity’s value is a lived experience.

As Parker J. Palmer points out in his story on the Global Oneness Project site, “Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy,” our hearts are the place “we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human.” If we are going to heal our democracy, we must do it, Palmer describes, in our daily lives, the places where we live and work. Instead of being afraid of each other and our differences, Palmer suggests that  we go ahead and speak, knowing our voices need to be heard, but when we speak to do so with humility, recognizing that we are we live in a particular context that affects our vision, a context and vision others may not share or have experienced. Because of this, Palmer suggests we recognize that our truth is partial, and acknowledge that it may not even be true. This is why we need “to listen with openness and respect, especially to “the other.”” With the windows and doors open, so to speak, so new air can flow through, I want to speak of prayer, to lean into it with humility, and notice what I can learn by reconnecting to this ancient practice.

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St. Teresa of Avila called prayer “An intimate friendship, a frequent conversation held alone with the beloved.” While growing up, I said prayers my mother taught me. I recited them at the dinner table and before climbing into bed. My mother also prayed with me before heading to school each morning. As I grew older, however, I began conversations with God in my head as I walked to and from the bus stop, and as I climbed the hill behind where we lived. I walked through the dry grass there, to sit on granite boulders overlooking the valley beyond where I inhaled the earth and sky, experiencing a nonverbal communication with the natural world as the heat from the boulders I rested on seeped into my body, emitting comfort. I felt alive there, connected, and nurtured by the earth’s presence. In the silence of the heart, God speaks,” says Mother Teresa in her essay, “On Prayer.” “Listen in silence, because if your heart is full of other things you cannot hear the voice of God…We cannot find God in noise or agitation. Nature: trees, flowers, and grass grow in silence. The stars, the moon, and the sun move in silence. “Prayer, isn’t so much about us talking or asking God for things, Mother Teresa explains. It’s mostly about listening. We listen so we understand ourselves, and who we are in connection to everything else. Wandering on the hills as a child prepared me for this way of knowing.

The poet Czeslaw Milosz, explores this idea of prayer as connectedness in his poem, “On Prayer.” Prayer takes us to a place where “the word is/ Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned./Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,/ Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh.” In prayer, Milosz tells the reader, time seems to stand still. This place of “is” Milosz refers to, suggests the awareness of being fully connected to the present moment, alive in our being, and aware of our connectedness with others. The Hindus have a wonderful metaphor describing all existence as interconnected net. Each intersection in the net is a diamond. Each diamond is a life form reflecting all the others. Prayer is the practice of listening that draws us into an awareness of this net, helping us to recognize how we’re part of each other.

Last summer, I went to dinner at a friend’s house where before the meal, the family recited a prayer together, asking for a blessing on the food. Hearing the prayer made me consider how prayer may not necessarily be the actual words said, but the heart’s intention behind the words, similar to how much of what is understood in spoken communication is not in what is said, but the words’ intonation. If the heart during prayer is open when the words are said, they change you. Jorie Graham suggests just this in her poem, “Prayer.” The poem describes a school of minnows as they turn and swirl, “re-infolding” upon themselves in the water until a current rising from below, changes their direction, carrying them somewhere new. Prayer isn’t about getting what you want in response to requests, Graham says. Instead, “What you get is to be changed.” You’re swimming along in your circling path, but prayer takes you out of your habitual pattern, and sets you off somewhere new.

At some point in life, we encounter serious difficulty. We come to the border of our ability to comprehend or cope with our circumstances. This is where we enter the territory of wordless prayer not of communion, but of yearning that arises from the deepest wells and holes in our selves where we reach out, yet have no words to articulate what’s in our hearts: we live the prayer of loss, grief, or pain. Vassar Miller in his poem, “Without Ceremony,” says, “Except ourselves, we have no other prayer.” We ourselves are prayer. Being is prayer, and in that state, similar to the prayer where we sense communion, we are fully alive, and one might say pure, in our trust and vulnerability because we are completely open—raw. When we bring ourselves to God in this state, we sense our longing so deeply, “Our needs are sores upon our nakedness,” to use Miller’s words. We know our weaknesses well, and we know we are naked, wounded, and in deep need. In this state, words aren’t necessarily needed. Our hearts cry out from within. “We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,/ A posture humbler far and more downcast;” writes Miller. Reading these poems about prayer affirms wordless desire, this intense thirst to touch life, to live fully.

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The deep longing in Miller’s poem, the need that is like a sore–the feeling like one is falling on the heart, the yearning for wholeness: we all come to know this ache. While living in Muslim countries, I heard prayer calls throughout the day. They reminded me to take a moment for mental prayer, to offer gratitude, and were an opportunity to purposefully notice what it was I was doing. If I sat in that silent space more often, allowing myself to cross the velvet bridge Milosz writes of, rather than relentlessly pressing on to the next task or chore, I would be in deeper conversation and relationship with God, with those around me, and with my own being. As a result, I believe I also would be less afraid and understand better how to live and to love. Listening requires time and focus. We don’t see what we don’t turn our eyes to. We don’t hear what we don’t tune our ears to listen to. How else might I hear God’s voice but by creating a space for entering into the place of being?

Prayer is a way for us to step outside ourselves and to listen to what lies beyond our own boundaries of vision and understanding. Prayer is listening to the words under the words. This past spring while snorkeling, I found myself in the midst of a large school of banner fish calmly floating by. As I peered out into the infinite stretch of blue at the fish slipping through the sapphire sea below, above and beyond me in complete quietness but for the sound of my breath, beauty overwhelmed me. I was swimming inside a living prayer. If “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork,” as the psalmist says, then the natural world is a kind of ongoing prayer without words. Ocean, mountains, stone and sky are all a kind of living prayer. Writing poetry requires me to notice and listen to the world and my inner self. It allows me to go down on the knees of my heart and find what is there. Writing poetry, for me, is a kind of prayer.

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Blue Sky Time

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“Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” but when the White Rabbit actually took a watch out if its waistcoat pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice startled to her feet. – Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Since living in London, I’ve noticed how people seem to walk the streets with purpose and determination, and they walk fast, or at least faster than I’m used to seeing. Recently, I’ve begun to think of the rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and how easy it is to be a like him—anxious about where we’re going and if we’re going to make it on time. Time as marked by watches and clocks is an invention, yet as Glenn Aparicio Parry mentions in his article in the January/February issue of Resurgence and Ecologist, “Think of Time as Nature Thinks,” Time as we think of it today, measured out in precise linearly calculated capsules of existence, is an abstraction, and a somewhat recent phenomena. Previously, time was something people noticed as seasons change and animals migrated. Time was perceived as more circular, and things weren’t necessarily perceived as progressing and becoming better in the present than they were previously, Parry explains. Perry goes on to describe the Hopi, who had no words for the past, present or future. Instead, they believed things that things that happened previously were stored up and could be manifested later on. Events in this vision of time are a kind of interweaving.

I read Parry’s ideas, and wonder what the world would look and feel like if we lived with a different view of time. When you travel or live in a different culture, you enter a different reality, see through different windows. Richard Lewis, a linguist and one who studies cross-cultural phenomena, in his article in Business Insider, “How Different Cultures Understand Time,” describes some of the varying views of time. “Spaniards, Italians and Arabs will ignore the passing of time if it means that conversations will be left unfinished. For them, completing a human transaction is the best way they can invest their time.” The Japanese, Lewis describes, “must experience an unfolding or unwrapping of the significant phases of the event. It has to do with Asian indirectness, but in Japan it also involves love of compartmentalization of procedure, of tradition, of the beauty of ritual.” The view of time in Madagascar is different yet again, according to Lewis. “The Malagasy imagine the future as flowing into the back of their heads, or passing them from behind, then becoming the past as it stretches out in front of them. The past is in front of their eyes because it is visible, known and influential. They can look at it, enjoy it, learn from it, even “play” with it.”

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While Lewis’s descriptions are generalizations regarding the various cultures, the Anderson Institute, a high technology research institute devoted to finding scientific solution to space time physics problems, describes most Americans as “feeling rushed,” and that because the culture pressures people to “do more, earn more, and consume more,” people, feel rushed. While Americans essentially lack free time, because for us White Rabbits, checking our watches and how much we can get done, it’s difficult to relax. This is utterly different from the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest. The Anderson Institute website explains the Pirahã as using no art, having no letters, or numbers, and no concept of time. For them, everything exists in the present.

With these varying cultural concepts of time, we can see a connection between how people perceive time will create qualitatively different perceptions of existence as well. The question this raises is how might we live within a culture where time is linear, and yet still step into a wider, more generous sense of being so that we allow ourselves to experience the sacredness of existence and our relationship to the world around us. It seems this might only be possible if we have a clear vision of another way of being, and we hold other worlds inside us. The Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland asks Alice, “Who are YOU?” Who we are is somewhat a mystery, even to ourselves. We hold multiple worlds within us. Who others see we are often depends on the context they know us in. Who we are can also vary depending on where we came from. Experiencing significant changes or defining moments in our lives such as deaths, births, or moving to a new culture, we might see ourselves like Alice who replied to the Caterpillar, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” But beyond the significant changes we might experience in our lives, and the multitude of transformations we might go through, underneath the exteriors of our housing, or occupations, our clothes, or cars, lies our essence, our common humanity, in touching that, we find our selves.

When I stand in the subway tunnels here in London, I look into the windows that flicker past as the trains move off down the tracks, and notice the myriad faces fluttering by, faces I glimpse for just a moment—the tired man wearing a baseball cap head bent in sleep, the woman with her perfectly combed hair and dangling earrings heading out for the evening, the travelers holding on to their luggage, lovers deep in conversation, a child leaning into a parent’s arm—the myriad of lives rushes by as in a moving picture. We move from one place to another, we see each other but don’t meet or know each other. We are not what we own, what we have or do. How can we find each other in our common humanity? “I am because you are,” is the meaning of Ubuntu, a way of being together understood by Africans who hold to traditional ways and shown on this short video from the Global Oneness Project.

20161001_160110Recently, I read a book of poems by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. Though Hikmet later won the International Peace Prize, as a Marxist, he spoke out against the use of power to oppress the common person in his home country, and wrote in his poems about his longing for those who were poor to have a better life. For his political beliefs, Hikmet was imprisoned for thirteen years and spent thirteen years in exile. Though his life was threatened even by those from within the communist party, Hikmet fervently held to his beliefs throughout his life. Reading his poems is a moving. While in solitary confinement in 1938, Hikmet wrote his poem, “Letters From a Man in Solitary.” In this poem, he describes carving his wife’s name into his watchband with his fingernail. He’s not allowed to see the sky, not allowed to talk with anyone. He describes to his wife the passing of time by the shadows that climb the walls. At the end of his poem, Hikmet writes,

And inside this is spring’s darkest hour.
In short, the demon called freedom,
with its glittering scales and fiery eyes,
possesses the man inside
especially in spring…
I know this from experience, my dear wife,
from experience…

Sunday today.
Today they took me out in the sun for the first time
And I just stood there, struck for the first time in my life
by how far away the sky is,
how blue
and how wide.
Then I respectfully sat down on the earth.
I leaned back against the wall.
For a moment no trap to fall into,
no struggle, no freedom, no wife.
Only earth, sun, and me…
I am happy.

What time is to a man in solitary confinement is utterly different than those pressed by time, and who like the White Rabbit are in a state of constant low grade anxiety, rushing to meet a schedule (though this is certainly an oppression and confinement of its own kind.) When Hikmet describes sitting down on the earth at last, after being held inside walls for so long, I felt the respect he describes, and the way the sky opened to him like the deepest heart of love, and gave him its blueness, its breadth—how utterly broken open he must have felt at that moment, and utterly alive with the full presence of being. Time is broken here. There is no clock. Just an entering into of all that is. These are moments we long for, when the world shifts, and we see we aren’t caught in watching the clock tick or the shadow move slowly up a wall. Instead of staring at face endlessly flickering past us tunneling their way toward the next station, we step inside the phenomenal essence of the material world and experience it as spirit and gift, perhaps even as love.

In her poem, “I Worried,” Mary Oliver writes,

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning
and sang.

Time doesn’t have to be a prison to escape from. Perhaps it’s time we find ways to learn from different cultures—to purposefully notice the walls we are living with. We can learn to tell ourselves different stories about time and what matters, and look for those who will join us in finding ways to sit respectfully on the earth, and lift our faces, to see the sky in all its blueness.

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In Ordinary Time

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Laundry drying

I read Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us To the Things of This World,” and think he is writing it for me. Arriving again in a new world and culture after moving from India, I see anew the million wonders of this earth, and marvel once more at human productivity and creativity. Living now in London, this is the sixth country I’ve lived in outside of the US. Different than visiting as a tourist, when you live in a place, your threads weave deeper into the fabric of the location. You absorb more of the culture’s spirit and geography, or perhaps it is living in a place that allows it to inhabit you. Maybe it takes most your life to get your bearings anywhere you live. The Australian aboriginals were nomadic people, and sang songs as they walked from place to place—the rhythms, pacing and words corresponding with the landscape’s features as you moved across the terrain—enabling the traveller to recognize their location. Like the Australian aboriginals, many things here in England appear familiar from photos, stories, history, and previous visits, but because I’m living here, the context is new. As I ride the subways, visit houses and museums, and walk the neighborhoods, I see sites I would never see elsewhere. The myriad languages, hairstyles, clothing styles, and the layers of history intermingle here, and rest side by side. When I read, Wilbur’s words,

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
and spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn

my ears grow wide. An invisible pulley is, indeed, calling. I have merely to exit my door and I can see amazing things—an elderly man with long white hair dressed in a pure black suit wearing a crisp, for example, wearing a white shirt and Borsalino hat—traditional amongst Orthodox and Hassidic Jews, or I look up from conversation to discover a man in
a shining red jacket with brass buttons and black beret atop his head hightailing it down the road in his wheelchair. At the National Museum, I see Turner’s enormous painting of Hannibal crossing the Alps, and consider the feats humans have attempted—both Hannibal and Turner. I stand in the room where Samuel Johnson penned his dictionary, where Handel composed his music, and where Hendrix slept, or visit a bookstore that holds over 200 thousand volumes, barely able to breathe thinking of the explosion of stories, ideas and the immeasurable hours of research and effort that went into their making. How does one take in such wonders? In this city, however, such things are common. Histories are sandwiched together, living side by side. “Outside the open window,” writes Wilbur, “The morning air is all awash with angels,” and this is how it seems here in London. The ripples of lives inter-lap with each other, resonate together, creating an enormous symphony of life. The English countryside needs to remain as it is—gentle and subdued with rolling hills, weather misted over and gray, in order for there to be space for the overwhelming mountains of everything else that resides here in the way of literature, history, and art. To allow sun and the geographic drama of precipices and volcanoes into the scene as well would stagger the body and mind beyond recovery. I drink in this place in sips and gulps. Like the bed sheets and blouses in Wilbur’s poem that “rise in calm swells/ Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear/ With the deep joy of their impersonal feeling,” I sit on the subway and though no one wants to be seen looking directly at each other, I think: for however briefly, I am part of this world. These people with their multitude of ways, languages and thoughts are my people—they fill my life with a new spirit, a different vision of the world and how it looks and behaves. The world can’t remain as it was. It must widen, old ways of doing, thinking and being crack open. Whatever is solid inside will emerge.

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Stiperstones, UK

It’s a challenge to be here, though, difficult to rise every day and recreate the world again as I start a new school year in a new school teaching with an entirely new approach from all the years I’ve previously taught. When I get to Wilbur’s lines describing how “The soul shrinks/ From all it is about to remember,/ From the punctual rape of every blessed day,” I recognize the difficulty he describes. I know this year I will face a mountain of papers to read and evaluate, and recognize the devotion and energy that takes. My knees are still swollen and recovering from the five-hour hike I took with students through the Stiperstones nature reserve over a week ago now on a school trip. My body says I’m living on the edge of my ability to do such things, best to make way for a bigger change to come. But for some reason I hope will reveal itself to me, I felt called to come here and teach for one last year. I remember walking amongst the damp and drying sheets my mother hung on the line when I was a child. I loved inhaling their coolness, their clean scent, on hot summer days. It would be wonderful if the world were as Wilbur’s description of the beautiful laundry on the line—“Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam/ And clear dances done in the sight of heaven,” but there would be no substance there. We have to accept, as Wilbur describes it, “the bitter love” of the “waking body.” We walk into an ancient building with its beautiful mosaic floors and sculptures, absorb its beauty at a glance—all the time, knowledge, effort, skill, devotion, money and effort it took to make what we see. It astonishes and overwhelms the eyes and heart—the “prodigious reality of the world,” as Octavio Paz calls it. We stand on shoulders that stretch across millennia to make whatever it is we create or do. It is too much to fully absorb. What does it all mean, though, for this one small life of mine? Who or what am I in the face of such giants? The immensity of work done by certain singular humans is not the work for all to aspire to. Numbers and size impress, but bigger, better, more—these are not what love calls us to.

Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”

These words suggest that substance is found in the body. I must do my work, whatever it is: that daily effort—the habits kept in secret that enable us to keep our balance, and making it possible for beauty to float out through them—moving beyond the borders of our actions. The end of Wilbur’s poem brings us back to the poem’s title: “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” We must take up our cross, so to speak, and carry our weight. We don’t love on a grand scale. We love in small numbers, in relationships of twos or possibly tens, and relationship is what brings us meaning and is where we find love. It is doing our daily work, our recognition of that ongoing effort that allows us to stand in awe at the grace in a sweeping marble staircase, powerful words and worlds emerging from writers’ pens, or laundry fluttering so effortlessly in the wind. Though we don’t often take the time to notice it, even ordinary life is extraordinary. When I consider the multitude of people, effort, time and knowledge it took to bring me my meal tonight, it is an astonishing gift—the salmon swimming in the ocean, the fisherman who caught it, the sun shining down on the lettuce leaves and olive tree, the goat eating the grass that made the milk that allowed us to later produce cheese from that milk, the truck drivers, grocery store workers, the cooks who taught us to cook—the collective effort of all that is surrounds and sustains us. The blessings come.

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Apple at Fenton House, Hampstead Heath, UK

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Falling Into Wonder

to my aunt blanche
who rolled from grass to driveway
into the street one sunday morning.

—Lucille Clifton, “Praise Song,”

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Aunt Blanche in Lucille Clifton’s “Praise Song” reminds me of the many times I’ve told myself I’m going to do (or not do) something, only to metaphorically fall off the lawn regarding commitments I had made to myself. Clifton’s poem presents the reader with Aunt Blanche standing in the yard with her family, experiencing the day together. It’s a Sunday, a day of relaxation, and a time to gather with family. Things seem to be going fine until, boom, down goes Aunt Blanche, slipping off the yard and into the street! Clifton explains that Aunt Blanche had a basketball body, indicating her aunt likely hasn’t practiced the habit of healthy eating, or she probably wouldn’t be as round as a basketball. In spite of her love of food, or even perhaps because of it, Aunt Blanche is a resilient woman: basketballs bounce, and this is exactly what Aunt Blanche does; she bounces up from the street, and out of danger’s way.

It’s interesting to note that Aunt Blanche’s family doesn’t run into the street to rescue her. Clifton explains that as a ten year old observing her aunt’s fall, she “understood/ little or nothing of what it meant,” but she had faith in her aunt to get up from the humbling event. “Praise to the faith with which she rose,” writes Clifton, describing her belief in her Aunt’s ability to return to the family. Thankfully, Aunt Blanche has enough wits about her to recognize she was in danger, and works to get her self out of the possibility of further harm from oncoming cars. Drivers, too, see the situation Aunt Blanche is in, and respond by moving out of the way, so as to not harm her. Then, similar to the father who waited for the Prodigal Son to return home, Aunt Blanche’s family, too, waits for her with open arms as she climbs out of the street and rejoins them on the grass: an occasion for praise. The horror that might have happened didn’t. Aunt Blanche sighs a bit, showing her dismay at her own behavior, but doesn’t stay in the road carrying on about how silly she was. Neither does she blame anything or anyone in her situation. She simply gets herself out of danger’s way, and walks back to her family, a place she knows she is safe, a place she belongs. When we fall, rather than judging or blaming, we all want to know there’ll be open arms waiting for us when we rejoin others. As Clifton indicates, such an attitude of acceptance is “like God.”

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People are social beings who need to feel they belong and are respected by those in their group. What stories do we tell ourselves about those experiences where we fall that allows us to bounce back up like Aunt Blanche, dust ourselves off, forgive ourselves, and walk back onto the lawn and continue conversation with others because we understand that in the bigger picture of things, falling is part of the learning process? How might societies as a whole create ways of reacting to those who have fallen so that they can be drawn into the arms of others?

Poet and physician Rafaelo Campo, describes one of those ways in his poem, “What I Would Give.” Many of us carry a fear of falling ill, and Campo’s poem describes the fear people carry when they come to see him for medical help. The poem specifically mentions fears regarding lungs and melanoma, but these are merely examples of the myriad fears we carry with us from day to day: fears that our bodies won’t hold up under the activities we plan to undertake, fears about appearance, fears we won’t complete our work on time or meet people’s expectations, fears about how a new change we are making will affect our family or relationships, so many fears. Campo describes in his poem that what he wants to offer people, though, is “not the usual prescription with/ its hubris of the power to restore,/ to cure.” Perhaps because Campo is not only a doctor but also a poet, he understands that wellness is more expansive than physical wellness alone. It’s also connected to our emotional and social wellbeing, and how these are intertwined with our relationship to the physical environment.

Not all illnesses, aches or pain lead to recovery. If a person has arthritis, for example, she doesn’t get better. The disease progresses. When I see a person walking with a cane, I think of how challenging it is for that person to live with pain and ongoing suffering. Campo’s vision of healing moves beyond the elimination of pain to a wider plane. Even if we can’t be cured, his poem infers, we can be well. How that is possible, Campo suggests, is by opening ourselves to wonder.

I’d like to give them my astonishment
at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that,
the joy I felt while staring in your eyes
as you learned epidemiology
(the science of disease in populations),
the night around our bed like timelessness,
like comfort, like what I would give to them.

IMG_6938These lines show the wisdom of purposefully looking beyond disease and suffering to affirm the gifts abounding around us—to notice what is perhaps commonplace in life, yet amazing: rain falling gently on hair, or joy lighting the eyes of a loved one in the discovery of something new. Campo draws our attention to the idea that wholeness doesn’t have to mean a perfectly attuned body and mind. Healing is a part of a bigger dynamic of how we relate to both the natural world and to those around us. Seeing our connection to the physical world, and delighting in relationships with those around us can enable us to move beyond isolated suffering, and into seeing ourselves as part of the greater whole. It is this “seeing” that makes us whole again, even in our incompleteness. This is the larger healing Campo wants to give. Strength to deal with the pain (and the etymology of “comfort” is to intensify strengthening) comes from finding a way to stay in love with life even amidst struggle and pain. When we let ourselves reconnect to an awareness of life’s enormous gift, we lose ourselves into timelessness. In the process, we find a larger self. Even in the midst of danger, we feel safe, so that even “the night around our bed,” whether a bed of illness leading to death, or the bed of simple sleep, is a place of “comfort.” We can be at home with what is.

All illnesses, discomforts, failures, and “falls,” are opportunities to practice reframing suffering and pain within a wider perspective. Suffering and pain can engender compassion and gratitude, but we have to cultivate those qualities. Some people at an early age are faced with challenges or disabilities requiring them to grapple with how to live with great hardship. To be at home with whatever life gives us is extremely difficult. This is a journey that requires practice, likely years of practice, perhaps a lifetime. When you are ill, you recognize what a gift it is to be well, to be able to walk, to see, to breathe. I lived in a city with air quality so poor that it’s rare to see a cloud or blue sky, as I did for nine years in Delhi, taping the front door each night to reduce the smell of smoke. To see a blue sky filled with clouds large as mountains, for me, is truly a wonder, not a commonplace fact. Practicing gratitude in times of ongoing suffering or pain enables us to recognize we are connected to something bigger than our grief and our pain, and allows us the opportunity to identify with others around the world who suffer too.

Thoreau, in his experiment in living simply at Walden Pond, said he “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I want to live deeply. When I work, I give myself to that work fully, but I must remind myself to guard my energy, and practice purposefully widening my view—attending my ear and heart to the possibilities that allow connections to the natural world to surface. I need to practice making room for both work and wonder. “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living,” writes the Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and like Heschel, I want to walk in wonder.

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