Worlds Inside of Words

“Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others: life is not time merely passing by, life is about interactions.” ~Pope Francis

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Market in Catania, Sicily

I’ve been working on writing and revising a manuscript I’ve titled A Space Between, a series of linked narrative poems about southern Italians immigrating to San Francisco at the turn of the previous century. I started this series of poems about four years ago, set them aside for a few years, and have recently returned to them. The writing began as a result of listening to Gabriel Faure’s Apres un Reve (“After a Dream”), sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India who played the cello beautifully. Because I like to write poems in response to music, I suggested he play a piece of music on the cello and I would write a poem to go with it. As I listened to Faure’s piece, I pictured Naples’ wide harbor as I had seen it at sunset on a trip to southern Italy–the sky a brilliant, burning orange with a single boat sailing off into the far horizon. The music embodied feelings of deep tenderness and loss—how I imagine it  felt when my husband’s grandparents left Calabria to sail for America at the turn of the previous century. To lose the ones you love is to lose a world. How enormous the feeling must have been for immigrants as the boat they sailed on pulled away from shore and they realized they might never again walk on the land that shaped them or see once more those they hold dear. This experience of departure is where my manuscript began.

The process of writing A Space Between has been simultaneously like looking through a telescope into a deep space of ever expanding worlds, as well as peering down into a microscope at the fascinating details inside one life, event or moment. After I’d written the first poem, I discovered I had many questions about the Italian immigrant experience, leading me to research for answers. A wide range of writers have helped me developed a sense of life in both Calabria, Italy, and San Francisco, California in the early decades of the last century. Bit by bit, the research expanded both my understanding and my questions, motivating me to write more poems. As I continued to research, read and write, I eventually realized that along with the immigrants who left their country and struggled toward making a life in a new place, I too was on a journey. Now, approximately ninety pages later, I’ve got a completed draft, though I realize there’s much more to understand. My questions and interest in immigrant stories continues.

A Space Between unfolds through a series of narrative poems told from different characters’ perspectives. In creating a world through story or poetry, as in a mosaic, writers, and readers, see how worlds are interconnected— the interior life of characters with the physical world and with the social setting. In creating a narrative, you create a world. Language is a central mode of finding and making meaning. I feel deeply grateful for how writing the story in poems has changed me, not only because of what I learned through what I read, but also for the way the act of writing brings me deeper into the heart of humanity and the worlds we share.

Stories occur in a setting that shapes the narrative. In addition to the physical geography of a location, place is also created by how we name the world we are a part of, and how we use language to talk and write about it. Place is an integration of experience, imagination, thinking, emotion, and the words we give our experience about a place. Employing your imagination to write a story or a narrative poem moves a writer beyond the facts into a felt experience. Through the process of writing, I see ever more clearly how intricately interrelated events and lives are–how worlds live inside of worlds, touching each other in deep and powerful ways, affecting all that comes after. That changes how you think, feel, and respond to the world around you.

We don’t have to be a writer, however, to sense the power of our words. We might begin simply by telling our memories to a friend or child. It’s good to tell our stories as well as to say yes to listening to others’ stories in order to enter into their worlds. I knew little about the Italian American experience of those who came to San Francisco before I began the journey of trying to their stories in poems. Their history wasn’t taught at schools I attended as a child or found in textbooks; neither was it a shared family story. By trying to learn the stories of that era and finding the words that might bring them alive, whole new worlds have opened to me–including having a better understanding of what it might be like for those in our own era whose worlds have fallen apart causing them to leave their homes and all they’ve known to enter strange worlds with hopes for a better life.

In his poem, “Love is a Place,” E. E. Cummings explains this interconnectivity.

Love is a Place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds

Love is the ground we walk on, the atmosphere we breathe, the space we move in. Love is the place we all want to live in. We might read a lot about a subject, travel the world looking at facts and scenes from the windows of our own experience, curious about ways of being that puzzle us. When we enter the arms of one we know loves us, though, we intuitively feel we belong. To say yes to love is to say yes to a deeper place of knowing and belonging. As Pope Francis says, “life is about interactions.” To say yes to love is to recognize relationship is a life source. We sense we’re home. Humans are meant for relationship. Relationships with others, with ourselves, and with the natural world help us find our purpose and express what we find meaningful.

We have the ability to create worlds and places of love with our words. Words are a kind of magic, and are powerful in their ability to heal or to harm. Writers think carefully about what words make the world they want their readers to experience. Similarly, in making a place of love in our lives, we want to be aware of choosing words that evoke the world we want to live in with those around us. The recently reported news story of how two Lebanese twin brothers, Mohamed and Omar Kabbani, created a project called “Operation Salam” is an illustration of this idea of the power of words. Selecting a neighborhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, a previous war zone during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, the brothers painted rooftops a bright lime green so that from above, the word salam, or peace, could be read. The project brought the neighborhood together, as approximately 50 people worked to find places in the neighborhood where the brothers could carry out their painting project. “…The people from both sides want to live peacefully,” explained Mohamed. This single word, salam, literally proclaims from the rooftops this Lebanese neighborhood’s desire for peace. Interestingly, by saying “yes” to their roofs being painted, a larger world of “yes” took place—a kind of healing and making of a world they want to live in. Through the physical embodiment of the word as well as neighbors cooperating with each other where previously sectarian violence had occurred, the artists, with this single word, moved people once enemies further toward living peacefully.

To write about something is to enter a door inviting us into a deeper relationship with our subject and the possibility of falling in love with it. When we are in relationship with someone or something, we are listening for what the other is communicating so we can respond. Several times now, I’ve thought I was finished the manuscript of poems about Calabrian immigrants to San Francisco, but then I learn something more about the immigrant experience or Italians in America, and I want to reconsider what I previously said or thought. Keep listening, the story seems to tell me; there’s more to understand. Around us everywhere are worlds that beckon for us to listen. Inside of words, entire worlds exist. Stories, even a single word we share with another, can open a space for understanding and connection, and writing is a way to enter into a place of love.

 

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Living Large

Amiee Bender’s story, “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” opens with a doctor visiting a rabbi who explains an Hassidic tale describing how at the end of your life you will have to apologize for how you didn’t live. The rabbi character in the story explains, ‘“Not for the usual sins,” she said. “For the sin of living small.”’ There are so many things in life to make one fearful of living large. To open your heart to the world, to become deeper or wider–or depending on your personality or circumstances–humbler and meeker, is risky, difficult, and just plain challenging. So, where does renewal come from? How does one transform?

In a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, I visited the Museo de Oro, the Gold Museum. This museum holds the largest pre-Hispanic gold collection in the world. While there, I noticed how the subject of transformation frequently recurred on the exhibit descriptions. People in the ancient world of the pre-Columbian Amerindians purposefully sought after transformation, and their art in the Museo de Oro clearly demonstrated this interest. Containers were thought to be like the female gender–they held things that could transform and gain life. The ashes of the dead were placed in urns the shape of pregnant women’s bodies as if waiting for rebirth. Furnaces and crucibles, too, were seen as a kind of uterus. Potters decorated fish-shaped objects with lizards as a way to bring together the worlds of water and land. Insects, and amphibians that changed forms, such as frogs or the butterfly chrysalis, were also common in Pre-Columbian art work. Interestingly, the culture’s  connection and observation of transformation in the natural world led them to use these these observations and objects as embodied metaphors to heightened people’s consciousness and understanding.

For Amerindian populations, the physical world of plants, animals, and even minerals, intermingled with the spiritual world and were seen as holding important connections with humans. Goldsmiths, for example, were believed to have powers like a demigod because through their work and their use of fire, they transformed earthen material. Additionally, the chief  was believed to be able to transform into an animal when he used specific clothes and objects for religious ceremonies to make him look like an animal revered for its power, the jaguar. Also, because of their reflective qualities, shiny objects such as mirrors, metals, and stones like obsidian and quartz, were thought to be able to communicate with the spiritual world. Metallic plates with their glinting lights and sound they were able to give off were thought to bring people closer to the gods, and priests used them in religious ceremonies. There was an awareness that we need renewal in order to become more whole.

Seeing ourselves as connected to the physical world is not only good practice for ancient people, however, it’s  good for us today as well. In Richard Schiffman’s 1997 interview with Father Thomas Berry at the Riverdale Center of Religious Research, Berry states, “We bear the universe in our beings,” Berry reflected, “as the universe bears us in its being.” Something in our culture is awry, however, as Schiffman goes on to say, “We’d as soon cut down our most beautiful tree, the most beautiful forest in the world. We cut it down for what? For timber, for board feet. We don’t see the tree, we only see it in terms of its commercial value.” Schiffman describes how “Scientific research has too frequently become the willing handmaiden of what Berry called “the extractive economy,” an economic system that treats our fellow creatures as objects to be exploited rather than as living beings with their own awareness and rights. Moreover, technology, in Berry’s view, potentially separates us from intimacy with life. We flee into “cyberspace” — spending more time on smart phones, iPods and video games than communing with the real world.” Rather than a world alive with spirit, this is a world where objects are separate and alienated from the world around them.

The poet, David Whyte, in his poem, “Everything is Waiting for You,” addresses the alienating effects of living in a culture where the physical world is seen mainly for its utilitarian value. Whyte begins the poem by saying, “Your great mistake is to act the drama/as if you were alone.” Several lines later, Whyte moves on to describe everyday physical objects of our lives in our own day, and how they are more than mere objects. If we allow them to, they can bring us out of ourselves and sense our connection to the larger world.  “To feel abandoned,” writes Whyte, “is to deny/ the intimacy of your surroundings.” To feel alive, he suggests, is to feel the world not as objects but to see the shine in them, the magic beneath the surface, so to speak, and our connection to it. The world is waiting, Whyte suggests, for us to be present and to respond to it as a presence, and realizing this can change our world.

…Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.

The things around us have a commonplace function but they are also a way to enter into other ways of being. In other words, Whyte suggests,  if we look deeply, we can notice how these things in our every day lives carry a story reflecting a deeper life. The object such as the soap dish holds for us the means to clean ourselves. Windows enable us to open our lives to an outside breeze. In their way, if we have the eyes to see it, these objects are a means for transformation, as well as a kind of blessing–a kind of modern form of the preColombians’s ability to see their connection to the world around them to help them transform their lives.

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A few lines later in the poem, Whyte explains how “the doors have always been there/ to frighten you and invite you,” implying to experience the world differently Doors have often been used metaphorically in literature to represent opportunity, and opportunity can frighten us, as well as expand us. Nevertheless, the possibility is available to us to see the whole world as our alibi in this grand experiment in living. Like the shamans and priests of ancient Colombia, we, too, can allow the physical world to transform us when we open ourselves to the possibility of seeing it as a reflection of something beyond its particular form. For Whyte, this begins with opening yourself to communication with the world–relating to it as if it were less an object but a person. “Put down your aloneness and ease into the/conversation…the cooking pots/ have left their arrogant aloofness and/ seen the good in you at last.”

So often recently, I’ve heard people tell me how they feel anxious or how people they know feel anxious. Certainly, there is enough in the daily news or family events to create anxiety, but what if we took up Whyte’s idea and instead, practiced allowing ourselves to see the world, including the physical world as actually longing to have a conversation with us. Could that allow us to be more fully human–enable us to see that we can become more completely at home with ourselves, to see our own goodness and to nurture it?

Because of my interest in trees and in learning to draw them, someone recently sent me a link to a site explaining how by spending time with trees you can receive healing. The method described for this was to begin by selecting a tree, and then to frequently spend time with your chosen tree–standing or sitting near it, to touch the tree, meditating under it, and simply to approach it with a sense of love and openness. To do these things would allow a person to see and understand a tree in a new way and to enter into a kind of conversation with it. Similarly, sitting or standing before a tree–spending time with a tree, opening yourself to it as a presence rather than an object could allow us to see like an artist sees, and to experience the tree in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. While drawing a tree, an artist’s aim is more than to duplicate the tree’s exact form. Instead, the artist works to express the personality, presence, or what could be called spirit of the subject, as this is what moves the viewer to experience the subject more fully or to see it in a new way. What we spend time doing repeatedly reinforces our own thinking and ways of being, and in the end, these behaviors transform us. If we can learn to see the life inside a tree, perhaps we can transform ourselves enough to learn it is possible to experience the presence with all of what and who is around us. To live in this way would be to live in a truly transformed world.

As Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson suggests, the motivation to care for and protect other living things helps enable the survival of life as a whole on our planet. “Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth,” Wilson asserts in the 2006 Harvard Gazette, “and they should come together to save the Creation.”’ As Schiffman says in his article, ” We Need to Relearn That We’re a Part of Nature, Not Separate From It,” on the Moyer’s site, both Wilson and Berry show “we need a story that cuts across traditional boundaries between fields to present a new, integral vision.”

Whyte closes his poem poem by saying,

..All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

To be transformed, the poem suggests, is to become nothing other than more of the fullness of our own selves–the shifting a tadpole takes as it turns into a frog or a caterpillar into a butterfly, to use the metaphors of the pre-Colombians. This is a wonderful poem to start the year with. The world is waiting for each one of us, opening its arms to us in invitation. Be it stone or water, trees or a teapot, may we all awaken to the life that waits inside every living thing by beginning with one living thing we turn to regularly with the eyes of openness and love.

 

 

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Loss and Transformation

The winter solstice is only a few days away now, the shortest day in the year. Perhaps I should be thinking about joy, as this is the Christmas season when much of the world decorates with lights and gives gifts to each other but I’ve been thinking about the thin, winter places of life, where we have less time in the light–what it’s like living in that place where you don’t know when or if the light will be coming. Maybe joy and loss aren’t always separate things.

Currently, I am reading Beloved On the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude, edited by Jim Perlman, Deborah Cooper, Mara Hari, and Pamela Mittlefehldt. In this volume you will find Kenneth Salzmann’s poem, “Musaf: Additional Prayer,”  a poem exploring a world where loss and loneliness are well known. The poem begins,

Praised be the one
I have lived contentedly without;
who reveals the Berkshires today
are an unexpected house of prayer
and sorrow, as just one green month
rises to repair a broken circle; whose
search for me is unfulfilled
and perhaps not ended.

The Berkshires are a rural tree-filled hilly and scenic area in Massachusetts. In Salzmann’s poem, they are a place of meditation, one he hadn’t counted on as he has lived without the one who is searching for him. Because the hills are referred to as a house of prayer, though who the “one” is isn’t named, it could be suggested that it’s the speaker of the poem’s father, or possibly even God, that’s searching for him, a search that has gone on for some time, and isn’t quite over yet.

In the first stanza, the writer mentions the sorrow present in this place he is walking. In the stanza that follows, Salzmann describes a kind of paradox, where the loss and sorrow also carry with them a kind of wonder and beauty,

“Blessed is eternal loss and glory, wonder of the universe,
splash of color slipping from a winter-weary wood
that I have often walked alone;

Though the poem’s speaker seems to have traveled a far distance from the one who is searching for him, he finds himself becoming whole again, reconnected with himself and the world around him, “the world finds a voice/ and whispers Shema;” he writes. Shema is the beginning word of the Jewish prayer said in the morning and evening, “Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.” In English this reads, “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Like perfume left in a room after someone has just left, though the writer describes loss, he also leaves us with a sense of a presence that isn’t wholly nameable.

Unending Adonai, help us to go on imagining
that, wherever we go, we have only missed you
by a moment; allow us our untenable conviction
that we might become a blessing.

Though loss is present, though we have missed the blessing of a presence we longed for, we can ourselves become the blessing. We can give to others what it was we so wanted to be given. Salzmann suggests that we receive what we need by giving it away ourselves.

The green moth that in the first stanza repairs the broken circle is a small, fragile and temporal being, yet in the poem it is this moth that makes things new. “Blessed Father, command us to be free,” states the final line, and it surprises. The poem’s speaker asks to be told to free himself. Why would the poem’s speaker ask to be commanded to be free? The joining of wills, however, can give us the strength to change directions, to start anew–to transform.

Like the poem’s speaker, we may not know we are setting out on a journey of transformation as we walk out into the woods–into a place where things are not laid out in straight lines as on a well worn city street, roads we are overly familiar with, or as we travel back, possibly, to a place of origin. When we’re at a loss for where to go, when we’re sad, perhaps it’s a good idea to interrupt that way of thinking and to take a walk. As in Salzmann’s poem, insight can come unexpectedly in the form of single green moth leading us unintentionally to a new insight or discovery. Problems might be less fixed and the worlds we live in more permeable than they appear to be.

“If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.”

from Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Keep Quiet”

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Beyond Fear Into a Larger World

In her poem, “The Best of It,” Kate Ryan, describes how it feels to have continued loss, to be reduced to be so little considered that you have next to nothing.

THE BEST OF IT

However carved up
or pared down we get,
we keep on making
the best of it as though
it doesn’t matter that
our acre’s down to
a square foot. As
though our garden
could be one bean
and we’d rejoice if
it flourishes, as
though one bean
could nourish us.

In some cultures, people choose to become monks who own virtually nothing. They have begging bowls and their clothing, and that’s about it. They depend on people around them to give them food. This helps the monks practice gratitude and to control their wants and desires, and it helps other people to practice giving and hospitality. The work monks do can encourage us on our life path. Most of us, however, aren’t monks who have chosen to take the vow of poverty. We work hard to make a space we can live in so we can provide ourselves with food, clothing, and other necessities. There comes a point when making the best of it really isn’t enough. People want to do more than merely exist–need more than just their one bean.

Circumstances can arise that make it so getting these things aren’t possible or are at least very difficult to obtain. If we’re poor, it’s rarely by choice. We need the diversity that entire gardens possess. In a flourishing society, the social structure supports people in developing their abilities and provides varied and abundant opportunities for them to contribute to the community. If someone literally doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from or is struggling with severe pain or loss of bodily function resulting from a terminal disease or other such loss, what enables a person to go on, and how do people cope with their fear and anxiety during such situations?

Recently, I’ve been researching about Italians immigrants living in San Francisco during World War II for poems I’m writing. During this time period, the US government labeled 600,000 American-Italians as “enemy aliens” resulting from Executive Order 9066, an act that held numerous consequences for Italian-American immigrants.

During WWII, Italian-Americans had to carry a booklet identifying them as an enemy alien and have it stamped once a week. They weren’t allowed to travel more than five miles from home, had to stay in their homes between 8:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., and were required to turn over radios, flashlights and cameras to government authorities. Approximately another 10,000 Italians living in prohibited zones near coasts were forced to move (sources vary, as the Smithsonian, states it was 50,000). Many people lost their jobs, some because their place of employment was further than the five miles from their house they were allowed to travel. 1,400 Italian fishermen in San Francisco weren’t allowed to fish. Three hundred Italian-Americans (some sources say more) were put in internment camps. Certainly, these changes and losses caused the Italian-American community anxiety and fear regarding their livelihoods, the safety and well-being of their family members, as well as serious questions regarding how their future would be affected.

In the fall of 1942, Roosevelt lifted the enemy alien status but Executive Order 9066 remained on the books until 1976 when President Gerald Ford removed it.

Fear in the American society at large was a significant motivating factor behind the government’s choice to remove civil liberties from Italian-Americans, as well as from the Japanese and Germans. When the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, saw the internment camps, she spoke out against them. “We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” Her voice didn’t cause the camps to close, however. The families in these camps continued living with their difficult situation.

Italian-American immigrants faced significant injustices, as have many others world-wide throughout history, as well as currently. Life can change quickly and profoundly when you are suddenly seen as no longer acceptable. It’s easy to see how difficult life could be in such circumstances and to imagine how easy it could be to live in a state of fear, anger and resentment when facing such a cyclone of events you couldn’t anticipate and had no control over. 

We don’t know our futures. We want to be ready to face our fears and the storms that come our way. In his poem, “Snowfall in the Afternoon,” Robert Bly clearly depicts what it’s like when confronted with an unavoidable fearful situation– in this instance, a rising storm. “It was the sort of snowfall that starts in the late afternoon,” he writes, “And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.” Like anxiety and fear, the storm grows, picking up strength, feeding on its own furry as it continues, until the very home one lives in seems to be made of grass–vulnerable to gale force winds.

Yet beneath the surface, forces not attended to had been somehow present all along. Bly writes, “A darkness was always there which we never noticed.”  The poem goes on, explaining how watching from inside the house, the cornfields seem to shrink. Then, like some wayward galley holding a great weight of grain, the barn’s bulk moves threateningly closer, about to crash into the house where “All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.” Whether blinded or aware, the viewer is left in an alarming situation. This is how we feel sometimes when confronting unavoidable situations–waiting for a hurricane or fire that might engulf our house and ruin our entire livelihood and future. How do we cope with extreme difficulties that can’t be avoided–when we don’t know how long anything around us will last, if our efforts will make any difference, and when we’re alone in our vulnerable house made of grass about to be plowed down by something we see coming and yet are unable to do much about?

Because the darkness was there all along but simply not previously noticed, we can see a possible way to begin to understand what we fear and what we might do about it: look around. Notice where darkness is growing and storms might be brewing. Practice acknowledging the presence of fear–look at the fear and purposefully be present with it in our thoughts. Rather than rushing past our fears, covering them over with restless activity or hiding them, simply practice noticing when the fear as it arises, observe it, be curious about it—what brings it up, how it feels in the body, what it’s telling or teaching us.

When we see a storm coming toward us, typical responses are to run, to hide, fight, or even to find ways to cooperate with the storm or move with it. A significant portion of Italian-Americans during WWII, for example, kept a low profile. Parents during that generation chose not to teach their children Italian. It was considered “the language of the enemy” and they didn’t want their children to stand out. Italians also enlisted in the army and went to war as a way to demonstrate their loyalty.

Like stony mountains, difficult things don’t necessarily go away. We have to learn to live with our emotions in spite of their presence. There are other ways to respond to difficult situations, and we can teach ourselves how to think, act and feel differently in response.

Imagination is a powerful tool. We can imagine various situations we’re afraid of and practice letting go of the fear—visualizing a different way of responding. Collette Lafia, in her article on the Gratefulness.org site, describes a practice where you sit quietly with a bowl, imagining filling it with your sorrow, grief, anger, exhaustion–whatever your wound. You don’t try and fix it, you just put it in the container and with humility hold it out to the Infinite for healing. I can see how this is a way of gaining a larger perspective and how it would help instill an understanding that the working out the problem that creates the fear isn’t about will and control. By placing the fear (or other strong emotion) in a larger context we can gain a kind of freedom from the thought patterns that bind us related to our fears and see how resolving an issue or dealing with fear is part of a larger interaction.

Pema Chödrön in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty, writes, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Difficult situations can be complex and we might not readily know by ourselves what it is we need in order to resolve our fears. Maybe we can begin elsewhere, however, and simply probe the emotion without having to think it must be resolved or that we have to come to conclusions about it. Living the question until we live into the answer might be the more appropriate thing to do, as the poet Rilke suggested.

So that we move out of our own tightness and fear–our tendency to cling and be anxious–we might also shift our gaze, aiming to familiarize ourselves with others and their pain. We can imagine ourselves taking in someone else’s pain, and send them light and energy. Pema Chodron describes specific steps for how we might do this in a practice called tonglen. The specific purpose of this practice is to expand our capacity for compassion. Instead of treating people perfunctorily, as someone who performs a task, we can begin consciously practicing to enhance relationships with those around us. This could be just a thought we think when we see someone pass by us who seems different from ourselves in dress or perspective. We might in our minds wish them well, to be released from pain or to find fulfillment. Fear, anger, resentment–these can trap us, make our lives miserable but we can live alongside these emotions, observing and putting them into a wider, different context, or turn from them toward something different. Learning to love ourselves, we learn how to love our neighbors. We can open our arms, and nurture our hearts into a larger world.

We all want to live a life where we feel valued. Recognizing how the well-being of our own life is interconnected to the dignity of all people is foundational to moving beyond fear into a larger world where we can live with greater freedom and attain more of our full potential. After World War II in 1948, representatives from countries and cultures throughout the world put together The Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the goal of protecting people from “barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The declaration was put in place in recognition that people shouldn’t have to be pushed into “rebellion against tyranny and oppression.” Neither should people have to hide, run away, or deny their language, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other fundamental aspects of their personhood just so they might continue living. All people need dignity and should be able to thrive in living condition free from fear. Article 1 of the Human Rights Declaration states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Practicing in our lives each day how to move beyond our own fears, we can begin to integrate into our lives how we might respond to fears in others’, and perhaps see how to respect and protect their freedom. As John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition: there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”

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Practicing Presence

 

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”Frederick Buechner 

In the work I did for three decades, I lived with strict schedules. Nearly every minute counted, and clear goals for each hour, even portions of the hour, seemed necessary. This year I’m choosing to live differently. Thoreau went to the woods to live simply and deliberately. I’m beginning a new life in California as of this summer, and in my experiment in living, I want to focus on living with presence. I have goals–to learn to draw, play the clarinet, learn Spanish, to write poetry, among other goals. More than achieving all my goals, though, I want to open to a place of being. I want to listen to the land I live on, inhabit it physically and mentally–to take in the subtle changes as the seasons shift–the light, the color, the sounds, nurturing the awareness of its presence. I want to every day consciously notice life for the miracle it is.

As I walk across the land where I live, I notice many things that need tending to–the poison oak that’s growing up on the path, the oak trees that need trimming, how last year’s rainstorms have washed away soil on the bank. After being gone for some time, as I have been, there are numerous things I need and want to do. Perhaps these things don’t matter much in the big picture of the universe. Keeping the poison oak at bay, for example, isn’t going to influence what happens in India, though it will make it easier for me to walk around. The bigger lesson in caring for the trees, pulling out weeds, watering, and the various other things people do to their living space when living in a rural area, is understanding how living on the land involves an interconnection and a relationship. As I give to the land and care for it, it cares for me. If I avoid behaviors that cause erosion, for example, it benefits me and benefits the earth I live on as well. Tree roots don’t get undermined causing the tree to fall over. I used to not want to cut the herbs growing in front of my house, better to let them continue on their natural life, I thought. Over time, though, I’ve learned, that most herbs actually like to be cut back. They grow better as a result. The plants have taught me things about themselves.

Learning what the land you live on wants, what it needs, and how to give it that care takes time. Currently, I’m reading about what grows best in specific areas, what gophers and deer don’t like to eat. I’m also learning by getting out and walking around each day to see how things are doing. Doing the walk is a kind of observation ritual so I can better understand the organic processes of the land and my life in connection to it. Though it may be someone’s job to care for the community’s garden or shared landscape, living in an urban landscape requires similar attention. As in human relationships, the land we live on and use needs us to understand the effect our behavior has on it, if we are to live in good relationship with it, if we want a meaningful relationship.

 

Similar to learning how to have a relationship with the land I live on, learning to draw or to write require an attending to an inner awareness of what is trying to come forth. When drawing, as well as when writing, you heighten your attention to details, as the details develop the picture of what you’re focusing on. They enable you to see more fully–not just the object, but its presence and the meaning of its presence. This requires time to not be measured in minutes or in reaching a predetermined goal. Instead, we allow ourselves depth. We explore our connection to time–allow ourselves to move without measurement. Instead of skimming across the surface, we fully inhabit our actions, our thinking, our being. The German poet, Rilke, wrote about the artist’s connection to the creative act in Letters to a Young Poet  “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!” It takes time to know who you are as an artist. You have to listen to your life, to what it’s trying to tell you. The message is usually subtle and complex, and takes practice. You don’t have to be a visual artist or writer to be creative. Living is itself a creative act. We have visions of what we want to create in ourselves, and we can be patient with ourselves in the act of making our life something meaningful and with beautiful character.

Observing the world enhances our ability to listen to life and to experience it more fully. This past May, while hiking around in the UK’s Lake District, I looked up from the river’s edge where I was standing to see a leaf backlit by the sun. Its vibrant color and intricate texture stunned me. All the leaf’s veins stood out as if I was looking under a microscope. If color could shout, this leaf would certainly have been deafening. The more I keep my eyes open, the more I notice the infinite variety of colors, textures and shapes. The world comes alive, and I feel more alive as a result.

 

Often, I photograph textural details in the world around me. I carry my camera and my journal with me most places. I never know what amazing thing I might see. Holding a camera or a pen are but ways of paying attention, of nurturing a relationship to yourself and to the world. I don’t know what the various images of texture I’m collecting will add up to, the thoughts that will surface as a result. They may be nothing significant in themselves. The photo itself is not the goal. They are but a way of seeing, a pathway. As Shelley Berc, co-director of the Creativity Workshop in her article “How Fear Chokes Creativity and What to Do About It” writes, “We find wonder and beauty, new ideas and images everywhere when we allow our senses to experience each moment fully. When we shut down our perceptiveness and our sensitivity and only look to the finish line, our creativity has no access to the very elements that make it enriching and deep.” When I open the door to my house in the evening to sit on the steps, crickets croon and wind rustles the trees. Leaves fall like rain. There is an energy astir. The earth is full of wonder and alive with a kind of music in the interplay of all that is. We are more than our occupations, lists of accomplishments and goals, more than the muscle and bone of our bodies. Taking the photos or writing in a journal are mainly ways to enter a door into another way of being–one that is more awake, aware.

In his Book of Hours, Love Poems to God, Rilke, writes, “If we surrendered/ to earth’s intelligence/ we could rise up rooted, like trees.” There is a wisdom in the earth that can only be understood as we allow ourselves to absorb its sounds, its rhythms and textures, colors, as we develop an intimacy with it, enter into companionship with it. Trees have roots but they also bend and move, provide a place for birds to roost, food, shade for other plants to grow and for humans to enjoy. They offer beauty. There is more to trees, and the natural world they are a part of than merely the things they provide, however. The earth isn’t just a backdrop to human existence. It is our foundation. Perhaps recording what I see is a way to develop a different kind intelligence–one of deeper roots to all that sustains not just myself, but all of us.

The wind has blown in gusts all day. The light is soft gold. When I stood beside the redwoods this afternoon, I heard them groan. Every world region has a different textures that are its own. The natural world is alive with presence. Walking in a forest, desert, beach, grassland, mountain, city park, or simply looking up into the sky and noticing it, listening to it, and then drawing or writing, photographing, or simply talking about what you are aware of draws us into the mystery of existence. Certainly, that’s worth experiencing deeply.

 

 

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Time With Trees

tree at Hampstead Heath, London, UK

“We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”-John Berger

Trees have been important to humans throughout time. The Atlantic points out evidence to demonstrate a connection between the health of trees and our human health. In countries of Turkish and Arab origin, trees are a symbol of life, and tree of life motifs are woven into carpets from the region. People plant trees to commemorate a baby’s birth, and sometimes when a pet dies a tree is planted where the animal was buried. The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, and the Bible tells the story of the Tree of Knowledge. In Japanese culture, the plum tree’s blossoms represent life’s beautiful yet fragile quality. These are but a few of people’s interconnections with trees. (The American Forest organization gives many further interesting insights about humans’ relationship to trees.)

Lately, I’ve been spending time with trees. Though I’ve loved trees since childhood when I climbed and played in the pepper and umbrella trees in my family’s backyard, I’ve developed a further interest in trees as a result of my recent endeavor to learn to draw. Drawing is a way of knowing. You look closely at what you’re drawing. You study what you observe in order to draw, and what you’re studying has a way of becoming part of you. You gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your subject. Families are connected to the idea of trees, and for my family reunion this summer I thought I would draw each family member their favorite tree. This way I could practice drawing, and get to know something new about my family, as well as give something to them. I’d also gain new insight about trees.

I set out on my endeavor. As I drew, I realized more clearly how trees each have their own unique architecture and character. Drawing them is a bit like getting to know a person. As you get more familiar with someone, their unique personality emerges. It’s similar with trees. It takes a lot of patience to draw–patience with yourself and your learning process. I want to draw better than I am able. As a beginner, it’s difficult to see well enough to draw the spirit inside of anything–which is what I want to do–to interact with the unique feeling or character of what I’m drawing and reveal it–but this is next to impossible because I’m still trying to develop the skill of how to put the lines on the page. It’s an amazing notice, however, when what I’ve made looks something like what I intended and others can recognize it! That’s motivation to continue the effort going.

After completing the drawings (a few of which are shown below), I interviewed each family member to learn more of the story behind why they chose their particular tree as their favorite. Reflecting on what I heard during these interviews, I noticed the strength and energy behind people’s attachment to their chosen tree, and decided to write a poem about each person’s tree, using some of the details told me during the interviews.

To do this, I had to imaginatively enter into the landscape where the tree grows, and envision both the tree and the meaning it holds for the person. I had familiarity with everyone’s chosen tree, but in aiming to write about the pine-filled hills of Tennessee, I was confronted with the fact that I knew little specifically about Tennessee pines. Though I’ve lived in more than one region of the US and have travelled to different states, it is not the same as living in a particular place and knowing it in its subtle moods and aspects. We connect with the land around us both physically and imaginatively. We know something by reading about it and studying it, but also by being present with it over time. This is what makes landscape or a tree personal–we interact with it and come to know it. Knowing pines in locations other than Tennessee, as well as reading about the landscape, and recalling novels and films that took place in that part of the US, helped me to imagine the pines of Tennessee so I could write about them. In this way, a world that was not my own could became part of my own experience.

After drawing and writing about trees, I decided to familiarize myself further with the heritage trees near where I live, and took a hike to the Byrne-Milliron forest. Santa Cruz County is home to some of the oldest redwood forests in the world, and the Byrne-Milliron forest contains one of oldest redwood trees in California, the Great White Redwood. The tree is 25o feet tall and a 1,000 years old. Though the tree is a redwood, its bark has a silvery white appearance. In spite of  the heat, I wanted to encounter the tree, to stand in its presence and observe how that felt, so with my water bottle in hand, I set out.

The Byrne-Milliron forest lacks a high volume of visitors, so when walking through the area, other than leaves crunching under my feet, a dense quietness filled the air. Dodging poison oak along the way, and guessing a bit at which way to go, I followed a path as it wound up a hill offering an overview of the Pajaro Valley, then dipped into gullies rich with shade before narrowing into more or less the width of my feet as I approached the tree.

Standing at last in the small clearing at the foot of the great tree, I gazed up its long, near endless height. The forest was so deeply still but for the butterflies moving in a gap high up in the redwood’s branches where sunlight fell through. The journey to find the tree had been a kind of pilgrimage, and I sat in silence before the tree for some time. Even with the tree’s top obscured by leaves from its branches, the tree’s solidity and immensity moved and overwhelmed me.

Great White Redwood, Byrne-Milliron forest, Santa Cruz, CA

Along the hike, I had seen a number of large redwood stumps where virgin growth trees had been cut at the turn of the last century. Previous to this, for a hundred years short of a thousand years, this tree and the forest itself had stood silent with only the hum of flies and the random call of a bird, rain patter, and perhaps some occasional thunder. Eons of of silence. Stillness. That’s what the forest held and the trees knew–an astonishing reality.

As I didn’t see other trees in the forest approaching the size of the Great White Redwood, it appears to be the one uncut virgin growth tree remaining. I imagined what it must have been like to enter this forest two hundred years ago where all the trees were this enormous, this ancient. Humans have done much to shape and alter the earth. Numerous pieces of human architecture have moved me–the Golden Gate Bridge, the Taj Majal, the Sagrada Familia, to name a few. Standing before an ancient tree is different. A tree is alive. Before this ancient living presence, I felt full of wordless awe. A large, solid slice of wood shaped like a plaque sits before the Great White redwood in the Byrne-Milliron forest, a commemoration of the tree, it seems, though the plaque contains no words. That emptiness seems worth noting.

Banyan, Monreale cloister, Sicily

People have altered and shaped the earth since the beginning but the land also shapes us. Our experience with geography and landscapes is an exchange–the land brings us its scents, colors, textures, lighting, and seasonal changes, but we also bring something to it with our specific interests, questions, perceptions, skills, and imagination. What is the affect on our lives of loving and caring for particular landscapes or specific aspects of nature such as trees? The nature writer and naturalist, Barry Lopez, in his Education Week Teacher essay, “Losing Our Sense of Place” writes, “The intense pressure of imagery in America, and the manipulation of images necessary to a society with specific goals, means the land will inevitably be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image will, one way or another, be silenced or discredited by those in power.” Getting to know the land we live on, getting to know the trees and plants around us through drawing them, writing about them, or simply walking among them is a way to move beyond the idea that the earth is merely another commodity. These practices honor the land’s presence and our shared connection to the natural world. They help toward creating greater balance between being and the effort to possess, to attain.

How well do we know the place we live? How do we stand in relationship to it? As I draw trees, I grow more aware of their complexity. I thought I knew what a tree was, but when looking closely over an extended period of time, as is necessary when drawing a tree, I notice how there’s so much mystery inside a tree as well, so much I don’t understand.  Hikmet Nazim, in his poem, “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” writes, “I didn’t know I loved the earth/ can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it.” Our lives are linked with trees. They are important to our physical and emotional health. We may not work the earth but we can nurture our love for it. It’s worth our time to read and learn about the land we live on–the land we love. It’s worth taking time to visit the natural world, to develop a relationship with the geography we are a part of, to grow close with the land we love and with the trees they hold. They are an important part of what makes us who we are.

tree at Hampton Court, UK

 

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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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