Looking Deeply: Art, Poetry, and Presence

Barry Lopez in his children’s book, Crow and Weasel, writes, “Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memories. This is how people care for themselves.”

Stories connect us to the people who came before us, the narratives they live out and the tales they tell us about what the world is, and who we are in the world. We live by the stories that have shaped and taught us. They give meaning to our experience and direct us in our journey. Stories condense experience, give us the opportunity to examine our difficulties, and to reflect on how our struggles might enable us to grow.

The oldest form of story is poetry. Before poems were ever written, they were told. People’s histories were given in poetry–words constructed to call up experiences through sound and imagery that evoked emotion and helped people remember who they were, what they had done, and why it was important. In listening to poetry, we can step inside a reflection of life that holds up a mirror, and at the same time speaks to something beyond what is experienced. It is a way to reconnect to what it means to be human and to the mystery of existence. As Dana Gioia writes, “In a moment’s pause another world / reveals itself behind the ordinary.” By extension, because poetry was once connected to other art forms, stories, music, and dance, these are doors we can open to that allows us to walk into a larger reality, to see the world from a wider perspective.

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The idea that the physical world intersects with the spiritual world is an ancient one, found in many traditions; the Celtic, Catholic, and Native American being a few examples of these. St. John Damascene, a Syrian monk who lived from c. 675 or 676 –to 749 CE, wrote a defense for the use of icons (see more here) that shaped the direction of the church. Though others at the time argued against the use of icons and representational art. God is bigger than any particular physical form, the thinking went, and therefore representation of God in icons should not be allowed. St. John of Damascene argued, however, that if God became human in the form of Christ, then two are intermingled. The sacred could be seen living and breathing through the human form, and therefore it was completely acceptable, he argued, to create icons, to worship through icons, and to paint the human form. In fact, art was a way for the illiterate to see God, Damascene explained, and to read the story of God’s compassion for and interest in humans through the paintings. Damascene demonstrated an acceptance of paradox, and the idea that one’s thinking doesn’t have to be contained in tight boxes of either or. William Dalrymple, in his book, From the Holy Mountain, quotes Damascene saying, “‘…the flower of painting makes me look, charms my eyes as does a flowering meadow and softly distils the glory of God in my soul.'” Through painting, as through nature, Damascene declares, God communicates his presence in the world, and art is a central way in which humans can experience and connect with the Divine.

imageThough Dalrymple describes the cave where St. John of Damascene wrote these thoughts in The Fount of Knowledge, as “crude and primitive,” he goes on to say that, “Without Damascene’s work, Byzantine ars sacra would never again have been permitted, Greek painters might never have been able to pass on their secrets to Giotto and the Siennese, and the course of the Renaissance, if it had happened at all, would have been very different.” I’m very grateful for Damascene’s words and thoughts regarding art. Without them, we’d likely be deprived of much beauty, and the spirit that speaks through that beauty.

In her poem, “Pray for Peace,” Ellen Bass speaks of this interconnection of the everyday world around us with the world of spirit.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.

Though a way of communicating half forgotten these days, Bass helps the reader to see that prayer can be any act we do with full attention and heart. When we pay attention to our lives, doing what we love presence, that is prayer–a breathing, walking prayer that adds meaning to our lives, and enables us to grow toward wholeness. Making a routine out of things saves energy and time, but even routines can be done with attention and heart. How do we cultivate the kind of noticing awareness in our every day lives, the ways of being that enable the act of living to become prayer?

Involvement in a creative act is a central way to connect the physical world with the inner world. Though there are a variety of art forms that can enable a person to live in fuller awareness of a connection to life’s mystery, writing is an excellent path from which to begin this journey. Whenever I leave the house, I carry imagemy journal, a small book that easily fits inside a pocket. I carry it because at any time something might appear, or someone might say something that needs to be noticed, and I want to be ready. My journal is my fishing line, so to speak. Though I may miss many things swimming in the world around me, because I’m prepared with pen and paper to notice something, I am more likely to find and catch something than if I had no tool at all to help me. Whatever I’m working on as a writer, I look and listen for moments that speak to me while moving through the day—a random phrase, a gesture, a sudden familiar scent that might embody the idea I’m reaching for in a writing piece I’m working on. I remain attentive to sounds, textures, colors, actions—the world’s details that define a place or time. As a result of knowing the questions I’m living with and what I’m looking for, things tend to show up and announce their connection like a kind of internal spark. Suddenly, as if witnessing the embodiment of a metaphor, I see, for example, how something I’m looking at or hear is related to something seemingly completely different. The discovery has a wonderful quality to it, and to then write it out is to be able to embody that insight. Sharing it with others deepens a sense of connection to the world.

Writers aim to name the world, and doing so is to participate in a kind of co-creation of life, at least this is how I experience what happens while writing, and it is one of the motivating reasons to write. To write is to observe closely, and to observe closely moves me to an awareness that I am part of a greater something beyond myself–that I swim in the mystery of existence. Writing is a path that allows me to enter a space where I’m both fully present in my life, and somehow not present at the same time as I step inside the weave of words. This is because I’m living inside of the thing I’m writing about, and what I’m writing about is bigger than me. As poet Nicholas Samaras explained to me once, writers are always writing, even when not writing. I agree with Samaras when he says, on Poetry Net, “God is in the point of my pen.” In losing myself in the work I am doing, I’m made more alive, full, and solid. It’s a paradox.

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Writing poetry can be a kind of prayer. My father wrote stories and poetry, but my mother taught me to pay attention to the world around me. She constantly noticed the natural world, flowers on the bank or scent of orange blossoms from the orchard, bees at the birdbath, a fox that came through the front yard, or hawks that circled above the hill behind us. The wind as it blew through the pines where she grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, was an ancient choir, she said. As she described the experience to me, I could hear the wind as if it were real. She recalled wild gooseberries’ tart flavor, and told me the names and shapes of wildflowers that grew on the land of her childhood home. Her descriptions lived in my mind as if they were real. Even though where I grew up in eastern San Diego county’s dry desert–very different from the Black Hills, I felt preciousness my mother’s memories of her childhood’s natural environment. Her respect for those experiences nurtured in me a love of my own childhood’s natural environment.

I played outside every day as a child, climbed around on granite boulders, or sat inside the branches of an avocado, umbrella or pepper tree. Our front door often stood open to the outside air. I ran through the yard barefoot, watched clouds parade by, and sunsets spill across the horizon. Coyotes’ yips echoed through the valley in the evening. Crickets sang. Stars came out. These were all gifts, and I belonged to that earth. The experience of growing up in such a place with the opportunity to experience the natural world as part of the rhythms of every day life created in me a foundation for wanting to remain connected to the earth. To have our feet on the earth, to literally ground our selves there, is life engendering. If deprived of such experiences, I think our bodies and spirits still long for them without possibly even knowing it.

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Poetry relies on imagery and figures of speech. It integrates the physical world with the world of language. It tells abstract ideas by recreating the physical world. It reconnects the writer and the reader back to place, and this is a central reason why I find it so powerful. In our world, the culture of the workplace pushes us to compete, to gain power and control. When writing poetry, however, I interactively participate in reconnecting to the physical world and the presence residing beneath and inside the movement of life. I trace my origin of wanting to write back to these childhood experiences of connection to the earth’s vibrant, sustaining presence. Willa Cather writes in My Antonia, “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” To be able to wander in time, to play in a landscape or place is to be transformed and enlarged by it. Writing poetry focuses the writer on presence, and in doing so, helps move the writer toward wholeness. I recommend it.

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