In Ordinary Time

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Laundry drying

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

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

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

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Stiperstones, UK

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

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

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

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Apple at Fenton House, Hampstead Heath, UK

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Falling Into Wonder

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

—Lucille Clifton, “Praise Song,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being Brought Low

IMG_8865Living in India for nine years, you see difficult things—sights and experiences there are few words to adequately describe, that must be experienced to be grasped, and even then, can barely be comprehended. When you see the multitudes of families who’ve lived on the streets for their entire lives, breathing in street fumes and traffic, you understand how it is that India has the highest rate of death from respiratory illnesses of anywhere in the world, and why it is children who lack food, education and opportunity beg at street corners. People maim themselves in order to make more money begging. One quarter of India’s population has no access to water. In developed countries, toilets require water. In India, the majority have no toilet. According to Bloomberg’s website, 638 million people defecate in the open, a habit that creates serious health concerns and adds to the continued grime and stench people live in. Most of us prefer to live in a world where we feel safe and have at least a modicum of control over what happens to us. In India, millions don’t often have that choice. How can such disparity continue decade after decade? The German poet, Rilke, writes,

You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.

Those standing in the circle of wealth fence in the world with safety and warmth. We use our wealth and opportunity to make plans, create dreams, and carry them out. Perhaps you’ve read stories like Elie Weisel’s Night, depicting the experiences of those who suffered in concentration camps in WWII. If you’re like most people, you don’t want to suffer. Myths, stories, sacred texts, and the seasons themselves tell us that loss comes before renewal. Nevertheless, at some point—through illness, loss, through confrontation with old age or death, we’ll all be brought low.

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Before moving to India, though I recognized I had a lot to learn, I thought of myself as a basically good person. I aimed to live conscientiously—to be kind and fair. I tried to avoid wasting resources, and aimed to follow the Golden Rule. The quantity of India’s need is overwhelming, however. Living there, I realized that all my “goodness” was not enough to meet India’s Everest of needs. Responding to the need I saw everywhere around me was beyond bearing. I continuously looked at that mountain’s heavy weight, and it made me think about God’s depth, God’s mercy. I did my work—teaching young students how to read and write, how to examine the world and wonder and describe how it might be different, hoping by some miraculous trickle down method, the students would someday, as adults, find professions that would enable them to address and meet the poor’s needs who lived in places like Delhi. While working in India, I did a few things beyond the classroom to address the needs of others around me. I led some teacher training workshops at the Tibetan Children’s Village School, for example. India’s poor continued to struggle, however, my efforts a tiny seed in the Sahara of need.

Physical poverty isn’t the only kind of poverty, however. Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Lay Back the Darkness,” describes suffering just as difficult to bear—that of a son observing his elderly father who has lost his mental faculties. The father shuffles between rooms, lost. Once, the father “could charm everything.” Now he stands amongst the shadows “on an obscure mission through the hallway,” unable to “remember what he meant to say.” The son, in anguish, cries out, “Help me, spirits, to penetrate his dream/ and ease his restless passage.” This is not loss brought on by economic disparity or government corruption. Physical decline is a common, natural experience as life changes form when a person ages and moves toward death. The son in the poem loves his father, and remembers who his father once was, though that presence no longer inhabits his father’s body. Existence is ever evolving energy, shifting from one form to another. If, however, we’re more than our positions in society, our accomplishments and personality, our bodies, what are we? What is the soul? What is it we do when we love and give ourselves to a relationship? Dylan Thomas wrote, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age.” I was raised to believe in God, to be able to give certain answers about who or what God is—the maker of heaven and earth, for example, and the God inside the Biblical stories. Maybe the force Thomas speaks of is God. Maybe to connect to God is to learn, as did the prophets, to attune ourselves to the energy that moves through not only ourselves, but through all that is.

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Maybe, however, God is wider than that description. Riding down a freeway, gazing at the ever-flowing streams of cars, or sitting in a room conversing with friends I’ve not seen in years, I sense the marvel of human existence, and wonder at its meaning.

What God really is, is mystery. Hirsch’s poem is a prayer, to “lay back the darkness,” to bring illumination. At the end of the poem, Hirsch describes his father, who in his final days has become

but a boy standing on the edge of a forest
listening to the distant cry of wolves,
to wild dogs,
to primitive wingbeats shuddering in the treetops.

Prayer doesn’t need words. Prayer is standing humbly in silence before the vastness of all that is, and listening. This the father does. Genesis describes God creating all that is out of the void’s chaos. Hirsch depicts the father entering, again, the place of chaos, moving back to the void from which all things arose, a child, once more at the beginning of a journey. Life emerges from emptiness.

Confrontation with questions we have no answers for—with illness, suffering, or needs greater than can ever be met, is to stand at the edge of a forest listening to the distant cry of wolves—is to step into mystery. We need to put ourselves alongside such suffering. It is a necessary darkness. Rilke ends his poem about darkness, I earlier quoted from by saying, “I have faith in nights.” Suffering helps us learn to live. When we experience separation from others, from ourselves, or can’t find what we need in life to be whole, we suffer. We long for wholeness, as did Adam and Eve after they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We long to be changed, even though we don’t know how or by what means. Rumi speaks of this in his poem, “Love Dogs,”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union,

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

My mother had Alzheimer’s, my father dementia. If I don’t end up wandering the halls in old age, I will still be brought low. All die. I don’t have answers for many things, but I can hear the love dogs moaning in my soul. What can I do, but open my arms and say, “Here I am.”

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Between Boundaries

When bicycling, you feel the wind brush your skin, and you inhale the landscape. When walking, however, you can move slowly enough to notice things you wouldn’t otherwise. You can easily stop and look closely; you can pay attention, and perhaps that is an important reason why walks are often refreshing. It’s not just the movement and blood circulation walks offer; it’s the opportunity they open for your mind to wander associatively, weaving together your feet with your breath, body, and the earth. Thoreau, in his essay, “Walking,” writes about those who go sauntering—roaming the countryside under the guise of going to the sainte terre, the Holy Land, but who were actually simply wandering the countryside. In Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Late March,” the poem’s speaker takes a walk. If you also read the poem as a walk, as Ammons suggests that poetry is, and saunter along with Hirsch through the poem’s landscape, you might find that by the time you reach the poem’s final lines, you’ve found a way to arrive in a kind of sainte terre.

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Hirsch describes “Late March’s” setting details vividly. You sense the landscape with your body as the walker journeys, and you read: the biting cold, the sky blue as in a Magritte painting—how winter has left so recently that if you look hard, you can “almost see it/ disappearing over the hills in a black parka.” At the poem’s start, Hirsch never states that the walker sets out with a specific purpose. The path he takes very well might be one he travels frequently, but this particular walk occurs on the first day of spring, and something unknown is surfacing. You can feel the lightness Hirsch describes in the air’s chilly sting, and in his use of imagery—how “the skyscrapers stood on tiptoe,” in addition to the very sounds of the words he uses, the near weightlessness of the numerous “s” s and “t” s in the second stanza’s second half, that add to the sense of release. As Hirsch moves into the third stanza, a sense of airy quality continues in images he chooses of the moon as “a faint smudge” in the sky’s “vacant mind,” and seagulls that emerge “out of vapor,” while all along, an opposite force, some sense of gravity, pulls the walker down to the sea.

By the time the fourth stanza appears on this walk’s horizon, the reader notices a boat. The suspense created earlier in the poem with the wind whispering a secret to the trees, now expands into a fanfare for passengers leaving for unknown destinations. As the boat leaves its pier, Hirsch describes some of those left on shore as “jubilant,” others as “broken-hearted.” It’s here we pause in our walk because as the boat sets out across the water, the poem, too, moves further into its depths: the poem’s speaker says he has “always been both.” We understand now that while the walker in the poem may have started out simply to stroll, he ends up on the shore—a borderland where he stands between realities—and that the experience of living in this in between state is the poem’s destination. The poem is a walk, but imbedded in the walk is an exploration of those moments in our lives where we are brought to stand at a frontier between worlds—between winter and spring, shore and sea, grief and joy—and find ourselves participants of opposite realities at the same time.

The border world is a liminal space of transformation and possibility. Standing in that boundary area makes us aware of our aloneness. This is not a place others stand with the walker. In his last stanza, Hirsch highlights this idea in his description of how the boat “rumbles into the future” the crowd cheering the departure on, their cry cutting the air, “like an iron bell ringing/in an empty church.” A bell is meant to call the faithful to gather in common recognition that they’re not just on a journey through time. They share life together. In Hirsch’s poem, however, the sound is heavy as death, and the church is empty. Traditionally, cathedrals have a nave, the long, central portion of the church where the congregation sits. Symbolically, because the nave is also in the shape of a cross, it represents sailing across the life’s ocean together, recognizing in that journey, the need to live together in awareness of the love given them in Christ’s life and death. In Hirsh’s poem, however, when the ship sails out of sight, the crowd’s cheering ceases, and the community disperses. The experience is a kind of death, the people on the ship—those who were the cause of celebration, have gone. The walker is left alone, deserted.

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In the poem’s first stanza, the poem’s speaker says he is alone, and he carries as his companion, “a book of the Alone.” At the end of the poem, the walker is still alone. “I felt lucky to see it off/ and bereft when it disappeared,” says the walker of the boat. Underneath the noise, expectation and excitement, in the turning moments when others or we ourselves move off into the future and change, we experience the loss and emptiness of what we left behind as well. Beneath and beyond the celebration, we’re alone in working out how we will embody the transition between worlds. Part of us cheers, part of us cries as we stand there on the dock between worlds. “What are these comings and goings about?” we wonder. “What world am I a part of?” We are forced to contemplate who we are, and to notice we participate in more than one world at the same time. All we’ve experienced continues as part of us, even the worlds we’ve only imagined.

Significant moments of change in our lives make us more conscious of the multiple realities we participate in. But in actuality, we’re always standing alone in the liminal doorway between worlds. All of life is a turning, a greeting and a parting, a birth and a death. We don’t get one without the other. Whether the journey in this poem is about life, or death’s great journey into the unknown, a part of us is always dying while part of us is also being born. In Hirsh’s poem, the seagulls, creatures who live out their lives on the border, dip into both sea and sky crying out, “Don’t let our voices die on land,” as if to speak the words those who have departed on the ship are thinking. I think of the many, both past and present who have left their homes, sailing towards some vague notion of a place holding the dream of a better life in a different land—the bravery it takes to leave, but the courage, as well, to be those who stay behind, either by choice, or because they’re unable to leave. They, too, want to know their voices will not die on the land they’ve left—that their story continues on.

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What is it about, this walk to the sea where we see a boat leaving for some far place we don’t even know—this journey that ends in no journey? What is our walking for? Some years back, I traveled to the Farasan Islands off Saudi Arabia’s coast. Before going there, I imagined the islands as so remote that visiting them would be like venturing back in time, where I would witness another way of being—a place somewhere like Sana’a, Yemen’s mud city, but smaller. When I arrived on the Farasans, however, I noticed people lived in concrete houses similar to those in the city where I lived. They drove cars through the town, stopped at the grocery stores and carried on life as people do in many other small towns across the world. I learned, however, that the islands had mangroves, a castle, some abandoned homes cut from ancient dead coral beds, and a mosque with an ornate and beautifully carved façade—all unexpected and wonderful to experience. In “Late March,” the walker’s journey leads to a place where sky and water meet—a place between known destinations, and in that frontier space the walker stands alone, participating equally in both joy and sorrow, joined to opposites at the same time. As sainte terrers, we roam the world telling stories and creating meaning. But what things actually are, is often different (and frequently more) than any story we might shape. What if we let our journeying lead us to a place between, like the walker in “Late March,” where we simply stood on the shores of our lives, open to the comings and goings, the joys and sorrows, equally willing to experience it all? Maybe the Holy Land is found when we allow ourselves to stand between boundaries and move beyond definitions of this and that, here and there.

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A Beautiful Perseverance

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THE AMEN STONE
Yehuda Amaichai
On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it,
a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed
many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,
were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,
a longing without end, fills them all:
first name in search of family name, date of death seeks
dead man’s birthplace, son’s name wishes to locate
name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul
that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found
one another, they will not find a perfect rest.

 

…read the rest of the poem here

We can plan many things, carefully drawing designs, listing steps, following through with what inspires or seems important in order to move us in a direction we want to go. Sometimes, however, a great wave rises up in our world, and we are caught in a current of events that sweeps away all, or nearly all. You have little choice but to let go into the current. During this time, it’s all you can do to focus on the necessities at hand, swimming along in the current stroke by stroke, aiming toward home. Though we may have experienced an undertow earlier, or previously been nearly carried away by a powerful wave, it doesn’t make it easier when the tsunami rolls in and we’re caught in its path. Making it through to the other side is more than a struggle, it’s a miracle of perseverance.

In Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “The Amen Stone,” Amichai describes a destroyed Jewish graveyard, and the painstaking effort of a man whose yearning for wholeness has made it his work to restore a fragmented and broken past. Though the tsunami of events that destroyed the graveyard happened ages ago, the effects of the fragmentation are still felt generations later. The broken stones with their names and dates are scattered “helter-skelter” over the earth. No act of God created this landscape. A tsunami of human choices made the situation, and we don’t have to know the specific event to understand that it’s more than just stones in the poem that are broken. Families have been split, histories scattered. Effort has been made to wipe from memory the story of the lives on the stone fragments. Longing speaks from the scattered stones to the man in the poem whose heart sees in the stone fragments a story yearning to be told.

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What is possible to know from the story of broken gravestones? When we walk past names on stones in ancient graveyards, do we know much of anything regarding the tales they tell? I think of Pip, in the opening scenes of Dicken’s Great Expectations, standing at his parents’ gravestones, trying to discern the quality of his parents’ character by the script style imprinted in the stones. We might not be able to tell much about the lives, but the gravestones’ existence speaks of those who lived and shaped their world, making together what has come to us through time. In a world of brokenness where people separate into camps of perceived right and wrong, left and right, allowing for no in between, brokenness prevails. Amichai’s poem begins with the word “Amen” in the first line, a word meaning “so be it,” a word often said at the end of a prayer. The world is broken, there it is. So be it. Look at it. See the world’s state for what it is. We are a scattered people, and not just those in this graveyard—economics, race, religion, politics, age, gender—there is so much we have let divide us from the common ground we could rest together in, and as Amichai states, “until they have found one another, they will not find a perfect rest.”

How do we live after a tsunami, real or political, has destroyed our land, our people, our hearts? Is it possible to become whole again? Can we heal the past? The root of the word religion is to rebind. Religions across the world hold as their foundations an understanding that humans are fragmented beings. Even if we can’t or don’t say it directly in words, when we acknowledge our brokenness, when we search for and tenderly lift the fragments of our world with the intention to restore, as did the “sad, good man” in the poem in his act of cleansing the gravestone shards, we enter into a sacred, and one might even say, religious act. Through the man’s creative effort of documenting what once was once whole, he unifies again what had been broken for generations. Healing begins.

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Interestingly, Amichai at the poem’s end uses the word child’s play to describe the man’s act. Some, perhaps, would consider the man’s effort a ridiculous waste of energy and time. His is an intuitive act of heart, rather than of logic. Children are the natural advocates for the value of play, and putting together the puzzle of broken stones must in the end be play because it is play that renews, and remakes us. Re-creation is what the man’s perseverant play has accomplished. By the poem’s end, we realize we are witnessing a paradox, a world that is broken and whole at the same time, as a mosaic is both broken and whole.

Does the man’s effort to restore the gravestones make a difference to those whose lives were blasted apart? If we understand our lives are connected into a webbed circle of being, as science leads us to understand, then what we do in one place and time affects the life of the whole. One act of kindness and healing changes the quality of all. The stone fragment the speaker in the poem saves is triangular, like the shape of the A in the word “Amen.” The poem relates a triad of actors, the destroyers who turned the gravestones to fragments, the man who “resurrects” the lives of the dead by reunifying the gravestones, and the preserver—the man who saves the stone with “Amen” written on it, putting to rest the prayer inside the stones’ longing: the story of the lives they stand for given back their substance. In the gravestones’ reconstructed puzzle and re-unified presence, the dead are re-given life. They are released—let go at last into a place of peace.

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A few months ago, I remember standing in a crowded New Delhi subway car at rush hour as the train door opened and passengers crammed and shoved their way through the door, hoping not to have to wait for the next car’s arrival. Pushed into the car’s back wall and pressed into a corner against the opposite wall, I watched as a woman hefted her large bag through the open door and pushed it across the floor between a profusion of bodies, then held on to the vertical steel bar in the middle of the floor, hoping to get her balance before the train took off. Behind her, though, passengers continued to shove themselves through the subway car’s open door—bodies piling into each other in a crush of sweating humanity. Hand still wrapped around her bag’s plastic rope handle, the woman attempted to stand. The bodies flooding through the doorway drove her toward the floor, however, catching her hand between the rope and the handrail. The woman cried out, straining to remove her strangled fingers from passengers’ weight pressing against her. She plead for people to stop. Deaf to her protests the deluge of bodies at the door, driven only by thought of getting on the train, continued to push forward.

Stunned, I watched in silence, as the tsunami of bodies rammed through the door. I expected people to calm down, notice what they were doing, that the woman would be okay, but the situation continued. My husband, standing closer to the scene, pushed the men away from the woman, and joining her in protest, called out “Stop!” Finally, the subway doors closed, the flood resided, people found space to put their feet, and the woman could release her hand from the plastic rope handle’s stranglehold on her. She stood up. She was a short woman, I noticed, ruffled, but still in possession of herself.

Why didn’t I act, I later wondered. What was it that made me simply stand there, saying nothing? As an outsider living in a foreign country, it’s not always clear when it’s okay to enter in to a scene, and when it’s not a good decision. Nevertheless, this woman was in need and yet I did nothing. Plenty enough times in my adult life I have felt powerless in situations, caught, and unable to discern the best course of action. These are fragmented parts of myself, and they don’t bring rest. If these moments were concrete objects, they could be dated and scattered about in the graveyard of past mistakes. What, though, if I took the journey of the man in Amichai’s poem? What if I bit by bit gathered the broken pieces, scrubbed them so I could name them clearly, and as if creating a work of art, gently set them together to let them tell their story and be released to a place of rest? Then, perhaps, I could live into a new story.

The Japanese have a practice called wabi sabi—of filling cracked pottery pieces with gold. The cracks aren’t removed, but when the pot is repaired, it is even more beautiful than before. Brokenness creates space for acts of compassion and gentleness. This is how we make beauty from brokenness.

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Drawing Up From Great Roots

imageLet everything happen to you.
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final
–Rainer Maria Rilke

In a short time from now, I’ll be moving from India. After nearly a decade in this country, I won’t live here any more.  Though I don’t exactly know yet where I’m going once I leave, I will miss many things about living here. Through sound, smoke and heat, India literally seeps in through the windows and doors, announcing its presence, influencing the whole of what happens.

imageWe don’t have adequate answers for life’s most perplexing questions. We are incomplete. India constantly asks difficult questions I will never have answers for–which is perhaps one of the reasons I’ve stayed here so long. Everywhere in India, it’s easy to see people suffer. As I travel through Delhi, I try to open myself to see and notice the suffering around me so I can learn from it. Looking into the faces of people suffering–noticing their difficulty–is not the same as doing something about meeting people’s needs. If I don’t have the ability to change people’s lives around me, however, then I can at least see them as fellow humans in need of compassion, just as I, too, feel the need for compassion.

Like the poor around me, I will never be all I want to be. As a result of living in India, I recognize in people’s faces and bodies a mirror of my own incompleteness and need. The more I can befriend the reality of my own incompleteness and accept limitations with compassion, the more I will be able to act compassionately toward others. Maybe I can also become more whole. India’s poverty is too enormous for any one person to resolve. In humility we have to accept we can’t necessarily be or give to others what we plainly see that they physically need. To solve huge problems requires large numbers of people working together toward change and solutions over extended periods of time. Many things aren’t in our control, or ability, though we do and give what we can to make a difference.

imageBecause it is a kind of death, moving stimulates reflection. Often these days, I find myself wondering what existence is. It’s all so mysterious and amazing. Embodied minds and feelings walk around on planet Earth with other physical bodies in a universe containing other galaxies that hold solar systems in a space vast beyond comprehension. So much happens in the universe beyond fathoming. Over the years of living here in India, I’ve learned to understand more of the cultural patterns–which are a kind of universe of their own. When I leave, once again I’ll be moving into a different world, learning new ways of being and understanding. I’ll be transformed into another reality very unlike the current one. Even if living in my native country, my world will be widened. Parts of me will diminish, others expand, and I’ll be reborn into a different existence. I will remake myself.

imageThe baby kite in the nest across the yard outside my kitchen window, stands up, occasionally, and perches on the nest edge to look around. Soon, like notes of music, the fledgling will fly away, though, and like the kite I, too, will leave this nest. I don’t think the change will necessarily be easy, though parts of it will be. Transformation. Transcendence. Births are noted fore being painful, but out of chaos, the world was (and is continuously) formed.

This period of transition is a liminal space of uncertainty through which to view two worlds, and to notice the myriad possibilities of creativity change brings. As a friend writes–through the dissolving curtain of now the new world awaits.

Maybe our real life work isn’t to remain whole. As Robert Bly writes, perhaps we came here to
“…lose our leaves
Like the trees, and be born again,
Drawing up from the great roots.”

In some ways, every day can be seen as a liminal space, not just the great moments of passage and change. What could I become if I were able to live more like that–like trees who let go their leaves time after time, reborn repeatedly, because they are always “drawing up for the great roots.” Let me live like that.

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Seen and Heard


A great man was coming to visit, was going to step inside our walls, walk inside our rooms. We had prepared ourselves as best we could–put on clean clothes and shoes, combed our hair, opened our faces into smiles. Some us stood in a line at the door with palms held open, expectantly waiting. All eyes turned toward the light streaming into the narrow passageway from outside where the man would step into the room we prepared for him decorated with white satin and gold colored cloth draped from the walls. His foot paused in the doorway, and one thousand four hundred of us fell silent. We knew it was a rare moment.

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Dalai Lama, photo by Mark Cowlin

At last he walked in, wearing his red robe and glasses. All rose in unison, except those who could not. When the 98 year old woman sitting in her wheel chair saw him, she threw up her arm and called out “Where have you been?” into the expectant silence.

“Right here in the world, with you,” said the Dalai Lama, as he bent and bowed before her, holding her hand.

When he turned to the receiving line where I stood waiting, a voice inside called out silently (as I’m sure happen to all those near me) that he would look at me in the face, reach out his hand to mine, touch me, and in that touch somehow know me. Bless me. I didn’t want to press myself in front of others to be noticed. If he touched me, I reasoned, it would be his choice, and up to fate. Some people he did look at in the face and greet. Some, he touched their hand or head as he passed by. Others, faces glowing with the light of happiness, ended up in photographs.

 

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Dalai Lama, photo by HHDL office

 

Though he glanced at me briefly, he didn’t touch me or look straight into my eyes as I hoped for, however. Neither did I appear later in a photograph, though those on either side of me did. There is no photographic record of this encounter. No one will later know I was there unless someone later tells a story, as perhaps I’m telling you now, that includes my name. Though I was close to him, I was one the Dalai Lama passed by.

Why does that matter? Why did I want him to touch my hand? What did I, or any of us, hope to gain by his touch? What kind of connection or knowing might have occurred through that brief moment? I remember when president Obama visited Delhi several years back, how he and Michelle shook my hand. Though it was an encounter I never dreamed I would experience, I couldn’t exactly say after that that the experience had changed my life. Still, I felt somehow connected to my country in a more concrete way that I wasn’t previously aware of.

We all long to be known, to be visible, to matter. There is a kind of knowing when someone looks directly into our eyes and when we hold in ours the hand of a person we care about. Similarly, rather than merely gazing at photos of the home we love, we like to walk the land, hear the sounds, smell the earth. There is a felt presence and an exchange that occurs with physical reality, with touch. A thousand faces may stream by us in a subway tunnel, and we will not feel seen or known. A different kind of encounter occurs, when we gaze out at the world with an expectant heart, waiting to receive. We long for connection.

 

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Dalai Lama, photo by Eric Johnson

People recognize that the Dalai Lama is a man of integrity, someone who seeks to live in honesty and who has given himself over to be a living presence of peace. That is difficult, and we all know it. We want to listen to such a man. He might have something to say that will help us understand how to live. We want to look in his eyes, to touch us, because in some unspoken way, we recognize that our lives connect when we touch. Maybe something of that peace will enter into our own lives and change us.

We know when a loved one is present in a room when we first open a door, though we can’t see the person. When I was injured in college, my mother half way across the country woke in the night and knew something had happened to me. She also knew her brother had died before she was told. The body has a kind of knowing that moves through the heart.

We’re told of how when he was here on earth, people clambered around Jesus, hoping to touch him. Perhaps you recall the story of the woman who amidst the crowd reached to touch the hem of Jesus’s clothes, believing that if she did so, her life would be changed. I picture her threading her way through bodies, stretching her hand to reach the hem of his clothes from a stair below as he passed by. Though the crowd pressed in around him, Jesus noticed her, and turned around to see who it was. He must have looked into her eyes directly, recognized her in the vulnerability and longing revealed in her face. “Take heart,” he told her, her faith had made her whole. There is an interconnection, an exchange of energy, when hearts open. Some door opens that isn’t there otherwise, some liminal curtain is pulled back. An exchange happens. Lives connect. Perhaps this is how miracles are able to occur.

Where have we been all our lives? We are here in the world with each other. We have something to give one another, and the world around us in the open heart of our presence. The evening I first went out with the man who is now my husband, he told me at dinner as we watched rain dripping down the crystals at the now burned down Triton restaurant in San Diego, “The world is held together by strands of light.” We are more than the sum of our bones, body and breath, but through these, we touch life.

What we are living is mostly a mystery. We need containers to allow ways in to experience. But the real knowing spills over and out of these. That is why we need art, poetry, dance, literature. E.O. Wilson speaks of how in the future humans will be more and more integrated with machines, and that is why we will need literature and the humanities more than ever–to help us explore that territory of what it means to be human with all its difficult questions.

Words can be a way of finding how to be present in the world, a pathway into letting the invisible become visible to us. Words are strands of light we make to help us see the world and who we are, what it is we are living. Here is my poem I wrote several years back, “Seen and Heard,” that appeared in my chapbook, Saudade about this practice of presence. We don’t have to be the Dalai Lama. Everyone we know and encounter, wants to know that somehow inside the press of the crowd and busyness of the day and its multitude of priorities, that it is still their presence matters most. In our look, we can bless. In a pause, the tone of our voice, we can bring peace. With a simple gesture or touch, we can lets others know they are seen and heard. Perhaps that, too, is the light that holds the world together.

Seen and Heard

As a child, I stared long at the hidden pictures
in children’s magazines, looking for the lamb
inside the cloud, the face inside a pleat or tree,
the button or missing bow that made one figure
different from another. What satisfaction
when I found them. How affirming it was
to know that all those little details, the small
realities of the world that begged to be seen
could be found, recognized, known.

Today when I peer out at the world, the picture
I see is workers, day after day rising with the sun
to start their tasks. They feed the fire or prepare
the mortar for the brick. Some lift bundled
branches to their shoulders. Some hammer nails
or paint the walls. Others sort through files, prepare
documents, answer calls, gather round tables,
or read books deep into the night.

We do our tasks, we make the rounds.
Still, things hide there inside the walls
and trees, pressed inside the body’s quiet
folds of those we meet, waiting
to be found if we know how to see.

Cezanne looked for them, the hidden forms—
the cylinder inside a tree, the sphere inside
the head, the geometry of nature, and though
his eyesight was weak, or perhaps
because of this, he found the hidden shapes
and painted them in plains of color
so the rest of us could find them.

Goya, too, painted the secrets others meant
to cloak, the fear inside the peasant with arms
uplifted, his white shirt glowing against
night’s darkness, the hidden faces of the men
turned away from view, their guns that showed
the world in thickly painted strokes the torment
of a deaf world.

We turn through the pages of time
and off we go each day to make our story,
paint our picture, lift our bricks, do our work.

Our eyesight is weak, our hearing faulty,
but we stare at the pages anyway, trying
to make sense of the world, hoping to find
the forms inside of forms, to hear the unspoken
voices or even our own voice inside
the night sky darkness we might be standing in.

There we are with our boards to nail, bushes
to trim, our books piled beside us—
with whatever it is we discover and make
and love our world with, our arms
thrust up to the heavens, hoping someone
will see us. Hear us. Hoping someone has looked
long enough, hard enough to recognize us
hiding there inside the pleats and paint of life.

 

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A Visit from the Dalai Lama and 10,000 Shades of Blue

More important than what was recorded, these evenings
deepened my life: they framed every event

or thought and placed it with care by the others.
As time went on, that scribbled wall—even if
it stayed blank—became where everything
recognized itself and passed into meaning.

–William Stafford, “Keeping a Journal”

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“The next hot job in Silicon Valley is for poets,” says the Washington Post today, describing how the tech industry is working to improve the interactive quality of the voice and personalities behind the artificial intelligences we interact with on the Internet, like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. To do this, software engineers are turning more and more to poets, fiction writers and comedians in a new wave of jobs in artificial intelligence. Additionally, an article in Motherboard, Robots are coming for our poems,”now two years old, examples are given of robots co-authoring Shakespearian sonnets and haikus. An android learns the algorithms of language you give it, makes predictions about what words will be chosen over others, and uses these to write a poem. I don’t know the definition of “co-authored” as it is used in the context of the robot working together with a human, or how many trials it took to get a poem that feels cohesive and reads like a poem, but I enjoyed the sonnet, as well as a haiku a robot created that are included in the article.

Sasha Chapin’s article, “When robots write poetry,” written this past February, also describes how the algorithms are used that enable robots to write poetry. More interesting, however, is Chapin’s statement at the end of the article, “The coming artificial beings may love good poetry for the same reason we do: how it can seem to bridge the boundaries between consciousnesses. But they will possess a consciousness we couldn’t possibly understand. And when they write poetry, it will not be for us.”

While I question whether robots have consciousness, as Chapin implies, there is a difference between a living, human mind raising questions and pondering life and poetry artificial intelligence produces using algorithms, rather than conscious reflection. The Atlantic reports that number of non-book readers has tripled since 1978. Currently, I’m preparing to present a week long workshop on poetry and poetry writing with middle schoolers at ACS Hillingdon International School, a school just outside of London. As I consider what those students’ interests and concerns might be, I’m turning over the question in my mind, why is it we write for purposes other than to carry out necessary tasks, and in particular, what value does writing poetry hold?

Though  it may be helpful to learn that the job market is currently opening up for poets and fiction writers in the tech industry, there are deeper reasons to write and to read poetry, and these have to do with the poetry’s potential to connect us to the physical world, notice its mystery, and value its presence. If you’ve not seen this short TED talk about the worldwide telescope, it’s worth viewing. What Google earth has done to map the world is now being pieced together for the universe, enabling you to map your own virtual tour of the universe with images currently available. When I watched the talk and viewed the images, I felt humbled by the wonder of all that is—the immensity of creation and the miracle that I’m alive on this planet, existing amidst it all. Writing poetry is the opportunity to reflect on that wonder. Perhaps it’s interesting that a robot can write poetry, but how much more amazing it is to experience the poetry writing process yourself—to try and put words to what it means to be alive in this moment. As Salman Rushdie describes, “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” That’s a challenging task, but certainly a valuable one.

Recently, the Dalai Lama visited the school where I work. During his talk to the student body, he repeatedly emphasized humanity’s interconnectedness with each other and with the natural world. A compassionate heart and a calm mind go together, he explained, and a disturbed mind affects the body. There’s hope for a more compassionate world if we make an attempt, he said. With anger, there is no hope, and he admonished us to make an effort.
With effort, this century can be a happy, a peaceful century, he explained. When there is too much stress, violence comes. Human rights violations are first emotional problems, he stated. Violence comes as a consequence of emotional problems. “We have to make an effort to promote more warm heartedness so there will be no opportunity to kill or bully, because we take care. No one can survive without community,” he said. Selfishness destroys your own happiness. “Society is the basis of our happy life, so we have to take care of society. West needs East. Southern and Northern worlds need each other—not this notion or that,” he said. Around us we see so much fear and distrust, yet friendship is dependent on trust, and trust is dependent on compassion, he explained. Narrow mindedness and shortsightedness brings disaster.

In aiming to build a compassionate world, poetry is a valuable asset. Poetry nurtures our inner life and helps us to understand what it means to be human and to stand in relation to the world around us. Robots might be able to write, but we are human. We want to know what that means—what we can give to the world to meet its deep need, and thereby meet our own deep desire to feel we belong in this world by knowing what we can give to it. Writing poetry, in its aim to find the best words to describe experience, requires observation and awareness, as well as reflection. Because the problems we face both individually and collectively are complex, the practices of observation, awareness are especially needed. Deep reflection, allows us to work out our connections to each other and to the natural world, along with the disconnects we experience in trying to do so. Deep reflection is the territory poetry explores.

Before Old French gave the English language the word “orange,” English speakers referred to the color as yellow-red, ġeolurēad in Old English, according to, Matt Soniak, writer for Mental Floss. It’s not that orange didn’t exist before we had the word, but having the word created a clearer picture of the idea. Tech Insider the origins of another color, blue in this video, demonstrating that without a word for something we physically experience, such as the color blue, people have significant difficulty recognizing it. This phenomena emphasizes the benefit of both verbalizing what we are experiencing, as well as reflecting on those experiences in written words. Additionally, because languages have their own music and mirrors, reflecting the world in different ways, speaking and writing in more than one language expands the potential language has to enable us all to better understand ourselves and our interconnection to others and the world around us. If we are going to find how to live together peacefully, as the Dalai Lama suggested is both possible and important, we need tools to do so. Writing and poetry in specific, is a wonderful tool to use for this purpose. As T. S. Elliot said, “Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”

It’s possible that one could sit with pen in hand or type at the computer, and plod mindlessly through a series of steps or items and produce writing. I’ve read this kind of writing before. But if taken to heart, writing can be a tool that enables the mind to unwind its string of thoughts and make patterns that hold meaning and change our lives both individually and collectively. Poetry and literature is our attempt to explore the meaning of being human. As Barry Lopez, explains, “I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one’s life. Wherever I’ve traveled–Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan–I’ve found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” We need stories, and poetry. They are our thread through the labyrinth of existence.

While diving in the Maldives a few weeks back, the boat I was living on passed over and past 10,000 shades of blue—blues we have no word for. I found a wonderful color palate for different shades of blue, along with their names on Wikipedia, but though many colors are represented here, it falls far short of what the eye actual sees—the way the white-blue sky bends down into the sea and becomes the sea, for example, or the depth of blue reaching for infinity behind the shoals of yellow, white and black banner fish, along with all the subtle gradations between shades of turquoise as water shallows and then brushes against white sand shores. To try and name any of the experiences we have is to call them, again, into existence, and to share with others what moves us, and what is meaningful–this is what poets aim to do. It is the focus and goal of their efforts, even though what we hold most precious is often beyond naming. “The power of poetry,” says Michael Lewis, “is the ability to express the inexpressible, and to express it in terms of the unforgettable.”

If we are to build a compassionate world, we need to be able to recognize how to nurture our lives and wellbeing of the world around us. We need to be able to reflect on our lives. In his poem, “Keeping a Journal,” William Stafford, identifies the value of writing in his closing lines when he explains how through the process of writing he found his journal to be a place where “everything/recognized itself and passed into meaning.” To speak with an open heart in a journal or a poem takes courage, but in doing so, we can gain insight into ourselves and our relationship to the world, insight that can enable us to transform the way we live and interact. Writing poetry helps open our eyes and reach for meaning. As David Whyte says in his poem, “The Opening of Eyes”

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

We write and our lives are deepened. This is what is important about poetry—it teaches us how we can live.

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Dancing Into Dimminishment

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You may have seen 81 year old Sarah Paddy Jones dance the tango with Nico Espinosa and astonish crowds in Madrid, or on stage in Britain’s Got Talent for the fact that she is old and is yet able to do things that people even much younger than her can’t do. It’s amazing and inspiring to watch the grace and flexibility of these dancers. Ms. Jones has followed her passion, and worked very hard to be able to dance with such strength and beauty. Being tossed around over someone’s body and sliding across the floor with ease isn’t the norm, though probably, more elderly people might be able to move fluidly if they worked at building their strength and simply moved more often. Do we especially admire Ms. Jones, however, not because she dances well, but mostly because she is moving like a younger person would? Even with great determination, would such a dream of dancing like Ms. Jones be possible for many of those who might desire to dance like her at her age? When Ms. Jones comes on stage, the judges look highly doubtful of her ability. After they see what she can do, however, they praise her for her ability to move like a younger person. Ms. Jones is following her heart’s calling, and it’s wonderful to see her moving inside the flow of dance. Is emulating the ability of younger people, however, what older people should in general aspire to? Ms. Jones found in dance what feeds her heart and deepens her soul, and this is the reason to honor her efforts. This is what we, too, can follow into old age–the thread of who we are, so that we ripen further into what brings us wholeness. Nevertheless, while I marvel at Ms. Jones and admire her skill, I also wonder about our expectations of others and of ourselves as we age. We can’t always fix what wears out as we get older, and eventually, our bodies do wear out. It’s also important to recognize that aging and the narrowing of our powers is a normal part of everyone’s life. While we should still stretch to deepen our lives, it also might be important to understand who we are as we get older, and to move toward developing more of that, rather than emulating what younger people do, even if it’s what our culture applauds.

Diminishment comes in myriad forms. It’s not something we we want to think about or accept–losing our job, our health, a friend, a family member, our home, our country. Individually and collectively we define what quality of life means, and set our life compasses to move in that direction. What is the attitude and focus that engenders ongoing engagement and satisfaction in life, that creates wholeness all the way up to the end? We expand our understanding, develop new skills, polish others, yet for all this effort and growth, diminishment is still a destination we will all eventually arrive at before passing from this world, and we will need to understand how to stand in relationship it. How do we also learn to live into an era of loss, to accept weakness in ourselves, to invite and even welcome humility? What is the purpose of our life’s trajectory if in the end we lose everything? These are questions to live into.

Some time back, I saw this video shared on the Internet, of a man singing to his 92 year old wife on her death bed, and I thought, this couple has the something that keeps them whole, even through the stages of complete diminishment: They are fully alive to each other. I remember singing to my father as he lay dying, remember, too, reminding him of stories about things we did together, things he told me that he did when he was a child–climbing a windmill, running 16 miles through the forest at night because his feet were his only transport and he wanted to see my mother. As I watched my father during the evenings of his last days, the room seemed so utterly silent as he rested there, so still and unresponsive. As I now look back on this time, however, that experience of utter and complete silence has grown to seem significant. At the time, I so much wanted to feel the presence of something larger holding us during those final hours. What I felt most, however, was a profound silence weighted beneath everything–something like the weight of the ocean’s water at its great depths–the deepest blues fading into darkness. Nevertheless, underneath all the weight, there remained something light, something small like breath–and each breath seemed significant. We learn what love is through the love our parents bring us, and through our relationship with our partners and friends.  As James Agee wrote in A Death in the Family, “I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are not others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world. I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.” When my father lay dying, though the room felt so empty, I became aware that love was larger than any one particular love. During those last days my father’s life diminishing before my eyes, I realized that the love I felt for him wasn’t an isolated thing. It was connected to the love I felt for my sister who had watched over my parents for more than a decade through as their health diminished, and connected, also, to the love of all the others in my life who have lifted me up, supported and sustained me from day to day, year to year. Love lives beyond death.

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Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his interview with Image magazine about the poet James Harpur’s book, The Wound of Knowledge, says, “interesting thing about great poetry is the silence it generates. This is a complex area, but the great holy silence at the heart of things is not just an absence or a cessation. It’s what happens when you’ve been led to this point…The silence, when you get there, has become pregnant.” Poetry, aims to articulate and give in words the presence of such moments of deep loss. Great poetry not only generates silence, however, it also rises up out the silence of the losses that press down to crush us. Loss somehow is necessary in order for us to move beyond the borders of ourselves. Beyond the borders of ourselves a wider something awaits.

Perhaps it seems odd to be writing about loss on Easter Sunday. You’d think it might be better to turn my mind to thoughts of renewal and rebirth. Yesterday, I lost my journal in the airport on a flight back to India, however, and I’m still grieving that loss. In it were half a year’s writing, reflections, travel observations, seeds of thought about projects I’m currently working on or planned to work on. What I feel as a result of this loss is grief. I can’t think of a better word. I realize that there are much greater losses in life than this. In comparison to so many other people’s losses, this is utterly miniscule. I recognize other ideas will arrive and I will write them in future journals. But I can’t replace the pages of reflections, images, awarenesses, or ideas written in that lost journal. They are more than words. They are my exploration and expressions of what it means to be alive in the world. And that is gone.

imageAges ago now, I remember sitting in a parking lot in St.Paul, Minnesota during winter listening to Robert Bly reading a poem on the radio. I don’t recall the poem’s title or the specific lines, but Bly’s lines astonished me with the picture they created of words emerging from the mouth into the air in visible puffs. I pictured the words taking on physical shapes, having presences. Form. Being. Words have presence and meaning beyond their mere articulation, though often incomplete or imperfect, they are mirrors of our souls. For me, they are the ladder I make to climb into a place of being.

Words guide and change our lives, but they also point to larger realities that live beyond words. Recently, Ben Slavic, a colleague I work with described how he had previously worked with Sauk, Myskoke, and Chickasaw people whose languages are dying out. Only a few native speakers remain. What is it like to lose your language? We are, in fact, losing many languages world wide per year. Do those languages go on existing in some form, he wondered? “Maybe they want to hear them again, loudly and everywhere amidst the laughter and tears of life – fully alive again…Where do words go after they are spoken?” My colleague wondered, “Is there a kind of residue, an echo, of them left over somewhere? Do they get to be fainter and fainter echoes of themselves in some parallel universe of sound?” In the BBC article, “Languages: Why we must save dying tongues,” author Rachel Nuwer writes that “languages are conduits of human heritage…convey unique cultures,…contain an accumulated body of knowledge, including about geography, zoology, mathematics, navigation, astronomy, pharmacology, botany, meteorology and more.” Also, as Nuwer explains, “languages are ways of interpreting the world, and no two are the same. As such, they can provide insight into neurology, psychology and the linguistic capacities of our species.” These all seem very important, yet, as Nuwer describes, “Over the past century alone, around 400 languages – about one every three months – have gone extinct, and most linguists estimate that 50% of the world’s remaining 6,500 languages will be gone by the end of this century.”

If all we say disappears into air, if the dear companion of our own body in the end loses all its capacity, if thirty years from now all people remember of who we are or what we said or did are a few dates and our occupation, if everything shifts and changes, where do lost words, lost time, lost lives and worlds go? What is their value and meaning?

In her poem, “Happiness,” from her book, Broken Cup, Margaret Gibson writes about her husband’s Alzheimer’s. She quotes her husband reading what the Dalai Lama says, “An art, not a right, happiness,” then later closes the poem with a memory,

long ago, after
a night of reading each other’s
poems aloud, every
blessed one of them,
the road beneath us seen through the rotting-out
porous floor of the old jeep
as we traveled at the
speed of light, and nothing, nothing
could slow us down
or keep us
separate from each other
or the road, wherever it took us.

The commitment to love is what creates meaning, Gibson suggests, even in our loss. This is a hard lesson, and Gibson’s writing about loss is surpassingly powerful. In the closing poem of Broken Cup, “A Good Death,” Gibson tells about her husband who she recognizes will in the end lose all words.

…may you also, while now there’s time
practice dying

before you die. May you daily stand outside time’s rush
whose rivering is

our natural light, and there on the steep lip of what we call
darkness,

call me angel, if angel I am; draw sunbursts in the rain lit air;
sing your heart out.

Great being, radiantly still. And near.

In learning to be present and open to all that is, Gibson seems to say, we find how to bear diminishment.

This past week I was scuba diving in the Maldives. On one of the dives, I found myself kneeling on the sandy ocean floor 25 meters below the surface in front of table coral raised before me like an altar. I watched as manta rays six 10 to 15 foot wide circled and circled over my head like enormous communion wafters in a repeated mantra of movement. Rocked and bowed by the surge, I absorbed the vision of the mantas’ presence. They had come to the table coral simply because they wanted the wrasse who live there to clean them, but as I watched them swoop over me with their great wings as if they were the Passover angel, I grew humbly aware of the immensity, mystery and wonder of being completely immersed in the arms of nature. I knew I was very much alive, and part of something enormous and beyond explanation or comprehension. Animals can be identified, their behaviors and environment explained, but something much greater happens than the sum of individual parts when we enter their world, and encounter them, something there will never be enough right words to describe.

I have lost my journal, and though I’m still able to go diving, though I can go on to keep new journals and write new poems,  in the end, though I may cry for it all to come back to me, I will need to let it all go. Maybe this is when resurrection has the possibility to occur–after we go down into the depths of death or hell. We come to where we recognize we must or can let things be what they are, and trust that somehow in our diminishment we are still whole, that there is something significant moving in the depths of that diminishment beyond what the losses all add up to.

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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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