Poetic Truth in a Post-Truth World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his poem, “Wounds” Langley writes,

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

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

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

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

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On The Knees of Our Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blue Sky Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Ordinary Time

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Laundry drying

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

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

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

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Stiperstones, UK

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

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

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

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Apple at Fenton House, Hampstead Heath, UK

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Falling Into Wonder

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

—Lucille Clifton, “Praise Song,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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