Doubts and Loves

One of the nice things about days like Earth Day is that people use it as an excuse to get together and do kind things for creation or each other. A local farm had a fair, and there I ran into this poem that a friend of my mom’s had included on a piece of art. It took my breath away.

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Richard Rohr often talks about necessary suffering, not my favorite phrase or concept. He defines suffering not as something awful happening to us but rather as any time we’re not in control. In one fell swoop, this poem makes clear why that’s so: “The place where we are right/Is hard and trampled/Like a yard.” I can feel the compacted earth under my feet.

It astonishes me to consider that “doubts and loves” combined provide the way forward. How often do we consider those as related to one another? We generally much prefer loves to doubts but here they are, intertwined, working together toward the same purpose.

This combination might say something about what love really is, a question that comes up for me when people say “God is love” or Jim Finley talks of “infinite love infinitely giving itself away as our every breath and heartbeat.” Love, this poem argues, is an openness, an availability, an invitation, a movement. It is dynamic, changing, and it is only love if we allow it to change us, to dig up the earth of our hearts.

Perhaps love and doubt are in a dance where each opens the door for each other. I imagine any couple whose relationship has deepened over the years has had to hold and accept some doubts about each other and in that process has grown in love.

Meister Eckhart says that we all share the same ground of being and that our ground is God’s ground. Let’s get some moles and plows into that ground.

Always In-Between

Green hills in California never last long enough to achieve that deep, lush color found in the Midwest or Seattle. The green remains bright, almost electric, for about three months, and then it begins to fade. And I begin to hang on, as if I could hold the season still by wishing it so.

First the hue ebbs, as if nature has changed to using watercolors, and then patches of brown begin to appear. Then one day, as happened this week, it shifts. The hills turn golden. The oak trees with their dusky leaves stand out against the grass gone to seed and the landscape is beautiful again.

Of course it probably never lost its beauty, but that transition time is so hard, not because of anything inherent to it but because I want what is gone and fear what is to come. Life is so often like this. Transition is so often difficult.

Perhaps the indefinability of in-between times upsets our footing or the reality of something new coming into being demands dance steps we don’t know. Or maybe during these times we are forced to pay attention to the transition we are always in, from the cellular level on up. If we stopped wanting to return or skip ahead, would these times be easier?

Neither regret nor fear exist in the present. They are a relationship we create with what has passed or what is to come. I’m not suggesting that if we achieved mass enlightenment, we’d no longer need to mourn. But if we could embrace our transitions, we might find beauty where before we saw only hardship.

Here is a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that wonders about this type of thing. I found it on the Poetry Foundation website, which is a wonderful place to visit.

Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change
By Naomi Shihab Nye

Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
I’ve watched one for three years, she says,
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.

Peter isn’t sure. He saw an abandoned track
near Sabinas, Mexico, and says a track without a train
is a changed track. The metal wasn’t shiny anymore.
The wood was split and some of the ties were gone.

Every Tuesday on Morales Street
butchers crack the necks of a hundred hens.
The widow in the tilted house
spices her soup with cinnamon.
Ask her what doesn’t change.

Stars explode.
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.

The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.

Time to Di-verse-ify

Today is the first day of National Poetry Month! Rejoice!

Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know that every April I post wonderful, accessible poems to help us all remember that poetry can be more than something we suffer through in English class and then forget about. The poetry that speaks to us is our deepest connection to language, the closest words ever get to the unsayable.

I spent much of this past week stuck in my own thinking and annoyed with myself for being stuck. It seemed I would never progress past this particular way of engaging with myself and the world. Because thinking about your thinking is of course the best way to stop.

There are so many thought loops that I’m both tired of and apparently unwilling to give up. Here’s a poem by Jan Richardson that I find full of hope for this situation. It reminds me that life and spirit are always moving whether I happen to recognize it at the moment or not. And they’re moving in us.

Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook, features beautiful original artworks with each poem.

Risen
For Easter Day

If you are looking
for a blessing,
do not linger
here.

Here
is only
emptiness,
a hollow,
a husk
where a blessing
used to be.

This blessing
was not content
in its confinement.

It could not abide
its isolation,
the unrelenting silence,
the pressing stench
of death.

So if it is
a blessing
you seek,
open your own
mouth.

Fill your lungs
with the air
this new
morning brings

and then
release it
with a cry.

Hear how the blessing
breaks forth
in your own voice,

how your own lips
form every word
you never dreamed
to say.

See how the blessing
circles back again,
wanting you to
repeat it,
but louder,

how it draws you,
pulls you,
sends you
to proclaim
its only word:

Risen.
Risen.
Risen.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace

Partying with Hafiz

It has been my turn this week to host some of the viruses whose purpose appears to be to slow down human beings by making their heads stuffy, so please allow me to share a poem instead of a regular post. This is by the Sufi poet Hafiz and seems apropos for where we find ourselves these days. Printed in The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

If God Invited You to a Party

If God
Invited you to a party
And said,

“Everyone
In the ballroom tonight
Will be my special
Guest.”

How would you then treat them
When you
Arrived?

Indeed, indeed!

And Hafiz knows
There is no one in this world

Who
Is not upon
His Jeweled Dance
Floor.

Not at the Still Point

I’ve spent the week with T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and my own inner resistance to pretty much everything.

Every time I read one of Eliot’s poems, its meaning seems to fall away into some inarticulate depths. Some of it clearly pushes beyond dualities: “Except for the point, the still point/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” But when I try to put that together with “Garlic and sapphires in the mud,” it all goes spinning away.

Likewise, the more effort I’ve put into convincing myself to do any of the have-tos—get up in the morning, take out the trash—the harder it’s been to actually do them. Maybe this effort is exactly the problem in both cases.

Maybe the only way to grasp “Four Quartets” is to stop figuring it out—to let it wash over me and sink in until it settles down into the level it’s intended for, takes root, grows, and blossoms into meaning. Maybe if I stopped putting so much energy into the have-tos, whether by creating or resisting them, a new kind of life could take root and grow in me, perhaps exactly the kind Eliot is talking about. It takes a lot of faith, though, to trust that I’ll get up and go to work in the morning without the have-tos.

In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke has a lovely line about how to make this transition: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions…. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Here are a couple of poems from Rilke—one for frustrating weeks like this one, one to remind us that it’s all part of the journey, and both easier to understand than Eliot. Neither is titled.

If only for once it were still.
If the not quite right and the why this
could be muted, and the neighbor’s laughter,
and the static my senses make—
if all of it didn’t keep me from coming awake—

Then in one vast thousandfold thought
I could think you up to where thinking ends.

I could possess you,
even for the brevity of a smile,
to offer you
to all that lives,
in gladness.


 

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

-from Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Who to Trust: God vs. Google

I follow the big G implicitly and without question—the big G being Google of course. I drove up to the Bay Area last weekend. I didn’t know how to get to my specific destination, but after plugging the address into Google maps, away I went, never giving it a second thought.

On the way home, the GPS took me on a rather circuitous route. I was vaguely aware that there was another, shorter route, but I didn’t pull off to see what it was or how to catch it. I just assumed the traffic on that freeway was horrible, Google was safely routing me around it, and my current route was the fastest available. Now that’s faith.

When things don’t go according to my plan in other areas of life, I don’t think, there must have been some traffic—or heartache or suffering—on that route I wanted to take; thanks, God, for safely routing me around it. Oh no.

My reaction usually begins with resistance, an attempt to immediately pull over to the side of the road and check the cosmic road map of life to see how I can get back on my chosen track. (My ability to see the cosmic road map of life has, thus far, proven annoyingly non-existent, but clearly if I just keep looking, the divine instruction booklet in which it is printed will reveal itself.) When this fails, I progress to wailing and gnashing of teeth until finally arriving at acceptance, at which point I often realize my surroundings are rather pretty.

I’m not suggesting that all of life’s detours are pleasant, but how might my way of existing be different if I placed at least as much faith in the creator of the universe as I do in a search engine? Here’s a poem from Hafiz that suggests an answer:

I Vote for You for God
by Hafiz

When your eyes have found the strength
To constantly speak to the world
All that is most dear
To your own
Life,

When your hands, feet, and tongue
Can perform in that rare unison
That comforts this longing earth
With the knowledge

Your soul,
Your soul has been groomed
In His city of love;

And when you can make others laugh
With jokes
That belittle no one
And your words always unite,

Hafiz
Does vote for you.

Hafiz will vote for you to be
The minister of every country in
This universe.

Hafiz does vote for you my dear.
I vote for you
To be
God.

From The Gift by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Celebrating Libraries

Today I found out that nestled inside National Poetry Month is National Library Week, which begins April 12. This is like having a truffle inside a truffle—both chocolate-chocolate truffles, of course, none of this white chocolate stuff or lemon filling. (Hazelnut cream is acceptable, in case you were wondering.)

Libraries are some of the most magical places on earth. To honor them, here are just a few of my favorite things about libraries:

  1. You can learn anything at all for free—you don’t even have to pay for an Internet connection.
  2. You can hang out as long as you want without buying a cup of coffee.
  3. Sitting in the stacks feels like curling up in a hobbit hole. There is nothing cozier than taking a book off the shelf, pulling up the little stool that’s there to help you reach the top, and getting lost in a story surrounded by all those other stories resting inside the quiet bindings.
  4. My sister works in one.
  5. They create community, whether it’s through traditional programs like kids’ story time or more recent inventions like Science Café, libraries offer a space for people to gather, get to know each other, learn, and create.
  6. They give kids free food and other prizes for reading.
  7. Their aura of mystery and possibility, as described in this poem by Charles Simic.

In the Library
By Charles Simic

for Octavio

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.


You can read more about Charles Simic on the Academy of American Poets’ website.