“The Heart Knows”

This week, the Library of Congress chose Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, as the twenty-third poet laureate of the U.S. A poet’s job, I once heard, is to pay attention, and hers seems to me exactly the kind of attentiveness we need right now, rooted as it is in Native American culture and awareness.

An excerpt from Harjo’s poem “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” shows us the key to this practice:

Don’t worry.
The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises,
interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and
those who will despise you because they despise themselves.

I love this idea that we cannot get lost if we stay in our hearts. Even that short list of only a few of the world’s troubles can send our minds reeling off into fear and fixing, but our hearts, Harjo reminds us, know that we’re aiming toward something larger than all that, larger than ourselves.

In “This Morning I Pray for My Enemies,” she writes, “The door to the mind should only open from the heart.”

Both poems were published in the book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. So much of what we experience every day indicates that we’ve forgotten we are holy beings living in a holy creation, a holy universe.

What is holy is worthy of reverence and love by its very nature. Our hearts know that the oak tree is holy, that the finches are holy, that you are, that I am.

In an interview with NPR, Harjo said that “humanizing and healing will be her aims as poet laureate — ‘a healing of people speaking to each other, with each other.’”

Listening with our heads, we white people could choose either our usual oppressive stance or one in which we look at ourselves and our past actions with irony and cynicism that speak only of our inability to change.

Listening with our hearts, we can choose instead to be humble and learn from a wisdom that has survived our best attempts to wipe it out, a wisdom that we must now allow to lead if we hope to participate in the healing of ourselves, this Earth, and all our fellow beings.

Recognize the Whole

The Mississippi River begins in Montana in small streams that flow into the Milk River that merges with the Missouri. The Great River starts near Denver; it flows through Pittsburgh. It contains sediment from New Mexico and Texas.

I recently watched a Ken Burns documentary on the Mayo Clinic, a world-renowned medical center located in the small city of Rochester, Minnesota, about seventy miles from the Mississippi. The clinic exists because Mother Mary Alfred Moes of the Sisters of St. Francis received a vision from God to start a hospital.

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Map of the Mississippi River Basin by Shannon1 used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Mississippi River was formed by the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet and subsequent glacial melt at the end of the last Ice Age.

As prescribed by the vision, Mother Mary chose William Worrall Mayo to run the sisters’ hospital. Mayo and his two sons, also doctors, practiced patient-centered care. The hospital provided a venue in which they could learn and develop the most successful surgical techniques.

As their skill and success grew, not only patients but also other doctors flowed into Rochester the way tributaries flow into the Mississippi, through a gravitational pull, in this case the pull of healing, knowledge, and expertise.

I find this map of Ol’ Man River so compelling and beautiful because it’s a map of relationship, a map of the continent’s arterial connections. Without the trickles of water high up in the Rocky Mountains or in the Texas panhandle, the mighty Mississippi would not exist. As far as water is concerned, there’s no separation between Wyoming and Louisiana. The entire river system is one whole.

The Mayos, assisted by the sisters, treated the whole person, body and soul. All expertise poured into the central artery of the patient’s health, with multiple medical specialists cooperating to treat one patient in one location. According to the film, this philosophy continues today and has made the Mayo Clinic the exceptional center of groundbreaking medicine that it is.

And so with our communities, our nations, our world. We are all flowing into one another, more liquid than solid, rivers of interconnected experiences. The patient is our shared life on this planet, and if we would bring healing, we must recognize the whole.