“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.

Spectacular Fail

I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to swear at the cat and the computer the day after returning from a retreat, whether or not they both deserve it. Luckily I discovered a mantra over the weekend that accounts for such moments: “spectacular fail.”

I spent the last three days at a Camaldolese hermitage on the Big Sur coast. At the hermitage you get your own room with a small garden overlooking the ocean. They feed you well—the best spanakopita I’ve ever had—and all you have to do is sit and walk and be quiet and go to services if you want to. It is fabulous.

Now, of course, in the Great Holiness Competition, one must strive to use every moment at a place such as this to its maximum holiness potential. I believe there’s an equation that will calculate that potential for you. Unfortunately, during the entire drive up, my brain insisted on thinking about work, which as we all know has an enlightenment quotient of zero. (All of us except the monks. It is actually in the monk directions—otherwise known as the Rule of St. Benedict—that working will help them get to know God.)

After arriving I looked out my window at the hills dropping into the ocean, one of the most dramatic scenes nature offers, and commenced worrying about my mental obsession with my job. It is particularly useful to worry about obsessing. At this moment, “spectacular fail” came to me. I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I did that? Rock bottom would be spending three days surrounded by peace, eating good food, and listening to Gregorian chant. That’s it. That’s as bad as it could possibly get.

Then I went to vespers, or evening prayer. There are a lot of things to do wrong at monastery services. If you’re a non-Catholic and have found all the kneeling, sitting, and standing at a Catholic mass clearly designed to make you feel more in touch with your inner idiot than with God, multiply that by at least a power of ten. I have been to New Camaldoli four or five times now, and I still have visions of singing the wrong psalm, forgetting to bow, or in some other stupendous way making it clear to the monks that they should put an asterisk next to my name to remind them to say, “Sorry, we’re full.” next time I call for a reservation.

When these thoughts came rolling in, I stopped and said to myself, “spectacular fail.” After giving myself permission to mess up in a big way, I realized the monks might have witnessed a mistake or two in their time.

My mind did quiet down. The peace, silence, and beauty of the hermitage seeped in. I didn’t do anything irretrievably stupid, or if I did, the monks were much too kind to notice. And next time the likelihood of my doing something world-ending feels overwhelming, I have this handy phrase to help me out.