Open to All

Let’s start with the poem this week because it is breathtaking:

Eagle Poem
By Joy Harjo

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

The hills in this corner of California are covered with wild mustard just now, a striking yellow flower that grows tall. An eagle searching for prey amid the mustard sees colors we will never know and cannot even imagine, including those in the ultraviolet range.

Hills covered in yellow wild mustard flowers.
Wild mustard in bloom in Shoreline Park, Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Photo by carlfbagge on Flicker. Shared under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0.

Every plant, animal, person, or rock we meet contains a world, a mystery that we can no more comprehend than we can see what eagle sees. If we are to live as prayer in this world, we must “open [our] whole [selves]” to these mysteries, including our own.

The haiku poet Basho wrote, “Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo.” That is, open your body, mind, heart, and spirit to that encounter with pine or bamboo. Or with the earth beneath your feet or the person in the cubicle next to you. Let the other’s mystery speak. Encounter a reality rather than projecting one outward.

When we can let go of our selves, of the set of beliefs and perceptions with which we order the world, we come to understand that all creation is “one whole voice that is [us].” Then we can “Breathe in, knowing we are made of/ All this.”

We are physically composed of the sunlight and rain we ate for dinner last night in the form of plants and animals. Our emotional reservoirs are filled with love from family, friends, pets. Our spirits share one fabric, one ground with everything on this Earth and in this universe. We are made of all this.

And so “we must take the utmost care/ And kindness in all things.”

We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

 

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

Grace in Many Forms

Some days, you are wondering what to write for your blog. Then you drop your sweat-soaked underwear in the very public hallway at work after playing soccer at lunch and your young, male student assistant picks them up. And all of a sudden you have something to write about.

This is a moment without pretense. You cannot act as if you meant to do that. You cannot pretend that you’re in a position of authority over this person who, in the daily hierarchy of things, reports to you. Though not particularly graceful, this moment forces you to be quite present to reality.

“Nice,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said, with astonishing graciousness. I held the bag of exercise clothes open, and he dropped the underwear in. Did I mention that they were bright orange?

The night before I had been listening to Jim Finley talk about his teacher, Thomas Merton’s, writings on solitude in his book Disputed Questions. Finley commented that as we come upon an awareness of our true selves, we are less and less able to give an account of what’s happening either internally or to anyone else.

I spend a lot of time explaining myself. In my head. To people who aren’t there. On topics that no one has asked about and probably never will. Apparently I want to be sure that if anyone ever questions me about anything, I have a reason that it was not my fault.

The underwear moment was a moment without explanation, without excuse. I’m not suggesting I had a deep revelation of my true self in God there in the hallway, but I did have a moment of consciously deciding there was absolutely nothing to do except be OK with what was happening. Maybe it was graceful after all because my student was kind enough to do the same. Perhaps we both took a tiny step toward the solitude Merton says unites us all.

Here is another moment of presence, perhaps gentler, perhaps not, the final poem for National Poetry Month.

After Work
by Richard Jones

Coming up from the subway
into the cool Manhattan evening,
I feel rough hands on my heart—
women in the market yelling
over rows of tomatoes and peppers,
old men sitting on a stoop playing cards,
cabbies cursing each other with fists
while the music of church bells
sails over the street,
and the father, angry and tired
after working all day,
embracing his little girl,
kissing her,
mi vida, mi corazón,
brushing the hair out of her eyes
so she can see.

-From Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor

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.

Poems, Poems, Poems!

As some of you may already know, it’s National Poetry Month, which on this blog means that I’ll be posting some accessible and wonderful poems—along with an occasional less accessible but still wonderful poem—in hopes of convincing you of poetry’s awesomeness. It is also, as anyone who’s been in a grocery store recently knows, almost Easter. In this season when we are called to be a sacrament of love, or perhaps more accurately to live the sacrament of love that we already are, here is a poem of welcome from Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Invitation to Love

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.

If you’d like more poetry, you can download the Poetry Foundation’s poetry app, which is how I found this one. If you scroll to the bottom of that Web page, you will also find multiple ways to sign up for a poem of the day. One of my favorite ways to get daily poems is on The Writer’s Almanac.