“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.

Thank You for Paying Attention

The poet Mary Oliver died yesterday at the age of eighty-three. As people share their gratitude for how she embraced the sacrament of existence, poetry is flooding the internet.

I got to know some of my friends from the inside out. Because of various circumstances, I learned about their interior lives—their emotions, their spiritual struggles and joys—before I knew their external details, such as where they worked or grew up.

Mary Oliver was an inside-out poet. She gave few interviews, but her poems generously offered her interior being to her readers in a way few do. I heard her read once, and she was delightfully human—both fallible, as she wondered out loud where she had put the next poem, and divine in her presence and her words.

She had the uncanny ability to marvel at nature and life in a way that revealed the beauty of it all but did not deny the harsh realities of the world. Her vision avoided getting tangled in how things should be and instead revealed the sacred nature of things as they are.

It’s hard to choose which of her poems to share, but here are a few that have meant a lot to me and so many others over the years.

May you rest in curiosity and continuing discovery, oh observer of and participant in the eternal. To whatever it is that happens after this life, you are surely now paying singular and exquisite attention.

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

 

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 

Messenger

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

 

 

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.

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.

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

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.