Blog

Poetry Month in Quarantine

For the third consecutive April I have participated in poetry month by writing a poem a day. My nephew Ben invited me to write with his friend Becca and him the year I was recovering from hearing loss. It was a great gift that year and the next. This year, there were four of us writing and reading each other’s work; we invited another nephew/cousin to write with us as well. Ben and Becca have been writing seriously for several years since college. I think they might say writing is their main work, though not their means of financial income, and they have both had poems published. Christopher teaches English, including creative writing, at the University of Belize. So I am outclassed. But never mind. Ben’s first invitation surprised me but I was in a place where little daunted me, so I gladly and mostly unselfconsciously participated, even when I figured out that they were really good: thoughtful and skilled, and my poetry writing had, up to that point, been pretty casual.

I find it a daunting task to write a poem every day. The rules are simple. Write something; and expect your output to be pretty uneven. Mine certainly was. April is a busy time for me, especially at its end when preparing and planting the garden suddenly becomes urgent, and I wrote a lot of Haiku to keep up.

We have quite different lives: Becca and Ben live in the city; Christopher and I both homestead in more rural areas: I’m in the midwest, he’s in Central America. They are millennials aged 25-35. I just became eligible for medicare. So the gamut of life experiences jibes and diverges in interesting ways.

This year because of the pandemic, my sisters, Chris and Ben’s mothers plus one more, decided to do their own poetry group; (maybe me writing with their sons was additional incentive? ) We sisters exchanged poems and Chris’s wife also wrote with the women’s group. Soon Chris’s son, 10, and daughter, 6, were writing poems too.

Omar, 10, writing

All in all it was a good exercise for everyone involved. Even when I am dissatisfied with my own poems, the act of writing helps me to read others’ work more attentively. Seeing comments and suggestions from others does that as well. And the best thing is to see the lives and thoughts of other people through the special vector of poetry which, at the least, slows us down and helps us to pay attention in particular ways. I saw decided growth in the ability to describe and communicate, in the skill of turning meaning into experiencing and experience into meaning. I heard from a wide range of voices even within our small, mostly family circle. For the most part the writers had more non-earning time available and poems were a positive outlet during this long sheltering in place. It diverted us from the unsettling news of the day which tended to become obsessive for some, and grounded us in realities we take for granted but pay little attention to. I would guess, to a person, this exercise made our home quarantine desirable rather than a mere confinement.

While my own writing was more difficult this year, there were a few poems I would gladly share. After a few days of frustrated attempts and discards, I wrote something for April 30 that pleased at least one reader and was balm to my own soul.

To descending trill of thrush
in the hastening night;
to the last white blooms that shine
in the failing light;
to the whoosh of feathered wings
in nocturnal flight,
let our yearning turn.

To brisk autumnal air
as the light amends;
to brightly colored leaves that
after frost descend;
to abundant harvest given
and brought in again,
let our yearning turn.

To twirling winter flakes
that dampen sound;
to streak of cardinal red
across whitened ground;
to the snow clumped arms of trees
and their lacy crowns,
let our yearning turn.

To earliest shoots of green
that the eye drinks in;
to the softening line of trees
at the woodland’s rim;
to the rising of the grass
after warming rain,
let our yearning turn.

How Can I Keep From Singing

We had a musical meditation Sunday morning by a sister-brother acoustic threesome.  The music was quite nice and was a bit of a landmark experience for me because I could hear decently, though not all the lyrics, and I heard the high notes as not in tune or not audible.  The surgery I had two years ago to remove an acoustic neuroma and that resulted in significant loss of hearing left me with quite a lot of phantom noise in the operated ear that causes audio distortion, a roaring that was at first quite unpleasant and exhausting.  The first time I heard congregational singing and our very excellent pianist play, I was appalled.  Hearing the trio this Sunday was a marker of sorts of how far I had come.  My hearing has not changed; rather, my brain has been busily working to make sense of what I hear and to filter what is not useful, and getting better and better at it with no intentional help from me other than to keep exposing it to sounds that I can’t understand.  And it has learned how to help me hear precisely through exposure to what is unpleasant and confusing. My tendency at first was to back away from external sounds, away from communication; but through the din and uncertainty a thread of meaning has slowly emerged.

My life flows on in endless song above earths lamentation. I catch that sweet though far off hymn.

The response song Sunday to the musical meditation overwhelmed me.  It is such a familiar song, and yet I apparently had not sung nor listened to the words in two years: 

Through all the tumult and the strife I hear that music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul.  

The underlying noise could not obscure the music I heard that Sunday.  The good work of my brain met my memory of song, and of music generally, and restored a semblance of what I used to hear.

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I’m clinging.

There was another side to this significant loss: at my lowest point, immediately after surgery (and I suppose mediated by the drugs involved), I was graced with a palpable and profound awareness of a loving presence with me in my drugged misery.  It was not a presence that lifted me out and away from that misery, but which occupied the same space; the set of misery (to use a math metaphor) completely enclosed by the set of Love.

What though my joys and comforts die? What though the darkness gather ‘round?

In the following two years, as an almost mystical experience of love has given way to the realities of life which must also be lived on a mundane level, I am learning what I can do to inhabit that other consciousness, even as I recall it was/is a gift: the veil of normalcy is parted briefly at times, but it also necessarily closes.  Our part is to be alert, to watch for it.

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing.

Take joy where you find it, as Mary Oliver advises in one of her prose poems.  Yield fully to beauty and to love when they come to turn your carefully guarded soul inside out for a time. And in between times, when you come down from the heights of experience and feeling to live your love in more mundane or difficult  ways, remember well what has been, and hope to welcome it again at the appointed time in new guise.

Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing? 

Hierarchies, Mimetics, Puppies

We bred Sheila at the request of my sister and her husband with little anticipation of what we were getting into. As with having children, it was a good thing we didn’t know. Knowing about the trouble and disruption we would experience might have prevented us from plunging into a project that has been delightful.

Watching Sheila expertly mother, and later, loosen the bond to her puppies has been instructive. It’s too bad so few parents have experience with proximity to rearing animal young. What a great teacher with potential to reduce anxiety and error! Sheila was vigilant in attendance to their need for nourishment and security, giving of her own life substance for the time necessary; she watched over them from her nightly perch on a storage container on the front porch, forsaking her preferred position near the door we normally use. Gradually, as their capacity increased, let them operate from their own resources and puppy food, the nursing times getting briefer and briefer before she shook them off. Finally it was little more than a quick latching on before she skipped back out of their enclosure. By the time they were ready for moving on to other households they were fully weaned. We still have two of them, and her interactions with them are interesting to watch. Where she once deferred to their needs, allowing them precedence in scraps, treats and bones, they are now just competitor dogs for the goodies. She disciplines them and plays with them from time to time but mostly is back to seeing to her own needs, and attentive to the needs of her humans.

The two puppies that we kept of the eight, are incredibly cute, tumbling and tussling or heaped up together sleeping. Their occasional encounters with hot fence lines are necessary but heart wrenching. Fortunately they learn quickly. Unfortunately, we have to persuade them then that the world, for the most part, is safe. They illustrate daily the power of mimetic mammal interaction and learning. I wish I had a photo of the time they ran up to the front yard proudly, literally shoulder to shoulder, each with one side of an old leather glove they had found firmly between teeth, discovering by necessity a kind of cooperation. There is a large shoulder bone in the North pasture too big for them to lift, that they occasionally encounter and settle in to gnaw, each at an end, growling ominously at one another the while.

Frequent treats help them learn their names and simple commands. They have learned to respect the boundaries of the property for the most part now, so we can often let them be on their own while we are inside. But a prerequisite for that obedience is plenty of exercise first! These are necessary lessons that make all of our lives tolerable. Eventually we hope they can learn signals and words to help with herding animals. It’s interesting too, to see the definite hierarchy among the big dogs which the puppies must become part of. Abby is old and not so agile and I am occasionally surprised when she takes exception to Sheila and Blue’s rough play, always disciplining Sheila (not Blue, who is second in farm dog seniority) by towering over her growling. Evidently Sheila steps out of line in their play and needs to be put in her place.

Abby tolerates quite a bit from the puppies, and the one I call Akino’ tests Abby’s patience by yipping in her face. If Abby gets tired of it, at first she often moves to avoid the irritation or just barks once in exasperation and Akino doesn’t feel too threatened by her. But sometimes she snarls, scaring him, and sometimes she has had him on his back on the ground in submission.
I am reminded of my own misplaced attempts to manage toddlers and preschoolers with reasoning, and my misgivings about fairness with them. Now I see how much overthinking I was doing! Much better for everyone to learn as quickly as possible the hierarchy. There is plenty of time and a lot more incentive to learn reason later.

Losing Mind

A few weeks lacking of the longest night, the landscape is preparing us for the darkness. Beneath our inclination to slow down when the light is shortened, here in the Northern hemisphere, and our consequent lowered spirits, is the reminder that all things die and make space for something else. The several funerals at the end of this year were in harmony with the spirit of this season. I go willingly to remember these lives and mourn the losses, and to hear Pastor Janice speak words that acknowledge the uniqueness of the one remembered, and also to remind us of our hope in life and in death.
Recently she spoke about the increasing fragility we watch in others as they age, knowing that it will be our fate as well; and about the hope of the gospels that God’s love is with us even as we decline physically and mentally. We read from II Corinthians about the treasure, God’s saving love, enclosed in earthen vessels, and from Romans 8 about all the difficult things that cannot separate us from that love.
I wanted to go further in, to talk about how it is precisely those difficult things that complete the work begun in us, that reveal to us and to others that treasure of love within.
The encounter two years ago with my own limits of capacity and control, and the love of the Christ that met me at those limits showed me clearly by experience that the ego self, what we think of as the mind, that we set such store by and completely and erroneously identify with, is not the treasure Paul speaks of. That treasure is an entirely different Self, the Self that intersects the Divine, in whose image we were created.

I recently read three books, each witnessing in its own way to this mistaken identity and its alternative. Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism is True (note there is no ’only’ in that title) describes the basic nature of the ego, which is in service to natural selection, and its firm and controlling grip on our lives. He describes opportunities and practices we can build into our lives to regularly escape that iron grasp and live from the more generous and loving Self, the part of us that derives from the Whole and participates in the Divine.

In How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan writes about the history and use of psychoactive drugs, their success in treating addictions and depression, as well as their value in ego transcendence. Then he records his own and others’ experiences with these substances that have the power, with a single encounter in most people, to become a means to experience the world beyond the ego prison: a world of belonging and meaning.

Braiding Sweetgrass, a gem of a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, describes a path of ego transcendence by means of our participation in the membership of this mysterious and gorgeous world. Kimmerer places humans within the family of creatures who mutually reveal the terrible beauty and grace which holds us. Gratitude, the doorway, is what holds this natural community together, and is our appropriate response and our debt.

Each of these writers testify to strategies at hand to free us from slavery to ego and return it to its appropriate role in service to the Self. The egoic illusion of separateness and autonomy is responsible for so many of the errors that lead to violence and suffering. We stumble blindly along, unaware of the reality in which we are embedded, mistaking our personal package of desire, fear and pride for our real Self. Psychoactive chemicals have been an effective way for many to begin the journey of ego transcendence but, as one of the uninitiated to this particular doorway of perception, I believe that there are other more life-embedded and equally useful openings. Love and suffering, the ordinary offerings of life, if attended to, can loosen the grip of ego. Great love and suffering can be powerfully transforming. The experience of daily saturation in the natural world to nudge the ego out of control can be an invaluable practice. And Death is a sure portal, and perhaps is the most useful one for most of us in its totality and unavoidability.

I experienced the afterglow of a great loosening of Ego for months after the disorientation and reorientation of anesthetic and surgery two years ago. Its fading is my sorrow now, though enough remains that I am confident that there is nothing to fear as my body and mind grow fragile. I know now that waiting is preparation, and that life offers many portals of transcendence.
Where our life meets our inevitable decline and loss, an overwhelming Love will also be present.

Puppies!

Sheila, our Border Collie, was mated to Patch, my sister’s Border Collie, two months ago.  On Monday she had her first litter.  Before she started laboring she was agitated, not sure where she wanted to be or what to do next and running to me for reassurance.  When she began heavy panting, I confined her to her kennel.  I was distracted for a while when a neighbor came by for a visit and when she left we saw Sheila was licking the last of three pups dry.  She soon started panting again and so it went the afternoon, labor alternating with delivery of a wet pup or two.  Though I checked on her every several minutes i only saw the front paws of one pup emerging.  Eventually she pushed out the last one, the eighth.  She did everything well, allowing sucking at will, pushing them into position, feeling carefully before she put her weight down when she came or went for a little water or food, to pee, or for a little interaction with her approving people.  I put water quite close at first but decided she needed to be moving from time to time and left it outside the kennel.  I would see her dash out on a necessary errand and then hurry back, sometimes in obvious indecision about immediate return but always doing the right, the necessary thing.

The pups loll about, eyes still shut, sucking and squirming more like little larva than like puppies. Sheila submits to them as a good mother does, prioritizing new life over all other desire.