Saturday, January 17, 2015

SAYING "YES" TO THE SAVAGE AND BEAUTIFUL JOURNEY

Derry, The Zen Master

Here's an inspirational thought for the beginning of 2015, or for that matter, the beginning of tomorrow and every day thereafter:

The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one's curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day.  Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length.  It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.
Diane Ackerman
from
A Natural History of the Senses 

Monday, January 12, 2015

LISTENING IN THE SILENCE OF WINTER



Here I am in the middle of January, sitting by the fire with a cup of tea and a book of poetry, thinking of how comfortable it is to slow down in winter, to concentrate on the infinite pleasures of just being in the world — not doing, not resolving, not producing, not winning, not succeeding — just being.

The book in my hands is The House of Belonging, a collection of poems by David Whyte, and it contains a lovely poem that captures much of what is coursing through my thoughts on this particular day.  It's a poem about listening — listening for the sounds of a world being constantly renewed, listening for the quiet whisper of one's inner voice, listening for the unique music of every thing and every person, listening for the myriad joys that are about to be born into the world every moment, even as some of the old familiar joys are passing away.  Here it is:

                                            The Winter of Listening
                                                    by David Whyte

                                            No one but me by the fire,

                                            my hands burning
                                            red in the palms while
                                            the night wind carries
                                            everything away outside.

                                            All this petty worry
                                            while the great cloak
                                            of the sky grows dark
                                            and intense
                                            round every living thing.

                                            What is precious
                                            inside us does not
                                            care to be known
                                            by the mind
                                            in ways that diminish
                                            its presence.

                                            What we strive for
                                            in perfection
                                            is not what turns us
                                            into the lit angel
                                            we desire,

                                            what disturbs
                                            and then nourishes
                                            has everything
                                            we need.

                                            What we hate
                                            in ourselves
                                            is what we cannot know
                                            in ourselves but
                                            what is true to the pattern
                                            does not need
                                            to be explained.

                                            Inside everyone
                                            is a great shout of joy
                                            waiting to be born.

                                            Even with the summer
                                            so far off
                                            I feel it grown in me
                                            now and ready
                                            to arrive in the world.

                                            All those years
                                            listening to those
                                            who had
                                            nothing to say.

                                            All those years
                                            forgetting
                                            how everything
                                            has its own voice
                                            to make
                                            itself heard.

                                            All those years
                                            forgetting
                                            how easily
                                            you can belong
                                            to everything
                                            simply by listening.

                                            And the slow
                                            difficulty
                                            of remembering
                                            how everything
                                            is born from
                                            an opposite
                                            and miraculous
                                            otherness.

                                            Silence and winter
                                            has led me to that
                                            otherness.

                                            So let this winter
                                            of listening
                                            be enough
                                            for the new life
                                            I must call my own.


From The House of Belonging: Poems by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press, Langley, Washington (1997).

Sunday, January 11, 2015

WAITING FOR HOPE AND HISTORY TO RHYME



Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Against the backdrop of this week's horrendous massacres in France, and now the outpouring of more than one and a half million people of good will on the streets of Paris, I offer the hopeful words of the late Irish poet and playwright, Seamus Heaney:

                                         Human beings suffer.
                                         They torture one another.
                                         They get hurt and get hard.
                                         No poem or play or song
                                         Can fully right a wrong
                                         Inflicted and endured.

                                         The innocents in gaols
                                         Beat on their bars together.
                                         A hunger-striker's father
                                         Stands in the graveyard dumb.
                                         The police widow in veils
                                         Faints at the funeral home.

                                         History says, don't hope
                                         On this side of the grave.
                                         But then, once in a lifetime
                                         The longed-for tidal wave
                                         Of justice can rise up,
                                         And hope and history rhyme.

                                         So hope for a great sea-change
                                         On the far side of revenge.
                                         Believe that further shore
                                         Is reachable from here.
                                         Believe in miracle
                                         And cures and healing wells.

                                         Call miracle self-healing:
                                         The utter, self-revealing
                                         Double-take of feeling.
                                         If there's fire on the mountain
                                         Or lightning and storm
                                         And a god speaks from the sky

                                         That means someone is hearing
                                         The outcry and the birth-cry
                                         Of new life at its term.

                              From Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

BEANNACHT: A BLESSING FOR THE NEW YEAR


Happy New Year to all of my wonderful friends in the blogging world.  Here is a fine poetic blessing that the late John O'Donohue wrote for his mother, Josie. Subsequently, the blessing was included in O'Donohue's book, To Bless the Space Between Us, and was offered as "A Blessing for the New Year."  The words and Celtic sentiments embodied therein resonate deeply with me as I embark upon yet another year.   May they also resonate with you.


                                                     Beannacht
                                                            by 
                                                 John O'Donohue

                                        On the day when

                                        The weight deadens
                                        On you shoulders
                                        And you stumble,
                                        May the clay dance
                                        To balance you.

                                        And when you eyes
                                        Freeze behind
                                        The gray window
                                        And the ghost of loss
                                        Gets into you,
                                        May a flock of colors,
                                        Indigo, red, green
                                        And azure blue,
                                        Come to awaken in you
                                        A meadow of delight.

                                        When the canvas frays
                                        In the curragh of thought
                                        And a stain of ocean
                                        Blackens beneath you,
                                        May there come across the waters
                                        A path of yellow moonlight
                                        To bring you safely home.

                                        May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
                                        May the clarity of the light be yours,
                                        May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
                                        And may the protection of the ancestors be yours.

                                        And so may a slow
                                        Wind work these words
                                        Of love around you,
                                        An invisible cloak
                                        To mind your life.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

BREAKING THE DEAD SHELL OF YESTERDAYS

Morning Sun Breaking Through the Trees on The Hill Behind My House

                                                 A Morning Offering
                                                  by John O'Donohue

                                 I bless the night that nourished by heart
                                 To set the ghosts of longing free
                                 Into the flow and figure of dream
                                 That went to harvest from the dark
                                 Bread for the hunger no one sees.

                                 All that is eternal in me
                                 Welcomes the wonder of this day,
                                 The field of brightness it creates
                                 Offering time for each thing
                                 To arise and illuminate.

                                 I place on the altar of dawn:
                                 The quiet loyalty of breath,
                                 The tent of thought where I shelter,
                                 Waves of desire I am shore to
                                 And all beauty drawn to the eye.

                                 May my mind come alive today
                                 To the invisible geography
                                 That crosses me to new frontiers,
                                 To break the dead shell of yesterdays,
                                 To risk being disturbed and changed.

                                 May I have the courage today
                                 To live the life that I would love,
                                 To postpone my dream no longer
                                 But do at last what I came here for
                                 And waste by heart on fear no more.


From John O'Donohue's To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (Doubleday, 2008).


Thursday, September 11, 2014

VERMEER: IN LOVE WITH LIGHT

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Jan Vermeer
c. 1665-1667


As one who loves both good poetry and fine paintings, it was a great pleasure to recently discover Howard Nemerov's insightful poem on the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675).     Having died at the early age of only forty-two, Vermeer did not produce a great volume of paintings.  The ones that have been preserved, however, are generally extraordinary.

While I'm drawn to Vermeer's paintings for several reasons, I will mention only the most important here, namely, his extraordinary understanding and treatment of light. It is one thing to see the transformational power of light coming from a certain angle; it's quite another thing to be able to capture it on canvas.  In this respect, Vermeer is rightly considered an absolute master.

Below are five Vermeer paintings that provided some of the inspiration for Nemerov's fine poem.  If you look closely at each of these paintings, especially at the use of light to define the moods of the characters and the scenes, I think you find a special resonance in the poem.


The Geographer
Jan Vermeer
c. 1668-1669



Girl With a Red Hat
Jan Vermeer
c. 1665-1667


Woman in Blue Reading Letter
Jan Vermeer
c. 1662-1665



Woman Holding a Balance
Jan Vermeer
c. 1622-1665


                                                            Vermeer
                                                   by Howard Nemerov

                                    Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
                                    Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
                                    Keeping it simple; being in love with light
                                    And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
                                    How beautiful! a modesty which is
                                    Seductive extremely, the care of daily things.

                                    At one for once with sunlight falling through
                                    A leaded window, the holy mathematic
                                    Plays out the cat's cradle of relation
                                    Endlessly; even the inexorable
                                    Domesticates itself and becomes charm.

                                    If I could say to you, and make it stick,
                                    A girl in a red hat, a woman in blue
                                    Reading a letter, the lady weighing gold . . .
                                    If I could say this to you so you saw,
                                    And knew, and agreed that this was how it was
                                    In a lost city across the sea of years, 
                                    I think we should be for one moment happy
                                    In the great reckoning of those little rooms
                                    Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
                                    Or standing invisible on the shore opposed,
                                    Watching the water in the foreground dream
                                    Reflectively, taking a view of Delft
                                    As it was, under a wide and darkening sky.



View of Delft
Jan Vermeer
c. 1660-1661



I love these opening lines by Nemerov: "Taking what is, and seeing it as it is, pretending to no heroic stances of gestures, keeping it simple; being in love with light . . ."  Great advice not only for painting, but for life itself.



Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A CURIOUS RACE

 Ant in Flower
Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For many decades, beginning in the early seventies, I walked around with ten to fifteen memorized poems in my head.  Generally, these were poems that sustained me through the challenges of life, and I simply enjoyed having them always available to me, whatever the place or circumstances.  I felt then, as I do now, that quiet reflection upon a poem that I "know by heart" is a rewarding form of meditation that can deepen my understanding of both the poem and myself.

Most of the memorized poems that I carried around in my head during those years provided valuable insights or inspiration for my personal journey — e.g., Tennyson's Ulysses.  There was one poem, however — Departmental, by Robert Frost —  that I memorized for the simple reason that I loved its rhyming structure,  its musicality, its lighthearted humor, and its sheer entertainment value.  The poem offers more, however, than a delightful and entertaining structure.  While it is ostensibly an observation of the "curious race" of ants, it is also a reflection on the societal traits of another curious race, namely, the human race.  

Read the poem and see what you think.  For what it's worth, I find it very satisfying to read this particular poem out loud.  

                                                     Departmental
                                                     by Robert Frost

                                             An ant on the tablecloth
                                             Ran into a dormant moth
                                             Of many times his size.
                                             He showed not the least surprise.
                                             His business wasn't with such.
                                             He gave it scarcely a touch,
                                             And was off on his duty run.
                                             Yet if he encountered one
                                             Of the hive's enquiry squad
                                             Whose work is to find out God
                                             And the nature of time and space,
                                             He would put him onto the case.
                                             Ants are a curious race;
                                             One crossing with hurried tread
                                             The body of one of their dead
                                             Isn't given a moment's arrest —
                                             Seems not even impressed.
                                             But he no doubt reports to any 
                                             With whom he crosses antennae, 
                                             And they no doubt report
                                             To the higher-up at court.
                                             Then word goes forth in Formic:
                                             "Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
                                             Our selfless forager Jerry.
                                             Will the special Janizary
                                             Whose office it is to bury
                                             The dead of the commissary
                                             Go bring him home to his people.
                                             Lay him in state on a sepal.
                                             Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
                                             Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
                                             This is the word of your Queen."
                                             And presently on the scene
                                             Appears a solemn mortician;
                                             And taking formal position,
                                             With feelers calmly atwiddle,
                                             Seizes the dead by the middle,
                                             And heaving him high in the air,
                                             Carries him out of there.
                                             No one stands round to stare.
                                             It's nobody else's affair.

                                             It couldn't be called ungentle,
                                             But how thoroughly departmental.