“R” is for “Regret,” and for “Receive”

‘Nostalgia:’

Not a longing for what was loved and lost.
I thought this was it, but it isn’t.

Regret, yes. Desire? Yes.
But not for any earlier, more loved times.

For the opposite: 
All I couldn’t receive when it came to me.

Could not entirely,
not in proportion.

The full, entire happinesses of life so far:
those I’ve mostly forgotten.

Oh, I can recall them, but they don’t persist,
stirring up longing—

To remember joy is to renew delight.
Fleeting, as is its nature (delight’s),

but untinged: nothing kept apart from the body
for missing to stick to.

Sweetness refused is the alien irritant:
grit which the missing adheres to, surrounds.

Nostalgia’s its sorrow, a species of wistfulness
for all the joys missed, not the ones received. 
1

As I approach my seventh decade of life, a time in which the pull toward recollection and reflection (or “life review” as it’s drily called in the gerontology field) increases, I’ve been noticing that my life does seem to include more and more experiences that can be named with “re”-prefixed verbs.

It turns out that the latinate tributary of the english language is especially rich with words that begin with “re:” a prefix which signals some kind of do-over with respect to its word’s root. In fact, there are no fewer than 4443 English words that begin with the prefix “re-“ (I wondered just now, so I looked it up)

So as I auditioned possible topics for this “R is for ___” post, I made a list of some of the most personally significant “re-“ prefixed words that came to mind. Return, rejoice, reflect, reconnect, remorse, readjust, regroup, rejoice, repent, refrain and reconsider were a few that emergedI also noticed that while respond and reconcile showed up with a good bit of charge to them, I felt less connected with react and resent than I would have in earlier decades.

Nice to know.

In the end, it was regret and receive that lit up the most, the experiences and the natures of both of these occupying as they do the foreground of my inner experiences and reflections these days, omnipresent and potent.

Which was when the opening excerpt came to mind, with its connection between the two. And I realized that it was precisely the intersections and synergy between those two that I wanted to explore here, more.

Etymologically, to regret is to “re-weep.”  By its very definition then, regret points to the presence of some kind of  loss. In other words, whatever the story or judgement that might be brought to a given regret (“I did wrong,” say, or “I wish I had […]” the actual feeling is one of grief.

The difficulty, I suppose, with regret as a feeling, is that inhabits that realm of what is called these days “ambiguous loss:” the kind of loss that is invisible to others (sometimes even to oneself), often entirely private, and as likely as not to concern something that did not occur as to concern something that did.

Earlier this year, I was introduced to maybe the best book ever on grief: Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow.2

And in the way that these things often do (thank you, workings of providence; thank you, gift of grace!) it landed in my life at just the time I needed exactly what it offered, as I was just beginning to navigate a welter of profound personal losses of my own— a tsunami of loss which was, in the process, resurfacing a flotilla of associated old regrets. So I have been especially grateful for Weller’s wise and lucid description as to why “regret” belongs squarely in the realm of grief.

“Over the course of our lives,” he writes,grief enters our hearts in many ways.” Calling these the “five gates of grief,” Weller places “regrets” in the “second gate”which he describes as including

those choices we made that hindered or harmed others or ourselves: the un-lived life of abandoned dreams, friendships that withered and died, or the decision to withdraw our hearts from the world and neither receive nor offer love. These things we regret are sources of deep and abiding loss. To live with regret is a heavy sadness. It is like walking through a graveyard of loss.

As I read this passage,  I felt an immediate, visceral sense of surprise and relief: there were many of the varieties of my own regrets, named and compassionately-acknowledged as kinds of losses, versus a cause for shame.

And with that recognition and relief arrived a felt-understanding that while the private and “heavy sadness” of regret can become the angry-frozen grief that is bitterness, or the sad-frozen grief of despair, or the hot grief that is shame, that regret itself is not the same as these. 

As I continue to reflect more deeply on my regrets, by way of the opening-within that compassionate acknowledgement itself creates (first Weller’s, then my own by way of the invitation of his), I realize that it’s probably true that as many regrets as I have about things I’ve done, most of my most ache-y regrets have to do with what I have either withheld from others, or have refused to receive.

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” George Saunders declared in his commencement address to the Syracuse University Class of 2013.3

Yes, kindness especially. Thank you for saying so, G.S.; me too.

About twenty-five years into our marriage (which was almost half of it ago, now), my husband and I experienced one of those kinds of crises which, if it doesn’t end in some variation of relationship despair, can be the portal to the kind of deepening of love and trust that may be possible in no other way but through such a crucible. 

Seared into my heart’s memory is the moment when, in the midst of whatever issue we were arguing, R. abruptly stopped.

Then, looking at me with intense pain and love, he said simply, Just let me love you! 

All at once, in the presence of that plaintive, loving invitation, I both felt and saw the essential vulnerability inherent in the act of receiving. Here was all this spacious, tender, and (I had to admit) unconditional love, and I wasn’t letting it in. Saw that that was what so many of my complaints and criticisms and withholdings were really about: not about his failures, but about my fear of receiving, looking to justify itself (the fear was) by finding something wrong with him. That in fact my part of our struggle was not about “not getting my needs met” (a relationship discourse I have since come to loathe, since it endorses the project of getting from the other as a primary goal):  I wasn’t “getting my needs met” because something in me was afraid to receive.

And while my fear of receiving was based in experiences in my formative years which had taught me to suspect “giving” to be a kind “taking” in disguise, that did not make it always true. 

But I had lived as though it was always true, tilting at windmills in marriage and friendships, refusing to receive their simplest and deepest gifts: of generosity, tenderness, the acknowledgement and sharing of sorrow. Of offers of wisdom, and of various kinds of aid. 

And, in the way our experience of and stories about others both shape and reflect our deepest fears about ourselves, my distrust naturally extended to my own, genuine loving impulses (I am realizing this part as I write it, now): distrust of my own generosity, patience, kindness, and sorrow, to name a few. 

So, I had been largely withholding these from the world (or had offered them, but from an emotional distance), and let my smarts and thoughts (with their more comfortable distance for me, and presumedly safer distance for others)— stand in. 

* * *

Which reflection on my regrets around my failures of receiving reactivates a long-held grievance concerning the oft-quoted, commonly-accepted, supposed-admonition attributed to Jesus, that “It is better to give than to receive.”

I am quite sure that Jesus never said or meant that, in fact; that what he said/meant was that “It is better to give than to take.” But so as not to take you (and myself) on the lengthy detour of my argument and its evidence here, I’ll include that instead as a postscript .

Some thing 
hovered 

in the heavens, 
hoping to be

received.
We believed

but did not
receive, 

thinking these
the same. 

Out theologies 
stood in, 

soothing 
our sin,

widening
our wounds.
4

***

So today —right now— I resolve to lean into (instead of away from) the bodily feeling of a specific, long-held regret in my own flotilla of regrets that has floated to the front— one that I prefer to keep in the periphery of my vision because of its very potency. 

And as I touch into the felt-quality of the pain of loss itself that lives below the noisy voices of my judgement, my fear, and my shame and just continue to breathe through the feel of it, I begin to notice a softening-open of something solid and cold inside, and then a stirring —as from a slight breeze or distant whisper— that comes to meet it.

Then something happens that I can’t really explain or describe except to say that it’s like the essential energy or spirit of the regret merges again with the whole of my essential vitality itself (my inner voice wants to say “soul” here, so there it is), as though a dimension of it has been restored, refreshed.  

* * *

I said: ‘what about my eyes?’
He said: Keep them on the road.
I said: ‘What about my passion?’
He said: Keep it burning.
I said: ‘What about my heart?’
He said: Tell me what you hold inside it?
I said: ‘Pain and sorrow.’
He said: Stay with it. 
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

—Rumi

Photo by Shivam on Pexels.com

Postscript

Commonly translated as “It is better to give than to receive,” this supposed teaching of Jesus is one that, I will argue, has caused untold personal, spiritual and cultural confusion and damage— confusion and damage not only among avowed Christians (and other followers of Jesus’ teachings), but in the secular culture at large also, which its message has long infected. But it is a teaching and admonition which has never made sense to me, on a couple of different levels. 

At the level simply of basic reason: what good is any giving that is not received, beyond gratifying the ego of the giver (which Jesus taught against about a million times)? And how can it be “good” to feed someone but “bad” (or in any way less “good”) to eat what is offered? If receiving is necessary to complete an act of giving (as it obviously is), how can one gesture be “better” in any way than the other?  

It also doesn’t make sense to me that Jesus would even say that, since his teaching and example otherwise so often emphasize the importance —even holiness—of receiving. In John 13:1-17 for instance, Jesus’ disciples initially balk when he insists that they allow him to wash their feet. To which he replies that “unless you do this [unless you yourselves experience the vulnerability of receiving] you will have no part in me [you will not be fully representing my teaching and example by your own in the world].”

So I got to wondering if the problem might be in a distortion created in the translation (historically always by men) to English from the Aramaic in which Jesus actually taught and spoke.

In English, the words “take” and “receive” are commonly used as though they were synonymous, and therefore interchangeable. But in fact “to take” connotes an active, assertive, even aggressive act, connected with acquiring something for oneself. It is initiated from the part of ourselves that has a sense of personal agency of some sort, with the intent to use that agency get something. 

In contrast, you can feel (at least I can) the different energy around the position involved in receiving: there is a vulnerability, passivity, humility, and event incipient gratitude involved in the act of receiving. Receiving does not act upon; it accepts.

So I did some research into the Aramaic language, and what I found was exactly what I had begun to suspect: that the Aramaic word for “receive” and for “take” are the same word:  5 קָב . So it follows that both the denotation and connotation could have been understood only in context.

Such that it is entirely plausible that Jesus actually meant was “it is better to give than to take.” 

Which understanding not only makes that teaching consistent with (instead of jarringly off-key from) his other teachings on similar themes, but restores “receiving” to its rightful place as the complementary (to giving) virtue it is, and not a kind of murky semi-vice.

Notes:

  1. Excerpt from the poem, “The Eddy Fence.” In: Henderson, Donna, The Eddy Fence. Airlie Press, 2007.
  2. Weller, Francis, The Wild Edge of SorrowNorth Atlantic Books, 2015
  3. Saunders’ address, with its theme of “kindness” evidently touched a nerve among readers: soon after, the text was posted on a blog in the New York Times where in a very short time it received over a million hits. The address was subsequently re-published as a little book entitled Congratulations, By The Way.
  4. from my untitled (so far) poetry sequence-in-progress
  5. https://biblehub.com/hebrew/6901.html

A note to readers/subscribers: This is a copy of the post which is now published first on Substack, which is where I am asking subscribers through this platform to now subscribe to “Are You With Me Here.” Future posts will still appear here, but in an abbreviated form (the first couple of paragraphs or so), with a link to the Substack version to access the full post.

“Q” is for “Quest” (the inner one)

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart…Who looks outside dreams; Who looks inside, awakens.”

Carl Jung

As we pass the cusp of the year that is the winter solstice, a  part of me feels relief at the knowledge that the dimmer & timer are moving in the other direction again, toward more and longer light. 

photo credit: rmg.co.uk

But I notice that another part is resisting this, eager for it not to come too soon. That’s the part that feels like I’ve just begun to accept the yin1 invitation of winter: to drop down into the darkness and troll around there, in the realm of the inner quest and its questions. Questions that are not the yang-cycle questions of spring and summer, those being more questions of purpose, of direction, of problems-to-be-solved, upward-and-outward gazing and clarity-and-action oriented. Questions of how to do, how to be, how to change, fix, and make, or improve; questions about where to go

Fall invites the slowdown and release that are the preparation for the less directive, more receptive activity of the inner quest, but oh, the actual dive into that particular underwild (as I have come to think of it): it really never gets easier, making that turn inward and downward. At least it doesn’t for me, being by nature a wader-into-the-pool, and not a diver-in, much as I love to swim around in what’s there, once I’m there…

So what is that about, I wonder? The resistance? 

Maybe it’s because the truest, most essential questions of the inner quest can only form themselves once I am down there in it, after I have relinquished the questions I brought with me, thinking to light the way with them, but which questions can return nothing but my own reflection, and its glare. The underwild has its own questions, which I have to stop talking to hear. Questions which require instead that I sink down, and be silent, still. I can bring along light, but it must be the body’s light, not the thinking mind’s. So to take the step inward and downward requires, first, that I surrender control (which is actually just the illusion of control anyway, as my sister Heather just reminded me)

* **

So slow the slim things flow

& furl through deepdark far 

below the ocean’s surge 

& flail & surface tension,

glare so far away

above this world the 

sea-worm glows its way 

through over all that’s 

fallen out of tides & time 

I chant its genus name 

three times: 

“Pyrosome, 

Pyrosome, 

Pyrosome,” 

body whose own fire 

lights its way.

pyrosome image from theatlantic.com.

Which (Aha, of course:) is no doubt the unconscious reason that I put this post at the end of the list of writing projects that I cleared space for this week: the moment I discerned my topic, I must have started resisting it. After all, to “go there” is to go there…whatever there is to discover, and to reveal.

“There is nothing more precious than a relationship with your own consciousness”

Pixie Lighthorse

This morning, I began re-reading my journals from the past year, an end-of-year ritual which I began a few years ago, and which I have found invaluable to the process of integrating insights and experiences that occur over a year’s time. I also find a lot of poems that way— poems I didn’t remember having written, and some that I didn’t know were poems, at the time.  And what stood out for me this morning was how very different the December and January entries are from the July and August ones, in ways that I was not conscious of when I was writing them, but which winter entries definitely reflect the inclination inward . 

Reading them, I realized that it was last winter that I decided to join a therapy group for therapists (on Zoom, so far) offered and led by a trusted mentor and colleague of mine of 30 years. This was explicitly not intended to be a support group, but a therapy group, therapy being all about going into (versus soothing or solving) the very discomfort that our coping strategies are designed to mitigate and avoid, the group’s purpose and invitation being instead to help make conscious members’ unconscious strategies for defending against pain.

Which was a counterintuitive decision (to join the group), for sure, since I was choosing to do that at a time in the world when I, like all of us, was struggling on a daily basis like never before, to simply cope. But the fact is, it is only when my coping strategies start to fray that I can even see through the rips in the fabric to what it is that they are coping with. Otherwise, my most excellent defenses simply hum along doing exactly what our coping strategies are designed to do when they are working perfectly: they make invisible all the fear, shame, confusion, anger, grief etc. that they are coping with. 

And what was not conscious for me at the time I decided to join the group (in fact, I am able to articulate it just now as I contemplate it now, writing this), is that as much as the part of me that longed for support, soothing and solving would have loved to be signing up for that kind of group, a deeper, inner-quest-oriented part felt and feels a greater-than-ever urgency to direct my attention instead to my own unconscious patterns of emotional self-defense (judging, avoiding, intellectualizing, blaming, scorning, overtalking, whatever), the better to be able to own and to tend more directly the wounds and fears that those defenses are coping with. To see “The wreck, and not the story of the wreck,” as in the poem by Adrienne Rich, below.

Why the urgency? Because it has become more and more real to me that it is exactly all the unconscious ways that you and I (along with everyone to which we may instead assign our blame for the ills of the world) defend ourselves against seeing and feeling our raw vulnerability and fear that is what recreates and maintains the kind of suffering that the world seems so drenched in, now. 

It’s the major theme that I see has emerged over these past two years of posts, I realize: the urgency for each of us to be curious about, and engaged in taking responsibility for, our own portion of the unconsciousness forces at loose in the world.  

Phobophobia

“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”

That’s what I was afraid of.

*


The group experience has been hard, no doubt about it; I often end up exhausted and raw-feeling at the end of one, and have been more than once tempted to quit, so triggered and reactive can I feel in very old and familiar ways.

But in the process of becoming both more curious and clearer about how that’s about me (versus blaming my reaction on the triggering person or agent), I’ve noticed also how much less powerful my now-less-unconscious reactions have somehow become as I live my life outside the group, and how much …mmm… quieter and somehow more spacious I feel inside. And with less fear, I notice I have more room for others, too: room for both the people I love, and for the ones I have trouble with.  

“We made more room in our homes to grow and to mourn” is one of the lines I found in my December 2020 journal entries, and it is a line that just sits there by itself on the page, without context or explanation. I know I wrote it, but I don’t remember writing it. Encountering it freshly, I recognized it right away, though, to be true: that it reflects an apprehension or premonition I must have had about participating in some expansion of the “home” of the self to receive some kind of becoming, which included space for the grieving that somehow is always part of that process. And that grieving itself was part of that, in the way it both requires inner space, and enlarges it.

So I’ll close with the poem that first inspired this post, and which I had originally intended to present as the first and last word on the subject of “inner quest” : to offer the poem, make a couple of comments, and call it good.

But as my unconscious obviously knew perfectly well (thus my putting-off of actually writing it until now), “to go there is to go there.”

I’m glad I did.  

Still, I do want to let Adrienne Rich’s masterpiece of a poem, “Diving into the Wreck” be the last word on the topic. I’ve transcribed just the first few stanzas here; click the “read more” link here or below to read the whole of the poem on its webpage at poets.org

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012

Diving into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.
(Read the complete poem here)

_____________________________________________

Notes: 

  1. For more on the Chinese medicine concept of Yin and Yang forces/energies/cycles, here’s a good and concise post on the subject: https://fiveseasonstcm.com/blogs/traditional-chinese-medicine-101/yin-and-yang

The poems Phobophobia and So slow the slim things flow are from “Send Word,” my forthcoming new collection of poems.

The quote from Pixie Lighthorse is from her book, Prayers of Honoring Voice

And for another fine inner quest poem, check out Mary Oliver’s The Journey

“P” is for “Post 9/11”

(in poetry, prose and prayer)

It finally rained yesterday in rural north-central Oregon, where I live. 

It was our first rain in five months, and we reveled both in the moisture it brought, and in the anticipation of clearer skies we expected to immediately come-with. 

Oddly, though, the rain didn’t clear the wildfire smoke so much as mix with it all day, such that all outdoors smelled like someone had just wet down a campfire.

Sometime in the night that changed, and this morning we woke to both a deep blue sky washed clean for the moment of smoke and clear of clouds,

and to the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

For such a feeling was the compound neologism “grie-lief”1 coined. 

As with so many of us over the past twenty years (and in an accelerated way, in the recent few), too much fear and loss for the nervous system to process or contain has caused mine to register our basic vulnerability much more directly than it used to, and my heart in particular to feel more immediately and deeply all there is to feel about in the world. 

And yet (I am realizing this as I write it down) I would not give the pain of that sensitivity back. 

Why?

Because it is teaching me what my mind “knew” but what my body (and therefore my soul, since it lives there) did not yet really comprehend: that it is only in being willing and able to feel our own vulnerability directly (fear as fear, and sorrow as sorrow) instead of through their protective avatars of hate, blame and judgement that we can actually tend (versus  simply defend) that vulnerability, and all the vulnerability-history our individual and collective bodies hold. Which has in turn helped me to really begin to understand also that it is only by way of that seeing and tending that I can bring into the world more care and compassion, instead of simply adding more hate, blame and judgement, however “righteous” I might think my own blame and judgement is. 

And really, does the world really need more hate and blame? Even mine? Even yours?

So, on this twentieth anniversary memorial morning, my heart’s tender grielief longed for the kind of language that can hold sorrow without resorting to either sentimentality (the kind of pseudo- feeling that is more about being “a tourist inside someone else’s suffering” as Leslie Jamison described it in her article on the topic in the Atlantic ) or pseudo-certainties, and that can bear witness to ways sorrow can expand the heart by way of utterly breaking it…open.

Which longing sent me first to poetry, via a search on the poets.org website, where I learned that in September 2001, Lucille Clifton sent the Academy of American Poets a short manuscript of seven poems, one for each day of the week, entitled “September Suite” in response to the events that transpired on September 11th, and written in those immediate days following the attacks. 

In their comprehension of the dangers of falling prey to hate, self-righteousness and despair, these “occasional” poems only read to me as being more timely than ever, twenty years on. You can find all seven poems there, in Clifton’s typescript, each one of them a facet of the Suite’s seven-sided gem of grief. .

excerpt from “Sunday Morning, 9/16/01” by Lucille Clifton

Later, checking my email after reading Clifton’s poems online, I found a link from Plough Quarterly (to which I subscribe) to  “Two Mothers of September 11”  in which (per the introduction) “A woman who lost her son in the World Trade Center looks back on twenty years of vengeance and her unlikely bond with the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui” .

How grateful I am to have read that, next. 

Which in turn (the mother’s story in Plough) reminded me of the piece of music I listened for days after  the 9/11 attacks (and which, having remembered that, I am listening to now): Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3. (a.k.a. “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”). The central theme of the symphony is the suffering and despair of a mother’s loss of a child, and a child’s loss of a mother. “Music to grieve to” this symphony is, and soprano Dawn Upshaw’s voice is exquisite.https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/Vpx2GjUHKB0?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

How to end this, then? I wondered to myself just now, wanting to take care not to default to sentimentality or certainty as a way to close this piece. 

Into which uncertainty the words of my current-favorite closing prayer (for pretty much anything, but for meditation especially) arrived; a prayer attributed to the 8th-century Indian philosopher, Buddhist monk, poet and scholar, Shantideva: 

May all those who are sick or ill
quickly be freed from their ailments.

May whatever diseases there are in the world
never occur again.

May the frightened cease to be afraid,
May those who are bound be freed,

May the powerless find power,
And may beings seek to benefit each other. 

Amen.

9/11 Memorial (www.iloveny.com)

Thanks to my sister, Darcy Henderson, for passing the neologism, “grielief” along from her friend

“O” is for “One With Others”

(from One With Others, by C.D. Wright. Copper Canyon Press, 2010, p. 168)

*

I think a lot about “unity” in general, and in these days of such extreme polarization and division, it feels urgent to contemplate the concept less sentimentally and more…rigorously, I guess: to consider what it means, and what it asks of us, to serve its ends.

The following is a set of linked reflections, which sample and reflect some of my own dippings and circlings of the subject.

But first, a recommendation (unity-related and general): the must-see documentary Summer of Soul, a powerful, beautiful, soul-stirring education of a concert film if there ever was one.

I can’t stop thinking about it–no: I can’t stop hearing and feeling it.

Not that I would want to.

***

A text exchange with my friend Susannah a couple of months ago :

Me: I keep meaning to tell you that my first “listen” with my new Airpods was to the Ezra Klein interview with George Saunders that you’d recommended [“What it Means to be Kind in a Cruel World”]. I really, really loved it, most particularly for the genuinely humble way he so gloriously (is the word that comes to mind) reconciles/integrates discourses of kindness, morality, and unconditional curiosity. This seems like the crucial triad for our time, and yet (as evidenced by some of the comments on my own attempts at same in my “Are You With Me Here” posts) these seem to live in a mutually-threatening, binary relationship to each other in our common discourse, each one (kindness, morality, and pure curiosity) seeming to de facto contradict the other. So it was profoundly satisfying to listen to Saunders both speak about and enact holding the tension of those three instead, as the explicit goal. 

Susannah:  Kindness…morality…curiosity. They all require profound grounding, don’t they? As soon as we get away from a center, one of these suffers. 

Me: That’s it, isn’t it? Profound grounding in each is needed  for all to remain engaged at once, and to anchor each other.

A kindness, then, that is not sentimental—that does not ignore truth in order to be “nice”

A morality that is the response of kindness, truth and justice to the discreet challenges of each ethical situation we face.  A morality of empathy, of compassion, that is, versus a fundamentalist morality of “one size fits all” fixed ideas and judgements. The kind of moral response that in fact is only possible in the presence of unconditional curiosity— which can, in turn, only exist in the absence of judgement.

Making possible a justice that is not judgmental, or vengeful. 

Later, when I tell Rich about this exchange, he replies, 

This is my major theme; it’s what I constantly think about. And it’s a problem that only poetry — not philosophy— can help us with. We need poets to help us understand this, intimately. Philosophy can help us understand intellectually, but poetry is how understanding actually changes and becomes us. 

Amen.

What Rich said about poetry recalled me to the great discovery, relief, challenge, invitation, opening, mystery and grace of poetry for me, in my twenties (which is when I began reading and writing it), which had to do with the realization that poetry can engage and hold all of what it is to be human, without resolution or judgement– without deciding

*

This was the thrill

of the new: 
that I didn’t have to decide,
or strive.
“Love is the original mission of language,”     
I heard— 

That I could listen inside of it. 1

*

Poetry as a kind of container-of-witness for all it considers, all it celebrates, all it laments, even all it convicts.

Which, paradoxically, does not make it weak, it makes it dangerous.

A witness that excludes nothing and no-one: is that not unity, and love?

Imagine if everything and everyone belonged, just as they are?

*

& i see that what’s meant is the illusion 
of separateness,  
as though ‘separate’ & ‘conscious’ were one and the same— ?

Go on…

and if creation began in the explosion of unity—

“—an explosion of fusion, not unity. 
When all was still fused, there was
no unity possible. 
Unity depends on some kind of relationship: 
the participation of each with all.
 

No fragmentation, no unity.” 

And the mystery of consciousness is that we can watch our own being…

Be? 2

*

Which brings me (albeit by the scenic route) to what I had originally meant to write about when I titled this post: the late poet C.D. Wright’s  One with Others [a little book of her days] which I have lately been reading and re-reading.

In it, Wright (a white woman) returns to her native Arkansas (quoting now from the jacket description:) to explore homegrown Civil Rights incidents and the critical role her mentor, V. a brilliant and difficult woman [also white], played in the little-known 1969 March Against Fear.  

(all text in italics below is from the text of the poem)

*

The world according to V was full of smoke and void of
mirrors.

She was not an eccentric. She was an original. She was congenitally

incapable of conforming. She was resolutely resistant. 3

*

The resulting, book-length poem speaks directly from and through the chorus of voices it includes and represents, as Wright deftly weaves together excerpts from oral histories, newspaper articles, interviews and photographic records to create a tour-de-force that is at once history, testimony, journalism and song: proof-positive that poetry can address, contain and express (one might say “unify”) the varied and disparate passions and tensions of, well, everything, even more capaciously than I already knew it could.

*

It is known that when a blackbird calls in the marsh all sound back and if

one note is missing all take notice. This is the solidarity we are born to 4

It also represents Wright’s deep-dive into a century of writing about race, as the twenty-four books in the bibliography attest– her annotated bibliography itself has been a treasure trove to my growing collection of “racial reckoning” readings.

*

The town under demolition from within

Color provides a structure, albeit soul-sucking 5

*

Ultimately, as the poem chronicles (in its narrative dimension), the act that briefly united “V” with others resulted in her being shunned and banished from her hometown. As Dan Chiasson observes in Southern Discomfort: C.D. Wright’s “One With Others”   :

Becoming “one with others,” [“V”]  ended up a pariah—one with others. She was run out of her home town, all but disowned by her husband (they had seven children together), and eventually she settled in a Memphis fleabag hotel. 

That last bit is what has stayed with me especially powerfully, after reading Wright’s book, in the challenge of its reminder that to truly and wholeheartedly be willing to be “one with others” is not simply about self-righteously disavowing racism in the abstract; it is to be willing to give up, in one way or another, one’s life. 

*

The world is not ineluctably finished
though the watchfires have been doused
6

*

For me, it presents the challenge and the question as to my willingness to, as “V” did, give up the actual privileges, belonging and protections conferred by my whiteness, and to be prepared to live with the losses of that.

Can I truly claim to be an anti-racist if I’m not?

*

You have your life

until you use it. You forfeit the only life you know

or go to your grave with the song curdled inside you.7

*

C.D. Wright, 1949-2016

Notes:

  1. From the poem (mine) “Send Word.”
  2. Ibid
  3. One With Others, p. 117
  4. Ibid, p. 107
  5. Ibid, p. 128
  6. Ibid, p. 141
  7. Ibid, p. 139

“N” is for “Now What?”

 “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss” (Psalm 85:11)

Day 1:

On the morning of January 20, just moments after President Biden and Vice President Harris (I love writing that!) were sworn in, my cousin Craig 1 texted from the Mohave Desert: 

Have had two days of dark clouds and cold winds. This morning solid overcast with some rain-cold, but long overdue in this part of the Mojave. But I’m not kidding, in the last 10 minutes of the Mad Emperor’s reign the clouds broke and cleared! It got bright and warm and I was once again ‘taking data in the sunshine.’ ! This is my motto and goal for 2021. 

photo by Craig Himmelwright

*

Then came an email from my British friend Helen, who lives in Exeter, in England:

Just wanted to send out greetings and congratulations to you on this wonderful day for you, for your country, our country, democracy…and the world! Celebrate well!

I myself had just burst into tears of relief and gratitude when President Biden, in his inaugural address, said, with fervent sincerity, “My whole soul is in this!” Both because he vowed it, and because it reminded me that we once again have a president with that kind of a soul. 

Then Amanda Gorman both raised the bar and cleared it with her Inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb (all text in red italics, below, is from the poem:)

theguardian.com

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours  […]

*

Down the hatch tonight, my friend Susannah signed off that evening.

*

*

Day 2: 

The next morning,  Susannah texts: 

I had a giant screaming freak-out cry fest. I did not know all that was there. It all came out. A crazy freak-out. Him, being gone. I lost my mind. I cried so hard. 

I knew what she meant, as I’d been feeling something new, too, the day after the inauguration: the stirring and welling of the feeling (as distinct from just the “knowing” and the “coping”) of the full scale and scope of the horror of the past four years, with its cumulative trauma and associated “grie-lief” 2 now. A scale of grief and fear that I could only begin to fully feel now that the need for the constant coping-with was over, in a definitively-ritual way if not perhaps a final one. I felt it this morning as a particular flavor of anxiety that I have come to recognize signals “grief-under-pressure” for me: an agitated fatigue, some nausea, a tightness in my throat, big irritability, and an intensifying, discomfiting feeling of angry contempt for those who continue to hold DT in esteem. 

All day, the words The horror, the horror! (Kurtz’s last words, in Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness 3) kept running through my mind.

And I envied Susannah her cryfest, as I waited for whatever would let my own dam break, within. 

Meanwhile, the focus in news platforms, social media, and text chains among friends was beginning to turn  more fully to the question of holding Trump accountable for his crimes. 

Which is when I remembered an experience I had the night after the execution of Saddam Hussein, on December 30, 2006. 

The brutal Iraqi dictator was executed by hanging after being convicted of crimes against humanity following the earlier massacre of 148 Iraqi Shi’ites in retaliation for an assassination attempt against him. The Iraqi government’s official video of the execution ended with the moment the noose was placed around his neck, but a cell phone recording of the hanging released to the news media showed him surrounded by a crowd viciously jeering him as he fell through the trap door of the gallows.

It was a disturbing image, and I remember feeling disturbed both by the image and by my own vindictive glee. 

That night, I dreamed I was at the hanging, though I stood at a distance. Saddam Hussein wore a white thawb. Just as in the video, an angry, jeering crowd milled around the gallows, shouting insults and spitting.

Then the trapdoor opened and the noose snapped the dictator’s neck.

At which moment his mouth opened, releasing a spray of what looked like little black seeds of some kind. Some of the seeds fell on the ground, but most of the seeds fell directly into the opened mouths of the gleefully vengeful crowd that pressing in close. And I was given to understand that the seeds were “the seeds of evil,” and that this is what happens to evil when our desire for justice is contaminated by our desire for vengeance and violence: its seeds are directly received into that opening, and incubated by the vindictive stuff within us. By way of which, instead of the evil dying with the evildoer, it goes forth and multiplies. Had SH been executed in a dignified, neutral and private way (again, this was the understanding I was given), the evil he carried might have mostly died with him, the seeds still releasing, but landing on nothing that would give them life.   

It was a powerful dream at the time; one of those dreams that felt like a direct transmission of a teaching that I was urgently meant to receive. 

And so I find myself contemplating this dream again, in midst of the heavy, roiling hugeness of my grief and rage, and the wish for revenge for the scale and scope of chaos and suffering that DT is responsible for, and as I witness the disturbing intensity of my contempt for his unrepentant supporters. 

gardeningknowhow.com

The dream reminds me that, at the end of the day, what I grow and add to the world results directly from the kinds of seeds I choose to feed and water in my own heart. We carry many kinds of seeds, and what we do with them collectively sets the vector toward actions that serve justice, or that (disguised as a fervor for justice) only add more hate and vengeance to the world, through the impulse of revenge .

We seek harm to none and harmony for all
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried

[…] 

it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it.

*

God how I pray for softening in all of our hearts. As well as willingness for some thoughtful accounting. Susannah texts later today. 

*

Day 3

At a post-inauguration Zoom celebration of the local Indivisible group that I’ve been a member of since January of 2016, we began to consider what might be our priorities for action, going forward.  Toward the end of the conversation, one of us posed the question, “So now, how do we get people we know who still stand by their support for T. to see that they were lied to?!” . 

There was a collective silence, into which another among us responded that we simply wait for them to come around, in their own way and own time.

Which seemed to me like just the right answer, if for no other reason than that it is a kind response, at a time when we need more kindness than we need more confrontations. 

And I have found myself continuing to reflect on that question and answer since, from a psychological and emotional point of view. It’s an important question, as one of the emotional challenges that I face going forward (and is what I think the question  reflects) is what to do with my own impatience, frustration, alarm and (yes) contempt, since trying to take care of those feelings by “getting others to see the light” is likely to just be experienced as the judgement that it is, and so deepen the denial.

The thing is, the function of denial itself (like all psychological defenses, and we all have them and use them all the time to keep at a distance stuff that we feel unprepared to emotionally deal with), is to protect us from seeing and acknowledging something which we unconsciously (this is an important point) believe would be lethal to us in some way to see and to acknowledge. A psychological defense is an unconscious psychological solution to a psychological problem, meaning that when a defense is working perfectly, it makes invisible what it is defending us from experiencing. And since it is at root non-rational and unconscious, versus rational and conscious (we consciously rationalize our defenses all the time, but that’s all part of protecting the defenses themselves), rational arguments don’t influence our defenses, except to register as a threat to the defense itself. So for the person I am trying to make “see,” I am not solving a problem; for her/him, I am trying to solve a solution.

In effect, the denial is a solution which I am trying to take away…and that is only going to deepen the resistance. 

When I remember that, I try to imagine what it would mean, now, if all my hopes and sense of self-worth and safety and understanding of how life is and what justice is and who and what are responsible for the ills of the world in general and for my own confused and confusing pain in particular had been invested with someone who presented himself as my sympathizer and savior…and then, after years and years of investing ever more in that person, I suddenly realized that the very person who seemed to sympathize and champion me in my pain and rage actually had not given a damn about me and mine at all, and in fact had been being slowly and deliberately and maliciously using and poisoning me all this time, purely in order to further empower and enrich himself. And so to face also that as a result of having been entranced into collaborating and condoning, I now also shared responsibility for all the harm and suffering that has resulted.

When I imagine that, I start to get a sense of how high the stakes would be, now, for the unconscious to face the choice to see or to continue not-to-see.

Which suggests to me in turn that unless I am prepared to commit to actively, curiously, patiently and compassionately holding space for a conversation about this, I don’t have any business trying to pushing for one with the still-unconvinced, until I am.

And the truth is that although it feels like a big huge failure of empathy, I am not, right now, able to actually feel compassion for those entrenched in their defenses against “seeing,” and in their loyalty to T, despite the fact that I intellectually understand it, and understand that the denial itself is about pain.

But my own and others’ pain resulting from the abuses and neglect of the previous administration, and the cumulative, deep exhaustion I feel, is pretty much all I can hold right now…and even that is too much, actually, for any of us to hold alone, as we are collectively beginning to realize [for more on this topic, see “People are not okay:” the mental health impact of the Trump era ]

And as I sit with the realization that there is really nothing to do with these feelings-that-I-would-rather-not-have (especially the cold, judgmental contempt, which makes my ego really uncomfortable!) that would not add more pain to pain and darkness to darkness in the world, I begin to relax around it a little; this just is what it is

Into which incipient sense of acceptance and surrender arrives the sudden sense within of an opening, a spaciousness, like stumbling into a clearing in the midst of a dark and trackless wood. The dense and distressing darkness is still there, but there’s space in it now, with light.

That I can hold this space, for light.

*

When day comes we step out of the shade
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

collage by Laney Urness

*

Notes:

  1. Craig Himmelwright is a veterinarian and wildlife biologist who works for a project that monitors and relocates  desert tortoises, so as to mitigate —to some degree at least— the effect of solar power facility development in the Mohave on the tortoises’ health and habitat)
  2. Thanks to my sister, Darcy, for that great neolism, “grielief”
  3. Heart of Darkness, written 1899, is a novel ultimately about European imperialism and racism, and about how the evil in the hearts of “all men” gets projected onto the “darkness” perceived elsewhere, in others. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now was based directly on Conrad’s novel.
An “old man” tortoise on Craig’s study Site (photo by Craig)

“M” is for “Mayhem, and Mystery.”

“The release of dark forces stirs beneficent forces and awakens in us mysterious dawns.” —M.C. Richards, Centering

Yesterday morning, I woke up into a feeling of powerful but inchoate anxiety.  

I feel it in my gut, I wrote in my journal, as my mind looked in vain for explanations in my immediate orbit. So that my entry simply ended with the question, Is this feeling about a “there” there, or is it just me?

Turns out that my husband, Rich, woke with the same feeling: a sense of restless dread. True, we were facing a day of errands with their inherent risks of virus exposure. But the feeling itself wasn’t that; it felt more premonitory…as the mayhem which ensued in Washington a few hours later seemed to validate that it had been. 

“Morning after coup attempt,” by Jan Lintz

And while yesterday’s assault on the Capitol was ultimately quelled, the ongoing assault on our Democracy which it represents continues, and we may well not have seen the end of the associated mayhem yet. 

In the evening, my friend Jan Lintz (a Eugene, Oregon painter and poet) texted: “at the end of this absurd day, I am finding solace in your poems, and also mine from 25 years ago,” followed by this poem of her own:

Night Flights

New moon
blackest of nights.
Not a shadow on pebbles
my toe stumbles over in darkness.
Not a glimmer on branches
of fragrant pine on either side
reach out
close in.
And so still.
Risqué owl’s wing
nearly kisses my cheek
takes my breath
I start!
How could she have known
I’d come out tonight?
How could I have known
eternity would cross my path
tonight
blackest of nights?
And so still.

Reading it, I received and responded to the haunting imagery and intimate mystery of the poem, in which the repeated line, “blackest of nights” had both a timeless and timely resonance, this night.

From a Peter Pauper Press card illustration by Kathleen Parr McKenna, 2012

***

“So what’s with all the owls?” I wondered early this morning, sitting down before dawn to re-receive Jan’s poem and to write awhile before I started in doomscrolling.

I’d been noticing how persistently owls had been showing up lately: on the covers of cards sent by friends (as above), in images from my painting group’s fresh weekly work…owls seemed to be everywhere. So I got out my copy of The Book of Symbols, a recent purchase which I’d barely dipped into, yet.

I opened it to find (to my surprise and not-surprise) that one of the three, attached place-marking ribbons had been pre-placed between pages 254 and 255 of this 808 page tome, at (uh-huh) “Owls.” 

I’d known owls to be associated spiritually and mythologically with death, with wisdom, and/or with war, respectively, but here’s what I found in the Symbols book entry, following the acknowledgment of all the associations above:

But as often, the powers of death are also the powers of transformation, and the owl is symbolically bound to the renewal of life that is mythically implicit in death. One of the strongest of these associations is in the rendering of the Great Goddess with owl features or companions […] . There are many such images in pottery, sculpture and other artifacts spanning several millennia […]

The depth of the owl’s wisdom includes not only the ability to bring what is dark into the light, but also the ability to live in the dark itself.” (p. 254)

“White Owls on a Pine Branch” (detail). Carl Tait and Lloyd Henson. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reading that, I felt a silence descend in which I flailed awhile, feeling somehow more restless and confused by this knowledge, which seemed to bring with it a sense of urgency— with the impression that there was in fact an urgent message in the owls’ appearances, and that I needed to figure it out. “So what do I do with that?” I asked after awhile, the mind wanting some meaning, even as the heart felt the question as a wish to be in-formed with direction, not with narrative

More silence for awhile, in which I felt a kind of helpless despair. In which I simply sat, living the question… 

…into which silence a perception arrived as though a kind of mist: that to participate in the forces that bring forth light out darkness is the urgent necessity; one which in turn necessitates being fiercely engaged in the act of vigil (from the Latin “to stay awake” ), as an active and not a passive act. And that to do so in turn activates and participates in the forces which order energy and grounds it, creating a “stay against confusion” (as Robert Frost described the activity of poetry, which does the same).

And I received the understanding that we do this with the body; that it is a kind of waiting that requires and involves the whole body’s attention…and that to the extent I indulge either in constant doomscrolling (a neolism I love, if not the reasons-for) or distraction ,either one,  I abandon that responsibility. 

That that is what it looks like to embody the Great Goddess’ “ability to live in the dark itself.” And that it is a “living through,” versus an “enduring-of,” because it is in the dark that light is conceived.

At which I noticed that my mind was wanting to appropriate the experience again, and its information: to manufacture a narrative of meaning (the “because” was my clue to this). Saw how that, too, was a way to move away: from the body, where the place of vigil was. 

So, back to silence, in which the words “A time of wakeful dark” were the words that came, and with it a felt sense of how Jan’s reaching out, and her poem, and the imagery of owls, and the mayhem of the day, and W.S. Merwin’s poem, Here Together (which had also arrived at some point in the mix) all formed a charged matrix (1) of significance and direction, but not of the sort that the mind can grasp; a matrix in which I felt and feel these as all connected, somehow, in and through Mystery. 

A matrix, that is, in which these are all dynamically connected, versus causal, or opposed. 

I’d been reading (for more than a year now) M.C. Richards’ timeless (and recently re-issued, because so timeless and timely both) book, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person

In fact I’d originally planned for my “M is for___” post to be about M.C. and her writings, so her words have been reverberating in my mind as I write this post, having been reviewing my pages and pages of quotes, and finding them so especially orienting to this time, and day. 

“The ear of faith,” she writes, “is, I suggest, the ear of one who keeps faith with the agitation and the peace, and who, through the sacrament of his body, experiences their union.”  (p.117)

Which declaration is followed by a longer passage on the inextricability of the forces of organization from the forces of chaos:

The utmost disordering prepares the way for the birth of new forms, new awareness of new depths and interpenetrations. Destruction is desirable, not in the spirit of nihilism, but in the knowledge of the regenerative process. “Let them burn the library at Alexandria,” cried Artaud. “It is good that our excessive facilities be no longer available, that all forms fall into oblivion: a culture without space or time, limited only by the capacity of our own nerves, will reappear with all the more energy. It is right that from time to time cataclysms occur which compel us to return to nature, i.e. to rediscover life […]

[…] If you remember your genetics, you will recall that before the birth of a new cell, a disorganization (or what appears to our eyes as such) of cell structure occurs. The chromosomes go crazy, everything is unrecognizable; then, all of a sudden, something new; the body is intact and changed.(p. 117-118) 

***

***

So then

What shall we love? 

the voice asks, 

and answers 

All of it, all of it

Then

Will the world win? Or the word?  

I wonder, 

or the word does, 

sounding 

unworried.

So what do we do?

We keep loving, is what we do

[because] 

We color the atmosphere by our participation in it  (2) 

[because]

El amor que nos ama / no aparta de nosotros ni un instante / la mirada (3)

(poem by DH, 1/7/21)

: :

: :

Notes:

1. the word “matrix” originates in the Latin “mater” meaning “mother” or “womb.” Today the word generally refers to an arrangement of conditions in which something develops or forms, as distinct from a “sequence”, which is a kind of order in which actions, event or things follow each other in time and/or space.

2. Centering, p. 98

3. Line in Spanish is from the poem, “The Splendor of Being”  by Rosario Castellanos. Translation: “The love that loves us / does not for an instant turn from us / its gaze ”

And for a terrific post on M.C. Richards and Centering, see Maria Popovas’s Brainpickings post at https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/01/03/m-c-richards-centering/

“L” is for “Let America Be America Again”

(Langston Hughes – 1902-1967)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

* * *

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used without permission)

For more on (and by) Langston Hughes, visit https://poets.org/poet/langston-hughes

“K” is for “Karma”

I had just pressed “publish” on my post “J” is for “Joy” when I learned that Donald Trump had tested positive for Covid19.

(image from the October 12 New Yorker Magazine)

I had a lot of feelings about that, one of which was regret: If I hadn’t already posted the piece on “Joy,” I thought, “J” could be about “Justice.” 

“However Trump tries to spin the whole thing for his own political/theatrical benefit,” I texted some friends the morning the news broke, “there’s such perfect justice in the FACT of it, in this moment. And I am definitely savoring the justice.”

A few minutes into savoring that justice, though, it occurred  to me that since “K” is for “Karma,” I could write about it under that heading instead. 

ramonllamba.com

At which point a curious thing happened: with that slight shift from the word “justice” to the word “karma” I felt a spontaneous softening inside, as a direct effect of the difference between what those two concepts connote, and so (in me, at least) evoke. 

What was the difference? When I was thinking about the “justice” of Trump getting COVID, I felt self-righteously triumphant, in a super cold-hearted way. But since the concept of “justice” itself necessarily (or at least conventionally) involves judgement (whether that judgement is thought to be human or divine)  the idea of “justice” itself seemed to justify my “right” to feel coldly, judgmentally triumphant about it “being done” to Trump. 

In western culture, infused as it is by the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity especially (which the Baha’í faith and Islam also share), “justice” itself is inextricable, connotatively, from the idea of “God’s judgment.” As a result, this gets projected onto karma, inflecting karma with a kind of moralism based in concepts of divine punishment and reward. 

But “karma” simply means “action”  or “energy,” and the principles involved (whether those are identified as spiritual or physical principles makes no difference, as the principles themselves are the same) describe what happens over time as a direct result of the behavioral patterns and maps created and maintained by our habitual reactions. “Karma” is merely descriptive of how things work; it is morally neutral.

As Joseph Goldstein explains it:

The law of karma refers to the law of cause and effect: that every volitional act brings about a certain result. If we act motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion, we are planting the seed of suffering; when our acts are motivated by generosity, love, or wisdom, then we are creating the karmic conditions for abundance and happiness. An analogy from the physical world illustrates this: if we plant an apple seed, the tree that grows will bear apples, not mangoes. And once the apple seed is planted, no amount of manipulation or beseeching or complaining will induce the tree to yield a mango. The only meaningful action that will produce a mango is to plant a mango seed. Karma is just such a law of nature, the law of cause and effect on the psychophysical plane.

 It’s the idea that “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” but without the scold-y finger-wagging. 

In fact, Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön emphasizes the (essentially compassionate) “learning” versus “punishment” opportunity inherent in the “what we keep sowing, we keep reaping” repetitions involved in the our karmic patterns. “The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart” she says.

***

All of which I’ve been reading about days later, in a selection of articles on the subject in the Buddhist magazine, Tricycle, as I’ve continued to reflect on my experience.

What I noticed in the moment itself was simply and directly that the instant I shifted to thinking in terms of “karma” (natural consequences) instead of “justice” (imposed punishment), all that self-righteous satisfaction I’d felt dissolved, and a spontaneous feeling of warmth arrived. It wasn’t sympathy I felt; more like  a kind of dispassionate empathy which, paradoxically, I could only experience in the absence of judgment: in the absence of the question of “good” or “bad.” 

Which in turn allowed me to be curious about my own ill-wishing impulses and energies instead—  a curiosity that was only available to me when I paused also from either defending or judging those ill-wishes and judgments.

Resulting next in the hidden-in-plain-sight realization that however much I may justify my judgement that Trump has “gotten what he deserves” in contracting COVID, the fact remains that my own self-righteous scorn itself has just directly increased, refreshed and maintained the amount and intensity and momentum  of “self-righteous scorn” in the world. It’s just more harmful karma creating more suffering. 

Which sounds depressing as I write it now, but which actually felt liberating, re-orienting, empowering , and immanently hope-full. 

Why? Because it reminds me that, to the extent that I attend to being mindful in each moment of my own emotions, of the stories that feed and justify them, and of my impulses to react (aware of myself judging instead of simply involved in the judgments) I have the choice and the power to either directly add more anger, resentment, fear and other pain to the world by how I act next, or … to not. And while to “not” may feel like compassion, it may not feel like anything; it’s not about switching out a “negative” emotion or attitude for one I think makes me a better person (since that, too, is self-centered and simply feeds more self-righteousness). Rather, it’s about consciously choosing to notice and to hold and to work with the energy of the pain, which itself directly reduces the amount of pain being dumped into the world by half, instead of doubling it by the contribution of my own angry, resentful, fearful wishes and judgments.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, “Only what happens now happens later.”

As Donald Trump sows, so shall he reap. 

Just like you.

just like me. 

***

How We Hated

When we woke, we found hate had been chosen to run the show. We were frightened and angry, a little groggy from sleeping, but awake to the thought of a future with hate in charge. We knew to do something, so went marching together, wearing art on our heads, our hearts on our sleeves. But when hate didn’t listen we hated not to be heard, so we started campaigns to write hate letters together. We put signs on our homes that read “This is a hate-free zone, ” so the haters would know our care no longer included them. We called on the names of King, the Buddha, and Gandhi (mostly leaving out Jesus since the haters seemed to have claimed Him), as we held hands and chanted, To hell with the hating ones! We avoided the neighbors we’d decided believed in hate, or we pretended politeness, then judged them behind their backs. And it consoled us to hate them; we even felt kind of happy, since knowing their wrongness made us feel so good, and right. As hate, untroubled as always by questions of right and wrong, simply felt itself growing. “Oh good,” hate said, “more of me. ” 

–Donna Henderson

  (previously published in Rattle  Magazine)

(* Shenpa: a Buddhist term [Pali language] meaning, approximately, The ego’s habits of reaction to familiar event and words)

“J” is for “Joy”

We were made for joy. Something inside us knows it. Something inside us feels it. We are hungry for joy […] And this desire—our desire for joy—is not secondary to the human experience. It is foundational. We need joy […] Joy is available to us, but it must be received.Josh Glaser 

***

“My own relationship with joy began the year I gave up ‘complaining’ for Lent,” began a piece I wrote on the topic in 2015 (“Joy is the Way”) , and my first thought was to simply re-post it here.

But re-reading the piece, I realized that what I’ve become more interested in since is the “what” of the “how” of joy: in its nature.

I’ve been circling around this question for some weeks now, exactly (I realized this morning) the way I circle around our cat when I am trying to organize her to submit in some way to my will: to get her into a carrier, say, or even just to pick her up when she doesn’t (and she always doesn’t) want to be held. She wants to be engaged with endlessly, yes, but she will. not. be. held. 

Just like joy, it occurs to me, which accounts for my circling, and which brings an insight obscured when I was trying to define joy instead (“‘Define‘: to mark out the boundaries and limits of”). That while we tend to speak of joy as though it is essentially an emotion, maybe it is not an emotion at all, but a quality of experience, a state of being.

Which does better locate my own experiences of joy: experiences in which my utter, unconditioned and non-directive presence spontaneously perceives and receives, within great stillness and spaciousness, the whole inherent glory (I start to write “glow,” but “glory” is the word that forms within) that that moment contains.

And there’s a feeling that comes with it—something like gratefulness, something like awe—but the joy itself is the state of my being in that moment: wholy absorbed in participation and witnessing…something like that. Like light itself, It can’t be earned, grasped, directed, or held onto…and yet is available in every moment to be received.

The world simply is in those moments, and I am simply…all there. 

 

***

So, out of respect for the nature of joy itself, I’m going to circle around it from here on, trying not to “organize the cat” so much as to welcome it by way of fragments, of poetry, of other voices.

To make a spacious invitation of language (language being itself intelligent, you know? ) — an invitation which does not…surround.

***

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider
that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest
swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue
bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider
that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the
leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

–A.R. Ammons (From The Selected Poems: 1951-1977, Expanded Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1986 )

* **

On an especially stressful day for her a couple of months ago, my daughter-in-law, Katrinka., texted me that “I have been filling my heart with pictures of beautiful succulent arrangements,”  and included a photo she found online of a rare, variegated Schlumbergera “Carnival” Christmas Cactus.

I loved that thought: joy as the feel of light. And I love how Katrinka knows what to do to engage joy, and to fill her heart with it.

“Joy is available when we stop trying to avoid suffering,” my husband, Rich, said the other day. Only when we do stop trying to avoid suffering, are we free to look instead for what the suffering needs from us, and to receive it.

As K’s method exemplifies. 

* * *

l

“Joy is happiness without the hangover,” as Pema Chödrön is fond of saying. (Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You)

***

***

And as I become more and more absorbed these hours of the afternoon in the writing of this piece, I notice all the feelings that I came to my desk with (resentments and anxieties, mostly) have dropped away, and there is only (yes, you guessed it:) joy.  

***

Between

It was a good garden, but I wanted it
moved from its plot uphill to the pond’s edge

so I could work by the water—which was so
beautiful: green glaze shimmering away toward some distant

willows—and near the house a marsh
bridged the shift from dry to wet, erasing

seams, the ground going softer, then spongy, then
sunken but still visible through a crest of reeds

where cattle shambled hip-deep and ducks
churned; all the swimming and flying and walking things

met, it seemed to me, in that marsh,
grazing and gulping.

And I wanted to transplant my garden into that turgid soil 
against all sense; to bury rootlets of kale, leeks, 
squash among the muscular grasses, the wild seeds—

So I stood awhile like that, passing my hands 
through the shallows, imagining the joy of whole days

kneeling between those solid and fluid worlds; all day
dipping and lifting.

(in The Eddy Fence, Airlie Press, 2009)

***

***

So how then is “joy” distinct from “hope”?

A pause now after the question, to invite an answer in [….] [….]

…Arrives the thought that there fundamentally is no real distinction, since all distinctions “between things” proceed from the illusion of separateness.

That said, if light itself can be both particle and wave at once (at once essentially still and essentially in motion), just so hope and joy,  joy being the state of presence to the luminous and eternal still-point being, and hope engaged in the motion of light, its wave. 

***

And now from ~~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~       ~~~~~~~~~~
~~~~~~~~~~  

to   …: …: …::…   again they go

Yes light can be both  :…: and  ~~~~ 
I want more ~~~

(excerpt from the poetic sequence, “Send Word,” unpublished)

***

(For more on “hope,” see “’H’ is for Hope” and “‘I’ is for the Immanence of Hope”)

~~~~ *** ~~~~

it is a serious thing

writes Mary Oliver, in the poem, Invitation

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing

[…]

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

 (click the title above to read the whole poem– you’ll be glad you did)

***

The poem brings to mind a recent conversation with Dr. William Barish, Chief Wellness Officer for Samaritan Health Services, in which Bill spoke about the connection between the inextricability of joy from the experience of presence. He offered the metaphor of the difference between appreciatively considering a tapestry,  and actually being conscious of the beauty as the weaving is happening, from within.

“My work is to notice when I’m actually weaving, and not just reflecting back on the finished product,” said Bill .

***

***

***

Joy

I was so hungry!
& my hunger longed for the bite-sized Joy

in my pocket, its luscious crush in my teeth,
almond soul from the brown glaze

sweetly releasing.
But my plans!

To hike the length of the path,
then have my Joy, when I’ve earned it.

 But my Joy wouldn’t let me loose
from the lot undevoured.

Whispered, my hunger,
Have it now, let it sustain you.

                                    Joy’s not the end,

                     Joy’s the way.

                                     (in Transparent Woman, Howlet Press, 1996

(collage by Laney Urness)

“I” is for “Immanence” (of Hope)

“To find hope, I have to give up hope”

   –Tom Amsberry 

 

IMG_3137

June 27

Song of wrens in the canyon, and the general chatter of a.m. birds. It’s a little bit after 6. Sun almost up through a smear of clouds. Amber ants cluster and scatter on the patio, and earwigs fall from the lavender like drops of brown dew.

I am thinking about hope again this morning, with COVID19 on the upsurge, and also because I have been thinking about hope pretty much continuously since my June 8 post (“H is for “How to Hope”) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

In that earlier post, I had reflected on the “how of hope” as being

a way of living based in a commitment to ever more consciousness. And since consciousness is the bell that we can’t un-ring, we can trust that it will inherently inform and direct all other right-actions.

But if that is the “how,” what defines the kind of hope on which such a way of living is based?

As I consider that question this morning, I notice how reflexive it is to think of hope as a kind of optimism, essentially sentimental, located in imminence (pertaining to the future), and associated with things (people, conditions, behaviors) changing in some specific, imagined way.

And it occurs to me that when I locate hope there (in the future, and with a specific outcome in mind), it is essentially fear I am responding to. After all, what else but fear prompts the need to imagine a future that is different from the present in some specific way? Why else reach for something that effectively gets me out of the present, imaginally? And what else but the ego opines and decides what hope’s object should be? In short, where does the need to imagine a future that is not the present come from, except from some kind of fear of the present as it exists, or else a fear of the loss of it? And so it follows also that (and here’s the irony:) if “hope for the future” is fear-based, then however lofty that kind of hope seems, it is essentially ego-driven.

As I realize that, and as I observe and investigate my own involvement in the act of “hope-for-ness,” I notice that the problem with experiencing hope as a feeling, with its object the future, is that it also locates elsewhere, later, and with others (or with some future, better version of myself) the responsibility for how the future I want will turn out. Which in turn makes it possible –without any sense of incongruence or irony– for me to pass judgement on others, in the act of hoping for a more compassionate in world, when in reality, the future unrolls from nothing other than the entire material of the present, like a roll of fabric unfurling.

So if hope is not sentimental, and it’s not essentially about the future, and if it doesn’t involve an imagined goal or outcome, what is its essence, then?

 

 

Pausing, I look up, download-2and see five osprey circling high over the water together; circling and sailing in the cool, still air. “Hope is a thing with feathers” sounds in my mind.

Immediately this feels true.

I have no idea what it means, and though I remember the next line, (“That perches in the soul—“ ) I don’t remember the rest of the poem. Still, it feel so very… true.

—a thing with feathers.

Now the kitty pops up out of her little expedition in the vinca. A breeze rises and pauses and disappears; the sun rising seems to be causing this.

I wait a little (I am working on breaking my habit of immediately Googling the answers to questions before taking the time to “live the questions”  awhile first), then I do look up downloadthe poem, which I know to be Emily Dickinson’s (poem #314, as I found out). It goes:

           Hope is the thing with feathers –
           That perches in the soul –
           And sings the tune without the words –
           And never stops – at all –

           And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
            And sore must be the storm –
            That could abash the little Bird
            That kept so many warm –

                                                           I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
                                                           And on the strangest Sea –
                                                           Yet – never – in Extremity,
                                                            It asked a crumb – of me.

 

I read the poem, and it is as though I have never read it before, charged and alive as it seems this time not with sentiment, but with the mystery of hope itself. I don’t “get it” with my mind; instead, there is a sense of recognition (re-knowing) something.

 

images

 

I read the lines again, then look up again, and the osprey are still there, sailing and circling. Their unlinear project. And at once I sense the nature of hope as that: as a quality not of the future but of the present. As immanent, that is (existing, operating, or remaining within; inherent), versus imminent (about to happen). Sense it as a kind of luminous, circulating aliveness with an existence of its own, and present to me.

                                         I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
                                         And on the strangest Sea –

A hope that is not an attitude; in fact not produced by me at all, or even involved in my imagination or my will. Which I do not even have to be present for, for it to exist, to be.

                                            Yet — never — in Extremity
                                             It asked a crumb from me.

It is the kind of hope, I remember now, that Cynthia Bourgeault described in her huge little book on the subject, “Mystical Hope,” which I read a couple of years ago but had difficulty, at the time, comprehending, not to mention metabolizing. But Dickinson’s poem has offered (in the way poetry does) a kind of portal to a mystical, not simply mental, comprehension of Bourgeault’s ideas.

I go retrieve the book. 9781561011933_p0_v3_s600x595

Of the five interwoven meditations on hope, the fifth, “Hope and the Future,” is the one I am most interested in today, with respect the quality of immanence.

While mystical hope, she writes, is involved in the future (“the world is going somewhere, and […] hope is the the means by which it gets there”), the future is not hope’s object. Instead,

Hope’s home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives. Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the Mercy no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender […] and yet when we enter it, it enters us and fills us with its own life— (p 86-87)

                            And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
                            And sore must be the storm –
                           That could abash the little Bird
                           That kept so many warm –

 

downloadNow a story that Pema Chodron tells comes to mind:

I remember reading once about a peace march. When one group was coming back from the march, some pro-war people started cutting them off and blocking them; everyone started screaming and hitting each other. I thought, “Wait a minute. Is there something wrong with this picture? Clobbering people with your peace sign?”

“[In] a metaphysic geared to the ‘quality of aliveness’ as the place where the work is really being done,” writes Bourgeault, the kind of dissonance this story illustrates

becomes immediate, and unbearable. If I say I am working for peace but am myself angry and self-righteous, then the energy I am putting into the atmosphere is anger and self-righteousness. If I come preaching the gospel of Christian love but am myself rigid and judgmental, I am putting into the atmosphere rigidity and judgment (p. 91)

 

July 17

I’ve been working on this post for a couple of weeks now, off and on, as much as anything as a way to keep circling around what I want to invite to keep circulating within. And as I do, I find myself more and more full of hope: hope which is not optimism about the future, but rather the direct, felt sense of the quality and force of the “aliveness of God” (what Kabir Helminski calls “The electromagnetic field of love”) at work and play, persistently suffusing the present. A hope which, while asking “not a crumb from me,” invites me to invite it to participate in me. And I see what is always “hidden in plain sight:” how my consent and surrender to the aliveness of love participating in me, and not my agendas or ideals, directly and literally “matters,” by the weft it adds to the warp of the material of life as it weaves its way forward.

July 18

So here I am at my desk again this morning, circling this post with the intention of finding a way to land it; a landing that eluded me yesterday. It’s still eluding me, and now it’s my birthday, so I decide to take a break to join R for some breakfast, and to read my cards.

Opening an envelope from my friend Judy*, what do I find but this, by way of a birthday greeting:

IMG_3173
artwork by Judy Talbott

You really cannot make this stuff up.

But something does.

 

 

(*See Judy’s poem, “Love Alone” in a previous post on the Cento poetic form)