“I” is for “Immanence” (of Hope)

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

   –Tom Amsberry 

 

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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.

 

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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:

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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)

 

 

“H” is for “How to Hope”

Among the comments which followed my recent post on the nature of systemic racism (“G” is for “George Floyd,” June 1, 2020) were some from readers who, in acknowledging the validity of racism as a systemic condition, indicated that my words simply validated their pre-existing feelings of self-blame and shame, and that they had come away from the post with even more despair about the possibility of being able to effect real and lasting change.

Initially, I was surprised, since the central assertion of my piece was that feelings of personal guilt and shame (and the corresponding projection of these in the form of judgement and blame of others) are not only irrelevant, but in fact directly prevent us from being able to understand and effectively address racism as it actually exists and is maintained.  How did that not come through? I wondered, and proceeded to re-read my post several times, thinking maybe it had not been clear as I’d thought, about that most central point.

It had been.

As I reflected on that, I finally remembered what I know about shame from almost 30 years of psychotherapy practice, but which I had forgotten: how very quickly and easily our shame gets triggered, and how completely it absorbs our attention when it does.

Unwittingly, then, the passionate intensity with which my words were a call away from individual “racism shame” so that we might become interested in understanding and taking responsibility for what actually uproots and dismantles it, had (for some) triggered…shame.

And there—right in that tender spot—is exactly what sociologist Robin DiAngelo Robin-2018-640x800means when she writes about white fragility: download-5the feelings of personal and generational shame and guilt which are (and which  keep us) self-centered, and never lead to any real good. Shame may spur us to action in the moment, but it tends to be action aimed ultimately at relieving our own anxiety, including anxiety about our sense of guilt and shame.

i fear the short    attention span of the left   & middle left    /   self-satisfied recaps

says the speaker in poet and activist Brenda Hillman’s poem “Hearing La Bohème after the March” (in Extra Hidden Life, among the Days). 51o4NezBHPL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_ I love that line for the way it speaks to the kind of activism that, being based in anxiety, is ultimately rootless and self-centered and unable to be maintained in the absence of immediate results or even reasons for optimism.

So I feel compelled to say it again: as white people, as long our interest in racism remains tethered to our ego’s own self-regard (“Am I a good person, or am I a bad person and didn’t know it? And if  I didn’t realize I’m bad, what do I do so that I and others will be able to think of me as a good person again?”), we are not free to be truly curious about how racism remains in place by way of us. Instead, we remain manifestly self-absorbed, entirely missing both the point of understanding racism as a system, and the opportunity to address it in a way that is manifestly hope-full.

As we know (and so much more easily acknowledge, because shame is not involved) in the presence of COVID19, “We are all in this together.”

Racism: same deal.

And as we have learned from COVID19, the most collectively-effective and personally-responsible response to its presence begins by learning as much as we can about how it multiplies, sustains itself, and infects others by way of us each, since racism (like COVID19) doesn’t pick and choose only those with obvious “symptoms” (in the case of racism, the symptoms of “prejudice and bias”) by which to spread.

And, as with COVID19, in order to know what to do to take care of ourselves and each other to stop the virus from spreading, we need to first become interested in learning how it does, not by looking for evidence of how we or others are an exception to the “infection” of racism, but to understand how none of us are “above” being carriers. Like COVID19, racism has no regard for who are “good people” and who are “bad people.” And both are most virulent where there is a lack of consciousness of its presence, and/or a willful denial about our individual and collective responsibility to do what we can to keep it from spreading.

I’ve come to think that one of the reasons that we resist becoming conscious (whether about racism, COVID19, or anything) is that we are afraid that we’ll be left understanding more than we can do anything about: that consciousness will simply leave us in a state of deeper despair.

But true consciousness (which comes from setting our egos aside so as to be open, courageously curious, and alert with the whole of our being) actually has the opposite effect, since consciousness is always accompanied (sooner or later) with a corresponding clarity as to how we are each individually meant to act with respect to what we come to understand.

Which is, I believe, the “how” of  “how to hope:” to see hope as 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. For some, “effective action” may simply (and powerfully) amount to ceasing to do things we used to do in unconsciousness to maintain racism and contribute to other causes of suffering. 

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Women’s March, Washington D.C., 2017. Photo by Brenda Hillman

My sister Bonnie enacts “how to hope” in great part by continuing to tirelessly dedicate her time, her education, her social position and her financial resources (all of these resources a direct result of the system of racism, as are other white peoples’) to travel all over the country (as she has been doing for the past four years), canvassing and campaigning with others to elect candidates of color to positions of representative power.

For my friend Julia, who recently retired from a career in academia spent teaching about bias and diversity, “how to hope” has meant continuing to be actively and avidly curious about what she doesn’t yet understand about her own participation in racism, instead of feeling superior for what she does.

For me, in this moment, “how to hope” means writing as a response to my real grieving and anger over all that George Floyd’s death means for and about us collectively as a racist society –grief and anger I could not (I realize now) even deeply and directly feel to respond from until I could set aside my self-centered shame and blame. It meant reading White Fragility, and in seeing myself in it (and seeing the hope in the seeing), it means inviting other white people to do the same. It means actively seeking out people of color (from writers and other public figures to personal acquaintances) to help me learn what it is important to them for me to understand (which is itself an act of relinquishing my white authority), so that I can respond ever more…responsibly. Going forward, I am curious to discover what else it will mean. 

“So much opportunity to learn and grow in 2020!” Julia signed off in January, in her text message urging me to read White Fragility, too.

Little did we know.

“G” is for “George Floyd”

I am angry.

Angry at Derek Chauvin for yet another murder of a black man, and at the “justice lite” (so far) gestures that are once again the response to the white officers responsible.

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George Floyd

But I am also dismayed and angered by the discourse of white people who are dismayed and angered by “racist whites:” a discourse that itself allows us to neatly distance ourselves in our own minds from “those bad white people,” which in turn protects us from recognizing and having to grapple with our own direct complicity in and responsibility for George Floyd’s murder, as if racism were simply an attitude of hostile prejudice, and attitude avowed by the white supremacists of the world and enacted by cops who murder black men .

What do we not understand here? We don’t understand that the murder of a black man by a white police officer is simply another of the bloody blooms that surface from the vast thready network of the racist root system that is America itself, and of which we are all a part. We don’t understand that without our active complicity in maintaining that root system (correction: we are that root system), Derek Chauvin and the other officers involved in George Floyd’s death could never have killed the man.

That they are acting for us, that is: they are simply racism’s henchmen, its actors.

What we don’t understand, as white people, is that it is by racism that we “live and breathe and have our being” in America. Such that, for a white person to say s/he is “not racist” is to say s/he doesn’t actually understand racism.

The thing is, racism isn’t simply a synonym for easy-to-recognize-and-disavow prejudices and biases, but a systemic condition from which white people benefit at the expense of others, every moment of our lives.

In a post a few months ago, (“‘B’ is for ‘Books and Blogs’”), I included a late-breaking recommendation by a friend, of sociologist Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. It was a book I had not read yet, but which my friend Julia had read not just once but twice. A book that had so powerfully informed and affected her that she texted me from a beach in Mexico, urging me to read it without delay. So immediately after posting her recommendation I did read it, and had the same response…and what I learned from it about my own (I see now) willful (if previously unconscious) naïveté about my own inherent racism, and complicity in maintaining it, is precisely why I had to respond to George Floyd’s racism-derived death, today.

What DiAngelo’s book helped me to begin to understand is that racism is all about power and the concentration of power, and the privilege conferred to ALL members of the group (white people) who hold that power.  Power and privilege which is so near and dear that it is truly like air: like air, we can’t even recognize it as separate from ourselves, since we live our lives by breathing it. DiAngelo helped me to understand racism is a system and not merely an attitude held only by people who say the N-word …or who we (smugly) believe don’t say the N-word in our presence only because they know that we “non-racists” would disapprove. And I began to understand that the system of racism is designed for white people and actively maintained by you and me (if you, like me, are white) to benefit and privilege white people at the expense of people of color, by every economic and social measure at play.

In a review and interview In The New Yorker after DiAngelo’s book was released (in 2018), Katy Waldman wrote,

DiAngelo addresses her book mostly to white people, and she reserves her harshest criticism for white liberals like herself (and like me), whom she sees as refusing to acknowledge their own participation in racist systems. “I believe,” she writes, “that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.” Not only do these people fail to see their complicity, but they take a self-serving approach to ongoing anti-racism efforts: “To the degree that white progressives think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived.” “Color blindness,” the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.

The most effective adaptation of racism over time,” DiAngelo claims, “is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” This “good/bad binary,” positing a world of evil racists and compassionate non-racists, is itself a racist construct, eliding systemic injustice and imbuing racism with such shattering moral meaning that white people, especially progressives, cannot bear to face their collusion in it.

“Pause on that, white reader,” Waldman herself then urges us, asking us to consider whether perhaps “You may have subconsciously developed your strong negative feelings about racism in order to escape having to help dismantle it.”  (from “A Sociologist Examines the “White Fragility” That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism”)

To truly understand, then, how racism was to blame for George Floyd’s death means to understand that for you and I to say “I am not a racist” is effectively to say “I choose to remain blind to the reality of racism and to the ways that my blindness actively contributes to maintaining it.” It is to choose my own positive self-regard and self-righteous (as distinct from righteous) anger over the truth of my complicity and responsibility, allowing me to sit back and feel judgmental and superior to those who do racism’s more obvious violence for me, as though they are the only ones to blame. It is a position which asks nothing of me, really, except to express myself and “demand” change, as though the problem itself and action needed is located somewhere other than with me.

In 2014, Eric Garner’s last words before he died were “I can’t breathe”. George Floyd’s last words: the same.

COVID-19 is ravaging us, making it difficult to breathe, and yet systemic racism has been tightening its grip on our throats for years, wrote the Reverend Al Sharpton on Sunday 

If you are, as I am, angry about this latest “bloody bloom” of racism, good. But unless ours actions derive from a deep understanding of what racism actually is, how it works, and how we white people ourselves personally —whether we are male or female, rich or poor— actively if unconsciously (and “unconsciously” is the problem) benefit from and maintain racism every day of our lives, our actions will express our outrage but result in no real change, because real change can only result from white progressives’ willingness to give up not only our delusion of superiority as “not racist,” but the actual privileges of racism for which black (and other people of color) pay a daily price.

Interested in understanding racism and our part in it, white readers and friends? If so, I can’t think of a better place to start than DiAngelo’s book.download-5

Not interested, because you think racism doesn’t apply to you? Well then, you (like I) are exactly who it was written for.

For we white people, racism truly is the air we breathe. And every day that we are not willing to look at, understand and grapple with that with humility and honesty, we are effectively saying to Derek Chauvin, “Go for it,” and another black man’s last words become “I can’t breathe.”

 

 

 

“F” is for “The Force…”

For April.

For this April in particular.

 

 

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
                                                                   (after Dylan Thomas)

informs the slow orgasm of the rose, the doe’s
blunt lust for grass, the gross grunt and the grace
note, all that unfolds, fizzes, races past, devours–
force that outwaits all restraint and fear and frost and rest.

–Donna Henderson

 

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(The poem was inspired by the title of Welch poet Dylan Thomas’ [1914-1953] own poem of the same title. Read his here. )

                                                                     * * * 

In these days of COVID and division, poetry feels more urgent than ever to me, to both write and to receive. For that reason, it is my personal practice to begin each day with poetry (with reading or writing or both), so as to listen to the soul (which is hope) of the world, before its fear-full news. As poet and physician William Carlos Williams famously put it (in the poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”), It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.

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You can read more of “Asphodel” at Poets.org .

And while you’re on the website, consider making a Poetry Month (which April is)  donation to the Academy of American Poets. download-1Donations support its ongoing mission of supporting poets, and making poetry freely accessible to millions of readers, through its Poets.org website, it’s publications, and programs.

Programs such as the upcoming Shelter In Poems: a Virtual Reading” to be held on Thursday, April 30, at 7:30 pm EDT. Click here to register for this free event; read the full press release here

 

And for lots more wonderful poetry, check out the titles from Oregon’s own  Airlie Press. We need their poetry, they need our support!

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“E” is for “Epidemic*”

Spring Training

Shut off the news, the cell phone, the TV
for all the hours you can.
Sit or walk outside every day.
Let the sunshine percolate into your skin.
Look for small things, surprises to notice
gifts to be thankful for.
A lonely cat takes shelter on my front door mat.
A neighbor, her chemo finished is
walking her bouncy, three-legged dog.
A hellebore has seeded and made more purple flowers.
Go outside when the sky is black, watch the moon
as it swells toward its fullest.
When the Easter moon arrives celebrate
all the life that is emerging here
despite your darkest fear.

—Dina Triest (reprinted with permission) 

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How to even begin to write about, around or into this, here?

What is needed is language that attends, abides; which by its nature is fearless. “Fearless” because not alienated from the experience it attends and abides.

Which is the life of poetry. Language like breath itself, language that roots to rise.

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Which brings to mind a text exchange a few days ago with my friend, Susannah: IMG_1297

Me: I woke up this morning thinking about what you said last night about this crisis, by nature, being something that asks for a kind of recalibration of attention/strategy, and so also of corresponding attitude-toward-oneself. That since it’s not of the order of things that can be outmaneuvered somehow, by “being smart enough to stay ahead of it”, then judging oneself for not having done [fill in the blank] sooner is pointless, because irrelevant. & how the bigger challenge, which is to be-with, and to respond sensibly and speedily & sensitively to the unfolding itself, opens the heart to compassion, self- and other. Something about the difference between living in fear (in the sense of being “driven by anxiety”) and living with the Fear (in the sense of “Fear of God”, which is actually “Awe”). Anyway, that’s my spin on your words, which were very orienting, in this continuous process of reorienting.

Susannah: Omg this is IT. What I hope to maintain is the fear of God: the awestruck experience of watching something enormous unfold VS. the fear of being out of control, which is a fear of myself and what I can and can’t handle. And then a tenderness toward the experience of being ultimately tiny in the face of the awesome.

                                                           

                                                                 What she said.

                                                                         

Tell all the truth but tell it at a slant, begins poem #1129 by Emily Dickinson, which ends, The truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind —

 

I want to write (as I want to respond, to live) in a way which is commensurate somehow with the nature of the unfolding of the pandemic and its vast effects; an unfolding which intimates, but which defies comprehension or containment. A kind of “gradual instant” which calls us to the kind of  reflections and responses which do not default to the flight into meaning that is the mind’s defense against what it cannot wrap itself around. Nor, correspondingly, to the flight into sentimentality that is the heart’s way of not-breaking (by feeling about an idea of a thing, and not the thing itself).

***

 

In the early weeks of COVID19, my sister Heather reminded me that our father had experienced and survived the last pandemic —the Spanish Flu (an H1N1 virus)— and had written about it in his memoir. I had forgotten that, and found it ominous and companionable both, to re-read it now. 

Early in 1918 [my brother and I] we both came down with the deadly Spanish Influenza, the worst infectious disease outbreak in human history. It is estimated that it killed between twenty and fifty million people worldwide in a little more than a year, killing 675,000 Americans, more than were killed in all the United States’ wars of the twentieth century combined. […]

There was no effective vaccine for the disease. Hospitals overflowed; doctors and nurses who hadn’t been called to the war were overwhelmed, and many of them were stricken too. The flu was fatal within a week to one-fourth of those infected. […]

We boys both beat the odds. Mother told us later that as our fevers soared to105 IMG_2959degrees. we sometimes were delirious for hours and then would lapse into ominous lethargy. I remember only frightening dreams followed by the soothing sounds of Mother singing Stephen Foster songs and Maudie [who kept house for the family] crooning spirituals. The homespun care worked its magic, and by the time father reached home [from travels in Central America] we were both on the mend.

The flu epidemic in the U.S. peaked in October, with 119,000 deaths that month alone […]  (George M. Henderson, Lonely on the Mountain, p. 10)

 

***

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My mother arrives in a dream, and it feels like a visitation. I’ve been hearing these kinds of stories from others: stories of encounters through the veils and across divides. A long-dead parent clearly appears in a doorway. A living relative with whom a decades-long rift has existed calls, and the rift dissolves. Our people are drawing close to us, my friend Claire observes.

                                                                      

***

 

On a walk, Rich complains about the incessant stream of information and explanation the media delivers, in a kind of one-tune show. “The gesture of explaining is the real text,” he laments. “We can’t let any mystery slip in, and we have to explain, we have to blame.” IMG_2614

We need information to respond, react, he says, but we also need silence, contemplation, so as to discover the gestures that respond to the vastness of this, to meet the sea-change within and among us that it invites.

                                                                     What he said.

 

If we are truly and profoundly transformed by this experience, individually and collectively, it will not be at the level of sentiment or of ideology. Sentiment, however intensely felt, is by nature volatile and fleeting, and ideology essentially heartless in its righteousness, precisely because it is involves an a priori devotion to principles over presence. Profound transformation will not be evidenced primarily by how we think or feel or believe, but in how we act, and be

 

 

I am noticing a sense of vigilance, each day all day; it is the felt-sense that it is important to do what’s most important in each moment…and that what that is changes, moment to moment. That what is for the moment is also known only by the moment. A sense of vigilance, but of a mindful, “keeping vigil” kind, not an anxious kind. Vigilance as distinct from hypervigilance. I notice how anxious-vigilance interferes, in fact, with my discernment and response to what’s important. “What’s important” might be to make a call to a neighbor who might or might not be in need of something, or it might be the action of restraint: of refraining from an impatient reaction, say. Or in a gesture or expression of gratitude that I might not, before, have made, being in too much of a self-centered hurry to do my own next thing.  Or it might be in washing my hands again.

And I am noticing, in the process, how “what’s important” and “what’s urgent” are not always the same. That “what’s urgent” is first of all (and sometimes only) simply what has the first and loudest voice in the room of my consciousness, which is maybe always the voice of fear. What it urges may also be the “most important” at a given moment, but it often isn’t so.

I am noticing also how much energy this kind of attention takes. And how important it is to give it.

                                                                      

 

What’s invaluable in love is to help51lGsG7N6QL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
 each other reach the end of a long road.
 Although every day seems the same, love resides in the ordinary

 

(from the poem, “Surprise” by Ha Jin.
in A Distant Center, Copper Canyon Press, 2018)

 

 

***

It feels like we are all being invited to a primal shift in consciousness … as the destructive “normal” way of doing life is not automatically there.  One thing I love about it all is the relief to our mother earth from all the carbon emissions and pollution that “normal” has been causing.  Like our Mother can breathe a little more.  Or know that it is possible to breathe again. (Tom Amsberry, in personal correspondence)

I hadn’t thought about that.

So I went to the Weather Underground website and looked up “Los Angeles.” The air quality rating was “Good.”

So I looked up Beijing. “Good” also.

Screen Shot 2020-03-29 at 4.16.41 PM

 

***

    I greet the God of Mystery, Mercy and Mary

One morning these words just…arrive as I wake, and they become my prayer.

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 *************

 

 

 

*Note: COVID19 is technically now a “pandemic.” But I had to look it up to find out the difference. An epidemic is an outbreak of disease that infects many people within a short time span, but which is localized to a community or region. It becomes a pandemic when it spreads throughout the world.

& for some more poems from and about this time (including the splendid poem, “Pandemic,” which has been widely circulating (I am deliberately avoiding using the term “gone viral” here) on the internet recently, visit poet Lynn Ungar’s website: lynnungar.com

 

 

 

“D” is for “Doyle” (Brian)

(On reading One Long River of Song)

 

 

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Journal entry, March 6, 2020:

This morning a sense of clutter & coping, an agitation of surface waves, longing for stilldark depths. Language lurks below the bright froth of things, wielding Being inside its warm mouth. Poetry is the moment of knowing this.

 

*                                    *                                              *                                             *

 

 

Then tea, with the first of Brian Doyle’s breathtaking essays (or “proems,” as he liked to call them). How these carry the gestures of poetry, oh they do! Gestures and structures and distillations of presence, language condensed to these leaping and glittering and delving and humming gems, flying backwards and diving, just like the joyas voladoras IMG_0975in the titular essay, a piece on fire with its own attention and wonder. 

Consider the hummingbird for a long moment, the piece begins, and I do, riding the whitewater of Doyle’s immersive prose, my heart speeding a little to match its pace.

A hummingbird’s heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird’s heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird […] their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests […]

they suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures than any other living creature. It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.

Then, like the volta in a sonnet or a river, the essay bends again, turning its gaze to gather in also the heart of the blue whale, big as a room.

DPA/PA images

 

It is a room, with four chambers. A child could walk around it,head high, bending only to step through the valves. The valves are as big as the swinging doors in a saloon.

And in the space of just over two pages (how does he do that !?) we are invited to consider with him not only whale hearts and hummingbird hearts but the hearts also of reptiles and turtles and fishes and insects and mollusks, their varied numbers of chambers (3, 2, 1). Even unicellular bacteria are brought into the sweeping gesture of the essay’s embrace, bacteria which, despite their technical heartlessness; have fluid eternally in motion, washing from one side of the cell to the other, swirling and whirling.

A sonnet, yes. I am seeing that now. Not in the sense of the sonnet’s formal metrics and line count, but in the shapely motion of the brief, spacious, large-hearted fervency of this piece, like a sonnet “a small vessel capable of plunging tremendous depths.” * 

A vessel, also the current itself, the essay is, enfolding, unfurling, IMG_0161and finally opening wide at the end, the way the living presence of a river does at its mouth, where water comes together with other water:

[…] that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall.

               No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.

 

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“Living Presence with Honeycomb.” Mixed Media, Donna Henderson, 2019

 

Brian Doyle, long-time editor of Portland Magazine, died of brain cancer on May 27, 2017. To read the archive of his longtime blog, “Epiphanies,” visit https://theamericanscholar.org/brian-doyle/

Also by Brian Doyle (among many other writings): Mink River  and  A Book of Uncommon Prayer (thanks, Susannah), Read his final prayer, entitled “Last Prayer,” (which begins,”Dear Coherent Mercy: thanks. Best life ever.”) here

* A note on the sonnet: The word “sonnet” is derived from the italiansonetto,” which translates as “a little sound” or “a little song. “There is a sense of permanence and fragility, of spaciousness, intensity and constriction, about the sonnet form” writes Edward Hirsch in A Poet’s Glossary, (p 593). For more on the sonnet form (and others), read his entry on it there.

Thanks to Judy Talbott for introducing me to One Long River of Song.

And to the mystery sender of Kabir Helminski’s Living Presence, for which the last image was titled. 

                   “My religion is to be alive through love”
                            (Rumi, quoted in Living Presence, p. 98)

 

“C” is for “Column”

Because blog sounds like
clog, fog, bog, block, clod,
like gunk falling out of a
mouth in a heavy clump.                 

Whereas

column
sounds
slender,
continuous,
sides with
essentials;

to say it
the mouth
opens
slightly,

floats
closed,

the ear
leans
in.

1200px-Columns_in_the_inner_court_of_the_Bel_Temple_Palmyra_Syria

 

(for more on the coined-by-happenstance origins of the term “blog” for digital-media topical writing, see  “The Evolution and History of Blogging”  . For one discussion of the question of whether or not there exist any significant differences between a “column” and a “blog” beyond the means of their delivery, see Steve Buttry’s  “What’s the Difference Between a Columnist and a Blogger?”)

“‘B’ is for ‘Books and Blogs'” (Part 3)

(completing a 3-part series on favorite reads of 2019)

Anne Truitt, Daybook

Anne Truitt (1921-2004) was a major American artist, known especially for her sculptures. download

Her work is in the permanent collections of several major American museums and galleries, including the Whitney Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and many others. But I only became aware of her through reading Daybook daybook-9781476740980_lglast year, and was so affected on so many levels by this book that I find myself kind of tongue-tied in trying to describe it. So I’ll let Maria Popova do it for me, especially since her blog, Brainpickings, is at the top of my list of favorite blogs, and I just discovered that she, also, has posted on Daybook. Popova writes:

Trained as a psychologist and with only one year of formal education in art, Truitt made a decision to “ride out the jeopardy of art with as much courage and faith” as possible. From this unusual standpoint, she reaches depths of insight and self-awareness inaccessible to most artists — to most human beings — and pulls out of them luminous wisdom on the love, labor, and life of art.

                                  What she said.

Here’s a taste of Truitt’s Daybook reflections:

For me, this process [the creative process] is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you are going, but knowing how to get there […] For one whole day I entertained the notion, which had been creeping up on me, of turning my back on the live nerve of myself and ‘having fun.’ This morning I am sober. I would be a fool to sacrifice joy for fun.

Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based in indifference to what is other than ourselves […] The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in the way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.

 

****

 

Having mentioned Maria Popova’s

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Maria Popova

Brainpickings blog images(make a visit, and you’ll know right away if it’s for you) I might as well proceed to list my other blog favorite now.

I’m a regular listener to Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being, and it was through listening to  her 2015 conversation with Maria Popova (Cartographer of Meaning in the Digital Age)   that I learned about Brainpickings in the first place. As an investigator of meaning herself, Krista Tippett

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Krista Tippett

never fails to richly deliver, and I have recently started to delve into the Onbeing digital archives of Poetry, Essays, Columns and More   and of the Civil Conversations Project  at Onbeing.org , the content of which reflects and embodies the stated purpose of the Onbeing project:

Every crisis of our age runs through fault lines of human hearts and well-being — pain and fear and dreams and hope. Work once imagined as “soft” is urgently pragmatic. Calming fear. Expanding imaginations. Resourcing social courage and creativity. Opening the moral questions of humanity hospitably to the seeker, the atheist, and the devoutly religious. Attending to the wholeness of every person: the life of the mind, the truth of the body, and the wild mystery of the human spirit. This is what we do (read more…)

 

Finally (on the topic of blogs, I mean), Susannah Castle (psychotherapist, poet and thinker extraordinaire) writes a very periodic blog, Run it Down , also on topics of meaning and being. While she doesn’t post much, I find her writing and her thinking so richly-provocative that I am really, really hoping she will start posting more. So take a look at what’s there so far at and if you’d like to see more, be sure to let her know.

 

So, two more books and then I’m done:

Tommy Orange, There, Theredownload-3

The introduction on Amazon will do by way of a brief description: “The story of twelve unforgettable characters, urban Indians living in Oakland, California, who converge and collide on one fateful day.” But no description can do justice to the novel itself, a must-read. 

From the novel:

“She told me the world was made of stories. Nothing else, just stories. And stories about stories.”

 

 

And finally, this just in, on a book I haven’t read, but about which my friend, J. just texted me from a beach in Mexico. download-5It’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo. 

Robin-2018-640x800
Robin DiAngelo

“It is so crazy enlightening (and so very humbling),” wrote J.,  “that I’m going through it a second time. So much opportunity to learn and grow in 2020”

Amen to that.

 

 

And with this post, this is also the last time I intend to use the word “blog” for my own or others’ digital-format essay-and-other writing.

(More about why coming up, in the next post: “‘C’ is for ‘Column’”)

“B” is for “Books & Blogs” (Part 2 of 3)

(continuing a 3-part series of posts on favorite reads of 2019)

Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi, Divine Names: The 99 Healing Names of the One Love

Twice a month, I join other women –some Sufi, some Christian, some Baha’i, some non-Ash-shahid-p1affiliated– for Sufi prayer. We have been using Rosina-Fawzia al-Rawi’s  Divine Names (beautifully translated from the Arabic by Monique Arav) as our text guide to “praying the qualities” since it was published in 2015. At once scholarly, meditative, poetic, instructional, and divinely feminine, each chapter opens with a page on which the Divine Name concerned is first rendered in ornamental Arabic calligraphy, and then described. As a result, the content itself embodies and enacts the Sufi aphorism that “nothing touches the heart as much as beauty.”

Ash-shahid-p1 (1)
Ash-Shahid (“The witness, the observer, the One who perceives”)

I find myself reaching for this book not only to pray, but just to read, the way I read poetry (and there is much poetry included also, Rumi’s and others’): in order to immerse myself in, and receive, the way the light within its pages enters the heart.

Some favorite passages:

Love is the act of letting in […] The path of love says, “Everything that exists is good.”

*

The ‘I’ often avoids seeking counsel from the heart, whose answer most often will be uncomfortable to it. To a certain extent, the mind always asks, “How can I get more?” While the heart asks, “How can I give more?”

To accept all circumstances and take up all challenges that divine love brings into my life— that is to become one.  For that I have to make space in my heart and spirit […] Make place for trust. “Trust is dangerous. It is life-threatening!” Cries the mind. “But indispensable!” Answers the heart.

*

On the Divine Name Al-Latif (“The subtle, the tender, the gently all-pervading”) :

The name is often connected to femininity, yet being a woman means to be strong, stronger than a man. For it is the woman who elevates the man to the level of her heart. Her soul precedes the man’s soul. A woman’s sight is wide and full of nuances, her deeds often work in the background. She contains the world, whereas the man penetrates it.

*

On the Divine Name, Ash-Shakūr  (“The grateful, the receptive, the understanding”):

Show your gratefulness by using your spiritual and mental talents. […] indeed, spirituality is tantamount to gratitude.  Gratitude unites the material and the subtle world, the heavens and the earth, and makes the world into a place filled with wonders.

*

Trust yourself, for those who trust themselves trust ‘Allah.

*

Stand up and start walking, open your heart, let yourself whirl and turn in the divine perfection.

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Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi

*

Love is attention lived.

*

(To read more about Fawzia Al-Rawi, click here for her website)

*                                    *                                  *                               *                          *

Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ

shopping

I’ve been reading Franciscan priest and theologian Richard Rohr for close to thirty years, and more recently (along with several of the women in the Sufi Circle I belong to) have been subscribing to his Daily Meditations online. In fact, it was in great part Rohr’s theology, which understood Christ as a figure of compassionate, universal inclusivity, rather than one of exclusive, judgmental religiosity, that paradoxically drew me to Christianity in the first place (Newsflash: Jesus was not a Christian, nor did He call God “God,” but used the Aramaic word  “Alaha” [Allah]). So I am always surprised to be reminded about how “out there” (and even heretical), Rohr is still considered to be, not only by the more evangelical strains of Christianity in general, but also by many Catholics. There is a lot of controversy about this book. For my part, I find it the culmination and apotheosis of everything Rohr has written to date.

More to the point, reading this book (which I am still reading), my very being reverberates with his message, feeling it directly as simply and deeply and wildly true. It’s the ego-mind that struggles to comprehend it.  

Which is itself always a good sign.

Some sample passages:

Jesus is not talking about joining or excluding any group; rather he is describing the ‘way’ by which all humans and all religions must allow matter and spirit to operate as one.

*

Faith at its essential core, is accepting that you are accepted. We cannot deeply know ourselves without also knowing the One who made us, and we cannot fully accept ourselves without accepting God’s radical acceptance of every part of us.

*

God loves all things by becoming them.

*

Christ is a good and simple metaphor for absolute wholeness, complete incarnation, and the integrity of creation.

*

God is Relationship itself, a dynamism of Infinite love between Divine Diversity…

*

Sacramental theology” [is] where the visible and tactile are the primary doorway to the invisible.

*

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Fr. Richard Rohr

What we call ‘soul’ in every creature could be seen as ‘the self-knowledge of God in that creature.

*

[L]ight is less something you see directly, and more something by which you see all things.

*

Intellectual belief […] tends to differentiate and limit […], hope and love […] unite and thus eternalize.

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Near the Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, MN

“B” is for “Books & Blogs” (Part 1 of 3)

In the process of contemplating my favorite reads of 2019 for this post, I realized that I have too much to say (and especially to quote) to include them all in a single entry…at least not perhaps without exposing the […] reader to sublime agonies (per the first lines of Ars Poetica? quoted in previous post) . So, here are samplers of the first 2 of 5 books that most affected me this year. More in parts 2 and 3, which will also include the blogs)

Hannah Larrabee, Wonder Tissuedownload

 

But I am in love with the moon backlit
by only a sliver of light, enough to reveal
the whole dark mess.

writes Hannah Larrabee in the poem, “Praying Mantis,” a gorgeous poem in a collection of poems which feel and see and listen their way through the world, while simultaneously somehow speaking to the heart of that very practice and process.

Here, we meet a speaker who in turn meets all she encounters without retreating or contracting in judgement, nor capitulating to despair, both of which reactions are (it occurred to me, noting the presence of their absence in these poems) nothing less than failures of love. Instead, we find a mind-heart wholly embodied and wholly compassionate, including toward the vulnerability of being exactly that.

I first encountered Hannah Larrabee’s poems through the reading she gave at Wonder Tissue’s book launch, the manuscript having won the 2018 Airlie Prize. I don’t quite remember when I last responded to a new collection of  poems as powerfully and directly. These are poems by a poet of vast imagination and wonder, deeply connected with the intelligence of the body, and with the body’s conversation with other bodies, both intimate and infinite. As in the opening poem, “Planetesimals:”

When I haven’t the
faintest
clue, I ask
the trees many
questions like
do you study
with leaves
the enormous face
of the night?

Deeply relational in their concerns, the poems ultimately invite us to sit with the speaker in the experience of groundlessness as itself a place to dwell…and in that dwelling, to discover the self which finds itself in the midst of its own lostness.

I guess the fluid
most conducive to travel
is kindness, and I still
have a heart for you,
it sends me in search
of water and moonless
nights.

(from “Planetessimals.”

I want to immerse in these poems, over and over again; I want to write these poems!

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Hannah Larrabee

 

 

 

Fanny Howe, Indivisible download-3

 

Tin House, the wonderful literary magazine which ceased publication in 2019, used to include a section in each issue entitled “Lost and Found.” Instead of reviews of recent publications (more standard in the promotion-focused world of book reviewing), this section was devoted to books which value, for the reviewer, had appreciated over time. Reading Darcey Steinke’s “Lost and Found” review of “Indivisible” in #67 (the “Faith” issue), I knew this was a novel I had to read.

Unfortunately, Steinke writes in her “Lost and Found” review, in our secular world, authentic novels of faith are hard to come by. Evangelical writers leave me cold, as do the new atheists. There is the added problem that writing about God is nearly impossible, as ephemeral as cigarette smoke and equally hard to describe. The books that thrill me are not preachy or moralistic, but engaged with a raw and volatile divinity.

Steinke then names several novels that she considers the best of these (including Clarice Lispector’s The Gospel According to G.H., which I also love), declaring Indivisible her favorite.

Published in 2000 and quasi-autobiographical, Indivisible is an “odd, transcendent and triumphant novel” (as it’s aptly described on Goodreads). The plot: Henny, the book’s narrator and protagonist, locks her husband in a closet, the better to converse with God and to contemplate her relationships with friends and lovers now dead, as she simultaneously contemplates conversion to the Catholic church.

But to describe the plot is not even to begin to describe this spare, layered, and rich piece of work, which is less plot-driven than it is poetic. Darcey Steinke again:

Howe is a radical-renegade Christian, her theology by turns lucid and surreal. Reading Indivisible moves me into the version of myself I most cherish: girl copying down favorite lines from her notebook. 

Me too. Here are a few of my own favorites:

Why are some people born always wanting to be loved when it is so clear that so few dare to be wholeheartedly in love.

All encounters in dreams are indications that relationships travel without their people.

The church is a boat so well-build that it lets you sail into the horrifying darkness and mystery and allows you to drift, to explore, because it is fit for wind and starts, over centuries constructed to meet unexpected squalls and drops. it doesn’t eliminate the horror or the mystery, it just helps you to enter them…

To let the God remain free and clear sometimes requires atheism.

The most goodly knowing of God is that which is known by unknowing.

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Fanny Howe