National Poetry Month And Morning Meditations: A Happy Confluence

I agree with my friend, author Iris Graville: “EVERY month is poetry month.” But I especially appreciate her post, “30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month,” for its reminder of a convention I’ve been trying to lure myself back into: memorizing a poem. (That’s #4 on Iris’s list.)

When I was a kid, my dad would pay me and my sisters a dollar for each poem memorized. Go ahead, ask me to recite “I’m Nobody” or “Jabberwocky”! I still got ’em.

No one’s offering cash right now, but the rewards of having poetry in your head are undeniable. It’s SUCH a better response to the daily noise of ugly news than going, “la la la, can’t hear you!”  And, as I wrote in my last post, I’ve been starting my day with a poem since the election of 2016. If reading poetry works, how much more so memorizing? What a glorious way to start your day, with words of beauty coming out of your own mouth!

How my brain feels when NOT insulated and reinforced by poetry.

Incidentally, my other response to the “daily noise” and its lure toward tribalism has been to immerse myself in the words of bridge-builders. Relying heavily on Krista Tippett’s podcast, “On Being,” I spend at least an hour a week listening to people talk about how they’ve bridged terrible divides in their lives, or healed themselves or others, or found practices that lead toward the community they envision.

So I love the serendipity of finding this poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama in last week’s “On Being.” It offers me all three prizes at once: a beautiful, heart-opening meditation with which to start the day; a way to turn my sights toward hope and away from cynicism; and a path toward the kind of bridge-building thinking I want in my own head.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a good guy to listen to, regardless of any hoped-for outcome. According to his “On Being” bio, he’s “a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.”

He’s also extremely Christian, which I am not. But I’ve long since found a way to put my own meanings on the names “Jesus” and “God,” so they don’t stop me. If you find that they do, in this poem, I encourage you to substitute other words that work better. I’m sure Pádraig wouldn’t mind.

Here, then, is his poem.

“Neither I nor the poets I love found the keys to the kingdom of prayer and we cannot force God to stumble over us where we sit. But I know that it’s a good idea to sit anyway. So every morning I sit, I kneel, waiting, making friends with the habit of listening, hoping that I’m being listened to. There, I greet God in my own disorder. I say hello to my chaos, my unmade decisions, my unmade bed, my desire and my trouble. I say hello to distraction and privilege, I greet the day and I greet my beloved and bewildering Jesus. I recognize and greet my burdens, my luck, my controlled and uncontrollable story. I greet my untold stories, my unfolding story, my unloved body, my own love, my own body. I greet the things I think will happen and I say hello to everything I do not know about the day. I greet my own small world and I hope that I can meet the bigger world that day. I greet my story and hope that I can forget my story during the day, and hope that I can hear some stories, and greet some surprising stories during the long day ahead. I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.

Hello to you all, I say, as the sun rises above the chimneys of North Belfast.

Hello.”

I don’t have a photo of the sun rising above the chimneys of North Belfast. But here’s a photo of the view from my own rooftop, which is a bit more apropos, isn’t it?

Hello.

I’ll be working on memorizing these lines for probably the rest of the month, maybe beyond. But who cares? Isn’t every month Poetry Month?

When Routine Is Anything But: Finding A Daily Path That Requires Open Eyes

Hey, welcome back to Wing’s World in its non-travel-blog iteration. If you’re hoping to read about travel adventures, sorry–you’ll have to wait till my next trip. THIS entry is about the art of staying home, one day after the next.

Home, for me, begins with a ferry ride.

If I were still teaching school, finding a daily routine would be no struggle; the struggle, as all teachers (and students, and parents) know, is keeping your head above water enough to teach/learn/communicate/eat/sleep/repeat with some minimal effectiveness. In my 20 years of teaching, I got all the news I needed during my commute.

As a former teacher, however, employed in one part-time, manual-labor job and one completely non-paying, artistic one, the idea of routine is usually just that: an idea. I gave up commuting, but I was fine with creating my own balance of baking and writing and keeping vague touch with the rest of the country for the first several years of my post-teaching life. Then came the election of 2016, and the real illusion was revealed: that America was on the right path, that Dr. King’s good ol’ Arc of Justice was bending appropriately.

Since that time I, like a lot of my White friends, have been working hard to re-educate myself in American reality, recognizing my own unwitting but comfortable complicity in helping make Trumpmerica possible. Routine is long gone as I cast about for the best way to make of myself a better instrument, a better citizen.

Going back to teaching is a decision I have moved beyond. I’m too deeply immersed in my writing career to be willing to sacrifice it, and too respectful of both jobs to be able to do justice to both at once. So I work at the bakery I continue to love, and fill my non-baking, non-writing time with a slew of different types of volunteer activity. This makes for a ragged schedule. I rather like the variety of my days…after breakfast. It’s that first hour that, since 2016, has really gotten to me.

See, my Mate is an early riser, and starts his day with a workout. Which he does in front of the TV, watching the news. He keeps the volume low, but our living room lies between our bedroom and kitchen. So by the time I’ve prepared my tea and sat down with my cereal, I’ve had, willy-nilly, an injection of CNN that makes my stomach hurt.

How I don’t want to start my day: angry, defeated, cynical, self-berating.

How I do want to start my day: hopeful, inspired, open-eyed, empathetic, challenged.

I’m lucky to live in a place where the scenery itself can inspire. But this view is NOT available to me first thing in the morning; it takes a 25-minute drive to the ferry dock. Not to mention clear skies.

Here are some steps I’ve taken to try to shape that first hour:*

  1. Hum to myself to drown out any CNN until my tea kettle does it for me.
  2. Before turning on my computer, re-read the poem I read yesterday from the collection of poetry I keep on the kitchen table. (Currently: Seamus Heaney.) Then read a new poem. (By this time CNN is a mumble in the background, nothing my brain cares about.)
  3. Turn on my computer, but before going to email, read some news stories. Lately, after finding myself turning to BBC, NPR and the Christian Science Monitor to escape CNN’s Trump focus, I decided to subscribe to the good old “failing” New York Times. The story that really got me today was about the escalation of violence against women in Honduras.
  4. Again, before email, I look at the weather forecasts, not just for Lopez Island, but for the whole country. I try to imagine how different people are being affected in different states and regions. (Road trips help with this–we know a lot of folks in a lot of different states and regions!)
  5. OK, now it’s time for email, Facebook, all that delicious focus on ME and my near-and-dear, or far-and-dear. But because I started with the bigger picture, it stays with me in perimeter even as my focus narrows. And because of the poetry, my brain feels brighter, my noticing muscles primed to do their job.

*on baking mornings, which start around 3 a.m., this routine is foreshortened, of course. I don’t need to worry about the Mate’s news habits; I’m actually up before him. But I spend the first ten minutes of my ride (if biking) or my drive, saying the names of people in need of special attention and love–anyone from an ill neighbor to, for example, the people of Puerto Rico.

I have tried, by the way, to internalize this kind of empathic meditation and make it part of my day when I’m not leaving for the bakery. But I haven’t yet found a place and time that feels natural. Still a work in progress.

“No man is an island, let that be my prayer/ no matter how alluring be the shore…”

Because of that, I would love to hear of other people’s routines. What special things do you do to start your day off on the right foot, for both brain and soul? 

 

Are You Blackberry or Salal? Wild Ruminations on Wild Berries

Now is the season of sweet, dark berries gathered by the handful at the sunny edge of the woods.

Also, it’s blackberry season.

But for those of you not from Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest), I’m talking about salal berries.

These guys

They’re native, humble, not well known, to my surprise, even to many Washingtonians. They are completely edible–just ask Lewis & Clark. Also delicious–although don’t expect that opinion from Lewis & Clark. They got pretty sick of salal that winter of (I think) 1804. Maybe because they were eating them dried and mixed with smoked salmon and bear grease, a protein-packed pemmican the Coastal nations were kind enough to share with them.

Granted, you wouldn’t want to bake a pie with salals–at least I wouldn’t. Their skin is rough and a bit furry, like a peach, and their “meat” is seedy.

I usually chew a sweet mouthful, then spit out the pulp. Hard to do that with pie.

But they’re sweet! And free! And best of all, to me, unlike those giant, juicy blackberries that stop me on my bike rides–they BELONG here.

I was thinking about salals and blackberries the other day after reading my morning poem by Mary Oliver. (She has defaulted to my poet of choice since I took up the daily poem habit as inoculation against the day’s national news, after the election.) Mary had a childhood full of suffering, which she managed to transcend through her writing–and probably lots of other activity I don’t know about, since she hasn’t written an autobiography. But my point is: she suffered, she survived, she wrote, and her writing is both vehicle (to her) and Promised Land (to the rest of us and also, I devoutly wish, to her).

I’m a writer. I have to this point in my life suffered almost nothing. 50-some years of good fortune. I know my time will come, so I’m neither boasting nor tempting Fate–just wondering: could this be the reason I have yet to write something that brings people screeching to a halt at the side of the road?

Easy to ride past.

Is my writing sweet, nourishing, but not very tempting? When someone takes a bite, do they savor, but still spit out a portion of pulp?

Is suffering the sunshine and rain that causes art to plump and swell? Or does the real difference lie in the species themselves: some of us are born with certain DNA, then planted and raised in such a way to create more beauty or truth than others?

I take comfort in the fact that this is, really, a pretty silly parallel. Also that I love blackberries, and great writers, so much that I’ll never waste time feeling envious. 

But in salal season, I still wonder.

Reading Weeds, Part III: Roadside Roses I Don’t Deserve…But Thank You Anyway

Roadside roses are my own personal metaphor for life’s overflowing blessings.

Nature finds a way.

I’ve shared this song before, but it’s that time of year again.

Roadside Roses

 

As if the scenery weren’t already sweet

The air is alive with wild rose

As if my life weren’t already complete

This mountain of gratitude grows.

           

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

            Some blessings are impossible to grasp.

 

No need to analyze, no need to think

How these wild gardens came to be

No cause and effect, there is no link                                                                                 

But it feels like they’re blooming for me.

           

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

            Some blessings seem too delicate to last.

 

Bridge: Don’t take it personal, but make sure you take

            The portion that Nature has served                                                                                        

Joy’s universal, and so’s the heartache

            Of having more than you deserve.

 

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

             Some blessings are not meant for us to ask.

 

If I were to linger here and breathe this perfume

Sweeping my duties away

Would I feel entitled, would I start to assume

That I’ve earned the privilege to stay?

 

Chor.   Roadside roses, how they scent the evening air

            How they decorate the brambles of the past

            Sometimes happiness becomes too much to bear

            Some blessings are not meant for us to ask.

             Some blessings are impossible to grasp.

G. Wing, June 2013

Now multiply this by an entire island

Do you have a favorite nature metaphor of your own? I collect them. Care to share?

Mmm…

 

Reading Weeds, Part II: The Thorns Beneath the Blooms

Spring, like new-fallen snow, makes photographers of us all. Whether or not we have a camera to hand, the freshness of new green and new blossoms sets our noticing muscles to full workout mode. Everything is worth capturing. 

And everything worth capturing is worth musing over. Spring beauty is full of metaphors. One that caught my eye a couple of years ago was the hawthorn, a blooming European tree that’s gone feral all over our island, spread by birds who enjoy the hawthorn’s deep-red berries in fall.

Wild hawthorn

So I wrote a song about lovely spring, and what its loveliness hides. Since it speaks for itself, I shall let it do just that:

Golden Day

Bless the spring, bless the earth,

bless the blossoms of rebirth.

Bless the hawthorn’s sweet perfume,

bless the thorns beneath the blooms.      

There’s no place for suffering on such a golden day,

but I know it’s hovering, not so far away.

Bless the one who struggles for a little grace;

to this tender sunlight let her lift her face.

—G. Wing, 2015

Bless the thorns beneath the blooms…

 

Reading Weeds, Part I: I’ll See Your Beauty And Raise You One Misery, or Vice-Versa

You may have heard of the millennial-era game, “Kill, F**k or Marry?” That (to me) distasteful phrase popped into my head the other day as I was riding by fields of green…or partial green, rather, sprinkled sometimes more than liberally with other colors. The colors of “weeds.”

Technically, I suppose, weeds are any plant growing where they aren’t wanted. The question that raises is, “Wanted for what?”

Who could object to moi???

If you’re growing hay, you abhor daisies. Kill. If you want a nice photo or a pretty bouquet, daisies are cool. F**k. And if, like me, you enjoy pondering the difference between weeds and crops, or sending love to all your friends with horrible allergies, daisies are an invitation to philosophy and empathy. Marry.

Late dustings of snow? Nope—early onslaught of daisies.

Daisies, of course, are only a convenient example; they have lots of pretty, invasive friends. Like the red-tinged sorrel in the photos above. Or buttercups.

I call this one, “Black Steed With Buttercups.”

And around here at least, even lupines want a piece of the action—you know, those tall, lovely blue numbers.

See ’em out there being tall, lovely and blue?

At the end of the day, the hay is cut, the daisies and their pretty friends die, and the allergy-sufferers close their windows and wait for September.

Well, hay there…

…leaving me to ponder the significance of something that provides more lasting nourishment in its dried-out state than alive. Damn. Farms are the philosophical gift that keeps on giving. THEM, I want to marry.

Road Trip VIII, Days 1-4, Tacoma to Oakland: Making The Familiar Strange

“Poetry is making the familiar strange.” That’s an unattributed quote I used to give my students, and it came to my mind as the Mate and I began the first leg of this, our eighth cross-country sojourn to North Carolina. It’s true that even though February travel argues for a quick race to the south, we have multiple routes available to us for that purpose. We don’t have to go Tacoma-Eugene-Redwood Coast-Oakland-Los Angeles. Yet we’ve taken that route six out of eight years.

That raises two questions. The first, Why? is easy: people. Specifically, dear very young people who are changing so rapidly that missing a year is like missing three, and dear older people whose health we never want to take for granted. We WILL go where they are, while we can.

…like these guys😍

The second question is tougher: how do we keep fresh our enthusiasm for this well-traveled route? And that’s where that quote comes in. In this first, familiar leg of our journey, I am giving my Noticing Muscles a workout, determined to keep the familiar strange.

So, walking in Tacoma’s beautiful Point Defiance Park, I ignored the shining trunks of the madrona trees to capture this bright red Oregon Grape.

Nothing like Christmas in February!

Then, instead of taking a classic picture of Mt. Rainier in all her fresh-snow glory, I focused on this cloud flexing its muscle.

We can do it!

In Eugene, walking with friends along the Coast Fork of the Willamette, I substituted a shot of moss-draped oaks for this intriguingly blank sign.

For when you’re feeling especially self-directed…

Not pictured: flock of wild turkeys.

Just before the California border, heading toward Cave Junction on beautiful US 199, we passed this sign (admittedly not our first glimpse, but I finally got the Mate to slow down so I could take its picture):

Apparently fully intentional—hey, let’s celebrate veggies AND dyslexia!

In the redwoods—oh, I have so many pictures of redwoods!—I forced myself away from the big trees…

OK, just ONE MORE big tree picture…!

ahem, I say, I forced myself to look down instead of up sometimes, and found…

British Soldier lichen!

And…

Tiny tree doing yoga!

Finally arriving in the Bay Area, the Mate and I went for a bike ride along the top of Tilden Park in Berkeley. And there…well, it’s not so much that my noticing muscles gave out, as that bikes aren’t the best mode of transport for photography.

So I had to settle for this fairly obvious shot:

Good ol’ Golden Gate in the distance

Not pictured: a pair of the glossiest ravens I’ve ever seen.

But no worries—most of the “view” I’m seeing in these well-travelled parts of the West are memories…and I haven’t found a way to capture those with my smartphone yet.

Miss Havisham Fights Back: When Literary Women Refuse To Know Their Place

My friend Kathleen Holliday writes poetry that always appeals to me–witty, lean, wry, poignant. But this one, published this week in the online journal SHARK REEF, really strikes me as apropos, in this year of #metoo, #time’sup, Nasty Women, pussy hats and Nevertheless, She Persisted.

Remember Miss Havisham, the creepy old maid in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations? Well, Kathleen has given her a much-needed makeover. Enjoy.

Ms. Havisham

I, too, had great expectations.
		To be or not to be a wife
		defined my life.

		My dowry guaranteed
		 a husband, and I would be
		a mother, helpmeet, nurse.
		Nothing could be worse than 
		that damning epithet:
		old maid.

		Left at the altar – jilted.
		My bouquet wilting,
		I drew my veil down over my face
		and let the yards of lace fall
		dragging through the dust.

		Years later, I still hold the knife:
		May I cut you a slice -
		a corner piece perhaps, with extra frosting?
		Don’t mind the spiders 
		and the mice racing in and out,
		tunnels crumbling behind them.

		Mr. Dickens, I implore you - 
		change mine to a happy ending.
		No funeral pyre,
		no more desires gone up in smoke.
 		Set me in some future time
		when I could say:
		never married,
		never needed to;
		earned a degree, had a job, a car,
		a condo in the city,
		a lover who never strayed.

		I’d celebrate my singular good fortune 
		with a cake - 
		not Mrs. Beeton’s recipe - 
		no butter, no gluten, no nuts.
		I’d clear up after with a cordless vac.
		I’d sweep the ceiling free of spider webs.
		I’d read a novel in one sitting
		then I’d take a nap.

[sorry about the formatting of the first line–it resisted fixing.]

Miss Havisham then…

…and now–fresh from her nap. 🙂 (Both pics courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

OK, you poets and short story writers–let’s hear it. Who else has a revised female archetype to share?

That Big Green Lady

Could America possibly have a more relevant poem right now than this one? 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Image by H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to a wonderful article* by Walt Hunter in The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty–and thanks to a very un-wonderful comment by the president–I’ve been thinking a lot  about Emma Lazarus’s poem.

Hunter’s article points out many features of  poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.

But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.

Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.

*Note: shout-out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for bringing this article to my attention.