November 8, 2017 – One place at a time

I may never paint this rose, but I was drawn to its strange beauty and the way it was lit by the last-of-the-day sunlight. Seconds after I took this, the sun sunk behind the trees for the night.

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I wasn’t raised with poetry.  Though, we did have Mother Goose and I remember reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” at a friend’s house.  But apart from that, Mom read us story books.  I had two friends from middle childhood through high school who loved poetry.  Whenever they would read or write poems I knew I didn’t belong.  My family was into science, knowledge of the natural world and making stuff.  It wasn’t until I was going to the Fairfax Community Church in my late 30’s that I discovered poets and their poetry:  Rumi, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, David Whyte among others.  I still cannot imagine ever attempting to write any poetry, but I have come to appreciate the insight, richness and just the simple pleasure it brings.

On Being’s Poetry Radio Project page starts with this:

Poetry, David Whyte says, is language against which we have no defense.
We inhabit a moment in which defended language is practically all we know, and so we are re-learning our basic human need of poetry to flourish.

This feels like my life.  Defended language was practically all I knew as long as I was certain that my rational mind could get me through anything.  As my path showed me otherwise and took me deeper into the undefended parts of me, the gift in poetry was a welcome discovery.

My own words aren’t flowing in great measure today, so I thought I’d share with you some of my favorites.  These poems are loved by many – so they are likely to be very familiar to some of you.  For me they are worth reading over and over, so take them as you wish.  Here goes…

For those of us who feel compelled to go around being “good” all the dang time, permission to simply love what the “soft animal of our bodies” love is nothing less than amazing.  Thank you, Mary Oliver, for this and SO many other poems that accompany our souls through life.

Wild Geese – by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I’m so taken by the fact that this next one was written by a man.  This poem had me take as my very own the word “loveliness.”  And, though I never nursed any children, I can still viscerally relate to the experience of lying in the muck, having those around me feed off of me – a state that feels so far from anything close to loveliness.  This poem is a benediction, a blessing, to those of us living in a body that is designed to nurture others first.  As you read it, imagine being that sow.

Saint Francis and the Sow – by Galway Kinnell

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of the earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking
and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

This last one has come to me more recently.  When I discovered it, I related it to my friend Vicki and her courage to go to Africa and help women survivors of sexual violence.  I’ve decided that one doesn’t have to go that far to be brave.  I’m claiming this poem for what I’m up to as well.  I’ll have more to say about how this is very soon.

Mameen – by David Whyte

Be infinitesimal under that sky,
a creature even the sailing hawk misses,
a wraith among the rocks where the mist parts slowly.
Recall the way mere mortals are overwhelmed by circumstance,
how great reputations dissolve with infirmity
and how you, in particular,
live a hairsbreadth from losing everyone you hold dear.

Then, look back down the path as if seeing your past
and then south over the hazy blue coast
as if present to a wide future,
recall the way you are all possibilities you can see
and how you live best as an appreciator of horizons
whether you reach them or not,
admit that once you have got up from your chair
and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clean air
toward that edge
and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary
you have become the privileged and the pilgrim
the one who will tell the story and the one,
coming back from the mountain,
who helped to make it.

Every other Wednesday morning at 7am I am part of a conference call with women from my coaching group.  I love these calls; they are less structured than our official coaching calls, but every bit as supportive.  We are changed by being seen and gotten in the way we do for each other.  But today, so that I could make an appointment at 8am, I needed to get exercise with Bo at the same time as our call.  I’ve called in with my cellphone and ear buds while I’m out with Bo plenty of times before.  But today a voice in me said:  do one thing at a time, be one place at a time.  I, like most women, am an accomplished multitasker, but I still cannot offer the kind of attention to Bo, to the patch of Earth I’m walking through, even to the sensations of my own body, if I’m listening and conversing with people who are thousands of miles away.

This voice may have been spawned from having read several poems before going to bed last night.  Reading poetry has me see how poets must pay attention – how they must be in a particular state of receptivity in order to perceive with such sensitivity.  It’s the same with painting.  And I’ve not been honoring this.  I’ve been splitting my attention with my painting time for a long while.  It used to be that all I did was listen to music while I painted. But I’ve been listening to talking – radio programs, audiobooks, people on the phone – as I’ve been making my art.  I’ve claimed that painting is my meditation, it’s my spiritual practice.  But the way I’ve been doing it, it hasn’t been feeling like spiritual nourishment.

Doesn’t it seem like time and the pace of life is accelerating?  And that there is ever more clamoring for our attention?  In the face of this, I’m wondering what difference it would make if I went back to only listening to music as I painted – for a while at least.  Just writing that has one part of me rise up in protest (when else will I ingest the contents of the books I never have time read???), and another is feeling so… very… relieved.  I also see there are so many other ways I might re-think the multi-tasking I do on a regular basis:  eating and driving, eating and reading the paper, reading email on the fly… it goes on.

I’m not promising that this will turn me into a poet – but – I’m a big believer in listening to – and heeding – the voices inside us that rise up out of the blue with a request or a new direction to take.  These voices are our souls speaking to us.  As Donna has told me over and over again:  to not hear them is one thing, but to hear them and ignore them is to live three rungs below hell.  I’m all for attending to my soul before finding myself there – as much as I possibly can.  You too?

With my love,

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