Friday, January 07, 2022

Gregory Pardlo and the human experience

My lovely (times two) new friend Roger recently introduced me to the podcast Poetry Unbound. This morning, while eating my eggs, I was casually listening to some of the episodes he recommended when “Wishing Well” by Gregory Pardlo undid me. Eyes wide, mouth full of egg as the tears came on, then goosebumps as my throat tightened and I couldn’t swallow the egg. I was helpless, riding the wave of his brilliant words up and up and up, waiting for crescendo, caught between the mundane (egg in my mouth that I couldn’t swallow) and the sublime (Pardlo cracking open the everyday to expose a universal truth of the depth of human longing) until finally something broke loose inside me. I’ll post the poem here (found on the OnBeing website), but part of the magic of this morning’s experience was listening to poet Pádraig Ó Tuama’s reading of it. You can listen here:

Outside the Met a man walks up sun 
tweaking the brim sticker on his Starter cap
and he says pardon me Old School he
says you know is this a wishing well?
Yeah Son I say sideways over my shrug.
     Throw your bread on the water.
I tighten my chest wheezy as Rockaway beach
sand with a pull of faux smoke on my e-cig
to cozy the truculence I hotbox alone
and I am at the museum because it is not a bar.
Because he appears not to have changed
them in days I eye the heel-chewed hems
of his pants and think probably he will
ask me for fifty cents any minute now wait
for it. A smoke or something. Central Park displays
the frisking transparency of autumn. Tracing
paper sky, leaves like eraser crumbs gum
the pavement. As if deciphering celestial
script I squint and purse off toward the roof
line of the museum aloof as he fists two
pennies from his pockets mumbling and then
aloud my man he says hey my man I’m going
to make a wish for you too.
     I am laughing now so what you want
me to sign a waiver? He laughs along ain’t
say all that he says but you do have to
hold my hand. And close your eyes.
I make a starless night of my face before
he asks are you ready. Yeah dawg I’m ready.
Sure? Sure let’s do this his rough hand
in mine inflates like a blood pressure cuff and I
squeeze back as if we are about to step together
from the sill of all resentment and timeless
toward the dreamsource of un-needing the two
of us hurtle sharing the cosmic breast
of plenitude when I hear the coins blink against
the surface and I cough up daylight like I’ve just
been dragged ashore. See now
you’ll never walk alone he jokes and is about
to hand me back to the day he found me in
like I was a rubber duck and he says you got to let
go but I feel bottomless and I know he means
well though I don’t believe
     and I feel myself shaking 
my head no when he means let go his hand.

It reminds me of my very first yoga experience, when at the end of the session, the teacher had us lie on our backs then came around and stroked, with one finger, each of us between our eyes. I burst like a swollen balloon ready to pop. Sobbing and snot crying from out of nowhere. As if I’d been waiting my entire life for someone to touch me. And of course I had been. I still am. Aren’t we all? I’ve felt this longing for as long as I can remember, but I’m grateful to finally know that it’s deeper than what any human (or substance or activity) could provide. I wonder if it’s even possible to find fulfillment of this longing in our human experience? It feels so beyond. Since I gave up drinking, I’ve been allowing that unsettled feeling to just rumble around, co-existing with it as much as possible. When it gets too intense, I try to meditate or go for a walk. I just started a new book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Mate. It’s about addiction. I’m only a few pages in, but I imagine he’ll have to mention this longing. I also keep thinking about Alex Wong’s song, “Show Yourself.” Wong is a beautiful, local singer-songwriter. Showing ourselves is an act of great bravery. Local reiki master, kundalini yoga instructor Jason Latham is currently doing this on his Instagram posts. They inspire me toward similar vulnerability and bravery. All the while, something else is trying to keep me safe, urging: “Don’t be too weird. Don’t be too emotional. Don’t be so sensitive. At least, don’t let anyone see….” I wonder if that’s why the writing stopped. Maybe my ego (or something) is just trying to keep me safe. I’m trying to open the writing flow back up again, though, so although this post just barely touches the realm of too-weird, too-emotional, too-sensitive, and although only a few people will even read it, this is, at least, a first step.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Engagement, participation and Richard Siken's litany

Yesterday I met with Rahim, founder of Unheard Voices Outreach. We met at a coffee shop at 9:00 and I was shocked when I looked at my phone and found three hours had passed. Topics ranged from yoga, Breema body work, smart phone tutorials, documentaries about formerly incarcerated individuals, crypto currency, the school-to-prison pipeline, meditation and chakras, and more. I had met with him, hoping to volunteer in some way with his organization, but also just wanting to meet him because I felt we had numerous common interests. I left that coffee shop inspired to live a life more fully engaged, to participate in life with intention, to find some way to use my gifts to add value to the world.

I started that participation and engagement this morning by watching the sun rise from my little redneck inflatable hot tub. It sits in the middle of the back yard on a large patch of leveled sand that is occupied by the Craigslist above-ground swimming pool in the summer. The air temperature was somewhere in the 30s this morning. The faintest sliver of amber lined the darkened horizon. A nearly full moon was still bright in the dark sky directly overhead. Everything was still. I was settled in the warm water before the first bird called its voice into the morning. I heard it: a faint chirping in one of the trees near me. Then a call from a different type of bird in the neighbor’s yard. Three crows flew silently overhead, passing under the moon, flying to the north of where the sun would soon rise. Steam from the hot water billowed and drifted off in puffs. I heard the rumble of large trucks on Hart Lane. The noise from a passing train three blocks away took over then slowly faded. Etched against the barely perceptible brightening sky were the backyard trees whose inky black limbs branched off into crooked fingers then intricate, delicate webbing, silhouetted and almost cartoonish for their lack of detail. Then my own sweet chickens woke up clucking their protests or praises to the morning. “We survived the cold night! Let us pray!” More crows flew to the south and I heard their distant caw. Cicadas began to call from yard to yard. Squirrels started chattering and running along the branches, which began to appear less silhouette and more real life, as morning light illuminated bark and differentiated far from near.

I tried to be present for it all. I did some loving-kindness meditations. I made silent intentions toward healthiness. The kind of healthiness that healthy choices bring. The kind of healthy choices that take into account that quiet, solid knowing. We’re all doing our best, aren’t we? It’s not easy, but look how far we’ve come. I continue to move further away from that depression that had me in its grips last year, but I’m still ever wary of its return, and the fear of such informs nearly every decision I make.

Yes, I’m getting around to posting a poem. This is still that blog. I needed a moment to feel like a writer again myself. To participate and engage with life. Thank you, Rahim, for the inspiration. 

Olivia sent me a link to this poem recently, and I have read it about a dozen times now. My hot tub morning is not an adequate introduction, but I’m doing my best and I will no longer postpone participation while waiting for perfection. (This poem was found on The Poetry Foundation’s website. You'll have to look it up for yourself to see the proper line breaks and such.)

“Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out” by Richard Siken 
Every morning the maple leaves.
                Every morning another chapter where the hero shifts
            from one foot to the other. Every morning the same big
and little words all spelling out desire, all spelling out
                                 You will be alone always and then you will die.
So maybe I wanted to give you something more than a catalog
         of non-definitive acts,
something other than the desperation.
                   Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party.
Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I came to your party
         and seduced you
and left you bruised and ruined, you poor sad thing.
                                   You want a better story. Who wouldn’t?
A forest, then. Beautiful trees. And a lady singing.
                  Love on the water, love underwater, love, love and so on.
What a sweet lady. Sing lady, sing! Of course, she wakes the dragon.
            Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly
                                                               flames everywhere.
I can tell already you think I’m the dragon,
                that would be so like me, but I’m not. I’m not the dragon.
I’m not the princess either.
                           Who am I? I’m just a writer. I write things down.
I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure,
               I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow
         glass, but that comes later.
                                        And the part where I push you
flush against the wall and every part of your body rubs against the bricks,
            shut up
I’m getting to it.
                                    For a while I thought I was the dragon.
I guess I can tell you that now. And, for a while, I thought I was
                                                 the princess,
cotton candy pink, sitting there in my room, in the tower of the castle,
          young and beautiful and in love and waiting for you with
            but the princess looks into her mirror and only sees the princess,
while I’m out here, slogging through the mud, breathing fire,
                                            and getting stabbed to death.
                                    Okay, so I’m the dragon. Big deal.
          You still get to be the hero.
You get magic gloves! A fish that talks! You get eyes like flashlights!
                  What more do you want?
I make you pancakes, I take you hunting, I talk to you as if you’re
            really there.
Are you there, sweetheart? Do you know me? Is this microphone live?
                                           Let me do it right for once,
             for the record, let me make a thing of cream and stars that becomes,
you know the story, simply heaven.
                   Inside your head you hear a phone ringing
                                                and when you open your eyes
only a clearing with deer in it. Hello deer.
                               Inside your head the sound of glass,
a car crash sound as the trucks roll over and explode in slow motion.
             Hello darling, sorry about that.
                                         Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we
lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell
                                    and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud.
            Especially that, but I should have known.
You see, I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together
            to make a creature that will do what I say
or love me back.
                  I’m not really sure why I do it, but in this version you are not
feeding yourself to a bad man
                                 against a black sky prickled with small lights.
            I take it back.
The wooden halls like caskets. These terms from the lower depths.
                                                I take them back.
Here is the repeated image of the lover destroyed.
                                                                       Crossed out.
            Clumsy hands in a dark room. Crossed out. There is something
underneath the floorboards.
                   Crossed out. And here is the tabernacle
Here is the part where everyone was happy all the time and we were all
even though we didn’t deserve it.
                                                       Inside your head you hear
a phone ringing, and when you open your eyes you’re washing up
            in a stranger’s bathroom,
standing by the window in a yellow towel, only twenty minutes away
                           from the dirtiest thing you know.
All the rooms of the castle except this one, says someone, and suddenly
                                                        suddenly only darkness.
In the living room, in the broken yard,
                                  in the back of the car as the lights go by. In the airport
          bathroom’s gurgle and flush, bathed in a pharmacy of
unnatural light,
             my hands looking weird, my face weird, my feet too far away.
And then the airplane, the window seat over the wing with a view
                                              of the wing and a little foil bag of peanuts.
I arrived in the city and you met me at the station,
          smiling in a way
                    that made me frightened. Down the alley, around the arcade,
          up the stairs of the building
to the little room with the broken faucets, your drawings, all your things,
                                                I looked out the window and said
                                This doesn’t look that much different from home,
            because it didn’t,
but then I noticed the black sky and all those lights.
                                           We walked through the house to the elevated train.
            All these buildings, all that glass and the shiny beautiful
                                                                    mechanical wind.
We were inside the train car when I started to cry. You were crying too,
            smiling and crying in a way that made me
even more hysterical. You said I could have anything I wanted, but I
                                                        just couldn’t say it out loud.
Actually, you said Love, for you,
                                 is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s like a religion. It’s terrifying. No one will ever want to sleep with you.
Okay, if you’re so great, you do it—
                        here’s the pencil, make it work . . .
If the window is on your right, you are in your own bed. If the window
            is over your heart, and it is painted shut, then we are breathing
river water.
            Build me a city and call it Jerusalem. Build me another and call it
                            We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not
what we sought, so do it over, give me another version,
             a different room, another hallway, the kitchen painted over
and over,
             another bowl of soup.
The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell.
             Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time.
                                                               Forget the dragon,
leave the gun on the table, this has nothing to do with happiness.
                                        Let’s jump ahead to the moment of epiphany,
             in gold light, as the camera pans to where
the action is,
             lakeside and backlit, and it all falls into frame, close enough to see
                                                the blue rings of my eyes as I say
                                                        something ugly.
I never liked that ending either. More love streaming out the wrong way,
             and I don’t want to be the kind that says the wrong way.
But it doesn’t work, these erasures, this constant refolding of the pleats.
                                                   There were some nice parts, sure,
all lemondrop and mellonball, laughing in silk pajamas
             and the grains of sugar
                              on the toast, love love or whatever, take a number. I’m sorry
                                                                         it’s such a lousy story.
Dear Forgiveness, you know that recently
                     we have had our difficulties and there are many things
                                                                                    I want to ask you.
I tried that one time, high school, second lunch, and then again,
             years later, in the chlorinated pool.
                                      I am still talking to you about help. I still do not have
             these luxuries.
I have told you where I’m coming from, so put it together.
                                                 We clutch our bellies and roll on the floor . . .
             When I say this, it should mean laughter,
not poison.
                  I want more applesauce. I want more seats reserved for heroes.
Dear Forgiveness, I saved a plate for you.
                                                  Quit milling around the yard and come inside.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Carolina wren and more Mary Oliver

Here’s a true story: The past two nights, I’ve slept in a hammock on the back deck. This morning and yesterday morning, a little bird came to visit. It lit for a moment on me the first morning, waking me up. I moved when I felt something on my shoulder. Within minutes, it came back twice and landed on the hammock. This morning it landed at the end of the hammock and watched me for a moment. Then it made three skillful hops along the edge of the hammock until it was RIGHT NEXT TO MY FACE. Like an inch or two away. Then it flew to the ping pong table where it continued to observe me. I am in love. I took a phone pic of it when it was on the ping pong table and sent to a friend to identify: Carolina wren. I’ve seen it many times on the railing of the back deck. It sings the prettiest song. 

And now that I love it, I feel mild panic because I don’t want any harm to come to it. “Maybe I shouldn’t let the cat outside anymore,” was my first thought. My cat is old and overweight and has never caught anything other than one cricket (which was probably also old and overweight and easy to catch). She’s never even shown interest my backyard chickens, which have lived with us for over a year now. But the fear is real. 

Update: The above was written last week. A few days after the intimate encounter with the wren, I found a dead Carolina wren near my chicken coop. Since then I haven’t seen the wren that sang regularly on the railing of the back deck just outside my kitchen window. I’m still processing this. I dug a hole near the coop and buried the wren, which seemed freshly dead but still covered in ants. These are things that happen, but I wonder what actions of mine could have caused this death. I hate Round-up, but I use it on poison ivy because I’m so dreadfully allergic to the stuff. I used it last week on a small crop that suddenly appeared in the yard. I thought I had eradicated most of it when I moved in two years ago. Also last week, my neighbor was carrying a can of Raid, complaining about ants in his yard. Could the bird have eaten some Raided ants? 

I don’t want its death to be for naught, so I’m going to do some research and I WILL find another way to get rid of poison ivy if I contributed to that little songbird’s death. Coming up out of an intense depression, I’m also a bit selfishly determined to not let guilt send me spiraling back down. This is an appropriate time for me to dig into my new practice of self-compassion. I just don’t want it to be an excuse, though, so along with the forgiving of myself, I will also be dedicated to good change if needed. And of course, Mary Oliver has a poem that works some healing magic into the wound: 

I will try 

I will try. 

I will step from the house to see what I see 

and hear and I will praise it. 

I did not come into this world 

to be comforted. 

I came, like red bird, to sing. 

But I’m not red bird, with his head-mop of flame 

and the red triangle of his mouth 

full of tongue and whistles, 

but a woman whose love has vanished, 

who thinks now, too much, of roots 

and the dark places 

where everything is simply holding on. 

But this too, I believe, is a place 

where God is keeping watch 

until we rise, and step forth again and – 

 but wait. Be still. Listen! 

Is it red bird? Or something 

inside myself, singing?

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Rita Dove and happiness

This morning while on a walk I smelled so deeply of a mimosa flower that the whimsical petal strands tickled the inside of my nose. I saw half a dozen bumblebees stumble clumsily through those same flowers, their big, bouncy bodies tumbling headfirst into feathery pink bliss.

I ate a dozen wild blackberries warm straight from the blackberry bush. Darting blue birds (not bluebirds, perhaps blue buntings?) flashed brilliant in energetic bursts. The crows convening on the sidewalk parted to let me pass, but not without significant vocal commentary. 

There was plenty more, of course: the crayon-box variety of wild flowers; the rise-and-fall, buzz-and-hum symphony of insects; the miracle of a star 92 million miles away warming my bare arms; the “weeds” whose resilience and ingenuity found a way to thrive in a sidewalk crack; my own body strong and capable of walking small hills on a Tennessee July morning. 

See, I KNOW there is every good reason to be grateful and see beauty in this world. And I AM grateful. And I DO see. But I also struggle with a sporadic darkness that can grip so fiercely it makes existence feel excruciating. And though this is my truth, it makes me feel silly and dramatic, so I keep quiet about it for the most part. Lately, I am existing in a place much brighter than I thought possible these past few years. In fact, there was a time when the following Rita Dove poem spoke clearly to the limits of my hopefulness. I am surprised by a new hope (though still tremulous, still cautious) that can imagine happiness as deep, full and complete.

“Sonnet” by Rita Dove

Nothing can console me. You may bring silk

to make skin sigh, dispense yellow roses

in the manner of ripened dignitaries.

You can tell me repeatedly 

I am unbearable (and I know this):

still, nothing turns the gold to corn,

nothing is sweet to the truth crushing in.

I’ll not ask for the impossible;

one learns to walk by walking.

In time I’ll forget this empty brimming,

I may laugh again at

a bird, perhaps, chucking the nest – 

but it will not be happiness

for I have known that.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Moldavite and powerful women in the periphery

I just ordered a small chunk of moldavite. Moldavite is (according to Wikipedia) “a forest green, olive green or blue greenish vitreous silica projectile rock formed by a meteorite impact probably in southern Germany (Nördlinger Ries Crater) that occurred about 15 million years ago. It is a type of tektite.” describes it a bit more poetically as “a unique extraterrestrial gem. It formed in the heat of an asteroid impact about 15 million years ago.”

I’m not “into” crystals and have very little understanding of them, but I adore Alea Lovely, host of the podcast Spiritual Shit, and she expounds on the myriad potential positive qualities of this rare tektite. I’ll honestly try just about anything at this point in my journey, but since limited funds insist on fiscal conservancy, I just ordered a little sliver chunk. I figure a little sliver chunk should be sufficient, given its inherent concentrated power.

I know a few people like this. Due to normal life circumstances, they are more acquaintances than friends, but the limited time I’ve been exposed to them affects me powerfully. Dana, who fits this description, has had way more impact on me than makes sense. Her concise response to a desperate text I sent several months ago provided immediate insight and relief and still comforts me. A simple comment to a facebook post has done the same. “She’s next level,” says our mutual friend Ryan. And anyone who knows her would understand this statement. I want to fight for justice and stand up for the oppressed and enjoy life as big as possible when I’m around her. She inspires that in a person.

Another person I’m fortunate enough to have in the periphery is Ciona. Being in her presence is like being in a lush glen or a grove of young trees. I feel calmed down and peaceful. I want to be a kind, thoughtful person when I’m around her. She inspires that in a person. Naturally, she’s a poet. And the poem I want to share today is hers. It was recently published in The Nashville Scene with a lovely illustration by Rachel Briggs. It gave me goosebumps and made my eyes water. Not only is it rhythmically brilliant, it also speaks beautifully to the common societal issue of body-acceptance that I am (and most of my friends are) still confronting. It makes me want to overcome.


“Eat” by Ciona Rouse

I eat an apple and

           each crunch treats my ear 


to a beat, like the bellydance drum solos 

           I become, feathers and coins on my hips


to create a space in my body

           for honoring my folds and pleats. 


In high school I could never feather

           as a cheerleader, always the base beneath


flying some great tiny gal to heaven.

           Your job is threatening your uniform


my coach bleated at me because I worked

           at a bakery, and, yes, I’d cheat myself


some chocolate pleasures. I hid in sweatshirts

           consumed salads for lunch, hold the meat


and I woke at 5 am to sweat.



I hid in the back of the theater alone

           like a heathen on Sunday repenting in the last pew


fingers buttered with popcorn and defeat.

           But now the drum permeates my skin


becomes my blood and breath,

           my body defies lineation


swirling, turning like electric weather

           bumping my heat against the air


my arms, snake-like creatures

           beckon rhythm, hips wreathing.


The downbeat teaches me to drop

           into this body, my cellular caveat: stop


the dieting. With each breath 

           already one sigh closer to death,


why cling to a word so sheathed in 

           die? Emancipate from skinny ideations


and eat.          



Monday, April 17, 2017

small dash of Mary Oliver for the evening....

"The world is: fun, and familiar, and healthful, and unbelievably refreshing, and lovely. And it is the theater of the spiritual; it is the multiform utterly obedient to a mystery." - Mary Oliver

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Renunciation, Longing and Leonard Cohen

"Leaving Mt. Baldy"
by Leonard Cohen
I come down from the mountain
after many years of study
and rigorous practice.
I left my robes hanging on a peg
in the old cabin
where I had sat so long
and slept so little.
I finally understood
I had no gift
for Spiritual Matters.
"Thank you Beloved,"
I heard a heart cry out
as I entered the stream of cars
on the Santa Monica Freeway,
westbound for L.A.
A number of people
(some of them practitioners)
have begun to ask me angry questions
about the Ultimate Reality.
I suppose they don't like to see
Old Jikan smoking.

At least once a week, some line from a Leonard Cohen song will rise up to mirror whatever sorrow, desire, epiphany is on the horizon of my consciousness. The lyrics well up and show my conscious mind whatever angel or demon my subconscious has been wrestling.

I saw Cohen perform a three-hour concert in Memphis a few years ago. It mattered not that he was nearly 80; he was one of the sexiest men I'd ever seen, and when he went down on one knee (out of passion, not aged joints), while reciting "1,000 Kisses Deep," everything in me moved. Everything.

In Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again & Again, Roger Housden gives us a Cohen poem to contemplate, and explains that "besides (Cohen's) evident love of women and beauty, one of the themes that has pervaded all of his work from the very beginning is what he calls, in his novel Beautiful Losers, the theme of Tibetan Desire, 'the unholy union between renunciation and longing and the difficulty in divorcing one from the other'....

Housden tells us how Cohen, after five years in a monastery "putting on twenty pounds of robes every morning at 2:30 a.m....he realizes it is time to call it a day..." and that "nothing is more real than everyday experience, which constantly invites us to let go of any spiritual persona we may have carefully developed and cherished over the years and to join everyone else in the chaos and the light and the dark of this imperfect world. . . . In Beautiful Losers, (Cohen) suggests that 'contact with this energy (love) results in the exercise of a kind of balance the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. . . Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid blood landscape. He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of the heart.'"

The last line of the poem shows that Cohen's smoking habit is "a problem for someone who has definite ideas about what it means to be spiritual. . . . Underlying our false notion (that there are some thing that are innately against the love of an examined life) is an implicit schism between body and spirit. . . . When we no longer distance ourselves from anything or anyone, when we give equal value to this messy world and the world of spirit, we may catch the scent of what Rumi refers to when he says

Out beyond ideas
Of wrongdoing and rightdoing
There is a field. I'll meet you there."