Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Fires, The Virus & The Day of At-One-Ment



        Sunday night. The eve of the Day of At-One-ment. For our online evening services Bill & I are asked to light the candles. “Shekinah, divine feminine, bless our children and the children of our children that they may be sustained and that they sustain the earth and each other”.              

     After services we receive news of new fires in Napa and Sonoma and evacuations. Plague upon plague! We are supposed to shelter in place if possible, but people are being driven from their homes. Dazed, they arrive in parking lots, unsure of where to go, what to do. I feel such of empathy for them.  

    It’s grape harvest time. A vintner described “Beautiful bunches…the best ever” - but there has been concern for the workers - how to keep them safe from the virus? Now the vineyards are ablaze. Beautiful old wineries have been destroyed.


     We have a Red Flag Fire warning for the  Berkeley Hills, and we are prepared to evacuate: the Go Bag with survival items and all our important documents and the cat’s supply bag are next to the door. Bill's art is too large to take with us, but how can we leave it? What irreplaceable books should I pack? The warning will end at 8AM in the morning. But when I  wake at 8 there is a message extending the warning till evening. The air is smoky, but a fire in the Oakland Hills has been put out. We are safe - for now.

    It's Yom Kippur. The Day of At-One-ment. The doors and windows of our house are closed against the smoke. I am in the living room facing the sky, the redwoods, the smoky clouds hiding Mt. Tamalpais. As I click on Zoom for the morning service, squirrels are cavorting on the deck. The singing begins. “My home is a home of prayer for all people and all nations” and I silently welcome all to my living room, making certain that I include those who we call our adversaries - those on the other side. 

       Naomi Newman, singer, actress, director, playwright, reads prayers for those who died from Covid, died from Neglect, and prayers for those who survived, because life is a wilderness. Laura Goldman, therapist & spiritual teacher, reminds us that endangered places, high wire spaces, the unknown, are places of transformation. What trapeze of possibility is swinging toward you? Is there any safety net? Must we let go of all that has brought us to this place? Will voters choose the ones who can bring us to the other side?

    Yom Kippur and the state of California and our state of being is on fire. Why can’t we summon this fervor, this grief, this fear and deep love on all other days?  I look at myself in the small square on the screen and acknowledge my vanity and my self-consciousness, such old patterns, and I laugh, forgive myself, let it go, and scroll to the faces of strangers and silently give my heart to them. 


      And then Joanna Macy, Root teacher, Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, has us look at our hands. Our hands that were once fins and flippers and all they have accomplished over millions of years. “Fear and courage are at each other’s throats” she says, summarizing our national divide, but with these hands, what we can still accomplish to save this world! Even if we fail, even if we can’t sustain - let us make the attempt in joy and with wonder”- this fearless holy activist!

     And then she reads us these lines from a poem of Rilke’s, from the Book of Hours, which she and Anita Barrows translated, and it is exactly what we needed to hear:

Dear darkening ground,                                                         You've endured so patiently the walls we've built                    Perhaps you'll give the cities one more hour                                 

and  grant the churches and cloisters two.                                and those that labor - let their work                                        grip them another five hours, or seven, 

before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness                                                                                   in that hour of inconceivable terror                                         when you take back your name                                                     from all things.      

Just give me a little more time!    

I want to love the things                                                             as no one has thought to love them,                                         until they're worthy of you and real.                                                                      


















Monday, February 17, 2020

Making a Poem

    I want to talk about writing poetry, which along with intimacy, is my most joyous activity. When the muse is with me, words and images flow and I happily surrender to her. When she is gone, on vacation, having an affair, I become bereft after a couple months, and feel somewhat empty. Years have taught me that I shouldn’t even try to write without her, it will come to nothing, and I don’t. Fortunately, my life has many riches.

For many years my poems were mostly mythological.  I wrote in the voice of many mythic women, from Mary and Mary Magdalene to baudy Baubo and the Japanese crane wife. I wrote about art and music and the experience of visiting sanctuaries in many countries. And then the plight of the earth and migrants and the work of nature took me over, and those are now my themes. And underlying it all, is connection. Among images, among ideas, among trees in the forest, and our common grounding. And beneath that is love.  
Connection  Photo by Allie Smith
    I worry that my poems are sometimes esoteric. I doubt that I reflect much of the collective, but I join many who have taken on similar themes in response to our times. I have choices in imagery and metaphor and structure, but I have no choice but to choose what has chosen me.

    Psycholinguist Dan Slobin has written about thinking for speaking and thinking for writing, and I have been talking to him about thinking for poetry. When I’m writing a poem the sounds of words are as important as meaning. Alliteration, my love of the repetition of vowel or consonants, takes precedence, and then there is rhythm, and meter and flow. Words come to me as sounds, which doesn’t happen writing prose or speaking. It’s rather magical. My desire is to create rivers in my poems, they flow far and fast, and through and past my meanings. Then they flow out into a sea, which is the spaciousness I hope to create with the poem’s ending. 

Place seems to have little effect on my poems. There I was in Costa Rica recently, in the midst of a tropical forest, writing about the Great Red Cedar Forest on Vancouver Island, because no place in nature has ever created such awe. The subject of the poem was the fungal connection between all the trees in the forest. I had heard of it, was enchanted, and read everything I could find. The muse insisted it become a poem.

The Great Fungal Network

    I never know how a poem is going to begin. Though 
I intended to open with the connection among trees in that first poem,  what came to me was “How she was the leader and told us kids to take one giant step  but we had to say mother may I or lose our turn and when I come years later to the Giant Red Cedar Forest I whisper mother may I.” Did I actually whisper that years ago when I went to the forest? No. But this time, when I revisited the forest in my imagination, that’s what I said immediately. The truth in the poem was not literal truth, but the intensity of what I imagined saying. I feel now what I didn’t feel when I hiked through the forest - my deep gratitude to mother earth.

Beginnings and endings. I don’t write in circles, the ending often has nothing to do with the beginning. There is a movement from image to image. One new poem begins with one million ibis buried in an Egyptian tomb, and ends with a melting glacier. That was my stream of thought. And the challenge is to create a link between ideas, so they appear to be a natural sequence. One strategy is to repeat certain phrases, or a single word like star, throughout the poem, or end with the phrases that begin the poem.

    It may take days of playing with what initially appeared, shifting stanzas, hunting through a thesaurus for synonyms, adding a new creature, finding out where they land. Other poems have a symmetrical connection. A new one, Homing, talks about the homing in of animals and people and missiles. Easier! Poetry is about intuitive problem solving without having to worry about the consequences, because choice yields choice, till finally there are no more choices that have to be made.

    When the poem feels done, I experience the deep pleasure of completion, but it’s the process that I love. What writing a poem gives me is total immersion and involvement, where the world melts away and I am in the absolute presence of my poem, inward, migrating between imagination and feeling and soul without any separation between them. And this is the gift that life has provided, and I call it life’s blessing.