Traumatized by Poetry

A running joke in my family, is that our daughters were traumatized when they were young, by my reciting poetry in the family van.  As daughters K and L tell the story, their childhood was scarred by my reciting portions of poems as I drove them to dance classes, school events or on family vacations.

To show that the trauma wasn’t too great and that their humor remained intact, the daughters in their teens, graced me (for Father’s Day) with a home made anthology of my favorite poets. The booklet was entitled ‘from the back of the van’ (in lower case a nod to ee.cummings).

The introduction written by L my eldest daughter reads: ‘A collection of acceptable poetry. Please, please, please do not feel like we are giving you permission to read this to us.  Love your darling daughters.’

Best Father’s Day gift, ever. (Okay, second best, the best was L and K gifting me with Red Sox tickets, 10 rows from third base, with me sitting between my daughters).

Where did my love of poetry come from?

It came out of the blue.  For much of my life I’d found poetry too sugary or too abstract.  What I heard I didn’t like or didn’t get.

A kayak trip to the Tongass Wilderness in Alaska changed everything.  It was summer of 2002 and I was on a Zen meditation Kayak trip in the primal wilderness of the Tongass.   A deep, dark, beautiful old growth forest indented by the bracing blue waters of Tebenkof Bay.

Kurt Hoelting our guide, welcomed each morning by reciting a poem.  He channeled the words of the poets Mary Oliver, David Whyte, William Stafford, Wendell Berry.  Their words weren’t syrupy or abstract.  They were real.  They reflected and amplified the wisdom of this wilderness.

Poems spoken from the heart spoke to mine.  It was an epiphany.

For the first time, I heard and received as a gift, this poem by Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

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 your 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.

 

Kayaking on Tebenkof Bay, paddling the inlets as doorways into the wilderness, I let the poem wash over me…announcing my place in the family of things.  This poem, as others have done, opened my heart, mind and imagination to the beauty and mystery that was in, with and all around me.

Years later, during a health crisis, Mary Oliver’s poems would settle and sustain me on a different journey.   Mary and William Stafford (the poet laureate of Oregon) and others, became my travelling companions through the varied seasons of living.

So, you can see why I couldn’t help but share my love of poetry.  Even when our daughters were buckled-in to their car seats and had little choice.

My children, now grown, have forgiven me my poetic excess.  Their long ago gift of a homegrown anthology was their way of saying ‘all was forgiven’.

And, it gets even better.  K my journalist daughter recently invited me to participate in a book club for a radio show she produces.  The book? ‘Delights and Shadows’ by Ted Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

Yes!

Sheer Silence: Part One

We live in a world of busyness and noise.   Smart phones train us to respond to prompts.   Email and texts blur the line between our work and personal life.  The 24 hour news cycle means we are continually processing data.  Oftentimes we feel stressed, overwhelmed, anxious.

In the midst of the busyness and noise where do we turn for perspective and refreshment?  Is there an antidote from this seemingly relentless pace?

The Bible tells the story of a man called Elijah.  Elijah was a Hebrew prophet who lived approx. 3000 years ago.  Elijah felt abandoned by his people and abandoned by God.  Elijah: “I alone am left and my enemies are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Into the story God speaks but not in the way Elijah expects:

God said: “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, the sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.

Such is the great paradox of this story.  It is not in the noise and fury of wind, earthquake or fire that God speaks.  Rather, in ‘the sound of sheer silence’.   The paradox of being able to hear what is truly important in the midst of quiet.

Quiet…silence…creates emotional and spiritual space within which we can listen for and get in touch with what matters.  The countercultural call remains the same.  To make space for  quiet.  Space to simply be.

The truth is that many of us fear silence.  We fear the loss of control.  We prefer being busy.  Many of us are propelled by an old  joke:  ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!’

We do something, anything, to give us a sense of purpose.  Even if the ‘something’ isn’t the right thing or the healthiest thing to do.  Busyness and noise as an end unto itself.

Elijah knew that what truly matters comes not in the earthquake, wind or fire.  Truth and  value comes from silence.  Imagine.

In 2002 I participated in a ten-day silent kayak trip in the Tongass Wilderness, in Southeast Alaska.  We were introduced each day to meditation practices.  Meditation designed to help us quiet the busyness in our mind and simply be. Open to where we were and what was going on within me and around me.

Truth be told, for the first few days I struggled.  The silence was uncomfortable.  I had so many things to say.   Chaotic thoughts or feelings I wanted to flee from.  But by day three I felt myself shift…where the silence became a gift.  A gift that invited me to become more aware and open… to rest and be restored  ‘in the sheer silence’.

Over the next few blogs I’d like to explore with you ways of entering into the sheer silence.  I invite you on a counter-cultural journey of becoming quiet.  We may well be surprised by where the journey takes us.

Paddling in the Rain

Several years ago I climbed into a rickety 1946 de Havilland Float Plane for a two-hour flight from Petersburg, Alaska for Tebenkoff Bay in the Tongass Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska. I was dropped off at an island with ten other people I’d never met. The rain was falling in sheets. We would be kayaking from island to island and camping.

Our guide brought us together on the beach as the rain fell. He said: “You are dressed for the rain. This rain will be your constant companion for most of the next week. It is up to each of you how you view this reality. You can complain or you can embrace it. The choice is yours.”

We chose to embrace the rain. For the next week we would kayak from island to island with rain as our constant companion. We had a great time.

I was thinking of that experience yesterday as I kayaked with my wife Tricia and friends on Chebacco Lake in Massachusetts. It was October and the colors were in their New England glory if muted somewhat by a steady rain.

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Having been on that lake in the summer with water ski boats racing past us, this day it was just our little group. Apparently most people prefer the sun. The gift of rain brought us quiet.

Slowly we paddled the circumference of that lake. Our only companions were ducks, ravens, hawks, occasionally a rising fish and of course the sound of rain.

In our busy lives where our schedules guide us and our minds race, it was a healthy antidote to be on the water. Our group’s age range was mid 30’s to mid 70’s. Gliding on the water any age difference fell away and we were simply fellow paddlers embracing the rain and the sounds that come with silence.

3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah said: “Listen and your soul will live.” All we need do is slow down and listen. There is no better place to listen than being on the water in the rain.

Sound of Silence

Some years ago I was kayaking in the Tongass Wilderness in southeastern Alaska.   The Tongass is a temperate rainforest of several million acres largely untouched by human beings.  The Tlingit’s who lived here for thousands of years left few traces, a burial mound, indentations from  long ago villages and a few totems that eventually return to the earth.   It is a sacred land whose neighbors include wolf, bear, salmon, humpback and the occasional human.

My trip consisted of 10 kayakers led by Kurt Hoelting of Inside Passages insidepassages.com  The purpose of our trip in part was to immerse ourselves in the beauty, to slow down and become quiet so as to see and hear what the Tongass had to offer.

Each morning and evening we entered into a Zen practice…where we would seek to quiet our mind and spirit so as to be present to that which was going on within and around us.   One evening we heard a rhythmic “Whoosh”, the sound of a humpback exhaling as the whale broke the ocean surface.   So unmistakable and loud was the sound that we who were seated in the forest several yards off the beach were certain that the whale must be very close.

No longer able to contain ourselves our meditation leader broke our practice and invited us to greet our neighbor the whale.   Walking to the beach we saw that the humpbacks were actually a mile out in the bay.  It was the stillness of that evening and the stillness of our minds that allowed us to hear their call.  The sound of silence.