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!

Opening to the Thin Place

In Celtic spirituality there is a Thin Place which separates the conscious world from that of the Spirit. Thin Places are the places and moments which transcend our daily preoccupations and transport us into a deeper awareness of what is and what can be.

Thin Places are the moments that elicit awe, wonder, dare I say, reverence.  A deep seated belief that there is more going on than meets the eye. A truth that cannot be proven, measured or quantified.

In my Christian tradition the Easter Season is full of appearance stories. Oftentimes the Risen Christ appears to the disciples but they don’t recognize him.  Their mind and imagination can’t grasp that the Christ has overcome death, violence and despair.

As the stories unfold there comes an a-ha moment. When their self imposed limitations as to what is possible, slip away.  Often times it is in the simplest gesture that everything turns: In John 20: 16 Mary Magdalene hears her name spoken; 21: 12 the disciples see Jesus preparing them a breakfast of fish and bread on the beach and they know.

What is it that allows one to suddenly see, feel, hear in a new way?

Have you ever had such a moment when your sense of what is possible, expands?

When I was a boy of 10, playing in a wetlands near my home, I had my first memory of a Thin Place.  I was with my cousin.  We were lying by a brook, listening  to the water.  Our faces were turned up to the sun, as beams of light flooded through the canopy above us.  At that moment I felt transported.  That I was connected to everything, the water, the sun, the call of the birds, the frogs in the stream.  Everything was interconnected.  There was no separation.

A Thin Place.

Anyone who has had a similar experience, knows that what I’m saying is true.

Instinctively we understand that there is an  intimate connection between place and openness.  Mystics over the ages, of various cultures and traditions, have understood that certain places have cosmic energy.  Places which heighten our sense of creativity and imagination.

Skellig-Michael – Ireland

The early Celtic monks in Ireland and Scotland sought out the most isolated places, feeling that such places heightened their senses.  This is true too in many Native American traditions.

It is why instinctively we go to the beach, the mountains, the desert, even our backyard garden.  It is more than a place for play and rest.  It is a place of meeting.

Mary Oliver, the American poet and mystic, in her seminal poem ‘Messenger’, writes:

My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbirds –

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Let me keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

astonished.

Thin places are those moments where we are cracked open to see, hear, feel and understand in fresh, expansive ways.  Places of astonishment.

How do we live in such a way?  The answer is simple and profound:

A desire to be open and curious.  Mixed with a healthy measure of humility. Which is to say, a willingness to admit we don’t know it all.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers offer this:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?”  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.”

May it be so.

 

 

 

 

On Being Awake

Our guide told us ‘tap the sides of your kayak’ so the Humpback whales ‘know you are there’.   Surrounding us were whales feeding and breaching.  That we were in the midst of a pod of whales was awe-inspiring, humbling and somewhat frightening.

The setting was Tebenkof Bay Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska.  For ten days our group kayaked and camped on small islands in this vast and primal setting. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tebenkof_Bay_Wilderness

Ours was a Zen meditation kayak trip.  Each morning and evening we shared in the Zen practice of becoming still and open.  Half the day we’d paddle and sometimes simply float.  Always in silence, allowing the sounds and sights to fill our senses.  The silence created a container within which we could experience what each moment offered.


It has been fifteen years since I communed with the humpback, bear and eagles of Tebenkof Bay.   I remember the wisdom of living in the moment of being present to the now.

To live in the moment is counter cultural. Often we live in the past or in the future and even in the present are easily distracted by what doesn’t matter.

There’s something special however about floating in your kayak knowing that another world of whales and fish are below you.  You ‘knock on your hull’ to let the whales know you are there and to remind yourself to live in the now.

Contemplatives call such heightened awareness being awake.  The challenge is to spend more time being awake than being asleep.

Another gift from that kayak trip was being introduced by our guide Kurt Hoelting  to the poetry of Mary Oliver.  Mary Oliver a prophet, poet and mystic invites you to dig in the dirt and float on the water. To take notice.

For ten days eagle, whale and bear spoke to me. I smelled the earth and felt the wind.  Each offering wisdom.

Silence creates space to see, hear and receive.  Martin Luther said, eagle, whale, bear, dirt and water are ‘little words from God’.  The Tlingit’s who have lived in Tebenkof Bay for thousands of years know that Spirit speaks through nature.

This day I invite you to  join me in being awake.  To listen and receive.