How the future looks
I am visiting a large university.
The library is a red brick tower
15 stories tall.
The open green spaces
Are dotted with students sunbathing,
Launching frisbees over heads
Of pink and blue and orange hair.
Professors from other eras
Pass to and fro
Dragging long purple shadows.
The sun is setting.
The same sun is rising.
Ten years pass.
A young Chinese man in his pajamas
Charges down from his dorm
Right into a huge flock of geese by the pond
Who honk and flap and flee every which-way
But eventually they gather in the middle of the pond
Where they consider their options and fix their feathers.
The young man laughs and laughs
His name is Tin Sen.
He will change the world.
Reflection: This happened about 20 years ago. My son and I were checking out New England colleges. We were at UMass in Amherst. It was early, about 9. We were walking around a pond on campus, below the library, and what happened was exactly how I described it. I liked everything about this young man: how he burst from his dorm in his pajamas, created chaos with the geese and exploded with laughter. I felt like he was showing me a better way to live. Now, so many years later, he returns in this poem to help renew the planet. And his world is not a recycled planet or a wounded, over-crowded, war-ravaged, struggling planet. His is a world inhabited by people like him who wake up just in time to make change. Nothing can stop him because he has the will to stir things up and he knows how to give himself over to joy.
Onion was deep in thought
looking out over the field
where Woo was sitting
reading a book under a tree.
Beyond where Woo was sitting
was an old pile of stones
left by the farmer who cleared the field
many years ago.
Onion was thinking about his life
as Onion. What had he accomplished?
that he had done almost nothing.
He thought of the birds, building nests
and the bees that make honey
and the frogs that do nothing
everything seemed to have a job.
“What am I here to do?” thought Onion.
Just then Woo looked up from his book.
“Onion”, he shouted, “Come here,
and bring yourself.”
Onion heaved a big sigh and squinted.
Woo seemed to fade for a second.
“Oh, I know what my job is”, thought Onion.
“I’m coming”, shouted Onion.
And he hurried down
to join his friend.
Reflection: I have been thinking, more like obsessing, about Mali, “the loneliest elephant” that I wrote about in my poem “What am I shouting?”. Her plight has become a watermark on my heart. Even when I am happy about something, her image repeats like a mantra, works on me like a Zen koan, around the clock. Mali really is the elephant in the room of my consciousness, except in Mali’s case, I see her vividly. Her plight seems to stand for the failure of the human race to love.
Loving the planet means loving life, and that means loving all the creatures with whom we share this place. And loving life means remembering that our hearts are capable of expanding almost infinitely. There is hate and evil in the world and all forms of cruelty, but if we uncage our hearts, evil will stop terrorizing us. Only by loving can we alter the endless cycle of cruelty and abuse and war. We are victims of our fear, and because of our fear, we have allowed our hearts to condense into a distraught muscle that beats in our chests until the day it stops beating and we die. Our hearts are so much more than a muscular stressed-out pump!
This morning it was my turn to share a poem with a circle of poets who take turns sending poems to each other. I was anxious to lighten up, remembering the words of a fellow writer, in his response to my poem about Mali: “Imagery needs no explanation, so explaining as you write is like writing before you are ready to send the message.”
I love writing poems about Onion and Woo because there is no explaining to do. I just stand back and let them interact, and usually, as with a dream, in what happens there is more than meets the eye. Woo is very mysterious to me. He (or she) is a shape-shifter. Woo’s father is the wind. Onion is just Onion (His father was an onion!) but I’m not sure who or what Woo is, but, like Onion, I hold great affection for Woo, or at least what Woo represents. Like Onion, with everything that is going on in the world, I am questioning what I should be doing with myself, how best to spend my time at this moment, in my life and in the life of the planet. In this poem Onion realizes that he could do a lot worse than hang out with Woo. Woo is not all in any one reality. He is, for lack of a better word, magical. Onion is lucky to have a friend like Woo. We should all be so lucky.
The heart is open to magic.
What am I shouting?
I saw a photo of an elephant in a concrete cell
She was holding her own tail with her trunk
to close the circle of
a loop of loneliness,
standing, eyes closed
to the long sentence of her life.
I just would like to know. . .
I just would like to know!
How can the intelligence that created such a creature
stand by and watch it suffer so.
And then I realized,
That’s all of us,
holding our tails in our trunks.
But were we not created to thunder
and love each other
as only elephants can,
crossing the great grasslands together
as a family?
And, as we slumber,
to be painted silver by the moon?
So, is that it?
because . . . so many years of standing back
and watching things unravel
have taken a toll on me,
on my elephant nature.
And so I shout out
into the tornado,
but what I shout
even I don’t
Reflection: When I saw this photo for the first time, of Mali, the “loneliest elephant in the world”, it made me heartsick. I mean something in me literally recoiled and it wasn’t a thought, or even an emotion that I could identify, like anger or sadness. It was more like a Continue reading
No matter how it comes up,
it comes up,
in, through. . .
It isn’t like anything else
but, as it takes more
and more of the people of my life
and the edges of my memories
it begins to feel more like life
than when life was everything.
It used to be like a ghost or a far off war
or a feeling I couldn’t trace
like the memory of a song
about a place in a country in a book
about a movie in a dream.
More and more people have crossed in my life. Many more are crossing. In the meantime, I find that being 66 is a good time to contemplate the in-between. Not that I am halfway through life. Quite the contrary, if I imagine life as a hill or small mountain, I have summited and am looking out across the landscape that includes all the directions in the round. This is the “still moment” that T. S. Eliot talked about, that is neither movement away nor toward, the moment of neither coming nor going, but of gathering and letting go at the same time. It’s like in yoga when you realize you aren’t breathing on your own anymore, but you are being breathed. Death is not the enemy, and death is certainly not no-life. As death gathers more and more life to itself the difference between life and death grows thinner and thinner, and what they say in the East becomes more real, about how life is illusion, a big Dream. Life is not “life” and death is not “death”. Not a bad place to arrive. By not clinging to life or siding with life, I feel more alive than ever!
I have been teaching a class where we have been discussing the Big Story, the new Big Story of the creation of the universe and the ongoing creation. The old story told about the Big Bang, and an expanding universe of lifeless star systems careening away from each other for the rest of time, a very depressing prospect indeed! Yes, for almost the last seventy years it has been assumed that the old expanding universe was most likely a dead issue, Star Trek notwithstanding. The old story dictated that Earth was unique. That vision of the universe was pretty much based on what our own solar system seemed to be saying — that everything about Earth, that made it so ripe for life, was a miraculous coincidence, sort of like winning the lottery where the odds are one in infinity. The Christian narrative of Genesis dovetailed with the old scientific narrative: The origin of life, which accounts for our winning the cosmic lottery, was copyrighted by an Earth-centric God. We can look all we want, but there are no other Earths in the universe to be found. In other words, if you’re looking for company out there, don’t get your hopes up, said the old story. All we will find is super-hot places (like Venus), arid rocks (like Mercury and Mars), gaseous giants (like Saturn and Jupiter), or icy outliers (like Pluto). The universe was just a vast proof that God is not a creator of worlds, but the benevolent father of one world, our Earth. Continue reading
The invisible servants of Baba Yaga: finding meaning for our times in an old story
In the classic Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga, “Vasilisa the beautiful”, Vasilisa’s hateful stepmother sends her into the primal forest to ask the powerful witch, Baba Yaga, for fire. Baba Yaga is a fearsome mythic hag whose house stands on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence surmounted by skulls with eye sockets that glow at night. Sending Vasilisa to Baba Yaga is the jealous stepmother’s way of destroying the gentle Vasilisa once and for all. Vasilisa winds up serving the witch, by accomplishing all of the impossible tasks she is assigned thanks to the intervention of a magical doll that Vasilisa’s dying mother gave to her for her protection. The whole time Vasilisa is working for Baba Yaga, she is observing the hag to try to learn what makes her tick. When her service is completed, Baba Yaga has to give her the fire she came for but, in an attempt to trick her into damning herself, she allows her to ask three questions, but only three. Vasilisa has noticed that Baba Yaga is waited on by a pair of bodiless hands that faithfully execute her bidding. Vasilisa yearns to ask Baba Yaga about the hands, but her doll warns her not to go there, so she reigns in her curiosity when it comes to the hands. After she has asked her three questions, the furious witch, informs her that if she had asked about, or even mentioned, the hands she would have been reduced to a cinder!
I would like to suggest that we, many of us, American citizens, are like Vasilisa at the point when she is asking her three questions. Intelligent as Vasilisa is, and bent on sticking with the original plan, she doesn’t ask the one thing that will change the power-structure, the one question that will pull the rug out from under the witch. The privileged class of our society, which includes a vast majority of us, like the tyrannical witch, has been served by the magical hands for decades. Those hands have cleaned our homes and buildings, taxied us to the airport, picked our fruits and vegetables, served us coffee and even watched over our children. The disembodied hands are our “illegal” or undocumented immigrants. So, receiving the fire from Baba Yaga and being sent on our way, is one way of not rocking the boat. Asking the taboo question of power – “Who serves you? Who does your bidding, but has no face, no life and no identity?”. . . asking that question of power stirs up the witch’s wrath, and puts us at risk in that it messes with the status quo, but it also utterly changes the balance of power.
That’s where we are at. In a sense we have asked about the hands! And those in power are furious. How dare we ask what our wealth is based on, what magical relationship sustains this delicate one-sided power over a class of human beings who subsist by hiding in our midst? So, are we going to be reduced to a cinder? Or are we going to challenge the old witch’s authority and restore an identity and a face to those hands, which, in the times this old story was being told around a fire, would have been the hands of the landless serfs.
Disappearing places, disappearing soul
My son forwarded a 1990s-vintage video of a street in NYC that is no more, gobbled up by gentrification. He sent me the link with the email:
“This is why I long for how cities used to be back in the day. I don’t even know how to process this kind of grief! Check out how Lower East Side used to be.”
I watched the video, and then I knew what I wanted to say. I wrote back to him:
I’ve been dealing with something similar on many levels all my life. It’s called soul-loss. For you, you experience it in the sterilization of these neighborhoods in cities where streets have been raped by money. People’s livelihoods, that they have built up over years, that reflect their passions and gifts and hard-work and soul, have been bought out from under them. But it happens in other ways that are just as painful and poignant. The loss of hometowns in the Midwest, and in coastal communities that grew up around fishing with little bakeries and family run restaurants, taxi-services, hardware stores, grocery stores . . . And mountain communities that used to be about the mountain environment; these communities were living a kind of poetry just by subsisting in the shadow of the mountain . . . City streets on the harbor that used to be about the harbor, depot towns that used to be about the depot, with trains coming and going. But, there is something else to say here: When you talk about grief and loss and processing, you should remember that even though you are talking about actual places and environments, there is a corresponding soulfulness in you that is connected to your heart. Your heart feels the loss and grieves the loss of these one-of-a-kind places, but it’s important not to lose the part of you that is capable of longing, and knows when it finds soul in the world, because the world is still full of soul and soulful places to find and love and protect. That’s why I bring up soul-retrieval all the time, and why I bring up dream work. We poets, artists, dancers, musicians and music-lovers, dreamers and dream-workers have to work hard to keep our hearts open and vital and responsive to life. Continue reading