Category Archives: healing

Writing for Humans

There are three principles in… being and life: the principle of thought, the principle of speech, and the principle of action. The origin of all conflict between me and [all others]… is that I do not say what I mean and I don’t do what I say. —Martin Buber

INTRODUCTION: 3 WRITING ESSENTIALS

 

From the forthcoming handbook Writing for Humans, by Mary Campbell, Annagrammatica.com

 The person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet.

IF YOU WANT TO

  • write joyfully and efficiently, and
  • create documents that are readable, informative, maybe even fun to read… and that support your organization’s brand

…THERE ARE THREE ESSENTIALS:

  1. Love of writing
  2. Clarity
  3. Respect for the reader

WRITING CREATES HOSTILITY

…when the writers don’t enjoy writing
…when the writing distances readers—through boredom, fear, intimidation, or obfuscation (lack of clarity)

Martin-Buber-lovepowerfully

WRITE FOR A BETTER WORLD

Written language has the potential not only to build goodwill, promote understanding, and facilitate communication… but also to heal breaches planetwide and advance the cause of peace and prosperity. As the shadow side of that power, language can also be divisive, distancing, and inflammatory. [1]

When words are a call to arms, there is a price to pay, and not just in lost sales and disgruntled employees.[2] Hostility in the air has social costs.

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the person who has learned to write with candor, clarity, and pleasure can be a healer of the planet. With more than four billion web pages at our fingertips, language is ubiquitous.[3] “Let peace begin with me” ceases to be an idealistic bit of fluff and becomes an inspiring possibility.

When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light. —Martin Buber 

THE HABIT OF HELPING

For writers, the first habit to cultivate might well be curiosity, particularly when the question is “What can I do to serve you?” Do you know a better way to begin or invigorate a relationship than to hold in thought the question “How can I make your life better?”

Let’s set aside for now the distinctions among types of relationships—personal, social, familial, business, professional, and any others that are based on roles. The Golden Rule doesn’t stipulate status, age, or gender. It doesn’t counsel us to “do unto other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 as you would have other English-speaking American males above the age of 10 do unto you.”

And we are, after all, talking about habits, which are so much easier to form if the behavior always applies. I recently overheard a discussion about whether you should use your turn signal if you’re in a left-turn-only lane. I mean, really. It’s not exactly a hardship to press down on that little lever. Do you honestly want to have to decide whether or not to use the turn signal every time it might be helpful, based on the lane you’re in or, perhaps, the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk?

Seek to serve. Cultivate the habit of helping all the time. It will magically improve your writing, even if you do nothing else.

WHY SMART PEOPLE DON’T WRITE WELL

In over forty years as a writer, editor, and instructor, I’ve worked with men and women in the public and private sectors; small, midsize, and large companies; federal agencies and public universities; and a score of industries and professions, from architecture and broadcasting to science and technology. I’m still not sure why many intelligent, articulate people—strong leaders who are brilliant in their fields—communicate so clumsily in writing. I have a few theories, however.

Each industry and profession has its peculiar jargon, some of which is necessary—it’s the language that colleagues and clients understand. But that doesn’t explain why media releases, annual reports, newsletters, and even advertisements are unfriendly and offputting, often in direct contrast to branding efforts meant to portray an organization as warm, caring, and trustworthy.

Smart people sometimes defend their poor writing by saying that they were too busy becoming experts in their particular disciplines to learn the discipline of writing. But if that were really the problem, these smart people would also be mute, rendered unable to speak by the same preoccupation.

Nonwriters naturally make mistakes in grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation—the mechanics of writing. That’s why God made editors. But when writing fails to communicate, the cause goes deeper. It might signify

  • lack of focus; disorganization. When writers aren’t sure what they mean to say, they lose sight of the document’s purpose and message. See Essential Number 2, Clarity.
  • lack of concern for the audience—readers or listeners—who, for one reason or another, are being deceived or misled. See Essential Number 3, Respect.

I can’t help the writer who has no message or whose motive in writing is something other than to serve (inform, inspire, comfort, or entertain) readers. Fortunately, about eighty percent of the time, the problem with poor writing is one I can solve:

LACK OF ENJOYMENT—WRITERS WHO DON’T LIKE TO WRITE

Many uninspired writers believe that writing is fundamentally different from speaking. One of the most strikingly intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to know—an architect with a warm manner and a ready wit—goes into an altered state when he has to write something. One minute we’re talking, the next minute we’re disintermediating, and it’s all downhill from there. Whatever the topic, it inevitably involves harnessing relevant data, addressing critical elements, strategizing broad-based solutions, and optimizing tailored interactions.

I’ve wondered if there’s a virus—maybe originating in Washington, D. C.—carried by a mosquito that flies around offices looking for people who are about to write something. Maybe these people release an enzyme that makes the mosquito think “Dessert!” The virus’s telltale symptom is a writing style that you’d expect from someone who was raised by a pack of patent attorneys. No one, as far as I know, has died from this virus. In any case, I’ve developed a remarkably effective cure, which I’ll administer throughout this handbook. Meanwhile…

WHY WAIT?

If you want to start writing better right now, take these simple steps:

  1. Decide how you want to serve your audience.
  2. Decide what you want to say. You can make an outline if you want, although it might actually be a delay tactic that will sabotage your progress.
  3. Have fun writing your first draft. Play with the language. Use interesting words and colorful phrases. Do NOT edit as you go.[4] Just write what you want to say.
  4. Start reading the work of writers you admire. You don’t need to study it; just read a lot of it. Their style will rub off on you with no effort on your part.

Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…. If there had been someone like her in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born. —Martin Buber as quoted in Narrative Means for Sober Ends, by Jon Diamond, p.78

MartinBuber

Martin Buber 1878-1965

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a prominent twentieth-century philosopher, religious thinker, political activist and educator. Born in Austria, he spent most of his life in Germany and Israel, writing in German and Hebrew. He is best known for his 1923 book, Ich und Du (I and Thou), which distinguishes between Thou and I modes of existence…. Buber characterizes Thou relations as dialogical and I relations as monological. In his 1929 essay “Dialogue,” Buber explains that monologue is not just a turning away from the other but also a turning back on oneself…. To perceive the other as an it is to take them as a classified and hence predictable and manipulable object that exists only as a part of one’s own experiences. In contrast, in an I  relation both participants exist as polarities of relation, whose center lies in the between. —Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[1]      “In an atmosphere of suspicion… we may … become unduly cautious in our communication.” J. William Pfeiffer, Conditions That Hinder Effective Communication, 1998; http://home.snu.edu/~jsmith/library/body/v06.pdf, accessed July 28, 2012

[2]      Studies consistently show that “human happiness has large and positive… effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”
http://www.fastcompany.com/3048751/the-future-of-work/happy-employees-are-12-more-productive-at-work

[3]      http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/

[4]      It’s said that writing and editing are antagonistic processes using different parts of the brain. Whether or not that’s true, stopping to analyze your output interrupts the creative flow. Write now, edit later.

WSJ-BUZZWORD

Click HERE for the Wall Street Journal’s Business Buzzword Generator

P.S. What’s So Bad About Buzzwords?

Call it jargon, corporate-speak, academese, buzzword blitz—by any name, it’s lazy at the very least… it’s usually discourteous… and, at worst, it’s verbal bullying.

Why Using Jargon Is Bad for Your Brand
Why Jargon Can Be Bad for Business
Bad Business Jargon: It Is What It Is
Keep It Jargon-Free

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Thinking Makes It So

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

The Play Scene in Hamlet, Charles Hunt 1803-1877

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…. Shakespeare, from Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)

Everything old is New Age again

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle and two million of their closest friends met once a week for ten weeks, online, for the purpose of studying Tolle’s 2005 bestseller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. The live interactive seminar was reportedly the first of its kind, with all seven continents represented.

In what had to be the planet’s largest-ever classroom, Tolle and Winfrey fielded comments and answered questions via Skype, E-mail, and telephone. The ten 90-minute sessions are available free on iTunes in large-screen, standard-screen, and audio-only formats.

Here’s the thing: A New Earth, stripped of its packaging, isn’t all that new. The message is three thousand to four thousand years old. Tolle certainly deserves credit for reviving this ancient wisdom, compiling it, and presenting it in a way that appeals to millions and keeps them off the street, at least for the length of time it takes to read 336 pages of rather dense prose. If he seems to suggest that A New Earth might literally save the human race… well, who’s to say?

New Testament, New Thought, New Age, Old Story

Another spiritual-genre phenomenon, A Course in Miracles, appeared in 1976 but didn’t gain widespread attention until 1992 with the publication of A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Tolle owes much to ACIM and Williamson and to dozens of other authors, including Wayne Dyer (whom I greatly admire) and Deepak Chopra (who contributes the rich and ancient Hindu mystical perspective), writing in the same vein but offering original approaches and ideas as well.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey, 2004, photo by Alan Light

My daughter refers to all this as “Christian Science Lite.” The authors’ debt to Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy and her remarkable explication of Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
(1875), is undeniable. Mrs. Eddy’s writings in turn reflect New England Transcendentalism, particularly the work of Emerson. They’re part of a metaphysical tradition articulated by the likes of Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, the Buddha, the authors of the Torah and the Christian Bible, and many others..

Christian Science would have gained wider acceptance, I think, had it not been for the emphasis on forgoing medical treatment in favor of a strictly spiritual approach, although my Christian Scientist friends tell me that they are by no means forbidden to seek medical attention. In any case, the New Thought movement emerged in the late nineteenth century making rather less noise about doctors and healing; today’s Unity Church is part of the New Thought legacy. I have not included the much-loved Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale, as part of this tradition because Peale emphasizes faith, hope, resilience, and the miraculous intervention of a loving and very personal God, whereas authors and philosophers from Mrs. Eddy to Eckhart Tolle use, to varying degrees, the vocabulary of science and math. One exception, however, is Marianne Williamson, who combines old and new spiritual practices in a way that is graceful and beautiful to see.

(Christian Scientists are blessed with great generosity of spirit. Even so, they tend to bristle, I’ve observed, when hearing Mrs. Eddy’s complex yet practical message described as faith healing or positive thinking.)

According to Christian Science, as I understand it

  • God (“Divine Mind”), being perfect, creates only perfection
  • Human beings, as God’s divine ideas, are not susceptible to sickness, sin, or death
  • All reality reflects God’s attributes: It is loving, spiritual, eternal, intelligent, joyful, harmonious, and so forth
  • Matter is nothing but a manifestation of thought; it is insubstantial and illusory
  • It is “mortal mind” (“error”) that produces the appearance of anything other than well-being
  • Negative emotions proceed from the false beliefs that people can be separated from God and that matter is real
  • Jesus had a perfect understanding of the divine nature, thus manifesting the “Christ principle”
  • You and I, attaining that level of understanding, would also manifest the Christ principle

Thus, poverty is the manifestation of an erroneous belief in “lack.” War and family strife are examples of the “lie” of inharmony.

Compare these tenets to the “mind-body” metaphysics of modern adherents; I think you’ll find more similarities than differences. More important, though, is that you choose the guru who speaks your language. You might read something out of Chopra that resonates with you in a way Tolle’s writing does not.

Rumi

 
 

Poem C

Lily of the valley

Lily of the valley

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A Mother’s Prayer

To help my friend and colleague Queen Jane Approximately decide which of my poems to submit to publications and contests, I am posting  ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Students: Name as many rhetorical devices used in this poem as you can.

Grassy valley under a blue sky

My space inviolate—grassy valley under a splendid sky

My Space Inviolate

My space inviolate, circle of safety, whitewashed
in whorls of sweet sunlit air. Here is a cradle;
here is a lullaby; here is the wild strawberry,
here is the lily of the valley, in the shade, these
unpretentious in their scent and in their aspect.
Charmed, I fill my lungs with earth and flower
essence, and my heart with innocence —
nothing tainted is permitted here;
I fill my sight with creamy pastel spring
blooms and new yellow-green sweet grass.
Angels who whirled in the dance now sit quietly,
expectantly, one who is wise beside me.

New spring grass

New spring grass

Meditate this hour on your angelic
guardians, whose charge is but to guide you
to your joy. Now rest and dream, and when
you rise, put on the vestments of your power.

All that is kind; all things for love; all hope for
harmony, you’ve just to ask. It is our only task
to give you ease, to please you, to create
a clean, unsullied heart in you, fulfilling
what you’ve chanted at the precipice
of sleep, so near believing all these years.
Look! Every tear you spent for love and
penitence is sacred; each was shed in
honest pain, and we have saved them for
this baptism.

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Raindrops on ficus leaves

Be happy, then. Know that we look after
him and mend his heart, so sore and
unprotected. There! It is done,
and he has seen the messengers of his
salvation, and believed. Then we embraced him
with a lambence that will cleave to him. You
need to understand that love like this,
angels cannot resist. It’s manna, meat and
drink to us. Now you must let him go;
now do release him; entrust him to us.
We shall keep him in an easy custody,
his warden shall be bliss.

Here in this circle is no place for fear.
Nothing feeds it here. Now be serene,
as you were meant to be, for all is well.
The insignificant, pathetic demons
from the place called “hell,” which is no place
at all, but just a state of mind, were chased
away, by saying, “Boo,” and making faces
at them. And yet they scare you so,
they interrupt your dancing— as if they were
substantial… as if they were not less than air.

Cattails


Poem A

Pine Ridge Nebraska

The Pine Ridge region, northwestern Nebraska

Turned Around

Find sample blogs on a gazillion topics at Alpha Inventions
Bucolic spot in the Pine Ridge area

Bucolic spot in the Pine Ridge area

Thanks to all 431 of you who visited Write Light on November 29 — my second-biggest day ever for this blog!

My dear friend and colleague Queen Jane the Easygoing and Way Smart is the person who submits my poetry and prose to periodicals and publishers. Sometimes she has difficulty choosing; I’m quite prolific.

In the next few weeks I’m going to post ten of my particular favorites — poems A through J (yes, I had to count off the letters on my fingers). I’d like your comments as we go along and, in particular, when all ten have appeared, your ranking. Which do you like best (10 points)? Least (1 point — I can’t bear the thought of getting Zero points)?

Thanks! Oh, I already said that. Well, thanks again, in advance….

TURNED AROUND

Because I have been less than inches
from the chasm of unbeing,
and have been afraid that, having
nowhere else to go, I would
on purpose, accidentally,
fall in, and simply fall and fall
forever, since unbeing has no
floor; and have been rescued, and
been certain of my rescuer,
and have again felt almost-solid
earth beneath my feet; when I
had given up on earth and sky
and sun and rain and comfortable
shoes and friends and weddings; having
been as good as dead, there in that
purgatory of unbreathing,
and then being turned around,
embraced, and liberated — I
believe in miracles. For everything
is living once you have been almost
dead; and all things shine, as if their
only purpose is to serve as
a reminder of that brief and
infinite dependence on
the spirit who exhaled to give me
breath again.

* * *

Out of Order

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically

What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady
Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

We are getting rather close to the end of this course, and I am finding bits and globs of material that should have been included earlier. If it’s a small bit or glob, I just quietly insert it. But if it’s a big fat key to the understanding of a major concept, which is the case here, I feel bound to call your attention to it. The left-out part is What Does It Mean to Live Poetically?” and I have stuck it in its logical place, namely, Chapter 11, “Living Poetically,” which began with Lesson 33. The new segment is Lesson 33.1 and you will find it here. 

A Living Poetically Fortune Cookie

I believe, when all is said and done, all you can do is show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

redoute-four-1

Lady Irene

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33

Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Case Studies in Poetic Living — Irene

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 … 

athens_school_of

Case Study #1: Living Poetically

Anne Bancroft

Anne Bancroft

None of my case studies is a perfect example of the poetic liver (or pancreas, or gallbladder…). We are, after all, talking about human beings, not gods or angels. But these are human beings who, in nearly every exigency, see not disaster but an infinite number of choices, and from these they select the most elegant or the kindest.

Irene is an exquisitely complex individual; accordingly, her life has always been complex. She is gifted in a hundred ways, and, with luck (and a bit more focus), she might have excelled in any of a dozen fields.

Irene the Artist 

She is an artist in the Renaissance sense: she sketches, she paints, she sculpts, she sings and plays the guitar. We met in high school — we were both singing in our school’s elite A Cappella Choir.

During our junior year, she had the lead in the Madwoman of Chaillot,

(French title La Folle de Chaillot) … a play, a poetic satire, by French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, written in 1943 and first performed in 1945, after his death. The play has two acts and follows the convention of the classical unities. It follows an eccentric woman who lives in Paris and her struggles against the straitlaced authority figures in her life. —Wikipedia

Without Irene, such an ambitious production could not have been attempted at our school. Her performance was so exceptional that even the most lowbrow of our peers, the guys who still thought it was hilarious to make farting noises with their armpits, were agog.

Mel Brooks, 1984

Mel Brooks, 1984

Likewise, Irene’s appearance was, and remains, dramatic. Her late mother strongly resembled the actress Anne Bancroft (1931-2005), perhaps best known for her Academy Award–winning role as Annie Sullivan in the 1962 film the Miracle Worker. Bancroft was married for more than 40 years, until her death in 2005, to Mel Brooks, now 82. (1)

As Irene ages (she is nearing 62), she looks more and more as her mother did when I knew her — more glamorous, more Anne Bancroft-ish. For the past ten years or so — after decades of supporting herself, working hard at interesting jobs (she was, for example, the executive director of a ballet company) and learning, learning, learning (she studied under Robert Bly in Chicago) — Irene has lived almost entirely on disability income. She suffers agonies from spinal stenosis and fibromyalgia. In terms of material possessions, she is quite poor — though she reverently keeps the family china from two generations — but poverty has never made her hard or bitter. It has, instead, fueled her imagination and called forth her creativity.

Gifts of the spirit

Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

Irene's double cartouche, the ideal wedding, anniversary, or Valentine's gift

Irene has always been more independent than rebellious. Her spirituality is eclectic, embracing paganism, Wicca, and other fringe religious practices… but she never judges the religiosity of others, and she often prays fervently to “Whoever Is On Duty.”  She begins each day with a ritual of gratitude and a salute to the sun. Many years ago, she dramatically quitted the Presbyterian church she was attending when the pastor’s wife unceremoniously ejected a homeless man from the assembled congregation.

She knows more about Egyptology and pre-Christian Celtic religious practices than do many academics with doctoral degrees in folklore. She privately performs elaborate sacred rituals on the Celtic festival days:

  • Imbolc, celebrated on the eve of February 1st,… sacred to the fertility goddess Brigit, and as such … a spring festival. It was later Christianised as the feast of St Brigid….
  • Beltaine, held on the eve of May 1st., …devoted to the god Bel, and a common practise was the lighting of fires. It was later Christianised as the feast of St John the Baptist, and the festival of May Day is generally thought to have been based upon it.
  • Lughnasadh, … in August, [which]… revolved around the god Lugh, who, according to mythology, was giving a feast for his foster mother Tailtu at that time.
  • Samhain, held on October 31st, [marking]… the end of one pastoral year, and the beginning of another, and … similarly thought of as the time when spirits of the Otherworld became visible to humans. It was Christianised as Halloween, which has kept its associations with spirits and the supernatural right into the contemporary period. —Wikipedia, accessed January 31, 2009
Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

Lunar-phase diagram donated to Wikipedia by "Minesweeper"

In spite of the fact that she dances under the full moon and observes certain traditions associated with the new moon… and that she believes herself to be (half seriously, half with tongue in cheek) a latter-day priestess of the Egyptian goddess Isis (or is it Bastet?), and carries forth the goddess’s legacy of protecting and sheltering cats… she is the farthest thing from a fanatic. She is in some ways vulnerable and in others impervious to the opinions of others, and she would be equally comfortable at Buckingham Palace, in an archaeological dig at the sites of the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, and at a roadside diner drinking coffee and munching on a cheese omelet.

Irene of the generous spirit

Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

Irene's Isis print, signed and numbered, 11 x 17 inches; the original was done on real papyrus

Irene is a vegetarian and an accomplished cook — chef might be the more accurate term — and she never comes to see me without a gift of food or the loan of a book. Her makeup is always perfect, her hair beautifully styled, and her clothing artistically accented with earrings or beads, or both. Her own home is approximately half of the second floor of a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, with a flank of long bay windows, doorways framed with intricately carved woodwork, and a stained-glass transom.

Her adopted cats live long, pampered lives, protected as they are by Irene and Isis (or, perhaps, Bastet). She (Irene — presumably Isis and Bastet as well) is patient; it took years, but she finally wore me down, in her gentle way, until I adopted two feral kittens, offspring of fecund mama Jezebel, whom Irene has never been able to trap in order to have her spayed. Irene speaks Cat fluently, to my shame, for I have not managed to pick up more than a few words of the language.

A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

A Queen Anne–style Victorian house

The yard of her mansion apartment is tiny, but Irene has found room for a small cat cemetery and for her summer fairy garden of herbs and flowers and stone pathways. She is an aficionado of meditation, visualization, and Tong Ren, and she is a healer by nature and experience.

I do not know if Irene has ever read Martin Buber’s I And Thou, but she relates to people in the way Martin Buber would have us do — as sacred, each and every one. As was often said about my late mother-in-law, she “never knew a stranger,” and she has instant rapport with everyone from the drive-through-coffee-shop personnel to the postal-service mail clerks and the other folks waiting for their prescriptions to be ready at the pharmacy.

Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

Sweet basil from Irene's herb garden

Irene lives poetically about seven-eighths of the time. The lost eighth falls at the end of the month, when she has run out of money, in large part because of her excessive generosity. She is something of an adventurer and spent much of her life on the edge, marrying wildly unsuitable men, one of whom spent an entire night holding a gun to her head. She is far too intelligent and resourceful to have remained in these treacherous relationships, though they afforded her some interesting travel opportunities.

Thwarted

Among the top ten of My Most Embarrassing Experiences is the Incident of the Thwarted Escape Attempt. We were 19 or so, still living with our parents, and she had made plans to run off to meet one of the unsuitable men, who lived, I think, in Indiana. What was supposed to have happened is that I was to drive to her neighborhood and wait on a side street to the south of her house. Her parents left for work — they owned and operated a meat market — quite early, around 6:30, as I recall, and “always” turned north after reaching the end of the driveway, so I was, theoretically, in no danger of detection. As soon as they were out of sight, I was to pick Irene up and take her to the airport, where she would soar away to her assignation.

The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

The view from the bay windows (photo by Mike Pedroncelli)

Unfortunately, her parents had detected her packed suitcase the night before and had prevented her from phoning me to warn me off. So there I was, at 6:30 a.m. on the designated side street, watching her parents back out of the driveway and turn… oops… southward. I scrunched down in the seat,  hoping to become invisible, but I heard their car pull up beside mine, and I heard her mother say, “Mary?” with a question mark in her voice. Well, there was nothing to do but pop back up into view, only to be scolded, berated, and forbidden ever to have anything to do with Irene again as long as I lived.

Fortunately, I did not obey. My life would be much the poorer without Irene and her charm, her grace, and her optimism, which sometimes flags but never fails.

___________

(1) Mel Brooks, born Melvin Kaminsky; June 28, 1926)… an American director, writer, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, best known as a creator of broad film farces and comic parodies. Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony award. Three of his films (Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and Young Frankenstein) ranked in the Top 20 on the American Film Institute‘s list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time. —Wikipedia

Single cartouche with blessing

Single cartouche with blessing

What Meditation Feels Like

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 29

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 2: Simple Meditation

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

Pine Ridge area, northwestern Nebraska

Before you can learn to practice poetry-writing as meditation, you need to know what meditation feels like. You need to practice letting go of your props and your crutches and your manners and your disguises and to discover that at your core — within your soul — you are already perfect. Insofar as meditation can be said to have a goal, it is complete acceptance of your “true” self and your present circumstances.

Through meditation you are, in a sense, born again every time you choose to be. Let go of the past, let go of the future. Give them to the Almighty. Everything is Right Here, Right Now, and it’s all okay, it’s all fine, because it’s the only way it can be, right here, right now.

Begin meditation at whatever pace suits you: one minute, several times a day; a half-hour, twice a day; whenever you can steal some time away from the hubbub and find a comfortable, quiet place.

Some meditation instructors will tell you to take a shower or a bath first, to clean up your mess, to create a “special” place for meditation, to sit in a certain way, and to not fall asleep. These suggestions might work well for you. In my case, they make meditation a chore, just another project, like going to the gym, rather than a way of life, a way of being. If I followed all the rules, I’d meditate maybe every third leap year. As it happens, I can meditate on a city bus during rush hour.

Meditation step by step

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

Jack Kornfield (a Spirit Rock image)

Start with a simple “sitting” or “breathing meditation.” This is as basic as it gets — breathing.

  • Get as comfortable as possible, in as quiet a place as possible. If you can get comfortable sitting with your back straight on a pillow on the floor, or on a chair, not slouching, with your head tilted slightly down and your feet planted firmly on the floor — great! If you want to lie down, for Dirty Gertie’s sake lie down.
  • Relax. Just saying the word relax to yourself is immensely powerful.
  • Close your eyes. Don’t scrunch them closed — just an easy-and-relaxed closed.
  • Inhale and exhale through your nose, comfortably, rhythmically.
  • Breathe from your diaphragm (or abdomen), so that your in-breaths are deep and lung-filling. Abdominal breathing is, in itself, relaxing. (If you can’t get the hang of it, place your hand flat across your navel and inhale so that your hand moves outward.)
  • Mentally place yourself in a sort of porous cocoon of pure white light. You can think of it as your “energy field.” I see it as God’s loving, healing light. Breathe in the light.
  • The more senses you engage during your meditation, the less likely it is that you will get distracted. See the healing light being inhaled. When you exhale, feel the healing light permeate your body with warmth, like a caress: to the tips of your fingers and toes and the top of your head; through your skin, muscle, bone, all the way to your internal organs and every cell in your body.* Smell and taste the light. Hear the ebb and flow of your breath, like an ocean tide.
  • If you can’t manage all that, just let your attention rest on your rhythmic breathing.
  • Don’t worry if your mind wanders. If a thought or a feeling intrudes, notice it, but don’t follow it. Jack Kornfield suggests you bow to it. If you do get tangled up in thoughts and emotions, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. As Susan Piver says, it doesn’t matter if it’s been ten seconds or an hour. Don’t beat yourself up. Show lovingkindness to yourself. Do not get discouraged. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche reassures us that “the intention to meditate” is enough. If you genuinely intend to meditate, you can’t mess it up.

    Susan Piver

    Susan Piver

  • If you are distracted by pain or discomfort, let it be, for a time, the focus of your meditation. Take your attention away from your breathing and settle it on your pain. Alternate between focusing on your breath and on your pain. Don’t be surprised if the pain disappears.
  • Meditating ten to twenty minutes at a time, twice a day, is a good guideline. Start by meditating for a few minutes every day. Set a timer, if you want to. Gradually, steadily, add to your time a bit, or to the number of times you meditate per day. But if a week goes by, or a month, without your meditating, you haven’t failed. Just start again. You get an eternity of second chances.

    Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

    Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

In a nutshell

  • Get comfortable and close your eyes. Relax.
  • Rest your attention on the sensations of comfortable, rhythmic breathing, from the diaphragm, in and out through the nose.
  • If thoughts or emotions break in, notice them but try not to follow them. (I think of this process as a scuba diver’s watching through goggles as fish swim in and out of view.)
  • As soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, gently, lovingly bring your attention back to your breathing.
  • Always, in meditation, treat yourself with love and gentleness. When you are through meditating, the lovingkindness will remain, and you’ll be kinder to yourself and others.

Other ways to start meditating

__________

* Warming your fingers and toes is actually a common form of do-it-yourself biofeedback for relaxation. Use an instant-read thermometer or an old-fashioned mercury thermometer. Hold it between your fingers for a while, until it reaches your body temperature. (An instant-read thermometer will do so immediately.) Then focus your attention on the fingers holding the thermometer. You can try to warm your fingertips, or you can just “notice” them. Either should do the trick. You’ll feel a tingling in your fingers—that’s the blood flowing in. The temperature recorded on the thermometer will rise.

When you’re stressed, your system goes into “fight or flight” mode and the blood rushes to your heart. By consciously directing the blood away from your heart, toward your extremities, the heart slows down and you’ll relax.

Adapted from Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word

Assignment 29.1

Continue with your meditation journal. Send your new journal entries via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

You’ll also find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net.

* * *

Leap of Faith

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 28

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 1: Why Meditate?

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

fire_rainbowIt is a major premise of this book that writing poetry can be a form of meditation and can confer many of the same benefits, and that these benefits are essential to a life that is lived poetically.
Meditation is – can be – so many things. There are meditations to relax you or to energize you; meditations for visualization and manifestation; meditations to empty your mind or to focus it. The more entrepreneurial among us have made meditation a commodity designed to cure the ills of a selected audience, which is a nice way of saying that some “meditation resources” are sham.

Meditation, at its most basic, is surrendering control, transcending the ceaseless whirring of our minds and resting in the assurance that all is, in some mysterious way, exactly as it ought to be. Most of us garden-variety meditators can’t rest the mind completely, but we can, at least for a few minutes, give it a respite.

Everybody has problems. The mind is usually engaged in solving those problems, and the problem-solving process often entails stress, anxiety, regret, maybe some guilt — maybe even depression and hopelessness, if we lack the resources we believe will solve the problems: health, energy, money, ideas, courage, influence, whatever.

Stress, anxiety, regret, guilt, and depression weigh on us. They sap our energy and cloud our thinking, becoming fuel for more stress, anxiety, regret, and so forth. They are colloquially and aptly called “baggage.”

Nebraska Sunset; Geese flying north over Lake McConaughy

Meditation sets the baggage aside

In 1976, my daughter, Marian, and I were rushing through Washington’s Union Station, hurrying to catch the Broadway Limited, which was departing early. We were loaded down with suitcases and Christmas presents for our visit to our family in Omaha.

broadway_limitedMarian was eight years old and was carrying everything she could manage, but I had the heavy stuff, both arms straining until I had to stop and give my muscles a break. After thirty seconds or so, I could pick the bags and packages up again and forge ahead, and then my arms would insist on being rested again. My arms were very vocal about it, and they refused to accommodate me until I let them have their little reprieve.

Our psyches don’t complain as clearly as our muscles. Headaches, backaches, stomach aches we can ignore or medicate. But if we keep going on overload, mentally or emotionally, something’s gotta give.

Meditation, like restful sleep, is a way of setting the baggage aside and giving our psyches a break. During the time we’re meditating, there’s no past to regret; there’s no future to worry about; there’s only now, and right now, everything is all right.

There’s no such thing as meditating badly

The only “bad meditation” is one that carries unrealistic expectations, so don’t go out and buy a “meditation kit,” CD, or book that promises wealth, romance, or power. Meditation is good for you—for body, mind, and spirit; for relationships and work and problem-solving and achieving your goals. But your life won’t change overnight, and anyway, expectations are about the future, and meditation is about this moment.

If you’re new to meditation, you may find it difficult at first to interrupt your churning thoughts, but there are some excellent and simple techniques to deal with them. For now, I’ll just give you three axioms to hold on to:

  1. The intention to meditate is a giant step in the right direction.
  2. Thirty seconds of meditation is better than no meditation at all.
  3. Don’t fret if your mind wanders during meditation. What’s important is returning to the meditation, compassionately and gently and without beating yourself up. It is, as Jack Kornfield says, like training a puppy. You don’t yell or scold; you just keep at it, firm but patient.

Just do it

When I worked at the University of Arizona, our department invited one of the trainers from the wellness center to give a presentation on “becoming fit.” The presentation was excellent and inspiring. It was especially motivational for me because the presenter emphasized “starting where you are.” If you want to walk or run on a treadmill, she said, and you can only manage two minutes, do the two minutes.

I had recently had a baby, and I wanted to start riding my bicycle to work—a five-mile journey that sloped gently uphill most of the way. So for a few days I rode my bike around our neighborhood, which was very flat. One morning I decided that I’d start for work on my bicycle, ride as far as I could manage, then lock the bike to a lamppost or something and take the bus the rest of the way. To my surprise, the five-mile trip was relatively easy and I locked my bike to the bike rack outside the Administration Building. My legs were spaghetti, but I felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, coupled with the knowledge that the trip home would be all downhill.

So just start. Begin with thirty seconds. Try to add a little time each day. Be patient. Don’t scold yourself if you miss a day, or a week. One of the purposes of meditation is to learn compassion for yourself and, by extension, for others.

The benefits of meditation

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, mystic, author — 1915-1968

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, mystic, author — 1915-1968

The potential benefits are almost too numerous to mention, and to some extent they depend on what form of meditation you adopt. But – again, we’re talking about very basic meditation here – a regular meditation practice can significantly reduce the negative effects of stress, including heart rate and blood pressure. It can be a vacation from emotional turmoil, and you can learn to extend that “vacation” into a way of life, making the attitudes you cultivate during meditation into a habitual way of being.

Meditation cultivates compassion, the ability to love, and acceptance: of yourself, of other people, of your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to change your circumstances. Acceptance doesn’t mean rolling over. But through meditation you can learn to be at peace wherever you are, even when you’d rather be somewhere else.

It might seem paradoxical, but through meditation you can become both (a) your best self, genuine, unique, distinctive, and (b) in harmony with your environment, however you define it: your family, your friends, your colleagues, your home, your neighborhood, trees, buildings, stars, the universe. You can, at the same time, know your limitations and continually test them.

There are “nonreligious” forms of meditation, but I believe that meditation is intrinsically spiritual. It requires a leap of faith to part with your ego, and that is exactly what meditation requires. Whether you’re practicing Christian meditation, Jewish meditation (Kabbalah, perhaps), Sufi meditation, Buddhist meditation, Transcendental Meditation, or the Meditation of Not Being in a Plummeting Aircraft, the movement is always out of Matter into Spirit. For me, in any case, meditation is communion with the Divine.

Assignment 28.1

Begin a meditation ritual and journal. Start with Jack Kornfield’s “Meditation for Beginners.” Try to meditate for at least fifteen minutes every day. Send your first week’s journal entries via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

You’ll also find hours of music for meditation and relaxation, nature sounds, meditation instruction, and other meditation resources at Zero Gravity’s website, www.LifeIsPoetry.net.

* * *

The Sun Returns…

…and other metaphors of Christmastide

victorian_calendarsanta

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 22

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 1: Christmastide

At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.

Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.

Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.

NEWGRANGE

Newgrange today, aerial view

Newgrange today, aerial view

There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

Newgrange light passage entry, 1901

Newgrange sunlight passageway, 1901

Erected more than five thousand years ago, Newgrange is the oldest building in the world. It was once surrounded  by dozens of immense standing stones, of which just twelve remain. The structure itself, in addition to its connection with the solstice, was apparently a tomb and the center of a site where religious rituals and ceremonies took place. 
The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.

Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.

***

MRS. ARTHUR’S ANCIENT TALES

Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
that’s how old she is.

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
blow cold around the chimney, though we and
Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
while she knits or crochets and talks about the
days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
to the sun to come and stay another year.

“And even now, upon St. Stephen’s Day, in Ireland and
Wales, grown men called ‘wren boys’ dress in straw or
some disguise and go from house to house, for
revelry—a merry time, no doubt, they have.”

Maenad

Maenad on Wheel of Life

She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
“And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
recognize them when it was their time to go.

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

“Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
left their droppings on a branch—
has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”

Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
are allowed to know the ancient tales.

Decorative mistletoe

Decorative mistletoe

“The mistletoe is
sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
the cattle and the flocks would flourish
and the crops would thrive.”

“And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
of course, but in the principle of giving to the
earth her own).”

And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.

At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
are made new today, and always, by the grace of
God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
as one, “Amen.”

 

* * *

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown

Refrain

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all

Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
“Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
won’t make that mistake again.)

Yule log

Yule log

“Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.

“And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
(for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
despite the winter’s dark and cold.”

* * *

Wassailing

Wassailing

WASSAILING

Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.

In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.

* * *

TOMTE: THE CHRISTMAS GNOME

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte  (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt,  a farmstead.

Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome  (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.

Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.

Assignment 22.1

Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

To the Core

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 20

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 1: Cleaning the Oven

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

   

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

Authentic art is not done for an audience. It is the Self communicating with the self (although, to be truly “finished,” art must be shared — not necessarily with the hoi polloi, but with somebody).

Does that mean that commissioned visual art, poetry, or music isn’t authentic? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel something less than genuine art?

I believe that most true artists, when they accept commissions, find a way to separate their art from — or to integrate it with — the expectations of their patrons. In some cases, commissioned works are rejected or, if accepted, despised. Usually, however, those who commission statues or symphonies are familiar with the artists’ previous work, and so they are not caught off guard when the sculptor they’ve engaged, who has produced dozens of mammoth sculptures that resemble the claws of vultures, gives them a clawlike monument for their money.

Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker
Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker

The Self communicating with the self

 

Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, talking with host Krista Tippett on National Public Radio’s weekly program Speaking of Faith (August 14, 2008), said,    

I was in the depth of depression and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, “I can’t live with myself any longer. I can’t live with myself any longer.” And that phrase went around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” And I thought, “Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct.”

Most of us suffer, at one time or another, from “imposter syndrome.” We are afraid to let too much of ourselves show. We have public selves who are smiling and agreeable, and we have private selves who kick puppies — or who are afraid we might. When people seem to like us, we think, “Oh, if they knew what I really am deep down….”

Poets can be a broody lot…

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

…who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table,
  resting briefly in catatonia,
returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and
  fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns
  of the East,
Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the
  echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench
  dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to
  stone as heavy as the moon….
 Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” Part I

Hot springs 

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

If writing poetry helps you peel away the superficial layers of the self toward a deeper consciousness, you might find some darkness before you reach the inner light — just as, if you could drill a hole through the earth, you would (depending on where you started) encounter a lot of muck and mire and stubborn stone before you came to the fiery magma. Some people begin their digging where the crust is thick, and they encounter dirt and rock and more rock until they give up, concluding that cold, hard rock is all that’s there.

But we are going to be intelligent and commence where the crust is thin and the magma is nearer the surface — someplace where there are geysers or hot springs, for example. If our goal is to penetrate to the core, why not do so where there is evidence that the core is, indeed, warm and bright.

It will not do to carry this metaphor too far. Our planet’s very center is actually extremely hot solid iron. It is in the outer core and surrounding mantle where magma is found; and where magma comes close to the earth’s surface, it makes its presence known through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena. 

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

So let’s abandon our earth-crust metaphor and use a very different simile instead: Reaching the shining inner self is a bit like cleaning an oven. You can scrape and scrub and bang your head several times on the oven’s rim; or you can — more easily and perhaps more poetically — pour a half-cup or so of household ammonia into a bowl, leave the ammonia-filled bowl in the closed oven overnight, let the ammonia fumes loosen the grime, and in the morning sponge away the mess with comparative ease.  

(I don’t have to tell you not to mix the ammonia with other cleaners or chemicals, right?) 

However you go about it, if you really want your oven to be clean, you persist, because you know that the baked-on grease is not the oven. It is simply among the contents of the oven. Eckhart Tolle writes, in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,

You may not want to know yourself because you are afraid of what you may find out. Many people have a secret fear that they are bad. But nothing you can find out about yourself is you.

Nothing you can know about you is you.

Most people define themselves through the content of their lives…. When you think or say, “my life,” you are not referring to the life that you are but the life that you have, or seem to have. You are referring to content — your age, health, relationships, finances, work and living situation, as well as your mental-emotional state. The inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future, all belong to the realm of content — as do events, that is to say, anything that happens.

What is there other than content? That which enables the content to be — the inner space of consciousness.

Whenever I write a poem that arises from a dark place, I begin where my emotions are closest to the surface and I persist until the light appears. Here are three examples from my book Unfamiliar Territory:

THE OTHER SIDE

"The Other Side"Over on the other side, there is a quiet
cottage on a grassy slope, where trees
protect and decorate and cast their pleasing
shadows on the water; and where children,
hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing
in the breeze. Inside, bread rises in the
oven, herbs depend from oaken beams, and
last night’s chicken in its steaming broth becomes
this evening’s stew, tomorrow’s casserole. An
old man and a young man and a boy are sharing
rituals and mending fences, while a woman,
unaccountably serene, sips coffee, shuts her
eyes, and says a prayer of thanks for all that
providence provides.

But on this side are broken shutters, dusty
shelves, unanswered letters, leaves in piles, and
moldy flower beds; and seams half-sewn on
half-done dresses; half-forgotten words in
half-read books; and pressing obligations
half-remembered, half despaired of. Morning
struggles through the cloudy panes of windows —
gray and half-neglected or, perhaps, defied. A
pallid beam succeeds at last and penetrates the
barrier. It comes to rest upon the drooping
pothos, which persists in barely living, never
mind the diffidence its garden is.

The ray of sullen light turns motes of dust to
fireflies. At first they float at random; then they
glide; then, whimsical, they dance as if to
challenge gravity or chance; as if they
will their time aloft, to have an audience, to
shine like stars.
 

They catch the sun and flicker. They have won a
moment’s glory. Soon it ends, but they have shone.
 

On the other side are peace and order; on this
side is eagerness to cross the wide,
intimidating border, to be purposeful and
more, to yet achieve, to meet and to exceed an
expectation, even one—to finish what’s begun;
half-perfection wishing to be whole, to be
forgiven for attaining less than paradise. But for
all that, this side is painted with the brush that,
dipped in heaven’s glory, must in time adorn
the swale with yellow clover and, today, in dust
makes manifest the morning stars.
 

THE SUMMER OF GOING BAREFOOT  

"The Summer of Going Barefoot"When I was very small,
and I was very small indeed, and light on tiny
feet, I found some great, thick, heavy leather
boots, with soles like Frisbees, and I put them
on. I often had to carry heavy things, you
see, or so they seemed to me. I didn’t like to
feel that I was sinking down into the ground,
or wet sand at the waterside, or sliding on the
ice or falling through the snow.
  

A summer breeze would blow and tousle
leaves on maple trees, then make its way to
me, not stopping to say “By your leave,” but arcing
almost imperceptibly to lift and sweep away the
heavy things. Then I’d sit down, right where I was,
unlace the heavy boots, take off my socks, and
chase the wind. The load was my responsibility, you
see, or so it seemed to me. But who can catch the
wind? Not I. There was no cause for worry, I soon
realized, and I stopped hurrying and felt how
free I was and loved the feeling of the sand, like gentle
hands massaging me. I lay down in a grassy place and
felt the ground resist and then embrace me, or, maybe,
the other way around.

I could have stayed for hours and
watched as clouds like giant puffballs skidded through
the sky and seabirds rose and watched, then dove into
the ocean. Slowly, steadily, the gentle sun caressed
me on its progress to the far side of the earth. I might
have slept awhile, for all too soon the sun was
low, the grass was cold.

The years flew by. I hadn’t worn my boots or even
thought about them till the day I felt the weight again. It
only ached a bit at first, but It grew heavy with alarming
speed. I needed boots without delay, so I gave everything
I had away to buy a pair and slip them on. The load became
so big I couldn’t see where it began or ended. Winters chilled
my bones without relief, and summer heat bore down, and I
was sure it was the earth itself that I was carrying. My soles
were almost bare by now, and I had lost myself.
 

One summer day a little bright-eyed bird was perched upon
the sand, and she, and she alone, seemed sympathetic, so
together we trudged on a bit, until I almost tripped upon a
man; he sat so still, and he was so serene, it seemed to me
that he might give me some advice, so tired was I and so
dispirited. He smiled and stretched his hands to me; I
thought that he would take the weight away, but he just tipped
it till it fell and rolled into the bay and out to sea and disappeared.

“Now give your boots to me,” he said, but they’d become a part of
me—so I believed. “Just try,” he said, and I untied them easily and
peeled them off my feet. “Now fly,” he said. My little bird and I ran
barefoot down the beach, and laughed to feel the sand and
see the daylight once again. We turned and waved to
him, and then we flew away.
 

ANNA SIGHS   

All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and
restive, Night still heaves against the pane and
probes the porous mortar, thus to gain a
continent, and breathe again, but holding breath
within, as if release would leave it spent of form and
substance, vanished in a photon storm.
 

No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry
sea assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
shore—except that Night can but devour and look for
more, can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to
moderate its gluttony, nor would it,
if it could.

Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it
inwardly, and moans, the speech of wan resistance,
drained of will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring,
“I am.” Something in her knows the enemy and would
arrest it, summoning a name, essaying ownership.
It rises out of bounds before the net is thrown.
 

Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.
 

One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not even
Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at midnight one
unreasoning expends what has been grown and gathered
season after season, sacrifices every treasure, throws
into the flame a hundred fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s
clarity. At midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now thickened by the
certainty that Anna will comply and abdicate her shape, to be a
pool, a fog, and then evaporate.
 

Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her face and nobody
will notice that the Anna space, once occupied by negligible
molecules, is vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
surprise; we had forgotten that the planet turns. At sunrise,
the tenacious lamp still burns, and
Anna sighs.

 

In “The Other Side,” I began in frustration, approaching despair, over the orderliness of my sister’s and my daughter’s lives compared to my own chaotic existence. In “The Summer of Going Barefoot,” I work through a spell of depression by recalling the liberation from my first, and most debilitating, depression episode. When I wrote “Anna Sighs,” I was struggling with a demanding, draining, and unsatisfying employment experience, one in which I felt irrelevant and invisible.

When I began writing these poems, I didn’t know how they would end, except in light. I wasn’t sure how the light would appear — only that I was reaching toward it.

Assignment 20.1

Write a poem about one source of emotional turmoil in your life. Your poem should

  • work toward enlightment about, not necessarily resolution of, the tumultuous situation, your feelings about it, and your responsibility for it

  • identify the emotion or the situation metaphorically (For example, if you are stressed beyond endurance by an incorrigible son or daughter, you might be “a blade of grass in the jaws of a wildebeest.”)

  • contain a first-person perspective (that is, there must be an “I” narrator)

  • have a regular, rhythmic meter

  • consist of thirty lines or fewer

  • contain rhyme, though the rhyming need not be at the ends of the lines

Please e-mail your finished assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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