Category Archives: how to write poetry

For Honest Poverty

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 32.2

Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Robert Burns, Part 2

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robt_burns_alex_nasmyth_18281

Robert Burns wore his heart in his poetry. His topics range from romantic love to radical politics. In meter and rhyme, he attacked the church, the class system, and the inequality of gender roles.

An incident in the 1745 Scots rebellion, painted by David Morier

An incident in the 1745 Scots rebellion, painted by David Morier

Burns was born thirteen years after the Battle of Culloden, the beginning of the end of the traditional Scottish Highland way of life, and of the clans. The British, who had nominally controlled Scotland since the 1707 Acts of Union but had never been able to harness the independent Highlanders, mercilessly seized Highland farms, killing the occupants or driving them off their land summarily, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The Highlands were cleared, the clan system abolished, the wearing of the tartan prohibited.

Thus, Robert Burns

belonged to a nation which had lost its independence but was at the same time part of a larger state in whose successes he could rejoice and in whose better government he was interested, so that his patriotism was always of a peculiarly double sort. His attachment to what, for want of a better word, must be termed his class, that is, to the lower orders, broadly conceived, reinforced and buttressed his nationalism. —Robert Burns Plus, accessed January 28, 2009

He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became a great source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. [Burns was a] cultural icon in Scotland and among the Scottish Diaspora around the world, [and] celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries…. His influence has long been strong on Scottish literature. Wikipedia, accessed January 28, 2009

Jane Austen, c. 1810; a sketch by her sister Cassandra

Jane Austen, c. 1810; a sketch by her sister Cassandra

The poem “Is There for Honest Poverty” is a plainspoken, songlike expression of Burns’s democratic principles. These were radical for the time. Read, for historical perspective on class distinction, the delightful novel Emma (1816), by Jane Austen. The title character is a wealthy, beautiful, clever, and basically kindhearted member of the rural aristocracy, but one with a misguided rigidity in matters of social class.

Emma persuades her young and impressionable friend Harriet not to marry the well-spoken, prosperous farmer who is courting her. The girl would be marrying beneath herself, Emma explains, and Emma herself would have to “drop the acquaintance.”

emmaAusten, in her gentle way, exposes Emma’s folly; she is properly ashamed. The author writes satirically, of course, as in all her novels, about artificial distinctions between “gentlemen” with inherited wealth or social position and those who had to earn their living — as merchants or tenant farmers, for example. The egalitarian fervor of the French Revolution (1789-1799) had not gone unnoticed in England, and it certainly influenced the politics and poetry of Robert Burns. 

As well as making original compositions, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His poem (and song) Auld Lang Syne is often sung at Hogmanay (the last day of the year), and “Scots Wha Hae served for a long time as an unofficial national anthem of the country. Other poems and songs of Burns that remain well known across the world today include A Red, Red Rose,” “A Man’s A Man for A’ That” [“Is There for Honest Poverty”], “To a Louse,” “To a Mouse,” “The Battle of Sherramuir,” “Tam O’Shanter,” and “Ae Fond Kiss….”

He is generally classified as a proto-Romantic poet, and he influenced William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Percy Bysshe Shelley greatly. The Edinburgh literati worked to sentimentalise Burns during his life and after his death, dismissing his education by calling him a “heaven-taught ploughman.” Wikipedia, accessed January 28, 2009 

Lady Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire, and her siblings, Lady Henrietta Frances and George John Spencer, by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1780. Georgiana was a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures—a salon. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. —Wiklipedia

Lady Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire, and her siblings, Lady Henrietta Frances and George John Spencer, by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1780. Georgiana was a celebrated beauty and a socialite who gathered around her a large circle of literary and political figures—a salon. She was also an active political campaigner in an age when women's suffrage was still over a century away. —Wikipedia

Assignment 32.3

  1. Analyze one of the poems at “The Ploughman Poet“: (a) What intimate glimpse of Burns’s soul does it provide? (b) How does it do so (through language, rhyme, meter, metaphor, and other poetic conventions)?
  2. Write a poem patterned after Burns’s style that illustrates one deep conviction of your own.
  3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
  4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.
  6.  * * *

 

Spare No Sibilants

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 31

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 4: Poetry-Writing as Meditation

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

girl_art_project

The creative arts are the playground for recognizing and understanding our purpose in being here. When we truly allow our spirits to be filled with the purpose, our minds can begin to take stock of the necessary steps and needed materials so the body can become the mover or manifestor of the desire. Mind, Body, Spirit: Connecting With Your Creative Self,
by Mary Braheny and Diane Halperin

* * *

I wrote both of the poems below “meditatively” — that is, with an open mind, as part of a morning ritual.

The first poem originated from my noticing that at this time of year, the earth’s orientation to the sun is such that the rays slant more brightly and beautifully through my bedroom windows than in any other season.  I have said before that I live in a church basement, though that’s not quite accurate. Half of my apartment is below ground level. The windows — there are four, all on the south side — are full sized, made possible by window wells.

In meditative poems I try not to be intentional. I work with the poetic conventions I choose and let the tale tell itself. In this case, I chose the following:

There are other common rhetorical devices as well. (1) How many can you identify? (Please name the ones you find.)

The poem was going to be a meditation on a ray of light, but it turned into something quite different. (2) What might it have told me about myself that I hadn’t been aware of?

1. WHIMSY ON WELCOMING WINDOWS IN WINTER

My walkdown is half below ground and thus darkish
with windows on only one side, and these mullioned
and frosted and dusty, gray-tinted with shadows
from brickwork and privet… and silent, so quiet
that lightning and thunder at midnight can’t penetrate;
but, more’s the pity, I can’t discern birdsong;
cicadas lamenting and crickets scritch-scritching,
however, are easily heard in midsummer.
I once had a fright from a possum who tumbled,
at least I inferred that she had, to the floor of
the window-well; captive, she skittered around on
the old metal screens; and I, thinking the threat must
be human, in fear and confusion, punched in nine-
one-one on the phone, and no fewer than two dozen
uniformed men armed with pistols came quickly
to rescue a woman alone in her bedroom,
defending her person from one hapless menacing
possum. The men with the guns were forgiving,
and, surely, one had to do something, not knowing
the danger. I do love a window that faces
the south in the wintertime, feral four-footed
invaders, indeed, notwithstanding; for sunlight
slants through in a comforting, angular way that
is perfectly suited for afternoon naps and
geraniums, too.

January 18, 2009

restored_winter_garden_2002_ground0

The inspiration for the following poem was the much-embellished language of Elizabeth Peters’s delightful Victorian archaeologist and detective Amelia Peabody Emerson. Peters has written a few dozen books about the Emersons, all narrated (for the most part) by Amelia, whose husband refers to her affectionately as “Peabody.” There is an unrestraint about her utterances (as there is, as well, about Victorian houses, furniture, and other artistic expressions) that is greatly at odds with the more modern, pared-down prose of later writers. If something can be clearly expressed using five words, Amelia will use fifteen.

tomb234There is, I am overjoyed to find, a new book in the series: Tomb of the Golden Bird (Amelia Peabody Mysteries).

Again, the poem wandered into uncharted territory. (3) What do you think I learned about myself in the process of writing this poem? (HINT: There are no wrong answers.) 

2. LIBERTINE (AMELIA)

 “They will rid us of resident

     “rodents,” said Amelia Peabody —

Oh, what a droll redundancy

     Of D’s and R’s and S’s.

Amelia is generous with consonants

     and commas and asides,

     not sparing

     an embarrassment of prepositions

     or extravagant Egyptian

     nomenclature.

Ah, to scatter syllables

     with no fear of reprisal,

Scribbling whatever adjectives

     arise, page upon page,

To be intemperate at last

     and feel the weight of pent-up participles

     lifted from one’s shoulders,

     nobly carried, one might add,

     despite the rain.

Now to feast upon the delicate,

     the succulent, the opulent

     accessories, plucked in

     leaner days from one’s

     repast, but frozen — for

     one knew their banishment

     would end at last.

Economy, begone! Pack your

     valise and abdicate

     your stern and pious reign.

Don’t slam the door when you

     egress. Expect no severance pay,

     for you’ve exacted

     more than you were owed.

And now, a toast, companions

     in the liberation, mes amis.

Now lift your flagons, lift them high,

     and drink to whimsy, arrogant,

     peculiar, wry, benevolent.

Drink to liberty

     in flowing crimson silk

     arrayed; Amelia Peabody has

     gained the citadel, and

     holds aloft the flame.

O, wasted wealth of words, O, damned

     display of Latin origins.

O, Norse and Arabic, O, Gaelic,

     Greek and Cherokee, and more;

Ye assonant ambassadors, rejoice!

Amelia has restored

     your scattered fortunes.

Spare no sibilants;

     there shall be subsurrations,

     seventy times seven, and

     a score besides.

Throw wide the gates for

     summer’s retinue,

     ripe pomegranate.

Go and populate the periodicals, reclaim

     the islands where verbosity

     has honor still.

Amelia has gained the citadel,

     and yet, take care that your extravagance

     is eloquent, laid on with artistry. For as

     “the tombs themselves descend in

     “sinuous curves,”

Endeavor to deserve, when you are

     gone, an orderly effusion

     in the manner you (yourself)

     displayed.

Immerse yourself in immortality.

     Immerse yourself COMPLETELY,

     like Amelia,

Who bathes and then adjourns to the

     verandah,

Where breezes ruffle Nefret’s hair

     that shimmers in the light like

     golden threads.

 

February 2006

peabody

Assignment 31.1

  1. Answer the questions highlighted above in red.
  2. Write a meditative poem in blank verse using iambic or trochaic tetrameter. Your poem should have no more than twenty lines. BEGIN WITH A MINIMALIST, CONCRETE SUBJECT, AND DO NOT WRITE OVERTLY ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS.
  3. Identify the poetic devices in your poem.
  4. Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
  5. Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.

* * *

Habit Forming

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 30

Chapter 10: Meditation
Part 3: The Force of Habit

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

 

Ava and Little Jack

Ava and Little Jack

Grandmother Rocking Little Jack Beside the Christmas Tree
— A Poem

My jingle bracelet caught his eye — tiny,
shiny, singing bells and balls of yellow-
gold and lavender, of sky blue, purple,
red and green. His little fingers touched them
almost reverently; he’d not imagined
such a thing could be. He satisfied his
curiosity on bells and balls, and then
resumed examining my nose, with much
tenacity.

He crawls, at ten months old, efficiently;
the floor is slippery in spots, but he is
not deterred, and, when he’s on the loose, you
have to watch him carefully, although, of
course, the stairs are guarded by a gate, and
there’s a heavy shield around the fireplace,
and all the breakables are set up high.

And now he’s bathed and dry and clean and smells of
baby powder and of eau de baby,
which, if they could package it, would never
lack for customers; it must be made in
heaven. He’s content upon my lap, and
we play Pat-a-Cake, and Pat-a-Cake
again, and when I try to change the game and
interest him in Ride Little Horsie, he
resists a bit, attempts to clap his hands
without assistance, and sometimes he misses,
so I help, and Pat-a-Cake it is
again, and yet again.

The rocker was his great-great-grandmother’s,
the kind with indestructible upholstery and
springs, the most completely perfect chair to
rock a baby in and sing a nonsense
song. Before too long he brings his furry
light-green blanket to his cheek and nestles
in my arms, resisting momentarily the
urge to rest, for he is not quite finished
with exploring yet. But he grows heavy
as he gives it up, and lets his eyelids
close, and we are satisfied — I more than
he, I think, because I am the one who
knows how differently so many children
fall asleep.

God above and God within, I praise you
for creating him. God within and
God above, please keep him safe and warm and
loved. So keep us all. Amen.

* * *

Little Jack at 2 months

Little Jack at 2 months

This poem is in blank verse meaning that it has regular meter but no systematic rhyme scheme. The meter is mixed iambic and trochaic pentameter.

A poem a day

Writing a poem is part of my morning routine. Usually I choose, as a subject, something I have dreamed about, some small thing that happened the day before, a change in the weather, a new acquaintance… something that reminds me to take absolutely nothing for granted. Some of these poems are dreadful. Others have promise, and I set them aside to work on at a later time.

I can hardly overemphasize the importance of beneficial habits, routines, customs, traditions, and rituals to living poetically. When our mothers or grandmothers did the washing on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday, it was for a good reason. It was so they wouldn’t stand there scratching their heads on Monday mornings wondering what they were going to do that day.

A well-ordered life — not one that is rigid, that doesn’t allow for spontaneity — should be your goal. Find the balance that works for you.

Cultivate these meditation habits

If you have to think hard about how to do a meditation “right,” then you’re not meditating, you’re thinking. That’s why I have cultivated some meditation habits over the years that help me get more out of practices such as chakra clearing. You can form these habits, too, and you don’t have to be meditating to do so. Then, when you are meditating, these habits will be engrained and you won’t have to clutter your mind with them. Here are a few:

Breathe from the Diaphragm ("Human Respiratory System," drawn by Theresa Knott)

Breathe from the Diaphragm (

  • Inhale “navel to spine.” Use your diaphragm to draw in air. By breathing in this way all the time, you are actually drawing more air farther into your lungs and you are, in a manner of speaking, practicing a continuous relaxation exercise. You’re less likely to experience signs of unhealthy stress such as headaches and numbness in your hands than when your breathing is habitually shallow.
  • At least a few times a day, whatever you’re doing, practice “inhaling the light.” Some people believe that there is an eighth chakra, in the form of a small sun above your head. Other meditators talk about breathing in the light from your own energy field, or aura. Yet another approach is to imagine that you’re inhaling “the light from a thousand universes,” which is, in a sense, literally true. Your goal is to feel, without thinking about it, that every breath fills your body with light and energy.
        The sensation of exhaling has different purposes, depending on the meditation, so once you habitually start “inhaling light,” you can decide (or the meditation guide can instruct you) what to do with the out breath. Sometimes you’ll exhale dark thoughts, negativity, pain, sickness, fear…. Other times you’ll use exhalation to “push” the light you’ve just inhaled throughout your body, or to a spot where there is pain or inflammation.
  • Whenever you listen to music that particularly pleases or stirs you, “tune” your body’s vibration to the music’s vibration. This is really easier than it sounds. The “Crystal Chakra Awakening” meditation (number 5 in the second set on page) is good practice for sympathetic vibration.
  • Practice self-acceptance all the time, even when you screw up — especially when you screw up. This doesn’t mean justifying the screwup. It’s more about having the humility to allow yourself to make mistakes. Beating yourself up is ego-centered, and it’s a waste of the time you could be spending getting on with life. 

Assignment 30.1

  1. If you haven’t done so already, start with Jack Kornfield’s soothing meditation instruction and then proceed to Susan Piver’s relaxation, breathing, and lovingkindness practices (numbers 9, 10, and 11, top set on page). Practice the four meditation habits described above.
  2. Write a poem in blank verse using iambic or trochaic pentameter. Your poem should have no more than twenty lines.
  3. Continue with your meditation journal.
  4. Send your assignment 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.

Adapted from Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word

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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.

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Ritualize

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 27

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 6: Personal Rituals, continued

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

Baking cookies

Baking cookies

If you have done Assignment 5.1 (Declutter Your Life) — especially if you were ruthless in your decluttering — perhaps you’ve made time to practice some of the customs and rituals that bind us as communities and families, and that help us meet our individual needs for structure and purpose. Here, in no particular order, is a list of individual, family, social, and religious customs, traditions, and rituals, some of which might be part of your life:

Story time

Story time

  • family meals — preparing, eating, conversing, and cleaning up
  • saying grace at meals
  • Christmas caroling (or wassailing)
  • holiday observances and meals
  • housekeeping
  • prayer
  • meditation
  • confession
  • communion
  • congregational worship
  • dance
  • sports
  • family game night
  • campfires
  • day trips
  • picnics
  • barbecues
  • gardening
  • volunteer work
  • visiting relatives
  • visiting the sick
  • weddings
  • bridal and baby showers
  • viewings and funerals
  • bedtime stories
  • ablutions (hygiene — washing, brushing teeth, and so forth)
  • going for walks
  • dating (dinner and a movie?)
  • reading out loud to family
A traditional snowman

A traditional snowman

While some rituals, traditions, and customs become irrelevant and fall out of use, others cling for no apparent reason. We still “knock on wood” after asserting that, for example, we’ve “never gotten so much as a parking ticket” — possibly a remnant of the ancient practice of waking the tree gods and invoking their protection against future parking tickets. The practice of blessing someone after he or she sneezes may derive from an old belief that demons can enter your body when you sneeze. (Gesundheit means, roughly, “good health.”)

I enjoy these harmless practices because they connect me with ancestors whose names I’ll never know… although it’s getting harder to find real wood, and “knock on laminate” doesn’t have the mystique of “knock on wood.”

After school

After school

On the other hand, the tradition of the “Sunday drive” has all but disappeared. When I was a little girl, residential air-conditioning was practically unheard-of and television sets were almost equally rare. Sunday dinner was usually eaten in the mid-afternoon, but in the summer it was too hot to cook during the day, so often we’d pile in the car with a picnic basket full of egg-salad sandwiches, carrot and celery sticks, potato chips, and cold pop — grape Nehi, perhaps. Alongside most country roads there were picnic tables under spreading cottonwoods or sycamores every few miles. We’d stop at the shadiest spot we could find, spread our tablecloth, and have our little feast, observed by squirrels and birds waiting to tidy up after us.

Nehi advertisement on a matchcover

Nehi advertisement on a matchcover

Now, on summer Sunday afternoons, for better or for worse, the ritual of televised Major League Baseball has largely replaced the family outing. Indeed, family dinners, in many families, are consumed in front of the family television or — sadder yet — televisions.

Assignment 27.1 Ritualize

Read “Women’s Altars” at Sister Alma Rose Has the Last Word.

Evaluate the rituals and traditions you observe. What is their purpose? In what ways are they metaphorical? Are they time-wasters, or do they provide structure and meaning? Are there rituals and traditions that you don’t practice but that would benefit you and your family? How can you work them into your family routine?

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

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Natural High

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 26

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 5: Personal Rituals

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

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misty_sunrise_2The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

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Nature is the opposite [that is, reflection] of the soul, answering to it part for part…. The ancient precept, “Know thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study nature,” become at last one maxim. —Emerson, “The American Scholar”

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Journalist and child advocate Richard Louv discusses the problem of nature deficit disorder in his new book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. “Never before in our history have children been so separated from nature,” Louv tells Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith….

last_child_in_the_woodsLouv claims that, according to recent research, lack of direct contact with nature is connected to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He also cites statistics showing [that] children who play in nature perform better at school….

“Biologically, we are still hunters and gatherers…. What happens to the human organism when you take nature away from it and replace it with television and computers? I call that ‘cultural autism’ where children’s use of the senses is reduced to the size of a screen, like a computer. Only in nature are we using our full senses all at the same time in a positive way.” —CBS, The Early Show, May 9, 2005

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See More Sunrises

tuscany_sunriseYou know those bromides people use to cheer you up? Tomorrow is another day. It’s always darkest before the dawn. Hope springs eternal. Every rose has its thorns. Every cloud has a silver lining. Into every life a little rain must fall. Above the clouds the sun is shining. After the rain comes the rainbow.

Don’t they just make you want to spit?

When you’re wallowing in discontent (for whatever reason, from a bad hair day to a compound fracture), do you really want to hear Ethel Merman booming, “I’ve Got the Sun in the Mornin’ and the Moon at Night” or have some perky Pollyanna reminding you that he is happiest who hath power to gather wisdom from a flower? Why do people say these things?

Because they’re true

rowboats_lake_treesAfter we’ve been living on earth for a while, observing the patterns and cycles of nature—day and night, summer and winter, storm and sunlight, decay and renewal—we begin to internalize and generalize from the natural world. We learn to take certain things for granted and to not be disconcerted by them—thunderstorms, for example (unless we are a certain type of dog that perceives every storm as a New and Completely Unexpected Type of Event and quivers under a bed until it’s over).

The same is true of the household routine. Mom and Dad go out for dinner and Mrs. Featherstone, who makes us go to bed immediately because she doesn’t want to be disturbed during Jackpot Bowling on television, comes to baby-sit, and we put our goldfish, Wilbur IV, who has recently died, into her purse. But we endure Mrs. Featherstone because we know that Mom and Dad will come home while we’re asleep and Mrs. Featherstone will go back to her cave.

So when I read about these children who have been locked in closets and basements for years, I am doubly appalled. Besides the general horribleness of it, imagine what it must be like to have no firsthand knowledge of the basic cycles of life and nature—to literally not know that every morning brings a new dawn.

Millions of tiny diamonds

misty_sunriseOn a magnificent summer morning I watched the sun rise over the Missouri River and the prolific farmland of western Iowa. The hills across the river were invisible under a great white pillow of cloud through which poked a few church spires and grain elevators. So much vapor rose from the river itself that it might have been on fire. Gradually the bright green and yellow fields came into view and the vapor turned crystalline, like millions of tiny diamonds ascending, hovering, and rising again. It dawned on me, as it were, that such displays are always available and much more satisfying than whatever I am usually doing when the sun comes up (sniffing at a pile of clothes to see if they’re clean, licking the bottom of a frozen-yogurt carton, looking in the mirror and frowning at my jowls).

I vowed to spend more time outside the closet I keep myself in… to watch more sunrises and remember that we really are new every morning… to grow more flowers and walk outdoors in every kind of weather except “obscenely cold” or “the U.S. Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for eastern Douglas County because a funnel cloud has been sighted in the general vicinity of Mary Campbell.” But, hey! I live in a basement. 

Adapted from Unfamiliar Territory, by Mary Campbell

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The world is too much with us…

This is one of William Wordsworth’s most famous sonnets:

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
      Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
      Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This sea, that bares her bosom to the moon;
      The winds that will be howling at all hours
      And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not–Great God! I’d rather be
      A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
      Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus, rising from the sea;
      Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

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Assignment 26.1

  1. What are the meter and rhyme scheme of Wordsworth’s poem?
  2. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.

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The Magi

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 25

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 4: Epiphany

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

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A 1938 portrait of T. S. Lewis, by Wyndham Lewis

A 1938 portrait of T. S. Lewis, by Wyndham Lewis

2:1  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 

2:2  Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

2:3  When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

2:4  And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

2:5  And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

2:6  And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

2:7  Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

2:8  And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

2:9  When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

2:10  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

2:11  And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

2:12  And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

The Gospel According to Matthew, King James Version

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The Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

The Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

The Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T. S. Eliot

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A journey of the spirit

Portrait by Paul Van Somer of James VI, King of Scots; James I, King of England; 1603-1613

Portrait by Paul Van Somer of James VI, King of Scots; James I, King of England; 1603-1613

Bible scholars have long debated the identity of the magi (pronounced MAY-jee or MAY-jye; singular is magus, pronounced MAY-guss). Were they Persians from the ancient priestly caste of Zoroastrianism? Were they kings or exiled Jews? Were there, in fact, three such visitors? Or are they simply part of the “mythology” surrounding the birth of Jesus?

What matters, for the purpose of our present discussion, is that, biblically, the magi represent the acknowledgement by non-Jews of Jesus as not merely a king but a divine king, one to be worshiped.

The date of their arrival is, by tradition, held to be January 6 — the last of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” This date — and the liturgical season that follows it, leading up to the Lenten Season — is called Epiphany (Greek for “to manifest” or “to show). In a nonreligious context, we might use the word epiphany to describe a sudden insight or revelation.

The best poetry is language distilled, every word essential, anything superfluous filtered out and discarded. In your study of “the Journey of the Magi,” be assured that there is nothing accidental in, say, the choice of the word satisfactory to describe the arrival, or in the repetitiveness in

And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This….

What was Eliot’s “epiphany”?

I suppose that you could make it your life’s work to study this poem and still not explain every nuance. It’s important to know that Eliot was baptized into the Church of England and became a British citizen (he was born in St. Louis) in 1927, the year this poem was published. What seems obvious (and is therefore suspect) is that the poet is alluding to his spiritual journey from agnosticism to Christianity, perhaps colored by his embracing England as his home. 

Assignment 25.1

Write a poem in free verse (unrhyming, without strict meter, but still using other rhetorical devices common in poetry) of no more than thirty lines about a metaphorical journey toward a life-changing realization — an “epiphany” — of your own. Identify the rhetorical devices used in your poem. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.

 

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What Are You Waiting For?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 24

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 3: Advent

 

Don’t concentrate on the things you want. Concentrate on the feelings you want to experience.— Heard on Hay House Radio, December 2008

Advent (n.): arrival that has been awaited (especially of something momentous); “the advent of the computer”; the season including the four Sundays preceding Christmas
wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn, accessed December 17, 2008

A contemporary Advent wreath (photo by Andrea Schaufler)

A contemporary Advent wreath (photo by Andrea Schaufler)

For Christians, the season of Advent is a time of waiting — a less somber sort of waiting than the Lenten season, because the climax of Advent is a royal birth amid humble surroundings — heralded, nonetheless, by angels and celebrated by kings and shepherds alike.

Advent, like most Christian observances, has prechristian origins:

Ancient Germanic peoples gathered evergreen branches, wove them into wreaths, and decorated them with lighted fires as signs of hope during the cold of winter… [for the coming of spring]. Christians adopted this tradition. By the 16th century, Catholics and Protestants throughout Germany used these symbols as part of their Advent celebration. For them Christ was the symbol of hope, and was known as the everlasting Light, [before which the darkness of winter would vanish]. Therefore,… Advent, like… Christmas and Easter,… was a “Christianized pagan… [experience].” —http://clergyresources.net/Advent/origins_of_advent.htm, accessed December 17, 2008

Toward Contentment

Advent is, among other things, a metaphor for the human condition, which is one of chronic anticipation. Even if I am working on a task that interests and absorbs me, my work is motivated by the anticipation of finishing it. Yet completing the task brings only short-lived satisfaction; often there is more joy in the anticipation than in the completion, just as traveling can be much more fun than arriving. You are perhaps familiar with this quotation about Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE): “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer” (Plutarch’s [C.E. 46-126] Life of Alexander).

A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

A mural in Pompeii, depicting the marriage of Alexander to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. The couple are apparently dressed as Ares and Aphrodite.

Utter contentment is impossible for us mortals because it would mean resistance to change, and things are always changing. Only in deep meditation do we (temporarily) gather the loose threads of our lives and allow them to remain unwoven. In meditation there is no striving, there is only gentle acceptance. Jack Kornfield teaches that if, during your time of meditation, you are hungry, you can decide to embrace the hunger within your meditation or to stop meditating and get something to eat. Either is fine. You are not to judge yourself. Whatever meditation is about, it is NOT about beating yourself up — ever.

There are, of course, degrees of “chronic anticipation.” There is perennial discontent. There are fears (rational and irrational) and anxieties. There are sadnesses, which I classify as “full” and “empty.” When my mother died, I was “full” of sadness. It was a kind of wealth of feeling, enriched by the knowledge that if I hadn’t loved her so much I wouldn’t be feeling so bad, and also by a sense that, though I would always feel the loss, it wouldn’t always be so sharp and painful. But, in the year after her death, there was also depression — an emptiness of feeling, a refusal to accept the pain — and there was anxiety, because her death had been unexpected and so it seemed as if something horrible could happen at any time, and I feared to relax, to let down my guard against the possibility of disaster. This is, I’m told, normal.

‘Mom!’ no more

There was a different kind of emptiness when my youngest child left home in 1998. He had joined the army, so his leaving was sudden and dramatic, not the gradual kind of going-away-to-college leaving, which can be equally devastating but which at least allows a mother to cling to the illusion that her child still needs her.

Shingles, yuck

Shingles, yuck

I was so ill equipped to deal with the loss of my identity as “Mom!” that I became physically ill. After all, I had been “Mom!” for over thirty years. Being sick was, I think, my body’s way of reminding me that I was still alive. First I came down with the shingles (Herpes zoster) virus on my face and scalp. Shingles, as you probably know, is the inflammation of a nerve, and it can be excruciating. In my case, the weight of air was painful. Fortunately, my optic nerve was not involved; if it had been, I could have gone blind in the affected eye.

But the worst was yet to come. In the wake of shingles can follow any number of disorders, including postherpetic neuralgia and autoimmune disease (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and so forth). Whatever the cause (no one is quite sure), my joints swelled and reddened and I was in constant pain for which the only sure remedy was prednisone, and you just can’t take handfuls of prednisone if you want to safeguard vital internal organs such as your liver.

My house

My house

By the end of 2002 I had lost my job, my fiancé, my house, my beautiful pickup truck, my savings, and my precious Labradors. I went limping to the refuge of my daughter’s home, more than a thousand miles from where I had lived for most of my adult life, and found solace among longtime friends and extended family and in the church where I now live as caretaker. I struggled for two years to succeed at an eight-to-five job in marketing, but it was beyond my physical strength.

The storm before the calm

My identity as “capable, reliable employee” had been second only to my identity as “Mom!” in propping up my ego, and now that, too, was gone. Other calamities, too sordid or too complicated to describe, came and went. At times I was literally penniless. And I couldn’t say, with any conviction, “Well, at least I have my health.”

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Plutarch served as one of the priests responsible for interpreting the predictions of the oracle. (Photo by Davis Monniaux)

Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where Plutarch served as one of the priests responsible for interpreting the predictions of the oracle. (Photo by David Monniaux)

And what I discovered, in circumstances that would have seemed unimaginably bleak only a few years earlier, was joy.

In 2000, when I first became unemployed, I began meditating and writing poems and songs — mostly gospel music and hymns — sometimes dozens in the space of a week. While the elements of life as I had known it slipped away, I turned to prayer, meditation, and poetry-writing, finding not only moments of peace but also objects of curiosity, and so I engaged in a serious study of those practices, gleefully aware that I would never run out of material. My goals, unlike Alexander’s, would never be fulfilled.

I had formally studied music, poetry, and religion in college, and had continued to indulge my interest in those subjects throughout my life. They had always been sources of pleasure; now they were resources for survival.

Bloom where you’re planted

Oregon Trail ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming (photo by Chris Light)

Oregon Trail ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming (photo by Chris Light)

So much of life is ballast — stuff that seems necessary for balance when you have it but that you are perfectly willing to throw overboard when your ship is going down. You have probably read about pianos and bedsteads found alongside the Santa Fe or the Oregon Trail, each discarded treasure giving the oxen one less thing to haul westward, and, as a bonus, giving the owners one less possession to dust.

The first thing to go is guilt. As observed in Lesson 13, “the only function of guilt is to motivate us to make whatever amends are possible and to behave differently in the future. After that, indulging in guilt is like picking a scab.”

Next is anxiety, which is a little harder to shed than guilt is because we know a lot more about the past than we do about the future.

‘I don’t mind what happens’

In the bestselling book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle distinguishes between the CONtent and the essence of the human spirit. He tells this story about

J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, [who] spoke and traveled almost continuously all over the world for more than fifty years attempting to convey through words — which are content — that which is beyond words, beyond content. At one of his talks in the later part of his life, he surprised his audience by asking, “Do you want to know my secret?” Everyone became very alert. Many people in the audience had been coming to listen to him for twenty or thirty years and still failed to grasp the essence of his teaching. Finally, after all these years, the master would give them the key to understanding. “This is my secret,” he said. “I don’t mind what happens.”

This kind of serenity is not emotional numbness. In fact, freedom from fear brings freedom to love fully; to be gently compassionate with yourself and with others; to experience the full range of human emotions, in fact, because you know that you are not your emotions and that they can’t destroy you, even the really messy ones. Through meditation the indestructible Self and the connectedness with all things are revealed.

My 2008 Christmas letter begins,

If I ever write a book about this period of my life (and I will), it will be titled Adventures in Poverty. It will extol the people who have encouraged and supported me since I quit my vile but well-paying job 2-1/2 years ago to start writing my own stuff instead of other people’s bloated ads and vapid news releases. It will be chock full of Household Hints (“Spray your shower walls with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and tea-tree oil and some other liquids, I forget what, then get out of the bathroom, fast”; “How to make laundry detergent out of soap slivers and other stuff you have lying around the house”; “How to make a hearty soup out of black beans, stale doughnuts, and other stuff you have lying around the house”)… and so forth. It will convince you that you don’t need a car, you just need friends who have cars. You will discover that Wal-Mart is the Antichrist, and how I know that, and much better ways to save $$$. You will learn how to sweet-talk “Ginger” at Qwest so that she won’t disconnect your phone. And you will understand how little you need, really, to be happy.

I still want a bathtub

I still want a bathtub

Not that I have become a willing ascetic. I still want things, in particular an antique bathtub, because when the church refurbished my bathroom after the Great Rat Exodus of 2005, the contractors installed a shower — a very fine shower, to be sure, but there are times when a girl just wants, you know, a bubble bath to ease the ache in her limbs and the tightness in her neck.

In meditation, and in writing poetry meditatively, however, I am waiting for nothing, not even a bathtub. In meditation, at least, “whatever is, is right” (Alexander Pope).

ME INPERTURBE

ME imperturbe, standing at ease in Nature,
Master of all, or mistress of all — aplomb in the midst of irrational things,
Imbued as they — passive, receptive, silent as they,
Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, crimes, less important than I thought;
Me private, or public, or menial, or solitary—all these subordinate, (I am eternally equal with the best — I am not subordinate;)
Me toward the Mexican Sea, or in the Mannahatta, or the Tennessee, or far north, or inland,
A river man, or a man of the woods, or of any farm-life in These States, or of the coast, or the lakes, or Kanada,
Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies!
O to confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.

Walt Whitman, 1819-1892

Walt Whitman in 1887

Walt Whitman in 1887

What was Walt Whitman waiting for? To be serene, “self-balanced,” in every circumstance. Aren’t we all? Wouldn’t that make everything else unnecessary? Wouldn’t the cup always be overflowing (or at least half-full instead of half-empty, or, as the late George Carlin used to say, twice as big as it needs to be)?

Whitman, by the way, wrote in free verse, “a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter, rhythm, or rhyme (Ex: end rhyme), but still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole.” —Wikipedia, referencing G. Burns Cooper, Mysterious Music: Rhythm and Free Verse, Stanford University Press, 1998

Assignment 24.1

  1. Write a poem (30 lines maximum) in free verse (unrhyming, without strict meter, but still using other rhetorical devices common in poetry) about “what you are waiting for” — the one thing needed for contentment.
  2. Write another poem (30 lines maximum) about what it would feel like to finally possess the “one thing needed.”
  3. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return your assignment to you with comments.

 

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Where God Resides

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 21

Chapter 8: Writing toward the Core
Part 2: Connecting with God

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

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The most ordinary of prospects caused her to stop and stare. The last of the leaves dropped from the trees, and the bare branches made lace against pale skies. Sun after rain turned cobbled streets blue as fish scales, dazzling to the eye. Autumn winds, whipping the bay to a scud of white-caps, brought with them, not cold, but a surging sense of vitality.  — Rosamunde Pilcher, The Shell Seekers

Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

Kabir, 1398-1448, mystic poet and saint of India

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Living poetically begins with a sense of connectedness — with God, with the soul-candles of other creatures, with the earth. The poetic life is not lived in isolation.

I have heard equally intelligent and thoughtful people say contradictory things about God — that there is nothing that is not God, or that God is very “Other.” It doesn’t seem to make much difference, though I used to fret about such things quite a lot. Now I simply try to keep it in mind to honor the sacred, wherever I encounter it, or it encounters me, as the case may be. Though I am absent-minded and daydreamy, I try to remember to notice things, to be alert for any messages the Universe is trying to send me.

The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

The Ritual of Baptism — Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis I, represented by the Master of Saint Gilles c. 1500

Rituals are important because they remind you to remember and to notice what you might otherwise take for granted, the way Mother’s Day prompts you to feel and to show gratitude to your mom. There is a calming, reassuring meditation on the site MyInnerWorld.com  that calls to your attention the ways in which you are not self-sufficient but that in which, rather, you and your needs are supported — by the earth, by the air that you need to breathe, by food and water when you are thirsty and hungry…. More on rituals in another lesson.

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Where the self leaves off and God begins is the subject of a great deal of poetry. Here are three such poems (the third poem appears in two translations):

 

ARE YOU LOOKING FOR ME

Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in stupas, not in Indian shrine rooms, nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals;
not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath inside the breath.

—Kabir, translated by American author and poet Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

Kabir was “a mystic poet and saint of India” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 21, 2008) whose life spanned the first half of the fifteenth century. Born into a Muslim family, Kabir became a student of Ramananda, a Hindu. But Kabir’s views defied sectarianism, and his appeal has remained universal.

According to Kabir, all life is an interplay of two spiritual principles. One is the personal soul (Jivatma) and the other is God (Paramatma). It is Kabir’s view that salvation is the process of bringing into union these two divine principles. — Wikipedia

Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

Robert Bly (b. 1926) in 2004

Of Kabir, Bly writes, “His metaphors act like a loose electric wire, or a two-by-four to the head. His contempt for those wishing to be saved by being good is endless…. In the shortest of his poems, he models the high-spiritedness that he thought is essential for the life we live on this earth.

“‘The buds are shouting:
”The Gardener is coming.
Today he picks the blossoms,
Tomorrow, us!’

“If we cannot recite that last line with joy, then we are probably too gloomy to take Kabir in. He wants us not to worry whether we live or die.”

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Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

Emily Dickinson 1830-1886

The brain is wider than the sky,
  For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
  With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
  For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
  As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
  For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
  As syllable from sound.

— Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson — though not as solitary and reclusive as she has often been described — lived nearly all her life in her parents’ home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is deceptively simple, rigorously disciplined into conventional forms packed with paradox and insight. The poem above is in common meter, with the rhyming pattern ABCB arranged into alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.

According to one analyst,

her subjects are often parts of the topography of her own psyche; she explores her own feelings with painstaking and often painful honesty but never loses sight of their universal poetic application; one of her greatest techniques is to write about the particulars of her own emotions in a kind of universal homiletic or adage-like tone (“After great pain, a formal feeling comes”) that seems to describe the reader’s mind as well as it does the poet’s.  —Sparknotes.com, accessed November 21, 2008

The Wikipedia article on Dickinson observes that the poet considered her own mind to be “‘an undiscovered continent’…. Academic Suzanne Juhasz considers that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places and that for much of her life she lived within them.”

Both of these analyses are fine, as far as they go, though the words topography and continent suggest a surface exploration. In my view, Dickinson was not so superficial; she mined her own psyche for jewels that shine in all human consciousness. 

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BUDDHA INSIDE THE LIGHT

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926

The core of every core, the kernel of every kernel
an almond! held in itself, deepening in sweetness:
all of this, everything, right up to the stars,
is the meat around your stone. Accept my bow.

Oh, yes, you feel it, how the weights on you are gone!
Your husk has reached into what has no end,
and that is where the great saps are brewing now.
On the outside a warmth is helping,

for, high, high above, your own suns are growing
immense and they glow as they wheel around.
Yet something has already started to live
in you that will live longer than the sun.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations

BUDDHA IN GLORY

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

—Rainer Marie Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who wrote in both German and French. Among the great twentieth-century poets, he is unusual in that his work is both accessible and hopeful, often joyous.

In his introduction to the Rilke translations in The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, Bly writes, “Rilke has for hundreds of readers been their first introduction to poetry that goes steeply and unapologetically up with the spirit…. Poetry doesn’t mean talking well, but being truly alive. Poetry is ‘a god breathing.’”

I have included the Mitchell translation because, unlike Bly, Mitchell tries to reproduce the original poem’s meter and rhyme as well as its meaning. Every poem is diluted somewhat in translation, of course, because meter, rhyme, rhetoric, and vocabulary are never independent of one another.

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Assignment 21.1 Where Is God?

  1. In each of these poems, the Divine is “placed” somewhere relative to the individual. Write a brief essay (a few hundred words) on the “location” of God as depicted in these works of Kabir, Dickinson, and Rilke.
  2. Write a twelve-line poem in common meter on the “location” of God relative to you. If you are uncomfortable with the name God, substitute Spirit or love or inspiration, or one of the other names of God.

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

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