How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 13
Chapter 4: Me, Myself, and I
Part 4: Growth and Self-Knowledge
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One of the first things I learned as a Buddhist was that the… mind is so vast that it completely transcends intellectual understanding…. The Buddha understood that experiences impossible to describe in words could best be explained through stories and metaphors. -Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living
What we truly are, objectively, is that unique essence that distinguishes us from one another. It equips us to reveal some special piece of cosmic truth to which the essential uniqueness of other individuals is less favorably attuned. But, in our alienation from essence, what we lack is the compellingly direct experience and cognition of the astounding fact that our body, in its entirety, is intelligence—Mind. –David S. Devor, “Intuition, Creativity, Mind & Matter,” http://www.projectmind.org/intuition.html, accessed September 3, 2008
A Work in Progress
We have already seen that it is impossible for me to know myself empirically, because
1. The self is never static (so my sense of self must be fluid).
2. I can’t be both Observer and Observee at the same time. To separate into Observer and Observee is to no longer be a unified, distinct self. (When I look into a mirror, I don’t see my self; I see a two-dimensional representation of my physical body.)
3. Since I can’t get outside myself, I must depend partially on what I believe to be others’ perceptions of me for my own self-knowledge. No two people perceive me in the same way. Obviously, I value some people’s opinions more than others’.
4. Parts of my psyche are floating around outside me, taking cover inside me, and latent, waiting to evolve when I am stretched and challenged.
Knowing oneself will always be a work in progress, but it is essential to keep at it if we are to have any peace, any joy, any sanity. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is just a tiny sample of the thousands of “know thyself” maxims that exist:
Jesus said…, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” —from the Gospel of Thomas
Through self-knowledge you begin to find out what is God, what is truth, what is that state which is timeless. Your teacher may pass on to you the knowledge which he received from his teacher, and you may do well in your examinations, get a degree and all the rest of it; but, without knowing yourself as you know your own face in the mirror, all other knowledge has very little meaning. Learned people who don’t know themselves are really unintelligent; they don’t know what thinking is, what life is. That is why it is important for the educator to be educated in the true sense of the word, which means that he must know the workings of his own mind and heart, see himself exactly as he is in the mirror of relationship. Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. In self-knowledge is the whole universe; it embraces all the struggles of humanity. -J. Krishanmurti
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of Mankind is Man. -Alexander Pope
I must first know myself…. To be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. -Plato
The high peak of knowledge is perfect self-knowledge. -Richard of Saint-Victor (1)
If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful…. -Aldous Huxley
How little do we know that which we are! How less what we may be! -Lord Byron
It is wisdom to know others; it is enlightenment to know oneself. -Lao-Tzu
- The best way of knowing the inwardness of our neighbor is to know ourselves. -Walter Lippmann
All men have the capacity of knowing themselves and acting with moderation. -Heraclitus
We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become. –Ursula K. Le Guin (2)
Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat. –Sun-Tzu
The most successful people are those who don’t have any illusions about who they are. They know themselves well and they can move in the direction of their best talents. -Bud Bray, quoted in Is It Too Late to Run Away and Join the Circus? (3)
Meditation… is the way to know the self that resides just below the surface, a surface that is usually choppy with likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, and judgments of all sorts. This amalgam of thought and emotion is who we think we are, but we are wrong. Who we are is far more interesting, exciting, and powerful than this. Who we are is fearless, joyful, and extremely kind. -Susan Piver (4)
You are not your thoughts and feelings
A working knowledge of myself is essential for day-to-day existence. I can, without understanding every facet of myself at every moment, have a pretty good idea of my strengths and my weaknesses. I can “be in touch with my feelings.” I can know my limitations and decide whether to tackle them or navigate around them. I can develop relationships with people I trust—people who will help me determine whether my perceptions are accurate or I am living in La-La-Land. I can avoid the traps that snare me if I get too close.
I can know what is not me. Teachers of meditation say, “Observe your thoughts and feelings, but know that you are not your thoughts and feelings.” My identity or self is not simply the sum of my roles: mother, sister, friend, writer, churchgoer, meditator, teacher, Anglo American, dancer, singer, and so forth. This is good news. If I identify too closely with any role, then, on the day I’m performing well, I like myself and I feel good, and on an off day I despise myself and I am miserable.
So where to begin?
Let’s go back to a few of the principles we established earlier:
Everybody wants to be happy.
Babies are born expecting happiness. At birth, their wants and their needs are virtually identical, but they (wants and needs) soon diverge.
As we interact with more and more people who are Not Us, we learn adaptive behaviors. Some are healthy, such as compromising without giving our selves away. Some are unhealthy, such as lying and manipulating for short-term gain.
We are often mistaken about what would make us happy. Learning what makes us genuinely and lastingly happy is called “maturing,” and it usually involves balancing our immediate wants and needs with our dreams, goals, and anticipated long-term needs. It’s the same kind of balancing you do when you’re in your thirties, say, and putting aside money for retirement, enough but not too much for present needs and generosity.
Happiness ≠ cake batter
When I was, oh, maybe four years old, my mother left a bowl of cake batter unattended on the kitchen counter while she took a long-distance phone call from her dad in Des Moines. Long-distance phone calls were a big deal back then. (5)
My mother should have known better. I loved nothing more than cake batter. I wanted to be happy. Surely eating some cake batter would make me happy.
I ate every atom of that cake batter. I was very ill afterward, plus I had to endure my mother’s anger and my father’s grave disappointment, which was even worse than being yelled at by Mom.
I had been given a lesson in enlightened self-interest, which often requires delaying gratification. These lessons are learned first-hand-by suffering the painful consequences of immature, uninformed decisions—as well as by watching others (older siblings, perhaps) suffer them and, less often than we might like, by listening, reading, and observing the world at large.
Learning about ourselves is a process of testing our inclinations—which must never be discounted—against their short- and long-term consequences. Creating (or co-creating) ourselves involves growing in the directions that (a) satisfy our inclinations—wants and needs—and (b) have acceptable short-term outcomes and beneficial long-term consequences.
Employers are finding that organizational success is more a matter of building on employees’ strengths rather than trying to improve their weaknesses. It’s about time. Unaccountably, American companies throughout the twentieth century typically promoted their strongest sales personnel into management, seemingly unaware that great salespeople are cut from different cloth than great managers.
The Gallup organization administers a comprehensive test of employee strengths, which are ranked from first to thirty-second. My opinion, which the Gallup folks unwisely didn’t ask for, is that what you get with a single assessment is more of a snapshot than a portrait. Even so, the employers I’ve talked to say it’s a great help in assembling work groups so that you have at least one Organizer, one Learner, one Bulldozer, (6) and one Creative Person, and not a bunch of Peacemakers who tiptoe around trying not to hurt each other’s feelings and don’t accomplish anything.
I agree that it’s important to know your limitations and not knock yourself out trying to excel in something that (a) you don’t particularly enjoy and (b) you’re not well equipped for. This is why I’ve never tried out for the NFL.
A. Becoming a Better Teacher? Yes
I have a lot of knowledge about and experience with writing, but at one time I was uncomfortable in front of an audience and I did a poor job conveying my knowledge. I chose to improve my public-speaking skills because I sensed that it would be tremendous fun to teach and that there were specific steps I could take to become good at it.
B. Becoming a Better Salesman? No
I have an aversion to selling. I’ve never been able to get past the feeling that I’m asking my prospect for a favor. I hated selling candy when I was a Camp Fire Girl, and I hated calling on prospective underwriters when I was the promotion director for a public-radio station. Try as I might, I can’t envision myself as an effective salesperson. It seems wiser on my part to let others do whatever selling is necessary in my business endeavors.
Vulnerabilities: How well do you learn from your mistakes?
Long ago I read a wonderful little bit of prose that I can’t locate today. With apologies to the author, it went something like this:
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I don’t see it. I fall in. It is not my fault.
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I pretend not to see it. I fall in.
I walk down the street. There is a hole in the street. I know it is there, and I try to walk around it. I fall in anyway.
I walk down a different street.
The “hole in the street” is, for example, a woman’s tendency to fall in love with men who are abusive, or needy, or dangerous. It might be a parent’s serial rescuing of an adult child who is profligate. (Dad to daughter: “Okay, I’ll lend you the money, but this is the last time.”)
Vulnerabilities are the areas in which you’re most likely to make mistakes that screw up your life; the things you do even though you know better; the way you respond when people push your hot buttons; the habit of using the same failed strategy over and over, expecting a different result.
Dr. Young, the psychiatrist who treated me so successfully in the nineteen-seventies, used to say, “Know your patterns.” My pathological “pattern,” at that time, was to “stuff” my anger and accept the blame for everything that went wrong. Many people err in the other direction: They don’t take responsibility for their mistakes and change their behavior accordingly; instead they look for someone or something else to blame. (Ideally, blame doesn’t enter the picture, and everyone focuses on what he or she can do to keep the problem from recurring.)
Vulnerabilities or patterns differ from weaknesses in that it’s not always necessary to fix your weaknesses. Having astigmatism or poor upper-body strength is a weakness. There are ways to compensate. Having asthma is a vulnerability. You can stay healthy (according to conventional western medicine) only by avoiding situations that are likely to bring on an asthma attack.
Choices create futures. Mistakes are possible only until they’re made. After that they’re the raw material of your future life. You can’t change a stupid decision, but you can use it as a basis for making smarter decisions in the future. And you can absolutely refuse to let guilt or regret drain your energy.
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. Leave the wound alone; it will heal, and the scab will fall off.
Lesson 13.1: Assignment
Exercise: Personal inventory
Without getting too technical or introspective, let’s inventory ourselves. I’ll go first.
1. Things I most enjoy: Mothering. Dancing. Writing poetry, songs, fiction, and nonfiction. Singing. Teaching. Meditating. Listening to classical music, especially the larger works of Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven, and Renaissance choral music. Reading in bed, with a particular fondness for female British writers, from Jane Austen to Dorothy L. Sayers to Rosamund Pilcher to Philippa Gregory, and for nonfiction about spirituality (the history of Judaism is a current passion), the English language and the development of language in general, quantum physics, and history. Going to small afternoon parties. Going to my grandchildren’s performances and sports events. Going to lunch and coffee with friends and family members. Collecting antiques. Gardening. Spending time at rural retreats.
Things you most enjoy:
2. Things I least enjoy: Shopping. Meetings. Making phone calls. Selling. Being in crowded places.
Things you least enjoy:
3. My talents, skills, strengths: Writing almost anything. Editing garbled prose for particular audiences. (I am especially good at working with inflated academic- and corporate-speak, making it clear and comprehensible yet still “dignified” in the eyes of the intended readers.) Public speaking. Teaching, when I don’t have to maintain order (I’m not scary enough).
Your talents, skills, strengths:
4. My weaknesses: I am inconsistent in following up on my great ideas. I am a mediocre manager of people (I always want to be friends). I am too sedentary and too easily distracted. I have trouble keeping my environment orderly. I am impossible at setting long-term goals.
5. My dreams and ambitions: To travel the U.S.A. in a mini-motorhome. To fly an ultralight. To live for months at a time in England, Scotland, and Wales. (William F. Buckley says he always writes his books in Switzerland. I want to always write my books in a cozy cottage in Scotland.) To write, publish, and sell lots and lots of books for children and adults about all the things I am interested in, especially if research for my books requires travel to distant places that are not cold. To live in the country.
Your dreams and ambitions:
6. My vulnerabilities: Codependency. Procrastination. A tendency to hibernate and then wonder why I’m lonely.
7. How I deal with my vulnerabilities: Codependency: I get professional help immediately when I feel myself being sucked into an unhealthy lopsided relationship. Procrastination: I’m better at keeping commitments to other people than at keeping commitments to myself, so I make myself accountable to someone else, often my sister, who I know will hold me to it. Hibernation: I have a group of friends who have a similar tendency to hole up, and if we don’t hear from each other at least every two weeks we do a head count. “Everybody okay?” We also have fixed times for social gatherings-birthdays and holidays, at least.
How you deal with your vulnerabilities:
Please e-mail your assignment to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. It will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.
1 I culled about half of these items from a list, published on the Internet, of quotes about self-knowledge. It seemed more efficient than reading all the books they represent. I’m always leery, however, of quoting a person I’ve never heard of. What if that person never existed? What if the compiler of the list just made up the quote and threw it in as a joke?
Richard of Saint-Victor, a Scot by birth, did exist. He was, according to Wikipedia, a “mystical theologian” and prior of the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris during the twelfth century.
2 Ursula K. Le Guin is a famous American fantasy writer – practically a household name, I’m told. Apparently my household got skipped.
3 I discovered next to nothing about Bud Bray, but I included his quote because it’s the kind of thing people are always saying in motivational speeches. It rings true and it gets people nodding in agreement.
4 How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, by Susan Piver (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007), p. 8
5 You never dialed long-distance phone calls yourself. You called the Operator and gave her the phone number you were calling. (All the Operators were women, and they sat on tall stools in front of huge switchboards with cords going everywhere.) You told her whether you wanted to call Person-to-Person or Station-to-Station, which was cheaper and which meant that you would talk to whoever answered the phone. Either way, after you made your request you hung up the phone and waited for the Operator to call you back. It might be a few minutes, or it might be hours, especially if you were calling Person-to-Person for Mr. Applebottom, who was an Important Executive involved in Important Meetings. But the Operator kept at it, and eventually the phone would ring and it would be the Operator saying she had your Party on the line.
6 Not all these terms are the official Gallup designations.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 4
Chapter 2, Part 1: Why We Need Poetry
This is important: All moments of meaning
in our lives are moments of the heart. —Anonymous
[At a ] Mind and Life Institute conference… at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2003, … Eric S. Lander, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology at MIT and the director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, pointed out that while Buddhist practices emphasize attaining increased levels of mental awareness, the focus of modern science has rested on refining ways to restore mentally ill patients to a state of normalcy…. “Why stop there?” he asked the audience. “Why are we satisfied with saying we’re not mentally ill? Why not focus on getting better and better?” —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living *
Art is always involved in events and circumstances that have significance and meaning. Arthur C. Danto, from Columbia University (by no means either a conservative or a Christian) said, “Art is getting across indefinable, but inescapable meaning.” This is a helpful definition, because he is saying that if in your art you are getting your meaning across in a way that is too definable, it is really preaching rather than art. Of course preaching itself can be an art form, but it is an art form that is and should remain distinct from the other arts. Art has to have a place for the observer to explore and wrestle with the message. If the meaning of a work is apparent, allowing the audience with little effort to say, “of course, that is what it means” and if the message can be simply stated in one sentence, the work is not art. You may have heard the famous statement by a dancer who was asked, “What did the dance mean?” She responded, “If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it.” According to Danto, if an artist can enunciate the message in his work, perhaps saying, “Oh, that is Mary rocking the baby and putting him in the manger,” then the work is not good art. Art has to be, in some sense, indefinable—but in another sense absolutely inescapable. What we say and do means something. We are not just chemicals. That is why we must have artists. Artists are people who know that, in spite of what we are told by our culture, everything is part of some bigger reality. [p. 118] —Ransom Fellowship, accessed March 12, 2009
If I could have said it, I wouldn’t have had to dance it
Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody wants Good Feelings. We are spiritual beings whose natural attributes are joy and peace. Our native habitat is the Here and Now, and life is “a parade of odd and wonderful events.” **
It’s that simple, really it is. So why do we need prenuptial agreements, social workers, car alarms, and the like?
Babies are born expecting happiness. Insisting upon it. “I am hungry,” they wail. “This is unacceptable. It is not a Good Feeling.” Their wants and needs are identical.
Newborn babies broadcast their dissatisfaction to the world at large. They don’t know who or what is going to take care of the problem, but, by God, they are not going to suffer in silence. ***
Before long, they perceive that it is not the world at large that responds to their demonstrations of discomfort but rather that every meal has a pleasing similarity and comes with a bonus: warmth and softness, swaying, and other lovely sensations. Soon they discover that the warmth and softness are attached to Something — the same Something that comes to the rescue when they, the babies, are cold or when another, smaller Something has dropped a Tonka truck onto them when they were just lying there cooing and watching dust motes cavort in a shaft of sunlight. The larger Something has the power to ease their pain and restore their little psyches to equilibrium.
Eventually, babies learn that they don’t have to let out all the stops when their tummies are empty. A little less effort with a little more focus achieves the desired result. They sense that a partnership has begun with the meal-providing-Tonka-truck-removing Something, and they find even her presence reassuring. Sometimes they make hungry noises when they’re not hungry, just for the warm, soft swaying. Their wants and needs are becoming differentiated.
Once they know the routine, they are at liberty to look around, wondering if there’s anything more to life. Wow, is there ever! It’s a veritable parade of odd and wonderful events. In no time at all, their world consists of not merely needs and wants but Extras—discoveries, surprises, sometimes unpleasant (like this afternoon’s chickenpox inoculation) but more often delightful.
There’s that pink glow in the morning, for instance. Patiently — they don’t have any pressing engagements — they watch the pearly light move across the wall, brighter, warmer and — oh, wow — suddenly it’s yellow, and it paints the teddy bears and the striped wallpaper and it moves toward the bed and brushes the tiny toes with yellow warmth, and the babies talk to it, and it talks back. They speak the same Language. They chat like old friends.
The mamas and the daddies, who are in the next room, smile and listen to the delighted cooing and burbling. The long-forgotten primal Language stirs a joy that had become almost dormant, and they relax into it as if it were a featherbed. For them, too, time stands still, and if they do have pressing engagements, these are trivial next to the conversation of sunlight and innocence.
For many stay-at-home mothers, these are golden days, and gone too soon.**** In my own experience, there has been no more blessed time than the early months of parenthood… feeling the physical and emotional surge of pleasure when breastfeeding… having the almost godlike ability to supply everything the baby needs and more besides… bathing and powdering and dressing the baby in clean, soft clothes… covering her with a light blanket when it’s warm or enclosing her in a sturdy sleeper if it’s chilly… placing her cradle near a window so she can watch the sunlight dance among the petunias in the window box and ruffle the eucalyptus leaves on the big tree in the backyard… arranging my life so that there is nothing clamoring for my time besides caring for the baby, tidying up the house, and preparing dinner for the rest of the family.
There is a transient sense of power, especially with the first baby. I felt that her father and I would be able to keep her safe throughout her childhood, though I knew we could not, and should not, always shield her from disappointment.
And so, for a few months, the baby is the center of the universe. Her demands are met almost instantaneously.
If I am the baby, feeling the warm sunlight on my toes and listening to my mother hum as she folds my diapers (I am a baby who was born when mothers still laundered diapers), I am thinking that life is pretty sweet, and I smile and laugh a lot, and everybody else smiles and laughs when I do.
I have noticed, however, that when I am hungry in the dark of night, my mother is less and less cheerful and accommodating. Then comes the time when I wake up and cry, signaling that I am hungry, or perhaps just lonely, and my mother comes in and holds me for a minute and talks to me and maybe even gives me a little water, but she doesn’t feed me. She goes away, and I cry for a while, but she doesn’t come back. So I wear myself out crying, and I go back to sleep, and soon I don’t wake up at night any more.
Oh, wow! I can move! My bear is over there, and I am over here, but if I wiggle and squirm a certain way, I can get over there. There are other things over there, too, shiny things, and I reach for them, and my mother says, “No!” in a Different Voice. And for the first time I am thwarted.
As time goes on, it becomes more and more obvious that I cannot always have what I want, but I’m not sure why. Apparently other people have wants and needs too. I am playing with other toddlers, and one of them, Ethan, has a bear sort of like mine, and I try to take it but Ethan holds it tight. I want it, Ethan has it, so as night follows day, I bite him. Everyone speaks crossly to me and makes a big fuss over Ethan. I am not the center of the universe any more.
This is where parenthood gets tricky. How do you find the balance between giving your child freedom to explore and keeping him from hurting himself or someone else? How do you convey that his wants and desires are important and at the same time teach him to compromise or negotiate with people whose wants and desires conflict with his? How can you help him learn that it is in his long-term interest to suffer disappointments, failures, separations from his parents—delayed gratification, in short—when (a) he has no clear concept of the future, and (b) you’re still learning those lessons yourself?
Most parents accomplish all this, more or less clumsily, because their biological and emotional need to protect is at war with the imperative of allowing independence and teaching self-reliance. Ideally, they do it in baby steps, so to speak, letting out the leash slowly and gradually. Sometimes the lessons are sudden and brutal, imposed by crisis.
It’s comparatively easy for a child to learn to function within the nuclear family—the home team, as it were. If there’s only one ice-cream cup in the freezer, and both little Rupert and little Helga want the ice-cream cup, Daddy is not going to run out and buy another ice-cream cup. Rupert and Helga each get half, or Rupert gets the ice-cream cup and Helga gets the Popsicle, or some other arrangement is made that is not completely satisfactory but is better than nothing.
As the child’s comfort zone expands—she goes to play group, to school, to church, to the park, and to the supermarket—she has to adapt her expectations to ever-more-conflicting wants. The way her elders deal with these conflicts determines, in part, how much of her essential self she will surrender. Well-meaning but misguided Sunday-school teachers might convey to her that she must always consider the wants and needs of other people before her own. Since other people have unending and urgent wants and needs, she might conclude that hers are of no value.
Ideally, however, she will learn that she has God-given abilities that are pleasing to her and that meet a particular need of her universe—that she is here for a reason, and that in discovering that reason she will give and receive more joy than she knew the universe could hold.
*Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living. Harmony Books (New York) 2007. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. The author, a renowned Buddhist teacher, has, “with an infectious joy and insatiable curiosity,” integrated “the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, neuroscience, and quantum physics” (per the dust jacket) in friendly, affirmative prose. The Joy of Living is a delightful, uplifting read and a demystifying guide to meditation.
***This is so whether the baby is born into a refugee camp, a brothel, or a middle-class family desperate for a baby to love. Though it is hardly universally the case, for purposes of this discussion our baby will be one for whom the basic physical and emotional necessities are available.
****This might be true for fathers, too, though the daddies of my experience have always been in a hurry for the babies to get big enough to play Bonk (the introductory version of Catch) and climb in tree forts.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 2. Preface (part 2)
April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that makes you feel earthy somehow. By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete — rose or jasmine, diesel fumes, steaks cooking over mesquite — nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the height of its blooming glory.
Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance and a margarita on the rocks with a solid inch of salt. I have a class to go to. Nor am I drawn to this class by a Hunger for Learning but rather by the need to fulfill a continuing-ed requirement.
I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west — always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, as if somewhere in those backlit hills the Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, if you can find the spot — before I lock my car and enter the windowless building, following the unmistakable pre-evening-class buzz of desultory conversation and languid laughter.
There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor calls us to attention we just plop down on the carpeted floor.
The instructor, whose name is Sheila, is blond, young, compact, and soft-spoken. Her confident, intelligent energy captures my attention as she works her way back to my corner of the room handing out single sheets of paper.
In the years to come I will wish I had kept that paper, though it contains only four or five lines of instructions for our first “exercise.” With little introduction and no fanfare, Sheila explains what we are to do, summarizing the written instructions.
First, we have to “find a partner — someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I am chatting with a woman named Pat, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow “might as well” look that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.
Normally the words “find a partner” unleash all my latent insecurities. I am back in third-grade gym class trying to be invisible rather than unchosen. To this day I am good-humored and gregarious until an authority figure says “find a partner.” Instantly my hair turns into hideous, writhing spines, the freckles on my nose into warts. My breath is redolent with every onion I have ever eaten. Small spots on my clothes spread and merge into one giant puke stain. Suddenly I need something out of my purse — something small and hard to find, maybe a Chiclet, a nitroglycerine tablet, a microdot — something buried so deep I have to submerge my head and torso to find it.
Tonight I have dodged the find-a-partner bullet. I can relax. Which happens to be the next instruction — to relax, via a mercifully no-nonsense meditation led by Sheila. I’ve undergone guided meditations so drawn out it would have been more efficient to go to the actual ocean and be calmed by the lapping of the actual waves. These exercises were generally led by women with low, crooning, hypnotic voices.
Sheila is no crooner. Her voice doesn’t go all soft and mystical (like Galadriel’s, you know, in The Lord of the Rings, when she is mesmerized by the One Ring that Frodo carries, right before she lights up like Las Vegas and morphs into Oz-the-Great-and-Terrible on steroids). Sheila suggests, in her cheery everyday voice, that we lean back and get comfortable, before she remembers that we are sitting on the floor with nothing to lean back on.
“Okay,” she amends, “just get as comfortable as you can. Relax your shoulders.” We do a few neck stretches, close our eyes, breathe deeply and rhythmically for about thirty seconds, and ultimately achieve a state of relaxation that is about what you’d expect in a room full of sweaty strangers sitting on the floor in business attire.
Seven words with the force of a Light Saber
It is time to begin the exercise. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: One of us (Student A) is to hold in her mind an image of a person she knows. My partner, Pat, has volunteered to be Student A. She is allowed to tell me only three things about “her person”: gender, age, and location. Pat’s person is a forty-two-year-old man in Tucson.
My job (as Student B) is to describe that person — through, I am guessing, some kind of mystical connection Pat and I have formed by sitting a few inches apart and being in a receptive state of deep relaxation. I am supposed to divine his appearance, his surroundings, his appurtenances, whatever occurs to me.
“You’ll feel like you’re making it up,” Sheila cautions. “Don’t wait for a flash of inspiration. Just say whatever comes into your mind. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll be wrong. You’ll get over it.”
You’ll feel like you’re making it up. Seven words with the force of a Light Saber. One sentence to validate a lifetime of intuition.
The man with two red dogs
According to the rules, Pat can ask me only “neutral” questions (“Where is he standing?” “What do you see behind him?” “Is there anything next to him? What is it?”) and affirm or negate my statements. She can’t say stuff like “No, but that’s close” or “You’re getting warmer.” She can’t ask leading questions, either (“So, is he sitting in the white gazebo, or is he cleaning out the garage?”).
I take a deep breath, try to locate my Third Eye, feel a small flutter of anxiety, and then plunge in… and nail it, right from the get-go. Pat’s “forty-two-year-old man in Tucson” is unusually fair-skinned, I announce with authority, about five-foot-ten, has very dark hair but not much of it; he is bald on top, but not on the sides or in back. A thin strip of shiny baldness is covered with, oh, nine or ten strands of dark hair — a comb-over, but a tasteful one as comb-overs go.
I glance at Pat for verification, but I don’t really need it; I can see the guy. She asks where he is, what his surroundings are. I tell her that he is standing in front of a house in the foothills, a long, low, dark-green house that faces north toward the Catalina Mountains. He is beside the front door, a few feet from a curved gravel driveway lined with barrel cacti. He looks serious and intense — like a person who spends most of his time solving important equations in order to pinpoint the precise moment of the Big Bang. I chatter on, now almost oblivious to Pat until, out of the corner of my eye, I see that her face has gone three or four shades paler, a common side effect of forgetting to breathe.
“Do you see anything else?” she whispers.
“Dogs,” I answer promptly. “Two dogs. Two red dogs.”
I have unerringly and meticulously described Pat’s ex-husband, his hair, his house, his two Irish setters, even his profession. It occurs to me that she might be knocking on his door later that evening, asking if she can count the hairs in his comb-over.
The room goes from quiet to unruly as if someone has rung the dismissal bell. Everybody starts talking at once in giddy, high-pitched voices that remind me of the girls’ bathroom at Central High School on the day of the prom.
Gone are the glazed eyes, the jaded expressions and work-weary faces I saw when I entered the class. Now the room is filled with childlike awe and a hundred stories to tell, each more astonishing than the one before. A man called Biff has apparently decided he’s some kind of sorcerer. As Student B, he explains, he described his partner’s (Student A’s) father’s Indiana farmhouse so precisely that he “saw” the weathered pine step—a replacement that never got painted—on the white stairway leading from the back porch to the “truck garden.”
The stories keep coming. Sheila is impressed, in her low-key way, but hardly overwhelmed, as the rest of us are. Apparently this stuff happens all the time in her classes.
“You’re not ‘mind-reading,’” she tells us. “You’ve just dipped your toes into what is sometimes called ‘shared consciousness.’ The only purpose of this exercise is for you to see how much power you have that you didn’t know you had.” Then she starts handing out a syllabus about the difference between Management and Leadership.
Rats. I have been hoping for more adventures in the paranormal. We all have. If Sheila were to announce, “Okay, now we’re going to levitate naked,” everybody would say, “Oh, boy! Yeah, let’s levitate,” and start throwing off their business attire.
Someone, probably being whimsical but also not wanting the magic to end, starts to sing: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore…” and the rest of the class joins in, the men as heartily as the women.
When amazing things happen in my life, the more time passes the more unreal they seem, until I wonder if I dreamed them. Like when I escorted Alexander Kerensky (who overthrew Czar Nicholas in 1917) from his residence across the street to my college dorm, holding my umbrella over his head so he wouldn’t get soaked; like when I learned that the man sitting next to me at dinner was the composer Aaron Copland and I tried to sing the soprano part to his song “Las Agachadas” with a mouth full of broccoli; like when I shared an elevator with Margaret Truman, or when, early in Ravi Shankar’s career, I went to see him “in concert” in a dorm lounge with about ten other people…. I’ll be telling one of those stories and I’ll think, “Did I make that up?”
But I’ve never for a minute doubted what happened in that classroom full of novice swimmers in the Great Sea of Cosmic Awareness — that was the genuine article. That was the real deal.
Learn to Speak Your Mind Through Poetry
The next 40-plus posts in this blog comprise an online course in contemplative poetry, How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically.
PLEASE NOTE: The free-evaluation period for this course has ended. The readings, lessons, and assignments will remain public for a time, but for professional instruction, feedback, and assessment; publication in course journal; and Certificate in Contemplative Poetry, you’ll need to pay full tuition, which is $840 for one year.
TO ENROLL: Please e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net with the following information:
- Include your name, phone number, and e-mail address (if different from that from which your message originates).
- Indicate your payment preference: Single payment of $840 or two payments of $420 each (the second payment will be due 60 days after start of course).
- Optional: What does the phrase “living poetically” mean to you? Include your answer in the body of this e-mail.
- Please put POETRY in the subject line unless you have received the course as a gift, in which case please put POETRY SCHOLARSHIP in the subject line.
You will receive an invoice (or confirmation, if scholarship) within a few days. Instructions will follow upon receipt of your payment. Course graduates will receive a CERTIFICATE IN CONTEMPLATIVE POETRY.
About the Course
The course — How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically — is more than a traditional poetry-writing course. It is designed to teach you to explore and express the subconscious mind through poetry. The structure and conventions of poetry create a safe context and a narrow channel for expression, so that revelations from the deep within don’t flood and overwhelm your awareness.
You’ll also learn how writing poetry can expand and color your perspective — extremely useful when events or circumstances seem overwhelming, exceptionally confusing, bleak, or threatening. You might call it “putting a good spin on a tough time,” but that implies something superficial, like using makeup in different shades to call attention to high cheekbones and away from too prominent a chin. When by writing poetry you cast a different light on a situation, the expression is organic. “Life” and the poetic cast you throw upon it merge, as in a chemical reaction: two substances combine to form a different substance altogether. A few paragraphs down you’ll find an example (“Altars”) from my own embracing of a living situation that seemed, on the surface, rather grim.
I will explain “living poetically” in greater detail as we go along, though I would be interested in hearing what the phrase conveys to you. (See “Enrollment Information,” above. Right now I’ll just say that “living poetically” is a good thing that involves serenity and well-being, achieved in part through the discipline of writing poetry as a form of meditation.)
The introductory lessons describe the goals and define the terms used in this course, all in a way you should find interesting and thought-provoking.
After the introductory sections, there will be regular assignments. These will be fun and revealing. Besides learning about poets and poetry, you’ll investigate topics including the English language, the arts in general, the emotions, meditation and the self.
At the conclusion of the course, I will compile some of the poetry received from you and other students—the best poems, or those that best represent the course objectives—into an e-book, which all participants may download for free.
Today’s installment is the first part of the preface. It describes a period in my own life that was particularly poetic—not because of any conscious effort on my part, but because I had unknowingly slipped into a benign rhythm, like finding oneself on a riverboat and being carried by a current that happens to be going in the right direction.
If I were going to live here—and to all
appearances I was, the heap of luggage at my
feet attesting to the fact—then there would
need to be a very lot of plants, I thought. In
my experience, a few lush, hardy pothos were
the ticket: instant ambience and simple
propagation—cuttings in a jar of water,
nothing to it. Pothos thrive that way,
requiring hardly any light and not a bit of
fuss. I set them side by side or cluster them in
corners. Right away they are the best of
friends. You see it in the sweet (and shy at the
beginning) twining of their stems. They show
up better, too, in bunches. Shiny leaves and
sturdy, twisty vines attract the eye and give a
timid space vitality… so easy, with this
simple show of domesticity, to stake a claim:
This is my place.
I spot a well-placed window and I feel like it’s
my birthday. Every home must have a few, to
ward off melancholy. Dark moods brighten in
the company of pots of jaunty herbs along the
narrow boundary between inside and out,
especially—not that it’s necessary, strictly
speaking, but appealing, and salubrious as well—
if I can hang a pair of devil’s ivy (pothos by another
name) directly overhead and don’t forget to dust
the leaves with regularity. It’s not that they object to
getting grimy now and then, however. If their soil is
overdry they droop pathetically. Hydration brings them
back before your eyes. They show their gratitude so
energetically you’ll want to put them on a leash. For
little more than water the reward is foliage, thick and
shining like my mama’s kitchen floor. They’re given
every window with an east exposure, and I spend
my first few waking minutes with them as
they come to life again.
Note the very moment when the first rays
brush the leaves, the way a mother strokes her
baby’s face… and let the moment be a regular
appointment so you don’t forget to stop and sit
and watch habitually, in awe of what you’re
witnessing, the sacred intimacy of it.
Try not to think too much about the
photosynthesis that’s happening. It
fascinates, but this is an exchange of
love between the earth and sky you’re
looking on, and the display is brief… a
micro-dawn, a breath of prayer, a song
of praise (Where is it coming from? It
isn’t you? It must be me), and one can
scarcely help but worship then the Power
that upon the first encounter stirred a
need to turn a plain green growing
thing into a kind of altar.
Of an evening, passing through, a spirit
likes to pause at such a place of holiness
and whimsy, drawing in another lively one
or two, apparently attracted by the microscopic
movements you and I, preoccupied,neglected to
observe. Now you have company, a cozy few, who
somehow sensed that you were disinclined to be
alone just then, and they were every bit as pleased
as you and I to find that what we started with our
ivied accidental altar had, without our necessarily
intending it, or even giving it much thought—
although we wanted it; what’s not to want? But,
you see, we didn’t know how near it was—had
of its own volition taken root and grown. Now
look at us. By water, grace, and alchemy,
we’re here. We’re home.
—by Mary Campbell
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
E-Course Lesson 1. Preface (part 1)
How Can I Keep from Singing?
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
—Robert Wadsworth Lowry, 1860, based on a traditional Quaker hymn
APRIL 1990. The sky is a deep, unbroken blue from horizon to horizon. Even at noon, the desert sun is gentle, gathering strength for the brutal summer.
You are rattling gleefully down the freeway toward Mexico in the most marvelous vehicle you have ever owned. It is a 1983 Chinook: a teeny-tiny house on wheels. You’ve got your built-in icebox, got your sink, got your two-burner propane stove. There’s a little dining booth that unfolds into a double bed, and there’s another, smaller bed above the front seats; there are closets and cupboards and a Porta-Potty. You have upholstered the benches in brown-red-yellow calico and made cute little curtains to match. This is a traveling cottage for women and children. Grown men who are uneasy with calico and cute little curtains can drive their phallic Corvettes or their ATVs.
Though aerodynamically challenged — basically a fiberglass box on a Toyota chassis with a four-cylinder engine — the Chinook gets twenty miles to a gallon of gas in town, twenty-five on the highway.
You are bound for Puerto Peñasco, a five-hour drive to paradise, where you can lounge on the playa and comprar trinkets you don’t need, just to hear yourself hablar español badly: “¿Quantos dólares para esta dije, por favor?”
The windows of your little Chinook are wide open so that the Whole World can hear you and your two sons, ages nine and ten, lustily singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho,” although you are the only one not faking at least half the words, and the Whole World is making way too much noise anyway.
You’re on the “Nine Bright Shiners” and suddenly you are soloing. Your chorus has gone silent, with the “Ten Commandments,” the “Eleven Who Went to Heaven,” and the “Twelve Apostles” still unsung.
“…and eight for the April Rainers. Seven for the Seven Stars in the Sky and six for the Six Proud Walkers.* Five for the Symbols at Your Door and four for the—”
“…Gospel Makers. Three, three, the Rivals, I’ll sing you two, two, the Lily-White Boys, clo-thed all—”
“MOM! What are the ‘Symbols at Your Door’?”
The back seat, obviously, has undergone a mood shift. Lusty Singing Mood has given way to Pensive Mood. Now there will be questions… familiar questions… deep, philosophical questions arranged around familiar themes:
The What-Would-You-Do-for-a-Million-Dollars Theme
“Mom, would you eat Clarence’s poop for a million dollars?” (If you could, you would, but you gag just thinking about it.)
“Mom, would you run naked through Disneyland for a million dollars?” (You bet. In a heartbeat.)
“Mom, if you knew that Jack and I would be happy and have wonderful parents who loved us and took good care of us, would you sell us for a million dollars?” (Nah.) “A billion dollars?” (Nope. Not for all the money in the world.)
The What’s-It-All-About Theme
“Mom, is it true that we’re not really real, we’re just part of somebody’s dream?” (You’re pretty real to me, Kiddo.)
“No, really, Mom, how do we know we’re real?”
Children are such a blessing. You get to hand off the great existential questions. The next generation is allowed to ponder the nature of reality, freeing you to ponder how Eli’s teacher, Mrs. Rodriguez, intends to “curb his spontaneity.” You wonder if electrodes will be involved.
Reality is macaroni and cheese with raisins. Reality is seeing a small boy in a small boat bobbing in the distance, in the Gulf of California, being carried by the wind and tide toward China; feeling your heart lurch when you realize that he is your small boy and he doesn’t know anyone in China; begging a man in a uniform for help when all the Spanish you know involves buying trinkets and “una cerveza, por favor” and something about volatil in an aeroplano to Los Estados Unidos to visitar your Tia Yolanda.
Reality is single parenting, reading aloud for hours before bed, the water bill, the gas bill, Mexican food and margaritas on the beach, a broken arm, a flat tire, a helpful friend, a new bike, tousled heads on damp pillows when the house is quiet and outside a lone nightingale mimics an entire tropical forest.
Reality is rhythmic, a poem punctuated by surprises, a dance, now whirling, now gliding, now stumbling, regaining one’s footing, getting a little dizzy, looking around, and being reassured that one is where one needs to be, for now.