The editors of Verse of April, Volume II asked writers to choose a modern poet and write a tribute to them, including a poem in their honor. My poem Muelama: To Naomi Shihab Nye was chosen for inclusion in this unique anthology.
I first discovered Naomi Shihab Nye within the pages of the Poetry Archive of the On Being Project. She is a Palestinian/American poet who sees across borders and embraces our differences….whether cultural, religious, linguistic or physical. I feel she is a needed voice for our times. Humbly, I call her muelama, or teacher in Arabic.
In February, I was named as the first Poet Laureate of my little Connecticut town. And wow….it’s been like a word bath! This is a two year gig and I’m learning so much. There are about thirty towns in my state with Poets Laureate (notice that you’re not supposed to say Poet Laureates, but rather Poets Laureate! – that’s just one of the things I’ve learned!). And there’s a Coalition of Laureates. (it’s okay to use the plural here because you’re using laureate as a noun, and not an adjective!)
Right now, one of my goals is to enjoy the hoopla of National Poetry Month.
In addition to live readings, I’ve recorded a poem to be shared on the website of the Gyroscope Review http://www.gyroscopereview.com Listen every day during April for some great poetry. One of my poems will be featured on April 21st.
Hamilton Stone Review just published my little poem “Big Girls’ Bunk”. You can read it here. The Hamilton Stone Review #46 Maybe it will resonate with some of you if you’ve ever been skipped a grade, or been assigned to the wrong group at camp.
I'll try to clean up before I go
although I don't yet know when I'll be going,
for the sun still hangs in the sky,
a bit pale, diluted now, but still it's the sun I've always known.
Who can tell how long the light will last, or when I should start
peeling off possessions, lugging boxes to the curb,
giving away the black silk skirt made out of Dior scraps
which belonged to that French friend whose aunt once worked for thefamous
couturier. She'd sneak cuttings home at night to stitch into new beauty
which I didn't wear often enough, and yet I don't want to leave it
for the grown children to stuff into a plastic bag, cursing the heavy
dull weight of loss, of my leavings,
of Broadway Playbills kept in order, rusted lids and canning jars,
Let's not even mention the books no one wants
with their crepuscular bindings, their thin pages cracked like egg shells.
I'll try to get rid of them before I go
for I know that no one will ever read
Anna Karenina the way I did, happily ensconced
on a window seat, sixteen years old and home with a head cold,
Mother pouring tisane into a cup and handing it to me, while the December
rays eased their way across the floorboards
and the days, though short, were growing longer,
and I still had chapters left to read.
My latest essay ”On the Shelf” describes my experiences in Greenland (prior to the Covid pandemic). It’s a reflection on climate change, personal aging, and maybe a little bit more. I am delighted that it was chosen for the inaugural issue of the literary journal Adventures in Ideas.
I love the premise of this beautifully composed publication. As the editors say:
“Because travel is as much an intellectual affair as it is a physical one, we believe that travel writing is most enriching when it engages with the world of ideas.”
I often teach students about creating “found” poetry, although I rarely practice that art myself. But when the literary review Herontree set forth an unusual challenge, I was tempted to try my hand. They asked poets to write a poem based solely on the words and phrases from a 1905 publication entitled “How to Keep Bees” by Anna Botsford Comstock. I’m pleased that the editors chose my work “Fidelity in a Bed of Pinks” for Volume 8. Click the link below to read about the process of “finding a poem”. Within this link is another link to the poem itself.
When had I been here before? At first, I didn’t know. I was three months into Covid isolation and restrictions when I realized that something about this “new” confined lifestyle felt strangely familiar. Here I was, living a repetitive, circumscribed life, far away from structured entertainment, far away from shopping centers, far away from friends and family. And yet, it seemed oddly “déjà vu”.
And then it struck me. I was a pilgrim again. A spiritual seeker on a journey. Only this time I wasn’t wandering along the 1200 kilometer route of the 88 Temples in Shikoku, Japan or crossing France and Spain to arrive in Fisterra. I was taking small daily steps, along with thousands of other human beings, on an unknown trail through a pandemic.
In the last couple of years, I’ve had the good fortune of doing several “holy” pilgrimages: usually traditional routes for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, or even Unitarians. My quest is not specifically religious, but always spiritual. Walking alone day after day changes the mind and the spirit. Sometimes I’m gone for two months at a stretch. Sometimes I’ll just set out on a purposeful walk of a few days, to pay homage to a special place or people, while I’m working or traveling abroad. The Living Root Bridges in India, for instance, or the dolmens and menhirs of Brittany. This kind of activity necessitates a voluntary isolation, a suspended state. It’s not life or tourism as we usually know it. The pilgrimage experience is not “normal”.
On pilgrimage, I don’t go into crowded supermarkets or noisy restaurants. I buy fruit, dried fish, cheese, whatever the local markets sell. Or I eat quietly with monks, or nuns, or in the corner of a small café. I don’t run errands or plan parties or go to the gas station. I don’t commute anywhere. I don’t attend concerts or theater or go to the cinema. Instead, as I walk, I sing to myself, and write screenplays in my mind. I am far away from family and friends, but I think about them all the time, maybe more intensely than when I am with them in person, and with greater perspective. I ache to hold the grandchildren. I write them poems and letters and sketch their faces from memory. On pilgrimage, I never know what’s around the next corner, but I can feel a certain openness in my heart, a certain acceptance of mystery. I’m far away from home, and vulnerable, but I’m relaxed, grateful, alive. I don’t think about the end of the road. Everything is in slow motion. I’m pretty much in the here and now, noticing more beauty and feeling more awe than I usually do.
And that’s how it’s been for me during the past year of the Covid pandemic.
Am I in an idealized state? Hardly. My newsfeed insures that I am constantly aware of the pain and loss, which hangs heavy over this planet. I understand too well that my grandchildren have missed over a year of school, that one of my sons has lost his livelihood and source of income (he’s a choral conductor and singing is considered a super-spreader). I’ve known, personally, at least five bereaved families who couldn’t hold an in-person funeral for their loved ones. I’ve read about the hundreds of thousands of others who have suffered in the same way. During this time, two of my close friends died from non-Covid causes. Their passing was eerie, unreal, and disturbing, as I sat weeping for them in front of my computer screen.
But I’m not unaware of the blessings of this isolation either.
When you are walking along by yourself, carrying all your possessions on your back, the smallest daily rituals become your entire universe. Packing your pocket knife in the same spot every morning; washing out one of your two pairs of underwear, keeping a journal of the day’s observations, saying words of gratitude. It’s not a big world. It’s a world reduced to the same few gestures performed over and over.
In many ways, my life during Covid consists of that same concentration of small rituals.
Each day, after a morning walk in the neighborhood, I start preparations for a mid-day dinner. I grew up with that European-style eating pattern, but I’d never been able to replicate the habit as an adult. I always had to leave early in the morning to go to work, returning home at night, tired and rushed. But during the Covid confinement, I’ve found it easy to begin preparing dinner first thing in the morning, since I’m teaching from home. My husband and I can smell bread baking or a spicy lentil soup bubbling on the stove while we pursue our respective online work and leisure activities. We enjoy the mid-day meal and seem to clean up with little effort. It’s barely one o’clock and I’m still relaxed, calm, refreshed. The ritual is comforting.
During a pilgrimage, you reduce the width of your field of vision, but you increase its depth. You’re not whizzing by on a bullet train. You’re putting one foot in front of the other. You start noticing how the trunks of bamboo trees make a whooshing sound in the wind, how the steps up to Japanese temples sit at an angle to the foot, how raisins return to the shape of grapes when they’ve been squished in the bottom of your rucksack. Everything seems precious on a pilgrimage. Nothing is taken for granted. Not the bread you’re holding in your hand, not the bed you’re lucky enough to be sleeping in for the night. Especially not the people who help you along the way.
During my Covid isolation, I have felt the preciousness of my house, my yard, my neighborhood, my friends and my family. And I appreciate little aspects of my life, which I am not sure I even thought about before.
I think I even appreciate groceries in a different way. I am not a fan of those “mega” supermarkets, where the milk aisle is located three city blocks from the vegetable aisle, and where atmospheric pop songs accompany your every move. I used to think of grocery shopping as a burden. I’d do it kind of mindlessly and I hated lugging the stuff home. But at the outset of the pandemic, I began to order grocery store items online. Now when my groceries arrive, I’m totally appreciative. I’m grateful to the people who have shopped and packed the items for me. I look forward to delivery day. I also found a service that brings, right to my door, a wide variety of imperfect, misshapen fresh produce, which would otherwise go to waste. There’s even a service which brings me grains, lentils, flaxseed, and such. I spend less money than if I were impulse buying at the health food store and meal planning is a more disciplined process. Plus I get to open the boxes. It’s like receiving a present!
I’ve always loved my little house, but during the Covid isolation, I’ve started looking at my dwelling and its ordinary yard with different eyes. There’s a narrow brook (really a drainage ditch) behind the house. I’ve lived here for four decades, but I’ve never paid much attention to the ditch before. It’s never overflowed, never given me trouble. It’s just there. But during this pandemic time, I’m home all the time. I find myself looking out the window at the brook. I watch it fill and swell and ice over and dry up and turn to mud and fill again. It has become my thermometer. If it’s frozen, I know I’d better wear my hat and gloves on my morning walk. If it’s flowing, I can just go out in a windbreaker.
I’m paying attention to so many little things, just as I do on a pilgrimage. My neighborhood is home to owls. Who knew? Since I’m not rushing through my morning walk in order to jump in the car and go somewhere, I can look up and about and spy on the sleepy owls who perch as still as storefront mannequins in the hemlock trees around the corner.
One aspect of pilgrimage that has always pleased me is the feeling that the world has no borders. Pilgrims come from all over the globe. Even if we are traveling solo, we pass each other and find companions for a few hours or days, often conversing from the heart as we walk. Right off the bat, we have something in common: the pilgrimage experience itself. Furthermore, there are no other distractions. One walks. That’s it. So people become available to each other. No one is busy, no one is tied up, no one is on a treadmill of work or activity.
During this pandemic, I’ve felt as if I am part of a larger world once again. My friends in Europe, Japan, Canada….they are all going through lock downs, losses, and isolation. And just like on a pilgrimage, almost everyone is available in a way that normal life prohibits. I have “seen” more of my friends from abroad during this confinement than I normally do. Yes, it’s on a screen, but it’s frequent and as we’ve adjusted to the medium, we’ve gotten better at communicating our real selves: our concerns, our trivial pleasures, our fears, and our secrets.
There’s another way in which this confinement resembles a pilgrimage. And that is the shadow of death, which hovers over the experience. In medieval times, European Christians on the famous Caminos faced many risks: illness, the Black Plague, dehydration, bandits, animal attacks, inclement weather in the mountain passes and other challenges. Death was never far away. Those pilgrims who continued on to Fisterra in Spain, a place believed by the Romans to be the “end of the earth” were thought to be coming close to the “other world” or the land of the dead.
In the same way, Japanese Buddhist pilgrims must also walk with acute awareness of their own mortality. Some claim that the traditional white vest and pants worn by those following the 88 Temple Walk represent burial clothes, while the wooden staff they carry is a grave marker, and their large, conical hat is a coffin.
During this pandemic time, we, too, are pilgrims on a long journey, and death walks alongside us, either directly or indirectly. Almost three million people, worldwide, have died as I write this. Over 500,000 Americans alone. Just about the same number as perished in the Civil War. The very fact that our minds can’t really grasp these numbers doesn’t change the fact that loss sits, like an invisible stone, on our psyches.
But one of the purposes of pilgrimage is to step out of the daily frenzy, to reflect on the big questions. The enforced isolation of the Covid pandemic has given me another opportunity to slow down and experience both bounty and suffering, challenge and gift.
I feel grateful to have been able to travel this far.
My poem Villanelle: 2020, originally published in Grand Little Things has been reprinted in Elayne Clift’s collection entitled Poetry from the Pandemic, published by University Professors’ Press. Elayne anticipates readings in New England and California during the upcoming months. I hope to participate!
Critical Read is a non-profit publisher dedicated to making art more inclusive and discoverable. In their feature, Art is Essential, they asked writers to describe an aspect of art that they missed during the height of the pandemic. In a short piece entitled “The Wings of a Dove” I wrote about the Elm City Girls Choir.
If you missed choral concerts, this piece might resonate with you too.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Editor Matt Potter at PureSlush, an Australian publisher intent on celebrating the whole human lifespan in several volumes. Each of the twelve planned volumes will feature stories from a specific phase of life.
My piece entitled Fire Extinguisher appears in Volume 2. It’s a fictional account of a Maine farm boy and his restricted upbringing.
Here’s the beginning of Fire Extinguisher:
Lying in bed, Relland recited New Testament verses over and over. Passages about sin and burning. At the age of fifteen, he felt scorched, ready to ignite, as if his entire body were a page of the Bangor Daily News held too close to the woodstove.
“No relations before marriage,” repeated Pastor Martin, both from the pulpit, and every week during Youth Group meetings. “Avoid even kissing until you are engaged.”
Relland was constantly being reminded of the sins of the flesh. Either the sins themselves, or just the nature of flesh. All the animals on the family farm seemed to spend their time rooting and licking and humping and thumping. Cows were inseminated. Sows and boars made piglets. Dogs fused together in the oddest places: next to the woodpile or behind the glider on the porch. The wettest, pinkest, fleshiest parts of all the beasts were on constant display, teasing the growing boy with examples of raw, sensual energy.
Relland felt weighed down by a heat that began in his throat and singed his groin like a red-hot poker.
(I hope you’re curious about what happens to poor, frustrated Relland….
The rights to the story have reverted to me, but the publisher has asked that writers wait a “courteous three months” from publication before re-printing. PureSlush folks have been a pleasure to work with careful editors and prompt communication. The least I can do is honor their request.