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Saturday, September 15, 2012

What's Worth Writing About?

My mother died on August 5, 2012.  She was 81. She had been married to our father for 57 years.  In the month preceding her death, when we had been told that medicine could do nothing for her, I had many hours to spend with her at her bedside in Victoria.  We planned her funeral, which isn't as macabre as it may sound: she wanted particular songs, and writings, and she would have been pleased that the family pitched in to do a variety of tasks, mostly including her grandchildren who were present. She would have loved the fantastic floral creations put together by my sisters and nieces; she would have been pleased to see the old friends who showed up to offer their loving remembrances; she would have...

but wait.  There's always this conditional, when we think of the dead. "She would have" implicitly suggests that she wasn't there. It raises the questions, at least for those of us who believe that this life is not the final one, of how much consciousness, or presence, or connection remains, for a soul no longer in the body that has carried it through the physical world.  There are so many mysteries, and in the time after a loved one passes, I have found that day after day, I wonder about what she shares with us still.

Other believers have assured me that various signs and symbols are surely sideways messages from "above"...heaven, or what you will.  I have read and re-read both secular and religious texts about what comes next. I find that my conversation is full of "Mom" this and "Mom" that: I can't stop talking about her, telling stories about her, recalling her to mind and heart.  I have printed pictures of her and posted them all over the house, pictures with Dad and with me and with my five siblings and all of the assorted brothers-in-law and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and many, many friends. Like one of my sisters has expressed, I find myself conscious of thinking, "Oh, wouldn't Mom have loved that"...whether it's a hummingbird at the feeder, or a cool shape of a sunflower, or a snatch of song.  I think all of this is simply a way of saying, simply: I miss her.

So I decided that it's time to blog again. I started the blog because I was writing family letters, but then someone would get left out, or I wanted to refer to something and e-mail was cumbersome...and then Facebook came along, and most of my relatives and many friends read what is there, or at least, can. But a blog has, as I tell my students, a different sense of audience. To whom are we writing? Maybe simply to ourselves. I have watched, several times, the explications and queries in Mike Wesch's classic deconstructions of public vs. private communications (why we sit alone in our rooms and type stuff to other people we may never meet)...and I think, maybe this is worth talking about. Maybe this is worth writing about: how it feels when your mother dies.

We said a lot of things to each other, Mom and me, in the month before she died.  She kept thanking me for things I was doing, and I actually got a little testy about it. I told her to stop thanking me. It was, after all, her due. But that was one of the things I learned, in her last days: that for everything, no matter how small, she was living in a state of gratitude. And I would say things that weren't characteristic, emotional things, not-living-in-my-head things, like, "Thank you for being a good mother," and she'd smile, and turn it right around, "Thank you for being a good daughter." Not that she was unrealistic: I talked to her about regrets, and said to her, "Sometimes when I was doing something I shouldn't, it was thinking about you that would stop me." She looked at me, and said, somewhat dryly: "Not enough." I agreed, and we both laughed. Not enough.  But no judgment: just a rueful acknowledgment of our human frailty. Shared.

And the laughter and songs: they were her characteristics, and she has bequeathed them to me and to my siblings. Yesterday I had occasion to laugh, pretty hard, at school: it's a long story, but my grade nine class and I were outside, watching one of the class running off his energy, and he accidentally bumped into an evergreen tree. We, his teacher and peers, watched him in pantomime, pausing, no doubt, to say some choice things as to where he'd been stuck, and we all just giggled. It may not have been sympathetic, but it was funny (one of those you-had-to-be-there moments, I'm sure)...and as I laughed, and we hooted together, these fourteen-year-olds and me, I thought of Mom, and thanked her for the big, spontaneous joy that she found in even the smallest moments, so that now, I can give myself permission to explode into a riotous belly-laugh.  She gave me that.

In the final days, you see, all that was left was love and its signals: listening, sharing, music, joy, laughter. Feeding her yogurt (yes, what goes around comes around)!  The issues, the complaints (teenage angst meets religious adamancy), the revisionist history (how many dishes did I wash, meals did I cook?), the storytelling (repetitious, much?)...all of it was part of a legacy of knowing that I was blessed. We were blessed. She was, really, a good mother. A great mother. I don't know if she died knowing, at peace, with her own accomplishments, but I know that she went on her last journey cocooned in love because that what she'd given. All her life, she knew how to love.

Gratitude, joy, spirit, prayer, song, beauty: her legacy.  She didn't talk about it much, but she lived love.  So I'll say it again: I miss her. And that's worth writing about.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

photo credit: ramez
It's the final day of the annual 19-day fast, a time during which Baha'is worldwide abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. I have just breakfasted with my sister and her husband, and then we gathered together for prayers. We are looking forward to this evening when we will join fellow Baha'is and their friends in breaking the fast and greeting Naw Ruz, the New Year, with celebration, music, dancing, and of course, breaking bread together (or in our case, potluck). It's a time of reflection for me. There have been explanations to those who are unfamiliar with the idea and purposes of fasting, although most people know about Christian practices like Lent, or Muslim ones like Ramadan, so are familiar with the ACT of fasting. Fewer seem to have a context for it, however; in these days of health crazes galore, and what I think of as "the cult of the body," fewer people I encounter seem to comprehend the motivations of those of us who willingly give up sleep, food, and water for twelve hours a day, replacing them with...prayers?

I thought I might share some of the more personal aspects of this time of year, the mysterious and truly nebulous elements of the gifts of the spirit, about which it is more accustomed to be private, or perhaps reticent. I am going out on a limb: it's very un-Canadian to be public about your spirituality. Conversation about what is happening to one on a spiritual basis is not your garden-variety talk in most situations; for me, as a school-teacher, I am somewhat careful about how I phrase my faith within the professional world. I can tell stories, of course, of the transformative nature of travel...most people who have travelled can relate...but I can't really convey the depth, for example, of what it meant to go on Baha'i pilgrimage in 2007 with my family.
How can I explain how it felt, as we entered the sanctum of Baha'u'llah's gravesite at Bahji, near Haifa, with other pilgrims, and as we were about to approach that spot, sacred to us, my husband whispered to me, "Let's go together," took my hand, and joined me in unity as we offered our prayers, heads bowed, to the Lord of Ages? How can I convey the moments outside the sacred buildings, looking towards the Qiblih (point of adoration to which we direct our prayers in the same way as a Muslim facing Mecca) from right outside it, surrounded by the scent of frangipani in bloom, knowing that every time I turned to this point in the future, I would recall this place, those trees, that gorgeous scent? To go on such a pilgrimage, in the company of your loved ones, is a bounty beyond retelling with the limitations of language, even for a poet, though surely many have tried. Perhaps, in this secular world, the most eloquent has been the Persian poet of the past, now read widely, in the west in translation: the mystic dervish, Rumi, who reminds us, "When you find yourself with the Beloved, embracing for one breath,/In that moment you will find your true destiny./Alas, don't spoil this precious moment/Moments like this are very, very rare. "

I think that's what fasting is about: it's a way of seeking the rare and precious moment, in turbulent times, of spiritual embrace, our 'true destiny'. To find those moments of connection to the Divine, that which is beyond expression through our own abilities to speak and reflect, and meditate upon them, share them with others as best you can when the moments arise: this is, perhaps in part, what is meant by the desire for "elevated conversation", reiterated in a recent message to the Baha'is of the world. It's one of the reasons that Baha'is are grateful that Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha gave us so many of their own prayers to say and to listen to: there's a litany of spirit embedded within these words, even in translation, that is capable of transporting a soul to another place, beyond the "changes and chances" of the daily moments which risk routine and mediocrity.
One of the gifts of fasting is that you can have opportunities to offer such prayers in the company of loved ones: my husband's favourite prayer during the fast, revealed by Baha'u'llah, has a chant through its many verses, which names and re-names some of the virtues or qualities of the Creator: "Thou seest me, O my God, holding to Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious..." The sheer incantatory experience of repeating this phrase over a dozen times during the course of the prayer is a reminder to ourselves of the source of our lives. I know of few joys greater than hearing my beloved's voice chanting these names of my Beloved. It's not my own personal favourite prayer, but it's a joyous time to listen to him saying it.

Another gift of fasting is that the prayers themselves tell us that this is a powerful time: "Thou hast endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue...Thou hast, also, assigned unto every soul a portion of this virtue..." One of the things which intrigues, no, comforts me about these statements is that there is a holism there: you don't have to be any particular religion or faith to enjoy the spiritual mysteries inherent in the fast. "Every soul" receives a portion of the bounty of our Lord through the blessing of its time. It's one of the reasons I feel that when I utter the name of a person for whom I am praying, maybe the angels will carry him or her special blessings. It's a gift to be able to offer a prayer on behalf of anyone, but to be able to do so, to say their name out loud into the universe, to imagine what Baha'u'llah calls "the scattering angels" coming to pick up the words of the prayer and take them to the recipient, wherever he or she may be, in this world or the next: well, there's a particular joy in that, too, in just naming their name and wishing them blessings.
Our souls are not bound by the physical limitations of the world: I am sitting here, reflecting onto the page, on an overcast day on 14th Street East in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, temperature hovering around 0 C., still in my red housecoat, looking at a painting my sister made when she was at my house. The painting is an impression of a winter scene looking over the prairies from my front windows, and the power of thought and imagination allows me to be there and here at the same time; my mind can be where it prefers, in any given moment. How much greater than the mind is the human spirit! Prayer and fasting, we are told, are "twin pillars" in our spiritual practice; times to be reminded of why we are alive.

So I can look left and see the words of a prayer for children which adorns my sister's desk (she's an educator): "O God! Educate these children. These children are the plants of Thine orchard, the flowers of Thy meadow, the roses of Thy garden..." and revel in the metaphors of joy created by these words and images... I can look at my prayer book and think of the people around the world for whom I said this prayer this morning (some of you know who you are...so I hope you can feel the blessings!):

"O Divine Providence! This assemblage is composed of Thy friends who are attracted to Thy beauty and are set ablaze by the fire of the Thy love. Turn these souls into heavenly angels, resuscitate them through the breath of Thy Holy Spirit, grant them eloquent tongues and resolute hearts, bestow upon them heavenly power and merciful susceptibilities, cause them to become the promulgators of the oneness of mankind and the cause of love and concord in the world of humanity, so that the perilous darkness of ignorant prejudice may vanish through the light of the Sun of Truth, this dreary world may become illumined, this material realm may absorb the rays of the world of spirit, these different colors may merge into one color and the melody of praise may rise to the kingdom of Thy sanctity. Verily Thou art the Omnipotent and the Almighty!" 'Abdu'l-Baha

Assembled around the world today, anticipating the feast of Naw Ruz, (or in some time zones, already enjoying it!) are people, millions of people, who through Faith, Fasting, and Friendship are focusing all of their hopes, actions, and dreams on the ability to see beauty, to become angels, to speak eloquently, to have the courage of "resolute hearts," to be strong and merciful, and this, the ultimate purpose of faith, "to become...promulgators of the oneness of mankind and the cause of love and concord in the world of humanity." Last night I had a long visit with a new friend, here at my sister's home, and we found, in the course of our conversation, how small the world really is; we found that we were jointly committed, each in our own unique way, to removing "the perilous darkness of ignorant prejudice." The prayer acknowledges that the world is "dreary"...but implicit within 'Abdu'l-Baha's words are the ideals that we humans are not limited to that dreariness. Today is gray outside, but I do have faith that this being the prairies, the sunshine will soon return. Spring IS coming: if you trust the calendar, pretty soon!

Well, I do live in Saskatchewan, so I am not expecting the physical springtime by the equinox...but I have the evidence of memory to imagine the future, and to believe that this future is not too far away. I believe that the Divine Springtime will arrive. Similarly, I can envision, in "my mind's eye," that "radiant morn" when the spiritual destiny of humanity will be transformed to something more angelic. We all have the ability to change into angels: not the kind that fly around on large white bird-wings (we are not earth-bound versions of Big Bird!) but the kind that use the impetus of spirit to work, every day in the world, to serve the goals of unity in diversity.

It's as good a reason as any for fasting: to remind ourselves of the possibilities of spiritual practice to overcome physical limitations.
One of the fasting prayers has the person uttering the prayer say, "Do not bring our fasts to an end with this fast." I don't think that's just asking to stay alive in the world until next year's fast, although that's what I thought for several years. It occurred to me, this fast, that it's a prayer asking for the constancy implied by the covenant we accept when we make the decision, as consciously as possible, to commit ourselves to a spiritual life. I think that for many of us, every day offers small and larger opportunities to re-visit the reasons for our belief, the thoughts and feelings that brought us to this place of dedication to God, however puny we are in the eternal scheme of Creation. Asking to be granted the privilege of another fast is not only asking for the health to be able to do so, and the life to be able to do so, but for the certitude to be able to do so. Every day is a mystery, before its beginning, and every moment, one can find reasons for vacillation. There are no guarantees; we must constantly return to our spiritual centre. The opportunity to pray, the opportunity to fast, the opportunity to serve, to do good works, to try and become one of those 'earthbound angels', is given through carrying our spiritual selves into the dailiness of the world. So this is the last day of this year's fast, and I am grateful.
I am grateful to have been offered the privilege of fasting; to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the past, for joy in the presence, and for constancy in a future that is arriving every second. I am grateful for candlelit breakfasts with Bernie and prayers shared with Andrea, for stories from our daughter about the blessings she is finding in her fast and opportunities to try and explain to friends why I am fasting, and finding that they honour such attempts at developing a spiritual life. I am grateful for conversations with new friends, telephone chats with old friends, my sister's birthday on the first day of the fast, my dad turning 81 during this particular fast, and all the attendant celebrations of loved ones who share the spiritual sustenance of this incandescent time. I am, again and again, grateful.
Happy Naw Ruz, friends. Joy, light, and love to each and every one of you, now, and tomorrow.
"Praised be Thou, O my God, that Thou hast ordained Naw-Ruz as a festival unto those who have observed the Fast for love of Thee.... He Who is Thy Branch and all Thy company, O my Lord, have broken this day their fast, after having observed it within the precincts of Thy court, and in their eagerness to please Thee. Do thou Ordain for Him, and for them, and for all such as have entered Thy presence in those days all the good Thou didst destine in Thy book. Supply them, then, with that which will profit them, in both this life and in the life beyond." Baha'u'llah
May God abundantly supply you with "that which will profit" you, mind, heart, and spirit. God bless.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

photo credit: Coral Gomez

I know I should care about Japan. And I do. I know I should care about the Middle East. And I do. I know I should care about poverty, and I do, and I know I should care about abuse, and I do.

I teach my students about social issues, we read about global issues, we study the ideas of sympathy and empathy and why it's important to care. I sometimes contribute money to disaster funds (I do) and I try not to destroy the environment any more than any North American who drives a car or buys stuff in grocery stores (I do...try, that is.)

But sometimes, friends, I have to say: I need to step back, say prayers (put all of these things in the hands of God), and enjoy very simple things: my gardenia plant is in bloom in my kitchen. The soft brown of our eggs, collected freshly each day from our chickens, which, incidentally, eat all the leftover peelings and apple cores and reduce waste in my kitchen. The sound of a new song that moves me (currently it's an old song, a piece by Beethoven that I can't stop listening to). The rapid approach of Naw Ruz, when I will break bread with old friends and new, and dance the evening away...

My dad's birthday, 81 years old today. I'm glad he's alive, I'm glad he's well, and I'm glad he's my dad.

My daughter's impending visit: counting the days.

My husband's laughter.

Holding a small baby at work today when one of the moms came in to school, a tiny girl named Lira.

Chickadees at the bird feeder.


I have to stop and count all the little things I'm grateful for, so that I can support my own capacity to care about the bigger things.

That's all for now.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

photo credit: Ashraf Ogram

The winter is long in Saskatchewan, and in the last few days here it has also been very changeable, from -40C windchill on Thursday to +4C and melting today, along with scattered snowfall and sometimes, frost as you see above. Like the weather, I find myself a little moody; this is rare for me, but it happens.

Last night was a good one. I attended an evening of devotions, and was particularly struck by these words of 'Abdu'l-Baha, from Divine Philosophy page 103:

When we speak, let our speech be an outward evidence
of the inner light, for we must speak the truth,
otherwise we shall not act wisely.
I hope that you will all become eloquent.
The greatest gifts of man are reason and eloquence of expression.
The perfect man is both intelligent and eloquent.
He has knowledge and he knows how to express it.
Unless man expresses himself in this day
he will remain like a closed casket
and one cannot know whether it contain jewels or glass.
I desire that all of you may speak on the material and divine
sciences with clear and convincing words.

As one who has far too often put her foot in her mouth, only to pull the foot out and make room for the other one, I feel this quote. I love eloquence; I love hearing a good orator, whether or not I agree with everything s/he says (thank you, Mr. Obama, for your wonderful speeches!) I enjoy a lot of the talks at www.TED.com, most recently Dr. Brené Brown and Elizabeth Lesser. I am delighted when a friend or student offers a particularly compelling turn of phrase; recently, one of my grade eights, when pressed to identify a principle which was a part of her life, said, "Elegance." Not bad. She was referring to the love she has for the beauty of horses. Not bad at all.

One of my students has started a "no-cussing" club. Her religious background (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints) teaches her that one should not defile speech by profanity; so does mine, but I can't say I've been very good at following it. Her reminder has been timely; I am going to try very hard to be a better example in this regard.

I also think of the principle of eloquence as it relates to backbiting, which the Baha'i writings assure us is "grievous error...inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul." (Baha'u'llah in Gleanings, page 264) Anyone who has ever been the subject of gossip knows the truth of this; many of us who have found ourselves saying things we ought not have also known the truth of it. Another of the devotions chosen last night said,

Man's speech is the revealer of his heart.
In whatever world the heart travels,
man's conversation will revolve around that center.
From his words you can understand in what world he is travelling,
whether he is looking upward toward the realm of light
or downward to the nether world,
whether he is mindful or unaware,
whether he is awake or asleep,
whether he is alive or dead.
Man is hidden behind his tongue.
Out of the abundance of his heart does man speak.
Compilations, Lights of Guidance, page 339

A selection from the Chinese classics tells us, "One word sums up the basis of all good conduct: loving-kindness." You just can't be profane if you are speaking loving-kindness. You just can't backbite if you are speaking loving-kindness. You just can't eschew eloquence if you are speaking loving-kindness. If you think trash, talk trash, and consume trash, you can't be surprised if your life gets a little trashy!

When 'Abdu'l-Baha enjoins us to turn our thoughts around: when he says to overcome thoughts of war with more powerful thoughts of peace, or to defeat thoughts of hatred with greater thoughts of love, then he is teaching us a clear principle: our minds can change our thoughts, and our thoughts, concentrated on loving-kindness, can create more loving-kindness in action. Cause and effect.

So, I don't know about you, but I want to try to concentrate on beauty. Part of teaching school is making sure that kids know about history, but there is a tremendous emphasis on the grievousness of history: Holocausts, apocalypses, wars and battles. But Anne Frank said "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart." I want to remember these words from a girl who was the same age, writing her diary, as the young people I meet each day. I want to remember possibility: I want to remind myself that she said, from the midst of the Holocaust, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." She wrote that, and she wrote "Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy." And she said, from her place stuck in that attic, looking at the sky through a sliver of window:

"The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. As longs as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles."

Last night, after we listened to devotions, we watched a very powerful film: it's called "Oh My God," and it's a documentary which listens to people from many cultures, traditions, and experiences of the Divine. Check it out at http://www.omgmovie.com/ when you have a minute. I liked it a lot: it struck me, apart from some minor glitches, as visually powerful and eloquent of speech. It underscored, perhaps, the Zoroastrian idea that "the religious person's entire duty is: the correct thought, the truthful word, the righteous action..." The Zoroastrian believer says, "I repent, am sorry, and do penance for all that I ought to have thought, and did not think; for all that I ought to have said, and did not say; and for all that I ought to have done, and did not do." I found that very interesting because I probably would have prayed the opposite: I'd probably have said, "I repent and am sorry for all that I've thought that I ought not to have thought, for all that I've said that I ought not to have spoken, and for all that I have done that I ought not to have done." The Zoroastrian passage turns that way of thought on its head, and forces us to view the world through a different lens, as 'Abdu'l-Baha tells us to do: it's as though since the past is over, we should just acknowledge, and do better today, and tomorrow.

Anne Frank knew, young as she was, isolated as she was, writing eloquence as she was, that people are still essentially loving and kind. How did she know this and believe this? It's enough to make you believe in miracles. It's miracle enough that she was able to conceal the sins of her time, to remove herself from the Zeitgeist of hatred in which she lived, in order to believe in beauty. She was aware, she knew that there was evil in the world, but she somehow managed to be...generous, with her eloquence. Loving-kindness.

Baha'u'llah says, on page 54 of Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, "If ye become aware of a sin committed by another, conceal it, that God may conceal your own sin." This is something that I want to take to heart: that if there is a way to say something that will bring beauty and eloquence, why would I say it in another way?

It's a goal from mid-winter Saskatchewan, where I am reflecting on the power of language, and on the power of human capacity for change. It's a goal, from a place where, just for a few hours today, the power of the sun melted the snow, foreshadowing a dearly-longed for spring. It's a goal. A compilation from the Baha'i Scriptures includes these mighty words, in the voice of the One God:

"I am that light which illumines the path of insight...I bear healing in My wings, and teach the knowledge of soaring to the heaven of truth."


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

photo credit: Coral Gomez

To all of those out there who have been sending me comments: I'm sorry, I just found them! I don't like ignoring people and it's still better simply to email. The address is somewhere in the site if you want to find it.

That's not what I want to write about today, though. A friend has written to ask why I chose to self-publish my anthology of poetry (Hierophany: Poems of the Sacred). The truth is that many people had been asking me for a collection, and I was having no luck with the small independent publishers here in Canada. It's discouraging to send your work out consistently and have it come back with "Lovely work. Unfortunately it's not right for our company right now" letters. I understand that this is part of the writing process, and I am not really as peevish as I sound to myself as I type, but...well, part of me is a little peevish!

I think it's not entirely because I am dubious about what else I will need to do to turn "pro", so to speak. Poetry continues to be a passion, and I continue to read other poets widely as well as occasionally getting up the gumption to submit to things. However, I am gradually recognizing a few things about getting published: one, the field is capricious. It's often just a bit of a crapshoot: who receives your poem, who reads it, who shortlists it, who just doesn't like your style or the way you put words together. Another reason is that I am rather cheerful by nature: I don't write a lot of I'm-depressed-woe-is-me poetry. Yet it strikes me that at least some of the post-modernist ethos is to revel in the dismal (or perhaps, as one of the Baha'i prayers puts it, to "dwell on the unpleasant things of life".) I am usually not a "dweller". Yes, I like the contemplative life, and yes, I tend towards the serious, but no, I am not a dweller.

My poems tend, however, to be a little "spiritual", and I think that doesn't go over well in 2010. I don't mean this in a self-help-guru-I-have-all-the-answers kind of way. I'm not (self-helpish), I don't (guru), and I don't want to pretend to know more than I do. But I do tend to want to lean towards the spiritual. I wonder if I should explain that a little?

There are some classic, and in some cases, quite popular writers (Rumi, Mary Avison, Lorna Crozier, Mary Oliver, Rilke) whose voices are spiritual. They may not be commenting directly on the spirit (although sometimes they do) but they imbue the words with the transcendent nature of longing, which to me is a spiritual condition. Exploring God, or whatever you might wish to call the Creator or the Universe or the Magic-that-makes-us-alive, is an essential component of their relationship with the world. It's beyond time-and-space. It's soul work. I love it; I love reading a poem by Rumi or Oliver and discovering that even back then, even now, there is someone who speaks my language and who has left letters to the world about spirit, in poetic form. This is also intimately connected to beauty, both in the Big Letter Beauty sense and in the small, macrocosmic, delight-in-the-beauty-of-the-world beauty. The poetic ability, it seems to me, is to take the time and place you find yourself surrounded by and make it, through your words, a time and place anyone can enter with you through the magic of your words, descriptive, narrative, and honest.

So if I am to write, I want to write from the spirit. And in this day and age, it's really hard to do well. Sometimes I hit it, and some of the poems in my own collection are ones which I feel leave a glimpse of the unblemished spirit within me, the part which has been untouched by all the mistakes I've made. For this is the thing: it's the human condition, it seems, to make mistakes and have regrets (or at least something like) but to dwell on those is also to deny the beauty of the power of redemption. And trust me, redemption is not a popular word in modern-day poetry, really, although there are a few authors who write themselves into that sacred space through beauty. That's the poet I'd like to be, and gradually, through patience, prayer, and some perseverance, she's emerging. I hear her voice whispering within, sometimes softly, and I want to recognize her and allow her to speak.

Annie Dillard did this in prose, of course, with that amazing work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, whom I've just re-read, kindled spirit throughout Women Who Run With the Wolves...and Barbara Kingsolver consistently does it, works through words and the deep longing of the world to create beauty. Their works are redemptions, and they are not alone. And their poetry is lovely, too...but, there's something hesitant, perhaps, when we try to understand the numinous. I find that I have to wait for it, and sometimes it just flows into me like heat. Something kindled. Crozier said this; I listened to her at the Ottawa Writers' Festival a few years ago and she reminded us of the gift of immanence. Yes.

This is also kind of why I blog, too: not just to send letters to my parents (although that too) but to leave an exploration out there, something for both friends and strangers to ruminate about and perhaps share right back. So I published myself because I got impatient! And when you hope that what you have said can kindle something for someone else, find that resonance, then you want the words out there. If poets are given a gift (even minor poets like me!) then it's best to share it, and sometimes you just have to get it out there whether the literary powers-that-be think it's worthwhile or not. One acquaintance reminded me that there is value in following your passion.

So here's someone who said all of this better:

Word Fog

Words, even if they come from
the soul, hide the soul, as fog

rising off the sea covers the sea,
the coast, the fish, the pearls.

It's noble work to build coherent
philosophical discourses, but

they block out the sun of truth.
See God's qualities as an ocean,

this world as foam on the purity
of that. Brush away and look

through the alphabet to essence,
as you do the hair covering your

beloved's eyes. Here's the mystery:
this intricate, astonishing world

is proof of God's presence even as
it covers the beauty. One flake

from the wall of a gold mine does
not give much idea what it's like

when the sun shines in and turns
the air and the workers golden.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A couple of years ago, I wrote an elegy for Joan Doran. Today, I write one for her husband, Bob, who died today. I cannot say that I knew this couple well; we were related through marriage. They were my sister's parents-in-law. From time to time I visited them, over the years, and have met all of the brothers (there are six) and most of their families; I guess you could say that they are extended families. There are ties that western kinship systems don't really have words for; maybe that's a reflection of our low expectations regarding connectedness. What do you call your sister's mother and father-in-law? They are my nephews' and niece's grandparents, my grand-nieces great-grandparents, and were loved by more than just their blood relations. I loved Bob and Joan Doran, not in a terrible, grieving way, but in a we-are-connected way. I loved Joan for her grace and charm and kindness; I loved Bob for his exacting and meticulous appreciation of the best things in life. I loved them because they upheld, sometimes in an unconscious way, the principles of truth and beauty.

Their grandchildren are my nephews and niece. I visited in their home, I cooked them some meals in the days when Joan was becoming more frail, and I liked listening to their stories, especially Bob's stories of the war, which he could repeat as though the 1940s and the war in Europe had happened yesterday. Bob was a veteran, one of the few remaining in the world who had helped to fight the scourge of the Nazi era. I was proud of him.

I remember accompanying him, my sister and her husband, and some of their family, to the War Museum in Ottawa. We wandered through those grand hallways and, as someone who has taught a generation of students about that war, in history classrooms, it was like walking through a diorama of the Grade Eleven textbook. The sections on World Wars One and Two brought to visual memory the names and places I had required hundreds of students to memorize: the Battle of the Somme, Vimy Ridge, the Phony War, the Battle for the Atlantic. The words of Winston Churchill are not the only ones immortalized there; everywhere there are comments from soldiers about their experiences. One of the most visceral exhibits re-creates a World War trench, complete with facsimiles of dying soldiers lying face down in muddy bogs. It is eerily lit and a testament to a time now almost a century old. I have posted one photo of the many I took on that occasion, including my sister with her dearly-loved father-in-law.

Today a fine man passed on. Bob Doran raised a family after surviving World War Two from a cold ship in the North Atlantic. He came home to Ottawa and married Joan. If I recall his story correctly, he saw her step from a streetcar and admired the turn of her ankle. It's a good beginning, I suppose, for a family of six strapping sons. They worked hard, the two of them, to build a family with high values and morals. Their sons inherited their determination, their world view, their high expectations. They also inherited a little proclivity for rabble rousing...ah, there are some stories. But those are not mine to tell!

They inherited the arts. Bob Doran was a meticulous painter, and he could build anything. The sheen of perfection was on all his work, from beautifully carved and painted Canada geese to exquisitely-rendered oil paintings. He also loved music: most of the sons are musicians of a professional calibre, and that gene appears to have continued into the next generation, as well. His grandsons Tim and Mitch are both excellent music-makers, born with a natural and sometimes almost uncanny talent. They owe some of this legacy to their grandfather, to whom they must say goodbye today.

If I were to write an elegy for Bob Doran, picturing him, as I do, joining his beloved Joan in a world beyond pain and cancer and Alzheimers, and surrounded by the most extraordinary beauties of a heaven he believed in, it would be this one. Joan has been in my prayers each day since her passing; today, Bob joins her in an homage to a couple of ordinary people who, in their own steadfast and formidable way, were extraordinary. God go with you, Bob, and take our love to Joan.


for Bob Doran

There's a craft to life.
There's perfection in its building,
in the strokes across fine grains
of fallen trees,
in the plucking of a string.

When you hold something you've made
in your arms:
a son,
a grandchild,
a picture,
a piece of wood carved
as preciously as any of these,

when you touch the divine
in His own creation,
offer prayers and blessings,
when you believe that right is right
and live it with all your might,

then the just reward,
the right outcome
is not fairy tales or pipe dreams,
angels and minstrels at some
imaginary pearly gates:

it's to find yourself
surrounded. There's a wife
in her beauty,
opening her arms in welcome;
there's incantatory music
all around you,
tall steeples of gold and gems,
Irish roads riding you to
this new country,
this beauteous whirligig of eternity.

Here you are, Grandpa Doran,
there you are waving
from a ship sailing
not through angry, war-worn
waters but through
seas made of music.
Here you are, Grandpa,
holding hands with Grandma
from that island beyond the sun
where joy waves like wings
and you create the music.

You are the luthier, Grandpa.
If prayers were wings,
we would be flying alongside,
exultant in the salt spray
of light, this new life,
yours to play in pride,
and ours to dream, and ride.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Photo Credit: Kai Bighorn

l. to r.: Heather Cardin, Hooper Dunbar, Will Gomez, Ovidio Gomez, Coral Gomez

Yesterday I wrote some impressions of the 2010 conference of the Association for Baha'i Studies held in Vancouver, BC, Canada. This morning I received a link to the official Baha'i News version, (copyright), and am providing it here. Aside from a minor typo, it's a helpful reflection of the event, and I must say I was surprised to know that it was attended by closer to 1800 than 1000, as I had previously reported. That's a lotta people! Here's the link for your perusal.