your voice the companion to my otherwise silent walks reciting others’ poems in my ears offering interpretation and invitation into new contexts, meanings, shapes, and forms
I’d thought that glorious enough until I heard your voice recite your words interpret and invite me into hearing anew holy scripture and story
your poems a clarion call to love and justice to curiosity and compassion to wondering as I walk who am I and how am I complicit in empire’s delusion?
Naomi Shihab Nye
hearing her disembodied voice coming to you across the plaza in Columbia telling you of kindness and its peculiar kin you take the only possessions you have left – save the clothing on your back – and with pen and notebook alone take dictation, writing words that become iconic for their naked, known truth
too, in Albuquerque’s airport you hear her call and with your broken Arabic and wide-open heart you tend to the distressed grandmother both of you delayed at the gate soon a party breaks out as Arabic cookies and American juice boxes are shared community made among women dusted for those hours of waiting in something far sweeter than powdered sugar
something my heart yearns for with every poem of yours I read
This is my third and final set of poems written as tribute to poets for National Poetry Month. I “met” Pádraig Ó Tuama last spring walking with Annie and listening to him host the podcast, Poetry Unbound. Becoming a fan, I discovered he was Poet-in-Residence at NYC’s Church of the Heavenly Rest, leading virtual workshops on contemporary interpretation of scripture, guided by his work in social justice and conflict mediation in Ireland. Naomi Shihab Nye came to my attention with her wondrous poem of tending and befriending at the Albuquerque Airport, Gate A-4. Her work often sheds light on the plight of refugees, immigration, cultural conflict, and belonging. Both poets incisively invite me into deepening consciousness of my privilege, complicity, and commitments.
Polar votex and mid-winter thaw. Valentine’s and Family Days. Pancakes and ashes. Blood work and cardiac test all ok. Poetry reading and writing. Online retreat and travel tours. And the reassuring rhythm of walking with Annie.
It’s been a full, few weeks yet for all of it, not much in the way of words to write. Sat down several times and simply surrendered to not having anything to say which I’ve learned usually means I’m cooking on something. Right this moment I hear Tom Jones – yup, that one from “What’s New Pussycat” fame, now making a comeback – sing about the “talking blues.” A peculiar synchronicity. So again, I’ll rely on the words of others to give shape to what might be simmering in the sacred cauldron.
Last week, on Ash Wednesday, I received another of Barb Morris’ beautifully written – I’d say “inspired” – letters from God, this one to beloved daughters who observe Lent. I’m not sure how I first “met” Barb or encountered her letters from God, but each one has touched a chord. Words like these land especially deep in me:
“Despite what you’ve been taught, “holy” does not mean pure and unearthly. “Sin” does not mean breaking my rules and making me mad. “Penitence” does not mean listing and wallowing in all the ways you’re wrong and bad. “Repentance” does not mean promising to do better to stay out of trouble…
…This Lent, the only fasts I want from you are these: Fast from distractions that allow you to stay wounded and broken. Fast from believing you’re not good enough. Fast from making yourself small, and nice, and silent. Fast from all judgment, especially of yourself.”
Later in the week, again in response to Lent, poet-artist Jan Richardson, another wide-open-hearted woman, sent out her poem, “Beloved is Where We Begin,” from her book, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons (2015). Here, the first three stanzas:
“If you would enter into the wilderness, do not begin without a blessing.
Do not leave without hearing who you are: Beloved, named by the One who has traveled this path before you.
Do not go without letting it echo in your ears, and if you find it is hard to let it into your heart, do not despair. That is what this journey is for…”
Reading it now there’s a beautiful resonance with the recently released, eight episode “3 Caminos,” a Spanish TV production about five people who meet walking the Camino de Santiago, first in 2000, then in 2006, and finally in 2020. This weekend, watching their stories unfold within the magnificent backdrops of land and location, stoked the embers of my own latent, on again-off again, dream to one day actually walk the way.
I rose early on Saturday to attend an online Lenten retreat hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama. I’ve written here about Pádraig’s eloquent hosting of the podcast, Poetry Unbound. As poet, theologian and former conflict mediator, Pádraig brings a contemporary, justice centered interpretation to scripture. Taking three perspectives of Jesus in isolation – fasting in the desert where with nature’s befriending, he encounters the devil’s three temptations; making the harrowing journey through his own inner hell ; and in resurrection (what does it mean now to be born again after such journeying) – he shared his poetry and invited in our words and memories as touchstones for the inner work and meaning making of our own journeying in times of desert wilderness. Pausing to consider in this past nearly year of sheltering in place – compassionately retreating – being locked down (the term shifts on how long and what day) the room in which we’ve spent the most time, and what in that room we look upon for comfort, solace, grounding. Or writing a “collect” of praise and appreciation to an item or being that has done the same. Over those four hours together on ZOOM, what lingers was one of Pádraig’s recent poems, wherein he imagines an elder Irishman in the local pub, typical and traditional in his abstention from physical touching, but who – after living through the pandemic alone in his home where he first meets his first granddaughter and attends the funeral of his oldest friend via ZOOM – was taken to unabashed hugging and speaking endearingly to kith and kin. Even now as I type, my heart and eyes sting with a tender poignancy and yearning.
What seems to be simmering are the stirrings of the mythic, heroic journey, this time held within the season and story of Lent. This time more sobering because of the pandemic’s isolation.
Saying yes to the call, wittingly or otherwise. Crossing the threshold alone into the desert. Encountering what frightens, tempts, challenges and strips naked. Waiting in uncertainty and in vulnerability. Moving blindly through and into an unknown future. Letting go to let come loss and grief. Clearing the way for the new. Being unaware of benevolent helpers. Remembering blessings that accompany.
Alone. Together. Again and again.
I’ll end with some wonderous words from Vancouver poet Samantha Reynolds. Writing a poem a day as “bentlily,” every Monday my inbox shimmers with seven gems from the week before. This, her Valentine, “All I want from love“:
“May our love for each other grow tall enough to reach forgiveness and big enough that it can never be misplaced.”
Much love and kindest regards, dear friends, as you make your way during this season of waiting and beyond.
All my friends are finding new beliefs. This one converts to Catholicism and this one to trees. In a highly literary and hitherto religiously-indifferent Jew God whomps on like a genetic generator. Paleo, Keto, Zone, South Beach, Bourbon. Exercise regimens so extreme she merges with machine. One man marries a woman twenty years younger and twice in one brunch uses the word verdant; another’s brick-fisted belligerence gentles into dementia, and one, after a decade of finical feints and teases like a sandpiper at the edge of the sea, decides to die. Priesthoods and beasthoods, sombers and glees, high-styled renunciations and avocations of dirt, sobrieties, satieties, pilgrimages to the very bowels of being …
All my friends are finding new beliefs and I am finding it harder and harder to keep track of the new gods and the new loves, and the old gods and the old loves, and the days have daggers, and the mirrors motives, and the planet’s turning faster and faster in the blackness, and my nights, and my doubts, and my friends, my beautiful, credible friends.”
– Christopher Wiman –
As we begin to live our way into this long awaited new year, I reflect on friendships… near and far, here and “home”, past, present, and yet to be known, lapsed and tended, cherished and challenging, liked and loved, beautiful, credible. Your presence in my life matters, immeasurably.
Listen hear to Pádraig Ó Tuama’s beautiful recitation and considerations of this poem.
With love, kindest regards, and best wishes for a New Year shimmering with all that is good and true and beautiful.
“Outside the Met a man walks up sun tweaking the brim sticker on his Starter cap and he says pardon me Old School he says you know is this a wishing well? Yeah Son I say sideways over my shrug. Throw your bread on the water. I tighten my chest wheezy as Rockaway beach sand with a pull of faux smoke from my e-cig to cozy the truculence I hotbox alone and I am at the museum because it is not a bar. Because he appears not to have changed them in days I eye the heel-chewed hems of his pants and think probably he will ask me for fifty cents any minute now wait for it. A smoke or something. Central Park displays
the frisking transparency of autumn. Tracing paper sky, leaves like eraser crumbs gum the pavement. As if deciphering celestial script I squint and purse off toward the roof line of the museum aloof as he fists two pennies from his pockets mumbling and then aloud my man he says hey my man I’m going to make a wish for you too. I am laughing now so what you want me to sign a waiver? He laughs along ain’t say all that he says but you do have to hold my hand. And close your eyes. I make a starless night of my face before he asks are you ready. Yeah dawg I’m ready. Sure? Sure let’s do this his rough hand in mine inflates like a blood pressure cuff and I squeeze back as if we are about to step together from the sill of all resentment and timeless toward the dreamsource of un-needing the two of us hurtle sharing the cosmic breast of plenitude when I hear the coins blink against the surface and I cough up daylight like I’ve just been dragged ashore. See now you’ll never walk alone he jokes and is about to hand me back to the day he found me in like I was a rubber duck and he says you got to let go but I feel bottomless and I know he means well though I don’t believe and I feel myself shaking my head no when he means let go his hand.”
– by Gregory Pardlo –
I heard this poem walking with Annie earlier this week. Poetry Unbound, hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama, is one of my favourite podcasts. Now in its second season, each episode, featuring one poem, is a mere fifteen or so minutes. Yet while I listen, to Padraig’s recitation and then to his skillful, heartful invitations as to how I might hear into the poem, time stands still. I can listen to one episode several times in the course of our walk, and each time feel transfixed.
I share it here because it reminded me of the post I wrote several weeks ago on loneliness, a feeling state that continues to linger for many of us, as summer gives way to fall and the inevitable winter, as Covid-19 numbers continue to climb around the world. Click here to listen to the rather remarkable Pádraig’s reading. I hope you enjoy it as much as he and I do.