Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The problem with poets

Two egrets…
Alert for silvery glints and flashes 
Under the surface
As their graceful, unhurried movements
Express the ineffable stillness 
At the heart of all being. 

Buff Whitman-Bradley 
from The Next Small Thing

I trust there is ample research and corresponding literature out there to make the case for the benefits of quiet, still places on the human psyche.  Perhaps it is different for extroverts, but as an introvert I have found that quiet time spent in a still place, be it brief or extended, tends personal needs that are tied in multiple ways to how I feel about myself and the practice of trying to lead a more considered, meaningful life. 

Yet even with the benefits of accessing personal still points established, I seem to spend more time than I’d like when I get there grappling with just how I am supposed to act in such treasured space.  Should I let my thoughts cascade as they’d like or should I push them away as practiced in mindfulness meditation?  I have learned that there is benefit inherent in sitting still, emptying thoughts from my mind, and then letting whatever natural process that follows take its course.  

I like the concept, but more often than not my mindful meditation sessions leave me with the feeling that I’m not doing something right.  Instead of effectively nudging my thought tangents into space, I have a natural desire to want to listen to them, following thought vectors to see where they lead me, to see what connections they expose in my awareness.  

I have tried to begin a regimen of mindful meditation from time to time and have realized the value in focus points and quiet sitting, but within a week I am overwhelmed with daily living and then fail to make the time necessary to see the process through to whatever gift I am supposed to realize.  I know that mediation mentors encourage practitioners to accept thought-pushing failure as product of our busy brains and that we can always non-judgmentally come back to our breath and begin again.  These days, however, I have come to find myself in a place where that nagging sense of meditation failure has morphed into a sense of blending desired stillness with how my brain wants to work in the first place. 

For me, the awe of being present in a still place is in part the empty canvas it wants to provide.  Whether sitting at the picture window watching a Northern cardinal square up to blowing snow, or perched in a porch chair observing fall hummingbirds bulk-up with sweetwater, it doesn’t take much for an idea to bud into something that could be a new poem.  Zen meditation would have me push the thought away.  I would rather consider its Possibility.  Let the process take me where it wants, leaving me wondering if Nature is gifting me with a light I would never have seen if I didn’t make myself still.   Is it better to stay still in the here and now or fetch my notebook and engage the muse?  My zen awareness has recently come to recognize this dilemma as ‘the problem with poets.’  

I have had the great good fortune over the years to travel with my poetry notebook into some beautiful, life affirming, still places.  Nada Hermitage (Crestone CO) and Holy Hill Hermitage (Sligo, Ireland), of course, come to mind.  This past summer I was able to spend four weeks at a once-abandoned family camp on wilderness Hog Island, home also to the Audubon Camp in Maine.  Days were busy with book writing, but as I sat on the west-facing veranda at sunset gathering and sorting thoughts, I became very aware of the focused stillness in that place that was bristling with energy and somehow feeding me from the inside out.  Beautiful, still places do that to me.  

Yet I find it is not exclusive to travel far and wee to secure retreat weeks in such still places.  I find meaningful still time close to home, though in more compressed doses.  Quiet local walks abound in reserves and parks as well as in my suburban neighborhood.  More tangible to me, though, is taking time to have a sit on the back porch.  Sitting under canopy on a warm summer afternoon is full of sound and sight vectors that fill me with their Natural stillness.  Here’s the thing I’ve come to realize:  still does not necessarily mean quiet.  Taking time to slow down the pace of life at home is often accompanied with ambient music and/or bird song.  And I really like it that way.  

Another revitalizing process I’ve found at home is going to bed by myself in a completely darkened room with music playing softly.  I used to play ambient music exclusively, but recently have found more energetic music works, too.  Quiet, comfortable space permeated with gentle sounds relaxes me and helps me recenter.  If I’m lucky enough to find ‘recline time’ on a rainy or windy day, I substitute the music with an open window.    Making that nap time with the lovely Cindy Lou is special for us both.   

The genesis of this blog entry on ‘still point’ was a prompt offered by Desert Call, the quarterly journal of the Spiritual Life Institute.  I had hoped to grow my take on the idea into an essay for the upcoming Advent issue, but deadlines were missed as I struggled to put all my thoughts in some logical sequence.  

‘Still points’ are, indeed, needed in my life.  As a poet I seek them, often finding in such stillness the opportunity to listen to Nature’s life forces at work which allows me to apply, somehow, my own life observations.  I suspect poet Buff Whitman-Bradley does something similar.  How else could he conclude that the very actions of two egrets tiptoeing through shallows fishing ‘Express the ineffable stillness / At the heart of all being.’

Today’s elder idea:   Feel your emotions / Live true your passions / Keep still your mind. 
Geoffrey M. Gluckman

image:  Pond fairy at Wild Grace.

Friday, September 19, 2014


I remember when I started The Back Porch blog in 2009, my goal was to write an entry every week.  Such worked out nicely for a time, but then it began to feel more like work and less like an intellectual investigation and the effort started to lag.  

I must say, too, that not knowing who is actually paying any attention to what I have written here impacts the effort, as well.  Please don’t hear this as complaint, but merely as an observation in this morning’s rationalization about why the writing spark plug doesn’t fire here more often than it might.  

With that said, let us celebrate blog entry #200 here at The Back Porch.  As I’ve probably mentioned here before, Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1800 poems, which I have come to realize is one whale of a writing accomplishment.  So I guess my paltry 200 blogs leaves me with a long way to go!  ;-) 
A couple disjointed concepts today: 

First, be advised that I am publishing a limited run, locally printed book of new poetry and photography generated while on Hog Island this summer.  Entitled A forest of ferns, the little book that is the ‘product’ of my artist-in-residency, will have over a dozen original poems along with a couple Mabel Loomis Todd excerpts from her unpublished series of essays, The Epic of Hog.  Photography, as always, will try to capture some of the unique wonder of the wilderness Muscongus Bay island that so many of us have come to love.  Most copies of A forest of ferns will go to Friends of Hog Island for use with donor development, but if you would like a copy, let me know and I’ll get you one.  I’m rather fond of it.  

re: Mrs. Todd’s Epic of Hog selections:  I so much want  everyone to have the opportunity to read the entirety of this little collection of essays.  The originals reside in the Yale University archive and unless you take a trip and do some digging, you’ll never see ‘em.  Which is why my goal is to reprint them all in whatever fractured form they were left as an appendix in my upcoming book, Nature’s People: The Hog Island story from Mabel Loomis Todd to Audubon.  I’ll check with the Yale folks to see what that will take.  

BTW, I’m back at Lake Cumberland in October to work on two more chapters.  Book writing goal:  Working draft by spring 2015. 

The other day I stumbled upon a web article that raised the question over the reality or mythology of the very-important-to-Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth.  Seems that over the last two hundred years, some historians have floated the concept from time to time that more recording of this teacher’s life as thorn-in-the-side to both Jews and Romans should have been made but wasn’t.  Why?  Since so little secular evidence exists, and even within the accepted New Testament record there is much contradiction of significant details, is the guy really some construct made up by some power that figured the world would be a better place with a mythological God/man as character guide?  Could be, I guess.

In any case, I asked myself the question What if Jesus never existed?  What would that bombshell detail do to my life and sanity? 

I admitted pretty quickly:  Not much. 

Fact is, in my humble opinion, Christian teachings of doing good unto others etc. is reflected in other religions around the world.  All have their own distinct flavors, but the concept of fairness, good personal living, and taking care of the poor wash over into all that I know about.  

Truth is, I’ve always sensed my home religion, Christianity/Roman Catholicism, was pretty arrogant in the first place.  I was raised with the concept that only Catholics were going to heaven, since we were the only ones who had the direct lineage to The Man himself.  Yes, that stand has changed into something more ecumenical, thank goodness, but that’s where Catholic believers had to stand less than a lifetime ago.  And when it comes to taking ‘holy communion’ even today, unless you have been baptized and taken classes, don’t even think about it.  Roman Catholic believers only are welcome at that table.   

And, I must state, Catholics aren’t the only version of Christians who feel that if you’re not with us, you are the Other.  Folks who don’t follow the accepted One True Faith (whichever one that is), are in need of being saved from a life of sin and lack of Truth. 

So I have to say, if Jesus never existed, I’m okay with that.  Such would undermine the authority of The Church, but I think the Institution could use some fresh air, that’s for sure.  

I used to think of myself primarily as a Christian agnostic who holds that, like the true Doubting Thomas I am, I’ll believe afterlife and other church mysteries when I see them.  Though I am still an active participant in the church that is my community of choice, I think of myself more these days as a unabashed humanist.  I’ve come to conclude that we ought to treat each other with respect and fairness not because some special person who lived millennia ago tells us so, but because our presence on this spectacular planet Earth grants us all some semblance of equality.  Everybody ought to have enough, and if they don’t, it is all our responsibility to see they get the basics.  Whatever we have been given or earned needs to be shared.  Such consideration extends to snakes and trees and birds and pit bulls and mosquitoes, as well.  

I’ll let Emily have the last word today.  This is an excerpt from one of the few poems published during her lifetime.  Still, she didn’t publish it.  Her sister-in-law submitted it to The Springfield Republican newspaper without Emily’s permission.  Figures.  And yes, such is the source for the title of my book.

Today’s elder idea:   When published, this poem was entitled ‘The Snake,’ though Emily’s original copy bears no such title.  The subject of said poem wanders into various and sundry ideas, as Emily often does, but this excerpt seems to speak a bit to the ‘we’re all in this together’ philosophy that guides my life. 

Several of Nature’s People 
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport 
Of Cordiality 

Emily Dickinson  
Franklin #1096 / written 1865

image:  The cover photo for A forest of ferns.