Our Deepest Calling

To register for the book launch of Our Deepest Calling, Saturday, April 17, at 4 p.m. , follow this link: https://www.villagebooks.com/event/litlive-chuckanut-sandstone-0401721. (And if you are wondering where the images are in this post, for some reason today I’m not able to upload new ones.)

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

—Parker Palmer

Thanks to Village Books in Fairhaven—and Zoom—tomorrow at 4 p.m. my writing group will be celebrating the publication of a collection of poetry and prose written during our first ten years together. Our Deepest Calling is also available for purchase through Village Books ($16 and $1 shipping).

I’m taking a day off from writing something new for the blog, and reproducing here my introduction to Our Deepest Calling (fleshing it out a bit for people not familiar with the context given in my co-editor’s intro), followed by a sampling of poems. The book also includes short essays and an excerpt from a novel in progress.

“I learned how to write in the interstices of daily life.”

—Maxine Kumin

In 2010, when my dear friend Paul Marshall asked me if I would lead a Teaching Lab under the auspices of the Teaching and Learning Cooperative at Everett Community College, my first response was “oh, no.” That evening after supper and homework, one of my teenaged daughters had a meltdown over a boyfriend; another was fighting with her best friend; the ten-year-old didn’t want to go to bed; and my sister called to tell me that I really really needed to help out more with our aging parents. The next morning, instead of retreating into the pages of my journal, I graded a set of student papers. Then I thought, What if we called it a Teaching Lab, but wrote instead?

Our first meeting attracted a couple dozen people from across campus—staff, faculty, and even administrators. It was wild. In my recollection, we were before too long half that number, and soon we were only eight or so souls. No matter, we were committed. Our first year we worked through Susan M. Tiberghien’s One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft. By the second year, we all had our own projects underway and settled into a routine of just writing. Some of our colleagues were skeptical, to put it mildly: What are you doing in there, and what does it have to do with teaching?

To my mind, the Writing Lab had everything to do with…everything. Our sessions were only ninety minutes once a week—but that bit of time and each other’s encouragement were all we needed to keep the flame of our writing, questing and questioning lives burning.

Ten years ago, I was immersed in the daily catastrophe of full-time teaching and raising a family. Now that I’m retired from the college and my daughters are grown and out of the house, now that my parents have passed on, I have more time, or so I tell myself. Other group members have gone through similar transitions, all of which are reflected in our writings, no matter if we write of fortune cookies, jump ropes, or imaginary trysts with former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

Then along comes 2020 with new challenges, and its catastrophes on a global scale. Our writing group is now even more important to me, as we have over the years become a group of friends who listen deeply to one another and among whom we know we will be heard.

“Oh friends, where can one find a partner for the long dance over the fields?”

—William Stafford, from A Walk in the Country

I should add that, since moving ourselves off-campus to Rosehill Community Center near the Mukilteo Ferry Dock (and, this past year, to Zoom), we have morphed into an eclectic bunch of former EvCC people and community members. One of these is the award-winning artist Janet Hamilton, whose painting, “Madrona Concerto,” graces our cover.

Here is a poem from co-editor (and Zoom-master) Carla Shafer:

Ancestors

Because my family has lived on stolen tribal
lands in the northwest since I was born, I listen
to the bending of the trees, follow the paths
of salmon and walk days short in winter and
long in summer. This is not the place of my
ancestors. This is not Bohemia or Baden-Baden.
It is not the Nebraska plains or Kansas prairies.
I am not at the source of my great-grandparents’
imaginings, but their touch is in my hand, their
hopes carried in my heart, their steps are known
just as the salmon wiggles a fin,
and in the sway of a cedar bough.

My grandsons, living near, speak Japanese, the language
of their mother’s family, celebrate Children’s Day
and imagine beyond boundaries and borders. My
daughter’s child will speak Hindi and Urdu,
celebrate Eid al Fitr. Their paths of succession will move
through hazards in shadow and light. They will view
stars across generations who have danced
on the same side of the moon. Their ancestors
traced in their steps, in the twinkle of their eyes,
in the embrace of what comes next, beneath the flight
of peregrine falcons, above waters where Orcas swim.

—Carla Shafer

Maged Zaher

The Consequences of My Body by Maged Zaher is a series of untitled lines and prose paragraphs that (sometimes) appear to be letters (once to “Z,” others to “X” and “Y”). Thoughts on love are peppered throughout—“I am a descendent of ‘Udhri:’ Arab love poets”—and thoughts on poetry itself:

Donald Hall once proved that a poet’s poetry—if it is any good—must contradict the poet’s poetics. This is not a metaphysical statement: poetry, executed by humans in language, is more complex than poetics. (109)

We live in a great era: poets are utterly useless, which is a cause for joy. (108)

Maged Zaher was born in Cairo, Egypt, but now lives in Seattle. He is a poet completely new to me, but I’m registered for another Hugo House class (this time with Deborah Woodard) and Maged is one of four Seattle poets on our reading list. So I hope to get to know him better. I am even more hopeful that I will get to know my own humanity and my own potential better, by exploring his work. I often go to poetry to, well, calm the heck down. Maged Zaher is not that poet.

For now, I found an interview at Entrophy with Joe Milazzo, where The Consequences of My Body is called a conversation. Among other things, the interview made me return to a single page of the book that is not translated. And I loved this statement from Maged:

I wrote this whole book as an admission of my own lack of understanding — actually that is harsh — it is more like an attempt at an understanding of the word “love” — I know fear well — I know desire — I think I was just trying to explore love — so I am sincerely reading the book over and over to know what I found in the process of writing it.

I am entranced by this image of the poet rereading his own book “over and over,” “sincerely.”

So here is a poem. I’m thinking that he sometimes reminds me of Julio Cortazar. I’m looking forward to learning much more.

As I am cutting and pasting this loneliness
Onto your image
We lose the city
The strangers are the dawn breakers
And the insomniacs
Getting empty notifications
About their lovers
You are burdened with growing
Into a tall tree
And with flowers
And kindness
These piled books are mine
In them
I read
My silence

—Maged Zaher

 

Could we hear some poetry now, please?

No matter how steep the climb, I’m so grateful today to be on this path with you. May the next four years, indeed, be “a time to heal.”

Meanwhile, there’s always poetry.

Joanna Klink has become a big favorite of mine, ever since reading an epigraph from her work in Holly Hughes’s Hold Fast. This poem is from Klink’s book, Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy. 

The photograph is mine, from yesterday’s walk on Big Gulch Trail, Mukilteo, something else that lifts my heart.

 

Processional

If there is a world, let me be in it.
Let fires arise and pass. The sky fill with evening air
then sink across the woodlots and porches,
the streams thinning to creeks.
In winter there will be creatures half-locked in ice,
storms blown through iron grates, a drug of whitest ardor.
Let the old hopes be made new.
Let stacks of clouds blacken if they have to
but never let the people in this town go hungry.
Never let them fear cold. If there is a world,
let it not be temporary, like these vague stars.
Let us die when we must. And spinelessness
not overtake us, and privation,
let rain bead across tangled lavender plants.
If there is a world where we feel very little,
let it not be our world. Let worth be worth
and energy action–let blood fly up to the surface skin.
If you are fierce, if you are cynical, halfhearted, pained–
I would sit with you awhile, or walk next to you,
and when we take leave of each other after so many years,
the oaks will toss their branches in wheels of wind
above us–as if it had mattered, all of it,
every second. If there is a world.

#notoriousrbg

Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I have been trying, not entirely successfully, to wrap my head around all that’s swirling around us in 2020. There’s the pandemic, of course, and there’s the resurgence of Black Lives Matter–both, to my mind, more than worthy of our attention. Then wildfires, extreme weather, climate change hit the news headlines, and the furor over the coming election becomes even more heated.

With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, the political turmoil that our country is going through seems even more exaggerated, and more divided. Because many people in my family of origin are on the opposite side of this divide from me, all of it is a source of deep, personal anguish.

I try to read widely and deeply, to think my own thoughts and be clear about what I believe. But, under these circumstances, it gets murky and I am as apt as anyone to lose my way.

“Why be a poet now?” I asked a friend. “What’s the point?” She said, “If RBG were a poet, she’d be the best damn poet. That’s what you should do.”

This morning I read this tribute in The Seattle Times, “Clerking for Justice Ginsberg We Learned about Law–and Love,” by Miriam Seifter and Robert Yablon. It says it all:

“The justice kept up her relentless pace because she believed in her work and in doing the job right.”

And in my email feed yesterday, I found this message from Richard Rohr, author of Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, and many other books. He helped me and maybe his words will help you, too.  I’m attempting to share, via this link — but just in case the link doesn’t work, I’ve pasted it in below:

Some simple but urgent guidance to get us through these next months.

I awoke on Saturday, September 19, with three sources in my mind for guidance: Etty Hillesum (1914 – 1943), the young Jewish woman who suffered much more injustice in the concentration camp than we are suffering now; Psalm 62, which must have been written in a time of a major oppression of the Jewish people; and the Irish Poet, W.B.Yeats (1965 – 1939), who wrote his “Second Coming” during the horrors of the World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. 

These three sources form the core of my invitation. Read each one slowly as your first practice. Let us begin with Etty:

There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too … And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.

—Etty Hillesum, Westerbork transit camp

Note her second-person usage, talking to “You, God” quite directly and personally. There is a Presence with her, even as she is surrounded by so much suffering.

Then, the perennial classic wisdom of the Psalms:

In God alone is my soul at rest.
God is the source of my hope.
In God I find shelter, my rock, and my safety.
Men are but a puff of wind,
Men who think themselves important are a delusion.
Put them on a scale,
They are gone in a puff of wind.

—Psalm 62:5–9

What could it mean to find rest like this in a world such as ours? Every day more and more people are facing the catastrophe of extreme weather. The neurotic news cycle is increasingly driven by a single narcissistic leader whose words and deeds incite hatred, sow discord, and amplify the daily chaos. The pandemic that seems to be returning in waves continues to wreak suffering and disorder with no end in sight, and there is no guarantee of the future in an economy designed to protect the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and those subsisting at the margins of society. 

It’s no wonder the mental and emotional health among a large portion of the American population is in tangible decline! We have wholesale abandoned any sense of truth, objectivity, science or religion in civil conversation; we now recognize we are living with the catastrophic results of several centuries of what philosophers call nihilism or post-modernism (nothing means anything, there are no universal patterns).

We are without doubt in an apocalyptic time (the Latin word apocalypsis refers to an urgent unveiling of an ultimate state of affairs). Yeats’ oft-quoted poem “The Second Coming” then feels like a direct prophecy. See if you do not agree:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Somehow our occupation and vocation as believers in this sad time must be to first restore the Divine Center by holding it and fully occupying it ourselves. If contemplation means anything, it means that we can “safeguard that little piece of You, God,” as Etty Hillesum describes it. What other power do we have now? All else is tearing us apart, inside and out, no matter who wins the election or who is on the Supreme Court. We cannot abide in such a place for any length of time or it will become our prison.

God cannot abide with us in a place of fear.
God cannot abide with us in a place of ill will or hatred.
God cannot abide with us inside a nonstop volley of claim and counterclaim.
God cannot abide with us in an endless flow of online punditry and analysis.
God cannot speak inside of so much angry noise and conscious deceit.
God cannot be found when all sides are so far from “the Falconer.”
God cannot be born except in a womb of Love.
So offer God that womb.

Stand as a sentry at the door of your senses for these coming months, so “the blood-dimmed tide” cannot make its way into your soul.

If you allow it for too long, it will become who you are, and you will no longer have natural access to the “really deep well” that Etty Hillesum returned to so often and that held so much vitality and freedom for her.

If you will allow, I recommend for your spiritual practice for the next four months that you impose a moratorium on exactly how much news you are subject to—hopefully not more than an hour a day of television, social media, internet news, magazine and newspaper commentary, and/or political discussions. It will only tear you apart and pull you into the dualistic world of opinion and counter-opinion, not Divine Truth, which is always found in a bigger place.

Instead, I suggest that you use this time for some form of public service, volunteerism, mystical reading from the masters, prayer—or, preferably, all of the above.

        You have much to gain now and nothing to lose. Nothing at all.
And the world—with you as a stable center—has nothing to lose.
And everything to gain. 


Richard Rohr, September 19, 2020