Poetry Doesn’t Pay, and Prayer Doesn’t Either

Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins has a poem called “Poetry Doesn’t Pay.”  I began the decade living for poetry.   I end the 2000s with one half remembered line and a focus on payment rather than poetics.

I’m still working on imagining my way out of my day job and into being an at home mom.  Oh what a passel of worries (“gremlins” as Magpie Girl calls them) have been stirred up as I imagine stepping into the void that is life without guaranteed salary and benefits!  One of the more bizarre worries that has emerged is how I’ll find spiritual nourishment in this new venture.

The role of spirituality in my life is not a bizarre concern, of course, but it’s generally considered rather superfluous to one’s career choices.  My current job certainly does not have a spiritual dimension.  Why would I expect the new home business I hope to pull together to have any direct connection to the way I talk to God?

I am coming to realize all the pressure I am putting on myself, on how I expect that earning money in a new way will change everything that motherhood has not already rearranged.  As much as I have liked the general direction of my life, Moira’s birth began the seismic quake I was waiting for.  Now I am looking for everything to shift; I am impatient for all of the random puzzle pieces of me to fall into place.

Some who know me in the “real world” might laugh to hear this, but my ideal job would be to be a priest.  There are several impediments, of course, seeing that I am female, and even if I could become an Episcopalian or something, I still cannot commit to Christianity solely enough to convince a congregation of my piety.  Since I don’t think I am quite ready to start holding revivals in my backyard and no established religions will have me (or I won’t have them…), it seems that prayer isn’t going to bring in a paycheck.  At least not directly…

I am overwhelmed by the weight of my dreams, my burdensome need for poetry and and a life that is purely mine from waking ’til sleep.  The love of my child, my husband, my home is a crippling curse and an incessant blessing and the only thing that matters at the end of the day.  This love is the stuff my prayers are made of.

May this love be strong enough.

May I be strong enough.

But nothing,
you can’t pay me in poems or prayers,
or your husband’s jokes,
or with photographs of your children
in lucky lemon sweaters hand made by your dead Great Aunt
who had amnesia and the croup

Rita Ann Higgins, “Poetry Doesn’t Pay”

Open to Change, Receptive to Healing

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What if it’s true? What if, truly, “we are the ones we have been waiting for“?

I have always loved this phrase. First I heard it on the lips of women who inspired me. Then I found June Jordan who first strung those words together in her powerful, earth-shifting poem. Alice Walker gave us a book that borrowed the line for its title. And then of course there was Barack Obama who turned the phrase into a something more than a campaign slogan and made it mean something national and something real.

The election results are a month old now, but all that shiny hope cannot have worn away yet, right? The inauguration is still ages away, so I am sure that we are all just marinating in possibility. Aren’t we?

I ask that question because there is a sneaky little part of me worries that complacency will creep in. And perhaps it already has in some ways. The economy is still sliding downward. Cabinet picks are less sexy than frenzied chants of “Yes we can!” Christmas is coming and there are too many thing to get done in the next three weeks to even remember all that election night champagne

This was not intended to be a post about post-election let down, nor am I trying to let a big old cynical moon eclipse our gorgeous new sun. Our lightning-fast news cycle would have us believe that such musings are so three weeks ago anyway.

I am actually thinking about the changes that I am seeing take root in my own life and in the lives of the people around me. These changes have nothing to do with the political and have everything to do with the personal. Of course, we know that eventually, those two spheres almost always start to blend together

Though I have been practicing Reiki for eight years, I have begun to dedicate myself to the path of a healer in the last year since I have been enrolled in a Healing Arts School. The beautiful sense of wisdom that finally takes root when we find we’re closer to the middle of our lives than to the beginning, combined with what I have learned in my classes, has totally shifted my perspective on the world. I know its been a long process, but suddenly I realize I am able to articulate my interest in alternative health and offer what abilities I have in service to others.

This evolution in the way I can be honest about my belief in our power to heal ourselves and the possibility of finding true wellness outside the strict confines of typical Western medicine has been downright infectious. Trusting in the intuitive power of my hands and others’ desire to heal, I have been able to offer my warm touch to people who never would have been receptive to such “out there,” “new age” ideas. I think this is successful both because I take a quiet approach, casually introducing what I do and what I believe and then allowing people to open up to me in any way they can and because I have new confidence in what I do.

People’s new sense of receptivity has very little to do with me, however. I am just lucky enough to have had the chance to observe it. Something within the individual is shifting. There is the recognition that the road we have all been careening along together is doing us more harm than good and that we need to find a new way.

If we are the change that we have been waiting for, we have to realize that change is here, now. Despite all the chaos in this world, people are finding the ability to open themselves up to new experiences and new wisdom.

How can we access and live this change ourselves and how can be the midwives of change for others?

Saint Anthony’s Priorities

Rustling through my closet, both trying to organize things and avoid the chores in the kitchen in advance of the beautiful family invasion due in on Thursday, I marveled at the odd assortment of life’s detritus that has traveled with me. Expired student IDs from Galway, Halloween greeting cards, cryptic notes from my grandfather that were once attached to long forgotten newspaper clippings about libraries or the Hudson Valley. Memories, lovely and otherwise, enmeshed in it all.

I’ve made the prayer to Saint Anthony my new mantra as I casually riffle through closets too new to have dark, concealing corners. That August morning we move in I know I made sure I put my hands on my grandmother’s jewelry. Now, the nice flat white box is somewhere quite safe, I’m sure. If we leave the house unlocked no thieves with a penchant for houses on winding country roads will be able to find this stuff. Of course, neither will I…

At any rate, I am a new but fervent believer in what seems like little more than a children’s nursery rhyme “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost that cannot be found.” I just love the way the reciter abdicates all responsibility for losing the treasured object in question and sort of indicates that a certain something wandered off like a naughty child on a busy train platform.

Once I lost a handwritten letter my grandfather had sent while he was on an Ignatian retreat. It was one of those letters that seem to have been written in a mythical bygone age when one could pour out his soul in scrawling script and theological discussions were the topic of the day. Foolishly tucked in a paperback, it vanished during a lunch hour I spent walking across most of campus. (Please note, I did not lose said missive, it obviously jumped from its place.) Two days later after ransacking house and car and office, I chanced a trip to the College lost and found. When the girl at the desk said, “oh, this letter?” I began to weep and blubber with gratitude and became more than convinced that only a being with some seriously divine status could have inspired someone to save this gem from the ubiquitous recycling bins and send it on its way back to me.

It seems that Saint Anthony sometimes makes his own decisions about what needs to be found, however. Tonight, in this box of mementos and junk I found two things that I never would have realized I needed to find: a rose quartz heart and a bit of tortured poetry.

I had received the heart at a ritual years ago and given it to my Nanna when she was battling cancer. Funny how my buddy Tony seems to think that I need to find the guidance of my other grandmother right now – not the one with the jewels, but the one whose heart I knew the best. I am thinking that Nanna is trying to tell me that I need to pass this stone on to my sister as she tries to heal her own heart from the loss of yet another loved one to that wicked, voracious disease.

The lines of poetry are written in blue ink on an index card, and I can only guess that I scribbled them down while sitting at a job that seem bent on destroying me, body and soul. One good thing about a job as a medical receptionist before everyone had internet on their office computers: I would spit language onto scrap paper rather than numb my addled brain with gossip sites and Daily Show clips. I cannot say much for the quality of the little rant, but it amazes me how much my life has changed in the last six years yet how some things have become so much more true than a lost twenty-three year old could have ever imagined.

—–
Spools of integrated soul
aching for reprieve, expression, air
[…]
Buried in verse, believing in my own mountaintop
even as I am entombed in these feet of clay
—–

I know I was given that crystal for a reason, so I think I must set about why I was sent a telegram from this younger voice of my soul…

Oh, and Saint Anthony, thanks for also helping me find something to write about tonight (the writer’s block had been killing me all evening!).


The Responsibility of the Dreamer

In dreams begin responsibilities

W.B. Yeats

When I first savored this line in college, I was too high on the poetry and dreaming to realize it was a simple phrase that ends with thud of adult responsibilities. By graduate school, Yeats was as much vocation as avocation, and I was so chilled by watching literature become a responsibility that I left the path of academia before I had really begun. Once I was marooned in the “real world” and trying to forget about poets and their dancing words, I eventually realized I was ducking both dreams and responsibilities. Now that I am carving out a new space for myself and trying to balance the poetic and the pragmatic, I am figuring out the relationship that Yeats described.

I have surprised myself over the last few days with my entries that call for a focus on individual choice and change even at a moment when we are all captivated by events on the national stage will shape our lives. “Responsibility” has not come up in my writing yet, but I think it is inevitable when we think about finding hope and renewal within ourselves rather than relying purely on the inspirational tones of a man at a podium.

America is the perfect example of a dream that became a most certain reality. It has not been sustained by idealists alone, but by people willing to bear the burden of its reality. It hasn’t just been perpetuated by the politicians who believe that they follow in the footsteps of the framers of the Constitution either. If we want to take part in this dream of America, if we want to resuscitate this once mighty icon and save it from its nightmarish state, then we all must take part in weaving the visions of what we want this country to be and then tend those visions as they become reality.

Dedicating oneself to birthing any creative impulse, be it a work of art, a piece of writing, service to another person, or the invention of a country quickly divests the dreamer from her airy throne. There is criticism and exhaustion and fear and doubt to contend with at every turn. In the end, finding yourself in charge of your own brilliant fantasy made sweet flesh must be worth sacrificing the freedom of being devoted to nothing in particular.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats

Obstacles, Legendary and Otherwise

All Legendary Obstaclesimageafter.com

All legendary obstacles lay between
Us, the long imaginary plain,
The monstrous ruck of mountains
And, swinging across the night,
Flooding the Sacramento, San Joaquin,
The hissing drift of winter rain.

All day I waited, shifting
Nervously from station to bar
As I saw another train sail
By, the San Francisco Chief or
Golden Gate, water dripping
From great flanged wheels.

At midnight you came, pale
Above the negro porter’s lamp.
I was too blind with rain
And doubt to speak, but
Reached from the platform
Until our chilled hands met.

You had been travelling for days
With an old lady, who marked
A neat circle on the glass
With her glove, to watch us
Move into the wet darkness
Kissing, still unable to speak.

– John Montague

At yoga class tonight when my teacher spoke of obstacles and dancing with them rather than boxing with them, I thought first of the new limitations thrust upon me by an activist sciatic nerve. As I tried to breathe through the frustration that flared with each twinge in my right leg, I remembered the line that started Montague’s poem: “All legendary obstacles lay between us.” My dear friend Perspective slowly overcame the drama I was creating about being a blighted creature forced to wrestle with something as cantankerous and enduring as this mystery pain coiled in my hip. I came to realize that this was not an epic malady but another lesson, another opportunity for growth. No trauma seemed to have set off this affliction that I am trying very hard not to see as a betrayal of the body, so can only assume that some unprocessed emotion has been lodged in the small of my back.

Looking at this poem I am tempted to move beyond that wonderful first line and read it as an allegory for the self and the soul. The restless speaker is caught in the distraction of life even as he eagerly awaits the Beloved. Such distances separate them as to seem insurmountable even as he never gives up hope for their reunion. That doubt and elation he feels when he finally encounters her is the same that we all experience when we finally realize our greatest desire, to stand before the soul, all full of prayers that we are worthy and that this will be a perfect love. I dare read the old woman who accompanied the Beloved to be a spirit guide, a guardian angel, the one who watches from on high and protects us on the journey across what can appear to be unscalable mountains and infinite plains.

Suddenly sciatica seems to be less of a concern…

Sharing the “Psychic Interspaces”

The makers of images
Dwell with us still
We must listen
To their speech
Re-learn their
Songs
Recharge the psychic
Interspaces
Of our dying
Age
Or live dumb
And blind
Devoid of old
Song
Divorced from
The great dreams
Of the magical and fearful
Universe.

Lament of the Image
An African Elegy

Ben Okri

I found this poem in Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring’s The Mystic Vision and was overcome with a wash of knowledge I had considered obsolete. It was phase of study that was certainly important as it lead me here, but the details had become irrelevant in my current search. In this hunt for “pure” experiences of God, of accounts of those who superseded the intermediaries of this world, I had forgotten myth. What was once the basis of all of my scholarly interests had receded to a collection of background stories, succor for those trapped in narrative rather than experience.

Such negligence of the very foundations of my current project of living marks me as a most negligent ingrate, or perhaps just someone who assimilates and moves on and then loops back to the basis of it all when the time is right. How could I forget how Irish myth and specifically the poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill had shaped my academic work and perspective as a young woman discovering her voice and viewpoint?

Nuala has said: “I think it is downright pernicious to underestimate myth; it’s like pretending the unconscious doesn’t exist, and that we are just composed of rationality. Myth is a basic, fundamental structuring of our reality, a narrative that we place on the chaos of sensation to make sense of our lives.” (“Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Medbh McGuckian: Comhra.” Southern Review.)

Myth is the thing that links us beyond cultural divisions and unites us even when the sky itself seems to be made of different stuff as it is in Okri’s Africa and Ní Dhomhnaill’s Ireland. “Recharge the psychic/ Interspaces” could come right from Ní Dhomhnaill’s commentary as she describes the metaphor of mermaids in her work or the symbolism of the fairy líos (fort). The pull of the ancestors, veneration for the creators of culture and memory, these are universal themes that are permitted, or actually required, in myth. Today’s epiphany leads me to realize I forget my first lessons at my peril and that part of me still sits in a Dublin lecture hall and must continue to seek the time before history when the world was forged by these “makers of images.”

Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 2

In my last post I presented Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s “The Real Thing” as a response to why I seek to learn more about the Catholic tradition of my birth even when I see so many problems with its execution over the last two millennia. Throughout the cultural upheaval/revolution of the last few decades that called into question centuries of Catholic Church rule of Irish social norms Ní Chuilleanáin examined and assessed her religion but continued to affirm her connection to it.

In an essay by Catriona Clutterbuck in this Spring-Summer’s Irish University Review outlining the ways Ní Chuilleanáin has uncovered the “liberating potential of religion,” this poet is declared to “trace the power of the imagination to excavate space for the agency of belief.” As I examine the authenticity of my faith, I often wonder at the place of imagination in such an endeavor; is there a demarcation point between divine guidance and an overly active brain, or can we credit our imagination with being, at least at times, divinely inspired? To hear that Ní Chuilleanáin’s imagination serves to produce fertile territory for belief is reassuring, even if it does come from an academic who is probably less interested in the quality of the poet’s connection to God than we might be here.

The Brazen Serpent of the Old Testament is a kind of homeopathic cure: God tells Moses to mount a brass serpent on a pole so that the Israelites who had been stricken by the bites of fiery snakes sent to punish their sins could be healed. In the same fashion, Ní Chuilleanáin’s reimagined Church is an antidote to the hegemonic legacy of Irish Catholicism; something so traditional as the figure of a nun in a reliquary can be presented in a new way so as to soothe the injuries done by formalized religion. The rejuvenation comes in the reclaiming of seemingly irretrievably sullied entities.

Sister Custos herself seems to operate under the assumption that all that has been decreed by her Church is true: without question she takes pride in the relics in her care; she does not seem to protest that the windows that would allow her to look to a world beyond have been barricaded; she moves placidly through this Palm Sunday. At the same time, though she appears so oblivious to her own individuality and her place as a woman in this Church, the poet places her in a bricked up room. She is locking away an object that once produced miracles while her own vows are subterranean and inaccessible. The scene has been set for dissent. It is the nun’s own foot kicking under the white sheet of history, an indomitable spirit that enlivens her faith even in the presence of so many imprisoned, lifeless things because it is the person who is the authentic center, “the real thing. ” Just as the Brazen Serpent relieved those who suffered God’s wrath at the hands of snakes, it might be able to sooth those who suffered at the hands of an organization that did not see individuals deserving love but a flock of sinners to be subdued.

It is the modern reader who would read this piece as the modern poet lays it out. My interpretation assumes that the Church can in fact be questioned and yet still places a sense of worth on the monastic existence (though she lives a cloistered life without a view of the countryside once can assume that her lay sisters have a much more difficult time of it, here she is permitted education and time for a contemplation of God). It is not necessary that the Church cease to exist, but instead that it grows to recognize a woman such as this one who lives within it.

Assuring That There Will Always Be “One Free Foot Kicking” Pt. 1

The Real Thing

The Book of Exits, miraculously copied
Here in this convent by an angel’s hand,
Stands open on a lectern, grooved
Like the breast of a martyred deacon.

The bishop has ordered the windows bricked up on this side
Facing the fields beyond the city.
Lit by the glow from the cloister yard at noon
On Palm Sunday, Sister Custos
Exposes her major relic, the longest
Known fragment of the Brazen Serpent.

True stories wind and hang like this
Shuddering loop wreathed on a lapis lazuli
Frame. She says, this is the real thing.
She veils it again and locks up.
On the shelves behind her the treasures are lined.
The episcopal seal repeats every coil,
Stamped on all closures of each reliquary
Where the labels read: Bones
Of Different Saints. Unknown.

Her history is a blank sheet,
Her vows a folded paper locked like a well.
The torn end of the serpent
Tilts the lace edge of the veil.
The real thing, the one foot kicking
Under the white sheet of history.

– Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

This poem came to me in meditation this morning, but since I am not yet willing to credit my mediative state with the power to attract wisdom from sources greater than myself, I assume it has been rattling around in my head due to a series of more earthly conversations. My post about an identity crisis in a Dublin lecture hall leads me to contrast a graduate student seeking only the subversive bits of Irish poetry that declared a native feminist spirit deeper than any imported religion with a more mature seeker who has redefined the “subversive.” Because I was constantly seeking the Goddess in verse, I paid little attention to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s work. A few volumes are full of notes and comments, but most of them are tinged with irony as I marveled at such an obsession with the Church; clearly she was occupied with the spirit of the sacred feminine, why did she have to veil it in a habit? Now, as my definition of the sacred moves beyond such gender discrimination (to both rather than either/or) and I have a broader sense of history and context, I read her work with fresh eyes, wondering what that thesis of mine would have looked like if I had not limited to such a specific view of the divine.

Another reason I believe I was drawn back to this poem is a half-baked online chat session with a friend who knew me in my professionally irreverent pagan days in Ireland. To him, my new investigations of Catholicism are akin to asking politely to don the moral straight jacket and requesting a steady stream of lies at the hands of patriarchal victors. In the twisted medium that is “talking” online (I am sure enough people have pontificated quite enough on how such interactions contribute to our chronically fragmented personalities and our pervading sense of isolation even as we drown in “communication”), I tried to express something about babies and bathwater and waste. Luckily we have poets to save us from clichés!

I wonder at my former ability to write literary criticism even when a poem shook me to the core. Was I like a surgeon of words, hiding behind an impersonal mask that refused to become emotionally invested in the subject (or was it the object)? Or if I was affected, was I resigned that an English class could not always fulfill my needs? I suppose that I decided against the PhD path because, in the end, the classroom is not a cathedral.

A Longing Deeper than Tradition’s Divide

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So I have heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why do you stop praising?”
“Because I never hear anything back.”
“This longing you express is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

-Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks)

Rumi’s love dogs howled to me while I read an article by James Martin about Mother Teresa‘s decades long crisis of faith during which she admitted “my soul is just like [an] ice block.” I understand just enough of this unearthly longing to know that I have never been able to approach the divine so honestly and fully as to risk such unbridled need.

This poem, like so much of Rumi, thrills and terrifies me as I wonder at the exquisite madness of giving oneself completely to God. I think of all of the comfort and routine that I have allowed to define me and cherish the trappings of this life even as part of me recognizes them as so many illusions and poorly designed stage props. When Rumi’s words have bent my brain into fits of beautiful distraction, spinning between exhilaration and despair, I return to another line “he who knows himself knows his Lord.” I know that this is one of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammed and that I cannot really understand the inherent resonance of those words, but they give me great solace. Of course, one can read the phrase to mean that Teresa’s dark night was instigated by a sense of separation from her true self, and that is cold comfort to be sure. Likening it to my own experience, however, I feel like I am stepping into an eternity full of promise when I can believe that some trace of God dwells within and that journeying into myself, and thus into the sacred, is always possible.