I have recently finished a cycle of painting and for the first time there is a theme to the images that were created. I call it “The Journey Home.” I am including some examples here on a separate page (see nav bar at top of this page). I am also putting together a little book with the picture series accompanied by prose and poetry; it will be available on line in a few weeks. Thanks for stopping by.
I hear the honking of the geese flying overhead on the way to warmer climes and the morning now has a crisp pinch in the air that fortells coming frosts.
I have not visited the park often this summer as I have in former years but today I place my chair in view of the dog park. The smaller dogs are preoccupied with scents and the threat posed by passing dogs which they meet with high pitched barks and aggressive stances.
In contrast it is play time for the large dogs. A recent arrival in the shape of a mid-sized black and white terrier has the shepherds, hounds and Great Dane in an uproar. This bi-colored bullet of speed drops into the pack with the subtlety of a firecracker and immediately had the other seven trailing in his wake as he tears in great circles through the field. Long legs scissor rapidly but are no match for the terrier who often looks back tantalizingly before putting on another burst of speed.
The larger dogs periodically drop off one by one, long tongues hanging out, sides panting and pumping. When a dog revives enough to rejoin the race it does not jump into the fray but takes up the last position as the pack speeds by. When the terrier calls a time out the dogs plop down in the cool grass with large smiles and wagging tails.
Then the romping begins and consists of bouncing jumps and hops. At times a dog flops down and invites another to wrestle. Is this where the expression “boundless joy” derived – the leaps and bounds of dogs at play is the personification of joy.
Meanwhile, the air is pierced with the ringing tones of “Little Brown Jug” playing incessantly as a rusting white ice cream truck slowly circles the parking lot. I wonder how appropriate it is to have a song about whiskey as the theme song for a children’s treat. As the truck passes by I check to see if the driver is wearing ear plugs as a precaution against insanity.
A young woman pulling a set of golf clubs briskly walks by and compliments me on my choice of seating and view. Moments later a man eating an ice cream bar asks me if I am drawing to which I reply that I am writing, and he quickly loses interest as writing is not a spectator sport.
Six dogs are sitting in companionable silence in the shade of a tall oak while two sniff the perimeter of the compound when the noon bells of St. Philomene chime. Nearby, the small dogs are sitting up, paws waving, for the small treats tossed by their owners.
In the larger playing field a large, lean black dog plays fetch with her master who flings the ball far down the open field, the dog flying in pursuit, her eyes measuring just where the ball will land and the trajectory of the rebound.
Soon, one by one, the dogs are escorted to waiting cars and trucks, all ready for a long afternoon nap in front of the TV while the family watches large men chase each other up and down the field trying to catch the flying football. Is this the human form of boundless joy?
This year’s season of the sun awakened a surprising appetite in me for poetry, all kinds of poetry – by those from other cultures, from other ages; romantic poetry and sacred poetry, by women and for women. In fact, I’ve read several anthologies, the latest being Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry, a weighty tome of nearly 2,000 pages.
I have degrees in English but in my early years my first love was fiction, not poetry. Perhaps it was all those epics like Paradise Lost, Faerie Queen, Idylls of the King that did me in. The strange words and syntax, classical allusions and lines that rhymed. I rarely, if ever, read poetry for pleasure except for the occasional foray into Kahlil Gibran or Pablo Neruda.
But this year for some reason my appetite has changed. Perhaps I have finally become old and/or wise enough to appreciate something of the soul of poetry. While fiction helps you escape life for a little while through vicariously living another’s, I think poetry can help you understand life more deeply.
One of the poets I have discovered on this journey is Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). He was very popular in the first part of the 20th century but fell out of favor when he opposed the US participation in WWII. He lived in Carmel, one of the most beautiful coastal towns in California, and many of his poems speak of a deep appreciation of nature.
One of his recurring symbols was the hawk, a bird particularly close to my own heart as a symbol of freedom. Nearly 20 years ago when I was recovering from an illness, I learned to whistle like a hawk and discovered that they would often respond to my calling as they flew overhead.
In my reading of Jeffers I found a hawk poem that particularly moved me in its beauty and power, and although it is longer than I usually include in a post I am quoting it here in its entirety. I hope it resonates with you.
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him:
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight
What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
The proof of the great drought is seen
in the small creek that runs through
the city park where now only smooth
round rocks lay where once
water flowed freely and
ducks floated easily
and fish swam just out of reach
of small boys with large hooks
at the end of the their father’s poles.
All is hard and dry now.
The mica in the river stones
glint in the morning sun
that recently delivered so many days
of hundred degree heat and
birthed baby fires that skittered
across the griddle of the city
and teased the edges of the yellow
ripening fields to bloom into black skies.
This morning is warm with a jacket-shedding
and a thirsty delta breeze that
prowls up the big valley from the south
where the fog lies lazily along coastal shores.
Men and women stride purposefully
down paths as large lawn-mowing tractors
rumble across fields like dinosaurs
patrolling their kingdom and leaving behind
the sweet scent of grass and gasoline.
Dragonflies, big as hummingbirds,
wings spinning like small propellers,
glide in spirals around the couple courting
under the dark tree who laugh and share
exuberant kisses that are heard across the lawn
where maintenance workers in bright orange vests
push wheelbarrows heaped with compost
as this person looks up into the white sun
and remembers rain.
He who knows me as his own divine Self,
As the Operator in him, breaks through
The belief he is the body, and is
Not born separate again. Such a one
Is united with me, O Arjuna.
Delivered from selfish attachment, fear
And anger, filled with Me, surrendering
Themselves to me, purified in the fire
Of my Being, many have reached the
State of Unity in me.
As people approach me, so I receive
Them. All paths lead to me, O Arjuna.
Composed between the 5th and 2nd century BC, The Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) is Hinduism’s best known scripture. The Gita is presented as a dialogue between Sri Krishna, a divine incarnation, and his friend and disciple, Arjuna, a warrior prince who is trying to live a spiritual life in the midst of worldly conflicts.
When I read this excerpt this morning I was reminded of the current conflicts raging in our troubled world. The Middle East and civil war in Iraq, the Palestinians and Israelis, the Ukraine. Many of these wars are fought in the name of religion, us against them, each claiming the only road up the divine mountain.
The belief in exclusivity or specialness is just another aspect of our egos that fear extinction, if not by physical death, then by return into the One. This belief in separation is the original sin, the apple which closed the gates to Eden. To think that we are or can be separate from our Source is the real meaning of suffering.
As the Gita says, we are not in charge, the Operator is in charge. We do not have a life, we are Life. There are many paths up the mountain and who is to say that one is better than another when God himself does not make that distinction.
On a dirt road lies a dead beetle.
Three little pairs of legs carefully folded on his belly.
Instead of death’s chaos –neatness and order.
The horror of this sight is mitigated,
the range strictly local, from witchgrass to spearmint.
Sadness is not contagious.
The sky is blue.
For our peace of mind, their death seemingly shallower.
Animals do not pass away, but simply die,
losing – we wish to believe – less of awareness and the world,
leaving – it seems to us – a stage less tragic.
Their humble little souls do not haunt our dreams,
they keep their distance,
know their place.
So here lies the dead beetle on the road,
glistens unlamented when the sun hits.
A glance at him is as good as a thought;
he looks as though nothing important had befallen him.
What’s important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.
Seen From Above, Wislawa Szymborska, 1921 –
I stumbled upon this poem the other day and found it quite touching for the modesty of its subject – not many poems are written about the lowly beetle – and because it reminded me of a short essay I wrote a year or two ago on a similar topic. My experience was not seeing a dead beetle but a beetle in the process of dying. (See Archives 2012, August 9)
“animals do not pass away, but simply die.” I like the irony Szymborska uses when she infers that the beetle’s death is so much less in importance than our own. Their death need not be draped in euphemism but baldly declared. The lowly beetle knows its place in the hierarchy of value. Its death is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. In contrast, how important we believe ourselves, how world-changing our own demise.
Yet when “seen from above” does not the same life which animates our hearts, also animate the beetles of the world, and the trees and rocks and birds? Isn’t the one life that connects us all, the one life that is All That Is? Perhaps this hierarchy of life in which we imagine ourselves as the evolutionary edge is, in fact, not a vertical structure but a horizontal configuration that moves from the center outward in all directions at once with no one form having primacy, all being equal and equally loved.
And, if by chance, we fulfill those dire prophecies of Armageddon who can say the world will miss our heavy footsteps and loud quarreling voices. Perhaps the meek will one day inherit the earth.
A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray & Dim
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket:
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step – and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third – a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you – I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.
This poem would have been a good selection for Memorial Day but I didn’t find it until the other day when perusing a book titled, “A Book of Luminous Things,” an anthology of international poetry edited by Czelsaw Milosz, Nobel Prize winner in Literature. But I think the sentiments of brotherhood expressed also serves for Flag Day.
We don’t really celebrate Flag Day much – ever since the Vietnam War and the days of flag burning I think there has been a confusion between patriotism and nationalism. Love of country, which is patriotic and can be symbolized by a flag, seems to me to be a good thing and one that is bred into our bones – who can forget where they spent their childhood – whether those years were good or bad? Who can ever leave behind what is held within in the word “home,” the emotional landscape of our life.
In Whitmans’ poem we are reminded of the great brotherhood of man whether those ties are felt on the battlefield or around the kitchen table. I, for one, am grateful for this land of ours and the opportunity to live here. As a people we are certainly not perfect and have made, and continue to make, bad choices – but the mountains and lakes, the rivers and valleys, the great vastness of this land and the inherent brotherhood of our people are worth celebrating.
Side Note: I learned yesterday that one of my ink wash paintings, Miles to Go, has been selected by the 9th National Exhibition held at Axis Gallery in Sacramento in August. It is one of 58 pieces chosen from more than 1300 submitted.
A middle aged man in Bermuda shorts
pushes a white-haired woman in a wheelchair
along the path that leads to the pond
where today the ducks and geese float peacefully
beneath the high shooting fountains
whose spray is blown eastward in fine droplets
by the offshore winds which have finally arrived from the south
where great walls of fire and spiraling columns of flames
have been scouring up and down hillsides
in a feeding frenzy that consumes most homes but not all,
serendipitously sparing one or two to stand testimony
to what has been but now is no more,
and are now slowly receding from the banks of towns
and dry seas of grass that cover the undulating hills
which flow down to meet the metronomic waves of the ocean
while black clouds of ashy air chokes the throats
of birds and men and coyotes whose long residency
of this place once called the Land of Smoke
by earlier inhabitants will be over
when this purge of fire finally gives way to quaking ground
and the earth shakes her shaggy head
and reassembles the hills and canyon in new formations
while in the east, lands are swept by raging rivers
that topple towns and swiftly cover meadows
and to the south great shelves of ice plunge into Antarctic seas
which, a millimeter at a time, are creating new shorelines
that will in the days ahead make of Phoenix a harbor and Lake Erie a Gulf;
but until then a pale-winged butterfly, the color of lemon flesh,
lands lightly on a bright dandelion beneath the blue Madonna sky
that holds just one cloud that peeks over the horizon of trees
that edge the parking lot where a mother is calling, “Come on, let’s go!”
across the field and down to the playground
where two small children are climbing the monkey bars
and swinging in unison until she calls again,
“Hurry! Now!” and the four sneaker-clad feet race
to the black station wagon that waits, tail gate open,
bats and bikes spilling out on a mild and cool Sunday morning.
Last night a roar like the rumble of a heavy-laden truck broke the stillness of evening and rapidly grew in intensity. The sky came crashing down in short staccato bursts of small hard ice pellets that hopscotched across wet sidewalks. The sudden storm was furious but passed in moments, leaving behind a slowly sinking sun and a faded blue sky stained with blotches of pink and crimson and orange clouds.
Today, within the small world that is the neighborhood park, the dew lays heavy on the grass, muffling the sounds of passing traffic and the strident barking of a dog. The sky is clear of even the thinnest clouds. The gusts of sweet air jostle the trees, their long limbs shudder and their leaves wave back and forth in the morning light.
People walk down streets and around paths, collars turned up, briskly keeping pace with tail-wagging dogs whose noses twitch as squirrels race up and down ancient oaks. A black-jacketed girl with knee-high boots and short shorts struts across the parking lot, high heels clicking and purse swinging. A jogging man takes off his shirt to bare his young brown skin, then sprints off to the track. At the playground children squeal and chase elusive bouncing balls thrown by weary mothers looking forward to afternoon naps.
Two mallards waddle in stately procession across the wide lawn, twin tails swinging in tick-tock fashion, four webbed feet keeping cadence to a goosey rhythm only they can hear. Overhead two dragonflies dart and dance, their biplane wings a circular blur against the sky. From a nearby branch a black crow looks on with interest and caws in reply to the noon bells of St. Philomene’s. Time for lunch.