Open or Closed

Although I favor the open mind, I certainly do not advocate that the mind should be so open that the brains fall out.
~Arthur Hays Sulzberger (among others) — New York Times publisher from 1935-1961 from “Freedom of Information” 

Sculpture “Melancholy” in Geneva, Switzerland by Albert György

I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
— Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, Volume Two

Few things are as condemning in this day and age than being accused of being closed-minded.  In religion and politics, the most zealous liberals and hard-core conservatives are the least likely to see another point of view, much less tolerate it. They are more than willing to “cancel” anyone who might be bold enough to express another perspective.

On the one hand, when unwilling to consider a differing opinion or world view, it becomes impossible to admit one could be a little bit misinformed or just plain wrong. Some hard-heads are locked so tight because they have intentionally lost the key to ever risk being open.

On the other hand, I know those who are so open-minded, there is nothing left but blank space because common sense has spilled out — whatever feels right, anything goes, no judgment, no boundaries, no barriers, all doors and windows flung ajar with “liberating” breezes coming and going.

It is a terribly empty void to behold when one’s brains have fallen out.

As for me, moderate middle-of-the-road person that I am, I tend to keep a protective helmet on but listen for the knock on the door of my convictions and opinions to see who or what may be there, remaining receptive to some possibility other than what I think I know.

All in all, we should prefer open-hearted over open- or closed-minded.  Although far costlier, Love spilled from a broken Incarnate Heart and flooded the world with undeserved Grace. It will never be closed again.

Sculpture by Albert György Geneva, Switzerland

This Notable Thing

Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly

they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,

dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
that opens,
becomes for a moment fragmented,

then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine

how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;

I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
~Mary Oliver “Starlings in Winter” from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end

from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air,

like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Watching a winter starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I can get queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t exercise such unity from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We are frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care, leaving so much body and spiritual wreckage behind.

To where has flown our mercy and tenderness?
We have corporately lost our internal moral compass.

We figuratively and literally shoot each other in the back, trampling over and suffocating one another, in a reach for justice that seems right in our own eyes. 

We even watch the daily death count rise in ever-increasing numbers, and still some resist doing what it takes to protect themselves and one another.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

Pleading To Be Let Out

Though the barn is so warm
that the oats in his manger,
the straw in his bed
seem to give off smoke—

though the wind is so cold,
the snow in the pasture
so deep he’d fall down
and freeze in an hour—

the eleven-month-old
palomino stallion
has gone almost crazy
fighting and pleading
to be let out.
~Alden Nowlan “The Palomino Stallion” from Selected Poems.

photo by Emily Vander Haak

Inside the barn the sheep were standing, pushed close to one
another. Some were dozing, some had eyes wide open listening
in the dark. Some had no doubt heard of wolves. They looked
weary with all the burdens they had to carry, like being thought
of as stupid and cowardly, disliked by cowboys for the way they
eat grass about an inch into the dirt, the silly look they have
just after shearing, of being one of the symbols of the Christian
religion. In the darkness of the barn their woolly backs were
full of light gathered on summer pastures. Above them their
white breath was suspended, while far off in the pine woods,
night was deep in silence. The owl and rabbit were wondering,
along with the trees, if the air would soon fill with snowflakes,
but the power that moves through the world and makes our
hair stand on end was keeping the answer to itself.
~Tom Hennen “Sheep in the Winter Night” from Darkness Sticks to Everything. 

We all feel pretty locked in right now – not able to go where we want, when we want, or how we want. We are kicking at the walls and pummeling each other in our frustration at the limitations imposed by a blizzard of virus swirling outside, swallowing up another person every couple minutes.

It is hard to think of quarantine as a necessary time of security and safety. Even our horses are confined to their barn stalls in the worst of winter weather with all the comforts of home provided to them, yet somehow they believe it is better “out there” than inside. However, once they are “out there,” they take one look around and turn back to come in where there isn’t knee deep mud or bitter northeast winds or pounding drenching rain. It isn’t a bit friendly out there.

In this part of the world, we can continue to have harsh winter weather for another month or so and then we can start allowing our critters more freedom. There is no chance the viral storm will settle that soon so the rest of us will hunker down for a while longer.

I’ll try not to bite if you promise not to kick.

I Don’t Mean to Make You Cry

I don’t mean to make you cry.
I mean nothing, but this has not kept you
From peeling away my body, layer by layer,

The tears clouding your eyes as the table fills
With husks, cut flesh, all the debris of pursuit.
Poor deluded human: you seek my heart.

Hunt all you want. Beneath each skin of mine
Lies another skin: I am pure onion–pure union
Of outside and in, surface and secret core.

Look at you, chopping and weeping…
~Suji Kwock Kim from “Monologue for a Onion”

It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   
from the taut ball first the brittle,   
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,   
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on   
weeping as you go on in, through   
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on   
in to the core, to the bud-like,   
acrid, fibrous skins densely   
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most   
pungent

~William Matthews from “Onions”

I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

~Naomi Shihab Nye, from “The Traveling Onion”
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems.

Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency…

…You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemone

and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

~Pablo Neruda from “Ode to the Onion”

Everything smells of “eau de onion” here in the kitchen as the onions are brought in from our late summer garden to be stored or dehydrated and frozen for winter soups and stews.

This is weepy business, but these are good tears like I spill over the whistled Greensleeves theme from the old “Lassie” TV show, or during any childrens’ choir song, or by simply watching videos of our grandchildren who are quarantined so far away from our arms.

It takes almost nothing these days to make me weep, so onions are a handy excuse, allowing my tears to flow without explanation:

I weep over the headlines.
I weep over how changed life is and for the sadness of the stricken.
I weep over how messy things can get between people who don’t listen to one another or who misinterpret what they think they hear.
I weep knowing we all have layers and layers of skin that appear tough on the outside, but as you peel gently or even ruthlessly cut them away, the layers get more and more tender until you reach the throbbing heart of us.

We tend to hide our hearts out of fear of being hurt, crying out in pain.

Like an onion, each one of us exists to make the day a bit better, the meal more savory, to enhance the flavors of all who are mixed into this melting pot together. We aren’t meant to stand alone, but to disappear into the stew, and be sorely missed if we are absent.

So very dish needs an onion, and for the sake of the dish, every onion vanishes in the process.

No, I don’t mean to make you cry
as you peel my layers away,
gently, one by one,
each more tender until you reach my heart.
Chop away at me if you must
but weep the good tears, the ones that mean
we weep for the sake of our meal together:
you eating and drinking,
and me – consumed.

This Flood of Stillness

I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery:
~Denise Levertov “Of Being” from The Stream and the Sapphire

Try as I might to hold fear and suffering
to the periphery of my vision,
it is difficult to keep them there;
like a morning fog clutching at the ground,
bad news creeps out and covers everything,
distorting truth and color and light,
yet so seductive by softening the rough edges
until reality hits.

Maybe I can turn away
Maybe it won’t reach me
Maybe it is all mirage, someone’s imagining.

Still, I can no longer be mere audience to the events of the day,
too weak in the knees to do anything.
The trouble that lies beyond this hill
touches us all.

I kneel in silent witness:
to wait, to listen, to pray for a flood of stillness
to cover us.

All is inescapable mystery,
yet to be clarified.



Wait for the Early Owl

In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon…

The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight

Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

~T. S. Eliot, verses from “East Coker” in Four Quartets

As I grow older I’m reminded daily of my limited point of view; I can scarcely peer past the end of my nose to understand the increasing complexity of the world around me – to look beyond, behind and through the here and now.

I’m not alone. For uncounted generations, people have sought answers when confronted with the indecipherable mysteries of existence here. We create monuments to the living and the dead to feel closer to them. We make up our own stories to explain the inexplicable.

The Word as given to us is all the story needed as all shall be revealed – still, we wait and wait, watching for Light to illuminate our darkness and Love laid down as never before.

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Goward Dolmen at the foot of the Mourne Mountains

Grace Disguised

If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such difficulty recognizing and accepting it?

Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle or made-to-order.

It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.
For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed
and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
~Kathleen Norris from Acedia and Me

I’ve been salvaged when I didn’t even know I needed saving.
I’ve been given what I didn’t think I needed so never had asked.
I’ve been taken places I never planned to be when I was sure things were fine right where I was.

Grace is not about giving me what I think I want;
it is not a reward for good behavior. 

It is giving me exactly what I need when I deserve nothing.

It is the thorny landing that catches me when I fall.
It is the tiny drop that spares me in drought.
It is scars formed as proof that healing happens to the deepest wounds.
It is being scattered when I planned to remain whole.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for what I didn’t know.
I am grateful, so very grateful, for grace disguised.

For Every Hurt

oakleafhydrangeabug
 
 
Gardens are also good places
to sulk. You pass beds of
spiky voodoo lilies   
and trip over the roots   
of a sweet gum tree,   
in search of medieval   
plants whose leaves,   
when they drop off   
turn into birds
if they fall on land,
and colored carp if they   
plop into water.
 
Suddenly the archetypal   
human desire for peace   
with every other species   
wells up in you. The lion
and the lamb cuddling up. 
The snake and the snail, kissing.
Even the prick of the thistle,   
queen of the weeds, revives   
your secret belief
in perpetual spring,
your faith that for every hurt   
there is a leaf to cure it.
~Amy Gerstler  from “In Perpetual Spring

Try as we might to find common ground with those so unlike ourselves, it is the differences we focus on despite our efforts to understand and befriend. Whether it is cranky politicians sparring in the headlines, or the perpetual struggle between weak and strong, we miss seeing Creation’s intended balance all around us.

We can dwell compatibly, lion and lamb, without one becoming a meal for the other. Indeed, prey transforms the predator.

Even the barbed and bloody thistle releases its seeds in the cushion of thistledown, drifting gently where the wind will take it next, at once forgiven for the scars it inflicted.

May I strive to be comforting rather than prickly, healing rather than inflicting, wherever I may land.

When August Burns Low

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Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now 
~Emily Dickinson

 

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“…one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.”
~N. Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

 

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On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer cricket song doomed to extinction by oncoming winter, is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves.

As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike the crickets, become all too aware we too are descending, particularly when the skies are filled with smoke from uncontrolled wildfires in the north, the east and the south.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

Yet the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the cricket song, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone.  The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted and nurtured by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

 

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To Get a Better View

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What struck me first was their panic.

Some were pulled by the wind from moving
to the ends of the stacked cages,
some had their heads blown through the bars—

and could not get them in again.
Some hung there like that—dead—
their own feathers blowing, clotting

in their faces. Then
I saw the one that made me slow some—
I lingered there beside her for five miles.

She had pushed her head through the space
between bars—to get a better view.
She had the look of a dog in the back

of a pickup, that eager look of a dog
who knows she’s being taken along.
She craned her neck.

She looked around, watched me, then
strained to see over the car—strained
to see what happened beyond.

That is the chicken I want to be.
~Jane Mead “Passing a Truck Full of Chickens at Night on Highway Eighty” from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2015

 

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I want to be that chicken.

When life is an anxious,
even terrifying journey
and everything around me is a swirl of chaos –
I want to be able to stick my head up above the fray,
feel the wind as opportunity rather than threat
and exist content in the moment,
looking ahead to what may happen,
unperturbed.

Reaching my mind beyond what I can hardly grasp,
I want to be that chicken
who experiences life like a dog.

 

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
~Robert Browning from “Andrea Del Sarto”

 

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