Plume

Just get over it, she says,
words spewing like hot lava
from icy lips; intention beside
the point and yet how could I
have understood back then?
She would remain forever mute
on the origins of that rage
and I had the rest of my life
yet to figure it out;

Fifty-five years later,
soles of my sneakers burning,
legs quaking involuntarily, gazing
into fissures snaking red with liquid
earth, ambling along swirly hued
ebony rock cooled now into solid
only barely; to gaze, open-mouthed,
as fiery flows spilled forth, mauka
to makai, plumes of billowing smoke
arching high into the waning light;
stars swimming in mirages of heat
while the surf pounded incessantly,
though try as it might, it could not
beat back an expanding shoreline;

On the the path again, heads full
of wonder, while these feet,
long alienated from restriction
of canvas and sole, began swelling
and bulging like some alien creature
yearning to range free, and I am once
again struck by the irony in her words,
If the shoe fits, wear it;

But I’m tired now mama, and my feet
are blistered and raw; still I see you
more clearly through exhaustion
and defeat and your pain suffuses me
with sorrow for all who suffer this
volcanic process of purge and birth,
forging new land into harbors
for the heart.

(Kalapana lava flow 2017 ~ bj)

 

I’d Rather Be Bitten

It’s a scurrilous affair to be the target of an assault upon our humanity. Judgments, condemnation and criticisms all aim to reduce our opinions of ourselves, and are often successful in altering how others view us as well. We may well learn best through adversity, but none of us likes feeling attacked. It perpetuates suffering on both sides of the defenseless/defensive coin, especially when it’s of the insidious variety. That’s how the term backstabbing doubtless came into being, this feeling of being assaulted from behind where we can’t view the perceived enemy. And it’s a coward’s way out, this character assassination. It may temporarily grant the accuser a sense of superiority, but of one thing we can be certain; if we observe another engaging in this practice, it’s only a matter of time before they place us squarely in their sights.

I grew up with some fairly critical people, and would venture to say that years of habituation brought this trait out in me. I was an extremely sensitive child in a chaotic environment, and did not receive much guidance in handling the world with equanimity. And though I did garner some fundamental truths which would later prove beneficial, the chasm between what was practiced and what was preached was too vast for my child’s mind to bridge. Only later with age, experience and my own inevitable mistakes in parenting was I able to put the past into greater perspective. It’s still a process at midlife, so I suspect some lessons are deeper than mere conditioning.

As a teenager, I bolstered my fragile sense of self by finding fault with someone I thought better looking than I was, smarter, more talented or popular. Even if I shared these thoughts with no one else, a sense of smugness enveloped me like the proverbial warm fuzzy blanket. Eventually though, and it wasn’t too long in coming, that wrap felt suffocating. To something more decent inside of me, it just felt wrong. Hacking others down did not fill me up, nor did it give me any genuine or lasting sense of self worth. In fact it lent nothing of these attributes, it only carved a hole in my soul.

It has taken many years to rout the poison of criticism from my core. Like standing before a polished mirror, the presence of truth reflects back anything unlike itself. In this space, I am able to experience an up-swelling of compassion for the child that was me and for all the confused children in the world, trying as best they can to survive and thrive in adverse circumstances. Thus my ruminations extend to the child that lives within every adult, and it is easy to experience forgiveness and unconditional love, both for myself as well as for our deeply flawed yet simply human race.

 

Reflective

 

I never told you I loved you enough, the only ones
to whom it might have mattered and mattered much,
how could I? There are certain things one apprehends
only with age, the fact that most parents were
mere children themselves when they raised us up;

Now when I look back, I am able to glimpse humanity
more humbly instead of simply placing familiar labels,
Mom and Dad, great brazen fire-breathing dragons
of the household, both admired and feared
for their outsized demeanor, similar to the church God
I prayed daily would grant me safety and comfort
in place of the warm arms I yearned to fold myself
into, though dared never trust;

Even with busy single parenting, I was not able
to reflect upon the scope of the job, absorbed
as I was in all things survival to comprehend;
too enraptured in my own harried drama to sit back
and draw parallels, to reconcile present with past,
dissolving patterns and resolving conflict between
what was innate and what absorbed in the confusion
of a young woman’s developing brain;

If still alive, I would tell you today of impressions
large and small, from the sycamore tree
in our front yard I watched dad set into ground,
to books and music and mom’s patience
not with children, but of sewing
that beige corduroy suit; the no small wonder
at flopping pole-caught fish in our boat’s hold
ferried back to feed progeny, of pigeons flying home
to mounds of earth glistening with geraniums and ivy;
how both culture and soil seared themselves
in memory like the grooves of the records spun
in the cabinet, Benny Goodman and Tchaikovsky
in equal measure, while and I listed and fretted,
wishing instead for the beat of my own generation,
the sonorous thumping of my own fragile heart’s desire;

I get it. I am here to button my lip and smile discreetly
like the Kuan Yin herself, knowing bountiful paths
with easier courses lie just alongside
the more arduous ones my own girls are taking;
though to make life worth anything,
they are theirs for the making.

 

This poem was written recently with my longtime Renshi poetry sisters. Renshi is a form of linked poetry; the last line of one poem becomes the first of the next, and so on. Thus are topics revealed. Image is the street in front of the house I grew up in, two of my brothers in the frame.

Birthday reflections, 2016

Birthdays and holidays have always been tricky for me. These are occasions where we indulge in the pleasure of being remembered by those we love, times we can feel a bit special and pampered. Or at least that’s true for many women I know, some givers to the point of exhaustion.

But here’s the quandary: for many years, my husband has borne the brunt of my disappointment, whether in him or in others who have occasionally failed to display requisite feedback. While on one hand I love celebrations, when paired with expectations they surely lead to disappointment. Chris is a practical guy, one who demonstrates devotion on a day to day basis. An earnest man, he is quick to assess, slower to process, yet inevitably one who seeks forgiveness when words or actions are out of line with his noble heart.

What my partner grants me every day I draw breath is priceless: the freedom to be, to explore, expand and contract, to write, reflect, take photographs, go back to school and embrace whatever each new day presents. In my personal history, freedom has always arrived with chains around its ankles. Too often it padded in on the heels of betrayal, jealousy and unspoken bargains and entitlement. I hardened myself early on, beginning by telling my father he could stuff his inheritance back into his bank book. I was not for sale, never would be.

Two faithless husbands followed that early family life, along with two blessed daughters. This duality did not escape me, for what was given always seemed to demand equal sacrifice. I worked both inside and outside the home, proving to an oblivious world that I was not a helpless, hapless victim. Still, lessons continued as they will. Clearly relationships were where my mettle was tested, but this did not become summarily obvious until well into my fifties.

Through no calculated means whatsoever, I got lucky. For over twenty years this man has stood by my side, and though our early days were fraught with growing pains, the peace we finally attained is beyond measure. Only in the past year or two have I begun to truly and utterly comprehend the scope and meaning of freedom, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with things money can buy. Which only goes to show that a media-driven society that equates purchases with love is juvenile, piteous and damaging to anything so fragile as the human heart. I wish I had learned this sooner, but am grateful to the core I learned it at all.

2014-11-23 13.34.21

 

Life X 2

Journal entry 2013 … 

Pondering strength: the lungs and the legs to kick out into deep water, swimming back and forth across the bay. What it would take to remain calm in the face of a shark sighting might require more strength than I could muster – then again, maybe not. I often marvel at the reserves of strength humans harbor.

The perils of survival: how people make it through this life in the face of considerable adversity. After reading Hersey’s The Wall as a teenager and recoiling in horror at the extermination of Jews in Poland during Hitler’s reign of terror, I swore I couldn’t broach that topic again. And yet it’s like a wagon I’m bouncing along in, perpetually circling, trying to form a defensive barrier while wondering if what’s in the middle is worth protecting. I can’t shut my eyes to what’s true.

And so I find myself in a thrift store, grabbing Vikram Seth’s Two Lives, placing it in my basket. It is only later I delve into this memoir of the author’s beloved aunt and uncle – he, an east Indian dentist who lost his arm in WWII, she an Israelite who escaped before Berlin was systematically purged of its Jewish occupants, sweeping her mother, sister, and countless dear ones into horrific oblivion.The book starts out benignly enough, as do most of our lives – family, friends, parties, schooling – setting us up and onto unpredictable trajectories. We live, laugh, love and sometimes despair over trivialities. We are children, after all, until life turns on a dime and we transition into adulthood. How this might be versus the reality of how it goes down for many of us determines our character. And what we can share, if we survive, are our stories. For better or worse, experiences unfold, peeling back the protective veil, revealing the core of the collective. It is you. It is me. It is us: the human race.

How do we live with the knowledge of our very worst tendencies? To deny history dooms us to repeat it. Thoroughly unfathomable, until, bit by bit, it opens up before me …

 

iu-1

Born Open

I think most of us come into life this way. Open, free, arms and legs flailing, lungs gulping air and expelling futility. We have no idea of the world until we do. We find it safe or frightening, depending on luck, circumstance, and perhaps fate.

I wonder about children in foreign lands – countries that seem always on the brink of civil unrest. How must it feel to fear the night, to keep one’s head down during daylight hours, to roam the streets with armed guards patrolling every block? Yet somehow growing up, I became imprisoned inside myself. I admit this because I hardly think I am alone. Half of me pulled inward while the other part learned how to play the outside game. I wonder how many never reconcile these disjointed factions, once maturity liberates us from the need to placate them.

How often have I repeated Scene I, Take II, over and over again? My story, and unknowingly I stuck by it. For years. Was I attempting to reinvent the past, to right innumerable wrongs? Did I simply forget to ad lib? How attached the guileless seem to the script we have been handed through no fault or direction of our own, as if the gods struck stage marks and we are loathe to step away.

Is free will a disease? For, although I possessed a plethora of choices all along once I attained adulthood, contagion seemingly took forever. But oh, when it caught on! It was like clamping my eyes shut and praying to grab the most fragrant, the loveliest bridal bouquet; watching in disbelief as it sailed right through the molecules of sky, straight into my eager hands.

copyright Bela Johnson

Sweet Forgiveness

My mother didn’t touch me, but you can’t give what you didn’t get. ~ Maria Shriver

Why has it taken me most of my life to understand parents as fallible human beings rather than the perfect archetypal models my Inner Child yearns for? Don’t I already understand that a lack of forgiveness only hurts me in the end? Of course I do. Now.

It was pivotal when I comprehended forgiveness as a two-way street. I thought absolving another was an offering, my own noble gesture. It seemed a thankless task, then, when crushed expectations boomeranged that gift back into my lap. It took me years to discover the root of forgiveness arising organically from a combination of cerebral understanding, spiritual desire and a heart longing to be free from the burden of recurring disappointment and perpetual sadness.

I was not a happy child, though I pretended to be upbeat to fit in. If I could garner recognition and acceptance from others, that elusive prop of ego known as I must exist. In fact for years I felt as though I only lived for others, as if the mirror in another’s eyes would reflect my precious heart back to me. Then I could begin to love myself enough to justify life such as it was.

I felt the impostor well into my forties, if not fifties. Cynical about all things including happiness, you couldn’t have told me anything different. Like most human beings, I needed to learn the hardest lessons myself, experiencing enough adversity that the message finally stuck. As I acknowledged my own suffering, it became easier to empathize with all living things following a similar directive to survive and thrive.

Finally, what arises quite naturally these days is the desire that all beings discover clarity of heart, encouraging the dissolution of confusion and acrimony. We all possess history that we either learn from or are unable, for whatever reason, to rise above. Perpetuating a state of antipathy cripples us emotionally, poisoning others we might least wish to harm. Forgiveness is key in unlocking many liberties, not the least of which is the freedom to express more fully that which our inner nature has ever intended. And that inner nature is love.

wild honey