Of Cycles and Metaphors

The waters of birth released me, dolphin-like,
into a realm of wonder and delight, only to realize
I was swimming with sharks; they, friendly enough
when sated, aggressive and dangerous when needy
and I swam for my life, filling lungs and stomach
and for the sheer sensation of viscous water
stroking sleek skin and oh, I kept on moving,
for once out of water I would perish;

The oceans were vast and dark and deep, caverns
and voids, brilliant colors and textures and hooks;
barbs dangling through refracted rays of sunlight,
tiny concentric circlets framing slender drop lines
nearly invisible, a too-tidy meal wrapped sinuously
around each of them, appearing not quite right
this fast food, still I was hungry and sampled the fare
and the hook jerked and jabbed, piercing my flesh,
tearing off bits here and there; it was painful,
yet still I remained at liberty to continue my journey;

On an on I swam, for what else is a dolphin to do;
each day the waters remained the same, each day
they changed, some tinged with toxic debris,
at other times those brilliant hues of turquoise
and indigo were balm to a weary heart and now,
decades later, I discover tiny hooks embedded still.
As I carefully dislodge each barb, there is
searing pain mitigated by relief; I am free,
if scarred. I am free.

Dust Devils

Swirls and curls picking up detritus
along the way and setting it down
elsewhere, never mind human order;
this is our mother the earth, and she is
magnanimous and destructive
in turn;

Whether we worship gods or devas,
the dandelion parts with her seed
on the same howling winds
that scatter ashes of the dead,
and what seems random
is ransom for living amidst wonder
on this swirling blue marble
punctuated by our paltry presence;

History drums out repetition,
victories in battle interpreted as favor
of the gods while peaceful coexistence
is again bitten back on blistered lips
of the poor and downtrodden, laboring
in dusty fields to eke sustenance
for strapping sons sent off to fight
once and over again;

While the sun rises and sets,
virescent rivers flow and great grey
oceans surge, tides rocking giant beds
of glaucous kelp, rolling coral bones
along endless driftwood-encrusted
shorelines as certain as our next breath
until it’s not, and we fall to the knees
in supplication, seeking forgiveness
for our lack of attention, too busy
to notice beauty, mossy life wedged
in tiny fissures, puzzle pieces
of a baby’s granite skull
as the earth continues on
in perpetuity with or without us.

This Sweet Life II

A sense of place … again and again we return to this puzzling concept. Wendell Berry, America’s best-known bioregionalist, says if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are. Does our actual physical location determine our ability to construct the life we yearn to lead?

Wandering from place to place, looking for our environment to provide us with the deep inner peace our souls yearn for may be futile. We have been culturally conditioned to look for what we need outside ourselves, making many of us road warriors, devoid of a sense of place and stewardship to the planet we call home. Committing ourselves to some corner of earth we choose to call home allows us to envision the greater sense of connection we share as planetary participants. If we live somewhere long enough, over time we begin to relate to our sense of place, to observe ourselves in the greater scheme of things.

Constant drifting has left many of us with an inner restlessness where we seem unable to sit still long enough to feel the rhythms connecting us with the lifeblood of Mater earth. This mater is substance, earth, our flesh, blood and bones. Place your ear to the ground, and soon you can synchronize your own heartbeat to the pulse of the planet. It is in seeking solitude that we discover this profound connection, not in isolation from our felt sense of connection to the whole.

Feelings of alienation can cause us to move around unduly, to seek a sense of place, purpose and inner peace somewhere outside the self. When we journey inward, the rhythms we attune to in the pounding of our pulse are the same as the tides, as the terra firma on which we place our feet. The isolation many of us feel is a product of a life spent paying homage to our individual nature. And isolation can only have merit in context and relation to other aspects of our being.

On examining the mysterious tarot cards, the solitary Hermit falls between the Adjustment card and that of Fortune. We are not meant to perpetually wander in order to discover that which we seek. This Hermit’s number is Nine, symbolic of turning inward before embarking on something new. Flanked by an Eight (Adjustment) and Ten (Fortune), our Hermit has relationships with both. Eight is the number of transformation and rebirth. Ten represents completion as well as new beginnings.

These Major Arcana cards of the tarot are symbolic of the Hero’s journey we all embark upon to become sentient and fully human beings. Knowing when to retreat seems appropriate only in context to the whole. The Adjustment card speaks to weighing things carefully before making a decision. The Hermit then compels us to retreat within ourselves to find what is true for us at the time. It cautions us not to become distracted with busy-ness or possessions. When we succeed, we move into the Ten card’s Fortune, where we realize that what we have been seeking is not to be grasped through consumption, rather it rests within our quiet imponderable nature. We discover an inner strength we did not perhaps realize we had and discover, often to our delight, that we possess the will to embrace life such as it is with simple and profound acceptance.

 

(excerpted from Inner Tapestry Journal, Bela Johnson 2005)

This Sweet Life I

How can we begin to understand the nature of simplicity, here in the Western world? Is our restlessness symptomatic of a deeper yearning to know our sense of place more profoundly? Many of us are feeling called to a life less fettered with consumerist trappings and meaningless work. How ironic then, that nations only recently diverted from an agrarian base which ensured meaningful work with unwavering family and community support and time-honored sacred daily rites and practices now want what we have in the way of “quality of life.”

Has one nation tipped the balance of an entire planet? What are we collectively seeking? In his essay The Orphan and the Angel (Ways of the Heart: Essays Toward an Imaginal Psychology), Robert Romanyshyn seems to encounter, as we all must from time to time, the dark night of the soul. “Today we desperately need a transformation of soul, a spiritual revolution. And we need to be awakened in this way not in order to save ourselves or to save the world. Too much of the old arrogance clings to such dreams, too much of our busyness, our hyperactivity, our stubborn refusal to listen. On the contrary, we need to be awakened in order to be saved. We have forfeited our birthright in the scheme of creation, and as such we have lost any right, if we ever really had one, to save the world. Only the world can save us. We need this humility. We need to learn again how to pray.”

Finding time to meet ourselves honestly in the quiet and solitude of our own hearts seems key to discovering the nature of our place in the world. Only then may we feel the pulse of creation flowing in our veins; only then can we taste the sweetness flowing from the fount of Mother Earth. The speed at which many of us hurl ourselves through life can be measured by reflecting on the past day or week or month where we feel time steamrolling by, leaving us flat and dry. It causes us to wonder, wander and ultimately feel a growing sense of isolation from our own skins, our own kinship to nature both phenomenologically as well as from our own human nature. We become orphans on alien ground.

In A Sense of Place, Wallace Stegner offers, “In our displaced condition we are not unlike the mythless man that Carl Jung wrote about, who lives ‘like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society. He lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth’.”

Does this subjective mania describe our cultural malaise as well, and if so, how has our American way of life inflamed virtually all of civilization with the desire to possess a lifestyle which promotes attachment to things and detachment to a deeply rooted sense of place? Is this forgetting something all human beings must collectively move through in order to reencounter a lasting, harmonious relationship with the planet we call home, else lose our place in nature’s scheme? What are we looking for, but more importantly, what are many of us attempting to reclaim? To delve deeply within, to explore our inner life is not the same as isolating ourselves from family, community and our world. To meet the sweetness that life already offers us without condition, we need to reclaim simplicity, meeting life on its terms, not ours. When we meet creation with a certain sense of wonder and enchantment and a lack of guile, life is and has always been infused with the nourishment the hungry ghost within us seeks. In Universal Dharma Realms, Maha Thera describes these ghosts that “always live in the atmosphere of anxiety, illusion and fear. Their desires are never satisfied. The hungry ghosts cannot eat as their throat is as narrow as a pin, but their stomach is as large as a drum.”

Americans might discern the difference between being alone with ourselves and being alone with no sense of place or belonging. We are still a young nation on borrowed soil, needing to come to terms with our arrogance and national philosophy and practice of eminent domain. We need to see ourselves less as owners of the land and more as citizens of Planet Earth. However this plays out in our psyches, ownership is illusory, for our bodies are made of the same earth we stand upon, regardless of where we locate ourselves mentally in space and time. Yet our minds continue tethering themselves to another home, we know not where. How can we remain grounded with this kind of duality in a time where escape seems more desirable than ever?

We are given what we need for this earth walk. Every emotion, every bodily organ serves our path. Many of us have become surgeons of the soul, cutting loose whatever pulls us into discomfort. Yet we also possess the threads which attach us to community, to our sense of place in the world. When we reckon with our innermost yearnings, we reestablish a rooted inner life. When we encounter life on its terms, we find common ground in an unpredictable world. Ultimately if we are to create a quiet life, a serene existence, unpredictability becomes an acceptable state of grace. Without expectations of what life is here to provide for us, we take refuge in the wonder of existence. We meet life profoundly with openness and a sense of being in a place we are meant to inhabit as fully as we are able.

 

(@2005 Bela Johnson – formerly published in Inner Tapestry Journal)

 

Temporal

The exquisite beauty of youth
is lost on the young, ego
in overdrive, unseated soul;

We’re as deep as what we
think we know, but oh!

A fragile petal waiting
to be plucked; and from
that very moment, life
begins winking off and on
until, settled into its vase,
it crescendos, withers
and dies;

But in the interim,
what informs the flower?

Eclipse

I don’t now know what to do with the grief
of parental disappointments,
how their lives entangled, ensnared,
dreams dashed on the shoals
of fragile egos glued together by obsession
with ‘fifties fantasies and too many children;

My mother once told me in the throes
of discovering my first husband’s
confused gender orientation, Oh, have
a baby! Have a Baby! As if stitching
this troubled soul to my side for life
could relieve a retinue of problems;

Schooled only to parental obedience
I might have been tempted, though thank
the gods he recognized the folly
in her entreaties (considering now her
solution then, multiplied seven times over);

How could I possibly have understood
what has taken a lifetime to sort out,
reflecting back on images of Mother,
then three decades younger than I am now;
what did I, myself know at that time,
Nothing! How could I have been equipped
to juggle betrayal, babies and bills
through thickly clouded vision,
ripe with hopes and dreams of youth?

Now I stand on the threshhold of my own
senescence, poised between their birthdays
and three eclipses, lunar mother and father sun,
and I wonder again how families fail one another
and how we fare, once festooned with illusions
now cast off, far from those turbulent shores.

Part-time Love

Whatever she was to you, it was all too brief
anyway, touch-ins on social media, much love
and all that piffle amounted to nothing more
than impulse when you felt generous enough
to trumpet your own exuberance;

Love is round and full, not merely a word
or sentiment to be eschewed when distracted
by bright and shiny things, or when
another rejects you at your most vulnerable;
humans are self-absorbed and often
unintentionally fickle;

Love restores, is richly profound, a luscious
blossom and ever on the lips, though
if deprived of nourishment, withers away
to become a husk of its former blush and bloom;

Take the high road, not only enchanting
with words, mean what is said, take action
in a world short on follow-through;
persist with pledges made not only
at your convenience; dare to be tender,
if only to bask in the promise of probity,
feel the glow, the dazzle of divinity coursing
through the veins, looping back into your
own shining spirit and out to a planet
sorely in need of the heart’s affirmations.

 

Stripes

Pomposity has its price.
Many doubt this when, swelled
in the afterglow of achievement,
the dominoes fall, one by one;

It doesn’t need to be this way, yet it
almost always is, hubris topples
the bravest among us. Still 
if we are listening, attentive, a small
inner voice that is easily ignored serves
to correct the course;

We perceive what is best, know we are
not separate from anyone or anything
under creation; we, who exist
in the here and now, specks among stars,
imbued with far greater potential
than we dare admit to administer wisely; 

Tigers know their tigerhood, women 
our womanhood often because it is reflected
in the mirror or through the eyes of another;

Imagine there are no mirrors anywhere
in sight; would we move more like animals,
loose and lithe in our bodies, keen in the subtleties
of what is essential, pared down to the bone
of what is not?

 

Retreat

Between the bars stretch conifers
as far as the eye can behold,
awaiting the damp silence
of morning, hollow bellow
of a moose’s call or the twitter
of chipmunks on a tireless errand
to provide for frigid months ahead,
always and perpetually in view;

To raise one’s head and gaze
upon an untrammeled road winding
alongside weathered split-rail fencing
invites the eye first to rest,
then the body to rise, provision,
set feet upon it to wander
where it might lead, grassy field
or boulder-encrusted hillside,
mind the mountain lions known
to wander these parts, unafraid;

How can one persist without silence
and space in which to contemplate,
regenerate; how can a body recover
from the onslaught of traffic
and crowds of vacationers elbowing
their way past elders and small ones
into queues neverending,
diffusing pomp and privilege
as though entitlement confers
keys to the Kingdom;

In the end we are all afraid, whether
of endings or accountability, misdeeds
or heedless destruction in the wake
of a life too quickly spent; better we
should settle, from time to time
into the spaces between words
and distractions to discover,
perhaps for the first time, a radiant
fecundity that nourishes the soul.

Song of the Soul

I grew up amidst plenty, Depression-era
lack transformed into expensive Japanese
silk paintings hung above a cut glass table,
black lacquer chairs, raw silk seats reserved
for holidays unfit for seven children, dreams
of people I never really knew, though
they precipitated my life;

I might have preferred distressed plank flooring
and a wood-fired oven over cork and carpet
and all the confusion, byproducts of too much
striving and not enough stillness;
motivations well understood by me now,
having thrown myself into enough fires
to acknowledge and amend miscues, misdeeds;

Like Arjuna in the Baghavad Gita,
many have have beheld the face of divinity
as it exists in all creatures and life forms
everywhere, whether perceived as good or bad;

I, too, tremble at the feet of this knowing.