Of the four students who attended last Saturday’s Day Poems workshop in Coloma, California, two were returning and two were brand new to poetry. Gathered around a picnic table in the shaded backyard at the American River Conservancy, we figured out how a poem happens, how it achieves an effect.
We looked especially at tension between the sentence and the line in free verse poems and how space on the page creates room for silence, mystery and questions.
When it was their turn to try it, I suggested the students view writing a poem like taking a stroll: you have a general direction in mind and you’re willing to follow where the path of curiosity takes you. We reflected on how writing (and reading) poetry can be scary: one has to let go of expectation.
Yoga also requires release of expectation. In class, I ask students to be willing to be surprised by what they feel as they sit with their breath, what they find in the shape of a pose, or how they choose to move when reawakening from savasana.
This week, my husband, dog and I have been traveling through as many as three states a day as we make our way from Sacramento to a new home in Washington, DC. My movement practice has been limited to simple stretches and my meditation practice to a few minutes cross-legged on a motel bed before sleep.
From a physical standpoint, this week has been more no-ga than yoga. But, oh, the mental aspect….
At the center of a true yoga practice is taking action without expectation of, or attachment to, results. I thought I had this dialed in: entering any forward bend I have to stay open in my mind because I am not particularly open in my hamstrings, and my pelvis likes to pull off-center in response to a little curve in the low spine. Some days, the sensation in a bend is one of aahhh; other days it’s aargh. Unless I let go. And then it just is.
Or, as teachers know, you plan a class for eight people and four show, or twenty-four. In the words of the teachers’ teacher Madeline Hunter, one has to “monitor and adjust.” Or, in the words of poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” That’s okay, right? Modeling letting go of expectations is what I do.
Turns out I’m not the master I took myself to be on expectation-free living.
On this road trip, I find I have expectations all the time. I’ll think a place is going to be one way and it’s another. I don’t think I am picturing how it will be, but when I get there I find myself saying, “I didn’t expect….”
There are wonderful surprises:
- a note on the office door saying, “Coffee’s ready for you. Come in.” the morning after staying at the cleanest, quietest, most modest motel in Wells, Nevada (a stone’s throw from a brothel called “Bella”)
- strong, strong, I mean fairytale strength, winds in Utah and Wyoming
- a bakery in Green River, Wyoming that stayed open until 6 pm (we were there at 5:30!)
- their delicious strawberry jam
- a bluebird on a trail at Medicine Bow National Forest
- the suitable emptiness of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather’s home
- finding cheese curds at the local grocery in Smith Center, Kansas
- learning that the dog likes them, too,
- and that they make a decent make-shift dinner with California almonds while watching “Nashville” on a boxy old TV
- brick-lined streets of Marysville, Kansas where the rare black squirrel lives
- the town’s hard-hitting and entertaining independent weekly newspaper
- with a story on the out-going Kansas poet laureate
- harvested fields filled with purple flowers throughout Kansas
- falling in love with this center of the United States
- red buds blooming bright among grey trunks of bare-branched trees from Nebraska through Illinois
- the Mississippi River wider than I ever remember
- the first-rate wifi connection at this Comfort Inn I write from in Zanesville, Ohio
- their powdered hot chocolate which tastes so good
- and even better with the last of the yummy Thermal, California dates
As we drive and drive, Wordsworth’s poem Surprised by Joy keeps coming to mind. For me, joy is often fueled by surprises of beauty. Beauty seems to defy expectation. I guess it’s the wonder of it, that it exists and reveals itself to a listening eye and an open ear. (Not a typo!)
It’s not all roses out on the highway. We’ve seen desperate people with cardboard signs, farms up for auction, roadkill, smokestacks, tire tracks that lead to roadside shrines.
Wordsworth is surprised to feel joy after experiencing a deep loss. Leaving a place is a loss: the farther I pull away from what and who I’ve known the more this strikes me. Maybe the surprises of birds, flavors, rivers and kindnesses feel more profound because of this. And maybe, come to think of it, my word choice is off as I take it all in. Instead of, “I didn’t expect…” I will say to myself, “I am delighted that….”
And this comes back around to reading and writing poetry, practicing yoga and living life: the willingness to be delighted. We must remain open to the simultaneity of letting go and letting in. This means doing without too much desiring, accepting without clinging, simply receiving without a garnish of fear.
Closing our eyes and feeling what is. Welcoming what we’re able.