Moments and meditations

        I have continued, for almost a year now, capturing a daily moment – mostly in quatrain form.  Thank you for introducing this practice to me; it has been life-altering!  I am still not a “good meditator,” but this practice seems to bring a meditative quality into my days.
Out of the blue, a Day Poems student shared these words with me last week. Of course her comments made this teacher’s day! And, curious, I found in the dictionary’s serene sanctuary that moment derives from the same word as momentum, having to do with movement.

 

Both poetry and yoga are localized, moment-by-moment endeavors. 

They rely on knowledge of community, the community of words and the body, the community of people who share these interests, the community of the natural world that is both companion and provider. Yesterday, I heard Gary Ferguson on West Virginia Public Radio saying that ancients believed that beauty, community and mystery are essential for health. In addition to being community activities, poetry and yoga tap beauty and mystery.

And meditation clears the heart and mind to receive mysteries of beauty and community. 

 

Meditate derives from the word for measure; we measure moments through meditation. With Day Poems, small poems accrue to form a log of a life lived. I devised the process as a way of attending to the world outside of ourselves while maintaining sensitivity to unique perspectives. It is a form of meditation.

Think also of walking meditation: steps measure a passage through time. If we start by counting the steps, often the numbers fall away. Similarly with swimming. It’s enough to be moving. Forward, yes, because that’s the way we face, but not necessarily toward a destination.

Purely for movement’s sake. As the tidal rise and fall of the breath is the movement of life.

Yoga can also be experienced as a moving meditation, inviting a sense of  flow or ease. This needn’t be elaborate. One motion loved by my students of all ages is a rhythmic combo of a gentle lean into the legs with arms along.

A technique I use to introduce people who are new to breath awareness is to track the breath by silently saying the word and on inhalation and 1 on exhalation, continuing to and2, and3….

Pause and try it for yourself now, counting to 12.

That practice was inspired by Martha Graham. In Blood Memory she mentions how a dance starts by landing on the and.  It makes sense to me in the dance of life: we are always in motion with the breath, even when we are sleeping.

In this way we are not so different from the shark that sways to keep from sinking.

With and, we join with all who’ve ever breathed. In counting the exhalation we intentionally link that precious breath.

We expend our breath as we pay attention. There’s no “good” or “bad” in that. It just is.

Expectations

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
      • and white bread
  • 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
        • who also teaches yoga!
  • 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
    • and purple lilac
      • and more purple lilac
        • and white lilac blooming
  • 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.

 

 

Really

Maira Kalman

“The sun will blow up in five billion years. Knowing that, how could anyone want a war? Or plastic surgery. But I am being naive. And the unknown is so unknowable. And who is to judge? Really.”

Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty is a Day Poem. She notes the quotidian and connects details as seemingly random as abandoned sofas and falling cherries into the world of people, nature and politics through time. She even includes the weather. Pay attention; love the world. Thank you.

Day Poems workshop this Saturday 9/27

This Saturday, Day Poems: The Art of Noticing at American River Conservancy in Coloma, California.

Learn how to:

  • write poems as tools of observation
  • connect  with the immediate world
  • inhabit the moment
  • integrate the socio-political with the personal
  • develop a poetry practice

Register here. Hope to see you there.

Small group; good conversation.

 

A day new and fair

Amy Lowell wrote a series of impressions under the title “Spring Day.” It’s a sort of Day Poem.

“Breakfast Table” is so vivid, I want to pull up a chair and dine with the speaker. The poem begins, “In the fresh-washed sunlight, the breakfast table is decked and white” and concludes, “A crow flies by and croaks at the coffee steam. The day is new and fair with good smells in the air.”

As summer shifts to autumn, may you enjoy days new and fair.

Look out

Imagination is a form of knowledge.

When practicing yoga asana, we tap into that, imagining breath moving through the body. We visualize a shape or action before we make or take it. And we rely on factual knowledge, information about anatomy and psychology, and wisdom recorded in tradition.

In poetry, we imagine settings, sounds, shapes and senses as we create them with letters, punctuation and space on the page or with our voices. As a teacher and artist, I celebrate the imagination, even extol it.

Sometimes, though, imagination needs to be stilled. It is, after all, an aspect of the busy mind. Too much imagination interferes with perception. To receive information about the places we inhabit, we have to silence ourselves. Walt Whitman got it:

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute
     toward it.

In Nature’s Year, John Hay tracks the seasons of Cape Cod, starting in July. Observing a wood pewee snap up insects, he writes, “If nature is more than just a background for human thought and endeavor, then it requires a special commitment, a stepping down, a silent, respectful approach. Otherwise we are liable to hear ourselves first, and be put off.”

Poetry and yoga asana can teach us how to listen–to feelings, bodily cues, intuition. What then do we do with this honed skill? I think of Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man 2” advising Peter, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Variants of this statement recur throughout history; Ben’s is memorable because Peter must make choices alone, without acknowledgement. 

When we leave the yoga studio, how will we be? Having looked inward on the mat, can we look outward on the street? Setting down our poet’s pen, can we look up and see again clearly? I’ve read that character is how we act when there’s no one around to witness us.

Privileged as we are with minds and bodies healthy enough to imagine, flex and extend, I suggest we spend time each day doing nothing but listening as practice in participating in the world. Start with five minutes, not as meditation but as service. Put down the iPhone to bend down to a child; give a homeless person five minutes of your time and a buck; identify layers of bird song.

Find your center in movement or reflection, then experiment with decentralizing yourself by attending to something other than yourself. Paradoxically, you sneak up on awareness this way. In Day Poems workshops we experience how attending to the world expands us. 

This morning, I am on my way to the north coast of California in search of the ghost flower. I want to sit in the place where it lives, as I did in West Virginia last summer. That’s all.

Hay also finds the ghost flower in Massachusetts in October in the 1960s: “…it is an elusive, beautiful flower, a miraculous specialty….When the plant dies, it stands for months as a thin, brownish string, having turned from beautiful ghost to lifeless reality.” He knew this because he saw it intimately, with loving attention.

Look out!

Moving ahead with my heart

Writing outside, my Day Poems students and I settled last weekend into what a friend calls “the pace of the body.” Pinning our pages to the table with water bottles and pens, we set down quatrains of observations stitched to facts about the Solstice, knotted to our human history and hearts. Tall trees created shade, a rooster crowed in the distance, cars guttered along highway 49, children questioned parents about the rubbly buildings, sparrows swept through the picnic area, a lone butterfly joggled past. 

In yoga class, we talk about range of motion, finding space within the body. As we wrote Day Poems in Coloma I thought about our 21st-century range of motion. Roads and planes shrink distances and increase trips. We access people and information in seconds through the internet. We are exposed to so much so fleetingly. And yet out bodies haven’t changed much.

If there’s a secret to Day Poems it’s creating stillness spacious enough to observe a piece of the world’s tapestry long enough to notice the threads, while inviting complexity through juxtaposition. “Still” comes from an Old English word meaning “to be fixed,” “to stand.” A small poem made and shared fixes a spot in personal and communal time. And then, by merely breathing the few dozens words, space is created in the body, at the pace of the human organism.


Two Poems, One Day

6/21/14: 12 hours of daylight today

The Sun is a Star

White magnolia saucers,

pale yellow poppy petals,

woolly mullein spear, orange

pomegranate trumpets: all wholly flowers.

 

6/21/14: the longest day

The Sun is the Central Body

Looking up at the sheer light

of long-distance summer sun on

pea-green pine needles I am

moving ahead with my heart.

 

Alexa Mergen

 

 

Poetry + Yoga = ?

The best part about teaching is learning. Though a workshop may have the same title in Davis, Sacramento or Scottsdale, the experience is as unique as the gathering of people. Who comes shapes what happens.

As my students walked the meeting room last Friday exchanging with each other the Day Poems that they had just written, I saw an invisible web forming strand-by-strand across the circle. Noticing, engaging, creating and speaking link each participant to immediate experience of the natural world, one another and an historical juncture.  I realized making and sharing poems is one way of being an emotional creature in a technological society.

 

Yoga is another way. Creative asana, moving as you feel moved, reminds us of physicality. That we are creatures. Poems allow us to communicate with others the emotions that arise. Two qualities used to distinguish a “pet” from an “animal” are that the creature is brought into the house and is named. Movement seems to set emotions in motion. Recognizing an emotion, which happens through the general practice of paying attention, we can invite it into the house of our notebooks, name it and tame it, whether it be sadness, joy and anything in between.

Poetry + Yoga = Emotional Creature.

Day Poem Rhythm

How do you like to go up in a swing,
   Up in the air so blue?
– from The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Healing Garden of fruit, fountains and aromatic herbs at Scottsdale’s Franciscan Renewal Center has a sturdy swing. Walking, then swinging within hours of boarding a plane, riding in it and landing in a new geography proved a way to acclimate. I’m here to share Day Poems at a gathering of poets, teachers, artists, therapists, and the generally curious. One of my students equated a Day Poem to a window with which to frame the world. Looking out this metaphorical window each day aligns us with the rhythm of the natural world, the sociopolitical world and our internal tides. It’s about the practice of noticing and engaging.
Swinging in Arizona, I remembered another swing in Oregon, where a Day Poem occurred.

Into the never of stillness

As a teacher, I plan. In roles for various organizations– “teacher mentor,” “teacher-consultant,” “curriculum designer,” “strategy coach”– I’ve taught others to plan. As a writer, I outline ideas and create deadlines. The calendar is my associate. Working for myself, I have to be organized in the present and project into the future. The mind ticks like a clock that runs ahead. This is not living in the moment.

Deliberately sitting to meditate draws me away from present-future-present-past oscillations. I can enter time’s flow in asana practice, when making a poem or swimming. And while teaching. After preparing for a workshop, upon entering the learning space, I let go of what could happen. The people, the day, the weather all affect what does happen. Experience unfolds.

Curious about where else I could turn “scheming and dreaming” into “being” I took a day off from drafting contingencies. This was not easy or practical, but it was informative. In Spanish, one can say “darse cuenta de” for “to realize.” Me di cuenta de, I realized that, becoming is not being. I want to be more.

I now approach walks with the dog as meditations instead of mental list-making time. I treat the journal as a studio of possibility, refraining from projecting like a weak flashlight onto future pages to let the light burn brightly on the current one.

Joanne Kyger‘s poems offer a model of daily notes as  journal-poems, a way of reflecting where you are without abandoning it. The day of the fast, I made my own attempt. “Dar cuenta” without the reflexive means “to give an account.” The process of taking and giving an account of my behavior led to awareness. Such is a day poem.

Fasting from Tomorrow

 

Gray skies deepen spring greens

cleared of dust by drizzle.

 

Leaf blowers, lawn mowers drive

colorless silence from trees.

 

Abandon all planning a single day.

Each moment is the was of the next.

 

Mountains die through dissolution.

A hunting hawk collides with time.

 

Anticipation steals from the eyes;

a pencil in hand takes them both back;

 

and the channeled ears, receiving the sighing return

of a sparrow’s song into the never of stillness.

 

Alexa Mergen, Sacramento, April 4, 2014