This poem arose during a dry Central Valley winter, when we were all waiting and hoping for rain in northern California. To distract from the noise of nearby Highway 50, I’d hung small temple bells from the bare branches of the pistache trees planted in the narrow strip between sidewalk and street.
I was also thinking about how we see. My dear dog, Molly, had rapidly gone blind from glaucoma. Her veterinarian would pull out a model of the eye on our visits to him, teaching us about the wondrous organ.
This poem passed through many versions before settling into this bony shape.
rivers disappear w/o weather
swim into dry dirt
their peculiar compasses
bells ring to winter storms
when wind shakes bared
arms of pistache trees
from down spouts to tick tock
understandings of death
while looking in one
for pinpoints of dry light
marble organs of sight are
so many planets set
My heart is tired today. Tired of the round black zafu,
its unflagging suggestion of a conical haven.
Tired of flat pink September roses, the glass
of shattered beer bottles at the bushes’ roots.
Along the avenue relentless joggers run, ears
plugged with music or news. City dogs wait
nervously to go-ahead across the pitted street.
They have twenty minutes to crap and pee.
From the urban trees catbirds hawk
the hot chocolate of enlightenment as
butterflies struggle into their condensed
existence. My students know to seek beauty
in the fissure between O and K
on either side of all and right. But,
I’m lost this morning in the captions
for all that’s happened, the twilight sortie
into nothingness from humanity’s
My tired heart has set on ocean’s deep sand
where sightless gelatinous creatures twirl
through aquatic space, where sound
is movement and everything smacks of salt.
– Alexa Mergen
This poem arrived after a period of extended “sitting,” as in sitting Zen. I’d gotten up and exited my DC apartment building to take the dog for a walk on the crowded city avenue; I started noticing things. My thanks to poet Luis Omar Salinas, who once was and may always be my favorite American poet (along with Walt and E.D.) ; he’s kept me close company for many years.
Although this poem arose from sitting still, it might be helpful to remember that meditation doesn’t always lead to a feeling of creativity, bliss, or even contentment.
After a day-long sit with Edward Espe Brown years ago, I remember feeling very pissy as I rode my bike home. Brown is funny and low-key like most Zen priests: it wasn’t him. It was the intensity of sitting still and being with the big question mark of existence ?.
Another time, I bailed on a day-long sit at my home zendo, All Beings, knowing I didn’t have the composure yet to put aside my agitation from weekend travels. Sometimes taking a walk and receiving a poem are best for body and mind.
Meditation can be simple, even joyful, but it isn’t always easy. It does lead to clarity…eventually.
Insight can pop up like a praying mantis on the other side of a screen door.
Or all of a sudden a bit of advice sounds in your ears like the seemingly random chorus of cicadas.
It’s all about possibility, receiving it and letting it go.
“Poetry,” Alice Oswald says, “is not about language but about what happens when language gets impossible.”
Yoga, I’ll add, is not about the living body but about what happens when the distraction of that body dissolves.
Meditation is not about the mind but about what happens when the mind, as Kosho Uchiyama says, opens the hand of thought.
I met Ann first through her writing. Shortly after I moved to Sacramento in 2005, I came across Tiny Teeth at The Book Collector. I kept the poems close, rereading often.
When Ann attended a reading of my own poems, she offered kind words of support. These words, and the spirit behind them, influenced me to stick with the slow, impractical, private act of making poems. I noticed Ann in the audience at every one of my subsequent readings.
Around the time of Yoga Stanza’s first anniversary, I requested her permission to publish Marble, a beautiful poem about light, the moon, looking and love. These two stanzas call on the reader to feel into boundaries of what and where.
Hold a marble in your hand.
being round deserves
as if its shape
could go in all directions
but actually goes nowhere
Poetry is mostly a localized art.
We poets live in marshes among other red-winged blackbirds flashing our epaulets, singing to each other and sometimes the sky alone.
In 2015, I moved away from Sacramento to my hometown of Washington, DC, which happens to be Ann’s hometown, too. I’ll never see Ann again and can commiserate with the other birds of the common poetry landscape we shared only through the magic of the internet. I can say, “Thank you, Ann Menebroker.”
What I remember from brief conversations was how she looked directly at the person to whom she was listening, with the spaciousness of generous attention that is a form of unencumbered affection.
Look fully at someone today, a dear one, an acquaintance or a stranger.
Embody love in action.
Find more of Ann’s poems here, including this one about how much can happen in a morning.
CHICKEN SALAD WITH GRAPES (for Dennis)
He calls before noon
on Saturday from San
Francisco where he’s
walking to the Farmer’s
Market to pick up quail
and look at the wines
being offered. It’s beautiful
in both our cities. I have
a mild hangover, and am
eating chicken salad
with huge purple grapes
mixed in. Life is the
equivalent of all
that is good. I take
a walk through my
city. An ambulance
sirens by, an old
woman stumbles and
falls. The purple
grapes seem too large
for my mouth, the
way truth feels when
you suddenly swallow
Sebastian Junger starts his brief new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, with accounts of the kindness of strangers. Tribe is thought-provoking. Reading it reminded me of a lot of experiences and other books.
I recalled the TRIBES team-building curriculum schools adopted in the 1990s. In addition to reading and writing, we spent time in conversation, building interpersonal skills among the children through structured practice.
While teaching Language Arts at Martinez Junior High School, I worked in a team, a sort of tribe, with my math, science, and social studies colleagues. We met weekly to plan lessons that reinforced concepts across our subject areas and to troubleshoot with students who’d hit rocky patches academically or socially. The counselor assigned to us interfaced with parents. Students thrived. The environment was one of pulling together to understand what and how the world works and pooling resources.
Reading Junger’s passages on his own experience in war zones and the effects of war on service members, I recalled books I’ve studied and taught that provided opportunities to discuss the individual in society: the incomparable Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane; and, Black Boy by Richard Wright.
These books and others underscore how art makes sense of life.
One year, not long ago, I was hired to teach high school English late in September after the assigned teacher quit for an administrative position in the district office.
The room was in chaos–coffee dregs moldering in mugs, personal photos tacked to the bulletin board by the teacher’s desk, random thumb drives, barrettes, dried up markers, piles of ungraded papers scattered on shelves, in drawers, on windowsills.
The students were in the middle of Lorraine Hansberry’s wonderful “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’d taught the play before at another site and found it to be an effective catalyst for discussion about aspirations, race, class, family, neighborhoods, gender, education, honesty, forgiveness and just plain change.
Seeking to find out what the students had been discussing, I asked, “What’s the play about? What’s a theme?”
“Money,” they said and laughed. “It’s about how you can’t be happy unless you have money.”
Does a person’s jaw really fall then they’re surprised?
Mine must have because they laughed some more. “That’s what the teacher said.”
“Well,” I replied. “There might be another way of looking at this.”
That night I puzzled out a graphic organizer (we love those in teaching!) and had it ready on the whiteboard when the students filed in the next day. I wish I’d kept a copy. It was designed like one of those graphics that are the rage in glossy magazines these days to get you from point A to point B along a board game-like route, making decisions along the way.
The students talked their ways through the graphic. Where did they end up? Some identified a possible theme in the play as “parents and kids,” others as “dreams,” others as “loyalty,” and, ultimately, most saw a theme could be “love.”
Thinking about this gets me thinking about yoga. Everything does these days–gets me thinking about yoga.
Yoga is the practice of love.
This doesn’t mean you have to pop up in downward facing dog right now and smile. It means recognizing that harmony is wholeness and wholeness is union, which is roughly what “yoga” means. The state of the union. The state of union. Union requires, if not love, sympathy and compassion.
Literature depicts and captures the universal human condition. Oneness.
Junger points out that nomadic people only own what they can carry. For nomads, acquiring external markers of wealth proves impractical, whereas inequalities of wealth become quickly evident in settled societies.
He says American society is at war with itself, hurling contempt at fellow citizens.
Citing this vitriolic rhetoric that clutters American society today, Junger asks in Tribe,
So how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make [war] veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? I put that question to Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Yehuda has seen, up close, the effect of such antisocial divisions on traumatized vets. “If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different–you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another and not on the things that unite us?”
Reading Junger’s book feels like engaging in a stimulating dinner conversation with smart friends, touching upon a range of topics in an attempt to understand people and how they organize into tribes and civilizations. I’m curious about this topic, too, so I’m glad I borrowed the book from the library.
I’ve written at length on this blog and in my stories, poems and essays about my lifelong investigation into the meaning of belonging. I’m working now on a little book, Home Practice, about how yoga study and teaching brought me figuratively home to myself and literally home to the place where I was reared.
Lastly, I think of an old poem I wrote around 1996 that was collected in the little chapbook artist friends made for me, We Have Trees. Like almost everyone’s early poems, it grew directly out of life experience and is as true as can be.
1. Kindness is as kindness does,
a woman in the laundromat
In my life I’ve had kindnesses.
Twice my windshield wipers broke,
once in a North Carolina blizzard
and once during a Kentucky thunderstorm.
Both times strangers fixed them for me
so I could see to carry on.
A lady said Better get in, reaching
for the passenger door. It was raining
that night, too, and I was walking shocked,
barefoot, soaked and lost. She took me
to a dry place with orange couches.
I remember that.
She likely saved my life.
Has kindness been done to you?
I can’t believe in angels quite
but I see butterflies.
Kindnesses alight like butterflies
midday on bare arms
delicately sampling the invisible salt of our skins.
This poem is one I’ve kept close for years. I’ve shared it with high school students reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and with adult students in community writing classes.
I asked poet Linda Hogan for permission to share it with you, readers. Thank you, Linda!
First woman was made of slender bones
like these that stand upright together
in the rich, green world of daylight.
At night, they are a darkened forest
of sisters who grow quickly
in moving water
and talk in the clattering breeze
as if each is an open throat, rising
I tell a man about this beautiful,
creaking world, how it flowers all
at once. He has been to war. He says
with bamboo they do terrible things
to men and women.
I look at this bamboo.
It did not give permission to soldiers.
It is imprisoned in its own skin.
The stalks are restless about this.
They have lived too long in the world of men.
They are hollow inside.
Lord, are you listening to this?
Plants are climbing to heaven
to talk to you.
Who doesn’t love a camellia? They’re pretty in formal and informal gardens, and in the wild. They captivate when in bud and full bloom. My favorite time is after the bloom, when the spent blossoms fall to the ground around the shrub like peanut shells around a bar stool.
A variety of camellia gives us tea, all kinds of tea!
Please enjoy this celebratory poem by Sacramento poet Sarah Lagomarsino.
Click here to read another poem by Sarah, one of my all-time favorites.
Sacramento’s fleur- d’-lis; her multi- flowered boon,
neighbor wants his neighbor’s color,
mother wants her daughters’ bloom.
One man wood- barks his new bought bush,
another neglects his front yard giant
as it crowds his front porch steps.
Blossoms bedazzle every spring,
red, spotted or pink,
Ignored is a pride in its journey.
Some say it’s from France. It’s a native of Asia,
Its seeds grace Japan’s soap, China’s cloth.
This star attraction came to Front Street through
Colonel James Lloyd Lafayette Warren,
of Warren and Company’s New England
Seed Store in 1852.
Each flower’s circular hue,
reminds of our repeating lives,
its color a secret in plain sight:
all the forms it has ever been, carried within,
this botanical masterpiece serves
eye and mind, and works to calm the quotidian.
In 1941 Sacramento was crowned
The Camellia City where parades,
princesses, parties, and pomp reached
a mid-century high.
These now-forgotten galas reside
with secrets of the bloom’s past times.