Pandemic, Pandemonium, Panic, and Poetry

Crystals, flowers, and fear

The word “pandemic” derives from the Greek words “pan,” meaning “all” and “demos,” meaning “people.”

The etymology of “pandemic” is different but somewhat related to the word “panic,’ which traces back to the French, “panique” and the Greek god Pan, the deity with goat legs, the torso of a man, and goat horns growing from his man-like skull.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Pan became an exceedingly popular god whose name soldiers invoked in the heat of battle. Later, the terror and chaos that arises during war was also associated with this god.

During Roman times, Pan increased in importance, becoming “known as the All, a sort of universal god, which was a play on the other meaning of the word pan.

My husband, a medical news journalist, began covering daily coronavirus reports the last week in January, after our return from the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.

By mid February, we saw how the virus was spreading like a panic. February 18, the stock market crashed in a virus-related scare, and I began to wonder if AWP would be canceled. But at that point I thought it would be fear mongering to ask my friends if they still planned to go.

Two weeks later, the conference went ahead as planned, but by late February and even into the first week of March, many of my friends decided not to go because they didn’t want to inadvertently bring the virus back to their own communities.

It wasn’t until the first week in March that the pandemic arrived in the county where I live. That week we were already doing “chicken wings” and “foot bumps” as greetings at the yoga studio where I practice. We were spacing ourselves at least six feet apart. The YMCA where I swim laps closed its group exercise programs, swimming lessons, and their child care hours.

The new coronavirus pandemic has also caused pandemonium, Latin for “the place of all demons.” It created “panic buying” among the people, as we raced to stores to buy cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and pantry items.

On Thursday, March 5, I pulled into a Trader Joe’s parking lot after a blissful yoga class. Even under ordinary circumstances, it’s inadvisable to enter a Trader Joe’s parking lot after practicing yoga, just because of the parking lot squeeze.

But I braved suburban car frenzy to buy some wine and a few other items for dinner, and was shocked to find almost the entire store depleted of bread, milk, frozen food, and staples like rice, pasta, and canned goods. (Plenty of beer and wine remained!)

It turned out that while I had been supine in savasana in a state of relaxation, the county school system had announced that schools would close and would transfer to an online platform.

One man in the county had been hospitalized and died, and several school staff members had come down with covid19. Apparently, many individuals had traveled to Italy during February and thus were exposed at airports or at their destinations.

Like “pandemic,” and “panic,” the word “poetry” comes to English from the Greek and Latin. Greeks used poesis and poeitis to denote a maker, an author, a poet.

We are all makers now. We are pan-artists. Some will make songs and stories to express their longings, their fears, their loneliness,

Others will bake bread, make yogurt, and grow gardens, domestic work that many have now recently embraced if they have the privilege of staying home.

I’ve written only two poems so far this month. The concept of April as poetry writing month has lost urgency for me. Poetry and art and all forms of myth-making and meaning-making are a means of spiritual survival now. It’s an ongoing practice that continually renews and sustains me.

Yoga, poetry, painting, long walks, and chopping vegetables are my way of loving the world and loving life. I hope all beings everywhere can look within and find what makes them whole, what heals them.

Poetry Month

The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month as a way to bring attention to the importance that poetry plays in our lives.

Last year at this time, I wrote about four or five poems, sharing them each week with a friend, and we would then give each other suggestions for revision or offer an interpretation of how we read the poem.

We’ve agreed to do the same weekly sharing of a new poem during April this year, too, but I can’t find a subject that I want to write about. I know many poets are probably writing about quarantine and social distancing, but that’s not where my mind is as far as writing goes.

I signed up to receive daily writing prompts from Two Sylvias Press, and I’m planning to go back to them at some point, but I can’t find the release valve on my writing brain to let the words just come.

Instead, I catch myself staring out the window for long stretches, watching the new hickory leaves unfurl. I’ve been walking my dog and letting him get filthy in the pond where pollen pools on the surface like a film of a crushed hard boiled egg yolk. I’m washing my hands probably more than I need to, considering the raw, chapped patches on the left hand.

I’ve re-started my personal yoga practice finally, although I have taken a few Zoom classes. It’s hard for me to pin myself down to a specific time to practice now that the classes are streamed live. When I’m home, I don’t usually keep to a schedule.

But maybe a schedule is what I need, especially if I want to beckon my creative mind. Sitting myself at my desk or out on the back porch with a pen and a notebook every day, just like I roll out my mat. Yoga, meditation, and writing are interconnected for me. One leads to another.

As far as The Wasteland goes, last year I was emerging from a painful depression during April, and I agreed with Eliot’s first line that “April is the cruelest month,” though maybe it was for different reasons than his own intentions for writing.

This year April is also a cruel month. Just when the earth is greening in the Northern hemisphere, thousands of people are dying. It’s a sorrow that’s hard to reconcile with the season.

The Number Four in 2020

On this gray, cold, drizzly day, I’ve been thinking obsessing about the symbolic meaning of the number 4. What is a poet without obsessions, right?

The year we’ve just entered, 2020, reduces to four.

In Tarot for Your Self, Mary Greer, writing about fours, lists several key words that relate to this number, including “stability, foundations, law and order, conventions of society.”

She goes on to say that the basic conflict of the number 4 is the tension between the desire for security and stability and the desire for change, expansion, and growth.

Four cardinal directions.

Four seasons of the year.

Four weeks in a month.

Four lines in a quatrain.

Four beats to a line, iambic tetrameter.

The Emperor, fourth card of the tarot deck, archetype that includes father, the patriarch.

Carl Jung weaves the number four into his thinking about archetypes and the human psyche.

He identifies four basic archetypes: the Self, the Shadow, the Persona, and the Anima/Animus.

He identifies four functions of the personality: thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation.

For in-depth discussions about these four archetypes, I recommend This Jungian Life, a podcast devoted to exploring the psychology of Carl Jung and its application to contemporary life.

Listening to this podcast led me to Jung’s concept of the quaternity, or groupings of four.

Daryl Sharp’s Jung Lexicon defines a quaternity asan image with a four-fold structure, usually square or circular and symmetrical; psychologically, it points to the idea of wholeness.”

We’re in an Emperor year, but it feels like the Emperor is reversed.

According to Mary Greer, when the Emperor card shows up reversed in a reading, it indicates: “Autocrat. Self-righteous tyranny. Or, weak-willed, unmanly cowardice… Trust betrayed. Failed leader.”

All of these words can be applied to the current occupant of the White House as well as most members of the Republican legislature.

Where can we as a society find the stability, security, and order we seek? How can we heal the planet and also ourselves? By integrating our shadow and becoming whole. By reconfiguring old patriarchal values, a square pillar, into a circle divided by a cross, a mandala for wholeness, stability through inter connectivity.

By Tibetan, Central Tibet, Tsang (Ngor Monastery), Sakya orderDetails of artist on Google Art Project – qQErBDO0BtuQsQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76936937

April, Poetry, Jericho Brown, and NaPoWriMo 2019

Along with the fiery nature of Aries and the blossoming of spring comes April and National Poetry Month in the US.

One of my main inspirations has been the poetry of Jericho Brown and his new collection, The Tradition.

His essay about invention (titled “Invention”) and how writing poetry was how he confronted the panic of possible death has also inspired me to write every day. Poetry is a means of survival.

I’ve been trying to write at least some lines of poetry every day as a challenge to extract myself from the mini-depression I went through this winter.

Winter was dark, rainy, muddy. Even in March, depression clung to me, like sticky hands holding me down.

When the sticky webs started to feel like a cocoon, I understood on a more personal level TS Eliot’s opening lines in The Waste Land:

   April is the cruellest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers

To cope with the intense melancholy and anxiety, I started thinking of the time between winter solstice and spring equinox as a period of germination.

I was a seed in protective darkness, no need for the light, even if I did crave sunlight and walked my dog whenever the sun was out, no matter how cold.

Once the clocks changed and the days grew longer in March, I wasn’t ready to emerge from the safety of my protective shell, the haven of my bed, the soft armchair, the warm kitchen and the making of soups.

Even though I’ve taken the semester off from teaching, an unpaid sabbatical so to speak since I’m an adjunct professor, I haven’t been working on my manuscript about my travels in Spain.

The stickiness is still there, but the fire is returning. I’ve been writing new, unrelated poems to revitalize my creativity.

Jericho Brown’s “Duplex” series and the form he has invented (read them in his new book!) have opened up more pathways for me and others. He is a true bard, an oracular young poet who keeps astounding the world with his human songs.

I also realize that it’s somewhat problematic that I’m using Jericho Brown’s wholly original poetic form because I am a white woman. I’ve lived a protected life. As Brown says about his form,

What is a Jericho Brown sonnet? Though I may not be, I do feel like a bit of a mutt in the world. I feel like a person who is hard to understand, given our clichés and stereotypes about people. So I wanted a form that in my head was black and queer and Southern. Since I am carrying these truths in this body as one, how do I get a form that is many forms?

In his essay he goes on to describe his process, explaining that his duplex form carries traces of the ghazal, the sonnet, and the blues. That the couplets grew from lines he had written and saved from as long as fifteen years ago.

What I want to make clear is that I’m writing in Jericho Brown’s form because I find it beautiful and musical, but I won’t try to profit from his inventions in any way, such as trying to publish a duplex in a poetry journal.

Here are my two attempts at the duplex, written over the last two days:

Everyday Mysticism

I walk to where the creek water pools
To see the smooth darkness of its surface

To see the smooth darkness of its surface
Is to behold a circle with no circumference

This circle with no circumference contains
A benevolent silence, a suspension of time

This benevolent silence, this suspension of time
Is what I’m seeking when I’m alone on the trail.

When I’m alone on the trail, the dark water
Stills, impenetrable, until I peer over the bridge

Peering over the bridge, a carnation tree weeps
Its petals onto the glassy skin of the creek

The pink petals fracture the surface–a mosaic–
My reflection where the creek water pools

***

I See Hawks

This day is a glass fishing float
Suspended in a net of clouds

Suspended in a net of clouds,
mineral smells of the river

In the mineral smells of the river
A hawk appears again. I’m tired

Of hawk sightings. I’m tired
Of omens, of signs that point to what?

Harbingers that point to what
I won’t fathom. A poem should have words

To fathom this–this net that suspends
The world, this day floating in blue glass

Pathway Through Depression by Christine Swint

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama was a deeply moving experience. Now more than ever we need this place, to help remember those whose lives were taken, mercilessly terrorized and tortured.

This is a sacred place, a place that uplifts and heals.

We need to witness the pain and suffering of the black community and how the suffering has persisted throughout the decades.

Prophet and poet James Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

As a woman raised as “white,” I want to bear witness to the suffering our white American ancestors have caused and the unearned privilege I have benefitted from.

For over 300 years, children were torn from their parents, families were torn apart, and now we have the mass incarceration of a disproportionate number of people of color.

These are difficult conversations to have, but we need to have them. White people need to understand that there is nothing special or superior about being “white.” Nothing.

The US government now continues the tragedy of white supremacy in their efforts to dehumanize and criminalize the people south of the border.

This current administration is doing to Muslims and Latinos what plantation owners did to black people both during and after slavery.  This regime is aggravating the white supremacist  animosity that has lingered to this day.

This White House uses words like “infection” and “animal” to describe immigrants who are seeking refuge in the US.

But here, in this memorial, there is hope and courage. If the black community can continue to have hope, I will, too. It is the very least we can do. We simply can’t give up hope, because if we do, our democracy will die.

Inter-National Poetry Month

This past week the semester cranked up again after Spring break, so I didn’t have as much time to write every day. I’m going to spend part of my day today revising my journey-to-nowhere rhyming poem from last week.

Instead of my own writing, I thought I’d share books I’ve read this week and other inspirations.

On long walks I’ve been listening to conversations about poetry on poet Rachel Zucker’s Commonplace. Her interviews with accomplished poets are intimate, in-depth, and engaging. So far I’ve listened to interviews with Sharon Olds and Tyehimba Jess.

Jess’s interview is particularly enlightening because it offers many pathways into gaining a better understanding of his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Olio.  The interview is almost two hours long, but it’s captivating, especially if you have a copy of the book on your lap while listening.

In the interview Jess cites his TEDXTalk where he reads his sonnet sequence about the McKoy twins. Since he provides visuals, you don’t need a copy of the book to follow along.

After listening to Rachel Zucker’s long conversation with Sharon Olds, I felt liberated. Sharon Olds seems to live in a kind of poetic trance state that resonates with me. She speaks of how she pays attention to the fleeting thoughts that come to her, the thoughts we humans have a tendency to sweep under the rug. Her words gave me insight into how to go deeper into what I truly think about myself and the world and to try to put those thoughts into my writing.

I know I hold back a lot. The hardest part of writing and of living in general is to sift through received notions about the world and to instead open up to infinite possibilities. As Alan Watts states in his lecture series Out of Your Mind, the hardest part of life [and art] is “how to create a controlled accident.” Art is the interpretation of life as it is passes through the artist. Here’s a lecture called “How to Be a Creative Artist.”

Thinking Metaphysical

I’ve been thinking more than usual about the relationship between spirituality, poetry, and the body because of the workshop I’m taking at the Poetry Barn with Jenn Givhan, “Poetry as Altar: Creating Space for the Sacred.”

Since childhood, I’ve been asking myself questions about the nature of existence. I’ve always thought that if I just keep looking, searching, that the answers will come, that they are just around the corner.

Maybe it’s because of my upbringing in the Catholic Church.

Maybe it’s because my dad used to talk about Jesuit theology with me on our trips to the hardware store or the dump.

Now that I’m much older, nearing old age, I think I will not know the answers until I cross over into a spirit realm. That’s my hope, anyway, that there is a spirit realm or an astral plane.

I read a story about astronaut Edgar Mitchell who, when he saw Earth from space, experienced a deep knowing, a profound sense that infused him entirely, that he was in the midst of a limitless cosmic mind.

After his experience of seeing Earth from the surface of the moon, Mitchell created a center called The Institute of Noetic Science. On the website history they say, “As he watched the Earth float freely in the vastness of space, he became engulfed by a profound sense of universal connectedness.”

I’ve never had an epiphany like his, nor can I vouch for the scientific validity of the astronaut who experienced such bliss. But experience counts for something.

The realizations I’ve experienced have been fleeting ones that I need to practice again and again, moment by moment, through yoga, walking, writing, meditating, and even by teaching, reading, and discussing literature with friends and students.

What I Need Is More Yoga

Tree in tree pose

Tree in tree pose

When I woke up yesterday morning the light in the room was still dim. The closed door, stained dark walnut, looked like an open portal, a deep black tunnel.

At the end of yoga class yesterday afternoon, when our teacher said to allow the mind to go into the deeper states of consciousness, this ink black portal, a door made of shadows, opened before me once again.

Corpse pose is a preparation for death, not a moment to fear, but rather a letting go. I slide into the velvety, warm blackness, this state of consciousness where poetry is born.

Aspens Look Like Individual Trees

Aspens look like individual trees that grow up together, but beneath the surface, they form a common root system, a single seedling.

Humans are like aspens. Race is a contrived concept meant to separate us and keep us from growing together like an aspen colony. We come from a common seedling. We thrive in groups. We depend on love from our community for survival.

Southern plantation owners pitted poor whites and recently emancipated slaves against each other so that together they would not overpower their plantation bosses.

They drove home the idea that poor whites would have to accept their low wages because at least they weren’t black and wouldn’t be beaten or jailed for “vagrancy.” If a black man was found without work, he was subject to imprisonment, where he was once again forced to work without wages.

Today, our so-called president is a demagogue who attempts to create a wedge between us by inflaming these old fears and hatreds.

His overt enemies are the immigrant population and Muslims, but through his racist agenda, he’s turning back the clock on civil rights and criminal justice reform, among many other dangerous policies.

The problem of racism/white supremacy is the most important issue of our times. For the past 20 years or so, there has been a “colorblind” movement that has absolutely not worked. People have come up with devious ways to subvert the laws.

When I was younger, I used to think the term “white supremacy” only referred to neo-Nazis and the KKK, just as I put the word “racist” in that same category of people who verbally and physically attacked others based on their race or religion.

But the words are broader. Whenever we make assumptions about the behavior of an entire group of people (or a subset of that group) based on race, we are being racist.

It’s scary to admit that we have held racist or stereotypical views. But if we don’t forgive ourselves and others for these old views that we’re now discarding, we won’t make any progress. We won’t heal. We need to stop being defensive.

If we are white and have harbored old stereotypes about a certain group, we have been racist.

If we have remained silent about systems of oppression such as voter suppression, mass incarceration, and police brutality against people of color, we have been part of the problem.

If we see that the DREAM Act (DACA) is going to be dismantled and we say nothing, we are being willfully ignorant, no different than the white preachers who did not support Martin Luther King.

These are difficult conversations that require patience and compassion. White folks (myself included) tend to either “virtue signal” by showing what great allies we are, or we shut down and get defensive.

A therapist once said to me, “We inherit our lives.” White people inherited white privilege, even if that only perceived benefit was that we were white.

Most of us wish we had not inherited this unfair world, but at least we are living in a time when we can actually wake up and actively work to end the “myth of superiority,” as Toni Morrison has defined racism.

It’s time to mindfully reject any kind of racial or gender-based stereotypes by challenging our pre-conceived, inherited notions of who we are as individuals and as a society.

We need to have these difficult conversations and not let our EGOS get in the way.

We are not only like aspens, we are aspens. We will only thrive by working together, by caring for each other, by realizing that, as Martin Luther King wisely claimed, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The Camino Provides

This Camino has been a bit different than the last time I walked in Spain. Two years ago I thought I would write poetry or memoir about my experiences, but this time I’m just letting myself live in the moment. 

I walk alone most of the time, but every once in a while I’ll meet up with someone who wants to talk, and so I listen. One girl from Canada shared a quote from Plato: “Be tender, because we all have battles to fight.” 

There’s a saying on the Camino that “the Camino provides.” People refer to this saying as a way of accounting for the little miracles that seem to happen along the way. 

For example, a woman whose hip was too sore to walk the last three miles to town happened to meet up with a young man who offered to drive her the rest of the way.

Another example happened with me and the Canadian girl, Miranda. She had passed me earlier in Cirueña ( a bleak town with zero charm). But after leaving the town and returning to the gravel road, I saw her sitting on the ground.

I recognized her black hair gathered in a top knot. Even though two other women had already stopped to help her, something drew me to her. She told me her feet were in pain, and I realized it was because she was walking in old trainers.

The day before, I had just mailed my boots back to the US because they were hurting my feet, but I kept the insoles for some reason. I don’t know why, because they wouldn’t fit the new shoes I bought.

Right away I pulled the orange shock absorbing insoles out f the bottom of my pack. My stuff was on the ground next to Miranda while she trimmed the toe part to make it fit. We walked together for about three miles and her feet felt great. 

I don’t think the Camino has magical powers more than any other path in life, but when we are all walking together, we end up making the little miracles happen. It’s a matter of noticing, of caring for each other, wherever we are.