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

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. 

 

Camino On My Mind

A few weeks ago I watched an interview between Oprah Winfrey and Shirley MacLaine on Super Soul Sunday. Speaking about her pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, MacLaine said something to the effect that, “The pilgrimage doesn’t truly begin until you’ve come home.”

My pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela began in May, 2015. I left San Jean Pied-de-Port, France on May 26 and arrived in Santiago June 28. During those 34 days of walking I meditated, wrote poems, met friends, cried, laughed, sang, ate good food, hobbled with shin splints, slept amid snoring pilgrims, and threw away the remaining antidepressants I carried across Spain.

Eight months have passed since I came home to Georgia, and I have been off antidepressants this entire time. It has been hard.

Since November, I wake in the morning with the fiery pain of nerves in my solar plexus. It takes an hour of  mindful breathing to slowly make my way out of bed at 8:00 am. Once I’m up, the rhythms of the day take over. The sun warms my muscles, the others in my family wake up, and the pain under my sternum dissipates.

Buddhist teachers would tell me that my suffering comes from expecting only good feelings. The trick is to watch the feelings come and go without identifying with them. But the pain! It’s sometimes impossible not to lose myself in the misery.

Some might wonder why I don’t go back to my psychopharmacologist for a new prescription. If I were suicidal, I would seek treatment, but I am not. I go to a counselor who helps me with moving the energy in my body. She also gives me suggestions for healing old wounds. I know that everyone is different, and I don’t recommend that anyone ditch their meds because of my experiences. I took antidepressants for twenty years.

I live with the hope that by entering the suffering I will eventually pass through it. I also practice what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “watering the seeds of joy.”

One to two hours of vigorous exercise works to exorcise my inner demons. I take long walks. I swim one to two miles at a stretch. I practice yoga. I’m grateful for the circumstances in my life that allow me the time I need to take care of myself.

Now that spring is around the corner here in Georgia, my thoughts are on the Camino again. I long for six hours of walking a day, no cell phones, computers, chores, or familial drama. It’s the kind of retreat I crave.

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After Yoga Writing Circle

Writing after practicing yoga and meditation is one of the best ways to release creativity. With a relaxed body and mind, we can touch our inner feelings. Writing with a group where we feel safe and nourished, we can take small risks with our writing and reveal heartfelt truths.

For the past six months or so, a group of us have been meeting once a month after our wonderful yoga teacher’s Saturday class to generate new writing. I’ve been leading the writing circle because of my certification with Amherst Writers and Artists, a writing circle method devised by Pat Schneider.

For the warm-up prompt, I read these lines from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening the knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

I wrote these lines based on the prompt:

Overflow

My heart is a bowl
that, today at least,
brims with anger.
Rage spills over the rim,
pulses into my chest, my throat.

But rather than opening my mouth,
I take to the street
and walk with my anger.
Inhaling the fresh fall air,
I release my bitterness.

The last yellow and orange leaves
hanging on the lowest branches
of a cottonwood tree
glitter in the breeze
like Tibetan prayer flags.

TreeCampus

A Day In the Life November 20

The walk today was so refreshing. I find more and more that, through meditation and mindful walking,  I’m paying attention to the changing leaves, the quality of the air, the blue sky. 

I felt so grateful just to be alive and breathing. I thought about the recent victims of violence in Paris, Beirut, and elsewhere, and how they are no longer able to walk the way I do, breathing the fresh air. Today I walked for them. 

  

What Living Out of a Backpack for 6 Weeks Has Taught Me

This past weekend S.A. and I drove to Florida to pack up his mother’s belongings and ship them to the assisted living apartment she moved to in Chicago.

She told us she wanted all of her clothes, but after stuffing a garment bag and five suitcases with all the items we could manage, many racks of evening gowns, dresses, skirts, blouses, wraps, bags, and shoes remained, so we made the decision to give her lifetime collection of finery to charity.

I hoisted her beautifully arranged outfits into industrial-sized garbage bags and with the help of one of my MIL’s neighbors,  drove them to a local thrift store that services the homeless and veterans. Other bags went to Goodwill, and others to Salvation Army.

I felt sad to see my MIL’s artfully selected skirts and blouses crammed into bags. Why didn’t she give some of this clothing away over the years? Now that she’s older, she stays  in her muumuu most of the day, and when she goes to the grocery she puts on the same sweater and frayed pants.

On the Camino, I had to pare down my belongings because of the weight. To keep my pack under 15 pounds, I had only one pair of spare shoes in addition to my boots, four shirts (two too many by the standards of micro-lightweight packers), one pair of thermal Smartwool leggings to wear as pajamas and as pants for the evening, three pairs of underwear, two sports bras, and four pairs of socks.

I will admit that when I walked around the streets of Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon in the evenings, cities that the Camino passes through, I felt somewhat oafish compared to the neatly dressed Spanish women out on the streets with their beaus or their families. But walking the Camino is a lesson in humility if nothing else. I had to let go of my vanity if I was going to make the distance to Santiago.

One of my Camino  friends, Carolina,  a lovely blonde  from Brazil, said that when she arrived in Santiago she would treat herself to a dress and some make up as a way to celebrate and restore her sense of beauty.

I ended up finding a nice summer dress on one of the main streets of the historic part of town  in Santiago, and it has become my main dress. I took it to the beach and to the mountains, I’ve worn it to almost every poetry reading I’ve attended this summer in Atlanta, and I might even bring it on my next pilgrimage–it’s lightweight,  dries quickly, and can be worn over my thermal leggings.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I'm wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Decatur Book Festival, photo by Lisa N. Allender. I’m wearing my Camino dress bought in Santiago at the end of my pilgrimage.

Before emptying out my MIL’s condo I had already begun the process of paring down my own belongings. I’ve had to face my proclivity to hoard books. I have them piled up next to my bed, stacked on shelves in every room, and even stored in boxes in the garage. I’ve donated many of them to Goodwill and other organizations, and I will bring others to the library.

But giving away or selling possessions is only a physical manifestation of other more important aspects of my life that I need to give away. Just as I let go of my vanity on the Camino, at least for the most part, now I’m working on letting go of fear and anxiety.

If I feel a vague twinge of negative energy, my tendency is to tell myself a story that gives me a concrete reason to worry. So these stories are what I’m going to let go. I’m letting go of fear. First I will give fear a gentle squeeze on the shoulder, then I will pat it on the back and wish it a safe journey. Goodbye, old friend, buen viaje.

With a lighter load, I go on my next walk.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.

The North Jetty on Casey Key, Nokomis, FL.

How Can I Be at Peace when Fear Nibbles at My Heart Like a Mouse?

In Parker Palmer’s  column at  On Being,  he writes about allowing  his life’s unfolding  to be guided by open-ended questions that look at the big picture.

Here is an example question he gives at the end of the post, which he arrives at after some give and take with the wording:  “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”

Questioning the universe and then listening for its wisdom seems like a gentle and good way to live a life. In yoga there is a similar practice of sankalpa, translated as an intention, a resolve, or a wish.

When I practice yoga nidra, a 45-minute relaxation meditation, at the beginning of the session I allow a sankalpa to manifest itself in my mind. Sometimes I have a clear image of myself realizing my wish. When I was preparing for my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I would see myself walking on an open road under a blue, blue sky, experiencing total freedom. And ultimately, at moments, this freedom is what I experienced.

When my son returned from India, he told me he learned that a yogi makes plans, sets an intention, and then lets the intention recede from his conscious mind. In other words, he doesn’t fret over the outcome. All his actions will lead toward the manifestation of his wishes.

I like the practice of posing a question and waiting for the stream of life to unfold. By allowing a question to guide us, our very lives become the answer.

My question is this: How can I feel more at peace in my heart and mind, and how can I share this peace of mind with others so that they too can experience peace?

In a way, the question is a mission statement for a life, but since it’s open ended, it doesn’t presuppose that we already know how to achieve the outcome or even what that outcome will look or feel like.

When I came home from Spain on June 30, I was not anxious at all, even after discontinuing all the medications I had been taking. Now, two and a half months later, some of the old anxieties are creeping back, and even though I continue walking, meditating, and reading inspiring books, it’s rare that I don’t feel the pain of some ancient grief bubbling up.

The difference now, after the Camino (A.C.!) , is that I don’t take any pills to muffle the gnawing, nibbling discomfort. As I learned from the gentle teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, I say to the anxiety, “Oh, hello old friend. What do you have to tell me today?”

My old friend anxiety says: Keep walking. Keep writing. Breathe deeply and slowly. Listen deeply. Be patient.

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

Chattahoochee River, Late Summer

*** If you take medications, please don’t stop taking them because of what you read here. I’m not a professional therapist of any kind, and I only speak of my own experience. I have taken different anti-depressants for decades, and I think they might have helped me at one point or another. They certainly seemed to help. But I have the support of a therapist, my family,  and many years of life to help me face my inner demons, and I believe I am ready to do this one day at a time, breath by breath.