National Poetry Month, James Weldon Johnson’s, The Creation (1927)

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I inherited my grandparent’s library. Many of the books have their signatures and a date and in a few volumes one has gifted it to the other with “Love, Eli” or “Love, Lorraine.” I cherish these.

Every once in a while when I am looking for something to read or rearranging shelves aIMG_5087 title strikes me that I missed or hadn’t felt a pull to in the past. As I looked for something to end National Poetry Month I found this book and a piece that made me pause. I read it all the way through and frankly was sobbing at the end.

In the Hebrew Bible, I love the first chapter of Genesis and the way God is described making the world. Johnson takes those first verses and amplifies the personification of God, of God’s love for his Creation and the care and consideration of what he made and how he exclaimed, “That’s good!”

Johnson’s words affect me specifically because I have always seen Nature as God Incarnate. And in modern America we are killing off Nature, God’s Creation,…well, that’s a post for another time…I am sure these feelings of mine contributed to my reaction.

When you find someone else’s words that speak so deeply and directly to you it is a joy. This is long. Skim if you want, but it’s worth reading all the way through.

 
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The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.

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To learn more about James Weldon Johnson, you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

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The Book of American Negro Poetry. Edited by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, 117.

#BloggingTheSpirit

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Gabriela Mistral: Chilean Poet, Educator, Diplomat and Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

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April is National Poetry Month and I want to share a few works of a poet I just discovered, Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889—January 10, 1957). She is the first South American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945) and I hope I am in the minority of those who have never heard of her!

Pure luck brought her to my attention when a character in a telenovela I am watching that is presently airing on Chilean television quoted her. (“The universe changes in an instant and we are born in a day”). I found this profound and wanted to find out more about her.

Born in a small village in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Mistral had an extensive career as an educator, poet, and diplomat; her diplomatic assignments included posts in Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa, and Nice.

She is an emotional and lyrical poet and her poetry is characterized by a persistent and mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.

I think it is for this reason these three poems particularly draw me. All three speak of spirituality, Nature and a person at ease in conversation with the Divine.

A note on translation: I do not know Spanish, the language of Gabriela Mistral’s work, but these translations are by Doris Dana, her friend and heir to her papers and estate. I am sure they do Mistral justice.*

 

“Serenity”/”Suavidades”

When I am singing to you,
on earth all evil ends:
as smooth as your forehead
are the gulch and the bramble.

When I am singing to you,
for me all cruel things end:
as gentle as your eyelids,
the lion with the jackal.


“Time”/”Tiempo”

DAYBREAK

My heart swells that the Universe
like a fiery cascade may enter.
The new day comes. Its coming
leaves me breathless.
I sing. Like a cavern brimming
I sing my new day.

For grace lost and recovered
I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.
Until the Gorgon night,
vanquished, flees.


“Eight Puppies”/”Ocho Perritos

Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth day
the puppies opened their eyes.
Suddenly they saw the world,
anxious with terror and joy.
They saw the belly of their mother,
saw the door of their house,
saw a deluge of light,
saw flowering azaleas.

They saw more, they saw all,
the red, the black, the ash.
Scrambling up, pawing and clawing
more lively than squirrels,
they saw the eyes of their mother,
heard my rasping cry and my laugh.

And I wished I were born with them.
Could it not be so another time?
To leap from a clump of banana plants
one morning of wonders—
a dog, a coyote, a deer;
to gaze with wide pupils
to run, to stop, to run, to fall,
to whimper and whine and jump with joy,
riddled with sun and with barking,
a hallowed child of God, his secret, divine servant.

I don’t pretend at this time to know more than a scant few details about Mistral, since in discovering her, I have mostly concentrated on reading her poems. I know that while she had fulfilling and important career successes in education and political diplomacy, she had many personal loses and sorrows, including the death of a nephew she raised as a son. Her poems reflect this.

Since today is her date of birth, I am hoping the Internet will point me to others who know more. If she is new to you, maybe you’ll want to search around as well.

For a nicely detailed biography of her life, including excerpts from her work, I found her entry at The Poetry Foundation to be quite meaningful.

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Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated and edited by Doris Dana. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1971.

Morning Prayer-Spring Equinox 2018

 

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I arise facing East,
I am asking toward the light;
I am asking that my day
Shall be beautiful with light.
I am asking that the place
Where my feet are shall be light,
That as far as I can see
I shall follow it aright.
I am asking for the courage
To go forward through the shadow,
I am asking towards light!–Mary Austin

 

Mary Austin wrote about life in the Sierra Nevada mountains and valleys of California, about the Native peoples, the white settlers, the animals and the natural rhythm of the area.

“I thank You God for most this amazing day…” e e cummings

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i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

ee cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), the man of lower case letters and eccentric punctuation. The word order in his poems, too, is different: personal, idiosyncratic, experimental.

This poem sings the spirit of nature for me, although I didn’t understand it all until I came across a recording of the man himself reading it. His intonation, the breaks and pauses…How many times does it happen that one can hear a classic poem read by the poet long dead in his own voice?

 

 

#BloggingtheSpirit

Blogging the Spirit: When Others’ Words are Sacred

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Everyday is a renewal,
Every morning the daily miracle.
This joy you feel is life.
Gertrude Stein

 

When I say I connect to God in Nature, it sounds so trite.

And so unoriginal. Even though it is true.

I am not very good at articulating what I mean, because when I try I sound so superficial.

As I am a reader I can’t help but be inspired by words, whether they are officially-sanctioned liturgy and sacred writings or the personal musings of well-known writers and other artists or someone like me. I drink them in and am inspired. And connected.

I chose just a few examples to share. I really ‘feel’ these and I hope you will, too.

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Recently, a friend pointed me to the writings of Reb Nachman of Breslov. Admittedly, I had stereotyped people like this as being so different than me, what could we possibly have in common? Well, a lot, as it turns out. According to tradition, Reb Nachman often went into the fields and meadows to pray and be alone with God.

Grant me the ability to be alone;
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
Among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things
And there may I be alone,
And enter into prayer
To talk with the one that I belong to.

—Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1811) was a Hasidic master and religious thinker and a great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov.

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In the Episcopal Church, short topical prayers can be inserted into the liturgy of Morning and Evening Prayers.

We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea; for the richness of mountains, plains and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer, Episcopal Church

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Mary Austin (1869-1934) wrote beautifully of the deserts and mountains of the High Sierras.

I rise, facing East,
I am asking toward the light,
I am asking that my day
Shall be beautiful with light.
I am asking that the place
Where my feet are shall be light,
That as far as I can see
I shall follow it aright.
I am asking for the courage
To go forward through the shadow,
I am asking toward the light!

—Mary Austin was an early nature writer of the American southwest. The Land of Little Rain (1903) is a classic on the animals, people and plant life of the High Sierras and the Mojave desert of Southern California.

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In this prayer, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) writes about reverence for the life of animals. I find this particularly emotive and frankly, I wish everyone felt this way…

Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals, especially for animals who are suffering; for any that are hunted or lost, or deserted or frightened or hungry; for all that must be put to death. We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words. Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals and so to share the blessings of the merciful.

—Albert Schweitzer, the philosopher/theologian won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

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Wendell Barry (1934-) writes often about his connection to nature and on environmental issues. His poems are personal, but so relatable.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

—Wendell Berry is a well-known environmentalist and writer.

Are you inspired by poems or passages that are similar? I would love to know about them!

Connecting Post for #BloggingtheSpirit

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Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

#BloggingTheSpirit: Adventures in Spirituality on the Last Sunday of the Month

Books, Art, Photography, Music, Poetry and More

In a previous post, I talked about wanting to expand my blog to reflect the variety of books I read, instead of concentrating almost solely on books about the classics. A brief exchange in the comments regarding religion and spirituality has prompted me to reach out and create an informal event occurring on the last Sunday of the month.

A Little Background

I have been interested in religion from a very young age and while I don’t belong to a specific group or denomination religious biographies, memoir and even the ‘how we practice’ or ‘what we believe’ type of books have always drawn me. This curiosity is reflected on almost any path you can imagine from traditional religions to the New Age to all manner of pagan and wiccan paths.

If pressed I would admit to being in the “I find God in Nature” camp where I happily commune on a regular basis. However, if my friend, who sings in a magnificent Episcopal choir, is having a choral feast day at her church, you will find me there. Or if another friend tells me about a new book on Druidry that really helped him, I’ll pick it up.

Many bloggers easily incorporate these books or other creative arts into their regular blogging fare. But I have been hesitant. It feels too revealing and personal and maybe no one would be interested. Or maybe this clashes with the logical left brain persona I am more comfortable projecting. And while I don’t plan on posting about these books frequently, once a month feels right.

I do not think I am alone and I would love to share and discuss, to know what you are reading, hearing and looking at that inspires you!

I am proposing that we connect on the last Sunday of this month, September 24th with any kind of post you chose: on a book, a piece of art or music, a photograph, a poem that inspires you, a word or a relationship…anything that speaks to your connection to God/The Gods/Soul/The Big Cheese

The Mechanics

In a desire to ‘keep it simple,’ I created the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit which we can use on Twitter and Instagram to find each other. I will also put up a general post on my blog at 12am (PDT) on the 24th where you can use the comment section to share the url to your post.

Please share this post on your blog, Instagram, Twitter, wherever you have social media, if you or someone you know is interested. I can’t wait to see what transpires on the 24th!

On September 24th:
~post to your blog and/or use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter or Instagram
~Go to Relevant Obscurity and share the url to your blog post in the comments of the connecting post
~click on various urls and comment on the posts that interest you
See you on the 24th!

By the Waters of Babylon, Emma Lazarus, 1887

For the Fourth of July, 2017

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Vast oceanic movements, the flux and reflux of immeasurable tides, oversweep our continent.

From the far Caucasian steppes, from the squalid Ghettos of Europe,

From Odessa and Bucharest, from Kief and Ekaterinoslav,

Hark to the cry of the exiles of Babylon, the voice of Rachel mourning for her children, of Israel lamenting for Zion.

And lo, like a turbid stream, the long-pent flood bursts the dykes of oppression and rushes hitherward.

Unto her ample breast, the generous mother of nations welcomes them.

The herdsman of Canaan and the seed of Jerusalem’s royal shepherd renew their youth amid the pastoral plains of Texas and the golden valleys of the Sierras.

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In the Sierras. Onion Valley, I believe.

 

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(When I was looking for a poem for this holiday, I liked that this one deals with America as mother to refugees, which is both a historical idea and modern controversy. But it’s also personal…my mother’s side of the family came from Ekaterinoslav, as Lazarus describes above).

Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary Oliver (2016)

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I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be here.

 

I didn’t know Mary Oliver wrote essays. I know her as the writer of many of my favorite poems and a woman in love with and who embodies the natural world.

 

Childhood

In this collection, she shares her early experiences of wandering through the woods of her Ohio childhood and the writers and poets she discovered, whose works illumined her inner and outer worlds from a young age,

As a young person, I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.

and her relationships with the animal, bug, bird and plant worlds of the Provincetown of adulthood, and how she created her writing life.

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

 

Whitman

As a Young Adult

In high school, she counted Walt Whitman among her ‘friends’ with whom she would skip school for the woods “with a knapsack of books.” Warned she might not graduate, her parents let her ‘go her own way.’

Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures…I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher…Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself….The oracular tenderness with  which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest….But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing….I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.

Her experiences in nature became part of her psyche, then translated into a visceral experience. It is fair to say, she is a ‘hands on writer’ as she describes an hour spent in the woods walking on all fours.

I had seen the world from the level of the grasses….I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of the trees.

You must not ever stop being whimsical.

Besides Whitman, other sources of influence were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She writes of their personal stories of sorrows and challenges and what fueled their creative impulse. I am always fascinated to read what one writer thinks about another and how or why they were of influence.

Of Emerson she writes. I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark.

That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude,” of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads, as he shows us again and again, not to stasis but activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.

Of Poe: For are we not all, at times, exactly like Poe’s narrators—beating upon the confining walls of circumstance, the limits of the universe? In spiritual work, with good luck (or grace) we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves. But the lover that is in each of us—the part of us that adores another person—ah! That is another matter….In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved… This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny.

 

Close Encounters

In several essays she describes encounters with nonhuman inhabitants of the spideynatural world around her: the mating and mothering habits of a female spider whose web Oliver finds in a stairwell and whose 6 egg sacs she watches as “the uncountable number of progeny have spilled” out of them; a rescued injured seagull she brought back to her house whose rehabilitation became part of the routine and pattern of her life during the several months it lived; the observation of a female snapping turtle as it struggled to lay its eggs on land against its natural predators, including Oliver, who will come back to this spot where the cache is and dig up half the eggs to scramble for breakfast. “I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”

Poet and Literary Critic

As a writer, her word choices and phrases in these essays are as lyrical and expressive, wild and intense as the poetry she writes. I found myself reading many passages out loud envisioning the world she is describing. Her attention to the details of the flora and fauna she writes about in her poems make these essays powerful, visual and captivating to read. Here are two:

hornedowlBut the great horned [owl]…if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world….When I hear it resounding through the woods,…I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry.

She found an injured seagull on the sea shore and took it home to care for and named it, Bird:

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact: this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive. 

Finally, in a wonderful passage connecting her spirituality and the bond she has with the nonhuman beings around her, she calls them a company of spirits, as well as bodies:

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

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My Edition:
Title: Upstream: Selected Essays
Author: Mary Oliver
Publisher: Penguin Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

For National Coffee Day I Wrote a Poem!

I am no poet, but something inexplicable comes over me every morning while preparing this magic elixir. So I had to do something about it.*

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From the Queen Mary, Long Beach. CA

In the morning. Those first few sips……ahhhhh…….

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Oh coffee, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:**

I love thee because you make my eyes and brain sparkle

I love thee because your taste makes me think of exotic, tropical places

I love thee because when I need the buzz, you always come through

I love thee because whether I’m in Reykjavik, New York City or Akron, Ohio a cuppa Joe is a cuppa of Joe

I love thee because MY coffee is so good, I don’t even have to go to Starbucks

and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.

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Yes, I am ‘one of those,’ who grounds the coffee and has her own latte maker. 🙂

 

*This is a repost from last year, because, well, you can’t celebrate coffee enough, imo!

**With thanks (and apologies) to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.