Leonard and I

Leonard and I were both born in Canada’s province of Quebec. He arrived, in this incarnation, on the autumn equinox of 1934, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount. He was almost 2 when I was born in poverty in the wooded hills of the Eastern Townships.

He said he was “the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Jesus was the only Jew I met until I was 12. He wrote me love songs, although we never met. He never did bring “my groceries in”. If I didn’t drag them in myself, an athletic mathematician did, a man quite unlike Leonard. Since loving me mandated at least tolerating poetry, Mr. Math learned to. He even wrote me a poem once, and was willing enough to go to Greece because Leonard had made me love it from afar.

Leonard, with a poet’s intuition, passed in his sleep after a fall on the night of Nov. 7th, the day before Donald Trump was elected president of Leonard’s adopted country. He had proclaimed earlier that “Democracy was coming to the USA”. I’m not saying he was wrong, just that his prediction may have been more complicated than it seemed.

Besides being born Quebec-ers (although not Quebecois), we shared an enduring depression. Leonard indicated later he had defeated it by becoming a Zen monk for five years. Kudos to him. My own excursion into Taoism did not prove as efficacious. I hope that Buddhism enabled him not to rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: the loss of his wealth to a larcenous business manager, the necessity to start touring again in his 70’s, the ‘unbearable’ pain of leukemia, and the inevitable losses of old age.

Personally, I am bitching mad at old age. I don’t have unbearable pain or a deadly disease (so far as I know). Of course, I don’t have Leonard’s companions either. He said the ladies had been very kind to him in his old age. Recently, two of the major problems in my immediate family have been resolved, I have published my mystery Hour of the Hawk, (joycehowe.com) I have a secure if modest income and a warm, safe place to live.The problem is that being pissed off actually makes my health problems worse.

I had a grandmother who lived to be 96, but apparently I learned nothing from her role model.

So I put in my earbuds and listen to Back on Boogie Street – not his own song but Sharon Robinson’s; he sings backup. I’m still on Booogie St. Got to market this book. Got to keep my head straight. Got to drag the groceries up to my tower of .. whatever. Coming up to 82, could l have my Nanny’s long-lived genes? Then I listen to ‘Hallelujah’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEWqDE20O3U

Youth and beauty and ecstasy are not lost. They are there, ingrained, embedded, as alive in me as any mournful loss.


Fare Well; look thy last on all things lovely

sunset over mtnshttp://www.poetry-archive.com/m/fare_well.html

In his poem Fare Well, Walter de La Mare advices us “To look our last on all thing lovely/Every hour”

Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
in other days
De La Mare is telling us to really see the beauty of our world because death will take it from us. Not sure that I agree with that idea, but the line came back to me as I contemplated leaving a beautiful place to return to a more mundane one.So I have been imprinting the beauty of this mountain valley all day. The golden aspens and poplars over the golf course, the evergreen slopes, the rocky peaks below which snow still lingers, the sharp outline of green against the clear blue sky.I prefer to think that beauty, like love, goes with us across the great divide and maybe even as far as Toronto.

IMG_0003Toronto: near the Brickworks

Joy Says Good Morning

I have been reading and rereading all the poems in Rumi: the Book of Love, this week looking for this idea. For some reason, I read back to front. Still I didn’t find it. Last night I said to myself, “Well, it must be in Coleman Bark’s introduction to a section”, so I started rereading those, back to front. I found it in Section 14, entitled “Union”. The poems in this part talk about spiritual union, which we are all seeking, no matter how worldly and unspiritual we may seem.

Here Barks considers how potentially unbalancing this can be. When that happens we are liable think we are in deep trouble, but in actual fact, we are evolving. For the time being, we may need help and so we find another kind of union with our helpers.

“The heart cannot be talked about. We must experience its depths in that mysterious osmosis of presence with presence. Hazrat Inayat Khan says that our purpose here is to make God a reality, a daunting and potentially unbalancing task. One can get too full of the ecstatic state. Rumi warns the the roof is a dangerous place to drink wine. We can die trying to make God a reality. If we don’t fall from the roof, we wake with a hangover that weakens consciousness. Hangover remorse can be helpful then. The work of balancing love (enthusiasm) with discipline (practical helpfulness) is beautifully addressed in the first poem of this section, the drink of water that is ‘Sunrise Ruby’.”
p. 119 Barks. Rumi:the Book of Love

The Sunrise Ruby
In the early morning hour,
Just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
to take a drink of water.

She asks, “Do you love me or yourself more?
Really the absolute truth.”

He says, “There’s nothing left of me,
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise,
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no
resistance to sunlight.”

The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.

Completely become hearing and ear,
and wear this sun-ruby as an earring.

Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off work.
Water is there somewhere.

Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.

Rumi trans by Coleman Barks in Rumi: the Book of Love p. 120

rumi 1

Eros, the God of Love and Psyche, the Soul

psyche and eros(The myth of Psyche and Eros, the god of love, is found in the Roman Apuleius’s novel Metamorphoses or The Golden Ass, about 150 CE. The myth was retold by C S Lewis in his novel Til We Have Faces, 1956, written in conjunction with his wife Joy Davidson. In the story, Eros forbade his love Psyche to look upon his face.)


Becoming Psyche (an interim stage) (2011)

Fathomless grief has washed me clean,
Dissolved the clenching that
I once called me.
I have courted this relief, but
Now, emptied of all I was,
I cry out against the loss,
Not helplessly begging some god
To fill the void, but
Asking, rather, to know that I am already full.

Let me see you, I pray.
Be clearly present,
Be presently clear.
Show your reflection in this empty glass,
Give voice to silence,
Share this solitary bed.

Grief has wrought this marriage
To the soul,
But Eros has forbidden me
To look upon his face.

Being Pysche (2014)

The signs were someone else’s
-so I thought-
the Chinese talisman she drew, the tiny owl,
Minerva’s messenger.
Then Hades lured her down,
lost Proserpine,
into his underworld.
No chance of spring.

I forgot to seek the face of God
I sought her face instead.

Yet she returned; spring rose
and looking up I saw
my own face in a glass, no longer empty.

“I love you and I trust you.”
For days the words went with me.

Then one dawn,
I heard a singing in my head,
A man’s voice, full of longing.
“The water is wide and I can’t swim over.”

Two such longings bridge an ocean.

All day, it sang, until I fell in love.

Lying down to sleep,
flashes of brilliant gold
above my eyes.

Gift of the underworld-
the god of love has shown his face.

Joyce A Hood

(All the mythological references can be found on-line.)

The Septuagenarian Hobbit: honored guest

(Fifth in a series in which I explore reluctance to travel)

The 13th century poet Rumi said “You are the honored guest/ Don’t go begging for bits of bread. (Trans. Coleman Barks) I have been learning what he meant by that during this Christmas trip to Brussels.

In part I am honored here because my brother Rob introduces me everywhere as “ma soeur” with great affection and any sister of Rob is instantly honored by his vast number of friends. They are constantly in and out of his house here in Bois Fort. A remarkable number of them seem to have keys and the rest ring the bell at all hours.True two of them are his grown up daughters. Others have found refuge here until they could get on their feet. Still others drop by to see how his recovery from surgery is going or to borrow his sander or soy sauce, just to chat or on the off chance there is dinner.

Christmas Day, Rob interrupted my nap. He sat on the edge of the bed and presented the problem. He had invited 4 people for lunch, intending to serve Christmas Eve leftovers. (Christmas Eve is the main event here in Brussels.) One had cancelled. In his mind, lunch was cancelled. Now the other 3 had arrived.  No leftovers had been left. What to do? In 5 minutes, we devised a menu of smoked salmon, quiche from the freezer, Polish blueberry-stuffed pasta, his famous green salad and cheese. In half an hour it was on the table. Each guest specialized. One made a meal of salmon, another of cheese and salad, etc. Only the exotic pasta got short shrift. And of course there was wine. He had sent me down to the wine cellar, being hampered himself by his “changed knee”. Absent-minded he may be, but he honors guests.

In turn, these friends invite us for dinner. At home in the west end of Toronto, I lead a quiet life. The door bell never rings. Dinner out is, at most, a monthly event. Cozy it may be and introspective, but not dinner out every other night. And, to my embarrassment Christmas gifts for me. I protest to Rob that I have no gifts in return. “You are the gift,” he assures me. I contemplate tying a red ribbon around my neck. “You came so far,” he says. A lifetime of self- criticism stands in my way. How is it possible to feel worthy of this outpouring?

But that is the point Rumi was making. We don’t earn this honor. It is a given. We show up. We are the honored guest and the bounty of life is ours.

The Cure for Fear

Okay, I should be asleep. I need to be. I want to get up early. Things to do. May actually be getting something, (When am I not?) But I have this great opportunity, which I am going to lose tomorrow. I am uncertain and afraid. Tomorrow I will call my oncologist. If my appointment is moved forward to next week instead of the week after, I know the lump that we’ve detected needs further study.

Blake and I were sitting in Starbucks in the lobby of Toronto General, gazing back at the Art Deco facade of Princess Margaret Hospital from which we had just jaywalked.

“Even if I do get an immediate call-back it could still be A or B. That would have to be determined,” I say.

“Or it could be C,” Blake quips.

“Oh, it could very well be C,” and I have to laugh.

Yes, well,  we have just spent two hours waiting to hear Blake’s test results with regard to C. They weren’t bad, but then they weren’t good either. It’s the usual seesaw game of prostrate cancer. Knock down the PSA score and the testosterone with hormones. Ease off. Watch the PSA rise again. Today, it was decided that it was time to go back to the heavy ammunition. Not easy news for the manly Blake, but excellent news in that the drugs have improved since last time and he is line to get this extremely expensive medication for free.

Not many men in the clinic bring along their ex-wives probably, but Blake’s young second wife was carried off by cancer two years ago. So he and I are embarked on this mutual study of mortality.

Much else has been happening this week. My brother Rob underwent knee replacement in Brussels. My daughter and her husband declared bankruptcy and their home is about to be foreclosed on. True this “disaster” has opened up their lives and led them to a prospective mountain home. My grandson, Leo, who has to get his driver’s license or lose his job, has his own test redo to deal with. I had enough fear to go round.

So I kept up my mantra, “I love you and I trust you.” Initially, I just mouthed the words, but gradually I realized what they meant. Driving down to the hospital today, I found it had morphed into, “I love you. I know you are pure love. I trust love.”

Blake and I, out of nothing but pure love, created a home, two children and careers that supported us. An excellent foundation for this present project.

At home, afterward, I read Rumi’s poetry (Rumi: The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks). One section is called “Tavern Madness” and the poems in it are about the ‘drunkenness’ of the overwhelming contact with the divine. Dinners in our home were full of such non-alcoholic ‘drunken’ conversations, full of revelation and confidence in our vision of life.

Rumi says: I didn’t come here of my own accord
                  And I can’t leave that way.
                  Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

I love the way, poetry lets you work things out for yourself. And I love the idea of surrender to the steady shoulder that is capable of supporting my staggering self.

In another poem, Rumi says, I am the clear consciousness core of your being,                                              The same in ecstasy
                                             As in self-hating fatigue.

And so, I came around to an open heart and fear dissolved.

The Cure For Pain Is in the Pain

In one of  Rumi’s poems, “There’s Nothing Ahead” (Coleman Bark’s translation on p. 205 of The Essential Rumi), the 13th century Sufi poet tells us that “The cure for pain is in the pain”.

This is a very enigmatic poem that begins:
Lovers think they’re looking for each other,
but there’s only one search: wandering this world is wandering that, both inside one
transparent sky. In here
there is no dogma and no heresy.

This idea echoes another poem where he says
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere
They’re in each other all along. (Essential Rumi, p. 106)
By now we are beginning to get the idea that the ‘one search’ is not an outward one or a search for other.

After asserting that
The miracle of Jesus is himself, Rumi goes on to say that “if you can say, There’s nothing ahead, there will be nothing.” Then as though the reader is not confused enough, he adds
Stretch your arms and take hold of your clothes
with both hands. The cure for pain is in the pain.
Good and bad are mixed. If you don’t have both,
you don’t belong with us.

Faced with excruciating pain, I am more than glad to retreat to the coziness of a morphine drip, but it’s hard to come by. Lesser painkillers don’t impress me. Sure they can keep me quieter, but that’s about all. And over the counter pain remedies mess up my digestion and leave the pain the way they found it. So I am driven every so often to test this hypothesis.

I sat down earlier this week to get acquainted with the pain du jour. I made myself as comfortable as possible. No full lotus posture for me. If I’m going to look into the heart of darkness, I need pillows.

Whoa! It is bad. Really, really bad. Pull out of this dive. Just fear. Letting go never works for me. I have to own it. Hold it. Feel its center. Stay there. Stay there. Don’t fight it. This is not an alien force. This is me.

Forty minutes later, I seem to have sailed onto a clear sea.

The residual pain is bearable. I have no idea if that is what Rumi had in mind, but great poetry works that way. It is suggestive. What we make of it is up to us.

Rumi ends the poem:
When one of us gets lost, is not here, he must be inside us.
There’s no place like that anywhere in the world.

Your Immense Heart – re-posted

This morning it seemed like a good idea to re-post this.

A jar floating in the river
Has river in it. The city lives in the room. Think of the world
as the jar and your immense
heart as the river.
Rumi – Coleman Bark’s translation in The Soul of Rumi p. 295

Apparently, Rumi is currently the best selling poet in America. He is the 13th century Sufi, born in Afghanistan, who fled Genghis Khan and went to live in Persia. Coleman Barks, his translator, has brought him to our attention. There are other translators certainly, but I am familiar with this one and came across the lines I have quoted high above the blue Pacific on my way to Maui. I kept running them through my mind so that, by the time, I saw the double rainbow over the ocean on the Hana road, I had committed them to memory. It seemed a wonderful thing that, instead of being carried along by the current of the world, my heart was the great river that bore the world along.

Well, easy enough to know the immensity of the heart when it is full of joy as it was then. Not so easy in times of fear and loathing. And disappointment and frustration, and loss and failure and recession and depression and so on until we end up with Grinch-sized hearts, hearts that need the jaws of life to pry them open. Little tiny hearts such as Connor  (“Why I Will Never Sleep Again”, posted May 30) must have had in the end.

Open-heartedness like a river accepts everything and sweeps it up in its embrace. It does not hold back to assess a situation, deciding perhaps that here, compassion is called for or there, that empathy is in order, that this is just and right and valuable whereas that is not. It doesn’t involve effort or reason. It isn’t deserved. It is more like grace.

Big-hearted people, the Falstaffs that we meet, give us a glimpse into open-heartedness although we may dismiss them as tiresome good-time fellows. But the open heart is not necessarily ‘Hail-fellow-well-met’.

The open heart sees things in a positive light. What seems negative is just misunderstood, for always life is carrying us on in the right direction, the direction our soul is seeking in spite of where we think we ought to be or go.

But how to come to such an inclusive, accepting, positive frame of mind can be a difficult question. We each have to find our own way. Someone might begin with gratitude. Someone might arrive by being in love. Some by family love. Some by love of a pet, some of nature. To be truly open-hearted will always mean expanding beyond those beginnings and, for example, including everyone in that beloved family, loving your mother-in-law as much as your cat, for example, your political opponent as much as your child.

It is not a way of being that comes naturally to us yet, but I believe that technology is coming to our assistance. The internet can serve as one immense heart as well as mind. We share our thoughts instantly and spontaneously now and we have the opportunity to be more empathetic.

In another poem, Rumi says we are cups floating in the ocean and we should strive to wet our lips.


April Crocus in the Rain

April Crocus in the Rain

Chaucer begins The Canterbury Tales with a jaunty tribute to April:
When that Aprill with his shoures soote
The draught of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which virtue engendered is the flour
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

When April with his sweet showers has pierced to the root what March dried up and bathed every vein in such moisture… then people long to go on pilgrimages (chiefly of course to Canterbury.)

And so a knight, his young squire, a yeoman, a prioress, a nun, a monk, a friar, a merchant, a clerk, and a dozen others, including the Good Wyf besyde Bathe set out on horseback to pray to “the blisful martir”, St Thomas Becket. On their way, they pass the time by telling each other stories, some chivalric, some edifying and some downright raunchy.

Prologue-The Canterbury Tales by Lucille Gilling

Prologue-The Canterbury Tales by Lucille Gilling

T.S. Eliot, on the other hand lamented in “The Waste Land”
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Sounds a bit negative but then, this part of the poem is called “The Burial of the Dead”. Eliot felt that life, devoid of meaning, is death, while death, if sacrificial, is life-giving.

Vernon Duke, songwriter, celebrated April and Paris:
April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom,
Holiday tables  under the trees,
April in Paris, this is a feeling,
No one can ever reprise.

Lucky Paris! The chestnuts in my town won’t bloom until the end of May.

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564 and died on April 23, 1616. He said, “Men are April when they woo and December when they wed.” His was a shot-gun wedding to an older woman.

Same ingredients, different cakes!

What do you make of April?

New Year’s: Ring Out Wild Bells

“Ring Out Wild Bells” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is traditionally read in Sweden on New Year’s Eve, in translation of course. I woke up on this first day of 2013 with the first three lines running through my mind. The “he” referred to is Arthur Hallam, an eloquent, enthusiastic, high spirited young man who died, leaving Tennyson to his own more gloomy, introspective devices. The poet wrote an elegy in sections like this one over 17 years.

It isn’t necessary to know that to enjoy the poem, however, for, like all great poetry, it manages to suit the time in which we read it. Nevertheless, to me the poem is a call to let go of past grief and misery and to press forward with a hopeful heart.

Ring Out Wild Bells

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

To hear bells try http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q00Nw8HSE-8