Some time ago, I began working on a poem called "Blank", which I have just rediscovered while going through my journals this morning. I think "Blank" was written in 2015 for my son who was just coming of age. I never finished it. Maybe, it is time I did. Poetry, for me, is like working with clay–– the work is not finished until it is dried in a kiln.
Finding "Blank" has taken on new meaning for me now, especially in the encounter of so much uncertainty and despair in the world today. It is an attempt to assuage the memory of fatherly advice never given.
In these times, we must find away to allow ourselves the freedom to create. Here, I am not necessarily talking about the arts such as writing, poetry, photography or painting, but as any activity that creates a space for the heart, mind, and spirit to free itself and see the beauty in ourselves and the world around us.
What I am suggesting is that we must no longer think of creativity as something that exists outside of who we are or meant to be. Creativity must be part of survival. What I am suggesting is that we seek out ways to float above the hustle and bustle of daily routines, even if your a few minutes when listen to the birds signing the back yard or the suddent burst of life in the garden after days of rain. Of course, one might argue that this is very naive perspective and I attempt it is. But being creative, in the slightest of ways, can save our lives. I offer now, in prayer, this poem for the families of 100,000 victims of the pandemic as well as those from around the world.
The months passing, like driftwood in high water,
have left me numb,
feeling lost, especially in the evenings,
In the morning I wander about in amber-ochre light,
although still pale from days and weeks,
I cling, like so many others,
The door is ajar, a half-light spills across the threshold
Life's promises made with feable hands,
The silence of my heart seeks not the darkest memories
of these days, but bright dreams of clouds drifting upward
into the coolness of space.
My son is afraid of me,
as I was of my own father.
The brooding presence of not feeling good enough
that takes a lifetime to speak of or even understand.
Best to speak in monochromatic tones
and work things out so as to scrape away the surface and
see the true colors that wait below.
The Three Most Powerful Words in Any Language,
I Love You.
I know there are many things I wished my father would have said to me, when he was still living.
My father is dead,
but in my mind
He looms over me,
larger than life itself,
a ghostly presence.
The things I wished my father had said to me seems so simple.
I love you,
you can do it,
there is always tomorrow.
I. Be Honest
If you know you've done something to upset someone,
come forward, make eye contact, and clear up any misgivings.
II. Don't Let Fear Rule Your Emotions
There are times when we are all afaid,
but the bee always find its purpose in life.
Confront the feelings you have hidden
III. Take Care of You Body and Your Mind
A bird spends most of its time
preening when its feathered are covered in dust.
IV. There is No Such This as Perfect
In God's eyes we are all perfect,
that's the best we can hope for.
V. Find Beauty in All things
Notice those things in life
that oftern get overlooked,
the kindness in a stranger's eye,
the smell of bacon sizzling in a pan,
a newborn baby
These are things I wished my father had said to me,
seem so simple now.
The space between things, from the back of the house to the garage, appears pretty ordinary at first glance. From all accounts, this space, is a normal backyard sandwiched between a whole bunch of other normal backyards. There is the clothesline, a few trees I planted years ago, rock walls, and two small gardens. I have never felt overly sentimental about this space, until the other day when I began to really see things in a more meaningful way. I stopped thinking about how the grass was getting long or about the hose running along the walkway to wash the car that needs a washing; but then in a moment of quiet realization, I heard the birds, smiled at the squirrels quarreling over a patch of ground they seemed to think they each owned, and admired a robin working so hard to pull a worm free from the freshly turned earth in the garden. It also happened that over the past few weeks, I have been captivated by a pair of owls out beyond the Walnut tree on the east side of the alley. Until recently, they have been hard to spot, but I was determined to see if I could photograph them.
Throughout my years as a photographer, most of my subjects had two legs and could tell me to buzz off if they felt inclined. My newly discovered backyard menagerie, however, seems different to me. In the past, making pictures of the natural world, was something I left to an army of shutterbugs who contented themselves with awe inspiring sunsets, rainbows, beaches, and of course, birds. Now it seems that being confined to the house during the pandemic for more time than I want to think about, as well as some writing I have been doing on the difference between seeing and looking, led me to look out the backdoor a bit more seriously. In the process, I have rediscovered a world that I knew existed but hadn't paid all that much attention to. Leaning against the backdoor, holding my camera with a telephoto lens attached, a curtain seemed to lift for me as if a theatrical show was just about to begin. I made sure the bird feeders were full, as they usually are, and waited for the show to start. Before long, I saw three or four squirrels scurry down across the alley, climb up the river birch and out onto a limb to shake one of the feeders. Then came the house sparrows, starlings, mourning doves, grackles, robins and cardinals to join the party. On the clothesline, left by itself, was a hairy woodpecker preening itself happily after picking bugs off the apple tree. Later, toward dusk, the owls arrived and the drama was complete.
As it turns out, my backyard was not the only place full of surprises this week. A few days ago, my friends John and Karen led me to a tree where some Eastern Bluebirds were raising their young along the front drive up their house. For Millennia, birds have held a great deal of symbolism depending on the culture, religion, and even the ideological beliefs of people. Birds are often symbolic because signify transcendence and represents the spirits of the air (Cooper, 1979, p. 20).
I have considered changing my name at different times in my life, because it was given to me just like the shape of my head, the color of my eyes, or length of my nose.
I was given a name because it either validated family's history, at least partially, or that it was simply convenient, since my parents named their first child 13-months and two days earlier. I believed my parents were so exhausted just being new parents, so I was named after my father.
In my case, the name was a paternal concession, since my older sister was named after my two grandmothers, Mary and Jane. The name Dennis came from my father's side, just as his name came from his father as well as his father's farther. We were all named Dennis, perhaps after the French Saint who had his head chopped off and then ran around carrying it through the streets of Parish shouting Bible verses. The spelling of the name is an Irish thing I think, with two letter n's in it like the word funny. Not only was I given the same first name as the three Dennis' before me, but my middle name, Joseph, was a a hand me down as well. I was, growing up, Dennis Joseph, named after the senior Dennis Joseph. I inherited an identify crisis, and as it worked out I became little Denny or simply Den. This practice of naming children after the parent's parent may seem quaint, but it didn't serve to inspire a sense of individualism or self-worth beyond the name sake.
I was born in the year of RAM, not the animal, but the year of the first random access memory computer. The machine weighed about 2 tons and could process only a few megabytes of information. This tangent aside, I resent how I was never consulted about my birth name or that my parents hadn't considered the implications of having a kid grow up with the legacy of his father's father's father's name. It's a lot to process and it reminds me that the first act of humility is accepting things you don't like about yourself.
When I reached puberty, at the age of being confirmed in the Roman Catholic tradition, I was allowed to select a new name and I felt excited as well as empowered. However, giving myself another name that would be ranked third in line behind Dennis and Joseph seemed to be of little consequence outside of the context of affirming my faith. I chose Patrick as my confirmation name because he had lived been a slave and that he eventually chased all the snakes out of Ireland.
When it came to naming my own son, some 43 years later, all I was confident about that the name Dennis was not in the cards. The reign of the Dennis' was ending, which was fine by me.
One of the most important distinctions between a sign and a symbol is that a sign has only one possible meaning. Recently, I planted some herbs in my garden. Two days later, unfortunately, we had an icy mix of rain and a little snow. I am now waiting for a sign. There is no way of telling if the tiny seeds survived the cold snap, but I remain hopeful. At the same time, the concept of the seed, within this specific context, not only has a fixed meaning, but it also symbolizes something much more. The ! seed is a metaphor for spring, fertility, and growth. The act of planting, even if the seeds do not sprout, remains symbolic to me. This is how, when we attach special meanings to things beyond the thing itself, symbolism occurs.
Carl Jung said, "Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend" (p. 21, Man and his Symbols). The image of me planting a spring garden becomes symbolic when we understand the act as something more than the obvious or immediate meaning.
Jung believes we never perceive anything completely, because our senses provide us with data or information that must be interpreted and contextualize within the range of human experience. The seed, then, as two meanings; one that is literal and another suggesting something very different.
"Man also produces symbols unconsciously and spontaneously, in the form of dreams. It is not easy to grasp this point. But the point must be grasped if we are to know more about the ways in which the human mind works. Man, as we realize if we reflect for a moment, never perceives anything fully of comprehends anything completely. He can see, hear, touch, and taste; but how well he hears, what his touch tells him, and what he tastes depend upon the number and quality of his senses. this limits his perception of the world around him." This is why religions use symbols to express experiences and explain meanings beyond the grasp of reality.
Recently, the Covid-19 virus has forced people of different faiths from around the world to make significant changes to longstanding rites, rituals and spiritual practice. It is heartbreaking to learn of how Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus have had to break from tradition to bury the dead. In Islam, the dead are traditionally buried within 24 hours with family members close by to care for the body. Symbols can be allegorical; they help us tell stories about the living and the dead. Without symbols, the unconscious aspects of our perception of such events as coming together for the death of a loved one is diminished. Every day, when we learn of the rising death toll around the world from Covid-19, we often only see the numbers and not the humanity. A body count is a sign – a data point, but no more. The psychological impact of what the numbers signify must be placed within a more profound human context. Unconsciously we are grappling with so much more than our present reality of having to wear masks or practice social distancing. We must now teach ourselves how to address fears of the unknown and of the new changes forces upon us in positive and creative ways. One way to constructively not lose our souls is to be more conscious of what it means to be sacred. In other words, we must be more conscious of the unconscious aspects of our lives. Everything we do, from weeding the garden to making meals can be, in a sense, sacred acts that ground us in living as well as connect us to our dreams. The term sacred is rooted in both the Latin words sānctus ad sacre meaning ‘holy’. Taking the common place occurrences such as meal or bathing, means making it more sacred in our lives, especially when we feel unsure about the future. Symbols can guide us toward a greater truth about who we are and how we should live. In this way, symbols often become the foundation of what we call common sense.
Even in such difficult times we can search for meaning in the most routine aspects of our lives. For J.C. Cooper, “ Symbolism is basic to the human mind... it is fundamental to thinking and the perfect symbol should satisfy every aspect of man – his spirit, intellect, and emotions."
How are we called to be present at a time when fear is our greatest enemy? The trips to the store are increasingly less frequent these days and always done with a sense of urgency, purpose and list in hand. I go alone and the familiar faces greeting me appear taunt and stressed. I do admit, however, I lose patience with people. I am fearful of being exposed to the virus in the line and yet must be careful not to be judgmental. Not so long ago, on this same line, I asked the cashier how he was doing. He stopped, looked me in the eye, and said he would rather be dead. Before I could respond an elderly woman directly behind me shattered my silent. "Don't you be talking like that," she said. "I am going to pray for you." There is not question that she did and that prayer does mean something. A few weeks, I returned to the store and the same cashier. I asked him if things were any better for him. He responded with confidence, "I have a plan."
Kansas has not felt the pains other parts of the nation and the world are facing up to this point, but that doesn't mean we are some how free from suffering. Fear is a type of suffering. Suffering through fear hardens the soul and dampens the spirit. Feeling hopeless often comes from fear and uncertainty. How are we called to open our hearts to the possibility of a deeper more profound hope beyond the solitude and isolation placed upon us? Somehow and somehow, maybe in silent meditation or in prayer we can find the strength to overcome the suffering and fear we must come to terms with for as long as we must.
The small herb garden I planted two days ago was covered in a blanket of ice this morning. I was being optimistic to think that early April in Kansas would let me get a start on the growing season. That is the way it goes sometimes here, when the weather can be fickle. But there is always another day, when the sun will rise to warm the earth and we will try again.
31 . March . 2020
A virtue is a behavior or act, which demonstrates a high moral standard such as honesty, self-control, kindness, purposefulness, and equanimity. At at a time when the world seems to be closing in on us, it is important to reflect on what being human means and living virtuous live is a good place to start.
Living in isolation is not something our species does very well. As Yuval Noah Harari, postulates in his book Sapiens, humans climbed the ladder to dominant other creatures over the last 50,000 years not because we were stronger or faster, but because we could work collectively to solve problems such as finding food or not being eaten by a lion. In other words, we learned to overcome adversity by sharing knowledge and experience in order to solve problems for the greater good of the group. By pooling resources and identifying which individuals had the skill sets needed for success we prospered. Of course, this approach hasn't worked out for all groups all of the time, but in general, collaboration has helped save our skin when we needed it. Right now, we need to focus on what being virtuous means; and we will do it, because we must. Empathy or ability to understand how others feel and to share our feelings at time isn't easy. Our primal instinct is to take care of our own needs first when faced with uncertainty.
I do have empathy for the leadership of this country, but I am also fearful about being misled or cheated out of our future. I want to believe our elected leaders have our collective interests at heart; but sometimes, unfortunately, I am not so sure.
I will tell you a story from yesterday.
This is what I miss most.
I miss stories.
I miss the old men huddled around the big table at 6 a.m drinking coffee down at Palucci's.
I miss how much they complain about everything.
I miss watching them flirt with the female server like little boys in a school yard.
I saw my neighbor as she was heading off to work at a motel over the hill.
The motel is empty, but she is still working, because she is a housekeeper and needs to be there.
She said, "This virus will not define me.
I will define it. I define my life."
I nod in silence.
She lives alone.
We crossed paths early in the morning.
She had a story to tell.
She told a sad story.
When this virus ends, she will have to move. The bank is foreclosing on her home.
"I will be homeless," she said.
I went to the store for dish soap for the third time this week.
On the empty shelf there was a sign. They had no soap, but words were polite and official.
The sign said, "Thank you for understanding."
There's a story here.
"Thank you for understanding."
I love to tell stories with pictures and words.