Footsteps in the hall and the familiar sound of a key turning in its lock. My husband is home. He drops his lunch bag by the door like a schoolboy. Hurry, he says, there’s something time-sensitive you need to see. I am pulled to my feet by curiosity and the urgency in his voice. We hustle into the cool, dark arms of a January night. There, he says, pointing. And I see it. Low in an ink black sky, a glowing vowel. The incandescent moon. Floating in the valley like a delinquent bauble, barely skimming the tip of an ancient pine. I want to stretch my hands out to it like a child. How many millennia old is that impulse? How old is the relationship between mortals and the moon? …Time-sensitive… Like falling leaf the phrase flutters and gleams in the moonlight. I consider its truth and poetry for the first time, unsettled by awe. Hurry (whoever-wherever-whenever you are). There’s something time-sensitive you need to see.
Listen. Today I will tell you a secret. Attached to my right pinky toe is a silver thread spun finer than the eye can see. So long that it spans oceans and continents, so strong that nothing, not even saber-toothed tigers nor Time, that masked highwayman, can snap it.The other end is slipped over the curved horn of a very old buffalo who spends vast quantities of time meditating, some might say sleeping (I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt), in the midst of a once blue lake that has long been under siege by an army of purple waterlilies. Because he stands for the most part with the still grace and perfect indifference of a statue, I forget the thread’s presence for long stretches of time. Like I forget my breath (that other faithful silver filament). But every so often a wayward fly will land on the buffalo’s nose, inspiring that large head to flick itself to one side in a grand, sweeping motion. The thread pulls and tightens momentarily. Jumbled visions dance in my dreams. I see palm fronds on the horizon, rubber chappals in the rain and saffron strands in rice pudding. I see painted masks mounted on unfinished buildings and small, green parrots. I hear my mother’s voice calling my name up the stairs. I hear the honk of my father’s car at the gate. I see my sister’s blue and white school pinafore folded on the bed and I wake with an ache of love and wistfulness. On rare occasions, the buffalo heaves himself out of the lake, dripping water like diamonds. Weighty with wisdom and age he walks on red earth. In the way of all buffalos, unhurried and deliberate. As the thread that connects us grows slowly taut, my dreams turn technicolor. I see children with braided hair burnt orange by the sun, I see wiry street dogs with eyes expressive as bharatanatyam dancers. I see ladoos arranged in golden pyramids, thatched roofs, and mustaches on most of the men. I hear the complicated festival of extended family calling to each other. I see the gap-toothed grins of my nieces and feel their small fingers tugging at mine. I wake with a smile and palms that tingle. Listen. Today I will tell you a secret. The old buffalo is awake. He has been journeying for many moons towards the next lotus-choked lake. And though today I sit here at my computer, sipping green tea, paying bills and settling trifling disputes between the Californian sparrows outside my window, I feel the silver thread at my toe straining East. And I know. Soon it will be time. To go home again.
This morning I looked out of the window just in time to see a dive bombing blue jay. The sight impressed me greatly. The way he dropped from a high tree branch, streaking like a small comet or a superhero. Swooping upward only at the very last possible second. Because he did not appear to have one, I gave him a name. I called him: Reckless Abandon. It suits him well. This daring, winged creature. I believe he is destined to be famous in my world. For he showed me how flying can look alarmingly like falling. He showed me too, how too full of reck I am. How reluctant to abandon anything. Why? he demanded to know. This blue strident bird. I had no answer. But one day, old, time-wizened, happy, I will look out the window. Ready to leave my perch. I will remember the flight of Reckless Abandon. And how it changed everything
Spend some time everyday looking out your window the old woman said to her. Notice things that are right under your nose. And if anyone tells you not to walk around with your head in the clouds, do not under any circumstances listen to them. Cloud air as it happens is exceedingly good for the constitution. Also make sure there is at least one window in your house that you can lean out of. This is an excellent way to take the temperature of the day, and it has a marvelous effect on the heart — in that it fills it with joy and renews its willingness to beat. When you drink coffee sip it slowly and always sitting down. Preferably in front of a window or a good book (which often times amount to pretty much the same thing). Alternatively, sit down next to someone who loves you dearly. And do not say anything, or alternatively say a good deal of nothing to each other in tender tones. At least three times a day listen for birdsong. Train your ears to tune into these sounds. Do not become adept at the art of blanking out the beautiful and thankfully un-monetized moments of your day. Scrub your kitchen floor every other week. Because it brings you close to the ground and reminds you of the honor that dwells in humble work, while simultaneously producing a clean kitchen floor. And in troubled times do not stir the stew of your discontent- do not let it simmer. Switch off the stove and take a walk. Pick apples if it is the season for apples- if it is not the season for apples pick something else round and sweet and simple. Look up at the sky. Look at the sun shining as brightly as it can to please you and win your attention. If the sun is hiding behind clouds remember how much you like cloudy days. When you have walked far enough to make your feet wonder a little warily whether they are going to be able to carry you back then turn around and walk back but not just exactly the way you came. Try and get a little lost before you find yourself back on the right road. This is one way to have an adventure. When you get home walk directly to the stove and pick up the cooled-off stew with both your hands, cup it carefully, even though you are going to pour it directly down the sink, still, handle it with respect, and a little regret for the waste. And then wash your hands and whistle if you know how. Whistle merrily not carelessly. You want to convey a sense not of nonchalance which can be uncaring but of joyousness which can be contagious.
I have an incurable love for lines at the post office. This is a luxurious indulgence, I know. The kind important people can ill-afford. But I am comfortably insignificant. Nothing catastrophic happens to the world when I am made to wait for indefinite periods of time, so I am at liberty to love these lines and the speed of molasses at which they move. They give me opportunity to admire the cheerful competence of our postal workers. How brisk and good-natured they are. Even the curmudgeons among them, the ones who speak sharply, criticizing sloppy packaging, pointing out missing zip codes, seem ultimately kind at heart. Before you leave they will inquire gruffly whether you need any stamps. Like the stern grand-aunt who delivers sharp lectures then tries to slip money into your pocket. I love too, the long patience of the people who wait in post-office lines, one behind the other, the way we used to wait everywhere when we were children. My favorites are the ones who wait the old fashioned way, without any digital assistance. The ones who stand clutching parcels and packages of every size and description, their eyes full of dreams and dinner menus. I even love the shelves of empty boxes and envelopes that line the walls waiting to be filled with a sliver of someone’s story. I love the ledges bearing piles of unaddressed labels and I love the tethered ballpoint pens that don’t always work. How many beloved names of people I have never met and will never meet have been recorded in this very spot! How many missives have been launched here. Expressing gratitude and love, conveying longing and regret, singing joy and comfort, sorrow and surprise and every glorious state, and every inglorious state in between! In the long lines of the post office I am slowed down enough to see the smudged and shining face of humanity. And I learn again how much I love being alive in this world. A beating heart amidst many beating hearts.
On Friday a man ahead of me in line shuffled to the counter. The air crackled around his white hair. He was dressed in an old, dark sweatshirt, wrinkled pants and displeasure. “I don’t want this,” he said. The words hit the air like pebble on glass. Nothing shattered, but my attention was successfully riveted. He pushed a wide blue and white envelope across the counter. It looked blameless. “This is addressed to you?” the woman at the counter asks. She has long hair and a wide face, calm as a lake. “Yes,”says the man, “It came for me, and I Don’t Want It.” His voice is emphatic, strained at the edges, daring the world to stand in his way. “You haven’t opened it.” the woman observes, her voice bright and party pleasant. “No,” says the man. “But WHY?” I want to cry out from my place in the line. I am lit with amazement and dismay. Packages that come to you in the mail are infinitely irresistible. What tragedy or bitterness has bit so deeply into this man’s soul that it has overpowered his curiosity? Or does he already know the contents? And if so — who is this package from and what is it they have sent that he cannot tolerate holding it in his possession? My questions flutter unspoken in the air eager and timid as butterflies. A part of me wishes to invite this stooped old man and his storms to tea. “Let’s talk this over, shall we?” I would say gently. Then I’d crush cardamom pods into steaming teacups, and all sad stories and unreasonable grudges would be wafted away on a cloud of fragrance.
“So you are refusing the package?” confirms the woman dispersing my spice-scented-daydream. “Yes,” says the man. A stamp is applied to the troublesome package. And it is tossed out of sight. But three days later it still lingers in my mind. I relate this story to my husband, wondering why I feel so invested in this stranger and his unopened package, so implicated in their fate. “Odd to feel like this when technically it’s none of my business,” I muse. “Only technically?” smiles my husband. “Yes, only technically,” I reply, “because the truth is we are all connected.”
It is a Monday afternoon and now as I sit listening to the church bells spilling across the hills, the real reason for wanting to invite the disgruntled old man at the post office to tea begins to ring inside me. I think I wanted to tell him something I needed to hear: That life is a package and while we breathe on this earth no part of it can be successfully refused. No part can be returned to sender. What is sent away un-lived will always come back. The shore has not learned this yet. Even after all this time it tries to banish waves back to the ocean. But what we attempt to banish will always find us again with the unerring instinct of waves and other wild things that have never required zip codes.
I wanted to say these things to that stranger. So that I might hear them myself. We both would have smiled then, and sipped our tea with freshly unclouded hearts. Filled with a new readiness to stand on the shore of our lives and welcome the waves.
The poetry of porcupines is widely misunderstood — as most prickly things are. With the exception of roses. The reputation of the rose has always famously transcended its thorns.Perhaps because of the way it holds its silken package of petals up to the sky. Like a peace offering folded into origami-perfect whorls. Also the delicate perfume it issues like a benediction. These charms move us easily to love and forgiveness. But the porcupine is not possessed of such petals or perfume. Its bundle of bristles and their broadcasted stench are not for the faint of heart. Therein lies the problem. Too many of us are faint of heart. Too easily filled with fear and distaste we flee too soon from prickly things. And so we lose the chance to gaze into a pair of mild, short-sighted eyes (eyes sweet as the petals of a rose are soft). We lose our shot at a transformative glimpse. Into the deep gentleness that dwells in earth’s magnificent, misconstrued beings. A gentleness as real (if not real-er) than their quills.
The poetry of Coleman Barks is the poetry of a face that reminds me of the relationship between the wind and an old bluff. Or the relationship between a fallen log in the forest, the moss that grows over it and the insects that drill holes into its sides. I say this with admiration. Looking at him the phrase weathered face makes sudden and vivid sense. It is hard not to be drawn to a face like that. The way it is hard not to be drawn to a snow-capped mountain or a gorge. I take note of his grizzled white beard, reminiscent of Santa Claus, and also his unkempt hair. These things endear him to me because Santa is an endearing figure and kempt hair has eluded me all my life. When he speaks his voice is slow and heavy, yet musical like a rain-cloud. Or like an old poet whose bones are given to aching when it is the season for rain-clouds. When he utters the name of his hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee it makes me happy. All those double consonant and double vowel sounds. Delicious as a spoonful of ice cream under the midday sun.
When he was a boy of six Coleman Barks memorized all the countries and capitals in the 1943 Rand McNally atlas. In the evenings as he crossed the quadrangle to the dining hall his teachers would shout country names into the darkening air. “Uruguay?” one might cry out, “Montevideo,” the boy Barks would call back not missing a beat. “Bulgaria?”, “Sophia.” “Mongolia?” “Ulan Bator.” Perfect answers every time…until his Latin teacher decided enough was enough, and dug up from his basement the name of a country not found on any map he knew of. And the next evening as the undisputed Boy Champion of Countries & their Capitals crossed the quadrangle, a name he had never heard before flew into the air above him like a prophecy, “CAPPADOCIA?” … silence….and a look on the boy’s face that his teacher would say named him forever. The man we know as Coleman Barks goes by “Cap” short for Cappadocia in his hometown. “What I did not know, named me,” he says serious and smiling. Years later he would learn that the capital of Cappadocia was Ikonium, also known as Konya. The place where Rumi lived and now lies buried.
“What I did not know, named me.” And perhaps, one thinks, wisdom is but that which arises from our perfectly embraced ignorance.
It is sobering to consider that had I been assigned to browse through the faces of the world’s poets looking for Rumi’s translator, had I been assigned to identify the genie that emancipated his poems with their fast-beating hearts, from their ‘scholarly cages’, I might not have picked Coleman Barks out from the crowd. No. Foolishly I might have looked for someone slender and lithe, someone with dark hair and a face like pale moonlight. The kind of face one might imagine shining steadily above whirling feet and wide white skirts. I fear I might have sought out someone who looks the way Rumi’s poetry sounds. Instead of someone capable of bending the bars of scholarly cages with work-roughened hands. Someone capable of coaxing long-captive birds into flight again with music that rumbles forth from the mountain of his soul. Unstoppable and inexplicable as spring.
Let that then be a lesson to me. May that which I do not see always name me.