A poet explores ‘the way under the way’ — the place of true meaning and shared humanity
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Over the years, I’ve learned that moments of deep living let us hear a deeper music and explore a deeper meaning to our lives. We can call this foundational geography — the way under the way — the place of true meeting that is always near, where we chance to discover our shared humanity and common thread of Spirit. Often, these moments are brought about by unexpected doses of love, suffering, beauty or truth. And behind every blessing that we can’t explain, an unseen element brings us together when we’re too exhausted to resist. Everything visible rises out of a greater, invisible force that brings it into being. Under every act of courage or love, there’s a momentum of braveries and care that has gathered and passed through everyone who ever lived.
It’s natural that we all try to distinguish ourselves in the first half of life, trying to find our unique gift and contribution, trying to discover how special, different, and extraordinary we are.
But eventually, we’re transformed by experience to seek what we have in common with all life, so we might discover our one true kinship.
This shift from trying to be special to seeking what is special in everything marks the way under the way.
As a poet, I have always felt that I retrieve the poems more than author them, by listening for the way under the way. For the poems are the teachers. They arrive with their wisdom and become my guides. What they surface becomes my inner curriculum and by staying in conversation with them, I grow. We’re all drawn to what we need to learn, which if engaged with honesty reveals insights common to us all. When young, I worked earnestly with the hope of creating a great poem or two. Then, during my cancer journey, I needed to discover true poems that would help me live. Now, blessed to still be here, I want to be the poem!
I’ve learned through the years that, more than the manipulation of language on a page, poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul that comes at times to renew us when we least expect it. Poems show us how we belong to each other and life. Like all forms of art, poetry marries what is with what can be. Poems show us our possibility. There is a mystical assumption of Unity underneath all poems.
Every honest, heartfelt expression shows how being connected to life in all its forms allows each of us to be more fully ourselves.
Let me share a poem from the book that has particular meaning for me. Freefall is the final poem in a sequence comprised of six smaller poems. Each was written at the crest of a troubled time, just before I broke surface in yet another way. The six poems appeared over a period of eighteen years. Each felt complete unto itself at the time and each served as a guide for the phase of life I was moving through. It was only after living with them for all those years that I realized that they belong together. Like beads for a necklace I didn’t know they would form, I worked to polish each only to discover, beyond any conscious knowing or intent, that these expressions were a suite of poems. The insights of our lives are formed this way, appearing one by one. Yet over time, the beads of wisdom we earn reveal their power as we discover that they and we and everything living belong to each other. I often end readings and retreats with this final poem of the sequence. It’s like a spiritual handshake for me.
If you have one hour of air
and many hours to go,
you must breathe slowly.
If you have one arm’s length
and many things to care for,
you must give freely.
If you have one chance to know God
and many doubts, you must
set your heart on fire.
We are blessed.
Each day is a chance.
We have two arms.
Fear wastes air.
Another poem that is fundamental to the book is Being Here. When I was young, I found it hard to be here and to move through the world. Like many romantics, I wanted to transcend out of here. Of course, experience only landed me deeper into life. After my cancer journey, it became clear that there is nowhere to go, nowhere to transcend to but here. The image of sweeping a path where there is always more to sweep became a great teacher for me. That image led to this poem, which helps me stay on the path of living the one life I have to live.
Transcending down into
the ground of things is akin
to sweeping the leaves that
cover a path. There will always
be more leaves. And the heart
of the journey, the heart of our
own awakening, is to discover for
ourselves that the leaves are not
the ground, and that sweeping
them aside will reveal a path,
and finally, that to fully live,
we must take the path and
keep sweeping it.
And finally, let me share Breaking Surface, a poem I have written for all my students.
Let no one keep you from your journey,
no rabbi or priest, no mother
who wants you to dig for treasures
she misplaced, no father
who won’t let one life be enough,
no lover who measures their worth
by what you might give up,
no voice that tells you in the night
it can’t be done.
Let nothing dissuade you
from seeing what you see
or feeling the winds that make you
want to dance alone
or go where no one
has yet to go.
You are the only explorer.
Your heart, the unreadable compass.
Your soul, the shore of a promise
too great to be ignored.
My hope is that the arc of these poems, across all three books, will be aids in living, listening, and beholding each other, aids in finding and inhabiting your better self. I offer them as small wonders found and cared for through the years. I hope you might find one that, held close to your heart, will serve as a guide.