Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nereid


How my body aches!
The tyrant shore's heaviness
drugs my tired limbs.
My throat is raw from breathing in
this unfamiliar, unseen nothing.
How can I not be exhausted
from such sustained effort
merely to remain alive
in this alien world of air?
Now dawn's silent light
has snared me,
has cast a silken net
across my glistening skin,
tight and unforgiving.

How can I know
how much time has passed
since I stranded here?
A single night?
A cycle of the white and silent moon?
A thousand years?
I recall stories of others of my kind,
washed ashore and becoming something other,
both less and more than they had been.
They never returned.

But in my struggle with the tides,
with the tig and slide of currents,
with life itself,
even in my struggle with this cruel nothing,
which cracks my throat with every breath,
I am resolved.
I will not become as those
whose lives are lived
in this unfamiliar, alien world of air.
I will not become something
other than who I truly am.

And so I mark my time.
I will wait patiently in this pain of dawn
I will wait in the sun's heat soon to come
I will wait curled up, unmoving:
a silken shadow where no shadows fall.
I will wait until some kind and trusting tide
returns me to my ocean home
in a single night,
or in a cycle of the white and silent moon,
or in a thousand years.

How could I live in this alien air?
How could my feet tread this alien earth?
I am as patient as the tides,
as inscrutable as my Mother Ocean
whose child I am
forever.




Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Voice of the Ocean

Recently I visited Cape Lookout State Park on the Oregon coast:  a large peninsula which juts out into the Pacific. Standing at the entrance to the Cape I had a view of the ocean to either side, both to the north and to the south. On the north side lies a spectecular steep-sided bay which almost, but not quite, cuts the end of the Cape into an island. Being in such a place made me feel that I was standing at the edge of the world, and what lay beyond was all unknown and still to be discovered.

Now let's imagine that this landscape is a landscape made of time - which in some real sense, it is. Let's say that the coast lying to the south is the past, and the coast to the north is the future, and where I was standing on the peninsula is the present moment. This is the familiar landscape of time in which we all stand, with the past flowing through the present moment towards the unknown future. But there is another 'time' beyond this: the 'time' of the great ocean itself. To the ocean this 'past-present-future' time is meaningless. The ocean is eternal.

In that magical place that I had stood, the world around me seemed to offer me a lesson: a reminder of the eternal - and oh, how easy it is to think of the ocean in such a way! The unhurried waves role onto the wide beach, and the waves are themselves just the surface signs of the currents and undertows which flow unseen beneath. And even though the depths of that ocean remained hidden to me, the moving waves hinted at what might be happening below its surface: migrating whales on their long journey down to the southern feeding grounds (Earlier in the week I saw them spouting offshore!) and other creatures of that watery world that live out their lives in the silence of those blue depths.

Now overhead a bright harvest moon is shining, big and pale gold, the colour of ripe grain - just the way a harvest moon should look! The seasons turn, the waves which I hear from my window as I type this roll in to the wide sandy beach, as they have done for a thousand years and more, and these reflections on my visit to the Cape can be harvested. Unseen below the surface, the great whales slowly onward under the moon. In my imagination I can hear their songs echoing from the depths like the great voice of the ocean itself, and I feel that, simply because I am thinking about them, a small part of me is journeying with them through that deep blue eternity.






Sunday, September 4, 2016

On the Shore



 

Almost exactly one hundred years ago the photographer Edward S. Curtis recorded with his camera an elderly Chinook woman gathering clams on the Pacific shore. The woman, we believe, was the daughter of the great Seattle, and was known as Princess Angelina. Now a century later, just a little farther south of where that photograph was taken, I stand on that same shore gazing out over that same ocean.

That photograph which Curtis made has inspired and informed so much of my life and my own writing and poetry. It is the archetypal image of a lone woman standing on the shore. Even a short while ago and half a world away I could not have imagined that I would be standing here, but a dear friend has made it possible, and the wished-for unthinkable has happened. The pathways of our life’s journeyings, whether they are those which happen on a map or which take place inside ourselves, are in the end always unpredictable. We know this so well through experience. We make our plans and the gods smile at our naivety and send us off in another direction entirely. At times that other direction is something other than we would have wished for, and yet on other occasions – as has happened to me now – it can bring rewards the more remarkable exactly because they were unexpected.

How many other footprints have been left on this same Pacific shore where I now stand? Princess Angelina’s certainly, but also those of Sacagawea, the courageous young Shoshone woman who was the invaluable guide on the William Clark and Merriweather Lewis expeditions of exploration. It was the wish of Sacagawea to see the ocean, and – just once – she did. And what of the many 19th-century settlers who with their wagons followed the Oregon Trail west? Finally to have reached this same shore where I now stand must have seemed like a blessing indeed after facing and persevering with the many dangers and hardships of their long journey. But to those settlers the ocean also clearly defined the limits of that journey: unlike the frontiers of the land it was a frontier that was absolute. Thus far, said the Oregon shore, and no farther.

The distant waves which even now I hear from my window as I write this have rolled in from another east: from Japan, from China, from Indonesia. The ocean as well has its journeys, and the patterns of its travelling currents are more predictable than the patterns of human travels. And what of my own footprints which I leave here on this shore? They will have been washed away by those journeying waves even before today’s sun has set, and certainly long before I myself travel back home to the Netherlands. And yet I have peace and take strength from knowing that, even though our timing might be different, they at last have joined those of Princess Angelina and Sacagawea. What the waves erase so easily finds a more enduring place in the memory, and it is there that my fragile footprints in the Oregon sand will remain.





Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Question


In my ears: the unceasing voice of the wind. I wonder where the figure has vanished to. Perhaps if I could just make it to the crest of this dune I might yet catch another glimpse of her. With the wind at my back, and the blown grains of surface sand stinging my ankles, I struggle up the shadowed face of the great crescent of sand. 

With the light of the fast-sinking sun flooding my face I emerge from the dune’s shadow, and in two more paces I am standing full in the orange light on the sweeping crest of the dune. I scan the view in front of me for signs of life, and notice a dark outcrop of rock emerging like an island from the sand sea. And there in the shadow of the rock I notice a movement, as if she is deliberately revealing her presence to me – which perhaps she is. Perhaps she seeks this encounter as much as I myself do, for is that not her nature: to confront the other?

A few more minutes and I am climbing over the dark rock to reach the place where I spotted her. At first I do not see her, even though she is very close. Then two orange eyes open and stare at me from the shadows. Oh, such eyes! All the mysteries of the world are contained in those twin pools of amber. Her long mane of hair blows around her shoulders like a cloak, and her body, though human-enough, seems somehow other-than-human in a way in which I cannot explain to myself.

What does one say to a sphinx? Is it protocol to wait until spoken to when encountering such a fabulous creature of legend? Such encounters are too infrequent to really know the correct form of things. I feel awkward and unsure, and if I am truthful, also rather nervous. I notice the sphinx’s dark nails grown to the length of talons.

“May I ask you a question?” I hear a voice say. The voice is my own, desperate, apparently, to break the prolonged silence. The eyes of the sphinx fix onto and hold my own. She does not speak. “I would like to ask you” I continue, “if my life has a meaning.” Still the sphinx remains silent, scrutinizing me intently. Such silence can bring anxiety, so I continue: “I mean, sometimes I feel that it does, but at other times I feel just as equally that it’s all random, and it doesn’t matter what I do or plan because things happen anyway, but then it all more-or-less turns out in the end and I’m left wondering that even if I’d planned it all, would it have been any different? I suppose what I’d really like to ask you is: is there such a thing as free will, or is it all beyond our control? Although, now I think about it, I guess we must have free will, because it was my own free will that drove me to search for you so that I could ask you the answer to such a big, big question.”

Behind me, the pale moon is on the rise. The sphinx stares at me, and I seem to notice a faint smile. That ghost of a smile is still there as the sphinx curls up in the velvet shadows and silently falls asleep.






Artwork by David Bergen


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Flight and Pursuit


Desperate situations call for desperate measures. A true free spirit, the wood nymph Daphne is never happier than when she is roaming the forests. The dappled sunlight of the forest glades are more than home to her: they are her preferred company, and she vows that she would sooner keep herself chaste than exchange the familiar company of the surrounding trees for a partner in life.

All might have continued to go well for Daphne, were it not for the fateful day when the glorious god Apollo happens to catch sight of her as she dances in a sunlit glade. At once smitten by her beauty and charm, the god approaches Daphne and attempts to seduce her. Now, Apollo is used to having his way, whether with mortal or with nymph. But for the first time ever he finds his advances rejected. In a moment’s distraction Daphne seizes her chance to flee the god’s amorous advances and runs away as fast as she can, hoping that her familiarity with the forest trails might offer her an advantage in her flight.

But Daphne’s knowledge of the secret paths through her beloved forest is proving no advantage when matched against a god’s bruised ego. Wounded pride mixed with ardour for the fleeing nymph only fuels the pace of Apollo’s pursuit. At the last moment of her flight, when the god is so close behind her that she can feel his hot breath on her back, Daphne calls out in panic to her father, the river god Peneios. 

The great river stirs angrily, and white-topped waves slap its banks in a frenzy of fury as Peneios sees the plight which his daughter is in. Unable to leave his watery domain, the river god makes a last-resort move to save his daughter. Just as Apollo reaches out to seize the nymph, his all-too-eager hands grasp, not soft and yielding female flesh, but bark and branches and dark green leaves. Peneios with his powers has changed his daughter into a laurel tree: one more tree among all of its fellows in the wood nymph’s beloved forest.

A handful of laurel leaves are Apollo’s only gain. How to save face? How to restore a god’s bruised ego? By declaring a defeat to be a victory and founding a tradition. Apollo decrees that from that moment on, a crown of laurel leaves will become the worthy symbol of a victor. And the god promptly begins the tradition by weaving for himself a crown from the leaves that just moments before had been the living flesh of the beautiful nymph.

How often has it happened that reality has been turned on its head, and those who have been bettered have, through one means or another, insisted that they have in fact triumphed? Saving face in such a way is familiar enough to us from our own current news events. But in the story of Daphne and Apollo we can perceive a deeper meaning. Sometimes circumstances force us to change, and to change dramatically, and we become something other than that which we were before. It might not always be a change which we have wished for ourselves, but it has been a change made necessary for our survival, in whatever form that might take.

But Daphne’s fate also gives us reason to hope. The nymph’s essential nature was that of her own beloved forest, and her essence did not change. Instead it became absorbed into what she truly loved the most. Even in dramatic change, even undergoing apparent complete metamorphosis, our true essence survives in some form, and endures beyond even the great change at life’s end.




Art: Daphne and Apollo by John William Waterhouse


Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Lover's Call



Where are you, my beloved? Are you in that little 
Paradise, watering the flowers who look upon you 
As infants look upon the breast of their mothers? 

Or are you in your chamber where the shrine of 
Virtue has been placed in your honor, and upon 
Which you offer my heart and soul as sacrifice? 

Or amongst the books, seeking human knowledge, 
While you are replete with heavenly wisdom? 

Oh companion of my soul, where are you? Are you 
Praying in the temple? Or calling Nature in the 
Field, haven of your dreams? 

Are you in the huts of the poor, consoling the 
Broken-hearted with the sweetness of your soul, and 
Filling their hands with your bounty? 

You are God's spirit everywhere; 
You are stronger than the ages. 

Do you have memory of the day we met, when the halo of 
Your spirit surrounded us, and the Angels of Love 
Floated about, singing the praise of the soul's deed? 

Do you recollect our sitting in the shade of the 
Branches, sheltering ourselves from Humanity, as the ribs 
Protect the divine secret of the heart from injury? 

Remember you the trails and forest we walked, with hands 
Joined, and our heads leaning against each other, as if 
We were hiding ourselves within ourselves? 

Recall you the hour I bade you farewell, 
And the Maritime kiss you placed on my lips? 
That kiss taught me that joining of lips in Love 
Reveals heavenly secrets which the tongue cannot utter! 

That kiss was introduction to a great sigh, 
Like the Almighty's breath that turned earth into man. 

That sigh led my way into the spiritual world, 
Announcing the glory of my soul; and there 
It shall perpetuate until again we meet. 

I remember when you kissed me and kissed me, 
With tears coursing your cheeks, and you said, 
"Earthly bodies must often separate for earthly purpose, 
And must live apart impelled by worldly intent. 

"But the spirit remains joined safely in the hands of 
Love, until death arrives and takes joined souls to God. 

"Go, my beloved; Love has chosen you her delegate; 
Over her, for she is Beauty who offers to her follower 
The cup of the sweetness of life. 
As for my own empty arms, your love shall remain my 
Comforting groom; your memory, my Eternal wedding." 

Where are you now, my other self? Are you awake in 
The silence of the night? Let the clean breeze convey 
To you my heart's every beat and affection. 

Are you fondling my face in your memory? That image 
Is no longer my own, for Sorrow has dropped his 
Shadow on my happy countenance of the past. 

Sobs have withered my eyes which reflected your beauty 
And dried my lips which you sweetened with kisses. 

Where are you, my beloved? Do you hear my weeping 
From beyond the ocean? Do you understand my need? 
Do you know the greatness of my patience? 

Is there any spirit in the air capable of conveying 
To you the breath of this dying youth? Is there any 
Secret communication between angels that will carry to 
You my complaint? 

Where are you, my beautiful star? The obscurity of life 
Has cast me upon its bosom; sorrow has conquered me. 

Sail your smile into the air; it will reach and enliven me! 
Breathe your fragrance into the air; it will sustain me! 

Where are you, my beloved? 
Oh, how great is Love! 
And how little am I! 

*

Text and Artwork
by
Kahlil Gibran


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Persephone


Really it takes so little.
No, not the act itself, but the decision
made in a sliver of time: in a single heartbeat.
No more time than it takes
for the rustling stroke of a bird’s wing.
No more time than it takes
for the slash of light that sears the sky
when my cloud-shrouded father draws near.
No more time than this is needed
to change my world, my everything:
my own life’s passing
in the cycle of a single year.

And I will change.
The decision was snatched from a moment 
a thousand years ago,
before I even knew the darkness
of my mother’s womb
I knew another darkness.
In that moment, in that eon,
through the sheer force of my will
my blood drained from my body,
disappeared as water from a pool.
Now look upon me: a shell thing,
strangely echoing, never growing old:
a hollow creature
white as the snows of Parnassus
and as cold.

Now I will know a new darkness.
Only a few seeds are needed
for a new life with my lord:
the ingestion of a new fruit
far from the sun,
swallowed in the bridal chamber
of a new dark accord,
far from my mother’s sustaining love,
far from the rustle of birds’ wings,
far from the rolling ghosts of clouds,
far from any hope of return
from this shrouded world of shrouds.

My new blood will be
the red sap of pomegranates.
My new subjects will be
these pale shades of the once-alive.
My new desire will be
desire for these shadows
where the only fulfilment will be
to know that I will remain
forever unfulfilled.
The dry white husk of my body will be
sustained by the lymph of pomegranates.
And I will be queen to a darkness
both wished-for and unwilled.





Photo: Anna Chipovskaya, photographer Nikolay Biryukov for Interview Magazine Russia, Febr. 2014


Sunday, May 29, 2016

On the Silent Wings of Prayer

True prayer requires no word, no chant
no gesture, no sound.
It is communion, calm and still
with our own godly Ground.
- Angelus Silesius


On the Silent Wings of Prayer

What is it to pray? If we say the word ‘God’ to ten people in a room, then it is quite likely that in those ten different heads there will be ten different ideas of what ‘God’ actually is, and what God means to them. Perhaps prayer is like this as well. We have a general idea of what a prayer is. We think of an attitude of praying, and of reciting, either aloud or silently, either in company as part of a congregation, or in solitude, a formularized verse or passage of text. Or perhaps our prayer is in the form of a petition: we are asking for something of a higher Self beyond ourselves.

What that ‘something’ is might cover a spectrum of interests and hopes. On a rather material level, we might pray for victory in a conflict, or even success in some sporting event. On a more personal level, we might ask for help, or for strength and courage in a situation which we feel overwhelms us. We might ask to keep a dear one safe in a situation of peril, or for guidance in navigating our way through trying circumstances which bewilder us, and which leave us unsure which way to turn.

As well as the above examples there might be many more situations in which we pray, the form which our prayers take, and what we are praying for. But one thing which all these sorts of prayers have in common, whether spoken aloud or voiced silently within ourselves, is that they are all, in some form, prayers with words. We use our own familiar language in which to pray. But is this the only way to pray?

Prayer is prayer, and perhaps prayer can be reduced to intention only. Perhaps, if our intention is there, then we do not even need words to pray. In this sense, perhaps intention is the purest form of prayer: a silent connection with the Divine that not only is without words, but which goes beyond words, beyond the limitations of language to become a pure expression of the spirit. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore described trees as the expression of an endless striving of earth towards heaven. In this mystic striving of the forms of nature we may glimpse this wordless prayer, this intention of all things to connect with that mysterious Other, encountered in a place beyond words, beyond human language.

The other evening I watched a large flock of starlings wheel and turn in the soft light of dusk. What mysterious figures were they tracing out in the twilit sky? I could only stand in silence and wonder at the myriad pairs of wings turning in perfect harmony, describing their unknown language in the paths of their flight. I could not interpret their lace-like traceries, but in those many wings I felt that I had glimpsed a wordless prayer made visible.




Sunday, May 22, 2016

Echoes


In the thin air of morning
I speak with sweet sounds
drawn from all the
unknown murmurs
that yesterday were left
at the waves' edge

Listen!
Listen to what I release
into the morning:
each tone
another story:
unearthly tableaus
shards of myths
and ancient voices
echo over the shore

I am the daybreak
my slender body
born from the sea
my flute now whispers
and then cries out
for her:
my other self
who stayed behind
among the waves
having no desire
to be tailless

Now at each sunrise
and again at sunset
I make my flute speak

I know the night is near
when my eyes colour
from meadow green
to the deeper green
of the waves

I shiver
while my heart listens
waiting, ever waiting
for my love
in the light
of the silent moon




Sculpture:  La Sirène by Camille Claudel


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Speaking in Tongues


Today is Pentecost. For Christians it commemorates the occasion when after the ascension the Spirit descended to the apostles in the form of twin flames of fire, allowing them to ‘speak in tongues’. Amazed, they realised that they could speak all the languages of the lands to which they would journey to bring the message of their new faith.

The miracle lies in the fact that the varied languages which the apostles could suddenly speak were all recognisable to the native speakers of those lands – the text mentions Parthians, Cretans, Arabians and others. This episode is related in the Acts of the Apostles, towards the end of scripture. It is near the beginning, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis, that we read of another episode about many tongues: the story of the tower of Babel, familiar even to those who have not read the story in scripture. 

In the story of Babel, all of humankind can speak one language. There is no difficulty with communication, and even strangers from far lands can readily understand one another. With a co-operative will they construct a tower so tall that it begins to reach beyond the clouds into heaven itself. This human presumption is thwarted by divine will, which at a stroke causes the many languages of the world. Communication breaks down, the tower is left unfinished, and the builders scatter to their different lands.

One story seems to mirror the other. In the Babel story, communication breaks down. In the story of Pentecost, the barrier to communication is miraculously overcome. Both stories are concerned specifically with the language barrier: one story causes it, and the other story overcomes it. My own Netherlands native tongue is spoken by a comparative minority in Europe, and at school it was standard practice for us to learn three other major European languages – French, German and English. Being multi-lingual in this region of the world can at times be a necessity, but the language barrier can be overcome, not with miracles, but with simple work and study.

In the end, it’s all about being able to communicate effectively with each other, wherever we come from. And communication does not always rely upon language. A sense of communication can come from sharing a piece of music, for surely music is a universal language beyond any limitations of speech. And sharing emotions which bring joy or simple pleasure make any language barrier meaningless. Such sharing of emotion needs no Pentecostal fire, no speaking in tongues, no miracle. It relies only upon what we feel in our hearts, and the language of the heart is universal.




Art by Iris Sullivan

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Predestination


In  my
 mind I need only to hear
that soft rush and sigh
of imagined waves at my feet,
feel the wash of wet sand
and hear the harsh cry of sea birds.
In that imagined moment
I am there once more.
I search for her, my eyes straining
in the white light of a thousand morning stars
as the sun strikes sparks from the breakers.
And I wait, and I wait
to glimpse her amazing Otherness.

At times I wonder:
will I see her now?
Although secretly I know the truth:
she will be there somewhere
for she waits for me also.
Patiently she waits
as she has waited for a day,
or a year, or a thousand years,
knowing that I will come,
knowing that our meeting
has already been inscribed
in the fixed patterns of stars,
even though those same stars
are now dimmed by the day’s white light.

How could I not love the sea?
I, a landsman with a mariner’s heart.
How could I not love the very thing
that I know is so dear to her?
How could I not love her true home?
Those secret blue deeps
gave birth to her,
and to me also; but for that
I must journey further back in time:
much further, to a world of silence
and ancient corals, and the beginnings of us all.

Her amazing Otherness fills my life,
fills my heart, as I have chosen her,
as she has chosen me,
for I have as my wife
The Woman from the Sea.

*

Written for me by my dear husband David
to commemorate our 30th wedding anniversary
Today, 7th May, 2016

*