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Poetry

On January 17, 2019, Mary Oliver died.

She was one of my favorite poets and her writing has changed me and my work. The first time I heard her words was at a Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1990s. I’m not sure if it was Wild Geese or In Blackwater Woods or what it was, but it took my breath away. How could someone so clearly and succinctly say what I didn’t even know I wanted to say? She taught me things that I thought I knew, but didn’t until I heard her poem. Since then, I’m reminded over and over that she saw and expressed what really matters in this world. Mary Oliver got to the essence of things.

Two of her poems, Three Things to Remember and Instructions for Living a Life, have particularly impacted my creative work and teaching. Three Things is in the piece of art above. I love it not only for its mention of dancing but for its reminder that rules are often self-imposed. As a first born, I can get attached to following them and getting others to follow them, too. More and more though, I know that “there are fewer rules than you think” (as my friend and teacher, Mary Linn Bergstrom says).

What is your relationship to rules? Are you a follower? Does “doing it right” matter to you? Or does “doing it right” get you stuck? Or both? Are you a rebel? Are you someone who wants to know what the rules are just so you know what you are not going to do? When do you want to follow rules and when do you think they get in the way?

This is her poem, Instructions for Living a Life:

“Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”

And this is the piece of art I made based on her poem.

I made this piece at one of my own workshops on creativity called Living Life As An Artist. Ironically, it is the first piece of art I ever sold. Think of that: Mary Oliver made me a professional artist.

What do you think of her instructions? Do you follow them? Do you follow them in only some situations? Is there one you do more than the others?

Since her death, I’ve reconnected to Mary Oliver’s work and how it’s impacted me. I’ve also been introduced to poems I either had forgotten or didn’t know. If you have a favorite Mary Oliver poem, will you please share it? I may work them into class somehow or share them in some way or make art with them or … something.

Poetry gives us a new look at things we might not have noticed before — including parts of ourselves. I’d love to hear how poetry, Mary Oliver’s and others’, has changed how you see things, how you see yourself, or how you live. Please leave a comment below to share your favorite poem and your experience of poetry power.

Here’s to following instructions and breaking rules.

For me, Martin Luther King Day is January’s bright spot.

The past couple of years, especially.

Every year, I hghlight an MLK quote and create a focus around it.

This year, I bring three.

Only the first isn’t actually an MLK quote.

Last January, I listened almost obsessively to Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem. It struck me as the most beautiful and hopeful of songs in the middle of hopelessness. I think it speaks to our illusion of perfection. Our sense that we have to have it all together before we can really do anything.

One of the downsides of having a hero like MLK, is that we think we have to be as great as he was in order to make any positive change in the world.

Which is snorgle hockey, of course. But we forget. Cohen’s song reminds us that we just have to bring what we have.

It’s okay to be a mess. Everything’s a mess.

Thank you to Laura DeVault for reminding me about Cohen’s genius song but for pointing me to this wonderful Dharma talk by Sharon Beckman-Brindley from a couple of weeks ago that uses the song as a jumping off point. Check it out here. It is well worth the listen.

As is the song. Even if you’ve heard it before. Listen again. 

And from the man himself:

I love the idea of a “disciplined nonconformist.” Not someone who is bucking the system just to do it, but someone who is discerning, acting from their own sense of value and not afraid to go a different way than the crowd. Nia movers know all about this: our practice is all about sensing first, then acting rather than following for the sake of it.

Be a disciplined nonconformist and ring the bells.

I thought I was going to make a third piece of art around a third quote. But nope. It didn’t happen. Lots of other things happened this week, but not that. I guess I can forget my perfect offering.

Open your eyes 071116

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

When I came across this quote from Rachel Carson, its truth took my breath away:

One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?

Nothing in the world is solid or unchanging so of course, so everything is always new. And part of that ever-flowing river of change is that endings are unclear. We rarely know when our last time will be so this one, right here, might be it.

The practice of putting Carson’s words into action is simple. The challenge is to remember. The challenge is to wake ourselves up and open our eyes. It can be done at any time, of course, particularly when you feel bored, tuned out, stuck, or disillusioned. But the best time to open your eyes is now.

Never Before

1. Curiosity of a Child ~

Imagine you are looking at the world like a 5-year-old or that you are showing the world to a child. How does that change the speed of and the intention behind your looking? Be willing to learn even about things you think you know well.

2. Inquiry of an Alien ~

Imagine you have landed on Earth in a human body from another planet. What would the world and everything in it look like from that perspective? I practiced this today when feeling water on my skin, listening to the crinkle of a plastic bag, and tasting the bitterness of coffee. What I kept thinking was, “Whoa.”

Never Again

3. Poignancy of Terminally Ill ~

Imagine you’ve been given a prognosis of only a day more to live. What would it feel like to be doing things, seeing people, feeling things for the last time? This can be emotional so be gentle with yourself if it feels intense. Start small with less personal things like feeling gratitude for a favorite tea cup or a comfortable chair: take in their beauty and gifts and what they’ve generously offered you. As you’re ready, you can expand to activities that are important to you, communities and individuals who you care about, and even your own body.

4. Tenderness of Old Age ~

Spend time with an elderly person or imagine yourself decades older than you are now. What wisdom or insight can that elder offer around gratitude and attachment? I recall the last words of Mary Oliver’s poem In Blackwater Woods :

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes
to let it go,
to let it go.

 

Elizabeth Truslow 2015In Blackwater Woods
by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

rushin refugee AngelouObamaIt’s really something, this addiction to rushing. I’m finding that it’s more than just about scheduling less and doing one thing at a time.

The habit runs deeper than that.

What with taking care of business and taking care of others and taking care of myself, what choice do I have but to hurry and rush?

And then yesterday with the passing of Maya Angelou, such a bright inspiring source, well, dammit, we just don’t have that much time. There is so much I want to do and say and feel and read and write and move and see and be that it’s no wonder I feel the push to rush. And that’s not even to mention all the beliefs I have around equating my worth and value with what I accomplish.

Sheesh.

Since this has turned out to be an iceberg of a focus, I’m officially declaring June 2014 to be Savoring Month. Each week in June, we’ll focus on an aspect of savoring: Time, Process, Seeing, Nourishment and Living Meditation (or that’s what it looks like now, anyway).

On Wednesdays in June, I will offer a Rushin’ Refugee Report in a comment on the Rushin’ Refugee post and on the Focus Pocus Facebook page about how I’m doing with my experiment in breaking my rushing habit and doing more savoring. In particular, my personal focus is on eating (fork down, chew, swallow breathe, relax), drinking (sip and breathe, sip and breathe, even after yoga), and driving (leave extra time to get there without the adrenaline rush), but I may throw some other observations in there, too.

And today, in honor of Maya Angelou, allow yourself to be inspired…and allow others to be inspired by you. (The two poems that I used in class this week are below.)

Dance on. Shine on.

Susan sig

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Monday, May 26, 2014, 1045am ~ Rushin’ Refugee

Kecharitomene 6:35 Loreena McKennitt
Center Of The Sun 5:01 Conjure One Feat. Poe
Hero Dead And Gone (Discotheque Mix) 4:55 De-Phazz
Qalanderi 6:55 Cheb I Sabbah
I Know What I Know 3:13 Paul Simon
The Boy in the Bubble 3:59 Paul Simon
Coolsville 4:53 Rick Braun
Sexual Revolution 4:48 Macy Gray
Wake Me Up 4:10 Avicii
Beautiful (Radio Mix) 3:54 Audio Adrenaline
Falling Into You 4:19
Céline Dion
Under African Skies 3:37 Paul Simon
The Boy In The Bubble 4:30 Peter Gabriel

Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 9am ~ Rushin’ Refugee

Sofa Rockers [Richard Dorfmeister Remix] 8:34 Sofa Surfers
The Hush 5:24 Rae & Christian
Nostalgia Worship 6:46 Bassnectar
Air Batucada 4:40 Thievery Corporation
Open Your Heart 5:46 M People
Hermes 4:09 Carlos Santana
Run (Radio Edit) 2:41 Gnarls Barkley
La Da Da 3:32 The Makepeace Brothers
The Remedy (I Won’t Worry) 4:16 Jason Mraz
Colour In My Name (Featuring Precise) 6:08 Spiral System
Falling Slowly 4:04 Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova
Unidentified Stillness/water 4:39 Unidentified*

* I hate to include unidentified music in my playlists, but this piece was too lovely not to use in class. I use the Shazam app to identify music but it didn’t recognize this one. If anyone has software or other means for identifying music, let me know!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014, 1055am ~ Rushin’ Refugee

Éireann 5:10 Afro Celt Sound System
Marisi 6:33 Cantoma
Alba 5:16 Paul Mounsey Featuring Nahoo
In Caelum Fero 7:49 Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Dalmore 3:59 Nahoo
Stranger in a Strange Land 6:20 Nahoo
Adagio for Strings [Remix by Ferry Corsten] 6:35 William Orbit
Phenomenal Woman 4:24 Ruthie Foster
Kayama 7:58 Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley
Hymn 2:42 Adiemus/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Miriam Stockley

Thursday, May 29, 2014, 9am ~ Rushin’ Refugee

Égypte 4:28 Cirque du Soleil
Rumeurs 10:09 Cirque du Soleil
Caravena 5:14 Cirque du Soleil
Kunya Sobé 5:20 Cirque du Soleil
En Ville 4:59 Cirque du Soleil
Birimbau 6:12 Cirque du Soleil
Sandstorm 7:26 Darude
Rondo 6:07 Cirque du Soleil
Kalimando 6:31 Cirque du Soleil
Horizon 4:00 Garth Stevenson

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman

Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

Two Upcoming No-Membership-Required-Anywhere Classes in June ~

Friday, June 20, 6-7pm at the Buck Mountain Episcopal Church Parish Hall in Earlysville ~ more info to come soon

Saturday, June 21, 5-615pm at ACAC Downtown ~ Nia Jam with Adrienne, Mary Linn and Susan
As part of a club-wide solstice celebration, we’ll be teaching a special Saturday evening Jam with a reception on the rooftop deck afterwards (weather permitting, of course).
Members (including instructors!) can bring a guest for free, so grab a friend and be part of the celebration of summer!

NIA TRAINER, JULIE WYLIE, COMING TO CHARLOTTESVILLE

We’re excited to support a weekend of classes and workshops with Nia Trainer, Julie Wylie, July 18-20 and then a Nia White Belt training September 16-22. Events will include lots of things for everyBODY as well as for belts wanting to reconnect to the principles and practices. More info coming soon. For now, mark your calendar!

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT NIA?

For more information about Nia and this rich system of training and learning? Everything Nia is at http://www.nianow.com…

If you’re traveling or moving, you can find a teacher or classes wherever you’re going. 

Interested in teaching or deepening your practice? Check out the Nia White Belt Training. There is one planned in Charlottesville in September (see above) and lots of other places, too.

Nauman-Duchamp-460x575“If every poet on earth stopped writing
right now, forever, what would be lost?

already
we have more cherubs, urinals,
colored lights than anyone can look at
in a hyperextended well-educated
middle-class no-guns-in-the-home
American lifetime.”
From Poem As Fountain by Lesley Wheeler ~ Image: Nauman – Duchamp by Carolyn Capps

(See all the images/poems by Carolyn Capps and Lesley Wheeler in the current edition of Midway Journal)

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw cartoons or sing on stage or invent underwater cities. I sketched and colored. I wore costumes and sang into my brush. I daydreamed about living with the fish at the bottom of the sea.

Did you? Did you wonder and explore and want to make things that no one had made? Do you still? Or do those things feel childish or like something someone else does?

This curious, expressive part of me began to wither during my school years. While I got praise for my artistic work sometimes, I got far more reinforcement for politely paying attention, following directions, and for not wiggling around and putting my feet on the furniture. What’s more, as I got older I got afraid that whatever I made wouldn’t be good enough, interesting enough, original enough. Who could do better than Snoopy and Fantasia? I didn’t get a part in the sixth grade musical, and there was already Shirley Jones and Julie Andrews. And my underwater city? It would just get covered in algae and barnacles, right? After a while, my visions of cartooning or performing or living with the fishes – like Luca Brasi in The Godfather — slept with the fishes. (For those too young to know the reference, that means died, or more precisely, was killed.)

Did this happen to you, too? Maybe not. I admire those whose artistic lives persisted past grade school. They had more confidence and courage than I ever did. And yet even creative lives that persevere into adulthood are often eroded by the pull of family or finances or the unfolding fear-fest of life. (To be clear, I believe there can be tremendous artistry in raising a family, making money, and hanging out with fear, but not everybody approaches them that way. I certainly didn’t.)

I’m not judging here. I get it. I understand and feel the pull of a politely-pay-attention-follow-directions-sit-still life. It’s easy and safe. I don’t twist anybody’s undies and it’s unlikely I’ll be criticized. Making art, by definition, means emphasizing your differences instead of how you fit in. That’s a vulnerable and sometimes scary place to be.

But I think it’s worth the risk. There is something missing from a life without art — something rich and complicated and human. As the saying goes, “Earth Without Art Is Just ‘Eh’.” I would add that a livelihood without creativity isn’t all that lively a ‘hood.

Like a starfish that loses a limb, though, creativity can be regenerated. We can invite that child-like wonder back in. It’s been slow for me and my Polite Part is quick to resist the risk of art, but it’s happening more and more. Mindful movement helps. Every time I do Standing Bow Pulling pose or I take a Nia class or I go trail biking with my husband, I am creating, embodying something new. My brain and nervous system fire differently when I bring my body and mind into alignment. It doesn’t matter if I fall out of Standing Bow, if I feel awkward in Nia, or if my chain comes off on the trail. Moving my body mindfully starts more in motion than just my physical self. It reminds me that creating is what human beings do.

Gradually, after years of sneaking peeks at living with playful, artistic authenticity, I feel a part of myself perking up, puppy-like. When I am creating something as simple as a cross front cha-cha-cha or as complex as a book of essays, I feel fulfilled, complete somehow – even if I stumble or I’m not ready to publish it. I can almost feel a whole bank of neurons light up when I’m selecting songs for a playlist or ingredients for a salad. When I’m posting a blog post or launching a new routine, it matters less how it turns out and more that I’m taking the risk to do it.

In Lesley Wheeler’s Poem as Fountain (part of her collaborative project with the images of Carolyn Capps that you can see in its entirety in the current edition of Midway Journal), she suggests,
I say it’s the making,
not the architectural sketch but the feel
of a pencil in the hand, that saves us.

It is the act of creating itself that makes all the difference.

OF NOTE: Rebecca George and I are living life as artists in the months leading up to our Life As An Artist retreat March 28-30, 2014. Our Web site – https://sites.google.com/site/6monthsofcreativeplay/ – has tales of our experiences, inspirations and ideas for your own, and of course, all the goods on the retreat. Please check it out, and while you’re there, sign up to receive the weekly “Inspirational Breeze” to support you on your artist journey.

Crocus flower in the snowWhat a great time I had teaching this morning. There just ain’t nothing like a Saturday morning Nia class, and y’all make it juicygood! Thanks to everybody who came to play and sweat and shake our petals free! As promised, here is the playlist, the poetry of Dar Williams and Maya Angelou, and fun bonus video!

As ever, please always let me know how I can help more,
Love,
Susan

Three Planes: Push Myself Up Through the Dirt – Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9am

One Billion Rising – 5:19 – Catherine Feeny Living In The Moment – 3:55 – Jason Mraz
Survivor – 3:49 – Destiny’s Child
Free Your Mind – 4:52 – En Vogue
Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) – 3:42 – Kelly Clarkson
Break The Chain – 4:32 – Tena Clark
One Billion Hands – 4:05 – Lourds Lane
Dog Days Are Over – 3:41 – Florence And The Machine
Do Your Thing – 4:45 – Basement Jaxx
Proud – 4:30 – Heather Small
Spring Street – 4:52 – Dar Williams
Father I Know – 3:08 – Jamie Catto
Phenomenal Woman – 4:24 – Ruthie Foster
Beautiful – 4:06 – India.Arie

Spring Street by Dar Williams

I’m sorry that I left you with your questions all alone
But I was too happy driving and too angry to drive home
I was thinking about the easy courage of my distant friends
They said, I could let this bridge wash out and never make amends

Can I blow this small town make a big sound
Like the star of a film noir postcard
Can I just forget the frames I shared with you

And I can’t believe what they’re saying
They’re saying I can change my mind
Start over on Spring Street, I’m welcome anytime

There are spring street storefront daisies floating on their neon stems
There are new shirts on the clothes racks should I feel like one of them
I can find a small apartment where a struggling artist died
And pretend because I pay the rent I know that pain inside

Yeah, let’s watch the tour bus stop and tell us
Here’s the scene of a spring green life dream
Take the best part write it in your caffeine diary

And I can’t believe what they’re saying
They’re saying I can leave tonight
Start over on Spring Street, I’m welcome anytime

This year April had a blizzard just to show she did not care
And the new dead leaves
They made the trees look like children with gray hair
But I’ll push myself up through the dirt and shake my petals free
I’m resolved to being born and so resigned to bravery

Yeah the one who leaves this also grieves this
Too much rain on the prairie flood plain
Houses floating, love is like that we built on the river, year

And that’s to say, yeah I’m leaving
But I don’t have go there
I don’t have to go to Spring Street ’cause it’s spring everywhere

Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou (sung by Ruthie Foster)

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman

Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

And finally, a fun and beautiful video of The Weepies song, The World Spins Madly On, that we danced to on Wednesday (thank you, Lynette!):

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