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Poetry, Pain, & Wholeness

How Poetry Helped Me See the Connection Between Spirituality and Social Justice

2004

I’m looking out over the stone patio, past the near fig and scruffy walnut trees to the turquois Aegean at a distance. I think this might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I feel a longing for it even as I’m present; the landscape itself both invites and resists.

Its beauty comes in part through its barrenness: the earth is rocky, only a few plants—oregano, sage and bindweed, with its little tiny white faced flowers—grow from these inhospitable conditions.

At the top of the hill along the walk that we take each evening to see the sunset is an ancient statue, at least 2000 years old, of a lion. Kea was once forested; wild lions roamed. Today the trees grow only slightly taller than the tallest man; there are only goats, chickens. And far below, the sea is such a piercing turquoise because the abundance of life that filled Homer’s wine dark sea has been fished out, leaving the water this limpid, crystal blue. When I open my eyes under water, I can see straight down to the bottom, to the white and beige pebbles that sparkle like gems.

Eric and Gabriel are there now, swimming in that water, while I’ve decided to stay at the house this morning and write. Simone is kicking inside of me; another month and a half and she’ll be here with us. I want some time to put my thoughts on paper.

What is this world that she will be born into?

On the boat to come here, we passed what Kostis told us was one of the main islands used to keep prisoners during the Greek Civil War; countless people died there. It was a site of unmeasurable pain. Somewhere else the violent past might haunt me, make me want to move away, but here there is something almost, dare I say, reassuring about it. That is a strange word to use, but yes, reassuring: even from this violence, from this depletion of the land, from this over-use, great, striking beauty is born.

So many contrasts. Even the light is fierce, piercing.

There is so much beauty in the world and so much suffering. So much kindness and so much violence. So many rewards in what humans create and so many dangers.

America, my country, is off fighting another war that I have protested, that I have been able to do nothing to prevent. Simone kicks again and I begin to write:

Out the Open Window

The world that is alone in its beauty

with no consolation—

the black walnut tree
the double-oleander

the goats, always-hungry––

Who hasn’t been seduced?

Who is the wonderful me of happiness?

Of forgetfulness,
of horror,
that must be a part.

As if “all”
were a word in another language.

Now no one speaks.

I can’t put it all together, all the beauty and hunger, the happiness and the horror. I use the poem to express what I cannot, to point to the places between words, beyond understanding.

I wonder whether I have often felt more comfortable in foreign places with foreign languages because they allow me more fully to access what cannot be said, the “all” that makes sense of the contrasts, the multiplicity, what I do not understand, what I cannot name, what, it seems to me, no one can name.

2010

In Haiti, where I have never been, an 7.0 Mw earthquake destroys Port-au- Prince and the surrounding areas. Buildings fall on men, women, mothers, children. The city’s infrastructure is shut down; there is no electricity, no good water, no way to get and distribute food.

The earthquake is indiscriminate, falling on hospitals, public buildings, but of course creating most damage, as is almost always the case, for the poor, whose infrastructure already is weakest.

This is a country that has been through so much. And now more.

In Cambridge, MA, I read about it in the paper. I have two young children. I do not know what I can do. On the one hand, this is a natural disaster. On the other hand, I have read Paul Farmer’s work and know that the US can largely be held responsible for much of Haiti’s poverty and difficult history. Beware any country that shows it is possible to throw off the shackles of slavery—for your bravery, your strength, your example, your hope, you will pay.

Martin Luther King Jr talks about the long moral arc of history, but from the little history I have read of Haiti, I don’t immediately see this arc, just as I struggle to see the arc for so many other once enslaved people and for so many native people around the world. And really, does the moral arc of history help the individual people who die?

What if the world is not just? Not locally or globally.

A friend is putting together an anthology of poetry to raise money for Haiti and has asked me to contribute a poem. In truth, I’m not sure how I feel about this. I am such an idealist that I don’t want poetry to be associated with money and with white middle class do-good-ism.

I choose the poem I wrote four summers ago in Greece. I think the poem is about the failures of the imagination: our inability to put it all together, to make proper sense of suffering and of happiness, to know how they both fit in the same universe, whether those experiences are on different parts of the globe or in different parts of our own day.

I don’t pretend to be able to imagine the suffering or the strength of the people in Haiti—or to be able to imagine all the infinite varieties of experiences, as many different varieties as there are people and moments.

The reading turns out to be a lovely event. Many of the readers are Haitian or have close ties to Haiti. I feel my poem is an expression of the “I don’t know” mind, an offering of solidarity and wonder at the intensity and immensity of our world.

2011

A year later, I get a call asking me whether my poem can be used to facilitate an event to commemorate the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. The poem will be used, I’m told, to help open conversation, to help people access the wide range of their emotions.

I say, yes, of course; I’m delighted if you use the poem. And when I follow the link to the group, Still Harbor, putting on the event, I want to learn more about them. I make a meeting to visit them.

My poem, that has been about not being able to make connection, is making connection—between Greece and Cambridge, Cambridge and Haiti. And now myself and this group Still Harbor, which was founded by people who worked with Paul Farmer at Partners in Health. They saw a need to create an organization that could help people find purpose and stamina in their lives through social justice work, and they saw spirituality—broadly defined—as the basis for doing this kind of service work.

I’m immediately interested and feel that the work of Still Harbor gives language and form to some of the things I have been searching for, to the very questions I was asking in my poem.

How do we find the moral, spiritual, personal stamina to face the injustices and struggles of the world? How do we place the worst and the best of humanity side by side?

This is not only what the poem I wrote in Greece was about but, in some sense, what most of my work is about. What is the “all”?

How can we be capacious and strong enough to embrace the whole picture of our complicated world, the beauty and the suffering? So often people can see primarily one or the other and are scared to embrace the full picture.

But I have felt that this search for fullness is, in some sense, my calling.

In Greece, pregnant with Simone, with my happy, healthy four year old little boy Gabriel, I saw that quest as largely an external one: how could I make sense of the beauty and suffering out there in the larger world, in history, in contemporary events? What was this external world that my children were entering?

But over the past years, this quest has gotten more personal, more scary. Because the beauty and suffering that I am responding to is not just out there, but in here, in my own life, in my own heart, in my own body.

As I have followed this question of being big enough to look at suffering, without losing the beauty and joy, I have moved into more and more uncomfortable spaces. In the times I have wanted to turn away, I have looked a bit closer, stayed a bit longer. A good therapist, a mindfulness practice, and yoga have all help me stay. My poetry and other writing have also helped me stay: they have helped illuminate for me my own mind, my own concerns, my own emotions. They have been a kind of mirror.

I have been writing about sexual violence—and then one day, suddenly, I’m looking straight at it: at a violent sexual assault in my own early childhood. The violence is not just out there, but in here, in my own life.

My poetry had known before me what it is I’m holding. It has helped me to read my own life. And it’s not just in the past, but in the present, in my very cells. It is what I know.

2012-present

Over the next years, as I begin actively to heal (because we can only really heal once we locate the specific wound), I become more involved with Still Harbor.

I’ve never seen another organization that attends to this intersection of the external and the internal; it looks at social justice through the lens of the personal and the personal through the lens of social justice. It also looks at social justice through the lens of the spiritual and the spiritual through the lens of social justice.

To me, these intersection are the very intersection of suffering and beauty; they are the “all” I’ve been looking for.

I find that to be able to face great suffering—my own and the suffering I see around me in the world—I need a spiritual container big enough to hold it all, something bigger than myself.

And this spiritual container is loving and just. Even if the moral arc of history may not be just, the moral arc of the authentic spiritual life is just: it is the goodness, the love, the compassion that we can find even in the darkest times.

This is what I believe is the place where spirituality and social justice meet: this goodness, this compassion, this concern for justness. I can’t quite imagine either spirituality or social justice without the other; for me, they inter-are, as my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh might say. To me, spirituality must encompass social justice just as social justice must encompass spirituality; the self and the other inter-are, the internal and the external.

It had seemed so complicated for such a long time. Now, on some days, it seems simple. Not easy, and certainly not something that I live centered in at all times, but in its essence simple and clear and wide.

Over time, I come to revise the last lines of the poem I wrote those many summers ago in Greece.

They had read:

As if “all”
were a word in another language.

Now no one speaks.

Now they read:

As if “all”
were a word in another language

I am learning to speak.

I think I am learning to speak the language of wholeness. This has been my path and my healing. Poetry in part has taken me here—and the ways it has helped me connect to other people and to myself.

I also rename the poem’s title and call it “Love Poem.” It’s my love poem to our complicated, difficult, beautiful world.

Poetry occurs at this intersection of the personal and the social, the self and other. The landscapes in a poem are both the external landscapes of the land that the eyes see and the internal landscapes of the heart. We meet ourselves and others in this intersection. The imagination and the language of a poem—both in its explicit uses and in its silences—connect us to other people, other times and places, and it connects us to ourselves.

We come to know who we are and who we want to be. We come to encounter our wholeness and our connection. §

Nadia Colburn, Ph.D. (Editor) holds a doctorate in English from Columbia University and a B.A. from Harvard University. She is a kundalini yoga teacher and mindful writing coach, and she offers workshops in person and online. Her writing has been published in more than sixty publications, including The New Yorker, Boston Globe Magazine, and The Kenyon Review. To get free meditation and writing prompts go to nadiacolburn.com.

Originally published at stillharbor.org

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