Dark is what brings out your light

As I look out at the world from my windows, I have the privilege of a view of the Mississippi winding its way into downtown Minneapolis and the green of a neighborhood filled with artists, families, and immigrants. But the view at nighttime, while impossible for me to capture on a camera phone, is always the one that arrests my attention. All cities look the same at night, you know. There are streetlights, lights in kitchen or bedroom windows, office buildings with their signs, bridges, and cars going by. I can look out my window at midnight and be looking at Minneapolis, or San Francisco, or Beijing, or all three at once. The shape of buildings and the skyline may change, but we are all small points of light in the darkness.

Life hasn’t been kind to us lately — the world is full of fear and pain and hatred, and many of these come to roost in our very backyards, our streets, our homes. Those we love may have been touched by illness, or taken from us. Those we love may have suffered violence, or we have suffered it ourselves. We may have turned off our social media or our news channels to seek a moment of peace amidst the political chaos and rhetoric of destruction.

And amidst so much that causes harm, fear, pain, it is more important than ever for us to be lights burning brightly and steadily. For us to be the warm glow of a candle, the illumination of a lighthouse, the eternal burn of the moon and stars. The more difficult it is, the more necessary it becomes that we shine. For ourselves, for those we love, for everyone who follows in our wake and finds their own path by our light.

So I meditated to this poem set to music. The music is powerful (and many who have sung in choirs will be familiar, as Frostiana is a choral staple) and this particular version uses pictures from the Hubble Telescope as accompaniment.

CHOOSE SOMETHING LIKE A STAR
by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud-
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something!  And it says ‘I burn.’
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

In the night when you look out your windows, I hope you remember that we’re all the same steady points of light in the darkness. And as the days pass and our world continues to spin, I hope that you find something like a star to follow, not only to find your own way, but so that you can also illuminate a path for those that come after you. Every light in the darkness, every star in the sky, makes the world brighter for us all.
Thank you all for being part of the light in my world.

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Only Once

I have a weird relationship with poetry. Song lyrics, yes please. Songs speak to me, not just the music, but the words and their rhythm. I stand in awe of people who can write musical poetry the way Beth Kinderman can, for example — mine always seems to come out pale and thin.

But poetry that isn’t written to be sung doesn’t often work for me. Even when I have the random urge to write it myself, I rarely read it. And then, only the poetry of a few people. I grew up on The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky the same as everybody else who read it as a kid, and I can really appreciate the work and talent needed to get such humor into those tightly-worded lines. But it was Jack Prelutsky’s set of poems in the book Ride a Purple Pelican that stuck with me. Simple verses, just a few words on each page, but telling stories that were rich and deep; I still have my original copy of the book I grew up reading.

Aside from rhymes and poems meant for kids, though, I rarely find a poem I really like, let alone a poet whose work consistently speaks to me. I can think of only four poets whose work I voluntarily read: Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Izumi Shikibu.

I came upon Izumi Shikibu’s work entirely by accident a few years ago. I was reading fanfic, actually, and one of her poems was quoted in the story. It made an impression on me, so I dug deeper into her history and her works. She was writing in a time period before the invention of the haiku, but in the same sort of style, so the structure of her words was utterly striking even as it fit a meter I didn’t immediately understand. Japanese poetry (and song lyrics, for that matter) is stark and delicate in a way I rarely find in English, cool in the way that Latin American poetry is vibrant.

As I was reading some of her poems, I came upon this one, and knew I would never feel poetry quite the same way again:

Even if I now saw you
only once,
I would long for you
through worlds,
worlds.

It’s…so hard to describe how it makes me feel. I read the words and they echo in my soul, creating ripples of feeling that bounce and shiver, all without names. I feel it more than I understand it, and I understand it far beyond what I could ever describe. The only other single poem that has ever had such an effect on me is Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet XVII:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations that propagate fire.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way than this:

where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

I took bits and pieces from Neruda’s poem and pieced them together with a lot of help from Sarah to create the first draft of “Binary.” I’m not sure you can really look at the lyrics to “Binary” and see its roots here, but this is where the seed of those lyrics was born. And for good reason — “Binary” was written for our wedding ceremony.

If I had found Izumi Shikibu’s poem first, the song born from that seed would have been quite different, and it wouldn’t have been “Binary,” but the meaning would have been the same because they all circle the same feeling place inside my heart.

So now I’ve compiled a whole bunch of Izumi Shikibu’s poems and I’m trying to piece together another song whose shape is grown from her influence. The first draft is done. It’s dense and odd and the cadence is nothing like the kind of lyrics I usually write, but it is what it needs to be. Now, as with all song-writing, the lyrics go to Sarah. I give her the raw shape, the words and sentiments, and she refines them to something far better, smoother, and certainly more musical. Hopefully this will end in a new song for Candles Enough when we next perform (probably at CONvergence 2020).

But whether or not a song and a melody ever comes from it, Izumi Shikibu’s poem sits with me still, stirring through the odd space between heartstrings and finding secret corners to illuminate. With the last two weeks of chaos and change and nervousness and elation, the poem has quieted me, brought me peace, and centered me anew.

I’m leaving my job of almost 13 years next Friday. Two nights from now I’ll stand on a stage at a fundraiser and sing. Three weeks from now I begin a new job.

But none of that prickly uncertainty can touch me. Not with these words in my mind:

Even if I now saw you
only once,
I would long for you
through worlds,
worlds.

I could go my whole life and never put 16 words (in translation) together with such beauty.

But, then, I’m not a poet, really. And those who are create their works hoping that someday, somewhere, one line or stanza or poem will shift the earth beneath the feet of someone. That their expression will become someone’s foundation, their lighthouse, their meaning.

Every songwriter wants that, too, I think.

No matter what song comes of the words of Izumi Shikibu and the inspiration I am drawing from her a thousand years late, I’m still writing it with the same hope that someone will hear it and feel. Feel what? That’s up to them. Just feel something.

I don’t know what I was meant to feel from this poem, and I still couldn’t even put it into words or gestures or anything but a helpless tempest inside to explain it, but I’m certain I’m not going to stop feeling it any time soon.

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Sorry, again

Yep, I’m still here. Things have been tough, so I’ve been giving myself permission to focus on the big stuff and let the smaller stuff slide. Which, obviously, includes the blog. However, since every single person who reads this thing knows me directly and has other means of interacting with me, I’m not too worried. You all know how to find me when you need me.

And I know how to find you, too. Promise.

But this poem came into my world, and now I’m sharing it with you. It’s actually the text of a song we’re learning for the November TCWC concert. It’s not the only one by this poet, and I think they are all truly phenomenal, but this is the one that keeps making it hard to learn music when getting all teary:

For Love of the World
by Charlotte Tall Mountain

For the love of a tree,
she went out on a limb.

For the love of the sea,
she rocked the boat.

For the love of the earth,
she dug deeper.

For the love of community,
she mended fences.

For the love of the stars,
she let her light shine.

For the love of spirit,
she nurtured her soul.

For the love of a good time,
she sowed seeds of happiness.

For the love of the Goddess,
she drew down the moon.

For the love of nature,
she made compost.

For the love of a good meal,
she gave thanks.

For the love of family,
she reconciled differences.

For the love of creativity,
she entertained new possibilities.

For the love of her enemies,
she suspended judgment.

For the love of herself,
she acknowledged her worth.

And the world was richer for her.

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Unchangeable

There are so many things in the world you can’t change:
Your loves, your fears, your yesterdays.
They aren’t choices, weaknesses, failures;
They just are.

You’ve heard the poem, or maybe a prayer:
Grant strength, courage, wisdom,
But like all prayers, it falls short
When it forgets to keep going.

To know what you cannot change is only a beginning
And the least useful part of the journey.
It’s too easy to stop
And never keep going.

You can’t change your yesterdays and their glorious mistakes,
And no prayer will ever make them easier to recall,
But they are past.
And no one else will ever care about them the way you do.

You can’t change what turns your mind to screaming mud
And makes impossible everything but fear.
Forgive yourself. Breathe.
Fear passes in time.

You can’t change what you love, or who you are.
You shouldn’t.
Don’t.
So love. And Be.

There are so many things in the world you can’t change.
But so what?
Those things you can’t change can’t change you either
Unless you let them.

Don’t let them.

We all know I’m really, really bad at poetry, right? Okay. Just checking.

But, just because I am bad at it doesn’t mean I don’t have the same human need to produce it as those who are masters of the form. There’s something about poetry, the expression of it, that fills a gap in me left by any other creative process. Even songwriting doesn’t quite do what poetry does. Good, terrible, cliche, useless, it doesn’t matter. I don’t write because it’s *good.* I write because it’s *me.*

And sometimes the words that get tangled up in me won’t come out in the prose of a story, or the nice meter and rhyme of a song. Sometimes I just need to let my disjointed inner soul-scrawl find its way out into disjointed, slightly vague lines. And that’s okay, too. The human need to create is important, the most important of all our impulses. Not just creating more human beings so the species doesn’t go away, but creating that which never existed before. Creating new art — songs, stories, paintings, sculptures, knitted masterpieces. Creating new ideas — scientific theorems, mathematical proofs, philosophical insights. Creation, adding to the world, is what, in a very real sense, we are here to do.

I have believed all my life that what we put into the world matters, even if it happens when no one knows or sees. If I sing a song about freedom and hope, even one no one hears, the vibrations of that song still touch the molecules of the air. They still resonate with the wind blowing outside. And maybe one quark of that impact will vanish only to fire in the mind of someone who desperately needs the ghostly memory of a happy song. And every time I put that song into the world, I backed it up with more deliberate action. I invested in more art, found more sources of inspiration, lifted up other singers to hear their songs. Did my song touch someone? I’ll never know, and that’s not what matters. My song made me better, and the better me turned around to better the world.

Life right now is pretty stressful. I’ve got a lot going on, and much of it is difficult or scary. I retweeted something today that said “When you don’t have time to cry because all that does is take away time from you figuring it the fuck out.” It’s an apt summary.

For me, the very first thing that helps me when stressed is to piece problems apart and solve them; breaking them into component parts and manageable pieces is a critical part of the process. But I also can’t survive solving problem after problem after problem with no respite. That’s a really quick path to burnout.

Sometimes I just need to stop. Breathe. Feel. And let whatever is bubbling up inside spill out in whatever capacity releases it from me. Today, that was poetry.

Did it solve anything? No and yes. It didn’t fix what needs fixing, didn’t decrease my to-do list or give me more hours in the day. But it gave me a moment of stillness in myself. It gave me a chance to listen to my own feelings, to let them be heard, to meditate on them and find focus and energy in them.

And the answers are right there in what they were trying to tell me.

I can’t change a lot of what I’m dealing with right now, but I don’t have to. I just have to keep going, keep dealing, and and keep fighting to prevent these things from breaking me down. However it all ends, if I can do that much, I’ll emerge fully intact. And that’s about all I need.

That and about 2,000 more words of writing done today. Because it’s a day ending in Y, so of course there is writing to be done. And now that I’ve gotten the (not good, I know, doesn’t matter) poetry out of my system, I can focus on prose and narrative and characters and how THEY feel, rather than how I feel. So it served multiple purposes, and that is worthy, too.

Onward!

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April Blizzard and Binary Stars

When we had the snow-covered Ostara, we thought that was a little silly.  Predictable even for Minnesota, but silly.

The April blizzard of this past weekend, though?  Not silly.

Downright ridiculous.

The pile of snow at the end of our driveway where the plow bunched it up was WAIST-HIGH on me.  And filled with chunks of snow balled together so firmly we started making jokes about finding the anatomy of dead snowmen.  We took some pictures, but it is difficult to show the real scale of the wintry disaster that has descended upon Minnesota when it is supposed to be spring.

All the evergreen trees on our property look like some variation on this, if they aren’t broken in half:

Here is what we called the “Four Shovels of the Snowpocalypse:”

And here is the courageous team of my wife and our two Clanmates who live nearest — it took all four of us to dig out the driveway and rescue a couple of the trees.  We didn’t even bother with the sidewalk, as you can see. Anybody who needs to come see us can come in the driveway until the thaw:

There’s a reason #Minnesnowta is trending right now.  Utterly ridiculous.

If Sarah and I were different people, we might be actually upset if this blizzard were to keep us from spending this week in some kind of special way.  But we won’t, because we don’t do that sort of thing.

This week is our 15th anniversary.

Now, due to the vagaries of recognition of non-straight marriages and the shifting politics that have occured in the past 15 years, Sarah and I have 3 separate anniversaries.  Late August of 2013 is the date on our marriage certificate, because that’s when we could gather our friends and family in our backyard the summer Minnesota legalized same-sex marriages.  But that was a very informal ceremony — Sarah wore a t-shirt, I was in shorts, and we interrupted the vows midway through for me to dodge away from a wasp. It was a beautiful day, though.

In 2010, we had our “official ceremony,” which is the one where I wore the awesome dress, Sarah wore a suit, both our sets of parents came, there was an exchange of rings, and we made our vows public for the first time.  In 2010, we didn’t really know if or when marriage would be legal in the state of Minnesota, or in the US. But by then, we had been together 7 years, and we knew we were going to be together to the end.

For that ceremony, we wrote the song we call “Binary” because that’s what we are — a pair of binary stars, forever in orbit around one another, defining one another, inseparable.  Born together, bound together, alive together. And in the end, wherever it ends, however life closes, we’ll be together.

But it’s 2003 where our relationship began in truth, and that’s where I count from.

We had been friends for more than a year when things changed between us, and it had been a very difficult year for us both.  We had seen friends get together and grow apart, we had faced some very painful experiences and realizations, and we were in the midst of that growing season that happens in college when, for the first time, you lift your head up in the world and realize you are going to have to start defining yourself for yourself.

Sarah was a huge part of my process figuring out who I could be, who I wanted to be, and she was really the first to believe in me so very thoroughly and unflinchingly.  She was my best friend, the person I felt safest with in all the world, and I was changed for knowing her.

But in April of 2003, our relationship changed over the course of about 3 nights.  It was a slightly slow revelation, like the movies in slow-motion, where we both came to understand that we wanted to care more for one another than anyone else.  We even made jokes about how we might someday fall in love and get married, but we didn’t think a relationship with a spouse could ever really be what we were together.  It was a scary two days to take that to the logical conclusion of “maybe we just need each other.”

Five weeks later, Sarah asked me to marry her while calling me a goofball at the same time.

A year to the day later in May 2004, I asked her to marry me in return.

Fifteen years has changed us both in ways neither one of us could have imagined.  We’ve been through dangerous illness, the breakup of families, financial struggle, and a world which sometimes was downright horrible to us (there’s really nothing like having to walk through a line of virulent protesters to get to the wedding of a pair of gay friends).  We’ve been through rounds of therapy, alone and together, we’ve had moments of utter despair, and we’ve seen each other through dangerous depression.

But not once — not once– in fifteen years, have I ever wanted to share any of that with anyone more than Sarah.  And no matter how bad or unhealthy things got, I never wanted to do anything but make it right with her.

All people talk about marriage needing communication, and respect, and a sense of humor, and patience, and generosity.  And all those people who say those things are correct. If you cannot be completely and totally honest, completely and totally yourself, without even a shade of fear in front of the person you married, then you will never know freedom or trust.  If you cannot look at the person you chose to share your life and think they are 100% in the wrong, totally off their rocker, and still fully think they are an awesome person whose opinions, though wrong, deserve to be heard and treated fairly, then you cannot really stand as equals.  If you can’t laugh until your head spins with the person you married, can’t share jokes and snark and puns and terrible songs and all the rest every single day, then you’re missing out on a lot of joy. If you cannot force yourself to take a breath in a heated moment even if it feels you are putting your chest through a cheese grater, you’ll never be able to be quiet when the person you married most needs you to listen.  And if you can’t love completely, unconditionally, would willingly give literally anything without a second thought, then you have missed what it really means to cherish someone else.

Fifteen years with Sarah has been a lifetime of laughter and joy and crazy moments and tearful exchanges and daily cuddles — and it can never be enough.  Fifteen years on, and sometimes I just look at her sitting at her end of the couch with her laptop and start to cry because I love her so damn much and I cannot, cannot hold it all inside because I could never be big enough to feel this much.  Fifteen years from the start and I know I am a better person, a kinder person, a more understanding person, because I have become so for her. Fifteen years has not flown by, it has soared.

Fifteen years I have belonged to Sarah, heart and soul, and will until the universe collapses into nothingness.

We don’t celebrate it — the blizzard doesn’t do a damn thing to impact our plans because we never make plans.  We never exchange gifts. We never buy flowers. We don’t always even remember the milestones. Every single day is a blessing with Sarah, and every day is worthy of celebration and trumpets and grand gestures because I love her that much every day.  I don’t ever stop thinking about it. I don’t ever become numb to it. Love is wonder, and I am still lost in wonder to this day.

We’re probably going to spend our anniversary watching cartoons and hockey and YouTube together.  Nothing more special than that, because there is nothing we could do that would be special enough to rival what I feel every single time I have the privilege of holding her hand, or giving her a hug, or flopping an arm over her in sleep.  We don’t celebrate the specific days because every day for fifteen years, even in the worst of times, has been a celebration.

Sarah is in my life, she chose me, and I get to spend every breath being hers.  And by being Sarah’s, I have become myself.

“Binary”

It is said that the earth was born when the moon crashed into her sky
A striking explosion of soul meeting soul
It is said that the mountains were born when the lands once parted collide
The inevitable draw of gravity’s pull

As the stars fold into the sky
As the river folds into the sea
Through the storms and the pains and the joys of life
You’ll be standing here with me

It is said that we walk in the sun when we sing to the dawn
No more separate than binary stars
Like the comet-flung quarks running free in their strange-colored fire of night
Wild wholeness in being who we are

When all the flowers fade
And all the rainbows fall
Wherever it ends when the last glory calls
My life began with you

As the stars fold into the sky
As the river folds into the sea
Through the storms and the pains and the joys of life
You’ll be standing here with me

It is said that we’re all a soul split in two and fallen from space
And peace lies only in being one
It is said that love is new like the butterflies in spring
That it grows by the days
But our love was old when the moon was young

So stand here with me
As you’ve stood all along
Your hand was in mine before my first song
And my arms will hold you tonight

As the stars fold into the sky
As the river folds into the sea
Through the storms and the pains and the joys of life
You’ll be standing here with me

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We Are

Dr Ysaye Barnwell, composer for Sweet Honey in the Rock, has written some of the most inspiring, moving, powerful songs I’ve ever had the privilege to sing.  From her soul comes “Would You Harbor Me?” and “Wanting Memories” and “No Mirrors in my Nana’s House.”

If you don’t know them, go find them.  The originals, if you can.  Lots of choirs, mine included, sing them, but there is nothing like hearing them in the voice of Dr Barnwell herself.

One of those songs was one the TCWC performed a few weeks ago.  And also a few years ago.  It is just one of those songs that stays in my heart.

When stuff gets hard, or the world turns cold and dark and cruel, or when I just need to remind myself WHY IT ALL MATTERS, this is one of those songs that reminds me.

We Are

For each child that’s born, a morning star rises
and sings to the universe
who we are.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers.
We are our grandfathers’ dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the spirit of God.

We are
Mothers of courage
Fathers of time
Daughters of dust
Sons of great vision.

We are
Sisters of mercy
Brothers of love
Lovers of life and
the builders of nations.

We are
Seekers of truth
Keepers of faith
Makers of peace and
the wisdom of ages.

We are our grandmothers’ prayers.
We are our grandfathers’ dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the spirit of God.

For each child that’s born, a morning star rises
and sings to the universe
who we are.

WE ARE ONE.

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Dead and Counting

(I will never pretend that I have any true gift for poetry, because I haven’t. But what I have is pain and rage and choking helplesness and grief. And this is its outlet.

Please forgive its every flaw and the person who was alive to make them. The only thing that matters is those who are lost, and those who are hurt, and those who are now both.)

 

Dead and Counting

You were dead in a roar of thunder
Before your body fell
And the body beside you
And the next and the next.
You died laughing, or screaming,
Or crying out to Jesus or Allah or Shiva
“Why” or “Please” or “No”
But no one saved you.
You died in a hail of hatred.

You did not die alone.
And one tragedy becomes two
Becomes twenty
Becomes too many
And the street is red
And the lights flash blue
And no one wants to score the dead.

There will come reasons, shouting,
“It’s your fault, you people!”
“It’s you who are to blame!”
But the blame we parade on sets and soundbites
Doesn’t kill the tears or the pain
Doesn’t cure the nightmares of those
Whose hands knew blood that night.

And we forget to blame hatred.
We forget.
Again we forget.

We light candles and sing
Signs and flowers and wreaths
We change banners and pictures
We hashtag our pain and prayers
We say we will remember
But we hate and teach hate and grow hate
And the candles are not soft memories now.
They are become the start of the next wildfire.

Forgive our tears
That we mean today
And will forget tomorrow.
Forgive our candles, our songs,
Our momentary grief
That will last in your bones.
We died tonight
Or yesterday
In any hail of hatred
And only still live by forgetting

You died,
You,
Whose name we do not know.
But you died in a war
Not between lines on a map
But within the human soul —
You died and we died with you.
We are your blood, cold on the street.

But you do not know this.
You do not have to know.
You already know.

You were dead in a roar of thunder
Before your body fell
And the body beside you
And the next and the next.
You died laughing, or screaming, or sobbing
Or crying out to Jesus or Allah or Shiva
“Why” or “Please” or “No”
But no one saved you.
We all die in a hail of hatred.

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