His Book of Questions

“And what is the name of the month
that falls between December and January?

By what authority did they number
the twelve grapes of the cluster?

Why didn’t they give us longer
months that last all year?

Did spring never deceive you”
with kisses that didn’t blossom?”

Pablo Neruda

Neruda has his book of questions.  Each question could be a meditation.  And each one of us, taking the time, could write our own book of questions.  Once written, perhaps we  then could open to the answers that swirl around us in the ethers.  Ready to be snatched from space and turned over and around–examined in a state of awe at some wisdom that usually lies outside of our usual perceptions.  Until we take the time to tune in.

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While a child, asking questions wasn’t allowed.  The land of childhood was ruled by a tyrant, a dictator, my father.  In his land of authority, questions weren’t supposed to be thought let alone voiced!  That said, every child has questions.  They are born into a world that they are yet to discover.  Under such circumstances, questions, when we learn to talk, are a natural response to being alive.  They are the avenue of discovery of what the heck we’re doing here.  To have that normal curiosity curtailed, inhibited or prohibited is a sin.

Today, in the midst of a pandemic, we have questions…and yes, we question our elected authority figures, the scientists and researchers and our religious or spiritual teachers.  We turn to one another inquiring into “what’s going on here?”  And we are hard pressed to get direct and truthful answers.  The frustration that we feel in the face of a pandemic is exacerbated by a media that contradicts itself.  Sometimes the lack of wise leadership compounds the challenges that we are facing personally as a result of the pandemic.

All of this uncertainty doesn’t prevent us from asking the questions that surface for each one of us.  Get your journal and write the questions that weigh on your mind at this time.  They are important.  They are relevant.  While they are your individual questions, chances are that they are the questions from your subconscious and/or the greater unconscious.  I trust the questioning process.  Choose one question and don’t force an answer.  Linger with the question for a day or the week.  When answers come to you, write them in your journal beneath the question.  And answers are going to come.  This process has been very helpful when I crafted creative writing workshops.

The invitation to lean into your questions is placed on the table.  It is an activating process.

Question

 

 

The Dive

A couple of years ago, I was invited by a local art gallery to preview an art exhibit, choose a painting and write a poem referencing that painting.  The painting that spoke to me was of an adolescent girl wearing a swimsuit, standing at the end of a diving board, preparing to dive.  Her body looked rigid, almost like the diving board itself.  Shoulders were raised nearly to her ears; her mouth was tense and straight.  Below is the poem I wrote.

I am not there to read this poem to you.  I’d like you to read it quietly once.  And then, read it aloud to yourself or to someone else.  Feel the poem.  Pretend that you are the diver.

The Dive
©by Christine O’Brien

Feet plugged into the
sticky resin springboard,
I note the space between me and
the crushing water below.
The form I hold.
Buddha stillness.
The grace I invoke
as I design form
gliding through space.
The breath I hold.
The breath I take
like thunder in a canyon
fills my ears.
The shadow of fear
remains at the other end
of the platform
while I stand on the edge
in focused repose.

This is not my first dive
though my raised shoulders,
clamped mouth and clenched jaw
could be interpreted as fear.
There is always that
but with prayer and practice
it quickly transforms
as there is no turning back now.
The dive grooms the diver
in this conspiracy of grace, form and space.
Originally, it was a dare from friends
that sent me up the hot aluminum ladder
on that sweaty summer day.
Now, it’s a drive from within,
not towards perfection
or for judges’ scores.
There is no competition.

It is the ecstasy of flight
that sends me to this precipice.
Neither bird nor stone falling through space,
I am a wingless angel
who rejoices in
those few seconds of airtime.
Body imprinting space
air molecules conforming, buoyant.
I visualize the flex, fold, arc,
the straightening as
I neatly incise the water with my hands,
barely a splash.
I surface a few feet away,
victorious,
a different sort of Phoenix rising.

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And then I made my own painting of another sort of dive by another sort of creature.

card27

 

She Looks Upon the Land

I live in the forested mountains of Northern California.  It is nearing the Fourth of July.  When it’s not a time of Covid, we have a huge influx of tourists (around 3,000 people) to celebrate the holiday.  It’s been fun in the past.  However, due to the virus, the event was cancelled.  Honestly, it’s a relief for many reasons.  One being, the long term drought in California.  The tinder-dry forested area isn’t a place for fireworks.  (It’s hard to believe that they allow fireworks in such an area!)

A few days ago, when I noticed the Safe and Sane Fireworks Booth going up by the local supermarket, I felt myself tense up.  Honestly, I cannot believe that a mountainous area would ever sell fireworks and permit their use.  This shows a great disconnect.  We’ve had several years where we’ve been living on pins and needles as forest fires have encroached.  We’ve lived with months of intense smoke that obliterated the usual pristine vistas.  We’ve been prepared to evacuate should the fires get any closer.  We’ve watched neighboring communities be forced to evacuate and witnessed a complete town, Paradise, CA, succumb to fires.  And not too far south of us, in Redding, CA where my sisters live, I stood watch with them hoping that the Carr Fire would be contained, controlled and put out!

I wrote to my local City Council expressing my concerns.  The sale of fireworks has been a profitable fundraiser for a local club.  It’s been done this way for awhile–sort of entrenched system that I’m coming up against.  Safe and Sane Fireworks, according to the local Fire Chief, have not caused problems…it’s been the illegal ones that cause harm.
Regardless, my bottom line is that fireworks of any type should be banned in forested areas!  Does that seem like common sense to you?  It does to me.  Better foresight than hindsight.

She just knows
© by Christine O’Brien

She looks upon the land and she just knows

That things could be much better than they are.

we day tripping visitors blink and doze

While wise ones see into the future, far.

When hindsight and foresight fall by the way

And the many lessons offered aren’t learned

As media hype says what it may

Through promoting fear, their paychecks are earned.

What else is new across this span of strife?

Humans burying their heads in the sand

We hear past echoes and we join the chime

“we can’t make a difference, one small life.”

Remember, holding hands, we are many.

Infused with earth love, we are not puny.

Forest

 

Sonnet Two

Not that we shouldn’t desire more
of that which feeds the hungering soul
for such yearning, it seems, opens the door
as we stare out upon a distant knoll.

“Comfortable complacency” is fine
–we all need pauses in our quest for more–
Grateful for the banquet on which we dine
fingers laced, beside the fireplace, shut the door.

But when the bell tolls the eleventh hour
mustn’t we from our sedentary rise?
Step into our uncomfortable power–
this before our comforts become a vise.

The hungering soul feasts on freedom.
Quick!  They are capturing the kingdom.

 

sonnet2

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago and again tried to merge poetry with imagery.  I’m not really pleased with the painting…but I think the message is current.  Truly, it doesn’t seem like we can hide behind our “comfortable” doors any longer although we mostly shelter in place.  I think that we are asked to be activists in a way that is true to our nature.

When any one of our freedoms is infringed upon, we are called to stand up against injustice.  When our neighbor’s freedom is infringed upon, we are called to stand up against injustice.  For truly, if my neighbor isn’t well-cared for by our society, then I’m affected too.  We’re in this together.

Remember, Spaceship Earth, so-named by Buckminster Fuller?  We’re all here together riding around on this very small planet.

“How can I serve?”

I frequently ask this question of myself.

 

Yearning

now1This was one of my first attempts at merging art and poetry.  I write what has been termed personal poetry.  This sonnet was the first poem in a series of twenty-one poems that I was determined to write.  I illustrated the first two poems of this grouping.  It’s not so easy to do, I found.  This poem was written several years ago…the mood at the time.  Poetry is a great way to manage our various moods and emotions and to help us move beyond or integrate these passing energies.

I’ve written poetry for at least thirty years.  Within that span of time, there were periods when I didn’t write poetry.  The tangles that we can get ourselves into with words.  The things we tell ourselves.  As author Byron Katie has reiterated “Is it true?”  The things we say to others–did they receive it as we intended it?  The words we hear– are they fact, theory, opinion, judgment?  How do other people’s words–the media–color your own thoughts and opinions?  Where is the truth in these tangles?

That’s why I chose the paintbrush over the pen for a few years.  No words!

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This blog has become a commingling of art and words with which I feel comfortable these days.

 

 

The Walkaway

In the face of Covid 19, the United Nations Secretary-General, in one of his speeches,  declared that war is obsolete!  In these times of the pandemic, war seems to be a non-sequitur.  A virus is now “the enemy”.  Can we stop the nonsense and focus on what’s at hand, like the virus, global warming, overpopulation…and start addressing the real issues of a planet at risk?  Aren’t people experiencing enough trauma without having to contend with war?  We know which people are the first to be attacked during warfare–women and children.  Time for a serious time out!

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This painting and poem were first published on this blog in November of 2017.  This painting originated from a poem I wrote several years before.   He is walking away preparing to board a naval ship, shipping out to Vietnam.  Is he going to return?  If he does return, how is war going to change him…hence the refrain “Did anyone ever come back from Vietnam, I wondered.”

When I was eighteen years old, a girlfriend and I volunteered at the USO club on Market Street in San Francisco.  This was in 1967-1968, during the Vietnam War.  One night a week, we showed up to dance with the sailors and soldiers.  To sit and talk or play games like chess or checkers.  It was an intense time as these young men were either preparing to ship out overseas or had just returned from a stint overseas.  The poem tells the story of one young man who took a liking to me.

The poem:

Circulation
by Christine O’Brien

Don’t dance with just one boy,
make the rounds–
circulate.
Play chess and checkers
card games
no dating them outside of here.

The USO–
we’re here to
provide a home
away from home.
You are the girl next door
…a reputation to uphold
no loose behavior.

His name was Mickey
–from Mississippi.
He wanted a girl
more than anything.
He was being sent off to Vietnam.

Did anyone ever come back from
Vietnam
I wondered?

He claimed me;
threatened all the other soldiers
to stay away.
But I’m supposed to circulate,
I said.
He picked me up after work,
treated me to a soda,
rode home with me on the bus,
met my family,
even loaned my dad a book.
He was scheduled to ship out
in two weeks.

Did anyone ever come back from
Vietnam
I wondered?

His friend drove him to my house.
We kissed in the back seat of the car.
Hard kisses
from him who wanted
to know a kiss
before lips grew cold.
My lips were uncertain
but compliant.
Suddenly I pulled away,
fearful
withdrew into my house
tossing him a good night.

Did anyone ever come back from
Vietnam
I wondered?

He had been so cool
on the dance floor
smooth, sexy dancer.
In his dress blues
bell bottoms
swishing the slippery floor.
I could never attract
a guy like that
I thought.

He wanted to marry me NOW!
The urgency of youth
the uncertainty of undeclared war
leading one to declare love.
I cried all the way home on the bus.
He comforted me
not knowing that I was trying to
break up with him.
He threatened suicide
wasn’t going to Vietnam
suicide enough?

I wondered,
did anyone ever come back
from Vietnam?

the walkaway.

 

 

My Mother’s Hands

mom1

This mixed media piece was to be my entry in an upcoming art show.

It was also a challenge to myself to integrate poetry with paint.  In some way, it was a homage to my mother’s life.  The photo is of her at age seventeen.  She was a beauty.  My mother died in 2011 at age 91.  From my perspective, her life had been a long, hard road. I’ve written so much about her, about our relationship, about her relationship with my father.

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One of the layers of this painting is a poem, My Mother’s Hands.   After writing the poem  on the canvas, I remember feeling vulnerable.  I was revealing her story to an audience who might not understand the battered wife syndrome.

The poem begins:

I wonder if a palm reader back then would have foretold
–a long life
–an unloving marriage
–an abusive spouse…

…and then I smudged some of the words with gesso and paint.

In the last three years of their lives, my parents were in a care home, a house in a neighborhood with eight elderly residents.  Another sister and I alternated visiting them during the week.  Two other sisters orchestrated their care from afar.  The brothers remained aloof until the very end as they didn’t feel at ease with our father.

In her later years, my mother’s hands were contorted with arthritis.   Her fingers had trouble gripping a spoon and then navigating it to her mouth.  But she had lost so many of her abilities that I didn’t want to help her too much.  I watched as the spoon wobbled towards her mouth.  Her mouth like a quivering bird anticipating food.

My father in the background would say “These are not the golden years.”  I could see that.

One sunny day, we were sitting outdoors under fruit-laden orange trees.  My mother said “I wonder where we go from here.”

“What do you mean, Mom?” I asked.

“After we die.” she said.

“I thought you believed in heaven,” I said, trying to offer comforting words.

My father said “There’s nothing.”

“Dad,” I said, “I thought you had a dream of heaven.  You said it was beautiful.”

My father said, “It was lonely.  I was the only one there.”

In slow motion, my mother reached for my hand and held it–an unfamiliar gesture.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.  I’m sure thoughts of my mother weave through my mind on any given day.  For one reason or another.

I wonder what she’d be thinking about the state of the world today.  She once asked me to write her story…I’m not sure which one…the one of the devoted wife who stood by her husband no matter what abuse.  Or the possible woman who hid herself away and didn’t have an opportunity to blossom.

The Dreamcatcher

Years ago, I wove hundreds of dreamcatchers.  It was a very challenging time in my life.  I don’t remember how I discovered the dreamcatcher…but when I did, I found that designing and weaving them was healing and engaging in a way that I hadn’t expected.  I gathered supplies, hoops, twigs, willow, waxed threads, leather strips, feathers and beads.  Each dream catcher was a unique creation.  For me, this indigenous craft held deep meaning…and they were to be shared.  I gave one to each of my family members.  A man I met had a booth at a local flea market.  He sold them, keeping a profit for himself.  What they provided for me in the moment was without price.

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Tracy Verdugo taught a class on painting dream catchers.  And then invited us to write a poem.  This poem is written around the outside circle of the dreamcatcher.

Destiny

Lace and ribbons
decorate the frock.
“Forget the dreams.
Get back to the kitchen
and bake me a pie!”
Banish your fantasy of
happy couples and
floral bouquet apologies.

Re-enter the Goddess–
no partial woman is she!
So, you are somebody
after all.
Tell us what you know.
Emergence is what you requested–
sit down and let’s talk over tea.

A wedge of lemon?  Honey?
Ah, the bitter with the sweet.
This you must experience
for yourself.

Lace and ribbons,
wedding day vows–
disguise your sovereign destiny.

 

 

dreamcatcher

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A dreamcatcher is an indigenous symbol–a web, often with a hole in the center.  It is intended to let the bad dreams pass through and to catch the good dreams.  The dreams that guide you towards your highest visions.

There is both power and presence when we create.  What is the dream of the future that you’d like to paint, color, draw, sculpt or weave?  Make your own dream catcher using collage and paint.  Are there words or poetry that go with it?  Write them on your work of art.  Get lost in this process.  Invite others to participate in making their own dreamcatchers.  Share in ways that are available to you at this time.

Stay healthy and safe.

Haiku in Turbulent Times

What I’ve appreciated about Haiku is the command to be present.  It is in the observation of the present moment that makes Haiku timely now.

Four years ago,I wanted to paint a piece that integrated Haiku.  I found this Haiku from Gyodai, an early Japanese poet…I couldn’t find his time period.  I let the Haiku inspire the painting.  It’s a busy painting, but in the moment, it felt right.

“Snow is melting
Far in the Misted Mountain
A Cawing Crow”

Gyodai

 

crow

Here’s the thing about Haiku…it’s accessible to everyone.  You could be anywhere, for instance sheltering at home.  Grab a pen, pencil, piece of charcoal, crayon, whatever…and follow the formula.  Here it is:

A brief introduction to haiku.  So far as we know, haiku originated in Japan.  Short poems, usually three lines long, haiku has a total of 17 syllables…5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second line and 5 syllables in the third line.  Traditional haiku usually contained a season word that indicated in which season the haiku was set.  The season word isn’t always obvious.  Haiku are little philosophical gems, sometimes with humor.  They can describe almost anything.  Often, they describe daily situations in a refreshing way–creating a new experience of something familiar.  It is always amazing to me that some poetic forms, such as haiku, endure.

I invite you to write haiku.  You choose the time of day.  Sit in your most comfortable chair or go out into the forest, up a mountain or by an ocean or lake.  Whatever is permissible where you live.  Take a few deep breaths and settle in.  Deeply notice something in your surroundings.  Honor it by writing a haiku.  Truly–nature, the things we use and take for granted, animals, other people, everything, everyone likes to be noticed and honored.

In writing your own haiku, strive to “give a new
experience of something familiar”.  Try to adhere
to the 5-7-5 syllables (or as close as you can get to
it).

Blessed day to you.

Alone Doesn’t Have to be Lonely

I don’t remember exactly what inspired this mixed media painting.  Except that it was another intuitive journey and continued to shift over time.  Putting down colors that I was drawn to, seeing images within the evolving piece, deciding which ones to elaborate on and which ones to let go.

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It was a cold, winter’s night in the mountains where I live.  There was the early dark of winter and a blizzard outside.  There was nowhere to go and no friend to meet.  An existential loneliness settled in around me.  Resistance is the first response when an uncomfortable feeling presents.  Feet dug in…”I don’t want to go there.”  But it persisted and I needed to be with it.  I’d been working on a painting of a polar bear in the Arctic.  I’d been trying to paint the aurora borealis.  Good luck with that!  That sky went through so many changes.

aurora

What prompted me to paint a polar bear in the Arctic, that I can’t really say except that as I created the background, his image hovered in the painting.  I brought him forward.

polarbear1

That night of extreme loneliness, staring at this painting in process, imagining the polar bear as his world disappears, I wrote the poem that I’ve already shared in this blog earlier.  It begins like this…

It’s cold and I’m alone again at night
The stars so far away, no comfort there
Is the polar bear aware of his plight?
Ice floes are melting, does anyone care?

Painting this piece, writing the poem, helped to shift my energy.  The poem and painting connected me to something outside of myself, bigger than my small life and this moment of loneliness.

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To be human is to feel loneliness at times.  In this time of the pandemic, social isolation and uncertainty, find a way to either write, draw or paint or any other creative activity.
One exploration could involve color.  Color crayons, watercolors, acrylics, colored pencils…any of these work.  On a piece of paper, put down colors that you feel particularly attracted to.  Place them side by side, at different angles to each other.  If you are using paints, notice which colors make other colors “pop” forward and which colors recede.  Let yourself play with color.