Category Archives: poetry

Salt is a Sacrifice

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Listen:

What we forget is that

Salt is a sacrifice

 

Each bite is Earth ground down

Body into taste to

 

Waken you

Here

To this bite, this breath.

 

To shield ourselves from this is

A strange falling

 

Listen: ritual can be simple,

Easy as noticing that this salt is

Earth,

Ground down.

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The changes I have undergone lately, the journeys I have undertaken, have woken me again and again to two things:

I have much to offer and

The world is hungry for me to offer it.

There is a strange falling in shielding myself behind the eternal student, the safety of beginnings, and yes, that infusion of fresh air is always necessary. But the accumulated wisdom needs somewhere to go. And it wants to go into my work.

The odd piece of this for me is that on the one hand I’m a baby counselor, not more than a month into my first counseling job, and it feels really disingenuous to start rocking the boat already. On the other hand, I am a seasoned woman. Life has taught me, and taught me, and taught me, and I have had the wits to listen.

So: I am all of it, baby and wise woman, student and elder. The fires that burn deep in my belly are the same fires: to fight for the personhood of mothers, for available childcare so that women can participate in the culture. The sweetness of self-determination for all, a yearning for each person on this planet to have the food and space and respect and love and art supplies they need to ripen into themselves. The deep, deep-in-my-bones love for this earth, these mountains, the stories the forests and stones and rivers tell and the magic beneath those stories.

To this burning I offer: a mind sharpened by the privilege of an excellent education, a heart warmed by the generosity and sacrifice of untold ancestors and fellow travelers, a life story that has broken my ears wide open to hear the experience of others without losing myself, and wisdom passed down from people, plants, and traditions that held me and held me until I learned.

In the day-to-day, this ritual fire takes the shape of a windowless office in the bowels of the Buncombe County Social Services building. Here, I listen to the stories of humans who have been batted around between walls of not-enough. Not enough options, not enough privilege, not enough respect, not enough attention, not enough love. My job is to assess their need for substance use disorder treatment and sometimes that is what I do.

But the fire burns, invisible beneath my pressboard desk, and what I really do is try to listen with every pore of my skin. I offer tea and water and a closed door and attention and flowers. If there are resources I can offer I will offer them, but more often what I collect is the story.  I place it as a twig on the fire. And the fire of these voices is growing  into a conflagration that wants to burn away all the not-enough and leave childcare, time alone, laughter, and fruit trees in its wake. I don’t know how to do that yet. But I have faith that I will. Or, more truthfully: WE will. 

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The mountaintop I left this morning was shrouded in fog and a sweet soft rain, a rain I realized suddenly was a hydrosol of Earth, every plant and clay and being in this watershed distilled and condensed in the falling mist. I am so blessed to have this time to make art, to learn, to nourish myself.

May I always feel the blessing in the rain. May I always remember that salt is a sacrifice.
May I be of service to the ones who walk into my office. May I be of service to the great fire beneath the surface of what I do.

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5 Comments

May 20, 2016 · 5:51 pm

of cleavers and crows

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I have had the odd sense, ever since I moved to Asheville, of seeds I planted and forgot years hence coming to mysterious bloom.  Over twenty years ago, I moved to Asheville with a frame pack and a guitar. I crashed on the floor of a friend’s dorm room and walked the streets until I found lodging in a sweet, small apartment in a house on Chestnut Street. I took long runs every morning, following Chestnut Street until it dead-ended in a stately old cemetery.

All these years later, I was told that finding lodging in Asheville was a difficult proposition. I should be prepared to live outside of town and to wait months for the right thing to show up.

The first house we looked at was on Chestnut Street, right by the old cemetery where I used to run. It was a sweet little wood-floored home with a fireplace and a yard, in the heart of the historic district, walking distance to town. The rent was astonishingly affordable, considering the location, and perhaps for that reason the open house was bombarded with applicants. Afterward we walked to a nearby restaurant and talked excitedly about how amazing it would be to live here, and how unlikely we were to get the chance. All those applicants!

I sat and watched the phantom of that seventeen-year-old girl run by, and I knew we would get the house.

We got the house. I live on Chestnut Street again, all these years later, this time with my family.

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Two years ago I sat out in the sun eating, in Boone, and talked with a new friend from my Expressive Arts cohort about our dreams and hopes for the field. We were both fascinated by the intersection between art and place, and I told her of my connection to Ireland and my deep desire to return there. She told me of friends in Ireland who had just started a fledgling expressive arts institute, and we began to dream of traveling to Ireland someday to visit them and collaborate on these ideas of art and landscape. We laughed, and made art about it, and moved on with our lives.

This Monday my friend and I flew together to Ireland to attend the Expressive Arts Spring Symposium, and spent a week making art about sacred landscape in a conference hosted by the friends she’d told me of on that day two years ago.

Honestly, it frightens me sometimes, the way life brings its harvest in. I feel unworthy of it, and worried about the price I will have to pay for all of this beauty. I feel very conscious of each move I make, each word I speak, knowing how irrefutably the seeds grow and show their fruit in my life.

On the day we flew to Ireland, two very momentous things happened. I had my first job interview for a counseling position and I learned that Touchstone Farm, the place I landed right after I left Asheville twenty years ago–the place that set me on the path of herbalism and yoga and searching for the sacred–was being put up for sale. It felt like the closing of a circle. I had returned to Asheville, had reached the beginning of my life as an Expressive Arts therapist, and the door to the past had closed.

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Touchstone was very much on my mind and heart as I woke the next morning and walked out into the Irish countryside. Horses stomped and blew steam into the air, and a hooded crow lifted off from the fence in front of me in a heart-stopping line straight upward to the sun. It seemed to hang there for a minute, far above my head, and I wondered how the world felt to the crow, spread beneath it like that.

The hedgerow in front of me was overgrown with nettles and cleavers. Back when I was an apprentice at Touchstone, Shaker gave me a guide to edible plants from the community library and pointed out a few to get me started. Cleavers was one of the first I tried. It clings to you—the leaves are slightly sticky, and the seeds velcro themselves to your socks. This is a good way to remember its properties–it’s a spring-cleaning plant; it adheres to and cleans away the winter ick. I tried it plain and found its taste clean and springlike, full of chlorophyll. I liked the way it felt in my body, how it cleaned me out. But I hated the texture. Another apprentice suggested I put it in a blender and make a smoothie. That was worse. Finally, I read a recipe for cleavers coffee that consisted of dry-roasting the seeds and grinding and preparing them like coffee beans. I had a handy supply of cleaver seeds right there on my socks, so I tried this and found the resulting beverage delightful, slightly cocoa-flavored and smoky. Seeing the cleavers here on the tumbled stones of a farm wall in Ireland was like being surprised by an old friend.

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cleaver bouquet

I wouldn’t have known what cleavers was the first time I came to Ireland, because I had not yet been to Touchstone, had not yet learned to see the world through the eyes of a botanist. I was fifteen the first time I came to Ireland, and sixteen when I returned the summer after that, learning quickly enough what nettles were as I pulled them out to make a garden.

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nettles rampant!

That summer I was living in Miltown Malbay, working as housekeeper/companion for Josephine Phillips. If Shaker taught me about plants and the sacred, Jo taught me about poetry. It was alive to her. She sat in her windowseat watching the storms roll in and softly recited poems to herself. Her eyes were slowly losing their battle to macular degeneration, so she committed as many poems to her formidable memory as she could.

I was full of energy and wanderlust, wanting always to bike off to Ennistymon or wander by the sea, but Jo was very firm that I should take some time each day to sit still and memorize poems. On rainy days we listened to poets read their work aloud on the BBC and Jo would sit there, dreamy, lost in the words. I learned to love words, watching Jo.

The crow flew away, and I picked a little bouquet of the nettles and cleavers, thinking of Jo and Touchstone and the way these long-ago seeds have borne fruit. Here I am, in Ireland, writing poetry, I whispered to Jo. Your lessons took!

Nettle juice heals its own sting, I thought, recalling all the teachers who have guided my steps through the world of plant medicine. I rolled the nettle leaves between my fingers until their stinging hairs were crushed and I could take them like little Ireland-acclimation pills.

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Jo is gone now. I felt her so strongly this week in the wind that blew through the trees by the river Nore and the poetry that came flowing onto the page. Touchstone is gone too, in a way. But they are alive. They are all alive in me. 

I made nettles-and-cleaver tea when I got back to the hotel and sat sipping it in the sun, sending out a prayer for the seeds others have planted in my life and the for the ones I am planting. This world is sacred, and so is this life. I sometimes cannot believe the beauty of the stories I have been honored to carry.

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Carrying On 

(for Jo and Touchstone)

 

I am knee-deep in nettles and peat.

I am one beat of breath to the crow above me.

I am caught in the arms of ancestors long fallen.

Who remains in me? Whose story am I walking?

 

                                                        ~ Kilkenny, 3/30/16

 

6 Comments

April 5, 2016 · 6:32 pm

living the question

2014-12-05 12.21.43I have spent most of the past year gradually falling in love with one of the most patient and observant men I have ever known.    He is attentive, generous, creative, and wise.  One of the many gifts he has given me is a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (other gifts include earrings shaped like the dopamine molecule, a hand-hammered ring he crafted out of a quarter, numerous bouquets of flowers, and some of the most heartfelt and lovely works of poetry and art I’ve ever been privileged to look upon. I mention this to give you an inkling of the quality of man we are talking about here.  And also to preen a little.  Preen, preen.)

Right.  Anyway, one of the most famous passages of that beautiful book of Rilke’s is this one:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I cannot tell you how many times I have read this passage. So many times that, gradually, it has lost its power.  It has lost its power because I look at this quote and think “ah, Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. Seen that.”  And the experience of these words gets filed away.  I already know.  So I deny myself the experience.

I have fallen in love before.  I have attended school before, participated in art therapy before, cooked stew before, celebrated my birthday before, taken trips overseas before.  Over time, it grows easier and easier to believe that I can never experience the delight and vibrance of this world in the way I did the first time.  It grows easier and easier to slot new experiences into pre-existing categories; easier and easier to take for granted things, people, and experiences  that once lit me up with gratitude.

It’s insidious, this having-of-answers.  I used to live on a tiny street in Culver City, near a school that had planted its borders with mexican marigold and lavender.  Every morning, walking to my bus stop, I’d crush a leaf or two in my fingers and sniff the sweet, heady scent all the way across Venice Boulevard. Sometimes I’d tuck a sprig into my pocket or behind my ear, where I could lift it to my nose throughout the day.  And then one morning, in a hurry, headed to an appointment with a person I loathed, I found myself at the bus stop with a fistful of crushed and withered leaves that I could not remember plucking or smelling.  This ritual of delight had become just another bullet point on my to-do list. I “knew” what lavender and mexican marigold could do for me, so I’d plucked them.  But I’d forgotten to have the experience.

I write this now because, as I entered into love this year, I had so many answers.  I’d been in love.  I knew what worked and what didn’t.  I knew what I wanted and whether I could realistically get it or not.

But this love has taken my answers from me one by one.  Slowly, begrudgingly, I have learned that I cannot apply the tricks and techniques and shortcuts that I learned in other relationships to this one. I have learned that  a) I know nothing about this love and b) that is a wonderful thing.  Sometimes it is very ugly, being me.  Sometimes it is the hardest, most awful, paralyzing-pulpy thing to admit that I have been wrong, that I do not know, that this experience I face is different than anything that has come before.  It takes extraordinary energy and raw nerve to live questions instead of answers.  It takes almost unimaginable courage to allow myself to be fully seen.

On the other side, though!  When I do take the deep breath and do the courageous thing, when I welcome this man into my life each day as a surprise and as an enigma, when I allow myself to stumble and show ineptitude and admit that I do not know, life grows so exquisitely vibrant.  There is a spectrum of experience, and when I narrow it to keep myself from experiencing the most intense suffering, I am also denied the most transformative joy. Slowly, I am relearning how to welcome all of life.

The dust accumulates in such subtle ways: the retelling of a story until all the feeling is worn out of it, the frustration at having to re-experience something I did not like the first time, the assumption that I already know how an apple tastes and that this apple can hold nothing new.  I think this is the way that we can wake up, eventually, and feel as though we are no longer alive.

Sometimes it is easier to keep my head down and deaden myself to experience—sometimes there is so much to do that tasting the apple feels like one task too much.  But when I am walking down the hall after tucking my children into bed and they call after me “we love you the MOST!”  I want to hear it every time.  It is no less beautiful for having been said several hundred times before. I don’t want to deaden myself to it.  I don’t want to stop hearing it when the man I love says I love you.

This man that I love, loves me.  That is the newest, most surprising, most fantastically beautiful feeling I have ever experienced.  I don’t ever want to teach myself to take it for granted.  I don’t ever want to teach myself that I know this already. I don’t want any answers.

I know I will forget, again, to read the words Rilke wrote instead of saying, “oh yeah, Rilke.” I know there will be nights that I stride down the hall preoccupied with all there is to accomplish, not hearing the “We love you the MOST!” that follows me from the boys’ room.  And I want to welcome this, too—-gently welcome this mistake-making, this not-hearing—as part of the question I live every day.

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Evening

Slowly the evening puts on the garments
held for it by a rim of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands divide from you,
one going heavenward, one that falls;

and leave you, to neither quite belonging,
not quite so dark as the house sunk in silence,
not quite so surely pledging the eternal
as that which grows star each night and climbs-

and leave you (inexpressibly to untangle)
your life afraid and huge and ripening,
so that it, now bound in and now embracing,
grows alternately stone in you and star.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~

11 Comments

Filed under masculine & feminine, parenting and personhood, poetry, Uncategorized

keep the old

old friends

I have known Zoe and Sarah since I was thirteen years old. On my first day of boarding school, sitting high on the third floor of that ancient brick building and trying very hard not to cry, I saw someone turning cartwheels on the lawn.  It took every shred of my bravery to go out and introduce myself to that free spirit, but it turned out to be Sarah.  She made me laugh right away. She’s inspired infinite bravery and laughter since.

Zoe was a sophomore, impossibly beautiful in glittery ska pants and plastic butterfly rings. It took me longer to acquire the courage necessary to speak with Zoe (she was a SOPHOMORE) but soon we were writing poetry back and forth, dancing in cornfields and trying to reach each other in dreams from across the hall.

The three of us wrote letters, real ones, all the way through college and after.  Sarah’s letter to me from a farm she was working on in France saved my skin once when, hitchhiking through Scotland, I ran out of money and had no place to stay. I called my mother, as one does, and she told me there was a letter waiting for me from Sarah.  I asked her to read it to me over the phone, and soon I was herding goats with Sarah in France.

Another time Zoe, back in Pennsylvania from the life she’d found in Australia, walked with me through cow pastures and balanced on trees over the Brandywine.  I’d just returned from the Middle East and was brimful of self-righteous politics.  Zoe was sitting on a fence post as we watched the sun set over a field near her mother’s home.  She stretched languidly and said “Lissa, for a pacifist you sure fight yourself a lot.”

I held on to that beautiful bit of insight for a long, long time.  Old friends, the real ones who know you through and through—they say hard things some times.  At times it feels easier not to be around them.  When I was barely holding on in California, when my marriage was falling apart and my life felt so constricted that it was hard even to draw breath, I cut off my family and friends.  I stopped returning Sarah’s calls and Zoe’s letters.  But they never stopped calling and writing.  They each found ways to show up at my door, all the way across the country.  And they continued to hold a mirror up to my life, much as I did not want to look.

Four years ago we decided–I forget how, it must have been divine inspiration!–to gather at Sarah’s family property in upstate New York.  We built wood-fired saunas and cooked elaborate feasts and swam in the lakes and sunned along the rivers, drank wine and laughed and wrote and reunited.  I remembered how large life is.  We all wrote about that experience on Sarah’s wonderful blog The Perspective Project.

We’ve met each year since. Each year felt different–one year, we were hosted by a dear friend on Nantucket in a palatial guest house, taken for ornate dinners and given free run of a jaw-droppingly well-supplied art studio.  We were all knee-deep in our own painful crises that year. To be so well taken care of felt like a drink of cool water in the midst of a punishing marathon.

Another time we gathered at Zoe’s place in Boston.  We made paper and kombucha and body butter and lip balm. We sang karaoke in a tiny Japanese bar.  And we laughed.  There is always so much laughter.

This year, Sarah and Zoe came to Boone. We had all reached a place of relative equilibrium.  The arc of this friendship covers so much–at first you do not notice the changes, but then suddenly here is Zoe, the freespirited poet and world traveler, opening her own acupuncture and shiatsu practice.  And Sarah, artist/writer/wit/cartwheel turner, a college professor.  Both here, in my world, thickening the thin places, weaving the loose ends back in.

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We have all changed.  But when we are together, the thirteen-year-olds are here too.  And the seventeen-year-olds. And, I think, the seventy-year-olds.  The past overflows into the present, and the present feels velvety with depth.

We sat on my sunny porch and did Johari Windows together, and enneagram tests.  One of the questions was this: does your life feel permeated by a sense of longing?  Unequivocally yes, we answered.  And thinking about this, it became clear to me:  this life has been so full.  Each of us has traveled so far, been so many things to so many people, tried on so many roles and languages and ways of being.  No one place can hold us anymore.  No matter where we are, there will be a longing for some aspect of our Self that cannot be held by that moment.

And yet, when we three are together, there is a broadness greater than the sum of our individual selves. When we are together, there is no part of me that is not fed.  We are big enough to hold it all.

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I look at my changing friends—the laughter lines (so much laughter!), the odd gray hairs, the incremental and transcendently lovely beginnings of self-acceptance—and I see myself.  That mirror is held up yet again and, seeing my friends, I see myself.  I see how brokenness heals, how some things remain immutable and some shift endlessly.  I see how age brings rare joy and wisdom as well as heartbreak.  I see how large this life is.

Being loved like this, by old friends, there is nothing like it.  Sometimes I wish they did not know me so well, it’s true, sometimes I feel called onto the carpet by issues I thought I’d resolved with puberty.  But until I am surrounded by old friends I forget how much energy I spend each day trying to be acceptable, trying to be liked.  With Sarah and Zoe, there is no question of being acceptable or liked–that question was settled long ago.  All of that energy is released outward, sizzling into art, and dance, and life, and laughter. Dear friends.  New friends teach me how much I can expand, the beautiful and haunting potential held by this life.  But the old ones—ahh, the old ones remember what I AM.  What WE ARE. What we have always been.  And that is big enough to hold everything.

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this is a poem i wrote after the visit of another old friend (rob, your time is coming!!)–but it seems to fit here.

an old friend’s visit

continuing: remaining seen

there was a thread undone,

now woven in

and there is freedom here,

in being known

a freedom anonymity can’t own

continuing a thing!

o it is strange

that there is one who calls me by my name

.

7 Comments

November 20, 2013 · 2:37 am

insist on the sacred

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Sometimes it will feel

As though every moment of

Every day is walled in behind

Heavy blocks of solid ugliness

 

 

No light, no spark,

No color or song within

Or without you—

 

 

Some moments will feel

So heavily pointless that

The sky itself shrinks to dulness

And birds fly mechanically, with dead eyes.

 

 

Don’t believe it for a second.

Hand on heart, search with everything in you

For a single softness

 

 

There is a crack somewhere—look!

A leaf is falling in singing spirals

The sunset lights a stranger’s hair from within.

 

 

Perhaps it is the way your breath catches on

An unsung sadness in your throat before

Falling finally to fill your heart.

 

 

Grasp now with both hands

And shoulder it open, this

Cracked, dull facade: it isn’t true.

 

 

Push through.

 

 

It’s always there, the sacred, in the legal brief,

The pinching shoes,

The smashed body of the young raccoon,

The crushed beer cans, the lost love—

 

 

Don’t be fooled.

Insist.

Come alive.

Step through.

4 Comments

November 7, 2013 · 2:00 pm

autumn on white oak road

what the oaks lose in beauty

they gain in flight–

though graceful maples self-immolate

hand by focused hand,

they cannot draw the sun back in.

 

yet each drab oak leaf, falling here,

is lifted–

humble icarus–

one last slow dance of dying

made of motion,

not of light.

 

all that’s lost in beauty

gained in flight.

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4 Comments

October 23, 2013 · 12:18 am

telling the truth

motherSlowly, as friends and family find this blog, I am discovering it is harder and harder to tell the truth.  The whole truth, I mean. It’s easy to write the sugary bits and tie them together with swooping metaphors and a moral at the end, but the really gritty stuff gets harder and harder to write.  Why is that?

I was talking with my housemate today about singing:  it is so much easier to do in front of strangers.  I had no trouble whipping out my guitar and playing eight original songs to a club packed with strangers last summer at the Viper Room. But when I’m asked to play for people I know…that’s hard.  I think it has something to do with the fact that my friends are stuck with me.  They can’t walk away, for fear of hurting my feelings, and they are sort of duty-bound to scrape up something nice to say at the end.  Ouch.  Strangers, on the other hand—they’ve got no reason to clap; so if they do, they must genuinely like it.  Or, they’re drunk.

So I’m beginning to wonder if life is like this—if we save our deepest truths for strangers, if we set up our lives to avoid intimacy with the ones we are closest to.  As an aspiring counselor, this interests me very much.  Time after time, studies of therapy show that it is the quality of the therapeutic relationship itself that is the greatest predictor for healing.  Even though the answers are coming from within, even though it is not the therapist’s job to give advice, somehow the quality of the relationship is the vital piece.  Is it because the therapist is a stranger?  Is it because we are safe in the borders of that room, knowing we’ll never have to face up to the truths we told there again?  Can that be right? Continue reading

3 Comments

September 5, 2013 · 11:11 pm