--Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible--
--Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond--
--The door to spirituality truly must be opened from the inside--
I just completed a four-week class on the life and work of Jalalud’din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet. Rumi is not new to me. I first discovered him as a teenager and have been reading and loving his work ever since. Isn't it amazing that he remains, after more than seven centuries, the most popular and well-read poet in the world. Rumi believed that art both heals and transforms. He believed human beings were sent into the world to do a particular work specific to the person. We all have many branches and we spread out in thousands of different ways. Rumi asks us to remember “the deep root of your being.”
For me, that deep root is writing, especially poetry. I know this by my behavior. Whenever I wake up with a poem, or the seeds of one, inside my head, I go straight to the kitchen table, still in my pajamas, pull out a notebook and start to write. I keep writing until there is nothing left inside me.
Sometimes this process goes on for hours and I will end up with 50 different drafts. And once I get it right, I feel ecstatic. So happy I want to become a whirling dervish, dance around and sing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But this is what it feels like to be in touch with the deep root of your being.
The following poem is the first one I’ve written since taking the Rumi class. I woke up with the image of the dandelion and how it propagates itself--blazing yellow flower--cottony ball tumbling into wind--and the following spring, another blazing yellow flower. From there, my mind leapt to my children, the death of their father--his cremation, his ashes and the box that held them.
It was interesting for me to see the subtle influences of the Rumi class in this poem--(its facilitator was one of those guides sent to me from beyond). My original title was “Cremation”. It didn’t feel right. The title needed to reveal something about the poem not completely obvious from the content. When I shared it with my daughter (who often acts as a midwife to me during the birth of a poem) we came to realize this one is about transformation and the fluent nature of time-- past, present, and future. It's about Samsara—the Sanskrit word that refers to the theory of death, rebirth and the cyclicality of all life. Something Rumi was very familiar with and was part of his teachings.
Where Time Touches Eternity
At the crematorium, a man in a black suit,
yellow rosebud tucked into his lapel,
hands her a mahogany box carved with sailboats.
“It’s heavier than it looks,” he warns.
“Six pounds, thirteen ounces.”
In the first photo pasted in her baby book,
she is swaddled in a pink blanket,
six pounds, thirteen ounces,
cradled in the crook of her father’s arm.
His face, often stern, is soft,
frozen in wonder as he greets the last
of his five children—the daughter who
thirty years later will mother him
as he moves from professor to toddler--
like a birthing gone backwards.
She will walk him through a meadow of
dandelion blossoms—tiny yellow suns that blaze
and bow with the breeze. For a summer moment,
she’ll pause to weave daisy-chain necklaces and
with a boy’s heart he’ll greet honey bees fat with pollen,
then turn his attention to one flower gone to seed--
a cottony bubble to carry his wishes into the wind.
Though she would always be his child,
he could no longer place himself between
her and the rest of the world, no longer weather
the first blows for her. But for seven years, she
stood up for him, believed her love could save him.
As she straps the box onto the passenger seat,
she hears his voice, as she has many times.
She now knows the dead never stop talking.
This time he says, “Let’s go for ice cream.”
She laughs out loud and pulls into Baskin-Robbins
for his favorite—a double strawberry waffle cone.
Later, she’ll find the tree where he carved their names,
scatter some ashes into the wind—her wish that he,
like the dandelion, might blow across the hillside,
replant himself, then rise up and take a bow.
John Martin Taedu Clayton blowing his wishes into the wind
Dear 17-year-old me,
First of all, you are every bit as good as that wealthy DuPont boy who didn’t ask you out on a second date after he saw where you lived. You don’t know it now, but you are so much better off without him. I want you to know you are beautiful. You are not fat, an occasional pimple does not make you repulsive, and your butt is not too big. Ride in that convertible and let your hair go where the breeze blows it. Most of all, don't ever underestimate your worth. Dream big. And remember you'll never know if you can succeed, if you don't try.
I know you are devastated over the breakup with your first love. Don’t let anyone make you believe your feelings for each other weren’t real. I’ll tell you a secret: In later life, you will become friends and be the one person he wants to talk to before the brain tumor takes his life. You will make a quilt in his memory for the grandchild he didn’t live long enough to see. That cosmic wrong will be righted in a way that will open your heart and make it sing.
You will make mistakes with men you choose to love. They will hurt and humiliate you. And you will behave in ways you never dreamed you would. You will do some things you are ashamed of. Most of us do shameful things at one time or another in our lives. Be kind to yourself. And don’t let your hurt turn to bitterness or your shame darken the rest of your days.
When love beckons again, follow it even if you’re afraid of where it is taking you. Don’t hold grudges. Forgiveness is an amazing gift to the person who wronged you, but more importantly it's a gift to you. Don’t judge yourself too harshly. But do take time to reflect, to be grateful for the good and learn from the things that weren’t. Always make your mistakes on the side of love.
Explore the world's religions until you find a spiritual path that feels right. If that path leads you to love and goodness, it will also lead you to God. So stay on it.
Take the time to talk and listen to your parents. Ask them questions about their lives, about the past and their place in it. Once they are gone, there will be no one left to answer.
Love your mother with all your heart. She is the earth from which you sprang. Write her long letters and visit her as often as you can. There will never be anyone else in your life who knows and cares about you the way she does. She is your greatest advocate, your biggest fan, and the one who will pick up the pieces and put you back together when you fall apart. Trust me on this. Your mom will be taken away much sooner than you know. She is so wise in matters of love, life and forgiveness. When you hear her singing hymns in the garden, stop and listen. You will never hear anything quite so beautiful after she is gone.
Spend as much time as you can with your little brother, Jerry. He is fourteen years younger than you and will lose his mother at a vulnerable time. Don’t give up on him, no matter how much he acts out or how much advice you get from others to exercise “tough love”. Later, when you loose him in that hit-and-run accident, tough love will mean nothing and you will never fully forgive yourself for letting him go before you had to.
Forgive your father. Your teenage angst may tell you that you hate him, but you don’t. Realize that WWII grenade that exploded before you were even conceived took more than his flesh and bones. Though no one knows it yet, he is suffering from PTSD that has led to his alcohol abuse. He was orphaned at 6 years old and had no role models for parenting. One day he will tell you his story and it will break your heart. Open that heart to him now. Don’t waste any more time.
After your mother dies, and he doesn’t behave the way you think he should, hug him. His grief is as real as yours. Your mother was his first love, and though he will live another 20 years after her death, he will never love another or get over losing her. Your children will call him Pop Pop and he will love them in ways he was never able to love you. You will swallow back tears as you watch him paint your daughter's toenails or wave his crutch from the sidelines when your son scores a soccer goal. He will one day tell them you were the best thing that ever happened to him.
Make strong connections with women of all ages. These friendships become more important as you grow older. Love and celebrate them. Life didn’t provide you with birth sisters, but you can choose your own. Hold on to your best friends from high school and college, even if your life takes you miles away from them. But don’t be afraid to let go when you no longer feel the connection. Some friends are for a lifetime--others may only be for a short while. Our time here is limited. Letting former friends go does not negate what you had when you had it. There is nothing more important than how you treat your fellow inhabitants of this planet. Be kind to people and animals. Don’t be afraid to reach out and be of service to those in need.
Take as many writing classes as you can, read how to books, attend conferences and make friends with other writers. Practice your writing every day. The need you already have to capture life in words is going to grow. You don’t know this yet, but writing will save you. It will lift you out of your grief, help heal the holes in your heart left by the early deaths of your mother and three brothers. It will teach you all you need to know about yourself and the world around you. Though you will hold other jobs and even climb a few rungs up the corporate ladder, writing will be the most rewarding work of your life.
Rejoice in your children and all they will teach you about unconditional love. Take every opportunity to spend time with them. Housework doesn’t matter. Drop the dust cloth and pick up the crayons. Tell them stories. Encourage them to tell and write their own. The years pass quickly and their childhoods will be over before you know it. In what seems like the blink of an eye, they’ll turn into kind, productive and responsible adults. They will surprise and delight you—go on to do amazing things of their own. And perhaps most astounding will be the grandchildren you’ll love more than you can possibly imagine now.
Be grateful for every day you are alive. We all experience loss and disappointment. All life is impermanent. But, trust me, you will have enormous happiness as well. You will travel to places you never dreamed you’d go. You’ll live in the Northeast, the South, the Midwest, the foothills of the Sonoran Desert and the mountains of Southern Oregon. You’ll retire early and spend a decade living on an Arabian horse ranch where you’ll be free to write poetry and fiction.
Finally, seventeen-year-old me, be brave and embrace everything life offers you. In the end, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than you’ll regret the things you did. I can promise you this: while your life won’t always be easy, you will find joy and a love that finally lasts.
from a much older (and hopefully wiser) you.