Naamal De Silva
This weekend, I hosted the first in a new Mayla workshop series, “Hope Through Nature, Hope Within.” These writing workshops are meant to create a little space for reflection, writing and sharing. In the face of societal and personal losses and traumas, personal writing in community might be a way to heal ourselves and mend the world in small ways.
With ten people, the workshop was intimate enough to stay together the entire time. The participants were from different contexts in my personal and professional life; there were a couple of people I did not know personally. They joined the Zoom call from four countries across three continents, with roots in at least six countries on four continents. For me, the ability to connect virtually across boundaries and time zones has been one of the brightest parts of a dark time. The workshop was just what I hoped for – a space of sharing sorrow, joy, memories, and inspiration.
To begin, we shared where we were right now, one worry, and one place that brought us joy during childhood. To me, this initiated a juxtaposition between worry and joy that threaded through the workshop. We spoke of isolation from family during the pandemic, of illness, and worry about politics, unrest, and the struggles of young people. We spoke, too, of hills full of birds, patches of sunlight, time with siblings and parents, forests and adventure and freedom.
We then listened to four poems. In selecting them, I thought a lot about the voices I was putting into conversation – like the participants, they were people who likely would never have met in person. Taken together, these poems evoked the pandemic, the movements for racial and social justice, and connections to nature.
During the pandemic, the first poem, by Derek Mahon, had provided comfort to many people in and outside of Ireland. Mahon recently passed away at the age of 78 after a career that flourished during his 60s and 70s (a reminder that beautiful work takes time).
Everything is Going to be Alright
By, Derek Mahon
How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
I thought of this poem as the first one in the sequence, but perhaps it would have been better as the last. One participant felt angry on first hearing it – that everything is not going to be ok. But, she ended her reflection with a feeling of acceptance and the idea that life will continue on earth regardless of what humans do. I had also shared this poem with my students at George Washington University, and one of them shared that it gave him comfort just to hear someone say out loud that things will be ok.
To me, the second poem followed naturally from the first because it was explicitly intended to recognize sacrifice and loss due to the pandemic, but also because of the vivid nature imagery woven throughout.
A moment of silence for the frontline workers risking their lives and those we have lost to COVID-19
Close your eyes, inhale the essence of fresh air
And picture yourself floating on a cloud that heals your heart –
Cleanses your soul
Picture yourself dancing in the rain
Ecstatic of overcoming uncertainty
Picture yourself in the wake of a thunderstorm –
Sun breaking, rainbow in the sky
Feel yourself at the ocean’s shore
Listening to the screaming waves
Feel yourself at the riverbank
Anticipating going for a swim
Breathe for the ones we lost –
Let your heartbeat carry their legacies over the hills of the valley
Through strong winds and under the sky of their heavenly home
Kisses to the mothers, hugs to the fathers –
Gone but never forgotten
Exhale and breathe life back into the world.
When I think of a moment of silence, I think of emptying the clutter in my mind or of concentrating on those we have lost. Instead, SM fills that small space with an abundance of cleansing, wild, water imagery that must contrast sharply with daily life in a confined place absent of both wind and water. This poem, written by SM, was posted on the Free Minds Book Club website. SM is a currently incarcerated person. The website mentions that the poets welcome comments on their work - please consider supporting their work or commenting on that site if you appreciate this poem.
Like the poem by Derek Mahon, the next poem has been widely circulated this year, this time in the context of the protests for racial justice. Ross Gay wrote it some years ago.
A Small Needful Fact
By, Ross Gay
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
What first drew me to this poem is the shocking contrast between Garner’s brutal death and the gently slow nurturing of gardening. The poet, Ross Gay, has spoken of being a gardener himself: “I’ve been gardening a lot, working in community with people in a place. It has helped me to think differently.” Often, outside of agricultural and educational contexts, I think more about gardening as a solitary activity – a way of connecting with the earth and nature and sources of food, but not with other people. But then, I imagine community gardens as such places of shared labor and joy.
I chose the last poem because of the ideas contained within it about freedom as the ability to wander in nature. It is from the book, Sparrow Envy, and the poet, Drew Lanham, is a biologist, environmentalist, birder, professor, and writer. As a Black man, he has written for years about the joys and perils of birding while black – an activity that gained attention this year because of Christian Cooper’s incident in Central Park.
Wild Wishes Beyond Widgets
By Drew Lanham
Real world means inside obligations to tend to. Widget making. Deadlines pressing. Bills always due. More and more four walls feels like a trap – a cage with no escape. Not being out; not wandering somewhere wild – seems sinful. There’s something wonderful I’m not witnessing. Some bird or beast flies or creeps by as I stare into someone else’s expectational chasm. It’s an expanse I’m increasingly unwilling to span. A new sun warms in brilliant hues. The same tiring orb sinks into the abysmal blue. Wen that coming and going cycles absent my first-hand witness, I’m squandering time. If wildness is a wish then I’m rubbing the lamp hard for a million more wandering moments.
I’ve been listening to Lanham’s words a lot lately, especially through talks sponsored by the North American Association for Environmental Education. In digging a bit more, I found this richly evocative place description, “Drew and his family live in the Upstate of South Carolina, a soaring hawk's downhill glide from the southern Appalachian escarpment that the Cherokee once called the Blue Wall.”
In selecting poems by Lanham and Ross, I had been thinking about something along the lines of what Rebekah Sager wrote yesterday in an article about her single father: “I am exhausted by the overwhelming number of negative images I see of Black men. Constant and unyielding videos of Black men being shot, sitting on curbs in handcuffs, or their faces smashed into the asphalt. We rarely see them as regular men. Cooking dinner. Going to work. Just being fathers and loving their children.”
The voices and images in these poems have helped lift me up over the past few months. I hope that putting them in conversation provides a tempered sort of hope – there is dying and there is injustice, but there is much beauty and possibility and creativity.
Although I have been listening to these poems and thinking about these ideas, I had not done any reflective writing that was specifically about these poems until today. During the workshop, I kept returning to the idea of breath, taken away by force or air pollution or anxiety, restored by newly planted trees or by laughter with friends.
Through the workshop, I gained even more nourishment through speaking about these ideas with people from different places and different facets of my life. They added their own reflections and poems and a recently written song. We spoke of surrender and loss and healing and slowness and persistence and new life. There was much openness and warmth. It made me feel more certain that in writing, in nature, and in community, we can find hope amidst and in spite of despair.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.