by Charity Burns, guest contributor
In the wake of a recent blizzard, cars were buried in snow, curbs of intersections were submerged in a grimy soup, and sidewalks became paths of ice. One day I was rushing to work. The sidewalk appeared mostly clear, way more concrete than muddy slush. I passed a young woman in thermal boots that I thought was going much slower than necessary, and then, about half a block later, I slipped.
My mind had drifted, probably thinking about the coffee that I would have time to drink before work, when suddenly my thigh, then my torso, then my chin hit the pavement. It was a minor spill, more surreal than scary because it seemed to happen in slow motion. Nothing hurt, but as I slid and was pressing my mittened hands against the ice, trying to resist my fall, I almost laughed at my inability to stop myself. Then finally, the force of gravity propelling me ceased and I found myself kissing a Brooklyn sidewalk glazed with dirt and ice.
This experience reminded me of the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, whom I have never really liked. Perhaps his poem has never found the right translator, but I’ve always found Rumi snoozerific and a bit pedantic. Nevertheless, I have been drawn to Rumi’s ideas and beliefs.
As many people know, Rumi was part of a mystical sect of Islam that celebrated its faith through a choreographed dance of spinning in long robes, the dancers known as whirling dervishes. As Fatemeh Keshavarz made clear about the Persian poet, this dancing was symbolic of the perpetual spinning of the universe and the idea that “everything in the universe is quickened with the force of love.”
The spinning dancers represented a willingness to be in harmony with the wonderful and wondrous chaos of the world. Though I still wouldn’t consider myself a Rumi lover, we share an appreciation of just how complicated each day on this Earth is, so many restless electrons, neutrons, atoms. Add to all that chaos the complicating fact that every person is a discreet planet, each subjected to its own ever-changing weather system of emotions, blizzards, heat waves, and drizzle. Every day we face the wildness of our own human experience.
And some days I am not able to whirl through all the wildness with the grace of an atom, or a dervish. Some days, I fall on the concrete on the way to work at eight in the morning because I wasn’t paying attention.
John O’Donohue, a poet from the west coast of Ireland who passed away a couple years ago, said before his death, “The world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach.” Rumi would agree that the world is spinning more wildly than we could ever fathom, but the Persian poet might then add that we need not fear because, if we fall, wherever we fall, there is love. You can’t fall wrong.
Charity Burns is an English instructor and poet living in Brooklyn, New York. Her poetry has been published in Smartish Pace, Madison Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and West Branch, and she blogs regularly at The Beauty Works Project.
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Krista Tippett, Host
I’m personally thrilled to be doing this week’s show — which took a few of us up to one of my favorite places in the world, St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. St. John’s is one of the largest Benedictine communities in the world and has always been a remarkable place. Its wide orbit has touched many lives and many leading institutions, globally.
In the 1960s, as St. John’s was founding HMML, it also helped found Minnesota Public Radio (our parent company) as well as an ecumenical institute that formed my imagination in the early years of what became this radio program. I came to think of St. John’s as a spiritual center of gravity and a kind of secret center of the world. It is certainly one of those “thin places” the ancient Celts spoke about — a place where, again and again and with astounding creativity, the temporal and eternal seem to touch.
If you’d like to read about the ways in which the Benedictines of St. John’s inspired and shaped Speaking of Faith, we’ve excerpted some of my writing about it in a PDF file for you.Comments
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Just a few notes regarding the songs on this week’s SOF Playlist. Thanks, to Padraig for his suggestion of Lasairfhiona Ní Chonaola’s music, which I was able to find and place in this week’s program. Also, many thanks to Gerard O’Shea who wrote about attending a John O’Donohue memorial in his blog. In which he mentions that at the end of the service a gentleman named Jack Carley got up and sang “The Vale of Fermoyle,” in the sean-nos style (see blog entry below for more info and a beautiful example). Fermoyle is the birthplace of John O’Donohue and this song was one of his favorites.
Anyway, Gerard ordered a copy of that CD on Tuesday and was kind enough to e-mail a version of that song to me the very same day. Hats off to Cois na h-Abhna, Dooras in County Clare for providing the CD, There’s a Spot in Old Ireland. Though I was not able to use that song in the program, I’ve included it as a bonus track on the show’s playlist.
I also just wanted to provide an excerpt of the lyrics to Iarla O’lionaird’s version of Taimse im’ chodladh, which I have found translated as “I Sleep” “I am Sleep” “I am Asleep”, but I think you get the gist. Thanks to Bill Jones’ website, which offers a translation of the Gaelic. Here is an excerpt:
I am sleeping, do not wake me
I hear you calling
Come back again, I’ll show you how
I am sleeping, do not wake me
The day is dawning
Come back again, don’t wake me now
Just look high and low, and search round the town
For the wildflower where we met the first time
If you pull the petals all the spell may be broken
Come back again, don’t wake me now
This song ends the program and I felt that this was a nice image of someone sleeping to round out the homage to John O’Donohue, not that I knew what the words meant when I was placing the song! Sometimes you get lucky. Anyway, that’s about it. I hope you enjoy the music.Comments
One of the exciting aspects of my job as a producer is the opportunities our web site opens up for multimedia content. As soon as we started producing this week’s program, I wanted our audience to be able to see the Irish landscape John O’Donohue described in his conversation with Krista. I desperately wanted to see it. I’m of Irish ancestry (75%!, I’d proudly tell people on St. Patrick’s Day as a kid, dressed in my Kelly green shirt with a “Kiss me, I’m Irish” button), and someday I hope to make it to that emerald isle.
When I asked John O’Donohue’s business manager, Linda, if she had any photos of John in Ireland, she graciously offered to put out a request to friends and family. Within days I’d received over a dozen photos of both the Connemara region where John most recently lived, and some of Fanore, a town in County Clare where John attended elementary school, and where he is now buried. Will O’Leary, a veteran Washington Post staff photographer and close friend of John’s, shared some of his photos. His wife, NPR reporter Jacki Lyden, was also a close friend of John’s (she recently offered a remembrance of him on NPR’s All Things Considered). Another longtime friend and professional photographer, Nutan, shared photos he took of John in 2005.
In producing the audio slideshow, I was struck with how well the photos illustrated O’Donohue’s language in his poem “Beannacht” — a word I’ve heard translated as both “blessing” and “passage.” It’s about finding comfort in loss, and I consciously tried to match the photos to the poem’s tone, mood, and pace. I learned that John wrote this poem for his mother, Josie, at the time of his father’s death. According to Linda, his father “…was a farmer and a gifted builder of dry stone walls — a dying art still much revered — from whom, John’s brother Pat said at his funeral, John learned the art of fitting words delicately and fittingly together.”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
One thing we know about our fan base — they (you?) love words, especially poesy. The response to Tess Gallagher’s poem about her time with Thich Nhat Hanh made that clear.
So, in one of Krista’s limited face-to-face interviews (see Shiraz’s post about what a more typical interview looks like), she was regaled by the lilting tongue and picturesque poetry of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue in September. Mr. O’Donohue passed away earlier this year, but his verse lives on.
Colleen crafted a lovely audio slideshow (keep your eye out for her post) of O’Donohue’s recitation of “Beannacht” threaded with phototgraphs of scenic Celtic landscapes taken by several of his dear friends. And, since many of O’Donohue’s recitations won’t make it into the final, produced program, I wanted to offer them up here for download — or, if you prefer a more expedient and organized approach, through our podcast.
All of them are mp3s you can download. Just right-click your mouse and select save as:
A Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness
A Blessing for One Who Holds Power
For the Pilgrim a Kiss: The Caha River
For the Pilgrim a Kiss: Between Things
For the Pilgrim a Kiss: Body Language
Since You Came
And, my apologies for all the parenthetical comments. Yowza!