A Sky Full of Bucket Lists

April is Poetry Month apparently. It is also the month that hosts Earth Day, the one day we dedicate to saving the only home we know, Earth. As far as I am concerned, they are all excellent themes for the month bursting with the prospects of Spring. It has been an unusually hot spring, but that does not detract from the beauty of the season.

This is the season for life’s stirring: Poetry and Earth are both what lend credence to our human experience, and possibly dolphin experience. (As regular readers of the blog know, the dolphins have poetry whose tonal vocal content is equal in size to the Illiad or the Odyssey.) 

Read also:

Carl Sagan’s Essay on his interactions with Elvar The Dolphin
Epic of Whalayana – Carl Sagan

What better time than to write about a book that has been in my thoughts so often since the first reading? A small book of Haibun poetry steeped in the experience of living on Earth.

My review on Amazon:

A Sky Full of Bucket Lists is one of those books that has found a place on my bedside table. Every time, I need a glimpse of life, the slim volume is there to allow me a peek into the life of a fellow human-being in a very different situation. Written by a poet whose empathetic life experiences with social work shape the words on the page, this book is worth reading and re-reading. Shobhana Kumar reminds us that being humane is what makes us human. Charming, heart-rending, profound and simple.

A Sky Full of Bucket Lists seeps into your day as you go about the busyness of living. 

The incorrect font, the cross dresser, the neighbor in hospital, , the alcoholic, the abusive or the the true friends who give more than one deserves. It seems Shobhana Kumar has a haibun for a wide range of human living. The poignant note to her father is an especially special one. (Dear Mr Raaga) 

Sometimes, at night when I am too bushed to read anything long or heavy, I instinctively reach out to A Sky Full of Bucket Lists. The humanity manages to seep through the pages and into your consciousness. They say reading makes one more empathetic. Reading the experiences of someone who has seen so much, suffered through so much, and yet, has the time to not just care for a fellow being, but care deeply and share it with the world, is a gift indeed.

Whether the first cave painters realized the art form could encompass human living, I don’t know. Every time I look into the book, something attracts: why this picture for this Haibun? How did she know my yearning for a library and how I sniff the books to get the children to love them as well? How did she detect the ‘poetry that settles into corners’ and give it words? Is there a thread that runs between every different piece, or is it just the shared experience of being human on a planet that hosts millions of lifeforms?

A Celebration Of … 🌏

The afternoon was a mild, sunny one. Quite unusual for wintry January. The grass has turned green enough, the birds were chirping, and every now and then, the son and I stopped to admire a willow tree. How different each tree looks, and yet how soothing they all are together?  One doesn’t need a leap of the fanciful to liken the willows to beautiful damsels letting their hair down to dip ever so slightly into the waters below. What is remarkable is these damsels don’t seem to mind us watching. 

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I do not remember the first willow tree I saw, although I am sure I would have admired it long before knowing its name.  These are times I feel remiss. 

Why do we not make a celebration

of smelling the first sprig of lavender

and falling in love with the scent of it? 

Why do we not celebrate the perfect clovers,

the first feel of moss against a damp earth 

the taste of the first wild berry, 

the first sniff of eucalyptus after a fresh rain, 

the first time we touched a petal, 

the first time we sat and watched a butterfly, 

the first time we heard the name of someone who would go on to become kindred spirits 

and brighten our lives forever more?

While at this, why not also celebrate 

the times, we can watch a tree upside down,

The moon rise, or the sun set?

The times we spot the shape of a fluffy dog in the clouds,

the times we are mesmerized by a rainbow,

the times we can watch the world flit by with nary a worry?

summer-collage

Anyway, where was I before I went off on my little celebration-of-life poetic trail? Yes yes. It all comes back now: I cannot quite resist the charm of a willow tree. It’s true. There is a generosity to its form. The tree just seems to give itself. The long tresses weigh down as they reach into the waters below.  When you walk along a river, you can be fairly certain that if there is one willow by the banks, nature would have given us a few more beautiful ones just further downstream. It was while reading Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren that I learnt many of these willow trees are identical genetically. Apparently, all it takes is for a branch to break off by a riverside, float down the banks, a little joyful eddy to push it near the banks, and voila: it can take root. An identical, genetically mapped tree, though it looks different on the outside – the trunks bulge differently, the branches fan out differently, but essentially the same. Hope Jahren’s lyrical writing is as beautiful as the willows themselves. 

“It is easy to become besotted with a willow. The Rapunzel of the plant world, this tree appears as a graceful princess bowed down by her lush tresses, waiting on the riverbank for someone just like you to come along and keep her company.” 

We walked on for some time on this beautiful day, before I plonked myself on the grass. I tugged the little fellow’s arm to sit on the grass next to me. After the initial reluctance of getting his clothes dirty, this suburban child gave in to the pleasures almost completely.  There we were, lying down on the grass, the willow trees drooped into the waters nearby while winter’s afternoon sun gently glowed upon us, and the clouds drifted above.

I told him about the willow trees and how most of the ones we saw may have originated from the same one. He looked awed. 

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more,” 

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

Will he remember the first time he learnt that willow trees reproduce with just a branch flowing downstream? I hope he does, but if not, here it is written down: It was a golden day in early winter on a walk with his loving mother: when all the world was green and filled with possibility.

Our Attention, Our Imagination, Our Opinion

Poetry has seeped into our lives yet again. At times I wonder whether poetry, music and art are all luxuries that only dare to raise their heads when the busyness of our pointless existence relinquish their clutch, or whether poetry, music and art enable us to go about our busyness with joy and acceptance.

Either way, I am simply grateful to experience the effect of these soothers to our lives.

The news can be a whirlpool, not just pulling those who happen to float nearby into its swirl, but also sending a whirlwind to attract those on land. Of late, every week seems to be packed with a year’s worth of news. All of this of course results in an enervating tug of emotions. 

We do not know whether the farm worker in the 17th century had this many opinions he needed to have, or whether the soldier in the Dark Ages had a semblance of control in his fates. All we have experience of, is this time, and this age, when we are being called upon to not just have an opinion, but also to voice them and defend them almost relentlessly. 

How the world clamors for opinions and stands? Having a world leader who takes pride in swirling the world around for his endless rollercoaster is exhausting. This is Gaslighting we are told, that is Egotism. Here we are, endlessly naming, categorizing, instead of just appealing to an inner sense – Yes? Or No? Which is it?

It is also deeply instructive for us as individuals. A lesson on ourselves. How much do we want to dragged into the endless show put on for us; how much do we want to rectify things, solve problems with creativity and resilience; and how much do we want to be pulled here and there, like specks in a whirlwind?

The other day, I saw a heron standing patiently in the shallow waters of a river, waiting patiently. I was out for my evening walk, and I had to stop and admire the heron. The heron was going about its business of living, observing quietly, waiting patiently, and if in the process of being, a wandering soul got a lesson or two out of it, that was good, but that wasn’t its purpose.

I chuckled to myself thinking of what the heron would say to me if I asked it about any of the world’s problems. Would it laugh at me or with me at the problems humans have created for ourselves?

The heron in that moment taught me the simple act of keeping still and untangling the strains of thought. That this isn’t a luxury, but a necessity.

Sometimes, sitting and reading a piece of poetry evokes the same feeling. Take the poem, Yes! No! By Mary Oliver for instance. 

How necessary it is to have opinions!

I think the spotted trout lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth. I think serenity is not something you just find in the world, like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like small dark lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes! No!

The swan, for all his pomp, his robes of grass and petals, wants only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppyrocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

How often I have stopped to look at the heron taking a short flight from the river nearby and wondered whether its opinions were sought, and whether it mattered. They should, for our opinions and actions have definitely resulted in less than ideal living conditions for them. 

Mary Oliver in one short sweep of her pen was able to capture all this and more in the poem, Yes! No!

P.S: I love how the swan in her poem wants to live in a nameless pond. Our planet is just that isn’t it? A nameless, priceless habitat that we have bestowed a name upon.

Heron flying

An Extraordinarily Ordinary Life

I read and re-read and read out this paragraph in the book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking.

“I have led an extraordinary life on this life on this planet, while at the same time traveling across the universe by using my mind and the laws of physics. I have been to the furthest reaches of our galaxy, travelled back into a black hole and gone back to the beginning of time. On Earth, I have experienced highs and lows, turbulence and peace, success and suffering. I have been rich and poor, I have been able-bodied and disabled. I have been praised and criticized, but never ignored. I have been enormously privileged, through my work, in being able to contribute to our understanding of the universe. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not one the people I love, and who love me. Without them, the wonder of it all would be lost on me.”

This is one of the passages in the book by Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. The title is no empty boast, he really does take a stab at the big questions with the simplest language. The book’s forewords, and epilogue themselves make fascinating reading: A foreword by Eddie Redmayne who played Stephen Hawking in the movie based on his life, and Kip Thorne who worked with him at Caltech and one of the foremost players in the detection of gravitational waves (LIGO)

Related: Philosophers & Tinkerers

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Some questions:

  • Is there a God?
  • Is there other intelligent life in the Universe?
  • Will we survive on Earth?

He touches upon climate change (Related: A Planet of Wizards & Prophets), and whether we have any option but to colonize space. It is written in layman’s terms, which suited me quite well.

Regular readers know how much I enjoy looking up at the night skies. It is the time I come closest to stoicism. I shiver and wonder what is out there among the great distances. I happily contemplate on the vast empty distances between the stars. I ponder on time and how we are seeing things that are no longer exactly like that. How a serendipitous sequence of events enabled us to be there to contemplate this beautiful universe.

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Picture taken by a Friend – an amazing photographer

I marvel at our insignificance, I genuinely enjoy riding the thought sails through the night skies, and I look out the magic of it every chance I get. It is one of those times when I am in love with Being.

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Star Trails of the Milky Way Galaxy – Pic taken by my friend who is an amazing photographer among other things.

One of my friends on a nightly stroll with me once teased me that I will become a star when I pass on, and I laughed heartily. Her tone reminded me of how spoiled I am by my friends who indulgently put up with me as I moon about flowers, hills and stars.

It is extraordinary indeed that I should have read Brief Answers to the Big Questions so closely after I read this particularly fetching poem by Walt Whitman.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer – By Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

It is even rarer that I find the perfect illustration to go along with it. But Rob Gonsalves in the book, Imagine A World is the perfect one (Related: A Touch of the Eternal):

journey_to_stars

To me, the ability to enjoy these simple pleasures in an ordinary life constitutes an extraordinary one.