Sometimes there’s no other way to capture a moment–a way of seeing or being in the world–than through poetry.
So while I prefer writing prose (I know I’m no poet), I find myself returning again and again to certain poems I have written, as if they were traces in the sand leading me back to the very time and place where something singular and significant rose briefly to mind.
I think of these as my Zen moments. A sudden clear perception of something so extraordinary and subtle, it can only be experienced in faint, fleeting whiffs.
But the scent of it lingers in mind long afterwards, as if waiting to be re-released, like rosemary or thyme planted along a garden path waits to be crushed underfoot.
It’s like the story of a student begging his master to explain the meaning of Zen. But the master, cruelly it seems, keeps putting him off until one day as they were walking together through the mountain laurels the master suddenly exclaims, “There! Do you smell it?” So happy at last was he to help his young student grasp what he was after.
It’s like that. Nothing after all was ever hidden. It’s just waiting to be crushed underfoot.
The poetry I write attempts to capture some of that, or at least to trace the footsteps leading to the moment where it all came together, where the heel of my foot accidentally, spontaneously, released the scent of something rare and fleeting and not to be forgotten.
I’ve shared a couple of these poems already on these pages, in “Walking Among Flowers,” and “Night Howls.” Although what I experienced and tried to capture in those poems was something more visceral than a mere whiff, more like the thwack of the master’s cane coming down on my back, although just as fleeting. The poem I share below, “A Scattering of Rocks,” captures something more like that walk through mountain laurel.
We were living in Pago Pago, American Samoa, aboard our sailboat La Gitana.
My husband and I were working to supplement our cruising kitty, he as a welder in a local boatyard, while I tutored Korean children who lived in small communities scattered among the foothills. Every afternoon I would row ashore and walk back through the lush green mountain valleys along dirt roads to the children’s homes.
I loved those walks. Often I practiced what I called “no-thought,” emptying the mind and just letting sights and sounds and smells wash over me wordlessly. But more often I was overcome by the spectacular beauty I saw all around me and my relative insignificance, humble in the midst of such awesome power. And then one day it happened. I smelled it. A scattering of small rocks along the wayside was the trigger.
A Scattering of Rocks
Many times I walked this way, a dirt path
parting from the road through yonder valley.
And always, the high green mountain wall
stared down from its dizzying heights,
while the spacious valley opened up,
opulent and serene.
But only once was I struck by a mere trifle,
a scattering of small rocks tossed haphazardly
across the path.
There was no significance in this. No meaning.
Yet the sight so lightened my footfall,
I might have been a leaf blown yon,
or a pebble tumbling carelessly away.
So amazing were my antics
even the high mountain wall and verdant valley
broke loose, doubled over in laughter.
Now I cannot pass this way without us sharing,
like old friends, a light skip and chuckle.
I don’t know if this poem will mean anything to anyone other than myself, but I’m hoping those who have had similar experiences will capture a whiff of what I was after.
What’s significant to me is that while I was steeped in the deep beauty and sensual richness of that tropical landscape that could, quite literally, take your breath away, it was something as mundane and homely as a scattering of small rocks that was the catalyst to this singular experience.
The awesome beauty that surrounded me melted away into mere laughter–a shared experience, but not the thing itself, not that which gave rise to the laughter.
Not perfection, not imperfection, not perfection and imperfection together, but the sudden acute realization of the perfect imperfections that permeate life and percolate almost imperceptibly to the surface. Spontaneously, like alliteration, like rhythm, like rhyme. Like verses from the nursery which make no sense at all—until they do.
“With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
we will make music wherever she goes.”
It’s like that, making music wherever we go. When suddenly, we slip upon it, there we go too–tumbling carelessly away. And everything breaks loose in laughter.
[The poem has been revised since first posted, moving some of the line breaks as readers below have suggested. Let me know what you think.]