Poetry and the Spiritual Path

“Honey in the Heart” by Christen Mattix. paper, wax, LED lights, acrylic paint

What a long, strange trip it’s been!  This weekend has left me feeling baffled, angry and deeply grateful all at the same time.  Friday I got hired at my dream job, an art framing gig that is walking distance from my apartment in downtown Bellingham.  After the interview, I felt both relief and exhaustion from the past couple of weeks spent applying to various businesses including a flower shop, a shoe store, and a soap making company.  I had a hot soak in my bath tub, ate dinner around 5 pm and was ready to read a bit before turning into bed early when my mom called and invited me over to spend time with my brother before he heads back to Oregon.  I overcame my exhaustion, changed out of my p.j.’s and into my street clothes and walked to my car which I had parked about seven minutes away in the free parking zone.  I felt especially motivated to see my brother again because the last time we’d hung out he’d been in a deep, unspoken funk and I wanted to give him some big sister love and attention, and hopefully draw the poison out of him.

I had dinner with my brother and was relieved that he seemed to be doing better and could articulate his funk this time around.  I drove home exhausted and bleary eyed, parking across the street from my apartment.  It felt like a miracle that a spot was available on a Friday night because my street consists of a brewery, a dance club, and a bunch of restaurants open all hours of the night.

That night I slept fitfully and in the early hours before dawn my elderly cat Iris decided to let loose her most mournful, operatic meows.  I lay in bed hating my beloved cat.  However, I could have taken her meows as a warning.  Afterall she is my spiritual weather vane.  Whenever I am going through a hard time or about to go through a rough patch, she cries.  When my life is on the uptick, she throws her glitter ball, cuddles and purrs.

I got up and put the rough night behind me, reminding myself about the exciting workshop I was going to take called Poetry and the Spiritual Path.  My friend texted to say she couldn’t give me a ride after all.  I thought, No problem, I’ll drive.  Suddenly, my heart sank as I realized I’d parked in the area reserved for the Saturday Farmer’s Market.  I went out to look for my car and it was gone so I called the towing company listed on the sign.  Sure enough, they had impounded my car but I got the address, caught the bus, and hoped I could retrieve my car in time to arrive near the start of the workshop.

I rode the bus with a Vietnam Veteran whose blue eyes stared in opposite directions, a bit disconcerting.  He said he was a “fighting Irish” and would go back to serve in a war at a moment’s notice if need be.  He’d fallen on his head once and gotten up and walked away unscathed.  I thought to myself, I’m part Irish.  Maybe this mess with my car is happening to test my grit.  I determined to take it as gracefully as possible.

I got off the bus and walked the half mile to the towing company only to discover they were closed weekends.  I called the dispatcher and asked if I could get my car so I could make it to class on time.  She said I would have to pay an extra $85 to get my car out on the weekend.  The cost of getting my impounded car was already over $300 so I said I would wait until Monday.

I decided to walk the 3.5 miles to the Poetry and the Spiritual Path workshop since it was outside the area covered by the bus system and I really, really wanted to attend the workshop.  Chuckling ruefully to myself at the irony, I set out to walk to the workshop thinking about today’s experiences as a mirror of my spiritual path–lonely, beautiful and incomprehensible.  I wanted to be as present as possible to the landscape around me in the hopes that I would get a great poem for my pains…especially if I was going to be late and miss most of the class.

I walked past fields of sparkling grass.  An ancient red barn with broken windows.  Electric power lines that crackled and snapped.  I stopped to eat a sour blackberry and shake a piece of gravel out of my shoe.  I passed a house with plastic flamingo windmills spinning their legs idly in the breeze.  As I walked, I held my thumb out hoping a passing driver would take pity on me and give me a lift.  Since they continued to speed past, I decided to try facing the next approaching driver.  I waved then put my hands together in prayer posture.  The truck slowed down and pulled over in front of me.

“I just want you to know I never stop for hitchhikers,” the bearded driver told me as he rolled down his window, “but you look harmless.  Climb on in.  Where are you headed?”

I told him I was going to a workshop just a couple of miles down Noon Road on Huntley Drive.  He said he had plenty of time and would take me the whole way.

I arrived just half an hour late for the workshop, my heart swelling with gratitude as I joined the poetry circle.

The instructor led us in an extended meditation on a poem by Antonio Machado, a poem that moved me to create a sculpture a few years ago in response to this stanza:

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Marvelous error!  I couldn’t get the phrase out of my mind.  Could the Divine make honey out of this day’s particularly abject failure?  A stupid, totally avoidable parking misadventure that was draining precious resources out of my already shrinking bank account?  It’s hard enough to spend money on my needs–a new clutch for my car, the studio rent.  Paying for my car to be impounded because I-was-too-tired-to-think-straight-last-night-but-wanted-to-show-love to-my-brother was a little hard to take.

But what if the whole Universe is a marvelous error, an aberration from No-thing?  What if my mistakes and failures exist to give the Queen Bee something to do?  The great triumph of turning my abject, helpless existence into something sweet?  What if my life is both poetic text and spiritual path?

The instructor pointed out that writing poetry and cultivating one’s spiritual path are useless activities from a pragmatic standpoint.  You don’t make money from either.  That said, I don’t think the Divine calculated the gross national product or made a business plan before creating the cosmos.  We humans have it all wrong.  Utility can’t measure the value of human existence.  Humans and human artifacts like poems and paintings don’t exist to be necessary, they exist to be loved, treasured and enjoyed along with this immense and extravagantly unnecessary universe.

While at the workshop, I did not create a masterpiece of a poem from my failures; I wrote a gloomy pantoum.

Sunday I attended Sacred Heart Church.  After mass I prayed in front of the icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I gazed at the thorns encircling his blazing heart and begged him to remove the thorns that were constricting mine, thorns of worry about money and the future.  Suddenly a friend tapped me on the shoulder and asked how I was doing.

“You’re stressed out, aren’t you?” she said.

I told her about my car getting impounded and burst into tears.  “How much was it?”  She asked.

“$300,” I said.  She started crying with me.

“How about if I pay it?” she said.  Later she dropped off a card with $300 in it and a note that said, “Trust, trust, trust in the mercy of God.

I tried to give her a painting that she liked worth at least $300 to express my gratitude, and quite frankly, repay my debt.

It’s not apples and apples, darling,” she told me. “You keep your painting.”



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