Let me respectfully
life and death
are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by
and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken. Take heed.
Do not squander
--- Zen Meditation
We are sitting in a circle in the dome. Natalie Goldberg has just rung the bell. Silence descends upon the group and we begin to watch our breath, breathing in and out.
Outside, the wind crosses the Sangre de Christo mountains in whispers, rustling the grasses below the window at The Lama Foundation. Five minutes pass and then she begins to chant. Her voice is other-worldly: a monosyllabic chant that fills the dome with a deep and steady vibration.
"Let. Me. Respectfully. Remind. You . . . . Life. And. Death. Are. Of. Supreme. Importance . . . . . . . Time. Swiftly. Passes. By. And. Opportunity. Is. Lost . . . Each. Of. Us. Should. Strive. to. Awaken . . . . . Awaken. . . . . Take. Heed. . . . . Do. Not. Squander. Your. Life. . . . . . Awaken. . . . . . . . Awaken . . . . . . . Awaken . . . . ."
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
I had arrived on the mountain broken, grieving the loss of one of my dearest friends -- my travel companion and professional colleague-- who had taken his own life less than two weeks earlier. I had known of his mental anguish; he had shared with me his struggles with the dark shadow of depression. But I thought he had it mastered. Not long before his passing we listened to Big Band music and laughed and watched dancers swing around the dance floor. Not long before his passing he sat on my couch and cracked jokes. Not long before his passing he opened my fridge to look for a Coke. Not long before his passing he said to me, "Have you signed up for that writing workshop you wanted to attend?"
Why hadn't I seen it coming? I never suspected that he had formulated a plan --- that he had resolved to carry out his intent to end his own life. Like a wave of tar, dark and incapacitating, the void that was left in his wake was a great emptiness -- a numbness that reached deep into my bones. To cope, I shifted into professional mode, playing the role of the teacher and showing up to work. I even traveled to another country to attend a professional conference.
But by day four I could no longer hold up the image of normalcy. Early in the morning, without warning, while sitting alone at the linen-clothed table for a six a.m. breakfast at the conference hotel, I broke down and wilted into a puddle of tears. Before me sat a plate of scrambled eggs, fruit, and hot coffee. But it all seemed meaningless. Going through the mechanical actions of lifting a fork to the mouth, chewing, and then swallowing, seemed a ridiculous act. Couldn't everyone see that my friend was DEAD? That life as we know it would NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN? I stared at the coffee, steaming before me. It appeared to be from someone else's life-- a projection of a film, on someone else's table. Everything around me --- the palm trees outside and the restaurant tables, along with the distant chatter of hotel guests --- seemed to be happening to a stranger. What was happening before me had nothing to do with me. I was going through the motions of another person's life.
And then the sobbing started. Not the soft whimpers of a gentle grief. No, not that. These sobs were the deep sobs of the toddler, the kind that well up from deep in the belly, and escape unfettered- loud and unrestrained. I felt a hand on my arm. Looking up through my tears, I could see the concerned face of a colleague. "Are you okay?" she asked. But once again, I felt as if I were acting in another person's film and I couldn't answer. I couldn't speak. I couldn't even feel embarrassed. I could only feel the waves of grief wash over me like a great sea. Nothing else mattered than crying this grief... than letting it out before it burned holes within me. I stumbled up to my room and continued to sob uncontrollably for hours. I thought there was a considerable chance that I was losing my mind-- that this is what happened to people who went wild with grief and never returned from the land of sorrow. Perhaps I needed to be admitted to a hospital somewhere.
And then I slept. And then I woke up and sobbed again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
One week later my grief brings me, wounded and tender, to the The Lama Foundation, and to this sitting meditation, to the sound of the bell. The words strike a chord within me, resonating with my loss, urging me to use my time wisely. To not squander this time -- this precious life. I had thought my friend would be alive, to travel and laugh with, for many years to come. And he's gone. His death: a reminder that this life is short. Honor the time you have with your loved ones. Tell them that you love them. Often.
My legs are crossed on the zafu. My back is straight. My eyes are closed as Natalie's words fall over me like a warm and prickling waterfall. I am no longer numb. I am awake. I am alive. In this moment, I really GET what Emily Dickinson means when she writes that she knows she is hearing poetry because it makes her physically feel as if the top of her head were taken off. I am moved, and something much like water fills the void.
Wisdom -- like art, like poetry--- reminds us that we are part of something bigger. We are fish swimming in a wide, immense ocean. We are small and our life is short and our time here is ever so brief.
* * * * * * *
The next day I travel to town, and visit my friend NJ. On her bathroom wall, in a glass frame, I see the very same words of the meditation that Natalie has just chanted on the mountain. I take out my cell phone and snap a photo of it.
Hours later, while reading the "Zen Mountain Monastery Liturgy Manual" at Wired? Cafe, I see that there, on page 47, are the same words in "Evening Gatha", shouting and laughing with me in all its black and white print glory.
When the same message comes to you in three forms in less than 48 hours, you take note.
You take out your cell phone, once again, and snap a photo of it over the cafe pond that holds the fish.
Synchronicity is one way the Universe says, "Awaken.... Awaken....Awaken...."
A fish in the water's not thirsty.
"In the basic Bop poem, a six-line stanza introduces the problem, and is followed by a one-line refrain. The next, eight-line stanza discusses and develops the problem, and is again followed by the one-line refrain. Then, another six-line stanza resolves or concludes the problem, and is again followed by the refrain."
Photo "Women of Paro, Bhutan" ©Copyright 2017 Kat Shamash
"Dangbo, Dingbo : Bhutan" **
“What would you like, sir? Shall I take your bags, sir?” all eyes turn toward, all smiles turned up
For him while I stand beside ::: behind ::: near ::: beneath ::: somewhere in the suburbs.
At dinner, I talk, still eating, fork suspended like a wand and because his plate is empty:
The interruption, rude like slap, “Are you finished, sir? May I take your plate, sir?” I look up mid-sentence.
A wandering spirit, one they cannot see, living in the underworld, in the land of the invisible
The muted one. A side-kick, an appendage, a wing-ghost.
The wordless ones have stories that run through their veins like blood.
The guide speaks of courtyard soldiers, swordplay, weapons and armor
and which bless-ed monk meditated for the longest time in some cave but
I want candlelight silence, the tapestry whisper, bare footsteps on temple stone.
“Centuries ago, the fortress burnt to the ground,” says he, but my ear is tuned to
a memory, a humming, the symphony of fluttering flags in a wind louder than history,
the tiny echo of a moan in the palace wall, the movement of clouds over Dochula Pass.
Don’t want to know of battles or relics. Show me how to unravel something living.
Take me to the place where two rivers meet, to the midwife.
The wordless ones have stories that run through their veins like blood.
Listen to the sound of the opening of cherry blossoms just outside the palace
named for a King and not a Queen, to water streaming from the hands of the Offering Goddess,
to the loom shutter moving back and forth through the centuries. Touch the hand of
she who bore the children and fed them and healed them, of she who wove the fabrics of her people,
of she who sits in the stands watching men adjust their robes, of she who watches all the dancers in Paro.
She knows the truth that covers the land like a mist, even though all the dances of her people are of men, depicting men.
The wordless ones have stories that run through their veins like blood.
© Kat Shamash, April 11, 2017
** "Dangbo, Dingbo" is a Bhutanese phrase which means "long, long ago." It is a phrase that begins and ends Butanese folktales, similar to "once upon a time."
that brief second
before thought arrives
breathing between worlds
wrapped in white sheet clouds
still floating around me like
a thousand tiny fireflies
then the waking grabs me
then gravity catches
then the tiny tugs
of a thousand
back down to
© 2016 Kat Shamash (July 24, 2016)
and I turn my gaze
up toward the
can I navigate
where I might belong in
© 2016 Kat Shamash (July 12, 2016)
using the Hubble Space Telescope
it is not the tree, but the missile
not apple but the bomb
not The Lady with her torch
but the uzis in our hands
not prairies, not the grasses
but Monsanto corn
not Selma, but Ferguson
not The King, but The Fox
not Plymouth but Laredo,
not sit-ins, protests
watching the game
drinking our cokes
as if none of this
© 2016 Kat Shamash (July 11, 2016)
Photo Credit: JONATHAN BACHMAN / Reuters
Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is to "write a poem that tells a story. But here’s the twist – the story should be told backwards. The first line should say what happened last, and work its way through the past until you get to the beginning."
Photo "Another Planet"
Ash Sharqiyah, Saudi Arabia, December 2015
©2015 Kat Shamash
She covers herself in a blanket that looks like
a shroud and breaths in and out, in and out.
"Is this what it comes to?" she thinks, her mind clicking.
"The sealing in, the shutting off of all light, a casket?"
Running, she begins to close all the windows,
all the blinds, waiting.
The sun begins to fade.
"A sandstorm," she thinks.
She walks out onto her patio.
She makes coffee first thing.
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 28, 2016)
"Live where you fear to live" - Rumi
Live Where You Fear to Live
Live where you fear to live
Not on a mountain far away
In a tent with the wild animals
All around you at night
Miles of wilderness
Far as the eye can see
The nearest town a hundred miles away
Not the place where no one hears you
When you scream
Live where you fear to live
Not an urban jungle
A meth house
Streets of violence, chain-linked fences
Block after block of broken, boarded up
Windows, dealers on the corners,
Sound of gunshots
Not the place where no one helps you
When you scream
The other, scarier place.
Live where you fear to live
The place of the threshold, the crossroad
The place of the caterpillar, the place of the chrysalis
The place of stripping away
The place of the chick pecking away at her shell
The place of walking through pain
The place of discomfort, mistakes, disappointment
The place of vulnerability, the place of opening your heart
The place of talking about it
The place of letting someone
When you scream
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 25, 2016)
Today's NaPoWriMo's challenge is to write a sonnet.
I did not write a sonnet.
Instead, I channeled poetry from my China-days.
Photo "Hangzhou Railway Station: Looking Out"
©2012 Kat Shamash
March in China
while you sleep subways are being
built beneath you
labyrinth of underground water pipes
maze of fiber-optics in your walls – a pulsing grid
gardens cut out like cookie cutters for a high-rise
you want it all back - old gutters, abandoned adobe,
shovels and spring planting
you want the rusted taxis, the broken windows
of a tool shed
you want what was there before even that
lakeside trees moving in a dance
to catch the eye of Andromeda
it’s still here:
the way you move in spirals
like the galaxies
the way you silently
move the brush
the way you wait
like the silent green of April
about to burst
into a primal dance
of your own
the way you are
about to show
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 23, 2016)
Today's NaPoWriMo's challenge is write a poem in honor of Earth Day.
Photo "Globe Lamp Goa" (Process filter)
©2016 Kat Shamash
on this boat
we are all sliding through water
we are all rowing through stars
desire lives in the sound of guns
in the tiny explosions,
in the bursts of color - red
love has no pigment,
love is always detaching itself from the earth
and quietly breathing.
love is so silent that even in its weight
it is as if it were
© Copyright 2016 Kat Shamash (April 22, 2016)
Today's NaPoWriMo's challenge is to write a poem in the voice of minor character from a fairy tale or myth.
I chose to write a poem addressed to King Kong in the voice of a homeless man on the streets.
The photo is one of the first photos I ever took on Instagram. It was shot from a taxi as we cruised on the sprawling expanse of Shanghai.
Photo "Shanghai Expressway"
©2012 Kat Shamash
"Hey, King Kong"
Break the concrete.
Smash the asphalt.
Tear a skyscraper off the grid and
Throw it to kingdom come
Dig a Black Hole in this
Perfect, new, endless street
Make it deep enough,
For me to shoot through the earth
Straight towards another galaxy
Straight towards humanity
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 21, 2016)
Today's NaPoWriMo's challenge
is to write a “kenning” poem,
which is a riddle-like metaphor
Not calling the object by its
actual name creates riddle: a
sort of off-kilter, clever
Photo "Saudi Sand"
©2015 Kat Shamash
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 20, 2016)
Today's NaPoWriMo's challenge is to write a “how to” poem – a didactic poem that focuses on a practical skill.
Is this a poem? Or prose in poetic form? Whatever the case, I had fun with this one. Since it is based on first-hand experience, it was very easy to write.
Photo: "Breakfast on the Terrace: Goa, India"
©2016 Kat Shamash
How to Miss the Bus
First of all,
get up late.
Hit the snooze
and then fall asleep.
Drink the second cup of coffee,
and then, even though you know you shouldn't,
drink a third.
Ignore your good sense.
Pick up the book you're reading and
finish a chapter, even though
you're not even dressed yet, and
even though you won’t really
have time to
take a shower.
Take a shower anyway.
Do it double-quick so that
you lose a contact lens
and have to spend extra time
trying to figure out if it has
crept to the back of your
has simply disappeared all together.
(Be sure to store extra
pair of lenses in a place you will forget.)
Stumble about, blind and frantic.
In a last-ditch attempt to see,
don an old
pair of glasses.
Be sure that by now
you only have only
four minutes left
to make your morning
Do not forget to drop a large
dollop of yogurt onto
your silk shirt
ensuring that you will have to go
change the entire
be sure that the shoes you
want to wear
are nowhere to be found.
Spend precious time
looking for them.
Find them under the
false hope that you
will find them.
Wear another pair.
Run out the door.
Remember that your
your phone is inside,
Realize, in that very same second,
that your keys are also inside
and that by the look of the position
of the sun, high in the sky,
has already left you
in the dust.
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 19, 2016)
My first day at school in New York
the children in my first-grade class laugh
when I say that I used to live near
I do not know
that in this strange state
“worsh” is pronounced “wash"
just like the word we
use for laundry
In second grade
I ask my mom What’s a faggot?
I don’t know, she says. Where did you hear it?
I say, A boy yelled it at another boy
On the playground
We look it up in the dictionary
On my dad’s desk
A bundle of sticks, we read
Not everything is found in books
so we go to the yellow wall phone
with it's long, dangly cord to
dial my Mom’s best friend.
She has been to college.
I watch my mom's face as she holds
the phone to her ear and
Oh, she says
She hangs up and tells me that
it is not a nice word.
An education, this word-defining
An education these other words, like
Which my mom’s friend teaches me
Is definitely a word
I should ever say.
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 17, 2016)
Today's NaPoWriMo's challenge is to write a poem using at least 10 terms from a specialized dictionary. Today's poem is based on the specialized online dictionary called the Glossary for the Modern Soap Maker.
Photo: ©2014 Kat Shamash "Pennsylvania Fence Row"
The botanical grown
Hold out your hands
Cup solar sea salts
Bring the essence of the silk road
The silk robe
The preparations of the bath
you brought from Arabia
the oil of almond, of lavender, of
the rose of Lebanon.
Harvest the coconut
The southern bee's wax
The scented floral water
The balsam from the northern hills
The hand-milled soap
Bring something from
Then brew the decoction.
Find my flash point.
Be my chandler.
© 2016 Kat Shamash (April 17, 2016)
Today Maureen at NaPoWriMo challenged us to write a poem using concrete details about a specific place. I chose China.
To all poets and creatives out there, take a moment to listen to the compelling words of Ira Glass in his two-minute talk Storytelling. Among many things, he says it is super-important for creatives to produce a lot of work. That's what I like about the "30 Days, 30 Poems" challenge: if forces me to produce. Although I'm not completely happy with any of my poems, at least I am at the page, working, and that is divine.
The crucial thing is this: show up at the page. Write every day. As Confucius notes: "It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop." [Note. to. self.]
Photo "Hangzhou Bridge and Skyline"
©Copyright 2012 Kat Shamash
I. Captive Art
underneath the shirt of the
conga drummer at Eudora Station
is another shirt that says “Free Wei Wei”
every time his hands move,
free and easy and magic on the skin
of the drum,
he is thinking of escape
II. Found Art
on the sidewalk outside my high rise in Bin Jiang
lie the toothpicks that she dropped
such scattered beauty in the rain
wood against stone
in such a hurry to get somewhere else
she left them there
in the dark
for me to find
III. The Art
beside West Lake the silent
in straw hats bend
to pick tea leaves
worth more per ounce than gold
at day's end they sneak some
home for a slow-steep cuppa
they walk with soft earth underfoot
they sip the drink of emperors
they have no need for
concrete streets nor
the bullet train to Shanghai
It is the Grand Canal, the river barge
the porcelain cup, the pedal bike
the sky rise
© Kat Shamash, April 15, 2016
Notes from the Field: Day 16
As I look back over the poems that I've written, I see many that I'm not happy with, and a couple that I like. Not having the time to go back and tweak each poem is killing me. On the other hand, the whole point of this the "30 poems in 30 days" challenge to write, write, write and to keep writing new stuff. In May I'll blog more about what this experience has been like for me, but until then, suffice to say, that putting myself out here, publicly, is scary. It makes me feel very vulnerable. Ten years ago.. five years ago... even a year a go I would have never even dared to share my poetry with the public in this way. But there's something shifting in me... a fearlessness that comes with confidence and love. I come back to Rumi's words: "Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious."
And beyond all the fears we have, as creatives, to show our work, it is important to remember that the creative life takes time. As Ira Glass says in his talk "Storytelling",
"The most important possible thing [for creatives] to do is to do a lot of work." It won't be great. It will take time... years. My work is, many times, a disappointment to me and it's not measuring up to what I want. But that's okay. The important thing to do is to show up at the page. Write every day. Don't stop. As Confucius notes: "It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop."
Since today marks the half-way point of the GloPoWriMo challenge, today's NaPoWriMo prompt asks us to write a poem that has as its theme the idea of doubles: mirrors or things that come in pairs.
I always notice pairs, whether in nature or in urban settings. I also have the natural tendency, the compulsion, to photograph pairs. I have enough "pairs of things" photos to fill a book.
I used one of my "pairs of things" photos ("World Trade Beauty Salon" ) as a prompt for this poem.
Photo: ©2015 Kat Shamash
"World Trade Beauty Salon"
"Pairs of Things"
coffee cups and the red shoes
the way that each pair lifts
our spirits like
the beauty salon
two glasses of red wine and then
hair dye: a blue streak
like the ink on your back,
the set of wings
that nobody sees
the pair of scissors, the brush
two chrome chairs that swivel,
dual merry-go-rounds for
platinum blond, nose ring, tat --
not the cape dress,
not the hair bun,
not the covering, covering, covering
of our kin
it was always like this
all of us, soul-weary
trying to help each other
mend our broken
by new looks
in another mirror
pair of eyes
© Kat Shamash, April 15, 2016
Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is write a seven-line poem called a san san, a Chinese term which means “three three”.
The form includes repetition and rhyme, repeating three terms or images thrice in a seven line rhyme pattern of a-b-c-a-b-d-c-d.
Below is my attempt to write a san san.
Photo: ©2014 Kat Shamash "Rainwalkers, New Mexico"
rain across the desert dances
storms that move across the earth
clouds that cover sun and moon
tribes that move to drums and dances
moving, shifting, giving birth
called by storm-clouds, moon and season
stars that light-dance cross the cosmos, moon
that pulls us through the storm
© Kat Shamash, April 14, 2016
Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is
to write a poem inspired by
Below is my fortune cookie poem
based on the edited text from
fortune cookie quotes.
travel to exotic places
make your own happiness.
use your talents
believe in yourself
surround yourself true friends
become rich by enriching others
control your destiny
write a book
© Kat Shamash, April 13, 2016
Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is
to write an index poem starting
with found language from
an actual index.
Below is my index poem, based on the
Table of Contents of Fire in the Mind:
by George Johnson.
“Fire in the Mind: New Mexico”
measure the height of the sky
with morada prayers
calibrate the level of
radiation in devotion
climb down the kiva ladder
to the depth of the atom
enter the assembly room of the stem cell with sage
smudge the steeple, the spiral staircase
place the petri dish in the chapel
a microscope to study enlightenment
sneak into the cold, gray
cave of abstraction
the demons that accompany
knowledge: the world of faith
atop four magic mountains
you will find Phaedrus’s ghosts,
the riddle of the camel,
the secrets of the nuclear age.
the dawn of recognition is
science and god
a search for form
a leap into the unknown
© Kat Shamash, April 12, 2016
A poem written for the writing prompt for NaPoWriMo's Day 11 Challenge.
"Swoon: a Love Equation"
ginger: grated, juiced
tiny tingle on tongue,
palate of fresh garlic, minced
whirl of the blender when
fresh tomatoes and pouring it
ever so gently
over slippery chicken
you just cut
in the sink
bubbling on stove
sweet and brown
then cut for the plate
flesh as tender as peaches
in your kitchen
imagination + attention > gold
© Kat Shamash, April 11, 2016
Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is to write a “book spine” poem. This involves taking a look at your bookshelves, and rearranging the titles to create a poem.
I liked this kinesetic way of working: creating a poem without writing or sitting at the computer, but by hanging out with my treasured books. A librarian's dream!
"The Tao of Physics in Five Parts"
The tao of physics is
fire in the mind,
the magic of awareness,
an eloquent eye.
The two truths about love are:
1. kiss that frog
2. be here now
The rise and fall of great powers
are reduced to three things:
1. essays on love,
2. forks over knives.
3. how the hippies saved physics
A reflection on Islamic art is
the new Persian kitchen --
a catalog of peculiar inventions:
Lawrence in Arabia,
the interpreter of maladies
the Alaskan bootlegger's Bible
The wonders of the universe come down to this:
when women were birds,
they wept tears of love,
they built singing schools, and dreamt
bird dreams that
hit the ground running.
© Kat Shamash, April 10, 2016
Today’s NaPoWriMo challenge is to write a poem that includes a line that you’re afraid to write; something that you’re genuinely a little scared to say.
This is by far my favorite prompt, and certainly the juiciest.
I could write a poem a day for a year.... for a decade.... on this prompt alone.
"Even at the time that the pebbles are being counted out, be not frightened, nor terrified; tell no lies."
"I Forgot to Tell You"
I am dying.
Why did you wait so long to tell us?
Isn’t there something more you can do?
There isn’t anything more that can be done.
I am dying.
You are dying
We are all dying.
Each morning we wake, one more day
I am dying
I waited this long to tell you because
You already knew.
You just forget.
© Kat Shamash, April 9, 2016
just before they put me under
if they will remember to return my
if they will allow me to see the
and if taking them out is more urgent than
we had planned to the
on hospital couch
covered only with a blanket
a whole wall of windows
the cityscape of Bangkok
I cannot understand
a word the
say as they glide up and down the hall
in moving shadows
my wrists with
in the middle of the night
and my eyes
close and open
close and open
in a haze like a
fish who is
then the sun winking on windows far, far away
rising over the long line of skyscrapers
then you bring me breakfast
speaking a language that I can
a single red rose
the obligatory pill
today's International Herald Tribune
rolled up neatly
on my tray
© Kat Shamash, April 8, 2016
Day 7 of 30: Global Poetry Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month
Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is to write a tritina, which involves "three, three-line stanzas, and a final concluding line. Three 'end words' are used to conclude the lines of each stanza, in a set pattern of ABC, CAB, BCA, and all three end words appear together in the final line."
This took some brain power. The hardest part was picking which three words to use in the tritina pattern. Below is my humble attempt.
(At left: a photo I took many years ago. It was some of some of the best wine I've ever had, and some of the best company, too!)
A is for Ants (Who Were Swept Out to Sea)
Ants: circling the pomegranate again and again,
Mounting the tangerine, pineapple, grape
Morning in fruit bowl: a kind of ant-happiness
Expats: distilling the sugar, the yeast for gin-happiness
Lifting the glasses to toast, once again
The cluster, the tide, the white and red grape
The spirits, the shine, from juniper moon grapes
Each colony swimming: a fruit of vine happiness
Antennas for drinking, elixir on tongues, the tribe starts again
A dance in the sand, an ant-mortal disco: saluting the grape again and again
© Kat Shamash, April 7, 2016
Day 6 of 30: Global Poetry Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month
Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is to write a poem about food.
My inspiration comes from a delightful sister, a world wanderer, who I met in India. We were both traveling by ourselves and became fast friends during the time we spent at Villa River Cat in Goa. With a shared passion for the sea and good food, we hung out at places along the Arabian Sea eating grilled garlic mussels at the spectacular French restaurant The Plage and piña coladas at Marbela Beach. We shared so much: laughter, stories, and dreams of "organizing our lives", but the best part of our friendship was the long silences between us as we stared out at the sea.
How lucky was I to snap this iPhone photo just as she placed the plate on the table?
“She Was from Moscow”
The birthday treats
Wearing orange Shanghai
Silk, her hair up in an Oriental bun.
The scent of roses.
The red ones, which she didn’t like,
Floated in a bowl on the bamboo table.
She gathered together long-stemmed
Ivory ones, the butter-colored ones,
a bit brown on the edges, but fragrant,
And put them in glass vases
All around the terrace.
Come, taste my birthday sweets!
she said, smiling like a tango dance as she took them
out of the box, arranged them on the plate.
We cut them in tiny squares, a mosaic,
and shared them at brunch.
It wasn’t because I was American
And she was Russian
And we were in India drinking tea on
The anniversary of the day she was born.
It was because I had never known the salty taste
Of red caviar exploding on the tongue
And she had never known a writer
And we both loved the sea
More than we loved a man or the land.
“Isn’t it funny how we humans need our bodies to get around?”
Each breath she took
lifted the scar on her chest where doctors once
took out her heart to fix it.
Do you know what happiness is?
she asked, turning to look at me.
Happiness is having enough food to eat, and someone to feed.
© Kat Shamash, April 6, 2016
Day 5 of 30: Global Poetry Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month
I am challenging myself to write one poem a day for 30 days. Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is to browse seed catalogs looking for unusual names of heirloom plants. Then, write a poem that takes its inspiration from one or more of the various garden rarities. I chose to focus on basil, my current obsession, which I am trying to grow for the first time in container pots on my desert patio.
This is a photo of my first attempt.
spikes of light in the desert sun
patio container pots
deep bracts of color
oh, the heavy fragrance
such a simple leaf
the cinnamon kind
the tasty one from the gardens of Mexico
and the one from Corsica
Napoleon's island birthplace
green to purple like Mediterranean kitchen tile
maybe the classic, compact Genovese from Italy
perhaps the ornamental Dark Purple Opal
with aromatic leaf nodes and
tender stems extended
so many harvests
so many terracotta pots on stone steps in the countryside
on roofs of sky rises, on window sills of city apartments
so many green leaves in ghetto vegetable patches
at farmer’s markets
in the finely manicured gardens of Château de Versailles
so many cooks grinding pine nuts and walnuts
gathering leaves for pesto
Greeks are adding olive oil to dwarf basil
Cute and compact, with its spicy-anise flavor
Japanese are chopping up the lettuce leaf kind:
large leaves with a lemon-licorice scent.
The basil from the Orient is lime-flavored, like Siam Queen Thai
And then the sweet version with the fuzzy stems: The Hairy Lemon.
For potpourri, the spicy-sweet flavor of the Thai Holy Kaprao,
sacred clove herb of the Hindus.
Oh, the scent of Persia: Reyhan,
lemon and spice and the deep burgundy, slightly blousy leaves
of the Red Rubin
such a simple leaf, sprinkled everywhere
and common as the sea
quietly growing in the hot sun
of Pennsylvania and
etching an Arabian border
between a garden and
© Kat Shamash, April 5, 2016
Day 4 of 30: Global Poetry Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month
For me, the cruelest month is not April, as T.S. Eliot writes in his poem "The Wasteland", but rather August. Today's National Poetry Writing Month challenge is to write a poem in which we explore what we think is the cruelest month.
"August is the Cruelest Month"
August is the cruelest month
a cyclone of anger
shatters a wine glass
Forbidden whiskey melts on broken ice
in the hand of a man
who once promised he loved you.
August is the name of the mason
who closes you in,
stacking the bricks
and the rest of the world.
August is the month you wake up
each morning from a nightmare
still wearing the earplugs, the blindfold, the gag
It is the kidnapped heart
Strapped in an empty warehouse
Bound in ropes
To an old wooden chair.
No one, not even your family
nor your closest friends, can pay the ransom.
The lightening bugs flee
on August nights.
Mosquitos arrive in the dark.
The electricity is off.
Your furniture is gone. So are your screens.
August is your Beloved driving away,
without a word.
You’re still here,
an empty box of matches.
August is a yard sale
selling everything you hold dear
to the lowest
© Kat Shamash, April 4, 2016
Day 3 of 30 of Global Poetry Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month
April is Global Poetry Writing Month, so I am challenging myself to write one poem a day for 30 days. Yesterday, I wrote about a family portrait. Today's NaPoWriMo challenge is to write a poem in the form of a fan letter. My fan letter is to the sea.
“Ode to the Sea”
I have always been your fan.
when I was three
I saw you first in 2D:
etched blue on
the globe that I kept
spinning & spinning & spinning
with tiny fingers,
rushing all the continents
through winter & spring & summer & fall,
passing the seasons
until I grew up.
You like to draw.
I always looked for the boot you etched for the place of pasta,
the way it matched the larger boot
in the place of gwa-ta-MAHL-ah
where Uncle Larry was a missionary
You were everywhere.
Even before I learned you covered ¾ of the earth,
Even before my body floated and crashed in your waves,
Even before the astronauts sent us the
ocean-blue earth image from space,
I felt your pull.
I was not the only girl
drawn from her midnight bed
while the rest of the house was fast asleep.
Stepping out, barefoot onto the cool grass
a whirling dervish
twirling in her shimmery blue
spinning like a globe
I love you most in ah-RAY-bee-ah.
parting your waters
so a wandering tribe
can walk on dry land
with all the
guns & battles in PAHCK-ee-stan, the
bombshell explosions in Eye-ran and Eye-rack
still you reach
cupping the shores
with water hands,
like Mother IN-dyah.
even when mermaids
sprout fins and grow gills
even when mere mortals are pulled to the Beyond
with a force as strong as the tides,
our feet are
caught in land grasses,
held by the ever-strong gravity of place,
© Kat Shamash, April 3, 2016
Day 2 of 30 of Global Poetry Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month
It's Global Poetry Writing Month, so I am taking up the challenge of writing a poem a day for 30 days. Today's challenge: write poem about a family portrait.
As Mennonites, we didn't have many family portraits when I was a young girl growing up. This informal portrait (which looks quite formal, to be frank!) was taken because we are four generations of first-borns. It was taken in 1967 in the house of my great-grandfather. I am the newborn sitting in my great-grandfather's lap. Beside him is my grandfather. Beside him is my mother.
A young woman, a mother, sits on the couch
Arms plump with youth, fingers strong
From kneading bread
Nimble from the thimble
Of sewing thread
She wears a cape dress, which she covers with an apron.
All of her dresses are from the same pattern. So are her mother’s. So are her aunt's.
She does not own a pair of trousers. She has never seen a movie.
She has never flown on a plane. She has never cut
her long, dark hair, which is pinned back into a bun with bobby-pins.
She: daring to not give her daughters biblical names like Ruth or Mary, but
Exotic ones that no one in church has ever heard.
She: stitching pointed sleeves on her wedding dress -- risqué!
She: on the day of her marriage
summoning into the Pennsylvania reception hall
the heady scent of lilacs picked from flower bushes
from miles around Franklin County: white, lavender, deep purple.
The wedding guests swooned.
Beside her sits her father, arms crossed, and her grandfather
who holds me in his lap, his one hand, extended, bigger than my infant head.
First-born, all of them.
First-born, all of us.
What do we know of this mother's tiny rebellions, the light in her bright eyes?
What do we know of the dreams she forms over the garden,
the sewing machine, the steaming stove, the hot oven,
the clothes line?
What do we know of the prayers she whispers
While spreading the bed
With sheets she just brought in
From the fresh, spring air
That blew in from someplace far, far away?
© Kat Shamash April 2, 2016
Day 1 of 30: Global Poetry Writing Month and National Poetry Writing Month
It's Global Poetry Writing Month, so I am challenging myself to write a poem a day.
Today's challenge: write a lune, which is a three-line poem with a 5-3-5 syllable (or 5-3-5 word) count. I've modified this lune to a series of tercets, with the structure of 5 words in the first line, three in the second line, and five in the final line. The poem is accompanied by a photo I took in while writing the poem from a lounge chair in a guest house in Goa, India.
you never forget, do you?
always sitting, watching
remembering everything, a hard drive
blind men think you’re just
trunk, side, tusk
but to those who pray
you're the Remover of Obstacles
the lost bringing
all the incense of India
marigolds in a bowl, chants
sandalwood supplicant, rising
from calloused knees: smiling, hopeful
© Kat Shamash, April 1, 2016
I’m such a poor meditator. I resist sitting - in groups or alone-- as much as I resist the alarm clock, cold showers, and other such things that take me out of my comfort zone.
I should love it. Really. I should. For a year and a half I lived in a community where we sat together in meditation every day of the week. Once, with a Buddhist monk as our teacher, we sat all
day, every day, for an entire week in silence. We walked and ate mindfully. At the end of the seven days, our eyes were clear and we saw each other from one of the deepest places of acceptance and love I've ever experienced. I’ve led walking meditation practices with Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones) with groups of writers at writing/meditation workshops in Taos, New Mexico.
As a practitioner of conscious living, I know the benefits of meditation --- how it quiets the mind and focuses my awareness in the true spirit of "Be Here Now." Yet I continue to resist sitting like I resist exercise. Like I resist writing. Like I resist so many things that enrich and nurture my life, yet find so difficult to cultivate as a habit.
Day 1 of the #31DMC challenge begins with an interview with Oxford professor Mark Williams whose research has shown that mindfulness has been just as successful in treating depression as antidepressants. He speaks in detail of his research and practice in An Introduction to Mindfulness by Professor Mark Williams.
Zhejiang Province near Shanghai for going on two years. There are things I love about China, and others that are a bit challenging. Like people dying of the H7N9 bird flu, for example, and the way it brings back memories of another time I wrestled with my own fears of the bird flu while living in Myanmar.
I haven’t bought or eaten pork in China, even before there were thousands of pig corpses bopping in the waters of the main river that runs through Shanghai this month. The only domestic protein in my freezer is fish, and my main protein comes when I eat out, which is often.
With diseased pigs and chickens being slaughtered thoughout the province and as concerns about China’s domestic meat market mount, I figured it’s time to start finding some good vegetarian recipes. Besides looking for ways to include protein in my diet by combining rice and beans, including whey protein powder in my morning shake, and experimenting with tofu, I’m finding some great vegetable recipes. The local City Life grocery store has an organic produce section that appeals to me, so I’ve been finding ways to incorporate vegetable side dishes into my menu. The one pictured here is a "Mung Bean Sprout and Cucumber" side dish that I found online at this link. You’ll be charmed by Korean-Canadian Maangchi who taught me, via this video, how to make the Korean dish Sukjunamul. Yummy!
It feels good to chop in the kitchen, music blaring, with a breeze coming though this 13th floor on this Sunday afternoon. As I ponder on the fact that over half of the world's population is vegetarian, I know that I can live a long, long time without eating any meat at all.
“Rather than falling, night, to the watchful eye, rises” - A. Roger Ekirch -- “At Day's Close: Night in Times Past”
When I lived in New Mexico, I longed for the night. A deep blue indigo would descend on the mesa, and then the soft velvet,
first in blue-black streaks, then covering the whole wide expanse of the sky. There is that moment, on nights of the new moon, when three stars appear at once. Venus is one. The evening star. And once, in Thailand, the cosmic smile: crescent moon for upturned lips, diamond-studded eyes and nose: shimmery. A dark cloak descends on half of the earth – kind, gentle, like a blessing.
Back in Pennsylvania, many lock themselves in for the night, especially the farmers who sleep not long after the sun sets and who wake upon its rising. While they sleep, fireflies blink over the cornfields, a yellow mirror reflection of white stars.
Nights bring out the mystery: the place of stories, of torches, fire. Andean nights with my Southern lover on the balcony: La Paz, Bolivia: highest capital city in the world, two miles high. The cowboy in Levis who pulled me into the crook of his arm, who held me on the longest night of the year – Saint John’s Eve - by a bonfire. We watched Orion move across the sky, upside down, and traced the line of the Southern Cross.
New Mexico nights are not black, not if you look closely. They are the deepest purple velvet, wood smoke and sage. The stars of Santa Fe and Taos wheel in the slow pass of a tango, and dance, a twinkling, a shadow-train of a queen as she passes.
The night in China is filled with skyscrapers, illuminated. The cities of China try to be the sky: the expanse of high rises--- twinkling windows: stars. China nights are hard. Brittle.
The hard edges of the buildings, and street corners are softened only by the edge of a moon, by the slow curve of rivers.
The river that runs through my city is two blocks from my apartment. Sometimes, on my e-bike, I ride along its shores. My bike is electric. Silent. Run by a battery . Only the wind makes a sound. The riverside is deserted, lit only in blinking street lamps: everyone is home, sleeping, dreaming. I prowl about, a coyote howling for home --- a night creature remembering the scent of sage, wood smoke, campfire, the bear in the larder, the breathing of a sky so close, so bright, I could stretch my neck and touch its twinkling with my lips. A place where movement is in streams, dust storm, and the brush of the wing of a nighthawk in midflight.
Those nights, in a country of 1.3 billion people, in a city of 8 million, I zoom along the river, my hair streaming wild behind me.
And there, just before I reach the traffic light, blinking red, my soul rises.
Into the wide expanse of Asia I am skimming the cityscapes.
Holding my hands are sisters who love me.
The night clings to me close like something primal, like something ancestral, like something as familiar as an embrace.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I have reinvented my life many times. Packed my belongings into cars and suitcases, locked my possessions in storage units, and taken off on yearlong road trips and planes bound for many foreign lands. I’ve lived as an expatriate for over 12 years on four different continents. Because of this, I expected my move to China to be an easy transition. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Image: an art exhibition poster I found at the Hangzhou Academy of Art. I want to go, but first I need to find a translator.
China is not a place for a Westerner with a low tolerance for uncertainty. If you want to avoid ambiguity, it’s best to stay home. Hibernate. Find a cave and stay there. Believe me: it’s tempting. I’d probably stay home more than I do, but I avoid hanging out in my apartment with its mismatched furniture, florescent lights, and white, undecorated walls. I still haven’t figured out how to adjust the temperature of the water heater because the controls are written in Chinese. Most of the showers I take are cold. My tiny kitchen is always hot and stuffy, so cooking is like taking a sauna. I eat out a lot.
I’ve moved halfway around the world to a country whose citizens speak a language I do not understand. I work at a new school at a job that is a brand new profession. From my city apartment, I look out my living room window to a view of six high-rises that are over 40 stories high. I have traveled on a bullet train at 220 mph towards the most populated city in the world.
I’ve lost my frame of reference. Where’s my country, my house, my friends, my mountain, my language? I feel myself changing: shifting into an urban creature directed more by instinct than intellect. Minus language or cultural reference, I use my intuition to guide me. I am the city survivalist, trying not to crash her e-bike into the bus barreling around the corner. I communicate with non-verbal cues, expressions and gestures. I am the chimpanzee in an unmanaged zoo, trying to speak and write and talk. I’d rather be home in my forest, gently picking fleas off my cousins.
Someone once told me “We are the same people we were last year except for the books we have read, the films we have seen, the people we’ve met, and the places we’ve been.” I am not the same person I was two months ago. I am finding beauty in concrete and steel. I have learned to meditate while moving. Even though so much of New China is urban and contemporary, I am tapping into something ancient. I'm enamoured with traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Chinese massage, and the Way of Tea.
I think less about horoscopes and astrology and more about the design of buildings, the fabric of society, and how my choices and behavior affect the design of my own life.
Before living here, I swallowed the stereotypes about China hook, line, and sinker. I actually believed that everything made in China was inferior merchandise and that the Chinese were, in general, an unhappy people. Now I realize how the western media distorted my view, and how threatened the U.S. government is by the power of the Chinese economy. The U.S. press reflects this fear. Living here has opened me up to a new way of seeing China and rest of the world.
Two months of living here, and I feel as if I have shifted on a cellular level. I’m more aware of mass consciousness. I light my nam champa incense with a slightly different prayer. The sacred tobacco seeds from women’s lodge still aren’t planted in the pots on my windowsill, but soon they will be. Only the moon makes me feel rooted – a strong and powerful connection to my former life and my community back home. I’m searching for something that’s just beyond my reach- the sound of a gong in the night air, an unexpected scent of jasmine, yellowed maps from the Old Silk Road. I am still looking for a city tribe that understands soul matters: a group of poets, a community of artists. In my dreams, I go to the place of the mountains. I want to stay there.
I am torn between the old me and the new me, shadow boxing the questions and trying to accept the tears that come with confronting my own identity. I am fragile. Vulnerable. They said this would happen, those experts in the psychology of expatriate living and culture shock. That the honeymoon high would wear off around the second or third month, and the oh-my-god-what-have-I-done phase would set in.
I’m at the oh-my-god-what-have-I-done phase, but I’m not quitting. I’m not running home. I’m staying, because the greatest growth is not an external process: it’s internal. The fortitude it takes to stay, when living here is so hard, has something to do with perseverance and a lot to do with hope. One day, I will call China home. I will have art on the walls, and warm lamps and showers, and a group of friends to invite home for dinner.
Until then: it isn’t easy, people.
Facebook doesn’t tell the whole story.
"Water can quench your thirst and wine can drown your sorrows, but only tea can refresh your spirit."
- Lu Yu, Tang Dynasty, "The Classic of Tea", 760 CE - 780 CE
While contemporary cosmopolitan coffee shops are known for 24-hour wifi/caffeine and jolts of espresso for high-energy boosts for a better and faster life, tea houses celebrate the slowing down of things: a stepping away from sidewalk traffic into a ritual that honors that which is timeless.
Dusk has fallen, and we’re at the foot of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Capitoline Hill. MB, G., and I are freezing in the damp Roman air, so we button up our jackets and prepare to head off to the celebratory street dancing and music promised for the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy.