Monday, August 8, 2016

A Spirituality of Ordinary Time

"Just Another Day"
- At the Desert Retreat House - 

On the Christian calendar there are few if any special events celebrated in these lazy days of summer- it’s not Christmas or Easter or Lent or Advent. And so this season is usually referred to as “ordinary time.” Actually, “ordinary time” is probably my favorite season of the entire year.

A few days ago I cracked open one of my very favorite books: The Kingdom of Ordinary Time - a collection of poems written by Marie Howe, the Poet Laureate of New York State.  Ms. Howe believes that poetry is always about ordinary events that take place in ordinary time. A poem simply “catches a glimpse” of a world of extraordinary beauty and wonderful surprises always available in each and every moment of our everyday routines.

I once heard Marie Howe give an interview about her poems of ordinary time. In the interview she described what happens when she teaches a course in “writing poetry” to college students. They all come to her expecting she will talk about literary style, proper grammar, perhaps rhyming techniques. Instead she begins the semester by asking everyone to take out a piece of paper and simply jot down something about what they may have observed on their way to class that day. For the most part, almost no one remembers what they observed, most were oblivious to it all. They were distracted while listening to their iTunes, driving aimlessly, sitting before class texting a friend, perhaps surfing the web, maybe thinking about some upcoming meeting. 

She tells them that the only assignment these future poets will receive at this point in her class is to avoid distractions and carefully observe whatever “comes to them” in the ordinary events of their lives, then describe whatever they observed. She tells them not to embellish, no metaphors or flowery poetic language, “just describe life as you become aware of it, then come to class and share what you have observed.”

Professor Howe talks about the wonderful thing that always happens when her students grow into “awareness of ordinary time" - they all turn into poets: 

By the fourth week of the course, when the students come into class
onto their desks pours all this wonderful stuff.
And it’s so thrilling, I mean it’s really thrilling and everybody can feel it.
The slicing of an apple, the gleam of a knife, the sound of the trashcan closing,
the maple tree outside, the blue jay.

About half-way through the course Professor Howe tells her students that, if they wish,  they may now employ metaphors in writing their poems, but no one wants to. They tell her: Why should we compare what we see to something else when the beauty we observe is the thing itself?

Wow, what a wonderful lesson to have learned – ordinary things and ordinary events are all the beauty we ever need.

Marie Howe concludes:

You become a poet when you become aware of
the events of everyday moments in everyday life.

We often think of poets as people who have exceptional gifts and talents, people with an uncanny ability to carefully fashion sentences, craft elaborate metaphors and devise exotic rhyme patterns; and while some poets are able to do this, the real “magic” of poetry is to simply be “aware of what is,” to catch a glimpse of the mystery of each moment and describe it. Each and everyone of us can do this, no matter who we are or what language we speak or even if we are unable to read or write.

I guess I like this season of “ordinary time” so much because it gives me the extraordinary opportunity to hone my poetic skills - to become more and more aware of the wonder of what is. By the way, the sunrise in the desert this morning was extraordinarily beautiful. 

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, once offered this excellent piece of wisdom to one of his students:

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it.
Blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.

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