Saturday, November 28, 2009

national day of listening 2009

On Thanksgiving Day my mother gave me a platter that had been passed down from her great-grandmother, who was from Nova Scotia. It was a remaining piece from a set that was passed down from her grandmother, to her mother, to her and now to me. Other pieces of the set may have been given to her other aunts.

I decided to ask my mother more about this woman, her own great-grandmother, or her grandmother. My mother didn't know anything directly about her great-grandmother, but she knows that her grandmother lived with her in their home in Jenkintown, outside of Philadelphia, on the same train line that goes to Ambler. Her mother, the eldest daughter, had brought her down from Nova Scotia to live with them when she was probably not well. My mother was 1 or 2 at the time, and her grandmother probably died within a year of living with them, maybe 1918. She was young, Mother remembers, and her mother told her that the grandmother had violet-colored eyes. Mother remembers, from photographs, that her father and mother took her grandmother on a trip to Atlantic City. The photograph shows them in style.

The other sisters included Azul, 15 years younger than my grandmother and who lived not too far from her, in Camden, New Jersey. Mother's Aunt Jac (for Jacobine) stayed in Nova Scotia, living on the ocean, north of Yarmouth. The third sister, Gene (Imogene), died in Boston very young, soon after she married, maybe from the flu, maybe from a baby. Her sister, Irene, was away at the time, traveling with her husband.

After her grandmother died, my mother's mother brought her father, Jacob, down from Nova Scotia. My mother has a very clear memory of him lying in his casket, white hair. He was a short, stocky man, and deaf. Mother said, "He lived with us, then Daddy got mad at him and threw him out because he told my mother to get divorced from my father -- so my grandfather went to live with Aunt Azul. Daddy told me this; Mother never said anything about it. The casket was at Aunt Azul's, so I must have been 3 or 4 years old."

My grandmother also had a brother, Romeo, father of Eddie, who lives in Kalamazoo and Victor, who lived in Traverse City.

I asked my mother about the names that her grandmother gave her children. She told me that her mother told her that her grandmother loved Shakespeare, could quote all of Shakespeare's plays and all of the Bible, and so named her children with names from Shakespeare.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

halo of hair

My grandmother had long hair. When I stayed at her house overnight I would watch her before she retired to bed in the evening as she took down the long braid that she pinned on top of her head every morning. She had a dish full of black hair pins. She would brush her long hair with the 100 required strokes. She sat at her dressing table and did this. I would stand at the doorway to her bedroom and watch her brush her hair. Then she would braid it, perhaps with two braids, and leave the braids down for sleeping. She told me with great pride and yet a touch of shyness how much her husband (my grandfather I never knew -- he died before I was born) loved her long hair. I don't think she ever cut it, except to trim the ends. Every morning she would braid the single braid and wrap it up on top of her head again. She had combs that she would also put in her hair to catch the fly-aways. But they were all brown or black haircombs. When her hair was all white, I found some white hair combs for her to use, instead of the brown ones, and she was so delighted, she said she didn't know that they made them anything but dark combs.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

ahhhhh to fly high above

listening to the wind

skin deep

Guided by the young teen on the cusp of manhood, I marvel at his awareness, his knowledge of the birds’ calls (teakettle teakettle), the Carolina wren, the woodland hawk, the cardinal. Compared to the professional naturalist’s one hummingbird nest found in her almost 50 years (and she is one of the best naturalists I know), he has found five in his fifteen years.

He has been listening to, talking with, observing, eating, comparing the natural world around him all his life, so every plant, tree, animal, insect, and of course birds, are within him and part of his skin. He shares this wonderful knowledge with those of us who are accompanying him on the nature walk, with a deep modesty a part of his self-confidence.

We are skipping our single stones across the surface, whereas he has dived into the depths time and again.

He introduces us to the equesitum (horsetail) and its properties, a low-growing feathery and rather beautiful plant whose leaves can clean and scour pans, giving it his respect by informing us (twice) that it is one of the ancient plants.

Sitting now facing the lake, my time for quiet and observation, and, as always, feeling the healing and restorative power of this place. The strongest force for me is the wind, bringing the coolness, the smells of the air so fresh, the beautiful music of leaves, rustling, also delighting in the sight of these leaves winking swaying from the branches. The lake gives its approaching concentric ripples, beautiful in their constantly changing but consistent patterns. A little bit of bright yellow (woodland sunflower) and purple (loosestrife) appear among all the many greens surrounding and on the lake.

The music of the wind and the trees continues to be played; no silence here. It is an August morning, but there has been a change today and the fall approaches.

I am content.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


From a collection of Thich Nhat Hanh's journal entries, Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962–1966
If you tarnish your perceptions by holding on to suffering that isn't really there, you create even greater misunderstanding. Reality is neither pleasant nor unpleasant in and of itself. It is only pleasant or unpleasant as experienced by us, through our perceptions. This is not to deny that earthquakes, plagues, wars, old age, sickness, and death exist. But their nature is not suffering. We can limit the impact of these tragedies but never do away with them completely. That would be like wanting to have light without darkness, tallness without shortness, birth without death, one without many. One-sided perceptions like these create our world of suffering. We are like an artist who is frightened by his own drawing of a ghost. Our creations become real to us and even haunt us.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Stories in Cedar

Totem pole types include story-telling legend poles, wedding poles, history poles, poles that ridicule bad debtors and those that honor the dead.
Meanings are elusive, for the ravens, wolf crests and bear symbols now stand apart from the ceremonies that breathed life into the carvings.
Mortuary poles honor the dead. Often cremation ashes are kept in a receptacle in the back. The single figure at the top represents the commemorated person's clan. Crest poles, usually part of a house, portray the ancestry of a particular family.


oral tradition

Here is why traditional stories passed down through families can be so compelling.

What is involved includes discipline, insistence on accuracy and confinement of the storytelling within a family group.

The Tlingit native people have numerous clans; within each clan a storyteller is entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring his or her own people's history. This responsibility is neither given nor received lightly. A storyteller must tell only the stories of his own clan, never that of a neighboring people. A new storyteller may not publicly repeat the stories until she has proven to the elder who is teaching her that she can repeat it word for word, with no changes nor elaboration.

The storyteller, young or old, sits close to his audience, seeing them and observing their reaction as he speaks.

Recently, I was privileged to hear the story from a Huna Tlingit (Xunaa Ka`awu) young man about how what we call the Grand Pacific Glacier in Alaska's Glacier National Park rapidly took over his ancestors' lands centuries ago, displacing his people to a new settlement. He spoke to his audience with the storytelling mantle that had been bestowed on him (his grandmother made him repeat the story accurately five times before her permission was granted), and exactly in the manner of respect that was prescribed.

Within my own family storytelling, we have never considered the importance of these protocols, so we expect individual memories to change aspects of what is remembered. We rely on the written word, so place less importance on oral memory or repetition. We suspect that one person's remembrance must always be different from another's. So we enjoy our family traditions and we believe our family stories to be important to us as a small group of related people, but we don't quite trust that the information is truly accurate. We want to see a diary of the period, or an official document, or another form of written history. And yet, these, too, can be distorted, as we know well by the common occurrence of immigrant names being changed by officials who could not understand foreign pronunciation or when a foreign sound could not be rendered adequately into English. We know that typographical errors are made; before our eyes and ears we hear the former vice president of the United States rewriting with his version of history the events of less than a single decade.

With the trust that stories are communicated accurately from grandparent to grandchild, then a people, a family, can ensure that what is passed down from generation to generation, from century to century, remains true to the memory of the events.

photographs: woods





The best advice my older sister gave me as a young mother was:

the minute that you get used to your children doing something a certain way,
they will change

Remembering this held me in good stead as my two grew and changed and daily discovered new activities, new ways of thinking, new aspects to the world around them. I could never become complacent with who they were and what they could do. I was also taught by my children to adapt and to look for changes and to appreciate and embrace for myself what was new and what might be unfamiliar.

I was reminded of this the other day when my grandson, now 5 1/2 (and currently he always adds the additional 1/2 when asked his age) seemingly changed before my eyes. It had only been a week, possibly two, since I had seen him last and all of a sudden he had grown from a toddler to a little young man. His manner was different, he moved differently, he had more patience, he took care of his little sister differently, his concentration, which was always great, now seemed to become even more focused. I kept seeing in his face the changes that had taken place, seemingly so quickly, and which now anticipates the older young man who is yet to develop.

day of birth september 2003

photographs: water




© penny corbett may 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The beauty of impermanence

The Navajo and the Tibetan fine and exquisitely beautiful sand paintings have multiple aspects in common. The act of creating the painting, emphasizing great patience, is one. The use of rich and traditionally meaningful symbols is another. The variety of strong colors, produced from the riches of the earth surrounding the artist is a third. Yet perhaps the most important shared element is that the focus of the paintings is not on art per se, but is found within the spiritual understanding embedded deep within the philosophies of these cultures.

Both emphasize the oneness of all creatures, living and inanimate, of the earth. And both cultures understand that change is the only constant. There is no permanence. Impermanence is found in our bodies, in the sky, in the seasons, in everything. To abandon the desire to control that which surrounds us, to merge with impermanence, is to become one with each other and with all.

The sand painting's particular spiritual lesson is that, upon completion, it is transformed and returned to the nothingness with which it was begun. There is no need to hold on to its image; it provides a message or a truth at one time and in one single place within a continuum. The ego of the artist is submerged to the message.

I look at the many items in my home and my history with which I surround myself, some with wonderful memories, some for current use, or for enjoyment, or for knowledge. I have no wish to give up what I consider the best of these items (and unfortunately I don't seem to have the energy to give up the worst of them). But I worry about having the false assumption that by holding onto these items I therefore do not lose that which I cherish. Perhaps more accurately, it may be that what I allow myself is the pretense that I can maintain control of all parts of my life, when, in fact, these assumptions produce exactly the opposite results.

I love computers and electronic gadgets, and find them delightful companions and useful tools. In spite of that, it was with much hesitation that I finally allowed myself to become part of the great Facebook stream, with its interconnectedness and the delightful way in which we can peek into others' lives and share pieces of our own with large groups of people we both know and don't know, all of whom called "friends," and all at the same time. But the Facebook attempt to connect the whole world, literally, with a 6-degree site where one can sign up, is also based in the false assumption that we can in this rather impersonal way truly share with others. The most troublesome aspect of this new form of communication (and I still have many additional concerns) is that once something is written, it presumes permanence; the thought cannot be wisked away with the wind to be transformed into a different form of energy. What is communicated sits on its site, with the ability to be seen by the entire world, for all time (or at least, for all computer internet time).

What made me think of the beauty behind sand paintings was a series of little frustrations that appeared in my life recently. Nothing of any importance, nothing life shattering nor even anything particularly hurtful. Just an annoyance here and there that sat with me. There wasn't a companion nearby to whom I could speak my frustrations and who might gently prod me with both a sympathetic and yet tolerantly and slightly amusing reaction, pricking my own balloon and letting out my air of annoyance. And so, the frustrations grew to an uncomfortable sensation and needed to be dispersed. How lovely to allow the wind to carry our voices, both our happinesses and our angers as well as our smaller annoyances. The old tradition of writing something down and then disposing rather than sharing it inappropriately, is also a way to throw it to the wind. It concerns me that too many of these frustrations can so easily be formulated on a communication tablet such as Facebook, without the ability to be dispersed with the energy the earth. Instead, they can be seen and recreated and remembered and perhaps inaccurately reinterpreted with each re-reading.

I want to learn to express my deepest beliefs using the wisdom of the sand paintings, patiently creating a message for each moment and for each very specific period of time, and then allowing that message to return to nothingness, to an integrative universal knowledge.

making the impermanent permanent
A Sacred Art by the Tibetan Lamas of Drepung Loseling
Wallace Ben sand painting, the place where gods come and go

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The beauty in the drawings

Three ferns, an acorn, an oak leaf, come to life with multiple delicate strokes of the black pen. How skillfully and how lovingly the pen takes to the paper and allows the life of the vegetation to emerge from the drawings.

It is a marvelous skill that my daughter has. She referred to one of her drawings as being created by “just copying.” I suppose there is truth to that. But because it is so much more, one must look at what really happens with that act of copying. It begins with clarity of observation. She really sees what is in front of her. She has great respect for what she is seeing. She respects the essence of the form itself, and transmits that observation. She has a remarkable connection between the observation and her mind’s awareness and the coordination of her hand with the brush and pen, so that it manifests itself as talent. But mostly I think she approaches what she does with love. It reminds me of the understanding of the creation of food for others in Like Water for Chocolate. It is the fullness of the feelings that are transmitted into creation. And when those feelings are inspired by love, it affects all of us who partake.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Past, the Future, but really, the Present

In my thirties, I trained myself to observe and disregard the many shoulds.

As I’ve grown older, I find myself more and more within the present. Children know instinctively the importance of living each second in the present.

Ahhh, to be the author of oneself.

The Miracle of the Ordinary Soul

I must never forget that in my moment of deepest travail she crossed the room and put her hand on my shoulder, an utterly simple gesture perhaps, but more graceful and helpful to me than the gift of a kingdom. By such a gesture she sought to heal me, supposedly the healer. As I do not seem able much to heal, then maybe I can simply be a responsible witness to the miracle of the ordinary soul.

…. My main thought is, let her be.

from The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

I would like to be a responsible witness. And to my own miraculous ordinary soul, as to the souls of others.

the delicious enchantment of gran'ma's pocketbook

I walked around the corner into the living room just as my 2nd daughter was saying, "no, no those are BapaMama's important things." Which allowed me to see what my little grand-daughter was doing without having to interfere or be part of stopping her at all.

In this brief moment, I saw my 2 1/2 year old grand-baby sitting in front of the coffee table, where she had found my soft pocketbook on the floor just beside my usual chair. She had had time, while her mama and her papa and I were still finishing our dinner in the kitchen, to open up each one of the many zippered pockets, and had laid out all the goodies in front of her, a wealth of grown up treasures.

There was sheer enjoyment on her face, produced by each discovery as she unearthed it, and also with, I am sure, the delightful consciousness that there was probably something a little bit forbidden in what she was doing.

It was a precious moment, to be savored, and an image I am happy to retain. How many times as children we experience enchantment with the simplest of events. I was truly appreciative by how kindly and calmly my daughter-in-law had stopped this play (after all, these were Gran'ma's toys, it was true!), while not putting any onus on the delight of the act itself.