The image above is one I took this past week as soon as the trails of my beloved Helen Putnam Park opened up. How grateful I have been to immerse myself in the sensual pleasures of sunlight and stars, the smell of freshly cut hay and the sound of frogs, crickets and birds. The simple beauty of the natural world has been a balm for my soul and made me feel an ever deepening connection with the poets across the centuries. I think of Mary Oliver's lines from her poem "Mindful" in which she exults:
Every day I see or hear something
that more or less kills me with delight,
that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself over and over
in joy, and acclamation.
Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary, the common,
the very drab, the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar, I say to myself,
how can you help but grow wise
with such teachings as these –
the untrimmable light of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made out of grass?
I am pretty sure that Mary was having what I call a " conversation across the centuries" with Walt Whitman. In her autobiographical series of essays Upstream, Mary Oliver had written about how important Whitman was to her, that she felt he was "the brother I never had" and her imaginal mentor during times of deep loneliness and alienation from the world (see a NPR article here) . I suspect that my favorite line in "Mindful", the one of " the prayers made of grass" was her nodding homage to Walt Whitman's alpha and omega, Leaves of Grass. First published as a slender volume of 12 poems in 1844, the collection achieved scandal and notoriety because of its frank and earthy appreciation of the human body and the valley of sensual delight with such poems as "A Song of Myself and "I Sing the Body Electric".
At first, Whitman's work was decried and banned as "immoral". A turning point came with the support of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lauded a subsequent edition as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that Americas has yet contributed" .
Whitman continued to add to and refine Leaves of Grass until the end of his life. On his deathbed, he wrote to a friend, "L. of G. at last complete -- after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts he land, and peace & war, young & old".
Was Whitman a saint? A sinner? A scoundrel? Depends on whom you might ask. During his lifetime, he was regarded by some preachers as dangerously immoral. For others, like Henry David Thoreau, he was a prophet of authenticity, the godfather of liberation bridging the world of nature and humanism. Born into financially challenged circumstances and almost entirely self-educated, Whitman encountered widespread opposition to his work during his lifetime. He witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Civil War when he walked on foot to tend to his wounded brother. Despite the unfolding challenges of his life, he was nonetheless able to give voice to hope, wonder and joy. He believed deeply in freedom, democracy and reconciliation, holding within his being the need for individual freedom and the desire for harmony and unity. In his writings, he encourages us to"Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you." and to "regard everything in the universe as a perfect miracle". He saw when he looked at his own life that despite the challenges on the surface, "there is no imperfection in the present and can be none in the future. And I will show that whatever happens to anybody, it may be turned to beautiful results". Above all, he encourages us to sing with joy the celebration of our own true selves. Whitman's legacy lies in how powerfully he encourages us to celebrate life and the messy, imperfect but glorious experience of being human.
This Sunday will mark the 201st anniversary of this extraordinary individual. In celebration, Mythica invites you to "One Hour of Madness and Joy" a Virtual Salon where we will tell stories, recite poems and play music that reflects the energizing and optimistic spirit of the Grandfather of American Poetry. Joining me will be my dear friend Hari Meyers, a dead ringer for Whitman himself.
A master storyteller who has presented one-man shows on Parsifal, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and Celtic myths, Hari has been immersed in the life and works of Walt Whitman for the past few years. Originally, we had planned for Hari to present his show at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum with a ticket price of $30.00, but like so many in -person events in these past months, it had to be canceled. Now, in honor of Whitman's birthday, we offer this celebration now to you as part of the emerging " "Mythica Feastdays" series of virtual salons celebrating the great guiding lights of culture who can help us keep our flame of hope alive. In the continuing spirit of accessibility, this is a pay-what-you-can offering. If you can contribute the asking price of $30.00, thank you. If you are financially challenged, please come anyway and offer what is comfortable (even $5) during these challenging times. And if you are moved-- as several patrons have been-- to offer additional support to underwrite those who need scholarships, we send you a thousand blessings.
Whitman's deep commitment to excavating his interior life in a spirit of affirmation of the potential goodness of humanity places him squarely in the center of an ancient tradition. This Tuesday evening at 6 pm PST, I will offer Part 2 of "The Way of the Hermit" where we will encounter the history of individuals from Egypt to Ireland. These "Desert Fathers and Mothers" and Celtic monks followed the call of a different drummer to pursue lives away from the madding crowd of the masses in order to live lives of authenticity and inner celebration in harmony with nature. Part 3 will conclude on June 4 Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. Click here to register now.through the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies.
As we approach Whitman's birthday, I want to invite you to consider who else you might want to celebrate this year. Mythica is creating a calendar of feast days from Bach to Dante, Clara Schumann to Mary Oliver. Who do you think deserves a salon where we celebrate the Good, the Beautiful, the True? What figure from the past has been a beacon of light for you who encouraged and empowered you? Write and let us know.