Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Prayer Flags and the Smell of Dirt

It's a soft morning down here on the southern tip of the U.S.:  warm but not hot, slightly moist but not humid.  April is the month when our weather is often in sync with the rest of the country, although this April, Winter seems to keep stalking the upper 48.  Last week I was driving through a cold rain slicked with sleet--not weather we usually experience down here in South Florida.

It's the kind of weather that makes me want to plunge my hands into dirt.  Instead, I'll go inspect the container garden that we've been nursing.  Just before my spouse's back surgery, I helped transplant seedlings, so I'm happy to see them keep growing.  We've got a lot of baby tomatoes, which I'm hoping will ripen before the really hot weather gets here.

Yes, we've got a different growing season down here.  Most people are in the middle or at the end of harvesting their tomato harvests right now.  It's almost impossible to grow traditional Southern crops (tomatoes, corn, peppers) down here in the summer--the light is too intense, even though the temperatures are similar to the ones that graced my ancestors in South Carolina and Tennessee with bountiful harvests each summer.

When we got back from our latest southeast driving trip, one of our tomatoes had ripened.  We had the best tomato sandwich ever!  We've grown all sorts of cherry tomatoes with success, but never managed to bring a full-size tomato to maturity.

Have you heard of an Everglades tomato?  It's teeny-tiny, but full of intense flavor.  We've grown several harvests full of them.  They're labor intensive to pluck, because they're so tiny.

At our recent creativity retreat, I talked to a woman who's created a variation of Tibetan prayer flags.  She writes prayers on tulle fabric.  She ties them to a pieces of lattice in her garden, and she takes great joy in seeing them flutter in the breeze.  The fluttering reminds her to pray.

I've wondered about this practice and how we might use it for non-prayer purposes.  We could write our wishes for our creative work on tulle or write our problems for which we need solutions.  We could write our dreams and visions, our hopes for what we'd like to see in our lives.

If we write them out, we may find ourselves able to release the anxiety that often comes from our unacknowledged needs or our inability to find solutions.  If we tie the tulle in places where we'll see them, we can be reminded of both our goals and our wildest dreams.  We may be more likely to stay focused with this kind of reminder.

I was thinking of this approach as I drove through the Florida morning on Monday.  All of a sudden, I smelled that wonderful smell of fresh-turned earth.  I thought of all the gardens I'll never have.  I thought of the rich dirt that I used to take for granted until I moved down here, where my yard was once sea bed.

I reminded myself that what I was smelling was likely land development, not gardening.  That reminder took me to a poem I wrote after a similar experience when I ran down the Broadwalk by the beach and whiffed the loamy smell.  But I was smelling the destruction of a quirky old hotel, not the planting of a garden.  Sigh.

The poem is part of what I'm thinking of as my Ash Wednesday series.  It first appeared here in Hobble Creek Review.

Ash Wednesday on I95 South

Of flowers, I sense a dearth.
It’s night, but I should smell them now.
Someone has been turning earth,
but with a bulldozer, not a plow.

Trees smolder in piles.
New housing developments will sprout
in their place. But there will be no smiles.
Concrete covers us all, there is no doubt.

Ash smudges our foreheads.
Ash frosts the windshield.
Ash across the country spreads.
The earthly process will not yield.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
All you love will turn to rust.

Before the poem was a sonnet, it was a non-formalist poem, which I'll paste below.  I was trying to generate enough poems for a formalist manuscript, so I spent a month or two back in the autumn of 2009 transforming non-formalist work into sonnets and villanelles and forms with a definite rhyme scheme.  It was an enchanted time, since I had always assumed I couldn't do much with form or rhyme.  Even though I still don't turn to form first, it was a great experience, and one I highly recommend.

Here's the non-formalist version.  Which do you prefer and why?  A good question, for both creative writing students and literature students.  If you're looking for an exercise with your students, feel free to use it.

Ash Wednesday on I 95 South

The scent of night blooming
jasmine, the smell of smoke.
Someone has been turning earth,
but with a bulldozer, not a plow.

Trees smolder in piles.
New housing developments will sprout
in their place. Concrete covers
clay, an ineffective bandage.

Ash smudges our foreheads.
Ash frosts the windshield.
Smoke obscures our vision.
Lust into dust, and all too soon.

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