Gifts from everywhere



“This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life… Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill…”
Gitanjali (Song-offerings), Rabindranath Tagore

to Kitty Houghton (1942-2013), who lived the essence of cultural exchange, bridging the distances between near & far with gifts from everywhere–small plane pilot; rescue volunteer (Nepal, Bangladesh, Central America); diplomat (Austria, Canada, Columbia, Ivory Coast, China…); language lover (speech in all her posts, doctorate in linguistics, plus languages of music, science, economics, christian science, mountain trails & ski slopes); & friend of all the world– 

Kitty & friend 001          thunder all four quadrants

                    flash of sun

          a little silver plane

                    swoops down

           just under the rainbow



To Kitty–a light beyond translation…


Looking through an old family trunk recently, we came upon the following. Kitty's thank-you card 001Those who knew Kitty later might recognize her spirit in the note, if not the handwriting–no sign yet of that meticulous hand which would fit volumes on a postcard, yet the same bright, focused voice & cheerful good will. Her mother, Edda, a gifted artist with similar  qualities, may have helped her find such a perfect card for the occasion.

She probably got the “piece of Japanese cloth with butterflies” at Christmas, writing the last week of December, somewhere between 1948-52. Not many her age would have  written such a prompt & satisfying thank you–on the one hand formal & to the point; on the other, with such verve & seeming enjoyment! The Richardsons were her country lane neighbors, and her oral thanks (no doubt offered with the same enthusiasm) would have been more than enough, yet she responded to the gift of art with a gift of art. That was her life.

~~~~~~~~“Things reveal themselves passing away.” –W.B. Yeats

During a visit about 1993, Kitty helped translate the following.

~~~…to Orpheus

by Ranier Maria Rilke    

A god might. But tell me, little one, how can
humans follow through the lyre strings?
Our sense is split. And where two ways cross
within the heart, what oracle can we consult?
Singing, as you teach it, is not striving for,
not wanting what can never be finally attained.
To sing is to be. For a god that’s easy,
but when are we truly–& when wound round
inside out with earth and the stars?
Let it not be this, young one, that you love so,
when the voice bursts the mouth open–learn
to forget you sang out so. That fades away.
In the true singing is another breath…one
around nothing, a stirring in the divine…a wind…..

Beyond trying to bring the poem across, word by word & line by line, we never talked about its “meaning,” at least in intellectual terms. For one who so loved music, she surely resonated with the line “To sing is to be,” as well as to the sense that the truest music was beyond sensory experience, “in a breath…/around nothing, a stirring…“–not around dogma or division, but around the receptive, & responsive. That was her life, too.

Here’s a version of Rilke’s piece from Like Water, part of a “Gifts from everywhere” medley, Rilke to Rumi to Rabindranath, with Carl Bernstein’s guitar in top form, part of a globe-spanning collage that sets its theme with Tagore’s piece at its end.

Gifts from everywhere (Rilke to Rumi to Rabi), Leaky Buckets Music 1994

Rivers of Poetry & Song–

“Our lives are nourished by such rivers,
as through their veins, the gifts of many peaks
flow down, the wondrous sap of life
feeding our fields from many sources,
our dreams & our awakenings watered
with streams of song from each direction,
bringing the far near, greetings of the unknown,
even to our own door, so we are all like wanderers,
ever renewed with gifts from everywhere…. –Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore stands out among those who brought high music & thought together in down-to-earth, multi-vibrational language–at once simple & profound, lyrical & grounded. His prose discussions in Sadhana (Self-realization) have a direct, musical  effect on consciousness in ways that complement the clarity of philosophical focus.

He translated his Gitanjali, Song-offerings, originally in Bengali with musical composition, into a loose poetic prose on ship en route to Europe, sharing these with English & Irish poets once there. Yeats was among those moved. Largely on the basis of his English draft, Tagore received the Nobel Prize not long after, the first Asian recipient.

Back in his native Bengal, he poured out poetry, songs, essays, stories, plays; served as a trans-national spokesman for enlightened culture; started Shantineketan, “Abode of Peace,” a school in rural Bengal. (Indira Gandhi was one of its notable students.) His songs, like Amar Mukti (My Freedom) are part of the nation’s songbook, sung by schoolchildren far & wide.

[I found a copy of Sadhana & also Gitanjali in the Samuel Weiser bookstore in NYC between 1963-1965. Just back from most of a year wandering in places like Spain & Morocco, I was just discovering a love of music from flamenco, folk, Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, & others when I first heard Ravi Shankar–& never quite the same.

Back for junior year at Harvard the fall of 1963, I had a room over a Chinese laundry on Mass Ave between Harvard & Central Squares, & not even a radio, so started doing jazz shows at WHRB, mainly for access to its music. One morning, I read the news of the presidential plane landing in Dallas….The next day I met Virginia.

A few weeks later, I did a special Jazz Round Midnight show for my 21st birthday, mainly dedicated to avian jazz–from ‘Yardbird’ Parker’s ornithology to the Audubon All-Stars. I don’t remember if I even knew Virginia’s father was an ornithologist, but we were married that spring. With a quirky detour in a north Texas boarding school, we joined the Peace Corps heading to Bengal with India 37 after training in Missouri, with further training at a Japanese rice farm in rural West Bengal.

Rabindranath Tagore & Ravi Shankar were our most direct inspirations for being there, yet the inspirations kept on coming, eventually carrying us to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in time for the Mother’s darshan, Aug. 15, 1967. Expecting a three or four day visit (& with a son two months young), we ended up staying through to the next spring. I filled in at the international school, teaching literature, writing &, in theory, Indian history, but in all these cases, more or less learning together (which was part of the school’s philosophy).]

Besides contributing to publications like Mother India & =1 {equals one}, I helped a German expatriate re-named Medhananda bring his futurist vision of human-computer interface into English–The Legend of Little Alif. We attended the dedication ceremony Feb. 1968 for Auroville, the “planetary city” nearby, as part of which young people from all parts of the world brought handfuls of their native earth to the dedicatory urn.

Like Tagore, Aurobindo was a native Bengali who joined west & east, the arts & sciences, history & philosophy. Educated in western traditions in the best English schools, Aurobindo returned to become one of the country’s founding fathers, a practicing yogi, philosopher, teacher & poet. His legacy deserves to be better known–from his penetrating sociological observations & focused philosophical inquiries to his mantric poetry, especially his cosmic epic Savitri.

from Savitri 001

Aurobindo articulated a powerful vision of evolutionary emergence, matter to life to mind to…larger mind, the supramental, whatever one calls it. His prose & poetry, mostly composed in English, have direct (mantric) effects on both quality of consciousness & clarity of thought. He was one of the great whole-system thinkers of the century, putting the best of eastern & western approaches together in a holistic synthesis that also embraced the best of science & religion, visionary poetry & practical political sense.

In World War II, he urged full engagement with the Allied cause, making the otherwise venerable principle of ahimsa, non-violence, secondary in response to the Axis threat to a civilization in which such values might have meaning. Although they had once jailed him  as a young radical, he understood that the fight against British rule was of another order.

As one of the earliest advocates of swaraj, self-determination, he had regrets when not one but two independent nations were created on his birthday, August 15. He saw the division as a prescription for suffering, which it quickly became, with the countless casualties of partition & since. Most directly galling was the division of his native Bengal, the western as part of India, the eastern handed to Pakistani rule centered far to the west. He predicted to the year how long the struggle for East Bengal liberation would take.

[When the split did finally happen, with so much unnecessary suffering & disruption, Kitty Houghton happened to be right there in Dacca, in the middle of it, almost losing her life. I think she’d been working with a U.N. agency at the time, but at some point also did work for Bank of America & Dupont, before finding her stride with the Commerce Department, especially in consulates abroad. She seemed to especially thrive in China, her particular skill sets so timely in Shanghai. Initially sorry to reach the mandatory retirement age, she soon found ways of being all the more useful, and just getting in stride when tragedy struck, in an act of random violence.]

Meanwhile, back to the main flow….

(in needle’s eye
~~~~~~~~~~~     stars go on turning)

We came whirling out of nothing, scattering stardust.
Stick on a drum beats, “I am a green branch again!”
I was a corpse & became new–earth, tree, beast.
Into each I have died, & become more.
Do we ever become less?
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Come, beggars,
sit with open hands at the gate of nothingness.
Desire only what you have no hope of attaining.
This is no little mountain creek. This is that
shoreless sea, where swimming always ends
by drowning.

~~~furu ike ya    kawazu tobikomu     mizu no oto~ ~ ~ ~~~~~~~~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~  ~ ~ ~  old pond      frog jumps in    water’s sound (Basho, 1686)

~~~kiyotaki ya     namu ni chirikomu     ao matsu-ba~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~  clear cascades     into the current falling   green pine-tips (Basho’, 1694, his last recorded ‘last poem’)

In Basho’s Japanese,  the root ga gives rise to both poetry & song. The two are one as in Tagore’s river & “Song offerings,” many still sung today (e.g., “Amar mukti e akashe’…”).

All places on earth, it seems, have examples of essentially similar  flowing, however wonderfully individual the voices, instruments & ‘rags,’ Rumi & Rilke to Random & Ricardo, not just from & to one another, nor just those big rivers everyone knows the names of (Yeats, Whitman, Neruda, Paz…), but however many others equal in feeling,  form, or wetness (even some poets in the wetness protection program), perhaps never “discovered.”

Coming back to basics, Emerson wrote that “Every word was once a poem.” In this sense, the poem may most often be therapy first, a personal entertainment, exploration & adventure, or sometimes an actual communication, otherwise not necessarily a public or professional vehicle. It might have no intended audience, or be meant for a single person only. “Nor is there singing school,” wrote Yeats, “but studying monuments of its own magnificence.”

Great examples in any art are always a surprise. There is no mechanical formula to explain them. Sometimes they come without a maker’s name attached, as did the following blessing, a song shared in Zapotec & Spanish from the next table in a little three-table café in Oaxaca in 1986, translations of which became the mission statement for all Land of Enchantment Poetry Theater’s programs shortly thereafter.


~~~~~~~Oaxacan Blessing

A Zapotec singer in Oaxaca said,
listen carefully to these words.
Our song is like the heart of the flower,
~~~~~our words like pollen on the wind,
~~~~~~~with the perfumes of intuition,
~~~~~~~~~incense for our prayers,
~~~~~~~blessings opening to the future
~~~~~like flowers on the tree of life,
~~~from roots with no end,
~~branches beyond measure–
seed-heads bursting on the wind,
each carries a part of the whole.

So here & now we say to everyone–
“work together; help each other like relatives;
go forth & make the world beautiful.”

The singer was Martin Chacon, who translated the Zapotec to Spanish, claiming a two-thousand year lineage for the song. Mitch Rayes, Gita Bodner, Yours Crudely & others helped bring it from there to the version here. It sums up an attitude found in Basho,  Tagore, Black Elk, Ansel Adams, Aldo Leopold, & many others who go on  inspiring long after their own  singing, while their songs (& even voices) continue.


Afterword: The gift of great (& not so great) poetry…

The following has the same title as what was here before, but is almost entirely new as of 3/21/2014.

Afterword-the gift of great poetry (b)


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