Shambala and The Gift of Music

One of the biggest goals I have when I teach poetry is the restoration of the creative birthright, the idea that we all can be and in fact already are poets, writers, artists.

I love watching people’s eyes light up, their shoulders relax, their pens start to move, their backs straighten as they watch themselves write, then maybe even share what they have just composed on the spot. Creativity is our birthright; it is the force that keeps the world growing, changing, inventing, renewing. It is there in us even when it gets warped, suppressed, expressed in thwarted or unhealthy, even destructive ways. (Arthur Mindell says in his book The Shaman’s Body: When a people fail to dream, we dream in guns.) Thwarted creativity is actually destructive.

So, my personal mission has been to help anyone I meet in a workshop or writing retreat to re-acquaint themselves with their creative inner child, the one who for whatever reason grew up to believe she was not an artist, who was either told she was no good or who told herself she was no good. Or perhaps the world told her there is no place for her art, at least not within the framework of a successful, responsible life. I have seen so many people realize that they do in fact have the healing flow of words within them, just below the surface, and I have seen the power of those words to change both their own hearts and the hearts of those with whom the poems are shared.

If anyone is familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, you know the power of morning pages, artist dates, and the simple daily practice of leaning into our trust in our own creative selves.

I’ve been preaching this sermon for a while now. And, yet.

This weekend, I went to an absolutely incredible “Healing Sound” Drumming & Chanting retreat with my husband at the Shambala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, led by the amazing teachers Christine Stevens (UpBeat Drum Circles) and Jonathan Crowder (Peak Rhythms). The retreat was a powerful time of community, rhythm, prayer, healing, and devotion. We sang, we danced, we drummed, we rattled, and we carried our offerings of sound and love in the culminating procession to the beautiful Stupa of Dharmakaya, where we laid down our instruments and took up our own most primary instruments: our voices. We chanted in the kirtan style, invoking many languages and sacred songs from across traditions. We cried. We swayed. We laughed. We shouted with joy. We pulled others who had joined us into our circle and THEY dang and cried and swayed. We sent our most heartfelt prayers for the world straight up and out of that Stupa, straight up to the jewel-bright stars. It was a night to remember. And for me, it was life-changing.

Despite all my talk about our creative birthright and the ability we all have to be poets and artists, I have been leaving out an important word. Somewhere along the line I had convinced myself that I am not musical.

I have been believing for so long now that I missed the boat for music, that I just didn’t get the singing voice and that I should have kept up with the piano lessons from the 5th grade but didn’t, so now it’s too late. I have harbored pipe dreams of learning the guitar or ukulele, but those dreams kept the possibility of music at arms length, and at best several years away from whenever I decided to do something about it.

I have been longing to bring music into my chaplaincy practice, to bring melodies that bring peace, joy, remembrance to my dying patients.

Except for the times when I am desperate and compelled to sing to them, I have had to outsource this desire, playing music on my phone or asking outside groups to bring the music in. (And, sometimes they don’t get there in time.) Strangely and by grace, my singing is better in this setting. I have surprised myself with the most heartfelt renditions of Amazing Grace. Hymns have come out of me that I never knew I knew (and have since forgotten). Once I taught a daughter a Spanish Taize song to sing at the bedside of her dying mother. So, somehow, I have been doing this all along. And yet, in a big way still, I have been denying myself, and my patients, the music in me. The truth is, I thought there was no other way. I mean, how quickly could I possibly learn the guitar? And forget learning music theory or even reading music—that too ended when I stopped piano at the age of ten.

This weekend, with my loving group and encouraging, playful teachers, I realized: this is so much easier than I have been telling myself it has to be.

I have been putting up so many barriers to my own creativity, to the music that wants to come into my life and through my life. Sure, great music takes practice; great music takes years of experience. But GOOD music can happen any time, around a fire, with just a drum, a rattle, a chant, the basic beat we all have inside, and a willingness to go for it. The beauty of chanting, and drumming in a group, is that there’s no pressure on any one person. This isn’t a performance. It’s more about harmony and rhythm than accuracy or pitch— a very lucky thing for me. Still, every voice counts, every instrument adds to the whole and would be missed if it were absent. And we had some good, good music this weekend.

During our last session on Sunday morning, our endlessly generous teachers invited me to read a poem I had written the day before, and we as a group put it to music. I don’t mean we wrote a score; we improvised on the spot. We chanted the lines in rounds. We took words and ran with them. We got up and we danced.

Never have my words been honored in this way, and quite soon they were not my words at all; they were the group’s words, lifted and carried and given new life. I’m finally understanding something I’ve known for a while to be true: music is the original home of poetry. It felt so right, and it felt so freeing. The poem didn’t have to be this tight-knit thing because each part of it had a life of its own that could take off running, or dancing. I still love a good, well-crafted poem; that kind of poem has its own, quiet kind of music, its own form of harmonic resolution. But for the first time in my life I think I’m understanding what it is to offer my words up to the fire, to watch them become more than my own, to watch them dance, and to watch them fade. Who cares if they get written down? And that’s in part why, originally, they never were. Songs and stories were passed down through generations, and they were allowed to change with every telling, every singing. They were alive. They transformed.

We create, as we live, in the present moment. Perhaps that Stupa had more power over me than I realized: I am feeling less need to hold onto things, to call them mine. To hoard as if there might not be more where that came from. Annie Dillard says in he beautiful book The Writing Life:

“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I cannot tell you how excited I am to start bringing music into my life, to start letting it flow through my life. It was as though a huge part of the human experience had been waiting for me behind a door I had locked and told myself was not for me. I had forgotten I had the key all along. Thank you, Christine and John and my beautiful tribe of musicians, for showing me where I had put it.

Here is the poem we chanted on Sunday morning:


Originated at the 2019 Healing Sounds Retreat

Shambala Mountain Center


The heart knows what it knows

and the mind will catch up later.

Science finally dances

at the edges of our fire.


Let us let in all the skeptics,

our own hearts first.

Let us welcome them

with the drumbeat.

Let us cry loudly

to those who least believe:

you are home. Home. Home.


The heart knows the tune.

The mind, if we are lucky,

names the dance.


Here comes the dance!

You can’t help it.

Ah, what a chill.

Ah, what a wind.*


*Borrowed from the end of a Peruvian Dance song by the Ayacucho Indians (Source: Technicians of the Sacred p. 90)

And here is me, with the Native American flute that I took home with me, thanks to Christine and High Spirit Flutes. I cannot wait to play. And I do mean, PLAY.


A Place of Grace: Mother Stump Book Launch

Yesterday was the book launch of Mother Stump, and I couldn't be more grateful. I am grateful for everyone who made it possible:

I am grateful for Anne Yale at Yak Press, the most kind, generous, astute, and supportive editor a person could ever ask for. She is no less than a Godsend. 

I am grateful for All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena for generously hosting the event. All Saints was the first church that I felt welcomed in after a "breaking away" from a life of faith, and it is that place of refuge for many. It's a place where love and acceptance trump judgment. It's also a place where my mom and I attended several workshops and seminars together before she died, and so it has always felt like a place of grace, a place she had, somehow, prepared for me. 

I am grateful to my fellow Native Blossom Series poets for showing up with poetry, love, scones, and tea sandwiches, and for paving the way and giving me my first home in the publishing world.

I am grateful to my friends and family, some of who traveled hundreds of miles to be there, and all of who humble me with their outpouring of love. We had a full house and had to pull out more chairs! 

I am grateful to everyone who has supported me on this journey and believed in both me and the creative spirit within me (especially when I did not).

I am grateful for my "students," who are each more friend than student: Sarah, Janice, Chie, Robin, and Sheila, who all gave beautiful readings and testified to the power of poetry in their lives. 

I am grateful for my father, who could not be there--who instead was flying out to Kentucky to be with his own father, possibly in his final days--who sent beautiful flowers in his absence, and with whom I have such an understanding that we both know how much love is present even across distance. 

I am most specially grateful to my mother, who keeps showing me the arrows, and who showed me a love so fierce and so fundamental that losing her became a place of wild fertility in my life. The void she left became my path forward, and even (especially) in her absence she is an ever-present force of love and grace. Just last Wednesday, a hummingbird came and buzzed me--three times in a row. The first time it came up to about a foot in front of my face. Then it buzzed away, and I asked it to return, which it did, then flitted away. I said to it, "one more time?" and it zipped again from the tree where it was perched just in front of my face and on to another tree. That kind of love is extravagant. That kind of love is a grace. 

Finally, I am grateful for baby Adeline, who knows what it really means to consume poetry. Her book was the best one I signed all day. 

P.S. If anyone wants the recipe for the chocolate-covered cheesecake bites, you can find it here! 

Notes from the Field: Fort Lyon

"Most everyone at Fort Lyon is in some form of recovery, and the more time I spent hearing the stories that led into addictions and life on the streets but also the stories of strength and courage and overcoming, I began to get a real glimpse, for the first time in my life, of the world of recovery. It’s a world where courage and grace meet daily, and though it’s a place I haven’t myself lived, it’s a place I can recognize from afar, to a small degree, from the not-too-distant shore of my own human struggles, and the writing life itself. I stand in awe, and even perhaps jealousy, of the choices the residents and staff here make on a daily basis to create a life that is self-aware, humble, proactive, and other-oriented."

Read the rest of my reflection in my blog post, "The Equality of Chaos, the Beauty of of the Broken," at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Blog!

There you can also find an Erasure poem by my student Kat, a nature-inspired poem by my student Sam, and a poem about "The Worst Day" by my student Jason. 

Teaching poetry at the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community was a dream come true, and I don't use that phrase lightly. In this place, the rubber hits the road, and if poetry doesn't matter in a place like Fort Lyon, my theory is, it doesn't matter at all. (Spoiler: it mattered, a lot.) I am hopeful for a chance to visit again someday soon. 


True Worship & The Box of Darkness (or, my answer to the eternal question: "What is Poetry?")

When you call yourself a poet, people will often ask you hard questions, such as “what is poetry?” As if I should know! (I should probably know.) Except, that poetry is this mysterious, amorphous thing that is notoriously, and by necessity, hard to define. Hard-to-define is part of the definition of poetry. But, that’s not a very satisfying or useful answer to give to eager students, or at cocktail parties. It doesn’t get you much but blank stares and offers to refill your glass. So I’ve been thinking. In fact, if I’m honest, I’m always thinking about this question, and for the first time, the feel of an answer, however ephemeral, has begun to emerge in my mind. 

I write poetry for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons is my ongoing need to metabolize the world around me as well as the world within me. I need some way to help me face and integrate into my psyche things like loss, grief, betrayal, war, the deaths of children, fires in the hills, the unexpected beauty of a torn butterfly wing on the ground. I need to know what to do with school shootings; I need to have somewhere to go with the faces of dying patients in the hospital where I volunteer as a chaplain. I need a way to hold that pain, that darkness, without it taking hold of me. I need to mark the moment, to put a flag in the ground, to say “I will not forget,” but there’s something more too. I need to hold that box of darkness until I can see light at its edges.

THE USES OF SORROW by  Mary Oliver, from Thirst

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

In the past, when people have asked me this question, I tried answers such as the following, all of which hold parts of the truth: "Poems contain an image or a thought that transforms within the space of the lines." "Poems are a portal through which you exit out and then return changed." "Poems allow you to inhabit the other, a persona, a different part of yourself, to try on another truth for size." All of these things I still believe to be true, but I've been needing something more to explain just what it is poetry does for me, for the world. 

I was talking with my publisher, Anne Yale of Yak Press the other day, about the poems and poets in the Native Blossoms Chapbook Series produced by Yak Press. We got talking about the poetry of Cody Deitz in his chapbook Pressed against All That Nothing, a beautiful collection of poems for and about the author’s brother and his journey through the military service, rehab and recovery, PTSD, and what we might call “reintegration.” This book had a profound impact on my students at the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community in Las Animas, Colorado, many of whom are veterans and almost all of whom are on their own journeys of addiction, recovery, and healing from trauma. Anne then gave me the kindest compliment I could have asked for: “What Cody’s poems do for people on that journey, I believe yours will do for those who have lost loved ones, especially mothers.” I replied, almost as a joke, “I’ve promised my husband that the next book of poems will be happy poems; I can’t seem to write anything but sad poetry!” “They aren’t sad,” she replied without hesitation. “They are about sad things, but they themselves have a luminosity about them. They are not sad poems.”

A luminosity. That’s it. That’s the box of darkness tinged in light.


YOUR FIRST MORNING by Alexandra Donovan, From Mother Stump

Your first morning was the gold

of a worn penny: cold and glowing,

the buddleia a purple so bright

it hurt against that quiet sepia,

that pooled metal stillness of dawn.

The ruby-throated hummingbirds trilled

in their shrill dive-bombs, plummeting

and pulling back up to the sky

in sharp V’s.

I’m telling you, it was beautiful,

your first morning

gone from me.


If you were to ask me tonight what my definition of poetry is, I would say this: a poem is a container for multiple simultaneous truths. It is a way of holding grief, anger, despair, or anything unbearable until some kind of beauty comes alongside it. Or in the other direction, it’s contemplation of something beautiful, or seemingly simple, until deeper shadows come into play. Poetry is a a way of sitting-with, of dwelling, of devotion; that is, we devote our gaze, our minds, our souls to a thought or image or memory long enough that multiple truths can emerge, can find a home together, side by side. After all, as Mary Oliver says in her collection of essays Upstream, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” True worship, then, does not seek one Truth with a capital T. True worship—what we might call “Poetry”—seeks a luminous box of darkness, a way of embracing the gift of this life that can and must hold it all—all pain, all beauty. True worship leads us not to answer, but to mysterious paradox, to the heart of our human experience in which searing pain and exquisite love require one another, and joy and sorrow mingle.

Mother Stump Book Launch!

You're invited to the launch of Mother Stump on August 11, 2018, at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. Alexandra and other poets from the Native Blossoms chapbook series will be reading from their collections. You can read more about the series and purchase books at Mother Stump will be available for pre-order sometime in July and will also be available for purchase at the reading for $10. 

Save the date book launch flier.png