A Corrective for Anxious Times

A Book Review of Carol Alena Aronoff’s “The Gift of Not Finding: Poems for Meditation”
Homestead Lighthouse Press, August 2020
110 pages
$16.95

By Devon Balwit

          Some days ago—162 to be exact—my HMO offered me a free download of Calm, a meditation app. An acerbic, opinionated Jew, I almost trashed the email without a second thought. I had tried meditation many times and decided it wasn’t for me. I told myself I actually preferred my busy monkey mind, preferred letting it ramble like what poet Carol Aronoff calls one of the “mice in the attic / of old news and yellowed paper…” And yet—something made me pause—a global pandemic, perhaps, with its concomitant upheavals of every aspect of life—and I downloaded it and began to use it every morning.

It took me weeks to tolerate the voice on the app, which I initially felt too cloying, too upbeat, too mobile—but gradually, gradually, I started to look beyond its timbre to the words being said, which I came to find strangely calming and helpful. Was I, as Carol Alena Aronoff writes in her collection The Gift of Not Finding: Poems for Meditation, starting to “Imagine life / without complaint / no matter what arises,” moving towards be able to say “…Whatever arises, I will / think, just so. I will not even want to not want…”? Such a shift was shocking to me, for whom to want is, immediately, to act!

Aronoff’s poems aren’t written in my usual go-to voice. I tend to gravitate towards poets who are urbane, wry, and dark, and towards works which reference other works. But, as with the meditation app, when I slowed down and read the poems with attention, I found them tidy koans that rewarded contemplation. Why not admit that it is helpful to reflect that “Sky has no past. / It doesn’t recall the clouds / from yesterday…”? Why not consider “…The thin shell / between us … where we hide what’s / most precious. Where we break.” Why not rest a moment “Beyond judgments / of good and bad, / right and wrong. / Free of all concepts…” These are useful practices, especially in an election year, in a pandemic year, in a year of forest fires and bleaching ocean coral. Aronoff’s poems remind us that there is value in slowing down, in breathing, in allowing.

Locked down at home, I, who have loathed the repetition of weeding and tending, have suddenly become a chicken farmer and urban gardener. Always appreciative of the outdoors, now that it is my sole arena, I find that I am looking at it with much greater attentiveness. Confronted by the scent and blush of dahlias and heirloom tomatoes, estranchia and clerodendron, like Aronoff, I am prepared to say: “Nature once again / has brought me / to my knees…” and to ask: “Where will my thoughts go when I give them the garden?” Aranoff’s poems reference the landscape in the American Southwest and in Hawaii—cottonwoods mingle with Kukui leaves and moonflower, geckos with peacocks. Referencing her daily practice, she teaches us, in the words of Emerson to “Adopt the pace of nature, [whose] secret is patience.”

For a long while, although certain of the upsurge of joy I was feeling during this pandemic, I downplayed my happiness and contentment when speaking to others, not wanting to minimize the very real suffering of those less fortunate. In a similar way, I initially hesitated to allow these gentle poems to work on and for me. But what do I gain by such resistance? Why not yield and repeat with the poet:

Without the need to label
anything
mind’s endless conversation
is a flower …
No need for misgivings
or even for dream.
Everything is
just as it is.


When not teaching, Devon Balwit sets her hand to the plough and chases chickens in the Pacific Northwest. For more regarding her individual poems, collections and reviews, please visit her website at: https://pelapdx.wixsite.com/devonbalwitpoet

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