One of my undergraduate professors was (and still is) a haiku enthusiast. When I took his Zen Buddhism course, students were required to write haiku throughout the semester. He encouraged us to focus on the natural world as we struggled to come up with three lines of seventeen syllables, arranged in a five-seven-five pattern. I eventually discovered lots of pleasure creating a haiku poem—crisp, even stark—using words with a precision I found beautiful.
I recently spent some time in North Carolina (from the Outer Banks to Asheville), treating myself to a short vacation after finishing up the Spring semester. In spite of good intentions, I have failed over and over again to keep a detailed journal while traveling. On this trip, I made a vow to write at least one haiku a day. I kept that vow.
Writing haiku daily forced me to be mindful of my surroundings, reflect on my experience, and then use carefully-chosen words to capture the moment. That mindfulness created a glue of sorts, anchoring me in time and place. To my delight, have found this trip lingering in my memory in ways that other trips have not.
At the beach….
I always find it exhilarating to come upon a beach. When I arrived at Kill Devil Hills in the Outer Banks, I rushed towards the ocean, capturing this image.
Grey mist dissolving
In the aquamarine sea
This photo reminded me of the many and varied creatures that have walked in the sand along the shoreline.
Imprints in wet sand
Leaving only memories
I took this photo as I breathed in the salty air on a day filled with sunshine and warmth.
Gifts of luminescent gems
With wave upon wave
In the mountains….
While eating an early dinner al fresco in Asheville, I snapped this photo. I was having some health problems—since resolved.
When the day goes grey
A bird balances and sings
All at the same time
Somewhere on the Blue Ridge Parkway between Grandfather Mountain and Asheville, this lovely landscape appeared. Grateful for the Parkway’s pull-over areas!
Stopping on the road
Heavy clouds, blue hills, green trees
Earth and sky unite
While in Asheville, I took a short trip just outside the city, visiting the place where the boarding school that housed me for the first two years of high school once stood. The school admitted missionary children (as well as others) and educated them (sort of) while parents like mine spread the gospel in various parts of the world. The school held about one hundred students. It closed in the late 1980s.
Going on a pilgrimage to a place that did not value my presence (I was expelled) became increasingly important to me. I’m not sure why. The school was led by authoritarian men—all claiming to speak in the name of God. A favorite sermon at the daily, compulsory chapel service often dealt with the topic of “you girls are a hindrance to the spiritual development of our boys.” The speaker (always a man) flung Isaiah 3:16 in our direction. “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.” After some expository preaching about “proper” behavior for girls, we were expected to repent of our sin and “get right with the Lord”—whatever that meant. Erase our sexuality? Give up our ankle bracelets? Avoid eye contact with boys?
Other sermon topics included “Immorality in the public schools” (students wore dungarees), “Missions—dearest thing to God’s heart,” and “Rock and roll music is from the Devil.” However, nothing stung as hard as those metaphoric arrows, hurled from Isaiah’s quiver, which pierced deeply into the flesh of my female body.
The school enforced a strict dress code for all students, yet only girls were required to model every one of their outfits in front of the two female faculty members who then decided whether or not our wardrobe “pleased the Lord.” Books and records from the “outside” needed to be approved by a censoring committee. Private devotional time every morning was a requirement. Those who dared to forgo devotions were reported to the faculty by zealous roommates because “I care about your eternal soul.” It was an oppressive community. We lived by the letter of the law. Mercy was nowhere in sight. The leaders claimed to channel God’s everlasting love towards us. What flowed through them into me, though, was harsh judgment.
I see the world through a different lens today, yet I still struggle with the aftershocks of my freshman and sophomore years in high school. The disdain heaped upon us (girls) just for being born female wasn’t confined to this particular school although the volume there was extraordinarily loud. Misogyny infiltrates every nook and cranny of the globe.
This photo shows the weather-beaten parking lot in front of the space where the main building—housing the boys’ dormitory, faculty offices, classrooms, the dining hall, and a huge living room—once stood.
Green, shaggy bushes
Hide a demolished building
This is a photo of an artist’s rendition of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My former high school took root and grew in a geographical place filled with incredible, natural beauty.
I believe beauty is an effective antidote to toxic narratives. Shug told Celie in Alice Walker’s novel, THE COLOR PURPLE, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Perhaps that’s why this pilgrimage called to me. I needed to see with fresh eyes the beauty of a place where, like Celie, I once experienced misery. As Celie noted, evil “sort of shrink” when put next “to any little scrub of a bush in my yard.”
Immersing oneself in Nature nurtures, soothes, and heals. Writing haiku while in Her midst is a holy act.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of an Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry.