Today, When I Could Do Nothing



We hope you’re all finding ways to stay balanced and mindful during this challenging time. Our goal is to share creative inspiration in as many ways as possible because we know how important the arts are to our wellbeing — at all times and particularly right now.

ETSF is committed to working towards the betterment of life across all spectrums of the community. We consistently engage from within the sphere of the humanities and the arts, because we believe that these disciplines possess the unique ability to imaginatively question systems for ethical value, and the training to synthesize across history and cultures towards the creation of a more sustainable world vision.

In this quest, we work with partners who inspire us and match our mandate. From individual poets like U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and poetic master Jane Hirshfield, to university humanities programs such as UC Berkeley’s Poetry and the Senses initiative and Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, to Indigenous arts groups like the Native Arts & Cultures Foundation, to state-based boards like the California Arts Council and community-based nonprofits like the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, the Lawai International Center, and the Skirball Cultural Center, we partner on creative programs with some of the U.S.’s most vital artists and organizations to create change structured around poetry, mindfulness, and the arts.

Today, it’s our privilege to highlight Jane Hirshfield:

It seems both like a long time ago and yet just yesterday that we had the pleasure of sponsoring and filming a reading by Jane at the 2019 Kauai Writers Conference! One of our most cherished memories is of walking with Jane, a longtime Zen practitioner, in silent meditation on the beautiful grounds of the Lawai International Center in Kauai, an archaeological and cultural treasure in a valley that has long been recognized as a healing sanctuary. In 1904 the first generation of Japanese immigrants built 88 shrines replicating an ancient pilgrimage of 88 temples in Shikoku, Japan. Today, it is the only such site existing outside of Japan and is one of the oldest Buddhist temple sites in the country. This was a special day shared between Jane and our team.

Of the many participants who reveled in Jane’s featured keynote presentation for the conference, one wrote to us to say: “Thank you to your entire foundation for the luncheon and Jane Hirshfield’s reading. It was brilliantly offered … the memories of that afternoon have stayed with me and continue to influence how I move through my day … with all of my senses engaged … especially during the pandemic.”

Jane recently shared with us that while staying at home, like most of us right now, she has been learning to connect in new ways with other writers, and has been engaged in numerous interviews, profiles, and reviews for her new book of poems, Ledger, which has been described as “a pivotal book of personal, ecological, and political reckoning tuned toward issues of consequence to all who share this world’s current and future fate.”  Also, in a time when many of us are finding it hard to put words to our experience, Jane brought her extraordinary attention to bear and wrote a poem which eloquently captures the moment and what we can bring to it.

Here is the gift of Jane’s poem. It reminds us of the small things and how much grace they afford us if we attend to them, especially in a time of hardship and challenge.

Today, When I Could Do Nothing

Today, when I could do nothing,
I saved an ant.

It must have come in with the morning paper,
still being delivered
to those who shelter in place.

A morning paper is still an essential service.

I am not an essential service.

I have coffee and books,
a garden,
silence enough to fill cisterns.

It must have first walked
the morning paper, as if loosened ink
taking the shape of an ant.

Then across the laptop computer — warm —
then onto the back of a cushion.

Small black ant, alone,
crossing a navy cushion,
moving steadily because that is what it could do.

Set outside in the sun,
it could not have found again its nest.
What then did I save?

It did not move as if it was frightened,
even while walking my hand,
which moved it through swiftness and air.

Ant, alone, without companions,
whose ant-heart I could not fathom—
how is your life, I wanted to ask.

I lifted it, took it outside.

This first day when I could do nothing,
contribute nothing
beyond staying distant from my own kind,
I did this.

Another resonant poem of Jane’s that’s so apt for these times comes to mind, to be found in her 2016 published Each Happiness Ringed by Lions: Selected Poems volume. Because as much as we need to face the real, we also need hope, optimism, the belief in our own and society’s resilience in times of trial.

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth.

You can listen here to a beautiful reading and accompanying video of the poem, commissioned by Maria Popova of Brainpickings. We know that you’ll carry this, as we do, like a talisman to give you heart over the next days, weeks, and months of our shared challenge.

Also this week, we’ll be bringing you an invitation to join Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s online reading on April 22nd, 5:30-7 p.m. PST, a presentation of the Poetry and the Senses initiative with UC Berkeley Arts Research Center. Meanwhile, let’s remember to stay strong yet gentle, to be courageous in the face of fear, and to reach out to each other where and when we can. We are walking through this time together.