“I’m going to have a nervous breakdown,” he said quite calmly, holding my hands. “At the very least, a midlife crisis.”
“OK...” I said. “Are we talking red convertibles?”
“No, no. Not like that. I'm going to search for meaning.”
I exhaled. Then fretted. I had been planning to whisk him away to the kind of mindless resort that plies you with Mai Tais and corn fritters and lets you nap in five different kinds of hammocks. Clearly, I had to reverse course. I needed a meaningful gift.
I brainstormed. I made spreadsheets. I googled “my husband is turning 40 and would like to do something meaningful what should I give him any ideas please I will give you my credit card number without using PayPal just please ok?”
This search turned up breath mints emblazoned with the phrase, “Look Who’s 40!” They were only sold in bulk.
That’s when I noticed the grimy brass bowl of pennies and keys balancing precariously on our windowsill. It was a singing bowl, left behind by my mother-in-law when she passed away. Unsure of what to do with it, we had used it as a coin dish for six years.
I backed away from Google and went to work cleaning the bowl, polishing it, and purchasing a suede mallet to make it sing. I packaged it with a gift certificate for a meditation retreat and congratulated myself.
My husband was thrilled with the retreat. But the bowl, he set aside without much comment. It lay in a pile of wrapping paper for several days before I dug it out and placed it in his hands.
“Aren’t you curious?”
“I never was able to make this bowl sing,” he confessed.
“That’s not possible.” I handed him the mallet, and he rolled the leather stick around the metal lip. His shoulders slumped.
It made no sound.
I gave it a try. How hard could it be? But the only way I could coax any sound from it was to bang it like a gong.
I had envisioned offering up an instrument that would connect my husband with his mother, a spiritual mentor whose guidance he needed. Instead, I’d made him feel disconnected and inept.
The Silent Bowl was the worst present of all time. Even worse than the Look-Who’s-40 mints.
Desperate, I went to YouTube for instructions and found that we had been playing it all wrong. We mistakenly glided the mallet around the inside of the bowl instead of the outside. We flicked our wrists when we should have held them steady. We gripped the bowl rather than turning our hands into flat, supportive pedestals.
My husband tried again.
The room was silent. The bowl began to shiver. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, an otherworldly hum rose from its mouth. Before long, the bowl was shaking and our apartment was filled with song.
I play the singing bowl every day. When I’m stressed. When I have writer’s block. When I start a project and when I end it. The sensation of the buzzing brass and the contrasting low/male and high/female tones produce an unexpected joy and focus.
And the singing bowl is teaching me a lot about poetry:
*The value of instruction. It’s easy to view writing as a mystical practice reserved for the ordained. But get the right tools and guidance, and it’s not so mysterious.
*The shape of a poem. As a poet, I often focus on first and last lines, aiming to wallop readers at the beginning or the end. As a journalist, I spend 75 percent of my time crafting a lead and only 25 percent fleshing out the story.
But what about a singing-bowl or diamond-shaped poem that begins inaudibly, escalates to a howl, and ends in resonance?
Louise Glück, one of my favorites, does this well. Consider her shocking poem “Mock Orange,” which begins innocently:
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
She makes a sound in the next stanza, when she reveals:
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex.
Smack-dab in the middle stanza, the poem bellows:
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union–
Finally, the pitch softens to a point of resonance:
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
This happens again in her poem “Hunters” (from A Village Life) when a rat screams in the middle stanza. See how she builds to it and walks away from it here.
*After playing the bowl, sometimes I hear a phantom ringing for hours. It lodges in my ear. Similarly, you hear singing-bowl poems long after you read them.
*Every bowl sounds different, because everything in the universe vibrates at its own speed. You, me, bowls. The trick is finding the frequency that makes a bowl sound its best. Perhaps when we create poems we imbue them with a perfect, solitary frequency.
That might explain the magic of the first draft. I have murdered many good poems with excessive revision, making all the right choices only to find my verse lifeless on the gurney.
Instead of trying to make a poem right, I want to find its frequency. Where does it sing, vibrate, excite? When does it burst into song? Can it sing louder? Can it be a coloratura soprano? When I make this small change, does the volume go up or down? Does the tone become more or less clear? How about now? And now?
Somehow, metaphors bring clarity, birthdays bring meaning, and Mary, my mom-in-law, fills our apartment with music and poetry.
I am happy to be writing about poetry here this week and look forward to meeting you in the comments section! A student at heart, I’ll leave a prompt at the end of each post.
Your daily prompt: Find an example of a singing-bowl poem, or try writing one yourself. Let us know how it goes.