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This week I plopped down on the piano bench to muse with my fingers on the keyboard about what to write for today’s Staying Power. One song led to another, and eventually I came to “What Happens,” which I composed years ago.

As I was singing it, I suddenly realized that “What Happens” is a “cento song.”

You might be participating in our current “Cento Quest,” here on The Raft, writing a cento poem, patching together lines and phrases from my latest book, Staying Power 2: Writings from a Year of Emergence.

Well, at the time I wrote “What Happens,” I’d never heard of a cento poem. I was just following my instincts. I’d noticed that the poets Rumi and Hafiz often refer to roses, gardens, sunlight, and love. I gathered a long list of such references and patched some of them together as song lyrics. It was fun, assembling them into a new work and setting them to music.

Stumbling this week onto the “cento-ness” of my old song reminded me that creative living in general is cento-like. First, we pay attention to “the givens.” Then we work with them, adding our own perspective, based on experience and insight. In that way, we transform the givens, and re-gift them (and ourselves), in a different form, to the world.

What we make of our givens doesn’t have to be fancy. It doesn’t have to meet anybody’s expectations. It doesn’t have to make us any money. It doesn’t have to be good. (Notice in my recording: No great voice. No professional recording equipment. Piano needs tuned . . . )

We remake some of our givens because, well, we have to. We have no choice. That’s life.

Other givens we remake because we feel nudged to. Because it makes us happy. Sometimes, because it might make somebody else happy, too.

“What Happens” is not only a cento song. It’s a love song. For lovers. For uncommon friends. For family. For strangers who inspire us, or concern us. For roses and birds. For the ground beneath us. For the darkness. For the light.

And now it’s a love song for you.

Phyllis Cole-Dai

          a cento song, after Rumi and Hafiz

How does a rose ever open its heart
and give to this world its beauty?
This is what happens:
The bud feels the encouragement
of light upon its being.
Somehow the light must come in and hold us,
or we’re too frightened to unfold.

How many rose bushes grow in your garden?
How many children skip and play through your life?
How many birds do you feed in winter?
How many hearts has your tender light opened, like mine?

Deep down inside I feel the rose opening wider
to catch ever more of the light of you.
I wish I could say how beautiful you are.
When you are lonely, lost in the dark,
I wish I could show you
how bright is the light of your being.

So many rose bushes grow in your garden!
So many children skip and play through your life!
So many birds you feed in winter!
So many hearts your light has opened, like mine!

Ground opens to the sky and suffers what comes.
Rose opens to the sun and blooms a short while.
As long as we have, I’ll open to you—
you moving away from me, and moving back toward me.
As long as I can, I’ll turn toward your light,
I’ll thrive in your light, until what happens . . .

So many rose bushes grow in your garden!
So many children skip and play through your life!
So many birds you feed in winter!
So many hearts you’ve opened—
do you know how you have opened mine?


Photo by Anastasiia Malai on Unsplash
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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