Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hanging in your Dilemma

A little while ago I decided to read through The Gateless Barrier - a basic collection of Zen stories and talks. I had pieced around in it the first time, and worked some of the koans with teachers, but Robert Aitken suggests you then read it right through, because his comments build on one another. And I was supposed to be off my feet this week, healing an arthritic flareup.

The last koan I expected to get interested in was "Kyogen's Man up a Tree." I never did like that koan. The basic idea is, You are hanging from a tree by your mouth. You can't reach a branch with your hands or feet. Someone comes by and asks you to tell him about Zen. You have a dilemma: if you speak, you fall and die. If you don't, you are abandoning your responsibility to others. What do you do?

Since I am a language person, I am sometimes struck by a certain word. And my experience is that Zen masters take care to be accurate. I have three translations of this collection, and Aitken is the only one who introduces the word dilemma. I recognized that prefix, di (two, as in dualism) and thought, There's a clue in this, so I looked it up.

In a dilemma, you have two choices, and neither one is good. That applied to the little puzzle. Then Aitken helped me out by telling us straightforwardly that what we have to truly hang there in that dilemma, be with it all the way. This is not so natural, is it? Can't you picture yourself writhing around, trying to make your way down the branch, kicking out, making throaty protests (without letting go the clamp on the branch that is definitely hard on the TMJs)? That is in fact what we do with our dilemmas. Sometimes it's not obvious; we may feel we are in despair over some event, a chronic illness or a lost love, but are in fact trekking from one healer to another or one bar to another, trying to find someone who can get us out of our fix. And there are always lots of people who think they can. They are even more deluded than the weary seeker, and they end up burnt out.

The first time I encountered the idea of giving over to your unhappiness or depression was in Parker Palmer's little book, Let Your Life Speak. There he recounted his own long clinical depression, and how he sank into a virtually immobile state, and slowly came to realize that he had a spiritual problem called despair, that his life was telling him, What you're doing is not working for you. He had been refusing to listen. He published this article before the recent vogue in confessional memoirs; it was a courageous act, and he has survived the stigma of mental illness to be an admired teacher and speaker.

What you do with a koan is just carry it, and I wasn't inspired enough by this one to get caught up in figuring it out. But I knew the koan was working on me this morning when I woke up to the thought, I've got to get more facts about kidney transplant. I've been on a waiting list for a year, grateful every single day that I haven't declined to the point of needing dialysis again. It's no picnic. Neither is transplant. Both carry all sorts of medical risks and uncertainty. But I hadn't been really hanging with the decision, but in the land of hope - hoping my kidneys would keep holding on until something else killed me, that I would never have to answer that phone call Yes or No (you have one hour to respond). In other words, I was really avoiding my dilemma with the mental tricks that we are best at. Maybe I'll never have to decide. (Maybe I'll win the lottery.) We are lucky when something or someone nudges us out of a delusion like that. Life is much easier when we open our eyes.

Friday, January 30, 2009

When Good-time Charlie's Got the Blues

[video from Purelistener on Youtube]
Sometimes it seems that the worst happens to us, like a painter who is stricken blind. Such a thing is a change to accommodate for one person, a disaster for another. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Losing,” which says she can tolerate anything but losing her partner. That partner later committed suicide.

Loss is tolerable in proportion to our internal statements. “I love to paint” is so different than “I am an artist, painting is my life.” There’s one of those “I am” statements, in which we try to define and capture our identity permanently. But no identity is permanent.

We all lose that most precious thing, our lives. I have felt lucky to have to face death through a series of health misfortunes, and then a handful of chronic disorders that represent the wearing out of my body. As these conditions came upon me (all of a sudden, a broken foot, or gradually, kidney failure) I had to give things up. Actual activities, like driving, or dreams. I think we all know that giving up dreams is harder. You always thought that someday you’d visit Greece or be struck by the thunderbolt of great love; maybe both at once.

At 66 I am at the age of watching people die, first the generations before me, now friends my age. The most wrenching death was my mother, though she was in her eighties and had lost much of her self to dementia. She did not want to live after my father died. Still, she struggled against her own death for years, even as she was partially paralyzed and deaf and her veins were breaking down. She talked until the last morphine shot in a hoarse, unintelligible voice, unwilling to give up talking. I think she saw her voice as her very self. Alcoholics lead increasingly isolated lives, as they relate more and more obsessively to their desire to avoid pain. The brief, haphazard connections made at parties and bars are no substitute for being authentically woven into the fabric of life. Putting your own feelings first leads to an essentially lonely life.

Years ago I took the song “Good-time Charlie’s got the blues” from an album, and learned to play and sing it. It captures the sadness of the alcoholic lifestyle into which I was born, and actually, the kind of moment we all face now and again.

Maybe it is also very Zen. Charlie is not wallowing in his sadness, especially not in Elvis’s country rendition. He describes himself with the detachment of the third person at a moment shaped by many forces: “Everybody’s gone away.” He’s still got pills to ease the pain, but “Can’t find a thing to ease the rain.” There is a sense of accepting that. Sometimes you can’t.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

On not writing about Grandmother's Heart

[Monet's Sunflowers]
It was my intention today to begin exploring the subject of "Grandmother's heart." It is a Zen concept there is very little written about, though, clearly, realized teachers manifest it. I've been inspired by women's reaction to my daughter Cassie's post on Tuesday about Kay Smart ("Small Woman Leaves a Large Shadow"); Kay was a living example of that heart, which is why her life story touches a chord in people who never met her.

But as I sat down to write I got a call from a friend who is working through the frustrations of sickness and unpredictable limitation, and we shared a lot. Now it's noon, and I haven't done any part of my morning practice.

But this moment's experience gives me a beginning on defining Grandmother's Heart: it is the heart that connects with other people and wishes to serve, that sees when their needs are greater than your private goals. Maybe one reason this compassion is described as "Grandmother's" is that we seem to need to experience sickness and aging and loss before we know how hard these things can be, and how much a little kindness means.

When I recall my own earlier experiences with sickness and loss, I remember feeling like I was alone on a raft in a dark sea. Then a card would arrive in the mail, or a friend at the door with sunflowers, and it was as though a sturdy rope had dropped down in front of me. Not a very poetic idea, being rescued by a helicopter, but it will have to do.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Small Woman Leaves a Large Shadow

When Kay Smart passed away January 24, the village of Gratiot reeled.

No one could imagine Gratiot without Kay.

For years, Kay was the caretaker of Gratiot’s children.

Kay, aged 60, lived her entire life in Gratiot and never married. That, however, didn’t mean that she had no children. Kay was a caretaker for the village children for the last 40 years. She put children on buses and got them off busses. She made scores of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She pushed babies in strollers to the post office and back. She was there for the children of Gratiot for snow days, 2 hour delays, summer vacations and emergencies.

A Gratiot icon, Kay went to the post office every day, and picked up the mail for several residents of her block. Her tiny figure moved up and down the street, chatting to everyone, and usually declining a ride – she preferred to walk. Kay was a tiny woman, 4 foot 10 and 80 pounds, in many cases smaller than the children she cared for. But her disposition was so sunny, and her attitude so bright that she seemed larger than life.

Villagers estimate that Kay had a hand in raising over 50 of the children of Gratiot. They have ranged from West M athletes and valedictorians, to a priest now practicing in Rome.

She will be missed.
by Cassie Ridenour

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Buddha Knitting

[Buddha Knitting, from FunkyQuail on Etsy]
I was sitting here in the light from the west window, knitting along and thinking about the ways knitting (and many other relaxing activities) are not equivalent to zazen, the specific Zen method of meditation . . . when I realized I had just knit several stitches on the new row when I should have purled. Ah, I thought. Attention. Karma. That's how Buddhism is; it sticks out a foot and trips you up now and then.

Hardly any teaching is more fundamental to Buddhism than the idea of karma, or cause and effect. While it is sometimes the job of psychotherapy to examine the weighty karma of our past, Zen teachers tend to wish you'd drop it; our job in spiritual work is different. Our job in our lives is to build good future karma, for ourselves and the world we are firmly knit into. Whether or not we think about it, we do build our futures with every action. Nowhere is this more obvious than in knitting. Drop one stitch, and down the line you're going to know it.

I am new at this, and have already had the experience of ruining everything by trying to go back and repair a mistake; my teacher can do it, but I don't understand the stitches deeply enough. I tore out the last project twice, and then decided to buy a more forgiving yarn, a smooth, multicolored blend, and not to tear anything out, but to forge bravely ahead. The intended recipient will not be critical, but astonished that I could knit at all.

But to carry even this modest intention forward requires attention, a quality emphasized in Zen. Mine lapsed only a few seconds (Too conceptual, my teacher used to say) but that was enough. It's like walking blithely along and slipping on a patch of ice. Pow. Your knee will never be the same.

Knitting might not be zazen, but it makes good work practice, which is called samu in the Zen tradition. We (are supposed to) do our work with the same wholeheartedness we (are supposed to) bring to meditation. So it's more of learning to focus, to be all the way with whatever you're dong.

Knitting will surely cultivate attentiveness in me, though I am told you eventually get to where you can knit and watch TV. I doubt that I will. Not Boston Legal.
After Inauguration

late January
cold, cold, deep winter cold
in the pale western sky
beyond twisted branches
pink fluff
a gorgeous dawn

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Encounters with foxes

"You must be very patient," replied the fox. "First you will sit down at a little distance from me-- like that-- in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day..."

One September when we were at Grailville on retreat, there was a young fox wandering the grounds. It was clearly orphaned, and was relatively comfortable with people at a distance, though they couldn't lure it into a carrier to take it to the vet and get shots. One sunny afternoon, it was fooling around in the big yard in front of the meditation hall when we came out. I sat down on the grass about 20 feet from it and slowly did my yoga, feeling very companionable, thinking affectionately about the fox who is tamed in The Little Prince. The fox didn't mind me at all. Yoga was probably the most natural thing it ever saw a human do.

This morning I was reading Robert Aitken's commentary on a Zen koan called "Pai-chang's Fox," and came to a charming anecdote of an encounter he had with a fox. Since we also have foxes in the ravine now, and have seen one standing beside the road, I can't resist posting this.
When I was living in LaCrescenta, California . . . on weekends I used to walk up a dirt road into the national forest. One day I came upon a fox - or a fox came upon me - where the road bent around a little ridge. She had come trotting down from above, and I appeared from below. We both stopped and looked at each other. At that moment the wind came up and blew a large piece of newspaper around and around on the road in a miniature cyclone. The fox jumped on this piece of paper and looked at me with a merry look in her eye. Then she stepped off the newspaper and it began to blow around again. She jumped on the paper again and looked at me, just as though she were inviting me to laugh at her great game. Suddenly conditions changed, and she ran back up the road. This encounter was truly an experience of grace.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The most dangerous woman in the world.

[photo: Mary Harris Jones leading a children's march]
Only the objects of disdain really notice it. The people who single someone out for special scapegoat status - and it is very often a group of people, a clique - are often just having a good time, expressing their own egos, bonding through contempt.

Well, I am here to notice and take personally a phenomenon I want to call age-sexism. It's quite specific: it's about old women.

I was on the receiving end of this -ism a while back, when an internet flame-thrower attacked me because she believed a comment I made was racist. The delicious irony was that her judgement led her to stereotype me. "The little old lady in tennis shoes," she wrote, "is the most dangerous person in the world." (Have you noticed how well you remember an insult?) I considered the source. Also, I don't wear tennis shoes.

But this -ism keeps popping up. Here it was again this morning, in a food column for God's sake. Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times about the redecoration of a retaurant called Daniel, which used to be "a tritely romantic setting . . . Pastel, frilly and feminine, the decor at Daniel brought to mind the lining of a prim octogenarian's underwear drawer." You'll be glad to know Daniel has redone itself in the "swaggering" colors of guns, gray and brown.

I read the passage out loud to Tom. He always has an interesting take on things. This time it was, "First of all, a woman like that would never let anyone see her underwear drawer." I disagree, but will pass to focus on the larger point, ageism perfectly bonded with anti-feminine-ism, and tossed off casually. Note, anti-feminine is not the same thing as antifeminist. It is not about beliefs, rights, opportunity, but about the underlying layer of contempt for the female, the Yin, what is quiet, soft, feminine, even organized. Imagine that, having your underwear folded and in a drawer (as opposed to what? the bedroom floor?) is somehow "prim." Order and beauty are anti-life. And here I thought it was guns that were dangerous.

It is true enough that we women are often civilizing agents. I remember frowning, reading the end of Huckleberry Finn, considered the essential American novel then, as defined by Leslie Fiedler: two men on a raft. Huck doesn't want to go back home to the woman who raised him - she'll just try to civilize him. He is going to do what men do, light out for the territories. He, in fact, epitomizes the reign of frontier greed we hope yesterday's inauguration finally wrote Finish to. When I read this in 1960 I had no way to think about the anti-female that was implied there. I didn't even think, He's going to need a gun.

Maybe it is natural for men who are not properly civilized to hate and fear women - they seem to need us so much. The mother and wife are the heart of the universe, the bearers of life, the creators of home. And we are seldom at the forefront of the great masculine endeavor called war. Those are our children who get killed. Because we love children and grandchildren, and are so scared for them, we try to teach them how to get along with others, how to stay alive and live well - we try to civilize them.

The photo at the head of this blog is of a little old lady whom an American president called "the most dangerous woman in the world:" Mary Harris Jones. Having lost husband and children to an epidemic, she became fearlessly involved in the bloody and long struggle for worker's rights. She had nothing left to lose. And she brought to this her skills in rhetoric, something young ladies trained in at the time, which included a canny understanding of the value of persona. As you see in the photograph, she deliberately dressed in vintage clothes, black dresses and lace, hats. She brought to it something you can call "Grandmother's heart," and the men and women she served knew it.

"I'm not a lady," she once said. "I'm a hell-raiser." The feminine on wheels, you could say. Mother Jones.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

haiku on Inauguration Day

cold morning
ivy furled
robins very fat

Monday, January 19, 2009

People coming together

I have included this video by Illbebackcall, hoping that no one in the world misses seeing and hearing this song at the pre-inauguration ceremonies. In his life and songs, Pete Seeger carries the history of the Movement - all the movements for freedom and unity. I loved him up there in his flannel shirt and hand-knit cap. He was one guy who didn't buy new clothes for the ceremony, God bless him.

I believe in song. That, eating together, sledding, adopting orphaned animals and children . . . these and so many other actions seem so much more useful than thinking.

That isn't what they taught me in school. The academic tradition I labored my way through assumed serious, hard thinking was the very highest human activity. Oh, the philosophy we had to read, all of us back in the day, though I imagine core curricula are looser now. And I did read it and underline things and write papers about ideas. Yet all I remember now is the occasional soundbite, like "I think, therefore I am." (Descartes; I looked it up.) But I've known people who could no longer think; yet still existed. I'm sure I'm missing the subtleties of the argument.

Actually, this whole opening up of communication that is the internet, this giving the air waves to the people, suits me, and a lot of other people, too. We've taken to blogging, then miniblogging, as on twitter and Facebook. We post pictures of our dogs and babies, share our art. I know there's a lot of debate online, in fact, it's as ugly as a grade-school playground sometimes, and no big guy to step in and call time out. I avoid that stuff. I am less and less interested in debate. Ideas separate people.

Ideas, views, beliefs, convictions - all can separate people. I was reminded of this yesterday as we watched the stunning ceremonies in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In the midst of the finale, everyone singing, I imagined my father shaking his head, getting up to leave the room, saying, "I never thought I'd live to see a (obscenity deleted) in the White House." He didn't live to see it, just as well. Yet, while he was proud to be a racist, he and my mother were good friends with an Indian immigrant couple, very dark brown people. The woman wore a sari. That was different. I assume my father didn't share his convictions with them.

The same odd division between mental constructs and actions is true of another favorite elderly relative (who is still alive). He can come out with the kind of racist talk that turns you cold. Yet, he had a long friendship with "a black fellow" who worked with him. This human being was different, you see, than that abstraction in the man's mind. Human beings are.
Instead of galloping about, we walk slowly, like a cow or an elephant. If you walk slowly, without any idea of gain, then you are already a good Zen student.
Shunryu Suzuki

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Unfortunate Ongoing Disaster of Knitting

Isn't this pathetic? And you have no idea what I went through to take the picture and download it, for this is a day when machines are rising up against us in this house, to say nothing of what I went through to knit this uhh, this beginning of a square.

It is about the church having a project of knitting squares for afghans for the poor, a curious project actually. It certainly costs more to make one of these afghans, just in dollars spent on yarn, than to go to Kohl's and buy fleecy blankets - the Christmas stuff is probably 75% off by now, and they pay you to take the Halloween stuff. (So what's a little zombie on a fleecy throw if it keeps you warm?) But we are doing this, nevertheless. It is a way of giving our energy somehow, our caring. I went to Pat's knitting class with that thought, and also for the purely ego-centered reason that some decades ago I tried and failed to learn how to knit. I hoped that decades of spiritual work would have transformed my ability.

It didn't go that badly in class. Pat just quietly went around and fixed our problems. I learned how to turn at the end of a row, I thought. I brought home the whole business and couldn't wait to get at it the next day. And you see what that led to.

There ought to be a pony in here somewhere, as the old joke goes. And there is at least a metaphor. I looked at this knitting - the varicolored pastel yarn, named Lullabye, had so much potential - and I thought, this looks like my life up till now. Except you could unwind this, maybe, and do it right. And you can't unwind your life.

We are all sitting in the middle of a sort of landfill that is our past, I suppose, except the occasional Buddha. Rummage around a little and it contains things that smell bad: someone sworn to hate you, someone else you just can't stand; all those darn books you should do something with; the shoes that are actually a little small; the heavy purse you paid too much for; the smell you can't get out of the car ever since the summer day you forgot the turkey breast in the trunk. I'm not giving anything away about my life, I'm sure. Doesn't everyone have unanswered e-mails relentlessly brushing their ankles and yowling?

The problem is not actually the mistakes I made. The problem is that what I chose to knit, not understanding the implications, was a square for the afghan project. Right away that meant standards. In knitting, the standard is simple: perfection. Miss a single stitch - or whatever I did - and it creates this whole karmic mess.

Obviously, I am not up to the afghan challenge. I am going to go back to the class next Tuesday and tell Pat I just want to knit a scarf for myself. If it's my scarf, I will just forge ahead, accepting my mistakes. I won't mind it being a little gollywhompers. That's the term my father-in-law would use to describe my unfinished square; he's from Georgia. A practical man, he would hasten to say, "It'll keep your neck warm, won't it?" Engineers think in terms of function.

Functionwise, I don't need a scarf. I have six or eight knitted scarves, most of them bought at the last church auction, where they were donated by people who must knit up a storm. I don't need another scarf. This is not about function at all, but about the pleasure I did experience, yes I did, of actually doing a stitch, and then another, smoothly, liquidly. It is just like riding a bicycle once you get the hang of it. You should expect to skin your knees.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

American Idle

Last night there were many little curses, as writers and artists opened our e-mail to learn we had not been given an Ohio Arts Council grant this year. Well, in my case it's only fair. Certainly, many young artists really need the money; wish I thought they were the ones who got it. For my part, I am paid to not work. That is, we live on pensions accumulated by many years of mostly boring work. You know how work is. (That's why they call it work.)

I am somewhat relieved not to be encouraged to finish the novel I sent the OAC - writing a novel is a lot of work, and I already know how it ends. But it would have given me, you know, something to get stressed out about.

I was musing about the way I waste time to another Zen person. My thoughts seem to want written down as a little play in the absurdist tradition.

me: Wasting time. What do we mean by that?
Ott: We mean we didn't use the time.
me: Use it?
Ott: Um, to do something.
me: Isn't looking out the window at the snowfall doing something?
Ott: Well, not really unless it gets you somewhere.
me: Where?
Ott: Well, some other place. I don't mean a place at all really. I mean, it improves your lot.
me: I am contented with my lot.
Ott: You are?
me: Shouldn't I be?
Ott: Well, I don't know. Hardly anyone is. Aren't there some things you want but don't have? Things you wish for?
me: Actually, I'd like to have longer fuller eyelashes.
[stunned silence]
me again: There's an article in the Times today that got me thinking about it. Some glaucoma drug does that as a side effect. It's like $120 a month. Sometimes it changes the color of the iris, though. So I guess I wouldn't.
Ott [trying to figure out if eyelashes are Zen]: No pain, no gain.
me: On the other hand, no gain, no pain.
[curtain, leaving the audience to think about that]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Life as Art

[photo: Snow Woman, by Susan Barrett]
Years ago I went to a lecture titled something like "Life as Art," sort of thirsty to hear more about that idea. How do you live a life that is art? It seemed to me that I struggled to get through the dailiness of my ratty old life - characterized by an oil patch on the floor of the garage, a stain on the kitchen counter, endless heaps of laundry - and escaped from time to time into creativity, or other people's art. As I reread that bulky sentence I see that my life at that time was always about some mess that should be cleaned up. Our friend Ott always popping in: You really Ott to clean that up. This was nothing more interesting than ordinary karma, what I learned growing up. It is not even very interesting how hard you have to work to get over that, since it's everyone's same story.

The lecture turned out to be mistitled, and was a boring PR plug (without visuals) for an art exhibit then going on at a local museum. I still remember how later a friend tried to convince me that I had really had a good experience, that going to the lecture wasn't a waste. This woman was always fretting about my attitude, trying to make me nice, and I resisted, of course. I remember saying querulously, "My time is valuable to me. I made a point of putting this on my schedule, and I was disappointed."

She insisted, "But didn't you get something out of it?" I thought about that. I did want to soothe her in a way; she was so troubled by my annoyance. I remember saying, "Her clothes are interesting. She must buy her suits in New York." We had come a long way from the point, and it didn't really mollify my friend.

I recount that because it reminds me that I have been interested for a long time in Life as Art. I didn't mean dressing poetically in velvet jackets and flowing scarves. I think what I wanted was more of a sense of order, form, gracefulness, intention - even what you call meaning, when you are younger. Certainly I didn't think folding dishtowels could be an interesting experience, an okay thing to do; it was something to get through on my way to - oh, an art exhibit, or at least a party.

Not long after the abortive lecture, I stumbled on the Buddha Way. The simplified forms of Zen pleased me: not song, but chant. Patchwork black robes. Silence. Nobody disturbing the pattern. Much about Zen is art. . . . but (paradoxically?) its purpose is to lead you into really being with your daily life. Actually washing a dish without watching the clock, thinking of the next six things you have to do.

And art? Well, there's a sense in which an awakened eye sees the art of everything. You've had the experience, perhaps, of leaving a good exhibition to see the streaks of red and green lights on the rainy street, or the subtlety of the grays and browns of winter.

And then there's a sense in which life well-lived slows down enough to admit beauty and play.

Susan's Snow Woman, the expressiveness of her eyes, the way in which she is formed entirely of beautiful things that grow in the ravine, has a natural playfulness. It is art without any thought of gain, for it only lasted a few hours.

It brings to my mind a tai chi teacher I once studied with, who said, "Every good book about tai chi has a picture of a toddler in it, because they naturally have a perfect stance." And they naturally play, too. Just walking is the most delightful activity they've ever known, even better than trying to bite your toes. And they naturally create, they are artists, as when they play in sand or snow. In many ways, that's what we want, what I wanted when I wanted an art-full life, the open mind of a child to whom a snowflake is amazing, who never willingly lets a beautiful snowfall pass.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Devil Duck Dharma

I am constantly amazed to meet sophisticated, with-it people who don't know about Devil Ducks (or duckies, as loving fans sometimes call them). So above, a picture of my collection taken in earlier days by my grandson, Otto, before the addition of small yellow, coral, and purple duckies turned them into a real flock. I'm just too lazy to take another picture right now.

As you can see, a Devil Duck is not your everyday yellow rubber duckie, the one you have in the tub. It has slanted eyes and the arched eyebrows we associate with the Machiavellian. It has horns, unless it is a dead duck (second from left - note the x's for eyes - and his red tongue hangs out, too). It has a perky tail the same color as its horns. And what you can't see is the brand - Accoutrements for Evil. Accept no substitutes.

On the left we have John, Hotrod Duck, and on the far right the transparent Martha, Invisible Duck. The little white duckie has yet to grow into its role, I guess.

You are wondering what all this means. Why do I have seven devil ducks on my desk, one smartly poised on top of the barometer, the rest invading boring old paperwork? Because I can't afford any more right now.

But seriously, isn't it refreshing to have a toy that is not nice, not scripted, not about war, not about meeting a prince and getting married, not all pink, either? A toy representing perfectly the toddler you once were, totally innocent, always ready to get in trouble. My constant readers will recognize my recent interest in developing satisfactory vices. Life is short.

Monday, January 5, 2009

[Harris sparrow, copyright Mike McDowell]
This morning I awoke vulnerable and messy, a head full of dreams and memories that did not add up to a coherent life. I thought about how some people really seem to have a stable, existing self on an upward path. They aim toward something, they are purposeful, they get there. They retire and start a whole new life.

I thought of my favorite writer, Terry Pratchett, how he kept writing until he "became a writer," and then wrote book after book for years. As if he was a noun, a thing, an item, that behaved in predictable ways, and that has brought him tremendous success.

Some of the Asian systems of thought describe people as being made of combinations elements, and I am primarily air. It seems to me that I have been blown all over the place, through many lives, friends, interests. Not much gives my life unity except the creative impulse; I kept writing. I had to. After my early plans for my life utterly failed, I wrote fiction and struggled with essays. After my second batch of plans failed, I began writing poetry. These plans: ambitions, rather elaborate, like a heist movie: I will do this, this, this, do it all right, and get the treasure. It doesn't matter whether it's being a good wife and mother, or having an academic career. Sometimes the pile of gems turns to dust in your hands. More often than you'd like to think, in fact.

I turned to Mike's blog this morning, and there was everything I needed to console me. A beautiful picture of a bird. A thoughtful essay in sympathy with another nature writer, who admits he has escaped in nature.

There is some kind of ideal in Zen thought of never escaping; Buddhists talk about always staying in the present moment. But actually, every life has so much difficulty, disappointment, pain that we all develop means of escape, sometimes into religious scholarship, for example. For the unlucky people, alcohol or other drugs work for a while. Others find their way to some kind of work that engages them and offers them peace. They escape into sitting still behind a camera, waiting; or writing poetry; or rescuing cats; or conserving a piece of wilderness. It is very good luck to find work you love, whether or not you get paid for it. When someone does, their good luck becomes everyone else's good luck, too.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Letting in the cow

[photo from]
The tradition is that Shakyamuni tried a lot of different paths, including a very ascetic path without eating and became just a living skeleton, but found that that wasn't the way and he accepted nourishment. Somebody offered him some milk and he drank the milk. We might symbolically see that as allowing whatever cows represent into his life, too. Some sort of nurturance, some sort of earthiness. So he accepted the milk and sat up all night, and in the morning he looked up and for the first time he truly saw the morning star.
This is John Tarrant's casual retelling of the story of the Buddha's enlightenment experience. I don't know why, but I am fond of cows, and when I read this passage this morning I felt pleased at the hominess of it. I happen to know it was a passing girl who gave him the milk; or some say, rice pudding.

I think a lot about the great simple cow of the body as I and my friends age. Civilization has taken us on a path away from the gross demands of the body, and it's been easy to spend most of our time in our minds and in control. But as we age, the cow ambles in the open door. It is large and exceedingly hard to budge; it goes its own way. It makes unnegotiable demands.

I noticed a commercial tonight on the evening news. I'm not sure what the product was; maybe Aleve. A woman of around sixty was playing badminton, bounding all over the court, and telling us voiceover that before she discovered the Product, her enjoyment was tainted by pain in her knees. But a little Product and wham! she can abuse those knees all she wants.

"Pain," I told the TV, "is your knee's way of communicating with you. You're not supposed to override your knee. You're supposed to listen to it." But the TV didn't answer.

Sometimes newcomers at meditation fall asleep sitting up. It tends to be the same people who do this again and again, always amazed at themselves. Maybe there's a diagnosis, narcolepsy or low thyroid. These things are worth getting checked out. Sometimes it's just that the brain might like to keep going, but the cow is chronically tired and grabs any chance for a little rest. I'm rambling here, like a cow slowly making its way home, so I will stop now and look for a pretty, sentimentalized picture. There.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The world beyond fictions

I am experiencing that disjunct between reality and fictions this morning. All kinds of stories over the holidays. People I know dealt with illness, disappointment, loss. A writer I liked so much I once tried to find his address to write him a thank-you letter has died - Donald Westlake. He always worked on a portable manual typewriter, and could not be reached by e-mail. I watched interviews on the BBC with another favorite writer, Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer's. Later, watched a DVD of The Company, its fedoras and low light and hard liquor and the Lucky Strikes on the desk all taking me back to the ambience of my childhood in the early fifties. Same day I finished a Forsythe novel about terrorism, The Afghan, which showed how far technology has taken the game of war. Watched the beginning of the NBC news, where war isn't a game, and suddenly felt like I don't like to do that anymore. The evening news (a godhead in my youth) has become another anxious attempt to stay in business by entertaining you. Year-end stuff: went through the receipt box, which gave me the year as seen in purchases backwards. (In March, we were still going out to eat.) I heard from new blog readers, a 14-year-old girl whose web page reminded me of what it was like to be that age. In a fit of simplifying, decided to get rid of my fancy Google home page and go back to the plain and ordinary, but couldn't figure out how.

In all this, I was led through subtle impulses to reactivate my Facebook, and woke up vaguely sorry that I had. One more gate into all these people, all these stories. The way Facebook is arranged, you are forced to present yourself as a brand, a certain coherence. "What is your favorite quote?" Facebook asks me. "The world is too much with us," I thought.

But it isn't the world that's too much with me. The real world in all its solidity, never mind what they say about emptiness, the real world inside our house is quiet and sane. The world outside my big study windows is speechless, the ivy on the trunks of the oaks eternally green, waving in the breeze. The few berries on the nameless bush red - there are now few enough that you could count them. By and by I am likely to see robins hazard the thinner branches to get those remaining berries; but that's a memory, another story. Right now, no robins. . . here they are.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The only resolution you need

[Vill and Will going at it; video by Crazydood69]
There’s a lot of Will rampaging around right now, this being the morning when the western world sits at the kitchen table holding its collective head in its hands and imagining a less ramshackle life. In comes Will, who was a shaggy-headed red-faced guy last night in Times Square but this morning is starched and tucked in, hair combed back slick as a Hollywood Nazi - the version of our friend we call Vill, pronouncing the W as a V with what is left of our college German. Vill is here to fix you, ominous words.

Why do we want to fix ourselves? There it is, the universal human condition, wanting to be accepted in the monkey tree. You can plumb your individual story for the curlicues and epicycles of your unique path; that is the Janus-looking-backward part of January 1. You’re pretty sure it would be more productive to look forward and plan a smoother path, with better shoes.

All these dualities. Impulse vs. Kontrol. Past vs. Future. They have this in common: they don’t exist. You feel a little impulse, you reify it (good word!) into that big rampaging Will, filling the future with his cravings. The movie of your Self-Image starts to play and you reify that: I Vill be Good. No you won’t. There is no such thing. Or, whose Good will you be?

Oh my, all this fighting. I can see them at the kitchen table. Vill is standing, imperious - his white shirt tucked in - and Will rises, angry. They begin to paw at each other like cats in that early form of battle, thrust and parry. Pretty soon they will be rolling around on the floor cursing. Vill’s slick black hair will be falling into his eyes and Will will be red and panting. Both of them are getting corn flakes crumbs on them - you should have run the Roomba.

What can save us now?

Someone has to call time out and put them both to doing something useless and mundane. Take a walk, a stroll. Look out the window and think about the sky. Sit and meditate. Do nothing.
Do nothing. There’s a good New Year’s resolution. I resolve that in the year to come I will spend more time just being. Hanging out, wasting time. To hell with all this becoming. Do this, and eventually Will calms down, though you understand, that’s not your purpose.