Circle Game

Mandala: मण्डल

ann e michael

Sanskrit for circle. Symbolic of completeness, unifying principles. The container that holds the center. The cosmic center and the spiritual center, including the void (being able to recognize that the “self” is also a void, a construct).

This deep practice–the emptying of self and the entering into completeness and unity with everything (becoming One)–intrigues me but seems very far beyond my grasp. If consciousness can be envisioned as a set of experiential layerings that the mind braids into a narrating self, illusory but convincing, I can imagine feeling One with them. But that’s theory, not genuine practice.

“You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean.” ~Alan Watts

I am a physical being in the universe; this, too, I understand. Somehow, that doesn’t make meditation easier for me–even though I have always been a highly reflective person.

Trying too hard to empty the mind defeats the purpose, of course. The practice of compassion as meditation (see Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chödrön)  seems a more effective way for me to enter into a sense of oneness and completeness. I am definitely experiencing beginner’s mind, perhaps complicated by my interests in philosophy, psychology, neurology, and art.

So I turn, constantly, to nature for an immersion in something other than the human self: completion of the cycle evident in every plant and creature. See the mandala of the sunflower above. Contemplate the circle–what it contains, in this case, pollen, seeds, a tiny bee; what encircles the circle: the petals that fade so rapidly, the sun, the air.

And then I turn to my reading again. Hungry mind (appetite). But I found this wonderful column by Kate Murphy in the recent New York Times:No Time to Think.” Quite fitting, given these recent ruminations!

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And thank you, Joni Mitchell, for the title and this song:

Difficult writing?

Here’s Will Buckingham on writing and difficulty. Worth a read! I don’t know how to embed the blog into my post, so here’s the link.

http://willbuckingham.com/the-pleasure-and-difficulty-of-writing/

Writing can indeed be a pleasure–most of the time! There are periods of difficulty when I feel frustrated, but those periods make for puzzles and challenges; and I enjoy puzzles and challenges. They push me, force me to stretch a bit, engage with what’s not so simple or superficial, change my perspective, alter my expectations and assumptions, discover something new. I learn from these experiences. I would not want life to be easy all the time, nor would I want creative writing to be easy all the time. Although it’s pleasing to lie in a hammock on a mid day and sip a cold drink and listen to the birds and read a book…pleasure also encompasses inventive challenges. Motivation. Inspiration. Different forms of joy.

Buckingham mentions a biography of the writer and artist Tove Jansson, best known in the USA for her Moomintroll series but clearly a creative artist of the first rank. I’d put this book on my reading list, but it is at present only available in Finnish! Marina Popova at Brainpickings has posted some of Jansson’s vivid illustrations of Alice in Wonderland here.

On the pleasures of difficult reading, please see my past posts here, here, and here.

Mixed/media

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From J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: “Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.”

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From W. H. Auden: “…poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” For Auden, this communication of mixed feelings didn’t mean ambiguity; it referred to double focus–seeing or feeling or otherwise knowing two conflicting feelings simultaneously. Something that, according to Barrie, fairies could not do.

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The mixed-ness of life presents many of its irritants, but also many of its joys. Think about the amazing complexity of a human being, a consciousness, a sentience: the mish-mash of experiences filtered through a mish-mash of other experiences and through unique neurological channels. I relish the fringes and edges of things such as meadows, rivers, horizons, roads, neighborhoods, and cultures. Combinations are more interesting than homogeneity. Paradoxes are more exciting than indelible rules.

I appreciate the design of formal gardens, or swaths of tulips; but a cottage garden interests me for longer, as do bogs and wetlands and the borders of woodlands. Most of the poems I love best, those that resonate the deepest and longest, express multiple and mixed possibilities. I enjoy poetry that can be interpreted several ways, or that twists back on itself and points out a paradox or a different focus, poetry that opens up perspectives and challenges expectations and perceptions. Mixed media, mixed expression, mixed feelings, mixed perennial borders, mixed forests, mixed neighborhoods…these juicy collages of experience keep the brain lively and interested.

They also pose good challenges for meditation. One can concentrate or focus on the unity of the disparities, for example. Lose yourself in a meadow.

 

Pro+crastination

procrastination (n.) Look up procrastination at Dictionary.com
1540s, from Middle French procrastination and directly from Latin procrastinationem (nominative procrastinatio) “a putting off from day to day,” noun of action from past participle stem of procrastinare “put off till tomorrow, defer, delay,” from pro- “forward” (see pro-) + crastinus “belonging to tomorrow,” from cras “tomorrow,” of unknown origin.

This, thanks to OE, the Online Etymology dictionary, a favorite site of mine. What I was hoping to find is some aspect of “pro” as in Latin’s for, ie, the positive side of putting things off until tomorrow. Surely there are times when a bit of delay works toward the desired goals. The more leisurely approach to accomplishing a large task allows a person time to think things through and avoid some of the risks that the jumping-into-the-lake-all-at-once method contains.

At least, that’s my rationalization for putting off the next set of tasks I have set for myself regarding my writing.

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Delay can be fruitful, if it’s the right sort of delay. Procrastination that arises from distraction, however, tends to be of the less productive sort. When putting things off because of distraction ends up being somehow beneficial, it’s usually just a lucky strike.

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distraction (n.) Look up distraction at Dictionary.com
mid-15c., “the drawing away of the mind,” from Latin distractionem (nominative distractio) “a pulling apart, separating,” noun of action from past participle stem of distrahere (see distract). Meaning “mental disturbance” (in driven to distraction, etc.) is c.1600. Meaning “a thing or fact that distracts” is from 1610s.

The drawing away of the mind. What a perfect description. Just how it feels.

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But the mind can be drawn into the tasks at hand, a Zen-like or Taoist middle-way approach. The steps to the goal neither hard nor easy. The delay can be a time of focus and serendipity, a way to establish equilibrium before proceeding on what appears, initially, to be a daunting project. What belongs to tomorrow is not here now–live the day.
My three-month project is to send out two manuscripts, revise and organize my current work, submit new poems for publication, compose an essay and a couple of reviews. But it turns out there are a number of other tasks I had to accomplish before heading into the larger project. It’s all part of the process, during which I have discovered some poetry drafts I had forgotten about and revised older work and found a cache of images and ideas I had filed away “for later.” And I realized I had not finished transferring my poem files into new digital folders… It all needs to be done, but it follows the same general path.
Not distracting, exactly. A different form of–positive– “mental disturbance.” The pro aspect of procrastination.

Bent & broken II

stunned (downy woodpecker)

stunned (downy woodpecker)

This summer, it seems the birds have fledged a bit later than usual–not by much, but enough for me to notice. And this crop of birds seems to be a reckless bunch of adolescents. At least twice a day I hear a soft, feathered body thud against a windowpane.

 

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We have taken a few of the actions recommended by the Humane Society (see page here if you want some advice), but some of our windows are quite high off the ground and we haven’t been able to bird-proof all of them. Most summers we hear just a few thuds, find the occasional body of a casualty or rescue a stunned survivor before a neighborhood cat gets it.

This year? I think I’ve heard two dozen thuds during the past 10 days. I am surprised at how many of the injured simply recover from their brief concussion, sit dazed for a few seconds, or continue to fly; but youth is resilient.

 

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This woodpecker, for example, was more dazed than most. But it gradually calmed itself into a recuperated state and hopped off my hand and into the hedgerow.

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dazed but recuperating

dazed but recuperating

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I always come away amazed at such encounters with “wild animals.” There is so much I don’t know about them. They are gorgeous. I find myself spending long minutes just examining the details of a feather, a toenail (claw-nail?), a tongue, an eye.

It seems a privilege to hold one, and a privilege to let it go.

 

Even though this bird will no doubt repay me by tearing more holes in the wooden siding of our house.

 

Well, the birds were here first.

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Not as lucky, this poor beauty was, alas, “maximally bent and broken.” Like the language of poetry.

 

IMG_0971

Maximally bent & broken

bent and broken

bent and broken

The linguist/scholar David Crystal writes that “Poetic language is the domain where linguistic rules are maximally bent and broken.”

The context here (in his book The Stories of English) is an explanation of how historians of language accomplish their sleuthing; Crystal notes carefully the differences between written and spoken versions of the same language, not to mention dialects and artistic expression and diversified diction based upon the intended audience, and uncertainty as to region, origin, and date of the manuscripts and texts under scrutiny. He cautions readers not to take linguistic theories and received stories about language evolution too readily; the story is a multitude of stories, examinable from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Much of the story is ephemeral, being oral/aural and carried on in dialects. A fascinating puzzle, really, full of lacunae and contradictions…and a reminder that when I am in my teaching role, I should remain mindful that Standard English is something of a misnomer. A living language, as Crystal demonstrates, operates on many levels and evolves concurrently with social, economic, religious, and technological trends.

I fervently agree that poetry offers language new routes of expression, a place to expand, warp, and break rules while managing all the same to convey information. The information may be conveyed in surprising ways, though, non-standard ways: neologisms, compound words, old words used in a new fashion, or as a different part of speech. Poetry is a major arena for this sort of experimentation, though not the only one. Further, I am inclined to follow a non-prescriptivist approach to writing  even though my job at the college is to impart the basic rules of Standard English, a task which (alas) tends to involve judging things as less-than-correct or “in need of improvement” for the sake of clarity and general comprehensibility.

Should I therefore be more tolerant of non-standard use of the apostrophe? I’m not quite ready for that, because the resulting texts are still so frequently confusing. The point of good writing is, most often, to convey information–though that could be argued–

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Crystal points out that much stereotyping of speech patterns and much arbitrary standardizing (to the degree possible) has been due to our creative writers, and compounded by writers’ love-hate relationships with printers (and, later, editors) who rely upon codification. A widely-literate audience benefits from generalized written standards, he notes–but there’s no need to become “Grammar Nazis” despite human beings’ natural inclination to be conservative and, let’s face it, contentious. He takes a sociological all-embracing stance about English, welcoming changes.

Having read this text, I am of the opinion that ours is another of those linguistically-transformative periods of messy additions and alterations thanks, largely, to technologies and the sciences but also to media and particularly social media. [viz, meme. What an adaptable coinage!] As long as I have been teaching, I have reiterated to my students that I am giving them a code, a tool, Standard Written English; the way they speak or write is not wrong or incorrect. It is simply not clear and standardized enough for academic work. Get the right tool for the job!

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Crystal lauds Samuel Johnson for his zeal for language and languages and dialects, even as Johnson sought to “stabilize the disorder” of English in the 18th C. The author goes on to insert his view that prescriptive, “correct” approaches to the language “prevented the next ten generations from appreciating the richness of their language’s expressive capabilities, and inculcated an inferiority complex about everyday usage which crushed the linguistic confidence of millions” (not to mention enforced class distinctions even further). I need to remember this balance between clarity and variety. I admit I have been a not infrequent eye-roller at the “sloppy, slangy, abbreviated” English of television, tabloids, Twitter, texting, and my students’ lingo. It is refreshing to think of these annoyances as potentially enriching–rather than degrading–to the language I love to read, speak, and write.

When I read poems, I know there are writers who employ archaic words, dialect words, slang words, colloquial syntax, interrupted syntax, irregular capitalization and punctuation, neologisms, invented compound word-phrases, curses, technology terms, scientific jargon, Latin, Spanish, Spanglish, Chinese, obscure place names, alternate spellings (orthography)…and on and on. Some are looking back; others look ahead. Some are encapsulating the moment–now–in the framework of a verse. They bend and break the language in startling, haunting, beautiful, memorable ways. This they can do because a living language allows them to.