I love how the first three books all have BOOK in their titles. The Adnan and the Mitchell are re-reads that settle my soul while keeping my mind active and inquisitive. The Book of Joy has been surprisingly helpful to me so far (I am reading it a bit at a time while other things are going on).
Anyway, I can garden. We have had plentiful rain and now I have plentiful beans, basil, zucchini, carrots; numerous tomatoes cluster under leaves, so whenever they ripen we’ll have more splendid organic tasty produce. I will continue to pull out the crabgrass, wild mustard, pigweed, smartweed, etc. Culling, cultivating, collecting sunlight through my vegetables and through my skin (yes, I wear sunscreen–and a hat)…there are worse things in life than an inability to compose poems. And I can read, thank heaven. Reading poetry, and reading about poetry, provides plenty of joy.
One of the practices of joy mentioned in the Dalai Lama’s & Desmond Tutu’s book is gratitude. Fortunately, that practice has never been difficult for me.
under clouds /heat rises from soil /beans grow plump
Due to mini-strokes and constriction of the blood flow in her brain, my mother has developed the same form of cognitive decline that my mother-in-law had: vascular dementia. In both cases, aphasia ravaged their speech as their conditions worsened. My partner’s stepmother also had aphasia due to stroke, so I have now witnessed the condition up close among three women who had very different backgrounds and personalities. As aphasia presents most noticeably as a loss of verbal expression (talk about being at a loss for words!), the condition fascinates me (a person who loves words).
And devastates me. My mother had never been “good at words” the way my father was, but she was a compassionate listener and often could find the right things to say when my glib and witty friends and family members could not. I recall many times when she would ask to talk to me alone and express something she’d been keeping to herself and reflecting upon, waiting until she could “say it the right way.” Now, she can say almost nothing “the right way.” Rain becomes snow; snow becomes green; hat becomes clark; tomato becomes red; table becomes place…and even these are unreliable substitutes, likely to change from one conversation to the next. The pronoun she has vanished from her lexicon. Her vocabulary is little better than a five-year-old’s, and she inadvertently invents words that are essentially meaningless while trying to convey meaning.
She can still read, a little, and slowly. A few months ago, I gave her a book by Eloise Klein Healy, Another Phase. Healy, a well-known poet, was stricken with Wernicke’s aphasia and–with a devoted speech therapist’s help–regained the ability to compose poetry again, though the work she now produces reflects her profoundly-changed expressive abilities. My mother was pleased that she could read the book and that Healy could make poems even with aphasia. And Mom understood the poems–had memorized a few image-lines that she liked. This stunned me–memory’s often wrecked by vascular dementia, or so we are led to believe. But my mother has a good memory. She merely has extremely limited verbal expressiveness–an inability to locate the right word, and a loss of numeracy and literacy. Alas, the result means she cannot make her ideas and thoughts known to others. Isolating.
The pandemic lockdowns at her assisted living campus, my father’s death after 62 years of marriage, her gradual hearing loss, her inability to drive or go shopping–all of these led to further isolation. And isolation, of course, worsens the dementia.
Now that the lockdowns have been lifted, my family members are spending as much time as we can visiting her. One Best Beloved drove her to the church she has been attending by Zoom, now that in-person services have resumed. This past holiday weekend, I picked her up at her apartment and drove her back to my house. Due to my dad’s ill health and the pandemic, it has been over two years since she was here; but for 25 years, she and my father drove here many, many times. It was heartwarming to watch her as she relished returning to a familiar and much-loved place, which also happen to be my house and yard.
She kept saying, “This is so good. This is so, so good!” We’d arranged a mini-gathering for lunch, and there was tasty food and lively conversation all around her. She doesn’t seem to feel frustrated at not being able to join in the dinner chat; I think she was glad just to listen. After awhile, her vocabulary even expanded a bit. She said, “This is fun!” and “This is so great!” in addition to repeating how the day was so good. The joy was palpable.
(I am reading about joy just now, as it happens–a book by Douglas Abrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama called The Book of Joy. More on that another time, perhaps.)
After lunch, some dessert, and a brief nap, my beloved mom admitted it was probably time for her to return to her apartment. I drove her home, and the ride back was full of comfort and ease and quiet companionship such as I haven’t felt with my mother during the past couple of difficult years, though it’s been there my whole life. I was helping her out of the car when she said, “That was wonderful. Let’s do that again!” Two sentences in perfect grammar, and a boost in vocabulary from good to wonderful.
“Only connect.” I don’t think E.M. Forster was referring to aphasia or to isolation in Howard’s End, but the phrase suits today’s post. Human connection matters. Indeed, it’s wonderful.
I am forcing myself to write despite my sense that the flow, such as it is, has narrowed. I’m keenly aware that there’s a lot of material beyond the blockage and opening the floodgates may be as unmanageable as the “dry period” is unrewarding. Funny thing about balance. Keeping the seesaw level–no easy task. And as my peers and I progress toward aging, the constriction metaphor applies all too well. Many people I know now walk around with plastic or metal tubes inserted in their interiors to keep vital organs ‘flowing.’ My mother’s brain operates through constricted blood vessels, and now she can barely produce an understandable sentence. My lower back’s accumulating calcium deposits that have narrowed the path my spinal cord takes as it does its daily, necessary work.
Sometimes the flow of anything gets constricted. In our bodies. In the earth’s rivers. In our cities and houses: clogging and backups, plumbing and traffic. We implant stents, dig culverts, widen highways, remove the blockage–once we have determined where it is. There’s the challenge. Where is the rub that keeps us from our dreams? (Hamlet couldn’t figure it out, either).
Normally, I read at least a book a week; lately, just magazine articles, or no reading at all. Very strange for me–and I wonder whether my lack of motivation for reading and my current “dry spell” hinge on sorrow. My workplace has been busy lately, lots of scheduling, many meetings and decisions, not much time for personal reflection. It becomes natural, easy, to do the work of routine and ignore the kind of creative effort that grief requires. In my case, there’s also speculative grief: I know my mother’s dying little by little. We who love her spend as much time as we can with her, lifting our own spirits whenever our visits or gifts of chocolate and flowers and dinners out make her happy. What does she love? Fresh strawberries, for example. I bring them from my garden. She savors them. My day is made.
But I come home sad.
I wrote to a friend recently:
My writing practice has suffered a bit during pandemic but feels also as though underlying changes are in process. Just not much by way of results yet. Somewhat surprised that my father’s death has affected my practice. Or perhaps it is my mother’s aphasia, frailty, and impending death that’s at work here. Or maybe just the stress of trying to maintain my job and relationships with colleagues and students under pandemic protocols, which has not been easy. My brain’s been stuffed with things like learning new technology and teaching practices, and that leaves less room for wandering and interconnections and daydreaming. And then I have less energy for the creative work, as well. The garden’s been good, though. I’m not discontented, just feeling the currents of interweaving changes.
~ I suppose those interweaving changes may be a bit knotted, if they are threads, or partially dammed, if they are streams. Maybe why that’s the case does not matter much. What matters more is how to proceed when it seems nothing’s forthcoming–patience, force, ritual, practice, or…change.
You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.
Pearl S. Buck
Wry words from Ms. Buck. Meanwhile, where are those new ideas? Maybe I just don’t feel up to unblocking the flow just yet. A little apprehensive about the pain.
I think I am an amateur naturalist. Maybe my own poetry isn’t so much nature poetry or ecopoetry as it is naturalist poetry. By that I do not mean naturalism as literary criticism defines it–a “movement” belonging to the 19th century. Sean Carroll’s concept of poetic naturalism isn’t quite what I mean, either; Carroll’s approach is more philosophical, though it does get closer to my personal concept. I guess I just mean poetry written by a naturalist.
Such musings arise as I have been reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, which offers a naturalist’s low-down on what corporeal death means in terms of the Earth’s environmental cycles; he views every death as a life or as multiple lives–for, in the animal world (which is, after all, our world), a corpse hosts multitudes of new beginnings. It’s simply recycling, the work of millennia. And sometimes the work of Nicrophorusbeetles and other “undertakers.” Okay, maybe not a book to every reader’s taste, but fascinating biology. After having read quite a few books on hospice care and human dying, I can now appreciate the amazing biological processes at work in “natural” deaths that work to improve soil, remove waste, feed numerous animals and plants, and regulate the cycle of life. If we want to get ourselves back to the garden, we need to make ourselves more aware of these valuable cleanup crew creatures.
A Best Beloved expressed dismay as the news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis coincided with a few recent worries and bereavements: “Everyone’s getting older and falling apart!” But really, what are our options? Die young and leave a good-looking corpse? Live to 100 and die while sleeping? Probably something on the continuum between those poles. Most humans think about, or endeavor not to think about, their deaths and the deaths of those they love. Grief and death are among the Big Themes of poetry, often hovering in the background of a poem that initially appears to be about something else (i.e. Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson 😀 …). Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve. All of it is life.
“Remember we must die” need not be a call to religious fervor or to pessimistic existentialism. It is merely a fact that we ignore at our peril; for if we remember death is ahead, we can attune ourselves more closely to the lives we do have–and those others with whom we are in relationships. For whether you know it or not, your body has a relationship to Earth and all of its beings. Even, perhaps, the carrion beetle, not to mention billions of microbes and your best friend’s mother.
When I write about death (and I do), I find the tone of the poem depends a great deal on which words or images I use: the clear flow, or the leavings in the sieve. Different purposes, of course. Sometimes the poem wanders in sorrow, sometimes there’s clarity or a lifting of grief. It depends on the perspective (sometimes the speaker of the poem isn’t me), and on where the poem itself decides to go, particularly as I revise. Many readers believe that poems only ever arise from the writer’s experience, but poems are works of the imagination. And they are sometimes informed, or re-formed, by experience or insight that comes later in the writing process.
My own grief? That’s private. I may not decide ever to communicate how that feels. However, having sensed sorrow in my bones and gut and in the empty places in my community of loved ones, I can write about being in the moment of bereavement and the many moments afterwards when the losses make us ache. I like to imagine that memento mori keeps me alert to life. Even when I feel sad.
It’s true that I appreciate a somewhat calmer political/media cycle, in part because I sense slightly lower levels of anxiety from my friends. I love my friends and feel sad when they express fear and exhaustion. The social and environmental messes we humans have made continue, however, as the pandemic stretches on (my region is still in “extremely high risk” covid territory, though most of the people I know personally have been vaccinated). Many of us continue to endure losses of all sorts. Even if the losses are small ones, cumulatively they aggregate, intensified by the spectre of climate change and virus spread and whatever local bogeymen trawl through people’s lives.
In response to the current difficulties, we keep hearing calls for “unity.” One way politicians and community advocates of all stripes and ideologies endeavor to “make nice” is through the concept of unifying people. It sounds like a good thing, to invoke our similarities and our common human bond in order to achieve…[insert goal here].
I’m wary of calls for unity. It’s not that I’m cynical (maybe a little), and I’ve certainly been idealistic in my time; but long experience and lots of stories and histories and my father’s background in how people behave in groups have led to feeling circumspect about unity. It works with people, yes, but it also leads to the worst aspects of tribalism. To the fostering of rigid ideologies. To acts against outliers, to the construct of evil Others. I’ve recently re-read Reinhold Niebuhr’s prescient and insightful Moral Man and Immoral Society, and his analysis of how humans behave individually versus in groups strikes me as relevant today as it was in 1932. My dad studied with Niebuhr during the latter’s last years at Union Theological Seminary and, reading this book, I find I’m reflecting on the ways this philosopher/theologian influenced my then-young father’s views on humanity.
My dad was an optimist, a Pollyanna, a great believer that God loved each human equally and that there exists in each person the promise of Good (because his God is Good). As my dad matured and experienced more of life and a lot of death, injury, backbiting, illness, pain, misery, in-fighting, and scapegoating–even in the Church–he examined more closely the dynamics of people in groups. Here’s where Niebuhr gets it right, as far as I can tell: people in groups suck.
No, he never says that, and perhaps I overstate. People in groups tend toward tribalism, shunning those who differ in opinion, perspective, or other ways. People in groups lean inexorably toward immoral behavior, even when the group is made up of individually moral people. Again and again, under differing social perspectives, Niebuhr demonstrates that unity thwarts diversity even when group intentions are moral. And, all too often, with immoral results.
My dad never really gave up on the idea that people could successfully deal with different perspectives and goals even in the same group, that there were approaches to group dynamics that would produce win-win outcomes or compromises without sore feelings. In this respect, he was an Enlightenment thinker like Locke. Optimistic, as I’ve said, though I suppose there were times he despaired; indeed, I know there were. Perhaps he recited the Serenity Prayer* to himself when he felt powerless to make a difference. Perhaps the way people in groups behave is one of those things we cannot change and must somehow accept.
For myself, I choose diversity. The earth manages its diversity wonderfully, even when human beings thwart it. Milkweed seeds and thistle find their ways into monoculture cornfields. Plants and insects gradually populate the rubble we make.
When circumstances keep me in a tribe-like bubble, I read books and poems that show me other perspectives, other climes, other social cultures, cities, classes, geographies–other histories than my own. I find ways to explore, in person or virtually, artwork and film work, drama, music, and dances from places I may never visit but without which I would be less attuned to the World. To its wonders, which are many. Insert here, instead of a unified goal all people “should” achieve, Whitman’s “Kosmos” or Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” with its line “All things counter, original, spare, strange;” or, more contemporary, Vievee Francis’ glorious “Another Antipastoral” that states:
Don’t you see? I am shedding my skins. I am a paper hive, a wolf spider, the creeping ivy, the ache of a birch, a heifer, a doc.
The World, that great unity. That global balancing act. That paradox: Outliers and Others being necessary, and Beloved.
We had some mild, sunny days around the equinox, days that lured me to the yard and garden. The neighbors’ pussywillow pushed its fuzzy catkins out in the warmth, and the sight of daffodil and hyacinth leaves making their way upward was cheering. A rather sluggish field vole ran out from under some mulch, much to my annoyance–the voles have really torn up the ornamental beds and the lawn under the cover of the snow. There’s a large meadow behind my house; why don’t the voles stay out there? At any rate, I wanted this one away from the garden. I figured I could catch it and let it go in the hedgerow where the grasses are dry and thick.
I was wearing garden gloves and the vole was a bit startled by sunlight but too fast for me. Because I had a hose in my right hand, I aimed it at the vole. I figured the wetting would confuse it enough that I could sweep down fast and scoop it up with some thatch, then release it. Or really, I wasn’t thinking much. But it did work: the vole, suddenly damp, froze for a moment. I snatched it and cradled it in my gloved hands (they bite!) and let it go along the edge of the meadow.
My compassionate spouse admonished me, though. He said it was cruel to spritz the vole. I realized he was correct. In the moment, I was considering my good intentions to remove the creature to a “better” place to forage; but that in itself was not a very kind thing–it was my wish, certainly not the vole’s! And I am positive I frightened it terribly.
The episode made me reflect on how often we privilege our own desires as being motivated by good intentions. We reason our way out of thoughtless behavior by saying “But I didn’t mean…” I have done so far too often. I think this is what props up microagressions and passive acceptance of egregious social behaviors like racism. Today I stumbled across an article by Shayla Love that suggests our much-vaunted concept of our true moral selves is illusion. She cites an article by psychologists that concludes that “[t]he true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.” Strominger, Knobe, & Newman’s article on the true self is here.
So I am celebrating in a very small way, hooray for the little things! For the fact that my 88 year old mother has had her vaccine, and so have I, and now we can visit in person and appreciate little joys like cranberry, raisin, almond, and dark chocolate trail mix, floral bouquets, slow walks through the garden starting to green up and–soon–bloom. Maybe I will even be able to take her out for a beer (at an outdoor restaurant) in a month or two. I can read her some of the poems I’ve written about my dad. We can just sit and watch the birds.
For the fact that my students are slogging away, enduringly hopeful that by the time they graduate the USA will somehow be better. Maybe it will. With their help.
For the fact that my siblings and I have friendly relationships with one another–and honest ones.
Hooray for my spouse, mowing the meadow with his 1947 John Deere Model M tractor! For a new manuscript of old poems that I’m finally spending some genuine, careful, critical time revising.
We are at the end of an arbitrary, chronological year but still in the midst of a pandemic that will not be going away miraculously when the new calendar begins.
To what must we devote ourselves? I think, for now, just getting by and living through; we can learn much from solving the everyday puzzles life pitches at us. A friend counsels that having a project to do can help–something a bit thorny that offers a challenge but that is not a priority. For now, I am cutting vines–the ones that threaten to strangle the remaining trees in the windbreaks on either side of our narrow property.
Trees that have been weakened by too little and then too much rain, by warmer temperatures and crown die-back that encourage lichen, by insects and the viruses they carry, and by a lack of native undergrowth. The ash trees that ringed the meadow are all dead now, victims of fungus and stress-related illnesses caused by infestations of emerald ash borers.
It’s an ongoing effort for which there won’t be much reward, but it feels a bit like tending something in the dead of winter.
I will cease tending this blog for awhile. My deeper concerns lie elsewhere at the moment. If my next collection is indeed published this year as originally intended (covid protocols have affected almost every endeavor, even publishing, and certainly book launches), then I will likely resume a more noticeable social media presence! Maybe I will have resupplied my energy reserves that have been depleted during the past few months.
Until we meet again, and hoping that we can meet in person down the road…
Even if language assists in the emergence of consciousness-as-we-know-it, even if the naming of things as sign or metaphor is, as most human beings believe, “uniquely human,” there are the inexpressibles. The things semiotics does not quite register.
Perhaps this obstacle–the obstacle of words themselves–is what made reading David Hinton’s China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen so difficult for me.
The core practice of Tao seems simple enough, except that our self-identity-based brains do not want to work in that way: not to think of self as “I” at all, but to live in the real world as emergent and ever-changing cosmos watching itself, absent while present, non-being while being, receptive to all change as part of how the cosmos operates, experiencing the hinge of Tao, everything and no-thing. No you or I.
Can I put the concept into words? No. Can David Hinton? Well, sort of (while repeatedly telling his readers that it isn’t possible to put Ch’an into words).
Hinton takes an approach that is partly etymological–based on early and later Han characters in their logograph forms–and partly cultural, namely the influence that Indian Buddhism exerted on existing Tao concepts as Buddhism moved into China during the later Han dynasty. Thus, he divides the text into chapters, each illustrating a significant Ch’an component, practice, or idea.
The logic makes sense, and I have gained a lot of background on culture and Chinese characters in the process; but I cannot call this book an easy read. The blurb says it is “thoroughly gripping” and cites the author’s elegance and clarity. The blurb writer is, however, a Roshi, and thus much more familiar with Zen and writings on Zen than I am. I love the metaphor of the root for many reasons, and that aspect of the book works for me.
Another part of the book that resonates with me is the chapter “Rivers-and-Mountains.” After reading Hinton’s explication of the calligraphy and painting meditation practice of long-ago Chinese artists and intellectuals, I have a fuller understanding of Zen as landscape, Zen as poetry, at least as [Hinton theorizes] it was practiced in ancient China. I have always felt drawn into such artworks, and now I have better insight as to why that is.
I will have to re-read China Root again and again if I am to understand it, though. Or perhaps just work with more ordinary diligence on landscape meditation made present through poetry.
Even though enlightened awareness–among other things–cannot really be expressed in words. 😉
I just finished reading Lisa Randall’s book about the Large Hadron Collider, which I read because…well, I knew it would be over my head as far as the applicable physics experiments go; but I was curious about what exactly the Higgs boson particle is and how it fits into the Standard Model of physics. And now I know. Sort of.
It is difficult not to feel a bit awed by the strides made in science as a result of rapid technological advances. On the sociological and personal level, I am not a big fan of rapid tech updates; they lead to planned or unplanned obsolescence and hence to constant capital expenditures and to waste (trash waste and time waste). The technology leads to experimental possibilities we would not have had otherwise, however.
At the close of the book, where the author wraps up the way engineering tech has dovetailed with abstract and speculative physics theories to show evidence for the Big Bang and the existence of quarks (among other things), there’s an illustration of the “ballooniverse,” an analogy physicists use to explain the expanding universe. I felt a rush of memory flooding me:
Freshman year in a seminar college. The class was Astronomical Physics and Cosmology. For context, Hubble had discovered red shift galaxies in 1929; cosmic microwave background was detected in 1964; Wilson and Penzias won the Nobel Prize–three years after my freshman year–for their work, which led to confirmation of an expanding universe. The term “black holes” was relatively new, coined during the mid-60s; and a theoretical explanation of them had not yet been determined. Oh, and because desk calculators were large and prohibitively expensive, my fellow students and I were using slide rules for calculations of stellar magnitudes.
Did I mention I had never taken a maths course beyond Algebra 2?
But our professor was enthusiastic and encouraging and loved using metaphors to help our teenaged brains decipher challenging concepts. I have forgotten most of his analogies, but the ballooniverse stayed with me. Everything in the universe is moving away from everything else. Our future is distance.
So it seems at present. Each of us moving away from one another. Defoe’s narrator says the best method of avoiding plague was to run from it.
But oh, my Beloveds, how I wish to be close to you.
"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin
..."is to learn something."
--T. H. White
Lowry’s book offers a strange escape for those of us preparing for yet another few months of pandemic quarantining. The escape is Mexico, its mountains and villages, its expatriates, world-travelers, drunkards, outsiders. But the characters cannot escape. The Consul cannot be saved from himself, from his tragic upbringing and his betrayals and his alcoholism. The novel’s so sensual and the descriptions so loving that I feel a sense of personal exile everywhere in the text. And I’m learning about Mexican-British politics in the pre-WWII years. It is a sad novel, but a different variety of sadness than the one I carry with me currently.
Most birds possess the power of flight, something humans have longed for and envied forever, inventing angels and airplanes to mimic birds. Macdonald’s essay on swifts’ vesper flights describes how the birds rise in flocks up to the top of the convective boundary layer, where the wind flow’s determined not by the landscape but by “the movements of large-scale weather systems.” The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (one of my favorite informational sites!) suggests the swifts–not intellectually, but somehow as a group–orient themselves using the many-wrongs principle:
That is, they’re averaging all their individual assessments in order to reach the best navigational decision. If you ‘re in a flock, decisions about what to do next are improved if you exchange information with those around you…Swifts have no voices, but…they can pay attention to what other swifts are doing.”
Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights
We have voices; and yet we are not, in general, so good as the swifts at paying attention. Perhaps because there are too many voices shouting so loudly that the information gets confused. The sheep-following fashion of thinking goes with whoever’s most noisy, we follow; that way lies error. Paying attention and using a many-wrongs principle means we have to be willing to change course when new information arrives. It requires a certain humility that, let’s face it, most of us lack.
While reading Defoe, I am struck by parallels with today’s pandemic. But of course–times change, people don’t. His narrator feels torn–do I leave for the country, or stay in London? Is it wrong to shut people up in plague-touched houses, or safer for the greater number of the population? Is the Mayor making the best choices for the city? When new information about contamination arises, how are the people–as a community–to respond? And what do we do about those people who show total disregard for others? When there are so many responses, for good and ill, to a pandemic of such scope–what choice is best?
What can be said to represent the Misery of these Times, more lively to the Reader, or to give him a more perfect Idea of a complicated Distress?
Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
Complicated Distress: a phrase, composed in 1722, relevant today.