Until…

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…

photo by David Sloan

Root

We do not always have words.

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.

~

Vincent Van Gogh, “Tree Roots” Van Gogh Museum: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0195V1962

~

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. 😉

Expanding universe

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.

Physics classes in high school still use this 3-d visual analogy

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.

Complicated distress

My recent reading list borders on the bizarrely unrelated: Helen Macdonald’s essays in Vesper Flights, Malcolm Lowry’s descriptive pastiche of a novel Under the Volcano, and Daniel Defoe’s wandering and curiously relevant A Journal of the Plague Year.

"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.

How can it be

Another book about how to die, or how to think about dying: Roshi Joan Halifax’s Being with Dying–the subtitle includes compassion and fearlessness, two qualities Halifax explores using Buddhist approaches, such as meditations. While I like to read about meditations, meditation itself eludes me; I am “bad” at practicing, but authors like Halifax and Kabat-Zinn give me hope that even poor attempts at meditation can be useful in dealing with grief, stress, and anxiety. Death is the most normal thing in the world. How odd that we must teach ourselves how to “be with” it. How to keep from worrying ourselves to death about the most normal thing in the world. Worrying accomplishes so little.

When I was a college freshman, I interviewed my great-grandmother (born in 1884) for a cultural anthropology project. She talked about living on a small farm, nursing her 12-year-old son through the Spanish flu, baking and slaughtering and canning and drawing water–life before rural electrification. She said:

Times was hard, but times is always hard, and our lives were no harder than anybody else’s.

Orpha Ann Parrish Smith

Good to keep that in mind at present.

My temperament has always tended more melancholic than anxious; but in these days of covid, flu, and concerns about my bereaved and elderly mother, worried thoughts arrive, especially in the wee hours, especially as cases climb upward in my region and my mother’s assisted living center starts yet another lockdown. I try to imagine the changes the extreme elderly experience…I imagine her being ‘assisted’ by caring, gentle people she does not really know and with whom she can barely communicate due to anomia and aphasia, which makes her grief for my father truly inexpressible.

“I can’t say anymore what I say,” she tells me by phone. “On the wall, it says, what is it? Now?”

“The calendar? It’s Tuesday, Mom.”

“No, the other. The…weather. Season.”

“Oh. October. It’s October.”

“How is it? And I am trying…when was it? That he died?”

“August, Mom. August 25th.”

“Has it been since August? Was it August? Already? So many now. Many…pills. No, ice. Ices gone by. I don’t mean that. I said–“

“Many days, I know. Can it really be October already? And he’s been gone since the end of August. Summer.”

“25. 25 days, August, October. How can it be?” she asks; and I can tell, over the phone, that she is shaking her head slowly the way she does, wondering, surprised, how can it be…

There are times she says exactly the right thing.

How can it be? Something I might want to meditate upon.

No better place

In a time of grief and gravity and gratitude for some wonderfully-lived lives, I happen to find myself reading Mark Doty’s book What Is the Grass? Walt Whitman in My Life.

And I find this paragraph; and for now, I need add nothing more.

The dead are not lost, but in circulation; they are involved in the present, in active participation. Bits of them are streaming through your hand and mine, just as language is circulating through us. Lexicon and materiality forever move onward and outward in the continuous wheeling expansion this world is. This is no mere philosophical proposition on Whitman’s part, not an intellectual understanding but a felt actuality. We are alive forever in the endless circulation of matter. Nothing luckier, stranger, or more beautiful could ever happen. There is no better place.

Foretelling

I have been on a Dickens kick since March, reading his novels and travel writings that I had never gotten around to in the past. He was, in many ways, a journalist: a consummate observer of human behavior, appearance, society. It struck me, reading American Notes for General Circulation (1850), how prescient he was about the USA.

Portrait_of_Charles_John_Huffman_Dickens 1843

Dickens, 1843, portrait by by Margaret Gillies

In 1841, Dickens was just 30 years old but well-regarded in England and in “America,” where he traveled with his wife for six months. His observations tend not to demonstrate the best about 1840s Americans, though he also reflects on the “good character and general friendliness” of the people here. He remarks at how free education means that almost everyone is literate–every non-enslaved person, that is.

What amazes me is his wrap up, where he concludes his book with a kind of warning to Americans, a warning about our inclination toward doubt in our fellows–our lack of trust, about hyper-partisan political ideology and its poor results, about the ruin slavery will visit on the nation, and about the sad tendency to reward/admire “smart men” over moral, kind, generous, or intelligent ones. He additionally blasts this infant nation for its insistence that trade (and capitalism) matters more than just about everything else except the vaunted concept of personal freedom, which of course is belied by the existence of slavery.

He expresses alarm at how the average American conducts his day and offers suggestions on how Americans could improve overall public and personal health:

…the custom of hastily swallowing large quantities of animal food, three times a-day, and rushing back to sedentary pursuits after each meal, must be changed; the gentler sex must go more wisely clad, and take more healthful exercise; and in the latter clause, the males must be included also.

About distrust of facts, politicians, and experts:

One great blemish in the popular mind of America, and the prolific parent of an innumerable brood of evils, is Universal Distrust. Yet the American citizen plumes himself upon this spirit, even when he is sufficiently dispassionate to perceive the ruin it works; and will often adduce it, in spite of his own reason, as an instance of the great sagacity and acuteness of the people, and their superior shrewdness and independence.

Americans maintain too much pride in their shrewdness and distrust, Dickens claims:

…any printed lie that any notorious villain pens, although it militate directly against the character and conduct of a life, appeals at once to your distrust, and is believed.

So long ago, and yet here is a visible trait of the “American character”:

‘There’s freedom of opinion here, you know. Every man thinks for himself, and we are not to be easily overreached. That’s how our people come to be suspicious.’

Another prominent feature is the love of ‘smart’ dealing: which gilds over many a swindle and gross breach of trust…and enables many a knave to hold his head up with the best, who well deserves a halter; though it has not been without its retributive operation, for this smartness has done more in a few years to impair the public credit, and to cripple the public resources, than dull honesty, however rash, could have effected in a century. The merits of a broken speculation, or a bankruptcy, or of a successful scoundrel….are considered with reference to their smartness.

~

I need add nothing here that Mr. Dickens hasn’t said already…170 years ago.

NOTE: Project Gutenberg provides this text, including its 1868 postscript, online here.

Top ten, discourse, power

Last week’s New York Times Book Review listed, as always, the ten best-selling books. It’s rather heartening to note that this past week, in the non-fiction category, nine of the ten top selling books deal with systemic racism, historic racism, personal experiences as a person of color, and anti-racism in the United States. Granted, the NYT Bestsellers list projects the interests of only a small percentage of citizens and reflects the interests of a well-educated readership. These readers, however, tend to be people who have money and influence, who make hiring decisions and corporate policy protocols, and who are responsible for educating Americans. They may not think of themselves as people with power, for many of the Times readers are under 40 and middle-class.* But they seem to be showing an interest in learning more about privilege, power, and racism.

I have never considered myself a person who had any power; and yet I now recognize that just as I have privilege I never earned, I have power I never earned–and that I have indeed been using that power (as I have unwittingly benefited from privilege) and can do more with it. For educators possess power.

So do poets.

The past three months, as spring has bloomed into summer, poems of protest and poems that inform society have likewise bloomed. Poets of color, marginalized poets, poets who are disabled or queer or immigrant or for other reasons yearning to be heard are all over social media–which is not unusual in itself (the voices, the poems, have been online for decades)–but the difference lately comes through retweets and viral videos and shared posts at a higher rate than previously. These poems, and the prose and interviews that often accompany them, create discourse. Badly needed discussions. Confrontations that cannot be shoved away as easily as they were. I’ve been reading and observing, hoping a change is gonna come.

True, maybe change will not come. At any rate, it’s unlikely to come readily or rapidly; we have been at this pass many times before in the USA. One person at a time may make incremental changes, though, as my father did in the 1960s: a tiny addition to the marches, one person speaking to a small and largely indifferent congregation. One person at a time can be me, as I instruct my students in how to discuss and how to write about controversial subjects using genuine evidence while being respectful of other perspectives. Demonstrate to them how to notice that there are other perspectives. Teach them that they can read and listen in order to teach themselves.

That is power, and it is power to change. Incrementally, a drop in the ocean, a butterfly effect…why not? We have a dream.

monarch.ann e michael

~~

* I’ve gleaned demographic information from NYT’s published statistics and those from several media-advertisement websites.

Flurries

Every 20 years or so, my region gets a truly late freeze.

This is one of those years. It seems strange when snow flurries alight upon dogwood blossoms, but this period has been strange in many respects. What’s one more weirdness? We can adapt. It just requires employing strategies we haven’t used before.

Which brings me, today, to Marilyn McCabe’s chapbook Being Many Seeds, just released by Grayson Books…like my own chapbook, a publication somewhat muted by the coronavirus. Make note, though, that you and I can still purchase books online. It just may take a little longer to receive the text. And isn’t anticipation fun?

Her chapbook has a lovely cover. [Readers may know I’m a fan of milkweed.] And the poems fascinate as they unravel–almost literally–on the page, in a form of erasure poetry followed by brief prose that is not so much interpretation as deepening. McCabe tries strategies with her poems as words and also as meanings. If that makes any sense. Want to know more? McCabe posted about the evolution of this collection on her own blog (which I suggest you follow) here.

beingmanyseeds-graysonsite_orig

~

I walked out into the meadow and scouted the broken stems and perennials emerging, on the lookout for seed-silk. I found several varieties, mostly dandelion, milkweed, coltsfoot, and eupatorium. Translucent puffs that evolved to disperse lightweight seeds through the use of breeze. Or breath.

Effective, and also quite beautiful. When the seed is stripped from the silk, the puff drifts away. The seed, however, now has the opportunity to sprout and grow. Even when the air is full of flurries.

 

~

Delights

May begins with its usual pleasures of redbud, dogwood, cherry blossoms, camassia, mayflower, lily-of-the-valley, jack-in-the-pulpit…spinach in the garden, peas starting to send out tendrils, swallows and orioles returning, bees and other insects waking to the work of pollination and feeding the birds.

And yes, a time of anxious confusion and maybe a little more rain in April than necessary and adapting to working conditions that aren’t entirely satisfactory due to a situation beyond our control–though human beings like to pretend we have control. It’s a belief that keeps us from despair, probably.

In a time of pandemic, I sustain my sanity the usual ways. Garden. Poetry. Walks. Family. Reading. Tai chi. Going, most of all, for balance and observation. On the lookout for the things that delight me, though those things may seem “small” or easily overlooked.

Which brings me to the book I’ve been savoring, Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights. 41ZEJWNt9CL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Nicole Rudick, in The New York Review of Books, has already composed a wonderful write-up about The Book of Delights–so I don’t need to. (Do read it: here). But, back to last month’s posts about responses to poetry collections, Gay’s latest–not-poetry, mini-prose, essayettes–evoked from me the response I suppose the author sought from his readers: delight. Delights, plural. Gay’s close observations and slightly goofy sense of what is funny (fallible, silly, skewed but not skewered) feel kin to my own, though my perspective differs from his due to how we are differently embodied and differently socialized, or non-conformist as to said socialization. For any human being, perspective’s inherently lodged in the body; and other people’s perspectives about us, or assumptions about us, are socially based upon the bodies in which we dwell.

Which is to say that he is a Black man in his 40s and I am a White woman in her 60s; yet Ross Gay and I have overlapping backgrounds and interests. Hoosierism and Philadelphia-dwelling, for a time. Poetry. Students, whom we love. Gardening. Passion for figs, awareness of pawpaw fruit and hickory trees. Observers, the sort of people who want to learn more about animal scat and bee species. “Jenky” gardeners. [My term is jury-rigged, but it means about the same thing, without the urban/ghetto connotations: adapting to one’s immediate need without overmuch consumerism…which is to say, making do with a crappy substitute. I learned that from my folks, too.]

And the urge to recognize, and celebrate, delights.