Traditions

My dad liked to fly a kite on Good Friday.

I’m not certain how the tradition got started, but I remember as far back as first grade–maybe earlier–his taking us out to a park on Good Friday and sending a kite into the early spring winds. Maybe it was a sort of metaphor for hope, as was the Resurrection, according to his beliefs. Maybe just something to do with the kids when we had the day off from school.

Some years we had more success than others getting the kite aloft. There may be a metaphor in that, as well. What happens when what’s perching on the soul just huddles, dodging the weather and predators? Guano on the ground of the spirit? As a person who gardens, I could really overstretch the symbolism here: fertilization and renewal, so on.

But I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days–we are having our blackberry frost and it has been chilly. Instead I am thinking about my absent dad and the significance of the holiday in my growing-up years. In church, the purple vestments were switched for white with gold trim on Easter; and my father, in his clerical robe and stole, looked important and shiny behind the pulpit. White flowers, especially lilies, showed up; everyone wore their best spring outfits. I feel nostalgia around these rituals, but they did not settle into my heart and create a believer of me. To my dad’s sorrow. I know my decision to leave the Church grieved him, but he accepted me and loved me all the same. He believed he’d see us in heaven, though he’d admit he had no idea what the afterlife would hold.

Rejoicing in the world’s beauty, the sharing of fellow humans’ suffering, and the way words can express the things that matter–the Biblical poetry–those things have settled into my heart. My consciousness. Hence metaphor and symbol and rhythm, songs of grief and praise.

They rise.

Like the hyacinths and daffodils rising from the half-rotted leaves of previous autumns. Like the flicker rising from the grass after scoring a grub. Like the early morning fog rising as high as the nearby hilltop, then merging into clouds. Like the sprouting kale seeds, the new pea leaves.

Like the thing with feathers. Or a kite.

~

I listened, this afternoon, to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and remembered Good Fridays with my father. That’s all the poetry I have to share today.

The last time my dad flew a kite was 2016, I think. And it was October, oceanside.

Dad (using the walker, far right) keeps a kite in the air above the Atlantic.

Moderately good intentions

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.

Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) from Warren Photographic

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.

“Though we all believe in a morally good true self, our definition of what’s moral varies—and we define the ‘morally good’ part of our true selves based on our own values.” (from: https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7mwa3/why-your-true-self-is-an-illusion) ~Shayla Love.

~~

Meanwhile, this week marks one year since my latest chapbook launched into print–right at the start of US pandemic lockdowns. Find it here: https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/chapbook-series-c-14/barefoot-girls-by-ann-e-michael-p-317.html

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.

For this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude

and thank you, friends, when last spring
the hyacinth bells rang
and the crocuses flaunted
their upturned skirts, and a quiet roved
the beehive

And for this one (RIP, Mr. Zagajewski) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57095/try-to-praise-the-mutilated-world-56d23a3f28187

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

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. 😉

Zen grief

My beloveds have been in throes of anxiety since long before the election here on Tuesday. There has been a sense of general irritability, worry, and stress among US citizens–the presidential race, the increase in coronavirus cases and deaths, uncertainty around workplaces (do we teach in class or online? Do we take the subway to work? Is it safe to travel by plane?), terrible damage from wildfires and a long and busy tropical storm season.

The winter holidays, traditionally a time to gather together and to rally people into spending money on gifts, travel, and food? Hmm. Maybe not this year. Collective sorrow weaves around that situation.

I have felt the stress less keenly than my dear ones, it seems. I did not spend five days obsessing about election results, or anything else. No anxiety, because I’m grieving. My current grief arises as an in-facing state with a specific focus: my father’s death, and my mother’s diminishment. Whatever has been heaving and pulling in the State of the World can continue its way without me; I’m not needed there at present and can be patient with events as they unfold.

It is easier to take a “Zen” approach to society’s stresses when I am carrying inside myself a constant mindful love and an ongoing meditation on loss.

Ecclesiastes 3, especially verses 4-6, speaks to me deeply at present.

As does the Buddha:

Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

You only lose what you cling to.

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.

Practicing

When I was 15 years old and learning to type on my dad’s old manual typewriter, I decided to write my memories; I was composing memoir before I knew what memoir was, under the influence of fiction (David Copperfield). I lost track long ago of where those pages are, but I do recall that I wrote page after page. What on earth would an adolescent who was raised in loving and non-traumatic circumstances in a middle-class New Jersey suburb have had to say that was worth recording?

I wrote about losing a toy bear, and learning to read; receiving second-hand books with joy, reading voraciously, wondering what it would be like to be an orphan, and feeling terrified of dying. I wrote about the attic of our old house and learning to ride a bicycle. There were other things, too, that I can’t remember now. Generally, mundane and typical 1960s-childhood events–and descriptions galore. It felt important to write down the small details.

Perhaps I should have gone into journalism.

These days I’ve no interest in writing memoir. I have kept a journal since I was ten years old, and that constitutes enough self-indulgent scribbling on its own. I treasure, however, the practice all that writing gave me: practice in constructing sentences, employing vocabulary words, creating metaphors, using punctuation in various ways, expressing abstract ideas and describing concrete objects. Writing, learning to write, critique, and revision have been immensely valuable to me.

I’m not sure who I would be if I hadn’t been constantly writing (and reading). Maybe I’d have been a contemplative.

~~

All of which is to report to my readers, who may be experiencing their own obstacles to their art, that –yes– the writing continues in the face of loss and grief, anxiety, and the work of the body in the world, in the mundane spaces of daily grind and in the wakeful hours, and in the containers of dreamwork and consciousness. Right now, the writing is not “good,” not crafted, aware of itself, ready to speak to others than the self. It is, at present, more akin to what the Buddhists call practice.

Photo by Donald Macauley on Flickr | https://tricy.cl/2DSmsmY

~

Keep working, keep practicing, keep breathing.

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.

Turn, turn, turn

As a child, I loved the Pete Seeger song “Turn, Turn, Turn” as sung by The Byrds. My father told me the words came from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (KJV). Ecclesiastes offers some lovely poems, and Seeger’s interpretation is simple and wise:

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late

~

Given the time of coronavirus and covid-19, “a time to refrain from embracing” seems apt, and a little painful to contemplate. For me and my beloveds, a time has come in which to mourn and weep, and to embrace, because everything (and every one among us) must reach a time to die. The sweet-natured, intelligent man who took us to a Pete Seeger concert when we were children and told us where to find the lyrics in Ecclesiastes, among many other things, has moved from physical existence to existence in our consciousness–the strange loop of human “being” that none of us understands.

He would have called it soul.

autumn rainbow

Just speak

Much has been going on in the blogger’s back-of-the-blog life, compounded with news of the nation. And frankly, I have been mulling for well over a week on how to say what I want to say; or how to say anything, for that matter. There are times in the life of a writer when said writer recognizes the limitations of words.

Also: words can be dangerous–inflammatory, distracting, powerful, persuasive, false, painful, hurtful. People get defensive at words they feel are “aimed” at them. Aimed, a weaponized word. I have had people (okay, white people) tell me they are tired of hearing about their privilege, because they and their families worked hard for their place in the world and because many, many white people are underprivileged and suffering, just as people of color are suffering.

While this is true, it is also fails to address the argument. Defensiveness is a diversion tactic used when people are too uncomfortable to address hard discussions. A student at my university recently exhorted us–“us” being mostly the uncomfortable white people who teach or take classes here–to speak up. “Even if you’re afraid you’ll say something the wrong way,” she said, “if you let me know you are uncertain but that you really want to have a discussion, speak up anyway. Because then at least I know that you’re reaching out to me, and I’ll dial it back a bit.”

It’s easy to understand why people would want to avoid the topics of privilege and of systemic racism. We are taught to be polite; one of the social contracts I was urged to respect was to keep conversation friendly, to avoid religion, politics, and other hot topics in order to get along with my neighbors and coworkers–to maintain friendships with people whose perspectives are different from my own. This approach does work, to a degree. Politeness, though, is not the same as compassionate interest and doesn’t always encourage listening and reflecting.

So it stops the conversation just when the conversation might be getting interesting. Or difficult. I have seen this play out in the course I teach time and again. Some students try to mediate as soon as a disagreement starts. Some tune out; some get embarrassed; some shut it down. Some talk to me after class, individually. Only a few times are my freshmen confident and mature enough to speak up assertively but in a way that admits of, and permits, other points of view.

That behavior is what I try to teach and to encourage. We need to admit of other perspectives rather than keep comparing this with that or bring up side arguments or shut people down with ad hominem attacks. That means ideologically “liberal” people also have to listen and to allow opposition, by the way. I teach in a fairly conservative university; and as a rather unconventional thinker in that environment, it can be a challenge for me to let students express views with which I disagree. But that’s the point: to listen and try to understand, and then to show where the argument goes awry–if it does–and acknowledge the validity of the stance, as there often is some.

I am not defensive about my privilege because I can admit to it. I acknowledge that things I have little control over–the society into which I was born, the family that raised me, the historical structures of the social contract norms, the assumption that I would be educated–have randomly assigned me to accepted norms of privilege. In simplest terms, I’m lucky, randomly fortunate.

Which had little to do with how hard my ancestors worked. They scraped and toiled and suffered, they may have been run out of Europe for their beliefs, or out of poverty or risk of prison, they may have arrived with nothing and been poorly treated by the elite in the early USA. All true. They worked their butts off for generations and never became wealthy or politically powerful.

They were permitted to attend school, however. They were permitted to own land. They were permitted to vote.

These foundational opportunities for equity were denied–often by the laws of this democratic nation–to black slaves, who were brought here completely unwillingly and indeed by main force under even worse conditions than any poverty-stricken European on a ship headed to this continent. These opportunities were denied to the Chinese who labored on our railroads. They were denied to the original residents of this continent, whose own nations and norms were largely and purposely erased by the European immigrants. The historical barriers became legitimized into social norms.

Do I have privilege? Yes. Do I value my privilege? Yes. Do I think I’ve earned my privilege? Absolutely not.

I am for equity. I have no idea how we can possibly achieve it in the United States, and I cannot say I have a lot of hope. My dad was working for civil rights back in 1965;  55 years later, there are more female than male students at my college, and more students of color or of diverse national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds…so some things have changed, though mostly due to “leg up” approaches rather than “barriers down” actions. It is a start.

Equity means that no mother residing in this nation would have to worry about the safety of her young adult son while he is driving to work, walking down the street, taking a jog or a bike ride, or going to a pool or a beach. That’s been one of my privileges. Of all the concerns I may have had as my son grew up (he’s past 30 now), I never needed to think about the danger of “walking while black.”

Because he isn’t black.

And that’s not equitable.

~

Untitled-writer

Unsettled sentences

One of those unsettled-weather days…rain all night, cloudy mild morning. I weeded the vegetable patch and made note of bean sprouts and zucchini sprouts, pea blossoms and strawberry blossoms.

Then, more rain, so I worked on some housekeeping and writing tasks indoors. I wrote sentences and thought about the loss of syntax and vocabulary.

~

Eastern Bluebird-4299_Laurie Lawler_Texas_2013_GBBC_KKThe day warmed and brightened. I harvested spinach, found more weeding to do (it never ends), watched a pair of bluebirds perch like sentries and swoop toward their nest in the magnolia tree. Fast-moving clouds morphed and swashed overhead. We had a sunshower, and I had a flashback to one of our son’s earliest sentences.

We were indoors on a day very like this one–he was not yet two years old. I was nursing his infant sister while he perched on a chair and peered out the window.

“Sun out, rain coming down!” he said. Observant, expressive (communicative), and properly syntactical (though missing the to-be verbs). A moment of major language development!

Also, cute.

~

I cannot visit my mother, whose aphasia worsens by the week. It hurts me to listen as she struggles to get her point across, endeavors to employ expression which used to come so naturally. Loss of vocabulary and syntax: unsettled sentences.

~

A funnier anecdote about sentences: our daughter’s first full sentence likewise made an observation about the environment around her. She pointed to a corner of the rug and said, “Look–cat barf, Mama!”

We rarely lose that urge to get our point across. Let us be listeners.