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.

Evolution

Evolution

The chickens mill and scratch;
what do they know of their theropod ancestry,
how many millennia it took
to evolve a brain, without neocortex,
capable of amodal completion
immediately upon hatching, a brain
that supplies all they need for survival
until the hatchet, predatory snag, parasite, virus?
Hens in the garden stride through scythed weeds,
make an unhurried ambit of the dead
and dying remainders—
Stumps of stalks, twisted beige grasses
the color of birds’ tail and breast feathers,
brown-speckled hens, rumps dun, red combs.
They cluster in a fence corner,
step on each other’s heads,
snap up bees and beetles during autumn’s
short-limbed days. The clawed foot
extends, grasps, clings to roost.
A Jurassic hinge, rusting, its vitality immured
in the muttered musing of hens.
Dry leaves, blooms gone to seed.
How the mighty have fallen.

~

This is an older poem, going back at least ten years. It seemed suitable for the end of autumn and the looming solstice today. I love that I could use the terms amodal and neocortex in a poem. That kind of poetic vocabulary isn’t everybody’s “jam,” but the thwarted scientist in me enjoys playing around with this sort of fact-meets-art interdisciplinary terminology. And yes, there’s an opportunity for metaphor here, in the virus and in the chances evolution randomly develops as to who’s on top or who thinks they are on top. A lesson for us all.

Relevance

The virus year has left me questioning the relevance of my poetry practice to the world of literature, such as it is. I have not been sending work to journals. I have not spent much time on revisions nor on going through my work in order to assemble another manuscript (or two).

My father suffered awhile, then died–what can I say? It has been hard to write, especially given the mental challenges of learning a host of new technological platforms and completely redoing my syllabus to adapt to the changed methods of college classroom instruction and tutoring. How does the saying go? “I ain’t as young as I usta be.”

Given that the year has been even more of a media frenzy and social norms chaos than the years preceding it, the word unprecedented has been overtaxed into meaningless syllables; and the word relevance has taken on a sort of socially-annointed value that leaves me certain I have nothing to contribute except more noise. Why bother to write poems? It may be that there are more useful ways I can spend my “senior years.” Reinvent myself as an advocate or mentor in some other field: gardening/environmentalism, education, literacy, hospice care…

Maybe I could just go back to hobbies. Photography, embroidery, sketching and painting, flower arranging, hiking. Or take up some new craft or endeavor. Maybe birding. And am I then somehow engaging in more or less relevant processes?

Garth Greenwell has an essay in a recent Harper‘s, “Making Meaning,” in which he poses questions about the concept of relevance as it relates to art and concludes that he disagrees with “relevance” as a critique criterion, one “that feels entirely foreign…to the real motivations of art.”

If I had a question like that on my mind as I tried to make art, I would never write another word.

Greenwell

These words, to me, are encouraging; while I may not buy into every point of Greenwell’s essay, the fact that someone other than myself (and a better writer than I) wrestles with aspects of relevance confirms my discomfiture as–well, valid? In his case, critics suggesting the less-than-relevance of his fiction are those who think stories about gay men and their sexualities and their stories are too “niche” to be relevant to readers of literature. A far cry from my own form of irrelevance, which is that my poetry is too tame and nature-oriented and dissociated from the suffering, disoriented, unequal, unjust world of human society to be truly relevant to readers. I am no performer, but a writer:

When I consider the subject matter of a work of art, I want to talk; when I consider its form, I want to contemplate.

~

…I do believe in the universal, that some commonness in human experience can be communicated across gulfs of difference, and I believe that art can give us access to it.

Greenwell

The essay is worth reading in its entirety, as some of its assertions deserve discussion. Especially noteworthy is Greenwell’s anecdote about reading and loving Augustine’s Confessions, a text I re-read and still love for many reasons, not one of which is due to religious beliefs. Greenwell says Confessions is still relevant today because of Augustine’s creative and relentless questioning and the ways he expresses his own confusion, “making bewilderment itself a tool for inquiry.” Yes! Among, of course, many other things.

Why do we make art? Maybe just for the challenges it presents, the inward puzzles we invent for ourselves and must solve for ourselves or leave unsolved. I’m looking out my window at snow coming down just now, a wet snow that sits heavily on the pine branches and lends a “clean” look to the surrounding fields and lawns. Relevant takes a prepositional phrase: the snow, the meadows, the hedgerows are relevant to my experience, if to no one else’s; if so, I suppose I compose/make art for myself…and if others find resonance there, the work is done by the reader, or on the reader’s part.

A good definition of art, it seems to me, might be the science of making meaning-making tools.

Greenwell

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. 😉

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.

Crickets

Colloquial speech fascinates me, particularly as its particularity evolves and morphs over time and through culture. Phrases, allusions, slang, cultural references…no wonder that one of my favorite screwball comedies of all time is the Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper film Ball of Fire. (Check it out!)

Recently, my sister complained that she sends out brief, concise emails to coworkers and people who report to her–emails that require acknowledgement or response; “and what do I get?” she shrugged in exasperation, “Crickets!” I know the feeling. Try sending emails to dozens of first-year college students…see how well the average 18-year-old answers them.

Online at YourDictionary.com, I found the most concise definition of crickets:

(US slang, humorous or derisive) Absolute silence; no communication. Derived from the cinematic metaphor of chirping crickets at night, signaling (otherwise) complete quiet. May be used alone or in metaphorically descriptive phrases.

I love that this definition suggests the term derives from movies! I love that it’s a metaphor! And, of course, I love that crickets make sounds–so in actuality the analogy stems not from absolute silence but from the absence of, I suppose, a human-language response.

This time of year at my meadow, the crickets still thrive and make noise even as the cooler nights begin to slow their calls. I hear the order Oecanthinae (tree crickets) from on high in the tree canopy and the order Gryllus (field crickets)–slightly lower in pitch–creak-cricking amid the goldenrod and sedge.

Then I stop and consider all the thrumming, crashing, screaming, irritating, beeping, blasting, babbling noise humans make in the world. Even when we feel joyful, words and enough noise to make the head spin. A great din?

I think I choose crickets, for now.

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.

@, &, etc.

Decades ago, when I worked in the graphics and typography industry, I became fascinated with ligatures * and “special characters” (which sounds like a euphemism of some kind). Some font designers seemed to share my interest and to design particularly elegant or amusing symbol characters and ligatures as options, though the classic ones have long since gone out of style.

The symbol ampersand supposedly evolved out of the Latin word et (as in et cetera), into “and per se and”–but now it simply means “and.”ampersand

fig2c

That character-ligature-symbol gets used frequently in logos, headlines, labels, cartoons. I like the over-the-top swash versions of ampersand just for fun, though I would not specify them in a design; they tend to be hard to read.

Several of the special characters find employment in legal documentation or academic writing, the only places you are likely to find  ‡, §, and ¶ . They’re quaintly antique, but useful. The symbol for “at,” however, was underused when I worked in the field in the 1970s and 80s. It seemed to be going the way of the §.

What a difference a world-wide web makes! Now, of course, @ is ubiquitous, instantly recognizable, and used in logos, brand names… etc.!

~

What we might notice here is that symbols change over time; status varies as social requirements vary, and what’s considered relevant or useful in one era or with one technology can fall into disuse or neglect depending upon the times. Do we regret their fall from grace? Perhaps for a generation or so, and then “they’re history.” If we value history, we geek around in scholarly or enthusiastic amateur ways, recovering past usages and the social norms of past eras. But we seldom insist upon a return to most of them. What endures overcomes the norms. I am curious as to what will endure.

Yes, this is another one of my analogies to the present moment.

~

@ 6 am
wren & sparrow chitt-errrr
etc.

(Just a lot of twitter noise.)

~~

*The etymology of the word is as follows (thank you Online Etymology Dictionary): c. 1400, “something used in tying or binding,” from Middle French ligature “a binding” (14c.), from Late Latin ligatura “a band,” from Latin ligatus, past participle of ligare “to bind” (from PIE root *leig- “to tie, bind”). In modern musical notation, “group of notes slurred together,” from 1590s; of letters joined in printing or writing from 1690s.

~

cf : The term ligature, when used in medicine, means a thread or cord that ties off a blood vessel. Now you know!

Monumental

Historical record is a palimpsest, erased in whole or in parts and reinterpreted, rewritten, revised, rebuilt, restructured, reconsidered, and–often–reviled. In the USA, we are once again evaluating our statuary monuments. Columbus. Juan de Oñate. Mayor Frank Rizzo. General Robert E. Lee. 

What a society considers beautiful, or of aesthetic value, usually differs little from what it considers to be of cultural value. Such judgment seems natural; but it frequently provides societal blinders because citizens want to avoid what’s ugly, brutal, and complicated. If it’s good, it must be beautiful; if it is beautiful, and has been around a long time, it must be a good symbol for our society.

One thing about a symbol is its simplicity–we think we know exactly what it stands for, and we can admire our own reflections about that shared idea. Except that human perspectives are annoyingly unique, and it turns out we cannot even agree about what a symbol represents, let alone what it means, and whether or not it should be interpreted in the context of the society that created the symbol or in light of the point of view of the person who now perceives it.

Monuments, though we think of them as commemorations or reminders, are intentionally raised up to become symbols or icons in a way at variance with the more common, individual headstones or grave markers. They are not art but society’s major markers. I learned about the difference a decade or so ago on a visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). A tour group was walking through the Ancient Egyptian galleries, and one of the visitors asked the docent about how and when the artistic styles of the large sculptures changed.

“Anthropologists seldom refer to these objects as art, actually,” replied the docent. She went on to add that while they are beautiful and most people think of them as art, the monuments really were indicators of society–status, leadership, importance in the world of the time. While they seem lasting to us, because they’re large or carved of stone, they were created by craftsmen, not artists. No one cared who made them; they were there to tell the people living in the cities, towns, and countryside who was in power, whom to worship, and what the governing powers valued. Many statues were destroyed or vandalized once a nobleman was out of power. It didn’t matter that they were made of stone, or whether they were aesthetically beautiful or made by a renowned craftsman–the figurehead kings or gods were no longer important. They could safely be demolished.

250791, AL1152931

Granite sphinx of Ramses II, Penn Museum

Or re-used. Speaking of palimpsests, read about this sphinx at the Penn Museum’s gallery. The cartouches show definite signs of having been repurposed from a previous pharaoh. “The previous king’s name is entirely eradicated.”

~

If you suspect I am making an analogy to current events, you suspect correctly. It is human nature to want things to stay as one remembers them, and we tend to feel confused when change occurs rapidly. But renaming, erasure, and destruction of socially-sanctioned monuments has been going on for a long, long time. We should not be as surprised as news media seems to want us to be when monuments become controversial.

~

The Online Etymology Dictionary says this about the word monument:

late 13c., “a sepulchre,” from Old French monument “grave, tomb, monument,” and directly from Latin monumentum “a monument, memorial structure, statue; votive offering; tomb; memorial record,” literally “something that reminds,” a derivative of monere “to remind, bring to (one’s) recollection, tell (of),” from PIE *moneie- “to make think of, remind,” suffixed (causative) form of root *men- (1) “to think.” Meaning “any enduring evidence or example” is from 1520s; sense of “structure or edifice to commemorate a notable person, action, period, or event” is attested from c. 1600.

Monuments relate to thinking, to memory. We want our thoughts to endure–our society, our “own way of life”–to last forever, because we know we will not last forever.

Monuments have the disturbing quality of often belonging to only one group in a culture, however. The victors, or those who wish they had been victors. The victims, mourned. The powerful, because they have the means to build monuments. Monuments can fade from significance; the culture can change its point of view, making the old statues controversial or useless; new leaders can appear.

I am rethinking what I consider to be cultural and social monuments.

Here’s something I love to hear when my head and heart get too full of complicated histories and emotions: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” sung by Otis Redding. *

~~

* [FYI from Wikipedia: “In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress, with the National Recording Registry deeming the song “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”[2]]