Further shifts

Shifts are necessary now and again. Here are a some I am undergoing.

For example, readers of this blog will notice that the writer’s focus tends to move from interest to interest, month to month, year to year. And yet there’s poetry to consider, always. During the past year, I have read more non-fiction books than poetry books. More history. More memoir. More science. I have been pursuing the consciousness and neurology and physiology texts.

I have learned a great deal from all of this reading, and it is inspiring. I find, however, that it’s taken its toll on my writing poetry.

My shift now: Read more poetry.

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But what about my love for difficult books?

Well, there is no doubt in my mind that poetry can be difficult. Difficult to write, difficult to read, difficult to understand. Time to go there, further and deeper.

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Another shift: in the spring semester, I will be teaching a more advanced course in writing comp and rhetoric, one that will be more challenging for the students and especially for me. One of the arguments I will be making to them is that they recognize the need for credibility in the sources they use as evidence.

Making that case runs rather counter to the way US society operates. We shall see how well I can make my argument to these young people.

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One further shift–certainly not the last. There’s my constant inquiry into consciousness…because sentience and human beings–and their brains, and their mind-body problems, and their relationships, and their stories and metaphors and art forms and pains–intrigue me endlessly, I turn to books and art for understanding. I do not expect to learn what consciousness is, where it originates, or how it came to be. But I ask because asking is interesting.

The reading has been enlightening. Philosophy, yes, and neurology and cultural anthropology. Oh, and evolution, religion, and medicine. Not to mention texts on death and dying (and the unanswerable “is that the end of consciousness?”).

My shift here lately has been to read less and to encounter more. I have been volunteering as a hospice companion/caregiver relief assistant, sometimes in the home but most often at the inpatient hospice unit at a nearby hospital.

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There are bodhisattvas among us, and I have met them on the ward floor. This particular shift does not mean I will never read another book on consciousness, but it has reminded me that kindness is a constant act and that kindness is conscious and aware. It does not reside in a book but in the daily world, which is all we have.

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I have to work on that in my own relationships, the ones that don’t take place on the hospice wing.

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May I prove resilient to these shifts. The days are incrementally longer now. Time to read poems.

 

 

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Insomnia

Screech owls. Yipping foxes. Howling eastern coyotes. Tree frogs. Flying squirrels. The brown crickets, slowing their chirps as the temperature falls. Night sounds that I notice when I have episodes of insomnia.

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eerie night

All my life, I have experienced insomnia–sometimes to a distracting degree. Now that I have a chronic condition that induces fatigue, insomnia plagues me less frequently; but something about the change of season from summer to autumn tends to arouse the sleepless demon. A colleague speculates that this seasonal insomnia occurs because for most of my life I have had to operate on the school-year’s calendar, September to June instead of January to December. Annually, this has been my transition time. I think she may be correct.

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One of the most frustrating aspects of insomnia has been my sense that lying in bed unable to sleep is time wasted. We have only so many breaths to take in our lives. Stewing in anxiety, listening to thoughts run heedlessly through my consciousness–such fruitless minutes! I know I should be giving my body complete rest, nestling into proper circadian rhythms, instead of restlessly tossing. Or I should just get up and do something useful (but I’m too sleepy to do anything useful).

I am not a Buddhist; but learning about the practice of tonglen has provided me with a method for insomnia that does not feel wasteful. When I cannot fall asleep, or when I waken in the darkness and cannot get back to sleep again, the mindful breathing and the focus on compassion that tonglen prescribes are enormously helpful. I slow my breath and think about breath; I think about life, and about all sentient beings. In my awareness on the brink of sleep, I send compassion outward with my breaths–outward to all other beings in the cosmos. I repeat in my mind, “May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May they be released from pain and the causes of pain. May they find peace. I send compassion to all sentient beings.”

The practice is akin to prayer, which I learned very young (my father is a “man of the cloth”) in church and at home. From early in my life, however, I encountered problems with prayer because I had problems with the Omnipotent Other Being to whom I was  directing my prayers. In the abbreviated tonglen practice as I practice it, I do not need to direct my thoughts to any one being but toward all beings. [I should note that in actual Buddhist practice, there is considerably more contemplative work in tonglen; a good reference is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.]

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First Presbyterian Church of Yonkers NY, 1964

The benefits are several. Maybe my consciousness does not affect the consciousness of other beings, or in any way affect the suffering they experience. I certainly allow that may be the case. Nonetheless, the practice of thinking kindly toward all other beings works to make me feel happier and kinder; it reminds me of my own and others’ generous spirits. In addition, the practice soothes me both bodily and in my mind. Slow breathing is comforting and relaxing. All kinds of studies show that slow, thoughtful breaths relieve physical stress and mental stress while allowing oxygen to flow freely through the blood. All of that is helpful to the body–and the slow breaths are relaxing enough to get me back to sleep. Which is also, as studies show, quite essential for good health.

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The night sounds and the changing seasons kindle me to write poems, as well. Sometimes those middle-of-the-night awakenings are charged with inspirations, or snippets of imagery from life or dream.The urge to write differs from the urge to share compassion, but they feel like kinfolk to me. Poetry springs, often, from the feeling of shared struggle.

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May we make good use of insomnia. May we be free from suffering.

The Protestant in my upbringing says, Amen.

 

 

Civic gratitude: CNAs

In this media moment of accusations and epithets, I would like to pause and acknowledge some hardworking citizens of the USA.

Caring for the extreme elderly is hard, and I use this blog post to praise Certified Nursing Assistants and home health aides–a largely female workforce that, despite being underpaid and overworked (therefore, on occasion, justifiably terse or grumpy) provides crucial assistance and genuine caring for human beings who can no longer manage full  independence.

The nursing career has become a medical and social science that has sometimes more to do with observations, measurements, communications with physicians, and data entry than with assisting patients through touch, eye contact, and conversation. I have no criticism about the need for scholarship among today’s nursing force; in fact, my job permits me to work with many aspiring nurses as they pursue their studies, and I feel confident in these young people’s abilities. I just want to take a minute to thank CNAs, who do the majority of hands-on, personal helping of patients and at-home clients, especially in highly-populated regions with huge hospital networks.

Many CNAs are from lower-income backgrounds. Or they are recent immigrants. They willingly take on shift work and plenty of manual labor as they provide help for those who need it. They bathe patients, assist with bedpans, clean up when there is no bedpan, turn patients, monitor patients’ comfort levels, rub down fragile skin or sore muscles, all while managing to respect each person they care for as an individual human being. Even when they are ignored or treated like servants, when people (stressed, ill, or deeply anxious people) basically ignore them, don’t learn their names, resent their accents, these workers do their difficult jobs. And they smile at people.

Sometimes that smile is so needed–by a patient or a member of the patient’s family.

Bless you, folks. You are doing the kind of work every compassionate and ethical society needs in some way or another.

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Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.

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source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.

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Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–stevetobin.com

 

 

 

As to what matters

What matters, at this moment, are compassion and communication–and recalling that communication requires listening, especially when we assume we know what the Other will say. [The Other may be black, or white, or a parent, or a politician, or of a different culture, etc.]

http://blacklivesmatter.com/

To people of color in the United States of America, in particular to African-Americans: Ask your questions. Speak up. I understand that some of you are prepared for argument and rhetoric, others for fear, anger, and defensiveness. You are tired, perhaps, of speaking up. Tired of the resulting outcry and pushback and character assassination and judgment and stereotyping. Tired of the pain. I get what you are feeling, even though it isn’t my personal experience, even though my social experience differs from your social experience.

Speak up nonetheless. Many of us finally recognize the need to listen. It matters because once someone signals readiness, true perspective begins. Because connections must occur before listening can occur. Where do we begin?

“Why don’t you listen?” is a good question, though it tends to put the Other on the defensive. If, however, people can hear genuine curiosity behind the interlocutor, there may be a moment of pausing to reflect: “I thought I was listening. Why do you think I am not?” Both parties need to ease the borders a bit (not a popular thing to do, I know).

So often, perspectives vary so widely that each of us carries into the discussion a host of unspoken assumptions based upon the only experience each of us has–our own. No one can ask the child-like, curious questions without being accused of hidden or not-so-hidden agendas.

I am reminded of an old saw one of my high school teachers wrote on the chalkboard:

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Learning to listen and to accept and to formulate questions reminds me of the process of raising children. Really. My perspective as an adult in the world–my assumptions–so often trumped what my children were experiencing as small people with totally unexpected and intriguing perspectives on life. I had to learn to listen to their points of view at least some of the time, and I was always rewarded with insights I would not have discovered on my own. (I referred often to the Faber & Mazlish book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk when my children were at home.) We have to make ourselves more aware, and much much much more patient than usually comes naturally, as parents and as members of a wider community than human societies have ever encountered before.

Yes, we yearn for answers. We do. That yearning may be part of the human genome. But just like our brains, and our conscious sense of self or selves, it’s complicated.

It would be helpful for all of us to recognize that listening to questions, and forming more inquiries–rather than answers or arguments–supplies the basics of Socratic inquiry. For the methods application in contemporary society, check out books by Christopher Phillips. Despite my occasional ramblings and speculations on rational thought (see many of my previous posts on argument, pedagogy, philosophy), argument may not be our best human tool at all times. The best human tool is compassion.

What matters is that human beings, whatever our color or culture, enter into relationships with one another and with our environments. That we admit to complexities and to questions; that we remain curious, which opens us to connections and enables us to see how vital all kinds of relationships are. Do people need to be reminded that #BlackLivesMatter? Yes, alas, people do. While a few of the social majority of human beings in the USA are more cognizant than usual, grab the moment. And people? Listen.

Because there actually is but one species of human being. Let us be homo sapiens–wise, judicious, sensible.

 

Writing the new year

To renew myself as a writer of poetry, I need–every now and then–some way of re-engaging with the work of writing itself. Revision, for example, often means hard effort slogging through material I wrote long ago; but the process renews my dedication to the salvageable poems and sharpens my analytical and evaluative skills.

Sometimes there’s no saving a poem, but the concept behind it might be worth exploring in an essay.

Sometimes there’s no saving a poem, but the words needed to be expressed at that time.

Revision requires taking a stance of compassionate distance from the work itself so that I can feel both judgment and kindness toward my own poems. The bonus here is that, often, the work of revision gets me writing new work.

Beside my desk at this moment is a stack of poems I spent the past few days thinking about and revising. The work creates its own energy; the buzz of words and imagery emanates…

I feel ready to write the new year.

🙂

objects, stories

 

Fear & peace

Human beings have a problem with fear.

I guess it is evolutionary, as well as anthropological, cultural, social…all those tribal basics, banding together to protect ourselves from anything that threatens, anything that is not us. From this perspective, how likely is it that we will ever learn compassion or know peace?GFS2

There is a practice among Buddhists called tonglen, a form of meditation to engage in compassion that is not just deep but also wide, spreading to “all sentient beings.” I’ve written a bit about it here, as well. In the past year, I have had personal and social concerns that urge me to confront fear in a loving and accepting manner; otherwise, I think I would despair.

The world offers comfort to its compassionate observers. Sorrow and pain are part of life, but they are not the sum of life; fear shuts us off from curious and open-minded observation.

We may never know peace–not in terms of a constant, steady-state peacefulness; evolution doesn’t operate that way. Physics doesn’t operate that way. Change can be painful, but it is necessary and beautiful in its many unfolding ways. I wonder if it isn’t peace we should be seeking but freedom from a close-minded, intellectual sort of fear.

I am posting this poem (from my book Small Things Rise & Go, available from FootHills Publishing). Readers respond to this piece, I’ve found, in startlingly different ways. It is, among other things, a meditation.

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Liturgy

We will not know peace.
Hay clogs the thresher,
Snow stoppers thruways.
Starlings haggle out the morning.
Red fox probes her muzzle
Into the voles’ weed bunkers;
Harrier screams over moors.

We will not know peace.
Here, the caterpillar
Tires chew fields into slog;
Here a child’s toy erupts
Into a village of amputees.
Sands shift under an abstraction,
The sea grows warm.

We will not know peace,
During our lifetimes, the tines
Break, the cogs slip,
Polluted slough impedes
Our efforts at contentment.
Our own natures
Bully us down:   Peace—

Peace to those who do not know peace.
To the fieldhand knee-deep in grain.
To the broken doll clasped by a broken child.
To the small-time fisherman far at sea.
To my mother with war scrawled through her
To the empty church, the hill of snow, evening—

That may never know peace.

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© 2002, 2006 Ann E. Michael