Repetition

Repetition, the foundation of rote teaching and memorization, is a style of learning at which I have never been particularly successful.

Nonetheless, repetition has been useful in my learning process. Close observation reveals small differences in repeated events and refrains of all kinds; what I learn through repeated experience is that each time I see or do “the same thing,” I notice something new. Repetition permits me to analyze, and that is how I learn best.

Here’s an example.

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Plants, particularly flowering plants, fascinate me. Every year, I find myself heading out to the yard, my camera in hand, to take photographs as the flowers unfold and the insects arrive to pollinate them. Every year. Yet a closeup of a bumblebee in a redbud blossom from 2005 looks pretty much the same as a bumblebee in a redbud blossom in 2019. Or a monarch on a tithonia–one year similar to the next. Why bother? What urges me out when the dogwoods bloom to record yet another photograph of flowering dogwood? How redundant. How unnecessary.

Yet I have learned much, gleaned much, from the process of noticing the buds and blossoms and insects as the days lengthen and then shorten again; the cycle of life a repetition. Each routine event of spring seems new to me after the winter’s rest.

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The only types of poems I have managed to have some recall for are poems with refrains, and some song lyrics (also with refrains). The ones I have memorized are the ones I have heard and sung along with most often, such as the calls and responses of church rituals and hymns, the record albums I listened to over and over when I was a teenager. Each time I listened, I felt something new happen inside me. It’s the same with my walks in the garden and the woods and hedgerows and the meadow: each year the same, each year new. That kind of teaching, while repetitive, is far removed from rote.

 

 

 

 

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Wordless

The landscape’s brought colors and pollinators and all the juiciness of reproduction cycles into the season’s height. Time to take walks and breathe.

And say nothing.

And let the words subside for awhile, and percolate the way the rains percolate through the wet, warm soil and into the waiting earth.

~

azurea

 

 

 

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.

night

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.

 

 

“Local” artists & genius loci

Recently, a friend and I visited our small, local art museum (Allentown Art Museum). The permanent collection there has a few real highlights, which for me include the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed library from the Francis Little House and a limited but fine collection of glass and ceramic decorative arts. Like many smaller US museums, the Allentown Art Museum hosts traveling exhibits that can be eye-opening (last year’s exhibit of Lautrec’s works on paper, currently at Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, SD, was one of these).

Currently, Allentown’s museum is featuring work by two artists who employ very different methods, and their styles are so different that it seems silly to compare them: Matthew Daub and Paul Harryn. Both of them live in the region, however, and both might be considered painters of place.

Harryn says he is enthralled by the concept of genius loci, and there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to his work (as well as a philosophical and poetic aspect; view his site for inklings of these). His “Changing Seasons” series stretched along one wall of the museum gallery, initially seeming like a seamless continuum, though more careful observation proved otherwise. The seasons series anchors the viewer in a temperate region in which the hues and moods of four distinct seasons are markedly obvious by color and light. In these works, the layering and erasing methods he employs are subtle, but some of the larger works depend upon a more visible shifting and experimental approach to media manipulation. The image of “Pacificus” on his website doesn’t begin to convey the experience of his assemblage paintings, which are textural, shifting, very large, and compellingly active. These three “Transcripts” were charming, if less powerful than some of the more layered works:

Transcript series by Paul Harryn

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The near-monochrome, panoramic watercolors of Matthew Daub’s Maiden Creek series also appealed to me because of place, specific–definite–“realistic” place, if not as obviously spirit of place. This is because I know the roads and streams he depicts very well, have traveled them often; but I have seldom considered them “beautiful” enough for plein air views or photographic compositions (without omitting, say, road signage, utilitarian concrete bridges, highway off-ramps, minivans, and the like).

Daub portrays those items in his photorealistic paintings. What I found revelatory in these works is how genuinely beautiful those familiar roads are when the view or frame changes. The thin horizontal rectangle of Daub’s place-paintings accentuates parts of the composition such as bare tree branches, shadows on the curved roads, the rough texture of municipal concrete next to embankments. Daub’s choice of subject matter reminds me a bit of the later paintings of Charles Demuth, but Daub’s paintings include more of the natural environment surrounding the silos, stairs, and industrial objects.

Aucassiu and Nicolette (1921) by Charles Demuth [public domain, Wikimedia Commons]

Next time I am driving Route 143 near Kempton, I will appreciate the scenery more for having acquired, through Daub, a new perspective on the dull, drab, too-familiar landscape. The aesthetics of road-building, New Jersey barriers, highway ramps, creekside roads, and galvanized silos blend surprisingly well with the brushy trees, gentle hills, and stone barns of Berks County.

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I’ll close with a poem by Maggie Anderson, from her now, alas, out-of-print book Cold Comfort (1986). Daub’s paintings made me think of this one, though the river is different.

Gray

Driving through the Monongahela Valley in winter
is like driving through the gray matter
of someone not too bright but conscientious,
a hard-working undergraduate who barely passes.
Everybody knows how hard he tries. I’m driving up
into gray mountains and there, it may be snowing
gray, little flecks like pigeon feathers, or what
used to sift down onto the now abandoned slag piles,
like what seems to sift across the faces
of the jobless in the gray afternoons.

At Johnstown I stop, look down the straight line
of the Incline, closed for repairs, to the gray heart
of the steel mills with For Sale signs on them. Behind me,
is the last street of disease-free Dutch elms in America,
below me, a city rebuilt three times after floods.
Gray is a lesson in the poise of affliction. Disaster
by disaster, we learn insouciance, begin to wear
colors bright as the red and yellow sashes on
elephants, whose gray hides cover, like this sky,
an enormity none of us can fathom, though we try.

(© 1986 Maggie Anderson)