Today’s eft

muscariSometimes, winter feels long. When the weather fails to provide chances to get into the garden, I feel “antsy.” Something in my operating scheme malfunctions, and I lose focus–even my writing process suffers. I keep thinking of how my mother tells me she likes to get her hands in the earth, dig in the crumbly soil, plant things; and she has never been much of a gardener in the classic sense. Not the way my mother-in-law was: a perfectionist, an expert, a person who liked to plan a symphony of colors and leaf shapes, a progression of bloom times.

My mother just needs to get her hands dirty.

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Today, the weather turned unseasonably warm, a brief window on a weekend that permitted me my garden escape. So I found myself thinking of these two Beloveds while I dug in the dirt, sowed some carrot and beet seeds, and evaluated the progress of the early lettuce. When I work in the garden, my mind wanders, then empties. It’s good for my writing and good for my soul. I suppose there’s merit in it for my physical body as well, as long as I remember not to overdo things and put out my back! Then, too, I am accompanied by these two women, so many gardening memories and instruction, so much that I’ve learned in the process of growing vegetables and plants.

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Some of my friends consider me an expert in the garden, but I am merely modestly educated, mostly in the School of Experience. Expertise? I considered enrolling in the Master Gardener certification program; but frankly, I prefer to garden with beginner’s mind. I love what experts have to teach me and, being bookwormish by nature, I learn a great deal by reading books by experts.

Mostly, though, I learn from the garden–or from the hedgerow, the woodlot, the fields, the meadow, the wetlands. I’ve discovered that sometimes, the experts’ methods are not replicable in my yard; but a series of trial-and-error experiments of my own may produce the desired result. I have learned to let go of some of my “desired outcomes,” because the plant world and the weather control my stewardship of the soil more than anything I can attempt to do.

Letting go…well, that is the Zen of landscaping and raising vegetables and putting in a perennial bed. Also there is the constant, tedious maintenance–the tending and nurturing–that requires discipline. The discipline can be mindful, and it can also foster empty mind.

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And there is, awaiting at every moment, discovery.

Today’s discovery in the garden was an eft. This one was hiding, next to an earthworm (which it resembles when its feet are tucked close), under a slab of slate I’d left out near the strawberry patch.

newt-eft2

Hello! And may you shortly find a body of water in which to live out your amphibian days. And may no predator consume you before you mate and create further newts. And may this fine, warm-soiled spring provide us all many opportunities to dig in the soil and get our hands dirty.

~

[This newt is a salamander in the subfamily Pleurodelinae, and the wiki commons info for the photo, which I have altered slightly, is here].

 

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Whittling

Recently, as I was on the road through the suburban edge of a small city, I noticed something unusual. Sitting on the grass, under a large pine tree, a child of about nine or ten was whittling. Absorbed in his task, he ignored the traffic going by; he had no cell phone or mobile device, no electronic game. He simply remained intent upon the knife and the stick in his hands, shaving off layers of wood.

Seeing him brought back memories of my own childhood. I loved to whittle. I had a Girl Scout pocket knife, and there were plenty of twigs littered around the yard, streets, and sidewalks where I lived. Whittling occupied minutes of boredom, when no friends were around to play with, when I did not feel like reading or had run out of books for the time being (we didn’t always get to the library soon enough for me!). On camping trips with the Scouts or with my family, I whittled for a sort of purpose: pointy sticks on which to spear hot dogs or marshmallows. I attempted to fish as the native people did, with spears–an endeavor that never brought success. Several times, I tried to whittle fishing hooks.

Most of the time, however, whittling served no particular purpose. I shaved away at a stick until it was too slender to remove any more wood safely. I whittled to see how slim a stick I could make. I whittled to pass the time until something more interesting occurred.

While whittling, I imagined things. Told myself stories, remembered books and characters, wondered what would happen if…thought up inventions that might be useful or fun, dreamed up games to play with friends, pictured far away or fantasy places and how I would explore them. Probably I looked as intent and absorbed as that boy under his pine tree.

I noticed him because he wasn’t engaged with an electronic device. I noticed him because he did not notice me, or any of the vehicles zipping past his front yard. I noticed him because I identified with his busy hands and intent mind. There is a kind of Zen experience that can come through the process of whittling: busy hands busy mind; followed by busy hands, imaginative mind; followed by busy hands, quiet mind.

It has been awhile since I have done any whittling. But I have a few nice, sharp pocket knives in the house. Maybe I’ll try it again soon.

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Jisei

I have been re-reading a lovely anthology called Japanese Death Poems, edited by Yoel Hoffman. I purchased this book years ago when I was immersed in the study of haiku, haibun, and the early Chinese poetry forms and approaches that influenced many Japanese poets. Hoffman’s book offers excellent examples of jisei (poems composed near the moment of death) and his informational text places the poems in the context of various cultural, economic, power, and belief structures.

For a person raised in a contemporary western culture, the concept of death as a constant partner in our consciousness seems–while perhaps obvious–rather uncomfortable. We are not likely to approach our deaths with a sense of acceptance, let alone friendly understanding: “This is how it is.” But the death poems, as I read them, suggest that while death is universal, each person’s awareness of it is unique, even among people in the same culture who may hold similar beliefs.

Jisei intrigue curious folk, because death is A Big Thing to Be Curious About. Digital photographer Hank Frentz, a young artist who’s been inspired by Hoffman’s collection of jisei, has posted a series of mysterious and beautiful photos paired with the death poems, a sample of which can be viewed here. Please follow the link, as his photographs seem to me to be aesthetically and “spiritually” close to the poems he chooses, creating a kind of haiga (俳画) effect.

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I have also been revisiting Earl Miner’s translation of Shiki’s brief verse diary, “The Verse Record of My Peonies.” Written in 1899, when Shiki was suffering agonizing pain from spinal tuberculosis (he died in 1902 at the age of 35), the haiku and the prose of the diary recommend the reader to an understanding of physical pain, uncertainty–will I live, or die?–and humor, friendship, grieving. The diary is as layered as a peony blossom; each time I read it, I find something new to contemplate in its few pages: joy, aesthetics, nature, the human body, the solace of friendship and the isolation of illness, the nearness of death, the challenge of uncertainty, the many ways poetry can supply a place or grounding for a person struggling with ambiguities.

Two flakes fall
and the shape of the peonies
is wholly changed.

[tr. Earl Miner]

 

Composer Libby Larson has used Shiki’s verse diary as a text basis for a 7-minute composition for voice available here.

 

 

Pro+crastination

procrastination (n.) Look up procrastination at Dictionary.com
1540s, from Middle French procrastination and directly from Latin procrastinationem (nominative procrastinatio) “a putting off from day to day,” noun of action from past participle stem of procrastinare “put off till tomorrow, defer, delay,” from pro- “forward” (see pro-) + crastinus “belonging to tomorrow,” from cras “tomorrow,” of unknown origin.

This, thanks to OE, the Online Etymology dictionary, a favorite site of mine. What I was hoping to find is some aspect of “pro” as in Latin’s for, ie, the positive side of putting things off until tomorrow. Surely there are times when a bit of delay works toward the desired goals. The more leisurely approach to accomplishing a large task allows a person time to think things through and avoid some of the risks that the jumping-into-the-lake-all-at-once method contains.

At least, that’s my rationalization for putting off the next set of tasks I have set for myself regarding my writing.

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Delay can be fruitful, if it’s the right sort of delay. Procrastination that arises from distraction, however, tends to be of the less productive sort. When putting things off because of distraction ends up being somehow beneficial, it’s usually just a lucky strike.

~

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distraction (n.) Look up distraction at Dictionary.com
mid-15c., “the drawing away of the mind,” from Latin distractionem (nominative distractio) “a pulling apart, separating,” noun of action from past participle stem of distrahere (see distract). Meaning “mental disturbance” (in driven to distraction, etc.) is c.1600. Meaning “a thing or fact that distracts” is from 1610s.

The drawing away of the mind. What a perfect description. Just how it feels.

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But the mind can be drawn into the tasks at hand, a Zen-like or Taoist middle-way approach. The steps to the goal neither hard nor easy. The delay can be a time of focus and serendipity, a way to establish equilibrium before proceeding on what appears, initially, to be a daunting project. What belongs to tomorrow is not here now–live the day.
 
My three-month project is to send out two manuscripts, revise and organize my current work, submit new poems for publication, compose an essay and a couple of reviews. But it turns out there are a number of other tasks I had to accomplish before heading into the larger project. It’s all part of the process, during which I have discovered some poetry drafts I had forgotten about and revised older work and found a cache of images and ideas I had filed away “for later.” And I realized I had not finished transferring my poem files into new digital folders… It all needs to be done, but it follows the same general path.
 
Not distracting, exactly. A different form of–positive– “mental disturbance.” The pro aspect of procrastination.
 
 
 
 

Living metaphor

“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand.”

~ Thoreau

ann e. michael photo

Socked in by far too many snowstorms,* I’m running out of reading material (haven’t been able to get to the library!). I did get a gift book from a friend and a book in the mail recently, however; blessed relief! As often happens when reading quite different books at the same time, I notice ways they overlap or complement one another.

The gift from a friend is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, a poetic companion to his 1990 book on mindfulness as healing, Full Catastrophe Living. Kabat-Zinn uses Thoreau’s “bloom of the present moment” as a section head and metaphor for mindfulness practice, and it serves exceedingly well in that capacity. This is not a text to read in one sitting or to move through rapidly–or even chronologically. It offers space for the mind, space for reflection and, indeed, for the kind of ’emptiness’ that waits patiently, observing the present moment. Not the ghastly, desperate emptiness of numbness or depression, but the Zen vessel of the now.

Vessel. Space. Bloom. Each of these metaphorical, analogous, a way of indicating connections between or likenesses to or relationships with. The richness of language and the incredible stickiness of its concepts form the basis of Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal 1980 examination of how human beings use language–specifically metaphor–in the book Metaphors We Live By. A significant section of the first 4 chapters appears here, if you want a taste of how the authors set out their investigation; but I recommend the entire book, the 2003 edition of which contains an insightful afterward by the authors that incorporates some material on neurology and other things not available to them in the 1970s.

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* From the Express-Times of Easton: “The Lehigh Valley has gotten 66.7 inches of snow so far this season. Meteorologists agree this storm might not push the snowfall totals to break the seasonal record of 75.2 inches from 1993-94, but there’s still a chance to top the total this winter in the first couple weeks of March, they said.”

Lyric time

I’m currently savoring–as slowly as possible, as it is a short book–Mark Doty’s “World into Word” essays in The Art of Description. The text has been gently pushing my thoughts back toward matters of poetry.

I always think of Doty’s style, in prose and poetry, as precise and almost studied, though the studied-ness doesn’t feel overbearing but reflective; a naturalness remains that keeps the poems “hospitable” (as he puts it).

In his essay on Bishop, “The Tremendous Fish,” Doty examines the various forms of observation and focus or perspective that contribute to any work of art, although here he is of course honing in on the lyric state of mind. These passages seem to me to hearken to Bachelard (see here and here) on the temporal:

What is memory but a story about how we have lived? …there is another sort of temporality, too, which is timelessness. In this lyric time we cease to be aware of forward movement…it represents instead a slipping out of story and into something still more fluid, less linear: the interior landscape of reveries. This sense of time originates in childhood, before the conception of causality…

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson days, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.

fest7~

This is, in addition to relating to Bachelard’s concepts on reverie, a form of mindfulness that would not be out of place in Zen and would be recognizable to any artist familiar with the creative “zone.”

I’m reminded of a popular colloquialism of the 1970s: “zoning out.” Generally, the phrase signified not paying attention, being slightly stoned, out of touch: negative connotations. Yet there were people who used the term in a more positive way to mean “in the zone”–an acceptable, if “flaky,” zinging of the mind into a calm or creative space.

A space where poets might wander in “self-forgetful concentration.”

~

Let’s go…

Introspection interregnum: on being ticklish

I woke at five this morning to the sound of birdsong followed by a heavy downpour. The rain will bring another onset of green beans even though the vines are a bit “tired” by now.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, and at seven I rose and took a cup of tea out to the back porch. It’s a good place to muse. [For delightful porch musings, see Dave Bonta’s blog morningporch.]

A sizable daddy-long-legs swayed elegantly across the decking. During my childhood and adolescence, I was afraid of spiders, and the daddy-long-legs was the first “spider” I learned not to run from. Actually, the creature to which I refer here is neither a spider nor, officially, a daddy-long-legs; it’s a harvestman (phalangium opilio), which is an arachnid but not a spider. But it resembles a spider closely enough that the arachnophobe is unlikely to stick around for a closer look. My father taught me not to be afraid of them: “They don’t bite, and they eat pest insects. They just tickle when they walk on your skin.”

Ticklishness arises from tension. I found that I could withstand the ticklish feel of an insect on my skin once the initial startle reflex calmed, just as I adjusted myself to my dog’s licking–a sensation I liked. Probably what I learned was how to manage “self-calming.” Breathing slowly and deeply helped me to get over the fears I had, and with time I learned to be unafraid of real spiders, too (as a gardener, I now bless the spiders and welcome them!). Breath and loosing of tension alleviated nervousness and ticklish sensations.

With a certain glee, I realized I could control being ticklish. I hated being tickled, the helplessness of it–even though other people love to tickle and be tickled (my sister among them). Mostly to spite my sister, who liked to tickle me into submission, I taught myself how to un-tense when someone tickled me. When the ticklee doesn’t laugh, the tickler has no fun…and stops.

These musings drifted through my mind while I idly watched the delicate creature make its morning ambit along the porch. And I thought: how interesting that when I was a child, I taught myself about relaxation and the importance of breath control for the purposes of overcoming ticklishness and fears. I wonder if my interest in philosophy and psychology has a basis in my peculiar self-education? And maybe it is no wonder that Zen and other “Eastern” philosophical-meditative-religious practices appeal to me as an adult.

meditative

meditative