Repetition

Repetitive tasks often lead directly to boredom, then to daydream, and then–if forced to continue said task–to numbness. The sheer effort involved in repetitive operation makes for drudgery; if the labor is also dangerous, hot, physically difficult, and unrelieved, the human mind gets sapped of joy and creativity. For much of human history, our time on earth has consisted largely of this sort of work, constant toiling, just to survive.

My thoughts dwell on that fact when I spend a day or two as a re-enactor and when I harvest beans and other produce that won’t keep and need immediate attention, else the food will go to waste. I think of all the people now and in the past who have to cut firewood and stack it, keep it dry, then keep fires burning in stoves or hearths and watch the food so it doesn’t burn. And do the same, day in day out.

I think of my grandmother who, when she was still in her 50s and 60s, kept a large truck patch from which she fed her extended family. All the canning and processing and freezing she did…the jars of peaches, jellies, tomatoes, beans…meant hours of often-tedious, not to mention exceedingly hot, work.

green peas on white ceramic bowl

Photo by R Khalil on Pexels.com

I cannot recall ever assisting her with canning; but from the time I was a very small child, I would sit beside her on a wooden bench or chair and “help” her shell peas or snap the ends from green beans. I suppose I prattled to her, because I recall her distracted “Mmmm Hmmm” responses. After awhile, however, I’d get quiet and daydreamy just opening the green pods and slipping the fresh, round peas out with my finger over and over, listening to the plunk as they dropped into the bowl in my lap. It was soothing.

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I remembered that long-ago activity today as I shelled black beans from their dry, tan husks: two or three pounds of them! My shelling created a crackly noise that intrigued our kitten, who has otherwise been drowsy from the heat. I’ve been freezing green beans, cooking tomato sauce, and harvesting pears and black beans for days in the humid August heat–but not non-stop (I have a day job, and the students have returned to campus!).

black beans in a bowl

So for me, the potential boredom of the repetitive task gets replaced by a rather Zen attitude. Be here now, shelling the beans, stirring the pear butter. Appreciate bounty and what the earth has given us. Remember childhood. Daydream awhile. Think about poems.

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In this case, repetition means abundance. New poems as autumn arrives.

Patience

Okay, day … six? Thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, my tanka expert and today’s muse, for engaging with the idea of patience and suggesting a book that gave me this quote by Rodin (long a favorite sculptor of mine):

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“Patience is also a form of action” –-Auguste Rodin

Clay. Thumb and fingers pressed.
Coolness and warmth awaiting form
or formulation–chemistry binding
components under heat’s influence.
Here, the potter attends the kiln,
biding her time. Or the craftsmen
check and check again as barley
ferments, as bronze hardens, careful.
The woman holds inside herself
for nine months the evolving child
and every moment is one of multiplying,
expending energy during the wait
which may result in either life
or death. Even the Zen place of repose
requires breath: action, inhalation,
oxygenation, illumination. Notice:
this morning, the plum trees blossomed.

~

DSC100109879

 

 

 

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].

 

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.”