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Sunday, March 18, 2018

democratic evolution

After a long exhale, a space for introspection, I'm back on this blog.  If you noticed and wondered, then I'm sorry I've been away for so long.  If not, you're probably in the majority.  Thanks for all you've been doing since we last spoke.  

It's been a hard year.  I have a strong suspicion it's been a hard year for you.  Whatever your political stripe, I imagine that as you look at the state of the world, it strikes you that we're putting ourselves in a pretty tight bind, a spiral that seems to point down.  

I get several emails a day to sign petitions for liberal causes, from saving whales to protecting rainforests (still!) to sending strongly worded letters to dictators at home and abroad.  Recently I've even been asked to "denounce" politicians for a particular action or lack of it, for a phrase they said or failed to say at a key time.  Denounce?  Really?  It feels uncomfortably close to the Cultural Revolution or to the work of the Khmer Rouge.  If only we can purge the resistance, then the revolution will be gloriously actualized...

I wrestle a lot with what is at the heart of our current conflicts.  I hear a lot of focus on the President and a handful of nefarious senators.  But is it really owing to our dubious leadership in all branches of government?  Is everything just a wave of sunshine and roses and bulldog puppies waiting to cascade over the land if we could only get a few old white men out of the way?  Or would replacing key leaders only lay bare a deeper level of dissonance and turmoil?  

I wonder how much the untenability of our civilization is beginning to settle in, to shade more and more of how we see the world, even if just in our subconscious.  We are so big, in America for sure but pretty much everywhere else in the world as well.  7.5 billion and counting, we are bursting at the seams and in need of food, water, and security.  We're drilling deeper, decapitating more mountains, and engineering new ways to extract fossil fuels wherever they may lie in trace amounts.  We're connected more and more in a global web of interdependence, that reaches into all elements of the biosphere and may soon reach into space (God help us).  

And at the same time that we're binding ourselves together, it seems that we have revealed how much we're not on the same page about democracy, civil society, individual liberties, and the right of minorities to live in peace.  In particular, I'm saddened by the more bald-faced attempts to curb democratic participation - voting - in various states in the U.S., and by the blind eyes of those who benefit from purging voter rolls, gerrymandering skewed districts, or launching red herring campaigns to distract from real interference in elections.  

I'll make a generous description and say that America has a history of flawed but heart-felt efforts at making democracy work.  We kicked and screamed, but eventually got to places where the significant majority of people were able to participate in the government viz-a-viz voting and holding positions of power.  We seemed to be on an unending, albeit slow, path to dismantling any institutional blocks that keep people from exercising their power as citizens.  

In the past two years, however, I've been deeply troubled by the shameless attempts of political oligarchs (mainly Republicans, though I don't doubt that Democrats might have reached the same place themselves under different circumstances) to arrest and impede democracy itself in order to maintain their own power in perpetuity.  A fundamental question arises for me: what do you do when you are trapped in a country with others who don't value democracy, or points of view different from their own, and are willing to bypass and dismantle the democracy itself to keep their power?  We see it happen in the developing world all the time.  We call them dictatorships, juntas, or oligarchies.  Do we think it can't happen here?

We seem very interested in having an uninterrupted stream of products delivered to our doorsteps at low prices.  We are anxious to get the whole planet equipped with wi-fi.  We love seeing how many games Google's latest AI can master in a short period of time.  But how do we learn to love a functional society so much that we put energy into stewarding it?  Where do we begin?  

I'm not sure that a democracy as large as ours is even tenable anymore.  Just take my home state of Pennsylvania.  How much do white farmers in the middle of the state feel they have in common with black residents of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh?  How big is too big of an area to group everyone together in one electoral base?  What do we do if we're trapped in a political unit like a city or state with folks who just don't value the same things we do (freedom of gender expression, views on abortion rights, letting non-white people vote)?  Where is the overlap on the venn diagram sufficient to let us begin to cooperate again?  What do we do when someone who is tribal, ethnocentric, and chauvinist can get into a high office?  

These are vital questions to reflect on.  It is clear that dictators around the world (and the men with guns who support them) don't value participatory government.  And I think as Americans we are not as exceptional as many folks think.  America is not an inevitably successful experiment.  We have struggled all along these past 250 years, and are deep in struggle now.  As the dominant force shaping the planet, how we choose to organize ourselves and take action will determine our future.  Would you run a sports team, a research lab, or a business where 50.1% of the people were entrenched in opposition to the other 49.9% and they forcible took turns stealing leadership positions from each other?  Sounds like hell to me.  

How do we go beyond a nasty last-man-standing slugfest each election, with a narrow win and shaming the loser, to a society where we can relax at least a bit knowing that governance is something other than doling out revenge on those who have the audacity to value things differently than we do?  

Saturday, April 01, 2017

poetics of changing home

On Quitting a Little College

By footworn boards, by steps
that sagged years after the pride of workmen,
by things that had to do so long they now seemed right,
by ways of acting so old they grooved the people
(and all this among fields that never quit
under a patient sky),
I taught.  And then I quit.

"Let's walk home," the president said.
He faced down the street,
and on the rollers of bird flight
through the year-round air
that little town became all it had promised him.
He could not quit; he could not let go fast enough;
his duties carried him.

The bitter habit of the forlorn cause
is my addiction.  I miss it now, but face
ahead and go in my own way
toward my own place.

- William Stafford

In Silence

Be still.
Listen to the stones of the wall.
Be silent, they try
to speak your

to the living walls.

Who are you?
are you? Whose
silence are you?

Who (be quiet)
are you (as they stones
are quiet). Do not
think of what you are
still less of
what you may one day be.

be what you are (but who?)
be the unthinkable one
you do not know.

O be still, while
you are still alive,
and all things live around you

speaking (I do not hear)
to your own being,
speaking by the unknown
that is in you and in themselves.

"I will try, like them
to be my own silence:
and this is difficult. The whole
world is secretly on fire.  The stones
burn, even the stones they burn me.
How can a man be still or 
listen to all things burning?
How can he dare to sit with them
when all their silence is on fire?"

- Thomas Merton

Leaving the Catskills on the Cusp of Spring

Coming on tumbling
this is how it begins again,
a rusty truck headed somewhere,
a potter's hands
centering the timely clay.  

Loving and rambling,
the crisp edges of these mountains 
have held always me
on home ways.

Returning to meandering,
finally tuned to a compass
not too tight,
all the glass shapes
are taking their places.

Stepping into changing,
the pine wind of these last mornings
is wheeling and aboriginal,
a now sound 
full of soon-to-be.

Pausing before the knob,
memories of old doors
are less important
than the vital breath and click
of this harmonizing.  

Singing between my cells,
dead ash trees lean through the forest
and maple buds wait-push through
passing gray days...
we're pouring into invisible molds
all the fine joy atoms
that electrify our questions
beneath the encumbered surfaces.  

Dripping from rooftops,
the eaves catch roasting coffee
against crackled paint. 
Daffodils, dressed in thin ice,
press their vivid waiting
up to this old window.  

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Rilke tidbit for 2017

Go To the Limits of Your Longing

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.
         - Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59

At the limits of my longing, I find a tender ache without bottom.  I find a wish to make the world a more peaceful place.  I find a desire to be clear and precise in my thinking.  I find a courage that I did not know I had, where I can hold my many facets and hear the voices of the world around me.  
Things are happening to me, beauty and terror.  I see the slide of our civil society into empty, angry banter.  I see a rise of love in response to the hate - people giving money and time and life.  I am washed in generosity, both my own encounters and the stories I hear.  
It is also clear that I am headed out beyond my recall, and I think we all are.  Perhaps, hopefully, we always have been, and now it is simply coming into clearer focus.  The old strategies of keeping ourselves together are no longer sufficient, and we must discover anew what works.  How can we create a loving and just society?  How can we reach across every aisle to shank hands with whoever is Over There?  How can we discover that it is not such a daunting task, that in fact all it requires is admitting that we really don't know what will happen when we extend ourselves?  
I know 2017 by it's seriousness.  It is the here and now, same as it ever was and simultaneously fresh in each moment.  Where do we begin?  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

brushless soul wash

In my thinning collection of books that I lug from place to place, I have a small dog-eared paperback which is a collection of words and phrases from other languages that are really useful yet difficult to succinctly translate into English.  Some favorites are "uovo di Colombo - an idea or solution that seems obvious only after you realize it," or "sohbet - conversations dedicated solely to mystical, meaningful subjects."  There are so many that I love - in Japan, a shrine for broken sewing needles where they are laid to rest in a block of tofu to thank them for their life of service to us.  Instructions whispered to a dying person to help her transition peacefully through her journey after death.  A broad sense of taking things lightly because we see how life really is.  They are all fantastic, and grab me because they touch on something that I knew existed but at the same time did not know.

The one that is bobbing in my ocean of consciousness right now is dharma, a word that I forget is only really familiar to Buddhists and Hindus.  We use it in Zen, and more broadly in Buddhism, to denote something like the teachings that can be gleaned by paying attention to the way of reality.  However, in my little book of phrases, it is translated as "each person's individual journey through life, and their own way of finding it."  I think this is meant to reflect more of Hindu perspective (with which I am not deeply familiar), yet it speaks volumes to me at this moment.

The little boy in the picture above is me, around 1981.  I'm on a pony (or is it just a small horse?) accompanied by my dad, who to me looks really young.  He is 43 years old in the photo, and I was going on 4.  I was the last of his children (five in all from two marriages), and I was lucky enough to have him in my life for all of my childhood.  We went to Chincoteague, VA many summers of my early life, and I think this must be from one of those trips.  I look happy, like the day might have been endless and drenched in the smell of ponies, dust, straw, and the nearby ocean.  

Today, in my thinning collection of hair, I run my fingers gently and look out the window at the late summer sky.  I have just finished a year of living at Zen Mountain Monastery, where I have been a practicing student for several years already.  The year was so full, like extra life was lovingly crammed into a box of space and time.  Sometimes it was graduate school for my soul, sometimes it was a kindergarten time-out to learn real patience and love for the traces of my old, wounded inner child.  I think I sat around nine hundred hours of meditation, which encompassed every experience I could imagine under the sun.  I got dusty and dirty with outdoors work, but spent the majority of my work time holding down the basic bookkeeping for the place.  The whole year was full of light and shadow, and, as we sometimes invoke in zen, in the end it was nothing special.  

How did I end up living in a monastery for a year?  I know it begins back at the Big Bang, which helps me feel more humble and integrated with the unfolding of the cosmos.  Billions of years of time have led up to the fact that I'm here writing this, and you are there reading this.  This present moment is just as full and complete for every other person and thing in the world.  We're not exceptional, us humans, but we are very lucky to laugh and love, to do our best and fall down and get up again.  What a gift, to live this one wild and precious life!  

When I look at that picture of me and my father, I wonder just how many people touched my life in ways that I cannot even recall.  How many people steered me towards goodness and kindness with their own actions?  How many wordless teachings came to me through the endless intersections of lives along my journey?  I remember reading the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching in the beginning of college, and how much it blew away everything I thought I knew about living my life.  What led that Asian philosophy professor to go to Penn State to teach her course that opened the door for me? How is it that we recognize the good, the beautiful, and the true things in life, yet it sometimes take a lifetime to be able to break bad habits and cultivate good ones?  

I started out writing this post as a reflection on my year in the monastery, to try to sum up what I have learned.  That is, of course, not even close to possible.  To touch it lightly, though, I suppose what I've gained is a little more loving spaciousness, the ability to let the world and myself be just as they are.  In that space, I can pay more attention and slow down a little more.  When life is speeding up and tight, I can't really perceive what I need and what needs to be done.  In the spaciousness, I can let things take as long as they need to take.  And in that space, there is kindness.  

There is a door at the end of the hallway, open just a crack, with sunlight coming out.  You push on the door gently, and it opens bit by bit.  It takes a while to step into the Light Room, but it is very much possible.   In that room, it seems that life is what it always was, and you are who you always were.  It's just that the perspective has shifted, broadened, and grown deeper through a loving acceptance of what is.  

Not that we can expect life to always be smooth or easy, but we can meet it with grace, patience, and enthusiasm.  And we can learn to do it in any moment, in every moment.  

Sunday, June 05, 2016

pendulate appraising

I'm not who you want me to be.  

In a way, I'm sorry, I suppose, for the discomfort this has caused, may cause, and perhaps will cause in the future.  To be certain, I never was.  It's just who I am.  I love the eerie sound of a shakuhachi flute.  I have quirky sense of humor.  I like walking through the woods with you, but just as much without you.  I still think capitalism has clearly failed, and I don't want to trade my life for money.  I still think most of humanity is not going to survive all that much longer - maybe 100 years if we're lucky?  I love spacing out looking at the sky.  I often don't want to sit yet another period of zazen.  But I'm not really sorry, now that I think of it.  

Truth be told, you are not who I want you to be either.  You're not more considerate in the moments I want you to be more considerate.  You keep making rich desserts when I'm failing to conquer my sugar addiction.  You lean in for more contact when I want to withdraw and collapse.  You love Led Zeppelin in a small, closed space at such a high volume.  You want to sit more zazen.  

And we both belong, so much so that it can't be measured.  It's an aspect of reality that is so true it can't really be conceived of.  You belong, like sitting on a bench with a beautiful woman on a sunny Friday afternoon in late May.  You belong like someone telling you they missed you and giving you a long hug.  You belong crooked, and you belong straight.  You belonged at three years old on a pony, just being there with the smell of the mane and the hay and the hot earth.  

I belonged in a drunken cab zooming through Beijing, going nowhere past beautiful, terrible buildings in the night.  I belong in the shade of a hickory, listening to friends talk about big ideas.  I belong in the tide that is swelling to eat Miami.  I belong on an old steel frame bike, whizzing gracefully through the night along a nameless river.  I belong in the seamless giving and receiving of a waltz, a swing, a tango past the slender flower in a cobalt vase.  

We all belong.  We are all coming home in every moment.  Children being naughty, presidential hopefuls with red-faced hate, policemen with twitchy guns, nuns and hookers and businessmen and mechanics and pit bulls and a million drops of water in the passing cloud.  My white skin next to your black skin, it belongs.  A man's lips on another man's lips, they belong.  Hip hop and tapioca pudding and carbon in the atmosphere, it all belongs.  

Where do we go from here?  Where does this real dream head next?  Belonging is our right by still being here in the moment, but that's also where it ends.  No entitlement, no privilege blinders, no apologies for abusing our power.  From this moment, our responsibility unfolds into the future.  Where do we imagine we are headed?  Do we like the feel of that place?  Do we like this sunny park, this concerto that weeps with my eyes, this American apartheid state, this big box pavement extravaganza, this sweaty addiction, this inability to promise our children anything about life with an honest gut?  

It's a fierce mandate, this singular precious life.  So easy to let it slip... four thousand nervous laughs and a glance away, when facing the wave might just be the wide open medicine we need.  The whole world wants you to wake up, and not in some affirmation or self-congratulation or bliss-chasing dreamsicle.  It's right there with the next bullet, the next kiss, the next iceberg, the next flood, the next laugh, the next here and now.  

Monday, May 09, 2016

Slowly and gently abandoning the monolithic paradigm of a separate self.  It feels like the beautiful work of a lifetime of single steps, learning to trust the unfolding of things, of myself.  

Just Thinking

Got up on a cool morning. Leaned out a window.
No cloud, no wind. Air that flowers held
for awhile. Some dove somewhere.

Been on probation most of my life. And
the rest of my life been condemned. So these moments
count for a lot—peace, you know.

Let the bucket of memory down into the well,
bring it up. Cool, cool minutes. No one
stirring, no plans. Just being there.

This is what the whole thing is about.
—William Stafford

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

early april

a thousand miles of touch,
this white beard a scratch
in the bright snow...
now green tea falls clean
on a dreaming tongue.

No Praise, No Blame

What have the clouds been up to today? You can't
blame them, you know.  Their edges just
happen, and where they go is the fault of the wind.
I'd like my arrival to be like that, alone and
quiet, really present but never to blame.

And I'd never presume or apologize, and if anyone 
pressed me I'd be gone, and come back there
only some harmless, irresistible presence
all around you, like the truth, something you need,
like the air.  

- William Stafford