New Banner Picture

I’ve used a stock photo since starting this blog. The new photo is the Palisade Crest in the Sierra Nevada mountains taken by my brother.

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Going to Work

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.

Toni Morrison
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Beautifully Broken

A blog post by one of my favorite writers, Austin Kleon, and a YouTube video by one of my favorite musicians, Warren Hayes keep banging up up against each other in my head/heart. The song is “Beautifully Broken”. The post is about kintsugi, the Japanese of repairing broken pottery with gold as glue. Beautiful music and objects from the broken. Something to ponder.

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Don’t Read Poetry, by Stephanie Burt

Back in the 80s, I lived and worked for a month outside London. Weekends and a few week nights I’d ride the train into Waterloo Station, hop on the Underground, ride part way, then walk the rest to a museum, theater, or some other tourist destination. I learned a few neighborhoods and their good places to eat and drink. When a friend visited for a few days, we went full tourist, riding a Tour of London bus that circled inner London. It tied the isolated bits I knew into a more coherent whole.

“Don’t Read Poetry” is like taking tours of a big city, all with the same guide but different themes (Feelings, Characters, Forms, Difficulty, Wisdom, and Community) and routes. The routes cross and even overlap. Some of the same poems appear in more than one theme.

This book is compiled from the author’s blogs and has the breezy, breathless rush of an enthusiast showing you the treasures she’s found. This is not a museum guide reciting a script written by an academic ten years ago about the permanent collection that hasn’t changed in twenty years.

The author ranges wide across time (Ecclesiastes and the Biblical prophets, John Donne, Geoffrey Chaucer on up through Terrance Hayes and the #meToo movement) and space (European and non-European forms, both folk and formal). The author is trying to lift up our eyes to see beyond the usual authors and forms. Great poems align their subject, sound, form, and difficulty/accessibility, sometimes in opposite directions. Many of the cited poems are political (#meToo) or prophetic in the Hebrew Testament sense of social critique. Understanding requires context, “… when we see what it works against.” I encountered this in my own reading of Amos who has some timeless lines, e.g. “But let justice run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Reading the whole book I was mystified. Amos rants mightily against something, but what? I had to ask a seminary student. Answer: a long forgotten religion that only history cares about. Which emphasizes something intrinsic to poetry. As a preaching professor said about his recent reluctance to quote poetry in sermons, “Poetry releases its treasures slowly.”

Though the author is an academic (English professor at Harvard) her intent is to invite you into poems, not intimidate or impress. The language in a few sections is a bit odd. I almost wondered if the explanation of a theme, form, or technique was written in that style.

The point of “Don’t Read Poetry,” is we can only read individual poems, written in a variety of forms, for a variety of reasons. Read them for themselves, not as a homogenous body of work. And read this book.

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The Bluebonnet Sutras

These wonderful sutras (Buddhist teachings) were written by Laurence Musgrove, English professor at Angelo State University.

With no retreat centers or meditation teachers nearby, he documents his spiritual journey in original sutras, calling into dialogue the imagined persona of the Buddha.

from the back cover

His nearest Buddhist centers are in San Antonio (3 hours away) and Santa Fe (7 hours away).

The sutras are laid out as poems with little rhyming and considerable enjambment. They could be considered prose poems, but feel more rhythmic. Something is missing if the line breaks are not respected. The speaker largely speaks in concrete language. The imagined Buddha speaks in metaphor and images. This is a gentle Buddha with deep empathy and wisdom. The poems hold up well on repeated reading. My wife and I are on our second pass through the whole collection and have read our favorites several times more.

The dialogues have little to say about theology/cosmology and much to say about every day behavior and how to treat people, including ourselves.

Broom Sutra

What I like most about working in the yard
Is that it gives me a lot of time to think,
Even though my body isn’t all that happy.

About the mowing and trimming part.
I also like the my neighbor the Buddha
Will often come over to talk to me about

The parade of my imagination.
For example, today I was picturing all of
The different ways people use a broom.

There are those that like to push a wide
Brush of a broom all the way down the long
Quiet hallway of the future in front of them.

Also there are those who love the short
Stroke of a broom in the here and now.
In the late hot afternoon, I swept dry

Clippings into small piles long the curb.
Next, I walked around with a bucket
And squatted down to pick up the piles.

Then, crouched as I was, I saw his shadow
Walking toward me over the even grass,
Ice cubes singing in the glass in his hand.

This Buddha is very American and very eclectic. He follows a Buddhism that fits gently with Jesus’ teachings. This is not the religion of the institutional church, either Buddhist or Christian. The book reminds me of “God’s Dog: Conversations with Coyote by Webster Kitchell. Both Coyote and the Buddha in these books have lost their ethnic roots. As has been observed elsewhere, perhaps in Kitchell’s book, “Coyote is nobody’s fool. He belongs to all of us.”

I like the imagination, word play, and teachings in this book.

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Niebuhr on Preaching

I hope my preaching will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reinhold Niebuhr

This was one of the meditations today in the worship service. It is catchy, memorable, and a nice play on words.

I don’t like it for several reasons. I don’t think Niebuhr or my preacher were really talking about affliction. You can be afflicted by severe weather. They are talking about oppression, someone doing something nasty to you with intent. The other problem I have is that people rarely change for the better when afflicted or attacked.

Comforting the oppressed helps improve the situation, but easily slides into making them comfortable in their oppression, robbing them of agency, disempowering them. This is often coupled with some kind of prosperity theology. By emphasizing the person (the afflicted or oppressed) instead of the condition (oppression) it is too easy to miss when comfortable and the oppressed are contained in the same person.

Oppression needs to be confronted, gently and firmly. As most abusers were abused as children, oppressors, especially those with little real power or authority, feel oppressed. Rather than push back of oppression, a difficult and challenging task that requires a sense of power, they simply switch sides.

A step in the right direction is “Challenge oppression and empower the oppressed.” Both of these actions challenge the oppressive status quo and encourage positive change. I’m unclear that the statement can be improved without mangling English usage.

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Hey Squirrel

Hey, squirrel
You're putting on weight
Winter's coming.

First published at Once Upon a Crocodile. This is my first published haiku. I love the illustration they chose, an unexpected pleasure.

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Agenda

As my practice deepens, my agenda deepens with it. What I do and what is off the table is key. For rank and file cloistered monastics this is not a question. A higher-up or the tradition decides when they rise, eat, work, pray, meditate, and sleep. I’m retired and a lay person. Outside of retreats there’s no boss to set the agenda. I’m married so our calendars and agendas need to be coordinated. Some of my agenda is set by the needs of staying alive and healthy: 3 meals a day, shopping, daily exercise, rest, recreation, etc.

I can survive without checking the news everyday. We manage our own retirement investments, so stock markets, macro-economic news, and the Treasury rates need some attention. I’ve unsubscribed from most of the e-mail lists, Poem-a-Day, various activist and lobbying organizations, cooking sites. One additional person signing an on-line petition will not tilt the “long arch of history that bends toward justice” noticeably.

Who or what sets my agenda? I am finding my call writing poetry. This blog strengthens my essay writing. Letting non-essentials go gives me more time for writing and reading poetry. With more time, there is more energy and desire to write. This surprised me

Every task that comes my way I ask, “Is there joy here?” If “yes”, it goes on the TODO list. If “no”, I ask is necessary? Even doing taxes has a satisfaction in doing them, having them done, and the necessary bookkeeping. Still there is more on my TODO list than can be done in a day, or a week.

Getting Things Done” (GTD) by David Allen can be helpful. Or a trap. Workaholism runs in my family. I easily fall into maximizing performance/production of what does not matter. David Allen observes that “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them” and advocates keeping tasks in a trusted system so you can focus (be mindful) on the thing thing in front of you. If I’m meditating alone and a clear task comes to me, I’ll pause and put it into my trusted system. Age and chemo side effects make my memory not a trusted system.

Reading GTD from the perspective of a contemplative in the world shows how it can support a contemplative practice/lifestyle. And how it can lead to suffering.

Related: Dying on the Mountain: How Goals Will Kill You and How to Focus on the Process

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The Southern Cliff – a Bigger God

The above picture of the Southern Cliff in the Lagoon Nebula is from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) blog. It is beautiful and five light years high. From Earth it cannot be seen with the naked eye. The whole Lagoon Nebula is barely visible to the eye. Our entire Solar System, including the Oort Cloud of icy fragments that slowly orbit the Sun, is about 3 light years across. I had imaged a God that created our Solar System, beyond that was more like images on a sky shell.

Clearly my image of God was too small. The Lagoon Nebula is 4,000-6,000 light years away. The estimated size of the visible universe is 93 billion light years across, a size I find unimaginable, as the Scriptures and mystics claim God is.

Today’s Richard Rohr meditation, An Evidence-Based Emergence, talks about how God is revealed in Creation and how science can tell us more about Creation and so about God. Many in the institutional church resist that, often violently, as they resisted the scripture writers, the prophets, and the mystics during their lifetime, then canonized them or made the Doctors (Latin for teachers) of the Church after they were safely dead.

I sometimes think there are more mystics and people with a direct experience of God among the scientists than among the pews.

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Poem in Two Voices

We have built a bridge dear. (You
are in my heart.)  We dance
in a circle, (round our secret
that knows).  No one sees the shared center
we turn about.  (We see what is not
visible to others.)  We saw each other
across the depths of a dark night,
(the vital signs monitor the only light.)
Heard the orderly's quiet tread
come to check my vital signs,
not disturbing (a troubled, needed
sleep.)  This is the bond between us.
(What we saw in each other,) that
no one else did.  (Until we danced
around) our shared center.

First appeared in 2019 issue of Blue Hole, the Georgetown Poetry Festival anthology, edited by Joyce and Mike Gullickson.

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Desperately Made Boats

"How could they go to sea
 in such flimsy craft?"

Ruptured pontoon replaced
by one of reeds.
Motor with enough gas
to carry them beyond
small arms fire, trailing
the smell of war.

Joseph fleeing in the night with
wife and child on the back of a donkey,
left behind his shop, most of his tools
for a foreign land.  Donkey back
was not his first choice,
just the best available.

Lakota Sioux pray,
"May we always be ready
 for the long journey."

First appeared in 2019 issue of Blue Hole, the Georgetown Poetry Festival anthology, edited by Joyce and Mike Gullickson.

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