The Second Mountain

David Brooks writes a column for the New York Times. He describes himself as a conservative and a Republican. Here in Texas, those labels in the news have been co-opted by small-minded, mean-spirited, xenophobes trying to out do each other in how far they can push on the less privileged. Brooks does the opposite. He is broad minded, inclusive, and thoughtful. I don’t always agree with him, but he gives me new things to think about and new ways to think about them. In a world of polarities trying to shout each other down, he finds a third way. He’s a gentle radical. Like other true radicals, he knows his traditions and history. While being respectful of the spirit of those traditions, he will suggest ways to re-implement them in modern contexts.

“The Second Mountain” is about what C.G. Jung calls the second half of life problems when success, achievement, positions, and possessions (the first mountain) no longer have the appeal they once did. The second mountain is about the search and embodiment of deeper, more satisfying values that the world’s great spiritual teachers talk about.

You don’t climb the second mountain the way you climb the first mountain. You conquer the first mountain. You identify the summit, and claw your way toward it. You are conquered by your second mountain. You surrender to some summons, and you do everything necessary to answer the call and address the problem or injustice that is in front of you. On the first mountain you tend to be ambitious, strategic, and independent. On the second mountain you tend to be relational, intimate, and relentless.

p. xvi

Between the first and second mountain, there is a valley. The descent can be voluntary, e.g., the rat race no longer seems worth winning. Or involuntary: a divorce, a life threatening illness or accident, or financial (e.g., layoff, bankruptcy). Brooks lays out the terrain of the two mountains, the valley, and ways to navigate them.

The first purpose of this book is to show how individuals move from the first to the second mountain, to show what that kind of deeper and more joyful life looks like, step-by-step and in concrete detail. Everyone says you should serve a cause larger than yourself, but nobody tells you how.

The second purpose is to show how societies can move from the first to the second mountain. This is ultimately a book about renewal, how things that are divided and alienated can find a new wholeness.

p. xvii

The section on marriage I found the weakest. The preceding chapters on intimacy, I’m fine with. I’ve known my wife for nearly forty years. We lived together for over 35 years and have been married for 25. As one of our mentors said, “You’ve worked on it.” Much of Brooks’ ideas rang true, but several sections didn’t match up with my experience and Brooks didn’t leave himself much wiggle room or diversity of path. I’m not comfortable recommending his recommendations in the marriage chapters.

In many ways, the most intriguing chapter is “A Most Unusual Turn of Events”. As a child Brooks attended Hebrew school. In college and later, he distanced himself from the Hebrew stories as sacred scripture, but read them as secular stories on how to live life. It is his journey back to a faith that includes the Jewish culture, the Hebrew scriptures. and the New Testament (much of his education was in Episcopal schools) that I find fascinating. As a Buddhist-Christian trying to reconcile contradictions between and within the teachings from two traditions and many teachers far apart in time and space, I’m interested in his process and his conclusions. Also the differing Hebrew and Christian interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures is informative. For example, the Exodus story:

The trek through the wilderness is not only an ordeal that gives them strength. They are living out a narrative that gives them identity. Before long, they are singing. They are crossing the Red Sea, and Miriam and the other women are leading them in song. Soon, they are able to trust again. People who have been betrayed and oppressed cannot trust and therefore cannot have faith. But eventually, the Jews, even with all their constant kvetching and whining, do learn that sometimes promises are kept, that God abides. They become a people capable of faith, capable of receiving law, obeying law, and upholding their end of the covenant.

p. 214-215

Not an interpretation I’ve ever heard preached from a Christian pulpit.

After setting the background at the level of the individual, he goes for the larger message, “Community Building”.

On day in the late 1950s, Jane Jacobs was looking out her second-story window at her Greenwich Village street below. She noticed a man struggling with a young girl. The girl went rigid, as if she didn’t want to go wherever the man was leading her. The thought crossed Jacob’s mind the maybe she was witnessing a kidnapping. She was preparing to go downstairs to intervene when she noticed that the couple that owned the butcher shop had emerged from their store. Then the fruit man walked out from behind his stand, as did the locksmith, and a few people from the laundry “That man did not know it, but he was surrounded,” Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

It turned out to be nothing, just a struggle between father and daughter. But from it, Jacobs drew the right conclusion: that safety on the street is an healthy neighborhood not kept mostly by the police. It is kept by the “intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, enforced by the people themselves.”

p. 265

I have moved over forty times in my 68 years. As an adult, I’ve lived in apartments all but six of those years. I knew few of my neighbors and none of us stayed very long. That’s unlikely to build the commitment to the neighborhood necessary for the above scenario. Jacobs was probably living in an apartment in the above story. I’m unclear how an apartment complex like I live in can become a neighborhood. The management is trying and not succeeding.

There are physical neighborhoods and there are communities of like-minded people. I’m doing better being a community member: choir at church, part of the Austin area poets community (open mic participant, newsletter editor), and clergy spouse (e.g. pastoral visits).

The last chapter is “The Relationalist Manifesto,” outlining Hyper-Individualism and the problems it solves and how it has overshot its goal and become the problem. One thing that has emerged in my reading in both Christianity and Buddhism is the importance of relationships with other humans, with other life on this planet, and with the sacred (e.g., God, the dharma, Buddha nature). This is challenging material, both to individuals and to Western society.

Initially, I checked this book out of the library without problem. When it was due 3 weeks later, there were 7 people waiting for it. Increasingly, my wife and I are buying the books of living authors to support them, from small, independent book stores to support them. This is a book that is going to take several readings to digest and the rest of our lives to consider and implement. It needs to always be within reach.

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Original vs. Unique

Annie Neugebauer does such a wonderful job of explaining the difference between original and unique, I’m going to just link to her post of the same name, Original vs. Unique. They are not the same and the distinction is important to artists of all kinds.

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Settlers

The red oaks are still robed
in their green and red glory
as we approach Christmas.
The hackberry stands quiet
in its winter bareness. I do not
know the tree with tiny leaves
that remain green all winter.
Here on the edge of the Edwards Plateau
it whispers it name—Plateau Live Oak.

Before the settlers arrived,
this plateau was grasslands. Fires
burned trees and encouraged fresh grass.
The Indians burned small sections, attracting
animals and discouraging infernos.
The settlers' cattle liked
the fire-managed grasslands.  They
were born to grassfires. The settlers,
not so much.  They eliminated
both grassfires and Indians.

Trees followed the settlers onto the plateau.
Some were natives elsewhere in Texas—migrants.
The ubiquitous Mountain Cedar's seedlings
are too bitter for cattle—opportunists.
Some trees the settlers brought
from their homeland—importees.  A few
hitched a ride—stowaways.  Some fled
extermination—refugees.

The native limestone on which all stand
is full of ancient seashells.  Here,
seven hundred feet above sea level,
not plants, not animals, not humans,
not even the rocks can boast,
"We've always been here."

Settlers” first appeared in the May issue of Red River Review.

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Immigrants

The fish and chips on the table
are an idea imported from England.
The English had to wait for potatoes
to emigrate from Peru,
put down roots, acclimatize,
settle in, assimilate.

Tikka masala arrived later, a bank shot
emigré from India, via England.
But it had to wait for chilis
to cross from New World to Old
to East.

The Colombian Exchange upset
every cuisine’s apple cart. Apples
are a Central Asian native.

Did my paternal line, that turned east,
somewhere in the Middle East, where
my maternal line turned west,
later bring apples to Europe?
Or follow them? We’re both
as American as apple pie,
an ambiguous metaphor.

Even our continent came here
from somewhere else.

The gold in my wedding ring
was formed in neutron star collisions,
in another star cluster,
several star lifetimes ago,

We’re all immigrants,
not from around here,
before there was a here.

Ashes to ashes,
stardust to stardust.

Immigrants” first appeared in the May issue of Red River Review.

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How Long & How

I can be compassionate for someone
without wanting them to be president.
I can want them gone
from that position without
pulling the trigger myself.
I can want them gone and
want the path to that end
be right. There will be
unhappiness when he leaves,
violence if done badly, probably
violence however he leaves.
I don’t want to wait for
another elected, that’s too long.
Assassin, violence, heart attack, stress.
Impeach, indict—long unhappiness
and violence, regardless of outcome.
I wait and yet, what will I do?
Vote, get out the vote? This year?
Or wait two more years of
disruption, the loose cannon given
free reign, to trash about after
it’s lost its mooring? How long
til I act? And how?

Easy solutions? Unsatisfactory!
I wait for illumination.

How Long & How” first appeared in the May issue of Red River Review.

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2020 Texas Poetry Calendar

My poem “Kent, TX” has been accepted for the 2020 edition of the Texas Poetry Calendar. I’m real proud of this one. It is expected to be published on July 1. The publisher, Kallisto Gaia Press, is good about doing readings around Texas. I expect to read in Houston (and visit the great art museums), and the readings within an hour of Austin (based on last year: Malvern Books, Georgetown Poetry Festival, and Waco Wordfest). I’ll announce the dates as they are published.

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Red River Review

Red River Review published my poem, “The Grammar of Juggling” in the August 2017 issue. More recently, the journal has sat idle for several years. Recently, the publisher, Bob McCranie, has taken over as editor and publication has resumed. He published all three of the poems I submitted, “How Long & How”, “Immigrants”, and “Settlers” in the May 2019 issue. To read just my poems go here. There are number of good poems in the issue.

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Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ “Between the World and Me” is a powerful book. While reading the last chapter I noticed a rhythmic drive like poetry has. This fits the definition of prose poetry, “a piece of writing in prose having obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery.” With a little work, I found the form of poetry, line breaks that don’t necessarily follow sentence structure. Here is my imagining of the the last paragraph as poetry. I’ve read it several times at poetry open mics and it works. Last night I redid it with line breaks from memory. It is part of an open letter to his son, Samori. The Mecca refers to Howard University and its community.

I drove away from the house
  of Dr. Jones, thinking of you.
I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori,
  because they must ultimately stop themselves.

And still I urge you to struggle.
  Struggle for the memory of your ancestors.
Struggle for wisdom, for the warmth of The Mecca.
  Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather,
for your name.

But don't struggle for the Dreamers. 
  Hope for them.  Pray for them, if you are so moved. 
But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.
  The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves,
to understand that the field for their Dream,
  the stage where they have painted themselves white,
is the deathbed for us all.  The Dream is the same habit
  that endangers the planet, the same habit
that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.

I saw these ghettos driving back from Dr. Jones's home.
  They were the same ghettos I had seen in Chicago
all those years ago, the same ghettos where my mother was raised,
  where my father was raised.

Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos—
  the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores,
crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear.

Through the windshield I saw
  the rain coming down in sheets.

I’ve never been to Chicago or Howard University. In my own mind/imagination, the image in the second to last stanza is 12th St. in East Austin near Chicon. There are a number of Black churches within a mile of here, though none are visible.

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Covers and Remakes

I certainly enjoy hearing a cover of someone else’s song, but what really excites me is a group or an artist remaking a song in their own imagining.

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

T.S. Eliot

Interestingly, this is a reworking of a meme that goes back at least to 1892. Mature artists take something someone else did and make it their own, i.e. steal it. Joe Cocker did this with most of his hits, e.g. “With a Little Help from my Friends” when done by The Beatles is a mid-tempo pop song, by Joe Cocker, it’s a slow blues or lament.

“Into the Mystic” has wondrously ambiguous lyrics. I enjoyed hearing the original. It’s ever better when done by more mature artists, e.g. the Allman Brothers Band. Even more fun is a re-working is a different style, e.g. Greensky Bluegrass’s bluegrass version. Watching the video, it’s clear they are reworking a number of aspects, bluegrass with fog machines, solid body electric upright bass, and a lead singer that looks like he’s living on the street. This is not Bill Monroe’s bluegrass.

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Dare Devil

He bungee jumped the tallest bridge,
the one in China.  It required
a lot of lies to authoritarian
authorities.  The thrill
was shorter than he expected.
Elsewhere in China, someone built
a higher one.  The authorities
are on to him.  It will be hard.
He's working on it.

For sustanence until then, he
flies a wing suit from whatever
is tall with an unobstructed view.

When time comes, he plans
to ride the thermals
in Hell.

“Dare Devil” first appeared in Austin Best Poetry 2017-2018, available on Lulu.com.

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