By the Rivers of Babylon

I’ve lived in Austin for 18 years but still don’t feel quite at home here. I grew up all over North America, but mostly in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. It has changed and I can’t afford to live there and don’t care for the people who do. It was always a rich county and we were middle class. I’ve developed an attitude to rich people’s attitudes. Nice place to visit but I don’t want to live there.

The Depot, a coffee house and bookstore in Mill Valley, used to be full poets, writers, and and other creative types. Now it is full of entitled people in expensive leisure or athletic clothes.

I still miss the woods, hills, and Mt. Tam.

The Melodians’ “By the Rivers of Babylon” sets Psalm 137 to music. It speaks of being far from home.

By the Rivers of Babylon
for the Melodians

African man, in exile,
sings a song of Hebrew people,
in exile, millennia before,
mocked by captors.
I am in exile,
trying, hoping, longing
to find my way home
where there is no road.

Reaching out to
my own heartache
for compass, for direction,
for any sign of the way.
Sitting by a river with water
not like my river's water,
a painful reminder of home
and still so foreign.

This was my first publication of the year in di-vêrsé-city, the Austin International Poetry Festival ( adult anthology. It is available only in print. I incorrectly attributed By the Rivers of Babylon to Bob Marley, a common misconception. As far as I can tell he never recorded the song.

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How God Intervenes

It’s important not to get sucked into identity politics. It’s about privilege, exclusion, and power. Neither the battle over who is favored nor apathy and inaction is the solution. The question then becomes, how do we improve the world, country, state, city, neighborhood? Walter Brueggemann speaks eloquently about such things. How God Intervenes, an interview with him by Kenyatta Gilbert in Sojouners magazine is a good entry point. The link leads to a teaser, but gives a taste. The full article is in the print magazine and on the Web for subscribers.  We read the library copy and photocopied to reread. Brueggemann speaks to the prophetic voice in all of us. I’m reading his book “Finally comes the Poet”. It has a number of important points that resonate with my experience, enlighten me, and point a way forward, following the path of Jesus and the best of the Hebrew prophets.  It also resonates or maybe parallels many other important teachings in other religions. He is a very good writer, which always helps.

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2017 Publications

I’ve added all my 2017 publications to the Publications page (link just before the header picture). It’s not possible to link directly, but I put a link that close with directions on how to proceed. I’ll be posting the poems themselves in the coming weeks.

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Any Second Zen

Every-Minute Zen

Zen students are with their masters at least ten years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or the left side of the clogs.”

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

This story from “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones” compiled by Paul Reps holds up a worthwhile direction to head in, every-minute Zen. Before you work on every-minute Zen, you have to experience any-second Zen, that calm, spacious mind for any amount of time. Until then you are practicing based on faith in your teachers. After that, you’ve glimpsed the mountain. Now faith in your own experience, the desire for more, and guidance from your teachers are the path. “Glimpsing the Ox” is number 3 of the Ten Oxherding pictures. Coming this far should be celebrated. You are not a beginner any more, even though when you don’t see the mountain, you may despair.

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Slight Change of Direction

This blog has been anonymous for a number of reasons. Those reasons are going away or gone. I was a programmer who wrote on the side for forty years. I’m now swapping those. I wrote articles for computer magazines (e.g., Byte, Dr. Dobb’s Journal) starting in the early 80s. Starting in the mid-90s, I also published poetry sporadically. I ceased writing for computer magazines ten years ago as I and they went different ways. At this point, I think they have all ceased publication.

As a programmer, I had a blog. Now this blog will also be about my publications on the Web and in print journals. It isn’t so much a change of direction as an addition of my writing outside this blog.

Most literary journals accept only unpublished works. They consider personal blogs to be publishing, so nothing I want to publish elsewhere will appear here first. Most journals buy “first rights” only. I can publish a poem here after it appears. Works that are on theme will be published here soon after they appear with a link to the “real” publication. I’ll post only recent ones, the last year or so. A full publication list will soon be added annd other things you’d expect on an author’s Website.

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It’s Really Old

I read widely and have heard various estimates of the age of the universe. Nearly 14 billion years. Big number. Numbingly big number. A recent Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), Where Your Elements Came From, shows the periodic table of the elements, color coded by what kind of star or event produced them: the original Big Bang fusion, massive stars, ordinary stars, and various collisions. The bulk of the elements of life are from exploding massive stars (novas and supernovas) with smaller amounts from exploding white dwarfs. Gold is from merging neutron stars. All but hydrogen, helium, and some of the lithium are recycled from stars long ago and far away.

That hit me in a way numbers doesn’t. This planet I’m standing on is millions of years old. The elements it is made of are hundreds to thousands of times older. Really old.

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I Won’t Back Down

Well, I won't back down
No, I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
No, I'll stand my ground
Won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won't back down
(I won't back down)
Hey, baby, there ain't no easy way out
(I won't back down)
Hey, I will stand my ground
And I won't back down
Well I know what's right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin' me around
But I'll stand my ground
And I won't back down
(I won't back down)
Hey, baby, there ain't no easy way out
(I won't back down)
Hey, I will stand my ground
And I won't back down
Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out
(I won't back down)
Hey, I won't back down
(I won't back down)
Hey, baby, there ain't no easy way out
(I won't back down)
Hey, I will stand my ground
And I won't back down
No, I won't back down

Lyrics by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. Excellent advice for all those activists pushing back on the Trump agenda, just keep MLK’s tactics in mind. Also the Buddha:

Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is the eternal rule.

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Crises & Mindfulness

Crises reveal your values because you have to choose.

Ed Milliband

In a crisis, I can’t have it all. When push comes to shove, what do I choose?

It’s now the end of a too long day and I haven’t done either of the exercises the doctor recommended to speed recovery. There isn’t time to do both—so I choose the mental exercises, like always. I rationalize that the physical exercises are stimulating and make it hard to sleep, but the mental exercises are also hard and cause anxiety.

Mindfulness practices urge me to pause before reacting and notice what’s going on. Looking at my choices, I ask, “Is this serving me well?” No, better to sometimes choose physical exercises instead. With no load over eight pounds, I’m not going to end up too pumped to sleep.  False concern.

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Expanding on “What Would Martin Do?”

The election of Donald Trump is profoundly disturbing for many reasons: the process (e.g. fake news, probable Russian intervention, and the ugliness of the rhetoric) and the results (e.g. his nominees reek of crony capitalism). Resistance is necessary, but not sufficient. It only slows the Trump agenda. We need to set a better agenda and derail the Trump agenda.

While I look to Sun Tzu (The Art of War), and Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching) for direction, I also look to the modern contemplative-activists: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, etc. In this essay, I’m using “Martin” as a stand-in or exemplar because MLK is the most widely known activist for this world view.

The racism and prejudice of many supporters made the news, but these weren’t enough to elect him. Trump also appealed to the left-behinds—those hard working people whose jobs, identity, and community has been lost to globalization, automation, and productivity increases. There are enough of them and they are angry to the point of violence or at least violent language. They are not the enemy but potential allies.

So what would Martin do? First—pray or meditate in silence. Gandhi is widely quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” MLK prayed on his own and in community with those working along side him. Use creative tactics: take the unexpected way, what Richard Rohr calls finding the Third Way, takes time spent in silence, patience, not simply reacting against. All of the people mentioned in the second paragraph spent a lot of time in prayer or meditation. It is necessary for creative planning, but also to stay centered in confrontations with others.

These people were kind, but not “nice”. They did not go along to get along, but neither were they violent. One of the tactics I learned in martial arts is to pull when pushed. Gandhi used this to excellent effect in a famous incident:

At one stage it became known to Gandhi’s followers that he was to be visited by a British official who would threaten him with prison if he did not give up some of his—to the British—subversive activities. They came to him excited and said, “We have a great idea: we shall put nails on the road he will be driving along and they will puncture the tires of his car so that he will not be able to get here.”

“You will do nothing of the sort”, said Gandhi. “We shall invite him in politely and offer him a cup of tea.”

Crestfallen, his followers obeyed. The official arrived and strode in full of imperial purpose.

“Now then, Mr. Gandhi, this so-called Salt Marching has to stop at once. I shall otherwise be forced to arrest you.”

“Well,” said Gandhi, “First of all, let’s have some tea.”

The Englishman agreed reluctantly. Then when he had drained his cup, he said briskly, “Now we must get down to business. About these marches …”

Gandhi smiled. “Not just yet. Have some more tea; there are more important things to talk about.”

And so it went on. The Englishman became increasingly interested in what the Mahatma had to say and eventually forgot completely about his official task, drank many more cups of tea and eventually went away, fully won over to Gandhi’s cause.

Notice how Gandhi did the unexpected, a necessary part of being a prophet, a change agent. He was setting the agenda, instead of the Englishman. The Salt Marsh was both symbolic and practical, salt is life critical in a tropical environment. The British Empire had given themselves a monopoly. Gathering their own salt was civil disobedience and fulfilling the people’s need, not simple resistance.

During the campaign one of Trump’s popular proposals was spending a lot on infrastructure. It was needed and it would mean a lot of middle class jobs for a Presidential term or two. He has since backpedaled, proposing tax credits for private companies who do infrastructure improvement, not any actual Federal spending. One of the lessons I took from the Great Recession is that private industry has very little interest in improving infrastructure, even their own. The only way private industry will do things like fix the Flint MI water system is if they can jack the rates up. I’ve seen that here in Austin. The rich and middle class people fled Flint years ago. The people there can barely the current rates.

Bernie Sanders has re-introduced his $1 trillion infrastructure bill. This is pushing back on Trump, but it is also pushing or pulling forward. It also reinforces the evidence that Trump is not there for the ordinary people, just the rich. The rich have it made. Their water systems are fine thank you. There are other Trump campaign promises that benefit us all, not just the rich. We should get behind them.

Right now, Trump is setting the agenda and the liberals are resisting, responding, reacting. Some of his proposals, if real, are so egregious, they must be resisted or responded to, but much of it is “a tale … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” He has already abandoned many of his campaign promises that fired up his base, but are unimplementable or like jailing the opposition, would set a precedent even he is unwilling to set.

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Do you want to fast this Lent?

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worry and have trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

Pope Francis   Lent 2017

Having recently attended several funerals and just sent out three sympathy cards this morning, I might change sadness in the second one to despair or pity. Also, be compassionate to yourself so you can be compassionate to others.

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