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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

green grass, blue sky, sun like honey ~

Spring is about growth. It’s full of religious celebrations that predate paper: Passover, Easter, Holi, the Spring Equinox, Makha Bukha, Bahá’í New Year, and many more.

For me, spring is also about children. It’s about egg hunts — a leftover from BCE (Before Christian Era) — and candy in baskets and new clothes. As a child, it also was about the dyed chicks & ducklings & bunnies that cuddled at feed stores & even dime store fronts, ready to grace a child’s basket Sunday morning.

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We don’t do Easter baskets any more — my sons live thousands of miles west, and my grand-nieces & grand-nephew are busy at their besotted aunt’s. But today, when I came in to my desk to write, a totally romantic Easter cup awaited me. Brimming with the neon green ‘grass’ we all remember, in which nestled dark chocolate eggs & a hand-painted Canadian coin, complete with bee. I have the BEST husband… :)

For a brief moment, I was 6 years old. My Aunt Carol had bought me a chocolate egg, and my Aunt Joyce had taken me to see coloured ducklings. I had a new dress, shiny patent shoes, and a pastel basket. Warm spring sunlight was no brighter than my bliss.

I hope today brings you similar sweet surprises, and the love of those around you. And the happy faces of children under budding trees, standing beneath bright blue sky. It’s spring.

 

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talking about books: a tale of hope ~

I spent an evening earlier this week with more than 30 women, in a lock-down facility, talking about the dancer Isadora Duncan. Part of an Oklahoma Humanities Council book group initiative, partners are provided with books and a list of ‘scholars’ who can lead the discussion.

The women were a joy to visit. Smart, reflective, intuitive, & insightful. I’ve been in grad seminars w/ less lively & nuanced conversation. The 30+ women had read a difficult book, one rife with heavy vocabulary, thick with untranslated French, German, & Spanish, and not always towing a narrative line. A few freely admitted they hadn’t finished it, and a couple of even braver souls said they hadn’t gotten past the first pages.

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Note: I’m used to books like this, and it took me forever to get into what became, finally, an engrossing tale of dance, love, and the sacrifices one woman made for her famous success.

These women had worked all day on ‘programs': addiction counseling; family therapy; meeting with lawyers and social workers regarding child custody, divorce, & other family difficulties. And more: finding places to work, learning how to apply for these jobs, finding childcare… The list is long & exhausting.

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After 10 hours of a day like that, they came to a presentation on a book many of my happily indulged college students would find not worth picking up (truth, this). But a very young woman in the third row, wearing the leg cuff of a newcomer to the program, was mesmerised. Her hand shot up like an A+ student whenever I asked a question.  And a grandmother of 8 in the back row told me she couldn’t wait to actually read the book — the conversation had hooked her.

When it was time to move into small discussion groups? They refused, nicely. They wanted to go on just talking about the book together, hearing what each had to say. A German immigrant, still clipping her consonants and velveting her vowels, warned us — after I said the French was sometimes untranslateable — that the German in the book made no sense. We talked about that.

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A woman in the front row, after 18 months almost ready for release, wanted to know how we thought Isadora Duncan got through the death of three children. We talked about that. I gave the group background on the differences between memoir & autobiography — both genre differences and the earlier academic gendered readings — and we talked about that.

What I saw, for the two-plus hours I spent in lock-down, was what literature and the arts are best at: dissolving differences. Blurring boundaries. Women from their early 20s to their late 50s turned in their chairs and talked about literature. About the theme of a book, of a life. About art & its importance. About a woman born more than 100 years ago who faced tragedy.

And what I will remember is this: the room was full of empathy for that long-dead woman. And grace. The room of 30+ convicted addicts was full of humour, wit, intelligence, & grace. It was a wonderful evening.

 

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holy days, fire & faith ~

It is Good Friday.  It is Holy Week. It is Passover. And other faiths, too — more individual, more isolate — also bear witness to death and redemption.

In California, a dear friend still mourns the death of his beloved. This is the anniversary of a death that came — as they often do — far too early. Like me, he has no faith in meeting his beloved again. For people like us, death has the finality of fire — ashes remain.

Today he sent me a piece an artist friend of his wrote about his love. There was the bright terrible beauty of fire about her work, the deadly precision of a surgical line. The best of art can be like that: painfully exquisite. Some of the poets who died in (or survived…) the Holocaust write with those simple, searing images.

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I once had a student who was a cutter, and she tried to describe why she cut. I think it must feel like reading Radnóti  or Różewicz – so beautiful & terrible. And so very true a scarlet line that the death & loss implicit become a kind of dark loveliness.

When I wonder, sometimes, about my patchwork of beliefs, about my inability to cleave to a single religious faith (Buddhism always, for me, more a philosophy than a religion…), I think of poetry, of music, of the soaring beauty of a perfect arch or a span of bridge. Made by hands, all of it. And I remember: art can save you. As surely as death, or blood on lintel, it can redeem.

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Once, many years ago, words from a woman I never met reached out to me. Her stories were light into very dark corners where I was lived then. Another time, a song in a car on a highway going nowhere I had ever wanted to end up kept me on the macadam. And for my dear, grieving friend? This lonely one year later, music and the sere words of an empathetic artist friend are celebratory. Are the faith he clings to.

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the world is not broken ~

I’m working at letting go of perfection, the idea that the world is ‘broken,’ as Naomi Rachel Remen says.  Stop to consider this: the world is NOT broken. The people who shout at cars that take their parking places? The people in the cars who take the parking places? There’s some reason for all of them. The world isn’t broken.

When I can bring myself to trust that, I’m pretty happy. But I have to confess: it doesn’t happen very often. Most of the time, I go from what seem (in my own less-than-perfect state) to be the pieces of one shattered something after another: a sister’s incredibly poor manager. The senseless death of an old friend. State politics that make me cringe.

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But here’s my new mantra: the world is not broken. And I’m not its fixer…

Because believing I can ‘fix’ things only makes me … well, bossy. Not a good trait, especially for a Buddhist. And yes, I consider myself an engaged Buddhist. But while I often take the (not perhaps wise) shortcut of using ‘engaged Buddhist’ and ‘social justice activist’ interchangeably, as no less than Thích Nhất Hạnh notes, they are not the same. Certainly the vast majority of engaged Buddhists will work towards social justice in some way, but social activists (obviously) come in all faith paths, including none at all.

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Thích Nhất Hạnh, in his teaching on engaged Buddhism, reminds us that the Buddha teaches the 1st Noble Truth — ill-being, or suffering — as a necessary path. We cannot undo suffering, Thích Nhất Hạnh tells us, if we don’t understand it well. And it’s only by suspending the urge forward, into a changed & hoped-for future, that we can actually change our own anger, fear, hopelessness.

Every time I remind myself the world is not broken — and I wish I remembered to do it more often! — I am here, in the advent of spring, in the woodpecker learning how to navigate the starling-proof feeder. I am living smack-dab in the centre of now, and the world is not at all broken.

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