Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

message in a bottle: imagining a reader ~

Last month I wrote a poem for a funeral reading. The deceased wasn’t a friend — he was my sister’s dear friend’s brother. So writing the poem took some time, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Of course, all poems — most writing of any kind — takes time. But writing a poem you know you’re going to read in public, for a man you didn’t know, is a little more than myy usual difficult.

Still, writing is, as I repeated many times when thanked for the poem, what I do. In many ways, it’s what I am. After retiring, I had a moment (actually several weeks) of wondering what I would say when people asked what I do. I’m not currently employed FT — isn’t that what we mean when we say retired? Writers, however, don’t really ‘retire.’ Only the teacher I was is retired. And I’m still teaching, just not at my earlier position.

Buddhists are big on how nothing is static. Nothing is permanent. It’s all change, Grasshopper…I know this intellectually. I even know it on a bone-deep level in some contexts. Adult orphans get it: we have watched our childhoods slide into darkness with the last glimmer of recognition from a parent’s eye. What writing does for many of us — certainly for me — is allow us to reframe things. Quite literally, I change my past when I write, if I want to. In a story the wonderful Rachel Naomi Remen tells,  she is relating to a friend how she has suffered terrible illness, great grief, and much tragedy. When she confides in the friend how victimised she felt, he responds: ‘What an amazing survivor you are!’ Remen is totally floored: it’s not what she had seen at all, but at that moment, it becomes her new frame for the past. That’s what writing does for me.

Earlier this past week I was on a panel looking at why writers write. One of the questions asked — and it pops up in most serious conversations about writing — is whether writers are trying to fight mortality — achieve immortality — through their writing. One of the three of us on the panel said yes, he thought quite clearly about his legacy, about living on through his words. The other was more ambiguous, but I’d guess he also felt more that way than do I.

I answered no, that immortality and my own death really don’t figure much into my writing. Or at least not in the sense that I want to live through my work afterwards. But I do want to ‘live through  my work.’ I just mean something very different by that statement.

Writing is a conversation I hold w/ myself, not the dead. An essay about my father’s death isn’t a visit w/ Daddy, but a way for me to explore how I feel about him, what his death means to me. How our relationship has shaped me. Putting it ‘out there’ in the form of publication? That’s sometimes sheer vanity (now you know…): I’m an old journalist; I like seeing my name in print. What can I say?

If I have conversations w/ anyone other than myself, it’s with the imagined reader. The writer Margaret Atwood says that we each have an ideal reader in our heads. The poet Ted Kooser agrees: his poem ‘Selecting a Reader‘ has his imagined reader actually putting Kooser’s book of poetry back on the shelf, more practical than poetic. He wants her to be autonomous, not to need him. I absolutely get it.

My imagined reader might be dead — to that extent, I’m speaking to the dead, if not with them. S/he might not even understand English. How do I know? Writing is always — for me, at least — a message in a bottle. Perhaps even an experiment, as the bottle message found 97 years after it was written. Sending writing into the world is a bit like breathing for someone else’s grief, the practice of tonglen. Both strangers  — the imagined reader and the imagined sufferer — are the recipients of your attention. And perhaps writing is, ultimately, an act of compassion. An act that affirms transience and impermanence, the shifting nature of both attention & reflection. A meditation and a practice, for the writer even more than the reader. Or so say all of us ~

 

quest & journey & story & hope ~

This is the season of the story. Because at the heart of every faith — within the faith of every heart, nestled like a growing bird — is story. Sometimes one (an empty tomb, the vengeful hand of a god who passes over the houses marked with blood), sometimes many (when light & dark are equal, when the bad luck of the past year is washed clean). But always story.

Human beings love stories. We remember best, new research shows, when we learn through narrative. We may learn through doing, but we are caught & touched & transformed through our sharing of stories.

Once upon a time it was winter. And it was dark, and cold, and we were far too young a people to know if light would ever warm us again. There was fire sometimes.  Not often enough. And there was never enough food, it seemed. Yet still we found lambs to bleed, and goats to sacrifice. Because the nights were long & full of fear, and it seemed that sunlight would never again warm us. And then, slowly — almost imperceptibly — the days began to lengthen. Until spring was vivid in the grass and air and sky, and our stories were no longer dark tales of death, but brighter, full of hope & redemption.

What I love best about learning is the many new stories knowledge gives us. Today I saw a picture of a long-maned wolf — a canid left over from prehistoric times, possibly. Neither fox nor wolf, not dog or related closely to any of the above. Now, this previously unknown animal is chasing its stories through my thoughts.

Doesn’t everyone love stories? The escape from time, the suspense, the magic of entering another world… They needn’t even be fantastic, the stories that captivate us. A tale of a cranky customer in front of a friend, told with an ear for accent and detail. The adventure we had on vacation, tackling an unplucked chicken from the market. Even the ordinary — transformed into story — charms.

To charm: a kind of magic, from the same root as ‘incantation.’ This is what good stories do to us — transform us, perform a kind of magic. Religions teach with stories: fable & parable & midrash & koan. We teach our children with stories — examples & moral tales & even fairy ballads. And on Palm Sunday, and the Eve of Passover, the stories of what we believe in — our deepest faiths — shine brightly for me.

They are transcendent, the best stories. Some of them are even poems. Here’s one I read this weekend, that a friend then sent me. Somehow — although we do not share the same religious beliefs — we do share the religion of poetry. She is as deep a believer in the stories poetry feeds us as I am. Sometimes I even beg the question (contentious in Oklahoma) of what my religion is, answering, ‘My religion is poetry.’ And in many ways it is. Like God in the poem, I am always thinking about poetry ~

Fishing in the Keep of Silence by Linda Gregg

There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the egrets
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: there are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.

In this beginning of spring, when we once again begin our return  to light and warmth, I wish for you stories. Tales that feed you, nurture you, and perhaps provide a bit of transcendence to light your darker hours. Tales that take wing. And if you’d like to share them, I’d love to listen ~

 

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