Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

koine Greek, missing the mark, and beginner’s heart ~

My sister-in-law reads Biblical Greek. Not the New Testament kind, but the kind that the really old parts of the Jewish & Christian Bible are written in. She’s a Presbyterian minister, which is one of the few ways (that I know of, at least) to come by such arcane skills. Here’s what she told me yesterday:

“One of the cooler things I found when learning biblical Greek was that the Greek word that gets most often translated to “sin” in English means just “missing the mark” It is the same word used if you are in an Olympic game throwing a javelin, and don’t hit the bullseye.”

Wow. Think about that: ‘sin’ — as defined through more careful translation — is just missing our best target.

I know a little about translation. It’s been a passion of mine — well, the study of it has, and the reading of translated works — since I was in HS. I didn’t have American literature; I had Russian. We read Dostœvsky, not James or Faulkner. And later I was crazy about Neruda, reading his poetry w/ the Spanish on one page and the English beside it. Still later, I read Walter Benjamin, and several of the post-colonial writers like Trinh Minh-ha, who talked about ‘the language of the oppressor,’ and what translation meant to a citizen under colonialism.

What I know is that translation is an art, and requires letting the first writer speak to you. You can’t impose yourself — in any way — on the content, or it turns. Talk about missing the mark. A few years back I readWar & Peace (really). It was a new translation, and I absolutely loved it. Made all the difference in the world. And when I read the intro, I could see why, from the examples of changes given. BIG shift.

So…How did the idea of sin move from an almost Buddhist notion of ‘missing the mark’ — not measuring up to standard — to evil that damns you to hell? I don’t understand, but wish some etymologist or linguistic scholar of Biblical translation would explain. Because I’ve never thought the universe punishes us for making mistakes. We are our own punishment, another Buddhist thought. So I need not feel guilty of ‘sin.’ I should try harder next time.

I miss my own objectives daily — when I split dessert w/ a friend instead of saying no; when I don’t get out & walk before it’s 100˚; w hen I flare back at my tired husband, who isn’t thinking about how he says what he says…:) I don’t think of these as the same, of course, as the murder of an innocent bystander in a gang fight the other day at Best Buy. But I also don’t believe the young men & woman involved in the shooting will spend eternity paying for this. Already, their lives must be full of fear, of violence, of hate. What kind of lives are those?

Yes, they should be punished. But for horrible mistakes. For falling short of a kinder & less violent ideal. Not because they’re sinners…

haircuts, attachment, & beginner’s heart ~

I got a haircut today. Adrian, my hair stylist, is a nice young woman whom I’ve pretty recently entrusted w/ my willful hair. So far, we’ve done well together, although sometimes it takes a while to get things straight between us. Remember that.

Today, she wasn’t her usual immaculately hip self — her carefully bleached short hair was pulled back w/ a pink headband and pink bandana, and she looked tired.

‘How are you?’ I asked.

‘Not so great,’ she told me. ‘I had to take my mom to the hospital today.’

Turns out Adrian’s mother has severe gallstones, and was in a lot of pain. Adrian was obviously worried. From my long-ago & far-away life as a medical journalist, I told her about gall stones: about what causes them, how they’re treated, the long-term effects, and that I’ve never heard of them killing anyone. We talked a moment about the changes this probably would have in her mother’s diet, and generally visited. By this time, she was cutting my hair.

We discussed what I wanted, and she told me she could do somewhere between this & that, and I told her this-ish, please. At least that’s what I thought I told her… Then we talked a bit more, as you do if you like each other. In the meantime, she cut my hair. Turns out it’s more that-ish. But when I saw it in the mirror, it looked fun. Summery, light. Fun. So I left feeling renewed, and bought a couple of things on the way out. Great ending to a possible disaster!

Until I returned home. My best-beloved, who should know better, asked me if I had asked the stylist to ‘do that’ to my hair. I took the heat (because in a way, I had), and said yup, but don’t worry; it will grow. ‘Nuff said, right? Nooooope.

Because in a fit of INSANITY, I told him, ‘Don’t you think it’s okay, really? I kind of like it.’

‘I’ve never found that style attractive,’ he growled. ‘Why would you do that to your hair?’

At this point, all Buddhist equanimity had left me, and I explained LOUDLY that telling someone their hair looked horrible AFTER they couldn’t fix it was NOT KIND. And that I  would NOT do that to him — I would either LIE, or find SOMETHING good to say.

Did this stop the conversation? It did not. Although friends, smart folks would have thought so… Again, nope.

‘But didn’t we talk about this before you went in?’ [translation: didn't I listen to you process this ad infinitum boreeum??] And yes, he had. The problem w/ most of your girlfriends living out of town is that you end up discussing girl stuff w/ the guy who lives w/ you.

The upshot? One Buddhist epiphany. Honest. When I left Adrian, I loved my hair. It was short, swingy, and felt like summer. When I finished  talking to my husband? I felt terrible. The haircut hadn’t changed. But boy, something else had.

How much of my life do I end up feeling bad because of what something else thinks? And why am I so attached to these opinions? What does this matter, ultimately? Do I think my husband is so shallow he’ll leave me over a bad haircut? Of course not. Am I attached to the idea he will, after all these years, still find me beautiful? Absolutely.

In the end, what matters is that it all passes. The hair will grow out. Big sky mind. But the realisation that enlightenment is kind of like  learning from a bad haircut? Wow. As the ad says, priceless.

fledglings ~

I love seeing young birds. Especially moulting cardinal & woodpecker fledglings, scruffy w/ patches of down still cow-licking from their adult feathers. They’re just so cute!

We’ve had two waves of cardinals hatching — one already up and eating (some days we have 4-5 adults at the feeder) — the most recent just now flying goofily around the perimeter of the deck, where the various feeding stations are. We’ve also had toddler woodpeckers, both downy & hairy.

I guess, like most people, until I started actively watching them, I thought of birds as far more instinctual than they actually are. They have to learn everything.  Even, in the case of the little hairy woodpeckers, what to peck. We have one we can identify, primarily from his not-yet-lost habit of pecking at metal poles. I’d never seen a woodpecker peck any & every thing around. But this one? He’s after the poles as often as the seed cylinder or suet block.

Today, the fledgling cardinal was walking the deck rail, pecking at the debris from feeders. A scolding blue jay startled him, and he took off for the treeline. His flight path reminded me of a Drunkard’s Path quilt — looping and bobbing and generally unsteady. It made me laugh, but with affection.

I wish my own learning curve — so often as public — brought me such amusement. It’s hard to, once again, be the novice. Trying out to figure what my goals are, what I want, where I’m going. On walks by the pond not far from the house, I watch martins swoop in expert arcs over the water’s surface, coming up, I assume, w/ food. They make this hard-learned task seem effortless.

But I know from watching the cardinals — so inept! — and the woodpeckers — so clueless! — that the elegance of older birds is learned, not instinctive. And somehow, this gives me great hope for my own learning process. I’m sure not everyone watches birds thinking of metaphor — too bad, huh? — but for me? Being a poet (which means to see meaning in everything… every moment..) is good for what ails me. As are birds, goofy and all ~

querencia, & beginner’s heart as collage ~

I’ve been taking the Friends Journal, and reading a lot about Quakers. That, coupled w/ the Buddhist blogging, and the Unitarian church, have made me see my spiritual life as a kind of mixed media collage… Nothing integrated, really, but everything in a kind of not-quite patterned (but pleasing) chaos…

I have an old friend who has just taken her postulant vows. That seems so wonderful to me — she’s as happy as I can remember seeing her. And her own journey — full of the looping switchbacks I see in mine — seems to have finally settled on true north, leading her to her heart’s querencia, that place where the heart  feels both safe & bold, able to face anything w/ equanimity.

I used to believe that someday I would find such a place. That it would appear like Shangri-la in Lost Horizons, a novel I dearly loved as a child. I wrote letters to religious figures, philosophers, scientists and wackos in about equal measure, asking for a berth to study with them.

I even wrote the Lilly Foundation, asking to come clean up after dolphins, thinking that maybe dolphins could help me learn. In response, I received a very nice letter — signed by John Lilly himself! — saying thanks, but no thanks. He noted that I really had very little to offer, given the level of expertise (education, skill sets, etc.) of their staff… Sigh. Nonetheless, I persevered. I wrote poets (have a great postcard from May Sarton). I read arcane literature (you should see my collection of Tarot cards). I worked hard at trying to figure out what such a place & mentor would look like, how I would recognise them.

Somewhere along the road,it began to occur me: there is probably — for me, at least — no single source of truth. I’m a post-modern seeker, I guess. Or at least mine is a post-modern faith: self-aware, fragmentary at times, and pieced together from both the archaic and the contemporary. Unlike my dear friend  Diane, I don’t — at least not yet — feel a single, specific place where I am whole. Outside, possibly — or when I watch birds in flight, the mountains. In other words, not so much in any organised fashion…

photo courtesy of DHD Multimedia Gallery

Perhaps because I’m a third culture kid, I have built my home as often in books and journals and my own writing as in domiciles of brick & mortar. Or — in the case of a villa on an island — stucco & tile. I have (literally) made end tables from books. Put a board over piles of them for a desk. Still, nowhere has ever felt completely like home, as I’ve written elsewhere.

So it came as a surprise when I realised that I have had a querencia, a place that feels as if I belong there. And, as other writers have bemoaned, I am losing my place there.

My work these past 12 years has been all about teaching. About teachers, and social justice for our students, so that they may have the opportunities so many of us have been offered. It’s a place I had to learn to make for myself, and in the process of making it, I never noticed how much a part of me it had become.

I never thought a job would be a spiritual home. Not for me, at least. I’m not a preacher, or a monk or nun. It’s just work, right?? How spiritual is that? But this job — interrogating the challenges American education faces daily, the old ways that impede our children’s success, learning to look injustice in the eye and refusing to back down like a ‘good girl’… These have shaped me as profoundly as any religious belief. I sometimes wonder if my love for engaged Buddhism is not an organic corollary to my work with National Writing Project.

This summer is my last at this job. If my life really is a mixed media collage, then this job has contributed many of the pieces going into it. A quarter of my life has been spent working to change education, to make learning more engaging for students & teachers alike. So colour some pieces orange, for my university affiliation. Paint some silver, for the many many charms & earrings I bought on numerous trips taken to various part of the country, all for Writing Project. Craft some from blown glass, for a piece donated to my final conference. Stitch others onto the canvas, like the countless journal covers I have painted/ stamped/ lettered and sewn over the years.

But mostly? Help me make peace with the realisation that I will, most likely, never find a single strand to follow out of my labyrinth of searching. I am not, unlike Diane, going to find a brick & mortar home that will hold my heart safe, sending me out into the world to fight the good fight. Instead, I will do as I have done with this wonderful job — stumble along, touching the walls of wherever I am, learning from what I’m doing even when I don’t notice that I’m also learning about my beginner’s heart.

So tell me: Where is your heart’s querencia? What do you do to make the pieces of your own collage?

 

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