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Beginner's Heart

from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Most of the time, I confess, I think of Christianity as a violent religion. Beginning w/ the Crusades, various holy wars, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, Nazi Germany… It doesn’t appear to have read the New Testament, and it certainly doesn’t stress peace on earth to any real degree. Or so it’s always seemed to me.

I’ve always loved the stories of Jesus, and believed in the historical Jesus as a child. But early on I could see that most of the Christian systems I knew — churches, schools, etc. — didn’t follow Jesus. There was no turning of the other cheek, no welcoming of the metaphorical Samaritan. No feeding of the poor, unless it was convenient and not very expensive.

This sounds horribly critical, I realise. But it was, truthfully, the experience of my childhood and teen years. Christians, by & large, were not nice folks to others. They were constantly trying to convert each other — even though they all apparently shared Jesus. And a WHOLE LOT of them hadn’t read the Bible, but depended instead on received ‘knowledge’ from church leaders. Even as a kid I trusted my reading of texts over most others’.gero cross 2 Please note: obviously I realise this is a generalisation. Having at least 4 members of my family who are ordained Christian ministers, and countless other members of family (as well as dear friends) who are the best of Jesus Christians, I’m well aware that there are many wonderful Christians in the world. I just knew more of the other kind growing up, as well as in my home state.

Today, however, I read an article highlighted in the Unitarian Universalist newsletter, reprinted from the 2008 magazine.  The article is an excerpt from a book by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker: Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and EmpireIn the passage highlighted in the UU newsletter, Brock & Parker trace the transition from early Christianity’s focus, in the first millenia, on Christianity’s help in living a happier life NOW, on earth, to the 2nd millenia’s emphasis on paradise in the afterlife, and the Christian crucifixion as its symbol. The difference between the pastoral shepherd Jesus above, and the Gero crucifix.

Brock & Parker argue that early Christianity was not about paradise after death. Instead, they contend, it was about living well in this life, and doing as Jesus would do. The whole ‘after death you’ll be rewarded’ concept wasn’t big, according to their studies. Here they detail what they found:

The death of Jesus, it seemed, was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith for the Christians who worshipped among the churches’ glittering mosaics. The Christ they saw was the incarnate, risen Christ, the child of baptism, the healer of the sick, the teacher of his friends, and the one who defeated death and transfigured the world with the Spirit of life. This transfigured world is our world, paradise reopened.(Brock & Parker)

courtesy Google

courtesy Google

Wow. How much like Buddhism this sounds. Who also teaches his friends, and is incarnate, transfiguring the world with life, and the ability to find happiness. Not identical, certainly (no baptism, no resurrection — although many Buddhists believe in reincarnation — no miracles on the order of the leper). But far closer than the Jesus war-mongers and homophobic bullies cite as their source.

The piece by Brock  & Parker took me back to the women in my childhood who believed w/out reservation in Jesus, and his teachings: help the poor, feed the hungry, do good. Live a life of love and service. Which is much what the Buddha asks, come to think of it.

I’m glad my roots in the Jesus stories of my Aunt Alene are affirmed. Somehow it makes my Buddhist adulthood far less esoteric, and much more inevitable.  🙂

 

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imageI spent the day researching obscure poetic forms.  And it was enormous fun — thinking about what to pour into those elegant white cups of structure. Along the way, I wrote this poem for my sisters (the least structured of women). But we’ll get to the poem in a moment.

Because what’s important is this whole cup thing. How the shape of the container/ vessel impacts what goes inside. I don’t drink tea (or coffee) from ugly containers — and don’t go making more of that than I’m saying. 🙂

Anything worth writing deserves the best possible — and most appropriate — presentation. Forms also help us give shape to the booming chaos within, especially at times of grief, or even great joy. I have written elegies and eulogies (and yes, there is a difference), and the shape of a poetic elegy is no more difficult than a spoken eulogy, sometimes easier.

Form, after all, is just shape. It’s drinking green tea from the celadon tea set my husband brought me from Korea, not from the Aynsley pot my tea conspiracy gave me.

author's photo

author’s photo

That’s reserved for when I need to remember I’m loved, and have overcome difficult times.

A sonnet (at least in my hands) is rarely funny, although that can have its own appeal, the subversion of a form. Any more than I’ve ever seen a tragic limerick. The form (and all its cultural readings) doesn’t go there.

It’s why I don’t drink juice from a teacup, or hot chocolate from a goblet. The forms war w/ the content.

This may be more than you ever wanted to hear about form, structure, and cups. 🙂 But it’s important. Honest.

Because people AREN’T cups. And our ‘form’ needn’t dictate (or even seriously impact) our ‘content.’ I don’t have to wear old person clothes — I needn’t eschew my beloved jeans. Any more than I had to wear a dress to my son’s wedding. 🙂 I can reject form, up to a point. (I’m NOT going to a funeral in pyjamas, despite how many students turn up for class that way!)

But in poetry? I’m sticking to my initial claim: form is a great way of enabling content. 🙂

septolet for four sisters

eldest
middles
younger still
our lives stairstep

each sister a tread
family the risers
connecting

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image

courtesy Google

Last night, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn’t write w/ too much structure. That writing is — for me — a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ideas.

Later, as  I lay in bed half-asleep, I thought about poetry. And realised that what I said was only true of prose (at least for me).  I write most easily (and possibly best) when I have the structure of a form.  Sonnet, haiku, tanka, lune ~ each draws forth the content to fill the form’s formal structure. They act like scaffolding for  my creative process.

Kind of like using the right tools to crack lobster… 🙂 Sure you can use your hands. But a claw cracker and tiny fork make it soooo much easier.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised: structure is a kind of mindfulness. It’s almost meditative. Certainly it’s contemplative. If I have to fit the inchoate feelings/ images/ thoughts within to a skeletal framework, it’s almost like magic — following the breath to calm. A kind of practice…

courtesy Wikipedia

courtesy Wikipedia

I think creativity often responds beautifully to structure. But what seems like structure to one person may be torture to another (my son’s process sounded antithetical to my own), and our own methods may well not even feel like ‘structure,’ they’re so deeply internalised.

Once, at a workshop, I heard the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Henry Taylor talking about his struggle to stay a ‘working poet’ while he fought brain cancer. Taylor said he did clerihews — a form invented at the turn of the 19th century. They were all he could manage, he said. But they did the trick: helping him keep poetically nimble.

When my days are full of scullery duties, or enrapt with my grandson, and poetry seems (even for me) almost too much, I turn to haiku. Haiku are my practice, the way clerihews were Taylor’s. And it’s because of both forms’ structure that they work as practices. The form allows the mind to work on the content, not wondering about things like line breaks. At least, not so much. 🙂

national poetry month logoSo today’s poem is a clerihew (even though I’ve been practicing haiku… 🙂 ) The clerihew is for my grandson, who will (I hope!) grow up to love poetry.

Holding Trinidad Gildersleeve,

 I’m inclined to disbelieve

That paradise requires death.

It’s in my arms, and drawing breath.

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origami Kirin, by Satoshi Kamiya courtesy Google

origami Kirin, by Satoshi Kamiya
courtesy Google

My grandson burnt his hands Sunday. Not horribly, but badly enough that he cried inconsolably for hours. Today? He’s his usual sunny self: slapping the Cheerios on the highchair tray, pulling my hair, and laughing at nothing at all.

Why can’t I be like that?  Why can’t I let go of yesterday/ last year/ some childhood nightmare? How does he DO that??

Watching Trin, I learn as much as my doctoral studies, I swear. Obviously not ‘content’ (a word I’ve come to mistrust hugely), but critical life skills. Mostly how to be happy.  And it begins — just like the Buddha said — with letting go.

Trin has no expectations, other than what happens in the now. He’s used to being loved, I grant you. But he isn’t… attached to it, if that makes sense. When he’s burned (through no one’s fault), he cries because it’s not going away. But then? It does, and he moves on. image

The picture at the top of the page is a  Japanese kirin, known as qilin in Chinese. It’s a mythical animal, a cloven-footed, dragon-like chimera. And it has healing properties, some say. It’s the product of innumerable foldings of paper, carefully creased to bring to life an animal that probably never existed, other than in fable & legend. And yet Satoshi Kamiya, the origami artist, could see it so clearly in his mind’s eye that he was able to create a recognisable kirin. From gold paper.

Here’s the problem for me: my brain wants to be able to create the tangible from the evanescent: bubbles from air, a poem from a dream, a meal from a wish to comfort. But the very vision that enables that creative thought also makes me subject to that Buddhist bugaboo: attachment. I become attached to my creations. I build castles (sometimes from… well, alliterative substances) that I never end up even visiting, but which still cause me grief.

Trin can’t create a poem (yet). Nor can he envision much of what isn’t there in front of him. (To be fair, sometimes he has a hard time with what’s tangibly present!) But he also doesn’t attach to what has never been. He doesn’t worry about something that may never come to pass.

So no, he can’t imagine a kirin. But he also doesn’t fixate on the pain of a day now past. I’m not sure I have the better deal…

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