Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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 ~

 

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