Browsed by
Category: faith

Dog Walk Poems

Dog Walk Poems

The Dog Walk Sutra of a couple of weeks ago came out of my little project to finally memorize the Heart Sutra, and to dedicate at least a part of my morning dog walks to reciting it. Because that was such a success, I decided that maybe the morning dog walks might also be a good opportunity to memorize some poems. I’m not getting any younger, and my graduate work is fading farther and farther into the past, and although I am grateful for my day job at the Big Corporation, it’s not creative work at all. I had this nagging feeling that I was losing touch with something that had, for so many many years, been vitally important to me. So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been managing about a poem a week, which isn’t bad, as I walk back and forth through town to the dog park and back, my xeroxed copy of the poem of the week folded up in my hand, muttering poetry out loud, and sneaking a peek when I can’t remember the next line.

One of the things I’m discovering, of course, is that memorizing a poem forces one to pay close attention to the actual language. I did “Meditation at Lagunitas” a couple of weeks ago, a poem I’ve loved ever since my undergraduate days. In fact, Robert Hass was the first modern poet I discovered on my own, not through a class or a teacher, but by trolling the poetry aisle in my undergraduate library at Beloit College. Because the Beloit Poetry Journal was published there, we had a stupendous poetry aisle in our library, as well as the presence of Marion Stocking, who taught us all, forced us even, to learn to really read a poem. To look closely at which words the poet chose, what adjectives, what verbs — and who made us articulate why we thought the poet had chosen this set of words, in this order, and not some other alternative.  In memorizing “Meditation” — a poem I had big fragments of in my brain, but not the whole thing, I found myself surprised that Hass chose to use the word “idea” twice in the same sentence — in the third and fourth lines of the poem. I wouldn’t have noticed this if I wasn’t memorizing the poem, because the repetition made me stop, made me look back at the poem, “idea” twice, could that be right? the same word at both the beginning and end of the sentence? Hmm. Not the kind of thing I would have noticed as a general reader — if I was writing a paper perhaps, but my paper-writing days are behind me now, and I’m not really interested in that kind of writing any more. And after a week of walking back and forth through the streets of Livingston, I now have one of the poems which is dearest to my heart firmly lodged (I hope) in my head. There whenever I need it.

This isn’t about poetry being “good for you” in some sort of prescriptive way, like vitamins. I hate that idea. For me, this is about reconnecting with the love of words and sentences and sounds that made me want to write in the first place. Hass‘s line: ” Longing, because desire is full of endless distances” for example — a line that has so entered my being that it feels like a personal epigram. Or the sheer joy in reciting out loud the Yeats line, declaiming “And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” Just say it. Listen to the consonants and the way they roll off the tongue. For me, this project is as much about slowing down, and paying attention to language, and reminding myself of what it was I first loved, all those years ago as a teenager, crouched to see the bottom shelf of the tiny poetry section in the Lake Forest Bookshop where I found a book whose title held out a marvelous promise that “A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far.”  A wild patience! Is there any better phrase to describe the inner experience of high school? All of this seems to be sinking out of my daily life, a life in which I spend so so much time online, and find it increasingly difficult to concentrate on a whole book, or a whole poem, increasingly difficult to slow down and focus. And so, we’ll see. I dont’ know that memorizing poems while walking the dog will help any of this, but I do know that I’m having a lovely time doing it. And I’m now old enough, that I don’t care who sees me wandering the streets, a poem wadded up in my hand, muttering out loud to myself.
This week I needed a new poem so I opened the lovely anthology that Czelaw Milosz published several years ago, A Book of Luminous Things, and found “The Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

“The Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You have only to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile, the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Dog Walk Sutra

Dog Walk Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
doing deep prajna paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all five skandhas,

Ray! What are you doing? Get over here!
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.
O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form;
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.
Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness,
Are likewise like this.

Whoa! What are you doing? You’re not allowed in the street.
O Shariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness,
Not born, not destroyed,
Not stained, not pure,
Without loss, without gain.
So, in emptiness there is no form,
No sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness,
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind,
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena,
No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness,

Come on Ray — out of there — don’t eat catshit!
    No ignorance and no end to ignorance,
No old age and death, and no end to old age and death,
No suffering, no cause of suffering,
no extinguishing,
no path,
No wisdom and no gain.
No gain and thus the bodhisattva lives prajna paramita
With no hindrance in the mind
No hindrance, thus no fear.

Come on lovie. This way.
Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana.
All past, present, and future Buddhas live prajna paramita
And therefore attain anuttara-samyak-sambohdi.
Therefore know prajna paramita is the great mantra,
The vivid mantra, the best mantra,
The unsurpassable mantra.
It completely clears all pain—this is the truth, not a lie.
So set forth the prajna paramita mantra.
Set forth this mantra and say:
Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate!
Bohdi svaha! Prajna Heart Sutra!

Up Ray, through the gate. Good boy. Want a cookie?

(with apologies to Gary Snyder, whose translation this is.)

How Not to be Useful …

How Not to be Useful …

So, it’s snowing again this morning — and although I’m quite tired of snow, it’s a lovely soft morning — bit fat snowflakes, no wind, not too cold. So off for our morning dog walk I went — I’m babysitting the MH’s dog while he’s gone to Arizona for a couple of days and it was good to have 2 dogs with me again.

So we get to the dog park and we’re coming around the edge of the bluff and there’s another couple coming toward us. She’s on the phone, and he barely nods hello. I don’t recognize them, and they have that sheen of self-importance that we can all get. Whatever, we all pass and I can hear her loudly talking on her phone for a ways. But it’s a lovely morning and the dogs are romping in the snow and I just sort of wonder idly who the yuppies are. But as I come around toward the parking lot, there’s an SUV sitting there with the engine running. Again, it’s a car I don’t recognize, and as we pass one another on the backside I ask them if that’s their car that’s running. They tell me it is. I ask why. The woman tells me “because we were freezing.”

Now, here’s where I failed in this exchange. “Totally uncool,” I told them. “Thanks for polluting our dog park.” The man made some crack about his car being the least of the dog park’s problems and I sort of stomped away feeling all angry and stupid about the whole thing. But it made me mad. It’s bad enough to drive a big vehicle like that, but to just leave it running? Now those people knew better, I saw it in her eyes when I asked her why her car was running. But where I failed in the whole exchange was that I was annoyed by them in general. My inner Thoreau was outraged. I wanted to say that maybe if she put down the phone and looked at the lovely morning, maybe if she put down the phone and took two laps around the dog park that would warm her up, maybe if she put down the phone and turned off her car and was actually present that maybe we wouldn’t be in this fix we’re in, but no, I just made a snotty comment to the annoying yuppie types and missed the whole moment. Henry David was spouting bromides in my ear about chopping wood warming one twice and the false economies by which men value success, and frankly, my knee-jerk reaction was that I didn’t like these people and what were they doing in my park when they clearly didn’t know how to behave?

And so I got snotty. Not useful. But I do worry. These are the kinds of people who are supposed to know better than to leave their car running. These are people sort of like me — well educated, well off, professional. These are the kind of people who are supposed to be a part of the solution. And if as a society we can’t get over our own sense of self-importance to make even that kind of small change, to turn the car off, to pay attention, then what hope is there?

Michael Pollan asked exactly these quesitons in last week’s NY Times Magazine, in a piece called “Why Bother?”

Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer. I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

That’s sort of how I felt when I saw that car running this morning. On the one hand, it was just one car, it was only a few minutes, really? how much damage was it doing? Why bother saying anything? Why bother worrying about it? But in the article Pollan makes a good argument that yes, individual effort is worth the bother, and that even small gestures, when aggregated, can make a difference.

But I don’t think that was my motivation. I was just pissy. Somehow, the combination of the running car, and those two people who were so not present on a beautiful snowy morning beside the Yellowstone River really got to me. They filled me with despair. They annoyed me. I probably saw something of myself in them. And instead of reaching out, and perhaps effecting some change, I failed by indulging in self-righteousness and anger, which allowed them in turn to retreat to defensiveness and to dismiss me as some weirdo hippie (sort of funny, actually). Which does make me wonder how we’re ever going to manage to reach across these divides and effect some change if we can’t even have a civil conversation about a running car at the dog park on a snowy morning. Sigh.

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate

I have a lot of gardening books — I’m one of those people who learns how to do things from books, so the first couple of years I had this garden, I bought a lot of different things (especially if they were in the bargain bin at Borders).

But there’s a very short list of books I go back to again and again: Second Nature by Michael Pollan  and This Organic Life by Joan Dye Grussow. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal’s River Cottage Cookbook is also probably in this category (except that every time I look at it I have such livestock-envy that I forget how close to being paid off my house is, and have to remind myself that if I bought enough land to have livestock, I’d have to start a new garden, and a new morgage).

And now there’s Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate. I love this book. I’m going to have to read this book a second time because I’m reading it so fast this first time through. I’m reading it like a novel — to find out what happens, and I know I’m going to want to go back to specific sections and pay closer attention to the content. But right now, I’m smitten. I’m like a little kid reading with a flashlight under the bedcovers. Wendy Johnson has been gardening at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center for over twenty years, and this book is a description not only of the physical act of gardening, but how the garden is a part of, and a challenge to, her Buddhist practice.

One thing I’ve been turning over in my head for the past couple of years is the way that my relationship with nature has shifted its focus. Throughout my teens, twenties and thirties my primary relationship with the natural world was with wild nature — whether that was through canoe camping in the BWCA/Quetico region of the Minnesota/Canada border, or through raft guiding in North Carolina or ski bumming in Colorado, or even through my graduate work in English which focused on wildness in American literature and the history of the novel. Since I moved to Montana my primary relationship with nature has been through my garden and my dogs — that my interest has become so domestic just as I moved to a region which encompasses so many of North America’s last intact chunks of wilderness has been something of a mystery to me. Why do I find an afternoon in my garden so fascinating that I’d rather stay home than take a long hike in the mountains?

In Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate Johnson describes twenty years of trying to negotiate a truce between what she wants from her garden as a human being from what is due to the  natural world of which the garden is a part. If one is deeply engaged in a spiritual practice which challenges one to live without discriminating between human and non-human needs, a practice which challenges one to honor all beings, then what does one do about pest control? selective breeding? the whole history of domestication throughout human history?
There are no answers, of course, but the depth of the discussion, accompanied as it is in this book with a wealth of practical information about actual hands-on gardening, has been my only solace for this weekend’s snow and cold temperatures (19 degrees! it’s the end of April! enough already!).

Wendell Berry’s Composting Privy

Wendell Berry’s Composting Privy

Bookslut picked up on the indelible image of Wendell Berry mucking out his composting privvy by pointing out this really interesting interview over at Mother Earth News. Some of his points seem a teeny bit dated (Green Acres? Who has watched Green Acres in 25 years?) but as always, it’s the way Wendell Berry champions those old, unsexy values of work and fidelity and discipline and the hard work of learning a craft. Which sounds very grim, but like the monastic rules, it’s the idea that through discipline comes joy. For instance:

BERRY: It’s like having a milk cow. Having a milk cow is a very strict discipline and a very trying circumstance. It means you’ve got to be home twice a day to milk whether you want to or not, or else the cow will be ruined. Some days you’d rather do anything than go down to that barn and maybe some days you go and you’re kind of bored with it. But other days it’s a most rewarding thing and you realize that you get the reward and happiness of it because you stuck to it when it wasn’t rewarding. There’s some kind of wisdom in that fidelity, when you can say, “All right, every day ain’t going to be the best day of your life, don’t worry about that. If you stick to it you hold the possibility open that you will have better days.”

Years ago when I was the graduate student indentured servant for the Art of the Wild writers conference at Squaw Valley, we had dinner one night by the lake and Gary Snyder told us about how Wendell Berry called him after his divorce from Masa. Now Berry has written extensively about marriage and fidelity and that he basically doesn’t believe in divorce. Wendell called him up, Gary told us, and said that he should know that if he and Carole came east, they were always welcome at his place. Gary said it really touched him, because he knew how Wendell felt about such things, and he would never have taken Carole there without that kind of an invitation. That it would have been rude. And so, that phone call meant a lot to him, he was really grateful to know that the friendship between the two of them could transcend even such a fundamental difference. (Although they’re really more alike than different — one’s Christian, one’s Buddhist, one’s long-married, one’s divorced, then widowed — but the bottom line is they are both country people, both poets of the country ethic.)

In a week in which my blog seems to have been obsessed with do-it-yourself, and basic skills, and those things that Gary Snyder called “the Real Work,” it seems fitting to end with Wendell Berry, someone with a deep and unsentimental love for the physical world, and for the work it takes to live in honest relationship with that world.

Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle

You’ve probably seen by now that Madeleine L’Engle has died. Despite having been the kind of kid who could walk between classes with my nose in a book and never bump into anyone (I also became very quick at taking tests because we were free to read after we were done), I was never a big fan of A Wrinkle in Time. As a kid, I had a horror of stories where things turned into other things — Alice in Wonderland, for example. Perhaps it’s because I had the kind of life where 180s were all too common, where people disappeared for good, where chaos was too much the norm.
However, in my twenties, I stumbled across A Circle of Quiet the first of L’Engle’s Crosswicks Journals. I devoured these four books, books that chronicled L’Engle’s marriage, motherhood, the death of her mother (who I’m shocked to find from the review on Amazon, was born during the Civil War — can you imagine? We’re still in some cases, only two generations away from the Civil War?) and most fascinating for me, the growth of her faith.

L’Engle was an Episcopalian, and for many many years she held a position at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It’s been years since I’ve looked at any of these books, but I remember them vividly as a series that glowed like a beacon, gave me hope that perhaps it was actually possible to live a good life — to raise kids, write, build a marriage, and find some sort of faith that wasn’t blind, but was a faith that required all of one’s intellect.

I read these books in an old, broken-down farmhouse at the bottom of a holler in North Carolina. I had a room that opened onto the porch in a house I shared with three or four other people, and I was working as a raft guide for something like sixty bucks a week. I’d just fled New York City, and didn’t have the foggiest idea what I was going to do next with my life, and I’ll always be grateful to Madeleine L’Engle for giving me a kind of hope that somehow, if I followed my confused heart, and tried to live what my college Classics professor called “a virtuous life”, that somehow, I’d find a way to build a real life.

In Honor of Grace Paley

In Honor of Grace Paley

Let’s all try to go out and affect some kind of change today — no matter how small. (Me, I’m still trying to figure out how to recycle that plastic — can’t do it in Livingston, so I’ll have to check next time I drive to Bozeman. Otherwise, I’m mailing it to one of you who has plastic recycling in your town …)
From “All My Habits are Bad” the Salon interview with A.M. Homes (via Bookslut)

Do writers have a moral obligation?

Oh, I think all human beings do. So if all human beings have it, then writers have some, too. I mean, why should they get off the hook? Whatever your calling is, whether it’s as a plumber or an artist, you have to make sure there’s a little more justice in the world when you leave it than when you found it. Most writers do that naturally, see that more lives are illuminated, try to understand what is not understood and see what hasn’t been

The New York Times had this interesting piece on how communities of faith are turning their spiritual attention to food and food production. I particularly loved the bit about the guy who runs the Christian slaughterhouse and his collaboration with the Hasids … Here’s a quote from the article:

The two Hasidim oversee shehitah, the Jewish ritual slaughtering of meat according to the Book of Leviticus. The meat is then shipped to Wise Organic Pastures, a kosher food company in Brooklyn owned by Issac Wiesenfeld and his family. When Mr. Wiesenfeld sought an organic processor that used humane methods five years ago, he found Scott Lively, who was just beginning Dakota Beef, now one of the largest organic meat processors in the country.

Mr. Lively adheres to a diet he believes Jesus followed. Like Mr. Wiesenfeld, he says the Bible prescribes that he use organic methods to respect the earth, treat his workers decently and treat the cattle that enter his slaughterhouse as humanely as possible.

“We learn everything from the Old Testament,” Mr. Lively said, “from keeping kosher to responsible capitalism.”

Salon again, with “Oil and Food Don’t Mix”

Voted on by Congress every five years, the farm bill has dramatically changed the American way of eating in just the past half-century. Its corn subsidies have given way to the tidal wave of high-fructose corn syrup that fuels the nation’s obesity epidemic, its corporate-friendly policies led to the growth of major agribusiness and the death of family farms — and it continues to affect quality-of-life issues ranging from food stamps to school nutrition programs to clean-water, -air and -energy initiatives.

And to round out the week, the worlds least-likely activist (and a guy I have a big soft spot for –he looks SO much like an old old family friend of ours) — Prince Charles, with Highgrove, his 26-year-long experiment in organic gardening.

“Organic” is never out of the picture at Highgrove. The tone is set at the entrance by signs reading “Beware, you are now entering an old-fashioned establishment” and “This is a G.M.O.- free zone,” referring to genetically modified organisms.

Prince Charles has developed quite a reputation for his regard for nature, and Highgrove is deliberately designed to illustrate the way it works in practice. Thus the emphasis on avoiding pollution and waste, which extends even to recycling water by use of a reed bed purifying system, and of course avoiding anything that smacks of genetic engineering.

Apparently, he’s written a book, The Elements of Organic Gardening, which looks really fabulous ….

Meditation at Lagunitas

Meditation at Lagunitas

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you
and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with it’s island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

From Praise, Robert Hass, 1974

Financial Doom Narrowly Averted

Financial Doom Narrowly Averted

p4020012.JPG This is my gorgeous new bathroom. Everything is new — the tile, the door (was on a different wall altogether) the sink, the curtains — the tub is original, but the paint is new. Oh, and all of the plumbing below the bathroom is also new — the grubby old cast-iron pipe has all been replaced with very high-tech (if frighteningly flimsy-looking) water lines. I have clean water running through new pipes with a whole lotta water pressure. My bathroom is gorgeous. It took six weeks for the MH and various helpers to build it and paint it and now it’s done and I have to figure out how to pay for it.

Which is why blogging has been slow the past few days. Taxes were looming, and the IRS sent me a terrifying letter about my 2005 return — so it’s been days of crunching numbers. The good news is that thanks to the lovely people at TurboTax who gave me complimentary upgrades for both 2005 and 2006 to the Premier version of their software, you know, the version that actually calculates both ESPP and Stock Options correctly, it looks like not only do I not owe the IRS the terrifying amount of money they said I do, but I get money back. Not a lot, but some.

And, should those options the Big Corporation gave me, the ones that were worth nothing for so long, actually hold on for a few more days, it looks like I’ll be able to pay off the gorgeous bathroom … I’ll be broke, but I won’t be in debt. So that’s all good. Phew. A narrow escape.

I’m always astonished that I manage to get through these scary financial moments okay. I grew up in the kind of family where sudden financial disaster — events where the house had to be sold and we had to move and jobs were lost and there was no money in the checking account and what were we going to do? were commonplace. Happened with heart-sinking regularity. And so, as an adult, whenever I find that I can get through one of these scary patches, I’m always hugely grateful, and quite surprised. Who knew? It’s not a disaster.

And I didn’t make it up. I worked hard. I bought a house. I am reasonably solvent. I’m a long way from debt-free still, but I’m not in over my head, and putting money into my house is never a bad idea, and even though I screwed up my 2005 tax return, look, I figured out how to re-do it and show them that I wasn’t lying and they’re not probably going to throw me in jail. It’s always an astonishment to me that the things I’ve worked so hard for are real. I’m always half-expecting them to come take it all away. And so, when I spend a whole weekend crunching numbers and filling out forms and find out at the end of it that really, it’s going to be okay — well, the relief makes me want to go lie down with a cool compress on my head.

Now I can get back to writing about interesting things like books, and the garden, and wildlife.

Faith is in the Tagline …

Faith is in the Tagline …

One byproduct of revamping the blog is that due to various formating issues, I’ve had to touch just about every entry again. It gives a girl a chance to rethink the blog — why I started it, what I want to do with it.
Among the many things I noticed was that although I started out with faith as a real topic on this blog (see the Fourteen Precepts in Fourteen Days series from 2003), it’s not something I’ve written about much in the last couple of years. There are a number of reasons for that, of course, and cruising through Salon last night Sara Miles‘s essay, My Daily Bread got me thinking once again about my own on-and-off relationship with the Catholic church.

Because there was a time during graduate school when I was a fully-fledged member of a parish, a lector in the Mass rotation, a person who wound up being quite good friends with a couple of the priests. This was just about the last thing I’d expected to happen to me, especially while I was in grad school up to my eyeballs in postmodern theory. I wrote a monologue for the Salt Lake Acting company about it, The Stigmata Incident — it’s linked on the left.

When I moved to Livingston, I went to Mass a few times. It’s an ordinary family parish here, with a priest from the midwest who sounds like all those diocesan priests I grew up listening to. Not a bad church, but since I wasn’t in the dire spiritual straights I’d been in grad school, I didn’t really mind much. I went a few times during advent or lent but it never became a real part of my life.

And then my brother Patrick died. Three and a half years ago I stood in a doorway of a little room in the funeral home where my younger brother lay on a gurney, naked, covered with a sheet.

Read More Read More