Encounter by Czeslaw Milosz

 

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

 

1936

 

 

 

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Try To Praise the Mutilated World

By Adam Zagajewski         

 Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Day 355 6/25/14: The Power of Hopelessness

images-3This excerpt is from Pema Chodron’s book “When Things Fall Apart.” It’s a longish read, but worth it. 

If we are willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be terminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation…Begin the journey without hope of getting ground under your feet. Begin with hopelessness.

….We are raised in a culture that fears death and hides  it from us. Nevertheless, we experience it all the time. We experience it in the form of disappointment, in the form of things not working out. We experience it in the form of things always being in the process of change. When the day ends, when the second ends, when we breathe out, that’s death in everyday life.

Death in everyday life could also be defined as experiencing all the things that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working; our job isn’t coming together. Having a relationship with death in everyday life means that we begin to be able to wait, to relax with insecurity, with panic, with embarrassment, with things not working out. As the years go on, we don’t call the babysitter quite so fast.

Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time warding off death is our biggest motivation. We habitually ward off any sense of problem. We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change….

….Can’t we just return to bare bones? Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time -—that is the basic message.

….Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on. Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.

 

 

 

Day 349 6/19/14: “Ghosts” by Mary Oliver

“Ghosts” is the most eloquent poem I have ever read about vanishing things.  She also gives great dignity to cows–one of those “invisible” animals whose suffering we’d rather not know much about.

1

Have you noticed?

2

Where so many millions of powerful bawling beasts

lay down on the earth and died

it’s hard to tell now

what’s bone, and what merely

was once.

The golden eagle, for instance,

has a bit of heaviness in him;

moreover the huge barns

seem ready, sometimes, to ramble off

toward deeper grass.

3

1805

near the Bitterroot Mountains:

a man named Lewis kneels down

on the prairie watching

a sparrow’s nest cleverly concealed in the wild hyssop

and lined with buffalo hair. The chicks,

not more than a day hatched, lean

quietly into the thick wool as if

content, after all,

to have left the perfect world and fallen,

helpless and blind,

into the flowered fields and the perils

of this one.

4

In the book of the earth it is written:

nothing can die.

In the book of the Sioux it is written:

they have gone away into the earth to hide.

Nothing will coax them out again

but the people dancing.

5

Said the old-timers:

the tongue

is the sweetest meat

Passengers shooting from train windows

could hardly miss, they were

that many.

Afterward the carcasses

stank unbelievably, and sang with flies, ribboned

with slopes of white fat,

black ropes of blood—hellhunks

in the prairie heat.

6

Have you noticed? how the rainimages-10

falls soft as the fall

of moccasins. Have you noticed?

how the immense circles still,

stubbornly, after a hundred years,

mark the grass where the rich droppings

from the roaring bulls

fell to earth as the herd stood

day after day, moon after moon

in their tribal circle, outwaiting

the packed of yellow-eyed wolves that are also

have you noticed? gone now.

7

Once only, and then in a dream,

I watched while, secretly

and with the tenderness of any caring woman,

a cow gave birth

to a red calf, tongued him dry and nursed him

in a warm corner

of the clear night

in the fragrant grass

in the wild domains

of the prairie spring, and I asked them

in my dream I knelt down and asked them

to make room for me.

 

Day 340 6/10/14: A Simple Answer to an Eternal Question

I admit it. I don’t wake up every day thrilled to be again experiencing the gift of life. But if I listen to a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hahn, I always feel more calm and clear–I am “returned to myself.” I like that he does not answer this question about how we can love ourselves by analyzing the past and possibly getting tangled in thought, but by emphasizing breath, body and awareness.

Let me know what you think of it!

Day 335 5/26/14: Trigger Warning: Soft Rock

UnknownThere’s been a whole lot of hoopla lately about trigger warnings, those cautions about potentially traumatizing content (sexual abuse, colonialism, racism, etc.) in books or movies or on websites. Now that UCSB students have asked their professors to include trigger warnings on their syllabi.

What I find baffling about this is that for the “hypersensitive” among us, the entire world is a trigger. Advertisements, trees, the sound of church bells, the font on  a candy wrapper, the particular way the sun slants on a garden wall, the sound of dead pine needles underfoot, the sound of gum ball machines, thrift store smells.Depression-prone people tend to fall easily down memory holes. They let a single melancholic moment metastasize into morose delectation. Songs are the most irresistible and potent memory spells ever conjured. Vanished pleasures, deep sorrows–even the most banal or obnoxious song can evoke a soul-altering tragedy. Case in point: Bread.

Today I was waiting for my spin class to start. As the previous class wiped down their bikes, I could hear the earnest opening of “Everything I Own,”  Bread’s 1972 hit, except I guess it was NSYNC’s version. This song, like the way-more-wrenching Nilsson tear-jerker “Without You,” always reminds me of the death of my 19-year-old sister Julie in 1973. I was really young then and Top 40 helped me mourn. Love songs became larger–encompassing other forms of grief and loss. Although Julie died over 40 years ago,  music always makes her loss more present than any photograph or letter. The memories aren’t just visual or aural, but physical, as if all the places and states of being live quite literally inside my body. The rising “I would give ee-very-thing I own,” makes me see again the rolling green fields around our house, the aching feeling of listening to Top 40 in the car while the New England landscape rolled by, and thinking of the childish bargains I would make if only I could have Julie back again, or re-living the last time I saw Julie when my parents drove her to the hospital and all the things that I didn’t or couldn’t say to her.

Waiting to go into spin class I felt startled by the song, but not ambushed by childhood trauma. Maybe if I was already depressed about something else, I would have been more vulnerable. Maybe if it had been Bread and not NSYNC, I would have meandered down the familiar, beautiful, wrenching path toward that deep sadness that is always there. Julie’s death can always be conjured if I so choose along with a million other sadnesses, losses, anxieties, unresolved obsessions. “The shit,” my first therapist said, “is always there.”

I know that all trauma is not created equal. The earnest, eerie refrain of nostalgia isn’t the horror of the combat vet with PTSD. Once triggered, certain traumas are immediately physical and terrifying. But even so aren’t we all ultimately responsible for our own healing whether it’s finding a shrink or a meditation practice or writing or love?  The world will never cater to our particular wounds or losses. Shouldn’t a blanket warning about potentially upsetting book or movie be enough?

I used to be very vulnerable to memory. If a sad song played, I had to relive whatever it summoned. I had to feel the agony of lost love, death, lost time. It wasn’t so much a decision, as what David Foster Wallace might have called a “default setting.”  Not being pulled in the direction of every thought, memory, song was something I had to learn. Unless I really want or need to remember, to renew a memory for fear of losing it or unless I am writing something and need to remember deeply, I find “catch and release” a nice motto to live by.

When I checked Songfacts for more information about “Everything I Own,” I learned that David Gates wrote the song not about a lost lover, but about the death of his father. I also noticed that beneath the usual trivia about chart positions and things like that, a few people had posted their own personal memories of the song, many of which seem pretty traumatic. Alcoholism. Sexual Abuse. A lost sister. For many the “you” in the song is God. For these people this song has become a memory about not just about the trauma itself, but a reminder of their own survival, a way of creating perspective, marking time.

I feel curmudgeonly. I want to write something about today’s kids needing to “toughen up.” Life is often brutal and the best literature is often unsparing about this truth. If Nabokov or Baldwin or Achebe or Fitzgerald evoke trauma and pain, think about what they actually might be saying about racism or pedophilia. Maybe they aren’t so much triggers of trauma as catalysts for deeper understanding. If a Bread song could initiate a contemplative exploration of childhood grief and loss, just imagine the power of Virginia Woolf.

 

 

Day 317 5/8/14: On Childhood & Shelter

Having become infatuated with the idea of divesting, of giving away, of selling, losing things, I find a worn and heavily annotated paperback at a book sale: The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos by Gaston Bachelard. Having loved his other books The Poetics of Space and The Psychoanlysis of Fire, I buy it for 50 cents. Although the acquisition makes me queasy, I also believe that books find us when we need them. I open to a page at random:

A beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.

I take the book to the newly clean Echo Park Lake. I have an hour or two before I go downtown to the architecture school where I will do phone interviews with incoming students. The newly clean lake is full of lotus flowers. On the surface, they are the pink flowers I’ve seen on the front of countless books on Buddhism, pink-edged metaphors for unfolding, for beauty that is possible in the muck and maya of the world. Beneath the water, in the haze of silt, the pale green roots serve a practical function. The frogs lay their eggs among the stalks, a submerged forest, a place for trout to rest.

Bachelard quotes the poet Friedrich Holderlin:

” ‘Don’t chase a man too quickly from the cabin where his childhood was spent.’ ” Isn’t this request by Holderlin addressed to the psychoanalyst, that bailiff who believes it is his duty to chase man away from the attic of memory where he would go to cry when he was a child?  The native house—lost, destroyed, razed—remains the main building for our reveries of childhood. The shelters of the past welcome and protect our reveries.”

A mother duck and eight ducklings glide into the floating lotuses. The ducklings walk across the broad, floating leaves, heads of fuzz, maniacally pecking at some invisible feast.

Later I drive aimlessly above the squalor of Sunset to a gorgeous street of trees, grand houses with broad porches, stately Victorians. One of the palatial lawns is covered with chairs. I can’t tell if the family is moving in or out of the brown shingled mansion.

On the way downtown, I think I recognize an embattled stucco house at the top of a terraced hill that should lead to a temple, not to a sad bungalow. I’m convinced that I’ve seen the house before in a movie about a gypsy with a milky eye. And that other house, the one above the faded 80s mural of the runners with their hair swept back in the wind, starred in a movie about love ending. I remember how it perched, a dark nest above the syrupy ribbon of the freeway.

As I drive to school, I think of childhood shelters and all the facades from nameless movies that have become inseparable somehow from real-life buildings, like a rain-soaked magazine I found in a ruined house, the image and text a blur and tear, a one-ness.

At school I pick up the phone, call a student in China. Just to chat. To see if he could use an extra English class before beginning his fall program.

Tell me about yourself, I ask. What are you reading these days?

Bachelard, he says. He writes about childhood and space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 310 5/1/14: Facing It

About a month ago I was sitting in a little windowless office at school chatting with my friend and fellow adjunct, Emily.

I was blabbing to her about the end of this blog. How this year I’ve written about all kinds of things outside of sharks, I’ve written about my mother’s life fading and grieving the loss of my father. And even the activism—the petitions signed, the protests and teaching, the Jaws Benefit, all of it seems a bulwark against vanishing. Soon, and finally, I’ll be going on this trip to see the sharks in South Africa.

“I have to see how it all fits together,” I told Emily, “to make a book out of it.”

“Well, going down in the cage is your confrontation with death,” she said.

I know she didn’t just mean I was off on some “extreme” adventure, some chance to stick my head in the maw of oblivion, but my confrontation with all of it.

marysharkI knew this. It seemed both revelatory and obvious. I must have said or written or voiced it before. But why when I heard Emily say it did I feel a weird hush inside me—the kind of sea silence I imagine myself descending into?

 

P.S. I stole this title from a fantastic poem about the Vietnam Veterans Wall by Yusef Komunyakaa.

Day 287 4/9/14: Meditations at Jack Webb’s Grave

Yesterday I fulfilled a longtime dream and made a pilgrimage to the grave of Jack Webb. I am proud to say that we share a birthday (April 2), and although I was a little late, it felt good to sit on the green slope of Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills and reflect on immortality and Dragnet.

An activity like this should always be done with a dear friend, one who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the 1970 “Night School” episode  which, Joe Friday tells us, unfolds on a mythical April 2. While enrolled in a psychology class,  Joe Friday busts a mouthy fellow student when he spies a bag of pot in the pusher’s binder. When traveling to the grave of Jack Webb, one’s companion must understand the pathos of the not quite pink or red or orange cardigan Joe wears to night school or at least possess a passing acquaintance with outdated drug vocabulary, and be able to separate sugar cubes and cartwheels from reds and yellows and rainbows.

I am lucky enough to have such a friend in Connie Pearson.  We passed through the gates of the grand, palatial cemetery and in the Forest Lawn gift shop, I bought a little plastic HAPPY BIRTHDAY sign for $1 and obtained a map from the information desk which led us to Jack’s stark no-frills marker.  Connie and I wrote notes of thanks to Jack, impaled them on the birthday skewer and stuck it in the ground. In the distance on a far away hilltop, we saw a deer grazing on some memorial flowers. Beyond the white statue of Moses in the green semi-wild mountains, we heard the weirdly joyful yips and howls of coyotes.

As I stared into the gorgeous pine boughs overhead branching in seemingly infinite directions, I remembered another tree, one in the infamous “Blueboy” episode. A teenage LSD enthusiast and dealer takes one too many “sugar cubes” paints his face half blue and half yellow, “like an Indian,” and tries to chew bark off a tree.  “My hair’s green,” he proclaims. “I’m a tree!” When Joe Friday and Gannon find him in a park, the young freak has dug a hole in the ground and stuck his entire head in it.

In Los Angeles, meditations on nature often lead straight to the land of pop culture. I remembered a long ago picnic at a sea cave at Leo Carillo beach, an attempt to escape the city. Almost as soon as my boyfriend and I had set our basket down, Geena Davis walked out of the cave in a golden bikini, followed by a photographer from Harper’s Bazaar. Incredibly tall and trim, Geena Davis looked like Venus. Another time preparing for a horseback ride in Malibu Canyon, I met a visibly distraught Jan Michael Vincent. JMV is also a Dragnet alum: see 1967’s “The Grenade” in which the sullen surfer-handsome Jan has acid thrown at him in a movie theatre.

Connie and I talked about how Jack might like this spot in the Sheltering Hills section, with the coyote dens behind him and the 134 Freeway and Warner Brothers studios before him and how he opened each episode with a “This is the city,” mini-narration of 1960s L.A., and how we always wondered how these little anecdotes about the LaBrea Tar Pits or the crowded freeways would inevitably connect with the burden and responsibilities of the badge. We debated ashes vs. burial. We talked about things that had gone—not just the people, but eras and places, whole states of being,  disappearances were harder to trace and difficult to describe in the typical vocabulary of loss. But the hot, still afternoon was too beautiful to feel too sad. Besides, how could we complain when the coyotes and the deer managed to survive on the vanishing margins of wildness? How could we not smarten up with the stern fact of a great man’s mortality written in the ground? So we gave our thanks to Jack Webb, walked down the hill, climbed into the car and left to find our place in the story of the city. Image

Day 281 4/3/14: Three Restless Obsessions

My mind keeps moving between these two ideas:

The poet John Donne said “No man is an island.

The Buddha said, “Every man has an island within.”

 

If separated, do two objects ever long for one another? Does the owl cookie jar miss the hollow witch with her plastic apple and pipe cleaner worm?  Why do I still mourn for those unwanted thrift store clothes, so eager and ugly that wait slump-shouldered on the rack?

I wonder if animals in the spirit world ever muse on the fates of their bodies. Does the cow ponder his skull and think: “Better my head be used as a ceremonial mask to conjure dreams than being painted turquoise and bolted to a steak house wall where it inhale through the stone canyons of its nostrils, the memory scent of its own burning flesh.”Does the turtle find wonder in the shell reborn as ceremonial rattle? Is initiation into “the sacred” preferable to being sold as an overpriced bohemian “curio”?

Or does the very concept of horn, skull and tailbone feel impossibly quaint to them
in those meadows where they move like happy shadimagesows?