Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why are we happy? Why aren’t we happy?

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our ‘psychological immune system’ lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.”

From TED Talks (February 2004):

[Thanks JC!]

Monday, March 30, 2009


“No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself."

~ John Steinbeck


[Thanks Alex!]

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Thinking about the Future

From Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert:

Stumbling on Happiness What is the conceptual tie that binds anxiety and planning? Both, of course, are intimately connected to thinking about the future. We feel anxiety when we anticipate that something bad will happen, and we plan by imagining how our actions will unfold over time. Planning requires that we peer into our futures, and anxiety is one of the reactions we may have when we do…

…Not to think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe not to do what it was designed to do, and like a heart that is told not to beat, it naturally resists this suggestion…

…No one can imagine everything, of course, and it would be absurd to suggest that they should. But just as we tend to treat the details of the future events that we do imagine as though they were actually going to happen, we have an equally troubling tendency to treat the details of future events that we don’t imagine as though they were not going to happen. In other words, we fail to consider how much imagination fills in, but we also fail to consider how much it leaves out.


by Jane Hirshfield, from Given Sugar, Given Salt

The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion's teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings—no fewer, no more—
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small rituals' promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

How intimate and unthinking,
the way the toothbrush is shaken dry after use,
the part we wash first in the bath.

Which habits we learned from others
and which are ours alone we may never know.
Unbearable to acknowledge
how much they are themselves our fated life.

Open the traveling suitcase—

There the beloved red sweater,
bright tangle of necklace, earrings of amber.
Each confirming: I chose these, I.

But habit is different: it chooses.
And we, its good horse,
opening our mouths at even the sight of the bit.


Music by Andrew Bird featuring Dianogah, from the Daytrotter Session. The video is an adaptation of Lisa Barcy’s stop-motion animated film, Mermaid.


Being alone, it can be quite romantic
Like Jacques Cousteau underneath the Atlantic
A fantastic voyage to parts unknown
Going to depths where the sun's never shone
And I fascinate myself when I'm alone

So I go a little overboard, but hang on to the hull
While I'm airbrushing fantasy art on a life
That's really kind of dull
Oh, I'm in a lull

I'm all for moderation, but sometimes it seems
Moderation itself can be a kind of extreme
So I joined the congregation
I joined the softball team
I went in for my confirmation
Where incense looks like steam
I start conjugating proverbs
Where once there were nouns
This whole damn rhyme scheme's
Starting to get me down

Oh, I'm in a lull
I'm in a lull

Being alone, it can be quite romantic
Like Jacques Cousteau underneath the Atlantic
A fantastic voyage to parts unknown
Going to depths where the sun's never shone
And I fascinate myself, sure I do
When I'm alone

I'm rambling on rather self-consciously
While I'm stirring these condiments into my tea
And I think I'm so lame, I bet I think this song’s about me
Don't I, don't I, don't I?

I'm in a lull...

Friday, March 27, 2009

You Could Drown

New York City offers rich opportunities for observing impermanence. It is still too chilly for sitting outside on a park bench to tune into the constantly changing blend of sounds and silence. But Gordon and Bertica’s generous windows are perfect for open-eyed meditation practice. Their apartment is on the twenty-first floor overlooking the Hudson River.

Wednesday morning, I hung out as a curious visitor observing the activity of my visual cortex, noticing activity and rest dancing in both the external visual field and the mental image screen. I let my gaze be broad and soft. This strategy focuses on the experience of seeing as opposed to the content. So there are four things to observe (1) seeing, (2) a restful, defocused gazing, (3) mental images appearing, and (4) periods when the mental screen is mostly blank. Faint internal visual impressions count equally with vivid mental images. I tried to stay with one of these aspects at a time, savoring each one for a few seconds before drifting on to the next.

When working this way, it is important to allow the habitual craving for meaning to operate in the background while exploring the play of light. Relaxing the need for content allows textures and movement to be revealed in both the objective and subjective visual spaces. Both the objective and subjective visually-oriented spaces were in constant motion: cars flowing, birds drifting through the air, boats cutting paths across the water. Letting internal conversations, external sounds, and physical sensations play out in the background allowed me to watch the light bleed glacially into the grayscale landscape, transforming its stony coldness with the vibrant palette of early spring.

I decided to make noticing internal and external visual activity my mindfulness strategy for the day. This intention soon evaporated when we encountered multiple obstacles to getting work done in Starbucks: the fight for a table, the scarcity of outlets, weighing the costs of various Internet connection options, and the noise which would prevent productive meetings over the phone. Meaning and feelings insisted on center stage and I forgot to even attempt to occasionally highlight the process of sight. Without noticing, I treaded the water of internal imagery and strong emotions.

In the afternoon, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gordon had read a promising blurb in The New Yorker about an exhibit of the later interior work of French painter, Pierre Bonnard. His still life work became more interesting to me when I discovered that he painted them from memory rather than direct observation and that he spent years on each one, trying to get closer to the imagined images.

He said, “I’m trying to do what I have never done, give the impression one has on entering a room: one sees everything and at the same time nothing.”

The White Interior (1932), Musée de Grenoble,

The true subject of The White Interior (above) is white. What is white? He said he had been “investigating the secret of white his entire life.”

Here is an excerpt from a poem called Occupations by Richard Howard. It is written in the voice of Pierre Bonnard and is set in the time immediately following the death of Marthe, the painter’s wife of fifty years.

So much of life
is buried already!

               All the same I still believe
               in reality, the way
        Cezanne believed in it—I believe
        in repetition, that is, and I am
at work on some new views of the Bay…They must
be new, because every day I see different
        things, or I see things differently:
        the sky, the fields, the water beyond,
               it all keeps changing, you could
               drown in the differences.
                        Yet that is just what
                        keeps us alive, no?

Basket of Fruit: Oranges and Persimmons (ca. 1940), Oil on canvas; 21 3/4 x 29 1/4 in. (58 x 74.5 cm), Private collection.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Things Invisible

Sir Francis Bacon “By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that]...those things that strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.”

~ Sir Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

Neither Sound Nor Silence

Going Deaf
by Miller Williams, from American Life in Poetry

No matter how she tilts her head to hear
she sees the irritation in their eyes.
She knows how they can read a small rejection,
a little judgment, in every What did you say?
So now she doesn't say What? or Come again?
She lets the syllables settle, hoping they form
some sort of shape that she might recognize.
When they don't, she smiles with everyone else,
and then whoever was talking turns to her
and says, "Break wooden coffee, don't you know?"
She pulls all she can focus into the face
to know if she ought to nod or shake her head.
In that long space her brain talks to itself.
The person may turn away as an act of mercy,
leaving her there in a room full of understanding
with nothing to cover her, neither sound nor silence.

[Miller Williams is the father of singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.]

Coming to Understand the Nature of Consciousness

Shinzen Young talks about the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures can be interpreted in two different ways. One shows the stages on the path of enlightenment and the other shows the process of truly grasping consciousness. This lecture was filmed near the end of a fourteen-day intensive at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center in Santa Barbara (1.9.09).

(1) Searching for the ox (2) - Seeing the footprints (3) Glimpsing the ox (4) Catching the ox


(5) Taming the ox (6) Riding the ox (7) Arriving home alone (8) Both Ox and self forgotten (9) Returning to the source


(10) In the marketplace with hand outstretched

[Thank you Randy!]

How you doin’?

From “Finding That Song,” by Michael Krikorian, The New York Times Sunday Magazine (3.22.09):

Back in 1998, I was driving down Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles when I spotted a man lying on his back smack dab in the middle of the street; one leg was splayed onto the westbound lane of Pico, the other onto the eastbound. I got out of my car, and as I approached I saw he was bleeding from his lower left side. I rushed to him, and before I could say anything, he said to me, “How you doin’?”

Continue reading…

Sunday, March 22, 2009

But We Do

Poem on a Line by Anne Sexton, 'We are All Writing God's Poem'
by Barbara Crooker

Today, the sky's the soft blue of a work shirt washed
a thousand times. The journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step. On the interstate listening
to NPR, I heard a Hubble scientist
say, "The universe is not only stranger than we
think, it's stranger than we can think." I think
I've driven into spring, as the woods revive
with a loud shout, redbud trees, their gaudy
scarves flung over bark's bare limbs. Barely doing
sixty, I pass a tractor trailer called Glory Bound,
and aren't we just? Just yesterday,
I read Li Po: "There is no end of things
in the heart," but it seems like things
are always ending—vacation or childhood,
relationships, stores going out of business,
like the one that sold jeans that really fit—
And where do we fit in? How can we get up
in the morning, knowing what we do? But we do,
put one foot after the other, open the window,
make coffee, watch the steam curl up
and disappear. At night, the scent of phlox curls
in the open window, while the sky turns red violet,
lavender, thistle, a box of spilled crayons.
The moon spills its milk on the black tabletop
for the thousandth time.

From: Line Dance

Friday, March 20, 2009

When Narcissism Becomes the Primary Principle of Someone’s Personality

From “But Enough About You… ” by Emily Yoffe, Slate.com (March 18, 2009):

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer. These days, "narcissist" gets tossed around as an all-purpose insult, a description of self-aggrandizing, obnoxious behavior. Unfortunately, the same word is used to describe a quality that comes in three gradations: a characteristic that in the right amount is a normal component of healthy ego; a troublesome trait when there is too much; and a pathological state when it overwhelms a personality. Narcissism fuels drive and ambition, a desire to be recognized for one's accomplishments, a sense that one's life has meaning and importance. The problem occurs when narcissism becomes the primary principle of someone's personality. Its most extreme form is narcissistic personality disorder, a psychological condition that impairs a person's ability to form normal relationships and wreaks havoc on those who have close encounters with it.

A recent study titled "Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader" describes how narcissists have skills and qualities—confidence, extraversion, a desire for power—that propel them into leadership roles but that when true narcissists are in charge, other aspects of their makeup—a feeling the rules don't apply to them, a need for constant stroking—can have "disastrous consequences."

[Thanks Angela!]

Like Waking Up in Another World

by James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys

Return to the City of White Donkeys The Loon

A loon woke me this morning. It was like waking up
in another world. I had no idea what was expected of me.
I waited for instructions. Someone called and asked me
if I wanted a free trip to Florida. I said, "Sure. Can
I go today?" A man in a uniform picked me up in a limousine,
and the next thing I know I'm being chased by an alligator
across a parking lot. A crowd gathers and cheers me on.
Of course, none of this really happened. I'm still sleeping.
I don't want to go to work. I want to know what the loon is
saying. It sounds like ecstasy tinged with unfathomable
terror. One thing is certain: at least they are not speaking
of tax shelters. The phone rings. It's my boss. She says,
"Where are you?" I say, "I don't know. I don't recognize
my surroundings. I think I've been kidnapped. If they make
demands of you, don't give in. That's my professional advice."
Just then, the loon let out a tremendous looping, soaring,
swirling, quadruple whoop. "My god, are you alright?" my
boss said. "In case we do not meet again, I want you to know
that I've always loved you, Agnes," I said. "What?" she said.
"What are you saying?" "Good-bye, my darling. Try to remember me
as your ever loyal servant," I said. "Did you say you loved
me?" she said. I said, "Yes," and hung up. I tried
to go back to sleep, but the idea of being kidnapped had me
quite worked up. I looked in the mirror for signs of torture.
Every time the loon cried, I screamed and contorted my face
in agony. They were going to cut off my head and place it on
a stake. I overheard them talking. They seemed like very
reasonable men, even, one might say, likeable.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Somehow a Lot of Us Manage

A personal essay written by Alex Larson, my daughter, which she read aloud in class this week: 

It is hard to be a human.  We are born as vulnerable little nuggets, incapable of doing anything, and somehow we manage to grow and adapt into functioning beings.  We are surrounded by death, poverty, crime, all of which can drive a person to misery.  Yet somehow a lot of us manage.

If you were in my English class last year, you may have learned that I have an affinity for the elderly, and if you weren’t, you will quickly see.  Some of my friends shy away from old people because they say they are mean or grumpy.  Some even comment that they smell bad.  To that I say, people of all ages can be bitter or have poor hygiene.  But all of this is slightly irrelevant. I was never quite sure what attracted me to older folks, but thanks to Senior Thesis, I now have an idea.

Val photographed by Alex Larson for her Senior Thesis project. I got to interview twelve residents at a retirement home; most were above the age of 85.  The majority of their friends and family have died and they (obviously) live in a retirement home, which is depressing in and of itself.  Many of them were hard of hearing, needed walkers, or could see only with thick glasses.  You would think that if you lost all of your independence, that you would give up all hope, which does happen, but the group I talked to surprised me. 

Every single individual I got the chance to speak with made it clear to me that they lived very happy lives.  It is hard to grasp, as teenagers, that these people, were once our age.  They probably hated school, had to find jobs, and fought with their friends.  They have all been sick, yelled at someone, and cried.  They grew up and watched the people they loved, their parents, their siblings, their spouses, all die.  They lost their mobility and independence and were forced to move into a retirement home.  It is inspiring that people can go through so much crap and still be completely satisfied with their lives.

I learned that I admire the elderly because they are able to get through all of the dreadful situations they encounter and are still, at ages nearing 90, able to tell their life stories with smiles on their faces.  I can only hope, that if I am lucky enough to live that long, I will be able to sit down in my rocking chair with my knitting, and tell some little high school girl that I had a fantastic life.

[Thanks for letting me share this, Alex!]

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

If you lived here…

There's no place like home.When I was growing up, our summer vacations were usually opportunities to visit family members who had moved away from Wichita. We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when the landscape suddenly became three dimensional. When we visited an uncle in Colorado, my parents would wake my brother and me up as soon as they spotted mountain peaks in the distance. When we traveled to Missouri, the centrifugal force created by the winding roads would rock us awake. These contrasts seemed so exotic that we would get caught up in discovering details that seemed so much more interesting than things back home.

I remember seeing real estate advertisements that taunted us with the idea that if we actually lived there, we’d be living the good life without having to go anywhere but out our own front door. A life lived in a land of perpetual vacation sounds great to kids, but adults realize that the magic carpet would wear thin under the ceaseless traipsing of guests through their living room.

Continue reading…

You Need to Give the World Something

A Child Across the Sky "The world doesn’t need anything from you, but you need to give the world something. That’s why you’re alive. Kill yourself now, and you’re proving the majority right—you’re no different from the billion other skulls under the ground. Give it something, no matter how short- or long-lasting, and you’ve won."

From A Child Across the Sky by Jonathan Carroll

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Potential Abuses

From “Alan Moore: Author of the Week,” The Week Magazine (March 20, 2009):

The author behind the hit superhero film Watchmen doesn’t plan to see it, said Adam WatchmenRogers in Wired.com. Most stories about “caped crusaders,” Alan Moore says, are little more than adolescent wish-fulfillment—even when you dress them up with big-name actors or by calling them “graphic novels.” Moore’s grittily realistic 1987 comic, about a supergroup helpless in the face of nuclear apocalypse, was meant to shatter the myth of the all-American superhero. Ironically, he says, it ended up introducing a new myth: the superpowered psychotic who wreaks revenge on a cruel society. “With Watchmen,” he says, “we were talking very much about the potential abuses of this kind of masked vigilante justice. But that was not meant approvingly.”

Moore says writers and directors have imitated his ­comic’s lurid violence while leaving out its moral nuance, Alan Mooresaid Andrew Firestone in Salon.com. “They will show greater violence because they know that actually that’s what a lot of the audience wants, for prurient reasons,” he says. What’s lost is “the emotional depth and complexity of the characters.” Moore doesn’t read comic books anymore, and rarely writes them, either. His current projects aim for an air of lightness and adventure, like the comic books he loved in his youth. “It was never my intention to start a trend for darkness,” he says. “I’m not a particularly dark individual. I have my moments, it’s true, but I do have a sense of humor.”

*     *     *     *    

"To paint comic books as childish and illiterate is lazy. A lot of comic books are very literate—unlike most films." ~ Alan Moore


Horton Foote “I’ve known people that the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity.”

~ Horton Foote

Only Live, Only Suspire

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

~ T.S. Eliot, from "Little Gidding," the fourth poem of his Four Quartets.

[Thank you Shinzen!]

Friday, March 13, 2009


“Most people give their attention to what they don't like. Put your attention on what you love.”

~ Adyashanti

Their Voices Seem to Come from Inside Us

Barbershop Quartet,
      East Village Grille

by Sebastian Matthews, from American Life in Poetry

Inside the standard lunch hour din they rise, four
seamless voices fused into one, floating somewhere
between a low hum and a vibration, like the sound
of a train rumbling beneath noisy traffic.
The men are hunched around a booth table,
a fire circle of coffee cups and loose fists, leaning in
around the thing they are summoning forth
from inside this suddenly beating four-chambered
heart. I've taken Avery out on a whim, ordered quesadillas
and onion rings, a kiddy milk with three straws.
We're already deep in the meal, extra napkins
and wipes for the grease coating our faces
and hands like mid-summer sweat. And because
we're happy, lost in the small pleasures of father
and son, at first their voices seem to come from inside
us. Who's that boy singing? Avery asks, unable
to see these men wrapped in their act. I let him
keep looking, rapt. And when no one is paying
attention, I put down my fork and take my boy's hand,
and together we dive into the song. Or maybe it pours
into us, and we're the ones brimming with it.

Identifying Emotion in Sound

From “Musicians’ Brains ‘Fine-Tuned’ to Identify Emotion,” by Wendy Leopold

In a study in the latest issue of European Journal of Neuroscience, an interdisciplinary Northwestern research team for the first time provides biological evidence that musical training enhances an individual’s ability to recognize emotion in sound.

“Quickly and accurately identifying emotion in sound is a skill that translates across all arenas, whether in the predator-infested jungle or in the classroom, boardroom or bedroom,” says Dana Strait, primary author of the study.

A doctoral student in the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music, Strait does research in the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory directed by neuroscientist Nina Kraus. The laboratory has done pioneering work on the neurobiology underlying speech and music perception and learning-associated brain plasticity.   

[A] study titled “Musical Experience and Neural Efficiency: Effects of Training on Subcortical Processing of Vocal Expressions in Emotion,” [which was] funded by the National Science Foundation, found that the more years of musical experience musicians possessed and the earlier the age they began their music studies also increased their nervous systems’ abilities to process emotion in sound.

[Thanks Dōshin!]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Strategies for Cultivating Misery

Monday, March 09, 2009

Trust Love to Order for You

From Jonathan Carroll:

Love sits at any table
comfortable with the surroundings.
It has great stories to tell—
you can't get enough of them.
It knows every menu; can say the names of dishes
in any language. Trust it to order for you.
Maybe during the meal it waves to someone it knows
across the room, but don't be jealous.
Tonight it only has eyes for you
and wouldn't want to be anywhere else on earth.

[Check out his blog and this recent Barnes & Noble interview.]

Saturday, March 07, 2009


Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day:

equanimity • \ee-kwuh-NIM-uh-tee\ •  Audio Pronunciationnoun

Play Podcast


    *1 : evenness of mind especially under stress

     2 : right disposition : balance

Example Sentence

Carol's famous equanimity didn't desert her, even in the midst of the crisis.

See a map of "equanimity" in the Visual Thesaurus.

Did you know?

If you think "equanimity" looks like it has something to do with "equal," you've guessed correctly. Both "equanimity" and "equal" are derived from "aequus," a Latin adjective meaning "level" or "equal." "Equanimity" comes from the combination of "aequus" and "animus" ("soul" or "mind") in the Latin phrase "aequo animo," which means "with even mind."

English speakers began using "equanimity" early in the 17th century with the now obsolete sense "fairness or justness of judgment," which was in keeping with the meaning of the Latin phrase.

Equanimity quickly came to suggest keeping a cool head under any sort of pressure, not merely when presented with a problem, and eventually it developed an extended sense for general balance and harmony.

*Indicates the sense illustrated in the example sentence.

[Thanks Krista!]

We Don’t Remember Breakfast

From Content by Cory Doctorow:

Content We make the future in much the same way as we make the past. We don’t remember everything that happened to us, just selective details. We weave our memories together on demand, filling in any empty spaces with the present, which is lying around in great abundance. In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard pscyh prof Daniel Gilbert describes an experiment in which people with delicious lunches in front of them are asked to remember their breakfast: overwhelmingly, the people with good lunches have more positive memories of breakfast than those who have bad lunches. We don’t remember breakfast—we look at lunch and superimpose it on breakfast.

We make the future in the same way: we extrapolate as much as we can, and whenever we run out of imagination, we just shovel the present into the holes. That’s why our pictures of the future always seem to resemble the present, only more so.

So the futurists told us about the Information Economy: they took all the “information-based” businesses (music, movies, and microcode, in the neat coinage of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash) and projected a future in which these would grow to dominate the world’s economies.

…The futurists were just plain wrong. An “information economy” can’t be based on selling information. Information technology make copying information easier and easier. The more IT you have, the less control you have over the bits you send out into the world. It will never, ever, EVER get any harder to copy information from here on in. The information economy is about selling everything except information.

The U.S. traded its manufacturing sector’s health for its entertainment industry, hoping the Police Academy sequels could take the place of the rustbelt. The U.S. bet wrong.

A Shock Absorber

From An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman:

An Alchemy of Mind : The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain All language is poetry. Each word is a small story, a thicket of meaning. We ignore the picturesque origins of words when we utter them; conversation would grind to to a halt if we visualized crows whenever someone referred to a flight of stairs. But words are powerful mental tools. We clarify life’s confusing blur with words. We cage flooding emotions with words. We don’t really know what we think, how we feel, what we want, or even who we are until we struggle “to find the right words.” What do these words consist of? Submerged metaphors, images, actions, personalities, jokes.

Seeing themselves reflected in one another’s eyes, the Romans coined the word pupil, which meant “little doll.” Orchids take their name from the Greek word for testicle. Pansy derives from the French word pensée, or “thought,” because the flower seemed to have such a pensive face. Bless originally meant to redden with blood, as in sacrifice. Hence “God bless you” literally means “God bathe you in blood.” The snub of a cold shoulder originated in Europe, during the Middle Ages, when people who overstayed their welcome were served cold beef shoulder (rather than hot food); after a few cold meals, guests got the message. We say “windows” because Norsemen kept their doors closed in winter, relying on a ventilation hole (or “eye”) in the roof. The wind played through it expressively, and it became known as vindr auga, the “wind’s eye,” which the English changed to “window.”

We inhabit a deeply imagined world that exists alongside the real physical world. Even the crudest utterance, or the simplest, contains the fundamental poetry by which we live. This mind fabric, woven of images and illusions, shields us. In a sense, or rather in all senses, it’s a shock absorber. As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse—hopelessly, irredeemably harsh—if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions.

One of the most surprising facts about human beings is that we seem to require a poetic version of life. It’s not just that some of us enjoy reading or writing poetry, or that many people wax poetic in emotional situations, but that all human beings of all ages in all cultures all over the world automatically tell their story in a poetic way, using the elemental poetry concealed in everyday language to solve problems, communicate desires and needs, even talk to themselves…

Sometimes I think we mainly invent words to help picture ourselves in metaphorical mirrors. We humans are easy to know, but hard to know well…

Despite our best efforts, the closer we look at anything, be it wildflowers or fever, the scrappier language becomes. It fails where we need it most, at the outskirts of mind, memory, and emotion. Poets solve this problem by fusion (metaphors), bridging (similes), and other devices. But whole cultures do it, too….The art of the brain is to use poetry to navigate the world. We breed symbols, we speak fossil poetry.

*     *     *     *     *

“Poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”

~ Tomasso Ceva

The One the Other Will Contain

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
by Emily Dickinson

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Friday, March 06, 2009


“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry."

~ Gabriel García Márquez

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Using My Existence to Change My Existence

From the introduction to Antony Gormley written by the artist:

DOMAIN LXIV (2008)I started with things close at hand, things that lay within arm’s reach, and have ended up making things bigger than houses. I went from dealing with bread and clothing, to the common ground of the body, having felt my way with trees and rocks.

Making sculpture stems from a need to leave a trace of existence, but there is an even greater need to challenge existence itself with mute objects that look back at us and question our materiality with their own.

Sculpture is a material measure—a form of physical thinking that can produce feeling. A form that can help us to think and feel in ways that we had not previously thought possible, as does the act of making the form. Sculpture has a bodily dimension—in touching you are also weighing, judging, anticipating. I am using my existence to change my existence.

A sculptural object is a testimony to the story of its own making, while having a dialogue with all the made and unmade things already in the world. The project moves forward by making, and looking at what one has made. Things demand to be made, but that demand comes from things that have already been made. At times it is difficult to know who is the maker, and who the made.

Sculpture can treat everything as raw material—whether it is a sophisticated readymade piece of technology, a body or a piece of wood. It achieves a self-sufficiency and independence whilst acknowledging a dependency on all that already exists.

Domain Field (2003)

My Mind

my mind is
a big hunk of irrevocable nothing which touch and
taste and smell and hearing and sight keep hitting and
chipping with sharp fatal tools
in an agony of sensual chisels i perform squirms of
chrome and execute strides of cobalt
nevertheless i
feel that i cleverly am being altered that i slightly am
becoming something a little different, in fact
Hereupon helpless i utter lilac shrieks and
scarlet bellowings.

E.E. Cummings, Portraits, VII

The Tragic Gap

Parker Palmer, in conversation with Bill Moyers (Feb. 20, 2009):

I think the opportunity now is for us to get real. And I think that's going to make us, in the long run, more happy. The tragic gap, and I call it tragic not because it's sad. It is. But more fundamentally because it's an inevitable part of the human condition. Tragic in the sense that the Greeks talked about it. Tragic in the sense that Shakespeare talked about it. The tragic gap is the gap between what's really going on around us, the hard conditions in which our lives are currently immersed, and what we know to be possible from our own experience.

We don't see it every day. We may not see it very often. But we know it's a possibility among real people and real space and time. Now, what happens when we don't learn to hold the tension between what is and what we know to be possible?

I think what happens is we flip out on one side or the other.

Parker Palmer Flip out into too much reality and you get what I call corrosive cynicism. And corrosive cynicism is partly what's got us where we are. Corrosive cynicism is, "Oh, I see how the world is made. It's dog eat dog. It's whoever gets the biggest piece of the pie gets the biggest piece of the pie. So I'm going to take my share and run and let the devil take the hindmost." That's corrosive cynicism.

Flip out into too much possibility and you get irrelevant idealism. Which sounds very different from corrosive cynicism but both have the same function in our lives. Both take us out of the action. Both keep us out of the fray...Because if you don't have a capacity to hold the tension in your heart between reality and possibility then you're just going to give up eventually...I don't think in this culture we teach very much or have very much formation around the holding of these great tensions, which is so critical to our lives. We want instant resolution. You give us a tension. We want it to get it over within fifteen minutes.   

[Thanks Kit!]

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Starting Over

“If you wanted to create an education environment that was Dr. John Medinadirectly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom. If you wanted to create a business environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a cubicle. And if you wanted to change things, you might have to tear down both and start over. In many ways, starting over is what this book is about.”

~ Dr. John Medina, from Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School

Waiting for the Weekend

People who practice mindfulness strategies like to talk about the various small habits of resistance we all tend to accumulate. We point out the dangers of putting off our happiness until some point in the future. But isn’t there some value in motivating ourselves through unpleasant tasks and activities by imagining the relief that will follow? Is there really anything wrong with taking a bit of comfort during a tedious meeting or lecture on Wednesday morning by imagining how much fun we’re planning to have on Friday evening?

The answer has to do with our assumptions about the skills of paying attention. What is the point of learning to stay in the present more often? Isn’t this just one more trendy drop in the ocean of self-improvement strategies that fail to live up to their promises?

Continue reading…

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

It Chooses

by Jane Hirshfield, from Given Sugar, Given Salt

As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty, The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.

The morning potion's teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings—no fewer, no more—
into the cracked blue cup.

Touching the pocket for wallet,
for keys,
before closing the door.

How did we come
to believe these small ritual's promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?

How intimate and unthinking,
the way the toothbrush is shaken dry after use,
the part we wash first in the bath.

Which habits we learned from others
and which are ours alone we may never know.
Unbearable to acknowledge
how much they are themselves our fated life.

Open the traveling suitcase—

There the beloved red sweater,
bright tangle of necklace, earrings of amber.
Each confirming: I chose these, I.

But habit is different: it chooses.
And we, its good horse,
opening our mouths at even the sight of the bit.

Monday, March 02, 2009

In the Fire

Anita Barrows in conversation with Krista Tippett from “The Soul in Depression,” Speaking of Faith (Feb. 26, 2009):

Suddenly, in depression you are ripped from what felt like your life, from what felt right and familiar and balanced and ordinary and ordered, and you're just thrown into this place where you're ravaged, where the wind rips the leaves from the trees, and there you are. Yeah. Very, very much the soul in depression.

And I think that all of the talk about, 'Oh, well, this will, you know, be really good for your soul or your character, this will make a better person of you,' feels like absolute rubbish when you're in the midst of the wretchedness of depression. But I think that in a way, I mean, it almost feels sort of physiological. If the soul were material, I think depression sort of works on it the way you could work a piece of clay, so that it softens and it becomes more malleable. It becomes wider. It becomes able to take in more. But that's only afterward. In the fire, what you get is the fire.

This is a poem called "Questo Muro." It is a phrase from a passage in Dante's Purgatory. Dante has been in the depths of depression, in the depths of the inferno, and he's now working his way out of it toward Beatrice, who is — you know, you could call her the soul or the anima. And he and Virgil are climbing the mountain, and all of a sudden they get to a wall of fire, and you can't go any farther unless you go through it. So this is my poem, and it really is a poem, I think, about finding the courage to persist, to go through that fire.

Questo Muro

You will come at a turning of the trail
to a wall of flame
After the hard climb & the exhausted dreaming
you will come to a place where he
with whom you have walked this far
will stop will stand
beside you on the treacherous steep path
& stare as you shiver at the moving wall, the flame
that blocks your vision of what comes after.
And that one
who you thought would accompany you always,
who held your face
tenderly a little while in his hands —
who pressed the palms of his hands into drenched grass
& washed from your cheeks, the tear-tracks —
he is telling you now
that all that stands between you
& everything you have known since the beginning
is this: this wall. Between yourself
& the beloved, between yourself & your joy,
the riverbank swaying with wildflowers, the shaft
of sunlight on the rock, the song.
Will you pass through it now, will you let it consume
whatever solidness this is
you call your life, & send
you out, a tremor of heat,
a radiance, a changed
flickering thing?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Blessed by Doubt

April 5, 1974
by Richard Wilbur, from New and Collected Poems

The air was soft, the ground still cold.
In the dull pasture where I strolled
Was something I could not believe.
Dead grass appeared to slide and heave,
Though still too frozen-flat to stir,
And rocks to twitch, and all to blur.
What was this rippling of the land?
Was matter getting out of hand
And making free with natural law?
I stopped and blinked, and then I saw
A fact as eerie as a dream,
There was a subtle flood of steam
Moving upon the face of things.
It came from standing pools and springs
And what of snow was still around;
It came of winter's giving ground
So that the freeze was coming out,
As when a set mind, blessed by doubt,
Relaxes into mother-wit.
Flowers, I said, will come of it.

[More by Richard Wilbur at The Writer’s Almanac.]