"Being a human being isn’t just all misery and despair. There’s a lot of available joy out there, even if we don’t often find it. I think that fiction should find opportunities for joy...The real struggle, I think, is getting to a place where you can be believably generous to a character, where you can show somebody fumbling for redemption in a way that’s believable and not stupid. I think what people really want is fiction that in some tiny way makes their life more meaningful and makes the world seem like a richer place. The world is awfully short on joy and richness, and I think to some extent it’s the fiction writer’s job to salvage some of that and to give it to us in ways that we can believe in.”
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Elvis Mitchell: I guess the thing I find so fascinating about both of these films (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) is that there’s this kind of willful quality to create a narrative, or in the case of Bloom, even a fiction in which you live your life. And then the emotional truth comes in…
Rian Johnson: …I really do believe that to a certain extent, that’s what we do. You sit down with someone. You want to know about them. You ask them the story of their life. That’s how we create, even down to the fundamentals of creating a sense of self. We kind of build this narrative day-to-day, and write this story for ourselves. And that’s how we—even for ourselves—define who we are, I think.”
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people…
A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.
Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate. Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.
The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students. It stands to reason, then, that those who end up making big decisions that affect all of us don’t seem to have much sense of their own fallibility, and of how badly things can go wrong even with the best of intentions (like when I dropped that feeler gauge down into the Ninja). In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make. Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?
There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit. There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it. This is due to the immediate feedback you get from material objects and to the fact that the work is typically situated in face-to-face interactions between tradesman and customer.
* * * * *
To be of use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
"The more you focus on something — whether that's math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain...What we need to do is study those moments where people feel that they're getting beyond their brain, and understanding what's happening in the brain from a scientific perspective, what's happening in the brain from their spiritual perspective..."
~ Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been scanning the brains of religious people for more than a decade.
"It's as if the present moment expands to fill all of eternity, that there has never been anything but this eternal now."
~ Michael Baime, a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and a Tibetan Buddhist who has meditated at least an hour a day for the past 40 years.
"You can sculpt your brain just as you'd sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym. Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly."
~ Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin
[Thanks Connie! Thanks Pete!]
Monday, May 25, 2009
“I try to say something through those images, though I don’t know what it is. It’s hard to describe. My head is full of that stuff. It comes pouring out.”
His name is called. A son’s lost voice
hovers near a fishing hole in August.
His name is called. A lover’s hand
disturbs a breath of summer cloth.
His name is called a third time,
but his propped-up boots & helmet
refuse to answer. The photo remains silent,
& his name hangs in the high rafters.
She tenderly hugs the pillow,
whispering his name. The dog
rises beside the bedroom door
& wanders to the front door,
& stands with its head cocked,
listening for a name in a dead language.
* * * * *
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
“Now, fortunately, I can probably spend the rest of my life picking any question I want to, regardless of whether it will be profitable. I can just let my curiosity wander unleashed.”
The Rain-Streaked Avenues of Central Queens
by D. Nurkse
It ends badly, this glass of wine,
before you drink it
you have to drink a prior glass,
before you sip you gulp,
before you chug the bottle
you pour it down your throat,
before we lie together
naked, we divorce, before we rest
we grow old, it ends in chaos,
but it is delicious,
when we wake it is the past,
we are the faces staring
from the high lit window,
the unmet lovers, the rivals
who do not exist,
united in a radiance
that will not fade at dawn.
“People who are destabilized by historical forces are more intelligent than the secure ones who have got the formulas in place. The safety of received tastes and opinions, confirmed in furniture and inherited artworks, stops the true brain, the brain of the seeking blind. When people are uprooted and insecure, their tables are alive with conversation of prophets—philosophy, music, literature, god. But when the people are safe, the repetition of a formula goes around and around.”
~ Fanny Howe, from The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation
Friday, May 22, 2009
Memory at its finest lacks corroboration
—no photographs, no diaries—
nothing to pin the past on the present with, to make it stick.
Just because you've got this idea
of red fields stretching along the tertiary roads
of Saskatchewan, like blazing, contained fires —
just because somewhere in your memory
there's a rust-coloured pulse
taking its place among canola yellow
and flax fields the huddled blue of morning azures—
just because you want to
doesn't mean you can
build a home for that old, peculiar ghost.
Someone tells you you've imagined it,
that gash across the ripe belly of summer,
and for a year, maybe two, you believe them.
Maybe you did invent it, maybe as you leaned,
to escape the heat, out the Pontiac's backseat window
you just remembered it that way
because you preferred the better version.
Someone tells you this.
But what can they know of faith?
To ask you to leave behind this insignificance.
This innocence that can't be proved: what the child saw
of the fields as she passed by, expecting nothing.
You have to go there while there's still time.
Back to the red flag of that field, blazing in the wind.
While you're still young enough to remember
a flame planted along a road. While you're still
seeing more than there is to see.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
When I began work on my MFA at Vermont College, my teacher, Gladys Swan, asked, “What would you like to accomplish?” I said, “Well, I work with high-school students. I know that some novels really work with them and some don’t. I would love to write a book that would speak to young people the way that To Kill a Mockingbird has spoken to so many of my students and also to me.” We also talked about The Catcher in the Rye in that conversation. I don’t think it’s any accident that both of those novels have a prevalent first-person narrator with a strong sense of voice.
Gladys said to me, “The first thing that you have to do is not think about who your audience is.” She said, “Write it for you. Make it true for yourself, and let the audience find it.” In that same conversation, we talked about a short story I’d just begun about a crazy woman named Mary Anne, who later became Dolores. Gladys said, “You have too many pots on the stove here. There’s too much going on here for a short story.” That’s what I had written up to that point, so I said, “What should I cut out?” She said, “Don’t cut out anything. Keep going. Maybe you’re trying to write a novel.” I said, “Not me. I couldn’t handle that. That’s beyond what I can do.” And she said, “Well, if you want to learn how to write a novel, read the oldest stories. Those stories have lasted because they say things that people have needed to be told over and over and over again.” She said, “The world is an old place and all the stories that people need are already out there. You’re never going to tell an original story because everybody who’s come before you has beaten you to it. Put your own original spin on a story that has lasted.”
She came up with a reading list for me, and when I started reading and studying the myths, seeing the cross sections from culture to culture, that’s when I saw what she was getting at. And, really, that’s been the wellspring that I go back to over and over and over again when I’m starting something new.
A 1971 television recording with Alan Watts walking in the mountains and talking about the limitations of technology and the problem of trying to keep track of an infinite universe with a single tracked mind. Video posted by Alan's son and courtesy of www.alanwatts.com.
Monday, May 18, 2009
"A simple honest man, driven into a corner by predatory sophisticates, can, if he will, reach down into his God-given resources and come up with the necessary handfuls of courage, wit, and love to triumph over his environment."
~ Frank Capra, on the moral of his movies
Once you arrive it is plain
that you do not remember
the last time
you are always
upon it all beginning
as though nothing had really happened
as though beginning
went on and on
as though it were everything
until it had begun
you never know who you are
the hands of the clock find you
and keep going
though what your light
reveals when it rises
wakes from another time
which you appear to have forgotten
travelling all that way
blank and nowhere
before you came to be
with the demands
that you bring with you
from the beginning
each time it is
as though you were the same
O unrepeatable one
needing nothing yourself
and not waiting
Sunday, May 17, 2009
by Michael Blumenthal, from Days We Would Rather Know
You can say what you want about the evils of technology
and the mimicry of birds; I love it. I love the sheer,
unexpurgated hubris of it, I love the beaten egg whites
of clouds hovering beneath me, this ephemeral Hamlet
of believing in man's grandeur. You can have all that
talk about the holiness of nature and the second Babylon.
You can stay shocked about the future all you want,
reminisce about the beauties of midwifery. I'll take this
any day, this sweet imitation of Mars and Jupiter, this
sitting still at 600 mph like a jet-age fetus. I want to
go on looking at the moon for the rest of my life and seeing
footsteps. I want to keep flying, even for short distances,
like here between Columbus and Toledo on Air Wisconsin:
an Andean condor sailing over Ohio, above the factories.
above the dust and the highways and the miserable tires.
“Mindfulness is about paying attention, and the awareness and freedom that emerge from that present-moment gesture of profound relationality and consciousness. It is the antidote to addictive preoccupations and indeed, preoccupations of all kinds that carry us away from the actuality of the present moment. When we start to pay attention in an intentional and nonjudgmental way, as we do when we cultivate mindfulness, and thus bring ourselves back into the present moment, we are tapping into very deep natural resources of strength, creativity, balance, and yes, wisdom—interior resources that we may never have realized we even possess. Nothing has to change. We don’t have to be any different or ‘better.’ We don’t have to lose weight. We don’t have to fix any imbalances or strive for any ideals. All we have to do is pay attention to aspects of our lives that we may have been ignoring in favor of various idealizations that have unwittingly carried us further and further from our intrinsic wholeness (the root meaning of the words health, healing, and holy) that is already here, available to us in this very moment, and in any and every moment, a wholeness that is never not present.”
Saturday, May 16, 2009
For the young who want to
by Marge Piercy, from The Moon is Always Female
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don't have a baby,
call you a bum.
The reason people want M.F.A.'s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else's mannerisms
is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you're certified a dentist.
The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.
Poet professor in autumn years
seeks helpmate companion protector friend
young lover w/empty compassionate soul
exuberant spirit, straightforward handsome
athletic physique & boundless mind, courageous
warrior who may also like women&girls, no problem,
to share bed meditation apartment Lower East Side,
help inspire mankind conquer world anger & guilt,
empowered by Whitman Blake Rimbaud Ma Rainey & Vivaldi,
familiar respecting Art's primordial majesty, priapic carefree
playful harmless slave or master, mortally tender passing swift time,
photographer, musician, painter, poet, yuppie or scholar
Find me here in New York alone with the Alone
going to lady psychiatrist who says Make time in your life
for someone you can call darling, honey, who holds you dear
can get excited & lay his head on your heart in peace.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Both the advantage and the privilege of an artist is that he is forced to look. To see. People rarely see the beauty and the greatness around them. They live their lives in half sleep.
…With sustained attention, one grasps relationships which usually are overlooked. So how to nurture an attention which penetrates into the heart of things?
…Instead of a headlong rush, which is fine for a while, one has to step back.
…Moments of stillness align one's forces. When man's energies are together in balance, more is possible than when they are random, dis-equilibrated. Heart and feeling are needed as well as the intellect. Concentration, attention is the key in any endeavor, whether building a brick wall, working with a computer program or painting a picture.
The artist is fortunate in that he can find and give meaning to the humblest encounter. No subject is too small, too insignificant, to receive his attention and care. In the sense that behind appearances there is another reality, the artist may be said to resemble God. To be true he must approach the subject with 'pure-seeing.' Always there is seduction of the mind-gravitation toward the unknown. With inside-seeing we awaken to the beauty and the potentiality of ordinary objects.
The emergence of light from an area on the canvas always intrigues. The painter cannot evoke this by technique and virtuosity alone. It does not work that way. It is the total absorption of the artist in the work that enables true luminosity to appear.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Excerpt from “To Cambodia, With Love,” by Shannon Sexton, Yoga + Joyful Living (Fall 2009):
When millionaire movie executive Scott Neeson took a backpacking trip through Cambodia in 2003, he didn’t expect to land on a garbage dump. What he saw on the outskirts of Phnom Penh changed his life: hundreds of children—some as young as three years old—somber, sick, smeared in grime, scavenging for recyclables in the smoky wasteland of Steung Meanchey, a toxic dump site that spans eight football fields and is more than 100 feet deep.
Abandoned, orphaned, or sent here to work by their families, these children toil for 12 hours a day or longer, earning about 30¢—enough for a bowl of rice. They scorch their feet on smoldering garbage as they wade through hospital and industrial waste, shards of glass, used condoms, rancid food, and feces. Pimps lurk at the edge of the dump, hoping to lure them into brothels. Their parents—if they have any—are the youngest survivors of the blood-drenched era of the Khmer Rouge; alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence are woven into the fabric of their everyday lives. The most heartbreaking statistic? Only 27 percent of these children survive.
Few of us would consider selling our house, our car, our cherished possessions, and moving here—to one of the most polluted places on the planet, shrouded in smog so thick it coats the taste buds and sears the lungs; a place where flies rise up in black clouds and children are run over by garbage trucks.
Even fewer of us would fund schools for these children with our own money or work long days and weekends with no end in sight, fortified only by the knowledge that we’re making a difference.
…He told PBS the real turning point came when, during a visit to Cambodia, he received an "emergency" call from LA. "My phone rang, and it was my office, and the actor who was on tour was having quite a serious meltdown because the private jet didn’t have the right amenities for him. He didn’t want to get on the jet." The actor was quoted as saying, "My life wasn’t meant to be this difficult."
"And I thought, I don’t want this to be my world. This isn’t my reality anymore."
Sunday, May 10, 2009
From the obituary of Martha Mason in today’s New York Times:
Ever since the 1940s, when she was a girl in a small Southern town, Martha Mason dreamed of being a writer. But it was not till nearly half a century later, with the aid of a voice-activated computer, that she could begin setting a memoir down on paper.
…From her horizontal world — a 7-foot-long, 800-pound iron cylinder that encased all but her head — Ms. Mason lived a life that was by her own account fine and full, reading voraciously, graduating with highest honors from high school and college, entertaining and eventually writing.
She chose to remain in an iron lung, she often said, for the freedom it gave her. It let her breathe without tubes in her throat, incisions or hospital stays, as newer, smaller ventilators might require. It took no professional training to operate, letting her remain mistress of her own house, with just two aides assisting her.
“I’m happy with who I am, where I am,” Ms. Mason told The Charlotte Observer in 2003. “I wouldn’t have chosen this life, certainly. But given this life, I’ve probably had the best situation anyone could ask for.”
…After her mother’s death in 1998, Ms. Mason began work on her [memoir] in earnest. There, in her childhood home, with a microphone at her mouth and the music of the iron lung for company, she wrote her life story sentence by sentence in her soft Southern voice, with her own breath.
Shinzen Young describing what he means by having a complete experience (Jan. 6, 2009):
Having a complete experience is a technical term. I don’t mean complete in the sense it was intense. I don’t mean complete in the sense that you stayed with it until the end—although that’s part of it. By complete I mean there was a certain critical mass of concentration, clarity, and equanimity present from beginning to end in that experience.
We can’t always have complete experiences, but sometimes we can and with practice we can have them more and more.
When we have a complete experience of something that’s ordinary, it becomes utterly extraordinary. It becomes paradoxical in that it becomes deeply fulfilling and no longer there at the same time…One could also say that when you bring an extraordinary degree of concentration, clarity, and equanimity to an extraordinary experience it becomes utterly ordinary. That’s the path of liberation instead of the path of powers.
We can’t always have enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity to have a complete experience of something. But maybe we can have a little bit of concentration or a little bit of clarity or a little bit of equanimity and that’s not too shabby. Maybe we can’t have any concentration, clarity, and equanimity at all under certain circumstances. But we can have equanimity with that. We can accept that that’s the case and we can continue to do formal practice despite the fact that we have essentially no concentration, no clarity, and no equanimity.
However, we’re still setting the stage for nature to do its job. We’re catalyzing a natural process. We’re giving nature what it needs. On the surface it seems like we’re wasting our time because it's like total monkey mind, total confusion, total lost in emotional chaos, sleepiness, aches and pains, etcetera. But deep down, slowly, changes are taking place, even under those circumstances.
Saturday, May 09, 2009
* * * * *
by Ellen Bryant Voigt
Reading in bed, full of sentiment
for the mild evening and the children
asleep in adjacent rooms, hearing them
cry out now and then the brief reports
of sufficient imagination, and listening
at the same time compassionately
to the scrabble of claws, the fast treble
in the chimney—
then it was out,
not a trapped bird
beating at the seams of the ceiling,
but a bat lifting toward us, falling away.
Dominion over every living thing,
large brain, a choice of weapons—
Shuddering, in the lit hall
we swung repeatedly against
its rising secular face
until it fell; then
shoveled it into the yard for the cat
who shuttles easily between two worlds.
Friday, May 08, 2009
“I think about how things are constructed. My great grandfather was a carpenter, my father was a carpenter, and I’ve been thinking, recently, if that informed my process. Because I think about how things solidify and become heft and at the same time lightness. And so language is important to me, music is important to me. Language is our very first music and the body is an amplifier, so I think in that way. I read everything aloud as I’m writing a poem and anything that’s extraneous, I try to cut away. My method is to improvise. You have everything come flowing down and then cut it back to its necessary components…
It depends on what word falls left or right of a given word to, in a way, shape the music of the word in the center…I think reading it aloud, the ear is a great editor. The ear keeps me true to the language. The poem is a made thing in that sense. It’s a made thing, in a way, approaches mystery.”
“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
Thursday, May 07, 2009
On a Perfect Day
by Jane Gentry, from A Garden in Kentucky
... I eat an artichoke in front
of the Charles Street Laundromat
and watch the clouds bloom
into white flowers out of
the building across the way.
The bright air moves on my face
like the touch of someone who loves me.
Far overhead a dart-shaped plane softens
through membranes of vacancy. A ship,
riding the bright glissade of the Hudson, slips
past the end of the street. Colette's vagabond
says the sun belongs to the lizard
that warms in its light. I own these moments
when my skin like a drumhead stretches on the frame
of my bones, then swells, a bellows filled
with sacred breath seared by this flame,
[Thanks Garrison Keillor!]
Tuesday, May 05, 2009
by Marge Piercy
Learning to love differently is hard,
love with the hands wide open, love
with the doors banging on their hinges,
the cupboard unlocked, the wind
roaring and whimpering in the rooms
rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
that thwack like rubber bands
in an open palm.
It hurts to love wide open
stretching the muscles that feel
as if they are made of wet plaster,
then of blunt knives, then
of sharp knives.
It hurts to thwart the reflexes
of grab, of clutch; to love and let
go again and again. It pesters to remember
the lover who is not in the bed,
to hold back what is owed to the work
that gutters like a candle in a cave
without air, to love consciously,
conscientiously, concretely, constructively.
I can't do it, you say it's killing
me, but you thrive, you glow
on the street like a neon raspberry,
You float and sail, a helium balloon
bright bachelor's button blue and bobbing
on the cold and hot winds of our breath,
as we make and unmake in passionate
diastole and systole the rhythm
of our unbound bonding, to have
and not to hold, to love
with minimized malice, hunger
and anger moment by moment balanced.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally… this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone...”
~ Aldous Huxley, from The Doors of Perception
Sunday, May 03, 2009
To stare at nothing is to learn by heart
What all of us will be swept into, and baring oneself
To the wind is feeling the ungraspable somewhere close by.
Trees can sway or be still. Day or night can be what they wish.
What we desire, more than a season or weather, is the comfort
Of being strangers, at least to ourselves. This is the crux
Of the matter, which is why even now we seem to be waiting
For something whose appearance would be its vanishing—
The sound, say, of a few leaves falling, or just one leaf,
Or less. There is no end to what we can learn. The book out there
Tells us as much, and was never written with us in mind.
Friday, May 01, 2009
To This May
by W.S. Merwin, from Present Company
They know so much more now about
the heart we are told but the world
still seems to come one a time
one day one year one season and here
it is spring once more with its birds
nesting in the holes in the walls
its morning finding the first time
its light pretending not to move
always beginning as it goes