Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Small Wonders

Party Bed

by Charles LeDray
Institute of Contemporary Art
Through October 17, 2010

workworkworkworkwork consists of hundreds of objects, including shirts, pottery, paintings, necklaces and magazines that recreate displays of objects for sale that homeless people frequently put on New York sidewalks. (Bing, 2003) The piece is not classified by object, however it is more of a confusion of pieces, each “grouping is ordered in its own special way, as if different senses of order were involved, individual orders—different levels of marketing and presentability.” (Saltz, 1992)

~ Wikipedia

MENS SUITS, Charles LeDray, 2006MENS SUITS 

Excerpt from “Life’s Wear and Tear,” by Sebastian Smee, the Boston Globe, July 16, 2010:

Charles LeDray treats clothes as surrogates for human identity, particularly male identity, and for the many types of work that go into constructing it. As such—and unlike the fashion industry, which is founded on an unblinking faith in the potential of clothes to communicate power, beauty, and self-worth—his work is intensely alive to the pathos clothes can communicate, and to the many senses in which they just don’t . . . quite. . . fit.

LeDray, who was born in Seattle in 1960 and lives and works in New York, gives this “not quite fitting’’ a literal twist. The majority of the clothes he makes and transforms into sculptures are small. Too small to wear, but not so small that they seem precious or cute.

And yes, LeDray makes them. All of them. By hand. Himself.

Today, when the actual making of art objects is frequently displaced from the hands of the nominal creator to various anonymous assistants, there’s an atavistic appeal in LeDray’s displays of virtuosic skill and dedication. But it’s not just a sentimental appeal.

The time LeDray dedicates to the making of his pieces — in some cases as long as three or four years — is as much a conceptual tool as the medium itself. Painstakingly cut, carved, stitched, sewn, and thrown, his sculptures crystallize, through ironic devotion, a sense of pathos. They sharpen our awareness of the expendability of things…

Thinking of the artist working away, with scissors, pins, needle, and thread, I thought of W.S. Merwin’s great poem, “Separation’’:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Overcoat, 2004

You Can Never Be Sure

by W.S. Merwin, from Flower & Hand: Poems 1977-1983

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write

Monday, August 30, 2010

Seeing for Yourself What Works

Excerpt from “The Problem with Meditation Instructions,” by Jason Siff, Tricycle.com

Unlearning_Cover_Chosen.indd Although we are not often taught this, the most skillful way through an impasse in meditation is to become aware of it and of what holds it together and keeps it running. To do this, you need to keep doing the meditation instructions that have gotten you to this point, but instead of following them “harder,” try approaching them in a softer, gentler manner. Do them loosely, and don’t do them all of the time. Instead, try doing them when it is easy to do them, or, when you feel you need to. But also be willing not to do them every single time you feel the need.

By adding flexibility and choice to a meditation practice that has become rigid and restrictive, we move our attention away from a narrow focus on doing the instructions correctly to a broader awareness of how we are doing the instructions. We discover that sometimes we are using the instructions to get to some desired or anticipated meditative state and other times we are using them to avoid certain feelings, memories, or thoughts. Then there are those times when we would otherwise feel lost and confused in our meditation sittings and need the instructions as an anchor. There are many ways we have held onto the instructions we have received, so by giving more space around them and giving ourselves permission not to follow them, we can begin to see what they are actually doing for us.

*     *     *     *     *

There is a middle way here between the extremes of rigidity and passivity, one that offers a more legitimate form of meditation. The beginning instructions I have given for nearly two decades provide just enough of a grounding in the seated body for the meditator to develop a capacity to be with thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise. These suggestions are loose and open, but you can make them tighter if you need to. The instructions are as follows:

Sit in a comfortable position, one that you would not need to change during the sitting. If you do need to change your position, do so slowly and consciously. You may also lie down, but try to adopt a position that you would not normally sleep in.

Bring your attention to the touch of your hands resting in your lap or on your thighs. But do not try to hold your attention there. Allow thoughts, feelings, and sensations to arise, and let your attention go with them.

If your attention leaves the touch of the hands for a long period of time (several minutes), you can gently bring your attention back. Otherwise, just sit with what comes up. If you encounter an experience that is hard to tolerate, after a while of being with it you can bring your attention back to the touch of the hands. But only hold it there long enough to feel grounded or relaxed, and then, if your mind goes into that kind of experience again, just let it.

People have made rules out of these instructions, and you might too. That is fine. At some point, hopefully, you will become aware of those rules. But, for now, it is enough to know that there is no way to do this wrong, as it is not about following an instruction as much as about allowing your experiences to unfold. Seeing for yourself, from your own experience, what works and what doesn’t is what meditation is all about.

Looking at Ourselves

The "Plenty" exhibition at Guild Hall in East Hampton, N.Y. (Photo by Gary Mamay)

Excerpt from “Resurgent Agitprop in Capital Letters,” by Dorothy Spears, New York Times, August 29, 2010

“In broad term, much of [Barbara] Kruger’s recent art is similar to the work that made her famous 30 years ago, built around puckish, aphoristic bits of texts that are at once politically biting and coolly aloof. But the ideas behind them have changed with a culture that Ms. Kruger, now 65 and a self-declared news addict, monitors like an anthropologist…

Over the past two decades Ms. Kruger’s cut-and-paste method, and the archives of pictures she once used, have been replaced by digital technology. Her installations are now typically built electronically, and conveyed via digital files to printers and fabricators. Still, as much as technology has altered her process, she said, the most dramatic change in her work has been on the cultural front. In addition to reading three newspapers daily, she now avidly follows 24-hour news feeds and Web sites from all points on the political spectrum, as well as a constantly shifting stream of reality television shows. The changes she sees reflected there are the ones that interest her most.

“We don’t need mirrors anymore,” she observed. “We look at ourselves on YouTube. We look at ourselves on Twitter. It’s ‘This is what I’m doing now.’

“I look at that. And I make work about it.”

Saturday, August 28, 2010

From Joy to Joy to Joy

for Aaron & Michelle


From Blossoms
by Li-Young Lee, from Rose 

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward  
signs painted PEACHES.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into  
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dreams of Flying

Dreams of Flying
by Jan von Holleben

The Superman

The Balloon Flyer

The Rocketeers

See also: How To Fly Using Only A Camera And A Ladder (NPR)

[Thanks, Kit!]

Practicing What We Preach


Excerpts from Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks at the Annual Ramadan Iftar Dinner at Gracie Mansion, August 24, 2010:

“If we say that a mosque or a community center should not be built near the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, we would compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom. We would undercut the values and principles that so many heroes died protecting. We would feed the false impressions that some Americans have about Muslims. We would send a signal around the world that Muslim Americans may be equal in the eyes of the law, but separate in the eyes of their countrymen. And we would hand a valuable propaganda tool to terrorist recruiters, who spread the fallacy that America is at war with Islam."

“The members of our military are men and women at arms, battling for hearts and minds. And their greatest weapon in that fight is the strength of our American values which have already inspired people around the world. But if we don’t practice those values here at home, if we don’t practice what we preach abroad, if we don’t lead by example, we undermine our soldiers. We undermine our foreign policy objectives. And we undermine our national security.”

“While some of [Feisal Abdul Rauf]’s a lot of attention, I want to read to you something that he said that you may not have heard.

At an interfaith memorial service for the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf said, ‘If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind, and sou, Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad - Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, but I have always been one.’ He then continued to say, ‘If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all my heart, mind, and soul, and to love for my fellow human beings what I love for myself, then I am not only a Christian, but I have always been one.’”

“In that spirit, let me declare that we in New York are Jews, and Christians, and Muslims, and we always have been. And above all of that, we are Americans. Each with an equal right to worship and pray where we choose. There is nowhere in the five boroughs of New York City that is off-limit to any religion. And by affirming that basic idea, we will honor America’s values and we will keep New York the most open, diverse, tolerant, and free city in the world.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Way We Perceive

Ludwig Wittgenstein "That it doesn't strike us at all when we look around us, move about in space, feel our own bodies, shows how natural these things are to us. We do not notice that we see space perspectively or that our visual field is in some sense blurred towards the edges. It doesn't strike us and never can strike us because it is the way we perceive. We never give it a thought and it's impossible we should, since there is nothing that contrasts with the form of our world. What I wanted to say is it's strange that those who ascribe reality only to things and not to our ideas move about so unquestioningly in the world as idea and never long to escape from it."

~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

See also: Hidden in Plain Sight All Around Us

Digesting Technology

"It's an onslaught of information coming in today. At one time a screen meant maybe something in your living room. But now it's something in your pocket so it goes everywhere — it can be behind the wheel, it can be at the dinner table, it can be in the bathroom. We see it everywhere today."

brussels_sprouts“Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too — in the 21st century and the modern age — we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential. And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We  know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems. Similarly, after 20 years of twinkiesglorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts. And if we consume too much technology, just like we consume too much food, it can have ill effects. That is the moment we find ourselves in with this series, with the way we’re digesting, if you will, technology all over the place today."

~ Matt Richtel, from “Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets,” in discussion with Terry Gross, Fresh Air, August 24, 2010

See also:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

An Air Pocket of Total Silence

Excerpt from “The Year of Silence,” by Kevin Brockmeier. Anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008. Listen to this story read by Anthony Rapp from the Aug. 22, 2010 episode of Selected Shorts titled Let’s Not Talk.

Shortly after two
in the afternoon, on Monday, the sixth of April, a few seconds of silence overtook the city. The rattle of the jackhammers, the boom of the transformers, and the whir of the ventilation fans all came to a halt. Suddenly there were no car alarms cutting through the air, no trains scraping over their rails, no steam pipes exhaling their fumes, no peddlers shouting into the streets. Even the wind seemed to hesitate.

We waited for the incident to pass, and when it did, we went about our business. None of us foresaw the repercussions.

That the city’s
whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual, of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught eavesdropping on one another. True, no one could remember such a thing happening to the entire city before, but it was not so hard to believe that it would.

A handful of people
were changed by the episode, their lives redirected in large ways or small ones. The editor of a gossip magazine, for instance, came out of the silence determined to substitute the next issue’s lead article about a movie star for one about a fashion model, while her assistant realized that the time had come for her to resign her job and apply for her teaching license. A lifelong vegetarian who was dining in the restaurant outside the art museum decided to order a porterhouse steak, cooked medium rare. A would-be suicide had just finished filling his water glass from the faucet in his bathroom when everything around him seemed to stop moving and the silence passed through him like a wave, bringing with it a sense of peace and clarity he had forgotten he was capable of feeling. He put the pill bottle back in his medicine cabinet.

Such people were the exceptions, though. Most of us went on with our lives as though nothing of any importance had happened until the next incident occurred, some four days later.

This time the silence
lasted nearly six seconds. Ten million sounds broke off and recommenced like an old engine marking out a pause and catching spark again. Those of us who had forgotten the first episode now remembered it. Were the two occasions connected, we wondered, and if so, how? What was it, this force that could quell all the tumult and noise of the city—and not just the clicking of the subway turnstiles and the snap of the grocery-store awnings, but even the sound of the street traffic, that oceanic rumble that for more than a century had seemed as interminable to us as the motion of the sun across the sky? Where had it come from? And why didn’t it feel more unnatural?

These questions nettled at us. We could see them shining out of one another’s eyes. But a few days passed before we began to give voice to them. The silence was unusual, and we were not entirely sure how to talk about it—not because it was too grave and not because it was too trivial, but because it seemed grave one moment and trivial the next, and so no one was quite able to decide whether it mattered enormously or not at all.

Opening and Closing

“We’re invited into this arena, which is a very dangerous arena, where the possibilities of humiliation and failure are ample. So there’s no fixed lesson that one can learn about the thing because the heart is always opening and closing, it’s always softening and hardening. We’re always experiencing joy or sadness.”

~ Leonard Cohen


[Thanks, Jonathan Carroll!]

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Alone is Okay

Excerpt from How to Be Alone
by Tanya Davis

Go to the woods alone, and the trees and squirrels will watch for you.

Go to an unfamiliar city, roam the streets, there're always statues to talk to and benches made for sitting give strangers a shared existence if only for a minute and these moments can be so uplifting and the conversations you get in by sitting alone on benches might've never happened had you not been there by yourself

Society is afraid of alonedom, like lonely hearts are wasting away in basements, like people must have problems if, after a while, nobody is dating them. but lonely is a freedom that breaths easy and weightless and lonely is healing if you make it.
You could stand, swathed by groups and mobs or hold hands with your partner, look both further and farther for the endless quest for company. But no one's in your head and by the time you translate your thoughts, some essence of them may be lost or perhaps it is just kept.

Perhaps in the interest of loving oneself, perhaps all those sappy slogans from preschool over to high school's groaning were tokens for holding the lonely at bay. Cuz if you're happy in your head than solitude is blessed and alone is okay.

It's okay if no one believes like you. All experience is unique, no one has the same synapses, can't think like you, for this be relieved, keeps things interesting life's magic things in reach.
And it doesn't mean you're not connected, that community's not present, just take the perspective you get from being one person in one head and feel the effects of it. take silence and respect it. if you have an art that needs a practice, stop neglecting it. if your family doesn't get you, or religious sect is not meant for you, don't obsess about it.

you could be in an instant surrounded if you needed it
If your heart is bleeding make the best of it
There is heat in freezing, be a testament.

[Thanks, Angela!]

Friday, August 20, 2010

Where is everybody?

"And now here's the thing. It takes a time like this for you to find out how sore your heart has been, and, moreover, all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moiling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, Theater of the Mindpanting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It's internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself? Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the entire cast."

~ Saul Bellow, from The Adventures of Augie March

[Thanks, Linda!]

Remembering Life Together

"Danny Perasa and his wife, Annie, came to StoryCorps to recount their twenty-seven-year romance. As they remember their life together from their first date to Danny's final days with terminal cancer, these remarkable Brooklynites personify the eloquence, grace, and poetry that can be found in the voices of everyday people when we take the time to listen."

~ StoryCorps

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Disassemble It and Reassemble It

"Write what you know will only get you so far. You need to write what you can imagine, write what you can research about, write what you can pretend to know. It's not duplicity—it's more, I suppose, the illusionist's art…Maybe first a novelist is a photographer. You take a photograph of something that demands that you do. You remember it, think about it, chew over it, and disassemble it and reassemble it in ways that make fictional sense."

~ David Mitchell, from “Author Turns Gaze to 1799 Japan,” by Louis Peitzman, San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 2010

While visiting Nagasaki in 1994, Mitchell discovered Dejima, a setting in his new book. ~ from “David Mitchell, the Experimentalist,” by Wyatt Mason, New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2010


See also:

Training to Become Intimate with the Workings of One’s Own Mind

Excerpts from “Toward a Mindful Society,” an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn by Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, March 2010 (Dr. Kabat-Zinn is giving a talk on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation on October 6, 2010 at UCLA):

Jon Kabat-Zinn I am not really interested in “spreading” mindfulness, so much as I am interested in igniting passion in people for what is deepest and best within all of us, but which is usually hidden and rarely accessible. Science is a particular way of understanding the world that allows some people to approach what they would otherwise shun, and so can be used as a skillful means for opening people’s minds. By bringing science together with meditation, we're beginning to find new ways, in language people can understand, to show the benefits of training oneself to become intimate with the workings of one’s own mind in a way that generates greater insight and clarity.

The science is also showing interesting and important health benefits of such mind–body training and practices, and is now beginning to elucidate the various pathways through which mindfulness may be exerting its effects on the brain (emotion regulation, working memory, cognitive control, attention, activation in specific somatic maps of the body, cortical thickening in specific regions) and the body (symptom reduction, greater physical well-being, immune function enhancement, epigenetic up and down regulation of activity in large numbers and classes of genes). It is also showing that meditation can bring a sense of meaning and purpose to life, based on understanding the nonseparation of self and other. Given the condition we find ourselves in these days on this planet, understanding our interconnectedness is not a spiritual luxury; it’s a societal imperative.

Three or four hundred years ago, not so long in the scheme of things, people practicing meditation did so under fairly isolated conditions, mostly in monasteries. Now meditation is being practiced and studied in laboratories, hospitals, and clinics, and is even finding its way into primary and secondary schools. The people teaching and researching it have in many cases been involved with mindfulness for ten, twenty, thirty, or more years by now.


The line segments AB and CD are orthogonal to each other.

They are not just jumping on some new mindfulness bandwagon. And their work has resulted in many professionals being drawn to mindfulness for the first time. That in itself is a wonderful phenomenon, as long as it is understood that mindfulness is not merely a nice “concept” but an orthogonal way of being that requires ongoing practice and cultivation.

…There's nothing wrong with thinking. So much that is beautiful comes out of thinking and out of our emotions. But if our thinking is not balanced with awareness, we can end up deluded, perpetually lost in thought, and out of our minds just when we need them the most.

To Understand the Meek

A poem and an excerpt from an essay by Marry Karr from Sinners Welcome:

Who the Meek are Not

          Not the bristle-bearded Igors bent
under burlap sacks, not peasants knee-deep
          in the rice paddy muck,
not the serfs whose quarter-moon sickles
          make the wheat fall in waves
they don’t get to eat. My friend the Franciscan
          nun says we misread
the word meek in the Bible verse that blesses them.
          To understand the meek
(she says) picture a great stallion at full gallop
          in a meadow, who—
at his master’s voice—seizes up to a stunned
          but instant halt.
So with the strain of holding that great power
          in check, the muscles
along the arched neck eddying,
          and only the velvet ears
prick forward, awaiting the next order.

Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer

To confess my unlikely Catholicism in Poetry—the journal that first published some of the godless twentieth-century disillusionaries of J. Alfred Prufrock and his pals—feels like an act of perversion kinkier than any dildo-wielding dominatrix could manage on HBO’s Real Sex Extra. I can’t even blame it on my being a cradle Catholic, some brainwashed escapee of the pleated skirt and communion veil who—after a misspent youth and facing an Eleanor Rigby-like dotage—plodded back into the confession booth some rainy Saturday.

Not victim but volunteer, I converted in 1996 after a lifetime of undiluted agnosticism. Hearing about my baptism, a friend sent me a postcard that read, “Not you on the Pope’s team. Say it ain’t so!” Well, while probably not the late Pope’s favorite Catholic (nor he my favorite Pope), I took the blessing and ate the broken bread. And just as I continue to live in America and vote despite my revulsion for many U.S. policies, I continue to take the sacraments despite my fervent aversion to certain doctrines. Call me a cafeteria Catholic if you like, but to that I’d say, Who isn’t?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Singing in the Brain

Excerpt from “Speaking in Tones,” by Diana Deutsch, Scientific American Mind, July/August 2010:

“…language and music have a lot in common. They are both governed by a grammar, in which basic elements are organized hierarchically into sequences according to established rules. In language, words combine to form phrases, which join to form larger phrases, which in turn combine to make sentences. Similarly, in music, notes combine to form phrases, which connect to form larger phrases, and so on. Thus, to understand either language or music, listeners must infer the structures of the passages they hear, using rules they have assimilated through experience.

In addition, speech has a natural melody called prosody. Prosody encompasses overall pitch level and pitch range, pitch contour (the pattern of rises and falls in pitch), loudness variation, rhythm and tempo. Prosodic characteristics often reflect the speaker’s emotional state. When people are happy or excited, the frequently speak more rapidly, at higher pitches and in wider pitch ranges; when people are sad, they tend to talk more slowly, in a lower voice and with less pitch variation. Prosody also helps us to understand the flow and meaning of speech. Boundaries between phrases are generally marked by pauses, and the endings of phrases tend to be distinguished by lower pitches and slower speech. Moreover, important words are often spoken in higher pitches. Interestingly, some pitch and timing characteristics of spoken language also occur in music, which indicates that overlapping neural circuitries may be involved.”

[See also: Diana Deutsch’s Speech-to-Song Illusion.]

The appreciation of music requires many of the same brain regions that are involved in the processing of language. These multipurpose regions include Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.


Excerpt from “Signing, Singing, Speaking: How Language Evolved,” by Jon Hamilton, NPR: Morning Edition, Aug. 16, 2010:

Another idea about the origin of language is that it came from song. Ani Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego says this idea just feels right to a lot of people.

"We feel music just taps into this kind of pre-cognitive archaic part of ourselves," he says. So it seems to make sense that music came "before we had this complicated articulate language that we use to do abstract thinking."

Even Charles Darwin "talked about our ancestors singing love songs to each other before we could speak articulate language," Patel says.

Capable of Making Distinctions

Excerpt from “The Muslims in the Middle,” editorial by William Dalrymple, New York Times, Aug. 16, 2010:

Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.

Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith. Had the George W. Bush administration been more aware of the irreconcilable differences between the Salafist jihadists of Al Qaeda and the secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States might never have blundered into a disastrous war, and instead kept its focus on rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan while the hearts and minds of the Afghans were still open to persuasion.

Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative is one of America’s leading thinkers of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam, which in terms of goals and outlook couldn’t be farther from the violent Wahhabism of the jihadists. His videos and sermons preach love, the remembrance of God (or “zikr”) and reconciliation. His slightly New Agey rhetoric makes him sound, for better or worse, like a Muslim Deepak Chopra. But in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, he is an infidel-loving, grave-worshiping apostate; they no doubt regard him as a legitimate target for assassination.

For such moderate, pluralistic Sufi imams are the front line against the most violent forms of Islam. In the most radical parts of the Muslim world, Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerant beliefs, every bit as bravely as American troops on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul do. Sufism is the most pluralistic incarnation of Islam — accessible to the learned and the ignorant, the faithful and nonbelievers — and is thus a uniquely valuable bridge between East and West.

The great Sufi saints like the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi held that all existence and all religions were one, all manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty ritual of the mosque, church, synagogue or temple, but the striving to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart: that we all can find paradise within us, if we know where to look.

Read the entire editorial…

May 20, 2010. Press Conference outside site of planned Cordoba House with Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and city government officials in support of the Cordoba House.

Animating without Getting in the Way

StoryCorps episodes, which have been animated by brothers Mike and Tim Rauch, will be shown on the PBS documentary series POV and can also be seen on the StoryCorps YouTube channel.

Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of American Documentary, which produces POV, told The New York Times, “The audio pieces are so wonderful, you pause and listen and let your imagination go. The challenge with the animation is to retain that intimacy and not let the animation get in the way of the story.”

Monday, August 16, 2010


Circus Manager with a Circus Girl, George Rouault, 1941. Oil on canvas, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (1998), Metropolitan Museum of Art, European Modern Paintings.

Matisse was as reluctant as most painters to try to express what any given work signified in words; but he made an exception that autumn when Rouault, who had finally obtained a permit to return to Paris, sent his daughter over to Cimiez with the only picture he had managed to produce in the Midi, a tragic canvas painted with infinite delicacy in a gamut of bruised blues. ‘The subject is The Circus Girl and the Manager, seated opposite one another like a lamb confronting a tiger…It is powerfully and poignantly expressive, it is—the entire picture is—a portrait of Rouault,’ Matisse wrote to [his son] Pierre (he added that the painting disturbed him so much he had to keep it shut up in a cupboard). Rouault’s daughter spent two hours at Cimiez pouring over her family’s complaints and grievances to Matisse, who recognized the situation only too well, and tried to get her to see that inner fires consumed her father, whose glaring faults were inseparable from his great strengths. Afterwards, he told Pierre there was no real difference between his case and Rouault’s:

A man who makes pictures like the one we are looking at is an unhappy creature, tormented day and night. He relieves himself of his passion in his pictures, but also in spite of himself on the people around him. That is what normal people never understand. They want to enjoy the artists’ products— as one might enjoy cows’ milk— but they can’t put up with the inconvenience, the mud and the flies.

~ From Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 , by Hilary Spurling

[Thanks, Mark!]

Off the Grid in Search of the Holy Grail

“Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.”

~ University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, from “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,” by Matt Richtel, New York Times (August 15, 2010)

PS Dozens of people responded to New York Time’s challenge to try giving up technology and report back about the experience. Check out their stories at The Unplugged Challenge.

[Thanks, Kit!]

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The New Way

The Quiet World
by Jeffrey McDaniel, from The Forgiveness Parade

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred  
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear  
without saying hello. In the restaurant  
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,  
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.  
rotary phone off hookI saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,  
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line  
and listen to each other breathe.

Friday, August 13, 2010


From Radiolab: “Words have the power to shape the way we think and feel. In this stunning video, filmmakers Will Hoffman and Daniel Mercadante bandy visual wordplay into a moving exploration of language set to an original score by Keith Kenniff.”

Listen to the Radiolab Words episode (Aug. 9, 2010).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Appreciating Nothing

This presentation was my contribution to Pecha Kucha Night Columbus this evening.


Red Bird: Poems Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

~ Mary Oliver, from “Sometimes

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Look Back with Firm Eyes


Self Portrait
by David Whyte, from Fire In the Earth

It doesn't interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

I Have to Call Myself Back

“I’m very bad when it comes to worship. This is just me. This is probably a terrible thing to say [in a church], but I don’t need it very much. I try to live in this kind of presence and a kind of awareness and I have to call myself back time and time again to remembrance of who I am. Partly, I think, all that’s because as a kid, as a Presbyterian, I had to go to church four times on Sunday. That wears out your patience and your ass. I’ve sort of done my stint. But that’s just me. It’s not other people.”

~ Sam Keen, author of In the Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Again and Again

Mira Music Box, circa 1903

Mira Music Box, Must You?

“Your head’s like mine, like all our heads; big enough to contain every god and devil there ever was. Big enough to hold the weight of oceans and the turning stars. Whole universes fit in there! But what do we choose to keep in this miraculous cabinet? Little broken things, sad trinkets that we play with over and over. The world turns our key and we play the same little tune again and again and we think that tune’s all we are.”

~ Grant Morrison

[Thanks, Jonathan Carroll!]

What remains when disbelief has gone?

As read by Tom O’Bedlam

A Portable Sanctuary

knob It’s easy to think that the environment needs to be completely still and quiet for meditation to occur. When I first began practicing meditation I would switch off the ringer on our phone and put a Christmas ornament on the knob of the closed bedroom door to alert everyone in the house to try to keep it down until they heard the sound of the gong. Hey, whatever it takes to establish the habit, right? But these kinds of controls can develop into unquestioned necessary ingredients and a kind of literalism that can solidify into obstacles instead of supports.

Do I need to be in a gym to lift something heavy? Do I need to be wearing running clothes to chase down the bus? Do I need to be standing on a yoga mat to notice my breath? It can be interesting to consider how formal meditation practice and the application of the same strategies in the midst of our ordinary experiences relate to and inform each other. We don’t meditate to achieve temporary benefits, but to develop a kind of deep intimacy with how human perception works and how it operates to influence our happiness or misery. It’s not about trying to avoid life, but a means of engaging more directly with it.

When our physical strength increases as a result of lifting weights we don’t have to be standing in the gym to notice it or to put it to use. We just need to keep visiting the gym to maintain and improve it. In the same way, we don’t need to be in a sanctuary in order to cultivate the skills of attention. We cultivate these skills to gradually transform our senses into a sanctuary that we can bring out into world.

After a few months of practice, I no longer needed an ornament on my door. I usually don’t even need to close it. When the phone rings, I let it ring. Of course there are times when I do close the door or turn off my phone, but these feel like options now instead of requirements. I can relax or tighten my grip on allowing distractions and see what happens. Working in this way helps me bring these strategies out into the world. I’m a little more willing to let the cell phones of strangers ring at the grocery store without them preventing me from doing a few reps of concentration and equanimity strengthening exercises while I’m waiting in line.  

Monday, August 09, 2010

Satisfied with the Mystery

Abell 2218: A Galaxy Cluster Lens

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man...I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence—as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

~ Albert Einstein, from The World as I See It


[Thanks for the Einstein quote, Liv!]

Saturday, August 07, 2010

At the Heart of Change

The first few sentences of “Forgetting” by W.S. Merwin, from The Book of Fables:

First you must know that the whole of the physical world floats in each of the senses at the same time. Each of them reveals to us a different aspect of the kingdom of change. But none of them reveals the unnamable stillness that unites them. At the heart of change it lies unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling, unchanging, holding within itself the beginning and the end. It is ours. It is our only possession. Yet we cannot take it in to our hands, which change, nor see it with our eyes, which change, nor hear it or taste it or smell it. None of the senses can come to it. Except backwards.

Any more than they can come to each other.

Yet they point the way. And most authoritatively as they disappear.

Friday, August 06, 2010

I Have No Priest, My Tongue is My Choir

Samurai Song
by Robert Pinsky, from Jersey Rain

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.


[Thanks Stacey Donovan!]

Both in the Body and in the Mind

From the introduction to Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections between Yoga & Buddhism edited by Michael Stone:

Over the years, I’ve found it increasingly frustrating that Yoga is continually reduced to a body practice and Buddhism to a mind practice. This makes no sense at all. Anyone who has practiced deeply in both traditions knows that the Buddha gave attention to the body and Patanjali to the mind, and that both traditions value ethical precepts and commitments as the foundation of an appropriate livelihood.

In the Buddha’s teachings the body serves as the primary object of meditation, so we can study the universe not through books or theory but through our subjective experience. Likewise, the Yoga postures, when practiced with breathing and sensitivity, become opportunities for deep meditative insight because they are designed to calm the nervous system. This grounds us. When we move within the various poses and tune in to the internal energetic patterns of our breath, we are working with the habits of mind as well. The postures we practice in modern Yoga studios have obvious therapeutic benefits at the physiological level, but some teachers and schools seem to have forgotten that the postures also teach us how to work with the mind. And for most of us, our troubles are not simply in the body but primarily in the mind. How can we use the body to study the mind, and work with the mind through the body? By experiencing how the two are completely interrelated.

Read more…

A Pervasive Sense of Dread and Guilt

Excerpt from “The Publication of ‘Hiroshima’ in The New Yorker,” by Steve Rothman:

New Yorker cover, August 31, 2946 A year after World War II ended, a leading American weekly magazine published a striking description of what life was like for those who survived a nuclear attack. The article, simply titled "Hiroshima," was published by The New Yorker in its August 31, 1946 issue. The thirty-one thousand word article displaced virtually all other editorial matter in the issue.

"Hiroshima" traced the experiences of six residents who survived the blast of August 6, 1945 at 8: 15 am. There was a personnel clerk, Miss Toshiko Sasaki; a physician, Dr. Masakazu Fujii; a tailor's widow with three small children, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura; a German missionary priest, Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge; a young surgeon, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki; and a Methodist pastor, the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto. The article told the story of their experiences, starting from when the six woke up that morning, to what they were doing the moment of the blast and the next few hours, continuing through the next several days and then ending with the situations of the six survivors several months later.

The article, written by John Hersey, created a blast of its own in the publishing world. The New Yorker sold out immediately, and requests for reprints poured in from all over the world. Following publication, "Hiroshima" was read on the radio in the United States and abroad. Other magazines reviewed the article and referred their readers to it. The Book-of-the-Month Club sent a copy of the article in book form to its entire membership as a free selection. Later that fall, "Hiroshima" was published as a book by Alfred A. Knopf and has remained in print ever since.

"Hiroshima" was not the first exposure that readers had to the events that took place on August 6. Many articles in the popular press described the destruction of the city, such as a Collier's story published in the spring of 1946 crammed full of details about the power of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ("at a distance of 4,200 feet—about eight tenths of a mile—the pressure was 2,160 pounds a square foot") and anecdotes about the horrific effects of nuclear weapons on human beings ("Men in black-striped shirts were burned in strips. Heat stenciled dress figures onto the bodies of women."). Collier's also included an artist's rendition of the effect of a nuclear blast on downtown Manhattan. But most of these stories steered clear of details that would help readers identify with the dead or the survivors. Usually, "the statistics of devastation and death were simply recited as prefatory to a plea for international control, civil defense, or some other cause. On a canvas whose broadbrush background scenes were already familiar, Hersey etched several vividly realized foreground figures.

The direct effect of "Hiroshima" on the American public is difficult to gauge. No mass movement formed as a result of the article, no laws were passed, and reaction to the piece probably didn't have any specific impact on U.S. military strategy or foreign policy. But certainly the vivid depictions in the book must have been a strong contributor to a pervasive sense of dread (and guilt) about nuclear weaponry felt by many Americans ever since August 1945.


This Cruel Destructive Power


Atomic Dawn
by Gary Snyder, from Danger on Peaks

The day I first climbed Mt. St. Helens was August 13, 1945.

Spirit Lake was far from the cities of the valley and news came slow.
Though the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima August 6
and the second dropped on Nagasaki August 9, photographs didn't
appear in the Portland Oregonian until August 12. Those papers must
have been driven in to Spirit Lake on the 13th. Early the morning of
the 14th I walked over to the lodge to check the bulletin board. There
were whole pages of the paper pinned up: photos of a blasted city
from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone, the
American scientist quoted as saying "nothing will grow there again
for seventy years." The morning sun on my shoulders, the fir forest
smell and the big tree shadows; feet in thin moccasins feeling the
ground, and my heart still one with the snowpeak mountain at my
back. Horrified, blaming scientists and politicians and the govern-
ments of the world, I swore a vow to myself, something like, "By
the purity and beauty and permanence of Mt. St. Helens, I will fight
against this cruel destructive power and those who would seek to
use it, for all my life."

The Stage is too Big

This mosaic image of the Crab Nebula was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space, and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

~ Richard Feynman, speaking in 1959, quoted by James Gleick in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Virginity of Happiness

Three poems by Anna Swir from Talking to My Body:

Happy as a Dog’s Tail

Happy as something unimportant   
and free as a thing unimportant.   
As something no one prizes
and which does not prize itself.   
As something mocked by all
and which mocks at their mockery.   
As laughter without serious reason.   
As a yell able to outyell itself.   
Happy as no matter what,
as any no matter what.

as a dog’s tail.

*     *     *

That Would Not Be Good

When I am alone
I am afraid to turn
too quickly.
What is behind my back
may not, after all, be ready
to take a shape suitable
for human eyes.
And that would not be good.

*     *     *


One must be brave to live through   
a day. What remains
is nothing but the pleasure of longing—very precious.

purifies as does flying, strengthens as does an effort,   
it fashions the soul
as work
fashions the belly.

It is like an athlete, like a runner   
who will never
stop running. And this
gives him endurance.

is nourishing for the strong.   
It is like a window
on a high tower, through which   
blows the wind of strength.

Virginity of happiness.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

You Have to Find Out

The Poet's View from The Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org/dvd)


Excerpt from “Gardening Notes: America's New Poet Laureate,” by Ed Lake, The National (July 25, 2010):

For [Merwin, poetry] involves more than just the…musical effects…A kind of conceptual harmony is required, a gradual perception of the poem’s ideal shape emerging through draft after draft. “I can’t say what it is, but when it’s right, when it sounds right, then it is right,” he says. “Sometimes getting it right means a whole new aspect of what you’re talking about. And I tell students that writing comes from listening, that poetry comes from listening, and they inevitably say: ‘Listening to what?’ And I say: ‘That’s what you have to find out.’”