Friday, October 29, 2010

The Instant Hand of Death

Picnic, Lightning 
by Billy Collins

It is possible to be struck by a
meteor or a single-engine plane while
reading in a chair at home. Pedestrians
are flattened by safes falling from
rooftops mostly within the panels of
the comics, but still, we know it is
possible, as well as the flash of
summer lightning, the thermos toppling
over, spilling out on the grass.
And we know the message can be
delivered from within. The heart, no
valentine, decides to quit after
lunch, the power shut off like a
switch, or a tiny dark ship is
unmoored into the flow of the body's
rivers, the brain a monastery,
defenseless on the shore. This is
what I think about when I shovel
compost into a wheelbarrow, and when
I fill the long flower boxes, then
press into rows the limp roots of red
impatiens — the instant hand of Death
always ready to burst forth from the
sleeve of his voluminous cloak. Then
the soil is full of marvels, bits of
leaf like flakes off a fresco,
red-brown pine needles, a beetle quick
to burrow back under the loam. Then
the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the
clouds a brighter white, and all I
hear is the rasp of the steel edge
against a round stone, the small
plants singing with lifted faces, and
the click of the sundial as one hour
sweeps into the next.

Containing and Contained by Infinite Space

Excerpts from Antony Gormley (Contemporary Artists) by John Hutchinson, E.H. Gombrich, and Lela B. Njatin:

To Meister Eckhart, art was religion and religion art. Artistic form, in his view, was a revelation of essence, a kind of revelation that is both living and active. “Work,” he wrote, “comes from the outward and from the inner man, but the innermost man takes no part in it. In making a thing the very innermost self of a man comes into outwardness.”

Much of Antony Gormley’s art is based on his understanding of Western and Eastern spiritual traditions, and his work resonates when it is placed in this context. Like Eckhart — or, indeed like Joseph Beuys — Gormley believes that the artist is not a special kind of man, but that every man is a special kind of artist…He works with “types,” with universals, and yet he roots his work in subjective experience…But what concerns Gormley more than anything else, is the paradoxical manner in which man, while containing infinite space, is also contained by it…His sculpture deals with what he sees as the “deep space” of the interior body, yet he is also concerned with “touch as gravity” and “gravity as the attraction that binds us to the earth.” Its key strength, perhaps, lies in the artist’s determination to accept nothing until is has been lived and internalized. Gormley’s work is structured and methodical, preconceived to a certain point, and then realized in the process of making.

To Gormley, the body has a relation to the external space within which it exists as well as to the inner space it contains. And in a [1991] installation made for “Places with a Past,” an exhibition of site-specific art at Charleston, South Carolina, Gormley combined a series of works — Host, Field, Three Bodies, Learning to Think, Fruit and Cord — in order to explore that relationship. The Old City Jail, which contained and became part of the installation, could be described as having the shape of a body: the original rectangular structure is rather like a torso; its later octagonal addition, like a head. And in order to emphasize its parallels with his body cases, which are sometimes connected to the outside world through orifices, Gormley removed the boards and glazing that had sealed up the prison’s doors and windows. This allowed light and sound to enter the prison, to enliven what had hitherto been dark and dormant, and to engage time as an active element in the installation. In the artist’s words, “the building became a catalyst for reflection on liberty and incarceration.”

Old Jail, Charleston, exterior

One the second floor, Field, a set of terracotta figurines, faced a similar vast space that contained only Three Bodies—large metal spheres, made of steel and air, which the aritst has described as “like celestial bodies fallen from the sky.”

American Field, Antony Gormley (1991)

Above Field was Learning to Think, five headless lead body cases that were suspended from the ceiling, in a contradictory evocation of both lynching and ascension. The corresponding space held Host, a room containing mud and sea water — “The surface of the earth described in Genesis…the unformed, the place of possibility, a place waiting for the seed,” according to Gormley

Learning to Think, Antony Gormley (1991)

In the octagonal extension, two related organic forms, Fruit, were hung on either side of a wall. Only one was visible at a time in order “to reconcile opposites not in terms of differentiation but by mirroring,” Hidden from view, and at the center of each sculpture, was a space once occupied by the artist’s own body, linked to the other side, though mouth and genitals, by steel pipes. The final piece was Cord, made of many tubes inside one another — a kind of umbilical lifeline between the “seen” and “unseen.”

Body & Fruit, 1991/93

In this installation, one of great richness and complexity, Gormley brought into play the full panoply of his ambition. Working with lead and clay, as well as with the four elements, Gormley alluded to physical and spiritual containment, body and mind, outer and inner worlds, feeling and thinking, birth and death, growth and decay. And if the contradictions inherent in Learning to See (1991) Learning to See give strength to the artist’s conception of inner vision, the dualities evoked by the installation at Charleston are subservient to a sense of passage towards expansiveness. The emotional depth of the work can be ascribed to its refusal to exclude either the particular or the universal: it encompasses both historical specificity and a sense of shared human experience. In formal terms, this is achieved by the undermining of the Modernist notion of the self-referential object. While each of the elements of the installation can be separately contemplated, they are most meaningful when perceived as parts of a larger whole. In that sense, they are like parts of a body.

More Like a Rut

by John Ashbery, from Planisphere: New Poems (2009)

Just as the day could use another hour,
I need another idea. Not a concept
or a slogan. Something more like a rut
made thousands of years ago by one of the first
wheels as it rolled along. It never came back
to see what it had done, and the rut
just stayed there, not thinking of itself
or calling attention to itself in any way.
Sun baked it. Water stood, or rather sat
in it. Wind covered it with dust, then blew it
away. Always it was available to itself
when it wished to be, which wasn't often.

Then there was a cup and ball theory
I told you about. A lot of people had left the coast.
Squirt conditions obtained. I forgot I overwhelmed you
once upon a time, between everybody's sound sleep
and waking afterward, trying to piece together
what had happened. The rut glimmered
through centuries of snow and after.
I suppose it was trying to make some point
but we never found out about that,
having come to know each other years later
when our interest in zoning had revived again.

The Best Our Species Can Do


by Georges Whitesides, from No Small Matter: Science on the Nanoscale

We’re burdened by a curious conditioning that blinds us to one of the greatest — perhaps the greatest — of  art forms. We live for poetry; we live in terror of equations.

We see a poem, and we try it on for size: we read a line or two; we roll it around in our mind; we see how it fits and tastes and sounds. We may not like it, and let it drop, but we enjoy the encounter and look forward to the next. We see an equation, and it is as if we’d glimpsed a tarantula in the baby’s crib. We panic.

An equation can be a thing of such beauty and subtlety that only a poem can equal it. As an evocation of reality — as the shortest of descriptions, but describing worlds — it is hard to beat the most artful of poems and, equally, of equations. They are the best our species can do.

Equations are the poetry that we use to describe the behavior of electrons and atoms, just as we use poems to describe ourselves. Equations may be all we have: sometimes word fail, since words best describe what we have experienced, and behaviors at the smallest scale are forever beyond our direct experience.

Consider Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
Like a hook in an eye

A fish hook
An open eye

Consider Louis de Broglie (a twentieth-century physicist, and an architect of quantum mechanics):

λ = h/mv

Read the equation as if it were poetry — a condensed description of a reality we can only see from the corner of our eye. The “equals” sign is the equivalent of “is,” and makes the equation a sentence: “A moving object is a wave.” Huh? What did you just say? How can that be?

It’s an idea worth trying on for size. Poetry describes humanity with a human voice; equations describe a reality beyond the reach of words. Playing a fugue, and tasting fresh summer tomatoes, and writing poetry, and falling in love all ultimately devolve into molecules and electrons, but we cannot yet (and perhaps, ever) trace that path from one end (from molecules) to other (us). Not with poetry, nor with equations. But each guides us part way.

Of course, not all equations are things of beauty: some are porcupines, some are plumber’s helpers, and some are tarantulas.

*     *     *     *

I’m a chemist. My universe is nuclei and electrons, and the almost endless ways they can assemble. Atoms are just at the border between ordinary, macroscopic matter and matter dominated by the Alice-in-Wonderland rules of quantum mechanics. Electrons, in particular, have the unnerving property of having mass and charge but no extent — no size. There’s no tiny BB down in their core, as there is a nucleus sitting at the center of an atom. “Ah,” you say, “that’s strange. If there’s nothing there, what is it that has a mass? And what’s charged?” Good question…

…As a chemist, I’ve come to uneasy terms with the weirdness of electrons and photons, and with their ability to meld into the ordinariness of macroscopic things. But sometimes, lying awake in a strange hotel room at 4 a.m., considering what I might say that I really understand about anything, I fret that the answer is: almost nothing.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Useful Anyone

A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Cast of Thousands
by Sandra Beasley, from I Was the Jukebox

When they make a movie of this war
I am minute ninety-seven, soot tears
applied with a Q-tip, the one whose roof
collapses on her head before
her pie is done. Look how I look at you—
the apple and the apple’s knife still rolled
into my skirt, eyes wide as gin. The blast,
then ash. The director cried Cut!
More ash, he said, and they bombed me again.
My death is the clip they send to the Academy;
later they will kill me in Spanish, then French.
I will die on mute, on airplanes, row after row
of my tiny, touchscreened dying. My love,
I have joined the cast of thousands: me
and the plucky urchin, the scared infantryman,
me and the woman whose laminated beauty
sells gyros on every Greek storefront—
a useful anyone who advances the story,
then drops away. In your dream
six months from now I’ll make a cameo
as the customer with an unfocused smile,
offering a twenty as the register
begins to shake and smolder under your hands.
The coins will rise and spit silver into the air.
The coins will rise and spit silver into the air.
They buried my village a house at a time,
unable to sort a body holding from a body held,
and in minute ninety-six you can see me raise
my arms as if to keep the sky from falling.

Kirstin O'Carroll in Public Enemies (2009)

Survive with Me

Body, Remember...

Bedroom Window. October 2010

Σώμα, θυμήσου όχι μόνο το πόσο αγαπήθηκες,
όχι μονάχα τα κρεββάτια όπου πλάγιασες,
αλλά κ’ εκείνες τες επιθυμίες που για σένα
γυάλιζαν μες στα μάτια φανερά,
κ’ ετρέμανε μες στην φωνή —  και κάποιο
τυχαίον εμπόδιο τες ματαίωσε.
Τώρα που είναι όλα πια μέσα στο παρελθόν,
μοιάζει σχεδόν και στες επιθυμίες
εκείνες σαν να δόθηκες — πώς γυάλιζαν,
θυμήσου, μες στα μάτια που σε κύτταζαν·
πώς έτρεμαν μες στην φωνή, για σε, θυμήσου, σώμα.

Bedroom. October 2009

Body, remember not just how much you were loved,
not simply those beds on which you have lain,
but also the desire for you that shone
plainly in the eyes that gazed at you,
and quavered in the voice for you, though
by some chance obstacle was finally forestalled.
Now that everything is finally in the past,
it seems as though you did yield to those desires —
how they shone, remember, in the eyes that gazed at you,
how they quavered in the voice for you — body, remember.

C. P. Cavafy, from Collected Poems: Bilingual Edition. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

[Thanks, Jonathan Carroll!]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

If We Could See Them As They Are

West Second Avenue. October 19, 2010

If You Knew
by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line

What if you knew you'd be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line's crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn't signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won't say Thank you, I don't remember
they're going to die.

A friend told me she'd been with her aunt.
They'd just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt's powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon's spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

Sketchy Subway Artist

Excerpt from “An iPhone Artist Haunts the Subways,” by Emily B. Hager, New York Times, October 22, 2010:

R train. 10/21/10 (Eric Molinsky) Click here to watch video. Eric Molinsky does not like to get caught. One recent afternoon on a Manhattan-bound R train, Mr. Molinsky, a freelance radio producer and inveterate people-watcher, slid into position. He scanned the not-yet-packed car. At one end, two aging New York dames laughed. Mr. Molinsky, 39, set his sights on the blonde.

He is not a stalker. He is an artist who secretly draws fellow subway riders on his iPhone, and has collected scores of New York characters on his blog. “Usually if my cover is blown,” Mr. Molinsky explained, “it’s kind of a slippery slope to the drawing just not really happening in the end.” Using his index finger and the application Sketchbook, he quickly drew a crude black-and-white outline of the woman’s face and then began to add layers of color. A base of skin tone, yellow for her dyed hair, green spectacles.

The woman looked up. “It doesn’t really affect my drawing if they know I’m drawing them,” Mr. Molinsky said. “But it does make me a little bit more self-conscious about it and makes me wonder if they’re going to come over and take a look and maybe say, ‘Hey I don’t look anything like that.’ ”

Read the entire City Room post…

See also: The Subway Issue, “the first-ever themed issue of The Times’s Sunday Metropolitan section.”

Can’t Read if We Don’t Teach Them


Lyrics from Shine
by John Legend, for the documentary Waiting for “Superman”

So dark, but I see sparks, if we don't snuff them out.
We gotta let them flame, let them speak their name.
Let them reach up to the clouds.
Can't eat if we don't feed them.
Can't read if we don't teach them.
There's no line if we just hide them.
Don't just let them die.

Let them shine.
Let them shine on.
Let them shine.
Let them shine on.

Stars flicker in the distance, lonely out in space.
They sing out when we're not listening, because we don't see their face.
We can let them die, we can make them high.
Hold the little miracles that live inside.
Let them shine.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Coming Home

Home. October 25, 2010

Please Bring Strange Things
by Ursula K. LeGuin

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
and the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
and your outbreath be the shining of ice.
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well-loved one,
walk mindfully, well-loved one,
walk fearlessly, well-loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.


[Thanks, Jonathan Carroll!]

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It Never Gets Any Easier

Jason Ordway, of Bellbrook, Ohio, won  the men's division of the 2010 Nationwide Better Health Marathon in 2:18:08, qualifying for U.S. Olympic time trials.“Some think elite athletes have an easy time of it. [Nothing could be further from the truth.  And as athletes improve — getting faster and beating their own records — ] “it never gets any easier. You hurt just as much…Knowing how to accept that allows people to improve their performance.”

~ Dr. Jeroen Swart, from “How to Push Past the Pain, as the Champions Do,” by Gina Kolata, New York Times, Oct. 18, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Expression of the Whole Realm of Nature

Harrison West. October 20, 2010

"We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that ‘I myself’ is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which ‘confronts’ an ‘external’ world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. ‘I came into this world.’ ‘You must face reality.’ ‘The conquest of nature.’

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.’ Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated egos inside bags of skin.”

~ Alan Watts, from The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

[Thanks, Whiskey River!]

At the Core

Sam Harris (Photo by Jonathan Alcorn / Zuma) “I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have…Ecstasy, rapture, bliss, concentration, a sense of the sacred—I’m comfortable with all of that…I think all of that is indispensable and I think it’s frankly lost on much of the atheist community.”

~ Sam Harris, from “Sam Harris Believes in God,” Newsweek, October 18, 2010

How are We Going to Be Able to Live Together?

Excerpts from “Restoring Political Civility,” a conversation between Krista Tippet and Richard Mouw (president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics and author or Uncommon Decency), Being, October 14, 2010:

Richard Mouw: …to be civil comes from civitas and it means learning how to live in the city. The origin with a guy like Aristotle, the ancient philosopher, who said early on, as little children, we have a natural sense of kinship. We have strong positive feelings toward those who are blood relatives, my mother, my father, sisters and brothers, cousins and the like. And then as we grow up, we have some of those same positive feelings that develop toward friends. So we go from kinship and we build on that to a broader sense of friendship where you have that same sense of bonding or something like it that isn't just based on blood relative stuff.

But he said to really grow up, to be a mature human being, is to learn in the public square to have that same sense of bonding to people from other cities, people who are very different than yourself. And that's not just toleration, but is a sense that what I owe to my mother because she brought me into this world, what I owe to my friends because of shared experiences and memories and delights, I also owe to the stranger. Why? Because they're human like me and I got to begin to think of humanness as such as a kind of bonding relationship

Krista Tippett: So here's another statement from you about just an essential Christian truth, which is, "In affirming the stranger, we are honoring the image of God."

Richard Mouw: Oh, yeah. That's right. Going back to that Aristotle idea that, you know, we all understand kinship and then we understand friendship, but then there's this person who is neither kin nor friend, but we have encountered them. And what is it that links me to them if it isn't just a lot of good feelings that I have about people like that? What the Bible teaches is that every human being is created in a divine image. And this means that every human being is — you know, this is where I've been thinking more about this lately — is a work of art.

Seeing other people is a kind of exercise in art appreciation. I find that very powerful. I come across a person who isn't just a stranger, but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person, and then to think this is a work of art by the God whom I worship, that God created that person. And it doesn't come easy. I'm kind of aesthetically deprived, so I have to work at it, but it's a very important exercise to engage in.

Krista Tippett: You have been very clear and open across the years, for example, about your theological opposition to gay marriage. I could imagine that someone who is homosexual might hear what you just said and feel that in fact that doesn't find expression when you look at them.

Richard Mouw: Well, and — and it should. I have really tried to emphasize the fact that even in expressing our disagreements — and this is a very complicated thing — but that we're dealing with people who are precious works of divine art. You know, I have argued on a number of occasions and actually gotten some very positive response from folks in the gay-lesbian community that maybe — I even wrote a Newsweek piece on this.

You know, maybe it's time to stop yelling at each other and accusing each other in public and maybe we ought to just sit down and turn the agenda into something like this where I would ask my gay and lesbian activist friends, "what is it about people like me that scare you so much? And that you in turn would listen to me when I say, what is it about what you are advocating that worries me so much about the future of our culture and the world in which my grandchildren are being raised? And that we talk about hopes and fears rather than angrily denouncing each other as homophobes or as people who are engaged in, you know, despicable behavior, but could that shape a very different kind of discussion." As we move toward — the really important question is how are we going to be able to live together in this pluralistic society with at least some better understanding of what motivates us beneath the angry denunciations and things?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Little Brother Dwells Inside Us

Excerpt from “Little Brother is Watching,” by Walter Kirn, New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 12, 2010:

In George Orwell’s “1984,” that novel of totalitarian politics whose great mistake was to emphasize the villainy of society’s masters while playing down the mischief of the masses, the goal of communications technology was brutal and direct: to ensure the dominance of the state. The sinister “telescreens” placed in people’s homes spewed propaganda and conducted surveillance, keeping the population passive and the leadership firmly in control. In the face of constant monitoring, all people could do was sterilize their behavior, conceal their thoughts and carry on like model citizens.

This was, it turns out, a quaint scenario, grossly simplistic and deeply melodramatic. As the Internet proves every day, it isn’t some stern and monolithic Big Brother that we have to reckon with as we go about our daily lives, it’s a vast cohort of prankish Little Brothers equipped with devices that Orwell, writing 60 years ago, never dreamed of and who are loyal to no organized authority. The invasion of privacy — of others’ privacy but also our own, as we turn our lenses on ourselves in the quest for attention by any means — has been democratized.

Ours is a fragmentarian society, infinitely divided against itself and endlessly disrupted from within by much the same technologies that, in Orwell’s somber novel, assured a dull and deadening stability. In some ways, his nightmare vision of state control is cozy and reassuring by comparison. Big Brother may have stifled dissent by forcing conformity on his frightened subjects, but his trespasses were predictable and manageable. What’s more, his assaults on citizens’ privacy left the concept of privacy intact, allowing the possibility that with his overthrow people might live again as they once had.

Little Brother affords us no such luck, in part because he dwells inside us rather than in some remote and walled-off headquarters. In the new, chaotic regime of networked lenses and microphones that point every which way and rest in every hand, permitting us to train them on ourselves as easily as we aim them at one another, the private and public realms are so confused that it’s best to treat them as identical.

Read the entire essay…

Obliterating Boundaries

Home. October 19, 2010“More than ever, I have come to appreciate how deeply and passionately most of us live within ourselves. Our attachments are ferocious. Our loves overwhelm us, define us, obliterate the boundaries between ourselves and others.”

~ Paul Auster, from I Thought My Father was God: And Other True Stories from NPR’s National Story Project

[Thanks, Mary!]

We All Have the Capacity

“Kids will take a chance and if they don’t know they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies this way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said that ‘All children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.’ I believe this passionately. We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

~ Ken Robinson

“This animate was adapted from a talk given at the RSA by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert and recipient of the RSA's Benjamin Franklin award.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Walking the Razor’s Edge

Excerpt from “This Very Moment,” by Charlotte Joko Beck, from Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path:

Phillipe Petite (Man on Wire) Always we have an illusion of being separate, which we have created. When we’re threatened or when life doesn’t please us, we start worrying, we start thinking about a possible solution. And without exception there is no person who doesn’t do this. We dislike being with life as it is because that can include suffering, and that is not acceptable to us. Whether it’s a serious illness or a minor criticism or being lonely or disappointed—that is not acceptable to us. We have no intention of putting up with that or just being that if we can possibly avoid it. We want to fix the problem, solve it, get rid of it. That is when we need to understand the practice of walking the razor’s edge. Spiritual practice is about understanding the razor’s edge and how to work with it.

The point at which we need to practice walking the razor’s edge is whenever we begin to be upset (angry, irritated, resentful, jealous). First, we need to know we’re upset. Many people don’t even know that upset is taking place. When we meditate and begin to know our minds and our reactions, we begin to be aware that yes, we are upset.

The Man Who Walked Between The Towers by Mordicai GersteinThat’s the first step, but it’s not the razor’s edge. We’re still separate, but now we know it. How do we bring our separated life together? To walk the razor’s edge is to do that; we have once again to be what we basically are, which is seeing, touching, hearing, smelling; we have to experience whatever our life is, right this second. If we’re upset we have to experience being upset. If we’re frightened, we have to experience being frightened. If we’re jealous we have to experience being jealous. And such experiencing is physical; it has nothing to do with the thoughts going on about the upset.

When we are experiencing nonverbally we are walking the razor’s edge—we are in the present moment. When we walk the edge the agonizing states of separateness are pulled together, and we experience perhaps not happiness but joy. Understanding the razor’s edge (and not just understanding it, but doing it) is what meditation practice is. The reason it’s difficult is that we don’t want to do it. We know we don’t want to do it. We want to escape from it.

If I feel that I’ve been hurt by you, I want to stay with my thoughts about the hurt. I want to increase my separation; it feels good to be consumed by those fiery, self-righteous thoughts. By thinking, I try to avoid feeling the pain. The more sophisticated my practice becomes, the more quickly I see this trap and return to experiencing the pain, the razor’s edge. And where I might once have stayed upset for two years, the upset shrinks to two months, two weeks, two minutes. Eventually I can experience an upset as it happens and stay right on the razor’s edge.

In fact the enlightened life is simply being able to walk that edge all the time. And while I don’t know anyone who can always do this, certainly after years of practice we can do it much of the time. It is joy to walk that edge.

Still, it is necessary to acknowledge that most of the time we want nothing to do with that edge; we want to stay separate. We want the sterile satisfaction of wallowing in “I am right.” That’s a poor satisfaction, of course, but still we will usually settle for a diminished life rather than experience life as it is when that seems painful and distasteful.

All troublesome relationships at home and work are born of the desire to stay separate. By this strategy we hope to be a separate person who really exists, who is important. When we walk the razor’s edge we’re not important; we’re no-self, embedded in life. This we fear—even though life as no-self is pure joy. Our fear drives us to stay over here in our lonely self-righteousness. The paradox: only in walking the razor’s edge, in experiencing the fear directly, can we know what it is to have no fear.

phillipe petite-2Now I realize we can’t see this all at once or do it all at once. Sometimes we jump onto the razor’s edge and then hop off, like water dropped on a sizzling frying pan. That may be all we can do at first, and that’s fine. But the more we practice, the more comfortable we become there. We find it’s the only place where we are at peace. So many people say, “I want to be at peace.” Yet there may be little understanding of how peace is to be found. Walking the razor’s edge is it. No one wants to hear that. We want somebody who will take our fear away or promise us happiness. No one wants to hear the truth, and we won’t hear it until we are ready to hear it.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Settling Out of Court

"Mindfulness is a practice of attentive yielding and accepting in the body, in the emotions, which gradually dissolves our futile root habit of conducting a kind of emotional lawsuit with everything that balks us or threatens us in any way. Energy previously blocked in controlling ourselves or wasted in negative, self-centered discharge becomes available for making appropriate and positive response (including warm, outgoing feelings) to situations we encounter."

~ “Mindful Social Action,” by Ken Jones from Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Taming Extremism by Promoting Education

Excerpt from “What Oman Can Teach Us,” by Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, October 13, 2010:

oman In short, one of the lessons of Oman is that one of the best and most cost-effective ways to tame extremism is to promote education for all.

Many researchers have found links between rising education and reduced conflict. One study published in 2006, for example, suggested that a doubling of primary school enrollment in a poor country was associated with halving the risk of civil war. Another found that raising the average educational attainment in a country by a single grade could significantly reduce the risk of conflict.

Sorry if this emphasis on education sounds like a cliché. It’s widely acknowledged in theory, and President Obama pledged as a candidate that he would start a $2 billion global education fund. But nothing has come of it. Instead, he’s spending 50 times as much this year alone on American troops in Afghanistan — even though military solutions don’t have as good a record in trouble spots as education does.

The pattern seems widespread: Everybody gives lip service to education, but nobody funds it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On the Surface of Everyday Life


by Pablo Neruda, from Las Piedras del Cielo

Leave me a place underground, a labyrinth,
where I can go, when I wish to turn,
without eyes, without touch,
in the void, to dumb stone,
or the finger of shadow.

I know that you cannot, no one, no thing
can deliver up that place, or that path,
but what can I do with my pitiful passions,
if they are no use, on the surface
of everyday life,
if I cannot look to survive,
except by dying, going beyond, entering
into the state, metallic and slumbering,
of primeval flame?

Born Again

Victor Zamora gives the cameras a thumbs up after being saved from the mine. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

"Under the earth there is a ray of light, my path, and faith is the last thing that is lost...I have been born again."

~ Víctor Zamora Bugueño, carrier pigeon handler, poet, and the fourteenth minor rescued from the Copiapo mine today.

*     *     *     *     *

From “Trapped Miners Celebrate Independence,” by Karl Penhaul, CNN, September 20, 2010:

Zamora, who has a 4-year-old son Arturo, has emerged as the poet among the 33 trapped miners. He has composed rhymes praising the rescue workers and the valor of his fellow miners.

"He's discovered something beautiful down there," his mother said. "He writes letters like poems."

"I guess he's discovered that talent because he was was in pain being so far from his loved ones," wife Cortes said.

*     *     *     *     *


See also: “Why Poetry is as Essential as Air,” by Paul Vallely,The Independent, September 12, 2010

The Combustion of Egoistic Delusions

Excerpt from “This Very Moment,” by Charlotte Joko Beck, from Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path:

Back in the 1920s, when I was maybe eight or ten years old, and living in New Jersey where the winters are cold, we had a furnace in our house that burned coal. It was a big event on the block when the coal truck rolled up and all this stuff poured down the coal chute into the coal bin. I learned that there are two kinds of coal: one was called anthracite or hard coal, and the other was lignite, soft coal. My father told me about the difference in the way those two kinds of coal burned. Anthracite burns cleanly, leaving little ash. Lignite leaves lots of ash. When we burned lignite, the cellar became covered with soot and some of it got upstairs into the living room.

What does this have to do with our practice? Practice is about breaking our exclusive identification with ourselves. This process has sometimes been called purifying the mind. To “purify the mind” doesn’t mean that you become holy or other than you are; it means to strip away that which keeps a person—or furnace—from functioning best.  The furnace functions best with hard coal. But unfortunately what we’re full of is soft coal. There’s a saying in the Bible: “He is like a refiner’s fire.” It’s a common analogy, found in other religions as well. To sit in meditation is to be in the middle of a refining fire. Eido Roshi said once, “This meditation hall is not a peaceful haven, but a furnace room for the combustion of our egoistic delusions.” A meditation hall is not a place for bliss and relaxation, but a furnace room for the combustion of our egoistic delusions. What tools do we need to use? Only one. We’ve all heard of it, yet we use it very seldom. It’s called attention.

Attention is the cutting, burning sword, and our practice is to use that sword as much as we can. None of us is very willing to use it; but when we do—even for a few minutes—some cutting and burning take place. All practice aims to increase our ability to be attentive, not just in meditation but in every moment of our life.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Changing All the Time

“For a while, people had this notion that plasticity must be a good thing. It’s a good thing that the brain can change because we can learn new things—and that’s true. But if plasticity is an intrinsic property of the brain, it’s neither good nor bad. It’s just the way it is…I think we’re now learning that, in fact, the brain is changing all the time, that the brain is changing with everything we think and with everything we experience. And so the challenge is to learn enough about it so that you can guide those changes.”

~ Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School

The Brain That Changes Itself from Andrew Girgis on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Intimacy You Get From Practicing

Flamenco guitarist and Zen practitioner Ottmar Liebert, from “Intimacy Through Practice,” Buddhist Geeks Podcast, September 13, 2010:

There’s a part of practice that I think is inherent in all different practices. The type of concentration, the familiarity, the intimacy that you get to whatever you’re practicing, whether it’s archery or Zen or music or how to make a perfect pancake. You won’t get there unless you get intimate with the subject. You only get there through practice. As you become more intimate, you know more about it, where you can say “This batter is too liquid or too solid or too warm too cold. It’ll act this way.” All that comes only through practice. It comes  up often in conversations with my friends about how people go about life these days, that they’re really not willing to practice anything.

The other day we got to talking about jeans. There’s only one of the old fashioned wooden looms in America. I think it’s actually in Raleigh, North Carolina. All the other ones were shipped to Japan, and that’s in the ‘50s. And that’s where you  get the superior denim because people are willing to make things by hand and become intimate with it. Whereas a lot of people in the United States or in Europe will just go, “I’d rather buy ten pairs at Walmart than buy one pair of really good jeans, even though the really good pair will probably outlast the ten pairs they buy at Walmart.” So, there’s a lack of that—you might say depth—that comes from not practicing, from not practicing a craft.

*     *     *     *     *

Raleigh Denim

Raleigh Denim: Handcrafted in North Carolina from David Huppert on Vimeo.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Backcountry of the Beyond

Hogback Hill (Kit Spahr)

Beyond Even This     
by Maggie Anderson

Who would have thought the afterlife would
look so much like Ohio? A small town place,
thickly settled among deciduous trees.
I lived for what seemed a very short time.
Several things did not work out.
Casually almost, I became another one
of the departed, but I had never imagined
the tunnel of hot wind that pulls
the newly dead into the dry Midwest
and plants us like corn. I am
not alone, but I am restless.
There is such sorrow in these geese
flying over, trying to find a place to land
in the miles and miles of parking lots
that once were soft wetlands. They seem
as puzzled as I am about where to be.
Often they glide, in what I guess is
a consultation with each other,
getting their bearings, as I do when
I stare out my window and count up
what I see. It's not much really:
one buckeye tree, three white frame houses,
one evergreen, five piles of yellow leaves.
This is not enough for any heaven I had
dreamed, but I am taking the long view.
There must be a backcountry of the beyond,
beyond even this and farther out,
past the dark smoky city on the shore
of Lake Erie, through the landlocked passages
to the Great Sweetwater Seas.

Kit Spahr

[Thanks for the poem, Linda, and the photos, Kit!]

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Repairing Smiles, Changing Lives

Smile Pinki
Directed by Megan Mylan
In Hindi and Bhojpuri with English subtitles
39 minutes
© 2008 Principe Productions

“Pinki is a five-year old girl in rural India born desperately poor and with a cleft lip. The simple surgery that can cure her is a distant dream until she meets Pankaj, a social worker traveling village to village gathering patients for a hospital that provides free surgery to thousands each year. Told in a vibrant vérité style, this real-world fairy tale follows its wide-eyed protagonist on a journey from isolation to embrace.”

Smile Pinki from Andrew Girgis on Vimeo.

Learn more about Smile Train.

[Thanks, Alex!]

To Want to See, but Not Being Able To

“There is always a paradox inherent in vision, an impossible desire to see yourself seeing. A lot of my work probes this tension; to want to see, but not being able to."

~ Spencer Finch


“Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004).” Photo: Art Evans/Mass MoCA

Excerpt from by Blake Gopnik’s exhibit review of “My Business with the Cloud,” at the Corcoran, Washington Post, September 9, 2010: 

"Passing Cloud," the single, giant piece that he's installed in the Corcoran's grand rotunda, gives a picture of the cloud in its title and of the light that passes through it. It does that by giving us the light itself along with the cloud. High under the room's dome Finch has suspended a huge "cloud" assembled from 110 crumpled theatrical gels in an assortment of pale blues and grays. Light piercing the rotunda's skylight passes through the tangle of filters on its way to us below, so that it winds up matching the blueness and brightness of the light we'd see on a bright day under a passing cloud.

Finch could have given us that cloud by painting or photographing it, like his great cloud-art predecessors John Constable and Alfred Stieglitz. But he prefers to make cloud art that actually works on us the way a cloud-filled reality would. Cross from one side of the rotunda to the other, while keeping your eyes focused on your hands or clothes, and you see the light on them pass from blue to a sunny yellow-white.

One way to understand Finch's piece, then, is to keep your eyes turned away from it. There aren't many other art works you can say that about. Is a cloud mostly about what it happens to look like or what it does? For Finch, it's the doing that matters.

NOW: Spencer Finch at the Corcoran from Corcoran Gallery of Art on Vimeo.

*     *     *     *     *

Excerpt from “Trying to Capture a Trick of Light, a Tug of Memory,” by Bridget L. Goodbody, New York Times, June 19, 2007:

In “What Time Is It on the Sun?” Spencer Finch takes viewers on a journey — equal parts psycho-autobiography, travel log and science experiment — to demonstrate that even with light and eyes, vision doesn’t give you unmediated access to the world.

Because he often uses light and color as his primary tools, it’s easy to place Mr. Finch among artists like James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson. But while Mr. Turrell’s goal is to illuminate light’s transcendent qualities, and Mr. Eliasson’s is to emphasize humanity’s place in nature’s construction, Mr. Finch wants to replicate, through scientific means, his experience of light and color in a specific place and at a specific time…

Mr. Finch is at his best when both the art and the science in his work embrace the poetic, as they do, literally, in “Peripheral Error (After Moritake).” These watercolors, exquisite small spots of jewel-like colors on otherwise large, blank sheets of paper, portray a butterfly — not head on, but out of the corner of the artist’s eye. The series pays homage to a haiku by the Japanese poet Moritake:

The falling flower

I saw drift back to the branch

was a butterfly

Cymothoe Coccinata
22” x 30”, Watercolor on Paper.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


"Transience is the force of time that makes a ghost of every experience. There was never a dawn, regardless how beautiful or promising, that did not grow into a noontime. There was never a noon that did not fall into afternoon. There was never an afternoon that did not fade toward evening. There never was a day yet that did not get buried in the graveyard of the night."

~ John O'Donohue

"Círculo" by Joaquín Turina performed by Trio Suleika. Movements: Amanecer (Dawn)-Mediodía (Noon)-Crepúsculo (Twilight). Live from the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, excerpt from the Dutch television programme "VPRO's Vrije Geluiden", February 2006. Trio Suleika consists of pianist Maurice Lammerts van Bueren, violinist Sanne Hunfeld and cellist Pepijn Meeuws.

A Complete Experience of Listening
by Daron Larson

We tend to respect and admire the development of musical performance skills while overlooking the benefits of cultivating a bit of discipline and training of our ability to listen. By default, most of us have developed a stunning and sophisticated repertoire for blocking out the world around us. We allocate the bulk of our attention inwardly toward the stories playing out in our minds.

Instead of seeing this as a flaw to obsess about, we can instead begin to explore the elements of this personal narrative. With consistent practice over time, we can become intimately familiar with its various component parts. We can even gain insight into the process working to edit it all together and making it seem so dramatic and difficult to ignore. We can become fascinated with the composition of this narrative and less caught up in its content. Paradoxically, the more familiar we become with the flow of our thoughts and feelings, the more directly and completely we experience the objective world around us.

At any given moment, we have a limited amount of attention to spend. Just being clear about what we are noticing can begin to change ordinary experience in simple yet profound ways. Listening to music offers a compelling doorway into this perspective. When we focus on one or more aspects of listening, we strengthen our ability to concentrate. When we explore music as an opportunity to cultivate attention, we also strengthen the ability to hear the musicality within the ordinary sounds we encounter in daily life. With consistent practice over time, we can even begin to experience the sense of wonder which sparks the human impulse to create music in the first place.

Explore this strategy from the beginning to end of a piece of music:

Restrict the main focus of your attention to listening to sounds around you and to verbal thinking.

There will almost certainly be additional stimulus in the background (visual activity, mental images, pleasant or unpleasant physical sensations, and sensations in the body that seem to be emotional in nature). There is no need to wrestle with any of these or to try to suppress them in any way. To the best of your ability, allow them to operate in the background while your primary attention rests on external or internal sounds.

Whenever you become aware that your primary attention has become focused on one of these background activities, gently bring it back to listening.

Let your attention drift and wander freely within the acoustic space around you as well as in the space where verbal thinking seems to be take place. This internal space varies for each individual. Not being completely sure if you are identifying it properly is a significant part of the process of becoming more familiar with it. We give musicians time to find their way into virtuosity, right? Give yourself time to become more intimately familiar with where verbal (and visual) thinking occurs.

Every few seconds, try to be as clear as possible whether you are listening to external sounds or internal sounds. Then just hang out with the activity of sound that you’ve noticed. Savor it. External sounds and verbal thinking count equally in this exercise. Try not to prefer one over the other. There is no need to try to suppress thinking. Get acquainted with it as internal sound. What matters is that you bring some effort to noticing where your attention is and whether it is focused externally (out) or inwardly (in).

You can support this process by using mental labels to help clarify and aim your attention. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of sounds around you, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: OUT. If you notice that your attention is resting on the activity of internal conversations, you can say to yourself in a soft, mentally whispered voice: IN.

That’s it! Just keep going until the end of the song and enjoy. Take breaks between practice periods as needed then try again. You might also want to explore some of these alternative strategies.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Power of Mindful Awareness

"The goal of becoming a better person is within the reach of us all, at every moment. The tool for emerging from the primitive yoke of conditioned responses to the tangible freedom of the conscious life lies just behind our brow. We need only invoke the power of mindful awareness in any action of body, speech, or mind to elevate that action from the unconscious reflex of a trained creature to the awakened choice of a human being who is guided to a higher life by wisdom."

~ Andrew Olendzki, Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism

Here is a video interview from May 2010 in which Andrew Olendzki discusses his book with Tricycle’s Joan Duncan Oliver.


[Thanks, Whiskey River!]

Through a Prism of Comedy

Jon Stewart, in conversation with Terry Gross, from “Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name In Fake News,” Fresh Air from WHYY, October 4, 2010:

Jon StewartThere was a congressional bill where they were going to get money for first responders for 9/11 for chronic health issues. And I mean, its a no-brainer. The people that went into the Towers—or were down there searching—to have their health bills taken care of and legislative maneuvering—the Democrats wouldn’t bring an up or down vote because if they did that the Republicans would be allowed to insert amendments. And one of the amendments that they could insert was that you could give any of the money to illegal aliens.

And so the Democrats were afraid that they would have a commercial that would be made that would say, you voted to give money to—so rather than standing up and being moral for the people that risked everything for us down there, they decided to try a legislative maneuver that made it so that two-thirds had to pass the bill, so that no amendments could be put in it. Well, the Republicans obviously, you know, shot it down—their own moral failing.

So we did a segment on the show called "I Give Up.”

And the ability to articulate our sense of just absolute sadness, but through a prism of comedy—like, we came in that morning just really despairing as we watched this go down. And we walked out that night feeling like we had yelled and felt, you know, we had put it through the prism and the synthesis and the digestive process that we put it through and we made ourselves feel better.

And we didn’t make ourselves feel better by ignoring it, by dismissing it, by not dealing with it. We made ourselves feel better by expressing our utter rage at the ineptness and lack of courage from our legislators and we walked out of there that night feeling like, you know, what, (bleep) good day's work. That was it.

Listen to the whole conversation here…

Monday, October 04, 2010

Unrequited Recogntition

by Michelle Y. Burke, from American Life in Poetry: Column 289

A man can give up so much,
can limit himself to handwritten correspondence,
to foods made of whole grains,
to heat from a woodstove, logs
hewn by his own hand and stacked neatly
like corpses by the backdoor.

He can play nocturnes by heart.
They will not make the beloved appear.
He can learn the names of all the birds
in the valley. Not one
will be enticed to learn his.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Don’t Kill Yourself, You Have to Stay

Excerpts from “On Suicide,” by Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Best American Poetry blog, January 11, 2010:

Tyler Clementi So I want to say this, and forgive me the strangeness of it. Don’t kill yourself. Life has always been almost too hard to bear, for a lot of the people, a lot of the time. It’s awful. But it isn’t too hard to bear, it’s only almost too hard to bear. Hear me out.

In the West, in the past, the dominant religions told people suicide was against the rules, they must not do it, if they did they would be punished in the afterlife. People killed themselves anyway, of course, but the strict injunction must have helped keep a billion moments of anguish from turning into a bloodbath. These days we encourage people to stay alive and not kill themselves, but we say it for the person’s own sake. It’s illegal, sure, but no one actually insists that suicide is wrong.

I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. You are going to like this, stay with me. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means that every suicide is also a delayed homicide. You have to stay. The reason I say you are going to like this is twofold. First of all, next time you are seriously considering suicide you can dismiss it quickly and go play a video game (or something else meaningless and fun, it’s when we try for meaning that we go crashing into the existential wall – the universe is absurd, to get along with it, you should be too). Second, and this one’s a little harder to describe, if you are even a tiny bit staying alive for the sake of the community, as a favor to the rest of us, I need to make it clear to you that we are grateful that you stay. I am grateful that you stay alive.

The truth is I want you to live for your sake, not for ours. But the injunction is true and real. Anyway, some part of you doesn’t want to end it all, and I’m talking to her or him, to that part of you. I’m throwing you a rope, you don’t have to explain it to the monster in you, just tell the monster it can do whatever it wants, but not that. Later we’ll get rid of the monster, for now just hang on to the rope. I know that this means a struggle from one second to the next, let alone one day at a time. Know that the rest of us know that among the faces we have met there are some right now who can barely take another minute of the pain and uncertainty. And we are in the room with you, going from one moment to the next, in whatever condition you manage to do it. Sobbing and useless is great! Sobbing and useless is a million times better than dead. A billion times. Thank you for choosing sobbing and useless over dead.

There are poets and other artists, psychotherapists and average Joes, who are thinking of your struggle and appreciating what you have managed to put up with. We are grateful. Best of all, practicing tuning in to your gratitude for other’s staying alive also tones up your ability to feel the gratitude that people are extending to you too, you start to feel the support of it, the invisible arms. Don’t kill yourself. Suffer here with us instead. We need you with us, we have not forgotten you, you are our hero. Stay.

Read the entire essay here…

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Our Memory of the Moments

We die to each other daily.
What we know of other people
Is only our memory of the moments
During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.
To pretend that they and we are the same
Is a useful and convenient social convention
Which must sometimes broken. We must also remember
That at every meeting we are meeting a stranger.

~ T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party (1949)

Friday, October 01, 2010

Negativity Bias


Horse Frightened by a Lion, by George Stubbs

Excerpt from Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher:

According to psychology’s ‘negativity bias theory,’ we pay more attention to unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger, and sadness because they’re simply more powerful than the agreeable sort…An all too-abundant body of evidence attests to psychological pain’s bottom-up grip on your attention. In a survey of which topics we spend the most time thinking about, problematic relationships and troubled projects topped the list. You’ll work harder to avoid losing money than you will to gain the same amount. If you hear both something positive and something negative about a stranger, you’ll take the negative view. If something bad happens, even if something good does too, you’ll still feel dispirited. You’re likelier to notice threats than opportunities or signs that all’s well.

The grim testimony to a dark emotion’s way of grabbing your attention goes on and on. You’ll spot an angry face in a crowd of cheery people much faster than a cheery one in an angry crowd. You’ll process and remember negative material better than the positive sort. You’ll spend more time looking at photographs depicting nasty rather than nice behavior and react to critical words more slowly and with more eye blinks—signs of greater cognition—than to flattering ones…

For the species in general and the individual in particular, the main advantage of paying attention to an unhappy emotion is that it attunes you to potential threat or loss and pressures you to avoid or relieve the pain by solving the associated problem. Thus, your fear of becoming ill induces you to get a flu shot. Your guilt over a divorce pushes you to give extra consideration to the children. Your shame at being fired hardens your resolve to go out there and get an even better one.