Monday, January 31, 2011

My Only Drink

Hierve de Aqua, San Isidro, Oaxaca (Fall 2010)

The First Words
by Seamus Heaney, from The Spirit Level

The first words got polluted
Like river water in the morning
Flowing with the dirt
Of blurbs and the front pages.
My only drink is meaning from the deep brain,
What the birds and the grass and the stones drink.
Let everything flow
Up to the four elements,
Up to water and earth and fire and air.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Finding Their Voices

“One thing that I think is pretty universal for stutterers is that since we have to deal with this every single day of our lives, I think that everyone will agree that it really teaches compassion.”

~ Philip, from “Finding Their Voices,” by Mo Rocca, CBS Sunday Morning, Jan. 30, 2011

See also: The Way You Are

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pinned to the Cushion


I was completely surprised to discover that Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is much deeper than just a movie about someone who has to cut his arm off to survive. It’s also a brilliant account of being pinned to a de facto meditation cushion for an involuntary 5-day mindfulness intensive on the nature of thinking, feeling, the self, loving-kindness, and the liberation that can come from yielding to impersonal forces. The boulder deserves an Oscar nomination for a supporting role as both antagonist and teacher. I expected to feel uneasy, but instead I was completely absorbed in the clever depiction of an excruciating subjective experience of one person's suffering.

Aron Ralston said in one interview, "The entrapment created such an appreciation for the frolicking I had been doing until it happened and there was the euphoric feeling of being free and getting my life back again. Because of what happened, I understand what life is. I'm hopeful that people will see something inside of themselves, as well. I was in an extraordinary circumstance and it fundamentally came down to wanting to live and get back to my family. It is about survival, love and freedom — and those things are common in all of us."

The good news is that the profound yet practical insights Ralston carried out of Blue John Canyon can also be gradually cultivated through the consistent development of attentional skills over time. I enthusiastically recommend both the film and the effort required to experience high levels of concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity without waiting for the conditions to become so extreme.

The Love of Strangers

“A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedies, whatever it be, remorse, lost love or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table.”

~ William Butler Yeats, from A General Introduction for My Work

Billy Collins, from “Dear Reader,” a reading and lecture delivered at the Key West Literary Seminar:

A friend of mine was walking along Madison Avenue, let’s say, with the New Yorker writer Roger Angell, one of the great sports writers of America…Someone recognized Angell  and stopped him and began to flatter him about his writing and tell him what a great writer he was. Then my friend and Angell continued to talk…Angell said to my friend, “That’s what it’s all about.”

“What do you mean?”

“That’s what writing is all about.”


“The love of strangers.”

Which is a sort of neuroses. Most people are satisfied with the love of people around them, although that love tends to be insufficient at most times. Whereas writers tend to court the love of total strangers and I am probably more guilty than anybody. I tend to begin each of my books with a prefatory poem that’s actually addressed to the reader. It’s my way of acknowledging the presence of the reader.

As I’m reading contemporary poetry, they tend to fall into two categories which are sort of indefinable. In one category, I feel that the poet is aware of my presence and in the other I feel that an act of typewriting or someone is committing an act of literature oblivious to my participation in it.

You might call these two kinds dogs and cats. Dogs are really interested in people, as you know, whereas cats are much more self-referential…I think of the poem as a social encounter.

Jorge Luis Borges writes:

braeburnpage The taste of the apple  lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and the reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book. What is essential is the aesthetic act, the thrill, the almost physical emotion with each reading.


Dear Reader
by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning

Every morning I sit across from you
at the same small table,
the sun all over the breakfast things—
curve of a blue-and-white pitcher,
a dish of berries—
me in a sweatshirt or robe,
you invisible.

Most days, we are suspended
over a deep pool of silence.
I stare straight through you
or look out the window at the garden,
the powerful sky,
a cloud passing behind a tree.

There is no need to pass the toast,
the pot of jam,
or pour you a cup of tea,
and I can hide behind the paper,
rotate in its drum of calamitous news.

But some days I may notice
a little door swinging open
in the morning air,
and maybe the tea leaves
of some dream will be stuck
to the china slope of the hour—

then I will lean forward,
elbows on the table,
with something to tell you,
and you will look up, as always,
your spoon dripping milk, ready to listen.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Encouraging Urges

feather by cschubert18

The Trouble with Poetry
by Billy Collins, from The Trouble with Poetry

The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night —   
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky —  

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti —  
to be perfectly honest for a moment — 

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I Will Walk with You

View from Vanderwhacker Mountain (July 2009)

by Billy Collins, from The Art of Drowning

You know the brick path in back of the house,
the one you see from the kitchen window,
the one that bends around the far end of the garden
where all the yellow primroses are?
And you know how if you leave the path
and walk up into the woods you come
to a heap of rocks, probably pushed
down during the horrors of the Ice Age,
and a grove of tall hemlocks, dark green now
against the light-brown fallen leaves?
And farther on, you know
the small footbridge with the broken railing
and if you go beyond that you arrive
at the bottom of that sheep’s head hill?
Well, if you start climbing, and you
might have to grab hold of a sapling
when the going gets steep,
you will eventually come to a long stone
ridge with a border of pine trees
which is as high as you can go
and a good enough place to stop.

The best time is late afternoon
when the sun strobes through
the columns of trees as you are hiking up,
and when you find an agreeable rock
to sit on, you will be able to see
the light pouring down into the woods
and breaking into the shapes and tones
of things and you will hear nothing
but a sprig of birdsong or the leafy
falling of a cone or nut through the trees,
and if this is your day you might even
spot a hare or feel the wing-beats of geese
driving overhead toward some destination.

But it is hard to speak of these things
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories
how the earth holds us painfully against
its breast made of humus and brambles
how we who will soon be gone regard
the entities that continue to return
greener than ever, spring water flowing
through a meadow and the shadows of clouds
passing over the hills and the ground
where we stand in the tremble of thought
taking the vast outside into ourselves.

Still, let me know before you set out.
Come knock on my door
and I will walk with you as far as the garden
with one hand on your shoulder.
I will even watch after you and not turn back
to the house until you disappear
into the crowd of maple and ash,
heading up toward the hill,
piercing the ground with your stick.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Tribute to the Pablo Casals

In 1961, Pablo Casals gave a concert in Kennedy's White House. Tonight, fifty years later, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax join with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio to present a tribute to cellist Pablo Casals' 1961 White House concert. "The concert includes Song of the Birds, a Catalan folk song, which Casals performed at the end of every concert following his exile from Spain as a reminder of his yearning for political freedom."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Even A Little Calm Goes a Long Way

“Mindfulness, then, is not about ecstatic states, as if the marks of success are oceanic experiences or yogic flying. It's mostly pretty humdrum. Moreover, it is not a fast track to blissful happiness. It can, in fact, be quite unsettling, as  works with painful experiences, to understand them better and thereby get to the root of problems.

Research into the benefits of mindfulness seems to support its claims. People prone to depression, say, are less likely to have depressive episodes if they practice meditation. Stress goes down. But it's more like going on a journey than taking a pill. Though meditation techniques can be learned quickly, it's no instant remedy and requires discipline. That said, many who attend lessons or go on retreats find immediate benefits—which is not so surprising, given that in a world of no stillness, even a little calm goes a long way.”

~ Mark Vernon, from “How to Meditate: An Introduction,” The Guardian, Jan. 22, 2011

How to Meditate by Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, for The Guardian

Thanks to Jonathan Carroll.


another massacre; and the clean bright morning.
Keeping walking. ‘Contradiction’ is human–I know that.
And ‘knowing’...A stirring from the place the whirlwind–something
like fear–arises, and watching my breath

to still that. Suddenly thinking somewhere in the breath–along
the breath, is an understood place. Somewhere–but somewhere
in passing–where the matter is reconciled.

by Carol Snow, from For


A Girl by Ron Mueck

Morning Song
by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.

The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses.  I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

It’s All About the Coyote

Part of a discussion between Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, and Radiolab producer Pat Walters from “The Universe Knows My Name,” from Radiolab, Jan. 11, 2011:

Michael Barrier: [Wile E. Coyote] is an extraordinarily human animal.

Pat Walters: And not just like in the facial expressions that he made and ways that he’d look at the camera a lot, but actually, it kind of was about the predicaments he found himself in. Take for example this one really famous cartoon (at 4:20 in the clip below). Like always, Coyote has got a plan. He has made a painting of the road. He’s put this painting right at the edge of the cliff.

MB: The idea being that the Road Runner would run through the painting, gravity would take hold of him, and he would plunge into the chasm…Instead, the Road Runner runs into the painting as if the road were actually continuing. But when the coyote tries to follow the Road Runner into the painting, he runs through the painting and falls…Gravity isn’t this uniformly indifferent force. It’s a malignant force that comes in and out of play according to how inconvenient it can be for the coyote…He’s chasing the Road Runner, but the universe is his opponent.

PW: And that’s kind of what makes the coyote seems so human. He’s in that situation that all of us feel like we’re in sometimes. Like the very laws of physics are against us.

MB: It’s almost a primitive way of thinking, but I think all of us lapse into this, you know, How can this happen? You can’t be human and not feel that way.

*     *     *     *     *

Cartoon Physics, part 1
by Nick Flynn, from Some Ether

Children under, say, ten, shouldn't know
that the universe is ever-expanding,
inexorably pushing into the vacuum, galaxies

swallowed by galaxies, whole

solar systems collapsing, all of it
acted out in silence. At ten we are still learning

the rules of cartoon animation,

that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries

will crash into the rock. Ten-year-olds
should stick with burning houses, car wrecks,
ships going down -- earthbound, tangible

disasters, arenas

where they can be heroes. You can run
back into a burning house, sinking ships

have lifeboats, the trucks will come
with their ladders, if you jump

you will be saved. A child

places her hand on the roof of a schoolbus,
& drives across a city of sand. She knows

the exact spot it will skid, at which point
the bridge will give, who will swim to safety
& who will be pulled under by sharks. She will learn

that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall

until he notices his mistake.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Loosening the Grip of Emotions

From “Anxiety? Banish the Thought,” The Week Magazine: Health & Science, Jan. 20, 2011:

So many Americans suffer from anxiety and depression that antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft have become household terms. But new research suggests that mindfulness therapy—a sittingmeditation-based treatment with roots in Buddhism and yoga—can help people with mood disorders feel better without drugs.

“I was skeptical at first,” Stefan Hofmann, a psychology professor at Boston University, tells the Los Angeles Times. “I wondered, ‘Why on earth should this work?’”

Yet after reviewing 39 studies on the practice involving 1,140 patients, Hofmann’s team concluded that mindfulness therapy relieved anxiety and improved mood; another study published  last month found the treatment is as effective as antidepressants at preventing relapses of depression.

It doesn’t work for everyone, but experts have found that training patients to observe their own immediate thoughts can often loosen the grip emotions have on their minds—MRI scans of patients’ brains display shifts in mental activity.

Jordan Elliott, a 26-year-old marketer, began mindfulness therapy for debilitating anxiety four years ago; he now meditates for 10 minutes each morning and has stopped taking Prozac. “When a negative thought pops off in my head,” he says, “I say to myself, ‘There’s a thought. And feelings aren’t facts.’”

*     *     *     *     *

See also:

The Most Essential School Supply

My brother, David, works for Communities in Schools in Wichita, Kansas. He and my nephews, food4kidsLeo and Levi, are featured in this public service announcement for a food program sponsored by the Kansas Food Bank. Food-4-Kids works with community schools to provides weekend food supplements to help keep kids engaged in school by addressing chronic hunger.

Food 4 Kids foodbags contain healthy, kid-friendly snacks that require no preparation such as:

  • Peanut Butter (12-ounce jar) and a sleeve of crackers
  • Beans and franks (pop-top can)
  • Beef Jerky (1 ounce)
  • Cereal (1-ounce bowl or box)
  • Fruit cups (peaches, applesauce, etc)
  • Raisins (snack-size boxes)
  • Pudding cups
  • Juice boxes (apple, orange, or other juice)
  • Milk (aseptic pack boxes that do not require refrigeration)
  • Cereal bars or granola bars

“Because the most essential school supply is food.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Process of Being Here All Along

Excerpt from “Unconditional Confidence,” by Pema Chödrön:

One of my favorite ways of expressing this attitude of gentleness [in response to fear or panic] is a quote from Trungpa Rinpoche where he says, “It’s not about cultivating one part of our self and rejecting another, but about simply looking openly at ourselves just as we are.”

So when the fear arises, it’s not trying to get rid of the fear, but looking open-heartedly. Dropping the storylines. Turning toward instead of running away. Opening up our minds and hearts because what you open up into is such a groundless, vulnerable, tender situation. But it has its huge heart. It has, not even the seeds of compassion and love, but it is a gesture of love in itself.

It probably isn’t quite accurate to say “love for the fearful mind,” but it is in a way love for a total, unconditional acceptance of your own experience. You would think that that  would be the same thing as indulgence. You would think that would lead to an escalating into self-absorption and only thinking about yourself, but strangely—I think armorbecause it’s so raw and because you’re staying with the rawness—it totally demolishes the way that we protect ourselves. The way that we put on a suit of armor or develop a thick skin or go into ourselves and don’t care other people. No tenderness for ourselves translates as no kindness, no compassion, no mercy for others.

So this loving-kindness, this atmosphere of warmth, is allowing yourself to be as you are without justifying it or condemning it. This allowing is a process of being here all along. Not just when we like how it’s going. And as I say, instead of that making you more self-absorbed, it makes you very decent, very sane, and very open to the world and other people.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Creature in the River of Knowledge

Monologue from a fictional neuroscientist speaking at an imagined Aspen Ideas Festival/TED Talk event, from “Social Animal,” by David Brooks, New Yorker, Jan. 17. 2011:

“I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends…Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

Columbia River plume “And though history has made us self-conscious in order to enhance our survival prospects, we still have deep impulses to erase the skull lines in our head and become immersed directly in the river. I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. And it happens most when we connect with other people. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”

Read the entire piece here…

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Suddenly the Whole House Made Sense

Edmonton, Alberta (2011)
Photo by Lisa Ann Robertson, used without permission. 

by George Bilgere, from The White Museum

First it was five above, then two,
then one morning just plain zero.
There was a strange thrill in saying it.
It's zero, I said,
when you got up.

I was pouring your coffee
and suddenly the whole house made sense:
the roof, the walls, the little heat registers
rattling on the floor. Even the mortgage. Zero,
you said, still in your robe.

And you walked to the window and looked out
at the blanket of snow on the garden
where last summer you planted carrots
and radishes, sweet peas and onions,
and a tiny rainforest of tomatoes
in the hot delirium of June.

Yes, I said, with a certain grim finality,
staring at the white cap of snow on the barbecue grill
I'd neglected to put in the garage for winter.
And the radio says it could go lower.

I like that robe. It's white and shimmery,
and has a habit of falling open
unless you tie it just right.

This wasn't the barbarians at the gate.
It wasn't Carthage in flames, or even
the Donner Party. But it was zero, by God,
and the robe fell open.

[Follow George Bilgere on Facebook]

Monday, January 17, 2011


The Thrift Shop Dresses
by Frannie Lindsay, from American Life in Poetry: Column 304

I slid the white louvers shut so I could stand in your closet
a little while among the throng of flowered dresses
you hadn’t worn in years, and touch the creases
on each of their sleeves that smelled of forgiveness
and even though you would still be alive a few more days
I knew they were ready to let themselves be
packed into liquor store boxes simply
because you had asked that of them,
and dropped at the door of the Salvation Army
without having noticed me
wrapping my arms around so many at once
that one slipped a big padded shoulder off of its hanger
as if to return the embrace.

first appeared in Harvard Divinity Bulletin

The Interrelated Structure of Reality

"It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren't going to have peace on Earth until we recognize the basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality. "

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., A Christmas Sermon on Peace (1967)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Keeping the Button on Play

“We do have a rewind button. In fact, a lot of our life experience is actually not experienced. Our mind is in the past, ruminating, thinking back. Sometimes savoring, but in many occasions it’s thinking about the past and holding onto it. But our mind also has a fast forward where we’re thinking ahead and planning. Yet, what I want to suggest to you is that the most important thing we probably need to do in order to make sure our attention system is functioning fully, so that we’re able to actually experience the life we have, is probably to keep the button right on play. The question for me became: How do we cultivate our attention so that so that we’re actually paying attention to the present moment? And could there be a way we could train ourselves to be better able to pay attention to the present moment?

~ Dr. Amishi Jha, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Miami

From the Schofield Barracks Training and Research on Neurobehavioral Growth (STRONG):

“Dr. Jha is a neuroscientist whose primary expertise is in understanding how the brain pays attention. Her team has been awarded grants from the Dept. of Defense, Medical Research and Material Command to conduct this project using computer-based experiments and brainwave recording to investigate if and how resilience training may improve the ways in which the brain can:

  • Pay attention
  • Be situationally aware (of one’s own immediate surroundings)
  • Be better able to manage and recover from stress

The U.S. Army realizes that body armor and physical exercise are necessary to protect soldiers’ bodies and keep them physically healthy. More recently, there has been great interest in understanding how soldiers’ brains and minds might also be best protected and kept healthy over the cycle(s) of military deployment.

The main purpose of the STRONG project is to understand if and how resilience training might provide soldiers with ‘mental armor.’

Just as daily physical exercise is important for physical fitness, neuroscientists are finding that regularly engaging in mental exercises may improve brain-fitness. The more ‘fit’ one’s brain, the better one may be at recovering from stress, solving complex problems in challenging circumstances, and handling high demands. Of course, making one’s body fit requires effort, discipline, and a commitment over a long period of time. So too does making one’s brain fit. This project aims to use cutting-edge neuroscience to measure how two different types of resilience training programs may help make soldiers’ brains and minds more fit so that they are best prepared for the upcoming challenges of deployment.”

*     *     *     *     *

See also: “In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly,” by Thom Shanker and Matt Richtel, New York Times, Jan. 16, 2001

The Holy Grail of Brain Training

Illustration by Peter Arkle for Newsweek

Excerpt from “Can You Build a Better Brain?” by Sharon Begley, Newsweek, Jan. 10 & 17, 2011:

The rule that “neurons that fire together, wire together” suggests that cognitive training should boost mental prowess. Studies are finding just that, but with a crucial caveat. Training your memory, reasoning, or speed of processing improves that skill, found a large government-sponsored study called ACTIVE. Unfortunately, there is no transfer: improving processing speed does not improve memory, and improving memory does not improve reasoning. Similarly, doing crossword puzzles will improve your ability to?.?.?.?do crosswords. “The research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks,” says Columbia’s Yaakov Stern.

The holy grail of brain training is something that does transfer, and here there are three good candidates. The first is physical exercise. Simple aerobic exercise, such as walking 45 minutes a day three times a week, improves episodic memory and executive-control functions by about 20 percent, finds Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His studies have mostly been done in older adults, so it’s possible the results apply only to people whose brain physiology has begun to deteriorate—except that that happens starting in our 20s. Exercise gooses the creation of new neurons in the region of the hippocampus that files away experiences and new knowledge. It also stimulates the production of neuron fertilizers such as BDNF, as well as of the neurotransmitters that carry brain signals, and of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. Exercise stimulates the production of new synapses, the connections that constitute functional circuits and whose capacity and efficiency underlie superior intelligence. Kramer finds that a year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking. “You can think of fitness training as changing the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills,” he says. “It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision making.”

The second form of overall mental training is meditation, which can increase the thickness of regions that control attention and process sensory signals from the outside world. In a program that neuroscientist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami calls mindfulness-based mind-fitness training, participants build concentration by focusing on one object, such as a particular body sensation. The training, she says, has shown success in enhancing mental agility and attention “by changing brain structure and function so that brain processes are more efficient,” the quality associated with higher intelligence.

Finally, some videogames might improve general mental agility. Stern has trained older adults to play a complex computer-based action game called Space Fortress, which requires players to shoot missiles and destroy the fortress while protecting their spaceship against missiles and mines. “It requires motor control, visual search, working memory, long-term memory, and decision making,” he says. It also requires that elixir of neuroplasticity: attention, specifically the ability to control and switch attention among different tasks. “People get better on tests of memory, motor speed, visual-spatial skills, and tasks requiring cognitive flexibility,” says Stern. Kramer, too, finds that the strategy-heavy videogame Rise of Nations improves executive-control functions such as task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and reasoning in older adults.

Read the entire article…

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Where Work and Play Merge

From Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch:

We have all observed the intense absorption of children in play, that wide-eyed concentration in which both the child and the world vanish, and there is only the play. Grown-ups involved in work they love also can experience such moments. It is possible to become what you are doing; these times come when pouf!—out you go, and there is only the work. The intensity of your focused concentration and involvement maintains and augments itself, your physical needs decrease, your gaze narrows, your sense of time stops. You feel alert and alive; effort becomes effortless. You lose yourself in your own voice, in the handling of your tools, in your feelings for the rules. Absorbed in the pure fascination of the game of that particular medium, you forget time and place and who you are. The noun of self becomes a verb. This flashpoint of creation in the present moment is where work and play merge.

Buddhists call this state of absorbed, selfless, absolute concentration samadhi. Samadhi is best known to be attainable through the practice of meditation, thought there is also walking samadhi , cooking samadhi, sandcastle-building samadhi, writing samadhi, fighting samadhi, lovemaking samadhi, flute-playing samadhi. When the self-clinging personality somehow drops away, we are both entranced and alert at the same time.

Babies of our own and other species seem to be often, if not usually, in a state of samadhi, and also have the unique property of putting everyone around them into a state of samadhi as well. Happy, relaxed, unmindful of self, concentrated, the baby envelops us in her own state of divine delight and expansiveness. Even when a baby is squalling and miserable, and making everyone else miserable too, she is whole and thorough about it, and is generating her own special atmosphere of squalling samadhi and misery-making samadhi

…One of the great ways of emptying the self, along with meditation, dance, love, and play, is tuning a musical instrument. In tuning an instrument we are forced to obliterate outside noises and distractions: As the sound gets closer and closer to the pure vibration we are trying for, as the pitch moves up and down over a smaller and smaller range, we find body and mind progressively dropping away. We enter more and more deeply into the sound. We enter into a kind of trance state. This intensified listening is deep play—total immersion in the game. And once we pick up that instrument to play, our friends the audience will enter into a similar state of mind more readily in proportion to the care we have given to that process of tuning. What we discover, mysteriously, is that in tuning the instrument we tune the spirit.

An even simpler samadhi exercise is this: Look at whatever is in front of you and say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to it, like Molly Bloom’s life-affirming, love-affirming mantra at the end of Ulysses. The universe of possibilities becomes visibly, tangibly larger, over a period of mere moments. When you say, “No, No, No,” the world gets smaller and heavier. Try it both ways and verify the truth of this very simple method. Look at water lilies or other highly vascular flowering plants. When the sun comes out, the flowers unfold before your eyes; when the sun goes away, they close. What the sun’s radiation and the lilies say to each other, translated through the biophysical language of chlorophyll, sugar, protein, and water, is “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Here and Now

“Poetry addresses individuals in their most intimate, private, frightened and elated moments. People turn to poetry in times of crisis because it comes closer than any other art form to addressing what cannot be said. In expressing the inexpressible poetry remains close to the origins of language.”

~ W.S. Merwin

The recent memorial service in Tucson concluded with University of Arizona President Robert Shelton reading this poem by W.S. Merwin, from Present Company:

To the New Year

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Don’t Expect Applause
by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line

And yet, wouldn’t it be welcome
at the end of the each ordinary day?
The audience could be small,
the theater modest. Folding chairs
in the church basement would do.
Just a short, earnest burst of applause
that you got up that morning
and one way or another,
you made it through the day.

You soaked up in the steaming
shower, drank your Starbucks
in the car, and let the guy with the
Windex wipe your windshield
during the long red light at Broad Street.
Or maybe you were that guy,
not daring to light up 
while you stood there because
everyone’s so down on smoking these days.

Or you kissed your wife
as she hurried out the door, even though
you were pretty sure she was
meeting her lover at the Flamingo Motel,
even though you wanted to grab her
by a hank of her sleek hair.

Maybe your son’s in jail,
your daughter’s stopped eating.
And your husband’s still dead
this morning, just like he was
yesterday and the day before that.
And yet you put on your shoes
and take a walk, and when a neighbor
says Good morning, you say Good morning back.

Would a round of applause be amiss?
Even if you weren’t good.
If you yelled at your kid,
poisoned the ants, drank too much
and said that really stupid thing
you promised yourself you wouldn’t say.
Even if you don’t deserve it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Best Conditions

Elizabeth Alexander, from “Words that Shimmer,” a conversation with Krista Tippett, Being, Jan. 6, 2011:

Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman — they've talked about poetry as an art form that is a poor peoples' art form, which is to say you don't need [a lot of free time available]. You can't write a novel without a lot of time to yourself—they don't get written any other way. But I love how these women talk about how you can snatch time to make a poem. That doesn't mean that they aren't hard to make, but it means that they are like grass or flowers coming up in the sidewalk cracks.

Wanda Coleman says, "I can start a poem if I'm waiting on line. Poor people spend a lot of time waiting on line. I couldn't write a novel waiting on line, but I could start a poem waiting on line." Lucille Clifton says, "The best conditions for me to write poetry are at the kitchen table, one kid's got the measles, another two kids are smacking each other. You know, life is going on around me." And not only is that the stuff of the poems, but also that she can snatch little tiny snippets of space for the poems. She had six children and she was very, very funny. She said, "Why do you think my poems are so short?" Because that's what results when you're grabbing time like that. But, I mean, they are incredibly, powerfully meditative, amazing, amazing poems. So I think [when it comes to] poetry — you don't make any money from writing it and you don't need any money to make it.

by Elizabeth Alexander, (excerpt) from Crave Radiance

Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence,
then all of it. Long, elegant boats,
blood-boiling sunshine, human cargo,
a handmade kite —

No longer a celebrity, pregnant lady, expectant.
It has happened; you are here,
each dram you drain a step away
from flushed and floating, lush and curled.
Now you are the pink one, the movie star.
It has happened. You are here,

and you sing, mewl, holler, peep,
swallow the light and bubble it back,
shine, contain multitudes, gleam. You

are the new one, the movie star,
and birth is like jazz,
from silence and blood, silence
then everything,


Autumn Passage
by Elizabeth Alexander, from Crave Radiance

On suffering, which is real.
On the mouth that never closes,
the air that dries the mouth.

On the miraculous dying body,
its greens and purples.
On the beauty of hair itself.

On the dazzling toddler:
"Like eggplant," he says,
when you say "Vegetable,"

"Chrysanthemum" to "Flower."
On his grandmother's suffering, larger
than vanished skyscrapers,

September zucchini,
other things too big. For her glory
that goes along with it,

glory of grown children's vigil,
communal fealty, glory
of the body that operates

even as it falls apart, the body
that can no longer even make fever
but nonetheless burns

florid and bright and magnificent
as it dims, as it shrinks,
as it turns to something else.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Room for Both the Wind and the Lion

From “Mass Animal Deaths: An Environmental Whodunit,” by James Gorman, New York Times, Jan. 9, 2011:

Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a Scientific American columnist …uses a common scenario to explain why we believe in things that may not be there — hominids on the savannah hearing a rustling in the tall grass.  The one who thinks, “It’s a lion!” and escapes quickly survives to propagate her genes, thus fostering a kind of protective alarmism in her descendants. Another might think, “There’s always some kind of rustling in the tall grass, it’s probably the wind,” and keep on grooming. If he guesses wrong, the downside is being eaten by the lion. Thus, no offspring and no propagation of the “don’t worry, be happy” genes.

Of course, people have both modes of thought, perhaps because rustling is usually caused by the wind, and the hominid who is too alarmist is always running away from nothing and probably too exhausted and too anxiety-ridden to mate. So there’s room for both the wind and the lion in human minds.

Read the rest of this essay…

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Willingness to Take Risks

From the documentary "On the Edge," written and narrated by Derek Bailey in the early 90s. Featuring pianist/fortepianist Robert Levin and conductor Christopher Hogwood, with the Academy of Ancient Music. Includes two improvised cadenzas to Mozart's Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414.


Learning to Improvise

From “The Improvisational Brain,” by Amanda Rose Martinez, SeedMagazine, Dec. 14, 2010:

Aaron Berkowitz, a cognitive ethnomusicologist, who took on the task of demystifying improvisation as the focus of his dissertation work at Harvard, has a theory. He likens the process of learning to improvise to that of learning a second language. Initially, he says, it’s all about memorizing vocabulary words, useful phrases and verb conjugation tables. Your first day, you might learn to say: How are you? I’m fine. “These are like the baby steps beginning improvisers take. They learn the structure of the blues. They learn basic chords and get the form down,” said Berkowitz. But they’re still very limited in what they can do.

Credit: Flickr user maistoraA dedicated musician will immerse himself in the recordings of his chosen genre or composer, just as a language student might absorb foreign films or tapes of people speaking. Over time, both musician and student accumulate more phrases and ways to combine them. “But you still can’t really invent anything. [The language learner] can’t talk about politics or the environment,” Berkowitz said. “You’re still thinking: ‘Uh oh, here’s comes a verb. I have to put it in the past tense. I have to put it at the end of the sentence before I can say this whole phrase.”

But eventually, through constant practice, you get to the point where, scientists believe, these processes get pushed down into the subconscious. They don’t need to be consciously worked out anymore. They become a subroutine. Suddenly you realize you’re saying things you haven’t heard or memorized. You’re able to free-associate. Your brain begins exerting control at a higher level, directing bigger chunks of information that can be expressed as whole ideas.

The trajectory of acquiring a language, according to Berkowitz, where you begin with learned phrases, achieve fluency, and are eventually able to create poetry mirrors perfectly the process of learning to improvise. In the same way a language student learns words, phrases and grammatical structure so that later he can recombine them to best communicate his thoughts, a musician collects and commits to memory patterns of notes, chords and progressions, which he can later draw from to express his musical ideas.

Read the entire article…

An Open-Ended Series of Provisional Breakthroughs

From Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch:

free-play The literature on creativity is full of tales of breakthrough experiences. These moments come when you let go of some impediment or fears, and boom—in whooshes the muse. You feel clarity, power, freedom, as something unforeseeable jumps out of you. The literature of Zen, on which I have drawn heavily because of its deep penetration of the breakthrough experience, abounds with accounts of kensho and satori—moments of illumination and moments of total change of heart. There come points in your life when you simply kick the door open. But there is no ultimate breakthrough; what we find in the development of a creative life is an open-ended series of provisional breakthroughs. In this journey there is no endpoint, because it is the journey into the soul.

In my own life, music taught me to listen, not just to sound but to who I am. I discovered the relevance of our many mystical or esoteric traditions to the practical life of art making. “Mysticism” does not refer to cloudy belief systems or to hocus-pocus; it refers to direct and personal spiritual experience, as distinct from organized religion in which one is expected to believe secondhand experiences passed on in sacred books or by teachers or authorities. It is the mystics who bring creativity into religion. The mystic or visionary attitude expands and concretizes art, science, and daily life as well. Do I believe what “the Man” tells me, or am I going to try things out for myself and see what’s really true for me?


Creativity is a harmony of opposite tensions, as in lila or divine play. As we ride through the flux of our own creative processes, we hold onto both poles. If we let go of play, our work becomes ponderous and stiff. If we let go of the sacred, our work loses its connection to the ground on which we live.

Knowledge of the creative process cannot substitute for creativity, but it can save us from giving up on creativity when the challenges seem too intimidating and free play seems blocked. If we know that our inevitable setbacks and frustrations are phases of the natural cycle of creative processes, if we know that our obstacles can become our ornaments, we can persevere and bring our desires to fruition. Such perseverance can be a real test, but there are ways through, there are guideposts. And the struggle, which is guaranteed to take a lifetime, is worth it. It is a struggle that generates incredible pleasure and joy. Every attempt we make is imperfect; yet each one of those imperfect attempts is an occasion for a delight unlike anything else on earth.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Standing in the Sky

“You are standing in the sky. When we think of the sky, we tend to look up, but the sky actually begins at the earth. We walk through it, yell into it, rake leaves, wash the dog, and drive cars in it. We breathe it deep within us. With every breath, we inhale millions of molecules of sky, heat them briefly, and then exhale them back into the world. At this moment, you are breathing some of the same molecules once breathed by Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Anne Bradstreet, or Colette. Inhale deeply. Think of The Tempest. Air works the bellows of our lungs, and it powers our cells. We say “light as air,” but there is nothing lightweight about our atmosphere, which weighs 5,000 trillion tons. Only a clench as stubborn as gravity’s could hold it to the earth; otherwise it would simply float away and seep into the cornerless expanse of space.”

~ Diane Ackerman, from A Natural History of the Senses

Infinity is Open to Your Sight

by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Dana Gioia

Whoever you are: step out of doors tonight,
Out of the room that lets you feel secure.
Infinity is open to your sight.
Whoever you are.
With eyes that have forgotten how to see
From viewing things already too well-known,
Lift up into the dark a huge, black tree
And put it in the heavens: tall, alone.
And you have made the world and all you see.
It ripens like the words still in your mouth.
And when at last you comprehend its truth,
Then close your eyes and gently set it free.

The Heart Will Find Itself Open

This is the Dream
by Olav H. Hauge, from The Dream We Carry

This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Moment by Moment

The Meaning of Existence
by Les Murray, from Poems the Size of Photographs

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.

Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

Unwitting Partners

“The real battlefront is not between the West and the Muslim world. It’s between the moderates of all faith traditions and the extremists or radicals—and I include in that the agnostic and atheist community. The radicals are unwitting partners. They fuel each other.”

~ Feisal Abdul Rauf, in conversation with Lisa Miller for Newsweek (Dec. 27, 2010 / Jan. 3, 2001)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Born of Water

Cloud Cult - When Water Comes To Life (Live on KEXP) from Jim Beckmann on Vimeo.

and when the angels come
they'll cut you down the middle
to see if you're still there
to see if you're still there

and underneath your ribs
they'll find the heart shaped locket
an old photograph of you in daddy's arms

and then they'll sew you closed
and give you back to the water
from where we're all born
from where we're all born

and you'll feed the ghosts
and you'll feed the living
you'll be a stranger
and you'll be a friend

you'll be the leper
and you'll be the healer
you'll be the hero
and the tragedy

and when they sew you closed
they'll give you back to the water
from where we're all born
from where we're all born

and when they burn your body
all thats left is sand crystals
two tiny handfuls
all the rest is water, water, water

all you need to know
is you were born of water
you are made of water
you are living water, water, water

Breaking Apart

Mary & Joseph Retreat Center, Rancho Palos Verdes

One, One, Eleven
by Daron Larson

Midnight is inherently unstable,
so it breaks apart into a new year.
Fireworks explode and set the trees ablaze
with the echoing choir of peafowl wails.
The lights of the grid pulse
like ancient campfire embers in the breeze.

On the first day,
a man squats in prayer
by the side of the road,
his car idles beside him,
music spilling out through an open door.
Eyes closed, he directs his pleas
or his grief or his gratitude
toward the ocean, the source of all life.

In the beginning there was nothing,
as you may have heard,
but it keeps breaking apart and coming back together,
grinding down every skeleton and exoskeleton
into smooth sand
for future generations to walk upon
as they gaze outward and inward with wonder.

My skin is ice.
My heart is molten.
My body rings with the joy of all joys
and aches with the ache of all aches.

Every tear has the taste of all tears.
Every smile has the taste of all smiles.
There is no escape, nor any need to keep trying.

May we all give up the fight against
the coils and recoils
along our journey back home.

Del Cerro Park