June 2018


Halcyon Lake

Last night I finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which I’d mentioned earlier this week. Many reviewers have compared Ward with both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, and I agree that the novel is reminiscent of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Morrison’s Beloved.

Great blue heron

The other novel I kept thinking about as I read Sing, Unburied, Sing is George Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which was also published in 2017. Saunder’s novel is told through a series of historical and ghostly fragments as Willie Lincoln, the President’s newly deceased son, finds himself in the transitional place between the Here and the Hereafter. The narrative format of Ward’s novel is far less experimental, but both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo are ghost stories that speak movingly about loss, grief, family, and compassion.

Solomon's seal

As I read Sing, Unbured, Sing, I found myself wondering why stories about race in America so often feature ghosts. Is it because our history is particularly haunted, or because we so often fail to believe and heed the truth tellers from our past? Perhaps the perspective of magic realism is the only lens that can accurately portray the true nature of time, death, and eternity.

Hiding in plain sight

Both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Lincoln in the Bardo call into question our conventional view of time. Since we typically view time as linear–moving, that is, from past to present and then to future–we fall for the illusion of progress. How many times (for example) do people respond to current events by exclaiming “But this is 2018” as if the ghosts of the past aren’t still alive and active?

Dogwood

If we take a circular view of time, all eras are now, and with them, all errors. We don’t outgrow or move beyond the mistakes of previous generations: instead, we are tempted time and again to repeat and relive them unless we make a conscious effort to revise and reject. If we take a circular view of time, both individuals and societies carry not only the promise of who they will become but the burden of everything they have ever been.

Star of Bethlehem flower

We want to believe history is a line because we want to believe that Back Then was radically and intrinsically different from Nowadays. But human nature hasn’t changed; we’ve just grown tired of fighting it. Humans were bigoted and cruel during the days of slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and humans are still as bigoted and cruel as they allow themselves to be.

Trillium

So, what should we do with the seeds of hatred and cruelty that lie buried in the soil of our psyche, either dormant or fully sprouted? Earlier today I heard an NPR story on Fred Rogers that featured a vintage audio clip of him explaining to parents how to talk with their children about the political anger leading to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Rogers didn’t suggest denying or eradicating anger; instead, he helped children (and their parents) interpret anger by acknowledging the various ways different families, countries, and cultures might express it.

Eastern kingbird in ginkgo tree

Have we come to a place in history where we need a dearly departed children’s television host to help us make sense of our feelings and where we need novels about ghosts to teach us the true nature of history? Perhaps. It was, after all, Faulkner himself who famously said “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Yellow iris

We want to leave the past behind, and in fleeing from it, we tempt it to chase us. What novels teach us, however, is that the spirits of the past are always with us. As the character of Mam in Sing, Unburied, Sing explains as she lay dying, “We don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once.” When we realize the past has never left us, we can sit face-to-face with our ghosts and learn every song they have to sing.

Thou shalt not steal beer

This past weekend, J and I went to the annual open house at Spencer Brewery, the Trappist brewery located on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. I’ve been to the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s before, so I’ve seen where the monks pray, and this weekend’s open house gave me the opportunity to see where the monks work.

Beer flow chart

Walking around Spencer Brewery got me thinking about the Benedictine motto “Ora et labora,” which means “pray and work.” The schedule of monastic life at Saint Joseph’s makes sense if you remember that Trappists seclude themselves to focus on these two things. The liturgy of the hours offers a structured way for cloistered monks to spend their day alternating prayer and work, prayer and work, prayer and work.

A system of pipes

The public perception that cloistered monks and nuns are inactive and quietistic exists because we divide monastic orders into the categories of active and contemplative. Monks and nuns from so-called active orders work in the world as clergy, teachers, nurses, or missionaries. Contemplative monastics, on the other hand, live apart from the world in monasteries or convents.

Tanks and pipes

Contemplative orders point to the Biblical story of Mary and Martha to justify their vocational path. When Jesus visited the home of these sisters, Martha busied herself with the household logistics of hosting a guest while Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen while he teached. When Martha complained that Mary wasn’t doing her share of the domestic chores, Jesus famously took Mary’s side, saying “Mary has chosen the better part.”

The division of monastic orders into active and contemplative, however, is misleading, as all religious communities (and all religious people) are a combination of both. Yes, Trappist monks live apart from the world and lead a prayer-centered life that is largely silent. But Trappists also live in communities that strive to be self-sufficient, and that necessitates the “work” half of “Ora et labora.” In contemplative communities, work and prayer are like two hands that work in tandem. One’s work supports one’s prayer, and one’s prayer supports one’s work. In my Zen school, we say “A day without work is a day without eating,” and a Trappist would agree with the spirit of that saying.

Where beer comes from

Years ago at a Christian-Buddhist retreat at the Providence Zen Center, Father Kevin Hunt traveled from Saint Joseph’s Abbey to represent the “Christian” portion of the retreat. During the time for questions, a retreatant asked Father Kevin how he could justify isolating himself in a monastery when there was an entire world out here in need of help. Father Kevin responded by asking the woman what she intended to do when she got home from the retreat, and she said she’d probably make dinner for her family and get her kids ready for another busy school week. “Excellent,” Father Kevin replied. “When I get back to the monastery, I have toilets to clean. You take care of your family, and I take care of mine.”

Palletized

We all work in our own separate ways: some of us raise children, some of us tend pets, some of us teach, and some of us sit at desks, toiling and typing. The important thing isn’t what you do when you work but why you do it. Trappist monks make jam, jelly, and beer because they need an income to support their prayerful practice. That prayerful practice is shared with the world in turn through the monastery’s hospitality. People like me can visit the Abbey Church at Saint Joseph’s because there is someone there whose work keeps the lights on and the toilets clean.

Grief personified

I recently started reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel that several of my online friends have raved about. I saw Ward read from the book at Harvard’s Memorial Church in early May, and I’ve been waiting for the leisurely days of summer to start reading the signed paperback copy I got at that event.

Jesmyn Ward signs my copy of Sing Unburied Sing

Because I’m currently reading several books, I’m reading Sing, Unburied, Sing slowly, which means the story is working its power incrementally. The novel starts simply. Initially, it is a story told by JoJo, a thirteen-year-old boy in rural Mississippi who is helping his grandfather slaughter a goat. Later the narrative shifts to JoJo’s mother, Leonie, who is addicted to drugs and intent on traveling to the state penitentiary at Parchman Farm where her boyfriend–JoJo’s father–is set to be released. For the first half of the book, the narrative alternates between JoJo’s and Leonie’s perspectives, but when the family arrives at Parchman, the “unburied” of the novel’s title start to sing.

Pipe organ

By any metric, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a heartbreaking story. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, who was killed by her boyfriend’s cousin in a racially-motivated murder, and JoJo is wise beyond his years, helping to raise his younger sister and becoming unusually close to his grandparents, who are his de facto parents in the face of Leonie’s neglect. Because of JoJo’s relationship with his grandparents, the boy is haunted by stories he’s heard about his grandfather’s own days at Parchman. Tragedy, Ward suggests, is hard to bury; instead, it arises again and again, passed from one generation to the next as a family’s most lasting legacy.

Jesmyn Ward and Clint Smith in conversation

Ward’s narrative is like a warm bath: you sink into it slowly, and it seeps into your bones, loosening and opening them. Or, to put it another way, Sing, Unburied, Sing breaks your heart incrementally, each hairline crack seeming small and insignificant until the entire thing eventually shatters.

Even chickens are enlisting

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an exhibit of World War I recruitment posters J and I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts several years ago. One of the posters showed a respectable-looking man looking a bit sheepish as the child on his knee calmly asks, “Daddy, what did YOU do during the Great War?” At the time, I chuckled at the not-so-subtle guilt trip the poster laid on viewers. Now, however, the question posed by the poster weighs heavily on my mind.

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?

I don’t have children, so no daughter of mine will ever interrogate me from the quiet comfort of my lap. But I believe the eyes of history will look back on our generation and ask similarly difficult questions.

What did German citizens do while Hitler rose to power and built camps in the neighboring countryside, and what did American citizens do when people of Japanese descent were ordered into internment camps? I suspect both Germans and Americans at the time would say “We did what we were told” or “We minded our own business” or “We kept our heads down and followed the law.” One of the most indelible images I have of the Holocaust shows Allied troops leading German civilians through the newly-liberated death camps, forcing respectable citizens to look at what had been happening in their own backyards. “What could we do,” the blank expressions of these villagers seem to say. “We are just ordinary people.”

Everyone should do his bit

One of the most powerful moments in Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, a slim but devastatingly powerful novel about Japanese internment, happens after an unnamed Japanese-American family returns from the camp where they were held, only to face the stone silence of the neighbors who watched the evacuation orders go up and Japanese-American citizens disappear without nary a peep of protest. Are we really so well-conditioned that we would look the other way while injustice happens to someone else?

Wake up, America

This week, I wrote a quick thank-you know to former First Lady Laura Bush for her Washington Post opinion piece decrying the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies; I also contacted my members of Congress, helped distribute a weekly checklist that helps ordinary citizens be more politically active and engaged, and continued writing postcard after postcard in support of Democratic candidates. I can’t do everything to fix the predicament our country is in, but I feel compelled to do something. Trump and his base aren’t listening to the likes of me, and they aren’t listening to Laura Bush, either, but that won’t stop me from speaking.

What did you do during the Great Resistance, the next generation will ask. Did you turn away and stay silent, or did you do whatever you could to fight?

Pretty pout

Last week I taught the Thursday night Introduction to Zen Meditation class at the Cambridge Zen Center. Afterward, I found myself wondering how many times have I taught this class over the years. How many people have walked through the Zen Center doors, had a half hour of meditation instruction from a Dharma teacher like me, and then never darkened the door of a Zen Center ever again?

Pink blob

Zen Master Dae Kwang once said that Dharma teachers should teach the Zen intro class knowing that students might never come back: the goal, he said, is to give people a practice they can take with them and employ in their daily life, regardless of whether they return to a Zen Center. The Zen intro class, in other words, isn’t a recruitment tool; it’s the handing out of fishing rods. I’m not giving you a fish, nor am I insisting that you fish next to me. Instead, I’m giving you the tools you’ll need to plumb the depths of your very own stream, regardless of where the river of your life carries you.

Tom

The most important Zen Center isn’t the one you can walk in and out of; it’s the one you carry within you. When I sit to meditate, the first thing I feel is a flash of welcome recognition: the relief of coming home. Ahhh, my soul sighs. At long last you’ve quit your rush and bustle–at long last you’ve reunited with your true self in the Here and Now. This sense of quiet calm–this sense of settling one’s soul beside still waters–arises whether I am meditating at the Zen Center, in my car, or at my desk at home. It is a deep, settled feeling that isn’t a place but a connection with This Present Moment.

Jerry

This is why I don’t say much about the bells and whistles of Zen Center-style practice when I teach the intro class. Instead, I focus on the three things you need to practice anywhere, regardless of setting or ideology. These three things things–attention to body, attention to breath, and attention to mind–are always with you, regardless of your external circumstance or trappings. If you are alive, you have a body, a breath, and mind, and you will continue to have each of them in one shape or another until you die.

Both your body and your breath are limited by space and time. However much the mind might wander, the body and breath can exist only Right Here, Right Now. If you stop reading these words to pay attention to the slouch or straightness of your back, the precise position of each of your hands, and the actual angle of your skull upon your spine, you will for that moment be present Here, because that is always where your body is.

Bugs

Similarly, if you take a moment to observe your breath as it flows in and out, you will be present Here and Now because that is the only place where breathing happens. Try as you might, you can’t make up for yesterday’s lost breath, nor can you store up breath for tomorrow. Both the body and breath are perishable–they are rooted in the present moment and are destined to pass–but the mind deludes itself by thinking it is immortal and unchanging. This is where the mind (literally) wanders astray, venturing far and wide into the past and future where body and breath cannot follow, the self divided against (and thus in conflict with) itself.

The Wall at Central Square

This is why meditation feels like coming home, regardless of where you do it. The moment your mind realizes it is wandering and comes back to where your body and your breath are, you are instantaneously and temporarily whole. This magical moment of reunion is something some people never experience, but it is perpetually at hand, right under your proverbial nose.

Birdbath peonies

This past weekend while I was visiting A (not her real initial) in western Massachusetts, we played a seemingly interminable game of dominoes. Each night, we’d sit in A’s sunroom playing another few rounds over snacks and cocktails, and the train of our conversation grew as as long and meandering as the lines of tiles on the table.

Rainy day peony bud

Over the course of that weekend-long conversation, A and I decided why it is that old men around the world play dominoes on porches, in cafes, and in public parks: anywhere, that is, where old men congregate. The game is slow enough to allow for conversation, it requires a modicum of strategy or at least attention, and it is equally a matter of luck.

Ornamental mint

These three things, of course, could also be said of life in general and old age in particular: a truth that groups of old men would be especially mindful of. Yes, health and longevity are largely a matter of choice and attention: cultivating good habits and taking care to avoid obvious risks are smart strategies. But health and longevity aren’t entirely within one’s control. Healthy habits and avoidance of risk won’t prevent you from getting hit by a bus, and even the most skilled and strategic player of dominoes can be brought down by a poor hand.

Two books I’ve recently read explore the role that chance plays in our lives: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Rainy day iris

Ehrenreich observes that we as a culture are addicted to the belief that we can control our destinies through wise choices: we are conditioned to believe that with proper diet, adequate exercise, and the miracle of modern medicine, we can fend off (or at least quickly treat) illness. Ehrenreich argues, however, that this belief is misguided, as even the most healthy-seeming individuals sometimes succumb to diseases like cancer. Whether or not you make healthy choices, Ehrenreich reminds us, we’ve all gotta die sometime.

Bleeding hearts

Kate Bowler addresses this same issue from a theological rather than scientific perspective. A scholar of the prosperity gospel–the belief in some evangelical circles that leading a pious, prayerful life will lead to both wealth and health–Bowler finds her own faith questioned when she is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As a wife and mother to a young son, Bowler and her husband both grapple with the unavoidable (and unanswerable) question, “What higher meaning or purpose could a good God have in killing a good woman in her prime?”

Begonias

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler address in their separate ways the importance and limitations of faith. Ehrenreich argues that our trust in medicine is itself a kind of religion where doctors visits and other forms of medical treatment serve a ritual purpose. Whether or not it’s statistically true that annual mammograms lead to increased longevity, for example, we wrap ourselves in the reassuring belief that they do.

Rainy day begonia

For Bowler, prayer and religious fidelity serve the same reassuring purpose: instead of trusting your doctor to make you whole, you trust in God. The problem with both kinds of faith, however, is the inevitable disillusionment that comes when faith eventually ends in death. Both healthy people and prayerful people ultimately die: there’s no fighting the inevitable. No matter how many times you go to the boneyard, there’s no helping a truly bad hand.

Rainy day peony

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler describe the unfortunate shaming that comes when good people get sick. Well-intentioned friends and family who believe in either medicine or religion try to explain (and thus justify) a bad diagnosis, suggesting that illness or disability is somehow the sufferer’s fault because of poor life choices or imperfect piety. As a middle-aged women with several chronic conditions, I know firsthand the judgmental looks and unhelpful advice sometimes offered by folks who think slimness, stamina, and perpetual youthfulness are guaranteed by their preferred diet, workout, or devotional regimen. It’s too unsettling even for onlookers to admit that some afflictions don’t happen for a reason.

Rainy day roses

Every old man playing dominoes knows you can do only so much with the tiles you’ve drawn: whether you complain about, try to strategize with, or ultimately resign yourself to the hand you’ve been given, there’s no fighting the luck of the draw. The secret that happy old men learn isn’t how to win the game but how to enjoy it no matter how it ends.

Leafy

This morning I awoke in western Massachusetts, where I had been visiting A (not her real initial) for the weekend. Before packing my car to head back home, I wrote my morning journal pages in bed, listening to a distant dog barking and the emphatic bursts and bubbles of house wrens, robins, and song sparrows.

Gallery

None of those morning sounds were my concern: there was no need for me to hush, feed, or clean up after that distant dog, and the robins, wrens, and sparrows of western Massachusetts kindly take care of themselves. I have my own backyard birds at home, and my own awaiting tasks. I arrived in Newton around noon, and Toivo wiggled herself in a frenzy at the sight of me, and J gratefully relinquished my share of the household chores, just as I hand over his when he returns from business trips.

Airy

Everything, in other words, has quickly returned to normal: how could it be otherwise? Both humans and dogs (and backyard birds, I suppose) are creatures of habit, and I am so far sunk into the happy rut of my domestic days, I don’t quite remember how to function outside of it.

Natural light

Zen is widely seen as a crazy, spontaneous practice–the stuff of carefree Dharma bums and zany Zen Masters–but this popular perception overlooks the sheer repetitive monotony of monastic practice. For every spontaneous outburst recorded in a Zen Master’s collected teachings, said Master spent countless hours getting up every day at the same time, gazing for the same meticulously scheduled increments at the same habitual floor, chanting the same traditional words at the same regimented hours, and going to bed at the same precise time every night to repeat it all over again and again.

Doorway

Monasticism is the heart of Zen practice, and monastic monotony is the stable, steady heartbeat that sustains occasional spontaneity. How can you be truly free unless you have no need to wonder where and when your next meal will be or where and when you’ll lay down your head? Monastics free their minds by taming and harnessing their bodies; an ox long accustomed to the yoke has infinite freedom to wander anywhere in his untameable mind.

Through

It’s been a long time since I lived in a Zen Center, but my daily routine with its chores and domestic rituals is its own kind of practice. This morning I loaded my car and drove home to my mundane life carrying a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes: after the ecstasy, the laundry.

The photos illustrating today’s post are from Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Lithographs, an exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA.

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