Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Soar on the Wings of the Wind

In the beginning, the wind moved upon the face of the water (Gen 1:2).  In the beginning, the Creator breathed the spirit of life into the clay. (Gen 2:7) In the beginning, the same spirit brooded upon creation as a hen gathers her chicks.  The psalmist says the Creator soars on the wings of the wind (Ps 18:10).

The Master taught, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). In his last days, the Master breathed upon his disciples that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22).

The wind is a reminder that the Creator, though unseen, surrounds us.  Our breath is a cousin to the wind.  Our breath is a reminder of that first breath, when we were filled with the spirit of life. It is a reminder of how the Spirit continually renews us. Ideally, each breath should be a prayer of thanksgiving.

One day, a pilgrim heard the reading from Thessalonians: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17).  He heard this as a personal message from the Creator.  He sought all over the country for one who could teach him this method of prayer.  Finally, he found a master who taught him a method to pray without ceasing, so his prayer would be as close and constant as his breath.

This method is called breath prayer.

I will now teach you a simple prayer form using your breath. Create a quiet space; that is, no TV, radio, or MP3 player. Sit with your back straight and both feet on the ground. Inhale through your nostrils, drawing the breath as deep into your gut as possible. Purse your lips as if to blow through a straw and exhale slowly. Do this three times. Be sure to focus on your breathing; ignore all fleeting thoughts.

This method is called “straw prayer”. Once you feel comfortable with it, you can also apply it when you're stuck in traffic, and even when you're waiting in line.

Breath deep, and soar on the wings of the wind.


The above was written for a presentation on the Four Elements.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Behind the Curtain: West TX, 4.June.2011

Here's the exciting news: My poem will be broadcast on The Story program probably sometime next week.  I emailed it to them, and a producer wanted to record me reading it over the phone. She asked me to talk about what inspired me to write the poem.

The following is based on some notes I wrote as prep.

I heard the promo for the episode either during my morning or evening work drive.  The story of dissident poet Liu Xiaobo caught my ear, and I thought it could prove a worthwhile listen.

I woke early Tue - sometime between 2:30 & 3 - unable to get back  to sleep, I listened to the podcast through the PRX Radio Ap on my iPod Touch.  The discipline of an elegy a year impressed me; the story of how the book came to Jeffrey Yang also impressed me.

Jeffrey Yang used the phrase 'In the middle of the desert', and it caught my ear. The phrase brought up associations - how the desert seems a barren & forbidding place, but it also can be a retreat (e.g., for the Desert Monastics), a way to enter deeply into your self, or to connect with the universe or the divine.  I had an intuition that Jeffrey Yang used it as a way to connect with Liu Xiabo.

I think of this type of poem as an "emotional photograph".  I'm thinking of  Ezra Pound's imagist poetry, or Jack Kerouac's American Haiku - where the goal is to inspire an emotion with as few words as possible.

As I now reread my poem, I wonder whether there's enough there to speak to someone who has not heard the story. I hope so. One advantage of the internet is one can link to a source, so I linked to the appropriate page on The Story's website when I posted the poem here. With any luck, my poem will stir enough curiousity to encourage the reader to research the inspiration.

After I listened to the podcast, I already had the first three lines in mind. I kept repeating "In the middle of the desert" over and over, like a mantra or breath prayer. When I got to the keyboard, all I knew for certain were the first three lines, and the fact that I wanted it to end in Tianamon Square. I hope that abrupt transition from the fires in West Texas to the smoke from China is haunting as well.

I think the lack of detail can be powerful in these emotional photographs. It can engage the reader, cause her to fill the spaces you've left open. S/he can bring her own desert associations with her/him.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bad Biorhythm

When I was a teenager, there was a pseudoscience involving biorhythms. I bought a hand-held calculator which claimed to track one's rhythm for any given day. The calculator had a graphic display which showed flowing curves, which indicated whether you were in biorhythmic peak or valley.

Happily, the calculator did standard mathematical functions as well.

I rather wish I had that calculator this week. I somewhat suspect it would reflect a biorhythmic valley. Not Marianas Trench or Grand Canyon, but still.

It all started with the trunk of my car. I raised the garage door Monday morning to discover I had left the trunk lid open. Since about noon Sunday. I was prepared to have to plug the car battery to a charger and call in late. But I was lucky; the car started right away.

It's likely the car, a '98 Ford Escort, has a feature that automatically turns off the trunk light after a certain point. The dome light in the cab goes out within a few minutes.

But I wasn't sure. I chose to play it safe, and drive with the radio and lights off. It was about thirty minutes past dawn, so it was light enough to see and be seen.

But when I pulled into the parking structure, I felt the need for my car lights. I drove up the ramp to the second level and backed into my space, as I do every morning. I folded my glasses, and put them in their case, as I do every morning. I slung my satchel over my shoulder and clipped my keys onto the case, as I do every weekday morning. I strode confidently across the garage, with my head held high. Just like I do every weekday morning.

It wasn't until I was about half-way to my office that I began to wonder whether I had turned off the car lights.

I chose to walk on to the office, get the coffee started (I clearly needed it), and start the day. Then I walked back to the car. Turns out, I had turned off the lights just as automatically as I had performed all those other tasks.

The day pretty much continued in that vein. I hung up on customers when I intended to put them on hold. I ran into objects. Stuff like that. The remainder of the week hasn't been any better, or much worse.

It's just felt like I was a third-dimensional being trying to adapt to a fourth dimensional world.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

West Texas, June 4, 2011

For Liu Xiaobo & Jeffrey Yang

In the middle of the desert
translating sorrow,
unwinding intricate ideograms.
Haunted mothers
collect tears
for their nameless children.
Fires in West Texas.
Smoke rolls from Tiananmen Square.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Joe and Mary

It's been over six months since I've been to the Traditional Music club. I remember Joe as a fine guitarist. I remember Mary as a competent, though insecure, banjo player.

I haven't been to the Traditional Music club for a couple of reasons. On the personal side, I struggle with entropy, or maybe depression, and it can be a challenge to leverage myself out of the recliner into the world of people. Also, the Traditional Music club is going through a transition that sometimes feels like death. There are active pockets of jammers — especially the celtic group and the guitar circle — but the one-time center of the organization, the Play Around (an open mike), is poorly attended.

So. I was walking down the hall to the Play Around room when my path intersected with Joe and Mary. Mary wore a white blouse and blue gingham dress and a straw hat. Under the hat, she had an earphone over one ear; she was holding a cassette player. "I can play the cassette now," she said, "Ray gave me batteries." I smiled and nodded, and wondered if something had gone wrong in her head.

We were early for the Play Around. There were six people in the room. There six mikes on the raised stage, as if waiting for all six people to perform at once. Joe commented that attendance at Play Around had been meager - only twelve had attended in April.

A few minutes later, Joe handed me a small photo album. "Mary wanted to share these with every body," he said, "She wanted people to remember what she was once like." Mary and Joe attended Al Goode's Big Band Halloween party every year, and the photo album was filled with pictures of their costumes. Mary as Charly Chaplin, Joe as a flapper. Joe and Mary as Napoleanic royalty. Joe and Mary as hillbillies.

The club president, Cliff, announced that since there were so few of us, we could sing two songs each.

John played "Nobody Loves You When You're Down & Out." Cliff played two poems by Rudyard Kipling set to music. Then it was Mary's turn.

By this point, there were about 14 people in the Play Around room.

The music for Mary's song was on the cassette player. Most of the time, only she could hear it. I don't mean she was having audio hallucinations; when her head was tilted so the earphone was close to the mike, we could hear the music as well. Occasionally, Joe would play a little guitar figure, but most of the time it was just Mary singing snippets of lyrics. Pretty much the same lyrics. Over and over again.

There came a point when there apparantly was an extended musical interlude. During this time, Mary told us about horse back riding. Her husband had decided to try this as a sort of therapy, and (at the least) Mary has enjoyed it. She spoke for several minutes about how gentle the old horse was. She described his mane and tail (though she couldn't remember the word "tail"). She demonstrated what it was like when the horse went at a trot.

This monologue lasted four or five minutes. Then she sang the same lyrical fragments she had been singing previously. I had never heard this song before; I don't if there were more lyrics to the song, or if these fragments were all she could remember.

I'm told this lasted 25 minutes. I have a low tolerance for repitition, and become frustrated when I'm only receiving a part of the information. At least five people left. Many people tried to gently talk Mary away from the stage. Joe tried. The sound man tried. The president tried. No one was willing to physically pull Mary away. I doubt that would have been safe in any case.

She was not hallucinating. The music was real. But Mary was not aware that no one could hear the music she heard.

I actually stayed a bit past the point my patience had run out. I had the sense the tape was on an endless loop. I felt sad for her, and embarrassed for her husband Joe.

I happened to see Joe as I was leaving. He thanked me for my patience: "I knew this was a kind group, and would be patient with her."

He told me Mary was suffering from dementia. Even when she was compos mentis, she did not trust medical doctors. She believed in natural medicine, took vitamins, and relied on herbal remedies. Now, if it's even suggested she should see a doctor, she becomes quite agitated. I suggested Joe find a doctor who would be willing to visit Mary at home. A house call is a very long shot, and there's a limit to how much a doctor can determine face to face, without running tests. But I saw it as worth a try.

Joe was grateful, a survivor reaching for a small bit of driftwood.

Joe and Mary have two daughters. One lives across the road from her parents. She and her father take turns watching and caring for Mary. The other lives in California, but is also involved in discussing options.

He recognizes he needs a support group, as well. I told him he was wise to seek help for himself, and recommended he call a local help line. They would be best equipped to refer him to such a group.

It was hard to leave. I had looked forward to performing. There just seemed to be no end in sight, until the tape or the batteries ran out. I hurt for Joe and Mary. I hurt that all of us were powerless in the face of this profoundly human suffering.

Before we parted, I held Joe in a hug for a moment. I held them both in prayer as I drove home.