My first attempts at meditation

RELAX
Recently I completed a 28-day online course in Zen meditation from a Buddhist source, not that I’m thinking of becoming a Buddhist, but because I’m drawn to its spirituality, virtually absent in current secular approaches such as the wildly popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBDT) approaches.

I think meditation doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out affair to reap its many benefits. After all, everyday people have been doing it in varied formats across a myriad of traditions and cultures for some 2500 years.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Like playing a musical instrument or learning a new language, you can get to the rudiments fairly quickly, but doing well at it takes practice.

I struggle with my rebellious mind, as we all do with meditation, and its serpentine twists that take me anywhere and everywhere,

It helps, however, that Zen teaches me to be self-forgiving. It’s not really a matter of emptying my mind, but more of allowing it to have its say without imposing judgment or indulging it, conjuring up regrets about the past or anxieties about the future.

When I do this, meditation liberates me from the burden of my attempts to impose control. I see more objectively and don’t personalize disappointment or hurt. I know that my thoughts aren’t really me and that like the clouds, they come and go. I won’t let them chart my course.

When I meditate, I don’t sit cross-legged on a floor or on a bench, The edge of my bed does just fine in the early morning darkness, my back and neck straight, leaning slightly forward.

If my mind wanders, as it always does, I simply return to my breathing, sometimes counting my breaths.

I’m far from being where I want to be, but it’s become easier than when I began, and feeling more relaxed, I’m more eager to continue.

It’s been five weeks now and I’ve not missed a day, though for even better results, I need to do it twice daily for at least 20-minutes a session.

I like it that I can take mindfulness with me throughout my day, practicing awareness in my eating, or sensing my body rhythms; observing the details that compose those I encounter and listening to them acutely; and best of all, in a cosmos often replete with suffering, gaining an empathy for others–not just for humanity–but for the whole sentient world.

Zen informs me of the interconnectedness of all things in a temporal context; consequently, the imperative of my seizing the moment and extracting its goodness. It cautions me about the unhappiness that comes from my cravings.

Meditation has become a game-changer for me; and if it can work for me, bent over with worry in a world I can’t control, then just maybe it will work for you.

–rj

 

Why I Relish Going to the Gym

gty_crowded_gym_kb_141229_12x5_1600

For many of us, throwing off the blankets and crawling out of bed on cold winter mornings to go to the gym seems pretty dumb.

I felt that way too until my pre-diabetic diagnosis several years ago which meant that if I didn’t do something about it, I might well succumb to full-blown diabetes with its many lethal complications that include heart disease, kidney failure, blindness and even limb amputation.

Still, I didn’t do anything about it until a chiropractor friend had me do a full blood workup that showed I had moved even closer to diabetes with an A1c of 5.9 and ominous glucose average of 123.   If you get to 125, you’ve got the disease, for which there’s no cure, only management.

Now, fifteen month later, I’ve gotten the A1c down to 5.2. The A1c tests your blood for glucose management over the previous two to three months. The pre-diabetic range is 5.7-6.4. In short, I’m no longer pre-diabetic.

How did I do it? Quite plainly, by cutting carbs and exercising regularly.

Exercise is good for you no matter what ails you or–if you’re an outlier–from nothing at all, promoting good health, better sleep, stress reduction, more energy, and self-esteem.   What’s nicer than people commenting on how good you look?

But let me add to these verities several other reasons exercise has become a mainstay of my daily regimen.

Personally, I can wax euphoric at the gym like this morning walking my fourteen laps (2 miles), with Herbie Hancock’s pulsating jazz rhythms funneling into my ears via my wireless headset, making me pump my arms still more vigorously.

I like, too, the camaraderie going to the gym gives me, a sense of being part of a group. I see many of these people regularly, of both sexes and of all ages and body types. On occasion, we say our hellos or share smiles and sometimes conversation. Call it tribalism. I like the feeling.

I admire many I see at the gym for the obviously hard work they put into their workouts, whether pumping weights, walking raised treadmills or elliptical machines, or doing stair-steppers, etc. I see the payoffs in their lithe bodies with muscular arms, wide shoulders, and developed pecs. I know it didn’t come easily. Many of them exercise before going to work.   No wonder they inspire me.

But I also get a sense of personal satisfaction, or of time well spent. Call it a relish in self-discipline: I haven’t surrendered to the couch or big screen TV. I take pride in that, knowing my former tendency to both procrastinate and be downright lazy.

Every session becomes a moral lesson, and I remember what my high school track coach told me: “We all get stiches in our side. The good runner, win or lose, ignores the stich, holding out for the second wind that propels him to the finish line.” Today, I resisted cutting my four sets of curls to three. I like to think such lessons learned at the gym can help me better cope with life at large.

And then there’s that sense of jubilation in sharing my good news with my dear wife that today I did 70 sit-ups. Just a few months ago, I could barely do 25!

The Chinese have this wonderful saying that “the longest journey begins with the first step.” In going to the gym, I’ve taken more than one step now and I’m eager to do infinitely more in the climb to good health and the contentment it confers.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultivating Stillness

photo_20I am full of early morning,
tucked beneath my comforter,
stretching my legs,
my brain filling its daily bucket of anxieties
sufficient for another day’s wrestlings.

These several days I’ve laid siege to my citadel of habit,
rising in winter’s early morning coldness
to meditate in dark stillness.
It’s not easy.

Plagued by inertia,
I prefer my cocoon to elbowing out of bed
and sitting cross-legged,
back held straight,
shoulders pushed back.

Engulfed by morning’s opaqueness,
my wayward mind wanders aimlessly
and I am lost in a dark wood.

But it suffices,
for Zen absolves human frailty.
Mind needn’t be emptied,
and it’s mindfulness I lack:

To know the moment
and seize the solace of the Now.
To listen, but not engage.

I trace the pulse of limb and muscle.
I tune in to muffled beating of day’s snare drum
amid gathering pink of celestial fingers.
I count my breaths.

Cultivating stillness,
I discover calm,
and listening,
I grow wise.

–rj

 

 

 

Don’t Be a Phoul: When Neighbors Cut Down Trees

NYC Central Park
NYC Central Park

My daughter has been complaining in her recent emails about a family on her street in Bellevue, WA.

They’ve cut down two lovely Douglas fir trees, the kind that startle Easterners like me not used to arboreal skyscrapers, many of them magisterial in their silent dignity bequeathed by longevity.

Bellevue, a fast growing suburb adjacent to Seattle, still enjoys a fecundity most urban areas in America can only envy. When I was there a few weeks ago, I relished walking myriad needle softened pathways of the city’s several forested trails bisecting an urban landscape. Apparently, however, the area has also attracted a newer influx indifferent to the charms of a bucolic setting.

These neighbors complain that their trees were messy. They tired of the needles falling on their roof and car. Around the corner, another neighbor recently did the same thing for the sake of planting a garden free of shade. In its slovenliness, it appears she’s made things worse, not better.

Meanwhile, the company that’s done the cutting directly goes about soliciting customers door-to-door on a regular basis. One of the cutters bragged to my daughter, obviously relishing her displeasure, that he likes chopping down trees.

Unfortunately, we live in an America that prides itself on a free economy, with consumers having sovereignty over their choices. Sadly, in this case, these individuals opted to buzz-saw these magnificent sentries of public health into oblivion for convenience sake.

It’s the way things work in a mutual exchange between the entrepreneurs of the market place, motivated by money, igniting consumer sentiment often detrimental in its long term consequences; for example, alcohol and cigarettes. George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Nobel Prize winners, term it a “manipulation of focus” in their insightful new book, Phishing for Phools: The Economcs of Manipulation and Deception (Princeton University Press).

Phishing is their term for business interests that phish (i. e., angle) to get phools (consumers) such as you and me to do their bidding to the detriment of ourselves. Think banks, pharmaceuticals, real estate agents, etc.

There are two kinds of phools: those who fall for the falsity of the phishers’ claims and those, the vast majority of the public, who succumb to their own emotions, prone to making bad decisions simply because they initially feed their emotional wants. You see  this in matters of health where our predominant diseases such as atherosclerosis, diabetes and often cancer arise from faulty lifestyle choices such as the wrong food, overeating, indulging in alcohol, or not exercising.

It’s this way of doing things, in this case, overblown avarice with its bubble effect that led to the colossal recession of 2008.

In sum, what’s been happening in my daughter’s neighborhood, threatening its pristine uniqueness, is a facsimile of the phisher-phool conundrum writ large, neighbors manipulated into opting unwittingly against their long term interests.

Maybe you think this is all nonsense. Property owners have the right to do as they like.

But have they the right to harm the public-interest, given the menace of air pollution and global warming, by cutting down their trees?

And what about the neighborhood aesthetic? Hurrah for neighborhood associations!

We aren’t disconnected beings. Yes, we are our brothers’ keepers.

Bellevue government needs to get itself in gear. Trees are public domain just like telephone poles and street lights. Good government is on to this. Consider New York which just completed planting one million trees or Boston which plans to plant 100,000.

It’s estimated that planting trees in urban areas reduces energy use up to 50%. Just one tree absorbs up to 8 pounds of air pollution annually. Trees increase property value. Studies show people drive slower on tree lined streets. They add beauty and lend character.

Let’s not be phouls!

–rj

 

 

Snobbery’s Menace

0f42ae99-9c8e-38c1-96bd-8806ca19dd1d

Politics can be a mean way of life, filled with scurrilous attacks on opponents, replete with prevarication, and downright lying. I stay away from it, as much as possible.

Case in point, just the other day former Vermont governor and one time seeker of the Oval Office, Howard Dean, took a shot at Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, commenting on MSNBC’s Morning Joe: “The issue is, how well-educated is this guy?”

Walker, who may throw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination in 2016, dropped out of college almost at the finish line in the spring of his senior year to join the Red Cross.

Our Constitution, however, lists only three prerequisites for our nation’s highest office: natural born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a minimum of 14 years lived in the United States.

Maybe Dean and others of his stripe might want to try amending our Constitution to secure their elitist government.

I would contend our government is just too elitist as it is, an oligarchy of power interests distanced from the vast majority of working Americans, three quarters of whom don’t sport a college degree.

I would also question the underlying assumption that a college degree automatically confers knowledgeability on anyone for any job.

I was a prof for 40 years and I can tell you first hand my students learned best, not from books or lecture, but hands-on. That’s what internships are all about, Dean, and you of all people, a medical doctor, should know this, since M. D.’s do a year of internship followed by several years of residency.

I have to confess I made a lot of dumb mistakes as a young prof despite 10 years of college before I was really fit to step into the classroom.

I would like to ask Dean how it was, judging by his own maxim, he was suddenly fit to be governor having trained to be a physician. That’s a huge gap. Maybe Rand Paul can help us out here.

My father had only an elementary school education, dropping out of the public schools like so many of his generation in the pre-World War I years. Like several of my uncles, he worked as a leather tacker for all of his working life in a brutal environment of body-sapping humidity and toxic fumes in one of the most deprived areas of Philly.

But for all his lack of schooling, he was one of the wisest men I’ve known across a life time, intuitive, and possessed of a healthy dose of skepticism whenever the facts didn’t seem to line up.

Not only do I owe my love of baseball to him, but the importance of being aware of what’s going on the world. The TV evening news with John Cameron Swayze or Douglas Edwards was time out and you’d better not be talking while they were on.

Every Sunday morning, he’d send me up the block for the Philadelphia Inquirer, just a dime then (imagine!) and split the newspaper with me on my return, which I’d eagerly devour, sprawled out on the floor. At 10, I was fully aware of a new war in a far off place called Korea, and spell bound by the firing of MacArthur not long after.

I remember his love for Winston Churchill, who had warned the West in the early thirties of the menace of Joseph Stalin.

My father was always slow to swallow the government line, speculating that we might never really know the facts behind that “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor, a surmise that historian John Toland’s recent book. Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, lends credence to.

I take offense when the snobs start wagging their tongues, the privileged lording it over the common herd, whether in the political area or anywhere else

Money, celebrity and, unfortunately, education–one of the most rampant bastions of elitism– can become divisive weaponry in putting down others to boost yourself up.

Or to efface those opinions you don’t like. Dummies!

Snobs always want to impress. As Virginia Woolf put it, herself a snob, “The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people.”

I like best how one of my favorite authors, D. H. Lawrence, who came from miner stock, defined it: “[Snobbery] is the desire for what divides men and the inability to value what unites them.”

Ah, let me call to mind just a few names of those from a humble way of life, without college diplomas, who have made a positive mark upon the world. You just may be surprised:

In Science:

Thomas Edison

George Washington Carver

In Business:

Henry Ford

John D. Rockefeller

Steve Jobs

Mark Zuckerberg

In the Arts

Thomas Hardy

Mark Twain

William Faulkner

Vincent Van Gogh

William Shakespeare

In Politics

Andrew Jackson

John Glenn

Winston Churchill

Abraham Lincoln

These are my heroes.

These are my greats!

My favorite people also spring from everyday people I’ve known who never did a mean social thing in their lives like dismissing others for their lack of money, possessions, or the right diploma; or practicing a trade; or for being Black, Asian, Hispanic, Muslim, or gay; or because their political beliefs don’t mesh.

I measure people by a different yardstick: people who inspire with their kindness and compassion, from every walk of life, whose praise comes from the mouths of others and not their own; whose intelligence makes room for them to lead; who, to go back to Lawrence, unite rather than divide.

I like Shaw’s wisdom in his play Pygmalion, where he has Professor Henry Higgins put his finger on what makes for good manners–not whether what you do is in itself good or bad, but that you behave the same way towards everyone.

I must warn, however of another kind of elitism that has taken vogue, of a pride in defiance, or smashing icons for its own sake; a snobbery of rebellion where even norms that have given life grace, and with it, expectancy, are trampled upon in a frenzied allegiance to a vulgarity of self-indulgence of antinomian hue.

Snobbery is a way of life that will always be with us, but you and I, forewarned, needn’t embrace it and, by doing so, gain so much more.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I blog, though few will read

Why I keep a journal, or blog for that matterIt’s time to write again about why I bother keeping a blog.

I can’t speak for others, only for myself.

What got me started this early morning was looking at a recent blog I subscribe to, and that’s very few. The writer says she’s moved from WordPress to her own domain, WordPress no longer giving her the expansive options she needs.

She doesn’t, however, specify, those needs.

Anyway, I’m glad for her success.

But wait a minute!

What do we mean by success where blogging’s concerned?

Is it all about numbers?

How many followers or comments or likes or hits?

If that’s so, then I’ve failed dramatically and the gig is up. Hey, best be movin’ on.

But I don’t play it this way, or like a lot of people who build-up masses of friends in Facebook, for example. as its own end. If you don’t hear from them again, even on your birthday, what the hell!

Yeah, I like to know people are out there, reading me for sure.

But for me, blogging has simply replaced my manuscript journal, Echoes, into which I poured myself for thirty years.

Which is another way of saying I blog foremost for myself, my posts serving to filter issues entangling my thoughts.

Blogging gives them release, enables me to scrutinize and deal with them, and just maybe, and best, provides catharsis.

I don’t blog for validation.

I blog because I’m excited about life, though often it puzzles me, especially suffering, violence, and ill-will. I want to sort it out, find equilibrium through understanding and, with it, empathy and compassion.

I blog, too, because I’ve always had this love affair with the beauty and power of words, the cadence of sentences harmoniously patterned, the sweep of metaphor that makes abstraction palpable.

If you want to join me in the conversation, all the better drinking coffee with you, bridging time and space.

There are millions upon millions of us writing blogs. We just may be rivaling the stars for sheer plentitude.

And so I’m grateful for you who do manage to find and read me.

And especially for the more than two hundred of you who follow me.

But again, I blog not to advance a particular ideology, or to serve pecuniary interests, or to assure myself I’m likable, even lovable, or to shore up verbal sandbags against tidal waves of loneliness.

I blog because I like keeping company with myself, for only then, liking myself, can I connect meaningfully with you in this one journey each of us makes beneath the vast canopy of the silent stars.

–rj

 

Traits we should all want

leadershipI saw a recent piece in the Huffington Post, called “7 Habits of Natural Leaders,” and found it riveting. You don’t necessarily have to be in a leadership position, however, to benefit from making these attributes staples of your everyday life.

I’ll list them and give my own take on each of the attributes:

1.  They dare to fail: I was a prof for nearly forty years and found that most students opted to play it safe–take the easier courses, avoid the good, but tough professors who gave A’s only for singular achievement. I have often thought of Lincoln, who mostly failed in his early political efforts. But he never gave up, and the rest is history.

One of the problems with not assuming risk is that it can pursue us all our lives and we simply run away from all life’s tough spots and sometimes ourselves. If you think about it, we owe our country’s greatness to its founding fathers, willing to risk their lives to confront tyranny.

I have always liked how the poet Robert Browning famously put it: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

2.   They follow their purpose. In short, they stay the course. Over my lifetime, I’ve found the real nemesis of success is not that we quit, but that we quit so soon. Consequently we find ourselves saying, “what if?, when with perseverance, we might have achieved our goals.

Strong people can be difficult to get along with, since passion often governs what they do. At the same time, I find them attractive people, the kind you want to be friends with. They have a vision, know what they want, follow their bliss, and are exciting to be around.

3.   They give. I think we shouldn’t just think of giving in the way of money, but of ourselves. Currently, there’s a seeming panic going on about ebola. Several caretakers, or medical staff, have recently returned to the States, victims of the disease. What’s extraordinary to me is that they went to West Africa in the first place to confront this ugly disease. One of them has actually labored in Liberia for sixteen years, trying to improve its meager medical resources.

When it comes to the monetary aspect, while the vast lot of us aren’t rich, we can still give something. As Peter Singer, a philosopher who specializes in ethics, has said–if all of us in western counties just set aside five percent of our incomes for special needs, we’d eradicate poverty.  I would add, maybe a good many of our diseases as well.

I do know that what we give of ourselves and our assets is a sure indicator of our capacity to love.

4.    They give themselves a break: It’s important to sometimes treat yourself. Right now, I try to keep up my health as I grow older, working out on our elliptical machine and even lifting weights.

But I also schedule timeouts, one or two days when I don’t work out, like Wednesdays and Saturdays. It makes my exercise far more palatable, knowing tomorrow I can simply relax, and without the guilt. I sometimes suspect that dieters would be more successful if they’d cheat one day a week.

We Americans are hard-working and studies show we don’t take much time off.

That’s a pity!

5.    They really listen: Now here’s a trait I’m trying hard to achieve. After all, when we interrupt or ignore what someone’s saying to us, it’s a form of self-absorption, maybe even narcissism. Certainly, it’s selfish

It’s also demeaning to others, a way of saying you don’t matter or what you’ve come to me with is trivial. I don’t want to be this way. I want to value people and for them to know that. I want them to feel when they talk to me that they’re the only one in the room. In short, that they matter, for they do.

6.    They seek out new experiences and ways of thinking: Hey, I’m all over this one and hope you are, too. I like seeing new places, meeting people, chance conversations, reading serious books and magazines.

Guess that’s why I love being around college campuses, especially their real beauty–young people excited about life, filled with dreams, willing to challenge cultural norms turned into unthinking rituals.

Always, I yearn for stimulation, of being challenged to new ways of seeing things. TV doesn’t do that for me. I’m into romping blogs, trying new things, meeting people whose ideas may often challenge my own. I aim to grow, not stagnate, to wake tomorrow wiser than I am today.

7.   They empathize with others:  I like this a lot! Can’t come by a better trait than this, putting yourself in another’s shoes. This happened for me in a unique way many years ago when I took a chance and accepted an invitation form a college friend to visit his country, India.

I saw not only the Taj Mahal, but more importantly, how much the greater portion of humanity suffers in the shackles of ubiquitous poverty, disease and early demise.

I have learned since, and am still learning, the way of compassion, for people, animals and, yes, a wounded earth. I wish I were wealthy, not as its own end, but that I might empty my wallet for others.

If there really does exist what they call an “emotional quotient,” or EQ, then surely compassion is its ultimate marker.

I want it, and want it bad. Hope you do, too!

–rj

Human Evil and Its Genesis: ISIS

   All man’s troubles arise from the fact
  That we do not know what we are
 And do not agree on what we want to be
               –Vercours (You Shall Know Them)

 ISIS (1)

Like all of you, I’ve been reading and viewing with horror the crimes of IS (Islamic State). Recently, for example, there was the video of captured Iraqi soldiers being herded in crouched chain formation, later ordered to get down in a shallow ditch, hands tied behind their backs, then shot. Human Rights Watch estimates between 560 and 770 were executed, though IS boasts it executed nearly 1700 soldiers after overrunning Camp Speicher near the city of Tikrit in Northern Iraq.

And then there have been the two recent IS videos showing the beheadings of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. In the latter, the video ends with displaying Sotloff’s severed head lying beside his body.

IS has also been killing minority Christians and Yadzidis who refuse to convert along with Shiite Muslims, whom they regard as heretics. In one instance, 500 Yadzidis were buried alive.

IS atrocities are not isolated phenomena in the long list of “crimes against humanity” (International Criminal Court) in recent decades. Consider, for example, Rwanda in 1994 with the Hutu majority’s massacre of 800,000 Tutsis in just 100 days. Or Cambodia with its 2,500,000 dead at the hands of the communist Khmer Rouge regime in the late 70s.

But what makes for the forfeiture of humanity in atrocities such as those I’ve noted here? How is it that we can lose every sense of identity with our fellows? Is aggression, singular or collective, something innate, a legacy of evolutionary genetics compelling us to eliminate any perceived threat? Are we any better than warrior ants, the most warlike of any known insect group, who instinctively pursue extinction or enslavement of rival insect communities, are territorial, have a caste system, and are often suicidal in their assaults?

Here I turn to sociobiology, with its emphasis on biology as the catalyst in shaping social behavior among all organisms, including humans.

To begin with, things are not all bad about ourselves, genetically speaking. Yes, we seem to have genes that dispose us towards altruism, and we see such behavior demonstrated repeatedly in daily life right down to the motorist who allows you into his lane. At its most acute level, we see it played out on the battlefield when a soldier falls on a hand grenade, for example, to save the lives of his fellows.

The problem with genetic altruism is that self sacrifice would seem to run contrary to the notion of natural determinism, or the survival of the fittest, ensuring the likelihood of offspring, or evolution’s ultimate purpose. Surely, culture also intervenes here and refines genetic disposition as well.

Overall, however, altruism among social organisms is primarily carried out through “kin selection,” including ourselves. The net result is that the group, or family, survives. In short, even altruism can have its selfish component. Altruism, then, isn’t necessarily the angelic side of ourselves. But at least it’s a better option.

As for there being genes that prescribe aggression, as with altruism, none are known to exist . Behaviorally, however, genes confer a capability to develop a repertoire of aggressive responses, given stressed environments. Otherwise, aggression isn’t likely.   For instance. the social history of the Hopi Indians, an agricultural tribe, exhibits minimal aggressive behavior, In fact, hopi means “peaceful.” On the other hand, the Apaches were often given to battle to protect their land and buffalo herds from intruders.

Similarly, I surmise that genetic disposition, or capability, might help explain the high incidence of crime among some marginalized, or disadvantaged, groups in a given society.

While culture can modify genetic attenuation, it cannot eliminate it. Evolution ultimately imposes limits on malleability of behavior.

The diabolic, however, breaks loose when a fanatical few entice the many to exact violence in contexts of societal duress such as in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia following upon the end of the Great War.

In the hands of ideologues, often in political or religious guise, all bets are off when it comes to humane resolution of social tensions, given–not genes as such–but their genetic disposition for either peace or war. Set loose, humans are capable of every vile act conceivable.

And so with IS and the danger it poses for all of us.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindful Walking Brings Joy

anextrarodinaryday-net-birches-in-the-woods-john-muir-quote-about-natureI just finished a two mile walk in a quiet, woody area close to where I live. I especially enjoy it because I keep company with a wide landscape of greenery, manicured gardens and, quite nice, I may see only one or two cars the whole way. Walking in the early morning makes me mindful of the gift of life and its cornucopia of sensory delights.

Even when you walk, I think you’ll find your mind keeps trolling, often in miscellanea you might miss in the course of your day heavy with things to do, choices to make and, not infrequently, problems to resolve. I haven’t any doubt about it–walking can unleash a spirit of meditation, leading to a stilling of troubled waters. Still more, it can endow us with a wisdom to discern between the wheat and the chaff, providing an equilibrium taking us through the hard places.

Of all things, as I was walking, appreciating the pristine beginnings of a new day with its abundant promise, my thoughts turned to a short poem that Tennyson wrote, called “Tears, Idle Tears,” a poem quite opposite in its mood to the joy I felt while walking this morning:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.

Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.

Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

It isn’t my intent to give a full analysis of this poem, but simply to make several observations about the mindset that informs the poem and a lesson to be learned from it.

If the first stanza is thematic in its nostalgia, the next two stanzas clothe the poet’s lament in a series of similes that make for exquisite eloquence and a lingering pathos of melancholy.

The speaker’s unsolicited tears are as fresh as a ship’s sail that arises above the horizon, glittering in the first sunbeam of early dawn, tears elicited by recall of deceased friends now in the Underworld, who have suddenly sailed into his awareness. But they also vanish again into darkness similar to when the sun drops below the horizon, for memory can never render mortals corporeal again, given the finality of death. Tennyson, the great classicist, is drawing here, of course, upon legendary lore of the Underworld and the voyage of the dead.

But I like the third stanza best with its analogy to the last, sad day of a dying man, who in the early summer dawn awakes to hear the “earliest pipes of half-awakened birds” and sees for the final time the growing light upon the window casement. Ending with its consort of alienation from the vibrant world of the present–“so sad and strange”– is the import here, reinforcing the poem’s trenchant mood of nostalgia for happy days revoked by time and mortality.

All of this makes way for the final stanza where still more similes appear, the past being like remembering those we once kissed, now dead; or imagining kissing those we love, but who don’t reciprocate, underscoring yet again the irrevocability of the past and the frustration of human wish.

Tennyson had said his visit to Tintern Abbey near Wales had inspired this poem, as it had the great Romanticist poet, Wordsworth, who recalled the place in his famous “Tintern Abbey” poem. Wordsworth’s poem, however, recalls the past with joy, giving hope for future years.

While I appreciate Tennyson’s poem for its sincerity of lament and chiseled eloquence, I think we do better in light of the ephemerality of human experience to seize the day, or practice the wisdom of my favorite quotation from Helen Keller that I carried in my wallet for many years:

Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.

 Walking this morning, I celebrated the vibrancy of the present. Better, I took possession of it.

I think both Wordsworth and Keller would approve.

-rj

 

 

Poetry is Truth in Sunday Clothes

quietnessWe live busy lives and often it seems difficult to take time out, catch our breath, and maybe just reassess whether what we’re chasing is worth our time and worry.

In a frenetic world, we probably all have a favorite way of finding sanctuary–perhaps taking time off, or traveling to some idyllic spot, or just off to a meal out or a movie with sweetheart or family, or maybe indulging in a hobby or interest. Me, I like gardening.

I know one thing–we all need time-out, moments when we can drench ourselves in silence and apartness, returning renewed and, just maybe, wiser–the gift of self-reflection when we glimpse where we’ve been, and are, and where we need to go.

Cultivating quietness long term means we have to work at it, just like other good things in life. They say practice makes perfect. I don’t know about that, but I do know it makes things better.

Some find meditation important in gaining equilibrium, and I can endorse that, particularly the Zen kind with its focus on mindfulness that affords me access into myself without my need to control.

Lately, I’ve added poetry to ways I can augment my need to exit life’s speedway. I bathe in its wisdom, marvel at its concision, the depths of psyche it plums, its mellifluous stream of words, the cornucopia of  tumbling imagery that makes me see again things I’ve missed or erringly tossed or lost in my life’s journey.

We busy ourselves in a world often filled with self-centeredness and aggressiveness that, if we’re not careful, can dull our humanity and turn our hearts to stone. Poetry helps us keep the wolves at bay–the world’s and our own–and with our best self, love and hope again.

Poetry does it all so well.

As poet Joseph Roux marvelously puts it, “Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.”

I like that, and I think you will, too.

–rj

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: