Perhaps Someday We Will Learn How to Live

Every morning I awaken to a country bristling with hate, intolerance, and violence. 

Trump bullied his way to the presidency, exploiting public anxieties, e. g., steel belt resentment of jobs sent abroad, latent fears of a changing demographic replacing White homogeneity, evangelical rancor against abortion, and Islamaphobia, which sees every Muslim as a potential terrorist.

Trump pledged he’d limit Muslim immigration and reduce refugee numbers.   Shortly into his tenure, he attempted a 90-day immigration ban on seven Muslim nations, fortunately curtailed by the courts, though the recent SCOTUS decision suggests he may now have the upper hand.

One of his gallery of appointed rogues includes top advisor Stephen Bannon, known for his misogynist views on women and feminism that plague our nation.

Early on, Trump appointed the now disgraced retired general Mike Flynn as national security advisor, who’d previously depicted Islam as a “malignant cancer.”

Since his election, hate crimes have risen sharply.   Think Progress has mapped their occurrence from the election through February, 2017, recording 261 hate crimes, 41% of which have been linked to Trump’s rhetoric.

But I want to be fair. Much as I dislike Trump, hate in our country has many sources and targets.

Violence comes from the Left as well as the Right. 13% of the 261 incidents included attacks on Trump supporters.

Now comes the June 14 shooting of four Republican congressmen, one of them critically, while practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity in Alexandria, VA by a disgruntled Bernie supporter.

There’s also Black violence, targeting Whites, often police, the abused becoming the abuser, the most notorious being the Dallas sniper ambush of twelve policemen, five of them killed (June 8, 2016).

Even liberals can become intolerant, as one of my favorites, simply because he’s so even-handed, Fareed Zakaria, reminds us: “American universities these days seem to be committed to every kind of diversity except intellectual diversity. Conservative voices and views, already a besieged minority, are being silenced entirely….Freedom of speech is not just for warm, fuzzy ideas that we find comfortable. It’s for ideas that we find offensive.”

Alarmingly, the number of hate groups in The USA has proliferated, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, increasing from 892 in 2015 to 917 last year. This number doesn’t track, however, widespread cyperspace hate raconteurs, whose venom sometimes seeps into social violence such as Dylan Roof’s heinous murder of nine Black church members:

ACTIVE HATE GROUPS 2016

KU KLUX KLAN ……………….130                  

NEO-NAZI…………… ………… 99

WHITE NATIONALISTS……..100

RACIST SKINHEAD. …………..79             

CHRISTIAN IDENTITY……… ..21

NEO-CONFEDERATE…………..43

BLACK SEPARATIST…………..193

ANTI-LGBT……………………….52

ANTI-MUSLIM………………….101

GENERAL HATE………………..101

Total:   917 Active Hate Groups (“The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Intelligence Report, SPLC, Spring 2017, Issue 162.)

Top five states for hate groups?   This may surprise you!

1.  California……….79
2.  Florida…………..63
3.  Texas…………….55
4.  New York……….47
5.  Pennsylvania…..40

It’s not any better abroad.  Britain’s decision to exit the European Community, which requires open borders of its members, parallels the upset victory of Donald Trump, many of the pro-exit voters older, working class Whites. France has its Le Pen; the Netherlands, its Geert Wilder; Germany its AFD (Alternative for Germany).

All of this comes down to the age old problem of the Other. Unfortunately, for all our supposed sophistication in today’s world of technological prowess, we’re still engulfed in the tribalism of our ancient progenitors, hostile to the outsider. And it’s not likely to get better, given the increasing anachronism of national borders that same technology makes possible.

Still, I am not without hope that the good side of humanity will ultimately prevail.  Or as   gifted Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye puts it,

My father’s hopes travel with me
years after he died.  Someday
we will learn how to live. All of us
surviving without violence
never stop dreaming how to cure it.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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America’s Unofficial Poet Laureate: Mary Oliver

Judging by her phenomenal sales, Mary Oliver surely rates as America’s unofficial poet laureate, and yet the anomaly that she’s never held the office since its inception in 1937.

I have to confess that I hadn’t heard of her, despite teaching modern poetry for some thirty-five years, probably because the Modernists held sway when I was in graduate school and during much of my tenure.

Likewise, she’s excluded from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, a principal text in modern poetry courses, despite having won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award.

In her favor, however, is a sympathetic overview of her work by the Poetry Foundation, which I recommend as a starting place for those new to her poetry.

I came to her poetry late and in the oddest way through an online course in meditation called “Demystifying Mindfulness, ” where one of her poems, Mindful,” was included for its affinity with mindfulness practice, often associated with Buddhism:

Every day
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

I’ve now read a lot of her poetry, with many more to go–she’s written 26 books of verse–with every poem a kingdom of delight.

I think she’s given poetry back to us with her craft wielded in directness and simplicity, yet latent in nuance. And then there’s that redolent pathos, or intensity, of a voice resolute with conviction hammered out on the anvil of experience, not always kind.

Over a lifetime, I’ve preferred a poetry complicit in ambiguity, or tension; poetry resounding in the inequities of existence and the paradoxical.

Oliver wins me over, nonetheless, because like the Romantics before her, her verse glistens with acute awareness of life’s brevity and the imperative of living each day as Wordsworth might say in “wise passivity,” mindful of the sensory aspects within ourselves that connect us with all sentient beings in the bubble of transience.

Best of all, I’ve found that in those nights that I cannot sleep, in turning to her poetry I find solace and with it, sleep.

I’m not surprised there are Buddhist affinities in poems such as “Mindful.”
Buddhism isn’t really about reincarnation; its about being alive to the nowness of the moment, whether good or bad, in a cosmos of impermanence where even the stars ultimately suffer mortality.

Buddhism, however, can’t claim her, for her poetry embraces a spirituality that transcends religion with its orthodoxies, reverencing the sanctity of all things, like her great master, Walt Whitman, in its celebration of the holiness of the profane.

Of her many poems, I think “When Death Comes,” surely a thematic key to her poetry, is my favorite. Accordingly, I find myself hungry to lock its wisdom into the privilege of each morning’s waking:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

–rj

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On First Looking Into Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. –Edna St. Vincent Millay

 


I recently finished Nancy Milford’s biography of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay [2001]). While it has some limitations, it remains a seminal treatment of a poet who once enjoyed immense popularity, went out of fashion, but currently is enjoying a revival.

While the book’s scope is large, relying chiefly on letters, diaries, journals and interviews, important details are sometimes omitted and the organization of her massive material could be better integrated.

Unfortunately, Milford proceeds chronologically, transitioning in step-stone fashion from one source to another, interspersed with brief commentary. Instead of critical acumen, she offers readers laudatory generalizations, rendered in ejaculatory phrases.

Millay enjoyed a stunning popularity for a poet and playwright in the 1920s and 30s, her poetry collections selling in the thousands and providing a comfortable income. She was awarded a Pulitzer for her poetry in 1923.

She also barnstormed America several times. Appearing before sold-out audiences, she mesmerized them with her spectacular delivery, though outwardly it came unexpected, since there was always this latent fragility about her.  At just 5”1” and scarcely weighing a 100 pounds, she gave off the aura of a child, doll-like in silk gown.

Audiences were most certainly lured by her unconventional lifestyle. Rumored to be sexually promiscuous, Millay was bisexual and in an open marriage. She was also outspoken, a social activist, chain smoker and heavy drinker.  Not since Byron, with whom Millay was often compared, had a poet so widely captured the public’s imagination and curiosity. The poet of the Jazz Age had, in our contemporary idiom, taken on the likeness of a rock star.

Milford rightly dubs her the exemplum of the New Woman, which helps explain Milford’s motivation to undertake Millay’s biography, a poet who sadly lived to see her poetry eclipsed by the rise of the Modernist Poets (e.g., Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams and Auden).

Novelist and poet Thomas Hardy famously commented that there were only two great things in the United States, its skyscrapers and the poetry of Millay.

Millay had good luck on her side in her early years. Coming from an impoverished, dysfunctional family in Maine, she had submitted a poem called “Renascence” in a contest sponsored by Lyric Year. The poem would launch a career.

Wealthy arts patron Caroline B. Dow, who heard Millay recite the poem and play the piano, offered to financed her at Vassar College, which provided the milieu that ultimately fashioned Millay into a highly cultured woman.

Millay was forthright when asked why she thought her poetry was so popular:

I think people like my poetry because it’s mostly about things that anybody has experienced. Most of it is fairly simple for a person to understand. If you write about people who are in love, and about death, and nature, and the sea, thousands…understand…my poetry because it’s about emotions, about experience common to everybody.  Then, too, my images are homely, right out of the earth.

Today, Millay has largely been relegated to a footnote in literary history. I still have my copy of Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry. After a brief introduction, it features only two Millay poems, among them, her most famous quatrain that foreshadows the transience theme pervading her poetry:

My candle burns at both ends,
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.

Years ago, can’t remember where or when, I had read a critical review that dismissed Millay’s significance. Sadly, it had prejudiced me until I took an online course from Stanford in 2015, called Ten Pre-Modern Poems by Women, which included Millay.

Forced to wrestle with “Recuerdo”, outwardly a seemingly simple poem, I discovered a subtlety between the lines, alerting me that maybe this was a poet I needed to know better, and Milford has convinced me even more.

As for the Norton Anthology’s superficial inclusion of Millay, you can argue it’s merely anachronistic, not substantive, a bastion of male hegemony needing to be challenged and on good grounds.

But then Millay didn’t allow herself to be the tool of any polemic, including feminism:

A woman poet is not at all different from a man poet. She should write from the same kind of life, from the same kind of experience, and should be judged by the same standards. If she is unable to do this, then she should stop writing. A poet is a poet. The critics should estimate her work as such.

All of which makes me think of Derek Walcott, who died just hours ago.  He didn’t want to be thought of as a black poet, but as a Caribbean poet.

What would she say to a course like Stanford’s that excluded male poets, making for a segregated artistry?

Or to academic conferences for women writers only?

It’s the sort of thing the male dominated academy used to do in their condescension:

We are supposed to have won all the battles for our rights to be individuals, but in the arts women are still put in a class by themselves, and I resent it, as I have always rebelled against discriminations or limitations of a woman’s experience on account of her sex.

Millay’s candor, her directness, the ease with which her words flow in her letters and journals I greatly admire. She filled a room with her presence, made you feel important with her focus, proved prodigious in her love and compassion for family and the unfortunate.

As a former Vassar classmate expressed it, “She was a girl who wanted to be beautiful and well-liked and powerful in her class. And she set out to be just that.”

The sad truth of transcience, or impermanence, her poignant theme, remains:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough. (“Spring”)

In all things, aesthetic conventions ultimately dissolve before new facets of engendering. Millay’s poetry straddles two worlds, that of the Victorian with its Romanticism, diction and metrics; and the modern with its strident subversion of conventional sensibilities and aesthetic maxims.

In reflecting upon her work, I think of  Second April (1921) as among her best work with its free verse and passionate sonnets. I would point readers to her “Spring” and “Ode to Silence” poems in particular.

For specifically feminist poetry, I’d recommend sonnets 8 and 18 in The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1922). Reviewing The Harp Weaver, influential and accomplished poet Harriet Moore wrote, “How neatly she upsets the carefully built walls of convention which men have set up around their Ideal Women. {She is} perhaps the greatest woman poet since Sappho.”

Milford’s biography abruptly ends with Millay’s seemingly accidental death on October 28, 1958, at Steepletop, her beloved rural farm in Austerlitz, NY, nestled in the Berkshire foothills. In actuality, she had suffered a heart attack, precipitating her falling down a flight of stairs, breaking her neck.  She was 58. She is buried there and a guided trail, open year round, takes you to her grave.

There is more:

Milford owes an immense debt to Millay’s sister, Norma Millay Ellis, who inherited Steepletop and turned over her large collection of salient materials for Milford’s pursuit, making her biography possible. Norma had selected her to do the biography based on her success with Zelda, a best selling biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.

Milford doesn’t mention it, but the well-regarded poet Mary Oliver had visited Steepletop and developed a close relationship with Norma, living with her at Steepletop for seven years, and was instrumental in organizing the Millay manuscripts.

Milford subsequently edited and wrote an introduction for a collection of Millay’s poetry, The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2002).

Norma died in 1986, but Steepletop remains, lovingly preserved, both house and the gardens her sister delighted in, which you may tour through an appointment (May-October).

In the dining room, Millay’s china remains set out as though at any moment, our poet will make her appearance, silently, unexpectedly, as was often her way in life.

—rj

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Sarah Teasdale: “There Will Come Soft Rains”

sara-teasdaleAm in a poetry mood again, which just shows you how subversive reading a poet’s biography can be (Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay).

In doing so, I came across Sara Teasdale, a once in-vogue poet and first recipient of a Pulitzer for poetry (1922).

Teasdale wrote verse that’s direct and without complication or artifice, elements contemporary critics eschew. She didn’t make the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed., one of the best repositories of verse in English out there.

I had come across her poetry before as a prof of modern poetry, but never found leisure to take her in.

I admire a number of her poems for their ability to resonate those salient emotions in all of us when it comes to nature, love and loss and, of course, mortality without engaging in self-pity or straying into sentimentality.

With their redolent attention to metrics, much of her poetry has transitioned into contemporary music; for example, the Scarecrow band rendition of eleven poems from Flame and Shadow.

And then there’s that enticing title of one of her poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” that I find among the most remarkably beautiful of all poetry titles. We principally know it today as Ray Bradbury’s title for one of his most celebrated stories, inspired by her poem.

Written shortly after the Great War, it features a world of nature absent of Man, who has annihilated himself. Lines 10-12 prove remarkably prescient in their intuitive application to our contemporary world with its apocalyptic tenor, replete with proliferation of nuclear arsenals; and yet Teasdale composed the poem in 1920.

Teasdale may not be one of our most renowned poets, but she wrote a haunting poetry of careful craftsmanship, rooted in the pathos of the human condition. She deserves a re-reading:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

–rj

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Is Mindfulness Warmed-over Buddhism?

momentMindfulness meditation seems everywhere these days. Even the corporate world embraces it, e. g., Google, Facebook, EBay and Twitter. And in medical circles, it’s all the rage, particularly in psychiatry where it increasingly rivals pharmaceutical intervention as a primary therapy in treating depression and general anxiety disorders.

But is there any real science behind mindfulness, or is it simply Buddhism warmed over for Western consumers?

Supposedly, mindfulness is all about being in the present. Never mind regrets about mistakes you made or things you’ll do to make things better. Just let go.  What matters is being sentient in the Now.  In the sports world, you might call it, “Being in the zone.”

Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, has three steps; namely, concentration, insight and its sequel, empathy.

You get there largely by focusing on your breathing. While your mind will inevitably stray with what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” don’t worry about it.  Simply listen to, and not engage, any thoughts that press-in on you.  Mindfulness encourages acceptance and avoids being judgmental.

But why mindfulness, even if its does help relieve your stress?

Why not a pill?

Why not counseling?

Or soft music?

Or having fun with a good friend?

Or relaxing on the beach?

Why not just slow things down and sit still?

Where’s the research to back-up the craze or to validate it’s more effective than traditional ways of promoting well-being?

In short, mindfulness has its critics, some of whom argue that self-confrontation can even be dangerous for you.  Do you really want to probe repressed memories and labyrinthian chambers of loss, grief, and failure?

Melanie McDonagh, a writer for the Evening Standard (London), argues in Spectator that Mindfulness didn’t work for her, given her inability to stay focused.

Mindfulness is supposed to ultimately make you more compassionate. But where’s the proof of that?:

…as far as I can gather, it’s mostly About Me Sitting.  Concentration on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbor in the practice of self-obsession?

In rebuttal, the test of properly practiced mindfulness is demonstrated outwardly in leaving ourselves behind and thinking of others. Any failure doesn’t lie in mindfulness, but those who really haven’t entered into what it’s all about.  I like how Shinzen Young  phrases it:  “The new self is not a noun, it is a verb” (The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works).

What really irks McDonagh is an underlying dislike of Buddhism. While extolling the virtues of Christianity, she glosses over its redolent history of crusades, inquisitions, misogyny, embrace of slavery, hostility towards gays, colonial genocide, etc. You’ll not find any of this in Buddhism.

Mindfulness, as in Buddhism, or even Christianity, teaches you to rid yourself of the sense of a separate self. In short, we’re all part of the experiential flux of time and the temporal.

Stephen Batchelor, a former Buddhist monk, puts it this way in his observations of its exemplum in the Dalai Lama, whom he has met and spent time with on several occasions:

At the heart of [his] sensibility plays a deep empathy for the plight of others, which seemed to pour forth from him effortlessly and abundantly…Such empathy requires that one undergoes a radical emptying of self, so that instead of experiencing oneself as a fixed, detached ego, one comes to see how one is inextricably enmeshed in the fabric of the world (Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist).

McDonagh is just plain wrong in her reductionism, which short-circuits any fair appraisal based on a thorough knowledge of mindfulness in its antecedents, methodology, and scientific appraisal when she asserts that mindfulness is just essentially warmed-over hash: “Think meditation, think Buddhism, and you’re there, so long as you don’t forget the breathing.”

On the contrary, while Western mindfulness owes much to Buddhism, it’s essentially rationalistic, eschewing metaphysics, and eclectic in its make-up, drawing from many strands to implement those methodologies congruent with current science, validated through empirical research, much of it utilizing brain imaging data.

It professes no deities, practices no rituals; has no hierarchy, and no theology. It attracts the best minds.

What it does share with Buddhism–and science for that matter–is a belief in the interweave of causality and effect and the primary role of empiricism, not speculation, in assessing evidence.

Hence its appeal to Western minds and the fact that it works for diverse needs and in a plethora of settings.

–rj

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She showed us the way: Reflections on Mary Tyler Moore

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 08: Actress Mary Tyler Moore attends NBC's taping of 'Betty White's 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America's Golden Girl' at Millennium Biltmore Hotel on January 8, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 08: Actress Mary Tyler Moore attends NBC’s taping of ‘Betty White’s 90th Birthday: (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

A few days ago we lost Mary Tyler Moore, not only an icon from the entertainment world, but a remarkable human being blessed with talent, beauty,  and an infectious smile.  Endowed with relentless fortitude, she survived for so long the debilitating carnage diabetes often inflicts upon its victims.

She wasn’t just a talented actor (seven Emmys and an Academy Award nomination), but a real-life hero, setting an example for all us.

You’d never have surmised from her TV dominance in the 60s and 70s (The Dick Van Dyke Show) and (Mary Tyler Moore Show) her raging battle with diabetes, which ultimately would take her life.

Diabetes can occur as Type I or Type 2. In the former, your pancreas doesn’t produce insulin and you have to resort to insulin injections several times daily to survive. In type 2, your pancreas produces insulin, but either not enough or the body just can’t utilize it efficiently.

Both kinds are progressive and incurable, though with weight control, healthy diet, medication, and frequent exercise, you may be able to manage it, forestalling its many potential complications such as heart and kidney disease, blindness, infections, amputations, and even dementia.

Moore was diagnosed with diabetes Type 1 at age 33 in the course of blood work connected with a miscarriage. In her 2009 memoir, Growing Up Again, she would detail her forty year struggle against this insidious illness, donating the book’s proceeds to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), which she served as International Chair for many years. “I want others to learn how I fell down and how I picked myself up.”

The truth is she had been doing this her whole life. We never really know what life has in store for us, as Oedipus learned in Sophocles’ monumental play of 2500 years ago. For some of us, our fate can seem especially unfair in its harshness and singularity, raising the perpetual inquiry, “Why do good people suffer?”

Moore’s mother was an alcoholic, and so was Mary until she overcame it, prescient of her valiant struggle against a much bigger adversary.

Sometimes we find consolation in another parent, but Dad proved both distant and unloving.

Then, in what breaks a mother’s heart, her 23 year old son, Ritchie, died from an accidental gun shot to the head.

She would have two unhappy marriages, until finally striking happiness in her 33 year marriage to cardiologist, Robert Levine.

In 2011, she underwent brain surgery.

Though she lived to age 80, she might well have lived longer, and happier years, had she been free of this debilitating disease. In her last several years, she suffered from declining vision, kidney and heart issues, and Alzheimer’s.

In her final days, she had come down with pneumonia, a frequent consequence of a diminished immune system, and was on a respirator for a week.  Ultimately, she was removed from life support.

 

With Bernadette Peters

With Bernadette Peters

Short in stature and slight in build, ever humble and always compassionate, she fiercely loved both people and animals, practiced vegetarianism, and gave time to both diabetes and animal advocacy.

Just how did she manage to cope so long and so bravely against her antagonist”? What lay behind her heroism?

In mindfulness therapy, there’s an acronym known as RAIN that may explain how she did it, giving hope to all of us in life’s hard places:

R—Recognition
A—Acceptance
I— Investigation
N—Non-identification

R:  Initially, Moore hid her illness.  Later, she  made it known.

A:  She allowed it to be what it is with all its dissonance in both mind and body.  Mindfulness doesn’t contend; it listens.

I:   She explored methods of ameliorating it through diet, exercise, and medication and ways of nurturing others with like illness.

N:  We are not the sum of our emotions and thoughts.  Our  real Self lies beyond and can provide cognitive catharsis.  Acknowledging her fate, she lived outside the parameters of self-absorption in unstinting, compassionate activism, promoting awareness and hope for her fellow sufferers.

Thank you Mary, for the nobility of your life, its example and inspiration; its quiet dignity, yet marshaled bravery in the darkness of the night.

—rj

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Book fan, Barack Obama

tumblr_inline_ojtrxn3ovw1rowsy7_500There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them (Joseph Brodsky)

Regardless of your political views, our former president, Barack Obama, was a phenomenal book fan.

How he found time for his passion baffles me, given the pressing demands on his time as president of the United States.

And I admire the books he’s read and recommended, among them classics like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebooks and Gabriel Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Always  up to date, in an interview with the New York Times (January 18, 2017), Obama gives high praise to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; Lauren Gross’ Fates and Furies; Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon; and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Last, but not least, William Shakespeare:

I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that is fundamental for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings.

As Michiko Kakutani of the NYT comments, “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped—in his life, conviction and outlook on the world—by reading and writing as Barack Obama.”

I think I know why our president often preferred the company of books. An introvert by temperament and consciously aware of his biracial heritage, books helped assuage a loneliness and provided a source for not only finding his identity, but  enlarging his mind and perspective through exposure to those ambiguities incumbent in the human make-up.

On a personal note, I confess I haven’t read a single one of the books I’ve just mentioned. I read a lot, but never enough, though I should be kind to myself and remember Edmund Wilson’s sage comment on the singularity of our reading experience—that “no two persons ever read the same book,” so even if I had, and you for that matter, we’re always individuals, and that’s the greatest gift of a good book–its capacity to reach each of us, no matter where we’re at in our lives.

Still, when I read that 27% of us never pick-up a book at all, I can’t really get my head around it. For me, we short-change ourselves when we do this. It’s like not giving plants the soil, light and water they need, resulting in stunted growth and preempting full bloom.

Books not only have the potential to reshape our lives, but make them better.

I say this first hand, knowing that they’ve saved me from a parochialism that doubtless would have channeled me into a lifestyle of narrow thoroughfares prodigious in polarized generalizations, born of the emotions, rather than seasoned judgment through exposure to reasoned perspectives, crafted in careful scrutiny, fostering balanced conclusions and wiser living.

Books not only provide pleasure and inform, but the ability to transform us.  In short, anyone who says they’ve only one life to live, needs to sit down and read a good book.

–rj

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Happiness: What it is and How to Find It

happinessI came across this still proverbial Tibetan saying in my pre-meditation reading the other day that I wanted to share with you:

“Seeking happiness outside is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north.” In short, our happiness must be found within ourselves and not in events, goods, or even among those we love, for life often doesn’t reciprocate what we want, love, or even deserve.

Happiness can’t be imposed from the outside, since it derives from making peace within ourselves, free from the demons of self-doubt, jealousy, and anger and a critical spirit that can spill over into our daily lives, eroding relationships.

But if happiness is an inner thing, how do we go about having it? The Buddha tells us that our suffering, or unhappiness, derives from our craving. Modern psychologists like Freud and Skinner appear to confirm this, finding that we are creatures of Ego, perpetually seeking gratification.

We find happiness specifically in recognizing the temporality of everything, both of ourselves and of the world to which we belong. When we find it, we no longer react to life’s volatility of event and circumstance.

Accepting change and ourselves as a part of it, we are anchored even in duress.  What happens is that our egos dissolve when we discover the ability to let go through focusing on what really matters in a cosmos of entropy.

Such contentment derives from living mindfully in the moment, celebrating the treasure of being alive, or as Hellen Keller expressed it so wonderfully:

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 you want to touch 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.

We develop this capacity through practice, or meditation, being kind, not judgmental, about ourselves when our minds wander, as they always do.

Mindfulness meditation, which we can apply to every sphere of experience, disciplines us ultimately into intimate awareness and, with it, a rippling comprehension of not only ourselves, but of others in a wider empathy.

Mindful people find peace not only within themselves, but its enhancement in the outer world through service to others, which psychologists increasingly tell us yields that kind of gratification money, position and power cannot equal.

—rj

Postscript: A book I highly recommend as an amplification of my post is David Michie’s Buddhism for Busy People. I promise that you’ll find it difficult to put down. (While I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve found Buddhism, more a way of life than a religion, offers a redolent wisdom that modern psychotherapy has found worthy of implementation on a universal scale, and validated through empirical research.)

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Tibet’s Tragedy: A Culture Teetering into Oblivion

_90482485_28344675572_e210e10c4e_bThe horror began with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949. In the decades since, Chinese oppression has continued relentlessly, with several hundred thousand Tibetans having been executed, tortured or imprisoned.

Commenting after her recent release, one survivor informs us that “Chinese officials used different torture instruments on me to break my spirit…to make me denounce his Holiness and the aspirations of my people. My fellow political prisoners and I were subjected to electric shocks from batons and prods…I spent weeks in solitary confinement. This torture and mistreatment started when I was just a child of thirteen and continued through most of my life in prison.”

I knew that the Chinese regime had signaled out Buddhists in Tibet to denigrate its culture as one effort among others to suppress their identity and, with it, their desire to be a free people.

Of an original 6,254 monasteries that existed before the Chinese invasion, just 13 remain fully intact, the others either destroyed or severely damaged.

A few days ago, I finished reading Stephen Batchelor’s fascinating book, Confessions of an Atheist Buddhist. Batchelor had converted to Buddhism as a young man and was formally ordained as a monk in 1974, and knows both the Tibetan language well and the woes of Buddhism, Tibet’s ancient faith.

He recalls visiting Lhasa in 1984. While the Potala Palace remains, it’s now a museum. Few traces of Buddhism, in fact, remain in this city once filled with Buddhist shrines and ubiquitous prayer flags.

From the Potala, you can glimpse what remains of the nearby Sera Monastery. 3000 monks lived there in 1959, the year of the Tibetan uprising. Now, only 100 lamas remain, all of them elderly.

Twenty miles east of Lhasa lies the Ganden Monastery, founded in the 14th century. Sadly. the infamous Red Guards ordered the local people to dismantle it, stone by stone. Once the residence of some 5,000 monks, only a scattering of aged monks remains.

Chinese persecution of Tibetan Buddhists continues unabated even beyond Tibet proper. In June 2016, the PRC mandated that half of the world’s largest Buddhist conclave, the Tibetan Buddhist Institute at Larung Gar, with its estimated 40,000 monks and nuns in Szechuan, be razed and its numbers reduced to 3,500 nuns and 1500 monks.

According to Radio Free Asia, expelled monastics must sign a pledge to “uphold the unity of the nation and not to engage in behavior opposing government policy in the area.”

Last month (December 6, 2016), the Tibetan government-in-exile asked the UN to intervene.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament on December 15, 2016, adopted a resolution condemning the destruction of the community.

Here at home, President Obama hosted Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama in both 2010 and 2014, giving verbal support for the preservation of Tibet’s culture, while subsequently restating the U. S. position that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.  (He did not meet with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office.)

China views the Dalai Lama as a separatist, however, and hence a threat to government hegemony, even though the Dalai Llama has never advocated independence..

Meanwhile China is pressing forward with resettling thousands of Chinese in Tibet and plans to build a second railway into the country to expedite commerce and tourism in particular.

Since 1990, China has relocated more than 2 million nomads into barrack settlements under the guise of protecting grazing land.

9-7-15_nomads_before_after_thumbnailIn urban areas, new schools are being built with Mandarin the primary language of instruction.

Though most of Tibet remains overwhelmingly Tibetan, an estimated 17% of Lhasa’s population is now Chinese.

In short, the Chinese have been following the Soviet formula of resettling volatile areas such as Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where a large Russian population now resides.

There are a few Westerners who argue that reports of Chinese repression have been exaggerated.

I have more faith in Amnesty International, which relies upon documentary evidence. In its 2014 report, it concluded that “ethnic Tibetans continued to face discrimination and restrictions on their rights to freedoms of religious belief, expression, association and assembly.”

We are now into 2017, and while the world largely goes its own way, Tibet’s fate continues to deter towards extinction of its culture as the Chinese People’s Republic recent ordnance demolishing Larung Gar clearly demonstrates in its strident callousness.

Since 2011, American International has documented 131 self-immolations in protest of Chinese incursions upon its way of life.

—rj

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Weighing-in: Reflections on 2016

celebrating-new-year-hd-9952-1920x1080-ymku-comWhen I was in my twenties, I used to keep a running account of what were good and bad years for me. Call it an exercise in ego, or whatever, I still like to weigh each year at its end. On balance, was it a good one? Or one I’d rather not repeat?

And here we are, the last day of 2016. We’re all different, yet I surmise it’s been a year a good many of us would like to toss in the dumpster.

To begin with, am I exaggerating to say it’s ending with a good many people I adored, no longer with us. The list is long, but among the losses was Leonard Cohen, poet-bard who sang life honestly. I loved his music and, thankfully, it will endure like all good art.

It’s also been an unusually volatile year politically, filled with surprises, spilling over into unprecedented acrimony and enduring anxiety as we enter the new year.

For me personally, another surgery, my third in six years after a bout with excruciating sciatica.

But there were good things that happened for me too. We got to be with our children for a week in Maine last June; then again at Thanksgiving in WA and CA.

I also discovered the tranquility of mindfulness meditation.

And then there were the three online courses I completed, two of them in mindfulness; the other, a stimulating Stanford course in modern women poets.

I somehow managed to keep up with this blog, now entering into its sixth year. I had begun Brimmings initially as a diversion from physical distress.

Finally, my surgery was successful.

For a lot of folks, New Year’s Eve calls for celebration. I always view it as a time of sober reflection, assessing the assets vs liabilities of the waning year, trusting I’m still in the black.

To each of you, I hope on the whole you’ve escaped with a balance and that next year will, indeed, prove a Happy New Year!

–rj

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