Saturday, January 01, 2022

Dreamers, Shapers, Singers, Makers

(I wrote this introduction for a series of a dozen sonnets I've collected into an art book that is one of the solstice books i've produced over the years. I post these sonnets on FaceBook and Instagram. The title of this post and of the solstice book is from Babylon 5, Season 2: The Coming of Shadows, Babylon 5 (1993-1998), created by J. Michael Straczynski)

Grace Paley, who I was lucky to see read her poetry a few times in the later years of her life, in her wonderful poem Responsibility, exhorts poets to step into the fires of social change. The poem is loaded with advice but one passage serves, for me, as a good explanation of why I have composed these dozen sonnets to activists:

It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners
giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets
also leaflets they can hardly bear to look at
because of the screaming rhetoric

My other inspiration for these poems is Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, as timeless a work as there is. I noticed some years ago that this book had spawned its own subgenre of "letters to a young ____." Almost none of these works are true correspondence though they are epistolary writing (and i love the letter form, for sure). But Rilke's example is that of correspondence (written over several years) responding to a 19-year-old officer cadet who was asking for advice (and to which Rilke initially responded with "Nobody can advise you and help you..." He then goes on, nonetheless, to give advice). All to say that the letter-form for my project seemed beyond me. Which is when I thought of composing poems. Poems that would at least be worthy of my Aunt Margaret's attention.  For I make no claims that these sonnets are good poems though i've tried to craft them well. I can hear my late Aunt Margaret, high pitched voice and Scots accent, responding to several of my poems with, "Well, that's rubbish." But a couple of poems elicited, "That's quite good. I like that one." Higher praise doesn't exist. And in the hopes that at least a few of these poems might have earned my Aunt Margaret's praise had she lived to hear them, I offer this set of advice poems which are as much musing as exhortation.

I do ask myself why I feel compelled to offer advice. Well, even while the future remains unwritten, the path of the unfolding and quickening climate catastrophe that is upon us all seems ever more bleak. Though I remain stubbornly hopeful. I have spent a lifetime reading of possible futures - dystopian, utopian, apocalyptic, and everything in between -  in order to imagine what might lie ahead and what choices now should be made to find our way to a healthy and vibrant and just world. I have imagined myself every kind of hero, every kind of victim, and several kinds of villain. I have fantasized about being the last of humanity and the first of a new civilization that rises from the ashes. I have made lists of what one should have to hand should civilization collapse unexpectedly. And i've imagined where I would like to live in a post-apocalypse, assuming it was livable. But I have also wept for the imagined losses that are, in fact, unimaginable.

Thus have I spent my adult life to this point practicing popular education because I believe that the creativity, critical mindedness, kindness, humility, passion, love and courage that is at the heart of this practice (praxis, for you theory nerds) is what is most missing from movements for positive and necessarily radical social change. Popular education recognizes that all processes of change are, at their core, about learning. And that that learning has to be collective - that there is, in a sense, no such thing as an individual learner. As Paulo Freire writes, "...no one teaches another, nor is anyone self-taught. People teach each other, mediated by the world." I have spent over 40 years forging a popular education praxis that is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-colonial; that is defiant but also playful and committed to emancipation of the oppressed and the sovereignty of those who have suffered much. Popular education understands that everything in our world is interconnected and that while human communities and civilization are amazing things, they are not the centre of creation but rather only one kind of participant in the abundance of life on  planet earth. And unwittingly or not, we have taken more than our share and continue to wreak havoc on both human and non-human life. Now we are in a race with our selfish nature with only a matter of years ahead of us before our course is irreversible (optimistically speaking). Whether we overcome our narrow self-interest to learn and grow into a more mature and just understanding of life on this planet has, I believe, everything to do with how we practice learning.

I am, by nature, hopeful and thus always deeply committed to ensuring the most positive outcome from the many challenges we must confront in the coming decades. Nonetheless, my energy flags at times and I feel discouragement and even despair begin to well up. But I have always taken such moments as opportunities for learning and growth (and writing poems). I was surprised and heartened recently upon reading a 2019 op-ed piece by archaeologist Chris Begley who teaches wilderness survival, something that would seem, on its face, is increasingly important for any who plan to live into the late 21st century. But, perhaps counterintuitively, he writes:

"While the wilderness survival skills certainly can’t hurt, it will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill. Then as now, social and leadership skills will be valued. We will have to work together. We will have to grow food, educate ourselves, and give people a reason to persevere. The needs will be enormous, and we cannot run away from that. Humans evolved attributes such as generosity, altruism, and cooperation because we need them to survive."

My hope is fuelled by the recently published The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Wengrow and the late David Graeber which tells a startlingly original account of human civilization that supports Begley's advice and also creates the basis for thinking much more radically and hopefully for our future. The history that most of us have been taught is one that, not surprisingly for some of us, has served certain narrow interests at the expense of those of the majority of humanity and the vast majority of non-human life on this planet. We need better history. And Graeber and Wengrow have given us a must-read text for the sake of our survival.

My hope is strengthened even more by the work of Octavia Butler whose Parable of the Sower I have recently re-read so that I may marvel once again at her imagination and prescience. It is a searing read, complicated and nuanced, but one that is filled with hope and courage. Each of her works points us towards the courage and imagination that we need now. And I have re-read Rilke. In fact I'm always re-reading everything I've read my whole life, re-reading being a joy second only to the joy of reading.  I'm currently reading to Taliesen the Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey. How I loved these as a teen. And what a joy to rediscover them with Taliesen. I know now that I did not appreciate, as a teen, the complexity of the social relationships McCaffrey describes in her novels. But something seeped through.  And that something is what I've also found in the words of a wilderness survival teacher/archaeologist, of writers like Octavia Butler, in the poetry and thought of Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldua, the philosophy of Maria Lugones,  the art of dian marino and Corita Kent, and so many others. 

Cooperate or die (and be forgotten). Perhaps it is as simple as that. But to cooperate we must participate with all life. And, as Alice Walker says, “We live in the best of all times ... [because] there’s so much to do!” Thus we must decolonize our politics, our economics, our social relationships. We must learn to use less stuff. We must work to restore what we have so casually destroyed. We must learn better to be humble and loving. For the world will shrug us off and carry on as it can - if wounded and ailing. But it will recover. Human civilization may not. 

So, here are a few poems with a few things that i've learned and which I hope contain a few things with which you might connect.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

A Poem-a-Day

(I wrote this introduction for a series of 'zines of short poems selected from my poem-a-day writing practice. I post these poems on FaceBook and Instagram)

I love to write. Just write. I do enjoy getting published as well. But that's different from writing. I have many writing practices one of which is writing a poem a day. I have practiced this on and off  going back 30 or more years. While i try and write good poems I have no illusion that I am producing great poetry. If the poems please me then I am content. Which, perhaps, makes me entirely too complacent, if not lazy. But we'll see.

A few years ago I decided to try a poem-a-day with each day (save Saturday) devoted to a different short form. Thus Sunday = haiku; Monday=gathas; Tuesday=senryu; Wednesday=rubaiyat (rhyming quatrains); Thursday=tankas; Friday=cherita.

I have found over the years that, while poetry in general is, for me, a contemplative activity, the various short forms of which I am fond are excellent for practicing mindfulness. There is so much to notice in the world - beauty and suffering  - all of it. As Rilke writes in his Book of Hours: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Thus am I sharing some of the product of my daily poetry practice. I am, at least for now, excluding my Rubaiyat cause I suck at rhyming and, more significantly, it is a form for which I still lack adequate understanding. 

Haiku

Perhaps the best known short form poem in the world, haiku is generally described as three lines of five, then seven, then five syllables. This approximates in English the Japanese practice of seventeen on  which are similar to English syllables. Many modern haiku don’t conform to seventeen syllables but rather seek to express an observation of nature in as few words as possible. I tend to stick to the 5/7/5 but occasionally try something different. Traditional haiku include a kigo or seasonal word. I also challenge myself to avoid using metaphor as this forces me to pay closer (deeper?) attention to what I am observing. But metaphor is fun so it happens often enough despite my attempts to avoid it. A haiku is a nature poem but the 5/7/5 structure lends itself to composing poems about just anything. There is another form, senryu, which uses the haiku form but which is focussed on something else. See my description which follows. I like to stick to haiku being about nature.

Bees collect pollen
in savoury sun-warmed air
Scent of russian sage

Gatha

When i search for a library book and find it has 95 holds
I vow with all beings
to celebrate the printed word
shared and shared again

I learned about Gathas from Zen Buddhist Robert Aitken’s book The Dragon Who Never Sleeps (Parallax Press, 1992) which I picked up at the Green Gulch Zen Center when visiting there in 1994. Gathas are simple four line poems that are vows for daily living.  Aitken describes The Dhammapada (a collection of Buddha's teachings that I read 40 years ago) as being composed of gathas, but I've always found these rather stuffy. Aitken also points to the Avatamsaka Sutra (my favourite Buddhist teaching) chapter Purifying Practice which is made up of 139 gatha vows. But they've always struck me as a tad lofty and endlessly serious. Even Thich Nhat Hanh's collections of gathas (Present Moment, Wonderful Moment), though lovely, lack humour.  Aitken’s gathas are a wonderful combination of quotidian focus, wry humour, poignant observation. And I quite like the beat of the second line (I vow with all beings) which Aitken adopted from the Purifying Practice chapter of the Avatamsaka Sutra.


Senryu

School bag dropped quickly
he runs to the baseball field
leaping into play

Senryu use the form of the haiku but, while haiku focus on nature, senryu focus on culture. They tend to the satirical and focus on daily  social, political, and economic life.  I like how playful senryu can be. English author R.H. Blyth in his lovely book Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verse (The Hokuseido Press, 1949) describes senryu as being satirical without being cruel. In the preface to that book, Blyth notes that in one of his Japanese books about senryu someone has pencilled the comment: "Senryu are not to be read twice, however good they may be." But, while Blyth  then defends senryu as deserving more attention than this comment suggests, it did make me immediately think of New Yorker Magazine cartoons and Gary Larson's The Far Side. It had never occurred to me to think of these cartoons (and many others besides) as a form of poetry. But they are certainly senryu-like and I am rethinking my take on these.

Tanka

Flowers hug themselves
Patient for the light and warmth
Of bright vernal days
Each year the earth remembers
Unforgetting seeds and bulbs

I know less about the history of tanka but learned it is a five line poem of 31 syllables (or on as with haiku). There are two sections to a tanka, the upper phrase of three lines (which like haiku use the 5 /7 / 5 syllable pattern), and a lower phrase of two lines of 7 syllables each. Originating in eighth to tenth Century Japan, tanka (then known as waka) were  used for intimate communication between lovers or people who were courting.  Thus the tanka was a kind of love poem (perhaps similar to the Elizabethan sonnet). I thought that this form might be interesting to use as a means of writing love poems to the earth.

Cherita

Pomegranate seeds swallowed

and the gift of seasons
was born

Each folding
unfolding into each
other endlessly

The cherita is one of the newest forms of poetry I have come across. And I loved it instantly. It is a six line poem in three stanzas, the first of which is one line, the second, two lines, and the third, three lines. It's a form that was created on June 22, 1997 by UK poet and artist ai li. She named this form in memory of her grandparents who were wonderful storytellers. Cherita is the Malay word for “story” or “tale”.” And a cherita tells a story. It very quickly became my favourite short poetry form. I love its focus on narrative and I realized that unlike haiku and senryu which tend to 'take a snapshot,' the cherita invites paying attention to the sequence of action. I've found it's a wonderful form for synthesizing short (very, very short) versions of many tales I love to tell. When limited to only six lines one has to make some pretty hard decisions about what to leave in and leave out.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Justice?


One day Otter, in tears, came to King Solomon: "My King, I have come for justice. This morning I asked Weasel to take care of my children while I went to the water to find food. When I returned, Weasel had killed my children." Solomon summoned Weasel and asked if what Otter had said was true." Weasel hung her head and said, "Yes, it is true. But I am not to blame for I was only responding to Woodpecker's striking of the War Drum and trampled Otter's children in my haste." Solomon summoned Woodpecker and asked if what Weasel had said was true. "Indeed, it is true that I signalled the call to war. But I did this as was expected of me when I witnessed Scorpion sharpening his dagger." Solomon summoned Scorpion and asked if what Woodpecker had said was true. "I admit that it is so," said Scorpion. "But I did this only upon seeing Tortoise don his armour."  Tortoise, when summoned said, "yes, but I acted only when I saw Crab draw his swords." Crab, in turn, said, "I acted only upon seeing Lobster draw his javelin." Lobster then said, "what choice had I when I saw Otter coming to eat my children?" Solomon turned to Otter and said, "Neither Weasel nor any others are guilty. You, Otter, are responsible for your children's death. Who sows death, reaps death."

Monday, March 01, 2021

A Sufi, a Catholic, a Hindu, and a Jew walk into a bar….


(with thanks to Bob Kanegis for the title to this blog post. Check out his blog here: https://storytellerscampfire.wordpress.com/)

Hazrat Inayat Khan tells a story of Moses who invited the Lord God of Israel to break bread with him. Moses’ God answered that he would indeed come. Moses prepared a great feast and, while waiting for his guest, a poor man walked by and begged for food saying, “I have not eaten in three days. Please might I have a slice of bread.” Moses looked past the beggar to see if his God was coming and said, “If you can wait but a little while, I am expecting a guest and when he has come and gone I will give you all that is left over which will be far more than a mere slice of bread.” The poor man left, time passed, God did not arrive. The next day, bitterly disappointed, Moses went to Sinai to pray. “My Lord, how have I sinned that you would promise to visit and yet not come?” God responded, “Moses, We came but you did not recognize Us. For who do you think was the beggar at your door?”


I've come across this type of tale many times and feel it most fitting in this pandemic era of isolation from each other and all that we bear to maintain our wellbeing. This story is extremely similar to a lovely tale i think i recall from Nathan Ausubel's Treasury of Jewish Folklore in which a Talmudic student, determined to stay focused on his studies, shoos away a beggar only to learn that it was none other than Elijah. And the entire tradition of Elijah stories is one that exists as reminder of the hidden presence of the divine. Not to mention the stories of the lamedvovniks, the hidden saints, who commit acts of anonymous generosity and thus sustain all of creation.

One of the joys of storytelling is the discovery of similarities across cultures and time of wisdom and ethics and humour. But, as I learned from scholar Wendy Doniger, as interesting as are the similarities, it's really the differences that are the most interesting. Which, in this time of exrtremist right-wing white supremacist populism, is something we need to remember more than ever.

When I re-read Hazrat Inayat Khan's story I was reminded again of a catholic joke I grew up with as well as a Bengali tale I found in the wonderful collection Folktales of India by A.K. Ramanujan (Pantheon, 1991):


Once there was a flood in which a faithful man was trapped in his house. He went to the second storey where he looked out the window and saw a canoe approach. “Get in, get in,” the canoeists said. “We’ll save you.” But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The canoe paddled away. The floodwaters rose and the man had to flee to the third floor. He looked out the window and saw a motorboat approach. “We’ve come to rescue you,” the boaters said. But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The boaters left and the floodwaters rose faster. The man climbed onto the roof of his house when along came a helicopter that lowered a ladder. But the man waved them away yelling, “My faith is in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The waters rose and the man drowned. In heaven he demanded an audience with the Lord. Standing before the Lord he asked, “Why did you let me die? My faith was strong and yet you let me die.”

“I don’t understand it,” said the Lord. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”


Once there was a guru giving a lecture to his disciples about God. His teaching on this day was about the presence of the divine in everything. “God is in the trees, the stones, the river, the animals and in you,” he said. One disciple was very moved by this lecture and was pondering the teaching as he walked towards a nearby village. On the edge of the village he looked up to see a commotion down the street. Soon he saw that it was an elephant that had gotten out of control and was smashing its way down the street. The driver was madly flailing as he struggled to keep his balance on the elephant’s back. The disciple could see the damage the elephant was causing, people almost trampled, carts overturned, shop fronts reduced to rubble. But the disciple thought of the new teaching he had just received. And he considered that if God was in everything then God must be in that elephant as well as within himself. He resolved to stand in the elephant’s way and practice his new learning believing that his awareness of the presence of God would protect him and the elephant. He stood his ground as the elephant galloped towards him. The elephant was suddenly right in front of the disciple. The elephant wrapped his trunk around the disciple, picked him up and smashed him against one wall and then another. It dragged him in the street and left him bloodied and bruised in the dust. A short while later the guru came by and was startled to see his disciple injured in the street. “What has happened?” he asked. The disciple explained: “Master, I was reflecting on your teaching this morning when I saw the mad elephant. I resolved to deepen my belief in the presence of God in everything, including in the elephant. I believed that God would protect me.” “I see,” said the guru. “It is indeed true that God was in the elephant. But God was also in the driver of the elephant who was yelling at you to get out of the way.”


Image Source: Fusine in Valromana, Italy - Photo by Federico Bottos on Unsplash


Friday, February 26, 2021

The Mirror

Once upon a time a young farmer was going to travel to the big city to buy some supplies. His father reminded him of the supplies they needed. His mother told him not to forget to be careful and watch out for thieves and avoid the taverns. His wife asked him to buy her a comb but, knowing her husband had to remember many things, pointed to the crescent moon and told him that looking at the moon in the sky would remind him of the comb she wanted. The farmer spent several days in the city to gather the supplies he needed and, finally ready to return home, found that he forgotten what his wife had asked for. Then he remembered to look at the moon which, by this time, was full and round, and he remembered that his wife had asked for something the shape of the moon. Entering the nearest shop he asked the shopkeeper for something round like the moon. The shopkeeper offered the farmer a mirror saying, “just as you requested, as round as the moon.” The farmer, never having seen a mirror, was very impressed and was certain that it would please his wife. When he presented his wife with the mirror she was disappointed that it was not the comb she had asked for. But, worse than that, when she looked into the mirror, she saw the face of a pretty young woman. She was shocked and outraged that her husband had returned from the city with another woman and she ran to her mother-in-law saying, your son has brought home a young woman from the city!” The mother-in-law looked into the mirror and said, “you are mistaken, it is not a young woman he has brought back but an old woman. What is he thinking bringing that old crone here?” The wife said, “she is no crone. She’s young and pretty.” The mother-in-law protested and put the mirror on the table while she and her daughter-in-law argued. The farmer’s son came into the kitchen and grabbed a rice cake to snack on and, seeing the mirror on the table, saw a young boy eating the very same rice cake. He shouted at the boy, “hey, don’t eat my rice cake! Give it back.” But the boy looked angry, kept the rice cake and seemed to be yelling back at the boy. The boy’s grandfather came into the room to see why his grandson was upset. His grandson cried, “grandfather, there’s a boy there who is stealing my rice cake.” The grandfather picked up the mirror and, seeing an old man staring back, was shocked to see that it was his own father returned from the grave.” He put the mirror down and bowed to the spirit of his father and asked forgiveness for his rudeness. The farmer entered the house to find his entire family crying and upset. “What has happened here?” he shouted. Everyone spoke at once. “Why have you brought home a young woman?” his mother shouted, “how dare you waste your money on that old hag!” His father looked stricken as he bowed low on the floor and his son was crying with a rice cake in his hand. His wife grabbed his hand and, holding the mirror in her other hand, dragged him to the local magistrate with the entire family following. The wife placed the mirror down in front of the magistrate and began to explain what had happened. The magsitrate picked up the mirror and was shocked to see a new government official in the robes of office and said, “finally, my replacement has shown up and I can leave this town.” He called to his servant to begin packing. Everyone reached for the mirror at once and it was knocked off the magistrate’s desk and smashed into a thousand pieces. Everyone was puzzled as to what had become of the person they had seen. “Good riddance,” said the wife.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Happy Man's Shirt

Once there was a king who fell ill with an ailment that confounded his doctors. Wise men and women, healers of all kinds were consulted and none could help. Finally, one of the king’s advisors suggested sending for the old woman who lived in the forest and who many believed to be a witch. Still, many people sought her out for her teas and herbs when in need. The old woman was brought before the king and after speaking with him and examining him as best she could, said that the only thing that would cure him would be to wear the shirt of a truly happy man. The king sent for a priest and asked him if he was truly happy. “Why, yes, I am,” said the priest. “Very well,” said the king. What if I were to make you my bishop?” “That would make me very happy,” said the priest. And the king sent the priest away, for the priest could not have been truly happy if still he desired to be something more. The king sent his advisers to visit the king of a neighbouring kingdom who, he had heard, was a happy king, indeed. But the advisers learned that though the neighbouring king was prosperous, his kingdom peaceful, and his family abundant, well-loved and healthy, the king was not particularly happy. This king admitted that, despite all, he was not happy for he couldn’t sleep at night for fear of losing all that he had. The advisers returned home in failure. Finally the king, with his men, went out riding one day through the countryside. Stopping by a pond to refresh himself and the horses, the king heard singing coming from the far side of the pond. He left his men and the horses and followed the sound of the singing. It was the most beautiful singing he had ever heard and the joy in the voice and music made the king think that here must be a truly happy man. The king found the singer, clad in a green jacket, gathering kindling in the woods. He approached the man and asked if he would like to return to the castle and live there in luxury as one of the king’s advisers. “I would not change places with the Pope, your majesty. I am happy in my life right here,” said the man. The king was overjoyed and asked if he could have the man’s shirt. The man smiled, and unbuttoned his jacket. The king saw that the happy man wore no shirt. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

The Ugly Bridegroom

 Once upon a time in a land where marriages were typically arranged and it was not uncommon for the betrothed to meet only on their wedding day, there was a young woman who was the pride of her village. She was much beloved and respected for her kindness, intelligence and beauty. So when she learned that her betrothed was not only intelligent but also considered the wisest person of his village, she, her family, and her community were all quite excited. As the bridegroom’s party arrived in the bride’s village for the ceremony, excitement rose. Everyone, and especially the bride, was excited to meet this young man about whom they had heard so much. The groom entered the wedding hall and a gasp of shock went around the room. The wedding guests were shocked to see that the groom was twisted and deformed – his back was hunched over and there was a great lump on it and one of his legs was twisted in a most unnatural way. Before anyone could say anything, the groom held up his hand and said, “Yes, I know my appearance is shocking and for this I beg your patience. I have only one request: that I be allowed to speak with the bride privately for a few moments. After that, I will abide whatever decision she makes without complaint.” Though strange, this nonetheless seemed a reasonable enough request and many of the assembled hoped that, indeed, the groom would be headed back to his village before long. The bride and groom went to one end of the hall where they sat facing each other ata  respectful distance and spoke quietly for some minutes. No one could hear what was said. They could see that the bride looked away often from the sight that was before her. After some time, they stood and approached the assembled.


The bride announced that the wedding would proceed. Everyone was shocked and puzzled, but they could see that the bride was at peace and even joyful. It was a lovely wedding. But the guests were never to know for sure what the groom had said to the bride. 

If they could have heard what was said they would have heard the groom tell a story: “I have studied since I could read: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and more. I have learned that before we are born, the angels bring together the two souls that are to be married in life. These betrothed are allowed to meet briefly. The angels touch us on our lip just under our nose causing us to forget all that we knew, for we are not permitted to be born with this knowledge. The angel’s touch leaves the small depression under our nose – something that we all bear. Once there were two souls that were brought together this way. The groom was most excited. But he was saddened to see that his betrothed was deformed with a great hump on her back and her limbs and neck twisted askew. He turned immediately to the angels and asked if it was possible to take this curse from her and give it to him. The angels agreed and it was so. They touched the lip of the woman, who now stood straight and free of all the deformities she had had a moment before and she forgot. But when they turned to the man, now bent and twisted, they turned away in sadness and horror. They forgot to touch me on the lip. And so I was was born with the knowledge of this meeting.” The bride looked at the groom and she could see that the place under his nose, where everyone had a mark, was smooth. The groom said, “you were the soul that I met before we were born. I remember. And I would take these burdens on again and again for you. But there is no need to carry on with the wedding. I will abide by whatever you decide.”