The Puddle

It’s not a perfect slope. The asphalt-covered path, just wide enough for a large vehicle to traverse, begins between the apartment building to the west and the children’s sandbox and grassy area to the east. After around five meters down the gentle slope, the path abruptly widens. The center of this larger paved area is inlaid with decorative bricks which the children use as a palette for their colored chalk pieces. The path grows steeper here, and at its north end is a latched gate to keep the youngsters from escaping their playground, down the stairs to the path at the lakeside below.

The entire path is tilted downward, slightly, toward the east. When it rains, the water flows from west to east across the asphalt, then closely along the retaining wall of the sandbox and grassy area. A heavy rain will produce a little creek along this wall.

There is a depression in the asphalt before the creek leaves the narrow path, where it will become a little lake. Kids love it. Despite the rain, even snow,  parents will clothe their charges as for a storm so they can run, jump and splash–some bringing pails and shovels to capture the water.

But no more. Progress has been committed. The whole area has been repaved and re-bricked. The tilt in the path remains, but the depression next to the retaining wall is gone. No more running, jumping, splashing in the collected water.

What price progress?

Haiku as the Present Moment

The Buddhist Patriarch Bodhidharma traveled from India to China to establish Buddhism there. Over the centuries, Buddhism spread from China, including to Japan where Zen ultimately developed as a spartan version. Some scholars say that haiku is a further refinement of Zen.  I accept this notion.

James Hackett (1929 – 2015) was an American poet who is known for his work with haiku in English. The James W. Hackett Annual International Award for Haiku was administered by the British Haiku Society from 1991 to 2009. His books include The Way of Haiku, Zen Haiku and Other Zen Poems, and A Traveler’s Haiku.

I am currently reading an account of Hackett’s ‘Way’, by English poet Paul Russell Miller. Hackett was an early initiator, perhaps the first and certainly the most renown, of both the Nature and the Buddhist traditions of English-language Haiku. He has written that “the present is the touchstone of the haiku experience.” Hackett considered himself a “life worshipper, not an apostle of poetry or art.” He recognized the haiku moment in whatever form he met it as “the very pulse of life itself.” Further, he wrote: “Haiku is more than a form of poetry. I discovered it can be a way—one of living awareness. A way which leads to wonder and joy, and through the discovery of our essential identity—to compassion for all forms of life.”

Robert Spiess, Hackett’s publisher and a poet himself, wrote: “There is no haiku moment of true awareness if the previous instant is not dead, if the ego still clings to what it has named in order to feel secure in its desire to perpetuate itself. The haiku poet needs must live only by continually dying. The whole of life is in each moment, not in the past, not in the future—and thus a true haiku is vitally important because it is a moment of total and genuine awareness of the reality of the Now.”

Thus, we are reminded that, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, the ego is an illusion.

The challenge for me in haiku is to reconcile the observations of this self I call “I”, which writes for others to see, while allowing this “I” to recede to a minimum while also allowing the moment to pervade my senses and direct my pencil.

But let’s get practical. What form does the haiku take? We know about 5-7-5 and the seasons and Nature. I like that there are three lines: a beginning, a middle and an end. I like that one uses as few words as possible to express the present moment, which just ended. I think it not important to be precise about 5-7-5, and possibly not even the three lines. As in a religion, there are a lot of sects in the writing of haiku that have rules which may or may not get in the way of expressing this present moment, depending on one’s point of view or how strong one’s “I” is.

I have corresponded with Paul Miller, author of “The Wild Beyond Echoing; James Hackett’s Haiku Way.” He wrote me: “What constitutes a proper haiku is finally for each individual poet to decide, I think, yet hopefully arrived at without undermining the genre’s history or fundamentals. A certain restlessness and desire for novelty seems all-too common at present, sadly, mirroring society at large.”

Basho, the most renown of the ancient progenitors of haiku, tells us:

“Haiku is simply what is happening in this place at this moment.”


PS: To be true to the original form, one should use concrete words. If there is to be a feeling or thought for the reader to discern it must come from the juxtaposition and flow of the concrete words.

Picture, Word, Number

Picture, Word, Number

I arrive at a place of great beauty
I wish to capture it, to keep it
I draw a picture of this place

I observe a sweet child
I wish always to have her cherubic face to view
I photograph her

I am transported by emotion
I want to remember this moment forever
I write a poem

I accumulate some money and goods
I want to know their value
I put it all in numbers so I can perceive my wealth

Yet the pictures, the words, the numbers
Are not enough
They are not the things they represent

I cannot recreate and keep the beauty I’ve seen
I cannot capture and keep the sweet smile of the child
I cannot regenerate the emotion I wrote of
The numbers representing my wealth fail to satisfy

Why, then, do I persist
In drawing,
In photographing,
In writing,
In numbering?

This is grasping, clinging
To a ghost of a moment…

To Listen

To Listen,

Not only with one’s ears
But with one’s whole being.

The words one may hear
Are not important.

How are the words delivered?
What imbues the utterer?

But I’d rather listen
To children playing,
To trees bending in a breeze
Their leaves rustling against each other.
To the lap of waves against a shore
Of sea birds screaming in the wind.

But as I said,
Not only with one’s ears.

The rhythms of movement in all things around,
Sometimes seeming chaotic,
Sometimes seeming in consonance,
Always changing, never the same.

Odors, physical sensations,
Thoughts arising from them,
Become a symphony,
A message.

A message which envelopes one,
Transports one,
To a place with no name,
Complete and whole.


Haiku as an Approximation of Reality

I opened a book I hadn’t read in years, “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra.

After I read the initial pages I was moved to write this:

I see the same words I read years ago
I understand more than I understood then
The years have been a good teacher

If I read this book ten years from now
Will I understand even more?
Or should I read another book?

Don’t seek an answer
Accept knowledge as it comes
The wise do not force

The third stanza is in the form of a haiku, but it is not a true haiku, something I regret, often, when writing in this form. The discipline of limiting a thought or impression to seventeen syllables is compelling to me, and I tend to forget that the essence of this form is to present ‘reality’ in an indirect, non-linear way. The above poem is too direct.

Here is what Capra writes. I have edited this passage only to eliminate words which I feel are not essential to the message:

Taoists use paradoxes in order to expose the inconsistencies arising from verbal communication and to show its limits. This has passed on to Chinese and Japanese Buddhists who have developed it further. It has reached its extreme in Zen Buddhism with the koans, riddles used by many Zen masters to transmit the teachings. In Japan, there is yet another mode of expressing philosophical views, extremely concise poetry used to point directly at the ‘suchness’ of reality. When a monk asked Fuketsu Ensho, ‘When speech and silence are both inadmissible, how can one pass without error?’ The monk replied:

I always remember Kiangsu in March—
The cry of partridge
The mass of fragrant flowers

This form of spiritual poetry has reached its perfection in the haiku, a classical Japanese verse of just seventeen syllables which is deeply influenced by Zen.

Leaves falling
lie on one another;
The rain beats the rain.

When eastern mystics express their knowledge in words with the help of myths, symbols and poetic images, they are aware of the limitations imposed by language and linear thinking.

Here is a definition of the haiku form of poetry:

Haiku (俳句) is a very short form of Japanese poetry typically characterised by three qualities:

1. The juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (“cutting word”) between them, a kind of verbal punctuation mark which signals the moment of separation and colors the manner in which the juxtaposed elements are related.
2. Traditional haiku consist of 17 on (also known as morae), in three phrases of 5, 7 and 5.
3. A kigo (seasonal reference).

There is a common, although relatively recent, perception that the images juxtaposed must be directly observed everyday objects or occurrences. (Source).

Upon completing my first reading of this book, I wrote this:

To be self-conscious,
The Universe created
Man, who now asks, ‘why?’

Again, this is not a true Haiku, but I review it here to observe, in public, my perceptions of some time ago.

I have many books, in English, about the history of haiku and its ancient masters, especially Basho, Buson, and Issa.

    Basho

on a leafless bough
a crow is sitting—autumn
darkening now

    Buson

the evening breezes
the water splashes against
a blue heron’s shins

    Issa

“the peony was a big as this”
says the little girl
opening her arms

(Issa is noted for his humor and whimsy)

The nature of eastern spiritual or philosophical thought (or ‘way’ is probably better) is to avoid abstractions, focusing on ordinary everyday things. I wrote these some years ago:

hiking God’s garden
lavender, forget-me-nots
myriad green lives

moon’s full face follows
summer traveler through the hills
brown from sun’s long kiss

horseshit pile on path
reminder of plainspoken
one preceding me

These words speak more directly to me of reality than the millions of words uttered and written by the great philosophers. Yet, I still read them.

one’s contradictions
should be carried carefully
like a basket of eggs


You can read and download the book in its entirety here

Solitude

Alone, in Homer, Alaska

I cherished the solitude of the occasional walk on the beach between Anchor Point and Homer—nineteen miles of vertical cliffs overhanging the mysterious rocks, tide pools, beached seaweed, and sixteen-foot tides. I had to time the ten-hour walk carefully to assure there was at least some walkable beach the whole way to Homer.

beach-between-anchor-point-and-homer

I thought the rocks mysterious because I couldn’t fathom how so many of different colors and compositions, and sizes and shapes, and in unlikely combinations, seemed strewn so haphazardly by an agent unseen. I imagined they had been spewed over the eons by the two volcanoes across Cook Inlet that I could see on a clear day, Iliamna to the northwest and Augustine to the southwest. I later learned the movement of glaciers over millions of years had pushed surface debris hundreds of miles from any direction and left them all mixed together here along the shores of Cook Inlet.

beach-alaska

I loved these rocks. My associates at work, I knew, thought me slightly mad, having collected and placed interesting rocks throughout my office as objets d’art. The large black stone which I temporarily placed on the boulder in the above picture was the largest I collected, weighing 90 pounds.

Yes, I was mad—was not quite with the regular world, or, rather, not with the world I left behind in California. The solitude I enjoyed in this sparsely-populated region of Alaska had brought me to a new mental space. One grows both smaller and larger in Alaska. Smaller, because the landscape is beyond a human’s ability to perceive it whole; larger because each person seems to count for something more in such a sparsely-populated place than in the frightful, crowded urbs and suburbs rural Alaskans have left behind. I felt at home in a place in which I was not born, in which I owned only my personal goods, where I had no family (they lived elsewhere then), and where the people were individualistic and private.

I was at home with myself.

To emphasize the value I found in being by myself, especially along this beach, I tell friends a few short stories from my travels along it.

I once saw an eagle dive into the surf to catch a salmon and carry aloft to its aerie on the cliffs above.

I once failed to time the walk properly and had to navigate between the water and the cliff, between successive incoming waves of the rising tide.

I found shapes sculpted by wind and water and unknown powers.

Homer Beach-03.jpg

On my last day along this beach, in 1995, I saw two mature eagles with their young one, who looked larger than they because of its fluffiness, guiding their offspring by flying at her sides, keeping their wings under hers as she wobbled in the air on, perhaps, her first flight.

And, finally, I recount to friends how I never felt alone if I could see another person on the beach, even a mile or more away. I was startled once to suddenly see a distant someone behind me. I hurried forward to get around a bend in the cliff so I could rid that person from my view. It took me a while to recover from the intrusion.

inner voice is quashed
by clamor of others’ thoughts
solitude grows ears

The season is ruled by trees

The season is ruled by trees

Only weeks ago their bare branches
were impediments to the views beyond them

Now their lush leaves invade the parks
and walkways and lakeside paths
completing our view of the landscape

We hear the birds hiding in their branches
and countless leaves brushing against each other
ShShShShSh

They fill our senses
they green our lives

And the great oaks
are sentinels of strength and wisdom

October Musings in Stockholm, 2016

October 1, Saturday

Zephyr is the bringer of breezes.
He visits me as I sit in the garden,
Surrounded by tall, flowering bushes
In their last blooming days.

Moving air rustles through the leaves,
The flowering stalks bend and bounce
At the ends of long branches,
Some so heavy they reach the ground.

These I will remove
So they may grace our home
Before their final fading.


October 2, Sunday

It’s the Autumn cleanup at Johannelunds koloniträdgård. Our allotment is sixty-five square meters, enough for our flowers, fruits and vegetables.

One of our neighbors has a rose bush which dominates the end of a path where our parcels lie. Several years ago I was ordered by the leader of the cleanup, since the parcel-holder was absent, to take the bush down to the nub to clear the path. I was well out of breath at the end of the effort.

Here it is again, bigger than ever, crowding through the path into our mutual neighbor’s parcel. It’s an unruly, globular presence, gleaming with orange and red hips like lights on a Christmas tree.

The path ends at an impassable ditch just a few meters beyond the bush. If our mutual neighbor doesn’t like the intrusion, perhaps she should take care of it, or rally a bunch of younger people to commit to the effort. I don’t see her here today, and I’m hiding out, nursing injured extremities.

This bush is not only a survivor, but has gained intimidating stature. I am in awe of it, drinking its power as I relax on a folding chair, a few steps distant.

The risen rose bush
From Earth’s power and purpose
Sharp thorns and bright fruits

 

October 3, Monday
Kids at Play

At Four O’ Clock in weekday afternoons the commons is filled with children and parents. Two preschools are part of this planned neighborhood.

There’s a big sand box, a small slide, lots of plastic toys and small wheeled vehicles. Chalk marks and designs in pastel colors decorate the pavement.

The inevitable soccer ball appears, parents training their future players. The younger  kids don’t care where the ball goes as long as it goes, and goes—standing still and wide-eyed, tracking its trajectory down the slight slope toward the gate barring access to the stairs leading to the path around the lake.

Some parents stand in groups, adult-talking, eyes constantly glancing toward their liberated charges.

It has been dry recently, so the unplanned depression in the pavement down-slope from the sandbox merely has a thin layer of dried mud in it. On or after wet days, the parents allow their children to splash in the puddle at will, protected by suitable clothing, to be sure.

There are three swings on a standard playground swing set at the ‘top of the hill.’ Usually, these are occupied by the wee ones, seeming hypnotized by the steady rhythms provided by their parents.

The children don’t have to be reminded that ‘this moment’ is the true reality, as many sages aver.

I watch the children
I feel I am one with them
Just in this moment

 

October 4, Tuesday

small boats sail the lake
the surrounding green shores will
soon yellow and brown

 

October 5, Wednesday

A British pub
A British Pal
A satisfying pint

There is a certain comfort
in the companionship of a fellow
with seven decades under his belt

David writes prose and poetry,
plays music and sings,
contemplates the verities,
the patterns he perceives underlying all

A British pub
A British pal
“Another pint, please.”

 

October 6, Thursday
Transcribing Fred’s Letters

Fred died twenty months ago. I have his letters from year 1989 through the years until his death in 2015, over three hundred of them.

I have been transcribing them to have permanent, digital copies, as are mine to him. I started years ago, and years of work remain.

Today, I completed transcribing years 1989 and 1990, then compiled and integrated everything we told each other.

How have we changed? We grew a little.

Did we learn anything? Yes.

Did the world unfold as we then imagined it would? No.
 

October 7, Friday
Actual World

I pity the young people, the newest generation. They live ever more in a virtual world, a world without people.

Electronic devices command each set of eyes, down-focused onto a tiny screen for whatever happens there. I don’t want to know.

Last evening I attended a magnificent stage production, an opera about the life of Mohandas Gandhi in South Africa, with live orchestral music by Philip Glass, augmented by and integrated with the players of Cirkus Circör, acrobats extraordinary.

Real people

Colors, shapes and movements

Music and words to fill one’s body

Ancient figures brought to life, bringing wisdom and hope

A feeling of community with the performers and audience

You can’t get all that out of a tiny, electronic box.

 

October 8, Saturday
How it is to get old-er

One is concerned with one’s blood pressure

One is concerned with getting a sufficient number and kind
of foods and supplements containing the full panoply of anti-oxidants

One wonders if one’s prostate gland is well
despite having no apparent symptoms

One wonders if one will ever have enough self-discipline
to shed the ten kilos one has gained since young adulthood

One doesn’t like losing one’s suppleness, evidenced
by the groans one emits while arising from low to high

One’s feet never don’t hurt, somewhere

One’s irritability is evoked, but necessarily contained
when asked ‘How are you?’, because you have to say

“Fine, how are you?”


October 9, Sunday

We are seated across from each other at a birthday party. He seems to be around my age.

Some of his face was taken by accident or disease, but this anomaly quickly recedes in my consciousness. We engage in getting to know each other, sharing experiences familiar to fellows our age: travels, work, family.

He leans heavily on his cane when arising for another go at the buffet table. His attentive wife observes without intruding.

He is tall, bent, one side of his body lacking tone and strength. He returns successfully, our conversation continues. I reach for another bottle of light beer, but before I can open it he pours some from his open bottle into my glass.

I accept, also without comment. We are friends already.

 

October 10, Monday
Waiting for the Lotus

“Without mud, there can be no lotus,” asserts Thich Nhat Hanh, renown Buddhist teacher.

In a conversation today with two friends we became mired in the muck and mud of the current political theater in the U.S. A., which the press ecstatically reports and distorts. It is painful to observe the process and to endure the emotions evinced by those invested in one side or another.

The election will conclude within a month, the wailing and gnashing of partisan teeth and the postmortems conducted by the talking heads will last another, before the press will turn its jackal head toward the latest sex scandals and misdeeds and errors of other people in the public eye.

In a fiction by Jules Verne, “The Adventures of a Special  Correspondent,” there is a passage where a Chinese scholar is lecturing the narrator, a Frenchman: “The cares of business trouble us little; the cares of politics trouble us less. Think! Since the first emperor, a contemporary of Noah, we are in the twenty-third dynasty. Now it is Manchoo; what it is to be next what matters? Either we have a government or we do not; and which of its sons heaven has chosen for the four hundred million subjects we hardly know, and we hardly care to know.”

We have allowed the politicians, their partisans, and the press to thrust us into their mud.

I await the beautiful lotus flowers which will arise when the turbulence settles.

 

October 11, Tuesday
Restaurant Fantasy

There will be tables for one, two, and four people—no more.

There will be sufficient space between any two tables to allow easy passage by humans carrying portfolios, parcels, or plates.

All surfaces will be covered with sound-absorbing materials—no echoes.

No sounds will emanate from the kitchen and other work areas.

When removing vessels, plates and cutlery from vacated tables, staff will carefully place them in a deep, sound-insulated box-cart.

In a cafeteria or buffet with no wait-staff, customers will be encouraged to reserve conversations for the table, where cutlery, condiments, spices, and other supplements will be available.

There will be no ‘music’ piped in from overhead.

Peace and love will be more likely now.

October 12, Wednesday
The Book Circle

Only five of seven in our book circle will meet tonight. This will be sufficient.

Among us we have well over three centuries of fully living in the world.

We were born in widely different places, have traveled and read widely as well.

We can talk about anything.

We respect each other’s opinions, but are not afraid to disagree.

It matters not the book—it will serve as a pivot point for a spectrum of discussion ranging through history, culture, psychology, and more.

Sometimes the book will evoke painful memories which will be shared.

We know how it is.

 

October 13, Thursday[i]
Music

Consider ‘pure’ music

No words, no story

The God Zeus and the human Mnemosyne together created the nine muses

Euterpe, the muse of music, is “the giver of much delight”

We made music before we had words, it is said

I say, let us have more music and fewer words

 

October 14, Friday
Bus Stop

I reckon I’ve waited for the neighborhood bus
some four thousand times, probably more

Many faces are familiar, some new to me
some have disappeared

The little plaza has been completely renewed
new pavement, new stone planters, new trees

We had a good schedule fourteen years ago
ten, thirty, fifty minutes past the hour

It’s changed twice since then
the times are now too odd to remember

I often miss the bus now
but it’s only a twelve minute walk to the subway

Unless it’s snowing

October 15, Saturday
Last days in the communal garden

Cut away dried flower stalks
Uproot the spent corn and squashes
Plant the winter garlic

Rest a bit to view the remaining flowers
In neighboring plots and ours
Silently thanking the other gardeners

We walk home through the quiet forest
Yellowed maple leaves floating to the ground
Our footfalls crunching the gravel

Our souls are peaceful
We link arms
“What shall we plant next year?”

October 16, Sunday

Feeling housebound by mid-afternoon
we flee the house

let’s have a late lunch and skip dinner
To atone for last evening’s excesses

To bus, to subway train, to downtown
Noisy, crowded, chilly, everyone rushing

Find a restaurant, get out of the cold
good enough food, eat, finish

Let’s get home!

 

October 17, Monday
The 1960s, Berkeley

I opened the door, and there I was again
An instantaneous mind-space-travel
Of fifty years and more

Myriad living plants high on a wall
Ferns, orchids, others with names unknown
All watered regularly, along with others
Lining the street-level windows

Big red, but not too red, flower images
On green wallpaper, throughout
Warm and friendly
Wooden tables and chairs
Wooden flooring, well trod

The young and handsome couple, he and she
Behind the counter, at the stove
Like people I knew or regularly saw
In coffee shops and restaurants
In the Berkeley of my college days

Simple in dress and manner are they
Modest and diligent in their labors
Smiling and pleasant to each other and all
Offering wholesome foods and meals
Quiet, jazzy chamber music remembered from my youth

Those were the days…

 

October 18, Tuesday
Do it in the Dark

Early morning, the sun not yet risen
One long side of the room is all windows

One other club member is there as I enter
Fluorescent lamps blaze from the ceiling and wall

After I gather and place my equipment, he leaves
I rush to the light switches, click click

The predawn light is just enough
I lie on the mat and pray—no more people please

Inevitably someone will enter, thoughtlessly
Without perceiving me, switch on the lights

I begin, slowly, first the knees, then hips
I sense someone entering the room

The lights remain off

The spine, the ligaments of the legs
Methodical breathing, counting

Another person, still no lights
Continue the regimen

I remain as the others leave
Finish with the plank, two minutes

Rise, look out the window, sip water
Peacefully greet the dawn

October 19, Wednesday

Where did the day go?
Carrying me through the hours
barely hanging on

 

October 20, Thursday

Would it help
if I told you of
your logical and historical errors

Would it help
if I disagreed with
your cherished beliefs

Would it help
if I argued with
your fixed political position

would it help
if I told you of
an annoying characteristic

Would it help
if I just smiled?

 

October 21, Friday
In the Way

The Afghan wars, past and present
were not about Afghanistan
but, being between other places
of interest to the great powers,
she is trampled in the struggle

I do not know what interest
the Great Powers of the present
have in a land created by the
Great Powers of one hundred years ago
but the people of Syria are in their way

The agonies of Afghans have continued
now for hundreds of years

Can the people of Syria expect
an end to theirs in this generation?

What if all the people disappeared
leaving only the elite and their soldiers?

Would there still be something to fight about?

Someone please explain this to me.

October 22, Saturday
The Martyrdom of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich

He was gifted, he suffered, he made great music

His most deeply felt pieces were sad, even tragic

Yet, ironic, for his tormentors were tone deaf

And those who knew could see through the façade

A dangerous game to play

He played the game that Stalin put in place

To control the people through control of the elite

The rules constantly changing, people disappearing

The speeches prepared for him betrayed the people he admired

Until Stalin died, he feared death every day, but as time advanced

He feared life even more than death

But lacked the resolve to end it

Because he had more music to make

He remained alive, suffering, suffering, humiliated

Writing for the Russian people

Giving them a spiritual touchstone

The Church being officially forbidden and suppressed

We need to remember our martyrs

Yes, ours, even those without the suffering Russian soul

We suffer too, without being able to name our suffering

Listen to Shostakovich and recognize it

Music speaks to suffering and redemption

More fully than can any words

He suffered for us, the martyr

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)[ii]

 

October 23, Sunday

She is the one who showed me
how to pitch a small tent in sideways rain
on a mountain pass in Northern Sweden

Now we hesitate to leave the apartment
cold gray sky and gusty drizzle
lamenting that the city weakens us

 

October 24, Monday

preparing to write
allowing mind to empty
I await a form[iii]


October 25, Tuesday
Spreadsheet Satisfactions

I can create and control this little universe—
Columns so wide, rows so deep.

I can have over sixteen thousand columns,
Over a million rows!

General names for columns
Specific names for rows.

But how do I group the columns and rows?
And name the subcategories?

What about fonts, colors, backgrounds?
Bold or Italic, and where?

Show the grid? Use borders instead?
Thin or thick, and where to use each?

It’s hard work creating a universe.
Time now for a rest to let it all settle
October 26, Wednesday[iv]

I wept upon reading a passage in a novel
An old man needed the hand of a young woman to hold
So he could sing his song to the other old men
Gathered to remember the old country

I have felt such deep sadness at other times
It arises from a secret, sacred place
From a reservoir of pain stored away
In some far, inner recess

I have wept with joy, many times,
Mostly at weddings and births
But this occasion is different,
As if somebody, something died

I stop myself from prying into this hidden place
To discover what it may be which prompts me
To feel this scene as like a death
I will not unearth the secret

As Uncle Harry said, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

 

October 27, Thursday
Gulliver Explains his Country to the Noble Houyhnhnms[v]

A chief minister of state is a creature who makes use of no other passions but a violent desire for wealth, power, and titles; he applies his words to all uses, except to the indication of his mind; he never tells a truth but with an intent that you should take it for a lie, nor a lie, but with a design that you should take it for a truth; those he speaks worst of behind their back are in the surest way of preferment, and whenever he begins to praise you to others, or to yourself, you are from that day forlorn.

The officials of his country consist of
Attorneys
Politicians
Proud Pedants
Censurers and
Judges

Judges, in turn, are selected form the most dexterous lawyers biased against truth and equity, favoring
Fraud
Perjury and
Oppression

.. so that in the trial of persons accused for crimes against the state, the judge first sends to sound the disposition of those in power, after which he can easily hang or save a criminal, strictly preserving all due forms of law.

As for money, when a Yahoo has got a store of this precious substance, he is able to buy the finest clothing, the noblest houses, great tracts of land, the most costly meat and drink, his choice of the most beautiful females, and thinking he could never have enough of it to spend; the rich man enjoys the fruit of the poor man’s labour, and the latter are a thousand to one in proportion to the former.

Hence it follows that of necessity , that vast numbers of our people are compelled to seek their livelihood by begging, robbing, stealing, cheating, pimping, flattering, suborning, foreswearing, forging, gaming, lying, fawning, hectoring, voting, scribbling, star-gazing, poisoning, whoring, canting, libeling, freethinking, and the like.

Three hundred years have past since Gulliver faithfully reported these observations and many more to the Noble Houyhnhnms. We must thank Science and Democracy for, in the years following to-date, having freed us from the terrors and inequities of the untrammeled power of princes, officials, the rich, and those in control of our most precious assets: the independent press, and that we have the freedom to speak our mind in public on anything (still) lawful…

Wait a minute—who is that banging on my door and shouting…?

October 28, Friday

What is the proper subject for a poem?
An ode to all things wild and beautiful?
A detailed discourse on one’s ripening mind?
How about elucidating on digestion?

A rant against the stupid government?
Another aimed at life’s injustices?
A yearning for a person not yet found?
Lamenting on the one you now wish gone?

Pal, look, no one will read it anyway
Just flush your mind then clean your messy home

 

October 29, Saturday
Still ‘Fall’ing

Yes, the countless leaves of trees and brush
Still fall and billow

Bright yellow, mostly, but unexpected dapples of red
from unexpected bushes

Berries, red and white, the latter to last
throughout the winter

The sun reflected from leaves of many hues and shades
is welcome contrast to preceding gray days

One must blink to help adjust one’s eyes to so large
a feast of impressions

So good to have a working retina, well connected
to the brain and, thence, to writing hand
October 30, Sunday

It’s become biting, not yet bitter, cold
Yet inviting when the morning sun
Illuminates through crystalline air
The glories of late Fall

There is no hesitation, as when the day is cloudy
To say “Let’s take a walk!”
And the preferred, almost automatic walk
Is to the forest leading to the communal garden

“Look, a deer! No, two… no, a family of five”
They are poking through the gardens
Two young ones engaging in mock battle
We stop to drink in this glimpse of Eden

Other walkers see them too
Stop as we do to admire them
We all move quietly and smoothly
The spell is broken by the yapping of two small dogs.

 

October 31, Monday
Limerick

The woman who cuts my hair

Was too long away from her chair

Hair as long as my arm

She retreats in alarm

Then sees it’s me, not a bear

 

[i] Listening to the works of Gabriel Fauré, 1845 – 1924), accompanied by Södra Maltfabriken Pale Ale

[ii] Upon reading “The Noise of Time,” by Julian Barnes.

[iii] “Form Is Emptiness, Emptiness Is form”—from yogic and Zen Buddhist teachings.

[iv] “Brooklyn,” by Colm Tóbín

[v] “Gulliver’s Travels, Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” by Jonathon Swift; 1726

 

The Martyrdom of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich

He was gifted, he suffered, he made great music

His most deeply felt pieces were sad, even tragic

Yet, ironic, for his tormentors were tone deaf

And those who knew could see through the façade

A dangerous game to play

He played the game that Stalin put in place

To control the people through control of the elite

The rules constantly changing, people disappearing

The speeches prepared for him betrayed the people he admired

Until Stalin died, he feared death every day, but as time advanced

He feared life even more than death

But lacked the resolve to end it

Because he had more music to make

He remained alive, suffering, suffering, humiliated

Writing for the Russian people

Giving them a spiritual touchstone

The Church being officially forbidden and suppressed

We need to remember our martyrs

Yes, ours, even those without the suffering Russian soul

We suffer too, without being able to name our suffering

Listen to Shostakovich and recognize it

Music speaks to suffering and redemption

More fully than any words can

He suffered for us, the martyr

Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)

download

 

Cutting Grass

[This essay is by contributor Eric Gandy, lifted with permission from his excellent blog of essays and stories at https://egansite.wordpress.com]

Our summer cottage overlooks an acre of meadowland which slopes down to the shore of a small lake in a series of natural terraces, a legacy from the ice age. The meadow is like a valley protected on both sides by tall, old trees: pines, firs, silver birches and oaks. By the lake a 25-foot high outcrop of granite, worn smooth by the ice and now covered in moss, provides a natural boundary.

In summer an almost impenetrable jungle of grasses, ferns, wild flowers, bushes heavy with roses and currants and small saplings blankets the meadow. A few narrow paths which follow the contours of the terrain make it easier to move around in this undergrowth. They were originally made by the local badgers on their nocturnal excursions. We follow them too.

p1040674

The meadow

Rain and sunshine before midsummer lead to an explosion of green vegetation, and the meadowland becomes dense and entangled. The dog, a large boxer, disappears into the grass to find a good place for a snooze. The kids play “spot the dog”. Evenings are devoted to tic-picking, which he doesn’t like. Soon it will be time to harvest the currant bushes, red, white and black, if we can find them before the blackbirds do.

The grass needs cutting. For the past 60 years or so this has been done using a scythe. Before that the local farmer’s horses and cows did the job. I inherited the scythe from my father-in-law, 25 years ago. It hangs on a rusty nail in the shed, as though waiting to be used in a horror movie. There was no way back, I had to learn how to use it.

p1040645-x (1)

Scythe, whetstone and water

Mary had often seen her father in action, so she demonstrated how to swing the scythe. Over the years I have gradually got the hang of it, and in particular avoided any major injuries.

First I had to learn how to sharpen the blade using a whetstone. The picture that came to mind was of the butcher using a steel to sharpen his knives. Sharpening a scythe blade is different, stone on steel. The whetstone is a block of stone with fine and rougher grades, and has to be wetted for a good sharp edge. The action is different too – the butcher strokes his knife along the steel, the whetstone is stroked along the scythe blade. Both alternate between the two sides of the blade. To sharpen the blade, I stand with the scythe handle nestling in my armpit, arm extended along the dull side of the blade and other hand sliding the whetstone along the edge in steady strokes. I don’t use gloves but so far I have not cut myself.

It is easier to cut grass while still wet with morning dew or when the evening mist rolls in from the lake. We still use the same scythe, but switched to a heavier, shorter blade about ten years ago. Cutting grass with a scythe is quiet; only a slicing sound as the blade cuts through the stems of the grasses and like a scalpel separates the grass from its roots. It is heavy work swinging the scythe from side to side, rhythmically exposing the contours of the land one step at a time. We usually let the grass lie for a few days, to release next year’s seeds and make it easy to rake up the grass. Over the years I have cut down a currant bush or two by mistake, but the dog still has a tail.

Swinging a scythe is a sweaty business but physically satisfying, and I tell myself it is good exercise. Often I am too enthusiastic at the beginning of the cutting season, and get a stiff, sore back which turns into a chronic condition as the summer proceeds and more grass is liberated from its roots.

In August I have a regular date with my chiropractor. He tugs and presses my body, twists and manipulates until I feel like a loose rag doll. After a particularly long and painful session he smiled ironically and pronounced:

“It’s about time you hang that scythe up for good!”
“No way, what will happen to the meadow then” I replied, despairingly.
“Get a machine, a trimmer. I have one. Perfect. Got it second-hand and share with a neighbour”.
“But we’ve never used a machine on the meadow before.”
“Mark my words. Next year I might not be able to get your old bones back into working order.”

To cut the story short, I ordered a machine for cutting grass. A month later a large, heavy box arrived. It could easily have doubled as a budget coffin.

p1040624-x

The Box

The machine came in several parts which had to be assembled. Also included was a 30-page manual (four languages), safety instructions, grass cutter, trimmer head, tool kit, harness, various nuts and bolts. That was not all; the machine demands a special petrol/oil fuel, not included, a funnel, ear mufflers, face shield, heavy boots and thick gloves. I skipped the special grass cutting safety trousers.

p1040640-x

Machine and Accessories

A couple of days later I had assembled the machine and studied the manual carefully. At least half of the instructions were about safety. Sadly I couldn’t figure out how to start the machine. A safety precaution perhaps? I phoned Customer Service and explained my dilemma. The service technician agreed that the manual was rather unclear, but blamed a poor translation. I didn’t think it advisable to ask what it said in the original language. He said it was one of the easiest models to start on the market and explained the procedure slowly and with a loud, patient voice. Obviously he had been trained to communicate with regular folks.

“If you still feel uncertain, there are excellent instruction films on YouTube” he said, with a rather cheerful voice, and hung up.

I took his advice and searched YouTube using the model number of the machine. Rather unexpectedly the films which came up were all in Russian. OK, I don’t have anything about Russians, so I clicked on the first film. It was quite entertaining as far as instructional films go: two portly Russian men in shiny shorts and old gym shoes were happily prancing around an overgrown orchard like horses in a circus ring, waving their motorised grass cutters with such abandon that I expected a harvest of toes to crown their performance. They swung their machines about in a very carefree fashion, clearly not having read the extensive safety instructions. Not the reading kind, I guess.

Suddenly one of the machines shut down, rudely interrupting their pas-de-deux. The owner’s attempts to restart the machine were worthy of a performance by Coco the clown, ending with him abandoning his machine in the tall grass and stomping off for good.

As an instructional film it had some shortcomings. I suspect it was a “how-not-to-do-it” film. The user manual seemingly had the same origin, a Russian orchard.

D-day arrived. Kitted out in sturdy boots, thick gloves, jeans, harness, ear mufflers and face shield I filled the petrol tank with the correct oil/petrol mixture, carefully wiping off excess petrol, and then moved at least 20 feet away from the “filling area”, as prescribed. First I pumped the transparent fuel pump a few times until I could see the fuel bubbles, pulled up the choke and, with my hands in the right position, pulled the starting handle several times in quick succession until the engine coughed and almost started. Down with the choke, and the engine died again. Two quick pulls on the starting handle and the engine roared into life. “Eureka”, I shouted, almost falling over in shock. It worked. I lifted up the machine and hooked it onto the harness, albeit after some fumbling with my thick gloves.

Assuming the correct stance, I grasped the controls, pressed in the dead-man’s grip and then squeezed the gas pedal. It burst into action, the grass-cutting head spinning at an alarming rate as I looked round for some grass to cut. According to reliable sources, the engine was loud. Some pheasants flew squawking over the fence into the neighbour, the dog ran into the cottage and hid under the bed, while Mary took a long walk. I could hardly hear anything, thanks to my mufflers.

p1040682-x

Man At Work

After half an hour or so I cut the gas and released the dead-man’s grip before pressing the “STOP” button. The engine slowed down with a grateful whine, but the blade carried on spinning for a minute or two, slower and slower. Relieved I unhooked the machine and removed mufflers, harness and the rest. The machine left me with fingers still shaking and ears wet with sweat.

My first grass-cutting session over, I surveyed the results. Grass, ferns and flowers plus a couple of unknown bushes lay in one great tangle of vegetation. All in all a good job. But it doesn’t end there. The manual concludes with a twenty one item maintenance schedule for daily, weekly or monthly maintenance. With the scythe I simply wipe off the blade with an old rag and hang it up on its nail in the shed. At the end of the cutting season I wipe it over with oil to protect it from rust over the winter.

Cutting grass with a machine is faster than with a scythe – but, sadly, noisy and lonely. With the machine, I must focus on one thing – the machine, and not injuring anyone. It is definitely too fast and violent to avoid chopping up the wild red strawberries hiding in the grass. I miss the silence of the scythe, I miss the birdsong and the sound of the slow waves as they reach the shore. Working with the scythe I can meditate, contemplate, allow my thoughts to wander, and I get to eat more strawberries. Is the new machine a sign of progress? My answer is no – and the dog agrees.