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

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cat

The occasional visitor, almost always a woman, will ask me what the cat’s name is. I tell her the cat hasn’t  told me. I say that names are for humans and a cat is a cat. So I just call him Cat, even though he doesn’t pay any attention to the name. He pays attention to food, and to warm places to sleep, like my chest when I’m sitting in the recliner or on my legs when I‘m in bed. He lets me know when he wants to be scratched without having to call my name, which he doesn’t know anyway.

Cat is pretty good company. He doesn’t make unnecessary noise and he’s good to look at. I like the way he moves. I think he hears things that I can’t hear. Every once in a while I find him staring at a wall with his ears tucked flat against his head. He can stay that way for quite a while. Possibly he hears mice. He presents me with a mouse every once in a while. I stroke him and feed him when he does his duty like this. Otherwise, his job is just to be himself, which he is good at.

The woman will ask “where did you get him?” I say “he got me.” He just showed up one day, through some passages I was unaware of at the time. He was in the kitchen when I arrived one day, and he seemed to expect I would feed him. I did, and that seemed to settle it.

He’s a bigger than average short-haired tabby, with wide shoulders and one half-an-ear that I guess got torn in a fight. I’ve known adult male cats before, so I worried at first that  he’d put his musk marks all over the place. He hasn’t, so far. I guess he doesn’t feel the need since he reckons he owns it already, or maybe he reckons it’s mine and I’m the boss? Anyway, who can figure out how an animal thinks?

I guess I’ve gotten pretty fond of Cat. He’s a good companion. If he isn’t around for a few days I wonder if he’ll be back. So far, he’s always come back, but he’s made no promises.

The Secret

[The Stockholm Writers Group held a writing workshop last weekend at the home of a member. Around half the members attended, it being summertime. The workshop’s organizer, one of the newer members, gave us, in sequence, four writing prompts. We had forty-five minutes to compose each sketch. This is one of mine, edited after the fact.]

This is what I said to myself, at first:

God damn it. Why did she tell me her secret? I know why. She wanted to share the burden. Well, I never asked for the burden—and I’m not a ‘sharing’ kind of guy.

I can’t tell anyone, of course, and who would I tell, anyway? None of the guys I hang out with would give a shit, except a few with big mouths might use it as an excuse to further ruin her rep, just for the fun of it.

And I never tell women anything private. I’ve learned the hard way.

But what if her mother or father, or especially her big brother ask me, directly, that is? How can I lie without them seeing it? Shit! I light up like a Christmas tree just in getting a compliment. If I had to lie to her relatives, I’d probably look like a neon sign that spells out “LIAR!” Jeez.

She’s gotta tell them, that’s what. It’s not fair to load me down with this, and it’ll get found out someday, anyway. And then, when she tells someone and it spreads all over town, and they learn that I knew all along, I’ll look like a shithead, a patsy, a girly-man—keeping girls’ secrets, for crissake.

But I know if I throw it back at her, tell her to tell her parents, she’ll go nuts and start her screaming, then she’ll make up all kinds of stories of how I dissed her, called her names and all that stuff she’s famous for. Why me?

I’m too nice, that’s why. I’ll finish last, like they say. If I was a sonofabitch, I’d just tell her to shove her secret, walk away, and forget about it. But no—she knows I’ll carry it, won’t tell, and will feel bad forever.

Maybe that’s it. It isn’t the ‘sharing’ she needed—she wants me to feel bad. But what did I do to her? I’m the only one who treats her nice, or at least I don’t make fun of her. God! I can’t figure these things out. Who do I get to share with? Shit!

And how the hell important is it anyway? Her life is wrecked. Nobody expects anything of her. Her parents might not even care, for crissake. Her big brother might care, only because it looks bad on him being connected to her, which he doesn’t like to be reminded of.

It’s not right for her to lay this on me. It isn’t right for me to tell anyone. It’s like I’m the guilty party, and I’m the one getting punished for what she did.

I’ve gotta convince her to tell her parents. They’ll find out eventually. I’ll wait for the right moment to show her the logic of this. It’s better if she tells them first, before they find out from some official people.

But when has she ever been logical? All she understands is crazy emotion. She seems to need it more than food. So, do I get emotional with her? How the hell do I do that? But I’ve gotta give it a try.

This is what she said afterward:

Do you believe everything anyone tells you?”

[End]

The Oak’s Remains

One huge arm of the great oak
Broke off in a recent storm

The remains fill a great space along the trail
Even after the woodsman
Has cut and cleared the blocking branches

I feel like mourning and celebrating,
But with whom?

Perhaps with the calm spirit
Of the great, armless oak
Still standing watch over passersby