A Poem for Our Time

Yesterday, as I paged through a nice collection of Mary Oliver’s poetry, Devotions, I found a poem, published in 2008, that characterizes the state of our nation and our world better than countless learned articles that attempt to explain us to ourselves.

Mary Oliver, 1935-2019

OF THE EMPIRE by Mary Oliver

“We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the

many. We will be known as a culture that taught

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity. And they will say that this structure

was held together politically, which it was, and

they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accomodate the feelings of

the heart, and that the heart, in those days,

was small, and hard, and full of meanness.”

 

Slender Threads

Dew on Spider Web by Luc Vlatour, Creative Commons.

“Sometimes a life can hang by such a slender thread.” – Kate Wolf

Yesterday, around dinner time, I took my wife to the emergency room with severe chest pains. This morning, a little before 9:00, she texted that she was going into surgery in 45 minutes. I hurried over, but had to drive to the roof of the parking garage to find a spot.

As I sprinted down the steps, I spotted an acquaintance, who I’d seen earlier in the week at a meeting, who did not look well at all. He was entering the oncology building. I called his name but he didn’t hear me.

By the end of the day, my wife was stable. Though not out of trouble or the hospital, her prospects are encouraging. Not so, I believe, the friend I saw. He’s elderly but notable for a heart that is both wise and kind. This is a man who clearly does not have much money. Exactly the kind of man that the oligarchs want to strip of healthcare.

I thought of what Buddha said at the end of the Diamond Sutra:

“So I say to you –
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”

It was a sullen day, and windy, with a threatening sky. The kind of weather that reminds you of mortality, even without anything explicit on the horizon. Buddha didn’t flinch from difficult truths, but he did make clear, as the Dalai Lama continues to do today, that in the face of this fleeting world, nothing matters more than kindness to other living beings.

In the end – and we shall all make this discovery, sooner than we would wish – everyone’s life is a slender thread, and when it breaks, bank accounts do not matter. Nobility of soul does – very, very much.

They Shall Not Grow Old – a movie review

These men were filmed as they sheltered in a road cut , waiting for the order to advance at the Somme. According to Peter Jackson, most of them died in the next 30 minutes.

Since its release last November, I’ve wanted to see Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. On Monday I got my chance.

As the film opens, Jackson explains that in 2014, he was invited by the London Imperial War Museum to create a documentary using their 100 hours of archival footage from the Western Front. The only conditions were that he use their film in “unique” ways, and that the project be finished in time for the centennial of the armistice in November, 2018.

After the credits run, Jackson details the incredible effort and technology that transformed the jerky, black and white footage from film making’s infancy, into a movie that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of the men who fought, suffered, and died because it seemed their patriotic duty, only to come home to signs reading, “No ex-military need apply” when they went to look for civilian jobs. Continue reading

The War on Beauty

I was in grade school during the height of the cold war, the decade of duck and cover hydrogen bomb drills and Nikita Kruschchev pounding his shoe and promising to bury us. But what I feared most from the “red menace” wasn’t nuclear incineration. It was life in a world like the Life Magazine photos of Moscow: grey, cold, barren, and devoid of beauty. Two things brought this to mind recently.

The first was an article in the New York Times, How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution. Charles Darwin believed that animals “could appreciate beauty for its own sake,” and behave accordingly, in ways that far exceed the utilitarian requirements of survival and reproduction. Mocked by his peers, this aspect of his theory was neglected – until now. A new generation of biologists believe that “Beauty…does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”

The other news that brought the barrenness of 1950’s Moscow to mind was anything but a delightful story of exuberant animals. It was an account of how, with open gates but furloughed rangers, some visitors have been trashing our National Parks. I was particularly saddened to read of the vandalism at Joshua Tree National Park, a place with great meaning for me.

Joshua tree cut down by vandals. NPS photo, Public Domain

Visitors have cut down trees, graffitied rocks, driven off-road vehicles over fragile desert soil, and camped under rare trees. Scientists say the Joshua trees face possible extinction by 2100 due to loss of habitat to climate change. In October, Park Superintendent, David Smith, told National Geographic, “We’re just in crisis mode right now.” The willful destruction during the shutdown is simply accelerating the destruction of a magnificent desert refuge the size of Delaware.

You have to wonder why, unlike in every previous government shutdown, the current administration chose to leave the National Park gates open even as personnel were furloughed. Were they simply stupid? Or was this a move that parallels their attack on so much else that makes life for the vast majority of us worth living: clean water, clean air, education, health care, and so much more?

Although Trump is not capable of strategic thinking, some of his puppet masters are, and I often wonder if they don’t want a world like the photos I saw of life in Moscow in the 50’s – a dispirited, sick, hungry, uneducated peasantry, obliged to work until they drop, for beggars pay at meaningless jobs.

James Hillman said the lack of beauty in contemporary public life is pathological. I would add that it’s part of a cluster of pathologies, that pass for sanity in minds of many of those with plenty of greed and lust for power, but no imagination.

A high school friend, a poet, didn’t hold back in a piece he published in the school literary magazine, with this description of our dean, which I’ve never forgotten:

His triple breasted chin,
arranged in folds upon his chest,
he blunts my life with a technicality.

During the ’60’s, a time of excess as well as exuberant celebrations of imagination and beauty, Phil Ochs, one of the best protest singers of the era, wrote a poem for the back of his last album, with a line that read:

You must protest, you must protest they say, it is your diamond duty,
Ah but in such an ugly world, the only true protest is beauty.

That is a beautiful hint and instruction!

An End of Year Blessing from Anam Thubten

I wrote a number of posts about Anam Thubten in the early years of this blog. Not so many lately, though that may change in the future.

I’ve followed his teachings for the last dozen years – via his books, his daylong retreats in Sacramento (which happen about once a year), and his recorded talks on the Dharmata Foundation website.

His profound gift is his ability to present some of the oldest and most revered teachings in Tibetan Buddhism in clear and accessible terms to audiences around the world.

In this interview, posted on Buddistdoor.net on December 20, he shared some of his suggestions and hopes for the coming year:

As we bid farewell to 2018 and move into the New Year of 2019, Rinpoche deeply wishes that we all meditate, regardless of spiritual belief or affiliation, and to commit to looking inward. “There are lots of wonderful teachers. And they can be regular people…as long as they have a good heart.” 

The world is in a new period of uncertainty, and the energy of the globe is shifting unpredictably. In this context Rinpoche believes that the words “optimism” and “pessimism” are not helpful. “I wouldn’t say that we should be optimistic in the sense we try to shut off our minds and tell ourselves everything is hunky-dory. Yet too much pessimism leads to paralysis, and is an excuse for inaction. What we need is hope, an attitude of transformation and dealing with the urgent issues facing us. I’d like to have hope and faith in humanity rather than optimism.”

James Hillman on Educating the Imagination

It’s no surprise to discover that the roots of our current national tribulations have deep roots. James Hillman died in 2011. I am unable to find a date for this talk, but he references the administration of George W. Bush, so I’m guessing at least a decade.

It is just as true or more so today. Please listen – it will be a most valuable half hour!

Who and What Divide Us?

Embed from Getty Images
A Camp Fire evacuee plays with an abandoned dog, Chico, CA, Nov. 15

Daily updates on the deadliest fire in California history are almost too horrific to take in. The Camp Fire, named after its place of origin on Camp Creek Road, has destroyed the town of Paradise. This is a beautiful part of California, just a few miles east of Chico where Mary and I once lived.

The ever-changing toll stands at 71 people known dead, more than 1000 missing, and as many as 12,000 buildings destroyed. Fifty thousand people have been displaced. Breathing the air for a day in San Francisco, 150 miles away, is equivalent to smoking 11 cigarettes. (1).

At the same time, stories of generosity emerge as vividly as the deadly statistics. A former NFL linebacker, who lived through the Santa Rosa fire, paid for three large truckloads of bedding and similar goods to be sent to those in shelters. Individuals and businesses throughout north state are doing what they can to help. There are stories of people displaced by the fire spending their days sorting donated goods to benefit others. Here is another dramatic account from the LA Times on November 12: Continue reading

Last night I dreamed Roy Rogers died…

Roy Rogers was my first boyhood hero. For a time, around the age of three or four, I refused to answer to “Morgan,” insisting that my parents call me Roy.

Me as Roy, probably age 4.

No matter that any residual appreciation for him collapsed during the Vietnam war, after he came out as a hawk – Roy Rogers was the first person who carried for me, the imagination of what a life well lived might look like.

Upon waking, it seemed strange that I should dream of his death as a present day event, when it happened 20 years ago. Not so strange, after a moment’s reflection, as the nation watches, in real time, the complete collapse of any remaining shred of heroism among our ruling class and their paid minions in Washington. We still live in the world T.S. Eliot described in “The Waste Land.”

There is no way this ends well!

For 20 years, I followed the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), a Hindu master who moved to this country in 1920, to found an international organization that teaches the core unity of all religions and gives instruction in meditation practices to enable people to make this discovery for themselves.

In May, 1940, he gave a talk that was later published as a pamphlet called World Crisis. In it, he said:

“a great crisis is going to come, a crisis such as never before has hit this country…There is a world revolution going on. It will change the financial system. In the karmic firmament of America I see one beautiful sign; that no matter what the world goes through, she will be better off than most other countries. But America will experience widespread misery, suffering, and changes just the same. You are used to the better things of life, and when you are obliged to live simply, you won’t like it. It is not easy to be poor after being rich. You have no idea how this change is going to affect you through the years. Never before in the history of this land has there been so deep a contrast in living standards as will visit this country – the contrast between riches and poverty.”

I remember in college, how I used to marvel at the tragic heroes and their flaws, in Greek Tragedies and in Shakespeare – how their every action to escape their fate led them deeper into the jaws of the trap. We are seeing in real time, how a nation can tread the same course to disaster.

Last night’s dream reminded me of the discussions one of my latter day heroes, Joseph Campbell held with Bill Moyer’s in the mid 80’s. In their dialog on the “Heroes Adventure,” there was this exchange:

MOYERS: “Given what you know about human beings, is it conceivable that there is a port of wisdom beyond the conflicts of truth and illusion by which our lives can be put back together again? Can we develop new models?”

CAMPBELL: “They’re already here, in the religions. All religions have been true for their time. If you can recognize the enduring aspect of their truth and separate it from the temporal applications, you’ve got it…One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”

MOYERS: “Not the first cause, but a higher cause?”

CAMPBELL: “I would say, a more inward cause. ‘Higher’ is just up there, and there is no ‘up there.’ We know that. That old man up there has been blown away. You’ve got to find the Force within you.”

No single suggestion seems more relevant for our times: “You’ve got to find the Force within you.”