Sometimes, writing posts here, or sending emails to friends, I feel like a fraud. Am I not just about the perfect Zen student facing a terminal illness? Writing about the birds & moon. I am sometimes afraid, I am sometimes angry & resentful, but not much of it shows up here. It’s not that those observations are false, but isn’t this all supposed to be messier, more shapeless? Meaner. No doubt those states of mind are coming sometime–but there is no harm in trying to live clearly in the meantime. Nevertheless, I need to be very careful of this Perfect Zen Student persona. So call me out if you see me getting into my robe here on the blog–or anywhere, for that matter.
The robins’ dusk chorus ran from about 7:15 to 8:00 this evening. This is what might be called passive territorial singing–the birds take positions in the sunlit tops of trees, no bird nearer than around 250′ from any other. They then run through their repertoire until, presumably, they get tired of hearing their own voices & head off to roost. Not all of them I heard this evening were necessarily males, as has been commonly thought. Recent research shows that females sing this way too.
The moon is waxing gibbous, not quite ¾ full. It looks like it will reach its zenith tonight around 9:30, just after passing over the gap between the two biggest maple trees in the yard.
I wrote more lines of poetry today in two sittings that I have probably written in the last decade. A long set of “cantos” is just pouring out of me, assisted by some randomizing methods of composition. I had been tearing pages out of a first-draft notebook I use to jot down anything from grocery lists to lines of poems or to-do lists. The pages are perforated to make this easy & this notebook is not intended to be an archive–when something is no longer current or relevant, I rip it out, Some of these pages had diary-like passages that I wanted to preserve, but not where they lay in the notebook. (One of my great pleasures is starting a new notebook, which may be why I have six or seven half-finished notebooks lying around.) I tore them out & stuck them in an envelope, then I remembered those surrealist games in which poems are constructed by randomly collocating lines from different sources, which in turn reminded me of my teacher Donald Justice’s experiments with “chance procedures.” I pulled the pages out of the envelope, cut them up into more or less equal strips, then shook these up & put them in three enveloped marked A, B, C.
I next opened a blank document on my laptop & began pulling strips out of each envelope in turn, transcribing & improvising freely, wadding up the strip & throwing it in the trash when I had gotten what I wanted from it, which was mostly a jog sideways into another diction or realm of discourse. I wrote for a little over two hours pretty much non-stop. I have never written this way, though when I was younger I used to write & revise three or four poems over the course of an afternoon. When I ran out of steam I had four pages of irregular three-line stanzas with enough material yet to digest to fill another page or two. Is all this talk of quantity unseemly? Could be, but I make note of it here because my writing valves have been so restricted over the last decade–never shut off completely, but often slowed to a thin trickle. As for quality, I know when I have written well & today I wrote well.
I think what prompted this outpouring today was:
- Lots more time on my hands to read & write,
- a desperate situation.
- Last night I spent an hour making some notes on poems my friend A. had sent me for comment. A. is one of my oldest poetry friends–one of my oldest friends of any sort–and though she lives on the west coast, we had renewed our friendship a couple of years ago at a meeting in Seattle. Reading & responding to her poems put me back in our old undergraduate poetry workshop’s frame of mind: Write a lot & share fiercely. I have become much less fierce in subsequent decades, but what joy to just dig into a poem to see what you find.
- A new sense of optimism about my cancer–not a miracle cure, just some new insights on how to manage it, both mentally & physically. (More about this in a subsequent post.)
My friend Amy is making grid / dot paintings I think are exquisite, the way the painted dots glow & find a relationship to other dots & to the grid. Inspired, I’ve been making these little 4″ x 4″ drawings with colored pens–a very different feel from what Amy is doing, but united in the procedure of moving from left to right & top to bottom in drawing the dots into the grid, which is made first.
The idea is to focus just on the one dot & its surrounding cell. Let everything else fade into the background. Let the results take care of themselves (since they will in any case).
One of the oldest & yet to-the-point Zen pointers is: “Chop Wood, carry water.” My North Country sangha came round today & stacked wood. They had no need to carry water since it was pouring out of the sky.
- Samu: Work practice; work undertaken with full attention to the task.
- Sangha: One of the three treasures, the community of practitioners.
- Three Treasures: The Buddha, The Dharma, The Sangha.
What’s the point of making the collages, the drawings, or the poems I work on sitting up in bed beside the window overlooking the river? Well, I have been making poems my entire adult life, even making a profession of it, though I would prefer that word be taken in the sense of profession of faith. (Full disclosure: I have made my living as a teacher of poetry.) And I have made little visual things almost as consistently. So, even though I am now limited by my disease, why shouldn’t I continue?
And yet, reader, you know what I mean–Now that the end of my life sooner rather than later is a real possibility, why bother with these trivialities? This is the question, in a bleak mood, with which I began the first draft of this post last week. Here is how I answer the question, as of the middle of June, 2016:
- It is what I have always done.
- It distracts me from the bleaker aspects of my situation.
- Other people have found them pleasing.
- For the poems: I have been working on a book for more than ten years that I should have finished long ago & I now feel a particular pressure to bring that project to a close.
- Who knows? Perhaps there will be another book after that–I’m writing fast these days.
- For the collages & drawings: I couldn’t really stop if there were a reason to.