present images/past experiences

Two things I read last week served as prongs of a tuning fork to remind me of an essay from a couple of years ago.

  1. The Washington Post story on biologist Nalini Nadkarni’s Nature Imagery Project describes how Nadkarni “forge[s] an oasis in the dungeon” by bringing the outside in.
  2. Patti Smith’s M Train shows how writers accrue experiences as images and how those images become raw material for our work.  She explains,

Images have their way of dissolving and then abruptly returning, pulling along the joy and pain attached to them like tin cans rattling from the back of an old-fashioned wedding vehicle.

She recalls,

A black dog on a strip of beach, Fred standing in the shadows of mangy palms flanking the entrance to Saint-Laurent Prison, the blue-and-yellow Gitane matchbox wrapped in his handkerchief, and Jackson racing ahead, searching for his father in the pale sky.

 


After the abolishment of California’s Arts-in-Corrections funding in 2009, inmates facilitated their own arts groups, relying on volunteers to infuse fresh ideas. From 2010-2013, I volunteered as a poetry teacher at California State Prison-Sacramento (New Folsom Prison). The maximum-security facility housed about 3,000 men at the time I worked there.

Patti Smith holds a feather.

Offering up experiences within the framework of writing, the guys and I learned from each other about perspective, environment, language, rhythm, time, friendship, justice, illness, empathy and responsibility. 

In that stark setting, we drew from memory for images to turn into phrases. When asked to construct metaphors using animals or natural imagery, the students were often stuck. Their experience of animals beyond a neighborhood cat or dog was limited. Most had never visited a wildlife park or even a zoo.

Having grown up under street lights, they’d never seen a dark sky brightened with stars. 

I’d filed my essay away in the cloud; I’ll share it now. This is what I wrote after my final visit.

One afternoon, in a small group gathered at New Folsom Prison to discuss writing, a young man lifted the lid on his stockpot of stories.

At 20, he was three years “down.” In those last few teenage years, by listening and paying attention he’d  gathered a writer’s skills, developing in English and Spanish a storyteller’s sense for detail, dialogue and pacing. I suggested he could write in both languages, maybe for people who have no way to tell their own stories; he could bear witness to events.

“I never thought of it that way before,” he said.

Through the room’s window on the hallway, he watched his younger brother being led in chains by officers past a gate. That brother’s twin, he said, was in another state prison. “We’ve disappointed our mom.”

They grew up with their mother (their father lived close by, but not with them) in a small Central Valley town bound on four sides by orchards. The town’s children had a pond for swimming–when it wasn’t emptied by irrigation–and a community center where he hung out with the kids, even after he was inducted into a gang.

“One time,” he told us, “the center was having a drawing contest for the little kids, something about our town.” One boy drew the bird that symbolizes the United Farm Workers. The boy included the name of the town and proudly showed it to the teacher.

“Oh, man,” the storyteller said, “I thought, ‘He doesn’t know.’”

The boy didn’t know that the symbol he saw on t-shirts, banners, and posters, had been co-opted by a gang. The boy’s drawing could not be entered in the contest.

“That was when I realized that up until a point you can be a little kid and then you can’t.”

California’s Central Valley

He told us about working beside his father in the fields and how pickers would trade rows so everyone had enough. He laughed as he remembered out-of-town relatives arriving to glean nectarines from trees edging the streets. His favorite times were riding in the car to the Wal-Mart in a neighboring town before his town had its own store.

On those trips he could look out the window at the scenery passing. 

He told more. About the time a bird struck the windshield when his mother was driving. The time he pushed his teacher for grabbing his headphones, and the man fell, and he was charged with assault.

About when he stopped smoking weed and how stupid his friends looked when they were high but how they passed the blunt, skipping him, without giving him grief.

He told us how he could look at a math problem and see the answer arise without touching a pencil. (“I don’t know how it happens,” he said.) He told us about a girlfriend who mentioned a test he could take for college entrance and how no one could believe it when he scored so high.

“People with scores like mine. They go to MIT,” he said. He shook his head. “I wish I had known. I wish I had known that I could go to college and all that.”

I wish I had known is a phrase I heard often from inmates.

One man, upon writing his first poem, told me, “I wish I had known earlier that I can do this. I wouldn’t be here. I didn’t know I had this in me.” 

On one visit, we used a simple Venn diagram to compare how we perceive in “artist mode” with how we perceive in daily life. An inmate observed, “This is weird. Thinking about my mind in two ways.” He stuck with it, then commented, “I can bring these together. I can be my ‘artist self’ more often.”

Another writer spent more than a year revising the same wonderful poem of numbers that held a pattern he perceived. He was dealing with schizophrenia and a brain injury. Beautiful and complex, his poem operated outside of any recognizable linear progression, any expectations of a “healthy mind.”

At first, the poem was no more than sounds. Over time, the sounds stacked up to make meaning. 

One day, he delivered the poem to the room, reading from a creased piece of lined paper. After a moment of stunned silence, everyone applauded. With persistence, he had made sense. He had untangled a portion of his thinking through effortful experience.


Walt Whitman: Now I will do nothing but listen,/To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it./I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals./I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,/I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following…

In the introduction to the 1921 Modern Library Edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg points out,

Throughout “Leaves of Grass” there recurs often a wild soft laughter carrying the hint that it is impossible for a poet to tell you anything worth knowing unless you already know it and no song can be sung to you that will seem a song deeply worth hearing unless you have already in some strange, far-off fashion heard that song. An instance of this wild soft laughter is in the closing lines of “Song of Myself,” where it is written:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and of my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am unstranslatable.

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapour and the dusk.

In every work of art and every conversation we respond to there’s that feeling of recollection. It’s the marvel of connection. It’s embodying metaphor, from Greek metaphora, to transfer; it’s the conveyance of meaning between one living creature and another over the broad valley of experiences and genes that make our dispositions and keep us from being all the same, too tamed.

Experience is related to experiment. All experiences begin as experiments, don’t they?

Greeting an inmate, I’d say, “It’s nice to see you.”

“It’s nice to be seen,” he’d respond.

Toward the end of M Train, Smith’s ellipsoidal gift of black and white photos, flavors of black coffee and brown toast, her shared beauties, fantasies and phantasms, she observes,

We seek to stay present, even as ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs us all.

Face-to-face teaching keeps me present. And time measured at the pace of the body. Creativity. And attempts at kindness.

An act of kindness is a risk, an experiment. An act of kindness is a bit (binary + digit), a unit of information expressed as a 0 or 1 that added up any which way equals the experience of being human.

Sharing a story is a kindness. Receiving one is, too.

In her story, Smith describes the kindness of cafe workers and friends, the tender care she receives from the hotel maid who nurses her through illness in a strange city.

As an adolescent, I was a committed wanderer and a risk-taker. Lucky, I see now, to have received so many kindnesses, to be alive and free.

This poem dates back 20 years, written when I was leaving adolescence for adulthood and dedicating myself to wondering how everything is connected. I’m still at it.

Hold Still

1.

Kindness is as kindness does,

a woman in the laundromat

tells me.

2.

In my life I’ve had kindnesses.

Twice my windshield wipers broke,

once in a North Carolina blizzard

and once in a Kentucky thunderstorm.

Both times strangers fixed them for me

for free

so I could see to carry on.

3.

A lady said Better get in, reaching

for the passenger door. It was raining

that night too and I was walking shocked,

barefoot, soaked and lost. She took me

to a dry place with orange couches.

I remember that.

She likely saved my life.

4.

Has kindness been done to you?

I can’t believe in angels quite

but I see butterflies.

Kindnesses alight like butterflies

midday on bare arms

delicately sampling the invisible salt of our skins.

 

first published in We Have Trees (Swim, 2005)

stop, hey, what’s that sound

“You and I are just swinging doors,” Suzuki Roshi says.

The tidal rhythm of the observed breath provides clues into what that might mean.

Out? In? Neither? Both?

In Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, Zenkei Blanche Hartman explains,

When we all concentrate on our breathing and we become a swinging door and we do something that we should do, something we must do, this is Zen practice. In this practice, there is no confusion. If you establish this kind of life, you have no confusion whatever.

Tuesday I felt unsettled. I wanted to be outside enjoying the perfect autumn afternoon instead of in front of a computer or, honestly, “sitting” on my folded meditation blanket facing a wall.

But that unbalanced, dissatisfied feeling, like all feelings, is temporary. I decided to help it along the pot-holed Feeling Road with a few minutes of focused breathing, a form of mindfulness meditation.

In The Washington Post’s Health & Science section, infectious-disease physician Manoj Jain describes his experiment with mindfulness meditation during a week-long summer vacation.

Experts define mindfulness as a state of moment-to-moment awareness that emphasizes attention without judgement, without thinking, for example, that the sound of cicadas is irritating or that the lawn needs to be trimmed or “Why did I say that to so-and-so?”

He cites studies supporting benefits of mindfulness and shares his students’ reactions to the practice. As for his own attitude,

I have come to think that encouraging patients to adopt meditation as a way to mental well-being is as important as encouraging them to jog as a way to physical well-being.

He points out that,

Today, our lives are filled with stressors, from work, home, financial pressures and digital devices. Mindfulness is a low-cost, medication-free way to manage and reduce the ill effects of stress.

Having found this to be true, I rode the elevator from my first floor apartment to the building’s rooftop patio. No one else was up there. Good fortune! I set the phone’s timer for 20 minutes and sat down.

sky
Looking up to look in. Tuesday’s D.C. sky.

 

Eleven stories above the street, breeze on my cheeks, I thought of Charles Simic’s line,  I am happy to be a stone.

I imagined as I settled myself to be a river rock, water coursing around.

A hundred feet below, sirens brayed. One buzzing insect passed. Jets droned overhead.

Hartman offers an explanation for what Dr. Jain and I experience in mindfulness. She writes,

When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door and we are purely independent of, and at the same time dependent upon everything. Without air, we cannot breathe. Each of us is in the midst of myriad worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment by moment. We are completely dependent and independent. If you have this experience, this kind of existence, you have absolute interdependence; you will not be bothered by anything.

 

green chair
The green patio chair-cum-meditation seat.

Preparing her workshop students years ago for a public poetry reading, Julia Connor told the jumpy among us that nervousness is just a kind of excitement.

Feeling antsy, feeling confused, is agitation, it’s excitement. That good old prefix ex– is a call out and away; excitement is a calling forth.

It’s a version of curiosity.

Having satisfied his own curiosity, Dr. Jain recommends meditation to his patients. He concludes,

Meanwhile, I have taken my own advice. I am still at it: sitting on the deck, focusing on my breath, watching my thoughts, clearing my mind amid the shrill end-of-summer calls of the cicadas. I think I have noticed an effect–I feel a deeper sense of acceptance in my life, without losing a passion or resolve to change things for the better.

Just as we stop at the red and white octagonal traffic signs, we need to stop at the signs in our own lives that tell us to stand still. When we stop, we can listen. We discern inside and outside and the door of perception that connects them. We are calmer and more motivated. We are the stone and the stream.

Sit still for a few minutes, Dr. Jain-style

Or try this guided ambient sound meditation .

More ideas for mindfulness here.

Insight. Aura. Story. Breath.

An epiphany in a short story needn’t be a sudden flash of insight. It can be more like an aura, Joy Williams told 20 of us yesterday afternoon during a reading from The Visiting Privilege at Politics & Prose. And in her stories, awareness does dawn slowly, almost imperceptibly.

A reader, experiencing the character’s thoughts and events in a time and space removed from her own, is both onlooker and participant, looking at and responding to the writer’s created world.

Aura, a lovely little word that made its way to Middle English from Greek through Latin, originally denoted a gentle breeze, or breath. The aura of a story is ever-present as breath.

When we pay attention, breath effervesces a quality beyond mere mechanical process. When we turn our attention elsewhere, it goes on without us anyway.  We experience this in the practice of breath awareness: we become both observed and observer, then neither. This is the ordinary/extraordinary process of the respiring rhythm, a body’s most basic measurement of time.

A story, like a life, can pack a lot in in a short time, especially if it’s honest and true. “What a story is, is devious,” Williams describes in the Paris Review.

It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excellent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages.

Her stories are organic, she said at P&P. She does not know the ending before she gets there.

Like M.C Richards in her poem, Behold, Now here like artists in our search/we make a vessel for the spirit’s birth, the writer pursues the waft or glimpse or echo of something, and readies a space for it.

Williams,

I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril. The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it. There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht. No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed, or inconsolable longing. There’s a word in Welsh, hwyl, for which we also have no match. Again, it is longing, a longing of the spirit. I just think many of my figures seek something that cannot be found.

(Sometimes, what was sought is not found and something else is. A character’s voice arrives like an invitation and leaves as suddenly.)

There were few questions for Williams yesterday. The feeling in the audience was there isn’t much to say about work and life, and certainly not the writer’s working life.

There’s observation and there’s practice.

Each of us figures out what we can do and we do it, writing a story or reading one. Teaching or learning. When we do what we’re called to do, that’s enough. We slip into moments of is-ness, of what is nebulously referred to as “the true self.”

Cumulus clouds over a yellow prairie. A good place to find one’s true self? Or read a book? Or make a yoga pose? Or take a breath? Yes.

Williams says,

There’s a story about Jung. He had a dream that puzzled him, but when he tried to go back to sleep a voice said, “You must understand the dream, and must do so at once!” When he still couldn’t comprehend its meaning, the same voice said, “If you do not understand the dream, you must shoot yourself!” Rather violently stated, certainly, but this is how Jung recollected it. He did not resort to the loaded handgun he kept in a drawer of his bedside table—and it is somewhat of a shock to think of Jung armed—but he deciphered the dream to the voice within’s satisfaction, discovering the divine irrationality of the unconscious and his life’s work in the process. The message is work, seek, understand, or you will immolate the true self. The false self doesn’t care. It feels it works quite hard enough just getting us through the day.

Practice without expectation of result. Right now. In this way, wisdom and knowledge align.

Sutra 1.1, the first of Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms, Atha yoga anushasanam, is translated as “Now, the teachings of yoga.” The idea is to accept and pursue understanding in the ever-present.

In the fluidity of time we find stories, we find ourselves. Shunryu Suzuki says,

Time constantly goes from past to present and from present to future. This is true, but it is also true that time goes from future to present and from present to past.

Is it any wonder, then, that insight arrives like breath, steadily and subtly, as necessary and as natural as air?

 

 

 

Inspiration. Expiration.

Walking along the C & O Canal towpath in Maryland above Great Falls yesterday, I heard grackles gathering. Bringing my hands to my low back, extending the spine, lifting the chin to look up at the treetops, hundreds of birds could be seen gathering in branches. It feels good to connect soles of the feet with earth, even through tennis shoes. The ground took my weight so I could stretch farther. Rooting and lifting.

There wasn’t much to see, glossy black birds with long tails darting about, autumn light on green leaves edged with brown. On one side, the flat canal water; beyond the patch of forest, swift-flowing Potomac. Stillness and movement.

Bird pause.

A new student is discovering breath. She’s exploring her range of motion in the shoulders. She’s taking the shapes of mountains and trees.
This morning we traced the breath with a simple arm flow. We identified the origin of the motion and investigated how the palms of the hands reference the rotation of the arms.

We imagined birds.

Michael Stone writes in Awake in the World,

Just as we read the sky for signs of weather and read books for helpful insights, the yogi begins in the body, combing through the knots and flows of the body as a way to ground the movements of mind and breath. To give attention to the birds, I also have to be fully in my body. Beginning with the breath, we drop down into the pelvis, flow as we exhale, and then become aware up across the collarbones as we inhale and the roof of the mouth domes up. The collarbones lift and spread horizontally, like the lintel of the throat, and the hollow mouth quiets any clamoring in the nerves.

In day-to-day life the arms so often reach reach reach out and away to hold on or take hold at the mind’s behest. To notice how their movement can unify with breath brings a person back to his or her body’s fullness.

When we watch birds, and other animals, we can learn about coherence. Stanley Plumly says yoga allows us to see with the insight of quiet light.

Birds must breathe very efficiently.

 

Do they, like us, have a sense of returning with each cycle of respiration? Do they feel at home in their bodies?

Stone continues,

Like returning to the same flowerbeds in your backyard, season after season, following the breath is a return to the familiar though always changing Earth. Of course, the ground changes, yet there are enough features for us to recognize something secure. When we breathe down to the end of every exhalation, sensation appears in the pelvic floor, and then a natural pause appears before the inhalation shows up.

The simple process of human breathing is pretty astounding, too. Take a look.

Marvel at your inspiration. And expiration. 

Read. Feel. Stretch.

Fall is here. As my section of Earth tips away from the sun, the day holds more deep and lovely shadows. Nights lengthen. The heaviness of blankets becomes necessary. Leaves rustle. Apples taste of secrets.

This is cozy reading weather, a season for tales. I’m devouring mystery, gothic, the bizarre and horror. Last week, I stayed up all night to read Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child straight through. This week Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places entertained me past the midnight hour.

Before turning the lamp off, I had to scootch the dregs of gory scenes and creepy characters to the edge of the platter of my mind and ingest something more benign. Cue Elena Brower’s Art of Attention, a book of wistful photos and sweet sentiments that induce a sense of contentment.

Brower is a rich resource. Try this profound and simple sequence designed to do at a desk. I loved it, especially the “energy balancing.” Revved me up for more reading.

On top of my pile now, The Visiting Privilege, stories by Joy Williams.

And more yoga, of course. Feeling inspired lately by the simple spaces and suggestions for home practice in Yoga at Home by Linda Sparrowe.

 

 

Yoga Stanza turns 2!

Yoga Stanza turns two-years old this week. Thank you, readers and contributors!

Yoga Stanza was conceived on Highway 40 between Albuquerque and Flagstaff during a harebrained drive straight-through from Santa Rosa, New Mexico to Sacramento. Planning the blog kept my brain entertained between that see-saw of pee breaks and coffee stops.

My original intent was to bring poems to yoga teachers for use in their classes. In keeping with the principle of asteya, non-stealing, from the get-go I’ve secured permission for every poem posted. All are donated. I am especially grateful to Coleman Barks and Dennis Maloney who quickly and generously replied to my requests. And Mark Strand (April 11, 1934 – November 29, 2014).

Today, Yoga Stanza’s readership includes yoga buffs and lots of other people.

The common denominator among readers is curiosity about what it means to live life artfully and kindly

The first yoga pose I included is savasana, corpse pose, the asana that’s said to reside in every other one.

Savasana is intense, even if you enjoy it. So’s poetry.

Both require a startling intimacy with one’s self and the world.

The tool of the internet shrinks physical distance, but intensifies emotional distance: the medium of a blog has been an interesting way to explore yoga, poetry and, more expansively, intimacy.

At 24 months, Yoga Stanza is just starting to toddle. I’ll have a steady hand at her back as she continues to wonder about what it means to be.

Please share Yoga Stanza with your friends.

Start a conversation among yourselves on participating in the daily task of being awake.


Two years of Yoga Stanza, here are some numbers:

Visits: >110, 216

Posts: 297

Poets who’ve participated: 83

Poets who declined to participate: 3

Posts with the word “wonder”: 39

Posts with the word “love”: 85

Posts with the word “computer”: 4

Most posts in a month: 26

Stand-alone quotes: 55

Times considered taking the site down: 9

Average hours a week to maintain: 10

Changes to color scheme: 16

Staff: 1

Guest posts: 3

Cost: <$50

 

 

Pets: Small World, Big Love

My pets have taught me about kindness. Kindness and its cousin, love.

In graduate studies for psychology, I learned from Professor Michahelles that showing a child that you understand he loves you is as necessary as showing the child he’s loved by you.

I think this is because children, like animals, inherently expect affection to be a colloquy.

They unlearn this expectation through living.  That’s not a bad thing. Experience includes suffering and joy. (Sit with each of the words in your upturned palms and feel how they balance the scale of life.)

Loving is an action; it sets forth a purpose. It gives meaning. Children, and animals, so skillful at engaging with the now, thrive on being received. They need to know we know they love us.

How do we do this? With children, accepting what they have to offer is key. As a school teacher, I was handed dented playing cards, ribbon bits, smudged poems, and other tokens and, wonderfully, hugs and smiles.

The moment something is offered provides a potential for connection.

The mind thinks, “I’m busy. I don’t really want a pencil stub.” The wiser heart, however, pipes up, “How courageous is this child to extend her hand.” Then, aloud, “Thank you.” In a flash it happens. As adults we must be ready to glimpse it, to, as Georgia O’Keeffe urges, see.

We receive the love of animals by honoring their needs for safety, food, play, learning and comfort. By providing for them we acknowledge their single-pointed focus on us, how they wait for us, watch our faces and gestures for cues, acquaint themselves with our language, and make us feel necessary. As Vint Varga writes, animals provide an opportunity to connect with the less intellectualized side of ourselves. That side matters, too.

Isn’t love in this small-big world ultimately about paying attention

My Little Bird this week published my article on how to pay attention to pets, particularly apartment pets. I dedicate it to my roommate, Tucker, the terrier mix, trained in love by our dog friend, Molly, and to Sasha, the first doggie.

 

Vivid and vital

 

Broadly put, through our imaginations we are able to create images, which need not necessarily be visual. These images can involve sound, touch, smell, or movement. Most people find it easiest to generate visual and auditory images, and the former can have an especially potent influence on the physical body. In most cases, however, the imagery we create tends to lack vividness and vitality. Therefore, yogic practitioners, like initiates of the magical arts, spend a great deal of time strengthening their faculty of imagination.

Georg Feuerstein

I love this notion of strengthening the creative capacity through guided meditation or the physical movement of asana practice. And without leaving after the fact anything material–no poem, no picture, no product. Is-ness without will be or was.