Demonstrating Faith in Humanity

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What a day it has been. I woke up to the news that my beloved spiritual teacher and friend since childhood, John-Roger, passed away in the early hours at the age of eighty. If there is one thing he taught me, it is to keep doing good, no matter what.

Tonight my sister-in-law and our much-loved little nephew are boarding a plane back to Australia. For whatever I may have been able to impart to him in our two weeks together, he has certainly taught me much more.

In a short while, I will be carrying on with some of the good work I have found to do in the circumstances of my current life, by helping to produce a free, live online poetry broadcast. The show, after all, must go on. It is my way of reaffirming that the world is a small place, and that you and I are not so different after all.

I submitted the following article to Huffington Post Books yesterday, and it has come back to me today with all of these new resonances.

How Bedtime Stories Restored My Faith in Humanity

I never thought a slim paperback of children’s poems, packed with silly illustrations, sing-song rhymes, and bottom humour would restore my faith that printed books will endure. I had rather hoped for the seminal work of some brilliant, tortured Nobel laureate. But those precious few evening moments, while my nephew squirmed beside me in his bed, protesting against obvious sleepiness, confirmed that ours was a shared experience no touch-screen device would soon encroach upon.

Don’t get me wrong  —  he loves phones and pods and pads of every sort and, like me as a boy, becomes easily engrossed in the challenge of video games. The sense of individual progress, developing skill, and the spectacular multimedia rewards at the end of each level of “accomplishment” are tough for paper and ink to compete with by day. Yet when it comes time to switch gears from wakefulness to dreaming, the last thing he needs or even wants is a glowing glass slate crackling with sensory input.

Instead, we share stories and rhymes about creatures who slither and fart. We laugh. He points at the illustrations. As soon the poem chimes to an end, he asks for another. I begin to read more slowly.

We inhabit the sound of my voice together, a conduit between or two private experiences of the tale being told. As we draw further into ourselves, and into the music of language, we draw closer together. His breathing slows as he slips away fully into his own world, and I creep away, book in hand.

It could only really happen with a book  —  that portable, flimsy, shock-proof, battery-less, recyclable, spill-resistant, organic launch pad into ourselves. In fact, the more his generation inhabits the realm of flickering data on glowing blue screens, the more necessary the interior experience of a good book may become. Studies have shown that such screens promote a kind of restless insomnia, and even passively-lit pads like the Kindle still click my brain into the skim-and-scan gear I whizz through online. So, when it is time to stop surfing for sensory input, and reconnect with myself, I want paper and ink.

Books bring us back to our own imagination (after all, how many times has the movie of your favourite book disappointed you?), to the innermost experience of a tale being told, and to the music of the spoken word. The love of a good book is conveyed first and foremost as an act of love. And really, who doesn’t still love to be read to, at any age?

Traditions endure and outlast technological “disruption” when they tap into what makes us essentially human. There is nothing quite like reading a bedtime story from a printed book. For this reason alone, I have hope that the next generation, for all the amazing discoveries they will make though high technology, will still share some of their most intimate moments, and profound personal revelations, curled up with an old-fashioned book.

Thoughts? Remarks? Visit the article on Huffington Post.

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Broken is Beautiful

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“For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

-Achaan Chah, as reported by Mark Epstein

“Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

-Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

A lovely ceramic miso bowl that a friend brought back to me from Japan as a gift survived our move from California to England. Then one day it fell and shattered. We saved the pieces, thinking that we might try to repair it using the Japanese art of gold joinery called Kintsugi (金継ぎ). For my birthday, my sister bought me a New Kintsugi Repair Kit from a company in the Netherlands. You can see the results of this morning’s work below.

 

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The bowl now occupies pride of place in my home office. It is a reminder that impermanence can be inherently beautiful. It is a reminder that so-called mistakes can be transformed into something even more interesting than so-called perfection. It is a reminder to me that nothing is either permanent or irrevocable. It is a reminder that broken is beautiful.

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The Highest Good

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“There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

-Albert Einstein

I recently met someone who is striving to further the idea of the technological singularity. He used an interesting metaphor to describe his work. He asserted that, given three wishes from a genie, the best possible first wish would be to wish for more wishes. Striving to eliminate disease, aging, and death, he said, was a bit like “wishing for more wishes” from life.

It was a clever way to describe the hope some hold for technology’s seemingly unchecked advance against death. But something about the metaphor did not seem right to me. In the end, I came to the conclusion that the best first wish would not actually be to wish for more wishes, but to wish instead to know the summum bonum — the highest possible good — for the use of the remaining wishes.

The next wish might, indeed, be for more wishes, or for the strength to carry through on that final summum bonum wish — or for something else entirely. Because I have not actually been granted this first wish to know that highest good, I can not know what would come next. But I do know that unchecked individual omnipotence, in the form of endless wishes, would alter not only the consciousness, but quite possibly the physiology of the wisher. In the face of limitless opportunity, the brain chemistry could change — causing one to become paralyzed by choice, go mad with power, or drop dead from a heart attack.
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The Power of Not Knowing

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“I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination.”

-John Keats

In my life, my writing, and my appreciation of literature, I strive for awareness and understanding. I have done so in my life through the disciplines of theology and philosophy, in my writing through the tutelage of other writers, and in my appreciation of literature through the study of literary criticism. I have engaged each discipline, formally and informally, throughout my life. And so, I am myself one common denominator among these fields.

That said, I also recognize a dynamic interrelationship: my life influences my writing, and my writing influences my appreciation of the written word; conversely, my appreciation of the written word influences my writing, and my writing influences my life. With this interconnection in mind, I am also beginning to discover, and attempt to articulate, an important principle held in common among the three.

It stems from a phrase coined by an eighteenth-century English poet named John Keats, who said:

…at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

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Christian Wiman’s Riven Verse

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“There are keener griefs than God. / They come quietly, and in plain daylight, / Leaving us with nothing, and the means to feel it.”

-Christian Wiman, “This Mind of Dying”

Though this year’s edition of Poetry International is packed with poetic delights, the portfolio section on Christian Wiman knocked me out. Though the name sounded familiar, I recalled little of Wiman, except I suspected that by admitting this publicly, I would be admitting a hefty dose of ignorance. (My instincts here were right; turns out he’s the editor of Poetry. I even quoted one of his essays in a post I wrote last year.)

But the upside of ignorance is an untainted first impression, and here is mine: that I found a poet unabashedly touching upon God with neither irony nor simple-mindedness, sounding out complex and compact verse with intoxicating musicality. Here, I thought, is a modern Gerard Manley Hopkins completely unafraid to strike his note.

Here also, I thought, in fact, are the kind of poems I might one day write myself if I knew I did not have much more time to live. With this strange thought fresh in mind, I Googled Wiman, mostly to see if I could pre-order his third book, Every Riven Thing. Instead I discovered an article in The American Scholar, wherein he describes how falling in love and, soon after, being diagnosed with a terminal disease led him back to the fierce new kind of poetry now resting in my lap.
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The Blessings of Complicated Grief

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“No motion has she now, no force; / She neither hears nor sees; / Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

-William Wordsworth, “Lucy”

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth and death of a poet-friend’s son. Today we finished packing baby items originally bought for our own son, James, to pass along to our nephew-to-be in Australia. No life is simple. But while most Americans are firing up their grills or caravanning to the beach to enjoy the easy pleasures of a three-day weekend, I find myself sifting through a tangle of thoughts and feelings that seem, well, complex.

The clinical term for a sometimes-debilitating sadness that persists long after the moment of loss is “complicated grief.” The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide online says that “the disorder is more likely to occur after a death that is traumatic — premature, sudden, violent, or unexpected,” and the Mayo Clinic website cites “risk factors” such as “being unprepared for the death,” and “in the case of a child’s death, the number of remaining children.”

Loss is never simple. However, if I were to try to define a corollary to this condition, called “simple grief,” an illustrative example would be the death of a grandparent who had been sick for some time, and who had lived a long and happy life. Such a loss fits the framework of most cultural beliefs about the natural and acceptable cycles of life and death. The death of a child, or suicide of a loved one, however, do not.

And so, the complication, for me, became existential. Without the agreed-upon societal mythos about life and death to guide me toward resolution, I have had to come to terms with, and make meaning from, this experience anew. A lifetime of spiritual studies taught me that any situation, no matter how intense, could be used to learn and grow. Losing our son, and not being able to have another child, tested this belief intensely.
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