Monthly Archives: April 2012

Poems I’ve liked a lot so far in 2012

The Letter (Linda Gregg)

I’m not feeling strong yet, but I am taking
good care of myself. The weather is perfect.
I read and walk all day and then walk to the sea.
I expect to swim soon. For now I am content.
I am not sure what I hope for. I feel I am
doing my best. It reminds me of when I was
sixteen dreaming of Lorca, the gentle trees outside
and the creek. Perhaps poetry replaces something
in me that others receive more naturally.
Perhaps my happiness proves a weakness in my life.
Even my failures in poetry please me.
Time is very different here. It is very good
to be away from public ambition.
I sweep and wash, cook and shop.
Sometimes I go into town in the evening
and have pastry with custard. Sometimes I sit
at a table by the harbor and drink half a beer.

All of Me (Mark Roper)

So all of me, why not take all of me –
the one with so many certificates,
the failure, the one who can’t cope,
the boy who never grew up,
the boy who grew up too early…

o all of me why not take all of me

The Mower (Philip Larkin) [excerpt]

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

The Madness Vase (Andrea Gibson) [excerpt]

My bones said, “Write the poems.”

To Build A Swing (Hafiz)

You carry
All the ingredients
To turn your life into a nightmare-
Don’t mix them!

You have all the genius
To build a swing in your backyard
For God.

That sounds
Like a hell of a lot more fun.
Let’s start laughing, drawing blueprints,
Gathering our talented friends.
[…]
You carry all the ingredients
To turn your existence into joy,
Mix them, mix
Them!

A Settlement (Mary Oliver)

Therefore, dark past,
I’m about to do it.
I’m about to forgive you

for everything.

Clarification (Franz Wright)

Someone once told me about a Buddhist
monk who on awakening

each morning said “Master!”
Then he would answer

“Yes, master?” And then
in a loud voice demand

“Become sober!”
Listen to what I am saying,

but listen especially
to what I am not saying—

Of all the powers of love,
this: it is possible

to die; which means
it’s possible to live.

Now it is possible to die
without being mad or afraid.

The House of Belonging (David Whyte) [excerpt]

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

Welcome Morning (Anne Sexton)

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning, […]

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young

Don’t Hesitate (Mary Oliver)

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

To Myself (Franz Wright)

and if you vomit this time I will hold you:   
everything’s going to be fine
I will whisper.
It won’t always be like this.
I am going to buy you a sandwich.

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Filed under poetry, quotes

The Case for God

In April I read two books about religion. One was Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge; the other was this one:

 

The Case For God (Karen Armstrong)

This was a longish (330 pages), fairly dense book on the history of religion that I nevertheless really enjoyed reading. Philip K. Dick would have liked it too, I’m sure. I decided to read it after two completely unconnected friends mentioned it, and I’m really glad I did. My brain definitely feels a lot bigger.

I wanted to learn more about religion, because after reading Infinite Jest I’ve been interested in a really long time with the idea of how AA-type groups can help you cope with addiction (i.e., life in general, because aren’t we all addicts in one way or another?). In Infinite Jest, Wallace talks about the idea that you need to give yourself up or over to this concept of a “bigger picture”: it doesn’t even have to be a god or anything, it just has to be an acknowledgement that there is something out there that is bigger than you and all your petty little pains, wants and desires. I find this idea really interesting, that maybe a solution to our constant pain is recognizing that there IS a bigger picture, that there IS something larger out there than just your day-to-day “I want this, I want that.” It’s like sometimes when I’m really stressed out, I try to think about that part in “The Tree of Life” where the universe is expanding, and them I’m like, oh, OK, so now I’m here.

The part of Armstrong’s argument that I found most interesting was her contention that religion isn’t something that you have, it’s something that you do. Throughout the book she emphasizes that practical, concrete actions are essential to fulfilling religion’s purpose, which is to help us grapple with the pain and mysteriousness of life. She makes religion sound like any other practice, like yoga, or sitting down at your desk and writing in your journal, or the 12-steps of AA groups. Just like with anything, if you want to get good at it, or to understand its benefits, you need to actually DO it on a regular, committed basis.  “You had to engage with a symbol imaginatively, become ritually and ethically involved with it, and allow it to effect a profound change in you.” (321) She talks about how this was a lot easier in the older, premodern forms of religion, with their emphasis on rituals, sacrifices, and other concrete actions that really made you feel like you were participating in something.

Another part of Armstrong’s argument that I really liked was her emphasis on the fundamental mystery and unknowability of the figure or force that people like to call “god.” She points out how ridiculous it is when people speak of God as though it’s something that they know intimately, like they can speak of what God “wants” us to do and what God “is.” It’s like, hello? How the heck would you know that?

She also argues that this understanding of God (as a kind of giant, all-knowing, overseeing Father in the sky who intervenes directly in our affairs and gives a crap about what we’re doing) is a modern conception of God that the earliest theologians would have found very bizarre. Basically, Armstrong is a proponent for the earliest Jewish, Christian and Islamic mystics’ conception of God, in which it’s something that we’ll basically never be able to understand or put into words: “He is not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we can understand. We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.” It’s an appealing Borges or Onetti-like conception of truth as ambiguous, not something we can put into words. This is why “do you believe in God?” is ultimately a pointless and useless question: how can you give a good answer to a question that is so poorly phrased?

My favorite parts of the book were the beginning and end chapters. I really enjoyed the opening chapter set in the Lascoux caves in France with their cave paintings, and her discussion of why religion might have developed and what the point of it was. One interesting thing she writes is that the cave paintings might have arose out of a sense of “guilt” that people felt for eating the animals, and so the paintings became a way of honoring them. Anything that connects nature to religious feeling is A-OK with me; I am a big fan of nature as a gateway to transcendence and deeper understanding. Armstrong also talks about how the paintings might have even developed into a ritual, a way for people to recognize that when they ate the animals, they assumed their qualities (sounds like Catholic mass, no?). This ties in to the idea that the purpose of any kind of religious feeling is to speak of or point towards human potential: what we are capable of, if we let ourselves be our most compassionate, kindest, connected-to-nature selves. So the point of religion is NOT to be like “I’m right and you’re wrong,” or “do this and don’t do that,” but to instead help keep the bigger picture in mind, so that you’re not tied down or drained by your petty, day-to-day existence of pain and sorrow.

I appreciated all the comparisons of religion to art, and how they’re disciplines that arose for similar reasons, as “an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life.” (8) It makes sense to me that in the same way that you can’t use scientific language or processes to explain or understand the effects of art, the same thing would apply to religion. Armstrong says that this is where the fundamentalists all get it wrong: they try to use the language of science to explain the benefits of religion, when they’re actually two radically different disciples with different purposes. She also says that it is this version of religion that all the high-profile anti-religion intellectuals rail against (Hawkins, Hutchins, etc), as opposed to the more mystical kind.

She uses two Greek terms (hearkening back to my college humanities class or AP English) to discuss this scientific vs. religious language conflict: logos vs. mythos. So basically logos is the language or science and reason, and a pragmatic form of thinking that helps us figure out how to function effectively. Mythos is the opposite, the language of religion and art, what helps us find meaning and sooth grief. She also talks about the emphasis in mythos on stepping outside of yourself, of wearing somebody else’s shoes, and then connects this with the universal idea of compassion that you find in the major religion. This made me think about an idea that comes up in yoga or Buddhism a lot, about destroying the ego, or to step outside this desperate conservation of self. This also makes me think about the benefit of looking at a painting or a photograph, or watching a play, or reading a book, or listening to a song: for that one moment, you are not yourself. You are absorbed in the work. You have stepped outside of yourself and your little brain, if only for that moment.

The end chapters talk about the history and development of the atheism movement in Europe and the United States, which I found very interesting because I basically knew nothing about it. I liked how Armstrong didn’t shy away from all the horrible evils that have come out of religion; as an ex-nun, I am sure she knows what she’s talking about and has reflected upon religion’s dark side for a long time. I also liked her discussion of modern physics, and how it’s moving more towards a language of “yeah, there are things in the universe that we can’t explain” (i.e. string theory) as opposed to this Enlightenment-era language of “we are capable of comprehending and knowing EVERYTHING.” It seems like a huge characteristic of our modern times is accepting that WE REALLY DON’T KNOW, and that things are a huge, huge mystery.  I like the scientist that she quotes who says “In my opinion, science offers a surer path to God than religion,” and that we basically just need to be OK with living in a state of unknowing with “astonishment and delight” rather than fear. I feel like this is good advice for life in general: be OK with the mystery, be OK with not knowing what is going to happen or why things are the way there are. Again, this points back to religion’s (and art’s) fundamental purpose: NOT to believe in this or that god, but to search for transcendence, training our minds and hearts to stay fixed on the big picture, and live our lives in a way that is joyful, awake and involved, as opposed to just numbly going through the motions.

This was a really good, informative book to read and I sure did learn a lot. It got to be a bit hard going through the middle: sometimes it feels like Armstrong is getting too textbooky, citing every philosopher or theologian ever (though I’m sure she’s barely grazing the surface). But all the painstaking detail definitely makes you feel like you are going on a journey, an amusement park ride of sorts through the history of religion. I liked the Denys section, for example. I’ve already forgotten about Luther and Aquinas but I know they were really big deals. Its discussion of the importance of myth in human society and the development of the self made me want to read Bill Plotkin again, or even Joseph Campbell (I found a moth-eaten edition of Hero With A Thousand Faces in the downstairs bookshelf last night).

Some other interesting religious-related things I’ve read recently include this Salon interview with Karen Armstrong (I like it when she bitch slaps the interviewer for his “chauvinistic Western view”, LOL), and this Dan Savage segment of a This American Life episode, who basically sums up my own feeling about religion: “If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe. But I’m not that kind of person. Shit.”

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Filed under non-fiction, really deep thoughts, religion

April

April has been an interesting month. No, not cruel in the least, just… interesting. What’s happenned?

Well, I went to Idaho to visit a university there, and decided that in the end it wouldn’t be the best place for me. And so, it looks like in the fall I am moving to England, to do something I put on my Things to Do Before I Die list that I first wrote in 2007 while tramping around my first solo traveler journey in Mexico. I am pretty excited. I feel very certain that this is a good choice for me.

What else has happened? I reread Mario Vargas Llosa’s Los cachorros in Spanish (ahh, memories of middle school and los escandalos of reading a castration scene…) and Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge. Right now I am slowly but surely reading my way through two big heavy books: The Case for God by Karen Armstrong and The Stand by Stephen King. So one dense history of religion and a #1 best-selling horror novel abut a killer plague and the end of humanity (two of my favorite subjects).

IDK why I dig apocalyptic fiction so much. Sometimes I wonder if it has the same effect on me as classical Greek tragedy, providing a cathartic release. Oh BAM, I think, reading a scene in which someone coughs in the back of a movie theater, y’all infected now! Too bad suckers! A kind of “not me, them” sort of release. Maybe by writing or reading about these horrors on the page, it makes us feel like we’re better prepared to deal for them in real life. Not that I think that an army-made killer virus is going to break free anytime soon, but still.

Uh….. OK. I guess that’s pretty much been my April. To end this post, here are some photos from Idaho and a piece I wrote recently in my writing workshop. The prompt was Clouds gathered.

*****************************

IDAHO

Clouds gathered. She unlocked the gate. I had just arrived in Idaho ten minutes ago, and I had no idea where I was going to go from here.

“Did you bring your receipt?” she asked. “or something at least showing that your scholarship money was deposited?”

My OCD was making it hard for me to not want to jump over every crack in the driveway leading us up the long college lawn. “Yeah, I have it,” I said, trying to make my voice sound casual. My only hope was that it was in the knotted Safeway bag in my backpack, along with my speeding tickets, and not at the bottom of my tote bag with the squashed orange.

“I talked to some of the other students and there should be someone who can put you up for the night.” She was fumbling with a big yellow key that she pulled from a long elastic band on her waist. The door looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie, and when I craned my neck back and looked up, I could see shadows of gargoyles shaded against the sky.

“That’s awesome,” I said. “Great. Thanks.” My goal was to sound as robotic as possible. This was the only grad school I’d been accepted to, besides the one in Norway with free tuition. I was trying to play it cool with her, the Department Head, make it seem like I was holding a lot of cards close to my chest, when in reality all I was clutching was a ripped cloth tote bag from New Seasons leaking squashed orange juice.

“I’m glad you made it here on time to attend the thesis defense,” she said as we walked down the cool hallways. Her footsteps sounded so loud that I wanted to ask her to speak up. My red Converse shoes squeaked with every step I took like an annoying little animal.

“What are the defenses like” I asked, pretending to be looking at the posters on the walls. “Is it really OK if I sit in?”

“Mm, it should be. We usually don’t bring out the flame throwers until the end.” I waited for the laugh and Just kidding, but it didn’t come.

I’d driven six hours to get here. Idaho! I hadn’t even known where Idaho was until I looked at a map. I hadn’t told my boss that I was leaving, let alone that I had applied to grad school.

I was trying to get a fine arts degree in performance sculpture. It had been my side hobby for years. More specifically, embalming had been. I loved picking all the mutated animals out of the gutters and river beds—the yellow fish with no internal organs, the three-eyed cats, the ooblek frogs that disintegrated into a pile of green gloop if you squeezed them too hard. My lifelong goal had been to catch one of those rats that were smart enough to build carts to carry their cat-fighting weapons, but I had yet to find a way to penetrate their walls and barricades. I’d spent two years combing the paths in the canyon where the canal had been dug, miles away from the big whites houses that all the French and Chinese and British business owners lived in. I’d embalmed them, put them in different positions, uploaded photos to my tumblr account and there it was, my creative portfolio. Was it good enough to get me an MFA? Idaho seemed to think so.

“I’m really excited for you to meet Boston,” the Department Head said, pushing open a rickety dark brown door with a clenched fist.

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Filed under Dear Diary, fiction, graduate school, writing