Viewing entries tagged
belief

Comment

Eight Hundred and Sixty-Six Words on the Power of the Still Photograph (an apology)

hey_mister
hey_mister

Last month, as a midterm assignment, I gave my advanced photography students an essay assignment; one thousand words on the power of the still photograph. It made me sound important. At first they thought I meant a thousand characters. They're so cute. A thousand words isn't that much, I told them- its a blog post.  Within ten minutes they had me bargained down to 500 words. Okay, fine, I don't mind.  Most were thoughtful, a few actually engaging. One was intentionally contrary to the point of the assignment, a finger in the eye of my grandeur. The last line was " Please don't fail me."

I'm sorry. I did. Fail you I mean. I mean, I failed. This is my apology...

--- --- ---

I've been a photographer longer than I've been anything else in this life, with the exception of a son, and maybe a compulsive eater. Longer than I've been a husband. Longer than I was a Catholic. Or a smoker. Longer than I've been a teacher, a writer, or a computer nerd. Longer than I've been a licensed driver if I stretch the thread really tight.

A long time.

At least since the age of 19, which I reached in 1977, a camera has defined me in some form. But even before that, with my first 'serious' camera, a Mercury Satellite 127 which I still own, I have been a taker of pictures. When I turned pro it was with an Olympus OM-1n. I loved that camera. Everything about it was perfect. It had perfect weight and perfect size. The shutter speed dial was on the lens mount. Everything about it was perfect. After that came an Olympus OM-2n. I loved that camera. It too was perfect. I used those cameras until they were just plain wore out. We were inseparable. It would be odd to see any one of us without the other. Simpatico.

When I close my eyes I can see them, the the dents and dings, the corners worn down to the brass beneath the chrome. If I try really hard, I can feel them.

Still.

Next came a string of Canons, and with them came a slow separation from the truth. None of the Canon's were particularly noteworthy, none possessed any real magic. Each succession only moved to isolate the act of photography further and further from the moment. Automation trumped artistry. Auto focus. Auto bracketing. Motion dampening. Feature creep insured that a three-thousand dollar camera would be obsolete within a year's time. Then digital killed film, like video killed the radio star, and with it the true therapeutic and redemptive powers of picture making began to fade.

And so it goes, until it goes around...

I'm back on the film. Seeking redemption. And a powerful fix. Last week I scored a brick of Tri-X from a guy behind the dry cleaners. Came at a bundle, but that's the price of addiction. The price of truth. For it turns out film is a far more important player in the creative process than I gave it credit for. And here's why- film makes a photographer think. Film makes a photographer work. When you walk out the door with only thirty-six photos in hand, you pay attention. You acknowledge the unyielding physical limit you've placed on your creativity and you work with it. Limits are what make progress possible.

Still.

--- --- ---

It begins with putting the camera up to your eye. Feeling the cool of the metal against the skin. Deep breath in. Looking through the viewfinder. Seeing through the viewfinder. Just you, in charge, a god-like eye; you and whatever you choose to share your consciousness with. Pick a focal point, find the edges of the frame. Stay quiet, stay focused. That satisfying geared resistance of the thumb against the film advance lever. Pushing it slowly but firmly until it can move no more. The tentative but perceptible pressure against the shutter release. Squeeze the trigger, don't force. The quick slap of the mirror, the snap of the shutter. Breathe out.

--- --- ---

The magic lives in the limits. And in the breath. It's in the focus, and in the consciousness. Its where the power hides. In the sensual beauty of the dance.

stop. everything.

rewind.

unload.

reload.

refocus.

--- --- ---

The still image. Still. What else can claim to represent a slice of time. Capture time. Make time stop. Forever. I have a picture of my Dad. He's twenty-four years old.

Still.

--- --- ---

In 1839 Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre finds the method to make Joseph Nicephore Niepce's "retina" images permanent. No one will believe they are real. In 1968 Eddie Adams took a picture of a Vietnamese Chief of Police preparing to execute a vietcong prisoner with a pistol. Everyone knew it was real. Forty-five years later, the boy begs for mercy.

Still.

--- --- ---

Photography is the dictionary for defining a moment. It is the thesaurus of vision. It is bone, and sinew, and flesh. When mine own bone, and sinew, and flesh is nothing more than dusty dust, a small child will race after another, under a scribbled message on a concrete wall.

Hey mister! God loves you.

--- --- ---

still.

Addemdum: I've moved all the old Bodhicyclist posts over to the new SETT server. The blog address is TheBodhicyclist.com  simple. The new blog has a community section where you'll find cool news and noteworthy tidbits...

mark

Comment

4 Comments

Back...

"Leave the gun. Take the cannoli..." PETER CLEMENZA The Godfather

A couple weeks ago I suffered an inevitable WordPress Blog Failure (WPBF). I logged into the blog and- everything was gone- everything. Posts, pictures, comments; all gone. It took two weeks to get it back, and I'm still looking for the photos to add back in. But at least its back. When I found the blog missing though, my first reaction was to want to puke. I fought it off but it was in my throat. Six months work disappeared in an instant, like Paulie in The Godfather. I could taste the cannoli.

My second reaction was relief. Maybe now is a good time to stop. Frankly, I was surprised I had six months' worth of posts in me. (A friend who edited some early drafts thought I had far less than that.) But merrily I rode along, spouting vast theories based on half-vast premises. And I loved every word I wrote. And every comment I received. I especially loved the single comment I received on my second post, wherein the commenter called me everything from just plain stupid to truly psychologically damaged. It was in itself a work of art. It made the blog- great, and fun, and important.

But after my dad died I just lost steam. After The Vigil I had myself convinced that I had moved past it all, but in all honesty I hadn't really even begun to work through any of it. I left Florida for home on a Friday morning. My dad died a few hours later. When I left for the airport the original plan was for a memorial service sometime in "the future", but by the time I arrived home that evening everything had changed. The reality was that less than a week later I was the only one of my siblings who was not in attendance for my dad's funeral mass. I was at the gym, eleven hundred miles away. It really pissed me off.

Shortly after that, I wrote about Ahab, and what a tool he was. I wrote about my dad, and how much I miss him. And after that I couldn't think of anything decent to write about.

So I just stopped.

And all that time I missed it so. The truth is that I love writing, and I love working against my self-imposed deadlines, and scheduling the drafts at 11 pm to post at 5:01 am the following morning. So I'm taking another shot at it. A shot at momentum. As it stands right now, I don't feel comfortable writing about Buddhist ethics, and I have been counseled not to delve into topics relating to education. So that leaves me with cycling, and photography. And nutrition. And possibly big pharma. (Did you read the story about the pesticide resistant "super-weeds"? The subtext of the story is that over 70% of all corn and soy grown in this country is genetically engineered by Monsanto to resist Monsanto's Roundup®. The sub-subtext is that 100% of the 70% genetically engineered corn and soy is, at some point in its life, soaked in Monsanto's Roundup®. yum.)

I'm also taking this opportunity to start a public registry to replace my aging camera equipment. You can sponsor a lens or a body or an accessory or two. Right now I have my eye set on a Fuji X-Pro1 or X-E1. Don't be shy.

Truly tho- the short of it all is that I think I'm back- I think.

That, and-  I've really missed my friends.

brother mark

(psst; click the quote for a special treat...)

4 Comments

6 Comments

Abbey Road

"Do or Do Not. There is No Try"   YODA   Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

In 1969 the Beatles released the album Abbey Road. The album was recorded almost six months after the album released as Let It Be, which is seen historically as their final album, but because of quarrels over L.I.B. it was released a year earlier. The culmination of the second side of the album is a sixteen minute medley of first-take recordings of half-finished compositions never meant to be released as a finished product. It kicks ass. And in there lies a message...

Do or Do Not.  (or)  Leave that, I'll clean it up later. I'm not entirely sure yet.

--- --- ---

I don't know where it goes, or why it suddenly comes back. I love winter, but every winter gets a little harder. Even 20,000 I.U.'s of vitamin D daily can't keep the beast at bay. I'm become better at fighting it, and the sullenness lasts only days now, or a week, but it wearies me, the struggle.

This year the big gift among the boys at the high school was headphones. Big-ass, full-on, cover-the-ears, active-noise-cancelling headphones. It took a while for me to figure it all out. They just want to retreat as far as they can into their own heads. 

I bought a set of headphones today. They are International Distress orange. 

--- --- ---

I made a few resolutions this year. I should have announced them with all due pomp and bother last week, but I didn't. They are...

1] Drink more water. at least four liters a day.

2] Find that yoga DVD I couldn't live without two years ago. 

3] Use it.

4] Plan ahead. At least once.

5] ........ I forgot. [damn] It was really good too.

--- --- ---

When Abraham Lincoln was conflicted he would put his thoughts to paper. Thoughts to paper. Tell me that's not a great line.  Anyway, he would write these letters, chastising Generals or admonishing underlings for misdeeds. But upon finishing, he placed them in a folder, and noted them as "Never sent, or signed"  The point was not to confront, but to confront the anger and frustration of a scenario outside the realm of his control. 

I just dismissed the entire second half of this post into the ether. We'll all be better off for that. It is my sincere hope that by doing so it will help reduce the occurrences of my talking to my self out loud whilst walking around the Walmart.  It's becoming really embarrassing. 

--- --- ---

I remember now. I'm going to learn Spanish...

--- --- ---

There is a new camera on the market. It's called the Lytro. It is a "light field" camera. You point it in the direction of the scene you want to photograph. Click. Later, in the comfort of your own home, you zoom, or not, focus close, or far away. Change the viewing angle. Its crazy. I predict it will change photography the way that the Segway changed transportation. 

Remember, you heard it here first. 

--- --- ---

I've begun reading fiction again. For almost twenty years I've read only non-fiction, except for some Kurt Vonnegut, so that really doesn't count. I just bought Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins, and The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway. I can't seem to find anything new by John Updike, tho...

--- --- ---

By now, shouldn't I be smarter?

***

6 Comments

1 Comment

Blue

"It's coming on Christmas, they're cuttin down trees. They're puttin up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace. Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on..." JONI MITCHELL   River

Its been such a hard week. I'm digging to find something, anything,  positive to hang my hat on. On the television are a bunch of ass-hats actually saying, out loud, that if all teachers were strapped, our babies would be safe. Why can't you just keep that to yourself?  Then you could at least pretend you have an ounce of understanding.

--- --- ---

My head is spinning. I can't string two cogent thoughts together that don't contradict each other. I've been listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue album. Its about running away. Not all of it, but enough of it to make it worth listening to. It was a mainstay of my college days, when life was full of seminal events and defining moments and philosophy classes. Joni Mitchell always told such great stories. About being sad, or  just tired and alone, or wanting. My first album was Hejira. The title means "journey". The songs are about traveling or being on the road or wanting to be home. But they are also about knowing what you want and what you have. They are about choice and the consequence of choice. And isn't everything...

--- --- ---

As an educator I'm not at liberty to write about education. That would be a conflict of interest. But I can say that anyone outside of the field of education hasn't a clue about what the inside looks like. At least at the K-12 end of the rainbow. You should change that. Soon.

--- --- ---

Ever since my dad died I've felt adrift. We lived very separate lives eleven hundred miles away from one another. I didn't see him or my mom nearly often enough. But it never mattered. We always made up for time and distance when we were together. During their penultimate trip north P and I took my parents to Buffalo so my dad could photograph the Kirsch Saloon building on Niagara Street. We scoured Black Rock all afternoon looking for lost neighborhoods and lumberyards that served as playgrounds. We found most of them. We think.

It was a great day...

--- --- ---

I bought extra Christmas cards this year. They Have the word Christmas in them. As of this writing I think I've made out seven. That leaves, um, a lot left to do.

--- --- ---

I miss writing. I thought I had it back last week. I think I did, briefly. But then I got lost again. I know it will come back. Until then I'll keep stabbing at whatever words are too slow to escape my focus, and stick them here. And i'll listen to Joni mitchell sing, about blue, and green, and skating away. And i'll find solace in the love of my lover. And turn the F'n television off again.

At least until the NHL comes to its senses.

Mark

addendum: I apologize for the ass-hat remark I made earlier (but not really)

1 Comment

Comment

Moby Dick

Why the f*** should I have to press "1" for English?  STATEMENT ON A BUMPER STICKER

Captain Ahab, the mythic, God-like ship's captain in Moby Dick, the man-hero wholly consumed with rage against a Godless beast which cost him his leg, rejects outright all things which do not fortify his fevered vengeance quest. Deep within his soul Ahab believes that the white whale is the embodiment of evil, and acts accordingly against it. From the pages which recount Ahab's odyssey comes one of the greatest exultations of the total consumption of rage ever written in modern literature, American or other.

"He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam on down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

Dude could write.

My friend the Colonel once shared this book to a former Iraqi army officer he worked with. Days later the book was returned with a courteous but confused thank you.

"I'm sorry," he said, "But I just don't understand. All this because he lost his leg."

"Um- yeah, that's the point."

"But bad things happen to people every day. Where I come from we have learned to just move on."

--- --- ---

The world is changing. (...duh)

Look, what I don't know about the world could almost fill the Hollywood Bowl. But I do know this- all living things change. And when I refer to change I'm not referring to climate or population, although if half the world's population were wiped out today, there would still be more people inhabiting the earth than did in 1990. What I mean is the day to day of change, the "Yes, the ATM is asking me to choose a language" change. I mean, really, I'm supposed to adopt this as my white whale?

There's a big disagreement over solar and wind energy. Windmills are ugly, solar takes a long time to pay out. Both are seriously flawed technologies. But the NFL didn't look anything like the NFL when Jim Thorpe was running around in a scratchy woolen sweater and a leather hat. But football, like everything else, evolved. Setting aside the obvious value judgements to be made and focusing solely on the thing, football is what it is because it followed a sequence of change. And the same goes for solar power and wind power and biofuels and microwave popcorn and Southern Tier 2Xmas. What it is is only what it is, not what it was, or what it will be. Why is that so difficult a thing to wrap a head around?

--- --- ---

Resistance to change is what drives most business and all government.  It's what creates brand identity and a two-party system. If we wanted change we would change. But instead we let the same banks that tanked the global economy pay a 'fine' of one point nine BILLION dollars for laundering Mexican drug money and then loaning that money to countries we don't loan money to. And no one says a word. Or goes to jail. Or cares.

George Carlin once wrote that we placate ourselves by marveling at the fact that we have thirty-seven kinds of mustard to choose from on the grocery store shelf, but we ignore the fact we have no real choice over who our leaders are. Because that's the way we want it.

--- --- ---

My father's grandfather came from the Alsace. His grandmother from County Cork. Growing up we ate cabbage and pork and beef cooked in vinegar and more cabbage. My dad drank beer. Two doors down my friend's family ate chopped liver and boiled eggs and chicken and drank sweet wine. Further down the block were dinners of mutton and pasta and veal and wine that didn't come from a store. We were neighbors. And friends. And we were who we were. And we weren't afraid of who the others were either. I learned to speak Hebrew from Sam and Italian from Chuck's dad. I ate gefilte fish. And tripe. And now years later my students bring me mofongo and pani puri to try. And I eat that.

And we are friends.

--- --- ---

And none of this makes me angry, or scared, or makes me lash out at a world out of control or a world that isn't the same as it was when I was young, even though it isn't the same. I don't want it the same. I like my iPad, and Kindle books, and I like my digital camera. And I like a world that offers me a venue to write my thoughts out, and lets me put them out there...

And if it means that I have to press "1" then I'll press "1" and I won't shoot my heart upon some feigned foe. No, instead I'll press "1" and acknowledge the fact that my world is filled with colors and smells and favors I never knew as a boy. I'll remember Kodachrome fondly, but I won't romanticize it.

And I will ask myself why I would want it any other way.

--- --- ---

mark

Comment

1 Comment

[No] Reservations

I'm remembering back to an episode of the Travel Channel show No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain, when Tony is in Japan. He is watching a man make soba noodles. This is what the man does- he makes soba noodles. His entire life he has made soba noodles. Every day of his life. And nothing else. As a matter of fact, in all his Asian travels, so many stops include a person who makes this one thing or does this one thing.

What is a life like that is at once so simple and so wholly purposeful? What it is like to just... be?

I have this memory from when I was young, of visiting the Carmelite monastery in Pittsford NY. The Carmelites are monastic nuns who live a cloistered existence, wholly abandoned to the worship of God. Their life consists of prayer, penance, manual labor, and spiritual contemplation. Out of context it is a beautiful, serene, and I suppose, rewarding life. In some paradigms it might seem a copout. In any, it is an act of renunciation of the tribulations of modern living, with a devotion instead to this one thing- worship; prayer. Every day is purposeful, every life, examined.

--- --- ---

I remembering taking my first picture at the age of ten, a picture of the janitor at my elementary school, with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera (which I still own). It was a child's pursuit, more curiosity than interest. But it was when I was nineteen that I made my first real photograph. I was working my first full-time job. I had been thrown into this crazy work cycle for which nothing in my life had prepared me. I worked eighteen twelve-hour days (3:30 pm to 3:30 am), with one day off between cycles. I followed this schedule for my first six months of employment. It was miserable, but it made me pretty wealthy. Especially for a teen who had been invited to not come back for a second year of junior college.

One of the first things I bought with my riches was a camera; an Olympus OM-1n. My friend Chuck and I were utilizing one of my off days, and we went to Akron Falls State Park. It was a crisp fall day. The leaves were turning, and the park was ablaze with color. Chuck worked in a camera store and was testing a new arrival from Olympus for the weekend. I was there because it was a Sunday and my only day off that month, and I wasn't about to spend it at home watching football. He handed the camera to me to try. I took one picture. The next day he called me from the store, and said I should meet him for lunch. When I arrived he handed me a print of the photo I had taken. I skipped lunch and bought the Olympus instead.

Its hard to convey what I felt when I saw that photo, but it was a combination of "that's so beautiful" and "I made that?" To that point, my adult life had been a combination of failing out of school, and working a meaningless second-shift maintenance job at an auto assembly plant. My uniform was greasy blue-black overalls, my hands perpetually soiled and scarred. Even my pillow case had a permanent yellow stain from where my head had laid upon it. I hated that job because it was not me. It was foreign and and fostered a contemptuous relationship for over a decade.

And then there was that photograph. From it I can trace a convoluted line that led me to where I am now, in my home with my wife and lover of twenty-plus years, a cat asleep on my lap, reaping the simple rewards of a career in teaching.

I teach about photography. And why photography is important. I teach in what is considered a small rural high school, and I teach evening classes at our local community college. I love teaching. I can think of few more rewarding professions. I make no allusions about what I do- at the high school level my job is to create connections- to open a door or two where none existed before, to point out the window and say "look", "see". Some students go on to study photography in college, most don't. But I think most leave changed for the better.

And this is my life. It is what I have done for my entire adult life. For almost twenty-five years. Every day. I never gave it much thought, but I can't imagine doing anything, or being anything, else. Being a teacher allows me to just be myself, to live a life that speaks honestly to me.

I get it now, the soba noodle guy, the Carmelite nun. Its all the same- none of it is about the "what." Nothing happens out of context. It's only ever about the "Why." My story is longer because its mine and I know it better. It is no more, or less, compelling than deciding to be the soba noodle guy, no more, or less, voluntary than choosing a vocation to the Carmelite order. It's about finding a personal water level. Soba guy still has bills to pay and children to raise, the nuns still feel the bone-cold of a New York winter. Life is life no matter how much certain aspects are romanticized. Every day I return home to the unconditional love of my beloved wife and lover. Every night a cat curls up on my lap. And they make me whole. And centered. And though I still carry scars from days as a laborer, they are but reminders of the journey here. About finding peace.

About learning to just...

be.

Mark

1 Comment

3 Comments

Parachute..

I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment... LAMA NORBU Little Buddha

I knew it would be difficult. And it was.

Difficult.

It wasn't difficult because I didn't want him to go. Going or not going wasn't my decision to make. It was his. And he made his decision. It was his time, he knew it was his time, he made his decision, and he embraced it. It was difficult because I was powerless to do anything.

Anything.

By the time I reached their Florida home he was already very weak. My sisters had been tending to him for a week by then, dutiful and doting daughters, expressing true unabashed love. He had stopped eating, and drank only to lubricate his throat. Twenty-four hours later he was in a dream state. In another twenty-four he was gone. Its forty-eight hours later as I write this.

And I'm in a good place.

It's not that I don't miss him. Every time I think I'm near the end of my list I find new reasons to miss him. I'm in a good place because I found a parachute.

--- --- ---

It felt like jumping from an airplane, like falling. An event uncertain except for the certainty of the pain to come. But it wasn't falling. What I was feeling was actually the sensation of clinging. Of holding on. In short, grief. Grief is the inability to let go of emotion, and the initial emotional freefall that comes thereafter. Thing is- the deed is done, the die cast. And wanting it to be different = Grief. With the capital "G".

And grieve I did. With the capital "G". It began almost as soon as I arrived, and never really stopped until I had said my goodbye and headed home.

I had to go partly because it was time for me to go. I had to get back home to my life, to my family. And partly because there was nothing I could do, except continue to grieve. Worse, my grief was beginning to feed on itself, and was becoming destructive. It was time to go. And let go. But what I didn't know was that hidden inside letting go was a parachute- a big gossamer veil to slow the fall. And within that veil of letting go was the comfort and healing.

I wrote about this not too long ago, about letting go, although it reads now like ancient text. What I wrote about then was slightly different. I wrote about letting go in one's personal life, of not being driven by goals or decisions. Of being the water, and not the rock in the water. Of giving over to inevitability. This is different. And the same.

One immediate acknowledgement was in the needs of mine own family. Life goes on whether we are prepared to go on with it. Or not. But normalcy made me feel normal again. People in the supermarket laughed and discussed weekend plans. The cats at the feed store gave their usual disinterested greeting. Gasoline still cost too much.  Normal. It felt "let go."

--- --- ---

From this point forward it will always be "after dad died." And yet life goes on. And will go on. In the way that life must. And I will miss him, like my brothers and sisters will, and like my mother will, though none of us as deeply as my mother will. And I will cry, at unexpected times, for unexpected reasons. And I will carry with me the memories, of his smile, his amazing piercing whistle, his mechanical genius, and his love- his unending, inexhaustible love. And from these I will build my parachute, and keep it tucked firmly under my arm in case of emergency.

because

I am afraid I am a very poor example of Buddhist detachment...

peace-

mark

3 Comments

Comment

The Squirrel and the Goldfinch

I was looking out the kitchen window the other morning, watching the birds at the feeder. As I sat a beautiful goldfinch flew in for a meal. At the same time a large grey squirrel charged up the pole, deftly stepping around the super-impenetrable squirrel blocking device I had painstakingly crafted and chased the current diners from their perch. The finch sort of hopped up into the air about a foot or two above the feeder, fluttered momentarily to get its bearings, and landed on the tip of an Astilbe frond. If you don't know Astilbe, it's a delicate, fern-like plant with pretty white or purple-ish flowers in summer. Its kind of a garden nuisance around here, but that's a different story. Astilbe is a featherweight plant, and I was surprised at how easily the finch was able to light itself upon the tip of that tender little stem and not even bend it. It sat patiently awaiting intervention on its behalf while the squirrel was busy gnawing a larger access hole in the feeder's tough plastic shell. I shooed the squirrel with a thump on the window. The goldfinch sat, unperturbed by it all, left its astilbe perch and set back down, this time at the smaller thistle feeder. It stayed only a minute ate a few seeds, and was gone.

The faint scenario played out by the finch was in such great contrast to the clumsy, blunt approach to living that the squirrel embraced, it was impossible, even for me, to miss. Squirrels leave little question as to their presence. Their loud chatter, copious litter, their damage to trees, eaves, and bird feeders alike, are an inherent part of squirrel-ness. Meanwhile the goldfinch, adorned in its fading lemon yellow, black and white raiment, floats in on the wind, sings a light and happy song, takes his seed, and is gone. The contrariety seems so profound. The squirrel, for better or worse, is not purposefully injurious but its actions are consequential in an immediate sense. The goldfinch in contrast leaves no echo of its actions. It touches lightly and refers the memory of its cheery song and beautiful plumage as the only lasting legacy of its visit.

The lessons of the squirrel and goldfinch

Events in the last week have put me in mind of considering legacy. When all is gone but for the memory,  by what gauge are we measured? I am much closer to the end of my teaching career than I am to even the middle. As such I am become more aware of what comes after, or more precisely, what remains. When I walk out of my classroom for the final time it will be without regret of any kind.  Though teaching was never something I aspired to do initially, I embraced it and it nourished me. Teaching gave me a new life, a beautiful wife, some prestige, and a living wage. When my teaching days are through my legacy will likely not be found in the room or building in which I taught, but more likely in the students that I taught.They are what remains. If I were to choose how I am remembered it would be fostering a love of learning, with laughter and fraternity, and random moments of inspiration. A Legacy would be that some of my students carry a love of art still, and make art, and teach others about art. It would be be that I cared enough to try, and tried enough to make some positive impact. It would be that I gave better than I got.

But that choice is not mine to make. Nor should it be. Because a legacy is defined by those who come after, by those who remain. Because while I look at the big grey squirrel and see only its littersome trace, others see a legacy of food left for smaller less robust animals to eat, and seeds cast for new trees to grow from, and nuts buried and long forgotten, feeding the soil and its creepy-crawly cast. Squirrel as provider. I see only my deconstructed feeder, and not the marvelous curiosity and tenacious persistence that this animal possess as it asks only to survive another day in the chilling fall air.

And therefore if my legacy decided is that I was a good teacher, or a good husband or friend, and doesn't extend beyond that -that's okay. And any memory of me need be nothing more than the faint tickle of a light touch or the echo of a laugh. In the interim I continue to be who I am, to do what I do.

And what remains, remains to be seen.

peace, and love to all

mark

Comment

5 Comments

All Saints Day

Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and must be found!

PRAYER TO ST. ANTHONY

Today is a special day in the Catholic church. This first day of November is All Saints Day. For the uninitiated, All Saints Day is not a typical feast day in the tradition of the individual Saints and their fetes. It is more a day of observance and solemn recognition of all who have passed before. Deeply rooted in the western european tradition, All Saints Day was instituted sometime after 700 A.D. as a sort of papal Veteran's Day to "honour all the saints, both known and unknown." Such a profound and simple principle- "honor all, known and unknown." Its very existence makes manifest the true binding force of any religion or fellowship or tribe; the heartfelt communion of a congregation of souls, past, present, and future. And it underscores the very principle of connectedness with a thick line, indelible to time or whimsey. It says, "We all are one."

I remember as far back as far back goes watching my father's mother sitting after Sunday dinner, occasionally on our living room sofa, but more often on the stiff wooden chair near the big front window, sorting through her holy cards. Every Sunday she recited prayers so long-ago ingrained that the cards, worn thin by the years and crudely laminated with scotch tape, acted merely as orisonal placeholders. Half whispering, half meditating, her charm bracelet making it's grandmotherly clink, clink, clink, she offered recitations of petition and gratitude. She would shuffle through her deck of saints, meticulously assembled like the batting rotation in some fantasy invocation team, with positions secured through years of tough negotiation. "Now on deck, Francis of Assisi. Assisi..."

My grandmother's saints were real to her. They were friends. Each had a special conversation to be spoken, and a special time and place to be spoken to. Each had a job, full with the expectations that jobs bring. The saints were concrete, they were flesh and blood. And really, that's what saints are. Real. Because before the saints were saints they were people. With lives. And stories. And each had earned through due diligence their place in my grandmother's starting lineup. She never played favorites, nor would she brook some trendy upstart with an aggressive PR agenda. They earned their spot in the rotation through hard work and by providing consistent results. And they told great stories.

Always batting first was the perennial fan favorite, Saint Anthony. Before Anthony became the patron saint of lost car keys, he was a simple country doctor and preacher. Born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon Portugal, he became Brother Anthony of the Franciscan order after finding himself tasked by a visiting monk with tending to the bodies of five Franciscan friars who had been martyred for their evangelism in Morocco. "They were willing to die for their belief" he wrote, "and I prayed that my own death should have such weight." Anthony, at the time a foundering novice longed for connectedness to something greater, for the calling. He became an evangelical, traveling extensively, preaching to everyone, and when there were none, to no one. Preaching to spread his word. Preaching to find his way. Through it he found solace, and a voice. There are many stories as to why Anthony is connected to lost things, but the most compelling stories are those that have to do with his utter humility in aiding those in need, and restoring their faith in God and fellow man. Which makes him, along with the finder of lost trinkets, also the finder of lost souls.

Francis, our friend from Assisi, the founder of Anthony's Franciscan order, himself tells a story of casting off riches and the excesses of youth and position, and adopting a life of humble service. It is said that he slept outdoors, on the ground, and that all who knew him considered him a friend. His official team photo depicts him with a bird on his shoulder, cupping his hands to hold food, or water. Service to the smallest among us. Service to the weakest. Service that matters. Indeed it is what ties the saints together, the subjugation of personal desire for a life of service and advocacy.  Its the tie that binds them together, and them to us.

Agnes, the virgin saint, the patron of both couples in love and victims of abuse, was killed for refusing to be forcibly married to the son of a wealthy nobleman. Jeanne D'Arc, a simple farmer's daughter, led a criminally small French army battalion to victory against invading English forces. Later captured and tried by a British tribunal, she endured fourteen months of incarceration and interrogation before being burned at the stake. And all before her twentieth birthday. For God? Perhaps yes, or perhaps instead through God. But certainly for their sisters and brothers, and by extension, for us. Because nothing is anything if its not done for someone, or for something.

And now to address the subtext, the second stringers, the unknowns. While the knowns will always find their herald, there remain so many more unknown's out there, forever unheralded. And now, like then, they are still feeding the birds, fighting an overwhelming force, tending to the battered bodies of the abused. They don't seek recognition, they don't act for redemption or indulgence, they seek only to heal, to help, to soften the blow or even take a blow. For justice, or righteousness, or just for a friend. They'll never make the starting rotation, or make it out of the minors. Hell, they'll never even have a rookie card. But its not because they don't make saints like they used to. It's because true saints don't think of themselves that way. It's because sainthood, like politics, is local.

 In the Buffalo region we have our favorites- like Father Baker, Tim Russert, Constance B. Eve, or Anne and Milton Rogovin... By light of day they looked and sounded like ordinary people, but now, through the filter of time and a light sanding by history, they shine like the beacons we knew they would be. To a person they would say they were just doing their job, just doing what was right, or needed, or wanted. And it's not just that we miss them now that they're gone, though we do, it's that we find in their absence all the things that still need doing. And for the most part it's still pretty grimy work.

 So today I make a special request- leave the name of a known or unknown in the comments box, with a word or two of why, or send it along in an email if you prefer. Share this post with a friend or colleague, and celebrate what the day is about - service...

And save those rookie cards!

peace,

mark...

5 Comments

1 Comment

Water Moves

Since I gave up hope I feel much better...   ANONYMOUS

 I remember a story from long ago, from a source I no longer recall. The story is one of competitive sailing, on big, fast, ocean-going boats.  It seems that during a regatta the skipper noticed a piece of seaweed clinging to the keel of the boat. These boats are so finely tuned that even a length of kelp could cause a noticeable slowing of the boats pace. A member of the crew was dispatched to remove the kelp with a pike pole, a long pole with a hook on the end. He stabbed furiously at it, trying in vane to dislodge it. The skipper screamed in anger, as his action only further slowed their pace, the stabbing in the water caused more friction than the seaweed itself. Another crew member grabbed the pike, and punched it into the water just forward of the mass, letting the water move it along, catching and freeing the kelp at the pole moved past, swept by only the current. The secret was to let the water go and move with it rather than resist it.

We live in a rural location, with streams and runs crisscrossing our county. Recently P and I were out on one of our beloved day trips, stopping to photograph when inspiration presented itself. It was one of those perfect fall days that is neither warm nor cold, with air so clear and a sky so azure it hurts just to look at it. I found myself perched at the edge of a stream watching the water move past, swirling around some rocks as it moved by. Occasionally a leaf would happen by, carried by the current, and slip past the rocks with a little twist to and fro, and an undulation of acknowledgement of the rock as it meandered along. And then it was gone. And it struck me- if water is the passing of time, the passing of life, then we are either the leaf or the rock. Water moves, and we either give in to it, move with it, and go where it takes us, or stand fast, in defiance of the current and endure its relentless sanction.

When we are rock, our entire existence becomes one of obstruction,  countlessly bombarded by life as it moves around, and past. We cling to our hopes, our dreams, We cling to our problems. The spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle believes we create and maintain problems because they help give us a sense of identity. We define our self by our circumstance. To change the circumstance is to change our identity.

But life for the leaf is relatively calm in comparison.  Granted, leaf life is a state of constant flux with an uncertain future, but from moment to moment the flow is smooth and transitional. If this, then that. For the rock it is one crushing blow after another. The constant friction wears in subtle and unsubtle ways. Until ultimately the rock is worn down, worn out, and worn away. The leaf just gives in. At first blush, giving in looks and feels like giving up. It feels like giving away- of power, of control, of authority. It feels like quitting. But rather, giving in is an exercise of power. Giving in is a conscious release of a false sense of personal identity. Circumstance no longer defines us.

Giving in is letting go. It's the letting go of the frustrations over the things we never did for the acknowledgement of the things we've done. It's the letting go of anger over things we are powerless to change, and the embrace of the power we have. It's the letting go of idle hope and the embrace of action. Giving in is not giving up. It is the first step in moving on, of taking stock of who we are. Now. At this moment. Giving in is the inhale, the in breath. It gives us pause. A pause that refreshes our identity.

Over and over.

Because water moves.

mark

1 Comment

3 Comments

Fish Out Of Water...

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”   ALBERT EINSTEIN

When I was in fifth grade I learned how to draw. It wasn't in an art class, because the school I attended didn't really have them. I learned to draw after school, taught by one of my teachers who stayed late to teach me. I attended Blessed Sacrament school. You probably know it. The one in Kenmore. My teacher was Sister Martin. She ran a tough classroom, but then again she was Irish, like many of us claimed to be back then. The "Irish" had nothing to do with how she ran her classroom, but when the flag of Ireland is the biggest flag in the room, and you learn to sing Irish songs during free time, and you're ten years old, and you have a limited number of conclusions you can logically reach before it starts to hurt, you think, "Irish." But anyway, when she wasn't making us kneel on pencils, or teaching us about Irish politics, she loved us. And we loved her.

I remember that day. Not the date, nor the season even, but that moment. I remember it was late in the afternoon, after everyone else had gone home. There was only she, and me. We were in the big room that served as the cafeteria and the auditorium and the gymnasium and the playground and the chapel when the heat wasn't working in the temporary church that housed our parish for twenty years. The big room with the chocolate floors polished to a heavenly lustre. That afternoon Sister Martin showed me what I didn't know I knew. That I could draw.

I drew a robin, copied from an Audubon book, and shaded with color pencil. It was a thing of extraordinary marvelosity. It shone. Really. Shone. In my rapturous state I imagined I was channeling Michelangelo himself, and his spirit had surrounded me in a veil of holy robin-drawing light, but apparently I had merely pressed so hard with the color pencil I burnished the pigment into a thin veneer on the paper. But hey, shone is shone. When I had finished it, I showed it to Sister Martin. She smiled and patted me on the head. It was bliss. When I returned home I showed my drawing to every living member of the household, including Archie the cat whom, as a sidebar discussion, was never referred to as just Archie, but always as Archie the cat. "Rawr." he said. "Cool." From that point in my life, from that point forward, I would always be an artist.

I never forgot that kindness, that act of recognition.  I have no doubt that I left ample evidence of my love for drawing on the desk in the classroom, and perhaps she was just trying to find me a better canvas to work with.   But it changed me, that simple act, it forever altered my perception of self. From then on I was a 'something'. 

A few years ago I got to thank Sister Martin. It was at the memorial for my brother Skip, in Cincinnati Ohio. Skip died right before Christmas that year, and the family gathered just after for his service. Cincinnati is an eight hour drive from Jamestown, with way too much time to think. The service was what it was, which was a memorial. At the reception afterwards my mom pointed out an older woman talking to my brother Kevin. "Mark," she said, "That's Sister Martin." She was no longer a nun, and hadn't been for a long time, and lived now in Florida near where my parents live. I told her the story, and finished with "thank you." "You're welcome" was all she said.

So almost forty-five years after that drawing lesson, I find myself imbedded deep within a similar universe, with my role reversed. In high school everyone is a fish out of water, a fish up a tree. My job is to point that out. "Maybe you're not a fish at all," I tell them, "or maybe you are, and the tree isn't where you belong."  And together we look for home, for kin. Sometimes we find it, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we find others just like them. Lots of them. And sometimes I have to point them down a different path and explain that I can't go along.

"Because I'm not a fish," I say." I'm a bird."

A Robin.

mark

3 Comments

1 Comment

Don't Stop Believing...

"Mama, cars don't behave. They are behaved upon...." BOOLIE WERTHEN Driving Miss Daisy

I used to love politics. It was one of my favorite sports, right up there with hockey and pitching pennies. But no more. Watching politics now reminds me why I turned the television off in the first place, and makes me question why I ever turned it back on. Too much too much. American politics, and maybe politics in general, almost requires a suspension of basic physical laws merely to exist, because politics seems to only function properly in a one-dimensional universe. Politics has become about dislike, and mistrust, and why the other guy sucks so much. It's one of the reasons we should never look to politics for change. It's just not about that. Maybe it used to be but those days are gone along with the forty-hour work week and the 16 ounce pound of coffee. Talking about politics is pointless, because politics will only change when its very survival demands it. The sad and basic fact is that politics, and by extension governance, does not act. It only reacts.

I have a new business card. On the old one I referred to myself as photographer, teacher, and "activist", though without the air-quotes. A profession of activism is not entirely untrue, but its not really accurate either. First of all I'm not completely comfortable with the idea of activism. The word connotes acts far too radical and anarchistic for my taste. And neck tats. So I changed the wording slightly and now refer to myself as an advocate. I like the sound of that. It rings entirely true. I am an advocate. And in some way so must we all be.

I believe that we should live a considered life. The mere fact of our sentience makes this obligatory. I believe that only through sharing ourselves with others do we give our life value. I believe in stewardship of our physical planet. I believe that still photography has a peculiar power to enable us to comprehend the beauty, and horror, or our modern existence. And I believe we have an obligation to advocate for the things we believe in. It is within advocacy that the conduit for change begins and the roots of leadership take hold.

It all begins with knowing what you believe. The very nature of belief, a really true, must tell the world belief, compels the believer to look for others to share it with. The group of equal believers finds a singular empowerment through the belief and the comity of their bond. Their beliefs become magnetic, pulling others closer, if only for look. But all magnets polarize, and outside every belief is an equal and opposite belief with is own believers. Which is where the magic happens.

When our beliefs are challenged, when we become forced to defend a core value, and can do so effectively, even without changing the mind of the challenger, we gain a confidence in our beliefs and a confidence in our self to share those beliefs. We become, for lack of a better word, leaders. No one asked us to lead, or looked to us for leadership, or knew leadership resided within us. We simply lead. Lech Walesa was an electrician in the Gdansk, Poland shipyards. He believed that the workers deserved a union. Communist Poland was not a place where unions found easy purchase. But Walesa believed, and enough of his workers believed in him that from a strike against the yard operator (enter activism) that he organized was born the Solidarność movement, ending in the downfall of the communist government. That's the thing about beliefs. No one becomes a leader who doesn't believe, and believing can make anyone a leader.

As often as possible I try to engage my students in debate. Its one of my charter responsibilities as a teacher, to foster critical thinking. Often we talk about how involvement drives decision, and uninvolvement indecision. I believe it is essential that they own a firm understanding that they have an obligation to be involved in, or at least aware of, the world they inhabit. Because from awareness is borne belief, from belief confidence, and only from a position of confidence can someone truly lead.

Practice leadership. Plant a seed. Lead by example. Love your life and share. Share your religion, your passion, your favorite team. Make a difference. Offer a ride, loan a buck, buy a cup of coffee. Stand in front of the tank, march, be noisy. Or work quietly and in the background. Never give up. Don't back down. Or give in. Be the better version of you. Believe.

peace,

mark

1 Comment

Comment

An Un-whole Whole

I ain't happy but, I'm feeling glad I got sunshine, in a bag I'm useless, but not for long The future is coming on...

GORILLAZ  Clint Eastwood

 

I read an interesting blog post recently that focused on the idea of some people having near completeness but missing a critical element either socially or professionally, so as to remain somehow un-whole. And although I agree with the point of the article I think the picture is fundamentally flawed. I've come to believe that if we develop empty areas in our whole, they become filled with other elements of character with similar shapes. Nature abhors a vacuum. We become driven professionals, or passionate lovers of some thing, to the create a sense of wholeness. Outwardly we look and act whole, but we remain essentially un-whole.  Reestablishing a balance, then is not just a matter of filling a void, but requires a more base level reorganization of self, which is much harder work.

Last summer I became familiar with the twelve-step program of recovery used by groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Its used by numerous others as well because it has such a simple philosophy. Healing begins with a simple admission; I am powerless over my transgression, and I cannot fix this alone. It is a beautiful and elegant solution. It's also what makes healing so hard. Most of us are not good at self-reflection. We project our psychological duck face to the mirror, take a quick look, and move on. We don't want to admit to powerlessness. Yet it remains the key to change. But an admission of powerlessness is not a admission of weakness. Rather it is an admission of connectedness, and acknowledgement that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It is an acknowledgement that we have responsibilities to others beside ourself.

But it also means much more...

We live in a world of unprecedented technological connectedness. Email, texts, Twitter, Facebook. We have this amazing conduit for connectivity. But for it to have a full measure of usefulness we have a responsibility to use it to create a lasting dialogue. Otherwise we are just electronic soapbox preachers, shouting to a crowd of disinterested bystanders.

What constitutes connectedness?

Connectedness is awareness. An awareness that we all are, that we all exist. That as we pass among one another we exchange between us small bits of understanding, bits of cosmos itself, bits of ourself. The bits fill the voids within us, within our whole. Thomas Merton once spoke of standing on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky and watching the people walk by. In a moment of personal epiphany he saw in the chaos a delicate dance of connectedness as bodies slipped past one another in a silent recognition of each other. He saw also his own connectedness, which had been the very thing he fought against as a contemplative monk. For years Merton had wanted only solitude, from the world, from fellow monks. He wished only to write, to examine his own singular relationship with God. Now here he was, on a busy downtown street corner, observing this magical dance, and seeing the the people "shining like the sun". In a moment he understood the deeper meaning of connectedness, and that it was within this congress with others that God resides.

Connectedness is courage. Mohandas K Gandhi spoke of the non-violent movement as being founded in the principle of connectedness.  To Gandhi connectedness demanded stewardship, of the poor, the sick, the needy. From this stewardship came the courage to protect, and from this the courage to act. The action, or non-action as it were, was borne from the courage of connectedness.

And so it goes...

So, as for the point I seem to be not making in all of this, is that from connectedness comes wholeness. The little slices that enter our whole, the ones we fill with misguided actions and activities, are really symptoms of a disconnect. Fortunately its easy to heal. Admit that you are not alone, that you need your family, you need your friends. Tell your loved ones that you love them. Then show them.

And be whole.

namaste'

Mark

Comment

2 Comments

Chameleon

"Leonard Zelig's problem is that he has absolutely no identity he can call his own. He is a cipher, as close to the theoretical concept of zero as Bertrand Russell could define. He is so pathologically nil that, over the years, he has developed the unconscious ability to transform himself, physically and mentally, into the image of whatever strong personality he's with."  VINCENT CANBY  New York Times

I remember when I first saw Woody Allen's Zelig. It was 1984, on HBO. I fell in love with it from the first viewing. It's such an odd piece of cinema. Zelig is a mock documentary which focuses on Arthur Zelig, also know as "the human chameleon". Zelig, it was discovered, could seemingly change his physical appearance at will.  As the film explains, Zelig would appear spontaneously around the globe, altered in height, gender, or color, having become a likeness of the people around him. Grainy news footage shows Zelig standing at the Vatican with Pope Pius XII, as a flapper in a Harlem nightclub, as a New York Yankee, a Chicago gangster, a black jazz musician. When he becomes the focus of a medical study, he adopts the appearance of his physicians.

And so it goes...

It is a funny and entertaining film, but it spins a dark and unsettling psychological tale. Zelig was a shape-shifter fully and wholly, but a shape-shifter without purpose. He possessed no true identity of his own.

I thought it was a film about me, a story about my own chameleon days;

  • My Punk period
  • My Cowboy period
  • My Weightlifter period
  • My Blue collar guy period
  • My Flamboyant artist period

Its a strange feeling not knowing who you are. Its strange because you know that who you are is not who you are, but at the same time you can't define who you're supposed to be either. So you become who your friends are or who you think your boss wants you to be. And none of those people you become are never you. It took me until my early thirties to find a self that fit comfortably, and most of my forties to iron all the wrinkles out. And now, well into my fifties, i'm more my self, for good or ill, than I've ever been. I've even allowed some of my edges to fray a bit, you know, just for looks. After more than half a lifetime, when I look in the mirror, I finally see Me.

Freud says that during the first few years of our life we are a universe all unto ourself. Its the period of Id. We understand only need. Then comes the introduction of the world view with the development of the Ego, the conscience. By the time we're nine or ten years old we have begun to choose interests and plan futures. We join communities, and act accordingly within them. We grow further still, developing a Super-ego awareness of our world. We say please and thank you. We operate for the greater good when it is in our best interest to do so.  And for the rest of our life we mostly exist in this paradigm. We define who we are through our interactions with each other, or interactions with the world. But none of this addresses the Self. It doesn't explain how I recognize when I am really, truly Me, or why it sometimes it all goes so badly off the boil. What I mean is- why do some of us get so lost? What happens that makes us see a stranger in the mirror? How can life not make sense, and leave us feeling that we possess no identity of our own? What makes us become chameleons, and what happens that snaps us back to center? Does this happen to everyone? Or was it just Leonard and me?

How it was...

I spent my twenties searching. I thought I was searching for love, for companionship, for a group who loved me for me. But I was really just trying to find out who the hell I was. My high school career preference test indicated I was Gumby-like; moldable into any form, but without form of my own. My SAT scores only confirmed this. No particular aptitude for math, english, or science, but no real deficiencies either. Right in the meaty part of the bell curve. So I went were I was told, and where I thought I might discover an answer to that question I hadn't yet learned to ask; "Who am I?"  I tried junior college and engineering. Ha. It took me two days of study to figure out one my science teacher's jokes. Shortly after I was invited to not come back for a second semester. I moved on to work and punk. Work was easy. Punk on the other hand, was hard.

I was the stupidest looking punk you'd ever seen. I would have been a cool, nerdy kind of punk if I was really punk, but in actuality I was more like Richie Cunningham in Fonzie's jacket. (the pre-shark Fonzie) I looked like a poser, because I was a poser. An alter boy in a black Schott Perfecto. That lasted two years. In truth I was ready to quit earlier, but I stuck it out until the Roots Reggae Cafe closed and reopened as a coffee bar. It was time. Next was cowboy. Cowboy was for love. Like all things done for love, it was a mistake. Weightlifting was great, and twenty years later I still carry the lingering benefits of good muscle tone and physical fitness. But weightlifter guy was show a showoff- all bicepey and mal-proportioned.

And so it went...

Eventually I did 'find' myself when I became a teacher. It is who I am. Its how I define myself. The word makes me feel whole. Teacher...

But the fundamental question remains. Why does it take a decade to discover who you are? Why isn't it all more immediately self-evident? Is it because it takes life experience to know? If that's true, then why are some of us "called" and others not? Or are we all called and some of just don't hear? Teaching is my calling. I can't imagine my life without it. But I fell ass-backwards into teaching. Swear to God, it was an accident.

I wonder too if maybe, like Leonard Zelig, I'm confusing personality and persona? Im wondering now if the problem is that we all do? That we overlook our conscience will and desire, we pummel into submission the voice inside telling us what it knows to be true, and instead listen for a call we like the sound of, a tribe to we wish belong to. Rather we should be embracing our own call and letting the tribe find us.  Because surely their call, and our call are the same.

In the end that was Leonard Zelig's salvation. He found within himself a voice that was his alone. A skin that fit. A Me. I found my Me as well, and when I look back on it now I think it happened when I finally stopped looking.

Could it possibly be that easy?

 'till then...

mark

2 Comments

2 Comments

Everyone I love is Here...

"What does it mean when you promise someone?  That no matter how hard or whatever may come..."

The Finn Brothers WON'T GIVE IN

We live in a time of great anxiety, a time marked by global financial uncertainty and domestic political polarization. Any middle ground of reason is quickly deteriorating and little commonality of voice is to be found in any topic outside of how poorly the NFL substitute referees performed last month. It has become a great paradox that our technological interconnectedness has done little if anything to strengthen our spiritual connectedness to one another. Our relentless forward thrust for more and better has had the effect of insulating us from the present and dulling our ability, in a abstruse way, to feel. Rather, we move continually onward without a clear destination or purpose other than to keep moving. For many it has created a spiritual dead zone in which they find themselves surrounded by scores of people they barely know, profoundly alone, forsaking any true fellowship, and seeking validation through the quality and number of their possessions.

But let's not worry about that today.

Recently I've reading a lot of, and about, Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk in a Kentucky monastery during the 1950's and 60's. He wrote copiously about living a quiet and contemplative life, and the importance of compassion for and understanding of the needs of others in fulfilling our purpose here on earth. Our capacity to live contemplatively was a gift, said Merton, the outward sign of a spiritual awareness that we are alive, and all that all potential that exists in this world exists within us. Merton maintained that we can not fully express our potential as spiritual beings if what we strive for is to exist alone. That it is only within the umbrella of relationships with others that we are fully alive. Our true self is  not what we perceive, but rather that which is reflected back toward us by others. To Merton, the increasing societal ill he saw was the reflection of an increasing alienation of people from each other at a fundamental spiritual level.

The modern definition of the phrase "Contemplative Living" is an outgrowth of the Merton philosophy. Contemplatives seek a mindful awareness of their actions. They seek a slower, more determined approach to living, a life unfettered by needless distractions and activities.  They actively seek to deepen their understanding of self and their relationships with others. Contemplatives accept that we all are different, that we all are fragile and flawed.  Contemplatives endeavor to live with a genuine appreciation for the successes of others, and act with open compassion when others suffer. Contemplative living is compassionate living. When we live contemplatively, our everyday life becomes our spiritual life. Each and every day we consciously attend to our relationships. The outcome is a deepened awareness of our connectedness to one another and to the earth on which we live.  It demands from us a deeper communion with others. Contemplative living is a powerful catalyst for change that leads us to a sense of increased well-being, gratitude, and a keener respect for life.

For many of us its hard enough just getting along in this world without having to be responsible for everyone else at the same time. Its a busy place out there. There just isn't time to slow down. But therein lies the beautiful subtlety of contemplative life. For it asks not that we slow down, it asks only that we act deliberately, thoughtfully. It asks that we forego the meaningless activities in our lives and focus on the meaningful. For many of us this is a simple matter of prioritizing our days. For others it requires a bit more introspection than we want. For some the contemplating part- the thinking of thoughts, is a scary proposition. Contemplation requires an openness, a simple honesty that sometimes brings to the fore situations and memories that we find too tough to deal with. It also requires a simple acknowledgement that we are not alone in this world- that we have debts owed and debts owed to us. In our society we like to think of ourselves in the singular but more often than not a plural is more appropriate. In truth I find great comfort in knowing that everyone I love is here. It has led me to realize that I need to drop my pretense and be more honest in my dealings with friends. It has also led me to understand that I need to further foster a couple relationships with some old friends that I've let lapse. But mostly it has allowed me to realize how many beautiful people I have in my life and how truly grateful I am that they consider me a friend. And it has freed me to focus on the things that are truly important in my life and drop the meaningless activities that were nothing more than time wasters. Each day becomes a joyous occasion, a chance to celebrate.

I've said previously  that I do not believe in God, which is true. But I believe very strongly in the existence of spirit and the connectedness of all living things. It is my belief in this connectedness that has brought me to this place.  And if that is true, then our relationship with other human beings is the single most important aspect of living there is. I'm convinced that this communion of spirit is what makes us human, what gives purpose to our sentience. For without it we are truly alone in this world. And to be alone on such a big planet, for so long a time seems, well- humanly impossible...

namaste,

mark

2 Comments

2 Comments

The Junk Drawer

There were several interesting responses to Monday's post regarding fear, enough so that I'm going to continue with that theme for today's entry.  Its a little more more light-hearted and a bit tongue in cheek, but it's from the heart. Okay. A couple days ago a friend and former student (thank you, Sarah) wrote a facebook post expressing her joy at having cleaned out her junk drawer, and it struck me as a powerful metaphor. I too have a junk drawer, both in a literal and figurative definition of the phrase, and usually I wait far too long to clean either of them out. So this past weekend I took a good look at the physical junk drawer, the one in the kitchen, cleaned it real good, and in the process mused over my organizational methodology.

It goes like this...

My junk drawer contains three distinct classifications of items, based loosely on the Stephen Covey important/urgent matrix; "Important / must be dealt with", "Important / too scary to deal with right now", and "Junk i'm not prepared to let go of yet".

Almost everything that goes into the junk drawer enters under a larger umbrella classification; "Please Make It Go Away", and is disseminated from there to its final sub-catagory. One of the more frustrating things for me is my inability to accurately determine at the outset on which pile the object in question will ultimately reside.  The "must be dealt with" pile is usually bills to be paid or statements and business documents in need of filing, and the "junk" is usually bulk mail I've inexplicably kept, broken things, and things I might have a use for someday if I lived a different life from the one I have now. But it's the "too scary to deal with right now" is special, because its contents are always so surprising.

I pay most of my bills online; all my utilities except for electricity, home and auto insurance, credit cards; I either receive electronic reminders and statements, or have scheduled payment arrangements in place. Very little paper in the form of requests for payment ever cross the threshold anymore. Most of my financial transactions are made in the virtual realm, so nothing truly ever comes in or goes out- instead a mutually agreed upon token is sent which acknowledges that a transaction has taken place and all accounts are in agreement. Its clean with no messy details. It just goes away, and and my laptop glows with a happy blue-white light and says "Thank you for your payment." Neither fear nor trepidation ever taint the process.

But the bills that arrive in envelopes are cold, stark reminders of a debt owed- and that scares me. It means writing a check (which means first finding the checkbook) and although it is still allegorical, it represents a harder form of currency that I must physically part with. It means sitting in the harsh light of the kitchen, and having to write out the word "hundred". And it means having that much less hard currency until next payday, which seems perpetually fourteen more days away. "Too scary," it growls. And so it goes away for another day.

But the "scary" pile isn't just about money. That's what makes it so fascinating. Because within it lurks other things like reminders of social contracts not of my own making, or of my own making which I now regret. It contains requests that trigger my chicken-shit gland, which is already hyperactive to begin with. It contains things that challenge my belief system, which is based on the principle that I'm an inferior human being.  Some of the things that go into the "scary" pile are nice things, like letters from former students, requests for speaking engagements, museum 'calls for work'. Sometimes it just seems like too much bear. So in the drawer it goes until i can screw up enough courage to pull the drawer out- all the way out, set it on the kitchen counter, and address my fears with a big glass of wine.

Sadly, the biggest, and most unruly pile is not the "scary" pile but rather the "junk" pile. The "junk" pile is a sad and constant reminder of lost interests, of various successes and failures. Among it we find bills which have been replaced by more recent reminders, calls for work with expired deadlines, broken things for which I have to finally admit I have no real interest in fixing, and things I can't remember why they ever found the drawer in the first place. But it also contains odd reminders of things I've long since accomplished and moved on from, receipts, stubs, souvenirs of happy events long passed.

In addressing the junk drawer the procedure is always the same. I always start with the "must deal with" pile and all its attendant obligation, and usually nothing there ever seems as intimidating as it appeared to be when it first went in. Because, honestly, when you absolutely have to face it, you do. Next is the  "junk" pile, mostly because it requires purging before it can accept more, and also because it's my reward for slogging through the "must deal" pile and addressing the drawer in the first place. Lastly comes the "too scary" pile, to be recycled for another time and glass of wine. But it's always smaller than I thought it would be, and it never recycles more than once. It has to do, i suppose, with the pain/pleasure principle- when the pain of not doing finally supersedes the pain of doing it, the 'it' gets done. Or maybe it's because it is just so horribly embarrassing to have to look at it more than once. With that the cycle is complete, the purged items are tossed, and the drawer returns to its happy home.

From the outside it appears an endlessly amusing exercise, and I only wish it held some kind of grand parable or lesson to be learned- like "face your fears" or "take care of things now"- but honestly I only come away with a clearer understanding of my quirks. Plus, it kind of works. Mostly. For better or worse it has been my way for well over twenty-five years. It has gone from action to habit to trusted old friend and at this point I see no urgent need to abandon it for something different.

I only wish I could remember how to order more checks...

namaste-

mark

 

2 Comments

4 Comments

Martin Luther and The 95 Theses

In 1517, Martin Luther, frustrated with Pope Leo X's selling of indulgences for absolution from sin, nailed to the door of the Castle Church his "Disputation on the Power and the Efficacy of Indulgences", which became the basis of the Protestant Reformation. Luther believed that his opinions were right and just. He posted them in public where he was sure they would be read. He wasn't looking for validation of his opinions. For Luther it was a conviction of faith.

I am not in any way comparing myself to Luther, but I understand the significance of his gesture. It is not enough to have strong opinion or incontrovertible conviction. You must also be committed to take action based upon those beliefs, and be equally willing to endure the the repercussions of public expression. And since we've been addressing conviction, here, with all due apologies to Luther conveyed, are a few of my own.

  • God is what you believe God is. I don't believe in God. Or heaven and hell. Or reincarnation. I don't know why we were all put on this earth in this form. Or if we were put here.  I but I do know that what we do while we're here, and how we affect our world around us, is what makes a life.  Accumulation of physical things is a conceit. It accomplishes nothing. That's not to say I don't like nice things or have a favorite pair of shoes, but a ten dollar timex tells time as well as a five thousand dollar Rolex. All physical things return to the dust from whence they sprang. And all energy returns to the cosmos from whence it sprang.  So while I will never see another sunrise once my days on earth have ended and my body turns to dust, I am not afraid. I see God as every bit of energy in the cosmos, from the tumult that births the stars to the imperceptible hum of atoms. It means I am part of something big and glorious. It means my soul or essence can be a sunrise, or be a cool breeze on a warm summer's eve. Or a gentle snowfall. Or something so massively wonderful that my puny human brain could never imagine or comprehend its exisrtance. Over and over, infinitum. And some day some form of 'me' could inhabit some other physical form for all it's days on its planet. That's ok by me.
  • Spirituality can exist outside the realm of religion.  Thirty-five years ago I left the Catholic church. There was no one compelling reason, it just wasn't for me. But that doesn't mean that I don't pray, or don't feel a connection to life greater than my own energy.  I've been a practicing Buddhist for nearly twenty years, and embrace the four noble truths and eightfold path as right and proper. But I also don't think of myself as particularly religious because Buddhism doesn't center on God, but rather personal responsibility. I also practice yoga, which is distinctly Hindu, but practiced my scores of Buddhists, particularly American Buddhists. And that seems to be simply because yoga reinforces the quality of mindfulness. The long poses and metered breathing keep the mind focused on the present moment and quiet the inner conversations. Yoga teaches discipline and ritual, it enhances mental clarity. And it produces a level of self-acceptance among yogis that takes it outside the realm of exercise.  It creates a sense of spiritual awareness in the same manner as does mindful meditation or prayer. It was yoga that led me to explore Buddhism in the first place. To deepen my spiritual growth. And I think both together have made me a better person, both physically and emotionally.
  • You are what you eat. I've always had a fractious relationship with food. Food used to make me angry. Seriously. Angry. I remember once being at a picnic and having the choice of hot dogs, hamburgers, and Italian sausage. And I was angry because I was going to be forced to make a choice, because eating all three was out of the question. Now, I love Italian sausage, but I really love burgers. And I never overlook an opportunity for a charbroiled dog. I can still remember standing there in front of all this food thinking "its not fair to make me choose." Soon after I went into food rehab. At first I stopped eating wheat products, and it helped some. Then I gave up everything that came in a box, or had an ingredient list. Better still. Now I try to eat only meat, fish, leafy vegetables, some fruit, and occasionally some sweet potato. And gone are the internal food fights, the bloated belly, the monstrous cravings. Gone is the anger over having not eaten something that was there to be eaten. I love food now. And I love shopping for food. There is so much good food in the world, and I love finding something I've never had before. I'm now the type of shopper most grocers hate- produce, meat/fish, eggs, checkout. I'm not an aisle shopper or a coupon clipper. There are no coupons for broccoli. But I buy quality foods, organic when possible, local in season. It really wasn't a difficult switch, and it has made me feel healed.

Maybe its not much, or earth shattering in its disclosure, but Its an honest expression of some things I believe, and I wanted it to be public. I'm not trying to start an argument, or begin a paleo/secular reformation movement. Maybe its enough if it merely starts a conversation. If you feel so inclined, I would love to know what some of your core beliefs are- leave something in the comments box or email me.

 

Thanks / namaste

Mark

4 Comments