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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

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Creep

Its there, toward the end of the low road that traces the southeastern end of the lake, in the perpetually dank, swampy area near the outlet. Its tiny, hiding in the cottonwoods, more shed than anything else. It's been there forever. Everyone knows about it. Its a piece of local lore. The sign out front reads...

AL'S BAIT AND ADULT VIDEOS

Left unvarnished its a beautiful chicken and egg conundrum. Was it, "Hmmm, besides bait, what else do fishermen really like? I know, adult videos!" Or was it more like, "When I'm not watching adult videos, what else do I really like to do? I know- fish!" Either way, its a fantastically freakish conglomeration of commerce. And a perfect illustration of a truly vexing quandary. Why must simple things become more complicated over time? Its a principle known as creep, wherein one simple thing slowly morphs into a more complex thing, and complex in a way no one ever projected or proposed. And once that "cavity fighting, enamel restoring, improved whitening, for sensitive teeth, freshmint flavored" tooth paste is out of the "60% post consumer recycled material" tube, well, you get what I driving at.

In the military its called mission creep. In electronics, its referred to as feature creep. In the educational field we have responsibility creep. And in our lives is called- I don't know what its called exactly. But we're all subject to its laws. In my Buddhist studies one of the first principles I learned, I mean really learned, was mindfulness. Mindfulness is about simplicity. About putting step one first, and step two second. Mindfulness is about thinking only of the mechanical act of completing step one whilst completing step one. And nothing else. Its about separating ourselves from the daily chaos we seem to so actively embrace. Mindfulness is about being in the moment. And we all know how that can suck.

And its really hard to do everyday.

When I'm riding my bike, I try really hard to be in the moment throughout the ride. Its impossible of course, because at some point the wandering monkey brain inevitably takes over. But its easy to beat it back because cycling is about that one thing and nothing else for two or three hours. It requires mental discipline. And maybe thats the problem with life-creep, or activity-creep, or whatever it is that makes a day so complicated. There are so many demands that fight for preeminence we try to attend to them all at once. We call it "multitasking". And we all, to certain degrees, suck at it.

I'm training myself to slow down, to be a unitasker. I used to listen to music while I wrote. Then I realized once that I was writing song lyrics instead of my thoughts. So now I turn everything off, and work in the quiet. Quiet is nice. But it is scary too. The lack of physical distraction leaves only the internal conversation to knock us off task. And knock it will. But if I write, and do nothing else until I'm done writing, my writing is so much better. When I'm at school, planning for classes, I dislike answering the phone. It puts me off my game. It gives me a string of excuses to not continue. But If I can just sit and plan my day, the planning takes half as long and is twice as good.

P and I eat dinner, in the kitchen, at the table. When we eat we converse, but often about dinner. About the food, about it's taste. The squash is sweet. The brussels sprouts are tender. The salmon skin is really crunchy. It enhances the experience. It makes it meaningful. And memorable.

The punchline? I don't know- "Be in the moment" "Pay attention" No- that's not it...

I think its simply "When its time for fishing; fish..."

Mark

Addendum: I'm in the process of moving the blog to a new server. The new address is http://sett.com/thebodhicyclist For the next month or so I'll keep the blog active here but you will want to reestablish any feeds through the sett server. 

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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...)

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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?

***

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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)

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Shelf Space

20121128-220814.jpgThis is my twenty-fourth post since launching The Bodhicyclist. It might not seem like a lot. It probably isn't. But already I find myself at a crossroads. Honestly, I thought I knew what I wanted to do with this when I started. I planned thoroughly. I followed the advice of the experts. I wrote fifteen posts before I even launched. And then I found out on that what I thought I was, wasn't.

And the blog has been better for it.

I found out that if I focused on my place in my small corner of the of the small blue dot we call home I could, if nothing else, teach myself something about me I didn't know. And reveal a thousand other questions I didn't know I had.

Like;

What the hell was I thinking when I started this? If I don't believe in God, why do I always write about God? Why do I end up a disappointment to so many people? How does Paula put up with me day after day?

Anyway- I'm running out of shelf space for all my questions. And I need to consider them better. So I may go to one-a-week for a couple weeks. The last thing I want is to make writing a chore. It turns out that after thirty-five years of being a visual guy, I like being a word guy. And for the six regular readers of the blog I don't want reading to be a chore.

And honestly, I miss my dad and I haven't had much time to think about it.

I have a really good horse in the barn for Monday. I promise. I've been mulling it for a bit over a week and its just now making sense. I promise it will be worth the wait.

I'll even put a bow on it...

Thanks,

Mark

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[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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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the thirteen virtues...

“Time lost is never found again.” – BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

I haven't really been a good boy lately. It's not like I've been purposely naughty or a meanie-gut to old ladies or anything, but I have been almost purposely inattentive to some important aspects of my life, and the net result is just as dissapointing. I'm behind on work, way behind on relationships, and hopelessly, hopelessly distracted. Maybe it's the change in the weather, but my monkey-mind is out of it's cage and is and is making a shambles of everything. I'm suffering from a profound loss of focus. I have a list of a dozen things that need my attention, some big, most small, but regardless, the list has sat unaltered for three days now. I'm fine when I leave the house, I have a clear grasp on my daily goals, but within thirty minutes of arriving at school I can't remember a thing I wanted to accomplish. I've tried lists, voice notes, but when you no longer remember what the underlying point is of the task you wish to accomplish, then its just a chore. It's like I have to remind myself to be mindful, to stay on task and proceed one step at a time.

It's proving to be one of my biggest weaknesses, especially because its so crucial to everything else. I think the problem lies in the fact that I have all these things I want to do, but I never want to do them at the time they need doing. So I do something else. Or I do nothing. I'm good at that. It may be my biggest weakness, but I end up setting the bar too low. It's not like I ever wanted to be super efficiency guy, but I'm beginning to hurt myself, personally and professionally, with my inability to simply follow through from start to finish.

--- --- ---

Benjamin Franklin, the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States, wrote copiously about living a thoughtful and considered life. Although his most famous collection of pithy quotes is found in his Poor Richard's Almanac, there is much great reading to be found in his autobiography. There is a fabulous online copy, called the Electric Ben Franklin. Early on Franklin mentions almost in passing of his decision to adopt a mindful approach to living. At page thirty-eight we read, "It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other."

It's certainly not an original thought- to be a better person, to have a more attentive and deliberate nature, but it is unusual to actually have devised a workable action plan for implementation. Known today as the thirteen virtues, his personal moral code is a laundry list of actions any true contemplative might employ. For the sake of brevity I've listed them without their attendant precepts, but they posess a simple clarity. No virtue recommends pure abstinence, and all demand an attentiveness to action, and a mindfulness of purpose, outcome, and effect.

The virtues

Temperance

Silence

Order

Resolution

Frugality

Industry

Sincerity

Justice

Moderation

Cleanliness

Tranquillity

Chastity

Humility

I've found on the interwebs several different iterations of the virtues, but strangely, none of the writers who promote them do so correctly. I've run across several planner-style virture checklists- each day of each week we can check off our virtues as we live them- cleanliness, check; moderation, check; chastity sincerity, check... taken as a whole its a formidable, if not unworkable, set of hurdles to to tackle every day. The real shame though is that the checklist dumbs it down to a- well, a checklist. It completely forgoes the point of Franklin's pursuit- to improve one's self. He himself said it wasn't possible to juggle the entire baker's dozen at once, although I think he said it more eloquently than that.

To quoth, "My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time, and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro' the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view..." It's so simple its stupid. And brilliant.

Be really good at one thing and grow from there.

--- --- ---

And therein lies the key to mine own studies in contemplative living and controlling the monkey-mind. Construct a ladder. Make the bottom rung the key to reaching all the other rungs. Do one thing. Get it right. Build on it. Yowsa. I've reread my list of contemplative precepts and picked one to be my commitment. To wit:

Be not distracted by meaningless activity; Be attentive to the tide of living.

That should keep me busy for a while.

peace,

mark

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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

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