Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 26: Two Monks Roll Up the Blinds

photo from the Paint-Draw-Create blog
When the monks assembled before the midday meal to listen to his lecture, the great Hogen of Seiryo pointed at the bamboo blinds. Two monks simultaneously went and rolled them up. Hogen said: "One gain, one loss."

I've spent a lot of time with this koan because, each time I thought about it, I drew a blank. A few ideas came to me, but nothing definitive. Since I didn't seem to be making any progress, this post was going to be some random babble about what I'd gotten out of it so far before I moved on to the next koan. Instead, as I wrote the post, I found myself arriving at a solution. Here it goes...

The solution is related to that of Koan 6 ('The Buddha Holds Out A Flower') and Koan 3 ('Gutei Raises A Finger'). In both koans, a deep understanding is transmitted wordlessly. In Koan 6, Shakyamuni Buddha holds out a flower to the people who have come to listen to him speak, but he doesn't say anything. Mahakashyapa responds by smiling, because he has wordlessly understood the lesson. In Koan 3, after a grisly lesson, an attendant becomes enlightened when Gutei raises his finger. For this koan, when Hogen pointed at the blinds, his intent was misinterpreted by the monks. They took it as a mundane request to roll up the blinds when it was actually his lecture.

The meaning of Hogen's comment is the monks lost the opportunity to receive instruction. The 'gain' is a rather ironic one in that, while illumination was let into the room, the greater illumination was missed by a too literal response to the master's gesture.

As I figured out the koan while writing about it here, I realized my problem I had been having trouble with it because I was trying to hard. I was looking for an 'in' to the koan. I was chewing it with my thoughts, rather than letting it melt in my mind.

Koan solutions are very much like enlightenment in general. If you try to hard, you fail. Or in the case of the two monks here: if you're too literal, you miss the wisdom.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

"What Have I Done With My Life?"

Every so often, I get angry or sad and ask myself if I've taken the right course in life. Also, especially as I get older, I'm more conscious that this crazy train of life eventually runs out or track and that choices I've made (some good, others not so good) mean there are things in life I will not accomplish. For example, as a child I wanted to be an astronomer. That's not very likely to happen now. (Not that I wish I'd become one, mind you, but this state of mind I'm describing is definitely 'cup half empty' territory).

Over the past several years, other people have confided similar feelings to me. This was nice to hear, because each time I'd had such thoughts I'd just accuse myself of being a sniveling little crybaby. "Don't sit and whine!" I'd mentally yell. "Put your energy into doing something about it! And if you aren't going to do anything about it, then shut the f*** up!" Once I realized it was pretty common for people to feel this way, I was a lot easier on myself.

But since this is something many people feel, I thought I'd share a trick I invented many years ago for trouncing those feelings. It's (kind of) a Zen thing, because it gets me in touch with reality and pulls me away from a groundless emotional response to whatever bit of real or imagined suffering I'm laboring under. Here's what you do...

  1. Pick seven or more major aspects of your life: relationship, career, education, a long term hobby you have, religious pursuits, travel, coming out process, family status, where you live, etc. Anything that's been a force in your life over the course of many years and/or that impacts how happy/successful you are. Create a column on a piece of paper for each of these items. I then also add a column call 'Life Experiences' (more on that later).
  2. The first row under the 'Major Aspects' row is titled 'Today': Going across the columns, describe where you are today in each major aspect of your life. Write the actuality, not what you plan or wish for or hope to do. Only write what is. Don't write a book; just briefly lay it out in a few words or a sentence. For example, under 'relationship' I might write: "18 years with my partner this August, and we have the right to marry in June". Under 'Life Experiences', write something recent you have done for the first time, an award you just received, a great night with friends last week, a fantastic trip you took...anything special that didn't come to mind for the other columns and that has happened very, very recently.
  3. The second row is titled '1 Year Ago': Do the same thing, but this time think about where you were one year ago today. Timing doesn't have to be exact (this isn't going to be audited by the IRS).
  4. The third row is '5 Years Ago': Same deal. At this stage you may be thinking of other 'Major Aspects' that you forgot to create as columns. Add them! You may also start to reference the earlier rows as guides, creating a 'path' as it were in each column. This is totally fine to do (as long as you keep it real). You may also want to retitle the columns. Again, this is fine.
  5. The fourth row is '10 Years Ago'
  6. The fifth row is '15 Years Ago'
  7. The last row is '20 Years Ago' (although you can go back further if you like, this is probably as far as you need to go for the exercise to work).
Look at this table you've created! Drink it in! Realize how much you have changed, how much you have accomplished, and the great moments you have experienced over the course of your life. Twenty years ago, did you imagine that all this would have happened? After doing this exercise, I was never able to think negatively about the life I'd led again. Sure, I've made mistakes, bad stuff has happened, and I have regrets, but to question whether I've lived my life fully...not a chance!

Now for the final step (and I do this mentally), focus on the amount of change across the rows.  Think about one year into the future, 5 years out, 10, 15, and 20. If you have as much change and experiences ahead of you as you had in the past then, even if you only live another few years before a runaway bus takes you out, there's a lot of amazing things you can't even imagine right now in store for you. 

When I did this part of the exercise, I also reminded myself that - barring any variants on the runaway bus scenario - I probably have another 30 or 40 years to live. My reaction was that, at the end of all this, I'll be so exhausted that I'll be ready to drop dead! It's hard to feel mortality too keenly when you recognize that you have lived your life well and that, even if your remaining time is brief, a lot of great stuff can happen. 

I've done this entire exercise every few years when I'm in that depressed mood. The results always amaze me, uplift me, and recharge me. Hope it helps someone else too.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Rougon-Macquart: Getting a Good Translation

Updates as of 3/1/14 in red

The immediate challenge in reading any work of literature written in a foreign language is getting a good translation. The quality of the translation can completely determine whether we get the full artistry in a novel. It can even determine whether we like or dislike the work. This is because the translator is charged with bringing not only the text into English, but also the connotations, subtleties, and meanings, as well. It's also important for a translator to preserve some feel of the author's style. If a translator fails to capture the skill a writer has in describing characters or misses the poetry in the text or is unaware of symbolism or double meanings, then the best part of the literature can be lost. This renders a great book, at best, mediocre.

Zola's Rougon-Macquart Cycle is especially challenged in this regard. Back in the late 1880's, some of Zola's realism was a bit too much for his contemporary readers. He was actively criticized for indecency in some of his novels (notably L'Assommior and Nana). To remedy this, the initial English translator of the Cycle, Henry Vizetelly, 'cleaned up' most of Zola's works and even adjusted the style quite a bit. This leaves us with an inaccurate translation and, in some cases, a pointless exercise.

Henry's son Ernest later reworked some of these initial translations, apparently bringing some of them closer to Zola's originals. Despite how heroic this undertaking was, I can't help but think that a repaired version of a broken translation can't be more effective than simply starting from scratch. As a result my opinion is that, unless you have no other options, the Vizetelly translations should be avoided.

So where does this leave us? Luckily in not as bad a place as I had once thought. In response to my post on Abbe Mouret's Transgression, I received some helpful (though anonymous) comments from someone who appears to have a deeper understanding of the state of Zola translations than I. The commenter was able to confirm that Oxford University Press appears to be slowly bringing out new translations of the novels in Zola's Cycle. This is very welcome news given the topicality of many themes in the Cycle (notably the financial crisis depicted in Money, the Oxford University Press' latest release). Not to mention that hopefully we shall soon have the whole of the Cycle in good English translations. (And then can we hope for a hardcover release of the whole set? I'd buy!)

Brian Nelson,
Godsend to All Who Read Zola in English
Given the commenter's information and what I know myself, I thought it would be a good idea to summarize where things stand as of now. Of course, there's no way I spent enough time to claim I have a completely accurate picture. Hopefully, it will be a help to anyone navigating the Cycle who wants the real deal. Again, I do not speak French so I'm no expert on what makes a good Zola translation (although I do feel that I've gained a feel for his cadence as a writer by this point). I also know nothing about the commenter I reference. So take this list with a grain of salt!

As a final note - and a bit of a thank you - we must recognize Brian Nelson, without whom we not be able to fully enjoy many of the books in Zola's Cycle at all. I've ready many of his translations, and they sparkle or pulse like an ulcer, depending on what is being depicted. Thank you!

So, without further ado, here's how to avoid Vizetelly translations. ('OUP' refers to the existence of an Oxford University Press edition, the publishing house which offers the most new translations).

  1. The Fortune of the Rougons - OUP, translated by Brian Nelson.
  2. His Excellency, Eugene Rougon - Only Vizetelly translations are available at this time, however the commenter referenced above indicates that the publisher Elek Books provided new translations during the 1950's. I have not read anything from this publisher, so I have no first hand knowledge of the quality. While stopping short of fully endorsing these translations, the commenter felt they were good enough to recommend over Vizetelly. However, the Elek Book editions are out of print so you may have to search to find them.
  3. The Kill - There's actually two recent translations available. I read and fully enjoyed the Modern Library translation by Arthur Goldhammer. OUP also has a Brian Nelson translation available (and I'm just enough of a literary geek and Nelson fanboy that I might buy it). 
  4. Money - OUP just released its edition. Translator, Valerie Minogue.
  5. The Dream - I read the recent translation by Michael Glencross (Peter Owen Publishing). The feel of the text is different than other translations, but I'm betting this is the result of a different stylistic approach employed by Zola rather than any deficiency with the translation work. So I recommend it (for whatever that's worth!).
  6. The Conquest of Plassans - An Elek Books version titled: A Priest in the House can be found. Otherwise, we're stuck with Vizetelly. The commenter mentioned that an OUP edition was 'coming soon', but he also felt the Vizetelly translation was of much higher quality than one would expect. This rang true for me. While reading Vizetelly's translation, I noticed myself thinking "oh, I know something got cut there!" far less often than usual.
  7. Pot-Bouille - OUP, in a 'realer than real' translation by Brian Nelson. Phenomenal.
  8. The Ladies' Paradise - OUP, translator Brian Nelson.
  9. Abbe Mouret's Transgression - The Vizetelly version of this book is just awful. However, I've had it from several sources that it is an extremely hard book to translate. Further I suspect, as with The Dream, that Zola's style is purposefully different from the other novels. The commenter noted there are some good mid-Century (out of print) editions available.
  10. A Love Episode - Mondial Books publishes editions that are largely Vizetelly translations. This is one exception. While I don't know when the translation by C. C. Starkweather in the Mondial edition was undertaken, I didn't sense much was missing here, and the commenter seems to agree with me.
  11. The Belly of Paris - OUP, translator Brian Nelson. Watch out for old editions of this book entitled The Fat and the Thin. It's this book in a Vizetelly translation.
  12. La Joie De Vivre - Elek Books' edition is titled Zest for Life. Nothing more modern exists. The Vizetelly version likely has some major edits.
  13. L'Assommoir - OUP, translator Margaret Mauldon. I've read this, and she does a great job. I believe this was the book that gave Zola his initial fame, and Mauldon preserves the page-turning (and gut-churning) descent Zola created. Looks like Penguin also has an edition translated by Robin Buss.
  14. The Masterpiece - OUP, translator Thomas Walton (revised by Roger Pearson). I've read this, and it's excellent.
  15. The Human Beast - OUP, translator Roger Pearson.
  16. Germinal - OUP, translator Peter Collier. Roger Pearson also has an edition through Penguin.
  17. Nana - OUP, translator Douglas Parmee. I believe I read the Penguin translation by George Holden, but it was a long time ago so I'm not sure. Whichever I read was very good.
  18. The Earth - Penguin has a translation by Douglas Parmee. Wikipedia's article on Brian Nelson suggests he's working a translation due in 2015.
  19. The Debacle - OUP, translator Elinor Dorday. Penguin also has an edition, translated by Leonard Tancock.
  20. Doctor PascalMondial Books publishes editions that are largely Vizetelly translations. This is one exception. I don't know when the translation by Mary J. Serrano in the Mondial edition was undertaken; I'm just happy that there is an alternative. Since this is the novel where Zola lays out his themes overtly, I really Really REALLY didn't want to read a Vizetelly version. The commenter indicated there is an Elek Book edition, so perhaps Mondial took the Serrano translation from that edition.
While putting this list together, I came across editions from other publishers. However, while some of them claim to be modern translations that reinsert previously excised passages, no translator is listed. This make me cautious about the actual quality and scholarship. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Charity Shopping Spree 2014

First of all, on an unrelated mini-rant kind of note, I cannot believe how impossible is was for me to find a 'shopping spree' image that wasn't a woman or a woman with a man-drudge holding her bags. What gives?! Gay men have lots of disposable income (and we don't spend a disproportionate amount of it on shoes). Besides that, I feel so bad for those straight guys roped into being mules for female shop-a-holics. If I were straight, one weekend like that would drive me to the merry old land of Oz!


In the US during recent years, there has been a lot of activity by the government and conservative religious groups to undermine personal freedom. Also, around the world, there are places where basic human rights mean nothing. And let's not forget that, again in the US, there has been a resurgence of the superstitious assault on science and the arts. Some of the conservative groups that drive the hatred behind these efforts (murdering doctors, opposing gay rights, persecuting people who stand up for justice) are supported financially through the habit many religious adherents have of tithing a percentage of their income to a 'churches' or 'religious charities' that are little more than fronts for a political pressure groups.

This year, having been extra-inspired by the fantastic accomplishments achieved by charities I've supported, as well as the continued threat to principles and projects I hold dear, I decided to follow the example of the religious zealots. I figured out what percentage of my annual income I could likely part with and (after the financial dust of Christmas settled), did a flurry of donating. It was a charity shopping spree! And I thought I would try to make this an annual event which is part of my Christmas giving.

Aside from the obvious positive outcome of setting aside some time to make sure those donations go out, there are real practical benefits to an annual charity shopping spree. It will allow me to ignore most of the useless junk mail I get from charities I've already donated to. I don't need to be concerned about 'renewals'. Also, it's a good way to organize myself for tax purposes (my husband is an auditor, so I am held to strict account there!). So, besides the guilt-fee fun a charity shopping spree provides, there's plenty of positive reinforcement for this behavior on the rational side of my brain.

During what I hope will be my first annual charity shopping spree, I quickly got in over my head. There are so many fantastic organizations working impactfully for important causes that it took a lot of time to figure out who to support. Within an hour, what I had initially thought was a lot of money to donate felt meagre and paltry. However, every bit of support counts! On the positive side, you can't match the shopper's high I got while clicking those donate buttons! It was a great feeling to know that I had put my money where my mouth was and supported things that are important to me.

For this post, I'm listing out the charities I pitched into for Charity Shopping Spree 2014. If you are thinking about donating time or money - or wish to engage in a shopping spree of your own - I've included links to home pages and 'what we do' information for each group. They are all amazing and deserve our support!

The American Civil Liberties Union has the most thankless task imaginable: they fight to safeguard the basic rights we're guaranteed in the US Constitution. You'd think everyone would be totally in love with an organization like this (and, yes, many people are), but unfortunately for some Americans defending constitutional rights extends only to people they agree with. This is anti-American thinking and unpatriotic. If you don't support Constitutional rights for everyone, then you don't support what this country stands for (no matter how many flags you wave, wars you served in, or loud noises you make about your patriotism). Find out what the ACLU is doing by clicking here. You may not agree with everything they go to bat for, but the principle behind why they step up to the plate is above reproach.

Amnesty International is another organization that gets flack because they stand up for a principle, rather than adhering mindlessly to a political ideology. A global organization, Amnesty International fights to uphold human rights around the planet. In many countries (including our own) people are jailed without trial, tortured, brutalized, killed, or 'disappeared' for who they are or what they believe. Further, in all countries, politics can trump justice. Believing that light is the greatest disinfectant, Amnesty International is there to  publicize these situations. They also organize public scrutiny and pressure so that those who violate human rights do so with the world is watching them. That's an effective deterrence to evil.  Best of all, the letter writing campaigns the organization orchestrates are a great way to get personally involved in helping further the cause of human rights. Read about some of Amnesty International's recent victories by clicking here.

Charity begins locally (if not at home), and I love the Arts. So it's important for me to support local organizations that are dedicated to the Arts, especially in an era when the Arts are under political attack. The Art Institute of Chicago is a fantastic museum that brings art from all corners of the world and all periods of time under one roof. It's impossible to see it all in a single visit and, although I've been going here since I was a kid, there are still parts of the Museum I haven't visited. I can count on the Museum to twist my sensibilities a bit when I check out new exhibitions or even just parts of the permanent collection that don't usually draw me (see Zen Throw Down post for an example).

I love animals! You might say: "Well, who doesn't?" Unfortunately, lots of people don't. The ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has been around since 1866 fighting the good fight on behalf of animals that are mistreated or exploited. While I'm not clear on the exact relationship between the national organization and local SPCA's, they are all out to accomplish the same goal: protecting animals. If you know of an animal that is being abused, here's information about what you can do to stop it.

This is the first year that I've given to Doctors Without Borders. This organization was formed in 1971 to provide independent and impartial services to people in 60 countries where human survival is threatened by armed conflicts, epidemics, hunger, and natural disasters. I thought of this organization because, while it's important to pitch in during disasters that hit the headlines, there is always a disaster happening somewhere in the world. What better way to always help than to support an organization like this. If you want to read stories about some of the work being done by Doctors Without Borders, click here.

Greenpeace, if I'm honest, is a charity with which I often have a lot of problems. I've donated to them for years, even though I most definitely do not agree with everything they do. Further, I sometimes find their methods annoying. However, as I stated earlier, I support charities based on the underlying principle they stand for and not because they do only things I personally sanction. Greenpeace is 'the largest independent direct-action environmental organization in the world' and, in the area of environmental protection, it seems that strong measures are often required. After all, when natural resources or species are gone, they are gone forever. Pretty big stakes.

The Human Rights Campaign is obviously a charity that is very near and dear to me. I've supported them through donations or volunteering for much of my adult life. I remember being impressed by them when a spokesperson came to speak at a gay professional organization to which I belonged back in the mid-90s. When he made the 'mistake' of suggesting the gay community solicit support for Illinois initiatives from Republicans, he received a sneering response from many members of the audience. Of course this was during the tail end of the AIDS epidemic and many of these gay men had seen the worst of it happen while the Republican party did nothing and propagated the notion of the 'Gay cancer'. So I get their reaction. However, the spokesperson chastised them a bit. He mentioned how some Republican Illinois legislators he had contacted were perfectly happy to vote 'yes' on pro-gay issues. When he'd asked why they didn't do it, they replied: "No one ever talked to me about it." Moral of that story? Prejudice cuts in both directions. Lesson learned. Anyway, while the HRC is currently getting a lot of press around the gay marriage issue, they do a lot of other great work for the community. Check it out.

I've been a supporter of space exploration and space science for a really long time. It fires my imagination, furthers science here on Earth, and is an important expression of the human spirit. The Planetary Society is an activist organization founded by Carl Sagan and dedicated to making sure we maintain our science program, in particular the scientific vitality of that program. However, they do a great many other interesting things as well (like educational outreach). One of the best benefits of donating to this group is that you automatically get a subscription to their fantastic quarterly magazine The Planetary Report. It has awesome graphics and well-written articles, often written by the scientists at the front lines of space missions or research. It's probably getting close to twenty years that I've been supporting The Planetary Society, and I love how it helps me keep in touch with what's going on in the world of space exploration when I no longer read up on the subject as avidly as I once did. My only regret is their sad penchant for trying to get Pluto reinstated as a planet (move on!) and their apparent inability to get a decent logo (um, guys, schooners are for NOAA, not NASA).

Not too long ago, I posted a mini-rant on reproductive rights, emphasizing that this is an issue of importance to everyone. Not just women. While Planned Parenthood does work to support reproductive rights, they are a lot more than that. They provide information and services around a whole range of critical issues: birth control, body image, and STDs. They are also not just about women, as they provide information and services for men's sexual health too. At a time when a variety of anti-sex and anti-health efforts are being pushed by narrow-minded ideologues, it's a no-brainer to support an organization like this.

Another inspirational, science-based organization that I support is the SETI Institute. I believe it's very likely extraterrestrial life exists. But I'm not satisfied with belief; I want proof! And so I support an organization that is tireless in seeking out that proof through a variety of means. The biggest argument made by people (and some scientists) against SETI is that the odds of making contact are low. However, I agree with the statement (not sure who said it): "The probability of success is difficult to estimate, but if we never search, the chance for success is zero." I would also argue that given what we have learned about the environments on Mars, Europa, Titan, and Enceladus that it is only  matter of time before we discover some form of microbial alien life right here in our own Solar System. That discovery would then raise the odds for finding intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy quite a bit. Since the discovery of alien life in any form would represent a shift in the human mindset on par with heliocentrism or evolution, supporting this organization is a way to help ensure we make that leap. On a side note the SETI Institute, like the Planetary Society, seems forever challenged in finding a reasonable logo. Maybe someone should donate one?

Another local organization/service I support is  - I believe -Chicago's only radio station for classical music: WFMT. WFMT is special because they seem to employ a broad definition of 'classical' music. They have a program related to folk music, and they also sometimes air rag or jazz. As far as traditional classical music goes, they play much more than opera and full orchestral music. This allows non-expert listeners like me to get a flavor for the true scope and variety of the genre. I've been introduced to some very intriguing artists and instrumental combinations through WFMT. Aside from that, in the era of The Kardashians and Duck Dynasty, there's little question we must do what we can to ensure some form of entertainment exists that requires having a brain and/or taste.

As much as supporting the ACLU, Amnesty International, or Greenpeace can raise eyebrows (especially among conservatives), it's nothing compared to what people say about Wikileaks. This is sad, because all this organization does is put a spotlight on the hideous, slimy, and reprehensible things that our government (and other governments) do behind our backs. As Wikileaks says on its site: "Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people." Wikileaks' expose on out of control spying committed by the NSA is a prime example of the abuse of power our government doesn't think twice about committing if we allow them to exist behind closed doors, under rocks, and in the shadows. Wikileaks, and organizations like them, provide much needed (because it is clearly unwanted) oversight. This is especially important when the major news organizations are either too gutless to ask hard questions of our government and corporate leaders or are too busy kowtowing to a political party to care. Instead of demonizing people like Edward Snowden, we should be focusing our anger at a government whose lack of moral fibre makes revealing classified data necessary.

Here's another scientific outfit that's doing amazing work, most of which takes place right here on Earth (although in some ways the ocean can be as much an alien frontier as space!). To me, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is like NASA or JPL for the ocean. You can get a taste of the wide range of work they do, from research to conservation to exploration, by clicking here. Once you support them, you are kept up to speed on what's going on with their fantastic quarterly publication Oceanus, which is worth the cost of supporting them all by itself! Whether you are into science for science's sake or just think whales and sharks are cool, this organization is doing something you'll get into. And they are a rarity in another way, they are a scientific organization with a reasonable logo! (I admit I picked a good one for this post, they do have plenty of eyesores).

Last, but definitely not least, is our local PBS station in Chicago: WTTW. When I was a kid, WTTW brought me Sesame Street, the Electric Company, and Zoom (sorry, but Mr. Rogers' goody-goody schtick always creeped me out). Then in my teens, there was Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Ebert and Siskel's Sneak Previews, and (okay, I admit it) Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. These days, I'm a full-on Masterpiece addict, an illness stoked to high intensity with the glory that is Downton Abbey. Yes, the televised drives are annoying, but consider: would you rather see Kmart ads with men shaking their junk like bells to play a Christmas carol or have your intelligence insulted by the latest cutesy ad masking the soullessness of an insurance conglomerate? Just saying.

If the idea of a Charity Shopping Spree appeals to you, get to it! I guarantee you will have a special glow afterwards.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

2.11.14 The Day We Fight Back!

Two years ago, the Internet went dark to fight toxic legislation in Congress that would have crippled freedom on the Internet (the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)). This action successfully killed the legislation! 

This Tuesday, Internet companies and people who care about civil liberties are banding together to do it again. This time, we're taking aim at NSA surveillance and standing up for our freedom to communicate without our own government spying on us. More than 4,000 websites and organizations will be joining us to flood Congress with tens of thousands of emails and phone calls demanding our representatives pass the USA FREEDOM Act, our best hope for serious NSA surveillance reform.

To ensure this day of action goes viral, just like the SOPA blackout did two years ago, we need to do everything we can to make sure our friends and family know about it and join us. To find out the simple actions you can take to make The Day We Fight Back go viral and to join in applying the pressure needed to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, click here

It's time to stop the NSA from invading our privacy and to let all our leaders know that we will not tolerate our government spying on us!

"Haiku Beads"

Over the past three years I've sporadically written haiku after zazen or solving a koan. It's been an attempt to preserve things I experience so they don't slip away. Sort of like trying to freeze cascading water with a fish inside so you can come back to see it later.

Over the last year, I got the idea to look through the haiku I'd written (many of which are posted here on Zen Thrown Down) and see if I could string some of them together into a longer work. Sort of like making a string of beads with haiku.

I finally got around to trying it this morning, and it was pretty easy to do. Within a few minutes, I was able to string together four haiku that shared a seasonal theme and which, when put together, seemed to build on each other.

Coolest part? The order in which the haiku are arranged in the poem below is the same as the order in which they were written during the past three years. My mind brims with the possible meanings inherent in that fact!

Learning To Stop

Howling winter night
All creation takes shelter
I pursue the wolves

I run
forget my aim

Cold moon through branches
casting shadows on deep snow
Silent solitude

Walk like the elephant
In one breath the wind goes by
endless as starlight

- Peter Cholewinski

Friday, February 7, 2014

Stone Worn Smooth

During one phase of my poetry writing, it was a trademark of mine to rely on arcane mythological references. This often made the poems feel very formal and kind of erudite. During another phase, I stuffed my work with a self-created, private form of urban slang. These approaches all provided a definite feel I was going after. In the last decade or so, and especially with poetry I write in verse, I've backed away from anything like this. 

The images and language I've been using feels a lot more down to earth - and perhaps the work is less original because of that. However, there is an unassuming, direct feeling this approach brings that I like. It feels like the difference between a Johnny Cash song and a Pink Floyd song. Pink Floyd is harder to relate to (or even understand) and so they can come off as abstract and a little pompous. In contrast, a guy like Johnny Cash is always visceral. He speaks a truth, kicks dirt over it, and moves on. I think in my forties I've moved much more towards a Johnny Cash kind of poetry that is more direct. In fact, if I could sing (at all), I would probably be writing all my recent poems as songs rather than poetry.

I wrote the initial version of 'Stone Worn Smooth' back in November and only today felt a need to write and, in so doing, found it again. It only took a couple hours to finish it this morning. In working it, I once again ended up with five five-line stanzas. Totally accidental, but it's kind of interesting to me that in these past couple years no matter how a piece starts it often winds up in something close to this format.

Stone Worn Smooth

Sand and grit and chert
I'm fused in jagged latticework
Untold pressure
primeval pyre
I came into this world on fire

Wave and wind and storm
freeze me hard 'til seasons warm
Tossed and battered
yet relishing the fray
I seek new scars in every day

Acts and thoughts and words
I speak so loud but am not heard
Raging forth
then poker faced
Ever restarting this winless race

Now upon a sandy shore
free of all that came before
All I've lost
All I've gained
Makes no difference to what remains

I have soared with galaxies
I've drunk my tears while on my knees
Say I've lost
Say I've won
With all these names I am done

- Peter Cholewinski