Saturday, November 15, 2014

On the disconcerting klutziness and greatness of Maurice Ravel's Pavane, etc.

Recently, I've woken up and gone to sleep with Ravel's music on my mental music player, (formerly known as one's memory). These memories drove me to seek videos of some of my favorite compositions by Ravel, The Left Hand Concerto in D and Pavane pour une infante defunte. I used to compose left hand piano music and loved some of Ravel's works for many years. At the same time, I have to say I'm no musicologist and I was never even a very good musician though I did sometimes entertain friends and small audiences of strangers on the piano. That said, it has always seemed to me that Ravel lacked a power of musical imagination that one finds far more effusively expressed in Mozart or Debussy—they never seem to run out of great musical ideas, phrases, and sentences. They always have more to say that makes sense, and the ideas follow with a fluidity and inevitability. Such imaginative genius can find or invent new musical ideas everywhere and in everything. On the other hand, Ravel seems to very obviously (even embarrassingly) run out of ideas sometimes.

In his famous Pavane, he works through some profoundly beautiful variations on one simple theme—it is so poignant that it is truly unforgettable. But then after doing that over and over for a while, it feels like he really just runs out of ideas! The B section that follows does not really stick together very well or even make sense. It even sounds klutzy, confused and confusing. I've heard many great pianists struggle to make this B section make sense. At best, it is bearable, but one really just waits for it to end. Fortunately, it doesn't last that long, and then the theme from the first part returns in an even more gorgeous variation. So the greatness is really undeniably there, and it reasserts itself.

One has to wonder why he could not find a more worthy second theme, something at least a little memorable. Perhaps it was wisdom or perhaps it was simple despair to accept the fact that he just could not invent or discover a second theme anywhere nearly as good as the first theme.

In retrospect, to be able to accept that inner failing and to lurch bravely forward is a very humane way to go on. He was kinder to himself than many other composers would have been. Somehow, I think we forgive him as listeners. We don't listen to Ravel for the same reasons we listen to Mozart, whose genius can shine so magnificently all the time that it is awe inspiring. We can still remember and love those parts of Ravel that ring the most true to our feelings.

The Left Hand Concerto in D has a less obvious flaw in its "great" cadenza, and many people may disagree with me on this. But to me it seems as though he spent so much energy trying to make one left hand sound like two hands that he did not really develop the melody very much or very far. He manages to create a very powerful and beautiful series of effects with some of the longest and fastest arpeggiated passages anywhere in piano literature. After he establishes the methods of his techniques, he does make it sound very powerful, convincing, and engrossing. But then it seems like he just runs out of ideas again! So we get all the ingredients for a great cadenza, and then he closes it out with a big orchestral bang. So it is a little disappointing musically, but one cannot deny that there is still greatness there, even if just for a few brief moments.

The story around this concerto may explain why people love it so much—Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist and brother of the very famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, lost his right arm in WW I, and this piece was commissioned by him. The fact that Wittgenstein was playing at that level at all with one hand was a triumph, and to keep this almost "magical" series of technical feats going too long might have seemed a little like tempting the fates or torturing a musician who had already seen more than enough suffering. So there is that sense of the humane acceptance of one's limitations again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Today I got up early and read in the NY Times that Galway Kinnell passed away on Tuesday, 10/28/2014. He was one of my greatest teachers at NYU. So I am re-posting some brief 'snapshots' in prose [from 3/8/05] on Galway Kinnell, the teacher/poet.
§ § §

§ § §


[March 8, 2005* On Galway Kinnell as a teacher/poet, something to be grateful for....]

Galway would regularly ask us to do the impossible. Once in a one-on-one conference in the spring of 1999 he was helping me with a poem about the out-of-body travel experience of a thirteen-year-old. I was struggling to show how it was both a transcendent and a sexually arousing experience. He perked up with a great idea, which went something like: ‘Why don’t you show how the spiritual and the sexual are interwoven inevitably in adolescence? I’ve never read a poem about that. Why don’t you do that?’

After the enormity of this sank in, I said something like, ‘Okay.... I guess I could try that....’ (read: Sure, just toss off the answer to a mystery that has baffled thinkers and sages for millennia).

Even though I was stumped for a very long time, the idea Galway planted took root and a year later I wrote the poem that fulfilled that idea, and it was published later in 2000.

I have always felt indebted to Galway for daring to believe in me (and so many of us) with the same kind of ambition that he had in his own work. That was a gift that you could never fully measure. Thank you, Galway!

(The poem that Galway and I were discussing this idea over was called "digression," and it was written as the second part of a series called "out-of-body travel at thirteen." I think he had already seen the third part called "out-of-body travel at thirteen"—that was the most narrative part. The next part, which took a year to write was about the transcendental and sexual elation, and it was called "elation: some variations." I brought this to Sharon's workshop the following year and explained how it came about. I seem to remember Sharon's reaction when I recollected Galway's suggestion to the class as a kind of moment when her jaw dropped open momentarily. Thanks to Ashlie Kauffman, fellow NYU alum for asking about this.)


[The wonderful poet and fellow alum Susan Brennan sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

Once, in Galway's classroom, he played a tape of animals sounds—I remember the wolves especially and thinking—this is wild, and comforting and—so sexy. In that same class, he explained Whitman as a kind of fertility god who spoke through the lines of Leaves of Grass. I remember cherishing this note especially because the previous semester I was in an English class with doctoral students who just about crucified Whitman.

Reading Galway's work, being his student at NYU, watching him get intense over line-drives at Squaw Valley, having him generously listen to poems that were difficult to write—all these moments have conveyed to me a special knowledge about poetry; that it's a wilderness which poets can graciously and proudly inhabit. Galway has shown my poetry-creature ways to make a home in this wilderness.

A couple of summers ago, I was standing on West Third Street with Humera and we saw Galway crossing the street. He had on a bright, white shirt and it was billowing in the wind. We watched as strangers turned their heads to look at him with an impulsive curiosity. We sighed to each other "he's so beautiful and sexy and wild and free"! Poetry.

[03/12/2005]



[This is from fellow alum Emily Gordon who sent this in to the NYU listserv about Galway:]

This is the Galway story I love to tell. In 2002 on the last day of Craft, he gave out books of his to everyone and talked for a little while about how much having poetry friendships has meant to him. He said, "When you leave, I hope you'll stay in touch with each other, and trade poems. The most marvelous thing is how easy it can be! You don't have to wait for the mail for weeks anymore to find out if your friend liked your poem. Now there's the fax machine, which makes it so that in only a few minutes your friend can see your poem, and send it back, and you can read it! Isn't it wonderful?" And we all burst out laughing in the most affectionate way possible, just about in tears.

[03/14/2005]

§ § §

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

early memory from infancy

I can remember one of the first times I was ever photographed. I was only three months old, according to the notes written on the backs of the photos. The moment stood out because my parents went to some great efforts to get me to smile. They moved away from me so I was alone on a big red blanket, and they made silly, funny noises that were supposed to sound like a baby’s sounds.

If I had had an ego at the time, I might have thought that this was very patronizing of them to imitate the way I sounded as if mocking my infant sounds would entertain me. But I did not have an ego at the time, so their pseudo-baby sounds worked. I started to laugh at how silly they sounded.

As I was starting to laugh, I saw that they got behind a cumbersome machine, which looked very big to me. It blocked one of their faces as one of them held it up. They also spread a shiny chrome-plated parabolic mirror—almost as big as a face—that was attached to this machine. I had no idea what was about to happen. 

Then it struck me—F L A S H ! ! !  

I was not only blinded, but it felt as though the painfully bright light had penetrated to the very back of my little head. It really HURT my head! I also realized in that moment that my parents had TRICKED me! I had been SET UP to be exposed to this painful explosion!

In an instant, I started to crumble up inside.

Meanwhile, they were thrilled at their success. 

Before I could protest (meaning, cry like an H-bomb), they did it again.

F L A S H ! ! !

I cried like an H-bomb!

They thought that that was really funny, and they had a really big laugh at me before they picked me up to make me feel better.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

How to promote a book on a shoestring, a talk prepared for AWP Seattle, 2014

    First things first: a specific kind of love makes people keep books and return to them at odd hours, even middle-of-the-night hours, and share them. This love is hard to define, but it is when people love books so much that they can’t feel alive or complete without them, and they spontaneously want to share them. A symptom of this is when you love a book so much you give it away to friends a half dozen times because you want them to be able to appreciate it.
    (This isn’t bibliomania—this is not about collecting/possessing/owning)
    The way it starts is that you the reader/the editor have to love the work so much that you feel compelled to do everything you can for it to advocate for it, to sell it, to bring it to light.
    There are practical things you can do that cost nothing or nearly nothing, and these are just commonsense:
    Step 1: Start with friends and colleagues that you respect as readers. If you can persuade them to read it, if they are teachers, ask them to teach it. If they have book circles, ask them to share it.
    Note: course adoptions can mean a lot because students—when they love a book—share it and talk about it.
    Corollary: listen to their responses because they will help you shape the way to pitch the book to various people, decision makers, program coordinators, radio hosts etc.
    Step 2: Ask local libraries or college libraries etc. to buy the book, and/or ask friends to do the same.
    Step 3: Share good things with your authors. I don’t honestly remember how it happened that I was invited to be interviewed on the Joe Milford poetry show as a poet, but it went very well. My appearance attracted a near-record number of downloads, so I asked the host if he would interview all of the other authors in MMM Press. Joe did all of that on his own, and he was very happy about the interviews. So actually ALL of us with the press then got into the Joe Milford radio podcast archives. You can find everyone here: http://www.thejoemilfordpoetryshow.com/archives.php
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2010/10/02/joe-milford-hosts-rebecca-foust
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/16/joe-milford-hosts-patrick-lawler-1
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/08/joe-milford-hosts-susan-settlemyre-williams
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/21/joe-milford-hosts-anee-marie-cusac
http://www.blogtalkradio.com/joe-milford-show/2009/11/09/joe-milford-hosts-alison-stone

    As words gets around, spontaneously great things can start to happen for a book, e.g. Rebecca Foust’s book’s cover art by a great artist, John Folinsbee, gave Rebecca the idea to find out more about the artist, which led her to a museum showing his work, which led to an event at the Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia, and then the museum bookstore sold the book.
    Another example: our author Patrick Lawler got featured in Brian Brodeur’s blog, “How a poem happens”:
http://howapoemhappens.blogspot.com/2011/01/patrick-lawler.html

    Coincidentally, Brian Brodeur was the copyeditor of Patrick’s book and he even suggested one or two of the poems in the Table of Contents, so he was already an ardent fan himself. Patrick’s book had a new ally and friend in a very well-respected peer poet.

    Here is another fortuitous, spontaneous thing that no one could foresee. One year the poet Sean Thomas Dougherty was visiting Drexel University and a student asked during the Q&A part of the reading who he had learned the most from, and he really paused thoughtfully, and then he said spontaneously: Patrick Lawler—he learned the most from Patrick Lawler. Given that Sean is a voracious, impassioned reader—it would be hard to find his equal in that regard—this was no small compliment.
    No way that could have been planned.
    Important note: this kind of fortuitous good thing doesn’t work as well if there is a sense of “I’ll-do-this-for-you-if-you-do-that-for-me.”
    Just as there is no way to plan to fall in love with a book, transactional calculations have no real place here. To fall in love with a book is the only really good reason to buy a book or to sell one, or to teach one.
    If you are selling (or publishing) a book to score political points with someone or to advance your career without regard to the real feelings of your friends, readers, and the audience of unsuspecting readers, I am afraid that evil karma may pursue you through a dozen lifetimes and jackals may urinate on your grave.

    Be that as it may, back to practical steps:
    Build web pages for a new book— (off the press site, or off the author site)
    Why? Give people a chance to browse in depth. Give some text and audio samples or other forms of media. Give hungry readers a chance to fall in love.
    I’m sure web offerings helped my books, so I knew it would help the other authors’ books. Here are some samples pages that show sample poems, audio and video links:
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/silkie/TOC_samples.htm
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/invisiblesisterwebpage/html/audiowebpage_is.htm
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/theysing/TOCpoems.htm
http://mmminc.org/mmm_press_new/Underground/sample_poems.htm
{Play (if possible): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-68Lmykjm_Q }

    Further, good online offerings help inspire other good online things, and many good things come up for our authors, often because of their own initiative, and here is just one:
http://firstbookinterviews.blogspot.com/2008/12/9-susan-settlemyre-williams.html
    Why else do all this work (or pay someone else to)?
    It makes it much easier to sell the work to a teacher, a colleague, a committee, a decision-maker, a programming director.
    For example, Rebecca Foust was easy to bring to Drexel University given all the resources available about her. Further, Patrick Lawler’s Underground got adopted for use as a selection for the Syracuse University Living Writers Course (i.e. over 200 students read it, and most of them loved it—I know, because otherwise they would have returned it). The same thing happened at Muhlenberg College for their Living Writers Course, where they had 80+ students reading it and most of them also actually read and kept the book. Ditto SUNY Oswego.
    So far, all the above costs very little money. And book sales have actually made money to pay for other things to help the books/authors.
    Here is another simple thing—when a great thing happens for your author from another source like another press, try to work with those people because you both want your author to succeed. So, for example, a few days ago Renato Rosaldo had a brilliant, tragic, harrowing, intriguing new book from Duke show up at our MMM Press table, and he sold quite a large number of them yesterday. So in a way you could say that was bad for MMM Press because it means all that money went not to help MMM Press but to help Duke, which did not even come to AWP. But I think Duke and MMM Press can work together better to find and create events for Renato, and actually both books together sort of complete each other, honestly. So we both would want the author’s works come further into the light.
    MMM Press has also created a lot of different author events in many cities, including NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver, and these did not cost much either.

    Readings are great for everyone (the authors, the editors and staff) because you are reminded of the most important things: you hear a reading where you get chills. You see new strangers fall in love with the work the way that you did, for its own sake, and even the author can realize that she/he has created something greater than oneself. With Renato and Patrick and Alison Stone in NYC at the Cornelia Street CafĂ©, I was reminded, too, of why these poets are so wonderful and worthwhile.
    BIGGER COMMITMENTS (now that you have a budget, thanks to sales of books:)
    Competitions: I try to nominate the books for every prize that they might deserve. I’ve always tried to nominate them for things like the Pulitzer and many smaller prizes. (Usually, I thought the MMM Press authors were robbed if they didn’t win.) Often the authors take the initiative and win things, e.g. Anne-Marie Cusac won a prize from the Wisconsin Library Award. Rebecca Foust’s book also won a prize from the San Francisco Book Festival for a poetry book.
    More significant money goes into advertisements in respectable print publications:
Poets & Writers, APR, ABR, Library Journal etc.
    What also costs money: review copies.
    For Rebecca Foust’s book, we did send out a very large number of review copies, and we got  maybe a dozen reviews and notices, all positive, some glowing. Rebecca also got a radio interview on a local station (I think it was an NPR affiliate), and she also got very glowing responses from her own network of friends, peers, mentors, which helped give her book a lot of momentum. So she has almost completely sold through her first printing of over a thousand copies. Patrick Lawler’s first book likewise has sold through almost all through his first printing of over a thousand copies.
    What else costs MMM Press a lot of money:
    The AWP bookfair ($500 per table fee this year, which goes up pretty drastically EVERY year. Ho hummm. The expense of flying people to AWP, which also goes up every year.) And the cost of cakes, drinks, utensils etc. for bookfair.
    Last words:
    I only get to do 10% of what I’d like to do for the authors, if that. (This is due mostly to the conditions of the serf class of @^#%#%#$%, but that is another panel that AWP rejected.) MMM Press is free, independent, and not beholden to anyone. That also means unsupported by any institution. We have friends who have given us money, though, but that was out of love, given freely, and received in that spirit.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

out-of-body travel at thirteen

Thanks to a very wonderful teacher, John Darby, I was invited to read a few poems at Sky Lake in Rosendale, NY, a Shambhala Center for meditation at the end of a meditation weekend recently. This is one of the poems. The other, "a far and pure wilderness" is also in this blog if you search for that title.

["out-of-body travel at thirteen" was published in the towards euphoria chapbook from Seven Kitchens Press as the winner of the Editor's Prize a year or two ago. This is actually the end of a long series of poems. The story was also a prose story that was published a long time ago. It can be found through this link: “Out-of-body travel at thirteen,”]


[Eighth-grader Jeff’s side of the story:]
I snapped like a branch
and was released—
as if a tree had a soul
that flew away
when its boughs
were broken,
sky absorbed me
like a breath exhaled
despite cars, blacktop
and careless passersby,
a peace held me
like a cloud
sustaining ice
in its mist—
I felt like
a sapling
that remembers
its ancestor forest,
its millions
of green lives
in each tree,
each rooting
into other lives,
each racing
rival life-forms,
parasites grinding
pulp leaves
to worms’ food,
warm and cold-blooded
voices, mammals
moved by hunger,
rage, lust, fear—   
I understood
but was free
from the struggle
to be fed by sunlight,
water, air—   
the spirit
each body holds
was one with me,
yet I was
sustained
as free from self
as from body
and in the ether
I saw my self too
with all its flaws
before it could sl-
am shut its
small gates of
mind again—
I saw
what I was
while you
could see only
the shell of me,
and I had to choose
to be thrown in
the tangles of
life again—
I wasn’t prodded back
this time—
my body dragged me
in its heavy waves,
but the ether
still filled me
like a sail
until I ached
all over me,
suddenly a body— 
bewildered, diminished...
But then,
back in me
as if for the first time,
I grasped
that the soul
is not beyond,
across or through us—
it is us—
it is us
and I was
so moved to see
in your eyes
the farthest
purest wilderness

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sunday, April 21, 2013

This March  I was at the annual writers conference sponsored by the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP Boston, 2013) and a magazine had a flash fiction contest at the bookfair. You had to write a story which met several criteria. It had to fit on one piece of paper with the guidelines printed on it. It had to be set on one of several possibilities, one of which was a space station. It had to have a plot situation, and one of them was that a device goes horribly wrong. It also had to have one of a series of types of characters, one of which was an impostor. I can't remember all the other rules, but this flash fiction, below, owes its eccentricities in part to the "rules." This did not win, but it did get some pretty good laughs. So here is:

Rescuers of Monkey Minds Search among the Water Bubbles (316 words mmxiii)


    If you say “Monkey Mind says” after everything you say in your head, it kind of deflates your ego. For example, you see a gorgeous woman float by on a space station, and you say, “Wow, what a hot woman! Monkey Mind says.”

    See, no one thinks you’re serious.

    So I was floating around a space station, the S. S. AWP, trying to wash my hands in the fully-automated “Zero-G” kitchen sink. It was made for guys who can’t even work a toaster. It was a giant clear balloon with one-way valves to let hands in and no water out. My hands went in and water flowed in—lots of water and a little soap, but it wouldn’t drain or let my hands back out. I started to panic and pulled away harder, which in Zero-G meant I was thrust face-first into the bulging balloon, and it POPPED!

    Water droplets exploded in all directions, but mostly they just floated into my face and around my head—I couldn’t breathe! And water was still flowing into the water sphere around my head.

    I pictured my ashes in an urn ejecting into space like Spock’s remains after the moving eulogy by Admiral Kirk in that Star Trek movie. I pictured that gorgeous woman coming to rescue me, wearing a Zero-G snorkel with an extra-long air tube. She wrapped her arms around me, planted her legs on the wall and shoved us out of the water bubble—I could breathe again!

    Then she took off her mask, and she had a three-day beard, and then she removed her torso body suit, and she was a skinny man in a plaid flannel shirt. “It’s not what you think,” she said. “I’m not transgender. I’m not an impostor. I’m just questioning.”

   “Wow, you really burst my bubble,” I said, and then I just felt deflated.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

On Beauty in the Everyday (a draft of a talk given at Ursinus College, spring 2012)

1.

“I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder”—that's from one of the most famous American poets of the last sixty years, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in A Coney Island of the Mind, one of the most popular great books in all of American poetry. A friend of Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth as well as Jack Kerouac and others who started the most influential poetry movement of the last sixty years, The Beatniks, Ferlinghetti also wrote at the end of “I am waiting”:

and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Why did he say that? Ferlinghetti knew that it was and is possible to always have a rebirth of wonder, a renaissance of wonder, because it happens naturally and spontaneously in all of us, whether we are artists or not. We have this gift, this ability to appreciate beauty for its own sake. All little kids have this innate ability.

Like others of his generation, Ferlinghetti pointed us toward one of the important truths of existence—we can feel this clear and beautiful mindful awareness that makes us more enlightened and more connected to each other.

Irony: this kind of awareness takes much more work after childhood ends.

More irony: one need not strive beyond oneself to find this; one needs rather to slow down and calmly allow our true natural state to arise.

This works as if it were our true nature to feel really good about being alive....—as if it were pleasurable to just be.... —as if ordinary things like sunlight on a pine branch could be unbearably beautiful and pleasurable. But first we need to be able to believe that this is even possible, that a renaissance of wonder is possible.

And we need to know what gets in the way.

But you already know:

TV addictions have killed people. Cell phone addictions kill people in their cars. Gaming addictions literally kill people in gaming dens. Computers/web addictions, FaceBook and porn addictions and so on are damaging people all around us.

We all probably know at least one person with an unhealthy relationship with a device. (And then there’s plain old selfishness, pride, anger, gluttony, sloth, envy, lust and greed.)

Interestingly, the man who brought Buddhism into Tibet, Padmasambhava, had a vision a thousand years ago. He saw that in about a thousand years people would become incredibly clever at making devices, devices so clever that we could carry them around, and these would be endlessly entertaining. People would feel that their little devices were more important than anything else. Padmasambhava said that this would be the dark age because people would stop believing in compassion.

When Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, “I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder,” the worst inventions in everyday life were TV and the superhighway, and he thought that the superhighway was a catastrophe!

Now for us to wait for a rebirth of wonder, we need to even more consciously decide to turn our attention toward worthwhile things, the things that are the spontaneous and natural gifts that connect us all. Then we need to be patient and give ourselves a chance to actually feel. This is the simplest of truths in art—a renaissance of wonder doesn’t require a great journey or leaving or transcending oneself. It’s about seeing your immediate experience and feeling your own feelings about this moment, this place. It’s about knowing where you are and how you are and speaking with your whole being. It’s about allowing ordinary reality to fully penetrate your mind and heart, fully taking in what is always real and its history. For the mind is like tofu, a great teacher said. It absorbs whatever you put it in. And when you start turning on all of the potentials in a human being, the true nature of our life can begin to arise. Everyone has at least some intrinsic compassion, wisdom, generosity, patience, and discipline. As another great teacher said, ‘Everyone loves something, even if it’s only tacos.’

As one gets deeper into being human, vision in a larger sense becomes possible. The vision of the totality doesn’t mean ignoring pain, darkness, death, despair and so on. An artistic vision needs to include suffering because old age, sickness and death are essential and eternal truths too. Otherwise, instead of art, you have kitsch.

Another great American poet, Wallace Stevens, said: “Death is the mother of beauty,” meaning that without the loss of absolutely everything, beauty has no meaning or poignancy. So in this way, some of the greatest poets, including William Wordsworth, and the great Buddhist teachers have said the truest joy has some sadness in it. The taint of our own mortality makes life beautiful. Then the total vision encompasses both euphoria and dysphoria, so we should, if possible, embrace it. And if we can leave behind our dualistic consciousness even for one moment, it can seem that euphoria and dysphoria are truly one thing, not two.

I know that probably sounds impossible, but it is possible with a way of stepping back and away from our own judging mind, away from what we think we know, and instead feeling what our real life is. As the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche said, “When the mind is brilliant there is no conceptuality.”

The experience of ordinary things becomes extraordinary and wonder is reborn when we make our minds like soft soil where the experience of wonder can grow again. The renaissance of wonder is more than possible perpetually and forever. It is waiting for us to make ourselves ready to experience at last the real, the true, and the beautiful.

That ends the talk part of this presentation.


2.

I wanted to also read some poems. This first one is about when my best friend and I were in eighth grade, so the experience described here happened without us knowing anything about the San Francisco renaissance of poetry that was later called the Beatnik movement, without us knowing anything about meditation, without us knowing anything about Buddhism or spirituality, without us knowing much about Christianity, or anything else. Nonetheless, in 8th grade my best friend Tim and I used to have these very profound experiences of the simplest things. This was also before cell phones, before Facebook, PCs, i-Pads, Walkmen, and so on. This was during a time when we still lived in a book-centric culture, and people who liked film adaptations better were frowned upon. Our favorite writer was Kurt Vonnegut. This was also the age of an awful lot of people smoking an awful lot of marijuana, but this had nothing to do with our experiences. I don't know how he knew that this would work, but he had rediscovered one of the important truths of existence, which is that there is this very clear and beautiful feeling that is possible inside of everyone, and it is possible to access it not by reaching beyond oneself or striving but by calmly allowing it to happen.



a far and pure wilderness

We used to call them headtrips
when April’s sunlight on the grass
in all its pure intensity
struck us into resonance;
breathing in its vibration
I was on a high
self opening with you
learning the first flush of
beauty in the grass
before our wonderful families
drove us to weed or hash,
before the first psychedelics,
before even the first comings
of puberty stung and strung us up
into the Teendom of Cool that was still
as interesting as dysentery.
This was letting the ocean
of the atmosphere pour through our eyes
and through our brains and lungs
till our tongues could translate sky—
till the day I felt your spirit reach out
like an actual body to another
like one wave tapping its brother
—I was shocked seeing you still over there
but in a sky place in your mind
smiling like “I’m not coming down...”
and you waited so patiently
till I followed you there.

Looking back now, I think that we had unwittingly stumbled upon a very high state of awareness without knowing that meditators spend years and years trying to get there. The Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, one of the greatest living meditation teachers, talks about it this way in Turning the Mind into an Ally:

What the Buddha discovered is that we all have
bodhichitta, ripe for nourishment. Within the
bewildering maelstrom of thoughts and emotions
that keep our sense of self solid, each of us already
has the seeds of love and compassion.
Bodhichitta is the radiant heart that is constantly
and naturally, without self-consciousness,
generating love and compassion for the benefit
of others. It’s a stream of love and compassion
that connects us all, without fixation or attachment.
It has a tender sadness to it, like a wound
that remains eternally exposed. It’s our true nature.

This passage reminded me of something I felt that quite profoundly last summer at a meditation retreat in NYC where I was meditating all day every day and a lot of the nights, working mostly on developing this compassionate heart, and without any warning, I stumbled out of my ego onto a subway train and saw every single person on the train as a complete whole human being each with his own trip, her own dread, each with a great history or a story spinning, a burden of family traumas, an ego trip of whatever it was etc. and I didn't feel any different from anyone. But I could actually feel what everyone was, which anyone can do, if you just really pay attention with your whole being. It's just that I could not turn it off.

It reminded me of early days of infancy when I was very small. Whenever a grownup would pick me up, I had a very keen sense about what that big person was like, good or bad. I could not turn off this sense, then. It was valuable information for infant survival because a bad person would be a cause to scream and cry. I think all small kids retain this sensitivity for a while because they have not yet built up the belief in the ego and the outer self and its walls.