Steinbeck, moral virtue, and the loss of the American dream ~

Steinbeck, moral virtue, and the loss of the American dream ~

This is the year I lose what little faith I had left in the American Dream. Not ‘the’ American Dream — I’m not sure I’ve believed in that for a long time. All people can’t become president (unless they’re über rich…). Nor can just anyone come to America — especially these days — much less become whatever s/he wants to be.

No, this was the dream that drove America to international acclaim during the 20th century. The dream that birthed so many great poets, inventors, philosophers, scientists and musicians. The dream that flamed bright in Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, César Chávez. The dream of a quality public education that was the right of every American child.

I am trying to come to terms w/ the idea that while we say we care about education, what we do (remember the whole actions speak thing?) is cut funding, deride teachers, slash their pay and benefits. And blame them, in the meantime, for ills that are societal in nature. Witness our current Secretary of Education, and her disinterest in traditional public ed. Despite, for instance, the research that shows (fairly conclusively) that charter schools are NOT as strong, overall, as public schools, and that $$ DO make a difference in quality of education, she & her bosses continue to tout charter schools. Which make PROFITS off of kids. Grr…

John Steinbeck once said (in one of my very favourite books, The Log from the Sea of Cortez)  that American society pays lip service to abstract ‘good’ values like ‘wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility.’ But in reality? The man who forced Americans to confront the realities of the Great Depression argues that we ‘envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities [cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity] has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure.’ We love Jesus in the abstract, he says, but we’d rather be successful than good. Because to be good is to be weak. A ‘value’ we see repeated over & over in the current electoral results.

This is painfully evident today. We see sharing — w/ the poor, w/ other countries, w/ the elderly and people who look different than we do — as a sign of weakness. Those people, I hear over & over. Those loafers. Those non-believers. Those who are not like me. I hear people say ~ I have to work hard. They just want it free. Hence the horrific “health” plan that will leave the elderly, those w/ health conditions, and many many other Americans w/ no hope of health care.

I don’t really know how to draw lines between human hearts. If we all believe in the magic that keeps the world turning, does it matter whether we call it God or Allah? Or science? If our children laugh when tickled, does it matter whether their first words are English, Czech or Spanish?moral virtue

Don’t all parents awaken each morning hoping that their children will grow up happy? That our sons & daughters will find meaningful work, be able to live on the proceeds, and be safe from war and want? If so, why is it we can’t meet there? What is so damn important that we can’t sit down over tea and talk? How the HELL do we expect our children — ALL our children — to become what we dream of w/out benefit of education? I would think even the most diehard no-funding proponent would see that an educated populace is an economic advantage for all of us. Even w/out benefit of their taxes, the educated can work, and support themselves…

We cut education $$ because we would rather give tax breaks to 1% of American taxpayers than fund reading and writing programs that do hundreds of thousands of children good. In my previous state of residence — Oklahoma — we have cut education funding more than ANY other state. And we’re proud of it, most of us. But me? I’m grieving. Mourning for a country that I thought believed in our children. That cherishes them as our future.

I keep poking this wound. Even though I was expecting this outcome, knowing that I’ve agreed w/ Steinbeck on this since I first read him, I am heartsick. I know that there is enormous fear and hatred raging at floodtide throughout the country. And I don’t understand it.

As I drove to get coffee yesterday, I passed houses redolent with the fragrance of old money. Their bricks were all neatly pointed. Nary a shingle curled. Each fence contained its private sanctuary with evenly spaced and level boards. The neighbourhood was so beautiful in the balmy not-quite-summer sunlight that it made you smile in delight. People live here, I thought. In these houses as big as libraries. Within these walls of stone and brick and privilege. But it didn’t make me jealous. It made me deeply aware of how blessed we are. How blessed the owners of those lovely old homes are. How much we have to be thankful for, and how often we feel that offering opportunities — real, tangible, concrete opportunities — to those less fortunate is ‘redistribution of wealth.’

In Wisconsin recently, there are people who said they have no jobs, so why should others? What happened to empathy? If my life is hard, I don’t want everyone to be at my level. Misery really doesn’t love company. Even when I was poor — so poor that I did w/out a telephone, had no TV, lived in a 3-room shotgun apartment cut from 1/4 of an old derelict house in a very bad neighbourhood — I wanted peace and plenty for all. I didn’t begrudge pocket mansions or expensive imported cars. I just wanted every one of my friends to have the opportunity for the same.

And this week, it feels like that hope is a completely dead American dream. And I can’t understand why.

Buddhism, poetry, and the breath ~

Buddhism, poetry, and the breath ~

If you don’t like poetry, this probably isn’t going to interest you. Unless, that is, you do like Buddhism. Or education. Or writing. Fair warning, right?

Because it’s a kind of once-upon-a-time story, of sorts. See, when you have an advanced degree, folks often ask you: what was your thesis/ dissertation/ publication/ whatever about? And I always want to say — breathing. In a manner of speaking — and not all of it metaphor — it was.

Poetry is about pause & effect. The poet leads the reader through the lines of the poem, using line breaks, white space, punctuation (if so inclined — a number of amazing poets are eschewing punctuation altogether, these days), and other strategies to focus attention here, and elide attention there. Words at the beginning & end of lines take on more prominence. Rhyme (internal or end-of-line), consonance, assonance, alliteration — all are ways to slow readers down, or drive them forward relentlessly.

In poetry, we talk about the breath pause: that place the reader naturally (or through skilful direction) stops to draw breath, when reading aloud. And here’s an interesting aside: poetry should — at least initially — be read aloud. Or at the very least, subvocalised. In fact, the readers of poetry whom I know ALL subvocalise and/or read aloud poems they’re working on. After all: poetry is a kind of music. It has rhythm (metre), and the same pauses for breath that a chorale arrangment does.

Buddhism, too, is about the breath. We focus on the breath as we meditate. When my brain is overrun with the day’s minutiæ, I turn to the comfort of noticing my breath: in out in out… And soon the day falls away, and I’m quieted. During the day, if the same thing happens (or grief, or physical pain, or anger red&white), I exhale deeply. Slowly. Then pause — like a line break. Then inhale, slooowly. Then pause again. Another line break. Not to mention that the air we inhale/ exhale is us. Our very essence — the infinitesimal molecules from our inmost bodies — floats on the oxygen-depleted air leaving us. We share each other’s breath quite literally.

So my dissertation — which was a look at my own work, which (surprise!) grows from the fertile soil of Southeast Asia & the Southeast Asian Buddhism I knew as a child — looked at how these two perspectives on the breath intersect. Become words, then lines, then poetry. Hopefully shared.

if you’re not bored out of your socks, you can see where I was going when I said I mostly want to say my diss was on breathing. Here’s another reason: to me, poetry is (almost) as necessary as breathing properly. Sure I can ‘breathe.’ We need no class in what sustains us moment to moment. And yet… To breathe ‘properly’ is to draw in from the gut, pull through the diaphragm, fill the lungs and almost the entire upper body. The shoulders relax, rise & drop. Exhaling is then a long, slow, reversal of the process. None of the quick, in-your-head pants we do when stressed! Far more respectful of the worlds each breath contains, right?

Poetry is like that. Like waiting for tea to brew. Like watching the sky darken slowly towards nightfall. Like a long inhale that calms & energises. Both a luxury and a necessity. I recommend you revisit it.

One year later: journaling & daily pages ~

One year later: journaling & daily pages ~

It’s been more than a year since I began doing daily pages. Julia Cameron, whose idea they were originally, calls them ‘morning pages.’ I’m not so good at doing them either in the a.m. or daily, so I figured feeling guilty about only one of these — not both! — was the better part of valour.

It’s actually been almost 60 weeks! I put the number of weeks in the page header, as well as the date. And then I write. No agenda, no prompt, just write two pages (Cameron says do 3 — I don’t). Ideally, every day. And good things begin to happen.

So the other day, I found this story on Medium, about the author (Benjamin Foley)’s engagement with keeping a journal. I don’t call my daily pages a ‘journal,’ as I actually have one of those. And I don’t usually do gratitude lists in it, as I also have a gratitude journal. But I do make time for gratitude practice, in a recycled-tire covered small journal my younger son gave me (thanks, Noah!). And I’ve been doing that for several years now (more than 4…?)

I also have a ‘real’ journal, as noted, what an artist friend calls an ‘artist’s journal.’ Mine is not so much artistic as mixed media: there is collage (printed emails, cutout pictures, ephemera like ticket stubs), coloured calendars, drawings (bad ones!), and more. I stapled in all the plant tags of what we planted in the front garden, for Instance, so I have a record.

I rarely revisit my journal(s) — & almost never my daily pages — which I’ve been keeping for decades. Sometimes, I thumb through one when it’s full, thinking about the changes of the past X months. It’s a constant, of course — such a cliche!

Today I pasted in copies of the renderings my beloved made of a new patio we’ll put in this summer, in a new backyard, behind a new home, in a new town. That’s another change: moving to a college ‘town’ of fewer than 20,000 non-student residents after living in a metroplex of about a million. HUGE change.

My daily pages record all this & more. The birds on the feeders (new ones here, as well as familiar favorites); what funny thing my elder grandson said. The fact that my younger grandson smiled at me (he’s definitely an old soul, at not quite 2 months!). My sister’s visit yesterday, w/ her bff, driving in from 2 hours south.

It’s good Buddhist practice, actually: note what happens, remark it, then move on. If you haven’t tried it, maybe begin gently, w/ ‘weekly’ pages. It’s worth the minor effort. Buy a small journal that appeals to you, & do a couple of pages every couple of days or weekly. One of the easiest forms of meditation I know. Honest.

View story at Medium.com

Grief, and the love of a dog ~

Grief, and the love of a dog ~

This is what Pascal, my older dog looked like when he came to us 10 years ago. A tiny elf-eared puppy, easily frightened — a big cat, a leaf falling, the smell of the resident possum in the back yard… Any of those could do it. So could the vacuum — even a few days ago.

Today we killed him. Yes, I know: we say ‘euthanised,’ or ‘put him down,’ or ‘put him to sleep.’ But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like we killed him. Even though he was in a lot of pain, and wasn’t himself at all. He’s had dysplasia since birth — he was supposed to be OFA certified to NOT have dysplasia, but… — and it’s just worsened. He also had epilepsy, in a couple of versions. And our previous vet told us he has the dog equivalent of autism, as well.

Through all of his trials, he was still so beautiful. So loving. And such a mess.

A couple of weeks ago, he began having seizures. Two a day, grand mal. And he probably had a stroke, as his leg began to drag, and he showed very poor coordination. We took him to the university veterinary hospital, an amazing facility, staffed w/ utter saints. Seriously — I think the requirements to work there are more stringent than canonisation… I’ve never met more people w/ overtly compassionate affects in one place. Ever.

Turns out that the resident canine neurologist (yes, there’s one on staff) diagnosed a brain tumour in addition to everything else. So now we have a dog that needs pain medication for his hips, anti-seizure meds (2), and allergy meds. And he’s still doing verrrry poorly.

Then it really fell apart: yesterday, he tried to bite me when i petted him. He tried to bite his brother twice when poor Hugo just brushed against him. And when my beloved — Pascal’s version of the Supreme Deity, if there ever was one — reached down to pet him, Pascal tried to take his hand off. So we took him off meds to see if that helped. It did not.

DogsWe sat at the vet’s for almost two hours. Pascal’s veins were so thrombosed that the techs couldn’t get an IV in him. And think about it: if he didn’t want to be petted, even, how did a needle feel?? But in an oddly reassuring way, it was an affirmation that we were making the right decision, despite our grief.

Buddhists talk about ‘letting go.’ It means to know that everything is transient: life, certainly. But also love, pain, joy, grief. Everything passes — clouds across Big Sky Mind. I know that in a year, I will still miss my sweet mess of a dog. I also know it won’t hurt the same way. As I know that death always follows life.

But our pets are part of our family. At least, in my family they are. And as the owner of a 17-year-old cat, another aging dog, and a second cat still in his prime? I want them to live forever. With health & vigour. I want no more grief. The Buddha would shake his finger, probably smile, and remind me that I am attached.

I confess to it. As I confess to wielding the power of life, then death, over a small dog. We let go — holding a small sleepy body in a tearful hug before the vet gave him a shot to the heart (he never could get the IV in). We let go, wishing him dreams of possums in the backyard, and long walks by the river, and lots of treats. We let go of his pain-filled life. But somehow, he’s still so very here, and I don’t know how to really let him go. I don’t know how to explain to his brother (at least, that’s what we called them, although they weren’t littermates) where his buddy is. I don’t know how to explain to my grandson where Pascal is, either. And I don’t know how to let go of any of this grief.

Sometimes, I am acutely aware how inadequate a Buddhist I am…

 

To unfriend or not…?

To unfriend or not…?

One of my sisters left her long-time FB account at least a month, maybe longer. She’s been on FB for years. A 2nd has muted several ‘friends’ & even family (as have I). While a third is cast-iron, and seems able to keep her sanity. Me? I recently unfriended — then refriended — my cousin. And yes: it was political: I unfriended him after he insulted one of my friends one too many times, ‘citing’ spurious ‘evidence’ from sources like Agent Orange (my current fave name for our ersatz president), Breitbart, and the worst of the alt-right idiots. Please note: my friend wasn’t blameless, but she didn’t start the ruckus. She simply took it to the next level.

And I can’t handle it.

It didn’t make me feel good to unfriend him; he’s family. But it did make me less angry than when he was constantly popping up in my feed saying crap that’s flat (verifiably) untrue.

Still, I felt like I’d failed as a Buddhist. I know we’re supposed to ‘listen’ to each other. But what if what someone is spouting is pure poison? Do I have to listen to Agent Orange (my beloved’s name for president #45) spew vitriol about the Women’s March I was so proud to walk in, with my niece & grand-niece? Do I have to accept it? What about his clueless ‘tariff’ on Mexican imports?? Or the Republican Congressman who said folks could pay for the prohibitively expensive Repub alternative to Affordable Care if they just didn’t buy iPhones?? I don’t have a simple Buddhist answer for this one…

I wish I had a nearby Buddhist teacher. The pagans & Wiccans have a word for me: solitary practitioner. I read Buddhist books, websites. Talk about Buddhism to anyone who will listen (some would probably rather not!). And bumble along, trying to live by this truth, and that precept. Mostly I couple tonglen with a sincere effort to be kind & practice compassion. It’s probably not enough, but it’s what I’m able to do at this point. And breathe, of course…

If someone reading this has useful insights, I’d love to hear them. Because I can’t believe it’s okay to ‘accept’ the hate masquerading these days as ‘give him a chance.’ I will NEVER give hate, intolerance, and evil pretending it’s ‘for our own good’ a chance. I don’t think THAT is good Buddhism, either. If you espouse hate, you don’t get my cooperation. Period. If racism is your way to ‘unite’ people — against someone different from you — I will call you on it. The very Buddhism that counsels me to be compassionate also grounds my social justice work.

I did, however, refriend my cousin. After all, he’s family. Besides — I’m off FB for Lent. I can deal with it in April, right? In the meantime, I’m serious: how are you dealing with these virulently polarised times? Any tips?

 

Buddhism, anger, & the deplorables ~

Buddhism, anger, & the deplorables ~

I’m of a generation that has seen much ‘owning’ of formerly negative names. My sons’ generation — those unfairly bashed MIllenials — used to say, that’s so gay. Not at our house, though. Now? It’s gay pride. And ‘queer’ used to be another homophobic slur. Now we have entire departments of queer studies at universities across the globe.

Same w/the motivation behind the current administration’s supporters trying to ‘own’ the term ‘deplorables.’ But you know what? It’s not the same thing. Not by a verrry long shot. To be gay, or queer, or is a descriptor. The judgment is attached by the insulter, not explicit in the word itself.

But deplorable is an intrinsically, BY DEFINITION, negative label. There can be nothing good inherent in the term. Sure, you can wear it as a badge of honour, as you can white privilege (yes, there are such folks). So let’s talk about what I mean when I say the current administration is deplorable.

We have a candidate for Secretary of Commerce who hired an undocumented immigrant for 7 years, then fired her when he was tapped for the position. In other words? We may well have a SoC who KNOWINGLY broke the law. And doesn’t care who knows it, as long as he gets his position.

We have a candidate for Secretary of Education who hates public education. Did you really hear that? The backbone of American democracy is public education. And she not only doesn’t support it, she doesn’t think disabled students are entitled to it, if it’s inconvenient for the school/state/whatever. REALLY? Either that, or (worse in my horrified opinion) she doesn’t even understand what the federal law says. She also doesn’t think all federal laws should be enforced…. Wow.

We have a head of the Environmental Protection Agency candidate who has sued it multiple times, as Attorney General for poor benighted Oklahoma. This one I know well. He’s not only not particularly smart, he HATES public lands, and wants to dismantle all federal protections. Talk about fox and henhouse: Scott Pruitt is about as deplorable as a non-criminal gets.

Secretary of HUD? Ben Carson, whose only qualification for the position seems to be he’s black & lived in an urban neighbourhood?? Attorney General? Jeff Sessions, whose longstanding racism & lack of support for women in domestic abuse situations is legendary.

The list is long. It doesn’t matter what I think of the President Elect (not much). The proof of his active dislike for American government is in his selection of appointees. What is even more deplorable, however, is that many of these men & women have, at the very least, significant conflicts of interest (as does the POE, just in case no one’s told you).

So yes, I think that’s all deplorable. It makes me angry at the same time it breaks my heart, to see this country so happy to disenfranchise its citizens, sell out our public lands, give free license to polluters, and all the rest of the varied anti-government agendas of these deplorable ersatz leaders. As for you wearing a Tshirt that says you’re proud to be part of this trainwreck? I don’t think that’s deplorable. I think it’s just incredibly sad. Right now, I’m spinning between incendiary anger (bad for a Buddhist!) and heartbreak. Trying to draw on lessons of compassion — even wrathful compassion!  — that will get me through this dark dark period. I won’t be watching the inauguration.