axe handles, or, why poetry (still) matters ~

axe handles, or, why poetry (still) matters ~

This is a repost from a blog post I did for my favourite literary journal ~ Nimrod. Nimrod is updating its web. presence, and I could think of no better topic than poetry, and its continued importance in our lives. So here you are, Why Poetry Matters:

Years ago—more than 25, actually—the poet Dana Gioia asked if poetry can matter. Here at Nimrod, which for more than 40 years has published amazing poetry, from poets who continue to stun us with beauty, we know it does. And it should.

Poetry—all art, really—connects us. Offers us the experiences of someone outside us to consider, other experiences sifted through the sieves of imagery and compression. Both reading and writing poetry help us to see better: to observe the details in the world around us and to be more aware of how those details shift when seen through the eyes of another. When we read poetry, we’re invited into another landscape, a kind of liminal space between us and the writer. And when we write poetry? We’re actually creating that landscape ourselves. Each effort—while very different—requires imagination and empathy, so necessary for lives well-lived.

If I go too long without poetry, it’s not like I die. It’s not as critical as water. It’s somewhere up there with . . . vitamins. Sunlight. Sitting outside. Not truly life-or-death, but pretty damn important. Because what I learn is always useful—not simply pretty, or even literary. But useful like food, sunlight, vitamins. Take Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles .” There’s a line (lifted from Ezra Pound) that changed me—“When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off.” Let me explain:

Lately I’ve been feeling stiff. Arthritic, for sure, but stiff in other ways, as well. Like my intellectual, emotional, and physical “muscles” are rusted tight. I can’t think like I used to be able to. And for someone with Alzheimer’s rampant in her family, that’s a bit . . . unnerving, to say the least.

The recumbent bike is twice as hard as it ought to be. I’m cranky. And I often feel . . . well, unnecessary. In the way that American culture is so very good at making the aging feel. But Snyder reminds me that even a discarded axe handle is useful. Is necessary: When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off. Snyder elaborates, bringing in Pound, who wrote the line, translated from the Chinese of another poet, Shih-hsiang Chen.

I’m at least partially in love with this poem because it includes my beloved Pound, whom I studied so closely, imprinting on him like a poetic duckling, and his Chinese translations. Once, at a Nimrod reading the Pulitzer-winning poet W.S. Merwin gave in Tulsa, he mentioned sitting with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. I did much of my doctoral work on Pound, and suddenly I was physically connected to my flawed idol, whose work is still so influential to poets, through the man in front of me. I was the latest tiny dot in a line curling back to China. Sitting in the faculty study, I was connected to these writers by lines of poetry. That matters.

The poet Denise Levertov once said that In certain ways writing is a form of prayer. Because poetry is about calling something—a feeling, a thought, an action—into being. Invoking it, really. Poets are the ultimate magicians. Lines on a page become a kind of prayer or spell, as axe handles become safe passage through aging’s dark journey.

Recently, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn’t write with too much structure. That writing is—for me—a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ideas.

Later, as I lay in bed half-asleep, I thought about poetry. And realized that what I said was only true of prose (at least for me). I write poetry most easily (and possibly best) when I have the structure of a form. Sonnet, haiku, tanka, lune—each draws forth the content to fill the form’s structure. They act like scaffolding for the creative process.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: structure is a kind of mindfulness. It’s almost meditative. Certainly it’s contemplative. If I have to fit inchoate feelings/images/thoughts within a skeletal framework, it’s a kind of magic—following the breath to calm. Letting the poem help me find its voice.

I am more than a discarded axe handle. I am capable of being a pattern, a model. Of still being useful. Of teaching. Of being taught, being what the next axe handle comes from. Of being held within the breath pauses that define the poem’s structure, and becoming part of the poem’s music.

In other words? Poetry still matters. When its raison d’être is to connect, to bring ideas into being. How could it NOT?

More on ~ why blog? why write at all??

More on ~ why blog? why write at all??

A writer friend of mine is thinking of beginning a blog for a journal she edits. She asked several of the advisory & editorial boards to be thinking of possible blog posts. The response astonished me. NOT because they were interested (I expected that — writers ❤ having their names in even online print!), but because they didn’t have a CLUE about blogs.

Yes, they (some of them…) read them. And all of them knew blogs are electronic media. But these pretty smart folks were talking about blog posts of 1,000-1,500+ words! Basically, essays (some even said ‘essays.’) I’d put it down to the advanced age(s) of the majority, but in point of fact? Most are younger than I am… Big sigh.

i’ve been blogging regularly, for national outlets, for more than 5 years — almost 6. Not forever, but it’s not that old a medium, right? And it is its own animal, shorter than the essay it echoes. More white space than a newspaper article, even. Shorter paragraphs (a suggestion which I often observe only in rejection!), and a more informal tone. I know these parameters well, even when I choose to reject them (which I do, as my various web tools will nicely inform me!). The conventional blog wisdom is that a blog post should be between 300-500 words (I’m already at 220 here), and feature a lot graphics. I accept the graphics — it’s the web, right? — but I often go over on the length. I justify my wordiness with the caveat that my audience is pretty much used to reading longer pieces than any blog I’m going to write!

But the purpose of a blog is different, as well. As a long-time teacher of writing, from academic writing to personal essay to poetry to blog, what colours my writing (& writing pedagogy) most is years of journalism. The cardinal rule (which fits in with my rhetoric background nicely!) is: know your audience. It’s one of the main reasons I started this blog, when I was already blogging for a national website. The national website is very nice folks, but 90% of their emphasis is Christian, with a strong lean to the evangelical. That couldn’t be less in line w/ my own leanings. I’m like…I must be the Buddhist Unitarian token…?

So here I am, reaching a fraction of the readers I did elsewhere, and still hopeful numbers will change. I’ll never be a viral commodity (too long! too wordy! too whatever!), but that’s never been why I write, to be ‘famous.’ I just want to offer a map on what is often — at least for me — a pretty dark journey. Especially in these days of polarised politics & hard-hearted demagogues. Writing is one of the few ‘talents’ (cultivated as a skill, let me tell you!) I can offer to ‘the cause’ of compassion, of lovingkindness. Of mettametta

Non-Sanskrit speakers mostly translate metta as ‘lovingkindness.’ And that’s how I think of it, certainly. But the infinitely wise Sharon Salzberg, in one of her many disquisitions on metta, notes that it’s really much more than that. It’s connection, love, intimacy. But NOT simply with others. With ourselves, our own lives, as well. For if we can’t love & connect & be grateful for our own happiness, how can we offer that to others? It’s sooo much harder for me to forgive my own fallibility than it is to see the reasons behind the actions of someone I love.

But Salzberg reminds us: each life has the same merit. Hard for me to believe when I compare my own life to that of a leader like the Dalai Lama, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Or US Congressman John Lewis, whose angry passion offends some, while it awes me. I look at him as a force of the best of nature: the fire that brings life to the prairie, by destroying the waste that lies before it. I’m definitely not good at seeing us equal lives!

I’m sure this seems a looong way from blogging! But it isn’t. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama have great gifts. I have only my small one — writing, and a determined voice. So putting it out there is what I do to contribute. Even when I know it’s only a small voice. And even when it means telling folks who are SURE they know…what they don’t know. About blogging. About the different kinds of writing. About media. But NOT about life. 😉

Why scholarship (& science, and all that logical stuff) matters ~

Why scholarship (& science, and all that logical stuff) matters ~

There’s a lot of media attention these days to ‘false news sites.’ I taught research for more than 20 years, and I used to call such sites ‘underwear sites.’ Because anyone can set up a website. You don’t have to be knowledgeable in anything much: you can do it in your underwear. And the information is worth about as much.

For the most part, students HATE research papers. They’ll kid you that they like research (and to be fair, a few actually do…a very few). Then they’ll whine (A LOT) about the research paper itself, how it’s artificial (yes). How it has to be done certain ways (yes again). And how they’ll never write another research paper (possibly true, although not nearly as true as they’d like to believe; we just don’t call them research papers at work…)

But here’s the deal: only in the research paper process do you have the opportunity (indeed, the moral obligation) to teach students about source evaluation. And hold them responsible for being users of credible reearch. Something it’s evident most voters — on both sides of the aisle — are woefully incapable of. Because it’s NOT ‘credible, authoritative information/research/evidence to support your argument’ if you can ONLY find it on personal blogs. Or on only one news source (whether that’s For or democraticunderground). At the very least, in such cases, the ‘news’ is highly suspect — usually downright false. You must be able to locate the same information in multiple sources, none of which are what I taught my students to call ‘agenda-ed.’

Because we don’t tend to think of sources WE respect as ‘biased.’ Even if they are. I was horrified when I realised that 2 websites I quite enjoy aren’t totally objective. They have liberal agendas (which isn’t exactly the same as bias, as I used to explain to my students). The KKK is NOT a reliable source of information about civil rights, or African American history. Or much else, honestly. They are overtly biased against African Americans, and against anyone who isn’t, no matter how they pretty their racism up with euphemism. They also have an agenda: they want to return the US to a whites-only country (the fact that it never was is apparently not relevant).

The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, has an agenda — to cure cancer — but isn’t biased. It won’t tell you lies about things that cause cancer. It will publish what it finds, however, including new research. The KKK will tell you lies about various African American historical figures; the American Cancer Society will not lie to you. There’s a caveat here: research unearths & re-evaluates current knowledge. So what the ACS told us about cancer 30 years ago may not be at all what today’s research reveals. That’s the whole basis of science: it reflects the LATEST data, parsed by experts. Hence climate change.

This is a very difficult concept for many people to get their heads (& hearts) around. Entire political campaigns have been run on bias (if you’re anti-immigration of all Muslims, that’s not an agenda; that’s bias). You may think you have good reasons. You may even have read ‘research’ on your position(s) in various media outlets, from TV news to newspapers to websites. However, it has both bias (Muslims=bad) and an agenda: to ‘rid’ America of Muslims. And the people behind these websites are pretty obvious. IF you take the time to dismantle the ‘About Us’ section at the top of most sites.

Digression: most Americans under the age of 50 (and many well over) consider themselves tech-literate. Yeah, maybe. I’d have to disagree when it comes to evaluation of online sources, however. As noted, I’ve taught research for years, and have been a heavy computer & Internet user since the first linked systems. I still get hoodwinked by fake news sites, primarily humourous ones, but still…! A LOT of satirical websites want to fool you — they think it’s funny. Unfortunately, many of us are believers before skeptics. So we (unknowingly) ‘buy’ fake news. And it’s now such a common occurrence that we have entire articles devoted to it.

I love research. Always have. I read science & nature writing for fun, untangling the braided skeins of data that go into studies taking place over years. I continue to try to unravel ‘real’ news from ‘fake,’ even when the fake stuff comes from (ostensibly) American ‘leaders.’

So I’m repeating this for folks who believe that religion, or faith, or what’s said in a religious text, overrule science & reason: No. They call it ‘faith’ because you have to believe it. It isn’t ‘prove-able.’ I can no more prove the miracle of the loaves & fishes than I can disprove it. Same with miracles credited to other wisdom traditions (and every religion has them): I can’t prove Buddha’s reincarnations (no weirder to contemplate than heaven), or Krishna’s magic powers (no stranger than powers attributed to relics of the saints) or the mercy of Allah.

You may want desperately to believe that X politician is a crook, because another pol you adore said so. But chances are, unless you can find that info on credible, reliable sources lacking ANY agenda or bias (Reuters isn’t bad), it’s false.

You may agree w/ it. It may even be your innate faith. That does NOT make it true. (That’s why they call it faith: you have to BELIEVE it.)

Sorry — scholarship has spoken 🙂

belief, truth, and evidence ~

belief, truth, and evidence ~

I’m good at believing. The White Queen’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ is nothing to me. I believe in world peace. In faeries (really). In other universes. In public education. And a few more things I forget. Daily.

There was, at one time, a national movement, inspired by the sainted Edward Murrow: This I Believe. It asked Americans to submit a short essay on what each one believed. These ranged from a quilt made from old saris, to helping the homeless, to getting together w/ sisters. I absolutely believe that each of these is important.

My father believed in the government. Although a Southern Democrat, he believed strongly in the implicit goodness of the American government. When Nixon was in power, and Watergate was breaking, my father refused to hear anything against the man. I remember a yelling, food-throwing dinner (yup: a regular food fight, at least on my side of the table), w/ Daddy yelling & pounding the table and me hollering back at him. I know I flung my food at him in utter frustration. I don’t think he threw it back. But he certainly was mad enough to, and thumping the table hard enough it might have just flown my way! My mother was crying, my sisters were bawling, even the cook (this was overseas, in a villa on a Thai soi long ago…) was whimpering in fear.

Not me & Daddy. Each of us was certain we were right, and if we just yelled a little louder the other would finally LISTEN. So we kept fighting. Need I say that neither of us was arguing from even a FEW scraps of evidence, but rather from beliefs & individual (in my case limited) experiences? Sometimes the ways I am like my father can we say bull-headed? opinionated? weird sense of humour? unnerve even me. I don’t know how we’d do today, in this contentious political danse macabre. I hope we’d be able to talk more reasonably, citing…well, evidence.

Believing and truthIn a related (but not clearly so) incident recently, I was told on a FB thread, by a friend of a family member, that I was not welcome. That I didn’t ‘belong’ in the conversation. I had cited a Snopes link to refute a lie about the upcoming election that my family member & friends were determined to believe. My family member praised the woman who insulted me, and applauded her friend’s patriotism. This, she crowed, was about AMERICA. And Snopes (which always disagrees with untruths) was a leftist conspiracy; didn’t I KNOW that???

So, I must be about something other than truth & America, apparently.  And I’m obviously crazy because I don’t ‘believe’ that belief makes something true. It just means you think it’s true — in fact, that’s exactly what belief does mean. But again: believing that aliens are the reason my cat sheds doesn’t mean that’s true. No matter how much I believe it. There’s just noooo evidence. Even if your belief system derives from your spiritual tradition(s): I don’t believe what you believe, most likely. So no, I won’t accept that as ‘evidence.’ Any more than these folks who booted me off their FB belief wall would accept the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The same family member who sees me as an interloper armed w/ liberal conspiracies also deleted one of my sister’s posts, for the same reason: it gave solid evidence that a claim being made was, at best, erroneous. I’d call it a malicious lie, but then, I’m not really a particularly good person. Just a hard-headed Buddhist realist.

Both of these incidents remind me that I often offend folks. I’m unabashedly liberal. Beyond liberal, apparently: maybe a flaming crazy progressive. Each separate encounter alerted me that folks often aren’t the least interested in hearing both sides of a story. My son — the one who sent me the difficult essay discussed in a previous post — has reminded me that liberals used to be better than the kind of people who delete posts on their wall that disagreed w/ their own politics. And we didn’t smear folks, either, or accuse them of treachery.

We do, these days. And I’m guilty of it just like the people I decry. But I’m NOT guilty of refusing to look at solid evidence. I’ve changed my opinion(s) on so many things I can’t begin to enumerate them all. Suffice to say that if you can come up w/ strong evidentiary support, I’ll listen. Because like the Venn diagram demonstrates, the intersection of truth & belief is knowledge. Which — for a lifelong learner, a person as nerdy as they come — is better than gold or chocolate. However, tell me it’s your ‘opinion’ & you’re entitled to it, & I’ll discount it. While that’s true — you’re certainly entitled to believe what you want — if you consistently buttress yourself in a safe hidey hole free from troubling contradictions of your careful beliefs, you’re not worth talking with about anything important.

I know this is a character flaw — one I struggle mightily with. And I wish someone could tell me: why I have to work so hard against hate? Because I HATE (list follows):

  • intolerance (my own included)
  • child abuse
  • animal abuse
  • hypocrisy
  • greed (especially when it wears the sanctimonious mask of ‘helping others’)
  • sanctimoniousness (see above)
  • people (and political figures — who don’t seem to always be human) who say they’re being ‘responsible,’ but it always seems to be at the expense of other people, not $$
  • placing more importance on profit than people
  • mean people
  • bad coffee, bad tea
  • ugly gardens

And sooo much more! ????

But ironically, I believe in the government, too. Like Daddy did. Also like Daddy, I believe we can help people help themselves — create jobs (remember the WPA?) and folks can pay taxes. But somehow, when I hear people talking, I don’t hear true belief. I hear a chorus of sea gulls in Finding Nemo: mine mine mine mine mine… And that’s not something I ever want to believe in. Any more than I want to delete folks’ posts.

I confess, though: I’ve pruned my social media to reflect less politics & more science. Fewer political action groups and more poetry. My battered heart can’t bear the ugliness that this election has brought roiling up from some dark pit within America. I can’t handle when people I care about — on even the smallest level — refuse to consider verifiable, independent facts. You know: evidence? That stuff that exists outside of you & your belief system(s): science, for instance. It doesn’t matter if you believe you can fly. Jump off the roof, & you’ll fall. It’s called gravity (even if it is only a theory). And gravity (like Zika virus, like whooping cough & total eclipses of the sun) don’t care whether you ‘believe’ in them or not.

So I apologise if I offend people I care about, but I’m learning to be myself. Even at this ripe old age. I’m learning to juggle what I believe with… well, what I believe. Social justice w/ compassion & tolerance, even for those who deny both those things to me & others. Belief with evidence. Truth with… well, truth with truth. Because surely that’s enough.

I’m getting better, though: I’m learning not to throw food. And actually? I think my Dad would be proud of me. I really do.

ideas, writing, and the love of learning ~

ideas, writing, and the love of learning ~

I don’t know why we teach literature. Not the most politic of statements by a writer and teacher of lit ????, I realise. But honestly? Can you teach a love for language, so that Mary Oliver’s poetry becomes a love affair for the image-besotted among us? Can we cultivate a passion for the way Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley reproduces the circular pattern of his journeys? Does any of this really matter when all the world seems to think that the only important ‘thing’ is a good job? Meaning: one that pays WELL. Teaching doesn’t count. Nursing is borderline. Plumbing, trash disposal, retail, and most service jobs? All ‘don’t count’: they aren’t prestigious and/or don’t pay well.

When I went away to college so many years ago, I had to settle for the college my father would pay for. Which wasn’t my first choice (that would have been Antioch, where they had what would now be called a ‘service learning component’ — working in your field, or another, doing good; a very Buddhist idea). Or my second — that would have been Stanford, where I was wait-listed, but might have been been able to get in after scholarships were decided.

No, I went where my father sent me. Where my extended family could ‘keep an eye on me,’ and where he thought I would be ‘safe.’ Meaning: away from radical ideas, and whatever. That worked out much like many decisions in my life, less than what I hoped for, more than I had any right too expect. But I still had dreams: an idea that somehow, I would grow. I would sit up late talking about how to change the world, and that at college I might even learn ways to do just that.

StudyingI didn’t, by the way. At least not at college.

But I didn’t know that. I went off w/ all the best intentions of learning, not thinking about a job. I started out on a history scholarship, for cryin’ out loud! What ‘job’ (other than the one I still have, and love — teaching) would that make possible?

And I did learn. I changed majors 14 times (conservative estimate, honest) over the course of the 10 years it took me to matriculate. I immediately changed from history to anthropology, one of my ongoing loves, and then to English lit, next rhetoric, then to French, on to geology, to biology (that lasted about as long as it took me to figure out that I never would understand how to work a microscope — long enough to fail cellular!), a short flirtation w/ comparative lit, comparative religions, and back again to several of them. So, depending on how you count, somewhere between 14 and 18 times… Truth. I wanted to know everything. But mostly, I wanted to read. In any discipline, about almost anything. I wanted ideas, and intelligent conversation. And literature was the best of places to find them.

Still, I learned about rocks (geology was sooo cool!), and about ecosystems, and about cells, and how to dig clay from the earth & pulverise it myself & make it into a really ugly pot. I learned about logical fallacies, and French diphthongs & English etymology. Not to mention cellular structure, genetics 101, and sooo much more. Mostly, I learned how to think: how to oh so painfully! construct an argument. And find sources to back it up. And how to lay it out w/out rancour, hopefully.

When I taught youngers, my students would tell me they didn’t like literature. Or even reading. I believed them — who would make such a thing up?? They had no idea what a knife it is, for a book idolator, to hear that anyone wouldn’t love reading. But I’m not certain that their disdain for ‘literature’ isn’t really even worse, in some ways. What they associated w/ English lit classes wasn’t the reading, or even the discussion. It wasn’t the exchange of ideas I soaked in like the air I breathe. It was writing. And they hated it. My beloved conversations about text, and writing? They hated all of it.

When I was a very small girl — possibly as young as 3, certainly no older than 5 — I ‘wrote’ poems and stories on a small magnetic chalkboard of my grandmother’s. She’d been a teacher before marrying, and had a lot of ‘educational’ toys around. I didn’t know they were educational. I just liked them.

I made small books, scribbling in them before I even knew my alphabet. And then I made maps in the books, as if somehow that would see me somewhere safe. I wrote letters to my old ladies when we lived overseas, and thank-you notes for the presents they chose carefully. I wrote in locking diaries w/ tiny keys, and French cahiers blotted by leaky fountain pens, and on stationery in pastel colours. Writing wasn’t something I thought about — it was what I did. Now, it’s who I am. I write. It’s a rare day I don’t write.

Certainly reading & writing haven’t made me rich, or famous. But I’m pretty sure that they have made me a better person. They’ve helped me process and record my thoughts so that I can figure a way out of the tangled skeins of everyday experiences. They’ve allowed me to insert my voice, my own experiences & thoughts, into public conversations, and back up what I think with ‘evidence,’ with the support of far wiser men & women. Sometimes they have even made me happy. I can’t convince most folks of this (certainly not students!), so I rarely try these days. It’s enough if every so often, someone cracks open a new book, or tries to put words on paper or a brightly lit screen, and shares.

Perhaps that’s the whole struggle: just to begin. Just to conquer the fear of blankness — blank screen, blank notebook, unopened book. Certainly it’s a major reason I write — to think aloud, often about what I’ve just read. Most readers subvocalise: they read aloud in their heads. You can even pick this up on sensitive recording apparatus. Writing isn’t reading, but it’s very close. Reading what I wrote 20 years ago when my sons were young…before my doctoral studies is a way to have a conversation w/ that woman, to share experiences that may as well have happened to someone else...long ago & far away.

I’m lucky in that I’ve always been able to teach what I’m interested in, or what I want to learn. Which has also meant I’ve mostly read what I wanted — a pretty varied library. Right now? I’m gearing up to teach a seminar on the mystery (my favourite genre fiction), a workshop on writing & place, and a couple of presentations on specific books I like. Whether I’m able to communicate my own passions for these topics remains to be seen. But at least I know that anyone studying w/ me now is there because s/he wants to be. And that they read. For fun. That’s more than half the field gained!

Practice ~

Practice ~

Writing when I don’t feel like it. Being nice to rude people. Petting the dog because he deserves it, even when I’m wearing black trousers. Cleaning up the kitchen when I’m exhausted before bed because my husband did it in the a.m. Trying to be reasonable when people on FB are being idiots. This is practice.

It’s not just Buddhist practice. It’s practice for manners. For love, for metta — lovingkindness. Mostly it’s practice like violin or piano or baseball practice: because I’m not good at these things. Especially the whole ‘being nice to rude people’… And FB idiots…. Sigh. Especially in an election year!

I’m not really a very good Buddhist. I don’t meditate much at all — although I try to be quiet and ‘be’ during the day. And writing daily is a kind of meditation for me, as I’ve noted elsewhere. I don’t read the sutras very often. Probably I know more about Christianity than Buddhism, and I’m not a Christian.

I don’t eat vegetarian, other than abstaining from pigs. They’re too smart (they cry — more on that another post), so I don’t eat them. Or monkeys, or octopuses (and yes: that is the proper plural; look it up) although I know we’re not supposed to kill any being. At least I don’t drink (verboten in Buddhism), but that has more to do w/ family alcoholism and my desire to model having fun w/out drugs than Buddhism.

I don’t sit. I don’t go to temple. In fact, if it weren’t for the bodhisattva vow I made, I’d probably be considered just another bleeding heart Unitarian ????. But in fact, I identify as a Buddhist.

I remember going to Buddhist temple w/ our amah in Saigon — the ropy walls of a temple carved from the heart of a giant banyan tree. It shaped and framed my ideas of religion forever: it shows up in my writing over & over, even in my dreams, sometimes. A curtain of fragrant smoke from sandalwood incense hung before the entrance into the tree temple. Inside, a Buddhist monk — robed as all monks in Việt Nam are, in saffron — chanted the already-musical Việtnamese language. Something deep beneath Oklahoma, beyond Western, leapt up in recognition. This, I remember thinking, those very long years ago, is where God lives. This was the language God spoke, and the way God smelled. This was my home.

I never found the idea of God in any Christian church, I have to say. I’ve felt comfortable — as I did when I first sat in the sky-blue sanctuary of All Souls, my Unitarian home church, and the largest Unitarian church in the world. That’s probably the best Western religious home I’ve found. It’s the home of Emerson, Unitarianism. The academic, the scholar and writer and poet, we all feel at home there. And had I never been to Việt Nam or Thailand, I probably still would have ended up a Unitarian. It’s such an inclusive, open faith. There’s room for all the ‘mes’ — the neo-Pagan, who read Starhawk’s Spiral Dance; the Kabbalist who studied names and numbers and secret texts; the reader of both Testaments, and the Apocrypha, as well. The feminist scholar, the peace poet. The lover of Auden, the decoder of Pound.

Denise Levertov, in a poem I read once (‘A Clearing‘), said that “paradise/ is a kind of poem; it has/ a poem’s characteristics:/ inspiration; starting with the given;/ unexpected harmonies; revelations.” Sometimes I tell people that my religion is poetry. But when I think about it, as I told a friend, poetry is certainly my ‘practice.’ In the Buddhist sense of the word: your practice is your covenant w/ Buddhist doctrine. The Eight-Fold Path, the Four Noble Truths — all of which deal with suffering and desire, the roots of human despair. Your practice is what it is that helps you keep the Truths in mind, as you follow the Path. Sort of…

I know I should sit. I have, in the past. And I will again, I know. Right now, I’m practicing. Practicing how to be in the world. How to breathe when it hurts, not yell when I’m angry. How to walk into the fires that make me, always, a Year of the Dragon warrior, not a Bodhisattva, other than in desire.

A dear friend once told me to honour the dragon, to claim the fire that burns hot and bright, and find a way to use it. Maybe that’s what I need to practice. How to burn clear and true. Not how to sit, per se. But how to turn that flame of righteous anger to good purpose. I guess I need more practice.