You know those multiple intelligences tests that go around every so often? Well, I used to ask my students to take them. They’re a good ice breaker, and as a long-time teacher, and one of the (very few!) folks who read alllll of Howard Gardner’s book on multiple intelligences, I agree with his conclusions: folks have various ways of learning that are easier for them than others. It’s not rocket science..😉
I always asked my students what they thought my ‘intelligences’ were. They began w/ verbal, since I teach reaching & writing. Nope, I would respond. Not even close. After a few blinks, they would say, interpersonal. And again, I’d reply Nope. I’d counter that actually I’m almost on the spectrum: I’m VERY low in interpersonal skills. I tend to misread folks, although usually to their benefit & not mine…😏 I like to think folks are basically well-intentioned. Politics lately have reminded me that this is not true.
Then they would begin to popcorn sugestions: science? Art? WHAT, Britt?? And almost never (well, to be honest, I don’t remember anyone EVERY suggesting) outdoors. Then music. Verry close together, folks. I adore being outside, and music is my first language. Not even poetry, which depends on both word & song, but music. Which for me, at least, is a kind of magic.
So today, while I was making myself heartsick reading how we are failing so many Americans in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, my younger son sent me a song. It was a cover of a song I always loved. And it totally changed my attitude! Seriously — I found myself dancing in the chair beneath the umbrella outside, my Ipad & keyboard totally forgotten as I listened.
I remembered why music IS one of the ways I process the world: it keeps me balanced. I put that song on like a 16-year-old — playing it over & over for 1/2 an hour, as my bleak dark mood lightened, finally dissipating entirely. I shared it w/ my beloved, as well. And he smiled, caught up in the melody & lyrics. Given, it’s a particularly happy tune, but really? Music is just magic.
I can’t think of anything else — not food, not drink, not books, not even the laughter of my grandsons — that has the same kind of impact on me. Music takes me outside of myself, to some place other. I couldn’t tell you where that it is, or how that works, to be honest. Nothing else, however (well, nothing but being outside…) has that kind of healing power for me.
Anyway, if these dark & grievous times are preying on you like they do me? Well, here it is, so you can enjoy it too. I hope it helps. I know we all need some light these days…
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?
When I was a little girl — about 8 years old? — I remember thinking all I was very good at was love. It sounds more profound now than it was then. Mostly I just wished there were jobs for lovers (the legal kind ????). I loved everything, passionately: my grandmother, my great-aunt. My sisters, my teddy bear, my dog. The trees I climbed, the room I slept in. The way the wind lifted my hair when I held my head out the window of the old blue Buick. The fragrance of rain on hot grass. I swam in love, like a fish breathing water.
As I’ve grown older, I believe even more firmly that my assets aren’t material, although I can cook. And garden. And ‘m good w/ most animals and small children. Parrots and snakes love me. So do bees.
But none of the above ~ or even reading & writing, both of which I’m also pretty good at ~ bring in bucks. If you’re fortunate (and I have been), you can make a modest living. Nor are such talents easily ‘quantifiable.’ Look at the huge hoopla over how to evaluate teachers! We pay lip service to how valuable the non-material things in life are, but as Doc & Steinbeck note in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Log from the Sea of Cortez:
We have definitions of good qualities and of bad …. [a]nd yet … the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man … while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. (p 80, SoC)
It doesn’t matter to most Americans how ‘good’ you are if you make $$. This is just the cultural mindset, identified decades ago by a scientist and a writer. The recent controversial ad from Wells Fargo is an example of this attitudet: actors & ballerinas are inferior to botanists & engineers, it implies not very subtly. Even though (kudos to @DLChamplin for pointing this out) the highest paid actor in 2016 made $64 million, and the highest paid botanist only $165,000-ish. But there we go again, reducing things to $$ and ¢¢. Who is to say what is more important, ultimately? Some days I want botany — the names of flowers & trees, details on what to grow where. Other days? I want refuge for my weary mind: a farce, a comedy, two hours away from now, in the hands of master craftsmen. But I will confess: most days? I want ART. I want beauty, even if it terrifies; writing that may break my heart; dance that makes me catch my breath. Still — I can’t live w/out engineering ~ the structural soundness of my deck enables me to watch the birds that bring me such joy. The botany explicit in the successful farming of the CSA I buy my tomatoes from is why they taste so very fine. The water that sluices from my shower is the result of advanced schooling, to make it all work.
In other words — like most of life, binaries are pretty damn reductive. Which leads me back to love… We say we respect it, admire it, wish to emulate it. But one of our candidates for president belittles it, rolls his eyes at the idea of political respect for other nations & backgrounds, and foments the very opposite of love. Or even respect. And millions of American admire & follow this man. Because he’s ‘successful,’ he says. And because you cannot measure good, or kindness, or love. You certainly can feel them, but it’s like trying to count the wind, or hold sunlight in a bottle. You can tell how fast the wind blows, but you can’t really count IT. You can tell how hot the air is, but you can’t hold sunlight in your hands. Money? That you can count. Success in material goods? Those you can measure (but not realistically, if you don’t include the ‘collateral damages’ of unfair practices, theft, cheating…). And those you can aspire to. There is, we believe, no ‘luck’ about them. They are achievable by all.
Except, of course, they’re not. More on that another time. Suffice to say that the deck is loaded against many Americans.
When the world breaks your heart — as it does mine at least twice a day, chipping away at the my thin candy shell — you have two choices. Love or removal. A temporary bridge into love for me is anger — I am quick to anger. Because of love, paradoxically. All I can do when I don’t know how to take the next breath is try to return to love. And while I”m still good at the easy kind of love ~ the sturdy delicacy of a fly landing on my page as I write outside, laughing as the dogs chase each other ~ the ‘returning to’ part of it, coming back from the incandescent rage I feel at injustice? That’s verrry hard! Still, I believe in it, love. Fiercely. The child of a mother who believed, literally, in the power of love. If you just love enough, she would say. Love can do anything. And so it can, I still believe, as my mother did before me. I just have to practice, that lovely Buddhist word that says I can keep trying; it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, there is only the expectation of continuing, not perfection. So I just have to learn how to return to love, to employ it even when the objects of the exercise are sooo very unloveable!
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.