Saturday, December 31, 2011

a hidden wholeness

at the end of year

The particular mind of the ocean
Filling the coastline's longing
With such brief harvest
Of elegant, vanishing waves
Is like the mind of time
Opening us shapes of days.

As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.

The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.

Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.

The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.

The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.

Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

~ John O'Donohue
from To Bless the Space Between Us

Friday, December 30, 2011

trying to reconcile

On the one hand I felt the call of God; on the other, I continued to follow the world. 
All the things of God gave me great pleasure, but I was held captive by those of the world. 
I might have been said to be trying to reconcile these two extremes, 
to bring contraries together: the spiritual life on the one hand and worldly satisfactions, 
pleasures, and pastimes on the other. 

~ Saint Teresa of Avila

Saturday, December 24, 2011

so silent

There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: 
it can’t be spoken. It has to remain silent. 
To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it. 

Now let us frankly face the fact that our culture is one which is geared in many ways 
to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. 
We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, 
or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. 
This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, 
a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: 
we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. 

We are not fully present and not entirely absent; 
not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. 
It cannot be said that we are really participating in anything and we may, 
in fact, be half conscious of our alienation and resentment. 

Yet we derive a certain comfort from the vague sense that we are ‘part of’ something – 
although we are not quite able to define what that something is – 
and probably wouldn't want to define it even if we could. 

We just float along in the general noise. 
Resigned and indifferent, we share semi-consciously 
in the mindless mind of Muzak and radio commercials which passes for ‘reality.’

~ Thomas Merton
from Essential Writings
with thanks to running cause i cant fly

Friday, December 23, 2011

the kingdom

At times
the heart
stands back
and looks at the body,
looks at the mind,
as a lion
quietly looks
at the not-quite-itself,
moving of shadows and grass.

Wary, but with interest,
considers its kingdom.

Then seeing
all that will be,
heart once again enters -- 
enters hunger, enters sorrow,
enters finally losing it all.
To know, if nothing else,
what it once owned.

~ Jane Hirshfield
from The October Palace

Thursday, December 22, 2011

the ninth elegy

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then
have to be human–and, escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate? . . .

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too. . . . .

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it,
trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless heart.
Trying to become it.–Whom can we give it to? We would
hold on to it all, forever . . . Ah, but what can we take along
into that other realm? Not the art of looking,
which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.
The sufferings, then. And above all, the heaviness,
and the long experience of love,– just what is wholly
unsayable. But later, among the stars,
what good is it – they are better as they are: unsayable.
For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,
he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window–
at most: column, tower. . . . But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing. Isn't the secret intent
of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,
that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?
Threshold: what it means for two lovers
to be wearing down, imperceptibly, the ancient threshold of their door–
they too, after the many who came before them
and before those to come. . . . ., lightly.

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.
Speak and bear witness. More than ever
the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for
what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.
An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as
the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.
Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise.

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe
where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him
something simple which, formed over generations,
lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze.
Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished; as you stood
by the ropemaker in Rome or the potter along the Nile.
Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even lamenting grief purely decides to take form,
serves as a Thing, or dies into a Thing–, and blissfully
escapes far beyond the violin.–And these Things,
which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,
they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.
They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,
within–oh endlessly–within us! Whoever we may be at last.

Earth, isn't this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn't it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?–O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer
need your springtimes to win me over–one of them,
ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.
Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.
You were always right, and your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller . . . . . Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke
from Duino Elegies (1923)

Empedocles' Physics

In all its parts the deep foul valley trembled so
I thought the universe felt love, which some believe
Has many times returned the world to chaos; here below
And elsewhere in that moment, the ancient cliffsides tumbled.

The Inferno, Canto XII

'Aversion carves the self.'
- A Vedic teaching too, though here
it is Empedocles', who wrote
that Hate creates our fractal'd world,
which Love would have a single, formless sphere.
An example: enemy soldiers, late
in 1914, carolled each other across the fields.
Could not, next dawn, take up their former places.
Such is the chaos that affection yields.

When did we cut the long-compounded verbs
into their separate nouns,
the worm's life from the bird's?
Must it be loneliness crowns all things
that live?  Packed fat of the sea-lion,
fox blood splashing the brush like early sun-
why give them to our wars to be undone?
But what if in truth Love's perfect One were
Dante's sheered disorder, the known world tumbled?
If the longing and stumble of self were made of sin?
Choose Hate, to stay faceted then
in the many and season-strung minds, the battered salmonskin
peeling its sky's flung rind, the blossoming strife.
Choose the cell's dividing, life into life,
the too-bright stream.  Choose beauty loved-
how loved - within division's light.

~ Jane Hirshfield
from The October Palace
art by picasso

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wendell Berry - on work

This article is printed here courtesy of The Progressive , where it originally appeared as a letter to the editor in response to the article “Less Work, More Life.”

The Progressive, in the September issue, both in Matthew Rothschild’s “Editor’s Note” and in the article by John de Graaf (“Less Work, More Life”), offers “less work” and a 30-hour workweek as needs that are as indisputable as the need to eat.

"Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.

It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.

The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren't we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn't that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?

A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that Mr. de Graaf has neglected to ask:

What work are we talking about?

Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?

How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?

Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?

For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?

What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of Mr. de Graaf and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.

I don’t think anybody can honorably object to the proposition, in theory, that it is better “to reduce hours rather than lay off workers.” But this raises the likelihood of reduced income and therefore of less “life.” As a remedy for this, Mr. de Graaf can offer only “unemployment benefits,” one of the industrial economy’s more fragile “safety nets.”

And what are people going to do with the “more life” that is understood to be the result of “less work”? Mr. de Graaf says that they “will exercise more, sleep more, garden more, spend more time with friends and family, and drive less.” This happy vision descends from the proposition, popular not so long ago, that in the spare time gained by the purchase of “labor-saving devices,” people would patronize libraries, museums, and symphony orchestras.

But what if the liberated workers drive more?

What if they recreate themselves with off-road vehicles, fast motorboats, fast food, computer games, television, electronic “communication,” and the various genres of pornography?

Well, that’ll be “life,” supposedly, and anything beats work.

Mr. de Graaf makes the further doubtful assumption that work is a static quantity, dependably available, and divisible into dependably sufficient portions. This supposes that one of the purposes of the industrial economy is to provide employment to workers. On the contrary, one of the purposes of this economy has always been to transform independent farmers, shopkeepers, and tradespeople into employees, and then to use the employees as cheaply as possible, and then to replace them as soon as possible with technological substitutes.

So there could be fewer working hours to divide, more workers among whom to divide them, and fewer unemployment benefits to take up the slack.

On the other hand, there is a lot of work needing to be done—ecosystem and watershed restoration, improved transportation networks, healthier and safer food production, soil conservation, etc.—that nobody yet is willing to pay for. Sooner or later, such work will have to be done.

We may end up working longer workdays in order not to “live,” but to survive."

Wendell Berry
Port Royal, Kentucky
Love Wins

with thanks to practicing resurrection

stable as the land

How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, 
in the rain, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, 
in the wind: these are our spiritual directors and our novice masters. 
They form our contemplation. 
They instill virtue into us. 
They make us as stable as the land we live in. 
You do not get that out of a typewriter.

Thomas Merton
from The Intimate Merton
art by van gogh

Sunday, December 18, 2011

morning bird songs

I wake up my car;
pollen covers the windshield.
I put my dark glasses on.
The bird songs all turn dark.

Meanwhile someone is buying a paper
at the railroad station
not far from a big freight car
reddened all over with rust.
It shimmers in the sun.

The whole universe is full.

A cool corridor cuts through the spring warmth;
a man comes hurrying past
describing how someone right up in the main office
has been telling lies about him.

Trough a backdoor in the landscape
the magpie arrives,
black and white, bird of the death-goddess.
A blackbird flies back and forth
until the whole scene becomes a charcoal drawing,
except for the white clothes on the line:
a Palestrina choir.

The whole universe is full!

Fantastic to feel how my poem is growing
while I myself am shrinking.

It's getting bigger, it's taking my place,
it's pressing against me.
It has shoved me out of the nest.
The poem is finished.

~ Tomas Transtromer
from The Unfinished Heaven
translated by robert bly

a love song

The little river twittering in the twilight,
The wan, wondering look of the pale sky,
This is almost bliss.

And everything shut up and gone to sleep,
All the troubles and anxieties and pain
Gone under the twilight.

Only the twilight now, and the soft "Sh!" of the river
That will last forever.

And at last I know my love for you is here;
I can see it all, it is whole like the twilight,
It is large, so large, I could not see it before,
Because of the little lights and flickers and interruptions,
Troubles, anxieties and pains.

You are the call and I am the answer,
You are the wish, and I the fullfilment,
You are the night, and I the day.
What else - it is perfect enough.
It is perfectly complete,
You and I,
What more--?

Strange, how we suffer in spite of this.

~ DH Lawrence
from Look! We Have Come Through!
photo by kate thompson

Saturday, December 17, 2011

without time?

Like a singer, for example; to him the voice is the greatest security, 
and when that fails he is ready to commit suicide. 
What is really exciting and true is to find out for oneself a way of life
 that is highly sensitive and supremely intelligent; and this is not possible
 if there is fear, anxiety, greed, envy, the building of images 
or the living in religious isolation. That isolation is what all religions
 have supplied: the believer is definitely on the threshold of suicide.
 Because he has put all his faith in a belief, when that belief is questioned
 he is afraid and is ready to take on another belief, another image, 
commit another religious suicide. So, can a man live without any image, 
without any pattern, without any time-sense? I don’t mean living 
in such a way as not to care what happens tomorrow or what happened yesterday,
 That is not living. There are those who say, “Take the present and make the best of it;
 that is also an act of despair. Really one should not ask whether or not it is right
 to commit suicide; one should ask what brings about the state of mind
 that has no hope – though hope is the wrong word because hope implies a future;
 one should ask rather, how does a life come about that is without time?
 To live without time is really to have this sense of great love, because love
 is not of time, love is not something that was or will be; to explore this and live
 with it is the real question. Whether to commit suicide or not is the question 
of a man who is already partially dead. Hope is the most dreadful thing.
 Wasn't it Dante who said, “Leave hope behind when you enter the Inferno?"
 To him, paradise was hope, that's horrible.

~ J. Krishnamurti
from The Urgency of Change
art by Katsushika Hokusai

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

again and again

Again and again, however we know the landscape of love
and the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,
and the frighteningly silent abyss into which the others
fall: again and again the two of us walk out together
under the ancient trees, lie down again and again
among the flowers, face to face with the sky.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke 

Monday, December 12, 2011

the couple

They turn the lights off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness.  Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven's darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep, 
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy's painting.

It is dark and silent.  The city however has come nearer
tonight.  With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

~ Tomas Transtromer
translated by robert bly
from The Half-Finished Heaven
art by picasso

the tangerine-eater

Oh what foresight!  This rabbit of the fruit-world!  Imagine: 
 thirty-seven little pits in a single specimen, ready to fall every-which-way
 and create offspring.  We had to correct that.  She could have populated
 the whole earth - this little headstrong Tangerine, wearing a dress
 too big for herself, as if she intended to keep on growing.
  In short: badly dressed; more concerned with reproduction 
than with style.  Show her the pomegranate, in her armor of Cordova leather: 
 she is bursting with future, holds herself back, condescends... 
And, letting us catch just a glimpse of her possible progeny, 
she smothers them in a dark-red cradle.  She thinks earth
 is too evasive to sign a pact of abundance.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke
from Uncollected Poems,
four sketches
photo by bill thompson III

gratulerer med dagen Edvard

I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – 
suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, 
feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – 
there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – 
my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – 
and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

~ Edvard Munch 
from his diary Jan. 22, 1892

He paints, or rather regards, things in a way that is different from that of other artists. He sees only the essential, and that, naturally, is all he paints. For this reason Munch's pictures are as a rule "not complete", as people are so delighted to discover for themselves. Oh, yes, they are complete. His complete handiwork. Art is complete once the artist has really said everything that was on his mind, and this is precisely the advantage Munch has over painters of the other generation, that he really knows how to show us what he has felt, and what has gripped him, and to this he subordinates everything else.

~ Christian Krohg
a friend of Munch

Munch 1933

Sunday, December 11, 2011

an ecstasy

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, 
and beyond which life cannot rise. 
And such is the paradox of living, 
this ecstasy comes when one is most alive,
and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. 

~ Jack London 
from The Call of the Wild
photo by Shreve Stockton

Saturday, December 10, 2011

the ordinary and the wild

Unnameable Heart

The cricket who
kept me company three days
has fallen silent,
I don't know where.

There are so many
lives of which I know nothing.
Even my own. It moves now
through my fingers toward yours
and I know nothing
I can say that will name its heart.

A boat drifts far out
on the river below the mountains,
and below it
the fish, the great fish
that the one in the boat has come for,
swims in the shadows.

Perhaps the cricket is there, inside the fish.
Stranger things have happened.
I have looked everywhere else
for my lost companion.

From here, the shadow looks small,
but to the fish it is huge.
Range after range of mountains,
and still the old painters
found a place
where two could walk together, side by side.

~ Jane Hirshfield


The things we really need come to us only as gifts, 
and in order to receive them as gifts, 
we have to be open. 

In order to be open we have to renounce ourselves, 
in a sense we have to die to our image of ourselves, 
our autonomy, our fixation upon our self-willed destiny. 

We have to be able to relax the psychic 
and spiritual cramp which knots us in the painful, 
vulnerable, helpless “I” that is all we know of ourselves

~ Thomas Merton
sketch by catherine doherty

On this day in 1941 Thomas Merton arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani 
and on this day in 1968 he died in Thailand while participating in a conference of Benedictine and Trappist monks. In the 27 years between those two events he wrote a succession of books which have touched many lives.