Sunday, October 30, 2011

Monkey Brains, II: And Introducing Jess Row

Nothing goes away until it has taught us what we need to know~
Pema Chodron

It's supposed to snow tonight (in Philly?!) so we're prepared! Wait! It's 10 a.m. and snowing right now!
In meditation these days, I am continuing to focus on my breathing, but that intention is attached to a thousand vines.  My mind and body keep their little flirtation going.  Thoughts--planning how I'll get to the grocery store, what to do about that dead rabbit on the deck, snatches of conversation, rehashing of long-dead unsolved problems--each of these is a little seizure during which I no longer seem to have a body at all.  Then I come back; my body is there, sitting still, with tension now banding the crown of my head or around my eyes.  The result of each thought-wander feels a little different.  Planning, I say.  Or: reminiscing. I label the thoughts to learn how each one feels and to learn to recognize what's going on.  

Tonight at the meditation class, I was aware of a deeper mind below all the monkey-chatter. It was like skimming below choppy waves, with Sargasso weed and all that crazy stuff floating around.  Nice.  

Silence is necessary.  The thoughts don't go away, so I'm trying to learn from them.  

Now for the introduction to next week's interview:

Jess Row is a fiction writer and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.  He's a Zen Chaplain at The College of New Jersey, and he teaches at Vermont College, where I did my MFA, but I graduated before he came.  Next week, I'll feature an interview I did with Jess, where he discusses his meditation practice and his writing life.

His story "The Call of Blood" is included Best American Short Stories, 2011.  It comes from his collection titled Nobody Ever Gets Lost, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

Here's the opening of "The Call of Blood":

Mornings he finds Mrs. Kang upright in bed, peeling invisible ginger with an invisible knife.  She watches her hands with rapt attention, picking up the stalks from a pile at  her right and dropping the peeled pieces into a bowl on her lap.  A cloud of white hair rises from her scalp, pale as spun sugar.  The first time he tries to raise her, putting his hands gently beneath her armpits, she bats them away; the second time she forgets to resist.  She weighs eighty-five pounds on a good day.  In the wheelchair she sits up ramrod-straight, and waves a finger at him.  Kaesul hun'bok chasaeoh!  Her voice like wind in a crevasse. You are a bad boy!
Hyunjee, her daughter says,  No offense, Kevin. But if she knew it was a black man taking care of her, it would finish her off.
She has a funny way of smiling, like squinting into the sun.  He can tell she finds this thought faintly entertaining.  
I'm not black, he says.  My father was from Jamaica and my mother was from Queens. Irish Queens. 
Oh, I know, she says. It's complicated...
If you look for religion, Buddhist or otherwise, in this wonderful collection where each story is related directly or indirectly to 9/11, you will find humanity--subtly observed and and lovingly understood--in its  sometimes terrifying quest for justice, security and meaning.

Someone once told me that the root meaning of "religion" is "that which ties ends together."  Row's characters are trying to put a square knot on life's raw ends. Whether due to the shock of violence or the attrition of years, they are desperate for meanings that lie just beyond comprehension.  As each of us is, they are  driven by their own histories, prejudices, and predilections as much as by their desire for resolution.  His examination of race and class, as well as his ability to render the unique, subjective dynamics between people in relationship, is the among most skilled and nuanced that I have encountered.

I was fascinated by a fiction writer who also has an active meditation life.  Next week I'll run my interview with Jess Row.  What he had to say surprised me.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Monkey Brains, I: Outing Myself.

This being my birthday weekend, (56!! I'll look really old in 30 years) it seemed time to begin a new segment for the blog.

This will be a true web journal--a record of my experience as a person who regularly does mindfulness meditation.  (Visceral reaction here:  That sentence rings a bit PC--as if I'd dropped into conversation the phrase a "person of color" instead of "Asian" or "Black"; or, as someone I once knew who was involved in Social Concerns with the Episcopal Church used to insist ad nauseum, those infected with HIV should be called "persons with AIDS."  Despite the intention to cloak the people in question with verbal dignity, these attempts have a sterile whiff.  "Persons" has a vaguely bio-lab feel.)  But I digress.  The truth is, I'm trying hard not to identify myself as a Buddhist.  This despite the fact that I now have what my daughter describes as "a pagan shrine" in my meditation room, aka my son's former bedroom.  (Yes, he still has a room all to himself when he's home. The attic garret. Get over it.)  (Do I sound defensive?  In this family, obtaining the privilege of a room all to MYSELF WAS NOT EASY. But that's another story.)

It made the Cape Cod nights less stark
So this month, I bought a Buddha statue.  (Buddha? Zat you?) I was in Cape Cod recently on family business, and I saw it in a shop and it was beautiful and it wasn't ridiculously expensive.

But I don't know if I'm a Buddhist or not. (Helen: Is that honest?)  I go to regular meditation sessions at Springboard Studio in Mt. Airy (the Granola capital of Philadelphia), and I meet regularly for, like, these talks with their main teacher of Buddhism, Brian Arnell, who has a heart the size of the ancient continent Pangaea.  Springboard is a "secular" Buddhist organization, which as far as I can tell, means that it's okay to go just for the mutual support and to learn to meditate, and Brian makes a distinction between "religious" Buddhists and otherwise Buddhists, which is them, but I can't remember now what it is. Brian is very smart.

The truth is that I was an evangelical Christian for so long--about 30 years, give or take-- (Yes, I was a Quaker child, but then some horrible stuff happened and the church rescued me)  that partly because of  what evangelical Christians describe as "the fear of man" (i.e. wanting other people to like you a lot, even if you haven't actually seen them in like ten years) I am afraid to publicly identify myself (on the WWW! (But does anyone actually read this blog?)) as anything other than an evangelical Christian. Which is sort of ridiculous, considering the "pagan shrine" I have going upstairs.

There's another reason I don't identify myself as a Buddhist.  I'm not sure what being one actually is.

But here's the thing. One incredibly relieving aspect of the whole Buddhist thing is permission to look at what's true in any given moment and to make room for its existence, however putrid or self-indulgent or pathetic.   You don't judge it.  You don't resolve to overcome it, or vow to establish righteousness in its place, (so help me God).  You don't beat yourself up.  Well, duh, you do. But you notice that, too.  And you make room for: Okay, well, I've spent the last twenty minutes beating myself up, and now my chest hurts and I might be having a coronary. That's kind of interesting. And you give yourself a break for noticing how hard it is to give yourself a break.

So the truth is, I am frankly weirded out to think of what all the Christians I was interknit with for so long would think of what I've turned in to.  CONFESSION: The truth is, I used to pray that what has happened to me would not happen to me. I have broken out of the corral: that is, the Jesus thing is no longer my sole reference point.  Anyone who has never been an evangelical will be like, Okay, so what's the big deal here?  And anyone who has/is/ever will be an evangelical, world without end, will get it in an instant and start praying for my return to the fold.  Or leave me up the Will of God, depending.

Okay, so now that's out of the way. Stay tuned as I claw my way to Enlightenment.  Oh, and, also I'm going to talk about spiritual aspects of writing and interview people who are both meditators and writers.  First up: Jess Row, who is currently featured Best American Short Stories, 2011. More about him next week.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Under the Influence: A Parable of Courage

In September, Fiction Writers Review did a series on the teaching of writing.  In this guest post, I share the best story I've ever heard about dealing with writerly discouragement. (Not to mention life!)

When I send out submissions, I’m easily spooked. After receiving my 4,575th “positive rejection”—i.e., “Not a good fit this time… send more”—I wonder if He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is mwa-ha-ha-ing behind the scenes: “Everyone Else is Going to Be Published. Die, Sucker.”
Fortunately, better writers than me have endured the soul-sucking chill of the Dementor’s Kiss. My go-to writing mantra is a story about a Really Successful Writer (hereafter known as Harry Potter) told to me by my favorite writing mentor, whom I’ll call… Hermione Granger. Perhaps the story means so much because she believed in my work. When I can’t maintain faith in myself, I share the story with my own writing students. I repeat it to the cat; I grab despairing novelists at the coffee shop and recite the tale, spittle flying.

The event took place years ago at the prestigious Hogwrites School. Hermione and Harry were sitting side by side at a large table in a novel writing workshop. Professor Albus Dumbledore presided over the discussion of the not-yet-published Harry’s novel… as the work was ripped apart. The students mauled it. Reviled it. Cruciatus-Cursed it. Harry sat impassively listening while his fellow students reduced his work to a writhing torment of former character and plot. But Hermione noticed that under the table, Harry’s knees were shaking.

Some while later, a troubled Hermione found Dumbledore strolling the grounds. “We were really hard on poor Harry,” she told the venerable teacher.

“He deserved it,” Dumbledore replied. “The work was awful.”

Hermione swallowed.

“But he’s going to be a terrific writer.” Seeing my mentor’s shocked face, Dumbledore went on to add that Harry had come to him after the workshop and thanked him for the disembowelment. Harry was going to completely junk the novel and start another from scratch. That kind of drive, Dumbledore indicated, would be the making of him.

“Harry” went on to become famous enough that real names are impossible. I’m in the market for blurbs, after all.

For me, those still-obscure, hopelessly shaking knees are the most encouraging part of the story. It doesn’t matter if other people think your writing is dreadful. It’s okay if you’re scared out of your wits. What matters, in the end, is rising out of the ashes.
Phoenix 2.0
Read the original post here.