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.  

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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.

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