Monday, January 9, 2012

New Year's Resolution # 1: Spiritual Practice & Presence

Woody Guthrie's 1943 "New Years Rulin's." Found in one of his journals dated January 1st, 1943.
Woody Guthrie Archives Notebook Series 1, Item 13, Pages 36-37

From Lewis Carroll's original manuscript, "Alice's Adventures Under Ground."
Source: Lenny's Alice-in-Wonderland site

We are nine days into the 2012 New Year, and my clock is off. I intended to get up early, breathe, meditate, do some sun salutations, pray, and begin the day right. Instead, I've been staying up until the early morning - three, four, even five o'clock—and then sleeping fitfully until sometimes—horrors!—the early afternoon. 2011 is gone, but the sad, sometimes traumatic memories of it are not. In answer to my last sentence, a part of me—Aliki in the rabbit hole, scolding herself for crying—retorts So what? The whole point of spiritual practice is to find the peace within so you can deal with inevitable suffering and trauma. Then again, maybe spiritual practice, for perfectionist, self-scolding people like me, is about accepting, peacefully, these thoughts, and detaching from them, and even laughing at them.  Yes, I've been conducting this nonsensical underground dialogue with myself for a very long time. In fact, I just heard one of my own poems speak in my head, which is probably not the best thing to admit. These are two stanzas from "What's the Matter?"—a probably too-long poem that appears in my book, Blue Earth (but not in my New & Selected—Why would I select a self-chastising poem? Wouldn't that make me like Alice who "remembered boxing her own ears for having been unkind to herself"?):

He’s got his hands on his hips
and walks toward the child who retreats
out of sight and reappears in the hall
around the corner. I guess he’s been bad.
I know what it’s like to be bad.
Sometimes you can’t help it.
I’m sitting on the fire escape. What good
is a wooden fire escape? These questions

I can’t help asking may have answers
that don’t matter. What’s the matter?
I want to go upstairs or outside
and down the street to another city
or even another house. So what
if there’s so much to do?
I wish I could laugh at myself
but am complaining, which only keeps me here...

Jorge Luis Borges & Willis Barnstone
on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires, 1975
     Well, now my modesty is kicking in, and I wonder: Is quoting my own poem—even if I don't think it's one of my best—shameless (shameful?) self-promotion? I'm reminded of a trip I took with my dad and Jorge Luis Borges to Madison, Wisconsin—must have been around 1980. They were touring the country, doing public interviews, often with several others. On this particular occasion, Alastair Reid asked Borges a question that the sage humbly twisted around in order to mock his interlocutor. Reid quipped, "Borges, sometimes you wield your modesty like a club." As if to enact the observation, Borges stood up with a grin and bowed deeply, and we were lost in another of his cerebral labyrinths: his proud gesture, with its humiliating humility, charmed and repelled us—or at least me. 
     After the lecture, I was given the privilege of being Borges' seeing-eye-girl. I guided him down windy State Street, with piles of lake-effect snow on either side of us. I'd accompanied my father to several Borges events. I'd read Borges' work, in my dad's lovely translations, and in college. I remember the discussion we had when read Borges' Labyrinths for one of several courses I took with Arnold Weinstein, whom I adored. One of the students complained that the work was difficult to relate to. Borges the human being seemed absent, except as a clever mind. I launched into a passionate defense of the man I'd not yet met, pointing to this or that passage. I remember Professor Weinstein listening to us, attentively, with an encouraging little smile on his face. He responded to each of us, showing us both our perceptions opened up the text. More importantly, he gave us permission to connect art to our own lives. In his recent book, A Scream Goes through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life, my professor writes:  

In art we can find and tap into a reservoir of feeling, and this encounter not only breaks open our solitude but also makes audible and visible to us the emotional lines of force that bathe individual life, separate us, yet connect us to one another. Art and literature are the ears we do not have, to hear the sounds of sentience, the emotions of others, and even our own; they are the eyes we do not always have, that can look beneath the surface to see revealed the currents of feeling that lie beneath our words, our actions, and our separate states, and also to delineate the larger community in which emotions inscribe us.

I can't remember what I said, except that Borges's story, "Funes the Memorious," was present in my mind then, as now, as always. Funes was a man who remembered everything:

     With no effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese and Latin. I suspect, however, he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.
     The wary light of dawn entered the earthen patio.

Professor Weinstein sat on a chair and some of us were sprawled on the floor. I can still feel myself cross-legged on the floor, discovering what I hoped to give to my students one day, which might be the courage to guide them inside the enigma, and not to have answers. I wish I'd said—maybe I did—"When 'the wary light of dawn entered the earthen patio' I was shaken. The  image is unforgettable. Literally, I can't forget—even if I can't recall the Spanish or English words—tormented Funes, the genius idiot, lying on his cot, sleepless, when the morning light enters to reveal still more minutia. Dawn enters him like another soul that all his life he will hold within, without connection. I was learning to teach what I love, even if—at times, but only at times—what I love is the tragic recognition of the absence of love. 
      Jorge Luis Borges was holding my arm, talking, and I was saying something in response, trying to remember every word. One day at a moment like this one, his sentences would present themselves and I'd record them. I remember steering the great writer away from the nearly black slick of ice at the curb. I remember he wasn't very tall. I remember feeling non-existent in his presence or absence or whatever it was, and the more I tried to remember our conversation, if you could call it that, the more quickly his words abstracted into the frozen gray sky. 
     Maybe Borges was unhappy and confessed his soul when he wrote this sonnet, one of my favorites:


I have committed the worst sin of all
That a man can commit. I have not been
Happy. Let the glaciers of oblivion
Drag me and mercilessly let me fall.
My parents bred and bore me for a higher
Faith in the human game of nights and days;
For earth, for air, for water, and for fire.
I let them down. I wasn't happy. My ways
Have not fulfilled their youthful hope. I gave
My mind to the symmetric stubborness
Of art, and all its webs of pettiness.
They willed me bravery. I wasn't brave.
It never leaves my side, since I began:
This shadow of having been a brooding man.
tr. Willis Barnstone

T.S. Eliot plaque in our Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, MO,
where I was confirmed, as a member of Calvary Episcopal Church.
      But I digress, which reminds of T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock," and annoys me. "Is it perfume from a dress / that makes me digress."  Why does that prig sing in me so loud, so much? I half-stole his rhyme in these lines from one of my poems: "How about I take off // my dress / in my distress? // or we take a sexy digression /on another question?" I was going to say that I was a good girl to steal and follow Eliot's advice, "Good poets borrow, great poets steal," but—because I google mid-sentence—thanks to Nancy Prager, I just discovered that people have been misquoting Eliot for years. He actually wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least different." Yeah, you pretentious snob, at least my lines are different. 
     Eliot's biography pisses me off even more than Borges the man disappointed me. (Arnold Weinstein's enthusiasm and idealism set me up, and now I'm passing down the legacy and setting up my students.) Why did the poet I loved so much as a college student have to be a despicable antisemite? Why was he so awful to his wife? Why is it so funny when my former student Ron Salutsky quips "Eliot is the only major British author from Missouri"?  Oh, Lord have mercy! I'm about to quote myself again—These questions // I can’t help asking may have answers / that don’t matter. What’s the matter? I love (most of) T.S. Eliot's poetry, and he's one of my greatest influences, so what does it matter that I don't like him so much as a person ? Who am I to judge? I never knew him. What does it matter that people I've known, looked up to, and emulated have been absent or selfish or not quite truthful? I don't know, but I can't help asking. 
      What were my New Year's resolutions again? Practice yoga, meditate, pray, sing, and exercise every day. Post on my blog once a week. Be present.

I've been trying to come back to the beginning of this post, so I can go to bed, where my husband is waiting. (I started writing this post on the 8th, re-entered it on the 9th; now that it's almost 1:30 a.m., it's officially the 10th, our wedding anniversary.) I began with New Years' resolutions and spiritual practice and my disappointment that, despite my best intentions, I stay up late and mourn and ruminate. I fail to accept my flaws or those of the people I love and then judge myself for failing to be peaceful, just like Alice boxing her own ears for being unkind to herself. 

     Borges, maybe you were sweeter than I remember. You are with me now and ever, you and Funes. Peace be with you.
     Mr. Eliot, like you I was raised Unitarian and converted to Anglicanism. Unlike you, my father is a Jew. I hope you are eating the spiritual food with the Jews in Heaven, and are seated somewhere near the right hand of the Rabbi Jesus. Peace be with you.
     All you that I now name in the silence of my heart, forgive me for not forgiving deeply enough. Peace be with you

     I'm going upstairs now to say the goodnight rhyme to my daughter, as I have every night of her life, even if she's asleep already. Good night, sleep night—don't the bedbugs bite—see you in the morning light. I love you very much—have sweet dreams. 
     I'm going upstairs now to give my husband a happy anniversary present, my presence.
     I want to make art, and find the peace and presence not to feel remorse that I gave My mind to the symmetric stubborness / Of art, and all its webs of pettiness.
     I resolve to stop writing now and make the circle of life and art whole. 


  1. "What does it matter that people I've known, looked up to, and emulated have been absent or selfish or not quite truthful?" I think you've summed up so much of my own misdirected affinity and if I've made any resolutions in recent years is to direct my support toward those creative persons who are both talented and decent individuals. Ha! They do exist. I am reminded of how I have a desire to know/not know about the private lives of those I admire because it can alloy my affinity to some extent. I was in love with Hubble for a few years simply because he discovered billions of galaxies outside our own Milky Way. Then I read snippets of his biography about his pretentious mannerisms and celebrity chasing and I felt that old disillusionment set in. A wise friend said to me that even the people you love and revere most will disappoint you. No one could possibly live up to our idealism so I suppose the lesson to be learned (for me) as I reflect on your wonderful post and the path it took me is to find that point of acceptance which recognizes that art is a kind of 4th dimension where great works are created independent of one's habits, personality and lifestyles. I will instinctively love the talented humanitarian because there's nothing so wonderful as someone whose is a remarkable artist and a giving individual but I can still appreciate the artist who creates in his "godly" realms despite being a less then decent individual.

    I don't know if your walk with Borges ever made it into a poem but reading your recollection (and the absence of memory actually enhances the telling of it -- somehow mirroring Borge's oblique universe) brings me closer to a beloved poet and an experience none of us will ever have. Thanks for and sleep well poetess. Lois

  2. Thank you, Lois. What an amazing and beautiful response! Bless you and happy New Year! Aliki

  3. Wow those two stanza's of your poem are ASTOUNDING. Great.