Sunday, February 24, 2013


Looking at my last post, Things That Slip Away in Time, I can see that I'm rather preoccupied these days with the subject of time — its nature, how it defines us at various stages of life, how the past shapes the future, how the past appears from the vantage point of the present.  Perhaps these are just idle thoughts on an idle Sunday afternoon, but they are the kind of thoughts that send me to the poetry of Billy Collins, for whom time seems to be a constant theme.

In particular, I have just reread the fine poem, Aristotle.  According to Collins, the inspiration for this poem arose upon reading Aristotle's Poetics, wherein the philosopher first articulated a principle that is now taken from granted by virtually everyone, specifically, that every literary work has three parts:  a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  As I read the poem, however, Collins is speaking not only of literary works, but also of life itself.  Indeed, what is life if not a beginning, where "almost anything can happen," followed by a middle, where "nothing is simple anymore," followed by an end, "where everything comes down to the destination we cannot help imagining . . . "? 


                                               by Billy Collins

                    This is the beginning.
                    Almost anything can happen.
                    This is where you find
                    the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
                    the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
                    Think of an egg, the letter A,
                    a woman ironing on a bare stage
                    as the heavy curtain rises.
                    This is the very beginning.
                    The first-person narrator introduces himself,
                    tells us about his lineage.
                    The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
                    Here the climbers are studying a map
                    or pulling on their long woolen socks.
                    This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
                    The profile of an animal is being smeared
                    on the wall of a cave,
                    and you have not yet learned to crawl.
                    This is the opening, the gambit,
                    a pawn moving forward an inch.
                    This is your first night with her,
                    your first night without her.
                    This is the first part
                    where the wheels begin to turn,
                    where the elevator begins its ascent,
                    before the doors lurch apart.

                    This is the middle.
                    Things have had time to get complicated,
                    messy, really.  Nothing is simple anymore.
                    Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
                    teeming with people at cross-purposes—
                    a million schemes, a million wild looks.
                    Disappointment unshoulders its knapsack
                    here and pitches his ragged tent.
                    This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
                    where the action suddenly reverses
                    or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
                    Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
                    to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
                    Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
                    Here the aria rises to a pitch,
                    a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
                    And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
                    halfway up the mountain.
                    This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
                    This is the thick of things.
                    So much is crowded into the middle—
                    the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
                    Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
                    lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall—
                    too much to name, too much to think about.

                    And this is the end,
                    the car running out of road,
                    the river losing its name in an ocean,
                    the long nose of the photographed horse
                    touching the white electronic line.
                    This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
                    the empty wheelchair,
                    and pigeons floating down in the evening.
                    Here the stage is littered with bodies,
                    the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
                    and the climbers are in their graves.
                    It is me hitting the period
                    and you closing the book.
                    It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
                    and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
                    This is the final bit
                    thinning away to nothing.
                    This is the end, according to Aristotle,
                    what we have all been waiting for,
                    what everything comes down to,
                    the destination we cannot help imagining,
                    a streak of light in the sky,
                    a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

"Aristotle" from Picnic, Lightning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), by Billy Collins.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


It's been said that the two keys to happiness are a good appetite and a bad memory.  I have never failed to meet the first requirement, and as I proceed into my seventies, I am assured that nature itself will take care of the second.  Indeed, as I read the following poem by Billy Collins last night, I felt myself smiling in recognition of the man who is stirred emotionally by a moon that seems to have drifted out of a love poem that he once knew by heart.


                 The name of the author is the first to go

                 followed obediently by the title, the plot,
                 the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
                 which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of.

                 It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

                 decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
                 to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

                 Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye

                 and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
                 and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

                 something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

                 the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

                 Whatever it is you are struggling to remember

                 it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
                 not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

                 It has floated away down the dark mythological river

                 whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
                 well on your way to oblivion where you will join those
                 who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

                 No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

                 to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
                 No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
                 out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

There is no need to fret, of course; indeed, for most of us, there are many things that are perhaps best forgotten.  As for the other things, it's well to remember (if we can) what Nietzsche said:  "The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time."

Monday, February 11, 2013


We understand the specific attraction of Zen Buddhism when we realize the extent to which the contemporary West is animated by "prophetic faith," the sense of the holiness of the ought, the pull of the way things could be and should be but as yet are not.  Such faith has obvious virtues, but unless it is balanced by a companion sense of the holiness of the is, it becomes top-heavy.  If one's eyes are always on tomorrows, todays slip by unperceived.  To a West which in its concern to refashion heaven and earth is in danger of letting the presentness of life—the only life we really have—slip through its fingers, Zen comes as a reminder that if we do not learn to perceive the mystery and beauty of our present life, our present hour, we shall not perceive the worth of any life, of any hour.

From Huston Smith's "Foreword" to
The Three Pillars of Zen:
Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment
by Philip Kapleau

One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: "Master, will
you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?"
 Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word "Attention."
"Is that all?" asked the man.  "Will you not add something more?"
Ikkyu then wrote twice running: "Attention.  Attention."
"Well," remarked the man rather irritably, "I really don't see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written."
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: "Attention.  Attention. Attention."
Half angered, the man demanded: "What does that word 'Attention" mean anyway?"
And Ikkyu answered gently: "Attention means attention."

Anecdote shared by
Philip Kapleau in
The Three Pillars of Zen 

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Photo by Richard Hoode (Wikimedia Commons)

Stand Still Like The Hummingbird, a collection of stories and essays by Henry Miller, remains one of the most cherished books in my library.  I don't know how long I have had my copy, which was published more than fifty years ago, but I have dipped into its profound wisdom with regularity for most of my adult life.  Some of that wisdom was quoted in Aways Merry and Bright, which I posted in 2010.  Here are some other pearls that I believe are worthy of reflection:

On happiness —
Man craves happiness here on earth, not fulfillment, not emancipation. Are they utterly deluded, then, in seeking happiness?  No, happiness is desirable, but it is a by-product, the result of a way of life, not a goal which is forever beyond one's grasp.  Happiness is achieved en route . . . To make happiness a goal is to kill it in advance.

On real power —
If there is one power which man indubitably possesses—have we not had proof of it again and again?—it is the power to alter one's way of life.  It is perhaps man's only power.

 On struggle and surrender —
Struggle has its importance, but we tend to overrate it.  Harmony, serenity, [and] bliss do not come from struggle but from surrender.

On questing —
The long voyage is not an escape but a quest.  The man is seeking for a way to be of service to the world.  Toward the end he realizes what his mission in life is—"it is to be a bridge of goodwill."  Un homme de bonne volonté

On Taoism —
One takes up the path in order to become the path. 

On the teachings of Buddha, Lao-tzu, and Jesus —
What they tried to convey to us, these luminaries, was that there is no need for all these laws of ours, these codes and conventions, these books of learning, these armies and navies, these rockets and spaceships, these thousand and one impedimenta which weigh us down, keep us apart, and bring us sickness and death.  We need only to behave as brothers and sisters, follow our hearts not our minds, play not work, create and not add invention upon invention.  Though we realize it not, they demolished the props which sustain our world of make-believe . . .
They changed worlds, yes.  They traveled far.  But standing still.  Let us not forget that the road inward toward the source stretches as far and as deep as the road outward.

On standing still like the hummingbird, instead of "getting somewhere" —
When you find you can go neither backward nor forward . . . when you are convinced that all the exits are blocked, either you take to believing in miracles or you stand still like the hummingbird.  The miracle is that the honey is always there, right under your nose, only you were too busy searching elsewhere to realize it.  The worst is not death, but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.  

Henry Miller

Have a nice weekend, everyone, 
and make sure to find some honey wherever you are.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Inaugural Parade, 2013

The American poet Richard Blanco was selected by the White House to create a special poem to commemorate the Second Inauguration of President Obama. Some of you may have heard the poem recited by Blanco during the inaugural ceremony on January 21st.  In the event you missed it, you can read it below.

Any poem addressed to the entire nation will undoubtedly find its share of criticism, particularly from those who do not share the President's vision for the country. From my perspective, however, "One Today" succeeds because it captures not only the spirit and diversity of our nation, but also the President's conviction that what unites people is greater than what divides them.  "All of us," Blanco proclaims, are "as vital as the one light we move through."

                                                     One Today

                                                 by Richard Blanco

                      One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
                      peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
                      of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
                      across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
                      One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
                      told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

                      My face, your face, millions of faces in the morning's mirrors,
                      each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
                      pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
                      fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
                      begging our praise.  Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
                      bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
                      on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
                      to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
                      for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

                      All of us as vital as the one light we move through, 
                      the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
                      equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
                      the "I have a dream" we all keep dreaming,
                      or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won't explain
                      the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
                      today, and forever.  Many prayers, but one light
                      breathing color into stained glass windows,
                      life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
                      onto the steps of our museums and park benches
                      as mothers watch children slide into the day.

                      One ground.  Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
                      of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
                      and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
                      in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
                      digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands 
                      as worn as my father's cutting sugarcane
                      so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

                      The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
                      mingled by one wind—our breath.  Breathe.  Hear it
                      through the day's gorgeous din of honking cabs,
                      buses launching down avenues, the symphony 
                      of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
                      the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

                      Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
                      or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
                      for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
                      buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos dias
                      in the language my mother taught me—in every language
                      spoken into one wind carrying our lives
                      without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

                      One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
                      their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
                      their way to the sea.  Thank the work of our hands:
                      weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
                      for the boss on time, stitching another wound
                      or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
                      or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
                      jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

                      One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
                      tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
                      of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
                      that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
                      who knew how to give, of forgiving a father
                      who couldn't give what you wanted.

                      We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
                      of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
                      always under one sky, our sky.  And always one moon
                      like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
                      and every window, of one country—all of us—
                      facing the stars
                      hope—a new constellation
                      waiting for us to map it,
                      waiting for us to name it—together.

To hear and see Richard Blanco's recitation of the inaugural poem, click here. Publications of Richard Blanco's poetry include City of a Hundred Fires (University of Pittsburg Press, 1998), by Richard Blanco; Directions to the Beach of the Dead (University of Arizona Press, 2005), by Richard Blanco; and Looking for the Gulf Motel (University of Pittsburg Press, 2012), by Richard Blanco. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Rachel Fox, author of the blog Slow Lane Shuffle, has launched another interesting new blog, All Our Hopes and Dreams.  The new blog invites people of any background (not just writers) to make a contribution on the subject of our hopes and dreams.  Rachel has prompted the discussion by asking contributors to think about four questions:

     1.  What were your hopes and dreams when you were a child?

     2.  Did any of them come true in any sense?

     3.  What are your hopes and dreams now?

     4.  Do you really think any of them are possible?

Contributions to this project can be made in any form — poem, prose, song, photos, story, notes, or any structure that suits the contributor's imagination — and it is not necessary to provide direct responses to the questions that were used by Rachel as mere prompts.  The only requirement, according to my understanding, is that the contributions relate to the general theme of hopes and dreams.

Inspired by my friend, Dominic, who reported that he had found the "hopes and dreams" project to be a more thought-provoking experience than he had originally expected, I decided to give it a shot myself.  My contribution is a bit of spontaneous verse that summarizes my own thoughts on this subject.  Thanks to Rachel, my contribution was published today and can be seen by clicking here.

Personally, I find it compelling to read what people choose when, in short form, they volunteer to summarize their individual experiences with "hopes and dreams,"  a subject which most would agree is a very expansive, if not elusive.  If you are interested in making your own contribution, please check out Rachel's new site, All Our Hopes and Dreams.  Perhaps you will find, as many of us have discovered, that addressing one or more of these four questions, in whatever form one chooses, can reveal as much to ourselves as it reveals to others.  

Saturday, February 2, 2013


The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror; it grasps nothing; it refuses nothing; it receives, but does not keep.

"Detachment" is not a term that is greeted with much favor in American culture.  In common parlance, the word suggests aloofness, emotional frigidity, or insensitivity to the concerns of others or one's community.  Zen Buddhism, however, does not view detachment with such negativity.  Indeed, detachment is regarded as central to the preservation of one's core balance and integrity.  In his fine book, Become What You Are, the great Zen teacher Alan Watts explained it this way:
Detachment means to have neither regrets for the past nor fears for the future; to let life take its course without attempting to interfere with its movement and change, neither trying to prolong the stay of things pleasant nor to hasten the departure of things unpleasant.  To do this is to move in time with life, to be in perfect accord with its changing music, and this is called Enlightenment.  In short, it is to be detached from both the past and future and to live in the eternal Now.  For in truth neither past nor future have any existence apart from this Now; by themselves they are illusions.  Life exists only at this very moment, and in this moment it is infinite and eternal.  
The old sage Lao-tzu was, of course, the master of detachment.  "Just stay at the center of the circle," he said, "and let all things take their course." Tao Te Ching (translation by Stephen Mitchell).