Musing on Spots

This morning, my four-year-old granddaughter was sitting half in my lap and half on the arm of the chair and we were examining hands. She asked what the big bump was, and I said it’s my wrist bone. We then looked for her wrist bone, which is much smaller and nestled in flesh. But by bending and twisting her hand we were eventually able to see that we do both have wrist bones.

We then considered a black spot about two inches NE from my wrist bone. Why is that there? “It’s just hanging out,” I said, “wondering why that little girl keeps asking why it’s there.” We began an examination of her body, for I was sure I’d seen a little mole but up, down, and around, we couldn’t at first find any spots, just smooth very light brown skin. Finally I spotted a little dot. “Why is that there?” To make your skin more interesting.

From spots we moved on to lines–first, those on the backs of my hands, which she can push this way and that, and sometimes they stay where they’re pushed. Those, I answered her, are wrinkles. We pushed her flesh every which way, but no lines appeared and it always came right back to where it started. But on our palms we had more success in finding similarities. We counted the big lines and found that she has three clear and deep lines on one hand and four on the other. I too have three, maybe four, on each palm.

Why are you wearing that ring? Why don’t you put it on your pinkie? What are those, she asked, rubbing a blue and slightly puffy vein that runs over across the northwest corner of my hand and up to the index finger. Veins, I said, pointing to the inside of her elbow. Where did you get that? referring to my Tibetan string. From India, blessed by the Dalai Lama. It shows solidarity for the Tibetans in prison and exile.

What does that mean, so-li-dar-i-ty? It means that you care about what happens to someone else.

What’s in there? referring to the yellow birdfeeder filled with thistle seeds. Stistle seeds? Yes, those are the seeds that little birds, like sparrows and finches like. “This-soul?” Yes, like that.

Capacity for remorse

In a meeting last week with the Commonwealth’s attorney, we talked about whether or not the man who killed our son would ever offer up some sort of apology or acknowledgement of wrong-doing. I wish I’d recorded his exact words, but since they’ve been in my head ever since, they were pretty close to this: “In my line of work, I’ve learned that there’s a subset of people who live in another world, a world of their own making. They rationalize everything but rarely do they look in the mirror and say, ‘I was wrong.’ I don’t think you’re going to get what you’re looking for.”

I hadn’t realized how much I had assumed about the inner life of this man, not that I imagined exact thoughts, but when he came to mind he was often sitting in a cell regretting, sorry, sometimes his head in his hands, not blaming the police . . . or Casey . . . anymore. I imagined that the “I’m going to hell,” which he cried out when the police officer was questioning him that night–words recorded and played in Court, words uttered as a self-centered moaning of doom–had stretched and deepened . . . had become more than “I’ve been caught and now I’m going to be punished in hell.” That we might some day get an unexpected card in the mail with a scrawl, “I’m sorry I done that to your boy.”

As we walked out of the Justice Center, I felt a wave of new loss. Could it really be that he isn’t truly sorry? Not for himself but for Casey? That after almost four years, the most he can feel is regret that the system he’d been arming himself against had beaten him? And I realized the apology we’d been almost sub-consciously hoping for was something I’d wanted for Casey more than myself. I could imagine Casey listening to the apology and now I see him only waiting for the apology.

Since that meeting I’ve been thinking about the possibility that some people are incapable of remorse, and I just can’t grasp it. Yes, I understand the existence of sociopaths, people with no empathy, or of people whose egos are so grand that they have pushed away all concerned awareness of others, constricting the capacity of their hearts and reducing others to cardboard figures that are of two sorts: helpful to the self or not helpful, beneath notice or in the way. But without some kind of condition that eliminates the power to care, surely even the most corrupted person has some place within, some small bruised spot that feels the pain of others. From this thumb print, doesn’t everyone possess the ability to rise from the defiled self and feel remorse for damage inflicted?

I mean, this is a father!

I don’t know whether the Commonwealth Attorney is right on this or not. He’s not a spiritual leader, he’s a legal authority. He said once when I asked what most of the cases he prosecutes entail, and he said, “drugs, drugs, drugs. Child rapists and murderers.” Years of experience have shown him a reality that I only glimpse from the distance of fiction, televised, brightened, leave-able. I wonder what the Dalai Lama would say about people so broken that they have lost the capacity that makes them human–if remorse is even “human”–if compassion for others, the wish for happiness for ourselves and for others, is something we’ve cultivated and evolved so that it’s now in our dna. If so, then perhaps there’s a man in a cell, his head in his hands, wishing that he could look Casey in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.”

Casey at Gethsemani Abbey in 2008.

“Oh, Canada, with your face sketched on it twice”

I recently spent several days in Canada, a mere 10-hour jaunt up the interstate, from home. As we got closer and closer, I found myself singing the Joni Mitchell song that I used to listen to (too much) while I lived in Bowling Green, Ohio, which is en route to Canada, oh Canada. At the time, somewhere around 1973, I was suffering from the sophomore/junior blues, which her Blue album seemed especially well suited to encourage. I also read the Narnia series that summer, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a number of Carlos Casteneda books, and it suddenly seemed very clear that no one knew what really mattered any more, or who they were (real-ly), or what the purpose of life was, let alone this college degree. So I hitchhiked out to California (which Joni has a song titled after as well) with a hippie friend, tried to find work, got the crabs from sleeping on someone’s couch–all night I kept dreaming that things were crawling on me–gave up on California dreamin and hitchhiked home by myself, and my little dog named Fawna.

Having accomplished so little that summer except an experience I didn’t want to repeat but which provided good story-fodder, I got my proverbial stuff together and got down to the business of getting my first degree. I don’t know that I stopped listening to Blue, but I was not so blue anymore so I doubt it. I do have a fine assortment of music from that era, on LPs–jazz, bluegrass, blues, folk. So let’s say I was listening to Gil Evans or Bonnie Raitt or the Beatles or Miles Davis. It was 1974-5 and Saturday Night Fever was still 3 years away.

Fast forward 39 years. Summer of 2013. A trip to Canada, your face sketched. A road trip. An old song strumming through my mind as we headed toward London and I considered what I wanted to do during the days while my companion (in all ways) attended a conference on Edith Stein. Wasn’t Stratford nearby? Romeo and Juliet, sure! Ah, but wait, not showing in the afternoon. Instead, a 2pm showing of Fiddler on the Roof. I confess now that I had never seen the movie, the play, and had only heard the songs here and there. Of course I knew that Anthony Quinn played in the movie version, but I didn’t see what the big deal was.

I can look back across the years and see times, like what happened at Stratford, when for some reason or another I had a chance to see or read or listen to something I’d either spurned or overlooked as not interesting. The Beatles are another example. Whhaaa? What was I thinking! It was the girls screaming and fainting that turned me off. I would have none of it! Until one day we were driving and some tune came on the radio that completely flipped the switch. Fiddler, same thing. “Enh, whatever,” I might have said, “it’s just a musical.” But the performance I saw two weeks ago was transporting! I sat in my chair and cried and laughed, a smile on my face or stunned look of recognition. It was beautiful. As one reviewer put it in his closing paragraph, “Forget every Fiddler on the Roof you have seen. This is something special, a show that makes you laugh and cry. You’ll leave the theatre marvelling at the entertainment quality of the Stratford Festival at its best, yet pondering the essence of the human condition the show reveals underneath.” (Ouzounian)

So, somewhere along the way, I met myself from 40 years ago, met myself in the moment and lost myself too, transported somewhere else and returning only when the applause brought me back. I think the song that undid me most was “Sunrise, Sunset.” I thought of my boys, now men, the two still alive, and my one gone and so missed.

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze

Sunrise, sunset
Sunrise, sunset
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears

What words of wisdom can I give them?
How can I help to ease their way?

It’s a good question–and I know there are many ways to ease others’ way, and I know as well, that in the end they must face their own Blue season and ride the wave as best they can. I hope they, like me, have the good sense to open themselves to experiences that are good and wonderful but that due to our other commitments or obsessions, we think are beneath us.

Flower pods viewed along a pond's edge in London, Ontario. Thank you, Canada.

Flower pods viewed along a pond’s edge in London, Ontario. Thank you, Canada.

Is lovingkindness one word?

For the past few weeks I’ve been slowly reading Sandra Salzberg’s book, Lovingkindness: the Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Alice Walker refers to Salzberg in her own We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, and one of my students, Brandi, bought and tried some of the exercises and suggested it to the class. What can it hurt, I thought, and with two such strong recommendations, who wouldn’t put in an order. . . .

Still, it’s not the sort of title I usually rush to . . . “revolutionary” anything sounds over-stated, and especially with “art” and “happiness.” And yet, a simple “are you happy? have you attained it? do you want it?” is enough to stay one’s cynicism, perhaps. Besides, I’d rather give my money to Shambhala Publishers than some others. Shambhala is a mythical kingdom somewhere in Asia, apparently, referred to in ancient texts that pre-date Tibetan Buddhism. In Buddhist Kalachakra readings, Shambhala is a place of peace/tranquility/happiness. A kind of utopia, apparently, with external and internal meanings. The external meaning refers to a literal place. The internal refers to one’s body and mind, and an additional meaning refers to meditation. Much like other prophecies, there is a time in the future (2424) when the world will kill itself with greed and war, and at this time the King of Shambhala will come. I see that (at least according to Wikipedia), he will arrive with a vast army and vanquish the evil side, thus ushering in a Golden Age.

Oh, okay. The good guys will finally crush the bad guys (see my post on why I am not a guy). Sigh. I think I’d like to go back to the internal meanings and find what’s there. Is militarism really the only way to defend our Shangri-las? And by that, I mean what we’ve got here and now, not later, not mythical, not over there.

There’s much of the exotic here, the notion that cultures other than my own, especially those rooted in ancient mysticism, have an answer for us. Hence some white folks’ attraction to Native American spirituality (usually with little attention to actual people or historical and other contextual factors, like tribal affiliation or the physical place of the original peoples). But I read on, trying to tamp down my magical thinking (while secretly wanting to be open to it). And in fact, I do believe “other cultures” have answers–certainly our current worshiping of consumption and image over all else is as bereft and in need of a happy alternative as a society can get. I went to a movie last night–all about magic and image (Now You See Me)–and was appalled at the number of aggressive coke-sponsored ads prefaced the actual movie. I said to myself, “I’m not coming to a movie again,” though I’m unlikely to be able to stick to that.

And speaking of “sticking to things,” I began this reflection with a question and introduction of the book I’m reading. It’s not a new book, published in 1995, the year I was finishing my dissertation on, well, “blood, spirit, place,” and could have used some assistance with lovingkindness. I find myself wondering, why didn’t I know about this book, or give it a try, and why now? When does a suggestion fall across our path like a friendly shadow, leaving it to us whether to attend to it or not? Well, we’re never too late for a little kindness and I suppose we know as well as anyone how our own internal Shambhalas are faring.

I rather like that “metta,” a Pali word, can be translated as lovingkindness. I’m not sure what other kindness there is–kindness seems by its very definition all bound up in (open to) love, but perhaps there’s something else in this context, something tied up with the Buddhist notion of compassion for the self and all others that our consumerist self-loathing, self-aggrandizing, other-worshipping culture needs. And only a deeply cynical burdened self would respond to the notion of lovingkindness with a sneer. I don’t want to bear that burden, and perhaps that’s why I got the book and began reading.

Is is “revolutionary”? Is it an “art”? When I compare what it takes to practice compassion with what happens to me/us when we sit in the movie seat assaulted by and absorbing passively the bright colors and fast-flowing images promising pleasure, relief and urging buybuybuy—given where we are and where I/you might be, then maybe. And maybe for once the “revolution” need not come with a big army.

A Short Meditation on “Ass”

This morning when I sat down in the bird-watching chair I noticed a large gray squirrel taking advantage of the absence of dogs to gorge on some fat-rich seeds. I thought to myself, “that’s a big-ass squirrel,” and got up to put the dogs out. I returned to my chair to enjoy some more bird-partial watching as I drank my first cup of coffee.

Then I got to thinking about “ass.” In particular, as an adjectival enhancer. What, I wondered, does it mean to add ass to your descriptions? Is it mere colorful sprinkling, a local flavor? Or is there something more substantial, with more muscle to consider?

For instance, is a big-ass squirrel just bigger than a regular (or regular-ass) squirrel? Or is there something in its assedness that suggests its greater capacity to annoy, well, me?

I think of other instances in which I pepper my discourse with ass. . . .

Rand Paul is a dumb-ass.

I don’t think Mitch McConnell is one–he’s more of a punk-ass.

What does this mean? Well, in the first case, I question his intellectual (and moral) compass and think he causes damage, hence is “assed.” In the second case, he really perpetuates negativity, and he does so with that lipless smirk that reveals his true self. He’s a punk-ass, needs to be brought down a peg or two, perhaps land on his gluteus maximus a time or two. (not that I wish him ill–I just think he’d be happier if he gave up his evil-assed ways)

No other body part works the way ass does. You can’t say “that’s a big-breasted squirrel” or “big-headed squirrel” and get anywhere near the rhetorical trajectory. If I said, “that’s a big-butt squirrel,” you would picture something very different in this normally endowed rodent with a fluffy tail.

Then we have the situation when our adjectival enhancer is itself enhanced, as in half-assed and hard-assed. In the first case, the importance of ass is self-evident, since if you only have half you indeed are missing a lot. In the second case, we introduce contradiction. On the one hand, having a hard ass is supposed to be good, as in “could crack an egg on it,” as in buff. But on the other being a hard-ass is not so great, suggesting inflexibility, an ass fixed and not open to suggestion. We’re not supposed to face our enemies with a flaccid ass, but neither are we supposed to deal with our friends and colleagues with an impenetrable one. And yet we commit both these acts all the time. That ass must bear the weight of its own contradiction only reaffirms its importance as a value-laden word that we ignore only at grave risk.

I recently got bit by a brown recluse spider bite, and my favorite comment was, “Jane, surviving a brown recluse spider bite is bad-ass.” That is exactly what I was, in this context, and I appreciated my friend Christian for noting that.

“Ass” thus heightens meaning just as sriracha pulls the full potential from tofu and broccoli. It says, in effect, “here, let me give you a hand with that. Together we can pull this load better than either of us can do alone.” Thus, ass is a companion word, not just arbitrary flavoring. Thank you, ass.

This beautiful assed world would be a lot sorrier place if it weren’t so gosh darned beautiful–it’s hard to put into words just how big, bountiful, generous Earth is, how much I love its ass. Here then, to round out my morning’s reflection, is a picture of two early-ass mushrooms that appeared this morning nestled under my eggplant leaf….

Two early-assed mushrooms friend one of my eggplants.

Two early-assed mushrooms friend one of my eggplants.

Reading Pollan’s Cooked

Two things are happening that make me think: I’m going vegan again and reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked–first chapter on roasting, in particular, pigs. This creates an interesting weirdness, what psychology people call cognitive dissonance and what cultural critics call tension. So the question is, why are you doing this? It doesn’t make sense.

I could throw some Walt Whitman out there by way of explanations–do I contradict myself? Very well, I contain multitudes–but everyone seems to be grabbing this quote lately. Perhaps it’s because we are increasingly contradictory. But no, I suspect it’s because of social media–one person quotes Whitman and soon you see a dozen. I suppose it’s also possible that everyone isn’t grabbing this Whitman quote, which means I’m imagining things, again.

So, instead of throwing a dead poet into the mix, I’ll try the more direct route of just answering the question.

First, I am reading Cooked because I appreciate his work, have not read one of his books yet, heard him interviewed by Wendell Berry in Louisville a few weeks ago (which is another post, perhaps), and received a signed copy, along with the other four people who went with me. Rather than read it alone, I thought it would be more fun to read it in a group while cooking for each other and eating together. We’ll cook and read cooked. Our first meeting is June 23, so as I’m host I’m getting my reading done now in case I want to suggest any structure to our potluck, or leave it open to whimsy and serendipity.

In the introduction, there’s a passage I’ve been wanting to quote, which captures why I want to read more:

“Well, in a world where so few of us are obliges to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization–against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, . . . is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumptions” (22). Hell, yes.

Moving on the chapter one, where the barbeque issue comes in. He has just finished describing the whole-hog smoke house of Skylight Inn, the “vestibule of hell” as the owner puts it. Here a half dozen gutted and splayed hogs are loaded onto the grill snout to butt, as the smoke fills the room. As Pollan puts it, “Of all the animals we eat, none resembles us more closely than the hog. Each the size of a grown man, hairless and pink its mouth set in what looks much like a sly smile”: this is the “hellish” reality of the bodies before us. There is nothing (yet) about the industrial farming and raising of these hogs, but perhaps for the purposes of the moment at hand, we can assume that they were raised without hormones or chemicals, allowed to breathe the free air, and to roam around to their piggish delight (as opposed to the alternative, which is “living room of hell” that we have created.

So, I’m thinking about how I can make something along the lines of a barbecue for the vegetarians in our reading group–and let the meat eaters worry about it from that side of things. Perhaps later in the chapter, I’ll find a recipe for bbq tofu . . . however, I suspect this will be a meal where I cook despite what I’m reading. And later chapters will likely be more fitting for those no longer going “whole hog.”

Which brings me to why vegan. I’ve been a vegetarian for two years now, and part of that time vegan. Without going into TMI, I’ll just say that it’s cleansing time, and a vegan diet always makes me feel inside and throughout as if the waterways (bloodways, cellways) are clean.

The other day someone I care about made a comment about “food nazis” because I can’t bear to have meat in the house that was raised industrially, killed as mass production. Critters raised in torture lots for our consumption. I don’t know why “nazi” language has to apply, and I think the person who said it probably regretted it. It’s just so easy to put “nazi” with anything that challenges one’s complacency….feminazis, food nazis. The irony is impressive, meaty! I recently heard a presentation that showed an image of Michelle Obama in front of a produce section in the midst of yelling (probably in reality she was cheering or laughing–she doesn’t look angry, though with the caption, you might think so), “Eat what I tell you to!” The strong reaction against her project to bring more vegetables into our diets surprised me, though now I don’t guess it should.

Well, that’s it for my reflection on food, pigs, vegetables, eating, sharing, reading, consumption, Nazis, and bodies.