Friday, December 27, 2013

Demonic Blessing

As I walked through a huge hobby supply store, I happened upon a crafted sign for sale. It read:

The will of God will never take you
where you want to go.
The grace of God
will not protect you.

Here I was minding my own business, having a nice day, and this terrifying message appears. Stopped in my tracks, I read again.

The will of God will never take you
where you want to go.
The grace of God
will not protect you.

Wow! You don't expect hard-core atheist propaganda in the middle of a Hoosier hobby shop. I read it a third time to make sure.... Wow!

I had stuff to buy, so I scurried on. In scurrying--and it was a big store, so the scurrying lasted a while--the message seemed less awful. After all, it didn't deny the will of God, and it didn't deny the functioning of the grace of God. The sign only asserted that they function differently from the way I want them to. Suddenly the sign seemed very wise, and it short-circuited my desire to see the world happen selfishly--as in the way I want the world to happen--instead of the way it does happen: pretty much without me in mind.

But let's face it, the sign did not say what we're used to hearing. Inner discord remained with me. When I got home I googled the words and discovered that I had, in my scurrying to and fro through the megamart, misread the sign. The popular proverb, which must have been the one actually lettered on the sign, goes:

The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you.
Even with the matter of wording settled I was kind of proud of my first demonic reading of the text. The meaning seemed so spiritually tough. That the will of God would never take you where you want to go makes sense. After all, even the proponents of prayer say your pleas are often not answered in the way you wanted but in the way you needed. The second part, that the grace of God will not protect you, this seems like a new definition of grace, a grace that happens when your ego is unprotected. Who is ready to perceive grace when the ego is protected in the first place? Who can see the great gifts of God when this great big ME is in the way? Maybe grace itself dissolves that protection of ego.
All this musing is excessively theological coming from a Zen student, by the way.
I ran this story by my spiritual advisor, who said I read the sign like a Zen student. But you never know what a Zen teacher is going to say next. He suggested having two signs: one reading each way and hanging next to each other.

Note: This is a revision of a previous post.

Further Note: Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer quoting Luther about the calling of God in The Cost of Discipleship: "Not the work you choose, not the suffering you devise but the road that is clean contrary to what you choose or contrive or desire--that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple. If you do that there is acceptable time and there your master is come."

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Another Random Comment About Plato

In The Republic, Plato's Socrates, surrounded by his bevy of yes-men, tries to think up a way to run the ideal state. The option of setting up a democracy appears and is quickly knocked down on the grounds that such a government would inevitably collapse under the influence of money. Advocates for democracy might take this critique as a warning. Another use for this passage of The Republic is unspeakable.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Richard Hugo and the Mountain

Richard Hugo (adapted from cover art)

Note: The Richard Hugo House is involved in its end-of-year campaign to raise money to provide education to budding writers. As a gesture of support I'm posting part of an article I wrote that originally appeared in The Ember, newsletter of the Indianapolis Zen Center. It will become clear why Richard Hugo House is close to my heart. Please visit their website.

Richard Hugo was a poet who taught creative writing at the University of Montana in Missoula. He had an austere childhood in rural Washington followed by a full tour of duty as a bombardier in World War II. He worked with Boeing Aircraft before eventually taking up the teaching career that most successful American poets enter.

“Highfaluting” was not what you would call Hugo or his poetry, which often took small towns and other distant locales and lives as their subjects. To these subjects he brought a big, rhythmic voice, a style that infected many young poets who tried to write the way he did. I was one of them, a skinny, chain-smoking undergraduate at Indiana University who had attended one of his poetry readings, an event that was, for better or worse, a turning point in my life, determining my decision to take up a major in English and creating an indelible interest in literature. You never know when these turning points will happen.

Hugo made such a big impression on me that I chose his career as the subject of my undergraduate thesis, and I arranged to fly out to mountain-ringed Missoula to interview this man who had become my literary hero. Going there I knew he was not in the best of health. He had lost a lung to cancer a couple of years earlier, and he was sometimes fatigued, but I thought he was doing fairly well considering. At the end of the summer before my senior year I visited him.

He was tired but very friendly and considerate of my questions that afternoon. I stayed for a backyard cookout with him and his wife, talking as the sun went down. Looking back at myself that evening, I wasn’t that different from who I am now, just a little more nervous. I don’t remember the highfaluting things I was talking to him about. They don’t really matter now. What I do remember about that evening is more important.

In the middle of my literary chatter Hugo said, “Look. That mountain just changed color.” I stopped. I looked at the closest mountain. I checked its color. The sky was darker and paler. Nothing I had talked about mattered. There was a mountain in the twilight. It was what we might call a “just like this” moment in Zen. It was almost like he had delivered an answer to a koan, and the world, for a moment, opened up.

Two months later I learned that Hugo had died. Unknown to me he had developed leukemia, and complications from that disease proved fatal. I completed my thesis feeling an irrational sense of guilt. I wondered what his state of mind must have been during that interview, and I wondered if his serious illness had focused his attention on the present moment, single-pointedly, when the mountain changed color, or perhaps he was just sick of listening to me. In either case, he had his priorities straight.

I have hazy memories of the big ideas I wrote about in my thesis. But I remember the mountain.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Cage 2013 in Review

For a blog meant to last three months, this one has gone on entirely too long. But on it goes.

Started in January 2013, "Working the Cage," as it was called then, intended to exhibit some old, unpublished poems for a couple of months and stop. Along the way it changed its name to "Working on the Cage" and began to exhibit new problems such as journal entries and then mini essays that qualify as actual blog posts.

I've tried a couple of times this year to demolish "Working on the Cage." But the fact is I enjoy it too much. Several posts have been taken down that I thought unseemly. Some, such as my post about the school athletic mascot and the ethic of toughness, we've taken down, reposted and then taken down again. If this has led to any frustration out there, the Cage and I apologize.

A few posts have been popular. Any blogger should know or learn fast that popularity of posts depends upon the support of others who care to link to your blog. The Cage's first benefactor was The Polk Street Review who helped promote a poem about Dante on their Facebook page. The Polk Street Review also promoted a post I did in November, a pro-writing essay about their third issue launch party. Another thing bloggers ought to know is that political screeds also have a penchant for virality. The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society helped to promote the most popular post on this blog, The Lost Art of Alexander Hamilton, on the AHAS Facebook page. So, thanks to The Polk Street Review and The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society for thinking the Cage has been worthwhile.

Sometimes, however, a post becomes popular for reasons you never really know. A rather miscellaneous post about Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle" seems to get found again and again and continues to rise in popularity. We hope that if it is being used in other writing it is correctly cited... but remain in any case flattered.

Perhaps we've posted too many elegies here. The unavoidable one was for Seamus Heaney, whose words  inspired the title for the the Cage. Heaney was one of the first contemporary poets I appreciated.

The future of the Cage? Unknown. Every time I write it seems to be an unlikely event, increasingly so as I seek means for income. The supply of old poems has run dry. New poems will, for the most part, not appear here, though the Cage will announce the rare news of their publication. The Cage is committed, however, to provide a haiku bonanza next month!

If you are reading this, and certainly you must be, the Cage and I thank you. It has been a fun year. Best wishes.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Buddha's Enlightenment Day 2013*

The Buddha broke
wide open into
complete life,
just like that. You'd think
more work was needed
to do something like that.

See the moment,
the Morning Star,
the Bodhi Tree,
Buddha awake.
They're right now with these
scattered cushions,
all of us already
awake, but already
that is long ago.
We blink our eyes
and see again.

*Delivered at the Indianapolis Zen Center December 15, 2013.

†Of course it did take more work.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Exactly how would this picture not end up on this blog? I found it at Corvid Corner where you can read about the Latin legend of the raven's caw. I, foolish sinner that I am, will spend the next week in meditation, desperately trying not to waste time.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Random Comment on Plato's Sensibility

In most of Plato's works, particularly in The Republic, he advocates for uplifting art that propagandizes supremacy of the state. All other use of art is frivolous and dangerous, indulging individual sentiment at the expense of communal life. His basic suspicion about art is also ours, and so his discourses remain relevant. Even though we may not have a state that demands unflinching devotion and sacrifice at all times, we do have a consumer economy that desperately needs feeding by a narrow range of mostly positive consumer emotion, or at least by the desire for positive emotion. Plato would lament the lack of state today, but, if he gave in to the times he'd probably advocate for just about every art form casually accessible now.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Who Is Ebenezer Scrooge?

Jacob Marley's ghost. Illustration by John Leech for A Christmas Carol, 1843.

Scrooge knew he [Marley] was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.
--Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I had originally intended to write a post entitled "We are all Ebenezer Scrooge" that would point out how we build walls between ourselves and others, and how we share with Scrooge that capacity to wake up and throw the shutters open on a world alive with human beings in their suffering and generosity. The post would have been rapturous. A Christmas Carol is a tale of an awakening heart, but I'm not generous enough right now to write that treatment of the story today. In fact, to do so would seem irresponsible.

If I were even less generous than I am today, perhaps the post would be entitled "Who Needs Ebenezer Scrooge?" Neither his exquisite capitalist ethic, which harms himself and others, nor the redistribution of his wealth either through wage or charity, offer much hope for his world, and to paint everyone with the Scrooge brush winds up making us seem both weaker and more powerful than we really are. Scrooge's awakening shows us the innate hope of our being. Everything Scrooge does, however redemptive or momentarily helpful, provides a shabby model for the day's conflicts.

If Dickens intended a parable about economic disparity between the citizens of his country--and he certainly did--it was a successful and moving story for a time and a place. He wrote a classic of the human heart. In my lack of generosity I wonder how this story could have possibly been equal to the problems of our day. Perhaps some people felt the same way about his story in 19th century England. I suspect Dickens felt that way having completed it, but he was a sanguine fellow and marketed the book to the rich in a sumptuous binding. The message of A Christmas Carol was a targeted one. To sneak it into the minds of the well-off, he made Scrooge look comically twisted. If you had money you could read about him and comfortably know the story wasn't about you.

But this Ebenezer Scrooge character, who is he after all besides a good man doing the best he can? He has scuttled through the streets of London for years fighting for his well-being. He was someone whose sensibilities were honed by the constant knowledge that if he wasn't smarter, thriftier and more diligent than the other guy, he would be ruined. He acted according to the ethic of the day. For all the negative adjectives Dickens heaps upon Scrooge he was a good person doing good things, and it led to a terrible mess. We are good people doing good things, too. It's in this commonality that I'm more comfortable today saying we are all Ebenezer Scrooge. As conflicts about our social values arise we start to see ourselves as good people who are starting to wonder just what we're up to.

That word "good" starts to sound hollow, almost an indictment against us that however brave and decent and hard working we have been it hasn't gone in the best direction. As far as our "goodness"--which is not the same as our miraculous nature that throws the shutters open in the morning and asks the world what day it is--that, too, comes into question, and it isn't a matter of having given enough to others; it is a matter precisely of what we have given and to whom, and whom we have met in life and feared the most simply because of their presence. Whom have we excluded?

In Scrooge's case those people were everyone including his family. His old business partner, Marley, seven years dead, seems to have been the last person with whom he had a functioning relationship. Chain-clad Marley appears as the ghost who introduces Scrooge to a process of spiritual awakening, and he does so by abandoning Scrooge to see his life no longer defined by his good values but as bound by fear and the inevitable loss that fear creates. By morning in the story questions of goodness have vanished along with Scrooge's nightmare of past, present and future. All that is left for Scrooge is enlightened action.

The Christmas goose the reformed miser delivers is a miracle in the story. In real life that's a miracle too, but one easily becoming a gesture, the temporary most we can do, and if we do it often enough we would expect payment. We have barely showed up for the Christmas punch and we're already hustling through the streets, trying to survive, pushing others out of the way. These are the circles we live in, and we have wound them into tighter and tighter knots since Dickens wrote.

I write this out of hope as much as out of despair that every one of us is Ebenezer Scrooge, we can wake up and it will matter.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

An Elegiac Fragment Mentioning December

I read their poems to conjure them,
to deny them any rest,
this ghost once a gentle man,
this ghost once a fierce woman.
Who were they in life to live so seriously,
to hammer out the hours on paper,
that for a moment I thought
they deserved some kind of honor,
as if I might weave the laurels now
in my own hands and dedicate them
to this December earth?