April 2011 Archives

New essay in Vermont Magazine

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Last spring I visited two old friends in Glover, Lindsay Knowlton, a terrific poet, and Burt Porter, another wonderful poet and a musician, and wrote a short piece about their poetry, their music, and their lives together. The profile appears in the May/June issue of VERMONT MAGAZINE.

You can read the first half of it on the magazine website, vermontmagazine.com

The P Word

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We have recently gotten a puppy, and I have discovered that on this subject, as on so many others, the world falls into two categories. There are the folks who don't know, and the folks who do know. When you say the word puppy to a member of the first, don't-know group, the person's face tends to get a dreamy, innocent look, as if you had announced that you were shortly to be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

But when you tell the folks who do know that you have recently bought a puppy, their response is more along the lines of, "Yeesh. How are you holding up?" To which the correct reply is a mild shrug and, "As well as can be expected." These are people who either have gotten a puppy recently or have gotten, over the years, many puppies. In other words, they remember.

Obviously, I love dogs, or I wouldn't have paid for a second one. But not unlike caring for an infant, caring for a puppy is a pain in the keister. Of course I know perfectly well that there are major differences between the two experiences. Things that are better about having a puppy: you can leave a puppy in a wire cage and go to a movie (BIG difference); a puppy will eventually learn to poop outside; you do not have to start a college fund; eventually, you will have a dog.

Things that are better about having a baby: eventually you will have a person.

But then, as I always tell my children, anything worth doing is a pain in the keister, and the more worth doing it is, the bigger a pain it is. This list would include learning to play the harmonica, traveling to India, getting and staying married, building a boat, planting a garden, writing a book, keeping a friend, and, of course, raising a child. And if I am right about this, I can only deduce that having a puppy is an extremely worthwhile endeavor.
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The Monk, The Goats, My Heart

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"Every morning put your mind into your heart and stand in the presence of God all the day long."
An anonymous monk of the
Eastern Orthodox Church

Recently, I came across this quotation and wrote it down on a slip of paper and stuck the paper on the wall behind my computer. I was taken with the words of the monk, but I didn't completely understand them. That's to say, this sounded like a good idea--to put my mind into my heart--but I wasn't sure where my heart was.

I found the quote in an introduction to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts of yoga. The word sutra in Sansrkit means thread, and also aphorism. So the yoga sutras are not quite two hundred elegant knots of the finest thread, meant to be patiently, attentively unraveled, one at a time.
1. And now the teaching on yoga begins.

2. Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

3. When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature,
which is unbounded consciousness.

4. Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.

Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind. No kidding.
Just this morning, as I was trying to locate my heart, most of my thoughts were on my neighbor's goats. I was supposed to have fed them and shut the barn door last night, and I forgot. I knew I needed to call and apologize, and see if I could help out on a different day, but I got so caught up in the possible disasters that had occurred due to my forgetfulness that I paralyzed myself with two of my favorite mind-altering substances--fear and shame. For a while, I became convinced that a mink had gotten into the pen and eaten the geese. In retrospect, this seems unlikely, since the new goose is a 50-lb. gander, and I would like to see, from a distance, the mink that could take him down.

But none of that really mattered. What mattered was: 1) I had said I would feed the animals and close the door, and 2) I hadn't done that.

In normal human parlance, this is called a mistake. The best possible response to making a mistake is to apologize for it, sincerely, and move on. It is not good form to make the other person--the one you have thoughtlessly inconvenienced--spend a lot of time reassuring you that everything is fine and she is not the least bit miffed, because she probably is, and, if she isn't, she will be by the time she's through trying to make you feel better.

Fortunately, by the time I called the goat-owner, I had first talked to a sane friend who had talked me down off the roof. So I was able to say, "I'm so sorry. I forgot. I hope the animals are all right." To which the goat-owner said, "Oh yeah, it was fine. I was actually home anyway." In other words, I had just spent 40 minutes of my working day turning a mistake into an abomination, and then back into a mistake. The whole thing reminded me of Mark Twain's observation: "I'm an old man and have known many troubles, but most of them never happened."

Here's the thing: somewhere in my being, I knew all along exactly what I needed to do. But when my mind gets going with the bloodied animals and the neighbors storming my door with flaming stakes, I get distracted. I become mesmerized by the circus of horror I've created for my own entertainment. This part is always a bit confusing for me, because the experience of mental self-torture does not feel pleasurable, and yet clearly I get something out of it, because I keep on doing the same thing.

After that forty-minute detour into my own mind, it occurred to me that I did, in fact, understand what the anonymous monk (not to be confused with Thelonius Monk) means when he says, "Every morning put your mind into your heart..." He means, spend the day in that place where you already know what to do, where it is quiet, where you can hear and see and sense what is actually happening around you. Forget the horror show in your head. Spend the day in your "essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness." Or, if you like, spend the day in the presence of God.

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