Monday, June 30, 2008


Here are two pictures taken by someone named Bovinacowboy which I found on Flickr. Snazzy world we live in, huh. What else can one say? (Incidentally, both pics are high-res: click on them for the full wonder!)

From little things

"From Little Things Big Things Grow" is a song by Paul Kelly (below) and Kev Carmody. I heard it for the first time about thirteen months ago in the Mulgas Tour van between Kata Tjuta and Uluru. It tells the story of an important episode in the Aboriginal Land Rights movement, and has a quirky irresistible refrain. (Listen to a version here.) I gather a new version has been written and become a sort of anthem for the new age ushered in by Kevin Rudd's apology - does anyone have the words?

Gather round people let me tell you're a story
An eight year long story of power and pride
British Lord Vestey and Vincent Lingiarri
Were opposite men on opposite sides

Vestey was fat with money and muscle
Beef was his business, broad was his door
Vincent was lean and spoke very little
He had no bank balance, hard dirt was his floor

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Gurindji were working for nothing but rations
Where once they had gathered the wealth of the land
Daily the pressure got tighter and tighter
Gurindji decided they must make a stand

They picked up their swags and started off walking
At Wattie Creek they sat themselves down
Now it don't sound like much but it sure got tongues talking
Back at the homestead and then in the town

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Vestey man said I'll double your wages
Seven quid a week you'll have in your hand
Vincent said uhuh we're not talking about wages
We're staying right here till we get our land
Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered
You don't stand the chance of a cinder in snow
Vince said if we fall others are rising

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiarri boarded an aeroplane
Landed in Sydney, big city of lights
And daily he went round softly speaking his story
To all kinds of men from all walks of life

And Vincent sat down with big politicians
This affair they told him is a matter of state
Let us sort it out, why your people must be hungry
Vincent said no thanks, we know how to wait

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Then Vincent Lingiarri returned in an aeroplane
Back to his country once more to sit down
And he told his people let the stars keep on turning
We got friends in the south, in the cities and towns

Eight years went by, eight long years of waiting
Till one day a tall stranger appeared in the land
And he came with lawyers and he came with great ceremony
And through Vincent's fingers he poured a handful of sand

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Now that was the story of Vincent Lingairri
But this is the story of something much more
How power and privilege can not move a people
Who know where they stand and stand in the law

From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow
From little things big things grow

Echinacea (coneflower) seems to contain its own universe, even (or especially) when the cone is still concave...

Sunday, June 29, 2008

You can't rain on this parade

It's the last Sunday in June, which in New York City means Gay Pride Sunday. (In other cities ilke Berlin and Paris the "Christopher Street Parades" tend to be on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riot on 27 June 1969.) And just as on Saint Patrick's Day everyone's Irish for a day, on the last Sunday in June everyone in New York is gay for a day. Well, maybe not everyone. But it is a grand and moving thing to walk down Fifth Avenue (even if you're carrying a banner for a church, how uncool is that!) with thousands of beautiful and/or radiant people all about (even if everyone is intermittently drenched by rain!). I defy anyone to attend a whole parade - not just the clichéd bits on your nightly news, but the legions of ordinary looking people from all walks of life - and hold on to their narrow stereotypes.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Walden RR

One of the things I decided to do, while walking the woods at IMS, was reread Thoreau's Walden - also in the woods of Massachusetts, after all. I got myself an annotatd edition (one of several published for the 150th anniversary of the book in 2004) and am really enjoying it. Not bowled over by its profundity yet, but charmed by the writing, the light-footed earnestness of it - and a certain pleasure at finding a kindred spirit immune to the naggings of the Protestant work ethic. I'm not sure I noticed the astonishing erudition of the book first time I read it, doubtless in Mrs. Sleigh's class at Torrey Pines; even if I'd had an annotated edition, none of the references would have meant anything to me anyway.
There's a lot I didn't remember, in part because it doesn't fit the image of Walden. Walden pond wasn't miles from anywhere but a comfortable walk from Concord, a walk Thoreau made most days. I'd heard that he went to town (and had his laundry done by his mother or sister) - fraud! But he makes no secret of it. Most striking has been discovering that the railroad ran along Walden Pond, and he watched it pass each morning, and with it, the outside world:

The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell. I usually go to the village along its causeway, and am, as it were, related to society by this link. The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance, they pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am. I too would fain be a track-repairer somewhere in the orbit of the earth. ...
I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe. I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla hemp and cocoanut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails. This carload of torn sails is more legible and interesting now than if they should be wrought into paper and printed books. Who can write so graphically the history of the storms they have weathered as these rents have done? They are proof-sheets which need no correction. Here goes lumber from the Maine woods, which did not go out to sea in the last freshet, risen four dollars on the thousand because of what did go out or was split up; pine, spruce, cedar -- first, second, third, and fourth qualities, so lately all of one quality, to wave over the bear, and moose, and caribou. Next rolls Thomaston lime, a prime lot, which will get far among the hills before it gets slacked. These rags in bales, of all hues and qualities, the lowest condition to which cotton and linen descend, the final result of dress -- of patterns which are now no longer cried up, unless it be in Milwaukee, as those splendid articles, English, French, or American prints, ginghams, muslins, etc., gathered from all quarters both of fashion and poverty, going to become paper of one color or a few shades only, on which, forsooth, will be written tales of real life, high and low, and founded on fact! This closed car smells of salt fish, the strong New England and commercial scent, reminding me of the Grand Banks and the fisheries. Who has not seen a salt fish, thoroughly cured for this world, so that nothing can spoil it, and putting, the perseverance of the saints to the blush? with which you may sweep or pave the streets, and split your kindlings, and the teamster shelter himself and his lading against sun, wind, and rain behind it -- and the trader, as a Concord trader once did, hang it up by his door for a sign when he commences business, until at last his oldest customer cannot tell surely whether it be animal, vegetable, or mineral, and yet it shall be as pure as a snowflake, and if it be put into a pot and boiled, will come out an excellent dun-fish for a Saturday`s dinner. Next Spanish hides, with the tails still preserving their twist and the angle of elevation they had when the oxen that wore them were careering over the pampas of the Spanish Main -- a type of all obstinacy, and evincing how almost hopeless and incurable are all constitutional vices. I confess, that practically speaking, when I have learned a man`s real disposition, I have no hopes of changing it for the better or worse in this state of existence. As the Orientals say, "A cur`s tail may be warmed, and pressed, and bound round with ligatures, and after a twelve years` labor bestowed upon it, still it will retain its natural form." The only effectual cure for such inveteracies as these tails exhibit is to make glue of them, which I believe is what is usually done with them, and then they will stay put and stick. Here is a hogshead of molasses or of brandy directed to John Smith, Cuttingsville, Vermont, some trader among the Green Mountains, who imports for the farmers near his clearing, and now perchance stands over his bulkhead and thinks of the last arrivals on the coast, how they may affect the price for him, telling his customers this moment, as he has told them twenty times before this morning, that he expects some by the next train of prime quality. It is advertised in the Cuttingsville Times. While these things go up other things come down. Warned by the whizzing sound, I look up from my book and see some tall pine, hewn on far northern hills, which has winged its way over the Green Mountains and the Connecticut, shot like an arrow through the township within ten minutes, and scarce another eye beholds it; going

"to be the mast
Of some great ammiral."

And hark! here comes the cattle-train bearing the cattle of a thousand hills, sheepcots, stables, and cow-yards in the air, drovers with their sticks, and shepherd boys in the midst of their flocks, all but the mountain pastures, whirled along like leaves blown from the mountains by the September gales. The air is filled with the bleating of calves and sheep, and the hustling of oxen, as if a pastoral valley were going by. When the old bell-wether at the head rattles his bell, the mountains do indeed skip like rams and the little hills like lambs. A carload of drovers, too, in the midst, on a level with their droves now, their vocation gone, but still clinging to their useless sticks as their badge of office. But their dogs, where are they? It is a stampede to them; they are quite thrown out; they have lost the scent. Methinks I hear them barking behind the Peterboro Hills, or panting up the western slope of the Green Mountains. They will not be in at the death. Their vocation, too, is gone. Their fidelity and sagacity are below par now. They will slink back to their kennels in disgrace, or perchance run wild and strike a league with the wolf and the fox. So is your pastoral life whirled past and away. But the bell rings, and I must get off the track and let the cars go by;--

(The map was Thoreau's own survey of the pond; the railroads at upper right.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Taste summer

You've seen our raspberries before; if you're in the neighborhood, drop by and partake! The house drink of the moment (courtesy of Bon Appétit) is a Raspberry Thyme Splash: 7 raspberries muddled and shaken with ice, 2 T fresh lime juice, 2 T simple syrup (50% sugar, 50% water), the leaves of a sprig of fresh thyme (from the garden too, of course) and 1/4 cup gin (Tanqueray's always tasty). Beautiful to look at and even nicer to drink!


Take your pick! The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Americans have an individual right to own a gun (the language of the Constitution is unclear as to whether the "right to bear arms" is contingent on the need for community or individual defense). John McCain praised the Court for clarifying this "sacred" right. Sacred?! Despite "Bowling for Columbine" and Virginia Tech and thirty-thousand killed by guns each year, the culture of death is alive in well in America. And beyond: American guns are fueling drug gang wars in Mexico, for instance. May God have mercy on our souls.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

FInishing the hat

Broadway is a jungle; if your show doesn't rake in Tonys, it's days are numbered. I fear for "Passing Strange" which was overshadowed by "In the Heights," though its chances are buoyed by having won big prizes from the New York Critics Circle and others. A first casualty is the revival of Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George," which closes Sunday - I got a ticket for today's matinee, and was entranced. I don't imagine there's ever been as perfect a use of media. To tell the truth I was agush with tears within the first minute, so beautiful was the surge of Steve Reich-like pointillistic music, and the miracle of the set turning from a deep room into a sketchpad on which Seurat drew and erased and redrew the horizon and trees at La Grande Jatte.

I didn't rush to see it before, in part because neither Sondheim nor Seurat is a favorite of mine. I'm not sure that's changed, though Seurat's fascinating as ever, and some of the music and words delighted:

... Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat.

Mapping out a sky.
What you feel like, planning a sky.
What you feel when voices that come
Through the window
Until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky
And how you're always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light,
How the kind of woman willing to wait's
Not the kind that you want to find waiting
To return you to the night,
Dizzy from the height,
Coming from the hat,
Studying the hat,
Entering the world of the hat,
Reaching through the world of the hat
Like a window,
Back to this one from that.

Studying a face,
Stepping back to look at a face
Leaves a little space in the way like a window,
But to see-
It's the only way to see.

And when the woman that you wanted goes,
You can say to yourself, "Well, I give what I give."
But the women who won't wait for you knows
That, however you live,
There's a part of you always standing by,
Mapping out the sky,
Finishing a hat...
Starting on a hat..
Finishing a hat...
Look, I made a hat...
Where there never was a hat.

It's a wonderful idea in its way to imagine the lives of the ordinary people who appear in Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon at la Grande Jatte," at least until Act 2 which starts with them stuck in the painting, complaining that it's hot in there, though ultimately thanking strange Georges for giving them a kind of immortality. There's a basic melancholy here, redeemed (or just interrupted) only by art.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Went to American Ballet Theater again tonight, courtesy of my friend the rehearsal pianist. This time it was "La Bayadère" and India, but once again a 19th century production. Quite lovely, actually, and a beautiful set. (The bronze idol who does a little break-dance-like dance at the start of Act 3 was my favorite.) The story is, however, of a shape I gather shared by many classic works of ballet - star-crossed lovers are divided by the death of one in Act 1, but reunited when the other, too, dies at the end of Act 3. Not to be Marxist about it, but one can't imagine a happy base generating this particular genre of superstructure!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Michele Hyams R I P

While I was off on retreat, there was a murder in the building where I used to live in Chelsea. I only managed to find details about it in the paper today, and... I knew the victim. She was on my floor, indeed on my corridor. (If you ever came over, hers was the first door on the right as you left the elevator.) Always smiling and full of life, her door was almost always open.
Rest in peace, Michele.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

On fairy turf

Have I mentioned that I will be teaching a first year seminar this Fall called "Secularism at the Crossroads"? Here's the course description:

People used to believe that modernization would automatically bring the demise of religion. Secular institutions and values had a Manifest Destiny to take over all the parts of life traditionally occupied by religion. That prediction has proved false. Yet if a secular future is not inevitable, it may yet be worth striving for. This course examines competing understandings of secularism and secularity, and considers whether individuals and societies can be secular in some areas and religious in others. Against the background of recent best-selling books written by secularists, skeptics, and atheists shocked to find themselves again on the defensive, students read historical, anthropological, and philosophical studies of secularization processes and of secularism itself as an ideology, a culture - or even a religion.

In prep I've started reading the works of the "four horsemen," Christopher Hitchens (god is not Great), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith), screeds all of them but in parts diverting. ("Four horsemen" is a self-ascription, the title of a 2-hour conversation of the four available on online.) Each has his hobbyhorses, and their points of disagreement are more interesting than when they're making a united front.

In the library today I stumbled on another writer's attempt to cash in on the antireligious manifesto boom - indeed to sneak to the head of the queue by being really really brief and pithy. It's A. C. Grayling's Against All Gods (2007) and I don't recommend it - it's mostly just snide. But I did rather like his argument for rejecting the term atheism as a self-description: Presumably ... believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views ‘a-fairyists’, hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time. (34)

Friday, June 20, 2008

First of the season

Actually, in honesty, the second, third and fourth. (Not actual size, but actual sweetness!) The nasturtium leaf is from a seed I planted too...

Update: I brought these three berries over to my friends J and A (with whom I usually have dinner every Sunday) Friday eve, and they pulled out champagne flutes, one for each berry, and bubbly. What an apotheosis!
Two insects I met in the woods around IMS, one an old friend. Any idea what the second, rather nightmarish one, is? About twice the size of the dragonfly, it had contorted itself into a pretzel to pump sap from a tree.
(16/7: it's a giant ichneumon [megarhyssa atrata] and ovipositing. Thx, K!)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Caravaggesque columbine

I can't not post this photo - you know both of these flowers from past postings, well a sibling of the red flower and the columbine in all its glory. Like a floral still life by Caravaggio!
of the
in the
my absence;
the vegetables
(especially the
tomatoes) have grown
ex - po - nen - tially ! ! !

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

For whom the bell tolls

One of the pleasures of my stay at IMS was taking this bell around. It made its way - struck on the edge of the edge to produce extraordinarily deep and resonant waves of sound - through the retreat center ten minutes before most transitions (note the bells on the left of our schedule). I got the lunchtime slot, so it's possible some fellow yogis have Pavlovian feelings toward me.

The bell is made, we were told, from the melted-down cartridges of US bullets gathered in Vietnam by a penitent American. It's heavy - that's a lot of bullet casings. There's something almost unbearably moving about the transformation from assisting in American killing of Vietnamese to calling (mostly) Americans to (Southeast Asian inspired) Buddhist wakefulness. Something very deep.

In case you haven't noticed, by the way, I gave a preliminary account of my experience yesterday, and have been feeding in pictures since then.

Monday, June 16, 2008

It's not like that

What can I tell you about my nine-day vipassana retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts? That it feels like it was a lot longer, as retreats always do. Especially when they involve busy schedules starting with a bell at 5 in the morning and not really letting you tumble into bed until 9:30 in the evening. Particularly when those hours are not busy, exactly, but to be spent in a relentless alternation of sitting perfectly still and walking in slow motion. (Our schedule.) And most especially when these are nine days of silence, only recently and uneasily broken. If there's any point to silence, to vipassana practice seeking preconceptual experience, and to the idea of retreat from the world into a structured alternate rhythm of life, you wouldn't expect me to be able to describe what happened, or anything of the essence.

But I can say a few things, like that IMS is charming and well run (a woman from Montréal told me it's the "Cadillac of meditation centers"). We were there for the irises and the peonies and, in the forest, lady's slippers. We apparently also hit the window between the blue flies and the mosquitoes...

Yes, I can feel your impatience, but what about insight? meditation? society?

I can also say that I didn't find what I was looking for, but found other things. (Story of my life!) My blog post's title - It's not like that - is a phrase often used by our main teacher, Michele McDonald, gently reminding us that life isn't the way we wish or expect it to be. (Other possible titles of this post, which I jotted down over the course of the retreat, capture some of its many moods: (Re)Treat, Thank you for your practice, Sitting bull, Short of breath, That's huge, Metta-physics, The silent treatment, Shallow breathing, Binge Buddhism, and two more, one of which I'll use for a further post, Analog and Fern sutras.)

• I didn't find what everyone predicted, that I'd be overwhelmed by the "chatter." I was, rather, surprised and disconcerted by the absence of it, and concluded that, for better or for worse, I'm already pretty nonattached to my life (the weeks after the end of an academic year are particularly quiescent, of course). I came out of the retreat convinced I need more attachment! - though, of course, wholesome, skilful attachment. (More on that anon.) And at the last sit yesterday I gleefully generated chatter, in anticipation of the noisy overstimulating endlessly distracting and disappointing world I would soon be returning to. I needn't have bothered: once we broke the silence for a time, the tranquility I'd slowly built up was shattered. The muscles of my face were tensed and jangly. Even my walk, which I'd managed to craft into a quite elegant and amazingly slo-mo gliding, was suddenly wobbly like the first day.

• I didn't find my breath easy to follow, indeed at first I kept losing it. But once I found an "anchor" (hand on stomach helped), I found it was like a bucking bronco. I didn't come anywhere close to awareness of its beginning, middle and end, let alone of the parallel of breath and awareness of breath. But I did learn that the breath varies all the time, swinging, swaying, bouncing, bobbing, fading, loop-the-looping. Which is freaky, since I've come 42 years without noticing that, my own breath! I managed to get out of my head at last.

• I didn't come to understand from the inside all the Buddhist teachings about impermanence, dukkha, anatta and equanimity - my purpose in going to the retreat in the first place. I described this intention to one of our teachers, and he said it was like wanting to taste a mango after only ever having read about mangoes, which seems a suitable analogy. I haven't yet tasted the mango or even broken the skin. But I have felt its cool smooth skin in my hand, and have caught a whiff of its smell. I know that there's a there there (well, actually, that there's not a there there), and that, as our teachers perhaps too often said, is huge.

• I didn't find my preconceptions about American Buddhism confirmed, or entirely disconfirmed. Although the dharma talks sometimes seemed fluffy (everything's OK) and more therapeutic than Buddhist (no mention of karma the whole time, and none of nibbana as non-rebirth), I heard enough of them from different teachers to get a sense of the genre of the dharma talk and to appreciate the skill of the teachers in delivering them to a widely varied audience. (I forget too quickly that most people are lay people. Including me.) I also came to understand that this plurality of voices is part of the genius or challenge of Buddhism in the West. Many different Buddhist traditions, which ignore or scorn each other in Asia, are here in conversation; the process of cultural translation is ongoing, and exciting, an exciting chapter not only in the history of religion in America, but of Buddhism. But translation's never easy (it's adaptation, elaboration, reinterpretation), and I sensed there's a long way to go before a clear translation of Asian monastic traditions to American lay people is achieved. But how fascinating to feel these issues are open, how exciting to be living in times where they are being sounded out...

• I didn't find the silence hard, but this I knew to expect from past experience. What I didn't expect was that the moment when the silence ended and we could finally speak to each other (there were about 70 of us there) would be a downer. One gets very comfortable with people in such a setting, and I'd of course imagined life stories for many, voices and even names, and was looking forward to being proved wrong - the pleasure of finding that of course she would be from Spain, not Provincetown; naturally he'd be a philosophical Chris from the Hudson Valley, not a Martin in mourning from New Haven; entirely appropriately she was a farmer from Ontario, not a left over hippie from Northern California (these are all actual people). I'd even convinced myself that was one of the lessons the place was set up to teach. But when the time came for a provisional lifting of the silence I was quickly bored by who others seemed to be, and by how hollow what we were saying sounded (me and what I was saying, too). How sweet to return to silence with them, though it felt now like aversion to them rather than peaceful metta-ful coexistence, a fantasy of being able to continue as a recluse.

So much yet to learn!

Sunday, June 15, 2008