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Zen and the Art of Writing Bad Poetry

003After many months away from this blog, I’m coming back to torment my followers by making this my site for National Poetry Writing Month in April. I’m hoping to start doing some practice work here over the next few weeks. And, no, not all my poems for April will be related to Mindfulness, Buddhism, Qi Gong, etc. but some may well turn out that way.

I love “form” poetry (as opposed to “free verse”), so I’m going to try to write in as many different forms as I can, from villanelles to haikus to, maybe, even a limerick. No promises that I’ll get in a poem a day. My grand word total for National Novel Writing Month–where the goal was 50,000 words–was just over 4000. But I did get a nifty little start on a mystery about a meditation retreat that I called “Being With Nothingness.” Maybe I’ll return to it someday.

Thus begins my scribbling.

Kuan Yin: Beyond Human

The Subject As A Younger Boy

The Subject As A Younger Boy

He’s lying in the sun, breath heavy and fast, sides shrunken, bones of the chest and neck showing through the skin, backs of the ears and the toes almost hairless now. Just an old cat suffering from age and pain and a host of ailments. “Just put him down,” people tell me especially after they hear I have to clean up his feces several times a day and live with puppy training pads on my bedroom floor because that’s the only way to keep him from urinating on the carpet.

Only one room still has carpet, in fact. He ruined all the rest so we’ve replaced it with hardwood, an oddly beautiful gift he’s given me through his feline dementia. And he still climbs onto my lap while I write, sleeps by my side at night, meets me at the door with his companion cat, who doesn’t understand why there are no wrestling matches every day.

My husband would be relieved to see him go–as I would be much of the time–but has come to understand and accept why we go on with him: not because I can’t bear to part with him but because he still has a pure enjoyment in much of life. I feel I need to respect and support that in an old cat no less than I would in any person.

Yesterday, I bought a new scratch pad laced with cat nip (which I’ve been referring to as “medical cat nip”) and he scratched and rolled and rubbed his cheek on it, then plowed through a bowl of cat food to satisfy the “munchies.” And as we ate dinner, this old arthritic boy came barreling down the hall top speed, startling his companion, and stretching his paws up onto the cat perch. This is not a cat ready to “go gently.” And I feel I need to respect that as well.

We don’t go to extraordinary measures to keep him alive. He’s off almost all medication because the drugs for one illness just make another worse. And he gets to eat the cheap grocery store cat food he loves rather than the “special diet” that is supposed to make him feel better. He’s in hospice with us. We just want to give him comfort.

I will respect his right to die when his quality of life degrades or he is in pain. But I will also respect and show compassion for his delight in life until then, this old, skinny, balding orange tiger. Even as I clean up his latest gift.

Age and Ache

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When I was young, if I was young, I believed the lies about how age creeps up on you, setting in like a fog, oozing into your pores a bit at a time. I also believed Sandburg when he said that the fog comes in quietly “on little cat’s feet.” Well, neither the fog not the fog of age comes on  quietly, not creeping, not oozing.

No, age leaps from hiding in the innocent branch of the willow and rips out the throat of your youth, fierce tiger, not gentle kitten. While I waited for the tiny lines, each signaling some new wisdom, the tiger raked its claws across my forehead in the night leaving deep gullies and yet no new wisdom. One morning, your skin is soft; the next hard and dull. As you dance one night away in heels and silk, you have no prescience that by morning your feet will only tolerate flats and that the bulky cotton sweater you saved from your last husband will now become your daily uniform.

I was going to be a star. I would write a vibrant dissertation that would astound my profs. Or find my voice at last and sing blues in smoky taverns. Maybe Christie-like disappear into Egypt to dig dinosaur bones. Age had other ideas. While I painted myself as the Renaissance Man, moving from dabbling first at academia, then at business, then on again like a bored but broke Gatsby, I missed that really I just wasn’t meant to be the star. While refusing to settle down, I settled sideways, never up.

There would always be time.

The tiger had other ideas.

No wiser, just older.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

 

T. S. Eliot “Prufrock”

Back Away From The Keyboard

As other introverts will understand immediately, after I’ve charged into the world with some public face on, blogging faithfully for a week, for example, I’m left both exhausted and terrified and I slink back into my den, wrap my tail around my face and try to hibernate off the contact. I use to try to justify this in various ways: I really don’t like people; I’m no good at anything, anyway; why bother when there’s so much else to do.

But that’s all bull and I know it. Truth is: I’m an introvert and while I might love listening to and engaging with others, it’s just really tiring after a time. Like writing, being part of the world is just hard for me.

Given the careers I’ve had so far–and I don’t count out there being even more despite having used up more than my allotted quota in just 60 years–people don’t get it when I express this. “You’ve taught university classes; you’ve owned a business; you’re a teacher of Qi Gong and a personal trainer now. How much more extrovert can you get than that?” But those aren’t extrovert jobs are they? When I’ve done those things, I can fill a very specific role, much like a shy actor can still dominate the stage.

When I stopped blogging a week or so ago, while I was curled up in my den being damned impressed with all the blogs I was reading, I started wondering about how or whether I was odd at all. Are others out there posting because they are wild party extroverts? Or is blogging, whether as brilliantly done as livelysceptic or as minimalistic blather as I, really a safe haven for the introverts of the world? When I read others blogs, I feel “part of the world” in a way I never can standing stupidly at a cocktail party, drink in hand, wishing I still smoked just for something to do with the other hand, trying to think of those pithy questions you are supposed to be asking to draw others out so you can just listen.

Having crawled out of my safe warm fur-lined hole for a moment to ask the question “Are you an introvert or extrovert?” I think it’s time to go back to sleep.

“Nothing Special”

Snow on Mountain

“I have been there and come back.

It was nothing special:

The river at high tide,

The mountain veiled by misty rain”

                                                                        Zen Buddhist saying

Beauty returns most fully when I stop looking for something higher. When the remaining grey snow piles blink at me as if to say “what are we still doing here on March 28?,” I hesitate in my gnarling about their ugliness and see they are as at sea as I. And the two cranes that flew over my car as I tried to hustle home on the always-too-crowded and frighteningly fast highway reminded me to breathe, reminded me that their path might be straighter and less crowded but their return home no less important.

In the study of Qi Gong and the Tao, I have never felt even close to knowledgeable, so I deftly if dumbly escaped thinking of myself as a “Great Expert,” as Ken Cohen refers to the first stage of learning–that in which you know a little so, therefore, you feel you know it all. I skipped straight to “Banana Head,” that phase where you realize that, as he says, “knowledge is limitless and human life is limited.” I know I don’t know.

What I have started to feel are moments within my ignorance, that I begin to catch sight out of the corner of an eye, tiny glinting sparks of the final stage of learning, the stage where all nature is once again part of you and you, part of nature, so that all entwines and all becomes so special that it is “nothing special.”

May I never reach that stage fully for I know I would then be a “Great Expert” and I might not see the inch long tree frogs under the birdbath who are so special that they are “nothing special.”

The Hubris of The Lone Wolf

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“Chutzpah. Nothing but ego-driven chutzpah”

That has been my brain for the last few days as I try to keep going with setting up The Qi Gong Center. Not that my brain has been alone in this derision. I’ve also been asked why I don’t just go join the local Tai Chi center. “But Tai Chi is a martial art. It’s gorgeous; I love it but it’s rigorous and exacting. Qi Gong is its ‘gentle mother’ and so much more accessible to more people.” Yeah, but what’s your ‘elevator speech?’ “my what? It’s bad enough that I talk to myself in all sorts of places, elevators included; I need to give speeches now?” And who are you partnered with, who else is in on this with you? “Well, no one exactly. I have people who love the idea and are very psychologically supportive, will maybe even help with web design but basically…well, more than basically…it’s me. Just me. I just want to do it.”

But now I’m wondering why.  I’m an introvert; I don’t network; I can’t schmooze worth a damn. I’ve never played well with others which is why I usually find a way to work for myself. Even when I taught University, the system left me to do what I pleased and I quit teaching when I got a department chair who wanted me to be a “team player.” So what am I doing trying to or thinking that there’s any way I can possibly become a “center” for anything?  Isn’t that making me assume an enormous ego when all of my Taoist teaching tells me I should let go of ego? Isn’t that making me the center of the universe?

There is no answer for me here, no easy phrase that will give me an out. But sometimes even a lone wolf needs to howl into the communal macrocosm and be heard.

And then continue to trudge on through the snowbanks. Alone.

The Parable Series: Let It Go

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And so the parable goes:

A master and his disciple are walking along the bank of a river (there’s a lot of walking goes on in parables: second of the parable series and we’ve already walked twice) when they come upon a lovely young gentlewoman, standing on the bank and crying because she cannot get to the other side. Don’t ask; who knows why she wanted to be there, doesn’t affect the parable. She sees the two men and begs them to carry her across the shallow river to the other side. The disciple, knowing that the teachings allow no contact with women, ignores her plea and assumes his master will do the same. Much to his surprise, his master hoists the young woman onto his shoulders, carries her across and returns to the bank where his student stands stunned. They continue to walk but the young man can’t get the idea out of his head that his master not only looked at a woman but, Holy Moly (I doubt that was his exact thought), actually touched one! Al lthrough the walk he stews over this until he can’t keep silent any longer: “How could you have touched a woman! Isn’t that forbidden? Don’t you feel guilty?” The master smiles, “Look at you. I left that woman on the bank of the river long ago. But, you, you are still carrying her on your shoulders.”

And so the parable ends.

For much of my life, I was a chronic “muller.” I would chew on a thought until the last crumb was gone and would then continue to chew some more. No perceived slight went by; no criticism was ever forgotten; no idiotic act I committed was ever quietly put to rest. Even a trodden on toe became a reason to dwell on the insensitivity of the foot that did the trodding or the obvious lack sincerity of apology–if there was one. I’m not sure whether flagellation would even have been satisfactory.

Ah, yes, truly my mother’s daughter. I watched her abandon a favorite restaurant because the server didn’t remember her drink order from a previous visit and years later, she would bring this up to me again, as if it had plagued her every sleepless night. And worse, she ditched a friend of decades for some perceived insensitivity on the friend’s part. As I recall, it was because her friend had lunch with someone else without inviting her. And, yes, this became a story that she would repeat over and over, in explicitly juiced-up detail, stirring the bitterness of rejection into every cup of tea.

I’m not sure what changed for me. Perhaps it was simply growing older–although that certainly didn’t help my mother–or marrying a man (third time’s the charm) who for all of his gentleness and, more important, incredibly good taste in fashion, won’t ever remember what year I was born. And why should he? What importance could that have? For that matter, what importance can a stepped-on toe have once the stepping is over?

My nights have been more restful; my self-forgiveness much easier; my relationships quieter. And it only took remembering three words: Let it go. Let it go and leave the woman on the bank, rather than carrying her on your shoulders.