Small Wonders

Faith and humility.

When you are small, she said, you can move around and between what the big ones cannot. You will never carry much you call your own and can be easily lifted. Whatever comes your way will only be found, and you will not confuse it with something earned.

No hope is real comfort when you will often have to go without it. Same for inspiration, same for confidence. What you want to keep, she said, is what is left when hope and confidence and self-respect are gone. When all the rest collapses, notice: what is here, still breathing?

Accept its life and protect its breath. It is not distinct from your own, only infinitely more vast.

Earth and Skies

First lessons in topography.

As a child of wartime, she remembered her grandmother’s hunger, the bombing and blood, and the flat expanse of the plains. Looking out, she imagined Earth as a wide plate and Heaven as the dome that covered it, and believed that if she walked to the edge, she would find the place where they met.

Later, she saw her first mountain. This was a shock.

Later still, she would think how well this prepared her for what followed, because what good is an education that does not continue to jar you from whatever it is you presume to know before learning more?

***

Inspired by a section of this conversation between Judith Plaskow and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring 2013).

What Lives

A still, small voice.

My grandmother used to say something about the darkness of hope. How it bears fruit in the light of wisdom. By watching her when she was living and listening after her death, I knew Grace. This was her name.

Revolt against death, she would say, by remembering the dead; the next breath a reminder that it was their breath before a final exhalation. Knowing this, breathe full and long. To forget is to die a little.

There were pages and pages behind these reminders. I read them as survival manuals for creatures of flesh. They said, be poor. Go down. Be despised, love anyway. Serve instead of demanding service. 

There were maps too, but no territories. They said only: Look––in hunger and thirst, through long nights and vast deserts. There you will find company with the soul of all souls. You will hear the heartbeat and what follows will be the first song of the world. 

You will know it, child. Go down.

Ask the Oracle

The weight of remembrance.

In the days of constant violence and plagues, when the crops are dead with drought and fire and even the shade trees are gone, the citizens gather. The cry is help, and the answer calls to mind a riddle and a mirror, and who is the most mysterious of all?

––And the mirror answered back with a reflection, the face of the king and all behind him. But what does it take to read a body’s history? 

Ask the oracle, she’ll tell you again: not until there is justice, will you know peace in your homes and shade for your children. The old questions return: whose death continues to echo within the city walls; whose blood stains the soil of these charred acres? What severances between life and the living continue to bleed.

Bring in the blind prophet to remind the assembly of the weight of this knowledge and what it means to have it, where no gain can come except through the death of a timeworn dream. 

Nevertheless, they resisted.

***

I am inspired by the work of Brian Doerries and Theatre of War in placing Greek tragedies at the center of community discussions around central challenges of the moment. I jotted these notes while reviewing his translation of the Oedipus Trilogy and related notes.

The Form is Not

Urgently seeking answers.

Are you there? I need to know what happened.

Sure. It started with a long walk and a begging bowl. Then it was time to sit.

I have some questions.

Who doesn’t? For answers, consider impermanence, inevitable extinction.

Yes, got it! To everything there is a season. A time to––

But don’t hold onto the idea, or any other. No more T-shirts or bumper stickers, okay?

Right. I’ll try to focus on action. How do I give?

Without counting.

What about appearances?

What about them?

Never mind. Let’s get to the real teaching. I’m ready.

What you learn isn’t supposed to be a trophy, but a raft.

Okay. Let’s talk fortune.

Give it away. What did I just tell you?

Right, right. Okay, what about this stream? How do I enter?

What stream?

Um, like the path––you know, the levels?

Forget about those.

You say that a lot. What should I remember?

Only teach.

But I don’t know anything!

There you go.

But seriously. I can’t even control my mind yet.

Hah! Which one? The past, the present, or the future? None of them are made for holding.

[sigh] 

Can you just give me some answer?

Fine. But I’m about to lose service here. The reception in these mountains is terrible.  Ready?

Yes!

It’s–––

Hello? Hello?

***

This morning, I learned that on this day in the year 868, a copy of the Diamond Sutra was printed in China, making it the oldest known printed book. Prior to this, the teachings had long been conveyed orally. Naturally, I got to imagining an attempt to convey urgent teachings orally via cellphone. I have spotty service at home and pretty good service in most other places, so many of my conversations have at least a few moments where one or the other party is saying, “Are you there?” or “Wait a minute, I’m walking outside. I might lose you.” I consulted Burton Watson’s translation here.

Among Ancients

Old growth wisdom.

The Pando, a trembling giant, is the oldest living organism on earth––also the largest and most dense, its name means I spread, which it does over one-hundred and six acres.

How old? I wondered. Some date this clonal colony back 80,000 years, a moment that roughly corresponds to the first known human burial. This seems significant.

There is a woman who travels the earth photographing the old trees. Time is the trunk, she says. Notice the split, she says, pointing to one of the ancients. To accommodate the storm.

She looks and looks. In each careful frame, she watches the old souls, how they shape the light. Making a record, she says. Lest people forget who they were, in the event of further collapse.

In their presence, she finds a reminder. There is still grace. There is still beauty. There is something and it’s made of grief but also beyond it, and it is still here.

***

Inspired by this article on photographer Beth Moon’s quest to photograph ancient trees, and also by this articleabout the world’s oldest clonal colony of aspen. I learned about the earliest known human burial here.

Gift of the Skies

Considering the vast wisdom of ancient dreamers against the small spectacle of contemporary foils.

October skies prompt certain recollections. Consider the ghosts of sky watchers, for example,  how they once stood among the old ruins, unruined among the old stars.

Those beautiful dreamers, for whom knowing was learning the way back to the original vision, before words.  It must have been something to be among them within the stories they must have told, and the tellers of them: rooted and sturdy as trees to sleep in, and who ever does that now? In contrast, I’m recalling the parable of the dreamer, a much more contemporary tale, apropos to the moment, overheard when I was out somewhere, wide-eyed with possibility. I had listened with rapt attention, waiting for a brilliant conclusion. It wasn’t that sort of story, but I couldn’t know this at the time. 

The parable I am remembering was not about one of these dreamers, but a self professed “dreamer” in the popular sense. The sort that loves to confess, “I am a dreamer,” as if doing so might lend a certain je ne sais quois to a cultivated artifice, aside from being an excellent excuse from the terrible burden of being tethered to anything of heaven or earth beyond his own needs. How unlike the real dreamers he was, whose original visions would never let them forget that they were nothing if not obligations to be more than mere selves, those notorious tricksters, those endless constellations of illusions and untamed wants who thrived on mischief-making, knowing nothing else.

The wise ones before him would chant with the rising sun, and for it, an act of worship borne of humility. Our latecomer arrives, knowing nothing but himself since he’s been so steadfast about resisting ties to anything else, right down to being unable to believe that anything could be nearly as real. Coming down to absorb the energy of the moment, he asks one of the reverent about their purpose. Upon learning that the object of worship is the sun, he cannot help but arrive at a singular and fateful conclusion: not that he is the sun exactly, not as a matter of fact (he isn’t much interested in facts, which too much resemble the proverbial ropes and chains from which is he is ever-wanting to free himself), but that he could be.

“I am here!” he declares, “And behold, a great light!” and raises his hands to absorb the energy of his adoring crowd. Proud of himself for remaining unsullied, he imagines the warmth he is feeling to be the pure radiance of his own miraculous self. 

Oh, the cheering! He thinks, how magnificent! When he deigns to remove himself from this heightened state, he must tell them!  He must tell the people. He is not selfish, after all! Truly, he had sometimes wondered. But if he were, how do you explain this impulse to let the common assembly, infinitely less complex than the smallest finger of his two outstretched hands, partake in this radiant heat?

The old ones shake their heads, chuckling at a misreading so far-fetched that they could never have dreamed it up. They’d love to see what else this one comes up with, but they can’t stay for the rest of the show. Dreaming, as they know it, is the hard, daily work of a lifetime, and they share a common agreement to get back to it.

“Should we say something?” One says, as they are walking away.

They pause, look back. But in the looking it becomes clear that saying anything to someone in such a state is about the same as saying nothing, and possibly much worse, given the likelihood of misunderstandings like the one that led our infant dreamer to claim the altar as his own.

They go, a procession of ancients in unison, under an ancient sky, pulled by an ancient purpose, older and more vast than any one among them.