Wednesday, October 16, 2019
At the beginning of my last year back in August, I wondered whether each week would be a constant “the last time I went to the first staff meeting! The last Back-to-School Night! The last corporation potluck meeting!” And the answer luckily was, “No.” Mostly I’m teaching as if it’s just another year, with just occasional moments when I’m happy (not having to look at next year’s proposed schedule in the staff meeting) or a bit sad (watching a class of 7thgraders with an eye to who I’ll be working with next year and then thinking, ‘Oops!’).
But driving home from school yesterday, I was listening to Oscar Peterson and an unusual (for Oscar) song came on that I remembered hearing before. It’s called “Nighttime” and it’s on his album with Itzhak Perlman called Side by Sideand also on an album Live at Salle Pleyein Paris. It immediately evoked a feeling of sweet farewell and I began writing a poem while driving. A first draft is below and tonight I read it out loud with the music playing and it seems they need to go together. So if you’re interested and you can find that song, try reading it out loud. I’m a long 9 months from actual retirement, but when the Muse calls, you would do well to respond, regardless of the timetable. Here it is:
It is the nighttime of my many, many years in this place I have loved so long
The sun is setting
The moon is rising.
The day’s stories have all been told
And behold, they are good.
The fire is lit with the warmth of memory.
I see the long parade of beautiful children now grown
And leading the next ones forward, King Glory
going up the mountain.
Where the first one, the second one, the third
But now will follow me no more.
Now, someone else will be walking them through the promised land.
That glorious place where we traveled along, singing songs side by side,
Where we stumbled and fell, lost our way, huddled together in the cold,
circled together in joy and danced our way to happiness.
Behind me now, the bread crumbs of those lived years
are messages to the future,
beckoning others to make the long climb to unending beauty,
bubbling laughter, shouted exultation.
Here, paused on the peak, the sky is orange with the day’s close.
The owl and the whippoorwill fill the air with song
while the morning birds turn to sleep.
Tomorrow a new day will dawn.
Monday, October 14, 2019
“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. Columbus later wrote of this in his log:
“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawk’s bells. They willing traded everything they owned…They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it be the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
So opens Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.Columbus comes to the New World (the Old Word to the native inhabitants) and brings with him his culture of dominance, of greed, of conquering people and nature over living harmoniously with people and nature. And this begins the history of our dear country that leads unapologetically to the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the insatiable appetite for money and power that leads to the exploitation of workers from robber baron bosses and always the inequality between men and women.
What kind of human being responds to the generous welcome of a host culture with “with fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want?”
And that is exactly what old Chris did. Came back and in 1495, “rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships” to go to Spain to be sold as slaved. OF course, with God on his side. He wrote: “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
Meanwhile, his lust for gold had him order all Arawaks 14 years old and older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death. …Within two years, through murder, mutilation or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead. By 1550, there were only 500 left and by 1650, there were none.
So, my friends, that’s who we’re celebrating today. A man lusting for gold, intent on enslaving human beings and sure that God was on his side as he set out to extinguish a race of fellow people. Isn’t that a lovely lesson for the children.
If we’re going to take time off from business as usual today, let’s at least tell the real story—to ourselves and to the children. And then look sharply at ourselves and see it all at work still today. Read George Conway’s article about our President who is a certified sociopath, psychopath and pathological narcissist incapable of empathy and drawn by his lust for gold and power. And have a moment of silence for the original Arawaks and all the millions of other people brutalized by these kinds of cultural permissions.
Happy Columbus Day?
Sunday, October 13, 2019
1) Let the Blue Angels Navy planes roar and scream overhead frightening little children, birds and generally disturbing the peace.
2) Get me thinking about the arrogance, ignorance and disrespect of a nation that hasn’t been invaded for centuries (except for 9/11) thinking it’s fun to have planes screeching across the sky when for many countries, that would mean the very real danger and traumatic memory of bombs dropping and neighbors dying. (And often those bomb-carrying planes from the U.S.!)
3) Get me thinking up all the fossil fuel wasted for this kind of spectacle entertainment.
4) Get me wondering why my beloved San Francisco, the most liberal place in the country, still hosts a Navy Fleet Week that includes this disturbing display.
I get that there is some bizarre and almost perverse kind of artistry as the four planes fly in a choreographed display, but why not try it with gliders? The whole macho “watch me penetrate the sky with my massive powerful organ” is precisely what the world needs to be done with.
And so my hope to sit by the lily-pad pond in the Arboretum and honor the Sabbath with some quiet reflection was bombarded from above. Thanks for nothing, Fleet Week.
It has been such a joy to explore haiku in my 4thgrade music classes. A few posts ago, I shared “My Life in Haiku” and now get ready for more! These from the children (though three from me), written during a class when I sent them out in the school yard to sit quietly and see if a poem came their way. To use their senses, noticing what they hear, they see, they smell, they feel and in one example below, what they taste. To try out the challenge of the 5-7-5 syllabic structure, to consider a seasonal reference, to bring their poem home with a punch line. (All of which you can find in this first example below.)
The kids have fallen in love with haiku. One bought a book of Basho’s poetry and journals (a 4thgrader!), all effortlessly turned inward to some silent space within when we sat on the benches on Pier 23 in our city walk to write yet more haiku. How their tender souls need this kind of silence and space! How we all do! Mindfulness is gaining traction in schools and this is a good thing, but like so much of the way we Americans do things, it is a “thing.” The cool thing du jour to do and yes, better that than a thousand other things it could be. To hear the peace bell and habitually stop and breathe. Lovely!
But this haiku tradition offers yet more. First off, it’s a centuries-old practice and that means it has weight and history and many ancestors to draw from. Secondly, it demands the mindful moment but also invites artistic expression, the art of capturing the flavor of the moment in the net of language and then sharing back with the group. And paying mind to a mathematical structure. Soon we will also try re-writing in a Chinese/ Japanese brush-painting style and illustrating with watercolors. And they’ve already enacted some in drama and accompanied with percussion instruments. Integrated arts, people!!
At any rate, here are some first-drafts from our class at the school. It might help to know that the school looks over the 280 freeway, so the many references to the roaring river of traffic is better understood if you know that. Enjoy!
The warm breeze of Spring
The cold breeze of the Autumn
Two seasons at once.
Pigeons in the air
All the trees with fluttering leaves
It is quiet now.
Whoosh! The wind swarming
Vrooom! The cars on the highway
Ha! The children laugh.
Leaves crunching underfoot
The fresh smell of pumpkin
A leaf falls to the ground.
The hot summer
Nothing but heat, the cold glass of water
Quenching my thirst.
There is not one cloud
The Autumn wind blows the trees
Yet I sit so still.
Trees swaying in wind
Growing bigger every year
Standing tall. Like us!
A blade of grass
Tastes bland and bitter
The texture is strange.
Birds chirp in the trees
They rustle the leaves and sing
Tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet.
The sky is blue
The leaves are green.
Yellow is the sun.
The grumbling highway
Yet we are in Nature’s peace
Trees swaying back and forth.
The wind is blowing
Rustling the leaves on the trees
Fall is the best time.
Smell the smell of
Smoke coming from the cars out there
The roar of traffic
The children’s screaming voices
Drown out the bees’ buzz.
Hot in the bright sun.
Then cool in the leafy shade.
Which one should I choose?
Pen and paper poised
Two flies land on the table
Waiting for my poem.
Friday, October 11, 2019
Here’s a confession: I miss writing these blogposts! But somehow things have intensified and there doesn’t seem to be time or space. I could write about giving my San Francisco tour to the 4thgrade (fun!!) or sharing the next breathtaking passage in my Dickens book (there are many!) or telling the story of my next confusing betrayal (ooh! Juicy!) or tell the story of our new TV (high drama!), but hey, I’m giving the first of my workshop series tomorrow, the ones I’ve been doing since 1976, so I better pass on it all.
Instead, I’ll feature a 4thgrade guest writer who spontaneously wrote a poem and gave it to his teacher, who passed it on to me. The kids are afire with poetry and that’s an entry in itself. Meanwhile, check this out:
It seeps through the heart with a mighty ring,
Makes cats purr and choirs sing.
It makes happiness jump wherever it goes,
Makes boys and girls swing to and fro.
It’s in every song,
And many dances.
It’s best by itself with no enhances.
It’s music to your ears,
It’s music to mine,
It makes people smile,
And makes their sun shine.
If you don’t have it, you might lose it,
It’s music I say,
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
I’m a huge advocate of expanding the base of who is worthy to inspire the better parts of ourselves. For a long time, I’ve been a fan of poets Basho, Rumi, Hafiz, Mirabel, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, novelists Zora Neale Hurston, Rohinton Mistry, Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Khaled Hosseini, Lisa See and more. Then there’s the long list of African-American jazz musicians—Louis, Duke, Ella, Billie, Bird, Diz, Monk, etc.— and scores of West African, Brazilian, Bulgarian, Cuban, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese musicians whose names are not known in the West. Not to mention Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and the like.
But to be perfectly honest, most of the deeply influential artists and thinkers in my life who continue to refresh me come from that now unpopular lineage of Dead White Men. Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Dickens, Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Bill Evans, Joseph Campbell and the still-living Keith Jarrett and Gary Snyder. Almost daily, my fingers rove through the prodigious intellect and imagination of Bach and elevate me to a higher plane. And most every Fall my whole adult life, I’ve read and re-read and re-read again a Charles Dickens novel.
But I seem to have taken a break these last three or four years, so decided to dive back in with Nicholas Nickleby. Having just finished A Man Called Ove with author Fredrik Backman’s sparse, simple and effective prose, it was a bit of a transition to get back into the opaque, long sentences of Dickens. But once in the groove, the rewards were—and are— many. Sentences that just make me sit up in admiration and wonder. Little things like:
“Mr. Squeers appearance was not prepossessing. He had but one eye, and the popular prejudice runs in favor of two. …”
Brilliant! And then there is this passage revealing both everything I’ve tried to correct in our view of music and affirm in its power. A group of strangers are thrown together by a carriage accident and awaiting rescue. One turns to another passenger and asks if he can sing.
“I cannot indeed,” replied the gentleman.
“That’s a pity,” said the owner of the good-humored countenance. “Is there nobody here who can sing a song to lighten the time?”
The passengers one and all protested that they could not; that they wished they could, that
they couldn’t remember the words of anything without the book…
The passengers asked the man who brought it up to sing and he replied:
“I would if I could,” said he of the good-tempered face, “for I hold that in this, as in all other cases where people who are strangers to each other are thrown unexpectedly together, they should endeavor to render themselves as pleasant for the joint sake of the little community as possible.”
There you have it. People already in the 1800’s limited by their book-dependence, unmindful of their musical heritage, but aware of music’s power to bring together a little community and pass the time in a most pleasant way. How did Dickens know what my life’s mission was to be?
Monday, October 7, 2019
Just saw the movie “Official Secrets” yesterday and may I recommend it? It’s in the long-standing tradition of whistle-blower films, a genre I’ve always enjoyed. Think Silkwood, The China Syndrome, All the President’s Men, Serpico, The Firm, Erin Brockovich, The Constant Gardner, Michael Clayton, The Informant, Fair Game, The Post, Spotlight. To name but a few.
Of course, it is a timely film, to say the least. The same tired story of people in power trying to use their muscle to get their way, regardless of the effect on the country or the world. This one dates back to the Bush-Cheney days, with the U.S. trying to dupe the American people into thinking war in Iraq is justifiable because of alleged weapons that never were found—and succeeding, at the cost of the murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings who had children, parents and friends. All so Bush could finish his Daddy’s war and make sure we have enough oil to drive to the mall to buy things made in China that we don’t need and are suffocating our planet. This film looks at it from the British point of view and their involvement in the scam and the whistleblower Katharine Gun’s efforts to expose them.
It was yet another film that reminded me not to miss “the good old days” of Bush and Cheney in the face of today’s political circus. And I left the theater with a surprising thought of mild praise for this clown trying to run the show (you see, I still have a hard time saying his name). However ignorant, mean-spirited, psychopathic, narcissistic, small-minded and small-hearted he is, he is not a warmonger like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and Co. There. One thing to be grateful for. Especially if you were born in a place like Iraq.
So this tiny crumb of sincere praise for our Toddler-in-Chief. Who would have thought that possible?
Saturday, October 5, 2019
All sports have clear rules and all sports have referees that blow the whistle when a rule is violated. The players and the spectators all understand this, respect it and accept it. Of course, there are those “kill the ump!” moments, but beyond a few dubious judgements, no referees could keep their job if they blatanty ignored the rules or bent them to their own team preference. The rule is the rule and the game depends upon them.
No different in government. The Constitution and the legal system is the rule book and our country depends upon clear, impartial and justice rulings and the unshakeable foundation that nobody is above the law. Naturally, the rich and powerful will always work the system to bend it to their advantage, the poor and marginalized will have institutionally-approved bad calls made against them. But there is a line where the violation is so flagrant and the consequences so serious that even the privileged finally have to leave the game and go to the bench—hopefully in a stark jail cell.
So the whistleblowers are the referees keeping the game honest. They’re not spies worthy of old-fashioned execution, as a certain child-Emperor implied. They’re essential to the function of an honest government. I’d suggest that if the proceedings proceed as they should and as they must and finally the right people—ie, the Fake President—get their just desserts, I’d like to nominate the presently anonymous whistleblower for a Nobel Peace Prize. (After Maria Montessori's posthumous award, of course!) But I’m afraid his—or her—life will not be so pleasant after this act of courage.
I found a sleeper movie titled “Mark Felt.” Ring a bell? Probably not. How about “Deep Throat?” Aha, the shadowy whistleblower who gave that crook Nixon his comeuppance by tipping of Woodward and Bernstein. Turns out the two above are one and the same. Mr. Felt, a high-ranking FBI official, waited thirty years to confess that despite all the pressure from the White House to cover up the goings-on, he indeed blew the whistle that toppled their crooked regime.
And so here we are again. The big difference is that folks back then were more capable of outrage and were clear that betraying the American people had consequences. Now so much has happened since that such activity has become normalized as “no big deal” —unless a Democrat got caught, of course. Then you would hear the outraged roar from the Repugnitans.
But here things have gotten so weird that the guy publicly admits that he encouraged the Ukraine to investigate for his own political gain and then goes on to publicly state that China should do the same.
People, he has gone offsides, committed pass interference, fouled intentionally and —well, keep all those violations coming, he’s done just about all. It’s time to throw him out of the game. The whistle has blown. Let’s do the right thing.
Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Before Maria Montessori’s death in 1952, she was nominated six times for the Nobel Peace Prize, but never received it. That was a terrible oversight. So with the power invested in me as a teacher, I hereby award it to her posthumously. Of course, I have no power whatsoever in political terms, but I have a far greater power than even Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela to directly affect a child’s life and cultivate their humanitarian promise close up. Naturally, the big hitters can inspire with their words and deeds, but it is the teachers, from preschool through college, who work directly with students to either open their hearts in real and tangible ways—or not. Dr. King, Mother Theresa and Mr. Mandela dealt with the failure of schools, families and society to rear children who have no reason to hit, hurt or hate others because all they’ve known is the blessing, praise, help and loving kindness of teachers trained to cultivate their humanitarian promise.
Yet how many teachers have actually been trained to do that? And what would that training look like? And what would a school committed to it look and feel like? Over hundred years ago, this amazing visionary, educator and humanitarian thinker was already considering these world-changing questions. And she knew down to the marrow of her bones that her lessons with the little ones could have far-reaching consequences far beyond their ability to construct the pink tower and trace the sandpaper letter. Listen to what she says:
How can we speak of Democracy or Freedom when from the very beginning of life we mold the child to undergo tyranny, to obey a dictator? How can we expect democracy when we have reared slaves? Real freedom begins at the beginning of life, not at the adult stage. These people who have been diminished in their powers, made short-sighted, devitalized by mental fatigue, whose bodies have become distorted, whose wills have been broken by elders who say: “your will must disappear and mine prevail!”—how can we expect them, when school-life is finished, to accept and use the rights of freedom?
Now read that last sentence—“These people who have been diminished in their powers…” and here you understand perfectly well what led to a half (or less) human person like Kim von Trump and all his fellow tyrants and all those who excuse and play along. These were people who went through some 12 years of schooling without developing the power of empathy, the long vision of rigorous intellectual thought, the energizing tonic of reading and writing and listening, the training of their bodies as instruments of knowledge and kinesthetic beauty. Apparently, no one had a teacher or adult who saw the hidden golden light waiting to be released by the blessing of a teacher and so it festered in the dark, protecting itself from the brutality of the teacher-tyrant shouting “Because I say so!” And when they left school, all they could see as a choice was to become such tyrants themselves and chase after money and power to put down others. Or else hide yet further into depression and anxiety and just try to get through without being noticed.
No matter who gets elected in 2020, no matter how many of these bad, bad people get their just desserts (is there a Montessori jail for them to rehabilitate?), no matter how many laws get made that bend the arc of justice to the rainbow’s end, none of it will endure without changing the way we raise and educate children. Montessori knew it and so should we.
And so I hereby award Dr. Maria Montessori with the Nobel Peace Prize she so richly deserved. All in favor?
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
The calendar page has turned to October and the weather is obeying the numbers. The air is charged with that delicious Fall chill, walking back to the house from the bus last night, it was dark at 7:30pm and writing this on a 7am morning, the light is just beginning to emerge. It’s October.
Fall has long been one of my favorite seasons, that slight melancholy of the approaching winter darkness festive with turning leaves and turning to that indoor coziness of thick bean soups and gratitude for shelter and warmth. Halloween beckons at the far end, school is deep in its rhythmic groove with classes bubbling along and kids still with fresh but now settled into the flow. The Festival life of San Francisco continues with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Sea Shanty sings, great shows at SF Jazz and of course, Halloween madness. Trader Joe’s is awash with 50 different things to do with pumpkin and the Farmer’s Market is bursting with the Autumnal Harvest. The sweaters come out of the closet, the short-sleeves shirts get pushed to the back—though not too far, as San Francisco has been known for its Summer in October days.
“Something to look forward to” is one of the three secrets to a well-lived life and this October, I’m hoping to hold my 9thbook in my hands. I’ll finally get to see the show Hamilton on the occasion of my 40thwedding anniversary. I’ll return to my college in Ohio and teach a guest music/ education class. I’ll be reading my annual Fall Dickens novel, a tradition I’ve passed over these last three years. I’ll tune in to the news awaiting the jubilant announcement that that lying scoundrel who betrayed our country on multiple fronts will get his sorry butt impeached, three years overdue.
And I’ll listen again to October Song, that old Incredible String Band mini-masterpiece and be lifted back to that timeless time of my first semester at college, return to that sense of a life ahead awaiting me with infinite promise even as the days behind far outnumber my days ahead. In the Autumn of my life and determined to display that blaze of life-affirming color and savor each bite of a crisp Fall apple. On we go!
Monday, September 30, 2019
The hardest part of visiting the grandchildren? Saying goodbye. This morning we dropped Malik off at his preschool and stayed for about 10 minutes while he showed us some things. Then we had to go back to Zadie’s school to teach some classes and told Malik to go to the window to wave goodbye to us. He did and as we turned to wave goodbye, he was choking back tears. And then so were we.
At 4-years old, he is a lovely combination of classic boy energy with cars and balls and filling the world with his exuberant physical energy. He is fun and funny, still playing the “steal Pop-pop’s classes from his front pocket” game that he invented when we was 2. He is alert and caring and sensitive, responding to my wife’s message that she would be bringing him a present for his birthday on the next visit with “What about Zadie? Will you bring something for her too?” He has a smile that delights and a laugh that fills a room. He just learned how to ride his bike, can write his name and is starting to make some memorable drawings. Can you feel how much I enjoy, admire and love him?
But love comes at a high price at the moment of parting and my eyes are watering with sweet sorrow. And I predict the same will happen when we bid goodbye to Zadie later at her school. It will be seven weeks until we re-unite and then go through the whole hellos and goodbyes again. Oh, why is San Francisco so damn expensive?!! They could be living close by!!
So it goes.
Today is my daughter Kerala’s 39thbirthday. Her daughter Zadie is asleep on the couch and the here in Portland is chilled, announcing the new seasons to come. My wife and I will teach an art and music class at Zadie’s school, visit grandson Malik at his preschool, lunch with Kerala downtown before heading home back to our San Francisco life. It has been a wonderful two days, culminating in a birthday dinner last night for husband Ronnie at a steakhouse he has been curious about.
We arrived at the restaurant early to find it packed to the brim and a 45 minute wait list. With two young kids, not a promising beginning. But 2 ½ hours later, we got up from one of the most harmonious dinners out with the grandkids we’ve ever had. Never a harsh reprimand and good, jovial conversation flowing amidst the slabs of red meat and the Senior’s Fish and Chips (well, broccoli) that I had. Three other Happy Birthday songs at other tables—it seemed to be a popular day to enter this life on earth.
The other day, I heard that eating 4 lbs of red meat (about 16 hamburgers) is equivalent to flying from New York to London and back in terms of consumption of earth’s resources. At first proud and then ashamed of my Million Mile Club status, here was my ticket to relieving my guilt. Haven’t eaten any red meat for some 48 years. But isn’t that statistic interesting? I guess if you eat steak on a transatlantic flight, you are the bad guy.
Time to wake Zadie up, 39 years after my life changed forever in the most marvelous of ways. Happy birthday to my loving daughter Kerala!!
Sunday, September 29, 2019
…was my childhood hero. I distinctly remember watching my father pay bills and generally noticing the weirdness of adults and deciding I most certainly did not want to grow up. But of course, I had no choice in the matter and also realized there were some perks—setting your own bedtime, deciding your own meals, choosing what you read and studied and cared about. And then there was sex.
But still there were bills and tax forms and mortgages and the thorny relationships following the sex and worse yet, the diminishment of your peer group’s humor, curiosity, imagination. Unless you had the good fortune to hang out with Zen masters and poets and jazz musicians. Because there is no reason to abandon the best of your childlike self while still accepting the responsibilities of adulthood.
I’ve mentioned earlier that it’s hard for me to imagine leaving school because days spent in the company of children of all ages continues to refresh and energize and entertain and make me happy. I just love the way they move and think and laugh and show unexpected moments of great kindness. And those expressive faces!!! Who would want to be in an office with a group of boring adults?
But when I leave school, there’s always my grandchildren and having just spent two glorious days with a 4 and almost 8-year old, it is just so damn fun!! Of course, the screams are sometimes too screamy and the rough-house sometimes too rough and the whines certainly too whiny, but mostly it’s sheer delight. Doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, we are ready to engage with the whole of our child-like selves.
And so I’ve taken a short break to sneak away and write this—one of the perks of being an adult (particularly a grandparent who is a mere back-up). But I’m ready to jump back in with both feet and let the imaginative banter soar and the fun begin again!
Friday, September 27, 2019
I have always followed Camus’s advice, “Live close to tears.” There are certain predictable moments— Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, talking at a workshop about my mentor Avon Gillespie, delivering a eulogy at a Memorial Service—when the tears start flowing. But sometimes they surprise me.
Today for example. We have a Singing Time theme of natural landscapes—valleys (Red River Valley), mountains (I Love the Mountains), rivers (Oh Shenandoah), prairies (Home on the Range) and so on. Today we sang “America the Beautiful” and as the 1stthrough 5thgrade children sang this lovely anthem set to Katherine Lee Bates 1893 poem, it was all I could do to keep from weeping openly in front of the children. What was going on?
Simply this. This country that I have criticized my whole life for failing to live up to its promise is the same one I have loved my whole life. And when I thought about the ”amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain’s majesties” and “fruited plains” being sold down the polluted river for corporate profit, when I think about the deep values that were just beginning to bloom and the long-deferred dreams getting their feet on the ground, only to have it all trampled by a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, small-minded, tiny-hearted maniac supported by all those who want to “win” at any cost, even if the cost be the dismantling of the best this country has to offer—well, no wonder I began to weep.
I’ve never been a big fan of the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, My Country Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful (though the last the most benign of all in terms of blind patriotism), feeling unhappy about the hypocrisy of people who claim criticism as anti-patriotic. But now I’m feeling like the real traitors, the real unpatriotic folks are those who are supporting this madness or standing by and saying nothing or are simply mouthing the same old tireless platitudes without an ounce of understanding about what real freedom means. Now I am the patriotic one and I believe the Repugnantins are the ones that should “love it or leave it.” If you truly love those amber waves of grain, you better get your butt in gear to protect it. If you think you’re conservative, why, get to work conserving the beauty and whatever truth is left in our beloved country. If you want to live in God’s country crowned with brotherhood, you better start including every American as your brother—or sister—or gender of their choice— and not think you can pick and choose who is in your good ole boys club.
In a rare moment of restraint, I resisted telling the children all of this on the verge of tears. But I did feel it. Deeply. I want my country back, the one that was at least tiptoeing toward the end of the rainbow that bends towards justice. And beauty. And spacious skies with intact ozone layers unsullied by pointless greed. I will be singing this song more with the children and will encourage them to reflect deeply about what it means to preserve whatever beauty, physical or moral, that remains.
That is, if I can talk over my own sobs.
Thursday, September 26, 2019
I began studying Zen in 1973, just at the beginning of my adult life. Practicing Zen Buddhism naturally led me to Japanese culture and Japanese culture led me to haiku. I became a big fan of Basho, Issa, Buson and more and then began to write some myself. Sometimes I followed the strict 5-7-5 syllabic form and that was an intriguing challenge. But also knowing that this was originally intended for the Japanese language and reading R.H. Blyth’s more free-form translations, I didn’t always hold myself to it.
Mostly writing haiku meant putting myself in a state of observation, quieting the monkey mind and letting the imagination slumber in favor of strict observance of what was happening around me. It was a way to tune into the five senses, to notice, to be open, to be mindful of the moment—and then try to capture it a small poem that packs some kind of punch line to attract the reader beyond “this happened.”
Today, I’ve decided to try to do a class with 4thgraders on haiku and musical accompaniment and set about to collect my favorites. And so stumbled upon a summary I made years back of the various haiku scattered in my journals. And lo and behold, I liked them! Here they are, mostly between 1973 when I first came to San Francisco and 1984.
Car after car passes
As we grow older
On the Burlington freeway ramp.
The poetry of despair
Hitchhiker’s graffiti on
“No Hitchhiking” signs.
The setting sun
Another night sleeping
By the freeway.
Sleeping and waking
Sleeping and waking
The endless night.
Turning on the radio
To keep awake driving
Nothing but static.
Swallowed up by
The vast Kansas sky
The road its tongue.
Crouched in tall grass
Ready to spring
The police car.
POINT OF VIEW
“Too many flies!”
say the people.
“Not enough people!”
say the flies.
PORTRAITS OF THE WORLD
Three old women
Sitting amidst rhododendrons
They too, have blossomed.
He returns it to his mouth
The burning cigarette.
Every day he sits
In his glass booth watching his life
Passing before his eyes.
Man walking briskly
Big-bellied woman shouting
“You don’t love me no more!”
Inside the liquor store
Waiting for the rain to stop
All of us together.
The old man’s head turns slowly
As the young girl walks by.
GOLDEN GATE PARK
Like cows in their stalls
The flowers peek out from
Between the bars.
A small explosion
Of leaves as the chickadee
Leaves the ground.
“Lawn Bowling Only”
Six feeding blackbirds
Boldly ignore the sign.
The preening duck
Swims quickly away
Waving goodbye with its tail.
Three horns honk
Each a higher note
Than the one before it.
ATOP MT. HOOD
The snow in August
Ah, the head!
Ah, the cold!
Amidst the ravaged forest
Half-eaten by bulldozers
Wildflowers still bloom.
STARTING OUT IN SAN FRANCISCO
The breeze around the corner
What will it bring me today?
This lonely evening
Even apple juice and popcorn
Fail to cheer me up.
Please go outside and play!
We have guests tonight.
She’s coming over to me
And I just farted.
Five in the morning
Its song outside my window
The garbage truck.
On the roof, two dogs
Peering down while a cat
Walks confidently below.
Oh, to spend my days
Skipping stones across the lake
One two three fourfive.
NO PRIVACY IN WEST MARIN
Stop for a roadside pee
Zip back up and turn around
Twenty cows staring.
A crow’s caw, a cow’s moo,
A fence’s creak.
All on the same pitch
SUZUKI ROSHI MEETS THELONIOUS MONK
Advice from two monks:
“You are perfect as you are.” But
“Keep on tryin’.”
FROM TIKAL, GUATEMALA
Awakening in darkness
One faint star
And a lone rooster’s cry.
A man pissing
In the morning mist
He thinks he’s alone.
Finishing the meal
He wipes his face
With a tortilla.
FROM KERALA, INDIA
The goat shits and eats
At the same time.
Hovering outside my net
ON MY 28THBIRTHDAY
A light rain falls
Another year passes
Ripples in the pond.
ON MY 33RDBIRTHDAY
My oar at rest
Suddenly, the other shore!
POINT REYES CAMPING
Along the morning trailside
Monkey flowers point one way
Morning glories the other.
Silent trumpets announcing the day
CALAVERAS BIG TREES CAMPING
Mist of breath
Steam of oatmeal
Smoke of fire
All mingle and merge.
Bright green needles
Dark green needles
Two years on the same tree.
Walking the spine of the ridge
Thinking about the temple gong haiku
A mosquito lands
On my bagpipe.