Stir yourself with poetry.
Stand firm in ritual.
Complete yourself in music.
I first read this quote some 45 years ago (in Gary Snyder’s Earth House Hold) and it struck me as a good recipe for a life well-lived. And then I went ahead and lived it! I renewed my vows today, the first day of the Western New Year. Though on one level, one must agree with Paula Poundstone’s astute observation last night that 11:59 pm on Dec. 31st of any given year is pretty much the same as 12:01 am on January 1st two minutes later, still we are creature of mythic imagination. Renewing vows on specially marked days is as old as the hills, even if those hills look pretty much the same from one day to another.
I have this private fantasy that how I live the first day will set the tone for the year to come. Kind of like the way Beethoven announces his bump-bump-bump-buuuuuuum and the rest of the music sings back to it the whole journey. And so I donned my old monk’s robes from Mt. Baldy Zen Center days, let go of the sobering fact that they don’t quite fit anymore and chanted an entire sutra book in ancient Sino-Japanese, followed by a full insence-stick zazen meditation. I haven’t gone to a Zen retreat for 8 years, but some 43 years after I started, I still begin the day with a short sit. So clearly some part of me has indeed stood firm in this ritual and no end in sight.
After sitting, I combed the bookshelves for my little paperback book of Immortal Poems to select one to memorize. This time last year I had some few dozen poems by 10 or 15 poets memorized, loving the way the music of the words played on my tongue and uplifted me by keeping company with them while walking. (Trust me, a thousand times more fulfilling that texting or checking e-mail while strolling through the park.) But it’s been a while since I kept that practice alive, so spent some time dusting off the shelves of verbal recall before selecting a new one to try out. (Wordsworth and the daffodils). And lo and behold, here I was stirring myself with poetry.
Then, in this 50th year anniversary of my school, began a little project of listing the names of every teacher and staff member who has ever taught there. Started trying it from memory and got about 180. Then pulled out the old rosters from 1990 to today and found an additional 150 or so. Still ahead is from 1966 to 1990. A time-consuming task, but remarkable to feel each name trigger a face and event and a moment in my long school history and gather everyone together in the imagination before (hopefully) many will gather in the flesh at the 50th party.
Guess where I went next? (I know you don’t care nor should you, but humor me!). Yep, the piano. And here I resurrected the long ago thoughts of people named Chopin, Haydn, Bach, Beethoven, Grieg, Billy Strayhorn and brought them to life in my fingers and filled the air with their glorious sounds. A different kind of satisfaction than compiling lists of names and one that brings together the cadences and breath of Buddhist chants with the music of words poetically rendered and Confucius had it right—complete oneself in music, because music is the meeting point of body, breath, mind, heart and soul.
"Better get out and exercise if I want that thread to keep unrolling down the year," I thought. So hopped on the bike and pumped myself up a long hill with cold air biting my face. Though I’ve hiked a bunch of miles every day these past three, the bike muscles were a bit atrophied. Lots of work ahead there.
Okay, so now I had stood firm in ritual, was stirred by poetry, completed in music, and with aerobic exercise to boot! Things were looking good for 2016. But is that all? Just make sure that my own body, mind and heart are toned? I think not.
The best part of the day was driving to the Jewish Home, greeting my friends there and enjoying a solid hour of making music together. Including singing Unforgettable and When I Fall in Love to honor the passing of Natalie Cole, who sang these tunes as a virtual duet with her dad Nat on one of her recordings. When I left, I told my soul-mates Fran and Edie, “This was the most fun I’ve had all year!!!”
And it was. May it continue.