Bells, part 3, Relax

We should probably be wary of statements beginning with the pronouncement, “Never before, in the history of the world….”

Nevertheless, given our current world predicament, we might find ourselves in need of some relaxation – seemingly, like never before.

In his little book titled “How to Relax,” the monk Thich Nhat Hanh begins:

“You don’t need to set aside special time for resting and relaxing. You don’t need a special pillow or any fancy equipment. You don’t need a whole hour. In fact, now is a very good time to relax” (page 6, “How to Relax,” Parallax Press, 2015).

The same might be said for writing. You don’t need a fancy machine, a special desk or pen, or even a purpose. What you need – is a bell.

“There is tranquility, peace, and joy within us, but we have to call them forth so they can manifest. Inviting a bell to sound is one way to call forth the joy and tranquility within” (page 100).

Thick Nhat Hanh gives us a poem to remind us of the bell we want to listen for, to hear, to send out to others:

“Body, speech, and mind in perfect oneness,
I send my heart along with the sound of this bell.
May all the hearers awaken from forgetfulness,
and transcend the path of anxiety and sorrow” (page 100).

And we don’t need a fancy blog template or website to write. Again, nevertheless, here at The Coming of the Toads, I’ve experimented with a few of the WordPress templates over time. But what did I want, if not simply to write? This isn’t the only place, the only way, I write. I keep a pocket notebook in the left rear pocket of my pants (detail for readers in need), unlined because I like to doodle and wander. I keep a spiral notebook in a desk drawer. I started The Coming of the Toads, after a few hesitant starts, in December of 2007, and have posted something at least monthly since. Why then, lately, have I been having thoughts of ending it?

I wasn’t “inviting the bell.” Not Poe’s “the tintinabulation of the bells,” nor his “anger of the bells,” nor his “moaning and the groaning of the bells.” But the bell of the muse. I like this etymological note from Oxford: “Middle English: from Old French muser ‘meditate, waste time’, perhaps from medieval Latin musum ‘muzzle’.” Writing involves a good amount of self-muzzle, or should. First, we might want to relax. Invite the bell. Then take up the pen and notebook, or open the blog.

This is the third piece in a series on bells at The Coming of the Toads.

What Goodness Knows: Ed Simon’s “Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations About Goodness”

When Mark Twain’s Huck decides to help Jim, an illegal immigrant of his time, a runaway slave, Huck believes he’ll go to hell for his goodness. Huck knows that by helping Jim escape he’ll be breaking the law. He’ll bring the wrath of local public opinion so forcefully down upon his head, this time it’ll probably fall off. He feels good, though, having sat down and thought it out and making his decision to help Jim with deliberation and good reason. Huck does not argue that he should not go to hell for helping Jim.

Central to Ed Simon’s 100 page immersion in goodness is a discussion of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It’s a little forced, but the idea is that without the betrayal, Jesus can’t save the world. One would think the Grand Master of Plots would come up with a work-around if Judas doesn’t cooperate, but we get the idea. Out of this betrayal, for which Judas knows he’ll go to hell, where his 30 pieces of silver won’t buy him much of anything, comes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. So why has Judas, over time, been treated as such a heel?

For Simon, goodness is no easy matter. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” you knew you were not going to a party. Is goodness even possible for an embodied, fallen soul? Where along the spectrum from doing good to doing nothing to breaking bad does empathy require altruistic behavior? In other words, what good is it if you don’t have some skin in the game? Simon clarifies the question in his introduction:

“Looming over my concerns is clearly the current political climate in both Europe and the United States, particularly the increasing economic disparity, the emboldening of extremism and zealotry, and especially the casual cruelty. The desire to reflect on what goodness might mean and how to be an embodied individual implicated in systems of oppression who nonetheless wishes to stand against those systems is hopefully underscored through the entire book” (8).

from Intro. to “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness,” by Ed Simon, Zero Books, 2019.

Why does it sometimes seem easier to follow evil than good? Easier to describe and to write. Good comedy is much harder to write, and more rare, than good tragedy. And why does comedy so often rely on someone else’s pain? Any discussion of good and evil falls quickly into the Western dichotomy zone, where so much bad would not have befallen you had you simply been more good. It’s not as easy as choosing right over wrong when any choice implicates others and sets forth what might quickly become a random course of events over which you just as quickly lose control. You make a good shot, but unfortunately you end up sinking the 8 ball and give away the match. Simon is aware of that, and handles it carefully:

“I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans” (14).

Goodness begins, for Simon, with compassion. But can the good one does redeem one who does not? Is there a quorum of good necessary to save those not in attendance? Why does the Black Christ keep getting whitewashed over? Simon does not go it alone in navigating his theme. What good would a totalitarian good be? What does it mean to sin for good? As Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” A little kindness for those who fail might be a good place to begin a path toward goodness.

While his Judas discussion might seem a bit forced, so too do some of Simon’s examples of evil seem extreme. They are the tabloid stories that have gone historically viral. But they are carefully placed to support the claim that evil is not a mistake. Depravity does not necessarily follow from deprivation, contrary to social studies myth:

“My Daddy beats my Mommy
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

from “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story,” 1957.

In fact, goodness might come from poverty, the road of excess not leading to Blake’s “palace of wisdom,” but to a white house of exploitation and gluttony, avarice and vainglory. The swamp might be a necessary mess.

“I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations,” Simon begins observation XXIV, “but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil” (60). Apology accepted as we read on, for by the end of his observations, I was gobsmacked by this book. It is perfectly paced and accessible to the common reader. It’s full of researched materials from antiquity to modern times, but it’s scholarly without being pedantic or smugly academic. It does not pander to a peer group. Yet it could be used as a guide toward further reading, study, caring. It contains both the sacred and the profane. It does not preach nor profess nor confess nor hide.

Is happiness necessary to goodness? Studies over the last two decades have shown Americans are not a happy bunch. Could it be that’s because we are not sufficiently good to be really happy? Simon anticipates rebuttal. Each observation carries forward naturally and thematically. He’s not without contradictions. We learn of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. We meet, if we’ve not already, the poet Jack Gilbert. Kempe says, “Wheresoever God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day” (80). But if God is in your soul, why does it need protecting, protection from what? Protection from the world He created for you? Is that how religion came to be such a protection racket? Meanwhile, we’ve Jack Gilbert telling us “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants” (78). Then why didn’t God make life more enjoyable, the cynic responds. But Simon stops the merry-go-round: “We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human” (78).

Simon’s human examples of goodness are not so tabloid as his examples of evil. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Flannery O’Connor, from Augustine through Judas to Margaret Edson’s W;t, to Kempe and Nietzsche and on to Fr Mychal, 911’s “Victim 0001,” whose last act of love signalled that God does not hate us, we learn, if nothing else, why we are given goodness.

Simon has written a good book. We learn about the things that make poetry: kindness, fellowship, pencils. “Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to ‘accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,'” Simon says, the “ruthless furnace” bit coming from Jack Gilbert (79). Simon’s last observation, number XXXVI, is a brilliant, modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, a way to think about goodness.

Elephant Garlic Honey and “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle”

We’ve been growing more herbs these last few years. The Salsa Garden is lost, as well as most of the activities that used to surround it. Yesterday, walking with a beer through the brick bordered herb garden (used bricks salvaged from lost projects, saved from taken down chimneys – we’ve one clinker brick), I noticed three honey bees working the flowers of two elephant garlic plants. The flowers are round, purple and white balls of blossoms, about the size of a swollen baseball, blossoming one each at the top of five foot stalks.

It’s difficult of course to identify the plant a honey comes from, and these bees are foraging freely in urban wild yards up and down the block. And the elephant garlic is on its own, hardly a crop. I don’t know where the bees call home. The rampant peppermint growing up along the south facing wall will bloom soon, and will bring more bees, and butterflies, and hummingbirds. If our yard were a poem, it would be free verse.

I pulled out a prize find foraging in the neighborhood book box down on the corner this week: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…And Other Modern Verse.” This is the 1966 edition that was welcomed in schools for a few years. It’s a textbook, but unlike most intro tos we see nowadays. There’s little discussion, and just one or a few questions for each poem gathered in a rear appendix. The title comes from one of the poems, written by John Tobias: “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.” The book includes black and white photos scattered throughout. All of the poems are cast in italics, but not their titles.

This copy is a discard from “School District No. 1: Cleveland High School.” The “issued to” slip pasted on the inside front cover shows 10/15/71 as the first date, issued to a Donald Scott. There is a name ahead of Scott’s, Gene Brown, but no date. There are other dates and student names: Shirley Moe (undated); Felicia Tracy (undated); 4/6/76 Marie Dee. There are eleven names, one crossed out with blue ink such that it’s unreadable. The last date reads 5-15-2000. And seemingly out of place, “Iris Little 6th per” appears at the top of the slip, no date. There is a note “To the student:” which mentions how the book comes into the student’s hands, and includes a schedule of “charges” should the book be found damaged in some way upon return, including: “4. Defacing by pencil…1.00; and “5. General mistreatment (water soiled, burned, dirty, ink, lipstick, paint)…1.50.” This copy is in good condition, the only “defacing” done by school ink stamps: “Property of….” And the slip, pasted to the inside cover, which has so fascinated me I’ve barely looked at the poems yet. 160 pages.

Immigrants from Earth

The astrophysicists are in the ascendancy again. That’s our takeaway from a 03.2019 National Geographic article. The key is light. The scientific industry is working to build something that will travel close to the speed of light. Laser beams, solar winds, and microscopic kites. Another key is funding. They’re working on a go fund me tsunami. Government dough is drying up, but there appears to be enough interest in the private sector to fuel ever more comic book fantasy.

Surprisingly, for all our technological advancements and discoveries, not much is known about the universe. Part of what’s driving the current science buzz is a new generation of telescopes that will provide pics of the light reflecting directly off of exoplanets. That light will contain information about what’s happening on the planet. Information like who lives there, their address, what they do for a living, and other census like questions.

Meantime, back on earth, in that same 03.2019 National Geographic issue, an article on El Salvador violence, titled “No Way Out,” helps explain the immigration crisis on the US southwest border. A map of El Salvador, titled “State of Fear,” using dots to show “Homicides by municipality, 2017,” could from a distance be confused with the Milky Way pic used on the cover of the issue.

One wonders what makes scientists think there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe when evidence of intelligent life here on Earth seems close to non-existent. And why would other life forms, presumably far more technologically advanced or in other ways superior to ours, be interested in us? One scientist interviewed remarks the question is similar to asking why would humans be interested in reaching out to a colony of ants.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Maybe the ants are the aliens.

Coast Road Trip: Adage and Algae

The idea, now an adage, that a picture is worth a thousand words, seems to have come from early 20th Century advertising strategies. A picture might be worth more than a thousand words to an illiterate shopper, and advertising must be short and quick and hit hard enough to leave a brand image on the brain. The problem now for advertisers might be there are too many pictures. We are now uploading upwards of 2 billion photos daily to the Internet. If the early 1900’s advertising adage is true, that’s two trillion words, daily. It’s easy to see why a writer struggling to reach a goal of 500 words a day might resort to posting a pic or two. Or simply trade the blog in for an Instagram account. Digitized images are the algae of the Internet.

Mural in Harbor Zone, Crescent City, CA. Photo by Susan.

Coast Road Trip: Sans Pics

A perspicacious reader asked why I haven’t posted any pics from the road trip. I’m working on moving toward a new kind of blog, more like the one I started, back in December of 2007, which contained no pics, just short bursts of writing pleasure. I had in mind the kind of posts the venerable E. B. White wrote in the early New Yorker.

“From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

“Eighty-Five from the Archive: E. B. White,” by Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.

Not that I ever achieved anything everyone might call, “not lousy.” In any case, I drifted away, or off, and into a kind of academic stream, where I imagined I might augment my adjunct work at the time. And I tried to bring some attention to the books I was working on, both reading and writing. Then I began to work-in more slant, though never totally “false,” and found the proverbial bottom of the barrel when I started putting up some poetry. And I recently considered retiring The Coming of the Toads, leaving it to sink to the bottom of the archive abyss of the Internet, where some future crab scuttling along might find a few morsels to criticize.

E. B. White’s idea of the short, personal essay (note the importance of that comma) has been replaced in many blogs by the personal pic essay, with and without words, the latter like Beckett’s short play, “Act Without Words.” And I suspect more reading is done on phones these days than when I started The Coming of the Toads on a desktop computer back in ’07, and the phone and other smaller size formats encourage changes in aspect ratios of screen, pics, and writing. And thinking about that, I decided to remove this blog’s header pic, begin writing with a minimum of pics altogether, returning to the short, personal note or comment type essay. I even thought of a new tagline for the title space: The Coming of the Toads: No links, No likes, No comments. I know that sounds a bit anti-social, but what I’m aiming for is clarity, simplicity – a clean, well-lighted blog.

Besides, I don’t get many comments or likes, and many that I do get appear to be from spam and bots, and I lost all the pics I took on our recent trip, mistakenly thinking I had backed up my phone photos to Google Photos when I had not, in the meantime deleting all the photos from my phone, then crashing my Instagram account trying to retrieve what I had at least saved there. Seems poetic justice for an anti-social attitude.

Having at this point already exceeded my target word limit, not to mention having probably lost my target audience, those interested in hearing more about the Road Trip, I give you this portfolio of road trip pics, all taken by my sister Barbara and Susan as I was trying on the lighthouse keeper’s uniform jacket at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, north of Newport, trying to strike poses I imagined a lighthouse keeper might have aimed at were he the subject of a live, on the job photo shoot:

Note: Comments On for this post. Have fun!

Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster”

20180916_100653I was reading Jessica Sequeira’s debut novel, “A Furious Oyster” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), when the 30 August London Review of Books arrived in the day’s mail. A book review should reveal something unexpected, but to do that the book under consideration must be heard in a whisper.

I turned to the review of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays; the LRB reviewer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, quotes from Zadie’s foreword:

“‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’”

Later in the review, we might recall that quote and think Zadie is telling us something more, but on the slant, that where she comes from, who she is, who her parents were, the various markings often used for identity, also don’t necessarily serve as “real qualifications”:

“‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’”

That ‘whisper’ is often precisely both unexpected and unheard. The whisper follows no code of style. The whisper comes after the existence of the writer, and describes her essence, her choices, her existential leanings, what she has decided to follow. The whisper is the writer’s breath. The whisper might also be how something is said, and is often paradoxical. The whisper breaks the piece, ruins the lecture, calls from the pit, stops the show. The whisper might be a prayer of praise or a heckle in time with popular opinions.

There’s something else, too, about the whisper; it’s what most of us do who have no real qualifications. And out of all those whispers (the all but silent blogs, the self-published and distributed broadside, the furious but funny poem in the on-line lit-wall), which ones should we home in on? And why would someone whisper when already no one’s listening?

Sometimes, of course, the whisper “goes viral,” bounces and echoes off walls, scampers up trees, drifts through subway tunnels. But who or what is the host for that sometimes poison, at times the scent of lavender? And it’s well known, though often not accepted, the virus does not respond to antibiotics, the stubborn use of which weakens the resistance.

All noise dissipates into whisper, so it should not surprise us that John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ goes briefly viral upon each new discovery. We realize even the Big Bang was a silent singularity. Not only might the world end not with a bang but a whisper, as Eliot almost said in “The Hollow Men,” but the world probably began with a whisper.

A whisper is not a whimper. A whimper is what comes out of a giant mouth at the end of a rant. A whisper is a careful timing of breath, a largo escape, patient. The whisper goes easy and around.

“Although that isn’t quite right either: how to describe something like the voice of a person just out of sight?” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

Hilda Mundy’s voice was far out of sight when Jessica Sequeira brought it back: “I don’t want them to punish me with comments” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, trans. Sequeira, We Heard You Like Books, 2017, 17). “Them,” the “three-dozen readers laughing at the pages of my failure” (17).

The whisper never fails: “I began to hear people whispering things to help me, advice. I don’t know whether those voices were really there or not, but they brought me serenity. They helped talk me through my situation, suggesting new paths, pointing out what I needed to do” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

“I have great respect, in contrast, for the metaphor. This is that” (118). So when we are told Pablo Neruda has ridden a wave of energy from an earthquake or the ocean or some great storm to enter the realm of the living, we believe. “This is my body.” This voice, this word. The metaphor transfigures.

Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster” is diary, memoir, investigation, document, thesis, mystery, love story. Let’s “be clear,” there are “other realities” (55). The reality of the metaphor, for example. “Strong wills work even in the shadows of the afterlife” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, 29). Does every word contain its erotic origin? “How pleasant and suggestive a couple in love is!” (Mundy, 34). “Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time?…Her kisses alternate, soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know, I know. I know, and how I wish I did not” (A Furious Oyster, 38).

“A Furious Oyster” is a story of two famous poets in Chile, Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha, literary adversaries, it seems, but both driven by the sufferings and loves of the people of a place, a land, a geography, a structure, to reach out, to reach. The geography of Sequeira’s book reveals her interests in shapes: “Sometimes at night, I dreamed of these theoretical shapes – the rhombuses, the ovals, the diamonds, the ellipses of sub-arguments within the prose. I kept only one notebook, and the diary of my personal life merged smoothly into the most abstract of notes on these Chilean poets, here and gone before my time” (55). “A Furious Oyster” is also the story of a writer researching, composing, working, in a relationship, watching, listening. And it’s the story of a place, Santiago de Chile.

Sequeira possesses that most unique of minds, the one able ambidextrously to move easily from the hard academic to the soft poet (or is it the soft academic to the hard poet?) within the same shape. The flow of “A Furious Oyster,” its style, is redolent of the Duras of the “Four Novels,” or Lispector’s way of creating mystery while unveiling surprises. I also thought of the modernism of Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin. Jessica Sequeira is a translator, a scholar, a writer. She both understands and comprehends literature. For those of us who can only comprehend, but feel we are indeed also “struck with this thought,” we can only whisper in her shadow that you really should read “A Furious Oyster.”

The Bananafish

A popular fish in some schools the deep
sea swallower called the bananafish:
Sansjawdsalumpigus.
Though it lives on the floor of the aphotic zone,
it is not bioluminescent; in fact, it’s invisible.
Rising to the surface with changes of tide, mind,
and mood, it’s worse by tens than the burbling
Jabberwock. A bananafish is never caught;
it slips you, and you are capsized.

The bananafish sees without eyes things
that disappear, hears sounds in the depths
of silence, lives on even when squished
or peeled or baked into bread or spread
in undigested seeds. They live in clusters,
but it only takes one to upend your plans
for a day, a week, or a lifetime. Nevermind
the Jabberwock; beware the brilliant
brainy glare of the bananafish.

What bites but has no teeth?
What smells but has no nose?
What swims without fins,
goes loopy if left to shelf,
barmy as the froth of beer?
Ans: the double-dealing
bluff bunko, the sly hoax
of Sansjawdsalumpigus,
commonly called the bananafish.

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Too Much of Nothing

You say too much
too much you lose
the way and the
universe seems
too much for you.

Not to make too much
of this to make much
of time, of hot,
of cold, like a year
in Chicago.

Say you see
her eyes move
like stars way
too slow and too
much of nothing.

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