Thursday, August 29, 2013

Meditation: On Traffic

We traveled to Kathmandu in December, 2004 to adopt our daughter, who was then three years old. My husband's videos of the events include many minutes of Kathmandu traffic footage. There were rules to the road, but sometimes that meant driving off the road. The road has edges, but no shoulders; you might find yourself in a car driving on bricks set beside it, or in a gully, or--on occasion--on the other side of the road. Even during a three day strike by Maoists, the traffic piled up, though cab drivers--if they drove at all--blanked their plates. At three, our daughter was talking a blue streak in Nepalese. We put her in day care with a Nepali woman in Honolulu who lived in a walk-up near the university, and spoke to Radhika in her native tongue. Radhika chose instead to operate in English, even before she could say much of anything in it. In the afternoon, when I picked her up and drove her home, we'd  get on the H1 freeway and--as is almost always the case--we'd sit there, millimetering along, boxed in by others (un)like us. Then she would inevitably call out the word "TRAFFICS! TRAFFICS!!" She was not going to be a patient child, I could tell, but her use of the English word did make more sense than mine. Each time I corrected her to "traffic," I suspected that her use of the plural made more sense than my static singular noun. I have no idea when she switched over to "traffic," but it was not for many months and never while we took that particular drive together.

In second year German, the joke was that at the end of Kafka's short story, "The Judgment," the word "Vehrkehr" means both "traffic" and "sexual intercourse." According to that unimpeachable source, Wikipedia: "The sentence can be translated as: 'At this moment an unending stream of traffic was just going over the bridge.' What gives added weight to the obvious double meaning of Verkehr is Kafka's confession to his friend and biographer Max Brod that when he wrote that final line, he was thinking of 'a violent ejaculation.'"

When I sit in Honolulu traffic (today it took 2 1/2 hours to drive my son and daughter to their schools and then to return home, where I meditate on the subject) I see an "unending stream of traffic," but it foretells no climax, no ejaculation, hardly even a trickling.  If my car is a soccer ball, there is an invisible keeper at every turn, dressed in loud and yet dimly seen colors, leaping out to halt my progress, return me to visible traffic. To stuckness, stickiness, and thus to all that meditation seeks to ease.

Someone posted on Facebook (another form of traffic) an article that compared adoption to child-trafficking. When we adopted our children, we devoted hours to contemplating the issues of where they came from, how they were relinquished, who was getting our money, if there were (other) ethical issues involved. Our meditations were busy, like a freeway just before rush-hour, pushing forward with the frantic pace of worry, dreading slower traffic. (During my meditations, I want slow traffic; in traffic, I want quicker traffic.) As we climbed a mountain just outside Katmandhu, we passed an enormous billboard with images of women, children, and huge print.  Our driver told us the billboard warned against the trafficking of women.

Such postings cause me a form of road rage on my internal streets, the crooked ones that cannot yet find out how to become straight. Yesterday, a woman in traffic on H3 called her family, reported the locations of a motorcyclist who had cut her off. Family members drove out, confronted the motorcyclist, who shot a gun at the ground. It was in the "breaking news."

Not too long after we adopted our daughter, a writer came to our house with a friend we didn't know. The friend was quite intense, a writer too, we were told. Also a doctor. With our daughter in the room, he turned to me and asked, "is she a real orphan?" What was it made him think he could traffic in our business, our intimate family life?! Traffic is intrusive, it busies the moral mind, it asks questions it has no business--but traffic is what makes business happen. I sputtered, still unsure how to handle intimate adoption questions, even as they kept coming in all their complicated patterns off poorly constructed exit ramps and into our home. Later, I wrote to him and said, "I gather you've been following media coverage of adoption issues [which is never good, whether positive or negative]." I told him that was not a question to be asked, especially not when my daughter was in the room.

In French, the word is "circulation," as if traffic moved in circles, leaving a fixed point and returning to it. If John Donne had known H1, he might have written not about the compass but about the cars. Fixed marks, indeed!

My job is to traffic in words, to exchange them (if never for profit), propel them across state boundaries, international ones. My classes circulate; my students remain young, while I grow older, my cataracting eye on their halting syntax at once more jaded and more kind. Isn't life itself a halting syntax, phrase in search of a comma to slow its trajectory?

When I put a micro-version of the "traffics" story up on Facebook the other day and told my daughter, she said, "mom, you're always having that memory!" But it's never the same memory, I want to say; it has its own traffic patterns depending on the time of day, the year, the weather. I am not Funes, whose memory is so perfect it can never alter. He died of congestion, like many a drive home.

We traffic. That word, like so many, bears no moral or ethical charge until it's modified. But we insist on dipping it in the lye of our conversation, or the traffic words make of us. Traffic is dead adrenaline, but not so the words that pierce us. I yearn for the contra-flow, the zipper lane, the HOV lane, the traffic cop, the off-peak drive.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A meditation on meditation

Define "meditation."  The workings of the mind; a thinking through of issues, ideas; what introverts do.  Re-define "meditation." Sitting, letting thoughts go, detaching from one's emotions. Write a sentence in which you use both meanings of the word. The sentence will fall apart in your hands, like wet drywall, refusing to wall in or wall out. White dust on a bathroom floor.

Malaika King Albrecht, whom I know from her exquisite writing on Alzheimer's, quoted Pema Chödrön yesterday on her Facebook wall: "You can cruise through life not letting anything touch you, but if you really want to live fully, if you want to enter into life, enter into genuine relationships with other people, with animals, with the world situation, you’re definitely going to have the experience of feeling provoked, of getting hooked, of shenpa. You’re not just going to feel bliss. The message is that when those feelings emerge, this is not a failure. This is the chance to cultivate maitri, unconditional friendliness toward your perfect and imperfect self."

Define "shenpa": Chödrön writes an essay on the word here. Usually translated as "attachment," she calls it a "hook," a "sticky feeling," a "tightening." (Good teachers translate translations into literal feelings, those that work inside the body rather than on a cloud.) "We never get at the root, which last night I was calling the scabies. The root in this case is that we have to really experience unease. We have to experience the itch. We have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out."

When we adopted our daughter from a Kathmandu orphanage, she had scabies. She scratched and scratched, legs, arms, body. We had to apply poison to her skin to kill the insect intruders. So one of our first acts of parenting was to poison our daughter. The better for her to "attach" to us, in the positive way that word is used in parenting. "Attachment parenting" is considered a good thing in the magazines, while "attachment" causes suffering, according to Buddhist teachings. The sentence falls apart.

Early this summer, I did some Buddhist shopping (meditation and capitalism are eerily aligned) and purchased a meditation cushion and a mat. They are a lovely maroon color that my cat loves; some days we meditate together, he and I. Equilibrium was what I sought, but equilibrium was not what my sitting brought. At the Diamond Sangha in Palolo, where I went for a refresher in meditation technique, I had an intense urge to run screaming from the zendo. On my own cushion, I find my meditations punctuated by grief, by scheduling, by Tinfish ad copy, by compositions like this one. Intruders all.

What surprised me most, however, was that these meditations freed up anger. It is not my anger, I know, but an emotional field. I do not feel that yet! Anger is energy, anger rides on waves of energy like a Carlos Beltran 400-foot home run into the body's upper deck. Anger does not answer to no. Anger fills the chest and means to explode, plasticity to everyday flexibility. (See Catherine Malabou.) I've found myself acting out, announcing my anger to colleagues, my husband. My mind has roiled with the usual poet-editor-angers, the no-one-notices-my-good-work self-pity festival. My feelings have not hurtled with such speed since my depression/anxiety disorder were successfully treated and my mind slowed to a liveable pace, a walk instead of a jet pak.

But as Chödrön points out, "we have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out." As Malaika writes, "it's called practice for a reason." Define "practice." The OED has it as: "The actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to the theory or principles of it; performance, execution, achievement; working, operation; (Philos.) activity or action considered as being the realization of or in contrast to theory." And I love how this sentence also crumbles, a broken tower of babel, as it juxtaposes the application of belief or theory with the contrast to theory. It is the operation of theory when theory falls away. It is the rain that comes after the clouds, as in Mānoa Valley, when the rainbows borrow a ride on the mist. 

There is so much at which to be angry. I'm pissed off that everyone else is angry, too, the BMW drivers, the entire species of lone gunmen, radio shock jocks, my kids. Twenty-TWO new condo towers in Kaka`ako, really? Our neighbor loudly curses her kids mornings and evenings. I'm angry at Ralph Waldo Emerson for telling us in "Self-Reliance" that we are powerful, that we should never conform, that "nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles," so that when we discover we are without power or control, we get angry. I'm angry at the notion that "the triumph of principles" is where we need to go. Then again, if Emerson had one more sentence, he might well undo this one.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Now in material form: Steve Shrader's _The Arc of the Day / The Imperfectionist_

Now available  Just click the link to order one of your own. And click the photo for more of the book.

A couple days later: Ian Lind's take on the new book here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

On a line by Andrew Maxwell, volume 2

"Home is the compose key."

Composition by home field advantage.

A home composed in drywall and mud.

Home is the key signature, the one I wrote on behalf of my mother. Prosody tests your tone of voice.

Today's rain is unremitting, tropical storm remnant, shag rug.

The other night a tree broke behind the shed at the edge of the field. A lingering crack, like thunder in slow mo. Replay yesterday.

A losing streak doesn't feel like a streak but a blot, a smudge, a recession. Too big to fail does not operate across a long season.

"I guess you don't have seasons there." Except the one that rains, the one whose petals fall a school bus yellow, the one of humid bricks.

An adage is not an era. An era is not ERA. ERA is most expansive if you pitch few innings. Like horsepower on a RAM truck. REM is to sleep as this engine is to past time. He said "off pool" five times, made circling motions with his hand. "Whirlpool!"

The stink was not cat but small boy.

That the gameboy has no batteries is no bar to his invention.

He's a Buddhist. He plays in the key of C. Must-C TV includes a hidden ball trick. The lost art of attention. "At least she's talking on her cell phone, not texting," my daughter says, as we stop at the light.

Red light green light and another light we've never heard of. The older boy spits water at me, pushes me in the pool. He needs attention he's not getting.

A home composed. What was calm, and who was reading?

--based on a sentence by Andrew Maxwell, in Peeping Mot, Apogee Press, 2013.

Friday, August 9, 2013

On a passage by Andrew Maxwell


I'm proposing that thankfulness stands apart from decay. It's not a grooming, or unequal reaction to some splintering oak in the backyard. But it's neither indifferent, this positive, furtive strength.

I'm proposing it, as if it were some eternal notion.

--Andrew Maxwell

The rhapis palm fronds hang from the tree, brown to their as-yet-green tips. Decay of cloud, decay of wind, decay of grass, decay of conversation, decay of wit, decay of delay, decay of rainbow smudge, decay of Ko`olau, decay of waterfall, decay of tract home, decay of shore break, decay of wave curl, decay of soccer ball, decay of civil defense siren, decay of cat call, decay of orange fur, decay of self-regard.

The video is played over so slowly as to block affect. The video begins with burgers, ends with one man dead, the other spattered in blood. He says he sees the video every time he tries to sleep, and we hope that this is true. The video never diverges from its narrative, moves always toward the kick, the push, the gun, the man dead. There is no decay in this slice of time; there is nothing we who watch it can forget. Turn away. To forgive, writes the philosopher, is to make an arbitrary choice. Out of time, yet part of its decay.

Until it's over, childhood decays in reverse. It falls apart as growth, addition, an obstinate word. We watch from our actual stations of decay, those that carry the breeze with more ambivalent sound. We are the police on the pole, earning money for charity, while the new music hurls itself on the parking lot. We watch, attend, try control. He resisted arrest; we want it. To hold this moment still, like a globe, seems right. But the children say no, moving on (for them still forward), while our memories decay back, lifted like text from a book left in the wilderness for a year. Type lifted out of decay, poetry not found but arbitrarily preserved. The climate is a poet.

As if is what lasts. As if cannot decay. As if is a little girl. As if confuses need with desire, chooses desire. As if is as if. As if is the language of one's teens and twenties.

It was is what I say, knowing it as if true.

Andrew Maxwell's work from Peeping Mot, Berkeley: Apogee Press, 2013.


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Pam Brown's review of _"She's Welcome to Her Disease": Dementia Blog, Vol. 2_

Australian poet Pam Brown wrote a lovely review of my new book on her blog.  You can find it here.

If you search the Tinfish Editor's Blog site, you'll find that I've written about her work, too. Most recently, I wrote about her and Maged Zaher's new books.