Donna's Painting and Two Poems

Anthropomorph III (Ambivalence)—Donna Dechen Birdwell

The first woman
arrived in the night,
after the sun
fell asleep.

She popped up
like a bean stalk,
with feathers
on her arms.

Her feet rooted,
unable to go
and nothing to see
and only one job to do:

to wonder.
What else might there be
and are there others
like me?

Are things like this
or different?
Will I get tired...here?
And where is here, anyway?

I hear something—my feathers are blowing.
Why can't I remember
where I came from?
My mind is empty.

I reach in
the darkness
to see
what else is here.

I lift up one foot
and then
another.
I can take a step.

But where am I—
where will I go?
Oh I see something now—
over there.

How bright
that is!
What comes next?
I will fly.

—Kim Mosley

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

MY FLOCK

Roots have always eluded me.
As a child, I lived first one place, then another. Then another.
I have lived in at least a dozen different towns or cities.
Sometimes in a sequence of houses.
I have tried to be married. Three times.
My children are perhaps the only constants in my life.
But you could hardly call them roots.
Even as adults, they continue changing, moving.
But there is something that connects us.
An energy of love. Shared memories.
Caring for one another.
Always maintaining
That space in which the other feels safe and happy.
We chatter to one another across phone lines
And internet like a small flock of birds.
Calling, always connected,
Even while on the move.
Yes, they fly away.
But then they return
Or they call to me from the other trees
Where they build their own nests.
My children's freedom is as important as my own.
Our roots are in the sky.

—Donna Dechen Birdwell



What The Window Washers Did

Donna Dechen Birdwell

A window is a tentative, limited passage.
It welcomes light,
A breeze,
A few bugs and flying things,
Once, a bird,
The smell of rain,
Before we run to close it.

A door is more profound.
The light and the breeze come in,
As do the small creatures—
not so earthbound as we—
which also enter windows.
But the door also welcomes my friend,
My neighbor's dog,
At certain seasons of the year,
A pumpkin
Or a Christmas tree.

What of these other windows, then,
These windows of the soul?
These too collect grime,
Become obscured
By organic accretions of time
and neglect.
What of the open door of the heart?
Sometimes it lets in a sudden
Boisterous gale of wind—
Sometimes a thief.

Every threshold,
Every window,
Every door
Has two sides.
Maybe you and I can work together
To cleanse the windows
To mind the doors.
Meeting there,
To teach our hearts, our eyes
To trust openness
And light.

—Donna Dechen Birdwell

Is Buddha Fallible?

Lately the news has been getting me down. Between Ebola and the war in the Gaza Strip, I can hardly stand up. When someone says they don't listen to the news I feel a certain jealousy, thinking that no one deserves that kind of peace when so many are suffering. And then I think they are being irresponsible, as if to say, if you listened you could affect change and all would be well.

I like to tell this story about a girl who needs help but is turned down by a yogi in the sixth realm of consciousness. “Don't bother me,” the yogi says. “I'm almost there.”

I've been thinking about the difference between the Buddha, the man, and the Buddha, a stone statute. Did you know that stone and bronze statutes came about six hundred years after the Buddha lived? Earlier, there were sculptures of his feet, but nothing else. Feet are very special. After the Buddha ate, his attendants would wash his feet. That's a bit different from what we do, isn't it?

So the question came up about whether the Buddha was fallible. I thought he was not, but then my teacher said that not only was he fallible, but that he [my teacher] would never follow someone who wasn't.

So there are Buddhas and there are Buddhas. The stone ones probably don't make too many mistakes. They sit there and don't flinch no matter what we do. On the other hand, the human Buddha needs to negotiate every turn in the road.

The Dalai Lama was asked if he got excited when he saw a beautiful woman. I expected him to say, “of course not, I'm way beyond that.” But instead he said, “Of course, and then I realize the ramifications of an involvement with her.”

So would a perfect Buddha be like a stone? Would he always say the right thing? In fact, if he were really good, wouldn't he be able to end suffering instantly?

The bluebird sings, reminding us of a different world than that of disease and Israeli Hamas cease-fires. Is the bird irresponsible for not paying attention to the ills of the world? Is there a little message in the bird’s song that could resolve some of the world's conflicts? Perhaps!

—Kim Mosley

A Path of One's Own

When the Zen master asks, “Can I show you the path?” the proper answer, I imagine, falls somewhere between “yes,” “please,” and “thank you!”

A couple months ago, asked by the head teacher at the Austin Zen Center “Can I show you that path thing?” my response was, “Show me the path?? That’s why I came here!”

My path this past summer involved a two-month trip to Texas, Missouri, and Nebraska, the majority of which I spent in Austin. The centerpiece of this sojourn was a residential period at the Austin Zen Center, the home of my first consistent, shared Zen practice, the place where reading, dabbling, and solitary meditation found fertile ground in ritual and community. Separated from that community the previous year, I wanted a chunk of immersion, a chance to recharge the batteries of my practice and reconnect with friends.

While five weeks of near-daily sitting were marvelous, the ten days I spent living at the center were particularly refreshing and invigorating. In addition to multiplying my daily meditation sessions, I spent a lot more time in work practice. As you may know, Zen centers supplement sitting and walking meditation with periods during which one applies mindfulness to the mundane, daily tasks of cleaning and maintaining the place. The idea is that one should bring the same concentration and close attention to cleaning a toilet, say, as to something lofty, like inner peace or enlightenment.
In keeping with the intensive, retreat-like dynamic of residential practice, these work periods ran an hour and a half each day. And thus it was that I found myself staring at a corner of the extensive grounds, with the head teacher showing me a corner of the walking meditation path. Essentially, he wanted me to construct a bypass, to round off a corner so that the path didn’t come quite so close to the street. “I’d say take it from around here,” he said, as I followed his finger, “to somewhere over there. And maybe put a curve in the middle.”

That was it for instructions. At no time did he ask if I had any experience constructing a walking trail (I didn’t), or if I had even the slightest idea what I was doing (ditto).

It was at this point that a curious thing happened:

Jackie

I lost my little brother this week
And the circumstances of his life
And his death
Have so cracked wide open my heart

I could never face his pain while he was here
Now I am unimaginably grieved and unimaginably grateful
For what he has shown me
About the pain of judgment

Things do not go as I wish they would
And yet things move and shift
And winds blow us all away

I see what I never saw
I know, really know in my heart
What I never could have thought true

I can't lose what I am
We are never lost to each other, brother.

—Georgia

Contraction, Abundance

Winter is a time
      of contraction,
eating less
      of a dwindling larder.
Lent's a virtue
      of doing without.
Will we survive
      the letting go and
find the joy of abundance
      whether Ho Tai with his
bag of treats and a full belly,
      or an abundance of sky
and roads unwalked.
      Almost more joy
at a day we've never seen,
      than we can handle
without shaking.

The juniper so green,
      so scented
it crowds out thought.

—Jeffrey Taylor

When all is said and done....

When all is said and done, we truly only have ourselves. We can spend time with people we like, people we don’t like, people that like us, or people that don't like us. In the end, it is up to us to take each situation as it is, which is sometimes hard to do.

We can find things around us to help us feel better—animals, plants, art, and sometimes even people. We can also find space and quiet so we can visit with ourselves without interruption.

Driving on an empty highway with no radio in the car has been one of my meditation retreats. It is you, the hum of the car, the scenery if it’s day, the blackness if it’s not and memories and dreams. I have relived scenes, pondered countless questions, peered into the future, and anguished over lost loves, all at seventy one miles an hour. The car is a temple hurtling down the highway, sometimes the only light for miles.

The layers peel away and I study my childhood, my children's childhoods and my father’s childhood, what I know of it.

I learn and re-learn things about myself as I climb a long steep grade. As I crest the hill and see the diamond sparkles of a small town in the black distance, I say to myself, “When you step out of this rolling temple to buy gas and a sandwich, you will be closer to God and yourself and your destination.”

—Robert Porter

Samurai Song Prompt

There is always so much going on, even when it is quiet and my body is still. Even when my eyes are closed.

We like to think we know what all of this is. We're pretty pathetic like that.

I know the light that hits the retina on the back of my eyeball presents an upside down image—the lens at the front of my eye does that. My brain makes it right-side-up again. There are glasses you can put on that flip this image over—make it look upside down, which is, of course, really right-side-up. It doesn't take long for the mind to readjust it. I know what I expect to see. I know how to be sure I see exactly that.

This is how we build the world we live in.

Eyes closed, I know clearly the sound of a creaking door. What is hard is to notice that moment before we know a thing, name it, file it, judge it. The sound I name “creaking door” is really just vibrations rippling through the air, setting the little hairs of my inner ear vibrating. Somehow my brain turns this into a sound and finds a match for it among all the sounds I have heard before, the familiar sounds, the ones I have names for.

Similar things happen with light, with smell, with tastes, with touch and texture.

I wish I could get back to that moment, that instant when a sound is just vibration, when a thing is just light and formless substance. When there is no roof, no supper, no father, no mother, no temple, no priest, no fortune, no tactic, no strategy, no thought. No wish.

This does happen occasionally and it scares the crap out of me and I'm right back in my solid right-side-up world in which everything has a name and in which I know what I like and don't like. Or at least I think I do.

—Donna Dechen Birdwell

Prompt: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/samurai-song

August

Each breath counts time for the Gulf clouds 
of August

Cruising silently 
through all the shades 
of blue

—Lloyd Bridges (Houston)

Ten Thousand Things

In a commentary on practice by my teacher Albert Low, I was surprised to read that he recommended looking down rather than at the scenery as one walked in nature, at least for the beginning student, in the “first fifteen or twenty years.” Since much of the long trip I take each summer is taken up with responding to the landscape, I was taken aback. I read carefully as he explained that “it is neither the trees nor the birds, the river nor the blue sky that weaves its magic: it is awareness. When we go out for a walk like this we adopt a particular mind-set, and this is compatible with practice. With the same mindset one can walk through the slums of London and feel the same communion.” One can be open and aware in nature or anywhere. We may hear the rustle of leaves; better, we may hear a police siren.

It is true that when I travel, my mind is more open and attentive, particularly to dramatic and beautiful natural things. Less so, when I am home. It’s not entirely true that I lack attention, since I have worked on being present over the years, but still, there is a differential.

It might be good, I thought, to take a look at my patterns of awareness as I stayed here in Vancouver. Certain things draw my attention on my walks with my dog and cat: flowers and shrubs, bamboo and fern borders, projections in the sidewalk, lawn ornaments, crows.

Animals capture my interest—a cat on the porch swing, ae little spaniel being walked down the block, fish in a koi pond, a dead squirrel this morning, which my cat Murphy sniffed and pawed. The squirrels that leap to tree trunks and Rex follows, jerking me round. Some of the animal-watching is protective—cats and squirrels may inspire a lunge on the lead. Other things are to my advantage too—trash cans to deposit the sack of dog poop, houses with for sale signs and information sheets (I have rarely found one I could afford), cars coming down the streets we cross.

Interesting differences in houses—roof lines, porches, towers and balconies, stonework, latticework, arbors, palm trees, brushy yards with weeds and overgrown hedges and trees hiding whatever is behind, squares of lavender or lily. Folk art—banners and prayer flags, lawn ornaments, screened images of birds (there are several on the walls around the neighborhood), hand-made signs. A child’s table with a single chair in a shady, postage stamp backyard. A paradise of wagons, three-wheelers, plastic playhouses glimpsed through the slats in a back gate.

Food being grown—grapes in arbors and along fences, espaliered apple trees complete with rounding fruit, herbs in raised beds, drying tangles of sugar snap peas, red gleams of cherry tomatoes, blueberry bushes, blackberry patches left to fruit among weeds, containers of lettuce plants and shaggy tomato bushes on decks and balconies, corn in a row along an alley fence with twine holding it upright, bruised apples on the concrete and green balls of English walnut.

Water in any form—the elaborate stream and falls at Anthem Park between apartment buildings a block away, the shine of something spilt along the asphalt near a dumpster, the shrr of water down a backyard fountain. When it rains, puddles and mud and beading on cars.

Stories—the two women, one black, with tight slicked hair, one a haggard blonde, smoking on the curb outside a residential home. The rose with a short stem abandoned on a metal table outside a Subway early on a Sunday. Underwear and jeans discarded beside the sidewalk, now covered with city grit and leaves. I look down into the gardens of Columbia House, which I believe is assisted living, and see an old man turning onto a path in his automated scooter or a group of women under a canopy playing cards. A man stops to let Rex enter the street, then waves and drives on as Rex veers to inspect a sapling. A young neighbor makes his slow way down the sidewalk, letting his cat trail behind. They cross a street and climb the steps to a porch.

Having read my teacher’s comment about everyday awareness, I let my mind open wider this morning. So many colors and textures to the sidewalk—smooth pale gray in newly paved spots, the gritty, moss-embedded dark of sections that date back to the twenties and have been lifted awry by tree roots, fish scale patterns on sloping corners where bicycles and wheel chairs need access, or red-painted metal plates there with raised polkadots for traction. Cracks and concrete patches, lines of grass or moss, a rain-melted wash of chalk, a scattering of dried fir needles. Someone has sprayed mysterious turquoise markings down the center of the alley—repairs intended?

To some degree, I always participate in what Rex sees. What has he pulled toward? what is he sniffing? He has a much different view of the world. The base of trash cans and dumpsters call him, and mysterious scents. He stops at bamboo piled at the side of the alley, and we walk over the blonde blades which have fallen across the alleyway. He sniffs and paws at a spot like any other in the mulch of a flowerbed.

Today as my mind softens, our trip down the alley is a progression of sniffings, at little nubbins of green with purplish flowers, hairlike fibers of flower or weed, the corner of a gate. On my walks I can tell myself stories about what I attend to (why does the family have peace doves and Tibetan prayer flags, are they pacifists? I remember picking brown-eyed Susans like these for my mother.) Rex’s world is full of things I cannot easily put into words. Since I cannot participate in their olfactory significance, they become random dips into the texture of life—arch of grass, board dark with rot, splay of pebbles, shadowy brown irregularity. Rex is showing me the ten thousand things that make up life—really, below the ten thousand things, not to emptiness but at least to things less codeable in language. That is valuable practice, I think. At the least, it feels good to do.

—Sarah Webb, 7/27/2014

Poem, Emeritus

A poem has achieved
  emeritus status,
when it’s yellowed and rumpled
  with crease lines and sweat stains,
a corner missing, torn loose,
  too many times re-pinned
    to the corkboard and
taken down
  to be read, again.
Stared at in comprehension
  and incomprehension.

See down near the bottom
  the ink fades and runs
in a now dry lakebed
  of evaporated tears.
Underlined,
  in multiple hands and hues.

This poem has retired
  and been recalled,
been re-assigned and inherited.
  And now emeritus, it no longer works
every day, but serves as advisor,
  on call.

—Jeffrey Taylor

Smiling

Evening thunder
rumbles through my chest. Smiling,
hearing the rain fall.

—Korin Anita Swann

Squat

The kitchen is the heart of the home and the fridge is the quietly thrumming heart of the kitchen.
 
We are not a family who displays portraits of ourselves in each room, smiling in uncomfortable sweaters with animals and for a split second, being still. We know what we look like.
 
But on the door of our fridge is a small collection of photographs of my two sons, during mostly their childhood. Each photo is a small tableau of a part of their lives and mine.
 
One has them at a beach in Hawaii, early teens, with the classic shot of older brother buried in the sand, just his head showing, and younger brother laughing wildly with his foot on his brother's head.
 
Another has them in a desperado pose, with real guns, staring dangerously at the camera but wearing bright yellow ear plugs.
 
Then there is one of them, when they were small children, in a pirogue that I used to own. It's taken from behind, over their shoulders, showing the requisite bright orange PFDs, their dripping paddles lifted, about to help propel us past the old Seaholm Power Plant on Lady Bird Lake.
 
My favorite, of course, has me in it with them. My hair is dark red, and my face is young and confident. The boys are five and six years old, and I have one on each hip in a strong, fatherly grip. We are at the Rio Grande Gorge above Taos, New Mexico, and the land falls away behind us with blue mountains in the distance. Seconds after my wife took the photo, a huge wind came swirling up the gorge and I had to squat and hold them close so we wouldn't be blown over the edge to the river below.
 
And that's what I taught my sons—walk close to the edge because the view is invigorating, but always be ready to squat!

—Robert Porter