Useful Books for Zen Writing

We talked about wanting some books that would help with getting started in writing or would make it clearer what zen writing might be. The books I know tend toward poetry but not all of them are poetry-oriented. Anyway, here are some thoughts.

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (easy entry, zen approach, good for self-exploration & journaling, overall system with examples) We are trading around some tapes of this book.
“Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words (easy entry, story-essays, ideas/strategies & prompts related to them)
“When the juggler said devil sticks my perception shifted and for a moment the sticks looked sharp and their clatter sounded sinister. When he called them flower sticks, the rods suddenly looped into a daisy in the air. Names are powerful. ... Take a walk outside. Pretend you are the first person who has ever seen the plants and trees on this walk. It's your job to name them.”

Deena Metzger, Writing for Your Life: A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds (easy entry, writing to examine one's life, explanation of principles and strategies with many examples from nonprofessional writers, tasks and prompts. She has sections on creativity, story, archetype and myth, and writing as spiritual practice. The spiritual practice section comes from a mixture of traditions, but has useful ideas for zen writing.)
“I am not suggesting that the path of the creative should or can replace other spiritual disciplines: I am only saying that it, too, has a series of practices and is a way to complement and amplify one's spiritual life.”

“These gratitudes, written as small pieces, can capture the freshness of the moment. They ask us to be present in the event as we write. ... It is too easy to give thanks absentmindedly.”

Kim Stafford, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft (easy entry, entertaining story-essays on writing, approach resembles zen, useful and surprising concrete strategies, good for beginner or upgrading skills)
“The feeling of not getting it is a good sign, not a paralyzing signal. The writing is hard because I am seeking connections that I did not know before—that nobody knew before. To proceed under such conditions is the hardest thing to do and the only thing worth doing. ... My wife says I get quiet when I have something big coming up—a speech to give, a new class about to begin, an essay brewing. 'If I didn't know you,' she says, 'you might seem depressed. But that's not it. You're gathering new stuff, that's all.'”

Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (easy entry, essays which combine story with idea, good for self-exploration & journaling, increasing creativity in general rather than writing alone, good overview-system for an approach to creating, homework tasks)

“Grandmother was gone before I learned the lesson her letters were teaching: survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention. Yes, her letters said, Dad's cough is getting worse, we have lost the house, there is no money and no work, but the tiger lilies are blooming, the lizard has found that spot of sun, the roses are holding despite the heat.”

William Stafford, Crossing Unmarked Snow, Writing the Australian Crawl (easy entry, new ideas to think about writing, approach resembles zen, also includes ideas on teaching writing in a non-dominating way, fairly accessible but not overview aimed at getting you started—more a collection of interviews and bits) Whenever I read his essays or poems, I find myself writing.
“So, I mean I'm looking at the room I'm in.... Or it may be the sound of the birds outside, or it might be the residue from a dream I just left from my sleep. I don't try for being relevant to current experience but if it invites itself, I welcome it. The feeling is of greeting anything at the door and saying, 'Come on in.'”

Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates:Entering the Mind of Poetry (advanced, ideas, poetry, draws on zen specifically, upgrading skills,)
“Writers, too, must be persons of no rank, for whom no part of existence is less—or more—holy than the rest. The writer turns to the inconsequential and almost invisible weeds for meaning as much as the glorious blossoms, values the dark parts of the story as much as the light.”

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (advanced, poetry, upgrading skills, overview of skills, her poetry often seems zen-like)
“It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime. Who knows anyway what it is, that wild , silky part of ourselves without which no poem can live? But we do know this: if it is going to enter into a passionate relationship and speak what is in its portion of your mind, the other responsible and purposeful part of you had better be a Romeo.”

Gregory Orr, Poetry as Survival (advanced, ideas on poetry for healing) I recently got this and haven't read much of it yet, but it seems to be on the healing and transformative power of writing, how it helps us make order of our lives and its pain. I notice that the first essay concerns the self and what it might be, so I am guessing a zen-like approach. It is more philosophical about what poetry does but it draws some on personal example and a lot on particular poems. Dipping ahead, I find intruiging things about the need to open to the nameless. He speaks of “giving over of the self,” standing on the “threshold.”
“I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was 'magical,' ... that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it. ... I felt simultaneously revealed to myself and freed of my self by the images and actions of the poem.”

Gary Gach, What Book!?: Buddha Poems From Beat to Hiphop (anthology of Buddhist poetry, short intro essay on Buddhist poetry, not as Beat-oriented as title sounds)
“Poetry reveals energies we need in order to live. Different energies are revealed by different forms. There is no one model for a 'Buddhist' poem.”

Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich, Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (anthology of Buddhist poetry, Buddhist poems, 30+ essays on Buddhist poetry)
from Jane Augustine's essay: “Rules for oneself maybe be unbuddhistic, but I have some:

1. Don't write what anyone could call Buddhist poetry. If this category existed, it would have to be as corrupt as Christian or Communist poetry, or Catholic mathematics—a propaganda tool for an institution or a sectarian point of view.

2. Avoid Buddhist terms whenever possible. Readers don't know what they mean, and often get the impression the poet is showing off his mysticism or 'higher levels' of achievement, wnich strikes a wrong note and defeats the poem.

Still, when writing on my father's death I used lines from The Tibetan Book of the Dead because I said them for him then, but even so, now I question this seeming inevitability of word choice. It was probably a mistake—too high-sounding, as if I were religious when I'm not.”

many authors, Writing Our Way Home, a group journey out of homelessness, pub by Doors of Hope, a homeless support center in Memphis where they gathered. (easy entry, utterly absorbing writing by people who tell about "the long process of becoming homeless and the long process of becoming housed.") Not explicitly Zen, and many of the authors speak of God, but is there anyone more qualified to describe what it is like to live in the moment? Well organized, flows beautifully. Group process they used almost identical to AZC. Every voice is a lesson for writing from the heart. 5 stars on Amazon

Coffee Break

Prompt: “Coffee Break,” by Kwame Dawes

When my father had his stroke he held our hands tightly and squeezed—the only words he had were words of touch. I said the Lord's Prayer for him, though I had been a Buddhist for many years already then, and his squeeze said thank you. I did not want him to go—we never want them to go—and I did not want him to go alone. So I made sure I was always there when people needed to go home to rest or to eat. On the second day he could no longer respond, but I talked to him anyway and if he were alone I held his hand and sang to him. But in the third day it came to me strongly that I should leave the room. I walked down the stairs and stood among some trees by the river. When I came back, his body was still. And I thought, my father has always taken care of us. He would not go while I sat there asking him to stay.

Lightly

            “the balloons sat lightly on his still lap”
                                   Kwame Dawes “Coffee Break”

A globe of air
sits lightly on the lap of a man
a man of air

his lungs, his blood charged with air
air filling the body
making the cells

the bones, the eyes, the nails
all of him air
and around him air.

If a breeze came in the open door
it would lift the balloon
spiral it onto the floor and out

as the man who has let go of the balloon
lets go of his lungs and bones and hair
and lifts

held so lightly
letting go so lightly
over the sill and out.

Sarah Webb, 1-20-15

++++++++++

No way, José!
Is life
this short?

Yesterday I had
my yearly checkup
with the eye doc.

And then
today
had the next one.

I don't think
we had aged, either
he nor I.

The balloon man
waited for coffee,
and it was too late.

First time I read it as
he'd skipped out, which
I guess he did,

in his own way,
leaving his balloons
on his still chair.

Was his lap his lap?
Does condensed or cow's milk
even matter.

In retrospect,
we'd do
things so differently.

Much differently!

I did something
bad
almost 50 years ago.

If only I could go
back in a
time machine,

slightly wiser,
and make some
better choices.

What was I
thinking?
Or was I?

It would have
been so easy just to
choose cow's milk.

Who would complain?

I could have just thought
a little of the consequences
of my actions.

Or, to save a dime,
I wrote instead of called...
and it was too late.

When you are on
a speeding train,
it doesn't take long to be late.

The eye doc said,
which is better,
a or b, and I'd blink,

and ask him
to show me a and b
over and over again.

Life is that
short.
Isn't it?

Kim Mosley

Pomegranates III

Only the rind remains,
    carcass bleaching
in the dining room light,
    echoes of an
empty ribcage on
    some African plain.

Toothmarks are really just
the impressions of seeds,
    but still the illusion
persists amidst rational
    explanations that,
though true, have not the
appeal of illusion.

Calvin's image of Hobbs is
    so much more than
his parents' and we...
    we treasure Calvin's vision.

—Jeffery Taylor

Zen and Poetry

What is it about Zen and poetry? There are so many Buddhist poets, enough for anthologies dedicated just to them, and—despite the warnings against reliance on words and scriptures—poetry has come to seem a Zen artistic discipline, much like archery or calligraphy or tea. The sudden flashes we call haiku are a well known part of the Zen tradition, but Zen poets write in many forms, as we learned from Norman Fischer’s recent reading at AZC. Why is poetry so natural to Zen practitioners?

In writing poetry we are mindful, not of the drying cloth on the plate or the door knob turning but of the movement of our minds. Yes, we are square in the world of form, just as we are when we sit on our cushions or experience our steps in kinhin. But we see our thoughts arising from nowhere. They appear, they turn into a poem.

Long or short, multi-layered or spare, personal or detached, poetry does something other words cannot. It is a bridge into the unsayable. We quieten and listen, let ourselves be the ground in which the void spills into form. How intimate!

Sarah Webb

myriad objects

myriad objects

float

in the sea


the full mass

of being

is sitting upright


one small movement,

and all the senses flood


the open heart

a hot coal

searing


mist rises,

clinging

to the mirror


dry for an instant

wet for all time



—devin grobert

Story

Story
               to William Greenway “Good Stories

1.
The story where he didn't win
the Nobel prize or any prize
but he lived his life anyway
waist-deep in the blue-green water.

2.
The one where he walked waist-deep
through blue-green water
and let it change him
dry to wet, bitter to salt.

3.
The one where there was no job
no child, no book, no song
except the song inside him
the song in the blue-green water.

4.
The one where he built a house
from wood the storm had tossed.
Thank you, storm, he said
through lips that cracked with sand and wind.

5.
The one where he walked
waist-deep, heart-deep
wet through and through
in the blue-green water.


It's to "The one where he won the Nobel Prize
and finally got to live by the sea,
fishing every dawn
waist deep in the blue-green water"

Sarah Webb

++++++++++

The question surfaces.

          Where is it?
          the one everyone has.
          Not only 'Where is it?'
          but 'What is it?'

          Is it a story that writes itself?
          While finding paradoxes day-by-day.
          Is it a story of reckoning with the immensity of the universe?
          Finding one's way to feeling awe, gratitude,
          and needing God only when filled with fear.

          Is it that presence underneath veils of formality, culture, and feeling
          within?

          Containing the mind's billowing breezes as we fall
          and fly.

          Looking back, at the end,

observing keenly—knowing
          You could not have lived any other life than the one you did.

—Bobbie Edwards

+++++++++

5 Stories

1. Gas leak.
Daughter moves
Home,
With little ones.

Daughter goes for
Happy hour. Kids cry.
Right pacifier? No dice,
Called daughter.

2. Lover of cranes.
Metal ones, not bird ones.
Critical to modern buildings,
Temptation arises.

She sneaks into construction site
Photographs one. It preens
Against a sky,
Displays a long thin cloud.

3. Massage today.
Who is your trainer?
You're a walking
Testimony.

Reflections on her glass table.
I liked better the
Reflections under her table
...Last month.

4. New battery, old laptop.
Less ump than the ancient
Battery.
Needs returning.

New glass for sunroom,
Fogged just after
Warranty ended.
Bad luck/planned obsolescence.

5. See art tomorrow.
Eat Indian food.
Stupid to plan.
Maybe gas leak again,

Maybe crane will eat the Indian food up,
Maybe reflections will become the object,
Maybe the sun will end the fogged glass,
Maybe tomorrow will go as planned...not!

Kim Mosley

++++++++++

After the Grail

What do you do after finding the Grail?
    Live by the sea and fish every day?
Head into the Western Desert, pausing
    only to write it all down at the request
of the sentry at the gate?

Or board a ship to the Western Havens,
    too weary to remain?
Live in the Calcutta slums, wise mother
    to all?

When you have reached
    the mountain top,
the only way forward
    is down.

—Jeffery Taylor

Pear Poems

Zen Writing prompt: “The First Days” by James Wright

1.
A pear smashes open on the walkway.
Cracked yellow to the compost
downed dove, heavy in the hand.

Squirrels scramble branches
leap and clutch.  A pear bounces.
Tooth marks.

Fermenting masses darken the fern
brown drips through fingers
the air smells sour.

Pear scraps sweep before the broom
water curls on mottled wood.
Thud of a pear.


2.
Above us
against green,
pear like a maiden.

Pear curved round itself
yellow flecked with red.

Where pear has fallen
white flesh, yellow flesh.

Sun has met moon.
The child is lovely.


3.
“He would have died if I hadn't knelt down”
James Wright

The misfortune of the bee--
the pear has tumbled upon it
crushed its ecstatic fumbling.

A man sets it free
cuts the white flesh from it
hands careful.

A life regained.

The bee does not stay to thank the man
or know there is a man to thank.
He tilts drunkenly as he flies away.

Behind the screen the TV drones its agony.
The man looks at the fragments of pear
the kind knife.

Many are leaving this world as we speak
and coming to it.

—Sarah Webb

I move to keep things whole.

The Prompt: Mark Strand, Poet Laureate

++++++++++
Venn Diagrams

The self, the edge of the self, and the edge of the world.
Poetic territory.
That shadow land between self and reality.
Using paper he made by hand...
Physical self meets physical reality.
How useful to dwell in ones' own self.
Undeterred by those who say the self does not exist.
Perhaps theirs does not?
Yet here the poet dwells.
A vessel to hold his many gifts.
A vessel—like  a Venn Diagram.
Allowing him to embrace the edge of the world.
He knows himself.
There is that pesky word again “The self.”

Dwelling in His self
He finds his poems evenly lit.
The dark and light embrace
As Venn Diagrams meet and share
But do not lose their own selves.
“I empty myself and my life remains.”
He has observed the great mystery.
Emptyness is ‘not separate.’

—Janelle Curlin-Taylor

++++++++++

I am
what I am not
and sometimes
I am
myself

I move
to exist
to connect the dots
from one moment
to the next

I move
so I can sit
without fidgeting
in silence
zazen

I move
in joy
pedaling, swimming,
walking, dancing
to be joyful

I move
my pen across a page
to listen to the thoughts
as they filter
through my mind

I move
I must
I always come back
to myself

to the space
In my heart
that longs to be
overflowing
into the still pool
below

—Francine Fowler

++++++++++

Walking in Dark

Walking in dark we enjoy
the intimacy of not seeing.
The earth holding
our feet in the soft embrace
that remains.

Walking out of worn out shoes,
into just my own skin.

—Jeffery Taylor

+++++++++

Qi and Air

It is hard to be nondualistic when doing qigong, or when thinking about being separate from the air we displace. We have stale qi and fresh qi. We move out the stale and move in the fresh. I doubt that one qi is better or worse than the other. It is more like how we get hungry or tired.

In Strand’s poem, he ends with, “I move to keep things whole.” In fact, we do the same in qigong, moving qi to keep us energized.

The air moves as the man moves. They switch places for a moment until the air is returned. Is it the same air, having been displaced by a man? It now has been stirred up. It has a little tale to tell its grandchildren.

“I move to keep things whole.” I thought in college sometimes that I’d learn something and then I could ride in this sweet Cadillac and not have to struggle one bit. Ha Ha. That was a joke.

Even a poet laureate needs to move to stay alive. Even the Dalai Lama needs to meditate four hours a day. Is meditation and moving much the same? I think so. And what is movement? When I am still, I really move. My thoughts can be as chaotic as Niagara Falls. And when I move, I am still—busy but somewhere else. Is one better than another? Or are they brother and sister—one complementing the other.

Wordsworth wrote that “Art is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, recalled in tranquility.” It is one action for a man to walk around displacing air, and a much different action, after the fact, to remember and admit that one had done such an interaction with the world. It might be a obvious to a very precocious third grader, but not one ordinarily observed by an adult, unless, of course, they were a poet laureate… and a meditative one at that.

Kim Mosley

Camas Lilies

Prompt: lynnungar.com/camas-lilies-2/

++++++++++

When I see the field of blue camas lilies in my mind's eye,
what do I see?
I see the beauty of straight stems, crowned with sky.
I see the nourishment of native families and the fodder of animals.
Neither takes a place of priority; these plants are equally beautiful and useful.
If these lilies had not been useful to the native Americans who nurtured their growth, would they be there still in such profusion?
Such confusion.
Why should I only find beauty in escaping work?
Why not imbue my work, my usefulness, with beauty, too?
Why imply that beauty is of no use?
Beauty feeds the spirit just as bread made from roots nourishes the body.
The body benefits from a joyful spirit.
The spirit benefits from a strong, sound body.
May I work in beauty.
May I walk in beauty.
May I breathe in beauty.
May I bloom in beauty.
Beauty all around me, nourishing both body and spirit,

Donna Birdwell

++++++++++

I'm not into lilies today. I moaned that would be the prompt as I drove here.

Earlier I had heard that the fifth person had died in the attack at a synagogue in Jerusalem. A vicious attack, where their shawls were lying in the blood, like the Holocaust, one of the victims said.

Lilies in the field. Are there any such things? The other day someone was telling me that heaven was on earth, and, gazing out on the lilies, we might believe that. But then this or that happens, and... where is heaven?

I did mention to my heaven on earth friend that the idyllic heaven would be boring. Where would the challenges be? Where would the opportunity be to bloom, if everything were already bloomed like the lilies?

Such contrast. A pristine field of lilies, blooming their hearts out, and the shawls, laying in blood, telling a story we don't want to hear.

Do we walk in the fields and feel the wind caress our faces? Do we watch the news with a box of tissues to catch the tears?

My mom didn't want me to see the hellish side of life. She thought the challenges were enough without the sad. She hid an obituary of someone I admired so it would interfere with my schoolwork. We never went to funerals. She always maintained she lived on “heaven on earth.” After she passed, we read in her diary how depressed she actually was. But she didn't want to share that amongst the lilies. We needed our opportunity to bloom, she thought.

Kim Mosley

The Brown Sisters

In 1975, and every year after, the four Brown sisters were photographed by one sister's husband, Nicholas Nixon. You can see the photographs here and read responses to them by members of the Zen Writing Group below.


Defiance and melancholy,
independence and frailty,
stoicism and pleading,
a shrinking in, a quiet strength:
I can't help feeling that my opinions
about these photos are a lot less
interesting than the photos
or the people themselves.

—R.B. Bojan



The Brown Sisters

Girls on the verge of womanhood;
They are almost young women.
Two are tomboys,
Determined to defy labels.

It was 1975.
The labels were all changing, anyway!
Why not?

The third sister is pensive and sad,
As if a premonition hovered near.
She is a delicate, wistful beauty.
I imagine her hair is red.
She sunburns worse than her sisters.
What does she see that makes her so sad?

And who is this fourth sister with her arms crossed?
She is at once flirtatious and defiant.
Miss Independent.

And now.
It is 40 years later.
Who are they now?

Independence hugs her sister close,
More Hestia than Miss Independent.
More Earth Mother, her arms no longer crossed
But now open to embrace.

The delicate wistful beauty
With red hair and delicate skin:
Was her premonition that
Age would not be kind
To her delicate skin?
Is she comforted by the embrace
Of her once defiant sibling?

Those tomboys, how they have changed!
What have they seen?
What have they experienced?
Where are their labels now?

One looks strong and proud.
And one, perhaps the eldest,
What has life brought her?
What has she endured?
Worn and weathered as the Texas Plains.
Strong? Perhaps. She is a survivor for sure.

Life has not been easy nor age kind.
These women are
Strength, endurance, patience.

—Janelle Curlin-Taylor



When I Was 14

I was always the youngest, it seemed. I had two older sisters...and (obviously), two older parents. I was the one who had to go to bed the earliest.

I was a young freshman in high school. A new crop of students joined our class that were a year older because we had all done 7th and 8th grade in one year. And then, as I just turned 17, I went off to college. A few years later, I was the youngest grad student, and a few years after that, the youngest faculty member.

I couldn’t connect to the other faculty members, who seemed old enough to be my parents. I had many students who were older than I.

Sometimes I’d remember when I was 12 or so, that I took groups horseback riding in the woods or on the beach. Some of the men though they were cowboys and wanted to run their horses. I had to boss them around. I was as short as I was young. But somehow I managed those cowboys.

And then I had a crisis when I turned 40. I finally morphed into someone who wasn't the youngest anymore, but was far from being the oldest. I was in kind of a la la land. And by then I had a wife and couple of young kids. So what was I, a husband/father or a kid?

I was intrigued with learning about young art forms and technologies. If it was new, I wanted to have it or do it. I think I identified with these newly-born babes to see how they'd fend in a world full of seniors.

When my parents retired in 1980 I had this idea that they'd be waiting for death. Nothing was further from the truth. They lived another 20–25 years, but I had trouble imagining how they could be anything but the hard working parents I had known.

Then my wife’s parents retired. I got to know them pretty well because they spent a couple of years helping us add onto our home and build a studio. They were waiting for death, expecting it to knock on their door at any time. Funny thing is, due to the miracles of modern medicine, they are still kicking around in their nineties.

And now I'm 68. I feel better than I have for a long time. And I don't see me as the old guy. I'm older than most, but not all, of the people I see in the course of a day. I look for young doctors who will be around when I'm too feeble to find a new one.

And now I'm 68. It is hard for me to wrap my toes around that. My dad always wore a suit. When he was dying, he was looking forward to me wearing his suits. I brought some of them to Texas, but soon gave them to goodwill. I'm not the old guy in the suit. That's Mr. Rogers.

And now I'm 68. I have to keep repeating that because I can't really believe it. Last year I went to my 50th high school reunion. How my classmates had aged! I was still 14.

And now I'm 68. My wife tells me I’m going to live 16 more years, according to the actuaries, who now give us two more years than they did previously. That’s 84 or so. Will I still be writing these posts then? Will I still be 14?

—Kim Mosley

Tea Ceremony


“I’m thirsty.” Angie said. “I want a Coke. Buy me a Coke, sister.”

Maxine was looking after her younger sister for the afternoon. Their parents had left Maxine enough money to go down to the McDonalds and buy a Coke, but Maxine didn’t want to go.

“I’m not buying you a Coke, Angie,” she said. “You drink too many Cokes anyway.Go make a cup of tea instead.”
“Are you kidding me?” Angie just stood there with her hands on her hips. “I don’t drink tea… not that hot stuff anyway. Besides… I don’t know how to make it.”
“Well, you should learn, Angie,” Maxine said. “Come on, nuisance. Come in the kitchen and I’ll show you how to make a cup of tea.”
Angie rolled her eyes, but she followed Maxine into the kitchen, resting her elbows on the counter, her chin in her hands. She would watch.
“First,” Maxine said, “we need water.” She turned on the tap and out came the water. She filled the electric kettle, placed it back on its base and and flipped the switch to “on”.
“How does the water get into the tap?” Angie asked.
“Oh.” Maxine said. “I think it comes from the lake.”
“How does it do that?” Angie wanted to know.
“Pipes. Pumps. Filters – lots of stuff.” Maxine explained.
The two girls stood there, arms crossed, looking at the kettle, waiting for it to boil.
“Where did the kettle come from?” Angie asked.
“Target,” Maxine replied.
“Where did Target get it?”
Maxine sighed. “Probably from China, nuisance little sister. Don’t ask so many questions.”
“You mean people in China made our kettle?” Angie was looking at her reflection in the side of the kettle, making faces. “How did it get here?”
“Probably on a ship,” Maxine said. “In a big box inside a ship, I think. Then in a truck to get to the Target store. And people put it on the shelf. And we bought it.”
“What about the electricity to make the kettle get hot?” Angie said, poking at the electrical cord with her finger.
And so it went. The water, the kettle, the electricity, the tea, the little paper bags the tea was in, the ceramic mugs, the spoon, the honey. Angie kept asking and Maxine – getting into the game after a while – kept answering.
Finally Angie and Maxine sat down at the table with their two mugs of tea. Angie stirred her tea thoughtfully. “You know,” she said, “that’s a lot of stuff that went into this cup of tea.”
“Yeah,” Maxine smiled. “A lot of stuff.”
Angie sighed. “But I really did want a Coke.”

—Donna Birdwell

One Drop at a Time

Painting by Kim Mosley

Churning, yearning, burning Earth

The forest fire blazed, consuming desire, compassion, love, children, deer, ants, and snakes. Tree branches reached towards the sky twisting into arms filled with resistance. Their hands gestured protest. Unable to reach one drop of dew, one drop of the well, one drop of source that would quench.

—Bobbie Edwards



The bird put out the forest fire one drop at a time. The brown leaves of the trees reached up to her. Save us, they cried. And all the air was red with flame. Pity moved her wings.

Great-hearted bird, she was the tenderness of the universe.

—Sarah Webb



The bird in the picture reminds me of the planes I drew in the backs of composition books in fifth grade. My planes rained down bombs on tanks and guns that returned the attack. The bird rains down drops on a fire that returns updrafts and heat. Both conflicts between high and low. Gravity aids the high and hinders the low. Fire will spring up among the bombed structures, threatening the high and the low. Does the fire care what it threatens?

—Jeffery Taylor



The Bird Put Out the Forest Fire One Drop at a Time (carried in his little beak)



The title lets us know the bird was a success.
“Put out the fire” the title says.
Tiny drops are painted below its beak.

Suspend judgment. Believe.

Without the title—despair.
The fire is so big.
The bird so small.
One drop at a time.

Imagine. The bird did not despair.
He filled his little beak.
That is what he had—a beak.
The forest fire was put out.

Sit with this.

Remember the huge forest fire in Yosemite?
Ash fell in the streets miles away.
The smell invaded our clothes, our hair, inside our car.
Food stuck in my mouth as flames leapt in the air, so close.

The bird put out the fire one drop at a time.
The bird has wings.
Wings to fly away, escape.

And yet, one drop at a time.

What daunting blaze might I put out with what I have?
One moment at a time, one breath at a time,
One listen, one presence, one listen.

Suspend judgment. Believe.

—Janelle Curlin-Taylor









The cool breeze above the forest was the little bird’s playground.
He soared and swooped and
Joyfully flapped his
Precious wings,
Reveling in the cool, white sky.

But then, hot winds roared in
And the little bird saw trees being devoured by
Brilliant, red flames.

The burning trees now danced and jumped,
Belching smoke that turned the sky dark.

The little bird witnessed the inferno,
And its heart burst into a flame of love
For his friend the Forest.

He wept with compassion.

Each sweet tear from his tiny black eyes
Was magnified a thousandfold by
The Mercy of the Universe.

And the fire was extinguished.

Sangye O’Mara



Someone was telling me the other day that some people are lazy, and that is why they are poor. She's run in over 50 marathons and her father is an engineer who makes telescope lenses for major observatories.

There was a forest fire and all the animals left. One bird, however, kept flying back to the forest, with one drop of water in its beak. The other animals watched their home burn. The one bird however, when asked what it was doing, explained that it was putting out the fire, drop by drop. The other animals laughed at the stupid bird. As the fire became bigger and the bird became exhausted it could fly no longer. Finally it fell into the fire.

There is a similar story about a girl on a beach covered with millions of sand dollars. The girl knew that the sand dollars could not survive the hot sun, so she started to throw them back into the ocean. “What are you doing, you silly little girl.” “Oh, I'm saving the sand dollars—one by one.”

There is a third (ancient) story of the Myth of Sisyphus that Albert Camus appropriates. Sisyphus pleaded to the Gods to let him come down from the heavens for a short visit with his wife. Breaking his promise, he refused to return, so the Gods sentenced him to roll a boulder up a hill each day, only for the boulder to roll back down at the end of the day.

None of these stories are about laziness. All three characters have futile jobs. And none of them are lazy. Sisyphus, for Camus, emulates our own lives. We take one step forward, and then one step backward, over and over again. And yet we persist, dropping water on the fire or throwing sand dollars back into the ocean.

Why do some watch their homes burn, and others try to put out the fire? We could view our lives as futile. The best that can happen could be what my father wished for: that he wouldn't die of anything serious.

Why is it that some will persist with impossible odds and others why give up so easily? I asked a writing teacher in college if he had read the great writers when they were 18, like me. “Yes” he said. “And?” I asked. “Well, they weren't any good, but they wrote lots.”

I'm not sure why some can run marathons and others get tired just thinking about it. It wasn't, necessarily, that it came easy. Even Moses, picked by G_d to be his spokesman, had trouble speaking. Yet his words shaped most of our lives in one way or another.

—Kim Mosley

Another Painting by Donna and Four Responses

Painting by Donna Birdwell

She does not see the golden flecks of sunlight swirling over, around and through her.
Or the velvet footprints of passion she has made.
Or the horizon that marks here from there.
Or the soft, swirling container of mystery that cradles her.
She is sleeping.

—Sangye O’Mara

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

Just floating in the current moment.

—D. Royak

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

In what am I contained?
Where are the boundaries of what surrounds me?
Splashing through blue water the color of sky,
Gazing up at sky the color of water,
I find no boundaries,
No container.
I swim in the boundless ocean of being.

—Donna Birdwell

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

I'm not a believer in either original sin or karma...I don't think. But I'll give this a try. Like a bad scientist who decides what he'd like to prove before he does the experiment, I will look at this.

But first there is a difference in how Buddhists and Judeo-Christians see birth. I'm looking at a painting by Donna Birdwell that shows a woman floating in the water in an almost embryonic position. There is a path of petals on the surface of the water, and more petals rising from the woman as she breathes.

Dark petals are coming from her feet and hands. These petals tell me where she came from, while the light petals show where she is going.

The distinction of how birth is seen in Buddhism and Judeo-Christian belief is critical here.

In Buddhism there is no birth and death, nor any beginning or end. Our lives, though they appear to many as linear, are more like a circle or a spiral where “what goes around comes around. Though with each “rebirth” we get a fresh start, we inherit much. Call this karma if you want.

I read some years ago that someone taught planarian to avoid light (see: http://community.dur.ac.uk/robert.kentridge/bpp2mem1.html) and then ground up the planarian and fed it to little ones and then the fed planarian could learn faster to respond to the light. So it is with karma. Like height needed for basketballs or big brains needed in physics, we inherit karma. It is with what we start. If we were bad in the past we'd have a lot of stale stick stuff in us and we'd have to work hard to clean it up.

Original sin seems to differ from karma. Because Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit humans will forever have to pay. In the original sin scenario, no matter what is done in this life, the next time around you are born as a sinner. (Note: I don’t accept this view of Genesis.)

In the karma model, you could start as one in previous lives had done much harm. This is different existentially from one who is a sinner. In the Judeo-Christian baby, the kid is off on the wrong track from the get go, while the Buddhist Babe is born with Buddha nature, and yet may need to work through a karmic legacy to retrieve that innocence.

The baby in the painting floats in the water. There is a circle formed with her arm and head. She will wake up and see what challenges arise for her. She is naked with only the inheritance of who she really is—her Buddha nature. Her karmic legacy is what she carried from her previous life. It is not who she is, but rather that the opportunities and challenges she will meet.

—Kim Mosley