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April 28, 2012
I live atop a hill in Oakland but . . .
If I walk through my front door,
step off the stoop,
swing my body to the left
and start toward the hills,
the hills that hide from me
the sun’s early morning rays,
the ground beneath my feet falls away,
slowly at first, then with more speed,
till it bottoms out at the first cross street
and begins a rapid ascent
that takes an effort to mount.
And if I stop to catch my breath
half way up this steep slope,
and if the day is over
and the sun is dropping
into the sea
and all around me
will soon grow slowly gray,
and if I turn, as I rest,
look back over the pass,
I have a near clear view
through the crisscrossed wires
that hang from poles on the edge of my sight,
of that familiar shape the earth takes—
the rise and dip and rise and fall
of Mount Tam across the bay.
And if the sky is cloudless,
the summer evening air crystalline and cool,
I see the edge of the earth glow red
along its dark, rough spine—fire red,
as air burns to touch the mountain top,
cools to magenta, to mauve, to light pink, to nearly white,
this thinnest of blankets, this rarest of good night kisses
from the deepening, clear, gray, blue, early evening sky.
And if I turn again toward the hills,
I find a lightness in my step,
a joy in my breath.
This morning, I swung my body to the right, just as the sun’s rays came washing over the hills and I headed down the hill toward Gold’s Gym on Grand Avenue, in the flatlands, there, by Lake Merritt.
I do this three times a week now, as I am determined to arrive in Portland next year as strong and healthy as I can make myself, given what I have to work with, of course—a gimpy left knee and a post-spinal surgery back, among other things.
I love walking to the gym in the early morning, doing my workout and feeling the healthy tiredness of my body, my quads burning as I climb back up that steep hill to my house.
I love looking at the neighborhood, the houses, the trees, the gardens—the things people are working on–the shops on Lakeshore Boulevard and the smells that emanate from Pete’s Coffee and Arizmendi bakery/pizza shop, the early morning quiet beginning to shake itself awake, and on weekdays, walking past the ride-share queue under the massive concrete I-580 overpass, cars lined up all the way to the end of the parking lot, pedestrians making their way briskly to meet their rides, hop in and take off, the queue moving up one car at a time, and then on Saturdays, like today, the Farmer’s Market spread all the way along the Eastern side of that overpass across from the giant marquee of the Grand Lake Theater with it’s political messages along side the current attractions, and then to come out from under that mass and see the grassy expanse stretch out in front of me with grazing geese and morning exercisers doing their thing on the monkey bars, or crab walking together to the barking instructions of a trainer that I imagine they must have hired to help them get in shape and every color and every shape are there along my walk—it’s Oaklanders in the morning and in the gym its the same mix of shape and size and color and it is beyond comfortable to be among these people. It is uplifting. I don’t mean to say the shadow is not there, it is there. I’ll talk about that another time.
This morning, I had a copy of Marge Piercy’s poem To be of use, folded and stuffed into the pocket of my gray sweats along with my key ring and my Gold’s Gym bar code key tag. I take a poem or more than one with me each time I walk and work out and I commit them to memory by speaking them aloud as I walk—sometimes full blast, sometime quietly, depending on where I am and who’s around. Larry Robinson had sent this poem out recently and it grabbed me. This morning I worked on the first two stanzas.
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Sometimes I take a book to read as I ride the recumbent bicycle. This morning I had Martin Buber’s 1923 book Ich und Du, in English, I and Thou, translated by Walter Kaufmann who points out how inaccurate and misleading it is to translate the German word “Du” as “Thou,” for du is personal and intimate, whereas thou is formal and distant. Though I had known of this book since my college days, I had never read it.
In the way of things, when I was in Portland, June and I made a trip downtown to the famous Powell’s Bookstore on Burnside Street to purchase a signed copy of Ursala Le Guin’s Blue Moon Over Thurman Street for Ciara’s seventh birthday, which is tomorrow—Ciara is Sean and Jen Morris’ daughter. Hard to believe she is seven years old. The book is a collaboration with photographer Roger Dorband that tells the story of the street in Portland where she lived. While at Powell’s we visited the huge poetry section and simply wandered around the various floors and half-floors and rooms and corridors crammed with books and everywhere were stands and shelves with books on sale for a reduced price. On one of these stands, in the Blue Room, I saw a title that grabbed my attention. It was I and Thou for half price. I bought it and had begun reading it in Portland. Buber’s thoughts, channeled through Kaufmann’s careful translation, have resonated deeply and make me know again the power and magic of words that can bring me into the presence, into the mind and heart of this early twentieth century German Jewish philosopher.
Pumping away on the recumbent bike at 65 to 70 rpms, I read Buber aloud to myself. I like reading aloud. It slows things down and it makes the words feel more immediate, makes me feel more like I’m having a conversation. I came upon these words
When we walk our way and encounter a man who comes toward us, walking his way, we know our way only and not his; for his comes to life for us only in the encounter. (p. 124)
And I thought how true. We cannot know another without an encounter. And I thought of our times together under the redwoods where we consciously try to create a safe place to encounter one another. And I thought how precious these times have been in my own experience, how blessed I have been to be allowed to open my heart to you, my brothers, and how privileged I have been to be able to bear witness to your opening your hearts. And I thought of Jay Jackson laying it down in our small group that time a bunch of years ago, telling us, “We need to take our open hearts back to our lives, our families, our communities.” And so I have offered, using this medium of electronic communication, using words as Martin Buber uses words or Marge Piercy uses words to connect—heart to heart with those others among us who seek a heart connection—an encounter with another soul, another spirit—I have offered what I know of myself, what insights have come to me as I walk my way. I tell my story that I may hear yours—that’s all.
Stories and sacred space
We never know for sure—
for certain, I mean,
if our experiences
are the same as other men’s
(or women’s, for that matter)
but we tell our stories anyway
allowing us to feel
And that’s about as close
as I can get
to that part
of what is
So I look forward my brothers, to joining you again under the Mendocino redwoods on Memorial Day weekend, May 25th to 28th where we will share encounters, share our stories and think and talk and eat and sing and play and be quiet together and through it all discern what is ours to do, individually and collectively, in this needy world we live in, how our open hearts might manifest when we leave each other, having had these deeply moving encounters. Let us each find our real work! May we be so blessed, my brothers!
April 17, 2012
It has been some time since I have taken time to sit down and visit with you.
This morning much is on my mind but I am especially aware of how quickly our annual conference is approaching–Memorial Day weekend, May 25th to 28th — Friday afternoon/evening through Monday morning, beneath the towering redwoods in Camp 3, nestled in the valley of the North Fork of the Little River — more like a stream than a river — between Camp 1 and Camp 2 at the Mendocino Woodlands, a twenty or thirty minute drive inland and down from the South end of the town of Mendocino — certainly we arrive at a sacred space at the end of that descent.
As I write to you I am sitting with my laptop in Portland, Oregon, in the home of my one time high school classmate, June Quackenbush, where I have come to visit each April for the last three years and where I will move in early 2013. Obviously, the land of the open heart is not limited by geography but geographic distance does have a profound impact on how we experience connection with each other. Relocating to Portland will allow the intimate daily partnership that June and I have, by some miracle, been graced to discover with each other. At the same time the profound, certainly life changing connections and even the more casual ones that I have been blessed to make and develop in the Bay Area over the last twenty years will be wrenched and stretched by this new distance — challenged to be redefined, cared for and developed in new ways.
Even as I embrace the gain, the joy of my new life, I embrace the the loss, the sorrow that is there. In fact, it is only by the constant acknowledgment of and holding of and the grieving of this loss, that I am free to love the new life I am already living.
The Jimenez poem on the front of this year’s conference brochure represents that moment of profound awareness, that, in turn, raises the question for us, “Are we already standing in the new life?”
My answer is, “Yes, we always are!” Embedded in and central to this affirmation is an acknowledgment of our loss that must be grieved as surely as our new life must be embraced, if we choose to be alive at all. As in the Jimenez poem, moments of insight are passive but they always allow a way forward, allow for action, even call us to action. So my question is always, “What is mine to do in this new life that is constantly becoming old and then new again and old and new again?”
There are many ways to go at this point but what comes to mind as a kind of companion piece to Jimenez — and I’m not entirely sure I could explain why it comes to mind — is Rilke’s poem:
The Man Watching
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
What I do know, my brothers, is ours is not a passive “standing” in that realization but an active wrestling with the large angles in our lives as we try to figure out how to engage and manifest personally, among our friends, in this community and in the broader world which teeters always on the brink . . . what is mine to do? What is ours to do?
Looking forward to joining you and wrestling together under the redwoods. Until next time, I hold you in my heart,