Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

NO CAUSE REPORTED

None of the accounts mention it, though as I find in online searching, none of them had an actual obituary, either. But within the span of a year, three special acquaintances – all in their prime – had died of what appears to be suicide if you read between the lines of the news releases.

One was my best friend ever of my adult years, until our lives turned in much different yet somehow parallel directions. The second, a high school classmate of deep intellect – a shared rarity where we were in that troubled period. And the third, someone who stayed a week with us before returning to some truly horrific visions in the realms of international policy.

All three were remarkable and important individuals.

Anais Nin once posited that each of us has a demon to battle, and my response remains, “Only one?” On another level, I wonder about those individuals who have never felt the despair that prompts suicide.

I suspect this is one of those areas of our spiritual quest and practice we rarely discuss. Where could we even begin? How can we possibly define life fully, much less death? We can speculate, of course. Yet the darkness and accompanying numbness are, for me, inarticulate as the void described in Genesis 1:1.

There are no answers, in the end. Only the dawning of Light, when we can greet it.

CANDY COLLECTORS

Getting ready for the trick-or-treaters tonight means bringing the box of decorations down from the loft of the barn, perhaps carving a jack o’ lantern or two, putting up some spooky lights, and making sure we have bags of candy ready for the kids who come knocking on our door between 5 and 8 p.m. (Dover’s officially sanctioned window).

For readers in other countries, I should perhaps explain America’s Halloween tradition of allowing children to go door to door, knocking or ringing the doorbell, and then calling out “trick or treat” and receiving a sweet morsel in return. In the old days, there was the veiled threat, “or else,” which often led to a prank like having your windows soaped – or worse. These days, it’s often a matter of having any pumpkins left out being smashed in the middle of the night, regardless of your good acts.

Over the years, though, the event’s lost a lot of its edge.

For one thing, as a result of tales about razorblades being found in apples and other urban myths, only commercially prepared and sealed products are acceptable as handouts – no more apples, little bags of homemade caramelized popcorn or cookies, or (my favorite) Rice Crispies squares. It’s almost universally little candy bars, door after door. Gone’s the wide variety you’d compare at the end of the evening. Of course, most kids get candy throughout the year, so it’s no longer the Other Christmas when it came to rare sweets.

For another, concerns about safety mean it’s rarer to allow children to roam on their own. In our neighborhood, at least, almost everyone’s accompanied by a parent – and many of them have better costumes than the kids. For that matter, they often seem to be enjoying it more, too.

The safety issue has led to some weird twists of its own. Manchester, for instance, moved the event to Sunday afternoon – broad daylight. As one neighbor kid at the time observed, how lame! There’s nothing spooky in that! And then there’s the going store to store in the malls. Even lamer.

The one vexing situation is the car that cruises slowly while their children go door to door. Get out and walk, please! You’re being asocial. Usually, these are people who don’t even live in the neighborhood but have chosen to live out in the country, “away from neighbors.” And now they want what they don’t offer in return.

I remember, especially, living in a neighborhood of modest townhouse rentals and seeing the BMWs and Mercedes cruising through. Nobody in the neighborhood could afford vehicles like those, and now we were expected to give their kids little gifts?

I had the urge for a little tricking on my own in return. If I only had a plan …

STONE AND BONE

Old headstones in New England graveyards reflect an unflinching awareness of death. This one is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Old headstones in New England graveyards reflect an unflinching awareness of death. This one is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

JUST THE NORMAL WHIRLWIND

A comment from my sister got me thinking. “Sounds like you have a complicated life,” as I recall. Or maybe it was a “complex” life, as if there’s a difference.

My initial reaction was that my schedule’s always been that way, a balancing act of job, relationships, literary endeavors, spiritual practice, outdoors activities, personal care, and so on – sometimes more successfully than others, perhaps, and sometimes better integrated rather than segmented into less than harmonious compartments. And that’s even before we get to the piles and files.

Not that I think my situation’s unique. As I’ve asked before, “Do we ever get caught up?” Often, wondering how other people do it, seemingly so much better, at that, I’m left in awe.

Even so, Sis’ quip had me reviewing the itinerary for the past month or so.

There was painting the front of the barn and one side of the kitchen el, both of them flaking from their facing the direction that our nor’easters blast in from. Glad I got that project done before wet weather and early cold kicked in. (I could go off on a rant, though, about the complications of getting the right replacement paint, a consequence of one brand playing hardball with its dealers and leading to one more coat than I intended.)

Still, there’s something about working outdoors on a crisp autumn morning. As I was moving a ladder into place, I looked up to see a bald eagle circling low over a neighbor’s treetops. Each round, backlit by the sun, the tail would flash white and then, a half-revolution later, the head. The next morning, an eagle circled high overhead. And then there’s the honking of the geese and their checkmark formations above me.

Outdoors also includes a host of garden-related projects in a race before the first killing freeze and, a bit later, deep cold and snow kick in. I see now I haven’t blogged much about the garden over the summer, at least since the groundhog invasion, but I did capture two of the varmints and relocated them to another state and the third finally moved on in its own time. In defrosting a freezer the other day, my wife was surprised by the amount of strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries we put up, along with the green beans and peas.

For now, we’re wrapping up the last of the tomatoes (Juliette’s been our workhorse out of our dozen-plus varieties), roasting them down to something that resembles sundried and then freezing them. And the eggplant gets a similar treatment.

The way the bounty of produce cooks down so much continues to amaze. A full pot of tomatoes, for instance, can reduce to a few cups of soup. How has humanity ever survived?

We’ll soon observe something similar with the kale.

In the meantime, I’ve been a bit hampered by something the doctor tentatively diagnosed as either plantar fascitis or a bruised heel bone, which requires icing and hampers my mobility while it (uh) slowly heals.

My Quaker activities, meanwhile, have included committee sessions in central Maine and on Cape Ann in Massachusetts, plus clerking a wedding and our Meeting’s first-time booth at the city’s annual Apple Harvest Day festival – and each event could be a story in itself.

One pleasant break came in the all-too-short visit of my old roommate from after college – our first time together in nearly four decades (ouch!) and a delightful introduction to his “new” wife of 25 years. (OK, we lost touch for a number of those, but the Internet’s been great for reconnections.) He may have lost his natural ‘fro, but his twinkling blue eyes and goofy humor are as sharp as ever. Again, this could be a story in itself.

The choir, meanwhile, is back in gear with weekly rehearsals that have become my regular outings to the big city. We’re excited to be preparing for performances in Boston’s Copley Square and Faneuil Hall at the end of November, which now looms closer than I’d like.

As for the writing? Well? Never enough to keep up.

No wonder I’m feeling a lack of balance or even focus. After all those years of wondering what “retirement” would be like, I’m still, uh, puzzled.

COMPOSING A REQUIEM

When I first drafted this novel three decades ago, little did I expect it to be a requiem for a profession I’ve loved and served all my life. Now, though, as the history has unfolded, I’m left hoping against hope it’s not a requiem for community after community across America as well. Read it and weep – yet laughing along the way. We are, after all, still a resourceful people

 ~*~

Hometown_NewsTo find out more about Hometown News or to obtain your own copy, go to my page at Smashwords.com.

 

 

LEGALIZING POT

Another of the festering wounds of the ’60s and ’70s is the matter of illicit drug use. It wasn’t just hippies, actually, not once the troops in Vietnam turned to it, too.

It’s a troubling legacy on many fronts. For one thing, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – much of it regarding drug traffic. In other words, there’s a demand for the product, and if you believe in a free market, maybe you need to listen.

I won’t go into the history of banning many of the substances that are now verboten, even if it suggests a political tradeoff in repealing the Prohibition. But the basis of declaring the substances illegal appears to have been made on reasons other than the ones officially proclaimed. Let’s be honest about tobacco and alcohol, including their ability to be taxed, in contrast anything you might be able to grow on your own. (This, let me add, is coming from a former homebrewer.)

On the other hand, the widespread, frequent use of mind-altering substances among the young – and I’m including tobacco, alcohol, and activity-inhibiting legal prescriptions – leaves me deeply concerned.

That extends to the parents who give their kids pot … or even allow them to sell it at school.

That, in turn, points to a divergence between hippies and stoners.

Faced with a decision on the legalization of marijuana, I’m not entirely sure how I’d vote. But I do know the current policy isn’t working – and is doomed to continuing failure.

Why can’t we have a frank discussion on the issue … without all the hubris?

THE RELIGIOUS TWIST

While my personal struggle bobbled between practicality and art for its own sake, the yoga and Quaker teachings introduced new tensions. Consider:

Creativity? No, God creates. Man discovers. Man cultivates and brings culture and learning, nurtures, softens, establishes coherence. This is the difference between the artist who submits to a greater power and the one who tries to use it for his own ends. The first desires to serve God, by whatever name or description; the second, his or her own ego.

Which leads to: Problems of the ego. Gertie Stein: Every writer wants to be told how good he is, how good he is, how good he is. Insecurities!

Yet in yoga, all for God: the sacrifice, the labor gifted to generate good karma. (As if your boss is another deity, rather than bottom-line motivated and conscious. Here’s a letter of commendation plus your pink slip.)

Early church father Tertullian warned, in De Spectaculis, Latin circa 200 C.E. Essentially: “The Author of truth loves no falsehood: all that is feigned is adultery in His sight. The man who counterfeits voice, sex or age, who makes a show of false love, anger, sighs and tears He will not approve, for He condemns all hypocrisy. . . . Why should it be lawful to see what it is a crime to do?” (Translation by Kenneth Morse).

These are hard charges, along with the seduction of “preaching for sin,” as George Fox warned.

So to examine the multiplicity of personality / goals / desires. Just who am I? Who are you? Empathy. Anger. Bliss. All the rest.

Honesty. Our dark sides. Do we really express our weakest aspect in our art? (In vocal ministry, how often the message comes from that area of our current conflict!)

Versus becoming so rarified we lose all sense of joy and delight. The danger of Plainness or strictness, that it suffocates personality, makes us so humbled we cannot move forward in the Holy Spirit to perform bold action. Crushes or stifles the imagination.

So how do we make a living without violating our beliefs? (Military-industrial extensive penetration of all facets of American society: not even the universities immune.)

Or how do you practice your art to the fullest, without undue restraint, while still being faithful?

 

TELLING CONTRASTS

When a young scholar heads east for enlightenment in my novel Daffodil Sunrise, he has no clue that his tiny dorm obstructs the university administration’s ambitions. As he and his neighbors resist the old-boy network’s machinations for clandestine profits, their sophomoric assumptions and pranks lead into high-stakes confrontations, even before antiwar protests, illicit drugs, and free love enter the picture.

It was enough to turn any straight into a hippie, as the evolution of DL demonstrates. And enough to rattle the state.

~*~

Chthonian House had always been a remarkable organism. Each cell bubbled. …

As the air in the room thickened, the quartet mellowed. Their conversation – what there was of it – finally settled on the state of affairs in their quadrangle.

 In contast, as he sees later:

 As they entered the administration building, DL recalled his only previous visit to the structure, a dismal journey as a freshman to straighten out some red tape in the basement. What was that about, anyway? At that time, DL tried imagining what upstairs would be like. He pictured a professor’s office, with a few surplus chairs. Maybe a bit more like a department chairman’s office, only bigger. As he followed Nita to the top, in more ways than one, DL had second thoughts. As she addressed flanks of priggish secretaries by first name, DL noted these typists and file clerks had fancier appointments than the department chairmen he had met. The ensemble passed through gates, wrought iron grating, and tile hallways that fit museums and cathedrals more than business offices. The deeper they penetrated, the heavier the air. An intentional hush pressed about them, suffocating all sounds of campus outside – even a busy thoroughfare. This location could not be anyplace in Daffodil, a bewildered DL thought as he marched toward the president’s vault. It could as easily be Jupiter. Or Uranus. It could even be a cavern eighty stories underground. Finally, after passing through a series of paneled conference rooms, the team emerged in a mahogany dome occupying an entire end of the building. In this chapel of oil portraits, spinsters whispered introductions to the president and his news media director. Beveled glass windows and massive beams high in the ceiling encased them. So this was the Big Cheddar’s Rat Hole, DL snickered to himself.

 ~*~

To learn more about my novel, go to my page at Smashwords.com.

Daffodil-jnana

NEWSPRINT, PAPERBACKS, AND HARDBOUND VOLUMES

My entire life I’ve harbored a bias regarding quality in the world of writing. Even though I’ve long been a front-line journalist, I’ve believed the text in a hardbound, academic or commercially published book must somehow be superior to what’s presented in a newspaper.

For that matter, magazines were, in that measure, a degree above newspapers, but a step or two below either paperback or hardbound volumes.

In the past few years, though, that misconception has been shattered, in part because of conversations I have with one of America’s top literary voices and in part because of encounters with a host of other living authors of more mundane accomplishments.

Yes, we have every right to expect a work that requires a year or two to draft to be superior to reports written on the fly, but in some ways, that long work often turns out to be little more than a series of daily reports strung together. What turns up can be as formulaic as any pyramid-style news dispatch, and filled with more cliche and unchallenged bombast. Read carefully and you might notice a higher standard of editing in your daily paper.

What I now realize is that I had expected the books to be eternal monuments that would sit forever on public and private library shelves. I never expected them to be commodities with their own precariously short shelf life, with rare exceptions. Even public collections have only so much space and so much patience. Rarely do I find there a recommended piece I desire.

What this all comes down to is that reality that good writing is good writing, no matter the place it appears. That, in itself, is cause for celebration.

Now, for more on the newspaper dimension, there’s my Hometown News novel. Adding a further twist to this plot, though, is the fact it’s available only as an ebook.

Hometown_News

AUTUMN IN THE WATER

A quiet corner on the Cocheco River.

A quiet corner on the Cocheco River.

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