Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

FROM QUAINT TO THE FRAY

When the Quaker movement emerged amid the turmoil of the English Civil Wars, its followers relied on three powerful, interlocking concepts – the Light, the Truth, and the Seed. While the blasphemy laws of the time precluded an open examination of the full implications of their experience, the early Quakers left enough evidence to allow contemporary spiritual seekers to recover the revolutionary scope of their vision, in thought and daily life. There’s nothing quaint in this view of Quaker life and action. What unfolds is likely to startle not only their spiritual heirs but also Christians and non-Christians of many different belief systems alike. Along the way come confrontations and stimulation to deepen individual and community faith and practice.

To draw from Zen teaching – Right Thought (or teaching) leads to Right Practice (or action) leads to Right Wisdom – I see the insights of my book Religion Turned Upside Down as vital to addressing the vast challenges facing humanity. Period.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down

Religion Turned Upside Down

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

ASPARAGUS AND WILD HORSES

Now, with the arrival of spring, we cut stalks of asparagus growing wild in the sun-drenched airy soil along the irrigation canal. I discovered the more I cut, the more sprouted back. In season, we devoured so much our appetite became sated, to hold us over to the following year. This, too, is the way of nature.

The closest dot on the map turned out to be nothing more than an empty grocery, junkyard, and trailer court encampment — a feral cowboy, Mexican, and Indian agglomeration. I wouldn’t shop there for anything. Instead, we drove on past the local tribal long-house and smoke-shop. At the old railroad station, we turned right into a small Far West city where I envisioned hitching posts and horses rather than battered cars and pickups. In front of stores and taverns, the tumbleweed, glare, and hot noonday wind are no strangers. Saddle up and ride, partner.

Toward nightfall, in our orchard along the base of long sagebrush mountains aptly named Rattlesnake Hills, one black mass hovered behind our flimsy box. Countless light blue pinpoints overhead illuminated our tenant setup where it backed against the barnyard and skirted a gully. Concrete foundation slabs drifted toward some faraway disaster. We were surrounded by a low forest of apples, pears, peaches, cherries, and prunes. In the midst of thousands of miniature trees, each sculpted to increase the harvest, our view opened out upon two isolated apricot trees rooted in the gully’s embankment. I could look beyond, across the dusty lane at the bottom of that rut and up over outstretched orchards until the pale hair of bunchgrass on rounded Sugarloaf blocks a sunrise. In the early light of day, someone sang an unfamiliar thread that wasn’t not quite a sigh and not quite a guttural fuming, either. This plaint, fearful and broken, gave way to unspoken thanksgiving. Once familiar with this tract, I knew of a few solitary trees kept not for market but for the residents’ own delight. The single cherry tree covering the back of the wash house, which also encased the well and pump. That, and two winesap apple trees, are kept separate. Many winds tossed this orchard. Even the woodpecker holes under our dwelling’s eaves mystified. When I walked beside the irrigation canal and gazed out across the Lower Valley’s array of fruit trees, hop yards, river corridor deadwoods, hayfields, and meadows clear to White Swan, I sensed this was, indeed, the end of a road. We’d arrived where I was supposed to be. Rising distant and aloof, glacial Adams and Rainier peered over tawny mountains encircling the valley. Their icy cones returned my stare. Indians considered these two snowy mountains to be humanlike: they do resemble giant skulls, each with two creases between the highest crest. Below them, like a wall, western ridges rise six thousand feet, their tops splotched by dark woods rather than the snow I had sketched as a child. Sunset causes hazy bands to separate, revealing endless blue crests where previously only a single bulge had appeared. Closer, atop the summit behind our orchard, wild horses browsed. On the porch of their house, Wes handed me field glasses to help him make out untamed stock from billowing sagebrush. He explained that over the years neighbors’ horses have bred with free stock; other folks would lose a steed or two, which joined the pack. Unsaddled, they’d romp.

For more of the story, click here.

PSALM VI

1

what blows
to kindle sunset and sunrise
sprouts wings on the field

is faith planting
for a harvest at the end

all these tough nuts to open
amid rest

*   *   *

each day
always more
bands of light

turn within
fields and currents

tempted by more as well as less, but first
those cries being born

*   *   *

crossing water
invites rest

answering the call to dinner

2

 when we are vanilla
           chocolate the strawberry
rhubarb and asparagus
a cake topped in cherries
sweet corn and trout
with apricots and peaches
the scallions, leeks, garlic
carrots, potatoes, yams
spiced pumpkin
whipped cream, fresh butter
applesauce with pancakes
a bowl of black walnuts
yogurt and sharp cheddar
            or baby Swiss
when we are sap returning to maple
when we are …

when we are snow peas or sugar snaps
            a pear or …
fordhooks or limas

3

I’ve had a taste of these things
Hindu Yogi
Zen Buddhist
Sufi
Amerindian
Mennonite, Dunker, Amish
Old-Style Quaker

all of them, with holy visions

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set, click here.

SEASONS OF SPIRITUAL COMPANIONSHIP

OF COURSE WE’RE PUZZLED to observe how many conversations begin with comments about the weather. Everybody can see it’s snowing or raining or feel the heat and humidity. What’s actually happening, of course, is the establishing of a commonality – putting ourselves in a shared space. You make a joke in reply, or a factual statement, and edge into conversation, however superficial or deep, gossipy or plaintive.

No matter how introverted or reclusive an individual is, being human requires social interaction. From birth, we require more nurture and protection than other animals do before we are able to move about on our own, much less survive. We learn from each other, and we are highly vulnerable, despite all our acquired knowledge. We are creatures of culture, not inherited instinct. We make bargains and trade. We court and seduce with words as much as our dance steps or glances.

While experiential religion demands individual practice and awareness, few of us undergo its labors and trials all alone. We find mentors and companions along the way, people who have also encountered and value these matters. Even a secluded monk has an abbot or guru; a nun, her mother superior. Confession is part of the practice. What we find of value we feel compelled to pass along.

Our affinity with these spiritual companions has its own intimacy. These friends hold a mirror to ourselves, to point to our shortcomings and prod us to reach for ever greater fidelity to our purpose. They provide harmony and, when we fail, counter self-loathing and blame with compassion and comfort. Ideally, this exists between husband and wife. Sometimes it is found between prayer partners – two people who agree to hold each other in prayer through the week. Much of the life in the monastic confines of the ashram endeavored on this plain, though the bonds broke down quickly outside of it. Whether one-on-one or within the circle of a community of faith, this companionship has the added dimension of spiritual presence and encounter. Sometimes it spans denominations, when the “invisible church” opens in conversation with another or in venturing into a small group along the way, as I have with Mennonites and Brethren. Sometimes it appears in the context of romantic relationship, in the quest for mutual aspirations.

As much as I’d like to say spiritual companionship is forever, the reality often proves otherwise. I’ve seen those who have maintained this through a lifetime, including couples who’ve become connected through the marriages of their children. More often, I’ve found intense periods where paths cross for a year or two and then part.

Typically, the interactions are words spoken together. Sometimes, as in the excerpts that follow, they arise in lengthy correspondence. Who knows what trail will be left from the emails of the Internet.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

ON INTO ARIES  

Why wait for the dust to settle? Here are 10 bullets from my end.

~*~

  1. First crocus, first hyacinth. More welcome signs.
  2. “Ice out” in our yard – the first day you can walk a diagonal pathway without stepping on snow.
  3. At the feeder, our goldfinches have regained their yellow, first as a tone under the gray and then full-out bold. How rapid the change!
  4. Jazz trumpeter Clark Terry had a special relationship with the University of New Hampshire, one town over. His legacy continues around here. Still wish I’d heard him live, when it was an option. Remember, he taught the incomparable Miles Davis. And my, how I remember that night!
  5. How I love Robert Rauschenberg’s concept of Combines! Neo-Dada, me? Harvesting? (As in wheat. Or driving into fields of corn.) His approach infuses so many of my poems and much of my fiction. What got me labeled as a Mixmaster. Let’s see what we can throw together. Don’t leave out Roy Lichtenstein, either, with his Ben-Day dots fetish from the hot-type days of newspaper production. Oh, how that dates my sense of contemporary!
  6. Another magazine renewal form, among those I’ve let drop. Constrained income has meant limiting my memberships, too.
  7. Here, in a period when I’m supposed to be emerging from my shell, I find myself retreating instead.
  8. In the graffiti at the top flight of the observation tower: “Sometimes love just isn’t enough.” (Looking down, I saw no evidence the author had acted rashly.)
  9. What do we make of capitalism that buys a company and then expects the workers to make concessions to pay for the move? Shouldn’t the ownership go straight to the workers?
  10. Buzzards – more properly, “turkey vultures” – have returned.

~*~

The spires show signs of serious damage.

The spires show signs of serious damage.

 

The stained glass has been removed as St. Charles Roman Catholic church awaits demolition. Just three blocks away from St. Mary Roman Catholic, the two congregations had sharp differences, as some oldtimers will relate. One originated in the Quebecoise immigrants; the other, in the much earlier Irish. Now they're part of one parish.

The stained glass has been removed as St. Charles Roman Catholic church awaits demolition. Just three blocks away from St. Mary Roman Catholic, the two congregations had sharp differences, as some oldtimers will relate. One originated in the Quebecoise immigrants; the other, in the much earlier Irish. Now they’re part of one parish.

 

Water damage had weakened the structure, and repairs were deemed too costly, especially after the city's three Roman Catholic congregations were merged into one parish.

Water damage had weakened the structure, and repairs were deemed too costly, especially after the city’s three Roman Catholic congregations were merged into one parish.

 

PLAIN GRAY AND GRAYING

Within the range of distinctives
of nasty red, the Capitol black
the ethereal albino instead
he aligns with the eastern gray
and the western gray.

Yet who would be saint of the squirrel?

Not Lord Rama, who caresses one
as a pet. Nor the cultivating Hermes.

The Blackfoot know him as Old Man.
As he was becoming.

*   *   *

of course squirrels have faith
of a practical sort
in running the wire, in leaping from a branch
and landing a full eight feet between trees
with such airy jurisdiction

*   *   *

in a flash         such as music
or the tail        as a sail

just leap
and grab hold somewhere    

*   *   *

the question, at heart, what was in his blood?
as well as what was it becoming?
not the patriarch, then          free from bondage

*   *   *

overhead, the years overlap
underfoot, the roots tangle

to be light, then         lighter than pigeons
or laughter and tears

become gray pussy-willow                 at the end of winter

Poem copyright 2015 by Jnana Hodson
To read the full set of squirrelly poems,
click here.

MAYBE IT STILL COMES DOWN TO MEANS VERSUS ENDS

In the aftermath of the recent national elections, trying to make sense of the American scene today is, well, downright scary. The fact we have one party so willing to risk constitutional crisis rather than work cooperatively on solutions to common problems strikes at the very heart of democracy. And that’s before we get to the divisions revealed geographically, demographically, and economically.

Several of the phrases floating around the campaigns continue to ring in my ears. Describing one party, we have an “echo chamber” of “misfits,” which begins to look far larger than would be healthy for any society. And for the other party, the race came down to a “technocrat” versus “activist,” in itself suggesting a division between an appeal to the brain versus the heart.

Much of this situation, I’ll contend, springs from a lingering state of denial involving the encounters of those of us who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s. Coming across a summary of William Clark Roof’s 1993 A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, I had to sit up and take notice when he noted that a low level of community involvement accompanied our search for personal meaning. It’s something that’s certainly happened across American society over recent decades, although I’d say increasing demands on our careers and suburban family lifestyles have taken their toll, too.

As Douglas Gwyn comments in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience:

Roof’s study confirms many impressions of baby boomers in the ’60s, but adds a new perspective. Many tried drugs, were sexually active, and went to rock concerts and political protests. But many did not. Half of those surveyed say they did not try drugs; a third never attended a rock concert; and 80% were not politically active in that period. On the whole, Roof finds boomers to be nearly evenly divided between traditionalist and countercultural affinities.

A conventional view might look at this split along the lines of the Vietnam war issue, with the traditionalists joining the military and the hippie side in full opposition. But Roof’s criteria turn the angle: more than a few servicemen experimented with pot and other drugs in ‘Nam, along with free love, and moved easily into hippie circles on their return. Meanwhile, I sense more than a few hippies never did drugs, out-of-wedlock sex, or political protests. For them, maybe it was all about the music?

As Gwyn continues his reflections on Roof’s study, he prophetically notes:

But in subsequent decades, with a tightening of the American economy, the assumption of abundance often turned from utopian to belligerent, as Americans vented their frustration over lowered or failed expectations. Given their expanded subjective and expressive registers, boomers are already more likely to consider themselves wounded by defects in their religious upbringing. When religious institutions or leaders fail their expectations today, boomers are all the more likely to feel cheated, wounded, or even victimized.

It’s not just religion, let’s be honest. This cuts across the entire society.

Gwyn makes one other argument that lingers, one that involves the kind of association each seeker is drawn to. One is process driven, and the ways we can become captive to the mechanics of a particular system. (He names capitalist democracy as an example.) Here, the procedures outweigh results. I love his observation, “If civility is too strongly identified with democratic processes, then true seeking and conversation to one’s neighbor will tend to be subverted. Caucus politics or the contest of interests may usurp the conversation.”

The alternative, goal driven identity, can override the process altogether, in which the ends justify any means of getting there.

The vital tension Gwyn encourages “requires a disciplined and sustained dialogue between seriously considered and passionately held positions,” a “drama of faith, which is played out upon a level civic stage of public concern.”

Quite simply, where is that dialogue today? And where is the open exchange in questioning and refining the factual essence of the positions? An “echo chamber,” on either side, simply cannot do the job.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

REST IN THE AGES

Tucked away in a corner of the park, this gate.

Tucked away in a corner of the park, this gate.

The burial ground in Boston Common is the resting place of early patriots, among them the composer William Billings – the latter, by assumption rather than documentation. Historians will note that the headstones in the city’s oldest graveyards no longer stand over their intended bodies, but were moved around by convenience.

Boston is a rich and varied destination – the Hub of New England, or the Universe, as they used to say. Living a little more than an hour to the north, we’re well within its orb.

It's a classic New England scene, in cities, towns, and isolated countryside.

It’s a classic New England scene, in cities, towns, and isolated countryside.

 

ALL FROM ONE WHITNEY ANCESTOR

With my interest in subterranean transit systems – remember my novel Subway Hitchhikers? – I found myself fascinated with Doug Most’s The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subways.

His 2014 book is an ambitious project, filled with some detailed but rambling asides as well as more than a few slips I wouldn’t expect from a Boston Globe managing editor. (I doubt the family ever settled into a 16-acre farmhouse, and I know that Springfield is more than an hour from Boston today while in the period he referenced the trip would have taken days. Etc.) But his description of the technological developments, urban congestion, corrupt politics, personal financial empires, and similar forces that led to the creation of what we take for granted in our largest and greatest cities can be a gripping tale.

Equally fascinating for me, though, has been a connection that emerges out of Watertown, a Boston suburb just west of Cambridge. Crucial to Most’s story is John Whitney, a 1635 arrival to the town, which was at one time the second largest settlement in Massachusetts. Two of his descendants, brothers born further west in the state, provide the “incredible rivalry” in Most’s history, but it’s the original Whitney I find suggesting yet another ambitious history. He’s the root of a most remarkable American family.

The Methodist church where my choir rehearses weekly in Watertown was founded by Whitneys, and when the current building was erected in 1895, no expense was spared. There are impressive touches. And when one of the boys from this line moved to Detroit, he became that city’s wealthiest resident by age 28.

The deep pockets that shaped the space we sing in came from the inventor of the paper bag, it turns out – and, more important, the inventor of the machine to make it.

He’s far from being the only significant inventor or investor in the family. Eli Whitney, for one, created the cotton gin that allowed slavery-based plantations to flourish in the American South.

I get the sense that the list of inventions and inventors is a long one.

More recently, the investor John Hay Whitney owned the New York Herald-Tribune in a period when it evolved into my favorite newspaper ever, even if it was the paper’s final five years. (He also owned the Sunday newspaper supplement Parade magazine.)

Don’t overlook the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, another family legacy, or Joan Whitney Payson, an acclaimed collector who left the Portland, Maine, art museum rather than New York’s MOMA a marvelous trove of Impressionist paintings, a move that shocked much of the art world but, well, we live only an hour from Portland – we celebrate her independence.

Come to think of it, there’s one twist of note here. Watertown is still not served by a subway.

THE INWARD HUNGER AND A SOURCE

For whatever reasons, I acknowledge a peculiar inward hunger, one that cannot be satisfied by societal conformity or physical comfort. To ease this hunger means appeasing its source: that the very exercise of repeated preparation, of a consecration to an appropriate discipline, and of a self-denial in deferred gratification that leads also to abrupt spans of maximal awareness and rightly balanced action. This state provides the only ambrosia that quenches such hunger. Anything else, by contrast, feels muddled or sickly. Activities and thoughts that interfere with its practice become annoyances or pitfalls. Although many varied systems exist to teach this truth, its realization requires the participation of a person’s body, emotions, and soul, as well as one’s mind; ultimately, this knowledge is not of the intellect alone. Sometimes it is found through athletics or a fine art; sometimes in the pursuit of science or religion; sometimes within craft labor or the steps of an ancient tradition. Even so, many who receive the teaching remain unaware of its underlying hunger, of the spider’s web linking this particular activity or setting with humanity’s timeless potential of wisdom in the universe.

I could speak of the importance of finding a teacher who is qualified to guide the aspirant into this practice. I could have addressed this teacher as Swami, Roshi, or Murshid, a reflection of the roots of the particular practices I was traversing. Critics may argue whether the teaching retains its purity only within its own lineage and language, on one hand, or gains its authenticity in terms of vitality and application, on the other. Some Teachers replied that in bringing this teaching to America, certain adaptations have been essential. I’ve referred to this discipline simply — or perhaps elusively — as the Dedicated Laborious Quest.

In relocating to the Pacific Northwest, I was also unintentionally fleeing my own Teacher, who, in fact, had instigated the break, sensing that the time had come for me to apply the lessons fully, no longer the student but now the journeyman.

The Far West, like many of these teachings, remains simultaneously fossilized and virgin. I needed to discern the strands. For instance, I encountered petroglyphs in ethnology books before finding them on a riverside cliff here. Returning to my journals, I find a notation: “According to Newcombe, 1907: ‘It seems impossible to decipher these inscriptions satisfactorily as it is not likely anyone except the makers and those living at the time the work was done could tell what was meant by them.’ Oh really? Has he seen a fancy menu?”

From book to the field back to the book again.

As I contemplate the prevalence of “you” in contemporary American writing, I jot: “It seems to be ‘other-than-myself’ reaching out to the almighty ‘I-thou,’ to another intimate self-aware being.”

I look up and wonder: could these paintings and carvings be attempting the same?

“Oh, waiter! Garcon! Where are we?”

In desert, the wind’s invisible presence is like the divine spirit itself. Gusts give sound to unseen natural power. Whatever Voice ripples Tibetan prayer flags — the ones a friend gave me — now make this energy visible, too. “Those banners,” I record, “remind us how cut off from wind and often from Spirit, as well, we are.” The friend jokingly refers to me as a “cunning office rat with a job that includes the self-serving hazards of political survival.” Pay attention! Open a window! The flags remind me of the divine, the wind, and my friend all at once. As for the prayers themselves, I refer to the translation, voicing a the desire for universal peace.

I might speak of a personal need to renew divine energies. My Teacher would remind me the divine has been present all along — my awareness, however, is another matter.

Sometimes my Teacher would speak of dancing with an unnamed lover. “My Dance Partner” may be the best name for the unseen divinity when dancing. For one’s beloved human companion, as well — when the union of melody, rhythm, motion, and affection overpowers all else. So what is this dance, this lifetime of recovering the angels’ music? In the end, the only way of learning to dance is by dancing. Preferably, with a skilled partner. At first, staying at the edge of the room. There will be mistakes, naturally.

My Teacher taught that even when dancing solo, you’re not alone. There’s also taught the joy of dancing arm-in-arm in a circling chain. The dance, then, moves along the horizon between spirit and flesh. Having danced solo, I would now also dance with others, teaching them steps I’ve mastered (or at least seen mastered; some of the best teachers, you’ll find, are those who have come to the brink and gained insight through failure, seeing a promise they cannot enter). Expressing common inward experience builds a kind of family, one that speaks to friends, associates, and a kind of tribe with words of both gratitude and recognition. I long yearned for a magic circle of an especially aware community, itself existing within a tenderly defined locale and time, which I’d found, however fleetingly, in the cloister. Now it’s my turn, as if only I could bring it together somehow. The desert, with familiar landmarks stripped away, is where I come to find direction.

It’s appropriate to refer to those who’ve accepted a Dedicated Laborious Quest as monks, even if they have — like me — married. As my Teacher counseled, approached wisely, marriage and parenting rise to full disciplines in this order.

When monks (whatever their particular exercises or traditions) discuss the living practitioners they most admire, they pass a point where they typically cease mentioning celebrities. Beyond that, they say nothing of classic masters or even living talents already in the curriculum and news reports. Rather, these monks are likely to be most impressed by unknowns who turn unfamiliar ground or who send back fascinating postcards from frontiers much like their own. Yes, I appreciate most those who work in similar ways or places to my own. That, too, is natural. Yet those who are most like yourself are also the ones you’ll criticize most intensely. It’s the flip side of the same coin. In some ways, every monk seeks a Dedicated Laborious Quest free of words, even while constructing your own set of personal Assays and Histories or the accompanying maps.

I fondle a strand of Rudrakshi beads, “Shiva’s eyes,” presented by another friend Back East. Think of the Bhagavad Gita, where the name of a central character, Arjuna, literally represents “white” or “bright”; why does that strike me afresh as I gaze up at parched grass the irrigation canals don’t reach? Those inclines are too steep for orchard ladders or tractors to work safely. Below the water trench, fruit ranches quiver with fat fruit ripening. Caucasian orchard owners are surrounded by darker-skinned Hispanics, Indians, and Asians. The character Krishna, it seems, depicts “black.” So who’s the Guide through all these centuries? The sun simultaneously devours and sustains all. Much that’s been hidden comes to light.

I once expected old people to hold out a future for humanity rather than debunk everything as rotten. A lifetime of wounds, however, can fester.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.