Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

THE MOODIEST FEATURE

Initially, I regard the mountain as another slumber-induced fantasy. Its climax appears pristine, boundless, haughty, mesmerizing, even eerie. Over time I behold its hideousness and terror as well. Such beauty may suddenly turn fatal. Timberlands netted with trails and campsites, plus unfettered wildlife, extend from its ivory helix. These opportunities are my primary rationale for migrating to this corner of the nation. But these woodlands border desert, and none of my maps alert me to the consequences. Not even Georgia O’Keeffe’s brilliant renderings of New Mexico, artwork I long admired, hint at its harsh thirst. Rather, the paintings emerge as another kind of dream to be savored, confined to a gallery or oversized pages. Besides, my definition of desert would have required camels, or at least organ barrel cactus, neither of them found in the cheat grass and sagebrush foothills surrounding my new home and workplace.

A glacier-glad mountain resembles a foaming waterfall. It is, after all, an endlessly frozen cataract. Below it, in late spring or early summer, breastworks are laced with plummeting streams racing toward September irrigation in desert to the east. On the clearest days, Rainier’s ice sparkles; its beacon flashes sixty miles to the orchard where we dwelled. At sunset the inactive volcano’s shadow is a finger reaching toward the rising full moon. It points as well to places we’ve abandoned.

The predominant mountain is also the moodiest feature of the vista. Everything’s arrayed in reference to this pillar. To observe it over time is akin to regarding one’s beloved. Neither the zenith nor one’s honey is as immovable as one presumes. They are not the divinity. They’re more accurately repeated dreams, where some episodes fade out over the years while others intensify. Sleep visions of the soul, having one foot in the dreamer’s past and the other in the present, dance on water. Sometimes they drown. Even a mountain.

You should see the way Kokopelli makes it dance before sunrise.

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

READING THE BIBLE AS COMEDY 

There are so many seminal stories that always leave room for fresh discovery and interpretation, if we escape the constraints of conventional explanations. I examine three timelessly provocative Biblical tales in my volume Eden Embraced, where my focus is on the Garden of Eden, followed by short reflections on Noah and the Great Flood and the enigmatic suffering of Job. Put simply, many of the Bible stories taught to children are much grittier and more troubling than we’d like to admit, and the radical dimensions we usually gloss over can challenge our usual assumptions about anything of a religious or spiritual or even political or economic nature. Nothing status quo remains sacred, much less safe.

While scanning a bookshelf the other day, one title jumped out at me – JOB: A Comedy of Justice – and I did a double take. Of course the Biblical drama could be taken as a comedy, especially in a contemporary context where almost nothing is considered sacred. Imagine flipping the usual definitions by blaming God for the bad things that happen, rather than holding him up to an impossibly spotless standard. (I’ll keep the male pronoun for now – the woman gets blamed enough.) Not just God, either, but throw in his golfing partner, Satan, for good measure.

Look at the text, and you can see it’s almost already in scripted format. Or screenplay, if you wish. It’s mostly dialogue, how convenient!

So how would you cast God and Satan, how would you block their opening scene?

For many, since the mere thought of putting the Holy One in a visual image can be sacrilegious, would you consider adapting some amazing stagecraft instead? A play of lights or talking smoke vapors or puppets or masked Tibetan or Tlingit dancers? Even a Greek chorus at the back of the auditorium while dancers move on the stage? As I was thinking, this script demands theatrical treatment. Something 3-D or better.

The concept of comedy – rather than our usual all-too-serious emphases – strikes me as brilliant. Why not try it with the Garden of Eden or the Great Flood as well or any of a range of other Biblical tales. Admittedly, not all will work, but as for others? Well, our local temple did adapt Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific to the Book of Esther for their Purim observance one year. I hear it was a hoot.

By the way, when I reached for the book, I discovered it was a novel by Robert A. Heinlen, and any use of Job and his self-righteous friends seems to be absent or deeply buried. And, yes, I do recall that Archibald MacLeish’s 1958 play J.B. is reputed to have been inspired by Job, but the piece deflects the direct link by casting the leads as Zuss/Zeus and Nichols. Its plot, I would note, glibly veers away from the deeper soulful dimensions of the original.

In the meantime, take a look at my Job essay in Eden Embraced and weigh in with your perspectives. Do you think comedy would enhance its understanding?

REHASH

the return of the Princess Wen-Chi

 400 years later I understand it wasn’t
my fault we never connected
but the hardness she’d become

with the curtain already up
when the lights took hold

unicorn and gazelle in repose

too weird, too impractical, too brash, too arrogant

hypodermic syringe on a porcelain teacup

favorite hardware
goof balls, golf balls

perhaps annoy or anger, delight
and so on and on. It never ends, does it?

above the treetops
astrologers, even witches

but mostly the aroma of freshly cut grass

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

WITH AND WITHOUT OUR MASKS

Behind the masks of public life – our occupations, religious affiliations, social status, economic positions, family connections, educational accomplishments, and so on – each of us engages in another struggle, an attempt to find inner balance and direction for our own life. As we do so, we soon face a plethora of interior and exterior forces that must be reconciled. We get glimmers into this struggle – both within ourselves and within others – in statements that begin “I am” and “I am not,” as well as “I have been,” which recognizes the history and habits we accumulate and carry with us. There are also the voices – “he remembers” or “she insists” – that also recur in our lives, defining and redefining ourselves both within, as conscience or the angel or devil on our shoulders, and without, as any of a host of authority figures and friends or family members.

~*~

Village of Gargoyles

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

FROM MY LITTLE THIRD-FLOOR DECK

did I hear thunder?
coffee in the treetops

just a pony cart of vegetables
street vendor’s cry
(O! the Arabs of Baltimore!)
on his daily round
somehow getting by

yet clouds slipped in

with a long cord, the phone

this old apartment, all light and draught
the floor sinking, new cracks in the plaster
was giving way, downward, you could hear it in the night
paint flaking, more pieces falling to my bed

all going downhill, to the basement

rusty pipes, armies of cockroaches
at work in the walls

constantly dripping faucets
kitchen, shower, the bathroom sink

stacked magazines slid away on their own
new grit emerged immediately after sweeping

the faucet knobs never matched

water rings in the ceiling

blooms collapsing for lack of circulation

To continue, click here.

SEASONS OF THE ASHRAM

MY RESIDENCY IN a yoga ashram introduced its own sequence of seasons. I address these in my novel, Ashram, where different individuals embody different stages in the progression from soul-cleansing to community awareness and service to spiritual illumination. While I limit the plot to the activities of a single day, there’s no way to escape the histories that led each participate to this place or to the conflicts and achievements they’ve already shared in their adventures on the yoga farm.

The ashram allowed a kind of spiritual season I no longer see on American landscape – a place for youths, especially, to undergo intense reorientation and ego-stripping. More traditional monastic settings often point the practitioner in a different direction, something more resembling a career path.

In retrospect, the institution itself was evolving through its own series of seasons. Originating as a kind of laissez-faire hostel and spa before moving into a more rigorous retreat center and monastery and then into a Hindu temple and children’s camp, each season manifested itself quite differently from the others, held together by Swami’s autocratic vision, strengths, and weaknesses.

In season, too, many of my doubts and concerns also bore fruit. When I was ordered to return to the community and refused, only to be ostracized, I was being faithful to a larger Spirit. A different set of seasons was unfolding.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

TAURUS, TENDERLY

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

~*~

  1. Daffodils and rising scrolls of ferns are two of my favorite proclamations of spring. Last year a sharp drop in temperature cut the daffodils down just as they were starting to bloom. We were so disappointed. (The same snap also wiped out peaches across New England.) How quickly, too, can a vibrant patch go scraggly if you don’t divide the bulbs every few years. As for our ferns, I now feel vindicated for all the ones I transplanted in futile efforts that first decade before they took hold here.
  2. Likewise, hold true to a vision of progress, of a more just and loving society, a realm of selflessness over selfishness.
  3. Hard for me to believe I composed Village of Gargoyles while living in an apartment complex atop the highest hill in the biggest city in the state – before moving to the smaller city where I now reside – a place more befitting the village of these poems.
  4. Need to get new Tibetan prayer flags. The old ones are totally frayed.
  5. Has anyone else read Ned Rorem’s Paris Diary or its New York sequel? Saturated in the self-centeredness and self-indulgence of youth, they’re deliciously juicy and fun reading, though I could never be snide like that. Besides, if I did it here at the Barn, you wouldn’t know anyone in my circles. They’re not even celebrities, even of the minor sort. So much for the gossip on my end.
  6. While assembling the hammock, I heard a squirrel overhead scolding one of the neighborhood cats, likely the one we call Spooky. “Get it,” I urged the cat. Whereupon an empty Nutella jar landed on the table, barely missing me, its lid neatly chewed around. Something the squirrel had pilfered from what one of the kids had likely hidden in the barn sometime over the winter. I looked around but saw nobody to confirm was had just transpired. Trust me.
  7. My emotional wall just may be a shell, too.
  8. In my first moves, all my goods fit in my car.
  9. During the American Revolution, the village center that served as Rhode Island’s capital changed its name from King’s Town to Little Rest, with its delicious double meaning.
  10. Yearning for a renewed feeling of bliss – the holy ecstasy – something I wish she, too, would experience, however foreign it might seem now.

~*~

By my side at the moment. My coffee mug's on a shelf above it.

By my side at the moment. My coffee mug’s on a shelf above it.

TAKING HOLD, AS A VENTURE

I’m not that young, even to be this foolish
and this time, a month of rainfall starts
with fireworks, of course, viewed from our second-floor deck
before consulting a plumber about a bathroom
and heating for the barn
or a boiler replacement in our cellar, connecting
natural-gas appliances and restoring the downstairs toilet
and shower to use in a house

before drafting radical views of both the Garden of Eden
and Gethsemane and then the doctrine of Inward Light
alas, by year’s end, both would flower to book length
or, should I say, all? this time around, getting serious
as connecting the dots in a seedbed

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
For more,
click here.

NOW, TO LOOK MORE CLOSELY AT A TWO-EDGED SWORD

If you want to see out-and-out prejudice by people who think themselves to be open-minded, here’s a good litmus test. Raise a matter of Christianity. Or, as a woman, wear a cross necklace. Then ask if it’s the same response you’d get had you presented something from another religion.

Put another way, I’d long ago been appalled by an assumption many of us liberals took in regard to Christians – and to be candid, I was once one who was self-righteously disparaging. Quite frankly, it’s out-and-out judgmentalism that hurts our progressive causes. It’s ignorant of the important support radical faith gave to many movements through the centuries and can still give to the future. It’s a point for dialogue with our opponents, if we’re willing to engage it.

Two common assumptions spring to mind here.

The first involves intelligence. There’s more to life, let me point out, than materiality. Think of love, music, morality, for starters – people with knowledge of ways of empathy, too. Extend that, then, to a recognition that to be a person of faith does not automatically mean stupidity, even if we do see way too many examples in the public arena – not just those of the Christian label, either. Nor do Christian do not come in a one-size-defines-all homogeneity – some denominations, for instance, refuse to bear arms or participate in war as a consequence of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, while other churches rally around the troops. The ways of thinking and the emphases vary widely, from Fundamentalists to Evangelicals (yes, there are differences there) to Pentecostals to various strands of Calvinists or Lutherans (yes, again some key differences) to various Wesleyan (Methodist) and Baptist and Anabaptist (Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, Quaker) and on to the Unitarians. And that’s just among the Protestants. Add to that the Anglicans (Episcopalians), Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox and you have a very rich mix, indeed.

Within those are some very intelligent and sensitive people, along with circles of personal growth and ethical accountability.

The reality is that religion is capable of engaging our innermost motions – our hopes and fears, especially. It’s a power that can run many ways, challenging the status quo as well as establishing community. The state and the establishment have many reasons to desire to curb it, as history attests. Even at a personal level, it can be scary stuff.

Pointedly, progressive movements have sprung from this source. For centuries, up through America’s civil rights revolution, social change has grown from radical Christianity. A central thread of the Bible has been the evolution of justice and then radical peace and equality. Read it closely, and what emerges remains a challenge to the status quo. Let’s not lose it now!

As the prayer goes, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth …”

Many of us see that as a more loving, just, and peaceful society. Mock it if you wish, but think of the alternatives. Are they really progress?

All of that, of course, leads to my second point: the so-called Christian right, of the political sort, hardly owns the mantel of Jesus. And since any religion has the potential of engaging those most soulful endeavors of human existence, we see across the spectrum instances of appealing to fear and oppression, on one side, as well as forgiveness and oneness, on the other. Religion in this dimension presents an opportunity for conversation and growth, if we allow it.

~*~

For more on radical faith, see my book, Religion Turned Upside Down.

ROLLING WITH WHALES

on the way out, a fifty-year-old shrimper from Louisiana –
originally from Gloucester, where he’s visiting his sister –
tells of the Gulf’s particular brutality

how crews typically go out twelve days
till the hull is full . his boat with three Rolls-Royce
engines so loud harborside residents complained
he hesitated to open full throttle
unless the water’s churning was especially rough

rocking at the jetty-mouth sandbar
like Canobie Lake’s pirate ship ride
three delighted school groups shriek

when we top twenty-one knots – his boat, twenty-three
yet his went down / couldn’t salvage any gear
lost two crewmen with him five years
he himself now limps
wounded in the knee by a barracuda,
and it’s not healing right . he hobbles along
with a cane, wondering if it’s time to quit
the shrimping in his blood
run an excursion boat instead

“and you, sir?”

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