FOR AN ELDER

“esteemed all these years”

In historic Quaker practice, each established Meeting
recorded its ministers, elders, and overseers
from within the body of believers. These days
the work of the elder, or bishop, is misunderstood.
Not one to censure, as we commonly assume,
but to uphold the life of prophetic utterance arising
from collected silence. Outside the Stillwater
meetinghouse on an Ohio knoll, Jack Smith remarked,
“Jnana, thee sees Burton there? He don’t
say much, but thee knows when he’s present.
He’s a true elder” – a wise one who intuitively goes
in to listen, to touch, to look where the obvious
is the most difficult quality to acknowledge.
An elder dwells within quiet prompting, as
Denise and Michael discovered when Yuki
invited them to Japanese tea and a single gentle
question: “So why aren’t you two married?”
repeated until easy answers vanished.

Vanguard, you’ve declared Old Ways
apply the “wisdom and skill of those who studied
the universe first-hand by direct knowledge
and experience, for millennia”
to create a galaxy within and without; this light
emerges “outside history, and forever new.” Old Ways
are easily misunderstood in our relentless era.
Each tradition is local, particular, even peculiar.
Village by village, a people constellate. Each one joins,
then, walking only where we stand;
to arrive somewhere worthwhile
requires a seasoned guide.
Who is knocking at my entrance?
As the elder says, What took so long!
You remember how it was.

~*~

Vanguard, you’ve rightly observed these days
we commonly find our elders within books.
Such practice lacks the face-to-face interaction
of human teaching, but a morsel still responds
to hunger. Along much of my own twisting
journey, your pages have embodied a mentor’s
guidance for me – and I voice gratitude, even
when I do not know where my trail will end.

The first person I ever saw meditate must have
been you in full lotus beneath a perfectly
mature beech on the infirmary lawn beside
a busy intersection in Bloomington, Indiana.
Fresh back from those years in Kyoto, your
pose was so rigid and lifeless I reacted with
scorn, silently accusing you of escaping
confrontations on the front where social
justice is demanded. Little did I know
this cool spring of clarity renewed your
unflinching public witness as peacemaker.
Since then, your pages – and sometimes your
body – have spoken to me through many
of my ongoing transformations.

The elegance of your penmanship
when I attempted calligraphy.

Your life-affirming vision
when other poets I read
obsessed with morbid pooling.

Your gentle playfulness
when I was awakening in spirit;
the meditative flame I had once resented
became my own fire, as well.

Your sharply-honed vocabulary and structuring
initially appeared so wild
and then breathtakingly disciplined
as I explored my own emerging voice. Repeatedly,
you urge me to go further into the forest at hand.

Your travelogues to India and the Himalayas
when I was dwelling in an ashram in the Poconos
informed us of our teacher’s own teacher’s
teacher, strengthening us in our lineage.

Your marriage insights spoke to me
as I wedded. And your breakups,
as my own affairs crashed.

Your Far West pieces were with me
when I awoke in desert sunrise
and worked four years where I could climb
places you knew from childhood
meeting Indians and loggers, too.

Once I dreamed of standing in a cafeteria line
and spinning about, to face you the first time
as you inquired where some item might be
exactly as things turned out, at Fort Warden
State Park in Port Townsend, Washington;
there, later you spoke of the power of animals
and sang “Magpie’s Song” in your reading.

You’ve been places I have aspired
from Dharma Bum days to the present.
Now you acknowledge times have changed
and the path you took through San Francisco,
Kyoto, Seattle, and the world has evaporated.
Even your own homestead in Sierra foothills
would be beyond your income nowadays.
The part-time jobs you encouraged other
poets would pay the rent won’t do now.
North Cascades fire lookout huts go unmanned
all summer, and Forest Service airplanes
pass an hour before full blaze breaks out.

You told of seafood excitement at street-side stands
when fresh urchin arrive from American coastline,
a rarity Tokyo celebrates each decade or two.
A week later, near Golden Gate Park, I ventured
my first sashimi, sushi, sake, and plum wine
and understood. Ginger slices and green mustard
fit other rituals as well. Short line, long line. Pause.

~*~

 There are dangers, too.
Imitation fails to leave
the nest. Fly, then, each our own way.
We eat seeds, but roots are powerful medicine.

When Swami Lakshmy kept insisting
the Yoga would return us to our original
religion, rather than away, I did not
know of my father’s Quaker, Brethren, and
Mennonite heritage. The starkness I have admired
was not that of Zen, as I had long thought,
or even American Shakers, but rather
the Plain People of historic peace churches.
I come to protest naturally. I inherit non-conformity
shaped through imprisonment and beheading.
The farmer and carpenter are in my blood
no matter how badly I spade or hammer.
Vanguard, you make another ax handle
more as a Viking than you ever suspected.
Your ancestral sea-lust perchance carried you
to Japan and India via merchant marine
jobs on tramp steamers. It is the samurai
and Native American warrior, then,
you acknowledge in quiet action.
A bard faithfully preserves the epics.
We both do battle without physical weapons
in what my lineage knew as the Lamb’s War.
The demons of our era appear most fully
in the dominant religion of consumerism
and its individualistic splintering.
Our words become invocation and prayer
as well as teaching and remembrance.

For a half century now
you’ve maintained this before me.

~*~

Frequently, I advise other Quakers
to delve into leather-bound volumes
until they find an author from an earlier
generation who speaks to their condition.
Periodically, then, each returns to some sage
as we practice heart to heart. Now I advise
others, Go in deeper with a guide who stays
close to the Guide until you follow that compass
as well. Ax handles, yes, a pattern to copy.
Prophets and their disciples.

You’ve written of your spiritual teachers.
The roshis, especially. We rely on many
elders, not just one, to be enabled
to speak truth before power. Real work
continues from those before us
unto those we teach. As Mennonites
have said, God has no grandchildren.
First-hand experience, indeed, for millennia.

So be it, always, a blessing and blessed.

~*~

poem copyright 2014 by Jnana Hodson

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