Coming to the culmination of Great Lent

In his “Note on the Religious Tendencies” published by Liberation magazine in 1959, the Zen Buddhist and poet Gary Snyder remarked, “The statement common in some circles, ‘All religions lead to the same goal,’ is the result of fantastically sloppy thinking and no practice.” His very next sentence is equally startling. “It is good to remember that all religions are nine-tenths fraud and are responsible for numerous social evils.”

Well, the essay is largely a defense of the beat generation, and he was an American studying in monasteries in Kyoto. I wonder if he’d admit today how much social progress and learning have come about through religion, too. That could make for an illuminating debate.

I did hear him once mention that on the Buddhist spectrum, Zen starts at one extreme and Tibetan tradition at the other, but that as followers of each advance in their practice – as he said this, his outstretched arms began to sweep over this head – they eventually approach and then cross places. Just as his arms were doing. Go far enough, of course, and each would land where the other one had set forth.

Without going into detail, I find a lot in common there when it comes to Quakers and Eastern Orthodox on the Christian spectrum.

The one is plain, even austere, and very much centered in the present. The other is visually and tactily rich, accompanied by an accentuated awareness of mortality and death.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am a Quaker who’s been fascinated lately with Greek Orthodox life. It doesn’t all spring from questions arising as I drafted and revised my novel What’s Left, either. Besides, Cassia’s family wasn’t all that observant of their native faith, even if members were toying with the Tibetan Buddhism her father practiced.

Admittedly, few Americans know much about either Quakers or Orthodox Christians, despite their impact on the larger society. Ditto for Buddhism.

Today is an especially important day for the Orthodox.

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When it comes to viewing the world, real photography will always stand out

To call me visually oriented would be an understatement.

For most of my life, I’ve viewed the world through imaginary frames and lenses.

I had four years of art training in high school and when recently reviewing many of those pieces was impressed by their high quality. I seriously considered continuing on into college and a career beyond but realized the struggles of making a living that would follow. And so I veered into journalism, where I applied many of those skills in designing newspaper pages, photo essays, and cropping pictures. Thousands and thousands of them.

It also led to a love of typefaces and calligraphy and book design.

Maybe I haven’t strayed that far.

I’ve also worked with some of the best photojournalists in the field and known a number of outstanding artists. I even married one.

On a more mundane level, I sometimes shift into cartoon mode and begin seeing people as whimsical drawings. Or I ponder how they would photograph. (No, I’m not staring at you the way you think I am, sorry if it’s making you uncomfortable.)

Well, for that matter, I did meet some famous cartoonists when I was working for the newspaper syndicate and selling their work to our clients.

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Past loves in the mirror of fiction

Reworking the novels that now stand as Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks also had me elbows-deep in some unfinished emotional detritus left in my personal past.

I feel I’ve pretty well examined and released the baggage from my larger intimate relationships – the failed marriage and a subsequent broken engagement, especially.

The novels, though, started churning up unanticipated buried feelings elsewhere.

Anger at my first lover, for one. I had long suffered disappointment, guilt, and depression after we shattered apart, and then let her fade into what I thought was oblivion. But, as I’m told, feelings are what they are – you can’t control them. As I relived my college years, I realized how much of my own leftward change came about because of her. Moreover, in the ensuing decades, I’ve never had another partner who could so sensitively respond to what I was writing at the time and suggest changes. Still, I can now see how she never could have been the wife I’ve needed, no matter how intense our passion or, like Kenzie with his Liz, how shallow my understanding of her or even her self-centeredness or my own.

The anger, though, still hit as a shock. It just wasn’t something I had ever felt permitted to admit. You’re not allowed to feel that toward the one you love, not according to my upbringing or code of conduct. Now, however, I could come up with a list of offenses, as well as moments when I should have confronted her actions or even broken off, if I had only possessed enough backbone.

Another set of emotions swirled up around the character now known as Shoshanna. While Kenzie is quite smitten by her, he’s never able to make much sense of her romantic history, at least as she presents it. Like him, I’ve always tried to put a positive spin on events, and like him, I’ve always been a sucker for the promise of talent. Over the years, though, I’ve also learned about the long-lasting impact of abuse – physical, verbal, or sexual – as well as similar harm from an alcoholic parent. As I revised, I found myself – intuitively, it seems – connecting that dynamic to her past. I started weeping. It didn’t have to be true in regards to the original inspiration for the story, but it certainly advanced the character and her motivations. No, I wept for what such buried damage had done to women I’ve loved, to myself, and to my relationships. Too often, the bruises remained out of sight, out of the possibility of awareness, taboo. But no longer.

Judith, meanwhile, took the reality of violence much further, into kink. I was once dropped by a lover after her ex-boyfriend showed up in town and they went out. She simply vanished for the night, from my perspective. As she said afterward, when she told him about us, he hit her – beat her, actually, in her words – and she felt better. She insisted the manhandling absolved her guilt, as if she had anything to be guilty about. I was appalled and confused. I really knew very little about her, by her own choice. A decade later, another lover had a similar connection to physical aggression, and my non-violent nature doomed any future to our initial attraction. It had been presented as a fault on my end, by the way, a matter of shame or weakness. And she had been so exciting. Shall we say I was left feeling quite conflicted?

Revising my fictional character, though, allowed me to scrutinize this forbidden zone, no matter how troubling. I was also seeing how much further my first lover had wanted to explore than I was ready to venture. She really had no sense of her own vulnerability – or ours. In the end, she had me seeing how not everyone in the hippie world was really Peace & Love oriented or even satisfied with Flower Power romance.

As Kenzie was reminded, not everyone wanted marriage or even a soul mate.

It’s an insight that still jars me, looking back on my zig-zag journey to here and all that I missed out on along the way.

So here we are, all the same.

 

Retired six years now

Through much of my working career, the question lingered: What do I want to be when I grow up?

The answer finally shaped up: Retired!

So it’s hard to think I’ve been retired six years now – make it seven if you include the early buyout that allowed me to work more flexibly in the newsroom for a year.

Frankly, I don’t feel retired – whatever that is. I don’t play golf or spend all day at the beach or play evenings of card games like bridge.

For me, what I wanted was more time to read and write and attend to Quaker matters and be out in the wilderness – that sort of thing. Do what Gary Snyder would call the Real Work.

My wife scoffed when she saw some of my early plans for retirement. Would I devote regular blocks of time to each pursuit? Would I rise at five to meditate and do yoga before moving on poetry or fiction?

Scoff? She was more infuriated that I wasn’t including time for household chores or gardening or togetherness along other kinds. Saw it as being self-centered.

~*~

Suffice it to say those early scheduling ideas are far from what emerged. They didn’t include swimming laps every weekday, thanks to the brilliant Christmas present of an annual indoor pool pass from my elder daughter, who wisely decided I needed more exercise, seconding a motion from my physician.

Nor did they include being performing in incredible choir in Boston, which takes up the better part of a day. Or, more accurately, an afternoon and evening. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever anticipate making music on such a high level.

Nor was blogging on those blueprints. It’s wound up occupying more time than I expected, but it’s also freed me from the submissions process in getting work published – so timewise, I think it’s a bargain. And that includes having my own small-press imprint on my Thistle Finch line here at WordPress.

~*~

I have been able to devote more blocks of time to the fiction, which has been satisfying, but I still feel myself pressed for time when it comes to doing all I want or should.

I’m still trying to make adjustments for the domestic needs, especially now that my wife’s back in the workforce.

The joke is I’m not really retired – I’m just not receiving a paycheck.

In retrospect, I’m surprised by how much writing I actually accomplished in my own time all those years I was employed. It gives me a deep well to draw on.

Singing over beers

So there we were after choir rehearsal, more than 20 of us gathered for what’s called a pub sing.

It’s commonplace in England and Ireland, I suppose, but a rarity in the States.

In fact, this was my first encounter. One of our members had reserved a room at a tavern down the street.

Our Boston Revels organization hosts public versions of these during the year, but this was more impromptu. Yes, we had a stack of the organization’s songbooks, just in case. As our motto states, “Where tradition comes to life.”

Two of those present had birthdays, so we belted out in the traditional Happy Birthday song, in glorious four-part harmony – maybe more.

And then one basso voice continued in a dark melody with lyrics like “long ago your hair turned gray, now it’s falling out, they say,” or “it’s your birthday, never fear, you’ll be dead this time next year.” He was quickly joined by a soprano across the table in what became a competition to see who could remember lines the other didn’t know.

For those with a mordant sense of humor, it’s (UHH!) great fun. You can even Google it under the “Happy Birthday Dirge.” For the record, we sang it much better than any of the versions you’ll hear there.

Fortunately, my birthday had slipped past unnoticed just a few weeks earlier.

Maybe next year?

‘Vegan Before 6’ for Great Lent

As Quakers, we’re not confined to a liturgical calendar or its requirements. Even so, through much of our history, members of the Society of Friends lived within the limitations of strict discipline, which included plain dress like the Amish and plain speech of the “thee” and “thou” sort.

These have greatly loosened up over the past century, which is not to say we don’t live out a distinct set of values – we’re just more flexible or forgiving. Non-violence and pacifism, equality, simplicity, social justice, and truthfulness remain forefront in our daily lives. Few Friends I know smoke, and in our circles, I suspect the majority now drive Priuses as a consequence of faith. Many, but by no means all, participate in vigils or social witness demonstrations.

But being Quaker doesn’t preclude us from what Douglas Steere coined “mutual irradiation,” acknowledging that we can learn from others’ religious practices and experiences and encourage them in their own. It’s not the same as a lowest-common-denominator ecumenism, but rather a willingness to be inspired and enlightened by our differences. It’s something I’ve been enjoying among the Greek-Orthodox where I live, and found with Mennonites and Brethren earlier. It’s also a principal reason I participate in the Dover Area Religious Leaders’ Association and our joint services.

Of course, remarrying has changed some of my perspectives. With children, especially, there was no way of downplaying Christmas, not in contemporary American society. (Historically, Friends were among those who considered it a pagan import.) I’ve previously posted about the revolutionary ways observing Advent has helped me cope with the commercial assault of that holiday.

~*~

Eliminating a liturgical calendar also meant we also didn’t observe Easter. (Every day was to be holy.) And without Christmas or Easter, there would be no Advent or Lent.

Leap ahead.

There’s no way to totally ignore these, not when no longer live in close communities of our own and are often the only Quaker in our workplace. On top of that, many of us come from other faith traditions and carry within us many of those teachings and traditions, one way or another.

~*~

All of this leads up to to a desire in our household to use Advent and Lent as times of renewal and rededication. We try to do a special reading together, at the least, and usually give up alcohol.

For the record, by the late 19th century, most Quakers had banned alcohol altogether – it’s not uncommon to meet Friends who have never had a drink in their life. On the other hand, when I admitted to enjoying a glass of beer or wine, one old Friend replied, “Jnana, in thy occupation, we’d be surprised if thee didn’t.” Remember, I was a newspaper editor.

So, here we are in what the Eastern Orthodox call Great Lent, and I’m surviving without my daily martini or a glass of wine with dinner. Abstaining reminds me of just how habitual these things become. Besides, I believe saying “no” for a season can be strengthen one’s willpower for other decisions, too.

~*~

One year, my wife and I went largely vegan for Advent. She had reviewed all of the Eastern Orthodox dietary rules for that observance and concluded they were essentially vegan with the additional elimination of olive oil and alcohol. Oh, and when she concluded that since olive oil would have been the only oil in the eastern Mediterrean, she extended the ban to all cooking oils.

It was a tough period, as I posted at the time. She did come up with some marvelous dishes all the same, but rather than being freed from considerations of food, she was spending more time trying to find ways to manage.

This year, for the period of Great Lent, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Remember, we’re not confined to the ancient regulations, we’re doing this voluntarily. (And, as I’ve learned, the Orthodox rules are only suggested, not required, of the faithful.) What we’re doing is inspired by food guru Mark Bittman’s book Eat Vegan Before 6:00. In short, we have more options when it comes to the evening meal – especially, as we’re applying this, on the weekends.

Since I’m already trying to observe a Healthy Heart diet, I’m not seeing a lot of change. The biggest challenge has involved my morning coffee, which is already down to a single cup a day, thanks to another medical restriction.

No, alas, there are no wonder substitutes for dairy.

Homemade almond milk comes closest – we find much of the commercial variety to be vile. But almonds are comparatively expensive, and soaking the nuts and grinding and straining take time.

Oat milk, made from oatmeal, starts cooking in hot liquid, leaving an unpleasant layer of sludge in the bottom of the mug.

Coconut milk tastes like coconut, which I find disconcerting.

Black coffee seems harsh on an empty stomach – a sliver of lemon helps a little, somehow.

~*~

So I’m counting the days till Easter – the Orthodox version, which comes at the end of Passover, a full week later than the Western celebration.

Those dark-roasted coffee beans and the Cuisinart

The automatic coffeemaker came from a yard sale. A Cuisinart for, as I recall, five bucks or so. It even grinds its own beans at 4 in the morning, just like we ordered.

We like our brew with a Latin kick. Cuban roasted, for instance. Like espresso, which I turn au lait – or, in this case, Ole’!

Even curbing back my caffeine intake to a cup a day, as my doctor ordered, it’s heavenly.

Imagine rolling over in bed, hearing the grinder kick in downstairs, and then finding the pot freshly made.

What a way to say good morning to the world!