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June NonRequired Reading List
Contemplify / NRR #79
“In a life properly lived, you’re a river. You touch things lightly or deeply; you move along because life herself moves, and you can’t stop it; you can’t figure out a banal game plan applicable to all situations; you just have to do with the “beingness” of life, as Rilke would have it….a dam doesn’t stop a river, it just controls the flow. Technically speaking, you can’t stop one at all.”
- Jim Harrison
Rivers are untidy, wild, and vivifying. Just like humans. The allegory of life as a river, a flowing force that bends in beingness nourishes me.
Riverbanks contain all of humanity’s crummy behavior while retaining the radiant beauty of our nature. Since the mid-19th century our species’ relationship with rivers has become suspect. Humans have been quick to—block, divert, pollute, harness, and dam–rivers in hopes of control, usefulness, or power.1 Lest we throw out the baby with the river water, for eons humans have also nimbly swam in, drank, floated, fished, and paddled down rivers for the pure pleasure of doing so. What a goofy lot. The river is viewed as a resource, an exploitative opportunity, a healing place, and a quiet spot to skinny dip. The mixed aims we carry into a river’s effortlessness are revealing.
The river as a mega-metaphor for the Mystery of God is one I ebulliently embrace. Its shores coax me in—
…watching a river as appreciating the unknown in the present,
…entering a river as act of immediate surrender,
…being the river as the unitive flow of Mystery.
A river also runs through contemplative practice. Sawtooth intentions are escorted to the meditation cushion2, the confluence of conscious life and the mystery of God. When one steps into practice they drop into an incarnate vessel to row across the river3. And that is what one does in practice, no? They “stay in the world to transcend it” as Bashō might say. This is the disciplined means of practicing a reverential posture of wonder. By bringing all of ourselves to the boat we learn to dangle our feet in a freewheeling river.
Rivers babble on about spirituality. I can relate. God willing this makes sense to someone besides rivers and me.
Riverspeak stills my soul. I lap up this kind of talk that favors a circumfluent rhythm. Rivers skip words like ‘ripple’ across its surface to trawl locutions from its depths, like ‘immersion’ and ‘submerge’. Then there are the words that sleep at the bottom of riverbeds. Unknowing. Surrender. Union. Heavy words. I can only retrieve them with two hands. Heaving them ashore with a thud. It is an uneasy act, probably a sin, to lug these river rocks asunder and watch them dry out alone beside the river they belong in. Rivers embody the old adage that what is in the way is the way. Disrupting that causes swimmer’s itch, better to become the words the river holds and recites leisurely under the surface.
Then there is my river child. My daughter’s name is heard in every current, she is an ancient Norse song that is sung wherever river meets rock. I floated a section of the Upper Iowa River with her yesterday. Her fluvial glee was infectious.
My family is congregating at my brother’s place in the northeastern corner of Iowa. A landscape that has washed the desert off my feet. They live in the driftless area of the Midwest:
“The Driftless Area geography is characterized by its steep, rugged landscape, and by the largest concentration of cold water streams in the world. The absence of glaciers gave the rivers time to cut deeply into the ancient bedrock and create the distinctive landforms.”4
The last line “the absence of glaciers giving rivers time to cut deeply into the ancient bedrock and create the distinctive landforms” is a real doozy. It is a land formed by the absence of glacial presence. The absence of a mammoth chunk of ice, rock , sediment, slowly rolling across its body allowed a particular set of rivers and streams time to cut more deeply. Glacial drifts have been my ultimate illustration of slow transformation, but here we have an example of rivers carving landscapes with even greater patience and precision. To me, this suggests a chasmic vulnerability inherent to the driftless region. I both admire it and struggle to practice it.
I have gone driftless. These meandering musings remind me of poems and songs that hum the spirit of rivers though they barely make mention of it. Rivers are like that. Achingly present all at once, but don’t make a big deal of themselves. May this invocation reach you at your conflux of unknowing, surrender, and the bending flow that is the work at hand, that is the beingness of life itself.
June NonRequired Reading List
America's Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal by Larry Ward (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
Mercy is a presence. When mercy is directly offered, you feel your shoulders relax. When mercy is in the air it envelopes you. Mercy is no fool. There is no absence or pretending in mercy. Mercy does not shroud all that has occurred; the trauma, sneers, or silence. Mercy is a witness and invitation. The unblinking side of mercy is one of the great themes in America’s Racial Karma by Larry Ward.
Dr. Larry Ward is a senior teacher in Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village tradition and co-founder of the The Lotus Institute. Dr. Ward writes with clarity, wise candor, and boldness. He names the woeful struggle of America’s resistance to acknowledge its own systemic racism, historical wounds, current woundings, and trauma inflicted. Without dismissal of atrocities or enslavement, he lays the foundation to build a bridge of mercy with compassion. Dr. Ward writes, “Mercy’s bridge rests on the solid foundations of human evolutionary resilience, brain neuroplasticity, and spiritual awakening. Our species’ wiring for compassion and the desire to eliminate our racialized suffering provide the real potential for our social imagination to grow.”5 This is open-eyed mysticism.
At the end of America’s Racial Karma, Dr. Ward offers a series of practices and reflections from his own life. I found these practices immediately striking and helpful. They are grounding access points to engage in the difficult work of transformation with more full-bodied presence.
America’s Racial Karma is a wise book that that is mighty in sight, mercy, and invitation. This book is for any contemplative who seeks to examine their own interior racialized conditioning from a spiritually grounded perspective.
Without: Poems by Donald Hall (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
The theme of absence has been present for me. This feels oxymoronic and ruderal. The poetry of Donald Hall in Without matched my experience of absence and then infinitely expanded it beyond my horizon. Like the difference between a nail file on a cuticle to a metal file grinding exposed bone. Hall wrote this collection of poetry about the passing and aftermath of his beloved wife, Jane Kenyon.
I had previously devoured Donald Hall masterful essays on presence and absence, “Between Loneliness and Solitude” and “The Third Thing”. But when it came to this book of poetry, I read it at a snail’s pace. I had to brace myself from the overwhelming assault of beauty burnt by loss. Still present, but distressed.
Without is tough, afflicted, and an honor to read. Grief stains every page. Loss dog-eared every corner. Without is for those who love all of the way to the bottom of things and pay the price.
Season Four is here! It is well fed, packed, and ready to head out into the world. I learned a great deal from each of these conversations. I think you will too. My heart was stirred by the profound wisdom shared. I think your heart will be too. I am proud of it. The first episode is with Belden Lane, an elder who earned his wisdom stripes through the harrowing scrapes of life, vulnerable responses, loving deeply, and listening to wildness without and within. As always you can find the complete list of Contemplify episodes here and below are the four most recent episodes. The next episode will come out July 5.
Belden Lane on the Unbroken Desert of God (Season 4, Ep 1)
Your Naked Freedom (Season 4 Trailer)
Spare Me Nothing (Bonus Episode / Season 3, Ep 14)
James Finley on The Healing Path (Bonus Episode / Season 3, Ep 13)
Arts & Articles
WHAT IF WE’RE TELLING THE WRONG STORIES ABOUT THE CLIMATE CRISIS? by Sam Mowe (Tricycle): A conversation between Roshi Joan Halifax and Rebecca Solnit, “One familiar story is that we’re constantly told we live in an age of abundance. And some of us do live in material affluence and comfort. But part of that story is the idea that what the climate crisis requires of us is renunciation. I learned once from a Buddhist leader, or maybe a Catholic person, that renunciation can be great when you’re giving up something terrible. But the idea that we’re now living in abundance and must go to austerity, I think can be turned on its head. Look at the ways that we are austere in meaning, purpose, hope, social connection, justice. We’re impoverished in clean air, clean water, healthy topsoil, in the survival of so many species, and the health of the ocean. We either feel it as a kind of moral injury, or we experience a kind of moral numbing.”
WHAT ON EARTH! (YouTube): This 1963 Canadian mockumentary is a spot on take from the perspective of aliens on why cars must be the ruling species on planet earth. (h/t to Josh)
I SHALL BE RELEASED (YouTube): I saw the Avett Brothers play last week with my brother and nephew. Special in ways I cannot even articulate. Hearing them play my favorite Dylan song was more joy than one soul can take. Thank God we absorbed it together. This video is older, but gets the job done.
In the Driftless
feet don’t drag.
They become light
as the desert silence.
Driftless & far from the desert,
Perhaps the treatment of river bodies is connected to how we regard human bodies too.
It does not have to be a meditation cushion, it could be a wide array of practices.
Forgetting for a second that the vessel must eventually go and immersion must take place
Ward, Larry. Essay. In America’s Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal, 96. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2020.