March NonRequired Reading List
Contemplify / NRR #76
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
- Joy Harjo
The seasons, both liturgical and natural, offer provisions aplenty for calibrating my attention to the unnameable Mystery vividly present. This winter and Lent are lacing my days together with images of presence and absence.
While my wife was away on a snowshoe trip with some friends the kids and I started a New Moon tradition. Our clan already howls and catcalls the moon, with the most notable being “rooty-toot-toot for the moon!” The kids and I decided to mark the New Moon by scooping chocolate ice cream cones, a sweet reflection on the moon's endarkened presence. The kids thought vanilla ice cream would be a worthy match for the Full Moon. The bright vanilla as a cheeky mirror to Sister Luna. There was also some discussion on whether or not an Oreo cookie was a sufficient substitute for either occasion depending how one eats it, preferencing the cookie or filling first depending on the moon’s phase.
The kids and I also went to an Ash Wednesday service at our church while my beloved was playing in the snow 300 miles north of us. It is my favorite church service of the year; contemplative, gritty, and brief. My 7-year old was enamored by the marking of the ashes, all of this talk of death and dust. She was excited to get her head ashed in a cross. When it was time to get marked, she eagerly jumped in front of me to be first. Watching the ash form a cross on her head while the words, “from dust you came and to dust shall return,” were spoken over her was a trembling reminder of her fleetingness. After our pastor marked my forehead she bent down and asked my 4-year old son if he wanted to be marked with ash. He would have none of it. Tatted up with a temporary rainbow heart tattoo on his forehead he did not want any ash on his heart. So the night of Ash Wednesday, I had one kid with an ashy cross and the other with a rainbow heart tattoo.
The evening wrote a mythic icon of human nothingness and original blessedness right on my precious little ones’ foreheads. I enjoy it—under the ribcage and beyond words type of enjoyment—that they were each unabashedly present to the conditions of the ritual in their own way, to the preciousness of life and death, to presence and absence. The marvelous tension of symbolic opposites.
When my wife safely returned from her snowshoe trip, through a proper Colorado snowstorm no less, the house was restored to fullness. When she came to the dinner table she had a poem to read. This does not usually happen. I am a fool who had moments beforehand just read a poem that made me chuckle, so I said I wanted to read my funny little poem first because I thought it would make the kids laugh. My wife is patient and I am a fool, so I read the funny little poem that I can no longer recall the title of, but I do remember that it did not in fact make anyone laugh, least of all my children. A pregnant pause followed and then my wife read, “Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo.
By the end of the poem her eyes glistened because she understands this poem and what the kitchen table means.
The next morning, I heard one of my contemplative teachers talk about the contemplative’s tendency to engage in prayer as if it were washing dishes. To focus on cleaning the metaphorical plate for the sake of itself instead of seeing the purpose of a clean plate—to put food on it. The purpose of washing dishes is for the sake of the meal, they said.The dish washing made me think of cleaning this plate as openness to receive and share. To share the abundance of the meeting place at the worn table of communion, of the dynamic dialogue of the inner and outer.
This teaching paired with this poem read by my wife lit me up. The kitchen table is the altar of milk-stained prayers to place clean plates readied to be filled. This is how the table is set in self-forgetful service. This is how we prepare and share the banquet with our brothers, sisters, and siblings everywhere.
When liturgical and natural seasons press up against each other, sparks shoot out like fireflies. Their presence flickers, holding your attention in patient suspension until absence takes residence. Finally the sparks land on the sky’s nightdress, burning and then disappearing into the hole they have created.
March NonRequired Reading List
The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment by Philip Kapleau Roshi (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
The Three Pillars of Zen was tipped in my direction by a Zen friend and it snagged me right away. Published in the late 60s and written with Westerners in mind, it was an early and popular introduction to a new audience of seekers. Nothing is assumed or taken for granted. Kapleau gets into the dusty details of Zen practice, sesshin (intensive practice period), dokusan (meeting with enlightened teacher), koans, and stories.
What really polished my boots was the storytelling. The direct stories of laypeople and their desire to attain enlightenment was demonstrative of desire dropping into the discipline of practice in daily life. It appears to take strenuous effort for some and with surprising speed for others. A reminder that the path one walks, even when shared, is experienced vastly differently by each traveler. With each flick of the page, the reader cannot help but feel the razor’s edge on the soles of their feet.
It is a big fat book. My suggestion is to read “The Lectures” in Part One to get your bearings (if you are a friend of Zen, but don’t hold it as a lineage) and then see where you want to go. Yasutani-roshi’s teachings are direct and rattle you awake to the task at hand. I went straight through the book, but I think one could poke about the stories after the teachings.
Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
I am a sucker for books on deep work and attention. There is a multilane reason for this, depth of connection (unitive consciousness, love, etc.) requires a depth of a soul (immortal homing beacon) which requires a level of attention (perception of reality as it is meeting us) that can be fostered or drowned out. What we pay attention to is where we give our lives.
The attention economy, in its varying degrees of health, is vying for our attention. Johann Hari has written a sneaky book on what is necessary to change the attention economy. Hari begins with the personal desire to change particular behaviors that are wrecking his attention. Down the wormhole of self-improvement leads to the systematic indecency of attention vultures. Corporations whose predatory tactics make it nearly impossible for an individual to opt out and make free choices. Hari masterfully connects this to our pocket gadgets, diets, education systems, flow states, pollution, and basically every aspect of life. There are reams of data that make his arguments and those that offer healthy debate. I say that this is a sneaky book because it is not about self-improvement but a call to a mass movement.
Stolen Focus is for contemplative readers who recognize the dangerous wringer our attentions are going through personally and collectively.
Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino (Get it at the Public Library or Bookshop)
Thoreau at Walden is a graphic novel. I got it from the library for my seven year-old daughter, but my four year old son was more interested. There is a whole series of these graphic novels. I mostly encourage my kids to read whatever floats their boat, but every now and then when I can’t take another book on unicorn schools or super-hero antics I check out a book about Thoreau from the library.
Thoreau at Walden was magical. We read it in two sittings. The simple line drawings and direct quotes from Thoreau tell the story of his life at Walden Pond as well as his night in the clink for civil disobedience. The Thoreauvian quotes that get stuck in the molars of cliched conversations find new life set against the lucid graphics and an audience who is hearing them for the first time. My son paused my reading multiple times to say, “I want to live in the woods.” To me, this is a healthy response to Thoreau’s poetics on his life of attention and diligence in those experimental years of his in the 1840s.
Thoreau at Walden is for any contemplative parent seeking a Thoreauvian interjection into their kids reading. Also, a lovely way to remember some of Thoreau’s lines that still hum effortlessly across the wires of time and connection.
Season Three is complete. Bonus musings have been added, more to come. You can find the complete list of Contemplify episodes here and below are the three most recent episodes. Season Four is tightening its belt and untucking its shirt, hoping to be ready soon. If things go as planned, a surprise of sorts is around the corner before this month ends.
It’s Not About the Beer, It’s About the Beer (Bonus Musing / Season 3, Ep 12)
Prairie Eye & Woods Eye (Bonus Musing / Season 3, Ep 11)
Sitting on the Present Moment (Bonus Musing / Season 3, Ep 10)
Arts & Articles
HOMELAND OF THE HEART: Exploring Desert Landscape and Soulscape (Musings) Good people, there is an opportunity to soak in some desert wisdom. Tessa Bielecki and Fr. David Denny are desert hermits who dance in abundance with the wind of the Spirit. If prior commitments were not holding me back, I'd be headed to southern Arizona with a big ‘ol smile on my face. For more info, go here.
FIRE AND LIGHT PODCAST with TESSA BIELECKI & FR. DAVID DENNY (Fire & Light Podcast): Speaking of Tessa and Dave, they have a new podcast! They are "two old friends who lived in monasteries out in the wilderness for fifty years. Now we're "urban hermits" in Tucson, Arizona and long to share conversations with you about living sanely and contemplatively in the midst of engaged lives in the world. We wonder how to keep love alive and celebrate everyone in the great Circle of Life. We're honest about what sometimes keeps us awake at night and offer stories of hope that can bring us light and set our hearts on fire. Join us as we ponder life, love, and soul." An excellent podcast with wise elders, hop to and bend an ear.
INNER NATURE: DAVID JAMES DUNCAN AND FRED BAHNSON (Spring Creek Podcast): This is a conversation between two more writers I heed to on contemplation and activism. It traverse good country of conversation; spiritual matters of consequence, foolishness of even greater consequence, parenting, St. Isaac of Syria, Barry Lopez, and much more.
A SHEPHERD’S WAY (YouTube). This little documentary stills the pace of life, and slips some folded intention into your back pocket.
May you reach the moon
dip a spoonful
of vanilla &
set it on your tongue.
It is no phase,
the moon anticipates
your gratuitous howl.
Rooty-toot-toot for the moon,
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Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection’s line immediately jumped to my mind, “I flip my little omelet in the frying pan for the love of God.” I think one should meditate on that line for a month to scrape off all of purpose of practice. And be sure to read Carmen Acevedo Butcher’s resplendent new translation of Practice of the Presence.