Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Sunday Contemplation

We have just finished our second month of contemplative Wednesday night services at church and in the middle of anxiety, fear, and anger, quiet, incense, and prayer may seem like an escape, or avoidance. I've found these past several weeks, though, that contemplation is necessary to keep a plumb line, to reorient my compass, to look, in the words of the prayer, to changlessness in the midst of chances and changes. To turn away others in need, because we have surrendered to fear, or to get lost in anger, even when in the sake of what is righteous, is still to be lost.

Thomas Merton:

“Contemplation is also the response to a call: a call from Him Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo.”



I have been watching slow things the long afternoon,
The thickening pad of snow out on the windowsill
That grows so slowly we can never see it grow
Although we say we can.  All that we know is that
It has grown and most probably will grow so long
As the snow falls.  And that is quite enough to know.
Then it will go and that will be a slow thing too
Whether it goes in sun or rain, whether a wind
Is or is not blowing. It always has been so.
And what is slower than this short, gray afternoon?
Slower than the way the sun, almost snowed in,
Begins by being low and ends by being low
And never sets or so it seems?  Such a slow sun.
Nor is there much to show for my long afternoon
Except perhaps that I've been growing I suppose.
Only the unremarkable growth that must be, though,
Which isn't much, Heaven knows, for anyone to show.

~ Robert Francis

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Inauguration, Protest, and the Beatitudes

In the Children's Sunday School class, we're learning about the Sermon on the Mount.  Last week we went over the Beatitudes and made a list of them all, with examples of people that exemplified each verse.
There were lots of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the list, Gandhi made it a couple of times, and one Black Lives Matter (these girls are woke!). Being an example of the things Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is an impossible, radical, and saintly goal, which is probably why the kids in class could only think of a few people they have ever heard of to attain such a thing.

For reference, here's an abbreviated version of the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the:

  • Poor in spirit.  
  • Those who mourn.                                                   
  • The meek
  • Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • The merciful
  • The pure in heart
  • The peacemakers
  • Those who are persecuted for righteousness sake
  • People who are hated and hated for Jesus' account
Then, today, we came upon Matthew 5:44: "But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  I asked everyone to think of enemies, and they couldn't, because when you're in 2nd, or 5th or 7th grade, even if someone is a bully, or teases you, or is a mean girl, or annoys you, it doesn't meet the level of enemy.  Enemy is a big word, with a capital "E".  It's for movies and fairy tales, Darth Vader and Maleficent, the villains that die in the duels, that good always overcomes.  So I asked them to think bigger, which wasn't hard to do, since everyone in Sunday School today, including myself took part in the Women's March in Lexington yesterday.

"Donald Trump!" they all said.
"Is he an enemy?"  I asked.  They all loudly agreed he was.  
"Then who here loves him and will pray for him?"

I don't think Trump is an enemy.  I saw a recent interview with Joe Biden who said that when he was first in the Senate he was told, you can question someone's judgment, but never their motivation.  That mindset helped him get through three decades in the Senate collegially and productively.  So that's been my mantra this past week - question their judgment, not their motivation.  Judgment we can forgive; motivation we will never fully know.

I don't know Donald Trump's motivation.  I do question his judgment, daily.  Ok, hourly, but I can forgive those, right? Ok, maybe eventually.  It's not like I'm Gandhi or something.  Point is he's not Darth Vader.  I think.

The Women's March yesterday was a mix of all sorts of people: women, men, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, rich, poor, college students, blue collar workers, babies, elementary school girls, LBGTQ, straight, Christian, Muslim, non-religious, all together.  The March was not held in anger, but more a communal voicing of shared values, and reassurance that we are not alone in the values.  Those are the values of the Beatitudes: the poor, the meek, the merciful, those that are persecuted for righteouseness and those who hunger for it.

To me, all the 10,000 people at the Women's March in Lexington yesterday, and the millions of more who marched around the world, on all the continents of the world (including on a ship in the Antarctic) were celebrating the things that, to a Christian, means the coming of the Kingdom, that we yearn for things to be on Earth as they are in Heaven.  And that if bringing that dream to fruition means we have to love and pray for Donald J. Trump, we can do it.  (Even if Eleanor doesn't seem willing...).

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What's So Funny About Peace, Lovingkindness and Understanding?

Or How Metta Made Me Like Chris Thile...

Sometime in the past couple of years, I stumbled on a lovingkindness guided meditation by Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who teaches mindfulness practice.  The practice was similar to the mindfulness or breathing meditation I was used to, except that he asked that we imagine someone that for us exudes unconditional love, to visualize that person, and to visualize embracing that person.  Unconditional love is impossible for us to reason with our brains, but if we've felt it, we know it.  It is warm and happy and forgiving and understanding.  Unconditional love is unchangeable, so that no matter what you do, it will never be less and it will never go away.  It is the love of God, and most of us have experienced it through the love of a parent (hopefully), or a grandparent, or family.

The guided meditation continued, though, to not just experience that unconditional love, but to imagine what the person is feeling toward you, to physically feel the love they have for you, and then imagine it radiating out of them into you.  Finally, after meditating on that love for a bit, you were to imagine it was radiating out of you into the whole world.

This one exercise fundamentally changed me, in just one session.  I had been practicing mindfulness meditation for a couple of years as a means to ease anxiety and increase awareness and calm, but this was different.  It was proactive, it was radiant, it was compassionate.  So, I started reading up.

Lovingkindness is a translation of the word Metta in the Pali language of the ancient Buddhist writings, and is a Buddhist meditation practice that cultivates love - for yourself and for others, people you like, and even your enemies.  It is the foundation for the Brahma Vihara, or heavenly dwelling mediations along with compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.  Basically, in lovingkindness when you meditate, you focus on certain phrases, like:

May I live in safety
May I have mental happiness
May I have physical happiness
May I live with ease

When your mind wanders, or you lose focus, you return to these phrases, with a concentration, not thoughts.  Lovingkindness is a religious practice, but in many Buddhist traditions it is easily useable within Western religions, especially Christianity, where we seek to love our neighbors as ourselves. Metta, however, understands that before you can love your neighbor, you HAVE to necessarily love yourself.

Combining Metta practice with basic Buddhist and Christian teachings of non-judgment, compassion, forgiveness, and love for others, led me to a new way of thinking about how I dealt with others.  I would try not to act in a way that would do others harm.  I would try to think about how my actions affected other people, to try to do the thing that they needed at that moment over what I may want to do.  I would try to be kind and understanding.  And I would try to remember that whatever emotion I experienced caused by the actions of another would quickly pass, that before I acted in a negative way, I should think what a right and good and appropriate reaction would be.  Granted, I'm not perfect, so depending on the day, hour, how tired or hungry I am, my success can change.  But when I am in a decent mind, I think - may this person live in safety, may this person have mental happiness, may this person have physical happiness, may this person live with ease.  Sometimes, I repeat those phrases right after I have just called that person an idiot, but not to his or her face, and then like I said, I'm not perfect.

One side note - Buddhist practices in many traditions are very compatible with Christian belief.  In fact, they supplement it - they are methods to get to the point where we live as Christ.  I've heard some Buddhists say that the Buddha had 80 years on Earth and Christ only had around 30, so that while the basic teachings on how to live and act are much the same between the traditions, Christ was taken away before he had time to teach us how to get there, but the Buddha taught for 50 more years.  You CAN be a Christian and practice Buddhist meditation - read Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh for details.

So even people I have held grudges against, for whatever reason, I am compelled under the teachings of both Christ and the Buddha to let go of judgment, to seek a way to love them as my neighbor, to show them lovingkindness.  That brings me to Chris Thile.

The first time I saw Chris Thile perform, it was before he was leading Nickel Creek, at Merlefest in 1998, I think.  Sara and Shawn Watkins were with him, but I don't think they were going by the Nickel Creek name yet.  At the time, I was a hardcore bluegrass and country traditionalist.  Ralph Stanley was still in decent health, Del McCoury had the best band in the world, and I got to see Guy Clark, one of my absolute all-time music heroes, on a small stage with 150 or so others, so close I could smell his cigarette smoke from the stage.  Guy Clark can always make me feel something real, raw, yell out, or cry.  His songs are about packing up with his wife and taking the freeway out of Los Angeles, or about crying over his dead father's Randall knife, or how feeling yourself free after a bad relationship was a like a coat in the cold, or how a man could go to his grave knowing that the only happiness he found was in the arms of a Dallas prostitute.  Oh, and also home-gown tomatoes.  Hey life ain't all bad.  Sometimes you forget all about the sweatin' and diggin'.  But for the most part, his songs were gritty, heart-wrenching, real, poetic, beautiful stuff.

In the midst of my Guy Clark worship, and Ralph, and Earl Scruggs playing live for the first time in decades, and Gillian Welch on the small stage, and some really amazing stuff, here comes Chris Thile, with his teenage arrogance and show-offy mandolin runs, and preppy haircut, and white guy guitar expressions on his wankerish solos.  At one point during their set, he told the audience to "imagine you are a lighthouse" and then he sang this overly-emotive, new agey song about how he was a light house and I left.  That was it for me and Chris Thile.  Sorry bud, not my thing - you live in your world and I'll live in mine.  Difference being mine has good music.

So, cut to last night - January 14, 2017 and on my way to Tractor Supply to get dog food, who should come on WUKY, but Chris Thile, new host of the Prairie Home Companion.  If this were 5 years ago, no question, I would have turned the dial and not thought anything of it.  I actually would have felt good about myself for having standards.  But a self-congratulatory attitude about negative judgments do not really mesh with metta, you know?

So, in a completely open, non-judgmental, open way, I thought, may Chris Thile live in safety, may Chris Thile have mental happiness, may Chris Thile have physical happiness, may Chris Thile live in ease.  And it kind of worked. I eased into listening, letting judgment slide on by each time it popped up, and when talking about Chicago, from where Prairie Home was being broadcast yesterday, he mentioned Wilco, and one of his favorite albums, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  And then he sang part of a David Bowie song, and part of Led Zeppelin song, and the intro to a Rage song, and a song he wrote comparing the bad pitching changes of the Cubs manager to our country picking Trump as president. I remembered then that when I saw Chris Thile play in 1998, almost 20 years ago, he was probably 15 year old and I think I was probably more obnoxious than him at that age, especially since I didn't have his talent.  We'd both grown older, more mature, our tastes had changed, we'd lived life, and by the end of the episode, not only had I shown Chris Thile some lovingkindness and compassion, I think we're friends now.

That's how the metta practice works - start with yourself, then reach out to others.  Start by loving the neighbors close to you, and then eventually you can work your way to even your enemies.  Or even Donald Trump.  Someday, maybe.  If I have to.  Like they say - He ain't done with me yet.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Three Short Book Reviews

Here's my update for the end of the Christmas/New Year break reading:

Night Garden, by Carrie Mullins is a book about one of those teenage girls we wonder how she went wrong - from a good family, she ends up partying, then living with, and eventually pregnant by, a rough guy from the next county over.

We all know those folks from the next county over, at least in Kentucky.  When I lived in Corbin, it was the folks from Laurel County.  Now since I live in Bourbon County, it's those folks in Nicholas County.  We always have the county neighbors that are a little more redneck, a little more poor, a little more someone we don't want our daughters with, because they'll probably just end up living together and pregnant.  In Night Garden, it's Bobo, a 30 year old guy from the county over from a bad family that likes to party, just came back from working in Indiana, is trying to start a canoe rental business, and, oh by the way, is a meth cook.  Marie, the teenage protagonist from a good family who just lost her brother, is smitten and gives up her comfortable life for shack living and partying with Bobo.

Here's the great thing about this book: somewhere in the middle of this first novel, Carrie Mullins learned how to write, I mean, really, really write.  I usually give a book 50 pages and if I can't read it, I put it down.  I kept reading this one longer because, well, it's a Kentucky writer, and Dawn got this copy for me for Christmas, partly because I'm a big Kentucky Lit collector and fan, and partly that Carrie Mullins was a year ahead of Dawn at Rockcastle Co. High School and I felt sort of obligated to finish it.  I was scanning through the first half of this book faster than a Graduate T.A. grading Freshman Lit essays when I realized my reading had slowed, I was starting to get invested in the characters and the plot, and there were some passages and sentences that were fantastic.  The two halves of Night Garden are different books: the first half more like drafts you would share at a public library writers group, the second, a well crafted thriller with full characters and real emotions stuck in a suspenseful plot.

Second half of the book, you get this:  "There are things on the shoulder of a highway you can't see from a car.  Not just gravel and glass.  Black rubber pieces from shredded tires.  Squashed french fries.  Half-empty bottles of orange juice.  She knew she couldn't make it far but she wasn't getting back in the car with Nikki.  She heard a car pull up behind her on the shoulder, but she wouldn't look back at it.  The driver honked.  Marie kept walking."

That passage is a brilliant metaphor for the life Marie has chosen, one she would have never noticed, which since she became involved with this family of drug dealers has become her existence.  It's poetic, gritty, realistic, beautiful writing.

I hope Carrie Mullins writes another novel, because if she starts off the way she left this one, it will be great.

Common, One Day It'll All Make Sense.

I am a big Common fan, his music, his social conscience.  This memoir was written a few years ago before Selma and his Oscar, so it's a bit incomplete now, but reading it made me put Like Water for Chocolate on for about a week.  There's always a danger that when your heroes write about themselves it will come across as arrogant.  That happens a bit in this one.  But his passages on working with the Soulquarians and his music with J. Dilla and Dilla's sickness and death were worth the read for me.

Noam Chomsky, How the World Works

I wanted an introduction to Chomsky, since I'm becoming so radicalized by this past election and all.(I walked out of Jo Beth carrying a Noam Chomsky book and the Autobiography of Malcom X.  I was sure the thought police would be waiting for me outside.  Give it a couple of months.)

This is not a book of his writing, but excerpts of interviews with him so as to distill some of his ideas without having to parse through, what the editor of this book says, sometimes difficult books to read.  Basically, his worldview is that Corporations (with a capital C), have taken over the world, with the acquiescence of the American people, so that everything, including the U.S. Government seeks only to serve corporate interests, meaning profits.  Everything else in the world comes down to that basic framework, wars, poverty, free trade, education, health care, energy policy, which, I believe, is exactly the truth.  Discussion of  Chomsky's ideas would take a long time and a lot of writing, which I may do, since I got another of his books for Christmas, one that includes his writing.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016 Book List

If I had been blogging in 2016, I would have provided some reviews or something, but since I wasn't here's the full list of books I read with just some notes.  (Note on critique - I have a tendency to use the word "Alright" in the same manner that the English language uses "snow" when the Inuits have about 20 words for our one.  When I say something is "alright" it could be good, bad, or indifferent, and depends upon my facial features and tone of voice, which I realize is impossible to portray in writing, but I think is sort of funny, so I'll keep doing it)

  • John Bobo - Best Story Wins
    • One of those "lawyer" books for new prosecutors I've had forever.  It was alright.  Best thing I got out of it was a list of "Signs you are acting like a victim because of a large docket" that I have pinned above my computer at work.
  • Bill Bryson - The Road to Little Dribbling.
    • Follow up to Notes from a Small Island, Bryson returns to England and travels a straight line from the southern-most to northern-most points on the island.  Problem is, he doesn't really follow the line, but more as an estimated guide.  Also, Bryson is much more persnickety and grumpy than he used to be.  He's much more likely to complain about the cost of things and traffic than he was 20 years before or however long Notes was written.  Still turned me into an Anglophile for a couple of months.
  • Kenneth C. Davis - Don't Know Much About History; Don't Know Much About Geography
    • I knew some.  Now I know a little more.  Always good to bother your wife before bed with Cliff Clavin-type statements like - "Did you know, that..."
  • Annie Dillard - For the Time Being
    • Took forever to read, strange, beautiful, and amazing.  There is more complexity and strangeness in this book than in about any other I've read.  Philosophically and theologically deep, informative, interesting, and amazing.  Did I write amazing twice?  Probably fits.
  • Woody Guthrie - Bound for Glory
    • No idea why I picked this up, but I'm glad I did.  Might have been for a dose of true populism in the face of the blatant misuse of populist themes to promote fear in the Trump campaign.  Guthrie's prose is amazing in places, poetic, but I don't know how "true" the facts might be.  
  • Neil Gaiman - Sandman Vol 1. Preludes and Nocturnes; Sandman Vol 2. Dream Country; Sandman Vol 3. Doll's House; Sandman Vol 4. Season of Mists; Death, The High Cost of Living
    • I had read the Sandman graphic novels several years ago and still had some of the copies.  Since the publisher has updated versions now out, I went on Amazon and bought used copies of the old versions.  Ran out of steam after Vol 4., and picked up the "spin-off" Death at a Half-Priced Books in Lexington.  Sandman is amazing.  I'm not really an expert on graphic novels, but Doll's House is a great story for any genre.  I know Sandman is a classic series, so that is me trying to get caught up on the graphic novel genre more than anything else.
  • Graham Greene - The Power and The Glory
    • A classic.  I have had this copy for maybe 20 years and never read it.  I was stupid not to.  Incredible.  Powerful.  Pretty Good.
  • Stephen King - Firestarter, Dead Zone, Cujo, Christine
    • My Stephen King project to read all of his novels in sequence of release continued.  Reading Dead Zone in the middle of the Trump campaign was eerie.
  • John Lewis - March, Vol 1-3
    • These were amazing graphic novels about Rep. Lewis' involvement in the civil rights marches and protests in Tennessee and Alabama.  Sit-ins, freedom rides, being beaten by the state police in Selma.  I had several God moments during the reading of these, an early Christmas gift from Dawn, who was so excited about them that she gave them to me 2 weeks early.
  • David McCullough - Mornings on Horseback
    • An older biography of Teddy Roosevelt.  Came away incredibly impressed and wanting to know more about Theodore Sr., and let down a bit by Theodore Jr.'s arrogance.  But then he was young and liked to shoot things.
  • Alan Moore - The Watchmen
    • Ehh.  It was alright.  Which was disappointing.  
  • Nathaniel Philbeck - Valiant Ambition
    • "Accessible" history of Benedict Arnold.  It was alright. 
  • Questlove - Something to Food About
    • Questlove is cool.  If I ever got to hang out with him, I would in a heart beat.  If we ate in any of the restaurants of the chefs he interviews in this book, though, he would definitely have to pick up the tab.  
  • Tim Russert - Big Russ and Me
    • Another book I've had for a long time but never finished.  Russert is such a likable person and so was his dad.  It was a good story about growing up blue collar and the values Big Russ taught him.
  • Richard Russo - Straight Man
    • Wanted a well-written novel and went to Russo.  Even in a more comedic novel, Russo is an amazing writer.  Story is a college professor who is basically falling apart and dealing with his elderly bad parents.
  • Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run.
    • Bruce is one of my musical heroes.  He is an amazing person and bares all of his faults, mistakes, anger, loves, and even ego in this autobiography.  I liked him even more after I read the book and I listened to all the Springsteen catalog on Spotify for weeks after.   
  • J.D. Vance - Hillbilly Elegy
    • Ok.  This book was popular, and I could have written 5,000 words on what I think about this book at one time if I had the blog then, but I've calmed down since.  Here's my review - Vance has a whole cast of his family that he describes as "hillbillies" in a love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin kind of way.  As a native of Southeastern Kentucky, I did not see anyone in Vance's family of "hillbillies" that I would recognize from my own family. We wouldn't use the word "hillbilly" to describe ourselves, either.  Maybe Vance deserves some leeway though, seeing as how he's from Ohio, and not really a Kentuckian at all.  We can't help where we're born, bless his heart.
  • Neil White - In the Sanctuary of Outcasts
    • While waiting in line at an author signing with Dawn and the girls for Robert Beatty, author of Serafina and the Black Cloak, I looked down at a table and saw one copy of this book, read the back cover and kept it with me, even though I hadn't planned on buying anything that day.  Memoir about when White was sent to a federal penitentiary for a huge check kiting scheme and was placed in a facility in Louisiana that had traditionally been a leprosarium, and still housed several leprosy patients.  White overcame his ego and fears and became friendly with the leprosy patients.  Great book about the need for human contact and love.
  • David Younge - Another Day in the Death of America
    • Younge, a British journalist, picks one average, normal day in America, and describes the deaths of the 10 teenagers and children killed by guns on that day.  Incredibly insightful, Younge delves into not just gun culture, but racism and inner city cultures in an incredibly sad book.  If you can read this without crying and getting really angry, your name must be Wayne LaPierre.

A Word About the Blog Title...

So, blogging can be a very egocentric exercise - with a tinge of arrogance in a belief that something the blogger could publish would enlighten the world.  That feeling has kept me away from this for awhile, but I'm still feeling the need to publish one, mainly with the thought that regular publishing would force me to actually finish something with punctuation and proper grammar. 

With the bare truth that not many will ever read my blog, but still fighting off the feeling that I am participating in an exercise of some self-centeredness, I finally came up with a name.

...That's All I Got...  means two things.  First, I probably won't blog that much, and when I rarely do have a thought worth writing about, that will be the end of it - I won't be holding back any big ideas that would benefit the world.  There's nothing else there in my brain.

Second, it's the admission that what I do end up typing on this free space on the web provided by Google is that it's probably not worth much - you want enlightenment, you might want to check somewhere else. 

So, the title is both a comment on the quality AND quantity of my thoughts and writing.  Not much there, and, when there is, there's not much to it, but that's all I got.  Like that joke from Annie Hall - the food is really terrible, and the portions are so small...

Welcome to my small portion...