Monthly Archives: December 2016

Mindfulness in 2016: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I settled into last year:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

I wonder how I did. Let’s look, shall we? Two years ago I bought an application for my stupid smart phone called The Insight Timer. It’s a meditation bell app that also keeps track of your meditation statistics, your mindfulness “stats,” if you will. Hey, I took some screen shots. Look:

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Wow, that’s a big screen shot. What’s most useful about this lovely little graph (besides the notification that the phone is only 36% charged) is that it demonstrates quite nicely a gigantic mindfulness upswing over the last two years. 2016 simply dwarfs the previous two years in mindfulness. And, during the year, my best run was 87 days in a row of mindfulness meditation. 87 days in a row! It looks like, currently, I’ve done poorly, but that’s just because I took a break three days ago, and the counter starts fresh each time that happens. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it goes. Let’s look at another gigantic screen shot:

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Almost 59 hours of meditation in single year with an average meditation time of 16 minutes. You might be curious (or you might not be curious) about my longest session. 2 hours seems like a long time to sit with oneself, doesn’t it? Well, the answer to this question brings me to the second part of the resolution I made for 2016, and that was to seek out a community. Call it kismet or serendipity or synchronicity or whatever you like, almost immediately after writing that resolution a friend of mine, Scott Duvall, posted an invitation for like-minded individuals to start a group meditation practice. I have been doing this all year every other Sunday. I missed a few here and there, but typically, if I’m there, the group spends about an hour and a half to two hours together, not meditating the entire time, mind you, but several times over the duration of the session interspersed with some guided work and teaching from our ringleader Scott, all meditative. So there you have it. I have fulfilled my 2016 New Year’s resolution.

But I have not achieved total mindfulness; I do not yet feel enlightened. That wasn’t the resolution in the first place, but ultimately one has to ask oneself what it all means, what the effect has been, what has been the benefit of this focused attention on meditating 16 minutes almost every day over the course of a year. One thing I think we can safely say is that the phrase “mindfulness statistics” is a nonsensical oxymoron. I could have spent every single one of those 58 hours and 52 minutes thinking about sex, or thinking about things I want, or revisiting the past, or fantasizing about the future, or planning an evil plot to take over the world. To set your mind at ease, I was NOT thinking about all of those things, only some of them. It’s just really hard not to think of some of those things while I’m meditating. So let me just list, if I may, the benefits I believe I achieved through my dogged but imperfect efforts to make good on last year’s resolution, mainly, to develop a regular discipline of meditation practice:

  • Moving into my work as a high school English teacher, I have felt more relaxed through the course of each frenetic day.
  • I have come to really look forward to sitting on my cushion each morning; it is a comfortable, restful, peaceful oasis before all the noise of the day; it feels replenishing, nourishing.
  • I have learned, though, too, that the meditation cushion is not the only place to meditate.
  • I have been able to pay close attention to my mind, in essence, to know myself better.
  • I have become conscious of issues in my life and have been able to do some work around them–not to solve them, but to be more aware of them, to understand them, essentially to answer the question: what is the cause or causes of my suffering?
  • I have become, I think, more even-keeled in my response to difficulties in work and in relationship. I have not killed a single one of my high school freshmen.
  • I have been helped through the general grieving process of living through 2016 and have even discovered some strength and some hope to help me forward.
  • I have been reminded of the powerful paradox that good inner work requires both solitude and community.

There may be some things I’ve forgotten. For now, this covers it pretty well. These are the gifts of the work of the last year toward a mindful, meditation practice. I know that it’s been moving me slowly toward something greater, the specifics of which I do not yet understand and cannot visualize. So, it must be that my 2017 resolution is mostly a continuation of the one I wrote in 2016, because primarily, unlike most resolutions, it was successful, and, so they say, success breeds success. What I would ad, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically. The inner transformation resonates outward and comes back again. It’s a feedback loop of meditative goodness, baby. So happy new year.

 

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Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XIII, Letter H

This job of writing about my music cd collection by artist in alphabetical order wouldn’t be nearly so difficult if I would just stop acquiring new music! What has occupied my listening habits over the last several months has been mostly vinyl of the David Bowie variety, but there’s also been the new Suzanne Vega, the new Duncan Sheik, Andy Shauf, the Minus 5 album in part a tribute to The Monkees, The Monkees, The Cars, the new John K. Samson, the new Bon Iver, and a local band that has become a new favorite, Coco Columbia. The listening plate has been full indeed, and the time required to listen to older music has been utterly supplanted, which is, after all, one of the inspirations for this listening/writing project in the first place. What’s the point of having a collection if you are not going to enjoy it? Otherwise, you might as well just listen for a few months and then immediately return the thing to some used record store for a trade. That has never been my modus operandi. Hence, the task I set for myself: listen to at least one cd all the way through from each artist represented in my compact disc collection.

It turned out this last week that a solo drive to visit my brother at the Oregon coast for a few days gave me about 5 hours in the car. Letter H, here I come!

 

Haircut One Hundred, “Pelican West.” Remember how cute these guys were? And how infectiously groovy was the “Love Plus One” hit and the opening track, “Favorite Shirt”? I remember this was one new wave group (and I use that term very loosely here) that my parents could dig. They liked the horns and the jazzy inflections–maybe it brought to their minds Burt Bacharach and Herb Albert and Ray Conniff. But I remember that my Dad would sometimes actually request this record. “Play that haircut band,” I imagine him saying. Early in the two and a half hour drive to the coast, this is a good tonic, unmistakably happy music, music to drive by. I’m drumming on the steering wheel that persistent but stupidly straight forward disco funk.

Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, “Mirrors of Embarrassment.” The best $5.99 on a used compact disc I ever spent–in fact, it’s this kind of used CD purchase that makes one feel guilty about buying used CDs. I don’t even know how to describe this music. Is it jazz, fusion, jazz fusion, country, prog rock, experimental pop, blues? Yes, it’s all of these things, played by a band of musicians with incomparable skill and  fronted by a dude who sings like your avante garde grandpa and who plays something like a ukulele from hell (he calls it a chazoid). This is the kind of record you want to spin for a musician in order to watch the uncontrollable head movements that accent all the odd meters and pushes. That’s what I was doing while I was driving 2/3 of my way to the Oregon Coast. My god, these guys were/are great. There were two simultaneous movements in the 90’s–one was grunge and the other was the jam band. These guys were the very best of the latter.

George Harrison, “Cloud Nine.” I’m embarrassed to say that this is my only George Harrison record. But listening to this baby in the car I was immediately brought back to 1987 and this album was among some of my first CD acquisitions and it holds up really well. Better than that. I was kicking myself that I hadn’t listened to it again sooner. There’s really nothing skippable on this entire record and George’s vocal performances are wonderful and his guitar work is wonderful and you can feel Jeff Lynne’s influence all over it and I swear that’s Ringo drumming. I just checked the liner notes. It is! It’s the best Beatle Not A Beatle album of the 80’s!  Don’t quote me on that. Paul had a couple of cool things, I’m sure, but this is really a great record.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, “Once: Music from the Motion Picture.” This must have been a great movie–because I bought this record. But I don’t remember the film, and this is a terrible album. It just bores me every which way to Sunday, although, there are moments, Marketa’s moments, mostly, that are beautiful or touching. It was kind of painful to get all the way through. This was my first record on the way home from the beach. Not a memorable beginning for the ride.

P.J. Harvey, “Rid of Me.” Holy shit. P.J. Harvey is indisputably a revolutionary, boundary pushing, kick-ass artist. The intensity just bleeds from this record. I knew it was great when I first listened to it and listening to it again now, it’s greatness still shines. But here’s the weird thing: I don’t like it very much. It’s one of those odd moments when you know a record is great but your tastebuds are still not sufficiently tickled. It’s a record to respect, but not a record to love and listen to over and over again. It’s almost study-worthy; it’s that good. But it’s an ugly record, too. And maybe I just didn’t want to look too closely. So glad I have it, though.

Don Henry, “Wild in the Backyard.” 1991. I have no idea why I bought this album, how I got turned on to this guy. It must have been an association thing–like maybe he wrote a song that somebody I love performed, or maybe I read something about him–I really don’t remember. It’s a genre, especially in the 90’s, that I was not engaged with or interested in; he’s essentially a singer songwriter in a country vein. Maybe I heard a tune somewhere. Damn, I wish I could remember. At any rate, I know immediately why I liked him, maybe even loved him. These songs are really funny, but also emotionally moving–and expertly performed and recorded. I could do without some of that massive snare drum production, but, snare-drum notwithstanding, these are great, funny, moving songs. Try listening to “Harley” and not laughing and crying at the same time. Betcha can’t do it. Try not laughing and at the same time feeling super righteous indignation at “Into a Mall.” Try not weeping through “Beautiful Fool.”  I dare you. What a lovely rediscovery.

The H’s are not finished. And damn it, wouldn’t you know it, I realize that I incorrectly alphabetized some things, so Jerry Harrison, the keyboardist and guitarist of Talking Heads fame, should be here but he’s not. Next time. But there are only a few H artists left. What I have to consider is whether or not my own band, Here Comes Everybody, should be a part of this project. I mean, what could be more autobiographical, especially since we’ve just arrived at our 30th anniversary as a music making  machine. I’ll have to stew on that one. It weighs on me a bit. As soon as the calendar flips to 2017, our 30th year will have come and gone. Stay tuned. Please let me know what you think.

 

 

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#237: Off Air (a Haiku Followed by Two Lengthy Postscripts)

I will go one day
without Facebook, internet
news. See what happens.

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Postscript: I wrote this poem several days ago, thinking I would post it that evening and begin the next morning as a single day without Facebook and internet news. That did not happen. I’ve been sitting on this one and I find that especially worrisome. Can I do it? I am beginning to have doubts. I made up all kinds of explanations: it would be good, because it’s nice to see the holiday posts of my friends, to wait until after Christmas. Maybe it would be even better to wait until January the first, you know, as part of a New Year’s Resolution. And then the pull of the train wreck that is Trump’s transition into the presidency keeps tugging. I’m still grieving. I keep going back to the news with a delusional wish that today’s controversy will be the one that will finally bar him from becoming our new commander in chief. And if today is the day I abstain and this glorious news breaks into the webnets, I will have missed it. But the fact of the matter is that I’m a little bored with so much free time this holiday break, and the things I really should be doing, making music, reading and writing, are too hard, take too much energy and self-discipline. How crazy, sad, and scary is that? –not to have the gumption to do the things I really want to be doing? So, there are the bargains that I make with myself about the “best” time to begin, and then there’s the reality. Q: Why don’t you stop doing that thing you’d like to stop doing? A: Because I don’t want to. I’d like to but I don’t want to.

Postscript to the postscript: Just as I was reflecting on how difficult it is to stay away from social media, I took a break from the postscript above to check Facebook. Here I found almost immediately why I am grateful for social media and simultaneously why it’s crucial that I take a break from it. I learned that a writer friend of mine, Carlen Arnett, had suddenly passed. She lived clear across the country and if I was lucky I saw her once a year at the annual Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference. I saw her last two summers ago. It’s not that without Facebook I would not have learned of her passing, but the experience would have been different, less visceral, less visual, less social–our community of writer friends immediately began an outpouring of grief with pictures and poems and memories. So I am grateful to have learned of it here and to have witnessed with our mutual friends this immediate memorial for such a kind, loving, generous soul. And yes, I need a break from social media, if for no other reason right now, than to spend the next day without distraction to pay tribute to my dear friend, reflecting on the gift of knowing her, trying to be present and loving for my own family and friends–as she would have been, playing some music, reading something brilliant, trying to write something good. For Carlen.

Tomorrow will be a day without social media and internet news. It’s a tiny, baby step, only one day off the air. Somehow, though, I do not predict it will be easy. I may post a blog entry tomorrow with reports of my success (or failure).

 

 

 

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#236: Media Fast, Anyone?

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I cannot help it.
I can’t look away.
It’s a train wreck,
a complete cluster,
and every morning
begins with the same
question:

What’s the outrage of the day?

And now that I’m on
a holiday break I’ve got
something like free time
to keep checking in on
the downfall of my
civilization.

I think I need to stop.

While it might make me
more informed, this incessant
checking of the news, it does
nothing for my present
happiness. I remember a
time, about 16 years ago,
before Facebook was a thing,
when I took a break from watching
the news. I perused the paper
at work so as not to live
completely under a rock,
but I spared myself from
the pictures and the talking
heads and the bullshit
advertisements, and I think,
for awhile, it made me feel
better, smarter even, and
certainly, less anxious.

It might be possible to skip
the stuff that makes me anxious
and only do those social things
that are pleasurable or that
create connection with loved ones,
but even these things, as
necessary as they sometimes feel,
can drive me a little drunk
with dependence.

The power and the influence
of the internet has changed
everything. It’s a bombardment
of the senses and its making
me, I fear, senseless.

So I am entertaining the idea
of a fast with little confidence
that I will be successful at its
implementation. I am thinking.

I am thinking.

And with me, that’s how it always
begins: a desire or a thought,
some words spoken or written,
a visualization in repetition,
and then finally an effort
to make something happen.
What mysterious gifts might
take the place of the ubiquitous web?
How long could I stay away?
What will I miss?  And will it matter?

 

 

 

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#235: Snowpocalypse 2016


Four days, two last week and two more this week,
have been added to our holiday break, the result
of some kind of snow event, the first, hardly anything
to write home about, the second, enough for snow people
and dangerous driving conditions. A few of my colleagues
took hours to get home yesterday afternoon and I hear
some young people were stranded at their schools.
No one’s unhappy, necessarily, about the loss of teaching
and learning time from the school year, but there is always
a price to pay: a day to make up this summer, some significant
pain in the ass about units unfinished or assignments
suspended in mid-air and students desperate to recover
some semblance of success by the semester’s end, finding
themselves suddenly strapped for opportunities. And
because we can’t drive, we’re stuck with walking for now
if we need groceries or want to see someone who lives close.

But no one’s complaining.

I’m happy to see snow again. Over the last couple of years
I wondered if I would ever see it in our neck of the woods,
you know, with the warming and all, last year the warmest
on record and looking like a trend. So certain I was of this,
I failed to winterize my little camping trailer, so I’ve got
the heat blasting out there so the pipes don’t freeze.
This morning, I took a selfie in the snow, took a picture
of the house, made some big snowballs with my son,
got into a social media fight with a guy I don’t know,
and this evening, I walked out to the mailbox, folded some laundry,
read a little about our country’s impending doom, and watched
interviews on the Daily Show with Barack Obama and
Ta-Nehisi Coates. I drank wine, and I listened to some stupid
but really good 70’s rock and roll. This has been day
two of my Snowpocalypse. And I say: so far, so good.

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#234: On Rereading a Clean Copy of Beloved

My classroom copy is copiously
marked in three or four
colors of highlighter and
underlined and bracketed
and annotated with pen and pencil
seven different ways to Sunday.
I’ve read and reread
and reread this novel perhaps
eight or nine times now,
but this time I choose
a clean, elegant copy over
my raggedy-ass classroom
copy and it’s like reading
it for the first time again.
I’m a sucker for fine editions
and could not resist this one.
I can smell the ink.
I can feel the lettering
engraved into the spine
like braille, or like the text
carved into a tombstone.
And my reading this time
is not cluttered by my previous
readings, marked up by
some earlier version of me
who thought he had answers.
I complain sometimes
about the time I lack to
read new work because
I am always rereading to
teach. And yet, with this gem,
I might be happy if it were
the only book I could ever
read until I died.
Every time I read it
I find new things to love
and new reasons to mourn or hope,
and I understand more deeply
how tragic our history,
how tenacious our ghosts,
how all the repair work
in our country that needs doing
(now more than ever before)
springs from this, from this.

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