obstacles

The Impeded Stream

Excerpts from "Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms" by Wendell Berry:

Form, crudely or stupidly used, may indeed be inimical to freedom. Well used, it may be the means of earning freedom, the price of admission or permission, the enablement to be free. But the connection may be even closer, more active and interesting, than that; it may be that form, strictly kept, enforces freedom. The form can be fulfilled only by a kind of abandonment to hope and to possibility, to unexpected gifts. The argument for freedom is not an argument against form. Form, like topsoil (which is intricately formal), empowers time to do good.

Properly used, a verse form, like a marriage, creates impasses, which the will and present understanding can solve only arbitrarily and superficially. These halts and difficulties do not ask for immediate remedy; we fail them by making emergencies of them. They ask, rather, for patience, forbearance, inspirationthe gifts and graces of time, circumstance, and faith. They are, perhaps, the true occasions of the poem; occasions for surpassing what we know or have reason to expect. They are points of growth, like the axils of leaves. Writing in a set form, rightly understood, is anything but force and predetermination. One puts down the first line of the pattern in trust that life and language are abundant enough to complete it. Rightly understood, a set form prescribes its restraint to the poet, not to the subject. 

Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different liveswithin the one life of their troth and householdperiodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to "feel together," to "be of the same mind." Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives.  

It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.


Berry, W. (1983). Standing by words: Essays. San Francisco: North Point Press. (library, Amazon.com)

A Matter of Concentration and Just the Right Pressure

Walking Through a Wall
by Louis Jenkins

Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps. I got started at a picnic up in Bowstring in the northern part of the state. A fellow walked through a brick wall right there in the park. I said, "Say, I want to try that." Stone walls are best, then brick and wood. Wooden walls with fiberglass insulation and steel doors aren't so good. They won't hurt you. If your wall walking is done properly, both you and the wall are left intact. It is just that they aren't pleasant somehow. The worst things are wire fences, maybe it's the molecular structure of the alloy or just the amount of give in a fence, I don't know, but I've torn my jacket and lost my hat in a lot of fences. The best approach to a wall is, first, two hands placed flat against the surface; it's a matter of concentration and just the right pressure. You will feel the dry, cool inner wall with your fingers, then there is a moment of total darkness before you step through on the other side.

See also: Poems by Louis Jenkins from The Writer's Almanac

Finding New Ways to Speak

"It is human nature to look at someone like me and assume I have lost some of my marbles. People talk loudly and slowly to me. Sometimes they assume I am deaf. There are people who don't want to make eye contact. It is human nature to look away from illness. We don't enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality.

That's why writing on the Internet has become a life-saver for me. My ability to think and write have not been affected. And on the Web, my real voice finds expression. I have also met many other disabled people who communicate this way. One of my Twitter friends can type only with his toes. One of the funniest blogs on the Web is written by a friend of mine named Smartass Cripple. Google him and he will make you laugh.

All of these people are saying, in one way or another, that what you see is not all you get."

~ Robert Ebert, from “Remaking My Voice,” TED Talks, April 2011

A Disappointment with a Mask

“Expectations are very dangerous things. The more of them we have, the more fixated we are on them, the more miserable we will probably be. Every expectation is a disappointment with a mask on it. Even when it happens that we get exactly what we expected, it’s never exactly what we expected because the anticipation is never the reality. And even if it feels like it, then the next minute it’s gone anyway. So this is not going to work out. It’s clear.

We need to have some drive, some desire, some feeling that it’s necessary to go forward and some energy to propel us forward, but to expect some particular result is to construct a gigantic roadblock right in the middle of where you’re trying to go.”

~ Norman Fischer, from a talk on Art Making

We Make This World

Oscar Wilde

by Company of Thieves

Episodes and parallels,

Don't you want the invitation?

Big bright accent, catty smile,

Oscar Wilde confrontation

Ah, Live like it's the style

Oh, we waltz on your front porch

We are all our own devil

We are all our own devil

And we make this world our hell

We are all our own devil

We are all our own devil

And we make this world

We make this world our hell

Porcelain teacups decorate,

Tables and the conversation,

Beauty pageants, all the time,

Is running out, the time is running out

Live like it's the style

[chorus]

Time keeps on ticking away

It's Always running away

We're always running in time

We're always running from time

[chorus]

No Expectations of Success Now

Solving the Puzzle
by Stephen Dunn, from Loosestrife

Loosestrife: poems I couldn’t make all the pieces fit,
So I threw one away.

No expectations of success now,
None of that worry.

The remaining pieces seemed
to seek their companions.
A design appeared.

I could see the connection
Between the overgrown path
And the dark castle on the hill.

Something in the middle, though,
was missing.

It would have been important once.
I wouldn’t have been able to sleep
without it.

[Spotted on Jonathan Carroll’s blog 8.13.09]

The Tragic Gap

Parker Palmer, in conversation with Bill Moyers (Feb. 20, 2009):

I think the opportunity now is for us to get real. And I think that's going to make us, in the long run, more happy. The tragic gap, and I call it tragic not because it's sad. It is. But more fundamentally because it's an inevitable part of the human condition. Tragic in the sense that the Greeks talked about it. Tragic in the sense that Shakespeare talked about it. The tragic gap is the gap between what's really going on around us, the hard conditions in which our lives are currently immersed, and what we know to be possible from our own experience.

We don't see it every day. We may not see it very often. But we know it's a possibility among real people and real space and time. Now, what happens when we don't learn to hold the tension between what is and what we know to be possible?

I think what happens is we flip out on one side or the other.

Parker Palmer Flip out into too much reality and you get what I call corrosive cynicism. And corrosive cynicism is partly what's got us where we are. Corrosive cynicism is, "Oh, I see how the world is made. It's dog eat dog. It's whoever gets the biggest piece of the pie gets the biggest piece of the pie. So I'm going to take my share and run and let the devil take the hindmost." That's corrosive cynicism.

Flip out into too much possibility and you get irrelevant idealism. Which sounds very different from corrosive cynicism but both have the same function in our lives. Both take us out of the action. Both keep us out of the fray...Because if you don't have a capacity to hold the tension in your heart between reality and possibility then you're just going to give up eventually...I don't think in this culture we teach very much or have very much formation around the holding of these great tensions, which is so critical to our lives. We want instant resolution. You give us a tension. We want it to get it over within fifteen minutes.   

[Thanks Kit!]

 

Uncertainty

From "Surprises on the Way," by John Tarrant (Shambhala Sun, May 2008):

The core of all navigation is probably uncertainty: tolerating not knowing makes it possible to find your way. Not knowing means embracing what is not known rather than fighting with yourself over it. Since the mind always strives to know, not knowing is disorienting in a useful way. Uncertainty and not knowing teach you not to believe the stories your mind feeds you day in and day out. If you allow your own course to be mysterious, then even the hard things can become easy. This is the beginning of awakening.

...the most heartbreaking thing is not heartbreak; it's avoiding heartbreak. Inside the transience of life is the thusness of everything, of the tree with forty crows on it in the winter, the sound of death-metal drums from the kids in the barn, and the feeling of sadness when you lose someone. A lot of suffering is resistance to the life of feeling. If you surrender, you are surrendering to what is really going on. This is just to notice that nothing beyond your life is more important than your life.

Obstacles can be the gate. If your diagnosis is cancer or you lose people you love, there is no alternative but surrender. You can't rewind to yesterday when you were innocent. Meditation at such a moment might not take you back to the surface; it might take you down and through. Getting more emotional might be indicated; falling apart might happen. The practice is what tows you through. It doesn't take the rough crossing away from you but it give you a degree of safety in the passage.

Once when I lost a friend, I realized that I was weeping since my hands were wet. I was giving a talk at the time, being wise and all that, and it was a revelation--I couldn't trust myself not to weep in public. I also couldn't trust myself to sleep at night, either. At a time like that we have to surrender. We are facing something vast and, really, we have always known that we would have to face it. It is an enormous, shaggy beast blocking the way. And there is something exhilarating about the inevitable when at last it arrives; awakening is not a choice or a matter of technique anymore, it's the only place left. The huge animal rolls over us, and suddenly we find that we are riding on its back. It has become a vehicle. The obstacles really have become gates.

Worrisome Heart

"Music is one of the only things that helps to rebuild neuropathways in your brain...Because of the damage to my spine, I have a nervous  system disorder called an autonomic nervous system Melody Gardotdysfunction...I'm sensitive to light and sound so I wear glasses and have hearing devices. Those help to bring my level of sensitivity down so that I'm able to do what I do. And it's sort of a Catch-22, because, to be honest with you, being on stage and performing is the 30, 40, 50 minutes of most pleasurable experience that I have, because it's during that time that I don't really feel any pain. I think it's transcendental and I also think its kind of like when you have a headache and someone punches you in the stomach, you forget all about your head. So with performing, I'm so focused and so intent that I forget about those things. So it's wonderful for me. I really look forward to it. But on the flip side, it's quite difficult...I don't know that I necessarily hear music differently so much as I appreciate a different style of music. I think I'm more open than I was before, as far as sonic capability is concerned, and also as far as my pace and general way of life. "

-- Melody Gardot who was seriously injured after being knocked off her bike by an SUV. The guitar lessons which her doctor recommended as therapy, lead to her career as a jazz musician. Listen to her conversation with Scott Simon and to tracks from her new album, Worrisome Heart (Weekend Edition Saturday, 3.8.08).

Five Open Mouths

"Lisa Bufano is an award-winning artist who recently performed her first major dance work to a packed house in New York. She is also a double amputee. Bufano's legs and fingers were amputated when she was 21 after a staph bacteria infection raged through her body, shutting off blood flow to her limbs."

"A few months ago, she received a grant to stage a modern dance work in New York City. The piece, choreographed by Heidi Latsky, is called Five Open Mouths. The title alludes to the five wounds where Bufano's fingers used to be; the dance tells the story of Bufano coming to terms with her body as it is."

"The dance ends with a symbolic removal of the bandages that cover Bufano's fingers."

- From Artist Takes Inspiration from Amputation by Andrea Shea (All Things Considered, NPR, 03/19/07). The article contains links to video clips of her work.