Thursday, April 30, 2009

Easter Snow, Burren Gentians

Conflating three tributes today, Michael Longley's "A Single Gentian" poem with Christy Moore's "Easter Snow" lyrics for departed piper Séamus Ennis. I triangulated from my own father's funeral this morning via Ben Howard's post on Longley's verse. Voice, tune, mass, death, longing all merge.

Professor Howard's "The Practice of Zen" entries demonstrate the author's patient tutelage in that discipline. (I've added "TPOZ" as a blog link at the right-hand side of mine.) A spare white blog balances my verbose cluttered one. Longley shares such compression. Four lines capture a universe in Co. Clare's lunar landscape of the Burren.
While I was looking for Easter snow on the hills
You showed me, like a concentration of violets
Or a fragment from some future unimagined sky
A single spring gentian shivering at our feet.

I recalled, while reading Longley, D.H. Lawrence's poem "Bavarian Gentians." Written near his death in 1932, it anticipates a Plutonian "marriage of the living dark," a twilit-blue, intensely purple realm of shadows to where Persephone returns after her allotted six months in the sun. I quote Tina Ferris from the website linked to the poem; "we are all virgins to Death." Persephone knows she will be resurrected come spring; those with whom I mourn my dad today believe this too.
Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the daytime, torch-like, with the smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue
down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.

Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the frosted September
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,
among the splendor of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on
the lost bride and her groom.

Howard explains how Longley's titular gentian with its burst of purple flowers at its heart also brings death. "At its center is a pure white throat. According to Irish folklore, to pick a spring gentian is to precipitate an early death. To bring one indoors will cause your house to be struck by lightning."

For me, the Easter symbolism-- which Longley picked up when he wrote the poem on Easter Sunday 1998 to mark the Good Friday Agreement, and which Howard extends-- also stretches beyond that Republican cause, and those recent deaths which have tipped the North back, if for a fatal instant over a flailing duration, into murder. The lily-- pinned or stuck-- became the ultimate representation of sacrificial martyrdom of poets and patriots, intellectuals and workers, in Dublin's streets nearly a hundred years ago. Farther back, rooted within "Easter Snow," I am not sure if Longley or Howard know of another use of this Paschal phrase, although with their combined erudition I am sure they must!

My family comes from the borders of East Mayo and North-West Roscommon. Not far from where my mother's father's people long farmed, approaching the latter county's frontier with Leitrim and Sligo, in the ancient territory of the McDonnells' Moylurg near Lough Key, a townland rests at the edge of the Plains of Boyle, an hour's walk from the market town of the same name. The crossroads on the rail between Boyle and Carrick-on-Shannon is called by the evocative title "Estersnow," or "Easter Snow."

I wondered, when I first read of this beautiful adjective and noun, what led to such a graceful honor for such a humble locale. It's a corruption, if a pretty one, from the Irish "Díseart Nuadhain," or the "desert" as in hideaway or retreat, it being Ireland after all, of Nuadh (as in "of the Silver Arm," I fantasized). The tune in turn was rendered back into Gaeilge as "An Sneachta Casca" or "Sneachia Casga" into a straight if skewed "Snow of Easter" by George Petrie. (The same folklorist who bested his rival in an 1835 competition that inspired an earlier Irish debate over Buddhism as or as not a Celtic construct, but that's another story that I am working on retelling this spring to present next fall, a project that led me earlier this month to Prof. Howard in his later look at Eastern-influenced elements in Irish poetry, as we spiral, wheels within wheels.)

A musical notation resource assures me that Nuadh here's but St. Nuadha, not the king of the Tuatha de Danaan whose limb was severed at the first battle of Mag Tuired, not that far either from Moylurg if you're a mighty warrior; Cruachain Ai is very close to Estersnow, I note. St. Patrick tramped by that townland, skirting the domain of St. Fidelma the Ruddy and her sister Attracta. These two virgin princesses were baptized and died on the spot shrived if not swived-- on the doughty holy man's way to geld such deflowering pagans of the North as St. Nuadh's namesake, anyhow.

No spell or "geis" I can summon that connects silver-handed Nuadh to master piper Séamus Ennis, let alone how to work in familial Roscommon, but here's that tribute by Moore to his old friend-- one of the greatest Irish musicians ever-- after his death in 1973.
Oh the Easter snow
It has faded away
It was so rare and beautiful
And it melted back into the clay

Those days will be remembered
Beyond out in the Naul
Listening to the master's notes
As gently they did fall
Oh the music
When Seamus he did play
But the thaw came on the mantle white
And turned it back into the clay

He gazed at the embers in reflection
Called up lost verses again
Smiled in roguish recollection
While his fingers gripped the glass to stem the pain
When knocked upon his door would open
With a welcome he'd bid the time of day
Though you came when the last flakes had melted
While it lay upon the ground you stayed away

Photo: "Burren Perfumery: Spring Gentian."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bill Barich's "A Pint of Plain": Book Review

"Drink is a good man's weakness." Proverbial wisdom Barich passes along during his personal and historical tour of Irish pubs. "Fairytale Ireland" may be marketed under the "Irish Pub Concept" pre-fab faux-antique corporate chains, as traditional pubs decline and decay under stricter drunk-driving laws. These in turn necessitated by the commuters ripping along (Barich estimates a fifteen-fold increase) rural roads as tract homes tear up fields for the Celtic Tiger's rapacious tail. And, such new residents don't frequent the "local," preferring their Carlsberg or Coors in cans from the logoed franchises that replace the family-run stores in the market towns overwhelmed by the blow-ins from the cities and all over the world.

So the cycle continues, and Long Island-born, California-residing Barich, now moved himself to Dublin, tells the tale of a slow death to civility, custom, and charm. About half his book takes place in Dublin, and he tells each chapter set there with grace and pace. He knows how to veer from his main story into anecdotes and byways before returning to his narrative, and this relation of his saga reflects well how a tale's told by a teller in a pub. He classifies the remaining pubs into trophy bars, pitched for tourists more than the neighbors and often based on their venerable status; pleasant but less distinguished corner houses; and corporate chains, which in Ireland appear to erase their "tradition" for a streamlined gentrification, even as abroad you find such enterprises as a hundred "Harrington & Sons" fake pubs saturating the Italian consumer.

Such globalization leads to Irish rejection of Guinness as an old man's heavy stout. Younger Irish follow their Anglo-American cousins in choosing more wine, and lighter German or American beers to quaff, often at home rather than in the company of those who at many pubs tend to be older, more insular, and stodgier. Younger Irish appear too to be suburban rather than urban in their tastes; immigrants replace the stereotypical publican, and such changes are more than cosmetic. They, for Barich, represent the decline of what Perry Share calls the "third place" of camaraderie outside home or work that the pub has long represented, the true public house.

The erosion of such ties for many Irish shows their fragmentation along Western lines as they retreat from the communal, village, farm-based culture into a sprawl of strip malls, semi-detached estates, and endless commutes far from the small towns where the suburbs now stretch to and supplant. Like farmers, publicans find few of the next generation willing to take on the intensive labor demanded to make a living.

"It's been said that a publican must be a democrat, an autocrat, an acrobat, and a doormat," Barich observes (21). He's good at summing up, in the second half, his encounters, or lack of such, in rural Ireland. Outside Sligo town, Barich finds one pub in the middle of a dark nowhere, a remnant of when the pub was also a house, and run by the family for the surrounding peasants. Three fellows hunch over the bar, "each in solitary contemplation of his jar. Their mood was desultory, as if a night at the pub was a dreary job they meant to quit as soon as they could." (163)

In Clonaslee in the Slieve Bloom mountains, bored teens in hoodies under a drizzle hunch too, too young to drink legally. Smoking, they slouch outside the supermarket. "Whenever an older boy wheeled by in a car and blew his horn, they roused themselves for a salute, pumping their fists and leaning hopefully toward the driver as they might toward a cherished vision of the future." (213) In this village, Barich also seems to stumble upon his Platonic vision of the type of pub such as Dublin's Brazen Head could never live up to. M. D. Hickey's stands, with four people inside the room the size of a walk-in closet. The true nature of the old pub, half-house, half-shebeen, here welcomes him with that elusive, however energetically marketed by the Tourist Board, hospitality that finds fewer givers and takers in these hectic, yuppified Irish times.

There were, perhaps it being hectic, a few slips in proofreading. "1852" for "1952" should mark one capital city pub's leasing. A "Vicentian" priest makes an off-stage appearance, while three times, "Malm Cross" gets a mention instead of "Maam" (or alternately "Maum") for the anglicization of the Irish toponym "Mám." Given Barich's ill-starred exploration of Cong of "The Quiet Man" fame or blame, it's puzzling how this error of that nearby place name would be tripled.

Otherwise, his scholarship's apparent if worn lightly; there's a list of his sources appended, but the very readable, brisk text moves free of footnotes. Barich does not end on any hokey epiphany that all will be well at the one last pub at the end of a rainbowed road. The historic identity that the pub stands for, the civility and communal bonds it fosters, now find themselves razed by generic retailers owned far away. Values corrode as "the local-- as in the particular, the unique-- was under siege, batted about the head by the insistently global." (235)

One example that causes controversy stands for the whole capitulation of Ireland to modernization. "The two-lane blacktops pressed into service as highways are a problem, but should Tara be threatened to correct it, simply to please the commuters?" (200) The destruction of the national heritage, the exfoliation of the island's greenbelt, the savaging of the landscape by lack of planning: these too despoil the image of Ireland the postcards and guidebooks persist in peddling, not to mention the ubiquitious Guinness-- now owned by an Italian distributor (along with Alpo pet food, Burger King, Pillsbury dough, and the pseudo-ethnic concoction, Haagen-Dazs).

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Loud Enough to Wake the Dead?

Not the Joycean kind of wake exactly, although there's an analogy. Finnegan's feasting that would accompany the Hibernians, ribald games played with the body that may have given new associations to the term "stiff," what passed for an orgy in an Irish village when couples took advantage of the all-night festivities to indulge in revelry, and the general atmosphere of boozy reminiscence and wistful observance stereotyped what tomorrow will cast its faint shadow, a "vigil" memorial service.

However, I don't want that "open casket" encounter at the mortuary (inevitably named "O'Connor," and that the body was first shipped by mistake to be embalmed at rival "McCormick's" down the street only adds to the traditional associations) to be my last sight of my dad. (Strange trains of thought, but for a break from morbidity I started Bill Barich's travelogue through Irish pub life and its decline, "A Pint of Plain," and found out what solved my surprise when I saw it still extant in Kilfinnane, Co. Limerick. The custom of publicans doubling as undertakers came from an old allowance that shipped corpses to wine cellars to rest their in cool temperatures until the funerals could commence. Surely this somehow added to the revelry that ensued. Not that, Dad being a teetolling son of a repentant lush, there'll be "streams of whiskey flowing" at his postmortem festivities.) I'm not that squeamish about blood, hospitals, bodies in the abstract, when seen in my usual detached mode. But, it's different with one's own. Perhaps an ancient taboo, one that despite my ingrained Irish Catholicism failed to overcome my aversion. Or, perhaps a deeper taboo surfaces when one is another's son at that final moment.

With my mom, I did not advance forward, so my wife tells me (I blocked it all out), over twelve years ago, at that same mortuary to see her watched casket. On my entry the next day to the funeral mass, I was jolted, then, by the sight in the vestibule. I did not expect it, and it jarred my equilibrium. When after years of hospital stints, intensive care vigils, and calls in the night alerting you to ambulances and 911 calls, you get worn down. A loved one's death arrives with less sudden a knock. This time, I want to remember my parent differently. Dad as I last saw him, alive, waving to me as I blew him a soft and subtle kiss as I turned to leave and to shut the door so he could nap again.

For a man past 92, you'd think the same expectation for me would occur. But, it's never expected, is it? So, I face whether or not to go to the vigil tomorrow night. It's a hundred-mile round trip in rush-hour traffic, I have no desire to go, and I've been feeling a wreck even before I got the news last week. My wife and sons share my distaste for such a display; my head cold, here for a week, continues to disorient me further and space me out. On the other hand, my ingrained I.C. guilt reaches out from the grave to confront me. Must I worry more about what the few others will think, if anything at all? (Hardly anyone's left of what was never a large family or a close gathering of vague associates, and those who are will not recognize me; my sister and I have for decades had nothing that bonds us beyond the now nearly concluded necessity to worry about our elderly parents.)

As my friend Chris commented on my blog the other day, there's a freedom now. The past year's diminishment of verbal communication to a pad and paper follows a long decline in conversation with my dad (as with my mom) on anything deep or disturbing. You avoid such issues after long practice and harsh lessons from those whose relationships are built on fragile foundations not of common interests but familial duty. After nearly a half-century of dealing with a man very different from me, and vice versa, the time has come at last for its cessation. How his spirit will regard my attendance or lack of such at his vigil-- I have no idea, logically or practically, how this aligns with my sister's spoken attestations that he's with my mom in heaven now, and his spirit's at peace with the angels, and that according to her desire three doves should fly upward freed at his burial two days hence.

As I was mulling this all over, I was driving to pick up the boys for carpool from their schools. Despite my sniffles and muddleheadedness, obligations persist. I'd been reflecting on the Buddha's insistence that his monks meditate next to a corpse. I compared that with the Cohen priests of Jewish descent who were enjoined not to enter a cemetery. I favorably contrasted the Hebrew graveyard with its pine boxes and its instant, twenty-four hours or less, time from last breath to first pebble on top of the stone. (Perhaps I exaggerate the marker's prompt installment! Patrick Pearse's father's profession, I recall. What would Joyce have made of that?)

The classical music station, on to soothe my nerves, had an announcer come in as I toyed with my thoughts. She spoke of sad news. The first trombonist of the L.A. Philharmonic died suddenly last night. He was the same age I will be in two months.

A few minutes later, I stopped the car at Leo's school before he got out. I picked up my new library book, "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist?" The book jacket informed me that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse was born the same year as me, too. This Bhutanese monk drew his self-portrait, a playful yet serious sketch, rather than the usual snapshot. This reminded me of the linear space framing the emptiness within the solid body that we claim to inhabit and that seems from us trapped within it and those peering from without so lasting, so endurable, so immortal.

The monk began energetically, with the "four seals" (not to be confused with the Four Noble Truths): "all compounded phenomena are impermanent, all emotions are pain, all things have no inherent existence, and enlightenment is beyond concepts." (7) So far, so good. I continued with chapter two that elaborated point one. Siddhartha in his princely palace kept finding evidence that maturity brings not stability but decay. The walls could not shield him, nor his wealth protect him.

Khyentse reminds us: "Death has become a consumer product. Most of us do not contemplate the nature of death on a deep level. We don't acknowledge that our bodies and environment are made up of unstable elements that can fall apart with even the slightest provocation." (9) All this and I had barely begun the text. He went on to warn how we will never reach that plateau where we've got it all made. We yearn always for more "baby rattles" to distract us and to drown out this truth.

Starting the book in the few minutes I had, I heard the man in the pickup next to me going on in loud Spanish on his cellphone. Behind the window, but he made himself loud enough, as they say, to wake the dead. He had parked at a bad angle, nearly cutting off my own exit. I could not help but have his spiel interrupt my study. As his voice yammered on, I wondered how seekers can maintain their meditative spirit, their sense of detachment, within the city and the crowd. James Coleman's study that I reviewed here a few days ago finds that the "new Buddhists" follow the old in that most are from the elite: brainy, well-off if restive types. Professionals and bohos both, who cannot fit in to the societal or spiritual norm despite their outward success. They also benefit from their education, status, and income, it seems often in the West, to withdraw and do what their neighbors might call naval-gazing.

For many years, below the sometimes snow-capped mountain that towers at the right angle over the range under which I grew up and today parked my car to wait for Leo, one musical exponent and student of the dharma has taken retreats for years at a time. Leonard Cohen, speaking of those not halachically allowed to come near corpses (or marry divorceés), left his Mount Baldy Zen Center to go on tour after winning a $9 million settlement. I wondered where his money would go. Debts to producers and studios? Donations to hospices? His interior decoration or his inner fulfillment?

On Facebook recently, I read of a "Friend" jazzed about paying big bucks to see him in concert. She's a lawyer. Another "Friend" lamented not being able to afford the same concert (not to mention The Boss, advocate for The Working Stiff). I commiserated by commenting on the hundreds of dollars she saved. This brings me around to Chris' second remark. I wonder how we should send condolences now?

Will weddings be announced on MySpace? Is even Evite too antiquated? Will we bother engraving this and embossing that to tell our real friends (or those who familial duty summons to swell the guest list) of births and bat/bar mitzvahs, a bris or baptism, a getting hitched or a letting go? I felt awkward even blogging about my dad's death last Friday, but I figured I share the rest of my life here, so why not?

Yet, I did not feel compelled to post this on my FB Wall, nor tell anyone there. A columnist with whom I shared a dais (a folding table in fact) a year ago at a book reviewers IWOSC panel published a piece in last week's L.A. Times. She's nearly ten years younger than me from the "internal evidence" in her Op-Ed essay. But, she told of learning of the death of school classmates from Facebook, and I wondered if this agora, this public forum, will be in our future the way we promote of our comings (Twitter already annoys me) and, left in the hands of others, our goings.

Newspapers, as the mortuary employee doing my dad's paperwork with my sister and I informed us, charge $300 for an obituary now. We opted for the free internet link provided, with maps and opportunities for others to upload their own comments and pictures and tributes, by the mortuary. Not that many old folks will do so, but in time, we do and we will. So, one day who knows when, that's how I suppose we all will learn of each other's downloading from FB, Blogger, and whatever social networking supersedes or survives our own wake.

Illustration: 1873 Scene at an Irish Wake. Caption: Hand colored engraving from "Harper's Weekly," titled "An Irish Wake." Mourners are gathered in a small room with the coffin, crying and talking amongst themselves.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Teachtaireacht dheireadh mo phaidir

Fuair mé an sean-cárta poist seo ó an áit phaidir agam. Fuair sé bás Dé Aoine seo caite níos gáire. Chuaigh mé chuige a sheomra folamh an lá dhiadh sin.

Chruinnigh mo dheirfíur agus mé culaith éadaigh airsean féin. Beidh sé an chulaith is fearr aige air. Adhlacaimfaidh muid sé leis Dé Déardaoin seo chugainn in aice leis a bhean.

Chuir sé dom an íomhá os cionn. Bhí mé ach seacht mbliana d'aois ansin. Léigh mé an postmharc: an ceathrú agus scór lá de mhí Mheán Fómhair 1968.

Níl focail go leor ag scróifa leis mo paidir air. Scríobh sé nóta faoi a theacht do mo mhathair agus mé leis abairta simplí taobh thiar den cárta sin. Phóstáil sé de An Stat Nua-Eabhrac go gCalifoirnea Theas.

Chaith sé ag obair go gearr ansiud. Scrudaigh sé saotharlann innealra. Bhreithnaigh uirlisí inneallachaí nuair bhí sé níos sean ag obair mar ní raibh sé ábalta a cloisim go cuibhiúil níos mo. Chaill sé céim chloisteáil ag obair i monarchaí nuair bhí sé níos óg.

Nuair sé is scothaosta, ar ndóigh, ní chuala rudaí ar chor ar bith. Ar scor ar bith, ní raibh uair sula anuraidh. Dúirt muid ar feadh an chuid is mó den am.

Ina dhaidh sin, scríobh mé agus dearfadh sé le déanaí. Go minic, dúirt sé ró-hard. Ghlac go hard orainn. D'fhoglaim sé ag rá níos ciuin. Anois, tá sé fear tostach. Go dtuga Dia suaimhneas síoraí dá anam.

My father's last message.

I found this old postcard from my father's place. Death took him this past Friday quite suddenly. I went into his empty room the day after.

My sister and I gathered a suit of clothes of his. It will be his best suit of clothes. We will bury him in it this next Thursday beside his wife.

There aren't many words written by my father on it. He wrote a note of his arrival with simple sentences to my mother and me on the back of the card. He posted it from the State of New York to Southern California.

He sent me this image above. I was but seven years old then. I read the postmark: one score and the fourth day (24th) of September 1968.

He had to work over there briefly. He scrutinized machine shops. He inspected machine parts when he was older working because he was not able to hear properly any more. He lost a degree of hearing working in factories when he was younger.

When he was very elderly, naturally, he did not hear things at all any more. However, this time was not before last year. We talked during most of the past time earlier.

Afterwards, I wrote and he would talk recently. Often he spoke too loud. He called out loudly to us. He learned to talk quieter. Now, he is a silent man. God rest his soul in peace.

Cárta poist/ Postcard: "Fáilte go/Greetings from Sidney, New York." Ceannscríbhinn/ Caption: "Fianna ina Coillte ar doimhne/ Deer in the Deep Woods"

Sunday, April 26, 2009

James Coleman's "The New Buddhism": Book Review

How do those who have not grown up within Buddhism adopt that ancient tradition? Must one convert? How do Westerners define themselves as Buddhists, and must they limit themselves in a philosophy that encourages the letting go of self-definition and fixed categories? What about meditating on your own, or simply reading about it?

Can you still be Jewish or Muslim or Christian while being Buddhist? Why are the overwhelming majority of those taking up Buddhist practice highly educated, usually affluent, and from professional, artistic, or bohemian backgrounds? Finally, what about the high correlation between boomers, psychedelic drug use in their past, and present levels of affiliation with Buddhism?

These questions were raised by California sociologist (and 15-year Zen student) James William Coleman. Curious about how Buddhism's Western transformation continues and contrasts with its Asian varieties, Coleman in 2001 published this readable and brisk report. It begins with an overview of the background in Asia and the West. Then, it expands into how the "new Buddhism" integrates-- and separates from-- traditional, ethnically Asian styles of the faith. He then shares the results of his survey of 359 members of seven different American Buddhist groups.

Luckily, the chi-squared numbers and the theoretical foundations for his academic approach are relegated to the documentation appended to what's a surprisingly straightforward study that any reader will find accessible. The book for all its readability did have a few minor flaws. "Abbot" twice misspelled, along with "John Cabot-Zinn" and "no-holds-bared." On pg. 19, Martin Baumann's study is mis-quoted: 180,000 should replace the 150,000 figure cited by Coleman. I'm not sure if other such errors remain elsewhere in the text, but researchers may take note.

Overall, Coleman integrates enough scholarship to tantalize the curious to investigate. For me, the paragraph on the advent of human self-consciousness by Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann will make me seek out more; the paragraph on gender patterns for "new Buddhists" surveyed intrigued me with this statement: "The men were more skeptical about basic Buddhist doctrines and were more likely to have experimented with illicit drugs, while the women were more likely to be attracted to Buddhism by personal relationships and the need to deal with individual problems." (154)

40% of those who move into Buddhism do so after reading about it. There's far less of a need to do so for social interaction or overcoming one's despair after trauma or a sudden life change than happens in more mainstream religions in America. The need for immersion for those most eager to take on spiritual discipline does discriminate; income and the lack of children who need care apparently means that few women raising children, let alone single moms, can indulge in three-year-long retreats, for example.

How Westerners resist the Asian-based homage given gurus or leaders, how those unwilling to become celibate monks or nuns will turn the monastic elite of an Asian tradition with less direct commitment by the laity into a version of Western Buddhism that builds on gender equality, intellectual exploration, and growing financial capital that will tempt its keepers away from austerity: these among dozens of related issues may prove valuable ideas to ponder in these pages.

Can a religion that denies the existence of gods as other religions worship them, that exists in the rich Tibetan and ascetic Zen and psychotherapeutic Vipassana versions be easily reduced to just another denomination for a few liberals, overwhelmingly white, over half with advanced degrees, most very well-off? Can other Americans get used to seeing a counterpart "religion" in a practice that appeals to a few discontented folks who begin to find an answer to "nagging spiritual dissatisfaction," one often not raised until their thirties? How about a syncretic, open-ended, and blended Buddhist practice evolving in the West that does not try to pressure others into joining it?

Coleman traces "circles of involvement" that tend to gradually draw adherents who start out reading about it, then edge from solitary meditation (often but not always) into a group, where support grows and commitment coheres. Yet, many may be more "intellectual" Buddhists; until sixty years ago with the rise of Zen with the Beats and Tibetan teachings after the Chinese invasions forced gurus into the diaspora, most who learned about Buddhists had no idea how to put precepts into practice. Now, as with Vipassana from Theravadin Burmese-Thai forebears, the overlap from the 60s counterculture moves psychotherapy into the healing blend for many here. These three main strands separate in the West as the East, but Coleman finds a more ecumenical exchange of practices and styles emerging here among "new Buddhists" comfortable with mixing and matching. Whereas immigrant Asians keep their communities solid along ethnic and more denominational lines as in other religious traditions, the "new Buddhists" may presage a blended Buddhism for the 21st Century West.

Finally, Coleman finds that beyond token multicultural diversity, Buddhism, if it was truly accepted by the West, would challenge societal notions about reality. "The mere fact that a respected, religious group would reject the existence of an independent self is bound to force some people to think long and hard about the way they look at their lives." (226) I wonder if, in the decade since Coleman did his survey, the younger generation sustains the energy set up by the hippies who set up many of the formative Buddhist centers. No New Age trend, the demand for a mystic re-orientation that undermines our capitalist, consumerist, and hedonistic lifestyle does challenge those who take Buddhism more seriously than a passing fad of a pop star or celebrity actor.

Buddhism by breaking down the idea of fame, worship, goods, or worth does appear to some rather life-denying, bleak, and existential. Coleman, however, in his last paragraph encourages us to channel Buddhist's dharma into earth's renewal rather than solitary self-destruction. Social transformation, he hopes, may accompany Buddhism brought to the world stage in the West. Unlikely as it seems now, "few would deny that there is a kind of restless instability in our personal lives and in the way we structure postmodern society, and it is not hard to imagine that some very fundamental changes await us in the years ahead." (230)

P.S. The Dalai Lama spoke the other day about our subsequent economic downturn, at the end of the decade when Coleman wrote those words. The Tibetan leader told us that the bright side of the gloomy forecast might be in its reminder that we must not look to watching our money "grow, grow, grow" as the source of our fulfillment. Family, friends, the search for meaning: Coleman and the new Buddhists would agree that these are the true sources of our happiness and our understanding of who we are not-- not separate, autonomous consumers and ravagers, but who we often have forgotten who we are-- a connected community on a fragile planet under terrifying powers of greed and chaos and force and inequality that we've create but can no longer control.

(Posted today to Amazon US.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

My father's death this morning

Layne wrote eighteen months ago about her father's death. Now it's my turn. At 92 1/4, the man who I called dad died. He was found in the morning around 5:30 by the attendants at his nursing home, to where he'd moved the past couple months after a series of slips led him too long to be stranded on his own, dangerously, alone. I wonder if a fall did him in this time, but his emergency button pendant was not pushed, so the end may have been sudden, or I hope in the way we hope, peaceful during his last night on earth.

I had been up at 3:30 a.m., and I had to set to work on the computer for work before driving to work to do more work when work would open, as I ended one eight-week incessant session teaching today. After giving a final, doing grades, and calculating the entries to hand in, I had to immediately start planning for next week. A new session, with a class that had been re-assigned with little warning to me after my regular gig had been pre-emptively cancelled. This setback necessitates a series of complicated electronic platform shuffles far above my access level set by my employer under the Panopticon process I've been lamenting lately. I had to get in motion, literally, right away so I could tell the 25 students already enrolled via the on-line system of the changes in teacher, syllabus, and approach. Such alterations in the future will diminish to nearly none, but for now-- despite the hassle-- I relish the ability to at least keep some autonomy in how I'm able to pick and choose at least what I want to assign out of the assigned literature anthology we must use.

Such restrictions make me naturally bristle. I had a performance review preview last evening and I tend to tense up and snap out when put under authority. It's always been a stumbling block for me: while seemingly mild-mannered, there's an introverted side combined with a perfectionist make-up and an dissenting spirit that I must have inherited from some Fenian malcontent, some hedge master. While I take eerie sadness and strange delight in the fact unearthed (only two years ago) that my biological great-grandfather was a Land League agitator found "drowned in mysterious circumstances" in the Thames while in London in 1899 on a mission from Roscommon, my more mundane notions of a humdrum upbringing by ordinary folks leave me often wondering what makes me tick: is my nature as well as my nurture that of frightened begrudgers, emotional withholders, people too scared to say they love and yearn? That brings me back to now-departed dad.

I had written two days ago about the fact I have no idea who my biological father is or was, only knowing that he was apparently no architect as I'd been led to guess in the scanty suggestions given me when grown up-- at 22!-- by my parents, who had adopted me as a "special needs baby" but who waited until my sister's marriage to give me much of the little data the County Adoption Agency had provided them. Luckily, my (adoptive) mom had peeked in the pile of papers when they were left momentarily unguarded, and was able, twenty-one-odd years later, to recall the name left accidentally inside the papers, not on their front page. I was able to confirm this first and last name when, about twenty-two years later still, I matched these to the Public Records Office birth records I had hunted through in my detective work in Dublin, where I figured out then the combination that led me about twenty months ago to find my birth mother.

Anyway, now I wonder. Not at my true paternity. I may never know it. I don't think those of us who are adopted probably care as much to find out about our fathers as our mothers, most of the time. Unless we're rumored to be the heirs of Ayn Rand's capitalist architects! That leaves me now backwards glancing. At people who never looked like me, at an also adopted sister who does not resemble me, at a mirror that until recently never gave me a look at any relatives except my sons. This can be, as my wife often cautioned me, a blessing in disguise, given her own parents and sister.

Am I, at my advanced age today, finally an orphan? This afternoon, coming home from work, I found out that my dad died. My wife told me as I got out of the car. I recalled how I heard from my dad over twelve years ago the death of his beloved wife of fifty-five years. He called me when I'd gotten back from the hospital. I took the call in the upstairs bathroom, two days after Christmas. "That's the end of the story." His typically terse, blunt exchange with me on the phone announcing his wife's death after much pain.

I remember how my wife waited for me almost six years earlier outside the gate of our little cottage to tell me she was pregnant-- the first time. The second revelation was doubtless less romantic. Probably an admission mumbled after she came home from the doctor or drugstore, amidst the cries of The Firstborn.

The man and woman who chose to raise me, both in their mid-forties in an era when people had kids in their twenties, were often mistaken for my grandparents. They never could have kids on their own, so they adopted, although why they waited so long I never could fathom. Nobody I knew had parents that advanced unless they were the youngest of eight-- a once-familiar event pre-Pill in Catholic circles. My folks gave me my woefully too-common first and last name, combined with the ungainly, uncommon middle one I avoid although I respect for the legacy it represents for me. Ironically, I'm last of a maternal line to carry a family name that ties me by no genetics. The uncommon name-- thank God for those Irish clans that still tend to cluster around ancestral townlands for we nosy genealogical Yanks-- I had at birth exists only in my mind and perhaps on the inner pages of those sealed adoption records. Thanks to that uncommon surname, the lack of white-out and a clerk's oversight, I was able to unlock after long investigation a secret that perhaps I was not supposed to reveal. But, as in my past often I hesitated to tell people what I really wanted, how I really felt, what I really believed, in my middle age I have tried, with middling and hesitant and sporadic success, to be a bit bolder.

I grew up being told no. I grew up being told my place. My parents were raised in such a way by such a Church and such parents and such institutions. Their plain saint's first and stereotypical Irish surnames repeated generation after generation. They lacked the stories of any Fenian forebears-- or any architects. They worked in factories and on railroads, drank or swore off the bottle, always grumbled, and always went to Mass. That was their life. There wasn't more asked of it or of each other. Nobody had curiosity. My dad's dad played with him-- only once. He threw him a ball.

They did their best for me. They never had to have me. The skinny pale guy with thick glasses who the other ones marveled at and gawked at, the kid from Mars who read about the Diet of Worms and tributaries of the Danube in the back seat of a hot car in the Valley at five years old. I could have been retarded, blind, and/or doomed to a short and painful life. I was a risk. They adopted me and while like any other ungrateful brat I bitch and moan, I realize that those who volunteer to have children may gain a greater merit than the 90% of us who spawn and breed without much initial choice or awareness in the matter of paternity and maternity.

So, I face tonight a bit differently than I woke up very early today. Sometime before dawn, my dad left this life. I last saw him almost a month ago, by myself. This was rare lately, as usually Niall or Leo went with me to visit. He and I had a longish talk, if around ninety minutes writing down words for an old man to read and then to hear him half-shout back to you is a conversation in the normal sense. He was in good spirits, no harsh words were exchanged, and when our small talk had run its course, and he needed a rest, he asked indirectly to go back to his nap.

I had entered the room with the nurses' help. He could not hear me knock, of course, so I needed them to open the door. I had to wait while he was roused gently, boyishly, from his noontime, post-lunch nap. We talked as best we could for awhile. When I left, I returned a moment later. I had forgotten, when last with Niall, my old raincoat in his room. It occurred to me suddenly to look for it. I asked him, but he told me he had thought it was left in his room accidentally by an attendant. He had given it to a workman to take to lost and found. (It was not there, but that's not really the point of the story!)

I thanked him, smiled, kissed him again on the cheek as I always have, and waved bye a second time. As with my mom, in the hospital whom I had also gone back a second time to kiss the day she died-- I was the last family member to see her alive a few hours before-- I had a second chance to reopen a door and go back to repeat my gesture of departure. I'm glad I took the opportunity.

Image: He was never much for snapshots, so I have this illustration of the Palmer Method of handwriting once inculcated in schools here. "American Penman, March 1932." He was fifteen then, not much older than Niall now and not much younger than Leo.

P.S. By message inscribed or punched into medium, we tap or scrape our fragile message to whomever comes along to survive us. He was old enough to remember meeting geezers who'd fought in the Civil War. The circle of living memory, they say, endures about that long-- a hundred and fifty years of history, no more. It reached to me. No matter how far we stretch our lives, the outer edges that pull us back into time do snap at about that same limit, this side of a century's weary and amazing ambit.

He wrote me a few postcards and letters when I was young, and sent the same to my boys, especially Niall, about their shared love of baseball. He had lovely penmanship, a lost art of the now-nearly vanished generation that grew up in the 1920s and 30s. Now we Tweet and peck.

"Chasing Hares": Buddha's Three Easter Bunnies?

Mad March Hares, chocolate bunnies, Astarte, lunacy, menstruation, fertility, Buddhism's three refuges, the Trinity, and the Virgin Mary. Along the Silk Road, through the Golden Horde, the same ancient symbol. Three circling and intertwined hares spread east to China and west through Germany to Devon. Coincidence? Chance? Kismet?

While the Chinese and the Christians who incorporated the motif into their places of worship both appear to have forgotten the original meaning, they displayed the three rabbits chasing each other upon roof bosses, treasure chests, wall paintings, and even Mongol coins. Sure, threes-- my lucky number-- is a given for many cultures. But, the specificity of the three hares does establish a singular pattern that did not originate independently. Its distinction marks its common birthplace, in Persia.

James Crowden wonderfully and eloquently follows the diverging, and then unifying path taken by three scholars. They pursued this image over thousands of miles. Listen to the November 16th 2004 BBC Radio 4 Programme "Chasing Hares." Crowden alludes to the connection: hares were by many ancients supposed to reproduce asexually, their fertility was tied of course to spring but also to the lunar cycle, and the half-lost ties to Astarte-Esther-Eostre-Easter, feminine wiles, and sexual potency jumbled together. Into "spring fever"!

The trio themselves of archeologist Dr. Tom Greeves, art historian Sue Andrew, and photographer Chris Chapman explored around 2004 the Three Hares icon's dispersion and origin. They have inspired an array of websites with pictorial links to the iconography and the provenance of this symbol. I don't think the hares made it to Ireland, but this triple intertwining, reminiscent of Celtic swirling interlace but somehow folklorically international and maddeningly common in many storytelling traditions, may have influenced the triskele of the Isle of Man and they have been traced to the North of England in formerly Celtic realms during the Middle Ages.

Many conventional scholars belittle the idea that Christian and Buddhist, Western and Eastern, Nestorian and Catholic, perhaps Celtic and Himalayan could have had much verifiable contact. (I admit caution here despite my romantic wish for fulfillment; I found out on my own, tangentially, that as late as 1291, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery survived in Persia, for example.)

What about the Italian friars contemporary with Marco Polo who travelled to Samarkand and Swat? The forgotten sailors who must have skippered from Cairo to Cornwall? The traders who lugged cauldrons and crafted torcs across the sands and steppes. If my Celtic ancestors may have exchanged goods with those prehistorically from Scythia or Danube, Galicia or Tunisia, why could such trade not glimmer later?

I'm now mapping out historical predecessors in pseudo-scholarship by antiquarians of Buddhist-Celtic ties. Professors scoff at this documented need by some of those on the fringe. Outliers persist in melding together what academicians sever. This energy produced, recently, determined constructions of hybrid spiritualities. While the Silk Road may be replaced by the Information Highway, the yearning to cross over from one culture, one faith, to another, still beckons a few bold pilgrims today.

The solution to the mysterious origin-- as far as we can surmise-- of the three hares suggests that our ancestors shared intriguing lore from faraway lands. No less than hipsters with Chinese tattooes, Lhasa residents better or worse working at Holiday Inn, or sushi bars the world over-- and pre-fab Guinness-tapped chain pubs. This venerable trail of interlocked beasties attests for us in a globalized age of a slow diffusion from a caravan-burdened, clipper-ferried, or tinker-peddled less hectic, more marvelling, past.

Here are two representative links: Chris Chapman's photos for the "Three Hares Project." Metapage to Crowden's talk, Chapman's pictures, Chinese parallels, and similar puzzles: "Three Hares Homepage." St. Andrew's Church, South Tawton, Devon image; photo by Chapman.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Edifice, Complex. Stupor Mundi.

Today I got a polite e-mail from Scotland; my 8000-word essay was "too academic," "too hard" for the anthology under assembly. Not the first time nor will it be the last, but this editorial setback reminds me of what I have been learning lately, better late than never. Change is our only permanence.

I spent the better part of my free time last month on crafting it, after earlier months of diligent research and frequent percolation. My wife noticed that I tend towards what she also sees in her friend who's an award-winning architect: a drive to create that must shut out even loved ones in the midst of the completion of one's vision, the scaffolding erected and then, the structure in place, the taking down of the way we got up to such heights. The edifice, complex, must stand or fall on its own.

When I was growing up, the scanty adoption information told me that I was an architect's son; he'd been schooled on the East Coast. I imagined me the scion, if once removed, of some Ivy League (on Jeopardy the other night in a really difficult final question, I found out that the term had not been in print until the late date of 1935) bold visionary out of, I hoped, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin or the Gambles closer to home-- rather than some twisted Ayn Rand-Herman Kahn megalomaniac. While the enigma remains to date as to my maternal seminiferent (thanks Alexander Theroux, who once taught at Harvard, then at Yale for that helpful noun), I have been informed by a presumably primary informant that my father was no architect. More rejection lurks in my genetic past and her lived one. On the other hand, that gap in my begetting better explains my inherited lack of mathematical acumen, perhaps.

Layne also tells me, late relatively in our relationship-- as in twenty years in?-- that she has the hots for firemen (as does the married lesbian Margaret Cho), and architects. She says it has to do with a phallocentric (not her word choice, but when my friend Colleen once told me that my [gay, au courant] dissertation advisor once gushed about her dissertation as "non-phallocentric," I had to insert that giddy adjective) admiration. Men raise great monuments, obelisks, towers, spray them and paint them and fondle them, and then, perhaps, climb up to keep them up or hasten to tear them down in a fiery gush.

You can blame my own prose on the fact I am sick with hay fever and on a bad night's sleep's noon-day stint. I never get allergies like the rest of the family, but never say never. I had to wash my car yesterday and my head hit a fluster of flower blossoms, tiny as burrs, that filled my hair, my trunk (automotively), and my person with their bursts of pollen. The incipient sniffles soon turned into burning sinuses. I cannot recall when I last suffered so. Layne had to take both boys to the doctor today, as they too endure whatever floral doom permeates our hedges and trees.

So, back to the things that grow tall around us and cause us to bow low to their unseen but formidable power. I will trudge on, working even in my fuzzy mental state on reading about Buddhism as I prepare another research project that spins off from mother's land Ireland, another bizarre juxtaposition of the personal quest with the academic adventure that marks my tenure as an never-to-be-tenured independent scholar, always cobbling together what I tinker about with words until a work slowly rises. The stimulus for my current blueprint, historically, rests on the imagery that fascinated observers in 1835 who sought an Oriental explanation for Hibernia's round towers. They interpreted stupas not as crumbling, if rigid, fortresses left by the usual bickering clans, but as stupendous feats left behind by budding Buddhists on Erin's far shores. From that association, a riot of others followed that I pursue.

My latest verbal construction may be dismissed, it may be relegated to the outbox by others, but I keep on thinking and seeking and pondering, as I must do. I leave a few models behind me, and a few may find they direct their own orientation. In my own sketchy scribblings and tentative tappings, I try to smooth my own small stepping stone. Maybe I lengthen an ancient road of knowledge that many before me have designed and many after me will extend. Enough metaphors today; I'm stupefied.

Here's what's claimed (you know the type) to be the world's largest stupa, at Boudanath, Nepal: what the Tibetans call "Chorten Chempo" or "great stupa." Stupor mundi="wonder of the world," although I think the Latin's lost a bit in translation, given our cognates.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Simone Weil: Chain-Smoking, Self-Starving, Self-Exiled Jewish Mystical Malcontent?

That title reminds me of Phranc, "your average Jewish lesbian folksinger," who once graced our home to hawk Tupperware. Weil in my vague recall was a formidable ethicist, a prickly Jewish convert to Catholicism who died during the German occupation of France. Well, Weil according to Benjamin Ivry's "Simone Weil's Rediscovered Jewish Inspiration" in the April 10, 2009 "Forward" revises the hagiographical litany.

The centennial of her birth and the usual flurry of academic attention this time follows a Finnish oratorio, and accompanies a "performance event" in Manhattan's East Village. Ivry reports: "And the tributes continue. One of them comes from Darrell Katz, who recently composed 'The Death of Simone Weil,' a voice and jazz ensemble suite. Darrell sums it up: 'Mystic visionary comes to life with a big band behind her.'" I cannot improve upon or detract from this transformation of an social agitator into a presumably Off-Off Broadway extravaganza. One more reason for me why to hate jazz. Black-clad Gothamites who shelled out for "The Producers" (or "Life is Beautiful"?) might be waiting in line for the rush tix as I type.

To my surprise, Ivry notes that her niece's new biography reveals that Simone never wrote "anything against the Nazi persecution." DeGaulle, intriguingly given the recent film about Hannah Senesh from Palestine infiltrating occupied Hungary, called Weil "completely insane" for a similar wish to parachute into France during the war. While often treated as a martyr manque for her beliefs, Ivry counters with her letter to Georges Bernanos, the famed Catholic exponent, in "an often quoted 1938 letter: 'I am not Catholic, even though-- what I am going to say will doubtless seem presumptuous to any Catholic, coming from a non-Catholic, but I cannot say it any other way-- even though nothing Catholic or Christian has even seemed foreign to me."

What Weil believed instead of formal religions and their "historical tyrannies" eludes easy summary. She felt others' pain. She pushed herself into identification with the poor, devoted herself to workers' movements and the Spanish Republicans, and as an "absolutist woman" eventually starved herself-- in 1943 England-- to death, a tubercular patient dying of a combination of cardiac arrest and a refusal to eat. She sounds like a pill, as old folks used to mutter.

Still, this uncompromising stance in solidarity, this sacrifice for occupied France, won her admirers. Most people, myself included along with the professoriate, classify her usually among leftist, existentialist Christian philosophers. Relentless, exasperating, uncompromising, Weil came from a family tenuously Jewish. Most critics "cite her visceral distaste for organized religions, particularly Judaism, and define her as a Christian mystic, although she never converted from Judaism."

Her niece Sylvie's book tries to restore a Jewish dimension, although the evidence for such an assimilated generation as her aunt's appears rather risible! Ivry sums up:
Sylvie herself is scrupulous in explaining how almost all of Simone’s biographers have understated the degree to which the Weil family retained elements of the Jewish tradition. She ridicules the notion that, as one writer claims, her aunt was unaware — until she was 12 years old — that her family was Jewish. Describing a family that is Jewish both culturally and in terms of quirky personalities, Sylvie alludes to what she calls the family “chutzpah,” a habit of talking takhles (in a brutally frank way) regardless of who might be offended. This was characteristic of both Simone and André Weil, who were socially cumbersome houseguests, if in diametrically opposite ways. While Simone insisted on bedding down on the floor in a sleeping bag while visiting, and starving herself (while nevertheless chain-smoking) to identify with the poor, André would demand entitlement to the room with the best view and criticize the food if it was not up to snuff. Neither Simone nor André would accept less than emes (the truth) from others, and in this, Sylvie clearly shares in the exigent family personality.

To me, that chain-smoking socialist-- graduate from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure-- in sympathy with the doubtlessly puffing proles will be an indelible image of a fragile figure many have idolized. Trés proto-beatnik French, too! It does make her more human, even if I doubt if I'd have gotten along with her any more than most people may have. It's hard to imagine her letting her hair down.

Like many fierce lovers of their fellow men and women in principle, perhaps she could not bend her principles flexibly enough to align her punished body with her preoccupied mind. I wrote this past Easter about "Pax Christi" and Francis of Assisi's own road to willing torment. In this, Weil and Francis sought radical humanity with the Crucified One as the supreme inspiration for their own devoted asceticism that hastened their untimely deaths in their fourth decade.

Yesterday, I ordered from the Wales Book Council's half-price sale despite my own financial abnegation of late a title by Grahame Davies, "Everything Must Change." It juxtaposes Weil's relentless life with that of a Cymraeg-language activist of similarly recalcitrant ideals. Certainly a "novel" parallel that I will look forward to reviewing here, once the surface mail, at a pace that will probably outrun the time it took to breach the Maginot Line, arrives. (Update: I reviewed it on my blog and on Amazon US and Britain 9-25-09, very favorably.)

Was Weil insane? Suicidal? A "holy anorexic"? Kafka's hunger artist, mystical Christians and Buddhists who crave the "emptiness of form" by self-surrender, and the recent film about Bobby Sands by Steve McQueen, "Hunger": these raise uncomfortable questions. We hesitate to delve into the mindset of those whom society classifies as crazy or canonized, exemplars for our imitation or warnings for our conformity.

It's a squirmy debate that places holiness next to madness, self-preservation against self-surrender. Who controls our bodies, and how can we free our souls? I wonder if after all, another ENS graduate, Michel Foucault (despite his own unwise perambulations and my distance from facile theorizing) hit the target: in prisons, monasteries, hospitals, factories and schools we follow the science of precise scrutiny and oppressive measurement. Our individuality, once the prerogative of nobles, now marks each one of us in the carceral society.

This scrutiny, as tactics once the Gestapo only may have demonstrated, now opens up as we put our selves into the electronic Panopticon, where we all look at each other, none of us knowing when or whom, always on display, never sure when we're watched, so we always act on best behavior. Weil: what reward did she seek by her refusal? Such resistance to Big Brother may lure more of us in our surveilled cells into thinkers who dash into the electrified fence, over the Big Wall into annihilation, willingly, for a cause.

Photo: Not sure of pictorial provenance, but it may be from her ill-fated 1938 stint in the Renault plant at Boulogne-Billancourt. The source of it? My first hit on Google Images, a "Ground of Eternity" entry in summer 2007, was penned by none other than "Bo" of present "Cantos of Mvtabilitie" & "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" blog-renown.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Míorúilt san earrach!

Bhinn imní agam ar feadh bliain an taca seo. Ní bhínn díth ar bearna orainn a rinne idir ár theach agus an teach eile an cheád teach nua eile. Is an garraínín atá sínte le theach sin.

Bhuel, bhí mór an mhíorúilt go fasaidh an feirmín i mbliana anois ansuid. Ceannaíodh an garraí. San earrach, bhris talamh éadrom ann. Tá an té atá ar thaobh mo láimhe deise an cheád fhód a bhaint le déanaí. Tá dúil ár dhá comharsa gort a chur faoi glasraí.

Níor siadsan itheann feoil. Itheann comharsa glasraí agus torthaí céann. Tá siad feoilséantachaí seo go cruinn. Nil fhíos agam a scríobh "vegan" as Gaeilge!

Ba mhaith liom a féiceail luibhghort ann fós. Níl mé ábalta a ithe glasraí bhui nó oraiste go leor! Ar scor ar bith, íosfaidh mé glasraí go hairithe anois agus ansin.

Ithim is fuadrach! Bím ag ite i dtólamh i mo shaol chomh seo. Ainneoin a ndeireann mé, bainfidh sult as agamsa radharc nádúrtha ó buinneáin ghlas os cionn an talamh sa saimreadh seo. B'fhéidir, gheobhaidh mé eile ag ithe!

A miracle in spring!

I had anxiety on me during a year ago. I didn't want to have the loss of open space for us to be made between our house and the house "next door" by another new house. There's a little garden that stretches on the side of that house.

Well, there was a great miracle that now's growing a little farm over there this year. The lot was bought. This spring, fresh soil broke there. Those people who are to the right cut the first sod recently. There's a desire for our two neighbors to plant a field with vegetables.

They themselves do not eat meat. These neighbors eat only vegetables and fruit. They are strictly vegetarians. There's no knowledge on me how to write "vegan" in Irish!

I would like to see a herb garden there too. I'm not able to eat many yellow or orange vegetables! However, I will eat particular greens now and then.

I eat most fussily! I have eaten all the time in my life like this. For all that I say, I will enjoy natural sights from green shoots above the soil this summer. Perhaps, I will get some to eat!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Barry Cunliffe's "Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000": Book Review

This massive study shares Cunliffe's life's work of researching prehistoric and early historic geographical and archeological patterns of migration in Europe. It's a hefty book in size and scope, bringing us what can be summed up about the previous ten millennia to the better-recorded one we have just concluded. The maps and illustrations add to the understandings packed within an accessible, yet scholarly, text.

A wealth of details tend to favor what we can glean from the warriors and invaders. The quieter folks leave, buried in the soil or carved on the stones, less testimony. The sense of restlessness permeates this volume. Over the "longue durée" of the French Annales historical school, which Cunliffe follows to excavate the deep rarely moving water, the more vibrant surface, and the frothier waves of battle and assault, he seeks to understand the patterns that move Westerners always westward.

A patient reader will find intriguing examples. Primitive people could have gotten the same nutrition from a single red deer as fifty thousand oysters, yet their middens are filled with the tasty shellfish. Europe's coasts in mileage around them roughly equal the earth's circumference. The shift from inhumation-- burying bodies in the ground-- to cremation after 1300 BC may signal a break with earth-mother beliefs for those oriented towards sky-gods.

The ties between material culture then and what we speak today may be tenuous, but Cunliffe explains a key marker. Indo-European languages appear to have spread with Neolithic production of food, from south-west Asia, and then across the Balkans to Hungary and then through Middle Europe's forests in one branch; the other branch stretched from the Mediterranean to Iberia. This language was part of the "Neolithic package" that attracted Mesolithic peoples to adapt cultivation rather than hunting as their way of sustenance.

He also offers an explanation for the disintegration of the old Atlantic trading network that helped spread language and farming. The end of the Bronze Age, with the advent of iron, may have disrupted the entire subcontinent. Regionalism replaced trans-maritime networks. Agricultural surpluses in the east replaced bronze as commodities. Phoenicians dominated the seas. Along with the Greeks and Romans, seafarers left tantalizing suggestions of Atlantean travels into Africa, up into Britain, and perhaps beyond. First the exclusion from this network of Atlantic Iberia in the 8th c. BCE and then northern Europe with the isolation of Ireland in the 6th c. BCE may have accelerated the break we see later within Celtic languages, with Iberian splitting off more, proto-Irish evolving apart from British and Gallic Celtic. (258) Like many points, Cunliffe raises insights in passing on such a long intellectual journey, but he does point out byways worth pursuing.

Later, the Mediterranean inherited imperatives of honor and acquisition by trade and conquest. Cunliffe goes beyond the usual accounting for classical civilization by the need for feeding "gaggles of philosophers and droves of vase painters." (319) "But deep within the human psyche is the desire to gain honour and recognition through leadership: in the situations of stress and conflict that prevailed, military and territorial adventures provided a ready vehicle. In other words, desire to control resources met a deep-seated psychological need by offering leadership opportunities to young men intent on seeking honour." (319)

Young men wanted to fight, to advance their careers when they returned, and to gain high office. The more fights the empires raised, the more they invaded and conquered, until the Romans found themselves at the barbarian frontiers, recruiting the barbarians to police the imperial borders against the barbarians infiltrating the Empire. Many lessons can be learned, and Cunliffe retells the familiar story of Roman weakness well.

Cunliffe does present heaps of evidence, hundreds of tribes, and thousands of facts. Yet, he arranges the clashes and contacts logically, and the visual support aids comprehension of Sarmatians vs. Scordisci, or Pomerania vs. Pannonia. The complicated movements across ancient empires do get confusing even with charts, and the amount of learning crammed into these attractively designed pages is better digested slowly. Endnotes point the reader towards specialized studies, and the text proper remains remarkably free of jargon. One small flaw: the index, substantial though it is, lacks alphabetical listings for the more minor peoples and references in the text.

Concluding, Cunliffe eloquently summarizes his vision. Reviewing the endless push of populations across the continental spine (he starts the book by turning the map to view the sub-continent's peninsular ridge top first), he wonders. "What drove these outpourings is a fascinating problem." Beyond demographic pressures prompting mobility, "is it too much to suggest that underlying it all was a folk memory, passed across the generations, that 'our people always ride into the west'? I once met an elderly traveller on a road in Sussex, who told me he was making for Kent and hoped to be there in May. When asked why, he said, 'We always go there at this time.'" (476)

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

John McWhorter's "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue": Book Review

Creoles: not only in the tropics do they permeate English. Since Celtic times, and perhaps Proto-Germanic via the Phoenicians, our native language's warped like any other. "While the Vikings were mangling English, Welsh and Cornish people were seasoning it." (xxii) An authority on creolization, McWhorter brings to this little study lots of learning. As with "The Power of Babel" (also reviewed by me), he packs an irrepressible irreverence into a scholarly package. His gifts as a former professor and explicator of linguistics combine into a thoughtful, if rather scattered, series of reflections on how we speak a language that can never be frozen by scolding grammarians into fossilized rules. English no less than sex appeals to whomever wanders by! People may try to hold out, but if in proximity, never for long.

Our hybrid language exists in mongrel form not only due to words imported, but its syntactical bent. Bent because it's been altered from its foundations by those straining to learn it as grown-ups, and who pass along their ESL version to their bastard children-- until the written form catches up with the traditionally unwritten, slangier, less regimented oral mode. This process never stops.

McWhorter's dismissive not only of schoolmarms but those who amass etymological examples of multicultural English while ignoring an explanation of why English adapts such a wealth of disparate forms that tore apart its grammar far more rapidly than its Germanic cousins over a thousand-plus years. It never "just happens" that English took on or discarded unique or rare features that its Germanic cousins did not parallel in their growth and transmission. English creolized early on-- oddly, he never defines this term-- but a creole needs at least three languages to work.

Celtic, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon fought and bought and slept with each other, so they spawned a bastard: English. The Vikings weakened it so much early on, that this combined with the Celtic underlay that infiltrated quirks such as the supposedly forbidden "Billy and me went to the store." Our reversion to such "errors" reflects our recognition of patterns that in fact make sense to McWhorter.

These quirks eventually surface after long illiteracy into the literary form of Middle English that represented centuries later how the spoken vernacular in medieval Britain had been battered into simpler expression by "adult learners screwing things up." (124) The lag into the written representation of how English sounded can be linked to the scriptural bias of recorded English. He's great at using Shakespeare to document such changes later on. The literary register of our earlier language did not bother to capture the changing vernacular any more than, as he says, Time magazine issues its articles through the style of today's rappers.

McWhorter does perhaps overemphasize the "meaningless do and the verb-noun present" progressive as proof of the Celtic impact, but he's convincing that such structures, more than words that failed to enter English from Celtic, built up an overlooked scaffolding that few linguists have accounted for. I've reviewed myself (in short form on Amazon and longer form elsewhere in print) Stephen Oppenheimer's "The Origins of the British" which draws on genetics to reconsider the Saxon incursion upon Britain. McWhorter draws upon this book. Yet, McWhorter, in reverting on pages 11 and 32 to the usual recital that the first contact of British Celts with Anglo-Saxon speakers was 449 AD, does seem to muddle a more nuanced study. Oppenheimer admits that pressures exerted upon the earliest English may have begun before the language moved from Germania into England; he and others also concur that Saxon settlers had already been moving into Romanized Britain. Still, McWhorter's point on the whole stands if implicitly, since earlier Saxon settlers would likely have had little impact on the evolution of English within a Romanized territory.

As an adult learner who screws up Irish and has started to do so in Welsh, I liked his reasoning for the oversight that relegates Celtic influences to a few words at best or worst. After all, few who study English know a Celtic language. I did notice the "Billy and me went" effect in even my toddler Welsh lessons, but had no idea it could be echoed in "bad" English. For McWhorter, what I had sensed in my struggle was a dim echo of a culture clash fifteen hundred years ago. "Celtic was English's deistic God-- it set things spinning and then left them to develop on their own." (9)

He cites and corrects popularizers as David Crystal and the PBS "Story of English" trio who diminish the force of that Celtic impact. He incorporates among his many more recondite sources two other books that will appeal to the same audience. These I have reviewed-- Mark Abley ("Spoken Here" gets a good-natured but well-shaken comeuppance) and Guy Deutscher ("The Evolution of Language"). McWhorter, however, is less clear here than he was in "Power of Babel" or Deutscher is in explaining why grammar gets less rather than more complicated as time passes. It's explained, but the point deserved elaboration for non-specialists. His book compresses so much academic debate and arcane contention that it may, despite its brevity, overwhelm readers less attuned to morphological nicety and etymological controversy.

Basically, we get lazy in speaking our own language, and we begin to clip its endings and elide its sounds. Others who learn our language tend towards interference with their native tongue; their bilingual children move towards an equilibrium that does not have the speakers simplifying their new language, but seasoning it with constructions from their ancestral language. This "stewing" rather than "boiling down" for McWhorter demonstrates how "soon the language they are learning looks like their native one." (119) He confronts those who wonder why Celtic casts so faint a shadow on English vocabulary. He then shifts to spirited attack on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that a culture can be conditioned by the limits of its linguistic capacities of articulating not only its vocabulary but its mindset.

I've always had a weakness for Whorf, so this chapter had to work hard against what McWhorter might blame as my weakness for the "noble savage" romanticization. He castigates Whorf's ignorance of Hopi's temporal markers, and relentlessly ridicules the theory's defenders. I wish he endnoted the source for this deadpan observation: "One sometimes hears how Iran is home to a uniquely vigorous homosexual subculture because its third person pronoun is the same for men and women." (137)

He in the final section tells of Theo Vennemann's fascinating speculations about how early Germanic, before any English had percolated, may have been wrenched from its harder sounds by Semitic speakers into hissier fricatives! Foreigners with heavy accents tend to drag their acquired language through heavy changes, and in time these may leave distortions in the way we all-- natives mixing with learners-- will come to speak the older language.

I wish McWhorter could have applied Vennemann's theory to other IE languages, and Basque, to suggest how a residual substrata may be glimpsed beneath what non-English speakers may preserve in verbal pockets across the continent. But this stretches the scope of a short, engaging, if slightly tendentious and oddly repetitious overview. It carries the pace of a restlessly brilliant lecturer's presentation, it channels the energy of a youngish author with nine other creole-related, sub-cultural studies to his name, and it always conveys a witty tone-- or a stubborn debater's repartee.

He seeks fresh imagery. "Modern English is the current stage of what began as a very different grammar, much like Celtic's. Over a millennium-and-a-half, this grammar had grammatical features from Celtic plugged into it Botox-style, while also being radically shorn of its complexities liposuction-style by adults learning it as a second language." (144) He knows how to make esoteric professorial shoptalk vivid and clever for us, an ignorant audience. A scholar of Black English and creoles, he finds a new entry into the intricacies of medieval English's formation from Celtic-Norse-Saxon collisions via a fresh perspective for how we generated globalized English. He informs us of its twists and turns-- as a German-speaking African American proponent of possibly Phoenician pulls upon Proto-Germanic!

P.S. "Bo" & "Vilges Suola" may love this; they might toss it. They might know of Welsh influence on the Northern Subject Rule or diagnose "linguistic equilibrium" for Old Norse's standoff with Northumbrian dative plurals. But I-- despite my medievalist training once and hapless Celtic grappling now-- had no idea. If you want to learn why these topics effect how we communicate today, read OMBT.

(Posted without postscript to Amazon US today.)

Bernardo Atxaga's "The Accordionist's Son": Book Review

This novel joins two Basque eras of conflict-- the Spanish Civil War and the ETA struggle-- by a triple narrative. Translated from Basque into first Spanish and then English, the tone seems diffused and distant. It's both evocative and muted, qualities that may or may not have been in the original Euskara.

Distance suffuses this story, told by Joseba about his childhood friend David. They both wind up in California, and David's premature death leads Joseba to translate David's self-published memoir into English for David's wife and children. Along the way, the novel includes its most gripping part, the centerpiece story "Obaba's First American," about Don Pedro, who hid Juan, David's uncle, from the Fascist forces who overran their Basque village. We learn later why David left the Basque country to come to his Central California ranch, and in the near present, why Joseba also left their native place of Obaba to stay with David's family.

In turn, the story shifts from the mid-1930s to the 1960s, when the Basque nationalists began to dare to take on the Franco dictatorship. We learn such crucially telling details as the prohibition of the Basque language even on gravestones, of the illegality of a Basque-Spanish dictionary, and of the suppression by the Church as well as the State following the defeat of those who opposed the Spanish rule after the Thirties. We also see the rebirth of resistance from the end of the Sixties onward.

However, the tales that David tells through Joseba ramble. Lots of characters and flirtations and relatives flit in and out, but few characters stand out. They blur together too much, amidst a surprisingly understated landscape. There's little of the memorable descriptions that would make the power of these events stick. It's all rather interesting, but sameness accumulates for long stretches. The tone's affable, but too much of David's growing up in a modernizing era lacks the freshness we'd expect.

I did appreciate the momentary nod to how language changes our perceptions: the peasants never talked about paranoia or neuroticism; they'd be happy or unhappy; similarly, the force of hearing "privitization" or "imperialism" for the first time in the countercultural undercurrent diminishes in time into tired cant. The feel of the novel is one of intense surges fizzling out over time's humdrum routine.

The best section, the "First American" part, proves the summit of Atxaga's skill. It moves with a vigor lacking in much of what surrounds it. Joseba very late seems to acknowledge the disparity between David's more stolid tellings and his own "improvements" in the framing device that holds down the central portions and links to the more fictional retellings (it gets a bit complex, no surprise given his previous novel of interlinked stories in a magic realist kaleidoscope, "Obabakoak").

I think that Joseba's coming-of-age story, so closely chronological with Atxaga's own date of birth, may have dragged the novel down into too many semi- autobiographical correspondences that may be more vivid in Euskara (or even Spanish) than in English. We get embedded transcriptions of the Basque within the story, as if explanations must interrupt the original, and these do push the reader away from the events a bit.

Atxaga through both tellers does, still, leap away from the more mundane recital in his reversion near the end to three "confessions" of three ETA-type (the affiliation appears to be deliberately muddled) comrades arrested by the Spanish for "terrorism." As in the "Deck of Cards" intermission, the dramatically and eloquently conveyed registers of Joseba's voice retell David's memories in a markedly more engrossing style. I understand what Atxaga in these moments breaks through three languages and three levels of discourse to show us, but it's a lot of effort for the reader to get to these moments of true literary power.

Yet, this may be Atxaga's hard-won lesson for readers used to less effort to capture the truth on the page that witnesses to the emotion felt by those for whom the Basque homeland was more than a place erased from the Spanish (or French) map. He helps us realize the intensity for which a few of his countrymen and women have for so long kept alive an utterly unique way of expression in a Europe that the Basque people have occupied longer than anyone else on the continent. For this exposure, it's worth the languors of much of the story. As in hiking up a dull scree to a dazzling vista on top of the mountain, one must put in the discipline for a glimpse at a culture so rarely seen, the chance to eavesdrop on the only surviving pre-Indo-European language and to see its words in print. This sight brings its own reward.

(Posted to Amazon US today. I use the British cover for readabilty; the American version is more artistic, but like the novel, too intricate to make out details from afar very easily!)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Zen & the Art of Fountain Pen Maintenance

It's a pleasure to find kindred Net spirits. In researching tenuous Irish-Buddhist connections, I'm encouraged by Tony Bailie's reading of Gabriel Rosenstock's Irish-language Zen meditations and Ben Howard's critical essay on Irish poets' Buddhist themes. Perhaps Prof. Howard might profit from Tony's "Coill" 2005 verse collection?

I wrote Ben Howard yesterday after not being able to find, strangely, his 2005 contribution to Irish literature. It's an essay, "How the Buddhadharma Came to the West," about Rosenstock, Ciaran Carson, and Michael Hartnett. I have no way yet of knowing its details yet, as the journal "An Sionnach" could not be located on EBSCOhost, which my college subscribes to, but only on a variant that some public libraries (none around here) use! The ILL loan I tried found no takers, and while Caltech of all unlikely places listed this rather obscure journal on WorldCat, it did not actually have it on the shelf, go figure.

Well, the professor emeritus from Alfred U. in upstate New York responded promptly! He's sending me a copy of the elusive journal. I thought it was defunct as its website that I consulted appears to have stopped two years ago, after a few issues listed tantalizingly only as a table of contents. I had sent its editor an article for consideration years ago about Paul Durcan's "The Hat Factory." I never heard back, so I blamed the silence on my own scholarship or its lack. Then, finding its website stopped in 2007 the other day, I was oddly cheered, not for the demise of the Creighton U. journal (a sister school to my Jesuit alma mater, after all), but for that as the reason my essay languished unpublished. Today, after reading the e-mail, I am happy to hear that the journal lives on-- Prof. Howard tells me the new issue with poems by Carson has just appeared. Still, I feel diminished as an erstwhile writer myself by wondering what slush pile or trash heap holds my manuscript!

Such are the ways we learn humility, thank others for favors, and spread the message that friends on the Web, poets (who in Tony's case are both!), and critics combine to share what we know and love with each other. I enjoyed Ben Howard's wonderfully titled "The Pressed Melodeon" years ago as a concise book-look at contemporary contexts and practitioners of Irish verse, by the way. Thinking I had reviewed it on Amazon, I went yesterday to check, but somehow I had not posted about it, so I rectify the oversight by recommending here.

He also reminded me about a website that I have written about on my blog in Irish last autumn, "Dzogchen Beara" in Garranes, near Allihies, Co Cork. Founded by Sogyal Rinpoche for his Rigpa hospice foundation, this is a half-otherworldly-- from what I can gather from the setting on the dramatic western coast-- location that one day I hope to visit. I wonder if many Irish, with their Catholic overlay, gravitate more towards the Tibetan panoply, whereas the Presbyterians of the North, for example, might roam closer to Zen by cultural habit?

By the by, Tony knows much about a man he met: the Kerry-born shaman-- I cannot think of a better term-- the late John Moriarty. For all his calling his conceptual reborn earth "Buddh Gaia," he writes in his voluminous, Blakean half-chanted, half-mystic, all-mightily thundering volumes little that I have so far extracted specifically about the dharma in Erin. He was probably too ravenous an intellectual and too learned an adept to stop at any one mythic or philosophical fountain for long to taste some Pierian spring. He drank deep, a dangerous thing. But, as Tony commented the other day in his post on "Jung & Moriarty," the loss of the sacred in Ireland as elsewhere is no mere mythopoeic construct. The shattering of our covenant that respects the planet and the language and the heritage brings us closer to an apocalypse, a psychic tearing of our atmospheric veil. It's serious, as much as global warming to me, for if we lose sanctuaries, than just as Gaeilge withers and seanachies fade, so will our sustenance. This may plant me among the hippies, the channellers, or the crystal Methodists, but I do fear this spiritual death's portent.

Contrarily, if desperately, such inventions as "Celtic Buddhism" that I am tracking may represent a renewal, and end-run, around the bog that we dig ourselves deeper into. Alan Jones over at his "Independence Cymru" blog earlier this month under "You Have Been Warned" posted the Archbishop of York's castigation of the consumerism that lured us into our financial swamp. Moriarty would've joined John Sentamu's jeremiad. It fascinates me how in secularizing Ireland, the spiritual still pulls many along, and the research I am pursuing tries to make some sense out of such syncretism, which I predict will smooth over for at least a few educated and/or fed-up folks the psychological and political clashes so many are now trapped in by fundamentalism.

For instance, not off topic: I read this week of: a) papal insistence this decade that basically, "extra ecclesiam nulla solis"; b) refusal of Orthodox Jews to allow non-Jews to sit at their seder table; c) protests by hordes of Afghan men screaming "dogs" at far fewer women protesting a law that-- unless she's ill or injured-- allows males to demand sex every four days from their spouse. What seems gingerly avoided by the Western press, furthermore, is that I recall that this is not a Taliban throwback, but very venerable Islamic doctrine. Of course, many men who will never darken the doors of a mosque may favor such a ruling too; not sure if the nobodaddies of Organized Religion Itself can be blamed for this jurisprudence, but it's not helping to fix it.

Away from the mobs, call me romantic and/or morbid, but the juxtaposition of the lonely shore where once wailed An Cailleach Bhéara with arrival of the sangha devoted to the Tibetan art of living and dying about which Sogyal has written so eloquently with the help of his translators (see my inevitable review on Amazon and on this blog!) does permeate a deep well of wisdom buried deep in a motherlode of both the Western and Eastern traditions. It may not be out of this world to say that perhaps in such a place I would like to die. If I am blessed for me or my loved ones to have any control over that crucial choice for me someday.

Finally, Prof. Howard directed me to his own "Practice of Zen" blog. I like the way he-- like the original (re-)designer of "Blogtrotter," Carrie, did here but then the html code reverted-- manages to cut the whole post so only a teaser shows. I have the boilerplate for this still on every blank template where I create my blog entries, but it does not "take" anymore, so you get my verbosity.

Contrast my blather with his sample entry about Zen and emptiness as encountered in a fountain pen. I used to get Fahrney's catalogue from D.C., but either they went out of business or my business with them shrank. Still, in flusher days than these now, I purchased a few wonderful pens from them, and among my last and my favorites is a thick, canary yellow "music" nibbed (I like oblique ones too as they fit my awkwardly held hand when I write in the crooked angle I do) "1911 Sailor" Japanese model. I don't know if mine's the same as the coral one Prof. Howard loves, but he makes a thoughtful meditation out of the four components of his beloved pen.

Here it is, and more on his simple blog follows. As I have more than one reader of my own fussy blog who pursues the wisdom that came from the East, I share with you this example from a critic who is also a longtime practitioner of Zen. "Of Fountain Pens and Emptiness." (Practice of Zen blog: 2/19/09.)