Monday, May 21, 2018

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT...

The hats? Dinner plates with garnish--flowers, fruit and bows and ribbons! Where does this ridiculous tradition come from? Why does it persist?

You'll have guessed that Ellie and I were among the on-again, off-again watchers of last Saturday's much hyped royal wedding. As one who left England more than sixty years ago, I look back on the "old country"--and its monarchy--both with a certain nostalgia and a certain ambivalence. In view of what is happening today in my country of adoption, the United States, I sometimes wonder what it might be like to return to that old country after so many years spent in self-chosen exile... Then I remember the rain, the clouds, the mists, the fog, the general climatic dreariness and I speedily return to thoughts of how fortunate I am to have lived for so many years in Southern California.

Regarding that nostalgia and the ambivalence, though: I left England in 1959, first for a couple of years in Germany, then a couple of years in Canada, and since 1964 I have lived here in America--four years in Iowa, and here in Southern California since 1968. I left for many of the same reasons the poet Robert Graves wrote about in his 1929 memoir, Goodbye to All That--albeit without the horrifying memories of the First World War. The "all that" to which I myself said goodbye had to do with the then still prevalent class consciousness, the snobbery, the hide-bound traditions that elevated a privileged elite to positions of wealth and power at the expense of the many of the "lower" social order.

This particular "that" was on extravagant display in the chapel at Windsor Castle where the Queen's grandson Harry was married to a woman who, not many years ago, would have been "infra dig"--beneath the dignity--of the royal family: a divorcée, and American at that! I actually hold no brief for the late Duke of Windsor or Mrs. Simpson, but he was forced to abdicate and they were both exiled pretty much for life for those same crimes. And Meghan, bless her, is additionally half African-American, and an avowed feminist to boot, and proud of it! The Queen, her family, the dukes and duchesses and the rest of the British aristocracy, the Church of England, the public school hegemony in both Houses of Parliament--could surely never have envisioned such an eventuality.

Yet there they were, and "that" was "that" at the royal wedding. The toffs. Dinner plate hats and all. Morning coats and military splendor! Designer gowns! Plummy voices everywhere! (A part of the "that," for me, was the fact that I was identified for my social standing as soon as I opened my mouth and spoke with my public--i.e. boys' boarding--school and Cambridge educated accent. And I was treated accordingly, with undeserved respect or equally undeserved scorn...)

And yet, and yet... to the attuned ear, there was a cacophony of accents, too, at the wedding There were Scottish accents and London accents, Yorkshire accents and Southwestern accents, South African accents and accents from a variety of other African countries, Indian and West Indian accents everywhere. There were even, for God's sake, American accents to be heard. And no one seemed the least bit bothered by them all!

Has England changed? Has England changed! This long-time exile was truly, quite emotionally impressed. The occasion seemed like a huge, royal embrace of all humanity, in all its beauty and diversity--and most particularly, most notably, most purposefully, an embrace of people of color other than the immaculate whiteness of the royal family itself. At the epicenter of it all (epi-, because this was, after all, something of an earthquake; also epi-scopal!) was the Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of Chicago, the African-American head of the Episcopal Church in America (asked what was best about being in England, he said--I paraphrase--isn't it always great to be in your mother's house? He was referring to "mother" church, of course, and his joke gave the Archbishop of Canterbury a hearty laugh). His sermon, with its resounding theme of mutual love, assailed the austere and hallowed walls of the chapel of St. George with the passion and verve of a black preacher. While I myself do not believe in the God he celebrated, I admit I was transfixed.

But there was much, much more than that. Though they held their own--dare I say "in spades"?--the royals took the risk of being outshone by their guests. The occasion was a powerful acknowledgment and celebration of black identity, black culture, black dignity, black civility. The large number of black celebrities in attendance included, amongst many others, Oprah Winfrey and Serena Williams--but also  diplomats and notables from the world of philanthropy whose faces I would have no reason to recognize. Participants in the ceremonies included not only the spectacular Karen Gibson and her Kingdom Choir in the American gospel tradition, but also the teenage classical cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, whose delightful and immensely talented family of siblings, every one of them classical music instrumentalists, we learned about the next day on CBS Sunday Morning.

The embrace of this royal family occasion reached out also, and particularly, to those lesser known folk who know that they are in this world to do some good, to work to make it a better place. Aside from the leaders invited to the chapel ceremony, there were crowds of less prominent worker bees who were given access to the choice spectator spots outside the chapel and in the streets of Windsor. This could, I suppose, sound like a patronizing gesture from the folks privileged with wealth enough to lend their names and energies to such philanthropic efforts, but it was surely also an act of kindness, recognition, and inclusion.

I am, as I suggested, ambivalent about the monarchy. I find it absurd, even slightly obscene, in this day and age, to be required to address one of one's fellow mortals as "Majesty" or "Highness." I am uncomfortable with purely inherited rank and privilege. The accident of birth seems a poor reason to elevate an elite handful above the rest of us. Far from a rabid monarchist, then, I do still believe there are good reasons to commend the British royal family. Now that their peculiarly bad spell is behind them, they seem to be good people. They work hard--no one harder than the nonagenarian Queen herself. Her sense of duty, her quiet modesty, and her commitment to her job are unrivaled. Her grandsons share her dedication to help those less fortunate than themselves.

As for the expense, which many anti-monarchists, complain about, much of the national treasury spent on them goes to invaluable PR for the United Kingdom, and the upkeep of precisely the kind of things that attract much-needed tourist dollars: the palaces, the castles, the impeccably poised guards, the parades, and so on. Also--and I think this is an important point--it can be considered a good thing that the nominal head of state, unlike our own here in the US, is free from political entanglements and responsibilities, leaving such mundane tasks to those for whom the people vote.

So there is much to be said in defense of the monarchy when it fulfills its function and behaves itself as it should--and as it did so splendidly on Saturday. But we could surely do without the hats.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

THE WORST SIT EVER

I exaggerate, of course. But it was a weird experience, this morning. I set my Insight Timer for a 30-minute sit and started to pay attention to the breath. That's when things started to go awry. I've been having trouble sleeping for a few weeks now, waking up very early because, while I'm inhaling okay, at a certain moment there comes an almost total blockage of the exhale, startling me awake. This morning I woke with the realization that it's the left nostril that is causing the problem, due to a condition I have known about for many years but which has never troubled me before: a deviated septum.

Odd, no?

So I guess I brought that insight with me to my sit. First off,  the breath refused to settle down into its usual rhythm, and I found it impossible to simply organize it into a stable pattern. That led to a shivery, out-of-my-skin feeling that pervaded my whole body; and consequently to a restlessness and and awareness of itchy places everywhere that demanded to be scratched. After twenty minutes I was wondering when this sit was going to end, Was my Insight Timer failing me? I started watching the mental clock until I finally surrendered, opened my eyes and checked the little screen on my cell phone to find I still had two-and-a-half minutes to go. Closed my eyes for what seemed like another thirty minutes, then opened them again: another twenty-five seconds still to go! I watched them count down with inexorable slowness, one at a time, until the digital gong sounded.

Phew! What a relief, to get up and make a cup of tea. I've been at this game for more than twenty years. You'd think I could do better. So, well, anyway... it's always salutary to get a reminder that I'm still right at the beginning!

Friday, May 18, 2018

CHIMES

I have been reading Chimes, a new book of poems by my friend of many years (and fellow Englishman!) Michael Dennis Browne. Selected from the output of more than fifty years of work, they are short, some of them not more than a single page, many of them blending haiku brevity and clarity with the mysterious and sometimes confounding opacity of a zen koan. I am attracted to brevity. In the case of a poem, it invites the reader beyond itself into the space and silence that surround the words on a white page. If we read with full attention, then we, the readers, are drawn into our own richly rewarding space of contemplative silence.

These short poems speak of intimate things; of family--brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons. They speak of the beauty of nature when observed, inhabited up close; of the art of poetry; and of deeper, murkier realms of emotional resonance, like love, and loss, and death. The "Chimes" of the title--this is my guess--are echoes of memory from childhood days, those intense moments that "ring our bells," opening unexpected doorways and setting off pleasing reverberations in the mind. This poet is attuned to their peculiar and poignant music, and his poems are each musical compositions in themselves, songs and dances that enchant with their subtle rhymes and rhythms even as they bemuse. Their seeming light touch is deceptive; their reach, profound.

I suspect that many poets have their secret storage closet of intimacies like this one. I'm glad this poet opened this one up.

BUSY

I'm busy thinking about putting my "serious conversation" blog posts together as a book. As they are currently posted on The Buddha Diaires, you'd have to stitch them together starting with the oldest in order to get a sense of the development of the whole. I have also done some significant changes to the texts that I originally wrote, so the book--assuming that it happens--will be an easier and more coherent read than a disconnected series of blog posts.

The text itself is about 60 pages, and needs the addition of flyleafs, acknowledgements and so on. It will also need a cover, and I have already begun working with an artist friend to put together some ideas. In fact, it occurred to me this morning that we might do something more collaborative, in the form of another, analogous "conversation" between word and image, writer and artist. So I'll be watching for the development of possibilities.

I find myself, almost to my surprise, more excited by this project than I imagined I might be. I feel pleased with the text as I have written it, and I'm beginning to think this could be something more than the little chapbook I had originally envisioned. There is not much else engaging me at the moment, so this comes along as a welcome project at precisely the right time. As things so often do.

Please stay tuned. I think I'll have something really pleasurable to offer you, when the time comes.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

IT IS

It is
the little things 
we overlook
that need 
attention.