As the carload of us walks back along the two-lane road toward the parking area, leaving a crowd of 500 or so outside the east gate of San Quentin, clusters of military-looking guards stud the hills above us, watching through sunglasses. We’re tired from walking and standing for a few hours. I’m feeling cranky, and a little disappointed. What was I expecting? Maybe the Occupy/Decolonize events have spoiled me with their frequent snake marches and militant ruckus-making. Shutting down banks; shutting down ports; attempting to take empty buildings for community use. Being near San Quentin (my first time) has me itching to tear down a wall or two.
If you’re dorky like me, you might enjoy mapping ideas and authors onto foamcore, and adding origami balloons just for kicks.
Housemate Aneeta and I just began mapping a few days ago. Spatial funtimes with Socially Engaged Buddhism for me; radical history timeline for her (starting with themes of Palestine and capitalism). Maybe soon she’ll give me permission to post some photos of her map.
At this stage, these are seedling projects. I hope to be conversing with my map for the next year or so. We’ll check back in after a little while, and you can see how it changes and grows!
Thich Nhat Hanh is quite literally a tree hugger. He embraces trunks, he caresses bark, he bows to roots and touches the soil. Thich Nhat Hanh is a person who loves trees.
One time, one of his most beloved arboreal friends, a linden tree at Plum Village, got caught in a storm and was nearly destroyed. Thich Nhat Hanh writes,
When I saw the linden tree after the storm, I wanted to cry. I felt the need to touch it, but I did not get much pleasure from that touching. I saw that the tree was suffering, and I resolved to find ways to help it.
When we resolve to help, we cultivate aspirations for the well being of others.
Buddhist culture seems full of these aspirations, no? Here’s a beautiful version — a poem by Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, based on the Metta Sutta — that my friend Anastasia posted on Facebook today.
Aspirations for a better world, for more well being. Yes.
But that’s not the whole story. Returning to the tale of the ailing linden in Plum Village, we find:
Fortunately, our friend Scott Mayer is a doctor for trees, and he took such good care of the linden tree that now it is even stronger and more beautiful than before.
A doctor for trees! We need aspirations, yes, and we also need effort and know-how!
To be a teacher and not join in struggle is a pedagogical contradiction.
Professing to care — even caring — is only part of our mission. An important part, yes, but I think that engaged Buddhism (loosely defined) might really benefit from some deep conversations about whether and how we are joining in struggle strategically and accountably. We actually want to heal this tree! (Slash society.) Is that going to happen through kinder capitalism? Is it going to happen through lifestyle activism, recycling our way to salvation? Is it going to happen by taking over the factories, the farms, the hospitals, demanding that we run them ourselves for people not profit, and then defending them from owners/capitalists who try to repossess them? Do we want a welfare state or no state at all?
We may share hopes for universal well-being, but how can we work together to make that happen if our efforts are at odds with each other?
Thich Nhat Hanh points to this effort/aspiration combo when he says,
We may need a doctor or a nurse to help, but we also need compassion and joy for the wound to heal quickly.
For emphasis in the engaged Buddhist context, I’d flip that around and say, “We may need compassion and joy, but we also need doctors and nurses.”
About halfway through residency, the above object appeared on the sink of the righthand hallway bathroom.
At first I dismissed it on grounds of New-Age typography. The fortune-cookie-style strip; the Comic-Sans-ish font; the capitalizing of every word in a sentence. Semi-watercolor background. Like every label of every decontextualized crystal, healing oil, or incense stick in Berkeley. Not to mention the spiral of prayer beads, disembodied and ornamental, like a hippy-fied Tiffany’s ad.
But a couple days later, I realized that I kind of agreed with the message. I’ve often thought it would be wise to chart one’s well-being, day by day, in order to study and understand emergent patterns over weeks and months. Visually relate to those ups and downs that seem at the time like all-too-fleeting highs and everlasting throes. Get to know the middle ground, too. Vicissitudes. Know what I mean?
Maybe it’s time for a new chart project. Thanks to whoever left this on the sink!
By the way, anyone got insight into the prayer beads, and how they might relate to “measuring happiness?” My impression was that they’re used for counting prayers, which seems different.
Do you create by hand? Do you create with words? Or both?
Yesterday and today, my faculty advisor has observed that although we humans make meaning in verbal and physical ways, for a variety of social reasons authority figures often overcultivate one side or the other. (Or neither, I might add.) Many of us are taught, through schooling, that what we type with our fingers or say with our mouths is more important than what we can make with our hands or sculpt with our bodies.
There’s some overlap here, of course, in that writing (or typing) is an action that lives in our hands. But my advisor’s point is that too often, that’s as far as it goes. Unless we also engage in other activities and ways of thinking (in terms of movement, in terms of texture, in terms of light or temperature or dimension), our writing and meaningmaking will be limited to our hands, rather than involving our entire bodies.
The moment he said this, I got it. When I was younger, before writing took over as the only mode of learning in school (did I create a single physical object in college?), I used to think and create with my hands. I used to make things by hand.
* * * * * *
My mother, being a sentimental soul, and having only one child, has trouble throwing my old things away. The garage of my childhood home is lined with boxes containing elementary school spelling tests, middle-school science papers, and God knows what else. My bedroom, though not exactly as I left it at 17, feels less transformed (say, into a study) than strategically looted, with some walls and drawers empty and others left intact, housing various middle-to-high-school artifacts.
Pretty much every time I visit my parents, I use the desktop computer at least once. And pretty much every time I use the desktop computer, I notice and smile at the following diorama, perched on a nearby shelf in the cluttered study, and crafted by Yours Truly in about the fifth or sixth grade.
Thorin thinks that Bilbo should climb to the top of the tree and see if he can see any end to the forest. Bilbo reluctantly climbs up a tree and breaks through the canopy to the bright light of the sun. He sees thousands of butterflies and looks at “the black emperors for a long time and enjoyed the feel of the breeze in his hair and on his face.” [from The Hobbit, Chapter 8, pg. 148.]
Turns out, I used to love making all kinds of things when I was young. In eighth grade, I was supposed to present a visual aid about immigration to the US at the beginning of the 20th century. I wound up making a simple Rube Goldberg device: on one side of the machine there’s a tiny bucket where you place more and more stick figurines (representing immigrants). When the bucket gets heavy enough, it tips a see-saw that flips a gate, a marble rolls down a pathway and trips something else, and I forget exactly how the rest of it worked but in the end another tiny bucket flips over and out fall all these illustrations of ‘consequences of immigration’ (i.e. tenements, rats, spread of disease, and whatever else our history book told us).
But midway through high school or so, the making of things by hand fell away. It would be years before I rediscovered it: first through cooking, then letter writing, and now bootleg carpentry and picket-sign design. I hesitate to call these activities “making meaning” (sounds so lofty and . . . well . . . discursive), but at least they live in the same neighborhood.
How about you? Do you regularly use your hands to make meaning — playing music, painting, sculpting, deejaying? Or maybe even your entire body, through dance? Or are you mostly brain-mouth-and-keyboard -bound, like me?
The entire piece is deft and deeply relevant — worth a read, for sure. And since I seem incapable of connective theorizing that extends beyond whichever book I’ve last read, or whatever idea I’ve most recently started exploring (“Neuroplasticity, you say? You know, in a weird way that comes up in this book/article/Facebook post I just read on Black politics/Barbara Kingsolver/the disappearance of bees.” Lazy, I know, but at least the randomized combinations keep things surprising), I’m struck by the similarities between the recent work of Keith Hennessey (a performance artist who just presented and workshopped here at the MFAIA program) and the kind of thinking that Jeb Purucker applies to Occupy Oakland.
“Failure” is evidently enjoying a current popularity surge within academia: Jack Halberstam and a few others are releasing books on the topic. In his lectures and hands-on workshop here, Keith discussed a recent piece of his called Turbulence, in which he explores the concept of failure — as in, a performance piece that is set up to fail. Without going too much into it, I’ll say that participating in his workshops helped remind me of (a) the fruitfulness and dignity that come from improvisation, (b) the usefulness of reflecting on failures in order to glean lessons, and (c) the ways in which, with “success” kind of off the table, we are freed up to redouble our focus on how we work together. The process.
5. The workers at the General Hospital of Kilkis answer to this totalitarianism with democracy. We occupy the public hospital and put it under our direct and absolute control. The Γ.N. of Kilkis will henceforth be self-governed and the only legitimate means of administrative decision making will be the General Assembly of its workers.
. . .
7. The labour union of the Γ.N. of Kilkis will begin, from 6 February, the retention of work, serving only emergency incidents in our hospital until the complete payment for the hours worked, and the rise of our income to the levels it was before the arrival of the troika (EU-ECB-IMF). Meanwhile, knowing fully well what our social mission and moral obligations are, we will protect the health of the citizens that come to the hospital by providing free healthcare to those in need, accommodating and calling the government to finally accept its responsibilities, overcoming even in the last minute its immoderate social ruthlessness.
I’m ruminating on this today, thinking about play and experimentation in radical takeovers. Gratitude to Pete Hocking, Keith Hennessey, and the relational aesthetics folks (readin’ up on ’em here at Goddard) who are giving me some new perspectives to play with. May come back with some new ideas for EastBaySol. :)
As always, would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to share!