Archive for May, 2018

Opening Words

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Forest Rhodie

Forest Rhododendron photo by Todd

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I like to write letters to friends and to artists and writers and movie directors I admire. Sometimes my friends will send me letters, but the artists and writers and movie directors I write to very rarely answer my letters, though until twenty years ago if the admired person was British, Australian, or from New Zealand, no matter how famous, he or she always wrote back—but not anymore.

For many years, before there was email and texting and tweeting, I sent off several letters every week; and almost every day in those halcyon days of postal abundance, the postal service agent would bring me letters from friends. On my computer I have a file entitled Letter Head Quotes. In this file are pages topped with a quote I especially like, and I will either type a letter to someone on one of those pages, or print out the page and use the empty space below the quote to write a letter by hand.

Here are some of my favorite letterhead quotes and a few thoughts about them.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

Alan Jones is an Episcopal priest who was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 1985 until 2009. When I lived in Berkeley from 1995 to 2006, I would attend Evensong on Thursday evening at Grace Cathedral twice a month. I’d take BART from the North Berkeley station, get off at Montgomery Street, hike up the hill to the cathedral, walk the labyrinth adjacent to the cathedral, enter the cavernous church, listen to the Boy’s and Men’s choirs sing gorgeous unintelligible hymns accompanied by a genius organist, and open my heart and mind to Alan’s spontaneous prayer, which always concluded Evensong.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

This quote from Winnie the Pooh is especially dear to me, literally dear, because when I was creating a book of my writing exercises The Writer’s Path with Mindy Toomay, I really wanted to use this quote in the book, and our publisher, 10-Speed before they were eaten by Random House, informed us that Disney, who now owns all things Pooh, was demanding five hundred dollars for the use of those few lines. 10-Speed was not about to cough up five hundred cents for our book, let alone five hundred dollars, so I coughed up the money, which amounted to ten per cent of my advance for the book; and I have never regretted the expenditure.

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.” Jean D’Arc

I first read this quote in Mark Twain’s novel Joan of Arc. I’ve read everything Twain wrote, and though I consider The Prince and the Pauper his finest novel, Twain considered Joan of Arc his greatest work. He spent two years in France meticulously researching his book, and he studied French for several years so he could read the transcripts of Joan’s trial in the original French with the aid of able translators. Despite Twain’s immense fame, no publisher would publish the book, so Twain published the fascinating work himself.

This quote, which comes from the transcript of Joan’s trial, speaks of a desire to be in a state of grace without needing to know whether one is in such a state. In that sense, the sentiment, when separated from the context of Joan’s trial, echoes the Buddha extolling the virtue of Not Knowing, of Beginner’s Mind—an innocent acceptance and appreciation of whatever we are experiencing.

In the context of Joan’s trial, these words are a testament to her astonishing genius, for this simple reply effectively defeated her brutal prosecutor and proved the most brilliant minds in the Catholic Church incapable of convicting her of heresy. Thus stymied, those hideous men tortured her until they imagined her anguished cries to be an admission of heresy—after which they quickly burned her at the stake.

But before they tortured her and killed her, they laid a pernicious intellectual trap for her. There was an arcane law of the Catholic Church stating that anyone claiming to be in a state of grace, or claiming not to be in a state of grace, was a heretic. So if Joan could be tricked into saying, or even implying, she believed she was or was not in a state of grace, she would be proved a heretic. Having been deprived of sleep and sufficient food for several weeks, having stood through weeks of trial in the face of legions of ghoulish priests intent on killing her, Joan, nineteen, illiterate, and knowing nothing of the complicated laws of the church was asked by the prosecutor, “Do you believe you are in a state of grace?”

As Twain describes the scene, the devious prosecutor asks this question almost as an afterthought at the end of a grueling day of interrogation. Joan gathers herself, awaits guidance from her angelic allies, and replies with quiet eloquence, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it. If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.”

In a more modern context, but in a similarly metaphysical vein, the following quote from Buckminster Fuller is a succinct description of how I believe the universe operates. I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained. 

Having shared this quote with many people, I can report that artists and poets and people who have lived unusual lives universally agree that this is how the universe operates, while everybody else says Bucky’s idea is hokum.

Here is one of my favorite Philip Whalen poems.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

 

Meaningful Life

Monday, May 7th, 2018

Defer bucking

Defer Bucking Logs photo by Todd

There is the wisdom of all-accomplishing action, in which speed does not have to be included in one’s working situation, but things fall into your pattern.” Chögyam Trungpa

In the midst of cleaning up her office a few days ago, Marcia found a Mendocino Beacon dated February 1, 2018, in which there was an obituary for Martin Knott, a fellow I got to know a couple years ago after seeing him walking around town with his dog for the last decade or so. Martin’s dog was medium-sized with the gorgeous complex coloring of an Appaloosa horse. Martin and his dog would saunter around town, the unleashed dog in the lead and Martin following way behind.

I got to know Martin because two years ago Marcia came home from shopping at Harvest Market in Mendocino and said, “Marty wanted me to tell you how much he enjoys your articles.” That was when my weekly pieces were still appearing in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Being a devoted patron of Corners of the Mouth, I rarely shopped at Harvest and didn’t know the names of any of the Harvest checkers, so I could only imagine who Marty was, and for some reason I envisioned him as a slender young man with brown hair and glasses.

Some weeks after Marcia mentioned Marty enjoying my articles, she and I were in Harvest together and she fell into conversation with a beefy, bearded, gray-haired fellow.

“Todd,” she said, “this is Marty. Marty, this is Todd.”

Marty did a double take and said, “You’re Todd Walton?” He had seen me around town many times, but it had never occurred to him that the guy with the free-range hair and the Giants sweatshirt was the writer of articles he enjoyed, just as it never occurred to me that the bearded guy huffing and puffing as he followed his dog around town was Marty who worked at Harvest and liked my articles.

Thereafter when we met on our walks, Marty and I would exchange hellos, celebrate the sun or philosophize about the fog, and go our separate ways. His obituary says he was into woodcarving, horticulture, writing, travel, sailing, and building uniquely designed sailing boats, but we never spoke of those things.

On several occasions, I saw ravens following Marty as he trudged along behind his dog, and it was not until the last time I encountered him, a few months before he died, that I discovered what made him so attractive to those big black birds.

I said to Marty, “Those ravens really love you,” and he explained he occasionally got old sausage from the butchers at Harvest Market, and as he walked around town he would fling bits of sausage to the ravens.

Another time I said to Marty, “Your dog always seems so determined to make his rounds.”

“He is determined,” said Marty, nodding. “And as you can see, he walks me.”

Since I was accustomed to not seeing Marty for long stretches of time, news of his death came as a surprise to me. I didn’t really know him, but I liked him, and I liked his dog, and I liked how their presence added to the lovely feeling of living here. So though I didn’t miss him before I knew he was gone, I miss him now and I wish we’d had a chance to talk about writing and gardening and uniquely designed sailing boats.

The obituary informed us that Marty was seventy-three when he died, a fact that prompted Marcia to say, “That’s not very old.”

So I looked up death in America and found that in 2017 the average age of death for men was seventy-seven, for women eighty. In that context Marty was not so young when he died. However, Marcia’s mother died last year on the verge of ninety-nine, and Marcia expects to live well into her nineties, too, so in that context seventy-three is, indeed, not very old. Marcia and I are both sixty-eight and many of our friends are in their seventies—and because we don’t want any of them to die, yes, seventy-three is not very old.

Then there is our neighbor Defer (pronounced Deefer), who is nearing eighty and still works as a tree feller for a redwood logging company. Every once in a while Defer will come over after he gets home from work to do some chain-sawing for us before he changes out of his work clothes. Watching Defer work is both humbling and inspiring. He is currently bucking up some big logs for us, and he gets so much accomplished in so little time, I am in awe of his skill and strength.

A few days ago, in virtually no time at all, he bucked up three big lengths of a pine trunk and made thirty-six big rounds for me to split into firewood. When he was finished, I walked with him back to his place and learned he was working full time these days dropping redwoods.

“I hope you aren’t working too hard,” I said, finding it incomprehensible that I could have ever felled giant trees fulltime, even in my muscular youth, let alone ten years from now when I’m seventy-eight.

“You know,” said Defer, smiling wryly, “I’ve never worked too hard. I work at a steady pace I can maintain with a few breaks for water and a longer break for lunch. That’s how I get it done.”

My grandmother Goody was fond of saying, “The goal is not to live as long as you can, but to live a meaningful life.”

Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. But as long as you think, ‘I am doing this,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity that appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.”

Ganapati

Ganapati photo by Todd