CROCUSES AND EMPATHY

What’s this about April being the cruelest month?* You’d never catch a pollinator saying that! Not in this latitude, anyway. After a seemingly endless winter, with its freezing sleep, the earth is waking up—and I, for one, spend my days diving in and out of crocuses. You haven’t lived until you’ve felt the great sky behind you but suddenly distant, the violet silk of petals all around, and golden pistils lighting your way into the chambers of another world…

Okay, so I’m not a bee—but I remember vividly a time last summer when I noticed a hydrangea tree buzzing all over. As I paused to watch one bumble bee at her labors, her back legs thickly padded with pollen, something about the way she dipped again and again into the same blossom gave me a dizzying physical sensation of her motion. At a certain point, she cupped the blossom and pressed it close around her head, and I felt a kind of creature-to-creature empathy.

This became one of the activities in my mindfulness class at the jail: not to imagine we could know another’s thoughts or feelings, but to give ourselves over to the pure sensation we might extrapolate from various physical cues. Right now I’m facing a wall; what would it be like to be on the other side of the table, facing the door? I’m wearing a soft aqua sweater today; what would it be like to wear a worn gray sweatshirt instead? What would it be like to be taller, more muscular, bearded? What would it be like to hold my forehead with that tension, deeply creased? One group member was driven half-mad by a noisy cellmate, and I suggested he imagine, next time the man was carrying on, those words at that volume issuing from his own mouth.

To evoke the spirit of the activity, I passed out photocopies of this poem by Pattiann Rogers, who kindly gave me permission to post it here.

 

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Suppose Your Father Was a Redbird

 

Suppose his body was the meticulous layering

Of graduated down which you studied early,

Rows of feathers increasing in size to the hard-splayed

Wine-gloss tips of his outer edges.

 

Suppose, before you could speak, you watched

The slow spread of his wing over and over,

The appearance of that invisible appendage,

The unfolding transformation of his body to the airborne.

And you followed his departure again and again,

Learning to distinguish the red microbe of his being

Far into the line of the horizon.

 

Then today you might be the only one able to see

The breast of a single red bloom

Five miles away across an open field.

The modification of your eye might have enabled you

To spot a red moth hanging on an oak branch

In the exact center of the Aurorean Forest.

And you could define for us “hearing red in the air,”

As you predict the day pollen from the poppy

Will blow in from the valley.

 

Naturally you would picture your faith arranged

In filamented principles moving from pink

To crimson at the final quill. And the red tremble

Of your dream you might explain as the shimmer

Of his back lost over the sea at dawn.

Your sudden visions you might interpret as the uncreasing

Of heaven, the bones of the sky spread,

The conceptualized wing of the mind untangling.

 

Imagine the intensity of your revelation

The night the entire body of a star turns red

And you watch it as it rushes in flames

Across the black, down into the hills.

 

If your father was a redbird,

Then you would be obligated to try to understand

What it is you recognize in the sun

As you study it again this evening

Pulling itself and the sky in dark red

Over the edge of the earth.

 

Pattiann Rogers

from The Dream of the Marsh Wren: Writing As Reciprocal Creation

 

* T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land.”

THE JUDGMENT CARD, PART ONE

In the Rider-Waite tarot tradition, the twentieth card in the major arcana (the portion of the deck representing archetypal themes) stands for Judgment.

It’s a heavy word, isn’t it? Even spoken, a product of breath and vibration, those two syllables seem weightier than others. Judgment. Some of us carry it on our backs, some of us bear it in our arms. Some of us, like Sisyphus, push it perpetually uphill. The tarot card, however, represents forgiveness, renewal, rebirth. Judgment in that tradition is also penultimate to the card of integration and fulfillment, the final card in the Fool’s journey, and is meaningful as such.

While the birds were concluding their dawn chorus today, I made one of my rare visits to the town’s Episcopal church. I guessed the theme, given the day, would be resurrection, and that’s a potent word for me, as I near the end of an exceptionally long four-year process. How will I emerge? What will I find when I do? I thought the sermon might stimulate my thoughts. The salt-of-the-earth rector’s talks rarely disappoint; he brings boyish enthusiasm to the experience of awe. This morning he said that most of us live as though resurrection is a concept of the past, a subject for historical discussion, or a concept of the future, a fate that awaits. But no, he said—it is present, it is with us, it is active. “Not a spectator sport,” he said. The action of resurrection is love and forgiveness.

I thought about the ramifications of such an attitude for my personal life and in relation to the broader world. I thought about the value of co-construction.

Restorative justice is a model of judgment that incorporates the concept of renewal, and as I paused on the front walk of the building where I live, to examine the tight red buds tipping the trees, my thoughts turned to the county jail. Late last summer and into the fall, I led a ten-part “skills of mindfulness” course there, with two different groups, one of men, one of women. Roughly halfway through, I asked all participants to write two letters: one to a loved one, living or dead, explaining the concept of mindfulness; and one to me, in which they were to evaluate their progress in the class. This letter is shared with permission.

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Hi EA,

There are definite pluses and minuses to incorporating mindfulness into a convict’s daily life, as I’m discovering. On one hand I have a routine every day. It’s always the same and as such, I am able to choose a time for meditation that best fits. For me, just after lunch works. I’m awake and there’s ample time before the noon lockdown to get into the correct state of mind. And if it falls through I have time to plan and execute another.

On the other hand, interruptions are a way of life here. Just today, as I meditated, I had three visitors come in the room and twice they wanted to talk. I usually have earplugs in to lessen the effects of shouting, TV, showers, toilets, intercoms and all other such matters of distraction. I imagine it’s the same on the outside. Sometimes it works better than others.

But I’m also trying to work mindfulness into regular living, accepting that this is where I am now and how things are. I’ve been trying to be less judgmental for the past year in response to my legal situations. I realized that I needed to change for the positive, that a lifetime of being negative and bottling things up, as is expected of males in our society, did not lead to a happy, fulfilling life. And I hope mindfulness can bring some good changes. It definitely seems to relieve tension, even in this not so perfect climate. I have yet to see if mindfulness is something I will be able to continue in regular life (on the outside), but I will try.

My girlfriend actually started me on mindfulness and meditation before I was incarcerated and day to day living seemed to throw things at me that made me forget about the daily practice.

But I consider it a marathon, not a sprint, and a journey, not a destination, so hopefully it will become more integral to my life as the months and years pass.

Thank you for your part in my journey.