SD Festival of the Book, I’m on Your Side!

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I’m very happy to announce that my co-editor Ruby Wilson and I will be hosting two sessions at the South Dakota Festival of Books (Sept. 21-24, 2017, Deadwood, SD). A big shoutout to the South Dakota Humanities Council for promoting our upcoming book Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems in a sidebar of its official program. We’re excited to be part of what is always a grand event!

After Charlottesville: Uniting the Light

Earlier this summer, on our way to tour Jefferson’s Monticello, my teenage son and I passed through Charlottesville, Virginia. I didn’t pay the town much attention. My thoughts were too much on my driving, and too much on the complicated past we would soon encounter at the plantation, only five or six miles ahead. Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Proponent of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Slave owner. Keeper of a sex slave. Sire of slave children. Architect of the government’s policy of forcibly removing indigenous people from their homelands to make room for white settlement….

Like I said, complicated.

After last weekend’s horrors in Charlottesville, it should be abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, that the “complicated past” is still with us. And it’s downright ugly. Stunningly so. The overt racism now afoot in this country robs my breath, drops me to my knees. It fills me with bewilderment, sorrow, rage—perfectly natural things to feel, but they can be paralyzing and destructive, unless I work at transmuting them into acts of compassion, justice-seeking, peace-building.

The last few days I’ve been studying photographs of the people who clashed at the “Unite the Right” rally. I keep looking for eyes. Such images are elusive, but I keep searching. White supremacist. Counter-protester. Police officer. Medic. Clergy. Car driver. Victim. Hat wearer: “Make America Great Again.”

I want—need—to see deep down in the eyes. Glimpse a flash of soul, perhaps. What happened in Charlottesville was terrorism, plain and simple. The eyes remind me of the complicated part: that I share something fundamental with everyone who was there, even with the Nazis, even with James Alex Fielders, who wielded his car as a weapon, likely hoping to commit mass murder. The eyes remind me, We’re all trying to be human together. And I dare to believe what all terrorists refuse to: That because we’re all trying to be human together, we have a responsibility to one another.

I imagine that white supremacists find themselves quoting Thomas Jefferson on occasion. After all, he was into having an armed citizenry, and thought a little rebellion (with bloodshed) could be good for the nation, now and then. A fairly close relative of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general whose statue was at the center of the Charlotteville clash, Jefferson was also, frankly, a racist.

But at least he recognized the possibility of his own limitations. “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind,” he wrote. “As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.” Institutions, and citizens.

So here’s a message to my white supremacist brothers and sisters: You’re not keeping pace. You’re living in the past, and the rest of us aren’t going back with you. To quote the Declaration of Independence, “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to nonviolently drag this country, and if necessary its leadership, into a future where the equal rights and worth of all people (including you) are recognized and celebrated. It might take us generations as a nation to get there, but that’s the prize, and our eyes are fixed on it.

Oh, and just so you know, I refuse to hate you. I don’t need to hate you in order to resist what you stand for. Besides, I don’t want to hate you—for moral and spiritual reasons, yes, but also for strategic and tactical ones. To quote your possible hero Jefferson one last time, “Nothing gives one person so much advantage over another as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”

So, a friendly warning: You’d better watch out. Because my kinda people, we’re cool as a solar eclipse, and we’re unruffled as ducks on water. Go ahead and try to “Unite the Right” if you want. You’re wasting your time. All around you, we’re uniting the light.

Don’t be scared of it. Come on over. Let’s look each other in the eye.

 

 

 

Are You Tuned In?

My latest book, Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems (co-edited with Ruby R. Wilson), will soon be out. Tune into the tv screen below, and you can distinguish the book’s beautiful cover image, which was shot by David Moynahan.

Seriously, though, the poems in this book are all about “tuning in” to our lives. I was recently reminded of how difficult that can be when I ended up having to copy-edit the book’s proof while camping with my family in the Rockies and Tetons, far from the Internet and cell phone service!

 

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Mindful Music for Mindfulness Poetry!

What would the world be without serendipity?

If you’ve watched the official Poetry of Presence book trailer, you’ll remember the gentle guitar soundtrack. We chanced upon “Goodnight Esme (Instrumental Version),” composed and performed by Axletree, while searching the Internet for Creative Commons music to use in our video. As soon as we heard the piece, from the album Cormorant (pictured below), we knew it was just what we needed.

Shortly after we completed our book trailer and uploaded it to YouTube, this comment was posted on the video’s page:

Thank you for putting this video together, a lovely choice of images and the music works really well, I’m pleased it resonated with mindfullness, which is where it emerged from 🙂 Have a wonderful summer

The comment was signed “Axletree—Alexander Westmacott.”

Alexander Westmacott, we learned at his website, is an artist and philosopher. “Axletree” is a project by which he’s “exploring and promoting traditional agriculture and rural ways of life through art, with the aim of increasing human and environmental wellbeing.”

Since Poetry of Presence is an anthology of mindfulness poems, we were thrilled to learn that “Goodnight Esme” had also sprung from mindfulness practice. We contacted Alex and asked if he might share some reflections on the subject. He responded immediately:

Thank you so much for suggesting I write a little about mindfulness. It is a topic that means a lot to me. I am a lay monk in the Christian tradition and mindfullness plays a very important part in my life. So here goes….

I was touched that [you] chose this piece of music to promote Poetry of Presence, although perhaps I can’t say it is my music. As a poet myself, and as a philosopher and a monastic, I have learned gradually to understand the message from artists throughout history, who have said that their art is not theirs.

When we create, something organic emerges. Our thoughts & feelings take form and become something new, with a life of its own. In mindfullness we learn to recognise the truth that, much as we might like to, we cannot take the credit or the shame for our ideas.

Art grows out of mindfullness like a plant grows out of the soil, and just as we can tend a plant, care for it, and hope it comes to fruition, so we hope that our art manifests a deeper meaning. But also like the plant, we know that this meaning comes not from ourselves, but from life—from the heart of what is is to be alive.

In bringing together this anthology, I sincerely hope that more people young and old will come to recognise and cherish the gift that mindfullness offers us, as a path to this heart, and as a return to our own lives, and to the overwhelming presence and delicate beauty of life itself.

Alex even generously shared with us a short poem he’d written “some time ago”:

SUM

Finding,
As in January waking finds a snow
That whispers for the wintr’ing seeds to grow.

Turning,
Like a rolling mist that turns to frost
But’s gone tomorrow;

Little gained, or lost.

There’s such sweet serendipity in all this! Thank you, Alex, for the gift of your music, your poetry, your soul. May you continue to touch this world with gentleness. All blessings on you and Axletree!

Click on the album image below to listen
to more of Alex’s music and poetry on the Free Music Archive.

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Offering You a Sneak Peek …

… at the book trailer for Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems. I’ve had the joy of co-editing Poetry of Presence over the past year with Ruby R. Wilson. Grayson Books will publish the book in late summer. As soon as we know the exact date, we’ll be yodeling it from the mountaintops, dropping leaflets from hot-air balloons, and skywriting with poetry drones.

Hope you enjoy the video, which we’re officially releasing to the public tomorrow morning. We made it just for you! (Popcorn optional.)

 

Abraham Lincoln on Mindful Speech

I’ve recently returned with my teenage-son from a two-week road trip. (His dad’s currently traveling in China.) We drove from South Dakota to see my parents in North Carolina, with many stops along the way. Among them was Springfield, Illinois, adopted home of President Abraham Lincoln, where Nathan and I took time to explore the Lincolns’ life prior to their departure for the White House.

Many of Abraham’s Lincoln’s words had a sharper ring in my ears than usual, given today’s political climate. His observation in the photograph below—part of a mural on a building adjacent to a parking lot—was just one quote that struck me. Nathan and I chanced upon the mural while walking a Springfield street. You might call it a call to mindful speech. To careful utterance. To discipline of the tongue.

You might even regard it as a caution against “modern-day presidential” tweet storms (quoting the present occupant of the Oval Office).

It isn’t Mr. Trump alone who I wish would heed Lincoln’s counsel to be more mindful in his speaking. It’s many of us—I include myself—on the other side of the political aisle, who too often express less than “the better angels of our nature.” (Lincoln’s words again, from the end of his first inaugural speech, just prior to the outbreak of civil war.) How do we resist those who do harm without ourselves acting hateful and injurious? How do we speak out against cruelty, ignorance, injustice and oppression without violating the humanity of our opponents, or surrendering our own honor?

“Honor.” A lost word? Perhaps we should reclaim it. Re-imagine it. Re-assert it.

“We are not enemies, but friends,” Lincoln declared, in that same inaugural address, seeing the monstrosity of war on the horizon. Perhaps he was even begging his fellow citizens, in his high-pitched, nasal Kentucky drawl. “We must not,” he urged, “be enemies.”

Mr. Lincoln had his flaws. So do we. But as he reminded us, we also have wings. Let’s not give up trying to fly.

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