Explicit, tacit; explicitly

As some of you who also follow me on Twitter or Instagram may have gathered, I’ve moved from New Haven to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The biggest, and most materially relevant reason, is for graduate school. I also am beginning to think it was simply time for me to move on. Other transitions and changes were happening in my life, and a physical move of location and the reorganization which inevitably accompanies that packing/unpacking dyad has ended up corresponding very closely to, and complementing quite precisely, those transitions and changes.

First and foremost, I returned my precepts. In other words, I returned to laylife. The decision was slow in its gestation, although the timing of the actual return of my kasa to my Zen Master was influenced heavily by the start of summer classes this June. As one friend put it, “Do you want to start off graduate school in one mode, then switch partway through and have to explain that to everyone? Wouldn’t it be easier if you simply started graduate school, beginning with the summer class, as a layperson?” Since I was settled in my decision to return my monastic precepts, it didn’t feel premature to return my kasa this May, when I was in Korea.

Despite the superficially public nature of a decision like this, superficial in that the effects of the decision are immediately visible in my dress and behavior, and anyone who knows me would recognize right away that something had shifted even if I didn’t tell her, I’ve been reluctant to write about this decision here. Reluctant for so many reasons, and reluctant for reasons that have no rationale, but simply because it felt (feels) so intensely private at times. This sense of privacy is strong, even though I literally wear the decision publically every day, much as I publically wore the decision to ordain every day, in the form of monastic robes. I’m not sure that private is the opposite of public, though, not in this sense. It’s been a month since I formally returned my kasa, and for this month I’ve been content to be both public and private about the decision. Not everything needs to be live-Tweeted. Not every moment or event is Instagramed. Nor should it be. This perhaps is the new privacy: the things we simply do, without attempting to record it on a social-media outlet. This was not something I was ready to announce beyond the people who either know me quite well in real life, or who see me every day.

And yet: I have always included not just my religiousity, but also my religious/monastic identity, in my writing here. If I haven’t written much (or at all) for the past year or so, I know that much of that silence came from the real tensions and unbearably private difficulties I felt surrounding both my personal religiousity and my monastic identity and life. To write anything honest would have required admitting to not only myself but to you, dear readers who find this blog from all over and some of whom I know and some of whom I do not, that I was struggling at a fundamental level with the entire foundation and edifice of my life.

Admitting difficulty is not something monastics really do. We do it, but in retrospect. “One time, when I was struggling with my practice…” “Once, when I was a young nun, my understanding of faith totally fell apart…” “Oh, I hear you, when I have dark times like that…” But rarely do we put it in the present tense even if it’s a current challenge, this very moment, even with each other, outside all but a close circle of friends and mentors. We do not disclose our real-time struggles, but wait until the moment passes so we can use it as a distal reference point. Too proximate, and it can’t be discussed. It’s as if these moments themselves exert a force preventing easy communication.

(Even in that paragraph, I slipped into “we.” There is slippage, a sloppy middle sphere; transitional, liminal.)

To write here that I had returned my precepts was to tacitly admit that I had had difficulties, and difficulties that wouldn’t be relegated to retrospection, “That time when I had a crisis of faith…” Unlike other difficulties in my monastic life which could be embraced by the robes and their effects hidden in some way, I had (have) unreconciliable, irrevocable difficulties. Difficulties that ruptured some fundamental tie to a monastic vocation. Difficulties that pushed the robes away. I wasn’t ready for that tacit admittance, until I felt like I was comfortable saying explicitly: I struggled with my monastic vocation greatly over the past three years or so, and the end I decided that to live authentically and as wholly as possible, I needed to leave. I couldn’t explicitly say it until I was able to own the tacit confession involved, too.

Maybe these difficulties will find new places to hide, like in the pages of textbooks, or in the pockets of my now-colorful wardrobe. For now, however, there is something very bare and open about them, and it was that bareness that had me shying away from writing anything here. Too bare, too open; not a state in which to make an announcement like this, I felt. I have not yet “had difficulties”; I am still having them, still walking through new landscapes of living and feeling both assured and bewildered by turns. I thrill at new freedoms, and I grieve deeply for the loss of old ones.

So, all the packing and unpacking has been good, helpful; it’s shown me that the boxes I store my life in literally and figuratively erupt into an interspliced melange when I unpack. I may use the words “irrevocable” and “rupture,” but it’s clear from where I sit (on a broken chair) in my still-underfurnished and box-strewn apartment, that there is also a continuum in my life. My religiousity remains. My religious identity is still here, in the form of ministry and community building, and I’ll look for other ways to fulfill a clerical or priestly vocation, although not a monastic one. My old kasa from when I was a novice and two kasa from my grandteacher and teacher are a part of the altar. My texts from seminary are carefully shelved. I have all the pictures of the various monastic communities I was a part of, and I will find places to display some of them.

It’s been a little over a month since I formally returned my precepts and my robe to our Zen Master in Korea. It’s taken me this long to say anything in this sphere (no tweeting, no Facebook) because I care so deeply about not only how I’ve now chosen to live, but how I did choose to live, too, and out of respect for my brothers and sisters who still live a monastic life. I really believe that you can’t take your own choices lightly without becoming superficial with others’ choices, and I owe the sangha the weight and time of consideration as much as I owe myself. It took over a month to find words roughly equal to the task. The weight of years and the many relationships involved in my monastic life have held me mute; what could I say that could possibly convey both the debt and the relief of these shifting but never absent relationships?

Honestly, one thing I hope comes out of making this announcement here is that some of the stuckness and silence I’ve experience creatively will ease. Having made my situation clear to both myself and others, maybe I can begin to reground myself creatively, and write again. The fundamental connection between honesty with myself and the ability to write has rarely been clearer than the last several years. With both personal and public honesty, maybe I’ll be able to re-engage writing.

To all the readers, known and unknown, thank you.

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ehi

Packing up books invariably means reading books, or at least portions of them. This morning, in between loads of laundry, I packed half of my poetry bookshelves. I delayed packing two books, Norman Fischer’s Opening to You and John Stevens’ selected translations of  Ryokan, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf. I’m thinking of trying to incorporate some of Fischer’s interpretations of the Psalms and some of my favorite Ryokan poems into my devotional and prayer practice in the next couple of months, so I didn’t want to pack them quite yet. Spring, in addition to its immediate wellspring of good weather and fresh growth, is the season of thinking ahead to the summer—and the summer retreat season, which for me often means thinking ahead to what daily practices I want to commit to for the three months. I’m rarely on full, formal retreat, only twice in ten years as a matter of fact; but my spiritual life now revolves around the twice-yearly summer and winter retreats as surely as it does around the daily activities of morning chanting and meditation sessions. For a couple of years I’ve committed to some form of additional daily practice during the retreat season, either alone or with others, that is often very personal and shaped around the needs of the people committing for that season. The three-month commitment has been a wonderful way to create a spiritual practice more specifically addressing whatever difficulties or needs might be present at the time. Although the commitments are always shaped within the general framework of Mahayana practice and especially Korean forms and texts, we’ve write our own aspirations (發願文) and chosen different practices. In those, there’s plenty of room to express what we are honestly seeking in our practice and move outside of the usual, but tired, religious phrases.
 
Professionals of all stripes can be hesitant to admit when they themselves aren’t faring too well in a given field, or work to hide their own failings therein. The doctor who admonishes patients to sleep and exercise more but gets only 5 or 6 hours a night and doesn’t have time for a jog; the counselor urging patience to a client has had it up to here with her own work or home life and is ready to tear her hair out; the rabbi or pastor or teacher who speaks with such enthusiasm and commitment for a particular path and practice to her congregation is herself mired in acedia and wandering a spiritual desert, no end in sight. When I start thinking ahead to what prayers and practices I need, I usually first have to come to grips with what I feel is lacking in my own practice, or where I feel stuck and dry. I serve a student sangha and participate in another sangha extended throughout the Northeast, and I spend a fair amount of my time encouraging and teaching basic practices and fundamental attitudes and approaches. I teach mindfulness of breath as it integrates into Zen meditation, and I follow the set routine of the Dharma Center where I live and help lead daily practice. And yet, even though I’ve been publicly espousing these practices, this spring I had to admit that mindfulness of breath isn’t working particularly well for me right now and the daily routine of the Center has gone stale, very stale.
 
There’s good teaching and strong practice in not expecting anything special from daily meditation, chanting, or ritual. Everything, eventually, becomes comfortable and routine, and at some point becomes insipid and tasteless. No matter how amazing a practice was when you began, eventually it loses its shine. The-grass-is-always-greener syndrome led me at one point during seminary in Korea to think about jumping ship completely back to Tibetan Buddhism, not out of any strong ideological conviction but, honestly, out of boredom with the training I’d been immersed in for years. I didn’t see it that way at the time, of course. I was fairly convinced that there were good reasons to engage in Tibetan-style practices again and reboot my approach to Dharma from a Tibetan perspective. I didn’t make the switch, though, because when I was honest, I knew I’d already seriously committed to Korean Buddhism. Another reason was because there really weren’t any resources in a rural Korean nuns’ seminary to explore anything other than Korean Buddhism. By the time I had the kind of freedom and access to other resources to potentially study and practice another tradition, I’d come to see my urge to change primary practices as symptomatic of a basic human habit toward itchy, bored dissatisfaction rather than an indication of a real problem with the Korean tradition.
 
In coming to terms with the dryness in my practice and my need for something else, I also have to come to terms with the reality of boredom in all things. No matter how I switch it up, I won’t outrun boredom. Acknowledging that boredom, though, doesn’t mean not working to invigorate a practice that’s gone dry. Once, on a seminary magazine assignment to interview Hae Guk Kun Sunim, a senior monk in the Korean Jogye Order known for his intense devotion to Zen practice (in particular the hwa-du method), one of our interviewers asked him what he did when he felt himself lacking inspiration in his sitting practice. He said, “When I can’t get anywhere with sitting, I go to the Buddha Hall and I do prostrations or I chant. You must have faith in your practice! If you chant, your faith rises again.” The student-nuns were surprised. The divide between “Zen” practice and “devotional” practices is, at least in theory, somewhat contentiously maintained by both sides. Zen practitioners hold that Zen is complete in and of itself and sniff at devotional practices as lesser activities, and those who chant bluster that chanting is as efficacious as sitting in bringing about realization, and unlike sitting Zen, it also simultaneously inspires others and is an accessible doorway to the Dharma. In reality, almost all monastics I knew, including myself, had done stints of both chanting and sitting, and many nuns in my seminary who wanted to go on to sit in the Zen halls also enthusiastically engaged in kido practices of some kind, either sutra recitation, prostrations, reciting mantras or the names of the Buddhas, or copying out sutras. Hae Guk Kun Sunim’s response simply pointed out what we all understood in our experience: a well-rounded practice must be balanced, in the long run, between a variety of practices that pull together into a whole. There are times when you need to just tough it out and stick to the commitment to sit, or chant, or bow; and then there are seasons when you need to try a new approach in order to keep yourself practicing.
 
I think that which practices are pulled in are personal and can’t be dictated formulaically. The texts that Hae Guk Kun Sunim chants when he needs to re-inspire himself to practice are probably not the texts I would chose. Language informs some of those differences; I mix Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, and English texts and prayers together in a way that would probably look messy, and be incomprehensible, to Hae Guk Kun Sunim. But it works for me. I’m also pretty sure he and I have very different understandings of what constitutes connecting with the sacred, shaped by culture. I read in a biography of St. Teresa of Avila one time that, although she was a faithful Catholic, her prayer life was heavily shaped by the (obscured) Jewish heritage of her family, and that Teresa the Catholic mystic prayed like a Jew. I often feel like I’m a Buddhist who prays like a Christian, seeking a personal relationship to the Divine. I was raised in churches that preached personal connection with Jesus Christ as being at the heart of salvation, and I absorbed into my spiritual personality an intense desire for personal connection even if I didn’t have a Christian faith. I may interpret Fischer’s Psalms through a Dharmic lens, but I’m emotionally responding to the I-Thou relationship in them in a way that no amount of non-duality or non-self can obscure or erase. And I love how Ryokan lets the world touch him, wanting to drape a coat on a pine tree dripping in the rain, or addressing the unspeakable tragedy of children dying not with pat religious cliches, but with a sense of profound and inconsolable loss and sorrow. That speaks to me, partly because it sets “faith” aside and lets in all that we can’t know or explain. I need room for the human and the emotional in my practice, and I need poetry and psalms and texts from outside the strict lines of “Buddhist” literature because they move me and make me responsive again to the sacred in the world. I can’t live on sutras and breath alone, at least not if I want to be a whole-hearted practitioner.
 
Ehi means “Come” in Sanskrit. The Buddha’s initial ordination was to simply say to someone, “Come,” and at that word he or she became a monastic student of the Buddha. Moving beyond the emphasis on monastic ordination implied in the textual use of the word, I like to think of it as a kind of invitation to enter into the Dharma again in a vital, connected, and living way. In order to hear the ever-present invitation, though, I have to realize when I’m in need of reconnection. Boredom, in the acute sense of acedia, is a sure sign that I’ve disconnected.
 
Setting books in boxes this morning, riffling through old favorites and wistfully thumbing ones I haven’t been able to read yet, it was timely that just as I’ve become aware of a disconnect, I’d find a few things that re-opened the invitation to connect. Ehi, ehi, the entire season seems to say, sunlight coming in through the window, and the lines I underlined in Fischer’s book the first time I read it speaking to me, again:

 

(Psalm 4)

Because I call
You answer
For you are fitting
Because I am small
You enlarge me
For you are gracious
You hear my song

(Psalm 90)

You have always been a refuge to me
Before the mountains, before the earth, before the world
From endlessness to endlessness
You are

You turn me around
You say
Return child

a psalm for winter

I cried unto God with my voice,
even unto God with my voice;
and he gave ear unto me.

December. A wind snuffling at the windows and a cold in the bones. The long rain-slick steel of fall has now given way to the white-mottled slate of winter. Snow is falling in a day-long carpet, deepening its pile even now. The solstice approaches, too, the little new year.

I call to remembrance my song in the night:
I commune with mine own heart:
and my spirit made diligent search.

American school, with its dimly remembered but nonetheless institutionalized relationship to agricultural cycles, starts the new year in the fall. Summer in the US is a time of nostalgia, then; the end of the long vacation, and whatever mishaps, adventures, romances, and idylls occupied the season become the stuff of excited first-month-back chatter and communal mythologizing. Summer and its aftermath were an odd combination of personal and public in that way. In Korea the school year began in spring, however, for whatever reasons. I never asked why. But that meant that the rupture and transition between one phase and the next happened in the coldest season, was salted not with sweat or beach-sand, but with the icy burn of snow and under the dark anvil of long nights. Summers are redolent of dandelions and wet grass and ozone after rain. They exude, sprawl over the months with long undressed brown limbs. Winters are enclosed, gestational, interior–and increasingly private, happening for me in solitudes both physical and spiritual. Winters close in on themselves like a light narrowing in a hall. Marking transitions in the winter, rather than the summer, has produced in me an intense interiority and privacy, above and beyond what winter normally provokes.

And I said, This is my infirmity:
but I will remember the years
of the right hand of the most High.

The fall is over. The hectic, embattled, thrilling avalanche of fall is coming to a close. I packed the semester with all that I could stuff into the broad golden mouth of its sack. Now that season has finally fallen slack, and winter has arrived with its end. The tests are taken. The last activities are done. Letters are being sent, parties have been had, a general tidying and dusting of life is underway in the days remaining before the solstice, and for me, a departure to Korea for the month.

Thy way is in the sea,
and thy path in the great waters,
and thy footsteps are not known.

Patterns and habits prevail: I continued to hum Christmas carols every December I spent in a monastery, and outside the monastery, I continue to honor with remembrance an older and slower cycle of the year. I love this lull between solstice and lunar new year. The world still wrapped in cold and dark, the heart still tending toward a stillness and a silence, magnified by and magnifying the held hush outside.

Psalm 77, KJV

such tender emptiness

Let us examine the daily life of a Bodhisattva:
There is nothing to be found in the empty mind,
Yet they are full of generous charities
In the empty roots of the six senses,
And such purity without defilement is the precept,
Such tender emptiness, tolerance,
Such innate brightness without dark shadow is exertion,
And such bright serenity, the meditation.

from The Collected Writings of Gyeongheo: A prose collection, translated by Dr. Young E. Park

The moon’s a nicked-out sliver of sky, a slash revealing the illumination waiting beneath every night. In two days’ time, Buddha’s birthday will be upon us, and the brilliant gash of the moon will widen a bit more as it moves toward full. And on the full-moon day next week, the three-month summer retreat will begin in Korea.

I am here, moving with the moon, moving with the widening belly of light, listening to frogs in the pond below the international Zen center, in the light humidity and warmth of early Korean summer.

Last week Tuesday I landed in Incheon. An American nun, one of my closest friends, picked me up at the airport. The next morning she drove me down to my home temple. Almost exactly eight years ago to the day, another friend drove me to that temple to begin haeng-ja, the period of postulancy preceding novice ordination in the Korean monastic system. The parallels were not lost on me: eight years ago I followed through on a decision, the ramifications of which shape and will continue to shape my life every day. Last week, I went to inform the senior nuns at my home temple that I had decided to stay in the US, in order to help with the Zen Center and university community I became involved with over the course of the last 12 months in the US, and to continue to prepare for and (I can only hope) gain admittance to a graduate program in Buddhist Studies. The decision was long in the making. It wasn’t easy to tell my teacher and grand-teacher that, contrary to their expectations, I would not be returning to them, but going off on my own. Like the decision that brought me to them, this decision will also exert substantial influence on each day of my life from here on out. Independence seized also entails a rather lonely-looking path; whatever else I might have to say about living within the closely-drawn boundaries of my home monastic community, it did offer material stability and the assurance of certain kinds of support that don’t come ready-made like that in the West. There is no perfect situation. Every decision and action entails a sacrifice, something given up. For security, I would have to give up a calling toward scholasticism. To pursue that calling, without any insurance that what I hope will happen actually will, I have to give up security, as well as disappoint some of the most important people in my life. To not pursue it, however, would mean disappointing the strong sense of what it is I need to do in this life.

I’ve decided against security. I’ve also decided against “duty,” which was far more painful and difficult than any question of material support. What will come of this, I can’t say. I don’t even want to speculate, although I’m working as hard as I can to lay a foundation for graduate school applications and study, which has been my long-term plan for several years now. I also will use the opportunity of being in Korea to ground again in the monastic community here. Another senior monk, who like me lives as the sole monastic in his local center, said, “Coming back to Korea and being with sangha nourishes me.” It was like I was parched and didn’t even realize the extent of my thirst.

And for the summer, something worked out like a grace: three months’ retreat. The first time I’ve been able to go on retreat since before I ordained. The dates for this summer’s retreat fell in between the American academic calendar, allowing a rare moment of equipoise in which I can participate in both the traditional monastic cycle and the conventional academic schedule. I’ll be chanting (rather than sitting) this retreat, something I’m really looking forward to.

Gyeongheo, one of the preeminent Zen Masters of modern Korea and a patriarch in the lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn, speaks of the paramita, or perfection, of tolerance (also translated as “forbearance”) as a “tender emptiness.” “All existence is dukkha,” or “unsatisfactory;” this is the first noble truth, and in the Buddhist world we often toss that up as a flippant explanation for why life is just so damn difficult sometimes. The impression I’ve given myself over time is that I try and shrug off the intense pain living can bring by trying to bundle it up with a trite gesture toward this first noble truth, rather than actually sitting with and giving space to pain. Everything changes; we repeat this to ourselves ad nauseam in Buddhist communities. I tend to smother any acute discomfort with that pithy statement about impermanence. I abuse the first noble truth to accomplish this same emotional dulling, because sometimes things just hurt, and nothing we do changes that aspect of living.

The link between dukkha and impermanence is that the reason the stuff of life itself is unsatisfactory is because the stuff of life itself is impermanent. Whatever we hold in our hands is already slipping away from us, and we are slipping away from it. The whole range of responses to the slippage and loss of ordinary life, from mild irritation to breath-taking anguish, stems from the wish that we could hold on just a bit longer to the single bright moment. Tolerance, as I’ve come to experience it, is not a conventional patience. It is a deep acceptance that because people and situations change, sometimes there will be sorrow and sometimes there will be joy. Whatever’s there at the time is what we get to deal with. Then that too will dissolve into something else. Empty of permanence, it’s the nature of things to do this. It’s easy to quote a teaching and pay lip-service to the concept of change. It’s harder to practice that tender emptiness of forbearance, that aches and yearns and still lets go, and that can recognize and hold the aching of others as well. I was sitting in the tea-room today, waiting for a senior monk, and idly flipping through this book of Gyeongheo’s writings. There’s a bit of an ache alongside a bit of joy in me these days, the ache of knowing I disappointed my teacher and grand-teacher, and the joy of being where I feel I need to be. Gyeongheo’s “tender emptiness” touches this spot in me, like a bruise of light. No stoic patience, insensate to the pulsating whirl of living, but a response, genuine yet also discerning. Toward that forbearance, and the embodiment of it, I hope this summer sees us all advance…

a whole world of sticky pigments

photo-24

Several weeks ago, Venerable Hojin, an ordained priest from Zen Mountain Monastery, came down with Ryushin Sensei, the abbot, to lead a workshop on campus. Ryushin Sensei was giving a Dharma talk that evening, but Hojin was facilitating an introductory workshop to spirituality and art.

Ven. Hojin is a painter by training, and she continues to work mostly with paint. She started us out with a color exercise, intended to help us engage color in a more nuanced, and very importantly, attentive way. Working with watercolors on postcard-sized pieces of good paper, we were instructed to chose one color and fill the paper with it. The picture below is a close-up of that workshop’s first exercise.

yellow

I hadn’t played with a set of watercolors since I was in elementary school. Lots of the usual demons came out to play along with me: the “I don’t know how to do this” demon, the “Hers is better than mine” demon, the “I don’t want to do this if I don’t make something good” demon. Ah, demons. Always around, wanting attention. I try and think of them as small, hyperactive pets, or ill-behaved but basically decent children.

After the watercolor session, Ven. Hojin led us outside and instructed us to find colors in the environment. She showed a piece she had begun earlier on her way to the campus: splotches of deep maroon and violet occupied a corner of the paper. They were flowers and leaves she’d found on her way, and rubbed into the paper. Away we went, too, in search of color. That workshop opened me up to paint and to color in a radically different way. When I make photographs in color, I don’t consider the color as a quality of an object that I can draw out on its own and work with as a singular subject. I did an entire photo-poetic journal one winter around the theme of red, but red was the theme, not the subject. I was attracted to this practice of color, even though I wasn’t very pleased with my first results. I really enjoyed playing with the watercolors, though, especially with the relatively simply injunction to work with one color at the beginning.

Today, I needed to make some cards to send people. I tried painting a couple but really didn’t like what resulted (“too much thinking,” which turns out to be as much a problem with paints as it is for me when making photographs or writing; more intuition, more attentiveness, less artifice, is not only a very different process but also a very different piece). So I took paper and fingers and eyes out with me today, and found colors. I started with a tulip tree and some dandelions. I added pansies, daffodils, periwinkle, red maple, grass, forsythia, and more whose names I don’t know. The results are as you see here. The first picture is today’s exercises piled one on top of another on the kitchen table; the two photos below are close-ups of two different pieces.

photo-25

In between making the piece above and the one below, I attended Friday prayers (jummah) with the campus community. In the wake of the tragedy in Boston, I’ve been struggling as I struggled 11 and a half years ago to make sense of things, and to find constructive and healing ways to address my own pain and confusion, as well as reach out to the greater faith community. I asked our Immam if I could attend Friday prayers, and he invited me to come. What happened in Boston—I’ll be honest. I don’t want to go into it. I went to jummah out of sorrow and hope and the belief that by being together and praying together something positive will result. The Muslim Students’ Association coordinator, a young woman, brought an extra scarf for me to cover my head, in a plain beige.

The call to prayer and the chants pierce straight through me, every time. I watched the women pray. The physical postures of prayer, so different in the details and so similar in the general attitude, moved me to reconsider and re-enliven my own physical prayer. It also delights me to no end to look at the various colors and patterns of their headscarves. I live in a largely monochromatic or at least visually restrained religious environment, and it fills me with a child-like pleasure to see the many-colored scarves the women wear, and to both watch them pray, and pray with them. I can’t be anything but a bit of an outsider, but they invited me in, made a space for me. Afterward there was a community lunch, and a small group of us (including the young Jewish classmate who emailed the Students’ Association coordinator, a friend of his, to find me a hijab!) chatted and nibbled. Then I left to go drop off my alumni auditing application for next fall, so that I can officially audit courses.

plant paint 3

All along the street were colors and more colors. A whole world of sticky pigments I’d never explored. What amazes me yet again in looking at the pictures is how textured and layered the pieces can become. In some ways, plants behave like pencils; in other ways, like paint. I mostly played around with “brush” stroke direction and layering colors, and working with my timidity and fear of making something “bad” by making big, bold strokes and creating large patches of color before filling in with other colors. The color of a petal or sepal isn’t always the color you get on the page. A lot of experimentation and discovery happened today, which was exciting. I’m incredibly grateful to Ven. Hojin for introducing me to this; it’s replaced the camera on some outings, asking me to understand the essence of something as not manifest through its form, but through its color. It’s also encouraged me to make journal entries that are color-scapes instead of notations, the various plants used in the making of an exercise serving as the cues for where I went, and what I saw or touched.

Compline, Christ Church, Palm Sunday

I wrote you a poem because
I don’t believe in spells or prayers;
it was all I had.

from Twelve Simple Songs by Dave Bonta

The embryo of song, a single note. The ancestor of narrative, a single voice, first, against the smokey incensed dark. The ceiling has beams they are like ribs, this church is a body and the lights are dying low. I am dying low. In song words unfurl and with them meaning unspools like a dropped bobbin, rolling away to echo ping against the floor. And still the single voice holds tenuous but holds. Flicker. Shadows: tenebrae. This is love. This is not love. A single note is no longer held but falls. Before it resurrects into silence another voice catches, carries on. This is love. Still no resolution. Sound preceedes words, a lengthening spine of vowels and knobby consonants, a body that is all blood and muscle and no joints. Words do not coagulate into meaning. Hemophiliac love. Blessed are the poor in spirit. There is a draft from the door. The flames flicker but do not go out. Now the voices swell full. The Laozi said what is empty is full, emptiness is fullness. Barren. I am poor as an abyss, poor as the cracked land, brittle as the first skin of ice on the water, fragile as ash. Vowels and consonants don’t spell the words but they carry us over the long dark between the vault and the pricks of votive light. Was that a prayer? This is love.

each thing called up dissolves

And what is prayer

but a way to teach—

Luisa A. Igloria, Solar

Each thing called up slowly dissolves, like foam. A word testifies, then silences itself. Something in me rends like wet paper tearing, and then prayer spills all over like a tide.

Years of lighting candles in the dark with the sharp sulfur of matches pinching my nose. Agony is only a story I tell myself. Salvation circumscribes the globe of my heart like a horizon. What lies beyond is a sea of light falling into dark falling into light. Prayer never lifted me in ecstasy. Living did that.