This evening belongs to tart bites of apple and the quiet house. Maybe the weight of a book, the lick of each sentence on my imagination.
He holds a deep blue hardcover with gold lettering, a treatise on physics. “Beautiful,” we both say. He, of the theorems. I, of the book.
Papers strewn by the fruit bowl, book spines arched all over the table. And not to mention the delirious tumble of words, lines, poems.
The indigo of evening azaleas. Coffee rings, a dirty spoon. A book of creased pages. Traces of incense and candle wax in the air.
Dusty desk. Crumbs on the floor. Half-finished cup of coffee. Supine books in friendly association: nothing amiss but an idea of order.
I considered loading a picture of my desk, but it would just be too incriminating. Coffee, and occasionally high-octane tea (I was recently complemented by a senior monk for my tea-drinking prowess, and while it’s a little ridiculous to preen over being told you drink tea well… Here I am, preening) are woven into my day at regular intervals. So I settled for a picture of my Birthday Cup of Coffee from March. For no better reason than coffee makes a cameo in today’s small stone.
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books
Never try to do two things at once. Like hold a hand-made oatmeal raisin cookie while setting a book, open, on the bookstand and maneuvering the page-holders into place: recipe for disaster. Sensing that to keep both would be to lose both (the stand teetered, the book tipped forward, the cookie threatened to crumble) I gave up on the cookie for just a moment, and got the book on the stand, pages pinned, with no harm done to the taste of the cookie. Amazing how difficult that was, to retreat from the child-like desire to hold everything in my hands at once. When I was about four (the story goes) I was at the zoo with my parents. I wanted to hold both my ice-cream and my balloon at the same time. My father, convinced I would let go of the balloon while eating the ice-cream, wouldn’t give me one or the other, I forget now which one I held in my hand and which one he held in his, but: hot, frustrated, certain in my young and unexperienced and stubborn mind I was right and he was wrong (the story goes) I sank my teeth into his thigh. No one remembers what happened to the ice-cream, to the balloon. I don’t remember the bite, personally, but my father does. It seems I have always wanted two things at once. It is the same right now, tonight. The cookie-and-book problem? A small sample. How I reach out, trying to hold work, grasping toward prayer, wistfully gazing after friends, worrying about the future. Not even a Hindu goddess could hold all the balloons and dripping ice-creams of my desirous and thirsty heart.
Chinese and English pp. 56-57 here.
January’s been a month of countdowns.
There was the countdown to two new year’s in this one month (but I only wrote about one of them, here). There was the countdown to graduation (here and here). There’s been the River of Stones January challenge hosted by Writing Our Way Home, to write one “small stone” a day, a count still on-going. And January 31st is the birthday of a dear friend of mine, although we’ll have to wait until after the retreat season ends on February 6th to be able to celebrate. Now that January, with its several countdowns, is nearly wound-down, I’ve been wondering about February.
Oh, February has its own events already ticking their days away in my head. In addition to the first day of spring by the East Asian lunar calendar, there’s also the aforementioned end of the retreat season on February 6th and the end of my home temple’s 100-day chanting session (kido). We’ll perform our annual “saving life” ceremony (bang-saeng) in conjunction with the dedicating ceremony for the kido. I have a sangha meeting for the international community on the 7th in Seoul, which will coincide with being able to wish my sister happy birthday as well as bow to the senior monastics in our sangha and see dharma brothers and sisters. There’s the count-down until the exam for full precepts (March 9th), and the daily ticker of material to look over in preparation.
There’s also the thought of what to do here. Although the official small stones challenge goes until January 31st, I like writing these stones. I use Twitter (@seon_joon) to compose the stones, because (being a member of clan of the Epically Verbose) anything that curbs word-count is my friend. My vicious, scalpel-wielding friend, but as my fiction teacher in college said, “Sometimes you have to murder your little darlings.” The Draconian 140-character limit Twitter imposes is, at present, more of a help than a hindrance to my writing practice. (My count includes the #smallstone hashtag, so believe me when I tell you composing those tweets gets gladitorial. It’s every word for itself: only the ones that defend their utter necessity make it.) I decided to continue the stone-a-day challenge for all of 2012. After years of writing intermittently at best, I like the daily discipline of the small stones. Small enough to squeeze into even the busiest day, but substantive enough of a creative process to make me sweat a little, sometimes a lot.
I’ve also been considering starting a daily reading practice. As a (book) reader, I took January off. I’ve read blogs, internet news, written (epic) emails and small stones, tried to settle back into the scattered routine of my home temple, and largely left books alone. (Except for Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Unlike school, where I could rely on good chunks of time—an hour here, two hours there—for reading, when I’m at home things get choppier. Sit down, the phone rings. Grab a cup of coffee, settle down at my desk; someone comes to the door. Get through my usual study warm-up routine, and already it’s time to do the mid-day rice offering. I’m still trying to gear up to crack some of the heavier-weight books I have on my shelf despite my difficulty finding a rhythm with the work here, but one thing I thought I could do was to read “small stones.” If writing small stones works even when busy, then reading in a similar manner might as well.
Reading in “small stone” amounts obviously lends itself well to one format: poetry. And while I do want to read more poetry off my bookshelf this year, what I was thinking with this small stone reading exercise was more along the lines of selecting one of the cycles of religious or spiritually-oriented poems I’ve been wanting to read in their entirety: the Psalms, the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, the complete poems of Cold Mountain (Han Shan), the Poems of the Masters (千家時), or the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Any of these, I think, would be great to read, one poem or, in the case of the Sayings, one selection a day; and each day post a response of some kind here. Most likely in words, although if I can get out ranging with the camera, then images would constitute some of the responses. The point is to continue with the momentum I built up in 2011 as a reader and also make sure my reading is responsive, a deliberate, attentive, and creative engagement of a text. Another reason I think that working with small portions of a larger work will be a good practice for 2012 is because I’ll be traveling for months at a time for much of the year; for the summer, I’ll be in an intensive language course that will leave little room for weighty tomes. Having something both portable and manageable, in terms of daily reading, is a priority.
(And here I ask all of the 30 or so people who stop by to read the posts here, according to my stats, what do you recommend I start the small stones reading project with? Anything you’d like to suggest that I haven’t here? Think the Psalms are solid but would skip the Poems of the Masters? Thoughts? Opinions? We’ve got 11 months left in the year, so more than one collection is possible.)
Lastly, the “commonplace book” category: I hope to start my commonplace book in earnest. This is where my “heavy reading” usually goes, or at least where it went when I was really going strong with my (paper) commonplace book and working at reading last year. I’ll open Jeffrey Hopkins, I will; I’m just going to get through January first. Because after January, it’s all about February.
…At least, until the 29th of the month.