Friday, May 29, 2009

May Wonders 5: Tent Caterpillars

On the way back from watching the herons, I spied a nest of tent caterpillars. Never in my life have I regarded them with anything other than revulsion. On this unnaturally buoyant day, however, it occurred to me that there were some lovely patterns in this writhing mass of leaf-eating larvae.

And so it was that I approached my afternoon walk to the pond—and through the valley of the caterpillars—with a new kind of curiosity. It's hard to believe that an entire canopy's worth of verdant foliage is being rapidly devoured. But it is.

The first spring I walked here, I noticed a strange, steady sound as I walked under the leaves. It's something like the the noise of tiny air bubbles bursting on the sand as a wave recedes, or maybe the small but vigorous pop of a jewelweed pod.

"Those are the tent caterpillars," G. groaned.

Later, when we drove around, she pointed out the barren hillsides, their trees as leafless as in autumn. That was the work that was in progress as I walked under the trees.

didn't ask G. exactly what the caterpillars were doing that made the noise. Eating, I suppose, was what I assumed. But something about that didn't seem right: Could I really be hearing whatever jaws they had slicing through the the leaves?

On my walk down the hill, I began to focus on the rocks. I noticed that there were small black dots everywhere, about the size of poppy seeds. It occurred to me, then, that these might be caterpillar droppings.

And they are. Wikipedia says: "Fecal pellets dropping from treetops in which the caterpillars are feeding create the auditory illusion of rainfall."

So there I was, walking through a downpour of caterpillar pellets. They probably showered my clothes, my hair. Somehow, on that day, it didn't bother me at all. When I got home, I looked up the good things about tent caterpillars.

One of my 1920s field guides remarks that "both species of Cuckoo, the Vireos, Orioles, Chipping Sparrows, Goldfinches, and several Warblers come to the caterpillars' webs either to get food or to procure web to use in the construction of their nests."

A Washington State University Web site notes that when some taller trees are defoliated, "the shrubs and trees below receive increased sunlight, giving some of them a boost in growth." The pellets "break down easily, returning nutrients to the forest floor." True, the weak trees may die under a caterpillar onslaught, but "healthy trees will leaf out again."

On my way back from the pond, I began to notice something else. Caterpillars kept landing on my clothes, my arms. I'd suspended disgust, and it turned out I didn't really mind how they felt, marching up my skin. They even had a pretty, bluish stripe.

Where were they coming from? As I walked, I realized, I'd been periodically waving my hands, clearing something from around my arms or face, unthinkingly brushing away webs. As I came into a sunnier glade, I saw the lattice of caterpillar filaments extended across the trail.

The caterpillars dangled in the light.

They were acrobats in the breeze.

They danced.

I was in ecstasy. Again.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May Wonders 4: Great Blue Heron Nests!

On Monday of the enchanted weekend, I went walking in the glorious woods not far from G.'s house. At one point the path was blocked by the fallen trunk of a particularly large pine. As I was trying to navigate around the tree, and to find the spot where the curving trail picked up, I heard the raucous croaking of herons overhead.

The deep woods are not a place where I normally think of seeing herons—I usually see them by the shores of ponds. But G. had had suspicions that they might be nesting somewhere in the vicinity. She'd seen them flying over her house with sticks in their beaks. So I stopped to look up.

There were at least two in flight, flapping and landing in one tree and another. I knew herons nested in colonies, so I scoured the treetops. Finally I spotted something: a bird on a nest!

It's hard to see, but I believe that is a heron's neck that is emerging from that pile of sticks and curving slightly toward the tree trunk in the photo above.

I saw four herons all together and found what I thought were two nests. The black clump in the tree near the center of the photo above is one of them—surprisingly small for a bird of this size, I thought, but apparently that's right. One of my old bird books refers to the heron's nest as a "rude platform."

I think the bird above is standing on the nest.

And this one is just lookin' pretty.

P.S. One of my great pleasures is to look up the descriptions in Dr. Montague Chamberlain's Popular Handbook of Ornithology of the United States and Canada, based on Nuttall's Manual (1891), to see how it used to be.

Chamberlain says the heron's "favorite and long-frequented resorts are usually dark and enswamped solitudes or boggy lakes."
"These recesses defy the reclaiming hand of cultivation, and present the same gloomy and haggard landscape they did to the aborigines of the forest, who, if they existed, might still pursue through the tangled mazes of these dismal swamps the retreating bear and the timorous deer."
As for the boxer and me, we gazed at our herons, strolled for a while, and went home for lunch.

Barefoot and Posing

I’m an absolute beginner in yoga.

I’m a beginner in Buddhism, too, but at least my dalliance with Buddhism has gone on for a long time.

Even if I’ve never seriously meditated I’ve read books by people who do. I’ve contemplated a lot of their philosophy and to some extent begun trying to live by it.

I do have a sustained practice in the form of therapy. I watch my thoughts, but I also say them out loud to someone who has taught me what it might mean to live the questions (as she pointed out that Rilke said) and shown me by her own actions what openness and compassion can look like.

Over years of talking, things happen—the thoughts shift, they lose their substance, one’s ways of responding to the world become a little less fixed. That may be similar to what happens with meditation.

For me, anyway, the Buddhism and the therapy have been complementary. Buddhism taught me I could sit still and bear the miserable thoughts and feelings that were coming up in therapy.

Therapy gradually taught me that many of the thoughts I was most convinced were true were little more than a barrier against any experience of life I didn’t think I’d be able to manage.

At this point, I’m pretty much an absolute beginner in life.

Although in some ways I feel like a very physical person, all my training has been to lead with my mind. I’m sure that if you spent years on the cushion Buddhism would be a physical practice, but it’s less so if you read a book and then go sit for 15 minutes every now and again.

I’ve dabbled in yoga for years, too, without treating it as much more than a source of calm and exercise. It seemed too religious to get into at any depth, I suppose. My favorite parts were the various forms of lying down and then the deep rest at the end.

I wandered into the local yoga center to meditate, feeling guilty that I came so often for free, but resisting the invitation take classes at a place that I’d remembered visiting years before and finding too strenuous.

Eventually, though, something clicked. C. said, “You should come practice with us,” and I heard the word practice.

Practice. I could take my emotion practice and my watch-my-mind practice and toss in a body practice and see how they all came together.

Fireworks, is how.

Relatively speaking, I don’t think the classes are all that hard. Still, for me in the early weeks the physical effort was so overwhelming it was as if I’d lost touch with my mind entirely.

I went back to the time when I was ambidextrous, and I couldn’t tell right from left. I heard the words but I had no idea how to translate them into what to do.

I felt about five years old, disoriented and vulnerable—but this time trying not to worry about it.

With my thinking disabled, I had none of my usual defenses. Once at the end of class, I almost started to cry. There were moments of grief. I had tiny moments of feeling I could play. Sometimes I walked home nearly floating on my own sense of sunniness.

I had to go into therapy and talk about it all.

I suspect I was a little bit unnerved, because in the early weeks it seemed like I kept coming close to various kinds of accidents. I nearly crashed my bike. I practically set my house on fire.

I had this idea that I was trying to injure myself so I could get out of it.

Then I started to enjoy getting stronger. I’ve had tiny inklings of what it might mean to relax while feeling you were doing something that was way beyond your physical capacity.

I’m learning to visualize.

Some days I can almost balance. The next day, it’s hopeless.

The whole experience reminds me of learning to drive a car. The first time I ever tried to change lanes at 55 miles an hour was on Route 17.

Keep foot on the gas, look, signal, check the mirrors, steer, and not panic my father? I couldn’t imagine how anyone could put together the dozen things one had do get from one side of the road to the other in the tiny space of time allotted.

Once I stepped blithely into a lunge and now I’m only halfway through my checklist of body parts by the time the time the pose is over.

Still, I haven’t quit. Yet.

I’ve always done yoga with my eyes closed. I loved that that was an option—it helped me to black out my own self-consciousness.

I liked yoga the way I like swimming—you’re doing something in close proximity with other people, but you can pretend they’re not there.

It’s not like that this time. My eyes are still closed, but it’s not just because I’m shutting the other people out.

Somehow, this feels like a community. I really like the people, both the teachers and the students. There’s laughter. The classes are often a great deal of fun.

All of this is a whopping five months old.

I can see already that there’s a way to do yoga what would require a serious commitment. I bet you don’t really know anything for years and years.

It’s probably not for me.

Still, I’m intrigued. I’ve just started reading B.K.S. Iyengar. I like how many images there are when people talk about yoga. I like a spiritual approach that gives the body its due.

I found myself thinking I should keep my own yoga journal, because I can imagine myself being continually fascinated by experiences and ideas.

If everything that occurs to me now seems impossibly stupid a month from now, oh well. If perchance I stick with it, it might be interesting to see what I learned along the way.

Or not.

Okay, I’ve had the thought. Now let it go.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May Wonders 3: An Exaltation of Siskins

It was one of those enchanted moments.

Sunday I was sitting on the hill over G.’s house, writing about my birthday. She’d loaned me her house, along with her dog.

The morning was lovely, sunny and bright, and the green grass by the vegetable beds was splotched with yellow dandelions.

Even better, a flock of goldfinch, with the brilliantly yellow and black males, began to sit and flit among the dandelions.

Into my mind drifted the memory of a time, years before, when G. had come to my house upstate. It was early autumn, a day or so after her birthday.

She amazed me by spending an entire afternoon alone by the pond at the bottom of the hill, celebrating everything from the butterflies to the leftover birthday cake to the vultures on the power lines, and ultimately writing a poem about them.

The last line was: “It’s this I’m risking it all for.”

And those were exactly the words for how I felt, just after my 49th birthday, launching into my 50th year, sitting on her hill. I’d given her my house; now she’d given me hers.

I wanted to reread the poem, so I went inside to look for Mr. Bluebird, the collection it’s in. In addition to “Monroe,” the poem G. had written by the pond, I rediscovered “Processional,” which G. had thrilled me by writing on the occasion of my birthday in 1999. That was 10 years ago, I realized, when I had just turned 39.

The poem begins its musings as a flock of siskins descends on dandelions going to seed. “Is it, is it, is/it the siskins?” it asks. G. and I had identified these birds together, and they were a first for both of us, when I was visiting her in Taos.

I was sitting on the couch as I read this, and then I glanced out the window at her bird feeder, which over the last few days had been favored by rose-breasted grosbeaks and purple finch. There, if I could believe my eyes, was a new striped bird.

It looked like—it couldn’t be.

Was it, was it, was it a siskin?

The bird sat patiently while I frantically dug out the bird books. It let me fetch the binoculars and check every identifying mark. It let me take pictures.

No doubt: it was a female pine siskin.

I looked through the notes G. had scrawled in the field guides. The last mention was New Mexico, but undoubtedly she’d noticed them here.

This bird was a source of wonder, but only from my perspective, I was sure. The field guide says siskins flock frequently with goldfinches, of which G. has plenty.

I emailed her later. “You’ve seen them before, right?”

“Not to my knowledge,” she replied.

The siskin stuck around all day, and then, as far as I could tell, it was gone.

I couldn’t help but puzzle over the meaning of it all. The siskin’s sudden appearance seemed almost magical, as if something mysterious had been manifested, or somehow evoked.

But why would the gods be sending me a siskin?

Pure coincidence, that was the rational view.

What was most likely, I decided, was that up on the hill I’d been more observant than I realized. I’d registered the dandelions and the goldfinches and perhaps subconsciously heard the siskin’s song. The birds had brought the poems, rather than the other way around.

If so, there had been no conjuring, and what felt so miraculous was simply the visible manifestation of something I already knew. If so, there was joy in that, too.

Somehow, it all came together: dandelions, goldfinches, poems, birthdays, friendship, siskins. Our world, our passing, commingled lives. I can’t really explain it, but for the rest of the weekend I felt something like bliss.

May Wonders 2: The Peony, in Bloom

This is an iris that came with the house.

And this is the first blossom on the first peony that I ever planted myself.

This peony, in its first blooming year (with me, anyway), had three flowers. They came—and went—in one weekend: Memorial Day!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May Wonders 1: Spring's plumage

Sometimes we think of the Northeast as drab. But this weekend the sky was blue and the leaves were new and a flock of goldfinches flew by. And the orioles frolicked. And a rose-breasted grosbeak feasted. And the blackbirds flashed their red and yellow epaulets at me. And I could easily have seen a bluebird. How amazing to live in a world in which such colors dot the sky.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Yankee Payload

Derek Jeter, WMD?

In the new Yankee Stadium, fans are urged on in their revelry by a barrage of music and images emanating from the giant, high-definition video screen that dominates the field.

Late in the game on May 20, there was a cause for celebration—perhaps the Derek Jeter double that drove in two runs in the bottom of the eighth.

Up on the megascreen, I saw a giant cartoon image of the underside of a plane.

The cargo doors on the plane’s belly opened. It was just like one of those shots of B-52s unloading on Vietnam, except that the payload wasn’t bombs, it was a pair of enormous baseballs.

That was disturbing, but soon I was aghast. The cartoon’s view shifted to a plane’s-eye view of a city grid—yes, just like one of those aerial shots of Hiroshima being targeted by the Enola Gay.

The ball-bombs fell toward a green area in the center of the grid—that would be Yankee Stadium, with all of us who’d made it through the big show of anti-terror security in it.

There was a little puff of smoke as the cartoon balls made their purported impact, undoubtedly blowing those poor Orioles to smithereens.

Although the team's radio announcer famously proclaims “an A-bomb from A-Rod!” every time Alex Rodriguez hits a home run, the Yankee videographers drew the line, I’m happy to say, at a mushroom cloud.


Nobody else seemed to mind.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Filing Cabinet: Iyengar: The Breath Is a Horse

“The breath must be enticed or cajoled, like catching a horse in a field, not by chasing after it, but by standing still with an apple in one’s hand."
—B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 12.

I’ve been puzzling over this quote all week, as if it were some kind of koan. I’ve never thought of my breath as a wild horse.

In meditation, I think of the breath as the thing I am supposed to turn my attention to rather than getting swept up in my thoughts.

I know the breath is essential, and perhaps it is the closest we get to the infinite, but maybe I think it is boring.

It seems much livelier in my head. Historically, the thoughts I've watched have shot around like bullets in a firefight. Now, as I sit more, they sometimes slow to an orderly march, like items on a news ticker.

When I finally move away from them, I imagine, the breath is just going to be there.

But it’s not? I’m supposed to be standing in the middle of a field, holding an apple? It’s actually skittish and willful? I have to woo it?

Somehow, this changes everything.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Buds on the Peony

Last fall, I planted tulips. I put the bulbs in containers, layered them with leaves, and covered the whole pot with mesh to keep the squirrels out. This spring, they bloomed.

Two years ago, I planted a peony, one of my favorite flowers. It didn’t bloom the first year. And indeed, there was a moment in early spring when I thought it was dead. It got going when I wasn’t really looking. And now, for the first time, it has buds.

I mention these things because gardening is teaching me, like probably millions before me, about planning ahead, and about working toward things in the future.

As fortunate as I’ve been, I’ve rarely had to do this in my life. My parents did whatever planning was necessary to get me an education. I didn’t have children, so I didn’t do the same in turn.

For the first time, I start to understand about looking ahead, about how laying the groundwork for things pays off, about how things can—sometimes—get better.

I recently re-dug the plot for a vegetable garden. My sister tested the soil. She discovered it was poor. We bought cow manure and began our attempts to enrich it.

Already, the plants are growing more robustly than last year.

And maybe a few years from now, if we keep at it, keep learning, that soil will be fertile ground.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I found a beehive!

Look for the bull's-eye behind the road sign.

I'd never have noticed without all I’ve learned about bees from my friend G. (and her great blog), so after the excitement the next thing I felt was a surge of gratitude for this particular friend.

I have no idea if the bees are violating the speed limit.

I’ve been relishing the loud and varied noise of birds throughout this gray, green day, and also feeling thankful for Rachel Carson, without whom this might have been a silent spring.

I hope we can save the bees.

It may be an illusion, but once again you could imagine that the bees might be arriving home in pairs, as I thought I’d observed in the Guggenheim’s Zen bee art movie.

Back to the landscape. It’s not all suburbia yet. There’s a cow pasture behind the road.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Hair at the Herb Garden

The BBG is building a new herb garden, and one evening this week I saw a small bar table set up just outside of it.

Not long afterward I saw several clusters of people, possibly donors, traversing the path that led from the table, champagne flutes in hand.

They looked lively and spry, and almost all of them had gray hair. Such a concentration of natural hair color is a rare sighting nowadays.

Of the half dozen or so women I saw, not a one had gone blond.

As I’ve previously reported, B. once commented that she enjoyed watching her plants go through the life cycle.

Maybe the people who love the garden enough to get champagne feel that way about themselves, too.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Elves Again

ow did this square of bread end up on the patio table under a plastic rock that says FAITH?

The rock came with the house.

But the bread? Did it arrive with a person? A bird? An squirrel? Is it Wonder Bread? Why is it under the rock?

The mysteries never stop.

Have a nice weekend.

Friday, May 8, 2009

My First Bike

Yesterday, as I got back on my bike in the rain, my brake cable broke. Perhaps, I thought, as I pedaled toward the bike shop, there might be a silver lining to the downpour—maybe business would be slow enough that they’d fix it right away.

It was. The shop took on not only the brakes but the chain and the gears and the out-of-true wheels. I stood there, drenched and a little chilled, and watched customers float in and out for an hour or more.

A woman came in with a four-year-old daughter who was getting a bike, undoubtedly her first.

The parent pointed the child to a tiny pink bike with training wheels, a white basket, glittery streamers trailing from the handlebars. Did she want that one?

The girl didn’t try to climb on. Her mother lifted her up and lowered her carefully to the seat. The child sat for a second and then waved her hands in vague distress, asking to be lifted again. Her mother obliged, stroking the girl gently as she clung to her neck.

Did the child want the pink one? Did she even want to see any of the others hanging from the ceiling?

No. The deal was done. Within minutes the bill was paid and the seat adjusted, and the girl—with the faintest of skips in her step—pushed the new purchase out the door. Her mother suggested she might try to ride it home, even with the wheels still wrapped in plastic.

It felt funny to watch.

I vividly remembered my first bike—a Schwinn. I don’t know how old I was—but I got it before we left the old house, so it was definitely before 1968. No gears, foot brakes. (My sister’s first bike was a banana seat—did they come in the wake of the groovy chopper in 1969’s Easy Rider?)

I got my bike for Christmas—an odd time for the gift of a bike, I suppose. It was back in the days when there was snow. As I flashed back to that moment, I had the sensation of slush under black balloon tires.

My mother loved faking us out at the holidays, finding ways to hide big things in tiny packages. I was so young it’s possible I didn’t know to look for the surprises yet.

I don’t know what the bike came in—maybe there was a box with a cut-out catalogue picture inside, or maybe she drew me a picture of something like a stick figure perched on two tiny wheels.

At any rate, she instructed me to reach behind the tree and draw the curtains on the bay window. I wasn’t very tall, so my father helped with that.

The fabric ratcheted open, and there it was—my bike. Sparkling, blue, gorgeous, brand new.

It was the most magical moment of any Christmas I ever had. It took my breath away. It was the most thrilling, most exhilarating gift—the present of something I had yearned for and never dreamed I could have.

It was a deep metallic blue—if there were pink bikes, I wouldn’t have wanted one—and of course there were no training wheels. My father didn’t believe in that.

My father gave me a few pointers on how to ride, but I learned largely on my own, crashing into the shrubbery, banging forcefully over rocks, enjoying even the skinning of my knees.

I loved that bike. Later, I moved on to a couple of Raleighs (one got stolen) and a beloved, long-lived Nishiki and briefly a recumbent Bike-E (also stolen) and now a Fuji. I bought all the others myself, but I’m realizing that in some ways they’re all still the first one. It’s a gift that never stopped.

Those bikes were my ticket to freedom. I rode them to school, to my favorite tree, to the movies; out of the city, around my college towns, along the New England coast; to and from work; and now to all the other mundane destinations that describe the shape of my life.

That’s what I thought about today, after four decades as a person with her own bike, as I watched another girl get her first one.

Her first bike—what a huge moment this is! By the time they left, I thought: Well, maybe not for everyone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Joe Biden and the Next Terrible Thing

I’ve finally started reading Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, a superb memoir (mentioned in a previous post) that in its early pages talks about what life in her family was like after her 18-year-old brother died in a car crash on the way to his summer job.

Smith is the only surviving child. Her parents, her father especially, become fearful and overprotective. They panic about school trips, fret about her every sniffle, and refuse to let her, even at age 15, to cross the street without holding someone’s hand.

“While I waited for Roy to come back, my parents waited for the Next Terrible Thing,” Smith writes. “It was unclear what shape it was going to take, but it was clear that it was going to snatch me away from them. I was in danger” (p. 74, Scribner paperback).

Reading this, I found myself thinking about Vice President Joe Biden, who, with a handful of dread-filled statements, seems to have made himself the official spokesperson for the Next Terrible Thing.

Here he is on the Today Show last week, talking about swine flu:
I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation suggesting they ride the subway.
Here he is, in February, sounding pessimistic about economic recovery plans:
If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong.
Here he is, during the election season, offering up a dire scenario for the postinaugural period:
It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy… Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy
When Biden delivers these less than reassuring sentiments, there is sometimes a need for damage control. This week The New Republic has an article on the Obama administration’s efforts to spin Biden’s loose lips to its advantage. He’s being hailed as a straight shooter, a genuine voice of the people, rather than a loose cannon.

I’m grateful for truth tellers, and it’s not really a surprise if one of this people makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Biden’s dark pronouncements tend to inspire a shiver of apprehension, at least in me, especially since there seems little doubt that he’s going to be right—we may dodge bullet after bullet, but eventually there’s no escaping some Next Terrible Thing.

Nevertheless, Biden has always struck me as something other than merely candid—he feels faintly hysterical, to use a term that’s often applied to women, or as if he’s filled with a desperate sense of anxiety that he urgently needs to pass on to someone else.

Reading about Smith’s father, who after losing his son secretly followed his wife when she went off hiking to be sure that she wouldn’t be hurt, I remembered that Biden too had been the father in a family tragedy involving a car accident. In 1972, his wife drove off to shop for a Christmas tree and got hit by a tractor-trailer. She and his 18-month-old daughter were killed, and his sons were seriously injured.

He was devastated.

I don’t know what Biden was like before 1972, and there’s no reason to imagine any of my own ill-informed psychological speculation might be accurate, but nevertheless—loose-lipped—here I go.

I wonder if Joe Biden isn’t, like Alison Smith’s father, suffering from something along the lines of post traumatic stress. He may live in a psychic universe in which unthinkable disaster will always be lurking and in which unceasing vigilance is required.

Smith reports that her parents, as loving as they were, sometimes lost sight of her even when she was the object of their worry. Standing over her and feeling her forehead for fever, they asked each other how she felt. “They took up the habit of speaking about me instead of to me,” she writes (p.75).

In a way, that’s how it seems with Biden. He may be expressing the truth, or at least the truth of what we all fear, but his forthrightness isn’t necessarily a sign that he’s relating to us—only that he can’t bear what he can imagine, and he has to get it out.

He may be someone who feels in his bones that we have a great deal more to fear than fear itself. If that were true for anyone, I don’t know if it would make that person an ideal leader—it’s an interesting question—but I wish us all good luck.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Afterthoughts: Third Mind (2): Eleanor Roosevelt & Buddha

Separated at Rebirth?


It’s hard not to be moved by Eleanor Roosevelt. She had her flaws, even as a humanitarian, but there were two stories from the early volumes of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography that I really loved.

One was the story her attendance at the 1938 Southern Conference on Human Welfare, which was held in segregated Alabama. Eleanor sat down with the Negroes, but the police informed her that she would have to get up.

Rather than return to the whites, she picked up her chair and sat between the two races. She made a vivid statement without forcing a confrontation.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but that act now seems very Buddhist to me. (It might be anything else as well—all I mean is that it could easily be used to illustrate the approaches described in all those bestsellers by Western Buddhists that I read.)

The other was a story of her transformation. In their early years in Washington, before FDR was president, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having what would prove to be a very long-lasting affair. Over and over she visited Rock Creek Cemetery and communed with the Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue popularly known as Grief.

When the mourning was over, she had let go of her old self. She was still a partner to her husband, but she also forged a life of her own, becoming an activist for the poor, for women, for civil rights, and for peace.

As Wiesen Cook put it in a PBS interview, “Ironically, the years of her greatest despair become also the years of her great liberation.”

As a tale of letting go, this seems very Buddhist, too.

At any rate, one of the things I was surprised to see at the Guggenheim’s Third Mind exhibition on American artists contemplating Asia was a replica of that sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, the one that he himself never gave a name.

I hadn’t remembered that it was created in honor of Clover Adams, a noted Washington hostess who was reputed to have committed suicide after discovering that her husband had had an affair. The husband, Henry Adams, never mentioned her name again, but did commission this sculpture.

Adams asked Saint-Gaudens to look to Buddhist sculpture and Eastern philosophy for inspiration. One of his specific references was to Avalokitesvara, also known as Kannon, a bodhisattva of compassion with androgynous qualities.

Another of the monuments that influenced Adams and Saint-Gaudens was the immense bronze sculpture of the Buddha in Kamakura, Japan. To my amazement, this was the very Buddha whose photograph I had used to illustrate my Valentine’s Day post about opening one’s heart to others and imagining that they can actually feel it.

There I had it—an indirect and imaginary point of contact with Eleanor Roosevelt.

That was cool, too.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Morning Lines: Papers, Horses, Justices, Poets, Lesbians

The Kentucky Derby is being run today! So I am reminded when I sit down with the papers this morning.

My sister and her husband must be very excited. They love horses, and recently they’ve spent a great deal of time investigating the ways in which horse racing terms have permeated the language. (Click here to buy their book!)

I’m increasingly ambivalent, not least because horses seem to die every time I watch a race. But because I respect their enthusiasm, I do pay attention.

Not surprisingly, the Times and the Post offer nearly identical tables summarizing the field.

The real only difference involves the bookmakers’ odds: the Times names I Want Revenge as the favorite at 3-1, while the Post lists General Quarters at 5-1. (By the time I read them, of course, both sets of odds are long obsolete.)

Similarly, when it comes to the field of nominees to David Souter’s soon-to-be-vacated U.S. Supreme Court seat, the Times and the Post isolate a comparable group of contenders, but on the surface appear to rank them somewhat differently.

Both papers illustrate their reporting with a photo gallery of likely rivals for the job. Maybe the six people chosen don’t represent the papers’ opinions about the true frontrunners, but the packaging certainly makes it seem that way.

Each lineup features five females and one male. Since President Obama is expected to nominate a woman, any male candidate must be considered a dark horse. In the Times, the long-shot man is Deval Patrick; in the Post it’s Harold Koh.

The papers agree on four top women--Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Jennifer Granholm, and Diane P. Wood—but they disagree on a fifth. The Times runs a photo of Leah Ward Sears, chief justice of the Supreme Court in Georgia; the Post depicts Kathleen Sullivan, a constitutional law professor at Stanford.

According to the Post, Sullivan “would be the first openly gay member of the Supreme Court and has filed briefs before the court dealing with gay rights.” The Post rates her a “longer shot,” and I expect her sexuality explains why. Nonetheless, the paper includes Sullivan in its photo gallery.

The Times reporting calls Sullivan is “leading candidate” for the job, but says nothing of her sexuality. For reasons that seem inexplicable as a result, it leaves her out of the picture show.

I feel conflicted. On one hand, I sympathize with the view that Sullivan’s sexual preference has nothing to do with her qualifications as a jurist, but on the other, if I were handicapping her chances to be Obama’s very first nominee to the court, I’d predict that her lesbianism would be an overwhelming obstacle.

Gay marriage is widely expected to come before the court in some form, and it’s easy to imagine that she’d be raked over the confirmatory coals on the issue of bias. It seems to me that Obama has already signaled, with his choice of evangelist Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, that gay rights is not one of the places where he’s going to risk trial by fire.

Though neither paper says so, Leah Ward Sears, per Wikipedia, is married to a former deputy mayor of New York City under Ed Koch and has two children. It seems reasonable to imagine that the Times took all this into account when it selected her rather than Sullivan for its photo gallery—but it doesn’t say so. So which makes for the better news coverage, telling or not telling?

In other developments, Great Britain has for the first time named a woman, one Carol Ann Duffy, as its poet laureate.

The Post did not see fit to print this news at all, but the Times provides a profile, which includes the information that Ms. Duffy has had at least one significant relationship with a woman.

The Times, undoubtedly rightly, sees no reason to volunteer that the current United States poet laureate, Kay Ryan, is also a lesbian. I don’t know whether to consider this second Sapphic selection a coincidence, a great moment for women (and lesbians), or a sign of how marginalized poetry really is. Whatever the case, I’m not complaining.

I did go looking for links between the two women, and I found one right away. Ryan has written a poem called “The Niagara River,” while Duffy, in a poem about what Rip Van Winkle’s wife did while her husband was asleep, rhymes Niagara with Viagra.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cherry Blossoms

Ever see something in the world

that's so profuse, so lush, so beautiful

that it's almost overwhelming?

Then your gaze falls on just one part of it.

Suddenly, you really feel the wonder.

It cuts right through the clutter.

Namaste, BBG.