Obituary for Fenton Johnson, the Dog

Writer and writing maven Cynthia Newberry Martin maintains a blog in which writers chronicle our daily lives.  She asked me to write the July entry, with a prompt from Annie Dillard:  “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” 

But when I sat down to write, I was preoccupied with the transition of my namesake, writer and teacher and dear friend Pam Houston’s magnificent Irish wolfhound Fenton Johnson, “from hither to yon,” as I put in in the piece.  And so how I spent that particular day was in writing his obituary, which provided a means to consider the great matter, the interconnectedness of “hither” and “yon,” how death is just another name for what in brighter  modes and on brighter days we call life.  Here’s a link to the piece, including some great photos of the noble beast:

http://catchingdays.cynthianewberrymartin.com/2014/07/01/how-we-spend-our-days-fenton-johnson/

 

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Summer Solstice at the Garden of Memory

Some years back Sarah Cahill, now an accomplished Bay Area pianist, was writing an article for a local paper on elegant and not-so-elegant public restrooms in the Bay Area. She wandered into the Chapel of Chimes, designed in 1926 by Julia Morgan, one of the first, maybe the first prominent woman architect, to serve as the grand, over-the-top columbarium / mausoleum / cemetery for wealthy East Bay residents. As she wandered through the labyrinth Cahill heard distant organ music from one of the chapels and thought what a great venue this would make for a music festival, with its maze of chapels, fountain gardens, stairways, alcoves.

So in the guise of New Music Bay Area she approached the management and they said yes, and so she started a summer solstice festival where each of the 40 or so chapels has a different music soloist or ensemble playing. You pay $15 and then wander around this maze — and it really is a maze, covering well over a city block — of chapels and alcoves and prettily landscaped courtyards and gardens, and at every corner, amid all the dead people in their urns and funerary niches and tombs, a soloist or an ensemble is making music, mostly new or avant-garde music.

My favorites were Cahill, the founder, playing selections from a two-CD set she’s bringing out in the fall – short pieces by a Japanese composer who’s recorded the voices of plants, i.e., their changing electromagnetic resonances and frequencies, and adapted these to piano compositions http://www.sarahcahill.com/ ; Kitka, a seven-voice a capella women’s chorus singing Russian poetry set to music and composed by their director Eric Banks http://www.kitka.org/music/ ; an avant-garde percussion duo led by Paul Dresher that uses xylophones and cymbals and made-up instruments to do a jumpin’ jive sound mix http://www.dresherensemble.org/ ; and Pamela Z., whose dreadlocks alone are, as the Michelin Guide says, vaut le voyage, but who makes the most extraordinary music by wiring and miking her body and mixing her beautiful mezzo-soprano with other sounds, in this case birdsong, with the mix blended and distorted in correspondence with her body movement http://www.pamelaz.com/video.html. Most memorable might have been the “Pavarotti of Pucker,” a 70 year old talent who’s revived the lost vaudeville art of whistling — you can see him via the miracle of YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdWpsp6EIQc.

The chapels and courtyards have names derived from that 1920s interest in Theosophy – there’s no mention of God but only an invocation of Virtue and Big Ideas — “Garden of Effulgence,” “Courtyard of Revelation,” “Integrity West,” “Adoration West,” “Chapel of Gentle Spirit,” “Courtyard of Tenderness,” “Hall of Valiant,” “Sanctuary of Dawn,” etc. The organizers call the program “Garden of Memory” — you can find it at www.gardenofmemory.com — but I was thinking “Wake the Dead” might be more appropriate.

 Although! Who could ask for a better parting gift, than a great annual gathering of people celebrating music in an elegant environment that your funeral expenses helped build and maintain? Do the dead stir restless in their vaults, annoyed at this troubling of their timeless meditations? Or do they long to rise and listen and dance? Are they happy to see the musicians and the crowds depart, or do they long for our return?

 I did leave thinking that Morgan may have thought she was designing a building to celebrate the dead — that’s what she was commissioned to build — but in fact that once a year the building finds its true purpose, which is a celebration of life. For sure the effect of the evening was heightened by listening to the musicians and encountering their very new music in the presence of hundreds, probably thousands of people who had spent a great deal of money to be memorialized in a grand “final resting place,” only to be remembered only infinitesimally more than the pauper who dies and is cremated with no ceremony. Who was Julia K. Black, 1899-1984, or Clarence Tracy Jones, 1911-1964?

 I’m mystified as to why someone would prefer to suffer the indignity of embalming and interment in a metal coffin sealed into a wall vault over being placed naked in the sweet and welcoming earth and having a tree planted overhead, but values are changing and maybe we are moving from the former to the latter. In the meantime, though, once a year the formers can stir in their vaults or urns or tombs and listen to the call of us, their heirs, making sweet noises and having a good time as the turning tilting earth shudders to a halt and begins its slow reverse wobble, as the sun stays up later than any other day in this particular year — no doubt because the musicians are making it so hard to go to bed.

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On the Literature of Social Justice

Here’s a link to my quick look at the roots of the literature of social justice, published in the excellent online magazine Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments:

http://terrain.org/2014/reviews-reads/recommended-reads-literature-social-justice/

In autumn 2014 I’ll be teaching a graduate craft of literature course through the University of Arizona Program in Creative Writing called Literature of Social Justice, surveying social justice literature from its roots in the Hebrew Bible through contemporary writers such as Barbara Kingsolver, Eric Reece, James Baldwin, Rebecca Solnit, and Linda Hogan.  Stay tuned for the reading list, which I’ll post online.

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About “Dallas Buyers Club”: thoughts from an eyewitness

 

About Dallas Buyers’ Club:

 

Outside Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Ron Woodruff as alternative therapies peddler, the film was pretty thin – a response that’s not surprising from one who lived through those times.  Screenwriters Melisa Wallick and Craig Borten take as their template the stock 1950s Western plot:  Texas renegade confronts bad guys (big government, big bureaucracy), picking up a sidekick (Jared Leto) along the way.  Though at first he’s hard-bitten, Woodruff is brought to realize his true heart of gold by the love of an innocent maiden (Jennifer Garner as beautiful woman doctor).

Acting honors should go to Leto, who has the unenviable task of reprising one of the oldest stock figures of Hollywood, the self-destructive drag queen who provides a plot point by dying.  I thought we’d left behind that particular stereotype, but evidently not.

Various friends who had seen the film wouldn’t talk about the ending, saying that doing so would spoil it.  I can’t imagine what they meant, except that I fear that they thought that the film offered narrative suspense in the form of the hope that Woodruff would beat the diagnosis and survive.  If so, that only goes to show how ignorant almost everyone is today of the reality of those times:  anyone, everyone who received a full-blown AIDS diagnosis as early as 1986 died.

Even now, even in 2014 Hollywood can only make a film about such a subject through the point of view of an aggressively straight man (why not write it from the point of view of the drag queen?).  But the film had a moment where it could have complicated itself:  When Woodruff invades the meeting where the bureaucrats’ ally Dr. Sevard is presiding, Sevard calls him a “common drug dealer” and orders him to leave.  In fact that is exactly what Woodruff was at that point in the film – dealing drugs of highly suspect provenance and charging premium prices for them, with no exceptions for those unable to pay the price.  Had the Dr. Sevard character been played (or more likely, directed) to be more sympathetic and Woodruff less heroic, that moment could have contained all the contradictions of health care under capitalism:  Everyone in that room, most especially the pharmaceutical executives, is a common drug dealer, and they are all, including Woodruff, out to make a profit from human suffering.

One friend pointed out that Woodruff is an anti-hero – he’s not presented as having a sympathetic life – but I demur.  Though in the film’s asides he’s naughty and brawling and rough-edged as the stock Western template requires, at every critical point he’s decisive, independent, risk-taking, entrepreneurial – all the Reagan-era Ayn Rand / John Wayne values.  In case we miss the point, near the film’s end he receives a standing ovation.

I knew in advance that the film would impose an orderly plot on the chaos and agony of a desperate time – it’s a Hollywood film, after all.  But – then and now – when thinking of the FDA bureaucrats, I cannot let go of the legacies of the likes of Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, who fought for federal regulation of industries that were killing people in their blind pursuit of profits.   (The contamination of West Virginia rivers with toxic chemicals offers a fine contemporary example of the consequences of relaxed and underfunded government regulation.)  With all the benefits of hindsight, the film suggests that it was possible to have some clarity around these various drugs, and it strongly implies that Woodruff’s alternative mix (peptide-T, interferon, ddc) kept him alive.

There’s little evidence to support the view that the mix he was dealing helped anyone.  That AZT was prescribed in what we now recognize as lethal dosages is not in doubt, but the film suggests that this was done purely to make a profit for the drug companies.  In fact everyone was desperate and AZT offered the first glimmer of something that might work, and if a little worked, then a lot should work better, right?

The big pharma executives and their investors are as greedy now as then and I’m all in favor of any story that makes them out to be villains.  But for everybody else involved, the story was a lot more complicated, in a way that the film oversimplifies.  The real villain was not the bureaucrats who, however unimaginatively, were doing their assigned job of policing drug research and production.  The true villain was President Ronald Reagan, who did not mention the disease until long after it was established and spreading, and whose slowness to pour serious research money into its causes and potential cures delayed our understanding of the virus, with consequences of the first magnitude for the infected.

 

 

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Why after Mozart’s Requiem I May Never Again Sing Classical Music

A bass is by disposition and nature a heavy lifter.  Think of a jazz trio – there’s always a moment when the pianist and the drummer stand back and let the bass have its solo, but the audience listens politely and waits for it to be over because finally we listen to music for the melody line and the basses by and large don’t carry the melody line and get squirrely and embarrassed when required to do so.  You hire a tenor to design the house, a bass to build it.  We’re more comfortable down in the basement pouring the foundation.

But this is Mozart’s Requiem, a song for the dead, who in metaphor and in fact reside in the basements of our imaginations.  We don’t carry them front center but we never forget them, either, because they are at our destination, they reside in the place where we are all going; though maybe in writing as much I’m learning what Mozart was trying to teach, which is that there is no destination, no line, no progression from here to there, there is only what is, here and now, change, process, life becoming more life, and in such an ever-changing universe one looks for the foundation on which to rest one’s weary feet, and we basses are it.  The Requiem showcases the bass line from the moment of its grand, stately opening (”Requiem aeternam . . .”).  The piece features by my count thirteen solo bass entrances, which is about eleven more than any piece I’ve yet sung.  Among these are some real terror-inducers, from the naked opening to the startling tempo change that introduces the Osanna in the Sanctus.

Twice the music features a magnificent stairstepping line in which the basses first descend (Dona, dona eis requiem, “Give them peace”), then ascend (Qua resurget ex favilla judi cando homo reus, “from the ashes we rise to be judged”), half-pitch by half-pitch, from the mud to the stars.  The basses introduce solo all three fugues, the greatest of which — surely not coincidentally, coming from the pen of the randy Mozart and initiated by the butch basses –  reminds God of His promise to Abraham that his seed will be scattered far and wide (Quam olim Abrahae promisiti et semini ejus).

We have become so accustomed to the devices Mozart uses to introduce and sustain musical excitement and suspense that they can sound corny or clichéd – the internal crescendo/decrescendo, the pauses between words (Qua / re / sur / get / ex / fa / vi / la / ju / di / can / do / ho / mo / re / us) swelling to a climax.  But he did it first, or at least put all the tricks together first, and in no piece to greater effect than the Requiem.  Listen closely to enough Mozart – learn enough Mozart and you’ll never hear cartoon music – or for that matter, any popular music – the same way again.  It’s true – there are too many notes; but what notes, and how exhilarating to sing them!

Finally:  A recording recommendation:  I own two.  The Vienna State Opera Chorus performing under Sir Georg Solti, and the Academy and Chorus of St. Martin’s in the Fields, under Sir Neville Mariner.  The former is a live performance of the concert held in the Vienna cathedral to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, and it demonstrates all the advantages of live performance:  the audience is a palpable presence, and the chorus and orchestra respond accordingly.  But it’s interspersed with the text of the funeral mass, intoned by old white guys in Prada gowns, and with all due respect, unless you’re more adept at cutting and pasting tracks than I, you might prefer the crisp and competent Mariner rendition.

And so farewell to Wolfgang Amadeus, beloved of God, at least for a while.  Of course there are harder and more challenging roles; still. In my imagination the Requiem was the Everest / Chomolungma of choral roles.  I never imagined I’d sing it.  I’d sing it again in a heartbeat; I sing it in the shower; driving to and from my sister’s deathbed, I sang it in the car, for comfort for me, from love of her.

For now, it may be back to Happy Birthday for me.  Stay tuned, so to speak.

 

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The Apotheosis of Flowers

OK, here’s a chance to get more people to read about Larry Rose, and fold in another great San Francisco tip.  Recently psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger and, most recently, Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up, praised Geography of the Heart:  A Memoir on All Things Considered.  The full text of her review may be found / listened to on this site on the page for Geography, but herewith, a particular sentence she quoted:  “He brought flowers — not your garden-variety carnations and mums, but fabulous arrangements of tropical flora with unpronounceable names and big hair.”

That sentence took me back to those arrangements, which I can see, oh, how I can see them here and now, more real than the real.

But there’s also the real thing, still in business, and here is a link to their homepage:

http://www.ixia.com/

This is the shop where Larry bought those “fabulous arrangements,” and they are the greatest, the apotheosis of flowers.

 

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Research and the Memoir

Remarks delivered at the Associated Writing Programs 2012 Conference, Chicago, Illinois, 3 March.

Read remarks in PDF format.

Life is research; thus, the memoir.

Research deepens and enriches memory.  I search for prompts, which in turn direct the research, which in its turn sparks memory.  I take issue w/ the panel description’s use of the word “objective” – as in, “the researcher’s objective findings.”  Vladimir Nabokov, who would know, wrote that reality is the only word that ought always to be enclosed in quotation marks – “reality.”  The great beauty of creative nonfiction is that, while the writer is morally and aesthetically bound in service to truth, she or he is liberated from service to the mythology of objective fact.

Now that is not at all to advocate making up facts or distorting them for the sake of aesthetic convenience.  If we betray our memories, or if we refuse to put them to the test of fact, then we’ll have a distorted view of the truth.

Flannery O’Connor, who knew whereof she spoke, wrote that your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see, nor will they be a substitute for seeing. What she’s saying is that our belief systems – our moral values, whatever they may be – are quite literally the light by which we see; without the light they shed we can see nothing.  But she’s also pointing up the distinction between “the light by which we see” and the world around us.  The first is not the same as the second, and to assume as much is a kind of fundamentalism, i.e., working from the assumption that what I believe is the same as the world itself, and so everybody else had better get on board fast.  She’s saying that while a system of beliefs, of moral values is essential for the writer or the artists, we can’t substitute it for an open and mindful encounter with the world that is.

O’Connor also says that anyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about for a lifetime, and that’s true, but one visits and revisits that interior life through the lens of research, which serves both to amplify and to particularize the experience.  Life is like water – it takes the shape of the vessel into which it’s poured; remove the vessel and it’s lost.  Research is a tool with which the writer shapes and carries memory, the vehicle for one’s personal mythology.

Oscar Wilde said the first duty in life is to adopt a pose; what the second duty is, no one has yet ascertained.  Not only is a personal mythology essential, but it must grow and change over time.  Our great contemporary challenge is the construction of a national mythology built on cooperation and sustainability rather than on conquest and exploitation.

I offer, for example, the observation that the two great strands of the human condition are the active life and the contemplative life.  I came to this understanding courtesy of the research I’ve done into a wide variety of spiritual traditions, seeing how each tradition develops and cultivates paths for the contemplative even as it accommodates those more engaged with worldly life.  Today I realize that my understanding of this dialectic between contemplation and action is rooted in having a mother who made the greatest imaginative leap the Kentucky hills afforded in the 1930s, converting from Bible-Belt Protestantism to marry my father, a bourbon-making Roman Catholic.  I see how my ongoing ideological schizophrenia roots itself in her identify as a seeker – when I was a child and the Jehovah’s Witnesses rang the doorbell, she invited them in and argued with them; and of course in a story I’ve told many times, she was a lifelong host to the comings and goings of the Trappist monks at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani.

But I’d have had no comprehension of the historical context of my mother’s leap – I’d have had no understanding of the origins and implications of the dueling Protestant and Catholic theologies in my character – without the research I’ve done into the spiritual traditions of the world.  She participated in the Roman Catholic Church with all the fervor of the convert.  At the same time, when I asked her if we were really going to go to hell because we’d spent the previous Sunday working on the family cabin in the woods, she looked conspiratorial and said, “You don’t have to believe everything they tell you,” as thoroughly a Protestant take on the matter as anyone might muster – as thoroughly Protestant as her sniffing, in response to some comment I made about the Pope, “I never had much use for authority.”

We live and write on a spectrum of fiction, with the New York Times at one end and maybe Finnegan’s Wake at the other, though there are days when I feel the front page of the Times and Finnegan’s Wake have more in common with each other than I can comfortably accommodate.  (On those days I write fiction.) The delight of the memoirist’s trade is the understanding that one is shaping the vessel even as it is serving as the means into which to pour the stories of our lives.  It’s that symbiotic relationship, between the past and the present, between what has happened and the here and now, between being shaped and shaping, between destiny and free will, that is the memoirist’s proper and richest territory.

As for practical tips,

— Reviewing graduate school applications:  while a well-written straightforward memoir drew attention, my colleagues and I were all drawn to those braids of personal experience and  memory, and memory with observation and research – a memoir in service to the heart and to the head, which after all are inseparable, two words for the same consciousness.

— Experience – Chekhov, who knew whereof he spoke, would have said “long and bitter experience” – has taught me not to allow my undergraduates to write straightforward memoir until the second half of the semester.  For the first half of the semester I tell them that they must use the first person but they cannot write about themselves.  I require that their first project be primarily or significantly research-based.  I feel it of utmost importance to give them the tools to look outward – to situate themselves on a continuum of human history, in which it’s possible to balance respect for tradition with the need for growth and change.  I know that the inquiring mind looking outward will or ought to be drawn inward, only now with the perspective and the tools with which to undertake that more dangerous interior journey.

Eudora Welty, who knew whereof she spoke, wrote, “All serious daring begins within.” By way of making the point, I teach examples – in the Lopate anthology that we all know and love, John McPhee’s Search for Marvin Gardens, Wendell Berry’s An Entrance to the Woods.   Albert Goldbarth’s funny and astonishing essay collection Many Circles, anything by Guy Davenport, Annie Dillard can get a little breathless for my taste but she’s almost always founded in solid research – all these are good examplesThe current issue of the Georgia Review features a fine essay by Catherine Reid that interweaves a memoir of helping her mother through dying with a birdwatcher’s investigation into avian mythologies. Keeping Faith turned into such a book, though I didn’t realize that until I began writing it.

— For the writer:   Keep a good paper trail, and if you don’t know how to do that, talk to somebody who does.

— Read poetry, which can keep you honest and teach you a great deal about the shaping of the sentence and narrative line.

A successful memoir is a product not of the self-obsession of a selfish, me-first generation but evidence of literate people’s recognition that the written word has replaced the story sung by the winter fire as our means of establishing and preserving cultural memory.

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Mozart’s Last Joke

Mozart’s Last Joke

Learning Mozart’s Requiem  — the centerpiece of the University of Arizona Community Chorus spring concert, April 29, 3 pm, FYI – is an intense and wonderful experience.  I know the piece well, and have said on previous occasion that its Kyrie is the cry of a desperate dying man for mercy for his sins, and for sure in its intensity it evokes that response.  But learned from inside, it’s beginning to feel like a vast, lightning-fast joke – the flittery dancing up and down the scale, the octave jump where you least expect it (and often right where any reasonable vocalist would be out of breath), the melodrama of the sharps and flats inserted and held at just the – well, melodramatic moment – it’s a delight, a cornball thumbing of the nose at the Grim Reaper.  When this is over I just might rank it above Fauré’s Requiem, which would be an inversion of my previous order.  Fauré is sweet and tender; Mozart’s is blunt and no-nonsense:  — Help me, I’m fucked! with the expletive appropriate to the man and the music; and comes the response — There is no help, God save you.

A chorister has no choice but to memorize the music – no way to get through the Kyrie without diving off the cliff and praying.  One glance down at the page and you’re left behind and you’ll never catch up, no point in trying, everything is moving so fast, the roller coaster has disappeared over the next climb and plunge.  Written by and for drama queens – I’m having to decide, and quickly, whether I have the theatrical flair required to sing it well.  Fortunately, one of the salubrious experiences of singing in a chorus is that I always feel self-conscious – ohmygod, everybody heard me sing that flat note.  But then I listen to recordings, and – short of an entrance ahead of schedule – any single voice is lost in the overall wall of sound (Mozart had this idea long before Phil Spector), which is both a relief (thank God nobody heard that flat note) and a humbling (I’m not as important as I think I am).

Locals and visitors, take note:    University of Arizona Community Chorus and Orchestra, Dr. Elizabeth Schauer, conductor, Blair Buffinton, assistant conductor, performs Schubert’s “Intende voci” and Mozart’s “Requiem,” Sunday, April 29, 3 p.m., Crowder Hall, University of Arizona campus.  Box office 520-621-1162.

 

 

 

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Medicine and the Humanities: A Collaboration

Discussant remarks, First Friday presentations, Department of English, University of Arizona

12/2/11

Introduction:  Dr. Tilly Warnock, professor emerita, University of Arizona

Speakers:  Dr. Ron Grant, director, University of Arizona Medical Humanities Program

Dr. Rishi Goyal, Ph.D.

Professor Fenton Johnson, discussant

 

Recent years have witnessed the rise of scientists writing as Renaissance men – I choose the gender deliberately, since I know of no women entrants in this field.  If this is true, I suspect it’s because women come intuitively to a more complex understanding of reality than one based solely in empiricism.  These great scientists, having achieved prominence in their chosen disciplines – e.g., Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, or cognitive scientist Steven Pinker – write about issues rooted in the arts and humanities with little or no serious study of these disciplines.  In Consilience, for example, Dr. Wilson claims that science will someday reveal the precise combination of chemicals and synapse firings that produced Milton’s Paradise Lost.   “When we have unified enough certain knowledge,” he writes – that is to say, enough facts – “we will understand who we are and why we are here.”  In his current bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker claims that civilization – which we are to understand means “Western civilization” – has reduced violence, even as he never mentions the bloody record of European colonizers against Native peoples or the unhappy fact that fascism and Nazism arose in what was arguably the most civilized European nation.

We who teach in the arts and humanities know the problem here.  It’s rooted not in empiricism, a noble way of encountering reality, but in sloppy critical thinking.  These brilliant men of reason have not cultivated the discipline required to negotiate what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human hawt in conflict with itself.”  They bring a chronometer and a measuring rod to the timeless, infinite territories of the soul, when an evening spent in the company of Shakespeare or George Eliot or Toni Morrison or W.H. Auden or Sor Juana Inez or Matisse or Mozart or Scott Momaday would offer more appropriate and revelatory access.

How are artists and humanists to respond?  One means of addressing that question lies, I think, in medicine, because the healing arts inevitably bring reason into an intimate encounter with the heart.  Medicine brings science into direct engagement with the most profound issues of the human condition.  Genentech may develop tests to predict my unborn child’s sexual identity or the likelihood of Down’s syndrome, but I am most likely to have these tests administered in my doctor’s office.  Science can develop drugs to treat HIV, but I will have them prescribed by a doctor, with whom – at least in the ideal – I will discuss the behavior that led to their prescription.

In The Courage to Be, published in 1952, the great theologian Paul Tillich anticipated this development.  In the passage that, significantly, incorporates the title of his book, he writes,

 

This is why, more and more, representatives of medicine generally and psychotherapy specifically ask to cooperate with philosophers and theologians.  .  .  .  The medical faculty needs a doctrine of man in order to fulfill its theoretical task; and it cannot have a doctrine of man without the permanent cooperation of all those faculties whose central object is man.   . . . Both the help given to man and the doctrines about man are a matter of cooperation from many points of view.  Only in this way is it possible to understand and to actualize man’s power of being, his essential self-affirmation, his courage to be.

 

It should be a source of pride for us that integrative medicine, a manifestation of the collaboration Tillich describes, has a primary base at the University of Arizona, where the medical school has seen fit to cultivate collaboration between the disciplines through its Medical Humanities Program.  I’m honored to have had Dr. Grant among my first students at the U of A, to have been invited to participate in this discussion, to join the chorus welcoming Dr. Goyal to the Department, and to seed our discussion by posing the first question:

The humanities notably concern themselves with death as much as life – the Roman poet Cicero famously said that to study philosophy is to learn how to die.  And yet contemporary medicine is preoccupied with life to the exclusion of dying.  What is the proper place of the study of dying in a discipline whose goal is to preserve and enhance life?

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Signs and Wondering

June 2011

 

The second afternoon of an eight-day silent Zen Buddhist retreat on an island in Puget Sound, I was dive-bombed by a bald eagle.

Here are the facts: The retreat center (a rented Christian summer camp, more about that later) has a labyrinth, where the meditator must walk every pathway to reach the center, to which all paths finally lead. While there are twists and turns, finally the pilgrim can make no mistake.

So in silence I walked the labyrinth. I’d like to write that my heart was filled with thoughts of gratitude and love to match the grandeur of the setting, but in fact I was obsessing about being alone in midlife and the possibility of being poor as a church mouse in my dotage and whether my head has the courage to embrace the hard paths my heart has chosen.

I completed the journey amid these grousing thoughts and stepped away from the labyrinth to hear a whoosh and a whistling literally at my ear, close enough that I executed a little leap of alarm. I had binoculars around my neck and it is an abject illustration of how poorly I dwell in the present that I took so long to raise them to the sky, but when I did I spotted the eagle – unmistakable with its broad wingspan and white head and flying at its side a dark-headed juvenile.

Why the dive-bombing? Eagles are not skilled hunters like hawks, who hunt on the wing with great dexterity and precision. If hawks are the fighter pilots of the avian world, eagles are C-150 transports, big and lumbering. They use their size to intimidate smaller, more successful hunters into dropping or abandoning their catch, and it is perhaps unhappy evidence of the interconnectedness of all things that the forebears of the American Empire chose for our national symbol a bully and a thief.  (“An opportunist,” chides an older, wiser sister.)

Barn swallows populated the camp, building their mud nests under its eaves, with four or five gaping baby mouths emerging whenever mama or papa returned with food. Walking through the grass must scare up chiggers or mites, because the swallows swooped and dove around my feet, their mouths open to catch bits of flying protein. Perhaps, I thought later, my dive-bombing eagle was using me as a blind, hoping to sneak from behind and use its bulk to knock a swallow to the ground – the only way I could imagine this feathered behemoth catching the deft and agile swallow. And in fact the next morning I found a partially disemboweled swallow on the steps of the meditation hall. Impossible to consign such a graceful creature to a garbage can, so I placed it under the bushes with a bow and a prayer.

And now I come to the point of my labyrinthine story. Maybe the eagle was on the hunt, or maybe I was buzzed by the juvenile who was being dare-devilish and experimenting with its flying chops, or maybe I was being handed a sign. Or maybe all three.

Through page or pixel I sense a grimace among the empiricists but I assure you, I am one of yours; hear me out. Cutting-edge physics announces daily more evidence of the truth at the heart of all our great religious traditions: No duality (Buddhism), we are all one, in Atman (Hinduism), or God (Judaism), or Beauty (Platonism), or Christ Jesus (Christianity). There is no separation between self and other.

Every year we understand more how the mind constructs our reality (the only word, wrote the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, that ought always to be enclosed in quotation marks). Its single-minded goal is to enable us to perform essential tasks in the world and yes, to experience its beauty. But the molecules of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen that make up my body have no precise boundaries; the very margin of my skin, so clearly and cunningly defined by the neural pathways of my brain, is in “reality” porous and permeable. Every moment of our lives we breathe in the world and in the next moment exhale gases of our own making. We are of the world as it is of us.

All matter influences in more and less infinitesimal ways all other matter. The universe is one great organism, as the biologist Lynn Margulis has eloquently observed, in which there is no death – death is an illusion – but only transition from one form of life to another. How like Western thinkers, stuck on Thomas Aquinas’s pyramid of being with guess who at its peak, to define consciousness and then arrogate it to ourselves! For all we know – for all we really know – what we call consciousness is our particular human experience of a universal awareness shared by every plant or creature or even object, with its origins in what for lack of a better word we call God.

In meditation, it is not consciousness (a blessing) but self-consciousness (a burden) from which we seek to liberate ourselves.

In this universe in which interdependent forms are continuously arising and evolving, is it not possible to understand the eagle’s descent as connected in some integral way to my walking the labyrinth? Is it not possible to imagine that human beings possess not a higher but a similar form of consciousness as our brethren among the so-called lower creatures? And that our fit and proper evolution is toward letting go – an experience and embrace of the universe as it is, rather than the universe as the  comprehensible, controllable place that we want it to be? Just wondering.

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In the family tree of religions, surely few are farther apart than Buddhism and Mormonism – think “Lhasa” and “Salt Lake City,” or “Dalai Lama” and the scrubbed young proselytizers in starched white shirts and polyester ties who show up at my door.

© Kevin Fitzpatrick 2011

And yet here we were, a group of American Buddhists, many of us clad in black robes from the traditions of medieval Japan, chanting litanies in Anglicized Japanese and ringing gongs and doing our deep, day-long meditations at a camp run by the Community of Christ, a breakaway sect of Mormonism. No question but that this is a bona fide church camp, as evidenced by those awful metal folding chairs designed to induce hemorrhoids and back spasms, and bunk beds in tiny cabins with mattresses the length of an average ten-year-old, and chest-high shower heads, and yellowing photographs of people working hard to have a good time.

Across almost twenty years these two disparate traditions have developed a mutual respect that verges into love. Our Buddhist priest reports that though at their first visit, years earlier, the Buddhists felt suspicion and unease, today all the Mormon staff (most of them volunteers) are friendly and open-hearted. Some bow and place their hands in gasshō, the traditional Buddhist gesture of greeting.

At the week’s end we install a ceramic Buddhist prayer wheel, a steel-blue urn decorated with leaping salmon and glazed with rainbow iridescence, that the Buddhists are donating to the camp in honor of its 50th anniversary. Using old-growth red cedar, the Community of Christ caretaker has been working late into the night to complete a small temple to house it, using drawings of similar structures from medieval Japan.

On the last night of our retreat we gather, Buddhists and Community of Christ Mormons, to dedicate it, and I am honored to say that I played the tiniest role in its construction and installation, a little bit of me left behind in this spectacular setting. We chant the greatest of Buddhist prayers, the Metta Sutta (“may all beings be happy . . . let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world”) and join the caretaker in singing an old campfire song about opening our hearts.

Would our hosts be so accepting if, instead of ordinary looking prosperous suburbanites, the visiting Buddhist sangha included men and women with nose piercings and tattoos and dreadlocks? Good question, but for one moment at least, under the eagles’ watchful eyes on this island taken over a hundred years ago from the native Samish people, there is no separation, no duality, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, we are all one in Beauty, in Atman, in Christ Jesus, in God.

 

© Kevin Fitzpatrick 2011

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