A Dream for the New Year

I went to sleep not having written a blog and this dream woke me . . .

I was in a room and it was time. My mind was clear and present. I agreed to have the injection that would end my life. But when a tall man with a black suit and white shirt arrived with a syringe ready to plunge the needle through my skin, I freaked. “No! No, no!” I shouted as I pulled away. He was determined and latched on, but I was thrashing wildly and ripped free of his grip. I would not give in easily, I wanted to live.

With every particle of my being, I fought back. Then I said, “Please, if I am to die now, I must tell my Zen teacher and community.” He agreed to let me go make a phone call if afterwards I would return for the needle.

I ran out of the room, ran as far and as fast I could. I was on the lam. Up and over bridges, staircases, down alleys, and across lonely boulevards. In an area with small shops I saw some boxes of biscuits and thought of snatching one, but resisted.

Then I saw my daughter. I called, “Ariel!” and again, “Ariel, come with me, please!”

She came over, I grabbed her hand, and we sprinted until we arrived on a grassy plateau. I was about to tell her what was happening when the tall man with the black suit and white shirt arrived waving the syringe. He grabbed my arm and said, “You will not escape me, now!” He jerked my right hand towards his body to plunge the needle into my wrist. He injected the fluid with great glee and strode away. But I had seen the needle catch on my sweater’s knitted cuff, the poison had not entered my body.

I had outsmarted death. I didn’t know how many more times I would be able to avoid him, but I secretly hoped for nine lives like a cat — and that when the ninth time came — I would be ready. I want no regrets, I want to go with grace.

You might wonder why such a strong dream at this turning of the year. A few days ago, I had breakfast with a friend who lost her partner to a re-occurrence of breast cancer. I have a friend struggling with depression, another paralyzed by the political turmoil in the world, and another beside herself with grief because of the destruction of the natural world. Many of us carry serious fear, and even terror.

Confucius told his followers, 'Bring peace to the old, have trust in your friends, and cherish the young.' And he lived during turbulent times. The message I received in my dream is to live life to the fullest. I am grateful for my Zen Mountain Monastery community who helped me survive in my dream as they have through difficult times. I am grateful for my daughter who brought her angelic presence to the dream as she so often does in daily life.  

Ariel and I on a Hike, Selfie, 2016

Ariel and I on a Hike, Selfie, 2016

Dreams have a lot to offer us. I tried to go deeper into sensing this ‘being alive’. I felt each thing awake — the singular blade of grass, the snowflake, the pink salmon. We shape the world with what we do, what we see, and what we think. Mind is what I cherish because it connects us all — each person born and unborn — each tree and star. And just maybe, the poison to my body had no effect because it will never have power over mind.

I wish you happiness and well-being in the coming year!

May you receive and offer gifts of kindness, generosity, and creativity.  

Canyonlands Many Hands.jpg

Many Hands Blessing Earth

Happy New Year 2018



Boats, Figures, and Catching Fish

Boats embody our life journey, each of us, adrift, on a vast ocean. We can only surrender to what life presents. We embark, not knowing where the wind will drive our craft. I first started making sculptures of boats in 2007, inspired by teachings of Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master. His writings are short, poetic, beautiful, pithy, and quite challenging to parse. In Genjo Koan, Dogen writes:

When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.      Tr. Tanahashi et al.

I made boats in wax — boats with one figure, boats with fish, boats with two figures, boats overturned on a beach, a figure emptying water from a boat, a figure birthing a boat. There was nothing fixed in my play with the wax sculptures — only an endless reconfiguring of figures, boats, and fish.

I showed some of these sculptures to friend and poet, Susan Edwards Richmond. She wrote, River Crossings, a poem in five parts based on several of the sculptures. It was originally published in Issue One of Wild Apples, A Journal of Nature, Art, and Inquiry that we founded together with two friends in 2005. [There are back copies still available].

A figure of wax, softened
by pinch of fingers, heel
of a hand . . .

  in the river, bearing

the burden of flood, the stoking
rhythm of oars, molded to that
position, I brace for the sluice
wherever it takes me.

. . .
When I tried to push you
from the boat, a fish leapt
from the river, lodged in my arms.                                       

Richmond’s poem has just been reprinted and is the final section in her first full full-length poetry collection, Before We Were Birds, published last month by Adastra Press. This fine collection begins with the poem sequence Boto, the mysterious freshwater Brazilian dolphin that rises from the Amazon River on full moon nights. A Boto is a shapeshifter who takes human form to catch humans, and even bring them back to live deep in the river.

In Dogen’s, Mountains and Rivers Sutra, he refers to sages who live near water and catch fish, and catch humans.

. . .  from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived near water. When they live near water they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way. For long these have been genuine activities in water. Furthermore there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way. . .                                                                                        Tr. Kotler and Tanahashi

In this same sutra, Dogen uses expressions like riding the clouds and following the wind to describe states of meditative practice and transcendence. The mountains and rivers are none other than our own body and mind. How do we ride the wind and cross each river?

River Crossings ends with:  

sprout back along the river, edges
grow dense with birds. I am called
neither forward nor back,
out of the water nor into it.

This is the art I practice,
the one that leaves no wake.

Susan Edwards Richmond has published four chapbooks of poetry, Increase, Purgatory Chasm, Birding in Winter, and Boto. A passionate birder, she works at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. Richmond is poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio, edits the Plein Air poetry chapbook, and organizes our Plein Air Poetry event every fall. We are also working on a series of children’s books on sustainable agriculture. I am grateful, Susan, for our ever widening collaborations.

Southern Apples, an Elephant, Monkey, Rabbit, and Bird, Two Mango Trees and a Birthday

I celebrated my 60th birthday this week. My partner, Blase, gave me a first edition of the book Old Southern Apples, written by Lee Calhoun. Southern apples might sound like an oxymoron, since not many people think of the South as an Eden of apples. But over 1300 varieties originated south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and these apples are an important part of the area’s agrarian history. Old Southerners not only talk about Bloody Butcher corn and Red Ripper peas, but the now extinct apples like Fall Ambrosia (sounds so delicious), and the still available Limbertwigs.

Old Southern Apples describes the unique features of over 1600 apple varieties (though 300 of them originated elsewhere but were grown in the South). The book divides these apples between 300 still growing or available at nurseries and 1300 now extinct Southern apples, the names and descriptions mostly taken from old nursery catalogues (a coincidence that both numbers are 300). The book also contains forty-eight plates of hand-painted apple pictures selected from the seven thousand in the collection of the National Agricultural Library. That was from the days when the United States Department of Agriculture hired artists!

Old Southern Apples, Plates 15 - 18; Photos: Jerry Markatos 

Old Southern Apples, Plates 15 - 18; Photos: Jerry Markatos 

As you may know, apples grown from seed are the unique progeny of two parents, because the blossoms are cross pollinated. Most of these seeded trees crop with hard, sour, or small fruit, better for the hogs than for eating off the tree. Some apples are good for making hard cider and apple cider vinegar, but a few trees out of a thousand planted might produce unexpected, remarkable apples that would be given names and propagated. Of the 1600 apple varieties mentioned in this book, all of them grew from seed to be extraordinary apples. In the South, whether the settlers were large landowners or tenant farmers, they all planted out their orchards with seeds, they didn’t set out grafted rootstocks. It was the way it was done.

Today, it would be the rare individual who would scatter seeds to plant an orchard. After all, who would want a collection of wild apples? Large orchardists order sapling trees from wholesale nurseries in the thousands or even ten thousand. Blocks of the same variety, interspersed with another variety for pollinating, are planted. It is the researchers who cross apples and come up with new varieties for orchards to trial. A few apples become the darlings of the marketplace. This approach to apple growing is very different from the grand creativity that nature realizes with such ease. As Lao Tzu said, Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Inside my card, Blase tucked a print-out of a Buddhist tale. When King Mahajanaka, an earlier incarnation of the Buddha, was traveling through a park, he saw a monkey sitting on a branch of a mango tree. The King longed to stop and pick a few mangoes, but traveling with his large retinue, he had to continue without stopping. He decided he would sneak back alone that night to pick a few mangoes. That night, when he got to the grove, he lifted his torchlight and saw that someone had gotten there before him. The mango tree was stripped bare of fruit; its limbs were broken and its leaves lay scattered everywhere. He was saddened to think that this beautiful tree would likely not survive this ravagement. Then he saw another mango tree, one that had not been harmed. He realized that this tree avoided the carousing thieves because it had no fruit. The King returned and pondered his experience with the two mango trees. He decided he would renounce his title and give away everything he owned. He would become a tree without fruit. I love the story of the King Mahajanaka and the mango tree, but it could be taken as a teaching in renunciation. As many of you know, the orchard at Old Frog Pond Farm had no apples this year, and it was not because I renounced my title of orchardist.

The Birthday card Blase gave me was hand painted in Bhutan; he had saved it from our trip seven years ago. It is of a bird on a rabbit on a monkey’s shoulder, on an elephant (the bird and rabbit are hard to see). They are walking under a mango tree laden with fruit. It is an illustration of the “Four Harmonious Friends,” a much loved Bhutanese tale. These animals worked together; the bird planted the seed, the rabbit watered the sapling, the monkey fertilized it, and the elephant protected it until it grew into a beautiful tree with fruit for all of them.

"Four Harmonious Friends" handpainted in Bhutan

"Four Harmonious Friends" handpainted in Bhutan

I loved my gift of so many fruit related stories. Our orchard is so much more than its acres of grafted trees. It’s a language we speak and share; a wild grove of poetry, paintings, sunsets, clouds, blossoms, and, hopefully next year, delicious fruit.

Winter Tracks

A pack of hungry coyotes visited the orchard. I didn’t know until the next morning when I saw clumps of reddish brown scat — big and fat and filled with seeds and fur and rotten apples — a rich scat bursting with life. Deep holes dotted the rows. The coyotes had smelled the burrowed voles and dug to catch and eat them.  I could see their tracks. My neighbor, Ed, asked if I had heard the coyotes. He said they were yipping most of the night. I said regretfully, “No. When temperatures are in the single digits we sleep with the windows closed.”

When I saw Ed the next day he said that he had seen a lone coyote leaping and twirling among the trees. He imagined she was trying to impress his border collie, Sneakers, and invite him for a tryst. Ed brought Sneakers inside the house — there’s a difference between wild and domestic creatures.

A tracker told me that the way to tell the difference between dog and coyote prints is that the coyote’s are straight, economical, and efficient while the dog’s weave back and forth, wandering here and there, as if continuously distracted. Coyote tracks are more like the long lines of an artist who is confident about her drawing. She is determined to get it right. In fact, before making a brush painting, an artist will often gather mind and body into one great ball of concentration. The release is a very decisive yet spontaneous brushstroke. 

This brush painting by Nantenbo (1839-1925), a Japanese Zen teacher, is of his teaching stick.  Whack! The thick black line is in your face. When I first saw the painting I felt the sting of the stick across my back. Looking at the Nantenbo calligraphy now, I think of the coyotes. That’s how hungry one has to be for food — physical as well as spiritual. Like the coyote, one has to be willing to dig deep, to prowl the darkness of lonely nights; to dig and come up empty and not give up.

Then I wondered about the delicate tassels tied around the stick. Perhaps we need to hold this powerful stick of keen determination lightly. Like that lone coyote dancing among the trees, we need light-heartedness and joy along with disciplined work. The coyote finds balance, and so can we.

Handstand,  bronze figure with found object, LH

Handstand, bronze figure with found object, LH