“Have you been comparing?” ask Rodgers and Hart in their 1932 ballad “You Are Too Beautiful.” I suspect that most of us, if we are being honest and sufficiently self-aware, would have to answer in the affirmative. “Comparison,” observed Mark Twain, whose vein of dark wisdom ran as deep as his humor, “is the death of joy.” Yet on we go, comparing whatever is at hand, be it brands of dental floss or newly listed homes or presidential candidates. A product of our education and social conditioning, the mental habit of comparison is as ingrained as it is necessary for survival. Regrettably, however, if left unexamined that habit can also rob us of happiness and hinder us from appreciating our present lives. Continue Reading »
Among the cryptic sayings associated with the Zen tradition, none is better known than that of Ummon Bun’en (862-949), who famously declared that “every day is a good day.” Yeah, right, the weary, seasoned mind replies. Tell that to the commuter caught in gridlock or the stressed-out parent nursing a sick child. Superficially construed, Ummon’s remark sounds both naive and culpably aloof.
Yet, if examined in the light of Zen teachings, this adage is neither foolish nor untrue. The key component of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record, a classic collection of Zen koans, Ummon’s pronouncement is a fiction that points to an underlying reality, a construct that discloses a deeper truth. If we wish to probe that truth, we can consult the host of commentaries Case 6 has accrued, beginning with that of Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), compiler of Zen koans, who called this particular koan “cold,” meaning austere and challenging to contemplate. But if we wish to explore Ummon’s saying in a warmer light, we can begin by reflecting on how we know, or think we know, the things of this world, and how we determine whether a given day is good or bad. Continue Reading »
When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So goes the Zen proverb, and for many it may be true. In my case, however, I was neither ready nor expectant. And my first guide on the path of meditation was an unlikely candidate for the position.
Allen Ginsberg visited Alfred University in October 1978. It was a relatively tranquil time, especially when contrasted with our present era. A few weeks earlier, the Camp David Accords had been signed under the watchful eye of President Jimmy Carter. In Western New York the fall colors were at their peak. Continue Reading »
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“Why do we like being Irish?” asks the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) in his poem Autumn Journal (1939). In subsequent lines, he answers his own question:
It gives us a hold on the sentimental English
As members of a world that never was,
Baptized with fairy water;
And partly because Ireland is small enough
To be still thought of with a family feeling,
And because the waves are rough
That split her from a more commercial culture;
And because one feels that here at least one can
Do local work which is not at the world’s mercy
And that on this tiny stage with luck a man
Might see the end of one particular action.
Because Ireland is a relatively small country, and because in MacNeice’s time families tended to stay put for as long as economic conditions allowed, Irish people could reasonably hope to see the “end”–the consequences as well as the completion–of any particular action. Continue Reading »
On this snowy winter evening I’ve been listening to Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal After John Dowland (1963), a twenty-minute piece for solo guitar composed for the English lutenist and guitarist Julian Bream (b. 1933). By turns dreamy and martial, restless and serene, this masterpiece of the modern guitar repertoire can be heard on Bream’s 1967 album 20th Century Guitar, one of forty CD’s in my newly-acquired Julian Bream: The Complete RCA Album Collection (2013). Released in conjunction with Bream’s eightieth birthday, this handsome boxed set is both a treasure trove of music for classical guitar and a tribute to a great musician’s lifetime achievement. And for this listener, the collection also evokes an enduring memory. Continue Reading »
In an interview many years ago, a journalist asked the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) for his thoughts on aging. At the time, Heaney must have been in his late fifties or early sixties. With his usual precision of language, leavened by a wryly ironic smile, Heaney remarked that growing older had brought “the inevitable attenuations.” He did not elaborate, but anyone of a certain age could readily fill in the blanks. And more important than the words or the missing details was the attitude behind them, an attitude at once rare and profoundly liberating.
Like forty million other men and women over the age of fifty, I belong to the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. As a privilege of membership I receive two bimonthly publications: the AARP Magazine, which is printed on glossy paper and vaguely resembles People magazine; and the AARP Bulletin, which is printed on newsprint and resembles a tabloid. The Magazine endeavors to entertain, educate, and inspire me, while perhaps selling an Acorn Chairlift or a life-insurance policy along the way. By contrast, the Bulletin aspires to keep me informed and alert me to financial and health-related hazards threatening older people. Together these complementary organs of our consumer culture purport to enhance my so-called golden years and help me feel more secure. All too often, however, their effect is quite the opposite. Continue Reading »
One bright morning several weeks ago, I received a friendly e-mail message from Amazon. “Benjamin W. Howard,” it read, “Based on your recent activity, we thought you might be interested in this:” Below these words, a handsome new book was displayed: “Firewood and Ashes: New and Selected Poems, by Ben Howard.”
To be fair to Amazon, I was indeed interested in the product described, and my interest was indubitably based on my recent activity. And, all things considered, I was heartened to see Amazon actively marketing my book and targeting a plausible customer. More power to them, I might have said, and may their project flourish.
At the same time, Amazon’s little slip-up highlighted something fundamental and unnerving about life in the digital era. Like other denizens of the twenty-first century, I am aware of the ways by which mega-conglomerates monitor our purchasing histories and manipulate our predilections. Nonetheless, had the book being promoted not been my own, I might have dozily surmised that someone at Amazon was looking out for me, as old-fashioned booksellers used to do, and that the message I had just received embodied an actual human presence. Continue Reading »