above- the creek did rise 24 x 24″ oil
Some recent COVID developments landed on me heavy; I took to my overstuffed studio/office chair and stared at the five months’ mess I haven’t been able to tackle.
I sat and couldn’t imagine painting, photographing work, organizing my work space, building a box to ship a piece, following up on inquiries… basically there was no part of my job (or my life really) that I could feel it to do, because I had a big old COVID hopeless.
So I sat and felt hopeless. Lacking other options, I settled in.
Whatever amount of time later, it changed. And who knew that could happen? I was witness to a mysterious rally; I didn’t overthink it. No grim bad news became less so. But the things right in front of my face became more important because they were right in front of my face.
So I fished my big 2020 day planner/organizer out of my bag where it has languished since retail shut down earlier this year, and I grabbed a pen. I began a list.
All day I added to the list as I got things done rather than listing anything I wanted to get done. It was a list of the done things, things done with and alongside grim bad news hopelessness. It was a defiant list of done things.
Today I think I will do much the same. I have a 4 item to do list, have crossed one thing off, and I look forward to adding all kinds of done things to it. Defiant done things. There is a grim enthusiasm. Should I lack capacity to do official yay worky things, here are things I may list: made it to bathroom on time! Scratched my nose- well done, me! Cleaned my glasses. Browsed facebook, and email.
Glad for now to be out of that chair, but it is still there if I need it again. I may even put it on my defiant list: sat in hopeless chair.
I flipping adore reading Dogen. He offers practice food of a specific kind, Miracle Gro for whatever plant my mind is, a mind which happens to be happy on Dogen.
This may make me the worst person in the world to attempt list of tips and tricks for Dogening. Most of these things I do without noticing I do them. But some of my sangha is suffering about impending Dogen encounters in an upcoming class and I want Dogen for everyone! I will try to step up. It’s an exercise in studying the self too.
[I’m working this list as a blog post, so I can add to it as I Dogen along and realize that thing I just did that helped me enter the text. I hope I’m writing about Dogening in a way that is more accessible than Dogen, but probably not, but I am trying!]
I’m not worried about spoiling Dogen. It doesn’t work that way. Practice builds capacity. If a barbell with 100 pounds is completely beyond capacity, ffs strip off some plates and find a good working weight.
The basic unit of Dogen is a chunk – a paragraph maybe, but it depends. It’s rarely a sentence and perhaps three. Chunks are made of bits. All these suggestions apply to a chunk of Dogen, not an entire sutra. If you can Dogen a chunk of Dogen I suspect you are good to go with a sutra – it’s lather rinse repeat.
Try reading his sentences in reverse order. The nasty thing about writing is that you mostly have to put words in order; it’s a linear progressive project. Each sentence usually builds on the next.
Dogen was condemned by causes and conditions to write. We have to supply some memory and agility to make up for the lamentable limits of words marched in neat little rows. Dogen is realizing through words because they are what he’s got… and realizing is the least linear thing ever.
Dogen’s thinking is maybe like painting or a 3d artist… they can show you 5 things at once, all co-constituting each other, and they aren’t forced into any particular order or hierarchy either. You can look at different bits and chunks of a painting as they attract you, and move your eye around the canvas, and double back to the bits you really like, and ignore the ugly bit in the corner for now since it’s not your jam. This is not such a bad way to read Dogen.
Maybe Dogen’s also like juggling… to see one bit of Dogen is mostly in order to consider the implications for all the other nearby balls in the air. When you “get” a bit, this means you’ve launched one ball all spinning and shining into the air. Just wait until you get three bits going at once! Four! It might not be possible to see quite what a chunk is about until all his bits are up and moving for you so be patient.
So. If you are reading Dogen, and you don’t get how the thing he is now saying possibly follows from the thing he just said—congratulations! You are probably right. This bit maybe doesn’t flow from that bit at all. It’s a whole new bit. But you will want this new bit and that previous bit and the next bit, to engage with the chunk. And if one bit seems to be crashing into or fighting another, that’s probably on purpose too. Dogen can be like a pool player and set up things to fight each other, for the sake of a liberating creative tension. (Some of my sangha feel maybe he is too good at this,
Meanwhile, if you can get three bits out four, chances of cracking the chunk (liberating yourself to the text and who knows what else) are not bad. Dogening is kind of like algebra; the point of all that X and Y and Z stuff is that we don’t have to know all the numbers.
shantyboat #5 48 x 60″ oil—a totally Dogen-relevant allegory
Hey, maybe Dogen’s like a cookie recipe! There isn’t always a reason that bakers list the 2 cups of flour before the 1.5 t cinnamon, they are all gonna get mixed together, but there is custom and convenience and they have to list the ingredients somehow because words have to march in rows.
When I read a Dogen bit, I glance back at the most recent two bits, and over at the next one, and kind of roll all the bits together, and a whole new thing emerges – the chunk. It’s amazing. Dopamine fires in my brain like payday for a gambler. I roll around on the floor fangirling for Dogen for a little or long while… and when I come down, on to the next chunk.
Try reading Dogen beginning in the middle of a chunk. The first few times through your chunk do it beginning to end and build a base familiarity with the bits. But then try middle end beginning. Try end beginning middle. This is how you will spot and get comfortable with his inversions, how he doubles back to amplify and explode some unskillful concept.
Dogen won’t usually tell you straightforwardly just what he is trying to liberate you from. His words either work for you as mega turning phrases or they don’t; you are helped out of some conceptual jail, or you aren’t. If I give a chunk a good go and no jail door pops open for me, I just move on. No harm no fowl. Who knows, maybe that door will open for me later. Maybe I personally am not in that particular jail, so that chunk wasn’t for me. Maybe I’ll get to know someone who is in that particular jail and then that chunk will come alive.
Dogen gives you many chances to liberate yourself from old habits of reading for “mastery” if you are willing to let those habits go. Most of us learned certain ways of studying that don’t help much with Dogen, because he is opposed to them. Maybe if you have to teach Dogen or are studying for an exam, it’s different. You have to know Dogen and your students and whomever wrote the test and it’s a lot harder. But when the for sake of which of your study is liberation – revel in your fortunate birth and be free. It does not need to matter if you can’t embody the whole of the text. It’s ok to live with mystery and unsolved problems.
Obscure bits are the translator’s problem but sometimes they become your problem too. Dogen riffs on technologies that few contemporary people are likely to know. He riffs on texts that he imagined his imaginary audience totally knew. I’m pretty sure Dogen didn’t imagine us. So make use of whatever notes the translator offers you.
Sometimes a bit is obscure yet the translator doesn’t say anything about it. Maybe the bit is not particularly obscure… but the translator didn’t know what to do with it, so they took their best shot and moved on. I notice translators tend NOT to leave us notes saying “yeah I was clueless about what Dogen was going on about here, so I did this thing, hope you like it :)” When translators are stumped, they mostly bury it, quietly or stylishly. (I appreciate translators who admit it when they’ve not got a clue, and a few do.)
For yourself, if the translator notes fail you, you can do the same— make your best guess and go on your way. You can consult multiple translations and see if anyone else has a compelling angle that opens up the bit; you can google and do your own primary research. You can bracket the mysterious bit as a mystery, and experience yourself being bothered or unbothered by that. There are lots of good ways to practice.
I love my internet deep dives. We don’t have a lot of unglazed kiln fired clay tiles around now to polish into mirrors, nor do we make ALL THE THINGS out of bamboo. I have enjoyed thinking about how I’d think, living in a world where everyone knew bamboo and clay and rice, but not plastic and cell phones and grocery stores.
Another way of putting this is that I studied the self and found the self knew nothing about bamboo, and so I studied bamboo just a bit. And on deep dives I do sometimes find commonplaces to Dogen’s times that inform little sticky bits. But it takes time to do this research, panning for Dogen gold, and I have a couple of day jobs. So sometimes I have to bracket a bit [“obscure technology?”] and continue on.
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
― Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography
The painting above is about Occupy Ice/Camp Compasion of 2018 Louisville. I painted the camp on a coal barge, wishing it could just keep moving in advance of the city tearing it down. My thinking somehow shifted from resistance in the form of occupation of a place to resistance in (mobile) existence.
As part of this summer’s intense racial justice offerings pushed out so many ways, I tuned into a talk about climate justice. It made the point that climate change is not screwing people equally but is an urgent issue for the Movement for Black Lives; spaces, properties, neighborhoods are profoundly racialized for reasons beyond the accomplishment of segregation per se… reasons like rising water levels. And people are organizing around this in some coastal cities… but here in Louisville we have this big old river. Should we be organizing too?
So I took a look at the 1937 flood map of Louisville, and the redlining map. Another “hundred year flood” like 1937 is, I don’t know, potentially happening this very summer? Because of climate change.
Here is the heat island map… heat island impacts are experienced already right now, though not so severe as what we can expect with climate change.
So I asked someone who knows about floodwater and they said Louisville direly needs the Army Corps of Engineers to come assess our flood basin and find out just how ready we are/n’t for this 1937 level of flood (or worse) that could be here who knows but this summer or next.
I’m thinking about what it will cost to update those flood protections, and the scale of reparations that may be needed to resettle Black people in Louisville to safer ground.
I had a more developed narrative in mind, I wanted to paint about what I was sitting with. But I posted a progress shot of this one on fb and a couple people including my mother pretty much told me to leave it as is. Which I did.
I mean, I painted the underpainting so there would be a more stable + durable paint layer, but added no more content.
It’s unusual that people ask me to stop on a piece and it also makes perfect sense; we are all sitting with different things in our lives. The painting above makes room for what’s before you and what’s before me too, and is also more about sitting than what one might be sitting with.
There is another taller underpainted canvas sitting and waiting for me that better suits that more explicit narrative anyway, it’s red-orange so a more high-keyed starting place. And that explicit narrative is still nagging at me so I imagine it will indeed get painted next. I bought some canvases right before local art supply stores had to shut down for COVID.
The tree is a water oak, with some resurrection ferns. It looks like it got beat up pretty hard during one of our power outage wind and hailstorms, but it rallied.
The chair is a classic “Kentucky chair”— my mother collects them and they show up in her paintings, though she paints all kinds of chairs and does not play favorites.
I love looking at them, both the chairs and her paintings. In use, Kentucky chairs tend to creak like an old tree or an wood house in the wind, which can alarm folks not familiar with the chair type. In general people don’t want their chairs to squeak and flex underneath them.
Here is one of my mother’s paintings with Kentucky chairs, called “pinky swear” – it is 4 x 5′
Thank you for being here for me after so long!
On the wall is a piece I borrowed from my brother Will. You can buy it and I will borrow another one. See more of his stuff here.
My work in progress:
Really this post has been about learning to blog from my phone, as in can I even do it. The answer is yes but posts will be image-heavy as my thumbs are stiff and slow.
I got a good look at it.
The snake is a common garter snake. It’s not poisonous, it’s not even going to bite unless cornered with no other choice. It wants to bask in the sun and eat bugs and live its life – and leave, when a situation gets ugly.
All my life I’ve experienced exaggerated bug-eyed rage reactions from some people when I express anger, no matter how situationally appropriate. I figured they must seeing something about me I just couldn’t see, that I was a toxic dangerous person. I wasted a lot of my life trying to root out that toxic danger. I did build some skills.
I modeled my behavior on people who I saw expressing anger in considerate, minimal, caring, articulate ways. Clear I statements, clear asks, peaceful disengagement when the conversation isn’t going anywhere. Leaving the door open.
These strategies get concerns heard and validated, for some people. For me they didn’t work.
No matter how diligently I peaced (yes it’s a verb), some people would still flip out when I raised an issue, like I’d produced a lethal weapon and pointed it at their head. I could never be permitted to say or telegraph anger or disapproval. It always had to be felt/sold/expressed as genuine concern, concern that put the other person’s needs first, and completely erased my stake in the situation.
And ok if that really works? But it’s not true so I am suspicious about how that will ripple out. It seems like a way of interacting that supports the very status quo that generated the issue in the first place. And it is just weird that I am somehow not allowed to have anything at stake, anything I need to protect.
It all made no sense, never has and never did, and there was so much gaslighting.
Relationships that are conditional on me not experiencing anger when I am affronted or violated sound like they would be abusive relationships. Some of mine were, and probably still are; I choose to love and work with some messy people. And yet so many solid, apparently mature, mostly-not-messy most-of-the-time people who I have seen respond capably and tolerantly to anger from others have had this flipout reaction to me.
One thing I am clear about: people who have this reaction to me? They really do feel the way they feel. It’s real for them. I express a careful iota of mad and they experience me as scary, dangerous, out of line, inappropriate, irresponsible and destructive. They aren’t faking it.
Sitting with this lifelong hot mess, I finally realized: where have I seen such consistent extreme irrational reactions in other people before? Phobias, like the fear of snakes. Some people can’t help it. It’s just how they are, they have this hardwired fear. And it’s just how I am, that I trigger it.
OK then. If that’s what’s up, I can deal.
But I’ll never hate that innocent snake again.