I Am a Cat

July 5, 2017

I fell in love with San Francisco, and with Northern California generally, while a postdoc at Berkeley in the early 80’s. It was a tumultuous period in my life. Adding to the usual hassles of new job, new home, there had been a recent death in the family, and my marriage was on the rocks. Quickly settling down to professional responsibilities just wasn’t in the cards. For several months, a daily battle was fought between the lab and the Bay, a battle the latter often won, particularly if the sun was already breaking through the clouds by early morning. This pattern couldn’t continue forever, aided by my research mentor’s gentle prodding, I eventually returned to steady work, but the allures of walking through San Francisco, hiking the Marin headlands, and driving Highway 1 towards Mendocino and Big Sur, have stayed with me.

Fortunately for me, my wife, a Berkeley grad, and my younger daughter, currently a Berkeley grad student, are more than willing to join me in SF adventures. This explains why I was able to lead them over to the Japan Center in October 2015 and the Kinokuniya bookstore, and why no one protested when I made my way to the cashier with two books, one of which was I Am a Cat by Sōseki Natsume.

The book’s cover advertises everything that might be said about it, “Richly allegorical and delightfully readable, I Am a Cat is the chronicle of an unloved, unwanted, wandering kitten who spends all his time observing human nature.” Here are two reviews, Kirkus Review and a compilation of Goodreads reader reviews.

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June 28, 2017

I don’t recall when our family made its first trip to Astoria, Oregon, but I can still bring to mind the glum, puzzled expressions on the faces of my sweatshirt-clad daughters as they emerged from our new, white Previa van. Each face seemed to ask, “Dad, why did you bring us here? What is there to do in this cold, gray, dismal place?” Thinking back to the rundown Astoria of the early 90’s that greeted us, I can’t say what exactly had motivated the trip, but I’m guessing that, as the fearless instigator of many family car journeys, I had probably gleaned from the nightly 11 o’clock weather forecasts that Astoria was 1) located on the mouth of the Columbia, and 2) a city of some importance and worthy of a visit. Had I paid closer attention, either to a proper map, or a weather almanac, or preferably both, I might have saved our family from making a potentially disastrous trip. Little did I know then that many others had come to this spot before me, driven by a similar mixture of adventure and curiosity, and they had suffered for it.

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Growing the Garden

June 24, 2017

The Portland Japanese Garden re-opened in April after completing a year-long major construction project that permanently altered the Garden’s entrance, facilities, and footprint on the West Hills overlooking downtown. I was in San Francisco at the time of the opening, but I have visited the garden several times since then.

There is a new look and feel, but what I treasured about the old entrance remains – the traditional gate, the flat stones underfoot, the carved ones by the path, and the shaded hillside ascent. The Garden at the top has been preserved intact. The only real challenge to my memories is a brief one at the top of the hill: the new approach to the main gate now appears like a wide, tree-lined avenue. It will grow on me.

Fortunately for all Garden lovers, the Oregonian has created a lengthy photo history of the Garden: The fascinating history of the Portland Japanese Garden (Oregonian, 2 Apr 2017). There is also a lovely C-SPAN video interview with current Garden director, Steve Bloom.

( Wm. Persons was the brother of my great grandmother. This poem includes excerpts from his letters home during the American Civil War. ) dear pa and ma i take my pen and bid you goodbye tomorrow i leave this camp and regiment forever and go aboard a gunboat for the Mississippi river so don’t […]

via The Old and New Letters of William Persons — The Little Planet Daily

Is awareness personal?

May 25, 2017

Me (student): Is awareness personal?

Teacher: No!

M: But it feels personal.

And so it goes, back and forth. A conversation that, in one form or another, has driven students to sit face-to-face with their teachers for hundreds of years.

This was not the first time I had been down this rabbit hole. Awareness felt personal, like something happening inside my head. This time, however, the conversation took a surprising turn. After reminding me one more time that my idea of awareness taking place somewhere inside my brain was a delusion, my teacher continued:

T (pointing to the wall): Where is awareness of the wall?

M (silent)

T (placing his hand on the rug): Where is awareness here?

M (placing my hand on the rug and pondering): But the thought comes in so fast.

T (bowing): You have passed your first koan.

I’ve been feeling my age more and more these days, feeling slower, more creaky, and less interested in coping with all of the things that keep others busy. My older friends assure me that I am not yet ‘old’ which is comforting, I guess, but it is comfort of a very meager sort because I feel like they are telling me, in not so many words, that its all downhill from here.

So what should I do? Shrug? Ignore what can’t be controlled? Get on with my ‘life’? Which is to say, act like the other 99.99% of the people on the planet at any given moment and pretend that I (and my so-called possessions) will live forever? Why isn’t my zen practice delivering pat answers to these questions?

I don’t have any answers, but I did find inspiration from two articles that popped into my inbox this morning: The Supreme Meditation (Larry Rosenberg, Lion’s Roar, 10 Mar 2017), and Dead Like Me (Ira Sukrungruang, Lion’s Roar, 10 Mar 2017). These writers are facing death head on so why shouldn’t I give it a try?

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February 27, 2017

Do you have time for a story? No? Not even a short one? Never mind then.

I became acquainted with this Philip Whalen poem when I heard it read by Barry Magid (podcast, Ordinary Mind Zendo). I’ve been walking many of the paths Whalen traveled (Portland, Reed, San Francisco, zen) and now we meet again.

“Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis” by Philip Whalen

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
                         splashed picture—bug, leaf,
                         caricature of Teacher
    on paper held together now by little more than ink
    & their own strength brushed momentarily over it
Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.

Saved. Next time my mind starts digging a hole, I’ll try to remember that those ancient folks already solved my problems for me. Just look behind the busted wine jars.

Thanks to Mud & Lotus for sharing the poem and calligraphy.

Listen for the sounds … cheap pants ripping … the lid on Grandma’s cookie jar being lifted as the thief reaches for the bread money … the sounds of outrage … hammers on hot iron. The sounds are there for all of us to hear. We just needed someone to call them to our attention. Thanks.

The Little Planet Daily

When words lose their meaning
I listen for the sounds they make.
Some are like dirty water swirling in a can.
Some are like deflating a truck tire.
Some are like when a child dumps
her blocks on a tile floor.

When words become their opposites
their dignity is not diminished.

When the journalists who covered the protests
against the North Dakota oil pipeline
were arrested and charged with rioting,
their words sounded like hammers
annealing hot iron.

The words of the US president,
when he said he wanted
to restart construction on the pipeline,
using a company he owned part of,
sounded like cheap pants ripping
when someone has grown fat
stealing bread money
from his grandmother,
the one with tired eyes
who remembers what she paid
for every piece of clothing
she ever bought.

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The links between Basho (1644-1694), haiku master, and zen have occupied many a scholar. I recently came across a fairly old Tricycle (Spring 2002) article by poet Jane Hirshfield, “Basho as Teacher,” in which she articulates Basho’s core teaching as interconnection.

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Daughter Laughter

December 23, 2016

Note to self: I heard the title “daughter laughter” in my head before I typed it. Easy to say, but reading it with a straight face throws me for a loop. Daw-ter laff-ter? Why not daff-ter law-ter? My daughters do make me daft, but that’s another post.

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