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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Portland’s Rosy Cheek

November 9, 2016

Autumn begins in early October in the Pacific NW. For some reason Portland and its surroundings have a history of horrific October windstorms and this year was no exception: a tornado blew through Manzanita a few weeks ago. It spent just a minute on the ground, but it created a path of destruction that stretched from the beach to the highway. Fortunately, our house, which was just a few hundred feet from the worst damage, escaped without a scratch.

But autumn’s wind and rain means more than storm damage. It also means leaves, leaves, and more leaves. I’ve spent the past 6 weeks raking at all hours of the day, piling them up before I go to work in the morning, and then returning to the street for another round of raking in the dark after dinner.

There is beauty in this task: raking gives me a “virtuous excuse” to go outside and admire nature’s bounty. I think of the Leaf Man in Harry Nilsson’s The Point and smile at the riches I’m piling up. I think of the zen koan in which a student sweeps up every leaf to create the ideal garden for his master’s guests only to watch the enlightened master reach up, shake a few leaves onto the just-swept garden, and say, “Perfect!” And I leave a few leaves behind even as I keep sweeping.

Autumn is also the best time for walking. My wife and I went to the Japanese Garden last Sunday to admire the Japanese maples, but we were too late. Almost all of them were naked. And yet, as we slowly made our way back to the car we discovered plenty of red-cheeked maples to admire in the hillside neighborhood. Another lesson about slowing down and letting life happen. A line from Thoreau on this subject:

“I am more interested in the rosy cheek than I am to know what particular diet the maiden fed on.”

A few weeks ago I began a conversation with my grownup daughters about some of the news stories I had been forwarding to them recently. Their reaction was unexpected, but not surprising. I might have guessed that they didn’t want to read the kind of “important” news that I had been sending their way. Maybe more to the point, I should have known that my assessment, “hey, they’re adults – they can handle this,” was totally beside the point.

So I’m not sending them this link, but I want to keep it some place handy just the same. It’s a story about possibility and eventuality. None one gets off scot-free.

That said, I want them to know that today I’m fine. So is their mother. We’ve been enjoying our longest trip to the coast this summer. We even successfully dodged three triple-digit temperatures in Portland in the process! Life is good.

But someday … an end of some sort will come and the story I’ve linked below might help my talented, accomplished, beautiful daughters know that they are not alone at times like these. That whatever happens, I’m ok and they will be ok too. I send them my love (so I’m not sending them this link). They’ll have to find it for themselves.

Washing The Dishes, Waiting For Death by Rachel Meyer (Trike Daily, 21 Aug 2016)

Tombstone, chatterbox – both modes of speech come easily to me and I never know which role I will play, but ask me to write a poem and my mind ties itself into bunches of knots: 3 – 5 – 87 – more. And yet, and yet, I love poetry and I’m grateful for a few friends who aren’t afraid to lift a pen.

Andrew Schelling‘s “Whirling Petals, Windblown Leaves” (Tricycle, Winter 2007) calls one to look into renga. Schelling describes renga as a form of “linked poetry” that appeared in Japan eight centuries ago, i.e., the Japan of Dogen Zenji (1200-1253).

Schelling says:

Renga feels just right for our contemporary world. It meets our raw need to talk to each other in ways freed from the daily rounds of buying and selling, or the terrible depersonalized language that worms its way into the workplace. It lets us use folklore, image, metaphor, and brisk humor, which feel like home ground. The voice we were born with.

The quick give-and-take of renga might remind one of Twitter exchanges, but the comparison quickly falls apart. Renga composition was not aimed at the quick knock-out punch. Participants in a renga session were expected to adhere to a strict set of rules, and it was said that one should practice renga for 20 years in order to become a worthy collaborator.

Fun fact: Schelling credits renga composition with the appearance of haiku. Each participant in a renga session would offer a three-line verse, a hokku (opening verse), as a possible starting point for group writing. Because only one hokku would be chosen, the rest would be cast aside. Some of these ‘unused’ opening verses were eventually compiled as short poems in their own right, and these are what we call haiku today.

Schelling’s tribute to renga includes a description of an mountaintop renga session that he and 10 other poets held in the Rockies in April 2006. Verses 6 and 7 from Green Mountain Renga:

dripping with creek water
hunting snails

a white egret
impossible legs
like straw

Soaring high over crescent Moon
Clouds nurse on the Sun’s last embers
Quick burns fade into gray-purple sleep
— Who will I be tomorrow?

Seasons (day nine)

April 9, 2016

My friend is writing a daily poem for Poetry month. Come take this one over to the fire and savor it.

The Little Planet Daily

Here is a Korean sijo poem for day nine of national poetry month. Sijo poems are three lines of 14-16 syllables with a pause in each line and a twist at the end.


Let me ask you, Time, do you mark your own passing?

My hair was like grass in summer, my young legs could climb like spring elk.

Sit by the fireside a while, perhaps you have regrets too?

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The Astonishing Light

February 26, 2016

”I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” –Hafez (Persian poet, 1325–1389)

Source: The Astonishing Light

Many times sitting in silent meditation I have thought of a river and what it teaches about connection and interdependence. I imagine standing by the river’s edge, the water molecules at my feet touching only their closest neighbors, unable to see beyond the next few Angstroms, let alone clear to the other bank. And yet, without these molecules filling this side of the channel, the cross-river water could not exist.

The world is filled with unseen, infinite webs of connection. We may not see them, or we may cautiously trace a fragment of one or two. No matter. Let go and reach out to the “current, hidden”, the “comings and goings from miles away”. A mystery unveils itself in the second verse.

The Little Planet Daily

In 1992, shortly before his death,  William Stafford was commissioned by the State of Washington to provide seven poems to be installed on plaques alongside the Methow river, one of the most beautiful rivers in all of the Pacific Northwest. Ask Me was installed along the river in the town of Winthrop. I can go only so long in my life without reading it. It is one of my anchor and lifeline poems and it belongs along that river the same way Tibetan Buddhist paintings belong on the stone canyon walls of Nepal. 

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.

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Parting words

January 25, 2016

How many of us seek a “good death”? The juxtaposition of “good” and “death” is not easily tolerated. How many of us are willing to linger long enough near the dead and dying, to enter thoughtfully into the space of our imagined transition (I say “thoughtfully,” not “fearlessly”), to even consider that something “good” might be found in life’s endgame? Fortunately, as Tom Rachman observes in “Meeting Death with Words” (New Yorker, 25 Jan 2016), help has arrived for the spiritually timid. Recent years have seen increasing numbers of writers taking up pen and word processor in their last year of life, and these numbers are likely to increase as the Baby Boom marches into history.

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