JOURNAL ENTRY 8/2/2011: Ugliness, Beauty, Poetry etc.

[NOTE: this is the fourth and, for now, final copy of a blog post copied here from my "simultaneous" blog site, "Red Dirt Mysterion" ( Like the previous post here, "Journal Entry: 8/1/2011," this is an example of a post that -- had it not included the "Orthodox Slant" section, as this one does -- might not have appeared here as well. If ever I get my dim little brain around the tekky stuff involved, future blog posts appropriate for each site will appear simultaneously at each site. Ones that, for me at least, feel less obviously Orthodox will appear there only.

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¶ When I first moved to Chicago, 20 some years ago, I was almost obsessed with the amount of soot on the buildings.

Not that I wanted a “clean” city. I grew up in one, and, in those days figured only real cities got dirty. That meant very large and very old cities were the place for me, because they sure got dirty.

Just how dirty was pure fantasy for me, since I had only seen them from a distance, and usually from safely inside a moving vehicle of some sort.

In short, I wanted to live in a very old, very large city. I wanted dirt! Soot!

One day, several months after moving to Chicago, I found myself walking along North Clark Street in the Lincoln Park area. And as I sauntered along, amazed at the variety of stores, restaurants, weird little grocery stores and so forth, along North Clark, one after another after another, I also found myself growing amazed at just how ugly this soot was!

And it wasn’t just ugly: this crap was in my lungs!

That kinda scared me, especially since, in those days, I was a smoker anyway. I had enough crap in my lungs! And on top of that, like most (all?) smokers I also wrestled with the seemingly complex guilt of smoking and then feeling guilty and then smoking some more in that bizarre maneuver that hopes a sudden new rush of sin will make the old stuff disappear … that endless wrestling match that goes absolutely nowhere. And exhausts the fool out of the smoker at the same time.

But there was one more source of amazement on North Clark Street that day: in these sooty little buildings, few if any more than two floors in height, colors in the windows were incredibly lush, rich, vibrant!

Reds never looked so red. Oranges so orange. Purples so mysteriously, deeplypurple.

¶ The soot and grime really gave the colors in those store windows a good goose, really dialed them up a few wavelengths.

fetid bricks smeared in coal dust

fire escape twenty stories of

blistered crumbling powdery iron

and a dozen landings up

one potted plant

liquid orange blooms --


¶ This was an entirely different building, seen on an entirely different occasion, years later. By now, the contrasts were complex (for me), and were prompting entirely new thoughts for me. Some of those new thoughts follow … more are in the “Orthodox Slant” with which this particular post ends.

The poem itself – which I wrote recently, and for which, again, I claim absolutely no poetic worth; it is here purely for “illustration” purposes -- was a somewhat expanded “haiku” I put on Twitter yesterday.

The poem retains only the haiku characteristics of no capitalization, relatively short lines, absence of an identifiable ego presence (no “I”), and, in the final line (“sunrise”) an apparently unrelated thing suddenly introduced.

The haiku task here is for the reader (and writer!) to make a connection between the two apparently unrelated things. That’s true of not only haiku, but most all of the short poetry forms out there – renga, tanka, etc.

There is a world-view underlying the connection of apparently unrelated things, too; but more about that below.

¶ ORTHODOX SLANT: as I have said once before (31 July), Orthodox icons are written (“painted,” but most iconographers say they “write” their work) without a signature. The identity of the iconographer disappears before the Glory being made visible through the icon.

The same thing happens in Asian art – classical Chinese and Japanese landscape scrolls, for instance; and in almost all (not quite all, but almost all) haiku and kindred poetry. Superficially, the reasons are different between lack of an “ego” behind the icon versus behind the poetry: icons are pointers to the Glory, whereas Asian art forms do not separate human identity from nature itself. The “picture” captured by haiku words is just nature looking at itself, so to speak.

But, in my opinion – in my “Orthodox slant” here – that difference is somewhat superficial.

The Philokalia, for example – a four- or five-volume (depending on what language it’s in) compendium of Orthodox spiritual writings on prayer from over a 1000-year period – seems to me to have an almost haiku-like "take" on the world around us, on nature itself. Writer after writer encourages the spiritual seeker and practitioner to learn to discern the true nature of things.

That means, as a prayer discipline, to learn to extract the ego – the small self – from encounters with nature, and see nature exactly for what it is. That’s because the small self – the ego, what the New Testament calls “the flesh” – inevitably wants to know “what’s in it for me.”

There’s nothing wrong with ego! Nothing wrong with the biblical sense of flesh! It/they are absolutely necessary for getting around in our four-dimensional space-time world. But it/they quickly flow over their banks, quickly begin to assume the “center” of everything. That’s when "the flesh" (ego) bangs hard up against God, which is one of the worst bruisings a human being can endure (although nowadays most people seem not to have a clue about what is really going on).

It feels much like profound sorrow, emptiness, desolation, meaninglessness etc. etc. depending on the individual involved. That's what happens when a person claims entirely too much for that narrow part of ourselves -- ego, flesh -- and ignores that vast, immeasurable dimension of spirit and Spirit.

The spiritual discipline of learning to see things just as they are, is an important method for learning to see that everything is here to glorify God, not us, nor to make itself available to us for our use.

And precisely at that point, haiku and other short poetic forms – usually without any internal reference to ego of the poet – likewise take on the value of at least a spiritual method, if not always a direct spiritual Encounter.

I found in myself at least three more “Orthodox Slants” on that poem up there:

First, it is all about grace. In a coal-sooted world, a world turned awfully ugly by what human beings are doing to it (I’m tempted to say here a “red dirt” world, but then human beings didn’t create red dirt), there still are – and always shall be – moments of unexpected beauty. Unexpected moments of sheer gift. At sunset, even the red-clay bed of a dry river can be astonishing to behold!

I am so serious about that, that I have noticed – over the years – that I amalways looking for flowers in otherwise tedious, soulless (if not downright ugly) scenes. They always have been signs of grace for me, even during those long long years when I had no idea what that was all about. I just didn’t realize whythis was so until my Forerunner to Messiah – “John the Buddhist” (see the “About” page to this blog) – put me on this path. (The role “John the Buddhist” played for me is another story for another time here.)

Personally, that is what struck me as the most memorable thing about this moment of the lush orange bloom a dozen floors up the fire-escape side of an old, coal-sooted building. Grace. Beauty, which, to me, is nearly the same thing.

Second, it was a material “thing – a flower – that was so powerfully resonant with … well, with uncreated energies. And it was the sense of those uncreated energies – the sense (in me) that the beauty of the moment went far beyond that moment, without ever leaving the physical stuff of the moment behind – that spoke to me of God.

Get it? A physical, material “thing” became a Mysterion! A sacrament.

We Orthodox, I am delighted to be learning, believe not that this world will be annihilated when the Day of the Lord irrupts from profoundly within (or from above, beyond, through, whatever metaphor floats your boat) things … or from above, beyond, through things ... whatever metaphor floats your boat. But instead will be transfigured, just as Jesus was Transfigured.

Matter and space-time convey spirit just fine, thank you very much. Even coal-sooted old buildings are dripping with the stuff.

Third, the sight of a nearly luminescent, liquid-lush orange flower up against an old and tawdry sooted stack of bricks … and connecting it in my mind with something entirely different, in this case a sunset … reaffirms the interconnectedness of all things. The interbeing of all things.

That’s not physics (although it’s true in physics). And that’s not Buddhism, although that’s where I first learned about the “holographic” nature of all things ("interbeing," the “Net of Indra," etc.).

That’s Christ:

“…all things have been created through [Christ] and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together”(Colossians 1:16b–17).

Quite a lot that I squeeze out of this dumpy little mind of mine, each time I read good literature, good poetry, and even when I write my own stuff, the word "good" conspicuously absent :-). That’s why I write my stuff, frankly, good or not (and it’s usually not): it is a spiritual discipline.

My own Mysterion from my own red dirt.


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