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March 2013

This Month's Contents: In Defense of the Small by Shawn Nevins | Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay | Video: Amongst White Clouds by Edward A. Burger | Video: Choros by Michael Langan & Terah Maher | Quotes | The Author |

Editor's Note
by David Weimer

Spiritual Magazine

Welcome back!

In Defense of the Small
by Shawn Nevins


Spiritual MagazineThis is an essay about living, which may be surprising for a couple of reasons. For one, I usually directly or indirectly write about death, rather than life. Some might charge I am life-denying rather than life-affirming; that I've hardly lived; that I turned my back upon the world. The other reason, is that "small" and "living" are two words that generally contradict rather than complement one another in the popular imagination. Despite these uncertain qualifications, I propose to answer, "What does it mean to really live?"

For several years, my home was a tin-plated shack in the backwoods of West Virginia. Our running water was a jug by the sink, and our other amenities included an indiscriminate collection of mattresses of dubious age, two bare bulb ceiling lights, a cast-iron water heater reincarnated as a woodstove, and an outhouse. I now live within twenty minutes of downtown San Francisco, have every conceivable delicacy at my fingertips, and a view of the bay from my living room. Which scenario is real living? I have lived alone, with roommates, and now with a partner. Which one is real living? I have lived in fear and in contentment, with ignorance and certainty, with a shred of wisdom and with a sackful of illusions.

Most of what people call living makes the world more bland – we become inured to experience and constantly seek novelty: bigger, louder, faster. We collect experiences like bird watchers filling out their life lists, and our literature chronicles our desire: 1000 Places to See Before You Die, The Ultimate Bucket List, What Do You Want to Do Before You Die? Doing, Collecting, Having. Yet, we are also pulled by nostalgic yearnings for a simpler time where the golden rays of dawn tint the scene, memory teeters in perfect balance between one moment and the next, and a deep sigh of satisfaction fills our being. We rest on the old front porch, by the creek in the forest, in the valley meadow, or in the desert canyon. Just as our bucket is never full, though, our nostalgic memory never seems to match where we presently stand. Or does it? "Where do you presently stand?" is the key question, because that is where you are living.

Some say that enlightenment has nothing to do with living. There is a lot of truth in that. If we really knew how to live, we might not seek enlightenment at all, for enlightenment automatically brings a perspective that is not of this world. That is why we haul out the word "transcendent." But is transcending life really living life? Much of what drives us to seek an awakening is a desire to escape the world, or be somewhere, something, someone other than we are right now. So we lock our selves in meditation halls, assume detached stances in which we try to distance our self from our experience, and alternately deny and indulge every sort of sense—all to break free from the bondage of life.

You can collect experiences, or nostalgically yearn for something that never was, or pretend to transcend the whole messy fray... and likely stumble from one posture to the next like a drunken yogi. Or, as you already know, you can just "be."

We say "be here now" and "live in the moment," but doing it is another matter. Because, as you've heard, doing is in the way of being.

Others say we must die in order to live.

I say that in the process of dying we learn how to live. You knew I was going to work death into this somehow....

I maintain there is as much beauty and wonder in a slice of a moment as there is in an hour at an amusement park. Besides, what is the hour made of, if not slices of moments? Noticing that, I support the exhortation of Douglas Harding to "simplify!"

So I speak in defense of the small: for the view out my window which changes every hour of every day of the year and is never the same. For the feel of a tree, the sound of a car door closing. For the innumerable, ineffable, myriad of sounds, smells, and sights that surround me every minute of every day offering a lifetime of beauty in the palm of my hand. I speak for the one-to-one conversation in a quiet coffee house or on the couch before a darkened television. This is the beginning of living.

I speak in defense of god in the ordinary.

And I say that dying is wrapped in the fabric of living. I say that life is the moments between death and death is in the moments between life. In recognizing our life and death, we come to a fuller living. This is not just an intellectual exercise, though, you must see and feel it.

You will never know where you stand unless you look. I say look, and follow that fascination, let the muse take your hand and guide you. This exploration of awareness expands rather than contracts our perception of novelty. A plastic bag circling in the wind becomes a vision of God. Every moment becomes an amazing experience that we receive rather than seize. It doesn't mean we don't watch the fireworks, but the immensity of sky in which they take place is so much grander. Likewise, the immensity in which our thoughts take place, in which our lives take place, is like the feeling of the surface of our skin – we don't notice unless we pay attention and we don't pay attention unless we allow ourselves the space in which to notice.

The myriad things are the myriad things, but the one thing is the one.

Simplify. Pay attention to the ordinary and obvious. Notice the space in which all occurs. See the arising and falling of all things. You'll live a kinder, gentler life; become a better neighbor, father, mother, lover, brother, and friend; reduce your footprint on the planet, save money, become more creative, be happier and reduce stress. In short, you'll really live, and in so doing you may see a profound truth about your relationship to death.

Wherever I look, there by the grace of god am I.

Read more of Shawn's thoughts and explore his poetry in the TAT Forum Archives.


All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I'd started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see;
These were the things that bounded me;
And I could touch them with my hand,
Almost, I thought, from where I stand.
And all at once things seemed so small
My breath came short, and scarce at all.
But, sure, the sky is big, I said;
Miles and miles above my head;
So here upon my back I'll lie
And look my fill into the sky.
And so I looked, and, after all,
The sky was not so very tall.
The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
And -- sure enough! -- I see the top!
The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
I 'most could touch it with my hand!
And, reaching up my hand to try,
I screamed to feel it touch the sky.

I screamed, and -- lo! -- Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sound
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense
That, sick'ning, I would fain pluck thence
But could not, -- nay! But needs must suck
At the great wound, and could not pluck
My lips away till I had drawn
All venom out. -- Ah, fearful pawn!
For my omniscience paid I toll
In infinite remorse of soul.
All sin was of my sinning, all
Atoning mine, and mine the gall
Of all regret. Mine was the weight
Of every brooded wrong, the hate
That stood behind each envious thrust,
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief
With individual desire, --
Craved all in vain! And felt fierce fire
About a thousand people crawl;
Perished with each, -- then mourned for all!
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
I saw at sea a great fog-bank
Between two ships that struck and sank;
A thousand screams the heavens smote;
And every scream tore through my throat.
No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath
That, crying, met an answering cry
From the compassion that was I.
All suffering mine, and mine its rod;
Mine, pity like the pity of God.
Ah, awful weight! Infinity
Pressed down upon the finite Me!
My anguished spirit, like a bird,
Beating against my lips I heard;
Yet lay the weight so close about
There was no room for it without.
And so beneath the Weight lay I
And suffered death, but could not die.

Long had I lain thus, craving death,
When quietly the earth beneath
Gave way, and inch by inch, so great
At last had grown the crushing weight,
Into the earth I sank till I
Full six feet under ground did lie,
And sank no more, -- there is no weight
Can follow here, however great.
From off my breast I felt it roll,
And as it went my tortured soul
Burst forth and fled in such a gust
That all about me swirled the dust.

Deep in the earth I rested now;
Cool is its hand upon the brow
And soft its breast beneath the head
Of one who is so gladly dead.
And all at once, and over all,
The pitying rain began to fall;
I lay and heard each pattering hoof
Upon my lowly, thatched roof,
And seemed to love the sound far more
Than ever I had done before.
For rain it hath a friendly sound
To one who's six feet underground;
And scarce the friendly voice or face:
A grave is such a quiet place.

The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.
I would I were alive again
To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine
Of every slanting silver line,
To catch the freshened, fragrant breeze
From drenched and dripping apple-trees.
For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun
Will laugh above the rain-soaked earth
Until the world with answering mirth
Shakes joyously, and each round drop
Rolls, twinkling, from its grass-blade top.
How can I bear it; buried here,
While overhead the sky grows clear
And blue again after the storm?
O, multi-colored, multiform,
Beloved beauty over me,
That I shall never, never see
Again! Spring-silver, autumn-gold,
That I shall never more behold!
Sleeping your myriad magics through,
Close-sepulchred away from you!
O God, I cried, give me new birth,
And put me back upon the earth!
Upset each cloud's gigantic gourd
And let the heavy rain, down-poured
In one big torrent, set me free,
Washing my grave away from me!

I ceased; and, through the breathless hush
That answered me, the far-off rush
Of herald wings came whispering
Like music down the vibrant string
Of my ascending prayer, and -- crash!
Before the wild wind's whistling lash
The startled storm-clouds reared on high
And plunged in terror down the sky,
And the big rain in one black wave
Fell from the sky and struck my grave.

I know not how such things can be
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things;
A sound as of some joyous elf
Singing sweet songs to please himself,
And, through and over everything,
A sense of glad awakening.
The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rain's cool finger-tips
Brushed tenderly across my lips,
Laid gently on my sealed sight,
And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see, --
A drenched and dripping apple-tree,
A last long line of silver rain,
A sky grown clear and blue again.
And as I looked a quickening gust
Of wind blew up to me and thrust
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard-breath, and with the smell, --
I know not how such things can be! --
I breathed my soul back into me.
Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.
About the trees my arms I wound;
Like one gone mad I hugged the ground;
I raised my quivering arms on high;
I laughed and laughed into the sky,
Till at my throat a strangling sob
Caught fiercely, and a great heart-throb
Sent instant tears into my eyes;
O God, I cried, no dark disguise
Can e'er hereafter hide from me
Thy radiant identity!
Thou canst not move across the grass
But my quick eyes will see Thee pass,
Nor speak, however silently,
But my hushed voice will answer Thee.
I know the path that tells Thy way
Through the cool eve of every day;
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, --
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That cannot keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat -- the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

~Edna St. Vincent Millay

Amongst White Clouds
by Edward A. Burger

If you don't see the video above, visit YouTube.

Choros from Michael Langan on Vimeo.


"Was 40 years ago I sat in Richard's gatherings at CWRU. I believe a young man named August was assisting him and I have never gripped the edge of my chair, as then, since.

And never had I dreamed that the pursuit of accuracy would be such a lifelong challenge. Perhaps basic 'common sense' of which we all speak is far more elusive than it's given credit for. Not very common at all, actually, yet it's the only worthy endeavor.

Thank you for remembering him still."

~Jeffrey Reinker

The author....

The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him;—this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory."

~John Rushkin, from Sesame and Lilies (two lectures delivered at Manchester in 1864)

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