One of the recurring jokes in Don Delillo’s White Noise involves Babette’s devout conviction in paying attention to posture, diet, and other quotidian mundanities as a way to diminish her anxiety. As Jack Gladney, Delillo’s bemused “Hitler Studies” professor and protagonist describes:
“Two nights a week Babette goes to the Congregational Church at the other end of town
and lectures to adults in the basement on correct posture. Basically she is teaching them
how to stand, sit, and walk. Most of her students are old. It isn’t clear to me why they
want to improve their posture. We seem to believe it’s possible to ward off death by
following the rules of good grooming.”
Babette’s sublime regard for the ordinary is complemented by Jack’s colleague Murray Siskind, a seemingly Baudrillardian avatar of postmodernism, constantly interrupting with gnomic declamations such “You have to learn how to look,” “People have to learn to look and listen like children,” “We want to be artless again.” The question of whether Murray is indeed an avatar of gleeful PM nihilism or in fact a follower of Zen, praising presence, mindfulness, and attentiveness, has raged for decades and isn’t the point of this post—although you can probably tell already Murray is my hero, and I think Babette’s “jokes,” including additional classes on “Eating & Drinking,” are practical teachings worth more than a thousand MFAs.
The point of this blog is to propose what non-judgmental mindfulness and good writing posture can do for us as practicing writers. In the summer of 2014 I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writing Conference. While there I studied under Steve Almond, who is incredibly awesome and intense and if my writing is ever any good he deserves the credit. Anyway, one of the other teachers that weekend was Anthony Swofford, who had just published Jarhead at the time. My dormmates and I (Hey Bonnie! Hey Jason!) had been pounding jugs of bourbon all day before Swofford’s reading, and thus all I can recall at this time is Swofford waving a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, explaining he re-read it every time he began a new writing project.
I immediately bought/found/stole a copy of the book and started to workshop a story with Steve called “Nobody’s Children,” which was published in Superstition Review a few years ago, and is in fact the occasion for this post. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is structured as a series of brief explanations of the Zen perspective on such sexy topics as “Posture” (“try to always keep the right posture, not only when you practice zazen, but in all of your activities”), “Breathing,” “Nothing Special,” and “Right Effort” (“if you try not to be disturbed, your effort is not right effort”). The central conceit of “Nobody’s Children” was stolen directly from the book, with its evocative statement, “When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door.”
“Beginner’s Mind” teaches us to create things like children, in a state of flow and not expectation. As we age, we invert what should be the correct conception of art: a thing we create added to the world’s plenitude and diversity, which is a good thing, and a fun thing. As adults, however, if you’re like me, we think of art as: something that fails to become what it is or “should be.” We love without hope. We see the cracks, fissures, pimples, noxious smells emitting from our creation and this doesn’t measure up to what’s in our heads. And thus we think it’s a failure—but how can it be a failure in comparison to something that never existed? Any piece of art is ipso facto perfect in its own right, it is itself and nothing else. I believe this is similar to Leibniz’s argument for a greater plenitude.
There’s a Japanese word “Kintsugi” (made famous perhaps by the Death Cab for Cutie album) denoting the practice of “repairing” broken pottery, ceramics, or jewels by leaving the wounds and imperfections visible. Expanded to relate to not just reparation but creation, we can see how this concept connects to or merges with the “Beginner’s Mind” mentality: play like a child, and the heavens will sing. This insight, gleaned four years ago in under the influence in Montpelier, VT, taught me to have the right attitude towards my fragile little stories, this lost island of misfits I visit with love, and hope, looking around me, awakened again with a profound sense of wonder. As Bob Dylan once wrote: “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”
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