Archive for the ‘Breath’ Category

I wrote three paragraphs. Finally. Three!

In Abraham, Allison, Bathsheba, Breath, Christianity, Communion, Connected, David, Genesis, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus, Job, John, Joseph, Making a Mistake, Mary, Moses, Mud, Myth, Passover, Prayer, Prostrate, Spirit, Stations of the Cross, Stillness, Story, The Way, Uncategorized on 24 March 2013 at 8:57 PM

At my church for the past few weeks, we’ve been observing Lent and meditating on the (new) Stations of the Cross. I’ve helped organize and facilitate some of that. Below are the meditations I wrote for this week, the final week of Lent—


Twelfth Station: Jesus Speaks to His Mother and Disciple (John 19:25-27)

Abel, dead and cold in a field, had been Adam & Eve’s innocent son. And Abraham bound Isaac to the altar. And Jacob for years lost Joseph to the wilderness. And ten thousand mothers of ten thousand murdered boys cried out to God in Egypt. And Bathsheba’s baby died very soon. And David wept for Absalom. And Job and his wife, what but the whirlwind was left for them after the quake? — And you, Mary. You lose your child, too. You kept him safe from Herod once but now you watch his body suffer, bleed out, die. What hopeful secrets does He keep from you, Mary, and what horror does He allow you to abide in? You belong to the Story; your sacrifice is your people’s Story—and now you bear its weight. The Kingdom comes but you don’t know it yet. So let yourself be held. Move into the arms of this beloved disciple. It is no consolation, I know, but the LORD gives you this body to writhe against, to weep into, to suffer alongside you. Love upholds you still. So can it be, Mary? Blessed be the Name, even now? Will you say it with me, Mary?—will you bless His Name with me, even so?


Thirteenth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross (Luke 23:44-46)

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” Jesus said. What can I commend to God? Not even my time on Facebook. Not my morning coffee. Not my impatience. Not my wife’s emotions, nor my own. Not my anxiety. Not my desire to control. I cannot commend into His hands my desire to be best, to be noticed, to be liked, to impress. But these are what He requires in the Kingdom. I’m to be a vessel of His Kingdom, not of my small loud will. So I close my eyes. And I practice. Father, into your hands I commend this breath. And this one. And this one again. I breathe You in, my Father, and I breathe me out. I take your Spirit within me like these filled-up lungs, like this blood that stirs throughout my body. I breathe in your Likeness, your Spirit. I join my breath to yours. One breath at a time. Into your hands, my Father, my Creator, I commend this breath. And this one. And this one again.


Fourteenth Station: Jesus Is Placed in the Tomb (Matthew 27: 57-60)

As you lie prostrate on the cold hard ground your body feels the earth against itself, this God-made earth, so big, so full of love and death, now against your chest, now beneath your belly, now pressed even to your cheeks. This is not an insight; it is a practice. Your body, your only true possession, rests upon the earth. You can smell its wildness. You can hear its generations of passing life, this great muted groan singing to you as through layers of mud. When you are dead you are like the mud. You are a once-a-song returned to the mud. You are a once-a-song that became silenced by the mud. It is the Way of the world. Even God becomes like the mud. He joins you—for you. His body becomes like the layers of mud and contains for a moment all these muted songs. Alive, He was so beautiful a vessel; dead, He becomes like the mud. Listen. Stay here on the ground until creation sings to you through the mud. Stay quiet. The world is singing. Press your ear to the earth. Listen to the silent groaning music. Join your God in the mud. Join your voice to His beautiful—to His terrible song.



Some days I take the train to work. Some days I drive. Part II.

In Breath, Connected, McDonald's, Myth, People Watching, Saint Aquinas, Stillness, Story on 11 November 2011 at 9:30 AM

On days I drive it takes only thirty-four minutes to arrive from Whittier to Redondo Beach, but only because I leave very early in the morning, to beat traffic. Traffic gets bad at 5:12 AM, goes from crowded-but-fast to crowded-and-great-can-you-believe-it-now-Grandma-is-writing-a-check-for-her-groceries. The switchover is instantaneous. Grandma can’t find two forms of ID. She goes back to her purse for cash. Counts out perfect change.

So I leave the house at 4:43 AM without eating breakfast and I arrive to Redondo Beach at 5:17 AM. And I go to McDonald’s. I order a Number Two: Sausage McMuffin with Egg value meal, with coffee. How many creams and sugars? Four creams, four Equals. Okay. That’ll be $4.77. I take my meal to the back of the McDonald’s and I sit and I take the morning in slowly. My breath becomes a prayer to the heavens. The smell of coffee is a great consolation. I drink, I eat. I like the crunch of my hash brown. I pray simply a recited prayer over and over and over, slowly as I breathe. I ask for the day’s basic needs, for the willingness to forgive the people I resent, for the strength to keep away from evil. I thank God for my family and friends. I breathe in, I breathe out.

When I get to McDonald’s I have forty-three minutes until work begins, so I eat slowly. I am learning to breathe with my whole body, mindfully.

Each time I am here, the same things happen:

I am the first person to arrive each morning. I order, I sit, I eat, I breathe.

A man who works here cleans the floor. First he takes his wet thick-and-short-bristles push-broom and scrubs the floor. Then with his mop he soaks the floor and wipes away the dirt. Then he pours his bucket full of sudsy water everywhere onto the floor, and soap water goes under all the tables, and he mops that back up. It is a long process. He goes back and forth over the entire floor three times.  By the end, everything looks clean and nice. He is never in a rush. He does not look angry while he mops. He doesn’t even look tired. I imagine that this man enters his body completely—and that for him there is only now: now when he works, when he does not think, when he only does, when he does not resent anyone, when he has no longings, when there is only this water and this mop and these movements. He is slow in his work. His face is peaceful. I like him.

In comes the man with the short disgusting ponytail and a buzz around the sides of his head, who arrives with his ear buds in his ears, and who orders food with his ear buds in his ears, and who eats with his ear buds in his ears. He never looks at anyone. He listens to his music. He eats his breakfast burrito. He taps his feet.

But then the woman comes next. The lovely ugly a little bit fat very out of style crossing guard who doesn’t shower before work. She carries a big cloth sack full of stuff. She wears a fanny pack. She wears jeans from the 1990s, pleated. She tucks her sweatshirt into her jeans. She wears a bright orange vest that says CROSSING GUARD on the back. Her short brown hair sticks up in the back, because she has just woken up, because she hasn’t showered. She walks slowly, as though crossing the street with children, everywhere. She limps. She brings her food to her small booth, sets it down on the table. She pauses, she holds her breath. In a moment, she pushes the fanny pack to the side, making enough room between her stomach and the table, so she can squat into her seat at the single booth. She slides in slowly, carefully, inch by inch, and then while she sits and eats she doesn’t move her body—only sits upright while she brings food to her mouth. Any high schooler would see her and make fun of her—within earshot. I’m sure she has awful nicknames among some children, things you would be embarrassed to be told in public. But do you know that she is my Saint Aquinas? I will tell you why. Because before she moves her fanny pack to the side and before she squats so awkwardly-carefully down into her seat, she, standing next to her table, having set down her food, fishes through her big cloth sack full of stuff. She pulls out a plastic Ziplock bag where she keeps an old piece of paper. She opens the bag. She pulls out the paper. There are pictures on it. She leans the paper up so the pictures will face her as she eats, pictures of her dead parents from when they were alive and young: her mother in a pink blouse, smiling, hair done up nice for church; her father next to his army buddies, everyone smoking a cigarette and holding a gun. Saint Aquinas eats her breakfast looking at the pictures on the paper. She misses her parents. She brings them with her to McDonald’s every morning. She keeps them in a Ziplock. She loves them. She is lonely. Probably the last people who loved her unconditionally, who called her Sweetie, who held her, who touched her face, were these two people in these pictures. And they are gone. Maybe she’s eating a McMuffin and crazy-thinking: Good morning, Mom! How are you, Dad? You want some hash brown? Maybe all this is only weird, and bad-weird. Maybe this is pitiful and crazy and sad. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe she prays to them, and to God. Maybe she knows that while these two are dead and gone and not ever coming back, and maybe while there is a deep and abiding longing to be near them, to smell them, to feel her father’s hands on her shoulders, to hear her mother say her name, maybe beneath those pitiful-seeming and easy-to-laugh-at-and-call-an-unshowered-lady-crazy-for habits she is practicing deep and mysterious and beautiful truths. No, she is not crazy. She is not crazy at all. She is looking at her mother. She is looking at her father. She is remembering them. This morning she is thinking about all the birthday parties, all the times talking in the car, all the weekends, all the bedtimes, all the phone calls, all the sandwiches, all the music they clapped to and sang to and loved each other near, all the advice and laughter and forgiveness that passed between them like a secret language, back and forth for years. She is seeing a vision from God. She is joined to a prayer and a hope and a love that makes all our knowledge like straw to light fires with.

My wife. My sons. And too much poop in the world.

In Allison, Breath, Jonah, Poop, Simon, Stillness on 6 August 2011 at 12:14 PM

This one son of mine is very beautiful, and this other son of mine is also very beautiful. The one son talks, runs, argues, falls, cries, tells stories, asks to be wiped after he poops. Two days ago he came up behind me and hugged me and said, Dad, you smell like poop. I told him it must be the coffee I was just drinking. He said, No, it’s poop. I did not tell him, but I wanted to tell him, that he smells like poop all the time, the jerk.

This other son of mine, the younger one, the one-year-old, doesn’t talk much yet, says in mumbles and slurs things like Balloon, and Juice, and Mama, and Rock. He falls very often, and he cries. In the two months he’s been walking, three times he’s fallen so that his nose bled, once in church, and he cried and cried, and his shirt was blood-covered, and his fingers and hands—from wiping the blood away—dried red and sticky. For the rest of the day after my wife stopped the bleeding, his nose looked as though little red boogers had just stopped short of falling out.

And then this wife. This wife of mine. Who loves me. Who loves our boys. Who takes care of our boys. Who feeds them. Clothes them. Bathes them. Disciplines them. Asks them questions. Takes them to the park. Knows their favorite frozen yogurt. Knows their favorite bath toys. Who screams to me, Carlos! Simon just pooped in the tub! Who says, Do you think he has a concussion? Who says, Jonah is driving me crazy!

She wakes up every morning, puts Simon to her breast, nurses him, makes him laugh, comforts him, warms him, makes sounds only they two understand, and, while I shower and dress and eat and scoot off to write stories in the morning, she is with them, holding them, teaching them, cooking for them, cleaning up after them, inventing worlds and games with them, is their spiritual advisor and personal chef, and I cannot imagine a lovelier mother, a more present mother, a mother so selfless. She is devoted, like prayer, to this family, to these—all three of us—boys, devoted to us, our smells and poop and screams and nose bleeds, to our hunger and demands and messes, to our long and endless noise.

And what. What do I say about it. There are mornings I get into the car, mornings I’m driving after she drove the same car last night—maybe home from her sister’s house after a long night of talking, or maybe after a quick evening run to buy a bottle of wine. And whenever I step into the car, turn the key, adjust the mirrors, I notice this universal truth: when Allison was the last person to drive this car, and drive alone, the radio is off.

I turn the car on. I hear nothing. I hear silence.

So I am reminded. Reminded of my boys, reminded of me. Reminded of our demands and noise. Reminded of the chaos my wife looks after and manages, keeping us in order. Reminded of how much we talk about poop. Reminded that she has two sons and a husband whose imaginations and curiosities and desires fill her ears and arms with all—kinds—of—stuff.

And then this silence. These right turns, these left turns. With nothing in her ears anymore. Just street, just freeway, just road. I imagine her closing her eyes and opening her eyes, breathing slowly, giving thanks, not making a sound. Here now she is a mystic, present with God, breathing slowly, gratefully, as she pulls back into our driveway, just one more minute, just one more minute, just one more minute, until we come upon her again to help us and comfort us.

The real stuff that is out there wanting to be known. You know. Poetry. Landscapes. Persons.

In Breath, C.S. Lewis, Dante, Dionysius, Genesis, Herman Melville, Landscape, Myth, Paul Simon, Plato, Robert Frost, Story, T.S. Eliot, The Voice and Arms of God, Walt Whitman on 2 August 2011 at 3:16 PM

Dante’s 14th century poem, The Divine Comedy, begins with a man “midway” through his life—and he’s walking down the road.

In medieval Italy, in Florence (or, in Dante’s case at the time, just outside Florence), looking out his window, looking up at the stars every night, these hillsides and mountains provide him with just the images he needs to create a confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way, who descends into hell, who comes out the other side into purgatory, to climb this mountain (the first-ever image of purgatory as a mountain going up, borrowing from Dionysius, borrowing from Plato), who then leaves the mountain with Beatrice, his great love on earth, to go up, up, up, to find God in the heavens among the stars. Looking around and up, Italy provides Dante with the landscape to render the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

T.S. Eliot’s early 20th century, modern poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, begins with a man midway through his life (“with a bald spot in the middle of my head”)—and he’s walking down the road.

Now we are in 20th century London, and instead of a road that leads into hell, a road that goes up a mountain and finally into heaven—there is this confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way: who does not, in the end, find his Beatrice, who cannot profess his love to a woman, because, in short, he was afraid. And now, in 20th century London, here is the same journey (with a different ending, yes), and here again the landscape just outside Eliot’s house provides him with the entire range of emotion—or the potential of it—all of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

Paul Simon’s 1986 pop hit, “You Can Call Me Al,” begins with a man midway through his life (“soft in the middle now”)—and he’s walking down the road.

Here now we are in rock n roll, surrounded by saxophones and bass players, and he’s rewriting Dante’s Comedy, rewriting Eliot’s Love Song, asking Beatrice (“Betty”) to be his bodyguard (as she is for Dante in the Comedy), inviting her to call him “Al” (or, as in Eliot’s poem J. “Alfred” Prufrock). Here instead of Dante’s terza rima (the rhyme pattern Dante invented to push the poem forward on its journey), and instead of Eliot’s sometimes-iambic, sometimes-free verse, sometimes-rhyming, sometimes-not-rhyming, stream-of-conscious poetry (participating in the innovations of modern poetry), we have a rock n roll legend using his own landscape—the 1-4-5 chords of the blues—and we have him taking his confused lost cowardly road-walking man up, up, up, like Dante did, finally “spinning in infinity,” saying, “Amen, Hallelujah,” but rendering everything in the stream-of-conscious style that Eliot used, borrowing from both poems and pushing them into the rock n roll landscape. And here again, built into the landscape, here is the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

So what of it.

In the novel I am writing—set first in Ecuador where my father grew up, then in Hermosa Beach where I grew up—I believe all the world is there, the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love. I believe that the landscape, that any landscape, provides us with all the metaphors necessary to create full persons who love and hate and worry and want.

In 2007, I traveled to Ecuador to see it, smell it, feel it with my own hands, to eat its food, to touch the low clouds from the mountainsides of Quito, to feel the danger of the night streets in Guayaquil, to see for myself the rows of whorehouses, to climb the giant hill overlooking the bay, so that its landscape—and, by its landscape, all the truths of the universe—could make their way into my chest and belly.

But then the great nature poet, Robert Frost, once said, “I guess I’m not a nature poet. I’ve only written two poems without a human being in them. Only two.” But now I’m thinking, if Frost is not a nature poet, then who can be one?

So then I think: Maybe no one. Maybe we look at nature to get at true stuff, and so does Frost. Nature helps us make the images we need for the metaphors that build up art, that build up persons.

Then there is this. C.S. Lewis points out in his book The Four Loves:

If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. The tendency to take her as a teacher is obviously very easily grafted on to the experience we call “love of nature.” But it is only a graft. While we are actually subjected to them, the “moods” and “spirits” of nature point no morals. Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, somber desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, “Look. Listen. Attend.”

The fact that this imperative is so often misinterpreted and sets people making theologies and pantheologies and antitheologies—all of which can be debunked—does not really touch the central experience itself. What nature-lovers—whether they are Wordsworthians or people with “dark gods in their blood”—get from nature is an iconography, a language of images. I do not mean simply visual images; it is the “moods” or “spirits” themselves—the powerful expositions of terror, gloom, jocundity, cruelty, lust, innocence, purity—that are the images. In them each man can clothe his own belief. We must learn our theology or philosophy elsewhere (not surprisingly, we often learn them from theologians and philosophers).

But nature cannot—can it?—be neutral! If the Hebrews were right, then the world is a breath from God’s own mouth, and in the world, in any part of this world, we can find God himself. Nature, then, helps us find God.

And yet in our landscapes we find so many different gods.

So, what do I see when I look at a landscape, look at the coast I grew up on, look at the Guayaquil my father grew up in, look at the suburbs where I live now—knowing that here is where all the world’s truths exist while simultaneously knowing that there is such little hope, among so many found gods and truths, to find any kind of truth?

I write stories, and I write stories about persons, and I write stories in language and images that come from the landscape that creates the persons: nature, landscape, any landscape, provides me with the range of experience, all of suffering and hope and mystery and love outside my window waiting to be seen and felt and tasted and heard—and I render it onto the page. All the world’s truths are here in God’s breath, in the world around me. Let us agree that while there is maybe no such thing as the nature poet, nature provides us with the metaphors we’re building persons with. And, even though different poets, from their views of nature and landscapes, build different kinds of persons (nature and persons in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are much less generous than in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself) Lewis, though he is right, is also wrong. Because nature, God’s own breath, cannot be neutral.

So may I learn to see rightly, to find the world’s truths in the landscape, to render all the emotions we can feel, to get every fingernail and drop of blood, to get them right, and, while these are spoken by me and come from the view I alone have of these landscapes, may they be of God’s own breath.

I pick up writing my novel again. I remind myself of what I wrote three years ago.

In Breath, Smoking, Stillness, Thich Nhat Hanh on 11 July 2011 at 10:25 AM

What does stillness have to do with the writing process?

It turns out I own a collection of poems that, until very recently, I ignored. It cost me only fifty cents at a garage sale a few years ago, which is probably the only reason I bought it. I found it again last week while looking for another author whose last name begins with H, and this time I didn’t—couldn’t—ignore the name as my finger moved along the books’ authors. I took the book out—its title is Call Me by My True Names—and I looked at the picture of the author. Then I looked at the poems’ titles in the table of contents, which are divided into two categories: Historical Dimension (his anti-war poetry), and Ultimate Dimension (his spiritual poetry). Here I have owned and never read his, Thich Nhat Hanh’s, poetry, and while it is sad I’ve neglected to comb through this book before, it is good that now I’ve found it. I saved the Historical Dimension for later. Right away I opened up to the poem called “Breathing,” which goes like this:


Breathing in,
I see myself as a flower.
I am the freshness of a dewdrop.
Breathing out,
my eyes have become flowers.
Please look at me.
I am looking
with eyes of love.

Breathing in,
I am a mountain,
Breathing out,
I feel solid.
The waves of emotion
can never carry me away.

Breathing in,
I am still water.
I reflect the sky
Look, I have a full moon
within my heart,
the refreshing moon of the bodhisattva.
Breathing out,
I offer the perfect reflection
of my mirror-mind.

Breathing in,
I have become space
without boundaries.
I have no plans left.
I have no luggage.
Breathing out,
I am the moon
that is sailing through the sky of utmost emptiness.
I am freedom.

For the past two weeks I have been writing my novella, The Voice and Arms of God, at a pace that I haven’t experienced since I began it almost two years ago. More accurately, I have been writing at a pace that I haven’t experienced since I was a smoker, when I first entered Pitt’s MFA program, two-and-a-half years ago. When I smoked, I could sit for hours with a piece of writing, and, eventually, I’d have to be pulled away by some other obligation, whether it was sleep (Alli said, “Carlos, come to bed—it’s 4am.”) or food, or class, and so on. When I smoked, I sat with my own writing, became frustrated, walked to the balcony or front porch, smoked a cigarette or two or three, then came back to write. It was my habit, my ritual, and it kept me in front of the computer screen, revising, adding new sentences, finding new ways to say old things—for a long, long time.

Then I quit smoking. And when I quit smoking, there were, of course, benefits: I was able to play basketball with my friends without vomiting; I could take the dogs on walks that they could really appreciate, rather than around the block and hope they didn’t notice; my body, when I came to bed or kissed Alli or walked into a room full of nonsmokers, did not smell offensive anymore, something that I denied embarrassed me; I was regaining my health, and, thankfully, my son does not have to grow up around a smoker. But, for all those benefits, I forgot how to write.

I began writing my little novella in a fit of a great idea. I had the first two chapters finished in a little while, but since then, mostly it has been a great idea without much substance—because I did not know how to sit, how to sit still, how to focus whatever energy I had into my work. It was embarrassing to be a part of a respected MFA program and try to keep it a secret that I had all but forgotten how to create. When I was smoking I had a synthetic connection to stillness, a habit, an addiction, that helped me replicate (for moments at a time, at least) the stillness my soul required to be creative, something—however unhealthy, both in body and mind—I lost when I quit.

And now, in part because graduation is breathing down my neck, and in great part because I am relearning stillness, I am again able to write. I read Hanh’s poem now before I enter into writing—or, I read it for myself ‘just because’—and then I read it again. I listen to the experience of union with the universe, sure, yes, that is very nice, but a reading on that level might as well be the message in a fortune cookie, or appear in the Karate Kid. So, in addition to that, I also use this poem as a way to enter into his version of stillness, that in the midst of stillness he is everything (which, I admit, acknowledges that first, fortune-cookie reading, but then goes deeper), since from his breath—in, out, in, out—comes the world. And so I hope the same will happen to me; in fact, I have learned to expect it. I quiet myself, I close the door to my home office, I tell Alli that I can’t be bothered until I come back out, and I breathe. I practice mere breath, and I expect the world to come forth—in words and images on the page. I understand that it may be a mistake to breathe as a means to create, and I do not mean to make this mistake, but I can’t help to be inspired by this connection in Hanh’s poem between breath and the universe, and that the form of his experience is itself artistic creation, and that the world—all of it: flower, mountain, water, moon, sky, freedom—are in his breath. Then let them be in mine. Let me use this universe in me to create a universe on the page. Let me use what unwholesome and wholesome thoughts pass through me as a means to create characters whose thoughts are also unwholesome and wholesome. Let me become Ecuador. Let me become my father. Let me become myself truly, and let me find the words to make it beautiful.