Students, friends, and teachers I had in China often encouraged me gently to adjust to what comes without judging, to do my best and not worry about outcomes in a world where cause and effect are not linear. These skills seemed to help them "be happy" somehow. I wondered if they were things I could learn.
Even if I accept the unAmerican notion that we are not in control of what happens around us, how can I follow my Master's advice to "Be happy!" in the face of the Chinese farmer's "Who knows?" How do I learn to be good at living, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests?
Both Buddhism and Daoism teach that feelings are transient. (Actually, they tell us everything is transient, including our precious selves. This is clearly true, but I grew up in a nation that spends a lot of energy trying to distract us from that thought, so. . . . Feelings are easier.) Feelings are like television shows, Thich Nhat Hanh says—if we don't like what's on, we can change the channel. Everything alternates, said the Chinese Master, then he told two stories about his time in prison.
In the Cultural Revolution, he was jailed and put on heavy work details with many others. To entertain themselves, the prisoners used to save grains of rice from their scant meals, put them on the floor of their cells, and bet on which ant would get to their grain first. (Be happy whatever comes, I guess.) In one of his cells, the floor was covered with water during the rainy season so, every night for a month, he allowed each foot to dry by lifting a knee and standing on one leg for half an hour, then switching.
He survived, he said, because he was optimistic. He accepted alternating yin and yang and tried to be happy and healthy. On our balcony, he settled into a meditative posture in his chair.
"When you go very, very deep in stillness," he said with his eyes closed, "then you begin to dance." He sat quiet, then slowly moved his limbs until he was up and waltzing around the balcony.
"When you are at the height of dancing, then you start to be still." He slowed himself down again and sat in the chair, closing his eyes. Then his eyes popped open, and he looked around the group with a smile.
"Life has many things," he said. "When you are strong, be firm like a rock. When you are weak, be flexible like air. Be happy for everything. Move with life."
It's a practice. Every day every day for fifteen years be grateful for being alive. Turn the channel on my thoughts out of impatience into mindful breathing and a smile. Notice the beauties and opportunities life brings. Move with life.
That's a lot to ask of a deep-steeped individualist perfectionist. It's a lot to practice, but maybe a statewide order to shelter in place gives me a little time.
In case you also have a little time, here are some interesting references:
How, I asked, watching my buoyant Chinese gongfu teacher,
how can I learn to "move with life"?
In this second part of the essay "Practice," I try to understand some old Chinese and Vietnamese principles.
We American teachers focused on planning our classes and rewarding individual excellence. We operated on a timeline, sighting along chains of cause and effect, trying to predict and control what happened. We were not skilled at seeing circles and communities, at trying to accommodate what was happening around us. We kept our eyes on the prize. We did not check to see if each class was a harmonious whole, whatever the outcomes.
"We are very good at preparing to live," wrote the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh of modern Western life, "but not very good at living."
Like my Chinese gongfu teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about choosing to feel peaceful in the present from a deep well of terrible experience. He helped set up rural schools and health clinics while some of his colleagues protested the Vietnam War by setting themselves on fire. He helped rebuild villages that had been bombed in the war and wrote letters trying to find homes for orphan children. Yet he insists, "Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it." How did these Masters learn to get in touch with inner peace in the face of fear?
Some lessons lie in stories they grew up with. When I got frustrated or depressed in China, more than once I was told the story of the farmer who lost a horse.
A farmer had a valuable horse that ran away. "What bad luck!" cried his neighbors. "Who knows?" said the farmer. Soon after, the horse returned, bringing a wild herd with him. "What good luck!" cried the neighbors. "Who knows?" said the farmer. His son was working to gentle one of the horses and fell off, breaking his leg. "Bad luck!" cried the neighbors. "Who knows?" said the farmer. A warlord stormed into town and drafted all able- bodied young men, leaving the injured son behind. "Good luck!" said the neighbors.
"Who knows?" said the farmer.
"Why do they find this story reassuring?" I thought at first, but eventually I saw how it worked for them. My students did not think they had much control in their lives. When elaborate plans for a speech contest were disrupted at the last minute because a visiting dignitary wanted the hall, or all my students disappeared for community service during the week I had scheduled a mid-term, they mentioned the farmer who lost a horse. "Who knows?" they implied.
"Did you do your best?" they asked when I complained about some aborted project. If I said Yes, they assured me, "You can do no more."
This is not how I was raised, but I see the value in it. Don't worry too much about outcomes? Not a very mainstream American message. My people tend to look at what we do, at what's been accomplished to judge success or failure. My Chinese friends were suggesting I adjust to what comes without judging. Do my best in a world where cause and effect are not linear. Also that I consider the value of intention. My mother did often tell me about gifts, "It's the thought that counts."
* * *
(continued in "Practice" part three)
On March 23, 2020, Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued an order asking citizens of the State to shelter in place — that is, to stay home except for essential activities. Soon after, the Hoffman Center for the Arts on the Oregon Coast created a web page at hoffmanarts.org called "Creating in Place." The project invited musicians, videographers, visual artists, and writers to post their work as a way to share whatever was coming up or hanging around during this time. I posted an essay called "Practice" on the page. It follows here, in three parts because is it long.
"Why are you crying?" my martial arts teacher asked through the translator.
"Because it's so beautiful. Because I will never be able to do your family's gongfu like that."
We were on a balcony with a small group of USAmerican teachers hired to help Chinese medical students learn English. When I had mentioned I wanted to learn a martial art, a Chinese colleague found a Heritage Master of an ancient practice to teach us. She and I studied with him together and she translated. The crew at the Foreign Teacher house had invited her and the Master to lunch so my housemates could see what we were learning.
Watching him was like seeing Baryshnikov do a 10-minute ballet from five feet away—perfect control and grace flowing through space. I was moved to tears.
My teacher leaned forward and spoke firmly. My Chinese colleague translated.
"'How long you do my family gongfu?' he's asking."
"He says, 'I play this gongfu fifteen years. You practice fifteen years every day every day, be like me.'"
Then he jumped up and spread his arms. "Do not be so serious. Be happy!" The sudden shift made everyone laugh. He gestured over the balcony, over the whole company.
"We are rich! We enjoy the sun now, the good feeling of a full stomach," he put his hand on his belly as my colleague translated. "When we are poor, we enjoy cool dark, the good feeling of light and empty—both are good."
He was not just mouthing platitudes, I knew. This buoyant teacher was born and raised in Chinese high society. His grandmother learned a secret marital art in Beijing when she was part of the Last Emperor's court and passed it on within the family. His grandfather was a general in the Chinese National Army. Then Mao Zedong's Communists took over mainland China, and the family was stripped of its wealth. When my teacher refused to stop practicing the martial arts he knew, he was tortured and imprisoned during Mao's Cultural Revolution.
"Human life—," said my teacher in English on the balcony, flipping his palm up, then down and saying a Chinese word to the translator.
"Alternates," she said.
"Yes," said my teacher. "Human life alternates. When there is no alternates, we die."
"This is Old China teaching," he continued through the translator. "Life has many things. Yang and yin. Full and empty. Be happy for everything. Move with life."
* * *
It sounds good, doesn't it? Move with life. But I did not grow up learning how to do this. I'm an individualist, perfectionist, lucky USAmerican. I know how to set goals and plan. I try to keep my promises and work hard to get the job done. Our Chinese students often commented on that. "Americans work very hard," they said, but I'm not sure it was a compliment.
(continued in "Practice" part two)
In my life, I have lived many places, but the place of my heart has long been the state of Oregon. Especially the coast. Currently I live in a part of Oregon vulnerable to storms and high water.
A plucky group of forward-thinking people in our area trains volunteers to help first responders in emergencies. They also encourage residents to learn how to use hand-held radios to receive emergency messages.
I have taken their classes but find the little radio most useful for getting marine weather forecasts. Since I lived on a sailboat for six years, these marine forecasts are familiar. They also remind me how bad sea conditions can be just offshore from our cozy homes on land. Small Craft Advisories are common where the long Columbia River meets the Pacific at the Columbia Bar!
The historical novel
Astoria: Astor and Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark
vividly describes what ships can face arriving at the Columbia Bar:
When the Tonquin arrived off the Northwest Coast and mouth of the Columbia River on March 22, 1811, it had left all tropical antics far in its wake. Here wind squalls from the northwest swept across the charcoal sea. Huge swells tossed the ship. Roaring white breakers smashed against the shoreline of this far edge of the North American continent, stretching away endlessly north and south in a misty gray-green band of impenetrable forest and rocky headlands. . . .
Whatever safety and shelter was offered by this wild coast was blocked by a four-mile-long sandbar across the Columbia's mouth. Still today one of the world's most dangerous navigational hazards, here the power of the largest river of the western continent, discharging an average of 265,000 cubic feet of water per second, collides head-on with the power of the world's largest ocean. The Pacific tides and swells entering the river's mouth fight against the outgoing river's discharge. This battle throws up ferociously steep mounds of water, up to twelve feet high, known as standing waves. They can literally stand a boat up on end. At the same time, incoming swells from the North Pacific, generated by powerful storms thousands of miles out at sea and thirty feet or more in height, tower over the shallows of the bar. Crashing down in a tumult of foam and spray further churned by the winds and tidal currents, these waves create what seems to be a giant cauldron where the earth's hydraulic forces converge.
Somewhere in this chaos of wind and wave and powerful tides the Seagoing party had to find the gap in the shallow sandbar. It was only through this single channel that the main current of the Columbia River exited the continent, and they could enter.
"The wind was blowing in heavy squalls, and the sea ran very high," wrote Franchière, about their arrival off the Columbia's mouth, adding that they could plainly see the breakers crashing from three miles off.
A small whaleboat with 5 men is inadvisably launched by Captain Thorn of the Tonquin to find the channel:
Alexander Ross watched from the rail with the others. The seas were so rough that by the time the whaleboat moved one hundred yards from the ship, he wrote, the onlookers at the rail frequently lost sight of it among the whitccapping swells. Mr. Fox's whaleboat soon became "utterly unmanageable." It turned sideways to the "foaming surges," spun around, then was flung up to a wave crest, before disappearing again into a deep trough. . . .
By noon two days after they'd arrived, March 24, the wind had dropped. Now Mr. Mumford, the second mate aboard the Tonquin, made another attempt at finding the channel across the bar. . . . They were approaching the bar but still two miles from shore when those in the longboat suddenly found themselves pulled into the ripping maelstrom of current and surf and wind and shallows for which the Columbia Bar was already infamous. Ross, at the oars, described "the terrific chain of breakers. . .rolling one after another in rapid succession" while a "fearful suction" pulled the longboat toward the bar. Before they had time to respond fully, the current had dragged the longboat into the bar's breakers, the crashing tons of water spinning them this way and that.
"[A]t this instant, Mr. Mumford, who was at the helm called out, 'Let us turn back, and pull for your lives; pull hard, or you are all dead men.'"
For twelve minutes, Ross wrote, the longboat hung in the balance, the men pulling with all their strength, but neither winning nor losing the battle against the current sucking them farther into the bar's breaking surf. Finally, "the boat obeyed the oars," he wrote. They managed to row themselves out of the imminent danger and to the relative safety of the heaving but open sea.
* * *
In a more modern vein, Wikipedia summarizes the following facts about the Columbia Bar:
The Columbia River Bar is the portion of the Columbia River where the current dissipates into the Pacific Ocean, often as large, standing waves partially caused by the deposition of sediment as the river slows. These standing waves are usually mixed with ocean waves and wreak havoc with small (and not so small) vessels. To add to the treachery, conditions can change from calm and serene to life threatening breaking waves in as little as five minutes due to tide, wind direction and ocean swell direction. Since 1792 approximately 2,000 large ships have sunk in and around the Columbia River Bar. The nearby U.S. Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment is renowned for operating in some of the roughest sea conditions in the world and is also home to the National Motor Lifeboat School. It is the only school for rough weather and surf rescue operation in the United States and is respected internationally as a center of excellence for heavy boat operations.
As a practical tip, small craft are advised to cross the bar during times of incoming flood tide, staying toward the outside of the navigational channel to avoid the frequent large ships which move at 20 to 30 knots.
* * *
I'm not sure if this "You Have to See This" video is still available,
but if so, it's, um, entertaining?
* * *
I was at the southern tip of South America, and there were no ravens. I saw no crows, either. This was latitude 55º S., the Antarctic equivalent of southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia. The natives of the Arctic are famous for their stories about Raven. So where were South America's trickster birds?
It turns out there are none. Every other continent around the globe has some member of the crow or raven family. Northern South America has a jay, which is a cousin of the Corvids. But ravens and crows have scarcely moved south of Mexico in the Americas.
The bird-watchers at Living Wild in South America explain that the Corvids probably had no reason to go far south – though that does not seem to stop most explorers from moving around the world, and it has not kept ravens out of Africa or Australia. The Living Wild photographers also mention the interesting caracara family, suggesting that these bold and common birds of South America may out-compete ravens for the omnivorous scavanger slot. Maybe so, but caracaras seem solemn, no-nonsense birds to me, more like eagles and hawks. The role of sassy entertainer is still open in southern South America, currently filled by smaller birds like the chucao.
Whatever the reason for their absence, I missed ravens in the bogs and tundras of southern Patagonia.
* * *
Have you ever been surprised by the absence of something you had always assumed would be there?
In his clever article "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?" David Quammen argues that the corvid family—which includes crows and ravens—may be too smart for its own good.
"For example," he writes, "they play a lot.
"Animal play is a reasonably common phenomenon, at least among certain mammals, especially in the young of these species. Play activities—by definition—are any that serve no immediate biological function, and which therefore do not directly improve the animal's prospects for survival and reproduction. The corvids, according to expert testimony, are irrepressibly playful. In fact, they show the most complex play known in birds. Ravens play toss with themselves in the air, dropping and catching again a small twig. They lie on their backs and juggle objects (in one recorded case, a rubber ball) between beak and feet. They jostle each other sociably in a version of 'king of the mountain' with no real territorial stakes. Crows are equally frivolous. They play a brand of rugby, wherein one crow picks up a white pebble or a bit of shell and flies from tree to tree, taking a friendly bashing from its buddies until it drops the token. And they have a comedy-acrobatic routine: allowing themselves to tip backward dizzily from a wire perch, holding a loose grip so as to hang upside-down, spreading out both wings, then daringly letting go with one foot; finally, switching feet to let go with the other. Such shameless hot-dogging is usually performed for a small audience of other crows.
"There is also an element of the practical jokester. Of the Indian house crow, Wilmore says: '. . . this Crow has a sense of humor, and revels in the discomfort caused by its playful tweaking at the tails of other birds, and at the ears of sleeping cows and dogs; it also pecks the toes of flying foxes as they hang sleeping in their roosts.' This crow is a laff riot. Another of Wilmore's favorite species amuses itself, she says, by 'dropping down on sleeping rabbits and rapping them over the skull or settling on drowsy cattle and startling them.' What we have here is actually a distinct subcategory of playfulness known, where I come from at least, as Cruisin' For a Bruisin'."
* * *
Do you have a favorite story about animal play?
pp. 33-34 of "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?"
in Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature
by David Quammen (NY: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1985)
As a reader, I like essays and novels that are informed by ideas. Annie Dillard. Michael Ondaatje. I am hoping here to join others who feel the same. I look forward to thoughtful conversations!