Some Thoughts on Not Hesitating

“What etiquette holds us back / from more intimate speech, / especially now, at the end of the world?” —Chase Twichell

I’m a long-time fan of Jim Jarmusch’s films and especially enjoyed Ghost Dog (1999), in which Forrest Whitaker plays a modern-day samurai warrior who, among other things, reads philosophy and trains passenger pigeons on a rooftop in “The Industrial State”. Ghost Dog’s birds create a sort of aerial ballet, which he directs with a red flag stuck into the end of a rough piece of waste wood. In some scenes, the pigeons swoop overhead while he practices his swordsmanship, lunging and bending his body in rhythm with the soundtrack by RZA.

Within this context, I was introduced to the Hagakure a practical and spiritual guide on the Samurai code of behavior by Tsunetomo Yamamoto (1659-1719), who was himself a monk and samurai. Comprised of brief anecdotes and poetic thoughts, the volume was initially circulated as a secret text. Here’s a favorite passage:

“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking.”

This insight frequently occurs to me in situations where some form of direct action must be taken, though a thorough soaking may still occur. More than a few times I’ve drawn upon this wisdom when making big (and small) moves in my personal or work life that required clarity, conviction, and decisiveness. One of best examples of this occurred five years ago when I ended a 13 year relationship, then left my home and teaching job at a college, because I needed to stop thinking about what to do and finally, and completely follow my gut instead. Very quickly, I fell in love and in 2014 we were married. All of this happened, by the way, because I found a 16 year old letter from this man. But that’s another story.)

In a similar spirit, this poem by Chase Twichell (a Buddhist) urges the reader to consider what holds us back, especially given the facts. I frequently share this poem at the beginning of a workshop I teach called The Human Pang: Writing About What Matters (you can join me for a two day intensive on this subject in April in northern Michigan).

Vestibule
Can’t we begin a conversation
here in the vestibule,
then gradually move it inside?
What holds us back
from saying things outright?
We’ve killed the earth.
Yet we speak of other things.
Our words should cauterize
all wounds to the truth.

from Dog Language (Copper Canyon Press, 2005)

When reading this with students, I challenge them to start real conversations in and between their poems. We talk about how to take the poem over the threshold, through the foyer, and inside. We talk about the ways in which we may be conditioned to keep what needs saying, to ourselves. Of course, most of the writers I work with desperately want to get past this filter, this barrier, to engage something more intimate, and even raw, with their art.

Maybe we all do. I tend to think we must.

Saying “especially now, at the end of the world” may sound melodramatic but we must also acknowledge that none of us can afford to waste any time. “Impermanence surrounds us,” says my Zen teacher. The time is now because the future isn’t guaranteed. Being present, which to me is the essence of being alive, means “in this very moment.” Do not hesitate.

In some cases, hesitation is a form of disavowal: of responsibility, of agency, and even of one’s truth.

I still have to ask: what holds us back?

There are so many stories worth telling; our own, as well as the stories of others who can’t always speak for themselves, or must do other things with their energy. I think of my friend Tim working on a documentary about the Flint water crisis in order to tell the stories of those affected by the poisoning, by the government, of that essential resource. And Lillie, an anti-racist organizer and educator in Kalamazoo, talking about race in America, and white privilege, and why we need to deal with this right now, not later. I think about my friend Teresa Scollon, teaching writing to veterans of recent wars, so that they can communicate their experiences. And I think about how I try to pay attention to the natural world in order to bear witness to it’s beauty, and vulnerability, and it’s realness, because some of us need ways to remember that there’s a whole world out there, away from commerce and screens and humanity. I try to write poems that evoke what else exists. I want them to do more than that, too.

On that note, here’s a meditation on inevitable death, and another encouragement to see Ghost Dog:

If you’re interested in upping your writing game, my third annual March 21 Day Poetry Challenge begins in three weeks, on March 1. This online, mentored writing experience provides daily writing prompts, email coaching, and a rich reading experience on our way to the Vernal Equinox: another sort of threshold. Enrollment is now open. Go here.

Addendum: Read Teresa Scollon’s new poem in response to the Flint water debacle here.

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