Monday, June 29, 2020

On Showing Up

Symposium Thursday…

A question, from somewhere near the back: “Who’s talking? What’s the topic?”

First there was the glare, and ~ just in case the glare didn’t say enough ~ then came the lecture.

On Thursdays, after core hours, the halls would start to buzz as the crew shuffled from the informal coffee reception in the faculty lounge, the offices, and the classrooms, and that buzz would move with it’s own peculiar energy toward the third-floor’s small, auditorium-styled classroom.

There were faculty and there were grad students ~ and depending on the topic, there may have been some inspired undergrads or folks from other academic departments too. We’d be in there for an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half, in a show of support for the speaker, the department, and for mathematics itself.

Well, at a minimum it was a show of support: I mean, there’s no question that the symposium was an opportunity for us to come together professionally as a community. But in reality, and more often than not, there would inevitably be something of interest for you.

The guest speaker was often a peer of a faculty member, likely a collaborator in some research. Sometimes, the speaker might be from industry or another department, highlighting some application of mathematics or an open problem they’re facing ~ a potential opportunity for research… The speaker might be a visiting alumnus, describing experience after graduation, and maybe even opportunities to join in. The speaker might be a graduate student highlighting an interesting problem or a prospective approach, or maybe practicing a talk to be delivered elsewhere, or maybe practicing standing at the podium and addressing an adversarial audience in preparation for a doctoral defense or even a teaching assignment.

The symposium was a lightweight way of introducing students to the foundations of academic community. There, we bring our thinking out from the shadows to see how it fares in daylight. There, we raise questions and we consider approaches. There, we solicit insight and find inspiration. There, we examine solutions with adversarial scrutiny. And there, we share and celebrate both individual achievement and collaborative successes.

For many, the symposium is the first glance into a world that exists alongside and a bit beyond the core curriculum, the exams, and the degrees.

But none of this happens without instilling the tradition.

None of this happens without celebrating the culture.

None of this happens if the doors aren’t opened for us.

And none of this happens if we don’t show up.

The cultures we create ~ and the cultures we ignore ~ will all be as present as you were as you take your place today at the podium.

Having set the stage, your time ~ begins ~ now.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Taking Refuge in the Storm

[I encourage you to listen rather than just read ~ the ambient rain and thunder are worthwhile.]

Last night I was planning to take this post in another direction, but the afternoon’s circumstances doubled-down … and now maybe that direction has proven more true.

I remember when I was younger, maybe 40 or so years ago, listening to the weather reports on the radio as a hurricane bore down upon our location. We were inland and out-of-the-way enough that hurricane season ordinarily brought at best some tired rain, maybe enough wind to fly a kite, and certainly washes of swampy humidity. That’s what made this one an event: This one, against all odds, persisted as it crawled up the coast and finally turned inward for its kamikaze run.

The weather radios buzzing with warnings to take shelter were suddenly overpowered by the intensifying wind. The skies turned dark as tall pines and hardwoods alike contorted in a macabre dance. Whether it was at my family’s prodding or due to a delayed re-acquisition of my senses, I don’t know ~ but I withdrew from my windowed overwatch and moved to the interior. I listened ~ and I felt ~ the storm washing through me with such power…

But there was no crescendo ~ no wild climax of nature. What followed was far more intriguing ~ something that I don’t know if I’d experienced prior. Years later in martial arts studies I’d learn the Japanese word zanshin ~ a certain residual, relaxed, and heightened awareness following the perfect execution of a technique. To an observer, it is done ~ but really it is not. The scene is still, yes ~ your opponent is down, but maybe not yet subdued. You remain connected to this moment and to your opponent until the energy is dissipated and the encounter finally resolved.

There was a sudden stillness and, upon opening the door, I saw there was sunlight as well. I wandered into the yard. .. and I wandered down the block. I wandered up and down the avenue, surveying uprooted trees and a few damaged roofs, the debris scattered indiscriminately. For maybe twenty minutes I wandered, appearing imperceptibly still on the scale of what passed, until the roar resumed and the darkness followed, the trees dancing in reverse as the scene unwound. The eye had passed ~ the stillness broken ~ as the storm retook control.

Yesterday I sat at the table’s head for an impromptu family lunch. It was loud and it was spirited ~ right until it wasn’t. There was an internal wind… and there was sudden darkness… and then there was a cold stillness. My wife was restrained in horror, my son looked for an escape from the table, and my daughter was in tears wondering what she had done wrong ~ and how she might resolve it. As her emotions railed, my own were absent; and as she lashed out, my verbal grip tightened. There was only zanshin ~ a very cold ~ and a very cruel ~ zanshin…

It took some time for us to sit down again and for her to ask ~ and for me to acknowledge ~ what repressed feelings ~ justified or not ~ that I may have brought to that encounter. In some reality, though, the awareness was there ~ and at any time, with that clarity, I could have released the grip ~ but I didn’t. Somehow, the energy was not yet dissipated ~ the encounter was not complete. To see it in any other light, I would have to ask whether I enjoyed the encounter as sport ~ or as prey… that somehow I used practices I’d honed for peace in some dark fashion.

The other night, I sat on the front porch beneath the overhang with an evening cup of coffee as a strong summer storm passed. I always find some peace in the power of lightning crackling and feeling waves of thunder washing through my core. Where others may sensibly retreat, I am routinely drawn to it. Maybe it takes me outside of myself for a moment. Maybe I feel the heightened awareness and the lingering connection ~ the zanshin. Maybe I see some hidden part of me, just below the surface, externalized, revealing itself to be recognized. Who knows? But whatever it is, it passes ~ and with it goes whatever dark part of me that I attached ~ at least for now. Or so I hope.

Monday, June 22, 2020

On Prayer

Before I begin, I pause with a silent prayer. It’s silent … but it’s not a secret … I mean, I’m telling you about it now … and I wouldn’t mind cluing you in on the words so you could use them too, but … really … there are no words. Instead, I’m looking for the silence inside that pause. It’s a moment to ground and center, to ensure my head is on straight before I begin. It’s a moment to ensure my intention is aligned. It’s a check that my ego is set aside. It’s a binding of my tongue that it not stray as the words depart my lips. It’s that last surrender to the faith that one who hears the words will find whatever message they are meant to receive, regardless of my own foibles and imperfections in their delivery.

And you know, maybe there is something that I would like to say ~ some insight, some lesson, some admonishment, something clever, or some other message that I want to convey, and maybe I even hope my thinking will benefit you ~ after all, that would probably make me feel pretty good too… But even if I can’t strip myself from the words, at least let me not stray so far from the course that what is meant to be heard is lost. Keep me at least pointed in the right direction ~ so that regardless of whatever I had hoped to convey, let me release what I was compelled to say and and let me depart that moment without the need to look back, without any question that some arrow found its target.

Maybe it’s some bastardization of Catholicism, Zen, and even Aikido practices, all mixed with a life’s experience plus a question, “Why?”, all resulting in some temporary understanding, but here’s what’s at the root: I do not pray for what I need. If there is a God, I trust this God knows me perfectly, to include knowing what I need. If God requires that I ask or that I explain, or insists upon testing me, then this God is not God. Similarly, I don’t ask to be heard or understood. I used to, but it was exhausting. A life of trying to be heard finds more who aren’t listening, and trying to be understood finds more who won’t understand. Instead, I remind myself that what needs to be heard and what needs to be understood will be. I’ll do my part in every moment, but it’s simply not up to me.

And when passions are roused and I am moved to speak or act, for better or for worse ~ I try to accept that my part in it all was fulfilled.

… and within that pause, maybe having found that silence, having set aside ego, having set aside the needs to be heard and understood, having set aside the concern that my delivery can affect what you hear at all, and having set aside my rationalization of it all, I end my prayer … and we are ready to begin.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Words Without Lineage or Legacy

About three years ago, I purchased a small, handheld video camera to carry around and record some thoughts. For the most part, it remained in a camera bag alongside a nice, handheld digital audio recorder that I purchased a few years prior to carry around record some thoughts… Yeah, you hear where this is going already, no?

All in all, the camera bag typically got more use holding those items than carrying them.  After all, it does require a dedicated effort to haul around that extra gear in day-to-day life ~ and besides, there was the smart phone, which does at least an adequate job of taking ordinary photos, videos, and simple voice recordings when the inspiration hits...

Still though, the cellphone lacks that certain gravitas I had in mind for those musings I imagined I'd want to record.  That level of importance would require forethought and preparation, assembling my thinking in advance, preparing the gear, ensuring I had a suitable place with adequate lighting for film and sufficient quiet for sound, all of that plus the necessary privacy to avoid interruption or heckling during the process. It would also mean I'd need to set aside the time alone afterward to process it all into something worthy of delivery.

In retrospect, I might have predicted that those items would never make it beyond the "script" stage ~ or, as I like to call them today, the "blog posts.”  Checking the stats, I see I have well over 300 posts here on Sword Mountain, spanning back about ten years, including around 25 posts living in the Drafts folder, likely not to be revisited.  Each post was either written for Sword Mountain itself or was an import from two or three other blog sites in consolidation.  There are still two or three other specialty blogs out there with unrelated content, each holding several large bags of words. There were also several social media accounts with everything from pithy nonsense to photos and video, most deleted or curated out of existence.  There are also several notebooks-slash-journals stacked here and there, many returned to the universe as burnt offerings from any number of the fire pits.  There were also computer files scattered about with similar content, most dragged & dropped into the trash can without the equivalent "in real life" satisfaction.

There is no shortage of my words scattered about, but as I grow older I become more keenly aware of the shortage of readers.  That became more pressing as I approached the age my father was when he passed and I reflected upon how little I really knew about him, now a man my own age, with his own hopes, dreams, sacrifices, achievements, and disappointments.  My purchase of that video camera was in part to help remedy that feeling, to help make the content more digestible in an era where it seems fewer read, but the habit didn't take hold.  Frankly, it left me feeling a little more removed from the people I would have liked to have reached.  So, instead, there were more posts to the blogs and more late-night scratching into notebooks with my cheap fountain pens.

My words ultimately are without lineage: They have no authority, nor anything else of note that compels anyone to read them.  Further, my words offer no legacy: They're just an ordinary fellow's musings without inherent value, inspiring no desire to possess them.  And all of that is... okay: I'll continue to write because I write ~ no big deal. Moreover, in retrospect, the lessons I took, for instance, from my father, were available precisely when I needed them, most well after his death, and few if any from anything he said or tried specifically to convey. That is the nature of these things, no? That may be the teaching for this lineage, and ~ as as legacies go ~ it’s received in time.

Now regardless of the words, there is still the voice. I’m reminded that, to some, it conveys more than any of my words ever could.  So I've taken to recording more as a practice.  Eventually, I may find my rhythm, improve both my delivery and my technical skills, and settle from pretentious delivery into conversational ease, 

And who knows? Maybe it will be heard. You know, like that tree falling in the forest. We’ll see.

In the meantime, listen to listen to this post, and check that YouTube channel to find some others that may be available.