Monasteries of the Heart

Old Monk's Journal: Journal Entry 236

I finished my daily conversation with Issa—I read one of his haiku in the book, The Spring of My Life, and then wrote a response-- and decided to have the next confab with Richard Wright, one of the pioneer literary voices for black Americans. He’s known for his groundbreaking books, of course, --Native Son, Black Boy--but also has a book of published haiku. In the year-and-a-half before he died at the age of 52, Wright began an almost obsessive writing of haiku, composing 4,000 of them in that period. He then chose 1500 of them for publication in Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon. I’ve never done these “conversations” with anyone but Japanese poets so I’m not sure how it will go. Here’s one

In the melting snow
That is tracked into the house
Is one green grass blade
--Wright

The snow melts
and I hear the bees
swarming in the distance
soon to arrive
filling me with hums and honey

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In case you’re wondering, I did mention in the last blog that maybe my eyesight could be helped by new glasses. But no, they won’t help. I need a cataract removed from my good eye and am waiting until my MRI next month to see if it’s worth undergoing the procedure.

Anyway, reading is easier on a Kindle and I just finished The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas by Mary Gordon. Gordon is such an excellent writer that it’s always a pleasure to be in her company. Her characters wrestle with moral issues and there’s never an easy answer offered but always a gem given to carry in your pocket. For example, the novella titled Simone Weil blends the historical character in a fictional setting—the story takes place during Weil’s final days of a four-month stay in New York. During the course of the novella Weill struggles to explain to a former student, Genevieve, why she must risk her life to stop Hitler and Genevieve contrasts that stance with her dying brother’s passion to live. Genevieve asks: “Which is greater, to be willing to die, or to fight death in the name of life.” That’s the pearl I put in my pocket.
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Watched the opening dialogue between Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the Golden Global Awards last night because they make me laugh hard and then switched to something else only to return when Jane Fonda was being presented the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment. Lucky me, because I didn’t even know she was getting the award. How good to see her with all grey hair, yet beautiful as ever. And then her inspiring and brave speech that stole the show—reminding her peers that their job is telling stories that change hearts and minds and challenging the show’s sponsors to make sure everyone’s stories are told.
I first met Jane when I brought her and Tom Hayden to Erie in the early 1970s as the opening event for our new nonviolence center. Needless to say, all hell broke out in Erie —parents taking their girls out of our high school, donors asking to be removed from our list, local college suddenly canceled the auditorium where she was going to speak, , horrid Hanoi Jane newspaper headlines—it was something.

We managed to find another venue for her talk and a couple hundred women attended a tea party with Jane at the monastery where she spoke about her experiences as a sex symbol in the movie industry, what it had cost her and how she was beginning to claim herself as a woman. I had a chance to talk with her alone when I drove her to the airport. She rang true to me. Did she participate in actions that were foolish, naive, and seriously harmful to some? Yes, and she was young and taken advantage of and she’s apologized for them. But she has never veered—she’s been on course for over 50 years-- from trying to make our human story a bit kinder, less violent, and more just. She has uncommon courage. When I listened to her talk last night, I knew my initial impression was on center: I could hear the temple bell ringing as she spoke.

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On the last page of the 25th anniversary edition of the literary magazine, Poetry East, its editor Richard Jones wrote this sonnet:

Sonnet from the Editor
Poetry East 1980 -- 2020

I have no manifesto, no radical plan
To save the world, no new philosophies,
Just my hand extended in friendship.
The challenge is unworldly: to be awake,
Aware of the way each moment connects
To art, to the past, and leads us to redeem
Language and make more songs—songs
About common little things—cups of pencils.
And noble songs about grief and beauty.
No one has ever asked me for the solution
To this hard life we are in. Why would they
And what could I say that might be of service,
Except that some have journeyed with me
In the work of poetry: beauty, mercy, and peace.
--Richard Jones

As I got older, I’ve asked myself many times “what was my life about.” Did it have a main passion or did I just wander without a compass, doing good things but holding no true north. And along comes Richard Jones and gives me the best answer yet. Maybe my life was about the work of poetry. And that work is: beauty, mercy, and peace. I almost levitated when I read that ending. Paltry as my efforts were, I did try to bring beauty to everything I wrote or edited, but especially to the inner city where I’ve lived and worked for over 50 years. As for mercy, of course—why else write newsletters and poems or open soup kitchens and hospitality houses if not to soften people’s hearts. And peace was the guiding light of my entire monastic life—how does one take the Benedictine motto Pax and move it into the violence-torn streets? So the next time I’m given a form that asks for my occupation I can write in the blank space: the work of poetry: beauty, mercy, and peace.

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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.

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