Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: June 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Mindful Eating and the Kingdom of God

Here’s an odd sounding idea for you: Mindful Eating. Think of it in terms of the spiritual side of the Slow Cooking movement that’s been so popular the past few years. In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the practice of being completely in the present moment when you eat. I can hear some of you, especially those with young kids, laughing  now. Thay says, “In Buddhist monasteries, we eat our meals in silence to make it easier to give our full attention to the food and to the other members of the community who are present.” For the monks, it is a practice of appreciating the pleasure of community and the beauty of food to its fullest, in every moment. So each bite of food is chewed at least thirty times, and the person meditates on the blessing of food, the goodness of it, and feels compassion for those who are hungry.

That’s an amazing discipline, and when I imagine trying to do it when our kids were little, I too laugh. But Thay’s larger point in that chapter is about living in the presence of God. He ties that idea to the practice of piety. “Piety” is a much maligned word these days, probably due to our misunderstanding and misapplication of the Puritans’ use of it. Honestly, it’s a word I don’t like because of its unloving connotations for me. But Thay points out the importance of the word “piety” in Judaism, “because all of life is a reflection of God, the infinite source of holiness.” Buddhism has a similar concept based on the “interbeing” of all things. In the end, Thay defines “piety” as “the recognition that everything is linked to the presence of God in every moment.” Okay, that is a definition I can love and work with.

The reality is that everything is linked to God in every moment. Piety is our recognition of that reality. Not a one-time recognition, like “okay, I agree with that.” Not “being a believer.” Jesus said something about the demons believing. The Buddhist concept of mindfulness calls us to orient ourselves each moment to true reality, to be aware–when we breathe, or eat, or touch someone–that the Spirit is there, that each moment itself is a gift from God. I think of mindfulness as the mind full of ness (ness being the true nature of things–God as reality in every moment).

Thay points out that in Christianity the best example of this orientation is the Eucharist. “When we celebrate the Eucharist,” he says, “sharing the bread and the wine as the body of God, we do it in the same spirit of piety, of mindfulness, aware that we are alive, enjoying dwelling in the present moment.” I would add that it makes me stop and experience incarnation, the presence of God in that moment, in this world.

I’m going to finish with one last thought from Thay. After lamenting that humans often, instead of eating mindfully, simply “ingest” our worries and anxieties, he says, “If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, [those things that nourished the grain] and everything in the cosmos. We touch life, and we touch the Kingdom of God.”

And so we come full circle, back to Mindful Eating. The Kingdom of God in bread, meat, water, fruit, vegetables, wine. I think that’s a pretty good place to start.

 

Being a Doaks in the Ozarks and in Literature

The story “Being a Doaks and All” was first published years ago in The Rockford Review, and it was included last year in Yonder Mountain: an Ozarks Anthology, published by the University of Arkansas Press. Among my own stories, it has always been special to me, in part I think because it captures not just small-town life in the Ozarks, but also the inherent class divisions that exist everywhere, especially in small towns, where a person’s sense of self is formed by a  limited number of forces and those forces are powerful.

There are characters like this, a Doaks, everywhere, not just in the Ozarks. To some extent, we are all a Doaks, or have been at some point in our lives. The story is not very long, about a thousand words. Two young people, a chance meeting for only a couple of minutes. The shaping power of futility, fear, impotence, misunderstanding. The way we cope.

I’d love to hear what you have to say.

 

Being a Doaks and All

By Gary Guinn

The boy was fifteen, tall and thin, uncomfortable in town, where people stared at him, at the faded overalls that hung on him like a sack, at the worn denim shirt, the sleeves not quite long enough.

The girl walked up to him as he stood on the mercantile porch, waiting for Virgil. Her white blouse, clean and pressed, was tucked into the narrow waistband of a gray skirt. The lines of the pleats in the skirt dropped away from the curve of her hips. Her penny loafers were freshly polished.

“You’re a Doaks, aren’t you?” she asked. “What’s your name?”

He turned away.

She walked around to face him again, looked up into his eyes, daring him not to answer. “I said what’s your name?”

He looked at his feet, then glanced at the closed and silent door of the mercantile.

“You don’t look mean to me,” she said. “Ollie Delphia told me a body might better run up on a rattlesnake in a dry creek than meet a Doaks in close quarters.” Her brown eyes were steady and unblinking. “What’d she mean by that?” Her lower lip dropped in a moist curve beneath the slight shadow of her nose and the handful of freckles sprinkled high on her cheeks. The arc of flesh beneath her eyebrows rose above the long lashes.

His thin frame leaned slightly toward the alley that ran down the side of the mercantile, as if drawn to it by invisible wires, but he stood rooted to the porch, his face flushed and his ears burning. He remembered the slumped figure of his mama the day Virgil made her drive him to town, the only time he ever remembered her leaving the farm. Job Fincher had looked out the window of the butcher shop next to the mercantile and had come out and stood on the porch and wiped his hands on his bloody apron and looked at her through the windshield and smiled the smile of a man who knows some private joke. She had stayed in the truck, gripped the steering wheel and stared at the hood. The boy wondered if he looked that way now to the girl.

“Nate Farley says you can’t talk. Is that right?” The girl pushed her lips out. “Well? You can nod your head, can’t you?”

The words lay heavy in the base of his throat—that his name was Mason, that she was prettier than the women pictured on the covers of the magazines in the rack in the mercantile. He swallowed. Pleasant Varner, the schoolteacher, had stood over him, her arms folded in weary silence, her tired face saying that his resistance must be a perversity of stubbornness. A boy, no matter how shy, could speak out, if only he chose to do so.

The girl waited. His feet were brown with dust, and he wished he had worn his shoes. In the stinging absence of words he looked out at the street, across the square to the hotel, where Willie May Boseman had stood the day her husband Samuel was killed when he fell from the scaffolding there as Willie May waited for him to come down and eat the lunch she had brought. Mason had stood in the open square a few yards away, watching the men work. He remembered the look on Willie May’s face after Samuel fell, as she stood there without moving, holding the red bandanna, its corners tied up to make a sack for the lunch. The momentary quiet across which he looked at her. During the commotion that followed, he watched the impotent terror on her face as she stood unable to move. He wondered if he looked like that to the girl.

“It’s rude not to answer when you’re spoken to,” she said, “but I suppose you’ve never been taught any better, being a Doaks and all.”

The edge of the tongue-in-groove board at his feet warped up slightly, and he raked his toe across it. His eyes began to water, and he looked again at the alley.

“Mason!” Virgil Doaks’ voice from the doorway behind him made him jump. “Quit standin’ around like a jackass. Get in there and get that box of groceries.”

Virgil Doaks, thin and bent, carrying a tight gunnysack of grain on his shoulder, brushed past. His clothes hung on him like a scarecrow tilting in rocky soil. He dropped the sack over the side of the pickup bed and started around the back of the truck, past the bare bulb of the taillight and the rusted tailgate. The boy scrambled through the door of the mercantile to get the box. When he came back out and crossed the porch, he glanced at the girl, who stood exactly where she had when Virgil came out. Her eyes had narrowed.

“I see where you get your manners,” she said and tipped her head slightly toward Virgil.

As the pickup pulled away from the curb, it rattled and whined and spewed a swirl of blue-gray smoke. A thin stream of tobacco juice squirted like a silent exclamation through the truck window onto the street, and Virgil shifted the wad of tobacco to the other side of his mouth as the clutch banged against the bare metal of the floorboard and the gears ground together. On the movie marquee, “Afternoon Matinee 1:30” was spelled out in red slide-in letters. When the pickup stopped at the intersection, it groaned, and the boy watched the mercantile porch vibrate in the side view mirror.

When they got home, he took the box of groceries to the kitchen. His mama was nowhere to be seen. He slopped the hogs and searched the barnyard for eggs, looking in all the usual places—under the tool shed, in the feed trough, behind the broken stanchion, in the glove compartment of the DeSoto behind the barn. And in the hayloft.

He lay at the far end of a mountain of bales. Beside him a gray cat suckled four kittens, their purring vibrating in the heavy air. A fat blue fly buzzed lazily around the egg basket at his feet. He thought about the mercantile porch, about the girl. She asked him his name, and he told her without taking his eyes from hers. “Mason Doaks,” he said. The words came easily, like rain on the river, his voice deep and resonant. She looked down at her bare feet, unable to speak. He smiled and waved the fly away and watched flecks of dust float down the sun slanting through the gable window.

Living Buddha, Living Christ, Touching God

Touching God sounds like an absurd idea. People commonly claim that God has touched them, but I can’t remember anyone claiming he or she has touched God. I wonder, why not? If we claim God is alive, and if we are alive, why don’t we claim to touch God?

In Living Buddha, Living Christ, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explores the Trinity and the idea of touching God. Hang with me for a minute while I share a few of his observations. “When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. . . . To me, mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit. Both are agents of healing. . . . In the Bible, when someone touches Christ, he or she is healed. . . . When you touch deep understanding and love, you are healed. . . . The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, penetrated Him deeply, and He revealed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. . . . all of us also have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us . . . When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son.” Quite a statement for one of the leading Buddhist voices in the world.

I said at the beginning, “If we claim God is alive, and if we are alive, why don’t we claim to touch God?” Maybe the problem is not whether God is alive, but whether we are alive. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We always postpone being alive to the future, we don’t know exactly when.” Well, this is nothing new. We are aware of our human tendency to miss today because we are obsessed with the future. But listen to what he says next: “It is possible we will never be truly alive in our entire life.” That’s worth considering. Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, Julian of Norwich, and other great men and women have turned toward the simplified, slowed-down life to try to “be truly alive.” Think of Socrates’ “the unexamined life” and so forth. I’m not prepared to do what those folks did–become a cobbler, go to Walden, be the Gadfly of Athens, wall myself up in a room. But Thich Nhat Hanh says that even a schmuck like me can be truly alive: “The technique, if we must speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, that the only moment to be alive is the present moment.”

So we are back to mindfulness. “When you are really there,” he says (my italics), “showing your loving-kindness and understanding, the energy of the Holy Spirit is in you. . . . When the energy of the Holy Spirit is in us, we are truly alive, capable of understanding the suffering of others and motivated by the desire to help transform the situation.” Hmm . . . mindfulness . . . being in the moment . . . the Holy Spirit.

So is touching God an absurd idea? Do Buddhism and Christianity share something here? Can we touch God if we are not truly alive, and are we truly alive only in the present moment? Do we experience the present moment only through that deep awareness called mindfulness? Can we touch the Holy Spirit by practicing mindfulness (as opposed to the Holy Spirit touching us at any time, maybe the most unexpected and awkward times)?

When it comes to touching God, I am with this faithful Buddhist monk: “It is not a matter of faith; it is a matter of practice.”

 

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