Zhu Xi: On Reading

2016 was certainly an interesting year, with a myriad of personal highs and lows I won’t bore you with now. One of the central themes of the back 9, as it were, was a deep dive into Eastern religion, philosophy, and meditative practice. I’ve written quite a bit on this personally, both as assignments for class and in my own ongoing notes… and it’s time to share. Here’s an entertaining introduction to “close reading” and the struggle goal-driven Americans may encounter on their path to embracing the Meditative state. Enjoy! 

 

Instructions for the Assignment:

2. Select a text (1-3 pages) – this could be a primary text we have read this year, a selection from the standard works, another religious text or almost anything.

3. Create a plan to read this text as a transformative experience by becoming intimately familiar with it. This plan should have at least three activities completed on three separate days. (examples might be: read the text slowly, out loud, in a place of complete silence, with a specific body position/posture, during a media fast; record yourself reading the text and listen to it; find and read different editions or translations of the text; read the text in the original language or another language; copy the text in your own handwriting; make a small section of the text a mantra repeated out loud and silently throughout the day; read the text with others; read a commentary of the text; read all footnotes and cross references in the text; mantra meditate with a word or phrase from the text; memorize a portion of the text; journal on a single sentence, verse, or section; read the text 10, 20, 50 times; look up key words in the text in the OED or specialized dictionary; etc.; etc.)

From the moment I read the assignment, I knew I wanted to choose a text set to music. Unfortunately, Justin Bieber’s latest single resonated with me on a deeply personal level and I had in on repeat for a solid week about a month ago. A couple things to note about this song before we get started: 1) it’s a complete departure from his usual sugar-pop attempt at “bad boy” music with an even-keeled tempo and melody, simple guitar accompaniment, almost passive in nature 2) it’s fairly well-accepted that the phrase “love yourself” is a euphemism for “go <expletive> yourself.”

Having not listened to the song in several weeks, I started first with the lyrics. I pulled them up on Google Play Music and AZ Lyrics. Comparing the two side-by-side I noted striking differences in their format, structure, and punctuation. For a couple days on end, I read the Google Play version through three times each day. However, I noticed the silent reading wasn’t matching up with the feel of the song in my memory. For the few days, I listened to the song on repeat as I drove down the canyon to school. This was better, but part of me felt like Justin’s completely emotionless delivery of the lyric was also depriving it of something. So, for the next couple days, I listened to the song while looking at the lyrics and transcribing them myself. Adjusting punctuation and indentation on the page, I finally arrived at the written version of these lyrics I felt conveyed the emotion of the words and matched the meta message of the song. Here it is:

Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself

For all the times that you rain on my parade, and all the clubs you get in, using my name…

You think you broke my heart? Oh girl, for goodness sake! You think I’m crying on my own? Well I ain’t.

And I didn’t wanna write a song…  ‘cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care – I don’t!

But you still hit my phone up… and baby, I be movin’ on and I think you should be something.

I don’t wanna hold back, maybe you should know that:

  • My mamma don’t like you and she likes everyone!
  • And I never liked to admit that I was wrong.
  • And I’ve been so caught up in my job, didn’t see what’s goin’ on.
  • But now I know– I’m better sleepin’ on my own.

‘Cause if you like the way you look that much, oh baby, you should go and love yourself!

And if you think that I’m still holdin’ on -to somethin’- you should go and love yourself.

But when you told me that you hated my friends, the only problem was with you and not them.

And every time you told me my opinion was wrong, you tried to make me forget where I came from.

And I didn’t wanna write a song… ‘cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care – I don’t!

But you still hit my phone up… and baby, I be movin’ on and I think you should be something.

I don’t wanna hold back, maybe you should know that:

  • My mamma don’t like you and she likes everyone!
  • And I never liked to admit that I was wrong.
  • And I’ve been so caught up in my job, didn’t see what’s goin’ on.
  • But now I know– I’m better sleepin’ on my own.

‘Cause if you like the way you look that much, oh baby, you should go and love yourself!

And if you think that I’m still holdin’ on -to somethin’- you should go and love yourself.

For all the times you made me feel small…. I fell in love; now I feel nothin’ at all.

I never felt so low when I was vulnerable; was I a fool to let you break down my walls?

And I didn’t wanna write a song… ‘cause I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care – I don’t!

But you still hit my phone up… and baby, I be movin’ on and I think you should be something.

I don’t wanna hold back, maybe you should know that:

  • My mamma don’t like you and she likes everyone!
  • And I never liked to admit that I was wrong.
  • And I’ve been so caught up in my job, didn’t see what’s goin’ on.
  • But now I know– I’m better sleepin’ on my own.

‘Cause if you like the way you look that much, oh baby, you should go and love yourself!

And if you think that I’m still holdin’ on -to somethin’- you should go and love yourself.

 

Once that was complete, I spent the remainder of the time reciting my written version of these lyrics to myself. There are still a few places that are awkward on the first pass, but with each successive iteration, the words become more and more my own. I address them to the person who deserves them, and even reversing the gendered pronouns to match my situation. I did notice as they became mine, my residual anger towards this person resonated through the text, which is something I didn’t fully anticipate. This was brought into stark contrast when the song came up on shuffle in my car without warning and the song sounded wholly different from the lyrics I’d been reciting. I was struck by how much Justin did NOT care and I still did.

I returned to Zhu Xi and noticed the directive he gives in 4.20: “Read little but become intimately familiar with what you read; experience the text over and over again; and do not think about gain. Keep constantly to these three matters and nothing more.” Some further insight is given in 4.21, which is paraphrased below:

  • Read little but become intimately familiar with what you read
  • Don’t scrutinize the text, developing your own far fetched views of it but rather personally experience it over and over again
  • Concentrate fully, without thought of gain

Using this as a rubric, I’d give myself 5/5 on following directive number one, 0/5 on directive number two, and a 4/5 on directive number three. There was a brief moment where I contemplated emailing this to him, posting it passively-aggressively on Facebook so he would know it was meant for him but no one else would, or just straight-up texting it to him with no further explanation. But! I realized soon enough that all three of these scenarios would be reading with thought of gain.

Finally, in my return to Zhu Xi I came across this verse which made me throw out this text entirely as one worth “reading”:

4.41 “The value of a book is in the recitation of it. By reciting it often, we naturally come to understand it. Now, even if we ponder over what’s written on the paper, it’s useless, for in the end it isn’t really ours.”

The Place to Go

A bone-chilling rain trickled down the concrete walls of a parking garage on Condo Row. My father’s words rang through my ears: “Pack your things, I’ll be there in 24 hours.” A string of impetuous decisions led me to this point, where negotiating with my father was simply not an option. I was sent south to Texas to pay penance and to find my own way.

Five years, a mission to Taiwan, and a successful career in Compliance Consulting later, I had a radical thought: it’s time to go back to school. I met with several admissions counselors at schools in Texas, but each time I walked away with that gut feeling that something just wasn’t right. A well-connected friend offered to set up a meeting with the president of a university system in his Houston office. I agreed. The day was overcast, but clearing up and the view from the President’s top-floor office over that particular part of town was familiar. We discussed goals and opportunities, he shared his vision for his students with me as I shared my vision for my academic life. Each point and parry perfectly complemented the other. I felt, for the first time, that this was the place. Then, the clouds cleared.

I saw what I knew was there: The Houston Texas Temple. The words of Erastus Snow to Susa Young Gates seemed encoded in the sunlight beaming off the Angel Moroni:

If you want to go to school, I’ll tell you the place to go, a school which has been founded and endowed by your own father and where you will not only be taught the different branches of education, but a place where the Spirit of God burns in every line and word spoken and written by its preceptor. A place where you can fill your soul with the rich light of the inspiration as well as crowd your mind with the learning of the ancients and the moderns. This is the Brigham Young Academy at Provo.

Blinking back tears, I returned my attention to the President. We wrapped up our conversation and I thanked him for his time. As soon as I got in my car, I dialed the BYU Operator and asked to speak with Admissions. My pounding heart drowned out the hold music. A flood of thoughts overtook my brain: what if they say no? What if I’m not good enough? What if Provo hasn’t changed? What if it has? What if I make the same mistakes? What if I fail? The student receptionist’s voice cut through the clamor, but I had no words. I hung up without speaking to her.

Susa Young Gates left Provo much like I did: banished from the Salt Lake valley in 1870 for a series of imprudent decisions, she made a stab at life in St. George. Married Dr. Alma Dunford at 16 and was “admittedly unprepared for marriage both psychologically and sexually.” She formalized their divorce five years later in 1877, the same year her father Brigham Young died. The year following was a time of confusion and heartache for Susa, then just 23. She received a scholarship to what is now the University of Utah, but her encounter with Erastus Snow changed the course of her life forever. With legal custody of only one of her children, she arrived at Brigham Young Academy unsure of her position and facing public humiliation. What if they said no? What if she wasn’t good enough? What if she made the same mistakes?

The evidence of her accomplishments suggests she pushed these fears aside and contributed more to BYU’s future than most. During her time as a student she taught music lessons and founded Music Department. Drawing upon her skills as Brigham Young’s secretary, she taught stenography. She also organized the Domestic Economy Department in 1896, and served on the Board of Trustees from 1891 to 1933. Although I don’t know what Susa’s actual answers to my fear-driven questions would be, she made an observation in her culminating work Women in History, which I can safely surmise was the driving force behind her daily triumphs:

Brave, self-reliant, intelligent, progressive [children] are not born to stupid, lazy, and ignorant mothers. The stream never rises higher than its source, and the source of life is life. Find a nation where men [and women] are intellectual, refined, progressive, courageous and wise, and there you will find mothers who have trained [them] to be such…

Back in my car, my phone sat in my hand still reading “Recent Call: BYU Operator.” I looked around and saw rain water dripping down the concrete walls of the parking garage. The irony was not lost on me and I squeaked out a half-laugh half-cry. I could not deny the direction God was pointing me in, but that didn’t make the prospect any easier. I took a deep breath and dialed the BYU Operator again. A few weeks later I was readmitted as a full-time student. I packed my things. I’d be there in 24 hours.

NOTE: Quotes and references are from Patricia Lynott’s dissertation, printed by Loyola University of Chicago

 

Does it still wave?

Yesterday, I came down off the mountain in an attempt to be productive. As I sat on the patio at Starbucks, three really fine men stopped to chat….. So it became unproductive real fast! 🙂 We chatted about life, the summer, and plans for this semester. Absolutely idyllic.

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The first is a bi-racial black man whose single mother overcame more hardship than one woman should have to endure in order to keep him alive, move across the country, and support him as a missionary in South Africa shortly after apartheid was lifted. He is in his junior year at BYU and his testimony is a featured story in “Meet the Mormons.”

The second is the son of Hispanic immigrants from the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. His mom worked as a taxi driver in New York City to put herself through school and his parents worked long hot days in the landscape industry in order to put their three kids into the best primary schools in Texas. He just accepted an offer as a software engineer at Pinterest after he graduates from BYU, with a significant signing bonus and relocation package.

The third is my cousin, the son of a farmer in the Columbia Basin. He and his brother will be the first college graduates in their family. His mother moved out to the middle of nowhere to support her husband who was cut off from the family through no fault of his own, worked long nights and years of drought to turn the desert of Eastern Washington into food on the table of every American. He just returned from a study abroad to Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand and is continuing his studies at BYU.

All of this transpired, of course, in a state founded by people seeking religious freedom– the same freedom the Pilgrims sought. But instead of finding a kindred spirit in America, the Mormon Pioneers found hostile mobs and corrupt politicians. They were tarred and feathered, humiliated, slaughtered, and forcibly driven from their homes onto the harsh plains and eventually settled in the deserts of then Mexico. Lives lost, bodies mangled, spirit all but broken these people made a life for themselves here isolated from the bigots who pursued them. However, when America asked for able-bodied men to fight for the same flag that kicked them out… They didn’t hesitate.

During this morning’s mediation, I was reminded that today is the 15 year anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the thwarted attempt on the White House. I reflected on where I was and the prayer our student body spontaneously held after hearing the news. I reflected on my trip to Ground Zero in 2004 and the gaping wound left in the ground and the heart of America. I reflected on my return trip to Ground Zero in 2013 to see the memorial and the ground that is sanctified by the blood of those who died. The opening prayer of Sacrament Meeting today invoked a blessing on the families of the victims, asking God to afford them peace and knowledge of the appreciation all Americans have for their sacrifice. The orator went on to invoke a blessing on the first responders and military personnel who’ve volunteered their own life in the days and nights since the Towers fell in order to keep the remainder of us safe and free.

As I scrolled through Facebook, the American flag was a prominent theme. I find it particularly interesting that September 11th falls smack in the middle of a few high-profile protests of said flag. While I respect everyone’s First Amendment right to freedom of thought and expression, I would just like you to take a moment to reflect on something beyond yourself. How did you get here? What sacrifices have your immediate family members made on your behalf? What about your extended family? Even more to the point, what did your ancestors suffer, endure, and ultimately sacrifice to provide this opportunity to you? How many have died for you to be sitting in the most powerful, most free country in all the world?

Notice, “most perfect” was not a descriptor nor has it ever been. In fact, the phrase “a more perfect union” is the sole premise upon which this country was founded. That word “more” implies imperfections, failings, infirmities, inequalities, injustices… opportunities for improvement both small and great. We all inherently know we can do more, we can be more. So, now that you’ve redundantly pointed out the problem…. Why don’t you stand and present a solution?

The families of the three men mentioned above didn’t sit around and point out the terrible, unfair hand Fate dealt them. Instead, they saw in American a solution. The opportunity to work, to move, to plant. The flag represented the sacrifices of any and all who’ve come before them, to lay down their lives in order to build a country where change of station and situation is possible. The flag represents the hope for a brighter future. The flag represents the sacrifice required of you to make that dream a reality for yourself and those who are coming after. Make sure that when the next generation has cause to ask “Does that star-spangled banner yet wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?” the answer is a resounding YES!

An Inheritance Worth Designing

As any of you who even casually follow me on social media are well aware, I have a cousin named Nathan. I affectionately refer to him as is “The Plant Man,” a title I know he secretly loves! What you may not realize is that more than just making me read Michael Pollan books, teaching me Latin names of green things, and trying desperately to keep me from over-watering my house plants… he does actual work in an actual industry. He is graduating shortly with a degree in Horticulture from Brigham Young University – Idaho. In the course of putting together his portfolio he asked me to help with his “About” page.

Additionally, my sister Lisette Oler is writing features for the Life & Arts section of The Daily Texan. In editing her stories and discussing pitches with her, we’ve come to the same realization: people are fascinating! Feature-writing gives an opportunity to really dig into one person’s story and see what makes them tick, what gets them out of bed in the morning, what drives them to improve and progress at all costs.

Often these people are too busy changing the world to make much of a fuss about it. Thank heaven for the rest of us, who sit on the sidelines in awe of their creativity, focus, passion, and perseverance. The story-tellers of the world, whether like me who are commissioned for specific pieces or like my sister whose higher calling is journalism, have the best job in the world: to celebrate the struggles, the heart aches, the triumphs of those around us and try humbly to capture this living moment with a two-dimensional, monochromatic thing called the written word. When we finally depart this earth, often the written word is the only thing that survives us. This inheritance of ideas, this legacy of story is what ties us together as human beings across generations.

Without further adieu, here’s the text in its entirety:

Nathan Marcusen believes three things: A landscape designer acts as a steward of the Earth, good design seeks to elevate the industry, and a landscape should be inheritable.

     Stewardship over the Earth is a conscientious approach to meeting client’s needs and society’s needs at large, while preserving natural processes.

     Designs elevate the industry by not using the same 10 plants in every design, incorporating native and xeric elements of the surrounding area, and providing clients with more environmentally sound plant options.

     Inheritability is the future sustainability – allowing your children and grandchildren to enjoy the seeds you planted. These three elements work in tandem to inform each of Nathan’s designs, interactions with clients, and progression in the design industry.

During his early years, Nathan’s family moved into a new house in Eastern Washington. His mother asked each of her sons to pick out a house plant to fill the empty space by large windows. He chose an Hoya carnosa and was fascinated by its growth. 15 years later, the Hoya has completely taken over the archway into the living room. Through new purchases, cuttings, and trades with other horticulturally minded travelers the space by the windows is a full-grown greenhouse.

Nathan’s interest in plant life seemed always checked by water availability in the Columbia Basin, an irrigation project spearheaded by the US Government in the early 1940s. This water-consciousness of design proved its worth during an internship with All Seasons Landscaping. A major big-box retailer contracted All Seasons for the landscape design and construction of their first store in the region. From the start, the project faced two problems: 1) no naturally occurring water on the property 2) in order to pump significant amounts of water to the property, the city would have to dig up a road and extend the water main. Nathan pitched a xeric landscape to the project manager, who approached the client. The client loved it and as the installation was completed, the Mayor of the city congratulated All Seasons on what he felt was the future of landscape design in their drought-afflicted area.

Whether restricted by desert, economic situation, or urban living, Nathan understands not everyone has the luxury of a typically suburban back garden to prune and fuss over. Public green spaces are in serious need.  Landscapes contain the power to rejuvenate, enliven and even feed people and other vital organisms in the food chain who spend time there. They should start a conversation before any words have been exchanged.

 

Contracted to design for a homeowner whose property backed onto a protected wetlands area, Nathan’s firm proactively reached out to the government organizations responsible for the space. They checked and cross-checked each plant option and made necessary design edits to ensure no invasive or non-native species could be introduced from the private property into the wetlands. This is basic stewardship, to take responsibility and follow through on doing what is best for the larger ecosystem.

“The green industry should advocate for both social and environmental needs in every interaction with clients, government, and the public. Making sound choices for the land that the client lives on falls upon us. We are there to educate and have the power to create sustainable trends in society. We are sometimes the only interaction clients have with someone who knows how to conserve energy and water in meaningful ways. We can influence people to trend in the right direction. ”– Nathan Marcusen

Nathan’s designs subscribe to the “strength in numbers” philosophy and consistently show that low-maintenance design does not equal a monoculture. “The Stella D’oro Daylily is nearly bullet-proof,” Nathan exclaims often, “but it’s completely useless to pollinator species who are increasingly relying on urban landscapes to sustain themselves and the growing human population.” Even in high school, Nathan experienced first-hand the dangers of monoculture. In addition to the potager garden he designed, his family wanted to grow pumpkins. 100 feet to the east of the potager, he planted a healthy collection of pumpkin and squash. Within weeks of producing fruit, squash beetles moved in and decimated the crop. Meanwhile, the zucchinis and cucumbers planted among the diversity of the vegetable, herb, and wildflowers in the potager continued to thrive.

No matter the project, client, or personal interaction Nathan makes decisions consistent with these values and experiences. As a member of a design team, he brings a depth of knowledge and a conscientiousness unmatched by peers. He lives for cutting edge design, unique approaches to the usual problems and has found the best source of inspiration is Nature herself.

A Short Word on Friendships & Canals

Have you ever just sat on a canal bank and watched the water swirl by? Maybe that’s a little too country for y’all…. But picture any body of water that moves linearly and you’ll catch my meaning. The river is and always will be there, however the water you’re watching isn’t the same water you’ll see in even the next 30 seconds. You’ll never see that particular patch of water again, actually.

January 2007, after a dismal semester of college, I moved in with my paternal grandmother in Idaho Falls, ID. We agreed instead of burning through time and money to “discover myself” it would be more productive to just take some time off school and work. There were, of course, conditions of living with her. Paramount was church attendance. To her credit, she was cognizant I also needed a social life so she reached out to the single son of a fellow church goer and ask him to take me to the singles congregation.

By the second Sunday, I opened the door to a tall, handsome stranger. He grinned like an idiot and chatted all four blocks down the road to the building the singles met in. This congregation consisted of eight individuals on a good week, and we all became fast friends. There wasn’t a single day for the rest of that winter and summer that we didn’t get together.

To this day, that summer was perhaps the most idyllic – a pleasant rhythm developed of watching the old school X-men cartoons, kicking stones and shooting the breeze around the canal that ran between our houses, Sunday game nights, group dinners, romances, dramas, breakups, healings, apologies, adventures…. We had it all.

Near the end, there was one Sunday afternoon walk along the canal that I couldn’t shake this feeling: none of us will ever be here again. Not together. Not like this. Later that week, a few of us announced our plans to move, others confessed they’d already registered for classes at schools out of the Snake River plateau area, and one-by-one we voiced what we already knew. We all got a bit misty eyed and watched the sunset, listening to the gurgle of the canal and recognizing that our run between the banks of Idaho Falls was coming to an end.

Roots

This may sound like a terrible joke…. but White Mormon Chick walks into Powell’s Books in Portland to find Roots by Alex Haley on the Staff Picks shelf. For $8.98  and no sales tax (love Oregon) no less! I committed. I’ve got a family history tour of small-town courthouses across the Western United States with my 88 year old Grandma looming ahead, and Roots is dense enough to be a welcome travel companion. And you, lovely reader, get to come along for the ride.

Let’s set some expectations:

1) I know nothing about this book, other than everyone who’s read it is surprised that I haven’t, and it stands as a pivot point for the black community in America. I perused the Wikipedia page on it, but haven’t done more research than that. I’d love to make observations and first impressions with you as we read it before digging into other’s critiques.

2) I grew up in the suburbs of Houston in an arguably well-off neighborhood and definitely one of the best school districts in Texas and the nation. Our high school was brand new my freshman year and pulled from the three other high schools in the district to create a scant Sophomore and full Freshman class in 2001. This meant students from the mostly black and Hispanic school closer to downtown, from the upper-class Asian and White high school, and the redneck high school out in the sticks were coming together for something other than rivalry football games. Ours was the most diverse and the highest academically achieving school in the district within the first year. And after a few fumbling years of Freshmen playing Seniors, we outstripped the district in football, too! Looking back at my high school year book, I’m surprised by how diverse it really was. This may be a musing for another time, but what gave me pause was the fact that the diversity didn’t register while I was in high school — we were all just students.

3) We’re living in an America that is more racially divided than — I’ll just go ahead and say it — we have ever been before. At least in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s day there was a clear Us and Them. Today we’re facing down a multi-barreled blunderbuss. Black Lives Matter makes headlines, but there’s a growing sector of black community publishing blogs and YouTube rants against BLM. There are black police officers who don’t know who to stand with. There’s a vast majority of white people (also a blog post for another time…. but we should dive into what it means to be “white”) who claim they aren’t racist, but are being shot down by the advent of the “microaggression.” There are some white people who are racists. There are some black people who are racists. There’s widespread corruption no matter your skin color. And Asians? Silently taking over Harvard, MIT, and Silicone Valley? We’ve also got more illegal immigration on our hands than ever before pitted against legal immigrants — who is entitled to access to the American Dream? How do you profile the brown people you know? The profiling Muslim-Americans and others of Middle-Eastern descent face is fodder for a whole other blog.

4) Before I offered any opinions on the current state of the Nation, I decided (with the help of Powell’s books) to do what any upper-middle-class, educated woman would: read about it. After Roots, I’ve got some Ta-Nehisi Coates to read but I’m also taking suggestions. What have you read recently on race relations in the US and what did you learn? What did you change about your daily behavior?

I’m opening the conversation here to all who wish to contribute. That being said — rudeness is NOT next to Godliness. Keep your comments civil and like my 2nd Cousin Suzy said recently: We all have college degrees, so I’m certain we can have a good discussion about this sensitive topic.