the best season of your life


Flowers in the spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
This is the best season of your life.”
Wumen Huikai (1183–1260) was a Zen Master famous as the compiler of and commentator on the koan collection, The Gateless Gate

This afternoon I have a memorial service for a treasured friend, Leslie, who is a member of my Support Group for People with Life Threatening Illness. She was dear and will be missed and my heart is heavy, much too heavy. Hence I am unable to bring you an American She-Poet, the usual Thursday post  … but look for one next Thursday.

Tomorrow (prescheduled): More on the interfaith eco-poetry slam that was held on June 30th in Israel.

A little bit of big wisdom, especially or activists, courtesy fo Michael Watson.

A little bit of big wisdom, especially for activists, courtesy of Michael Watson (Dreaming the World).

Carpe Diem.

MAXINE HONG KINGSTON, “Joy and beauty and delight!” … I Love a Broad Margin to My Life

Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940), Chinese-American atuhor, educator and activist

Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940), Chinese-American author, story-teller, poet, educator and activist

“Keep this day. Save this moment;
Save each scrap of moment; write it down.
Save this moment. And this one. And this.”  

Randolph College announced last month that Maxine Hong Kingston would be the sixth recipient of the college’s Pearl S. Buck Award. The ceremony will be held on April 20.

Pearl Buck and Ms. Kingston share the distinction of shining a light on Chinese culture. For Pearl Buck it was the Chinese people in their homeland and for Maxine Hong Kingston it is Chinese-Americans. Both are known for their activism and for their memoirs and fictions, Pearl Buck more for the later than the former I think.

What these women also have in common is poetry. Pearl Buck’s slender collection, Words of Love (John Day, Co., 1974), was published posthumously. Ms. Kingston’s I Love a Broad Margin to My Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) was the fruit of coming to terms with turning sixty-five.

As part of the two-week-long celebrations of my own birthday (61st) in 2011, the CitySon Philosopher took me to dinner one night at Cafe Barrone in Menlo Park, California. Afterward we went next door to Kepler’s Books – a favorite among family and friends, the local independent –  to hear Maxine Hong Kingston talk about what was then her new book. She is a “neighbor,” living only a few miles away in Stanford.

“Story gives form and pleasure to the chaos that’s life. By the end of the story, we have found understanding, meaning, revelation, resolution, reconciliations.” 

The book is a memoir in free verse, a long poem in effect like the old-country tradition of writing a poem on a scroll. Flowing.

“Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?”

Ms. Kingston immediately addressed the  issues of aging, both in her presentation and in the book itself. She talked about being superstitious and thinking that as long as she has things to write “I keep living…” She told of the origins of the title: Thoreau. It’s a line from Walden that, she says, also hangs framed over her desk.

She explained the Chinese custom of “writing poems back” and told of her dad who would write poems to her in the margins of her books. She was at that time translating these for publication, though that was never her dad’s intention. Or so I would infer. She encouraged us to write our own poems in the margins of her book.

Ms. Kingston stood in front of us, like a fragile little bird, reading excerpts from the book, delightful to hear in her voice. She is ten years older than me but we’ve lived through the same events and movements: civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, Iraq … and so on. She too is the child of immigrants. She sounds like a Buddhist, has the Buddhist sensibility: respect for life, for silence, for present moment.

When Ms. Kingston finished her presentation and Q & A, my son excused himself and kindly went to buy two copies for us. We stood in line with other guests, waiting for Ms. Kingston to sign our books. Every moment spent attending to writers of good conscience, talking about books and writing, is precious…even more this one, because I was with my son and the writer happened to be one with whom I share values, gender, and the context of time. She also is a mother with one child, a son.

Finally it was our turn: Ms. Kingston sat tiny and cheerful with pen in hand. She greeted us just as cordially as she had each reader throughout the long night. She wrote my name in bold sprawling black letters followed by “Joy and beauty and delight” and then signed her full name with “Hong” in hanzi (Chinese characters).

I wrote in my journal that night that “as long as we have cherished children, valued friends, conscientious authors and quality books, we have everything. Life is indeed joy and beauty and delight.”

As far as the book goes: The charm of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life is its gentle meandering. It made me think of the way books meandered before the modern preference for brevity and before computers and word processing and the ease technology brings to rewrites, cuts, and tight line-by-line editing … and perhaps needless to say, before life was so tightly packed with activity, rush and noise.

In her promising opening, Ms. Kingston is bemused in her self-awareness as she examines questions of aging, appearance, and vanity. As the book moves on, she blends nonfiction with fiction, a few references and viewpoints from characters that people her novels.

This long poetic memoir is a backward look at a time some might enjoy revisiting and others might want to learn about through the memory of one who was there. One of its strengths is the contemplation of life by a dedicated activist whose creative work helps the reader understand. I enjoyed the book, got value out of it; but I did feel rather like Ms. Kingston was putting on the unaccustomed robes of a poet and didn’t feel quite at home with this form.  Unlike other poetry books on my shelves, I suspect I’ll never pull it out for another read.

© 2016, essay and photograph of Ms. Kingston at Kepler’s Books on February 22, 2011, Jamie Dedes;  All rights reserved

Celebrating American She-Poets (4): Pearl Buck “Words of Love”

I give you the books I’ve made,
Body and soul, bled and flayed.
Yet the essence they contain
In one poem is made plain,
In one poem is made clear:
On this earth, through far or near,
Without love there’s only fear.

Essence by Pearl Buck, novelist and humanitarian

No one will think first of poetry when they think of Pearl Buck. She was primarily a novelist and memoirist. She did write poetry though and one collection was published. I consider her a sort of spiritual mother and so include her early in this ongoing Thursday series: Celebrating American She-Poets.

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) was born in Virginia, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She grew up in China and spoke Chinese before she spoke English. Her Chinese name was Sai Zhenzhu.

Pearl Buck was a prolific writer of novels and memoir who started publishing her stories and essays in the 1920s in popular periodicals of the day: The Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and The Atlantic Monthly. Her first novel was East Wind, West Wind (John Day Company, 1930).

Of her novels, The Good Earth is the best known. It won the Pulitzer in 1932. The focus of most of her writing was China and the Chinese. When Chinese-American author Anchee Min wrote Pearl of Chinaa fictionalized account of Pearl Buck’s life, she said that she was touched by the warmth and understanding with which Ms. Buck had written about Chinese peasants and their lives.

Pearl Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

To my knowledge, there is only one small book of her poems. The collection is titled Words of Love. It is simply illustrated with Asian art by Jeanyee Wong and was published a year after Ms. Buck’s death by the John Day Company, the publishing firm run by Pearl Buck’s second husband, Richard Walsh.

I found a copy of Words of Love in a used-book store some years ago. The poem quoted above is an excerpt. In brief, eloquent, deft strokes, Ms. Buck’s poems do indeed express the themes of her novels. I can’t help but wonder whether there might be more of her poetry stored in some university archive awaiting discovery by an ambitious student or devoted biographer.

Dust-jacket, Words of Love by Pearl S. Buck.

© 2016,  Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved; illustrations are in the public domain