Bob Schwartz

Month: May, 2017



After dreams
These are the words
That wake:
All is

Note: The word hevel is Hebrew, found in the famous first words of Ecclesiastes. “Hevel hevelim, amar Koheleth, hevel hevelim, kol hevel” is best known in English as something like “Vanity, vanity,  says the Teacher, all is vanity.” But as with so much mysterious biblical Hebrew, translators still work on English approximations, of which “vanity” is only one attempt. You will also find hevel translated as air, vapor, breath, mist, smoke, futility, meaningless, pointless, useless. This can put the supposed pessimism of Ecclesiastes in a different light. How can breath be useless?



Stop your sighing
You will scare away
The birds

Naked Religion

All religious traditions dress you up so that you can go naked.

Take Zen, which contains the most stripped down of all practices. No concentration on a word or phrase or image or thought. Just sitting and breathing, and not even concentrating on that breathing. But even Zen has developed other aspects, including work on koans—stories to be considered and answered or not answered—along with other approaches. Not to mention other Buddhist traditions, which have plenty of added colorful elements, practical and textual, aimed at cultivating the individual.

The same goes for other traditions: Judaism, Christianity, etc., in various forms and versions. Lots of things to do, read, think and look at, some it very complex or spectacular. There can be confusion engendered by the complexity and spectacle, as if those are the point and the object.

The point and the object is none of that, as a careful listen and glimpse will tell you. Naked you come and naked you go is more than an apt description of your life on earth. It is the mission of the religions, though even the traditions themselves can get lost. Whatever your tradition, whatever you behold and hold dear and essential, that is not it. You were never meant to be dressed in the particular costume, though it may seem fitting and attractive. You were meant for the humble simplicity of spiritual nakedness. Just the way you came.

Wisdom Is Where You Find It

Wisdom Is Where You Find It

Wisdom is here
Where you find it
Collect everything
Discard everything
Still everything remains
One thousand and one sages
Advise you
Then disappear
Leaving you with empty shelves
And the world

Night Bird Still Awake

Night Bird Still Awake

Opening the window an inch
It is as if
That bird alone is
Bringing the night
Into the dark room
Or has the solo song
Taken me out?

Be Peace

6 Long has my whole being dwelt
among those who hate peace.
7 I am for peace, but when I speak,
they are for war.
Psalm 120, translated by
Robert Alter

Terror in Manchester is one more shattering note in a cacophony of mindless aggression. News of the nation and the world attests to it, from nasty tweets by so-called leaders to torturers and mass murderers. We dwell among those who hate peace.

In Psalm 120, Robert Alter translates the Hebrew ani shalom in verse 7 as “I am for peace”:

The Hebrew appears to say “I am peace,” but, without emending the text, the most plausible way to understand these two words, ani shalom, is that they function as though there were an elided “for” (in the Hebrew not a word but the particle l’).

I dare not take issue with Alter, the great modern translator of the Hebrew Bible, but merely want to extend a thought. If the Hebrew appears to say “I am peace”, maybe that is precisely what it means to say.

Being for peace is a start and an essential part. Being peace is one step beyond this, where there is no space between us and the peace we seek. One step toward that elusive peaceful world, in spite of those who hate peace.

Diminished Capacity for Wonder

“Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away.”

This from David von Drehle in Time, about the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years:

Though it might sound quaint, there was a time when people could be astonished.

Before super­computers fit into shirt pockets and Presidents tweeted. Before moving pictures were beamed through the air. Before moving pictures.

Not only could people be astonished—they enjoyed it. Loved it enough to pay for it. And so businesses sprang up to meet the demand. The astonishment industry was called the circus.

And what an industry it was. Picture yourself in a quiet American town of ordinary people doing nothing even remotely astonishing. One day, a couple of strangers show up with handbills and paste to cover the town with circus posters. SEE the fearless lion tamer. THRILL to the death-defying wire walkers. GASP at the woman on the flying trapeze. Your brain did the rest. By the time the circus arrived via boxcar or truck, you were desperate to have your mind blown. Elephants—real, live elephants, thousands of miles from Africa or India—pulled the ropes to raise the tents. Inside you would see a man ordering tigers around, women poised on the backs of cantering horses, human pyramids walking on high wires with nothing to catch them if they fell.

On May 21, the most famous circus of all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will end its 146-year run, not with a whimper or a bang but mostly a shrug. Death has been a long time coming. A company press release put much of the blame on the recent decision, made under pressure from animal-rights groups, to stop using elephants as performers. But in fact, the Greatest Show on Earth has been headed for this day since the 1950s, when the same force that killed vaudeville—television—drove the storied operation out of its vast canvas big tops and into ho-hum auditoriums and arenas….

Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away. Sex is everywhere, and entertainment is on demand. Nostalgic parents have been struggling for a couple of decades to hide their disappointment from their children after seeing what the circus has become: a deafening soundtrack of recorded music backing a dull program punctuated by strobe lights, foreshortened performances cut to Internet attention spans, a rip-off of $6 sno-cones and $20 flashlights.

Meanwhile, the children have been struggling to understand why their parents would care. Nothing can compete with the circus that they hold in the palms of their hands.

I saw a lot of things at the circus. I saw a man shot out of a cannon, and much more. I was little and could not imagine all the things I would later see—in the world, in my mind, on a screen. We don’t always recognize the things that shape and twist us. Maybe the circus gets some of the blame or credit. Either way, it was wonder full.

People Evolve Slower Than Things

People evolve slower than things. Sometimes much slower.

This is not the only or ultimate key to understanding this modern world.

But faced with one puzzle after another—How could this be happening?—it explains a lot.

People evolve slower than things.

American Dislike of Studying History and Government Comes to Haunt Us

I have loved reading about American history and government since, well, since I have been reading. I was an officer in our high school Future Voters of America club, and I was a delegate to a mock presidential convention. A nerd then, and maybe still.

That is not typical for a large number of Americans, who seem disinclined to read much (and that is read, not just listen or watch) about these subjects. Partly that is because these subjects are usually required in school and are not always very well taught, with all due respect to those who have the sometimes thankless job of teaching.

My high school American History teacher was also our basketball coach, a decently smart and affable guy who happened to have been given one of the all-time exciting American History textbooks to teach from: The American Pageant, which thanks to the unique approach of its original author, historian Thomas A. Bailey, remains in print in its 16th edition. It was, and hopefully still is, one of the most fun reads of any textbook on any subject. Yes, I said “fun.” Without speaking for my classmates, I was excited to read each chapter.

I don’t believe all Americans think of learning about history and government as fun. More like work, maybe hard and distasteful and avoidable work. Except that avoiding knowing history and government means that when, as can happen, things get way out of whack, you won’t recognize what is happening, or recognize that as a historical matter, the consequences may be unfortunate, if not dire.

As can happen, things may get way out of whack, and they have. Maybe those who find learning about American history and government useless might squeeze it into their busy schedules. Particularly if they love America, because as we know, true love means learning about the one you love.

Born Mothers

Born Mothers

For K, the MOAM

Those born
With a boundless heart
Give and suffer
Even as they sleep
Or don’t sleep
Vowing to make good better
Cruel less cruel
Children or none
All within reach
And the sound of her voice
Are hers.

© Bob Schwartz 2017