Zen Gardens of Albuquerque

I recently attended a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was my first visit to the city, which sits high in the mountain desert out in the American Southwest. I was busy teaching, and I didn’t see that much of the city. But on my first day, walking from my Airbnb in a residential neighborhood to a supermarket a few blocks away, I noticed how some of the gardens in front of the houses faintly resembled the famous Zen gardens of Japan. You know what I mean—rocks of varying sizes, arranged in attractive patterns that seem both formal and informal at the same time.

It’s easy to talk confidently about stuff you barely know. I do it every day. I like going on and on about Proto-Indo-European word roots, although I’ve never studied the subject in depth. I like saying I’m a Platonist (after the Greek philosopher of twenty-five centuries ago). I’ve only read one of Plato’s books, and I don’t remember a thing about it. But, hey, I’ve read Plato’s Wikipedia page! I like having opinions and letting them come out of my mind and mouth, and if my opinions bite me in the ass—well, my opinions are toothless. Their bite is more like a kiss. That’s right, my opinions can kiss my ass.

But I digress. I’m trying to say that I don’t know much about Zen. I’ve read books, I’ve sat on the floor, I’ve seen art exhibits of Zen calligraphy, I’ve actually visited the famous Zen gardens of Japan. But I’m not qualified to tell you “what Zen is.”

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An ancient law says that, once you acknowledge your own ignorance, you can speak freely. You’ve stated that you’re going to speak subjectively, approximatively, maybe incoherently. It gives you a certain distance from the subject matter and from your own ignorance. You claim no authority, and strangely this gives you a little authority. Yay, Zen!

One morning in Albuquerque I decided to go out and look at the same neighborhood again, iPhone in hand. The skies were clear, the streets quiet. For those of us fond of pithy poetic symbolism, we’ll tell a sweet lie and say that Zen is “clear skies, quiet streets.”

Albuquerque being a mountain-and-desert city, it’s dry by birth. Trees and flowers and shrubbery are totally unlike what you see in wet-by-birth Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Gnarly white-barked trees that receive gusts of wind and blasts of sand from the desert. And rocks. Lots of rocks. In Albuquerque, a rock is considered a plant. (That’s a joke, of course. We know that, properly speaking, a rock is an animal.) If you’re in sync with the environment, with the nature of the place, with the way the place was born be it wet or dry, then you’re Zen.

If Nature is the mother of Zen, then Craft is its father. (As you know, I’m making it all up.) Homes, sidewalks, walls, street signs, patio furniture: I saw signs everywhere of human attentiveness and care, human skill, human love. The thing is, too much care kills Zen. It’s the paradox at the core of healthy life: think and don’t think, watch and don’t watch, nourish and let go. Up and down those city blocks I saw evidence of this balanced approach.

What happens when Nature and Craft intertwine? Nature shines herself on a canvas that Craft built, and on that canvas Nature projects forms, shapes, shadows that move and breathe. Trick question: How hard is Nature trying to create exquisite beauty? Let’s say that Zen is an intelligent answer to a dumb question.

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There’s the thing, and there’s your perception of the thing. They may or may not be related. As we say in Amharic, ውበት በተመልካቹ ዓይን ውስጥ ነው (wibeti betemelikachu ‘ayini wisit’i newi). Google Translate helpfully tells us that this means “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Is Zen a thing, or a perception of a thing? Before answering, we’d need to find out whether this is an actual question. Let’s give a non-answer to this maybe-question. On Saturday, March 9 2019, starting at 8 AM and for about one hour, I went up and down seven city blocks in Albuquerque, New Mexico, taking snapshots quickly and without too much calculation. It felt good.

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©2019, Pedro de Alcantara

The Other Family

The word “family” comes from a Latin root meaning “servant, slave.”

You never know if the guy you’re talking to is telling you the absolute truth or an abject lie. For once, though, I’m telling you the absolute truth—which I found on my favorite website, www.etymonline.com.

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Words are like people: they change and grow, and sometimes you can’t recognize them anymore (particularly after you haven’t seen them for five centuries). Although we might claim, half-jokingly, that some family bonds recreate master-slave relationships, we can safely say that “slave” as the original meaning of the word “famulus / family” has long disappeared from our awareness. And if we aren’t aware of something, it doesn’t exist for us.

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These days, when we think “family” we tend to think first and foremost of our immediate blood relations: parents and grandparents, siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins. Starting from these immediate relations, we build a net that includes spouses, in-laws, the husband of the sister of your father’s brother’s wife, and a thousand other characters.

Like with so many symbolically powerful words, we also use “family” in a variety of meaningful ways. For instance, the violin family of bowed instruments, which includes the violin itself, the viola, the cello, the bass, the gamba, the rebec, the baryton, the nyckelharpa, the dīyīngéhú, and—well, a bunch of others. But not the guitar; no, not the guitar. It’s not from our family. “Plucked,” not “bowed.” Let them pluckers stay with them pluckers.

Believe it or not, this post isn’t about slaves or pluckers. It’s about your other family. I don’t mean your wife number 2, about which number 1 knows nothing. I mean the men and women in your life to whom you feel very close, so close that you consider them like a brother, like a sister, like a father, like a mother; like an uncle, like an aunt, like a cousin . . . My mother’s best friend was like a sister to her; we children called her Auntie, and we made no distinction between her and the aunties with whom we shared biological ancestors.

This non-blood, non-biological, non-inheritance, non-tax, non- non-family is as real as the blood one. And, like the blood one, it comes with responsibilities and obligations. To begin with, we’re obliged to “be aware of this family, so that it exists.”

As an adult, I met a woman of wisdom and wit who’s been helpful to me over more than two decades. She’s a bit older than me, and she’s my favorite aunt.

In the past, I’ve blogged about my piano teacher Alexandre, who besides being a student of mine is also a friend and a beloved brother.

In the American hinterland there lives a cellist I’ve known forever. She gets me; with her, I can open up and babble on incoherently, and she’ll misunderstand me ever so tenderly. She’s a very special sister to me. And her husband too is my dear brother. Ops! Does that mean that my brother and my sister are in an incestuous marriage? Nah. It means I love the two of them, that’s all.

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My second family has about ten siblings and aunts and uncles, and maybe twenty cousins. They include an older brother in New York City, a younger brother in London, a brother in the Lake District, a sister in Paris, another sister in Paris; a brother in Massachusetts whom I haven’t seen in several years but with whom I feel permanently intimate and comfortable, a fellow in Glasgow, a fellow in Chicago, a brother in São Paulo—I mean, besides my four awesome flesh-and-bones blood brothers and sisters in São Paulo.

Guitars don’t belong in the bowed-instrument family, but guitars and violins do belong together in the larger musical-instrument family. Start thinking this way, and you’ll soon see that everything belongs in the everything family. Counting all souls past, present, and future, your family is pretty big. It’s a bit impractical to invite them all to the party, so we limit the invitations to what the party bus can hold.

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©2019, Pedro de Alcantara

Nobody understands me

Does every last person you’ve met in your life understand you perfectly?

I didn’t think so.

It’s a verified, clinical fact that to be alive is to be misunderstood. Come to think of it, to be dead is also to be misunderstood.

Needless to say, if people—many people, most people, almost all people!—misunderstand you, it’s likely that you, too, misunderstand other people, at least some of the time. Misunderstanding is give-and-take, his-and-hers, eat-all-you-can.

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Your take on life is subjective. What you think and feel comes from, let’s say, your heart—that thing that beats faster or slower depending on the weather, caffeine, childhood memories, the Zodiac, a pretty girl winking at you, and a thousand other psycho-chemicals. You look at me with your heart, and this means you don’t see me as I am . . . because your heartbeat distracts you. Ka-da-boing, ka-da-boing, ka-da-boing. Sometimes kadakada-boing. If it’s KAKAKAKA-boing, you need to see a doctor ASAP.

I wish I knew what I was talking about, but misunderstanding is oh-so-difficult to explain!

Life being complicated, we try to simplify it by creating categories and compartments. Here’s a category: “Brazilian.” “You’re Brazilian! You just love Carnival, the samba, hot weather! You’re a soccer fanatic!” No, no, no, no. I can’t stand hot weather. I’m a hypersensitive intellectual introvert snob. I hate Carnival and noise and crowds. “But you’re Brazilian! You party night and day!” Nonononono. “But you’re Braz-IL-ian!”

Facts don’t solve misunderstandings. Poor little facts. They don’t stand a chance against the kakakaka-boing.

Misunderstandings come as compliments and as insults. A musician I know is forever telling me marvelous things about myself. “You’re such a successful performer!” (I only perform three or four times a year.) “You must have a great manager!” (Whaaat?) “You should invest in real estate, with all the money you must make performing!” (Whaaaaaaat?) “I searched for you online and I saw a performance of yours in front of an adoring all-female crowd!” (Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?) This fellow likes thinking these thoughts about me, and he’s gracious and tender whenever he tells me about who I am and what I do. We get along fine, despite the misunderstandings.

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Years ago, a different fellow told me one day that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. The evidence? I was wearing an old hand-me-down cashmere sweater. It didn’t matter to him that it was an old hand-me-down, it mattered that it was cashmere. As we all know, only the rich can afford cashmere. Ergo! Bingo! Voilà! Ultimately, his thoughts weren’t really about me at all, but about something in himself. And this is how it works among human beings. Among dogs, too. Cats, not so much.

Misunderstandings come from taking things for granted. I have some dear friends who never ask me anything about my teaching or my writings or my travels. One of these friends assumes that I teach “posture,” and— “That’s what you do. Posture. You show people how to sit straight.” No, no, no! Kakakaka-boing! He’s a generous friend, and I love him to bits. I probably misunderstand his every breath, but that’s the give-and-take of friendship.

God whispers in your ears, and Ze says, “Hey, I’m sending you a gift, but you have to choose from these two fine options: Either everyone will understand you perfectly, or you’ll have creative tools to handle being misunderstood by everyone.” God has a sense of humor, doesn’t Ze? The choice is obvious! Who on Earth would ever choose to be perfectly understood? (Incidentally, “ze” means “soul” or “voice” in Albanian.)

Next time you see me dancing the Carnival in the height of summer, be a good Samaritan and shoot me dead. You’ll save me from being a stereotype. Then I can ascend to Heaven and meet God in person.

“Hi, God.”

“Pedro! What you’re doing here, right in the middle of Carnival???? Go back down to where you belong!”

And that’s why I keep getting reincarnated as a samba dancer: a simple but woeful misunderstanding.

©2019, Pedro de Alcantara