Tuning In

By Susan Schultz

Kodo Sawaki Roshi, the 20th Century Zen Master and teacher, wrote this about Zen meditation: “Zazen is to tune into the universe.” 

Susan Schultz, a long-time Zen practitioner, has tuned into the universe, as her Meditations clearly demonstrates. These prose poems, or as the publisher calls them “lyrical prose,” are arranged as a series of introspective diary-like entries over one year from the end of 2019 until December 2020. While a companion piece to her earlier Lilith Walks [reviewed in Cable Street, Issue 3], with Lilith, our favorite literary canine still leading Schultz around her Hawaiian haunts, Meditations is darker, enveloped in the disturbing realities of the onslaught of Covid, death and dying, fractured personal interactions and Trump-induced political divisiveness.

To her credit, Schultz does not shirk from what she observes and feels but is willing to dive deep into most everything she encounters, both inside herself and outside. Or as she puts it: “Association involves images disguised as words, their surfaces burning like plastic in a new toaster oven.” A keen interpreter of what comes in, of what she comes upon, each revelatory entry becomes an insightful commentary on fear, anger, despair and from time to time, even the little miracles of dailiness. The overwhelming dispatches, however, are somber, often flowing from the general to the particular: “[A] sharp blade pricks when another dog walker crosses the street to avoid me. My breath might contain death. I am but a carrier; the virus is agent, and we its subject. This sentence doesn’t happen at once. I reconstruct cause from effect and keep walking the dog.”

Schultz doesn’t seem to miss anything. She even presciently speaks of wild fires: “Some species may be rendered extinct by the bush-fires. To be going extinct. What tense is that? The continuous perishing.”

The sheer weight of bearing witness without being able to change the outcomes is a constant source of anguish: “95 thousand dead and no word. Words uttered are all lies. The truth is in our dying, our witnessing, our refusing to attend. The poet is a pall bearer, but he’s caught in a video square looking out, lamenting a technical glitch that places him outside the screen’s center.”

Eventually, the rage bursts through, in a sequence reminiscent of Ginsberg:

America, I wake up wanting to vomit you from my gut.
America, I can no longer watch your snuff videos of black men shot on the street for being….
America, I abhor your children in cages, your citizens who want their hair cut, the pedicures an immigrant performs on you.
America, I hate your con jobs, your scams, your gas-lighting, your revisions of history, your attention to category.
America, I detest your gap between ordinary kindness and mass cruelty.
America, I hate your anger, and mine.
America, you are an instagram poet; your words look good, but I can only read them once before they melt….
America, you Moloch me, and him and her and us and them and all the pronouns that cannot put us together again.
America, I hate your love of guns, your love of spittle, your love of flags, of that fragile cloth that no longer binds wounds….
America, I hate that I hate, that I can’t think beyond a narrow wall of sound as it pushes us away from one another.
America, I hate that I must change the geometry of my walk to avoid my neighbors….

And avoiding some neighbors becomes an act of both human understanding and self-preservation:

He had sunglasses on, wrap-arounds. I said, “good morning!” but he kept going. His body clenched tight: arms out from his sides, legs moving like pegs. The only softness to him might be his belly. He’s my lesson, but it’s a lesson I cannot learn. Perhaps he’s happy in his horrible opinions, a friend opines, but I don’t believe it. He’s how pain turns to Fascism; he’s how hurt accumulates grudges; he’s how you come to hate a woman neighbor who wears an Obama shirt, so clearly a “snowflake,” even in paradise. He’s how you don’t avoid your pain, but alchemize it into anger. It’s more valuable that way. He’s how you take someone aside, abuse her, and then call her indecent. He’s how the mirror works. The man who yells at traffic sees me on his mirror, but not as myself. This confuses me, like the times my demented mother transposed herself on me. So accustomed to seeing myself in the mirror, I saw the image of someone I didn’t want to be.

This is powerful stuff. Meditations is not easy reading but it does perform the valuable service of reminding us why we care and should care about one another. Schultz does not provide easy answers; rather she simply reveals her/our reality as it unfolds. Anger, despair, and yes, kindness, keep her and us going. “Don’t admire me for having survived the Unnameable Event. Listen to the tremor in my voice, but know it as symptom of the Other Thing I’m not telling you. Hear out my secrets, those I keep to myself, and watch my affect as performance.”

—Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno