Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.
Jose Ortega y Gasset,
quoted in Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate by Wendy Johnson
We had an interesting discussion in sangha about opportunity and destiny. I had read a passage from Jimmy Santiago Baca’s autobiography A Place to Stand. Baca is a writer and poet who was incarcerated for 15 years for drug-related crimes. He was illiterate up to the age of 21 years; as a child his family was the target of his father’s drunken rages and Baca became phobic about going to school. The turmoil in the family was so intense that he became lost in the battles (given his experience of bigotry advancing in what was available as education may not have been possible anyway, I imagine). He slowly wove a life of drug use and crime. Just prior to reading Baca’s book, I had skimmed through Fleet Maull’s Dharma in Hell (OK – full disclosure: I’m cramming for the Core Chaplaincy retreat next week at Upaya). Maull went through his own hell serving time which, in his case, deepened his Buddhist practice (before prison, he was Buddhist while running drugs etc. – go figure). Both men have formed organizations and developed programs for prisoners; Baca founded literacy and writing programs while Maull founded the Prison Dharma Network. Canadian inmate Roger Caron, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. Infamous as an armed robber who repeatedly attempted escapes, he wrote Go-Boy! and two other books. Unfortunately, despite the success of his book and rubbing elbows with the well-heeled in Canadian social circles, he dropped into several abysses that eventually lead to a desperate armed robbery in 1992 while high on cocaine and stricken with Parkinson’s disease. His life closes in a hell of dementia and advanced Parkinson’s.
In sangha, we shared about the way in which our landscape shapes our vision, our choices, our destiny. We wondered if it would have been different for Maull had he been assigned to the laundry section and not the medical facility where he became attuned to the need for hospice care. Would Baca have become the prize-winning author if he couldn’t envision the opportunities opened to him within the container of his fate? Of course, we wondered about the rolling hills and abysses of our own landscape. Did we see what was available or carve it out of a parched ground?
Interestingly, the quote by Gasset above took on greater significance in the context of Baca and Maull’s books. I don’t know anything about Gasset (yet) other than what I found via the Oracle (Google). A philosopher, he asserted that who I am is inseparable from the circumstances I am in (don’t quote me on this!). It harkens back to the embodied mind of Varela and the process of self as emergent. But, I’m in over my head here. The take-away lessons from Baca and Maull are about letting go (without erasing) and entering a dialogue with the container of our lives – be it a wide panaroma or a small container in an urbanscape.
In the context of gardening my life, it makes me look more deeply into the factors that shape my body, speech and mind – not only in the wide swath of fields, hills, and valleys but also in this tiny cut of soil I’m rooted.
Thank you for practicing,