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John Roosevelt Boettiger
Mill Valley, CA, Seattle, WA, Phoenix, AZ, Los Angeles, CA, Amherst, MA, Hyde Park, NY, New York City (Manhattan), Dedham, MA, Vikersund, Norway, Paris, France, Sebastopol, CA, Berkeley, CA
Author, writer, editor, psychologist, father, grandfather, great-grandfather
Interests: Writing, reading, conversation, hiking, walking, bicycling, asking and responding to intriguing questions, metta, silence, prayer, meditation, justice (social, economic, judicial, political, familial, personal), the wily craft of coyote politics, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, family trees, redwood trees and live oaks, marsh land, hillsides, mountains, geese in flight, birds of a feather
Recent Activity
Stories are at the heart of all spiritual traditions. Think, for example, of the parables of Jesus, the Hasidic tales of Judaism so wonderfully gathered by Martin Buber, the Sufi stories of Mullah Nasrudin, the koans of Zen Buddhism. Here Norman Fischer reflects upon the significance of koans or exemplary stories in Zen practice. In doing so, he reveals two kinds of story, or two ways of being with stories, that have helped me greatly in my own spiritual practice. Zoketsu Norman Fischer is an American poet, writer, and Soto Zen priest, teaching and practicing in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki. on stories by Norman Fischer | December 22, 2014 I’ve been thinking about stories in the light of koans, zen stories. Come to think of it, in zen the main literature is stories, certain kinds of stories. Koan stories are supposed to be exemplary stories—“koan” means public case—like a court case that stands as a precedent for a type of situation that could come up again and again in life. Koan stories are stories about classical Chinese masters and disciples, but also about us, about deep issues in our own living. When you study a koan you make it... Continue reading
Because of the importance of the issues he raises, and the correlative importance of our imminent Congressional elections in early November, I'm offering the text of Paul Krugman's most recent column in The Times, dated yesterday: Why It Can Happen Here We’re very close to becoming another Poland or Hungary. By Paul Krugman Aug. 27, 2018 Admirers of President Trump saw him speak last week at an Ohio Republican Party dinner.CreditCreditGabriella Demczuk for The New York Times Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a friend of mine — an expert on international relations — made a joke: “Now that Eastern Europe is free from the alien ideology of Communism, it can return to its true historical path — fascism.” Even at the time, his quip had a real edge. And as of 2018 it hardly seems like a joke at all. What Freedom House calls illiberalism is on the rise across Eastern Europe. This includes Poland and Hungary, both still members of the European Union, in which democracy as we normally understand it is already dead. In both countries the ruling parties — Law and Justice in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary — have established regimes that maintain the... Continue reading
Here is a word whose meaning and pronunciation both eluded me. It means "of great force or vigor: strong, powerful. and it is pronounced PUISSant. Merriam-Webster's description: Puissant has some powerful ties to some more commonplace English words. Although puissant has a considerably fancier feel than power and potent, all three words share the same Latin ancestor: posse, a verb meaning "to be able." (English posse, meaning "a group of people sharing some common interest," is also related to the Latin verb but came into the language via the Medieval Latin phrase posse comitatus, literally "power of the county.") Potent came from potent-, potens, a present participle of posse. Power came to us by way of Anglo-French poer, which itself comes from a Vulgar Latin alteration of posse. From poer also came the Anglo-French adjective pussant, meaning "able" or "powerful," and English speakers borrowed that to form puissant in the 15th century. Continue reading
congener. (OED) A member of the same kind or class with another, or nearly allied to another in character. Of the same kind or nature; akin. Continue reading
I am going to add an occasional category to entries in Reckonings: words I encounter which intrigue me and whose meaning is unfamiliar to me. I shall generally not include words that are synonymous with those that are merely synonyms for others more commonly used; that feels unfair. Readers interested in the dictionaries I use: the far superior but occasionally overwhelming Oxford English Dictionary, and the more pedestrian but still useful Merriam-Webster (which has a "word of the day" service that appears primarily to prove how much it knows). Both are available online. The OED subscription is expensive, so I'm happy to report that I have access from home (i.e., via the internet) gratis through membership in the Mill Valley Public Library. Here is an example drawn from an article about Donald Trump in The Washington Post. Its identity below is, yes, from that Merriam-Webster "word of the day," written before I realized what M-W was doing with its word-of-the-day... Sequacious ("intellectually servile") wheedled its way into our top lookups on August 6th, 2018, through its appearance in an article in The Washington Post. There, he [Donald Trump] decided to unfurl an inventory of the “the guys that we love”... Continue reading
Following a practice I began last week, I am including here in Reckonings the letters I send weekly to participants in our group exploring the tradition of Celtic spirituality. Here is today's letter: Dear friends, This coming Tuesday we'll be discussing our responses to Chapter 7, "Reconnecting with the Unconscious," of John Philip Newell's book The Rebirthing of God. As John Philip writes on the first page of this chapter, "Whether as individuals or collectively as nations and religious traditions, new beginnings will be born among us when we open to the well of what we do not yet know or what we have forgotten deep within." I offer these notes to you now, a little earlier than usual, because this chapter (befitting its subject) is more demanding than most, more deserving of our conscious attention, imagination, and rereading. Shortly after the chapter's beginning, Newell invokes the words of a very early—one might say virtually original—exponent of the Celtic tradition, and long a favorite of mine, Brigid of Kildare, an abbess and tutor to Saint Brendan, both of whom I first came to know thirty years ago in Frederick Buechner's lovely novel Brendan. As usual in these chapters, John Philip... Continue reading
As readers may have noticed, I am including in Reckonings some remarks relating to a group here at The Redwoods exploring the tradition of Celtic spirituality. Here is my most current letter to participants: Our meeting this coming Tuesday presents an intriguing challenge. In my view, in this singular chapter of John Philip Newell's The Rebirthing of God (Chapter 6: "Reconnecting With Nonviolence"), I find him off his feed. That is, he pays very little real attention to his subject. I have nary a passage worth quoting to you. If I am even partially right, we nonetheless have at least one fine reason to spend a good hour together on Tuesday afternoon: Whether or not John Philip makes a case for reconnecting with nonviolence as an important domain of spiritual development or rebirthing, do you do so? What role has nonviolence played in your own spiritual development? Have you been committed to nonviolence in your life? If so, what role has that commitment played in strengthening your spiritual development? If not, or if less than consistently, when and why has that been so? It is probably true that we are all generally committed to peace and averse to war: in... Continue reading
Perhaps this week in our group studying Celtic spirituality we will have an opportunity to chant together. We shall have read Chapter 5 of John Philip Newell's book, The Rebirthing of God. That chapter is devoted to reconnecting with spiritual practice, so practicing would not seem out of place. As he commonly does, John Philip in this chapter invokes a particular person whose work elucidates the themes he is addressing. In this event, that person is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Newell writes, "Merton's first emphasis is that which is deepest in us, is like 'pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.' In meditation, he says, we penetrate the innermost ground of our life. This allows us to find our true meaning not from the outside, he says, but from within." "Merton," Newell adds, "says we may not want to be seen as beginners in spiritual practice. 'But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all our life!' The first people to acknowledge this are usually those who are most committed to the spiritual disciplines of silence, meditation, and mindfulness." Chanting is a practice common to all spiritual traditions... Continue reading
I first knew Edward Espe Brown as the author of The Tassajara Bread Book, from which I learned to bake bread many years ago in a small village in western Massachusetts during the 1980s. Now that I live in his home territory of northern California, I delight in the fact that he is still writing about food, and about bread baking. The picture that accompanies this entry in Reckonings accompanies his article, "Gifts From Beyond," published in the Summer 2018 issue of Parabola Magazine. The article begins, "Many years ago, in the early '80s, when Thich Nhat Hanh was giving a talk prior to departing from the San Francisco Zen Center where I was living, he said he had a goodbye present for us. We could, he said, open and use it anytime, and if we did not find it useful, we could simply set it aside. Then he proceeded to explain that, 'As you inhale, let your heart fill with compassion, and as you exhale, pour the compassion over your head...' It was a gift I used daily, repeatedly, for two or three years. Rough edges softened. Tension melted. I had been given, I was giving to myself, a... Continue reading
Tomorrow, June 23, 2018, I shall travel to Portland, Oregon, to join the Boettiger clan in celebrating the graduation of my son Joshua at the end of his two-year MFA program in poetry at Pacific University. Though better known as a rabbi (currently at Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, Oregon) than as a poet, he is now bi-vocational. He has always brought his gifts as a poet to his rabbinical presence, but I'm confident that the truly wonderful growth of his poetic craft in the last two years will become known to a much wider audience in its own right. As soon as he shares his final thesis, including his poems, with his dad, I look forward to sharing my experience of his work with readers of Reckonings. More of his work will surely be published. Stanley Kunitz's poem, "The Layers," is my best gift to Joshua at this time, as it is the first and longest-standing of the poems the two of us have shared, among the fruits of our chavruta. Its character is expressive of what he and I have cherished over many years. The Layers By Stanley Kunitz I have walked through many lives, some of them... Continue reading
A report from The New York Times about innovation in Yosemite National Park, and our own equally overcrowded gem, Muir Woods: They paved paradise and put up a lot of parking lots. That was the way some national parks coped with the surge in visitors in recent decades. We published an article this week on a project that did the reverse — restored the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park partly by tearing up a lot of asphalt and hauling it away. The Muir Woods National Monument, the grove of centuries-old coastal redwoods in Marin County, is undergoing a similar multimillion-dollar transformation, albeit more gradually. In January the park instituted a mandatory parking reservation system to mitigate overcrowding. A shuttle bus from other parking areas also requires reservations. The result has been a 20 percent reduction in the number of visitors to Muir Woods, which is across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Visitors numbered 72,790 in April this year compared with 92,589 during the same month last year, according to the Park Service. Next summer the park will begin tearing up parking lots, relocating and renovating them, possibly using a more natural material than asphalt.... Continue reading
The paper to which I direct readers below was published by Modum Bad, a remarkable healing community and psychiatric hospital whose campus is nestled among forest and fields typical of southern Norway, just above the beautiful inland lake of Turifjord and the village of Vikersund, little more than an hour's drive north of Oslo. I completed the paper in May 2007, after my wife Leigh and I had returned to our home in Dedham, Massachusetts, having completed two visits, each of several months, at Modum Bad as guest psychologists. Most of the research upon which the paper is based was completed on those visits, and early drafts were shared with members of Modum Bad's clinical staff, whose responses were generous and enormously valuable. Leigh and I knew that we would return to Modum Bad, she as director of its Research Institute, I as lecturer and consultant to staff and patients. That next stage of our Modum Bad life was cut short by the illness that was to take Leigh's life in 2012. That is another story, one that someday I may be able to write, but for the time being, I'll simply add that my own relationship with Modum Bad... Continue reading
From the current issue of Wired magazine: "Everyone knows the importance of a good night's sleep. But do you really? If Golden State Warriors forward Andre Igoudala is any indication, many people drastically underestimate just how powerful good sleep hygiene can be. For 10 years, Igoudala had been sleeping terribly: late nights playing video games and afternoon naps threw off his sleep cycle and hampered his performance on the court. But then he met Cheri Mah, a physician-scientist at UC San Francisco's Human Performance Center. And, as science writer Robbie Gonzalez reports, everything changed. "Mah has been studying the relationship between sleep and athletic performance for more than a decade, and she put Iguodala on a new regimen, overhauling everything from the timing of his sleep to his caffeine intake and nutrition. The results were astounding. His three-point-shot percentage doubled; his turnover and foul rates plummeted; he started earning 29 percent more points per minute; and he won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP award , after the Golden State Warriors won the series. And to Mah, the role sleep played in that transformation can't be underestimated. 'The comparison most of us make, when talking about the importance of sleep, is... Continue reading
One of the joys of having good friends, particularly friends who share common commitments and interests, is that they have their eyes open and alert for topics and representations of common commitments I may otherwise have missed. Such is often the case with Al Braidwood. In this instance he and I and all of our meditation circle at The Redwoods had the deeply engaging experience of sharing the reading of Frank Ostaseski's remarkable book, Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully. Al sent me more recently an essay Frank wrote in the May 2018 issue of the Buddhist journal, Lion's Roar. Not a substitute for but an extension of Frank's book, the essay focuses more particularly on the unusual and often treasured, often painful friendship that can, if all to briefly, develop between those in the last days of their lives and those whose privilege it is to care for them during that time. The vigiling (VALE) program we have developed at The Redwoods has offered a few of us, including Al and me, the opportunity of that experience. In his own introductory reflections on Frank's essay, Al puts that opportunity into remarkably insightful context: "l... Continue reading
A good friend in my community, Al Braidwood, will lead our meditation circle in its practice this coming Saturday, June 9. In his preparatory letter to the members of the group, Al invoked the words of two well-known practitioners in the Christian contemplative tradition, Ronald Rolheiser and Thomas Merton. I want to share Al's letter with readers of Reckonings because I found it moving and instructive. ____________________ Dear friends of the Meditation Circle — This Saturday, June 9, the subject is going to be the practice of silence — and I’m drawing my source material mostly from contemplative Christian sources. The invitation to “be still and know God in our inner beings” is at the heart of what is being called forth today more than ever. It is perhaps even more crucial in these shadowy, tumultuous times when it sometimes seems that the only thing between us and utter chaos is the awakened soul. To give you a foretaste, I append for your review and reflection two outstanding quotations from men whom I have no hesitation in calling Christian mystics. They are short passages excerpted from their designated books whose words are of the highest significance in this connection. We... Continue reading
In a recent issue of the Buddhist journal Lion's Roar, one of my favorite Zen teachers (and founder of Everyday Zen Foundation) Norman Fischer offered us reflections he titled: "Life is Tough. Here Are Six Ways to Deal With It." I quoted from these reflections just a short time ago. He begins his essay, as I noted then, by invoking a notable Zen master: "There’s an old Zen saying: the whole world’s upside down. In other words, the way the world looks from the ordinary or conventional point of view is pretty much the opposite of the way the world actually is. There’s a story that illustrates this. "Once there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi because he meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became quite famous for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to live in such a dangerous manner. The roshi answered, 'You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!' Living normally in the world, ignoring... Continue reading
Bishop Michael Curry, the first African-American leader of the Episcopal Church, offered the most striking, soaring, the most deeply heartfelt sermon I have known: a testimony to the centrality of love in our spiritual tradition, in his words, “a movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world and a movement mandating people to live that love and in so doing to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself.” Thirteen minutes long, it is better seen than read, and a video is available at But Bishop Curry's sermon should be read as well, so I offer his text here. The Text of the Sermon And now in the name of our loving liberating and life giving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, amen. From the Song of Solomon in the Bible: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave, its flashes of flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it out The late Dr. Martin Luther King once said, and I quote: we must... Continue reading
Life is Tough. Here is the First of Six Ways to Deal With It For Norman's full essay, see BY NORMAN FISCHER| Lion’s Roar, APRIL 3, 2018 There’s an old Zen saying: the whole world’s upside down. In other words, the way the world looks from the ordinary or conventional point of view is pretty much the opposite of the way the world actually is. There’s a story that illustrates this. Once there was a Zen master who was called Bird’s Nest Roshi because he meditated in an eagle’s nest at the top of a tree. He became quite famous for this precarious practice. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shih (who was also a government official) once came to visit him and, standing on the ground far below the meditating master, asked what possessed him to live in such a dangerous manner. Theroshi answered, “You call this dangerous? What you are doing is far more dangerous!” Living normally in the world, ignoring death, impermanence, and loss and suffering, as we all routinely do, as if this were a normal and a safe way to live, is actually much more dangerous than going out on a limb to meditate. While... Continue reading
Paula, I'm grateful for your response to my re-review of "The Prodigal Son." As I wrote, I had originally offered it as a talk over a decade ago, and only last week rediscovered it and thought to myself, that's an interesting piece, why don't I edit it anew, see how it emerges these years later for current readers of Reckonings. Good to discover it is still intriguing to many, and I always enjoy re-editing. It was good to see Barbara here this week. She came with Frieda to our longstanding Tuesday reading group. I'm glad you share my fondness for John O'Donahue, as well. We share our blessings for each other, always a source of renewal, John
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The following reimagining and retelling of a familiar story are drawn from one of a series of talks I gave in the winter and spring of 2007 to staff and patients at Modum Bad, a psychiatric hospital, retreat center and learning community in Vikersund, Norway. I discovered Modum Bad in 2005, and returned for a second extended time as a consultant in February 2007. Of course, I learned more than I taught. My first impressions of Modum Bad were gathered in a short essay after that first leisurely visit in 2005. I revised and extended that essay for publication later in 2007, Modum Bad's 50th anniversary year — in fact, its 150th anniversary year, as it began as a European healing spa in 1857. Modum Bad means the baths at Modum, gathered around St. Olavs Kilde, St. Olav's Spring. My own retelling of Jesus's parable owes a great deal to the translation and commentary of Stephen Mitchell in his Gospel According to Jesus Christ (2001). The story I retell here is the last and longest of three parables of Jesus recounted in Luke's gospel. The thread they share is that of losing and finding and rejoicing in renewal or life-redeeming... Continue reading
4 April 2018, New York Times, by David Margolick Fifty years ago tonight, moments before he boarded a plane in Muncie, Ind., Robert Kennedy learned that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been shot in Memphis. Something preternatural in Kennedy told him that Dr. King wouldn’t make it, but only on the other end of the short flight to Indianapolis, where he was scheduled to speak that evening, would he find out he’d been right. Kennedy headed for the rally, where a crowd awaited him, formulating a eulogy for Dr. King that proved more enduring than anything uttered at his funeral.It proved, in fact, to be Kennedy’s most memorable speech. He arrived late, by which time things had grown darker, colder, rainier, angrier: many in the crowd, especially more recent arrivals, already knew Dr. King was gone. Some taunted whites there; others, gang members, were bent on violence. “They kill Martin Luther, and we was ready to move,” one later said. Draped in his brother’s old overcoat, Kennedy climbed the rickety steps leading to the back of a pickup truck that would serve that night as his podium. “This little bitty, small white man started talking, and... Continue reading
I've included in a few pages of Reckonings, especially those related to my and others' thoughts of spirituality and the practice of meditation, an image called an ensō. A friend with whom I was talkin... Continue reading
Too often I forward news of the illnesses of our culture, so I wanted to offer you—literally—a blessing. John O'Donohue died much too early, and was a lovely voice of Celtic spirituality. It is a blessing in itself to hear him read his poem, "Bennacht" ["blessing" in Gaelic]. Krista Tippett interviewed him shortly before he died. Bennacht On the day when The weight deadens On your shoulders And you stumble, May the clay dance To balance you. And when your eyes Freeze behind The grey window And the ghost of loss Gets into you, May a flock of colours, Indigo, red, green And azure blue, Come to awaken in you A meadow of delight. When the canvas frays In the currach of thought And a stain of ocean Blackens beneath you, May there come across the waters A path of yellow moonlight To bring you safely home. May the nourishment of the earth be yours, May the clarity of light be yours, May the fluency of the ocean be yours, May the protection of the ancestors be yours. And so may a slow Wind work these words Of love around you, An invisible cloak To mind your life. Continue reading
Preparing to lead our meditation group this morning, I stumbled upon a poem by Mary Oliver, "Mindful," that I had not read before. I'll put it below, in addition to an excerpt from her more familiar poem, "The Summer Day." Our discussion focused on mindful caregiving—caring for self and others—what we do with our meditation when we leave our simulacrum of a zendo and take our meditation into our everyday lives. Mindful Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light. It was what I was born for - to look, to listen, to lose myself inside this soft world - to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional, the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant - but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab, the daily presentations. Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help but grow wise with such teachings as these - the untrimmable light of the world, the ocean's shine, the prayers that are made out of grass — Mary Oliver From "The Summer Day": I... Continue reading
In our midweek meditation this afternoon we focused on the experience of awakening, and I found myself reciting a favorite poem of Rumi. Another of our members said that in her Buddhist tradition the same poem was regularly part of day-long shesshins. So we said together: The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don't go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don't go back to sleep. Remembering Rumi's poem, another poem, a prayer, came to mind, from Shantideva, an 8th century Buddhist monk and scholar: May I be a protector to those without protection, A guide for those who journey, And a boat, a bridge, a passage For those desiring the further shore... Continue reading