Queer Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Every Monday and Wednesday after class, I take a walk across campus to another literature class: Angelheaded Hipsters – Beat Writers Seminar.

The week we read Tim Dean’s article on transgression, I was also reading Naked Lunch. The week we read queer literature from Asia, I was reading beat poetry and haiku that was pointedly influenced by Asian culture. The week we read Moraga’s texts with the epilogue entitled “Chicana Mind, Beginner’s Mind” I was reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.
Throughout this quarter, I repetitively felt confused as to how I was the only one enrolled in both of these courses, the only one experiencing the overlap. With that said, I think there was a lot of value studying the works I did in each class in relation to the other. And I want to use this final blog post to extrapolate on some common themes between the works of both classes. Specifically, I want to briefly discuss the importance of community, mindfulness, and writing in regards to this class and in general.

Like Moraga, I have been mulling of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind since I picked it up, and I have some of its phrases still turning over in my mind.

 

1)   “What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and exhale.”

In an earlier section of the Moraga texts we read, she wrote about “the ‘I’ of ‘character’ who is and who is not me.” In Zen Mind, she read that our identity is fluid; it swings to-and-fro with our breath. On the one hand, I think this is interestingly related to her stance on the “I” of “character” and her rendering of a narrative voice. On the other, I think it creates somewhat of a tension between her acceptance of a “zen” model and constant essentialist language (explaining her identity as this, this, and this – I am a Xicana, I am a lesbian, I am a woman).

The real reason I think I am putting this quotation about the “I” in this post is because of this quotation from Moraga’s epilogue:

When the Catholic Church’s rituals of confession and penance threatened to drown me in an ocean of torment, I would retreat for solace alone in the church pew. Sitting straight-backed, open palms on my thighs, I returned to the island of my own earnest heart. There the punishing pornography of the blaming mind gave way to the silence of an inner, infinitely compassionate god.

In many of the books we have read, the queer characters struggle with feelings of guilt and sin—often related to religion. Here, Moraga takes Catholicism, which is an essential part of her family’s identity, and refuses to let it make her feel dirty, sinful, or unworthy because of her sexuality. Instead, she seeks peace in the church (as an actual building, not really as an institution) by silently releasing her sense of a guilt-ridden “I” through meditation. Now, if we could only give James Badlwin’s David and Radclyffe Hall’s Stephen Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, maybe they could find some peace in their character as well.

 

2)   “Here we have poetry, and here we have human life.”

In the second part of Moraga’s epilogue, below the subtitle “Xicana Mind,” she focuses on the imagery of her son growing older and bigger through time, her engagement with her far-away ancestors, and the realization that her late mother will never return to her as a physical embodiment of her identity. The way she writes about her ancestors and family literally (and literarily) connects the generations. I say this connection is literal because by putting her ancestors, her family, and her self in connected sentences she refers to the bodies of loved ones in her body of text so that the memory of the people become their identity. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind there is a quotation about the present time becoming past, and the section ends with that memorable quotation—“Here we have poetry, and here we have human life.” In Moraga’s response to Zen Mind, she produces the memory of human life through her language. This is poetry. Writing of her ancestors, her mother, her son, give them a literary identity that is their human life as much as we as readers will ever experience. She writes that “we can remember histories and future through and in spite of the body we wear.” That, I think, is shown in her poetic phrasing itself. When she poetically writes about her relatives, she composes their remembered lives.

 

3)   “The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion”

I don’t mean to get cheesy, but this is an important and relevant point both for Moraga’s writing and also for our purposes in this class as a whole. Always being open to learning—that is, taking on a new “I” voice, listening to voices from all different backgrounds, allowing conversations to fundamentally change our beliefs and the way we interact with the world—requires us to be willing and compassionate students. Moraga says, “If we are filled up, that if we believe that we already know, we will learn nothing because there is no empty space, no not-knowing space in which to learn, in which to change.” She notices that the Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind book is really just a bunch of white pages with some black words of wisdom on them, but the majority of the material is white blank space. Similarly, we always have space to fill (unlike maid’s room with no room for a new bookshelf), and should keep in mind that we are in the constant process of filling space and unpacking past beliefs. In discussions dealing with the fluidity of identity (race, sexuality, gender, what-have-you) it is important to be open and compassionate. Moraga knows this, so do the beats, so do we—that’s why we are in this course. By the very nature of its definition, “queerness” is always shifting, and as students we must be open and compassionate towards discussing that shift.

 

In all, I have enjoyed reading the texts for this class, and especially found them interesting as companions to the syllabus for my other literature class this quarter. I never thought that a simple little book about Zen Buddhism would entirely shift my thinking about poetry and writing in general, but it happened and I want to share with you a few more ideas that Moraga pulls from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind into her own writing.  She borrows from the text to write “Xicana Mind, Beginner’s Mind” as the epilogue of her personal essays and poetry. Now here, we can write for ourselves: “Queer Mind, Beginner’s Mind.”

-EV

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Filed under Week 9: Cherrie Moraga and Alison Bechdel

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