A New Spirit In the Machine

Editing a non profit journal like Parabola can be hard.   I’m not talking about the eye strain and stiff back muscles that come with sitting in front of a computer for long stretches of time, or even the feelings of  isolation and self-doubt that inevitably comes with being a writer and editor.  I’m talking about the spiritual pain,  the crushing sense of doom that comes from trying to row a leaky little boat through stormy and unpredictable seas.

Yesterday, however, after meeting with some of the great new people who are going to be helping row this little boat,  I remembered a very important experience I had decades ago, when I worked for ABC in one of the towers of Rockefeller Center.   I had left work and was walking through those cavernous, sky-scraper shadowed streets, realizing for the first time in my young life that I was a tiny cog in a vast and impersonal machine.    On that machine would whir on endlessly, driven by money, blind to any of the tiny little ant people who happened to get caught under the wheels.    My then-boyfriend and I  were looking for a refuge, a cozy place to have dinner, not a cold, hard, expense-account place, and miraculously  we found one.   The “Alpine” (I think it was called that) looked wonderfully out of place in the midst of all that glass and steel.  A bar in front and tables in the back and Alpine scenes painted on the walls, it looked like it belonged upstate.  But this was the epiphany:  There, playing pinball at one of those wonderful old-fashioned bumper, flipper, ping-ping-sounding machines in the back , absorbed in her task, sublimely indifferent to the crushing atmosphere all around us all, was Joni Mitchell.    The great singer and songwriter  was all by herself.  She was smoking a cigarette. A  Molson’s Golden rested on a table nearby.  She concentrated on her game, noble , serene, and self-contained.   Watching her, I very briefly realized a truth that the Buddha, Shakespeare and so many other wise beings have shared, that with our thoughts we make our world.  From her bearing and the look of serenity, it seemed pretty clear that she wasn’t thinking about being oppressed.  There was more to the lesson, something about the beauty of bringing our attention to the task.

Yesterday, listening to some of the smart and talented people who have recently come on board to help Parabola talk about the small steps that can be taken to make Parabola look and work better, I thought of Joni playing pinball.  Who knows what creative labor she was resting from or contemplating?   What she and the new Parabola staff showed me is that there is a relating to what is right in front of us  that can be transforming, that can free us from being a cog, that can make us new.

15 thoughts on “A New Spirit In the Machine

  1. Thanks for all you do. Parabola has inspired my life for many years, as well as Ste. Joni. Your dedication is appreciated by countless thousands and the impact your work is staggering to consider.

    “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    matty hargrove

  2. Lovely post. I’ve never seen the magazine but based on the enthusiasm of an online friend, I ordered a subscription just a few days ago. I can’t wait to experience it.

  3. Thank you Tracy and thank you Parabola, the magazine really is an international treasure. I for one treasure every copy I own, as well as the next one coming soon.

    We do create our own reality. The world is coming from you, not at you.

    In the twenty plus years I worked as a V.P. for JP Morgan Chase, I worked on and through many different mergers, i.e., Chemical Bank, Manufactures Hanover, Chase, JP Morgan, Bank One. They all presented different challenges and they all create change. Change comes towards us all the time, we grow and change. The trick is to embrace that change, to move forward unafraid of the future. The future will always take care of itself without too much worry on our parts.

    Tracy, I wish both you and your new Parabola partners great success. I wish you well on your new beginnings.

    Please keep us appraised on how well the leaky boat is moving forward, non-profit work is always a financial challenge, but the work can be a real blessing too.

    What you offer to us and to the world is more than unique, I cannot even begin to place a value on it all. It is immeasurable.

    I can’t help myself, I’m going to quote T.S. Eliot again; it seems more than appropriate in this case, since what you offer us time and time again are words to feed our tired minds and to lift up our spirits. Thank You. ;-)

    Little Gidding (No. 4 of ‘Four Quartets’)

    “What we call the beginning is often the end
    And to make and end is to make a beginning.
    The end is where we start from. And every phrase
    And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
    Taking its place to support the others,
    The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
    An easy commerce of the old and the new,
    The common word exact without vulgarity,
    The formal word precise but not pedantic,
    The complete consort dancing together)
    Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
    Every poem an epitaph. And any action
    Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
    Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.”

    1. Thanks, Ron. Your ideas and inspirations are always welcome. If you subscribe to our free e newsletter, you’ll see that I quoted a few lines from T.S. Eliot myself!

  4. “…the beauty of bringing our attention to the task.”
    Attention which is not identified (merged) with one or the other of my many selves. This Attention, being of a different world, has a broader, freer, more sensitive and accurate view of ‘me’ in the task and the materials at hand than does my usual limited, caught attention.

    It is miraculous and a mystery, this Attention, how it descends as a help. One thing is certain the usual me must subside for it to appear.

  5. Thank you for so many wonderful links. I value greatly everytime Parabola is in my e-mail. I could sit all day and
    read everything over and over. I guess I’ll have to subscribe.

  6. Tracy, I found this post so moving. Just knowing you and your crew are out there doing this valuable, real work to feed all of us. Just knowing Joni is out there being real.

    I spent an hour alone on the screened in porch of my favorite house today. It belonged to my great aunt until she died this past autumn, and now it belongs to her children. It is a few miles from where I live. The house and land has a special presence, a calm and confidence and quietness, undivided. I could meditate for a week and not come closer to how I feel when I step onto that porch. I love how it holds itself and its presence despite whatever else erupts in the world.

    About a hundred years ago the house burned down, but the family rebuilt it exactly the same. Its pull feels eternal.

    May we all dance in our true centers.

    1. This is very beautiful. Parabola is a little like the house you describe. It is in the process of being rebuilt.

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