Monday, November 28, 2005


Still inhabiting this moldering Norwegian house of a body, far too strongly and solidly built for the wisps of spirit that linger in it.

Pigeons huddle on the telephone wires, silhouettes against the white sky. They are uncharacteristically still and silent today.

I long right now to be an unreflective Christian, like the ones I knew in my childhood, who thought death was a simple door into peace and happiness. "One fine morning when my work is done, I'm going to fly -- away home." I would like to sing that, and believe it.

There -- now all the pigeons have risen in a swirl, and settled again.

I have promises to keep. Though I can't really remember what they are, or why I made them. Still, they're binding. So I will go, and fill the car with gas, and drive to work.
On the Beach

I realized I had not thought about it for a lot time. About what my life was going to be.

Now, for the most part that's a good thing. Because it was always starting from scratch. Not what I would become, really, but what I might have become had I arrived in the world with no commitments, bearing no history. The first step was always -- well, erase the past.

But in having accepted my past, I've also accepted that my past will also be my future. That maybe isn't so wise.

Look, I'm not blogging right now, okay? Just thinking aloud. There will be nothing clever here.

I am worried.

I don't want it to be like this indefinitely.

I am tired of having a perenially postponed life. I'm tired of living in a welter of special cases and occasions, that make it necessary to put off life till later on. Later on when things settle down. But things never settle down.

I want to wake up. I want the cold rain in my face.

Decades ago I wrote a story. In it I wandered along a beach on Puget Sound, and I found a friend of mine half-buried in the sand, her eyes glazed. I tried to talk her into getting up. but I couldn't do it. Her reasons all cancelled each other out -- every motive was met with a counter-motive. She would never move again. She spoke very slowly. She was cold. Dead people in my dreams always speak that way. Slowly, distantly. And they all complain about being cold. Not a refreshing or a biting cold -- the kind of cold that works its way into your sleep, and half wakes you; too cold to sleep but too asleep to get up and do anything about it.

I looked up from my friend and saw that the beach was covered with people, mostly buried, and I knew that all the beach, fathoms down to the bedrock, was a mass of cold, numb people slowly settling into the earth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Cold Silver

The silver was burning cold to my touch, cold with the water that comes down the Bull Run River from Mt Hood. I had let it run till it was cold. A waste of water -- it may well look like a criminally extravagant waste of water, by the time this century is over -- but it was delicious. I drank my own share, before filling the pitcher and carrying it to the shrine.

The idea of offering water to the buddhas is to offer something by ordinary standards worthless, but made valuable, by the intention of generosity -- turned into a precious gift. I am clearly cheating. I prize this water. One of least endurable parts of living in the urban East, for me, was the poisonous metal-tanged stuff that came out of the taps. I hated drinking it, and I cooked with it reluctantly.

Cold to the touch. As soon as I touched it, I thought, "Oh, I will blog this!" I was picking up the bowls to empty them after a brief sit. An embarassingly brief sit -- probably the whole ritual of cleaning the shrine and filling and emptying the water bowls and saying the prayers took longer than the meditation. But I soldier on despite the embarassment: I've learned better than to slight the importance of setting the context for meditation. My protestant-trained sensibilities bridle at it, but if I scant the ritual my practice attenuates, and then disappears. "Let them not challenge to themselves a strength they have not..."

What was it, that I was going to blog? I don't know, I haven't reached it yet. The cold metal startled my fingers -- I guess I hadn't sat long enough for the water to lose its chill. Maybe what I was going to blog was just the startlement, the sensual power of experience when my mind has been slowed down a little. I got more pleasure from that touch of cold silver than I have from many pleasures "got 'tween sleep and wake," or rich dinners absently bolted. The clarity of it is still singing in my finger and thumb, a day later.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Getting In

In a way, I suppose, it is the final smash of all my hopes.* If it's not possible to simply jump the fence by a physical laying-on of hands, then it's simply not possible, in that way -- for me -- at all.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

It is hilarious that MG, whom I barely knew, and on whom I had a stupendous crush, should show up on the New School list at precisely this time. God always has gone in for heavy-handed obvious underlining.

You could put it this way -- I will never get in, so long as I want to get in. Not only because "them as asks don't get," though that's (trivially) true as well. There's a structural reason for it. Even if I got in, I would not be able to recognize it as in. My wanting excludes me all by itself, before any other player even steps on the boards.

Because after all, I have gotten in. Many times, many places, including many places I had no business being in. The problem is not that I can't get in. It's that I can't be in. And that has nothing to do with MG, or with laying on hands, or anything else in the external world. It's right here in the rag-and-bone shop. It's in the nature of the wanting.

(Craving is probably a better word than wanting, except that craving specifies intensity, and this can be the faintest velleity. It's not the intensity. It's the nature of the expectation, a certain dissociation or dishonesty, It's "having something to prove.")

So what does all this mean?

Well, among other things, it means this -- that I am already in. My job now is to learn to see that.

*For those of you unacquainted with my equanimity in the face of moderate failure -- not to worry. This typically extravagant response is simply to having done a not-terribly-successful massage a few days ago

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Already her naked body was disappearing
Under my fingers; I could feel it leave
The blood retreating, the breath

The awareness had departed earlier,
Leaving me alone. What was it I worked with?
Neither flesh nor thought. A skin
Cast by the mind.

What if this simulacrum
Sat up, opened yellow eyes, and seized
My wrist? What if it shaped my hand into a bowl,
And poured the oil,

Now burning hot, into the cup?
A violence of love or hatred, kiss
Or claw. Blood mingling with
Sweet almond oil.

-- Yes, what if. But only a vacant slough.
We could wish for anger, or for fear --
Anything but absence, but absence
Is what we have.

Sun grieving through the yellow leaves,
The rattle of branches, the shivering fall
Of tears. This short short afternoon
Already waning.
How it Is

A bend noir on a field of argent -- the shadow of a branch thrown by the moon across the skylight. A sleepless night, a moon-filled room.

Last night I lit a candle in a little glass cradle, and shook out the match. I held my breath and the candle very still. The flame dwindled to a tiny drip of blue light, and trembled there. Then it grew slowly to a blue pearl, and a sweat of wax gathered at the base of the wick. I breathed again, and set the candle in its place in front of his picture. Bokar Rinpoche, in his glasses and his robes, smiled past me.

I recalled the story, told to me third-hand, of how once in India he uexpectedly gave "pointing out" instructions to a breathless handful of Westerners.

This was real Dharma, the nature of their own minds revealed in a lightning-flash, a different insight revealed to each of them, a new world opened by a great abbot and meditation master.

They begged him, so reluctantly he came again the next day, and, somewhat unwillingly, gave the teachings again. The magic was gone. The words fell flat. The way was closed.

He rose to go. Pausing at the door, he turned, and said sadly, "You see how it is."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The New School

Okay, here's yesterday's post, back by popular demand. ("Popular demand" = Michelle said she wanted to finish reading it)

Recently I've come back in contact with people from my high school, the "hippie free school" that I've written about before a couple times, here and here, for instance. It's been both pleasurable and painful. The New School was the first institution in which people generally were kind to me. Until then I had assumed that the world outside my family would be a hostile place, in which I would have to pretend normalcy and mediocrity or be perpetually taunted and harassed. I was later to find that in fact elementary and middle school were the exception, not the rule; that by and large people in the world would treat me decently. But at thirteen I had had no such experience, and the New School was a miraculous revelation to me. So in that way, coming in contact with its people again has been a great pleasure. I remember them with affection and gratitude.

But it's painful too. My prior ostracism in school had encouraged in me an arrogance and conceit that it took me years to lose. To help identify some people in group photos I looked back at my journals from those years, and I found the young teenager revealed in them very hard to like. Pompous, rude, opinionated, and grandiose, utterly convinced of my rightness and blandly convinced of my right to the privileges I enjoyed. Looking back I can see that maybe I hadn't been ostracized in school just for being different and clever. Being insufferable possibly had something to do with it too.

Gil, the moving force behind this new restoration of New School ties, commented on one of those old posts linked above:

I love hearing your thoughts. That must be the year I skipped (and got full credit). I don't believe I ever thought about the New School as a utopian experiment, but rather as freedom from the deadening...and I still believe essentially flawed...traditional schools. Personally I don't think I was bored, but I was often restless, and as you kow, filled my time with games of all shapes and sizes, and the clumsy pursuit of sexual, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy. I remember it fondly, although dad's vison that the school would create freedom through structure (a la Dewey) gave way to indulgent chaos, which I believed at the time was a right (when Chris Fromhold, a faculty member towords the end, wanted me to do some school work before graduating, I debated her in a community meeting which ended with her in tears, and me graduating based on precedent...i.e., getting credit for hitch hiking, reading comic books, playing Avalon Hill games, and such). Hard to believe, really...but I was a passionate college student and have been a passionate learner ever since. Maybe that would have been true without the New School, but it seems possible that I would have lost my passion for learning in a more traditional setting.

I remember the director of the school the year I arrived there, Don Jensen, said that if the only benefit the New School conferred was refuge from the public school system -- if it did nothing else for us at all -- it still was a valuable place. Gil and I had no particular trouble, it seems, recovering from our scanty-to-non-existent academic background. I in fact, since I was an eager and hungry reader, and didn't have irritating classes all day to stop me from reading, devoured a huge number of books. I found when I got to college that I was better-read than anyone I knew. Since I went to a weird college as well (Evergreen State College), and I went on reading, I found that in graduate school also I had read more than anybody else. All I needed to "succeed academically" was to be left alone.

At the end of the seminar in which I got my first paper back at Yale, as a graduate student, I eagerly read the comments on it. The woman next to me looked up from her own paper to say, "you have such discipline!"

"What?" I said, bewildered.

"You didn't turn to the back to see what grade you got!" she said.

Grades! I'd forgotten all about them. I hadn't had a grade since middle school. The very idea seemed quaint and juvenile, of a piece with Eton collars or white knee-socks. Surely adults didn't get grades? Or take them seriously, if they did?

(possibly this post continues, but for the moment I need to stop --)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Yellow Leaves, or None, or Few

Silver milk in the tide-pools of the sky; soft gray hands catching the light as it's born; dear friends and enemies walking in the clouds. Dakinis are not like houris. They come and go as they please.

Here are seven points to consider at leisure:

1) Fingers learn to touch their own mouth first.

2) The copper taste of blood pleases crows.

3) But not people who have coughed it up much.

4) I am the wind before it blows, and the rain before it falls.

5) God liked rats, cockroaches, people and crows best of all; he put them in all his best work.

6) Kisses don't kiss people. People kiss people.

7) Good cooks clean up as they go.

I love you more and more with each passing day. But I'm keeping that a secret. I promise, I won't tell anyone, not a soul.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Letter to Someone

I began writing this some time ago, and I keep fiddling with it and adding to it. I'm posting it now, frankly, to get rid of it.

Things have changed, since then (which only goes to prove my point) -- when I wrote the first part of this, Pakistan and India seemed on the very brink of lobbing nukes at each other, and nobody was talking about avian flu in the mainstream media. I don't really remember, but internal evidence suggests that this was begun not long after the big tsunami. I also don't remember who asked me the question, if anyone.

You asked, do I really think the human race is doomed?

Yes, I do. So many slow fuses burning in the world, and just one of them has to reach the explosive. Do I need to name them all off? Supposing Pakistan and India start lobbing nukes at each other. Would China stay out of it? And then, would we? Israel and North Korea already have nukes. Iran either does, or will within a few years. And how long will Russians be content to live in squalor and hopelessness, chewing the table-scraps of old glory, when the tools of conquest are ready in their hands? As the players proliferate, the chances multiply, and the level of fear and distrust rises. It takes just one to panic. One defense-system to throw up a bogus alarm. One good software bug should do it. It's probably already in place, waiting for the right code path to execute.

Then there's the catastrophic drop in biological diversity, the huge die-off of species that we're in the midst of. We haven't even begun to suss out the ecological dependencies of our own species. Any one of those dying species, or some combination of them, might turn out to be have been critical to our own survival. Not the big mammals that everyone makes a fuss about -- the plants, the insects, the micro-organisms.

Then there's the vulnerability to epidemic that globalization has brought. We've been lucky so far, very lucky, I think, that nothing more infectious and virulent than AIDS has shown up yet. There's nothing, nothing at all, to keep a really vicious plague from sweeping the world from end to end, now. One that kills in hours, instead of years -- that communicates like the flu rather than like syphilis. We could just all get sick and die at the same time. No reason why it shouldn't happen. And, if the odds of nature coming up with such a thing don't impress you, there are probably scientists in bio-warfare labs in many parts of the world working hard to invent just such a plague.

Then there's the population. I know, it's old-fashioned to worry about overpopulation. The rate of increase has actually been dropping; the curve looks convex, now, not concave. All that alarm about nothing, you might think. But look where the curve is going. It will top out at -- maybe ten billion? Maybe twelve? Where do we find clean drinking water for another six billion people? Where do we find *any* drinking water?

Then there's global warming, or any number of entirely natural events that could just wipe us off the planet. We still don't really know what caused the other massive die-offs in biohistory, but we know they happened. Look what one good earthquake did to us just now. Plenty more where it came from.

I don't think any of these events is terribly likely. But they don't have to be likely. We only need one. The dice keep rolling, year after year. You really don't have to worry much if someone declares they're going to roll ten dice, and kill you if they all come up ones. If they're just rolling once, that is. But if there are five of them, each rolling their ten dice all day every day, that's a different story. That's what the situation looks like, to me. The human race is in for it. Maybe today, maybe ten years from now, maybe even two hundred years from now. But in a very short time, even on the scale of human history. Any second now, on the scale of biological history. This is probably the end of it.

So what does that mean for how we live our lives? Well. That’s the question, isn't it?

Species are not immortal, any more than individuals are. They either die out, or change beyond recognition. That was true before we began our self-destructive jag. The human species is not and should not be immortal -- really, I'm more worried about the havoc we might wreak in the universe trying to make ourselves immortal -- all those horrible sci-fi ambitions of perpetually expanding empire -- than I am about the prospect of dying off. Living things die. That's as it should be.

The problem is not that we're going to die. We were going to do that anyway, individually and collectively. I wish that we weren't in such a hurry to do so, and I wish we weren't taking so many other species down with us, but it doesn't really change anything. The real problem is that we refuse to think about death. We refuse to learn from it.

Embedded in almost everything we think and do, as individuals and as a species, is the tacit assumption that we are going to live forever. That we are going to be able to keep what we have gathered. Many people like to scoff at people who cling to science-fiction fantasies of human beings colonizing the stars, and gaining immortality – I do myself – but it’s only a variation on far more common fantasies. That the human race will achieve such ecological equilibrium that it will live safely on this planet for perpetuity. Or, even more common and even sillier, that it already is in such equilibrium. Or that we’re being looked after by a kindly father who, having given us one paradise and watched us trash it, can hardly wait to set us up in another.

And these, in turn, are just the macrocosmic versions of our personal fantasies of immortality. That we’re going to find a way of living that will make us enduringly content, and we will live so in the moment – some day – that our deaths will pass over us without a ripple, without a panic. That we’ll be able to pack up our personalities and take them with us to a new body. That for us, medical science will always stay ahead of entropy. That God, having tested us out with a temporary body, will give us a nice new (young and attractive) permanent one. Or that when we die our consciousness simply vanishes, so that actually we needn’t ever bother with death, because we’ll disappear before we can experience its losses and dislocations – how convenient!

Lots of different fantasies, but they all have one thing in common – a refusal to look death in the face, to dwell on it, to invite it into the house of our thoughts, and let it speak to us.

What death has to say to us is short and sweet. It's just this -- that the world we perceive is not real. We see a vast construct of permanence, a world of permanent essential personalities acting in an enduring world. It's all a fantasy. We are not the same person one moment to the next. Even the world we see is crumbling, shifting under our feet. Species are dying. All our friends are dying -- much faster than we care to see -- and they are changing, invisibly, even faster than that. Most of them will not be our friends ten years from now.

And the first delusion, the one that holds all the others in place, is that I am permanent. That I am the same person I was yesterday. That I can look at all the reflections of myself and make a composite picture, pick out the real, essential me; that I can express that real me and win appreciation for it that won't need constant renewal. In the teeth of all experience I go on believing that, and suffering for it. Always hungering for just one more validation -- the one that will hold.

None of them ever hold. None of them ever could hold. Ephemeral sketches of ephemera, as glimpsed in the background of their ephemeral mirrors by ephemera. If we could see them in all their impermanence and unreliability we would burst out laughing.

That's what being doomed can do for us, if we let it. It can encourage us to see things as they are. To live this last day of our lives with some sense of the joy and grief and grandeur appropriate to it, with some lessening of the fear that is so ludicrously inappropriate to it. Each day we should greet our friends as a miraculous resurrection, and take leave of our them as tenderly as if we will never see them again. Every day we should walk in the world as in a childhood house, which we have returned to after a shattering life in exile, marvelling when we see something that is as we remembered it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


There are no magic powers, there is no little death,
there is only a letting-go - however fleeting -
of that death-grip in which we hold
our precious ones & zeros
Shiva, Gaurî.

-- Dave Bonta, "Sacrifice"

Is there a letting-go? I wonder. Memory is a biased, fearful witness. The wind is strong tonight, and it blows away my resolutions and decisions, little cobwebby things. Only the longing remains.

A marching drum heard in the distance, over the foggy heads of the hills -- the coughs of young men with beards just starting, carrying dreams of glory and fears of mutilation, stumbling footsore in the moon-filled mist, in the dreamlike grip of deja vu. Wondering if this is the way Death announces himself.

The sudden clarity when a chainsaw takes off a finger or two, and you stare at your hand, realizing that always, always you have wondered if they really can come off. Yes, they can. They really can.

Do we ever let go? Well, we are cut away sometimes. But that, surely, is a different thing?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Friends came from the south last night
Bringing news and wine;
The ashtrays we brought out for them
Are cold this morning.
The streets pool with rain and wet leaves;
Cats run against the wind without dignity;
I falter on the basement steps.

Was supposed to come easier.

"Your problem is that you think
You should have no problems,"
Said one old man, long dead.
Turning the leaves over in my hands
I am inclined to agree;
But it doesn't make me fond of him.