Friday, April 28, 2006


for Beth, with love

This quiet space in the gathering fury of the world,
This philosopher's tower with old lace curtains,
Where words of uncertain meaning but certain significance
Linger on the walls, among the paints and easels --

Pause here. There is the small oak desk
She had when she was a child; she is not one
Who abandons old friends. Moving into exile
She will take the memory of this room with her,

And this room will carry the memory of her.
No doubt the curtains will come down, the heat
Will be updated. New fixtures will appear on the wall
Or on the ceiling. But at day's end, a certain slant of light

Will fall on the face of a puzzling New Englander,
A touch on the hand, a shared joy in the garden, though
No one, supposedly, is there. "It's a calm room,"
She'll say, uncertainly, knowing

There's more to it than that; a pebble dropped
Into the pool of thought, widening circles of light --
No place where God has been made welcome
Ever forgets Her.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I know there's something I want to say, but my thoughts are a tangled string. I can't find either end, can't begin to make them straight enough to write down. Lisa's hands above my heart, Marcel crying for forty-eight hours, Johnny in Lisbon and Jean in London, Elizabeth's verse, Jonquil at the drug store -- there is no beginning to this thread. It was dark when I sat down here. The morning light is strong now, and still I haven't written anything. Picture me, muddled, in the gift-shop of the soul, trying to find the right present, but shy, unclear on the occasion or the person, only knowing I want to give something. Must give something.

I give water to the Buddhas, in this perplexity. Let this gift stand for the appropriate one, which has yet to be found. Or at least, yet to be understood.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Open Sky

So I was starting to sink into it (starting? I spent the whole morning in it.) But I pushed back from my desk at 1:30. Watch the dread. One long breath. Watch the breath.

So I drove to lunch, and talked to myself, saying, "Look, the point is not to replace this ghost of my self with a more appealing ghost. The point is to exorcize the whole damn lot of them. They're all made up; they're all stories. It doesn't matter. It never mattered. There's nothing to be afraid of.

"I just want to get out under the open sky," I said. The trick is, that the habits run so strong, so strong. Not because the ghosts are real. More because they're not. You really think you want to be out under the open sky? (I was sitting at a formica table at the time. "Sky" was a blue rectangle of light, safely behind plate-glass.)

Blood drummed in my temples. But I drove back and began to work. I'm terrified. Have I always been this afraid?

I think so, really. It comes and goes, of course. There's pride and vanity, which take their turns too. But they're made of the same stuff, woven out of the same terror. It's at times like this I wish I were a Christian. They're cleverer really about terror than we are. The heaven of childhood, a punishing father, a mother who intercedes -- that's the imagery appropriate to my condition. Buddhists pretend to be adults all the time.

Drums. The rattle and moan of huge drums. The thunder of the blue sky. Phantoms in the hills.

"I just want to get out under the open sky," I said, but that was when I was picturing the sky as empty. Now it's full of presences. It's always that way; there's terrors behind the terrors. As in a really clever horror movie. The way out turns into the trap.

But. I've run away long enough. I know where running takes me. Nowhere. It's not that I'm going to take a brave stand. I'm simply out of room to run.

That's one way of putting it, shrill and panicky. I can also shrug, and the waves rush away from my mountainous shoulders and sweep the land clean -- phantoms and spirits go tumbling in the surge; the solid ground shivers; stars are jarred from the sky, and fall like snow. That happens too. It can even happen at the same time.

These are more ghosts, of course. Time to go outside again, under that strange sky. Does it ever end?

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Money for Coffee

Lo! swich a lucre is in this lusty game,
A mannes myrthe it wol turne unto grame

-- The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie,
Lusting did I live and lusting died
And I laid me down discontent.

Whatever we have told each other
Turns, with the turning of the world, to lies;
Promises slide into habits, habits harden

Into days. God is surely great, but we no longer know
What we mean when we say he is good.

Howl at the moon, grief and rage,
Howl at the sun, it is always the same.
I want in my youth and I want in my age,
Curling and burning with grief and grame.

She wanted to borrow money for coffee.
It is lucky perhaps she doesn't know how little
I could refuse her. But morning runs into night

And night into morning, I go to my room
But my trousers hang in the upstairs bathroom,
Where I left them yesterday, when I went unto woman.

So up the stairs, and back down,
Questing in my wallet. What does coffee cost?
Better give her five. She gives me a brief hug,

Warm but distracted. The youth she has her eye on,
Long-limbed, good-humored, says a careless goodbye.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Eyen Greye as Glas

Medieval poets loved that phrase -- "eyes as gray as glass." They use it where we might say something like "eyes as blue as the sea."

You have to understand that glass was not the stuff of cheap trinkets and mass-produced perfect windows, then. Glass was expensive stuff, and it was thought to be beautiful. I still think it's beautiful. Not modern glass, which aims to be invisible, and succeeds in being insipid. But the sort of glass that a few of the oldest windows in my old house have -- wavy, ripply glass that catches odd glimmers and offers prismatic refractions of slanting light. It is beautiful stuff. Medieval people didn't think glass was just something to see through. It was also something to be seen.

I found myself standing in six inches of water this morning, water gray as glass. The sky was soft and luminous, the clouds drenched with light. Green grass played in the water. My car was gone. Why? I have no idea. It had broken down. Or just gone away. I walked in the pouring rain, the pouring light. Quite cold, but I didn't mind. just now. I was a little worried about how I would get out of this solitude, but not very worried. Everything was very bright, and the grass rippled and shone. I stepped from high place to high place.

I came to an edge, and there, thirty yards below, was the water again. I was bewildered. How could the water be both up here and down there? Why didn't it run down from here to there? A marsh can't sit up on a headland. Can it?
I wondered if I was dreaming. When that thought comes to me in a dream, it usually comes at the brink of waking. But I didn't wake. I kept walking and puzzling.

Finally I stopped. "I must be asleep," I thought. "There's no other explanation."

I made as if to jump into the sky, and cried "Awake!"

I thought maybe I was going to fly. Maybe this was the turning. Maybe this was the door. Buddhists have an ancient image of enlightenment, a fish jumping up into the air. In those pictures the fish blaze with a dozen colors. I thought of those rainbow fish.

My body jerked. My heart pounded. The light ran away into a sleepy darkness. My arms were wrapped loosely around a pillow. Across the room the numbers on the clock glowed green, but I couldn't read them -- my eyes wouldn't focus yet.

If I thought glass was just to see through, I would have been disappointed in that moment. But I wasn't. Not then, not now. A moment of vertigo and confusion, but that's all. I'm still marvelling at the water. Eyen greye as glas.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


I scooped a little bag of wild rice, and a bigger bag of basmati rice, yesterday. Off-black and off-white, they rest on the kitchen counter, today, quarreling.

"He'll never cook us," says the wild rice. "You wait. He'll put us in the cupboard, and go to Burgerville, and get pizza, and go out for Chinese, and we'll sit there in the dark till the moths or the mildew get us. You wait. You'll see."

"Well, now, we don't know that," says the Basmati, reasonably. "He thought about us yesterday, and imagined the whole thing in detail. Almonds to sliver, olive oil, garlic. He bought another steamer-insert just a few weeks ago. That's the life he really wants -- a life in which he can cook. He thought it all out."

"Yeah, right," says the wild rice. "There's a drawer right underneath us. You want to take bets on how old the brown rice and couscous and quinoa -- quinoa, for Christ's sake! -- how old they are? He doesn't know himself, I bet."

"What are you so anxious to be cooked for, anyway? What difference does it make to us? At least he thinks we're beautiful. 'Off-black and off-white,' that was kind of poetic, wasn't it?"

"Oh, God, spare me. That's what he always does. Goes limp and aesthetic. All he's got to do is pop us into a pot, and what is he doing? He's admiring our looks and composing blog posts. And meanwhile his family lives on fried food and ice cream, and regrets being stout. I mean? Gimme a break. I'd rather be Rice-Crispies. Snap, crackle, pop."

"Oh, come on. You're not a rice really, you know, you're a grass. Too hard to harvest, too pricey to make Rice-Crispies out of. They wouldn't even make Rice-Crispies out of me."

"Well that's what I mean! Seven bucks a pound, I am. For this I pose on the kitchen counter for a couple days? I was meant to be savored! And any sugared bleached wheat-product floozy has a better chance of really getting his attention than I do."

"Well, look, don't talk that way where he can hear you, okay? If he start's feeling guilty, then we're really screwed. That's what that brown rice and couscous and quinoa all have in common, you know. They stared at him reproachfully for a few days, and now they're in that drawer for good, so he doesn't have to look at them. So buck up! Look friendly and inviting! He loves food really, you know. He actually can cook. Make him think of that!"

"What is this, your lovey-dovey Hindu stuff? Look, Basmati, I'm from Montana. We don't do this feel-good, I'm-OK-you're-OK stuff. We say, shit or get off the pot, cowboy. You want to cook, cook! You don't want to cook, don't buy little bags of rice. How hard is that?"

"You're just making it worse, man. Just making it worse."

I think I'll put them in the cupboard. Just for now.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Battered Homely Thing

A good discussion of the death of languages over on Cassandra Pages. When has a language changed so much that it's ruined?

Languages have souls, I think. Vocabulary isn't much of the core of it -- grammar and syntax are closer to the heart -- but the bedrock couple hundred words may be. If English speakers suddenly started replacing words such as hand, wind, love, or bone, I would be greatly distressed.

In one sense English is already dead. The form of English I love best was destroyed by the Normans nearly a thousand years ago. Half the vocabulary was lost then; a great poetic tradition was forgotten; the spelling was made into the ludicrous mess it remains today. A couple centuries later a strange disease we now call "the great vowel shift" mangled the language still farther, lifting the pitch of all the vowels, making it the most constricted and squeaky of the European languages, and dragging the spelling even farther away from its pronunciation. Onto this mutilated trunk were clumsily grafted branches of French, Latin, and Greek. To someone with a historical linguistic sensitivity Modern English feels inauthentic -- it's a pastiche. My Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero.

But I don't think English has lost its soul, even now. Sky, root, heart, hold. It's had a long hard life; it's a battered, homely thing now, but it's still ours.

Monday, April 03, 2006


In the space, he said. In the space between the ripening of karma and our reaction to it, between (as we might say) the arising of an emotion and the construction of a storyline about it, there is a hairsbreadth of space, that's where you have a choice. Too small to see for most people most of the time. Meditate, watch closely, sometimes you can see it.

She said: you call that a choice, but that seems wrong. I'm not aware of any choice there. It seems like the choice must be somewhere else. (Tears, tears etched into the face, but dignity beyond the human -- she frightens me sometimes.)

Choice is the wrong word, he agreed. It carries too much baggage. Call it freedom.

But it is possible to act out of that space, he said.

And I realized just what an impossible wacko cult I belong to. Forget amulets and prophets and reincarnation and glittering deities -- those are sober science and ordinary daily experience, compared to claiming that someone could act out of that stillness. (Later he lifted the bell and the vajra, visual aids, making a simple point about wisdom and skillful means. The world rocked. Was I the only one that noticed?)

It's no wilder than our workaday delusion of a sovereign self, which, unswayed by cicumstances, says I choose this or I choose that. He justly compared that to a man jumping out of an airplane and thinking, "hmm, shall I choose to fall up or fall down?" We are hagridden by our self-conception, mercilessly driven by our sifted, censored image of reality. Never are we less free, never more predictable, never more chained to the past, than when we make what we fondly call "choices."

And yet. Something like freedom must be, or there could be no consciousness at all. We would be frozen solid. There would be no need for awareness and no opportunity for it. Nagarjuna demonstrated many centuries ago that If things had inherent existence, change would be impossible. As a corollary -- if we had no freedom, the question of whether we had freedom would never arise.

What good is freedom, you might say, if it lives in such a narrow space?

But I don't think that anyone who's ever experienced the power of that half-second of liberty could ever ask that question.

This is the beginning of the end. Late or soon, the tower will fall. This is what you see first: a few grains of sand trickling from the stressed foundations. It means though that the whole fortress is collapsing. Maybe not today, maybe not this lifetime, or the next, or the next eon, or the next kalpa, or the next cycle of the big bang. Doesn't matter. The trumpet's been blown. The thing's coming down.