Friday, June 30, 2006


Dave reprinted one of my favorite posts of his -- he had forgotten it, he says, but I had not -- which chimes interestingly with the self-portrait project: Looking Ourselves Over. I am apparently, by Apache standards, egregiously a whiteman. Almost everything irritating that whites do, I do to even greater excess (well, except for speaking rapidly and aggressively). Particularly looking long and directly into someone's eyes.

Long ago and far away, when I was in graduate school, I used to have coffee sometimes with a friend, and we'd talk about this and that, gossip about department doings and so on. I'd just drop by the coffeeshop and see if she was there; if she was, I'd sit down and have a cup. It was an easy and rewarding relationship.

One day I sat down, and she was looking bemused. "Just before you got here, the girl at the counter asked me if we were in love," she said. "She said we were always gazing into each other's eyes."

She laughed, and added (with what seemed to me unnecessary emphasis), "I said NO!"

The long night of childrearing descended on me, then, and since I had no social life how much I looked into people's eyes was not an issue. But recently, emerging slowly from my burrow as I have been, it's a matter of interest again. I had lunch with a woman last month, and I thought of my grad school friend, and of the Apaches, so I paid some attention. Sure enough, I was gazing into her eyes. I consciously did a bit less of that, turned my body slightly aside, looked elsewhere. Every time I checked, though, there I was again. Violating the Apache sense of decorum and probably even the Portland one. Gazing. It's not easy to shift such habits. It will take some mindfulness and practice.

I can trace it back. For many years of my life the only relationships I was at all interested in having were love-relationships. I don't think I ever learned the body language of friendship. So I treat everyone as a lover. No wonder I make hetero men uncomfortable. (Why, I wonder, do I not make lesbians uncomfortable? I don't seem to. I'll have to ask.)

I always needed to push. The Apaches have that tagged right. It is aggressive, challenging, to lock onto people's eyes like that. Even -- or maybe I should say especially -- when it's an affectionate gaze. I'm demanding more than my share.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Measure for Measure

... God in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception.

Along with Richard II, it is my favorite: Measure for Measure. It is neither wise nor satisfying. Its end is ludicrous, or horrible; everything holy is trampled on. The Duke of Dark Corners is indeed God as Renaissance England conceived him; righteous, capricious, irresponsible, putting people through agonies for their own unexplained and unexplainable good. Present when he likes and absent when you call on him. Never apologize, never explain. God learned his statecraft from Disraeli.

Death is a fearful thing. There is nothing edifying in this play. To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot. We are reduced to the brute resistance of Barnardine: I'll not consent to die today on any man's persuasion.

Why do I love this horrible play? Because it's Shakespeare at the ragged edges, Shakespeare out of control. There's no play that better reveals the strange vampiric opportunist that drove the Lord Chamberlain's men. It solves nothing. Shakespeare doesn't fall back on the empty grandeur and stagewide desolation with which he brilliantly and dishonestly begs the question in Hamlet and Lear. There's nothing here but the poet, the man who can't stop seeing.

Monday, June 26, 2006


All night long, the trees have been writhing, quarreling, pushing and shoving, showering down leaves and twigs, pacing back and forth in their narrow lanes between the sidewalks and the streets. They stop me to earnestly explain things in their whispery voices. When I can't understand them they become agitated. They shiver and sway and complain.

I go walking beside them, trying to explain in my turn, but my mouth is all full of a huge, meaty tongue; saliva drips from my mouth, but no words will come out. The trees moan in frustration, fretting the bark of their limbs together. I want to reassure them, but they point at my mouth and shudder. I realize I'm soft and repulsive to them, as a slug might be to us, and that my huge tongue is for them the crowning horror. I want to explain to them -- it's not always like this, I don't know why it's this way, this isn't how people usually are -- but I can't get intelligible words past it, only slaverings and grunts come out, and the trees crowd away from me, muttering in alarm.

At dawn they get quieter, and knowing they will not be awake long, I kneel down in the muddy track -- they've churned the ground all up with their roots -- and I try to draw them pictures in the dirt. They all lean over, shaking their heads. Slowly my tongue shrinks, and their movement dwindles. I make as if to stand up, but I find my knees have take root, tendrils run out from them far under the sidewalk, under the street; there are little trickling waterways down there that they find with delight. Now my tongue is gone. I can only whisper and sway. The talk of the trees is almost intelligible to me now, but even as I understand them their voices die away into a faint murmur. With a sigh I lift up my arms. It's more comfortable that way. As the morning gathers around us, my fingers grow longer, split, grow longer still; and then without warning they burst into leaf.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Only Light

Threading my fingers through your hair. The warmth of your scalp, like sun-warmed metal, glows against my fingertips. Words, words spoken, words written, scatter from this central point, dissolving. They spin slowly away. Even desire stops pulling. There's only light.

Suddenly I'm walking alone in a wide place. The smell and sound of the sea, just out of sight. I'm not sure what door I've gone through. I'm a girl walking in the wind. Not really alone. A hint of the future shimmers somewhere. Also out of sight.

I kiss the corners of your eyes. For a moment everything fits together. The smell of you, the smell of the sea, your breath on my face, the wind off the headland. The taste of salt on my lips.

I climb over the crest, and down below is the endless wrinkled sea, flecked with grains of pollen from the blossoming sun. The wind threads its fingers through my hair. Kiss me. Kiss me, again.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


The idea is stuck in my head, like a burr in a sock -- the idea making a book out of some of my blog posts. It would be like a quilting project. I have all the made squares; I just need a frame, and to arrange them so that the colors please each other at the edges and the whole thing makes a satisfying pattern.

It does not strike me as a good idea, but that doesn't make it go away. Its first incarnation was the thought that I could make a poetry chapbook. I like some of my poems, now. But I gathered them all together, and there weren't enough good ones to fill a chapbook. Half a dozen, maybe, struck me as good enough to bother with.

Even as I was gathering them, I was thinking, this isn't the right thing to do. Poetry isn't my strong suit. My strong suits are short rhapsodic prose meditations (I loathe the term "prose poem," but I suppose that's probably their proper name) and informal essays on practicing the Dharma. Could those be made into a book? Dubious. One that would sell? That's not dubious at all. Of course such a book wouldn't sell.

But it might be fun to make. It's been interesting just to pull out pieces and think about them as parts of something bigger, to think about juxtapositions, to think about what a frame might look like. I might be far enough distant from the toxic (to me) ambition to "be a writer" to actually have some fun with that sort of thing.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Apple Pathways

He lay face down in the grass, with his black wings swept down close to his sides, like a perching falcon's. Martha turned him over tenderly. His eye glittered, too bright for death. At his throat a single white underfeather curled like a bunch of lace.

Not a mark on him. We buried him in the back yard without much ceremony, murmuring a few om manis. There is always the moment, burying an animal, when you have cover its eyes with dirt. That's always the real moment of death, for me. Doing something you could not conceivably do to a living creature. I do it gently and unhappily.

We don't know which crow this was, of the three or four who visit regularly. The brash one who swooped straight down to the back porch rail to pick up his kibbles? The prudent one who hung back on a branch of the apple tree, waiting to see what happened to the first before commiting himself? The one who complained if we were late, going round from window to window to remind us of our duties? No telling. Maybe he wasn't even one of ours.

Yesterday I went through my blogroll from top to bottom. I don't keep it up well. Some of the blogs are gone altogether. Three have become private, asking me for passwords; I always wonder if I should email their owners and ask, but I think I already know the answer. Then there are the ones that simply stop. Six months, nine months, a year ago. Those are the ones that trouble me. I suppose I should just have a cut-off date, and move them to a second tucked away blogroll. Title it "inactive" or "hiatus" or something. But it feels like that moment of covering those bright, glittering eyes with earth. I keep putting it off.

Last night I got a comment on one of my posts from one Nasra Al Adawi, whom I didn't know:

Your web was listed as Gulnaz's friends .

In tribute to her Please spread the message and please visit my blog to see what I wrote

The tribute is here. It's lovely. I suppose lots of us fell a little in love with Gulnaz. If any of you knows, please let us know.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mosquito's Song

The night is interminable
And you are far away
Only the mosquito's song
For company.

Finally silence,
And I can hear it --
The echo of longing,
The thin wail of grief.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Answer to Dweezila, 4

My mother likes to tell entertaining stories about me. This is one of her favorites.

I read virtually all the time. I used to walk from class to class, reading. One day I walked into gym class, reading, completely absorbed, forgetting to suit up. The gym teacher said, in some exasperation, "if you want to read, Dale, maybe you should go to the library."

I looked up blankly. "Oh." I said. "Okay." And I turned around and walked off, still reading, to go to the library.

This story, she says, was told to her ruefully by the gym teacher, who was dumbfounded to see me walk out of his class. My innocence in taking him at his word was so patent that he just let me go. He didn't know what else to do.

Probably, like most of the stories my mother tells about me, this one is almost true. I have no clear recollection of this incident. If I ever had one, it would have been buried long ago under the repetitions of my mother's version of it. But my horror of gym class was so deep that I would never have gone into it so defenseless. My sensitivity to sarcasm was so fine that I could never have misunderstood him. If I really did trail off to the library, it would have been with full exultant knowledge of what I had pulled off. This is not a story of innocence; it's actually a story of deep duplicity.

I try very hard not to tell stories about my children. Particularly not droll little stories illustrating their charming foibles. Everyone, I believe passionately, should be allowed to tell the stories of his or her own life. No one else ever really knows what these stories mean.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Answer to Dweezila, 3

I had a set of little blue plastic soldiers, half an inch high. They were supposed to be Foreign Legionairies. Why they were blue, I have no idea. At the time I had not the slightest idea of what the Foreign Legion was, so I saw no reason they shouldn't wear blue clothes, carry blue rifles, and have blue hands and faces.

I had them at the dinner table, that first night in our new house with my new stepfather. I marched them in a circuit around my plate. Set them up in strategic positions on my napkin and silverware. Eventually they spilled onto the plate itself, taking up positions behind green beans, standing sentry over the meatloaf barracks, cautiously climbing the dinner-roll to survey the terrain. I was dimly aware of disappointing the people around me. But I always disappointed the people around me. What was wanted was a good-natured, cheerful, outgoing, mischievous boy. Something in the Tom Sawyer line. A boy with enthusiasm, a boy who made friends, a boy who scorned girls. What was wanted was someone to fill the role of Beaver at the "Leave it to Beaver" dinner table -- brash, impetuous, full of impish ideas; no harm in him.

I was reserved, sullen, and pessimistic. I had no friends. I liked girls. I had no ideas that had to do with actually doing or making anything. My ideas were about how to communicate with alien species. What the consequences of the population explosion would be. Whether infinity admitted of degree. That sort of thing. And there was harm in me. Oh yes, Precious. There was harm in me.

I was intensely visual. As a particularly enterprising legionary scaled my milk glass, and perched uncertainly on the rim, I became enamored of the blue and white. I loved then, as I love still, the intersection of planes and three-dimensional objects. The Legionary slipped and fell into the glass. He floated there, half-submerged, the lines of intersection with the surface making fascinating curves of blue against white. Soon his comrades, a whole lemming Foreign Legion, were dropping into the milk.

"That's it," rumbled my stepfather. I looked up in some surprise. He was standing up. My mother was making half-hearted protests. What was going on?

"He's just trying to see how much he can get away with," said my stepfather, almost kindly. He wasn't especially angry; it was just clear to him that it was time to exert some authority. It took me a few moments to understand what he meant, and when I did I flushed with rage. By that time he had hold of me -- he was a big and very strong man -- and he marched me into my new room, bent me over his knee, and spanked me, hard.

I had been struck exactly once by an adult, before this. One short sharp richly deserved swat. Never this kind of ritual humiliation, deliberate and extended.

When he finally allowed me to stand up, dry-eyed, speechless, and trembling with fury, I said not a word. From that moment till I left his house, I hated him, coldly, implacably, and absolutely. Oh yes. There was harm in me.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Answer to Dweezila, 2

Kids didn't wear backpacks in America in those days. You just carried your books. If you were unpopular, somebody might knock the books out of your hands and into a mud puddle. Dirty water would seep into your algebra book, and soak your homework.

There was a TV show, of excruciating stupidity, called The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Crude Cold War propaganda, but I didn't notice that, of course. What I noticed was the swaggering hero's sidekick. This sidekick was a small, sensitive, reserved Russian defector, played by David MacCallum. I even remember the character's name: Ilya Kuriakin. He wore black turtlenecks. He had no home. He had hopelessly divided loyalties. He carried a black attache case.

Attache cases were fetishes of enormous power, in the years of the Cold War. Do you remember? I talked my mother into buying me one. It wasn't quite the same, somehow. It was plastic. It was too fat -- really it was more a dwarfish suitcase. But at least it was black. I carried my books in it to school, and I'm sure I looked quite ridiculous. It would have served to confirm my dork status, if that had needed any confirmation. I wore black turtlenecks, too. They somehow failed to make my pudgy pink Norwegian face pale, thin, sensitive and slavic like Ilya Kuriakin's, but I persevered.

There were always science fiction books stuffed into this case. I read all the science fiction in my school library. There wasn't much -- science fiction was still marginal in those days. So after school I went to the town library. It had a whole wall-full. I simply started at the A's (Asimov) and read every single one.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Answer to Dweezila

I asked Dweezila where the hell she came from, to write such beautiful harrowing stuff, and she answered with a wonderful letter which explained a lot. But -- I don't know why I didn't see this coming -- she asked me the same question back. I keep writing bits of answers, but nothing holds together. I told her this and she said just do it in bits, then. Why should it hold together? So here's one bit.

Once upon a time, circa 1950, a Midwestern girl went away to college and had sex with a fellow-student, a science nerd there. She had sex with him because science nerds had a faint glamour about them, in the age of Sputnik; and also because he didn't care what anyone thought about him and she thought she would like that. As it turned out she didn't like it as much as she thought she would, but she liked the sex more than she thought she would, which sort of balanced things out and possibly meant they were in love. So, on the quiet, because this was the fifties and not the sixties, they got married.

Then when she went home her parents were distressed at the secret wedding and they convinced her to get married again, to pretend she was getting married for the first time -- a big wedding at the big white congregational church in her home town. Her twice-now husband knew nobody there. There are photos of this wedding. He stands stooped there, forlorn, defeated. All around is a big wedding, with places in it for everyone but him.

They went to California, but they didn't like the cities so they drove north, and eventually they came to Oregon, which they liked. There was the ocean one hundred miles this way and the mountains one hundred miles the other way, and in between an idyllic green valley. In a school administration office in that valley, the man overheard someone say, "I can't for the life of me find a science teacher."

"I teach science," he said.

So he taught highschool science in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. They had three children, neatly spaced at two-and-a-half year intervals. I was the last.

The little house, the sameness, wore on the girl. She wasn't a girl anymore. And all of her specialness seemed to have drained away. She knew now that she didn't actually love this man. But fourteen years went by. She ate a lot of chocolate and became fat. Her life was so small she couldn't stand it. And now it was the sixties, so she started graduate school in psychology, bought a little used car of her own, and filed for divorce.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Thank You

Sage Cohen wrote beautifully, a while back, of the decline of thanks:

Are we really living in an age where the only feedback loops of closure are complaints? How did we get to a place where we have mutually agreed that what's worth mentioning is what's wrong?

Mindful of that, as I left my inexpensive hotel in Montreal, I scrawled a note to leave with my tip, thanking whoever it was who had made up my room. And I meant it. I'd run short of clothes -- not having expected to be drenched with sweat periodically, as I was -- so I'd washed a change of clothes in the sink, twisted them in towels, and then draped them over the shower-curtain rod to finish drying. When I came back to the made-up room they were on hangers, and the shirt that would take longest to dry was cleverly hung on the bed-post in front of the air-conditioner. I was touched. The fact that I was washing my own clothes meant, obviously, that I was a poor prospect for tips. Putting the clothes on hangers, I felt, was one thing, possibly just automatic, but thinking about how to make sure the clothes were dry by dinner-time was quite another thing. Gratuitous kindness.

A little thing, of course. But people do that sort of thing all the time -- gratuitously think their way into what other people will need, do their jobs just a little better than they have to. So often we let the fact that these things occur under the auspices of a financial transaction erase the fact of the human kindness, the real connections, they represent. I remember one morning, chatting with a waitress at breakfast in the early morning, she ruefully recounting rushing to get to work. I said earnestly, "we really appreciate it, you know. You hurrying to wake up fast so the rest of us can wake up slow." She colored up and looked away and said "thank you."* I had a feeling neither she nor anyone else had ever put it in that light. But this was a big part of her life, waking up in a frantic scramble, and this was a big part of my life, reading and writing for an hour before work. I meant it.

The thing I most dislike about Capitalism is its tendency to make these human connections invisible, and hence to progressively weaken them, until "cash," as Thomas Carlyle put it, "is the universal sole nexus between man and man." I'm not particularly interested in getting rid of Capitalism.** All economic systems have their own propensities for exploitation, cruelty, and inhumanity. It seems to me that the 20th Century has demonstrated that in agonizing detail. More important than swapping one system for another is recognizing the faults of the one you've got and trying to mitigate them.

On a large scale, in our case, that means recognizing how much of our prosperity derives from poverty and cruelty elsewhere (or here, for that matter.) On a small scale, it means preferring whatever is small and human-scale and face-to-face to whatever is huge and mass-produced and anonymous. And recognizing the small kindnesses without which our lives, all of them, even here in the wealthy first world, would be hell.

* No, I don't think she was pissed off (a legit response, to be sure.) I think she was pleased.

** Anymore. I was passionately interested in it, thirty years ago.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A High Place

A high place in a dry country. No ghosts live here. No one has ever come here, even to die. Below the mesa, the marbled hills come to a sudden stop, like the toes of lions on a plinth. A pale violet sky kisses into lilac, and then dissolves into ice-blue above the ridge, in this place that has never seen violets or lilacs, and never will.

I say I come here to think, but of course I do what people always do when they set out to think. I remember, and I imagine.

A tumble of rapid images. I could have done this, and I could have done that. I should have known, I should have ignored -- and on it goes, the thin sad piping of a thread of mind that can't realize its irrelevence. If this were to be solved by thinking (remembering, imagining) it would have been solved long ago.

No devil comes to tempt me. No angel brings me tidings.

I crouch and find three stones to set together. A fourth to rest on top. A monument to -- what? You, I suppose.

Is there even anything to solve? To look for a solution is to assume so many things. To assume a problem. To assume progression. To assume agency. Now, now I really am thinking, and I think -- all those assumptions are wrong.

There are none of those things. There is nothing but the burning, nothing but the welding torch of love.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Per-Capita Happiness

I saw lots of children in Montreal. Groups of them trailing through the Museum of Contemporary Art; groups of them in the Parc Lafontaine. But I never heard a single child wailing or whining. No children threatening or screaming. None pummeling their mothers or each other.

I do not of course imagine that children in Montreal never do these things. We're talking about another city, not another species.

I said something like this to Beth, and she said simply, "They're happy children."

I think of all the measures of prosperity and well-being and quality of life that you read in the papers. Canada of course tends to come out on the top of those, as well. But I think you could replace them all with a simple scale based on what the children sound like.
At the Edge of Things

Born into a different light
There is a brightness trembling at the edge of things
The world may burst into flame
At any time.

I kiss your shoulders, your fingers;
Nothing before or after

Monday, June 05, 2006


Destroys a man

Twice: once
In the wanting,

Then again
In the not letting go.

-- Ben Zen

So. This morning's idle tears done with, I walked a bit in Montreal, singing softly, as I have a habit of doing, when I walk.

I will buy you a garden
Where your flowers can bloom
I will buy you a new car
Perfect shiny and new
I will buy you that big house
Way up in the West Hills

And now I'm sitting by the pond in Parc Lafontaine. Today will be a day of meditation and prayer -- badly needed -- and tomorrow very early I fly back to Oregon.

But first I will have breakfast with Beth, Dave, Tom (the front man for Ben Zen), and the Sylph. This is a beautiful city, and I will miss it. But I'm ready to be home.