Sunday, December 30, 2007

What Matters

before Christmas

A gray and white sky of furled clouds, but to the northwest is a pool of clear silver: in it floats the moon, its blemished surface held within a circle that is breathtakingly pure. A moment later the clouds have curtained it, but it breaks loose once more before the sky closes altogether, and the dawn turns into ordinary day. I close my umbrella and board the bus.

I feel fragile and weak, as if I had been ill for months, rather than days.

I am reading -- nearly finished with -- Barchester Towers, and I am hoping that I do not resemble Bertie Stanhope as much as I think I do. Trollope does an extraordinary job of conveying family culture -- no one but Tolstoy, maybe, does it so well -- and the family I grew up in, after my parents divorced, certainly resembled the Stanhopes more than is comfortable for me: that family that is so good-natured and entertaining that it takes a good while for an acquaintance to realize that they have no hearts.

I do not believe in psychopaths: I do not believe that there are really people without hearts. But certainly there are people who so habitually disregard them as to lose track of them: and clever, rootless people who don't have to work for a living are peculiarly liable to do so. The work of my life has been to recover the heart I misplaced as a child and a teenager. This year it has been bruised and wrung enough for me to be quite sure that I have recovered it.

The last few weeks have been a strange shadow-life: all of my past has risen up to testify against me, and I move easily through the many masks I have worn, never quite sure who I am at the moment, nor which variation of living in hiding is going to sweep me up at any given hour: long-dead temptations arise, spectral and impotent -- fitting Christmas companions, though their power to haunt and compel is injured by their being such a crowd: they jostle and fluster and embarrass each other.

I am held up by the extraordinary kindness of friends. This time, ill-spent and idle as it is, has nevertheless been necessary, and I think that soon I will be through it. Until enlightenment I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and in the supreme assembly of the Sangha. In the Buddha: in the purity of my own heart, which I lost and disbelieved in for so long. In the Dharma: the teachings, from Nagarjuna to Tolkien, from Lao Tzu to Trollope, from the nun who ran the the Gestalt group at the New School to Michael at KCC. In the Sangha: the community of practitioners. Meaning many things, but certainly including all of you. For me, most importantly, including all of you.

Merry Christmas. Happy Solstice. The blessings of Sunreturn. However you celebrate it -- here's to the coming of light after darkness.

after Christmas

I can't say I write because I think it matters. I write for the same reason cats mark their territory, taggers tag, kids carve their names into their desks, and sorcerors pour their souls into their cut-off fingers, and hide them: always, always, the idea is to escape from death, to lodge oneself in something solider and safer than this trembling unstable flesh. And of course always the hope that, in some other, refracted form, I'll be more interesting than I am in -- as we say -- the flesh.

I am tired of it, this itch to be something other than a few decades' flickering pattern of a mammal: it's a stupid waste of time, surely.

(But the sky, the sky, the clouds and the moon and the sun and the stars and the silver dawn pools of brightness. I suppose the name for this feeling is reverence, or awe. It stands directly opposite the marking impulse.)

I am in the flesh, all the time, in this odd ursine frame, short on sleep and sniffling. I see myself in a shop window, say, darkly, and am disturbed by what I see -- an active white-haired man. Square shouldered and round bellied. He looks like nothing I associate with myself. Never has, though. That's nothing new.

I feel almost alive, almost real, when I'm touching someone. Otherwise, not much, not often. Cloud, sky, sun, moon, stars. Otherwise -- it's an artificial, unconvincing life, for the most part: I can't take it very seriously.

Othello's occupation's gone: that's what I'm really responding to here. I built my life around the service of eros, and if that's done with, then -- what am I to be? And more urgently, what am I to do? I can't look at the sky all day.

Well -- just the next thing that serves, I guess.

The grimly interesting thing is how much everything stays the same.

Ain't it funny how your new life didn't change things
You're still the same old girl you used to be.

For most of my life I've looked to eros to change things. It seldom did. It advertises itself as the way into a new life, and that of course is what it always means in Hollywood; but new lives aren't really entered into that easily.

The wish for a new life is a deep and powerful one, but it's almost -- as it's been configured in me -- a completely self-defeating one. Because with my heart and my attention set on a new life, I relegate this one to a restless idling in the waiting room. I don't fix anything here, I don't settle to anything here, because I'm not -- as I conceive it -- staying here.

But here, of course, is precisely where I live. A few months shy of fifty, and I still camp in my house, rather than living in it.

Having children, of course, contributed to this. Because everything with children is temporary, and there's no un-draconian way of stemming the inwash of useless and unbeautiful stuff into your house, when you have kids. But it has far more to do with the everyday habits of my heart and mind. I lived this way, camping out, long before I had children. I lived this way when I was a child myself. I never invested myself in the the houses I lived in. The work I was doing was never my real work.

It can look like equanimity, like an admirable lack of attachment, but mostly it's just rootlessness.

I have moved. I have moved to a genuinely new place. But it will take all my attention to stay here. I must watch and meet the waiting-room habits of mind, as they arise, where they arise.

This is a struggle partly to be made on the cushion. But even more, in the domos. I must, literally, put my house in order.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas in Texas

This is in response to last week's totally optional prompt, about a roadsign in empty country, which reminded me of our every-other-year journeys through the Southwest to have Christmas with my Dad's family in Texas.

The telephone wires ride their poles, up and down
The saguaros pivot slowly, hauling the car
Down the shimmering highway. We rise and fall
With the land that is no longer Oregon,
Not yet Texas.

Soon we will come to the end
Of the sweet high country of New Mexico.
My Dad will pull over to change his shirt,
And then we will arrive

In El Paso. My grandparents have a miracle,
a grapefruit tree, in their back yard.
My cousins call my uncle "sir,"
As if he were a stranger, not their father.
Dark Mexicans lurk in the parking lots.
We are not quite sure what is wrong about the Mexicans;
No one wants to talk about them.

But we drive across the border one day, so we kids
Can say we have been to Mexico. We are warned:
The Mexicans will try to steal from us and cheat us;
We are not to trust them. So we don't:
But their eyes are kind, dark and kind,
As we trail through the shops.

All the way home, I think about their eyes,
So different from our cold hard blue.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Italian for Christmas

I've been dabbling with Italian. I know not a word -- or didn't, until last week -- but I've been working my way through the Schaum's outline of grammar, the last couple days, with great pleasure. It's a curiously satisfying language, sitting easy in the mouth, requiring none of the pursing and gagging of French or the spitting and coughing of German. Just a mellowed and agreeable form of Latin.

The only thing that continually brings me up short is that a person who grew up with English and German expects 'h' in a consonant cluster to mark palatalization; the Italians, perversely, use it to mark the opposite. So "perche" is pronounced perkay, and "perce" -- if there is such a word -- would be pronounced perchay. No English-speaker, of course, is in any position to criticize other languages' spelling habits, but I wish they'd chosen a less outlandish way to represent hardening than by adding the consonant everyone else uses to represent softening.

I had picked up my Greek grammar, a couple weeks ago, but I didn't want something hard. I'm tired. I wanted something easy, that would make me feel smart. Italian was just the thing. Now I need to find something like an Italian translation of the Chronicles of Narnia, some simple children's text that I've read aloud a million times, to pick up vocabulary and idiom.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Suffering, and So Forth

On the one hand, the conviction that this alone is life, this alone has value, this, this right here, not the new life, not the purged man, not the sainthood to be, but only this, however banal, however ordinary. It is here or nowhere, now or never, it is here in the imprudent third dry oversugared pastry from its plastic tray, in the endlessly repeated computer game, in the procession of increasingly vapid images of appealing unclothed girls. This too, say the theologians of my sect, arises from Buddha-nature. What else is there, after all, for it to arise from?

On the other hand, the sense that drove Mole to the river (and thence to the Wild Wood), that inspired Sendak's dog on her travels -- "there must be more to life." It is as inescapable as the banality, twinned with it somehow. And I want to practice, I want to meditate, not to achieve some higher state of mind or even some lowering of the pitch of anxiety in my life, but just because of the stillness, because of hearing the drops of rain spattering the driveway, because there is a sensual pleasure in knowing that the heater will turn itself off in twenty minutes, back on again in another twenty minutes, even in watching the gentle, twitchy way my mind starts trying to persuade me that this time, this time there must be more than twenty minutes between cycles of the heater, and I could just look at the clock -- as if anyone would know or care!

So I began to expound an opposition but there isn't one, not really, and there is no choice between this and that. There is this immense fragility -- and everything does break -- but Buddha-nature is leaking into reality inevitably, despite, or rather because, of the breakages.

The suffering is huge. I have been reading, with impatience, an anthology of 20th Century French poetry. They seem to have the notion that their suffering is unlike everyone else's. Not all of them. But most of them do a remarkable job of cutting the contemplation of suffering off from its normal consequence of compassion. The truth of the matter is far more appalling than they think. If they knew, if they really knew, the whole thick rope of suffering that runs through the center of each human being, they would be stopped in their tracks. Each step we take is through a red trembling mist of desire and every floor is iced over with anxiety, and our bodies are, at the best of times, decaying and weakening and coming to pieces. You flee bourgeois life not to escape respectability and limited horizons, mon frere; you flee it because your little sister has cerebral palsy and and your aunt's spine is fusing into crook and you can't bear to look at them, and you want to run to where the people are all young, and the wounds are all self-inflicted.

We conceal our suffering from each other, and that is perhaps the worst disservice we regularly all do for each other, because it gives an absurdly false picture of "normal" life as pain-free. Clergymen, therapists, and doctors are some of the few people who are in a position to know just how much suffering, how much illness and agony and misfortune, are going on all the time. The rest of us walk around and see what we imagine to be the smug faces of self-satisfaction, rather than the laboriously maintained public expressions of people who are barely managing to get by.

The people who go into massage therapy are mostly young, and healthy. Part of our massage trades for classes was taking each other's health histories. The number of things wrong with these young healthy people was astonishing. Twenty-year-olds taking half a dozen prescription drugs, with chronic disabling back pain, agonising tendonitis, depression, bulimia, migraines, diabetes, frozen shoulders -- you name it. As the months went our histories all became much healthier, because we grew less scrupulous and more tired of listing everything out. My high blood pressure and cholesterol medicine disappeared; I noticed other people's TMJ and sleep apnea and arthritis and depression vanishing. But having glimpsed it all once, I had to look at everyone a little differently. Nothing in my massage practice since has led me to think there's less general suffering than that glimpse revealed.

I belong to a couple of mailing lists: one for my sangha, on which people regularly post requests for prayers for the seriously ill and the dying; another on which we are on such terms of intimacy that we speak of divorces, financial disasters, the serious illnesses ourselves or of our children, the descent of loved younger brothers into addiction , or of aging parents into Alzheimers. After a few years you begin to realize that these things are not -- as they would appear to each of us alone -- remarkable events, but the regular fabric of human life.

Life is suffering, said the Buddha: and of course we are quick to point out, rightly, that "suffering" is a technical term, there, that it includes a plethora of things that we would ordinarily class as pleasures. To someone able to parse it carefully the turbulence of mind involved in, say, eating lunch with a friend, the anxiously preserved and obsessively protected sense of self, the endless yammer of that imagined self for validation, makes the most pleasant lunch date largely an affair of suffering. True enough. But just in an ordinary way, the Buddha's assessment is just. We live, even we fortunate first-worlders far from the wars, in an ocean of pain.

Is this discouraging? Perhaps, to people of a more pollyanna-ish disposition than mine. To me it is profounding encouraging. The mess humankind has made of its own nest is one thing, if you think of it all as having been done by healthy carefree unencumbered people with time to look about them and think about things. It is a different thing if you think of it as having been done by people deep in trouble, worried about their friends and families, and very short on resources. In that case you might think it remarkable that things are not very much worse.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


This cold has been threatening to overtake me for months. I have felt it hovering, near or far, since summer at least. I was anxious, in the week or two before my boards; I desperately wanted not to be sick, then, and I stopped riding my bicycle or doing anything strenuous, so as not to give it any opportunity.

"Let me be as sick as anything, after my boards," I said -- to myself? -- "but let me get through them first." I felt a bit under the weather on the day of the exams, but not so much so that I couldn't conceal it.

After that, I threw caution to the winds. I almost wanted to be sick. I felt I had to be really sick, to stop the hovering.

Now, whether this has to do with physical reality, I couldn't say. It's not entirely implausible. But it's as a shadow-play that it's important, of course, and for that purpose it really doesn't matter how true.

I knew it was unwise to bike to Tosi's in the cold, last Tuesday. And to go ahead and do the massage Thursday night (I did warn my client, and offer to reschedule, but she wanted to go ahead.) So in a sense I brought this on myself. But I wanted to get sick and be done with it. Until my body understood this virus intimately, it might hover indefinitely. So I rode my bike and did my massage.

Now it's settled down into my chest. But my body is gradually getting the better of it. I feel marginally better than I did yesterday. It's learning to recognize the virus and coming to grips with it. When I get well, I will be really well.

There are times when prudence is my greatest enemy. It's better to fall and get up again, than to walk too carefully. I can't say even now, as the full suffering implicit in this year becomes plain to me, that I wish it had been different. I don't wish it had been different.

A silver light comes through the windows. A high, white overcast, and a faint luminous mist; light that comes from everywhere and nowhere. My diaphragm, the muscles between my ribs, and the serrati that bind them to the spine are sore from coughing, and my head throbs slightly.

I am intensely grateful for all of it, for this living, breathing, suffering body, for the love beyond imagination or desert.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


But in fact there was honey in the house: a half-inch in the bottom of a plastic bottle with a blue outline of Maine on the label. A gift to my daughter for looking after an African hedgehog for a college classmate. It had sat there a long time. The honey, I mean. The hedgehog had, too, but the hedgehog isn't part of my narrative.

The honey was quite solid. For honey is thixotropic: when cold and still it becomes more solid, but when warm and worked it becomes more fluid. It shares this property with various paints and, according to wikipedia, certain non-Newtonian pseudo-plastics. It also shares it with the connective tissue that accounts for some 20% of the human body, which is why (literally) warming up makes you less prone to injury during exercise.

And so the thixotropic nature of honey reinforces my vague homeopathic belief that it must be good for me, when I have a cold, and another thixotropic substance is make a nuisance of itself in my upper respiratory tract. I would believe this anyway, because Frizzy Rachel said so.

I ran the bottle under hot water and squeezed it. Then I poked a slender spoon in and got a dollop and stirred it into steaming hot water. And now I am drinking it, at 3:00 AM, and presently I may feel restored enough to go back to bed. And I think that "the Non-Newtonian Pseudo-Plastics" would be a good name for a band.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


In the middle of the circle, what my fellow-buddhists would call a shrine: an antlered skull, a candle, and stones arranged in a pattern: four little bear statuettes circled the pattern, one at each point of the compass. Sage burning.

We passed the talking stick, and talked about death, and grandfathers, and being out of work, and being deserted. When each person finished and handed the stick to the next, everyone would say "ah-oo," together -- or some sound like that -- a sound curiously like one of the pronunciations of "om" that I've heard, way down in the throat, the back-vowels coming straight up from the diaphragm.

And then the drums. I probably would not have come, but for the drums. I've never much sought the company of men; in fact, I've avoided it most of my life. But it seemed maybe time to change that. Having lunch with Rob, who invited me to the circle, was part of that.

But a bigger hurdle than the company of men was my distrust of White people doing Indian things. It has a couple components. One is much the same thing as my distrust of people in my sangha who seem too fond of Tibetan stuff, who take Tibetan names and swoon over anyone in a robe. "Spiritual tourists" is the unkind (and often unfair) name I attempt to refrain from applying to them. We have our own sacred traditions, lore, and iconography: why go sniffing after someone else's? -- Well, in my case, because I can't quite accept the bloody, vengeful, and jealous God of my fathers. I take the Tibetan paraphernalia because it comes with taking Michael's teaching and with the community of KCC. Some people, I suspect, take the community and the teaching because it comes with the Tibetan paraphernalia.

But in the Indian case, there's a the further complication of the conquest and occupation, which is not (the way I reckon time) very far in the past. After having practiced haphazard genocide against these people for hundreds of years, and having appropriated their land, going on now to appropriate their sacred rites, as well, seems like the crowning effrontery, the ne plus ultra of imperialism.

Not that I was very sure of whose rites we were appropriating. The leader of the circle, Patrick has some Mingo blood. I had a notion that the drums and sage and talking stick were Plains Indian things -- though most people drum, one way or another. Patrick referred to Black Elk as an authority. I suppose that modern Americans, in any case, must scrape up rites wherever they can find them, whatever their ancestry. When I traveled in rural Greece, people wanted to whether I was from New York, Chicago, or California; I eventually tired of trying to convince them that there were other places in America, and settled for being from California. In more or less the same way, I suppose, native North Americans end up settling for being Sioux or Navajo.

But I digress. The drums. I love drums; always have. I have a small, sweet-toned conga that I play occasionally. But I've almost never drummed in company, though it's always been an attractive idea to me. I've been too shy, or too careful of my dignity.

The drumming began almost casually, little disconnected thumps and rolls, like an orchestra tuning up. Gradually it coalesced into a magnificent music, quite unlike anything I've ever heard. People came in and out of focus, took up different drums and sticks and clangy and chirpy things. Patrick owns a drum-shop, and the wealth of drums to choose from was intoxicating, though I was too timid, that first night, to try any but my own.
Blue Star

More reshpeckobiggle.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Okay, I confess, it's kind of groovy. Like, you know, something I would have put on my wall in 1971 when I was thirteen. But I sure am having fun with Inkscape.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dear One

Our basement has never been entirely dry. With the recent heavy rains, it's been wet again. And a cardboard box of my old papers, Martha told me, had gotten wet.

So I went down and opened it up. Cold and clammy. On the top was a flimsy manuscript box. I lifted its lid. "Appolonius of Tyre," I read. The title page of my second novel. I flipped through the pages. This wasn't the first time, obviously, it had gotten damp. Black mold spotted the upper left corners of the pages; a noxious dust rose from it. I put it aside, made a little queasy, and not by the dust. Presumably my first novel was in here somewhere too.

Old student evaluations. Papers I wrote at Yale on metrics and metonymy. A paper, God help us, on Lao Tzu, written when I was sixteen and going to Lane Community College in Eugene.

Christ. More manila folders. One fell open and I lifted out a closely filled handwritten card. Who on earth was it to? I couldn't read the salutation. "Dear Orn"? Who on earth was that? I read a little, and got accustomed to the hand. Of course. Mary Pat, from grad school, twenty-some years ago now. "Dear One," it began. She was a southerner, who specialized in 18th Century lit, and used that epistolary language of passionate friendship. It must have been written during the summer after our first year in graduate school.

I found her online -- at least I think it was her; her name is fairly common -- and wrote her an email, a couple years ago. She never replied.

I paused. Hundreds, probably thousands of pages. I could look through them, and savor the melancholy of it all. Obviously I once thought I would want to. Or even that somebody else would want to.

I shut the box up and came back upstairs. "Let's just toss it," I said to Martha.

The cold rain keeps falling, here. Floods up north, and towards the Coast.

With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain
For the rain it raineth every day
With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain
For the rain it raineth every day.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


In the morning my breath
smokes in the air; in the evening
the gold crumbled flakes of the maple leaves
are a glittering dust in the ebbing sun,
the breath of the dreaming earth.