Monday, April 30, 2007

Future Perfect

It is only hard, I said to myself, because I have not done it before. Three times I've veered away at the last minute, walked on past, or pretended to be just looking. So I will do it in the future perfect, now, having already done it; I will revisit this place, the place I always went, back in those days when I lived in Portland, and I was going to massage school. And I will look around with nostalgia, slow to respond to the living people, busy greeting the ghosts; the living people will come slowly into focus, and I will order in some distraction, not the distraction of anxiety, which would be ridiculous, but the distraction of the past, which everyone knows is nobly confusing.

So I turned in at the door, into the old place. They had new people behind the counter. I had to explain what I wanted; they didn't already know, as they used to. Times change.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Daughter of Death

for Kristin

O beloved daughter of death, mother of life,
All these things return
To one small turning of the hand, fingers
Hesitating on a doorknob, in the red slant light
Of day's end, in the glow of the apple petals.

Darling, the generations ripple past,
Rings on the water, faster than the years
When I still counted --

We reach into the spaces of the past, wishing
We could return a childhood to those who had none.
But it is delicate, handling the past;
It crumbles under our touch, the grit slides
Between our fingers. Better not to speak.

Love. I will go on saying that word, not
Because it means what I mean, but because
Nothing means what I mean. You see?

Again it rises. You see? There, where
Venus trembles in the west, where the dark hills
Crowd together. That's where it is born;
We go calling it through daybleach and sungloom
But always, it finds our backs.

No one finds it. It finds us.

If I could string together all the beads of this love
I would hang them around your neck
My darling daughter of death, mother of life;
I would bring you a poem to astonish

Tree and stone, water and wheel,
The bloody sunset, the stained petals,
The opening sky, the veins of cloud,
The long shadows and the closing door.

Friday, April 27, 2007


Everything that rises must diverge
And skies, first blue, become black
And pricked with stars,
And finally empty, measureless;
The dread that when I was young
We called, in defeat, Space.
So we learned in school.

I've never been there
To Space
And neither have you
So you might think it didn't matter
What we thought it was,
A huge, devouring hole, or
The glorious empyrean

Any more than it mattered what nonsense
Ancient cartographers wrote in the margins,
Doodling their fears and desires;
Prester John or Anthropophagi,
Amazons or dragons. But
It matters more,
In fact, than the map of what we know.

It is the landscape of the heart
And it has to do
With what we believe is in the wings, or
Before birth, or beyond the oven
Of the crematorium.
It is what we think we will fall into
If we lose our grip.

So I will tell you what is out there
In Space; if you go to that website
Of the night sky, and click zoom
And zoom, and zoom, and zoom,
Till you're past the sandy stars
Of the furthest nebulae, and the last
Magellanic cloud.

Click again, and the image will gather
Of your dearest friend, reaching
To brush the hair from your face.
Young again, and full of health,
The smile of the last mirth you shared
Still lingering. If you let go, you will fall
Into her arms.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On Being Asked to Show my Tattoos

Chaining the skin to the past. As if I were not already tight enough bound to yesterday's opinions and preferences. Is it not enough that every corner business has a logo? Must my person be branded as well?

I am not a product. I will not be a billboard for myself.

Well, that was my first thought, that I am nobly resisting my objectification; but of course that's a crock. What rises up in me, mostly, is the desire to be seen as someone resisting his objectification. Which is no different, at bottom. A slightly different sort of object, that's all.

I continue to chew on this desire to be seen. It is a complicated one. What is blogging, but another manifestation of that desire? But it is the serpent whych eateth his own tayle. Because what I want is to be seen as I dream myself, as God hinted to me that I might someday be. I want to be seen as I really am, which is not even what I now am, let alone what I appear to be. But as soon as I am seen, I am seen as something, and I know -- late or soon, depending on how honest I am -- that I am not really that something. I am like those silly psychic investigators who try to take pictures and make recordings of spirits. If you can take a picture of something immaterial, then it's not immaterial. The price of getting a clear picture of a spirit is demonstrating beyond question that it's not a spirit.

And yet. Here is the flesh, that is palpably an object. "I am not my body," insists my teacher. Perfectly orthodoxly. That's what Buddhism says. The body may be precious, it may be a temple, but only as the house of a spirit. Does Buddhism make sense, without that ruling concept? Its practices still work -- that's not what I'm questioning, I know that by direct experience. But that doesn't mean its theory is right.

I crave to be seen, and desired, as flesh. It may be what I want most urgently. But does that craving make sense even on its own terms? I'm not sure. It may be one of those phantom desires that can never be fulfilled. Like the itch of an amputated limb. It has all the marks of that sort of desire.

And yet. I don't believe any desire is worthless. No desire is wrong, though any of them may lead to wrong. There is a certain reaching out, characteristic of all desire. And if I think that the body and the spirit are one, then it's not so simple as mistaking one for the other. It is, rather, mistaking the nature of both. Neither one can correctly be considered an object. Maybe seeing and being seen would have to be replaced by communion.

Always the longing. The one constant of my life.

You think too much. That is your problem, says Zorba, in the back of my mind. Thank you, Zhoen, by the way, for nominating Mole as a "thinking blog," (though I'm still trying to work it out and see if it comes round to a compliment :->)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Faith's House


As we spoke she laid a hand on
Her small round belly
Holding a secret, or a pain

And I thought of coiled intestines
And how they say that a surgeon's nightmare
Is to try to pack them in, once out;

And I thought of children in secret spaces
Growing in the dark, listening
To the rushing lubb dupp of the heart.

Love moves oddly, as one grows older;
It sidles, slips sideways, and turns;
It no longer washes in like a tide,

And out, leaving ruin behind it.
Instead it pools and eddies,
No longer demanding and requiring,

It inquires and remands. It is a love
Of questions, not of answers.


Here belongs a catalog. If all poems,
As one said, are love poems, now I should make note
Of how she listens intently,

Staring hard, with her lips parted,
Like a child's; or how
She gathers a shawl about herself

Prefiguring an old woman
Of an efficient and matter-of-fact sort,
And I would mention a certain black skirt,

And hair brushed forward at the temples.
But all that, though real enough,
Belongs to the tides. It is not

What we are here to celebrate.
We are not even here to celebrate
Ingrained kindness, or care,

Or constancy. We are here
To warm a house.


First the Magi bring cinnamon
And Persian spices without names
Ever named in the West;

St Nicholas brings a tea-set
With an intricate silver creamer
And a bowl, and sugar spoons;

Ananda brings lotuses
That blossom on the water,
And a wish-fulfilling jewel.

Milarepa grins and contributes
A nettle pot, before vanishing
(He never stays long, you know),

An elderly poet brings a sword
To keep upstairs, and another brings
A bow of burning gold;

I am gone with broom before
To sweep the dust behind the door.


The gift of speech was stolen from me
By a malevolent fairy, at my christening
Who doomed me to mumbling;

The gift of appropriate gifts has never been mine.
Decorum is a painful lesson, half learned
And readily forgotten;

But one gift I have always retained,
Overlooked in the general rout, and that
Is the gift of offering blessings. And so:

A blessing on the windows, of seeing,
A blessing on the stove, of warming,
A blessing on the floor, of standing,

A blessing on the door, of opening,
A blessing on the roof, of sheltering,
A blessing on the walls, of holding.

The oldest of pieties is that naming calls;
I name this Faith's House, these four walls.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Hail rattles briefly on the windows. Shadows and bronze sunlight hesitate, move on, over the wire-latticed glass. Half a dozen empty tables. At the far side of the room a small, serious young man, sitting up perfectly straight, turns his hand slowly over, his eyes moving between his kinesiology text and his forearm. The room is silent. A couple times a student comes in to check her email, a quick quiet rattle on the keyboards, and goes noiselessly back out.

I doze a little, feeling the pools of light and shadow wander over me, feeling the rain and hail in my sleep. A long slow loneliness sifts down and settles over me. I miss the couple of boisterous students of our classes, who are usually here by now, who stir things up and bring me out of myself. Usually I seek out quiet places and solitude. But today I have been alone all day, and I've had my fill. I'd like some noise and warmth.

No one comes. 6:25. I gather my books and coat and cross the hall to the classroom, expecting to see people sitting on the floor, but no one's there. There's a sign on the door: class has been canceled. Odd. Class yesterday evening -- different teacher -- was also canceled. Is something virulent going around?

I could ask at the office, but instead I go out, walking bareheaded in the rain. Towers of white cloud in a sky that's half bright blue and half dark gray. Squalls catching the sunlight. The world rocks a little, like a ship. I walk down to the convention center and stand under the high glass, waiting for the bus. On a building several blocks away an American flag floats over an Oregonian flag, both at half-mast. I search my memory, but can't think of who's died recently, except for Kurt Vonnegut. I don't suppose it's for him. Maybe it's the Virginia Tech shootings. Or maybe it's been an especially bloody day in Iraq. I don't follow these things: it's no news to me that people are deliberately slaughtering each other. They've been doing it all my life, and I confidently expect them to be doing it long after my death. They think it will change something. They have no idea, no idea how hard it is to change things. They think it's other people who need to be straightened out, or got rid of. If only it were that easy.

It's the twist in the heart that needs to be straightened out. I know that darkness, that hunger, that endless gnawing emptiness. "He was a loner" announce the headlines, gravely. Well, yeah. Me too.

Another shock of hail. A brilliantly white airplane crosses against a black cloud. Sunlight glitters on the green glass of the convention center.

Earlier today an ancient homeless man, with iron-gray hair curling around his ears, wandered up to me on the sidewalk. "Another fifty cents and I can get a sixpack," he muttered. Looking closer at his face, the color and texture of grimy red vinyl diner upholstery, I realized that he was probably exactly my age. I dug change up out of my pocket, a couple bucks' worth, and handed it to him. There was a lightening in his body, as if something heavy had been taken off his shoulders. He straightened up and looked me in the eye for the first time, and said distinctly, "God bless you."

Yeah. I hope he will. I hope he'll bless all of us.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Our Mutual Friend

'As to the amount of strain upon the intellect now. Was you thinking at all of poetry?' Mr Wegg inquired, musing.

'Would it come dearer?' Mr Boffin asked.

'It would come dearer,' Mr Wegg returned. 'For when a person comes to grind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should expect to be paid for its weakening effect on his mind.'

Probably my favorite Dickens novel, though it's hard to say: I can't always tell the them apart, and I sometimes find myself wondering which character comes from which novel: Captain Cuttle, now, was that The Old Curiosity Shop? "When found, make a note of," as he himself would say. When a Dickens impulse comes over me, I don't have a hankering to read, say, David Copperfield again; rather, I find myself missing the company of Mr Micawber, and I rummage among my fat, yellowing, disintegrating college paperbacks till I find the one he inhabits.

(When I first left IBM, and took to Massage School, in the cheerful expectation that something would turn up, Martha would occasionally clutch her breast and declare, "I will never desert Mr Micawber!)

Anyway, I'm reading Our Mutual Friend, for the umpteenth time. Improbably, it's gotten better since the last time I read it.

I love the spaciousness of Victorian novels, and of Dickens above all. They have all the time in the world. Their characters aren't always slaving away in the service of a tyrannical plot; there's time for them to wander a little, and for the author to wander with them, or away from them. There's all kinds of openings for the light to leak through.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


The quiet of Easter Sunday beats slowly through the city; the streets can't quite catch their breath, and the sunlight formally, reluctantly, lightens the dull housefronts and soft lawns. If you've ever watched someone with pneumonia sleep, and wondered whether they would wake again, you'll know what I mean.

Every Easter I see Death walking, high and stiff, through empty streets. I guess resurrection doesn't mean to me what it means to most people. Good Friday is not the day of unique sacrifice. Death? We all do it. There's nothing particularly divine about dying in pain. But to be finally done with it, and then come back -- that's the sacrifice. That's what requires a Christ or a Buddha. This is the day of sacrifice.

Rain soaked the muddy mound of loose earth over Christmas's grave, yesterday, and little rivulets of brown water ran down into the grass. The toddler next door loved to come over and give Christmas treats. "I think she's hungry," he'd confide in us. We'd give him a couple treats and he'd feed them to her, and then he'd come back to us again. "I think she's hungry," he'd repeat, meaning he wanted to do it again. We'd give him a couple more, he'd feed her again, and come back again. Urgently, earnestly -- "I think she's hungry."

His mother, who tends to take the easy way out, has decided to tell him that Christmas has "gone on vacation." I guess that means we all have to participate in that fiction, now. Christmas has gone on vacation. It sounds like some sort of riddle, or paradox.

My sister-in-law asked me to rub her shoulders, which were stiff; after I'd done that a while, she noticed with some surprise that she could read the print on a poster across the room, which she hadn't been able to read when I began. If the things are causally related, I'd dearly like to understand the physiology of it. I'm guessing that unstiffening the shoulders had a ripple effect of unstiffening, extending eventually to the muscles responsible for adjusting the shape of the lenses of the eyes. But how exactly does the unstiffening "ripple?" Through the muscle tissue itself, or is it a generalized nervous response? Or is it maybe a matter of blood flow? Would working the jaw and facial muscles have done the same thing quicker, or would working the feet have done just as well? I wonder if anyone's studied eyesight and massage. It would be a fun thing to investigate.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Fluttering of Paper

Listen. It won't work. I've walked long enough in that half world. I've stopped by your bed and kissed you as you slept. It all vanishes. No one ever remembers, not really.

That's why we write it down, so we can remember; but that's even worse, because what we remember when we read them is just the words we wrote, just the infection of loss. We want to move backwards, to the place before the words, but do we even have a way of knowing there was a place before the words? Did I ever kiss you, or did I just read about a kiss, and write it down again, one of a long long line of conspirators in the fiction of kisses, setting the next generation up for the same fall?

I kneel down, careful not to wake you, and kiss your cheek, there where the color is high and your skin is so warm, so warm that it warms even my hungry-ghost mouth, making me think of a child's hot chocolate under the ski-lift housing, or of the grateful first sip of whiskey, or of blue smoke blown back over the lips, still warm from the match. This is as close as we get. What made us think there was anything else?

What we asked for, what we've known, is only a fluttering of paper in the gutter. Our dreams have become transparent, indistinct, unreal. In the end we are just looking for a corner where we can be alone.

This, by the way, so far as it relates to real life, relates to the break-up of a friend of mine, and not to me or mine.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bound Flow

Long ago, in the dark backward and abysm of time, I and Martha took a six week Modern Dance workshop, an "intensive," as they called it. This was some twenty-five years ago, and I don't remember a lot about it, except that it was fun and I was not very good at it. But one thing I do remember is how we were taught to divide up space and classify movement, according to the system of someone named -- I think -- Laban. I remember it because it involved a number of exercises for identifying the space around ourselves that we habitually used and avoided using. The variation was surprisingly wide -- different people had very different spaces that they "inhabited." I lived in a small space directly in front of my chest, about where you'd hold a book to read it, and in order to attend to something, or manipulate it, I would always try to move it into that space. And my body had grown huddled around that space, my head bowed forward and my shoulders moving forward around it. Exercises that made me put my attention in other spaces, and to move into them -- especially into the space behind and above my head -- were disturbing. Liberating, but disorienting and dangerous-feeling.

Movement was likewise broken down into different categories, which I remember less well; but I remember that form I was most comfortable with was called "bound flow" -- movement against one's own resistance. Some people found this very difficult. It's characteristic of various kinds of detail-work -- writing, painting, and so forth. Muscles and their antagonists fire at the same time. Mime slowly lifting a dumbbell, with your biceps pulling and your triceps resisting the pull, and you'll get the idea. This motion came naturally to me. What did not come naturally to me was letting my limbs swing free, with no resistance whatever. Again liberating, disorienting, dangerous-feeling.

Well. Twenty-five years passed, without my doing much to disturb either of these habits, beyond maybe forcing myself to learn and practice the backstroke. But always in the back of my mind I thought that my most frustrating limitations -- my inability think on my feet, or to speak freely under stress -- might be eased by practicing moving my attention out of that little box in front of my chest, and learning to move freely into all that space around me that I habitually deemed too dangerous to occupy.

And now I've taken up yoga. I'm going very slowly, with a book (of course, what else?). I'm doing a total of six asanas right now, which are supposed to be very basic and easy. Poses like standing up straight, or kneeling and lifting my arns over my head. The effort to do these, mental and physical, is embarrassing. But illuminating. Just to stand and straighten my spine in the way described for ten breaths requires continuous attention and astonishing exertion by my back muscles -- the erectors, either side of the spine, and also various accessory breathing muscles; virtually every muscle that attaches to my ribs has to scramble to keep up. They all object to this outlandish activity.

But they love it, too; they're grateful to me. And I to them. It's an odd business, inhabiting a body.

People remark often about how hard I am on myself. I'm always a little baffled by this. I don't quite know what they mean. I wonder if partly they're responding to the habitual "bound flow" of my mind -- I'm usually resisting myself, one way or another. It's a way of doing mental detail-work, I suppose. But I don't do it out of self-dislike. I do it mostly out of interest in fine distinction. The free flow of my mind is not usually very interesting to me; it's not till it's pushing against some resistance that interesting things happen.

But it is a habit, and it's always worth turning over habits to see what's growing underneath them.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sabbaticals, Hit Men, Titanic Will

Tele wrote last week about the radical sabbatical she's embarked upon. She's quit her job, and is taking six months to figure out how to live a daily life less implicated and enmeshed in "the countless pathologies" of modern life (and committing -- this is an oddly prevalent theme in my corner of the blogosphere -- acts of subversive knitting). I printed out this post and have carried it around with me. In fact I began writing this as a comment on her post, but it's grown alarmingly. The post resonated with me in many different ways. In a way I too feel that I'm on a radical sabbatical. And I feel similarly that it's a radical act to care properly for my body -- without buying anything -- or to meditate -- without buying anything. "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers," said Wordsworth. He was right even then, I'm sure. But he had no idea of how advanced capitalism would manage to turn every conceivable need, wish or yen into getting and spending.

There is nothing easy or trivial about housewifery or househusbandry. The idea that technology has turned it into something that can be done properly in a few hours a week -- which radical feminists, alas, had some hand in propagating -- is absurd. Just becoming educated enough to resist the proliferation of household poisons -- to resist the convenience of toxic food -- to resist an endless spiral of drug dependence under the rubric of medicine -- to understand the economic and environmental ramifications of "inexpensive" goods -- is a life's work. The only household tasks that have really gotten easier in the last hundred years are washing clothes, washing dishes, and keeping floors clean. The complexities of managing a household have not diminished. They've multiplied.

But I have some uneasiness about taking it too individually. These aren't really problems that can be solved by "being the change" -- because most people don't have the resources (financial, psychological, spiritual) for a sabbatical. "Being the change" is more a spiritual practice than a solution.

As such, it's as important -- more important, I think, though I know that's a minority view -- than finding a solution. But there's the danger, as always with spiritual practices, of evaluating it in terms of worldly results. And the obverse danger of scanting the political (using that word in a very broad sense), because it's already being addressed on a personal level.

But saying that makes me uneasy too. Because there's only so much anyone can do, and -- frankly -- a lot of these activities, personal and political, are unrewarding in the extreme. A life spent in resistance is no life at all.

And I'm further uneasy in that I've failed abjectly in so many of these resistances, which I started out so hopefully in. What business do I have even talking about it? The life I'd hoped to have, the household I'd hoped for, has never materialized. For me, I think you'd probably have say that the forces of evil are ahead, on points. I draw my chief consolation from being able occasionally to get off the ropes. I remember with some rueful amusement that Martha and I seriously considered, before Tori's birth, purging the house of all advertisements. Having all our medicines and foodstuffs in plain jars and bins, getting rid of all labels, so as to raise a child who actually thought in terms of oatmeal and aspirin and soup rather than in terms of Quaker Oats and Bayer's and Campbell's. It was a charming idea, and so obviously the idea of a childless couple that I grin every time I remember it. We had no idea how strong the current was, before we stepped into that river. No idea that for the next two decades we'd be living on fast food, frozen food, & canned food, and ingesting really terrifying amounts of over-the-counter drugs, psychotropics, statins, & blood-pressure medicine.

The only line we really held was resisting television, and making our chief entertainment reading aloud. And computer games and internet have made something of an end run around that. My kids spend hours on World of Warcraft, slaughtering wicked monsters, and strategizing and chatting with their online comrades. I console myself that at least it's more active and social, at least as they play it, than just sitting watching a television screen. (And the trolls dance, at their virtual parties, really entrancingly.)

It is not, remotely, life as I ever envisioned it. When I walked out the door of IBM last fall, I imagined changing it all. Not much has changed, in the household. We've acquired two extra housemates, in the form of our kids' significant others, so now we have six people in the house, no two of whom like to eat the same things. Food continues to arrive in the house and be consumed in expensive and toxic individual packages. Processed sugars flow into the house from all sides. The gods of the hearth are the computers clustered together on the dining room table.

Keeping the kitchen clean and the clothes washed is often more than we manage. There's always something that needs taking care of more than the daily tasks: Christmas's bedding needs to be changed or an elderly parent needs help dealing with arcane drug insurance or the leaking shingles on the roof need to be fixed or the ice in Martha's cryopack for her arthroscoped knee needs to be changed or Jonquil needs to be taken to her GED program or Alan needs to be chivvied into doing his homework. And when time does open up, I'm desperate for time to write, or exercise, or meditate, or -- above all -- time to vegetate, clicking away myself at Civ 3 or computer Go. So this is life as we know it.

It seems to me that only a titanic effort of will could really change all this, or even much of it. And if there's one commodity I am not rich in, it's titanic will. In graduate school we used to speculate about pooling our money to hire a hit man who would come around to each of us and force us to write our term papers at gunpoint. Maybe we could hire someone like that to force us to shop and cook and clean. Come up with a menu for the week in half an hour, or it's the left kneecap. March the kids two by two into the kitchen to wash dishes, or lose a finger. Someone with titanic will, I suppose (and armed), would simply have taken Christmas out back and shot her two months ago.

This, and not just early morning cafe-writing, massage trades, & working at the Foundation, is my life. I have not often allowed myself to look that in the face. It is, I suppose, the Next Big Thing. Does one ever run out, I wonder, of Next Big Things?