Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Hick from Springfield

Christine commented: Dale, do you ascribe to the idea that we avoid what we most need? I wonder what lesson from the 18th century you will apply toward your life. Curious, I am.

I started answering in the comments, but it got so long it was more like a post. I hadn't really made it explicit in my mind, but I guess I think that any culture, any time, ought to have something to enrich my understanding and capture my heart. The European 18th Century is several (if closely interrelated) sophisticated cultures, and a long period of time: the fact that it feels so barren to me suggests that there's a resistance in me that prevents me from responding fully, that there's some way that I'm closing my heart against them.

It may be, as some of you suggested, that it's time for me to really learn how to listen to old music: maybe that's what the 18th Century is waiting to give me. I enjoy Mozart and Bach, in a casual way, but I've never felt that I really get them. With all but a few favorite kinds of music (the Rock of my youth, traditional Celtic) -- and especially with classical music, I have the deep sense that I'm just a hick from Springfield, Oregon, too stupid and crude to ever really respond to it properly.

It's funny: I've seen this often enough my poetry classes. Students who are convinced that they just can't read it, due to some genetic or environmental flaw too deep to be mended. Some of them are frustrated enough to say so, and to ask how it's done -- as if there was some secret poetry-reading protocol that prep school kids are initiated into the third grade, that the rest of us have to guess at. The answer, of course, unwelcome as it is, is simply: you have to read it. You can't just glance at it. That's why I used to make my students memorize a lot of poetry: because it's really very difficult to memorize a poem without reading it, whether you want to or not. Whereas it's easy to skim a poem, get frustrated, and put the book away, under the impression that you've "done the reading," but that you're too stupid to understand it.

Probably the same rule obtains here. What I'm going to need to do is actually listen. Where, I wonder, should I start? It probably doesn't matter, really.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The 18th Century

There's a span of time, between the Elizabethans and the Romantics, which I loosely call the 18th Century, although it slops over on each side, especially the early side. It's a sort of no-man's land to me. None of my favorite literature hails from it, except possibly Jane Austen's novels. For 150 years the world goes opaque to me. Nothing, from the powdered wigs, to the sterile, correct verse, to the weirdly realistic yet sanitized painting, engages my heart. I don't understand these people. They're engaged in empire and the pursuit of national (not personal) glory. They worship power. They make a religious faith -- they have no other -- of their nationality. It's the beginning of the age of the professional military: the commanders of the 18th Century armies wrote no poems and courted no ladies. Their job was to kill people and appropriate territory: that's all they did, and all they wanted to do.

Now, I've long known that this is a caricature. I know that when I have this impulse to denigrate, it means there's something that I have to learn. The 18th Century has something that it's waiting to teach me: waiting until I'm mature enough to hear it.

My response to the 18th Century has of course something to do with growing up a disaffected American, ashamed of my country, during the Vietnam years. For an American, the 18th Century is first of all the American Revolution. It's the unsmiling George Washington: it's slaveholders and Indian-fighters and chauvinists making declarations about the Rights of Man. The Right appropriated all those powder-wigged, thin-lipped men, just as they appropriated the flag. They got history: we got the future. It wasn't, maybe, as good a deal as it seemed at the time.

So it's time for me to enter into the 18th Century: time for me to actually try to understand these people. I started nibbling at the edges of this when I began reading about Cook and other explorers. It's actually a fascinating time: it's when Europe really met the rest of the world for good and earnest. So I'm going to plunge in and actually do the 18th Century, at last. Wish me luck.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The New Biz: A Year and a Half In

I've had three appointments this week that came from a year ago. A gift certificate I gave in payment for services, which was given to someone else, last April. A person I knew in massage school who called for a massage. And a repeat client whose last appointment was a year ago, in March.

Massage is a chancy business, if you want to be your own boss: it's a little like opening a restaurant. Lots of people go out of business. Not, usually, because they're bad therapists. Most often it's simply -- as with restaurants -- cash flow. Everything takes longer than you expect it to. I'm just now getting results from marketing I did a year ago. Potential clients that I exchanged email with months ago, but never quite clinched an appointment with, suddenly resume the conversation, quite unaware that the hiatus was more than a couple days long. Being the sort of person who keeps things in spreadsheets and graphs them, I can see that my business growth has been quite good, year over year. I'm now getting about two thirds the number of appointments I'd like to have, even though recently I raised my prices by 20%. Next year I should be full. The economy doesn't seem to have cut into my business at all. Au contraire: one thing the country has in abundance, just now, is stress.

The rule of thumb is that it takes three or four years to build a good massage business. My experience is bearing that out. Most of it is, that you need to find the people you have a deep heart-connection with. Those are going to be your regulars. And it's a chemistry as mysterious as the chemistry of love. They're not necessarily people I'd choose as friends. They're not necessarily people I'm attracted to sexually. They're people whose body rhythms seem to synchronize with mine. I find myself breathing along with them: I know when to lean down on their ribs with the outbreath because it's my outbreath too. Their bodies are peculiarly legible, to me. I love it, of course, if people tell me I'm a gifted, marvelous therapist, but that's not what it is. My technical skills are getting better all the time -- I work hard at it -- but they're just middling, still. The gift isn't in me: it's in the connection. I could spoil it, by failing to listen with my hands, but I can't create it. I'm not the right therapist for everyone. That doesn't trouble me. I'm the right therapist for some people, which makes me deeply happy.

I worried, back when I was first contemplating this career change, that I might tire of it, that I just wanted something new. "Hospital patients wishing to change their beds," that sort of thing. Nope. I love it more than ever. It's becoming more satisfying, not less. I end each session -- usually resting my hands on the shoulders, or the forehead -- by saying "thank you." It's a formal part of some modalities, thanking the client at the end, but for me it's generally the most heartfelt "thank you" of the day. I'm so grateful to be let in, this way.

I've always been peculiarly attuned to touch. I want to touch everything. I see a painting in a museum and I have some difficulty not reaching to explore the stipples and curves with my fingers. I reach down to touch the water in sidewalk puddles. I have to touch base with my favorite trees by resting my fingertips against their bark, feeling the light swooping through them. I want to touch people the same way a baby wants to pop things in its mouth: because I want to know them.

For most of my life, I've been distressed by wanting to touch, and not being able to. Something that has always been wrong, in my life, is now wonderfully, radiantly right.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Yes but

I posted my last uneasily. It makes it sound like I spend all my spare time in visions of angelic hosts, or in warm conversation with notable ghosts, flitting from grove to grove worshiping elusive numinosities or bowing before golden Buddhas. Whereas mostly, really, I eat and read.

It's not that I want to unsay anything. But it was all done in crude primary colors and major chords. "I talk to dead people," I said. Well, sort of. But dead people don't shout. They whisper. You have to be listening, and it's very easy to mistake them. They're usually gone before you're quite aware that they were ever there; you're always listening after echoes, wondering how much of it you've made up. Maybe all of it. Or they come in dreams, mixed up with all the detritus of the day's recollections. It's not usually easy to tell. And they don't often come in the shapes you expect: they'll come as animals, as birds, as clouds.

When I did a lot of stargazing I picked up the knack of not looking directly at something very faint. Your peripheral vision is actually better, for perceiving black and white: the center of your retina has more of the color receptors and they crowd the black and white receptors out to the edges. So if you want to see a very faint nebula, you learn to look, not straight at it, but off to one side a little. It's difficult to learn to do at first: counterintuitive. Listening for ghosts and presences is like that. Attend to them directly and they disappear. But if you don't attend to them at all, they disappear too.

So when people in the rationalist camp tell me that they don't see ghosts or talk to dead people or sense presences (although you will usually find, if they're in a trusting mood, that they've had an unsettling experience or two that they can't quite explain) I'm not in the least surprised. Ordinary casual observers don't see a lot of nebulae either, when they glance at the night sky. You mostly see what you're looking for, and what you expect to see.

These experiences are very delicate. It's difficult -- it's nearly impossible -- not to start overwriting them as soon as you recall them or recount them. I'm sure you've had the experience of telling someone about a dream, and finding suddenly that you're making some of it up. Without any intention of deception: it's just that the storytelling part of the brain fills in the empty places, the same way the visual perception fills in the hole in your field of vision. (There's a blind spot, where the optic nerve exits the back of the eye, but we never see it, because our brains obligingly paper over the hole with their best guess about what ought to be there.) So there again, directly attending tends to obliterate the perception. There are certain visionaries -- Margery Kemp springs to mind -- that I don't trust at all. Oh, I'm sure they had visions: but what they recount hangs together too well, has too much immediate point, conduces to their self-satisfaction too much, to be real. The hallmark of a real vision is that it is unexpected, uncomfortable, incoherent, and hard to understand. The typical reports of Victorian seances, of loved ones showing up in expected form and saying how happy they are on the other side, are almost certainly thoroughgoing revisions (when they're not simply hoaxes.) I find most of the Biblical visions, on the other hand, to be wholly convincing. They're bizarre and disturbing. The people who have them didn't really want to have them, and they receive messages they didn't want to get.

One of the values of a religious tradition, if it's a good one, is that it teaches how to receive this sort of information, and gives you a healthy respect for it. The Hebrew prophets took their job seriously. They were supposed to report back. Their services as an editor weren't required. They knew a great deal both about how to attend and how not to attend. As a result (and a cause) they were valuable to their communities. Your typical cult leaders, on the other hand, are a plague and a nuisance. Not because they aren't genuine visionaries. I'm betting most of them are. But because they don't have the skills, the the humility, and the restraint afforded by a tradition. I'm as uneasy about religious hierarchy and authority as anybody, but the alternative makes me at least as uneasy. Visionaries aren't going to go away. And they're valuable. We need them. But they're almost all terrible administrators, and rotten community leaders. A healthy community should have a place for them, but that place shouldn't be a throne.

(I have a feeling this post veers around and doesn't get where it's trying to go. I might try to spruce it up tomorrow. I might not.)

Friday, March 20, 2009


Our conversation had touched on metaphysical topics, and he asked, casually, "Are you religious, Dale?"

"Yes," I said.

He sat bolt upright. "You're shittin' me!" he exclaimed.

"I've been a Buddhist for ten years," I said.

"Oh. Oh. Well, Buddhism," he said, relieved, "that's more like a philosophy than a religion." He sat back again.

For some people it's a philosophy. For me "religion" is more accurate. I didn't say that, though: I felt I'd alarmed him enough for one evening. And it's difficult to convey both the distinction, and my sense of its importance, to people who have no vocabulary for them. He belonged to the group of people for whom the opposite of "religious" is "rational." With such people it's difficult to know even where to begin. Really what he was asking was "are you a dangerous lunatic with no respect for evidence or truth?" By that definition, I hope don't qualify as "religious." I respect reason and evidence as much as the next person -- often, it seems to me considerably more than the next person.

The same question is often phrased, "Do you believe in God?" And that's a question I find similarly difficult to answer, because it's inlaid with assumptions I don't accept: that religion is primarily about a person named God, and that what one is supposed to do with this person is believe in him or deny him. Atheists and fundamentalists alike make this assumption: and it's difficult to know how to answer, since "yes" and "no" both imply that you accept the premises.

As I've said before, the answer I really have to whether I believe in God has to be, "well, tell me what you mean by 'God,' and I'll tell you if I believe in it at the moment."

But the whole conversation is steered, by this assumption, into shallow waters that I find both dangerous and boring. I don't understand this business of "believing in" things. Don't you have to believe what you think is true, whether you like it or not? It's not a moral decision. If you don't think something is true, affirming it won't make it so. It will just give you a mental crick in the neck.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, in their mainstream forms, all place a heavy emphasis on subscribing to a set of propositions about reality. They have such sway in the world that the question "what is your religion" is to most people virtually the same as "to which list of propositions about reality do you subscribe?"

But there are very few religions outside of those three that care much about subscribing to propositions. There are many thousands of religions: almost none of them care about what you "believe" in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic sense. I'm often asked if I "believe in" reincarnation, as if that's what being a Buddhist would be all about. My answer is "sometimes, kind of. Not usually." Believing in reincarnation is not central to being a Buddhist. (And anyway it was not something that Buddhism invented: it was simply the standard science of the day. The Buddha Shakyamuni "believed in" reincarnation for the same reason I "believe in" gravitation: because the people who are supposed to know about these things say that's how it is.)

So at this point I'm probably sounding reassuringly rational to people like my alarmed friend, hardly religious at all, possibly even harmless. So why do I insist on Buddhism being my religion, rather than my philosophy?

Well, for one thing, it gives me a way of thinking and talking about things I would do anyway, but which a materialist outlook insists that I ignore. I talk to dead people, for instance. And I'm aware of unbodied, non-human intelligences coming and going. I don't "believe" that this is in my head. I don't "believe" it's outside my head either. I don't particularly care where it is in relation to my head. It's a basic human faculty, which most peoples have exercised in one form or another throughout history. Perhaps I'm tapping regions of my own unconscious. I'm fine with that. Perhaps I'm really interacting with ghosts and sendings. I'm fine with that too. I don't see how a person could confidently know, and anyway I don't feel my own claims to be "real" are all that impressive either. What I do know is that I value these interactions highly. To me they're a fundamental part of the human kit, and I have no intention of abandoning them.

Or again, I bow to statues and I say prayers to them and give them gifts. I do not do this under the misapprehension that they are living beings with the same ontological status as, say, you, or my cat. But neither am I willing to forgo the benefits of the relationships I have with these pieces of wood and metal. There are, likewise, places in the wilderness that strike me as obviously sacred. I worship in them, and I would object strenuously to their destruction. I know as well as my friend that there's no instrument that will give me a reliable numinosity reading on a particular grove. But I'm not willing on that account to simply abandon my responses, and the opportunities those responses create.

And again. I may or may not be reincarnating, life after life. I may or may not be in complex, ongoing, and intimate relationships with every single sentient being I encounter. I don't know, and neither do you. But I know that if I approach people (and animals) that way, as if each was precious to me, as if there was no such thing as a stranger, no such thing as a one-off, meaningless encounter, my interactions with them are much richer, stranger, fuller, more rewarding.

So that's why I regard myself as religious, why Buddhism is not just a philosophy to me. Although to say "just a philosophy" actually is to participate in the de-spiritualization of philosophy that's been underway since the Renaissance. To Socrates, philosophy wasn't just thinking up opinions and arguing about them. It was a way of living. It was supposed to change you, to work moral and spiritual changes in you. It was a way of understanding and participating in a larger world.

If I were a scientific materialist of the most common sort, I would still experience these things -- relationships with the dead, with presences, with statues and groves, with strangers who are not strangers -- but I would feel morally obliged to ignore them, to resolutely set them aside and treat them as inadmissable, as system malfunctions, as noise. Since they include the greater part of my experiential life, the richest and most interesting of my experiences, and since they form the basis of my most intense and satisfying relationships, adopting scientific materialism as a creed seems to me -- since I see no compelling reasons to believe in it -- like willful self-impoverishment.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

An Essay on Human Understanding: Chapters 1 through 4

Chapter 1

Among the imperfections of my life are
These two, equal and opposite. One: the longing for one
Stillness, to do the same thing with the same attention
Every day until rightness buds along every twig of my fingers
And I sway in the soft wind of gray mornings;
And two: the yearning of quick animal desire, biting
Your shoulder, pulling your hips to mine,
spattering the world with what smells like me,
And you, and me, and you, and nothing else forever.

Chapter 2

Catch the quick impulse up, the rapid swallow, the eye blink.
What am I not saying? What am I saying that isn't, quite, true?
Turn and turn again, like Chaucer's fish, wallowing in sauce:
There are the things you don't say because you are holding back
And the things you don't say because you don't know them yet
And the things you don't say because they can't be said.

Chapter 3

I can live this way. I can. Day by day I inquire at the desk:
Am I overdrawn? Are there fines I have to pay?
And the affable clerk, inscrutably amused, waves me away.
"No, no. Enjoy yourself! We'll bill you when it's time." As if
That will make me less nervous. When will it be time?

Chapter 4

But your hands, and mine, smell of almonds, almost of coffee:
They twine in each other, fingers tangled, questing blindly,
Slippery with oil. The brightness of your eyes
Burns a pathway through the air, and I follow you,
Like the servant of Good King Wenceslaus.
None of my questions have been answered.
(See Chapter 1.) But I don't think we are here
To answer questions. We are here to work and to love.

Monday, March 16, 2009

In January I wrote a poem for Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi, in which I said,

There are no words to help the women who see
the mute sacrifice of a bloody napkin. No one offers
a ram instead. No one explains. No one promises
a glorious kingdom. You can try again. That's all.

It's not as true now.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

So, Yeats. I listen to the click of the raindrops, like a dog's toenails on a polished floor, coming in and out of focus. 5:00 a.m. Dark, still, even with the officious pulling of the clocks' noses they do this time of year.

Somewhere up above the cloud and rain the stars are out. They write me postcards: Having a great time in heaven. Wish you were here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Walking Emily

Camus and Sartre are the names of his saints: their torments were in his behalf, and his are in theirs. The only thing he believes in, he said, is the blackness. It's the only thing he's afraid of.

She said that the spark, the thing that made him uniquely himself, would go on. He didn't answer that. We sat in the dark and watched the lights wink on the far shore of the Columbia.

I left her side to sit in front of his chair and rub his feet, feeling an immense and helpless pity. He feared annihilation so much, and he believed in it so desperately.

Later, when I came out from washing up, he had gone to walk Emily. Somewhere out in the wide empty night, a big, shambly, loving dog, walking with her suffering master.

Little enough that words can do even in the right season. I could have said that my nihilism was more extreme than his: he thought the thing that made him uniquely himself would be blown out like a candle, but I thought it was never there at all.

We're not the candles, we're the wind, I might have said. Nothing ever blows out the wind. But Emily would probably say it better.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


My dear friend Beth, who blogs at Cassandra Pages, was giving me a terrific standing massage, as I leaned back against the refrigerator; opening up my ribs, releasing ages-old tension. She came to the bottom of my sternum and paused uncertainly.

"Oh, that's the xiphoid process," I told her. "That tab of bone at the bottom of the breastbone? It's kind of fragile, and I must have broken mine at some point without knowing it. So it points off to the right instead of straight down." I think that when I was fatter, the constant pressure of my belly against it weakened it, and it just snapped at some point, to get out of the way.

Beth probed it delicately, and I became aware that there were two tabs of bone, one much longer than the other. It was actually a wishbone. I'd made chicken carcass soup the day before, and I recognized the structure at once. It's for stiffening the wings against each other in flight, specific to birds: how odd that I should have such an atavistic bone formation in my body, and never have noticed it!

She pulled gently, and the whole thing came loose. With a rush, even more came loose, and I felt a great weight drop down through the central channel of my body. "God, thank you so much!" I said. "That's wonderful!"

I'm a little confused about what happened next. Beth was gone, and I was holding my spine. It looked very like a larger version of the chicken necks in my soup, dark red, with it's double-curve, little bits of cartilege and muscle dangling from it, about three feet long and surprisingly light. I'd always been under the impression that the spine was a necessary part of the body. One more story that had been palmed off on me. I was fine, I was walking around fine, feeling light and lithe. Who needs a spine?

But then I worried a bit. Maybe it really was necessary? Perhaps I should get it put back in before it dried out. So I went to the emergency room of the hospital down the street, still holding my spine. "Could you put this back in?" I said to the nurse.

"I'm busy," she snapped. You'll get your turn. Sit down and wait."

I waited but I got impatient. I went up and spoke to her again, but she wouldn't answer me. Finally, exasperated, I reached out and snapped a finger against her forehead.

"That wasn't very nice," she said.

"It's not very nice not to have a spine!" I retorted. The thing was drying out: I was really worried now about whether they'd be able to get it back in.

There was a thud and a jingling crash, a whine of machinery. What on earth were they doing back there? But I recognized the sound. It was the sound of the recycling truck. I opened my eyes. Light was coming through the skylight. Where had I put my spine? Why were there recyclers in the emergency room?


The morning sky was quiet and white, crisscrossed with bare maple twigs.

I lay there a long time, looking at the sky.

Friday, March 06, 2009


Well, I'm bummed. Got my bloodwork results back and, except for a big drop in my triglycerides -- which were already fine -- everything's right where it was three months ago (and this, you understand, is with statins.)

I do think cholesterol is a bit of a bugbear -- most people who get heart attacks, after all, have normal cholesterol -- but I was really expecting it to drop, since I've lost thirty pounds or so. I was hoping I'd just hit the sweet spot with my diet, but I think I now have to do the delicate work of replacing most of my saturated fat intake with vegetables and unrefined carbs (maybe even a little fruit, who knows? Live wild!)

Delicate because I have to do it without kicking off the insulin roller-coaster. It takes a lot more discipline and attention to eat some of things (bread, for instance) than to just do without them.

I read The South Beach Diet yesterday afternoon -- yes, all of it, except for the anecdotes and the recipes -- and I'm a little baffled by its popularity. It's just Atkins without saturated fat, and there's actually very little book there, without the anecdotes and recipes. I think he's basically right, because Atkins was basically right -- that overeating is caused by a disordered insulin metabolism, and you can fix it by a couple weeks of carbohydrate fasting, and then staying away from "white stuff."

One thing I'm not going to do is start eating artificial foods. I'm not going to put things such as non-fat cream (?!?!?!) or something called "I can't believe it's not butter" into my body. If I can't eat something real, fine, I'll eat something else real.

The other piece of getting my blood lipids where I want them is exercise, of course. For various reasons I've been getting very little of it.

Hey ho. Discouraging. But anyway, I've lost about half the weight I wanted to lose, and I've learned to cook fresh food several times a week. That's a lot of the groundwork done.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Filberts

Three men squat gnarly and naked in rain,
wicked old lovers of dirt. Their straggly heads wag
as they slurp soil milkshakes through rootstraws:
dig deeper - suck harder - glossy and wet -
while dingles of filberts swell in their beards.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Under the Swarshum

Where the collymoffle dinges,
and the mawking cranes dare;
where the licking lash swinges,
and the moths refuse to care --

there along the poddleway
I caught the scent of your unendum,
they lifted up the throttle, way
past the third addendum.

Tickle me under the swarshum;
kiss me around the block;
toast me black as a marshum-
hello, and make me talk.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


What does it feel like, I wonder, to be travelling so fast that the rush of wind burns you? The air must slam you, when you hit a little gradation from thinner to denser air, cross one of those cloud-edge boundaries: it must strike as heavily as train strikes a car marooned on the tracks. It hits you hard enough to tear you to pieces. And each piece bursts into flame from the mere friction of the air.

Watching the wisps of water falling, from Elowah, Wahclella, Multnomah. Wraiths of spray diverge from the fall, and drop, slower than the main plunge of water, fifty feet, a hundred, a hundred and fifty -- and vanish, like the meteors, before they hit the ground.

Stand at the bottom of one of the great falls. They generate their own wind, wet and cold even at high summer: an endless tumult of air and water, imperfectly mixed, blowing slantways from the splash pools.

We're all falling, even if the thunder of it is inaudible most of the time. We come to the falls because we can hear it and see it here, for a little while, remind ourselves briefly of a reality we can't bear to hold in our minds, but which we need to touch, every once in a while. It would be impossible to live in the constant awareness of falling. But it would be even more impossible to live without ever glimpsing it.