Monday, December 27, 2004
Then there is the verb "to cleave." I'm told that the sense of "to split" comes from Old English cleofan, while the sense of "to cling" comes from Old English clifian. I wouldn't know; I still remember cleofan, from my former life as a student of Old English poetry, but I don't off-hand remember ever seeing clifian in any text. Of course it's rare in Modern English, too. Fossilized in the wedding vow, or maybe it would have disappeared altogether by now.
Or maybe not. Both verbs run to flesh. The only common sense of the first is also all-but-fossilized, in the combination "meat-cleaver." And the uppermost sense of cleaving in "forsaking all others, and cleaving only unto him" is fleshly.
There may be a perception behind the stubborn survival of these two apparently contradictory meanings in a single verb. On the one hand, a sense of intercourse as wounding; on the other hand a sense of grafting. Things cleave together not because they're glued or tied but because they are cut open, and the raw surfaces brought together then try to heal together.
The People of the Book begin as herdsmen, and the glaring fact about herdsmen is that they slaughter and eat creatures they have tended and cared for from birth. Hunters kill animals that are strangers and (more or less) equals. Herdsmen kill their own trusting dependents. This treachery, I sometimes think -- especially at this time of year, when my tolerance of revealed religion is worn very thin -- informs the whole subsequent history and psychology of their relationship with God the Father. The Lord is my shepherd; but even the best good shepherd fully intends to cut the throats of his flock, in the end. In my mind's eye I always see a solemn, dark-eyed child watching her loving father in the slaughteryard with his bloody cleaver, trying to make sense of what she sees.
Monday, December 20, 2004
I was in Powell's, yesterday, buying Christmas books -- a mystery for Martha, collections of Manga for the kids (I still don't get Manga. It looks pretty much like Western cartooning to me, except with huge eyes, and endless martial-arts contests between minor deities. But everyone the age of my kids seems to be besotted with it. But anyway, that's not what I started to say.)
I was in Powell's, I say, and walking through the philosophy section, I felt a dreary hopelessness. Lots of people must feel that about books from the git-go, but to me it has been strange and scary, developing this response over the past couple years. Books used to be enticing. I used to look forward to them with an insatiable appetite. But now they're oppressive. Seldom, seldom does a book take me anywhere new, now. I read a few pages of a "new" book and it's just an old book, dressed up a bit or down a bit, salted with a few new facts sometimes, if I'm lucky, or set in a new place. But it's old characters in the new settings, and they wander through old stories like forgetful old men, their pasts more vivid than their presents. Supposedly factual books are just the same -- the same tired old narrators, the same rhetorical moves. I know them all already. Nothing they say will change my life. I know that before I start, so I read them idly, inattentively. Does this mean that I'm old? Or just that I've read too much?
It's not depression. I know depression intimately, in all its guises. I recognize the taste of depression immediately, and I know its physical sensations -- the slightly intensified power of gravity, the sense of the sun hefting a vast mattock over the sky, ready to drive me into the earth. This isn't that. It's a milder, sadder feeling, a bit careworn, quite ordinary. It's like being impatient with the children when they're tiresome. Like pushing away a leftover dinner on its third day. Just tired of it.
There's no sense of intellectual triumph here. Quite the contrary. It's not that I think I understand everything conceptual. It's that I think I have understood everything conceptual that it's in my power to understand. I am less intelligent, fractionally, than I was ten years ago. I can tell that. My mental edge is a little blunted. I used to be able to solve quadratic equations in my head. Not now. And I know that only gets worse. I pretty much know what I'm going to know, understand what I'm going to understand -- conceptually -- in this life. If I am to travel to new countries, any more, it will not be in books. Chaucer wrote:
And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yeve I feyth and ful credence,
And in myn herte have hem in reverence
So hertely, that ther is game noon
That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
But hit be seldom, on the holyday;
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules singe,
And that the floures ginnen for to springe,
Farwel my book and my devocioun!
But this is not May. It's December. I go from my books to a white sky and a sharp wind. Love has no new words for me, either. It speaks to me more of death than of beginnings. If the Dharma will not take me anywhere, now, then I think my travelling days are done.
I wrote this to Suzanne just now, clarifying, I hope --
You see, I used to walk through a bookstore seeing new worlds to conquer. I would master Kierkegaard. Eat up Nietzsche. Engulf Hegel. And then I would be a transformed creature, a creature who lived in the land of wonders, seeing a new heaven and a new earth.
Or in the stories, I would be Odysseus, or Dante, or Frodo. Travel with them, see with their eyes, and come to a new country. Even foolish science fiction would take me to unimagined places. And I would be new, there, a newly-made traveller.
Or I would learn Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Old English, and find the very roots leading into the heart of truth. And then I would be a different person, because someone who can reach right into the heart of it is a wizard who can see things other people can't.
So I walk in the bookstore now, and I feel the tug of those yearnings. Even then they seldom paid off. It may be now that they will never pay off again. That's okay. In real life we never get to strike the same bargain over again. Those new countries ready for conquest -- they were largely imagined. Never conquered. Wonders came in other ways, mostly.
Transformations too. Or, when they did, looked different. It wouldn't be a transformation, after all, if it looked the same from the inside as from the outside.
Friday, December 17, 2004
I hold your desire, this small thing, in the palm of my hand. An opening eye, hot with tears. A ticking pulse in the furred vulva. A wriggling living request. And after the ruckus, I hold it in my hand again, protectively, while its tears dry, and it's soothed to sleep.
All night the rush of the river. The sleepy rounding of flank and breast, soft breath and sudden restless turns. And finally the sun comes to the crowns of the trees, and the stars are gone, impossibly gone.
I revive the fire. My fingers smell of ash and pine pitch, and of you. I set the coffee-water in the flames. The sun comes down, finally, to the river, and the glitter off the water dapples the kettle.
The mountain, they say, is behind the hills, and the stars are behind the blue sky. I wouldn't know.
Dave claims to have been around only a year. I've done some poking around. The first link I have recorded to Via Negativa was on January 31, 2004; but I know I'd been reading Dave's blog for at least a couple of weeks by then. So I must have found him soon after he opened up shop. As with nearly every blog I especially like, the history of how I found it is lost in the mazes of beginningless time.
I guess I'm supposed to believe that since the Via has only been open for traffic for a year, I must have stumbled across in in the past year, but that's hopelessly reductive linear thinking, and it doesn't square with my experience at all. I was a raw teenager, full of despair, when he gave a me one of the kindest dope-slaps I've ever received, along with the gift (not be divulged in public) of the secret meaning of dragonflies. It was early in my marriage that I shared his account of his affair with Kwan Yin with Martha (his only venture, he claims, into the popular genre of religious porn), and we both laughed till we had tears in our eyes. And it was late in the evening of my days that I heard the words of his pianist, reminding me that I should
...Let outlines grow
fuzzy, liberated from their shadows.
Play all the fractional notes
between white & black, hemidemi-
semiquavers in milkweed pods,
seed-clouds of goldenrod, bare
branches. Their ordnance spent,
freed of primary obligations,
the empty casings have room
for more world -
Making room for more world. Via Negativa has been doing that for me for a year now. That's Dave's story, anyway, and I suppose he's wise to stick to it.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Suddenly, it's all okay.
I suspect that's more a chemical response than a conceptual breakthrough, but it was accompanied by some recovered understanding.
Most of my suffering here is born of the idea -- arrant nonsense, as I knew even before I had the Buddhist philosophy to back it up -- that I should be the one person in the world who transcends his circumstances. I treat this work as if it didn't matter very much because it doesn't matter very much. My company has deliberately chosen to make people redundant -- managers are instructed to make sure that if one of their people is run over by a truck, everything necessary will still get done. & If my company doesn't produce this product, someone else will. I have no sense of urgency about my work because there's nothing urgent about it. Nobody will be a whit the happier if I blaze through this project in four weeks, rather than in four months. I'm not rewarded here for how well I do my job; I'm rewarded for how well I establish verifiable objectives and then verify having achieved or exceeded them. In fact no one has a clue as to how well I do my job. Under these circumstances it's rather odd that I care about doing it at all. My understanding that keeping my job mostly has to do with company organizational changes and industry trends I have no control over is perfectly accurate. Would I really want to be someone who misunderstood things so badly as to think this work was important? Or who didn't respond reasonably to the relative importance of things?
The question of my own worthiness, as usual, simply muddies the water. I'm just a human being, in a particular set of circumstances. There's plenty of evidence that, given sufficient motivation, I work hard. They employ me here because I do what's important to them -- keep a level head, keep communications open, deliver exactly what I say I will when I say I will, have a good instinct for what constitutes a real problem, and send up warning signals when I recognize one. If they wanted something else, they could get something else. Or they could change my circumstances.
The question of whether I want to change my circumstances -- here or elsewhere -- is an entirely different one. But it's foolish to expect that I'll suddenly behave radically differently in the same old circumstances. That sort of triumph-of-the-will fantasy is a by-product of believing -- as we are daily exhorted and encouraged to do -- that our Selves are free-standing independent impermeable essences, sailing through a world that is completely distinct from us. We act on it, but it doesn't act on us. A silly belief, but I still get caught by it when I let my guard down.
The only really interesting question all this brings up is -- do I want this kind of job? Would I really rather have a job that mattered, or am I happy to cruise along like this, my creative energies mostly directed to blogging and studying Chinese and meditating and so forth, so long as the money's good?
I've understood clearly for years that the reason I do this job is to make money. I want to get the kids through college and have money for retirement. That's it. I neither get nor expect a lot of other satisfaction from this work. If that's not okay with me, I should find something else -- but in any case there's no need to get in a tizzy about what all this proves about my character. There's not much to be usefully proven about the exact ethical qualities or moral worth of chimeras.
Monday, December 13, 2004
I have had, for the last three weeks, the worst case of procrastination I have ever had. And we are talking here, mind you, about the man who got his driver's license at age twenty-seven, and who got his M.Phil. eight years after beginning graduate school.
I resolve each day to plunge into working on my new project, and only twice have I actually done anything. This is starting to look grim. I always worry, when this happens -- is this going to be the time when nothing kicks in? When I simply stop doing anything, ever again? What will become of me and my family, when I simply stop, for the last time?
A couple nights ago, I decided -- "this is my Dharma practice, right now. A grand opportunity to practice, eight hours a day. Every time I'm tempted to do something other than work, I will just sit with it, and watch it."
Well, it seemed a brilliant idea, and the next day was in fact one of the days I worked. But the power of the idea expired after one day. Today I've done it again. I sat here all day. Did a few piddly things as requests came in. But I'm paralyzed.
One thing this taught me (this is a lesson I've learned scores of times, but it never seems to stick) is that reason I practice on the cushion is that it's too damn hard to practice in real life. If making life my Dharma practice was going to work, trust me, amigos mios, I'd know it by now. Which is not to say that informal practice, what we call "carrying the practice" in my daily life, has no place. It's just that, if I try to go to war with daily samsaric life, armed with my Dharma practice, like that, samsara will simply win, & all I'll get is a broken life and a broken Dharma practice.
Procrastination is one of those truly inexplicable strategies I come up with, one of those ways of avoiding suffering that plainly inflicts so much more suffering than it could ever save me from, that I'm baffled as to how to deal with it. When I tell myself, "if you sit here and read blogs and write comments for the next three hours, Dale, you will be unhappy all the while, and miserable by the end of the day," -- when I see that with absolute clarity and without a dissentient voice anywhere in my head, and thereupon sit here and read blogs and write comments for three hours -- what's left to try?
Well, for one thing, I can make it public. (Et voici.) That often has a transformative effect on anything shame-based.
Another thing I can try is breaking the job up into tiny parts, and setting myself the task of doing just the very first tiniest lowest-risk part of the task. Because once I'm working, the whole complex sometimes just evaporates. The interest of the problem itself starts to get hold of me.
Well, in any case, here we are. End of day.
Friday, December 10, 2004
All day, dribbling words across the internet, arguing in an increasingly shrill and unconvincing voice. I am sick of my incapacities and anxieties, my posturings and pretenses. I did not really have much to say. Reaching out for comfort, as I used to when I was fourteen years old, by being obnoxious.
I did have two things to say, which of course I never said. So I'll say them here, now.
First -- I will consider no one my enemy. No one. Not now, not ever.
Second -- everything matters. Everything matters.
Thursday, December 09, 2004
Springfield, Oregon, 1971. It was very dark, very narrow. I emerged at twilight to wander through the hills, through black oak trees and high grass that was pale white under the stars.
The sign of our connection was the stars. Tolkien understood them as I did: A glimpse of a country that had never fallen under evil and doubt. William Blake is dear to me, but I find his stars, the spear-carriers of cruel Nobodaddy, preposterous. How he could look at the stars and see that, I don't know. Cruel cold indifferent stars, I suppose -- Dickens saw them that way too -- but to me they have always, always been heart-piercingly beautiful. I want to die under the stars. Their country is the real country, of which this, under the breeding sun, is a travesty.
Always the sense that I was not fit for this world. An awkward foreigner. The ordinary tasks of life that people of the sun did carelessly and easily were ordeals for me. Making a phone call. Chatting about the weather. Learning to drive. I did not want to do them, they never came easy to me, and even when I learned them I could forget how in the blink of an eye. In the middle of conversation I would stall, staring at the face or the phone as though I had never ever seen such a thing before. A light would turn green, and I would know that I was supposed to set the car back in motion, but I would have no idea how to do it.
Under the stars, those things never mattered.
I don't think I ever thought of myself as helpless or powerless. I thought of myself as Peter Beagle's Schmendrick, the magician whose famous master finally told him that "your uselessness and incompetence are so monumental, it can only mean that a power far greater than mine must dwell in you -- only it is working backwards at the moment."
I think of my situation in those years as precarious. Maybe I was tougher than I think; maybe I would have come through in any case. But my sense of it, looking back, is that I lived close to disaster, and that I could have pitched into it at any time. I lived outside of Springfield, Oregon, as full of hate as a water-balloon is full of water. When I read the news, a few years ago, of Kip Kinkel taking his gun to his Springfield highschool and slaughtering his classmates, all my sympathy was with him. My heart went out to him. I conscientiously evoked sympathy for the children killed, and their parents -- I was a parent myself by then, and I had lost friends and relatives to murderous violence: I knew the cost of these things -- but that was work of the head. My heart was with Kip, a creature of the night forced to walk under an alien sun. I thank God that I did not in those days have a father to helpfully buy me a gun. Anything could have broken that balloon.
Tolkien guided me out of that hatred and despair. The fact that I was Smeagol, hating the sun and everyone who lived under it, was immediately obvious to me; the fact that I was Frodo, as well, gradually became so. If John Ronald Reuel had come to me undisguised, as a Catholic talking about sin and temptation, I would have never have listened to him. But he came in a Pagan guise, and he was clearly in love with the natural world. No critic I know of (not that I've kept up) has ever commented on the single most obvious and surprising fact about the Lord of the Rings -- that it's a fifteen-hundred-page close narrative of a walk outdoors. And people read it. Nobody, I think, ever wrote better descriptions of sky and wood and open hill than Tolkien. So the fact that he was a Catholic, with a deeply Christian (if maybe heretical) message, was invisible to me. I could hear what he had to say.
The message was, that God is deliberately breaking us. That we are tested beyond our strength. That we are, and will remain, foreigners in this world, however much we love it.
Tolkien has many flaws. Maybe fatal ones, I don't know -- maybe he won't survive this century. He has the mild down-to-the-marrow sexism and racism of the culture he grew up in. He has no invention, although that's what he's often praised for. His plots and countries are pastiche, cobbled together from a dozen mythologies. He launches into a painfully pompous pseudo-biblical "high style" at the drop of a hat. If his nations were not mercifully disguised as "long ago and far away" the fact that he was so economically and politically silly as to, for instance, think that Franco was a blessing to Spain, would be obvious. His noble houses of Rohan and Gondor float on a terrain empty of peasants, with no visible means of support. He understands nothing ot the economics of class or imperialism.
But no one, maybe, has better understood and expressed the homelessness of the modern age. Tolkien's childhood was ahead of its time. His father died early, and his mother had to move repeatedly. He knew no home. As a fatherless Catholic, born South African, he was always an outsider in England. He had no roots, but he longed for them, and put that longing into story so vividly that the homeless, rootless Americans who made him really popular have always believed that the Shire was a representation of the safe, cosy Old World that Tolkien really knew and belonged in. In fact Tolkien appealed to Americans not because he was different from them, but because he was the same. He lived in the same noisy, ugly, industrialized world we do, in cheap suburbs, among desecrated landscapes. He yearned for a lost home in the Green World, just as we do.
What I learned from Tolkien, ultimately, was that nobody is home. There is no one at ease, here. We are all exiles, and this alienation that looks like it keeps us apart is in fact exactly what we have in common. It took me years to understand all of that, but I understood immediately that one person -- just one -- understood my homelessness. And that was what I most desperately needed.
I don't know how many times I've read the Lord of the Rings. I lost count at forty. I've read it aloud to my kids, repeatedly. I understand, intellectually, that there are better novelists and poets than Tolkien. But I also know that no one will ever mean more to me.
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
From warm countries
Take this promise
Dry woody oranges
From hothouses in Cleveland
Picked green by nervous Hondurans
(Always on the make,
Never scoring, always missing
The kindness of the Honduran sky.)
Taste these, and know
Exactly how the Lord thy God
Yet teach me never
To despise the fruit.
That is hard.
And teach me never
And teach me never
To whisper, "I earned
This; this is mine!"
Father, into thy hands
I commend this orange
That can't yet bleed.
Monday, December 06, 2004
I wonder if all lives are as strewn with wreckage as mine?
I harbor the fantasy that Marina is reading this, and gradually forgiving me. A fantasy that rests on the fantasy that she remembers me, in particular. The one no more probable than the other.
I remember the narrow white scarf she so often wore, her signature wry smile, the way she would begin by rolling her eyes, but lose the exasperation in sheer amusement, melting into a warm smile before the rolling was even finished.
I miss her today.
April 1980. I made my way to the far side of a little Greek island -- I don't remember its name any more -- stripped, and swam in the chilly Mediterranean Sea. It was harder to climb back out on the rocks than I had expected, and I remembered how Odysseus tore his hands when he tried, with his last strength, to get to a rocky shore through the surf.
Polytropon. Everyone tries and fails to translate that epithet for Odysseus. Much-turned. Widely-travelled. Many-metaphored. Well-versed. I wonder if you'd use the same word a bit of jetsam rolled in the surf. I suspect you would.
Do you remember that rather maudlin Hollywood cold-war comedy, The Russians are Coming? The stranded Russian sailor with the extraordinary blue eyes, on the beach with the girl he's ineptly tried to take hostage, suddenly throwing a stone far out into the sea and shouting "I do not want to hurt anyone!"
I've received so many loving sensitive helpful comments and emails that I'm being very slow to respond. Please know that I treasure every word, and the help given is very real and very appreciated. I would be more glib if it meant less to me.
Bless you all, new friends and old.
I'm back on the cushion. Thank you.
Friday, December 03, 2004
Seeing as how I came out with a post against Justice a while ago, maybe nobody will be very surprised to see me come out with a post against Democracy.
I think this country is far too democratic. Everywhere I read, left and right, that if the political system really reflected the People everything would be hunky dory. I don't think so. I think the problem is that this political system reflects the People all too well, with all their ignorance, impatience, and childishness.
A poll right after the presidential debates, of students at the University of Tennessee, if I remember right, asked which candidate wanted to roll back tax cuts for people making over 200,000 a year. About 50% thought it was Kerry. About 25% thought it was Bush. And 25% had the decency to admit they didn't know.
How about the fact that 87% of Americans STILL can't find Iraq on a map? And a majority can't find India? And to 29% the location of the Pacific Ocean is a mystery?
These are not, in my opinion, people who have any business selecting the government of the United States.
It's not that I think Americans are particularly stupid. They're as clever as anyone else when it comes to things they know about and care about. It's just that most of them don't know or care about things such as the nature of the Egyptian government or the dwindling of America's merchant-marine or the current state of scientific opinion about global warming. Yet we have a poltiical system that requires that they do (since they'll vote more or less directly for the president, who sets most policy about these sorts of things).
I know that many of you are angry at people who don't vote, but my own feeling is that if they don't know enough to vote confidently, they probably shouldn't do it. They're probably making the right decision.
The electoral college was intended to be buffer between the raw public and the election of the American executive. The idea was that each state would send its best people off to meet together and have a long talk and select a president. But now that we all bind our delegates to vote according to the popular vote of the state, that's been lost. The election of the president is no longer buffered against the raw public. It's made quirky by the electoral college, but it hasn't really been buffered.
I do think that legitimate power can only be derived from the people, and that all people should have an ultimately equal voice in choosing their government. But that doesn't mean I have to think a university student who believes that Bush wants to roll back his own tax cuts and that the Pacific Ocean laps gently on the Florida shore is a good presidential elector.
I would like to see a real republic. Or maybe a rerepublic. I trust a group of 100 people who know each other to select five from amongst themselves who are (on average) better qualified than they are. Bring together a hundred people selected that way, and let them vote for five amongst themselves, who would then vote for congressmen and presidents. Give those congressmen and presidents single long terms -- twelve years, say. So they have time to learn the job and don't have to spend most of their time getting re-elected. Once elected I don't want my representatives responding to the public, and being accountable to them. I want them responding to events, and being accountable to their own consciences.
Thursday, December 02, 2004
I found the paragraphs below. Written, I suppose, in September, always a month of openings and beginnings, for me. I've lost my way, since then. Groping. Never sure what to make of these bardos, when I'm seemingly in between lives. Waiting for something to happen. For the way to open in front of me. The writing below struck me because today I am so heavy with grief and worry. Was this really me? Musn't it have been some other person, in some other world?
Suddenly the door of this cell blows open, and fresh air rushes in. I wonder why?
I feel free and light as I often used to when I was an undergraduate. Something has lifted off me, for the moment anyway, which has been weighing on me since long ago, since my dear friend Shauna was murdered, maybe. A darkness came to live in me then. Came to stay for twenty-four years. And suddenly it's gone.
I was flirting, lightheartedly, at the school potluck the other night. I can flirt now without "meaning it." Completely without meaning it. Which means that that particular light-heartedness no longer carries a nasty hangover with it, in the form of contemplated secrecy or cultivated obsession. It's light now in a way that it's never been light. I'm free as I've never been free.
I was reading The Jew in the Lotus in the doctor's exam room. (Another small example. Why have I never before taken a book to the doctor, for that inevitable wait in the exam room? Because the waiting room is a place to wait, I guess.) Both the nurse and my doctor started conversations with me about it -- my doctor told me about a friend of his who went to shoot the video for that conference (The Jew in the Lotus is about a Buddhist-Jewish dialogue, a meeting between the Dalai Lama and several Jewish leaders) -- and who came away spiritually tranformed -- not something he had been looking for.
I have gone through life assuming that no one I know "in the real world" cares about any of this. I've always assumed that my spiritual yearnings (even before I knew enough to call them such) were something no one else had. As a child, and ever after. And so of course I've carefully avoided ever revealing them to anyone -- which means that no one has had any reason to think I'd have any interest in theirs.
I think I need to backtrack. Start again. Back to the shrine, back to Machik Labdron and Milarepa. I have been too willing to wait patiently. Patience is not always a virtue.
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
I knew a woman once, a long time ago, who had murdered her children. She had killed them, I was told, and tried to kill herself, but failed. I never learned more than that.
She was quiet intelligent well-put-together woman, good at her job, maybe a little too well-dressed, and a little too formal, for the office. The odd woman out, always. I had known her for years before I learned of her history. Everyone knew but me -- it was the sort of thing that was so striking, I guess, that everyone assumed I knew it. But when I did learn of it, I remembered her and the coffee.
I had seen her in the cafeteria one day, a briefcase under one arm and a cup of scalding-hot coffee in the other hand. The coffee slopped over onto her wrist. She jerked in response, and the coffee slopped again. Her hand was shaking now, and she couldn't stop it from shaking. But she couldn't move to set the coffee down, either, without spilling more. And she couldn't make up her mind to drop it. More coffee spilling. More trembling. For ten long seconds she struggled, standing rooted to the tile floor. I don't think I've ever seen more pain and panic in a human face.
Monday, November 29, 2004
A tiny life stilled. The second mouse we caught, in our home-made box trap. We don't know why it died. Was it just the trauma of being caught?
A small body, no longer and not much thicker than my finger. That little awareness, that vividness, bright eyes and quick reckless risk-taking scuttle. The meekness of mice is proverbial, but I've known a lot of mice, and I've never been impressed by their meekness. More impressed by their dash and fire, their willingness to commit to risky enterprises, their resourcefulness and determination. The third mouse we caught, last night, is still at large, having chewed a tiny hole in the solid wood box and squirmed through it. It must have taken him hours. The first one got away too, making a bold leap for it as we shifted mouse #2 into the larger holding box. So we've caught three mice. One is dead, and two got away. This is probably pretty normal mouse-life. Death-defying feats. Some of the feats come off, some don't.
These are mice that have survived six months in a household with two cats and a dog. The dog is elderly, it's true, and the cats have reached the age of dignity -- not willing to make fools of themselves any more by practicing extreme hunting. But they're still cats. Still perfectly willing to catch and kill an imprudent mouse. They've gotten one or two.
The rest of the mice have survived, multiplying to the point where even we laissez-faire and less-than-energetic Buddhists have decided it's time for them to go. I meant to catch them in the summer, when, I supposed, making a new life out in the wild somewhere would be easier. (In fact I have no idea whether this sort of mouse can live through an unsheltered Oregon rainy-season or not. Possibly not, but it still seems important somehow to give them a shot at it.) But the time just went by, and now we're seriously over-moused.
But I'm given pause by this small death. Not guilt -- just identification. My own life, snatched in borrowed moments, seems much like his. A run to beat the odds. Moments of inspired shrewdness, taking bold advantage of being too small to bother with, and occasional quixotic rashness or dull inattention. Sooner or later my luck will run out. The reality of my little world will shift, for reasons that will probably be invisible to me, and the risks that seemed acceptable all along will unexpectedly turn fatal. I think I know all about living behind the kitchen stove. But I don't know a thing.
Thursday, November 25, 2004
And now the wind drops, and the clatter of the rain against the windows lessens, and I'm aware of her again. Rapid breathless soft speech, only I can't hear it. She and the other dead come around often on nights like this. They cluster at the window. But all I understand is their urgent desire to be heard. And opening the window only lets in the wind and the rain.
The voice runs on, yearning, pleading, explaining, temporizing.
Dear one, I say gently. I can't hear you. You're not in this world any more.
The wind shakes the window violently, and then it all goes quiet. Only slow-spaced drips from the eaves punctuate the sudden silence.
You should have said all this before you crossed the river, hon. It really can't matter now.
It's hard to know what gifts to give the dead. They are even worse than the living at distinguishing between veil and substance. And there is not much here, anyway, that passes for currency there. Not that you can convince them of that. If I could hear them, I'd hear them asking for meth, for hugs, for undying love, for new cars, for health insurance, for fame, for good red wine, for justice.
I only wanted to say. I never meant to. All I was asking was.
It doesn't matter now, hon, I whisper. Though I'm not really sure that's true. How would I know? They're the ones who should know. But I don't think they really know anything. They're just driven by the wind of habit, swirling up to my window in rustling drifts.
I don't even know if listening is a gift. Maybe I'm just reinforcing the delusion that they still have business here. But I listen. It's what I do. If I was sent into this world with any gift, it was the gift of listening. I don't have much else I could even try to pass on.
Monday, November 22, 2004
So I went out to lunch, and ordered an enormous omelet and a pile of potatoes and two biscuits, and began to write. "Dear Emily," I began. I know no Emily. Who was I writing to? It shifted as I wrote. By the time I was done writing, in any case, she was gone.
"Let's pretend," I wrote, about halfway down the first page, "that I was someone who could just do what he decides to do. What would today look like? What would he do?"
And I wrote down some plans, a list of the various things this fictional person would do, & how he'd do them, and what he would do when he met an obstacle.
The first thing he would do, this person who can always do what he decides to do, is meditate. So when I got back to work, I checked my mail for anything urgent, and finding nothing, I settled down on my cushion, murmured my refuge prayers, and let my eyes unfocus.
Builders were building something on the other side of the wall. Drills buzzed, amplifying to cut-off shrieks when they broke through to tougher material. Strange knocks and booms. This second-story floor is oddly unstable; it rocks even when people just walk past through the cubicle hall. With every boom, I bobbed up and down like a duck crossing a boat-wake. Keyboards tip-tapped. An Indian voice, endlessly patient, on a telephone. Very easy, under these circumstances, to view appearances as empty and dreamlike. I don't know if we Buddhists are grateful enough for the assistance lent us by corporate surrealism. What would be much more difficult, would be viewing any of this as real.
At some point in writing down my pretend afternoon and evening, I understood that it was not only possible for me to do what I had decided to do. It was inevitable. It had in fact been inevitable since (at the very least) I left the office with the conviction that my drift had to stop.
When I got up from the cushion, I wrote the emails I had to write, figured out what I needed to do to get access to this and to find the documentation for that. All with that odd sense of fatality on me. Life is even weirder, I think, than it appears to be, and that's saying a lot.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
I had to start giggling last night, as I reread a couple months' posts here. All this overwrought writing and spiritual gasping and striking of Byronic poses, when most of the time what's going on is just my perfectly ordinary daily terror of making a mistake & looking foolish. I have a new project to do at work, dealing with people and things I don't know, and I'm afraid I'll screw it up.
Monday, November 15, 2004
Awakening to a silence so full that it condenses on the square glass panes, that it pushes my breath back down my throat, that it edges the light of dawn back over the horizon.
I wake and lift my hands to see if they are still there. Strange little wriggling creatures. Sometimes the absurdity of "I" and "me" is simply obvious. These little threads of nerve running from my fingers to my brain don't make my hands mine. They don't make my brain mine, either. Rented space. Capricious landlord. Uncertain tenure.
Touch the glass. A faint electrical iciness meets the pads of my fingers.
I'm leaving fingerprints. Is that a problem? Have I killed someone? Is there a body I need to dispose of?
It all ends at an empty house, frozen air, broken shadows.
I might take to composing epitaphs for myself, but assuming epitaph readers is assuming far too much. You have used me for what use can be made of me. What can there be to say after that? This useless husk, spinning in the eddy, is neither here nor there. Zhuang Zi aspired to be useless, but I, I have accomplished it. Like Tom Sawyer leaving a bolster in the empty bed, I have left simulacra scattered across this little world, hollow spider-shells to represent me, fragile exoskeletons light enough to float. I me me mine.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
Tuesday, November 09, 2004
What I share with evangelical Christians is very deep. It goes right to the bone. It's a sense that my spirit is sick -- that I am, as my own Buddhist tradition expresses it, in a state of confusion; or, as their tradition expresses it, in a state of sin.
I share with them two convictions about this sickness.
First, that it is of overriding importance. If it can't be cured or mitigated, then life is not worth living.
Second, that nothing I can achieve or get or accomplish in this world can mitigate it. It has persisted through everything this world has offered, in the course of an absurdly fortunate life. Through a rewarding, committed love-relationship, through professional success, through the creation of beautiful things, through the raising of children, through the respect of those I admire. I have attained all those things at various times in my life, in various measures. They have not touched the sickness. The yearning and suffering don't go away, as I attain things. They simply attach to new objects. And at this stage of my life, it is clear to me that I could play this game for the rest of my life, chasing one thing after another.
I grew up immersed in an ideology that I'll call, a little inaccurately, materialist. According to this ideology there is nothing but such worldly attainments. All other hopes are illusory and childish. When I say, "what can be done about this sickness of the spirit?" This ideology answers simply, "ignore it. It's just the human condition. In the meantime, we've developed a spectacular array of distractions. With any luck, you can stay distracted right up until your death!"
To which I, and the evangelical Christians, say -- no thanks.
So, to back up again. Moral values. Of course nonreligious and tepidly religious people have moral values, and they care passionately about them. But they tend to locate their origins in the World. So my father, for instance (my whole life in this regard, I should confess at once, is one long affectionate argument with my father), being a scientist, likes to believe that his values are rational, and derived from objective facts, in sharp contradistinction to religious people, whose values are irrational, and derived from authority.
In saying this, my father and his ilk play right into the hands of those people who like to say they have no moral values. They deny it themselves, often. They say they're "reality-based," deriving their "shoulds" exclusively from reason and from the facts of this world.
In fact they're doing nothing of the kind. They, exactly like the religious people they consider themselves superior to, derive their moral values from precisely the same sources -- from empathy, and from a direct experience of the sacred. My father cares passionately about the wilderness. And if you ask him why, he can speak eloquently about the necessity of biological diversity for the future of the human race, about the stresses of development upon ecosystems, about the dangers of global warming and pollution. To hear him talk, you'd think his motivations came from enlightened self-interest -- a mere selfish concern for the survival of his kind.
If you go on a hike with him, however, the truth will reveal itself very soon. All that stuff is true, and he believes it. But that's not the source of the value he places on the wilderness -- it's just an excuse for it. When my father is in the wilderness, he is in the presence of God. It's sacred ground, to him. Would he really be happy to have the wilderness destroyed if we could guarantee that the human race would do just fine without it? Of course not. But he himself would energetically deny that this value comes from anything so subjective and irrational as a direct experience of the holy.
Similar smokescreens go up when he speaks of economic and social justice. Thickets of statistics sprout up, demonstrations of the economic value of jobs programs and cost-benefit analyses of food-stamp programs. If you'd never seen him confronted by a beggar on the street, you'd have no clue to the source of all this. The fact is, he just can't stand to see people go hungry. Under all this justification is simple raw unadorned compassion. Every bit as irrational as any Baptist's. It's just the heartfelt conviction that we can't let people suffer if we can do something about it.
The kind of arguments my father will make in public deliberately conceal precisely those roots of his conviction that an evangelical Christian could understand and connect with. Much has been made of the fact that 70% of evangelical Christians voted for George Bush. For many of us in this corner of the rhetorical world, it's more important to bear in mind that 30% of them voted for John Kerry. This happened in spite of our materialist rhetoric, I think, rather than because of it. We didn't go to them. They came to us, in spite of our rhetoric.
The single biggest rhetorical mistake we make -- it's a spiritual mistake too -- is to impute stupidity, malice and greed to our opponents. Yes, I'm sure they share in the stupidity, malice and greed of our species. But if we habitually talk about Republicans as stupid, greedy and malicious, how many Republicans or friends of Republicans can we hope to persuade? It's not just a matter of hurting their feelings. They know very well that their Republican friends and relations are not singularly stupid or malicious or greedy. Many of them are outstandingly intelligent, compassionate, and generous. It doesn't help, in trying to persuade someone, to begin by making assertions they know to be false.
Friday, November 05, 2004
Some of my commenters thought I was promoting an outlook that was too rosy. This is not something I'm often accused of, so of course I had to defend my ego-territory as a grim realist. To that end I'm pulling my response up from the depths of my comment box and posting it here --
To me the naive position is thinking that this struggle is going to be over in one grand quick victory, and that we're not going to take huge casualties in the course of it.
I think it's likely enough that we're standing at the end of human history -- that the environment may already be mortally wounded, but that we'll probably see a major nuclear exchange within the next generation, so that we won't even get to witness its demise. Is that grim enough for y'all?
If we do gain a victory over warfare and the poisoning of the environment, it's going to be at the end of a long and protracted struggle, and we're going to have lost a lot by the end of it. And that was true no matter who got elected president this year. Get real, folks. As Mr Bush is so fond of saying -- we're at war. We're going to take losses.
The thing is, I'm with them. The people who said that the thing they cared about most was moral values. The people who voted against their own interests, because they thought their relationship with God was more important than their pocketbooks. Those are my people.
Like them, I think that much of what's wrong with this country is that it's hollow at the heart. It's run by what C.S Lewis would have called "men without chests," people who have never developed strong moral instincts, people who live by a rather confused and self-contradictory utilitarian doctrine of maximing pleasure and minimizing suffering. People who live in their heads, and prefer interacting with theories to interacting with human beings and concrete problems. (People like you and me, my dear reader.)
I have far more in common with those evangelical Christians than I have in common with my parents, with most of the professors who taught me, or with most of my political allies. I don't believe that life is about maximizing wordly pleasure. I don't believe that this world can be fixed (though I believe, maybe inconsistently, that it's our duty to try to fix it.).
The reason I didn't cast my ballot with them is not that I think their priorities are wrong. I think they're completely right. Giving this country a functioning heart is more important than fixing its economy or changing its foreign policy or even protecting its environment. Because with a bad heart all those things are bound to go bad anyway.
But there is a way in which I think they are wrong. I don't think the hollowness is out there, in some parcel of wicked politicians or biased journalists or rancorous academics. It's in almost all of us, and it won't be fixed by just voting in people who stand tall and say that they pray a lot. The problem is not -- particularly -- that our leaders are hollow. It's that we are. This is not a hollow that can be filled by poltical action, and trying to do so only puts us at the mercy of demogogues and pharisees.
Politics is a matter of this world. Of issues and plans and imagined futures and competing interests. That's as it should be. There's nothing wrong with being active in the world. But it's a deep, deep mistake to confuse that with our most important work, which is the work of the spirit. It's a mistake for two reasons. One is that it leads us to identify our political opponents with evil -- something we are too prone to do anyway -- and the other is simply that it takes our attention off what really is important.
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
I wrote this in another context, this morning, but I thought I'd post it here too.
A beautiful fall day, mist shifting with sunshine, glowing red-and-yellow leaves, up here in Oregon.
I am disappointed. Even bitterly disappointed. But I believe that the Kerry campaign was a great success, even though it didn't gain the presidency. (Apart from getting to nominate Supreme Court Judges, the presidency may not be a very desireable office, this time around. Let Mr Bush try to clean up his own messes. Give Americans four years to watch just how successful his foreign and domestic policies are going to be.)
The Kerry campaign was a success because
1) We made incredible inroads on Bush's support. Remember a year ago? We all thought this election would be a walkover for the President. His support was huge.
2) More importantly -- we got our story out. We actually got an alternative account of how we got into Iraq and what's happening there out into public. That's terribly important, because even if 51% of Americans don't believe this story yet, they've heard it, and as the news keeps coming in they'll have another story-bucket to put it in, besides the one conveniently placed by Rove & Co. I believe the news is going to fit a lot better into Kerry's bucket than into theirs.
3) Democrats have been more united and energized than I have ever seen them -- probably since the first Johnson administration. If I were a Republican I'd be really scared by the discipline and solidarity they've been showing. (Not to mention their fund-raising prowess, which certainly surprised me.)
And, lastly -- everything now for four years is going to be the Republicans' fault. They control the congress and the presidency. No wriggling out of it. What we really must do is regain control of congress, and this may have been the best outcome for that to happen in 2008.
We shall overcome. Il buon tempo verra!
Tuesday, November 02, 2004
The man who wins today's election will probably appoint three supreme court justices. That means that the character of the court for the next twenty years is likely to be established today. If President Bush is re-elected, the court will selected by someone who
1) Has said that he will appoint judges who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
2) Has vigorously and successfully fought to reduce civil liberties.
3) Believes that there are far too many environmental protections in place.
In other words, it's likely that this election will decide whether abortion becomes illegal in many states, and possibly in the nation. (You're against abortion? I am too. I just don't think that sending police to intervene in horribly complicated intimate decisions usually makes things a lot better.)
The other two issues are the ones that seem most important to me, because they're the hardest to undo. It's rare to get civil liberties back once you've lost them. And it's even rarer to be able to really restore environments that have been ruined.
You can destroy a lot of habitat in twenty years.
Monday, November 01, 2004
I'm missing things. At this vertiginous rim, all things gather. All things speak. But only if I wait. They told me in outdoor school that it takes twenty minutes. That sounds about right. Twenty minutes of sitting quietly before the forest begins to forget you're there, and the birds and animals move and speak again.
Like a thin line of light falling through the blinds into a dark room, catching dust-motes and bringing in the faint noise of traffic.
I wonder what the wood felt like to Sir Walter Raleigh, when he laid his bearded cheek against the block and waited for the axe. The last thing to speak to him in this world. Was his mind still full of what might have come of the Orinoco expeditions and the malice of the Spanish ambassador, or was he listening, at the last?
And this little sleep is rounded with a
Lives trickled down so many slopes, so many dead
Well, of all the things I ever thought just wouldn't matter
All of them have mattered.
You ask permission at the strangest times --
I can measure the inadequacy of my understanding
By my surprise.
No problem. Leaves raining down, yellow leaves, maple leaves
They paste themselves to the van. The time to ask
The time to ask
The time to ask permission was back at the start.
All the creeks run down to the same black river,
All the desires run down to the same white fear.
And that fear is of all fears the most rational --
That I should be just one, just one of the dim
Jostling crowd on the muddy ferry-bank.
Who was he? One shade asks, and another turns,
Shading his lidless eyes with a fleshless hand, and shrugs.
No one we knew. Not well, anyway.
All the leaves flowing down to the river
And the river flowing underground
And the ferryman bored with his shuffling crew --
No one we knew. Not well, anyway.
Friday, October 29, 2004
I found this in a spiral notebook I was about to chuck into the recycling bin. Mostly it's just page after page of practicing Chinese characters, but I found a couple pages of what was obviously meant to be a blog entry:
It's all white and gray here. Endless white sky, endless gray fronts surging in from the Pacific; dark gray sea laced with white foam. Twisted pines are night-colored against the ghostly blowing sand. There is no horizon, only a place where it's no longer clear whether the darker gray is a quick rain-shower or the mass of Gull Rock. The whales, too, are gray and white. Not migrating, as I had thought. Some grays do migrate past here, in the late Fall and the early Spring; but others stay here year-round, and those are the ones we see. I had wondered how it was that we got so lucky, year after year. Whether we came in early August or late October, the whales were always here.
This is the twenty-ninth year we have come to Otter Rock. It's woven into all the history of our marriage. Martha and I first came here, escaping from the summer of my sister's suicide, finding in each other, rather than the temporary solace of a fleeting infatuation, an unexpected strength and solidity.
The sixth year we came here on our honeymoon, again fleeing violence, the murder of a friend, and the dissolution of our supposed talents into a quicksand of depression. We stayed a single night, and were so wretched, so horrified at bringing all that misery into a place that had been happy for us, that we left the next day. I don't remember where we went, then. Maybe Ashland.
Later on, of course, we brought the children here, and it became the children's vacation. We've never been good at boundaries; we're one of those child-centered families that so many people despise. I used to despise them too, which didn't prevent me from having one. A great blessing that children bring is the acceleration of the process by which we become everything we used to hold in contempt. Some of my childless friends are only now, with the advent of middle age, discovering the horrors of turning into their parents; we were already there fifteen years ago. A long time to wait, to learn the lesson that all contempt is self-contempt, all loathing is self-loathing.
Gray gulls against the white sky, the white whale-spouts against the gray rollers.
This frigid sea holds my death. I watch Tori wading out into the breakers, her skin bright pink. They give people less than twenty minutes to live if they're immersed unprotected in this sea. It sucks the heat out of your body quickly, greedily. I'm not so young now that playing with that appeals to me. I stay on the beach and watch. Dogs and children love to play in the surf. The rest of us love to watch them, but we're content to let our deaths come and fetch us. No wish to seek them out.
I find myself murmuring refuge prayers, and thinking of Bokar Rinpoche, and of Michael and Lekshe. How idly I've spent my days. And in what a narrow little space -- stepping eagerly or doggedly in the footprints of old anxieties and cravings. I miss you all.
Huh. Maybe there's hope for this wretched species after all. Read the Lioness's account of a Lisbon dinner in honor of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and Braincrayon's account of waiting in line to vote in Texas.
Both of these things made my eyes fill with tears. I've become a pretty soppy guy in my middle age.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
I ran out to the grocery store, because -- for reasons I never understood -- Alan's teacher was anxious that Alan's photographs be developed before tomorrow. So I picked up the photos. Scrawled on the back of the envelope was: "Severely underexposed. Check before buying." Oh well. A gallon of milk, too, remember!
Weird pictures. Dark red haze, indistinct figures. They were pictures of school, all right, but that was about as much as I could make out.
Out in the parking lot, I could see the moon, and I realized that what I had thought was a cloud -- an odd cloud -- partly obscuring it was in fact the shadow of the Earth. My shadow. The shadow had almost covered it. Dark red haze, indistinct moon.
I hurried home to let everyone know. "You can see the eclipse! You can see it from right across the street!"
The denizens of our house straggled out, one after another, and gathered on opposite sidewalk. We are a rather shabby bunch. We tend to wear black, and to look like we got lost in the haze of a coffeehouse back in 1972 and have just wandered back out. Even my kids and their friends, who of course were not in coffeehouses, or anywhere else, in 1972.
Martha said "I'll just tell the Smiths," and walked one house over. "Should I tell the Joneses?" asked Alan. It struck him as odd that Martha should tell the Smiths and not tell the Joneses when we were standing smack in front of the Joneses' house. I couldn't even tell if the Smiths were home, but I could see one of the younger Joneses at the computer in the living room. But Alan's sensitive to social nuance, so he wanted to check it out. "Sure," I said. He scurried to their door.
I'm not sure why Martha didn't go to tell the Joneses. We get along well. Our kids used to play together a fair amount, though that's tapered off as they've grown older, and gradually discovered that they are on opposite sides of the great divide.
We're a Blue family, and they're a Red family. A Kerry sign in our yard, Kerry bumper-stickers on both our cars. The haphazard lawn and garden of people who won't use fertiilizer, seldom prune, and don't care much about appearances. An untidy porch littered with toys. Various rescued animals and stray kids tend to gather at our place. Odd people show up. A monk in orange robes, one day. A friend whose car is papered with lesbian slogans, another.
Across the way, the Joneses live in a very different house. A brilliant green lawn, carefully tended. Nothing out of place. On every patriotic holiday, the American flag flies from a bracket by their front door, and is carefully, and I'm sure correctly, taken down at dusk. The only bumper sticker I've ever seen on either of their beautifully kept cars read Billy Graham. Praying for Greater Portland.
They are good people. Considerate neighbors, and terrific parents: their kids are cheerful, polite, and reliable -- great resources for hiring to feed the animals, while we're gone. They recycle conscientiously. They have exchange students of all races and nationalities come to stay, and see to it that they meet the other young people in the neighborhood. They go to a nearby conservative, Baptist church. Devout Christians. One day when their youngest son left after a visit, I found Alan sitting in his room, silent tears coursing down his face. Young Jones had told him that when his mother died, he would never see her again, because we weren't going to heaven.
That was the only time I know of when the divide became explicit. They made it up, and went on playing with each other. I'm quite sure that the Joneses would have been distressed to learn that their youngest had said that. What they think of our prospects for salvation, I don't know, but they take that business about not judging very seriously. And in any case, they are kindly, gentle people, with open generous faces. Nothing like the vengeful authoritarian Baptists of Blue legend.
Tim Jones and one of his sons -- could that tall young man actually be his youngest? -- came out to look. After a bit Tim went inside and came out with a telescope. "The only thing I've ever won," he said apologetically, as though having a telescope on a stand was a little ostentatious. "I entered a raffle at a conference, and got a phone call a week later... I'd forgotten that I'd entered." We talked about the total solar eclipse in the early 1970's, how spooky it had been, how at ten in the morning the world had gone brown and the birds had all fallen silent.
He got the telescope oriented and focused, and we all took turns peering into the eyepiece. It didn't really look much bigger.
The opening lines of Julius Caesar kept just barely escaping me. Sheeted dead gibbering in the streets -- various omens forecasting disaster to the state. Were there eclipses too? I wasn't sure. But an eclipse just a week before this most divisive of elections, an election widely expected to unreliable, maybe rigged -- there was an obvious interpretation to it. None of us made it. A baleful moon. My first thought was that it presaged President Bush's re-election. A depressing thought. But then I thought, that would only be regarded as baleful by half of us. Maybe Kerry will be elected, and this moon is a baleful omen for Tim and his family and the Red half of the country. I had a distinct, unshakeable conviction that the mirror-image of my thoughts, swapping Red for Blue, were in Tim's mind. I opened my mouth to make some jocular remark about half of America at least being certain to see a baleful omen come true. Closed it again without speaking.
The out-of-work programmer who lives a couple houses down from us -- he's been out of high tech work for a couple years now, and has taken to doing odd-jobs, building porches and so forth -- he and his wife pulled up. He's a cheerful soul. Seeing us gathered on the sidewalk with a telescope, he hailed us from across the street: "For a million dollars I'll bring it back!" Tim hollered something bantering back. They're a Blue family too.
It was chilly. We began to straggle back across the street, back to the warm comfortable untidiness of our Blue house. The streetlight dazzled my eyes; as I closed the door I caught one last glimpse of the Joneses, indistinct figures carrying a telescope back into their neat Red house.
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
I have been bontafied, so I should get some respect. I'm a Bontasattva now, and I expect to be treated like one. Hah!
(Strutting and preening in my borrowed feathers. An urge to go find Pertelotte.)
But seriously, it's a beautiful poem, and I'm shamelessly delighted.
Tuesday, October 26, 2004
Because each tiny lattice-work leads to the next. Little fingers of wanting, finding purchase wherever my mind is uneven. They tear my heart apart slowly, like thread-roots tearing concrete. Or again: the fear seeps in like snowmelt. Come nighttime, and the frost, it will freeze and expand and force the strands of flesh apart. Weak, barely perceptible processes, hardly worth resisting, you might think. (Or might pretend?)
Of course, the process happens in reverse as well. Or else we wouldn't be here, would we? The damage mends itself, the torn flesh knits together. A night's sleep or the gleam of a bell work their way in, exactly like that, and transform into a shadow sustenance.
Seven minutes of sitting. A prayer before eating. These things are neither what they purport to be, nor what they appear to be. They are things that work in the cold, dark interior of my heart -- altered, altering.
I have listened too often to sensible people, who live in the sun and talk about the healthiness of water and the joy of growing plants. Why talk to them? I want to talk to the people who come stammering back, dirty and shivering, out of the frozen earth. That's where things change.
Thursday, October 21, 2004
Susan asked -- relayed, I guess -- the question, "Which of the five senses do you think is most important?"
I was surprised when I went back to look at it, because I found I had converted the question, in my mind, to "which of the five senses would it distress you most to lose?"
And my first response was, "I am already losing all of them." Which is true.
In the past few years, my sight has deteriorated. First I needed reading glasses for books with small print. And gradually I found that more and more books were written in small print. Now I don't even read the comics without my reading glasses.
When I was in grad school, I was hired briefly by Cleanth Brooks. Does anyone remember who he is, now? He was an ancient gray eminence, back then. He had been one of the New Critics when they were the young lions of Literary Academia, and a generation later every young Deconstructionist pup took potshots at his book "The Well-Wrought Urn," as emblematic of all the stupid old assumptions of standard literary criticism. A beautiful essay, much easier to argue with than their own muddy writing could ever be, because it was so easy to tell what he meant. I feel still that to be clearly wrong is better than to be vaguely right. Clarity and precision were what Brooks loved. They were what he found, pre-eminently, in poetry. If you want to find any one man who turned the tables and convinced the 20th Century world that poetry was more exact, more rigorous, and more conceptually demanding than prose -- a commonplace now, but not one in his youth, when poetry was commonly thought to be decorative, but fuzzy and self-indulgent -- that man would be Cleanth Brooks.
I was hired to be his eyes. He was writing a lecture for some distinguished society, using a typewriter with a huge typeface. He wore enormous glasses, and he peered at these words -- letters as thick as my pinkie -- and couldn't distinguish them. He chafed at having to rely on an ignorant grad student to read his own words. Winced when I mispronounced "Sewanee."
He was still in the ring, but just barely. The written word was being taken away from him, and only the spoken was left. And he could only taste his own words read back, his own beautiful sonorous southern accent replaced by my flat, generic, toneless Western ignorance. I only remember helping him that once. The experience was painful for both of us, I think. I remember walking through a book-lined living-room to the front door, when I was leaving. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls, thousands of books, and not one that he could read.
No. I don't want to lose my sight.
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
Reading this post made my darkness begin to lift, last night. For months Karrie Higgins of Anti-Freeze has been channeling the spirit of downtown Portland, with all its warmth, intelligence, cheerful loopiness, and earthy populism. If you want to see why Portland is my favorite city in the world, go take a look.
Monday, October 18, 2004
My walking faltered, and I drifted gently to a stop. There must be some way -- I might have thought -- to want something. There must be something.
The clouds were travelling steadily to the northwest. A thick silver cloud-cover, drizzling a steady rain, like a vast sheet of corrugated steel gliding across the sky. The clouds can move. Are they free, or bound? The question, I'm told, makes no sense. I suppose it doesn't. They look free. Except that every ripple in the corrugation is moving the same way, hurrying toward the mouth of the Columbia. The wind made visible. If the wind isn't free, what is?
At the far end of the breezeway, a door opened, and an Indian man came out, gesticulating. He was talking on a cell phone. I started walking again. See? Only the prospect of being thought odd by a stranger is needed, and I'm set in motion again.
Red wet leaves on the pavement. As I left the shelter of the breezeway, the rain tapped lightly on my scalp, barely impeded by my thinning hair. I walked through the parking lot. I couldn't really be a suspicious figure. I was wearing my badge.
The wind blew a spray of rain into my face, onto my forearms. I yearned with love, all the familiar sensations of being in love, except that there was no one at the focus of it. I'd die if I couldn't have... somebody's love. Who was it? I must have been daydreaming about somebody, musn't I? You can't just be lovelorn. You have to pine for someone specific. I think the same people say that, who say you can't ask questions about the freedom of the wind.
Tired of my exile. Tired of my loneliness. Tired of my weariness.
A small mammal under a huge restless sky. Generating warmth, by habit. A blot on an infrared camera, a harbor for mosquitos. My heart beat steadily toward its total. I found myself counting softly, as I often do, when I feel exposed and vulnerable. Following the gentle decrement of my lifetime, the slow running-out of my time. How long should a man's life be? Another question that makes no sense. Long enough to reach his death.
Friday, October 15, 2004
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bow'd my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
And still the dream and the nightmare roll backwards. Sunburnt and shivering on the floor of the zeppelin's cockpit, a cold night drifting over the Red Sea. So cold at night that we had to throw ballast overboard, and so hot by noon that we had to spill our precious hydrogen. We were higher than Everest's summit. Too high for men. Klaus's eyes bulged. Little capillaries burst into red sunstars in their whites. Von Lettow-Vorbeck would just have to improvise. We turned back.
A dream of Africa. They began a battle, but the gunfire hit a bees nest and the angry bees made everyone run for it, both sides. When Lettow-Vorbeck came back, for weeks the bugs were still crawling out of his feet. And then he dwindled out of life in a little suburban house with trinkets on the mantelpiece. The Lion of Tanzania. An old man with cheap curtains and a carefully fertilized lawn.
You think you have plumbed these depths? You have not even begun.
I moved slowly into the room, and counted the shells on the floor. Only three. Those aren't bad odds. The smell of a house whose windows have not been opened in thirty years. The French windows were completely unglassed. When Louie was drunk, he'd practice throwing his bottles against them, and smashing the panes. I guess he must have got pretty good at it.
We gave Scott the money to go to Portland, to kill his lover. That was his plan. When he came back he told us about it. Ashamed. He'd made him cry, he said. He'd said mean things, and made him cry. "So you didn't kill him?" We said. "Kill him? Did I ever say that? I never said that." And he never would believe that he'd told us that. Probably a good thing, since if he had, it would have made him furious that we sent him off, confident that he wouldn't do it. Scott was one of those guys no one can ever take seriously.
And then to Nicaragua, which was in those days just a bowl of blood. Nothing but blood, red from end to end. People would go into that bowl, slip into the the blood, and -- nothing. Nothing came out.
Does it matter, then? If I am sick of an old passion? No. It doesn't matter for a minute.
When I was sixteen a woman took me into the woods behind Hendricks Butte, and we drank a bottle of wine together. She was married. I had a huge crush on her. But I never came on to her, even then, when we were both intoxicated, and when anyone would have said that was why she took me there. I wonder why not? I came on to everyone, in those days. What did marriage have to do with me, then? And what does marriage have to do with anyone who drinks on the wrong side of Hendricks Butte, anyway? I guess I got shy.
If there's one place I'd go back to, it's that place, in those woods, with that woman. Her name was Terry. I think.
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
Dispensing with Justice
When Tori was four years old she had a favorite plate. It was a small china plate, with gilt-work around the rim and little pictures on it. I liked it too. Any child's thing that is neither garish nor plastic is a blessing.
We had guests to dinner, four-year-old Devon, a newish friend of Tori's from daycare, and her parents. They all sat at the kitchen table while I finished up dinner. Unthinkingly, I set plates around -- all the same plain plates except for Tori's beautiful one, gleaming with gold. Devon looked at that plate with large eyes, and I knew I had blundered.
"Oh," I said brightly, "Tori, since Devon's our guest, would you like her to have the special plate just for tonight?" There was a faint chance that the pleasure of dispensing benefits, as a lordly host, might appeal to her.
It didn't. Somberly, she shook her head. It was her plate. "Since you get to use it all the time..." I suggested. Devon was beginning to scowl as the injustice of it came home to her. Tori got to eat off that pretty plate all the time, and she couldn't have it even once?
Meanwhile, Tori's head had bowed forward, an all-too-familiar signal of mulish determination, like a stag lowering its antlers. It was her plate. "Maybe we could take turns," I said desperately, "when Devon's here. You could have it one night and she could have it the next." Devon, sensing that she might be rooked out of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to use the pretty plate by getting handed that "next turn" that never materializes, was beginning to look downright dangerous.
"We could flip a coin?" I suggested weakly. This wasn't dignified with a response. I had a fleeting vision of throwing the plate to the floor and smashing it -- a gratifying momentary fantasy. Something plainly had to be done fast, or the evening was going to be a dead loss. I scooped the plate up swiftly. "Well, I'm sorry we couldn't come to an agreement," I said. "I guess nobody gets it tonight." And I stuck it back on the shelf.
It was touch and go, but I got away with it, by hurrying some food quick in front of the girls. Devon's mother came through with some other distraction, and the crisis was averted. Never again would I bring down Tori's special plate when we had company.
It was, I think, a just decision. Which illustrates why I dislike justice. Nobody got to use the plate.
In retrospect I can see that I set up the problem, by casting the situation in terms of ownership and fairness. It's our automatic response to a problem. Whose rights take precedence? What's the fair solution?
But is it a good response? Even in the issue of who gets a dinner plate, these can be terribly complicated problems. How important is the courtesy due to a guest, as opposed to the right to dispose of one's most beloved property? Is turnabout really fair play, when one was given the plate and another was not? Even on this scale -- probably about as simple as such a problem gets -- the answers could be argued interminably. It brings immense complexity to the problem, for the whole history of the plate, and its significance as a gift, become pertinent issues. Suddenly, things that were done two years ago have a critical bearing on tonight's problem. Did Grandma really give the plate to Tori, or to the family? Surely the rights of usage, the fact that Tori has always had prior claim to the plate, is a matter of some importance? How about, on the other hand, the "natural" justice of everybody getting a turn? By that reckoning, Devon was owed about four hundred plate-nights.
At this point any sensible person has to start wondering "am I really on the right track? Can this really be the best method for handling such conflicts? An observant newspaper-reader will also recognize the contours of any number of current conflicts in the world.
At some point, after I'd been a practicing Buddhist for a couple years, I gave up on justice altogether. I don't believe in it any more. I don't believe in its religious and philosophical underpinnings; I don't believe in its emotional good faith, and I don't believe (as a matter of empirical observation) that concocting solutions according to the principles of justice is effective, or even, ultimately, intelligible.
Justice is essentially a theistic concept. It assumes an outside arbiter who can see the situation clearly and assess blame fairly -- God, in a word. And the process of justice is supposed to be the process of human understanding approaching the understanding of God. Since the understanding of God is One, the closer we get to justice, the closer our understandings should converge. So we would expect those who care most about justice, and promote it the most, to be closest to the understanding of God, and therefore to each other's understandings.
In fact we find the opposite. The more passionately people care about justice, the more divergent their assessments of a situation seem to be. Even on a homely dinner-plate level, the project of establishing convergent justice is one I've never seen succeed. Ever. I have never seen two people with varying views of the justice of a situation come to have exactly the same view of it. I have only rarely seen them even move toward each other: usually the movement is in the opposite direction. People come to a modus vivendi when they decide to make concessions even though the other guy is wrong.
So I try live without justice, now. And living without it is an excellent way to understand what it is. My fleeting vision of smashing the plate is what justice really is, in me. It's anger. It's vengeance. It's the desire to make people suffer in proportion as I and mine suffer. The further behind I leave it, the more clearly I can see what it really is. There is nothing good or holy about my desire for justice.
I had the concepts of justice and compassion deeply tangled, so that I was frightened at first at the idea of abandoning justice. Would I no longer care about, say, the Sudanese refugees, if I no longer blamed the so-called militias? Would I become indifferent?
I have not become indifferent. I care more than ever, I think. But I will admit that it troubles me less. I can care about them without that canker gnawing in my stomach, without that red haze obscuring my vision. Part of being able to drop justice, I think, was coming to really believe in my own goodness. I am no longer desperate to vindicate my goodness, or prove it by differentiating myself from other people. I don't have to protect my own compassion by holding anyone in contempt. My compassion -- even mine, even my sickly meager version of the Buddha's compassion -- is deeper and stronger and more permanent than I am. It could lose me -- hopefully it will, someday -- but I could not possibly lose it.
Friday, October 08, 2004
"Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.
And so he sat down on the porch and rested. The silence came back, and curled around him like a cat's tail. For the truth was, he had nowhere to go.
Their stillness answering his cry. But answers, such answers he could get anywhere. That was the answer the girl by the stream gave him, averting her eyes and hurrying away. The answer the sky gave him, at dusk, along with its perfunctory benediction of a sprinkle of rain. The answer his leather wine-bottle gave him, when he turned it upside down, all its other answers exhausted.
In the poem, I ride away, he thought. That's what makes it a fine poem, but it's also what makes it a lie. I have no other business with anybody, if They have no business with me.
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
I just need to whine a little, and produce an insubstantial tirade about lack of substance. Feel free to skip this post.
I was horrified when Kerry chose Edwards as his running-mate. It struck me as a typical manifestation of "Quail disease" -- an aged political party desperately trying to prove its virility by getting in bed with an inexperienced sweet young thing. It just makes the party look silly in the morning, when they're saddled with a vapid gum-snapping adolescent who can't converse with their friends.
Some polls say Edwards won the debate, which just makes me feel (if possible) more alienated. I thought he made a very poor showing indeed, and I pray that he never becomes president. Cheney gave him several openings for refuting the "flip-flop" charges, and he failed, miserably, to exploit them. Instead he dribbled out bits of his stump speeches, and basically let every accusation that Cheney levelled at him stand. His own record is not very defensible, admittedly, but Kerry's is reasonably so.
The Bush-Cheney campaign has made great play, of course, with the fact that most Americans don't have a clue how congressional politics work -- that legislative votes are usually bargaining chips, not stands of conscience, and that anyone with a straight-track voting record is probably an ineffectual congressman. (Which is why it's so hard to move from the congress into the presidency; governors have a much better shot at it.) But even so, Edwards could have fought back. Cheney's caricature of Kerry's record would have been easy to take down -- but only by someone who had the particulars in his head. Edwards clearly didn't. Instead he trotted out his own caricature of Cheney's record, and made much of the Halliburton stuff (in precisely the wrong way -- the problem is not that Cheney's lining his personal pockets; the problem is that Cheney's class loyalties are so strong as to be invisible to himself -- he really believes that what's good for Halliburton is good for the nation.)
There were some moments of high comedy, as when Cheney completely missed the moderator's hint that since she was addressing him as Mr Vice President, he might in return call her something other than "Gwen." Certainly the Bush campaign scored no points with African-Americans last night. Cheney appeared startled to learn that there were such creatures still roaming about in White America. (Edwards also stuck to "Gwen," but since he gives the impression of being someone who always calls everyone by their first name, and since he didn't say it every other sentence, it didn't stick out so much.)
I thought that Cheney's grim silence about his disagreement with the President over Gay marriage conferred a sort of dignity on him -- he's given his alliegance, and that's that. I liked it, though I imagine it lost him points with a lot of people.
All in all, it was a rather depressing event. Particularly when the newscasters came on and called it "substantive." Eh? Nasty and mean-spirited, sure. But substantive? I wracked my brains trying to think of what they could mean, but I'm still baffled.
Tuesday, October 05, 2004
Setting Disraeli* at defiance --
It's come to my attention that I've dropped a couple balls recently.
Some of you already know this about me, but for those who don't -- I actually do the work I get paid for in about two months of the year, comprised of a few eight- or nine-day sprees when I vanish from sight and work feverishly. The rest of the time, the picture Dave painted of me in a recent comment, as loitering in my cubicle surfing the web and commenting on blogs, is embarassingly accurate. I run through some routine work and send a few emails and monitor a bunch of automated processes, and tinker with this and that, but I'm not really focused on the job.
Then something urgent and interesting comes up and for a a week or two my mail goes unanswered and my blog goes unupdated and I skip shaving. (I'd say that I don't answer phone calls, but to tell the truth, I never answer phone calls.) I'm just coming out of one of those periods now, and I'm discovering all sorts of things that I should have done that I didn't. So if I owe you email or some such, it would be wise to remind me of it.
*Who said, "Never apologize; never explain."
Wednesday, September 29, 2004
How can I talk about what I owe to C.S. Lewis? He's the man who opened the world, for me. Who made it possible for me to be a Buddhist, who rescued me from an airless, sterile materialism. He set out to rescue me. "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." That was me. Eustace. And while Lewis made me indignant by mocking him roundly, it was clearly himself he was mocking, as well as Eustace, as well as me. He had lived there, he was saying, and now he lived somewhere else. How could that be? Where could "else" be? How could there be an "else"?
I imagine to Lewis I would be only a half-success, since I couldn't quite follow him all the way to Christianity. I still find some pieces of Christianity -- which I think are essential pieces, integral pieces -- impossible to swallow. How could a good God deliberately make so much evil? It's a silly question, in a way. I wouldn't begin to know how to create even a tiny good ex nihilo: how then would I know how much evil it ought to take? But still, it's a question that pulls me up short. And then there's the insistence on making one single, real historical event the pivot of all human history. No. Can't see it. Though again, arguments seem futile. Lewis (or was it Chesterton?) remarked that this pivot-of-history story had the improbability, the odd compelling shape, of reality, and that's true enough. But that's hardly an argument.
Lewis, at his best -- when he didn't get carried away by his own rhetoric -- always started with unblinking observation. The facts of his own mind. And there were two facts that materialism didn't explain at all well. First, what we Buddhists would call "the truth of suffering." The pervasiveness of the sense of loss, of distortion, of dissatisfaction. The sense of being wrong in the world. And second, the experience of joy. If the materialists were correct, then the pleasures of the senses and the pleasures of society should be the highest pleasures available. But in fact there are pleasures wholly unrelated to either one. The joy of watching distant mountains emerge from a misty horizon at dawn. The joy of touching minds with something plainly unhuman but plainly sentient, that undeniable whisper of luminous thought that you can not-quite-hear at odd times. The joy of watching an infant sleeping in a carrier on a bus -- no one you'll ever know. To Lewis, this suffering and joy meant -- beyond argument, since it was simple basic experience -- that the world was bigger than the people who were supposed to know said it was. More things in heaven and earth. And these things were not -- not to Lewis, anyway, and not to me -- occasional, trifling experiences. These were the experiences our days were made of, the stuff that made us want to live or die. A theory of the world that left these things out was, for us, completely useless.
Lewis started over. Instead of trying to come up with elaborate materialist explanations for these experiences -- which can be contrived, though with considerable effort -- he backed up and said, well, what if we have these experiences simply because they correspond to reality? What if we really *are* wrong from the start, somehow? And what if we experience a beautiful mountain as if it was the expression of a huge and overwhelming sentience just because it *is* the expression of a huge and overwhelming sentience?
I read Lewis over and over; there's probably only one writer I've read more (whom I'll write about anon.) He never claimed to have an argument that settled the existence of God and the divinity of Christ: one day he just knew it was true, and that he'd always known it was true, and that it was time to stop running from it and believe what he already in fact believed.
If I had been raised Christian, rather than athiest, I probably would have followed Lewis to that point too. But I wasn't, and I didn't. The existence of God and the divinity of Jesus weren't obvious to me, and they never have become so. But the existence of the numinous *is* obvious to me. It would take twenty years, after realizing this, to find my own path into that place, the path of the Dharma. But I would never have found it, I think, if it hadn't been for Lewis.
Lewis had faults. Quite a few of them. He was sexist. He could be a bully in an argument -- he by no means always picked on someone his own size. His genius for generalization and neatly summing up has found a terrifying amplifier in certain of his evangelical followers, in whom it becomes a habit of glib ignorant dismissiveness. Not a perfect man. But I have no sense of incongruity when, in my visualizations, he appears in the refuge tree, among the teachers of other lineages.
Tuesday, September 28, 2004
If you're not registered to vote, you're running out of time. Register now. Today. To see the state deadlines, click here.
I vote for several reasons. Affecting the outcome, actually, is one of the least important. I vote because:
1) It's an affirmation that all other Americans have a legitimate claim on me, and that I have a legitimate claim on them. They are bound to hear my voice, and I am bound to hear theirs.
2) It's an affirmation that all human beings are fundamentally equal in dignity, that all have a right to be heard, and that my voice is neither more nor less important than anyone else's.
3) I will want to bitch about the government later, and I won't feel I can do so in good conscience if I shirked my own simple and fundamental duty of governance.
4) I vote as a Buddhist -- voting is a recognition and celebration of tendrel, of interconnectedness.
5) And after all, you never know. This election might be decided by one vote.
So register. Even if you mean to vote for That Awful Man.
*Apologies to my non-American readers. (Not big apologies, though. As the world now stands this election is as important to many of you as it is to us.)