Wednesday, September 29, 2004

C.S. Lewis

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

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.)

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Light spilling across the dark lawn. Laughter. We could hide, now, till morning, wrapped in a warm September night.

You told me all promises have a due date. What of this last, traced in shaky letters on yellowed paper?

You told me how you'd stow away in his car. Had to be some way to get him to take you home. But desire leans always away from the sun, into the dark. Have another sip.

Fire in the mouth, a little lambent flame running on the lips. Vodka, my lord and savior.

I could tell you secrets, little one. But they have due dates as well.

I saw two lovers on the plaza, this morning, glowing, perfectly suffused with each other, carelessly kindly inclined to all the world. We can't have ever been that young. Can we?

Drink up. Drunks have due dates too.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Being a Boy

A woman with short dark hair, a little gray, walked lightly over to where I sat on the stage, and briskly motioned me to make room. I obligingly scooted over. She hopped up beside me, nestled up to me, and hugged me with one arm. She said something I didn't catch to her girlfriend, and they laughed. Then she squeezed my thigh and said, "I'm Lori"

"Dale," I said, grinning at her. I liked her faded jeans and jaunty walk; I liked her wire-rimmed glasses; and I liked what she later called her "presumption."

She leaned into me again. "I'm fifty."

I looked at her questioningly. The squares were forming in front of us: the people who really knew how to square dance were going to show us what it looked like after you actually knew what you were doing. I wasn't sure I'd heard her -- the caller was starting to speak.

"I'm fifty. I turn fifty day after tomorrow. I'm trying to get used to it by saying it a lot."

On the floor, Moria was in her element, being a boy again.

"You'll have to decide if you're a boy or a girl," she'd said.

"Is there a difference? I mean, is what you do different?" I asked.

"Not really very much. It's more like, if you're on the left, you're a boy, if you're on the right, you're a girl. Some things are different. Being a girl is a little more... twirly."

"I think I'll be a boy then," I said. I've never been very swift about having to decide which is my right and which is my left, on the spur of the moment; I didn't want to add twirling to my troubles.

So when we arrived Moria was a girl, so she could partner me, even though she's usually a boy.

It had taken some doing to get me here, and she was going to do anything she could to ease me into it gently. For fifteen years, Martha and I have been planning to start folk-dancing. We've written start times into our calendar. And we've always chickened out at the last minute. Too tired. Too overwhelmed. Something else came up. Always perfectly true and legitimate, of course, but it was obvious that really we were just too shy.

And now I was having a tremendously good time. Moria carefully refrained from saying "I told you so."

Gay square dancing. The first time I heard of it, it struck me as irresistably comic. It's a big thing, though. There are scads of clubs, and they have a huge yearly convention. And now I could see why.

It's a grand opportunity, of course, to put on different gender, and a few people were clearly enjoying it that way. But mostly it was two things dovetailing: the relief at escaping hetero hegemony, and the inclusiveness of the square dance.

I'm sure there are square dance competitions and square dance ambitions and rivalries somewhere, but there's something terribly democractic and inclusive about the dancing itself. It's an invitation to have fun as a regular person. Even someone right-and-left-challenged like me can do it. If you're fit enough to walk around the block a couple times, you can do it. And doing it perfectly doesn't mean standing out -- it means exactly the opposite. It means making it especially easy for everyone else.

Add to that all the fun of hetero role-playing, and flirtation, with none of the cutthroat seriousness of its usual hierarchizing into levels of attractiveness, and you get something very lovely. There were a couple stout middle-aged women there, who were radiantly happy, loving the dance, and at the end of the evening I realized, I don't think I have ever before spent two hours socially with stout middle-aged women without once hearing any of them apologize for being stout and middle-aged.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Why I'm not on the Street

A post of Beth's, about some research purporting to demonstrate that street protests are effective, spurred me to think about my reasons for not (usually) protesting. I don't say these are good reasons -- except maybe for the third, they're not. But here they are.

1. I'm enough of a Marxist still to look first at the material conditions when I'm trying to explain anything. I hate the physical activity of protesting. I hate standing on pavement, and I hate walking slowly. Much more than I dislike, say, painting fences or digging ditches. I don't go to museums -- which you would think, given my proclivities, I would adore -- because that's what you have to do in them. Stand, or shuffle slowly along. It makes me want to scream.

2. I hate having words put in my mouth. I'm pathologically averse to it. I have a bone to pick with virtually every chanted slogan and every protest banner, and the fact that someone could take a video of me and legitimately impute those sentiments to me makes me feel ill. There may be no ego-territory I clutch harder than "I'm a man who chooses his words carefully, and stands by them."

3. I hate it when the members of a group get together and tell each other how right they are, and how wrong some other group is. It's precisely this habit that has produced most of the evils I might want to protest. Why would I want to participate in yet more of it? It's like trying to put out a fire by throwing gasoline on it.

There are other reasons, or excuses. I find it very difficult to believe that standing around in a crowd is really an efficient use of my time for any purpose. I dislike crowds at all times. I have always considered that the real purpose of protests is to encourage the protesters, and since protests profoundly discourage and disgust me, I've thought it counter-productive for me to attend them.

It distresses me to earn a poor opinion from Beth and the rest who have commented on how apathetic and unmotivated and generally dim those of us who don't protest are. I'm sorry that you read it as a lack of support and conviction. But I don't think you're going to see me on the streets.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


Always when the rain comes in September, and the dark skies -- you don't know dark skies, till you've lived here -- my heart lifts. Dreamtime again. Soft short days that barely open before they're closing again, the silver and slate sky that glimmers in the wet pavement, smell of wet earth, the drumming of the rain. I love this country. The maritime northwest. I love it beyond all reason. I've been in many beautiful places, but I've never thought seriously of living anwhere but here. This place has a softness, a tenderness, a quietness to it. Not silence, like the silence of the desert, or of the high mountains. Those are silences that can be overwhelming, even terrifying. Never that quiet here. When all the other sounds are still, there's always somewhere the trickle of water or the sough of the wind in fir-needles.

Just a quietness.

The forests are gone. Oh, there's still places called forests, vast quilted stretches of scrubby little third-growth douglas firs, like crowds of gawky teenagers hanging around the edge of a dance floor. And deer flourish, and even bear and mountain lions manage to scrape by there. But the forests of my childhood, the endless old growth that you could drive through for hours -- that's all gone. Except for patches. And the whole point of the old growth forest was that it was huge, and dark, and ancient. These new forests are just trees, trees on sunny slash-littered hillsides.

I watched them cut down. We were in the woods all the time, when I was a kid -- my Dad being a science teacher and an avid hiker and climber. In those days every third vehicle on the mountain roads was a log truck, hurtling recklessly down from the hills. They typically carried three logs. That's how many of the old doug fir trunks could fit on a truck -- just three. Sometimes it was only one. Now the occasional log truck comes by, with a load of scrawny trees, like a bundle of kindling. They drive slower and more carefully than they used to. Dwindled, in every respect.

But -- stricken as this country is -- it is still the land of the long winter dreamtime, of the endless rain, the gleam of wet bark, the swish of tires through gutters, a sighing, soft-singing land. I love it more now than ever. On our vacation we drove to Mary's Peak, which overlooks the whole Willamette Valley. High summer, and still so much was green -- brilliant green moss and smoky blue-green noble firs, vine maple just beginning to turn, and of course the inevitable dusky green of the doug firs, the backdrop of any Western Oregon landscape. Ungainly trees, with an odd back-and forth swoop in the growth of their branches, haphazard and disheveled-looking. They're meant to be deep forest trees, and they always look a little embarassed when they're out in the open, caught outside in their housecoats.

Oregon has never aspired to greatness. It's a place of ordinary people living unapologetically ordinary lives. We have no history to speak of. Nothing has ever really happened here, and none of us wants anything to happen here. The native peoples dwindled here more quietly, maybe, than anywhere else. There are places called "Battle Creek," and so forth, but you know it's just where a few people took potshots at each other and then thought better of it and slunk away. The Modoc, who did fight, a few score of them anyway, were way down south by the California border. The Nez Perce wandered through the Northeast corner only briefly. In school we were taught about Lewis and Clark and the heroic pioneers, but I don't think anyone took it very seriously. There are still pioneers around -- at least there were when I was a kid -- and they were just cranky people who couldn't get along with anyone else, and kept on moving to the next place where people wouldn't mess with them, where this time they were going to get rich, they had a new idea, they'd get shut of their bad luck this time, you just wait and see. It's moderately interesting to move to the middle of nowhere and scrape up a living somehow -- certainly damned uncomfortable. But heroic? Nah.

So the winter comes again. We have no Fall here, not usually. The rains just set in, battering the maple and oak leaves off the trees before they've even had a chance to turn yellow. It's winter now, as much winter as we ever have. Dreamtime. It rains, now, forever, till sometime, suddenly, long after we've forgotten there ever is such a thing, it will be summer again.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


If anyone were to ask -- my love has only grown in the quiet. Its mark burns in the sky. A smoking shape in every tree trunk; a pattern in every water. It forms in the stirred cream of my coffee, and it patterns the rain on my windshield. In the mirror, it resolves into the threaded net of tiny capillaries in the whites of my eyes. In my lap, my hands fall carelessly into its gesture.

Not to worry. No one will ask.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


I wasted time, and now doth time waste me
For now hath time made me his numb'ring clock

Heaped clouds, wet pavement. If wishes were kisses, we'd all make out. Spurred, galled, and tired. But in a mood to go down swinging. At least sometimes.

Oakridge, where the vultures wheel over the empty railway tunnel. That's where Tori is, somewhere, wielding a pulaski and restoring mountain-bike and horse-trails. She who's never ridden either in her life. She's been gone two nights so far, and each night I've woken in the small hours, worrying about her. But the letter I wrote her was halting and lame. Which grieves me. She, with whom I've shared almost all my favorite books -- to her I'll use awkward limping words? Apparently so.

A week in Oakridge, and then off for two weeks of serious back-country work in the mountains of Washington State. I fret. From completely sedentary to hard labor, with no transition. I advised her to do this. And I very seldom give advice. (To my kids, that is. I know, I officiously give it to bloggers all the time.) Tori always makes fun of me about it, misquoting Tolkien: "Go not to the Dad for counsel, for he will say both yes and no." But this time I said yes. You love the outdoors. You want to live and work in the back-country. Go find out if you really can't do hard labor, and if you really can't work alongside people who kill bugs. This is the in-between year, the year for trying things. Whatever happens, it won't be entirely what you expect. Go find out.

And so I advised her to do something I would never have dared to do, at her age -- head off for the back country with a crew of ten strangers to live and work for five weeks. (The back-country I would have done. It's the strangers I couldn't have faced.) She was so nervous she could barely speak, when we left her.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

我叫費曉谷. 我不會說中國話, 可是我學寫中國字.

Playing with Chinese input methods. I wonder what this looks like? Will everyone see the above as characters, or will they need a traditional Chinese font installed to see them? Seems like I ought to already know this stuff, but I don't.

Friday, September 10, 2004

How It Works

Here's how I reckon it works. In heaven, where materials science is more advanced than it is here, angels of fire and air brew up a fluid more subtle than air and more dense than gold. This substance can permeate human flesh, saturate it, as water saturates a sponge -- a sort of celestial DMSO. Angels of water and earth (it's too heavy for the others) then carry it carefully before God, who breaths on it and infuses it with joy.

Then the angels position the cauldron directly over me and tip it.

Flooded with joy and delight. Overwhelmed with it, radiant with it.

I can come up with other explanations for why I have been so deeply, wildly happy yesterday and today, but they all seem far less plausible. The occasions I can identify are so obviously inadequate to such an intense experience.

I don't have the slightest idea how my mind works.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


Two teenage girls complimented me on my suspenders.

One was goth'd out to the max, heavily kohled eyes, spiked collar, fingerless evening gloves, all metal and black leather. "I love your suspenders!" she shrieked. And later she called out across the lawn, "Can I have them?"

"I'm using them," I pointed out.

"Oh." Crestfallen. "Yeah."

The other was the houri of all my adolescent fantasies, a slender dark-eyed girl of indeterminate race. "Those suspenders are really cool," she said admiringly. I hope I didn't blush.

They were broad rainbow-striped suspenders, logger suspenders. I do have some cool suspenders, but these I've always thought of as a bit comical. Joke suspenders. I'll never know why they so appealed to these girls. A sixteen-year-old's sense of "cool" defies analysis. Defies my analysis, anyway.

As Sir Andrew Aguecheek might mournfully have said, "I was cool, once."

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Far Too Easily Pleased

Well. Back at work. And never have I felt more strongly, "I need a vacation."

I think maybe I don't need a vacation. I think maybe I need a dharma practice.

It was good to go to KCC last Sunday night. Michael was wonderfully unexpected. He said, "you should find some joy in your practice. In fact you should demand some joy in your practice."

C.S. Lewis wrote, in the same vein, but on a different scale:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Drifting Down

Hard to start again.

I generally go backwards, when I'm on vacation. Stop meditating. Hit the taverns. Take up many more projects than I can accomplish, and fret because I can't finish them.

I guess the fact that I haven't hit the taverns, so far, is progress of a sort. If going backwards a bit more slowly can be viewed as progress. And soon I'll be back at work.

The funny thing, of course, is that while at work I imagine that I would have more time, and be less tense, and do more of the things I feel I should do (exercise, meditation), if only I didn't have to work. The reverse is true.

I have been working feverishly at my Chinese. Fashioning an elaborate system for memorizing characters. Generating pages and pages of meaningless strings of characters, as I practice, practice, practice.

-- "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

-- "Practice, man, practice."

But only if you practice at something you are eventually going to do for real, yes?

A scrap of tissue paper twisting slowly in the air down from the roof of 14th story of a building, riding the thermals, rippling and spinning. That's my mind, drifting away from the Dharma. It floats gradually, noiselessly, but inevitably, confusionward.