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

Living behind the Kitchen Stove

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

All I was asking was.

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

Dear Emily

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

A Deeper Truth, Revealed

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

Station Break

Gone to Walla Walla for a couple of days.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Too tired to know if this coheres. I think it doesn't. Posting anyway. So sue me.


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.
Hollow Men

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

The Success of the Kerry Campaign

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

Vote Today

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

Waiting and Listening

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?

No One We Knew

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.
Because now
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.