Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Closing of the Year

So we come to the closing of the year. A small lift of light, as the sun begins to return. A slant gleam at five o'clock. No more than that. We are still in the dark of winter.

It has been an important year for me in several ways, none of them very amenable to summation. But you might render it down just to this: that for the first time I have nothing to record. The end of this year is just like the end of last year, except -- except -- that I see it and welcome it this time.

I can, when I'm tired, lean my head against death and find a moment's peace. Ride on my anxiety as a boat rocks on dark water.

Nothing is going to happen. Except that the leafless birches are going to stir the air with a fine netting of gray twigs, fractal lines of dark gray against a light gray sky, and the rain will kiss my face. People will come and go, happy and sad, pleased and angry. It doesn't add up to anything, and it never has. Not that that kept me from frantically doing sums and running projections.

Something new happened this year. I got Christmas cards from people that moved me. I have occasionally gotten a Christmas card from someone far away which touched me. Never more than one or two in one season, though. I got three from bloggers this year. I felt abashed and grateful, and I found it hard to believe that anyone would go to all that trouble, let alone three people. Ours has been a still and isolated life, I guess; I had come to think of Christmas cards as something that came from dentists and veterinarians, conscientiously tending their practices. I've never sent them myself. It occurs to me that I actually could, that I have people to send them to now.

The closing of the year. I like the idea of a year closing, as a shop or a flower closes, the valuable vulnerable things put away safe, everything folded down quiet and dark.

Bless you all, and thank you. May the opening light of the new year be good to you.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Dark leaves fluttering on a midnight sky,
A sky bleeding patterned stars,
Blue as the gleam of a crow's feather,
Blue as the sheen of a black cat's fur.

A heartbeat of drums in the black trees
I want I want I want I want
Vajradhara leans forward, his eyes
Intolerably bright.

Fools and children, they feasted upon the cattle of Helios
And he who walks all day through the heavens
Took from their eyes the dawn of their return.

What made you think you could fool the night?

Even the barren sky of daylight
Expects its due and enforces its law;
Did you the think the night, with every eye
A seeping wound, would ask for less?

Dark leaves fluttering on a midnight sky,
A sky bleeding patterned stars;
White as the ice of a sudden blow,
White as the sparks of a welding torch.

Compassion howls in the trembling hills
Compassion marks down the weak and the old
Compassion hunts from dusk to dawn,
Ruthless and implacable.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Somebody Else

I keep reading about Churchill, who fascinates me, and identifying with him, knowing full well I am a character much more in the Chamberlain line. Not defeatist, exactly, but so anxious to cut my losses that sometimes I start cutting them before they are incurred.

I wonder about the usefulness of all this. When I was younger I plumed myself on this ability of mine to see my faults and imagine different modes of being, but the usefulness of such an ability depends on actually being able to change. If I can't change, then imagining different modes of being only amounts to more uncertainty and indecisiveness. I don't remember who the teacher was, but some confident, expansive, dynamic rinpoche was once asked by a student if diligent meditation practice would make him (the student) as outgoing and enterprising as he (Rinpoche) was. Had meditation made him that way? "Oh no, no," answered Rinpoche, laughing. "I was born this way."

It is true in my observation, as in Lorianne's, that meditation tends to make extroverts more introverted and introverts more extroverted. But still, we're not talking Chamberlain-to-Churchill, here. I've felt the shift myself, but it's such a gradual shift that even if I'm given forty more years, the continent's not going to drift all that far. Which is not to say that it's not worth doing. There are wider contexts than just this life. But I'm not sure that just waiting until Oregon's coast is snuggled up to Honshu is the best plan.

At issue here I suppose is the assumption -- of which I'm becoming more conscious -- that I can only do whatever life-work I'm called to do, if I'm somebody else. And so I've spent a great deal of my life's energy in trying to become this other person who can get the work done, and in recrimination because I haven't succeeded. Maybe it's better to leave self-transformation as something to incubate by way of meditation -- the only even moderately successful of all the methods I've tried -- and to look for a life-work within my immediate compass, a life-work that a shy, hesitant person might accomplish. It needn't be glorious. It need only be useful.

An new essay of mine is up on Qarrtsiluni.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Drawing Down

What the inchworm really measures
with its green prostrations.

A flustered woman would clutch her housecoat. "What do you want?" she would ask anxiously.

Sgt Friday's face would twist into a faint grimace. "Just the facts, ma'am."

Drawing down to the solstice. Eight o'clock, and the sun has not yet risen. To the northwest, set in a sky that washes from lavender to violet, is a brilliant white moon. Full -- or nearly full -- it is startlingly far north, this time of year. Yes, Virginia, the Earth does tilt.

And it spins as well. In two hours will be the Hundredth Day Sit -- 6:00 pm Greenwich Mean Time. I've never been more aware of the spinning globe. Soen Joon's temple in Korea is still asleep. I'm just getting my breakfast. Brenda's been at her temp job in Toronto for hours already. Across the Atlantic, Jean is coming to the end of her working day. I try to hold all these facts in my mind at once, and fail, defeated by the hugeness of the world and the the intimacy that can so easily circle it. Empty, luminous, and unimpeded. When I first heard Kalu Rinpoche's often-repeated description of mind, I listened making indulgent allowances for Tibetan mysticism. Now it strikes me as hardheaded, unsentimental observation. Just the facts, ma'am.

Monday, December 12, 2005

This and That

If you notice that sort of thing, you may have noticed me restlessly twiddling my template. I went on a bit of an html purist binge. I removed a lot of formatting which was, I decided, an illegitimate attempt to wrest control over the appearance of my text from the reader, who may well have limitations and demands of his or her own. The whole point of html is to let the client computer figure out how to produce the page.

But at the default size for at least three different machines I've been on, my favored Garamond font looks cramped and gunky. So I think I'm going to return to bumping it to 120% -- which doesn't really violate html purity, I guess. At least it's relative. There are still plenty of other ways in which I violate the rules -- I knew nothing about html when I started blogging, so I just filched a template I liked. It turns out to be a very overbearing one, full of a very American confidence that it knows what's best for everyone (whether it knows anything about them or not). All kinds of things are sized in absolute rather than relative terms. It's the kind of template George Bush would have created.

So anyway, if anything I've done has been a change for the worse, please let me know.

In other news -- links have changed. I've added P and Lekmo and Not So Perfect to my blogroll. You've known the latter two in other incarnations. (P, another of the wonderful German bloggers, did an audio of my Asperger's post, which makes it sound beautiful. Thank you!)

With great sadness I've taken down my link to Michelle, who's given up blogging. For very good and sufficient reasons, but I will miss her very much.

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Midnight, Thanksgiving day. The five of us stood around the formica counter; the fair-haired young vet, a little flustered maybe at having so large an audience, nevertheless moved quickly and capably. The catheter was already in Socks's foreleg, wrapped in that green webby stuff they use nowadays. Three syringes of sedatives -- all different, I think, but adding up to a whopping overdose -- he administered one after another. In a very short time, thirty seconds, it seemed, he said, "he's gone."

It was just couple weeks ago that we had noticed him getting fat. "His body is perfectly spherical; he weareth a runcible hat," I had quoted to him. "Socks, we're going to have to get you a runcible hat." This had happened before -- we had taken him to the vet, and the vet had said "Your cat is fat." So we didn't pay it much mind, so much else was going on. Socks, anyway, had always looked after himself. He was a rogue, or possibly "thug" is a more accurate word; he always walked with a bit of a swagger, and he never backed down from anything. One of his favorite things to do was to sit calmly at the edge of the sidewalk while people walked their leashed dogs by. Socks wouldn't budge, while the dogs barked and lunged at him, held back with difficulty by their owners. He'd just gaze at the dogs with an unblinking Clint Eastwood insouciance. "So you put up with a leash?"

I used to say that Socks was sent to us to show us another way of being. When he showed up, a slim arrogant teenager, our reigning cat, the large and regal but tremendously neurotic pitch-black Duncan, hitherto lord of the house, abdicated at once without a struggle, and retreated to the back bedroom. Socks would thrust his head at our dog's muzzle and demand to have his ears licked. Our dog always obliged, anxious to please -- if she didn't do it fast enough or thoroughly enough, Socks would cuff her, good-naturedly but imperatively, until she got it right.

Up there on the counter, as we all stroked him, I could see that his face had become gaunt. The tumor had been taking its toll. If any of us had taken a good look at him in the last week or so, we would have figured out sooner that he was ill. Not that I imagine it would have done any good. The cancer was extremely aggressive, moving in on his stomach and kidneys. But Socks hadn't complained. He never did. The night before Thanksgiving he threw up some, but, as for many cats, that was just matter of course for Socks -- he did it so often that we always laid carpet-samples over his favorite pieces of furniture, to make the cleaning-up easier. But when we came back from Thanksgiving dinner he'd thrown up all over the place, not the usual innocuous piles of kibbles that seemed barely to have seen the inside of a cat at all, but a noisome, ominous fluid. And he was moving very, very slowly.

Our cat-carrier was loaned out, so we put him in a cardboard box. He didn't object when we closed him in, which was when I knew for certain he was very ill. I held the box on my lap. On the way he vomited, and the fluid soaked the bottom of the box, and the lap of my jeans; a warm stinking drench. "'tsokay, socks," I crooned. I already knew it wasn't.

Later we murmurred "om mani"s as we petted him, and he receded from this life. It's supposed to be propitious for a good rebirth. Who knows. An assistant came in to ask about our disposal plans, pattering through their options. "We just need a box, I think," we said. "We'll bury him in the back yard." We're Victorian sentimentalists, really -- we want our mourning ceremonies. We were all wet-eyed.

"We could put him near Duncan..." mused Martha. Then she smiled a little. "... who he didn't get along with. Or near Croker, who he always wanted to eat."

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Line

I bought a bicycle yesterday. I had never till yesterday ridden a modern bike -- the last bike I owned was probably made in the 1970's. This bike was as light and nimble as a mountain-goat. I suppose I couldn't really have ridden it over fences and up the sides of houses, but it felt like I could. It will be ready for me Wednesday. It's blue. I love it.

I'm reading a biography of Churchill. As a young cornet of hussars he pulled every possible string -- & the young scion of a ducal house has access to a lot of strings -- to get posted to wherever the fighting was going to be; be it the Sudan or South Africa. If there was a war on, he wangled his way into it. To post-World-War-One eyes this behavior appears maybe surreally innocent -- maybe demented. I think to his contemporaries it appeared high-spirited and gallant.

I would like to be high-spirited and gallant. So I bought a bike.

I wrote an essay for blogging racism day, and one about the death of my cat. I thinking I probably won't post either of them. Much of my prose lately feels to me mis-timed and awkward. Either labored or glib. Sometimes both. I'm just waiting for the proper phase of the moon, now. But I thought I'd drop you a line.

P.S. -- Oh, and Petra, if you're a real person, as opposed to a diabolically clever phisher, send me another email :-)

Monday, November 28, 2005


Still inhabiting this moldering Norwegian house of a body, far too strongly and solidly built for the wisps of spirit that linger in it.

Pigeons huddle on the telephone wires, silhouettes against the white sky. They are uncharacteristically still and silent today.

I long right now to be an unreflective Christian, like the ones I knew in my childhood, who thought death was a simple door into peace and happiness. "One fine morning when my work is done, I'm going to fly -- away home." I would like to sing that, and believe it.

There -- now all the pigeons have risen in a swirl, and settled again.

I have promises to keep. Though I can't really remember what they are, or why I made them. Still, they're binding. So I will go, and fill the car with gas, and drive to work.
On the Beach

I realized I had not thought about it for a lot time. About what my life was going to be.

Now, for the most part that's a good thing. Because it was always starting from scratch. Not what I would become, really, but what I might have become had I arrived in the world with no commitments, bearing no history. The first step was always -- well, erase the past.

But in having accepted my past, I've also accepted that my past will also be my future. That maybe isn't so wise.

Look, I'm not blogging right now, okay? Just thinking aloud. There will be nothing clever here.

I am worried.

I don't want it to be like this indefinitely.

I am tired of having a perenially postponed life. I'm tired of living in a welter of special cases and occasions, that make it necessary to put off life till later on. Later on when things settle down. But things never settle down.

I want to wake up. I want the cold rain in my face.

Decades ago I wrote a story. In it I wandered along a beach on Puget Sound, and I found a friend of mine half-buried in the sand, her eyes glazed. I tried to talk her into getting up. but I couldn't do it. Her reasons all cancelled each other out -- every motive was met with a counter-motive. She would never move again. She spoke very slowly. She was cold. Dead people in my dreams always speak that way. Slowly, distantly. And they all complain about being cold. Not a refreshing or a biting cold -- the kind of cold that works its way into your sleep, and half wakes you; too cold to sleep but too asleep to get up and do anything about it.

I looked up from my friend and saw that the beach was covered with people, mostly buried, and I knew that all the beach, fathoms down to the bedrock, was a mass of cold, numb people slowly settling into the earth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Cold Silver

The silver was burning cold to my touch, cold with the water that comes down the Bull Run River from Mt Hood. I had let it run till it was cold. A waste of water -- it may well look like a criminally extravagant waste of water, by the time this century is over -- but it was delicious. I drank my own share, before filling the pitcher and carrying it to the shrine.

The idea of offering water to the buddhas is to offer something by ordinary standards worthless, but made valuable, by the intention of generosity -- turned into a precious gift. I am clearly cheating. I prize this water. One of least endurable parts of living in the urban East, for me, was the poisonous metal-tanged stuff that came out of the taps. I hated drinking it, and I cooked with it reluctantly.

Cold to the touch. As soon as I touched it, I thought, "Oh, I will blog this!" I was picking up the bowls to empty them after a brief sit. An embarassingly brief sit -- probably the whole ritual of cleaning the shrine and filling and emptying the water bowls and saying the prayers took longer than the meditation. But I soldier on despite the embarassment: I've learned better than to slight the importance of setting the context for meditation. My protestant-trained sensibilities bridle at it, but if I scant the ritual my practice attenuates, and then disappears. "Let them not challenge to themselves a strength they have not..."

What was it, that I was going to blog? I don't know, I haven't reached it yet. The cold metal startled my fingers -- I guess I hadn't sat long enough for the water to lose its chill. Maybe what I was going to blog was just the startlement, the sensual power of experience when my mind has been slowed down a little. I got more pleasure from that touch of cold silver than I have from many pleasures "got 'tween sleep and wake," or rich dinners absently bolted. The clarity of it is still singing in my finger and thumb, a day later.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Getting In

In a way, I suppose, it is the final smash of all my hopes.* If it's not possible to simply jump the fence by a physical laying-on of hands, then it's simply not possible, in that way -- for me -- at all.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.

It is hilarious that MG, whom I barely knew, and on whom I had a stupendous crush, should show up on the New School list at precisely this time. God always has gone in for heavy-handed obvious underlining.

You could put it this way -- I will never get in, so long as I want to get in. Not only because "them as asks don't get," though that's (trivially) true as well. There's a structural reason for it. Even if I got in, I would not be able to recognize it as in. My wanting excludes me all by itself, before any other player even steps on the boards.

Because after all, I have gotten in. Many times, many places, including many places I had no business being in. The problem is not that I can't get in. It's that I can't be in. And that has nothing to do with MG, or with laying on hands, or anything else in the external world. It's right here in the rag-and-bone shop. It's in the nature of the wanting.

(Craving is probably a better word than wanting, except that craving specifies intensity, and this can be the faintest velleity. It's not the intensity. It's the nature of the expectation, a certain dissociation or dishonesty, It's "having something to prove.")

So what does all this mean?

Well, among other things, it means this -- that I am already in. My job now is to learn to see that.

*For those of you unacquainted with my equanimity in the face of moderate failure -- not to worry. This typically extravagant response is simply to having done a not-terribly-successful massage a few days ago

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Already her naked body was disappearing
Under my fingers; I could feel it leave
The blood retreating, the breath

The awareness had departed earlier,
Leaving me alone. What was it I worked with?
Neither flesh nor thought. A skin
Cast by the mind.

What if this simulacrum
Sat up, opened yellow eyes, and seized
My wrist? What if it shaped my hand into a bowl,
And poured the oil,

Now burning hot, into the cup?
A violence of love or hatred, kiss
Or claw. Blood mingling with
Sweet almond oil.

-- Yes, what if. But only a vacant slough.
We could wish for anger, or for fear --
Anything but absence, but absence
Is what we have.

Sun grieving through the yellow leaves,
The rattle of branches, the shivering fall
Of tears. This short short afternoon
Already waning.
How it Is

A bend noir on a field of argent -- the shadow of a branch thrown by the moon across the skylight. A sleepless night, a moon-filled room.

Last night I lit a candle in a little glass cradle, and shook out the match. I held my breath and the candle very still. The flame dwindled to a tiny drip of blue light, and trembled there. Then it grew slowly to a blue pearl, and a sweat of wax gathered at the base of the wick. I breathed again, and set the candle in its place in front of his picture. Bokar Rinpoche, in his glasses and his robes, smiled past me.

I recalled the story, told to me third-hand, of how once in India he uexpectedly gave "pointing out" instructions to a breathless handful of Westerners.

This was real Dharma, the nature of their own minds revealed in a lightning-flash, a different insight revealed to each of them, a new world opened by a great abbot and meditation master.

They begged him, so reluctantly he came again the next day, and, somewhat unwillingly, gave the teachings again. The magic was gone. The words fell flat. The way was closed.

He rose to go. Pausing at the door, he turned, and said sadly, "You see how it is."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The New School

Okay, here's yesterday's post, back by popular demand. ("Popular demand" = Michelle said she wanted to finish reading it)

Recently I've come back in contact with people from my high school, the "hippie free school" that I've written about before a couple times, here and here, for instance. It's been both pleasurable and painful. The New School was the first institution in which people generally were kind to me. Until then I had assumed that the world outside my family would be a hostile place, in which I would have to pretend normalcy and mediocrity or be perpetually taunted and harassed. I was later to find that in fact elementary and middle school were the exception, not the rule; that by and large people in the world would treat me decently. But at thirteen I had had no such experience, and the New School was a miraculous revelation to me. So in that way, coming in contact with its people again has been a great pleasure. I remember them with affection and gratitude.

But it's painful too. My prior ostracism in school had encouraged in me an arrogance and conceit that it took me years to lose. To help identify some people in group photos I looked back at my journals from those years, and I found the young teenager revealed in them very hard to like. Pompous, rude, opinionated, and grandiose, utterly convinced of my rightness and blandly convinced of my right to the privileges I enjoyed. Looking back I can see that maybe I hadn't been ostracized in school just for being different and clever. Being insufferable possibly had something to do with it too.

Gil, the moving force behind this new restoration of New School ties, commented on one of those old posts linked above:

I love hearing your thoughts. That must be the year I skipped (and got full credit). I don't believe I ever thought about the New School as a utopian experiment, but rather as freedom from the deadening...and I still believe essentially flawed...traditional schools. Personally I don't think I was bored, but I was often restless, and as you kow, filled my time with games of all shapes and sizes, and the clumsy pursuit of sexual, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy. I remember it fondly, although dad's vison that the school would create freedom through structure (a la Dewey) gave way to indulgent chaos, which I believed at the time was a right (when Chris Fromhold, a faculty member towords the end, wanted me to do some school work before graduating, I debated her in a community meeting which ended with her in tears, and me graduating based on precedent...i.e., getting credit for hitch hiking, reading comic books, playing Avalon Hill games, and such). Hard to believe, really...but I was a passionate college student and have been a passionate learner ever since. Maybe that would have been true without the New School, but it seems possible that I would have lost my passion for learning in a more traditional setting.

I remember the director of the school the year I arrived there, Don Jensen, said that if the only benefit the New School conferred was refuge from the public school system -- if it did nothing else for us at all -- it still was a valuable place. Gil and I had no particular trouble, it seems, recovering from our scanty-to-non-existent academic background. I in fact, since I was an eager and hungry reader, and didn't have irritating classes all day to stop me from reading, devoured a huge number of books. I found when I got to college that I was better-read than anyone I knew. Since I went to a weird college as well (Evergreen State College), and I went on reading, I found that in graduate school also I had read more than anybody else. All I needed to "succeed academically" was to be left alone.

At the end of the seminar in which I got my first paper back at Yale, as a graduate student, I eagerly read the comments on it. The woman next to me looked up from her own paper to say, "you have such discipline!"

"What?" I said, bewildered.

"You didn't turn to the back to see what grade you got!" she said.

Grades! I'd forgotten all about them. I hadn't had a grade since middle school. The very idea seemed quaint and juvenile, of a piece with Eton collars or white knee-socks. Surely adults didn't get grades? Or take them seriously, if they did?

(possibly this post continues, but for the moment I need to stop --)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Yellow Leaves, or None, or Few

Silver milk in the tide-pools of the sky; soft gray hands catching the light as it's born; dear friends and enemies walking in the clouds. Dakinis are not like houris. They come and go as they please.

Here are seven points to consider at leisure:

1) Fingers learn to touch their own mouth first.

2) The copper taste of blood pleases crows.

3) But not people who have coughed it up much.

4) I am the wind before it blows, and the rain before it falls.

5) God liked rats, cockroaches, people and crows best of all; he put them in all his best work.

6) Kisses don't kiss people. People kiss people.

7) Good cooks clean up as they go.

I love you more and more with each passing day. But I'm keeping that a secret. I promise, I won't tell anyone, not a soul.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Letter to Someone

I began writing this some time ago, and I keep fiddling with it and adding to it. I'm posting it now, frankly, to get rid of it.

Things have changed, since then (which only goes to prove my point) -- when I wrote the first part of this, Pakistan and India seemed on the very brink of lobbing nukes at each other, and nobody was talking about avian flu in the mainstream media. I don't really remember, but internal evidence suggests that this was begun not long after the big tsunami. I also don't remember who asked me the question, if anyone.

You asked, do I really think the human race is doomed?

Yes, I do. So many slow fuses burning in the world, and just one of them has to reach the explosive. Do I need to name them all off? Supposing Pakistan and India start lobbing nukes at each other. Would China stay out of it? And then, would we? Israel and North Korea already have nukes. Iran either does, or will within a few years. And how long will Russians be content to live in squalor and hopelessness, chewing the table-scraps of old glory, when the tools of conquest are ready in their hands? As the players proliferate, the chances multiply, and the level of fear and distrust rises. It takes just one to panic. One defense-system to throw up a bogus alarm. One good software bug should do it. It's probably already in place, waiting for the right code path to execute.

Then there's the catastrophic drop in biological diversity, the huge die-off of species that we're in the midst of. We haven't even begun to suss out the ecological dependencies of our own species. Any one of those dying species, or some combination of them, might turn out to be have been critical to our own survival. Not the big mammals that everyone makes a fuss about -- the plants, the insects, the micro-organisms.

Then there's the vulnerability to epidemic that globalization has brought. We've been lucky so far, very lucky, I think, that nothing more infectious and virulent than AIDS has shown up yet. There's nothing, nothing at all, to keep a really vicious plague from sweeping the world from end to end, now. One that kills in hours, instead of years -- that communicates like the flu rather than like syphilis. We could just all get sick and die at the same time. No reason why it shouldn't happen. And, if the odds of nature coming up with such a thing don't impress you, there are probably scientists in bio-warfare labs in many parts of the world working hard to invent just such a plague.

Then there's the population. I know, it's old-fashioned to worry about overpopulation. The rate of increase has actually been dropping; the curve looks convex, now, not concave. All that alarm about nothing, you might think. But look where the curve is going. It will top out at -- maybe ten billion? Maybe twelve? Where do we find clean drinking water for another six billion people? Where do we find *any* drinking water?

Then there's global warming, or any number of entirely natural events that could just wipe us off the planet. We still don't really know what caused the other massive die-offs in biohistory, but we know they happened. Look what one good earthquake did to us just now. Plenty more where it came from.

I don't think any of these events is terribly likely. But they don't have to be likely. We only need one. The dice keep rolling, year after year. You really don't have to worry much if someone declares they're going to roll ten dice, and kill you if they all come up ones. If they're just rolling once, that is. But if there are five of them, each rolling their ten dice all day every day, that's a different story. That's what the situation looks like, to me. The human race is in for it. Maybe today, maybe ten years from now, maybe even two hundred years from now. But in a very short time, even on the scale of human history. Any second now, on the scale of biological history. This is probably the end of it.

So what does that mean for how we live our lives? Well. That’s the question, isn't it?

Species are not immortal, any more than individuals are. They either die out, or change beyond recognition. That was true before we began our self-destructive jag. The human species is not and should not be immortal -- really, I'm more worried about the havoc we might wreak in the universe trying to make ourselves immortal -- all those horrible sci-fi ambitions of perpetually expanding empire -- than I am about the prospect of dying off. Living things die. That's as it should be.

The problem is not that we're going to die. We were going to do that anyway, individually and collectively. I wish that we weren't in such a hurry to do so, and I wish we weren't taking so many other species down with us, but it doesn't really change anything. The real problem is that we refuse to think about death. We refuse to learn from it.

Embedded in almost everything we think and do, as individuals and as a species, is the tacit assumption that we are going to live forever. That we are going to be able to keep what we have gathered. Many people like to scoff at people who cling to science-fiction fantasies of human beings colonizing the stars, and gaining immortality – I do myself – but it’s only a variation on far more common fantasies. That the human race will achieve such ecological equilibrium that it will live safely on this planet for perpetuity. Or, even more common and even sillier, that it already is in such equilibrium. Or that we’re being looked after by a kindly father who, having given us one paradise and watched us trash it, can hardly wait to set us up in another.

And these, in turn, are just the macrocosmic versions of our personal fantasies of immortality. That we’re going to find a way of living that will make us enduringly content, and we will live so in the moment – some day – that our deaths will pass over us without a ripple, without a panic. That we’ll be able to pack up our personalities and take them with us to a new body. That for us, medical science will always stay ahead of entropy. That God, having tested us out with a temporary body, will give us a nice new (young and attractive) permanent one. Or that when we die our consciousness simply vanishes, so that actually we needn’t ever bother with death, because we’ll disappear before we can experience its losses and dislocations – how convenient!

Lots of different fantasies, but they all have one thing in common – a refusal to look death in the face, to dwell on it, to invite it into the house of our thoughts, and let it speak to us.

What death has to say to us is short and sweet. It's just this -- that the world we perceive is not real. We see a vast construct of permanence, a world of permanent essential personalities acting in an enduring world. It's all a fantasy. We are not the same person one moment to the next. Even the world we see is crumbling, shifting under our feet. Species are dying. All our friends are dying -- much faster than we care to see -- and they are changing, invisibly, even faster than that. Most of them will not be our friends ten years from now.

And the first delusion, the one that holds all the others in place, is that I am permanent. That I am the same person I was yesterday. That I can look at all the reflections of myself and make a composite picture, pick out the real, essential me; that I can express that real me and win appreciation for it that won't need constant renewal. In the teeth of all experience I go on believing that, and suffering for it. Always hungering for just one more validation -- the one that will hold.

None of them ever hold. None of them ever could hold. Ephemeral sketches of ephemera, as glimpsed in the background of their ephemeral mirrors by ephemera. If we could see them in all their impermanence and unreliability we would burst out laughing.

That's what being doomed can do for us, if we let it. It can encourage us to see things as they are. To live this last day of our lives with some sense of the joy and grief and grandeur appropriate to it, with some lessening of the fear that is so ludicrously inappropriate to it. Each day we should greet our friends as a miraculous resurrection, and take leave of our them as tenderly as if we will never see them again. Every day we should walk in the world as in a childhood house, which we have returned to after a shattering life in exile, marvelling when we see something that is as we remembered it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


There are no magic powers, there is no little death,
there is only a letting-go - however fleeting -
of that death-grip in which we hold
our precious ones & zeros
Shiva, Gaurî.

-- Dave Bonta, "Sacrifice"

Is there a letting-go? I wonder. Memory is a biased, fearful witness. The wind is strong tonight, and it blows away my resolutions and decisions, little cobwebby things. Only the longing remains.

A marching drum heard in the distance, over the foggy heads of the hills -- the coughs of young men with beards just starting, carrying dreams of glory and fears of mutilation, stumbling footsore in the moon-filled mist, in the dreamlike grip of deja vu. Wondering if this is the way Death announces himself.

The sudden clarity when a chainsaw takes off a finger or two, and you stare at your hand, realizing that always, always you have wondered if they really can come off. Yes, they can. They really can.

Do we ever let go? Well, we are cut away sometimes. But that, surely, is a different thing?

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Friends came from the south last night
Bringing news and wine;
The ashtrays we brought out for them
Are cold this morning.
The streets pool with rain and wet leaves;
Cats run against the wind without dignity;
I falter on the basement steps.

Was supposed to come easier.

"Your problem is that you think
You should have no problems,"
Said one old man, long dead.
Turning the leaves over in my hands
I am inclined to agree;
But it doesn't make me fond of him.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Self-Portrait, with hints of Asperger's

I remember learning to smile. I must have been eleven or so, and I read an article in the newspaper about the latest research on smiles. A smile that showed your teeth, and involved your eyes -- that was what people trusted. So I practiced in the mirror, till I got it right. Got the smile I still use today -- a happy grin, that crinkles up my eyes. I smile a lot. Partly because I'm happy or amused quite a bit, but also because it became my policy to smile when I was eleven. I had decided I needed to engage with people, and that was to be one of my tools. It's an important tool, when you're slow and awkward of speech. If you smile and nod and are responsive, people don't notice that you're not saying much.

I've been reading just a bit about autism and Asperger's syndrome. I recognized myself immediately. Way over on the light side of it -- I can simulate normalcy for as long as I like. Nonetheless I'm not normal. Most people don't learn to smile from a newspaper, or have to make a conscious decision to engage with other people. Most people have not spent hours at a time counting in binary under their breath, or weeks patiently rolling dice in order to randomly generate millenia of geneologies for imaginary dynasties. Faced with making thousands of similar edits in hundreds of files, I have to force myself to use my software skills and do the job in a few minutes. I would much prefer to spend hours doing it by hand. It's the kind of task that absorbs me, that satisfies a deep, obscure longing to participate in orderly patterns.

I have always been affectionate. "A little cuddle-bum," my mother used to call me. I'll hug anyone who will stand still for it. The casual contact of haircutter's or a dentist's hands delights me. This impulse is so strong in me that I suspect it's hard-wired. Not long after we got together, Martha recalled that when I had first proposed a backrub to her, she thought I was trying to seduce her. "That was before I knew," she said, "that for you sex was as likely to be a pretext for massage, as massage a pretext for sex."

Smalltalk, however, like smiling, is something I had to learn; while unlike smiling, it's never become second-nature. If people want human contact, why don't they just nestle together? If they want to establish mutual affection, why don't they say, "I'm fond of you"? What do the weather, the iniquities of the government, or the daily news have to do with anything? I do my best, but it all seems terribly roundabout and inefficient. I don't think I'll ever really get the hang of it, in this life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


As I said the dedication prayers last night the rain rattled on the leaves outside the windows, the candle flickered, and the little wooden Buddha behind it trembled. The long-delayed rains seem to have set in.

I stood up gradually, as is prudent these days, after a long sit. Stretched out my legs, waited a bit, grabbed the side of the bed and eased up onto my knees, where I waited a bit more, before I stood all the way up. My right hip doesn't like the long sits now, and I favored it a bit as I gimped over to the shrine and picked up each offering-bowl in turn to carefully empty it into the pitcher.

I paused. I was in my stocking-feet -- the back porch would be wet. So I set the pitcher down on the floor, took off my socks, and dropped them in the sock-basket. Then I picked up the pitcher again and turned off the one dim lamp. The room was dark, except that a little light gleamed throught the colored window from the neighbor's kitchen. I stepped slowly to the door. The knob met my hand exactly where I expected it. I stepped through back into the workaday world.

Yellow light. Martha and Alan were at the living room computers. Neither looked up as I emerged, but Martha's voice caught up to me, musical, unhurried, as I walked throught the unlit kitchen. "Hi hon."

"Hi," I answered. I opened the back door, and stepped out into the night wind and rain. My bare feet rested happily on the cool wet boards of the the porch. I looked up at the pale, turbulent sky, for a moment, feeling a few sparse drops blow up against my face. I stepped carefully -- it was slick -- to the rail over which the mass of clematis was collapsing, and poured out the offering water, which coursed down through the clematis branches in elaborate patterns -- I couldn't see them, but my feet could imagine them. A last look at the sky, clouds running before the wind, ghosts driven by ghosts. Then I went back in.

"Reading time?" asked Alan.

"Sure," I said.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Deutsche Wälder

It's like having the ice crack under my feet, and being drawn into a swift dark current.

In a good way.

Some time ago -- a couple years ago, probably -- I went browsing German blogs, thinking it would be a good way to keep up my German, and wondering what they might be saying, over there -- those people who have the blessing of knowing (if they care to) that they're immune to nothing, having suffered just about everything the horrible last century had in its repertoire. I love the German language, and German poetry is my favorite after English. (Forget the pretty Spanish and French stuff, warbling along melodiously -- I like poetry with a beat. Hard rock poetry.)

But -- whether my internet search skills weren't very good, or whether I was unlucky, or whether they just weren't there then -- I didn't find very much, and what I found wasn't very exciting. So I forgot about it.

Then recently -- how, I don't remember -- I stumbled upon Alma's blog, Denken und Träumen. I was enchanted at once; it was mindful, simple and heartfelt. Like hearing a penny-whistle in the woods. And (speaking of woods) there I discovered Arboretum, who maintains a remarkable forest, populated by all manner of creatures. (Arboretum called my German "charmant," which of course is the sort of nice thing you say to someone who butchers your language, but means well.) Thence to Bartleby, today, a lovely sensitive disquisition on loneliness. And the dreadful truth is that now it appears that wonderful German blogs also extend to the horizon. Clear off into the wild blue. I struggle along using the online dictionary of the Technischen Universität München, lost sometimes, but happily so.

Of course, I don't have time for this. I'll have to quit my day-job.

Here's Arboretum, "going down for air" --

Man strampelt und strampelt, nur um dann festzustellen, dass man nicht wie weiland der Frosch in Milch schwimmt, sondern nur in Wasser. Man wird also keine Butter unter die Füße bekommen, nachdem man schon den Boden darunter etwas verloren hat. Allenfalls produziert man viele Wellen, bevor man absäuft.

You struggle and struggle, only to find that you're not -- as you were -- a frog swimming in milk, but instead in plain water. So now that you've lost your footing, you're not going to get any butter under your feet. At any rate -- before you drown you'll make a lot of waves.

Tell them I waited for you
As long as I could
But the leaves were burning,
Burning, and his eyes
Were so bright.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Dear Reader,

Now a slight hitch, a stutter. A sudden infatuation with the Victorian cult of hard work -- as if, at age 47, I could transform myself into a Salisbury and become A Man Who Gets Things Done, rather than a vacillating dreamy wordmonger. Silly fantasy.

I woke this morning frightened of becoming feeble and sick. Not something I recall ever having feared before. An uncharacteristically sensible thing to fear.

A young woman walks into the Applebee's across the street, flipping her long red hair. An atavistic desire pushes past me -- a quick rude jostle -- and is gone, leaving a faint nostalgia and a stronger relief. Relief that I'm no longer bound to that wheel, at least.

Silver-white sky; leaves flickering green and yellow. Cars hurrying back and forth. Some of the mechanisms of depression are stirring -- the Salisbury fantasy is one of them, but the most telltale is that every velleity is met immediately with an equal and opposite doubt. Every desire cancelled with anxiety, every imagination with skepticism. I wonder whether it might not end right here -- sitting in a cafe on 185th avenue in Beaverton, Oregon, with never again a wash of volition strong enough to slop over into action. They could make a school project of me, swathe me in papier-mache and paint me in bright basic colors. Man Stuck in Cafe. People could come to get their photographs taken, sitting next to the Stuck Man, hamming it up and pretending to offer him a soda.

A little blue opening in the cloud, covered again in less time than it took to type it.

The Three Foundations of Depression. Let us begin a disquisition. First is a chemical misstep in the brain, a pathological hiccup between desire and action. Second is a conviction that life is bounded in space and time, that I stop at the edge of my skin, at my birth, and at my death. And third (this is really the same thing, if you are attending carefully. Are you attending carefully?) is the conviction that anything real can repeat itself.

The convictions are patently false. I did not start and I do not stop in this body, even taking the strictest materialist view. Leave the supposed spirit out of it for the moment: biology and culture have flowed into me and out of me. They continue to do both. And though words and symbols can repeat, nothing that they represent can. Not only am I not stuck: I am not even capable of being stuck. I am capable of imagining myself to be stuck, that's all. I am capable too of imagining myself lifting the vajra and the bell, black and free as the midnight sky, my skin glittering with jeweled stars, and bending down, infinite in mercy, down even to 185th Avenue.

The blessings of October on you all. The hound of heaven can run pretty damn fast, in Autumn.



Sunday, October 16, 2005


There's a whiff of something decaying, these days. I step out onto the front porch and stop a moment. Is it the ghost of a skunk, struck on the road a mile south of here? A breath from the garbage cans out back? No telling. Inside the car, a suggestion of sour milk. A hint of molding leaves lingers in my jacket.

A permanent slight fluster has crept into my hands. I hesitate with my language or poetry books -- leave them aside. Take up the paper and work the sudoku. Time to kill. Time at the wrong time, unwieldy blocks of time, useless time. Time, it turns out, is a tough bugger. Not that easy to kill.

I sit, and exhale my consciousness like a lungful of smoke -- the room goes oddly bright and dark, and high-pitched engines whine in my ears. Furnace fans, refrigerator motors, electric lights, they all make noise, all the time. Most of the day I don't hear them -- but when I sit, I do.

My eyes cross and uncross. Sleep wanders briefly into my mindstream, and back out before I can even nod.

A month ago I wrote about the rains setting in. I was wrong. It's been dry. The yellow maple leaves cover the lawn. A forlorn Autumn, just like the ones they have in New England or Old England -- dry, quiet and sad. Still gray air. And, this year, tainted.

Something is decaying. Me, maybe.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Vincente in Headphones




I pulled myself into the present. My eyes suddenly uncrossed. Dots unhitched from each other as my eyes hunted for a new focus. In a dizzying moment they had created a new grid.

Vincente. That was me, my name in Spanish class. "Si. Estoy aqui." I managed. I heard Mr Gordon sigh in my headphones. It was a state-of-the-art language lab, such as the art was in 1966. He could listen to the whole class, or just to one of us. When he listened to just me, what he heard was mostly silence.

It was not that I was not paying attention. It's just that I was paying attention to something else. The sound booths were made of blond pressboard that was pierced with a grid of little ladybug-sized holes. If you let your eyes cross, the images held by each eye would float independently for a moment, and then the dots would align and my eyes would snap into focus. The image formed was complete and completely convincing, but the one hole I was focusing on was in fact two holes -- my left and right eye were looking at different holes; it was just my mind's determination that the two images couldn't look so alike without being the same that made it certain there was only one image. I could let my eyes travel over this made-up surface clear to the corner of the booth. When I hit the corner, though, my eyes would panic -- something was not right; there were two corners where there should be one. They would unmoor and refocus correctly. They did this without any perceptible volition on my part. In fact it took a great deal of concentration to prevent them from attempting to refocus. But I found that with some practice I could do it. I practiced and experimented continually with those holes, with cutting the images of the left and right eyes loose from each other, and letting their patterns drift into various configurations. It was not, I guess, the educational end envisioned by the school district, but I learned a lot from those booths.

I remain fascinated by the phenomenon. I find it difficult to refrain from playing that way with any repetitively-patterned surface -- wallpapers, ceiling tiles. I immediately begin unfocusing and refocusing. It is almost impossible to convince myself that the images are fabricated, that what I'm seeing is not in fact what's there. Once enough things match, my eyes do a splendid job of ignoring the things that don't.

Sitting in those booths was the first time I understood, down in my bones, that my mind was actively creating the world that I perceived, that it was filtering out things it didn't expect and doing whatever it had to in the way of distortion in order to present an orderly image to me. Light values would be doctored, imperfections in the wood would be smoothed away, in order that I might see an intelligible image. My mind needed intelligibility, and it would get it, by God, no matter what the cost in accuracy.

With some exertion of will, right there at the point of data-entry, as you might say, I could make myself see the divergences. But with story and memory, it's nearly hopeless. Very soon after an event, I'm remembering my memory of it, not the event itself. At every remembrance more incongruities will be tidied up. Soon I have a smooth story, a complete memory, self-consistent in every detail. The only problem with it is that it will be fake. And most of the stories and memories we have, we get second-hand. They've already gone through this process many times, in other people's minds, before they get to us. The stories and memories we steer by are fakes made of fakes. And it doesn't really matter if they're revealed as fakes. We still steer by them, because we have to. But we don't have to believe in them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


(This is in response to Jean's haunting post,In Passing, the Past)

Then if thou art the food of worms. O virgin of the skies,
How great thy use. how great thy blessing; every thing that lives,
Lives not alone, nor for itself -- fear not and I will call
The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice.

-- Wm Blake, The Book of Thel

You cast an indigo shadow on me. I don't know how to say it more precisely than that. If you could see the shadow you cast, you would not worry about useful and useless. You would be overpowered, not by your uselessness and disconnectedness, but by your responsibility and entanglement. Even in just this world, the least of worlds. The shadows cast shadows, falling from screen to screen. You move in my thoughts, and have since first I met you. I have never met you, I suppose, as they reckon things in this world. More fools they.

It is only ever and always love, love disguised as rain on a roof or as wine in a glass. I began thinking to comfort you, but it was not long before I saw through that. It's I that needed comfort, and took it, sheltering under the strength that you don't believe in, huddling into that blue shadow. And my shadow huddles under your shadow's shadow, and so on -- do you see, yet? It doesn't matter at all, and it matters terribly. The shadows are more real than what casts them. You know that -- I know you know that.

Monday, October 10, 2005

And a Crank, Too

I'm at it again. Inventing alphabets. My guilty pleasure. I spent at least two hours this morning fiddling with the script for representing English that appears in embryo on the napkin below, writing out bits of poetry in it, looking for unsightly letter-combinations and how to correct them. Does anybody else do this? I suppose I picked up the vice from Tolkien, when I was a teenager. I have journals written in half a dozen different alphabets lying about.

English already has an alphabet, I know, but the Roman alphabet painfully spells out things that English doesn't need spelled out, and leaves out other things that should be. Unstressed central vowels, for instance. Why bother? We write them in dozens of different ways, but a schwa is a schwa is a schwa. Much more elegant to assume that every consonant is followed by a schwa, and just mark it if it's something different. When you get to the stressed vowels, though, the situation is reversed -- too few letters for the sounds, with silly rules for doubling consonants and going off to the end of the word to look for silent 'e's. It was absurd even back when there really was a difference in the length of of "short" and "long" vowels. Now it's just a curse. -- And then those ridiculous digraphs for consonants that Latin (and Norman French) didn't have -- ch, sh, th, dg! It's a wonder anybody ever learns how to spell English.

Er, yes, I am aware that this makes me a crank.

Friday, October 07, 2005


The difficulty with coming out is not that I had to come out; wrote Pronoia, it's that I have to come out over and over and over again to all of the people -- known and unknown, familiar and not -- who make assumptions about who I am.

The issue of coming out and being out has been on my mind a lot, the last couple of months. Partly because it's been an issue for someone very close to me. But also because it's been an issue most of my life, in an oddly torqued way. Martha and I are queer as can be. Yet we're heterosexual, ("heterosexual to a fault," as one of our friends put it), and married, and de facto monogamous. I work and Martha stays home with the kids. We own a house in the close-in suburbs. When someone makes assumptions about us they're usually correct, so far as the ostensible realities go. The difficulty of coming out is that I have no pretexts for it. I can put a rainbow sticker on my car and signs in my yard against the horrid anti-gay-marriage initiatives, but that just marks me as a liberal. I'm not a liberal. I'm not tolerant. I'm queer, dammit.

Most of my closest friends have been lesbians, and if there's one gender/orientation group I feel I belong to -- I'm not sure there is, really -- that's it. I encounter "ordinary" heterosexual culture with bafflement. The sexual primping and suspicion, the weird mix of idolatry and contempt, the simultaneous exaltation of sex as sublime and its denigration as repulsive -- it all leaves me with the feeling that I'm visiting a superstitious, unpredictable, and very dangerous alien tribe. Whatever I am, I'm not one of them.

And yet I pass, all the time. It's an odd double sense of alienation. "Those people are all imagining that we're a straight couple," I think. "When in fact we're... well... we're a straight couple." Does that make them right? It doesn't, but it makes it difficult to tell them they're wrong. And there's something about this alienation that feels almost like an adolescent rebelliousness, as if I wanted to mutter, "we fuck because we want to, not because you tell us to!" I wonder sometimes if I'm just making it up. Maybe we are just an ordinary heterosexual couple, with a yen to believe ourselves different?

But it doesn't take much ordinary socializing to convince me that this is quite real, that this cultural alienation runs very deep. I return to my lesbian friends with relief, like a fish returning to water. Passing is exhausting. Especially when you don't mean to be.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


There's a poem of mine (or two of them, depending on how you count) up on
Qarrtsiluni -- Two Finger Poems
Till We have Built Jerusalem

I've written several (unposted) pages over the past couple days arguing with the Chris-Clarke-in-my-head about political reality. I don't post most of my political writing. Other people do that much better, most of the time. My rants are sometimes clever (I'm a dab hand at insults, actually, and gifted with creative obscenity -- Martha often laments that my best remarks generally can't be repeated in polite company, or really any company at all) -- where was I? (Lost in the parenthetical. Right.) -- My rants are sometimes clever, but they're not very rich in facts and after letting them stew awhile they generally turn out not to smell very good. So I dump them.

The gist of my argument with Chris is that the proportion of human suffering and ecological damage that can be affected by policy (of any sort, however effective, which is always a dubious proposition) is rather small. That the proportion that can be affected by cultivating meditative peace and self-understanding is relatively large. But mostly, of course, I just don't want to look like a selfish self-absorbed jerk. It's not really worth arguing much. Buddhism as a political program? Well, China was largely Buddhist for centuries, back when it was the heart of the civilized world, and it doesn't seem to have cured the world's ills, or even China's. The beat goes on. Let Chris do his work, and I mine. The first one to create universal peace, prosperity & good will, with a sustainable economy, a sound ecology, and a thriving wilderness wins. Loser buys dinner.

I've been happy a lot today. That sensation -- do other people get this? -- of insubstantiality. I can feel the air blowing through me, stirring my insides faintly like a curtain in breath of night-air, the light and air of the world barely impeded by my corporeal boundaries. Sticking with daily meditationfor a couple weeks seems to increase the frequency of this sensation. But I got it even when I was quite a young child. A presence. Or maybe an absence, I don't know.

Fare forward, you who think you are traveling.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Outside of Time

To tell you -- to set my life upon a cast, and stand the hazard of the die -- to say "I love you" -- and wait, counting the silent seconds with the thud thud thud of my heart -- that moment, which disguises itself as the moment of waiting and longing, is actually the moment of consummation. The rest, win or lose, takes place inside of time, in the world we know. Disappointment or delight, it trails away at length into Sunday crosswords and the swash of the dishwasher, in the plain light of day.

How much reckless and cruel infidelity, I wonder, is born of desperately wanting that moment outside of time? -- And not understanding that you can only ever get there once, by any one path.

Hail skittered down the dark wet roof of the house next-door, yesterday, rushing almost directly toward my eyes, so fast that I saw not the grains of hail, but white lines, an elaborate shifting rattling white net wavering toward me. Then thunder shook the house, and the window-panes trembled. There was not even time to tell the hail "I love you," before it stopped. But that was outside of time as well.

It's all outside of time, really, I think.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Paths not Taken

Moose asked -- Dale, if you're up for it, I'd be interested to hear about how you came to choose Tibetan Buddhism. I mean, of the various paths, why that particular one?

I've been trying to answer this question, and finding it surprisingly difficult. I've been jotting down bits and pieces of an answer all day, but it hasn't come together very happily. There are two answers, really, a historical one and a theoretical one. The historical answer is simple -- I just happened to fall in with Tibetan Buddhists, and since they provided everything I was looking for in a religious tradition, I looked no further. I don't -- I can't emphasize this too strongly -- consider Tibetan Buddhism to be superior to other kinds of Buddhism, and and I don't consider Buddhism to be superior to other religions. But there are of course reasons beyond historical accident for my having landed here.

One of the things I noted down was a list of the other contenders -- other paths that have caught my attention at various times. This may serve as the beginning of an answer to Moose's question. There's a kind of cartoon-style here that I cringe at a bit, but I suspect it will convey a more accurate picture of how that paths appeared to me than a more sophisticated version. So herewith a survey of paths not taken.


Theravadin Buddhism. It was a Theravadin, Walpola Rahula, who turned me into a Buddhist. I read his book, What the Buddha Taught, and found it overwhelmingly convincing. In many ways, I remain grounded with the Theravadins. Their simplicity and humility appeals strongly to me. I am confused and suffering and I want it to stop. It may not be grandly noble, but on the other hand, it's a hard foundation to build arrogance on. Ignorant Mahayana practitioners, and even some who should know better, fault the Theravadins for not cultivating compassion. This is nonsense, on a level with saying that Jews don't value forgiveness. Had I happened to encounter an inspiring Theravadin teacher or community I would probably have stayed with them happily.


Zen Buddhism. Zen appeals for many reasons. It's cosmopolitan, the product of a several very sophisticated civilizations. (As opposed to Tibetan Buddhism, which is the product of two rich but rather isolated, provincial, and culturally unsophisticated ones.) Much of the greatest Buddhist literature and art is Zen. Zen shrines are beautiful. Tibetan shrines are gaudy and clashing and rococo and -- not to put too fine a point upon it -- ugly. You will look in vain, in the Tibetan tradition, for a poet of Basho's stature or an artist of Hakuin's.

Zen has spent centuries sharpening its intellectual claws on Taoist and Confucian philosophy. I like its insistence on the moment, on enlightenment not as the end-goal of an orderly training program, but as something that might come along and whup you upside the head at any moment. And I like the austerity of its practice tradition. Tibetan Buddhism has thousands of different kinds of meditative disciplines -- Zen has basically one.

There are also things I don't like about Zen. There is sometimes, to my nose, a whiff of machismo to it. Sometimes a tinge of contempt for people who are intellectually weak or fearful, which appeals strongly to a certain sort of academic, but appeals to me not at all. (This is not something I've seen in Zen teachers or longtime Zen students -- not that I've known many -- but Zen seems to be particularly appealing to young men with something to prove.)


Taoism. Taoism is in some ways a strong contender, and always has been. I was sixteen when I was blown away by the Tao te Ching (or Dao de Jing, or whatever transliterators would like us to say, nowadays.) My reading of Lao Tzu was my first encounter with a contemplative, and a formative one. I didn't really know the difference between Buddhism and Taoism then, and I still today discover bits of Taoist poetry and philosophy mis-shelved in the Buddhist section of my mind, where they have been shedding light and causing confusion for decades.

I find its insistence on original innocence and the rightness of the natural world both very appealing and very problematic. It shares the Eden myth with Christianity, and I don't much like the Eden myth, for a few thousand reasons. But my real problem with Taoism is simply that its contemplative tradition isn't available to me. Whether it's died out, I couldn't say, but I do know that I've never encountered a Taoist master or a Taoist institution that appeared to me to hold the accumulated lore of its meditation tradition. As far as "what" and "why," Taoism can hold its own with any other tradition, for me, but when we get to "how," it doesn't offer much.


Catholicism. Catholicism never really had a chance with me, because I didn't even really know it had a living contemplative tradition until I was pretty well steeped in Buddhism. I think all my readers, including my Catholic ones, will understand why someone who wasn't born Catholic would find taking it on a rather tall order, especially for someone who doesn't (I think) believe in God. Now what would have happened had I read Thomas Merton at age sixteen, rather than Lao Tzu, we can only speculate.


Protestant Christianity. Or what, for me, could reasonably be called C.S. Lewisism. This is my cultural home, and largely my emotional and intellectual home as well. But there's a hitch to it. You have to subscribe to the belief that Jesus is God (in a way that the rest of us are not.) It's not enough to say, "well, I don't see why he couldn't be." Probably no one has had more influence over my religious habits of mind than C.S. Lewis, but we just don't agree on the facts. (There's another hitch, to wit, that there's no contemplative tradition to go with it, beyond free-form improvisational prayer.)


(Later.) I've hesitated several days about posting this. There's something horribly arrogant about shopping for a religious tradition -- "How does this fit? Does it go with my shoes? Is Jesus good enough for me, or do I prefer the Buddha?" But a lot of us find ourselves in this position willy-nilly, having been raised in no religious tradition, or in one that we revolted against, or in one so tentatively held and vaguely defined that it simply went away with childhood. We end up shopping whether we like it or not.

Paths that aren't on this list -- which are far more numerous than the ones that are -- aren't there simply because I never had a meaningful encounter with them in my formative years -- not because I examined them and rejected them.

I guess this list forms a negative portrait of what I was looking for. I didn't want to roll my own religious path -- I don't feel smart enough or strong enough. Anything I made would be too rickety to hold my weight. I wanted something ancient, for several reasons: in large part, I have to admit, just because I love ancient things, but also because an ancient tradition has had to accommodate lots of different personality-types and different cultures; it's less formed by the fashion of the moment and generally more roomy and comfortable. I wanted something with a living contemplative tradition -- I knew I wanted to meditate, and, with uncharacteristic sense, I recognized early that meditation was not something best learned from books. It's an art, and an art is best learned by a) doing it and b) studying with masters. And finally, I wanted an inspiring teacher. I wanted someone who was a living demonstration and reminder that it's possible to have a life that is not submerged in fretting and craving. I found all those things seven or eight years ago, improbably enough, at a Tibetan Buddhist center in Portland, Oregon. That I suppose is another post.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


These last couple of weeks, happiness has been buzzing and tickling my ears like a horsefly. Brushing my face, distracting me, getting ready to bite.

"I'm not sure when I'll see you again, so I'll give you a hug," Jonquil announced, and her various packs swung alarmingly as she leaned over and hugged me. I hugged back, from my chair, and said "Love you. Take care, hon."

As my boss began to explain why she had scowled, as I came in late -- as it turns out, for reasons that had nothing to do with me -- I laid a hand briefly on her back. I was full of affection for her -- we go back a ways, now -- and I really didn't care why she had scowled.

As the pain and suffering comes into clearer and clearer focus, I become lighter and lighter. A breath of wind could float me away into the sky.

Thank you. Dear friends. It's worse, worse than you imagine in your darkest night-fears. The sorrow that everyone is carrying. And happiness keeps whining in my ears, and fluttering in my face.

Monday, September 26, 2005


I glittered in the morning sun. My nose lifted, and my forked tongue questioned the dew.

I climbed the maple trees up into the the blue sky, and waited, while the sun fell tumbling through the leaves. Finally I saw you down below. "O human being, look up!" I called. But your eyes were downward, your shoulders hunched.

I opened my wings, and sang on the wind, till I came to a corner where yellow newspapers blew against rust-stained brickwork. I licked the bricks clean until they shone blood-red, like the sun through finger-webs. As you walked by I called, O human being, look down!" But you kept on walking.

So I landed delicately on your shoulders, and wound my way through your hair. I changed my serpent's tongue for a cat's, and rasped the nape of your neck. Your hair smelled of apples and honey. You could spare the time to wash it, this morning, but not to notice me?

I chewed gently on the lobe of your ear. Nothing, at first. Then you did raise a hand to scratch it, absently. I licked the inside of your wrist. That tickled, I guess. You shook your hand, and fretted it against your jeans.

A start. But then you came to the doors, and I scrambled off in a bit of a panic. I can't go indoors. You vanished into a dark stairwell.

Tomorrow, then, beloved. I'm much much older than you. I've learned how to wait.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Some Smatch of Honor

Reading Juilus Caesar this morning, it struck me as a play entirely about the world of trouble people bring upon themselves, and upon those about them, when they pay more attention to their own thoughts than they do to the world.

I had never noticed it before, but Marcus Brutus is wrong about nearly everything the material world ever presents to him -- he's too busy thinking, to see anything.

Friday, September 23, 2005


I saw a man coming out of the bank today who looked like Simon. The work-roughened, impish Englishman, in America so long that Carolyn complained of him losing his accent. She didn't want an ordinary slack-vowelled, urring husband.

But this man was going gray. Then I thought -- presumably Simon is too.

There's a picture of us out on their land. They were caretakers of a shore property, church retreat land, while Carolyn studied midwifery. Who has ever heard of the Connecticut coast? But it has one, hard-ribbed like Maine's. It was probably beautiful, once. Snow inlaid in coal-black rock.

Pictures of me carrying Tori, maybe a year old. A picture of me with my arm around Carolyn. I'm clad in a sweeping black white-flecked wool greatcoat. (The only expensive piece of clothing I have ever bought. I never bother with a coat, in Oregon. A jacket to keep off the rain is plenty. But when that first New Haven winter settled in I discovered that, yes, I would need a coat.) Carolyn is leaning into me, grinning.

Again. Martha and I were caretakers of the provost's mansion -- we lived behind it in the carriage house. Downstairs was a little kitchen and a bathroom. Upstairs was a single room, but a big one. Certainly big enough for a young married couple and a baby. Try as I may, though, I can't make the house fit together. The upstairs is far too big for the downstairs. Was a there a garage on the first floor, then? If so I must never have entered it. Perhaps the old carriages were there -- maybe they're still there, waiting for horses.

All I remember of New Haven is wanting. Wanting more and more, and it was exciting, at first -- it made me giddy -- I was in the big leagues, now -- but there was always more to want, and the dream changed slowly, imperceptibly into nightmare.

There was a strip bar in a mall, up the freeway a couple of miles. One of the dancers was Tina, a young Danish woman, red-haired, sensible, calm, and cheerful. Her English was nearly perfect, which of course gave her away instantly as a foreigner. She would sit with me at the bar.

They all used to laugh at how entranced I was by them.

"I don't know why I do this to myself," I remarked.

Tina looked at me with a sort of concerned affection. The matter seemed simple enough, to her. "Sometimes, it is nice to be teased," she said.

It is. And sometimes it is not. Quiet, middling drunk, I would wait for the bus to take me back into town. I would grade papers on the bus. Sometimes even in the bar. I can grade papers anywhere. The minute I start reading, all my attention is there. I catch the intentness of the writer, it pulls at me. I walk with them, watching the expression on their faces as they try to make the meaning come. I can see it, often, before they can. I can nudge, cajole, even scold. My calling too, maybe, was to be a midwife of sorts.

But all that has washed away in the rain of time. Old, half-forgotten unhappiness. The restlessness, constantly wanting, wanting, wanting, and no one to tell me how not to let it carry me away -- it comes back to me now in bright but unreal colors, a finger-painting of someone else's life.

A flickering phrase from the radio -- the Pretenders -- that passionate voice rising. "I saw a picture of you..."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Three Blogs

Three blogs I've been especially enjoying lately:

The spanking-new
Qarrtsiluni needs no boosting from me, since it has (they say) ties to the Laupe mafia, but the first post is terrific, and I expect more great things of it.

Then there's two blogs I discovered with one and the same search -- Carmen's
Overmatter and Lisa's Scratch & Sniff.

Carmen has the sort of razor-blade wit that cuts without leaving a sting or a mark. Behind it is a complex and wonderful weltanshauung that I really don't know how to characterize. But it's one of those blogs I stumbled across and then just had to read from start to finish.

Lisa prowls the web collecting marvellously entertaining stuff, political rants or striking advertisements; I'm always reading aloud from her blog or showing bits of it to Martha. (If you hold a deep affection for G. W. Bush, though, you'll want to give it a miss.) -- But, moreover, she's doing what I want to do, so I go to her blog to live it vicariously.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Creek Running North

Morning. A ghost on the western horizon -- the mottled shell of the full moon, pale blue against a pale blue sky.

If you have a few extra bucks this morning, a great way to spend them would be to keep Creek Running North up. Chris Clarke is one of the best writers alive today. I'd read anything he wrote -- even his gardening column, though I've never gardened in my life. His politics are unreconstructedly radical; he's one of those environmental extremists that so puzzle our president, and he loves a fight. He's also humane and reasonable, and he writes hauntingly of the Mohave Desert. You never know what's going to turn up there -- a hard-fought contest for Best Dog or a meditation on having his life saved by a serial killer or a screed against Burning Man or the narrative of having his head in the jaws of a puma or a love-letter to joshua trees. All you know is that it's going to be the best of its kind.

I've been Mr Buddhist in my web existence, so those of you who don't follow me closely -- maybe even those who do -- might be startled to learn that Buddhism first appeared to me as a political agenda. I've paid a lot of attention to failed revolutions. There have been plenty to pay attention to, in the last century. And I've ended up far more pessimistic even than Chris, who is not exactly the Polyanna of the Mohave. Chris just feels that our political side is losing. I feel that even if our political side won, it would only turn into the enemy. "To make Socialism, one must have Socialists," William Morris once said, explaining why he went every Sunday to speak at Hyde Park (something he loathed doing.) The history of the failed revolutions of the last century -- as I've said elsewhere -- is to my mind the history of trying to make Socialism without Socialists. It can't be done.

William Morris was also, compared to me, a great optimist. He thought you could make people into Socialists by convincing them of Socialist opinions. I don't think so. If you convince a Capitalist of Socialist ideas, he's just a Capitalist with Socialist ideas. Making a real Socialist -- a person who doesn't actually cling to his self-conception and attempt to Leave His Mark at the expense of other sentient beings -- is a far more difficult task. Opinions are the least of it. I don't even care much about opinions, now; they can wait. What we need are Socialists. Socialists will make Socialism willy-nilly, even if they have Capitalist opinions. The opinions won't matter.

But in the meantime, political struggle doesn't stop, and it still matters, and what matters above all is keeping clear on what's wrong and exactly why we refuse to endorse the world of oppression and exploitation. No one's clearer-headed about that than Chris. So drop a few dollars in his hat. He's been working on our behalf all his life, and all he's asking for is the wherewithal to keep on doing it.

Friday, September 16, 2005



As if one had come the wrong way
Backing awkwardly to the throne
Naked, hairy, shambling, and deaf
And there was a pause, and a ripple


Or as if water sluiced down the rocks
And stopped, weary of time --
Ah, Sunflower! -- and crept up again,
Gray and worn out with desire.

"I have desired to be desired,"
He wrote, "without desire."
An alarmist, fussy old monk
With no politics but plenty of spite.


As if the purling music of her laugh
Was more or less decent; as if
The hunger was less than continual,
As if "as if" was as it was.

A careless white bloom
Rubbed off the plums, and a sharp voice
Almost reached us, but not quite.
"So young, and so dishonest!"


I have lived too long; all the brave ones
Are dead or in jail, the rest
Walk carefully on the water like insects
Swirling downstream, delicately posed.

Piles of corpses are sensibly alike
Whether they strew the plain of Ilion
Or dawdle in the gutters of the Gulf Coast
They talk interminably of politics and war

But they make no sense. So I ask
At the wrong time, or in the wrong key
And make the answer inaudible -- to hear
Would be unendurable, yes or no.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Promises, Promises

Yesterday was our 24th wedding anniversary. We know that because our parents emailed and called to congratulate us.

It isn't an anniversary that we've ever leaned on very hard. We had been together six years before we married. The marriage was not so much a promise as a confirmation. "If we were not already married, I would not now be here!" I might have murmured, when asked to make my vow --

This Troilus in armes gan hir streyne,
And seyde, `O swete, as ever mote I goon,
Now be ye caught, now is ther but we tweyne;
Now yeldeth yow, for other boot is noon.'
To that Criseyde answerde thus anoon,
`Ne hadde I er now, my swete herte dere,
Ben yolde, y-wis, I were now not here!'

Our thirtieth "anniversary," which we do observe, with appropriate rites, is coming in December.

So the summers and winters run by now like the light and shade of a single day.

What did the promises ever have to do with it? Hard to say. It was the willingness to make the promises, maybe, that had importance. Maybe that's the only importance promises ever have. They can't bind; they can only remind us that once we were willing to be bound.

Except. When I first encountered the way Tibetans regarded vows, it struck me as oddly concrete. They will talk of vows being "injured" and "repaired." Not broken, or kept, like a contract -- they seem to regard it more as a building in progress, or a plant being nurtured. You can, under some circumstances "return your vows" -- that's how they speak of it when a monk leaves ordained life. He gives his vows back to the person he took them from.

But having gotten used to this way of thinking, I now find my former conception of vows to be dangerously abstract and brittle. Eighteen-year-olds, maybe, would think of the promises of marriage this way, but nobody my age should. Our intentions are bruised and our faith is damaged, inevitably. The willingness to repair them is what matters.

Just now I wrote to a friend (speaking of bodhisattva vows) -- sometimes it's important to make vows even though we know we're going to break them.

Why is that? -- she asked

I answered -- because sometimes we understand that an intention is so important that we shouldn't treat it the same as our other intentions. We should honor it and nurture it with special care. We should notice if it's damaged, and take care to repair it.

After all, if the intention was in no danger of being lost or broken, what would be the point of making a vow of it?

Monday, September 12, 2005

Clean Water

Words used to come readily, words of praise and comfort. I made fluent offers of friendship, like a pre-Depression bank blithely offering loans, trusting my commitments would never all be called in at the same time. Now no words seem to come.

Now I see the suffering and I can't produce even the most halting and trivial words, though I'm far more grieved than when I used to pour out sympathy. I used to sense within myself endless wells of reassurance. Now those wells are dry. I have nothing to offer: I know how empty it is to say, your pain grieves me. After all, how does that help?

But I care more now. I wake in the night and I think of the people I know suffering across town, or across the country, or across the ocean, and I search for something I might offer them. Nothing. I include them in my prayers. They are the people I think of, when I think of just who it is that I am practicing for.

I have nothing to say. I turn away. Go back again doggedly, to dig out the wells. Whatever this may amount to -- it is for you. Lifetimes from now maybe, but when it comes, it will be clean water, real water, that won't run out.

Friday, September 09, 2005


When September comes, and the white-and-silver clouds close their petals over our heads, my heart opens to meet them. Shadows of old loves glance at me on the street -- sly, half-caught smiles on wet lips. Hopeful looks that glide past me, hunting beyond me for younger, prettier men. Ah, well.

It tikleth me aboute my herte roote
Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote
that I have had my world as in my time.

Clouds lace up the sky. What passes for Autumn in Western Oregon begins. The season of fresh winds blowing water in our faces. The season of quiet days flashing with bright downpours. The season when the few lawns that ever went yellow go green, green again, cold and lush. Rain beats shining jade oak-leaves off the trees. Wet fir boughs plunge in the wind, shaking loose their own local showers. For nine months the world will tremble and shimmer with rain. There is no Winter here -- only the artificial pivot of Christmas wedged between Fall and Spring. A few colder days. Maybe a frost or two. But mostly clouds, and the gleam of falling water.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Root of Meditation

I'm still at a bit of a stand, or at the end of a rope. Perplexed to find that I'm simply unable to give up on eating right or indulging -- that is, the thoughts and habits that I associate with struggling to improve my diet continue to run pretty much as usual, despite the fact that I've publicly, resolutely, definitely given up. It basically just doesn't matter.

So that's a small gain in itself, I suppose, to discover that this dieting business has actually never been something I've undertaken -- it's more something that's undertaken me.

It's all made worse, of course, by the continual roil of political anger -- everything compulsive ratchets up, when I'm angry. I find that I'm sleeping very badly, and that I'm feeling a little sick all the time from the sugar and fat. The desire grows by what it feeds on. I'm hungrier and more compulsive than when I was eating less.

I'm loath though to just go back to "officially" dieting, and picking up again where I left off. I yearn for a different way to be. I seem to spend my whole life either forcing myself to do things or skiving off them. Forcing myself not to procrastinate at work, or procrastinating. Forcing myself to eat right, or indulging. Forcing myself to exercise, or lingering at the computer defiantly letting the tension in my neck and shoulders escalate. This isn't an adult's life. It's a child's life. I'm sick of it.

But being sick of it doesn't give me any power over it. In fact, it's part of the system -- not outside of it at all.

It's a large player in all this -- the conviction that it's all illegitimate. I tell myself that I shouldn't want things I shouldn't have, and that I shouldn't have to force myself to do things. Why not, I wonder? But anyway, it all takes place in a context of shame. It's not so much that I'm ashamed of eating ice cream, as that I'm ashamed of being in conflict with myself about it. I have a sense that it marks me as a trivial person, a childish person. I should either eat the damn ice cream or not eat the damn ice cream, I tell myself. This is ridiculous. And so now I'm backing up, and saying to myself, I should either be in conflict with myself or not be in conflict with myself. This is even more ridiculous. Being in conflict with myself about being in conflict with myself is reaching new heights of ridiculousness. I've reached an infinite regress. The saturation point. It's all ridiculous.

It all runs back to one thing. There's only one thing I've ever done that has ever actually changed how I think, lessened the intensity of my compulsions. I simply have to get back to meditation, and to pick up my Ngöndro practice again.

Now this, of course, is still within the system. Now I will be trying to force myself to meditate. But that's okay. At present there simply isn't anything outside of this system of duelling compulsions -- the solution, I think, has to arise inside of it, or not at all.

So, once again -- a wan, tired smile -- I resolve to meditate daily, and to resume the Ngöndro practice.

Revulsion is the root of meditation, they say. I've never agreed with them more.