Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Cadillac Slumps and Fluent Canadians

Watching. Just watching. When I shy away from work, as I am at this very moment, even as I type -- what's going on? I close my eyes. Nothing in the swirl that I can easily pull into language. But one thing is clear -- I'm very tired. Physically. I need more sleep than I've been getting. My eyelids ache, my mouse-elbow is uncomfortable. My knees are complaining, both about the exercise that I've resumed, and about how I sit at the computer, slumped back -- like a too-cool dude leaning way back, driving his Cadillac -- with my feet tucked under my seat, which keeps a constant tension on them. (On the knees, that is. Lord, fix that sentence before you post this, Dale.) I sit up straight, get my feet out from under. Much easier to breathe this way. But when my attention leaves my posture, I'll go back to the Cadillac slump, and tuck my feet under again.

Another thing in the swirl is a sense that I'm letting people down. I've done much more work this week than usual, but none of it is very visible, and I dread the phone conference with Canada tomorrow, when a dozen people will run down what they've done, and then it will be my turn. I don't like telephones at the best of times, and I handle it by being curt and dismissive, particularly of myself. I say I haven't gotten much done, mention a couple of things, and that's it. Daring anyone to ask why. I hate the sound of myself making excuses. Can't bear to do it. But I'm sure I come off as the surly arrogant American, to all these graceful, good-natured, fluent Canadians. There's always a little pause after I speak, in which you can hear them thinking -- "Is that all? What DO they do, down there?" And then the moderator picks it up and moves along to the next person. I'm on loan to this group, part-time, so they have to take what they can get.

I make it so real, in my mind. This conversation that hasn't even taken place yet. The responses I imagine in other people's minds. The assessment of my work. The impression I make. I don't know any of these things. In fact much of the scanty evidence I have suggests that they're false. These people are grateful I've undertaken this task, they know it's a bitch and politically delicate, and the last American loaned to them from my office did nothing at all. At least I come up with design documents, from time to time. I respond to emails promptly and fluently (in email, anyway, I'm personable and forthcoming). I've helped them out with some sticky stuff.

It's not even true that I was doomed to slump and tuck my feet under again. I'm sitting up straight with my feet on the floor.

But I am very tired. Not least, of having to try to stop these thoughts from convincing me. Good night, dear ones. You all are wonderful, you know.

Sunday, March 27, 2005


The prefix for- was still in Chaucer's time "productive" (that is, it was still kosher to stick it in front of a verb and make a new verb on the fly, as you can in modern English with un- or re-.) If a verb meant "to do X," then with the for- prefix it meant "to do X to the point of destruction." So when the Miller is "fordronken" he's not just drunk, he's drunk to the point of destruction. Hopelessly drunk.

The prefix is still around, in fossil form -- mostly in past participles, such as fordone, forspent, forlorn. But you can't make up new words with it any more. You can't say your email account has been forspammed, or that your eggs this morning were forfried. Which is a shame, I think.

In the Book of the Duchess, Chaucer describes a grieving widow as "forweped and forwaked," and I can't think how you could say the same thing with anything like such economy and vividness in Modern English. In fact, while "all cried out" might work for "forweped," I have a hard time thinking of how to express "forwaked" at all. "Exhausted for lack of sleep?"

Saturday, March 26, 2005

and light coming through it

You folded your arms and turned your head,
And all the gleams of winter ran backward,
And all the snow went dim. Because

When the dark of the moon, its own color,
Lifted, like a faint scar on the sky, or
Like tarnish on old silver, you said that love
Was nothing, that we were nothing, that

The frame of the door-window lied
About the world outside (what outside?)
Apple blossom and thick-clotted grass
Was a lie. It was just the glass of the window

And light coming through it.

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Ale of Southwerk

We've just heard the Knight's Tale, that gorgeous romance. We're in the hush that follows the realization that we've just heard the best thing that's ever been done in its kind -- if nothing else of Chaucer's had survived, he still would be known as the man who wrote "al the love of Palamon and Arcyte / Of Thebes," the culmination of the chivalric romance. We're thinking: what now? No one could top this. Not Chaucer himself could top this. There's nowhere to go but down.

The Host invites the Monk to tell his tale, as the next in precedence to the Knight. We're settling down to be edified -- you get edified a lot, in medieval literature, and we knew it was coming sooner or later -- and then something wonderful happens. The drunken Miller shoves himself forward and insists on telling his own story.

The Millere, that fordronken was al pale,
So that unnethe upon his hors he sat,
He nolde avalen neither hood ne hat,
Ne abyde no man for his curteisie,
But in Pilates voys he gan to crie,
And swoor, "By armes, and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."
Oure Hooste saugh that he was dronke of ale,
And seyde, "Abyd, Robyn, my leeve brother;
Som bettre man shal telle us first another.
Abyd, and lat us werken thriftily."
"By goddes soule," quod he, "that wol nat I;
For I wol speke, or elles go my wey."
Oure Hoost answerde, "tel on, a devel wey!
Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome."
"Now herkneth," quod the Millere, "alle and some!
But first I make a protestacioun
That I am dronke, I knowe it by my soun;
And therfore if that I mysspeke or seye,
Wyte it the ale of southwerk, I you preye."

Anyone can see that this is wonderful. And Chaucer does go on to top himself, by giving us the best fabliau (dirty story in verse) extant, which also happens to be a rich and loving parody of the Knight's Tale. But the most wonderful thing of all -- which may be hidden from modern readers, who have been accustomed to such things all their lives -- is what has happened in between the two tales. A character, in the modern sense, has arisen: I would say that the Miller is in fact the first character in literature. He erupts from the page; he can't be contained. He will speak. And he speaks in utterly natural, colloquial English, which also happens to be perfect iambic pentameter. In these few lines Chaucer has made both Shakespeare and the novel possible. The persona that gets up and walks away with the story is something we know well -- Chaucer's audience had never heard such a thing. So far as I know the world had never heard such a thing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Today's Catch

If the work is hard, that means I shouldn't do it.

If I'm agitated, I can't work. I better go get lunch.

I should be better at this. I shouldn't have to work at it.

If I'm going to fail anyway, better to fail spectacularly, by showing my contempt for the whole enterprise. Then I can pretend I could have done it if I had wanted to.

I'm someone who will never do the work anyone else wants him to.

I'm someone who has always hated programming.

If I really work I will never be able to blog again. I won't want to blog and I'll be too boring to blog anyway.

What, I got halfway to a Ph.D. at Yale and I can't even do this simple Perl programming? (& then the automatic loop that always runs whenever Yale comes into my mind -- i.e. I always fail when push comes to shove, and always because my will evaporates. See? Like at Yale.)

Perl is too simple. It's beneath my dignity.

Perl is too hard. I'll never learn it.

-- Just some of the weirdly false thoughts I've captured on the wing, today. I've been trying to identify the habitual ones, and talk back to them, a la cognitive therapy. It is remarkable how entrenched and influential some of them are. Remarkable how much shame at my academic past I carry with me -- I would have said I didn't carry much, if you'd asked me yesterday. I'm ashamed of the time I wasted getting a graduate degree in English that I'd never use. I'm ashamed that I never finished my dissertation. I'm ashamed of having second BA in Computer Science -- I should have gotten a masters. I also should have done it quicker. I also should have done it at a more distinguished school. I also shouldn't have done it at all. (& I also shouldn't care whether the school's distinguished.) How on earth do I carry all this around with me?

But the most useful thought to have caught on the wing was "if I'm agitated, I can't work." And resonating behind it, a vague fear that something bad will happen, if I work even though I'm agitated. when I caught that, and answered it, I actually turned around, walked back to my computer, and went back to work. These are the sort of thoughts that really sabotage me, I think. And these are hardest to catch -- the nimblest and best-camouflaged.

Answering these thoughts is not exactly rocket science. They're infantile, mostly. Fatuous. My life is being run by thoughts that would do no credit to a six-year-old.

So anyway -- I got a lot done today. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Don't Assume

Now I remember what Michael went on to say, when he spoke of confronting obscurations:

Don't assume you know what the answer is going to look like.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Here we go

Oh, Damn. Michael reiterated the scariest teaching he ever gave, last night.

Take the biggest obscuration you have, he said, and pile the Dharma on it. Lay into it. Don't piddle away your time and energy with side-issues and marginal concerns. If your big issue is anger, don't muck around trying to fix your mild case of greed. Take on the big thing. It's harder, but it's also where your real motivation will be.

This terrified me, the first time he taught it, several years ago. I knew what my big thing was, and I didn't want to touch it.

So the week after that, I asked him about it, and he repeated it, but added -- "if you can."

He started to say more, but I said "No. No. Stop there. That's what I wanted to hear!"

People laughed, including Michael. I'm sure he went on to say whatever he was going to say, but I had my permission to leave the big thing alone.

But of course, Dharma doesn't work that way. You can't avoid a teaching, once it's planted in your mind: it keeps growing and interfering and generally making a nuisance of itself, until attending to it is finally easier than avoiding it.

So willy nilly I started practicing with the big thing, which was a tangle of lust, wanting to transgress bounds, pornography, and having crushes on people (or "falling in love with people," if that terminology sounds more adult.)

And the practice didn't amount to much -- I would have said I wasn't even making a dent in the whole thing -- until I was taking a class from Sarah. I was building up a crush on her, of course -- and suddenly I saw it. I saw it as suffering. I don't even know whether to call this perception conceptual. It was a physical sensation. A constriction of the heart and mind, a narrowing. And a very clear, concrete picture of what I was doing. What I was really doing was building a wall around myself. I was walling off every other possible relationship with Sarah, by imposing this fantasy of one which a) I couldn't have, and b) if I could have had, would have ruined my other intimate relationships, and c) took all my loving-kindness and channeled it into an unattainable future. I was carefully constructing the very isolation I was supposedly trying to break out of. It felt physically horrible.

Of course, I cast it now as a story with a critical turning-point. The reality is much more complex than that. But the story is basically true. Once I learned to see it, to feel it, as suffering, my relationship with it changed. I no longer wanted to get free of it in order to be good person or to please anybody else or to live up to some ideal. I just wanted out. When you're stifling you want air. It was like that.

But now, of course, there's the next big thing. This work thing, holding work at arm's length, procrastinating, throwing my energies into what's peripheral rather than central in my work. It's nothing new. It's the thing that had me mastering Latin when I should have been writing my dissertation. It has me tinkering endlessly with ways of reporting metrics on my earlier projects when I should be working on my present one. It's the thing, for that matter, which has me blogging right now.

Here we go.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Being Peace

Yesterday Beth posted about coming to a peaceful rest after turbulence. It evoked sharply for me the very first post of hers I read -- so much so that I had to go looking for it. After reading through the first year and a half of Cassandra Pages, I still haven't found it, and I think it must be a sort of composite memory, the distillation of what Beth's writing is for me, and I think for many of her readers.

The photograph I remember (and never found, on looking) was an interior, with late afternoon light slanting through the windows, and falling on a vase of flowers and a dozing cat; tiny sparks of sun-fired dust-motes hung in the quiet, dark room. The post was just the description of an ordinary day of peace.

Looking through all those posts I was staggered by the richness of it, of all the art and poetry and music and history, refracted through varied faiths and philosophies, that she made room for in her blog, and in her heart. There are not many blogs that could be taken in such a concentrated dosage and still yield just richness, richness and no surfeit.

And that someone so engaged in the suffering of the world offers so much peace -- while I'm grateful for it day by day -- I couldn't really see, without backing up to take a panoramic view as I have done today, what an accomplishment it reveals.

Thursday, March 17, 2005


This March rain has torn drifts of early petals from the trees, and battered them into the gutters. All things retreat, nestling back into the foreskin of winter. Cold water on the earth. Leaves close again, sheltering raw buds. The grays of the sky multiply, divide, add, and subtract the light.

I have never loved you more than I love you this instant.

People talk endlessly about desire, and consummation. But It's the cold rain that wakens the important love; the love of a contracted, shrinking stem of flesh. A love of cold hands, a love that welcomes its own losses.

Raindrops course down my cheeks, run into my mouth. Let the rain speak for me today. Tomorrow in some sheltered place no doubt I will forget everything I know now. But somewhere the rain will still be talking, for those with ears to hear.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


This wish to make a difference in people's lives.

I seldom think only of them, when I want to help other people, More often what I really think, under the surface, is, "how can I make them feel better in such a way that they will regard me as the source of their happiness?"

And so far do these fantasies of influence carry me that I make extravagant and silly estimates of how much I could and should be able to do for people. And I focus, inevitably, on people I know less well and am actually far less able to help -- or to know how to help -- than, say, my wife, my children, or my parents.

There is a strong impulse toward aggrandisement in it. Those of my immediate family are old news: I'm not likely to change how much I matter to them. My claim on them is staked already. What I want is to lay claim to new people. Much of the impulse to write comes from that place, that desire to extend my territory, to have more people under my sway.

Oh, I desire of course to be a benevolent dictator. But the impulse is not, at bottom, much different from what moves a tyrant to invade a neighboring country. The desire for empire. It takes various forms, but the hankering is almost always there, to mark the world with my own insignia, to propagate my self, in the form of children, or poems, or public policy, or lovers, or drawings, or blog-readers. It reveals itself in things as small as the pleasure I take in seeing my name on seven-year-old source-files at work, or in going back to reread my comments on someone's blog.

Possibly this will strike people as me, again, being hard on myself, but it is actually the opposite. In trying to undo this habit of aggrandisement I am trying to be kind to myself. Because this is a gull's game. A game that I will always lose. The value of every new conquest dwindles; it drops the more sharply the complete the aggradisement. It's not just that no satisfaction remains satisfactory. It's worse than that. It grows by what it feeds on. I become more hungry, not less, with every meal.

This insignia is my prison. I am bound inside it. It is not really the sign of my imperium -- it's the sign of my servitude. All these territories need to be served and defended; all these "masks of command" need to kept in good repair and worn -- whether they express what I feel and think or not.

Underneath all of this, the desire for communion and understanding, for beauty and clarity, languishes. Suppose I got my heart's desire. Suppose my glory was acknowledged by everyone, my face was on every magazine page, every footnote mentioned me, my tune played on every radio, every woman adored me, and every man envied me. Suppose I got that. Then what?

I would be miserable. Isn't that the horror of Nero's life? What could be more horrible than to actually succeed in turning the world into airless hall of mirrors, and to meet nothing but my own image at every turn?

No, but listen. Quick, before Dale comes back. You want to know really why it's hard to work? Not because I'm lazy (what does that mean?) Not because I'm anxious (of course I am; terrified) But the real reason?

Is just that it's too beautiful.

It's too beautiful. What's her name, God, or whatever you call her, is always there. I can't take any of this work seriously. And then the people are so beautiful, and so much more real than software or money can ever be. Only landscapes and deities and people can hold my attention. The attitude of adoration is the only one that makes sense to me.

"Holy, holy, holy," they sing. Wholly, wholly, wholly.

At times like this, I feel God's presence, like a blazing August sun on the back of my neck.

And nothing makes sense but to turn around.

You know? Even though the act of turning makes her vanish. I don't know how to turn yet. I don't know how to speak.

But this -- this -- is important. Not that.

Monday, March 14, 2005


Yesterday we turned off at the exit just before Wahclella, and drove a couple miles farther east, paralleling the freeway, along a frontage road. Here too the parking lot was full -- ten cars -- although this is possibly the least-frequented of the great waterfalls of the Gorge. We have been here on a sunny Sunday in August and been the only party here, seeing no one else all the way there and back.

A stony trail up through the forest, and then down again. We have to pay attention to our feet, because the stones -- from softball-size to head-size -- litter the path, and some of them are loose and some are not, so we don't know which will turn under our feet.

Slopes covered with young fern. A bird I've never heard before, singing an extraordinarily elaborate song, less fluid but even more compelling than a meadowlark's. We never spot it: it's somewhere high up in the firs.

Below, between the trees, we glimpse long beige sandbars standing out of the Columbia. "It looks like August," murmurs Martha. Not quite, but this has been the driest Spring we can remember.

As distracting as the stones is the traffic noise from the freeway, which accompanies us for nearly three-quarters of a mile. But suddenly the path turns away from the river, and the freeway. The sound of traffic fades away, and not long after that, we hear a different distant roaring. We become aware that the ground on our left is no longer a steep slope. It's simply not there. Two hundred feet straight down, the Elowah winks in the sun.

Switchbacks steeply down. The first time we came here, we called this place "Rivendell," because the change here is so abrupt, from an awkward path in ordinary second-growth woods alongside the freeway, to a dive down into an obviously sacred place, quiet except for the plunging water. At the end of the second switchback, we see Elowah falls: three hundred feet of free-falling white water. It touches nothing on its way down.

On our own way down the switchbacks, we have to pick our way carefully around a downed tree, and past muddy patches where some of the trail has washed away. But it's not far. At the splash-pool, a log, the trunk of a tree that fell across the boulders some years ago, makes a good seat. "I'm going to make myself dizzy," says Martha, and she lies back on the log and looks up.

It's a huge vault, a concave overhang of gray basalt, green with lichen. It swoops up, starting vertical and then climbing over, more than vertical, so that it's cupped over us like an enormous hand; and between its fingertips, where the little stick-forms of trees are black against the sky, the water jets out and tumbles into the empty air. The eye follows the water involuntarily, falling with it. Sometimes the particular billow of spray that has caught your eye makes it all the way down, but sometimes it evaporates on the way, and then your eye is snagged by another billow, till you have fallen all the way to the boulders where the water breaks, and sends a constant misty rain into the splash-pool. It does make you dizzy, even when you're upright.

Saturday, March 12, 2005


It was Spring as we drove up the river -- blazing sun -- new leaves pushing out everywhere -- a real Spring, such as we almost never get, here in the dream country, where usually all that happens is the Winter rains turning gradually to Spring rains. But this was Spring, Spring as I remember it from Connecticut. It got so warm in the car that the fan didn't do it, and we had to roll down the windows.

In the Wahclella ravine, it was not so warm. The sun's not high enough, this early in the year, to peer over the edges of the gorge. Still cool enough for me to miss my jacket, and to be glad of my sun-hat for its warmth, not its shade. And the Wahclella, which is a pretty creek in August, was a serious river, churning itself against the rocks, and in places it even showed that pale turqoise color you usually only see in the glacier-melt of high mountain streams.

But we came across a patch of trilliums blossoming, and there were purple blossoms in the moss. A hawk hovering high above, where the sun turned the lips of the gorge gold. Water-ousels streaked past us, singing a rare, complicated song. Still, when we got to the falls, the splash-pool was five times deeper than we'd ever seen it, and the water was a cold, cold, dark green. I tried to make the memory of swimming in it real, but the imaginative effort was too much for me. Not quite Spring-like enough for that.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Somewhere Else

What is actually going on? None of those things. I am sitting in a comfortable office. It's a beautiful day outside. Those things in my head seem so real. They blot out the sun. When did I get so old, so hopeless, so frail?

("To the best of our knowledge, sir, you have always been this old, hopeless, and frail. All the documents point that way.")

All this Sturm und Drang in my heart, and nothing really there. Exhaustion is really here. Anxiety is really here. Florescent lights and the hum of a hundred computer fans are really here. All the rest is smoke and mirrors, fear and loathing, clutching and jealousy. It is ugly. Suffering is ugly. Selfishness is ugly.

Let's go somewhere else.

Once upon a time there was a small creature that lived in a place where the sunlight came green through the leaves. It ate blueberries, and drank pilsner which a kind Taoist brewer left in a pitcher on a stump. It built elaborate hexagonal palaces out of fir cones and woven grass, and the beetles would all come by and exclaim "very pretty!"

Which made it wriggle with pleasure. Sometimes in the long summer evenings a Portuguese girl would come to read in the dappled meadow, and she would let it climb on her arm and nap in the crook of her elbow, as warm as toast and as happy as butter.

In August it would lie half-submerged in the spring, lulled by the soft lap of the cool water, and its heart would slow so near to stopping that it could watch the sun glide noiselessly across the sky, light and shadow changing places.

And then with a spring and a shake, jewels flying off in all directions, it would scamper into night, where the stars burned with a cold exhiliration. That's where the night people would gather, talking low but intense, sometimes arguing passionately, making fine distinctions, and opening world beyond world. The little creature understood not a word, but it would creep in close, and the tallest girl, who was a watchful thing, would always pick it up, and laugh fondly when it scurried all the way up her sleeve to her shoulder, and nestle under her ear. All the eyes of the night people would glitter, when the moon rose.

And then when the east went pale, and the night people slipped away in their twos and threes, The birds would begin to sing. The little creature understood this, at least. All the joy and desire rose up in a swirling net, and the little creature's heart did not quite break, but it almost did.

And then it would forget, and run, run, run to the fresh pitcher left on the dew-damp stump.

Monday, March 07, 2005



I am afraid that love annihilates the world.


It is obvious the stairs continue, but
whether they are chipped and broken,
whether it is dark or light at the top,
whether I will like the place they lead
is completely obscured.


We sobbed, bent double, chanting impossible;
the rain; the moktak; that roar, the smell
of burning pine so fresh but edged with kerosene;
the heat of that enormous fire; the smoke, the gray sky.
Our teacher was returning to the sky.


Luck in those final moments, I felt it
the strange sensation of hope
passing through on its way
to somewhere else.


The only safe way to dream of the dead
is to dream the dream in common.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Repeyreth Hom

I threw into the recycling bin today a stack of index cards four inches tall, inscribed with Latin declensions and vocabulary. With the paper-dust came the memory of scrambling to my feet in the hallway of the classics department.

Professor Hexter was young and vigorous, and his eyes, too close together, were oddly
attractive and compelling, as if his surplus of energy had clenched them tight together. I was sitting in the hall by his office. He asked if I had been waiting long, and I had been, but I said cheerfully, "A man with his Latin grammar cards is never without employment," as I slipped these cards, the very same, into my pack. They were not yellow then. I wanted to ask him about some glosses in a medieval manuscript of Ovid's Heroides.

Memory leads to memory; Hexter walking rapidly among the desks, handing back exams. He stopped abruptly at mine.

"This," he drawled, "is disgusting." He slapped down my exam. "No one has ever gotten a perfect score on this test."

I could have told him why I had done so well. My dissertation on Chaucer was dead in the water, and to avoid working on it I had flung myself into Latin. I remember that moment, because it was the last triumph I had in graduate school. It was all unravelling. Tori was two and had still never slept through the night. Every day I trudged off to Sterling library; every evening I trudged back, my Latin texts thoroughly mastered, my dissertation untouched. My friendship with Marina was dead. Other friends were vanishing, one by one, as they finished their dissertations and found teaching positions. I had already written half of a dissertation on Old English poetics, and given it up. This dissertation on Chaucer was my second attempt, and I knew in my bones that I would never finish it, either.

Things have been conspiring recently to evoke those days. The sleeplessness; the anxiety about not doing my work. And I've been rereading Chaucer:

O yonge, fresshe folkes, he or she,
In which that loue vp groweth with youre age,
Repeyreth hom fro worldly vanyte,
And of youre herte vp casteth the visage
To thilke god that after his ymage
Yow made, and thynketh al nys but a faire
This world that passeth soone as floures faire

Filled with love tonight, both for those repairing home, and those still caught in worldly vanity. It is all so beautiful, and it all hurts so deeply. Bless you. Good night.

Thursday, March 03, 2005


Why a rock? "Flowers die, candles burn out, but pebbles remain. It's a sign that someone was there, that someone remembers her."

I wish I had a pocket full of virtual rocks. So often I visit a page, but I have nothing to say. I wish I could just leave a rock, and not be forced to write something or just move on. I read some pages where I don't really understand what they're talking about. I'm not as educated or cultured as a lot of other folks, but I like listening.

Thus the Peripatetic Polar Bear, speaking of her friend who would leave a pebble when she visited her grandmother's grave.

It certainly touched a cord with me. Very often I'm moved by a post, but I don't know why. Sometimes I'm not sure I really understand it, or maybe I just have nothing useful or intelligible to say in response, but I come up with a comment just to mark the connection. To leave a stone.

So I'm floating this proposed "emoticon", a little letter 'o' in parentheses, as a stone to leave in comments: (o)

If this already means something different, please let me know. If not, expect to see it turning up in your comment-boxes.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Simple Simon met a Pieman
Going to the fair;
Said Simple Simon to the Pieman
Let me taste your ware!

Said the Pieman to Simple Simon,
Show me first your penny!
Said Simple Simon to the Pieman,
Indeed, I have not any!

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Motion Without Motive

No, but listen. Just how did God do it? Of all his works, the most bizarre. To squeeze himself into a man?

A man who doesn't know. "Who touched me?" he asked.

(Why, you're God. You know who touched you. But he doesn't.)

So the story of the Buddha, now, that story makes sense. And that may be the real problem with it. You see, the Buddha became God, and he never looked back. Just as you'd expect.

But when I become God, it's only for a little while. One moment. Three moments. Memorably, ten moments. So actually I perform the deed I have just designated as of all God's works, the most bizarre. How do I do it? How do I do it inadvertently, casually?

Okay. That's a mystery. But not so urgent as the other mystery, which involves similar dislocations of time and space. All the instructions, all the practices -- millions of pages of teachings, voices talking ceaselessy, the dharma spoken all over the world, like the wind in the leaves -- and the advice of friends, well-meant and intelligent -- but they all fall dumb at the critical place. The infinite regress of motivation.

So wait. Back up, Dale. Are you really saying that? Is there a time when the desire is gone but the clarity is unlit, when there is motion but no motive?

You're scaring me. But I get good advice, sometimes, and it's like standing outside of a locked car, with someone giving me all sorts of perfectly true and useful advice about how to drive.

Yes. Yes, I'm sure that's true. Yes, I most definitely appreciate your good-will, and your learning, and your experience. But the problem is not that I don't know how to drive. It's that I can't get in the car.

The orthodox answer, I think, and probably the true one, is that there is no motion without motive. I'm just not looking closely enough. Or I'm looking in the wrong place. Or, most likely of all, that I can't see the key, because it's clenched in my fist.

But mind, now -- that seems reasonable, yes, but I can't see that it's true. My experience doesn't ratify it. It assumes that fear is a chameleon. Open my hand, and look! It looks like my hand -- but only because this creature is sitting on the key, cunningly disguised as the palm of a hand. How likely is that? Well, I think we've already established that likelihood is not going to be a useful test of truth, in this situation. Whatever the answer is, it's going to be improbable.