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.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Less than Kind

Like cool dark green underwater light, wavering and winking, it seems now -- at the time it was brilliant steady sunlight on a bright green lawn. Or so I suppose. How would one know? Santa Cruz. 1982?

"I can't promise you duration," I said, "but I can promise you intensity." I remember the words exactly. My precision pleased me.

I so prided myself on honesty, back then. Well -- I was young. I thought truth and accuracy were the same thing.

I didn't know the names of flowers. She scolded me -- "How can you like the English Romantics so much and not know your flowers? You don't even know what they're talking about!" Hah. If she had known. That was only the top of it. If she had known how deep down that ignorance went, how much of the world I knew only by names I had read in books, she might have been more careful of me.

Or maybe not. She wore a "Born Free" t-shirt frequently. I guess there was always that streak of the girlish and sentimental. A willingness to be deceived. Now it all floats in that greenish, wavering light of my memory. I can't tell where the truth was. I only know there wasn't much of it in me.

I listened to John Hartford a lot that that summer. He sang:

... I never regretted a love affair,
'Cept for one, and that's all over.
I worried about it a little bit
But that's all.

I don't think I want to get into the wholesale regret business. But I wish I had understood better how to be kind. That was always most of what I wanted. That was my heart-connection to Percy Shelley.

... when the power of imparting joy
Is equal to the will, the human soul
Requires no other Heaven.

And we made similar blunders, pursuing that power. We always liked power too much, Percy and I. "While yet a boy I sought for ghosts..." -- you bet he did. So did I.

But the cold truth of the matter is that no one has the power of imparting joy. That's not one of the human powers. We can stand in its light or get out of the way. That's it.

That's been maybe the hardest lesson for me to learn, over the past twenty-some years. To be a lover, a guru, an artist, a saint -- someone who can impart joy -- is all I ever aspired to. My life feels weak and broken-backed without that aspiration. But now that I've put it aside, I hope I can at last learn something about how to be kind.

Monday, September 05, 2005


My Official Buddhist Sermon

Should we be angry about it?

I have had variations on this conversation for years. Since I'm an official, card-carrying Buddhist, I generally take the position you might expect. "We have a right to be angry!" sounds to me like "we have a right to take poison!" I suppose we do -- though I find the language of "rights" increasingly perplexing -- but why would we want to?

But lately I've realized that the question "should we be angry?" is the wrong question. Because people never ask it until they are angry. No one reads the latest news from the Gulf Coast and says, "hmm, I wonder if I should be angry about that?" and cooly decides whether to become angry or not. It doesn't work that way. We're all angry. I've been white with anger, from time to time. Before meditation last night, talking privately with the teacher, I saw his lips compress and his face go taut as he spoke of "those torture camps they set up." This is a man who's practiced for a long time, just coming back from a retreat in India. He doesn't believe anger is useful either. Fat lot of difference that makes.

So let's take the question of "should we be angry?" and just put it on the shelf. Start from where we are.

There are two real questions. One is, "what do we do with our anger now?" My answer to that, is, be aware of it. Don't cultivate it. Don't go looking for more fuel to feed it. Let it drain as it can. Know that it's distorting your understanding of this, and of everything. It always does that.

The other question is, "should we put up with it?" And my answer to that is, certainly not. Somebody should have done something to get people out. And it should not have taken five days for help to arrive. Nothing about being a Buddhist means I have to say that what happened was okay. Some people need to be fired. Some priorities need to be changed. This must not happen again.

Anger may keep us motivated to change things, but it will also be clouding our judgement. We have to stay aware of that. All the objects of our anger tend to melt together in our minds. We will tend to lash out at whoever and whatever we were already angry at. We will tend to uncritically accept stories about their wickedness, no matter how improbable, and pass them on eagerly. We'll want to shout people down, bellow "no excuses!" just when the most valuable and telling explanations are forthcoming. I think it's terribly important not to trust our anger, not to rely on it. It is not our friend.

We're likely to cling to our anger. There's something very attractive about its simplifying fire. We'll want to feed it. We'll want to go scanning the world for further proofs of the wickedness of our enemies, to brood on the misery they have caused, to make sure none of our anger runs away and none of its simplicity is compromised. That is the thing I think we must work hardest against. We can't make the anger go away. Whether we should or not is irrelevant. It's here. But what we must not do is treasure it and try to lock it inside ourselves. When it begins to run out, let it go.

We'll be afraid that our motivation to change things will run out with it. But it won't -- and especially it won't, if we have done some work from the start to keep our intention and our anger separate.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Halfway home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea.

May all beings be without suffering.

Friday, September 02, 2005


Because when I go looking for who's to blame, I go looking for particular kinds of answers.

Because when I find who's to blame -- oddly enough, almost always somebody I already blame for something -- the emotional energy goes out of the question. I won't go looking for more. I've solved the whodunnit, come to the end of the narrative. Now's the time to relax with other people who also blame them, and think up sarcastic commentary.

Because when I stop there, I stop precisely at the verge of discovering something genuinely new. To wit -- what would my world have to look like, how would I have to understand it, what would I have to dread and desire in order to act as the people I'm blaming act? Until I reach that, not just intellectually, but with the heart, so that I'm spontaneously, unforcedly responding to them with compassion, I have solved nothing and understood nothing. Because the problem is not to identify who's at fault. The problem is to persuade them to do something else. And no one is ever persuaded of anything by someone who regards them as a villain. "Persuasion" in that case is is coercion. If you want to take that route, you'd better make sure you're faster and better-armed, more numerous and better organized, than the villains. Because you can confidently assume that they consider you to be to blame for the problem, for just as long a list of reasons, which they believe with just as much conviction.

Coercion is to my mind the last resort. Not only because I have conscientious objections to it, but because solutions resting on coercion are inherently unstable. They tend to come undone.

So that's why. Because to go looking for who's to blame is to go looking for coercive solutions.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

In which I swear and don't post about the Hurricane

Why would I speak about that, adding to the blare of meaningless noise? It's the trumpeting of a media beast, nothing more, and nothing less. I will not try to make words and thoughts about it.

And especially I will not take a hand in the meticulous allocation of blame. I don't give a flying fuck whose fault it is. Once again the vast machinery lurches into motion, millions of people shrieking and pointing their fingers, dancing with rage. The people of the world show a remarkable unanimity, about the cause of this disaster. Everyone agrees that it turns out to be the fault of the very same people whom they already held responsible for the evil of the world! Astonishing! Who could ever have guessed!

I refuse to care more about this suffering because it is a spectacle, than I care about the daily quiet worldwide agony of those sickening, starving, and being threatened and beaten without benefit of television camera. This is a drop in the bucket. Turn off your fucking television and tend to your own sick and homeless. You've got plenty of them.