Saturday, September 30, 2006

If Winter Comes


Hot sweet almond oil, cane sugar, and flies
Throbbing like a plucked cello string:

The Fall
Sinks toward winter.


Mr Keats is dead,
Drowned in Mr Shelley's pocket;
The winged boat scuds empty
Over the Italian sea.

Build a fire on the beach,
And burn the poet's heart.
It is only a muscle, after all,
The size of a fist.

A fist that will not shake
Against Castlereigh anymore;
But we will never shut up,
Do what you will.


Why should I say
Goodbye to ghosts?
They will tell the truth
When no one else will.


1. According to Poets' Graves,

Shelley was drowned in the Gulf of Spezzia while sailing to meet Leigh Hunt. Shelley's body washed ashore several days later and was cremated on the beach at Via Reggio with Lord Byron, Leigh Hunt and Edward Trelawny in attendance. His heart, which refused to burn, was first passed to Hunt who later gave it to Mary Shelley.

When Shelley's body was found, a copy of Keats' poetry was discovered in his pocket - doubled back - as though it had been put away in a hurry.

The present poet has apparently misremembered the story, and has the party on the beach keeping the body and burning the heart.

2. Poems referred to include Keats' ode To Autumn and Shelley's Ode to the West Wind & Masque of Anarchy.

3. The astute reader will also recognize more oblique references to the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty and to the contemporary Cassandra Pages and Frizzy Logic.

I've received an extraordinary gift. It left me speechless. Take a look.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


At first, just a huge relief. But now, surprisingly, I find myself angry, in a diffuse and uncomfortable way. Certainly the company has not ripped me off -- if anything, I've ripped them off; I don't think they've gotten their money's worth out of me. And they're better than many companies. But still it seems weird to me that no one even noticed I was struggling, for the past five years. I've been in a great deal of mental pain for years. No one ever knew that. No one ever attempted to know it, that I can think of. I don't fault anyone in particular, but -- what a strange way to organize work, so that a person can float through it like a phantom, part of nothing, speaking to no one, sinking farther and farther down into a murky substrate of objectless anxiety -- and no one even knows it.

Not that they would have known what to do about it. Not, at any rate, the Europeans or Americans. My Indonesian project manager, the one in Toronto, is the only one who has had a human response to this. He wanted me to take time off, rest. He has the concept that injured things need to heal, and need to be treated gently and kindly. I feel terribly grateful to him, not just for the sympathy, but also for making me feel that my sense that somehow life at work ought to proceed differently isn't just a mental disease. If I had had a manager like him earlier, who knows how my relationship with this work would have developed? At this point, though, I feel such revulsion to software that I can't picture ever working in the industry again.

Of course, at every step I've chosen isolation. I've chosen to have no friends at work. I've chosen not to tell people I'm struggling. But my recent experiences have told me that, for the most part, I was right. There was nothing to win by saying it, and plenty to lose. My two bosses, one from Montana, one from Paris -- if they understand where I am, they don't have a language for it. I talk to them, and they are clearly groping in the dark. When I say that my work does no one any good, they seem completely baffled, as though to want to do people good was a bizarre desire; maybe sick, maybe infantile, I don't know, but in any case, inappropriate to express at work. More than anything else, I think, I am an embarassment. In all these years I still haven't learned how to blend in with these people. I can't speak their language.

I'm making them sound unkind, and they're not. They're not unkind. They are just so foreign to me, and I to them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Well, I did it. Gave my two weeks' notice at work today.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


Red sky burns to ash
around the New Moon's cradle.
Ramadan begins.


I don't know how to bring the streams together, these two extraordinary teachers, each shattering my life but each with a different idea of what happens next. I think I need to be very quiet, and listen to a lot of silence.

I heard the first bell, signalling the end of meditation tonight. But after the dedication prayer, Jef struck the bell so softly that I couldn't hear it, could only hear the silence struck softly, three times. Put my hands together and bowed. Then laid my hands down in my lap, palms up, the fingers loosely interwoven, and looked at them, for a long time.

A lonely tumult in the clouds.

I am grateful, though I don't understand.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Soothing Down

I remember one time in graduate school, as a tutor, having a conference with a student of mine in the grad student lounge -- we tutors had no offices, so we found space where we could. A British friend of mine, a fellow grad student, was sitting on a couch at the far end of the room. My student had dissolved into tears, because I was giving her a B in her writing class. She was a senior, she wanted to be a writer, and this was the end of all her hopes. I was soothing her down, talking her through it, explaining that getting a B in your writing class at Yale did not sink your writing career, assuring her that I certainly thought she could be a writer, she had a talent for it, there were plenty of people working as respected writers whose work I would give worse marks than I gave her essays, a B was a good grade, a Yale degree was a slam-dunk, she had limitless opportunities ahead, and so on. We spent about half an hour at this, she periodically sobbing. I was vaguely aware of my friend's escalating discomfort. He shifted and squirmed and finally bolted from the room. When he finally returned -- after she was safely gone -- my friend looked at me wonderingly, shaking his head. "I can't believe you sat through that," he said, "I wouldn't have lasted five minutes."

I'm not sure whether he was admiring my fortitude or deploring my idiocy. But it struck me forcibly, because it had simply never occurred to me that a person might do anything else. I thought it was my job as a teacher to soothe her down, but moreover, much more importantly, it was simply my job as a person. It didn't matter whether I liked it -- of course I didn't like it -- but that's what you do with people who are upset. I don't know what my friend would have done -- told her to stop? Sent her away? -- but whatever it might have been, it was entirely outside my conception of the possible.

Emotions first. We've always lived that way, in my family, my wife's family, and "our little family." When someone's wrought up, upset, in tears, we drop everything and just soothe them and pet them and calm them down. And I think it's a good policy, in general. people in that state aren't good for much. Certainly not much good for thinking. Oh, they think they can think, just as drunks think they can drive. But they can't.

But I wonder. I wonder if we've wandered too far down this road. Thinking of how often I hear myself and others in my family say, "I just couldn't..." -- couldn't make the phone call, couldn't keep on working, couldn't talk to my sister. Whatever it is; it doesn't matter. I'm just wondering whether we haven't granted "being upset" too wide a dominion. Does it really have to incapacitate us? Do we always have to attend to it? Does it always come first?

Just wondering. There are many many ways to be in the world. I forget that, over and over.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wind Blowing Backward

Sadness turns stiffly in a slow circle
And settles again, an old dog in its bed.

For all the stories that I tell, there is still
The ruthless scour of time. I am getting older.
And these discontents will still be here
When they're overtaken by the discontents
Of nursing homes and broken hips.

The wind is blowing backward today
From summer into winter.
Love grows in the spaces between maple leaves,
In the quiet interstices of the mind,
In the hollows between my fingers.
It grows in the lungs
Between the inbreath and the out.
It grows in the shadows of blades of grass,
In the dark of closed junk drawers,
In the pockets of coats that disclose
Unexpected shells.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Dirty River

We came down, down to the brown river, where the pungent smell of the alder-sap mixed with the reek of dead fish and a whiff of motor-oil to make a smell that I would remember all my life as river-smell. The Willamette was a dirty, dying river in those days.

We played fox and hounds, galloping down the packed-earth trails, finding passages through the blackberries, maybe -- or maybe not -- and finding also strange, disquieting things; beer bottles, odd bits of clothing, crumpled mercenary magazines, .22 shells, charred skeletons of unskillfully, unsafely made fires. Things you didn't find in the deep wild, where we usually went. We were in alien country, and it made me uneasy.

It is the anomalies, of course, that mark the memory. The day that I leaned over, high up on Mt Washington, looking about five hundred feet as nearly straight down as makes no matter -- that happened far more often, but I remember very little of all that. I remember that one time only because it was anomalous too. I was very hungry, and it was the first time, in my years of climbing, that I lost my head for heights. Before that, looking five hundred feet down had been no different from looking across five hundred feet of flat valley floor. I was scornful of people who fussed about it. You were no likelier to fall off a five hundred foot drop than you were to fall off a porch. Why make a to-do about it? But this time I clung to the rocks, and Mt Washington rocked underneath me, and I looked down in fascinated horror, knowing that my will could not resist the inexplicable necessity of falling. I held still. The moment passed. But I would never be completely sure of my head for heights again.

So. What were we doing, so close to home? I don't remember. I only remember the fear. There was a dread behind the whole thing, a sense that something was wrong. Fox and hounds. Even the name of the game was wrong; we were not a hunting family.

Looking back, I think I know what it was. It must have been my mother, just after the divorce, out on a date. We were all of us indulging, guiltily, in pleasures my father would have disapproved of. Playing at blood sports. Going to a city park instead of to the wilderness; playing by the dirty river rather than hiking in the pristine woods. We were having fun. But we were also witnessing the destruction of our world, the collapse of our certainties. We would never be safe again.
Loving Everybody

You don't have to love everybody. You don't even have to like everybody.

Recently I've heard a couple people say ruefully that if they were enlightened, they would serenely and sincerely love even their most irritating relatives. They'd want to spend time with them. I find this a little puzzling. Why? Do we really have reason to think so?

The emotional life of a buddha is a mystery, really. We have no idea what emotions a buddha experiences. We don't even really know what emotions feel like to a buddha. One thing I think we can be pretty confident of is that a person who was really completely egoless would experience the world, and emotion, in a radically different way. Are we really sure a buddha would be fond of her exasperating sister? And if so, what the subjective experience of that fondness would be? I don't think so. I don't think we really know a thing about it.

We know that a buddha acts benevolently toward everybody. We infer, naturally, that she must therefore be having the emotional experience that would motivate us to be benevolent -- i.e., that she's fond of everybody. But I don't think this is a valid inference.

It's important to get this straight, because it can be a real obstacle to practice, and I think an unecessary one. Yes, we must cultivate compassion. Yes, we must seek to dismantle our aversions. We do practices to discover and nurture our loving feelings towards people, including our enemies. But does that mean we have to be fond of them all the time? That "carrying our practice in our daily life" entails always feeling affectionate toward people who hurt us, or hurt people we care about?

Well, I hope not, because I'm certainly not going to do that. In fact, I'm not even going to try to do that. My experience of trying to generate emotions is one of uniform failure. Worse than that: although I fail to produce the desired emotion, I succeed in producing a lot of resentment. Resentment at the person, because now, in addition to what irritated me before, they're now the occasion for me seeing what a bad Buddhist I am. And resentment of the Dharma, because it asks something of me that I can't do. This is not a good outcome. I need to have a good relationship with the Dharma. I need to feel it's something that will make me happy.

We need to be very clear about what the Dharma really asks of us. We do need to cultivate compassion. We do need to try to hold benevolent intentions toward every sentient being. We do need to practice not believing in the stories about people we generate when we're angry at them, the stories about their malice and perfidy and so on. But we don't have to be fond of them. We don't have to invite them to lunch. And we certainly don't have to want to invite them to lunch.

There are practices in which one visualizes showering one's enemies with benefits. And in which we try to see with our enemies' eyes, and to understand that if we felt and perceived exactly what they feel or perceive, we would behave in exactly the same way. There is huge value in these practices. But they are not, if you look at them closely, practices of generating affection. They're practices of generating understanding. Maybe if we understood everyone perfectly, we'd be fond of them all. Maybe not. I don't know. I suspect the question wouldn't even arise. We would naturally act to relieve their suffering, just as we naturally act to relieve our own.

But affection, as we know it, is all tangled up in what Buddhists call "attachment." We like people because they say nice things to us, make us feel good, gratify our desires, and make us feel generally reinforced and safe and approved of. We are told that there is also, in the mix, something that is different, a compassion that has no reference to these pleasures, a love with no reference to self. But we are not very good at distinguishing it from the love that does depend on pleasure, and does refer to ourselves. So when we try to generate affection for people, what we mostly end up doing is trying to pretend that they make us feel good, when in fact they make us feel lousy. That sort of pretense is not a sound foundation for any kind of practice.

We don't really know how to generate the emotions of a buddha. We don't even really know what they are. Which is all right. We go on practicing compassion, we go on practicing discernment. Our job is not to feel anything in particular. Our job is to be kind, where it will do some good, and -- above all -- to learn to see clearly. The feelings will take care of themselves.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Distinctively Human

I am studying a fabulous book, Trail Guide to the Body by Andrew Biel and Robin Dorn. It will be my kinesiology text this winter. I'm busily memorizing muscles and where they attach to bones, their "origins" and "insertions," as they're called. As always a new nomenclature has its delights and its mysteries -- the selection of which end to call the "origin," supposedly the end that attaches to the bone that holds more or less still, perplexes me sometimes. Obviously both bones move, and which will hold more still depends on what you're doing. And instead of calling the attachment at the other end the "destination," they use this queer word "insertion," which makes it sound as though the muscles thread into holes in the bones. Which they don't.

The Latinate and Greekish words don't bother me; it's nice to have a standard terminology, so that, theoretically, American and Latvian and Malay and Zambian bodyworkers could all have the same names for these things. But this advantage is lessened by the outlandish English pronunciations of the terms. Stresses fall apparently randomly, c's are softened into s's according to whim, short vowels are made long and long made short. It's neither Latin nor Greek nor English, but a strange thing all its own.

But I digress. The book is wonderful, with terrific illustrations, written in lively, clear prose. And it's playful. Among the illustrations of the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles of the neck, the prominent ropes that run down from the ear to the sternum, is an old engraving of Byron with his head torqued sideways, with the SCM highlighted in red. The legend beneath runs: "Lord Byron shows off his SCM."

Biel delights in pointing out what is distinctively human. He notes that the commonly-held notion that an opposable thumb is uniquely human is quite false -- many primates have an opposable thumb. Ours is just longer and more heavily muscled. But there are many distinctively human traits. One is the copious fatty tissue of our buttocks. No one really knows what it's there for. Another is that we, alone among primates, can't grasp objects with our big toes.

When I was studying science in school, long ago, we were told that our large brains and opposable thumbs were what set us apart from other animals: we were (so ran the obvious implication) uniquely gifted in thinking and manipulation. But this was a selective filtering of traits, and not even a correct one. You come away with a different picture if you pick other traits -- we're the primates with fat asses, and the ones who can't keep a grip with our feet. No wonder we're always trying to "save" labor (by making someone or something else do it). And no wonder we lose touch so easily with the ground.

Addendum, December 2006

"Make it as simple as possible," Einstein famously said, "but no simpler." After a couple months of studying with Biel & Dorn's book, I'm a little disenchanted. Every once in a while Biel tries to make things simpler than they can be. In a couple cases this leads him to say something that is clear and easy to remember, but which is unfortunately not true. Hopefully he'll fix these things in the next edition. It's still a great book for hands-on learning your way about the body, and I'd still recommend it for that: but if Netter's atlas says something different, listen to Netter. The extensor pollicis brevis does not extend the interphalangeal joint of the thumb -- it doesn't even cross that joint. And the extensor carpi radialis brevis inserts at the lateral epicondyle, not the lateral supracondylar ridge. These are inaccuracies of only an inch or two. But an anatomy text, even a friendly informal one, should not say things that aren't true.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Qarrtsiluni has moved. I don't think I mentioned that I have another "short short" up there, the last of the short shorts. The new theme is "education." Send 'em something!

I'm also very honored to have my poem "Meiosis" appear in Sage Cohen's Weekly Poem. Sharing space with Rumi and Jack Gilbert makes me feel very proud and quite ridiculous.

I've been reading up on massage as a career and came across references to the national convention of a massage therapy organization. And found myself thinking of it with great enthusiasm. What a terrific thing! Think of all the people you could meet, all the cool stuff vendors would have on display, the contacts you'd make and the things you'd learn! & I remembered then being sent to some software convention in Seattle, a few years ago, and finding it all horribly off-putting and boring, and wondering what on earth it was being held for. And I realize now, it must have been exciting to some people -- to the people who really belong in software -- in just that way.

Even more extraordinary, I have been speculating about various ways to advertise myself and "gain visibility" with pleasure. This is really bizarre. I have always hated that sort of thing with a passion, and efforts to induce me to do such stuff -- to give papers and be on panels and do demos and what-not -- on the part of my employers or advisors, has always made me surly and mutinous. But there's a huge difference between selling yourself as something you aren't, so you can do something you don't want to do, and selling yourself as something you are so you can do something you do want to do.

In prospect, anyway. Will it be so in reality?

Well -- I'll find out.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Oregon is burning. At every horizon there is an uncanny bloom of haze, whose color defies description. Yellowy-lilac. A blurred mass of noncolorfast cohorts of the Assyrian, coming down like the wolf on the fold. The sun arrives jaundiced at the ground.

I suppose a lot of you don't know the smell of forest fires. It's a pleasant enough smell, itself, while the fires are distant, if you don't know what it means.

I spent some time this morning poring over detailed maps of Portland, looking for the stitched lines of railroads. There were none nearby, which is what I thought. So I am perplexed. Last night was hot and we had the windows open. And, as often, I heard the sound of trains running over tracks, the hollow booms of containers landing on loading docks, the heavy vibration, where sound shades into sensation, of wheels hitting joins in steel rails. But there are no trains. The nearest is miles away, near the river.

A few weeks ago the house rocked slowly, like a ship. Yet another earthquake.

One of the hottest summers in memory. A week or two ago I was surprised to see a sight I associate with June: between the slabs of a sidewalk, ants boiling up, a mass of red-glinting brown. Spilling over. A late hatch.

In the indefinite haze thunderclouds imagine themselves, and vanish, as I remember them doing in Texas. They don't belong here. They're not Oregon clouds.

It's time to go dead slow, and watch carefully, holding our souls carefully in our cupped hands. This is no time to be clever.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson

"Gene Robinson," says the back-of-the-book blurb, "is the first openly gay bishop in Christendom and his election has set off a worldwide firestorm of reaction...."

This book moved me twice to tears. Once very early on, in the prologue, in which the author describes her own confirmation, and its intimation of a promise which she -- shortly thereafter moving away from the church, and spending decades away from it -- would not learn to understand or fully receive for many years:

That confirmation day was the last time I would ever wear a white veil, and I would not make an unconditional promise to obey anyone or anything again until I made my way back to the church and to a differently-understood God many, many years later.

But something did happen at that altar rail, something I could not undo or escape. I felt it happen when the bishop laid his hands on my head and said:

Defend, O Lord, this thy child Beth with thy heavenly grace, that she may continue thine for ever, and daily increase in thee more and more, until she comes to thy everlasting kingdom.

I had no idea what that prayer meant. I responded to its poetic language and cadence, and to its calm formality, but sensed something more: a convenant, a promise.

This book has a hero. He's aged and old-fashioned, sometimes intolerably complacent, and sometimes over-involved in his financial well-being and daily comforts, but at times -- and especially at crises -- transcendently noble and awe-inspiring. I'm speaking of course not of Bishop Robinson, who is none of those things. Robinson is a thoughtful, engaging, generous-spirited man of great ability and great faith, of whom one grows very fond in the course of reading this book. But he's not the hero of it. The hero is the American Episcopal Church. Again and again it rises to the challenges presented to it. This is the second passage that moved me to tears. It's Robinson speaking about the Convention in which his election was confirmed:

"I was seated in the House of Bishops right before the end of Convention," he said, "and at the first break, one of the bishops who had voted against me and had stood up with the group who said, 'This is the worst thing that's ever happened in the history of the church,' came over and knelt down beside my chair and said, 'Hello, I'm Bishop So-and-So from the diocese of So-and-So.' He said to me, 'When you were introduced to the House today, I neither stood nor applauded like the others did, and two minutes later I was thinking, "What a lousy way to begin a relationship." So I hope you'll forgive me. And this is going to be really hard for me, but I'm going to work as hard as I can.'"

To me, the central story of this book is not Robinson's personal story. It's the story of a community of faith taking its ideals and its communion seriously. Churches need not be -- though they too often are -- clubs of like-minded people congratulating each other on their spiritual correctness. They can be communities that challenge their members to transcend their prejudices and interests, to leave the comforts of their certainties, to bring each other to face the fact that what they profess and and what they do don't match up.

The inspirational story here, to me, is the story of people determined to do the right thing, the vestries and volunteers who worked to make "a church with no outcasts," and the clergy who understood, however uncomfortably, that a church of Jesus has to be a church of radical inclusion. Robinson summed it up:

"We have those big red, white and blue signs that say 'The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.' And unless we're going to put an asterisk after that and in fine print list the people we don't really mean it about, then we better start acting that way."

If you read the Cassandra Pages you'll be entirely unsurprised at the unobtrusively beautiful writing here. You will also recognize the passion for inclusion -- which includes her opponents. She never travesties or belittles the opposition, and there is never a hint of triumphalism. At his consecration Robinson said, "There are many faithful, wonderful Christian people for whom this is a time of great pain, anger and confusion. God is served by our being loving to them."

Once at my sangha, Lama Michael was asked a question -- I forget the exact question now, but it was about not being a Christian in a Christian society. And after his usual long pause, he began his answer by saying, "Well, I'm not entirely sure that I'm not a Christian." This book engenders a similar uncertainty in me.