Sunday, December 30, 2007

What Matters

before Christmas

A gray and white sky of furled clouds, but to the northwest is a pool of clear silver: in it floats the moon, its blemished surface held within a circle that is breathtakingly pure. A moment later the clouds have curtained it, but it breaks loose once more before the sky closes altogether, and the dawn turns into ordinary day. I close my umbrella and board the bus.

I feel fragile and weak, as if I had been ill for months, rather than days.

I am reading -- nearly finished with -- Barchester Towers, and I am hoping that I do not resemble Bertie Stanhope as much as I think I do. Trollope does an extraordinary job of conveying family culture -- no one but Tolstoy, maybe, does it so well -- and the family I grew up in, after my parents divorced, certainly resembled the Stanhopes more than is comfortable for me: that family that is so good-natured and entertaining that it takes a good while for an acquaintance to realize that they have no hearts.

I do not believe in psychopaths: I do not believe that there are really people without hearts. But certainly there are people who so habitually disregard them as to lose track of them: and clever, rootless people who don't have to work for a living are peculiarly liable to do so. The work of my life has been to recover the heart I misplaced as a child and a teenager. This year it has been bruised and wrung enough for me to be quite sure that I have recovered it.

The last few weeks have been a strange shadow-life: all of my past has risen up to testify against me, and I move easily through the many masks I have worn, never quite sure who I am at the moment, nor which variation of living in hiding is going to sweep me up at any given hour: long-dead temptations arise, spectral and impotent -- fitting Christmas companions, though their power to haunt and compel is injured by their being such a crowd: they jostle and fluster and embarrass each other.

I am held up by the extraordinary kindness of friends. This time, ill-spent and idle as it is, has nevertheless been necessary, and I think that soon I will be through it. Until enlightenment I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and in the supreme assembly of the Sangha. In the Buddha: in the purity of my own heart, which I lost and disbelieved in for so long. In the Dharma: the teachings, from Nagarjuna to Tolkien, from Lao Tzu to Trollope, from the nun who ran the the Gestalt group at the New School to Michael at KCC. In the Sangha: the community of practitioners. Meaning many things, but certainly including all of you. For me, most importantly, including all of you.

Merry Christmas. Happy Solstice. The blessings of Sunreturn. However you celebrate it -- here's to the coming of light after darkness.

after Christmas

I can't say I write because I think it matters. I write for the same reason cats mark their territory, taggers tag, kids carve their names into their desks, and sorcerors pour their souls into their cut-off fingers, and hide them: always, always, the idea is to escape from death, to lodge oneself in something solider and safer than this trembling unstable flesh. And of course always the hope that, in some other, refracted form, I'll be more interesting than I am in -- as we say -- the flesh.

I am tired of it, this itch to be something other than a few decades' flickering pattern of a mammal: it's a stupid waste of time, surely.

(But the sky, the sky, the clouds and the moon and the sun and the stars and the silver dawn pools of brightness. I suppose the name for this feeling is reverence, or awe. It stands directly opposite the marking impulse.)

I am in the flesh, all the time, in this odd ursine frame, short on sleep and sniffling. I see myself in a shop window, say, darkly, and am disturbed by what I see -- an active white-haired man. Square shouldered and round bellied. He looks like nothing I associate with myself. Never has, though. That's nothing new.

I feel almost alive, almost real, when I'm touching someone. Otherwise, not much, not often. Cloud, sky, sun, moon, stars. Otherwise -- it's an artificial, unconvincing life, for the most part: I can't take it very seriously.

Othello's occupation's gone: that's what I'm really responding to here. I built my life around the service of eros, and if that's done with, then -- what am I to be? And more urgently, what am I to do? I can't look at the sky all day.

Well -- just the next thing that serves, I guess.

The grimly interesting thing is how much everything stays the same.

Ain't it funny how your new life didn't change things
You're still the same old girl you used to be.

For most of my life I've looked to eros to change things. It seldom did. It advertises itself as the way into a new life, and that of course is what it always means in Hollywood; but new lives aren't really entered into that easily.

The wish for a new life is a deep and powerful one, but it's almost -- as it's been configured in me -- a completely self-defeating one. Because with my heart and my attention set on a new life, I relegate this one to a restless idling in the waiting room. I don't fix anything here, I don't settle to anything here, because I'm not -- as I conceive it -- staying here.

But here, of course, is precisely where I live. A few months shy of fifty, and I still camp in my house, rather than living in it.

Having children, of course, contributed to this. Because everything with children is temporary, and there's no un-draconian way of stemming the inwash of useless and unbeautiful stuff into your house, when you have kids. But it has far more to do with the everyday habits of my heart and mind. I lived this way, camping out, long before I had children. I lived this way when I was a child myself. I never invested myself in the the houses I lived in. The work I was doing was never my real work.

It can look like equanimity, like an admirable lack of attachment, but mostly it's just rootlessness.

I have moved. I have moved to a genuinely new place. But it will take all my attention to stay here. I must watch and meet the waiting-room habits of mind, as they arise, where they arise.

This is a struggle partly to be made on the cushion. But even more, in the domos. I must, literally, put my house in order.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas in Texas

This is in response to last week's totally optional prompt, about a roadsign in empty country, which reminded me of our every-other-year journeys through the Southwest to have Christmas with my Dad's family in Texas.

The telephone wires ride their poles, up and down
The saguaros pivot slowly, hauling the car
Down the shimmering highway. We rise and fall
With the land that is no longer Oregon,
Not yet Texas.

Soon we will come to the end
Of the sweet high country of New Mexico.
My Dad will pull over to change his shirt,
And then we will arrive

In El Paso. My grandparents have a miracle,
a grapefruit tree, in their back yard.
My cousins call my uncle "sir,"
As if he were a stranger, not their father.
Dark Mexicans lurk in the parking lots.
We are not quite sure what is wrong about the Mexicans;
No one wants to talk about them.

But we drive across the border one day, so we kids
Can say we have been to Mexico. We are warned:
The Mexicans will try to steal from us and cheat us;
We are not to trust them. So we don't:
But their eyes are kind, dark and kind,
As we trail through the shops.

All the way home, I think about their eyes,
So different from our cold hard blue.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Italian for Christmas

I've been dabbling with Italian. I know not a word -- or didn't, until last week -- but I've been working my way through the Schaum's outline of grammar, the last couple days, with great pleasure. It's a curiously satisfying language, sitting easy in the mouth, requiring none of the pursing and gagging of French or the spitting and coughing of German. Just a mellowed and agreeable form of Latin.

The only thing that continually brings me up short is that a person who grew up with English and German expects 'h' in a consonant cluster to mark palatalization; the Italians, perversely, use it to mark the opposite. So "perche" is pronounced perkay, and "perce" -- if there is such a word -- would be pronounced perchay. No English-speaker, of course, is in any position to criticize other languages' spelling habits, but I wish they'd chosen a less outlandish way to represent hardening than by adding the consonant everyone else uses to represent softening.

I had picked up my Greek grammar, a couple weeks ago, but I didn't want something hard. I'm tired. I wanted something easy, that would make me feel smart. Italian was just the thing. Now I need to find something like an Italian translation of the Chronicles of Narnia, some simple children's text that I've read aloud a million times, to pick up vocabulary and idiom.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Suffering, and So Forth

On the one hand, the conviction that this alone is life, this alone has value, this, this right here, not the new life, not the purged man, not the sainthood to be, but only this, however banal, however ordinary. It is here or nowhere, now or never, it is here in the imprudent third dry oversugared pastry from its plastic tray, in the endlessly repeated computer game, in the procession of increasingly vapid images of appealing unclothed girls. This too, say the theologians of my sect, arises from Buddha-nature. What else is there, after all, for it to arise from?

On the other hand, the sense that drove Mole to the river (and thence to the Wild Wood), that inspired Sendak's dog on her travels -- "there must be more to life." It is as inescapable as the banality, twinned with it somehow. And I want to practice, I want to meditate, not to achieve some higher state of mind or even some lowering of the pitch of anxiety in my life, but just because of the stillness, because of hearing the drops of rain spattering the driveway, because there is a sensual pleasure in knowing that the heater will turn itself off in twenty minutes, back on again in another twenty minutes, even in watching the gentle, twitchy way my mind starts trying to persuade me that this time, this time there must be more than twenty minutes between cycles of the heater, and I could just look at the clock -- as if anyone would know or care!

So I began to expound an opposition but there isn't one, not really, and there is no choice between this and that. There is this immense fragility -- and everything does break -- but Buddha-nature is leaking into reality inevitably, despite, or rather because, of the breakages.

The suffering is huge. I have been reading, with impatience, an anthology of 20th Century French poetry. They seem to have the notion that their suffering is unlike everyone else's. Not all of them. But most of them do a remarkable job of cutting the contemplation of suffering off from its normal consequence of compassion. The truth of the matter is far more appalling than they think. If they knew, if they really knew, the whole thick rope of suffering that runs through the center of each human being, they would be stopped in their tracks. Each step we take is through a red trembling mist of desire and every floor is iced over with anxiety, and our bodies are, at the best of times, decaying and weakening and coming to pieces. You flee bourgeois life not to escape respectability and limited horizons, mon frere; you flee it because your little sister has cerebral palsy and and your aunt's spine is fusing into crook and you can't bear to look at them, and you want to run to where the people are all young, and the wounds are all self-inflicted.

We conceal our suffering from each other, and that is perhaps the worst disservice we regularly all do for each other, because it gives an absurdly false picture of "normal" life as pain-free. Clergymen, therapists, and doctors are some of the few people who are in a position to know just how much suffering, how much illness and agony and misfortune, are going on all the time. The rest of us walk around and see what we imagine to be the smug faces of self-satisfaction, rather than the laboriously maintained public expressions of people who are barely managing to get by.

The people who go into massage therapy are mostly young, and healthy. Part of our massage trades for classes was taking each other's health histories. The number of things wrong with these young healthy people was astonishing. Twenty-year-olds taking half a dozen prescription drugs, with chronic disabling back pain, agonising tendonitis, depression, bulimia, migraines, diabetes, frozen shoulders -- you name it. As the months went our histories all became much healthier, because we grew less scrupulous and more tired of listing everything out. My high blood pressure and cholesterol medicine disappeared; I noticed other people's TMJ and sleep apnea and arthritis and depression vanishing. But having glimpsed it all once, I had to look at everyone a little differently. Nothing in my massage practice since has led me to think there's less general suffering than that glimpse revealed.

I belong to a couple of mailing lists: one for my sangha, on which people regularly post requests for prayers for the seriously ill and the dying; another on which we are on such terms of intimacy that we speak of divorces, financial disasters, the serious illnesses ourselves or of our children, the descent of loved younger brothers into addiction , or of aging parents into Alzheimers. After a few years you begin to realize that these things are not -- as they would appear to each of us alone -- remarkable events, but the regular fabric of human life.

Life is suffering, said the Buddha: and of course we are quick to point out, rightly, that "suffering" is a technical term, there, that it includes a plethora of things that we would ordinarily class as pleasures. To someone able to parse it carefully the turbulence of mind involved in, say, eating lunch with a friend, the anxiously preserved and obsessively protected sense of self, the endless yammer of that imagined self for validation, makes the most pleasant lunch date largely an affair of suffering. True enough. But just in an ordinary way, the Buddha's assessment is just. We live, even we fortunate first-worlders far from the wars, in an ocean of pain.

Is this discouraging? Perhaps, to people of a more pollyanna-ish disposition than mine. To me it is profounding encouraging. The mess humankind has made of its own nest is one thing, if you think of it all as having been done by healthy carefree unencumbered people with time to look about them and think about things. It is a different thing if you think of it as having been done by people deep in trouble, worried about their friends and families, and very short on resources. In that case you might think it remarkable that things are not very much worse.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


This cold has been threatening to overtake me for months. I have felt it hovering, near or far, since summer at least. I was anxious, in the week or two before my boards; I desperately wanted not to be sick, then, and I stopped riding my bicycle or doing anything strenuous, so as not to give it any opportunity.

"Let me be as sick as anything, after my boards," I said -- to myself? -- "but let me get through them first." I felt a bit under the weather on the day of the exams, but not so much so that I couldn't conceal it.

After that, I threw caution to the winds. I almost wanted to be sick. I felt I had to be really sick, to stop the hovering.

Now, whether this has to do with physical reality, I couldn't say. It's not entirely implausible. But it's as a shadow-play that it's important, of course, and for that purpose it really doesn't matter how true.

I knew it was unwise to bike to Tosi's in the cold, last Tuesday. And to go ahead and do the massage Thursday night (I did warn my client, and offer to reschedule, but she wanted to go ahead.) So in a sense I brought this on myself. But I wanted to get sick and be done with it. Until my body understood this virus intimately, it might hover indefinitely. So I rode my bike and did my massage.

Now it's settled down into my chest. But my body is gradually getting the better of it. I feel marginally better than I did yesterday. It's learning to recognize the virus and coming to grips with it. When I get well, I will be really well.

There are times when prudence is my greatest enemy. It's better to fall and get up again, than to walk too carefully. I can't say even now, as the full suffering implicit in this year becomes plain to me, that I wish it had been different. I don't wish it had been different.

A silver light comes through the windows. A high, white overcast, and a faint luminous mist; light that comes from everywhere and nowhere. My diaphragm, the muscles between my ribs, and the serrati that bind them to the spine are sore from coughing, and my head throbs slightly.

I am intensely grateful for all of it, for this living, breathing, suffering body, for the love beyond imagination or desert.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


But in fact there was honey in the house: a half-inch in the bottom of a plastic bottle with a blue outline of Maine on the label. A gift to my daughter for looking after an African hedgehog for a college classmate. It had sat there a long time. The honey, I mean. The hedgehog had, too, but the hedgehog isn't part of my narrative.

The honey was quite solid. For honey is thixotropic: when cold and still it becomes more solid, but when warm and worked it becomes more fluid. It shares this property with various paints and, according to wikipedia, certain non-Newtonian pseudo-plastics. It also shares it with the connective tissue that accounts for some 20% of the human body, which is why (literally) warming up makes you less prone to injury during exercise.

And so the thixotropic nature of honey reinforces my vague homeopathic belief that it must be good for me, when I have a cold, and another thixotropic substance is make a nuisance of itself in my upper respiratory tract. I would believe this anyway, because Frizzy Rachel said so.

I ran the bottle under hot water and squeezed it. Then I poked a slender spoon in and got a dollop and stirred it into steaming hot water. And now I am drinking it, at 3:00 AM, and presently I may feel restored enough to go back to bed. And I think that "the Non-Newtonian Pseudo-Plastics" would be a good name for a band.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


In the middle of the circle, what my fellow-buddhists would call a shrine: an antlered skull, a candle, and stones arranged in a pattern: four little bear statuettes circled the pattern, one at each point of the compass. Sage burning.

We passed the talking stick, and talked about death, and grandfathers, and being out of work, and being deserted. When each person finished and handed the stick to the next, everyone would say "ah-oo," together -- or some sound like that -- a sound curiously like one of the pronunciations of "om" that I've heard, way down in the throat, the back-vowels coming straight up from the diaphragm.

And then the drums. I probably would not have come, but for the drums. I've never much sought the company of men; in fact, I've avoided it most of my life. But it seemed maybe time to change that. Having lunch with Rob, who invited me to the circle, was part of that.

But a bigger hurdle than the company of men was my distrust of White people doing Indian things. It has a couple components. One is much the same thing as my distrust of people in my sangha who seem too fond of Tibetan stuff, who take Tibetan names and swoon over anyone in a robe. "Spiritual tourists" is the unkind (and often unfair) name I attempt to refrain from applying to them. We have our own sacred traditions, lore, and iconography: why go sniffing after someone else's? -- Well, in my case, because I can't quite accept the bloody, vengeful, and jealous God of my fathers. I take the Tibetan paraphernalia because it comes with taking Michael's teaching and with the community of KCC. Some people, I suspect, take the community and the teaching because it comes with the Tibetan paraphernalia.

But in the Indian case, there's a the further complication of the conquest and occupation, which is not (the way I reckon time) very far in the past. After having practiced haphazard genocide against these people for hundreds of years, and having appropriated their land, going on now to appropriate their sacred rites, as well, seems like the crowning effrontery, the ne plus ultra of imperialism.

Not that I was very sure of whose rites we were appropriating. The leader of the circle, Patrick has some Mingo blood. I had a notion that the drums and sage and talking stick were Plains Indian things -- though most people drum, one way or another. Patrick referred to Black Elk as an authority. I suppose that modern Americans, in any case, must scrape up rites wherever they can find them, whatever their ancestry. When I traveled in rural Greece, people wanted to whether I was from New York, Chicago, or California; I eventually tired of trying to convince them that there were other places in America, and settled for being from California. In more or less the same way, I suppose, native North Americans end up settling for being Sioux or Navajo.

But I digress. The drums. I love drums; always have. I have a small, sweet-toned conga that I play occasionally. But I've almost never drummed in company, though it's always been an attractive idea to me. I've been too shy, or too careful of my dignity.

The drumming began almost casually, little disconnected thumps and rolls, like an orchestra tuning up. Gradually it coalesced into a magnificent music, quite unlike anything I've ever heard. People came in and out of focus, took up different drums and sticks and clangy and chirpy things. Patrick owns a drum-shop, and the wealth of drums to choose from was intoxicating, though I was too timid, that first night, to try any but my own.
Blue Star

More reshpeckobiggle.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Okay, I confess, it's kind of groovy. Like, you know, something I would have put on my wall in 1971 when I was thirteen. But I sure am having fun with Inkscape.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Dear One

Our basement has never been entirely dry. With the recent heavy rains, it's been wet again. And a cardboard box of my old papers, Martha told me, had gotten wet.

So I went down and opened it up. Cold and clammy. On the top was a flimsy manuscript box. I lifted its lid. "Appolonius of Tyre," I read. The title page of my second novel. I flipped through the pages. This wasn't the first time, obviously, it had gotten damp. Black mold spotted the upper left corners of the pages; a noxious dust rose from it. I put it aside, made a little queasy, and not by the dust. Presumably my first novel was in here somewhere too.

Old student evaluations. Papers I wrote at Yale on metrics and metonymy. A paper, God help us, on Lao Tzu, written when I was sixteen and going to Lane Community College in Eugene.

Christ. More manila folders. One fell open and I lifted out a closely filled handwritten card. Who on earth was it to? I couldn't read the salutation. "Dear Orn"? Who on earth was that? I read a little, and got accustomed to the hand. Of course. Mary Pat, from grad school, twenty-some years ago now. "Dear One," it began. She was a southerner, who specialized in 18th Century lit, and used that epistolary language of passionate friendship. It must have been written during the summer after our first year in graduate school.

I found her online -- at least I think it was her; her name is fairly common -- and wrote her an email, a couple years ago. She never replied.

I paused. Hundreds, probably thousands of pages. I could look through them, and savor the melancholy of it all. Obviously I once thought I would want to. Or even that somebody else would want to.

I shut the box up and came back upstairs. "Let's just toss it," I said to Martha.

The cold rain keeps falling, here. Floods up north, and towards the Coast.

With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain
For the rain it raineth every day
With a hey, ho, the wind and the rain
For the rain it raineth every day.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


In the morning my breath
smokes in the air; in the evening
the gold crumbled flakes of the maple leaves
are a glittering dust in the ebbing sun,
the breath of the dreaming earth.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Held by the Forest

I was eleven years old, maybe. I was running pell-mell down a steep path, on the far side of the Hill. Bounding, flying, down the slope.

Abruptly I found myself in empty space. A dirt road cut deeply, unseen, across the path. A moment later I struck the ground with both feet, cartwheeled, and slammed against the leafy floor.

It was suddenly very quiet. The breath was not quite knocked out of me: I could take little sips of air. I lay on my back, quite still. I felt no pain. Both my ankles were quietly reporting zero functionality.

I felt I was floating, as I lay there. Unmoored. Calmly I thought it through. I was about a mile from home. I could crawl that far, if need be. Was anyone home? I couldn't remember. It didn't matter. Someone would be, eventually. The worst-case scenario wasn't so bad. If my back was okay, anyway.

In the meantime, the forest held me. High up, a broken twig rocked against the sky. Every so often a leaf came loose and batted its way down to the ground, with a soft sound like the rustle of a dress.

After a few hours, as it seemed -- I expect it was a couple of minutes -- I could take full breaths. I began cautiously moving my head, my arms, my legs. Taking inventory. Was my back really all right? Apparently so.

My ankles were numb. But I could move my feet. Did that mean they weren't broken? I wasn't sure. But a mile was a long way to crawl.

So I stood up. I had very little sensation in my feet, and it was hard to balance on them: I was standing on numb, useless stubs. But I could walk, with care, with a motion more like wading than walking. Climbing back the way I'd come was out of the question. This road ran south: it had to meet with the back loop eventually. I moved slowly along it.

Sure enough. I found myself in the back loop. A fairly level, fairly straight shot to home. Pins and needles in my ankles now. My feet could tell me a little, now, about the surfaces they encountered.

By the time I had limped home, full sensation was back. Oddly, I don't remember that it ever hurt, then or later.

No one was home. I never told anyone about it. It had been stupid, galloping down an unknown path. I didn't care for anyone to know how foolish I'd been. And my freedom to wander was precious to me. Best not to give anyone the idea that I might come to grief out there.

And anyway, I had been held, held by the forest.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


The first full sleep after many broken nights. I woke for an hour, and watched the moon climb carefully, twig by twig, over the maple tree. But I slept again. Diminished as I am, a small knot of mammalian warmth in that immensity of cold November air.

The white, deaf, dull-witted cat that fled from our neighbor's when her baby grew into a toddler old enough to catch it, and took up residence in our basement, is moving very slowly. Something bit him under the ear a couple days ago. The abscess burst last nights, and a trail of bloody lymph soaked his white neck, and spotted our quilt. He's skin and bones, under that white winter coat, and it seems impossible that he should live much longer.

The waning year. Already Christmas zealots have put up their lights. More is always better. Why just a Christmas day? Why not a Christmas month? That fatal American reasoning. Oh yes. I am every inch an American.

In the light fog, this morning, everything is soft, gentle, and sad. Tree trunks and telephone poles glow faintly through the shadows of leaf and shrub. Cars wash by on Sandy Boulevard, making a sound very like the sea; the tide of people going to work.

Gold is in my mind this morning: soft gold worked in intricate Celtic designs. I feel not just old, but ancient: something half-remembered from a medieval ballad, or the enigmatic mention of a lost back-story in an epic. A scholar comes upon a list of names in a language attested nowhere else, and he murmurs them over to himself, obscurely moved. I feel like one of those names: a last, faded glyph. A fragment of lost meaning.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New Leaves

I wonder, would it be too weird for a male bodyworker to specialize in pregnancy massage?

I massaged a couple pregnant women last week. The energy of a pregnant body is intoxicating. Everything's at a high burn. The tissues are fierce and exultant, like the new leaves of Spring: my fingertips start tingling six inches away from the skin. The body's not living for itself anymore. It's doing the most fundamental and necessary thing it ever does, biologically speaking, and every other consideration goes to the wall. It's painfully awake; just being near it wakes me up too.

Meanwhile the mechanical structure of the body is changing radically. The center of gravity is shifting. Ligaments are loosening, and at the same time carrying unaccustomed loads; muscles are working with stresses and at angles they've never handled before. Bodywork is clearly called for. My friend Lekshe tells me that in Nepal pregnant women get massage daily, as a matter of course. Seems ordinary common sense to me. There's not just the discomfort and knotting inevitable with unusual muscular exertion. All the body's proprioception has to be rewired: it literally doesn't know exactly where it is anymore. Massage is exactly what it needs.

I always feel grateful, when I get to do a massage. But especially so, in this case. The body is always a mystery, in the religious sense. Just a little more vividly so, when it's pregnant.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Objects of Delight

Full moon westering; Venus burning brilliantly, evenly, high in the east. I ride past frost-covered cars, my magnet-driven lights winking as I pedal.

I love these lights inordinately. A clever Englishman invented them: a light sits on each axle, and two magnets fixed to the spokes of each wheel drive a little generator as they swoop past it. Hey presto! Lights. No batteries to run down, or to buy, or to forget to buy. There has to be a certain amount of drag; but it's so slight that I can't perceive it. Lift the bike and spin a wheel, and it revolves with just as much apparent freedom as before. A capacitor keeps the lights still blinking for a few minutes after the wheels stop. I did the arithmetic and realized that these fifty-dollar lights would pay for themselves, just in the cost of batteries, within a few months. But the real savings, of course, is just in botheration.

I have been spending carefully, this year, and it gives me a new appreciation for objects. I bought a Sigg water bottle a few weeks ago. It is red, deep red, the reddest and most gorgeous red imaginable. It feels delightful on the mouth as you drink. I adore it.

And then there's the scarf knitted for me by a friend, of the most lovely varicolored wool. It's around my neck as I type now at Tosi's, soft, giving an overall impression of muted and subtle color, but, more carefully examined, glowing with vivid blues and greens and ochres and violets. I wear it as I ride, in this frosty weather. At my destination I will gradually shed gloves, hat, and jacket, as I potter about, but the scarf is always the last to come off, if it comes off at all.

I got my copy of Brilliant Coroners yesterday. It's a beautiful book. Last night I reread, slowly, the first three of its seventeen poets. And today I have been getting Rachel Barenblat's "Psalm for Tuesday" by heart:

It is easy to offer praises
when all the world is green
and gold, when the thrush
trills off and on, at ease
for long sweet minutes...

I have five poems in this book, including what I think are my two best ever ("Fall" and "Santiago.") I've seen my words in books before, but never with so much pleasure. Another object of delight.

I am no end of chuffed to have a place in this book. I am not a real poet. I do my best, but if I have a gift, it's for prose. But there are real poets in this book, poets I've admired for years now: Dave Bonta, Maria Benet, Rachel Barenblat. And poets I've learned to love more recently: Tom Montag, Dick Jones, Ivy Alvarez.

But to me the deepest delight of this book is to find collected the poetry of writers I don't ordinarily think of as poets: Anne-Mieke Swart, Peter Stephens, Rachel Rawlins, Jean Morris, Leslee Masten, Alison Kent, Natalie d'Arbeloff, Elizabeth Adams. And also the elusive, or downright unfindable, Teju Cole and B. E. Wing. They all have startlingly distinctive and mature poetic voices.

What do they all have in common? Well, they are nearly all in my circle of daily blog reads. But the book has, I think, a real unity, which consists of a shared sense that poetry is a form of service, or observance.

...But if I forget the losses
of my friends in the places
we call home and holy
May my poems dry up
Like an empty creekbed.

Noticeably absent is any whiff of the hothouse. These aren't poems written by people because they're trying to be poets; they're poems written by people because they had something to say.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Inkscape. It's free, and it's really cool. A vector drawing tool. These are the results of a few minutes' idle doodling with the "star shape" tool.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

All of a Piece

Well. Grieving. But I suppose I can, I suppose I must, take this as a gift. And the only way to do that is to take it as the invitation to make my life all of a piece.

A life with no hidden parts. With no reservations. No secret clauses in its treaties. No escape hatches. To be only and completely what I appear to be.

It will not be easy. I can feel already the stirrings of the temptations to seek out a new secret life. At present -- in the clarity offered by grief -- I can see them vividly, in all their grotesquerie. But the grief will fade, and so will the clarity. I must seal it with practice.

I don't think I could live through this again. I really don't. I'm too old. The stress of holding two loves was going to break me.

I will deny nothing, close no door, repudiate no one. We do the best we can, and we love who we love.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Exit Interview

"You're not really a doppelgänger though," I said, at length. "I mean no one could mistake you for me. You're blue."

"I am blue, it's true." He looked sadly at his lurid skin. "There's a red one too, you know. Have you seen him?"

"I've heard of him. I expect he'll be along."

He nodded. He ran his hand through his blue-tinged silver hair, and sighed. He was slumped there on the couch, almost horizontal. "So you're really sending me away."

I was trying to be patient with him, but he always was kind of a sad sack. Why women liked him so much, I couldn't say: I mostly found him irritating.

"Well, you know," I said, "there's really only resources for one of us."

"Only one of us. I suppose so." His eyes filled with tears. Oh, God. He was going to cry. "I gave you the best years of my life," he said.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," I snapped. "You mean you took the best years of your life. From me. When did you really ever give anything to anyone?"

He sighed again. "I meant to," he said, lugubriously. "Grant me that. I meant to."

"Well, you promised to, anyway. That's not quite the same thing."

He was stung and offended. "Hey, 'I told no lies, and all of the truth I could.' I mean, give me that, at least."

"You told a weird amount of truth, anyway. Just enough to make everyone uncomfortable." He looked so miserable that I softened a little. "Okay, look. I don't think we're going to agree on the honesty thing or the giving thing. But I do know the love was real. All too real. Let's just settle accounts with that."

"Love. That's the weird thing. But it's true, you know. It's all that's kept me going. And it kept you going too." He shot a shrewd, wicked look at me.

"I'm not denying it. And before you oh-so-innocently ask – no, I don't know how I'm going to live without you. That's just one of the things we'll have to find out, isn't it?"

Those long, pained silences of his. Those were something I wasn't going to miss at all.

"Isn't it?" I repeated. But the silence had gone flat. I looked up sharply. The couch was empty.

"Oh, Christ," I said, and burst into tears.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Red Inside

Yah. I'm tired of poetry. Enough already.

Strange echoes of time, frames shifting. It all changes, and it all remains the same.

The aide slid a needle into my arm, this morning, and fresh bright red blood bubbled into a tube. How odd, that we're carrying this beautiful rich shade of red inside our arteries all the time, hidden out of the light.

The beauty inside. To learn to see it: to shine a light and see that redness, that brightness, filling the body and the mind. The spirit falters, in the darkness and dullness and lethargy of surfaces. I start to believe the surfaces are real, or at least more real than the insides. But the insides are at least as real. The outsides can't subsist for a moment without them.

I am so easily frightened and distracted by surfaces. And I hear the chariot at my back. I have to hold very still, sometimes. The mind, like a nervous greyhound, straining at the leash.

I sat at the table last night, eating a marvelous soup, and wonderful bread, in a beautiful house, with a brilliant poet. And I couldn't reach to the insides. It's baffling sometimes. What stands between? What is getting in our light? I couldn't remember a single poem to ask about. And there was so much I had wanted to ask.

What's getting in our light? I am. And that's why I have to go on retreat. It's not rocket science: I'm getting in our light, that's all. So anxious to make things happen that they can't happen. I need some days of prayer and meditation.

Some things you can't see, if you look straight at them. Among them, people. For the very good reason that to see a person you have to look with their eyes, not your own. So it works better if you're both looking at something else.

I do love the laying on of hands. For its own sake, and for the end-run it makes around my anxiety and diffidence. But it's no substitute for practice.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Four Things Meme

This girl tagged me with a poetry advice meme. Now, of course, I'm eager to give advice about writing poetry, because I'm not very good at it, and I haven't been doing it very long; it's always neophytes who are most eager to tell other people how to do things. (I won't tag anyone: I don't do tagging any more.) Have a look at my blogroll: there's a lot of people there whose advice would be much more valuable than mine. But here it is, four things to attend to and four to avoid in writing poetry.

What to Attend to

1) Read old poetry. We write within a tradition, whether we know it or not. Know it. If you're going to echo Shakespeare -- and you are -- then echo Shakespeare himself, not a second-, third-, or fourth-rate imitation of him.

2) Memorize poetry. I say this all the time. I'm saying it again. Memorized poetry lives with you, gets under your skin, in a way that read-and-half-forgotten poetry just never does. And don't give me that stuff about not being able to memorize things. Memorization is a skill that anyone can learn. It's absurd that in a culture that's downright hagridden by qualifying exams we don't teach memorization in school, but we ordinarily don't, so you have to learn it by yourself. Fortunately it's not that hard to learn, and it's an immensely useful skill in many endeavors.

3) Learn a language, or two, or three.You don't have to be fluent. You don't even have to be any good with it. Take classes for a year or two in a language -- preferably, one you just take a shine to and which will be perfectly useless to you forever -- and get to the point where you can understand its basic grammar, read its nursery rhymes, and have a glimpse of what the Germans call its Sprachgefühl, its "speechfeel." Languages have characteristic cadences and habits of sound and meaning. Liberate yourself from the delusion that your native language is "just the way it is." It isn't. It's far more wonderful than "just the way it is": it's a magnificent piece of collaborative art. But you can't see it as such without being able to stand outside it.

4) Play. Be silly, maudlin, obscene, vicious, petty, overwrought, oversimple. If it's bad you can throw it away later. But write it first, and decide how good it is later. Most of it will be bad. So what?

What to avoid

a) Advice. Like this.

b) Words that aren't natural to you. There's a temptation to reach for impressive, rarely-used words, even though you're not really at home with them. The words you use should be supple and well-worn, comfortable in your mind and heart. I'm all for learning new words. But don't use them in poetry right away. That's like marrying someone you just met last night. You'll regret it. Trust me.

c) Violent, garish imagery, unless it really does precisely what you want it to. Vivid is good, but only if it's also accurate. Don't carpet-bomb the reader with gripping images because one of the incidental effects of one of the images is one that you want. Most readers don't like random assault. They want to know that if you're seizing their attention, it's for a good reason.

d) Silent writing. Say it. Aloud. "Poetry must always sing," said Yeats. If you can't make it sing with your voice, readers won't be able to make it sing in their heads. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that it sounds fine if you only read it silently. Read it aloud.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Under the Wing

The wind tears at the trees,
The leaves weep, the branches shake.
All the days of mourning,
The long regress of mornings, the soft
Fall of light, collapsing perspectives, all the truth
And falsehood crowded together in my head
Like a crowd pushing at the inward-opening doors
Of a burning theater. I cannot speak. Or see.

Take the pieces of the heart and carefully fit them together.
Archeologists do this, all the time, with pots
And take for granted that some pieces will be missing.
That's how it is, they say, under the wing of time.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Spattered City

My response to this week's Totally Optional Prompt, specifically the Celan poem

Turn to the burning of the palaces, the melted gold
Trickling down into the cracks of the stones;
Turn to the glancing, feathering fire.
Turn to the history of this, our spattered
Endless city.

Turn to the skies, stitched all across with tracers
Turn to the wet blood still drawing lines like
A child learning to make his letters
On the wide walls of home.

Turn to the morning: there will be no morning.
No sun would dare to look at this. Tomorrow
There will be no tomorrow.

All we have caught up, all the nightmares we dreamed --
The darkest, earliest home of our
Accursed fathers -- plague after plague --
Could not soften our stiff necks. Psalms are useless here.

Fire from the airplanes, fire from the derricks, fire
From the mouth of Satan. This land,
Like a cracked earthen plate
Broken in the firing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


I began this post after I had taken the boards, but before I knew I had passed them. (When, in fact I was quite sure I'd failed them.) It goes with the poem about having misery and humiliation for house-guests.

It's the humiliation of the body that makes it worst. Every grade-school humiliation -- every missed easy fly ball to right field, every basket I missed, every race I came in next-to-last -- in short, everything that made me decide, in the course of my nine years in public school, that my body was a lost cause, and that I was going to ignore it, and use my brain -- it all comes back, remarkably vividly. This humiliation comes from that same deep pool of misery. Nothing separates me from that slow, awkward, pudgy, easily flustered boy.

The tempting thing, of course, is to wait. To call this a time that doesn't count. To ignore my reactions, as best I can, and fill my time up with sudoku and hexwar and eating halloween chocolate. To wait until I get my results, and real life starts up again. After all, it's only thirty days.

But this is the thing. It's actually this, right now, that is real life. I am the less deceived right now than I will be when I know how I did, and am either studying to take the test over, or scrambling to get all the accommodations and paraphernalia of a massage practice together. It's no accident or aberration that makes this sinking sensation so familiar. The fact is that the jury is always out. In one way or another, I spend most my life waiting for judgements that will never be rendered. I will never know, in the end, whether I was worthy of respect or of ridicule. There is no epilogue to this novel. There are no answers at the back of this book. There will never really be any more basis for answering the question than there is now.

And there's a reason for that. It's because the question actually makes no sense. It's intrinsically meaningless, in the same way that asking "how red is lopsidedness?" is meaningless. Gathering more information about lopsidedness or about red is not going to help us answer that question. The predicate simply doesn't apply to the subject.

So the conviction that this question must be answered before I go forward -- that I'm just kicking my heels in the waiting room until it is -- that is what needs to be dismantled. Really it matters so little whether I passed or failed. What matters is seeing this whole structure of suffering exactly as it is.

That's why I'm welcomed my house-guests. Not because I enjoy suffering. But because they can tell me how this thing works, what it's made of, what keeps it running. And because I'm old enough to know that misery and humiliation will stay as long as they damn well please; no amount of shooing them away or attempting to distract myself will hasten their departure.

So I listen to them.

They tell me a story, over and over, about a boy playing basketball. His team was losing, they were spending all their time on the home side of the court, fending off attempted baskets. He managed to steal the ball and break loose, and pelted across the court. No one ahead of him. No one even next to him. He ran in his ridiculous duck-footed way, but he ran as hard as he could. There was a roar of approval from the stands -- a sound he had never heard, for himself, before. It was an easy lay-up. Anyone else on the team could have made it.

He missed it, of course. Flung the ball up wildly. Not even a respectable miss; it barely hit the backboard. There was a groan from the crowd. That was it: his day in the sun, as a basketball player. The other team snagged the rebound. Everyone pounded back to the home side. We all went back to trying to fend off the attacks on our own basket.

But listen, listen to the story. There are two points that bear contemplation.

One is the duckfootedness. There is a valuable somatic understanding there. That exagerated external rotation of the hips -- it goes with the exagerated lordotic lumbar curve and the slump of the shoulders. It's an attitude of defeat, of unwillingness to leave the ground. I could barely jump at all -- no one can, in that posture.

But the second point is the more important. The hinge of the story, the reason it still makes my insides crawl, is that the shot was an easy one. For other people. The fact is that lay-ups were nearly impossible for me. I was terrible at them in practice, too. My legs and arms seemed to run on entirely differently neurological circuits: I could control the arms or control the legs, but not both. And switching between them confused me so much that I could control neither: I would run up under the basket and make a convulsive little hop, like a hooked fish, and the ball would float up into the air in a random trajectory. That was what always happened with lay-ups, for me. But in the moment when people were cheering for me, I thought -- if one thing that had never happened to me before was happening, why not another? Why not that effortless leap, followed by a cavalier one-handed tip to the backboard, and the ball falling sweetly through the net?

The story suddenly comes clear. I held my inability to do layups to be a moral failure, a curse bothing causing and caused by my unpopularity. I didn't think of it as something that was simply physically difficult for me, a problem in coordination and posture and timing, which a person could analyze and address. I never practiced them if I wasn't made to. At home, I practiced free-throws, which I was really quite good at. One more galling thing about that failed lay-up was that if I had stopped at the head of the key and simply taken a free throw, I would probably have made the shot.

The sting of the story all rests in the shot being an easy one. If the shot hadn't been an easy one, then the whole thing would unwind to an unremarkable, unmemorable, unhumiliating event. Something I would have forgotten thirty-five years ago, as everyone else on that court has forgotten it. (If they even remembered it the next day.) It should have been easy.

Likewise, I shouldn't be flustered by practical tests. That's the conviction that fuels this emotion, that makes me miserable and humilated rather than ordinarily anxious to see if I passed. If I could learn to hold that as a simple fact, just a morally neutral characteristic, like having blue eyes or short arms -- which is surely a more intelligent and accurate way to think of it -- the misery and humiliation would have no place to sit down. They'd get tired of standing about and just leave.

Well. Easier said than done, convictions like that have the tenacity of old blackberry brambles, steel hard, rooted deep under the ground. Hacking away at the surface is a start, but only a start.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Well, sonofagun

I passed. I passed!

And don't say you knew I would, or I'll put the hurt on you :-)

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Beginnings of Conversations

Sage Cohen's new book of poetry, Like the Heart, the World, is out. I've been carrying it about, reading it at lunch, reading it on the bus.

As I tried to write about Sage's poems, I became more and more interested in the way I read them. I am ordinarily a disciplined reader. I begin at the beginning, just Alice's King advises, and go on till I come to the end; then stop. But I don't do that with Sage's poems. I slither down through them, like a man slipping on a hillside, till I come up short on something. There is usually at least one hard bright stopping place, a foothold in the slope. A quotable quote. Sage is a very quotable poet. Take these lines:
I make you a river,
So my love has somewhere to go.

("I Make You a River.") They're gnomic, epigrammatic. I instantly wanted to write a book, just so I could put those lines on the frontispiece.

But when I return to the top of the slope, confident now that I have the key to the poem, I find I have nothing of the sort. It's not the capstone of the poem. It doesn't sum it up. The poem moves away in all directions. It's still slidey, unstable. The epigram isn't an anchor, either; it slides with the slope.
Names the place markers
of what was last believed possible.

The waitress asks me Just one?
as if I were not enough. And yet
the room can barely contain me.

It is too soon for clarity,
too late for truth."


Each of these is so forceful and precise that I guess that I know what each of these poems will be about. But I am half wrong -- at least -- in every case.

In a comment on her blog, when I first read the book in its entirety, I said:

With so many of your poems, I want to sit down with you and say, "so -- tell me about this one." They aren't obscure in a guessing-game way -- I know what they're about more-or-less; you always give enough information, and they're always rich and fascinating. But they also almost always feel like there's so much behind them, like these particular words are just the outermost layer. They're usually like the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

Sage's poetry is thinking poetry, analytic poetry. It strives for precision, makes deductions, lays out arguments. But unlike most thinking poetry, it opens things, rather than closing them.

It is also very beautiful:
But now it is fall and the statues are serious.
A copper horse, back arched, bites her tail.
She is green in her deep places.

as writing weights the hand
but the word is free, we taste

all that was sacrificed
to the clean break

we can hear it in the singing
we can see it in the sheen of things.

("As the Mountain Stands.")

My self is inestimable. Why should I esteem it?
Who is waiting for the valuation? Where do I find
a buyer?

No. I want to have self-esteem so poor
it has to beg for crusts at the corner
and scrabble for pennies in the gutter loam;

so poor that it laughs at the rich men hurrying to work,
while it sits idle in the sun.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Well, if they want to fail me, I gave them plenty of reasons to. If they want to pass me I think I gave them reasons for that as well. Within thirty days they'll tell me which it is.


Sunday, October 28, 2007


The moon is not full, this morning. It is
frayed at the bottom, as if from dragging itself
over the hills; a moon tired of traveling,
Ready to quit. It leans on the pale sky
of a Fall morning.

My heart
searches for you, like a tongue searching
for a pulled tooth. Tender there.
I am going to the beach this morning,
to walk along the wrong shore;
Japan is closer than you are.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Final Exam

I view my upcoming Oregon Massage Board exam with a sort of anticipatory nostalgia. It is to be last, probably, of the exams that have loomed so large in my life, the make-or-break exams after weeks of study: the GRE; my orals in grad school; the finals in the course on compilers that were the dread of Computer Science students at PSU. I have always had a gift for exams. I'm a clutch hitter, and I have the kind of peripheral psychological vision that tells me what sorts of answers will be welcome, even when I have no knowledge to go on.

At my orals, John Hollander followed up a question about the Romantic poets with a question about their sources. The answer, I knew, had to do with Gray, but I also knew I didn't know it. "I'm aware of my ignorance of the Pre-Romantics," I said stiffly. Technically, the Pre-Romantics weren't to be part of the exam: we chose nine out of fifteen possible topics to be examined on, and the 18th Century wasn't one of mine. But really Hollander was quite within his rights: knowing sources is fundamental to understanding any poetry, and Gray is hardly obscure. My Romantic poet, whichever he was, would almost certainly have learned Gray's poems by heart in school. But I knew that a) Hollander really wanted to know if I knew what sort of knowledge would supply the answer to his question, more than he wanted the specific answer, b) that he was sensitive about being thought of as an overbearing academic -- he was the sort of professor who wants his students to like him -- and c) that admitting ignorance of something I wasn't to be tested on wasn't going to be damaging, and d) a spirited answer of any sort was going to do me more good with the examining board than a meek one. Hollander backed off at once, with a mumbled apology. I passed my orals.

There was a brilliant girl in the same year who failed. She was slight and nervous, the sort of girl who touches her face a lot and seems always to be apologizing for occupying even the small space she takes up, who makes her smallness seem smaller by always wearing dark clothes. You usually had the impression that if she could have disappeared altogether, she would gladly have done so. Confronted with seven august professors sitting around the table, at her orals, she froze. The rumor was that she had managed to speak maybe two or three sentences during the whole hour and a half. They had no choice but to fail her, though every one of them knew she had more intelligent things to say about most of the topics than any of them did.

There was a certain sense to it, cruel though it seemed, and still seems, to me. It was difficult to imagine her teaching, at least teaching in America, which requires a lot of improvisation in front of a class (as opposed to reading written-out lectures and doing tutorials.) But she worked so hard, and thought so well. I suppose it's a species of survivor-guilt that I feel, about the people I know who have failed exams out of anxiety, or because they were just not very good at guessing what sort of thing was wanted. So many of them were better thinkers and harder workers than I ever was.

But anyway -- to return -- this is probably it. The last time I do such a thing. Oh, I imagine I'll take exams from time to time, in reality as we shape it here in the first world, exams are a fact of life; but not exams I'll need to be anxious about. All these exams, of course, were supposed to be initiations -- the only initiation rituals we still know how to do -- but I'm not entirely sure I'll know how to live without one in the offing. The thought that I may have exhausted all my delaying tactics, and finally have to be an adult, is a spooky one. So it's appropriate, maybe, that it should be scheduled for the eve of the All Hallow's Eve.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bottom's Dream

In response to this week's totally optional prompt

I wondered metrically, at first, why it was so satisfying:
A four beat line followed by two three beat lines, and
A four beat line followed by two three beat lines. This Horse.
And I knew I did not know horses, so I couldn't write about horses
As horses.

But a clever lad doesn't need to know horses, of course
To write about horses. He only needs words. The horses
Of Achilles. Or the horse they rolled into Troy, on a day
I have always pictured cloudy and dim, with rain threatening,
And all those Greeks stuffed into its belly, like bits of walnut
In a thanksgiving turkey. Stick to what you know? Well,
I know words.

But the head of Kooser's horse kept obtruding
Bony, with accusing eyes, and telling me what I do not want to hear
And have never wanted to hear -- it pushed its nose into my room
And told me that words are not enough. It told me that I must
Know horses.

I told it I was writing an essay on just that topic. Hold your --
Well, never mind, but, anyway, the question of knowing --
But the tickling about the ears became

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Literary Professionals

I have been doing a lot of finishing old half-finished essays lately (no, I will not identify which they are, you will have to guess.) This post began life as a response to a post by Beth at Cassandra Pages many months ago.

The professional literary writer sustained by a public is a product of the cheap-only-if-centralized print industry. It didn't exist before the printing press, and I don't think it will survive it. Which doesn't trouble me: I don't know that it was an especially desirable phenomenon. It's not at all clear to me that trying to please a wide public, or more precisely, trying to please editors who are trying to please both a wide public and a publishing company, tends to produce good writing.

If we have settled for living in a Capitalist society, then we shouldn't fuss about the market shifting to adapt to different technologies. I don't see why I should be more distressed about professional writers being out of work than I am about, say, loggers being out of work here in Oregon. If they're not needed, they've just got to learn to do something else. That's the society we've chosen to live in.

The fact is, there aren't just a few people with something valuable to say. There also aren't just a few people (though fewer, I concede) who can say it well. Professionalizing writing may have given a few people full-time jobs, but it also ensured that only a few of the people worth reading were read.

Many of us who write would like -- or think we would like -- to spend all of our time writing, and not have to do anything else. But is that really good for writing? Think of the writers you most admire -- how many of them simply wrote, and did nothing else? Writing is a reflective activity, a yin activity. Making it a yang activity, the main activity of life, violates its nature. It's no wonder that Hemingway blew his brains out. No one bought more heavily into the idea of the full-time writer than Hemingway (and his handlers: he was a very deliberately produced public figure). But you can watch him becoming increasingly desperate with the fact that making writing the central activity of your life leaves you with nothing to write about. It was not so much that he lied, as that there was no more truth to tell. He viewed it as an existential crisis and a psychological failure. May it not have been simply an untenable life-project?

It was my ambition, all through high school and college, to be a writer of fiction. (Which is odd, because I had no talent for it whatsoever; but it was what Great American Writers wrote, so by God I was going to write it too.) After college, I spent a year -- my family being at the time well off enough for me to do so -- just writing. The dream life, yes?

It was probably the worst year of my life: the loneliest and the least productive. At a wrenching psychological cost I produced, by dint of grim grinding determination, a couple uninspired short stories and a couple essays. In the course of an idle year, that's all I produced. I made half-hearted and unsuccessful attempts at publishing them, and gave up. While in college, on the other hand, I had written two short novels -- not effortlessly, but handily enough. I probably wrote less, in my year of Being a Writer, than any year before or since. And I still bear the scars of that horrible time, of day after day after day of trying to wring stuff out of my head that simply wasn't there.

In retrospect it's not at all mysterious to me. I didn't have anything to say because I didn't have a life. I wasn't doing anything in the world, and, unsurprisingly, when I tried to reflect, all I had to reflect upon was trying to reflect. There are people who have made careers of just that, but even at the tender age of twenty-one I knew that wasn't the career I wanted. Or the life I wanted.

So I find myself unmoved by the endangered-species status of the professional literateur. The species can vanish, as far as I'm concerned, as rapidly as it appeared, and no one will be much the worse for it. We may in fact be the better for it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


One of those quick eddies that are the thing I love most about blogging: Dave Bonta wrote something that spurred me to write my last post, and both of those spurred Dick Jones to write an incredible poem, which in turn spurred a beautiful meditation by Dave.

This sort of thing happens in the paper print world, of course, but you have to piece it together afterwards, like an archaeologist with crumbly bits of a pot. Here you get to see the wet clay on the wheel. I love it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Make Believe

"One of my base assumptions," wrote Dave, "is that if some doctrine or dogma makes me feel good, it can’t possibly be true." That's my knee-jerk response as well. Of course how I feel about a doctrine doesn't have anything to do with whether it's true. If making me feel good disposed me to fool myself into believing something, then I would rightly be suspicious of my belief; but since actually it disposes me to doubt it, maybe I should ballast the other way, if I want to balance the boat.

That is, if anyone were trying to get me to believe anything. I can't honestly say that in my -- what, ten years now? -- of hanging out with the Tibetans, that anyone's shown any interest in getting me to believe anything. I've been so long away from faith traditions that I have a hard time understanding what people are asking when they ask me what Tibetan Buddhists "believe"; it's clear to me that none of my answers are going to match any of their questions.

There is, of course, a sort of spiritual pornography rife among Buddhists which I don't think much of. The extravagant claims for total enlightenment. The insistence on holding people to be "fully realized beings" -- a phrase that I loathe -- when you know that you don't know them well enough to have any reason to think they're even particularly wise or kind. There, you can see the desire to believe something that makes us feel good. Of course, it runs in the same course with the impulse of devotion, which is, I think, one of the things which people will simply wither and die without. If their devotion isn't to lamas, it will be to musicians, or demagogues, or unrequitable loves. I've never known anyone who doesn't do it with somebody. Perhaps psychopaths, if there are such things, don't do it.

But anyway, that's possibly different from the pornography: the fantasy that we'll just click in, and so radically transform that all our kleshas will vanish. That's not going to happen. Oh, transformations happen; I have myself been transformed beyond recognition -- beyond my own recognition, anyway -- by Buddhist practice. But it only reveals how much more I would have to change to become a buddha. The idea of that happening any lifetime soon is absurd. Although it's plain to see the evolutionary advantage of the fantasies; it's how religions reproduce, by making ridiculous promises and extravagant claims. Would I be a Buddhist now if I hadn't been enticed by them? Probably not.

Anyway. All this keeps leaning away from the main point, which is my relationship with Buddhism, and with KCC, nowadays. I've gone to puja the last couple Sundays. I plan to go again tomorrow morning. I feel, oddly, more at home and more integrated there now that I've acknowledged to myself that I don't believe anyone ever gets enlightened. I used to get myself stuck in impossible positions, trying to believe things I didn't really believe, or trying to make believe that whether I believed them didn't make any difference. Of course it makes a difference. And at the same time, I have also to bring myself face to face with things that are true in the other direction, even though no doctrinal scaffolding I accept supports them -- the fact that practicing ngondro, for example, worked so powerfully against my compulsiveness. If I'm to be empirical, I have to be empirical all the way. The suffering I want to escape will be impossible to escape without transformation, and the only transformations I've been offered, since I was a teenager, have been the results of Buddhist practice. Ignoring that would be as deeply stupid as ignoring the fact that I don't think people get "fully realized."

It's a strange feeling, being back at the sangha, with this new attitude. I love them more than ever. I feel I belong there. Somehow, now, I can belong to them without needing to make believe.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


I passed the first of the two exams I need for my massage license, this afternoon. This was the written, the "national certification," as it calls itself, though it's only required in about half of the states, and doesn't really certify anything except that you passed a written exam about massage.

Driving home afterwards, in the rain, the sun came out, and there was a brilliant rainbow off to the East.

The practical, the state exam, is Tuesday after next. It's the one I'm worried about. (I have been saying that I wasn't worried about the national certification, but obviously, given how relieved I am right now, I have been lying through my teeth :->)
Candles for the King

something stale in Denmark
darkening the tale
they stagger in the park
and belch up honey ale

candles for the king
kindling for the cat
and trickling down the wick
tallow for the rat

falter there and stumble
fumble without traction
hesitate and crumple
and lose the aim of faction

candles for the king
kindling for the cat
and trickling down the wick
tallow for the rat

a party for the Jack
jabbing at the part
writ down down for a fact
as the short way to the heart

candles for the king
kindling for the cat
and trickling down the wick
tallow for the rat

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Transference and Plenitude

The little I've read about transference, in the therapeutic relationship, discusses it as a hazard of the trade. Something that might happen to you to interrupt the smooth running of your practice, like the water-main to your office breaking: your clients might imagine that they're falling in love with you. How annoying. We borrow the term from psychiatry, of course, and it brings its baggage from there: the ideal of the lofty, unmoved scientist bringing superior understanding, and hence healing, to the ignorant. For the patient, the therapist becomes, for instance, a stand-in for the father who would never love them as they craved. And the therapist's job is to let this happen without participating in it; so the patients works out their issues with their fathers -- the real issues -- through an unreal and imaginary relationship with their therapist. At the resolution, the cured patient understands that the therapist was just a stand-in, and leaves, with gratitude to the unmoved mover. Who rides slow and lonely into the sunset, to find another town that needs a hired gun.

Well. It's a crock, of course, from beginning to end. There's no such thing as imagining that you're falling in love. That's where falling in love happens, in the imagination; or, as you could also say, in the heart. There isn't any other kind. And therapists get into the business precisely because they crave adoration. Oh, they have other reasons, of course. But by and large that's what drives them.

Only one book I've read is imprudent enough to say plainly what the other kind of love looks like. That love isn't based on need, and doesn't resonate with the love of the father or the first lost love; it's a love that comes of plenitude rather than of wanting. The words get shriller and shriller, less and less convincing, till they dry up. They have the marks of fantasy all over them. Get over it, kids. All love is transference. All love is need. All love in the fallen world has far more to do with what we feel we lack than with disinterested admiration.

The fact is that transference, far from being an incidental hazard, is our stock-in-trade. The sooner we admit it the better. Boundaries are important not because they clarify the relationship, but because they misrepresent it. Without the fiction of the therapeutic distance, the whole thing would come down around our ears. It still does, often enough.

You showed a reluctance to cut to the chase and get on the table. We chatted easily. You paused a moment, and said, "you look good in green."

Well, I hope so; that's why I wear it. "Thanks," I said carelessly, and rapidly changed the subject, and got up and bustled about with the linens.

Later I used my forearms on your back. Not the elbow or the edge of the ulna, as we learn in class, to save our hands when we want to apply deep pressure. You can't handle deep pressure. I turned the edge of the ulna outwards and used the soft anterior forearm. I was just giving as much skin contact as I could, and still maintain the therapeutic fiction. You wanted touch. I was giving it to you. I wanted touch too; I was taking it.

At such moments only two things can keep me from going over the edge and crossing the boundary: sublime ignorance, or acute awareness. I must either believe that what's happening is entirely emotionally neutral, or understand exactly how involved I am in my own emotional need, and your emotional need, and my emotional need for your emotional need. But what I can't afford is vagueness or fuzziness.

This is the time to go for refuge, to recall the pure motivation disguised as need. I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the supreme assembly of the Sangha. The source of it all, of the need and the compassion, of the desire and of the connection, is pure Buddha-nature. I need to touch that. I need all the help of my practice tradition. Not to escape the need and the desire -- fat chance of that! But to go through it, to see past the apparent lack to the real plenitude. Not the plenitude of a healthy individual -- that will-o'-the-wisp -- but the plenitude of the Buddha.

Monday, October 15, 2007

To Carmen

of Overmatter

It occurred to me that you might not know how often,
Reading your words, minute enclaves of joy
Form in my heart and keep it from sinking. You are
An ordinary daylight falling across the page,
A northern window, the scent of cookies in the kitchen,
The ring of kind laughter in the next room, the comfort
Of a well-used prayer: the blessing of every day.

Two lovely foliations: Amanda on the sticking power of poetry; Tiel on the difference between oil and salt.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Four Directions

Life comes gently to the southern people

That there are
Women who undress in a single gesture
Locking eyes before the gown has quite finished
Crumpling to the floor

That there are
Griefs that run a course of tears and are done
And anger that flares once like a match, blown out
With laughter

That there are
Chances of disaster reckoned too small
To bother with, and abandoned,
Leaving no trace

Life comes harshly to the northern people

That there are
Loyalties that never waver, promises made in the morning
That hold until evening, and wreaths laid on memorial day
for a Normandy soldier

That there are
Plans laid for next year's crops, wills carefully drawn up
And hedged with codicils, and no disaster so unlikely
That it goes unanguished

That there are
Well kept houses bequeathed to prodigal sons
Unfaltering care for wayward husbands, and cancers
Kept secret out of love

Life comes in sequence to the western people

That there is
One king one god one law, that things are
Exactly as they appear to be, and there are cameras
That do not lie

That there is
A reason for everything and everything in its reason
And light that does not curve, and irreducible

That there is
A way to take everything to bits and a way
To put it back together just as it was, only
Understood this time

Life comes obliquely to the eastern people

That there are
Consequences too many to be numbered
The stumbling weariness of ten thousand lives
Bound to the wheel

That there are
Defeats more precious than victories, jewels
Hidden in the mud, drunken saints slumped
In the whorehouses

That there are
Kindnesses beyond reason and more grist
Than can ever be milled; and that there is at last
A stillness

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Noble Poverty and Cheap Cars

I never had doubts that I knew of that I could finish a massage program, so it's a little odd that I should feel such relief at being done. I was worried about clinic, I guess, and I came through that -- with an A, even, having scraped through with 91%, despite my deep lack of connection with the teacher. (An odd experience for me: I usually connect with teachers. But somehow Linda and I just weren't from the same planet.)

The relief is odd too because I loved massage school. I have been as happy this year as I've ever been in my life. But anyway I am relieved. And excited to go on to the next step. The first of my two exams is scheduled for Saturday after next; I'm still waiting to hear back from the Oregon board about when my second, the practical, will be.

Zhoen warned about the inevitable disappointment. But I am temperamentally so given to expecting disappointment that I don't think I need prepare for it. Of course there have been times when connection doesn't happen, when massage is just a chore. But I think that if I continue to hold it as a vocation, and to approach it with reverence, it will continue to feel this important, and this sustaining. The only really discouraging scenario I can imagine is just not getting the clients.

Of course, at some point being relatively poor may begin to rankle. The pinch has not yet come. And it's been interesting gradually assimilating my external status in the world. Here on the West Coast, and particularly in the People's Republic of Multnomah,* a good proportion of people hold massage to be a healing art, worthy of respect; but a good proportion also -- and a considerably higher proportion, in the rest of the country -- view it as somewhere on the continuum between prostitute and cosmetician: the sort of work that no-good cousins drift into because they can't do anything else.** I don't think you ever get the full impact of such changes in status until you're fully in them. I still remember the shock of the change that being married brought about. I was taken more seriously in some ways, and less seriously in others. It's not until you meet strangers, and it's among the first facts they know about you, that you really get it. And for the first time in many years I have no brand name to depend on. Yale and IBM guaranteed a certain amount of respect. Everyone's heard of them; everyone knows they're exclusive clubs. But an independent massage therapist could be any kind of gormless fool or untrustworthy scammer -- there's just no telling.

One consequence of this is that, for the first time in my life, I am embarrassed by the car I drive. My father-in-law, as his sight deteriorated, gave up driving, and so, very generously, gave us his car, a white Ford Taurus station wagon.

I have to confess that I loathe this car. It has so little headroom that if I've pushed my reading glasses to the top of my head -- as I generally do, nowadays -- I don't fit; the glasses scrape the roof and I have to snatch them off and toss them onto the passenger seat. Everything about it feels cheap, awkward, and shoddy. Our 1984 Honda handles far better, and feels much roomier, despite being a smaller car.and having three times the mileage on it. But I have to use the Taurus sometimes. My massage table fits comfortably in the back. So when I'm doing outcall I use it.

What I really hate about the Taurus, though -- I blush to admit it -- is that it's a loser car. The Honda may be ancient, and indicate noble poverty, but it was a good quality car to start with. It shows taste and discernment. The Taurus began life as bad value even for cheap.*** It indicates stupid poverty. And with neither the IBM nor the Yale brand backing me up, to belie the impression, it galls me to pull up somewhere in that ugly, ill-proportioned, ill-made car. I feel like the no-good cousin. There will be more things like this, as the reality of living on a third of my former income sinks in.

* The People's Republic of Multnomah. Note for foreigners: The city of Portland occupies much of Multnomah County, and its radicalism (much exaggerated by friend and foe alike) has gained it this moniker in Oregon.

** With apologies to any prostitutes or cosmeticians among my readers. But you know, better than I, how people think of these occupations.

*** This is not to say that my father-in-law is a loser. The man had driven Ford and Chevrolets since the days when you used to order them and then take a bus halfway across the country to Detroit to pick them up. That's different.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Taking on Energy

One of our instructors at massage school gave out a short piece she'd written about how not to take on negative energy. I don't have it to hand, but among its suggestions as I remember them was a ritual hand-washing, and saying aloud "I will not take on anything that is not mine." It's not the first time I've met this view. The idea is that someone who works with energy, as bodyworkers inevitable do, whether they do energy work or not, are peculiarly vulnerable to being swamped with the negative energy -- the anger, resentment, or despair -- of their clients. And the solution is to affirm the boundary between us and them, and refuse to allow their energy entry.

I disagreed with this violently. To be ask a Mahayana Buddhist to reject someone else's energy is rather like asking a Fundamentalist to worship the Devil. One of my Buddhist teachers once told me that there is only one way to really break the Bodhisattva vow -- the vow to work in the suffering world until all beings are enlightened, which is really the heart of the Mahayana -- and that is to give up on someone, to deny our connection to him or her. And that is precisely what this little piece was advising us to do.

Now, the risk she's addressing is real. Absorbing negative energy is dangerous. I don't think it's more dangerous to energy workers than to anyone else, but energy workers are bound to be particularly aware of it, and need to be particularly skillful in dealing with it. So what should be done?

To answer that requires a little more precision than we usually use in talking about energy. What do we actually mean by "negative energy," and what happens when we "take it on?"

In a misguided attempt to please people who pride themselves on rationalism, we have tended to talk about "energy" as if it were a kind of electricity, or something like heat: and we have gotten tangled up in our own metaphors. Electricity and heat are actually tranferrable. They can leave one place and go to another. The process of warming up one thing cools off another -- the warmth going into the ice cubes actually leaves the lemonade; that's why the lemonade gets cooler, and why the ice cubes melt. The ice cubes are taking on the lemonade's thermal energy, in a quite concrete and measurable fashion.

But this is not what happens when I take on negative energy from a client. And there's no need to get abstruse and mystical about it, here; we can take commonplace examples. When someone gets angry at me, and I "take it on" -- get angry back -- their anger does not ordinarily go away. It hasn't left them in order to enter me; ordinarily it escalates in both of us. Likewise, if someone is expressing their despair and hopelessness to me, and I become despairing and hopeless too, that doesn't ordinarily cheer them up. Ordinarily it makes them even more depressed. So negative energy is not exactly transferrable, like heat. It's more contagious, like a disease.

Now, what is the medium of the contagion? How does it spread? It spreads by perception. As soon as I perceive it, I resonate with it.

Here's the heart of the problem. As an energy worker -- or as a compassionate human being, for that matter -- I have to resonate with it. I can't just avoid it, because to work with it, I have to perceive it. And once I've perceived it, it's too late. The transfer, or the contagion, is already done. It's not their energy anymore; it's mine. I can try to reject it, sure. But any experienced meditator knows that attempting to reject an experience is actually a way of holding on to it. The harder I try to make it go away, the more stubbornly it will stay.

Stating the problem this way makes its solution obvious. We already know, as a meditators, how to deal with "negative energy." We just let it come, and let it go. It doesn't matter whose energy it is. And after all, wherever did this idea of energy belonging to people, of its being mine or yours, come from? Energy isn't monogrammed. It's no more mine or yours than the sky is mine or yours. The problem is not that we might pick up foreign, alien energy. The problem is the same problem we have, every day, with everything: we clutch at our experience or we try to escape it. If the problem were that the energy is not ours, then we ought to view alien joy or contentment with just as much apprehension; but somehow you don't see people ritually washing their hands of other people's joy and contentment and worrying about it invading their soul.

Milarepa found that the only way to get rid of the demons infesting his cave was to welcome them, and invite them to stay as long as they liked. The only way to avoid taking on negative energy is to welcome it. It's just passing through. We need not, and we must not, try to shove it out the door.

The sort of rituals my instructor proposed can still be useful. There is nothing wrong with recognizing that we are resonating with negativity and need to release it, and there's nothing wrong with using a ritual and reciting a formula to do so -- they're age-old and effective techniques: I imagine that healing traditions of all stripes use something of the sort. But an affirmation of our impermeable, inviolable self, and a rejection of other people, is the last thing we need to include in them.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Home Improvements

So, bowing to popular demand, I have added a "home" link, over on the right, and a link to (I hope and believe) my RSS feed. Since I don't really understand the RSS feed thingy, let me know if it's not what was wanted, and I'll learn how to do it right.

You'll also see that the links to individual posts now call themselves "Link," on a new line below, rather than the cryptic ":::" before the "posted by" line, which has been missed by nearly everyone.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Spilling Darkness

What is it that we hold in our hands? We cup the light, and spill darkness.

I walked across the room, lit only by the glow of the city lights. Your still form on the couch. I touched you softly. Your eyes opened, and everything I knew vanished.

This morning I thought, of so many things: I can't rise to this. A careless god of casting has got everything wrong. I'm no lover. I'm no poet. I'm no healer. I'm nothing but a clumsy, feeble, white-haired old man, awkward and shy, living far past his time. I know nothing but nursery rhymes and the jingles of forgotten commercials and old worn-out fantasies.

I lay on the couch last night and waited for Ashley to come out of the room. "Are you asleep?" asked Alan. I was, and I wasn't. But Ashley must have fallen asleep on the table. Finally, after half an hour, I knocked, and went in. She was still on the table, half awake now but a little confused. I turned off the heater and collected a pair of the sweat pants I use for pajamas from the dresser, shut the door softly again, and went upstairs. I don't know when she finally got off the table.

And, last week: a picture of the Karmapa on the mantle. A white dog shifting from bed to bed. The angry scar of an ill-done ostomy under the navel. You could see colors, you said, following my hands; and I felt I was watering a dessicated plant. But the next day you were in great pain.

Or the week before that: deep nurturing, you said. I have become very young. Driving my father's chariot through the heavens. The horses can tell that I'm not really the master here.

I would not have you think that I am unhappy. I am not. I walk in this stolen joy, waiting to hear the police sirens, and thinking: it's worth it, whatever happens next.

Or again. Skywalkers, dakinis. But that's an old, old tune, invented by lecherous old monks trying to drown out the sound of women's music, and trying to pretend that they weren't intent on having it both ways. Alas! We're all intent on it.

Rest, then, in my arms. Just for now. Radiant daughter of light. You know what I would say, if I could.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On the Ground

When I began riding my bike to Tosi's, I took the same route I took in the van: straight north over the shoulder of Mt Tabor. It was a bit of an incline, but one I barely noticed that when I was driving.

Riding the bike, I discovered, was another matter entirely. It wasn't a bit of an incline. It was steep. I geared down and geared down and finally -- on my first couple rides, anyway -- dismounted and walked the bike up the last half-block, feeling a little silly.

Now I simply swing west a couple blocks and avoid the ridge altogether. Now that I'm riding regularly it's second nature to avoid inclines, either up or down. I learned in my mountain climbing days that elevation is precious: you never wantonly waste it. "Never go down before you go up," my Dad taught me. Bicycles teach the same lesson. Going straight up over the ridge was obviously squandering energy.

A driver of a new hybrid told me that his car has a dashboard gauge that shows the real-time MPG the car is getting, and that he drives radically differently on account of it. Watching that gauge drop down to single digits when he was accelerating uphill on the freeway -- when gas is $3.25 a gallon -- was a sobering sight. Ordinarily, automobiles do their best to conceal the variation from us. That's what we like: feeling that we can swoop anywhere, effortlessly.

But the illusion comes at a price, and not only in gasoline; you pay for it, eventually, with your spatial sense and groundedness. It disturbs me now that, after years of driving over it, I knew so little of the lay of the land around my house. South and west is downhill: I can coast most of the way to Tom's, but I labor back. But I had no idea of that, before I was cycling. I thought it was all flat.

A whole countryful of people who float over the ground like wraiths, with no sense of geography, whether local or international: I can't help thinking that explains a lot about the American sensibility, or -- to be more accurate -- the American insensibility. Our feet don't touch the ground. For a commercial people, we are remarkably resistant to getting down to facts, to reckoning prices, to weighing costs and benefits. Would we have gone to war in Iraq, had the government begun the war by presenting every household in the country with a bill for $5,000 dollars? I doubt it. But we seem to be unable to think like that.