Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Christmas day, 1990. She was a gift to Tori, a consolation for having to share the limelight with a new little brother. We put the wriggling little puppy into a tin salad bowl under the tree, and threw a cloth over her, just as the five-year-old Tori came in to examine Santa's work. I don't remember which of them got the cloth off. It didn't take long.

Today I put one hand under her upper ribs, one hand under her foreleg. Braced carefully to take the weight. She stands trembling, her head low, her tail down stiffly between her legs. Six steps to get down from the porch to the back yard. She can't quite nerve herself to take that first step. But there's no way to convince her that it would be okay, for the last few weeks of her life, to pee on the porch. I'm the same man who, sixteen years ago, sternly taught her how wrong it is to pee anywhere but outside. Her whole life has been lived under that commandment. And she's in no mood to learn new lessons. She's old and in pain and she has to pee very badly. So we have to go down the steps.

Finally she takes the first step. I catch her. Her hindquarters are already wet and reeking. She starts to fall sideways. Her hips have no strength nowadays. I manage to catch her, and she stands trembling again. Five more steps to go.

That characteristic slide forward of the hindquarters. Reminds me something -- what? Of course. When she was a puppy. She'd gallop with delight down the hall, but her hind legs were growing so much faster than her front that they made better time: they'd outpace her front legs, overtake them, and after a few yards she'd spin out on the linoleum, revolving like a racecar whose tires have lost their grip on the speedway. She never quite understood why it happened; she'd get herself pointed the right way again, dash forward, and spin out again.

She takes another step. It's getting harder. I can't carry her. I'm not strong enough -- she's a big dog -- to carry her without putting pressure on her abdomen. But finally we get to the last step. It's only a half step, but I still have to guard her. Last time she made a break for it, thinking she was all the way down the stairs, and fell heavily on her tumor-laden belly. This time she's more cautious, and I'm more wary. She sags but doesn't quite fall. Staggers a couple steps onto the grass, and squats.

Strong dark urine, smelling powerfully, spurts between her legs. Damn. She's got that bacterial infection again. Shell out more money on antibiotics, trash the environment again, do yet another outrage on her digestive system? Maybe it's time to quit. Her life has begun to revolve around the ordeal of the porch steps.

But as I'm thinking that, she finishes up, and suddenly she's happy. She waddles contentedly to the fence and gives it a good long sniff. That new black and white cat, probably. She noses happily through the grass, looking for left-behind crow treats. Not quite steady on her legs, but she can still get along, on the flat.

Back inside to change her bedding while I've got the chance, replace the incontinence pads, throw this afternoon's blanket into the wash, pull this morning's blanket out of the dryer.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


It runs quietly, the little pattering creature. Carrying death in one hand and the sun in the other. Always just ahead of me, always just around the corner.

Every time, it is like this. Start over from the beginning. Take it from the top.

Which is wrong, I think. Let's not start over. Let's start from here. Take it from the middle.

What's wrong with starting over? Well, the implicit conviction that in order to proceed, I must erase the past.

Warming up the car in the pre-dawn darkness. The upthrust of huge maple roots has made a basin of the sidewalk in front of my neighbor's house. It's full now of dark water. I can't actually see the pool, except where the raindrops strike it, and the circles of water catch their porch light. Pattering rain. A drummer on a dark sparkling snare drum.

Friday night. Cherry red vinyl sofas, basketball on the big plasma screen behind us. A din of music, and the roar of inebriated conversation in a large open space with deliberately ruined acoustics. I can hear only half the words spoken to me. The others play shuffleboard and flirt, delighted to be done with finals, in the throes of love or at least desire; the three of us sit on the sofas and talk. Except that I can only hear Tele, sporadically. Her Swedish friend sits very still and self contained, watching everything with mild, benevolent, anthropological interest. Tele is huddled down a bit, even less at home than I in a place that styles itself the "American Cowgirl," with black and white faux cowhide pillows, and elevated platforms with poles for sexy dancing, and video games in which you can shoot at elk.

Clint, as always, moves easily between worlds, joshing happily with the shuffleboarders, wandering over to sit with us and talk about the spa he and his wife are starting up, speculating about the board exams, clowning a bit whenever things seem in danger of getting sticky. In this world but not of it. "I love seeing Dale walking up to school," he says at one point. "He looks so happy."

Tele talks of wanting to be a doula -- she's taking some training for it this weekend -- and she straightens up, loses her huddle, suddenly awash with light, her luminous smile stilling the noise and Ahrimanic frenzy around us. I can't imagine a greater blessing than having her as a doula. Such gifted hands, and so much kindness.

I coax some of her story from her. How she and her husband got together, how they got here from there. When she asks me in return I go blank. All the narratives of my life have collapsed. I have no idea what my story is, and picking up the old ways I had of telling it feels false. A poor return for her warmth and authenticity. I feel old. What twenty years of childrearing has done to me, to us, is impossible to convey. Or maybe impossible to justify? Among other fifty-year-olds, I can feel that having fought life to a draw is honorable, but in the face of Tele's warmth and eagerness I feel ghostly, insubstantial, inconsequent.

Just for a moment. But I am tired. It has been a very long week, and it's not over yet; I have various family obligations to come. I rise to go. Bow to George, and shake hands. Receive warm unexpected hugs from Clint and Andrea and Lindsay. Tele and I agree to email. I'm happy, tired but happy. I make my way past the little knot of American Cowgirl staff at the door and out into the night.

Out into the cool, rainswept streets. I walk the half mile down to Hawthorne, to catch the bus. The free sweet air, the mist settling on my hat, my beard and my eyebrows. And so home.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Making the Space

I'm at the door, about to leave, my hair tousled and a little sticky with oil, my heart rate a good ten beats per minute slower than usual. I can feel its deliberate throb, and the unfamiliar way it's letting go completely after each contraction. I feel at once deeply grounded and deeply dislocated.

"I don't know whether you're more inspiring or more discouraging," I said.

"Why, what do you mean?" she asked.

"I'll never be as good as that," I said.

"Oh, that's just time," she said dismissively. "I've been doing this four -- five years now. You just learn the techniques. And technique you can pick up anywhere." She becomes more serious, and says: "Really it's intention, holding the intention, staying present."

"Yeah." I nod, and add, a little ruefully, "I wasn't talking about technique."

Herbs over the door and windows; little bundles of grasses by the window. I love this room. I've been in it three times now. A square carpet acknowledges the squareness of the room; an oblique mat matches the diagonal orientation of the table. Rice paper blinds, and two lamps, low to the floor: the room glows. For ninety minutes I've been elsewhere, out of the ordinary world. For the first few minutes I tried to make notes to myself -- I'll need to write about this, the stretches and movement -- but the current was way too strong, and anyway I wanted to go with it, so I went.

Where do I go, during a massage like that? More or less the same place I go when I sit shamatha -- nowhere but here, intensely here. It's not really that I've gone anywhere, it's that I've started to pay attention to something other than the continual gloat and fret of the monkey mind, the storytelling mind, all my repetitive coveting and fearing. And switching my attention away from that is so far out of my ordinary experience that it feels like going a long way away.

That's backwards, though. Where I usually am -- that's what's a long way away, tangled up in my stories, in my hypostasized fantasies, preoccupied with the the miscellaneous grab-bag of qualities I've accumulated and assured myself are me. This was just being present.

Or -- it's just the endorphins, you could say. Or a longstanding psychological yen to be mothered. Both plausible stories. But I don't believe either. What it really is, is that there's another way to be in world, and someone can lead you there, if everything lines up just right. Massage is just one way. There's dozens of ways, maybe an infinite number of ways.

But you need to make a space for it. The sage, or whatever it is, over the door -- that's part of it. Setting the wards. And you need to make yourself vulnerable -- that's what taking off your clothes is really about. The ordinary world, the ordinary bounds, the ordinary defenses, all have to be displaced.

I've been so busy, with work and massage school, that I've fallen into the old trap: thinking that I'll just get something done -- something, anything, be it grad school, raising the kids, settling into a career, exercising regularly, massage school, whatever -- I'll get that done, and then I'll begin my real life, the life that's in synch with the dharma, in synch with what I really think is important. But again and again I learn (and forget) that I can't finish anything, not really, without the dharma. Sure, I could finish massage school, and I could begin practicing massage, without it -- but then when it's done it would only be replaced by the next thing and the next and the next. Because I don't just need to have a massage license. I need to have meaningful work. I could turn massage into just another version of my long stint of cubicle-confinement easily. And I will, if I don't meditate, if I leave my spiritual practice for later. To do what Michelle does -- which is what I want to do, and which is why I went to massage school in the first place -- I'm going to need to be grounded and unafraid. Everything converges on that. It's the only thing that really needs to be done. And the only way I've ever found to do it is to meditate.

So it's back to the cushion. All paths lead back there, eventually.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Sadie's got her new dress on, Lord, Lord,
Sadie's got her new dress on.
Momma's done and said
She's old enough to wed,
And Sadie's got her new dress on.

(--Apparently by Connie Leigh? From memory, a bluegrass song heard once, on the radio)

Bursts of light at the corners of my eyes, at the corners of my heart; jeweled ropes dangling just out of sight. Irridescent spangles of joy. My heart lifts, like an old dog lifting its muzzle at the smell of dinner. Happiness.

In this queer rush of my new life, when I do write, I seem to write mostly about being unhappy. Maybe because being unhappy pitches me backwards into the mood of my long cubicle confinement, when I used to blog copiously; the two things are associated in my mind. In any case, it may be giving a skewed impression of my mood and well-being nowadays. I’m so grateful for my freedom; so deeply happy so often. The joy of doing something I really want to do.

(That’s not the heart of it, though, now that I think of it. Actually, it’s the joy of really wanting to do something. Doing it is just the icing on the cake.)

There are two moments I love most of all: the very first moment of laying my hands on someone’s back, feeling the warmth of their skin meet the warmth of my hands through the sheet, feeling the rhythms of their skin and mine start to understand each other, and the moment when I stop, before moving on to another area of the body, and just rest, cradling maybe a foot, maybe a neck, and feel our blood moving together.

Entrainment, they call it: a phenomenon which, I’m told, is established beyond question by objective Western science. The bodily rhythms of people who are touching, or even (to a lesser degree) in close contact, begin to synch up. Breathing and heart rate fall into the same, or related, rhythms; other subtler endocrine rhythms also converge. We are not just psychologically social animals. We’re biologically social animals. Our bodies tune to each other. Maybe the most obvious example, which lots of people notice, is that the menstrual cycles of women who live in the same house tend to converge. Circadian rhythms do too. We deal so much with strangers, in the modern world, that we’ve come to think of it as normal to interact with people with whom we’re physically completely out of synch; but most of our evolutionary history we’ve spent in groups that are physically attuned.

In Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries he writes of a medicine ritual, “the stranger way,” meant to heal the disruption caused to a person’s spirit by being in contact with strangers. I suspect it’s a partly a response to the physical unease of encountering foreign bodily rhythms, and having your own pulled out of synch with your household – an unease to which we are so accustomed that we can’t even perceive it any more. We are so used to being fragmentary and out of tune that it seems normal, and the relief and security established by an hour’s massage can seem mysterious, maybe unsettling, maybe magical.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Everything but the Gift

I was flustered, on Monday. At our staff meeting what I finally said sounded disagreeably shrill in my own ears. I get off-balance, and reach to speak out of my weaknesses rather than out of my strengths: out of my fatal facility with generalization and gift for specious phrase rather than out of my thoughtfulness and openness. It has plagued me all my life. That evening, during a practical exam, I stammered my way laboriously through stuff that I have known by heart for months. Afterwards Andrea, always my testing partner, said, "I was thinking, come on, Dale. I know you know this stuff!"

Tele had brought her evaluation of my massage, and it was warm and sweet and glowing and yet -- yet I hated it. After my day's humiliation I wanted one thing, and only one thing: respect. The only evaluation that would have pleased me would have been one that was awestruck, if not fearful. I didn't want to be a kindly, safe-feeling, nurturing older man. I wanted to be an object of fear and desire. Heathcliff, not Edgar Linton. The ache to be taken seriously was physical, crawling somewhere along my diaphragm and up my ribs. I wanted to be formidable.

Heathcliffs, of course, don't give a damn about being formidable. The desire to be formidable is an unmistakable, universally understood proof that in fact you are not so. That you are Edgar Linton, accomplished in everything that doesn't matter, forever on the wrong side of locked doors, the owner but never the master -- the archetype of the cuckold. You gave me everything but the gift.

There's nothing to do, of course, but nothing. Be still. Let the desire settle, little by little, like stirred up mud settling to the bottom of a pond. There are times when all doing is useless. This is one of them.

But you see, this sometimes lurks behind that apparently innocent yen to express tenderness. That's why for me it's often important to let it be.

I have never found it difficult or awkward to express affection; it's my normal mode of being. I have to watch myself lest I absent-mindedly say "love you, hon" to people at work, people behind counters, people pouring my coffee. But that's a different animal than the desire to cross boundaries, to crowd people, to insist on a level of attention beyond the ordinary. You see it in wound-up little boys, when they're pestering, being loud and intrusive, flinging themselves against people, making absurd boasts. It's the pack-animal's craving for the alpha position. Make me leader of the pack, or slap me down, but don't ignore me!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Betraying Tenderness

Lovely thick African hair, the kinks pushing back against my fingers as I massage her scalp. A small room put together with care, the walls an intense yellowy orange, the white curtains open to a tiny back yard. On the shelves, among anatomy books and yoga tapes, is a card. A Matisse-ish person in persian tunic floats sideflexed in the aether, a small orb floating near her hand. Words straggle through the sky: "If we fail this time," said the angel, "it will be a failure of imagination." And she pressed the world into my hand.

I'm just starting to work her upper back -- neck, traps, rhomboids, the usual suspects for people who work at a computer -- when she says, "So tell me about your art."

Oh. I doodle file cards in class, like my napkin doodles, and a couple of people have been fussing embarassingly about them. I search for words. I'm not very articulate at the best of times, and when I'm doing massage words are particularly scarce.

"When I was young I wanted to be an artist, or a writer," I said. "I didn't really have anything to say."

I'm struggling a bit. "I wanted to be special."

"But you are special!" she says energetically.

"Well, yeah," I say, "I mean, people are wonderful. But not because they can do things, not because they're better than other people. It was bad for me. Thinking of myself as an artist. So art, I don't like to think of myself as doing art, I guess."

"I went to art school," she says. "I could never make what was in my head come out. I don't like to talk about art either, now."

A pause. "I knit. I like knitting. It's not art. I make a sock, and it's not art, it's a sock. You can wear it." An inaudible chuckle -- I can't hear it, but I can feel it vibrating my fingertips.

The light fades; evening seeps into the room. The curtains become ghostly.

She has a dreadful knot in her left shoulder. She's had it for years, she says. It's so hard that she has to assure me that it really is muscle, not an errant piece of bone. I work it every way I know how. "Is it okay if I do some friction on this?" I finally say. "It's not going to release today, but maybe we can talk it into starting to think about it."

Earlier today, Mae fell asleep on my table, snoring ever so slightly from time to time; waking occasionally with a little jerk. I remembered a man I read about who used to kiss his clients on the forehead at the end of each massage. An idiot, I thought, if he really didn't understand that as a transgression; but I share the impulse, that rush of paternal tenderness.

Sometimes I regret that I didn't take up this career when I first seriously thought of it -- when I gave up on becoming an English professor, nearly twenty years ago -- but really I couldn't have done it then. I couldn't have honored the boundaries; I wouldn't have understood the need for them. I found it so intolerable then to leave tenderness unexpressed. I thought that if I didn't express it, it would be wasted, or worse -- even betrayed, or injured. As if it were a delicate soufflee, wasted if not eaten on the spot. Such a deep misunderstanding of what tenderness is, and what really injures or wastes it. Not leaving it unexpressed -- it's craving recognition for it, wanting to reify it and keep it. That's what betrays tenderness.