Saturday, June 30, 2007

Thursday, June 28, 2007


Back on the cushion this morning, after a long hiatus -- my meditation has been a perfunctory five minutes here or there, once or twice a week, for a couple months. When I come back, out of practice, I find at first that meditation is a little dry, a little thin. It's not actually a quality of the meditation, of course; it's a quality of my mind. I attribute it to the meditation, because it's in meditation that I first notice it. Without stretching and exercise the mind's circulation gets sluggish. Its perceptions get duller, its activity more repetitive. In a word, it ages.

Morning. Overcast sky, like a gentle, rumpled gray quilt drawn up over the sleeping world.

A couple weeks ago the neighbors across the street cut down their willow tree. I understand: willows are not easy to live with. Messy trees, strewing mower-choking twigs over the lawn at all seasons, and strong greedy ones, seeking out water pipes and tearing them up. I would never plant one in my own yard. But still, it was a beautiful tree, and I will miss it.

A busy week at work. Our fiscal year ends June 30th, and there are lots of unexpected little tasks associated with that, things that have to be done to wrap up the year's data neatly and put it to bed. Housekeeping. I feel that I am only now beginning to learn the rudiments of housekeeping. Long ago, I was struck by something William Morris once wrote: have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful. The words of a man who didn't have to look after children, of course, but still, they're important words. I ran across a summary of Feng Shui principles somewhere, recently -- something I've never paid any attention to -- and I was arrested by the same sentiment, differently expressed: of clutter, it said that things that occupied your space that you no longer use or enjoy siphon off energy. That strikes me immediately as true, importantly true. I spent a while this morning, after I sat, working to unclutter my massage/meditation/exercise room. Uncluttering the whole house will be a life's work, I am afraid -- even uncluttering the massage room will take months -- but fortunately, working toward uncluttering is its own reward, has its own effect of clearing my mind, slowing me down, drawing me away from busy repetition and toward spaciousness and creativity. The thing about clutter is that it represents things that I am done with but haven't let go of. The notes from pathology weren't filed, because, although I had de facto decided not to review them again, I hadn't quite accepted that I wasn't going to. Filing them meant turning that from a decision-by-default into a conscious choice.

Cry willow, willow, willow
My life, my life, my life.

Desdemona's plaintive song. Some things are harder to let go of than others. But in time what we will not let go of is pulled out of our hands anyway.

Standeth nu on laste leofre duguthe
Weall wundrum heah, wyrm-licum fag.

Now where my dear companions walked
Stands a high wall, worked with dragons.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: I'm saving The Wanderer for when I'm at the beach this weekend. Good morning, dear friends. I'm thinking of you.

Monday, June 25, 2007


Several things recently have conspired to send me back to this Old English poem. Yesterday I dusted off my old Pope edition, and read it again; and today I tried to render it in Modern English in the same form of verse that Seamus Heaney used for Beowulf (though without those caesuras I so dislike). Whether the poem makes sense, without lots of notes explaining the legends it refers to, I don't know. It might help to know that Weland was a famous artificer, in the Daedalus line, and that Nithhad was an evil king who cut his hamstrings so as to keep him captive; part of Weland's revenge was raping Nithhad's daughter, Beaduhild. Time presents ironies to layer on top of the poem's -- no one knows now who Theodric was, or where the city of the Maerings might have been, where his "well-known" reign took place. You can find a text, with someone else's translation, here

Weland, limping, learned the rack of exile;
A one-minded man, he endured hardship;
He had as his friends fear and longing,
Cold winter and want.
He found out miseries: Nithhad laid on him
Supple fetters, sinew-bonds.
That is over and done with; this may be too.

Her brothers' deaths were not so great a burden
On Beaduhild's spirit as her own business --
She perceived quickly that she was pregnant
But she could not resolve on a way around it.
That is over and done with; this may be too.

We are given to know that the grieving of Maethilde,
Dear to Yayot, became endlessly deeper;
Separated from sleep by her love's sorrow.
That is over and done with; this may be too.

Theodric mastered the city of the Maerings
For thirty winters, as is well known.
That is over and done with; this may be too.

And we have heard of Eormanric's
Wolfish thoughts; he ruled a wide
Land of the Goths, a bloody lord:
Many men sat bound in sorrow
Wishing his power were overcome.
That is over and done with; this may be too.

When a man is cast down, cut off from delight,
His mind darkens, and he thinks his measure
Of affliction will be endless.
Let him think then that a lord who knows
Turns his way often through this world
Showing gentleness to some, and flowering joy,
As well as, to some, their share of woe.

I will say so much of myself --
I held the post of the Hedenings poet,
And was dear to their lord. My name was Deor.
I composed, many winters, for a kind master;
But a song-skilled newcomer now enjoys the estate
The guardian of men once gave to me.
That is over and done with; this may be too.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Photos of the Dead

Dark pregnant belly of a sky, in the north. Westward a jagged light blue streak, lined with improbable white, like the bars on a junco's wings.

Someone posted a photo of me on the New School site. From the New School reunion, at Michael G's house in Seattle. Circa 1990, I suppose. Just a couple years after that party in New Haven. I keep pausing over it. Partly just vanity: I didn't know I ever looked that good. But mostly it's the strangeness. I don't know that man. Who is he, and what does he have to do with me? All my pasts have a hallucinatory quality to them now: vivid, but unbelievable. Should I live another seventeen years, and see a picture of myself at my present age of forty-nine, I'll probably have the same response: who is that? What does he have to do with me?

After all the life's work of constructing myself, and examining myself, it seems unfair that a camera should look up briefly and see an entirely different and unknown person. Where is the anxiety, the hunger, the need? The question of "what does this person have to do with me?" is gradually subsumed into a larger question: "what does this person have to do with anything?"

The frightening thing about death, said some 19th Century American (Melville? Hawthorne?) is not how great a rent it tears in the fabric of others' lives, but how small a rent, and how easily mended. This man has vanished, and no one misses him, least of all me. He was as real as I am, once, flesh and bone, blood and sweat, struggling with fear and desire, as I am, like a fish on a line. And just gone, now, with only this carelessly-kept photo as a memorial.

Lost time. Wasted effort. Why did he work so hard, fear so much, want so desperately? So that I could be here, stout and nearly fifty, look at him quizzically, and repudiate him?

There's a photo I don't have, a photo of the death mask my artist-friend, whom I haven't met yet, will make a couple decades from now. She will keep it, at first partly because of her connection with me, but mostly, and increasingly, because of her connection with her work, because of the artistic intention with which she oiled my cold face and spread the plaster over it.

Looking it over carefully, I see the exagerations and softenings of death, how the jowls are thickened by the slackened muscles, how the subsiding eyes have lost their Germanic protrusion, how the nose -- larger, as old men's noses are -- is slightly flattened down.

Was it at that very reunion that someone told Michael G. that your nose and your ears keep growing all your life? Michael, who was very handsome and a little vain of it, was horrified by the thought. He needn't have worried. Within five years AIDS had carried him home, the delicate proportions of his nose and ears quite intact.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


We slept in our clothes in the daytime, a dreary exhausted sleep, and I woke feeling old and impotent. Nothing seemed quite to match or meet up. When I went to tie my shoe, one end of the laces was longer than the other, and I sat staring at them stupidly, sure this betokened some disaster, but unable to think what it was, or to imagine a remedy.

My heart did not entirely work. Its gears were stripped, and nothing could catch. I wondered if I'd ever really be awake again. Or had I ever been awake?

At the far edges of the sky, white silver marbling showed itself under the heavy gray. A small lightening of the spirit. But the heaviness and grief of loss still threatened to swamp me and bring me under. There's nothing wrong, I told myself. It's just sleeping in the daytime, it does this to you, wait and it will pass.

At Tosi's this morning, the waitress said, "So-and-so asked how you were doing." Except she used your American name, not your Tibetan one, and I didn't know who she was talking about, for a long second. We haven't spoken for months. "Oh. Oh." I finally said, and nodded. "When do you get done with school?" she asked. I said September. "She said we should all get a free massage from you."

I smiled, I'm sure; I always smile, but in the distance, a little rattling drum started up, like the patter when you use stiff fingertips on a conga. All these sidesteps, half-lights, mutterings. All I want is one clean, bright, still thing. A mark to steer by. Some way to make a resolve. Some way to clear the heaviness and confusion.

Begin to think of making something new of me, Lord. I am dry and crusted like old clay. It's near time to be thrown back into the kneading trough. Bend your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Gold dangles from her ears; jeweled fish slither over her shoulders as she rises. "Thank you. I haff had a very nice time," she says, and shakes my hand. Cool, crisp, and businesslike. Slender deliberate fingers. The moon blinks slowly in her wide eyes. The room rocks slightly.

"Es freut mich sehr, dass du kommen konntest" I say, stubbornly clinging to German. It is, after all, my only distinction.

Suddenly all the talk of the party is a roar in my ears, and I can see the floor rippling in time to the music. It will all come to pieces when she leaves.

"Could we have lunch sometime?" I suddenly ask, abandoning German.

"Oh, you see," she says regretfully, "I am so busy these days."

"Of course. A very full time," I quickly agree.

She leaves. I pour myself a shot of vodka and drink it down. It burns with a lovely, sustaining heat. A cloud of it rises from my throat, and I breathe it gratefully. I attach myself to the clever comp lit students. David, ever voluble, who gave a talk this afternoon titled "How to Do Things with Sir Walter Scott," is holding his antic court. Ian, a Scot himself, is standing his ground though, insisting that Waverly is a tremendously important book, the beginning of Modernism, if I'm following him. I've read Waverly, but I can't for the life of me remember anything about it. My mind's eye follows Heike through the night. And I remember her birthday party, when Ed and Agnes gave her black stockings, and she put them then and there, sitting happily on the floor, her short skirt hiked up. Ow.

"What?" How has the conversation come round to me? Oh, of course, I'm the Old English and metrics wizard, and there's an exam in Old English scansion tomorrow. "Find the alliteration, and then work backwards through the half-line," I advise them. "the debris is all at the beginning of the half-lines, you'll just get confused if you try to work forwards." Jahan has a question about Chaucer scansion; I bask in knowing something. Where does the stress fall in "tragedie," in the Monk's Tale? He's been told the second syllable. Nonsense. "TRAH juh DEE uh," I say firmly. I feel very learned, but of course it's Jahan who's giving a paper on the Monk's Tale tomorrow, not me. Even though he's all wrong about the Monk's Tale, and doesn't know jack about Middle English. He's confident and handsome, with a powerful voice; he's sure to get a job, and then to get tenure. He's the sort that does.

Later that evening, or rather that morning, Donna and I dance to the Cars in the living room. She's wearing a transparent blouse and nothing beneath, which contrasts piquantly with her understated, buttoned-up Canadian manner. I forget all about Heike. We talk about Emily Dickinson. Everything she says is very sensible and shrewd. I wish I had things to say, but I don't.

At last the party breaks up. Last to go are Ian and his Turkish partner, Ayse. I'm drunk, and swearing freely. "Good night," I say to Ayse. "Fucking wonderful to have you here. Don't let that damned Scot keep you in purdah!" I smile winningly, as I think -- no doubt leering drunkenly -- and Ian and Ayse, tolerant and courtly always, say good night and thank us.

Quiet comes, like a sudden snowfall. The smell of the smoke and wine becomes old and sad. It would be the last good party we would give in New Haven. The social fabric -- a thing that always seems so solid at the time, but in retrospect looks always so fragile -- was already unraveling, disintegrating. We put on soft, melancholic music, wipe up a few spills, empty a few ashtrays. The lamplight picks up green and brown glints, glows through the rings of wine left in the bottles. I murmur lines from Beowulf. Scyld's body is drifting away on the burning funeral ship:

men ne cunnon,
secgan to sothe,
haeleth under heofonum,
hwa thaem hlaste onfeng.

Men do not know,
truth to tell --
councillors in the hall
or heroes under heaven --
who received that cargo.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


Reading up on the history of massage for a quiz: the usual mindless bashing of the Middle Ages and glorification of the Renaissance. The Middle Ages has no massage texts, we're told darkly, and massage was considered a satanic art (what??!! evidence, please?), whereas in the Renaissance all of a sudden people discovered that they had bodies and wanted them to be healthy. (Apparently in the Middle Ages no one knew they had a body, and everyone wanted to be sick.) My book insists on this wonderful putative resurgence of interest in massage, despite the fact that they can't find a single text dealing with massage from the Renaissance, any more than they can from the Middle Ages. Christ on a crutch. And of course, no recognition at all that the only reason we have all those classical texts that were "rediscovered" by the Renaissance is that for centuries medieval monks laboriously and conscientiously copied and recopied them. I wouldn't dispute that by and large the Middle Ages were hard times, but to my mind they at least had their priorities straight -- if you don't have resources to support much, then at the least you should try to make contemplative life possible. Which they did, better than we do, for all our bloody wealth and science.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Out of Place

A young woman walking down the street at twilight, cradling something protectively in her arms. A kitten? She raises it to her face, as if to kiss it, and I can see that it's a cell phone.

A couple months ago I saw a raccoon, at midmorning, investigating the trash set out for the garbageman. I slowed my bike. The raccoon looked up at me briefly, and went back to the much more interesting business of checking out the trash. "You're supposed to be nocturnal, you know," I said. The raccoon shrugged.

Last week, Martha surprised one in the basement, eating the food we'd put out there for one of our foster-cats. She clapped her hands. The raccoon gave her a look, as if to say "do you mind? I'm eating, here." So she banged an old pot, to make a racket, and the raccoon, with a put-upon air, but no hurry, climbed deliberately back out the cat door.

My flight back from Montreal last Spring had a layover in Detroit. The people, compared to what I had become accustomed to in Montreal, were hugely fat -- more of them were obese than were not -- and they carried bucket-sized paper cups of soda with them at all times; you had the sense that being separated from their sugar supply might send them into a panic. Visualizing all that sugar swirling in their bloodstreams made me feel a little ill. I'm the last person with any business criticizing people for eating unhealthily, but this didn't seem like indulgence, and my response wasn't moral: it seemed like disease, pure and simple. A whole nation with a disordered glucose metabolism.

It wasn't that long after 9/11. Every ten minutes the loudspeakers would urge us to view our fellow passengers, and their bags, with suspicion.

In the tunnel between concourses, riding the whatever-you-call-thems, the horizontal escalators, there was a spectacular light show, and pounding rock music. It was quite beautiful: washes of color over the high, arched ceiling, shifting, turning, and throbbing with the music. But it felt very odd to me, to be entertained while in the midst of doing something -- moving rapidly from one place to another -- quite active and absorbing in itself. When I got to my concourse I tried to position myself where I couldn't see or hear a television, without success. Entertainment wasn't optional, in the Detroit airport. It was mandatory.

I wanted to buttonhole the Europeans and Asians and Africans bustling by, and tell them that this wasn't really America. But I don't know if it would have been the truth. Maybe it really is America, and what I live in is an artificial preserve, the equivalent of a "colonial Williamsburg" where they dress up in frilled caps or leathern pantaloons, and pretend to be living a simple life, to amuse the tourists.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Une Vie Inconnue

Que nous croyions qu´un être participe à une vie inconnue où son amour nous ferait pénétrer, c´est, de tout ce qu´exige l´amour pour naître, ce à quoi il tient le plus, et qui lui fait faire bon marché du reste.

If Proust is right, and we fall in love because we are seeking admission to an unknown world -- well, then it's hardly surprising I would fall in love so often, I who have been haunted all my life by unknown worlds, always looking for doors into places governed by an alien sky, where the rules would all be different. Maybe it is only that I am so clearly unfit for this one, that makes me dream of others.

When people denigrated his books as escape, Tolkien shrugged and asked, what class of persons would most disapprove of escape? And answered himself -- jailers, of course. He didn't much mind being disapproved of by jailers.

Freedom, oh freedom, that's just some people talkin'... I was passionate about freedom once. Political freedom. But I thought the question was simpler then. Now I hear people talk about freedom and most often I can't quite grasp what they're talking about. Free to do what? To forge our very own manacles, the ones that fit our minds most comfortably?

In all the science fiction and fantasy I read as a child, which rotted my brain to such an extent that I still, at this sober age, just a year younger than Bilbo when he went on his adventures, dream about the white spaces at the edges of maps -- in all those books, the moment that held me spellbound was that very first step through the wardrobe door. Everything new. Everything possible. I loved a story as much as anyone, but there was something I loved even more: the moment in which every story, any story, was possible, when maybe one image had appeared -- a snowy forest at evening, say -- but any person or creature might appear, bearing any history, which would sweep us away in an alien current. That wonder. Not precisely wonder at the story. Wonder at the possibility of a story. At the possibility of something new.

The irony is not lost on me that I have been, in this world, one of the most timid and hidebound stay-at-homes that ever lived. Mole, indeed. But maybe it's a tribute to the power of stories of another world, that I seem gradually to be changing places with all those people who would do and dare. The people who were bold seem less so, now, and I seem more so. Or maybe I was never as timid as I think myself. I was shocked, when I came in contact with people from my old highschool last year, by the impression they had of me, which seems to have been one of virility, bordering on machismo. One of them distinctly remembers that I used to wander about in the snow, shirtless, in my bare feet. I don't remember that at all. That's a life so long ago -- before I had closed up the world and decided who I was, I guess. I have a dim memory of being cocksure. But I know there was always a deep timidity in me. as well.

Idle thoughts. I don't believe in character, anyway. There's only one person, really; we're six billion refractions of one image, playing one part today, and another tomorrow. Nothing really holds me in place. There's nothing to prevent my taking the wheel as Mr Toad tomorrow. All that holds me is the story and the habit.

Une vie inconnue. It's foolish to go looking for admission to one. I already have one. I wake up every morning in the white spaces at the edge of the map. Any story can happen; I might be any character, with any history.

All it takes is to stop. Stop choking myself by spinning out threads of stale stories, fine sticky filaments that gather into a suffocating shroud, and shrink, and harden into a masklike carapace. I can only think I know this life by wrapping myself up tightly in my own narrative. I don't know it at all.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ice Fishing

I was a little surprised when Debbie said, at the start, "I don't like really aggressive work, or really deep work." Maybe it's something she says at the start of every student massage; I hope so; I really don't want to be projecting the sort of energy that would prompt someone to say that. Anyway, it was with some chagrin that I got the feedback at the end that she had the feeling I was pulling my punches a little, holding back from what she called "deep contact." "Well of course I was," I didn't quite say, "that's what you told me to do!"

But it's part of something that I've been learning all this quarter: to trust my instincts, and not to let what my client says override what my hands are telling me. "Rely on the chief witness," as the Tong Len aphorism has it. Meaning oneself.

But I know I gave a very competent massage, and she fell asleep a couple times; since what she'd asked for was relaxation, that's pretty good evidence that she got what she asked for. It wasn't however -- obviously -- what she really wanted.

I highlight the only dissatisfaction I had. It was a lovely experience. I have had a close rapport with Debbie since the day last August when -- supposedly to get my documentary proof that I had had a professional massage, but really as part of researching the teachers at East-West -- I got a massage from her. She gave me a warm hug at the door, as I left, then. (Something I gallantly forebore to disclose when a couple months later, in her Massage I class, she told us one shouldn't do that.) A few days later I walked out the door of IBM for the last time. I was done with cubicle-land. I wanted to touch people.

That time, the massage was excellent but not -- in Debbie's words -- "memorable"; this time she gave me a kick-ass massage. I think she was showing off a bit; certainly she was demonstrating what she meant by deep contact. I went in feeling pretty stoked about all I'd learned since Massage I, and I left feeling like I didn't know a damn thing. But inspired. My body had been torn down and completely rebuilt. By God, I thought, I'm going to learn how to do work like that.

I love her office. Earth tones and orange and red -- the padma colors, the heart-Buddha colors. That's what I mean to have too. It's interesting that the Medicine Buddha is blue -- if I were going to do physical therapy, or massage that leaned in that direction, I'd go for blue. Ratna. But that's not what I'm aiming for. I'm all about padma. Connection. Detachment is not my path.

She has a little fountain that gives the sound of trickling water. Can't quite decide whether I think that's sublime or a bit artificial and over the top. And music. I've got to get my music act down. People are going to want it, by and large. I liked the heated table, which surprised me, since I'm often too warm (especially after doing massage!) But it was fine.

She said my abdominal massage was fabulous, which delighted me. She also, like Tele, was completely fine with me reaching under both sides at once to work around the iliac crest from beneath.

She spoke of how she uses accupressure points. "It's like ice-fishing," she said. "Ways in." A whole new set of terminology and locations to learn. But obviously worth it. Several times she used them, to tremendous effect: where I would have laboriously worked over a whole muscle with deep compression and petrissage, she went straight to one spot, and melted the whole muscle from there. She did what I take five minutes to do in one. No wonder I always want to take two hours; it's because I'm so slow. It's good that I want to do a complete massage, but the clock-time required to do that may be a lot less than I've always thought.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Why there is Love

It's very quiet. The swallows flash over the still lake, climb high, topple, and swoop down in stairsteps to skim the surface again. Twilight.

I wander by the huge rough blocks of stone. Just behind me, if I were to turn around, is all the grief of the world. I don't turn around. I walk slowly.

Somewhere, faintly, windchimes.

Why? And to what end? She asked. And so I came here, to the ruins, where I always come in perplexity.

I don't know. Why love? An odd, but characteristic question. It demands a story. Children ask questions like that, and you bring out the oldest, most treasured, most intractable stories of your race in answer.

Once upon a time, there was a flower, and it was all alone.

But my mind goes blank when I try to imagine the void that preceded love. Like trying to imagine the shape of the waters before the Lord divided them with the firmament.

The sun is a small, pale circle beyond the cloud. Perhaps it was the sun, not a flower:

Once upon a time there was the sun, and she was all alone.

You can't even begin a story until there are two characters. Perhaps the real difficulty I have with monotheism is a narrative one.

The sun walked by herself in the fields of the sky, gathering a garland of stars, and as she walked she wept.

Till finally the swallows took pity on her, and wove the moon out of the tears she had dropped, and stretched him like a net in the night sky.

And the net was called the Moon, and he grew in secret, and he was cold, and stars caught in his twining cords. And he wept and starved where he had been splayed, and he dwindled and lessened for fourteen days.

Until the Sun lifted her eyes and was astonished and she said, "who are you? And where do you come from?"

And the Moon was ashamed, because he didn't know, but he was suffused with light and warmth, and for fourteen days he grew.

That's why there is love.

The faint disk of the sun fades into the cloudbank. The swallows have left the water. The last light drains from the rock.

To what end? That, we still don't know.