Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dwelling in the Body

I read the books -- I've just been paging through Beck's Therapeutic Massage -- with some impatience. This is a field in which what you can learn from books is limited. I learn most from two things: getting massage, and massaging myself, and thinking about it. When I'm going to work on someone the next day, I lie in bed and try things out. What ways of opening the chest are there? What feels good and right, what awkward and bad? How should a person breathe while I'm pressing in on the ribs?

A wonderful thing about massage school, all along, was that our own bodies were always there for a cheat-sheet, and our teachers were enlightened enough to encourage us to use them. Where does the pronator teres attach? Well, take hold of it and feel it bulge as you pronate the forearm, and find out. It's all right there.

If I have a mission as a therapist, it's to encourage people to explore their own bodies. It's a variation on the theme that I keep returning to: to dwell in our lives, instead of camping in them. Applied to the body, it's: live in this body, here, now, not the perfect body we ought to have or will have. There's so much that can be done to open it, to release what's tight and stuck, to relieve what's suffering. What I was trying to get at a week or two ago, clumsily, is just that the shame so many of us have about the body makes us stupid about it. It makes us neglect to learn the simplest things about it, to take the simplest steps to make it work more comfortably, rest more deeply. It's a profoundly malleable system, in many many ways. Losing thirty pounds may be beyond the power of most of us, but learning to sit untwisted, with nice support for our arms and lumbar spine, is not. Finding our own trigger points and working them out it is simple and pleasurable. Stretching out comfortably -- not trying to lengthen anything or force anything, but just stretching, like a cat -- is almost always an option.

But we'll do none of those things if we're holding our body, as it were, at arm's length. We have to be inside it, be noticing it, and be kindly toward it.

Before I went to massage school I was in physical pain or discomfort, probably, more often than not. The spooky thing is that I didn't even know it. I wasn't paying attention. It becomes normal: the stiff neck, the aching lumbar spine, the shoulders hunched forward, the head thrust down, the breathing rapid and shallow. I didn't realize that I was uncomfortable; I didn't check in often enough to know. I came to think of it as normal that closing my eyes brought relief from a burning sensation, that lying down made my low back gratefully but gingerly let go a desperate clutch.

I used to look at middle-aged or old people, with their bowed shoulders and forward-thrust heads and leaden gait, and wonder how they got that way. Now I know precisely how they got that way.

The body does wear out, no matter what you do. I've no patience with the prophets of eternal youth -- it's another part of the shame culture; now you're supposed to be ashamed of being old, as well as of being fat and wrong-shaped. That's not what I'm getting at. What I'm getting at is a basic attitude of kindliness and openness to the body. Listening to it. Assuming from the start that what hurts hurts for a good reason, and that's there's something you can do for it. Maybe it has to hurt. If so, by all means, bring out your stoicism and just cope. But only after you've explored it and found out what it really is, thought about what you do that makes it better and what you do that makes it worse, after you've experimented with manipulating it, and moving and sitting and resting in different ways. No one else has access to anything like your wealth of information about your own body. It will talk to you, if you'll talk to it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The river pulls under the Hawthorne bridge
On its way to the Columbia. The same river
You can see from the high windows of the hospital
Where I was born, a hundred miles south of here.
The Willamette. It runs through a country of
extraordinary fertility before
It empties into the Columbia, and the two
Together make their last crook to the sea.

It runs green higher up and swift,
Brown lower down and slow. Full of poison,
Runoff from the myriad farms of the Valley;
But better than when I was young,
And no one worried at all about poisoned rivers,
Except cranks like my Dad. It is not quite dead.
And maybe it will live someday again.

Here, under the Hawthorne Bridge, the water
Dimples and swirls against the pylons,
Cold, glossy, taciturn. How many postcards
Is it carrying, I wonder, messages written
For no one to read, messages for the river
To keep? Cruelties too deep to fathom,
Too hard to understand; glossed as
Personal failures, because
Any explanation is better than none.
The river will carry them home.

It pulls. All that water. The droplet from
The huckleberry leaf on Hardesty Mountain;
The trickle from the culvert in the shabby
Vacant lot in Cottage Grove; the dripping
Rain from the alder leaves on the dry side
Of the Coast Range. All of it pulling together,
The cool brown veins of Oregon, the blood
Running exhausted to the lungs of the sea.

Oregon. Some of my people, the ones with
The French name, came from southern France.
The neighborhood of Lyon. Settled in New Jersey.
It took three more generations to get here. Even I
Did not quite stay still, moving down the river
To Portland. But here I stay. And the river
Speaks to me. It warns me
That some things do not come back. The sea-tides
Talk of eternity, fair enough; but rivers are about
What does not return.

Which is why I stay here in the gentle country
(Though God knows it has seen cruelty enough.)
This green, green home of light through rain,
This valley where all things grow, rice and peas,
Sheep and grapes for wine, beans and strawberries;
This kind and quiet country of running streams,
Where people can afford to smile at strangers.
We face ruin here, as everywhere else. Our small
Towns are emptied of young men to fight
In cruel inexplicable countries, oceans away,
Who come back broken, hoarse, and bearded
To beg along with the Indians on Skid Road;
And the rain is cold when you have nowhere to go.

But still. A more forgiving land than most,
And anyway, it's home. I will stay here, and die here,
Having done little enough for my country, but
Having loved it anyway as it should be loved.

Upriver, to the south, under the freeway bridge,
The dragon boats glow in the watery sun,
And their paddles flash as they pull.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Stoney Moss

Portlanders Who Make Me Happy, I

First of all, there's Stoney Moss, a blog that has firmly rejected the pernicious advice that a blog should be all about one thing. Stoney Moss is about pretty much everything. It's one of the rare tandem blogs that works (Feathers of Hope being another outstanding example: is it accident that both dip into birding from time to time? I don't think so.)

Both Deb and WD (Whirling Dervish) write poetry sometimes, and both write prose sometimes. They write about whatever they damn well please. It might be a riveting narrative of being lost on a mountain ("please god, if you get me off this mountain, I will stop what I've been doing and I will grow up. I will make it worth it."), or a Mother's Day prose poem ("I draw better than Mother and my eyes are hard; dark circles with icy-blue shadow,") or a triolet love-poem ("when I run a soft hand over your warm walls / I feel history echo in my palms") addressed to a house, or a devastating poem about broken glass ("Broken plates thrown in a rage. / White crumbs on my tongue / when I lick the floor in remorse.") Then again it might be a list of topics for sociology research papers or an Audubon alert about the Portland urban growth boundary. You have no idea. It's Christmas morning with funny relatives in town: God knows what will be under the tree. It might be personal or political, poetic or prosaic. Almost always there's a laugh somewhere in the midst of it: neither Deb nor WD ever takes herself seriously for long.

(Strictly speaking WD is not a Portlander -- she's earning a doctorate back east -- but she has been one, and please God will be again.)

In any case, Stoney Moss has become one of my favorite stops on the information highway, one of the handful of blogs I visit before they pop up in Google Reader, because I'll probably want to read the last post again.

Friday, May 23, 2008

As If It Mattered

songs after the wedding

Voices rose in the kitchen, arguing
Poetics, or politics, passionately.
Tom Montag looked at me,
That stolid Midwestern face
Unmoving, but the eyes, as always, vivid.
"As if it mattered," he said.
"As if it mattered."

What matters
Is leaving the door open
And a place laid
So that gods and ghosts,
Skywalkers and wandering players,
Have a place at the table.

Easier said than done:
In the nature of things
You plan for the expected guests.

This is
The year the tanagers came
And the year of my first colonoscopy;
I must say that our rites of passage
Are every bit as odd as anything I read
In books of anthropology.

The trouble with God
Is that she doesn't want to be courted,
Cajoled, coerced, publicized,
Or understood. She only wants
Our stiff necks to bow.

Give me your hand
We'll walk behind the waterfall
As shy as the water-ousels.

The spray would be blown into your hair
And if I brushed it out of your face
My hand would be wet
And my thumb, when it touched your lips
Would taste of the waterfall.

Sometimes I wish
They had never made all the songs.

But here, the small rain
Down can rain
The waitresses
Are beautiful
And the tall, bearded cook
Looks like he sprang
From the deck of a trireme.

Don't waste time.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Opening the Heartspace

A stain of light moved up into the sky. We were still, but it moved anyway, and gathered itself. The birds began singing. Daylight.

Dream and waking. My hands are heavy: they never like the change of the weather. Last night I worked with the breath, the abdominals, the pecs, and when I came to her scalenes -- usually like taut steel cables beside the cervical vertebrae -- they were soft. I couldn't believe it. Was it the breath work? I don't know. I wish I'd checked on the scalenes before. I've been working to soften those scalenes for months, and now they were opening like flowers.

The scalenes are breathing muscles, above all; they lift the first and second ribs. So it's certainly possible that the breathwork did it. I hold two points in the abs and have you breathe into them. The first time I give resistance. At the second breath I simply let the two points ride up. Then I move a couple inches up and do it again. It's not a technique I learned: I just made it up, experimenting on myself.

And then tapotement with the fingertips, like a heavy summer rain, over the pecs. I used to waste so much time on the upper back, where everyone always thinks the trouble is, where they always want you to work. The upper back's where you feel it, of course, when you're working with your shoulders hunched forward; they're both overstretched and overworked, stabilizing the scaps and holding up the head. But you can work the upper back muscles forever without doing much good. The root of the matter is the pecs and the ribs, closing over the heart, pulling the shoulders and the head forward. All of the attention out there, two feet out in space: the scaps dragged inevitably further and further apart. On some people the shoulder blades, which really ought to rest maybe a handsbreadth apart, are a foot, even a foot and a half, away from each other, perched at the corners of the shoulders. There's no way to fix that from the back. It's the pecs that are doing it, hauling the shoulders relentlessly forward and closing the heartspace. It's the pecs and the serratus anterior that have to be released, before the rhomboids and traps can begin to bring the scaps back together, and give the upper back some relief.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


While I was sick I started rereading Tony Hillerman's mysteries, the ones set in the Navajo country of New Mexico. In a couple of them, someone who's Navajo by blood, but who's grown up with no contact with Navajos, shows up on the Reservation, and puts the protagonists -- Navajo Tribal Police -- out of all reckoning, because they keep expecting him to act like a Navajo and he doesn't.

I thought of that yesterday, as I was doing one of my rare massages of men. That's how I feel among men. I look like one of them, but somehow I never learned the culture. I can pass as one (and very convenient it is, in a society that's loaded in favor of men), but I don't like to talk to them for long, because sooner or later they'll tip to the fact that I'm not really one of them. I have no idea how a man doing a massage of a man is expected to act, so I just have to fake it. I was telling this to Martha, and she said, "Yes, that's how I feel about women."

It has nothing to do with orientation. My preference for women has been one of the few constants of my life. Nor does it have to do with identity. I have no sense of being wrongly gendered. I don't feel that I am a woman or should be a woman. It's just that women make sense to me. I understand what they do, I understand how they talk. It's no accident that, having found finally a work situation in which I thrive and am happy, it's in an office consisting of myself and seven women.

This sense of being out of place was strongest in school, and its focal point was cruelty. Boys enjoyed cruelty, or pretended to, in a way that made me sick and frightened. They killed and tortured things. They went out of their way to stomp on bugs, and nothing seemed to rivet their delighted attention like the mangled corpse of a possum or a bird or a squirrel. I knew they shared at least some of my horror and revulsion, but it seemed to have no admixture of pity in them; and it modulated, somehow, into a giddy pleasure that I didn't understand, and didn't want to. I knew from that time that I was a defector; that I couldn't and wouldn't be one of them. What I didn't know was that there would be room in the world for me anyway. A suburban American schoolyard is not a good point of vantage for observing the variety of the world's cultures and its multiplicity of subcultures. I simply thought that I would be alone, now and forever.

Unless: unless I could defect. Somehow cross into the world of girls. There were not all that many girls that made sense to me either; they had a tendency to find bugs icky and to place inordinate attention upon clothes; but at least some of them made sense. I wanted to stow away among girls.

Well. There's a way to do that, a way that opens up when adolescence comes along. You become a ladies' man. You simply go permanently into courtship mode. You smile at girls, you chat with them, you simply pay attention to them. And some of them like it. It means that you have a lot of ambiguous relationships: most of your friendships carry some erotic charge, and some carry a lot. This brings its own predictable consequences. But at least you have friendships.

Fast-forward thirty years, and here I am. I was driving home the other night from having done two massages -- a woman and her female friend from out-of-state. They had hung out and chatted happily with me, in their pajamas, while I folded my table and packed up. As I drove, I marvelled that I was so happy. Happy-relieved. What was that?

I finally did it, I decided. I finally crashed the girls' slumber party. It's what I always wanted to do, and now I've done it.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Awash in dirty dishes, dirty laundry, paper that may or may not need to be dealt with. We don't keep up well at the best of times, and since one member of the family after another has been methodically struck down by this stomach virus, the confusion has multiplied to a pleasing state of complete clarity: it's too much. It's absurd. It's out of control. Or, to be accurate, we're out of control.

And suddenly everything comes into focus. The vague uneasiness comes to a point, and I remember why, why everything happened in the first place.

So this morning, I stacked up some pillows on the bed and sat and said my prayers, did five minutes of meditation. Woke Alan. Brought him some tea. Threw in another load of diarrhea- and vomit-tinged laundry. Took him to school.

It's not just a matter of being well again, though this turning is one of the blessings of illness, like the blessing of sleeping and waking, the blessing of summer and winter. My mind is clear for the first time in a year. It's with relief that I come back to my business, knowing what I'm doing. Many things that I put in place when I last was clear-minded are still in place. There's a great deal to build on.

But a great deal, a great deal to do. The mosquito people will remind me. They're plentiful this year. Not a single one has bitten me, though I have been nudged and fluttered by them for days. I am usually the darling of the mosquito people, but they're being very formal with me. I'm not quite sure what this means.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


A yearning to bring it down to a few simple things: to stone, water, and light; to eggs and a slice of melon; to the fog snagged in the douglas fir boughs.

The cat trots eagerly into the room, every hunting sense wide open, her eyes green as new grass. We try to keep her inside in the morning, when the young birds seem most foolhardy, but it's like trying to stem the tide. Yesterday she startled us by dropping down onto the bed from the second-floor skylight: she had figured out a way onto the roof and had been chasing the squirrels up there.

The first really hot days of the year. I found myself singing "Paint it Black" under my breath, yesterday.

I see the girls go by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

And I was amused, then, to see May linking to the same song. Spring has come to Italy too.

Fall, on the other hand, has come to the Antipodes. I can never quite wrap my mind around that. As you wrote this, commented Jarrett, I was walking across Sydney, wrapped in New Zealand merino. I could see him vividly, and feel the cold wind following him down the street.

But that was in a far country

It runs like blood under the skin. (We say "under," but there's not a living cell in the body the blood doesn't reach; it really runs more like water in wet sand than like a river running underground.) Love, or God, or what's-it: sweet and cruel and overpowering.

Never does Buddhism seem more inadequate. Never do the religions of my fathers make more sense, with their jealous violent Gods and wars in Heaven and covenants sealed in the blood of innocents.

But if you wait, if you're still for long enough, the blood, though it doesn't drop, reconfigures spontaneously into a wholly different pattern: the night stars burning brilliantly, white and blue, topaz and crimson, far older than the Sun and its summers and winters; the sweep of the Milky Way. The Buddha no more than the Christ is a tame lion.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Come, Seeling Night

I hate it when some imp puts an invisible megaphone to my mouth, and everything I say comes out strident and bullyingly positive.

Time to back oars and wait a bit, drift a bit.

The heat of the day has broken, and cool air is coming into the house. Evening.

I close my eyes, pretend to be dozing, and recite my refuge prayers to myself. Do a three-breath meditation. On the East Coast night fell long ago; midnight now. In Europe it's early morning; still dark. Dawn I suppose in Russia. (Do I know anyone in Russia? Not any more, I think.) Soen Joon in Korea is probably in the thick of her studies: it's the middle of the day there.

Quiet, quiet. Let the night come here. Just here, just now.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I'm wearing a garland of May flowers. Ashley, my daughter's partner, took it from her own head and dropped it on mine.

"Now I'm the Queen of May," I said. As to say, "Now I expect some respect."

I'm feeling much better, if not quite right. The weather has turned glorious.

Suddenly western tanagers are everywhere; in our back yard, across the street from Tosi's, in other back yards around Portland, apparently. As well as in Bonta's latest poem.

Brilliant, unstable, love-riddled, May-painted.

I loved the picture of them laughing in the wind in front of their yurt. Celibate and never more than fifteen feet apart. The precision and arbitrariness will distress some people; exactly fifteen, no more and no less. But you learn, you learn. In difficult boundaries exactness is your only hope.

The exact curve of your thigh under my hand. The way my palm rests on the saddle of your ankle, like two parts of a broken fossil finding each other again. The way the careless gray strands of hair fall across your cheek.

Last night a mosquito came in through the open door, and nuzzled my arms, lingering. I flapped my book at her, blew her away from my face. But all I was really doing was saying: bite me someplace I won't notice, dear. You don't have to go away.

Thank you for indulging my self pity! Better now, stronger.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

This Denim Couch My Prison

I wonder how the abdominal muscles stay in shape for vomiting. For months, or years, I don't use them for that, but when the time comes they empty my stomach with force and alacrity, as if I'd been practicing for weeks. How do they do that?

I wonder about wanting to be elsewhere, living for the future or for the past, camping in our lives rather than dwelling in them. Is wanting to be enlightened is just another version of this wanting to be somewhere else? I think so. So the part of Dharma that's thinking about it, writing about it, arguing about it is just the same old thing. Without practice, that is. You have to start somewhere and catch hold of something.

"I want to be dead," I heard myself saying, in the throes of this sickness.

I was surprised to hear myself say that. "You mean, 'I want to be well,' don't you?" I asked.

I considered. "I can't imagine being well," I answered. "So I want to be dead."

"But you can't imagine being dead either."

"No, but I can imagine the petulance of wanting it. I can't imagine the hope of getting well."

Our neighbor on the corner planted some trees, about ten years ago, that have grown very tall: they are strangly pale, all light-gray, white, and silver. I can see them through the little window above the mantel, from this denim couch my prison.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Virus. Nausea. Malaise. Et cetera. Had to cancel my evening appt. :-(

Love, love, love, it settles quickly.
The brown flowerdregs of spring, the leafmold of fall:
silting into the sidewalk cracks, tamping down
this version of true.

Friday, May 09, 2008

What I Hate Even Worse

But you know what I hate even worse? It's when somebody describes pain in their feet, or their knees, or their back, and then quickly says, "I know what I really need to do is lose some weight." As if to say, "I know this is really self-inflicted, sorry to bother you with it, really I deserve to be in pain."

No. No, you don't deserve to be in pain. And an extra twenty or thirty pounds probably has nothing to do with it; an extra hundred pounds probably has nothing to do with it. (Except that you may have put on weight because moving around hurts). Skinny people have plenty of foot and knee and back trouble, trust me.

Doctors, who are generally ignorant about the causes of myofascial pain and how to deal with it*, advise people to lose weight all the time, despite the fact that nobody has a method for losing weight, in the real world, for the long term, that's very effective. It's just silly to go around saying that people ought to be able to lose weight when obviously, in the long term, most of them can't. It's not only silly, it's cruel. So you have a metaphysical doctrine that says people can control what they eat by the exertion of will power. Bully for you; you can believe whatever you like to believe; but what right have you to lay your bizarre religious doctrines on other people? People come to you for help, not for preaching. Prescribing cures that have a 5% to 10% effectiveness, at best, and then blaming people when they don't work, is not good medical practice.

There are millions of people who are suffering daily pain, sometimes excruciating, sometimes disabling pain, and doing nothing about it (except guiltily taking some pain medications and compromising their livers), because they've been told that it's their own fault, and that the only real thing they could do about would be to exert their will power and lose weight.

It's not true. None of it is true. There's nothing wrong with your will power; it works about the same as everyone else's.** Your pain isn't caused by being overweight. It isn't caused (not directly, anyway) by stress. It's caused by purely mechanical problems that have mechanical fixes: fascia that's stuck, unresolved trigger points in the muscles, bad ergonomics at work or at home, insufficient rest, nutritional deficiencies. The weight is the least of your troubles: if you miraculously dropped to your recommended weight overnight, your pain might become a bit easier to work around, but it would not go away.

* I'm sorry to keep dissing doctors. I have great respect for medical doctors; what they're good at they're very good at. But I work in a field that makes their deficiencies rather glaringly obvious. People come to me with pain that's been diagnosed as arthritic, that can't possibly be arthritic; they come to me diagnosed (correctly) with plantar fasciitis, without having been told about the most elementary stretching exercises for alleviating it. These things aren't rocket science. They're just things that doctors aren't taught to take very seriously: lives are made miserable by them, but people don't die of knee pain or plantar fasciitis.

** Nobody -- nobody -- resists overwhelming, omnipresent temptation, in the long-term. Most people who are fat are tempted to overeat that way. Most people who aren't fat aren't. I think it's likely that when we really understand the metabolic mechanisms of appetite, we'll work out how most people can live in the normal state of mild, passing, intermittent tempation, and most of us won't overeat. Heroic exertions of the will, and shame at their failure, are dear to the traditions of revealed religion, but they're not a good basis for public health.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


A long, long spiral of delight winds down from heaven; it kisses me between the shoulder blades. Wind stirs the lilacs and the fruit-tree branches, clotted with wet blossom. The air is sweet and something eases in my eye sockets. It's all okay.

Oh lovely, lovely, lovely: the way the biceps dives under the pec major, the way the curves of both carom off the curve of the deltoid.

If one more woman apologizes to me for being ten imaginary pounds overweight, I am going to scream.

1) You are not overweight
2) It would be no damn business of your massage therapist if you were
3) You are so beautiful that it makes my heart sing

Let's just get a few more things straight, while we're at it. Your ass is not too big. Your ankles are not too thick. Your legs are not the wrong length, they're not too hairy, and they're not the wrong shape. Your belly is not too large / soft / pendulous. Your skin is not too wrinkly / blemished / pimply. Your upper arms are not too flabby. Your hair is not too thin / coarse / straight / kinky. And it's not the wrong color. Oh, and your toes? They're bashed up a little and the nails aren't perfect. Neither are mine. That's because we walk around on them instead of keeping them in a box on the shelf.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


You gaze bleakly from the back of the book;
your mouth the straight and bitter line
of a man who can neither nurse a grudge
nor give one up. You are a poet, which you thought

was what you wanted. We all make mistakes.
Loneliness rises from the pages like
the sour dust of old newspapers.
Immortality is a dubious achievement

if you're not sure you want to live.
I want to say: lighten up, it's only poetry
the love you have already is enough;
you're the sort of man who burns

only one bridge at a time. Take what you have.
Stop here. Compromise: philander if you must, but
lie about it like a man. The truth you serve
is no more true than a story about

how you had to work late at the office.
You only wanted to be loved. Me too: that's not
such a terrible crime. You wanted to be understood,
and that's not so terrible either, except

that you wanted to be understood on your own terms,
and that's what nobody gets. Not even poets.
Don't get me wrong. It's a beautiful book, and it taught me
Cautiously to love you.

But stop here. Stop cultivating
desolation. It grows fast enough in waste ground
all by itself.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Feed Your Horse First

It's a delight too to work on a perfectly healthy body: I thrust my hands under her back and it was easy, everything ran so free; her spine rose like a dolphin; nothing was stuck, nothing was guarded. Oh, there was a bit to do in the pecs and the abdominals; sore hamstrings; but mostly it was a body in perfect working order: young, soft, strong, fluid and malleable.

I admire bodies in a new way, now. I ogle shoulder girdles: "lovely," I think, "all the room in the world between the clavicle and the ribs. No thoracic outlet syndrome for her!" A scapula with full range of motion entrances me. Someone looks gracefully back over his shoulder and I think, "If you knew, if you only knew, what a blessing it is to be able to do that, and how many people can't!"

Sunday was an exasperating day: I had to turn two prospective clients away because I was scheduled for the afternoon, and then my afternoon appointment cancelled. So I was grumpy, and it was lucky that I had yesterday's lovely massage to restore my spirits.

I was reading Polka Dot Witch's tuesday confession: she wrote that her back was killing her and she wouldn't go see a doctor. I was about to write a Dutch uncle comment, telling her to take care of it right away, when I realized that I myself was sitting there with a crick in my neck and stiffness in my back. Physician, heal thyself!

So I put down the laptop and went into the massage / shrine room and took out that most magnificent creation of modern civilization, the tennis ball.

Got down on the floor on my back and slipped the ball underneath, and gradually worked it up and down the paraspinals on both sides. Oh, my God, it was glorious. And then stood up and leaned against it to work the upper traps and lev scaps, the neck and shoulder muscles. Wonderful. Now I can go talk like a Dutch uncle to the Witch. I wouldn't go see a doctor about my back -- what do doctors know about backs? But I'd do something about it right now, right away.

I've had a rule of thumb for twenty years. It's like the cowboy's rule of "feed your horse first"; it's "take care of the body first." If my back and my emotional life and my work and my spiritual practice are all wrecks, my back is what I should attend to first. I've often regretted deviating from that rule, but I've never regretted following it.

You know what's wrong with 21st Century Americans? They won't do preparation, maintenance or repair. I had huge resistance to riding a bicycle rather than driving, and it wasn't anything to do with the extra time or the extra exposure to the weather. The resistance was to the few simple acts of preparation at the start -- putting on the helmet and the velcro doo-dad to keep my pants-leg out of the chain, putting on gloves if it was cold, settling my backpack in the rear basket and putting a waterproof cover over it. A total of two or three minutes, and it was, till I got used to it, almost unendurable to me. Because it made me feel stupid, a doofus, a loser, to prepare like that. And then I had to take the things off and lock up the bike when I got to my destination. I'm not sure where that sense of shame comes from, but I wouldn't underestimate its influence on what we choose to do. I have a similar resistance to adjusting the brakes on the bike. The tension gradually goes off them, and I have to adjust them. A slight nuisance, a few minutes' work every few weeks: but it looms ridiculously large, and I always wait until the brakes are dangerously soft before doing it. And my impulse is to want to buy a new bicycle rather than spend -- what? maybe half an hour a year? on maintenance. I'm tempted to spend $600 rather than do a half-hour's work.

Notice that the emotion here is shame. A sense that if preparation, maintenance, or repair is needed it means that I've been caught out, found wanting.

Monday, May 05, 2008


From her secret heart at home come crawling
Disobediences, clinging with tacky feet
To the hivestick, struggling with honey, betrayed
By their fellow insects. Six legs
Are all the better for snaring.

Jeans that seemed to fit at the store
Refuse to budge; his wriggling hand
Can neither advance nor retreat; her own smell
Disgusts her. But weakened by desire,

Weakened by the way things never work,
Everything breaks, everyone lies, she will
Just this once, just for now, give up:
If he can get the jeans off, good luck to him.
She'll make up a story when the time comes.

It wasn't supposed to be this way
But she always knew it would.
It wasn't supposed to be this way
But she always knew it would.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

On My Fifth Blogday

I started this blog on May 2nd, 2003: five years and a day ago.

I can discern three loose and overlapping phases to it. At first it was a practice journal, primarily about Buddhism and the Vajrayana.

Then came the Laupe phase, in which that community of spiritually-minded writers became a home and a refuge, and gave me room to think through and come to grips with worldly discontents, and to make some radical wordly changes. My practice had been serving partly as a way of putting off setting my house in order. But practice is lousy for that: it keeps bringing you face to face with what's there. What was there, was that I was working at something I had no stake in, with people to whom I felt no connection, in order to maintain a prosperity that I didn't think was really doing me or my dependents any good.

So, borrowing courage from my Laupe friends, I quit IBM, and went to massage school. The first day of class, when we were asked to say a bit about why we were there, I looked around at all the twenty-year-olds and said, "I'm here because I've wanted to do this for... well, for longer than most of you have been alive."

Practice took a back seat. Which was appropriate. The support I felt here -- and leaned on very heavily -- was extraordinary. I'm very grateful to you.

In the last couple years, things have changed yet again. I've taken to reading and writing poetry. I've always read and loved old poetry, but my interest peaked at Shakespeare, and tailed off: the only "moderns" I cared much for were Yeats and Eliot. That, as far as I was concerned, was the end of English poetry.

One of my favorite blogs, discovered early in my blog existence, had been Via Negativa, by Dave Bonta. I loved the range of his thought, his openness, his eye for detail, his kindness, his refusal to prettify. But he did a queer thing. He wrote poems. Just as if no one had ever told him that poetry was a dead language, as if he thought people still wrote in it. And they were good poems. Beautifully made things that held the best of his thought and his eye.

I didn't know quite what to make of this aberrant behavior. It took me a while to credit the fact that I was reading contemporary poetry, for pleasure, just as I might read Chaucer or Donne. I found I was reading other blog-poets with pleasure too. And, with a sense that I was doing something rather ridiculous and spurious, I started writing poems myself. To my astonishment, people read them. Not as many people. My poems generally garner about half the comments that my prose posts do, and I reckon that probably corresponds roughly to how much they're read. But people read them and responded to them.

I don't think I'm a very good poet. I think I'm a good prose stylist, in a somewhat heavy and elaborate way: but I don't really think in verse, mostly. I've written a few good poems and a lot of not very good ones. I don't think of myself as a poet. I don't want to be a poet. But I do want to read and write poems.

And so we're in the third phase. Bonafide poetry blogs have started to show up on my blogroll. At some point I'm probably going to collect together a print-on-demand book of my poems. At the same time, Portlanders, some of them poets, are starting to show up in my blogroll. And the distance between my blog persona and my real-life persona continues to erode. I feel that I'm just too old, now, to maintain pretenses. If people don't like who I am, that's tough. This is it, this is who I am, this is what I'm doing in the world.

And also at the same time I'm increasingly turning back to Buddhism and meditation. I have lower expectations of it now, I guess: it's more a matter of spiritual hygiene for me, now, than a way to escape the human condition. It's not going to change my life, and I don't ask it to. It's a way of touching base. I meditate now because when I stop, my mind deteriorates: it becomes more anxious, obsessive, compulsive and narrow. I don't think I have a lot more to say about it. Not at the moment. A lot of my ideation about it, the stuff I wrote in the early years of this blog, seems to me now a little overwrought and overstated. And I didn't fully understand, then, how many other ways there are of unwinding confusion: in particular, my tradition of Buddhism undervalues the role the body can play in it, as drastically as mainstream American Christianity does. (See Maria's fascinating commentaries on the yoga sutras of Patanjali.)

But still, Buddhism is the center of my life, and my practice community is KCC -- Kagyu Changchub Chuling -- even if only some twenty percent of the people now there have any idea who I am. I need a holy space: I need people to join me in prostrations, to mumble prayers to the three jewels, and dedications of merit, in that rather dreary monotone that comes of imitating the drone of Tibetan prayer in a language that has no tonal variation. It is something to sit in a roomful of people who are, momentarily, determined to end the suffering of every single sentient being in the universe. That's absurdity on a grand scale: that's the kind of silliness without which we can't be fully human.

So. Thank you, old friends and new, for walking with me in this virtual space, and loaning me your courage and your insight. Thank you. That this experience could be so rich was, like most blessings, wholly unexpected.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Sick, Injured, Deformed

When I was in massage school, and thought about the kind of practice I wanted to have, I pictured primarily relaxation massage and maybe sports massage: working on healthy bodies, tuning them up a little, helping them rest. With some shame, I owned to myself that working on sick, injured, or deformed people just scared me too much. I hate hurting people; the idea of blundering and making something worse appalled me; and from childhood I've averted my eyes from injury and deformity. I knew that these people needed massage all the more, but I thought that I wouldn't be able to face it. Someone else would have to do those massages.

The experience has been the opposite of what I expected. I find that I love working on injuries. I love tuning my touch to what someone with Crohn's or fibromyalgia or CFS can handle. Helping someone with cancer do the delicate work of flushing the chemo back out of the tissue is something that gives me great satisfaction. I work happily with scars. It's startling how wrong I was about how I'd feel about these things. People comment on how confidently I approach injuries: "my other therapist was basically afraid to touch it," they say.

And I find that doing the work has radically changed how I respond to the sick, injured, or deformed that I meet in my daily life. I no longer avert my gaze. I'm thinking about what they might need, how I might approach touching them. And I think now that the instinctive aversion was not at all what I thought it was, and nothing I needed to be ashamed of. It was the instinct to touch and explore and help running smack into the deeply ingrained injunctions not to look -- not to notice -- to pretend nothing was wrong. It wasn't disgust. It was baffled tenderness.

And when you actually work with something, it becomes clear that what's extraordinary isn't the injury, the tumor, or the weakness. What's extraordinary is the heroism with which the body is rising to its challenge, how determined it is to find the workarounds, how tenderly it cradles and protects its healing parts.

There's always something you can do. That's another thing I hadn't really understood. Just to lightly rest your hand on an injured place, and let the warmth and light soak into it, and and let it shine back from it into your hand -- that's therapy. It says, to the broken limb or the radiation-seared tissue, you still belong in the human world, you still can give and receive love.

Bodies, even officially healthy bodies, rot and stink and decay. It's going on all the time. We don't need to hide it or ignore it. We don't need to make it something that isolates us. We can make it a ground of love. We had better make it a ground of love, in fact; because it's the only ground we have.