Sunday, June 29, 2008

Second Turn

I like to master things. I find it challenging to read contemporary poetry, because I learned to read poetry, really, as a student, and established poetry is always wedged in between magisterial introductions and learned footnotes. I didn't always agree with these things, of course, but they oriented me, and gave me a sense for what people, in general, thought the poetry was doing. And they were boxed up. The Complete Poems of Wordsworth really is the complete poems of Wordsworth. He's not going to blindside you by suddenly writing a new book. A living poet might do all sorts of unpredictable things. And the jury is still out. You might stupidly admire something contemporary that the cognoscenti despise, or dislike something they admire. That would be fine -- my taste has always been eccentric -- but only if you knew it. If you know it, you're unorthodox; otherwise you're just dim. But there's no way to master a contemporary poet. (I'm sure academics try, very hard, but you really can't.)

Which is why, probably, this sort of sidling into reading contemporary poetry by reading the poems in people's blogs, was the best, possibly the only, route for me into reading it. If you know somebody, their poetry becomes a personal communication. You don't try to master it. You just listen to it. And it brought into play for me the long-practiced skills of sympathetic critical reading I developed as a teacher. What are they trying to say? Where are they trying to go? How can I help them get there? It was an unexpectedly rich experience.

My taste is extremely old-fashioned. It's taken me a long time to accustom myself to poetry that has no regular meter. My initial -- and still active -- response is, why should I call this poetry? Isn't this just prose in tiny paragraphs, with a ragged right margin, borrowing solemnity from its betters?

And the answer, as always with contemporary poetry, is -- well, it depends. There's no reason, of course, why prose shouldn't be written in tiny paragraphs. And no particular reason why poetry should be written in lines: there are other ways of marking rhythmic divisions and pauses. Some people have a keen sense of the rhythm and music of word-sequences, and some don't. As I've read more of the anarchic poetry that rules the roost nowadays, I've become more tolerant of it. It takes a little longer to evaluate, is all. Someone writing truly vile iambic pentameter betrays their incompetence within a line or two. But it can take twenty or thirty lines of anarchic verse, or even more, before you can safely conclude that the poet has a tin ear. It's hard to be sure; you might just have your metronome set wrong.

I had to become more tolerant of it, though, because it turned out that it was the sort of verse I wrote myself. I experimented a lot, and still do, with meter. But on the balance my metrically regular poems are simply worse than my irregular ones. I'm glad to have the skills, to be able to count out the stresses and patterns; it gives me a shortcut sometimes to understanding why something doesn't work and what I have to do to fix it. And I clue in quicker, perhaps, to the way that iambic pentameter still dominates English poetry: every reader of English can feel the sense of relief when a poem wanders into it for a few lines, the ease and comfort and smoothness of it, even if they don't know why. It helps to be able to put your finger on it.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

First Turn

I find myself in alien territory, surrounded by poets. I'm surprised by how deep the conviction runs: I am no poet. Not that it matters: it's hard to see how it could matter to anyone, except -- and I only dubiously except -- me.

No, the interesting part is the the resistance itself: what is that made of? Immediately I see in my mind's eye the college professor, whom I had shown some poems in my sophomore year, struggling for a kind way to put it. "Well," he began, reluctantly, "I think there are poetry people, and there are prose people."

He wasn't one of those professors who like to extinguish students. He had praised my prose extravagantly. And what I can remember of the poems I gave him makes me cringe. Did I simply walk away with that assessment internalized?

I don't think so. My arrogance at eighteen was massive. It wasn't that I couldn't write poetry. It was that I was going to be a famous prose stylist, the Twentieth Century's Ruskin or Carlyle. I adored elaborate Elizabethan prose: Richard Hooker and Thomas Browne were my idols. I was going to write lapidary fables and blistering arguments. I wanted my prose to be fierce, to thunder. I was confident, absurdly confident, of my mastery of prose. Poetry, on the other hand, I was a little uncertain about. I wasn't quite sure I knew what poets were doing.

I've read a lot of poetry, since then, and I'm still not quite sure. They're all doing something different, for one thing. It takes more generosity of mind to read poetry than to read prose. The genres bend more. Poetry is more opportunist, more hit-and-run. Especially now, when every vein seems exhausted. Any fragment of precious stuff is worth digging out, now.

I recognize now that my taste in poetry -- which I really had no way to conceptualize back then -- was very different from my professor's. His favorite poet was Robert Browning, whom I simply can't read: Browning's verse leaves a horrible taste in my mouth. I've tried repeatedly, and I simply can't stand it. It scans, by the rules, but it sits so awkward in the mouth that it seems like it shouldn't. And of course, as someone drawn to mysticism and impatient of naturalism, I find Browning's hobby horses all rather trivial and dull. The fact that religious people are as wicked as everyone else is neither a revelation to me nor a cause for celebration; it's simply something that I thought everybody, including religious people, already knew. It's precisely our sense of our own insufficiency that leads us to wonder what countries lie on the other side of surrender, that lead us to believe in a subterranean vein of goodness: the wonder to us is not that there is evil in the world, but that there is anything else.

But stop -- I am revising my past, here. I didn't think of myself as a religious person, back then. It's just that, to a person who had been raised athiest and materialist, Browning seemed not daring and radical and naughty, but timid and orthodox and boring. What was forbidden and alluring was faith.

This is the first part of several parts. Maybe. Who knows?

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Touch of the Sun

I used to personify him as the sun, his mattock as the sunlight. He always struck from behind. The blow itself was heavy but dull, a vast hammer muffled in layers of dirty canvas. But it was no mortal hammer, because its weight didn't lift after he struck. Death by pressing. The weight would bear down on me mercilessly, easing only at sundown.

He's not such a power in my life, now. I have even learned to enjoy sunlight sometimes, gingerly; to get some faint sense of the pleasure other people take in it. But I don't think we'll ever be friends.

Yesterday he struck again. Only an echo of his former strength. I called in sick to wait it out. Provisioned myself: a bag of potato chips and a fat book of naval history. Do your worst. Our castle walls will laugh a siege to scorn. (Hmm. The Scottish Play. Bad idea. Still, I didn't say it out loud.)

Depression makes you superstitious. You hearken after prophecies and dreams. As the world's messages become more and more opaque, you strain harder and harder to read them. Indeed, my Lord, I am too much i' the sun. (That's better.)

I lose myself in the fitting out of the United States, the Constitution, and the Constellation. Pound L'Insurgent to a pulp in the West Indies. It doesn't trouble me that in real life I would have been of Jefferson's party, railing against the useless expense of a navy, and the needless antagonization of the French, when we needed desperately to pay off the national debt. No; as a woman whose comfort-reading runs to novels of female submission, though she has no desire for it in real life, in the spell of the book that I become a Federalist, hankering for bigger, faster ships, more glorious battles, paying off old scores. We'll show the Barbary States what it means to abuse Americans, by God. They'll be singing a different tune when the heavy frigates arrive. I enter the emotional world of George Bush. At some level I understand it to be a pathological world, but I'm not going to worry about that now. My business is to survive the day.

And so I stand the seige. The sun's in his glory, within days of the solstice, a power to be reckoned with. But night comes at last. The weight eases. Tomorrow I will be fine. This was so light an episode that I dally with the deprecations so common in early depression, before you've learned what you've really come to grips with: Oh, I'm exagerating. I could really have gone to work. I'm just indulging myself. With an effort of will-power I could have just shaken it off. Should have, could have, would have, the familiar long whisper of self-castigation. It still runs inexorably, even though I don't believe a word of it any more. But it dwindles and peters out, as the cool night comes.

And, on the third launch attempt, the newly-built Constitution runs sweetly down its skids to the harbor, plunges into the water, and rocks gently under the stars.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Running Sand

This is the running sand.

Fog walks deliberately over the
shift of surfaces,
knowing cold water flows beneath;
footprints tear the coping, leave bloodmarks,
wet stains. Pale wavelines doodle
away into the strangled mist.

This is one of the places of God,
but not one we look for.
This is the place where questions fall
to the ground under their own weight:
If you knew the answer you shouldn't have asked.

The vapor sinks into the sand,
pulling the light down with it.
The loom of the land behind us, where
the headlights of distant cars make
slow moving glows in the fog;
you can't imagine that any of them
is traveling toward hope.

Buried here, at uncertain depth,
are those who did their duty
to indifferent masters. Those who
duly worked genitals
in dull marriages. Here lie
those who put off opening their mail;
those who checked just one more thing
before making a phone call.

You may say it is unjust
the bones of so many good and almost honest
lie here. But this is not a place of judgment.
No law obtains here but gravity;
no pull here, but habit.
God may have strong arms, but
that does him no good if he can get no purchase.
We gave him no handhold. We slid away; cold,
unskinned, and slippery with untrimmed fat;
and here the sand received us.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


She's on her side, with her back to me. I reach under the sheet -- something they taught me never to do, in massage school -- and lay my hand on her taut, baby-full abdomen. Gently stroke backwards, a mild myofascial stretch, helping the bewildered abdominal muscles adjust to being twice their accustomed length. Again. My hand cradles the little one. Straight back, following the grain of her transverse abdominals, then up and back, as the external obliques run, and then down and back, following the internal obliques. The baby shifts a little, and I wonder, as I always do, about this long dream-time in the dark of the womb. The intensity of the tenderness I feel for this little one startles me, quite different in quality from the affection I have for his mother. Spontaneous prayers for his good fortune form in my mind. He could not be more blessed in his parents, but the world is a dangerous and unpredictable place, and his vulnerability staggers me. What a world to wander into, tiny and naked. I hold him for a moment. Om mani padme hum. Behold the jewel in the lotus.

Another part of my mind is assessing: she's in terrific shape. I know the lower paraspinals would love some firm work, but I refrain; you're not supposed to do that, according to the books; so I do some very gentle kneading and holding, and I feel a brief annoyance at how little good information we have. Like most medical massage lore, it's very possibly just made up. If it had to do with expensive drugs you could sell, there'd be half a dozen meticulous (if tendentious) studies on it. As it is, there's no telling: maybe it's just somebody's theory, or it's based on some anecdote that crept into medical texts in the 19th Century, never disputed or verified. I'll try to track it down some day. But anyway, you take no chances with pregnancy massage. On to the legs: just a little edema below the knees; less than most women have late in their eighth month. But clots are possible, especially in the saphenous vein, at this stage -- clots are always possible where there's edema -- so I do gentler work on the legs than I normally would. On the inner leg and thigh, basically just placing my hands, one after the other. Avoid the ankles. This is another possibly bogus restriction. There are acupressure points that are supposed to induce labor, and they include several of my workhorse points; among them the meeting of three ways, where three yin meridians cross at the inner ankle. I suspect that you would have to do things in a particular sequence, at the right time of day in the right season, to induce labor; real acupressure is quite complicated, very far from the magic "push this spot and your headache goes away" of popular imagination; my guess is that your chances of inducing labor by accident are about zero. But another thing I need to know more about. Until I do, no prodding the ankle points.

All this, of course, is just the superficial surface of my mind, the running patter of the conceptual mind. The real work is going on, my hands listening, holding, speaking in their own language.

Halftime. Bathroom break. Not a lot of room in there these days. I go into the living room, look at the photos on the shelves. Her family on a fishing expedition. His mother holding him (three years old) on her lap and reading to him. I lock my hands and stretch, reaching up toward the ceiling, shake out my legs. The toilet flushes; the door clicks. I give her a few moments to get back on the table, tap at the door. Time to do the other side.

She's an old hand at pregnancy massage: she's already got the pillows all arranged. I rest my hands on her shoulder and hip, reconnecting, settling. A familiar sequence of thoughts rises up:

I wasted all my life till now. This is what I should have been doing all along.

No. You couldn't have done this until now. Not wasted. You were preparing for this, though you didn't know it.

Don't be so portentous, Mr Dale. You're just doing a massage. You think too much.

But I am so happy. "I did not know I was so empty, that I could be so full."

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Republican Death Wish

It's interesting to watch the Republicans self-destruct. Eerily familiar: twenty-five years ago the Democrats were doing exactly the same thing. I couldn't believe it when Bush started talking offshore drilling and McCain started talking about dotting the country with nuclear power plants.

Personally, I think nuclear power plants are possibly the least bad option for a country whose voracity for vast quantities of energy is not going away any time soon; but that's not the point. The point is that there's a sizeable population that will never vote for someone who advocates nuclear power. It's just one of those touchstone issues, like the death penalty or abortion, that people completely lose their grip about. Why would you take it on in the campaign if you didn't have to?

And then the offshore drilling. There are two points there. One is that Florida, which lives or dies by its beaches, loathes the idea of offshore drilling, and without Florida there's no way the Republicans are keeping the White House. The other point is that it reinforces the widely-held impression that the Republicans are just stooges for the oil industry. It really seems as though this year the Republicans are determined to lose. Their death gene has been activated, apparently.

The nomination of McCain is exactly wrong. He would have been an excellent choice eight years ago. Back then, even I liked McCain. He said what he thought. He stuck to his guns. He didn't let himself get pushed around by his party. He was far right, but I often find the far right more intelligible and sympathetic than the middle right. I would never have voted for him, of course, but I could have understood why people would.

But in the last eight years, all of McCain's virtues seem to have evaporated. He's waffling and wiggling with the best of them. Where does he stand on immigration? On torture? Well, you tell me. I have no idea any more. And his big foreign policy issue -- pushing on in Iraq and seriously taking on Iran -- is both unpopular and dead wrong. It's true, and has been true for decades, that our serious enemy in the Middle East is Iran. Presumably Mr Bush knew that (though it's never safe, it seems, to assume he knows anything), but chose to invade Iraq simply because Iraq was a much easier country to defeat: lots of open desert, perfect for the air-supported tanks that are the US army's strong suit. Iran, with its difficult terrain, comparative religious and ethnic homogeneity, and high morale, would be another thing entirely. With our army -- brilliant in lightning desert warfare, but desperately unprepared and unsuited for thuggish police work -- attenuated and exhausted, invading Iran would be lunatic. It would make sense, in a way that Iraq never did, but it would be very unwise. Hugely expensive, and we might even lose. And what the devil would we do with it if we won? Conscript all the remaining 18- and 19-year-olds in the country to come up with an occupation force? As you know, all American teenagers are fluent in Farsi, and would love to go work as police in a country where everyone hates them. Their parents would love that too.

So it's becoming difficult for me to see how the Democrats, champion foot-marksmen though they are, can lose the November elections. They have an articulate, engaging presidential candidate, and far better congressional candidates, this year (I'm not sure what rocks the GOP looks under to find its people to run for Congress, but I think they should try some other ones). They have only not to blunder. So I hope they make the best of their day in the sun. It will be good to see our kids come home from Mesopotamia. I pray they get to come home, and stay home.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Quotidian and Rambly

I forget, even in so short a time, what massage does for me. I was exhausted, having run an hour or two short of sleep for many days: I warned Emily I'd probably fall asleep on the table. But I didn't. And an hour later I was centered, steady. Still needing sleep, of course; but clear, and the desperate edge taken off it. Very like what meditation does. When I came out, Emily looked up at me, from the couch of the trendy salon where she's working now, and laughed. "You're so funny about massage," she said indulgently. I was no doubt rather spacey-looking, swaying on my feet, with beatific glow about me. I felt that I'd been rebooted. All caches cleared. I imagine snakes feel that way after a molt.

So I slept, last night, a full night. And still feeling renewed. I hope some at least of my clients feel this way.

My gastroenterologist wants me back in five years; just one polyp, but one of the wrong sort. And she wants me to eat like a sane person, alas! Meaning fruit and veg and less fat and less red meat. Less fat and red meat isn't going to happen -- I know better than to set that pendulum in motion -- but I can at least add in some fruit and veg. So I'm having fruit with my breakfast this morning. It's good. Really good. Why haven't I been having it for years? (Another of those inexplicable resistances. There's a lot of them. I resist meditation. I put off taking my shower in the morning. I avoid exercise. These are all things that I love to do; so far as I can tell the only reason I resist them is that I feel I ought to do them.)

Rachel has a novel method of getting her five fruit & veg, but I'm afraid alcohol completely disrupts my sleep cycles; it's a choice between having drinking in my life and having enough sleep in my life, and I'm old enough to prefer having enough sleep.

"When I drink alcohol, I get sick. I can't sleep, and then usually within a day or two I come down with a cold. I mean, like every time." I told the naturopath Martha dragged me to, maybe ten years ago.

He looked at me mildly for a few moments. "Does that tell you anything?" he asked.

Oh. Like, maybe drinking isn't such a good idea for me? (Why do we need experts to tell us this sort of thing?)

So for the past ten years or so, I haven't been drinking at all. I can't even have the heart-recommended glass of red wine with dinner, and still sleep. Which is too bad, because I like drinking; it loosens up my damned self-consciousness and makes me better able to converse. But you can't have everything.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Surely their actions might be something we'd do ourselves: the hand raised to strike could be your hand, the face that trembles to receive the blow your face. The finger on the trigger yours, afraid; the heart held in the gun sights yours also.

And that is close enough to forgiveness, to find that any character in the dream of your life might be you. But you don't know that until you tell the story; caught in the narrative yourself, how could you see from that height?

-- Firebird, by Mark Doty

Or at least, say, you need to see that a story is always already being told. That you're not seeing the thing itself, never seeing the thing itself. The most deeply misleading (and profoundly un-Buddhist) thing I've ever heard a Buddhist teacher say is that an enlightened being sees things as they are. It is the most fundamental, intractable foundation of Buddhist philosophy that no one, no one ever sees things as they are. We see them as they appear. People, places and things may or may not have intrinsic essence -- how could we ever know? -- but one thing we do know, is that if they do have intrinsic essences, we don't have direct access to them. There is an elaborate Buddhist analysis of perception, with the various stages of construction and interpretation that have to occur before we "see" something. Physics and biology confirm it, and add their own layers of indirection. What we see is light, bounced and quivering from things, making us believe that the color of things is a quality of the things, rather than a quality of their interaction with light. Our eyes deliver a crossed and upside down proto-image (not an image yet; how can there be an image that no one perceives? It's more like the source code, an HTML page before a browser interprets it) to the visual center of the brain; there it's prettied up, the missing pieces supplied, expected images filled in. And this is what's delivered to the thinking centers, where (brain scientists always speed up and slur over at this point, they know they have no clue about how this part happens) we become aware of the image. And we, pitifully credulous, say "I see a flower." No. We don't see a flower. We see an image we've constructed from a schema distilled from nerve impulses responding to patterns of light.

And this is the very simplest case, simple perception of a simple object. When we perceive that, for instance, our mother hates us, we are at an exponentially more complex level of perception; we have constructed an entire persona, entered into it, and become aware of its feelings vis a vis our construction of its construction of our persona. The complexity of the process is staggering, and it's riddled with error and supposition from start to finish. And yet these are the facts we are most sure of, the facts we build our lives around; acting on this information received, we are willing to stake everything we care about, take our own lives or the lives of others.

Anyway. Doty's Firebird is an incredible book: I'm grateful to Deb for recommending Doty to me. It's a memoir of growing up a sissy in the America of the fifties and sixties, a deeply moving one to this fellow-sissy. I didn't have being gay to deal with, but the experience is universal, sissy or not: of finding in ourselves desires that the world is determined not to acknowledge, but without which our lives simply will not run. We have no choice; we must negotiate it somehow; breaking the mainspring of our hearts is not an option.

For me? I wanted to look, and I wanted to touch; and I wanted to be able to express the tenderness that welled up in me towards people. I've written about all these things. It's pretty simple, in the abstract: as a practical problem it long seemed intractable, insoluble, something that simply could not happen in the world as it is. Hence the allure when I was young of other worlds: fantasy, science fiction, utopias. Anywhere but here.

Hard to know. Hard to know how the solutions started to seep into my life. Was it meditation that opened cracks in the walls? Art? Friends (meaning you)? Love, beyond my deserts or imagining? The raising of children? All those things, certainly, and more. Not that everything is solved, far from it, but the world I live in is transformed, and what isn't solved is workable, pliable.

Monday, June 09, 2008

To Love, and to Open my Eyes

Okay, I take it back. Sometimes meditation is relaxing. Sometimes I like it a lot.

Sat last night in my massage room, as the last of the light faded. I do like the way sitting in one place allows you to see how the light changes. Except of course that you never quite see it. You just realize that it's darker, suddenly, that there's more space in the room, that it's quieter, at some level below sound, that the night -- not that the night is coming, but that the departing day is revealing the night that was there all along, cool and dark and sweet, asking nothing.

And it's good to put my hands together and pray for everyone. I forget -- until I come back, all rusty -- what a relief it is to put aside the world of friends and enemies, the continual reckoning up of who deserves their pain, to exactly what degree, and who doesn't; who deserves good fortune, and how much, and who's been rooked of how much of their due. I had no idea, before I started meditating, no idea at all, how elaborate my judgements about all that were, how hard I was working as a scribe for the Lord of Hosts' book of accounts, anxious to make sure that nobody got credit they didn't deserve and everyone got their full due of blame. I don't know how the world convinced me that was my job -- as if it wouldn't get done without me! -- but it certainly did; and it's a strenuous, effective exercise in shrinking the heart and narrowing the mind. Such incredible liberty to step out from that. It's no business of mine. Which is lucky, because I have no talent for it, and the kind of information I'd need to make accurate judgements isn't given to human beings on this earth. My business is to love people. Which I do have a talent for, and I do know enough to accomplish. I am not going to hold anyone accountable for anything. I'm not going to punish anyone. It's not my job and it never was; the world will rattle along just the same without my majestic apportionments of praise and blame. The whole thing was an exercise in megalomania. The world doesn't lack for praise and blame: its cup overflows with them. What it lacks is love and clarity. That's my work. To love, and to open my eyes.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


I found myself in an online conversation the other day about meditation, rattling away with my accustomed volubility, and then I went silent. It's been a long time since I've been meditating. I felt I didn't have the right to talk about it any more. It was surprisingly, intensely painful. Like speaking animatedly about a fun time with a friends for a moment or two and then remembering that they're dead.

I built an online identity around meditation, and now I've forfeited the rights to that identity. The painfulness of that makes me only too aware of how, comically, I'd invested my ego in training in ego-less-ness. (To do myself credit, I was aware of it at the time, too. But at least I was meditating then.)

It's not that I no longer have faith in meditation. I do, if not quite to the extent I used to. And I mean to be meditating. I'm just not. A kind friend suggested that a lot of the space that meditation used to inhabit in my life, massage now inhabits; and that's true, and helpful. But there's more going on than that.

A piece of it is that the Seventeenth Karmapa came to America, and to Seattle. And as usual, when one of the Tibetan bigwigs comes to town, I start avoiding the sangha. People get weird about authorites. And it brings all the more superstitious types out of the woodwork, the sort of people who excitedly tell you that this is the month in which the Buddha achieved paranirvana, and that therefore all practices done in this month are 100,000 times more efficacious. There are people for whom that sort of talk is meaningful and encouraging -- and may their practice prosper! -- but I'm not one of them. It reminds me of nothing so much as of Huck Finn going into the closet to pray for a fishhook. So that support has not been available, or at least I haven't been able to configure myself so as to avail myself of it.

But this conversation stirred everything up in my mind. Made me realize that I urgently need to meditate, that my clarity has been degrading a little, and will degrade more if I don't resume sitting.

Meditation is not usually relaxing. It can be unpleasant or frightening. It's hard work, and usually not very obviously rewarding, not in the short term. It's often lonely, even in a group setting. Why then do it?

Well. 1) I am convinced that the Buddha got the main proposition right: that our experience is suffused with suffering, and that meditation can be an important part of reducing that suffering. 2) I am further convinced that the mind is basically good, and that the more it is freed from suffering the more that goodness will appear, and 3) I am, finally, convinced that the mind is extremely powerful, and that I have a moral obligation to train it, just as the owners of a pit bull have a moral obligation to train their dog. It may be basically good -- I'm of the opinion it is -- but that doesn't mean it won't tear somebody's throat out.

So. I will go and sit, now.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

My Fiftieth Birthday Present

The Reader is Warned: this post is all about my bowels. No spiritual revelations, effusive poetry, or lyrical descriptions of massage here. Feel free to skip.

I watched, on the monitor, the endoscope nosing its way up my colon. The surprising thing was how colorful it all was. It had a little spritzer, and it would occasionally wash away a patch of bright yellow scum to reveal the pink, rose, or red surfaces. Along came a polyp, like a little skin tag, and a black tongue snaked out into view and bit it off. It was like that movie, long ago -- Fantastic Voyage, was it? Except the graphics were much better.

I'd asked them to go light on the anesthetic, so I remember it all, though it has a dreamy quality.

While waiting for it to start I was impressed -- as I often am, in hospitals -- at how little they knew about how to make the body rest comfortably. It's not rocket science: it's something every massage therapist knows, how to make people comfortable in a resting position. One thing you don't do is leave someone in a semi-recumbant position with their legs stretched out straight in front of them and nothing under their knees for 45 minutes. When I sat up and stretched and sat cross-legged instead, they worriedly came over and asked if I was okay. "Just stretching," I said. They'd given me this blanket folded narrowly, just wide enough to cover my legs; I was apparently expected to half-sit, half-lie there with my legs poking straight out till doomsday, if that was how long it took the doctor to get to me. You couldn't dream up a better position for instilling trigger points in the lower back and anterior neck.

I liked the doctor, when she finally showed up; a young woman with a wry sense of humor, who was happy to accommodate my request to go light on the anesthetic. But oh, dear, those hunched over shoulders.

"Hi! So you're the person who's going to push five feet of optical tubing up my ass!" is one of the things I didn't say. I also didn't say, "hey, I probably don't really need this colonoscopy, but you really need somebody to work on those traps and pecs. Why don't you get on this table instead?" I was very well-behaved. Afterwards she and the nurses said I was a great patient, they wished all patients were like me, which mystified me a bit. I lay there on my side for half an hour and let them get on with their work: surely that's what most people do?

I was surprised by how grumpy and nervous I was about this. Not the procedure itself, but the business of not eating seeds for three days, and then the liquid diet for two days, and the horrible gallon of laxative stuff you have to drink the night before. Almost everything I like to eat, I discovered, has seeds in it. Raspberry seeds in my breakfast jam, cucumber seeds in my lunch salad, pepper seeds in my dinner salsa. It was, however, easy to "avoid consuming red or purple products" (shudder) on the liquid diet days.

There's nothing I have less equanimity about than food. It's downright weird -- given that I've had plenty of food, all my life -- how screwed up I am about it. The levels of anxiety I have when facing any minor restriction to my diet would be appropriate to someone who had faced starvation multiple times: for someone who's lived in dietary luxury all his life, it's really rather repulsive: possibly the thing about myself I am most ashamed of.

So anyway. Now -- having just had my breakfast with raspberry jam -- I am as happy as a buttered clam. I am in my fifties. My "rout of passage rite of passage," as Martha was pleased to call it, is over.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Purity of Intention

My eyes are drawn to a curious photograph:
West Point cadets, a coffin, scarlet sashes;

On the shelves a book on The Howitzer
A nervous dog named Monty -- it all adds up,

And I know why I am so comfortable.
I love military people. Like Tibetan monks,

They live in the close awareness of death
And it gives them a practical, matter of fact

Approach to things. No fuss about getting naked;
We're here for a massage, for heaven's sake.

Harder here. Do there again. Some more pressure
Right there: ah. That's good.

No ceremony on leaving. She's off to take a bath
And I let myself out of the well-ordered house;

Grateful for the clarity, the demarcation,
The purity of intention.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


A crumbling old imperium
Limping into the Twentieth Century;
I am provided with an arrogant
Incompetent bureaucracy, officered
By martinets. The order to mobilize,
We are told, went out in fifteen
Languages. Beneath it all, paying taxes,
Are the Serbs and Croats and Italians of my soul,
The Czechs and balances, slovens and Slovenes,
Albanians, Dalmatians, and pit bulls of my heart.

This is the empire of my self, the fifth wheel
Of Europe. Here in Vienna, impossibly,
Beautiful music is still made, pastries concocted,
Stunning pictures are painted in gold and crimson.
Here Dr Freud shocks sensibilities, finds himself
Unable to read Shakespeare, knowing as he does
The real secrets of the heart.

Let me only come under the spell of a vigorous,
Simpleminded Kaiser, and the end will begin;
The loans will come due all at once, the fragile
Eggshell of the dynasty will smash.
I await a blundering, inarticulate
Assassin: who unable to hold the steel barrel
Steady, will fire, convulsively, more
By accident than by design. All the king's horses
Will not put my spirit together again. The cracks
Run every which way, branching, tracing,
Fragmenting. This fractal shell
Patterned in elaborate destruction: I
Am finished.

Monday, June 02, 2008


I have deeply mixed feelings about doing intake interviews. I have the forms I made up, a long checklist of things (diabetes, warts, asthma, etc., etc., on and on for two pages) for the client to fill out and sign. Legally I have to do something of the sort. I'm often glad to know about the stuff people fill in. But it feels aggressive and intrusive to me, and an unfortunate way to start a therapeutic relationship. I soften it by saying, "this is just a checklist, to remind you if there's anything you want me to know about." But it brings the air of the medical office with it, hints at the capricious authoritarian rule of insurance companies, brings in the whole label-and-dismiss atmosphere that has displaced healing in our world. I hate it. It says, "you might sue me, and God help us both if you do."

(As it happens, massage therapists are very seldom sued: the cheapness of my liability insurance was a pleasant surprise. But still, that's the world we live in.)

One of the reasons I dislike it is that it throws a wrench into things right at the beginning. In general my policy would be, if the client says something about it, they want me to do something about it. But do they? If they put "bipolar disorder" or "depression" under "major illnesses" -- should I assume they just wrote it down because they're conscientiously filling out a form (or possibly even under the impression that they're legally obliged to mention it?) Or should I say -- "where do you feel that in your body? How can I lay hands on it and ease it?" -- which seems to me a perfectly rational thing to say, but would probably strike a lot of people as nonsense, if not mockery.

The information is genuinely useful, and people wouldn't bring most of it up if they weren't nudged by the forms. Still I'd like to find a good way of saying, "if you feel like it's none of my damn business, then it's probably not. Don't tell me anything you don't feel like telling me." I don't feel that being someone's masseur entitles me to know their whole medical history. The whole medical model of massage -- the idea that massage is a treatment for a disorder -- seems to me a very unfortunate, ill-fitting one. Every once in a while, sure. Someone will get off the table and say "wow, my back pain is just gone." Which makes me very happy, although I know that it will probably return, and that half an hour in a hot tub would very likely have had the same effect. What makes massage special is not its medical efficacy, which is not particularly impressive, but the fact that it's shared; a physical intimacy, but one that doesn't make demands and provisos. We're just so damned lonely in our bodies, stranded in them. Nobody cares about the tension in your shoulders, not your doctor, not your lover, not your friends; not unless you're very very lucky. Not the way a massage therapist cares about it. Not so as to take it on, to feel it as their own business, to want to know it with their own body, undo it with their own hands. It's not so much that we can make the tension go away. Maybe we can and maybe we can't. It's the fact that we're interested, that we want to know all about it, that it's worth all of our attention and love. That's what makes massage special. For once the body is getting its due, for once it's being treated as if it was something important in its own right, as if its comfort and pleasure was something that mattered.

I am glad that Buddhism gives me a place to stand, here. I'd feel this way anyway, but the Dharma gives me a vocabulary for it. That every person is infinitely precious, a buddha. I want to bring the same attention and devotion to every massage that I'd bring to washing the Buddha's feet. Because that's really what it is, really the truth of the matter. Every thing that lives is holy. Contempt and disregard aren't realism, they're ignorance.

I think what I love about massage is that I feel that, during a massage, I am able to attend to people with the reverence and intensity that makes sense to me, that has always made sense to me, but which is generally considered inappropriate in the (sogenannt) real world.