Sunday, June 28, 2009

Health Histories

I take health histories, which often turn out to be mostly mental health histories. The stories pour forth in neat connected narratives: this trauma which caused that bodily deficiency; a whole history of pains and debilities, in perfectly formed, self-contained fables; episodes in the epic of the realized soul. I know I'm listening with grave kindness, startled and grieved as I always am by the long story of pain, pain suffered, pain inflicted, pain held. I am astonished that anyone keeps it together and manages to present as normal, in this life. Heroes, all of you, struggling agains the rising of entropy, which eats all things anyone ever loved. It rises not least in ourselves, as various cancers of the body, as various dementias of the mind.

I listen with kindness and understanding and respect, I hope. I resist the impulse to lay a hand on your forearm and say, "but you don't believe any of these stories, do you?"

Because I know that you have no choice. Of course you believe all these stories. And who am I to doubt them? To think that the stories themselves are the worst of the debilities, and the greatest of the pains, you suffer? Physician, heal thyself.

Fortunately, I am not a doctor, or a counselor. I have no authority to inject myself into this stream of narrative and impose my own counternarratives, diagnoses from my own little black bag of anecdotes. Depend upon it, if I were so empowered, I would do it, and then I would believe my own stories; and where they diverged from yours, we would wound each other and feel betrayed. But fortunately I am a massage therapist, and my powerlessness is my freedom. I don't have to have a story. I catch bright little bits of hard information, here and there. What you fear and what you hope for. Enough to know that I can hardly be too gentle, that I must be scrupulous of boundaries even by my own standards.

As always, once the hands are on the back, once the slow rhythm begins, once we start talking the language of skin and heat, resistance and relaxation, the conversation changes utterly. Suddenly communications are charged with a full load of meaning. Feedback is rapid, accurate, uninterpreted. I'm in. Past the membrane of all those toxic stories. Finally we can start to really talk.

And of course, we talk about only two things: pain and love. What else is there to talk about?

It's all broken glass in there, you tell me. I go gentler, and gentler still. Just a whisper with the hands. And finally, when I'm moving away, you ask me to just lay my hands, unmoving, on your chest, and you weep. Just for a little bit. And then you're done, and we move on.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Reading Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, on Christine's recommendation. I'm enjoying it greatly. I read very few novels anymore -- it takes so long to read a novel! -- so this is a special treat. I'm struck, whenever I read a novel nowadays, by how my generation is now in the ascendent. I notice the same thing in crossword puzzles. The cultural references are to things I know about: the Beatles, Nixon, the Berlin Wall. It's not necessarily that the writers and puzzle composers are my age: it's just that these things are the common coin. In ten years, more and more things will be cropping up that I'm too old to have a feel for; in another decade or two I'll be groping, as I used to in my twenties, when I had to strain to catch echoes and guess what Fred Astaire meant or what the given name of Charlie Chaplin's wife might be; except that then the problem will be that the people referred to are too young.

Right now, I'm in the sweet spot, convinced that all of human life was lived specifically for my benefit. (Enjoy it while you got it, bucko!)

I suppose we have Garcia Marquez & his ilk to thank for the liberation of incident. Serious novels were so godawfully stuffy for a while: nothing actually interesting or diverting could happen, because that wouldn't be literary. God! Those agonizingly realistic novels, Irving and Roth and Fowles and Malamud and Bellows and so forth: dreary self-absorbed characters having dreary half-hearted affairs and shuffling sullenly along to their dreary suburban deaths. No wonder I stopped reading novels. It was supposed to be realism, but it was completely foreign to the real world as I experience it, which is rich, throbbing, brightly colored, absolutely improbable and absorbing, full of beauty and terror and wistfully funny. Murakami's world, now, like Garcia Marquez's, is like the one I inhabit. I don't even want to visit the world of those older novelists.

Thank you Christine!

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I have not a single answer: not one.

Some years ago I had to work to divest myself of opinions. Not anymore. Oh, I have them, of course: they come flickering up at moments of irritation or self-congratulation. But they flutter on their way again. Thank God. What a stupid weight to carry. The pronunciamentos of the Grand Junta of Official Daledom, Duly Assembled. I used to take the proceedings of that body dead seriously. Only gradually did I discover that nobody -- least of all me -- paid the slightest attention to its proclamations, strictures, and sanctions. That rather silly and pathetic governor of South Carolina is discovering that just now. But no doubt he'll figure out a way to save his personal Junta, at whatever cost to his career, his family, his spiritual yearnings, his lover, and his common sense.

It's easy to confuse the love of wisdom with the love of having opinions. The two things can look exactly alike. But sooner or later one will kill the other. They can't live in the same house.

The Sun Gone Missing

At the solstice
splashes of light, the size
and color of apricots, made their way
through the slatted blinds. They glowed
on your skin, on your hair; they set
shadows that hooded your eyes.

Now on the vacant pillow
the cold light is silvered
like the back of an empty mirror.
Nothing hidden. Nothing shows.

The tastes of chocolate, of almond,
of cherry -- mixed on your tongue --
try to come back, but can't.
They are waiting for you, caught
behind shutters, lost like the sun.
Nothing will be right till it returns.

A sough of cooler air stirs the twisted cords that hang down by the window, makes them rock slightly. Unless the world is rocking, and the cords are still.

Two old men from the bible club keep talking in the parking lot, unable to leave an audience, however imperfect: they gesture with their books, they swell with vehemence, become congested with conviction. Their faces redden. They strain as if on the toilet. Not for the first time, I wonder how this bluster ever became associated with anything sacred or holy. The pale meek monks and saints of medieval iconography, humbly dressed, with their hands fluttering and their eyes cast upwards, are silly representations of holiness, but at least you can see what the artists are driving at; you can follow the associations. No chain of any length connects my ideas of holiness with these portraits of constipated outrage.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I have entered yet another new world: one in which all doors open to me. I'm not quite sure how this happened. Like all the most important turns of my life, I didn't know I was making it. I only glimpse it in the rearview mirror, disappearing, and I know suddenly I'm in a new country.

I've wandered a long way from Springfield. With a pang I remember a ring, set with cheap blue glass, scrabbled from the dust by the reservoir. You had to climb a chain link fence to get in, but the barb-wiring at the top was perfunctory, and you had all the time in the world to get over it: nobody ever checked on it. And then you could climb the steel ladder of the water tower, and look out over the northward slopes to yet other hidden worlds.

Just one of many empty places I cat-burglared my way into. Of course, I wanted to be able to go into inhabited places: but they were all closed to me, I knew that. So I found my way into deserted barns, fenced reservoirs. Some other kids' abandoned treehouse, with their moldering stash of girly magazines. I was as wary of human beings as a fox, and likewise as cocky: there weren't many places I couldn't get into. It takes only patience, and a gift for silence. I had both.

It would have taken only slight twist of destiny, at one point, to have set me on a life of burglary. I had all the skills and I would have enjoyed the challenge, the combination of patient research and sudden risk, the pleasure of entering places supposed to be private and protected. I loved to climb, to hide, and to observe. I knew just how invisible a still person is, how the direction of the light shows you up or conceals you. I knew how deeply habit-ridden most people are. They do the same things over and over, and their attention is predictable. It would have taken only a slight twist some other direction to have made me a hunter. Or maybe not. I've always hated hurting things. I don't think I could happily have despoiled people of their property either. Maybe not such slight twists. Maybe destiny wears heavier shoes than that.

But anyway -- my point is that now, suddenly, I am an insider, trusted with keys and secrets, with more invitations proffered me than I could possibly accept. I'm nonplussed. I never thought I could be a person on the inside and I don't quite know how to hold it.

The day promises fair. I'm flooded with tenderness, with a yen to make offerings at untended shrines. The sun is climbing up the eastern roads. I don't know who I am anymore, which I have to think is a good thing. Yesterday I looked at all the glittering suns bobbing in the dimpled river, worked out why they appeared in an elongated oval instead of in a circle. It's simple geometry. Pythagoras would have grasped it at once.

You recover from a swerve, having nearly tumbled from your bike, you glide easily along: you look the same as before, just as insouciant, but the adrenalin is coursing through your veins. You know, for a moment, just how precarious it all is. The sun is not quite as solid in the sky as you thought.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Consequences 11

This is the 11th post in a game of Consequences. Post number 10 is here. Post 12 will appear here. The sequence begins here, and will continue soon here.

This one's for you, sister. It's been so long.

We were the same person. We were both oversexed and overworded. Both impatient of restraint. Susceptible to flattery, alcohol, and touch. We felt the expectations of the world were intolerable. We craved its approval, and we got it, but never enough of it. Never enough that it counted.

The lama said I should talk to you: people who kill themselves always have unfinished business. So I invited you, and you came. But you wouldn't speak. You sat cross-legged facing me, like we used to sit on the bed: eating cinnamon toast and scheming to rule our little empires, making up code words and phrases we could use to coordinate our efforts in a world we didn't trust a bit.

Crosslegged, with your guitar on your lap, your long straight blond hair hanging down, like Joni Mitchell's. Or like the blonde on the Mod Squad. You know. It was the 70s. But you wouldn't speak.

Your face was broken out where you touched it, and touched it, and touched it. As if any minute it might go missing.

Mom tried to train you out of it, in those last few weeks. "You're touching your face," she'd say lightly. And an agony of revulsion would run through you, revulsion at her, at yourself, at living with other human beings.

"Don't," I'd whisper to Mom. But not out loud. I knew that you were leaving. Already you were leaving us.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I've explored hundreds of of bodies with my hands, now. The bodies under my hands have gestated, given birth, recovered; breasts have filled and emptied. They have had strokes and recovered from them, or not recovered from them. They have nerve damage, diabetes, fibromyalgia, epilepsy, Reynaud's, HIV. Innumerable pulled backs, twisted knees, turned ankles.

What stands out to me, over and over, is how plastic the body is, how rapidly it changes. It wastes away alarmingly when confined to bed, and recovers tone incredibly fast when it becomes active again. People who move a lot are flexible, toned, and young: sedentary people are stiff, flaccid, and old. Blindfold me and give me sixty seconds to knead someone's shoulders, and I won't be able to tell you how old they are, but I'll be able to tell you with fair accuracy how much they move every day. People who do yoga, or varied physical work, have bodies that are twenty years younger than people who mostly sit. They move easily, relax readily. There aren't the glitches -- skips -- snags -- that you get in sedentary bodies.

I don't ask people much about how they eat, but of course people tell you things. I don't notice that eating properly makes a lot of difference, not compared to moving around. People who eat dreadfully can be in great shape, and people who eat well can be a mess. Fat doesn't make much difference either: people can have a hundred extra pounds of adipose tissue and have lovely, flexible, toned muscles, and a body that serves them well. The common equivalence drawn between skinny and healthy is not something my hands confirm. Some lean bodies feel healthy and some don't: some fat bodies feel healthy and some don't. But no sedentary bodies feel healthy.

I can tell if people are sick. I don't know how: or rather, I don't know how you'd pick up what I perceive on mechanical instruments. I'm pretty sure it could be done. The imagery in which my brain registers it is all of currents, flowing air or water: people feeling the same things I feel in ancient China thought of them as air, and called them "winds," in medieval Europe they thought of them as fluids, and called them "humors." Anyway, you lay your hands on someone and you feel them running through their body, whatever they are. Like you can take hold of a bit of plumbing and feel the water running through it. It can be rapid, sluggish, strong, weak; it can pulse regularly or irregularly. It can be warm or cold; it can be different colors. In someone who's sick with a virus it's sticky and erratic, dim and yellowish. Sort of staticky.

I've said it before, I'm sure I'll say it again: if you want to be young and healthy, move. Work out, or run, or swim, if you like those things. Or just wriggle and roll around. Improvised movement probably gives you more bang for the buck than repetitive movement. But whatever. Just move. Take five minutes to just inhabit your flesh and feel it breathing and pulsing, brewing and percolating. If you check in -- right now -- you'll find there's something it really really wants to do. The legs want to stretch, or the shoulders want to stretch, or the face wants to grimace. Just do that. It won't take a moment.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Past, the House of Skype, Chinese Etymology, and the Hudson Valley

You turn increasingly to the past, as you age, because it's your own: as the witnesses drop away, it becomes more and more your private preserve. Fewer and fewer people can dispute your version of it. Or care to.

Of course, the more exclusively yours that country becomes, the lonelier it becomes. Nobody new can really go there with you, however polite and obliging they may be.

No. I'm not going to linger in the past. Not a winning game.

It is terribly frustrating, not being able to express myself in the spoken word. I hate it. I'm so stupid. I was on the phone with a stranger, discussing poems, and in fifteen minutes I couldn't express a single sophisticated thought. Approximations, little grunts of approval or disapproval, a tiny tiny repertoire of sentences and phrases. I drop to the level of a kindergartner. What is that?

A plague on the house of Skype. I hate them. Destroying the world in which I can communicate, in which I'm fluent, even.

Oh well. It was a nice moment. I'm glad I was here for it.

Chinese, of all languages, must teem with false etymologies. Every time you write a new word down, you have to guess at its etymology, by choosing among the hundreds of written characters that can represent those syllables. So you'll pick something plausible, and almost certainly wrong, and at once a new semantic history is grafted onto the word. I can't imagine how historical linguists try to do their stuff, with Chinese. Every literate Chinese for thirty centuries has been industriously laying false trails for them.

There comes a moment, when you've left New Haven, and you've been driving west a few hours -- driving through the rolling bumps of New England: little hillocks, which the natives inexplicably call "mountains," and which are every bit as claustrophobia-inducing as the buildings of the cities, because they're all about the same size, and you can never get up, never get your head above the water and get a look at the lay of the land -- there comes a moment when you come up to a ridge over the Hudson Valley, and you can see the great river spread out below you. A vista. And your heart leaps up, because suddenly, suddenly you think it might really be possible that somewhere there is still open country, wild land, places nobody owns or fences. Maybe Oregon is still there. Maybe you can go home.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pennies Again

At the end, at the end it comes down to pennies, so why not begin there?

Pennies as they used to be in England, fat wide copper coins, not these poor zinc shadows.

"A penny for luck," no, it wasn't one of these. These pennies have no luck. Somebody just clever enough to make bad decisions decided Americans wouldn't need luck any more: they had democracy. That would see them through. So now we have these scrawny, gasping, skint coins, barely big enough to print an ugly face on. Poor old Abraham Lincoln, one of the seven American presidents who had a soul. (Bad luck on him: good luck on us. It runs that way.)

Oh you'll see, you'll see what it costs in the long run, to decide you can dispense with luck.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Still what feels like an ulcer on my right tonsil, still an ache in the muscles that V around the adams's apple, the SCMs (I've been stupid about sitting semi-recumbent, holding my head up: that ache has far less to do with illness than with bad posture.) Still a pounding headache if I stand up too fast. But I'm nearly better. I walk at a normal pace from room to room, rather than at a slow hesitant shuffle. And I've washed and shaved, which feels wonderful. I wonder whether this was the swine flu? Who knows. Today is a quiet white day, a new day. I take a deep breath and it feels good.

Still. The leaves are motionless on the trees. We're at the bottom of a deep well of air. The occasional car going by is distinct, coughing and hushing its way to the stop sign at the corner. The clock ticks, and I can hear the refrigerator motor from the other side of the house. Pretty soon I should decide if I'm calling in sick to work again. Probably so. Give it one more day.

Nothing to say: only the blind impulse to reach out and touch. Thinking of the long-ago and far away: the encounter group in Bethel Maine; girls with long straight hair, the sunshine, the world according to John Lennon; discovering other people who loved Tolkien, back when not that many people did. Somehow being ill always draws me back to that pivotal age, thirteen and fourteen, when my life broke into pieces and was painstakingly reassembled into what is recognizably the Spring of my life, now, the same one sailing into early Autumn.

As always, I have only one wish, when I think about the past. I wish I had been kinder. Everything else, all the other ambitions and desires, fall away, but that one remains active. I did my best. I don't think I ever wanted to hurt people. But I was so wrapped up in trying to make myself into a person, trying to find some solid ground to stand on, that I know I hurt people along the way. I'm sorry about that. I don't know that it was possible then to do anything but what I did. But still.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Pennies from Heaven

Bow my head and listen to the rain
The rain sweeps up over the hills from the sea.
Green hills, long hills, vineyard and grassfield;
The rain sweeps up over the hills from the sea.

Give me a penny for luck; give me
Two pennies to lay on my eyes.
Three pennies, and I'd buy you a present
If I only knew where to look.

Give me a penny for look: lift your face:
Listen to the rain. It sweeps up
Over the hills; it brings remembrance
(Green hills, long hills, vineyard and grassfield),

If I only knew where to look. Raise my head,
And the pennies fall, splashing my face;
The pennies run down my cheeks; the pennies
Glisten in the grit of the sidewalk, glisten

In the wet of the rain. Ringle dingle jangle
And the falling water and home.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Climate Change

Pollen-crusted twigs and blossoms litter the sidewalks this morning, torn loose by the warning.

Yesterday from the cafe windows opposite Powell's I watched the sunlight disappear, the darkness hurry up from somewhere under the street, and an abrupt violent wind, a stranger here, pick up shingles and wallpostings and fling them into the sky. Raging.

This is Texas, I thought to myself. I've seen this before, these sudden freaks. But not here. This is Texas. This is the end.

Girls hurried by holding their skirts down. I hoped their dresses would blow up around their heads; I hoped the rain would turn their thin summer dresses into clinging transparencies. I wondered how old in the dharma I would have to be before my compassion was stronger my wish to see them exposed, than that enjoyment of vulnerability. That's Texas too, that old wound, that deformation of eros. I am a stranger here too.

I walked to the bus stop in the rain. I was soaking wet in minutes. The air was still warm, but the rain was cold. On the bus I wiped the water from my face. Someone behind me was coughing, a hopeless, weak, bronchial cough. Must be someone old, homeless, uninsured. The sort of detritus you get on the bus.

In a lull I stole a glance. The only person behind me was a strong teenaged boy, nicely dressed, with long glossy hair.

You don't know anything, Dale, I told myself. You think you know everything, but you don't know anything.

And this morning?

This morning I am catching minnows in my hands, hunting shadows. Sunlight flickers and nods through green leaves. Rhymes tickle me. I have a gumbie cat in mind; her name is Jennyanydots.

I wish you were here. I wish things were simple. I wish I could back out of this old, worn-out life, leave my crumpled snakeskin here, on the sidewalk, along with the twigs, and start fresh.

But I will never be well. Maybe that was me, coughing on the bus. Maybe that was me, holding my skirt down while the wind came down from Texas. My whole body is laced with illness. My arteries are hardening, my blood pressure is rising. I become puffy, red-faced, impotent. I saw a man on the street the other day, red faced and neckless, hair white like mine, his whole body a congestive disaster. That's me, too.

Or. There's the man who rode his bike to Tosi's this morning, hale and sound, and put his helmet on the table. Read poetry, studied Chinese. Who's that?

Outside, the cars toil down Sandy Boulevard, most with their lights on. It's a dark morning and doesn't promise to get much brighter. The rain's begun again. All those people going downtown to work, driving down to fill up the parking garages, car after car crossing the bridges, and then spiraling up into the concrete shells. It's in-between time, they think. An interstice. But really it's their whole lives. They kill the engines and sit in their cars, downtown, and fall asleep, and dream about going to work, and then they wake up and drive home, and in their driveways they fall asleep again and dream that they're at home, until morning. They never actually leave the cars. All of them, all of them convinced that they're actually leading two other lives, one at work and one at home. I'd tell them, but think how embarrassed they'd be. Better to leave it alone.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Bridal Veil

We went to Bridal Veil last weekend. The Falls the old and lame people go to: close to Portland, a half mile walk, easy trail.

A mother dipper (or water ouzel) was there, and three young birds, just babies, I think, although they were nearly the size of the mother. She industriously flew back and forth from the steep sides of the fall, to bring the babies treats. They got very shrill and excited, as baby birds will at feeding time, opening their beaks very wide and peeping over the roar of the water.

Dippers bob, rather than standing still. We wondered whether it might actually be a form of camouflage: if you can't be motionless, maybe the next best thing is to move like a bit of flotsam by the waterside. I had always thought the name "dipper" came from their habit of dropping under the water and swimming there, but after watching these I wondered it actually came from the bobbing: it's quite arresting. Every two seconds, that bob.

Here follows a long post, which I'm not posting, about food: about my bitterness about being misled by authorities about it, about how beleaguered and unsupported I feel at home. At one point I said: "Everything I do about food wounds somebody. I mean that. Everything I do about food wounds somebody."

Which is true. Every single thing I do about food wounds somebody. Additionally, everything I say about food wounds somebody. I'm not sure how it came to this pass; or -- since really I suppose everything we do and say wounds somebody, if we only brought sufficient awareness to see it -- why food is the nexus where so much pain and guilt comes to rest. But it is.

I won't post it, the bitterness and the easy vituperation: there's enough of all that on the web. Enough already.

The next thing is not to try to eat what I presently conceive of as good food: the next thing is getting the kitchen clean, its work spaces clear, and a cubic foot or two of space in the fridge to hold my food. No point in expending precious oomph until that's done. I don't have so much oomph that I can afford to squander any.