Friday, October 30, 2009


I walk down through the ferns on the wrong side of the mountain. The sun is level and glints in my eyes. Sometimes it's more important to lose elevation fast than to know exactly where you are.

There's a little watercourse, and the rule of thumb -- don't try this in Alaska, but it works here in the Willamette Valley -- is, if you follow the flow of water, you'll come to human dwellings eventually.

I have nothing but a certain gift for entering other people's worlds. It's all I ever had: it's what God gave me to make my way with in the world. Some were given a gun; some were given a gift of song or dance; some an agility with numbers; some a way with words or syllogisms, with clay or paint, with giving orders or taking them.

I was given a pale gray pebble. My gift. It warms when another heart is near and sends me words, pictures, bits of song. It tells me what they've heard in the past, and what they long to hear now.

It comes at a price, of course. I must be below the tree line by nightfall, or the mist people will take me. I see them now, beginning to show themselves, cleverly using thorn branches to accentuate their thrawn, bony arms, using the pale lichen to draw their beards, peering through the clinging beads of the recent rain to make their eyes. I never know if they're what I came from, or what I'm fated for, but someday I'll find out. Someday I'll linger too long on the mountain top, and those cold fingers will coil around my ribs and thighs.

I haven't learned much, in this little jury-rigged life, but I have learned this: you pay for gifts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I hold your foot to my chest, as my thumbs
work their way up the sole. Fold the metatarsals
around one hand with the other, and then

splay them with both. Work the motherloads
under the ball of the foot, under the first toe-joints.
Tweak the tips of the toes.

Give each a little tug: like straightening five little spines.
Hold them a moment, feeling the heartbeat echo
in them, with some sense that's neither quite

hearing nor touch, the life pulsing, glowing like the sun
seen through closed eyelids. This is love if anything is.
Wading ashore on a bright day. This new

gentle country, after months of stormy crossing.
I have outlived all my people. I am ancient,
made of shrivelled flyaway tatters

and gnarled stick-bones. The sun is all the more grateful
for that. The lendings all thrown off. I come ashore
slowly, like a wasp

crawling from a puddle, brilliant in the sun.
I am too old to die now. I am past
the dangerous withering phase.

There's nothing in me now but light and love,
the sunbeat, and a few fine scraps
of deathless skin and bone.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Difference Between Chaucer and Shakespeare

Language Hat quoted a letter that appeared in The New York Times, in which one Andrew Charig said,"Shakespeare wrote before English was standardized; Chaucer before it was English at all."

This was so breathtakingly wrong-headed that I decided to write a bit about it here. Chaucer is indeed English. I don't think any scholar of linguistics or of English would deny that. Mr Charig's error is just a silly one, and doesn't deserve to be belabored for its own sake. Perhaps he was dimly remembering someone saying that Beowulf was not really English (which I would pretty much agree with), and mistook Old English for Middle English, which happens all the time: any Chaucer scholar is used to patiently correcting people who speak of Chaucer's language as "Old English." But the perception that Chaucer is far more difficult and foreign than Shakespeare, and that there's a sort of watershed divide in the two centuries between them, is common. That's what I want to talk about.

Let's actually look at some. Here are two fairly typical stanzas, one from Chaucer's time and one from Shakespeare's. I picked these by opening books at random. They are both, as is common for both periods, on Roman topics: the first is about the rape of Lucrece, and the second about Saint Cecilia. Read them both and see which you think easier. The squiggles above the 'e's in the last line of the first selection, by the way, are simply an early way of writing a letter 'n'; and I've used 'f's as the closest approximation I have for the "tall 's'" used in manuscripts (for an 's' that is not final.)

This is Lucrece addressing a nightengale after her rape.

And for poore bird thou fing'ft not in the day,
As fhaming anie eye fhould thee behold:
Some darke deepe defert feated from the way,
That knowes not parching heat, nor freezing cold
VVill wee find out: and there we will vnfold
To creatures ftern, fad tunes to change their kinds,
Since mẽ proue beafts, let beafts bear gẽtle minds.

This recounts a Life of Saint Cecilia. She was an early saint, intensely committed to preserving her virginity.

This maiden, bright Cecilia, as her life sayeth,
Was comen of Romans, and of noble kind,
And from her cradle up fostered in the faith
Of Christ, and bore his gospel in her mind.
She never ceased, as I written find,
Of her prayer, and God to love and dread,
Beseeching him to keep her maidenhead.

The second is much easier to read. But I've played a bit of a trick on you, by letting you assume they're in chronological order. They're not. The first is Shakespeare, but in the original spelling: the second is Chaucer, in modernized spelling.

There are only two grammatical tip-offs here, which I'm betting only English scholars would catch: the participle "comen," (in the second line of Chaucer's stanza) which Shakespeare would not have used, and "knowes not" in the fourth line of the Shakespeare -- Chaucer would have said "knoweth not."

My point is that the chief reason Chaucer looks so much older to us is because of the universal editorial decision not to modernize his spelling. The grammatical differences are trifling. What really makes it look old is the Middle English spelling -- which is essentially the same as Elizabethan spelling.

Shakespeare is actually, in my opinion, more difficult to read than Chaucer, for a modern English reader: not because of any spelling or grammatical differences, but because the Elizabethans are far more fancy and ornate in their poetry. Look how straightforward Chaucer is! Of course, this is mature Chaucer -- The Legend of Good Women -- and that's immature Shakespeare -- The Rape of Lucrece. But they're both typical of their times. Shakespeare is by no means the most flowery of Elizabethan writers, and Chaucer is no simpler than most Middle English writers (Gower, for example, his main rival, is even easier.)

The only very important difference between Shakespeare's English and Chaucer's English is in pronunciation. The great vowel shift happened in between them -- that somewhat mysterious alteration that moved the sounds of all the English vowels away from the common European sounds for them. A second change was that 'e' in final position became silent: "name" became a one-syllable, not a two-syllable word. (Chaucer said "nahm-uh," Shakespeare said something quite like what we say.)

But neither of these changes is apparent on the written page. Nor are more minor changes, such as the fact that in Chaucer's English the 'k' and 'gh' in a word such as "knight" had not yet fallen silent. In fact, written Elizabethan English and written Middle English look very much alike: it takes more linguistic sophistication than the general reader usually has to tell them apart -- unless an editor has decided to modernize the spelling of one and not the other. Then they look very different indeed.

Here's the two passages as you'd see them in standard editions, for a college course:

'And for, poor bird, thou sing'st not in the day,
As shaming any eye should thee behold,
Some dark deep desert, seated from the way,
That knows not parching heat nor freezing cold,
Will we find out; and there we will unfold
To creatures stern sad tunes, to change their kinds:
Since men prove beasts, let beasts bear gentle minds.'

This mayden, bright Cecilie, as hir lyf seith,
Was comen of Romayns, and of noble kynde,
And from hir cradel up fostred in the feith
Of Crist, and bar his gospel in hir mynde.
She nevere cessed, as I writen fynde,
Of hir preyere, and God to love and drede,
Bisekynge hym to kepe hir maydenhede.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why I don't Stretch

A new version of this post is up on my massage website: I've removed the old version here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In which a Worm and a Bottle of Shampoo Astonish Me

I have an earworm this morning. Madonna, I think it is. And I'm wondering if the lyrics can really be as bizarre as the worm assures me they are.

"Don't go for second best, baby," it sings to me. I can go with that, Worm. Like Elizabeth's best friend in Pride and Prejudice, marrying that appalling parson. Don't do that!

"Put your love to the test." Pause. Perplexity. Put your love to the test? Like, voluntarily? Like the world's not going to supply enough tests? But it comes around again, relentlessly, as earworms do. Yep, that's what it says.

And goes on to this: "you've got to make him express how he feels, and then you know his love is real." Silent staggerment. Did she really say that, Worm? Are you sure you're not making this up?

So we're not talking about the parson. We're talking about a love contest, and you come in second if your lover doesn't talk about being in love. You're afraid it's not real and therefore you want to make sure it is by... inducing him to say so?

I try wildly to relate this to any experience of love I've ever had. I understand wanting to hear "I love you." Who doesn't want to hear that, from the right person? But it doesn't make you a contest winner, and it doesn't make it real. What makes it real is when you have the flu and they wipe the stray spit-up off your face with a washcloth, and kiss your forehead. What makes it real is you still want to read their poems and they still want to see your paintings a year later. What makes it real is when they get up with the baby at three a.m. because you have to be a work at seven and they have till nine. What makes it real is cutting you slack for saying something stupid you don't mean when you're upset, but making sure they understand the grain of truth in it, and dealing with it. And when your heart still skips a beat when they turn their head a certain way in a certain light.

As a good Buddhist, I grope for understanding. What kinds of experience lead you to view love the way this worm does? How does the issue become not do you really love me? but can I succeed in inducing you to talk glibly about loving me? And how did it become a contest, with rankings? But I get nowhere.

Contemplating these things, as I sit in the bathroom, I can come to no illumination. I shake it off and reach for the cheap shampoo at the edge of the tub. Reading material. I turn it over and squint at the fine print. Again I am astonished. Say yes to beauty, I read, without paying the price.

Say yes to beauty without paying the price? "Um..." I say aloud, "I don't think so."

Sometimes I wonder if the people from my home planet are ever coming back for me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Note: this was inspired by Rachel Barenblat's wonderful Likeness poem (I almost titled it "Sumac, Lemur, Condor.")

Suppose I just admit I didn't think it through.
Dear Adam. I thought you'd give each thing one perfect name.
That would be The Kissing Stone. This would be The Apple Tree.

And it started like that. But one bright morning you called her Dear,
and by evening you had called her Idiot. And the tree
became The Tree of the Knowledge of Dear and Idiot

and The Apple became Sin and I myself
became Something that Walked in the Garden.
I thought I would be able to keep up, but day by day

you multiplied names and all your kindred did the same,
and now I sink bewildered under languages
outnumbering the stars, each one naming Stars: I say them

over to myself at night, but dear, dear children
of the children of my children, I can't remember them all.
You pray to me in words I can't recall. Your murmur rises

to my ears like the song of multitudinous birds
fretting in hedges, like the sound of waters in a still country:
I hear your voices, but the words, the words escape me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Woke at 3:30 this morning. Padded down to the landing, and looked out. The clouds were clearing. Orion climbing up; Sirius trotting at his heels.

Weary, weary, weary, but no sleep in me. In the massage room, I looked at the wicker trunk and shopping bags of books that Martha put there temporarily a few weeks ago. It was time for me to accept that I didn't know whether these things were more or less temporary than me, so I moved my zabuton and zafu out of the corner, and pushed them into it. Then I set my shrine up, which I took down temporarily, months ago, and had never put back up. This involved a fair amount of shifting and sorting to get everything off the top of my dresser that had accumulated there: the two volumes of the Trigger Point Manual, my leftover brochures, Fiona Robyn's book The Letters, Stephen Dunn's Poems. Then I got the candlestick and the offering bowls out, cleaned them in a cursory fashion. The mala Tori got me in Japan. The pictures of Sarah and Michael. The little battered wooden Buddha.

Where was the block of wood, covered with blue brocade, that made a higher place for the buddha? The old mirror covered with blue silk for a backdrop? No idea. I searched the room, its closet, the basement: no luck. Martha would no doubt know, but she was asleep. Anyway. The important thing was to have a shrine and to sit.

But it was clearly wrong. The little wooden buddha sitting disconsolate, dwarfed by the candlestick, loomed over by Sarah's picture. I couldn't sit in front of that. Well. Just temporarily. The box for the shoes I bought recently was there on the floor. I set it there and set the buddha on top. Filled the offering bowls. Lit the candle. Stiffly made my three prostrations, said my prayers, and meditated. The shadow of the the buddha large on the wall behind, its ears hanging low. It made me laugh, the buddha on the shoebox: it was such a perfect emblem of my rickety slapdash meditation practice.

Of course it's all temporary, all makeshift. I thought of Buddha Shakyamuni, all those years ago, dropping into the pond of humanity, and this tiny ripple from his life rocking the reeds, two and half thousand years later. He would have enjoyed the humor of this.

I said the sealing prayer. "By this virtue may I quickly realize Mahamudra, and establish all beings in this state." My lips twitched at the word "virtue," as they often do. It's not very often that I say that prayer without a strong sense of its irony. ("Realize enlightenment by this virtue? Good luck, man!")

Empty the offering bowls, pour the water out beside the back porch, stand a moment under the still-dark sky and breathe. Then back to blow out the candle. Darkness falls on the buddha, and on the shoebox. Morning is still a long way away.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Warm today; almost balmy. Everything feels full, ripe, expectant. But still it doesn't rain. Yellow leaves linger on the trees: only a few fall silently, slowly, through the pregnant air. I used to dive for pennies in my stepfather's pool. I'd watch them fall through the water like that, in slow motion, sideslipping, spinning, hesitating.

Not a sound from the birds. There's a hell of a rain building up.

Brimming with love: the slightest jostle would spill it. Carrying all this light. It's like carrying a saucer full of milk downstairs. It doesn't really matter if some falls: the cat will get it anyway.

It gets harder and harder to understand, as I get older. Everything becomes more obscure. I'm no longer afraid of not doing what I was sent here to do. I know I will do it. Or I already have done it. But I know less than ever what it is.

For now, carefully, step by step, with a warm shadow at my feet.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The trees and shrubs in frantic agitation. For a moment a whole flock of starlings is blown backwards by a specially strong gust, all of them flapping mightily, all shoved tailward. Then they get the better of it , by climbing up out of the strongest current of the wind, and labor forward to the trees they're aiming for, while the leaves swirl through them, flying in the opposite direction. They arrive, subdued for their kind, carefully establishing a good grip on the branches, barely muttering to each other, like parachutists checking over their equipment.

The traffic lights sway on Sandy Boulevard. A single crow dares the wind also, cocky as ever, tacking port and starboard, and finally dropping almost to the ground to make his windward progress, going well beyond his target telephone wire. Then he lets the wind sweep him up and back -- a sudden swipe of motion, almost too rapid for the eye -- and there he is, having snagged the wire, bobbing back and forth, the wind rucking up his feathers: insouciant, full of himself. In a moment he's on his way again, leaving the impression, as crows often do, that he did it just to prove he could.

I rode here to Tosi's in the rain this morning, as an experiment. The gloves may do, even though they're not waterproof. The rain pants, flimsy as they are, kept my jeans dry, so that's all right. I'll definitely need booties or something to keep my feet dry, though. And a sweatshirt to go under my rain jacket.

The wind and the rain, the deep breathing of this living sky: I am in love. So grateful for this breakfast, and for this day.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Piper at the Gaits

There are times when the gait of everyone I see
is fabulously grotesque. Here's one
doing a Groucho walk; another waddling
to shame the ducks; another powering
down the sidewalk as if forcing his way
through an angry tide of syrup.
Where can they all possibly

be hoping to arrive? When they come
to the end of the world, they'll walk right off,
absorbed in posturing. For one moment
their eyes will cross mine, checking to see
if I register their brand. Then they'll drop
into the abyss, without even a wail.
Whoosh! Legs still pumping.

No business of mine. No one appointed me
the judge of walks. I sit with my cloven hooves
tucked demurely under my shaggy thighs,
and play my pipes. Little filaments
of music, drifting like the threads of Whitman's
spiders, catching what they may: something or nothing,
sweet or sour, tomorrow or today.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Somewhere in his mammoth biography of Coleridge, Richard Holmes notes that Coleridge's emotional instability, difficult as it was for his friends, kept him curious and learning and growing into middle age. He never hardened, as Wordsworth and Southey did, into a caricature of himself. The world was always new and wonderful to him, no matter how wretched he might be at any given moment.

One way of looking at my life over the past couple years is that I've plunged back into world, and given myself up again to the rollercoaster of Samsara. My meditation practice is practically gone. I no longer peddle myself as the sage of the internet: it would be too ludicrous, even for me, to pretend to be anything but the plaything of pleasure and pain, bobbing where the wind takes me.

Still my main response to this is relief. I feel not that I've missed a chance, but that I've dodged a bullet. It made me deeply uncomfortable when people would refer to me as wise. I knew that it was not true, for one thing, and for another, I had an obscure but urgent sense that accepting that designation would land me in a blind alley that I might never escape.

And anyway, I had other work to do. It's no small thing to have established what Buddhists call "right livelihood." In addition, I've cleared my mornings for writing. I commute by bicycle now, which I love. I've fought the food thing to a draw. Love is as difficult and wonderful and upsetting as ever. The fundamental struggles of my life are all either won or in full play, which is where they ought to be.

But it's time for some serious meditation again. My clarity has been deteriorating. My eyes are clouding over. This could be a blind alley too.

Love in Winter

Cold clouds
Drifting over long descents of bare field,
Full, feverish faces hidden in the broad chest of God,
Tears flowing like butter over pancakes. Maudlin,
Desperate, eager, kissing like the first time or the last,
Lips and tongues swollen, heavy with love,
Charged with wanting. Yes, winter is coming,
The long dark: but chilled skin melts under hot fingers,
And blood beneath rises to meet them; the flames
Burn hotter in the cold.

Monday, October 05, 2009


We lay in a rough circle, each doing our own practice, and the teacher walked among us. She saw that the woman lying beside me was crying, silently, huddled in a fetal position. She stooped to cradle her head, and stroke her side briefly; then she brought her a rolled-up towel -- to cuddle, or to catch her tears: I was not sure which. I was distressed that, involved in my own practice, I had not noticed that she was in tears. I felt I had been found wanting. Yet I hesitated too to do anything: bearing in mind how often such interference is only a pretext for inserting oneself into another's consciousness.

I sat up, and after a little hesitation, came near and laid a hand on her head, and just sat that way for a few minutes, loving her, washed over by tenderness. Then we began the road back, so I withdrew again, glad to have been able to connect without making any demand for recognition or recompense. The teacher was still making her rounds. I felt the tears come in my own eyes: I was thinking of how I could settle back into my own practice, knowing there was a watchful caretaker at hand. Thinking that it was not all up to me.

I've spent my life taking care of people. It's what I do: it's my calling. But it's always been informed by knowing that I'm not enough, not equal to the suffering and distress: knowing that attention paid here is neglect there. I imagined a world in which that was not so, in which a loving teacher was always making the rounds, in which love would be in the context of enough. That, I suppose, is what haunts me.

After the session, she came up to me and asked, "Did you put your hand on my head?"

"I hope that was all right," I said.

"Oh, it was wonderful! It let me stay there, it let me... thank you!"

She hugged me, long and intensely. "Thank you," she said again, and I turned aside a little, shaking my head and mumbling "thank you." We hugged again, and I picked up my stuff and left; delighted, embarrassed, perplexed.

In the context of plenitude, how different it would be! I could not have explained my own tears: I'm glad no one asked me to.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Stag at Breitenbush

I limp to the water's edge: look at
the writing-brushes of the ponderosa pines
poised against the sky. If Lao Tzu were here
he'd say something clever about the trees.

Nothing. Stripped to the flabby flesh,
dusty, full of poisons, harried and harassed,
cornered at last in a sacred place, I lower
my head. I still have the antlers of my pride.

Don't fuck with me. I have been patient,
in my fashion, and I am old, but it is still
not safe to taunt me, not safe
to back me into a cage.

It's not the mood you would choose
for entering a cathedral.
I come with my sins stinking fresh,
reeking of bad faith.

Full of anger at those who have helped me,
full of despair at intimations of hope,
grown old in the quest for youth,
grown fearful in the quest for courage.

How long would it take
to unwind all these crusted bandages?
Longer than I have. The scabs are
meshed with the linen, the blood

is matted in my fur. Still
there's no sense waiting till you're clean
to take a bath: the hunters gather silent
as I wade into the pool.