Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Year, Wheeling

When I got home from my evening massage last night, Vega was setting, and Orion just rising in the east.

At four this morning, I woke, and realized I'd left my pack in the car. I slipped out of bed and walked out in my bare feet, on the frozen cement, to fetch it: I wanted to recharge my laptop before morning. My eye followed the handle of the Dipper, of its own accord, and extended its widening curve, falling toward the eastern horizon: and there was Arcturus -- my first reminder, this year, that winter eventually turns into spring. The year plays out in little, every night.

(This photo is credited to Stellarium, and edited, if I'm reading right, by one Bob King. It's labelled 10 p.m. in March: well, yes, but it's also 4 a.m. in late November, if you happen to be prowling about at that time of morning. The year wheels over your head as you sleep.)

I'm never sure how much people know about the sky. I was startled last year by discovering that lots of people, perfectly clever and informed people, had no notion of the ecliptic: they had never learned, and never observed, that sun, moon, and planets can only appear in one swath of the sky. I absorbed this with some consternation. Were these people who could see a full moon appear on the northern horizon -- or even the sun -- with equanimity? Would they notice at least a certain strangeness? I wasn't sure. The disquiet has never left me. Because of course I am walking about in multiple inexplicable ignorances, quite as obvious to people who have a good high school grasp of, say, chemistry, or classical music. The fact that, after all these years, I still don't know what sort of stuff potassium is, or what instrument makes that hollow moo, is pathetic. Do I pay no attention at all?

Friday, November 28, 2014


Rain: large white drops hang at the bottom of the window-awnings, shifting back and forth as the canvas blows, waiting their chance to drop free. The light concentrates in each one: they seem brighter than the gray sky, brighter than the cheerfully-lit interior of the restaurant. They dart back and forth, unable to quite fall from the bottom seam, like silver beads on a giant abacus. Finally the wind gives the awning a real shake, and all the drops leap off, a brilliant vanishing shower. At once new beads string themselves. They may keep it up all day: this is a true Oregon rain, with plenty of stamina. There's no particular reason it should ever stop.

I'm reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, whose middle initial was not in fact S, but H: West Point took it into its head that the initial was S, and the army obstinately continued to use it, although Grant's middle name was Hiram. Then the newspapers, during the war, took a fancy to pretending it stood for Unconditional Surrender. (Those were the only terms he would offer to the starving garrison of Vicksburg, knowing they had to take them: in fact he tended to be generous in paroling captives, and letting them keep their property, but he didn't want anyone unclear that they'd been beaten.) You might think that at some point he might insist on getting his name right, say when he was president, but it doesn't seem to have mattered to him. He was an oddly humble man, a sort of military boddhisattva, even as he directed the enormous cruelties of the first modern total war: he is terribly pleasing, if mystifying, in his simplicity. Anyway, I have got him to the end of the war, which is the part of his career I knew a fair amount about anyway. Now I strike into unknown territory with him.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


Thanksgiving Day, 2014. The pavement and the sky are the same gleaming gray: headlights make brief lines of light on the road, but the Sun doesn't answer, above. She's walking up high in the skyfields, pensive and forgetful. We have to make do with what light we have, here below.

The old feeling of confinement, I have always felt during the holidays: less now, and lit up with occasional intimations of liberty, but still there's the stubborn mass of humanity on the other side, insisting that today can mean only one thing. I loathe that, and always have, and I expect I always will. In me the impulse to celebration and the dictates of the calendar seem never to coincide. So I wait it out, as inoffensively as possible. But more and more these days, I dream of breaking loose, of going somewhere where Thanksgiving and Christmas have never been heard of, where people go about their business as if it was any ordinary day, free to any experience.

I love routine, doing the same thing every day, beholden to no one: I am not exactly antisocial, I think, but a little goes a long way with me, and to be with people in groups means not being able to hear or understand, and trying to balance jostling, half-caught expectations against each other. I wish sometimes I had a higher specific gravity, that I didn't tumble so wildly in the slipstream of other people's desires, but maybe it's just the price I pay for being able to see as I do. At my age, well into my fifties, I've largely given up on ever being a different person. The question these days is what to do with the person I already am. I will always be timid and eager to please, in my own mind's eye, however stubborn and willful I may appear.

I do want people to be happy, but I'm well past the delusion -- intellectually -- that I will make them happy by doing what they want me to do, or being what they want me to be. What will make them happy is shaking off expectation and seeing with raw, tender eyes -- seeing what's really there to see. What they think they want of me is beside the point, and I don't have the time to throw away on indulging them any more. Or actually, I never did. The time is short. Evening comes early, this time of year.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dentist With Cavities

Ten days ago, there was a windstorm whipping the rotten mountain ash to and fro: it was threatening to bring it down and wreck our fence. So, with possibly more valor than discretion, we determined to take it down: we leashed it so it would fall, hopefully, in the direction we wanted, and sawed it and wedged it and hacked it and hauled on it till it finally came down; or anyway, settled itself securely in the arms of the neighboring pine and silk trees.

The weather was icy cold (for the marine Northwest) and as I was sawing I could feel the various muscles of my abdomen and low back looking at me dubiously. It was so much fun, though, that I ignored them. And when the tree finally did come down, as Martha and I were both hauling on it, and a gust of wind was helping it, I fell down too. Not a troubling fall.

But the next day all my lower back and abdominals were jacked and unhappy: not an honest soreness, but the sort of jolty pain that makes you think about kidneys and gall bladders and makes you want not to bend at the middle, not for anything.

For four days it stayed just like that. I cancelled some of my massages, taking myself down to one per day. (Doing massage actually seemed to help; I felt better after doing one; but I was pretty sure that doing more would be a bad idea.)

The first two days I was not worried. No matter how weird it felt, it was just over-use, and it would go away. I did my back exercises in the morning, though it took twice as long as usual, getting down to the floor and cautiously exploring which moves I could still make. But day three and four, I didn't like at all. What was the deal? It should be getting better.

The cold snap continued, and the cold felt like it was getting into my bones: I felt old and useless. Turning over in bed was something I had to plan and execute carefully, and getting out of it was an ordeal. And the whole thing was humiliating, in a dentist-with-cavities way. Muscle pain was supposed to be something I knew how to deal with!

On the morning of the fifth day, I took a hot bath.

The transformation was extraordinary. Everything knotted loosened, everything crooked straightened. I could breathe freely. The soreness dwindled to ordinary muscle soreness. I was human again. The generalized pain ebbed away, and I could tell that the remaining unhappy muscle -- possibly the only one that had ever really been tweaked -- was my left iliopsoas. I could work it judiciously, making it contract and relax. This stuff I knew how to work with.

From the time of that bath, the recovery that had stalled out resumed. The next day I was better, and the next better yet. This morning I could do all of my back exercises in ordinary way -- no hacks, no workarounds, and at most a tiny reduction in range of movement. Martha found heating pad at the girls' house, and I have used it a lot. Heat. It's a grand thing.

I wish I knew a) if the heat was really the agent -- maybe I was just due to get better anyway -- and b) if it was the heat -- what did it do? Is there a mechanical explanation, or is it purely a nervous response?

Always an adventure, inhabiting a body.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Kiki Encounters Monstrosity

Kiki loves water, and is drawn to anyplace it may be running or trickling. Last night I was taking a bath (my back still being iffy). Showers Kiki knows as normal human behavior, but baths were a new idea.

The noise of water brought her trotting into the bathroom. It was fairly dark: I'd left the lights off. She stopped short, seeing no one at the washstand, her tail lashing. This was just weird, very weird. Slowly she looked towards the tub, and slowly craned her neck to see over its side. It took her still a moment to piece it all together. Her eyes widened, and she backed away, and then fled. It was several minutes before she could bring herself to come look again. She crept in and jumped up on the washstand and gazed down at me in disbelief.

Something spooky to tell her grandchildren on Halloween. "It had lowered its whole huge primate carcass into the water, and was wallowing there!" I have no doubt the telling of the story will become a holiday tradition, chez Kiki.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Lights Out

I love it when the lights go off in a place I have only ever known illuminated. Seeing the place -- a cafe, an office, a library -- for the first time with the natural light falling dim and slantwise, shadows zig-zagging over suddenly unfamiliar shapes: the places become old, haunted maybe, or hallowed. My life right now feels like such a place: the lights of my relentless conception have gone out, and my life is all foreign, oddly-shaped, and shrouded. A little pathetic, like some famous, admired person glimpsed in his tattered old bathrobe, unshaven and sticky-eyed. This: I wish I could stay in my life like this. I know the lights will come on again, but I wish they could stay off. A little longer.

This morning, in the bath, I thought I would stay there till April. Write me care of The Most Noble and Steaming Tub, 86th Avenue (waterproof ink only, please!) "Oh," wrote Tolkien, "water hot is a noble thing!"
Water cold we may pour at need
Down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed:
But better is beer, if drink we lack
And water hot poured down the back.
 Now a brilliant sun and cold November air. Grateful for all gifts, large and small. Take care, dear.

Saturday, November 08, 2014


The courage to slow down, to take things one at a time, to take a full breath, from beginning to end, without my attention flickering to someone, somewhere, who might approve of me. (Because of course the worst thing in the world, would be to miss a morsel of approval.)

It's been an odd schooling, but an effective one. No one's approval particularly means anything: it's all contingent, unsteady, unpredictable. Steering by it would be disaster. Yet that's what I've been doing. Despite the obvious, which I should know and do know: people approve of you because of what they need, not because of what you need. It's a hard, bitter world, in some ways, and we're all scrabbling at the bottom of a barrel in the dark.

Sometimes you hold on to my hand as though I were life itself. And I simply stop, and hold in return. What else are we here for? It's not as if there was anything to say. 

Still, though, if it doesn't drive me, it still moves me, it's such a thrusting habit of mind: "maybe this means I'm special! Maybe I've found it!" Even though I know perfectly well that to be special is to be bound and helpless, a hostage to my imagination. If I want to be free, I had better not want to be special. You don't get both.

And I do want to be free. Even a hint, the glint of Vega over a dark housetop, the wind stirring my hair as I step wearily out of my car, and turn to haul my table out of the back seat -- even those quiet messengers -- my heart rises to meet them, not with a feverish urgency, but with the hinted memory of a long-forgotten ease. Those messengers are the ones to welcome: those are the friends that will bring me home.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Drinkers

The dark builds higher and higher, in the north,
until it crumples, and the rains begin. We tell them
about the ebbing of the light, but no one believes it,

not till they see the roaring firs, the tree shadows
jogging each other's elbows as they drink
greedily suck

the light down from the sky. Pitcher after pitcher.
They are inexhaustible drinkers, and they carouse
into the night.

It's not until they sleep that any dawn can come,
and any timid, wandery light can make its way
up into the washed and beaten hills.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

and one who is waiting

Sad and foolish, sad and foolish: even those of us who stop to think -- especially us, maybe -- are prone to flukes and spurts of stupid ignorance. But in the mass, it's terrifying: to the historian, counting off genocides on his fingers, it has gone beyond that, to a principle.
O long-awaited, are you nearly here?
Is that your shadow I see from the window,
beginning to cross the field?
I have not labored, I have idled. Oh, I have read, and read, and read: empires and parliaments, poets and explorers, bitter artists and puzzled scientists have been swept into the mulch bag of my sprawling, undisciplined mind. I have more riches in any odd corner of my brain than most yahoos will ever collect in a long gaping life: but what have I done with it all? Even to think of presenting my true account, on His return, is to burn with shame.
Everywhere I look, there are emblems
from years of laboring: nettles
that stung my hands, fronds of palm
 But. It is yet another temptation of idleness, to brood on lost opportunity and the neglect of my Genius. The point is to work here, right here right now, with the tools I have. Because I have wormed my way up to a point of vantage, in spite of all that waste. And there is love to spend still.
.     .     .     I read tonight
that certain moths drink the tears

of sleeping birds, turning sorrow
into sustenance. O long awaited,
I have never left, I am still here.
I am still here, improbable, improbable though that is. I am still here, and my grip is the hand-grip of thirty thanes. I am walking now on that dusky road, with the sudden conviction that even now -- even now -- someone is waiting.

*these verses are from Luisa Igloria's "Wanderer," from Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014


The sadness comes with the turning of the leaves. I pause on the aggravations of the moment, consider writing something pissy about wishing the Obama administration had let the banks collapse, since the apparently the only thing that will school Americans is a full-blown depression. But I turn from it in disgust. One more ignorant voice is not what's needed: I would only add to the confusion. For my own sake, too, better to stick to things I actually know. Which boils down to a few periods of English literature, and the lurches of my heart.

Listen to the wild patter of the drums, up at the high range of my hearing, a skirling accompaniment to my tinnitus. Someone is always playing, up away behind my shoulders somewhere. A beat to quarters, maybe, but no one has told me what the fight will be about. Maybe you're told after it's all over, in the quiet aftermath? Maybe.

Last night I rubbed the wool-socked feet of an old man, a man so old he's outlived his hospice assignment. They were willing to help him die, but if he's just going to live and live, he'll have to make other arrangements. He's deafer than I am, and we make a fine comedy team, since neither of us likes to ask for clarification, and both of us tend to mumble. It's a fine illustration of -- something, but it also goes to show why I'm in the business I'm in: his feet speak to my hands perfectly clearly, even through the wool, and we sit companionably by the November woodstove. His wife makes intermittent attempts to bring us to a verbal understanding, but we mostly ignore her. We'll stick to the wool. She'll get her massage later, on the table, her bathrobe over the top of the blankets for extra warmth. It's turned cool. The Fall here at last.

Is this sadness? It's the stock word for this slowness, this awareness of time passing and things falling away. But I don't really regret anything, or wish anything was otherwise. I still have this yen to explain things, to tell you how it really was, before it disappears; but I feel that I've been -- in this regard -- neatly boxed into silence. Encysted, so as to cause no trouble to the fleshly grass. There are worse fates: but there is still a faint tickling, an itch to be understood. And meantime, the leaves are flushed with embarrassment and delight, giddy and trembling on their high branches. This, they say, is their prime: and who's to say they're wrong?

Monday, November 03, 2014

Día de los Muertos

I have few experiences of the spooky, the uncanny, the unheimlich, these days. Halloween has become opaque to me. Decayed or injured bodies repulse me, and the enjoyment of them distresses me, for perfectly daylight and pedestrian reasons, but they don't spook me. The supposed grotesqueries of age, crossdressing, and deformity either move me to pity or don't move me at all. I'm just not on the page. I have other things to do.

But last night, as I worked late in my darkened office, I heard the door creak open, and a figure in a long white dress swept past, in full Día de los Muertos make-up. I knew very well that it was Minka, who always inspires delight and tenderness in me: but it was also a dead woman, laid out lovingly for burial, decorated not for horror but for honor.

Later, as I passed her dark office on the way to the printer, her skull face turned to me with its familiar warm, engaging smile. That, if you please, was spooky.