Sunday, February 28, 2021



Von Tal says:

Left out of the conversation? The fact that, for nearly all of our evolutionary and historical time, we have been surrounded or neighbored by predators, animal or human.

The possibility -- probability -- of sudden death or capture, by sentient beings that desire our death, or our absorption, is not our abnormal state. It was our normal state. And we patrolled our boundaries, or helped each other to escape, and that is what made the social bonds we most trust. We saved each other's lives.

And although that is not the world we live in now, you can tell it's our normal world, because all our stories immediately return to it. Countless narratives of banding together to defeat predators. Despite the fact that most of us will never meet a creature that means to kill us in our lives. 

In the absence of predatory enemies, we experience, paradoxically, much higher levels of anxiety, because we do not know -- push come to shove -- that anyone will come to our defense. In the absence of predators, we imagine them; but we don't know if anyone will try to save us from them. We don't know who we can trust. We have never had the bonding experience of escaping death together. In fact, the overwhelming tendency of human beings is to help each other out in an emergency. The "total breakdown of society" fantasy is a wildly unrealistic one. Actually what happens is we pull together, we sacrifice for each other. We become more of hive-creatures under stress, not less of hive-creatures.

But we don't know that. And we imagine the worst.

Well, sure, maybe. I realize slowly, on this bright and mild and strangely quiet February morning, that there is a reason for the quiet, and it's a simple and slightly embarrassing one. I forgot to put in my hearing aids this morning. I can just barely hear a sharp crow-voice: "Point of order! Point of order!" Really he's  making a racket, and others are probably bickering too. But it floats, barely perceptible, at that range where hallucination and guess are interchangeable. My ears are a step ahead of me in drifting away from the world.

I read a biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate. The Most Famous Man in America. I should probably read some of Beecher's essays, because he's so much where my tribe originated: the transmutation of Puritanism into Hedonism: the vigorous endorsement of ecstasy and the pettifogging evasion of its consequences: the tunnel vision that sees one sort of evil clearly, and is blind to another sort. And the real origin of my personal disasters, and the waste of my life. Which is not a wastage that is very important, but it's one that concerns me closely.

We fought a long and horrible war, and won it, over whether a black person was a human being. And then we lost the peace, and had to fight it again; and now we are going to have to fight it again. The terms change slightly but the war goes on.

And also this: I remember watching Donald Trump declare himself to be without sin, in an interview before his election. I thought he would lose the devout Christian vote then and there. But even our enemies had been converted by Henry Ward Beecher: today's typical American Christians totally believe they are without sin, and they didn't mind a bit that Trump made that claim. They approved of it. They bask in God's unconditional love. That interview made not even a momentary blip on the political sonar.

Which goes to show that exchanging a stern God for a loving one actually makes no political difference. It's irrelevant. Those of us who once thought it would change something -- the joke's on us. As so often, we believed our own stories, and followed them into an ambush. Sauve qui peut.

Friday, February 19, 2021



Paula Modersohn-Becker

The point from the start was to figure out how to live. Some people grow out of asking "why? why? why?" -- with infuriating persistence -- in toddlerhood. Not me. Partly no doubt because my parents strongly encouraged curiosity, so I generally felt I was a good boy when I inquired. And then, I had a rare father who could actually tell me why the sky was blue, and what held the Moon up, or what was really happening in Southeast Asia. But mostly because what you don't know can cut you off at the knees, and often does. It's pure self-defense to know as much as you can, about everything you can. You have to look after yourself, in this life.

But you end up studying yourself in the mirror, and seeing a strange, inquisitive face examining you, with great attention, although maybe not with overflowing sympathy. The eyes overlarge, and the belly swollen with -- promise? Or what? You tell me.

How to live: which includes what to do with your days: maybe boils down to that. Certainly how to hold your days up to the sun. (Or up to whatever sky God gives you.) 

But first, anyway, you have to slow down and quiet down, until you can hear the drip of the snowmelt and the grooming of the cat and the shift of the heat exchanger. More haste, less speed. 

And so: I sit. For the first time in months. A couple minutes in, and the refuge prayers come back to me: I say them over and resume. Sit a few more minutes. Say the dedication prayers. "May I quickly realize Mahamudra." The great seal, the great gesture: and never in all my reading and practicing did I ever find out what the hell Mahamudra meant, beyond that literal translation. Which, in my current state, pleases me. Obviously, I don't know what it is: if I did I wouldn't need to realize it. That's the whole point.

Well. Good morning, dear ones.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

St Valentine

       Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
       Begin these woodbirds but to couple now?

A glorious mane, a weight of silvered soot:
I wake to the smell of apple wood. An arm
overlaid, a quiet breath, a hood:
a murmur not quite heard, but understood.

A wheeling hammer's axis, near its head 
so that it seems to waver as it falls:
a slalom through the air, an oscillation,
a limp in Newton's gait: an imperfection.

If we wake now, and turn towards the east?
A clutter of trinkets that bring to memory
what's best forgotten: a dirty red and violet:
a blurred burst in silhouette.

Walk back, walk back. The hammer strikes,
rebounds. You have but slumbered here. Tell me
what the story was? I have lost track:
only that the hounds bayed at my back.

Saturday, February 13, 2021


So how do I recover the knack for joy?

To be clear: I'm not trying to be happy. The transitory wash of feelings will follow its tidal rhythms, regardless of my actions or attitudes: content and discontent only function properly if they continue alternating. To want to stop the pendulum at one end of its swing -- to exist in perfect contentment -- is to want to stop the clock. That's not what I'm after.

But there's the foreground of happy and distressing experiences, and there's the background, or the setting. A person who is experiencing (non-acute) depression is not necessarily having an experience of the daily events of their life much different from mine: good things and bad things happen, mood lifts and falls. One of the commonest things people say after a suicide is "My God, I talked to him just hours before that, and he seemed fine." He probably was fine then, as far as it goes. It was not the foreground that was the problem. It was the background. Is there a net of joy under us, waiting to catch us, or is it a horrible, airless vacuity? That's what's different. We may never fall, for good or ill, but the experience on the tightrope is fundamentally different, according to what we think we would fall into if we did.

It's natural enough to cast this in terms of afterlife, but it doesn't need to be cast in those terms. I'm fairly sure that my consciousness will simply stop, when I die. Poof. After that, it's not my problem, nor anyone else's. But we live in time, and we imagine it, willy nilly, coming before and after. Where are we coming from, and where are we going? These nonexistent spaces, are they full and radiant, or empty and horrible? It's a nonsense question, put in those terms: it's undiscoverable and unfalsifiable. But we answer it whether we mean to or not.

There have been seasons when my conviction that the nonexistent spaces were full and radiant was very strong. And seasons, as now, when it has dwindled to a queasy hope.

I'm describing this as if it were a question of fact to be discovered, which it almost certainly isn't. That's just the way we talk. We make up the answer out of moments of transcendence, moments of exquisite joy or clarity or awe. It doesn't take much. But it does take some. It takes at least the possibility that, at any turning, anywhere, any time, something overwhelmingly beautiful and dangerous might appear. So those moments, and how we hold them, matter disproportionately. Hence the daily prayer, the daily ritual, the meditation, the weekly ramble in the Gorge. Not because these moments can be summoned. They can't. But if I don't deliberately put myself in their way, they can be missed: and if I miss them too often, I may come to distrust them entirely, or forget them. And then I'm really lost.

So there's my answer, in a nutshell: I've lost the knack for joy because I've stopped putting myself where it's found. I've stopped looking for it. I don't think it's any more complicated than that.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Losing My Place

I have lost the knack for joy
, I wrote, and then I studied the words for minute. Were they true?

The more I thought it about it, the more I decided they were. I am notoriously bad at personal history -- I never know when or how things happened, and I often find, when I examine my just-so stories about myself, that they're absurd. I'll think event X caused personality defect Y, when a cursory review of the documents shows that Y was in full force years before X. My past is strewn with documents, so it's not that hard to check.

But with all due skepticism, I trace this loss to Mr Trump's nomination, campaign, and election; and then the pandemic set the seal on it. I lost the knack for joy: and I lost much of the impulse to write, which was tightly interwoven with it.

As I watched Trumpism wash through America, I thought again and again: "what was my contribution to this? How did I make this happen, or allow this to happen?"

Well, the answer was clear. I had a least one devoted reader who was also a devoted Trump fan, and I recognized at once that I was appealing in exactly the same way Mr Trump was. I used to practice a sort of diaristic magical realism. I talked to stars and mountains and ghosts. Something that appealed emotionally got free rein, and if facts got trampled in the process, who cares? Other people would take care of the facts. I was busy with the realm of the emotions and of the soul. What I was interested in was joy and delight. Nothing else mattered, not really.

And so I was shocked into silence, inward and outward. I didn't want to be part of spreading this poison. I mistrusted myself deeply. I stopped my supposedly harmless riffing on supernatural themes. No, I'm not meeting Vajrasattva in the parking garage. No, I am not conversing with ghosts. No, I am not dissolving into the wind. I'm someone who washes his hands and wears a mask and is determined to get the vaccine, because viruses don't give a damn about Vajrasattva and never have. Misty devotion to to deities such as the Great South Wall Protector lead straight to children in cages. The hell with misty devotion. The hell with deities. I'm trying to keep my family alive. 

When I was setting out in life, the Enlightenment looked like a done deal. Everyone acknowledged the primacy of science. I gave myself to old books and old stories, partly because I already loved them, and partly with a sense that the post-Enlightenment world was losing something precious: that a salvage operation was in order. That we were throwing sources of joy and wisdom out, as well as sources of superstition and bigotry, The march of science was inevitable: it had the backing of the liberal West, of Soviet Communism, and of global Capital: how could it falter? It needed no help from me. I could wander among the wreckage of our cultural past, find lost treasures in the rubble, wash the mud off them and hold them up to the sun.

And the treasures are there, sure enough. I was right about that part. But science, reason, rationality, commitment to what can be ascertained and confirmed by rigorous experiment -- they turned out to be as fragile as the treasures I was hunting. I had misunderstood. It was all fragile.

The joy blew out like a candle, and I lost my place. I read political news in the morning, instead of poetry. I begin a novel and drop it impatiently: they're just making stuff up. Anyone can make stuff up. The hard thing is sticking to the truth.

I don't quite recognize myself, in all this, and that's probably a good sign.

In order to arrive at what you are not
       You must go through the way in which you are not.

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Posing a Hypothetical

My dental floss comes in a plastic box, of course -- God forbid anything should not be encased in plastic -- and it has a handy little metal tab to cut the floss, because actually having tools around to do obvious jobs would be beyond the capacity of my countrymen. It allows them to sell a spool of waxed thread for an improbable amount of money: I've avoided reckoning up how much I pay per foot, because after all, a person has to end the day with a little bit of pride intact.

But this particular spool resists being pulled with unusual vigor. I have to seize the thread with a specially good grip and drag it out to arm's length. It feels like one those exercises I once learned to make sure the brachial nerves are moving freely through the thoracic outlet. Or like a martial art move, founded on an ancient tradition of archery practice. The extended floss pose. 

My life has disintegrated into a jumble of tiny competencies, earned with toil and stubborn practice, to carry me from one portion of my day to the next. But the mainspring of my life is gone, and I know it, and some invisible malevolence in the low cloud cover knows it too. One flosses in order to preserve one's teeth and gums, right? And one preserves one's teeth and gums so as to be able to eat at an advanced age. And why does one want to eat at an advanced age? Well, presumably for the same reason one wants to eat now: but the questions begin to verge on the impolite. All the sequences of questions tend the same way. Why? In service of what? The thing in the cloud cover shifts, and cocks its head, listening for my answer.

Not such a fool. Nobody sensible answers a question like that. "For life to mean something," I say, "Somebody must intend it. And nobody intended this life: it just happened.

"Furthermore, even if somebody intended it, why should I be governed by their intention? 'The death of Jesus set me free: Then what have I to do with thee?'"

But this is to move the whole discussion into enemy territory, under the enemy's rules of engagement: no good will come of that, not with that restless thing in the sky trying to sniff me out. And anyway it is not quite what I mean.

Once, the latest woman I had a crush on was the final answer to all these questions. Eros was tightly bound to Godhead, and the final answer was "because I crave it desperately, because I need it, because I turn to it like a sunflower to the sun." All the chains of questions ended up just there, and I had a reason to get up in the morning. 

With age, though I am still as scandalously full of desire as ever, the stitching has loosened. Godhead isn't bound to the pleasures in an obvious way, any more. So that's one thing, and the other is, that the old stories of my life are coming apart. I used to prepare, relentlessly prepare, for the moment when I would go public, and deploy all the skills prepared in secret, and be revealed in all my glory. But it's obvious now: that moment will never come. I will never be revealed. I'll be rolled off the end of the treadmill and vanish, like everyone else. Whether I converse in fluent Spanish or understand Lucretius or have opinions about the Secretary of Agriculture or not. So why am I still preparing for the great reveal? ... At this point, just because old habits die hard. 

The malevolence above is definitely paying attention, now. It's attentive, searching. I had better confuse the scent.

So suppose one stood in directly, as directly as possible, for the sweetness. Suppose one forgot about preparation. Suppose one said "this, this just here and just now, is the reveal. This is as much of an apocalypse as you get. And probably more of one than you deserve, frankly."

No, no, I'm not throwing any gloves down or making any promises. I'm just posing a hypothetical. What if?

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Easier Said

A man my age, at the grocery store, wearing a black mask lettered in white: "This mask is useless."

I said to him: "I don't give a shit whether you live or die either, sweetheart, so don't get too excited about how special it makes you. Lots of people don't give a shit."

Except not aloud, of course. And I would even have spoken civilly to him, if I had needed to. But the rage persists, an hour later. It's just poison, of course. I think people who nurture rage are nuts. It too, doesn't give a shit. About him, or about me, or about you. So I just work with it. It's not that hard. Every time it arises, I give a little shrug, open my hands, let the rage roll out of them, breathe out and let the rage go out with my breath. It doesn't take many iterations: a dozen or two, to process the main part of it. The trick is having the time and mental space to deal with it, and not to put myself in the way of things that will provoke it again. 

I really do want him to die, painfully, starting now. Which is discouraging. That's not how I want to be. The supposed origin of my rage against him is that he is indifferent to my life: and here am I, not only indifferent to his life, but actively desiring his death. Where is the moral high ground I supposedly inhabit? Really I'm just enraged because he's not agreeing with me, and because I'm terrified that Martha will die of Covid before she gets the vaccine, and because I didn't sleep well last night, and because every weekly shopping trip, as the case counts rise, feels that much more foolhardy. If this guy hadn't conveniently presented himself, I would likely have found something else to be enraged about.

And further, of course -- and adding to the rage -- is the fact that much of his motivation was precisely to inspire this response in me, and I'm totally falling for it. He wanted to take up space in my mind, and I've made him welcome there. More fool me. There's no end to this game: the only way to win is not to play.

Yeah: easier said than done. Hope you've got a nice little cough and a little fever tonight, dude. May your death be slow and painful.


Where I want to be is on the bare hills under the stars, real stars, the millions of stars I used to see just twenty miles from home on a dark night, which now I'd have to drive out to eastern Oregon to glimpse. I need to be on a hilltop with the wind ruffling my hair and the stars all different sizes and colors above me, watching me with an indifference that's a benediction. They don't care if I live or die either: but in their case, it's a balm and a relief. You can rest on that indifference, like a leaf on the surface of a brook, and go tumbling down toward the sea. 

How to live? I don't know. The morning is dark, and the fern are glossy with rain: some of the fronds are dark green, and others the rich dark brown of an old copper pot. It's the first day of February. I switch on a light, just for company, just for something to stand against the cold blue-grayness of the world beyond the windows.

It is true, still, that if you ask for help, it will come. That of course is another thing easier said than done.