Archive for the ‘Compassion’ Category

Look Everywhere for It

September 16, 2014

Look for Death Everywhere

They've just begun looking. Photo Credit: Ruthie Fraser.

They’ve just begun looking. Photo Credit: Ruthie Fraser.

“Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere,” or so said essayist Michele du Montaigne—who had a fairly jovial, frank perspective on The Great Matter.

In fact, it did seem the dying baby turtle was there, waiting for me.

In fact, the turtle was waiting for anyone. But it was only waiting because it couldn’t move very much…

I don’t know much about turtles. Only that in my childhood, by the beach in the summers, we used to come across a lame turtle, missing front claws on one leg, who occupied himself by crossing the road. He was the embodiment of the tired chicken joke, and we named him Tommy.

We brought him home to Brooklyn at the end of one summer, thinking we’d rescued him from certainty of being squashed. We put him in a tank in our backyard and fed him wet dog food, as instructed by the local pet store. Being smarter than that fate, he escaped, and dug his way into the neighbor’s garden, where he lived pleasantly for a few years, just ahead of the self-subsistence, urban ecology movement.

I do know some other things: if you’re really small and really cute, then you can’t have been on this earth too long. And if you have one eye oozing what can only be blood—poetically fuscia blood—you haven’t got much of a chance. There aren’t turtle band-aids, nor turtle prosthetic eyes—not in the park.

 Turtle Blues

Here’s how it unfolded:

I’m in Prospect Park on a path that hugs the lake, which shimmers under a green gloss and under the blue throes of sky. The foliage canopies over the path; the spring is as fat as it can be; the flowers have pulled back so the leaves can explode. They call this “the setting.”

 

Blue sky for turtle blues: "the setting"

Blue sky for turtle blues: “the setting”

There is legitimate thicket between the paved path and the shoreline. People are fishing—and fish are latching, too easily duped. The shore is buffered by woodchips, where the caught fish are laid out. They don’t even flail. It’s their oh shit moment.   They take it lying down, so to speak. They call this “the obstacle” or “the membrane” or “the margins.”

A couple is walking toward me. The woman has a tiny baby tied to her front. The man has that dazed, admiring look of the one who is not carrying the baby, and so can marvel at it. You know they’re not sleeping much—the baby could almost fit back into the uterus, so small is it. The colors of her skirt and ruffled nursing shirt echo the trees. His clothes look like they could have been pulled out of the dirty laundry pile. Suddenly, he stoops, takes something up in his hand from the path; the couple’s attention is pulled from the baby, and from inadvertently checking on its aliveness, to this little thing. It takes a lot to divert from the baby. The baby sleeps cooperatively. Maybe it knows it has met its fragile match, and defers.

When I get close enough, I can see it’s a turtle he’s got in his hand. Almost the size of a half-dollar, its legs the size of a teenage fly. I’m on the phone with R, my teacher, who’s telling me about the uncompromising morality of his best friend C, who just died. He now wears a thick plastic purple memorial bracelet that asks, “What would C say?” That question makes him pause, recollect his own off-beat heart and frantic kidneys. It encourages him to be direct and let (a love? Or is it always love?) go. This is called “not filling in the blank.”

 Diagnosing fatality

“It’s injured,” the man says, looking at the turtle clinically, dispassionately. His voice sounds new to diagnosis, the way we hear parents speaking around their newborns, assertions that sound like questions and vice-versa (“He’s hungry?”). The man is trying out being definitive about the status of a creature that can’t supply its own words for what’s going on. But in this case the turtle seems to agree.

R’s friend C got so sick that she went off like a mist from the lake. That’s what a poet could say. In reality, her death was a window slamming shut. And as my 17 year-old student said about the death of his mom from an aneurism: the glass broke into a million pieces, waited in tact for a moment that gave you dumb hope, and then fell.

Blood is coming out of the turtle’s left eye in a perfect bead, the exact size of its other eye. The drop isn’t even going to drip—how much blood could its body possibly contain, anyway? A thimbleful of circulation? The turtle doesn’t move its legs at all, but stays perfectly still, as if cooperating with death, or knowing not to waste an iota of effort on pointless movement.

But I feel, when the man hands the creature to me, without really asking if I want it—the way a mechanic hands a wrench to his assistant—that I have the whole universe pinched there, between forefinger and thumb. The task, whatever it is, feels as huge as the turtle is tiny. Like the whole park is backing me up, being the bigger Hand in which we both are held. Putting me in charge. What the hell am I supposed to do?

I don’t know how this turtle got itself in this condition from the shoreline to the path. In a blind daze? Lear in the storm? Or perhaps the couple found it still in pathetic motion, mid-stride to the other side. The turtle’s crossing echoes the will-to-change of our Tommy, though this little one is far less well-equipped for survival on either side of any road.

Are you going towards the Audobon center,” the man asks. It isn’t a question, and doesn’t deserve a question mark: it is an instruction.   The man has a brown bag in his hand, a bit of grease gathering on the bottom. He wants to eat his bagel and hang out with the baby, I think. He wants to celebrate life and normalcy, not be pulled into this most mini of tragedies. He gestures at the baby, not even on purpose. As if to say: We have other responsibilities. Jr. will inevitably have to breastfeed. As if to say: We’re in the business of life. Can’t you see that, childless pedestrian?

“Can you take it.” Again, an instruction.

“I don’t know where the Center is,” I say, apologetically.

And both of them immediately point—this they know. They become a Greek chorus of two, choreographing the procession of the tragedy: “That way. The direction you are walking. Unmissable. By the boat house.”

I nod agreeably.

The turtle turns the other cheek

They go off down the path, the other way from death. Turns out the Audobon is only a stone’s throw away from where we found the turtle. But now the turtle is my problem and death’s problem.

And of course the Audobon is gated, locked up for the weekend. R is very patient, still on the phone, ministering to the turtle with me, while I make half-sentences, half talking to him, half talking to the turtle. He’s used to the interruptions.

Some things that might be true about death: Death tires you and lightens you in a very particular way. Death is like sea turtle sitting on your lungs but trying to teach you how to swim in new waters. Death is like the sky over the lake. Death isn’t like anything.

The turtle is saying, let’s get on with it.

The turtle is saying: I’ve just been through this. I just got born. My body will remember the way out.

No, the turtle isn’t saying anything. I feel panicked. It’s supposed to help me out here. Like I have a chance I can’t understand to do something I don’t know how to do. At the same time I feel peaceful, like there are no decision to be made, and we are getting on the mortal slide together, and throwing our hands up, and descending to a groundless place.

I live here, but I don’t know where a vet is nearby. R says I could take the creature home and get my J to tend, but J won’t be home til nearly midnight. I don’t think the turtle has that long. I ask myself if it has resources here, in its natural milieu. The shore of the lake by the Audobon center is steep and clearly man-made. A drop-off that resembles the ledge of a swimming pool more than a proper liminal descent.

The turtle is punctured; nature does to all of us eventually. I fret that I’m stressing it out, carrying it around indecisively like this in its injured state. It was finding its own way through death, and then we swooped in with our personal, somewhat heroic notions of salvation.

The path around the lake is newly renovated, and meant to increase human enjoyment and animal presence on the cleaned-up access to shoreline. Still, it takes me some stumbling around to find a proper patch of mud an animal might recognize. Might die or nurse itself back to health in.

I began to look here

I began to look here

It wouldn’t seem mud would be hard to find here. But that’s how it is. I imagine the couple with the baby, now happily perched on the grass proper, a mile away, the turtle no more on their mind as they watch their baby do the idiosyncratic cute things babies do—open and close its mouth, wince at the light, root for the nipple. While they chew their buttery bagels, glad to be sitting and eating and parenting, somehow. By instinct.

“Have a good death or a good life”, I say to the turtle. “Whichever comes first.” And R does his mantra, mumbling, the kind of mumble that is proper to reverence, where you honor someone’s clear path out by contrast, by speaking with blurry edges.

And I put the turtle down and turn and go. What happens next is truly not my business. And R reminds me, gently, as the living must do, “Wash your hands sometime soon.”

“Of course,” R adds later, “there are some things you can’t wash your hands of—ever.”

All the while I had pinched it between two fingers, not cupped it in my palm. Its energetic imprint remains there. I’m resisting the urge to go back and keep vigil—I don’t think animals need our vigil. They have their own ways of dying that anthropomorphizing can only disrupt, not honor.

Still I wonder how its eye had come to be gone—as if someone had committed a violent crime of passion—an eye for an eye. Just this.

The lake and the big sea

All around the path, the animals come and go, bustling with not being dead. An egret, slender as a number two pencil. A red wing blackbird. More of those fish, banked—they’ll get thrown back and start again. A plastic bag or two in the algae.   You can feel the quiet tolerance of nature for the dumb and unnatural things we do.

But everything looks a little tilted. A man practicing headstands in the grass. A couple, doe-eyed at one another, their hard-ons and soft-ons barely hidden by their pants. Children on their popsicles, a mature form of latching, the popsicles already blending into the t-shirt fabric. I imagine I can feel the strain of my uncle dying states away. All death connected to all other death in a secret pact made on our behalf before we have a say in the matter.

There are birdcalls, and leaf-blooms, and funny human screeches from the fountains in the converted ice-skating rink. Small ones running between the jets. Boys on skateboards, looking for an audience for their tricks. A bum fumbling with his pants button unsuccessfully on the newly paved promenade.

And what could the baby turtle hear? And did it care to be saved? Was it already confused enough by having just been born—was it returning, with accepting familiarity, to the place it had newly come from? I prodded it a little when I put it down, as if to awaken its own internal drive to go towards the water, and either drown or live on. It didn’t seem to take any particular cue.

Most endings are constructs, or tentative, like this one. We crawl down the bank. We submerge in the greater thing. We are tossed beyond our semantic system. We turtle towards the Universal Objective.

And then we enter the sea—the big sea, where all semantics dissolve, where all sense of name and form is subsumed by nameless and formless—as Montaigne says: “Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than if he had just before entered it.” Surely, in turtle-time, we’ve all just entered it.

We’re still baffled, looking everywhere to know what this place really is, where we are, and how we might crawl on. And the answer is everywhere, everywhere.

Advertisements

Little Losses

May 17, 2014

Sayonara, Baby Beardie: A short tale of a short life

First, the tip of his tail broke off the way a burnt pizza crust breaks.

“Wilbur’s dying,” John said.

John had incubated the clutch and taught the neonates to eat—first roaches, a colony delivered by mail, arriving in the cardboard box marked “delicate” on the same day the chirpy exterminator came to evict the native pests in our apartment. Then John coaxed the neonates into hand-fed vegetarianism, with ribboned kale and dandelion.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life.  Nap time.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life. Nap time.

 

The little guy Dying, capital D? That made no sense. People didn’t expire from broken arms. Lizards shouldn’t expire from broken tails.

Wilbur was the runt; runts are supposed to live a runty, underdog life, giving us something to root for. They help us see the runty parts of ourselves, tucked behind our competence.

I protested, “But he’s so cute! Take it back” As if the universe had ever once made exception for cuties.  A special primordial panic sets in when anything in your care is dying. Pity the fly. Pity the spider-plant.

There should be a rule: if you have just been born, you can’t die for a bit. Amnesty.

But there is no such rule, no such amnesty, and no such guarantee. Infant mortality is still a major employment opportunity for The Stork’s dark brother. Clearly, life does not work differently for lizards than for any other creature.

Pregnant Expectations

When Sunny was pregnant, and too skinny for the job, I could feel her from the other room.  Not an “animal person” or even “kind of an animal person” (get it?), I communed with her unabashedly.

You know how women’s menstrual cycles will synch up when in one another’s extended company? So I worried about her Calcium dust and nutrient ratios. Before she was “with lizard”, it had been hard to remember that she existed, tucked away in the boys’ room under the heat lamp. Occasionally it was good fun to watch her put up with Drako’s male dominance dance, head-bobbing atop her; it looked like the volatile prayer of the ultra-religious with a little James Brown.

Yet once Sunny was gravid, the whole house seemed pregnant. Eventually, she dug frantically in the dirt box that John had prepared in the middle of the night. At sufficient depth, she dropped her clutch, covered them, and forgot they existed. So we took over their survival.

The eggs nestled in a Tupperware filed with dirt in a humid, heated, unused fish tank, well covered up against the descending autumn chill. It was hard not to anthropomorphize the situation: how could she let go of these new lives-on-the-edge, and not care for the fact that they were growing into form mere feet from her tank? Imagine if our gestation happened at a short, cold, unacknowledged distance from the womb? There are freaky movies about such things.

 

This is how it works post birth.

This is how it works post birth.

Eventually, the lizards hatched, rested and leapt forth, with extraordinary little burst of life facilitated by the handy egg-tooth. It made me really want an egg-tooth.  John and the boys lay on the floor and stared at them, these little prickles of creation.  And I stared at the three beloved boys staring at life. This may be something like what yoga means by “the Witness.”

Runty Days

Wilbur was the runt, and so he always needed more naps than the other eight. Just getting up from one nap necessitated another nap to recover. The rest of the brood stepped on his head, while climbing up the stick towards the heat lamp. Wilbur just took it, as if he was part stick.

His body was little, much littler than his head. It looked like he could have big thoughts about lizard things, but never gain that much ground.

We favored him. When we gave away the brood, we were going to keep him. In Charlotte’s Web, the runt not only lives, but also becomes a famous speller. Could we not hope as much for Wilbur?

I got your back.  Don't mind that I just stepped on your head.

I got your back. Don’t mind that I just stepped on your head.

But once the tail broke, once the pummeling started, even easy spelling words weren’t in the cards—only one, the Big D, the Big I, the Big E. The huge spiders zip-lining in our bathroom could write it all out for him.

The universe was sucking the meat back from his body through an invisible straw. Every day, Wilbur’s skin hung on him more and more. He was the world’s youngest old-man lizard.

John does not give up on any creature, of any size, of any species, no matter how unfriendly the creature (or human) might be toward him.  In this we unite.  But aside from weeping over a few failing tadpoles as a young person and trying to poke them onto a rock with a pencil tip, I’d never really tried to resuscitate an animal.

He pried Wilbur’s mouth open with a tweezer and fed him through a syringe, squeezing in a last-ditch drink of dandelion-leaf and egg whites we’d made with the hand blender, the kind of meal a paleo-athlete brags about. Most of this concoction came right back out of Wilbur’s mouth. He hardly had the energy to open up. Luckily, he would never have to go to the dentist.

John has a strong constitution; he can eat anything (expired meat), break anything (a few ribs), handle anything and still thrive. But stooped over, caring for this fragile creature, his physical strength was all in service to tenderness.  This is the kind of strength I vow my life to. In John’s palm lay a husk of a thing, drained of will.

When animals give up, they don’t need to make excuses for it. Done, their bodies announce. And off they go.

We put Wilbur in the bathroom sink and filled the basin with water to rouse him enough to administer the syringe. Little Q was helper, but he was squeamish, not sure he really wanted to: “It’s not nice to force someone to eat,” Q said.   Perhaps he was empathizing, since for his own mysterious reasons, perhaps mysterious even to himself, he often doesn’t want to eat the food set in front of him. (Unless it’s a cupcake.  Bless the eternal palatability of cupcakes).

Wilbur’s mouth opened by dim reflex. We respond despite ourselves to the feeling of water.

Over and Out

Wilbur died just then in John’s palm, but John didn’t say anything. Wilbur had drowned in his liquid meal, the best he could have hoped for. A smoothie for the last supper. Certainly, this drink would at least give Wilbur an athletic boost over the Big Vault. Into the Lizard Unknown.

That night, John dreamed of his own father, also two years dead. His dad, opining, was sitting on our couch. The reality of the feeling itself let him know it was a dream. The horribleness of that fact came creeping on, like the feeling of one’s bladder at capacity while sitting in car traffic in a tunnel.  Have you ever dreamed this way, woken to what’s worse, the loss made fresh? I’ve had this feeling after deaths, and I don’t know the word for it; I bet the Japanese do. It is bound up with yearning, but more existential.

Before dawn, out practicing with the Naga Buddha who, no matter what, clasps his-her hands in boggling faith, I could feel John’s sadness balloon in the bedroom; the sadness was another kind of pregnant, resonant as I had been with gravid Sunny. His dad could have been grabbing me by the collar and pulling me to the source of all sorrow. Sometimes love has you that yanked.

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

And when John woke up, he confirmed that not only was his dad dead, but Wilbur was too, and now he would wait for the children to wake up. Then, he would speak briefly about the beautiful frailty of life, and bury Wilbur in the biggest planter that we had.  Ugh, death; ugh! Every little loss gouges my chest.  Or maybe I, like Wilbur, was born with this gauge already activated. Creation draws up its funny contracts: Please check this box: I allow you to release my personal information to the universe. No, you cannot have an extension on your taxes.

Safe-Keeping

Like attracts like: the planter where we put Wilbur held an overgrown corn plant, which didn’t look like it would make it either. Despite all the months it had seemed to be dying, a species of palm tree frightened of the Northern low light, it hadn’t done so yet. It pains me to have indecisively dying plants around that just can’t seem to thrive or expire. They don’t have to waste their lives: I’m wasting it for them.

John brought the plant home for my birthday last year; it had been given away by a couple about to have a baby. They needed to reduce the number of other life forms and space-hoggers in their apartment, and so also sold us our dinning room table, made from old telephone poles. Sit here and bless the yummies that sustain us. K and Q and John and I sit at the table and link fingers and thank every little thing on our plates, “and especially the mac n’ cheese for being awesome.” Yes, especially that. Objects, creatures, all in transit. Invented cheese, in transit.

A little stone marks little Wilbur’s spot in his little plot of dirt. Surely the casing of a body would deteriorate quickly, and where there had been a Wilbur, richer soil would be, giving the corn plant a chance, or at least company. And so the cycle of life goes on. Pretty much right away, Q and K set about aiming at the headstone with a water-gun, as very temporary grief becomes play for resilient children.

In the night, I silently place the little runt at the center of my heart into John’s sleeping, half-open hands. For safe-keeping and safe-tending; for this unmeasured journey onto which we embark.

When Wilbur weakened, arms and legs splayed, looking like a cave drawing of a lizard, his desiccated tail had seemed so odd, wrong-sized, misplaced.   But when one crust breaks, so to speak, another dough is just rising. Feel, feel for the rising.

As light does

As light does

Note: This began as an essay I wrote for my 7th grade students as a grammar parsing exercise.  Which goes to show that attention to grammar, and deep love of 7th graders, can lead one to seeing life a bit more clearly.  Also below I am testing out moving away from MM’s longtime stance of representing humans by initials only.   It is hard to capture love in words without strattling the utmost corny of expressions.

 

Put Your Butt Here

July 26, 2013
Put my what where?

Put my what where?

My seventh-grade students dream bigger than any directive.

When a street sign like the one we saw on the way to the High Line tells them Place your butts here, they will comply like good citizens, and then defy like even better citizens. They are budding semanticists who know that words both open and close doors.

Each word has a special charge.  Thus surely my students will also put their “buts”  here—and their “ifs” and their “ands”, amending signage to reflect a vaster cause:  Please place your dirty cigarette BUTTS here, but don’t stop moving your ANATOMICAL AND MOTIVATIONAL BUTT towards the greater good. 

When their personhood and minds are respected and “bolstered”–thank you for adding that to our vocabulary list, Obama!–my students think with their hearts: with this kind of cognition from a contingent of twelve-year-olds, the results move (the urban equivalents of) mountains.

Writing Up High:  What's your inner phenology?

Writing Up High: What’s your inner phenology?

These young people follow the signs that maintain convention only in so far as this doesn’t handicap the growth of a vital community.  Otherwise, we teach them how to edit radically, and use words to set everybody free.

My students now look at their city and see the secret gardens reestablishing themselves incognito in the most misshapen, arthritic sidewalk cracks, in rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Like the human spirit when nourished, these “invasive” plants won’t be held back.

This same crew is learning Urban Ecology.  I make the pleasant mistake of writing Nettles Prick on the board as part of a parsing lesson.  They have to squeeze their anatomical butts and slow down their breathing to keep from erupting into hormonally-mandated giggles without end.  Prick: thank goodness some body parts are inherently funny.

The Buddha said all life is suffering, and certainly studying grammar, were it a shaming prison for their otherwise rolling thoughts (as it is often taught), can be that.  But these little Buddhas know how to keep the joy in the rules and the rules in service to saying what they need to say.

Serious Laughter Pollination

Serious Laughter Pollination

A short prayer to the Curriculum Fairy: May all young people use their whole body and whole mind to follow their whole heart.   May all young people sit down on their anatomical butts RIGHT HERE and refuse to budge, should anyone try to fence them from their wildest dreams out of  fear about the vestigial societal anatomy they may dismantle in the process.

May those who would rather pick their butts than support our young authentically have an ingrown hair that wakes them up to what pain is.

May all young people without exception be happy, healthy, safe and at ease.

(And to all you young people who are applying to college shortly and are ready to write your essays, visit our Essay Intensive programs to guide, inspire and challenge you HERE!)

Natural Grammar

Natural Grammar

Unfathomable Web of Verbs

January 6, 2013

What Moves

IMG_4286

emergent subject

My former student, J, to whom I taught Latin years ago when he was a totally bewildered but well-meaning (as they say) 8th grader who would spend most of the class cooing at the pigeons on the window ledge, writes to me:  I love your writing.  I would buy your book!

these be the messengers

these be the messengers

J, do you mean my invisible, incipient book? The one I feel in my belly like a prayer searching 

 for muscular wings?  For a few weeks in the fall of that year, I was very sick with mono, which is only supposed to afflict you from sharing Dr. Pepper sodas or callous, drooling make-out sessions when you’re 14, but I guess Mono didn’t get the memo.  One day my headache was so intense that another nail-bitten student asked me if he could go to the bathroom and then came back after fifteen minutes with a half-steeped Lipton black tea in a Styrofoam cup.  Here, he said, handing it to me.  I got this for you.  He had taken note of my habits, if nothing else.  I could see where he had drawn on his hands with his pen.   And, he added.  I didn’t do my homework.

 Sometimes one accepts love in any medium.

 

leaves i love

leaves i love

Plus, it was Mono that stopped me in my tracks enough to show me the potency of yoga, what yoga was really up to, the face it only reveals once you’ve drawn the mental hospital curtains and signed up for the spiritual blood transfusion, come what may.

So all these years later, to have an attuned, adult-ish J praise my work is just the right medicine for a different kind of disheartenment.

Moved by his profusion, as any writer would be, I say: I think I have a book in me, but I don’t have a subject!

He returns:  If you cannot find the subject, look for the verb.

This is exactly what we instruct young Latin students to do when learning to read the language.  It’s not how literate Romans thought or operated.  But the verb is kind of the boss of the sentence, and it can be useful to take orders from a boss when confused.  Once you find the verb, most of the mystery of the subject is removed, for the verb’s inflection fixes its pronoun correlate: if the inflection is a he-she or –it (shit, for short), the subject cannot stray, nor escape the tyranny of the verb’s decision making.  It bows and complies.  If you didn’t understand any of this paragraph, count yourself in good company.  Now you know or remember what it is like to be an 8th grade boy.

So there is a correlate in writing: when you find your action, the movement, you also know what or who is moving.

The maxim is kind of Taoist-sounding, when it isn’t just irritating.

what moves

what moves

And when you are an 8th grader, you take the issue of grammatical agreement personally.  As if the Romans set out to make things complicated for you.  And did a damn good job.  I’ve heard many a middle-schooler whine this whine verbatim: Why did they make Latin so hard?  The legacy of the Romans was hair-tearing grammar.  The aqueducts were really a second-tier invention besides their puzzler syntax.  And for this contribution, no one can forget them, wish as they might.

And the subsequent frustration can cause weird, reactionary behaviors (I’ve seen them firsthand)—again, mostly in males: photographing your own eyeballs, seeing how swiftly you can stab a pencil point in the spaces between the fingers of an outspread hand, before you miss and stab yourself.  OopsmayIgotothenurseIjustpuncturedmyfinger?  No.  She’ll just stuff a cracker in the wound.  Conjugate this verb first.

not eight grade boys not learning latin

not eight grade boys not learning latin

But as a rule for writing, as for living: do you know, really know, what moves you?  And if you only sense it, down deep in the pre-syntactic zone of embodiment, can you dare to eff the ineffable?

Because once the prayer comes out of your mouth, its wings take it where it pleases.  You cannot author a bird’s whim.

Bummer Marriage

I rush into the train station as best I can in my air-cast.  It’s a hobbled rush, really. O.K., so not a rush at all—more like a heroic limp.  The time remaining until the train arrives, displayed on the digital screen, is increasing rather than decreasing as I stand there, helplessly late for work.  The trains are cryptic and uncompassionate on Saturdays.

A bum sits beside me on the platform.

He looks like he’s in rough shape.  He’s got a few crumpled and sweaty dollars in his hand.  He unrolls and re-rolls them, watching the physics of it intently, like he is hoping they will turn into a greater amount than they currently are.  The bills are vaguely waxy.   He also looks like he might have just climbed down the beanstalk.  He regards me.  I have dressed for the wrong season—yesterday it was winter, today it feels like early spring.  My dirty backpack and long down coat are on the bench in a heap beside him.   He appears jealous of their heap-ness.

please let it come

please let it come

Will you marry me?  He asks, like a dart protruding from a cloud.

Me: Sure.

Bum: Really?

Me: Sure.

Bum: Hey, wow.

[Considered pause.]

Bum:  So, what should we do now?

Me:  I don’t know, it was your idea.  Come up with something.

Bum: Hmmm.  Could I have your phone number?

Me: Remember this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

Bum: I have no memory.  [Points to long scar above his eyebrow.]  Car accident.

Me: Ouch.  A long time ago?

Bum: Yeah, when I was a kid…[Regarding me freshly.]  What is your job?

Me: I’m a teacher. I’m on my way there now.

Bum: Oh?  Why don’t you dress up nicer for work?

[F! I’m in my good clothes!]

Me:  Because I’m dressed up on the inside.

Bum:  Damn.

We nod appreciatively at one another.  My subway comes rushing in, like it knows it is late and feels vaguely performative about its compensatory hurtling entrance (This makes me think of when my students are late to class and arrive excessively out of breath, as if they climbed Mt. Washington to get to me rather than walked down a hall).  I gather my things to board.  The Bum looks disappointed, but we have that kind of arrangement—each of us able to go our own way, with respect for the other.  On a scale of 1-10, this marriage already gets a 9: mutual regard, easy conversation, agreement about when to say more and when not to, and effective, even instantaneous decision-making.  Voila.

When the doors close, he is still looking at me, his dollars hanging loosely in his hand.  As the train departs, a spiderthread of affection trails backward, the web of life growing ever-weirder in the fullness of its design.

IMG_1934

Purna, Perturbations & Panache II

October 30, 2012

Part Two: Infinity’s Footprint

I always wanted to be the kind of person who prays not just out of convenience, as in, Oh Benevolent & Erratic God(dess), Please let this metrocard kiosk take my crummy three dollars… Please make this subway come faster so I am not late!

But Earth has let us know—Sandy’s stomping on winged sandals–how badly we’ve perverted our terrain.  Natural disasters, both inner and outer, are impartial and assiduous educators and have slowly tutored me in imprecation.

Durga up in arms

Now I can feel it when I need to, like an urge to pee that wakes you up in the night.

Prayer is a cavorting with what you suspect could be possible, a speaking-up to suffering.  Use your outside voice, God says.  Use your words.  Sometimes, the whole body seems like a very loudly-barked word: PLEASE.

When I told my student S that I was absolutely sure God would understand if he needed to skip his obligatory Wed church meeting to fill out his college scholarship applications in time, I was not kidding.  I trust God takes the long view, is not near-sighted.  S, who is a loving and trusting creature, assured me, “Oh, Ms. N, I know, believe me, all week I have been praying about this scholarship essay!”  Ah, yes, but you also have to write it.  God is still learning MS word and her hands are so big she makes for a clumsy typist.

Welcome to my office

Theologian Simone Weil wrote in her notebooks: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.  It presupposes faith and love”(Gravity and Grace).  So argued, anything done with such “absolutely unmixed” attention leads one closer to God—a desiderata, right?—even, so it seems, writing about plenitude and irreverence.  And it’s a little-known fact that Michelangelo got down on one knee, sick of being pointed at by his own creation, and beamed God back with his extended index finger.  Wham, M said, Pow. And the whole chapel vibrated with laughter, holding the ribs of its beams, colors tearing. Pow.

 

God’s point

Now, there are some prayers I can really get behind.  May you be happy, the loving kindness nun offered us, legs crossed and minds loosened, at the silent Vipassana retreat, October monsoons breaking the thick air.  Her voice so careful, as if stepping over rocks barefoot in the new-moon dark: May you be healthy. May you be safe.  May you be at ease.  This prayer, like green vegetables, is good for everyone.

semper greenness

Most of the prayers in my toolbox are cribbed from the yogic or Buddhist traditions.  The languages in which they are written– Sanskrit and Pali, or even Hindi—are one enormous step removed from the language of my normal thought patterns.  Other prayers are like trying to saran-wrap water: it’s not going to hold anything, but you can still try.

Here’s one that works because it wears the same shoe size as love: infinite.  To say it feels like renewing membership in the totality.

Om
Purnamadah Purnamidam
Purnat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamadaya
Purnameva Vashishyate
Om shanti, shanti, shanti

 

Here is fullness, there is fullness!

In fullness, fullness!

Add fullness, subtract fullness

—it’s all still fullness!—

–A prayer in (my) totally slack translation from Isha Upanishad

I have been filling up the space in my apartment with these syllables.

Fill ‘er up, a motorists might enthuse to the attendants at gas stations.  Everyone loves to give their cars what they need to keep going. But we need such filling too, regularly.  We’re tanks of overlaid elastic diaphragms,   of bone and mind and microvillae—sturdiness, evanescence, and hidden corners.  Where can we fill up? How?  I know from those experienced in prayer that it is one way to fill and empty, fill and empty, like respiration for the spirit.  But what if we don’t really pray?  And what if we do, but God(dess) had another, more-pressing appointment?

more pressing appointment

more pressing appointment

My mother once told me she liked the acrid smell of spilled gas that had dribbled into the station over months and years.  I hope that my writing, anchored to the absurd, harnessed to the thoroughbreds of prayer, or spilled all over the (paper) ground, might be a gas-station of sorts.  Stop your moving vehicle and fill ‘er up.  In fullness, fullness! 

With the purna prayer, I’m courting the infinite.  I get an everyday practice of feeling its pulse come through J, when he tells me about the love he has saved up for lifetimes, carried with him, to be able to give it to me.  I have stopped rebutting in my mind, are you kidding?  The fullness is a bathtub for everyone, and my job is to let love keep streaming out of the tap.   It reminds us that our incompletion is also a form of completeness and inclusion, that however wrong things are, nothing is really Wrong.

As a P.S.: digging the presence of the plenitude is sexy.  The infinite is “all that– and then some.”  This is the kind of unfathomable math I can actually fathom.

numbering light

Purna, Perturbations & Panache

October 29, 2012

Part One: Vesselhood

R and I are talking about capacity.  About doors that close on the path, and how to wedge them open.

Temporary Vessels photo’d from automobile

As if taking a vow to the rolling ocean in front of us, R declares:  I don’t want to stop short of living fully!  It is the last day on which autumn will allow for bare-headedness and thin shirts.  We are covered in a film of sand from the wind.  We ask erosion to forgive us our trespasses and sit up against the relatively young dunes while the plovers plove.

The fussing Atlantic Ocean rolls and rolls, as words and beings roll and roll in the great rotation.   I think the mind is underutilized, he says, and love.  But sand, on the other hand, is not underutilized.

Mind and love: President Obama in the debate debacle has just tried to play the card of the latter at the expense of the former.  And that is the first and last thing I will say about politics.

R is rolling now, too: I don’t want to have just done this partway!

Yes; however, most traffic accidents happen partway somewhere, don’t they?  And in Xeno’s paradox, we are only ever (maddeningly) halfway.  But R means it, and the seagulls flap like they, too, know a wing must pump at full-stroke or be utterly stymied in the sky.

Some lines of an e.e. cummings poem that R coached me to speak at Lil Nolan’s wedding are getting churned up by the mind-wind:

(here is the root of the root of the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life

deeper than soul can hope or mind can hide) 

—I carry your heart with me—

(reprinted without permission).

heart-carrier

On a day as bright as this, what doesn’t carry your heart?  The light is your pimp in white pin-stripes: you’ll sleep with anything it touches. The jagged shoreline of Goosewing beach looks as if a mountain range lay down on its side, as a dying horse might.  R indeed wants his vessel to be the biggest it can be.  Shouldn’t we all?

I carry R’s heart with me; he has always been a deep teacher, guide to those in the darkness by the sheer wattage of his understanding.  When his cardiac muscles flutter precipitously, skipping beats until he bears down and calls an ambulance, and he feels the edge is near and nearing, I hold mine steady, so that his can dock again.  Yes, it is magical thinking and it is quite enjoyable.

He has a chorus behind his humble but sincere proclamations, of all things that realize their capacity: grass as grass, sand as sand, sky as sky.  You cannot say that the sky is only partially sky.  It lives its bigness, or it has no identity at all.  Fully!  Fully! 

It’s possible that the Infinite, a Big Kid now, listens to our professions of what we really, really want as a student listens for the recess bell, so that when people speak true truth, a cosmic ding ricochets in its Inner Ear; its Pavlovian response, as taught in Anthropocentrism 101, must be to reflexively grant all heartfelt wishes.

But what is really listening to me? Only “Me”– whatever that is or isn’t. And since I don’t understand “me” in the first place, there is great likelihood that Me is something way larger, way more infinite and complex, than I ever fathomed, or than convention holds.

Which brings us back to the stretching of the vessel, until, as the yogic texts proclaim, it is as big as the universe, whatever that really is.  This strains the very definition of definition, and tautology drowns in itself.

And we?

We open wider.

Beckoning the infinite

Mountain of Roses

April 15, 2011

Written with utmost gratitude to my family in Israel: You have such strong hearts. 

“Each life converges to some centre,

Expressed or still.”

–Emily Dickinson, LXI

expressed in stillness

Real Life Stranger than Figs

My rat-a-tat-tatty purple yoga mat, shredding its rubbery dandruff under my hands, stays behind in Israel, land of figs and honey, when I leave.  The mat is in every way unspecial but, like other ritual objects, it seems to have taken on a character and vivacity.  By proximity, it knows something about me that I don’t.

Coming and Going, coming and going, it clucks at me, while I squish my clothes into my travel backpack, forgetting which pocket holds my clean underwear and which my dirty.    The mat has more of my skin cells than I do.

All good yoga mats should be in Israel when they meet their end, I console it, in the distracted condition to which packing reduces me. You’re totally used up! 

 Lame, my mat says, in the tone your mother uses to get your attention. But like the trusty mat it has been, it leans against the wall with utter patience.  It doesn’t mind being clung to.  It doesn’t mind being let go.  That’s why it’s rubber.

 Israel has just rolled into its succulent time.  Benai Berak, the neighborhood where my Aunt and Uncle live with their ever-burgeoning family, is a tiny holy enclave outside Tel Aviv.  It is impoverished and disheveled; yet roses and citrus trees bloom recklessly on the perimeter of the limestone apartment buildings.   Certain kinds of beauty are unstoppable.

"Flowers in the Desert"

Dont try to stop this

I had only one fig while I was there—it was not quite their season.  The fig was a disappointment; it was dehydrated (like me), sulphured (not like me), sugary and squished in a plastic container with its figgy brethren.  It looked shellacked.  The fig tasted like righteous, processed seed.  The grocery store proprietor, a Sephardic with a potbelly like a classroom globe, grinned a proprietary grin:  foreigners had a knack for wanting the expensive shit, didn’t they.

I grinned back, being just that kind of Figgy foreigner.

Figs on the outskirts

In the figinning...

Israeli honey I glimpsed once: at the Duty Free shop by the Delta departure gate.  It promised to be pure.  But purity by the spoonful paled beside the prospect of not being able to fit my carry-on luggage into the overhead bin.  So I skipped the sweetness and joined the line of passengers impatiently waiting to board.  But I had honey on the mind, a long, gooey strand of thought that stretched thousands of miles.

Delta Dogs

Know Where You Are

Orientation


 International travel is hopelessly funny.  It dredges up and makes defunct your best concept of normalcy.

 God, so busy abiding in His infinite and unfathomable perfection, has no time to fuss about airline safety.  He needs his minions to be thorough and vigilant.  As we prepare for take-off, a Chassid, his peyos flapping, flips open his cell phone, fires off text messages—regulations be damned.  When the attendant, a bleach-blond in a tart, fire-truck red Delta dress passes by, he covers his operation sloppily with a pillow.  My sister eyes him down the aisle, as if his intentions are truly seditious.  He’s gonna bring down this plane, her stare saysHer J had told her that to interfere with the traffic signals, everyone on the entire flight would have to receive a call at the same time.  But nonetheless.  The Chassid blows his nose on the red Delta blanket and then tucks it back into its original plastic packaging.  His phone is still blinking as we gain on the moon.  He pulls out a garbage bag full of sandwiches from beneath his seat, sniffs at each of them, and then chooses one over which to pray.  And the lord separated the wheat from the chaff and the Muenster from the Cheddar. 

Another religious Jew in his idiosyncratic garb piles his prayer books on his tray table until they are high enough that he can rest his head on them and sleep.  He asks my parents to switch seats so that he will not be sitting next to a woman—especially a number like my beautiful Mom. Heaven forbid their elbows touch and electrify the easily-tripped circuits of desire.  Elbow to elbow, the great chain of being goes on.  “Lest the pack should get lost in the dark.”

Many of the passengers throw their trash directly into the aisles.  When I go to the toilet in the back of the plane—the cleanest of the six—I see water suddenly begin to spurt, then rush, out of an upper cabinet in the rear deck.  A flight attendant, hands set brusquely on her hips, watches it with me, as if she were observing an orangutan alphabetize spices.  “No one is responsible except Murphy” her grimace seems to say as she picks up the intra-flight phone, and nonchalantly reports, “Yeah, the ice is going.  I’m just going to wait ‘til it’s done.”  “Do you want me to get my blankets for you?” I ask.  Or the booger blankets, I want to add. “No,” she says, entirely unconcerned.  The water spills out into the aisle and runs backward, with gravity, towards the bathrooms and the tail of the plane.  I step out of its way and watch an elderly man toss an empty plastic cup carelessly to the floor.  He doesn’t even look to see if anyone is looking—ignorance ignorant of itself.   I wonder how many things can go amiss in flight before it is unsustainable, and the plane plummets back where it came from like a kite in car wash.

Turn the Rosy Cheek

When I ask my Uncle if he ever has doubts about the choice to live this ultra-orthodox existence with its particular constraints, he refers me to a meaningful quotation from Torah.  A fence of roses, the Torah calls the many rules and laws by which the faithful abide.  Yes, we live inside a fence, but it’s not a bad fence!  I imagine how many roses it would take to weave an enclosure for even a single being’s life; thousands, millions, maybe even billions.  That fence would smell like the First Garden in June and require intensive treatments with manure.

Roses in the gardens

Hedging your bets

No Dead Time, my uncle says, twinkles in his eyes and exaltation in his voice, of how they pass their days in this community.  As far as I can tell, he’s had on the same blue-black cardigan for the last three decades.  The same slightly scuffed black sneakers, which lack the kind of support that would make them actually useful for exercise.  In this kind of religious life, you always know what to do—what to do with yourself– when you wake up in the morning.  If you want, every moment of your day is prescribed for you.  There is a prayer that frames even the tiniest gesture.  Think fast before you bite that pear.

At moments when I feel at a total loss for guidance, direction, this kind of structure seems almost sensible, at least consoling.  It is the fence, here, that enables and yields a beautiful life—that is, if one decides that what is within the fence is, in fact, beautiful.  Commentary on this Torah passage reads, “Ideals can prove more effective barriers than metal walls.” So if I see the Roses, conjoined into a boundary, and call them perfect, all the barbed wiring in the world couldn’t do a better job of keeping me exactly where I am.

Shadow on Roses

My fence has a lot of gaps

Exactly Where I Am

My cousin, B, fourteen years old, his yarmulke tilted from Purim pleasures, brings my dad the salt-shaker as soon as we arrive from the airport.  Melach! He says, handing it to my dad as we are shuttled to the table, where we will spend most of the ten days that follow.  They remember everything about us from last time, four years ago: our strange tastes and predilections, our excess use of salt, my twisted relationship to tea, my mother’s jogging routines.  There is a rumor that I only eat vegetables.  B hovers over my dad, watching him salt everything on his plate, amused.  When my dad puts down the shaker, he hands it right back to him, gestures at the food, as if one should be able to see the salt like a film of snow.  Then B beckons for his drunken brother-in-law to pass the wine, turns the bottle of Ultra-Kosher Cabernet upside-down, draining it into a plastic cup so flimsy it is almost saran wrap.  Two drops fall out: “L’Chaim” he says,  “You must drink it all at once, and get drunk.”  He looks in his dictionary, whose pages have been well-thumbed.  The word he is looking for is “necessary.”

Where the action happens

Clean Pate and Clean Plate

In the mornings, my cousins, fairly self-sufficient from a young age, crack eggs into a plastic cup and fry them in the black, worn skillet.  Eggs and sesame challah and the immediacy of God: a breakfast for Moses’ champions.  Everyone in that house functions on a different time zone.  My Aunt, who bore ten babies and miscarried one, has been an insomniac for over twenty-five years—first because I was always nursing someone, and then because I’m just crazy, she explains with a smile. And then I had to learn how to walk again after each baby. She loves the house and being at home.  Moreso, she loves the concept and practice of a simple home that is as infinitely elastic as the human gene pool.  Each baby was a new rose. Everything she describes she transforms into a miracle.

Generating the generations

Baby and baby of baby

We all have to pick, build and tear down our own fences.  The absence of fence is not necessarily freedom.  Some fences are invisible, agreed to by the subtle mind and therefore unchallenged.  Some fences are half-falling down and poorly maintained—staked sloppily enough that one trips over them from time to time, and so knows they are there.  How powerless any one being truly is, my Uncle says, with a hand-gesture that indicates in this predicament only the creator has our water-wings.  But this is where we differ; I think a person—any person– is the most powerful thing there is.

A Weepy Wall

The buckets in the holy square

Washing is no secret


At the Kotel ha-Ma-aravi, the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, prayers are scrawled on pieces of scrap paper and stuffed into the cracks in the stone.  Passing notes to God: Pssssssst!  It was a wet and cold day when we visited, which made crying superfluous.  I had to wrap my scarf around my head and wear two jackets, but still the damp weather got into my bones like a ghost new at haunting and overexcited to do so.

Prayers at the frontline

Read my mind

Jews from all over the world converge upon this remnant, where Shekinah has lodged itself, like a piece of popcorn in a molar, since the destruction of the 2nd temple.  The wall is unremarkable—actually an outer wall of the temple proper.  Poor King Solomon, who tried to build G-d a suitable house, not realizing that G-d is more of a couch-surfer, later got distracted by his squadron of foreign wives.  Desire concretized into its own inner idol, which no Nebuchadnezzar could conflagrate.   (It may be the good luck endemic in this architecture that made me spell “Nebuchadnezzar” correctly on the first try. O.K.—the second try).

How many times a day or week did the groundskeepers clear out those crumpled requests?  Some of the papers were wedged deeply into the gaps in the masonry; something thin and sharp, like a dentist’s tool, would be needed to retrieve them.  Perhaps whoever maintained the wall also read the prayers personally, purveyors of secrets—that or threw them in the trash. It was a job I wanted, unionized or not.   Somewhere, there must be a garbage bin allocated specifically for expired pleas.  Or, worse: a recycling truck. This purse is made entirely from re-used scraps of prayer; proceeds from this purse go to help those whose prayers were not answered because they were never read. 

Prayers answered

My tribe sees the sun

You cannot turn your back on the wall as you depart the square—or you can, but that’s like letting your toddler oversee the stir-frying.  You keep the wall in your line of sight as you slowly back up.  Something like this is also the protocol for departing a temple in Asia without breaking gaze with the Buddha, and for encountering a wild animal.  Of all the ways to die, being eaten alive might be the most primordial.  The wall, however, does not harm you, should you turn away; but it notes your half-heartedness and, as is done for a student caught cheating on an exam, lops off some points on your celestial report card.  Best to keep your intent fixed—to maintain your prayer in your line of sight until it blends with the bricks and mortar and is indistinguishable from the structure itself.  Nothing special.

One does not need to visit such a real wall with great frequency; the wall(s) of the mind, of things longed for but not obtained, usually suffices.   I have wedged so many notes in the cracks of this mental edifice—notes from me to myself.  Some of them sit there still.  Some of them fall out when I breathe deeply.  Some of them have gone through (!) to the little Guru, a diminished God with a stenographer’s pad sitting inside my pituitary gland beneath a parasol, to protect her from the occasional monsoon of hormones.

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, God decides to check betweens two rocks and, good-humored, perhaps because the Magnolias are in bloom, and the wild spray of pink abounds, answers exactly.

Candles in the Holy Sepulchre

But do you speak the language of fire?

Masada

We watch an extraordinary moon rise over the Dead Sea, from the Balcony of a hostel, where a fellow traveler tells me about excursions on his family bicycle as a teen.  He would take his bike and go as far as he could go in any direction, wait, and then, long after school hours, return home.  He drinks an Israeli beer and looks at the commanding Moon as it crosses and then takes over the horizon.   In his mind, I think, he’s riding his bicycle towards outer space, and there is no reason to ever turn around.  Behind us, Mt. Masada—a hiccup of a mountain— looms, topped off with the remains of a BC-style Jewish fortress community. Everyone at the hostel is staying there with the intention of summiting it, either on foot or by tram.

Morning unbroken over dead sea

Taster

My mother, father, sister and I hike the mountain in at the edge of morning, after all four of us lie in our narrow, mildewed bunk beds in the hostel dormitory, sleeplessly blinking into the night air, the mosquitoes playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe.  You know something is going to dawn.  There is a certain ambition involved in hiking a holy site—the expectation that it will be hard, that you will work to summit, that you will understand that the reward, for the faithful, was to be that much closer to the hemline of God’s fancy-shmancy white shmata.  As we hike, to our left, the moon creeps down behind the plateau while the Sun comes out over Jordan and the Dead Sea begins to blue.  The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world.  God’s hole-in-one: where concentration of salt in the water separating Israel and Jordan keeps the great ball of fire from sinking.

Laying down the law

Even though we begin before five a.m., there are two busloads of Teenagers ahead of us on the trail: Birthright Israel trips in which a participant not only must ride a chartered vehicle all over the nation, but undergo physical challenges with The Tribe.  One asthmatic teenager, checking to see if her iPhone gets reception on the ascent, sits down on one of the steps cut into the mountain.  Je-sus!  She says dramatically to her friend.  I’m not going to make it, this is sooooooooo hard.  Her friend is chewing gum vigorously.  She sits down too, chews even harder, like she’s storing mastication power for some later use.  They smooth their hair, then one another’s, religiously.  A bus ride is rough on the coif.

At the top of Masada, where a well-preserved fort community still has enough of its foundation in tact that the imagination can play architect with the raw matter, the Sun blasts over the buttes and cliffs and the breeze picks up.  One can imagine the Jews hording water and wheat and whatever else was needed for survival.  The tour guides begin to orient their students to the facts; one guide, who tells his bunch from the outset they are going to do and learn everything faster than all the other groups declares as a lone black bird cuts through the open air; “the Romans are just like F-in McDonalds…they do the same thing everywhere.”

Everywhere.  The trails marking the Roman siege efforts are still imprinted in the rolling desert.  You can practically feel the Latin profanity, uttered by soldiers decades ago, wafting up from the rubble, where they waited under the swash-buckling Orion for enough morning light to see the way to empire.

Buttes off Masada

Eyecandy for the Romans

Bending

It’s still the quiet part of the morning; only my Uncle is up, studying.  I slide the glass door to the front room closed, unroll my mat, and practice.  The floor is linoleum and often scattered with crumbs.  I’m doing idol-worship for sure as I bow down to the enigmatic shapes of the breath, but my Uncle, asking with a vocal wink if I’ve learned to levitate yet, lets me go for it, even in his house where sacrilege is no small potato.  The clock on the wall is a half-unrolled, gilded Torah Scroll and ticks as if trying to prove a point: time, time, time.  Long breath holds, in which I can feel my heartbeat making a racket against my ribs.   My cousin, M, sticks her head in the door when she returns from her night job in the girls’ dormitory—Yoga, or exercise?  She asks.  I shake my head.  Something. Nothing. 

Coming and Going, coming and going, my mat whispers.

She ducks out again, slides the door shut.  Conversation and prayer begin audibly in the kitchen.

I love you, I say.  I don’t know who I am talking to; my mat, is doing the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” thing, familiar from the elementary school yard.

I love you, I say again.  I’m talking to the room.  I’m talking to my family.  I’m talking to all the people that cannot hear me, to the wall, to the presence behind the Wall, to the eggshells, to the waning moon, to the air, to what’s here and what’s hereafter.

Sand, Salt, Sea, Sky

But can you find the line?

Flowerful

March 1, 2011

Calla Calling

jasmine shuggie and l's violets practice nondually

The guy who works at the fancy flower shop on the Friday afternoon shift is so bored he bites his fingernails and tries to spit them from the desk into the pots on display.  I spot him doing this through the glass door of the shop; he seems to be three for three.

I want to bring a Calla Lily home for M, who is visiting.  Between fingernails, the flower shop guy tells me how to manage the single blossom: the Calla Lily needs to be placed in only two inches of water.  So the stem, incapable of absorption, won’t rot.  Outside, February is brightening, and the little buds suggest what’s next.

exactitude

The Calla lily is a fire red that fades to orange, then white, and then green, where it becomes stem.

AO dies lying on the couch with her feet up. This has surprised everybody in the poetry community.  Even the couch, I suspect, was surprised to have someone pass on it like that.

Death: some deranged punctuation?  And a fingernail looks just like a comma.

Rosy Corpse

One death, however removed, invites back all the other deaths.

In my dream, L’s corpse is lying in savasana on our parlor floor.  Every day, I get down on my knees and embrace her.  Her body has begun to crumble.  Her feet are reabsorbed into her tibia, leaving two clean stumps.  Despite these changes, which I note carefully, I don’t stop the daily practice of embrace.

Decay and bloom play rock, paper, scissors

I get up from hugging her.  Her body twitches.  In a moment of convoluted dream-logic, I have to pause: Can a corpse do this?  No: a corpse cannot do. Her body twitches and flops again, as if to defy category.  I think about the phenomenon of Chickens after their heads get cut off.  A certain amount of time postmortem and the body can still…well, do the chicken.

I retreat to the den.  Dad is sitting at his desk.  L rises and follows me in.  She is benign but she wants something.  I gesticulate at Dad—Hello? Help!

L extends her arms to me, for me.

What do you want? I ask.

I want to be loved, she says, as clear as anything.  I think of her on Radio New Zealand, at 102 years old, the last year of her life, archly regaling the host: Well, if all those people that come to read to me stopped coming, I wouldn’t DIE.

Pshaw, I want to say.  But who could say that?  And because all I want is to love her again, we are as good a match as peanut butter and jelly.

Since I am slowly being cornered, I reach out and hold her. It is the least we can do for the dead, when they entangle themselves in the deep strands of our imagination. She dashes out of the house.

I wake up before dawn.  The photo of L lying in state in her nightgown is propped against the wall on her monogrammed clipboard.  I recall that night, five long months ago, when the full moon hollered over Times Square and L hollered right back, dressed up and ready for a date with the Great Nothing.

True to form, when the undertaker entered her apartment the next day and saw her corpse lying there, surrounded by the fat, unembarrassed red and white roses, he exclaimed: For lack of a better word, she looks so…alive!

Only L could get a compliment from an undertaker.

the last word is no word at all

Lily Loot

My mother likes to have flowers around the house in the winter. It’s like forcing the hand of spring.  I go into the Apple Deli to buy her a bunch of tiger lilies—the flowers that throw the biggest pollen tantrum as they die.  She finds their smell tantalizing.

As I am paying, declining to have them wrapped in even more decorative paper, a woman storms into the store, heading straight for the open refrigeration cases, and looks accusingly at the Stoneyfield products, her hands on her hips.

Your yogurt selection is TERRIBLE! She fumes at the top of her lungs.

The tiger lilies blush a sickly orange.  The cashier, a stout Korean, makes change for me with one eyebrow raised.

You have to get SOME NORMAL YOGURT! She says.  This is pathetic. Where is all the REAL yogurt?

She storms out again.

Lilies, as flowers that grace many funerals, are used to being around unseemly and unpredictable shows of emotion.

Then the cashier laughs.  Her laugh sounds like coins jangling.  That lady comes in everyday and shouts at the yogurt, she says. There are so many stores, why doesn’t she just go to another store?

Her pudgy grandson is standing beside her.  As she looks out over the display of mushy avocados, unseasonal fruits, neat cases of packaged vegetables, he keeps taking ginger candies, unwrapping them, and placing them inside his mouth.  I have yet to see him chew, or even slightly move his jaw.

Did you ever ask her what yogurt she is looking for? I suggest.

The proprietor shakes her head.  No, she says.  No, no.

The lilies bow their perfumed heads in tandem.  Yes, yes, yes. It’s the only word they know

I think of Joseph Campbell in tweed Jacket, the tattered copy of Ulysses a fixture under his arm, traveling in India.  His mystical impulse lit up like a beeper.  When he encountered the holy Swami, his question came up of its own accord, as if acid reflux from an indigestible world: How do we bear a world in which there is so much suffering?

And the Swami: People like you and I, we must say yes to all of it.

if yes were a direction

Spades

Sometimes, I cannot figure out what stops us from calling a spade a spade.  As if I should pretend you don’t suffer, and you should pretend I don’t suffer.  As if we should pretend we don’t look into the same dark, when night falls, or the same brightness, when day returns.

twisted sister has eyes in the back of her head

At the shoreline in Prospect Park, the big swans, icons of winter, are badgering whoever dares to visit the lake.  They have learned to want bread and it makes them aggressive.  The ducks congregate where the freeze is incomplete, a slice of liquid as aberrant on the stiff turf as a rosebush in February.  Together, the birds honk irritably for the crappy sandwich bread, puffy and synthetic as shoulder pads from the eighties.  The long reeds and cattails stand straight up when the wind is still.

even reality has roots

For weeks, the trees have looked to be inverted icicles, and the park is coated in white.  It is as if a great sheet has been thrown over the merry corpse of the earth.  You can see far, when the expressive parts of plants are dormant. The eye, says John O’Donohue, is the mother of distance.

You need a spade to plant a flower.  You need a spade to dig one up.

To obtain understanding, the Buddha exposed himself recklessly to the elements.  This made him, for us, a translator of the elemental.  He’d be sitting here right now, if it were still his era, transfixed by the parade of life in front of him.  And with his butt firmly committed to the ground beneath him, he’d surely feel the trembling of the bulbs and blades, as they discern the time to move towards the light.

time to

Footfalls

February 6, 2011

Footfalls

Cruddy Bows

“At its simplest and most essential, faith is that willingness to continue to move forward.”–Patricia Walden & Jarvis Chen

window of opportunity

I am walking hurriedly along the snow-shushed avenues of Park Slope towards the Gowanus Canal, the only body of water that can’t manage to sparkle.  Little ice globes drop from the trees like arboreal sighs.

The crud in me bows to the crud in you, I holler to the canal.

Blah, the canal answers.

Right-o. The drawbridge is covered in salt.  It would give Lot’s wife a panic attack, all these tiny crystals meant to melt the frozen skin of the earth.  I look down into the flat, gray water, then up at its dance partner, the flat, gray sky.  They seem to recognize each other.  As Brené Brown– researcher-storyteller and compassion-cowgirl– says, “Only when we know the darkness in ourselves can we be present with the darkness of others.”  Pellets of ice fall like punctuation.

I’m going to see R, who can speed-dial what some yogis refer to as source with her eyeballs: by looking right at you, while she kindly coaxes your pain to come out and play in the fresh air.   And your pain goes: Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee. What really seems to matter for healing to take place is that “your” pain, and the subtle layers of connective tissue that bind it to “your” joy, be seen.  That the other person doesn’t look away, not even if your nose runs all over your upper lip.  After all, in a staring contest with God, God’s got all the time in the world on her side. 

I think of Brene’s digest of Pema Chodron, champion of compassion: “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded.  It is a relationship between equals” (16).  Got that right, sistah!  The sky may be infinite, but the water can contain the infinite.  Same same.

left hand right hand parity

Swamped

At the swampy street corners, I suspend my quick pace just long enough to strategize about where to put my foot down next: alleys of icy slush? Tall, dirty snowdrifts?

Where is a safe place for the next step?

This is a spiritual as well as practical question.  And where do you put your foot, ultimately?  The only place it can go.  Which is usually exactly what you were trying to avoid: the deep, wet part.

It’s the recurrent winter koan:  how do you step in a puddle without stepping in a puddle? Pass through without suffering from passing through?

Exactly.

The cars zoom through the crosswalks.  They mean it.  Even in this bad weather–schools closed, walking iffy– when pedestrians are unusually compromised and the acuity of most people falters, the cars are tough.  And they don’t care that it’s their speed or your pants.

In New York, when the weather is at its worst, garbage amasses.  Normal collection schedules are forfeited.  Bins and bags rise, topsy-turvy, out of the snow like renovated Deities, patched together from the shit we tried to get rid of.   The result is a collaboration between nature and our detritus which forms shapes awkward, imposing, and random.  If this were Wednesday of Genesis Week, the Lord might begin to doubt his scheme.  Take up a new hobby, like paintball or knitting.

I pass an older Chinese woman, hair in a rough ponytail, sorting through blue plastic bags stuffed with trash, moving them from one garbage bin to another and back.  She observes her work then shakes her head, stamps her feet in their stiff boots, and wipes her thick gloves on her equally plastic pants. Repeat.  It’s as if she’s auditioning for the part of an Urban Sisyphus.  Nothing, really, happens.

nothin' flowers all over

“–Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,/
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?”—Juan Ramon Jiminez

If The Sock Fits

Just when I’m cruising, my left boot floods completely, the way an eye fills spontaneously with tears when someone says I love you. For the next mile, I’m in my own private puddle, which seems even colder than the already cold outside temperature.  What we take personally really does go to the bone.

I have ten minutes before my appointment, and my tears brim over; sadness practices that martial art of quiet, invisible presence.  Emotion, like Jackie Chan, is always crouched to pounce.  And when it does pounce, I try the remedy that (sometimes) worked when I was small: call my parents.

Since I’m near his workplace, I try my Dad on the phone:

Dad, do you happen to have an extra pair of socks at your office?

Never mind his feet are double the size of mine: warm plus dry equals perfect.

Let me look, he says kindly.  And proceeds to look nowhere, because he knows he doesn’t have what I need. I can hear him looking nowhere; through the phone it sounds like nobody is doing anything.

Sorry, he says.

I pass by the fascist yoga place: why not?  I go in and stand, dripping, on the plastic bag laid down as a weather-guard in front of the door.  Here, at least, I might receive low-grade pity and good cheer.  My boot immediately lets out a ring of water around me as if it has just peed.

The two people at the desk look at me, a cloth diagram of the chakras dangling behind where they sit.  They are always ready for yoga.

heartily spinning

Hi, I say. Do you, by any chance, sell socks?

The student receptionist cuts me a smile like she’s been saving it for me all day and measured it precisely to fit my face.  Yes! She says.

I’m going to have to rethink my assumptions about fascist yogis who are also fortuitously sock vendors.  The gods can assume any form the human mind can imagine.

Mine are drenched, I say.  I’m not going to walk into your studio.

She squats by the lucky bin on the lowest shelf.  The socks she retrieves are fitted for sports, whiter than white, the N in nylon, with plastic dots for traction on the soles.  They are marked with the insignia HSP, “Health Smile Peace”—in primary colors, as befits the building blocks of your own well-being.

A little Smiley Guy, emblazoned into the arch of the sock, smiles up at the wearer forebodingly.  He is meant to remind you that it’s better to be you, however wet and miserable, than a Smiley Guy, pathologically cheerful, merged with cheap fabric and sweaty feet, so just get on with it, smile and feel your innate health and peace.

I can hear Smiley Guy talking to me through the plastic wrap like a furious guru:

Do you feel peaceful?

No, I say.  I feel wet and childish and….

But do you feel peaceful? The Smiley Guy interrupts forcefully, as if only a dummy would stop at those adjectives.

I think he should meditate on his face before someone sewed him on.  But we’re about to be intimate, he and I.  So I extend my credit card compassionately.

I’m taking you home with me, I tell him.  And your lovingkindness.  I used to have goldfish.  Now I have you.

She sells me the socks right in the doorway.  Sixteen dollars.  Perfect.  Just what I was hoping to pay for some crappy socks with poor design and a weird bump in the back so you’re sure to get a blister should you wear them with shoes.  Instructions on the package warn: do not sterilize these in boiling water!  Well, duh!  Because there is a dude on them!  But, O.K. Check.

I’m not even going to sterilize you, I try to convey to Smiley Guy with body-language alone.

As I leave, and the yogis settle down, it occurs to me that you really don’t know where relief lies or how it will come—or your own capacity to find peace in the throes of discomfort.  Even Smiley Guy has to concede this point.  Once you are a being in the world, you are not protected—no plastic wrap, no instructions on how you should be used, no specifications for washing.  But you are connected—and it is incumbent upon you to figure out how.

Weighing In

the one i'd been waiting for

As it is, R lets me put my sopping Maggie Moo socks on her whistling office radiator to dry, and I step into the crosshairs of her caring gaze barefoot.  Outside her office door in the dimly lit hallway, two stooped old men are taking turns weighing one another on the medical scale.  Neither of them can see the register.  We hear them muttering and laughing.  Through the window, I can see the ice religiously laying down its slippery film: over the confusion, over the elation.  Nothing, really, happens.  But it’s a tremendous kind of nothing; if you put it on the scale, even stripped of its wet socks, it would grate against the very depths.

bowl at the depths