Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Unfathomable Web of Verbs

January 6, 2013

What Moves


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.




October 27, 2011

Emily gets the prelude

 We never know how high we are

Till we are called to rise;

And then, if we are true to plan

Our stature touch the skies—

 –#1776, reprinted without permission, but with much gladness–

view from the crown chakra


The baby slides out and I catch her.

I’m kneeling on the floor with a creature in my hands.

Her birth is slick, but her skin is clear of vernix, labor-grease, or wastes.  She looks like she has been sleeping in a fairy-tale, awakening to this one.

That is: I decide the baby is a her.

[For a sweet, short and informed read on the importance of vernix— not extraneous yuckie stuff to be washed off!]

In the dream, I am not ready, but I do my job anyway: protect birth and the birth mama, who is just as surprised as I am, at only four months gestation, to see the perfection of this newborn.

The hospital room tries hard to be bland and sterile.  But the infant doesn’t allow it:  She has so much life in her it leaks into her surroundings.

unlikely birth buds

Reality Has Windows

When I look out the window now, from my empty apartment, autumn is shaking in the trees, stately things that have grown up as innate wealth in the yards of the affordable housing complexes.  Their branches, behaving as if terrified, or as if attempting to terrify, move every which-way, like the gaze when one is first learning yoga.  These movements are pre-death choreography; the winds come through with purpose and everything that lives becomes simultaneously riled up—where will I bury my nuts?—and internal, looking for the bunker at the depths.

Unlike us, the seasons abide with their changes, not resisting themselves.   Are humans distinct in resisting who we innately are?  Hmmm.  I’m still waiting for the day a tree blogs about me.

buddhas abiding with drying

This time of year, when we put garbage in the cans on the avenue, the wind plucks it right back out.  Putting waste in a can is a temporary way to hide the tremendous amount of refuse we leave in our wake as we carry forth.  We may temporarily fool ourselves but the earth is not fooled.

Not fooled at all.  Strong rains brought in the fall, and they have yielded to a chilly shroud.  The last weekend of “summer”, after chanting to a multiplicity of Gods upstate amidst the poo-poo-pauperism-cuz-we-‘ve-got-Lululemon aesthetic of Omega, I returned with my spirit posse on the winding Taconic through an all-night storm.  We rolled onto 4th Avenue, even the GPS tired, at 4AM.  From the car, we saw a disheveled man on the street corner smashing a vacuum cleaner apart with all his might.  He stooped over beside the public trashcan and had his way with the appliance.  The traffic light, despite the fact that no one pedestrians were about at this hour of the almost-morning, blinked its monition overhead: DON’T WALKDon’t worry, the vacuum cleaner assured it.  He’s raging against materiality right now.   Its nozzle flew off.


The closest tree, thin and staked into place in its patch of dirt so it would grow up right, like a good urban tree, not bothering the buildings, burst out laughing.  Its glee was louder than the hundreds of voices at the Kirtan calling to Ganesha to move the obstacles already, move those obstacles already, baby.

ganesh in a sultry mood

By Shook or By Crook

Other things shook this week.  An Ortho Jew in his determined glory walks towards me in the subway station—that weird birth canal between Wall and Williams Street, below Tiffany’s and the anti-establishment protests occupying something.  The Jew has the Big-Mitzvah look on his face: this blessing is going to positively tackle you.

Are you Jewish? He asks me.  (To quote my friend John: Yes, Jew-ish.)

I’ll give you two guesses, I say.

He whirls around, his psyche already tasting the virtue accruing in its spiritual piggy-bank.  His pranic tentacles register a high Jew-meter.  He dutifully holds out the accoutrements of miracles: the lulav and etrogTake this, he says.  Lulav is a beautiful word—the bound palm leaves, myrtle, willow.  The etrog, which sounds like a genetically engineered toad, is actually a citron, an Israeli species of lemon.

I hold out my hand—these are my people, the fruit and the branch.

lucky mimesis

Shake it, he says.  For some reason, I remember my first year of ballet class, as a three-year old.  I spent most of the class plucking free the massive wedgies my underwear created under my leotard and watching myself perform this delicate action in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

I’m doing the shaking wrong, which I can tell by the way his eyes try to take refuge in his septum, appalled by my violation of the ritual, but I don’t care.  YAAAAAY, I shout.  I shake my branch not just in four directions, but in every direction I can think of.

Repeat after me, he says, and begins the Prayer, stopping at prayer-novice intervals so I don’t mangle the Hebrew.  I’m so excited to be holding a lemon in the subway.  I feel like the Citrus superhero.   I want to cut it open and squeeze it and make the space smell like something fresh, invigorating, edgy.

Big Mitvah!  He crows, walking away hurriedly and with the natural elation that comes from accruing spiritual brownie points.

For you, that is, I call back.  But what do I know.  The lemon is not forthcoming.

Later that night, I catch the baby.

mitzvah dilating

Not Knowing That

I didn’t know birth could be like that, I exclaim.  The hospital room impassively witnesses the ordinary and impossible.  It’s all beige to me, it declares.

This baby, premature and yet fully developed, sits in my hands as if we are a sculpture of Rodin’s, cut from one stone and still connected in that elusive place where form yields to formlessness.  Our rough edges and poor chances at survival are smoothed by the generosity of the dream until these two disparate manifestations of life—the creature and I– are returned to a single continuous muscle, breathing.

The night before, I died.

Marie-Louise Von Franz, the heiress of Jung’s work on dreams, teaches: Pay attention to your dreams, for therein “a self-regulating tendency in the soul comes into play which counterbalances the one-sidedness of consciousness or completes it so that a kind of wholeness and a life’s optimum is achieved” (Dreams).  What about those somnievents wherein you’re taking old cream cheese–Philly, whiter than fake teeth– out of the refrigerator?  Whatever.   Cosmic consciousness is like a good vacuum cleaner: it can take in everything, no matter the size of the particle.

So it was.  A brief, nocturnal trip back to Thailand– which cost me no air-miles or jet-lag whatsoever.  I entered a white-walled room in the big, empty house where my old friend, Dha, sat, grinning and chewing on unfurled and twice-brewed sinesia dipped in salt.  Life is the Leaf, he said, noddingHe caught my eyes as the ground rumbled, a terribly hungry stomach.  Get outside, something is wrong.  The jasmine rice, soaking in huge plastic vats, wobbled.  It had the nonchalant equanimity of a thing that has survived many such quakes.

but nothing looks wrong

In the unreasonable logic of dreams, I copied the example of my befuddled boss—also inexplicably there–who was trying to protect herself by climbing into a kiddie-swing, the kind that looks like a stiff, plastic diaper and feels about as comfortable.  As we waited suspended in the black diapers, a tidal wave of earth swung up over its own rim.  My end came at me like my premature birth: I was prepared and yet unprepared in every way.

This dark wave of earth blacked out everything except its own presence, which bore down over my body.  I fell backwards into my death thinking—that’s all this is?  A plunge?  Really?  But I only just was born!

with catcher's mitts unto the sky falling

Birth and death are like that– BFF.

I woke up disturbed, feeling clods of dirt in my hair that weren’t there.  But the strange miracles runneth over, the fish eyes of Unconscious blinking in the shallow pool of daylight.  The creak of the toilet seat, the drip of the showerhead, the bubbling of the water as it boiled. The lemon wedge, the triphala pill broken open and covered in warm liquid.  As if God turned on the lights too quickly in the theater of being and everyone ran for the candy stand for a sugar refill.  I had to growl through my morning practice—prostrating myself before the dust mites in my carpet—because there are dawns when one must bow before something, anything, everything.  And you?  For what miracle will you fall to your knees shaking, if not the one you are made of?

things that keep me here