Americans are obsessed with the notion of control. The control is just an illusion.
---Lee Barnes, writer
Bean, the 10-month old gray tabby, is possessed to leap up on the old dresser that serves as the center for my faith in what little I know of Tibetan Buddhism; and all I am learning about the nature of impermanence---a knowledge both unwelcome and irresistible. The dresser top is more accurately an altar - a flat-topped block used as the focus for a religious ritual, esp. for making sacrifices or offerings to a deity.
There is no demanding god here. There is no religion. There is only the sacrifice of most of what I once believed was permanent. There are offerings, not to be consumed in flame or carried away on a river, but objects and images to remind me of what matters. Each reminder has its own place, its own proximity to another.
There is a book of Tibetan photos and words. Behind it, a picture leans against the mirror: two Chinese soldiers walk away from the body of Kelsan Namtso, the Tibetan Buddhist nun that have just murdered. She lies in the snow. The only color in the picture is her saffron robe. All is else is the snow, gray boulders and the black figures of the soldiers.
There is a postcard of Tibetan Buddhist monks singing. A Black Hat dancer wears a ceremonial apron embroidered with the terrible and gracious visage of Mahakala, the deity who eats that which is in the way of joy---if you regard joy as knowing you will most certainly die and, therefore, this moment is the best in your life.
Two books of collaborative art and poetry (made by poet Gail Wade, his students and me) lie on top of a photo of the black and white crippled cat Stretch. He is not the only ghost cat on the dresser. There are tatters of brindle fur that once belonged to my good cat Harold. Rumi, my a 12-step book, the Witches’ Almanac, and my journal lie in front of the collaborations. Beneath them is the 1948 edition of the Classics Illustrated Arabian Nights, the comic book that opened my way out of dark cave after cave after cave; below lie more photos of my beloved dead.
A gray pyramidal rock with a black dot in one side, and a Northwest Raven medallion hold the Tibetan book open. Today’s reading from Sogyal Rinpoche: Why, if we are as pragmatic as we claim, don’t we begin to ask ourseles seriously: where does our real future lie?
There is more on the dresser: a baby spoon engraved with Mary, a broken heart-shaped dish my mom gave me, a lace agate shaped exactly like a woman’s yoni , a tape of chanting by the Gaden Shatse monks, a photo of beloved Harold (who was eaten by a coyote eight months ago). There is the wristwatch that stopped on 9/11/01. There is the grooved rock in which I put a chunk of cookie for Mahakala when I ask his help in ripping out my hard heart.
Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows sits on top of the mirror. He wears a red-striped frock coat, blue pants and a blue bow tie. My velvet prayer beads bag hangs below him. It contains the string of twenty bone beads on which I count my morning prayers: for the furthering of all sentient beings and the protection of earth, air and water.
I murmur the prayer as Bean mounts his ninth assault on the dresser. He tries to capture Toad. I go toward the dresser. Bean leaps off. As soon as I settle back to my prayers, he leaps in my lap and grabs the beads.
We both hang on. In that instant, I imagine a temple altar. The monks or priestesses or rabbis or imams responsible for the altar believe that in order for the Holy to be present, the sacred objects must be placed and aligned with precision. The work of tidying and arranging the altar has just been finished. All is ready.
A mouse races across the shining tiles of the temple floor. One of the temple cats is within paw’s reach. The mouse scurries up on the altar. The cat follows.
What Falls Into the Absences
The only sure antidote to oblivion is the creation. So I loop my sentences around the trunks of maples, hook them into the parched soil, anchor them to rock, to moon and stars, wrap them tenderly around the ankles of those I love. From down in the pit, I give a tug, to make sure my rope of words is hooked onto the world, and then up I climb.
--- Scott Russell Sanders, Staying Put
The Invisible guitar
Fullerton train station
guy playing guitar
with right hand
withered left hand
from very visible was
playing to a
chair covered seat
and a bench
listening to a distant
had been written on the back of a Vanity Fair subscription card tucked into a copy of Delicate, a collection of short stories I wrote in the early Nineties.
Delicate was inscribed:
I “met” this
woman thru NPR radio
She writes about real
women on real journeys.
Enjoy - Janet
There was also a 3X5 file card in the pages. On it was written todolopuedo.ina.nel Password EBIZ I googled todolopuedo.ina.nel It does not exist.
A few days later, I walk east across the desert. The setting sun dusts the creosote with gold. Shadows are gray, then purple, then indigo. A jack-rabbit startles out of a tangle of downed Joshua branches. I follow my footprints from the day before. They carry me past the white couch that is settling back into the earth and the backless shelves my son and I left next to the couch. Each day I put something on the second shelf that I am ready to lose. Once it was how I scare myself, another time it was imagining I have a damaged brain---there is a theme here.
My footprints disappear from the road and curve through more creosote and Joshuas and groves of yucca. I follow. I stop at a yucca which has split into three equal sections. I press my hands against each section, then link the broken pieces with my splayed fingers. I have no idea why I do this. It just seems right.
I reach the old Joshua Buddha just as the light goes rose-gold. I bend down to the stump that is also the form of a seated Buddha. I lean my head against it and I say, “I’m back.” I touch the tiny white spine tucked into the bark of the fallen trunk and sit next to the delicate bones. I plant my feet in the sand. There are dark mountain ranges in the northeast and perhaps a mile away, the county land-fill.
Gate gate paragate. Gone gone gone to the other side
I remember my most recent talk with M. We spoke of aging. We spoke of loss. We spoke of what has fallen away---and what hasn’t. I told him that I no longer was able to destroy myself. I told him I came to that inability not by my own choice.
“I don’t know why I had to give up what I loved so much,” I said to M. “There are layers and layers of emptiness in me now . It’s not time to fill them...if they can ever be filled.”
The sand is no longer pale gold. The shadows fade. I drink what’s left of the water in my bottle, touch the Joshua Buddha stump and head home.
I’m a few minutes away from the light that burns outside my cabin door when I see a sheet of paper caught in a clump of dried grass. There is writing on it. I pick it up and carry it home.
I wait till after dinner to read it. The words are carefully printed in a child’s hand on lined paper.
I hope you have a merry christmas and may all your wishes come true. Thank you for playing games with me.
When we play monopoly we have fun. Monopoly is one of favorite game. Hve you ever played monopoly video game. It’s fun, isn’t it.
When I grow up I will keep you in my hart. When both of us grown up we can both hang out.
When you pass through the fire
you pass through humble
You pass through a maze of self doubt
When you pass through humble
the lights can blind you
Some people never figure that out
You pass through arrogance you pass through hurt
You pass through an ever present past
and it's best not to wait for luck to save you
Pass through the fire to the light...
Magic and Loss
Rain for three days. Heart-shredder wind. This morning dawn is soft and clear. A winged shadow moves up the tangle of Joshua branches. A raven follows. The bird drops to the top branch. She, he, it, shakes out a wing. The breast feathers ruffle in what is left of the banshee wind.
Dawn reflects off the shining black beak---or a crumb of corn chip from the handful I scattered last night for the resdent coyote. More ravens soar and dive above the dirt road to the west. One, two, a dozen, a murder of them.
The raven at the top of the Joshua Tree watches, lifts and takes off. The shadow follows and is gone.
In the last week, I have found myself beginning to drift from the path I have been making. Imagine you could step by step move to the side of a trail of your own footsteps, a trail that is not easy, but a trail that carries you in and out of beauty, in and out of fear, in and out of wonder. Imagine that you imagine something glowing a little off the trail, something that you know might draw you toward damage, not of the material, but of the spirit. Imagine that you imagine that the damage might be worth standing in the glow...and maybe this time that sweet light would never fade. Imagine you take one step in that direction, then another.
As you pass through the fire
your right hand waving
there are things you have to throw out
That caustic dread inside your head
will never help you out
You have to be very strong
' cause you'll start from zero
over and over again
And as the smoke clears
there's an all consuming fire
lying straight ahead...
I called trusted friends. “It’s happening again. He is so like the one before. Where did he come from? I didn’t ask for this.” I wanted to be amazed. I wanted to be better than the rules. I wanted to believe that Something that most resembles a huge raven or a desert twilight or the bark of a dead Joshua Tree has given me a second chance at Big Love.
My friends reminded me that in one crucial area, “he” is so like the one before---he is not free. I wanted to smack my trusted friends. I wanted to smack my own trusted knowledge.
They say no one person can do it all
but you want to in your head
But you can't be Shakespeare
and you can’t be Joyce
so what is left instead
You're stuck with yourself
and a rage that can hurt you
You have to start at the beginning again
And just this moment
This wonderful fire started up again
I ran my sales pitch. “But, he is this and this and this...and I felt as though we had known each other for centuries and he feels the same way and and and...” My most long-time friend listened. “Yeah,” he said. “It is such a good drug.”
I didn’t smack him. I felt how stale my words were. There was something about my long-time friend’s perfect responses and how we laughed that pulled the pin on the potentially rhinestone-encrusted (little Zappa there)grenade.
I slept with nothing but the banshee wind. When I woke, I was grateful for my long-time friend. We had always referred to our drugs as toys. One time, one of us had lost a bundle on the slots. “The toy is broken,” we said. This morning I wrote him: “I/you can always try to fix the toy or get another one. But when the toyness goes out of the toy and I know that another toy might be fun the first time I play with it, even the second or third time, but ultimately the toyness will go out of the new toy---then, the gig is up.”
When you pass through humble
when you pass through sickly
When you pass through
I'm better than you all
When you pass through
anger and self deprecation
and have the strength to acknowledge it all
When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
that let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
and there's a door up ahead not a wall...
I wrote my friend: I feel grouchy and gray this morning. I read the newspaper. The comics and the pop horoscopes. The important stuff. One of my horoscopes says: ‘Knowing when you have had enough might be important. Think carefully about a decision that could impact your daily life. What you feel could possibly be wrong. Give yourself the gift of time.’
And a second horoscope: ‘Your artistic mind is keen, your creativity set to fire off at any moment. You are in the right place with the right tools to enable you to capture the kind of fleeting moment that you wish could last forever.’
And I had already had---before I read the horoscopes and wrote you---a fleeting moment I wished could last forever Here it is:
Rain for three days. Heart-shredder wind. The early sun this morning is soft and clear. A shadow moves up the tangle of Joshua branches. A raven follows...
As you pass through fire as you pass through fire
try to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
you cannot remain the same
And if the building' s burning
move towards that door
but don't put the flames out
There's a bit of magic in everything
and then some loss to even things out.
I began to see that, when it comes right down to it, we are nothing until that nothing becomes so dedicated that it is like a vessel through which good things can move, an instrument for receiving knowledge and sharing it with others who might be in need.
---Bear Heart, with Molly Larkin
Eighteen years ago, three trucks drove up the dirt snake of the Moqui Dugway. The road rises 1100 feet on a 10% grade. The ascent can take your breath.
The first time I had driven it alone. It was 1982, I was forty-two and it was the first time I had spent longer than three days alone. A new friend had given me directions. You approach from the south and drive across flat desert toward what seems to be an impenetrable cliff face. Keep going. I followed his instructions. Suddenly the road curved east and I had no choice but to go up hair-pin turns, cliff-face on one side, drop-offs on the other. I remember keeping my foot steady on the accelerator of the rental car and thinking, “If I can do this, I can learn to do anything.”
Eight years later I was passenger in the lead truck. I was not alone. We were perhaps a dozen women and men and we were friends, lovers and strangers. Our trucks were loaded with river gear. We were headed for a trip on the San Juan River.
We topped out and headed West. As abruptly as any human change of heart, thunderheads moved in. There was no rain. The man I now think of as Dead Bill---no longer with rancor, but with affection---drove. I sat in the passenger seat and opened his beers for him.
Lightning slammed down into the pinon-juniper a few miles ahead of us. A thread of smoke rose. By the time we came to the strike, there were no flames. Only smoke rose from the little juniper. Some of us jumped out of our trucks, walked to the juniper and began to pile sand around its charred base. We waited till there seemed to be no more smoke. A soft rain – the Dine call it Female Rain began to fall. We climbed back in the trucks and went on.
It would be years before I would learn that sometimes a lightning strike in the desert makes glass. By the time I looked into a desert museum display case, saw a non-descript chunk of jagged glass labeled fulgurite and found it far more beautiful than the slab of emerald and cream malachite to its right and the wine-red chunk of garnet to its left, I was no longer the woman who had piled sand around the base of a smoking juniper. Had that woman known that there was lightning glass, she would not have asked the group to wait while she searched the ground for a glittering shard. She would have deferred instead to her lover, to his need to get back on the road and to his beer.
She is gone. He is gone. The group is gone, not so much dispersed by lightning, but drifted away on currents of alcohol, pot, betrayal and lies. The woman would herself disappear for five years, carried deep into loneliness by her own addictions and lies.
She would once have said that the disappearances were nothing but loss, and that our behaviors were cruel and tragic. Now, I understand the nature of juniper, lightning, smoke and glass. I see that addiction, lies and betrayal may be no less alchemical than the action of unearthly heat and sand. Now, my favorite chain of words has become: I don’t know.
I don’t know has transformed me from a woman who once would have googled lightning glass and ordered a piece from an on-line store, to a woman who walks the abundant Mojave, under skies from which lightning rarely descends, her eyes often on the ground, hunting for a glint of nondescript glass, knowing she may never find it.
I don’t know moves these words out of what sometimes feels like nothing, a nothing that is both frightening and welcome. I am a vessel formed by dedication, a vessel made from lightning glass.