one bird

it may not always be so; and i say
that if your lips,which i have loved,should touch
another’s,and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart,as mine in time not far away;
if on another’s face your sweet hair lay
in such silence as i know,or such
great writhing words as,uttering overmuch,
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;

if this should be,i say if this should be—
you of my heart,send me a little word;
that i may go unto him,and take his hands,
saying,Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face,and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.

 - e.e. cummings


for Colin

 Walking Around

I happen to be tired of being a man.
I happen to enter tailorshops and moviehouses
withered, impenetrable, like a felt swan
navigating in a water of sources and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me wail.
I want only a respite of stones or wool,
I want only not to see establishments or gardens,
or merchandise, or eyeglasses, or elevators.

I happen to be tired of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
I happen to be tired of being a man.

Nevertheless it would be delightful
to startle a notary with a cut lily
or slay a nun by striking her on the ear.
It would be lovely
to go through the streets with a sexy knife
and shouting until I froze to death.

I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,
vacillating, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
downward, in the soaked guts of the earth,
absorbing and thinking, eating each day.

I do not want for myself so many misfortunes.
I do not want to continue as root and tomb,
subterranean only, a vault with corpses,
stiff with cold, dying of distress.

That is why Monday day burns like petroleum
when it sees me coming with my prison face,
and it howls in its transit like a wounded wheel,
and it takes hot-blooded steps toward the night.

And it pushes me into certain corners, into certain moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones stick out the windows,
into certain shoestores with a smell of vinegar,
into streets as frightening as chasms.

There are brimstone-colored birds and horrible intestines
hanging from the doors of the houses that I hate,
there are dentures left forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and fright,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and poisons, and navels.

I walk around with calm, with eyes, with shoes,
with fury, with forgetfulness,
I pass, I cross by offices and orthopedic shoestores,
and courtyards where clothes are hanging from a wire:
underdrawers, towels and shirts that weep
slow, dirty tears.

- Pablo Neruda (trans. Donald D. Walsh)


damien rice

A friend of mine last week shared some of the music that had been very influential in her formative years (Sisters of Mercy, if anyone's interested), and then asked what song or artist had defined me in some way.

The answer is, of course, Damien Rice, he of the lilting harmonies and cellos and shadowy lyrics. The song I played for her was "Amie," off his first album.

(and because lyrics are important, I will save you the trouble of Googling)

Nothing unusual, nothing strange
Close to nothing at all
The same old scenario, the same old rain
And there's no explosions here
Then something unusual, something strange
Comes from nothing at all
I saw a spaceship fly by your window
Did you see it disappear?

Amie come sit on my wall

And read me the story of O
And tell it like you still believe
That the end of the century
Brings a change for you and me
Nothing unusual, nothing's changed
Just a little older that's all
You know when you've found it,
There's something I've learned
'Cause you feel it when they take it away

Something unusual, something strange

Comes from nothing at all
But I'm not a miracle
And you're not a saint
Just another soldier
On the road to nowhere

Amie come sit on my wall

And read me the story of O
And tell it like you still believe
That the end of the century
Brings a change for you and me

The next one, "The Professor and La Fille Danse," is one of my favorites. I think he released it on an LP, but it was never on an album. This version happens to be the one I like, and it conveniently has the lyrics built into the video:

The french at the end translates to something like:

The girl dances 
when she plays with me 
and I think that I love her sometimes 
the silence does not dare
when we are together
put the words to sleep 

And here's something off his sophomore release.

Woke up and for the first time the animals were gone
It's left this house empty now, not sure if I belong
Yesterday you asked me to write you a pleasant song
I'll do my best now, but you've been gone for so long

The window's open now and the winter settles in
We'll call it Christmas when the adverts begin
I love your depression and I love your double chin
I love almost everything that you bring to this offering

Oh I know that I left you in places of despair
Oh I know that I love you, so please throw down your hair
At night I trip without you, and hope I don't wake up
'Cause waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup

Woke up and for the first time the animals were gone
Our clocks are ticking now so before our time is gone
We could get a house and some boxes on the lawn
We could make babies and accidental songs

I know I've been a liar and I know I've been a fool
I hope we didn't break yet, but I'm glad we broke the rules
My cave is deep now, yet your light is shining through
I cover my eyes, still all I see is you

Oh I know that I left you in places of despair
Oh I know that I love you, so please throw down your hair
At night I trip without you, and hope I don't wake up
'Cause waking up without you is like drinking from an empty cup

I have found him appropriate for all times and seasons, but especially so, of late.


on dreams and inevitabilities

SPOILER ALERT: What follows is the ending scene of Of Mice and Men. If you haven't read the book yet (and you should), don't read the rest of the post.

I've taught Of Mice and Men for five years, now. It was number three in the most banned books in the US in the nineties, not so much for the profanity as for the ending scene. It is always hard for my students, at fifteen, to understand why George has to kill Lennie. I have to logic them through every other option available to George, and even then, some of them don't choose to accept it.

It always brings up interesting personal questions, too, ones I don't share with my classes. Would I, if the situation demanded it as absolutely as George's does, be able to do the same? Would I have that kind of personal strength? Or would I, out of cowardice, choose a route that would be worse for everyone involved?

The thing is, though, that much of the logic depends on the fact that this death is better for Lennie because he doesn't know that it's coming. He dies believing that the dream is going to happen, dies painlessly and instantaneously, not knowing that George has betrayed him. George has to live with the pain, yes, but that's bearable because Lennie does not. It would be an entirely different story if Lennie were aware of George's betrayal, if George, for some reason, had to shoot him in the stomach and Lennie had to die just as slowly and painfully as if Curley had shot him, if Lennie stared George in the eyes until the life finally drained out of him. Or if, somehow, it went wrong and Lennie didn't die at all, but continued to live on with the full knowledge of George's actions.

George wouldn't look so much like a hero, then. Good intentions don't matter much if, in the end, it wasn't the better decision.
. . .

Lennie looked eagerly at him. “Go on, George. Ain’t you gonna give me more hell?”

“No” said George.

“Well, I can go away,” said Lennie. “I’ll go right off in the hills an’ find a cave if you don’t want me.”

George shook himself again. “No,” he said. “I want you to stay with me here.”

Lennie said craftily – “Tell me like you done before.”

“Tell you what?”

“‘Bout the other guys an’ about us.”

George said, “Guys like us got no fambly. They make a little stake an’ then they blow it in. They got nobody in the worl’ that gives a hoot in hell about ‘em  – ”

“But not us,” Lennie cried happily. “Tell about us now.”

George was quiet for a moment. “But not us,” he said.

“Because  – ”

“Because I got you an’  – ”

“An’ I got you. We got each other, that’s what, that gives a hoot in hell about us,” Lennie cried in triumph.

The little evening breeze blew over the clearing and the leaves rustled and the wind waves flowed up the green pool. And the shouts of the men sounded again, this time much closer than before.

George took off his hat. He said shakily, “Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine.”

Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer, and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.

Lennie said, “Tell how it’s gonna be.”

George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. “Look across the river, Lennie, an’ I’ll tell you so you can almost see it.”

Lennie turned his head and looked across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. “We gonna get a little place,” George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson’s Luger; he snapped off the safety, and the handgun lay on the ground behind Lennie’s back. He looked at the back of Lennie’s head, at the place where the spine and the skull were joined.

A man’s voice called from up the river, and another man answered.

“Go on,” said Lennie.

George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped his hand to the ground again.

“Go on,” said Lennie. “How it’s gonna be. We gonna get a little place.”

“We’ll have a cow,” said George. “An’ we’ll have maybe a pig an’ chickens . . . an’ down the flat we’ll have a . . . little piece alfalfa  – ”

“For the rabbits,” Lennie shouted.

“For the rabbits,” George repeated.

“And I get to tend the rabbits.”

“And you get to tend the rabbits.”

Lennie giggled with happiness. “An’ live off the fatta the lan’.”


Lennie turned his head

“No, Lennie. Look down across the river, like you can almost see the place.”

Lennie obeyed him. George looked down at the gun.

There were crashing footsteps in the brush now. George turned and looked towards them.

“Go on, George. When we gonna do it?”

“Gonna do it soon.”

“Me an’ you.”

“You . . . an’ me. Ever’body gonna be nice to you. Ain’t gonna be no more trouble. Nobody gonna hurt nobody nor steal from ‘em.”

Lennie said, “I thought you was mad at me, George.”

“No,” said George. “No, Lennie. I ain’t mad. I never been mad, an’ I ain’t now. That’s a thing I want ya to know.”

The voices came close now. George raised the gun and listened to the voices.

Lennie begged, “Le’s do it now. Le’s get that place now.”

“Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta.”

And George raised the gun and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie’s head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering.

George shivered and looked at the gun, and then he threw it from him, back up the bank, near the pile of old ashes.

The brush seemed filled with cries and with the sound of running feet. Slim’s voice shouted, “George. Where you at, George?”

But George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away. The group burst into the clearing and Curley was ahead. He saw Lennie lying on the sand. “Got him, by God.” He went over and looked down at Lennie, and then looked back at George. “Right in the back of the head,” he said softly.

Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. “Never you mind,” said Slim. “A guy got to sometimes.”

But Carlson was standing over George. “How’d you do it?” he asked.

“I just done it,” George said tiredly.

“Did he have my gun?”

“Yeah. He had your gun.”

“An’ you got it away from him and you took it an’ you killed him?”

“Yeah. Tha’s how.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.

Slim twitched George’s elbow. “Come on, George. Me an’ you’ll go in an’ get a drink.”

George let himself be helped to his feet. “Yeah, a drink.”

Slim said, “You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me.” He led George to the entrance of the trail and up towards the highway.

Curley and Carson looked after them. And Carlson said, “Now what the hell you suppose is eatin’ them two guys?”


mini place poems

My students have moved into a (very brief) poetry unit. After we've read a few, I tell them they have to write a poem based on a place - real, imagined, it doesn't matter - because that tends to keep them from cliché, abstract, emotion-based pieces.

Before I give them time to write, I have them brainstorm about my classroom, and model how I would turn that brainstorming into a poem, using their input. I'm rather amused at how they turned out this year. (The last one falters in tone a little, but I was very tired by the end of the day.)

. . .

Walls of stormy blue, with explosive stars
Above Egyptian tombs,
Tattooed with a kohl-black lexicon.

. . .

Stars are dangling haphazardly
From a cratered ceiling, and polar
Winds make the moons wobble.

. . .

James Dean glances over glowing crescents
Of strung stars, the scent of Paris
And a pickle. 


I'm not much of one for prayers, but this seemed an apropos benediction for the journey a friend is taking today.

lyrics here.


this is water

I could have sworn that I had at least linked to this speech at some point in this blog, but after a thorough search, it appears not.

It's David Foster Wallace's commencement speech to Kenyon College's class of 2005. It is so relevant, so poignant. It's long, too, but worth every word.

. . .

(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about "teaching you how to think". If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education--least in my own case--is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about "the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master".

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. . . . The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: this is water. This is water.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences now.

I wish you way more than luck.


on beginnings

It's rare that you get the chance to really, truly hear how a relationship began, unless you happen to be a witness to it. Usually people sum up their beginnings in a sentence or two.

Colin and I were both twenty when we met. I had been working as a doorgirl at a bar in Flagstaff for a few months my junior year of college, running the cash register for the cover charges. I had been there a few months before Colin came in, part of a wave of brand-new bouncers. I remember not being terribly impressed with any of them except Colin, because he was the only one who seemed to know what he was doing.

I don't remember how we first began talking, although we worked pretty closely together - he was good at spotting the fake IDs, and the owner, a black belt himself, liked having a black belt covering the door - so we had plenty of time to get to know each other. I don't know how long it took for me to start checking the schedules to see if Colin was working the same shifts that I did, if he was assigned to work the station right next to mine, but it wasn't long. He intimidated me then, because he was intelligent, because he was more aloof than most people, though I knew he liked me because I could get him to smile. I got his particular, off-color humor from the start, could answer back with enough wit that he was impressed.

The bar would have an 18 and over dance party from 2-4 am on Fridays and Saturdays, and I used to hang around after my shift - partly because I didn't want to walk home alone at 3 am, partly because once the bouncers had cleaned up, a group of us often got breakfast. Colin was one of the rotation of people nice enough to drive me home, but he was by far my favorite; there were several times that he and I got breakfast alone, sitting at the Place in the pre-dawn, talking over tropical green tea, hashbrowns, eggs. It is entirely his fault that I like my eggs runny, that I cut them up over the hashbrowns and have one large mess of egg and potato.

I remember particularly the tension of those drives home, how I desperately wanted an indication that he liked me in some way other than friendship. But we were both in other relationships, then, relationships that hadn't ended yet, and even if that hadn't been the case, I could barely muster up the courage to give him a hug good night before rushing up the stairs to my dorm.

After I left for the summer, and quit the bar, we didn't see each other much for a time. We swirled through other relationships, other people and romances, until the spring of my senior year, when I started regularly attending Tuesday night karaoke at the bar. I don't remember much how we progressed from there, except in bits and pieces - him grinning at me from across the room while I sang Boy Named Sue, meeting for a burger across town and finally realizing how blue his eyes are, a thousand cigarettes smoked outside into the frosty night. One memorable night that I spent in horrible anticipation, until I finally - finally - called him back to my dorm on some pretense, and when we hugged good bye I told him to kiss me.

But we were both still attached, in some ways, to the relationships that we had quit - he was still living with his ex-girlfriend; I refused, after my previous relationship, to be tied down to anyone - and we moved apart again. I got pregnant with another man, kept my child, graduated. Moved away.

We talked on the phone and texted in that year and a half, saw each other occasionally. He came to Tucson once, in the spring, and we drove up to the Pima Canyon trailhead and sat on the brick wall while my infant daughter slept in the car, watched the sun move orange-red across the mountains. He faced south, his legs dangling, and I sat lengthwise on the wall, legs triangled over his, put my head on his shoulder and breathed in the sudden familiar comfort of his scent. So strong, that memory, the smell of him.

I fell in love with him slowly, over those months, despite the distance, despite everything between us. When I finally drove up to Phoenix in early December to see him, I was terrified that so much had happened that it couldn't be overcome. We sat in a Starbucks and walked a very thin emotional line, talked over everything. Decided that we at least had to try.

I had to have surgery, that month, a preventative procedure on my malrotated intestines. I had it in LA, with a surgeon who could do the procedure laproscopically, and Colin took as much time as he could to come see me.

I have always been terrified of hospitals, always felt that they were places of death and dying, avoided them if at all possible. But I was so elated at the thought of getting to spend time with him - two whole days and nights - that I scarcely worried about the surgery. I remember waking up from anesthesia in the recovery room, anticipating nothing but the fact that he was driving out to see me right then.

When he arrived, we told the nurses he was my fiancé, thinking that would make them more likely to let him stay with me. I was covered with wires and tubes, but he climbed into the narrow hospital bed with me, held me for what in retrospect feels like two days straight, talking and laughing and barely sleeping for enjoying each other.

There comes a time where they force you to start walking around, to resume the functions of your body. I could not fully support my own weight yet, but out of pride kept as much of it to myself as possible, barely leaning on the arm Colin put through mine. He stopped me, I think, stood me in the hall and told me that I could trust him to support me. And I, who had never relied on anyone in that way, gave in and put all the weight I needed on him, and he held me up without difficulty. The metaphor was so obvious to me, even then. Our faces shone the whole way, walking around the hospital floor. I could feel us shining, and it was confirmed by the comments and glances of the people we passed.

He told me he loved me that night, in the dark blue-grey of the early hours, his face just visible above mine. I felt the emotion like a physical pull in my chest, felt the weight of it like a warm stone, and answered him without hesitation, the first time in my life that I ever fully believed what I was saying.

It's been four and a half years since then. He has seen the brightest and darkest parts of me, loved them all, as I have seen and loved his. Those four and a half years have seen us grow into full-fledged adults, have seen my daughter start school, have seen us move in together, publish two books, perform three plays, share countless moments of happiness.

An old coworker of his once told him that the key to love is the find someone who grows with you. And though I cannot see the future, I know that it is with him that I have grown, and with him I want to keep growing.


the paradoxical commandments

These were posted in the office of one of our school counselors. They seem particularly apt of late.

. . .

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

- Dr. Kent M. Keith


on graceful exits

As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment has come back into Gatsby's face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

As I watched him he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn't be over-dreamed — that voice was a deathless song.

They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn't know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life. Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


a villanelle

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

- Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art"


things I love, tattoo edition

It's in her daughter's handwriting.

I wish we could see the one on her back. I love that it's an unusual design and that it's all in red.

The Golden Ratio, in a temporary tattoo.

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart: I am. I am. I am.

. . .

It's my 200th post. Thanks for sticking with me this far. <3


for pondering

With her Florentino Ariza learned what he had already experienced many times without realizing it: that one can be in love with several people at the same time, feel the same sorrow with each, and not betray any of them. Alone in the midst of the crowd on the pier, he said to himself in a flash of anger: "My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse."

- Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera


things I like this week, vol. 27

. . .

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

. . .

I wish I could give you an infallible rule for success in writing. I know but one. If you feel the urge, write and keep on writing. There is no short cut.

. . .

. . .

You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

. . .

Her last photo shoot. She crossed out the negatives of the photos she didn't like. An odd sort of memento mori.

. . .

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.

. . .

I understood that passion and art could be more important than money.