Day 281 4/3/14: Three Restless Obsessions

My mind keeps moving between these two ideas:

The poet John Donne said “No man is an island.

The Buddha said, “Every man has an island within.”


If separated, do two objects ever long for one another? Does the owl cookie jar miss the hollow witch with her plastic apple and pipe cleaner worm?  Why do I still mourn for those unwanted thrift store clothes, so eager and ugly that wait slump-shouldered on the rack?

I wonder if animals in the spirit world ever muse on the fates of their bodies. Does the cow ponder his skull and think: “Better my head be used as a ceremonial mask to conjure dreams than being painted turquoise and bolted to a steak house wall where it inhale through the stone canyons of its nostrils, the memory scent of its own burning flesh.”Does the turtle find wonder in the shell reborn as ceremonial rattle? Is initiation into “the sacred” preferable to being sold as an overpriced bohemian “curio”?

Or does the very concept of horn, skull and tailbone feel impossibly quaint to them
in those meadows where they move like happy shadimagesows?


Day 223 2/3/14: On Story and Healing

imagesI am privileged to have Deena Metzger as my teacher. When I read her recent essay What Story is And How it Heals, I thought FINALLY! an understanding of story that makes sense to me.

P.S. What does it mean to enter into a council with animals? Click here to read about Deena’s work with elephants in Africa.

Day 213 1/24/14: “A Breath of Fresh Air”

sharkptgIt’s a pretty big deal when someone paints a painting for you. So yesterday when my former student  Ani gifted me with this picture, I was, as they say in England, “dead chuffed.” Ani wasn’t even a “shark student” of mine, she took my literature class last fall. Like me, Ani loves the Beatles. Unlike me, she is incredibly together at 22 years old.  She runs a cake pop business with her sister. She writes poetry and has an untainted enthusiasm for language and literature that I admire, sometimes wistfully.

One day after class, Ani showed me a poem she was working on. The poem centered around a pomegranate, a powerful symbol of love, death, renewal and the feminine. I remembered that Pre-Raphaelite painting of Persephone holding the pomegranate in her hand. I recalled the pomegranates on the funerary sculpture of the unmarried women in Ancient Greece.   But Ani wasn’t thinking of all that symbolic stuff when she wrote the poem. She just wrote it. The poem had a lovely, strong female voice, both archetypal and modern.  It made me shiver a little. We talked about the poem for a while–about Persephone, about Armenian history, about images vs. words until afternoon shadows lengthened and it was time to go.

As soon as we stepped outside the classroom, we saw a young guy sitting on a bench. He pulled two pomegranates out of his sweater and handed them to a friend. Ani and I both shrieked with delight.

Had Ani’s poetic invocation caused them to surface in the real world? A correspondence between Ancient Greece and Glendale, California?

I like that this shark seems to be on some sort of dream stage, rising in front  of a curtain of blood. The title is “A Breath of Fresh Air.” The shark seems both to bringing this much-needed freshness to the world and rising out of this dark and light aqua sea in search of it. And the more I look at the deep, rich red background, the more I think of pomegranates and marvel at the palette of images, colors and words we share across time. I like to think of the language we employ and all the echoes it carries. Sometimes this echo is a burden, miring us in old stories we’d like to forget and other times that resonance is the tremor of eternity we need so language becomes a living thing, closer maybe to music.

Lovely things can happen when someone lets you into their poetic process. It doesn’t happen every day.

So thanks Ani, for the poem and for the picture.

Day 211 1/22/14: The White Shark in Literature Vol 1: Richard Wright

imagesI just discovered a great short story by Richard Wright (the last one he ever wrote) called “Big Black Good Man.” The main character is a white man named Olaf, a night porter in Copenhagen hotel. Olaf considers himself a broad-minded & fair sort of fellow until a sailor named Jim, “the biggest, strangest and blackest man” Olaf has ever seen, asks to rent a room.

I love literature that explores psychic states and attempts to imitate the impossible rhythms and trajectories of thought,  but I’ve never read a story that plunges straight into the fearful and obsessive nightmare of racism. Wright’s story has very little external action, but takes the reader on a twisted ride through Olaf’s paranoid imagination. After an extremely tense and bizarre encounter with Jim, Olaf curses and says, “I hope the ship he’s on sinks…I hope he drowns and the sharks eat ‘im.” That night Olaf lies awake in bed imagining that the freighter Jim is due to sail out on springs a leak:

“Ah, yes, the foamy surging waters would surprise that sleeping black bastard of a giant and he would drown, gasping and choking like a trapped rat, his tiny eyes bulging until they glittered red, the bitter water of the sea pounding his lungs until they ached and finally burst…The ship would sink slowly to the bottom of the cold, black, silent depths of these and a shark, a white one, would glide aimlessly about the shut  portholes until it found an open one and it would filter inside and nose about  until it found that swollen, rotten, stinking carcass of the black beast and it would then begin to nibble at the decomposing mass of tarlike flesh, eating the bones clean…Olaf always pictured the giant’s bones as being jet black and shining.

Once or twice, during these fantasies of cannibalistic revenge, Olaf felt a little guilty about all the many innocent people, women and children, all white and blonde who would have to go down into watery graves in order that that white shark could devour the evil giant’s black flesh…But, despite feelings of remorse, the fantasy lived persistently on, and when Olaf found himself alone, it would crowd and cloud his mind to the exclusion of all else, affording him the only revenge he knew.”

Wright’s italicizing of the word “white” makes the shark into an Aryan messenger of the deep, meting out the violent racial “justice” that the impotent Olaf cannot, and unfortunately killing a few innocent blondes in the process.  I’m sure some scholars find the anthropomorphism too extreme, but I like the shark-as-ethnic-cleanser metaphor. It’s original and eccentric, obvious and preachy at the same time. And do we know that “a white one” is actually a great white shark, or is it some super white albino style that is as white as Jim is black, the only creature capable of vanquishing this “mountain” of a man?

But however wild Olaf’s fantasies become,  Wright doesn’t really exaggerate the fear that drives them, and all the wild and furious ways that fear can metastasize. Thinking about racism led to thinking about speciesism and all the hate doled out to sharks in Australia, to the wolves of Idaho, all the creatures made “other” by human beings.  Alice Walker’s essay “Am I Blue?” is the first piece of lit I read that links racism and speciesism. Please check it out here.

Day 209 1/20/14: Get To Know Your Stigmata Toaster

UnknownIn my endless quest to combine the most unlikely texts possible, I have joined in holy linguistic matrimony a pamphlet called “Stigmata and Modern Science” and the user manual to my Oster TSSTTR6329 Toaster. I hope this inspires you to write an experimental poem or at least make some toast.

IMPORTANT SAFEGUARDS: Young children or incapacitated persons should not bear the external marks of the wounds of Christ or the material element of stigmatization, except to the extent prohibited by law.

Warning: Atheists reject the stigmata as an aggressive form of miracle. Never insert your fingers into the holes. Handle with Care.

1. Spontaneously, in ecstasy, and during complete suppression of will and suggestibility, insert the crumb tray into the slot.

2. If living for years without earthly food, lightly tap the sides to dislodge any crumbs lodged in the toast chamber.

3. After the desired level of darkness has been reached the wounds must not vanish.

4. When the wounds bleed they must emit fresh blood. Accumulations create unsanitary conditions and the possibility of fire.

5. The nail-shaped formations of the wounds should be of equal size and freshness and glow more brightly than others.

6. The frozen light will illuminate the crust in the middle of the wound and the brighter edge to assure even browning.

7. English muffins cannot be created by mystical contemplation alone.

8. It is normal for non-Catholics to create an odor.

9. To reduce the risk of electrical shock, bleed during a vision of the Crucifixion and wipe with a damp cloth.


Day 204 1/15/14: Whales Weep Not!

whalesWhat writer could get away with using “whale phallus” in a poem and still make it beautiful?

That hot-blooded Brit D.H. Lawrence of course!

Whales Weep Not!

They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains

the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent.

All the whales in the wider deeps, hot are they, as they urge

on and on, and dive beneath the icebergs.

The right whales, the sperm-whales, the hammer-heads, the killers

there they blow, there they blow, hot wild white breath out of

the sea!

And they rock, and they rock, through the sensual ageless ages

on the depths of the seven seas,

and through the salt they reel with drunk delight

and in the tropics tremble they with love

and roll with massive, strong desire, like gods.

Then the great bull lies up against his bride

in the blue deep bed of the sea,

as mountain pressing on mountain, in the zest of life:

and out of the inward roaring of the inner red ocean of whale-blood

the long tip reaches strong, intense, like the maelstrom-tip, and

comes to rest

in the clasp and the soft, wild clutch of a she-whale’s

fathomless body.

And over the bridge of the whale’s strong phallus, linking the

wonder of whales

the burning archangels under the sea keep passing, back and


keep passing, archangels of bliss

from him to her, from her to him, great Cherubim

that wait on whales in mid-ocean, suspended in the waves of the


great heaven of whales in the waters, old hierarchies.

And enormous mother whales lie dreaming suckling their whale-

tender young

and dreaming with strange whale eyes wide open in the waters of

the beginning and the end.

And bull-whales gather their women and whale-calves in a ring

when danger threatens, on the surface of the ceaseless flood

and range themselves like great fierce Seraphim facing the threat

encircling their huddled monsters of love.

And all this happens in the sea, in the salt

where God is also love, but without words:

and Aphrodite is the wife of whales

most happy, happy she!

and Venus among the fishes skips and is a she-dolphin

she is the gay, delighted porpoise sporting with love and the sea

she is the female tunny-fish, round and happy among the males

and dense with happy blood, dark rainbow bliss in the sea.

Day 164 12/6/13: Taking A Walk in Los Angeles

GreetingsFromLosAngelesNow that my shark class is winding down, now that we’ve discussed the threat of overfishing and the horrors of finning, now that we’ve explicated “The Shark” by Mary Oliver and written about how power pivots on the ability to speak, now that we’ve learned about the wondrous diversity of sharks, their hidden traditions (intrauterine cannibalism) and their supernatural senses, I’ve rounded out the semester with readings about the importance of awareness (David Foster Wallace’s brilliant Kenyon Commencement Address) and action (Derrick Jensen’s Loaded Words: Writing as a Combat Discipline).

I am hoping to plant seeds—something that might take root and grow beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Don’t forget about the natural world. Be present. Get out of yourself. Try to be of service.

I thought I had better follow my own advice and go walking in Los Angeles on an afternoon at the end of the year. The light looked almost stormy streaming from robust clouds, random in its distribution of illumination and shadow.  I decided to walk toward a less-traveled neighborhood, near the newly converted Kadampa Meditation Center where I went to meditate the other night, remembering once how I’d almost rented an apartment near there in an old Spanish building with a ship for a weathervane, hallways full of antiques, and, the landlord revealed with a degree of pride, a ghost.

It’s so interesting that the same street can live multiple lives in the same city—Palmerston, Alexandria, Kenmore—to walk these streets north of Franklin is a different world than their southern extremities. I paused at the Kadampa Center; the formerly Christian church where the burning thorn pierced heart in the stained glass window has been replaced with a lotus flower, and then headed north on Palmerston. I love to look at architecture in Los Angeles. I love the curving, quiet streets where houses can’t make up their minds, yet the incongruities are somehow awkwardly resolved—the Spanish roof sheltering a porch of Corinthian columns. The green shingled house with the curving storybook path. My head felt like a camera that pans, reveals. All I wanted was to walk deeper into a place I did not know, past rambling brick houses with dark Tudor windows whose solemnity is relieved by the reflection of manicured grass.

Climbing a hill, I noticed Christmas lights emitting a steady, secret glow from a blasé hedge while above, on an overhead branch, a Halloween skeleton floated in the breeze—clearly articulated “life-like” skull, skinny mummy arms, and a body that ended abruptly in streaming burlap rags. The arms were wide and fleshless palms open. I’d seen pictures of Jesus in that same attitude of supplication. This skeleton, streaming like a flag in the sudden breeze, naked skull limned with golden light, appeared to be preaching, perhaps to the rosebushes.

I love California, but my early Northeastern life has structured and nurtured my deepest responses to nature. I find myself always drawn to those houses shrouded in tall, green trees because they remind me of the places (once real now memory) that I am afraid to return to, fearing that great undertow of memory will sweep me out to sea. Today I found one such place. The green trees (tall, tall-evergreen and deciduous) seemed less brooding than expectant. When I peered over the curved iron gate, I noticed a half-hidden house. A modest pale green turret with narrow windows, felt monastic, regal and I flashed on the uneven shards of colored glass on the cover of the St. Patrick’s missalette I left on an empty pew a thousand Christmas Eves ago.

But I couldn’t feel sad. I had no need for remembering when everything felt so generous and alive, the trees rising up from the ground dotted with eyeholes, and the sudden blue and white of a house like a bright postcard from Santorini. I thought: Everything keeps changing shape—the streets curve, the houses assume their forms and postures, the tree roots declare themselves busting through the concrete. The memories of all the places that we can never return to, grow like living things in the body, their roofs push at the ribs, their fields unfold, erasing thought.

I kept waiting for the spell to break. Surely all would dissolve into quotidian reality as the light changed.  Yet even as I headed back toward Franklin, past all the apartments and vintage stores turned invisible from being endlessly seen, even as I cursed the errant plastic bag skittering across Vermont Avenue, there by the 7-11, in the rounded nest-shaped bush next to the bus stop, a dozen or more little brown and white birds popped out of the hollows between the branches, all chattering at once, all looking at me. Don’t just survive here, the birds told me sing, sing.

Day 155 11/27/13: Winter Meditation

Meditation is a strange thing. It can take you to some surprising places. There are the meditations when I “go deep” like David Lynch talks about in his book on creativity and meditation “Catching the Big Fish.” Then there are the meditations in which I keep thinking, but more in pictures than in words. Still thoughts. Still coming and going. But pictures–fading like slide shows or lingering like living dreams–actual places I can travel to.

I was listening to some music that is supposed to open the heart. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between healing and shutting down. Both involve a certain kind of closing. So tonight I thought I had better think about opening whatever it was in me that might have closed.

As I sat with my eyes shut, listening to this wordless music, head lolling like the helpless subject of an B-movie hypnotist, I began to smell evergreen trees. A very old and specific scent of Christmas branches wrapped in white paper. My sister Janet was sentimental, a record keeper. When we found a particularly beautiful tree, a full, robust tree, she always clipped a branch from it. Sometime in early January, she would put it away with the ornaments wrapped in white paper. The next year we’d find it rust-colored, the emissary from a previous December, a once glorious now sad and ancient thing. I used to think that the branch was an example of Janet’s excess–that her desire to catalogue and organize and preserve every experience from a movie matinée to a play list from a Bruce Springsteen concert was noble, understandable, but often too much. A gilded lilly. But because Janet died before she was 40 years old, I cannot help but think that  she saved things because some part of her might have wordlessly understood that, as Rilke said, she was meant to “disappear early.”

And then from our childhood house I found myself on a little rise above the pasture. I am standing by the water pump. The night is so quiet and cold and the moon has made everything almost a metallic silver. Even the wood of the gate looks somehow like metal. The moon has a wreath of frost around it. And the stars–I can see them all. The sky is cold. It is so quiet in the New Hampshire night that I can hear the horses chewing the hay in the field. I can hear their lips thudding in the dark. I never want to come back to Los Angeles where I never see stars, where it is never so quiet as to allow a person to hear all the many variations on the word “rustle” where it is never so cold that the water freezes in the pump.

I am so confused about time. Was this so long ago? I was there. I remember the cold light. The little hill and the horses. Maybe eight years ago. I stood in the dark on the little rise and I listened to the horses and saw my own breathing. I looked at the stars. And now I am stunned–not so much that it is over–the horses, the house, the fields, the winter nights that I would volunteer to go out to the barn and fetch the buckets and plunge my hand into the deep scented darkness of the grain bin–all of these pleasures, pure pleasures–but that they ever happened at all.

Part of what meditation does is to help us, through silence, merge with something greater. To step out of language and into that infinite, often blissful place. In those meditations that enter the big silence, I  feel transcendent. Free from language, free from identity, free from linear reality.  Sometimes the darkness seems to move, to part, as if I am traveling through it.

Other times meditation  plunges me into some very specific places. Like the little hill above the pasture. Maybe I was meant to see moments like this as more than “a memory,” but a state of being fully alive. Did I not feel a oneness with all things as I stood listening to the hay move and the tails swish and the hooves stamp? Did I not feel complete as I looked at the moon and the frost? Did I not know a wholeness as rich and true as any mystic when I stood upon that worn hill and listenedwinterscenecharl2–my eyes open in the dark.

Day 152 11/24/13:Poetry Mashup #2: Automatic Sea

Today’s creation is a combined effort from “How to Do Automatic Writing” by Edain McCoy & one of those great old volumes (#13, I believe), from the series The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau entitled “A Sea of Legends.”    (I can’t believe this book is only 85 cents on Amazon. I love the messy early 70s color of the pictures and the illustrations are a nice mixture of Greek antiquities, Medieval woodcuts, modern painting (Paul Klee) and random delights like a photograph from a weird, experimental ballet called Sea Shadow) The automatic writing book is a nice beginner’s guide, and a creative way to bypass the  inner critic or nag one’s spirit guide. I’ve used it once and had a nice conversation (transcribed with my left hand in weird, sprawling ransom note script), with some unknown entity who seemed to have my best interests at heart.

Xeno-escrite: The rare phenomenon of writing in a language unknown to the writer.

Why the deities who live vividly in our minds

cannot be projected onto paper

is uncertain.

Venus could only be produced by the sea,

but the sea had to produce also a being more popular,

more accessible than a goddess.

She appears on the water looking into a mirror

to see if she is closer to becoming a fish.

Allow…energy to flow gently into your writing arm

Some people like to imagine that this is the life-giving energy of a benevolent deity

A soft, dreamy half wake focus.

Pliny wrote that when winter has been severe,

many fish are taken in a state of blindness

& all seas are purified at the full moon.

Asking about the Far Future: Moon phase: Full or early 3rd Quarter

Retrieving Information about the Past: Moon Phase: 3rd or 4th Quarter

Contacting the Dead: Moon Phase: Any

Xeno-glossy: the rare phenomenon of speaking in a language that is unknown to the speaker.

Everything on the earth and in the sky had been listening to the Great Master of Song

and choosing a specific language for itself,

but the fish had been quite helpless.

Never blindly follow any commands but those of your own heart.

The Sirens called for Ulysses, for they had knowledge of the past and future and could give him happiness.

Jonah sank…but as his breath failed,

he began to remember

the blue and shining sky,

the sweet odors of the desert

and the happy dreams of childhood.

Keep practicing until you can go fairly deep at will.

Write your name over and over.

If necessary, write the name of the entity you wish to contact

or write the word WRITE.

When you have received all the communication you want

or if it has stopped of its own volition,

sit in front of a mirror in a darkened room,

repeating the undeciphered tablets

to your reflection.