Day 276 3/29/14: Waiting for the Dead



Waiting for the Dead

Once the fortune-teller shut the black curtain

wound the ticking clock and set the alarm,

assuring no revelation

spilled past the allotted hour.

He held my right wrist and traced

two broadly divergent lines on the edges of my palm.

“You have the ability to transgress boundaries

and enter the world of the dead.”

This I already knew.

The paths inscribed in the body

mirror those I walk in the wooded past—

trails marked with faded red ribbons

blurred by rotting and growing.

I pass the serenity of beaver ponds,

the crude warnings nailed to trees,

the collapsed wedding altar.

But where are the dead?

Should I watch for them

in wilderness

or  feel them

rise and fall in every step?

I hear that the dead often appear

just beyond the borders.

So I follow the cold stone walls

up and down the leaf-strewn hills.

Once I dreamed that they wait for us

at places of transition—the parting of two roads

or the benches of lonely depots.

I remain alert when traveling alone.

They’re attracted to still, late hours

and fragments of their bright voices can be heard

fleeting transmissions

in moments of our greatest joy.

But most often the dead enter through sorrow

that old forgotten gate, past the whorled trees

in a forest of undeciphered lines,

of startled clearings and ever-widening paths.

(I wrote this poem to explore the idea of having a “gift” whatever that might be, and the inescapable burdens that come with it.)

Day 256 3/8/14: The Song Hospital (Pt.2)

“Bring your song to the Song Hospital.” I found the ad at the back of a 1940s magazine on amateur photography, one of many other ads offering the services of “song doctors.” I’d obviously heard the term “script doctor” but song doctor had such poetic possibilities—it made me wonder if songs had the potential to be broken, injured and healed.

This morning I woke up hearing “Save it For Later” in my head and I remembered another album I played and re-played to the point of physical destruction. Not even the most talented song doctors in the nation could have saved this record.

In 1982, my mother and brother and I moved to Ojai, California from a little town in Massachusetts. Everything felt exotic to me, the orange groves across the street, the huge mountains and that summer’s baking heat so different from New England humidity. The heat melted the tapered candles in their very colonial looking candlesticks, until they began to softly droop. School hadn’t started. I stayed inside the shady and cavernous living room, watching Twilight Zone episodes and at night listening to records.

I played Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” endlessly that summer. Moody and spare, the music did not match Ojai’ s pink mountain sunsets and horse ranches and oak groves. Each time I played the record again, my brother would groan and blast “Sex Bomb,” by Flipper to obliterate “Nebraska’s” harmonica, its mournful evocation of Midwest interstates, of killers, war veterans and state troopers:

Me and Frankie laughing and drinking

Nothing feels better than blood on blood

Taking turns dancing with Marie

While the band played Night of the Johnstown Flood

Even when I wasn’t playing “Nebraska,” it played in my head. I had an orange cat named Vincent. Late one afternoon I found his body by the side of the road. I wasn’t sure how he’d died, but I decided not to burden my mother with the news right away. So I buried Vincent in the overgrown backyard, thinking as I wielded the shovel that digging a grave by moonlight, did feel like something out of the black and white world of “Nebraska,” that I’d finally begun to live the songs that until then I’d merely memorized:

Everything dies baby that’s a fact

Maybe everything that dies someday comes back

By September, “Nebraska” became unplayable. The two sides somehow merged, melting into each other until the songs spoke to one another in an avant-garde dialogue.

I took a strange pride in this, as if I’d taken music to some new extreme, the frontier of teenage loyalty. I’d passed into the grooves themselves.

I’m not so reverent, so fanatical anymore, but as a writer music remains to me a vital companion. To evoke a particular mood right, I do what so many writers do. I play the same song over and over. And I am amazed at how durable these songs are, how long the spell can be stretched out without losing its power, how a good song can reach into so many different directions at once, each of which is true—a love song is an otherworldly invocation of the next world and a world-weary reflection about being a cocaine-fueled rock star all at the same time.

When the wind blows and the rain feels cold

With a head full of snow

With a head full of snow

If I listen to “Moonlight Mile,” by the Rolling Stones, I exist at once in two places: the actual road I am trying to evoke on the page, a blue road in the country, that I’ve walked many times and another road where the dead travel, one that seems familiar beyond memory. As long as the song is playing, I can see both roads, blurring and vanishing into each other, and I am rooted to the ground, echoing in the emptiness of the air.

Day 255 3/7/14: The Song Hospital (Pt. 1)

I’ve been listening to the same song for three days. No news. No movies. Nothing. Just one song. In my car. In my apartment. I want to see what lies beyond the fog of the too familiar, beyond the edge of boredom. Can a song heard so many times become new again? Will the ending sound less wistful when I know it’s going to start again for the fortieth time?

The song is “Save it For Later” by the English Beat. In the 80s, I kept a radio vigil for it, along with “Talk of the Town,” by The Pretenders. I saw the English Beat perform it at “New Wave Day” at the US Festival in 1982, the same day I saw the Clash and A Flock of Seagulls. It had been a long hot day of rock in San Bernadino, but when the English Beat came out, all skinny and New Wave, I felt reborn.


The song is fast. The unfolding spell of memory is slow. It’s the summer of 1983 and I’m in the country, at my father’s house waiting for a letter. I can feel the cold grass under my feet. When I hear a car on the road I shade my eyes with a biography of Keith Moon and look out toward the mailbox. The song won’t give me any more than that. Just a loop. Sun and cold grass. Keith Moon. Waiting.


 I’ve heard it 100 times and there are still lines I cannot decipher: “My seven seas are rotten through? The seven seas I’m walking through?” But I’m afraid to look up the words. If I know the muddled parts, maybe I’ll lose the grass and sun and whatever feeling rushed through me years ago when I waited for the song, for the letter to set me free.


When my father drank too much, he played songs over and over. As a child, I once played “Yellow Submarine” about 35 times at his request.  But my father shattered this record one summer when he played “Against the Wind” by Bob Seger fifty times in a row. In the line “deadlines and commitments, what to leave in, what to leave out,” Bob Seger had effortlessly channeled my father’s daily struggle at the typewriter banging out stories about ax murderers and Boston politicians, about defrocked priests and lady blacksmiths. Combined with the potent melancholy of “drifters days” and “seeking shelter” “Against the Wind” conjured a spell against which my father was powerless.

I could do nothing but sit with him at the bar he’d created off the kitchen, under the genuine wagon wheel lights, and dime store dream catchers drinking cold well water and listening to “Against the Wind,” until some of my cynicism melted. Upstairs, I slid into a creaky bed in a room cluttered with newspapers all of which contained my father’s stories.

I guess I lost my way, oh so many roads….

Each time I came home, I cut some of the stories out of those papers. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t dream. I couldn’t find the crooked scissors I usually used to excise his words from the dry bulk of the Boston Herald. I heard the shuffling of slippers downstairs. I could hear my father cough and open the cupboards rooting around for crackers.


I’m older now and still running


I listened and somewhere in that slim fragment of darkness, waiting for the song to begin again, I felt the interminable open out into something vast and tender.


I’m 17. “Save it For Later” comes on at the Halloween party where I am dressed as a slutty vampire, my hair electrified with Dippity-Do. The guy I’m with is 24. He’s embarrassed to be at a high school party. I sit on the edge of the chair where he’s sitting.  Cold saliva pools around my fake fangs. I rest my hand on his shoulder, in silent rapture. When the song is over, we’ll go into my friend’s room, but not a moment before.

 At the moment Ranking Roger sings Don’t bother trying to explain…Just hold my hand while I come to a decision on it

I want to hold his hand. To see if he notices.  To see if I can finally match song with world.

Day 250 3/2/14: If You’re Feeling Lost….

This is a poem by Robert Frost called “Directive.” 

Back out of all this now too much for us,

Back in a time made simple by the loss

Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off

Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,

There is a house that is no more a house

Upon a farm that is no more a farm

And in a town that is no more a town.

The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you

Who only has at heart your getting lost,

May seem as if it should have been a quarry—

Great monolithic knees the former town

Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.

And there’s a story in a book about it:

Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels

The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,

The chisel work of an enormous Glacier

That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.

You must not mind a certain coolness from him

Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.

Nor need you mind the serial ordeal

Of being watched from forty cellar holes

As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.

As for the woods’ excitement over you

That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,

Charge that to upstart inexperience.

Where were they all not twenty years ago?

They think too much of having shaded out

A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.

Make yourself up a cheering song of how

Someone’s road home from work this once was,

Who may be just ahead of you on foot

Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

The height of the adventure is the height

Of country where two village cultures faded

Into each other. Both of them are lost.

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself

By now, pull in your ladder road behind you

And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.

Then make yourself at home. The only field

Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,

Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,

The playthings in the playhouse of the children.

Weep for what little things could make them glad.

Then for the house that is no more a house,

But only a belilaced cellar hole,

Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

Your destination and your destiny’s

A brook that was the water of the house,

Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,

Too lofty and original to rage.

(We know the valley streams that when aroused

Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)

I have kept hidden in the instep arch

Of an old cedar at the waterside

A broken drinking goblet like the Grail

Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,

So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.

(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)

Here are your waters and your watering place.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Day 248 2/28/14: “All Places Exist in the Body”

Some truths we think we know. Then we actually live them. For me, one such truth is: “All places exist in the body.”  I first fell in love with this concept in 1995 at U.C. Berkeley when a poetry teacher of mine mentioned it.

In the class, I wrote a short piece about a guy I’d been absolutely nuts about when I was very young—this poem was economical, but full of dreamy sensuality and ribs rising, and concluded with a kind of hazy philosophizing that nothing was really lost if “all things exist in the body.” I changed “places” to “things” thinking there was really no difference.

But I didn’t know then that remembering with the body means more than a breathless nostalgic lust, or the addled mind throwing the mostly forgotten body a bone.

All places exist in the body. The distinction matters.

When my father died, leaving the house I had known and loved and returned to for 44 years to his mentally unbalanced wife, I became an exile. We’re all exiles. We were born exiles, after all. But we live here a while and we forget. Then someone dies or the door forever closes on some beloved place.

I learned that losing a place does not feel the same as losing a person.  And while I know better than to apply linear timelines to grief, when the initial shock and frequent, exhausting crying jags over my father subsided, the house, the fields, the woods moved in.

They took residence in my body in a way that memories of the dead never have. The opposite of an exorcism, a new settling began. I now understood that properly remembered, a well was also a throat, that doors were breasts, that the lifting of old latches, the bark of disappeared trees, all the obscure pleasures of warm mud and cold stone had to have some place to go. But not to become projections–the ever-thinning, forever looping films of the mind. These things had to go where they could grow, a place where all the restless spirits of habit could find their place.

This kind of remembering, this very physical presence that aligns the outside with the inside, so much that teeth take on the silent weight of stone walls, this kind of memory-as-occupation feels at times almost supernatural. I tried to tame it with a poem:

A moon-bright field raises hairs on the arms.

Wrists go numb remembering dark brooks.

Horses become instinct, thirst.

What it can no longer return to

in the old way, the body rebuilds, reclaims

as if to say: there was always only here.

Is this wholeness at last?

The translation of all loved things

to their essence

The barn less brick

than silence that agreed for a time

to gather itself into manger and beam

The poem ends, but the house still shows up. What does it want of me? There is no danger of forgetting.

Maybe only a simple transmission of information, the declaration of an obscure fact:

On the cellar walls, long ago strangers recorded snowfalls in soft pencil, along with recipes for elderberry wine. We added to these our own statistics of startling snowfalls, how much fell, how little stayed. In the barn, the births and deaths of horses are written in blue on the inside door of a hay strewn cupboard.

I don’t know what this means. Carried in the body, it no longer even feels like a memory, just a code that if finally broken, might save someone else.

Day 239 2/19/14: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

9780805092998_custom-ce72d9f30660107dc01a119cafb41a38ac7afe31-s2-c85“Amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes. “But also heading toward extinction are one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles and sixth of all birds.”

I really enjoyed (if enjoy is the word for such a book) “Field Notes from a Catastrophe,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s book on climate change. I am eager to read her latest work “The Sixth Extinction.”  Check out Kolbert’s recent interview  with Terry Gross in which she discusses taxi-cab yellow frogs, ocean acidification, disappearing bats and the latest science on the state of the planet.

Day 190 1/1/14: A Matter of Life and Death

For the second year in a row, I spent New Year’s Eve at a Buddhist mediation center with friends. This is a tradition that I never really consciously initiated, but one that I highly recommend. It is nice to enter a new year in the silence of meditation or following the rhythmic drone of prayer in a softly lit room while people are lighting fireworks or firing guns or generally acting like madmen in the dark outside.

The monk was funny. After talking about resolutions (regular flossing, fitness) and the power of the mind, he recommended a meditation that appealed to me: “I may die today.” “Or,” he said, looking out at the hundred or so people filling the tiny hall, “it’s likely that some of you might die this year. Not everyone will make it back here next New Year’s Eve.” This focus on death is designed to help us remember what’s important, which in Buddhism is resolving to become a better person and through this discovering some sort of peace which we can share with others.

Later Connie, Gail and talked about the countdown to my descent in the shark cage in South Africa in June. I made jokes about dying in the shark cage, because to joke about death is to at once acknowledge it and ward it off. It would be too perfect, too absurd for me to be eaten by a white shark when the whole point is to live to tell about it, to describe what it’s like to meet this old friend, this old fear, this dream human face to conical snout.What do their eyes look like, really? What’s the exact nature of their blackness, or up close are they really pure black at all?

Today I took down my brand new calendar and filled in all the numbered days until my shark trip, my uneven purple digits scrawled over the white space of unlived time, dwarfing the sensible preprinted numbers of the calendar. What are the odds, I wondered, that I won’t live until June? What is the numerical value of certainty or uncertainty?  I thought of the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”: “Every step of the way/We walk the line/Your days are numbered/So are mine.” And I thought of my favorite piece of Buddhist scripture, “The Five Remembrances:”

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Sometimes I think that more difficult even than death itself (which promises, at least in my view, a degree of contentment, which brings with it the fulfillment of work that here remained unfinished, which is a state of perspective and unity), is the fourth remembrance.

Inescapable change, the separation from people and places, things that I am sometimes fooled into believing are permanent simply because they endure for twenty or forty years. Maybe later I will decide that the infirmity and indignity of old age is tougher, or that facing death whether it comes in the form of a shark, or dark, rapidly dividing cells, defies my attempts to tame it with philosophy. I don’t know.

But I do know that in a world in which everything dissolves and departs, we have to have some ballast, be it a prayer or tradition or the habit of matching every day with a number to make life feel at last, real to us.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipen

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.