Two Pieces

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Poetry

Welcome Home

Everywhere you go,
silence follows.
Peace and quiet
have this down
to a science.
They send out their tails
to watch and record
everything that happens
while you’re out there
looking for that certain
something
someone
somewhat
somewhere–
trying to get better.
They blend in undercover
and look like exactly
what’s happening.
They’re armed with technology.
Don’t look for them, though.
This isn’t the time
for paranoia.

Just be prepared:
when you do finally give up
and come home
there may be a lot
of silly posters hanging
everywhere.

It’s just because
we love you.

Freedom’s Power

“Deuce!”
Hafiz exclaims.

“May I remind you
that a regulation ping pong table
has an overall length of 8.99 feet.
And it reflects sound very well.
You don’t have to yell, Hafiz.”

My last shot had veered off
into a blatant nowhere
like a heat-seeking rocket
aimed at the hero
of an action movie.

It was bad.

But Hafiz is not listening to me.
Instead, he is performing his shuffle,
which is part the Robot dance,
part the Moonwalk,
and mostly a poor rendition
of Chi Chi Rodriquez.

Then he takes the ball,
bounces it off the table
and sets it on the palm
of his hand like it’s about
to turn into a bird and fly off.
He is holding his breath,
squinting at the ball,
waiting for some inner cue.

“It’s ping pong, Hafiz.
Serve the damn ball.”

He is wearing a sombrero
with laminated pictures
of the greatest ping pong players
of the last seven generations
hanging all around him.
They are all making grotesque faces
with varying degrees of success,
like they’re at a Maori training camp.
The pictures click a little when he moves his head
and they knock together.

He twirls his paddle in his hand.
He sways on the balls of his feet,
contemplating his pending serve.
He is crouched like a stalking puma
for ten whole seconds before
finally he rises out of his stance and says,

“Be very careful, my friend.
If you mope around all day
asking the Beloved to make you ordinary,
one day you will sprout feathers,
you will see through time,
and your words will move nations.
Babies and mountain lions
will sit quietly beside you.
For Love, this is what is meant
by every day.”

“Serve the damn ball.”

He shrugs his shoulders,
throws it up in the air
and then darts in three ways at once
while the ball is on its way down.
The ball flys to my left, hits the table,
leaps forward with a burst of speed
and curls to my right.
I’m wrong-footed but suddenly
I don’t care. I swing the paddle
as if restraint no longer has meaning to me.
I put my whole life into it.
I just catch the ball with the edge of my paddle
and launch it straight up into a maze
of suspended lighting systems,
miniature trusses and fire sprinkler piping.
It rattles around like a pinball
off of conduits, steel wing-dings, speakers,
security cameras, bar joists and spider webs,
before finally dropping out
of the ceiling jungle on the far side of the room,
like a fresh robin’s egg,
right into the corner pocket
of an empty billiards table
and disappears.

The ping pong saints are swaying.
“What a fine piece of skill,” he says.
“I would say–
that is your advantage.”

Then he runs for the opposite wall
and leaps through the air
like a ballerino,
while I marvel at what
the purity of my own feeling
has begot.

Ideas About the Principles of Life

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Reflections / Science

One of the things I think is that the world we see is an afterimage, or representation, of an invisible one. I don’t really know the details such that I could draw them out, but I do think this. And even though there may be no objective merit to my thinking like this, it is the conception of the universe that resonates most truly with me.

There are several of ways to conceive of what I’ve just said and I think all of them are to some extent valid. For instance, one thing I think is that physical matter of the type our senses can detect is like the skin shed by the invisible and ever-moving snake of energetic exchange that forms the fabric of the observable world. Not that anything is static, per se. But what appears static is the product of the invisible and continuous motion of existence. This is not really controversial.

Another way to conceive of it, which is more controversial in some corners, is to suggest that the types of organization and patterns found in the physical universe are replications, or expressions, of underlying truths or realities about the way things are and must be and cannot otherwise be. In other words, the physical world is a representation of what exists in silence, outside of all motion and polarity, outside of time. This is the idea that what arises in form is the coming into being of what is formless.

While this idea is not accepted by the scientific mainstream, it is generally accepted in religious circles, where (unfortunately) it is generally expressed in just one particular form: the idea of a supernatural God. This is in my opinion a very limited form of the idea. In particular, this God often possesses traits undesirable in one another– judgmentalism, elitism, selfishness, capriciousness, etc. What I think of as formless has nothing to do with such a God, and everything to do with suggesting the formless is as natural as the formed–that they in fact are inseparable and intimately linked– and therefore neither one is “supernatural.” When one says a thing is supernatural they are in essence saying it is magical. Its effects are the whimsical movements of a power that transcends the natural laws of this world.

I don’t believe in such a whimsical power, but I do believe the limits of the natural laws of this world are only incompletely understood, so this places me in something of a no man’s land. I don’t believe what I think can rightly be categorized as either religious or scientific per se.

One of the most interesting things we’ve discovered in this universe is ourselves. To say it another way, the most interesting phenomenon I think we have found so far is life. I like to read about what we call life because I sense that, like my vague and weakly antithetical thought system, life doesn’t quite fit the molds given it. The extremes are reductionism and physicalism on the one hand, and bearded, lightning-throwing gods on the other. It appears to me that life defies them both.

To me, the general idea of physicalism is that nature is a closed system of mutually interchangeable matter and energy that unfolds in accordance with natural laws. Said another way, it is a system of objective and measurable quantities whose unfolding takes place without the influence of any external (or supernatural) causes. Reductionism is the idea that complicated things can be explained in terms of their far simpler parts, and that very simple physical propensities–when allowed to behave as they must, in conformance to the natural physical laws of this universe–can explain everything. They can explain life, for instance.

I would say that very generally speaking then the view of the world that is considered scientific is one that says everything we see can be explained by the operation of fundamental principles, or natural laws, upon fundamental quantities, e.g. upon the smallest bits of energy, the smallest bits of matter, the smallest ingots of space, and the smallest slices of time.

Key to all of this is the idea held in the scientific sphere that there should be no resort to any external organizing factor or intelligence. Though the fundamental parameters of physical existence appear to be quite precisely tuned to produce novelty and life, it can be said that we simply haven’t learned how the system of nature works yet, and so one day we will be able to explain those beguiling initial conditions without resort to any external condition as well. The most important thing in the scientific explanation of the universe is to provide a plausible explanation of its current state, expressed in terms of the very simplest, most concise mathematical laws and measurable quantities possible.

In such a conception of life, all biology should be reducible to physics, as physics is inherently more fundamental than chemistry and biology. There are in fact countless examples of this. The growth of the human cell, for instance, has been shown to occur in very regular periods of growth and rest, and in researching this a protein containing copper was found that modulates the naturally-occurring sinusoidal cycle of redox potential in water such that the modified cycle has a period of 24 minutes. Exactly 60 such cycles equals a twenty-four hour day. Living matter in other words, has built a clock from the physics of things more or less “laying around”: amino acids, copper, and water. This clock functions because of the action of the fundamental laws of nature on the fundamental quantities of nature, meaning that it necessarily functions as it does because it cannot do otherwise, given the physical properties of the atoms in the system.

Similarly, it has been shown that E. Coli bacteria resist the stress of heat–which causes otherwise precisely folded proteins to come apart–by forming a particular, additional heat-resistant protein that acts as a brace to keep other proteins from wilting in the heat. The feedback loop in regulating the production of the heat-resistant protein is quite amazing, and is also at least conceptually understood in terms of the underlying physics. For instance, the shape and composition of the heat-resistant protein is surely one which, unlike that of other proteins, is less affected by an increase in temperature. It takes a lot of resources to make these proteins, though, so they’re not made all the time. What happens is that the gene that calls for the heat-resistant protein has the opposite problem: it produces RNA that does wilt at safe temperatures. So even though the cell is always producing the RNA molecule that contains the genetic sequence for the heat-resistant protein, generally speaking it wilts and is subsumed before it can be used to actually transcribe the protein. When it gets warmer, the RNA doesn’t wilt, and great quantities of the heat-resisting protein are manufactured very swiftly. All of the properties of the molecules that make this system work can (and should) be explainable in terms of the underlying physics of the molecules in question. In other words, those molecules are what they are necessarily–they cannot be something else–because of their unique arrangement of atoms and their fundamental quantities.

I find this type of thing absolutely fascinating. The complexity and uncanny perfection at work here boggles the mind. That aside, an important question is whether or not the operation of the fundamental principles of nature (natural laws) upon the fundamental quantities of nature (things like the strength of gravity, the charge of the electron, the mass of the proton, etc.) could explain all that we observe today. The answer in many ways is yes, but there is one very interesting facet of this process that is not reducible solely to those fundamentals, and that is the genetic code. Something very interesting is happening continuously in living organisms, and that is this: linear information contained in the genetic material (e.g. DNA) results in the assembly, by molecular machines, of three dimensional proteins. There are only four bases in the genetic code, and yet this is sufficient to produce 20+ amino acids in varying combinations and lengths, yielding a vast array of possible proteins.

It is a code in the sense that within the context of the living organism, particular sequences of DNA “code” for particular proteins. There are molecular machines in between the world of DNA and the world of proteins that have a specific relationship between the two worlds, a relationship that is not necessary because of the operation of the fundamental laws of nature upon the fundamental quantities of the universe. In other words, the bridge between the world of DNA and the world of proteins is one of meaning. It doesn’t have to be that way physically–it could be some other way entirely. A house key certainly depends upon the natural bond between atoms to function, but the shape of the house key is an arbitrary one that must correspond to the lock, and there is nothing necessary about the shapes that are chosen. A code is in essence a two-sided key–an interface between symbols on the one hand, and meanings on the other.

If I was deposited in an alien civilization and I said, “Oh, shit,” there would be nothing in the physics of the sounds I produced to suggest the meaning I ascribe to them. That’s because language is a code. Many languages use very different sounds to convey a particular meaning. This is what the genetic code is like, along with many other codes that have been discovered to be actively at work within living matter. The meaning (protein) that results from a particular symbol (a gene) does not necessarily arise from the physical properties of the atoms and molecules involved. It has more or less been determined that the biological system of information (e.g. DNA) and its corresponding meanings (e.g. synthesized proteins) represent a quantity or property at work in the physical world that is neither reducible, nor measurable, and thus is fundamental in some way.

What we call life therefore cannot be understood in terms of physicalism or reductionism, though it is remarkably adept at leveraging the basic and inalterable properties of nature’s fundamental elements to its use. There is a really interesting question here about whether or not life itself could be producing content in the universe that is not only new, but fundamental. This idea is remarkable to me. It suggests that life could be producing content in the universe that is not only new, but irreducible and necessary to explain the phenomenal world as we objectively comprehend it. Creation in other words, is ongoing, through the manifest dynamics of unity and relationship.

While it is not my aim in this piece to leap to the assertion that the presence of codes and irreducible information in biological systems implies the existence of a God or gods–for I have added nothing to one side or the other of that discussion–I do wish to point out one analogue between what we observe at work in biological life, and the idea expressed in A Course of Love that we, as beings, share a common root—a unity of being—that is made known through the continuous and open-ended exploration of relationship. Life is in essence “revealed” through relationship. For myself there is a beautiful reconciliation here of the idea that the visible and the invisible are echoes of one another, and that all life represents the unfolding of simple principles that are not only natural, but eternal. What we see around us, in other words, are the reflections in material form of those specific and timeless principles which are inherent to the reality of being, and thus to the reality of life.

* Some of the ideas here were taken from two papers by Marcello Barbieri, one entitled “Biosemiotics: a New Understanding of Life” and a second entitled “Origin and Evolution of the Brain.”

** The E. Coli description was taken from the book Microcosm by Carl Zimmer, which is a fascinating read.

Grappling With the New

comments 52
Reflections

I’ve been in a different space most of this year– different than before I mean. Don’t ask before what: I don’t know. Maybe the stars pulled a fast one on me. Maybe my memories got together with my dreams and staged an intervention. Maybe something fell away I don’t need anymore and it made room for something new.

What I know is I’ve got this bug I want to be a writer, which I know nothing about being, and I came to the conclusion in the spring that the next step was to work on publishing some stories in literary journals and magazines. Nobody told me to do this, but it just seemed obvious suddenly. I’m glad to have committed to this because ever since– besides finding myself on the aspiring creative person’s roller coaster of mania, denial, reflection, madness, depression, and ecstasy, all of which cycle through in about a ten minute time span– I’ve been focused much more clearly on the task at hand. In truth it has kind of taken me over day-by-day. One could equally say I’ve given myself to it.

This of course can be a source of trepidation. There’s a risk in giving way to something: maybe it won’t pan out. But the truth is I think we each have a pretty good innate sense of what we ought to be giving ourselves to. Announcing a campaign to become an Olympic swimmer isn’t even remotely on my radar. Working more deliberately at writing feels natural. Asides from chewing me up and spitting me out, this commitment has brought into being some interesting discoveries. That’s the beautiful return of a commitment.

For starters, I think less. This may not strike you as a good thing, but [I think] it is. One of the beautiful aspects of creative work is that it’s open-ended, foreign, and ambiguous. You have to actually go out there into it and explore it and touch it and let it show you what it is, so regardless of how I may view myself as a person– in light of one philosophy or another, in light of past choices and what I think I’ve figured out about this life– it doesn’t really matter. Resume counts for nothing here. There’s only the desire and the way it peels you open.

I’ve also noticed that this peeling open doesn’t feel very spiritual, in the sense that it’s more of an immersion into the experience of it. I’m not seeking to understand something, is what I think I mean. At times it feels like a very grasping and desperate thing– at others a delicious and sublime one. But these are just states of mind passing through it. When I’m writing I don’t feel any of those conditions. They come later when I’m confronted with how very little I know about the outer process of becoming a writer– that you have to research the various journals and what they publish, that there is a way to handle oneself in this arena, that it takes a great deal of time to identify potential outlets for your work, and that you must keep track of what you’ve submitted to who, and adhere to differing preferences and rules at every turn. At first it was daunting but I’ve slowly settled into it– I’m very good with spreadsheets!– and it has been a wonderful opportunity to experience that awkwardness that comes with encountering an altogether new experience, and to do so without expectation or judgment.

Not that I’ve pulled it off exactly, but I’ve understood that if I am to enjoy this, then certainly those must go by the wayside. It has given me the chance to experience more directly the idea that the process of creative becoming is an eternal dance with the new, and that what remains “after” a spiritual path is this unnameable engagement with things. With yourself. In my moments of encountering it without fear of failure, which come and go, it suggests to me how we can be both complete as beings, and absolutely lost in the unknown at the same time. That feels right to me. Sometimes we hope our spiritual path will allow us to “achieve” some vantage point from which we can rest indefinitely, but engagement with the power and the presence and the life within us compels an ongoing exploration. Of course we must rest. But our spiritual paths are not mansions we construct off in the mountains to which we retire. They must be relevant to unfolding the love we carry within us.

A downside is that work submitted for publication can’t have been previously shown, so I can’t publish here in this space what I’ve been working on. I hope one day to be able to link to a publication or two, but in the meanwhile the worlds must be somewhat distinct. It has been hard to spend time writing and to also find time to produce meaningful posts of the sort I have in the past, but I think this too will ebb and flow.

I’m happy to share that I’ve had an inkling of validation– a nudge along the way if you will– as I found out that one story I submitted earlier this year to a competition was selected as a finalist. Somehow that has made all the difference. That and the lovely encouragement of friends, for which I am profoundly grateful, and which has provided astonishing nourishment. It is quite amazing how little we require to sustain us, when who we are is not really at stake. Only the need to give it away.

The Games of the Thirty-First Olympiad

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Flash Fiction

Shakti Ingenue began his spiritual quest during a commercial break in the Games of the Thirty-First Olympiad. Having just witnessed Katie Ledecky clean house in the women’s 800m freestyle, during which time he had consumed two-thirds of a beer and half a mushroom pesto pizza, he was riding a high and not being realistic about what it was he was hoping to accomplish. Thoughts were colliding willy-nilly in his mind. An entire spectrum of personal conundrums and opportunities was becoming clear to him.

The universe was opening up like a flower.

The absence of qualifying swimmers from the nation of India, for instance–such a vast and ancient nation ought surely to be capable of producing one world class swimmer!– had somehow fired a subculture of neurons living in his brain that were familiar with evolutionary biology. What his vast neural complex had concluded, was that if there was a yoga competition in the Olympics, Indian athletes would probably kick some ass on a Ledeckian scale.

He pictured himself seated quietly in an auditorium full of world class vipassana meditators wearing loose-fitting clothing. Like a judo robe. What you would do, he realized, is sit perfectly still without moving a muscle until you either won, or died. He couldn’t tell if he would have a slight smile on his face for the judges, or just look bored. Then he was reminded that some yogis liked to balance upside down on their hands, or standing on one foot, and he bogged down in the details, like how the competition would be judged. Faced with such a gargantuan and delicious problem, he lost focus on his spiritual quest entirely and shifted his mission to developing a technology that would objectively score the performance of world class yogis.

The television became a blur in the background.

Shakti realized it was one thing to bend your torso in half backwards while balancing your body on one hand, and quite another to be completely at peace in the same instant. The real winners would be blissed right out while contorted into pretzel-like geometries symbolic of man’s ascent out of the clutches of personal unconsciousness. The pose would have a pre-determined level of difficulty, but it would be wasted if certain biometrics were not achieved.

Maybe they could wear an electrified suit, like the fencers did, only it would need to be more like a leotard– something stretchy and virtually non-existent that would measure heart rate, brain waves, and blood pressure. He would develop a head band that could measure endorphin release. You would need to track the electromagnetic potential of the skin, and the heat generated by the palm of each hand.

While Shakti watched this year’s crop of pole vaulters fling themselves up into the sky, he took it one step further and realized what you really needed was a device for measuring chakra activity. That was the real enigma. This was a frontier that Shakti Ingenue could really get into exploring. Aargh! If only he had studied physics at the university!

But what about a team competition?! You could have a device that generated entangled pairs of photons, and pairs of yogis would systematically defeat Bell’s Inequality by modulating the entangled photons as they whizzed through their energy fields!

He sketched out the experiment on a sheet of paper. He drew a box and labeled it “Entangled Pair Generator” and then he drew some lines with arrows to represent the photons. Then he tried to draw the yogis seated placidly along the route. Geez! His drawing skills were really lacking. They were utterly piss-poor. The yogi’s noses kept turning out bulbous-looking and facing the wrong way on their faces. After three aborted sketches he looked up and realized they had cut to men’s volleyball. A gigantic man in knee-pads was clenching his fists and screaming vein-popping encouragement to his teammates. He had ten kills already. People were diving everywhere but they couldn’t stop him.

It was incredible. Shakti couldn’t stop watching.

While the Olympians dove and flailed, the pizza kicked in and his eyes began to feel heavy. Fatigue is millions and millions of cells ganging up on you– telling you to sit quietly so they can get back to what they were doing the night before. He was forced to concede. He brushed his teeth and had a glass of water, then went to bed. He dreamed about yogis diving all over a field, trying to catch a butterfly, but they couldn’t do it. The butterfly was very lithe.

When he awoke the next day, he was hungry for breakfast. He put some bread in the toaster and brewed some tea. His residual thoughts of a yoga competition in the Olympics were dull-seeming and distant. They weren’t there at all, actually. He had thirty minutes to shake off the weekend and remember who he was: a man with a job; a museum curator; the son of a mechanic.

A very normal man, with poor stretching ability, who was the perfect child of everything there is.

Take Me Out to the Ballpark

comments 26
Reflections

The first thing I noticed at the Red Sox game last night was the craft of it: the subtlety, the precision, the angles, and the matching shoes the entire grounds crew wore. You sense it immediately: there’s a deep knowledge of cosmic forces that has taken up residence in ballparks all across the world. Like most things, you have to know what’s happening to understand it. You have to let yourself know what’s happening. You can’t just glean it from looking around and drawing inferences—you’ll end up insane, you’ll start to question everything. You’ll beg the person next to you to be reasonable. It can’t be that, can it? Not really. It can’t be like this. This. Whatever this is.

The local television reporter holds a black wand in his hand and makes his speech into thin air, smiling and gesticulating with the animation of a professional. This is important. He touches a hand to the ear piece. He nods. He does it all over again. You take the time to do this just right. It’s a night game, thunder heads threatening, no time for tomfoolery. You do it again if that’s what it takes.

Three guys near home plate are raking dirt over the chalk outline of the batter’s box, then sweeping the lines clean, then raking over more dirt. They’re making progress, swiveling their hips to get the angle right, dragging dirt over the lines, sweeping them off. It must be some new-fangled chalk they got. Chalk all the way down at just the right places, so it doesn’t matter how many times you brush it. It just stays right there. You don’t chalk the field anymore, you reveal the chalk. You take what’s always been there, and make it plain.

They’ve got a German shepherd lying down in the infield, paws out, chin on the grass. She knows what’s going on. Everyone else knows what’s going on. So you better just accept it: you know what’s going on, too. This is ancient. This is important. They bring the kids around in their size 2 numbered jerseys and give them a spray can so they can pretend they’re shellacking the rubber on the pitcher’s mound. Then two guys with the real cans and a set of towels go to work. Spraying, brushing—always touching the rubber ingot, the point of origin, with the clean side of the towel.

There’s an order to this. There’s a deep relationship with invisible forces. You can see it. Your part matters.

In the batter’s boxes, after they reveal the chalk, they bring out bags of the special dirt, pour a little on the end of a white plastic snow shovel—it has to be that one—and fling it into a fine cloud of dust that settles down on top of all the rest. The guy with the shovel, he knows just how to do it. You whirl the shovel around, but you do it under-handed. You don’t mock the hitters who’ll be coming through later. You don’t smile or give an eye this is anything but hard work, the work that must be done. I can’t understand it, but this is what it is. You surrender to it. Your part matters. It’s a bag of magic dirt from down below, under the field. They said a few words down there first probably, in quiet, to build the mojo.

They spread some more of the magic dust in the infield. I think maybe it’s to dry the top layer, because we had some sprinkles. Then they bring out the hoses and wet it all down, starting on one side, and working their way across, so that’s not it. You can’t think your way through this. What needs to be done, needs to be done. You better get on board.

Buchholz, the Texan, he’s having a tough go this year. He’s gotta’ get right with everything that is, but you don’t do that in one outing. It’s a road you hoe. You show up. The forces whirl and you stay in there, face inside your glove, staring down your pitches. His wind-up is awful slow and they steal third—did we get him!? I thought we got him!—and the one from first fills the void at second, standing up. The forces are turning, tumbling. It’s too late now to go back. We gave something away there. The gods saw it. They cleave off a base hit and two runs score. We’re in a hole now. We’re laboring. You can hear the Bud Lights cracking open in the gloom.

Then our catcher steps up and rips one down the right field line like the way I hit a nine iron, fizzing off towards the boundary, whistling like a firecracker, and no loft. Perfect. The park has an ancient design, and the ball clears the fence the only place that it possibly could on a drive like that one. Leon knows this. You can’t go to the well too often, but we did everything right tonight. We made all the right moves.

The rookie they called up from the farm team, he sees how to do it. Benintendi. Slaps a double out into the grass and it’s all even again. If he can do it, I can do it, says Betts. We go into the lead.

Time for the wave. Gimme’ a bag o’ them peanuts.

In the seventh they get a base runner. They hit a chopper straight for second and Pedroia runs to his right, scoops the ball up backhand with his glove and waggles it right back out like an egg. Bogaerts is hovering near second like a good idea, waiting for it. He catches it, drags his toe across the bag, hops away from the slide and fires to first. It’s a dance. That’s all this is. A dance.

But the magic is deep and inscrutable. In the eighth we walk three guys in a row and the energy turns. Bases loaded, no outs, the go-ahead run at the plate. Out comes Ziegler and his side-arm. You do anything you can to break the energy. We watch, stunned, as he throws ten pitches for three strike outs and across the river, they see the skies shudder. (See what I mean by watching the video here.) We come unglued. The lid is off and there’s no going back.

The ninth is a formality. It ends in a dance. What did you expect? When we reach the car the skies open up—lightning crackles over the city. Rain falls. The crew will be up all night planning the steps for tomorrow’s game. Figuring out the dirt. The chalk. The tarpaulins. Where the kids will walk. The music. The dance.

The Sunlight and the Silence

comments 45
Flash Fiction

A cabin in the woods sounds infinitely better than a shack in the city, which is exactly why I went–to trade in the grime and the grind for the sunlight and the silence. I sold it to myself as two nights and three days. You get these big ideas. You get these big ideas and they carry you along. You move from one to the next like you’re hopping from stone to stone across a shallow pan of nothing at all. You don’t even know what the big deal would be if you stepped into that inch of water. Just that you’d have to hang your socks on the line or something. Just that you’d lose the game you were playing. Sometimes in the parking lot late at night when all the cars are gone you jump from sleeper to sleeper down one side of the lot, in and out of the lamplight. You wobble, careen, catch an edge– step down and touch the nothing, the pavement.

Nothing happens.

No one’s even watching.

In one scene from the brochure I used to sell myself on the trip, I was meditating placidly in sheets of morning light, stirring a galaxy of dust motes with my breath and my whirling chakras. It seemed like exactly the thing to do for two nights and three days straight, but the first half day dissolved into a three lane river of cars that wouldn’t quit because the Exodus was clearly oversold. We were crowding each other into the turns.

In another scene I was frying fish I caught in the river and chopping vegetables with a towel slung over my shoulder, listening to crickets. You’d be thinking of music, or a glass of wine, but they weren’t in this scene. I was going to the cabin to be with myself–to peel the silence open, the silence that awaited me there.

I saw that I needed gas and my back was starting to put up a fight so I pulled into a fish stand with blinking light strands along its edges that made it look like Christmas in July, and asked for a Number Eight. The rock ballads from the outdoor speakers were getting lost in the darkness. The mosquitoes were at plague levels and I was willing myself to just sit there and eat, to sit there and be happy. To savor it somehow. That’s what I owed myself. Night had fallen and I still had forty miles ahead of me, some of it on gravel, most of it touted to be quite lonesome. Finally.

The tires made a lovely noise on the gravel when I pulled up to the cabin. Outside, the insects were at full tilt like the whole forest was a dive bar full of cosmic karaoke. I found the cabin a little musty– the bedding a little damp– and I savored it. There weren’t any lights in the place and my visions hadn’t included flash lights for some reason– something about rising and falling with the sun– so I found my way to bed by the glow of my phone.

In the morning I found that silence is deafening when it’s all you’ve got, and I focused on entering my vision fully, now that I was here. I tried to sit, but the cabin got hot. In yet another scene I was reading on the front porch with one leg crossed over to the other, as timeless as a person can be, but there was some sort of hornet’s nest underneath the porch that kept me on edge. I got up and crawled around, back and forth, probably studied it for a full hour. Then I went for a walk, and soon I was moving from stone to stone across a shallow pan of nothing.

Nature is like one of those pictures that changes meaning depending on what you make of it. One moment it’s a beautiful woman. The next a witch with a wart on the tip of her nose. It was all so flimsy. My sense of self was a loneliness like coating stones with plastic wrap and dropping them into the river. Do they get wet? What if I want to get one back? How could I do that? Now what have I done?

I drove into town that afternoon and bought some fish and vegetables and cooked them in cast iron pans on the propane stove inside the cabin. The place got hot as hell but somehow I’d shaken off the grime and the grind. Or maybe not that, but something else entirely. It just sneaks up on you. One breath I was telling myself to sink in to it. The next breath I was empty. The cooking would have been easier if I’d thought to bring pot holders, but I wouldn’t have had so much fun. I wouldn’t have started laughing so hard at myself. A little more than was merited, honestly.

I got up the next morning– the second one, marking the third day– before the sun, because I couldn’t sleep. I dozed and woke in fits all night. I got up to look at the stars and couldn’t figure out what time it was, so I went back and laid down. Then I woke up and it was just a little lighter than before, but still dark. I decided to follow the trail that wound down to the stream. There was a little pond there and a nice place to sit beneath some trees.

I didn’t even see her at first. We both just kind of surprised one another. Her head swung up, dipped and swung up again. She took a skitterish step or two backwards, turned sideways and stopped, looking back at me over her withers. Her haunches shivered like they were ready to bolt, but she waited.

What did it was the way her eyes couldn’t find mine because she couldn’t see me on my own. She could only see the whole thing, and sense that it was different. She dipped her head again, testing it. She inhaled a little pinch of the entire picture. She knew the difference, but the difference wasn’t me. The difference was all of it.

Then she leapt into the shadows and was gone. Periodic bursts of crunching leaves faded into the distance. I sat down and I didn’t move for hours. The sun rose. The sky spun. The gnats investigated. But they couldn’t find me, because I had stepped off the edge where there wasn’t any bottom, and I was gone.

A Perfect Day

comments 39
Poetry

Yesterday
was perfect.

After three months
my best short story yet
was rejected twice
in the span of an hour
via form letters of
compensatory encouragement,
which must mean
I’m getting somewhere,
in between which
I used a shabby putter
to sink two twelve footers in a row
down the cubicle aisle.

We made some jokes together and we laughed.

We had to hazard a guess about how much
natural gas will cost in three years,
which who the hell knows but you have to try,
and then we worked on the report.
We debated things meaningless in the grand scheme,
but meaningful to us. Meaningful then.
I marveled at the typographical errors
one small office can produce in a day.

On the commute home I questioned
the extent to which my virtual music collection
is stuck a decade or two in the past.
Because I just like it, I guess?
Have you listened to the jam session
on Reach Down lately?

Sweet Jesus.

When I got home
I walked to the end of the driveway
to get the mail and the air was cool,
and just right, and the sun was low
and staring me in the face
so you couldn’t hardly meet its gaze
and flooding the road with a golden light
that was irradiating whole swarms of bugs
that hovered over the asphalt like fractals
of galaxies all lined up for take-off.

Whose sense of time and place is the right one?

I walked down towards the river.
The colors were so rich, the sky so thick.
Whatever was once, has been forgotten.

On the way back I got the mail.
The box squeaked in protest.
The little door sticks a little
and if I don’t hold the whole thing just right
it’s liable to get ripped right off the post.
I should probably do something about that,
which I will, eventually,
after the wave of snow and ice
from the plow truck this January
cleaves the whole thing clean off.

Then after dinner I wrote another one.
Because sitting beneath a sky like that
and inventing something
because you just can’t help it
feels some days like the reason for everything.
And sweetly perfect.

Yes. Yesterday was perfect.
Tomorrow, too.

* * * * *

(Start at about minute 4:41, close your eyes and ignore the photos, and go for the ride… There’s not many songs I’m aware of in this genre with two guitarists riffing simultaneously…)

On a Scale of One to Ten

comments 35
Poetry

We’ll never know
what it’s like
to exist forever
in a condition
of perpetually transforming joy
and goose-bump inducing discovery
if we don’t consider
it a very real
and inevitable
possibility.

It does sound pretty out there,
but so don’t NASCAR races
to German Shepherds.

If we don’t consider
it a very real
and inevitable
possibility,
we’ll likely take something
perfect and beautiful
just as it is,
something like space exploration
or boat building
or moccasin mending
and we’ll require it to be
something it’s not
to make up for this loss.
One of these simple things
will become a complexity–
a claim,
an identity,
a salvation of some sort,
with limited terms, of course,
and endless stipulations.

Also,
we’ll never know
what it’s like
to live forever
in a condition
of perpetually transforming joy
and goose-bump inducing discovery
if we think
the body’s precise location in space and time
and confirmed participation
in “events” of significance
has all that much relevance
on what I’m talking about.

On a scale of one to ten
of what’s most important
to entering this palatial abode
with ten being like you
have to have it,
and one being like
uhmm… yeah, you need this, too,
even though it fits in the carry-on
and doesn’t make noises when you tickle it–
the body doesn’t even get a number.

Roses are beautiful,
but they are not beauty itself.
If a rose gets eaten by a decrepit old hyena
who is shockingly dehydrated
and wandering around fish-eyed
in search of a botanical aphrodisiac,
beauty itself isn’t going to feel the pinch.

Beauty isn’t going to panic.

Beauty is actually going to come
to the rescue.

So if your body were to disappear tonight
for regularly schedule maintenance
(because a hyena ate it for instance)
and never come back,
Love wouldn’t go into a panic.
And neither should you.

A tool is only any good
if you know what it’s for, anyways.
And if you knew that,
you would never lose it
to start with.

Though you might lend it out sometimes.
To whom, I don’t know.

Hafiz, perhaps.
Any number of people, actually,
can dress up just like you
without your knowing it.

Breezes living in a forest
don’t respond to roll call,
preferring to pass right through
one another instead,
back and forth and
merging and gliding
and surrounding one another
just to see what it’s like,
often losing track of who was who first,
and also,

because it drives
the census takers
mad.

All Day, Just This

comments 40
Poetry

All day I am sitting.
On that bench.

There is some wind nearby I recognize,
or maybe it is this:
a dove has flown
through the doorway?
The sky I mean.
Two timbers and a lintel in my mind,
and the clouds
that are playing house upon the ocean.

A dove has formed from the sky
and my heart trembles
because it knows of such things,
and also because all day
I am sitting on that bench throwing pebbles,
the little ones that tumble out of your heart
when you put in a coin and turn the lever.
I throw them up in the air,
through the doorway,
across the boundary and into the gap,
and count the seconds until they land.

They never do.
The sky has no ending here.

I throw them over the side,
off the bridge,
beyond the curl of this place,
beyond the reach of every shadow.
And now a dove is
circling around the brilliance of our sun.
Or perhaps it was just the wind.

What have you given? some will ask.
What do you know about suffering?
You sit there like a fool, by the way,
throwing your idle pennies
to the bottom.
Be of some use, why don’t you?

And later, when I am alone again,
after I have fallen through their skies
and been used by the rain,
by wind that moves in packs
and howls and tears things apart.
By anguish that rents and rips.
After I have gathered myself
and crawled back to the edge:

the pebbles drop from my heart.
It is gravel.  Clean and brittle.
Washed and white.
A river wanders the land
for many leagues of wonder
until this is what is left: this gravel.
Tiny ghosts of a great land
that will still shatter teeth.

I drop one into the sky.
Another I set between the roots of the tree
where it is cool and tiny things grow.
One I throw into the clouds that glide
across the surface of the water,
pretending they live inside of a mirror.

Maybe it is nothing at all.
Maybe it is hollow and useless,
to take what is in you and set it free.
But now there are two doves
circling the sun,
their undersides in shadow.
They are hanging motion:
riders of the invisible.
The brilliance they ride
is a haze I cannot penetrate.
And still the gravel falls into my hand.

All day I am sitting here
and who can say if this matters?
Who can know of such things?

Only the wind, perhaps.
Or whatever it is
that lives just there.

(I am pointing)
(between the doves)
(beyond the doorway)

(through so, so many reflections)

The Thing About Fear

comments 38
Poetry

Fear is like knowing
with a dreadful certainty
there is a sixty-foot troll
exploring the corridors
of your existence
in a pair of rubber-soled shoes
like the spies are obligated to wear
in all those books
to sneak up on one another–
a five-story, monolithic brute
gliding through you
like a dorsal fin through water
who might appear at any moment
and squish you flat upon sight
as if you were a tiny black spider
roaming a shiny white corridor.

It’s not even an angry troll,
is the sad thing.
Squishing you out of existence
is just pure instinct.

SCHWAP!

Then maybe daub a taste of you
on the tongue,
or catch a bit of your scent
off the edge of a finger
or something.

It’s all quite natural.

Well, uhmmm—
gee whiz, Hafiz.
Thanks for the pep talk there,
good buddy.

My pleasure.

I scurried around,
up, over and down,
nimble as the night and
pretty perturbed I gotta’ buy
four pairs of Nike’s to get one job done.

Say, Hafiz:
Got any, uh, last minute thoughts
before that troll smears
me across the floor here?

Oh, for sure.
You could stop thinking
you’re anything
that could ever be squished,
for starters.
And tell me…
how many sixty foot trolls
have you ever seen, REALLY…?