Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Necessary Lessons


why did you come back

there were silences I'd never solved
and faces still masked by squirming things
certain strange trees had messages for me
a flock of kisses kept searching out my lips

I had to learn how to duel with wasps

and what did you do here

found the key    lost it    found it again
became trapped in the labyrinth of a wound
swam alone through the heart's midnight sea
followed a vision that consumed my grief

juggled on the highest wire without a net

tell about your loves

a tiny cave built once from glittering stones
the slant laughter of the universe in her eyes
every note of music that ever pierced my soul
this ecstatic tango light does with darkness

earth rain sky wind streams mountains stars

will you ever return



Armed with the eyesight of slender wasps,
sucking at the earth's axis, the earth's axis,
I feel everything that ever happened to me...

-- Osip Mandelstam --


     Many years ago my former wife and I rented an ancient farmhouse about 50 miles outside St. Louis, Missouri. It was pretty rundown and had plenty of split seams and widening cracks through which wind and weather could enter--along with occasional smaller critters from the surrounding countryside. I lost track of how many mice we caught in our homemade traps, then released to the nearby fields. Come to think of it, that might have been the identical mouse over and over again!

     One night, after a particularly windy and unseaonably warm autumn day, I noticed a strange-looking black shape in an upper corner of one of our bedroom windows. When I went closer, this anomaly resolved itself into a tightly bunched, queasily squirming mass of wasps. There must have been several dozen! Wasps! Bivouacking in our bedroom!

     After the initial "shock and awe" subsided, we realized there was no way we'd ever sleep again, not as long as we had to bed down right next to a nest of wasps. It was them or us! Nor did we have the money, time, or common sense to call an exterminator. We decided we'd have to deal with this ourselves. And since I was the putative Alpha Male, "ourselves" meant ME.

     Except this Alpha Male was mortally terrified of even one wasp. Here was a whole squadron! Unbelievably, I was staring straight into the teeth of my worst nightmare. But there was nothing else to do but suck it up and blunder foreward. So I went downstairs, buttoned a long black raincoat over my pajamas, put on a pair of rubber boots, and jammed a wool knit cap way down to cover my ears. Finally, clutching a rolled-up magazine in each fist, I was as girded for battle as I'd ever be.

     With my heart in my mouth I burst into the bedroom, charged over to the window, and commenced flailing away! I smacked and crushed quite a few wasps before they could react, but the rest flared up wildly in all directions! After a few more desperate swipes with my magazines, I raced back out, slamming the door behind me.

     Gradually, leaning against the door, I calmed down some and was able to breathe again. But then I had to head back to the front lines on another search and destroy mission, and yet another mop-up sortie after that, until every wasp was dispatched. Finally, it looked like I'd killed them all. And me without a single sting! What a hero!

     When I went to sleep that night, I was exhausted, but also proud. I'd confronted "the enemy," totally defeated it, and bravely surmounted one of my greatest fears. Next morning, slowly waking, savoring my victory, I stretched both arms luxuriously over my head--and recoiled in shock! It felt like I'd thrust one hand into broken glass!

      Jumping up and turning around, I saw--another wasp! A lone survivor of the massacre had stealthily flown to the wall behind our bed, then waited all night to exact revenge for its slaughtered comrades. The wasp had stung me not once, but twice--just to make sure I got the message.

     I guess if there's a moral to this story, it's that sooner or later we always have to duel with our worst fears and take them head on--but also, that this inescapable task is a life's work. We cycle back around to those same scary monsters again and again at different stages of our soul's journey, challenged each time to confront our most primal terrors with deeper humility, courage and understanding. Here's what that last wasp was teaching me by its stings: I'd come a long way in facing my demons. I still had a long way to go.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Pure Cold Stream

                    PIVOT POINT

The journey from one edge of an eyelash
         to another
                                     how infinitely far!

and the time it takes--that microsecond's
                        an eternity

but ride the next express
                           between heaven and hell
either direction
                   now there's hair-raising speed!
you'll arrive even before you depart

I know a breath   inside a breath
                                      inside the breath

I know the pivot point
                     for swirling clouds of worlds

tell me                 are you awake yet
   see what you can't see
            hear what you can't hear
                            feel what you can't feel

there's a   pure   cold   stream
                               that's always flowing

if you find it don't hesitate
                             kneel   kneel and drink


When good is near you,
when you have life in yourself,
it is not by any known or appointed way;
you shall not discern the footprints
of any other.
The way, the thought, the good
shall be wholly strange and new.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson --


     We thirst. We thirst, but most of the time we don't realize it, never mind knowing what we're thirsting for. So we blunder through the desert of our days, the wilderness of our nights, unconsciously seeking something, failing to find it in this mirage or that illusion, dying of thirst even as we believe we've finally entered The Promised Land.

      What are we really thirsting for--and how do we find it, hold it, keep it, drink of it at last? From early childhood I knew there was a Magic Gift hidden somewhere, if only I could stumble across it; a Secret Portal no adult seemed aware of, a Mysterious Stream which I could sense flowing far underground, yet could never quite locate. Then I grew up, became so much smarter, stopped searching and listening, no longer stirred to that faint, miraculous music anymore.

     Inevitably, I wandered further and further off course, growing ever more alienated from myself and increasingly estranged from others. I could hear no inner voice to follow, see no guiding star to steer by. One night the nasty karma poisonously accreted over many years all came crushing down at once. I was ruthlessly stripped soul-naked, scathingly exposed to the harshest blasts of grief and loss--alone, despairing, bereft. I plunged headlong toward what I thought must be agony's bleakest rock-bottom--only to discover there was none; it was bottomless.

     What happened next I won't even try to describe here. I've stammeringly attempted to narrate it in countless words--both poetry and prose; and if you ask me about it, I'll stammer to tell it again. But the truth is utterly beyond language, however eloquent or inspired. Ultimately, all I needed to know--all you need to know--is this: in the very last place I expected, I discovered the Marvelous Gift, stumbled through a Hidden Portal, drank from that Miraculous Stream!

     Yes, this all sounds terribly tenuous, otherworldly, even pie-in-the-sky. Where's the beef?! The real problem though, isn't that this Reality is so abstract and far-removed from our experience; rather, it's so intimate and immediate we can scarcely fathom it, hardly bear to feel so humblingly, overwhelmingly encountered. Such simple, childlike openness renders us more vulnerable, and at the same time more accountable, than we've ever been before, ever conceived we could be! Targeted at the cross hairs of our innermost Essence, there's no place left to run, nowhere else to hide.

     All I can offer through mere words are hints and guesses, riddles and clues. Stop looking outside for what you can only discover within. To find this sanity you must lose your mind. Nakedness is your compass, emptiness your backpack, getting lost your direction. Never surrender, always surrender. As painted cakes cannot satisfy hunger, so the most seductively marketed elixirs cannot assuage this deepest thirst. The Healing Water you long for is pure, cold, sparkling, crystal clear, limitless...


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Juggling Razor Blades

         SIDE SHOW

no song in my heart today

nearer to an accordion
flattened by a truck

puff the magic dragon
ate my liver

a thin film of sweat
sticks to my face like glue

how long can I dance here
keepin' up this old soft-shoe

doin' this rickety razzmatazz
twirlin' my top hat and cane

now I'm supposed to juggle too
but what's with the razor blades

and where'd my audience go
all I see are empty seats

row after row after row


My teacher told me one thing:
"Live in the soul."
When that was so
I began to go naked
and to dance.

-- Lalla --


     Trying to juggle extra sharp razor blades--did you ever feel at times like that's what your life's come down to? You're beset with an inescapable swarm of challenges and difficulties; mishandling just one of them could prove disastrous! Not only that, but your audience has deserted the theater. You find yourself all alone up there on stage, riddled with fear, pain, loneliness, doubt; but nobody else seems to know, or care.

     Born in the United States nearly halfway through the Twentieth Century; raised a bright, white, healthy middle class boy, I inherited a ton of ready-made, built-in advantages which I could hardly avoid taking completely for granted. In most respects, my earliest years were about as safe, innocent and sheltered as my parents could make them. I realized only later how much razor blade juggling was going on all around me in those halcyon days simply to make that fragile haven possible.

     Then, out of nowhere, my younger sister was diagnosed with cancer. She died a long, slow, ugly, brutal death--and that blasting reality shattered my crystal paperweight world forever. Without a clue as to why or what to do about it, I suddenly discovered that the universe was rife with huge, ruthless, unpredictable razor blades. I knew this now without question, because one of them had slashed right through the heart of my family. So my nerve-racking vocation as a razor blade juggler began.

     The trouble with undertaking such a dicey calling while still so young is the inevitably lopsided disproportion between enormous, untutored imagination, and paltry, unseasoned experience. As an adolescent, I was a roiling thundercloud of lurid, unbridled fantasies, shot through with lightning flashes of volatile, undisciplined emotions.

     I knew I'd suffered a grievous wound--I was anguished, terrified, enraged and paranoid. I understood now there were deadly razor blades whirring viciously through the air. But I could no more tell the real from the conjured ones than jump over the moon. All I could do was strain to juggle every nasty blade I saw slicing my way--or even imagined I did.

     This rude awakening did not auger a peaceful, contented and cheerful future. Not surprisingly, mine has not turned out that way. I was sensitized too early to a hyper-awareness of life's tragic dimension. Childhood trauma fixated my feelings and imaginings on certain horrors to an obsessive degree. Now, even when no razor blades gleam or monsters threaten, I reflexively project them anyway.

     Yet if by some cosmic sleight of soul I could change all this, could wipe away the piercing wound, expunge the loss and horror, grief and rage--would I do it? I'm always amazed to hear myself answer "No." Undeniably, that harsh, violent jolt was damaging and destructive as hell--but it was also, ultimately, a wake-up call. I suffered throes of agony, but my flayed-open soul grew capable of transports of ecstasy as well.

     Never again could I be oblivious to the tragic shadow. Real, scary, threatening razor blades are always flailing around, and so many people on our over-populated, poverty-stricken, hunger-ravaged planet face them much more nakedly every day than I do. Life, as Boris Pasternak wrote, is not just a walk in the park.

     Nevertheless, I'm finally learning to become playful, even insouciant, as a juggler of razor blades--real and imaginary! It's not that both types, in their different ways, aren't just as dangerous as always. The secret is, I've found my essential footing at last, attained my indispensable balance. Through grueling years of painstaking apprenticeship, I've mastered the rigorously harrowing yet grimly exhilirating art of juggling a scintillating congeries of razor blades!