Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Turtles Began Surfacing

What was her name, the married nurse I fooled around with in a supply closet in 1990, first year of law school? It happened twice and we were friendly after yet for the life of me I can't recall her name. I do know saying it aloud had to do with the alveolar ridge. She was rail-thin, a runner, murmured "you" a lot between kisses.

I was living with my parents then, an embarrassment but there were no other options, and you do what you have to do. They laughed at my stories about the old men at work, went away a lot on weekends. I'd sit on the little porch and write structurally complex poems that went nowhere but held my attention. I was reading deeply the literature on birds, walking alone for hours at Fitzgerald Pond, trying to square poetry and the law, bird-watching.

In one of those poems I used the phrase "Tooth Mother" to describe Ellen - that was her name, Ellen - because I had an intuitive sense that what we were doing was dangerous for both of us, albeit in different ways. The poem didn't blame her, just went into the question of why desire acts so privileged. I couldn't find a draft now if I wanted.

I went on a couple of dates with another nurse, flirted pretty hard with two more, but something in me with women was slipping. There was a lot of space between what I imagined and what kept appearing and it wasn't clear what could change. Somewhere around that time I saw my first mockingbird and began piecing together the difficult posture of worship my life was about to assume. I remember in late May thinking seriously for the first time about celibacy and then meeting Chrisoula a few days later. The night we met I sat out back with a camping lantern, welcoming moths.

Our second or third date I took her to Fitzgerald pond. We held hands on the trails, ending up on an east-facing rock. A bunch of turtles began surfacing and climbing nearby logs. They were like allies or messengers. It was like that moment before church begins, the priests and deacons and altar servers gathering. We couldn't speak. We knew something significant was happening, we knew it was about us.

Chrisoula put her hand on my shoulder and eased me back on the warm rock. When she knelt to kiss me, her hair framed my face. It was like a veil behind which we kissed gently for a thousand years. When at last we stopped and straightened and looked around, not one of the turtles had moved.

That was how I arrived at last in the Country of Turtles, solidified my poetics and spiritual intentions, and began a long apprenticeship in Love.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What Cannot Be Derived From Distinctions

In mid-January, the weather briefly slips its icy shroud and a thousand borders (which are distinctions) appear - melting snow against not-melting snow, green grass on brown, green grass against white snow, quartz visible here, schist over there.

The world is always in a state of spilling, or shifting appearances, or so it seems to the observer. The one is here for whom all this beauty is given is here?

For an hour or so I walk around with a camera taking pictures, as if memorialize something, or capture something. Or am I still just trying to understand how I should be so blessed?

Gefter suggests all this is what the inside of nothing looks like, but that implies yet another boundary, and I'm past countenancing what isn't here to countenance.

Oh, how I wish I were not still the man who always says "I love you but . . ."

On Sunday morning when we're out of flour and butter I drive to the Creamery to buy flour and butter. The store (I wrote "story" in the first draft) is mostly empty but full of sunlight and somebody has Neil Young on. Sometimes when I was confused it was a way of opening a space for the other to go deeper into their own confusion, whatever they wanted to call it. I mean, you can't not love.

One tends to divide the day with beverages. The prayer of the first cup of coffee which eventually slips into writing. The writing of the second cup of coffee, which eventually slips into reading. The first cup of tea - which is generally a decision not to drink a third cup of coffee - and the blander editing and rewriting and sketching plans for the next day's work, which must be done. After that, homemade kombucha with cinnamon, ginger and stevia, and the usual half-assed attempts to improvise manhood in a crumbling empire in a late stage of capitalism (basically managing the horror by clutching certain Romantic ideals).

The desire to express oneself in a certain form (like that idiot in New England with his sentences, paragraphs and essays) is a fine way to begin but it can't last any more than you can remain at the wedding forever and pretend it's a marriage. You have to let what wants to spill, spill, and you have to be okay with what cannot be derived from distinctions. If not you, beloved, then who?

Here, in the twentieth sentence, I get down on my knees and beg.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Nowhere Near the Luminous Grail

The man who loves to argue is not the man who wants to reach the end of arguing!

Personal pronouns are a kind of magic, a deft interior signal to and from the sense of what matters, yet also in love with their own referencing, and thus prone to deception.

Let's be honest: coloring inside and outside the lines are equally incorrect because both are contingent on accepting the line's purposive existence in the first place.

I was not actually in Albany until years later when it was impossible to go back to Albany and from that point on leaving Albany at all was a fantasy, like the prisoner who knows he's only getting out in a casket but likes to dream of horse-drawn carriages, limousines, state-paid cabs, etc.

A nagging sense that personal experience, as such, is nowhere near the luminous grail it presents itself to be.

Given to landscapes that are riven with gullies rather than canyons (and somewhat late in the process realizing the significance of owls).

The Lord says "you can be right or you can be at peace" and Sean says "define right and peace, pal."

Catholic before anyone said there were options, apostate when it was first clear there were, half-assed Buddhism when one began to intuit that apostasy was not actually helpful, Mertonian Catholicism when the confusion began in earnest and then - in the Country of Turtles, with Chrisoula as my guide - the deluge.

The magnitude of communion that sex can't even pretend to reach.

A gray t-shirt I can't throw away even though it's barely wearable anymore, as if I were a pantheist, or at least pantheistic, or maybe just poor and realistic.

Counting implies order, is one way to understand the origins and ongoing fructivity of this and other writing projects.

In my dream, two robins studied a fallen nest in the yard, yet precisely when I wondered should I go outside and try to place it back in the tree, risking intrusion in order to maximize helpfulness, they flew into a nearby maple tree with a perfect nest in it and a female voice somewhere said "to wit."

Well, I sleep well for once and can't even pretend to be unhappy upon waking and reading and writing so the sentences skip like hummingbirds over the watery swale I so often so willingly sink into the heart of and I'm not sorry, not sorry at all.

The bureau is piled with books (seventeen) and over-stuffed manila folders (four) while underneath it is a cardboard box with the ninety-seven essays/articles/etc that were most helpful in the 2017 - 2018 epistemological speed-up, all of which I am now trying to organize into a curriculum I can teach from (though where and for whom I can't say).

There are alternatives to ways of thinking that produce undesirable results, one doesn't have to "suck it up," one doesn't have to "stand it."

A fine mist where the river flows past the horse pasture.

But you see, a point comes where it's clear that you're duping yourself, and that the duping isn't always noticeable, and so even when you conclude you're no longer duping yourself you might still be duping yourself.

You are not allowed to say "the insight can't happen in a bowling alley" and when the insight happens in a bowling alley you are not allowed to say "the insight happened in a bowling alley."

Like that mockingbird on the phone wires in Florence Massachusetts in early summer 1990 and the man who saw me gazing at it and said kindly "it's a mockingbird," knowing precisely the worship to which I aspired and the gaps in my knowing that falsified it inevitably.

At what point does Hansel realize his fate is in the hands of his sister and what effect if any does the realization have on his mental conception of witches?

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Prizes that You do not Covet

Perhaps hell is the bowling alleys of which we spoke ill, at a time when we were being asked to look forgivingly on all bowling alleys.

Where do you reside when at night you travel to this vast open space - neither warehouse nor amphitheater, neither desert nor field - and trade shoes for other shoes and close your ears to the sharp thunder of wooden bodies crashing into one another, hour after hour.

At night, who comes out to inspect the quiet. In the morning who sweeps the lanes.

In Albany, who traveled to Fall River, and in Fall River, who went back and forth to Ireland.

Whose son are you and who is your son.

A room full of prizes that you do not covet, a room where you can order hot dogs and fries, where you would be sick if you ate, and on Fridays and Saturdays a room where you can drink beer, which you long ago swore off drinking.

Your son goes with you and you are the son of one who was gone decades before he died.

I bowled with him once in Northampton on my birthday. Four years old? Maybe five. I remember nothing but the volume, the sticky soles of the too-tight shoes, and not understanding the rules.

We were neither winning nor losing, nor preparing to win.

A zero-sum theology which asserts heaven and hell exist as equal possibilities.

Only when you believe it is possible to die and still be punished can you speak so disparagingly about bowling alleys.

You who long to be healed.

You who refuse all cures.

All day, waiting to go back.

All day forgetting you can choose when to go back and how long to stay.

Are you working or playing or something else altogether in this bowling alley frequented by Christ and what is not Christ.

Are you winning or not winning in this cavern of shadows, under the watchful eyes of the Father of Bowling, Whose Father is the Father of Games, Whose Father is the Father of Sacrifice, Whose Father is the Father of Fear.

Whose Mother has been away a long time?

I drop Jeremiah off, buy groceries, and go home and cook. Hours later, friends return him. He is happy helping himself to food and telling us about bowling.

I am so happy I don't know what to say.

Did you win I say.

He looks at me as if I am speaking a language that he wasn't asked to learn, as if I am struggling up a varnished trail, dodging murderous balls, begging for mercy.

As if mercy were already given.

He looks at me the way you look at the one who feeds you no matter what.

Saturday, January 18, 2020


Every time I take off my belt I remember every time he took off his belt.

Every act of oral sex is tinged with his anger and violence (which did not end when he stopped beating me with his belt).

No matter how carefully or gratefully or expertly we go down on each other, the hurt is never not there.

Yet the dream of healing is a seed buried deep inside my tongue that this one time - this one use - the belt will neither appear nor interfere.

I do not pray well on my knees.

I prefer those Tuesday evening circles I visited years ago at Saint Mary's, the women earnestly praying on rosaries, welcoming me in a non-sexually-companionate way.

Yet which I left.

I remember driving home from Cape Cod many years ago, emotionally shredded by a family collectively unable to acknowledge shredding anyone, let alone their son and brother. I prayed the rosary all the way.

The rosary I pray when I pray a rosary is the rosary owned by my mother's father. I never saw him pray a rosary. Indeed, he used to mock arriving early to church as "time to pray the rosary."

I don't know why I rather than anyone else have his rosary. I must have grabbed it once. I must have insisted.

One does become an expert at being punished: slapped, belted, sent away without eating. Mouth washed out with soap. Told over and over, with varying degrees of intensity and publicity, how bad one is and what happens to bad boys.

One does become an expert at hoping God is love and secretly knowing God is not, not at all.

Held up to the sky, the rosary is a kind of noose. It is a kind of opening one can see through.

Damaged boys limp into their adult bodies intent on not hurting anybody, which is nice but rarely works as planned.

My grandmother asserted that my grandfather beat her and that once, when her leg was broken, he refused to take her to the hospital. Nobody talks about this, or acknowledges it was ever said, even though we were all in the room.

What didn't happen cannot have any effect so you can understand the impulse to wash it out.

But nothing washes out perfectly.

Every one who has ever washed any laundry ever knows this.

Damaged boys limp into their adult bodies and try out its voice. It's scary to believe you're little but can make a big sound. The temptation is to whisper, or only talk where everyone agrees you can talk, and only ever about what they agree you can talk about.

Sometimes you climb trees deep in the forest and shout that you're not afraid to fall and then let go and see if you're right. Sometimes you practice seducing people who are too far away to touch.

The violence in me knows itself but not as violence. It wants a new name. Or it wants me to remember its actual name. It says, "hey you - you're a poet. Tell us what our name is."

"I'm waiting," I say.

"For what?"

It's a good question, one I decline to answer. But why?

I'm scared if I use my voice, Gretel won't find me because she isn't attuned to that kind of asking for help.

I'm scared that Gretel will find me but won't be who I remember and so I won't be saved at all.

But really because a woman is telling this story now.

You see how I balance between sentences? Give my body wordlessly to holding itself in uncertainty?

That's how quiet she is, letting what comes next come next.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Mostly Ash

Faded tie-dye t-shirts on hippies whose brains are permanently ditched by acid, whose arms flail precisely the way Jerry Garcia's fingers did not.

Monks who are so terrified of their bitterness and loneliness that they no longer dream.

Old men who don't admire any young men and young men who despise age in all its forms.

Poems about grandfathers that are basically vast canyons pretending to be deserts in which serious sanctified men write poems about the Lord.

Rosary beads stained with semen.

Getting and giving head on the floor of an apartment in Burlington Vermont as a means of intensifying one's personal experience of irrevocable loss.

Scavenging dumpsters.

A studied disinterest in cures pitted against an avowed commitment to healing.

Walking all night in Dublin Ireland, Bloomsday 1989, exhausted and exuberant.

Incapable of sleep.

Incapable of imagining but pretending otherwise.

Sure of the Lord, beholden to the Lord, abandoned by the Lord.

Playing guitar in Galway Ireland to respectful audiences, walking hours after alone in the dark summer night, learning for the first time that the only gift I had was the gift for not being lost no matter what the exterior landscape.

Learning how not to be lost in a landscape by entering every landscape alone without any plan to return.

Confused about mothers, homes, hope and love.

Confused about work.

Good at burial, good at not freaking out around death, good at cooking peasant food, good at being slapped and spanked and punished.

Partial to soap bubbles, snowflakes, antique glass, prisms.

Mostly lost, mostly gone, mostly ash.

A late juncture where one says it at last.

Miming has Actual Emotional Content

It is hard to avoid assertions about ontology. Even when I'm careful not to make them, they are active somewhere below the level of observation. Indeed, by the time you're thinking about asserting/not asserting, some degree of assertion has already taken place.

But maybe "ontology" is too abstract here. Maybe that word isn't reasonable in my vocabulary.

What I mean is that I often experience a temptation to assert that I know more than I actually know. This temptation is probably roughly equal to the extent I suspect I don't know.

But also, there is a difference between saying "I don't know" and "I can't know." And the distinction matters.

Also, there is a difference between thinking about these things in a studious way - a scholastic morning here, a scholastic afternoon there - and then actually trying them out in your living and observing the results.

So writing can be a way of seeing what you are doing with gaps in your knowing and evaluating it. It is also a way of seeing how what you say about the gaps is compromised because you are not actually doing anything with or to or in the gaps.

Johnstone points out that "we have strong resistance to being overwhelmed by gifts, even when they're just being mimed" (Impro 101). I've been thinking about this ever since I read it, wondering if it will extend beyond the range of exercises for actors. The subtext of Impro is that it's not just a handbook for actors but a handbook for living for all of us.

Sometimes I am overwhelmed by gifts. But not always. Sometimes I am covetous. Sometimes I am mostly interested in gifting others.

What's really interesting about that Johnstone quote is how miming has actual emotional content. That is, things that are hard when we do them for real are also hard when we mime them. Feelings don't distinguish what is "real" from what is not.

Thus, you can't say - based on your feelings - if what's happening right now is reality or just mimics reality.

Am I a mime? Is this an act? Am I pretending it's an act when it's not? How would I know? My emotional response can be the same in both instances.

You don't know what's real; you only think you do.

It all seems real but you don't know what's real.

Every conclusion you reach - every decision you make - is based on inferences you make between what appears (which includes your ideas - including these right now) and a proposed external objective reality that you are certain exists in the form you are certain it exists in.

But those inferences are not justified; others could be just as valid. Because you don't actually know what's real; you only think you do.

How will you know? What game will you play to find out? What game will you stop playing?