FEBRUARY ESSAY-ETTE

This month I find myself with a challenge steeper, so far, than the rest. Triggered by what seemed a straightforward enough task – to update my will, revising and deleting some details – I found myself entering disturbing territory. I was asked by my lawyer to choose between being buried or burned after my death, and I decided to grapple seriously with the choice and its final meaning. My investigation was initiated by a form. It was called, “Disposition of Remains.” Uncomfortable feelings and grim thoughts ensued.

I found myself constantly misplacing the grim form. Something will always balk in the face of this kind of business; it’s easier to plan and shop for dinner, or sweep the driveway, or finally plant the espaliered Asian pear (this must be done! As I speak, it is soaking, bare-root, in a tub of water, and has been for two days). However, it was I who opted, in meeting with my lawyer, to clean house, and prepare to enter this phase of my aging, and so to flinch in the face of this question – to be buried or burned – was not congruent with these goals. But this exploration wanted to invite more complexity than a romp through a brighter subject, and so I decided to take two months to develop it, and not my usual one.

I tried to bring into focus an image that would help me relate to the fact of my dead body. All week, I looked at images of corpses, having Googled: corpse enshrouded in linen. Interestingly, there is an entire industry devoted to funereal fashion. Below lies a live model of a lovely corpse, or the faux corpse of a lovely, live model, gift wrapped and oddly bridal. The eye is drawn to the voile mittens. What use might they be in the grave or crematorium? What exactly is the purpose of the bow? Is her head resting on a fur muff, albeit oversized? What message does this send? She appears to be reclining in a bassinette or on a bob sled. I feel betrayed as I imagine myself in her position. I would be no more ready for rot and my sepulchral future in this ensemble than I would for marriage after the highlight of the senior prom.

All Dressed Up, but Where to Go?

***

 I began to be afraid more than bravely curious, afraid of the immanent and imminent horrors in store for this fragile body, that I mostly love. The mild physical affronts at sixty-six impact my days, and loom – presentiments of old age. Along come two books on the journey, two companions: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die. Reading and writing and thinking about death-my-death, however armchair my current travel, has exaggerated, for the moment, my sadness, enfeebling me rather than navigating me toward resolve and tidiness.

 When asked, do I prefer to be buried or burned, I am stopped in my tracks, or opt to be so, anyway, and I take a breath, and touch the sob underneath that breath, and release it, and touch the joy that is underneath that, and so on and on.

 I’m going to take more time and live inside this question – to be buried or burned, and its significance, and aim the next essay toward March.  

 

JUST THE CASSOULET

I received a charming New Year’s Resolution email from my friend, M. It said:

Yesterday I remembered that New Year’s resolution I could not pull from my brain on NY’s eve. It is to throw my Kleenex away after using them immediately, instead of leaving them about for another possible nose wipe use later . That’s what I call a resolution. Not a hope, not a project, but steeling my resolve to make a behavioral change. But then . . . started wondering if I should use a cloth hankie like you. . . .

***

I agree. That’s what I call a reasonable resolution – nothing too strenuous; no reaching for the stars with exceeded grasp. No firm set to the jaw; no self flagellation for ongoingly egregious behaviors.

Gone, thank God, the days of requisite New Year’s Eve parties with the expectation that one will contribute to raucous, extrovert-type Fun, believing that this rite will exfoliate the old sins and shortcomings, and invite the donning of fresh starts and betterments.

It’s not a bad idea to set a goal as the old year turns from itself to clasp a new, crisp other. The problem is one of scale. The word forces the gaze upward, toward perfection. I used to invite family and friends to gather and write their New Year’s Resolutions en group, and then hide their lists to retrieve them one year later, and note the progress. Or not. I wish now that I had saved mine to see what improvements and hopes and projects over the years did, or more probably did not, get realized.

Perfection is not a friend of growth.

Underneath M’s Kleenex-hope flows the theme of kindness – in this case, that others not come upon the crumpled nastiness and have to deal. It must have been kindness toward myself that made me resolve to quit smoking. That was many, many years ago. My habit was deeply entwined with my perceived sex appeal, the writing of loggorrheic poems, coffee and scotch imbibed at the beginning and end points of each day, and the faux companionship addictions offered.

Those were the days, my friend. I thought they’d never end . . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I approached the strategy to quit like an athlete, for it did require stamina, the need to override craving, and equipment. I bought an elaborate fountain pen and a leather journal in which to make a daily accounting of my habit and its diminishing cling. I gave myself thirty days, and marked the date. I lessened the number of Pall Malls smoked every day by three. At some point, the process itself became more engaging than maintaining the addiction, and I actually quit a day ahead.

That had been a grand and necessary resolution. At twenty-three, I wheezed when climbing the one flight of stairs, albeit steep, to my apartment. Quite simply, I had done this to myself by smoking. There was a lot that needed fixing back then, and as I began to expose myself to Buddhist practice, I would conflate my deepening commitment to meditation with a “fix me” state of mind.

Among the variety of teachers whom I learned from, sat with and attended, it was Ruth Denison I thought of as my teacher. Over half a dozen years, I attended as many retreats, three of them at her center, Dhamma Dena – one quite noteworthy in the two weeks between Christmas time and New Years.

Dhamma Dena was then half a dozen haphazardly strung together, single-story, flat-roofed buildings, ill coordinated and make-do. They were scattered like tossed dice across the flat, tan, tilted bit of land. Mountains like crumbled earth broke out in the distance.

A teeming, enormous, sonorous military presence was close by. Pull out a California road map, and trace a finger east from L.A. to Riverside, and further east, slightly down, to Palm Springs, that celebration of excess contained within a frame of austerity, and then continue north along a diminishing scratch of road 80 miles or so and you will come to the dot of Joshua Tree and a little further north and east will find two designations for Twentynine Palms – one a happy, red Tee Pee and the other, a large, irregular mole-shaped pinky-beige area marked: Marine Corps AGCC Twentynine Palms No Travel. Pause here. Pitched that close to Ruth’s meditation center was – is – one of the largest military training areas in the country, where combined arms attacks – air to ground or ground to air –are staged; artillery and tank combat executed; a replica of a Middle East village offering simulacra in which to confront the hostilities of Iraq and Afghanistan. This enterprise leant our meditation practice an edge of revolt, albeit disembodied and nonviolent in principle. The sounds of modern warfare that shook the meditation hall kept very present in the mind, and at all times, beliefs we could not align with. But should we regard this base and its activities as the enemy or as our protectors?

It was freezing in the desert, and we were austere. The buildings offered only rudimentary shelter; their furnishings, worn and grim. Bare light bulbs hovered over hard cots. Water had to be conserved. If a bath were taken, one was impugned to scoop the sullage into a bucket; wrestle it outside and dump it on the shrubs of Mormon Tea, creosote, oleander, prickly pear. The food was austere – vegetables, beans, fruit and grains. Caffeine was not in evidence. Reading was forbidden, especially those books intended merely to distract or entertain. Journals could be kept; notes, taken. But to read a book invited escape from the self and diverted the point of being here – to cultivate moment to moment mindfulness. Ruth dazzled with astonishing, albeit rudimentary connections. She might enter the dining room, where ravenous retreatants, desperate for distraction, were falling on their lunch. She would stop us; command us to prayer, and attention. Agony or irritation would grip us, as she forced our attention onto a lettuce bit, a wedge of tomato.

“Eat this, and imagine what it took to make this food. You are eating sunshine, rainfall, seed, the hands that picked this fruit.”

I would never again fall mindlessly upon my food.

Among the routines typically defining a retreat are chores performed for the good of the community. A peculiar challenge of Dhamma Dena, however, was the lack of guidance when it came to execution. I had assigned myself the outhouse; it had struck me as humbling and not without some humor. But really, how did one empty an outhouse? For this is what it meant. Not sweeping and dusting and tidying the surfaces. But lifting the seat and hauling up the can. I could think of one perk: walking into the desert in the early morning with Brian and the birds.

Brian had been studying with and assisting Ruth in preparation for his entry into a monastery in England. A slender, young man with an easy smile, he had a way of appearing out of nowhere to answer a question, soothe a worry, supply a need, which, in my case, meant the outhouse.

“That’s been my job ongoingly,” he said kindly. “Before this retreat started, I was doing it, so I’ve learned a trick or two.”

One crucial trick – keep the garbage can lid at the ready. Together, we hauled the can out of its outhouse chamber, quickly slapping on the lid.

We dragged it, sloshing, in the early morning desert light past the dining hall, across the sandy driveway, through the sacred circle, where Ruth had strewn bright bits of glass and ceramic shards, jewel bright, under hanging bird feeders. We dug a shallow trench, the magpies with their dragon fly tails and brown wrens behind us, feeding. We paused, breathing hard, looking up at the circling ravens. Would there appear a road runner today? I would never see one.

Each afternoon, I’d walk into the desert, piercingly bright and cold. Where in this flat, vast desert did anything find protection? Settlements littered the desert – tiny, rough-hewn shacks close enough to each other to suggest neighborly relations, but dispersed, indicating wariness and paranoia. The human detritus looked as rough and camouflaged as the animal denizens – the rattlesnakes, brown birds, and scorpions. Water tanks or ingenious simulacra loomed over each shack, larger.

I loved it here. The paring down spoke to some half-excavated belief in my deep unworthiness, and so this retreat into Ruth’s desert was a cleanse, a peeling away of, what, though?   Seemingly, imperfections. Exacting standards accompanied unbroken scores of self criticism, confusing spiritual practice with spiritual boot camp, the point of which could seem to drive away “bad” thoughts, to scorn the ego, to impose a rigid self control. In the zendo, I had piled my zafu, zabuton, and this tower of my self by a stout pillar underneath a sign that read, “You are nothing special.” I understood the point of practice as striving for perfection, launched by a deep distrust of self.

Ruth was known for quirky methods applied to meditation instruction. She was regularly called a pioneer. So, for example, we might have an evening of music, in which primitive instruments would be given out, and we would spend the time in mindful mayhem, banging and blowing and pinging with attention riveted on each other’s din in an attempt to keep focused; to not get swept up, giddy, in the racket. We learned to separate identifying with an experience from observing it. Did I ping with joy, with calm, with agitation? What feelings brought to the banging and blowing governed outlook and behavior? She enlisted everything in the service of awakening – sweeping floors; dancing; creeping; breathing; feeling ill –with an astonishing attention to the deep sensations inside the body. She could lead you into a space of pure awareness, in which the simple act of swallowing made you feel like a vibrant speck among the swirling stars.

Hers was a grounding, albeit impulsive presence. She would swoop into a meditation hall, wide, polyester skirts swirling, matching head band or odd cap hardly restraining thick, long, graying blond hair. She would never be without two or three ragged dachshunds waddling behind. Her eyes, in a flash, took in everything – the state of the room and its inhabitants; who was new; who nervous; who would challenge with a distracted, troubled mind. She was possessed of a sharp intuition and the gift of knowing exactly what this disparate room of people needed by way of instruction; what each needed to deepen practice.

Christmas Eve, our group of twenty gathered in the zendo for evening service. After dinner, flatulence would be routine, making meditation olfactory, and with attuned attention, I would watch arise in my mind the terrible urge to flee. A forty-five minute meditation would typically be followed by Ruth’s heavily accented Dharma talk. But it was Christmas Eve and Ruth had had an inspiration. It was “The Little Drummer Boy.” She prepared us to hop mindfully to “Ah Rum Pah Pah Pum.” The piece began. Awkwardly we formed a circle under Ruth’s direction. The zendo’s lights were low. There were candles. The desert night was crisp and deeply black. But we were hopping, and warm. The song ended. I’ve always loathed this song. Not Ruth. It began again. For the sake of enlightenment, and Ruth’s Bismarckian ferocity, we hopped.

This continued for an hour. I remember it well, because I had not worn my bra. Surreptitiously, I gathered my breasts inside my folded arms, but this particular constriction, with the hopping, presented a threat to balance. It was a miserable, miserable practice. I sensed a strain of the sadistic accompanying each Ruth’s “Again!”. Feeling spent and oddly sullied, I tried to find something transformative in the ruthless hopping. Perhaps it was helping to drive out the underlying badness in myself, the badness I brought to every retreat I attended. I would go to fix the essential badness; take my wrong parts to the Buddhist Repair Shop, excoriate my flaws; excise my doubts; grow myself whole like a melon. And so, breasts flapping, I hopped, my belief in my bad self concurring with Ruth’s humiliating commands; her “Again” demanding the song be played one more endless time.

I don’t know about you, but it’s taken me over twenty years since those Dhamma Dena rigors to reach for, imaginatively, another kind of construct: let change issue from love.

***

For Christmas this year, I received two items to enhance my cookery – a stock pot large enough to bathe in, and a six quart slow cooker. These, in turn, inspired two manageable resolutions:

. to find a recipe for a slow-cook cassoulet, and make it;

. to make stock in enormous quantity, and thus, expand my soup repertoire.

Reasonable, everyday goals, particularly appropriate for winter, when kindness can easily find its expression in the sharing of broths, cassoulet, thick bean soups. I remember when coming across this aphorism, ”do your work and be kind,” to want to live it. What better application than making soups, and picking up your Kleenex?

***

Every Sunday, my wife and I have our Family Dinner. All pitch in, adult offspring having reached that age of loving and spontaneous reciprocity. I had found my recipe for the cassoulet. Ordinarily, I would have tacked the task onto an uber list created for that day, even though that day was Sunday, and because of how I was grown, I still regarded it as the Christian day of rest, meaning you go to

church, strain against boredom and resentment, after which you climb into Father’s Chevrolet and drive, bored and resentful, up to Grammy’s, where she has toiling since dawn to present her own Sunday Family Dinner. However my day of rest may begin in that spirit, by 9 A.M. the list and I are off, goading each other on, adding new “To Do’s” each time an idea surfaces and working ourselves into a lather. I decided, this Sunday, it would be different. I decided it would be just the cassoulet.

After all, it is a complicated dish, even tough D. reassured me, “It is a peasant dish. Do not be intimidated.” 

I used that as my mantra. But timing is key. Everything has to be chopped and browned and in the pot with enough time to slowly get the the dinner cooked. I was already an hour behind! Nevertheless, I would try to concentrate on the steps as I undertook them, and not flip into the paralyzing projection of all that must be done. I scoffed in the face of the list, telling myself I had the rest of my life to plant the spring-blooming bulbs and learn Bach’s choral opuses. I observed my stress as if it were a small, silly monkey worrying a rind. So what the stew would cook only eight hours, not nine? Would some deadly bacteria bloom and kill us off? Would this be our last Sunday Family Dinner?

On I chopped. It’s not a complicated dish, as far as chemistry goes. That is, there are not intricate reductions or foldings of one fragile ingredient into another, complicated sauces. There is, though, athletic chopping. The four pound, boneless pork shoulder must be hacked, seasoned, and browned. The chorizo sausage, purchased raw, needs breaking up and cooking; the bacon, fried and drained. The panko and parsley and of course the heaps of onions.   Plus tomatoes to be mashed and drained. There are steps. There is an order. It all takes time, and heroic washings-up before the next onslaught of large bowls and heavy pots. Have I mentioned the twelve cups of white beans? Fortunately, having read the recipe half a dozen times the night before, I had already prepared them. However, they had cooked up in a quantity that could keep my neighborhood nourished for the winter. My slow cooker has a six quart capacity. The recipe (Thomas Keller’s, by the way, oddly sansduck and confit) was sized for an eight quart cooker. There followed a crisis of quantity; the terror that the contents would explode – beans and pork and spatter.

By 11 o’clock in the morning, the ingredients were snugly in their pot, although well above the ¾ full line. But this was an experiment, after all, and I had found myself, although almost constantly engaged in argument with that self, for the most part present to each task – not hurrying through the sausage, for instance, to get outside to plant the bulbs, or prune the espalier, which has been crying out for a year to be hacked and tidied. Each competing thought that arose, after all, subtracted from the value of the task at hand. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that there is as much merit in washing the dishes mindfully as there is in writing a poem. I am not utterly, totally at peace with that, being an English Major, but I respect the intent – to bring clarifying attention to whatever the task at hand, not weighting the composition of the potentially brilliant poem over the tenacious removal of chorizo grease from the skillet. It is the quality of one’s attention to the task, not the rank of the task before one.

Although having found myself arguing with that self in the intricate assembly of the dish, I am calling my experiment a success. There were no casualties of the cassoulet. I had discovered my analogy to M’s Kleenex resolution – “Just the Cassoulet,” focusing on a simple enough object, and thus to topple the stacks of high falutin resolutions. Awareness multi-tasks, while needing to do nothing.

 

ORPHANED GIFTS

Time is running out, because, they say, you never know . . . and I want to do some good in my lifetime. In a lucky life, this lands in the realm of volunteering, but it has remained for me an ideal, a fixation, however excellent. The search has been conducted in, over, and around life’s demands, of course – work; the need to work; the struggle to find good work; making sense of all that in scraps and swaths of prose. Trying to volunteer is like trying to find a suitable house in the right neighborhood, and my search, believe me, has been far and wide.

Volunteering is not a poetic word. It is strictly utilitarian, connoting firemen in big boots and helmets, or grim halls with chipped linoleum. It’s such a should-bound word: I should give, give back; manifest my gratitude through action. It is noble; it is right. But my attempts are a dark comedy of trying to place myself in service. I keep trying. I keep trying to find my place. I keep trying to find a place that will accept my gifts.

My first experience was with an old, Pennsylvania Dutch man named, Bob Detweiler, who wanted help with gimp. “Help,” I would learn, meant gimp companionship, help with organizing his gimp accomplishments, and sourcing and schlepping for gimp. My role would never become entirely clear, as mostly what we did was sit across from each other on wobbly kitchen chairs outside of his garage in a bright alley. And what was gimp, even?

My early association had to do with Christian Science summer camp and requisite arts and crafts. One could choose among a bright plethora of useless things – felt medallions; bar soap carving; gimp, and of these, gimp seemed the most without point. With the felt, you could, at least, toss off a hot pad for Mom. But gimp? These stiff strips of plastic which could be woven in such a way as to produce dimension; you could braid a lanyard – another baffling word. The only thing, as far as I could see, that gimp was good for was to hold a life guard’s whistle – the plastic assured a waterproof status; the bright colors meant you’d never ever lose your whistle.

What earthly good was gimp? Bob Detweiler, notwithstanding, needed help with his, and so for a couple of days each week, I’d go sit on a chair in his alley, and “do” gimp. In looking back, I might have ended up with Bob, because a friend of my parents mentioned his wanting help with his art projects from someone arty. Thus, delighted to marry practicality, art and the social good, I answered the call.

Mostly, Bob would talk. This consisted of solemn, Pennsylvania Dutch “shares” regarding health. Bob was a big man with an enormous paunch, tucked roundly into overalls worn to a soft sheen.  One of Bob’s “shares,” in particular, made me queasy. He opined on phlegm. He advised me, if and when I’d find a hunk of phlegm in my throat, never to expel it. It was natural body secretion; God might have gotten mentioned, as in “God created phlegm, so it must have a good reason from being there in the body and so keep it?” Bob’s advice was to swallow these God-given gobs of phlegm, because in some way there were an aid to digestion, and not just regarding the role of the stomach, but actually all the way down and around and ultimately out; that phlegm played a vital role in one’s entire system.

Things began to get weird with Bob. I became confused as to what I was doing; how sitting there fingering the brightly colored, shiny gimp was helping Bob – or me, for that matter – for I had a need, even at fourteen, to feel that my efforts mattered. Of course, from Bob’s point of view, the arrangement might have seemed perfect. He had a somewhat rapt, albeit wary, arty girl absorbing his Pennsylvania Dutch wisdom and plus he never had to move from his chair, because I would fetch everything for him – the rolls of gimp; the vinegar he favored for drinking. But I didn’t feel of use. I did not relate to gimp as a concept or a medium. It was as if I had positioned myself as an art therapist and ended up a squeak toy.

Because of Bob, I became confused about volunteering in the main. I so avidly wanted to help, to give, but could not surrender my firm ideas of what it must be to be helpful. The Perfect Volunteer would willingly give herself to the needs and wishes of the other, or so I thought, but Bob had become disgusting. If I could have surrendered to the gimp, what lessons of generosity and loving kindness might have been gleaned?

I can’t say exactly that it’s gone downhill from the old Gimp Days, but in the five decades that have followed, my hope for a fulfilling and exemplary volunteer experience remains unrealized.

***

I tried to foist myself on PAWS. Working with injured possums and raccoons; the occasional eagle; infant squirrels – who wouldn’t want that? Actually, I’d like to take back what I said about possums.

 

 

On my volunteer orientation, we were shown one, sleeping in its tiny cage. It had its back to us, but even so, I could see there was nothing cute about it. Our coordinator indicated that among our tasks would be handling such creatures. My gaze stayed fixed on her as she stretched her arms into the cage, a towel draped between her hands, and grabbed it. This was meant to demonstrate how to approach a sleeping possum. It was then that I developed a perhaps disproportionate respect for the handlers; I, myself, would have to overcome some atavistic terror of wildness in order to do that. This was a possum with teeth, a rank smell, and bristles – gray, unkempt, they erratically covered a pinky-gray, mottled skin. Its jaw made a hideous grin that transmogrified into a grimace. The eyes suggested neither wit nor intelligence. The tail, rat-like and scaly. By no means, cute. If I were to suffer the two-plus hour schlep there and back, the least that the wounded and the injured could provide me with the “Aww factor.” The possum did not qualify. And then it began to thrash in a slow and slovenly manner.

She offered it around. We might practice holding.

 

Getting a feel for the work all right

 

We could get a feel for the work.

I declined. I could not bring myself to bridge the gap between my cravenness and up-close wildness. Even had it been cute – a raccoon, say, or a baby cougar – I would have flinched, and turned away. I could not be here. I did not have the fortitude to overcome my aversion; with time and practice to become one of those volunteers who say, “It is not glamorous. At the end of the day, I’m covered with dirt and feces. But it is the most satisfying work I know.”

Then there were the baby squirrels. So young, as to appear fetal – hairless and a blood-darkened shade of pink; the size of small fingers. They were in a special room, very warm, with hanging lamps, a room of baby squirrels, as odd, in my imaginings, as a room full of onions. Why ever would you save baby squirrels? Squirrels are pests. In my yard, they dominate. They waste no time. Anyone who has, and loves, a garden is relieved when the squirrel population diminishes, as it does from time to time. The squirrels eat my garden – oh, not as heartbreakingly as the slugs, who ravage all emerging shoots – dahlias, ligularia, anything tender and chartreuse with youth. The squirrels maraud, ever on the look out for buried treasure – bulbs. No bulb is free from the threat of their assiduous, concentrated digging.

 

I have struggled to outsmart my squirrels – to discourage them away from the newly planted bulbs. I have lain chicken wire, for example,  over deep troughs. I have tried to rig the bird feeders so that they can not get at the seeds. In the end, the squirrels triumph. They are smarter than I, when it comes to the culture of the garden. They are superior. So I had to give up the illusion that I could manage mine, and began to think of them as entertainment. I provided them with a toy – a Squngee. This consists of a dried corn cob screwed into the end of a coiled wire. A bell is attached. Hang this from a tree, and soon a squirrel will figure it out, as they can all things; they will leap onto the cob. The bell sets up a clatter. They ride the cob like a bull, bouncing while trying to dislodge the kernels. Often, the squirrel will get tossed, somersaulting, and the garden will have acquired a circus feel. I figure if you can’t control them, turn them into clowns.

 

 

When, at PAWS, I encountered these fetal marauders, I had to ask, “Why?” Why rescue squirrels? Is it some Mother Theresa principle? Directing loving kindness to each and every one who is dying, whatever the sins and regrettable commissions? Mother Theresa and her fleet, the ultimate volunteers? This is what you do. You save what comes before you, in this case, baby squirrels, but what would you do if you came across a nest of baby rats, abandoned.? Bring them into the home; feed them? To what ends? Why?

And so I had a little philosophical twinge regarding PAWS. I mean, do not ask me to eliminate their fingerlings, but do not ask me to find their rescue worthy. The possum was different – an established individual, intending harm to no one, and reminding me a little bit of Bob. Something around the eyes.

Not for me the rank smells; wet concrete floors; feces. I am not proud of this. Nor could I possibly approach the possum in this frame of mind. It would not be a kindness. And there’s another issue: when I think about working with animals, I get guilty, believing that to be an indulgence in the face of so much human suffering. So, who shall have my gift?

***

A couple of years ago, I called Children’s Hospital, thinking I could offer some precious  time and attention to sick kids, holding, reading aloud, playing. I was met with cool incredulity. Over the phone, it was made clear to me that my motives were selfish; that I had no skills; besides, there was a waiting list of possibly thousands.

***

Once I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island. It was Thanksgiving. I don’t remember much about the place, or the people – just the surge of joy in giving, and I thought, “Uh oh, I could get hooked on this, the ‘look at me I’m doing tremendous good’ flush.” I began to distrust my generosity, its underpinnings, anyway, and my friends and I – we who gave our day to the poor and disadvantaged – all felt aglow and virtuous, and the one friend took a turn into self righteousness, and the other, into a kind of bird-brained good will.

 

 

 

 

 

***

The other night, I was chopping onions, making dinner. I began to wonder how many onions I had chopped in my life.

 

This reminded me of chopping vegetables as an aspiring Macrobiotic while living in Boston, Massachusetts a very, very long time ago. I was taught then, as an aspirant, that chopping vegetables was, according to the venerable wife of our venerable leader, the highest calling. Highest Calling! Mrs. Michio Kushi made washing a pot look like a higher calling, because she was the perfect Macrobiotic wife – obedient, fastidious, a virtuoso of the domestic arts, and forgiving of marital peccadillos (that would be adultery). Mrs. Michio Kushi wore brilliant, Japanese vestments and moved with somber authority around her kitchen. I had recently graduated from college, a Fine Arts major, seeking to place my gift for ardent appreciation . . . somewhere . . . and thus it landed in carrots and burdock and onions. There was a rigor and an esthetic to macrobiotic chopping. Status was accorded those who did it right.

I worked in the macrobiotic restaurant on Newberry Avenue and continued to aspire. I would be a vegetable prep person, entrusted with chopping precise shapes and thicknesses for the vegetarian macrobiotic dishes. If nothing else, the food was beautiful in a pure and austere way. Mere color and texture accrued to beauty, because it was the essence of each food that emerged. Smothering sauces and obscuring blends had no place on the macrobiotic plate.

I can imagine – or could, were I younger – chopping my way around the world. This requires no particularly complicated skill. It does, however, require patience and loving attention. I endow my chopping with love on behalf of my wish to nourish. Anyone can throw chopped bits into the omelet pan, but it takes love to chop them mindfully, and in order – onion, zucchini, mushrooms – and to toss them in the pan in that same order, making sure that the oil is heated to the right temperature, the garlic joining in at the last, when the heat has calmed down, and evened.

I have been chopping onions in this manner for at least half a century. I am trying to imagine a space large enough to accommodate all of those historic onions – the slices and mincings and chop. And the very many layers, and, of course, my tears.

I will happily volunteer to spend time with you, to bring discussion topics to your home, to listen to fine music. I will have washed my hair; made my appearance pleasing, and we can sit warmly in a room of your choosing, and talk about many things, particularly those customarily avoided – depression; death; the darkness of childhood sorrows. I will bring lists of books that must be read; films that must be seen; plagues and genocides to ponder; gratitudes that we will bring to bear. I will accompany you for some hours; I will happily inflict my gift, because at the root of my urge to volunteer is, I believe, a desire for social life, for engagement laced with meaning.

And if you do want me to come chat, visit, or sauté, there are requirements. As Mother said, ad nausea, regarding everything from hamster care to menstrual management, “there are rules and regulations.”

1.  under no circumstances suggest that we “do” arts & crafts.

2.  should our visit include refreshment, please offer nothing that involves lo or no fat items.

3. I ask that you in no way resemble a possum .

4. I ask that nothing about our encounter is redolent of Bob.

MY LIFE AS A FETUS

The day cedes to night, and in-between is filled with grief and treachery. The sun fades ~ hysterically (i.e. the crimson’s shout: “Good Bye! God Bless! Be Kind!” as it sinks, God’s fist pushing it under), or more typically at this time of year the gray day will simply gray down dimmer, and then it’s softly dark. The transition’s a void, and temptation has settled there; my task ~ to sit unruffled inside my skin. When the sun withdraws, a bit of self leaves with it, leaving, in turn, a kind of hollow. What will fill it? Wine? Stories? Winter stew? Sometimes it is wine and it is difficult to turn off that spigot, and this is not good. What hollow strains not to be felt? Is it fetal? Did the fetus twirl away from a perceived ambivalence, an overheard regret?

My life as a fetus was short and unspectacular, as I recall. I did not have a favorite color. It was dark, like being stuck behind an eyelid, yet I floated indistinguished from the whirled galaxy weightless and without responsibility. Consciousness was fed by raw sensation. Predictions of winter storms trigger an anticipation of retreat and comfort now ~ the bed, the plump quilt, the sinking, a tingling that mists the brain like finger tips drawn through warm paint.

Figuratively I revert to breast milk and pabulum; I will often drink out of a deep thirst. My blood quickens as I imagine taking that first sip – tequila, gin, red wine. I hail the false breast, and my life, thus, before the press of names and gender. I did not miss my lack of options then. My efforts were not graded – only to observe unobserved and held, however ambivalently, in safety.

The seas were not calm, though; there was worry. I grew vigilent ~ to valves opening and shutting; to softened thuds beyond the springy walls, to the slosh of a quick turning.

And here it would always come, unhappily ~ oatmeal again!

Sometimes a sour smell pervaded ~ a bad feeling, like a chip of rancid nut, a bad oil, lodged. Sometimes overheard, a scuttling of doubt. But of course there is no other room in the womb to go to; it’s all one singular, pulsing hollow ~ bladder, bagpipe, moon. Regardless, sleep would not feel this good again, the enveloping cloth of it. Oh, the myriad templates laid down.

What did I inherit from my first home?

The way out seemed clear. I waited for the welcoming, thunderous applause. But that would come only much, much later.

 

WHAT IS SOWN- PART ONE

August. I used to hate the month. I was almost embarrassed by it. It was a Rubens nude – glistening and fertile; you could almost see the sheen of moisture in the folds of the fat nude’s inner thigh. August was a heavy, fecund woman, lethargic, immobilized by heat and the imprisoning male gaze. It was my contempt, sharpened by adolescence. I lived with my moderate, modest parents in a contemporary, hill-side house in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and summers were heavy, humid and policed; turgid with yearning. It was impossible to find the energy even to imagine being active, unless headed, in a car, toward shade and the river. The air in the valley barely moved, and the furnaces of Bethlehem Steel boomed sporadically, fouling the air. I hated Bethlehem. I hated the strictures of my family; even the word itself, family, suggested corsets and straights and a future dead-ending in the Lehigh Valley and bondage and reproduction. That was August.

Then something changed – maybe just fleeing the humid, stale valley, with its all-used-up-feel; fleeing the house of my modest parents and heading west, toward space and danger. Or the way somebody might have said some time about August, “fecund, fecundity,” the words themselves a delight, offering another point of view, as if a word could become a thing, a window I could open and step through into a different way of feeling and seeing what August had to offer – the ripening of many fruits; the readying of all that ripened in the fields, toward harvest, toward gathering and feasting; preparing for the waning light. Suddenly, language proved an agent of transformation.

 

 

Harvest

August triggers my revised thoughts about the fertile and the fecund; that which culminates toward fulfillment, and leads me to the question: what constitutes a rich, full, successful life?

***

1~ Generosity

           I was volunteering at the Food Bank. It was a rambling, slip-shod place; its façade looked like a Western movie set, and was painted an unfortunate blue, very flat and at the same time, psychedelic. It was a warren inside, cubicles sprung up from a mulch of dirty carpet. One cavernous side of the ramshackle building housed the food bank, teeming with refrigerators and freezers and high shelving and a dozen focused volunteers organizing the mounds of food that flooded in on hand trucks and pallets. On the other side was the clothing bank where I was stationed with half a dozen others. Donations occurred and accrued. Enormous, black garbage bags lined one wall, and we’d sort through them and hang or pile accordingly – dresses and jackets and pants and under things and make-up and broken ersatz Christmas trees and pens that maybe worked and diapers and blankets and duffels and broken shoes and hats.

 

The Sad, Provocative Pile

The room was wide at the street end and narrow at the sides, leading back to the food bank cavern, and there was a long counter with a closet to the side, behind which we stood, and served the street poor. Regulars came – Stan, pale and chubby, with eczema and green finger nails, waiting to paw through the bra bin, and the tiny Central American woman, with whom I struck up jolly eye contact, who every week asked to see the “bedaahs.” It took a while to understand she was interested in the bra collection, and I would wonder why she needed two new bras every week, but I figured if you were always getting used stuff, it wouldn’t last that long, and she seemed sweet, and unassuming, so I trusted her need. There were the regulars who were kind and gentle with each other, and those who were drunk, unkempt, surly. There was the tall, elegant black man with a halo of white hair and the deepest voice, a well known performer at one time, and still thought himself such, who recited passages from Shakespeare as he “shopped,” but mostly he came to get off the street for warmth, a bit of socializing, and to execute his peculiar form of yoga.

“Shopping” was actually picking an allowed amount of stuff – 2 pairs of underwear, 1 shirt, 1 pair of pants or a light jacket, some cosmetics and first aid, 1 pair of shoes. These rules were posted in various obvious places, and the regulars knew them and were polite – gracious, even – about observing them and receiving their items. The gratitude among them was catching, so that you wanted to stand behind the counter and give away stuff all day.

There was a difficulty, though, with two volunteers, Gloria and Letitia, who would get there early to “shop” for themselves, and this became a problem, not only because it was beginning to be known that they had formed some kind of ring, but because at least one of them had been there for a long time, was a good volunteer gone rogue, it seemed, and it was one of those things we knew but did they know we knew, and they were very loud and jovial, and thought themselves entitled.

That got to be engrossingly weird, but also, I began to feel that my work there was pointless. I wasn’t addressing peoples’ suffering, except to give the tiny Central American woman her weekly “bedaahs.” I was standing behind a counter, feeling zings of guilty power, telling Stan, “No, you can not have that third brassier,” or turn someone away, because they were drunk. I began to notice how we, behind the counter, grew a little swollen with our power of decision – to give or not; “Yes you can, gladly,” or “No, you know the rules.” I began to feel uncomfortable in the face of these little power plays – not that the food and clothing bank wasn’t doing good work, serving the community’s street poor.

Sometimes the misery was discouragingly apparent. Trish, for example, came mostly every week with a large, seemingly cordial man named, Donald. They were obviously linked but it wasn’t obvious how, until I was told, “Oh, yes, they live together on and off. Donald is a drunk and he beats on Trish and she ends up in the E.R. and they drift apart and then they are back together.” The smell of alcohol rolled off them as they pawed through the racks, giggling and ferret-y eyed.

My Buddhism was getting a vigorous work out. My project – to increase the richness and fullness of my life though acts of generosity – did not result in a Volunteer of the Month plaque, or even sustained friendship among staff – kind and dedicated people. It resulted in my quitting. The vastness of the suffering undid me. Observant of it, and the random, raw deals handed to the players, I would go all porous, and freeze. Not flawed so much as possessed by extra imagination, I felt knocked up and walked through, as if the miseries jumped fence to start grazing in my pasture. Mine was a kneejerk response to Need; I felt obliged to apologize and fill it. I became envious of those who could hold their own in the face of Need, and offer what was appropriate – tea; a clean pair of socks; listening, with a discerning heart – all without feeling appropriated. Lacking training, a map, language with which to channel my unruly empathy into supportive action, I left my work at the food bank, a pilgrim still.

***

2~ Desire

          An act more of reclamation than present possibility, I will think about desire in the spring, when, excited, I make the bud rounds in my garden. This triggers a wish to re-appropriate desire by using images from my garden in its paroxysm of early spring. But never in my torrid mind appear associations that don’t connote sexual desire, along with all of its attendant, adolescent leitmotifs – the naming of the genitals; the ambivalent claiming; kind warnings from the elders about the huge weather systems up ahead; the very real possibility that then – at 12, 18, and 24 – one could be completely overcome, and yet could also be taught how to manage all of it as a good thing, full of joy and wonder. This material remained un-reviewed in my family. As a Christian Scientist, Mother discharged to God all that came with or related to the body. Disembodied we strove to be, and floundered, in the main.

          My first Template of Desire was established when Gary, the bad boy of the neighborhood, lured me into the shed behind the rabbit hutch. This had no name, yet. Names would catch up later. Desire was sown early with a hodgepodge of impressions: the fragrance of the straw on which we lay, somewhat entangled; the rabbits’ restless footing outside in their wire cage; the dusty, twilit air; the lurking fear of exposure. The moment was a net, snagging unique, indelible impressions –straw, the bad boy with honey colored hair, shame, and the grown-ups pattering away in the house a few yards up the path lined with lettuces and zinnias, where we go “to Grammy’s” every Sunday, a day bifurcated into the endless tedium of church, and another endless hour’s car ride after, toward her enormous, Pennsylvania Dutch, mid-day dinners.

          I like to believe I’ve learned something about desire from my garden, and that it can be a gateway to knowledge. What is loved leads one to curiosity, and practice. I trust this as theory. But in fact, I do not trust desire. When for example in the early spring I walk past freshly bermed, newly planted baby trees, I find myself less in an admiring and more in an acquisitive frame of mind. Greed screams, “I want those trees in my garden! I want more!” Never mind I have no more space or budget. Never mind I’m too old and tired to maintain the plants I have. I walk in greed, and experience this as an extension of desire. I dwell in the arguments desire instigates between curiosity and timidity; appetite and shame.

          The desires of childhood, those remembered, seem clean by comparison. These passionate attachments– to reading piles of superhero comic books; to climbing trees; to flying – how I knew I could if I practiced every night, leaping off the bureau onto the bed again and again, knowing it was simply a matter of belief. Desire drove me West from Philadelphia, where for five years I languished as a poet and playwright, as committed to my Johnnie Walker Red and Pall Mall’s as I was to verse. Desire to regain clean airways and sweet breath moved me toward quitting. Desire to leave behind that sad girl, collapsed in my Center City studio apartment, an Anne Sexton wanna-be, until that career path became altogether too certain.

 

Anne Sexton

When the days grow slightly warmer, and life begins to surge again, the buds swell, and bulbs heave the mulch and the soil aside like bedclothes. The Camellia is the first to show. Next season’s buds swell even as this spring’s flowers pitch themselves all over the sidewalk, moist and browning. Its blooming is a calmer side of greed – the surfeit, like household junk put out on the street with its flimsy cardboard sign: “Free Free.” Conversely, the buds of the pear trees are tidy; they are silk buttons tightly balled and wrinkled. Pink shimmers along the edges of a tender green. The buds on all of the maples are hard and red, swelling at the tips of delicate branches like engorged tics. The lilac buds slowly reveal myriad small, tight-fisted, dark purple spheres. The Forsythia, ever un-subtle, is the one in a loud patterned blouse, middle-aged and frumpy, believing herself girlish and full of grace. The yellow screams, “I can make you happy,” while she remains oblivious of the drought that happens every summer.

 

WooooWeeee

Before too long, it is all a swollen riot of genitalia out there – the achingly long arousal; the simultaneity of orgasms; the sustained explosion.

***

3 ~ Love

Which brings one to love.