In the late nineties, I used to travel to LA on business. Often I would arrange the trip to end on Friday and then stay the weekend as my business was fine paying the rental car to have me stay over the weekend because it made the flights cheaper. On the weekend I would attend a buddhist retreat and stay in my friends garage over in Venice at night. She had converted her garage into a meditation room with a simple bed. One night I awoke to lots of shouting through the thin walls; a bunch of teans on bicycles were riding back and forth on the service road. This was ok until the shouting got angry and a couple of shots were fired. I was terrified but nothing came wizzing through the wall; the wall would not stop a Bic pen. After the shots, the teens took off.
These days I live in a rural county in upstate NY in a small house on the edge of Lake Ontario; My wife and I hear gun shots pretty much every day. There’s a shooting range about three miles away as the Turkey Vulture flies. Guys in cammo and work boots firing rifles. I don’t know for sure but there’s probably a lot of Jack Daniels over there as well. Nobody gets hurt. No crime. Just some fellas lettin’-off-steam. When it comes to guns, danger is in the eye of the holder.
Twenty four days after Dad passed, I have an early morning dream in which a whole bunch of people are in line for an immunization for Covid, as I get my turn, My dad sticks a needle (much like that used to inflate a basketball, not a medical looking needle) in my arm and I feel electricity flowing through my body. He smiles at me and I at him. I get a warm fuzzy feeling of love between us. Then I walk home barefoot in the snow wearing a gray blazer. As I walk along I hear a voice say “Hezar-tu is about interstitiality, liminality, and the spatial conditions of edges.“
On July 14th, Dad passed. I was not there, I only returned from an hour drive to get my laptop in preparation for what I expected to be an all nighter at his side. His nurse suggested that he chose his time.
It was a hard thing to lose my sister Linda in December of 2015. She was 60, four years older than me. There is a whole world of hurt in that story, but that’s not what I am writing about today. What I want to talk about here is that there is an impact of that event, Linda’s passing, on current events in the family. Dad being 91 is failing, but I have mentioned this before. My point here though is that, this is a moment, when our father is dwindling, that I wish I could be with my sister, to hold each other through a common sorrow. It is also true that with Covid-19 running amuck, that might not have been possible, but we might at least have had conversations on the phone. So in this time of pandemic, and in this moment of our own family tragedy, there is the boomerang that hits you in the back of the neck; suddenly one wants a saence. Seaguls cry to each other. Somehow I think that if I could find a medium to run the show, Janis would show up with Linda, with a little glass in her hand, singing “Cry Baby.” The three of us, through some imagined woman in a turban, would get through this. The long legs of the Great Blue Heron trail off in the morning rain
Linda loved our parents. I know she would drive non-stop to be with them. It might have been an issue, as she had 4 DWI infractions. What she lacked in common sense, she made up for with love and compassion. When I go and chat in their living room each day, dad in the hospital bed, mom on the couch, Linda is there, 5×7 and framed. Aside from me and the hospice health aides, most other communication is via Zoom, or FaceTime or the phone. Sadly, both of these apps, as well as the phone, only work with the living.
It’s a 35 minute drive, each day, each way, to visit with my parents. The old man brightens up, once we wake him, and chats about the birds and animals that he sees via the sliding glass doors. I show them WeChat photos and videos of their two-month-old great-grandson “ZeAn” who lives in Shenzhen China, near Hong Kong. When I get back to our home, I bring up Spotify and play “Cry Baby” looking out at the lake through rain blurred windows.
As a Buddhist, I spend a lot of time watching my own mind. Looking for ways that my mind tricks me with illusion. Here I mean the way my thoughts turn to things that have no basis in reality, for instance if I have an angry thought about somebody, I make up little stories in my head about what they are thinking and I actually have no basis for those stories. Sometimes I need a watchdog to bark when I have silly thoughts.
Three days ago, the old man left and was replaced by a different guy. This guy is the one that sees people on the wall; who reaches out to grasp invisible things that seem to dangle from the ceiling. Later he was sure that there was water dripping from the curtain rods. The next day he was adamant that he and mom had moved to a new house that looked remarkably similar to the apartment they live in now, but different. Also he was sure that somebody had kidnapped mom when she went to another room for a few minutes. “Dad, you’re hallucinating again,” I said, touching his feet to provide physical reassurance and contact. Just because the mind is playing the trickster, is no reason to lose physical contact. Coyote mind, I call it, as the coyote was the trickster in several native american cultures. “Your mind is messing with you, dad. You have to trust mom when she tells you that you are confused.” He looked at me, and said “I know, but it’s really hard.”
On Thursday I talked with his nurse and he suggested that my old man be given Haloperidol every six hours rather than “as needed.” When I visited, he was asleep the whole time so I came back again in the morning. My old man was back, the one without hallucinations. I was shocked, he was totally lucid, he could even tell me what it was like when he was hallucinating, articulate the confusion and beliefs. His best friend of 55 years called while I was there and they chatted, reminiscing about old times, trips they had taken. The coyote has left the building, for now. It was a joyous Friday. Each day brings what there is to bring.
DEATH AND THE GIFT
In The Gift of Death, Derrida asks “How can one give oneself the gift of death?” He links this question to the question of responsibility, of being responsible for one’s own death. It is a hard thing to look at one’s own death, right in the coal black eyes. I am not speaking of some future death many years hence, but rather, an imanent death fast approaching like a train in the tunnel. My old man is staring at it, not with fight, but with compassion. It’s a strange thing to watch from the side, sitting in a chair in the living room. Each day he says something kind, something appreciative, something about a future that will not contain him, (nothing can contain him much longer). Day and night he gazes out the glass doors at the reeds and cat-tails. Geese honk, not sure if he notices them though his hearing is fine. Speaking to him, sometimes he is barely there and then the next moment he is earnestly speaking to me about his will, tossing latin phrases out and then explaining them to me. Mind is a light switch. A redwing blackbird lands on a cat-tail.
Two days ago the old man said: “I don’t have much longer, I think. The sooner the better.” Yesterday he got in the hospice bed. A sign of acceptience. If there was a small box, he would keep his pain in it; there is no box, the pain is in his hips and back. Mom gives him little doses of Morphine from plastic surringes; clear liquid squirts under his tongue. He only takes it when it gets bad, he was never one for drugs.
Dad worries. Mostly he worries about having the finances in order. A bill needs to be paid. Life insurance to take care of mom. Rain taps the window facing the little patch of forever-wild between the apartment buildings. My father has always been that guy, the one who makes sure that everything is taken care of for his family. As he has come to hear his train getting closer, he worries that he has forgotten some repsonsibility, a thing that needs attention. Caring for others has been his job his whole life, his wife and kids, his parents, others in the family. Get up, go to work, make sure bills are paid and that everybody has a roof and walls. Last night, for the first time, Mahogany, a woman who is an in-home care-giver spent the night; Mom slept easily for the first time in days.
“I saw a fox the other day, did I tell you?” He asks. These days his short term memory is maybe 30 seconds long. The bank told me that he paid his credit card bill three times in three days. So now he has a four hundred and fifty dollar credit. I keep telling him that I have taken over the finances for them both, that he needn’t worry. I also sing songs to Lake Onterio.
An image, The Grim Reaper, but no, that’s not right, the finality of the scythe, the sweep of it implying an instant of swift ending. In reality, for most, The Reaper is a local bully that continually whittles away at you. Blocking your memory, bruising a joint with the thud of a fist. He severs a nerve ending with his pocket knife, blocks the way of your sight forcing some coping mechanism. Death comes cruelly as disablement, decline, a crumbling of effectivity and confidence. Oh you become prepared, like with the school bully, you know that you will have to give up the lunch money. Businesses bank on it, selling products that promise a “still active” life where “nobody else will know”; everybody sees the marketing, there are no secrets.
I start by thinking desire. First thought is the wanting something, a thing or an experience. The desire for alterity, the other, or the form of the other which for me might be the body of the female. The desire for the other might be the desire to go beyond my own subjectivity. Coming out of oneself, release into The Big Other is jouisance. In the ecstasy of sex, or that of art, or in the bliss of tantric meditation, one comes out, released into the great other. “It’s the experience the subject can have of losing himself, of no longer being present to himself.” I fall into the absence of myself; is it a dark cave without the light of “I”, or is it the brilliant blue sky into which I evaporate? The latter I think. In the moment of arrival into the blue beyond, one announces one’s arrival, “I’m coming.” One becomes merged into the other while at the same moment becoming lost in the verb. If one stares at a thought in meditation, the thought falls away like your name written with a finger on water. With the announcement one’s arrival one passes into the verb and the verb passes into the silence of the blue. One cannot think the beyond, one can only pass into it.
Living in a rural area, I can go for long walks outside, watching the turkey vultures soar over the fields looking for lunch, even with social distancing; I can walk for an hour and never pass a person on the road that is not rushing by in a Jeep. Walking along the sun hits my face or the wind pushes through my jacket and chills me. After a few miles I feel the back of my right knee, which may act up from time to time. I become aware of my body. But there it is “my body,” as if I possess a thing. As if I have a body. Is that the case or is it that I am a body? Jean Luc Nancy said: “Having s body refers to an object, being a body refers to a subject.” This dual nature of the flesh, the bone, the neural pathways, these water-bubble eyes, of being both subject and object seems confused. Or is it only a trick of language? I think not, I think it is an ebb and flow of our perceptions. When one hand touches the other I am the one who touches and who feels the touch. When making love, there is the burst behind they eye, is it due to my nerve endings, my lover’s body, the interaction of them both, my interpretation of the other’s body as some kind of language? In masturbation, who is the other? Where is the other’s body? We return to the hand.
ART & DESIRE
I have this friend. We tend to get together for coffee once a month. Mostly we discuss philosophy, psychology, and literature. In this time of staying home, we cannot get together at a café obviously. So we send emails. “what are you reading, have you written anything, etc. More recently my friend has been less verbose than usual, sends images, small multi-media creations with pen&ink mixed with water color. I send things that I have written. Why do we continue to make art in a time when thousands are dying? Truthfully I don’t know. Jean-Luc Nancy said, “this new sensibility is desired and created not because we lack something, or out of a compulsion for repetition, but because what is desired is the renewing of meaning as such. What art testifies to, then, is our desire to make sense infinitely.” It is not that we desire to communicate meaning, to another, it is that we desire to create/renew meaning and that, within the context of a verbal or visual language. But this is not so much desire in the sense of being able to fulfill, to have enough, it is more like jouisanse in which we keep going even after having reached a completion. We make a piece of visual art, but we do not put down our paints or our pen, we begin again.
The sun is out this morning. Normal? Abnormally warm and beautiful for this time of year? Regardless of normality, the birds seem to be engaged in their eating at the feeder and chirping (one can no longer use the term tweet in a bird context). The local rabbit seems to accept the day, chewing a leafy green. Does it matter, really, if today is normal? I can walk down the middle of the road on a double yellow line except for the odd pick-up. The roads are semi-empty. My wife teaches from her office upstairs. I can work from home. Others find their lives turned upside down, out of work, out of cash. The stock market crashes and rises depending on the news of the day. NYC is just trying to survive the onslaught of Covid-19. My online meetings at work talk about how long it will be until we can get back in the lab. The 24×7 news talks about how long it will be until we get back to “normal.” But was normal really that good? Were we happy? Normal was good enough for me personally, but for many this might be true. Certainly where we are right now is not good. Millions out of work and tens of thousands dying from Covid-19. But there is a short amount of time here, to consider where one wants to be, where the country wants to be, where the world wants to be, when the dying goes down and the social distancing can be reduced and people can go to work. Do you want to go back to the same job? Do we want a country where not everybody has access to good health care, or a living wage? Must we return to that? Normal is only what we make it.
Stepping out the side door, the horizon is a peach colored swath between blue-gray clouds and the slate gray lake, the wind is up and the gulls play in the updrafts at the bluff. I turn west through a collision of trees to the meadow. Some dead branches have fallen and one leans against its tree. A friend of mine has said “everything leans,” by which, she explained, she means that everything depends on everything else. She is speaking of the Buddhist concept of interdependence. In this day of plague, everybody feels the uncertainty. We long for control. We are used to being able to isolate the situation and gain control. But we can observe, see the interdependence, and maybe realize that we have no control “only influence,” my friend said. These days influence is distance, and soap.
NOTES on a PLAGUE
In Camus, I find this line: “…the precariousness of all things.” That nails it I think, suddenly discovering in real time the precarity of one’s life, or the precarity of life in general in the face of a little RNA replicator. To find friends and loved ones challenged to their core, trying to remain relevant to the world a little longer. This world.
Finding Camus in the time of Covid-19, I download “The Plague,” and begin to read. It’s probably not the best thing to do but I never read Camus before so I delve. As I go from one page to the next it echoes the news reports and the daily briefings. “Stupidity has a knack of getting its way.” Just today there was videos of beach goers laying in clumps in the sun in Florida who’s governor DeSantis has still not given a stay at home order. Stupidity.
We watch as the numbers climb. Numbers seem just numbers in the beginning. There are numbers in Wuhan. We keep our distance and count how many hours it takes to get from Wuhan to Shenzhen where we have family, a son and his wife and child. But then somebody starts another counter in New York and we watch the numbers going up by tens and then hundreds and now more than a thousand. Still people play basketball in parks, lay about on beaches. Is it innumeracy? Do we not understand that the counters go up in New Orleans and Detroit? Finally people draw pictures and realize that the numbers will top 100,000 best case. But some numbers don’t increase so quickly, the number of masks and gowns, the PPE to keep the health workers safe. The numbers of respirators that keep lungs breathing. These numbers are holding back, and the nurses and doctors are collapsing in New York City. We start to know people that have it. We are beginning to understand subtraction as well as addition as people disappear. How long until we understand division?
Watching the mind in that liminal space between dream and conscious thought intrigues me. Lying in bed, drifting along like a plank out on lake Ontario sometimes images come to me as if flipping through an old rolodex as if the subconscious was looking for images to string together into story; the mind is a myth maker, and generally it places the ego at the center as Hero. But other times, it is like there is a woman in the next room who calls out words, or strings of words. Yesterday was one of these mornings. I was sound asleep when I heard
“This book is going to be losing a table.”
I have no idea what that means yet. It seems like something Gertrude Stein might have written in “Tender Buttons.” It is grammatically correct and yet there is slippage, disjunction. I awoke directly after this came to me and I found it important enough to write down to ponder later, as I am doing now, playing at the “language game.”
I have a horn. A ritual horn (Kangling) made from a human thigh bone. This is used in a Tibetan Buddhist practice called Chöd (cutting through the ego). It may sound creepy, but the piece has a haunting sound when played at fourteen thousand feet. We use this Kangling to call in the hungry spirits, and to satisfy their hunger by offering our own bodies to them. It sounds brutal but it is really about mastering ones own ego, by mastering our fears and our attachment to our bodies. In the west we might gift our bodies to science but in Tibet one idea was to gift our body parts to the study of the mind and the reduction of suffering. Other body parts are used in ritual, in particular the skull, which houses the brain and therefor the mind. The skull can be used as a cup (Kapala) to hold ritual drinks. The skull is also used to make skull drums (Damaru) which are used in many rituals. Some might find this creepy, but I found it a way to reuse bones for the benefit of others. My friend Susan discusses her views on the spirit of things over at winepoured
Haven’t listened to Monk in a long while, gray clouds dance the viridian horizon of Lake Ontario. Blue Monk has moves, induces movement, the mind becomes a rover on the waves. The bluff edge maple, stripped bare, its roots becoming exposed in the erosion, clings to life. Epistrophy. Apostrophe. A strophe. Event.
Sometimes I struggle with the blank page, with language, each word telling me I have it wrong. Of course, at this latitude, I expect struggle in December. I lift snow only to put it down again. Incongruence is expected.
Old-age, sickness, and death. This is the fate, the Buddha tells us, we all come to, if we make it that far. It’s the natural way, but it’s hard to watch: he knows his mind is going, she know her eyes and ears won’t last as long as she needs them. I help as I can but I can’t stop these forces. All I can do is up the compassion as I can. Bring a meal, help set up the Christmas decorations. A hug, a kiss, daily touch.
There is a certain alone-ness, not loneliness, per se, but the feeling one gets when one’s love is away for days, and the foot steps of winter can be felt in the chill of the floorboards as one rises in the dark. The moon points to the mind moving. The scent of morning coffee mingles with the coals of last nights fire, dark but baring faint glows underneath. A word turns over and over in the mind, each turn a repetition with difference in meaning, a paper cup in the wind.
Losing an organ is akin to falling into The Height with its lost boys and runaway girls looking for something other than home, the way a person falls into a coma, never to be heard from, never to complete her sentence, the comma separates us from cruelty which is born of fear and loathing in the 21st century, there is no coming back from it, period.
Nobody reads the paper anymore. The result is that death is a post in a Facebook feed. Death scrolls by. A fly by. Holy hell one can miss this passing and so easily not mourn; not mourning becomes guilt and guilt is a killer; technological karma implodes the actual social mesh.
Before dawn, moon faced with eyes closed in light. Eyelids barely opaque, filter sheets of silver photons, but the waves get through.
Whisky and Wittgenstein: Playing language games among the Philosophical Investigations by firelight at the edge of Lake Ontario, the wind up and the waves roar in the cold of December. I ponder his “Family Resemblances” concepts while Knob Creek bourbon rolls across my tongue.
A dusting of snow, just enough to turn the world into black lined image in white. Parallel lines of the roof shingles dazzle sleepy eyes. The lake eerily silent; a green-gray that pleases me.
Sad, the orange semi-ferrel cat that wandered the abandoned farm became road-kill. One eye smooshed out, dark red-black blood under his head. We use a couple of shovels to move him into the grass where the buzzards can pick him clean.
Closing my eyes I have three visions: Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” the nose of a lion, and the Daibutsu in Kamakura.
A fence post hole really, that’s what they dug. A twenty inch diameter cylinder of space going about forty inches deep. Then we lower your ashes down in and place flowers around you before the very nice woman comes over with a wheel-barrel and shovels the dirt in. She tries to be respectful but she is tossing dirt on you; it’s a tough gig.
Can the current world religions encompass the scope of the post-human world? If during the Anthropocene we become extinct, and rather than have evolution proceed from a human base it proceeds from a never-been-human base, will the current human-centric religions still hold? I think the Buddhist vision holds as long as there are sentient beings somewhere, even in far distant galaxies.
There is a comfort in listening to Janis Joplin sing “Cry Baby.” Well, I should say that there is a comfort in watching her sing it on youtube. It is cathartic. All the energy she had was the energy it took to exist. For her to exist and for you to exist as your lives were ever difficult. For me the only difficulty was watching you fall into that hole that you never found your way out of. There is a comfort in watching her sing, like the comfort of a phantom pain.
There is a right way and a wrong way to make cabbage and lentils. The wrong way is to chop the vegetables and cook them in garlic, turmeric, paprika, and olive oil for a bit and then add the lentils and broth. The right way is to do the wrong way with a shot and a beer, while listening to Jimi.
Water flows from the street to the house in a controlled fashion for decades, traversing the twenty five feet to the water meter. Control is tubular, control is galvanized steel.
small stream in spring:: feeds the pond in the basement
- “Have to go to the ER. Can you come feed Jack my dog?” my friend Carol asks. “Of course, on my way.” Driving back from feeding and walking Jack, the sun peeks through clouds and horizon as the sky darkens. In my head I hear:
Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog
Said, “I will fix your rack, if you’ll take Jack, my dog”
I said, “Wait a minute Chester, you know, I’m a peaceful man”
He said, “That’s okay, boy, won’t you feed him when you can”