Posts Tagged ‘Buddha’

Ganesha

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Ganesha

Ganesha photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2015)

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Arthur Conan Doyle

Ganesha, also known as Ganapati and Vinakaya, is the male Hindu god with a human body and head of an elephant. His Rubensesque androgynous form is most often represented with four arms, each arm with a five-fingered hand, though some drawings and statues of Ganesha have as few as two arms and as many as twenty. Revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences, and the deva of intellect and wisdom, he is also the patron deity of writers.

I knew nothing about Ganesha until nine years ago when Marcia and I got together, and Marcia revealed she was a devotee of the chubby multi-talented deity. She owns two small statues of Ganapati, one a handsome two-armed drum-playing fellow carved from wood, and the other an alluring six-armed dancing guy made of brass.

A remover of obstacles is my kind of deity, so with Marcia’s permission I placed her wooden Ganesha on top of my upright piano where he shares the lofty plateau with two statues of Buddha, one a happy standing fatso, the other a mellow lotus-positioned fellow with his thumbs and fingers touching each other in an intriguing mudra. The only other idol atop my piano is a tiny glass baseball player currently stationed in the shadow of Ganesha—my last gasp plea for the removal of the Dodgers from the path of our floundering Giants.

The more I learn about Ganesha, the more I like him, and when we recently removed the obstacle of an unsightly outhouse from a cirque of redwoods viewable from the eastside windows of our house, we decided to look for a large statue of Ganesha to stand in the grotto previously occupied by the ugly pooper.

And lo we were directed to Sacred Woods in Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg, an impressive yard containing hundreds of statues imported from Thailand and Indonesia by Rachelle Zachary, the owner of Sacred Woods. After a delightful hour of statue shopping, we settled on an exquisite four-and-a-half-feet-tall white-stone statue of the elephant-headed god, hand-carved by a Balinese master, and a few weeks later the weighty objet d’art was delivered to our south-side deck.

Our plan was to have the redwood trees surrounding the proposed location for the statue limbed up before we engaged a trio of strong men to transport the statue to the grotto. However, after two weeks of gazing out the south-facing dining room windows at the magnificent statue standing on the far edge of our ground-level deck, we decided to move the statue just a few feet off the deck from where he was. We had fallen in love with seeing him from the dining nook, which is also where I do much of my writing.

And so I began clearing away the dense grass and brambles and vines and dead fern fronds clogging the ground where we envisioned Ganesha standing in the embrace of two stately ferns, and after a few minutes of work I uncovered a massive flat-topped granite stone butting up against the deck. We briefly considered placing the statue on top of the granite stone, but the top was too narrow and too close to the deck where rambunctious dogs and exuberant children and clumsy adults might unwittingly topple the statue.

When Marcia came outside to see how my work was progressing, I gestured at the mass of dead branches and fern fronds and chunks of old bricks and rotting abalone shells left by the previous owners and said, “The ideal thing would be a little brick pad right in there.”

Marcia nodded, winked at Ganesha, returned to her studio, and as I filled my wheelbarrow again and again with the brittle remnants of the past, I held in my mind’s eye an image of our magnificent Ganesha standing on a small brick pad surrounded by an expanse of gray gravel populated with large stones.

Then something astonishing happened, something a non-believer would call a fortuitous coincidence, and something a devout follower of Ganesha would call His doing.

As I clipped away the last of several dozen dead fern fronds from the lower reaches of a large fern, I espied the corner of a pink brick lying in the ground. Having previously removed several chunks of old brick from the vicinity I thought this might be another such chunk. However, upon removing more of the detritus, I exposed a perfectly level pad made of eight whole bricks.

And that is where our statue stands today, surrounded by an expanse of gravel populated with large granite stones. We have no idea what stood on the brick pad prior to the coming of Ganesha, nor are we certain the brick pad was there before I suggested to Marcia and Ganesha that such a pad should be there. Judging from several other artifacts left behind by the previous owners, I would guess a statue of John Wayne or possibly Ronald Reagan stood where our Ganesha now lords it over the ferns and stones.

I was inspired to write about Ganesha today, remover of obstacles, after a visit to Main Street in Mendocino to view the sturdy white fence recently erected on what is now the end of the sidewalk just to the west of Gallery Books.

A public servant, or as A.A. Milne might have written, a Person Of Very Little Brain, is no doubt behind this blood clot, so to speak, in a major artery of our little town, and as I stood at the ridiculous fence and gazed out over the headlands and Big River Bay, I thought of Monty Python and Mark Twain and the Marx Brothers, for this travesty of a mockery of a sham is a hilarious commentary on how far we humans, collectively speaking, have not come since we climbed down from the trees millions of years ago and sallied forth to people the earth.

Oh Ganesha, Ganapati, Vinakaya—we implore you to help us remove the Dadaesque obstacle on Main Street.

All At Once

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

All At Once

Spring Display photo by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2015)

“Love exists in itself, not relying on owning or being owned.” Sharon Salzberg

Last year, handguns killed forty-eight people in Japan, eight in Great Britain, fifty-two in Canada, twenty-one in Sweden, and 10,728 in the United States. I was listening to the Giants sweep the Dodgers and feeling euphoric and glad when I received the email with those handgun death statistics, and I was reminded of a dharma talk I attended many years ago in Berkeley.

After her prepared talk, the Buddhist teacher took questions from the audience. A woman asked, “How can we be happy when there is so much suffering in the world, so much violence and cruelty and inequity, and so much of it unnecessary?”

The teacher replied, “If we immerse ourselves in news of suffering and violence, it is very difficult to be happy. Life is full of sorrow and joy. Sometimes we feel great and have wonderful experiences, sometimes we are sick and miserable. That’s the nature of life. Buddha said nothing about striving to be happy. He did suggest we make a conscious effort to be kind to each other and to ourselves. Kindness is now the heart of my practice.”

Speaking of sick and miserable, I recently suffered through a bad case of food poisoning that rendered two days entirely void of happiness for me. And yet, during those same two days, the lettuce doubled in size, the apple trees burst forth with hundreds of lovely blossoms, and Marcia was full of her usual vim and vigor and love of life.

“There are good and bad tastes, good and bad feelings, agreeable and disagreeable ideas. It is our attachment to them that creates suffering.” Shunryu Suzuki

This morning we discovered our thirteen-year-old cat Django has not yet retired from hunting, though we thought he had. A decapitated, eviscerated little rabbit greeted us as we opened the door to the laundry room where Django has his bed. I scooped the carcass up with my shovel and flung the body into the forest where all the atoms of that formerly cute furry animal will soon be scattered around the cosmos.

Speaking of the cosmos, the news lately is full of reports of planets just a hop skip and jump away, if only we could travel faster than the speed of light, that might be loaded with water, might be conducive to life as we know it, and might already have life fermenting thereon. I read these reports and can’t help wondering if they are another ploy to distract us from our collective annihilation of the planet we currently occupy.

Yet another collection of eminent climate scientists have come out with a declaration that unless humans reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, there is little chance the biosphere will remain habitable for children and other living things. Meanwhile, carbon emissions are increasing every year and the powers that be spend trillions of dollars on weaponry that might be spent switching us from fossil fuels to renewables.

Speaking of renewables, did you know the state of Washington is experiencing a historic drought? We knew California was dry as a bone with a snow pack less than ten per cent of normal, but Washington’s snow pack is not much better. This is bad news for salmon and kayakers, but really bad news for apple lovers because Washington grows seventy per cent of all the apples in America and commercial apple farming uses lots of water.

“When you are walking, there is no foot ahead or behind.” Shunryu Suzuki

Everything is happening all at once. My brother’s good friend was just struck and killed by a bicyclist. A young couple we know is about to have a baby. Our government is about to pass so-called Free Trade Agreements that will give corporations supremacy over state and national laws. Rain is drumming on the roof and I have the hiccoughs.

Meanwhile, the Giants are up two to nothing against the Colorado Rockies behind our good young pitcher Chris Heston who comes to us courtesy of injuries to several of our other pitchers not half as good as he. Who knew? Playing at mile-high stadium in Denver where the thinner air favors the hitters will be a big test for the young hurler.

Then there are the resurgent redwood roots. I’ve been gardening in redwood root country now for nine years and am fast approaching the point of surrender. Now the Rockies have tied the game. And now we’ve gone ahead of the Rockies, but now they’re threatening again. Life is threatening and lovely and I just cancelled the manure run for tomorrow because it’s raining hard and Kathy’s corral will be a quagmire. Now the Rockies have tied the game. Nothing is certain.

A recent exhaustive study of the most recent American election, referenced by Noam Chomsky, reveals the level of voter participation today is equivalent what it was in the early nineteenth century when only landed white men were allowed to vote. No wonder our government is so entirely out of synch with the wishes of the American populace. To make matters worse, the Rockies have now gone ahead of the Giants five to four.

Should I live so long, I will be a hundred-and-one-years-old in 2050, though given my tendency to eat questionable foods and hurt myself, the chances of that are not good. Besides if we don’t reduce carbon emissions to zero long before then, nobody will be alive in 2050. But we never know what might happen. This is not wishful thinking but an acknowledgment that life is unpredictable. There may come a moment when everything happening all at once precipitates a sudden cessation of carbon emissions.

In the meantime, the Rockies are now up six to four as we head into the seventh inning. The rain has abated, the lettuce seems delighted by this April shower and as my Uncle Howard was fond of saying, “We’ll see what develops.”

Last Beans

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

last beans

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

Step out onto the Planet.

Draw a circle a hundred feet round.

 Inside the circle are

300 things nobody understands, and, maybe

nobody’s ever really seen.

How many can you find?

                                                                                    Lew Welch

Rained almost an inch today in Mendocino, October 23, 2014. Will we look back from drier times and say, “Remember when it rained almost a whole inch in one day?” Or are we in for years of deluge? Most weather scientists think we’re in for a multi-decade drought, but the globe has so many feedback loops, known and unknown, currently looping and feeding back in ways we barely understand that five years from now California could be getting a hundred inches of rain a year. Or no rain at all. Or a hundred inches one year and none the next.

In the meantime, some things have carried on as per usual. The redwood roots have swarmed into our vegetable beds and made of them non-beds until I dig all those roots out in the spring and give us seven months to grow things before the redwood roots conquer our garden again. Veteran vegetable growers in my watershed shake their heads at my annual root digging and suggest we get big boxes with impenetrable bottoms and sides and admit defeat. Now that I have attained the ripe old age of sixty-five, we’ll see how I do next year battling the roots, and then I’ll decide whether to surrender to boxes or keep fighting.

Our vegetable plants are giving us their last tomatoes, string beans, carrots, basil, and lettuce, while the kale and parsley soldier on, redwood roots be damned. There is something especially poignant about these last few suppers made with our garden-grown goodies, these last days before we start buying vegetables shipped from warmer sunnier climes and inland greenhouses.

The apple trees have been prolific hereabouts this year, our kitchen table covered with bowls brimming with apples crying to be made into applesauce, apple juice, apple crisp. And we grew some nice sweet pumpkins, a victory given our proximity to the coast and the cool foggy summer. Just outside my south-facing office is a patch of ground twenty-feet-long and seven-feet-wide in which I planted tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, and beans, nowhere else on our property hot enough and sunny enough to grow such vegetables so well.

And the last potatoes are yet to be harvested. I’m waiting until Thanksgiving, barring an early frost, before I dig up the gangly plants and see how many pink red orbs the earth gods give us. The mid-summer harvest was spectacular, but this end-of-the-year patch has had almost no warm days and very little sun. I love growing potatoes. The plants are fantastical when they burst from the ground and grow by leaps and bounds in their first few weeks in open air. I love not knowing what each plant might produce, the size of a potato plant no proof of how many or how large the tubers she might produce.

I once grew a spectacular potato bush in Sacramento that was five-feet-tall and five-feet in diameter and green as Ireland. Visitors to my garden stood before the mighty thing as if they were in the presence of a god, which they were. I was sure that massive green thing would produce a bushel of spuds, but the gorgeous giant only birthed two golf-ball-sized potatoes, while seven feet away a wimpy little scraggly thing produced a dozen two-pounders. Mysterious, humbling, fun.

The blessed rain falling, darkness coming earlier and earlier every day, the fire in the woodstove a necessity as much as a pleasure now, the woodshed reassuringly full, the last beans clinging to the wilting vines—winter coming, such as winter comes in California. My friends who live in New England scoff when I speak of our seasons. I think they have northern California confused with southern California, but I don’t argue with them because I know how proud they are of their long icy winters that make our winters, rainy or not, seem mild by comparison.

Buddhism warns us not to compare ourselves to others. Buddha declared such comparing a form of jealousy and a mental trap, an obstacle to clarity of mind. Maybe so, but when I see somebody growing better bean plants than mine, I can’t help but compare. And through comparison, minus jealousy, we may learn how to grow better bean plants.

These are also the last days of baseball season. As I write this the Giants have split the two opening games of the World Series with the Kansas City Royals, and by the time you read this, one of those two teams will have won the World Series. If the Giants win the series, happiness will reign in our town and at our post office and all over northern California for many days. Millions of World Series T-shirts and hats and sweatshirts and jackets will be sold throughout the Giants’ kingdom and around the world. If Kansas City wins, the people of Kansas City will feel special and good and buy many baseball-related products.

The last beans, the last baseball games, the last days of October, the setting back of the clocks, the early darkness, the cold mornings, the match igniting the paper to ignite the kindling to ignite the logs. Thank you Frank’s Firewood for your foresight and full cords. Thank you forest earth gods (trees) for giving of yourself so we may be warm. The last days of the American empire, the last pickle in the barrel, the last bit of mayonnaise at the bottom of the jar. Is there another jar in the cupboard or will mayonnaise go on the list? Is it time to give up mayonnaise? No.

The last post-it of the pad of post-its on the kitchen counter. Is there another post-it pad in the top drawer of my desk or will post-it pads go on the list? We make our shopping lists on post-its, so if there are no post-its, on what will we make our lists? I remember life before post-its. I remember life before answering machines and cell phones and computers and email and big screen televisions and e-books and digital everything. I grew beans then and I grow beans now. Beans and baseball and the dark coming earlier and earlier until the Winter Solstice dawns.

 

What Really Happened?

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser April 2013)

“There are three things I always forget. Names, faces and—the third I can’t remember.” Italo Svevo

The very first course that Norman O. Brown taught when he arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 1968 was Myth & History and I was among the lucky people to hear him deliver that series of lectures. I was also privileged to meet with Norman in his office on two occasions to talk about various things, notably the fifty-page manuscript I composed in response to his lectures. I wish I still had a copy of that youthful creation—poems, dialogues, story fragments, essays, questions—with the notes Norman made throughout and his flattering words at the bottom of the final page, but I was only nineteen and saved nothing I wrote until I was in my twenties.

I have many vivid memories of Norman O. Brown, some of which I shared in an article I published two years ago. After that essay ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser and was reprinted on the CounterPunch web site, I received a few emails and letters from people who thanked me for writing about Norman and wanted to share memories of him with me. I also received several angry missives from people telling me that my memories of Norman could not possibly be true, that Norman was nothing like the person I described, and how dare I misrepresent the great man. What I loved about these responses was that they absolutely confirmed the central thesis of Norman’s Myth & History lectures, which was that history is entirely subjective and over the course of time becomes indistinguishable from myth.

“In the Eskimo language there are four future tenses: the immediate future, the middle future, the far-in-the-future future and a future that will never arrive.” Robert Littell

I was reminded of the subjective nature of history during a recent visit from my sister Kathy with whom I had not communed in many years. As we shared memories of our shared past, we discovered that our recollections of people and events were sometimes identical, sometimes entirely different, and sometimes partly identical and partly entirely different. Of the greatest interest to me were those events involving Kathy that I remembered vividly and she had no memory of whatsoever.

Our parents—and this Kathy and I agreed on—regularly carried out long and painful interrogations of their four children—my two older sisters, my young brother, and I. They interrogated us one at a time, the child on a low stool looking up at the imperious father sitting on his throne-like chair, the angry mother pacing back and forth behind the scowling father. These interrogations took place in the living room in the evenings or on Sunday afternoons, our mother the arresting officer, so to speak, our father the prosecutor and judge.

The interrogations were ostensibly held in lieu of spanking us for our little crimes, but I think the real purpose of these trials was to fulfill our father’s desire to abuse us verbally, and my mother’s need to involve our father in her attempts to control us—our mother who was frequently overwhelmed by single-handedly trying to control four bright, independent, rambunctious children. She was perpetually angry with our father for not giving her more help with us, and these interrogations provided a way for her to involve him in our upbringing as well as allowing her to vent her fury about her situation in his presence.

We underwent these interrogations from early childhood until we were in our teens—the grueling sessions lengthy, abusive and emotionally damaging. I find it hard to believe that our intelligent, highly educated parents—my mother an attorney, my father a child psychiatrist—were unaware of the harm they were inflicting, and I assume they felt justified in carrying out what my three siblings and I remember as their relentless efforts to break our wills and verbally pound us into submission, first by forcing us to admit our crimes (real or not), then forcing us to beg them repeatedly for their forgiveness, then making us promise to never again do whatever they said we had done, and finally, sickeningly, to help them devise appropriate punishments for whatever they had forced us to admit to.

Kathy said several things about these interrogations that greatly surprised me. She said that at the outset of every interrogation, she would frantically try to shift the blame from her to another of the children, and she assumed we all did that. But I, as the younger brother of two powerful older sisters, never did that because I feared my bigger stronger sisters would take revenge on me if I dared to even try to divert my parents’ wrath onto them.

Kathy also said that during every interrogation, after our parents had verbally battered her into a state of desperate despair, she always wanted to shout at them, “Just hit me and get it over with!” but never had the courage to do so.

What made this revelation so surprising to me was that one of my most vivid childhood memories was of a time when I was eleven and Kathy was twelve, and my parents were viciously torturing Kathy and she was sobbing so convulsively I feared she might die. And my fear of my sister dying was so great, that despite the probability of being physically assaulted by my father for daring to defy him, I went to intervene on Kathy’s behalf. And just as I entered the living room to demand they leave her alone, Kathy shrieked, “Just hit me! Just hit me and get it over with!” Then she jumped up, ran down the hall, and locked herself in her room.

“I have no memory of doing that,” Kathy told me these many decades later, “though I always wanted to, so I’m glad to know I actually did it one time.”

When I imagine telling Norman O. Brown such a tale, I see him gazing off into space as he visualizes the drama, and then I hear him suggesting that regardless of what actually happened, the most interesting thing about my memory is that I wanted to rescue my sister—to be a hero—though I failed to act quickly enough for that to happen. And though I, too, find my desire to rescue her quite telling, what I find most interesting is that Kathy has no memory of ever acting out her wish, while I remember her defiance of my parents as an act of incredible bravery and self-preservation that empowered me to defy my parents, too.

“There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up.” Rex Stout

We now officially congressionally know that in 1964 the North Vietnamese did not attack a gigantic heavily armed United States of America battleship in the Gulf of Tonkin with a little motorboat and a pea shooter, and that the alleged attack was entirely fabricated by our government so they could begin the horrific saturation bombing of North Vietnam and escalate the ground war in Vietnam that went on for many years and killed millions of Vietnamese people and tens of thousands of Americans. Therefore, those of us who protested from the outset that the so-called Gulf of Tonkin Incident was a fraud can no longer be called conspiracy kooks, at least regarding that particular event.

Norman O. Brown frequently spoke of Gulf of Tonkin-like mytho-historic events that compose much of Greek and Roman history, and how there is really no way to distinguish ancient historical events, as writ by the victors, from myths, which is why the Norman O. Brown I remember was far more interested in archetypes and poetry and art and legends and philosophy arising from particular cultures and cultural milieus than he was in the historical records of who, what, when and why.

“The field of philosophy may be reduced to the following questions: 1. What can I know?  2. What ought I do?  3. What may I hope for?  4. What is man?” Immanuel Kant

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the trial and death of Socrates that probably (maybe) happened in Athens some 2400 years ago, assuming Plato and others who left behind accounts of the event may be trusted not to have fabricated the whole thing. Why do we trust Plato? I dunno. In any case, the trial and death of the famous Socrates, who left behind nary a scrap of his own writing, took place four hundred years before the birth, if there really was such a birth, of Jesus of Nazareth, who also did not leave behind a scrap of his own writing. Come to think of it, Gautama Buddha didn’t leave behind a scrap of writing either. Indeed, we only have the highly subjective words of others that these super famous people even existed.

Nevertheless, the more I read about Socrates, the clearer it becomes that he was either a great champion of democracy or he thought democracy was a terrible way to run a city-state; that he drank hemlock rather than flee because he wanted to honor the laws of Athens or because he was old and ill and preferred a quick death to lingering in misery; and the method of philosophical inquiry known as the Socratic Method either sprang from the brilliance of Socrates or from his inability to come to a conclusion about anything.

Speaking of conclusions, in honor of my wholly subjective memories of Norman O. Brown’s wide-ranging lectures in which he might read a poem by Robert Duncan, follow Duncan’s poem with a passage from Finnegan’s Wake, follow that with a salient and beautifully pronounced line or two of Latin, and finish that particular train of inquiry with a pronouncement such as “in psychoanalysis only exaggerations are important,” I will end this ramble with a quote from Jacques Cousteau.

“From the data, covering over a hundred shark encounters with many varieties, I can offer two conclusions: the better acquainted we become with sharks, the less we know them, and one can never tell what a shark is going to do.”

Cliff’s Bowl

Friday, March 18th, 2011

(This piece first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

Cliff Glover recently gave us one of his bowls. Cliff is an excellent potter and a superb cook. Tall, and possessed of a magnificent froth of silver gray hair, Cliff and his partner Marion Miller share a house and ceramic studio a couple miles inland from the hamlet of Albion. Marcia and I met Cliff and Marion for the first time at one of Juliette White’s spontaneous dinners, Juliette being Cliff and Marion’s neighbor for many years. The mugs we drank from that night were Cliff’s mugs; and for my birthday two years ago, Juliette gave me a Cliff Glover teapot, an exquisite two-cupper. Juliette was a big fan of Cliff’s pottery.

The bowl Cliff gave us on Marcia’s birthday in February is now my favorite bowl, and possibly my favorite thing, after my piano and not counting myriad mammals—Marcia, friends, cats; although the trouble with cats…but that’s another story. Cliff made it clear when he gave us the bowl that even though he was giving it to us on Marcia’s birthday, the bowl was for both of us. I asked him to repeat that when I was sure Marcia was listening so there wouldn’t be any confusion…that the bowl was for both of us, or in legal terms: the bowl is our joint property.

My previous favorite bowl, which I still love, (though not as much as I loved her before I met Cliff’s bowl) was given to me by my dear friend Katje Weingarten, an extraordinary poet who lives in Vermont, which is crazy. Katje should live around here. Both she and our community would be much happier if she lived in, oh, Caspar or Philo, but she’s married to Roger, and you know how that goes. Anyway, I showed Cliff the bowl Katje gave me and he knew who made it. He knew the actual person who threw the bowl and glazed it. Cliff can do that. He can glance at a ceramic bowl or vase or plate made somewhere in California, and most of the time he can tell by the glaze or the shape, or both, the potter who made the thing.

Which reminds me of a tea story. When I lived in Berkeley, I was adjuvant to Helen Gustafson, famous for introducing fine tea to the menu at Chez Panisse and training the servers there to make and serve fine tea as it was meant to be made and served. When Helen died in 2003, her obituary in the New York Times called her one of the pioneers of the fine tea renaissance in America. Helen often took me to lunch and supper at Alice’s restaurant (Chez Panisse) where she, Helen, had carte blanche in exchange for her tea duties. I was frequently under-funded in those days and always esurient, so…just imagine. Helen liked to introduce me to her cohorts and admirers as her editor—an understatement and a compliment.

One evening Helen threw a dinner and tea tasting at Chez Panisse for the famous tea writer James Norwood Pratt, Norwood’s marvelous mate Valerie Turner, moi, and Roy and Grace Fong, preeminent tea importers, Roy a bona fide tea master. We tasted several black teas that were essentially priceless. By that I mean, they were teas of such rarity and in such short supply, they could not be purchased at any price. The denouement of the evening was that Norwood had brought along a mystery tea with which he hoped to stump Roy Fong as to the origin of the goodly leaf.

Norwood directed one of Helen’s well-trained servers in the making of a pot of the mystery tea, and after the leaves had steeped for the appropriate number of minutes, the pot was placed before Roy. Without lifting the lid or bending close to the pot, Roy concluded, “Thailand.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Norwood, his accent richly North Carolinian. “How…”

Roy lifted the lid of the steel pot, glanced at the leaves, inhaled again, and correctly named the region, the plantation, and the location in the plantation where this particular tea had been grown. He then filled our cups and prophesied, “It will be some time before tea from these plants will be of any note. If ever.”

Cliff’s bowl, on the other hand, is of great note now at our house. Why do I love this bowl? Let me count the ways.

First, it is a perfect size: four inches tall and seven inches wide at the top.

Second, it has a beautiful shape: assuming nearly its full width close to the base.

Third, it is surprisingly light, and a delight to hold in one’s hand or hands.

Fourth, it is the color of an East African topi (antelope), of carob powder, of the skin of certain Moroccan nomads, and graced with that random mottling all living flesh is prey to.

Cliff declared the bowl to be a standard noodle bowl, nothing special, and so I dutifully ate noodles in it the first time I used it (brown rice spaghetti) but I have since used the bowl for goat milk yogurt topped with banana and apple and raisins with a dollop of huckleberry jam, for beating eggs for an omelet, for making pancake batter (and pouring the batter directly from the bowl into the frying pan), for watering house plants, for drinking water, and for eating rice with vegetables and spicy sausage. I have also gently tapped out several nifty rhythms on the bowl with chopsticks, and I sometimes place the bowl on the table in the living room as an object to contemplate and admire.

Do I believe Cliff’s bowl is alive? Yes. And I remind myself that not so very long ago our ancestors believed that all things, from the tiniest pebble to the mountains to the rivers and oceans and the gigantic earth in her entirety, were as animate as humans or whales or fleas. Fool’s Crow, a Lakota holy man I admire, used the ancient vernacular of his people when referring to rocks as stone people, trees as standing people, clouds as citizens of the cloud nation, and so forth.

I possess a stunning black and white photograph of Fool’s Crow taken by Michelle Vignes when Fool’s Crow was in his early nineties (he died at the age of 99); and when I look into his eyes, my entire being relaxes. Every time. While reading his book Wisdom & Power, I came upon his observation that some people need to carry stones in their pockets in order to feel grounded. I gasped in amazement and gratitude when I read this passage because I have carried stones in my pockets since I was a little kid, knowing intuitively I needed them, yet rarely revealing to anyone that I toted rocks in my pockets to stay sane in a world gone mad.

Cliff’s bowl, I think, is a divine manifestation of animate mud, composed of animate earth and animate water, shaped into exquisite form through the synergy of centrifugal force and gravity and the skillful ministrations of the strong hands and generous intentions of a practiced artisan: Cliff.

“I’ve made thousands of bowls,” Cliff declaimed, responding to my raving about the magnificence of this particular bowl. “And, yes, this is a good bowl. I was surprised when I found it because my good bowls sell pretty fast and I’m not sure why I still had this one…but I don’t think it’s all that special.”

I wanted to be a potter. I took Ceramics in high school as part of my rebellion against my parents wanting me to use only the left side of my brain; and three subsequent times in my life, I have endeavored to center balls of clay on potters’ wheels and make bowls. But I was not persistent, and so I failed. My only clay creation that I still have is an embarrassingly heavy little lumpish object I refer to as a bud vase because only a bud might fit therein. I love the little thing. The glaze, a murky greenish accident, is…subtle. And sometimes I tell myself I could make a good bowl if only I would commit myself to the task.

In the meantime, I (we) have Cliff’s bowl to inspire me (us) along with Cliff’s beguiling mugs and Marion Miller’s quietly erotic vases. Oh, and I must tell you about Cliff’s clay canisters, two of which I own. These elegant brown cylinders are ten-inches-tall and four-inches-wide. They are the only objects (other than the teak Buddha that Paula Mulligan brought us from Bali as a wedding gift and Marcia’s cello bows) I allow to reside on my piano. I am not a fan of pianos being used as display spaces, and until the advent of Marcia’s cello bows in my life, I never let anybody put anything on my piano. But the piano is teak, so the teak Buddha…and now Cliff’s lovely dark canisters, well…I’m not playing any less because of these inspiring passengers, and the piano sounds fine, so…

A few months before Juliette died, we were sitting around in her cottage having tea (or was it wine?) in Cliff’s mugs, and I fished in my pockets and brought forth two of my stones, each roughly the size of a walnut, one jade green, one bluish gray, both rounded and polished in a grand lapidary of surf meeting intractable stone. Juliette took the rocks from me, tumbled them around in her wise old hands, and then correctly identified their source as a tiny beach not far from the village of Mendocino—a brief spit of gravel that only comes into being at the lowest of tides.

Cliff Glover can be found at threeriversstudios.com

Disappointment

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Whilst discussing my hopes and expectations for the San Francisco Giants with Mark Scaramella, he suggested I try my hand at writing about disappointment. I just hope my attempt doesn’t disappoint him.

“Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy—the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation.” Eric Hoffer

What is disappointment? The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines disappointment as: dejection or distress caused by the non-fulfillment of desire or expectation. Substitute the word suffering for distress and we land smack dab at the outset of Buddhist philosophy. The First Noble Truth (and I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation of why the Four Noble Truths are noble rather than big or unavoidable or groovy) is that life is suffering. I recently read an article in a Buddhist magazine suggesting that suffering might not be the most accurate translation of the Sanskrit word Buddha purportedly used. The article suggested that annoying might be a more accurate translation. And in some texts the First Noble Truth is stated as: Life is full of suffering (though not necessarily completely full, which would allow for the occasional pizza, chocolate bar, or delightful flirtation).

But seriously folks, the Second Noble Truth states that the cause (or origin) of suffering is attachment. If we can learn not to be attached to things and people and baseball teams winning the World Series, or even just to being alive, then our suffering will lessen and might even disappear entirely. And check this out: in the absence of suffering, we would still be alive, which is a blatant contradiction of the First Noble Truth and necessitates restating the First and Second Noble Truths as: Life is suffering (or disappointing) unless we aren’t attached to anything (very much), in which case life is…what? Joyful? Maybe. I don’t know.

Here is what I think Buddha said: “The First and Second Groovy Truths combine to say that we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome, such as owning an elephant or getting laid. Indeed, if we can learn to dispense with expectations, we will cease to be disappointed, and in the absence of disappointment our suffering will vanish.” Since no one knows precisely what Buddha said, that’s my guess.

“Rigid beliefs make disappointments seem unbearable, whereas realistic beliefs help us to accept disappointment and go on from there.” Eileen Kennedy-Moore

The root of disappointment is appointment, a word that joined the ranks of our ancestral vocabulary shortly after Olde English morphed into Middle English and our various vernaculars mingled shamelessly with French. The French word was appointement, and meant an agreement, a contract, a decree. “We hereby make an appointment, honey, to meet in the forest for some hanky panky.” From which it follows that a disappointment was the breaking of an agreement, the violation of a contract, or the ignoring of a decree.

Thus we might construe that an expectation is an agreement we make with ourselves, i.e. that the Giants are going to win the World Series, and the violation of this agreement would be a disappointment.

“Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.” Ralph Charell

I expected I would be an immensely successful writer and musician. That was my conscious expectation. My unconscious expectation was that I would be a colossal failure. The trajectory of my career as a writer and a musician is a perfect reflection of those dueling expectations, with the unconscious expectation always eventually trumping my conscious efforts. For many years I blamed others for the recurring disappointments of my life; but I understand now that the sabotage of my creative efforts was an inside job.

For instance, just as my second novel Forgotten Impulses was about to be published in 1980, I received an excited call from my editor at Simon & Schuster. Time magazine was going to run a big fat rave review of the novel, so fat and big that an additional fifteen thousand copies of Forgotten Impulses were being printed, and Sales, previously reluctant to support the book, had finally agreed to put some real money into promotion and distribution. The next day I got a call from a Time photographer arranging to take my picture for the review. The photo shoot was a dream come true, and the photographer’s last words to me were, “The buzz in New York says your book will be huge.”

Three days before the issue of Time containing the rave was to go to press, the review was inexplicably pulled. The Sales honchos cancelled all promotion and distribution of Forgotten Impulses, and cancelled the publication of my next novel, Louie & Women, for which Simon & Schuster had paid a large advance. And my mainstream writing career, for all intents and purposes, was destroyed. Why? I never discovered the outside why, but I have no doubt that in the ballroom of my psyche the demons gleefully celebrated the triumph of self-loathing.

Thinking back to that particular disappointment, and to many other similar experiences with my books and screenplays and music, I feel disappointed anew. And what I find most interesting about the sensations attendant to my disappointment is that they are indistinguishable from the telltale feelings of another emotional state I know a great deal about: depression.

Depression, one might say, is a state of constant disappointment. But why would someone be constantly disappointed? Well, according to the Second Groovy Truth, we suffer disappointment if we are attached to any sort of outcome. Thus constant disappointment must be the result of a constant attachment to things being a particular way. And wouldn’t constant attachment to feeling rotten have to be a deep and hardwired propensity, as in a propensity developed in childhood? I think so. I think it is only human to be disappointed about losing a game or not getting a job we wanted or getting dumped by our girlfriend. But staying disappointed, I contend, is a neurotic tendency engendered in us by those in charge of engendering our tendencies when we were infants and children.

“I am not in this world to live up to other people’s expectations, nor do I feel that the world must live up to mine.” Fritz Perls

So maybe the Giants won’t win the World Series this year, and maybe this article isn’t what Mark had in mind when he suggested I write about disappointment; but now that I have explored disappointment for the last two weeks, and exhumed some of those pesky demons still inhabiting my innards, I am confident that my disappointment about the Giants or anything else will not be as great as it might otherwise have been. Why? Because the demons of disappointment lose their power in the light of conscious scrutiny. And I am now prepared to proclaim, “So what if we didn’t win the World Series? The important thing is we gave it our best shot. We played the game with all our hearts, and that is victory enough.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, October 2010)

Ergo Ego

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2010)

One of my favorite stories about my ego takes place on my fortieth birthday, October 17, 1989. I am riding my bicycle down L Street in Sacramento on my way to a meeting, consumed by thoughts of how absurdly fast the years seem to be passing and how I’d better sell a book or a screenplay pronto or my wife will leave me and I’ll end up living in the bushes by the American River. Suddenly, just ahead of me, dozens of people pour out of a big office building onto the sidewalk, and the first thing that pops into my head is, “How did they know it’s my birthday?”

As I ride by the crowd of people, I wave to them and many wave back to me. I smile, and they smile back at me, and I feel marvelous. And so it continues, block after block, the people pouring out of buildings to greet me as I ride by. How wonderful! I can almost hear them singing Happy Birthday, when, in truth, a great earthquake is shaking northern California and collapsing bridges and roadways in San Francisco and Oakland, while my ego is deftly converting the catastrophe into a celebration of me.

A common misconception about Buddha is that he declared the ego a great enemy of enlightenment and a primary cause of suffering. I heard this proclaimed adamantly by several neophyte Buddhists before I began my own studies of cogent Buddhist dharma; and since I had been acculturated to believe that having a big ego was bad, that egotism per se was a scourge, and that the worst thing a person could possibly be was an egomaniac, I accepted this erroneous representation of Buddha’s take on the ego. Sadly, a number of well-known Buddhist and New Age teachers still promote the wholly unworkable notion that the ego should be battled and defeated, and, if possible, eradicated entirely. But if so, how would we order lunch?

The teachers I prefer, those who speak calmly from decades of study and serving others and practicing meditation, do not advocate trying to kill the ego, but suggest we will attain to greater happiness if we develop a clear understanding of what the ego is and what the ego isn’t; and so armed with this understanding we might live more consciously and harmoniously with our egoistic tendencies.

One gift of meditation practice is to slowly and surely become more familiar with, and less worried about, our mind chatter, that incessant broadcast of thoughts that sets the tone and cadence for our personal realities. We eventually experience a quieting of this mind chatter, though not by attempting to willfully shut the chatter off, but by bringing our attention to the chatter and discerning it to be meaningless mental noise and nothing substantive. Through meditation, otherwise known as sitting quietly with no other agenda but to sit quietly, we may allow the chatter to weaken and even cease so we may experience other kinds of perception and feeling.

The first many times I meditated, whether for five minutes or forty minutes or two hours, my mind chatter never let up and I despaired of ever experiencing a moment’s peace, let alone a noticeable step toward enlightenment. And then I learned from my readings of Pema Chödrön and Joseph Goldstein about Labeling. By naming this mental blabber, it would, indeed, dissipate for a time before being replaced by some other species of chatter.

For instance, during meditation I might find I am endlessly amending a grocery list mixed with thoughts of oil gushing in the Gulf of Mexico. Tiring of this redundancy, I say to myself “Thinking”, and by merely labeling these particular thoughts, I experience their dissolution into thoughts of a friend who is seriously ill. After hanging for a time with this new array of troubling thoughts, I label them “Worrying” and those thoughts fade away. And so on.

This mind chatter is not merely the sound of the ego, it is the ego. In Mark Epstein’s extremely helpful book Thoughts Without A Thinker, the title is both the fundamental Buddhist idea Epstein explores as well as the ultimate answer to myriad questions about who and what we are. Buddha, if I’m interpreting Epstein correctly, would have responded to the famous pronouncement by Descartes, “I think, therefore I am,” by suggesting gently and with no attachment to being right or wrong, “Thoughts compose an illusion of self you only think is thinking.”

Abstract stuff, to be sure, but useful if this reorientation helps us take ourselves less seriously, i.e. less egocentrically. There is a less abstract Buddhist insight which most thoughtful people eventually experience in their lives, whether Buddhist or Christian or Jane, and that insight goes something like this: each of us is totally unique and not a bit different than anyone else. Both true. Not just two sides of the same coin, but true simultaneously.

Another favorite story about my ego has recurred dozens of times in my life. This story has to do with the phases of creating a novel or a musical composition or any product of the imagination that may consume months or years of my life.

Phase One: Inspiration

I wake with, or am struck by, a vision of something I am absolutely certain is the greatest story/melody I (or anyone) has ever conceived of. This certainty is so strong, the voices of doubt in my subconscious are entirely drowned out by what I take to be the roar of an adoring universe, and I work in a state of ecstatic determination for hours or days or weeks until the tide recedes, and I am left with a rough draft or a rough song that, as I come to my so-called senses, I realize may not be any good at all. But there she is, born of my ego overwhelming what some might call a cooler head.

Phase Two: The Work

Once my initial sense of having discovered the holy grail of literature and/or music has departed, I understand that this imperfect thing must be greatly improved upon if I hope to capture even a fraction of the greatness of my original vision. More often than not, after a day or a week or a month of work, I admit to myself that I’ve been self-duped and it is a far far better thing to deep six the thing than keep beating a dead horse. Unless, for reasons never fathomable to my conscious mind, my ego has a big investment in my continuing the work, in which case flashbacks to the ecstatic conception recur again and again whenever my interest and certainty flag to the point of giving up the ship. These narcotic fumes from the original phantasmagoric overwhelm are parsed out by my ego to trick me into thinking another few thousand minutes of focused work will bring the shapely goddess in her full grandeur out of that lump of clay.

Nearing Completion: As my work on the book or music draws to a close, I am seized by the sense, often alarmingly visceral, that I might die before I finish, that all my work will have been for naught and my fabulous creation will never be born and never seen by others. This sense of extreme mortality has nothing to do with my age. I experienced the feeling of the nearness of my death when I was a teenaged playwright and I experience it today in late middle age whenever I am about to complete the writing of a book or the recording of an album of songs. Happily, I am not experiencing such pangs as I write this essay, though having just written that I now feel reluctant to get in a car until I’ve sent this off. But I digress.

What could possibly be the ego’s purpose in scaring me so profoundly as I near the end of a lengthy creative race, so to speak? Is it to obviate the ever-rising doubt that what I’ve created might be a pile of doo doo? Perhaps. But I think it is more to supply the momentum of urgency to surmount those final multitudinous obstacles to completion.

Delusions of Grandeur: Here at last is the completed work. My God, I did it! I captured that original vision in all her glory. Hallelujah. Now I must share her with the world. I will make copies and send them forth. So I do, fuelled by a revival of certainty that this thing is important and good and will be a boon to mankind and womankind for generations to come. Which certainty lasts just long enough for me to release the creation far enough away from me and in sufficient quantity so that when I wake with, or am struck by, a new and powerful certainty that my creation is deeply flawed, that I missed the mark, that I could have made her so much better and more beautiful if only I had…

The truth, thankfully, is that there is no mark to miss, only the ongoing process of endeavoring to make sense of these thoughts composing the ever-changing idea of moi. Or to put it in pidgin Latin: Cogito Ergo Ego.

Todd just completed his new CD 43 short Piano Improvisations and sent it off to be manufactured before his doubts could get the better of him.