Posts Tagged ‘illusion’

Tenuous Grip

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Desert Dance Nolan WInkler mix med

Desert Dance by Nolan Winkler

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

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.” Lewis Carroll

Have you ever had a day when you heard the same out-of-the-ordinary word or phrase over and over again from a variety of seemingly unconnected sources? Long ago when I lived in Sacramento, I wrote a piece for the Sacramento News & Review entitled Recurrence of Ninja, a true story of a single day in which I encountered the word ninja several times in a variety of contexts, spoken and written. Why ninja so many times on that particular day? I came to no conclusions, but I felt certain the unfathomable universe was trying to tell me something.

I was reminded of that day of many ninjas by what happened yesterday. I woke early (for me), had toast slathered with sesame butter accompanied by a banana-kale-flax seed-chia seed-apple juice-rice milk smoothie with Marcia, she the smoothie engineer, I the toaster, my bread free of gluten, her bread infested with the stuff. Then I answered a few emails, posted my Anderson Valley Advertiser article on my blog (I like to wait until the piece is in newsprint before I send the words into the ethers, silly me), worked for two hours on my new novel, and then set out on my walk to town—the day windy and cool.

Not far from home, I came upon a man in a bathrobe standing in front of his house and frowning at the sky. I said hello as I walked by and he replied, “I have a tenuous grip on reality today.”

I might have taken his self-assessment as an invitation to engage in conversation, but I did not. In the past, more often than not, I would have inquired further, but of late I am less drawn to strangers professing emotional fragility than I used to be. So I walked on and did not look back.

“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.” Voltaire

The wind off the ocean was fierce and the air was full of smoke from a number of burn piles unwisely lit on such a blustery day. I crossed Highway One, the road blanketed with smoke, and said hello to a tall bearded man standing on the corner gazing into a cell phone.

He frowned at me and proclaimed, “They chose a very bad day to burn.”

“Yes,” I said. “Ill-advised.”

“Because they have a tenuous grip on reality,” he said, lighting a large hand-rolled cigarette and taking a prodigious drag.

“Indeed,” I said, so amazed by his choice of words that I almost told him I had just heard someone else use the very same expression. But because I had seen this tall bearded man on previous occasions lecturing loudly to companions invisible to me, I was not greatly tempted to enter into a lengthy discussion with him.

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

At the post office, I mailed two small packages and was heartened to find a few actual letters in our post office box along with the latest AVA. As I was sorting out our real mail from the junk, I overheard two women talking on the front porch of the post office, one of them saying, “So I said, ‘Rick, you gotta get a grip,’ and he said he was hanging by a thread and…”

There it was again, not the exact phrase, but the word grip and the implication that Rick’s grip was tenuous.

“Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real.” Tupac Shakur

In Corners, buying several fundamental comestibles, the lovely woman at the cash register made a few unforced errors (as they call them in tennis), laughingly corrected her mistakes and explained, “I’m still kind of…not all here today. Stayed up way too late last night. Haven’t had my coffee yet.”

“A somewhat tenuous grip on reality?” I ventured.

“Exactly,” she said, nodding. “Life is but a dream.”

 “For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.” Jean Dubuffet

Walking home from town, the recurrence of the phrase tenuous grip on reality put me in mind of my eleven years in Berkeley where I enjoyed life without a car and patched together a minimalist living as a writer, editor, ghost writer, arborist, and babysitter. I was single for many of those eleven years and on the few occasions I found myself mixing it up, so to speak, with women more affluent than I, there always came a time, usually around the fourth date, when the question of my economic viability became the focal point of conversation and I was recurrently judged to fall far short of what was minimally acceptable to these attractive pragmatists.

One of the women, bless her heart, who I had theretofore thought to be a wild and crazy gal in the best sense of those words, interviewed me as if I was applying for a house loan. At the end of the interview, she opined, “The only difference between you and a homeless person is that you currently rent a house and don’t walk around pushing a shopping cart.”

“I beg to differ,” I replied. “I am gainfully employed, I…”

“You’re very nice,” she said, rising to go, “and we get along wonderfully well, if you know what I mean, but you’re poor and I’m not about to jeopardize my life savings by hooking up with some medical crisis waiting to happen. Better to end things now before I like you too much.”

The last of the women I dated who was more affluent than I, a successful psychotherapist who sure seemed to like me, terminated our connection after the recurrent financial disclosure date by telling me that my lifestyle choices were, well, indicative of someone with a tenuous grip on reality, though she didn’t use those exact words. She said that someone as intelligent and personable as I, with so many marketable skills, who chose to live without a car or health insurance or a viable retirement strategy, must be at least somewhat delusional and possibly a borderline personality. Ouch.

I remember replying that as far as I was concerned anyone who judged other people solely on the basis of their economic status was either insane or a member of Congress, which I knew was redundant, but I was trying for a bit of levity as she ran out the door.

Thereafter the few women I did get involved with beyond the fourth date were as financially deficient as I and didn’t worry about their nest eggs because they didn’t have nest eggs. And, yes, those sweet paupers did at times seem to have a somewhat tenuous grip on reality, but who doesn’t now and then?

Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow is never what it’s supposed to be.” Bob Dylan

As I thought about the recurrence of the expression tenuous grip on reality I found myself wondering: is the universe asking me to examine the current state of my grip on reality? And what came to mind was a night when I was thirteen and attending a ballroom dancing class with forty other boys and forty girls, an ordeal my mother insisted I undergo once a month for the two years preceding high school. To attend the class we were forced to wear a suit and tie, which meant I had to learn to tie a tie, which I did, and I had to wear shoes that required polishing, which I also did.

Upon our arrival at the country club where the ordeal took place, the boys would stay away from the girls, who were wearing long frilly dresses, and the girls would stay away from the boys. Then our instructors, a champion ballroom dancing couple, would somehow get the boys paired up with the girls and try to teach us how to fox trot, waltz, cha-cha, and swing. After an hour or so of rigorous practice with a variety of assigned partners, the ordeal would conclude with a half-hour of dancing without instruction. Boys were supposed to ask girls to dance, not the other way around, unless one of the champions announced that the next dance was a Sadie Hawkins (role reversal) dance. For those boys too fearful to ask girls to dance, our adult overseers would arbitrarily pair such boys with those unlucky girls remaining to be asked.

And one night, when the four or five girls I knew from school (so they were not terrifying to me) were paired up with other boys, and I was just about to make a break for the bathroom where I hoped to remain undetected for several minutes, a gorgeous young woman (as opposed to a girl) named Luisa Hernandez asked me to dance with her, though it was not a Sadie Hawkins dance! Luisa was by far the best female dancer in our mob and was often called upon to dance with one of the better male dancers to demonstrate a fox trot variation or a cha-cha turn or whatever those things are called that our champion instructors wanted us to see done well.

“I have two left feet,” I said, anxiously. “I’m no Fred Astaire.”

“You move beautifully,” said Luisa, looking deep into my eyes. “You just need a good partner.”

So we danced the next several dances together, and I can truly say that until I danced with Luisa I had never really danced with someone. I had gone through the motions with others and simulated dancing, and even had a little fun going through those motions, but with Luisa I danced, and our dancing was divine. And what I learned from her was that dancing with someone didn’t have to be about gripping the other person or being gripped by them, but was a way for two people to move together in harmonious time. Holding each other facilitated fueling off each other while enjoying the synchronous flow—the dancing never about trying to control the other—and so our physical connection was light and sure and flexible and tender.

Everything Connected

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2012)

“When we express our true nature, we are human beings. When we do not, we do not know what we are.” Shunryu Suzuki

Planting sugar snap pea seeds yesterday, I was thrilled to find the raised bed rife with earthworms, young and old. We garden in soil known hereabouts as pygmy, which left to it’s own devices will not grow vegetables or much of anything except bonsai pines and huckleberries and the nefarious Scotch Broom. Thus we have eight raised beds in boxes and four beds in the ground, all requiring manure and compost in addition to the local soil to give us a decent harvest.

This past fall I scored a truckload of rabbit manure and I surmise it is this precious poop that has proven such an elixir to the worms. When I moved here six and a half years ago and set up my above-ground composting bin (and before the bears demolished that flimsy plastic thing) I was dismayed to find nary a worm coming up out of the ground and through the slots in the floor of the bin to gobble the tasty leftovers and give birth to myriad wormlets. In Berkeley where I gardened a small plot for eleven years, my composting bin (a gift from the city to encourage us to do the rot thing), produced gazillions of worms in collaboration with the local ground. But in pure pygmy soil, earthworms are as scarce as pumas, and it took a good three years of feeding massive amounts of worm food to the soil before any sort of worm population took hold.

This rabbit poop is apparently some sort of earthworm Viagra, for now when I turn the soil, the good earth literally dances with hundreds of little wigglers. May they grow large and happy, and may our vegetables and flowers and herbs thrive on their castings.

“Once you are in the midst of delusion, there is no end to delusion.” Shunryu Suzuki 

One sunny day in my Berkeley garden, about ten years ago, I was enjoying eavesdropping on the conversation raging among three teenaged boys and one seventeen-year-old girl gathered around a table on the deck that jutted out from our house and looked down on my garden, the girl being my de facto daughter Ginger, a beautiful and sociable young woman who attracted males as catnip attracts cats and pineapple sage attracts hummingbirds. As a consequence of Ginger’s charms and sociability, our house was frequently overrun by young men, many of them from good Berkeley homes and heading for college, if they were not already in college. Of these three on the deck that day, one was bound for Harvard, one for Stanford, and the third had recently matriculated at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

When Ginger sashayed into the house to fetch drinks for the thirsty lads, two of them came to the railing of the deck and peered down at me as I thinned carrot seedlings in ground next to my verdant broccoli.

“Is that…” began Jeremy, the Harvard-bound Physics major, “…um…hey, excuse me. Is that like broccoli in those little bushes?”

“Yes, it is,” I said, smiling up at him.

“Oh my God,” he said, his jaw dropping. “Jason, you gotta come see this. Broccoli is like growing on a little bush right in their garden.”

Soon to be studying politics at Stanford pursuant to becoming a lawyer, Jason joined Jeremy and Raul at the railing. “Where?” he said, looking down on the mass of greenery. “I don’t see anything.”

“There,” said Jeremy, pointing emphatically at a head of broccoli. “Right fucking there, man. I never knew it grew like that.”

“Me neither,” said Jason, shaking his head. “Jesus. Look at all that food. Is that like lettuce?”

“Indeed,” I replied, wondering if perhaps they were spoofing me. “Would you like a garden tour?”

“I would,” said Jeremy, skipping down the stairs, “but those guys are like totally fixated on you-know-who.”

So I gave Jeremy a ten-minute tour of my patch of vegetables and herbs. He pulled a carrot for the first time in his life, washed it in the hose while watering the parsley, took a bite and declared, “God, that is so sweet I never would have known it was a carrot.” Then he smiled beatifically. “I’m blown away. I never knew how any of this stuff got here. What a trip.” Then he frowned and shook his head. “Hey, not to change the subject, but we were just arguing about the Vietnam War. Jason said it was kind of an extension of World War II and was about trying to get their resources, and Raul said, ‘Like what resources?’ and I thought it was like to stop the communists. But was it the Russians or the Chinese we were trying to stop? Or…like…do they have oil in Vietnam? I mean, if they had oil wouldn’t they be like rich today?”

“Buddha was more concerned about how he himself existed in this moment. That was his point. Bread is made from flour. How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing.” Shunryu Suzuki

I just returned from the farmers’ market in Mendocino with two vibrant young tomato plants, Sun Golds, orange cherry tomatoes with delicious flavor; cherry tomatoes being the only kind of tomato we can grow in our cool clime without the sheltering warmth of a greenhouse. Buying Sun Golds at the Mendocino farmers’ market has become a tradition for me, five years running now, and though I could easily start my own Sun Golds from seed, I prefer to buy my starts from a grower at the market. I suppose if I had a greenhouse, I would be more likely to start my own tomato plants from seed, but maybe not. I like the tradition of going to market to get plants, and I look forward to hunting for the most promising ones, speaking to the growers as I search, maybe sharing a tomato growing story or two. All of which begs the question: why don’t I have a greenhouse, even just a little one, to enhance my gardening experience?

I have now been a renter for eighteen years following fifteen years as a homeowner following ten years as a renter, and for all twenty-eight years of my life as a renter some part of me expected to become a homeowner any day now. When I rented my house in Berkeley for eleven years, I did not plant a lemon tree for the first five years because I was convinced that if I were destined to live in Berkeley for more than a few years, surely I would find a way to buy a place and plant a lemon tree there. And now I have lived for six years in this wonderful house we rent on a piece of paradise a few miles from the village of Mendocino, and though my rational mind knows we may never own a house in this kingdom of expensive houses, I have yet to plant blueberries or grapes or fruit trees, or to build a small greenhouse because of that same expectation of possibly owning a home one day. Of course, what makes my reluctance to build a greenhouse entirely silly is that I could easily build the greenhouse to use in our garden now and take the blessed thing with us should we ever fulfill our dream of owning our own place.

“When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything. Without air, we cannot breathe. Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment. So we are completely dependent and independent.” Shunryu Suzuki

I vow to be more consciously a swinging door, to do the things I want to do now and with much less care for what may or may not happen in the future. I vow to plant a lemon tree if a place in the ground calls out to me and says, “Hey you with the arms and legs and shovel. We could use a lemon tree right here, whether you stick around after you plant it or not.” I vow to live in this house we rent as if we may never leave here until we die. The moment, as Shunryu Suzuki would say, is what we’ve got. The rest is illusion.

I’ve been here before and made similar vows, which I am just now remembering. Five years ago I was quite ill and wondering if I would be around in this body much longer. I had long been planning to publish my book of short stories Buddha In A Teacup, and I kept saying to Marcia, “I will, I will…after I’m completely well.”

Marcia was wonderfully patient with me through my long ordeal, but one evening she said, “By waiting until you think you are completely well, might you be suggesting to your body and the universe that you don’t entirely believe you will get well? Why not go ahead and publish your book and trust that in doing so you will speed the process of your healing?”

So with great trepidation, I followed her counsel and published my book, and in the process of bringing forth Buddha In A Teacup my health improved and life became rosy again, rosy and suffused with the energy of no longer waiting around for some other moment than this one. And because everything is connected, I have since received a good many letters from people who read Buddha In A Teacup and wanted to thank me for reminding them that when we live in the past or dwell in the future, we aren’t really here; and what fun is that?