Posts Tagged ‘kindness’

Reflections

Monday, December 19th, 2016

dancing in the shadows

Dancing In The Shadows painting by Nolan Winkler

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.” — H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1921.

Since the election of Donald Trump, I have been haunted by aphorisms. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything is connected. There are no accidents. Life is but a dream.

More and more, as Trump’s inauguration approaches, I am reminded of the days following the election of George W. Bush. Okay, so George wasn’t technically elected the first time, but he was elected the second time. Remember? He won twice. His cabinet was a horror show. Yet so many people seem to have forgotten that, along with everything else that happened before last week.

Trump’s election is hardly unprecedented when it comes to electing narcissistic morons. Does the name Ronald Reagan ring a bell? And though he was not a moron, Bill Clinton would give any other narcissistic ruler in history a run for his or her money. Marie Antoinette may have said, “Let them eat cake,” but when Bill Clinton pushed through NAFTA while dismantling Welfare, thus relegating millions to poverty, he essentially said, “Let them eat nothing.”

Oh but Trump is worse. Worse than what? The Obama administration, it is now revealed, subsidized dirty coal and dirty oil all over the world to the tune of several hundred billion dollars, yet Obama-wan calls himself the Environmentalist President. Reminds me of Trump calling himself a feminist.

But more interesting to me than our general forgetfulness and gullibility is the question posed by the Mencken quote at the beginning of this article: do these narcissists and liars and morons we keep electing represent the inner soul of the American people? Are we essentially a nation of dishonest narcissistic morons?

What is a narcissist? Narcissus, so says the myth from whence comes the term narcissist, became enamored of his own reflection to the exclusion of all else. He did not fall in love with his essence because he had none. He could only see and relate to his reflection—that which he appeared to be, not what he actually was

Narcissists are incapable of empathy because empathy requires an inner-self capable of bonding emotionally with others. And why would so many people in America repeatedly choose emotional ciphers to be our leaders, our lawmakers, and the stewards of our futures? Why would we choose people incapable of being kind and generous and thoughtful?

There must be something we, the general we, mistrust about genuine kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness; and there must be something we find attractive and reassuring about narcissists. And I think these tendencies begin very early in our American lives.

Do you remember the first time you realized that being smart and creative was appreciated by your teachers, but not by all of your peers? Do you remember seeing someone being teased for wearing glasses? Or maybe you were teased or bullied for being smart or wearing glasses.

In high school, I hung out with a gang of people who loved poetry and music and art. They were sensitive, thoughtful, empathetic, self-effacing, and appreciative of each other, while the general high school population looked upon them as strange and flawed and weak. As you may have guessed, none of them pursued careers in politics.

We, the general we, also do not like complex solutions to complex problems. Nor do we like complex explanations. We don’t really want to know the details. We are an impatient people. We want instant results, and if not results, then the promise of results. Or maybe we just want promises. Maybe because we were raised on promises, not results, we learned to value promises more than the fulfillment of promises. Trump promised to build a wall to rival the Great Wall of China. Now that is an amazing promise, one he will never keep. But maybe we like being amazed by impossible promises that can only come true using special effects in super hero science fiction fantasy movies.

Maybe we, the general we, no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy, between promises and the aftermaths of promises, between what people say and what people do. Maybe we choose narcissists to rule our country because they are not constrained by truth, and those who are constrained by truth seem weak and might wear glasses and listen to classical music and have complex explanations for why something will take more than a minute or two to fix.

Jimmy Carter, who was not a narcissist or a moron, told the nation we needed to start taking action to address the limits of natural resources. We needed to stop plundering and start regenerating. He talked about complex things, such as the interconnectedness of everything. Huh? This sounded strange and weak, so we replaced him with Ronald Reagan who said we could have anything we wanted without limits, that there was no reason to worry about the environment, that America was the strongest and the best in the world, so go for the gusto. Have it all.

And if you were poor and disadvantaged, that wasn’t Reagan’s fault. Just as nothing will ever be Trump’s fault and Trump will never be wrong, just as Bush and Clinton and Obama were never wrong. Narcissists are never wrong. They look in their mirrors and see knights in shining armor.

Then they stand before us and say, “I am a knight in shining armor. I’ll slay the dragon, build a giant wall, give everyone jobs, lower taxes, rebuild the infrastructure, and make you happy. I promise.”

And despite history and reality, many of us will believe those narcissists, over and over again. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe the tendency goes back a million years to some crucial moment when a big stupid narcissistic ape appeared to save the species, when our real savior was the little ape wearing glasses and writing a poem.

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.”

New Year’s Intentions

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

Fruit tart mandala 1 - 1:1:2015

Fruit Tart Mandala photo by Bill Fletcher

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

“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.” Sigmund Freud

Sitting on the big old fanciful redwood bench overlooking Portuguese Beach on the southwest edge of the little town of Mendocino—the venerable perch falling apart, a thousand carved initials and names worn away by the inexorable machinations of sun and rain and fog and wind and time, oh especially time and her microbial allies—I gaze down upon the placid waters of Big River Bay.

The gentle winter sun is smiling on dozens of migrant ducks sharing the heart of the peaceful cove (Portuguese Cove?) with grebes and cormorants, while a steady stream of voluble tourists rushes by me. Two big pelicans glide into view, circle the assembly of bobbing ducks and grebes, and make splash landings quite close to shore.

“What are those?” asks a little boy, stopping directly in front of me and speaking to his companion, a very wide man talking on his cell phone.

“Hold on a minute,” says the man to whoever he’s talking to. He glares down at the boy. “What do you want? Can’t you see I’m on the phone?”

“What are those big birds who just landed?” asks the boy, pointing at the pelicans. “Those ones with the big noses.”

“Sea gulls,” says the man, resuming his phone conversation. “Sorry about that.” He listens for a moment. “No, we’re gonna wait and see it in Imax. They have 3-D here, but no Imax.” He snorts derisively. “The boonies.”

“I don’t think those are sea gulls,” says the boy, shaking his head.

“Those are pelicans,” I venture to say.

The man on the phone shoots me a nasty look and gives the boy a shove to make him move along.

“There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.” Eugene O’Neill

2014 came to an end just as I was getting comfy writing 4 at the tail end of 201. Now I must unlearn the 4 and entrain my brain to write 5. How swiftly time flies when one is old, but not ill. I struggled through a serious health challenge in 2014, and for those months of illness the hours were days, the days weeks. Now that I’m well, months fly by in no time, thus confirming the psychological nature of time.

“If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.” Oscar Wilde

A gang of tourists, four women and two men, gather in front of me. One of the women asks her cohorts, “Do we have a destination or are we just walking around?”

“Spotty reception,” says one of the men, frowning at the screen of his phone.

“When I was here with Richard last year,” says another of the women, “we saw whales. Well, spouts. But I think we were further out on the headlands. They call this the headlands.”

“Richard,” says another of the woman, spitting the name. “What does he know?”

I saw the spouts,” protests the woman who was here with Richard last year. “Regardless of what Richard knows or doesn’t know, I saw them.”

“Can we please not talk about Richard?” says the man with the spotty reception.

A silence falls. Waves slap the shore. The gang moves on.

“We are divided into two categories of people: those of us who are trying to escape from something, and those of us who are trying to find something.” Ileana, Princess of Romania

Heading home, my knapsack full of cukes and zukes and eggs from Corners, I bump into a friend coming out of Harvest Market, a woman I haven’t spoken to in a good long year. She smiles sheepishly and says, “I see you walking everywhere and I always think I should be walking, too, but I’m always in a hurry and I don’t know why. I mean…what’s the rush?” She laughs shrilly. “Why am I so busy?”

“You must enjoy being busy,” I suggest. “Nothing wrong with that.”

“But then I have no time to walk, and when I do have time, I’m too tired.”

“I know how that is,” I reply. “Fortunately, I like to walk, so it’s no great sacrifice for me.”

“I watch too much television,” she says, giving me a quick hug. “But my New Year’s resolution,” she shouts as she runs to her car, “is to watch less and walk more.”

“I think in terms of the day’s resolution, not the years’.” Henry Moore

Nowadays I prefer intentions to resolutions—much easier on the psyche. For 2015 I intend to be more regular and enthusiastic about my stretching regimen, to plant my first round of summer vegetables earlier than last year, to grow more pumpkins, and to stay healthy. I further intend to resume my practice of handwriting at least one missive to a friend every day, even if the missive is merely a postcard. I intend to produce a new album of piano-centric tunes, to complete Book Three of the Ida’s Place saga, and to bring out a coil-bound photocopy edition of the sequel to Under the Table Books, a sequel I wrote six years ago: The Resurrection of Lord Bellmaster. And I hope to be less cranky and more upbeat.

“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” Casey Stengel

Predictions for 2015: the California drought, slightly dented by a wet December, will go on, the apple harvest will be stupendous, the earth will accelerate her climatic catastrophes to express her displeasure with the behavior of our species, wholly unexpected events will change the course of human history, the race between cruelty and kindness will continue apace, and pelicans will continue to splash down on Big River Bay.

What Shall We Do?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

wildgardener2

The Wild Gardener painting by Todd

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

“Life is full of obstacle illusions.” Grant Frazier

Congress has just voted to cut nine billion dollars in food stamps for poor Americans while voting to spend an initial sum of twenty billion dollars to bomb people in Syria and Iraq. That’s twenty billion on top of the trillion dollars Congress gives the Pentagon every year to, you know, bomb people all over the world.

Is there anything we the people can do about this insanity? Hypothetically, yes. We can engage in massive protests and strikes, say fifty million of us, demanding more money for the American people, an emergency national conversion to renewable energy sources and drastic cuts to the Pentagon budget. And we could organize and carry out a super effective boycott of Chevron. But none of that is going to happen because the vast majority of Americans are so busy scrabbling to make ends meet or scrabbling to buy the latest iPhone and other neato stuff we don’t need or sitting on our asses watching television, that from a political perspective we the people are irrelevant. From an economic perspective, we the people are a source of trillions of dollars of income for multinational earth-plundering corporations; such plundering funded by we the people buying neato stuff and overpriced medications and inadequate health insurance.

So what shall we do, you and I, in the face of what we know to be true about what is happening to the earth and to our society, and also knowing that the ruling elite can watch half a million people march in Manhattan to protest global warming and not give even a tiny hoot?

It is never too late to be who you might have been.” George Eliot

Here are some ideas about what you and I can do.

Idea #1: Give money to poor people. I know there is a strong sentiment that giving money to poor people only encourages them to stay poor, but that is untrue, cynical, and verges on the insane. So let us give money to poor people. If you don’t feel you have much to spare, just give a little.

Idea #2: Let us not buy a neato thing we were going to buy. We just won’t buy it. We’ll make do with other neato things we already have. Remember: long before that neato thing you want existed, you were getting along okay. Not buying that neato thing will free up cash for food and giving money to poor people.

I know we shouldn’t have to give money to poor people. Our country is so incredibly wealthy there need not be any poor people, not a single one, but the ruling elite have rigged the game and conquered our brethren with neato things and television and car-centric everything so equality and sharing the wealth is not going to happen in America any time soon. So let us not think of giving money to poor people as something we should do but as something we want to do to help counter the gross social and political imbalance the stupid meanies have created and we have acquiesced to.

Idea #3: Be kind to everyone we meet. Sometimes I make a fool of myself being kind to people, but most of the time the person or people I’m kind to appreciate my kindness and respond in kind. Today, for instance, I was buying a half pound of ground beef to go on the pizza we’re making tonight, and I was kind to our usually taciturn butcher, and though he resisted at first, eventually he smiled and even laughed a little when I said perfecto because he guessed to within a fraction of an ounce the amount of beef to put on the scale to make a half a pound.

Being kind to everyone we encounter makes it impossible to maintain attitudes of disdain and fear. I think disdain and fear are not only closely related emotions, but are two of the fundamental factors causing people (and they are just people) in Congress and in the huge voracious corporations destroying the earth to do the horrible things they are doing to our society and the earth.

From a Buddhist perspective, disdainful and fearful rulers and insanely rich people and people mindlessly watching television and compulsively buying neato things are mirrors for us. Their actions and attitudes are reflections of our own actions and attitudes, and we would do well to stop denying this and explore ways to change our own actions and attitudes. Who and what are we disdainful of? What are we afraid of? Why are we disdainful? Why are we afraid? What can we do to stop being disdainful and fearful?

“In their property was a portion dedicated to the beggar and the disinherited.” The Qur’an

Some years ago in San Francisco I was with two fellow artists, a man and a woman, on our way to a Chinese restaurant known for excellent food and wonderfully low prices; and even at those wonderful prices going out to supper was a serious splurge for me. The city was teeming with poor people and I had long since given away my spare change and one-dollar bills.

We were just about to enter the Chinese restaurant when we encountered a frighteningly gaunt man who said, “Hate to bother you folks, but I am starving to death. Can you help me?”

I reached for my wallet and my male friend grabbed my wrist and said, “Don’t. He’ll just use it for drugs.”

“No, I won’t,” said the gaunt man. “I need food.”

I gently disengaged from my friend, took out my wallet, and found I only had a twenty-dollar bill therein. If I gave the gaunt man my twenty I would not have money for supper. Meanwhile, my female friend had opened her purse and given the gaunt man a dollar. This so outraged our male friend that he threw up his hands and cried, “Don’t be fools!”

Then I said to the gaunt man, “We’re going into this Chinese restaurant. If you come in with us, I will pay for you to have some food.”

The gaunt man nodded and followed us into the restaurant where he ordered rice and vegetables—costing me seven dollars—and sat apart from us at a small table, wolfing down his food and drinking many glasses of water and dozens of cups of the complimentary tea. My two friends and I had a wonderful meal and laughed until we cried about something I can’t remember.

Taylor Stoehr

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

Taylor Stoehr

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

“In life, one must show character and kindness.” Pablo Casals

My good buddy Taylor Stoehr just died and I’ve been leafing through the bulging file of his letters to me, reading passages at random and marveling at the clarity of his prose and the generosity of his spirit. He was eighty-two when he died, and we only knew each other for four years, yet he was immensely important to me—a thoughtful person who took the time to read my books and plays and articles, and then write lengthy responses that made me glad I wrote them.

I never met Taylor in-person or spoke to him, our friendship based entirely upon handwritten letters sent between California and Massachusetts, our knowing each other the result of my sending him a letter of praise about his book I Hear My Gate Slam, a collection of excellent translations of ancient Chinese poetry.

Late Spring

In the evening swallows

appear at the window;

on my doorstep sparrows

flutter in the dust.

At sundown a breeze stirs

and I hear my gate slam;

a few petals fall silently

but no one has come.

—Yüan Chen

I sent my adulatory letter to Taylor in care of the University of Massachusetts, having learned from his biography at the back of I Hear My Gate Slam that he was a professor in the English department there. In addition to his translations of Chinese poets, he was a translator of the poetry of François Villon and Bertolt Brecht. He received my letter just a few weeks after he retired from professing and in the midst of moving with his new wife Teri from Boston to Otis, a small town in western Massachusetts. Much to my surprise and delight, he replied to my missive and our correspondence took off like a shot.

Because he enjoyed my essays, Taylor subscribed to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, but the small print was hard on his eyes, so when his subscription lapsed I began making large print, double-spaced copies of my articles for him and came to feel that my weekly essay was not quite finished until I had slipped the fat envelope bound for Otis Massachusetts through the Out Of Town mail slot.

Here is a favorite passage from one of Taylor’s letters.

“Dear Todd—I won’t be able to get all I want to say on this card, but here I am in Boston to see doctors and friends and do a few errands. I brought this card with me so that I could write to you, not knowing until I stopped at the post office on the way out of Otis how much I would have to say. I did know that I wanted to respond to your letter which seems to me to inaugurate a new era in our friendship—as perhaps my last letter to you also evidenced. However it may be, I’m grateful to the spirits, or the great atman, for the good fortune of our meeting. I am ever more convinced that it was meant to be.

“Learning of your Huge Transitions—your move to the North, meeting and marrying Marcia, your confrontation with mortality—all these have their correspondence, though not precisely in the same order, to my moving to the West, only just effected, meeting and marrying Teri, in the last four years, my own still unresolved encounter with mortality in the form of atrial fibrillation and perhaps other heart problems as yet not understood. In short, though I’m almost twenty years older than you, we seem to have arrived at the same moment in our development (I was always a slow learner). But I would say that you’ve apparently come a good deal farther in some respects.

“I’m currently struggling to let go of fears and desires and self-delusions that have been making life a roller coaster these last months, as Teri and I endeavor to live in the same space for the first time, away from our usual respites and rituals, without blaming each other for the difficulties we bring on ourselves, trying instead to learn from suffering and confusion. I speak for myself, of course. Teri has her own demons, but I can testify to mine. To accept them and not cling to them has proved more than I’m capable of, especially in a climate of inevitable physical decline that comes with being seventy-nine years old.

“I was still playing basketball at 64, when my knee failed to respond to surgery and I had to give it up. Before that, like you, I loved to play at the local Y, or on the beach court in Manhattan Beach (LA), or at the gym at UC Santa Cruz, or anywhere there was someone with a ball ready for one-on-one. I think we share all the same feelings about the game—my passion.”

When I learned that Taylor was the literary executor of Paul Goodman, the writer most famous for his treatise Growing Up Absurd, a daring critique of American education first published in 1960, I wrote to Taylor that my one personal connection to Paul Goodman was that I started a commune in Santa Cruz in 1972 with the widow of Paul Goodman’s son, a woman named Epi. Here is part of Taylor’s reply.

“I don’t know which is the greater marvel, to find your new book Under the Table Books on my doorstep just when I was beginning to pine for it (having read Buddha In A Teacup more than once), or to find that you knew Epi! Indeed, it’s possible that you and I have met, not in a past life but in this one, back in 1971, for I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971. When I rode my 450 Honda back to Buffalo in 1970 (June) I carried one provision for the road, a big bag I made of Epi’s granola recipe.”

As it happened, I was absent from Santa Cruz from 1969 to 1971, so Taylor and I did not tangle on the basketball court or eat vegetables and tofu with Epi or embark on our friendship forty years sooner.

“Three things in life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” Henry James

Taylor began many of his letters to me with a response to my latest article or story, and I will sorely miss his insights and encouragement, as well as his matter-of-fact comparison of my stories and novels to the works of literary giants.

“I have to write again to tell you how much your story Balance affected me, and Teri, to whom I read it aloud. As you are well aware, it’s a kind of answer to Kafka—or, perhaps even more, to Camus, whose work I’ve gone back to recently. Of course Camus was not so despairing as Kafka, but I find him sometimes even more grim. Well, that’s neither here nor there, except to say that your story touches very deep themes of our times. What you add that Kafka and Camus seem never to have found is the way out of the maze. For all your hero’s abject acceptance off his meaningless life, he trusts the universe, and he surrenders to it. We see that happening—for his suffering and his discovery of meaning when all his anodynes are stripped away, activate what has been buried in him, call it his soul.”

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning.” Christopher Morley

It was Taylor’s practice for many years to begin each day by writing an eight-line poem. Then at the end of the year he would select a handful of these morning musings to make into a volume of Morning Prayers to give as gifts to his many friends and family, including his five children and many grandchildren, each a joy to Taylor.

Some of my friends are sane

as a hammer, but they’re like me

and choose for their lovers someone

wild, solitary, plain crazy.

Why do we love these tortoises

and mountain deer bound to leave

us mad with grief sooner or later?

They’re the only ones still alive.

—Taylor Stoehr from Morning Prayers 2009

That poem proved prophetic, for Teri left Taylor when life in Otis proved too difficult for her, after which Taylor entered a time of profound grief and ill health that continued until his death. Yet despite his sorrow and anger about Teri leaving him when he most needed a loving helpmate, he continued to write letters full of insight and hope. Here is the end of one of the last letters I received from him.

“I continue to use my morning poems as lifeboat, and I got a boost from watching Groundhog Day on your recommendation. It was surprisingly inspiriting—I don’t quite know why. I think something about the rhythmic repetition rather than either plot or theme. Interesting how a form can get under one’s skin. I think that’s part of the power of your own writing—both Buddha and Under the Table. If I were going to write anything but poems the rest of my life, I’d imitate you in form. And maybe if I move to Maine I will do that. I wish I were already there!

“Meanwhile, I’ve returned to Joseph Campbell (Pathways to Bliss) and thinking about his effort to bring Eastern thought into some kind of alignment with both Christian thought and modern cultural eclecticism—our cultureless steam table. Here’s one result, today:

Despair is the other face of hope;

the loss of what might be

races ahead of what I want,

snatches it away from me.

Shall I therefore renounce desire

and settle for what is?

No! Let my heart burn in the fire,

I and hot be the ashes!

Love Taylor”

Humility

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

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

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot

Several recent conversations with friends focused on how might we counter the cyber takeover of our society while at the same time fomenting positive change and a more vibrant local community; and the answer seems to be to invite people over to share a meal and talk.

“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.” Omar Ibn Al-Halif

A friend wrote that in an effort to regain the souls of her husband and children she instituted a rule that cell phones and cyber pads were not allowed at the dining table. The initial response to this rule was that her children and husband wolfed their meals and rushed back to their devices. So she instituted a second rule that dinner had to last half an hour. After a week of dismal dining experiences filled with complaints, her children and husband adjusted to the brief nightly respite from tweeting and staring into little screens and “there have even been some nights when the family lingers at the table after the half hour is up because we are so engrossed in conversation.”

“Any genuine philosophy leads to action and from action back again to wonder, to the enduring fact of mystery.” Henry Miller

One of my favorite Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories is about an outwardly successful man, pious and wealthy, who is not very nice to his wife and children and other people. He rigorously follows the religious and civil rules of his society and continuously wins the economic battle, but no one likes him. Eventually this man’s sons and daughters want nothing to do with him, his wife is perpetually distressed by what a sourpuss he is, and he finds himself more and more isolated and unhappy. So he goes on a journey to a famous spiritual teacher and explains his situation (as he perceives it) to the teacher, and the teacher whispers a little something in the man’s ear.

Having gained the sage’s advice, the man returns to his home and is so changed that his wife and children and business associates can hardly believe he is the same person. In just a few days, this tight-fisted, judgmental, self-righteous egotist has become a generous, open-minded, loving, humble sweetie pie ready to lend an ear to anyone who needs a good listener, a hand to anyone who needs help. And as the years go by, the man becomes so loving and wise that he is regarded as a saint.

One day the man’s oldest son, who previously hated his father and now adores him, asks his father what the spiritual teacher whispered to him all those years ago that so transformed him. And the man reveals that the teacher suggested he pretend to be generous and loving and open-minded, and to continue pretending until the pretense became his habit and transformed him.

“What this world needs is a new kind of army—the army of the kind.” Cleveland Amory

I recently had a visit from a friend who arrived armed with an Iphone, an Ipad, and a Kindle reader. “I don’t know how I ever got along without these,” he said as he searched for something on the screen of his phone.

“I remember you without those,” I told him, “and you seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“I’m a thousand times better organized now,” he said, continuing to scroll around on his phone. “Much more connected to everything. No more waiting to get news or books or movies. Everything I want fits on these three devices with room to spare.”

He gave me a tour of several apps on his Ipad, took photos of this and that with his Iphone, instantly posted the photos on three social network web sites, and then downloaded an e-book version of my novel Under the Table Books onto his Kindle.

“See,” he said, grinning triumphantly. “We did all that in no time at all.”

And because I love the guy I said, “Amazing! Truly amazing.”

“The twin elements of a life lived intelligently are fidelity and spontaneity.” Edward Hoagland

The late great Juliette White of Albion was a master of the spontaneous dinner party. Sometimes she would invite us the day before the party; sometimes she’d call an hour before the food was ready. To our question, “What can we bring?” she might reply, “Just yourselves,” or “Salad” or “Anything.” Of the twenty or so spontaneous dinner parties I attended at Juliette’s, the largest number of people in attendance was ten, the smallest number was six. The most remarkable thing to me about these gatherings was that there was nothing remarkable about them, yet I always felt I was taking part in Holy Communion.

Humility (from Buddha In A Teacup)

Thomas is seventy-seven. His wife Denise died unexpectedly in her sleep a year and a month ago.

Thomas’s work—the completion of the seventh and final volume of an exhaustive history of the English language—has not progressed a word since Denise’s death. An oppressive sorrow has lain upon Thomas for these thirteen months, and he has little hope of living beyond his grief.

A tall, lean Englishman with pale blue eyes and red hair going gray, Thomas is roused from his stupor at the kitchen table—his bagel and tea untouched—by loud rapping on the front door. His first thought is to ignore the summons, but the rapping persists, so he reluctantly rises and goes to the door.

“Yes?” he says, frowning curiously at an enormous young man with dark brown skin, a shaved head, and muscular arms covered with tattoos.

“I’m Oz,” says the young man, holding out a piece of paper to Thomas. “You the tutor?”

“I don’t believe so.” Thomas peers at the paper and realizes through a fog of despair that his daughter Maureen must have gone ahead and fulfilled her threat to sign him up for after school duty.

“Got the address right,” says Oz, his voice deep and sonorous. “Seven seven six.”

“I stand corrected.” Thomas chuckles at his daughter’s audacity. “Come in.”

“Like a library,” says Oz, stopping on the threshold to gaze around the living room, every inch of wall given over to bookshelves. “You read all these books?”

“Most of them more than once.” Thomas scans the thousands of volumes for any he might have skipped.

“Smells old in here.” Oz wrinkles his nose. “You got a sunny room?”

“The kitchen,” says Thomas, leading the way. “I’ll make a fresh pot of green tea.”

“I ain’t never had no green tea,” says Oz, pausing in the hallway to look at a picture of Thomas as a young Oxford scholar. “Get a buzz?”

“There is some caffeine in green tea,” Thomas replies, gesturing to the kitchen table. “Make yourself at home.”

“Coffee jitters me bad,” says Oz, taking a seat from which he can observe Thomas. “Green tea don’t do that, do it?”

“No, it’s more subtle.” Thomas fills the kettle. “It invigorates in a wholly different way than coffee.”

“You show more accent than your daughter,” says Oz, nodding his approval of the cheerful room. “Me likes.”

“Oh, so you do know my daughter.” Thomas sets the kettle atop the flame. “That was my supposition.”

“Word,” says Oz, grinning at Thomas. “She chose me special just for you.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?” Thomas peruses his collection of teas and decides on a pungent green from Taiwan.

“She flunked me twice.” Oz nods slowly. “But she knows I’m not stupid.”

“No, you’re obviously exceedingly intelligent.” Thomas clears away his lunch dishes. “May I offer you something to eat?”

“No.” Oz looks glumly at the floor and cracks his knuckles. “How come you use that word? Exceedingly? Means more than enough, yeah? Like you think I’m very smart. Which I am, but…how come you think so?”

“The way you take things in.” Thomas sits down opposite Oz. “The way you listen and respond. We’ve been in real conversation from our very first moment together, and that’s quite rare in my experience.”

Oz nods. “You write books?”

“I have written books,” says Thomas, studying Oz’s handsome face, the chiseled cheeks and jaw, “though I doubt I will ever write another.”

“How come?” asks Oz, hearing sorrow in Thomas’s voice. “Must be nice to write a good book.”

“I have lost my inspiration,” says Thomas, thinking of Denise and how everything he wrote, he wrote for her. “I’m old now. Tired.”

“So why you want to be a tutor?” Oz rises to quiet the whistling kettle.

Thomas is about to reply that he doesn’t want to be a tutor, that this is all his daughter’s doing, that he’s very sorry but he’s just not up to it. Instead, after a thoughtful pause, he says, “Perhaps I can still be useful to someone.”

“Someone maybe like me,” says Oz, shaking dry tealeaves into his hand to inspect them. “You wanna show me how to make this drink?”

“Ah,” says Thomas, raising a knowing finger. “The art of tea.”

Austerity

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

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

“When we deeply understand that actions bring results, it can motivate us to take active responsibility for our actions and our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

Planting time: kale, lettuce, carrots, peas, beets, broccoli. Hearty potato plants rise from the ground and promise a good harvest of spuds in a month or so. Look! A hundred and eight beautiful garlic plants are nearing fruition after many months of growing. As I work in my little garden, I think about the lunatics running our state and national governments, advocates of what they call austerity (but what is actually senseless cruelty and greed), and I imagine a gang of these crazy people surveying my garden and proclaiming, “These seeds and plants aren’t producing anything we can eat right now. They need to be taught a lesson. They need to tighten their belts and pull themselves up by their own root straps. Stop watering them. Stop feeding them. Don’t give them anything until they learn to grow without any assistance from anyone.”

“But…” I try to argue, “…vegetables require time and nurturing to eventually…”

“No buts,” say the lunatics. “No time. No nurturing. Look at those redwood trees over there. You don’t feed or water them, do you? Yet they grow bigger every year. That’s how your broccoli should behave. That’s how lettuce ought to grow. Don’t coddle your sugar snap peas. Let them stand on their own.”

“At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley said that he had come to appreciate how most of spiritual practice is learning to be kinder to one another.” Joseph Goldstein

Years ago I read an article about an experimental program in a Swedish prison that treated inmates as people suffering from emotional and physical deprivations. Inmates were given massages several times a week, had frequent individual and group sessions with psychotherapists, got plenty of opportunities to exercise, learn new skills, make art, eat delicious nourishing food, and were treated with kindness and respect by a staff of skillful and compassionate attendants. Because exhaustive research showed that the vast majority of felons had been deprived of sufficient loving touch as children and adults, and were obviously starved for friendship and love, and because it was clear that punishing people for being emotionally wounded only exacerbated their emotional problems, this regimen of loving-kindness seemed a logical and humane approach. As you might imagine, nearly all the inmates treated for several months in this revolutionary way were positively transformed, so much so that five years after they were released, almost none of the felons had committed another crime.

“We really don’t need very much to be happy. Voluntary simplicity creates the possibility of tremendous lightness and spaciousness in our lives.” Joseph Goldstein

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter delivering a famous speech in 1977 that began as follows. “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

Jimmy wanted Americans, with the help of the government, to insulate our homes, conserve energy, and prepare for oil and gasoline becoming extremely expensive. He spoke eloquently about the global environment being under severe duress, and he suggested that people as well as corporations needed to make substantive changes in energy use so the transition to a post carbon future would not be too arduous. Jimmy was my hero after he made that speech. Never before nor since have I heard a President of the United States speak so truthfully and with so little concern for his political future.

That speech, for all intents and purposes, ended Jimmy’s political career and rendered him a largely ineffective president for the rest of his one and only term in office. He had committed the unforgivable crime in a nation controlled by amoral corporations. He had suggested that unbridled capitalism was no longer a viable response to a planet overtaxed by out of control humanity.

Ronald Reagan then came to power by attacking the basic premise of Jimmy’s truthful and heartfelt speech. Reagan declared a thousand times that there was a superabundance of everything and no need to conserve, no need to worry about the environment or the future. We were, he declared, the strongest and richest nation on earth and we, collectively and individually, could have anything we wanted. And so Reagan was elected by a landslide. Yes, Ronald Reagan, the great idol of the austerity lunatics, rode to power as the champion of unlimited consumption.

What I find most telling about the national rejection of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that we make key changes in our personal and collective energy policies is that change itself was interpreted as austerity. People feared that if we couldn’t keep doing and having everything we wanted to do and have right this minute, and in ways we were accustomed to doing and having, we would be denying ourselves happiness. This was not Carter’s message, but rather how his opponents spun the message to tap the fears of people growing more and more accustomed to instant gratification and the superabundance of new things: gizmos, food, clothing, houses, cars, computers—stuff! And that was almost fifty years ago. Think of what we, the cell phone app people of 2012, have grown accustomed to.

“Practicing kindness means that we connect with people rather than dismiss them; kindness breaks down the barriers between ourselves and others.” Joseph Goldstein

Before moving to Mendocino, I rented an old house on the flats of north Berkeley, a block off Gilman Avenue. Homeless people, mostly men, with shopping carts piled high with cans and bottles were plentiful in our area because one of the main garbage transfer and recycling centers in Berkeley was on Gilman down near the freeway, about fifteen blocks from my house. Because I walked or bicycled everywhere, I got to know some of these scavengers and frequently gifted them with my empty bottles and cans, and less frequently I gave them a little cash if I felt I had some to spare.

Many of these homeless recyclers frequented a liquor and grocery store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo Avenue, and it was not uncommon to find two or more of these entrepreneurs gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store with their wagon trains of shopping carts. Since I left Berkeley seven years ago, that area has undergone a profound gentrification, so I don’t know the current state of the homeless scene thereabouts, but in my day there were dozens of shopping cart scavengers using Gilman as their main route to the recycling center.

So…one day an old friend, a childhood pal I hadn’t seen in many years, came to visit me in Berkeley. Tina was married to an extremely wealthy man and lived in a mansion in Los Angeles—her life one of extreme luxury and privilege. Yet she was terribly unhappy and full of complaints. I, on the other hand, was not sure I would have enough money to pay my rent that month and buy groceries, so her complaints were not landing on sympathetic ears.

When I realized I had ceased to listen to her, I suggested we go for a walk and see the sights of my neighborhood. Tina was game, so off we went, and after I’d shown her my favorite front yard gardens, I decided (without knowing why) to take us by the liquor store on the corner of Gilman and San Pablo to see what we could see. And lo the gods had assembled five homeless scavengers with their many shopping carts in tow, three of the sweaty fellows having recently cashed in their treasure, the other two en route to do so.

Tina, I should add, was a beautiful woman as graceful as a deer and the object of admiring gazes from most everyone who saw her. And as we approached the liquor store, the gang of recyclers fell into reverent silence, as if to say, “Well lookee here, a goddess came down to give us thrill.”

Then one of the fellows hailed me. This was Jonah, a muscular black man who slept in a nest he’d fashioned in the heart of a massive blackberry bush not far from my house. “Yo! Mr. Todd. What’s doing?”

“Showing my friend the sights,” I said, leading Tina closer to Jonah and his compatriots. “Tina, this is Jonah. Jonah, Tina.”

“Where you from?” asked Jonah, his broad smile revealing a scarcity of teeth.

“Los Angeles,” said Tina, breathless with fear and excitement. “Near Santa Monica.”

Then we chatted a bit more, saying nothing of great import, Jonah doing most of the talking, Tina wide-eyed and smiling anxiously; and then we bid them adieu and headed home.

But before we had gone two blocks Tina touched my hand and said, “I want to give them some money. Do you think…would that be okay?”

I assured her it would be okay and we returned to the liquor store where Tina gave each of the men a twenty-dollar bill. Then two of the men began to weep, and Tina burst into tears, and so did I.

Greek To Me

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

Photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“The church is the great lost and found department.” Robert Short

The terrace at the Presbyterian in Mendocino can be a wonderful place to sit and read and write and eat a snack, especially on a sunny day. From every bench one has a view of either the ocean sparkling in the distance or of the stately white church with its impressive shingled spire. Tourists and itinerants frequent the terrace, and sometimes these visitors will notice me there on a bench, deduce from my appearance and demeanor that I am a local character, and then ask me questions, which I do my best to answer.

“Where is the historical monument?” I think you mean historical landmark, and this church is the landmark.

“Is it a Catholic church?” No.

“Can you go inside the church?” I can, but I prefer to stay out here.

“I mean can we go inside the church?” If the door is unlocked, ye may enter.

“Is there a good Mexican restaurant in the village?” No.

“Is there a homeless shelter around here?” Not in Mendocino, but there is Hospitality House in Fort Bragg providing shelter for well-behaved homeless people.

“How far is it to Fort Bragg?” Eight to ten miles depending on which sign you believe.

“Is there an inexpensive motel around here?” No.

“Where is the best place to watch whales?” Alaska.

“We meant around here.” Take Little Lake Road to where it ends at the ocean. Get out of your car and…

“We have to get out of our car?” No. You can watch from your car, though your chances of actually seeing a whale or a whale spout will be greatly diminished if you stay in your car.

“Is there a good Chinese restaurant around here?” No.

“German?” Nein.

“Pizza?” Frankie’s.

“Any spare change?” Let me see.

“Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” the Dalai Lama

One fine day in February, the sun playing peek-a-boo with puffy white storybook clouds, I look up from my scribbling at the approach of a young couple and their dog, a trio extraordinaire I have seen several times of late around the village and hitchhiking north and south along the coast highway. The fellow has fantastically curly brown hair, a wild beard, and dusty black clothing. The gal is a cute brunette with big almond eyes and kiss-me lips, and in contrast to her dusty mate, her clothing is clean, her jeans blue, her Mexican blouse sparkling white. They both carry green canvas knapsacks and the gal totes a basket full of books and assorted odds and ends. Their dog, a smallish pit bull mix, is reddish brown, slightly cross-eyed, and held close to them by a six-foot length of white rope knotted to his leather collar.

“Hey,” says the young woman, her smiling eyes lit from recent puffs of pot. “How’s going?”

“Hey,” I reply, expecting they will ask me for money. “Going okay.”

“Can we ask you something?” Her voice, deep and strong, reminds me of a favorite friend, so I decide to give them ten dollars when they make their pitch.

“About Greece,” says the young man, whispering gruffly.

“Greece,” I say, looking down at my notebook wherein I have just written Greece.

“About why they’re rioting,” says the young woman, sorrowfully. “Burning the old buildings.”

“We saw pictures in the paper,” whispers the young man. “Of this beautiful old building on fire.” He frowns and shakes his head. “Is it like a revolution?”

As it happens, I’ve been sort of following the Greek crisis by reading various news reports and articles, only a few of which mention that Greece, and especially the people of Greece, are victims of the massive interlocking Ponzi schemes otherwise known as the global stock market and banking systems.

“Who do they owe money to?” asks the young woman. “Other countries?”

“Well…”I begin, realizing the impossibility of answering their questions without first explaining how the international financial system used to work before it was thoroughly corrupted by Clinton and Thatcher and their amoral cronies throughout the world, so that I can then try to explain bundled mortgages and delusional derivatives in order to set the stage for the greedy and shortsighted Greek government feeding at the trough of… “Have you got a half-hour?”

“At least,” says the young woman, nodding to her companion. “See? I told you he’d know.”

“I only sort of know,” I say, wondering if even sort of is overstating my understanding of the Greek, Portuguese, Italian, European, Japanese, American financial quagmire and the criminals who caused the mess and continue to make the mess worse.

So the young man sits beside me on the bench and the young woman sits cross-legged on the ground in front of me, their pooch napping beside her, and we discuss the international Ponzi scheme masquerading as global finance, and the coming collapse that will make all previous collapses pale by comparison.

In the course of our rambling discussion, I learn that the young woman is twenty-two and thinking of becoming a nurse because, “no matter how bad it gets, they’ll need nurses,” though what she’d really like to do is “work in a bookstore and rent a little place, maybe have a garden. Get a cat. Just, you know…live a simple life with no hassles.”

I learn that the young man is twenty-three and a triple Leo, an astrological alignment that strikes me as a wonderful name for a band—Triple Leo—especially if there were three guys in the group named Leo. “I’m a super-fast trimmer,” he confides in his gruff whisper. “Trying to get hooked up with local growers until I get my own grow situation going.” He says he has been playing the mandolin since he was twelve-years-old, but recently sold his instrument because “we were starving and sick and it bought us a week in a motel.” He describes his music as “kind of blue grassy folk rock.” He is unsure of what caused the loss of his voice, but it’s been gone for a week and shows no sign of returning.

The young woman has been homeless for eighteen months, the young man for two years. They met six months ago at a homeless encampment in Tilden Park—“up behind Berkeley”—which is also where they got their dog, and they have been traveling together ever since. They like Mendocino “better than almost any place we’ve been,” says the young woman, “but unless we can find a safe living situation pretty soon, we’ll go up to Arcata. I know a guy there with a house where we can crash if I’ll cook and clean for him, and stuff like that. It’s not safe being homeless around here. Too many crazies and the drug scene is bad. Really bad.”

To make the current Greek collapse comprehensible to my new friends (and to myself) I compare Greece to an American homeowner. As the economy was fueled by real estate and stock market bubbles, the house (Greece) was said to be worth 500,000 dollars. The bank offered the homeowner (Greece) an equity line of credit, meaning the homeowner could borrow on the ever-increasing value of his house (country). So the homeowner borrowed 300,000 to remodel, travel, send his kids to college, and to invest in delusional derivatives that paid him 15-30% interest per year. Greece invested this borrowed money in derivative junk to pay for pensions and government expansion and to invest in more junk. As the bubbling continued, the house (country) was said to be worth 700,000. The homeowner thought he’d eventually sell his house for a profit and pay off the loan, and Greece thought the economic boom would eventually pay off the debt. In the meantime, the homeowner (Greece) borrowed another 200,000 dollars on the ballooning equity and bought more high yield delusional derivatives.

Then the bubble burst and the house (Greece) was only worth a tiny fraction of what was owed. The investments of both the homeowner and Greece turned out to be worthless. But, oops, the homeowner and Greece owed the bank (the crooks) 500,000 dollars plus interest on the house (and hundreds of billions on their country). They couldn’t pay. The bank foreclosed. The homeowner was kicked out of his house. However, Greece is a country, not a house, and the people cannot be forced to leave their country (though thousands of Greeks, including many of the best and the brightest, are emigrating rather than live in poverty.) So the people of Greece are being asked to give up everything they have to corporate invaders in order to pay off the crooks (those same corporate invaders) that perpetrated the fraud.

“Which is why,” I conclude, “we, the collective we, need the financial systems to sink to their true values, which is not much, so we can rebuild our society on the real value of things.”

“Man, I’d riot, too,” whispers the young man. “It’s like they’ve been conquered.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” says the young woman, glaring at him. “You didn’t riot when it happened to us.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. “When did it happen to you?”

“We were both living at home,” she says, bowing her head. “With our parents. I was going to community college and, you know, having a life, and then they got foreclosed and had to move into this dinky little apartment and…I was on my own.” She gazes forlornly at the young man. “Same with him.”

A silence falls. A big white storybook cloud drifts in front of the sun and the temperature plummets.

“Hey,” says the young woman, smiling wearily. “Any chance you could give us a few dollars?”