Posts Tagged ‘Shunryu Suzuki’

Meaningful Life

Monday, May 7th, 2018

sans hat

Arno photo by Todd

There is the wisdom of all-accomplishing action, in which speed does not have to be included in one’s working situation, but things fall into your pattern.” Chögyam Trungpa

In the midst of cleaning up her office a few days ago, Marcia found a Mendocino Beacon dated February 1, 2018, in which there was an obituary for Martin Knott, a fellow I got to know a couple years ago after seeing him walking around town with his dog for the last decade or so. Martin’s dog was medium-sized with the gorgeous complex coloring of an Appaloosa horse. Martin and his dog would saunter around town, the unleashed dog in the lead and Martin following way behind.

I got to know Martin because two years ago Marcia came home from shopping at Harvest Market in Mendocino and said, “Marty wanted me to tell you how much he enjoys your articles.” That was when my weekly pieces were still appearing in the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Being a devoted patron of Corners of the Mouth, I rarely shopped at Harvest and didn’t know the names of any of the Harvest checkers, so I could only imagine who Marty was, and for some reason I envisioned him as a slender young man with brown hair and glasses.

Some weeks after Marcia mentioned Marty enjoying my articles, she and I were in Harvest together and she fell into conversation with a beefy, bearded, gray-haired fellow.

“Todd,” she said, “this is Marty. Marty, this is Todd.”

Marty did a double take and said, “You’re Todd Walton?” He had seen me around town many times, but it had never occurred to him that the guy with the free-range hair and the Giants sweatshirt was the writer of articles he enjoyed, just as it never occurred to me that the bearded guy huffing and puffing as he followed his dog around town was Marty who worked at Harvest and liked my articles.

Thereafter when we met on our walks, Marty and I would exchange hellos, celebrate the sun or philosophize about the fog, and go our separate ways. His obituary says he was into woodcarving, horticulture, writing, travel, sailing, and building uniquely designed sailing boats, but we never spoke of those things.

On several occasions, I saw ravens following Marty as he trudged along behind his dog, and it was not until the last time I encountered him, a few months before he died, that I discovered what made him so attractive to those big black birds.

I said to Marty, “Those ravens really love you,” and he explained he occasionally got old sausage from the butchers at Harvest Market, and as he walked around town he would fling bits of sausage to the ravens.

Another time I said to Marty, “Your dog always seems so determined to make his rounds.”

“He is determined,” said Marty, nodding. “And as you can see, he walks me.”

Since I was accustomed to not seeing Marty for long stretches of time, news of his death came as a surprise to me. I didn’t really know him, but I liked him, and I liked his dog, and I liked how their presence added to the lovely feeling of living here. So though I didn’t miss him before I knew he was gone, I miss him now and I wish we’d had a chance to talk about writing and gardening and uniquely designed sailing boats.

The obituary informed us that Marty was seventy-three when he died, a fact that prompted Marcia to say, “That’s not very old.”

So I looked up death in America and found that in 2017 the average age of death for men was seventy-seven, for women eighty. In that context Marty was not so young when he died. However, Marcia’s mother died last year on the verge of ninety-nine, and Marcia expects to live well into her nineties, too, so in that context seventy-three is, indeed, not very old. Marcia and I are both sixty-eight and many of our friends are in their seventies—and because we don’t want any of them to die, yes, seventy-three is not very old.

Then there is our neighbor Defer (pronounced Deefer), who is nearing eighty and still works as a tree feller for a redwood logging company. Every once in a while Defer will come over after he gets home from work to do some chain-sawing for us before he changes out of his work clothes. Watching Defer work is both humbling and inspiring. He is currently bucking up some big logs for us, and he gets so much accomplished in so little time, I am in awe of his skill and strength.

A few days ago, in virtually no time at all, he bucked up three big lengths of a pine trunk and made thirty-six big rounds for me to split into firewood. When he was finished, I walked with him back to his place and learned he was working full time these days dropping redwoods.

“I hope you aren’t working too hard,” I said, finding it incomprehensible that I could have ever felled giant trees fulltime, even in my muscular youth, let alone ten years from now when I’m seventy-eight.

“You know,” said Defer, smiling wryly, “I’ve never worked too hard. I work at a steady pace I can maintain with a few breaks for water and a longer break for lunch. That’s how I get it done.”

My grandmother Goody was fond of saying, “The goal is not to live as long as you can, but to live a meaningful life.”

Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. But as long as you think, ‘I am doing this,’ or ‘I have to do this,’ or ‘I must attain something special,’ you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity that appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.”

Ganapati

Ganapati photo by Todd

Ego & Muse

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

Independent:Dependent Lily Cai Dance Company © 2015 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

Independent/Dependent (Lily Cai Dance Company) copyright 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

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

“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.” Shunryu Suzuki

As I was sitting by the woodstove last night—this November much colder than last—scribbling away on my latest something, I was struck by how little connection I feel to the books and stories and plays I’ve written over the last forty years, or even to the book I finished writing earlier this year.

How does it happen that something I thought about constantly and worked on for several hours every day for months on end is now but a vague memory? How can something that meant so much to me, mean so little now? Can the creative heart really be so fickle?

Then this morning our neighbor came by with a dozen beautiful blue and brown and white eggs just laid by his prolific chickens, and I thought I’m a hen, and the egg I’m laying right now is the most important egg in the world to me, but a few eggs hence I won’t remember this egg at all.

That put me in mind of when I was a young writer and would spend a year or two furiously working on a novel, my work fueled by a palpable visceral erotic majestic sense of how staggeringly great the story was. When at last the first draft was finished, I would let it cool for a few weeks before reading the entirety; and more often than not, I found the story and writing less great than I had sensed they were while in the throes of creation. And often that was the end of the process, the novel stillborn. But sometimes there was enough mojo in that first draft to inspire a rewrite, and once engaged in remaking the story, I would again be filled with certainty I was birthing a masterwork.

As I got to know more artists and writers, I learned that they, too, were often taken over by a sense of the importance and brilliance of the things they were creating, and when the things were done, the veils of grandiosity would be lifted, and they would see their creations in a wholly different light. So I came to think of this recurring self-delusion as a necessary trick of the mind enabling artists to complete creations requiring hundreds or thousands of hours of work. If the inner critic became engaged too early in the process, the flow might stop.

But what is that trick of the mind? How do we fool our egos again and again into thinking something is great when it isn’t yet great, and may never be great?

“What I love about the creative process, and this may sound naïve, but it is this idea that one day there is no idea, and no solution, but the next day there is an idea. I find that incredibly exciting and conceptually actually remarkable.” Jonathan Ive

I have spent the last three years writing a quartet of connected novels called Ida’s Place, and when I completed Book Four in August, it never occurred to me the saga was at end. I was so much in the habit of writing these books, so emotionally enmeshed with the large cast of characters, and so enamored of the ongoing drama, I couldn’t imagine there wouldn’t be another book or two or seven.

Indeed, the first chapter of Book Five poured forth from my pen as effortlessly as the previous four volumes. But then the flow ceased, the Ida muse done with me. However, my ego was not yet ready to let go of this large self-defining undertaking, and for several weeks more I labored away and cranked out five more chapters, though the process was no longer about harnessing an artesian flow but wringing water from stones.

Then on one of my walks to town, I was finally able to admit I was done with the Ida saga, or the saga was done with me, and the moment I admitted this to my conscious self, I realized that the last line of Book Four was a fine place to stop. And now, some weeks later, when I pick up one of the Ida books and read for a page or nine, the story and the writing are new to me. I’m happy to say I find the tale deeply engaging, but who wrote these volumes? Was Buckminster Fuller correct in saying we are verbs, not nouns?

So now what do I do? Now how will I be conjugated? Now who am I if not the person writing a series of novels set in a bakery café on the far north coast of California, a mythic version of Here?

“When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life without feeling any difficulties. The purpose of our practice is to be aware of this fact.” Shunryu Suzuki

There is no rushing a muse, and no telling when or how she will come to you. I once asked a painter I admire if he painted every day. He replied, “I go to my studio every day, except Sunday, and some days I’ll paint for fifteen minutes, some days for five hours, some days not at all. I made myself paint every day when I was a neophyte because I wanted painting to become a deep habit. And now that it is, showing up every day is the important thing.”

My favorite Sufi stories are those in which a person is at an emotional and spiritual impasse, and one of two things happens. Either a visitor arrives and does something or says something that liberates the stuck person, or the stuck person goes out into the world and has an experience that opens his mind and breaks down the wall around his heart.

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.”

Completion

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Kindling Pile

Kindling Pile photo by Marcia Sloane

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

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

Several years ago I wrote a piece for the AVA entitled When Is It Done? in which I recounted my meeting with the poet William Everson in Santa Cruz circa 1971. I was hitchhiking on the coast highway, Everson picked me up, and being an aspiring writer and a devotee of his poet compatriot Philip Whalen, I asked William, formerly known as Brother Antoninus, a question I immediately regretted: how do you know when a poem is done?

Fortunately for me, he did not stop the car and tell me to get out. Instead, he thought for a moment and said, “So you decide this is what you want to do, and you do it for years and years and years, not because anybody gives you anything for it but because you want those poems. And you might work a line a hundred times and never get it, and then you’ll be sure you’ve got a good one and the next morning it reads like shit. But one day, after all that work, something shifts in your awareness, and from then on you just know. You just do. There’s no rule about it. You come into harmony with your feelings and you look at the thing and say, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’”

Now I am older than William Everson was when he gave me that ride way back when, and his reply to my youthful question still seems a good answer. There’s no rule about it. Something shifts in your awareness. You come into harmony with your feelings, and you just know.”

Or you don’t know. I know writers and artists who say a book or painting or recording project is done when they can’t bear to work on it any longer. I suppose that could be called a shift in awareness and coming into harmony with your feelings.

“The writer of any work must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.”” Annie Dillard

One of my favorite paintings by Picasso is Paul In A Clown Suit, a portrait of Picasso’s young son wearing a harlequin costume and sitting on a chair. The upper two-thirds of the chair is black and makes a potent background for the boy, his costume composed of blue and yellow triangles, his reddish brown hair crowned by an odd black hat, his beautiful child’s face expressionless.

The bottom of the chair, however, is a bare charcoal sketch. This is also true of Paul’s feet, and there seems to be a remnant sketch of another leg and foot, unpainted and superimposed over the sketch of the bottom of the chair. Why did Picasso leave these parts unfinished? Or put another way: why did Picasso feel the painting was done?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that if Picasso had painted every part of this painting and removed the remnant sketch of another leg, the painting would be lovely, unremarkable, and would not incite me, as it does, to consider the countless fleeting moments our brains transpose into notions of reality.

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

For the last several months I have been writing the third volume of a fictional epic entitled Ida’s Place. Book One is subtitled Return, Book Two Revival, and Book Three Rehearsal. Set in a place reminiscent of where I live on the north coast of California and peopled with foreigners, artists, visionaries, brilliant children, and just folks, this is my first attempt at a multi-volume work—the process quite different for me than writing a single-volume novel.

Entering my fourth year of involvement with this large cast of characters, I no longer think about where the saga is heading or when it will end, and as a consequence I have been experiencing a wonderfully uninhibited writing flow.

“There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Georges Braque

A couple weeks ago, Marcia went away for five days, and my usual three or four hours of writing each day became seven and eight, the momentum of the Ida saga lasting from morning until late at night. When I took breaks from writing to eat or work in the garden or go to town on errands, the story continued to speak itself, oblivious to my lack of pen and paper.

I thought the flow might slow when Marcia came home, but the pace never faltered. Then a few nights ago, I finished writing a scene, put down my pen, and felt something, a tangible something, sink from my head into my stomach, like an elevator going down and stopping abruptly—with something definitely in that elevator. And I wondered if the first draft of Ida’s Place Book Three was done.

So I posed the question to my muse: has everyone in the story arrived at a good pausing place? Yes. Okay.

I typed the last fifty pages of longhand into the IDA 3 document on my computer and printed out the entire opus to begin, as William Everson would say, working the lines. I have only a vague notion of what has gone on in these several hundred pages, and I am keen to find out. But first I will take a few days off from the adventures of Ida and her people to revel in the glorious spring.

Choosing Names

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Mementos NolanWInkler

Mementos by Nolan Winkler

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“I only like two kinds of men: domestic and foreign.” Mae West

Our dear friends Nick and Clare Bokulich, Nick the noted fermentologist, Clare the renowned musicologist and daughter of local viola legend Marion Crombie, recently sent us this pregnancy update. “Had one of those crazy 3D ultrasounds and they were able to see all of the organs and blood pumping through the veins and everything! It was completely overwhelming and exciting all at the same time. And we found out it’s a boy!”

After digesting this exciting news, we wrote Clare a brief email with names for boys we think go well with Bokulich. I suggested Felix and Noah, Marcia was partial to Benjamin (Ben).

Clare replied, “I like all of those, too. Nick and I are pretty hopeless on agreeing on names, though, so we’ve decided to give ourselves a break and not worry about it until after he’s born (though suggestions still welcome!) because there’s just so much else going on right now and we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.”

And that reminded me of a short story I wrote when I was twenty (now lost) that was my first story to garner handwritten rejection notes (as opposed to form rejection letters) from editors at two different prestigious magazines. Both editors said they loved the story but were sorry to say they only published well-known writers. The story was entitled The Name and was based on the true story of how my friend Grover got his name.

“Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.” Shunryu Suzuki

Grover was born in eastern Kansas in 1931. He was the seventh son and ninth child of hardworking Methodist wheat farmers. Grover’s father was over fifty when Grover was born, and several of Grover’s siblings were already married and had children of their own. Tractors were just displacing teams of horses for plowing the fields, and Grover’s father and brothers and mother worked from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, to make a go of farming—Sunday reserved for church and socializing and resting up for the coming week of toil.

Naming their last-born child was of no pressing importance to Grover’s parents, so he had no official name until he was six. He answered to Baby and Sluggo for the first five years of his life, and it was only when he was about to start school that his parents decided to give him an official name—Ernest favored by Mother, Grover favored by Father.

Inspired by Grover’s vague recollections of why he chose one name over the other, my short story imagined a scene in which Mother plied the boy with pumpkin pie while lobbying for the name Ernest, and another scene in which Father took the boy for a ride in his truck to get an ice cream cone—a great adventure! On the way to and from the soda fountain Father made the case for the name Grover, pointing out that Grover Cleveland had been President of the United States, twice, and Grover Cleveland Alexander was a great baseball player, whereas Ernest was a name better suited to a sissy than to a big strong farm boy.

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

Recalling the story of how Grover got his name, I was reminded of another naming story told to me by a former prison psychiatrist whose first name was Edward. One of the men Edward ministered to, a mountain of a man who had spent many years in prison for manslaughter, came to see Edward shortly before his release.

“Doctor, you helped me so much,” he said reverently. “If I ever have a son, I’d like to name him after you.”

Edward replied, “I would be honored if you named your son after me,” and thought no more about it.

A few years later, Edward received a phone call from a frantic nurse calling from a hospital in San Francisco. The former inmate had begotten a son and the newborn’s birth certificate required a first name. However, the name chosen by the former inmate was deemed inappropriate by whoever was in charge of that sort of thing at the hospital, and now the very angry mountain of a man was threatening to destroy the maternity ward if the name he wanted for his child was disallowed.

“He says he wants to name the baby after you,” explained the nurse. “He said you told him you would be honored if he named the baby that.”

Edward collected his thoughts and replied, “Why would anyone object to naming a boy Edward? The name has served me and thousands of other Edwards, kings included, very well for hundreds of years.”

“He doesn’t want to name the boy Edward,” cried the exasperated nurse. “He wants to name him Doctor.”

“Well, if I were you,” said Edward, recalling the size and emotional disposition of the man in question, “I would grant him his wish and trouble him no further.”

“It is only in literature that coincidences seem unnatural.” Robert Lynd

I am currently in the throes of writing Book Three of a fictional saga called Ida’s Place. Set on the far north coast of California in the mythical town of Big River, the cast of artists and eccentrics grows larger with each new volume. Thus I have given names to a good many characters of late, with several more characters about to enter the fray. Fortunately, one of my great pleasures is choosing names for those who populate my fiction, though, in truth, they invariably choose their own names before I can consciously intervene.

Which is why I appreciated Clare writing, “…we figure that after the kid’s born we’ll have nothing better to do than stare at him and think of names.” I have no doubt the boy’s name will come to them from him.

Ida’s Place Book Two—Revival

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

idas2-cover-sm

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2014)

“Every existence in nature, every existence in the human world, every cultural work that we create, is something which was given, or is being given to us, relatively speaking. But as everything is originally one, we are, in actuality, giving out everything. Moment after moment we are creating something, and this is the joy of our life.” Shunryu Suzuki

I am pleased to announce the publication of the coil-bound photocopy edition (the only edition there is) of Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival, the second volume of what I intend to be at least a three-volume saga set in the mythical town of Big River on the far north coast of California. I brought out Ida’s Place Book One: Return ten months ago and have sold seventy-one copies to date. This is particularly good news because I broke even on design and production costs when I sold copy number sixty-six. Copies of the Ida’s Place volumes are signed and lavishly numbered by the author and are only available from me via my web site or by bumping into me at the post office or thereabouts.

As a creative adventure, the writing of a multi-volume work of fiction has been endlessly surprising and liberating for me, and many of my rules and limitations developed over forty years of writing single volume novels, certainly those pertaining to structure and pace, have given way to a spaciousness that is thrilling, mysterious and tricky.

Spinning a complicated yarn within a vastly expanded time-and-space frame reminds me of the revolution that transpired in the recording industry with the advent of LP’s, long-playing records, in the early 1950’s. Without the extreme time limitations imposed by short-playing 78’s, musicians and composers, especially jazz players, were suddenly free to record much longer pieces, and contemporary music, both recorded and live, was changed forever. Such works as Miles Davis’s Kinda Blue and Sketches of Spain or the long organ solo on the Doors’ “Light my Fire” would never have been possible without the advent of long-playing records.

Working with so much novelistic space also reminds me of an artist I knew who lived for decades in a tiny apartment and used his kitchen table as his studio. Everything he created—sculptures, paintings, and drawings—was small. In late middle age, he married a woman with a big house who gave him her high-ceilinged two-car garage to use as his studio, and after an initial transition period, everything he made was big. He told me he felt incredibly liberated in a spatial sense, though he was largely unpracticed in making large things. As he put it, “I am a beginner again in many ways, though a highly skilled beginner.”

Shunryu Suzuki was forever reminding his students about the importance of maintaining beginner’s mind, a non-judgmental openness, lest we become stuck in dogma and thought patterns that obscure the infinite possibilities inherent in every moment. I often think of beginner’s mind as I work on the Ida’s Place saga, and how the newness and unpredictability of the multi-volume form has rejuvenated my practice. To quote Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

After selling and mailing out the first thirty copies of Ida’s Place Book One: Return, I waited impatiently to hear what people thought of the book. When two weeks went by without a peep from anyone, my old crotchety inner critic began to whisper, “Maybe your ego played a trick on you. Maybe you wrote a dud.”

Then I heard from Alex MacBride, a person and writer I greatly admire, and I was relieved to learn that his experience of reading Ida’s Place echoed my experience of writing it. Alex wrote, “I had forgotten what it’s like to enjoy a book so purely and unambiguously and happily and want nothing more than to keep reading. I love it. It gave me a kind of reading-joy I haven’t had much since I was thirteen and fourteen, a tingling sort of excited comfort—moving along eagerly but resting at the same time, happy to be in the book’s world.”

Over the next several weeks I got more responses, including one from the poet D.R. Wagner who wrote, “I devoured the book in a day. I feel it is the most perfect love story by you yet. I was left breathless.” Another note came from Clare Bokulich, the Mendocino-born musicologist and baker, who effused, “Such a good read! I loved it. But now I am very anxious for Book Two. When will it be finished?”

Thus I was emboldened to dive whole-heartedly into writing Book Two. Now that Ida’s Place Book Two: Revival is done and copies are rolling off the copy machine at Zo, Mendocino finest and only copy shop, Book Three has begun to speak to me. And I am so eager to know what happens next to this large cast of fascinating characters, I am certain I will write the third volume whether anyone likes Book Two or not. As a dear friend once said to me, “Thank goodness we are our own biggest fans or we might never create anything.”

If you would like to read the first three chapters of Ida’s Place Book One, please visit my web site UnderTheTableBooks.com. On the Home page click on the facsimile of the book cover for Ida’s Place Book One and you will be taken to the appropriate page. I have not, however, posted the first three chapters of Book Two because I don’t want to spoil the many surprises for those readers who were good enough to purchase Book One and have been asking for Book Two.

In simultaneous news, my latest CD of solo piano improvisations nature of love has just arrived from the manufacturer and I am hopeful many ears will be pleased by the new tunes.

Sad People

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

The house with no windows

The house with no windows painting by Nolan Winkler

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

“In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.” Judy Garland

The well-known actor Philip Seymour Hoffman killed himself last week with a heroin overdose. He was forty-six. Hoffman was one of those actors who, with the notable exception of his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie Capote, generally played himself—an intelligent and somewhat cynical depressive. Because Hoffman wasn’t acting, in the sense of pretending to be someone he wasn’t, if the script was good and Hoffman was well cast, he was wholly believable as a real person—a rarity in contemporary American movies. If the writing was bad and the actors miscast, as in A Late Quartet, Hoffman, through no fault of his own, verged on the ridiculous.

As Truman Capote, the role for which he won an Academy Award, Hoffman presented a restrained and studied imitation of the real Truman Capote’s voice and mannerisms, an imitation I found maddeningly unbelievable, perhaps because I have an entirely different idea about who and what Truman Capote was than the character executed by Hoffman.

My opinion aside, Philip Seymour Hoffman was regarded as one of the best American character actors of the last fifteen years. He was wealthy, respected, and the father of three children with his devoted partner. Yet he killed himself with the heroin he habitually injected to find temporary respite from what proved to be terminal self-loathing.

Tens of thousands of people commit suicide in America every year, but we don’t often hear about those deaths unless the manner of dying is sensational. However, the suicide of a famous person is big news in our celebrity-obsessed society, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s suicide resurrects the age-old question: why would someone so successful and adored and in the prime of his life want to stop living? The unstated implication of that question is that we know why unsuccessful and unloved people want to end their lives, but why would a revered star want to die?

One answer to the question of why a successful and well-liked person would commit suicide (while still relatively young) is that self-perception is rarely, if ever, altered by the perceptions others have of us. Indeed, if others perceive us differently from how we perceive ourselves, those contrary perceptions rarely penetrate our consciousness.

If we feel we are useless and pathetic and inadequate, and someone tells us with great sincerity that we are useful and admirable and capable, we might enjoy that praise for a moment, but such praise will not alter the foundational self-assessment implanted in childhood and reinforced by the accompanying continuous loop recording blaring away in our unconscious mind every minute of every day: you are just no good!

As it happens, most people who suffer from extreme self-loathing are also supremely self-involved. This is neither ironic nor surprising when we understand that the maintenance of self-loathing requires self-fixation. Good or bad or mundane, for the narcissist everything must be about the self—all else irrelevant.

“I need the applause.” Jerry Lewis

When I was in high school, much to the dismay of my parents, I stepped off the academic path preparing me for medical school and signed up for Drama. I loved acting, and I especially loved being in the company of so many beautiful emotive girls who wanted to be actresses. I aspired to write plays, too, and had at my disposal many eager young thespians to act out the scenes I wrote for them, which was a fantastic learning experience for me.

I was fifteen when I got my first part in a school play—the minor role of Franklin Roosevelt’s son in Sunrise at Campobello. This was an ideal first role for a young actor because I was onstage for much of the play, pushing the actor playing Franklin Roosevelt around in his wheelchair, but I only had a few lines to memorize and just one slightly meaty scene. Thus I got to bask in the electricity of a live performance in front of an audience without any great dramatic responsibilities.

Nevertheless, I comported myself well enough so that the applause from the audience swelled just a bit when I came out to take my bow at play’s end, and I vividly remember how my body received the applause as if I was being injected with happiness, an injection that made me high as a kite for hours thereafter. I noticed, however, that when I came down from that high, I was anxious and fidgety and desperate to experience that same sort of high again.

By the end of my senior year in high school I had been in seven plays and was addicted to that scalp-tingling rush from being enthusiastically applauded. However, I was also painfully aware that the euphoria I experienced from such mass approbation was becoming shorter and shorter-lived with every performance, and that in the aftermaths of those transitory highs, I experienced debilitating lows, such that I began to dread applause and the ensuing depression, which fear decided me not to pursue an acting career, but to focus instead on mastering writing and music, the pursuit of such mastery insuring a lack of applause for many years to come if not forever.

“The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star but to go one’s way in life and work unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.” Gustav Mahler

Easier said than done, Gustav. The advice of this famous composer works better for me if we change the word point to practice, because the world’s opinion—which I take to mean the opinions of others—can make the difference between an artist earning enough money to live on from his or her work, or not earning enough. Therefore, to withstand the slings and arrows of such potent external forces, one’s internal sense of self must be especially strong and positive, and we must fervently believe that what we are endeavoring to create has value regardless of our worldly success or lack thereof.

“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.” Pema Chödrön

I don’t think we can rescue anyone. We can momentarily save a drowning person, but there is no way to stop that person from jumping overboard once our backs are turned. Still, I’ve known many marvelous people struggling with some murderous addiction or another, and I have many times fantasized that if I could only spirit them away to an island from which there was no escape and where they had no access to the killing substances they were addicted to, that with the guidance of a wise master they would finally come face to face with those terrible internal threats they were trying to suppress by shooting heroin or getting drunk or eating too much, and they would undergo cataclysmic emotional and spiritual crises and come out the other side into a state of being that is, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, “Not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.”

Which is what happens, more or less, to addicts and depressives who experience life-saving transformations, except not usually because someone kidnaps them and takes them to some mythic isle presided over by a bodhisattva. No, something inside them, something more powerful than the command to self-sabotage leads them through the fiery labyrinth of self-hatred and crippling self-doubt and into meaningful communion with others. But if that divine spark is not in them, or the spark has grown too weak to become a flame, that person will inevitably seek escape from suffering through other means, a needle or a bottle or a flight through space to the unyielding ground.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Albert Camus

Just a few months after I graduated from high school, Henry, one of the boys in my Drama class, committed suicide. Henry was a fantastic actor, though he never got a part in one of the school plays. I knew of his talent because every Friday the Drama students would perform scenes and monologues we were supposed to learn and practice during the week. Our grades for the semester were determined almost entirely by the grades we got for our Friday performances, and Henry never failed to bring us all to our feet cheering and applauding his performance.

Whereas I rarely did more than memorize my lines and practice my scene a few times before the Friday performance, Henry rehearsed his monologues and scenes hundreds of times, spent hours in front of the mirror creating his costume, and before each performance would have a makeup artist make him up to look stunning under the stage lights he would carefully orchestrate to fit the moods of his scenes.

Sometimes Henry did comedy, sometimes tragedy, but underpinning every performance he gave was an almost unbearable sorrow that brought even the most glib and cynical among us to tears.

Nationalism

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Watermelon Dreams On A Starry, Starry Night, Nolan WInkler

Watermelon Dreams On A Starry Starry Night by Nolan Winkler

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

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” George Bernard Shaw

Let me get this straight. The United States government blithely oversees the killing and maiming of women and children and unarmed civilians with missiles fired from drones and helicopters and jets and battleships, invades other countries in the service of multinational corporations and uses artillery shells made with so-called depleted uranium spreading cancerous dust wherever they explode, and incarcerates and tortures people without charge for years and decades, but that same government says we have a moral obligation to bomb Syria and kill untold numbers of Syrians because the Syrian government has killed people using weaponry we don’t like them using, though we did nothing in response to the Syrian government killing tens of thousands of people over the last two years using weapons we do approve of?

John Kerry, who must have had some sort of lobotomy, moral or actual, said of our need to bomb Syria, “It is also profoundly about who we are. We are the United States of America. We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations.” Huh? Which universal values are those? Slaughtering people who cannot defend themselves against our overwhelming military might? Allowing the huge out-of-control banks to steal trillions of dollars and ruin our economy? Jailing the few people brave enough to blow the whistle on the egregious misuse of power by our government? I’m confused. Which set of values are we talking about here?

“History is all explained by geography.” Robert Penn Warren

Speaking of sets, while Kerry and Obama have been making their disingenuous and downright sickening nationalistic proclamations about our moral obligation to carry out immoral acts of mass destruction, the US Open tennis tournament played out in New York, with the American media anguishing over the lack of American men among those good enough to win the tournament. We did have for a few rounds the very tall white American hope John Isner who, before he was eliminated by someone with the highly suspicious last name of Kohlschreiber, played and won a match against Gael Monfils, a charismatic black man from France, and both Isner and the American media were outraged that here in America the crowd attending that match had the gall to root for the foreigner.

Heaven forbid! Shame on those people for rooting for someone from France, a socialist country with strong labor unions and excellent free healthcare. How dare they? This is America. We have a moral obligation to support all American athletes against all foreign athletes because, well, we’re better than anyone else. Aren’t we? Isn’t that one of our universal values we organize ourselves around? Hey, maybe the reason we don’t have any champion American male tennis players is that our men are being undermined and emasculated by unpatriotic traitors rooting for people from other countries, socialist countries, no less.

“The United States of America is a cross-breeding integration of humans from all nations of the planet earth.” Buckminster Fuller

Nationalism, as Buckminster Fuller points out in his grand opus Critical Path, is a ruse used by supranational corporations to trick people into fighting wars and doing stupid selfish things beneficial to those corporations and the amoral rich people who own and operate those corporations. Nations, as Bucky shows, are blood clots in what otherwise would be the wide open veins and arteries of a global community of egalitarian earthlings dedicated to the regeneration of the earth’s natural systems and the economic liberation of all people through democratic socialism. When I hear our political leaders and media pundits spouting pro-American nonsense, I think of clotting agents at work in our collective veins where we least need clotting.

“Society’s educational system’s conditioned reflexes are half a millennium out of gear with the discovered facts of cosmic operation.” Buckminster Fuller

Nationalism is a psychotic form of racism, and by psychotic I mean delusional. The delusion underpinning the psychosis of nationalism is that the people of one country are essentially different than the people of another country, though one of the discovered facts of cosmic operation is that every human being on earth is directly descended from the same mother of all mothers, a Bushman woman living in southwest Africa 172,000 years ago. We are essentially all brothers and sisters who have developed various skin and hair colors, myriad forms of dance and music and ways of preparing food, and thousands of different ways of speaking to each other. These differences should be sources of fun and fascination, not reasons to kill each other.

“Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment.” Shunryu Suzuki

In my youth I worked for a woman who catered private parties, and one of those parties was a lunchtime gathering for about thirty Jewish matrons. At the height of the festivities, a gorgeous young woman named Lisa entered on the arm of a gorgeous young man named Alex who reminded me of the famous movie star heartthrob Omar Sharif, an Egyptian. Beautiful Lisa and handsome Alex made a whirlwind tour of the party, Lisa unable to keep her hands off her handsome beau and vice-versa. They watched each other with smiling eyes as they took turns speaking to their admiring listeners, Alex charming and erudite, his quips and comments eliciting gales of laughter. Then the two lovebirds made their exit and the post-visitation commentaries began.

As I plied the room with a platter of miniature romaine lettuce leaves wrapped around purple basil leaves wrapped around bamboo shoots and shrimp, I heard many of the matrons exclaiming about what a great catch Lisa had made. Then one of the matrons addressed Lisa’s mother. “Alex is so handsome. Is he Israeli? He had just the slightest accent. Very sexy.”

“Actually,” said Lisa’s mother, taking a deep breath, “he’s Mexican.”

“But the future is the future, the past is the past; now we should work on something new.” Shunryu Suzuki

So now President Obama, who I am convinced is dealing with his personal demons on a global scale through the use of violence against people he doesn’t understand even a little bit, has asked Congress to approve his bombing of Syria, though he is quick to say he doesn’t need their approval. And so the debate is raging, with poll after poll showing the majority of Americans opposed to any sort of military intervention in Syria. But such opposition may not make much of a difference to Obama. You may recall that poll after poll showed a vast majority of Americans wanted Single Payer Healthcare, and Obama gave us Big Pharma Mucho Insurance Healthcare instead.

My biggest fear, that which gives me nightmares and wakes me in the middle of the night, is that if the United States attacks Syria, Syria will fight back, at which point anything might happen, including Israel using one or more of its nuclear weapons.

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember—they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Red Cloud

When I was a little boy I played Cowboys & Indians with my brother and friends, imitating the movie scenarios of white men armed with guns doing battle with brown men armed with bows and arrows. Then when I was eight, simultaneous with getting my first real bow and arrows, I was given a little book entitled American Indians, a wide-ranging and sympathetic view of the societies existent in North America prior to and during the European invasion of the so-called New World. I read that wondrous tome dozens of times, studying every detail of every picture, and was inspired to drop the Cowboy part of my game and just play Indian, which entailed spending many a summer’s day and many an afternoon after school roaming barefoot in the woods, tracking imaginary game and communing with nature.

In my early twenties, living as a vagabond, I spent a month in a transient camp on the banks of the Athabasaca River in the Canadian Rockies just outside the town of Jasper. One evening, as I sat with my comrades around the campfire, a very drunk man with long black hair stumbled into our camp, joined our circle and said, “You know where my people come from? Come from those white men long time ago came up here looking for beaver and mink you know and they fuck those Inuit people up here you know. Trappers, you know, come up here and fuck those Inuit girls, you know, and make my people.” He looked around the fire. “Anybody got some hooch?”

Somebody passed him a bottle, he took a swig, and then he handed the bottle to the man sitting next to him. “What you all doing out here?” he asked, the firelight dancing on his beautiful face. “Why you don’t get a fucking motel room? Ground hard here, you know.”

“We love sleeping by the river,” said a young woman. “Love sleeping out under the stars.”

Salt and Song

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

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

“Things filled men with fear: the more things they had, the more they had to fear. Things had a way of riveting themselves on to the soul and then telling the soul what to do.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

Marcia and I recently watched the marvelous documentary The Salt Men of Tibet, and if you’ve been feeling jangled by modern life, I think you will find this movie a helpful antidote to that jangling. The pace of the movie reflects the pace of life for these nomadic salt men who leave their womenfolk and children to walk with a great herd of yaks, forty yaks per man, to a remote salt lake from which they harvest salt to trade for barley so they and their people may survive another year. Walking to the lake takes the men and their yaks a month or so, with the return trip—each yak now burdened with two large sacks of salt—taking forty-five days or more. Thus three months of every year in the lives of these men is consumed with going and getting salt, and each minute of those three months is part of an all-encompassing sacred ritual.

The film begins in a hut in a mountainous wilderness in which there are no trees. A woman is singing to the salt men, her song the story of Lord Buddha and the events composing the spiritual basis for the reality these men and their families inhabit. The salt people are devout Buddhists and believe their salt lake to be an intelligent and emotionally sensitive being who is deeply influenced by the actions of those who wish to gain the boon of salt from her.

At the conclusion of the woman’s song, the spiritual stage now set, preparations for the incredible journey begin. What we soon realize is that these people live without electricity and motors, their fires fueled with yak dung, their clothing and rope and blankets made from yak wool, and that every aspect of their lives is consciously spiritual, for they believe that everything—every step they take and every word they speak and every animal and object they possess—is presided over by gods and spirits and Buddha to whom they speak and pray and sing throughout their days.

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Shunryu Suzuki

The day after we watched The Salt Men of Tibet, I went out into the garden to harvest our garlic crop, and when I realized I was rushing to complete the task, I thought of the salt men, took a deep breath, and slowed way down. And as I slowed my actions, many blurry things came into focus. I became keenly aware of the beauty of the roots of the garlic clinging tenaciously to the soil as I pulled the dying plants from the ground, which tenacity and beauty reminded me that I was harvesting the children of the marriage of the garlic plant with the soil, children I would soon be eating so I might go on living.

Blessings on the soil and rabbit poop and compost and horse manure and rain and microbes and time and sunlight and darkness and gravity and air and all else constituting the fabric of life wherein our holy garlic flourishes.

“Before the whites came, no one in Australia was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor’s song and the stretch of country over which the song passed. A man’s verses were his title deeds to territory. He could lend them to others. He could borrow other verses in return. The one thing he couldn’t do was sell or get rid of them.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

I am currently reading The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin’s classic about the aboriginals of central Australia in the late twentieth century. The book was first published in America in 1987 and is by far my favorite of Chatwin’s works. This is my third reading of The Songlines, my first in a decade, and I’m finding the text wholly new, which is both pleasurable and perplexing. How could I have forgotten so much of this fascinating information? If you have not read The Songlines or if it has been some years since your last reading, I highly recommend the book as another good antidote to the frantic pace of modern life that so grievously obscures our perceptions of the infinite nuances of Nature—the aboriginals of Australia believing that for anything to exist, it must first be sung into existence.

 “A ‘stop’, he said, was the ‘handover point’ where the song passed out of your ownership; where it was no longer yours to look after and no longer yours to lend. You’d sing to the end of your verses, and there lay the boundary.” Bruce Chatwin, from The Songlines.

In 1964, when I was fifteen, my family and I went on a Sierra Club trip to a high Sierra base camp on the North Fork of the San Joaquin, a seventeen-mile hike from the last trace of what might be called a road. Joining us at this remote base camp were thirty other people, and one of these intrepid souls was an elderly Italian man who had played the clarinet in a famous symphony orchestra for most of his life.

Every morning he would rise at dawn and climb to the top of a rocky knoll overlooking our camp and sound the breakfast bell, so to speak, by playing on his clarinet a gorgeous rendition of Oh What A Beautiful Morning; and rain or shine his music ushered in the light of day as I lay in my sleeping bag listening to those voluptuous tones giving form to the formless void and filling me with desire to get up and live.

“Richard Lee calculated that a Bushman child will be carried a distance of 4,900 miles before he begins to walk on his own. Since, during this rhythmic phase, he will be forever naming the contents of his territory, it is impossible he will not become a poet.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

One of the many things I appreciate about The Songlines is that Chatwin resists the impulse to portray the aboriginals as heroic and the Europeans as villains. Each person in the book, regardless of skin color, is presented as an individual with flaws and virtues, beauty and ugliness, so that my own tendency to lionize the indigenous and villainize the colonists is constantly derailed by Chatwin’s fairness, which allows me to surrender to the unspoken message of the story that each of us is the creation of the culture in which we are born and raised; and the most remarkable people are those who practice generosity rather than selfishness, regardless of their particular cultural programming. Indeed, the book is full of little acts of kindness and generosity without which life would be no fun at all.

“All things considered there are only two kinds of men in the world: those that stay at home and those that do not.” Rudyard Kipling

Another thing I love about The Songlines is that the book is a jumble of ideas and anecdotes and theories about human behavior set against the backdrop of a rough and tumble journey through the outback in search of places sacred to the aboriginals, which turns out to be almost every place. At one point in his outback odyssey, incessant rain traps Chatwin in a remote outpost for several days, a time he uses to read through his many notebooks filled with stories about various nomadic societies and remembrances of his fascinating discussions with Konrad Lorenz (author of On Aggression) and Elizabeth Vrba, as well as several mind-bending theories about the evolution of human society in that long ago time when our ancestors were the favorite food of gigantic cats.

“A leopard at the kill is no more violent or angry than an antelope is angry with the grass it eats.” Bruce Chatwin from The Songlines

There is one scene in The Salt Men of Tibet I’ve thought about several times since watching the movie, and every time I think about this scene I feel grateful for the wisdom it imparts. For the purpose of saddling the yaks, one of the salt men is gathering the big animals and tying them to a long assemblage of rope laid out on the ground. As the man goes to get one of the yaks, the big animal moves away, not wanting to be caught. The man follows the yak, but does not hurry. The yak eludes the man three or four times, yet the man never quickens his pace as he follows the yak and eventually catches him.

As I watched the scene, I found myself growing increasingly impatient with the man following the yak, and I nearly shouted, “Just move a little quicker and grab him!” But that is not the way of the salt people. Hurrying and grabbing might frighten or anger the yaks with whom the salt people have a profoundly symbiotic and respectful relationship. The salt people could not survive without the yaks, for these sacred beings provide the salt people with milk, butter, fat, fire, fabric, transportation, and warmth—life!

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?